Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Peggy Factor


Thursday 10 PM

She loves her doctors, all six of them. She loves Father Paddy, the chaplain. She even loves most of the nurses and quickly got used to the nasal-gastric tube. But the poking, prodding procedures, the prep for them and the dependence on others has tested those two words she lives by: No Resistance.

I marvel at her indomitable high spirit. I know of no other word for it. She is both fully present and yet lifted above in another dimension. Not buoyant but real. Peggy never rehearses bad outcomes. She doesn’t ask, what if or and then what? She lives in the Now. What I call anticipation she calls needless worry. I still have much to learn.

The Now is an obstreperous obstruction like a sig alert on the 405 freeway complete with road rage or to put it another way if the alimentary canal is a stream there is trouble in River City which requires a resection of her colon six inches of which have turned malignantly out of control. The surgery happens tomorrow afternoon.

Friday 10 PM

In spite of her alleged age, aortic stenosis, a compromised tricuspid heart valve and assorted maladies she came through the difficult surgery. She charmed everyone from the gurney including the anesthesiologist over whom she cast her own spell. The Peggy Factor prevailed in defiance of the odds.

I belong to that school which does not believe in prayer or vibes or the so-called transmission of positive energy. At least from a distance. I do believe that love and support, even service dogs, all improve well-being and healing to a certain extent if the recipient is open to receive them. Petitions to god are simply wishes. I know my view is not popular….particularly in Los Angeles. I may need to go into a witness protection program. At the same time my sincere appreciation for all those expressed their love for Peggy in any way they wish. Don't let me stop you. It can’t hurt….and I may even be wrong.

A positive attitude which Peggy radiates can’t kill cancer cells or Ebola or Aids virus etc… but it most certainly brings out the best in her doctors and caregivers. Open heartedness elicits an open heart in others, a full humanity. It creates a ring of generosity and kindness. A good part of healing is self-healing and those qualities have kept Peggy alive for 97 years come May 2nd.   


Thursday, April 12, 2018

But Who's Counting?

In June, nine years ago, my late dear friend Tony Pascal mentioned in passing that his son-in-law Alex had started writing a blog. Blog, what’s that, I asked. This is my 800th and I’m still not sure. When Tony described it as a web log I thought to myself, I could do that. The only reason I know the number is because Google is keeping count.

In a sense these blogs are my make-up exam. English composition was my worst subject in high school. I couldn’t cram or even prepare myself. There was nothing to memorize. Our assigned subjects were: What I did over the Christmas holiday or Our Happy Family or What Patriotism Means to Me or My Day at the Zoo. There were no good fits.

Up until my first blog post I wrote poetry or, at least, what would pass for poetry. Poems were passable enough to be published in about thirty literary magazines and win a few prizes. By blogging I wanted to see if I could remove that jagged right-hand margin and make paragraphs out of stanzas. Authenticity and accessibility, above all else, seem to be the trend in poetry. The result is conversational poetry or poetic prose.  

I’d like to believe that some of my sentences attain that level. Much of what I come across masquerading as a poem is what Kurt Vonnegut called, carefully ruined prose. I half-agree with him. In fact the most severe criticism of a poem these days is that it is too poetic. Of course Peggy’s poems are unmistakably poetic without the prose being purple or archaic.

There was something pretentious calling my stuff, poetry. So I unburdened the lines with the lesser designation. There is a blurring of categories between non-narrative fiction and narrative non-fiction and between poetry and prose. I’m fine with that.

My impulse is to lift my words into another dimension, here and there. Not to re-state what I read and watch on cable news or the Internet but to find some connective tissue or observe from a different angle sufficient to move the subject into a slightly different plane.

Taken as an aggregate the 800 blogs have become a tracing of my own obsessions, passions, celebrations, memories, infirmities and quirks. They run from reflexive vehemence to interior reflection. Rumination to rambles to riffs. As far as I know there are no rules to obey as in high school composition. 

