Wednesday, July 19, 2017

If You Live Long Enough....

…you get to see period-piece movies about events which you were witness to. Well, not Ben Hur or even Gone with the Wind but here comes Dunkirk. That pivotal World War II battle is soon to become a summer blockbuster.

In the spring of 1940 I had mastered Dick and Jane but not much else. Yet that name, Dunkirk, had reached my ears through RKO Pathe News. The five minute newsreels sandwiched between Saturday afternoon double features was our window to the world.

Six years later I was fairly well-politicized having followed the progress of the war on two fronts daily in print and pictorially in Life magazine. We lived it with air-raid wardens and blackouts and in the classroom collecting tin foil, knitting squares for quilts and filling books of war savings stamps sufficient to buy a $25 bond for a mere $18.75. In this we competed with other classes for top contributors. Our sixth-grade had a wealthy girl name Claire Weiss going against the seventh-grade who boasted of an affluent contributor represented by Patricia Yellen. Could that be the same Yellen family whose Janet now heads the Federal Reserve?

Dunkirk was the small beach town in France from which the Brits evacuated nearly 350,000 Allied troops including over 100,000 French over a nine-day period. It was celebrated as a brave and brilliant effort by a combined fleet of 900 small craft and the British navy. In his inimitable oratory, Churchill, who had just taken office a month before, turned a colossal disaster into a rallying cry which proved decisive in turning the tide.

Now one wonders how that ill-conceived deployment of troops and equipment ever got launched. If Britain was dumb Hitler was dumber. Had the Germans acted more forcefully the war could have ended right then and there. Hitler had the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) trapped but failed to act. By waiting three days he gave Great Britain time to recoup. Ten days after Dunkirk the French surrendered.

I can’t help but think of the Gilbert & Sullivan lines from the Gondoliers.

In enterprise of martial kind
when there was any fighting
He led his regiment from behind;
he found it less exciting
But when away his regiment ran his place was in the fore-O
That celebrated, cultivated, underrated nobleman, the Duke of Plaza-Toro

In today’s world of cable news Dunkirk would probably be regarded as a case of masterful spin. Wars aren’t won by retreat however masterful. It was a victory in the same way that Pearl Harbor may have lost the day but might be seen as a brilliant strategy to get us into the war and preserve Western Civilization.  It would seem to me that 1940 landing of the BEF is a classic example of military blunder. They penetrated too far from their supply lines, totally underestimated the size of the Nazi tanks and air power and had no exit plan in place.

I have little appetite for military thinking. There hasn’t been a conflict or skirmish since in which tactics hold even the slightest interest for me. However over lunch with my octogenarian friends this war we lived through remains a continuing fascination. We relive the battles moving salt and pepper shakers around the table along with packets of sweeteners as if we are generals. At no point did we come so close to losing…..and the U.S. was still eighteen months away from formally joining the fray.

There was a story in circulation, at the time, that Hitler saw Great Britain as a potentially willing partner in terms of sharing their empire. Indeed there were proto-fascist elements in England welcoming a German invasion. However Churchill had better words than Gilbert & Sullivan, in his Blood, Tears, Toil and Sweat speech before the House of Commons.

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Two weeks later in a radio broadest he stiffened every British lip with …..

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

I'm With You But...

Dear Gentlefolk at Compassionate Care, Natural Resources Defense Council, Amnesty International, Southern Poverty Law Center, DNC, Planned Parenthood, Save the Polar Bears, UNICEF, ACLU, PBS, AARP, International Rescue Committee for Syrian Refugees, Doctors Without Borders, Friends of the Earth, Habitat For Humanity, Coalition Against Gun Violence, Santa Monicans For Renter’s Rights…. plus KPCC and S.M. Emeritus which receive monthly pledges and those I’m sure I’ve forgotten…. I have supported you all and you’re all deserving and tied for first place.

But you’re killing me with Thank You notes. When I send you twenty-five bucks you send me $23.00 worth of acknowledgements in the form of bumper stickers, address labels, shopping bags, T-shirts, coffee mugs and maps. Enough already; just cash the check and shut up or remove me from your list. I know you are out there. I don’t need these costly mailers. Get a grip. Please, no more slick pictures of emaciated children, melting icebergs, mass-shootings, battered housewives or shipwrecked rafts. I get it.

