Monthly Archives: December 2011

Classic Film Review for SevenPonds: It’s A Wonderful Life

Sometimes It Takes Perspective to See the Beauty of Life

Sometimes life can be a hard slog, full of struggles and losses and triumphs and fleeting periods of happiness. Meaning is elusive, and sometimes our impact on others can seem as negative as it is positive. And, of course, our lives are finite. They began and they will end, and these bookends will inevitably force all of us, at one time or another, to wonder at our worth, at what we once sought to accomplish, and at what more we have left to do. During the holidays and the New Year, many of us find ourselves thinking about what we’ve accomplished, or haven’t over the past year. Maybe that’s why It’s a Wonderful Life, with its stirring, and at once dark and uplifting assessment of one man’s refreshed perspective on his own life, has become so enduring a holiday favorite.

The plot is probably familiar to many of us, but I will summarize anyway: the altruistic, all-American hero George Bailey, played by James Stewart, despairs when his family’s Building & Loan business faces bankruptcy, and he himself faces personal humiliation at the hands of his arch-nemesis, the evil, profiteering fat cat Mr. Potter. Bailey’s thoughts quickly turn dark, and he finds himself contemplating suicide, reasoning that his loved ones might have been better off had he never been around in the first place: His wife might have married their wealthier friend Sam Wainwright, his depositors might not have parked their cash in a failed firm, and he would not have become a disappointment to his parents. He stares down at the dark water under the bridge, and seems so very close to taking the plunge.

But then he receives an unexpected blessing: perspective. His guardian angel, Clarence, drops from the sky to prevent him, and to convince him not to give up hope. To do so, he calls Bailey’s bluff: he shows him what the world would have been like had he never lived in it — in essence, he shows him his life’s meaning. The sequence is something like a lucid dream. Because most of the movie deals with Bailey’s battles with the exploitative Potter, much of the dream sequence deals with the grim consequences of Potter’s take-over had Bailey never been there to stop him — a town fallen into moral decay and given over to casinos and strip joints. But there is also a wealth of smaller moments, personal lives that Bailey touched. When he was a child, his first boss made a potentially fatal oversight, and had Bailey never been under his employ to catch it, than the man would have ended up as the town wino, sorry and derided. Bailey’s mother, without George and without his brother Harry, whose life George saved during a sledding accident when they were younger, is tough and bitter and lets her house out to lodgers to make ends meet. Bailey’s wife is not happy at all without him. She’s become, as Clarence says, “an old maid.” Apparently Bailey was the love of her life after all.

Of course we can indulge in the sentimentality, because that is part of the point. And by the end of it George is practically begging Clarence to return him to the real world, to his real life. And when he does come back, he finds how appreciated he truly is, by his family and the entire town, and when he runs through Bedford Falls calling out “Merry Christmas!” the viewer would be hard-pressed to think of another character in film, or person in real life, who could possibly mean those words more.

[This post originally appeared on SevenPonds.com, and cannot be reproduced without permission]

Reading Manuscripts at MacAdam/Cage, and Discovering Peter Rushforth

For the last few months, one day a week, I’ve been reading manuscript submissions at a small publishing house in San Francisco called MacAdam/Cage. It’s extraordinarily interesting work: I witness the inner workings of a publishing company, I get an inside look at my competition, and I get an idea of what it’s like being an overworked manuscript reader (just to keep it short, let me say that it’s probably really hard to do that work full time and not become a total douche to the aspiring author masses, some of whom are brilliant, some of whom… well, ‘nuff said. Pointer: If they ask for it in their submission guidelines, include a damn SASE!)

For me, perhaps my the best part of the job is getting exposure to books on MacAdam/Cage’s backlist that I might never have read otherwise (free copies, woot woot!). A lot of them are pretty damn good. Their most famous is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, but you might have heard of Ronald Everett Capps’ Off Magazine Street (adapted for the screen into A Love Song for Bobby Long, starring John Travolta and Scarlet Johannson), or perhaps of the Southern Gothic William Gay, whose perversely twisted characters and brutal, apocalyptic landscapes make Cormac McCarthy look like Dr. Seuss.

