Laughter For Saturday

This is a picture of my father ready to go on the air, probably in the late 1940s. You might notice he is dressed rather formally, which was the standard then. It was an honor to be invited into your living room.

Yet another elder said: If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up to heaven, take him by the foot and throw him to the ground, because what he is doing is not good for him.

---Zen instruction

The unconscious mind is decidedly simple, unaffected, straightforward, and honest. It hasn't got all this facade, this veneer of what we call adult culture. It's rather simple, rather childish. It's direct and free.

---Milton H. Erikson

You can play a shoestring if you're sincere.

---John Coltrane

I hope to enjoy myself here and there through a weekend. The news on Saturday mornings too often is filled with conniving and capers slipped through late Friday afternoon. The White House may figure they have to announce what they did sometime, and it's always better to do it then when nobody may notice.

It's best not to attempt any business after Friday lunchtime. Don't call your bank, your insurance company, a government office: forget it. They don't want your disability claim over the phone at Social Security...not at 4:00 Friday afternoon. Was it always thus?

Why was my father all dressed up in that photo? It was radio! He could be in his boxer shorts, and who would know? Well, that's the point. They knew it would "show." By the 1950s things became much more least on radio. Television was formal though. But radio now was your buddy in the kitchen. It was just between you and me. If Arthur Godfrey didn't like how his advertised product tasted, he told you. The advertiser then could decide whether the novel publicity would get people to try the item. Most stuck with Godfrey anyway.

Instead of the honor of being in your home, the media now competed to get your attention. The ads presented no longer were written by a secretary in the station office area. You had to hire a special agency that had statistics and psychologists to do it. Commercials were more expensive, and if you were an announcer you had to start shouting them. My father told us radio was no fun anymore, and he decided to do something else.

He had worked his way up from the very beginnings of radio to become station manager. But now his health was suffering. In the 1950s he developed ulcers. Many people did. A cold war made things hot in the belly. Pressure. My father told me toward the end of his life that he never had a job that he liked. He had become bitter. After radio, he had sold cars, he had sold furniture. He became vice president of the best local furniture retail outlet in a city known for wonderful furniture manufacture. But local stores were on their way out in the 1960s, and the big boxes were coming in. Radio had been fun and he had enjoyed it...but the cutting edge was being born in America.

Hmmm, I don't see that this is very funny yet. Well fortunately we have people around now who can take the material of these reflections and reveal the absurdity of some of the paths we have taken. Thank heavens for Comedy Central! Would we have made it through last year's election without them? Now we have Bill Maher coming on stronger all the time. Around midnight yesterday morning, he posted some observations on all this at Huffington Post. This morning it served its purpose for me. Sarcastic as heck, nevertheless his words are healing balm for me.

Bill Maher
Host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher"
New Rule: Not Everything in America Has to Make a Profit

How about this for a New Rule: Not everything in America has to make a profit. It used to be that there were some services and institutions so vital to our nation that they were exempt from market pressures. Some things we just didn't do for money. The United States always defined capitalism, but it didn't used to define us. But now it's becoming all that we are.

Did you know, for example, that there was a time when being called a "war profiteer" was a bad thing? But now our war zones are dominated by private contractors and mercenaries who work for corporations. There are more private contractors in Iraq than American troops, and we pay them generous salaries to do jobs the troops used to do for themselves ­-- like laundry. War is not supposed to turn a profit, but our wars have become boondoggles for weapons manufacturers and connected civilian contractors.

Prisons used to be a non-profit business, too. And for good reason --­ who the hell wants to own a prison? By definition you're going to have trouble with the tenants. But now prisons are big business. A company called the Corrections Corporation of America is on the New York Stock Exchange, which is convenient since that's where all the real crime is happening anyway. The CCA and similar corporations actually lobby Congress for stiffer sentencing laws so they can lock more people up and make more money. That's why America has the world;s largest prison population ­-- because actually rehabilitating people would have a negative impact on the bottom line.

Television news is another area that used to be roped off from the profit motive. When Walter Cronkite died last week, it was odd to see news anchor after news anchor talking about how much better the news coverage was back in Cronkite's day. I thought, "Gee, if only you were in a position to do something about it."

But maybe they aren't. Because unlike in Cronkite's day, today's news has to make a profit like all the other divisions in a media conglomerate. That's why it wasn't surprising to see the CBS Evening News broadcast live from the Staples Center for two nights this month, just in case Michael Jackson came back to life and sold Iran nuclear weapons. In Uncle Walter's time, the news division was a loss leader. Making money was the job of The Beverly Hillbillies. And now that we have reporters moving to Alaska to hang out with the Palin family, the news is The Beverly Hillbillies.

