FIN de SIECLE
Two Thousand Eighteen was a year filled with both joy and sorrow; buoyed by success yet scarred by tragedy; suffused with hope but plagued by pessimism; our Future obfuscated by humanity’s obsession with personal gain often at the potential risk of species Omnicide. We have become the personification of an Ouroboros…obsessed with the Past, its lessons ignored, trapped by our own hubris in a repetitive cycle of self-annihilation.
This House Is [Still] Burning.
Take for instance the recent spate of fires here in California. While everyone accurately decries the loss of life, the evisceration of the forests, the destruction of property, and the negligence of private enterprise to effectively manage our resources, no one is talking about limiting the development of forest lands for human habitation. The responsibility for these fires has been attributed to equipment failures owned by the privately-held “public” utility company that provides power to these unfortunate communities, which has in turn prompted a spate of lawsuits that have now forced the company to file for bankruptcy protection. But what if those houses weren’t built there in the first place? What if instead of private ownership, all property was state-owned like in Israel and housing was built near transportation hubs instead of in or near environmentally vulnerable watersheds and forests? Hmmm….
“California wildfires in the Butte Country communities of Paradise and Redding accounted for “eighty-six people dead, 14,000 houses incinerated and more than 500 businesses destroyed. Paradise, a quaint forested community in Butte County, torched to near extinction. The Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in state history, broke out Nov. 8 and may be linked to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment, capping another catastrophic year for California wildfires. The Carr Fire in Redding sent a lethal fire tornado swirling through neighborhoods. The Woolsey Fire tore through Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The Mendocino Complex in Lake and Mendocino counties grew to become the largest fire in state history in terms of acreage. The Ferguson Fire closed Yosemite National Park for weeks at the peak of tourist season.”
— SF Chronicle.
The FIRE sector sets the rules and writes the laws that protect property over people. Many of the families who lost their homes in these fires had mortgages that still carry debt service that is payable — insurance notwithstanding — to a bank, a pension fund, or some “vulture” capital group who actually holds (i.e. owns) the paper on the property but who is by contract indemnified against paying any taxes on, damages to, or liens against the property itself. All of that rests with the titular owner – the mortgagee who is listed as having “Title” to the property — but actually doesn’t own it; plus – wait for it – pays a premium [read compound interest] for that privilege on top of everything. Another classic example of a “bait and switch” scam.
No Home At All.
Wealth inequality, initially prefaced and examined by Thomas Piketty in his seminal book “Capital in the 21st Century” has widened in the last year with more than 50% of the world’s wealth now concentrated into the hands of just 26 individuals. TWENTY-SIX. Salesforce CEO — Mark Benioff and his firm Salesforce, collectively contributed $7 million to back the adoption of San Francisco’s Proposition C in the recent election which stipulated that locally-based tech companies would be taxed in order to provide housing for the homeless and indigent. [Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, the CEOs of Stripe and Zynga, as well as prominent venture capitalists opposed it.] The obvious take is to give the impression that neoliberal capitalist “entrepreneurs” care about the precariat and that publicly-run programs and/or socialism are not viable housing options for the public. And now legal challenges have stalled its implementation, claiming the measure required a two-thirds majority like other new taxes in California, meaning Prop. C’s implementation could be held up for years. “From their cold dead hands…..”
Juxtapose this with a front page story on Dec 29th that reveals a moratorium on future SF housing developments because of rising costs (interest rates, taxes and labor), projects in the pipeline earmarked for less than market rate (i.e. affordable) housing are drying up because developers and investors believe they can make enough of a return (i.e. rents) on affordable units (so….$1400 per square foot is not enough??).
“While rental complexes already in the pipeline will continue to open next year, new condo buildings will be scarce. Miles Garber, director of research for condominium marketing firm Polaris Pacific, said only 314 new condos will hit the market in 2019, compared with about 1,000 in 2018, 584 in 2017 and 1,427 in 2016. The average over the last decade has been about 800 units a year. Everything that is going forward is falling above the $2,000 (per square foot) price point”, Garber said. Projects with a projected price of $1,300 or $1,400 per square foot are not worth it to developers, he said. “In the short term, we are not going to see a lot of those delivered.”
The Forever War continues in Brazil, Honduras, Nicaragua, Yemin, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and as we speak in Venezuela and evidently soon to be waged in due course upon Nicaragua as well. Plus the ongoing Trump Tariff Wars are punctuated by the demonization of Russia and China and Iran, all of whom are not aligned with Neoliberal Capitalism through its enablers at the World Bank, The IMF, the BIS, the Atlantic Council, the CFR, and the Group of Thirty. Add to these the continuing murders of Yemenis and Gazans by the Saudi Wahhabis and Israeli Zionists. Plus, even advocating for BDS programs aimed at firms that do business with the latter apartheid state is illegal in some of ours having been targeted by AIPAC as being “anti-Semitic”. Please watch “Killing Gaza” by Max Blumenthal for some perspective on that struggle.
