Thursday, August 15, 2019

War without End

Imagine being an asthmatic, near-sighted frail kid in the 1860s. That just wouldn’t do, said his robust father. So Teddy Roosevelt worked out. He boxed, did push-ups, rode on his horse when he wasn’t reading books voraciously. One might say he over-compensated in his lifetime with his regimen of brisk walks, taking a bullet in his chest with a mere flinch, cavalry charge up San Juan Hill, camping in the wild, hunting in Africa and daring the miseries of the Amazon. No shrinking violet, he. T.R was arguably the architect of U.S. Imperialism. 

However times change and some of us don’t notice. His offer to lead another horse brigade was deemed inappropriate for that great Family Squabble / Crime Against Humanity also known as World War I…  fought in the trenches and with machine guns and poison gas from 1914-1918. However T.R.’s legacy was embedded in the family DNA.

His son Kermit, the one who survived that Great War, had a son also named Kermit, aka Kim. Kim kept the family tradition alive as a C.I.A. agent under Allen Dulles. It took the partnership of Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower along with Kim to pull off the coup of 1953 in Iran. There’s nothing so tempting, I suppose, as a winnable war.

Clement Atlee and Harry Truman confronted by the duly elected but restless Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, urged caution, diplomacy and sanctions. How dare these Iranians wanting to elect their own head of state and own their own oil! But Winnie, with British Imperialism in his bloodstream would have none of it. And was Kim Roosevelt shouting Bully, Bully to himself ready to spill family blood to honor his name? Recently-released records show that Kim bribed officials and mob bosses, staged phony attacks to mislead the opposition, met U.S. troops on the beach and finally installed the Shah of Iran who sold out his people for a Swiss bank account.

Do Iranians remember all this from 1953? Do we remember Pearl Harbor? Could that be why they don’t trust us? The mid-point of this chronology would be the flight of the Shah and revolution in 1979. Like most revolutions they merely traded one despot for another but, at least, it was their guy and not ours. Unfortunately Jimmy Carter presided over the Shah’s flight and subsequent Iran-Hostage incident which ultimately elected Ronald Reagan as President in his greatest role since Bonzo.

Now we have Donald bent on some good-old American chest-pounding. I wonder if he was also a frail kid in Jamaica Estates needing to prove himself to Daddy. It seems to come naturally to him. He also had an appetite for blood but, unlike T.R. it better be someone else’s. Perhaps he had his conscience removed along with his tonsils at age six.

Since our inspirational leader doesn’t read books or even listen to daily Intelligence Briefings he may not know any of the above. The last horse he mounted was probably in a merry-go-round so there’s no connection to T.R. particularly when one remembers to credit the man from Oyster Bay with his conservation, anti-corruption campaign in New York and his trust-busting record. Had the two men been contemporaries the one would have surely been behind bars. But lust, power, muscular foreign policy, threats and exceptionalism are a dangerous potion in the hands of fools. Sabers on horseback to missiles in silos, brinkmanship and bluster. Only the form has changed. 

Over the past 103 years we’ve been at overt war, declared or not, for almost 40 years and engaged in covert operations, non-stop. This Iran overthrow 66 years ago is just one of a long list of misadventures unknown to most Americans. The annual Pentagon budget is a staggering 686 billion. 

Of particular note is the CIA record in Central and South America. Many dictators and generals are in our debt. Under the cloak of fighting Communism we have assassinated or otherwise removed Democratically elected leaders (Arbenz and Allende) and installed friendly heads of state, however brutal and corrupt (Batista and Samoza). Land reform is desperately called for but we have blocked any effort to upset the lopsided grip of the few ruling families. Is it any wonder these peasants are now knocking at our doors?

Imperialism has its price and unintended consequences. Wars need to be understood as an instrument defending or extending corporate influence. If indeed Troy was under siege by the Greeks for ten years it wasn't to rescue Helen. Nor did we sacrifice 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam out of our benevolence to the suffering peasants. There are always business interests weighing heavily at policy-making. 

