Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Winter Moments

Blank paper on a winter day. If I lived in North Dakota this could be a meditation on whiteness. But, alas, there is no snow here and it isn’t even winter yet so says my calendar, until the solstice. Even then our imagination has some heavy lifting to conjure fake icicles and Styrofoam snowdrifts with a major exertion of memory. The fondest moments are the ones that never happened.

I could talk about my Grandpa who came across the Great Plain in a covered wagon with a blizzard in his face….. except that’s a fabrication, pure as the driven snow. More likely he inched his way across the Russian Steppes one haystack ahead of a horde of drunken Cossacks. I’d like to think he hid in a cellar in a heap of potatoes with shoots that reached into steerage on a ship in New York harbor.

Maybe he saw gulls in the sooty sky which reminded him of pages from the Torah. Or more likely he sold schmattas out of a pushcart or washed pots and pans in the backroom of a Delancey St. deli. Grandpa never went uptown to those imaginary pans of Tin Pan Alley. He was no Israel Beilin (Irving Berlin) dreaming of a White Christmas.

I shall leave Grandpa behind among the sleet and the slush. My flights of fancy have met white-out conditions.

If only there were hills in Forest Hills I might have become a great skier but that will have to wait until my next incarnation. My childhood unfolded on flat land void of ponds for ice skating or even mounds for snowball fights. But we did have that meager dip in topography we named the Toilet Bowl just right for Flexible Flier sleds to navigate among clumps of bushes. If I steered into the brush I would hardly feel it under my three sweaters and galoshes. Yet there were high fevers and double pneumonia as my mother cursed the dreaded draft.

On Dec. 7th, 1941 I was close to nine years old hanging around my father’s drugstore. There was a small radio up front alongside the cigarettes I was helping to stack. I half-heard a radio program interrupted with alarm in the announcer’s voice. It was cold outside with a gusty wind but no snow. Now a crowd gathered. Sentences halted, faces froze into increments of dread. My father had a look I’d never seen before.

When FDR spoke the next day he sounded like God. I came into the grown-up world that Sunday as if I had left part of me behind forever and traveled across some dangerous threshold.

Soon my world would become black and white, life and death. Blood on the snow. Maps on the front page showing dark and light divisions with arrows. It was a winter of new words. War bonds, blackouts, air-raid wardens and a different kind of draft. Saboteurs, Blitz and refugees. U-boats and convoys. Praise the Lord for the white cliffs of Dover… then pass the ammunition. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


That word, Thou, traveled a long way in my head from another four-letter word with three of the same letters; namely, Thug. But enough about Trump.

Martin Buber’s 1923 book, I and Thou, sums up what has vanished during these times that try men’s souls. The I / thou relationship elaborated by Buber describes a meeting of intimacy of subject with subject. No one is objectified. That word, Thou, takes on a sacred meaning not necessarily in a theological sense, at least in my mind, but in reference to what is in the process of fully tending to the other, the soulfulness of human beings. The Other could be someone close or even a brief encounter with a stranger. It could even be a work of art, a tree, flower or table etc … which we relate to in the full presence of our being.

This, in contrast to what happens when a thug lives on flattery and fealty. When he distances, with insults and ridicule, any who do not bend to his will. 

Listening to the eulogies bestowed on George H.W. with Donald, the elephant in the room squirming, bring to mind those virtues which are not in our would-be-monarch's vocabulary nor in his consciousness.

Even if Bush has been a bit mythologized having had his role as CIA director, in their nefarious interventions, erased along with his authorized dirty tricks campaign concocted by Lee Atwater against both George Dukakis and Gary Hart….he nevertheless is eulogized at a time when such virtues beg to be restored. Whether he warrants the nobility of a later day Founding Father, as John Meacham bestowed upon him, is irrelevant. We need to be reminded of our values even as aspirations in a democracy.  

Trump was seated in the front row alongside people he had branded as illegitimate, not a man, spoiled child, sad sack and lock-her-up. I can think of no person farther from I / Thou engagement than our current executive.

It is striking how the virtues ascribed to our 41st president at the Washington Cathedral seemingly have no place in the discourse down the block in the halls of Congress or White House. Respect for personhood would be a good place to begin. What better way to remember George H.W. Bush? In his dying, he helped to bind the wounds of a nation. And at the same time take a look at the shameful acts of the C.I.A. during his brief reign, before and after. In addition there was Clarence Thomas...but don't get me started.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Dark Ages

Two years ago we threw a blind eye at the miscreant. We first saw him as Bozo the Clown, then, P.T. Barnum. He soon became Elmer Gantry and finally Tony Soprano. In the cauldron a fevered vulgarity is steaming along with colossal stupidity and pernicious greed.