MAGA [Forward Into The Past].
Two Thousand Eighteen was notable for yet another US government shutdown over another neoliberal bipartisan pissing contest this one over immigration. As educator and writer Henry Giroux commented in a recent post on Truth-Out.org:
“The viciousness of the Trump administration and the cruelty imposed by neoliberalism mutually inform each other. Trump’s policies range from stripping food stamps and health care from poor children and caging immigrant children in some god-forsaken prison in Texas to allowing thousands of Puerto Ricans to live for more than a year without electricity, safe water and decent shelter. Such policies are matched by an ongoing, if not relentless, discourse of dehumanization and objectification aimed at those considered disposable.
Maybe we should tear down that statue in New York harbor. You know, the one that was a gift from the French – the one that states “Give me your tired, your poor. The wretched refuse from your teeming shore….”. That’s what immigrants are – wretched refuse? We are all descendants of immigrants. Everyone of us. Let’s not forget them.
Two Thousand Eighteen also marked the second year in succession that, thanks to the exceptional talents of my guide Diana Borysenko, including her help navigating the machinations of the State archives, we were able to uncover more of our paternal ancestry tracing back to a relative born sometime in the late 18th century. Plus we visited more historical sites, met an actual living relative, and heard some great jazz which you can read about or watch in our Old Country blogs and videos. I just thank my lucky stars [see below] that we met. Plus, myself and two siblings have already booked a return visit this year  for more psyanky, holubtsi, pirogi (varenyky) and of course more…..jazz!
Perhaps by “Cosmic Coincidence” the year 2018 was by marked by several personal anniversaries, again some painful, some poignant, some enlightening, yet all memorable and rewarding. Ultimately our personal destinations are a Given, an undeniable Fact; thus the measure of our lives is the journey itself and what we make of it. Here are a few more tales … казки … explorations of some Dark Places from mine.
Two Thousand Eighteen had the distinction of being the Fiftieth anniversary of my first arrival in SF, referred to as “The City” by locals, from Puerto Rico….the then beautiful Caribbean island known as Borinquen by its locals, where I’d spent two intoxicating years immersing myself in its fascinating sub-tropical Latin culture; its music, its cuisine, and its romantic attractions while simultaneously working assiduously on perfecting a saltwater tan and vigrously pretending to defend the country against its foes real or imaginary, at the taxpayers’ expense no less. After all, I had been declared an “officer and a gentleman” by act of Congress, that same august legislative branch that a half century later — at the behest of the Great Climate Whisperer – has decided that the most efficacious way to aid Puertorriqueños after the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria was to throw in the paper towels. Really. I mean what do these corporate sycophants actually care about besides getting us to pick up their bar tabs?
Anyway having been newly transferred by the Navy to Baghdad By The Bay that August at the urging of a late friend who was a native of “The City”, I arrived right in the middle of the 1968 Democratic Convention held that year in Chicago, to watch aghast at the gavel-to-gravel Mass Media coverage of the anti-war protests and the ensuing police riot in which culminated in demonstrators being beaten on the streets and subsequently dragged off to jail; provoking – at least in me – an initial realization that the corporate-controlled political duopoly was not going to allow any disruption of its quadrennial electoral dog and pony show and would deploy military force in order to ensure it.
Of course at that time, the mass media was still under relatively diverse ownership, not yet completely consolidated under the thumb of a corporate-dominated oligopoly beholden to the Rentier Class as it is now, and thus was allowed some leeway [then called the “fairness doctrine” which was a mass media policy designed to provide a forum for alternative viewpoints – now much maligned by self-styled right-wing media watchdogs like NewsGuard as “fake news”] in its coverage of the demonstrations outside the Chicago Convention Center. Even as the protests became increasingly confrontational with the Chicago Police, the Networks continued broadcasting the fracas Live in Prime Time to a national audience. Check out Haskell Wexler’s cinematic docudrama Medium Cool which was partially shot in the streets of Chicago during those demonstrations for a reference. The film has been deservedly rated as one of the great films of the 20th Century.
