Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Inside-Out, Upside-Down and Backwards


Here I am in my subterranean laboratory crawling into the time-travel machine. I have the dial set to 1933. And away I go.

What’s this? I haven’t moved. There must by a loose fan belt on the flywheel in the manifold. The world is standing on its head. I’m having geo-political vertigo.

I crawl out to find that Germany is the land of the free welcoming one million wretched refugees, tired and poor, to its teeming shores. The center for dissent and daring, imaginative art is centered in Berlin. Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat, is challenged only by a more left-wing candidate, Martin Schultz. Deutschland, with no military, prospers. (What a concept). They are the beacon of liberal democracy in the world with demilitarized Japan running second. Russia has gone outlaw with its crony Capitalism.


New Europe is reverting to old Europe. Their colonials have come home to roost from Pakistan and India to the U.K. and from North Africa to France. Fictitious countries carved from the Turkey at Versailles are painfully redrawing their own borders.  

And here is France teetering on the verge of quasi-Fascism. Great Britain has left Europe. A dumb and angry Populism poisons the map. The working class is on the right and enlightened professionals (that’s me) are allied with bankers and institutions in the center-left. Is that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie singing, Heartland, Heartland, Uber Alles? There is nothing left of the left.

The United States is building a wall. Is it to keep out Mexicans or keep in Americans? The Statue of Liberty is beyond its statute of limitations. We are expelling those with undocumented hands having picked illegal lettuce. How can this happen, people are asking. How can the former citadel of democracy, center of great minds such as (give me a minute) be replaced by Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly. How can a nation which landed on the moon now land in the rubbish bin? The Art of the Deal is required reading. It is our only art.

Whom do I call for time machine repair? Costco won’t accept the return. Alas, History is not under warranty. We seem to be at the station demanding that trains run on time instead of wondering where we are bound. Having paid no attention to the past are we doomed to repeat it with a new cast of players? The next time I time-travel I better dial up 1860 or 1776 when nothing happened.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Birds Chirping and Other Stories


Those of us in our late innings of life are allowed compensations here and there. One such is closed captions granted us with diminished hearing. It doesn’t seem so long ago when hearing-impaired folks had to settle for foreign films with subtitles. Now we all get to read our favorite English language TV shows on screen.

I have conducted a scientific survey which reveals that most movies start off either with birds chirping or horns honking depending on whether set in the country or city. A sub-set of these openings are gulls screeching or shots firing.

If the scene is set in Brooklyn we might get boids choiping particularly on Turd Avenue and Turdy-Turd St. We’re in for 90 minutes of crooked cops, back alleys, a topless dancers going to night school for a law degree and a car chase destroying a dozen fruit stands and pushcarts. Is that a chirp or a garbage truck backing up?

However nothing compares to the sunny bucolic village riddled with crime and no one does it as well as the Brits. Their supply of detective stories is inexhaustible. Tough-gentle, scruffy-clean cut, oversized-frail, alcoholic-teetotalers, clergymen, classicists, hard or soft-boiled. 

One show with minimal graphic violence or at least shown off-screen, is Midsomer Mysteries. It has been running for eleven seasons which is a long time for birds to be chirping, set as it is, in the Cotswold hamlets of England where it never rains.

People with fully functioning ears may not know that a chirping bird is often sufficient to set off a mild-mannered septuagenarian on a killer rampage. Who knew what evil lurked behind those bake sales and cricket matches. Maybe it was the white suits that drove Fitzroy Fitzmorris to plot the demise of the former leftenant of the 3rd Fusiliers and local headmaster.

For the first 40 minutes every one of the eleven suspects interviewed tells whooping lies. As the truth is grudgingly revealed it becomes clear, from the couch, who the murderer is…..only to be dashed as his body turns up bludgeoned with a fire iron.

Suddenly each face changes, birds stop chirping and crows start cawing accompanied by organ music. Chief Detective Inspector Barnaby overhears a conversation at the pub and has an epiphany. Everyone is to gather in the library. He methodically eliminates the culprits one by one until……..yes, we say, he didn’t fool me for a minute. It is, of course, the retired benign viscount whose cunning chess moves are played, in human scale, out on the village green. The inspector then returns to take tea with his perfect wife and birds can be heard chirping once more.

The formula, set in Albion stone, is reaffirmed. Order has been restored. Truth will out. The gardens are untrammeled. Song can be heard from the pub. On the lawn of the manor house a croquet ball has been hit squarely through a portal. We shall, for reasons unknown, sleep well tonight.

Deprived are those without captioning. They have to do their sleuthing without benefit of bird calls. Chirp. Chirp. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Treeness

Its arms are open wide. Our coral tree spans about forty feet in its embrace with dozens of eyes as red lanterns. Three trunks come out of the ground, each thigh with its own calligraphy of bends and twists proclaiming a place in the sun. One could adore this tree. It starts outside our dining room window and covers half the living room. It is a kitchen with morning juice for hummingbirds and a bedroom in its elbows for nesting doves.