It is ironic after a century of meddling in foreign affairs we have become the object of even more sophisticated meddling.
The cyber war currently underway opens a new chapter in nefarious acts. It's a far cry from Teddy Roosevelt's
sabers or even Kermit's subterfuge in the streets of Tehran. It is a war without stain or sweat, no end in sight.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Off-Shore Flo

Folks inland don’t know about her. Or those in the San Fernando Valley. Beverly Hills is where it is because they wanted no part of Off-Shore Flo. We in Santa Monica and other beach towns greet her every morning. Sometimes she hangs around till sundown so Valleyites drive here all day to get away from the 102 temperatures and make a U-turn when they land in this country with a different climate. Sorry folks but there ain’t no sun up in that sky. Not with Off-Shore Flo.

One hundred plus years ago, before it became a collection of outskirts, Los Angeles was a sleepy little Pueblo. It was settled about thirty miles inland from the ocean. Orange groves thrived in the sun. Hollywood stars and starlets craved it. Nothing like a healthy suntan. Might as well smoke a pack a day while you’re at it. They just couldn’t handle Off-Shore Flo. The coastal towns were for poor people who couldn’t afford a slice of sunlight and aircraft mechanics during the war who caught a few hours’ sleep in tiny bungalows which now sell for a million dollars or more.

Here we are six blocks from land’s end. We’ve come to appreciate Off-Shore Flo, aka Marine air. Having lived for decades in Reseda, North Hollywood, Canoga Park, Granada Hills, Woodland Hills and Sherman Oaks Peggy and I combined have had our fill of scorching, stale air. We happily traded sizzling smog for salty, sunless gusts. 

Off-Shore Flo is Poseidon’s breath, whales spout, the fresh breeze from Asia, what remains of their typhoon, gulls surfing in on drafts of salt spray, and surfers riding the green room to the sand. It is the force which will blot out the sun for an hour or an afternoon. 

When Gusty Winds met Off-Shore Flo it was a marriage made on a Greek Isle. It launched a thousand ships to Troy with bloated sails. It favored the Brits and howled against the Spanish Armada for Francis Drake. It led Ahab to his watery grave messing with the Great White Moby. Flo and Gus wave the flag, boys, and carry the ball over the fence for a walk-off grand slam or the exhalation stored in  Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks that blows his trumpet and John Coltrane's bluesy sax in a jam session at Hermosa Beach where the Lighthouse keeps jazz alive.

Don’t blame Off-Shore Flo for those wildfires. That’s her wicked cousin, Santa Ana, those desert ill-winds bending boughs with cyclonic fury in her tantrums and torching chaparral. Gusty winds belong below the canyons. Unlike Off-Shore Flo, Gus causes mischief upturning trailers on the Grapevine. Years ago he wreaked havoc at an art installation by Christo lifting an umbrella, turning it into a lethal missile.

(My mother was fluent in the language of wind. She could hear that dreaded draft howling outside our window like a wolf at the door. What seemed like simple wind to me was a miasma to her which penetrated my three sweaters with its evil germs. Something had to be blamed for that sore throat and fever. After 2-3 days off from school with a constant flow of therapeutic air from the vaporizer I was restored but not until I spent a half day inhaling swaths of fresh air in the sun. Ah, but I digress.)

The weather report, which is 98% accurate 2% of the time, says the high at the beach today will be 80 degrees. But we know better. That will be for ten minutes as the sun goes down. For now it is an overcast 65. We have inherited the wind. What Hollywood promised to be Gone with the Wind when it burned down Atlanta (at the NW corner of Overland and Culver Blvd.) never did leave us…. with strange fruit hanging from trees one hundred years later, then choke holds and quick triggers.

This morning is another slow dance between cloud cover and the sun behind it. Off-Shore Flo is a shroud mourning our sorry planet in this Age of Donald. Until solar power burns it off it feels as if the world could be starting over again. The diva is gargling back stage. The curtain hasn’t gone up yet. We are coming out of our primordial ooze. In this half-light the brisk air is nascent. It could be Creation 2.0 in that great gettin-up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Mystery of the Sphere

Every hour it ripes and ripes and every hour it rots and rots. Cut open the orb at its peak and you release the sun and the moon, the music of the spheres.