Not the case in 21st Century, as evidenced earlier this decade by the crushing of the Occupy Movement carried out by para-military equipped minions of the corporate state – the municipal police – whom now, seemingly unencumbered by either legal constraints or the First Amendment, physically herd demonstrators — and any Alternative Media that cares — to areas out of the public eye where they can be subdued and isolated more effectively. Shades of the yellow vests known as the Mouvement des gilets jaunes going on right now in Paris; where rallies are being held by the precariat against essentially the very same class disparities: the pervasive enslavement of the underclass brainwashed by the corporate media to defend capitalism against the twin threats of people of color from “shithole countries” and the spectre of socialism; debt peonage imposed through austerity programs that exacerbate wealth inequality; the ubiquitous thrust of consumerism under Capitalism where everything and everyone is merchandise for sale; and the privatization of the welfare state coupled with the theft of public wealth by the Rentier Class. It seems little has changed in those fifty years except the color of our hair.
Treasure Island from Yerba Buena ca. 1968.
Be that as it may, back in 1968 and fresh off the boat — or in this case a plane, I found myself stationed on Treasure Island — then a Naval base that had originally been built for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition which had also functioned as an airport having served as the point of origin for the famous Pan America China Clippers bound for the Orient up until the advent of World War II when the Navy took over. At the first opportunity I decided to visit The City and boarded a shuttle bus for the Presido which was then an Army base located near the Golden Gate Bridge. After visits to Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building (which was then sealed off from The City by the double-decked Embarcadero Freeway), and Market Street – which then was a long ditch dug to accomodate the Muni-Metro and BART subway systems then under construction – I wound up at Powell and Market streets and boarded a cable car bound for Ghirardelli Square where transportation was available that would take me back to the Presidio. I sat in the back of the car on an outside bench that afforded an unrestricted view of Union Square and the Bay as the car was pulled up Powell, over to Mason and then onto Hyde. Along the way I struck up a conversation with the brakeman, a burly fellow with a full red beard and a hearty laugh. After mentioning that I was in the military and that this was my first visit to his fair city, he grinned, reached into his breast pocket, pulled out a joint, handed it to me, and whispered: “Welcome to San Francisco”.
At this point I have to pause the narrative and apologize for my proclivity to venture off into tangentially-related topics, but we do live in a time-space continuum in which some theorists postulate the universe is just a three-dimensional holographic projection originating from a two-dimensional plane of objects that no longer exist, thus the physical “realities” of a Past, a Present, and a Future all fold in on one another to form a construct that we inhabit — as a continuum — until we don’t. So I’m just inhabiting mine — as long as I can.
THE STARS MY DESTINATION…
But I digress. Forty years ago, in the Spring of 1978 close to my birthday, I was gifted a session with a local Vedic astrologer by a companion whom I am happy to say I still if infrequently remain friends with. Of course back in the 1970’s we were not that far removed from the “me” generation of the Age of Aquarius, so many people believed Astrology to be a “science”, interpreting the movements of the planets and stars — “past light” — as portents for influencing, explaining or even predicting human behavior. Not so much today since we seem to rely exclusively upon social media for those purposes.
The Event Horizon.
The astrologer was man was from India who inhabited a small apartment in Santa Monica from which he divined his clients’ Futures by delving into their Pasts. Sounds counter-intuitive, and realistically if you walk around with your head in the clouds staring at the Stars in search of your Future, you are liable to take a step in the wrong direction at the wrong time and consequently be confronted abruptly by your Present which is precisely what happened to me more than 70 years ago.
Anyway, the astrologer was to read my “chart” so I had to be prepared to give him as much of my natal history as I could drum up, the exact “Where” being as important as the precise “when” in order to determine what sign my “Moon” was in; what my “rising sign” was; and my “Sun” or birth sign. Anyway, I recited all the answers that I could remember to the questions he asked, whereupon we set a time for a return visit to hear the results.
Consequently the next week again found me seated in front of his small desk as he revealed the results of his research; my birth sign was Aries — and what characteristically Aries-born were like; my rising sign was in Sagittarius — and what that portended; my Moon was in Libra — and what that was likely to mean; and then delved into what was for me an arcane explanation of how and why the relative positions of other celestial bodies [the planets and stars] – given the Time and Space that I had come into the world – had affected and might likely impact my Life. I confess to zoning out during this proceeding, not to the extent of nodding off, just somewhat mesmerized by the melodic droning of his heavily accented voice – when suddenly he paused, looked me in the eye and said:
“You have had a very, very difficult childhood. For most of it, Saturn has dominated your Life, bringing much difficulty, many confrontations and obstructions, causing much suffering and physical pain.”
Then he paused again, took my hand in his and nodding his head side-to-side as if to amplify the veracity of his words he uttered: “If it were not for the great God Gupta (Jupiter), you would not be with us today”.
Now I do not remember how long I sat in front of him in total stupefaction, but my mouth had to have been wide-open – embarrasingly so. I just remember thinking: “How the Hell could he have known about my childhood? I never said a word to him about what happened to me back then.”