My first blog posted in June, 2009 was called Much-Maligned Salami. I just re-read it. In it I attempt to confer upon salami its second act rescuing it from its cursed sodium nitrite and icky trans-fat, by calling attention to its zero carbohydrate content. Not that I had any desire to be stuck in a sausage factory but to give salami a small measure of redemption as a snack for diabetics. My take also revealed me as a card-carrying contrarian.

My choice for subjects runs from politics to movies, sports, history, literature and Peggy... and language itself. I’m fascinated by words, their elasticity and their long-traveled transformation over millennia. For instance, we live in tragic times and that word, tragic, has a cargo of 2,500 years on its back. It derives from a Greek work pertaining to goats or goat-song. Aristotle’s use of the term referred to theater-works of sadness or suffering which have an element of catharsis. The plays themselves were often awarded prized goats to be ritually sacrificed like scapegoats as if the sins of the city-state could then be expiated. There are plenty of goats in Washington today and millions of sheep who put them there.

After just about every blog I write I get the feeling it will be my final one. I would never have guessed I have so much to say. I can’t seem to shut up. The blank page welcomes my squiggles. It’s almost an affliction. If I don’t write for 4-5 days something starts gnawing at my entrails. I’m sure I’ve repeated myself along the way. Sometimes I plagiarize from an old poem of mine I might have come across. Other times I find that I don’t even agree with myself a year later. Blogging grants me that dispensation.

For the first few years I collected my favorites in book form. First came The Marriage of Everything, then I’m Just Saying and in 2014 Now and Then Some was published. All are available on Amazon. Since then I have enough material for at least two more collections but I can’t quite get my act together. My deathless prose may have to wait for posthumous publication…or wither away in virtual blogsville.


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Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Circle of Trump

So planetary and orbital, he arrived as a chunk of dark matter to crater our lives. Like a Sun God the man in the Oval roams the circumference.  His hair is sunrise itself. How he rises and sets all powerful worshiped by a landslide of love. How he goes and comes around like some circular argument to prove himself.

In a circular argument the conclusion proves the premise which proves the conclusion. So migrants are all criminals crossing the border therefore we need the National Guard. Why? Because these rapists and murders are threatening our national security. And how do we know this? Because Fox News says so and everybody knows this. It is even on T.V.

The circus of Donald Trump dominates the news cycle. The pocked lunacy. The perpetual spin. How he bounces the Hannity and sure enough it sounds ripe the way that red ball returns tethered as it is by rubber band to paddle. What joy he must feel to watch it roll on early morning tweets circling the Earth. Those bubbles overhead, now sixty watt bulbs, enough to wake faraway places to his brilliance. The incandescence of his nocturnal emissions circle the globe in a planetary roundelay. His blurts dance and shiver the ether  

He listens to his echo sounding sweet as an orange. The juice. The peel. Forget those inconvenient pits, the rind of the matter. Sunkist is the cover-up, the comb-over.

By executive order pi r squared, 3.14, is now fake. He has decreed a new ratio of O because O was Obama and must be repealed…like an orange the way the ball was foul even though it was fair because  the imp is now the ump, the guy who is calling the balls and strike, who’s safe and who’s out of the inner circle.

The Wheel of Fortune turned and we got Donald as if the previous administration was too lofty, inclusive and incorruptible. Maybe there is some cosmic rotation at play to offer a glimpse of the abyss after eight years of dignified statesmanship. Or perhaps this is an instance of the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, a symbol of the eternal cycle of renewal.

In any case the White House door revolves like a merry-go-round with dozens leaving and the few remaining out to destroy the mission of government, proving its dysfunction. What’s left is a poverty of deliberation and vacancy of competence….a balloon filled with hot air.

While the man putts his balls into holes at public expense the nation caddies his clubs.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see we have been taken for a ride with a flat tire.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Uniforms


Before Zuckerberg’s t-shirt or Steve Jobs’ turtle neck there were suits. Three-piece or gray flannel or those you could buy at Sears with two pair of pants, all wool gabardine. People wore them to see a play or fly from here to there. I wore a smock, on and off, for fifty years as a dispenser of assorted remedies and assuring words. I don’t miss mine at all.