Melons fiercely hold their mystery. They must love the surprise. I’ve seen buyers at the market knocking on their skin and listening as if they could overhear a conversation among the pits. I’m fine with the unknowing. It reminds me of life itself.

I’ve been watching it for the past five days. I pick it up and feel for? For what, I don’t know. This morning I spoke to it. Are you ripe and ready? I think I heard a high pitch beep but that may have been a garbage truck backing up. What the hell, I bought it last Thursday. If I wait another day I may have missed the propitious moment. Everything in its time.

There are no signifiers. No bag of waters breaking. No contractions at short intervals. Every birth is Caesarean. So now I am making my incision straight down the mid-sagittal line to eventually create perfect quadrants….as if the judge from Uzbekistan is scrutinizing my grip for the Olympian gold.

Peggy declares this one a 6.9. She’s a tough grader. I would grant it a 7.4. I know what you’re thinking. That’s what I get for shopping at The Ninety-Nine Cent Store. But we’ve eaten some nines from there. In fact I think Whole Foods slips in the back door and resells them for $3.99. 

Maybe melons rate us on a scale ranging from feckless to reckless. He who hesitates gets mush. He who rushes gets a sort of potato.

What better way to start the day slicing open a cantaloupe to find the sun. It’s the solar power to energize the day. Today’s had the shining orange but required a knife to pierce it into bit-size pieces. I’ll never know if it was a premature emancipation or this globe just didn’t have it to give.  

Among these sweet gourds are the usual watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew along with the Casaba, Crenshaw, Gallia (which looks like a cantaloupe on the outside and honeydew on the inside) and Persian (reason enough to make nice with Iran). These are just a few of the 30 distinct varieties.

Last week we swooned over a 9.9 honey dew. Come to think of it let’s give it a ten. And yes, I got it from that store where the homeless shop. Nothing is beneath me. 

Adjectives are incapable to describe the pulpy flesh. Honeydew in its prime offers its lunar meat you want to linger and luxuriate in your mouth. Beyond luscious. It sings. It zings. It summons Orpheus’ lute accompanying Pavarotti hitting high B in the lost language of melon.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tall Timeless Tale

I’ll begin with Einstein who insisted that past, present and future are illusions however persistent. Time does not flow. It just is. Maybe I am writing this yesterday or tomorrow.

So Thoreau (he pronounced it Thorough) is very much alive. This is his 202nd birthday. Also alive is Emma Lazarus. She never died nor her poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. And yes, Donald Trump has always been with us. He wore the dunce-cap in the little red schoolhouse and beat up kids in the yard. He roused the rabble, bought slaves and led the lynch mobs. The card sharp is Donald, the con-man selling phony cure-alls and breaking picket lines, the robber baron and slumlord. All of them are Trump.

Taking a break from his lucrative pencil business Thoreau thoroughly visits Staten Island seven times. He lives with Emerson’s brother and tutors his children. Here he is roaming the streets of Manhattan dodging stray pigs and trying to sell his writings. No buyers.

I live in NYC for my first twenty-one years and go to Staten Island just once. I take the ferry one day with my brother just for the ride. It was s nickel back then, gradually inching to five bucks. Now it is free. An acceptable instance of creeping Socialism, n’est-ce pas? But time doesn’t creep, I almost forgot, it just is. Now I am passing the Statue of Liberty. I can hear the huddled masses yearning.

Thoreau’s last visit to the Island was in 1843. At first he isn’t very charmed by the place though he notes the variety of flora and fauna, different than in Massachusetts. While he’s heading back to Concord to start building his cabin at Walden Pond is he also considering another cabin in Staten for a spell of solitude? The man is a visionary. Does he envision the Statue of Liberty? Of course he does.

Staten Island now has half a million people. It is the wealthiest and greenest borough with 170 parks. By any measure it really should be part of New Jersey. At one point it has the highest altitude of all the boroughs; higher than Mt. Vernon, Washington Heights or Forest Hills, all of which are barely useful for sleigh rides. It’s the only borough with wildlife not in a zoo. Snakes, fox, feral turkeys and coyotes have been spotted in the Fresh Kills Landfill. Thoreau is changing his mind about this place with its forests and estuaries, bird sanctuaries, salt marshes and tidal wetlands.

