• Robert Birnbaum

Scratch Pad #105


If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine

While it is accepted wisdom that the infoshitstream known as the Internet is chock-a -block with galaxies of debris (and worse), it is also the case that there are gems to be found—but do not depend on search engines which are forever being gamed by hucksters and political lunatics. So it is that in my digital perambulations, I come across some of those above referred-to-gems...



Bill Buckner Ill Fated 1986 World Series faux pas


What a shame to have major leaguer Bill Buckner's fine career obscured by one very visible infelicitous miscue (compounded by'victimizing' the unforgiving Red Sox [so-called]Nation), and ,no doubt, becoming a Trivial Pursuit question. Buckner, who labored in the fields of American Dreams for 22 seasons, passed away last week. A career .289 hitter with 2,715 hits, he played every game of the 1986 season, despite being hobbled a variety of injuries which visibly limited his mobility. And then the 6th game of 1986 World Series...RIP Willian Joseph Buckner






“Hate Inc.: How, and Why, the Media Makes Us Hate One Another by Matt Taibbi


Chris Hedges takes up Matt Taibbi's new opus, Hate Inc. and provides illuminating context...


"In “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” published in 1988, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky exposed the techniques that the commercial media used to promote and defend the economic, social and political agendas of the ruling elites. These techniques included portraying victims as either worthy or unworthy of sympathy. A Catholic priest such as Jerzy Popiełuszko, for example, murdered by the communist regime in Poland in 1984, was deified, but four Catholic missionaries who were raped and murdered in 1980 in El Salvador by U.S.-backed death squads were slandered as fellow travelers of the “Marxist” rebel movement. The techniques also included both narrowing the debate in a way that buttressed the elite consensus and intentionally failing to challenge the intentions of the ruling elites or the actual structures of power...."


" ... Matt Taibbi... has dissected modern media platforms in much the same way that Herman and Chomsky did the old media..” Our opinions and prejudices are skillfully catered to and reinforced, with the aid of a detailed digital analysis of our proclivities and habits, and then sold back to us. The result, Taibbi writes, is “packaged anger just for you.” The public is unable to speak across the manufactured divide. It is mesmerized by the fake dissent of the culture wars and competing conspiracy theories. Politics, under the assault, has atrophied into a tawdry reality show centered on political personalities. Civic discourse is defined by invective and insulting remarks on the internet. Power, meanwhile, is left unexamined and unchallenged. The result is political impotence among the populace. The moral swamp is not only a fertile place for demagogues such as Donald Trump—a creation of this media burlesque—but channels misplaced rage, intolerance and animosity toward those defined as internal enemies


The new media, Taibbi points out, still manufactures consent, but it does so by setting group against group, a consumer version of what George Orwell in his novel “1984” called the "Two Minutes Hate“. Our opinions and prejudices are skillfully catered to and reinforced, with the aid of a detailed digital analysis of our proclivities and habits, and then sold back to us. The result, Taibbi writes, is “packaged anger just for you.” The public is unable to speak across the manufactured divide. It is mesmerized by the fake dissent of the culture wars and competing conspiracy theories. Politics, under the assault, has atrophied into a tawdry reality show centered on political personalities. Civic discourse is defined by invective and insulting remarks on the internet. Power, meanwhile, is left unexamined and unchallenged. The result is political impotence among the populace. The moral swamp is not only a fertile place for demagogues such as Donald Trump—a creation of this media burlesque—but channels misplaced rage, intolerance and animosity toward those defined as internal enemies


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Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals.

Continuing a conversation I began with Julie Orringer fifteen years ago, I was reminded of a chat I had with William Wright, author of Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals , a book relevant here because some of Orringer's characters in The Flight Portfolio are gay and attended Harvard in the 20's.


RB:When you say major scandal, wasn’t it kept a secret?

WW:You’re right, that’s a misuse of the word scandal because it wasn’t out in the open. But enough of a major deal for Harvard to form this court.


RB:So a kind of subterranean scandal. People knew about it.

