Monday, November 7, 2022

On The Eve Of The Midterm Elections


Our traditions of fairness and compassion will not go away overnight.  The threats are terrible; the threateners are horrible; the Republicans are at best timorous and opportunistic.  But as bad as it all seems, I'm betting against their being successful, ultimately.  We are all used to the basics of American life, and most people will miss them if they're gone.  We don't have brown shirts, and I don't think we will.

The biggest problem I see is how weak the Democratic party is, how feckless, how old.  They haven't paid attention to threats, they haven't done the basic work, they have mediocre personnel, and they are so old and encrusted.  You can't replace something with nothing, and I agree, the extreme left is a problem -- not their policies, many of which I agree with, but the people, so many of whom just curl with resentments.  And as an organization, The Democrats have not taken proper advantage of their strongest members - we just see them on TV now and then, but the old tired warhorses run the place.  So, my hopes are tempered by that organizational problem -- if it were a stock, you certainly wouldn't buy it, as it is now. 

But I think something will happen, many things will happen, and we'll come out of it, even if this election is a total disaster, which it probably won't be, but it could.  As for anti-Semitism, there is just too much widespread support for fairness and acceptance, just all over the place.  Here's just one example - sports on TV speaking out.  When you have this kind of support, I think we're in good shape.  The anti-Semites are total loser outliers, and I am very optimistic about the culture.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

My Friends Sam Katz and Cathy Wilfert


The professor I was closest to at Harvard Medical School, Sam Katz, just died at age 95. My classmate Karl Singer, now primary care doc in New Hampshire, who is the key guy in our class email list, sent around Sam's obituary.

I worked in Sam's lab for the final semester of med school. He was a very kind, kind man, which was just what I needed, since I didn't adapt well to the more impersonal style of much of HMS.  The head of the lab was Dr. John Enders, who had gotten the Nobel Prize for culturing the polio virus and making a vaccine possible. In the lab everybody loved to call Dr. Enders, "Chief." He looked very English – pale complexion, pipe, tweed, quiet. He was a gentle man. Everyone else was very junior, and I was, of course, the most junior of all.

The lab was such a happy place. The people in it were just out and out nice. There was no sense of competition with any other lab, nothing about money, everyone was just interested in doing good work. I helped one of the researchers, Mary Ellen Wohl, do a study on the residua of infections in babies by RSV – respiratory syncytial virus, the same virus that is circulating around the country now as I write and filling up children's hospitals with wheezing children with pneumonia – to see if they had persistent lung damage. I called the parents and got them to bring the babies in, and then I received them and held the mask over their faces to make the measurements. She thanked me profusely for my help, telling everyone she couldn't have done it without me. I think she was amazed that I actually made the calls and brought the patients in without being prompted. Her person to person recommendation got me a good internship at UCSF. It's as they say, sometimes the most important thing is just to show up. Low bar.

The tone of the office came from the Chief and from Sam. I remember being with Sam at one rounds or another at Children's, and outside in the corridor, he was accosted verbally by one of the other hospital docs over some issue, with real heat and accusation.  Sam endured it for a minute, they just turned his back and strode away, his face flushed, saying nothing.

When I graduated I donated my desk to one of Sam's kids; it was quite a moving exercise to carry that desk down the stairs - it was one of those old wood secretary's desks that I had gotten somewhere as surplus. He had all those kids, I'm sure his job didn't pay him much, and he regarded that old desk as a real gift.  "Are you sure?" he asked me.  As if I would charge him for it.  Then he got the job of Department Chair at Duke and moved there, saying that his wife just didn't want to leave Boston and move to NC, so she and the kids stayed behind, maybe hoping that he wouldn't like it and would move back. 

But of course, then Cathy, Sam's research partner in the lab, who had been pregnant when I was in the lab with them and they were both married to other people, a warm and maybe somewhat awkward and deeply motivated scientific sort who told us that she hadn't really intended to get pregnant but that “sex is fun,” moved to Duke at the same time, and when somehow I had occasion to visit them at Duke, they drove me around together, the two of them in the front seat, and still didn't say anything.  They had some look about them, should we tell Budd?  But as I say, I didn't say anything.  For me, it was just the continuation of the lab, "nothing to see here."  So later they got married.  They weren't that much older than I was, I guess, 15 years older for Sam, but they had that Mom and Pop aura.

Remembering Sam and Cathy and the lab, I think of what I'm currently reading, Annie Ernaux, the recent Nobel Prize winner for literature - brilliant writer, and short books! - who describes with such passion and intensity the episodes of her life, with such a personal vibrancy.  She is exactly the age of me and my classmates, born in 1941. In The Years, a panorama, or maybe a pastiche of her life from her early memories of the WWII years, up to 2000, she is so conscious of time, how it erases so much, what stands out, the images.  I imagine that this is what we increasingly face: all that gets forgotten, the memories we hold on to, and try to pass on, some of them. I remember Sam, and Cathy, and Dr. Avery (what was her first name? I'm sure it will come to me after I post this, you know how it is.) They were just so kind. Tender memories.