Now a feral beast roams the countryside. It is the winter of peril for our Democracy. A callous indifference to human suffering, to the precepts of our founders and a degradation of common decency and civility as well as the very survival of our planet have thrown us into a shadowed place. The fabric of our nation is stained.

It is as if we are witnessing Athens turning into Sparta. Virulent nationalism has fueled a testosterone-driven underbelly to sanction our police force into acts of a paramilitary organization. Racism and antisemitism have been reignited. Gun violence with assault weapons has become commonplace in spite of a majority of Americans demanding commonsense regulation. Our returning legions abroad with P-T-S-D are yet another toll of foreign misadventures. Neo-Fascist groups have become legitimatized and are now calling for well-armed militias, as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A few weeks ago we turned our clocks back. Days are shorter as we move into this metaphorical darkness. The holiday season has always been a time of compensation for diminishing light, in my mind. By the alchemy of commodification Silent Night is loud with Jingle Bells.The spirituality of December holy days has yielded to the hypocrisy of consumerism. Black Friday now prevails for six weeks. In contrast to most songs of the season, Buffy St. Marie, an American Indian folk singer captured it in her song: Little Wheel Spin and Spin, Big Wheel Turn Around and Around.

Merry Christmas, jingle bells
Christ is born and the Devil’s in hell
Hearts, they shrink, pockets swell
Everybody know, but nobody tell

Now a more profound and actual darkness has descended upon us and eclipsed our vision. The welcoming torch of liberty is nearly extinguished. Our executive along with a compliant judiciary and a complicit Senate allows criminal behavior to exist in high places with impunity.

Rage, rage, said Dylan Thomas, against the dying of the light. May darkness have no dominion. Our rage (like this rant) only serves to release our animus before it festers. At the same time it seems to further entrench his mesmerized supporters. 

The season of Good Will is upon us. Yet no amount of holiday movie re-runs will grant us a Wonderful Life or gift wrap our eyes. Ho, Ho, Ho along with Fa, La, La are insufficient to brighten the landscape for the homeless and asylum-seekers. It is already bright with the tyger’s eyes fearful symmetry of William Blake.

However the recent election demonstrates that we shall not go gentle into that good night of Donald’s malice and mendacity. There are bigger wheels turning around and around with sparks of awakening. Flashes of lanterns appearing in the heartland have flipped the Statehouses in Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. The stark illumination of naked subversion and dereliction of office are in full view. There is a certain incandescence which truth itself gives off. The sunflower in a vase on our table refuses to die. Last week it drooped. Today it is upright and shines. I look for omens where I can find them.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Correspondence With Myself

(The following only makes sense if you use GMAIL. Google not only reads my email but provides a choice of responses.)

It didn’t work. Al is on to me and my mischief.  I tried writing an email to myself to see if the Google Algorithm would supply a ready-made answer. I apologized to me for missing my Thanksgiving dinner. I was hoping for instant forgiveness by Al. Nothing. Then I congratulated myself for winning an Oscar as Second Banana. He didn’t slip on that one either.

I was beginning to rely on their two-word appropriate response. This morning a friend sent a joke. My choices were, Love It or Good One or Very funny. Al nailed that one.

When given the three choices my impulse is to say anything but that. After all, the very least we can do is struggle against conformity. That’s the challenge. Maybe after a year or so of denying Al his appropriate answer he’ll leave me alone or have to come up with another set of replies.

This feels like a slippery slope. I expect the algorithms are always four steps ahead of us. Someday we’ll sit down at the keyboard and type in a word or two and, Voila or Shazam, our entire message will pop up on the screen complete with our sui generis nuances and quirky wit and maybe even a few emojis and an attachment or two.

I just wrote my message about missing Thanksgiving dinner to both myself and to Peggy. Again I was offered no canned answer on my page but Peggy was supplied with, O.K. we will miss you and Thanks for letting me know. Al still knows I’m messing with him but I can get away with my nonsense addressing Peggy.

Even now as I am typing Al is finishing my sentences. Damn him. We’ve been colonized. It may be time for something subversive. A call for iconoclasts to say the unsayable. The right moment to speak in fluent Trash. A plea to push the margins into gibberish if necessary. But how can we reach each other without his noticing?

What began as a lazy man’s service to dispose of a message with a click may yet become a full takeover of our selfhood. And while I think of it why is there no second “I” in algorithm? Obviously because Al has stolen my “I” and substituted myself for himself. Case closed.

