Monday, July 16, 2018

Tech, High and Low

The future has already arrived, I’m told. The past is not even past, so says Faulkner. I’ll take his word for it. Give me a break. It’s getting too crowded to live in the moment. As a mid-octogenarian I’m still reviewing my life and figuring out how I got to this page in my saga. Or more currently still asking, what just happened after the defeat of Hilary 591 days ago.

There is something about sci-fi or whatever names apply to that genre of cautionary tales about runaway technology which numb my brain. It’s the great what if and to be sure much of artificial intelligence is already with us. When Orwell wrote 1984 he was really addressing what he saw in 1948. Momentous change arrives on cat’s feet through the back door while I’m in a rocking chair on the front porch.

I bought shoes last month and can’t figure out what to do with those 54 inch laces. I trip over the excess aglets going into the eyelet or else buy a toggle. It probably took me eleven years to learn how to tie my shoes and I refuse to yield to the new technology. I’m getting nostalgic for those good old days when our mothers took us to the shoe store and we were treated to a dose of cancer-causing fluorescence to see our toes wiggle.

I don’t particularly like quinoa or kelp. Whatever happened to lettuce and romaine? Not good enough for you? When I call any large corporation I always hit zero in order to speak to a human being. It’s no fun arguing with a recording. But I understand that Google has now simulated the human voice with all our stammers and pauses to make us think we are talking to one of our fellow species.

I’m the guy who still gets the newspaper delivered. Here it comes now. I also watch T.V. by candlelight. Love those eternal verities.

I know it’s a losing battle. Even indefensible. I suppose there were folks like me resisting the innovation of lawn mowers. That led to the removal of grazing goats and assorted quadrupeds to trim the front grass…which in turn led to more social calls and then to tea servers and even costume jewelry worn by the hostess and who knows what else. I was born too late.

It’s hard enough getting through the day with all those apps plotting an uprising any minute provoked by a restless algorithm. Must I also read books and watch movies about soulless robots and clones? I find it too strenuous transporting my aged brain to dystopian precincts. Trump has already driven us to the edge of the apocalypse in a driverless chariot. If Donald is the future I want out of this comic book. Can I click and delete him? Where did I park my space ship? If that doesn’t work I’ll settle for a time-travel machine set in reverse, destination unknown.   

Monday, July 9, 2018

Flag and Country

My earliest memory of the flag is probably pledging allegiance to it in the 3rd or 4th grade. Of course, I had no idea what allegiance meant or who Richard Stands was either. Nor did I understand why our nation was invisible. I figured it was a good thing to be invisible so the Nazis couldn’t find us on a map and bomb us. It wasn’t till we learned long division that I got the concept of being indivisible. It’s a good word; one of those that no longer applies.  

Today we are very divisible. Not only in half but more like in thirds. In the 2016 election the largest fraction were the None of the Above party numbering 94.2 million eligible voters. We have become a country of no-shows. Then came the Democrats (65.8 million) and the smallest number went to the winners (62.9 million). Try explaining that to the kids in third grade.

The 4th of July brings out flags displayed in windows, on fences and poles to say nothing of mattress ads, holiday buying sprees and assorted block buster sales events. It’s the American way. Nothing is more patriotic than consuming.

Flag-waving is so pervasive it isn’t usually seen as the political act that it is. Like a bumper sticker or tattoo the flag is an advertisement, an identity. It has become the great signifier of the Republican Party. The word Patriotism seems to belong to those who watch Fox News because it connotes might and blind loyalty and never dissent. Just as the Confederate flag enraged Blacks in particular and Liberals in general the U.S. flag is rapidly reaching that powerful a symbol. Enormous flags are unfurled at opening day baseball games as well as professional football games along with planes buzzing the stadium and a military presence. It is a statement which says that the sport is allied with flag and country; that is to say, Power and Law Enforcement.

And then comes the National Anthem. The announcers are White. The owners are White. Those of us watching on T.V. are mostly White. The coaches mostly White. The players predominately Black. How to make a countervailing statement with a national platform? How else to protest but to take a knee? No disrespect to uniformed men in the armed service. No flag burning. Not even an arm raised as in the 1968 Olympic Games. Just a knee before 15 million viewers to remind us of a culture of police shootings of unarmed people of color, to remind us that the extravaganza of White dominance has an answering voice. One political act warrants another.

Response to the courage of Black athletes demanding to be heard has largely been outrage by sports writers and commentators. These are the same people who know nothing about the daily indignities and existential threats endured by the Black population. Just play the game, they say. Don’t bring politics into sports, they proclaim as if they haven’t already done so for years. The few football players who have knelt in solidarity have risked millions. 70% of the teams are Black. There would be no National Football League without Black players. Three out of every four players in basketball (NBA) are Black. There is a rich heritage of Black athletes speaking out from Paul Robeson to Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to LeBron James though the silence of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan is deafening.