WW:Yes, it was a tempest—a hidden tempest. But it ruined a lot of lives and precipitated three suicides. The dean, Greenough, he went to the president of Harvard, in 1920 it was Lawrence Lowell. Lowell also reacted very strongly to this. The subtext to this whole story—Harvard had a reputation, even in those days, for having a lot of gays. A lot of people light on their feet and all that stuff. And to what extent these deans were aware of that or motivated by that I have never been able to ascertain because they never would say such a thing. But their reactions were excessive and there is no arguing that. They expelled eight guys—one committed suicide the day he was expelled and it didn’t slow this court that was formed by Lowell in the slightest. They were writing letters and calling boys in the next day for interrogation.





White men can't jump but little white girls can sing the blues. Alicia Michilli covers the Etta James ultimate tear jerker, I'd Rather Go Blind





Amy Bloom (copyright 2003,2019 Robert Birnbaum)

Reading Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet as a young man, I was baffled by the narrator's observation that one could identify eight (or 6, my recall is a bit dusty on this) distinct genders in Alexandria. Now, despite having three score and ten years, I have only barely mastered heterosexuality, so I still find sexual taxonomy something of a blind spot in navigating the real world.


Had I not become enamored of Amy Bloom's writing (who was at the time still a practicing psychoanalyst ) I probably would not have read Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops and Hermaphrodites with Attitude.


Here from a having a wide ranging conversation with Ms Bloom, mostly about her book:

Robert: One of the subjects accused you of getting pleasure out of these interviews or some such thing. What did she say?

Amy: Oh yes, she said, “You seem to really get involved in the lives of your interviewees.” She was really cross with me. Everybody sees through their own lens, and my choice with the book was to pretend that I didn’t—which is one style of journalism, to pretend that I was just God, looking. The other was just to say, “Oh no, no this is just me with my limitations and my biases and bad habits and what I bring to it and this is how it all looks to me.” In the end these were personal essays. They didn’t pretend to be scientific essays.

Robert: Right, and you do say in Normal, “There are shelves and shelves of academic, clinical, ideological and autobiographical books on one or more of the subjects I address here, I didn’t want to add to them: I wanted to tell the stories of the people that I met…” But the choice wasn’t a real choice because you only could have done the personal as opposed to the omniscient approach.

Amy: No, it wasn’t [real], but I felt like I had to pay attention to it, and my own inclination is to write more in the way that I wrote in the Afterward, which is to say, “Let’s think about these things.” I felt that I had to face the fact that I was present in these conversations and that my presence had meaning. It had meaning for the cross dressers, a lot of meaning. My presence had meaning for the guys who were transsexual. I had my own feelings about it. I don’t know that I ever spent so much time thinking about what I was going to wear in (Robert laughs) either of those circumstances. Or with the intersexed, just my own awareness that no one had ever mutilated me...

Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops and Hermaphrodites with Attitude. by Amy Bloom


Found Art

Smokin' Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier by Mark Kram Jr.


Muhammed Ali, who was not a particularly nice person, shaded former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier incessantly. Publishers Weekly reviewed Mark Krams's biography of the boxer known as Smokin' Joe:


" Kram delivers a sympathetic account of a boxing great fated to be overshadowed by Muhammad Ali. Born to rural poverty in South Carolina in 1944, Frazier displayed prodigious strength from childhood and quickly gained a reputation as a fearsome brawler. Yet it was not until he moved to Philadelphia in 1962 that he started boxing seriously, winning Olympic gold in Tokyo two years later. Undersize but a devastating puncher, Frazier became heavyweight champion in 1970 when he beat Jimmy Ellis. Then, in 1971, Frazier defeated Ali in what was billed as the Fight of the Century. They would battle two more times (Ali won the second and the final, “Thrilla in Manila”), and Frazier would spend the rest of his life losing the popularity battle to the loquacious legend. Kram’s fluid account balances Frazier’s remarkable generosity (giving cash to homeless people, pulling over for stranded motorists) with his chronic infidelity and explosive rage. Kram vividly describes Frazier’s South Carolina upbringing and moonshiner father, and includes well-told though familiar stories of his rivalry with Ali ..."