Since I’ve been thoroughly Googlized by Al he can go on beyond my remaining allotment of years (days?) into my afterlife. It’s a great comfort to know that my email correspondence might continue posthumously. It could happen to anyone. With a little effort they might capture the sentences of my favorite long-gone people. Imagine an epistolary relationship with Euripides, Shakespeare or Yogi Berra.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Fantasy Thanksgiving Table (originally posted 2010)

Such a strange holiday Thanksgiving is. Three hundred million of us, give or take a dozen, sit down to the same meal this Thursday. We eat and drink until we're crapulous (great word, look it up) with family and friends whose company we cherish….. or barely put up with. Considering the rivalry of siblings, festering grudges, generational divides, crazy uncles, bores and Republicans it seems like a good time to plan my fantasy guest list......dead or alive.

I'd probably be tongue-tied if I sat down with Shakespeare, Mozart or Einstein. Jesus and I may not hit it off either. I'll let him and Marx chew on some communal scraps in the kitchen

Bill Clinton sends his regrets but says he agrees with everybody.

Orson Welles says he agrees with nobody but felt there wasn’t room at the table for another genius.

Sylvia Plath arrives late having been in the oven with the bird.

Sammy Davis Jr. was afraid the turkey wasn’t Kosher. Phillip Roth was afraid it was.

Tom Lehrer sits down at the piano and sings our benediction:

We gather together to ask the lord's blessing
For turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce.
It was slightly distressing but now we're convalescing
So sing praises to his name and forget not to floss.

Oscar Wilde is here after getting through immigration telling officials, all he has to declare is his genius. Mark Twain accepts the invitation when he sees the opportunity to violate at least a couple of the deadly sins….gluttony and sloth. Pass the Chardonnay.

Dorothy Parker is disappointed that the table isn’t round but sits between them because she always wanted the twain to meet They chat it up over all the stuffing they’ve known along the way. I let Yeats and Keats carve the bird and settle the white and dark meat as they figure out how to rhyme their names. Peggy supplies the contemporary poet's voice to bring them up to speed. Tom Lehrer tells John Keats that when the poet was his age he’d been dead for 58 years. Open the merlot.

John Prine gets his gravy and lets loose with, it makes no sense that common sense don't make no sense no more just to bring the conversation down to my level. Molly Ivins passes the dark meat to keep us honest. If anyone’s a Vegan she reminds them of all that land out there God made good for nothing but grazing. Everyone digs in including Chief Seattle who hopes we haven’t forgotten how our ancestors came over here, undocumented, stole the land, killed their hosts and never left. Always forgive your enemies, Wilde chimes in, nothing annoys them so much. At that point Keats interrupts his ode to a turkey breast (thinking of Fanny) and injects his Negative Capability idea that we can hold opposing views without seeking resolution. He gets no argument about that nor is there any broken treaty over pumpkin pie. Pop another cork!

When Twain lights his cigar and starts raconteuring about those stiffs of the Gilded Age, Molly Ivins tops him with a description of Ronald Reagan who was so moribund that if he got any duller she’d have him watered twice a week. As to those Robber Barons she tells about the new barons of the 21st century who are so far up on the pyramid they can’t see folks on the bottom. Parker adds that if you want to know what God thinks about money just look at the people he gave it to.

D. P. asks to fill her chardonnay. She says she’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy. She knows she’s among friends and doesn’t care what’s said about her as long as it isn’t true. Oscar has found a kindred spirit. He tells her that a little sincerity is a dangerous thingand a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. Everyone’s feeling a bit crapulous. Yeats mumbles something about the center not holding as he slouches under the table asking which way is Bethlehem. Twain says he doubts what he reads in health books. One can die of a misprint. He remarks that all generalizations are false including that one as he disappears into his cigar smoke.

Wilde stares at the tablecloth and says, one of us has got to go. Keats, in his cockney voice, says something about consumption. No one disagrees.

It’ll never get as good as this but Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

In the Time of Our Scanning

Don't you know that stuff causes cavities? 

That's me talking to a dentist in the medical building where my pharmacy was located. Every afternoon after lunch he would come in for a candy bar. No, no, he said, it doesn't. Haven't I told you what causes cavities? It's my pencil mark on the X-ray.

If I wasn't a cynic before, this did me in. I've never altogether trusted imaging since then. Yet everybody's doing it. Florida is scanning. Georgia is scanning. Peggy got scanned four times since October. And I've been scanned twice this week.  My knee is either osteoporotic or the technician left his pencil smudge on my X-ray. Yesterday another doctor took the scenic route up and down my alimentary canal...snipping polyps along the way. No other trouble in River City.