The legacy of Robinson has been kept alive by the persistence of his wife, Rachel Robinson. She has been an equal hero for the past fifty years. However he is usually celebrated for his constraint on the playing field rather than his militancy. This is White society’s fantasy. It should be noted that Robinson, in his final years, DID NOT STAND for the national anthem.

The Pledge has more going for it than the Anthem. The latter is star-spangled bombast. The former has references closer to the Constitution in all its allusions to equality and justice. It was written by the socialist, Francis Bellamy. Maybe if Woody Guthrie’s, This Land Is Your Land, replaced Francis Scott Key’s drinking song it would bring the country closer together to what we might truly call, indivisible.

For further reading on the subject I recommend, Howard Bryant’s new book, Heritage, published by Beacon Press.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Loving Trump

Now that I have your attention…………….

I seem to remember how the poet Allen Ginsberg suggested we learn to love Ronald Reagan or, at least, find the Reagan inside ourselves and embrace him. Ginsberg led a poetry group at Naropa Institute in the mid-eighties in which everyone was asked to finish the poem with an opening line, I’m going to vote for Ronald Reagan because……………. My underwear is on backwards, said one student. Because my pen is running out of ink, said another …or because a squirrel came into my room yesterday.

Sorry, Allen none of these work for me.

I imagine Ginsberg, ever the Buddhist, would preach the same message today. However reaching for our interior Trump might require many hours of chanting to the wall in a loin cloth while inhaling massive doses of some intoxicating incense. We would also need a Bodhi tree and a new set of gongs. It strikes me as the ultimate alchemical transmogrification perhaps even too much for the Dalai Lama.

I wonder if Ginsberg thought Hitler was also lovable. True, Adolph did a great impersonation of Charlie Chaplin. A psychotherapist might praise him for not repressing his aggressive impulses. Go ahead, Adolph, get it all out. He appreciated Wagnerian operas and was said to be a fair painter. Perhaps all he needed was an affirmation here and there.

Coming back to Trump, first I must buy a red tie and get a total make-over on my scalp topped with a red cap. Now, under deep drug-induced narcosis I can seek out this shadow side of myself.

Here I am in kindergarten knocking over some kid’s blocks. I wouldn’t put it past me. Maybe I thought he stole my milk money.

Now I’m reusing an un-cancelled stamp and parlaying that three cents into a shopping mall and hotel where I act as a slumlord evicting poor families. Of course the property I buy is on the Atlantic City Boardwalk …but that was all in a Monopoly board game where I found my true habitat between Baltic and Mediterranean. Yes, I love you for that, Donald, revealing the primordial greed and avarice to myself.

Here’s another instance of my inner-Trump. I, too, colluded with Russians. Well, not really Russians. But Soviet apologists who turned a blind eye to Stalin’s megalomania during the early years of the Cold War. So vehement was I against U.S. support of assorted tyrants, military dictatorships and colonial repression. I join with you, Donald, as a selective isolationist. I even made the headline of the Daily Worker which no doubt got me a place in J. Edgar Hoover’s filing cabinet. Now look at me bragging about it. 

And yes, I probably insulted some ball players during the game. Call it trash talk. Call it the heat of competition. But it was all from the couch yelling at the T.V. set. Thank you, Donald, for legitimatizing my infantilism.

Is that enough? I feel myself coming back from the slime of my reptilian brain. Now I must take a very hot shower. Is it really fair to presume that we all have particles of Trump DNA infecting our soul? And if so must we descend to our own underworld and learn to love it? No, but perhaps it is useful to own it as a cautionary note … and then mature, grow up, gain some measure of enlightenment and compassion.

It’s too easy to demonize Trump as if he’s a visitor from outer space. The truth is he displays an aggregate of ignorance, arrogance, mendacity and malice, rarely seen in one individual, particularly in a public official. But all human deficiencies we’ve either disowned or outgrown.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Now Hear This

Peggy got hers from her late ex-husband, Sam, and now that’s being replaced by the generosity of M... who got his from a friend who died three years ago. This is no small gift. We’re talking about $7,000 hearing aids. For a mere $250 our audiologist has reset the instrument and provides new ear molds.

And why not? The damn thing is probably the most over-priced gadget in the history of over-priced gadgets. Yes, I’m sure world-class technology has gone into miniaturizing and fine-tuning them according to an individual’s frequency and decibel loss but once that mountain had been climbed there is little to justify such an enormous mark-up….even given the follow-up visits for adjustments.  