This is a real value to me, because it’s hard to find good books that you haven’t heard of before. Where do you start? It’s easy to grow tired of the stale classics, with their dated diction and tired references. Where do you go for good, raw, contemporary authors? What about books published in years past that went out of print, of which there are innumerable thousands, destined to waste away on a finite number of bookshelves, to be transported and sold and re-sold and recycled, disintegrating into a progressive state of disrepair until that final fateful backpacking trip when it succumbs to the brutalities of overpacking or accidental soaking.

If it hadn’t been for MacAdam/Cage, such would have been the fate of the works of Peter Rushforth. Born and raised in Leeds, England, Rushforth published his first book, Kindergarten, in 1975, a dark and twisted look at the legacy of the holocaust amongst European Jews. The book was critically acclaimed, but, perhaps because Rushforth failed to produce a follow-up, it fell out of print, and Rushforth fell into obscurity. He didn’t start writing again until the ‘90s, when he embarked on a sprawling, eccentric, over-stuffed five-book series concerning a dysfunctional family of wealthy Victorian-era New Yorkers. The first of the series, Pinkerton’s Sister, is a rich and claustrophobic exploration of the extraordinarily interesting mind of one Alice Pinkerton, a spinster left alone in their townhouse after the death of her mother, the suicide of her father, and the flight of her siblings. With its stream of consciousness narrative, and its ultimately sweeping depiction of late nineteenth century society through the eyes of this truly unique character, it has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, and rightly so. It is a noble and fascinating effort. And yet who, in our age of superficiality, would ever want to read it? 750 challenging pages of literary references and unreliable narration, chock full of elusions to authors long since dead and to Shakespeare and Melville and Proust — not exactly an easy sell. And, if we’re going by the next, and, sadly, final in the series, A Dead Language, Rushforth intended that all the rest would continue in the same vein (he died of a heart attack at the age of 60, just before starting work on the third novel).

How could anyone decide to write such a thing? What a daunting task. Who would ever read it? Who would ever pay for it? While, for my money, Pinkerton’s Sister was the better of the two, and it too of course is not perfect, what a breath of fresh air that that golden American ideal, marketability, apparently, was besides the point. Publishing books like this, challenging, valuable, and original, is a service to culture and to the literary world that is growing increasingly uncommon. If this does not signify a culture in decline, I’m not sure what does. Because who knows, maybe in the end these are the books that will have the true staying power. After all, even though millions of people may read the latest by John Grisham or Stephen King, ten years from now, how many are actually going to remember it? I guarantee, if you read any of Rushforth’s books, difficult and sometimes exasperating as the experience may be, you’ll have no choice but to remember it

Obama’s Latest Campaign, a Tentative Sign that Occupy Is Working

Obama Takes Populism to Middle America

President Obama’s recent speech at a small town Kansas high school was probably specially intended to stir discussion. With his focus on inequality as “the defining issue of the time,” the speech was largely in line with the President’s recent rhetorical shift towards populism and relative leftism. It seems that Obama is taking a stand. He is done attempting some elusive concept of “centrism.” Done talking about reaching out to Republicans who can’t resist calling him a socialist no matter what he does. Obama has finally accepted that meeting them half way is a lost cause. Congratulations. Better late than never. Is it coincidence that his re-election bid is less than one year away? I think not. If we are to judge by comparing his pre- and post-election levels of support, the man is a far better campaigner than legislator. This speech is probably the latest evidence of such.

President Obama has a knack for saying one thing and doing another. In my opinion, this is why he has so perfected the art of pissing everyone off. While his Administration has been, in terms of policy, one of the most business friendly of the modern era, his consistently anti-“Big Business,” Pelosi-esque rhetoric has convinced sensitive CEO’s everywhere that he is the devil incarnate. His healthcare plan, pitched as a strike against the corporate monopolization of medicine, will probably end up most benefiting the pharmaceutical and insurance companies he so derided. If Obama actually follows his Osawatomie speech with a shift in policy, un-prodded, I will be surprised.

