Monday, February 13, 2012

The Cloakroom on Valentine's Day (a poem)

Main Street Elementary School, which I attended in the 1950s. It no longer exists.
I wrote this poem back in the 1970s. It's set in the 1950s. It is, I suspect, based on an invented memory—a memory that, now that I've written about it, seems more real and vivid to me than things that no doubt actually happened in the fourth grade at Main Street Elementary School in Farmingdale, NY, where I grew up. I can't remember now if I've ever published this poem anywhere. It seems appropriate for this week's holiday. I don't know why we used the word "cloakroom," which seems so formal, for the place in the back of the class where we hung our coats and left our galoshes.

The Cloakroom on Valentine’s Day

Remember how,
not long before the time for going home,
we sneaked into the room of coats and shadows
which had beckoned from the back like a cave
since morning
when we turned, whenever we turned,
from our lessons?
Remember how the bell had rung a fire drill
all day, how Teacher told us
to ignore it? And we did,
though it sang and sang like a burn?
(I will not talk.
I will not talk.
A hundred times, a thousand times,
written in our heads.)
How in the noise when Teacher turned
we dipped and darted for the door
like swallows?
Remember being scared to laugh,
afraid that Teacher’s vast shadow
would grow in the doorway,
lit from behind by giggles?
How we shut the door?
And how we played at hiding in the dark
in the cloth of jackets, caps, and scarves?
How with a sudden Hey! we knew
that all the pockets grew with red,
unopened, heart-shaped envelopes and boxes,
and we stood breathless for a second,
hardly daring think the sweets inside?
How (just about to open one)
the door flew wide
and all the light and children,
come for their coats and candy,
filled the secret place and our wide eyes?
But they were blushed too much to notice us?
How we emerged, unchanged,
except for having sensed each other
in the red dark?

Friday, February 10, 2012

HUMILIATION AS ENTERTAINMENT: Why I won't watch the films of Michael Moore

Public humiliation was once a form of punishment. Today it's a form of entertainment.
I received an email today with a link to some of Jay Leno's favorite "Jay-Walking" moments. In these sequences, Leno goes out into the street and asks random folks to answer simple questions, usually about American history or culture. He then airs the silliest answers to those questions. He points to an American flag and asks a young woman how many stars are on it. "I don't know," she says. "It's moving too fast." HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. He asks a different young woman what the "D.C." in "Washington, D.C." stands for. Her answer: "Da capital?" HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Like most of America, I laugh at these folks and their ignorance. Then I feel, well, ashamed of myself.

Private humiliation has become public entertainment. We strip people of their dignity and then air the result to the masses. Below is a column I published in the local paper in 2004, when Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 came out. I agree with Moore's politics; I hate his movies. They represent a sad trend in American culture. It's a trend that's only gotten worse since 2004. (Judge Judy and Dr. Phil, anyone?)


Filmmaker Michael Moore has become famous for subjecting people to public shame.