I wrote this poem a few years ago:

We live in the memories of others,

And then not even that.

Budd Shenkin

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Love In The City


We are raised in evolved societies, where the needs and dangers of our natural instincts are balanced by traditions and rules that we follow, to a greater or lesser extent. Society gives us approved practices, which embody the expressed values of the society, and it also gives us tolerated practices, which, while they might not express the directly approved values, give room for the reality of the needs and desires of life as we live it. People are different, people conform in different ways, and tolerating differences is key to maintaining tranquility. Formal and informal, the approved and the tolerated, both need to exist.

And so, we come to love and marriage. Both love and marriage exist in all societies, I think, and sometimes they coexist in the same relationship, and often not. And beyond love and marriage, there is also sex, which can coexist or not with L and M. We know the varieties and the examples; it's fun to reiterate them, but that's for another place. Right now, this introductory perspective will serve simply to introduce one interesting and illuminating article from the New York Times.

For Sale: The ‘Sexiest’ Hourly Rate Hotel in Manhattan

The owner calls the Liberty Inn “the cleanest short-stay hotel in town.” But in a changing neighborhood, “a hotel like this doesn’t make sense,” he says.

“There’s something cute and different about each room,” said the owner, Edward Raboy. Some rooms have lip-shaped headboards.



The article says that,

“Its website bills its rooms as the “most sexiest” in the city, and for nearly 50 years it has provided sanctuary for bouts of afternoon passion, clandestine affairs and lunchtime quickies.”

There is no mistaking the purpose of the Liberty Inn. The rooms are made up to enhance the experience. The owner says: “'There’s something cute and different about each room, and we have people who take to certain rooms and keep requesting them,” he said. 'We’re trying to induce people into a good time here. We don’t follow them into their rooms, but we understand what they’re doing in there.'”


This is not the love your mother told you about, or that you read about in the official literature offered in school. It is definitely in the realm of the “tolerated,” and adheres only to the informal rules of our society, not the formal ones. Forbidden pleasure, some say, is the sweetest pleasure, and it can't be forbidden unless there are rules.

So, yes, it is a titillating article, and most people will reflect in their own forbidden loves, and most will also reflect that there were too few of them.

But that's not my point. What hit me over the head about this article comes right at the end. The reporter has just been reporting, not taking a stand, letting the place and the owner express themselves in a matter of fact, you judge what you want to, kind of way. Not exactly selling it, just presenting it.

...a ceiling mirror accented with cloud drawings. Purell packets sat on the night stand. A sign by the door read: 'ALWAYS Turn Knob on Lock to Prevent Mistaken Entry!'

A black stump-like object sat against a wall. I soon discovered that it unfolded and realized it was the Liberator, a wedgelike apparatus that helps lovers contort into imaginative positions. The room was pristine, but I discovered one scrawl of passion on the Liberator’s surface: a faint handprint.”

And then, at the end of the article, comes a final sentence that just knocks you out. The author, Alex Vadukul, has stationed himself outside the hotel, watching people come and go, some confident, some timorous.  And then he says,

As I kept watching the afternoon couples emerge back into the tumult of the city, I realized they were all holding hands.”

I don't know about you, but when I read this, my heart melted.


Budd Shenkin

Monday, October 24, 2022

My Colleagues Respond To The Case Of Draymond Green


Two of my friends responded to my take on The Draymond Situation with different views, both well expressed. Neither agrees with me, in the main, and both make persuasive arguments.



You are an admirable human being, in the extreme, an impediment to understanding this matter, as I see it.   There is a perhaps apocryphal story about Freud's giving a lecture and being repeatedly interrupted by a young colleague, who argued at every turn.  Freud finally threw him out, but a colleague, who was the young man's analyst, complained, explaining the man's behavior in terms of Oedipal dynamics bring ascendant in the course of the young's man's analysis and thus explaining the man's behavior in terms of paternal transference to the master.  

Freud replied: "Nonsense.  The man was rude." 



Thank you, Bob, for putting this in far more succinct terms than I could have; my reaction to Budd’s thoughtful, kindly, broad and forgiving expiation is pretty much exactly the same as yours.

Budd, I think we should start with your first point, “You’ve always thought he was a thug; I disagreed with that, and still do.”  Your reason is that he’s not a “classic thug”, but rather “very, very talented and intelligent”.  I’ve never thought a thug had to be a dolt, nor lacking in talent; he needs only to either lack a moral compass, or impulse control, or both. A guy is a thug if he volitionally harms, intimidates, abuses or endangers others, when he knows better, but either doesn’t care, rationalizes his brutish behavior, or is just so egoistic that he doesn’t consider anything beyond his own emotional needs at any given moment.  To me, this “defense” of Draymond explains why you like him, but doesn’t make him anything less of a thug.