But then again, none of us should expect otherwise. Of course he is a political animal. You can’t spell “politician” without “politics.” And yet, for those of you who agree with the message, or at least sentiment, of the Occupy Movement, Obama’s latest talking points are probably justification for encouragement. The latest evidence that we have in fact “changed the conversation.” Still, I let out a short groan when Democrats released their latest offer to Congressional Republicans concerning the Payroll Tax and extended UI Benefits, proposing to pay for these vital programs with a tax increase on those earning more than $1,000,000 a year. Because it would be fantastic indeed if the Republicans went along with this. If nothing else, the Democrats now feel empowered to play the Republicans at their own game, that is, holding a gun on the rest of us, and daring their counterparts to let them pull the trigger. If the agreement doesn’t pass, as I’m becoming increasingly sure that it won’t, the Republicans may well hold the blame in the long run. But in the short run, millions of people will suffer. A perfect example of a political system that has become absolutely incapable of addressing the needs of its citizens. How did we go so wrong? What hope is there going forward?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s the Occupy Movement. You can now add the President to the list of people who believe that we are having an effect. And while he may not be the most astute observer of the national mentality, he is most certainly an important one. This is a terrible time for everyone, politicians included. No matter what we do, things probably aren’t going to get any better for some years yet. We should take these latest developments for what they are: evidence that Occupiers do indeed have people’s attention. Now that the camps are gone, this is our chance to use it. It’s time to move on, and take direct action against those issues that affect Americans everywhere, even in the red states. Things like the foreclosure crisis, student loan debt, and runaway healthcare costs. Instances of recurring pain at its most absurd. Because the politicians like Obama, who may well sympathize, in that well-protected chamber deep down in their hearts, will perhaps find it increasingly difficult to justify their sanctioning of heavy-handed police crackdowns based on an out-dated faith in law and order. Perhaps, then, right downs of mortgages, taxes on the wealthy, re-regulation of big banks, and investment in infrastructure, will enter into consideration. Perhaps we a new New Deal may seem less fantastic. Obama could yet be the FDR of the 21st Century if we force him to it. But we have to force him to it. So far, the polling booth hasn’t worked. The traditional avenues haven’t worked. Sadly, Occupying may now be our best, and indeed our only alternative.

Analysis of Obama’s Speech

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Occupy Oakland and Foreclosure Defense: Canvassing West Oakland

Foreclosure Defense in Sarasota, FL in May of 2010

We met for the first time about two weeks ago, the Foreclosure Defense Committee, in a member’s apartment on 35th street. There wasn’t enough furniture, so we sat on the floor. We heard a training presentation from a representative of ACCE, the Association for California Community Empowerment, about the legalities of re-entering foreclosed homes, about non-violent resistance and what it means to be standing your ground when the sheriffs show up. We rationally discussed illegal things in legal terms. ACCE has been doing this kind of thing for a while. They know what they’re doing. They know what they’re talking about. Professional activists, whose cause is suddenly mainstream, or at least closer than it ever has been before. This is the real thing. This is a real fight. It’s fucking electrifying, scary and invigorating. No one’s playing around here. People’s lives are going to be changed. And, if we are successful, it will be for the better

Today, we went out into the community, that clichéd place of which many of us would have to be reminded we are in fact a part, to canvass for support. I was so glad to discover that even despite all that had happened downtown, it seems that Oakland hasn’t given up on us.

Occupy has identified its first distressed homeowner. I can’t divulge her name or address, because that is to be done on Tuesday during a rally at DeFremery Park, when the home will be re-taken. We have identified the neighborhood of focus. West Oakland, South of Ghost Town and West of the freeway, a mostly well-kept grid of bungalo apartments interspersed with huge and shockingly beautiful Victorians. We met at DeFremery Park, and split up into teams of two bearing talking points, clip-boards, and sign-up sheets. Our mission: to enlist neighborhood residents for text and e-mail alerts about Foreclosure Defense actions in the area and updates on the status of the homeowner, in the hope of drawing them into our cause. Sort of a meet and greet from Occupy to the average folk.