And finally, there's health care. It wasn't that long ago that when a kid broke his leg playing stickball, his parents took him to the local Catholic hospital, the nun put a thermometer in his mouth, the doctor slapped some plaster on his ankle and you were done. The bill was $1.50, plus you got to keep the thermometer.

But like everything else that's good and noble in life, some Wall Street wizard decided that hospitals could be big business, so now they're run by some bean counters in a corporate plaza in Charlotte. In the U.S. today, three giant for-profit conglomerates own close to 600 hospitals and other health care facilities. They're not hospitals anymore; they're Jiffy Lubes with bedpans. America's largest hospital chain, HCA, was founded by the family of Bill Frist, who perfectly represents the Republican attitude toward health care: it's not a right, it's a racket. The more people who get sick and need medicine, the higher their profit margins. Which is why they're always pushing the Jell-O.

Because medicine is now for-profit we have things like "recision," where insurance companies hire people to figure out ways to deny you coverage when you get sick, even though you've been paying into your plan for years.

When did the profit motive become the only reason to do anything? When did that become the new patriotism? Ask not what you could do for your country, ask what's in it for Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

If conservatives get to call universal health care "socialized medicine," I get to call private health care "soulless vampires making money off human pain." The problem with President Obama's health care plan isn't socialism, it's capitalism.

And if medicine is for profit, and war, and the news, and the penal system, my question is: what's wrong with firemen? Why don't they charge? They must be commies. Oh my God! That explains the red trucks!


  1. Yeah, we're the great Capitalist wonderland, all right.

    It's amazing how flinging that word "socialism" about has such great potency for some people. The word of choice used to be "liberal." And many a liberal Democrat would run scampering down the street, arms raised, screaming "No, no, no, I'm not a tax and spend liberal?" That word had such a potent effect. But I suppose with overuse it lost some of its punch. So a more thoroughly charged word was eagerly brought in. “Socialism.” These, the heirs of Chamberlain and Lindbergh actually even employ “fascism” sometimes. Do they know what any of this is?

    And in Europe and elsewhere they have genuine Communists. Not fakes, but the real kind. And they show their faces in public. My god, you mean the sun doesn't melt them? They come out in broad daylight?

    Here, in the US, we are so backward that we have to return to the rudiments, the fundamentals. Such as, taxes are actually good. Yes, they’re good! They buy things we need. And hopefully, with a small increase of our taxes, we may actually have a national health program some day. And the rich may even be taxed without the whole of Capitalist Free Enterprise falling all around us. The collapse of Western civilization.

    Much current BS started out timidly, but with Reagan and Bush and Limbough and the like it has been whipped up into a frenzy. And the light motif is get yours before anyone sees what your hand is doing. That’s why, in their eyes, regulation would be supported only by Satan’s spawn. And their imaginations are hard at work inventing logical rationales to oppose it.

    There, that was fun writing that. Hope it didn’t become too tedious reading it, that is if you are still reading, which you obviously are if you are reading this. (That’s a plagiarism. Of myself. So what am I? A saint?)

  2. Published on Saturday, July 25, 2009 by The Progressive

    Capitalism, Sarah Palin-Style
    by Naomi Klein
    Excerpted from the August issue of The Progressive magazine:

    What if the bailout actually works, what if the financial sector is saved and the economy returns to the course it was on before the crisis struck? Is that what we want? And what would that world look like? The answer is that it would look like Sarah Palin. Hear me out, this is not a joke.

    Palin was the last clear expression of capitalism-as-usual before everything went south. That’s quite helpful because she showed us—in that plainspoken, down-homey way of hers—the trajectory the U.S. economy was on before its current meltdown. The core of her message was this: Those environmentalists, those liberals, those do-gooders are all wrong. You don’t have to change anything. You don’t have to rethink anything. Keep driving your gas-guzzling car, keep going to Wal-Mart and shop all you want. The reason for that is a magical place called Alaska. Just come up here and take all you want. “Americans,” she said at the Republican National Convention, “we need to produce more of our own oil and gas. Take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska, we’ve got lots of both.”

    And the crowd at the convention responded by chanting and chanting: “Drill, baby, drill.”

    Watching that scene on television, with that weird creepy mixture of sex and oil and jingoism, I remember thinking: “Wow, the RNC has turned into a rally in favor of screwing Planet Earth.” Literally.

    But what Palin was saying is what is built into the very DNA of capitalism: the idea that the world has no limits. She was saying that there is no such thing as consequences, or real-world deficits. Because there will always be another frontier, another Alaska, another bubble. Just move on and discover it. Tomorrow will never come.

    This is the most comforting and dangerous lie that there is.