Of course, if what I’ve just said is right, it’s even more true that his “world-class defense” and his “inventive and astute offense” and his “exceptional leadership and emotional acuteness” are even less relevant or exculpatory. You like him because it’s enjoyable to watch him play (at least when he’s not tripping someone, pushing them over when they’re in a vulnerable position, or kicking them in the balls). I like watching him play, too.  But he’s a thug.

Yes, he’s an incorrigible whiner on calls. That, I agree, is indeed “regrettable”, because it diminishes him as a basketball player. Few know this other than very elderly, diehard Bullets/Wizards fans, but the great Wes Unseld – a man of absolutely sterling character otherwise – bitched about every call against him for his entire career, and that was similarly “regrettable”. But I don’t think his rude, unpleasant and inappropriate mistreatment of referees is what makes him a thug. It’s the reckless endangerment of others, the constant and humiliating dirty play, the practiced and phony immediate outreach to his victims to help them back up (as though it was all a mistake). This guy not only should know better, he does know better. But he either doesn’t care or thinks it’s okay, but it’s neither.

You are making a good point about the Warriors standing for something better than thuggishness. That, too, has made many of us who love the game enjoy/root for the Warriors. Steve Kerr!  Steph Curry! Klay Thompson! Jordan Poole!  And so many of the support players, too – they’re good people, and it’s easy to like them. But if the Warriors stand for anything higher or more noble, then they need to get rid of Draymond Green.  He’ll always be a thug, but if they go excusing and forgiving him (as you have), then they stand for nothing at all except winning – just like everybody else.  (I’m sure Detroit fans loved the Isiah Thomas-Bill Laimbeer-Dennis Rodman-Rick Mahorn teams. Bad people, all, but they’re fans loved them because they won, which ought not to be the test, right?) 

I get that there’s another side to this guy, the one you like (and perhaps even admire). But in the end, he’s a professional, a grown man, not a hot-headed kid who needs to “mature”. He is now fairly judged by his behavior, as are we all, and he’s had a long, ugly career of dirty play that too many have been willing to ignore for way too long. The punch on Poole means he shouldn’t be in the league anymore in my view, and if that’s too harsh, then, at least, he shouldn’t be on the Warriors anymore.

I remember making the decision at the Humane Society of the United States that we would give Michael Vick a second chance, hoping that some good would come from his heinous story by working with him to speak with inner-city kids about the evils of dog-fighting. Most of our colleagues in the animal welfare and advocacy movement never forgave us for offering Vick that second chance, because his crimes were just too awful to excuse. I don’t think Draymond falls in that category. Even the sucker-punch on Poole wasn’t in the same moral realm as electrocuting and torturing innocent animals. But Draymond’s long history of dirty play has to count, too,  and I just don’t see how you can forgive him at this point.

The guy’s a thug.


Sports are kind of amazing. They are as full of complications and interpretations as all of life, except with a score. Use the law to adjudicate situations? (both Bob and Rick are attorneys)? Think of teams as family, and use individual and family therapy models? Think about teams as families, or as formal associations? Put winning first, or individual authenticity?

It's all there, if you think about it. We'll never know for sure, but as time goes on, our judgements will sharpen. Understand sports, understand life.

Budd Shenkin

The Case Of Draymond Green

This is what I wrote to my friend Rick, on the Case of Draymond Green.

Rick, you deserve a response in our now increasingly long-standing controversy over Draymond.

It's taken me some time to come to terms with it, and I still really haven't.  You've always thought he was a thug; I disagreed with that, and still do.  Unlike classic thugs, he is very, very talented and intelligent.  His defense is world-class; his offense is inventive and astute.  His leadership and emotional acuteness are both exceptional.  Without him, the Warriors struggle.

I have usually forgiven him his trespasses.  I think his aggressiveness in making his case with referees is regrettable, but he's often right on the facts, maybe usually so.  But his almost uncontrollable insistence that they be more accurate has been immature.  Their job is very hard, and as long as they are not biased, one has to accept that they are doing the best they can.  One has to learn to forgive parents, too, because regrettably, they are just human.  One also has to learn simply to restrain oneself, even if the understanding part may be elusive.  Just dial it back; you have to learn that.

The Warriors have fancied themselves, most times justifiably, I think, as advanced in their understanding of the human state.  They forgive, they support, they understand, they make allowances, they include the whole team from the dude who rebounds the balls for the shooters in practice to the owner; everyone gets heard.  They don't use punishment much as a primitive tool, they are not authoritarian.

But Draymond, it has to be recognized, has an anger problem.  When do you make him address it, even if it puts the coherence of the team in danger?  They have said they have been reluctant to make him change, in deference to the greater good of the team, and his value as a leader, fearing that to dial back the excesses would make him dial back the good as well.  The Warriors, at this point I think it can be said, have overdone their restraint.  They let him go too far.

When do we understand, and when do we condemn?  When are we outraged? 