Ipso facto, what did happen to me more than Seventy years ago in a small town in Michigan’s “Thumb District”? [just hold up your left hand in front of you. That’s as simple a visual representation of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula as there is. “The Mitten” can also be seen from Space, but since we’re not astronauts, astrology notwithstanding, I recommend the former for a visual reference.] Anyway, my astrological battle with Saturn was and continues to be predominately about childhood illnesses and being accident-prone, especially if my body or a part thereof was transiting through Space, and in more than a few cases related to being in close proximity to an automobile. When in motion, history has proven I am not only a danger to myself but a hazard to navigation as well. After all I was born in what was once called the “Motor City”, so could this be just one more series of misfortunes that can be blamed on The Strait? It’s a good thing I was never a pilot, a ferry boat captain, or a bus driver. At any rate, what follows are just a few of the narratives a kid “казкар” might tell. Just keep in mind that all of the events laid out here would have transpired before reaching the age of five.
It was during the early stages of World War II – 1943 or 1944 – but my father Paul was still at home with my Mother and I. He would subsequently ship out to the Pacific Theater of the war where he would be forced to face down his own physical threats. We were driving “up home” along a gravel lane called Wildcat Road for a holiday visit with his parents John (Ivan) and Anna who lived in the small town of Croswell situated along the Black River in the Thumb District a few miles West of Lake Huron, when suddenly a pheasant bolted across in front of the car – a 1930’s era Chevy – causing Dad to stomp on the brake. This was way before car seats for toddlers, and having forgone the comfort of Mom’s lap, I was perched unrestrained on front edge of the back seat – all the better to see what was going on. Suddenly, before I could grab anything to hold onto, I was pitched forward head first smack into the dashboard. You can still see the result today, a proboscis that toward its tip takes a sharp left turn. [Kind of like my politics?]
Flash forward another six months and we were in California – near one of the Naval bases in San Francisco or possibly San Diego — where Dad was scheduled to ship out to Honolulu and join the crew of the destroyer escort USS Gilligan (DE 508). We were spending an afternoon with a friend of the family – or perhaps one of Dad’s shipmates – who lived on a local farm where some photos were taken of myself with several other children. At some point, while getting into the backseat of a car, someone slammed the car door on my little finger, which put a damper on that day, but I got to parade around the next day or so – a wounded sailor with my left hand in a bandage.
The Old Post Office
Perhaps six months later, Dad having gone off to the war, Mom and I were back in Croswell living in a small walkup apartment on Wells Street above what had been the old Post Office, situated a block or so from my grandparents house that sat behind a white picket fence over on Howard Street (the main drag). It was Winter or very early Spring – a transitional season that for me always seemed to mean a battle with some infirmity or another, and I had them all: measles, mumps. chicken pox, the croup, tonsilitis; you name it. Immunologists must have a probable cause or two as to why this happens to toddlers – but all of them both in succession and sometimes even in tandem? Perhaps Mom was immune, and never had the anti-bodies to pass on.
Anyway I came down with pneumonia. I was one sick puppy, bedridden with a fever, coughing and spitting up gunk. At one point a local doctor came to visit and prescibed the application of mustard plaster poultices together with the use of a vaporizer which sprayed a camphor solution into the air over my bed. And on top of all that, Mom made me get up, bend over, stick my face over a bowl filled with a solution of hot water and Vicks VapoRub and breathe in the fumes, all with a towel placed over my head. I was not a very patient patient during all of this. I hated every second of it and was as contentious and obstreperous as any young child under such duress might become. Somewhere in my consciousness though, I was aware of how concerned and even desperate Mom was because I was really sick. She would rub my face and chest, wipe my nose, and coax me to spit in a pail by the side of the bed and all the while I could see the frustration on her face and tears in her eyes because she was alone, in a small dark apartment, with her only child struggling to even breathe who could croak in her arms. And in the end of course, she saved me. Mothers….
She cried a lot during those months she was alone with me. And when she did I would ask: “What’s wrong, Mommy?” Then she would look at me and say: “Go get Mommy a glass of water”. And I did because usually that would bring a smile to her lovely face. After the war was over my father returned, bursting through the door one afternoon, taking Mom in his arms. After a long embrace she began to cry, so I dashed over to the sink to get Mommy a glass of water. That got a big smile from both of them!
One of my playmates at this tender age was an acerbic brat named Phil, the son of the town lawyer whose storefront offices were located several doors up Howard Street from my grandparent’s in the heart of Croswell’s commercial distrtict. Phil always had the coolest toys; the latest Lionel train set; a bag of cat’s eye agates for shooting marbles; an assemblage of toy cars, trucks and planes; and even a small B.B. gun – which he’d let me see but never touch. In fact he was pretty stingy with all of his toys because, well they were his. I could only hope that either my birthday or Christmas would hurry up and get here faster.