Let chronology collapse. Thoreau is jailed in protest of the Mexican-American war and all others to follow with the exception of those fought against slavery and Fascism.

On nearby Bedloe/Liberty Island the Statue of Liberty, with its torch held high, is an inadvertent lighthouse to woodcocks and phoebes in their migration. Trump would call them illegal birds who deserve to die anyway. Thousands fall disorientated at Mother of Liberty’s feet as they smash into the 25 glass windows at the crown of the Colossus. That is corrected as dotted glass replaces the original which birds alone recognize.  

The Statue is a global gesture. The island upon which is stands was first settled by the Lenape tribe. Sculpted by Frederic Bartholdi in France with an early model in Germany it is gifted to the U.S. to be erected in this Dutch-occupied harbor, grabbed by the British to serve as a beacon to Irish, Italians, Polish, Russian refugees and inscribed by the Portuguese Sephardic Jewish poet.

Did Thoreau visit Emma Lazarus in his Manhattan treks? Why not? Here he is presenting a box of his world-class pencils having discovered the perfect mix of graphite and clay. And she writes….

Keep your storied pomp says Emma to Donald. Yes, you high in your Tower. And get your hands off these tired and poor yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of these teaming shores are pleading. But Donald is deaf to the cries as he sends his wretched garbage golf balls and caviar leftovers off to the Fresh Kill Landfill where a ragged forest is being born. A gigantic garbage dump as mulch. Pieces of Twin Towers among the 150 million tons of Big Apple trash.

Is that you, Henry David Thorough, living in a grove of pine and willow, surrounded by native and undocumented woodland groping for new life? It’s called Phoenix Regeneration. The forest floor reveals an occasional shoe, shopping bag and Styrofoam cup. The latter takes 1000 years to decay. Thoreau is writing with his super pencil in his notebook about restoration. Nature persists. It repairs our human folly. The message is hope. There is a lamp lifting beside this golden door.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Conventional Wisdom

The Democratic carnival, I mean primaries, begin in about six months. Carnival, as in carnivorous, is not far from the mark as the candidates continue to devour each other. The twenty names will be reduced by half for the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3rd. One month later we in California, along with fifteen other states, will weigh in. I expect another five names to fall away by March 3rd. Still too many going into the convention set for July in Milwaukee.

But this time around the primaries may not matter very much. It’s the secondarys and beyond which will be most telling. According to the crystal ball I just bought at the 99 cent store no candidate will attain a majority. Most states apportion the delegates providing they reach the threshold of 15%, anything less does not get counted. Though in California only the top two will be selected. However all this pertains to the first ballot only. After that it’s a free for all and so-called super delegates also enter the fray. Suddenly we are back to 1924.

Ninety-six years ago the Democrats convened in Madison Square Garden with William McAdoo and Gov. Al Smith, the frontrunners, going head to head. Each had their armies poised for the big prize. Franklin Roosevelt, signifying his return to political life after contracting polio, put Smith’s name as nominee. The Ku Klux Klan had a lot to say about the outcome. Smith was unacceptable because he was, after all, a Roman catholic. 20,000 Klansmen gathered across the river in New Jersey to burn crosses. McAdoo had the Klan’s support. Those with eye-slits in their bedsheets hanging in the closet were staunch Prohibitionists while Smith was known to bend his elbow now and then.

In the early rounds of balloting McAdoo jumped to garner about 40% of the delegates. Then Smith did the same. The rules at the time required a 2/3 majority so neither was even close. So-called favorite sons were offered for consideration in the early voting. It was party time in every sense. Each name shouted out was worthy of a mini-parade with bands and banners. Fistfights broke out. Trump-like obscenities filled the hall. The punch bowl was most probably spiked. An exhibition of pure Americana.