I think everyone at this point is walking on eggshells.  Draymond has apologized, but he hasn't said he has a problem and has to change.  The Warriors have fined and admonished, and it seems they have not played him as much as he would have probably demanded if not for this incident.  And they took advantage of the situation to extend Poole and Wiggins and not him -- they dipped into the pot but he came up empty.  The Warriors had probably wanted to do this anyway, but in his wounded state, Draymond now can't really protest.  Forget keeping him out of games on suspension, he's taking his licks.  They have indicated that they are willing to use their position of strength to abase him a little, and to threaten to go without him, and they are forcing him to confront the fact that maybe he needs the Warriors more than they need him.

Draymond has been far too full of himself.  Draymond hasn't been able to confront his demons.  Now he will be forced to.  It's late for him to do this, but now he most likely will have to.  One wonders what TNT will do; they are no doubt reassessing.  This major transgression is sinking in.  He has been tattooed in a way not to his liking, and it's probably indelible. 

I think the Warriors are smart enough to see that they can't simply go on as though nothing has happened.  The season might be imperiled.  It might mark a premature end to the run.  They probably think they have been too permissive and understanding, and they have probably done this in service to their own success.  They can't think that the only problem is the son, and that the parents are blameless.  Draymond's punishment will be the quiet work they put in with the younger members of the team, the time and effort they give them, the hopes they start to pin on them, the rope they give Draymond to work his way back into being a different part of the team, rather than it's driver who holds the reins.

Myself, I'm disappointed in him.  I see more clearly the part of him that is a bully, that is brutish, that is physically intimidating.  There is a part of sports that does that -- I never liked it much myself, but then I'm a lot smaller.  It's a temptation for a big guy, and the big guys joust among themselves.  Sometimes the smaller guys fight back by being skilled and maneuverable, and sometimes they are pests.  But whatever Poole did or said, this cannot be the answer.

There is always the fight between the top guys and the younger challengers, those who demand respect at the top of the hill and those who won't give it, and challenge, often with their mouths.  You see it all over.  We're coming for you, say the challengers.  You haven't won anything yet, say the established.  That's eternal. 

And, finally, I'm tempted to make an even wider extrapolation.  We always see, in history and in current events, the war between brute force and an agreement to abide by fair laws.  Maybe it's too much of a stretch, but I'm always tempted to think that personal relationships and world relationships are fractals, that the same rules apply.  And in that wider expanse, I never back might over right.  So, with Draymond, just like everyone else, I have to reassess. 

I just hate to see this guy I have so admired get caught in his excess.  We'll just have to see which side wins.  I hope for the best, but it's up in the air as of now.  We'll just have to see.  He was always on the edge, and I gave him the benefit of the doubt.  Angel and devil, one on each shoulder.

Anyway, that's how I'm thinking about it. 

Meanwhile, what was it that Poole said or did? 



Budd Shenkin

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Six Months Out

I've had enough dental procedures now that I shouldn't be afraid of them. I have good dentists, I'm not hypersensitive, I bear pain well, every time they warn me it might be painful, it isn't really. It doesn't even hurt when they inject the anesthetic. Sometime I need some medicine that night or the next day, but not much, and mostly just some Tylenol. So I shouldn't worry.

And in addition, the next to last time I was in to see Ryan, my periodontist, he said that we had just done the hardest part, excising those three lower front teeth in addition to removing the implant that had failed after a couple of years, disappointingly. And the last time I was in, when he put in those two lateral implants, drilling down into jaw bone, it wasn't really too bad. And I'm a good patient and my dentists are good dentists and they are nice and I am nice and the staff are all nice and you never hear anyone yelling or complaining or anything. It's not like those frontier towns with big signs for “painless dentistry,” and the nicknames of dentists like “old smackmouth.” No, now it's all computers and advanced materials and bonhomie and anesthesia, so it's cool.

But I still worry, not that I had to. Ryan had had me scheduled for a check up and an Xray to make sure I was healing well, before this appointment with Barry, my general dentist to put in the two teeth on top of the implant infrastructure in my jaw, whatever they call it. Then the office cancelled that visit, and they wanted to reschedule but I told them that I had an appointment with Barry the next day and they were going to do some work and needed the periodontal go-ahead, and they were confused and confusing, and I called Barry's office and said I didn't know what to do now and could they get Barry himself to figure out what to do, not to just put off appointments, and do I really have to be checked by the periodontist. Finally they called back after they had gotten Barry and Ryan to talk to each other and they figured I didn't need to keep that periodontist appointment, that Barry could just check it up when I went there, but in the meantime they had cancelled my appointment with Barry so they were rescheduling me for the next day, and I said sure. I wondered what would happen then, but I just had to trust it would work out and there's nothing vital pending anyway.

I haven't made any plans for the next couple of weeks, I cancelled this week's French lesson, and I've hesitated on making plans to go to Hawaii, waiting to make sure it's all OK. Today was supposed to be a big deal, I thought, I was given to believe by staff or I assumed or I don't know, they really tend not to explain in full what to expect and sometimes the front office staff gets it wrong. So I made sure to take my swim yesterday, and work out in the gym this morning, so that I wouldn't go too long without exercise. I put a lot of soft food in the refrigerator, so after my 11:30 appointment with Barry I could come home and lie down or do whatever I needed to do and I knew it would be over soon because it always is, and I could tell my stepson Brian whether or not I could go down to San Jose and visit the baby this weekend and I knew it would be OK.