Phil was an instigator. It seemed he was just good at getting me in trouble or putting me in perilous situations like tramping across the Swinging Bridge, a version of which still spans the Black River, but at that time had more that a few slats missing from its wooden foot pad making the river appear very black indeed when viewed through the gaps. Or exploring a burned-out bowling alley located a few doors down from where my Mother and I lived on Wells Street. To a toddler, it was an exciting if hazardous place to be; its roof having collapsed, leaving its interior with four “alleys” open to the elements. It had just rained so we were decked out in raincoats and galoshes, gingerly stepping over and around seared planks and scorched furniture, avoiding puddles of water as we made our way onto one of the alleys where situated at its end was a rack of pins still in place as if waiting for the next kegler to bowl a line. It was both eerie and cool, that is until Phil pushed me into one of the puddles soaking my jeans – which of course was not cool because I caught hell from Mom once I slogged back into the apartment later. I remember how angry she was with me, in retrospect not so much because I’d gotten my pants wet but because I’d let myself be led into harm’s way by that rascal Phil. It was one of my first “oh shit” moments — one of many in Life yet to come.
But Phil’s pièce de résistance occurred on a Sunlit Summer’s day down along a stretch of the Black River, a short trek North of town where the river arced Westward exposing a small sand bar with an uprooted tree stump lining its bank. Phil and I had just done the obligatory traverse of the Swinging Bridge and as I was intent on rummaging in the sand for rocks to skip across the river, Phil with his trusty BB gun in hand was busily targeting the stump and the occasional bird that flew by, when suddenly he turned the weapon on me point blank and pulled its trigger. The BB struck me in the forehead close to the left eye socket. I was shocked, hurt, and angry – in that order. I pressed my hand against my forehead to staunch the bleeding, screamed something profane at Phil and ran off, stumbling back over the bridge and back to my grandparents’ house where first aid and comfort awaited. In the aftermath, words were exchanged between the parents the end result being that the “friendship” between Phil and I was for all intents and purposes over. I do not recall ever receiving an apology from him.
The Hart Mansion.
A couple of local kids and I were playing tag one Summer afternoon in the backyard of a neighbor, a Doctor Hart. This was no ordinary backyard, for the good doctor’s estate stretched from Howard Street to all the way to Brown Street in the back a good 150 meters or more in length and half as much in width, replete with an arbor of massive spruce trees gracing its rear border; an extensive greensward that stretched from the rear of the “mansion”, as it was known, all the way back to Brown Street; a trestle covered in blackberry vines; a garden; and a fruit tree – either apple or pear – that we used to climb into, sit among its boughs and sample its wares.
Having been tagged as “it” and in hot pursuit of another playmate, I rounded a back corner of the Hart’s garage and collided with the side of a large sedan coming down the gravel driveway driven by the doctor’s wife, caromed off it onto the ground and into its path as its left rear wheel rolled over my left leg. Now THAT was pain. The rest is a blur. There was lots of shouting, screaming, and crying; my Mother’s face shaken, tears streaming down her cheeks; Gramma Anna beside herself, wailing in a foreign tongue; the good Doctor Hart, fortunately not on call elsewhere at the time, laboring furiously over my broken leg in the bright incandescant light. Then my lights went out.
Jimmy & Cousin Dick VanConant c. 1945.
That of course meant there would be no more playing tag in the Hart’s backyard or anywhere else for that matter, nor climbing trees and pilfering fruit, nor excursions to the Swinging Bridge that spanned the Black River, nor trips out to the beach on Lake Huron at Lexington, nor sitting at the ice cream parlor at Boyes’s across the street scarfing down a hot fudge sundae, nor Saturday matinee movies at the Maxine; not for the rest of that Summer. During the daytime I was taken outside weather permitting, deposited in a playpen under the shade of a large Maple tree in the front yard at my grandparents’ house on Howard, and told to stay off my damaged leg. Gradually it began to heal and I was able to stand, then walk, then with some effort do things that normal kids that age did. The good Doctor Hart had performed a miracle in the eyes of the family, although I’m sure neither he nor his wife cared to see me or my leg again. Plus, as a result there would be no more venturing onto the Hart’s estate to play tag or snatch an apple or pick berries from then on. Besides the place haunted me, and still does today.
The Unknown Unknowns.