A Wall St. lawyer named Davis ran way down on the list with 3% on the first ballot. By the 10th roll-call he still had only 6%. But this convention was to run for sixteen sweaty days. Sixty names were offered for consideration. The outcome was decided on the 103rd ballot with John Davis on top. His running mate was Charles Bryan, William Jennings Bryan's brother, then regarded as a prairie radical.

Next July will be a time of boisterous hoopla and sober reckoning at the same time, as momentous as the first constitutional convention. If the wrong ticket is chosen to defeat the pernicious President our experiment in Democracy may be doomed.

All those candidates who sloughed off in the winter of 2019 will re-emerge as compromise figures. Beto and De Blasio are likely to rear their heads along with Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Jay Inslee. Deals will be struck, debts paid, horse-trading, threats and favors called in. The winning ticket may be decided in a cannabis-filled room. It could be everybody’s favorite, None-Of-The Above, if the gap between Progressives and Centrists cannot be reconciled.

Syrian ruler, Bashar al Assad is an ophthalmologist, Zelensky President of Ukraine, a comedian, the head of Liberia was a soccer star and Mohammed bin Salman, King of Saudi Arabia hung out with Silicon Valley nerds. None of them qualify to run the P.T.A.; and certainly not our dangerous clown. 

In these bizarro times of pseudo-Populism with mistrust in experience and institutions I’d be fine with a ticket of Jon Stewart, Megan Rapinoe and/or Bruce Springsteen, Michelle Obama or Tom Hanks.

Thursday, July 18, 2019


I never met a tree I didn’t like. Some of my best friends…..But puuulesse don’t tell me they talk or are crafty or curious. They don’t vote or bully or start wars or slip on banana peels. Leave those follies to us. Trees, like all genus and species, do their best to survive. They don’t act with volition. When a tree bends towards the light it isn’t because he has a crush on the sun or wants to speak his mind. It’s called heliotropism.

Richard Powers’ new book, The Overstory, reveals the highly complex life of trees, at their roots and trunks and leaves. He writes of the ways they “communicate”. It’s called an ecosystem and it’s a matter of life and death to us all. My problem is the anthropomorphism. He ascribes human attributes to the arboretum not unlike Walt Disney.

When I was a street urchin in New York we called a sycamore, second base, as it stood majestically in the middle of the empty lot. That would have been in the summer. By October it was the goal line. I went fishing once, broke off a twig. Got myself a nickel from the sewer.

Trees were for climbing if they had ample elbows. There was a large one in the backyard of our apartment building whose branch looped over the shed of a candy store where deposit bottle were stored. My brother wanted to see if he could swipe a few. He managed to climb halfway up but lost his grip at about twenty feet. Was that a snickering I heard from the tree when he fell and broke his ankle? No, I don’t think so.

When I first starting writing poetry the naturalist-poet Gary Snyder advised me to first know the names of trees. We were at a ten-day poetry conference at Port Townsend, Washington. It brought home to me the obvious truth that I was a big city guy with very little to say about the natural world. I didn’t know bear shit from dog shit, a swallow from a sparrow or an elm from a maple. The advice couldn’t hurt but another piece of wise counsel is to write what you know. And what I knew was my ignorance with enough to fill volumes.

Of course trees don’t know their own names. Just as birds wouldn’t recognize themselves if they saw their painting in an Audubon book on the coffee table. But they all deserve the respect of differentiation and we owe them their due from. So now I know not to call it a spruce when it’s a Douglas fir. I have learned when to expect our coral tree to burst with red candles or the jacaranda to purple the prose of my life.

The poet Howard Nemerov enters the Language of Trees to demonstrate the dialectic between theory and experience, between nomenclature and the actual. In his poem he throws a glossary of names at the reader to describe the shape of leaves or texture of bark. It all comes out of books which are, of course, the yield of trees. Yet the chaos of experience is something else. Names tell us little about their secret life.

Slowly I am learning to love certain trees. Must I love all of them? Even those anorexic palms yearning to become telephone poles? Some trees seem not to do a very good job at treeness while others grow high and wide with a crop of leaves serving as canopies shading the street. I could spend quality time communing with the reptilian roots of a ficus or the peeling bark of a eucalyptus.  Thank you, guys, don't be modest.