Before the blossoms burst through they resemble pregnant pine cones. When the flower is done with its spring dress its next act is a broad green leaf with a long life well into winter.

It never hurts to plan one’s afterlife. I could do worse than add my incinerated calcium to this tree in my next incarnation. The weather agrees with me. And I might spend eternity peeking in windows. Look at that man reading the morning paper instead of talking to his wife. That guy looks familiar.

Somebody, having gotten up on the wrong side of bed, declaimed that life is like licking honey off a thorn. From the thorn’s point of view it must feel good. Those cones appear sharp enough to keep away undeserving tongues. But the tree seems to me to be forgiving mankind for its blunders. Why else all those red candles each morning celebrating yesterday?

Yes, I know, anthropomorphizing is forbidden. I could lose my poetic license from a dozen infractions. A tree is a tree is a tree without consciousness…except in bad poetry. Shelley and Keats did it and they died young but Wordsworth lived a long life wandering lonely as a cloud. Ah, but that was then. In spite of all that I want my bone meal scattered here anyway. I could stand as sentinel to make sure this apartment building remains under rent control.



Saturday, April 15, 2017

Franklin and Winston

Memoirs.........

Lincoln never got to write his. Or FDR. Or JFK. If you think you might be president it’s advisable to start before the assassination. Posthumous ones are never reliable.

On the other hand there have been almost 16,000 books written about Abe. Five years ago someone had the idea of building a monument of such works at the new Ford Theater in Washington D.C. It was eight feet around and over three stories high.

I expect the Trump presidency will be a subject to fill libraries of apocalyptic  books, dystopic movies & TV series, fantastical operas, drinking songs and aviaries for his tweets.

Franklin Roosevelt’s long tenure in office, the turbulence of hard times and war time would have fetched a juicy sum if he had survived to tell it. Eleanor wrote a newspaper column, helped draft the U.N. Charter for Human Rights and distinguished herself in many ways but she never wrote about her husband. Nor did Harry Truman or even Ralph Bellamy who played him in Sunrise at Campobello.

Nigel Hamilton has written two volumes which set out to be the memoir FDR never got to write. Most of what he has written has been taken from other witnesses diaries. In addition he has poured over manuscripts, letters, remembrances and interviews to get the skinny on this most complex, sometimes inspirational, other times duplicitous president. I have just started reading the second book, Commander-in-Chief. 

Churchill-devotees may not like what they read. Sir Winston takes a hit. These two larger-than-life figures, he with his cigar, him with his cigarette, were not always the affable couple made out to be. Roosevelt ran the show over Churchill’s loud and ill-conceived military notions. The landing at Normandy was delayed needlessly because of Downing Street. If he had had his way the channel-crossing would not have happened until 1945 or '46.

Churchill is seen as a 19th century man with a colonial-imperialist mind-set determined to protect India, their jewel-in–the-crown and wrongly committing ground-troops to the under-belly of Europe. His rhetorical flourishes obscured a muddled world view. Roosevelt saw the two fronts, not only the Pacific theater and Europe, plus the eastern and western flanks but had to deal with an obstinate Churchill as well. Surprisingly he also had to dissuade our own generals from an earlier European invasion. In the end it was Roosevelt’s charm that won the day over his comrade-in-arms.

Hamilton’s book is a welcome counter-weight to Churchill’s account which omitted their disagreements. Roosevelt has come under attack in recent years for turning away the ship of Jewish refugees and the Japanese internment camps so this book arrives to restore his towering position as Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces in, arguably, the most perilous presidency in American history. 

The book also rightly credits FDR with his plans for the United Nations avoiding the mistakes made with the League of Nations. In early 1941 before our declaration of war, Roosevelt had the foresight to have plans drawn up sketching his notion of a post-war world. He came up with the name of the world body and it's make up of a Security Council and General Assembly. He saw the new map of a world free of all colonies. Drawing from his son Elliot's memoir Hamilton writes that FDR believed without the greed of the Dutch, British and French this war would never have happened.

A book like this always comes up with historical tidbits which are my meat. I have long believed that the movie Casablanca, made in the summer of 1942 but set before our entrance in the war, was so named because its subtext was a veiled appeal for our White House to declare war against the Axis. Hamilton reveals that the Germans knew Churchill and Roosevelt would meet at Casablanca in early 1943 but they assumed that was code name for the White House. The Nazis and I thought alike. Ugh!

WW II is a frequent topic at my lunches with octogenarian buddies, as if it happened last Thursday. Maybe it’s because we lived through it, albeit as pre or early-teenagers. Now we can’t get enough of it. Those were the glory days when we were clearly the good guys. Franklin Roosevelt has a place in my memoir, that one I haven’t written. It was his face and it was his voice. After reading this book it was also his vision.