You are clogging my mailbox, real and virtual. I spend an hour each day deleting the glut of petitions and surveys from Democratic Headquarters, Move-On, Nation Of Change, solicitations from worthy magazines, research for diseases from AIDS to Zika, Congressional campaigns and advocacy groups for the elderly. Yes, yes, I know about the dwindling bee population, danger of pesticides, reckless greed of Big Pharma and cruelty to chickens. How should I rank the pleas? Is the threat of a dysentery epidemic in Mali more or less deserving than rebuilding homes in the devastated ninth ward still waiting after Katrina? What about the inhumanity in the treatment of our undocumented detained and deported? Or the homeless right here in Los Angeles? And notice, I haven’t once even mentioned Trump, the elephant in my brain.

I’ve reached the point where I dare not open the mail. Saying, No, hurts too much. I wish I were a rich man! Fixed incomes don’t stretch. I apologize for having been born Here in the cosmic crap-shoot as opposed to There. Yes, I do live under fair skies, all body parts accounted for, neither ill-clad nor ill-fed with fair skin in this white-man’s bubble of humanity. So writing is what I do. A message in a bottle thrown off the Santa Monica Pier, as Maud said to Harold, so I’ll always know where it is

Even the best words in the best order won’t feed the hungry or reverse our acceleration to Fahrenheit doom but words can become swords with the addition of a single letter. Poets, and writers do best when they render their authentic selves, not as diatribe but as expressions of imagination and honesty, the ultimate subversion. Deceit lies at the core of our ills and truth-telling through art is a threat to the masters of denial and subterfuge. It is no coincidence that support for the Arts is on the chopping block.

As for the marriage of Art and Society, that’s a subject for another day. The task is to channel vehemence into an evocative voice which speaks to an audience beyond the choir … without expectation of return mail.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Hacked By Russians

Ouch, that smarts. Do you feel my pain? Google tells me that this week alone 273 Russians macheteed their way through my firewall, eluding my anti-virus first defenders. Google, which monitors my blog informs me how many hits I get from each country. I have a few followers in Israel, Norway, Portugal and France but to suddenly get almost 300 visitors from Russia smells like pickled herring to me.  

I know you’re out there lurking in my data base, nesting in my bar codes, fondling my case-sensitive passwords. I’ve never been fracked but being hacked, I think, is worse.

You folks couldn’t possibly be actually reading my blog. Could you? Russians haven’t read anything since Pushkin. Your reputation precedes you. Wait, I’m only kidding. I’m confusing you with Trump whom you had elected and his voters. Their literacy is limited to 140 characters.

Now that you control my life, my appliances, my car should I start taking the bus? Was it you who burned my English muffin this morning in the toaster and then ran our dishwasher for 3 hours? And why does my toilet keep flushing?

I should say I’ve long been a fan of everything Russian. I've read Akhmatova. I watch Andrei Tarkovsky films. I use your salad dressing whenever I run out of honey mustard. Peggy and I are reading Gogol aloud every night. You must know this already if you’ve hacked into my library account.

May I ask what is it you want? Maybe you’re confusing me with someone in high places. I’m the other guy, a man of no importance.  I’m not worth your trouble. The last office I held was in the 3rd grade 77 years ago. Sure, I voted for your arch-enemy, Hillary, but so did almost 66 million other Americans.

Maybe you are just mischief-makers working on your class project for middle-school nerds. Does your mother know what you are up to? Tell me what I can do to help you graduate into the KGB or whatever it is called now. Or perhaps your office is in the subterranean boiler room below the Moscow subway and you hack for the hell of it on your lunch hour.

Would it help my case for you to know that my grandfather was born in Russia…or was it Poland? No, I didn’t think so. The border changed so often back then. Those Russian winters were just as bad in Poland. At least in those good old days a Czar was called a Czar and he didn't even have a Swiss bank account.

Did I tell you I sold my store twenty years ago to a fine Russian family? They’ve been very generous to me. Oh wait, they’re from Odessa. Sorry, wrong country. What’s that? Not for long, you say.  

Would you like me to infiltrate the Bernie Sanders headquarters? Sorry, I’d make a rotten double-agent given my failing memory and proclivity for alternative facts. I apologize for wasting your time with this blog. I imagine you have more pressing nefarious acts to tend to. Instead, why not just hack into our immigration system where you can slip into the front of the line and live happily ever after in the Silicon Valley hacking your way to the good life. 