If you think the blues are a quaint American cultural anachronism, you have

not heard Kevin Moore aka Keb Mo' His newest recording Oklahoma includes This Is My Home


Lupe came here from Mexico About 3 or 4 years go And the journey, the journey, the journey was long She got a job at a local factory Sent money back home to her family She said, “This is where I belong This is my home This is where I belong”

A man arrives from Pakistan A stranger in the promised land Mohammed, Mohammed was finally free He drove day and night in a taxi cab When people got mean He didn’t get mad He knew, this is where I belong This is my home This is where I belong

La la la la la la…

Lupe had school on Monday night When a man walked in who looked just right Mohammed and Lupe were falling in love Well they raised a beautiful family Taught them all their history They know, this is where they belong This is their home This is where they belong

My people came over from Africa To North and South America And the journey, the journey, the journey was long They sacrificed and they paid the price So I could live this wonderful life And I know, this is where I belong This is my home This is where I belong

La la la la la la…


This is where I belong This is my home This is where I belong, it’s up to the people to decide what kind of leaders and country they want to have.

Lupe came here from Mexico About 3 or 4 years go And the journey, the journey, the journey was long She got a job at a local factory Sent money back home to her family She said, “This is where I belong This is my home This is where I belong”

A man arrives from Pakistan A stranger in the promised land Mohammed, Mohammed was finally free He drove day and night in a taxi cab When people got mean He didn’t get mad He knew, this is where I belong This is my home This is where I belong

La la la la la la…


Lupe had school on Monday night When a man walked in who looked just right Mohammed and Lupe were falling in love Well they raised a beautiful family Taught them all their history They know, this is where they belong This is their home This is where they belong

My people came over from Africa To North and South America And the journey, the journey, the journey was long They sacrificed and they paid the price So I could live this wonderful life And I know, this is where I belong This is my home This is where I belong

La la la la la la…

This is where I belong This is my home This is where I belong



Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems by Jim Harrison Joseph Bednarik (Editor)

Not that he needed it, but the failure to greet the publication of a Jim Harrison tome— in this instance Jim Harrison: Essential Poems —with adulation and celebration, speaks of tight sphinctered critical clique that desiccates a vital and relevant native ( by which I mean northamerican) literature.


Luckily, and happily, Dean Kuipers* hung out with Harrison not too long before he passed to his greater glory and Kuiper's account (Jim Harrison’s Last Poems—of Love and the Earth—Are the Arguments We Should Be Having) of that encounter and his enlightened explicatory remarks about Harrison's poetry is a fine piece of literary rumination




Kuiper's writes,


""Harrison told me once, “Someone has to stay outside,” by which he meant both outdoors and outside academia. He felt writing programs turned people into copyists. He taught one year at Stony Brook after his first book came out, 1965’s Plain Song, and never again. He thought people should work, like he did, laying bricks. For a brief moment he got rich from his novels and looked and acted like the hegemony—hanging with Jack Nicholson, stuffing himself with Mario Batali—but he squandered a lot of it and spent most of his career on his back, raking the belly of the industry and the canon with his long hind claws, tearing at its guts. He became irascible. He scratched out a living close to the earth, dependent entirely on you and me, the readers.


The Essential Poems, selected by his longtime and best reader, Joseph Bednarik, demonstrates perfectly why we should turn to Harrison again. He lived and breathed an American confrontation with the physical earth, married himself to a universe of bodies and stumps and birds, did not try to shuck his grotesque masculinity and stared hard with his one good eye (the left was blinded when he was 7) at the inescapable, beckoning finger of death.


These poems are arguments and conversations that America should be having with itself right now: what have we done to the earth? What does it mean to be a human being now? The challenge of these poems is dizzying because they condemn us even as they feel beautiful in your mouth. Harrison wrote in the voice of a man who’d walked off his family farm in the cold northern climes of Michigan, with its profusions of life, and dared to wonder aloud what there was to live for. Dared even further to declare that maybe the stars, or success, or family weren’t enough. And then went on living..."