And besides, it's such a beautiful day, July 14, and José is hanging out the new French flag I bought on Amazon – a few months ago we installed a flag pole holder just outside the second floor bedroom window so we could hang a Ukrainian flag, and then our own flag for Fourth of July, and then French today for Bastille Day (just the way my stepdaughter Sara and her French husband Eric do,) and I'll have to figure out when to hang the Swedish flag (I lived in Stockholm for a year) and the Swiss flag (Ann and I visited there and loved it and my French teacher Claude is Swiss and she claims that she is teaching me French with a Swiss accent) and the Mexican flag (José and Antonia are Mexican and they take care of the house and the garden and me two afternoons a week,) all to go with our new house paint job and the tulips and the rhododendrons and the camellias and the lilies in our yard down below. July isn't hot here in Berkeley, and not so foggy as it is across the bay in San Francisco, so a sunny day isn't rare, and it isn't hot and humid as it is back East, in Philadelphia, where I'm from. I wondered today, as I walked down from the gym, was it the weather that made me move here? I sure remember when I lived in DC and worked for the US Public Health Service and flew out here in winter and landed at SFO and it was sunny and nice and I thought, what am I doing living back East? It's a beautiful day, how bad can any dental appointment really be?

So I got back from the gym and grabbed a couple of Swedish multigrain hard bread crackers – I learned to eat them in Sweden, along with Pripp's beer, and it's surprising to see them at Safeway, but there they are. So I buttered up a couple, figuring that after the dental appointment I wouldn't be able to eat much for a while. I had bought some yoghurt, and I have the Anderson's pea soup that I love, usually putting in some fresh carrots and maybe onion or bell pepper and some pepper and thyme, maybe. So I'm well stocked. I figured I would be just about in time for my appointment. I usually take a medical journal or two to read there while I'm waiting, but this time I didn't, maybe I forgot it at the last minute. But I'd get there a little early, which I always seemed to have trouble doing, but now I don't, for some reason. Anyway, I'd be ready.

So I got there and the assistant had me wash out my mouth and I sat back and was calm and ready – I'm really quite a good patient, calm and cool and good-humored. And the assistant told me that today they would be doing a scan so they could get the lab to prepare the bridge they are putting in, to be anchored by the two implants, like between two goal posts. Well, that makes sense, but somehow I had been ready for a big dental day. “No big day today?” I said. “No, just the scan.” I thought the front desk lady had said on the phone there would be anesthesia. “Nope, just the scan.” Then they'll send it to the lab and see me in two weeks “Big procedure then?” Well, not really, just fit it all in there, maybe some anesthesia.

How are you doing,” said Barry the dentist as he came in. “I'm OK,” I told him.

He confirmed what I now understood for our schedule, that there was just some fitting in to be done, and I'd have to wait a few days afterwards to see if there needed to be an adjustment if it hurt, but otherwise, we were almost home with this 8 months worth of pull, drill, and paste back in.

OK,” I said.

The scan took about five minutes and was amazing, as the assistant scanned with a scan gun of some sort in my mouth and a 3-D picture appeared on the screen. Jesus, that's just so amazing.

Then I drove home and realized that I could schedule some things for next week, go up to Sonoma to visit Richard for lunch maybe, schedule some other lunches with guys I've been seeing, like Bruce, and schedule my trip to Hawai'i, where I'd see Peter, and Sara and her family would be there staying in the condo, and my old friend Larry from med school would be vacationing, and where Pete's girl friend Holly was scheduling a special trip so she could be there, too. She's really so nice.

Now I won't be taking meds and lying down this afternoon, I wonder what I'll do? It's so beautiful, I'm going to sit out back on the little deck we have, that it was Ann's idea to put in over the little patch of grass between the redwood tree and the dawn redwood tree, a patch that didn't do much and was always scrubby, but now it's a destination, a deck surrounded by camellias and rhododendron and with so many neat pots with fuchsia and dwarf lemon trees and a grapefruit tree I planted about 30 years ago that I picked up at Price Club in Richmond, which became Costco, and under the redwood and the dawn redwood and a volunteer or two, all of it such a small and dense area, maybe 25 feet max from tree to tree. So I think I'll do that. And who knows, maybe I'll be able to put in some work on that essay on astronomy, geology, and evolution I've been working on. It should be especially relevant now that the James Webb Space Telescope is some wonderfully, miraculously functional, unblinding us again, after having been unblinded before by the Hubble.

Tomorrow, it will be exactly six months since Ann died.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Cinema: Westward The Women


Two nights ago I was watching another old movie on TCM – Turner Classic Movies, repository of old movies, hosted by charming group headed by Ben Mankiewicz, aspiring not only to entertain, but to educate to the culture and history of film. Every film gets an introduction, putting it in perspective, what to watch for, the back story. What a wonderful idea it has turned out to be! Why others haven't imitated, why movies just come up and you watch it or not and they aren't introduced or commented upon, why the personal connection isn't established, is a mystery to me.

