Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Marlene Dietrich's piano bar for Obama

This is a story of how a piano bar in semi-rural Connecticut became an editorial about the first African-American U.S. president in the best black-owned newspaper in the United States, which happens to be based in St. Louis.

I used to cover Connecticut for The New York Times. Yeah, I know, as bragging rights that might sound like I was (pick your stereotype) the funniest German or the most svelte Sumo wrestler. But stereotypes suck, Connecticut is actually cool, and I loved that beat until my sister got sick with cancer and I moved home to St. Louis to bear witness to her death.

I did a story for The Times about Dolph Traymon, this lovely old guy who used to play for Sinatra and was playing out his late years running a piano bar in Kent. Dolph liked my story. Profiling someone respectfully in The New York Times kind of makes you a friend for life.

He invited me to an anniversary of his piano bar. I decided to go, alone. I knew he would be the only person I would know there, and that he would be the life of the party. I didn't expect much of his company, so I brought with me some work.

I was working, at the time, on a book of cotranslations of Orhan Veli, a giant of modern Turkish poetry. I understand that sounds even less cool than Connecticut, but it's even more cool than Connecticut, which, as I have said, is cool.

I was working on a translation of Orhan Veli's last poem, which was found at the time of his death wrapped around his toothbrush. He had titled it "Love Parade," because it's basically a list of his lovers in vignette form, but I thought we should freely translate the title in context. I wrote, "Love Poem Found Wrapped Around the Dead Poet's Toothbrush."

Suddenly, I found a tall man bending down, observing my work. I looked up at him. He introduced himself - in a stylish way, with no pretention whatsoever - as a literary agent. He offered me a business card. He said, "I like that phrase - 'Love Poem Found Wrapped Around the Dead Poet's Toothbrush' - and if you can write a good phrase, you can write a good book. Call me."

His business card said: "Peter Riva." I followed up with him. I sent him manuscripts. He liked some of them. We signed some contracts. He has tried hard to sell them. He has not yet succeeded in selling any of them. No hard feelings. It's an odd and changing market, and I'm a hard sell.

Turns out Peter is a writer, too. He writes a regular column for his local paper in the Hudson Valley. He added me to his email list. I keep up with his columns, about as well as any of us keep up with anything, anymore. I did read his most recent column over the email transom, about easing up on our expectations of President-elect Barack Obama.

I liked it. I sent it on to a few friends. One was Donald M. Suggs, publisher of The St. Louis American, which I edit. I noted that the author was my agent back in New York - who happens to be Marlene Dietrich's grandson - and that I thought he had important things to say.

Yesterday was our deadline day at the newspaper. The editorial is one of the last things we do. It's usually a collaboration between Suggs and myself. We usually have a plan before Wednesday, but not this week. I stopped Suggs in mid-morning yesterday and asked him what he thought we should do.

He said, "I liked that thing you sent me from your agent friend in New York. That should be it."

"Works for me," I said.

I had plenty of my own thoughts on that subject. You can read them in The St. Louis American. Here were Peter Riva's thoughts:


The Honeymoon Is Already Almost Over

When you carry the hopes and dreams of so many, here and overseas, when the needs and demands of the nation are so overwhelming, and when the knives of the desperately disappointed are being sharpened in the wings, the pressure to succeed, to show progress, to actually have physical achievements instead of words – well it all forms into a desperation and work load that can cripple any normal man or even an overachiever like the President Elect.
Presidents normally have a 100-day honeymoon after they are sworn in. This is a time when errors are forgiven and the learning process of the office requires that the media and we cut him some slack, allow for teething problems, and, basically, observe how he settles into the hardest job on earth. Not this time our needs and hopes are riding too high. By the time he takes the oath of office, the President Elect will have used up all his media freebees, and we, the public, already waiting for the miracle to start and for him to fix all things wrong - Washington especially – well, we are ready to expect more, much more, much sooner, than possible.

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do to show support is to start to live with the disappointment of our dreams right now. Make our hopes more realistic and timely. Back off on expectations of overnight changes. Get real.

Carrying a beat-up, bulging, briefcase, we see him moving determinedly from a vehicle to office and back, from a government building to a black SUV. The smile is already absent until someone shouts something, then he wakes from his thoughts and smiles his answer. The man is still there, but he’s cramming, memorizing some of the nastiest and most complex national security information any President has ever had to learn and understand. Then there are the financial woes, the names of over 1,000 key players and their financial institutions, the Fed’s fiscal policies and the Treasury’s evaluations. Next, there’s the energy criteria, the Dept. of Transportation evaluation, the Dept. of Education recommendations, the Military assessment, Gen. Patraeus’s Afghanistan report, NOAA’s climate review… and to top all that off, there is the Dept. of Commerce’s assessment of the NAFTA and WTO. Oh, almost forgot - the State Dept.’s assessment of 165 countries in which there are currently 12 countries at virtual war and an additional 8 with national civil disputes with violence.

Any one of these topics would take a year of serious study by a PhD to comprehend. Our President Elect has 75 days. Like the Astronauts preparing for spaceflight, a man comes into their office on Monday with a handcart with 4 feet of paper – 1 week’s paper to learn and integrate with everything else you’ve learned; week after week, the paper keeps coming for months on end. These men are super-human, at least super-humanly capable compared to the normal day-to-day lives we lead. And then we ladle our expectations on top of that. We want him to be ‘one of the guys.’ We want him to protect us, shield us. We want him to anticipate, almost to the point of clairvoyance. Above all, we want him to be stalwart, above the fray, authoritative, presidential.

The point is, we expect too much. We’ll be disappointed in anyone who takes the job if we cling to unrealistic expectations. Let’s tone it down, let him have some slack and then, hopefully, be pleasantly surprised at the outcome. Pity the man of normal intellect coping (or failing to cope) with all this.

Meanwhile, who’s going to control the media?

You can. Stop watching if they start hammering away. Show some civic and American pride for the office of the president. If you give him and his team time, they will have to back-peddle when the viewing numbers drop and they sell less cornflakes. And remember, always, that the most popular Nielsen-rated broadcast media in this country is right-wing media when calculated in viewer/listener minutes by almost 2 to 1. CNN bragged about their double-record audience of 16 million on election night. Limbaugh has that many every day. What, you thought they paid him $500 million because he wasn’t the most popular media program? He and his ilk are the majority media in this country.

So when you hear anyone generalizing about the “liberal media,” make sure they know they are talking about the minority wing when it comes to TV and radio. We can’t expect shock-talkers to stop, they have their cornflakes to sell and a fervid audience to feed. But we can ask for balance from those news’ outlets we trust, get them to be realistic in their expectations, not add fuel to opponents’ critical bonfire to come. To do that we have to adjust our own expectations and ask our friends and neighbors to do the same.

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