I suppose a hearing-aid dealer would argue that thousands of dollars of expertise goes into each instrument in addition to years of education in the creation of these state-of-the-art hearing aids. And considering the life-altering change it is a reasonable value. Furthermore that one cannot simply add the cost of material to determine the true worth. By the same reasoning a Reuben sandwich probably contains about 11 cents worth of ingredients and sells for approximately $15.

That argument falls upon my deaf ears. I still believe they are taking advantage of us old folks who in our eight or nine decades let in too much punk rock or Pavarotti. Pharmacists, having endured five or six years of higher education and licensing exams, dispense life-saving medications plus consultations for a fee set by insurance companies of five or ten dollars. When I arrived in California in the mid 1950s you could buy a house for today's price of a hearing aid. 

I wonder if Martha Washington passed along George’s old teeth or did the termites make a meal of them first. We’ll never know. But it’s a good idea to cozy up to Uncle Abner in his twilight years. It wouldn’t hurt to laugh at those jokes he’s told for the past forty years…even if you no longer can hear them as you wait for him to check out and stake your claim to his old trumpets.

It might be time to summon the lawyers to re-write the will. To my good-for-nothing son, Clive, I leave the heavily mortgaged manor house. To Marigold I bequeath my Lamborghini which no longer runs. And to Neville I hereby pass along my hearing aids.

On the other hand, with all the lies emanating from high places, maybe an irremediable hearing loss is the preferred state. I understand the new Blue Tooth bilateral devices come with an on and off switch to save us from the moral violence in the air.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

What Thank You Brings

No Worries, she said when I requested a booth. And NoWorries again with bread for the table. I never suggested she had anything to worry about or even a cause for concern. A final, NoWorries, when I asked for a napkin and then the check. I’m glad we got through our meal without distressing her any further. By now I was longing for, No Problem. Apparently her serving our lunch resulted in neither worries nor problems…nor early onset Alzheimer’s nor zits nor her rent check to bounce.

How did this happen, all this negativity? When did, You’re Welcome, vanish? say nothing of You’re Very Welcome. Is, No Worries the end point of, Don’t Mention it or Not At All? I want to petition for the return of, My Pleasure or Happy to Oblige. With it might come the restoration of civil discourse and the end of road rage, police brutality and maniacal Tweets.

I fear we’re trending in the wrong direction. At least, No Problem was singular. Now we must be slipping into the abyss of multiple perturbations with plural worries. A problem is like a busted shoe lace or a piece of spinach left on your tooth. But worries seem to me one step before dread. That No doesn't help; why bring it up in the first place.

When I hear No Worries I imagine the server is saying, You’ve been a pain in the ass but this is my job and I can put up with anything till my shift is over since I have a high threshold of endurance. Or is she implying that I shouldn’t fret about having inconvenienced her?

But what if I want to worry? It's like my right not to Have a nice day. Even with my napkin and bread the planet is being choked with foul air, homeless people are begging for shelter, asylum-seekers and refugees in flight for their lives. No worries indeed!

I wonder if Trump said, No Worries, to Kim Jong Un when he promised the cessation of War Games. Also curious what the Korean expression is for, No Worries when Un promised to denuclearize, Hey, Don’t worry about it, Buddy Boy.

We live in a time of obliquity. Not only deviating from moral rectitude but indirectness. Can I get you a drink? I’m good. I didn’t ask whether you’ve behaved yourself today or whether you are an ethical person or a good for nothing. I merely asked whether you would care for a drink.

Maybe all this is a form of poetry. It was Emily Dickinson who said to tell it slant. No Problem, No Worries, I’ll get over it. I’ll take English as a second language. No really, I’m good.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Pulse of America

Thump, thump, Trump, harrumph. Ah, that elusive pulse. When you think you’ve got it, you don’t.

Only a science fiction writer would have imagined a coalition of Charley Lunchbucket and Wall St. Suits along with Bible-thumpers and assorted female-haters. Maybe it’s the same marriage of that singing-waiter, Irving Berlin, who ended up living in a fifty room mansion with no less than 134 servants, writing songs of the common man (God Bless America) often sung during the 7th inning stretch of ball games.

The rather mawkish petition to the Almighty was first composed in 1918 and revived twenty years later. It was the form of patriotism designed to remind us of our values yet keep us out of the war. We were, after all, exceptional and separated from those rascals by an ocean white with foam. God would protect us in the night with a light from above.

Ronald Reagan seemed to have his finger on the pulse of America. As the voice denigrating the role of government he conveniently forgot how his father worked for the W.P.A. during the Depression along with his brother and himself.