Maybe they’ve been replaced by tattoos and bumper stickers. We’re not our job anymore; we are individuals each making his/her own major statement. Egalitarianism allows us to dress down, to slum or choose a wardrobe out of thrift stores. Designers have lines of scrupulous sloppiness with ventilation at the knees. There are friends I have never seen in jeans and others who always wear them. To each his uniform.

All of which leads me to remember vanished uniforms along with the jobs themselves. What ever happened to that young woman with her bright jacket and flashlight patrolling the aisles as she hushed us and ushered us kids in the dark movie house, darker still because it was Saturday afternoon and we always came in the middle of a film. Was she dreaming of being discovered, projecting herself on the big screen. Or did she fade to black?

Gone, too, is the doorman with his epaulets, our peacetime commander who lived on tips, waved, whistled and launched a thousand taxis. Doormen disappeared or did they just live in movies set on 5th Ave? I imagined these quasi-aristocrats fled Europe as professors or constables and had to settle for the ignominy of brass buttons.

And where is the elevator operator, in authority for the length of his shift, traveling vertical miles on one spot from Icarus to Orpheus as he alone contracted and expanded those wrought iron lungs?

The usher had no name but saw plenty of wandering arms in the balcony. Maybe the other two wrote novels in their heads from snatches overheard. They answered to first name only and remembered to speak politely to Mr. and Mrs…. on the 23rd floor.

They slipped away unnoticed, loud uniforms, shiny buttons and all. Jackets and caps now in vintage shops, indignity and pride embedded in the fabric. In one pocket dried lipstick and a stick of gum. In another an empty flask and a check for two bucks, uncashed.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

What’s the Big Idea?


Here I am sleeping in, semi-conscious, thinking big thoughts. I’m closer than ever before to the grand idea, the supreme connectivity, the metaphor that explains everything. I’m almost there. I can see it. But just when I’m ready to grasp the damn thing I move up into a more wakeful state and it’s gone. I’m left with the image of my favorite shirt.

This is no ordinary shirt. It is a work of art. I could hang it over the couch even if it clashes with the throw pillows. I don’t wear it very often because I don’t want to show off. It would be like Vincent wearing his Starry Night. The shirt is mysterious. It is a galaxy as yet undiscovered. Witnesses have passed out just looking at it. It is the answer to the question as yet not asked.

Apparel, advised Polonius, doth oft proclaim the man. So I wear this shirt sparingly not sure that I have the credentials to be the bearer of the Big Idea. How can I describe the greatest shirt in the history of shirts? It is deep chocolate as in dark matter with streaks of burnt sienna and celestial beige with random fires of terrestrial orange. It is soil and motion. Rust and forest. Rufous-sided towhees in flight. The ancient sun and apricot moon. It is asymmetrical blotches of autumn foliage. Sycamore divas singing their descent. Shakespeare spotted it and declared, Motley is the only wear.

When I wear my motley shirt I really don’t get to see it. Maybe that’s the way it should be. We are each other’s big idea. Everything can be found in anything. There are portals, for some, in their oatmeal. The Big Idea doesn’t hold still for a minute. Nothing moves faster than a fleeting insight. The harder you look for it the more futile the search.

In his novel, Satin Island, Tom McCarthy creates a character looking to tie together disparate images in his head. The hub city, Turin, or it could be Atlanta or Chicago, is compared to a parachute in its configuration. When he sees a news flash of a sky diver whose chute failed to open it becomes the dysfunctional hub city whose flights are delayed. So it is that everything is seen with new eyes from oil spills to out-of-control cancer despoiling the ecosystem.   

My habit is to seek out transcendent positions. I live in mid-perch looking for patterns, not too far away to be caught in the static but not altogether stuck in the muck. Maybe my shirt is half muck and half mist. The Big Idea is sculpted from the marble of small earthy particles.