Maybe we can meet on some neutral ground. You name it. We can talk about this over a glass of spiked tea. You bring the samovar; I'll supply the industrial strength Stoli. My tooth brush is packed along with some long underwear in case I wake up in a Siberian gulag.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Not Your Summer Reading Book For the Beach

Lincoln in the Bardo, was chosen for our book group so I was obligated to give it a go. My first take was repulsion since it concerns the death and passage of eleven year-old Willie Lincoln, son of the President. Set as it is in a cemetery /mausoleum / chapel it’s a subject I am not quick to engage. Furthermore it accepts the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a premise which I regard as hocus-pocus.

But plunge in I did. Without trying to summarize the plot, no pun intended, I found myself being drawn in as my resistance withered. This is often the case for me. The book-train leaves the station and I’m either left on the platform or hanging on the caboose dragged along.

As it is, the narrative of this book matched my incapacity to give myself over to it. The letting go process corresponds to Lincoln’s slow release of his son. The President is filled with guilt as well as grief. Historians have recorded that the typhoid fever which took Willie’s life happened upstairs in the White House as a presidential party was in loud celebration downstairs.

The bardo is a transitional space across the great divide between life and death (and rebirth if you will), what Christians might call, purgatory. In the Saunders book it is populated by a chorus of deceased souls not unlike Spoon River Anthology. Three characters, in particular, are prominent, each with unresolved issues. Some of their stories are reliable and others disingenuous. It takes a while to sort them out. Maybe this is an echo of what Whitman meant when he heard America Singing, part comedy, part gravity.

The moment of transformation occurs, in this bizarre story, when the unalive characters in the bardo exert an extraordinary communal burst of empathy and inhabit the body and soul of Lincoln urging him to surrender his love into an acceptance of the loss and to move on.

Against this personal tragedy is the greater one which demands his attention. The nation has been ruptured and hundreds of thousands more will die in the carnage. When this occurs our main characters are also free to make their passage. In some strange way, Willie becomes the Great Emancipator of those caught souls, leading them to get un-stuck and continue their journey.

The author, George Saunders, brings the historical moment of the Civil War into our consciousness of today. Seen from the long view the conflict is the American Hundred Years War, or rather our two or three hundred year one. Since our inception we have slaughtered our hosts and imported human cargo for enslavement. 

If we extend the metaphor of the novel it becomes a plea for entering into each other’s mind with an enormous empathy to reach the place of soul. In fact the author suggests that it was only when Lincoln released his son, with help from those of the floating world,that he was able to go ahead with the Emancipation Proclamation.

The book was my struggle along with Lincoln’s. First I circled around it, scoffed then sniffed at it, picked it up and put it down, then I skimmed it and finally read it and accepted the schtick on its own terms. I remain unpersuaded regarding after-life, though it is a comforting fable. It can also be seen as a literary device for engaging the reader in a variety of imaginative speculations.

There’s a long list of movies and books which I find unattractive including Gothic tales, gratuitous (even un-gratuitous) gore, apocalyptic, horror, disease of-the week, comic book adaptations and those with laugh-tracks. Maybe it’s my loss, at least for those which have received acclaim from people I esteem. Let this be a lesson for me. Sometimes the subjects I turn away from are the ones I might find most rewarding. And then the subject becomes why I was repelled in the first place. What I call discernment may be nothing more than an over-active critical faculty which can be self-defeating by limiting the possibilities and cramping one's aesthetic choices.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

In Search of Beginnings

Stanley Kunitz is not a household name except in poetry circles. Yet if he was not a first class poet of the century he was certainly a first class second rate one. In addition his voice as an essayist was erudite and eloquent. It was my great good fortune to have attended his seven-day workshop in 1978. In one of his prose pieces he writes about his childhood love, in rural Massachusetts, of a Lake Webster mainly because of its Indian name Chaugg…………………………………………….amugg, forty-two letters in all. It meant, I fish my side, you fish your side, nobody fishes in the middle. Naturally he learned to say it and never forgot.  He lived 101 years having twice been named Poet Laureate, the second time at age 95.

My urban experience was different yet his love of language resonates with me.