by Ed Weathers
(Originally published in The Roanoke Times in 2004.)
I rented Michael Moore’s movie Bowling for Columbine recently. After 15 minutes, I shut it off. Michael Moore’s movies make me squirm—but not for the reasons he intends. I squirm because I belong to that shrinking minority of Americans who don’t like to see people embarrassed in public.
      Michael Moore embarrasses people in public, and I don’t like it. I’m not talking about public figures like Charleton Heston or George Bush or Roger Smith (the General Motors executive Moore eviscerates in Roger and Me). I have no problem with Moore pointing out the stupid, venal, or dangerous policies of actor-shills, presidents and corporate executives. No, I have a problem when Moore embarrasses ordinary citizens—a GM security guard, a bank clerk—in order to wring a little laugh from the audience or make a point that can be just as well made in another way. In the first fifteen minutes of Bowling for Columbine, for example, Moore goes into a bank that offers a free gun to anyone who opens a new account. He opens an account, asks for a gun, and gets it. Granted, this is a telling statement about how easy it is to get a gun in this country—from a bank, no less. But along the way, Moore also seems to be politely mocking the sweet teller who opens the account for him and the perfectly nice bank manager who hands him the gun. After he’s handed the gun, Moore then ambush-interviews the bank manager, peppering him with well-rehearsed questions about the socio-political correlativism of guns and banks. The manager, clearly not prepared to answer such complex questions on the spur of the moment, hems, haws and stumbles. We laugh at him. But which of us could answer such questions cogently without some time to think about them? Moore is trying to make a statement about guns in this country, but I came away from this segment angry, not about stupid American gun laws, but about rude American film directors. I felt sorry for the bank manager. That’s when I turned the movie off.
      Public humiliation has become the most popular sport in America. Virtually every hit “reality” show on television is really a “humiliation” show. People get fired by Donald Trump, thrown off the island on “Survivor,” rejected by The Bachelor, and reduced to screaming fools on “Fear Factor.” We watch and laugh, or gloat, as if we were better than them. And then there’s the hugely successful “American Idol.” Don’t tell me that the viewing public watches “American Idol” to discover talented singers. No, you and I both know that we watch in order to laugh derisively at the poor fools who think they can sing, or dream they can dance, but who in fact have no talent whatsoever—unless you count their willingness to make fools of themselves in public. Okay, I’m pretty sure most of the talentless know they are talentless and just want their two minutes on national tv, but that doesn’t change the fact that Americans watch in order to laugh at them. 

"Queen for a Day": An early example of humiliation-as-entertainment.
      Public humiliation on television goes back almost to the medium’s origins. I still remember a show from the 1950s called “Queen for a Day,” on which women stood before the audience and told the pathetic tales of their lives—drunk husbands, children with polio, accidents in the kitchen—in order to earn the audience’s sympathy. The wife with the most pitiful tale won a refrigerator. I hated that show. It embarrassed me. In more recent years, we’ve had the “I Slept With My Boyfriend’s Dog” school of Jerry Springer television, which simply took the public airing of besmirched underwear to new depths.
      The question now is this: Are Americans still capable of embarrassment? More importantly, are we capable of being embarrassed for someone else? Do we feel sympathy any longer for someone who has been or is being publicly humiliated?
       I of course haven’t seen Michael Moore’s newest film, Fahrenheit 9/11, which just won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I understand from the reviews that the movie blasts the Bush administration for its ties to the Saudis and its failures before and after 9/11. That’s fine with me. A politician’s policies are fair game. Besides, no one can embarrass George Bush more than George Bush embarrasses himself every time he tries to speak off the cuff. (If I need to establish my anti-Bush bona fides here, let me say that I just sent the Kerry campaign a check for 2% of my annual income. If you haven’t done the same, you’ll have no right to complain if Bush wins and gets to appoint Scalia clones as the next three Supreme Court justices, thereby embarrassing the whole country for the next 30 years.)

Paul Wolfowitz doing what seems to count for entertainment in the U.S. today.
      Anyway, I’m sure I’ll agree with the politics of Moore’s new film. But not necessarily with the tactics. There’s one scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 that all the reviewers have mentioned as one of the “best” and “funniest” in the movie—“vintage” Michael Moore. It’s a scene in which Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary and chief architect of the Iraq War, is preparing for an interview. Wolfowitz, unaware that his actions will later be seen by millions, sticks a comb into his mouth, wets it with spit, and then runs it through his hair. Apparently we are expected to laugh with gleeful superiority at this picture of the Bush administration’s biggest brain behaving grossly. But I wouldn’t laugh. I would simply be embarrassed for the poor man. After all, who among us doesn’t pick his nose when he thinks no one is watching? Who doesn’t bite his finger nails and spit them secretly into the corner of the motel room when he’s alone? Who doesn’t have some disgusting habit which, if revealed to our friends, would make us want to crawl away and die? I hate Wolfowitz’s unilateralism, his imperialist arrogance, and his conduct of Middle East foreign policy. Only Michael Moore could make me call Paul Wolfowitz “poor man.”
       I don’t plan to see Fahrenheit 9/11. All the “news” in it is old news to anyone who reads and is interested in politics. Mostly, though, I don’t care to see people publicly humiliated. I would think by now that we Americans would have learned what a callous indifference to the humiliation of others can lead to. If you’ve forgotten, just take another look at the photos from Abu Ghraib.