We live in a time that cries out for a larger frame of reference. Otherwise we’ve been Trumped. I turn to the sweep of History to explain the phenomena. How to locate this blip, this aberration …or is it? Maybe the answer lies in the fear and rage he stoked and the human frailty to be suckered, to abdicate our autonomy and be led by a hollow man of overwhelming promises and audacity. My shirt gives me an aesthetic lift but that’s not enough to save us from the menace of the man.    

Where are you Steven Hawking to explain our predicament, this Small Bang, this deposit of human debris and orbital retrograde?  

Monday, March 26, 2018

Bits and Bananas

There we were at the restaurant. He was on the tip of our tongues. We had his face but no name. Our smart phones were of no help. He was one of those bit players in 1930s, 40s, and 50s movies. A character actor. Not even a second banana or a third. Now his name came to me, Lane. But no first name and no movie because he’d been in seemingly every movie.

I went home and got it: Charlie Lane. It turns out he’d played in 250 films and hundreds of T.V. shows. Usually a grumpy, no-nonsense sort of guy. He actually lived to 102 with a career spanning seven decades. In a three year period in the 1940’s he was in 67 movies dashing from set to set probably with just a few lines in more or less the same role and often uncredited.

Lane was one of dozens of familiar faces we almost expected to see for a few minutes in every movie as if they created a part for him. Others included Andy Devine in cowboy movies, Jane Darwell (mother-earth), Franklin Pangborn (hotel concierge or floorwalker), Eugene Pallette (oversized C.E.O.), C.Z. Sakall (with the cuddly cheeks) and Arthur Treacher (always a butler), to name just a few. The last two moved up a notch as recognizable names at the time. Former stars in the Silent Film era who couldn’t make it in Talkies also got their licks in this category of familiar unknowns.

Each studio had its stable of Second Fiddles, Sidekicks or Second Bananas. Just as comedians like Burns and Allen or Abbott and Costello had their foils, leading men and women had their lessors. These included names like Donald O’Connor, Jack Okie, Zazu Pitts, June Allyson and Agnes Moorhead. They could be the girl next door or the guy from the other side of the tracks, always around so the star didn’t suffer by comparison. 

The Second Banana would lose his love only to be paired up with a Second Banana(ette) who was secretly in love with him all along waiting for the phone to ring. Off would go the glasses and suddenly she was cute or perky. Second Banana guys went off in the sunset with Second Banana gals as if some caste system ruled and everybody knew their place. But Bananas were closer to the marque than mere Bits and a few made it to top Banana.

I’m thinking of Ralph Bellamy who got snubbed by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, my favorite movie of that period. He later came back strong with his portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. Of course who could blame Russell falling for the irresistible Cary Grant. Stars like Gable or Grant needed Second Bananas who couldn’t quite or never would have that je ne sais quoi or weren’t suave and debonair or fast enough with the repartee.

Bananas, you could love; Bits you’d adore. As a kid I saw them as ever-present faces the way a distant relative would regularly show up for family functions. They made the world seem reliable. They were often eccentric. They gave me permission to be weird or qoofy at a time when conformity and anonymity was my default position. If I couldn’t identify with the Bananas at least there were always the Bits.

In a great scene in Casablanca when a table of German soldiers sing Deutschland Uber Alles it is followed immediately by the entire cafĂ© bursting out with Le Marseilles. In fact these were mostly Jewish character actors exiled from Europe… even the ones in Nazi uniforms. Of course the second Bananas were the team of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet who followed Bogey from The Maltese Falcon.

In the hierarchy of the studio system the only thing lower than Bit players was probably Extras. In hard times at least it meant a free meal for the day. They were needed for crowd scenes or C.B. DeMille’s cast of thousands. Nowadays they’ve been replaced by the magic of computer generating. Somewhere on this ladder is the cameo appearance which is an on-screen flash of a name actor the way Alfred Hitchcock got in front of the camera for an instant in most of his films.