There were tribes back then in big cities. Not nomadic. They stayed close to home. I know, I was one of them. The proper pronoun is, We, and we had our oral, sometimes non-verbal culture. We belonged to a tribe called Children. Kids in New York City, probably also in Philly, Boston, Baltimore maybe as far west as Chicago were members whether they knew it or not. What made it tribal was the passing along of rituals, chants and rhymes along with an unwritten code of behavior. It arrived mysteriously as initiation and membership as if some invisible Moses descended from a rooftop with a stack of commandments. We were carriers of a long oral tradition and were given arcane knowledge unknown or long forgotten by parents. When we got to a certain age we modeled it for new members and it left us without a peep.

Tenements with stoops and four or five story apartment buildings created a density of street kids gathering and spilling out into the flow of traffic. Cars were cursed for interrupting our games. From about age six to twelve my pockets were stuffed, at various times, with marbles, bubble-gum baseball cards under crossed rubber-bands, skate key, football needle, tennis ball, hanky, house-key, and most importantly, chalk which sidewalks were made for. A patch of earth was ours for Mumbley Peg played with pocket knives. Bottle caps filled with melted crayons or wax were collected for playing skully on the pavement. Every game had its own ground rules agreed-upon but never put to paper.

One potato, two potato, three potato four. Ally, ally, In Come Free. "A"
my name is Alice. Marbles were played with aggies, bolders and purees. As a receiver in touch football I ran patterns of stop and go or button-hooks. Where did it all come from? Provenance was never questioned. No one dared ask. From neighborhood to neighborhood there may have been slight variations but the words had a certain universality across the boroughs. Maybe it’s still alive there. It’s certainly not here in L.A. where three people congregated in suburbia suggest a conspiracy.

I don’t know where the line is between cheap nostalgia and the genesis of Self. If I’ve crossed it I’ll take that risk. What I’m getting at is those seminal moments, the sense of a beginning. It happens slowly by accretion as much on the street as around the kitchen table. When as a teenager, my neighbor, Johnny K, had a knife slip through his arm while climbing a chain link fence it resulted in a severed nerve which disabled two fingers. I never forgot the medical term for his condition: Palmar fascia aponeurotic expansion of the palmaris brevis. It was a fascination with the music in that terminology which stuck.

In the same way was the flow of sounds that spurted from my mouth in the one fight I can recall, at age ten, plus or minus, when out came those immortal words, You Fucking Bastard Son of a Bitch. Tell me it doesn’t roll off the tongue. Meaning meant nothing to me; it still doesn’t. Just the cadence, the rhythm of it which could instead be,You plucking custard fun of a stitch. Like Kunitz, I have never forgotten that porridge of syllables.

My friend-de facto-brother, Stanley  D. (not Kunitz), and I invented our own country, Aduldabia, located it as an island off the coast of Siberia. We even invented our own language but never got past a secret greeting. Those words remain in my memory bank. (I'll never tell)

Carl Jung, who knew an archetype when he met one, wrote, No one can free himself from his childhood without first generously occupying himself with it. In a sense archetypes are nothing more than original patterns. I’m the guy who would rather order a frothy saccharine concoction of a lacteal secretion of a graminivorous quadruped….than a milk shake.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Death and Rebirth

Everyone’s talking about death and dying these days. Well maybe not everybody but there’s Frank, our Greek drama teacher, in a discussion about Euripides’ revenge play, Hekabe.  And my friend, Fred, in our phone conversation about.. I forget what. And, of course, when I think of Mitch Mc…and his lot it feels like a death of the soul. And then there’s our book group reading Lincoln in the Bardo set in a cemetery. At this age I suppose mortality is never far from one’s mind. In the meantime the banana in the fruit bowl moves toward a speckled blackness and rot.

Add to this the inexhaustible supply of murder mysteries from Netflix. Every time I see a victim I think of the poor soul who got his/her start in theater as a walk-on dead body. How do they manage to stay still during those fake autopsies… with a tag on their big toe? I’m imagining a lot of giggles after the final take.

In the introduction to her translation of the Greek play Anne Carson references Beckett who regards the great human tragedy as having been born in the first place, astride the grave. As long as we’re all doomed we might as well make the best of it so have a piece of fruit. Rousseau said something about the most miserable people are not those who have endured the most pain but those who experience the least pleasure.