And I’m so glad to say that our reception was a warm one. We knocked on maybe 15 doors, and we got 10 individuals signed up. Only one person slammed the door in our face, and only two apartments refused to open them. Everyone else at the very least spoke to us. While not everyone agreed, and, understandably, not everyone was keen on giving us their contact info, everyone listened and engaged in discussion. I felt no hostility, from anyone (the front wheel of my teammate’s bike got stolen, but I’m not sure that that counts). One man engaged us in a minutes-long discussion on tactics and philosophy. He told us that he had been through a foreclosure himself a few years back, and had managed to get the banks to write down the principle, and while the details seemed a bit hazy, he said that his training as a foreclosure lawyer certainly helped. I bet. He wasn’t convinced that Occupy’s strategy would work. However, it already has, in L.A., Minneapolis, and Atlanta to name a few. Much depends on the homeowner, their willingness to endure a media circus, and the potentially lengthy presence of a large number of unfamiliar Occupiers. But people have been having these fights for years, and if this is the first step in the next phase of Occupy, I think it will be a major one, because if there’s one thing that Occupy has proven it can provide, is numbers. And that’s all it takes.

Now that the camps are gone, I think this is just about the most natural extension of the movement there is. There is nothing negative about this. No squalid tent camps. No opportunity for violence or vandalism except on the part of the police. Mayors and police departments around the country will have to subject themselves to forcibly removing families from their homes, so that a house in an already crumbling community can lie vacant until the buyers come back, so that the banks who largely got us into this mess in the first place, and made off so handsomely since, can preserve the sanctity of their balance sheets. I just can’t imagine that this will be an argument to stand on.

The last person we spoke to was a middle-aged man in a house on Myrtle Street. He spoke to us from behind a screen door, and when we told him about the woman only a few blocks away who had enlisted Occupy Oakland in re-taking her home, he quietly told us that he really did appreciate our work, and, that he might need the same kind of help himself. Of course, this is exactly what we’d been hoping to hear. I gave him the Foreclosure Defense Committee’s e-mail address (oohousingnetwork@gmail.com), and when I returned to the de-briefing, I pointed out his name on the list. The ACCE people noted him down with interest.

Occupy is far from over. In fact, dare I say, it might just be beginning. All it takes is 30 people, per foreclosed home, who are willing to stand their ground. And imagine the difference that can make. Would Mayor Quan really be willing to face them down? Would Obama? Hopefully, and in my opinion, probably, time will tell.

Welcome to an Aspiring Author Website

Hello everyone,

So, because I am trying to get my novel published, and because I am hopelessly behind on the times, I figured it was high time I started a blog, or at least an online portfolio. Somewhere I can compile my work for ideal convenience and accessibility. This way I don’t feel that all that time and effort writing those miscellaneous articles and anecdotes for miscellaneous jobs and websites goes to waste. This way, all of Antal Polony’s works can be found in one handy website, and, in most cases, I’ve decided to make them pages, as well as posts, so it’s even easier. And besides, drop down menus automatically make every site look cooler. I’ll call it an “Aspiring Author Website,” because at this point “Author Website” would still be unfortunately presumptuous.

If you are interested in reading some or all of my novel, you can start with some, and locate it in the column that says “Inheritance, a Novel.” Contact me if you want to read more. Under “Outside Posts,” you’ll find the pieces I wrote for other websites, and you can also find below an excerpt from a personal essay I wrote a while back entitled “The Art of Cigar Smoking.” The complete text of another essay I wrote about Occupy Oakland (about two and a half weeks old now at this point, and thusly horribly out of date) is immediately below. I will add more posts/pages as I write them. Right now I’m working on a short story, and I believe I’m gonna write short posts about books I’m reading just to fill the pages. Probably they’ll go on my Facebook page too. It’s high time I decided not to bashful about my chosen profession. And besides, everyone else is doing it.

So, if anyone out there is reading this, thanks for reading. If not, than at least it’s practice.