I have voted dozens of times against candidates who gave me that same finger in their victory speech. Sometimes it seems the country has gone moribund with no pulse at all. Today we have two bodies each with its own throbbing surge. One lives on Planet Fox, fabulists for the mobocracy. The pulse I feel and hear and taste is an inclusive, vibrant brotherhood/sisterhood of aroused citizens deeply offended by the miscreant in office. 

God does not bless America, alone. Not now. Not with the desecration of Emma Lazarus’ words at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

She had her finger on the pulse when she wrote her sonnet in 1883 and even twenty years later when the New Colossus was inscribed on the Statue, seven years after her death. She wrote about a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning and her name is Mother of Exiles. America was a sanctuary nation. When did we lose our way?

Ironically, hundreds of birds lost their way when the Statue served as a lighthouse in its early days. The single light confused them and as many as 1,400 dead birds lay besides the inspired words on a single morning in 1903. At first the carcasses were sold to New York milliners but that practice soon ended. A metaphor for the false beacon of hope yet to come.

Emma Lazarus sonnet is now again being mocked. That lamp beside the golden door is no longer lifted to the tired, poor, wretched refuse and tempest-tossed yearning to breathe free. Instead our disgraced President and his religiously hypocritical Attorney General have slammed the door and young children are being torn apart from parent’s arms in an unconscionable policy of calloused indifference to humanity.

Irving Berlin might have taken back his patriotic anthem. He actually did use Lazarus’ words in his 1949 musical, Miss Liberty. Instead he might defer to her entire poem which was, in fact, put to music by David Ludwig in 2002 and performed at President Obama’s inaugural in 2013.

Is this is the pulse of America? No, I say, these are days of infamy. The question is whether we have lost our moral compass, our heart.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Further Father

How the mind meanders!

I was thinking how a large minority of our country appears to be concussed. As if having received a severe blow to our brains defending the infantile tantrums and bloviations of Trump for almost two years.

Which led me to imagine all those Friday night fights I listened to on the radio imagining Rocky Graziano or Jake La Motta taking a beating. Why was I such an avid fan? Ask Rabbi Schulweis.

I had the privilege of meeting the late Rabbi on two occasions when he officiated the marriage and Bar Mitzvah of close friends. He led a large Conservative Jewish congregation and was also an inter-faith religious leader and a voice of reconciliation in Los Angeles and nationwide for decades. A peace-loving, contemplative, enlightened man whose hobby was an enduring interest in prize fighting. Seemingly incongruous with his nature.  

And this led me to my father. He was the embodiment of equanimity. A calm surrounded him tinged with caution. I remembered him in the pharmacy receiving a prescription, studying it as if it contained some arcane message. In those days it actually did with Latin the prevailing language. Q.S. ad…a sufficient quantity to make or Misce et Fiat…mix and make. Powders and elixirs were to be weighed and measured in minims, grains and scruples. My father deliberated as if weighing the world on the torsion scale.

His love held no contingencies. Though he worked very long hours…from 8A.M. to 10 P.M. when he owned his own store, he was, in my mind, a constant presence. His conscience was unshakeable as was his commitment to the causes he gave himself to. When visited by Hoover's men in suits during the McCarthy era and asked to give names he stood tall and blocked their entrance. His silence was his spine.

I think of my Dad as a kind of shaman, custodian of leaves & stems, rhizomes & roots. His secret was less in this herbal garden of dubious value in apothecary jars than in a single, simple virtue. He listened. Not only to the words of patients but he read their faces, their woes and small triumphs. My father was not a reader of books. He was late to literacy, possibly dyslexic. He healed by being altogether present and exuded the precondition for self-healing.

I have to watch myself before anointing him for sainthood. There were a couple of flaws that saved him, thankfully, from a seat next to the gods. Found among his papers was a legal admission of guilt signed by him, in 1931, admitting to violating the Prohibition law by dispensing twelve ounces of ethyl alcohol without a proper prescription. He paid the twenty-five dollar fine. Pharmacists were permitted to handle alcohol and dispense it accordingly only with a doctor’s signature. Hard times led to desperate acts.

Secondly, he liked to bet on the horses, not compulsively but now and then. The other side of his risk-averse identity. One day he took me along to the harness racing at Roosevelt Raceways. His bets were two bucks, not the rent money. I think we broke even or close enough that his internal scale remained balanced. There was a thrill of winning in life denied him which he hungered for.

I love him even more for these incongruities. He did risk. Like the good Rabbi he allowed his shadow side a day in the sun. Father, you went beyond yourself, you went further.