But whatever. The other night, with nothing better to do that wouldn't cost me effort, I tuned into TCM and watched 1951's Westward The Women, directed by William Wellman. I think in 1951 television hadn't completely taken over and people just planned to go to the movies no matter what was playing. the TCM recent theme –they wisely have developed themes for various times, special actors, music directors, fashion, lots of themes – has been westerns that get the west with a different take. Westerns were venerable money makers, I guess ushered in by 1939's Stagecoach, often on TCM and which I like a lot, but by the late forties early fifties, they were getting old. The genre was very familiar by this time. The themes were traditional, the plots predictable, recurrent stars and directors, John Ford's Monument Valley every time he filmed, it seemed – so what are you going to do to break out of the mold?

Westward the Women seems to have been the brainchild of Billy Wilder, who was listed as the writer, and when it was brought to Wellman, a venerable western director, he said, sure, why not? It's a new theme on the recognizable genre. And indeed, when I watched, it did seem new, for a western. But it also seemed, somehow, familiar. I wondered what that was.

So here's the story, summarized by IMDB:

A trail guide escorts a group of women from Chicago to California to marry men that have recently begun settling there.”

Or, more extended:

“In a time when 'The West' pretty much ends in Texas and only California is slowly being populated by the white men, there's a severe lack of women among the workers on Roy Whitman's (John McIntyre) farm in the California Valley. So he goes back east to Chicago to recruit 150 women willing to become wives for his employees. From the candidates, he selects 138 who seem able to survive a months long journey across 'The Great American Desert' and the Rocky Mountains.”

So, that's descriptive, but as I thought about it, other things stood out. First, the setup. Roy is not just “an employer.” Somewhere quite remote but in the area of San Diego, I think, he has identified a valley where nothing grew before, but where he thought he could bring the lifeless to life. They said it couldn’t be done, but he did it. It's now a thriving and beautiful valley. “My valley,” he calls it. Proprietary. He couldn't have done it alone, of course, so he had men, a lot of men who built it, then worked it. A lot of men, in his valley. Not the brightest of men, but not the worst; ordinary men, kept in line and led by Roy. Yes, he's their employer, but he's also their leader, their brains, their guardian and their ideal. It's his valley.

So Roy reflects on his success, takes pride and pleasure in it, but then he thinks, something is missing. Brilliant as Roy is, he figures it out. It's women who are missing. We don't know what the men were thinking before this – pretty amazing that when the subject comes up, it seems new. Imagine that, women! The men are excited when the prospect is raised. Amazing – a new thought that hadn't occurred to any of them, as though they didn't know that women existed.

Roy figures there are women who would want to come out of the squalor of the East to come to a wholesome life in a paradise of a valley and marry the men waiting there. Sounds like a plan. He finds a hard-bitten foreman, Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), who will go back East with him, find some women who want to go west, and lead a wagon train back with him. Buck says he'll do it, but only for the money. The TCM commentators wry observe that it takes a western to find a name like “Buck Wyatt.”

So they go back and Roy has recruited the women, of all types, with all types of troubles that make the prospect of going west attractive. He signs them up at what looks like a hiring hall, as the women present themselves to be chosen, and the pictures of the men are posted individually on a board. The women take down the pictures, and each one has her intended mate – no need to match personalities, it's simply foreordained. They take more women than they need because they figure that they will lose about a third of them along the hazardous trail. The women hear that, but they'll take their chances.

The trail proves to be indeed hazardous, with Indians and weather hazards, some of the men who Roy has hired to go on the trail – good men, he assures Buck – get frisky with the women, and Buck has to send one back and kill one or two. In a latter stage of the trip some of the men and the women disappear overnight together – they won't make it to the heavenly valley, but in bailing out, they jeopardize the entire trip for the others. Roy wants to go back, but Buck objects that if he can't be successful, he'll never work again – at least, that's the excuse he gives for going forward – and the women follow his lead, refusing to go back, and Roy is satisfied with the way it is being completed. Then something happens and Roy dies – I'm not sure exactly what happened, because right then a friend from next door came by and I stopped watching for a little. But I got back in time to see him die.

They do get there, and the women insist that they have a day before they arrive to get themselves prettied up; they've been very masculine until then in what they wore, although the audience sees enough to be interested. Where do they get the materials to make themselves pretty, when they have had to jettison all their clothes along the way, to make the wagons light enough? Why, the wagon train men who are left go ahead to the valley and get the men to donate material that when the women come, they will be beautiful the way women are supposed to be.

So they arrive, the women tell the men of the valley to line up, that they will do the choosing, and they match to men to the pictures they have been carrying with them. The next day there is a mass marriage, one by one, as the new couples do it proper before bedding town with each other. Hardbitten Buck is about to ride away when the prettiest of the woman comes over and stops him from mounting up on the horse. Where are you going, she says. I was just waiting for you to come and stop me, he answers. Happy ending as the two of them get in line themselves.