It’s a good thing we don’t get to see the movie of our life before we live it, or even the coming attractions. Then we’d know our fate by the billing alone and the rest of it might not be worth the price of admission. However I’d like to think each of us is Top Banana in our own movie, the one we are living, angst and all, doing battle with evil and ultimately heroic and blessed.

Fifty years ago, in between films, Charlie Lane appeared in a reading of The Trojan Women along with Peggy at the Jung Institute. He told her she could have a career on the stage. No Bits or Bananas were they.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Poetry of Baseball

I’m told by friends, who don’t want to hurt my feelings, that they enjoy my blogs…. except for those about baseball. Of course I sympathize with their impoverishment and must also take up the challenge in remedial education.

Many great poets and writers have embraced the game. Among them are May Swenson, William Carlos Williams, John Updike, Marianne Moore, Donald Hall, Jack Spicer and Shakespeare. I just threw him in to see if you were paying attention.

To turn away from baseball is to reject your ancestry. Rumors have it that early man broke off a branch and swatted away an approaching rock thus giving birth to the rudiments of the game. The wood became a natural extension of an arm and the incoming missile could be the moon or any spherical celestial object. Perhaps it was the paradigm for our space program. When running, throwing, and catching were no longer necessary for survival they died as essential tools and became an art form or sport.

I can see this was too much of a stretch. It didn’t even convince me. Let me try again.

As if ordained by the gods themselves and brought down from Mt. Olympus baseball celebrates Euclidian geometry. It turns a square into a diamond punctuated with three pillows, as safe stations, and a metaphoric home. The navigation around the bases is a hero’s journey, Odysseus-like. When home plate is finally achieved it is often accompanied by a cloud of dust to signify the arduous circumstances, with a god-like umpire passing judgement. Perhaps Zeus took pleasure in watching men fail. Sisyphus was not alone in futility. Baseball is so designed to reward a seventy percent failure rate with millions of gold pieces. Add to this the amazing correspondence of nine innings to our allotted decades on earth, with an allowance for extra innings here and there.  

Still not persuaded? Let me put it this way.

Can you hear it? The crack of the bat. The twack of ball into mitt. The smell of green grass and hot dogs.  Baseball is so pastoral, so American, so deliberate and so inconsequential. Games will be won and lost setting fans in anguish or jubilation yet nothing will be really changed. Trump is still with us, the polar ice continues to melt and the NRA still supports weapons of mass destruction. But here’s what changes: From Opening Day on Thursday to sometime in late October a human drama will unfold without script. It is neither rigged nor predictable. An alternative narrative is enacted in real time which makes more sense than this one we gnash our teeth over listening to Cable News. The game of baseball offers the illusion, at least, of order, strategy and control. Every stance and swing will be scrutinized and the mountain of verifiable stats may not amount to a hill of beans for the uninitiated but to us the fan(atics) it is its own universe, a ritualized life and death, only to live again the next day regardless.

The game allows men of all sizes and shapes, beer bellies, hulks and shrimps, cerebral and instinctual. It attracts physically endowed jocks and bespectacled nerds. Harvard graduates are now general managers of several teams trying to outwit their counterparts with new data yet the core of the sport is an unquantifiable human element. What is more mysterious than a sudden slump or streak? Even the dimensions of the playing field are inscrutable with the precision of an infield contrasted with haphazard measurements of the outfield. All of which add to the bafflement of each nine innings.

Baseball is our answer to the impermanence of life. It defines our seasons. There is an intimacy between pitcher and catcher in a shared fluency of silent gestures. Players are widely positioned spatially with anticipation coiled in their legs to dart at the instant of contact between ball and bat. And all this time the poet watches in the stands with time to ponder how life, itself, is simulated on the field.

Finally I am left with the nagging realization that I am really trying to understand why it is that I still care. The Bible says to put away childish things so I put away the Bible. At my age there is no messianic urge to convert the heathens. Only Peggy has the irrational exuberance to take on the game, as she has, late in life. Otherwise rationalization is as hopeless as hitting a 100 mph fastball.