As for poetry there’s no need to assign an emotional life to the forest. I’ll turn to Robert Frost’s Birches where one can do worse than become a swinger of its branches. Where a boy bent them almost to the ground discovering when it’s too soon to launch himself into the world. Where he ascends to the top and back down again knowing that Earth is the best place for love. He knows of no place better.

Too bad Richard Powers left out the two words, as if. As if they could warn us. As if they were patient or wise. His novel also fails, for me, because it is written in the service of an idea, a cause. To this extent it becomes a veiled diatribe, however persuasive. A work of fiction does not work as a mission.

I know I’m running into trouble with these subversive thoughts. Let us honor the woods, say I. They did well before we came. It was once possible for a squirrel to hitch a ride on treetops from ocean to ocean. Now Elm St. is disappearing due to big box stores along with elm trees, victim of a fungus blight. We have not done well as custodians of the botanical world. Plant life doesn’t need to adapt our sensory apparatus to be deemed worthy.  

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Memory as Fragments

You grew up thinking you’re the star of the show while groping in the dark. There’s a war going on. Your father is an air-raid warden. There are Blackouts. Whispers behind closed doors. Meetings every other Tuesday in the next room with vehemence leaking thru the wall. Pamphlets are left. Maybe you aren’t the star of the show after all. Money is hardly spent. Your mother gets a bargain from the butcher. She's elated when the grocer forgets to charge her for the cottage cheese. Suddenly there’s a new radio-phonograph console. It has speakers with an Art-Deco design you memorize listening to Roosevelt’s Fireside chats.

These are a few dark corners of my childhood lit by Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, Warlight. It is a book of memory, and discovery; fragments which made no sense to the fourteen-year old boy in London just after the war in 1945. He was virtually orphaned, his parents having left him and his sister in the care of some shadowy figures. Love has many shapes.

In a sense we are all abandoned. We move into the world alone. We feel we are different. Our family is like no other. My father worked very long hours. He was largely absent. My mother had a temperament not mine. She yelled a lot. Cursed the gods. She had a mouth and I grew silent. I moped, ill-equipped for the combat needed to survive this world. I orphaned myself.

Ondaatje’s young man, Nathaniel, has adventures and small anarchies. His Mississippi is the Thames sailing at night with a mysterious man who is up to no good but in a benign way. His initiation into the adult world. His education is not at school. The war which has ended has not ended. His mother has abandoned him in order to protect him. She is a hunted woman.

Nathaniel finds a walled garden imagining seeds buried like unknown pieces yet to sprout. This becomes his place with borders he can live within.

I scoured apartment house basements. My time for small anarchies. I stole broomsticks for stickball bats. I collected baseball drawings by an illustrator named Pap. His drawings were only in the New York Sun, a dying newspaper. I would make my way into stacks of discarded paper looking for the sketches. I knew the smell of cellars. I studied college football teams. Every week I picked my winners. I didn’t know what was important from what was more important.

In a strange way the football predictions became very important. When I prognosticated 18 out of 20 my name became the headline of the sports section……..but the newspaper was the Daily Worker, the organ of the Communist Party. My name ended up in the F.B.I. files. Seven years later I was befriended by Fred Keavy, a man I’m now convinced was an informer for the Bureau. I liked the guy for his marginal ways. In a convoluted story, ten years after that, his wife, the niece of Bob Hope, was instrumental in getting my deaf daughter admitted to the program of the John Tracy Clinic where she learned how to speak. But that could be another book.

Warlight is a labyrinthine tale. It throws light on war’s aftermath; ripples stretch for decades. Skirmishes between Partisan groups and collaborators, between rival ethnic factions as in Trieste, didn’t get settled until 1947. Revenge lasted another generation.

The book has historical weight along with that other dimension which speaks to our life-long bafflement of how we got here from there. Childhood is war enough. Our parents may return to us as new characters in the cast. Life doesn’t rhyme but as we look back and re-witness ourselves in refracted light, it almost does. We are just players in a larger narrative yet also the star of our own movie.