    … Capitalism can survive this crisis. But the world can’t survive another capitalist comeback.

  3. I just wrote a little piece about my lack of respect for authority. And living in this crazy capitalist society has been part of my disdain for authority. How stupid are we that we elected Richard Nixon the man who gave us Kaiser Permanente, Ronald Reagan who gave us the closing of all mental hospitals and the beginning of an enormous homeless population. How is it we deified this man? I could go on and on, but I've just done a bit of that at my place.

    It's very nice company at The Wulfshead this evening.

  4. I just took the time to read your post... a very pleasant, meandering set of reflections. I had seen but not read the Bill Maher piece- thanks for putting it back in front of me at a point where I could give it the time it deserves.

  5. The shutting down of state psychiatric facilities: a favorite topic for me Utah. I may need some restraint.

    The previous decade at least had been spent with psychologists especially trying to "humanize" those places. Not sure all that was needed, but a favorite pursuit was developing "token economies." It was thought these self-sustaining communities were so comfortable for patients that reality needed to be re-introduced. The benefits would be that patients could be prepared for discharge into halfway houses and shared apartments---and out of the back wards.

    It worked! And so great populations of emotionally and mentally challenged folk were sent out into cities and towns across the land. And then Reagan cut off the funding.

    So why didn't they just go back to the state hospital? Because in the meantime the institutions had been turned into prisons...complete with high fences topped with that thick cutting barbed wire stuff.

    Lockwood might be interested that an exception is the one here in Athens, most of which still stands abandoned. The main building however is an art museum. A building adjacent holds OU's environmental studies. Hmmm, from mental to environmental.

    The numbered markers in the cemetery are being replaced with actual patient the urgent request of relatives. But OU kids think the place is haunted, and on Halloween every year get into the abandoned wards and listen for screams.

  6. Anyone been to San Francisco lately?

    The homeless, many of them Vietnam vets with mental problems, are legion there. Especially on Market Street. The mayor can see them from his balcony in the Civic Center. The Main Library (in the Civic Center), where I used to work, is a social center for the homeless and drug dealers. Using its public restrooms can be a voyage into the heart of darkness. You're lucky if you can come out alive. The onetime head of security there, a guy called Gary Kong whom we called "King Kong," collected the weapons he took off of patrons in the library. Shanks, zip guns, razors, homemade knives and the like: like the ones they make in prison. He hung them all on the wall of his office when he worked there. Yes, they were quite impressive.

    When Reagan was governor I was living down in Chinatown, off Kearney Street, one of the main drags of San Francisco which runs between Chinatown and the Financial District. I remember the day the mental hospitals were closed. For there they were, the mentally ill, dozens of them, walking aimlessly up and down the street. They were easy to spot, too, of course. Reagan may have been a nice guy to have a beer with but his policies were cold and heartless, like McCain's and other rugged "western" individualists who put money, power, and cattle horns on their cars first. And live in paranoid fear someone will take this all away from them.

    And you mention Nixon. How many times was a spike driven through his heart? How many times did a "new Nixon" emerge? How many times did he come back? Did anyone catch Palin's farewell address last night? Never say never in American politics. Yes, it is shocking such a rambling airhead resonates with so many Americans.

  7. The State Hospital was still open when I moved to Oregon, and I'm not sure if its closure was planned at that point.

    Every college town seems to have its "haunting" mythologies- largely unknown to the locals, but passed down over the years from upper- to under-classmen (Are there still tales of the haunted dorm on the South Green? I didn't know about that one until friends started attending OU in 78.) Athens also has (had?) a rich local folklore of hauntings- Simm's Cemetery, off Peach Ridge Road, was probably the foremost example during my time there. There were some old oaks hanging over sandstone cliffs with ancient rope scars on the projecting limbs; these were said to be "hanging trees," where highwaymen and others had been summarily lynched. It was a common challenge to adolescent boys to spend the night at that site... I spent less than an hour after dark before I got the heebie-jeebies and had to leave.

    Last fall I was looking for miscellaneous stuff to compile a Halloween post, came across some references to Athens Hauntings, and spent an hour or so reading about the tales that have emerged regarding the State Hospital. I suppose, given the grand but isolated nature of the buildings, the nature of the former inhabitants, and the fact that those people really aren't going to talk or argue about what happened there in the past, tales of spookiness were inevitable.

    Oregon is in the process of demolishing its State Hospital. Given some of the atrocities and acts of negligence that have taken place there, that might be justice. But it was where "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was filmed, and it always pains me to see unique historical structures disappear, whatever terrible acts people may have committed in them.

    I'm glad the state hospital in Athens has, at least partially, a new life.