Scanning deserves to be scanned. The word originated with the Latins who stole it from the Greeks who lifted it from Sanskrit. Poetry is its mother as in scansion having to do with where the stresses are.... iambs and dactyls etc...Originally it referred to the mount or rise and fall in the metric foot of a poem, a beat or rhythm as in toe-tapping. A poem scans when it rocks, when the body sways to the small leaps of the lines. In its travels the word has come to a halt in medical technology. Now it seems to mean, a close, careful gathering of data or image by a sensing device. 

In the end we have to trust our dentists and our voting machines, Trump to the contrary notwithstanding. Maybe he only trusts his dentists if they tell him he has no cavities, a perfect occlusion and a set of molars designed to make America grate again. Such a mouth should be donated, at the appropriate time, to U.C.L.A. for further research.

In the meantime. Our voting apparatus would be well-served if monitored by some Banana Republic where Democracy has taken hold after studying models of old American Civics books. The Republican Party seems to have forgotten all rules of decency and inclusion. First they close down polling places, then remove citizens from registration rolls, provide broken-down machines, run out of ballots, and finally poison the entire process by shouting "rigged" with no evidence to support the claim.  

After several Scans-Pet and Cat... Peggy awaits word from her from her doctor with results from her Tuesday ultrasound. May there be no smudges, no hot-spots or shadows. Or hanging chads.

There is some poetic justice about scanning. The way the machines spit out the ballots, knocking one Republican after another from a long-held throne in the House of Reprehensibles.

Listen, my children, to his midnight Tweets / the rants of a man in his web of deceit. 

In this ongoing opera Donald's arias do not scan well. His words are clunky, juvenile and hyperbolic. He is off-key and doesn't hear America singing. It ain't Whitman's yawp. It’s his own malice and loathing. There is a counter voice being heard. Millennials are stirring. The suburbs are waking. 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

One Thing Leads To Another

And that can send us out of this world.

When Peggy’s bronchitis was at a low point about ten days ago we thought it best to take her temperature. I had to search for the thermometer which we hadn’t used for at least twenty years. It was that old-fashioned type. After a few minutes of twisting and turning the mercury was still elusive and seemed to be stuck around 98 degrees before and after a few minutes under her tongue. I didn’t trust it and went out and bought a new digital one bringing me into this century.

I started thinking about that strange element, mercury, which I probably played with as a kid rolling the glob around, not knowing better. Quicksilver was the common name. It was quick and it was silver. Was it liquid or solid or both?

Before antibiotics or sulfa drugs mercury was used to treat all sorts of infections from syphilis to malaria. It was a favorite of alchemists who turned quicksilver into quick death. A corpse or two never stopped them.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a great believer. His mercury panacea, Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, was so toxic it poisoned and partially destroyed whatever organ it touched. He gained fame by fighting off a Yellow Fever epidemic. Bodies reacted by purging it along with our partially poisoned entrails.  Lewis and Clark packed six hundred Rush’s laxative pills with their gear while exploring the western territory. Sam Kean in his book, The Disappearing Spoon, tells how traces of the stuff can still be found which tell us where William and Meriwether built their campfires. Lewis died shortly after their return from an apparent suicide possibly with effects of that slippery substance. Mercury took its toll.

At one time hat manufacturers used a mercurous compound in the separation of fur from pelts. Hence the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland. The stories of mercury take us to a land of wonder. As the vet said to the cat-owner, I’m afraid it’s terminal. She has a case of curiosity. Kids and cats can die from it. Fortunately my curiosity stopped short of getting enough of that wonderful stuff spilling out of broken thermometers.

The Romans renamed Hermes, Mercury just as Zeus became Jupiter. Mercury gave us the words merchant, merchandise and mercantile. Hermes/Mercury, with his winged feet, was the messenger whose swift delivery corresponded with its rapid orbit closest to the sun (Apollo). Its elliptical itinerary is speedy but its spin is slow and the ancients mistook it for a sudden reversal of its west to east orbit. Actually it is just zipping around the sun at a faster speed than Earth giving the illusion of going backwards. Hence the notion, dear to astrologers, that Mercury is in retrograde 3-4 times a year. In Greco-Roman society Mercury, the demigod, reigned over communication, commerce and travel. He even escorted the dead to Hades and some of us living to an optical illusion.

It explains everything……if you are a believer. The missed flight, the bad phone connection, the overdue library book. Everything except a random universe and why quicksilver results in quick slivers when ingested. That glob of spilled mercury became a small planet, inhospitable to us earthlings and a trouble-maker as a nostrum for centuries. If anything is in retrograde it is America since Donald took office.