The latest David Grossman novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, is nearly 200 pages of a stand-up comedian’s monologue described by one reviewer as a meeting of Lenny Bruce and Franz Kafka. On top of that the guy is emotionally naked. To identify with him is to attend one’s funeral. Peggy and I are reading it aloud. Tough going. He has us in his brilliant clutches and we're squirming.

Life is cyclic. Consider the vibrancy of the new counter-culture if one is willing to allow that this oligarchy/monarchy of Donald the First is a culture at all. The seeds of coming attractions make their way into the moribund body politic.

Think of Arts, Science and geo-politics as one organism, a single stretched membrane. Touch it at any point and the whole web trembles. A medical breakthrough which enhances well-being is no less important than some draconian measure in Trumpdom to destroy it. The charged words of a poet can cause fingers on keyboards around the world to pause and suddenly see the world from a new angle.

So let me end this litany of morbidity with some words by Theodore Roethke whose greenhouse poetry traces his childhood experience in the family nursery.

The urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks / Cut stems struggling to put down feet / What saint strained so much / Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

Roethke’s potent lines could describe our country today rising against the Republican miasma. In the poet’s language it is a place of scum, dank with malevolent forces in a congress of stinks. Yet also fecund as it lays down rhizomes and roots from out of the mulch and slime.     

If we look hard we can see a new radicalism; not necessarily on the horizontal political spectrum but down in the vertical, reclaiming the old meaning of radical as root, the way one acts out of his core values rather than some old slogans and prescribed behavior. It may find resonance with an unarticulated sound aligned with our bones. Or it may involve wonderment as if seeing things for the first time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My Trump Moment

The fall of 1946 would be my last term in elementary school. I had spent nine years at P.S. 99. There was no middle school. We thirteen-year-olds were in the same building as those five-year-olds. I can still smell wood shavings from pencil sharpeners and chalk dust, metal stairs with saw dust where someone got sick and the tiny chairs where kindergarten kids wet their pants. I can see the ink wells and white paste and those long hooks which opened the high windows.

I look upon it now it now with affection but in Sept. of that year I was somewhere between a street urchin and man-child. It was my time to rebel. A moment of iconoclasm. A group of us decided to overthrow the order. Too many rules, like bricks upon bricks. The march to assembly. The words to be delivered. The ceremony. There was a sense of expectation to follow tradition which must have felt oppressive. Graduation was at hand and we were to elect our class president to preside and speechify.

My group of rebels nominated Robert Haimowitz in defiance. Something had gone awry with Robert’s double helix. There were no words for it then. He was a smily young man, probably three or fours older than the rest of us. I say this because he was the only one among us who shaved. His was a benign retardation. Unlike today’s elected winner. It was a cruel act on our part. I can’t recall if Robert was elected but our mischief was resoundingly denounced and nullified by Henrietta Oliver, the principal. Where are you now, Ms. Oliver?

That was my Donald Trump moment. I was part of the mindless mob; maybe even a ring-leader with a need to topple the establishment, to bring down Dick and Jane. I was mad as hell and I wasn’t going to take it anymore. Mad? At what? There was a big world out there and I was lost, ill-equipped. Robert Haimowitz was a short-hand for, anything but business as usual. He was our message of repudiation to the adult world.

Much has been written about Donald’s constituency from scathing condescension to puzzlement. Are they misogynists? Gullible? Legitimately aggrieved?  Can their grievances be addressed and remedied? It has been suggested by Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of Atlantic, that their loathing of the opposition renders them impervious to any of Trumps malice. We are dealing with a far more dangerous version of Robert Haimowitz. The divide is so great it may not be bridgeable by rational thought.

And yet……….put us and them in a room and we can agree on more than Mom and apple pie. I, too, enjoy church choirs…as long as I don’t understand the words. I even had a water pistol once. Shucks, we might both like Kentucky Fried chicken and listen to John Prine songs. Maybe student debt is what they deserve and it’s good losing healthcare. I’m willing to hear the argument. I’m even open to knowing how voter-suppression and gerrymandering is good for democracy. I could learn to love Friday night football if they could learn to handle wind farms and build solar panels. We may even have smelled the same smells in P.S. 99 and been party to the attempted coup of 1946.  Some of us got over it.