One of a series of Abu Ghraib paintings by Fernando Botera.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


My brother George, left, was my life's first companion. That's me on the right. George cheered me on in sports and everything else to the end of his days. He was as generous a soul as I've ever known.
This may be in bad taste: I’m about to politicize the memory of my brother George. George died in September, 2008, in the middle of the last presidential election campaign. As we enter another presidential election year, I find myself thinking of him again. This post contains two essays. The first I wrote in 2008; it was published in The Roanoke Times. The second I wrote after George’s funeral; I shared it only with family and with a few friends. As you’ll read, people like George would not fare well in a world run by conservative Republicans. George is a big reason I vote for Democrats.

(Written in September, 2008)

My brother George died last week, at the age of 66. Let me tell you about George and why he’s part of the reason I plan to vote for the Democrats in November.
    George never did well in school, though he tried. Oh, how he tried. His virtues were not in his head. They were in his good heart. 

At school and sports, no one ever tried harder than George.

    George did a thousand kindnesses for hundreds of friends. For the last thirty years, he was the full life-support system for a man who was unable, because of mental troubles, to keep himself in home or transportation. This friend used George’s car more than George used it himself. For all practical purposes, he lived in George’s car. George paid for the gas, most of his friend’s food, the cell phone they shared, and all the expenses when they went on trips. You can call what George did for his friend “enabling.” You can call it “bleeding-heart liberalism.” I call it generosity.
    George also gave money to other friends when they needed it, though he didn’t have much himself. Some of these friends took advantage of him, yes, but George never questioned them. He bailed the sons of friends out of jail, but he never judged them.
    Banks, credit card companies, and other businesses, on the other hand, did take advantage of George, who was never good at finance. They offered him unneeded loans. They offered him unnecessary credit cards. They offered him trips to Bermuda for “free.” Sometimes George fell for these offers. At one point our brother Terry had to negotiate with the banks and credit card companies to rescue him from pounding debt. After that, George tore up all his credit cards but one.

George (waving) and me meeting our dad's commuter train. George was forever a devoted son.
     George worked hard all his life and always supported himself. He worked as a machinist at Grumman Aircraft and later Republic Aircraft on Long Island for many years until the aircraft industry weakened and he was laid off. After a brief period on unemployment, which he hated, George became a night-time security officer for his hometown school district on Long Island. Every work night for more than 25 years, right up to last week, he began his rounds at 11 p.m., and he tried to sleep during the day.
     Though strong, George wasn’t blessed with great health. He had a mild form of epilepsy that caused him to have seconds-long seizures, especially when he was nervous or excited. He had serious diabetes and nearly lost his left foot twice. He endured long hospital stays several times in the last three years of his life. The strain of his abnormal sleep schedule didn’t help. He died of a massive infection compounded by his diabetes.
     George never found a woman who appreciated him enough to marry him, and there was some loneliness in that for him. He never measured up to the achievements of his more accomplished siblings, nieces, and nephews. But he was incapable of bitterness or anger, and he never took refuge in drugs or drink or any other vice I ever knew of. His pride in the rest of us was transparently sincere.
     No, George never complained. Instead, he sang in the church choir every Sunday for more than 45 years, joined the local volunteer fire department, and became a stalwart on a number of bowling teams. Along the way, he was the most loyal brother, son, friend, neighbor, and teammate many of us ever had.