One thing I left out is one of the men who sign on with the wagon train. That man is a very short Japanese guy, who acts as Buck's Sancho Panza, helping all the time, cooking, and being sexless. Maybe he was gay, or maybe just a little foreigner. Oh, Cisco – Oh, Pancho! Laugh laugh laugh.

As with many movies, I really don't know why, but I liked it. They made a decent job of it, and even if the characters were stock, they were well enough played so that I liked it.

And then the theme gnawed at me. What was it? What was the familiarity? A perfect valley that Roy made, but he forgot about women? It hit me – sounds like the Bible to me. Now, if Roy had been God, he would just have taken some ribs from the men and made women, but given the western setting, going back East would have to do.

I wondered if the perfidious men to attack the women and the ones who take off were fallen angels.

I wondered if Roy's not making it all the way back, after all those arduous days in the wilderness, but taking satisfaction in the knowledge that the mission would be fulfilled has some Moses in it.

I wondered if the women carrying men's pictures had some predestination in it, and some idea that in the end it's the women who choose, was an idea of popular culture that maybe the scriptwriters shared.

The hostile Indians – I wonder why they were hostile and didn't just welcome this alien culture to their land that was being stolen? – that's pretty standard fare for westerns.

The lining up two by two. Isn't that Noah's Ark?

And as I said, the little Japanese companion, Ito Kentaro, as Sancho Panza.

And then the handsome hard-bitten man gets the prettiest girl – that's movie culture for sure.

Anyway, who knows what was in the writers' minds – besides Frank Capra being responsible for the story, Charles Schnee was the responsible for the screenplay – but maybe mixing up genres is what the clever ones seem to do. Like familiar flavors in new wrappings. Or familiar wrappings with new flavors.

I dunno.


Budd Shenkin

Monday, May 30, 2022

Where Killers Go To Die


I like to get them in a vice.

I really don't have to squeeze,

It's not bad if I do,

I can do it,

I can watch them squirm as I squeeze.

It's not bad to watch,

Especially if their wives watch them,

Not the girl friends,

The girl friends I can take from them,

Distribute them, send them on, watch them scram.

Sometimes the wives like it, and that's even better, really.

I like them all to know who's boss.

They could never squeeze me,

I was never in a vice.

They couldn't.

They were too stupid or too weak,

I was always stronger.

I never shit my pants or pissed myself,

I could always find the lever –

Their wives, their mistresses, their children, their banker.

There was always something,

Sometimes something they wanted,

But usually something they feared.

The walls of the vise threaten to close,

To squeeze.

As you go further to the top,

Deal with the more powerful,

The smarter,

The craftier,

You would think it would get harder,

And maybe it does,

But there is always something,

Something they need,

Or something they fear.

The higher you go, the more they have to lose,

If they've gotten what they want,

They're even more fearful of losing it.

So I squeeze.

Or more commonly, I threaten to squeeze,

And they watch someone else who is squeezed,

And they fear.

The higher the squeeze, the greater the loss,

The more the watchers fear.

Then, I can do anything.

They can't touch me.

I don't go to the hospital, not at first,

I have the hospital come to me.

Why not?

Everything they have, they owe to me.

Without me, we would be just another country.

We would have treaties,

We would take our place with the others,

We would get in line,

We would be disregarded,

We would sink,

We would have nothing,

We would be nothing,

We would be in the vice of others,

We would fear.

We would answer to the bankers,

We would squirm.

Except for me,

And what I've done,

And they know that,

And they know what I can do to them

If they fuck up,

If they don't keep me well,

If they make me weak,

If they don't do their job.

I'm not going to another country.

I've given them everything,

I've taken care of their wives and their children,

And their aging and weak and decrepit and disgusting parents.

I've made them privileged,

I've made the wealthy, some of them,

I've made them what they are,

And I can still break them if I want.

But I won't have to,

Because they love me,

Because they worship me,

Because they don't know what would happen if I died,

Because they don't want to lose me,

Because they want me in charge,

In charge of the vice.

I am not a stupid man,

Far from it.

I beat them all,

For what it's worth.

I know it's all temporary, here on earth,

Free of a future life,

Which these fools believe in, some of them.

And others don't, but act as if they do.

I know that sooner or later,

Things end.

I know the end will come sometime,

And I have prepared for it,

Right here.

I don't need to descend.

I don't need to give up what I have,

I don't need to abase myself,

I don't need to retreat,

I don't need to weaken,

I don't need to surrender,

I don't need to watch those idiots come out from where I put them,

Those who are still alive.

I can call my own shots,

My people can turn the screws for me,

The vice is still there,

And they know it.

I'll stay right here,

And when it's my time,

I'll go quick, right here,

When I choose,

With whom I choose,

How I choose,

But it will be quick,

Maybe a few days, or a couple of weeks,

Let them wonder,

Let them guess.