So if astrology a pseudo-science as most rational people believe, how could the relative positions of the planets and the stars at birth dictate to the Vedic astrologer the probabilities my past? Or might it be said that astrology can be thought of as being analogous to the “faith” humans have in theocracies or to the science behind quantum mechanics; the premise being that both the former and the latter ideologies are in fact subject to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Priniple: basically “whatever you are looking for you will wind up finding”? Consequently, if I were to take to heart for instance this recent 2019 horoscope prediction for my rising sign (Aries) I discovered in a local paper, what fantasy land might I find myself inhabiting during the latter part of my 8th decade?
“Aries (March 20-April 18) Perspective, as well as knowledge, comes through travel and/or advanced study. This is especially true for you now (and continues into 2026). Prepare for the possibility of having to re-evaluate an intimate alliance. What may evolve is a new lifestyle possibly in another country. Space and reflection become increasingly important as the year progresses and you step unexpectedly into the limelight. A decision made on April 5, with the new moon in your sign, will dramatically shape your life. Reap the benefits on Oct. 13.”
This is a mystery that for me only provokes more curiousity about the our capacity to cope with the unknowable. What I can unequivocally state about the above experiences is:
ONE DAY AT A TIME.
Two Thousand Eighteen also marks my 40th year of continuing sobriety; clean and sober for more than half my time in this mortal coil. Some of you may appreciate the significance of such a span of time having lived it; the expectations, the joys and delights, the gains, the heartaches, the disappointments, and the irreplacable losses. Yet we stay the course on this Road of Life, placing one foot in front of the other no matter how difficult or frustrating it may seem because we know — from what living has taught us — that this journey is one we must take but can never complete, and either by walking, running, dancing, or crawling through it with the companionship, compassion, and caring of loved ones, we create the Life we lead, whether it be a heaven or a hell or both. We do it ourselves. We make it happen. No matter how many “likes” we get [may The Grid forbid], no bleeding edge technology nor mystical essence will do it for us. For me that has meant maintaining my sobriety – above all else – one day at a time. Touch wood.
TWO IF BY SEA.
Two Thousand Eighteen also heralded the 30 year anniversary of my return to SF from 16 years spent in Los Angeles in pursuit of fame and fortune both of which proved to be both fleeting and fatuous taken as a whole, but again the Road of Life is traversed not only physically but simultaneously through relationships, some of which stick and prove to be fruitful for quite some time. Such was the case in 1988 when an old friend and fellow filmmaker invited me to join him in shooting a couple of projects he was producing for a Scandanavian cruise line.
The first “show” involved making a series of short promotional videos documenting the company’s add-on excursion tour packages which meant a trip to the Virgin Islands of Saint Thomas, Saint John, and Saint Martin aboard the legendary SS Norway, then homeported in Miami. Coño. I was getting a chance to do something I loved, travel back to the Caribbean, and actually get paid for doing it! Now the Norway was originally christened the SS France in 1961 and at that time was the longest passenger vessel ever built at 1037 feet, and certainly the biggest boat I’d ever been on, my nautical experiences notwithstanding — although in the Navy I’d been aboard a couple of Tin Cans, a nuclear sub, toured both a battleship and an aircraft carrier that had been converted into a floating communications center replete with an antenna farm erected on its flight deck – which in today’s world of perpetual proxy wars would have lasted about two seconds in an armed engagement.
Nevertheless the Norway was “yuge”, with 12 decks which could accomodate close to 2,000 passengers and a crew of nearly 900 – who were housed in the bowels of the boat (nicknamed “Slime Alley”) – replete with amenities such as a massive dining hall; two full-sized theatres that featured “live” onboard entertainment; two swimming pools [Tourist Class and First Class of course]; numerous restaurants, snack bars and watering holes such that the Norway was literally a floating four star hotel. It was a deep-draft vessel, designed for fast trans-Atlantic passage which meant that in relatively calmer Caribbean waters with shallow harbors, passengers had to disembark via 800 seat tenders – flat-bottomed barges – that could be either beached (Saint Martin) or moored at local piers such as in Saint Thomas.
There was a production cast of a dozen or so individuals, vetted via a promotional contest; the winners having been offered free passage, room and board in exchange for playing the role of ideal passengers enjoying both the cruise plus the excursion tours which for paying customers were had for a premium. These premium excursions included the usual stuff like rides on a catamaran, water skiing, scuba diving, golf, village tours, and what turned out to be the favorite – duty-free shopping for souvenirs and liquor. My favorite was a visit to an undersea observatory; a glass enclosure that had been sunk just off of a coral reef where a few of us at a time could descend a ladder into a submerged area that afforded a clear view of the reef and its environs – an aquarium in living color where the observer was completely surrounded by sea life.