George, left, and me in more grown-up years. He was the most loyal brother anyone could ask for.
George is why I vote for Democrats. He’s why I believe in consumer-protection laws, the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, worker-protection legislation, universal health insurance, and guaranteed social security—the kinds of things neoconservative Republicans have always voted against. (Once, there were moderate Republicans who supported such things, but not, apparently, anymore.) The neocons believe in some kind of laissez-faire survival-of-the-fittest ethos that says, “Let the buyer beware” and “Every man for himself” and “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
     Well, George wasn’t exactly the “fittest.” He was simply the most humble, the most generous, the nicest.
      The Republicans say they are for “national defense.” But shouldn’t “defense” include defending the health, safety, and financial security of people like George, who can’t always defend themselves? Much as I respect some Republicans, it’s Democrats like Barak Obama who have always offered that kind of national defense, as well as the protect-our-shores kind. That’s why I will vote for the Democrats in November.  I will do it for myself and for my brother.

(Written immediately after his funeral in September 2008)
George, shown here saluting, was himself saluted by the entire Farmingdale Volunteer Fire Department at his funeral.
Two by two, forty white-gloved firemen in full uniform marched to the front of the viewing room, stood in front of George’s open coffin, and slowly, slowly saluted him. Then, two by two, they lowered their hands,  about-faced right, and marched out of the room. It took 10 minutes for all of them to do this, in absolute silence. Watching them from the soft, high-backed “family chairs” facing the coffin, my brother Terry, sister Joyce, niece Becky and I barely blinked the whole time. It took an honorable forever for the firemen to finish.

The next day, after the funeral service in the church (more talk of Jesus and the resurrection than I remember in 13 years of sermons back in my 1960s Sunday-school days; a beautiful tribute from my niece; a letter read from a pastor far away whom George had coached on the Methodist Youth Fellowship basketball team 40 years ago)—after the church service, the firemen put my brother’s coffin on a fire truck and drove in a procession of five fire trucks to the cemetery eight miles away,  first stopping briefly in front of the fire house for the giant volunteer-summonsing horn to blast twice in valediction, later detouring to pass the house where we grew up, and, at every intersection en route, shutting down main highways. A cortege of ten cars followed the fire engines; my brother Terry and niece were in the first car with me. Entering the cemetery, we all passed beneath a giant American flag strung between the cherry-pickers of two fire engines from neighboring towns, their drivers at attention and saluting. All for George.

At the graveside, the forty firemen once again saluted, then took off their “covers” (hats, for the uninitiated) as the tiny, brisk Korean-American minister gave her final “ashes to ashes” farewell. The minister, new to the church, had said during the funeral service that George had been the choir member who sat nearest her during church services each Sunday, and occasionally he’d whisper to her, as she sat down after a sermon, “Now, that’s the work of a good pastor.” She said how much the encouragement meant to a new pastor. At the graveside, the young funeral director, who knew George and is just beginning to follow in his father’s career steps, wiped away tears. Then the mourners placed yellow roses on the coffin, and we all went home.

But all that wasn’t the most important part of my brother’s going away.

George, left, next to our Aunt Nelle and mother and father. For more than 60 years, George was a faithful member of the Farmingdale Methodist Church and a stalwart in the choir.
At the viewing and the funeral, we had met my brother’s choir friends and his firemen friends and his co-workers, who just about all used the words “sweet guy” to describe him.

But it was the Bowlers and his Chosen Other Friends who reminded me that there is a world of people out there that I almost never think about. It was my brother’s world.

George, it seems, was Shepherd of the Misfits. At the viewing, which went from 2 pm to 9:30 at night on Friday, with a two-hour break for supper, his bowling buddies and the Chosen Others were there all day. They never left. They were the stunted and the stuttering. They were the soft-minded and the myopic.  They were the valiant tryers. There were about 15 of them. Three of them were wall-eyed. Two were barely on the functional end of the autism spectrum, one of whom, Jason, couldn’t keep his hands from flying about when he talked about George, which he did at length. Two of them, Jack and Anthony, are barely five feet tall. They all have bad teeth and talk too loud in viewing rooms and look straight at you as if they had never seen another human being before. They can be unsettling. One young man in his twenties, Joey, is seriously mentally challenged (are there politically correct words for all this? I don’t have time to look for them). Joey is big and soft and is missing all the teeth on the top right side of his mouth. These were the friends my brother had found and chosen for his life. And they had chosen him.