Then I'll emerge and quash their guesses,

And then disappear again,

And crush somebody,

So they all can see,

And let them wonder.

And when I go,

There will be a parade,

Weapons, troops, lamentations,

And fear.

With him, they will all say, with him,

We were safe.

We were secure.

We had dignity.

We needed him.

It will be the grandest funeral of all time.

But not yet.

I'm still in charge.

I have to take care of some details.

I have to make sure that my people have what I want them to have.

I have to make some adjustments.

But it's not my time yet.

So I'm not going anywhere.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, May 14, 2022

We Were More Than A Contender


The Greeks said – was it the Greeks? – that you can't judge a life until it's over. Well, hers is over. Mine isn't, but hers is. So ours is. Or is it? Actually, I doubt it. I'm still married, it's just that my wife is dead.

“Dead.” That's such a Germanic word. “Passed.” Now, that's Romantic. And I like romantic, but I also like germanic, because it's blunt. But with Ann, I want it to be romantic. Because, after we met and fell in love in 1977, from then on, it was the two of us. We were like two atoms in a molecule, circling each other constantly, drawn together, defining the world in terms of the two of us. So, even though she is dead – that's the bluntness of it, the finality of it – I still see the world in terms of the two of us. The two of us. Even when we fought, even when we were dissatisfied, even when we were frustrated, it was the two of us.

So, I tried to do her justice, now that she's dead, when I gave my speech about her, her eulogy. You can read it and even see and hear it here. Eulogy is all the good stuff, all the praise, the case for her, without ignoring the reality of dilemmas of life, of challenges of life, of ambiguities of life. It's the emphasis and the tone that makes it a eulogy. It can be a trap. You can be led to sugarcoat, which I'm alert to, and maybe inclined toward, so I have to be careful. You can think, what's the harm in looking at the bright side, and who's going to object? The line between optimism and positivity and sugar-coating can be indistinct. I wonder what she would have thought. I don't know. She always surprised me. Her will to independence, especially of thought, was ineffable. It entranced me even as it frustrated me. But not always frustrated. She might have let me get away with thoughts, but she didn't have to agree with me. That was our relationship, back and forth.

So, at least you could say that our marriage has progressed to another stage, because I still carry her inside me, of course I do, because we loved each other and we were close to each other and we revolved around each other for 45 years. Maybe – you who know me well know that I think that virtually everything in life can be illuminated by a sports analogy – maybe we have gone to another season of our marriage, where one member of the team has retired. Their tradition lives on into the new season.

So, I keep remembering us together. I miss her at specific times. When the Supreme Court commits its outrage on Roe v. Wade, on the issue she was so passionate about, I want to share it with her. I want to share the trials and travails and the victories of the Warriors – that was more of my concern, but still, she was a willing participant. I miss her especially then, I want to share it with her, the way we did. Do I get sad that I can't? Yes, some, I do. But then I have an interesting reaction. I feel good about missing her. Every time I miss her, I realize how much I did love her. I did. So my sadness makes me happy.

I look around our house, which it sounds so strange and illegitimate now to call “my house.” It's still our house. I look around at the things we did together, and the things she did by herself. Deciding on making the old disused dining room into a TV room and buying everything in it together, or at least the couch and chairs and cadenza that the TV rests on. The tables she bought by herself, and the rug. We did well together, but she could do quite well by herself. It's us. I miss her, but it's good to have the stuff that was ours, that is ours. I like the memories, mixed with sadness, but that sadness makes me happy.

So then I think, maybe ultimate judgement is for others, but on the other hand, no one knows it intimately the way I do. So I can take my crack at it. What do I think?

Basically, I think we did it. We went the full distance, almost 45 years. We could have bailed. We could have been irreconcilable, we could have failed to put in the effort, we could have surrendered, we could have stopped working on it, we could have kept our distance, we could have undercut one another, we could have been bitter, we could have failed. We could have stopped caring. I could have resented her illness and taken advantage. So many things could have happened. We could have come apart. But we didn't.

We stayed together. In every sense of the word. We kept getting closer. We revolved around each other. We overcame the obstacles to be a functional pair, always improving. We stayed together spiritually. That's really the essence of it. We cared, and we helped.

One time a few years ago, before the pandemic, we were coming back home from Hawaii, arriving at OAK on the Hawaiian Airlines flight that gets in at about 8 PM. We grabbed a cab and were headed home. After 10 minutes of so, the cabby glanced at us and said, “Pardon me for asking, but how long have you guys been married?”

“I guess about 38 years now,” I answered. “Why?”

“Well,” said the cabby, “You know I get all kinds of people here, and I've never heard a couple speak so tenderly to each other. You wouldn't believe what I hear! People really tear each other up! But you guys are so tender.”

Me, I was unaware of it, I just thought we were doing what we usually do. But this cabby had a large store of experience. A wise cabby knows the score.

So what I think is this: we had a championship season that lasted 45 years. No “could have.” We did it. We had a championship season. We went the distance.

Budd Shenkin

Wednesday, April 27, 2022