Among the vendors was a particularly striking, deeply-tanned, slim-legged, long-haired blonde in a bikini selling beachwear and accessories along the shore. When I complemented her on her tan – which appeared to extend completely from her toes to her nose – she replied with a knowing smile, “Of course, I am European”.
The Norway was sold in April 2006 to Bridgend Shipping Limited of Monrovia, Liberia, and renamed Blue Lady in preparation for scrapping which eventually took place at Alang, India in 2007.
The Floating Bathtub.
The second project for the cruiseline involved a great deal more travel – initially by air from Miami to Gander, Newfoundland [which is really in the middle of nowhere] then subsequently on to our ultimate destination – a shipyard in Turku, Finland — quite literally the land of the midnight Sun — where the cruise line was having a brand new ship, christened the MS Seaward, constructed for service in the Caribbean. We were to board the vessel, still being fitted out, and sail through the Dardanelles to Norway, pick up some company dignitaries and stockholders, proceed around the North coast of Scotland then into and across the Atlantic for a week-long voyage to New York – all in a shallow draft “floating bathtub” (that’s what it looked like to me, anyway); an unoffical maiden voyage.
Now when I say “we”, I mean the entire complement of the crew; the ship’s officers and sailors; the entire service crew – cooks, wait staff, bartenders, entertainers, housemaids, pursers, medical staff, you name it. It was a major “evolution” in Naval-ese — a big ordeal. Yet somehow, someone knew what they were doing because in a couple of days it all came together and we were preparing to get underway.
The shipyard was a bustling place – its shipbuilders working on several other vessels including one for the Russian navy which we weren’t supposed to even look at let alone photograph. Right? As the Seaward slowly made its way out of the yards, past quays swarming with activity, literally all of the workers stopped what they were doing to watch silently – some waving or saluting – bidding farewell to their handiwork as the Seaward made its way out of port.
As a member of the video crew, one of my tasks was to ensure that all of the gear was serviced and remained functional. Remember this was the era of video tape; way before portable hard drives, SD/Compact Flash cards, or portable computers. So we had to make sure the cameras, recording decks, and monitors had compatible power sources. Since all of our gear was 110/120 volt AC designed for the US market we would need a step-down transformer to convert the ship’s power source of 220 volts down to 120 in order to power our equipment. The ship’s engineering department obliged by constructing a multi-port device that weighed 30 to 40 pounds that had to be lugged every day from the engineering spaces below deck to our stateroom aft so we could charge our batteries and power the tape recorders for use that day. This device would soon prove to be worth its weight in gold. Nowadays you can buy a hand-held universal transformer replete with power connectors suitable for any location for as little as $30 — and stash it in your kit bag.
Also aboard as part of the entertainment was author, lecturer, and maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham whose book The Only Way To Cross is the “bible of ship buffs”; a chronicle of the age of luxury transatlantic cruise ships, a bygone maritime era, when dozens of liners steamed in and out of New York, La Havre, Liverpool and other ports of call, accommodating the rich on lavish upper decks and hordes of immigrants deep within steerage. Our paternal grandmother, Anna Chuda, had transited the Atlantic from her native Galicia in steerage aboard just such a vessel on her way to Ellis Island which in 1988 was almost exactly [to the day] 75 years previously in 1913 when she was a teenager.
So one evening, well on our way steaming across the Atlantic, John Maxtone-Graham was in the middle of a slide show presentation and lecture on the ill-fated Titanic, waxing on at length about the design flaws of the ocean liner using an ice cube tray as a prop to demonstrate how and why the ship — advertised to passengers as “unsinkable” — once the hull was breached, was impossible to seal no matter what the damage-control crew did because when a breached compartment filled with sea water, it just spilled over the top of its bulkhead and into the next, then the next, and next; the weight of the water eventually pulling down the bow and subsequently increasing the flow of sea water to other compartments – even if the ship was not moving.
Here we were, a small crowd of about 50 or so, somewhere in the North Atlantic, fully engrossed in the proceedings and what they portended when all of a sudden the ship’s motors went silent and the lights flickered and died. We were dead in the water, days from our destination. At first every laughed thinking it was a part of the show. I mean the timing could not have been more perfect. But a quick glance at Maxtone-Graham’s face said otherwise. We were in trouble. There was something wrong with the ship’s power.
The emergency lighting system eventually came on and everyone began talking, first in low murmurs then increasingly in panicked overtones. Many of the dignitaries in the audience left for their staterooms, while I and my compatriots on the video crew began discussing whether or not to break out the cameras and start shooting even in low light. Remember, this was before “smart” phones with umpteen mega pixel cameras when the latest gizmo was a FAX machine.