One of my relatives was upset because the Bowlers and the Chosen Others kept taking photos of my brother in his casket. They’d stand in front of him as people do when they have their picture taken with celebrities. They took hundreds and hundreds of photos of my dead brother. He might have been their Lenin.

Every 15 minutes, Joey of the tender mind looked at my brother in the coffin and began to keen. The Chosen Others all wept, all afternoon and into the evening.  My brother, it seems, lived among men with no emotional defenses. They all just kept weeping. After I tried to comfort them and they saw that I liked to talk to them, they came to me with a look in their eyes as if they hoped I might transform myself into George. Joey kept within touching distance of me when he wasn’t kneeling in front of the coffin and talking to George and weeping.

These were men from a Carson McCullers novel. If you haven’t read Carson McCullers, read her.

There were also the daughters of two of the men (who had married those men?), and the daughters wept, too, though they were more in control of themselves than their fathers, except when the one girl wailed at the graveside. She had told me earlier that George had helped her get through some bad times when she was a teenager.  Days later, I found out from my mother that one of the girls had once expressed the hopeful possibility that George was her father.

There was one grown woman among the Others at the viewing: Christine, a charming woman with dyed black hair, a crooked smile, and sweet eyes that weren’t quite parallel. Picasso would have painted her. She was a waitress at Friendly’s restaurant, where George ate many of his meals. (We discovered that he never cooked at home. Never.) Christine and I talked a long time, and she smiled at every memory of George.

The next day, at the cemetery, a different, elegant woman came up to me after the coffin was lowered. “Ed,” she said, “I’m Jackie.” Jackie. A high-school classmate of mine, Jackie had been George’s first love. Her father had been permanently shell-shocked by World War II. For years when she didn’t have her own car, George had driven Jackie to see her father every weekend in the veterans’ mental hospital. In his loyal way, George never stopped loving Jackie, even when she went off to her career as a flight attendant and married and had her own children. It was wonderful to see her. She still has a dimple in her right cheek.

I will never forgive the world for not finding George a wife.

But back to the Bowlers and the Chosen Others. What had George given these people—these short, stammering, misshapen, weeping men, with their potbellies? He was six-foot-two, and strong, and he could speak perfectly well (though he often mumbled, as they do—because they do?), and his teeth and eyes were not crooked, and he never passed judgment on anybody. He knew how to tease them—they loved to tell stories of how he teased them. He knew how to reserve motel rooms when they went to watch professional bowling tournaments in Pennsylvania or for trips to Vermont, where they hung out in their rooms or in the swimming pool and never did anything touristy. He could afford to pay for their motel rooms.

There is a world of people out there that some of us—me, anyway— rarely notice and almost never think about. They don’t vote. They don’t read books or magazines or newspapers. They don’t go to movies much. They bowl and watch professional wrestling. They live in basement apartments or group houses, three beds to a room. (In his will, George left little wall-eyed Jack his easy chair. But Jack told me that he had no place to put it; he lived in one room with three other men.) These men work when they can, at the kind of jobs they can do. They sweep restaurants and work deep behind the baggage-claim at Kennedy Airport. They don’t drive the truck that pulls the wide load on the highway; they drive the flag truck that follows it (and they drive 900 miles to be at George’s funeral). Among people like you and me, they mumble or stay silent. They can’t afford to fix their teeth or their eyes or their tongues. At funerals, they talk loud and weep unashamedly. They were George’s flock.

When I was young, sitting at the dinner table hearing George recount the losses of his day—a failed geometry test, a squabble with another student, getting cut at the j-v basketball tryouts—when I was young (my parents getting more and more upset at George)—when  I was young, I thought I was better than George, and I sometimes let him know it. After this weekend, I don’t think I was good enough to sit at the same table with him.

So here I politicize my brother George. When you vote this November, remember him and his friends. Vote for the party that keeps people like them in mind.