Happy writing, and wish me luck.

Antal

 

antal.polony[at]gmail.com

The Art of Cigar Smoking

There is an art to cigar-smoking. Perhaps not a fine art, but an art nonetheless. A learned activity at which one can always improve. An expression of refinement, with its own self-sustaining world of connoisseurs, opinions, styles, and products, inaccessible and pretentious to outsiders, repugnant to those overly concerned with hygiene. It is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional world that the amateur observer, no matter how curious or intuitive of mind, simply won’t understand.

First of all there is the quality of the cigar. These are more than fist-fulls of tobacco wrapped in a brown-colored leaf. Cigars are cultivated and crafted with care in a variety of locales and a variety of styles, analogous to wine. Also like wine, cigars command a certain aristocratic respect. A person sees a man, because it is usually a man, smoking a cigar, and the observer will instantly experience a slight sensation of inferiority. The man with the cigar is proud. He is making a statement: “I am smoking this cigar,” he says. “I know its smell is pungent, I know its ash is considerable and requires accommodation, I know I will bear the residue of this cigar long after I have finished smoking it, as will the place I have chosen in which to do so. I know some people find it abhorrent. I know this. But I’ve decided to smoke it anyway. And you know what? This cigar is already lit. So the rest of you will just have to deal with it.”

Further conclusions about the smoker’s character can be drawn, and very likely will be, following closer observation. And a qualitative deduction of this kind, while certainly carrying the risk of intensifying the observers’ feeling of inferiority, carries with it an equal risk of backfire for the smoker. Because the observer will try to take in the whole breadth of the cigar-smoker’s statement: his choice of smoking place, his manner in so doing, the expression on his face, how self-consciously he seems to cultivate the almost contrived image he presents.

For instance, picture a quay at sunset; perhaps you’re taking a stroll with your significant other. There are benches on this quay overlooking a modest harbor docked with sail boats and dotted with father-son fishing teams. The boardwalk is lined with romantic restaurants and trendy storefronts. It is a public place, but it is a warm and intimate one. There is a fairly diverse array of quay-side patrons. It’s the meaty part of the evening, when the sunset is about three-quarters complete and the sky is at its most colorful.

You and your significant other are strolling down this boardwalk, enjoying simply the comfort of the familiar, becoming a part of the wholesome and relatable interactions going on all around you. You and your partner are at peace, and maybe you put your arm around your partner’s shoulder, draw them in closer, and they lay their head down near the crook of your neck in response. You share a silent smile.

And then, a short distance ahead, you see the cigar-smoker. He has chosen one of these benches for his own, and he stands out unavoidably. Sitting markedly erect, as it can be hard to smoke a cigar and recline at the same time, he seems to be staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. You don’t notice the cigar yet, but when you do see it the irritating object only further confirms your initial impression.

Most likely it is a middle aged man. Most definitely a solitary man. He’s wearing a coat and jeans, probably understated-yet-fashionable, and the expression on his face is of such intense distance and concentration that you very nearly laugh out loud. For a moment you forget the body that you are holding to you. Hate clouds your vision. You glower at the cigar-smoker, and as you draw closer you develop a small plan to disrupt his attention and invade his protective cloud of cigar-smoke. As you and your significant other pass him, you cast him a look and you sneer: “I don’t care that you’re smoking a cigar,” you try to tell him. “I could be smoking a cigar too but I have more important things to do. See, I have a girlfriend. What do I need a cigar for? Foul-smelling thing. You know they cause gum disease, don’t you?”

Once you’ve passed him you probably don’t look over your shoulder. That would be too obvious, and your significant other might become irritated at your divided attention. But you still can’t resist just one lightning quick glance to make sure that he got your message. Indeed, it seems that he has. His imperturbable seriousness has been perturbed. He is looking after you with an irate degree of envy, and he quickly looks away, the smoldering dark brown appendage sticking up out of one hand like a demolished chimney. You continue on, gratified. Behind you the cigar-smoker adjusts his posture and takes a few hasty, disconsolate puffs.

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