This went on for about 20 minutes or so when suddenly the Chief Engineer, his dress whites smeared with grease, burst through a door and made his way up to me and blurted: “I need that F***g transformer now, where is it?” Quickly we made our way aft to our stateroom where our equipment was stashed and two of his “snipes” grabbed up the transformer then all three vanished down a nearby ladder into the bowels of the ship.
NY Harbor From MS Seaward — 1988.
After a lengthy period – perhaps an hour or more – the ships’s motors restarted and the lights came back on. However for all intents and purposes Maxtone-Graham’s lecture was kaput, overshadowed by current events the whole boat was buzzing about. We were sitting in the main lounge having a coffee when there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned my head to see the oil-smudged face of the Chief Engineer smiling down at me. “Thanks”, he uttered. “You saved my ass.” And then he was gone, back to work. Whatever had happened, he and his crew of snipes had fixed, otherwise we, like the Flying Dutchman, might still be out at sea. Subsequently we and the Seaward made it to New York steaming under the bridge over the Verrazano Narrows, and into the harbor with great fanfare, which included a salute from a local fireboat to safely moor at a pier in Manhattan under the shadows of the ill-fated Twin Towers.
THE RIGHT TO AND THE FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE.
Two Thousand Nineteen betokens Year Three of The Trump War on Truth together with; an acceleration in the rate of MSM consolidation that further limits the number of voices to be heard; rampant social media manipulation [as in the Cambridge Analytica debacle] of public consciousness, coupled with the exploitation of our personal privacy by the likes of “free” social media applications [read Facebook] and web search engines [read Google] each constructed with internal algorithms programmed to gather our digital personal histories, which are then packaged by data mining corporations and sold to commercial and political entities who deploy the results in order to, as author Shoshana Zuboff writes, “privatize knowledge”; thereby exercising control over the Future by disrupting and ultimately monopolizing the flow of information [read knowledge] with the goal, among other anti-democratic subversions, to distort public perceptions concerning immigration, the environment, healthcare, dog-whistle racist politics, fake news, foreign policy, the social safety net, rampant voter fraud, and/or suppression in our electoral process to name but a few.
“Friend” is an embodied mystery that can be forged only face-to-face and heart-to-heart; and that “recognition” is the glimmer of homecoming we experience in our beloved’s face, not “facial recognition.” I say that it is not OK to have our best instincts for connection, empathy, and information exploited by a draconian quid pro quo that holds these goods hostage to the pervasive strip search of our lives. It is not OK for every move, emotion, utterance, and desire to be catalogued, manipulated, and then used to surreptitiously herd us through the future tense for the sake of someone else’s profit.
“What is at stake is the dominant principle of social ordering in an information civilization and our rights as individuals and societies to answer the questions Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides? That surveillance capitalism has usurped so many of our rights in these domains is a scandalous abuse of digital capabilities and their once grand promise to democratize knowledge and meet our thwarted needs for effective life. Let there be a digital future, but let it be a human future first.”
— Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. PublicAffairs.
These are several of the many reasons why I have opted to recuse myself from the FB/Twitter/Google+ propaganda farms permanently. IMHO getting “liked” comes at too great a cost and consequently way too much exposure to the interminable intrusions of privacy dictated by the neoliberal surveillance capitalist state and implemented in partnership with Amazon.com our goto online store and our search engine of choice, Google – among others. If that weren’t enough….this just came in from Wired Magazine:
“On January 17, security researchers published details of the world’s largest online dump of personal data. Collection #1 contained passwords and usernames relating to 772,904,991 individual email addresses. These were spread across 2,692,818,238 spreadsheet rows in 12,000 files. Then along came Collection #2-5. The new Collection leak, which was first reported by Heise, contains 2.2 billion unique usernames and passwords. In total it contains 845GB of data and more than 25bn records.”
Faraday Cage anyone?
Consequently one of my New Year’s “resolutions” is to BDS products associated with or sold by neoliberal entities such as Google [that means YouTube, Chrome, Hangouts, Google+ (it’ll soon be history anyway)]; Facebook [WhatsApp, Messenger [maybe], Instagram, Hyperlapse]; Amazon/Whole Foods; and buy directly from worker-owned co-ops, farmers markets, and local venues. Time to make 2019 the year we start the revolution. Solidarity!
Finally, like Danny Sjursen proposes, let’s end The Forever War…Forever!
“Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage.
Pacing the cage.
Pacing the cage.”
I can be reached at our family website ruthenians.net [just logon to create your own account], via email, at Minds.com [@parrhesiastes], or pinged on Messenger or by text/phone.
Please accept my fervent wishes to you and yours for a happy, healthy and enlightened New Year!
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