Uncredited photo/Outside Magazine 2011


Back in 2011, Tom Bissell who grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, wrote a glorious profile of Jim Harrison for Outside magazine entitled, "The Last Lion",**

"Jim Harrison is a writer with immortality in him.” Or so the London Sunday Times once wrote—a high-mileage blurb Harrison’s publishers have splashed across several of his books. Once I developed an interest in writing, I would some­­times stop and ponder my father’s Harrison collection. I noted the paperback jackets’ comparisons of Harrison to Melville, Hem­­ingway, and Faulkner, but I was also aware of the Harrison Legend, which in the mean­time has only grown: the films made from his work, the friendship with Jack Nicholson, the immense foreign readership, the incomprehensible appe­tite (he once ate a 37-course lunch and lived to write about it). There was also the way he wrestled with nature in his work. For Harrison, the natural world was not something to be cherished because it was pretty; rather, the natural world was something to be howled at, gloriously, in the night...".


... The man who occasionally sat at our dining room table wrote stories set in the U.P., and critics in New York, London, and Paris regarded these stories as literature. Until that point in my life, I had heeded the inadvertent lessons of my English classes: literature was something written by the dead for the bored. Literature was decisively not about any towns I knew.


...Harrison wanted to know if I was going to continue teaching, which, I had told him the day before, was cannibalizing my writing time. Over the years, Harrison had been offered several “really cushy jobs” by various creative- writing departments. “And I said, ‘Why me?’ And they said, ‘We need some kind of name.’ However minimal.” But he always said no, thank you. “I turned one down for $75,000 in a year that we made $9,000.”


When I asked how he had been able to do that, Harrison told me what he told them: “‘Somebody’s got to stay outside,’ ” he said. “And I still think that’s true. Somebody’s got to stay outside.”



If you can find it (my inquiries to Outside magazine have gone unheeded), Jim Harrison wrote a piece in 2003, Life on the Border, which is a heart-rending indictment of the US evil nativist approach to

immigration and cultural comity. In part it is a response to the death of a young Mexican girl who was attempting to cross the desert into the US.


Fron Life on the Border,


"Frankly, I have no mind for rational solutions to these immense problems. Nothing I ever hear from Washington DC has any relationship with the reality I know down here. I’m seeing, delirium, hunger, acute suffering, which are not solved, assuaged or aired by the stentorian fart breath of the House and Senate.


I’m also wondering if it behooves a writer to try to be right. Yeats warned about cutting off a horses legs to get it into a box. Simon Ortiz, the grand Acomo Pueblo poet, said that there are no truths, only stories…


A historian might very well consider the validity of the Gadsen Purchase, wherein we bought my locale for fifty-two cents an acre from a group of Mexicans that had no right to sell it. The United Nations would question our right to take all of the Colorado River’s water, leaving the estuarine area in Mexico as dry as the bones their people leave up here in the desert. A true disciple of Jesus would say that we have to do something about these desperate people, though this is the smallest voice of all. Most politicians have the same moral imperative as a cancer cell: continue what you’ re up to at all costs. Mean while the xenophobes better known as the xenoids, merely jump up an down on the border screeching, surely a full testament to our primate roots. Everyone not already here must be kept out, and anyone here illegally, if not immediately expunged, should be made as uncomfortable as possible.


So Ana Claudia crossed with her brother and child into Indian country, walking up a dry wash for forty miles, but when she reached the highway she simply dropped dead near the place where recently a nineteen year old girl also died from thirst with a baby at her breast. The baby was covered with sun blisters, but lived. So did Ana Claudia’s. The particular cruelty of a dry wash is that everywhere there is evidence of water that once passed this way, with the banks verdant with flora. We don’t know how long it took Ana Claudia to walk her only forty miles in America, but we know what her last hours were like. Her body progressed from losing one quart of water to seven quarts: lethargy, increasing pulse, nausea, dizziness, blue shading of vision, delirium , swelling of the tongue, deafness ,dimness of vision shriveling of the skin, and then death, the fallen body wrenched into a question mark. How could we not wish that politicians on both sides of the border who let her die this way would die in the same manner? But then such people have never missed a single lunch. Ana Claudia Villa Herrera. What a lovely name."







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*Dean Kuiper's has recently published,The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land that Healed Them


*Tom Bissell's "The Last Lion"


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