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Numbers

There is something elegant about numbers. They’re so indisputable and clean as in a geometric proof. So absolute and unforgiving and yet they so often lie.

Trump says he won in a landslide but he also lost in a landslide. Professional sports franchises report annual losses yet they sell for two or three times the purchase price. When Obama was president Trump said the 4.6% unemployment figure was fake and actually 40% but now that he’s in office he has declared the low number is real.

Nowhere are numbers more meaningless than when assigned to age. Calendars are the supreme fiction. Shari, my eldest daughter, was born sixty years ago, next month, yet that does not compute. Nor can Lauren be fifty-seven in May and Janice, my baby, be fifty-five later this year. None of the above are true.

When I was twenty-nine with three children I was functionally in my forties. By age forty-seven, having met Peggy, I was back in my twenties. I’ve known people who are the same age their entire life. They either never grow up or are wizened in their teens.  

Peggy will be ninety-six in three weeks but we all know this is either a mathematical anomaly or proof that date of birth has no bearing on age. I've seen 96 in movies. It is enfeebled and crotchety. Those words do not apply. True, her bones have lost some density and her height a few inches but her spirit is robust as ever, her creativity still in its prime and her faculties in fine fettle (whatever that means).

The daily poem she writes is not only a measure of her imaginative power, it both issues from and replenishes that mysterious inner fountain. The concision required bringing together disparate images and expressing it in fresh, arresting language must somehow charge her organs into renewed life.


What is your secret, people ask. She says it’s good genes. If we’re in a restaurant I want to say, Better go have what she’s having. It has no number on the menu just as Peggy is of no age.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Blank Page


What to write when there’s nothing to say? The very least I could do would be to just shut up. Or write about how it feels to have a need to write when there is nothing much to say.

Here is the Sunday paper. How essential it is. Not to read but to sort. All those sections so easy to discard they give the illusion that life is manageable. Faced with a multitude of choices I at least know what I can live happily without. Real Estate, Travel, Classified, Images along with that heap of colored ads hold no interest.

With great interest I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, To the Lighthouse. The writing is so penetrating I find myself living her words, noticing gestures, registering absences, marveling how she makes something out of nothing, the enormous subtext in pauses. The everything contained in nothing.

How the blank page is welcoming, maybe not like an open door, more like a window ajar one can climb through. So here I am animating the furniture, all the life which has taken place around this coffee table, the good words that have crossed over it, the spills, the books stacked including a Cormac McCarthy novel we are reading aloud each night, about eight coasters, ceramic pieces and wood sculpture and, of course, the four remote controls without which life is unthinkable.

Looking out through the sliding door I am transfixed by a mourning dove perched in the elbow of a coral tree busy pecking away at what? Turn around. That’s better. Pecking away at her own wing or is it an itch? If I owned a coffee table book of Audubon’s paintings would the bird recognize itself?

Do I recognize myself as Mr. Ramsey at the head of the table in Virginia Woolf’s chapter describing a dinner party? It goes on for about thirty pages. Maybe I do but just for a paragraph, in a moment of neediness. How fragile we can be. The more pontificating I do the less certain I am.


I wonder if, in his solitude, Donald Trump dares to allow himself a moment of reflection. It would be a transient experience, a brief candle in the darkness. A flicker of light, perhaps, to reveal himself, unarmored, to himself. Maybe he could pull a blank paper from a drawer and tell himself something true.                          

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Minus Time

Tony Pascal died this week.

The last time I heard his voice was on our answering machine a few weeks ago. He called to say hello and ask about our health. When I returned his call I got a recording of his late wife, Barbara, who has been gone just over a year. It was one of those momento mori moments.

Peggy and I met them about eighteen years ago but it seems much longer than that. Tony was a large man with appetites to match. His professional life as an economist with Rand was cut short several years before we met when he suffered an aortic aneurism.

We knew him as an avid reader, compendium of movie trivia and wood-working artist who constructed model scenes of old Los Angeles out of his head. As a native of L.A. he rendered Fairfax Ave. as he remembered it from 65 years ago as well as the old Ocean Park boardwalk and scores of other tableaus including one of my former pharmacy in the Valley. For years Tony was a regular at our Sunday Salon and monthly play-reading group. He also made a mean martini.

Eight years ago Tony mentioned to me that his son-in-law started writing a blog. A blog, what’s a blog, I asked. When he explained I thought to myself, Gee, I could do that. Since then I have posted almost two a week, 712 in all.  Thank you, Tony.

Any attempt to sum up a man in a few paragraphs is weak tea, a small fraction of his full measure. These are our subtraction years. The circle is shrinking and each is a profound loss. It also brings us closer to our own unimaginable last syllable. There is still plenty of juice to be squeezed but attention must be paid. The short time we had with Tony and Barbara were dense. The best we can do now is pack our allotted time with reverence for life in all its motley coats. We may not be able to halt time but it can feel like we are.