Saturday, February 18, 2017

Making America Grate

Taking in a Trump news conference makes me nostalgic for George W Bush. Both men had to drop breadcrumbs to find their way out of a sentence but Dubya seemed benign, even humble. Of course he had much to be humble about.

Our current POTUS forgets the question in the few seconds it takes for a reporter to finish asking it. Regarding the spread of anti-Semitism he replied that he won 306 electoral votes, the largest margin ever. This was the answer to some imagined question in his head and a falsehood, at that.

His attention span and thought process are offensive to a rational mind. His non-sequiturs belong on Saturday Night Live. And he butchers the English language like a fingernail screeching on a blackboard which, I understand, is the same frequency as a baby’s cry provoking our ancient brain to shudder. One might say, Grate. 

Words don’t lie. People do. In the wrong mouth language can lead us into sinkholes, incite a mob or melt a glacier. The more we fear the more we loathe and that demands a fresh supply of negative terms.

With his fifth grade vocabulary Trump rants about everything wrong with the world in some sort of post-literate mindlessness.  His hyperbolic superlatives have the effect of numbing the brain. His favorite word is I but it seems as if it is, very, which precedes every adjective unless he can add the est as in greatest, smartest, biggest (himself)….miserable, disgusting, nasty (everyone else). His opponents are all losers, total-losers, stupid, idiots or morons….and more recently, fake.

His constituency might call it authenticity. The rest of us see it as near-incoherence, the ultimate dumbing down of America. On the other hand maybe this is not retardation but the ultimate salesman who has found a mono-syllabic way of communicating with his base.

The English language favors the nay-sayers. There are many more negative words than positive ones. We are hard-wired to express trouble. Grab them. Throw him out of here. Lock her up. Trump has tapped into the reptilian brain of aggrieved workers and the God-Gun folks who must imagine some monstrous threat to their existence.

There seems to be a correlation between corporate greed and low intellect. Carter’s I.Q. was 175 and Clinton’s a whooping 182, both genius level, whereas Reagan’s was 105 and the two Bush’s 98 and 91. (Those figures are not to be misunderestimated). We may never know Trump’s. Clearly Republican choices are not for smarts but for electability.

Aside from his grating the English language Trump’s first month has caused more grief, needlessly, to millions of Americans. America has gone tribal not unlike the Sunnis and Shiites. His cabinet and Supreme Court nominees have further grated us. We are in for four years of more grating, more shredding of international pacts on climate control, torture and assaults on our Constitution. Will his presidency grate even his own party sufficiently to move the conscience of Congress?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Nocturnal Emissions

It may be raining and pouring but the old man isn’t snoring. I am snoozing soundly when pulsations charge the air. No, it isn’t my bladder calling or a dislodged blanket. The clock says 1:30 A. M. which translates to 4:30 Manhattan time.

Our Twitter-In-Chief is at it again. Birds are not yet chirping but Donald is tweeting his nocturnal emissions. He has the attention of the entire planet which listens or not at their peril. Does he dream these blurts or set the alarm to wake the world with his tantrums and 140-character manifestos?

Past presidents deliberated over their manuscripts, draft after draft, weighing words with scrupulous exactitude. Even then they didn’t always get it quite right. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg is regarded as the greatest political oration in history. It is more than that. Those three paragraphs rise to the level of poetic-prose in their concision, lyricism and complexity.

Yet one could challenge its opening sentence. Four score and seven (87) years ago our fathers Did Not bring forth a new nation. He was referencing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and we were not yet a nation but a Confederacy of separate states. That happened twelve years later with the ratification of the Constitution. The notion of State’s rights has been used to extend Southern crimes against Blacks up to the present day.

Of course Lincoln knew his history. He also knew about inequality. His words were aspirational. In addition he spoke with humility, something which has almost disappeared from public discourse since our 45th president took office.

We cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here……

Lincoln was a mensch. Tough, resolute and humble at once. He was both visionary and pragmatist. Deliberate and decisive. Folksy shrewd and idealistic. He read. He listened to his rivals. (He even did a great impersonation of Daniel Day Lewis.) In short he was everything Trump is not.

To have come this far in science and technology, this close to an enlightened version of capitalism…. and then to retreat a century is a punch in the gut. I need my rest; a good six or seven hours with dreams of a better world inside my pillow. A good night’s sleep is a many-splendored thing at my age. It’s the final entitlement they better not take away. Let the nightingale trill and gurgle overwhelming any tweets emanating from the tower. May the bird, in full-throated ease, sing its ode answering those nocturnal emissions.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sticks and Stones

100,000 years ago, give or take a week, there were at least six of us Homo (humans) roaming the earth. Genus, that is. Homo Erectus, Homo Neander, Homo Denisovan, Homo Sapiens (that’s us) and a few others in the area around Indonesia and elsewhere. This all comes from Yuval Harari's 2015 book, Sapiens, which has been translated into 26 languages. No doubt we mingled, particularly with Neanderthal who may have been irresistible. Grubby ahead of their time. They did have bigger brains than us and were stronger. However we had one thing all the others lacked which has gotten us this far. We could hit a curve ball.

Or to put it another way, we, alone, could imagine. We could visualize what isn’t there and not only get nine men on the field to play a game but get hundreds of millions of us to believe in some construct such as religion or nationhood. In a famous softball game that never happened Homo Sapiens beat Homo Neanders. Thus did sticks and stones start evolving into Major League Baseball.

As an aside, one might wonder if Donald Trump has more Neanderthal in him than the rest of us. I would argue he has less since he can fantasize beyond the actual and call it truth.  But I digress.

I can almost hear it. The thud of a ball going into a mitt, the crack of a bat, the infield chatter, Chuck easy, Baby. In a few days the Boys of Summer will be reporting for spring training in mid-winter hoping to play in the fall classic. They are men for all seasons. For me it is a way of setting my seasonal clock.

Rookies will astonish, veterans will disappoint or as Shakespeare put it when he was a sportswriter……
         From hour to hour we ripe and ripe
         And then from hour to hour we rot and rot.

New surgeries have restored otherwise wrecked careers. We’re getting close to bionic arms defying laws of physics throwing the ball at 104 mph. Baseball is the traditionalist’s sport where the scoreboard contains no clock and batters run counterclockwise back to pastoral America. Yet the game has changed in ways only fandom knows, too esoteric to elucidate.

The astonishment of baseball which has never left me is the measurement, the feet and inches between bases and the distance from pitcher to home plate. It seems to me divinely inspired. Another few inches plus or minus would change everything. Furthermore the velocity of the pitched ball appears miraculously to correspond to the bat speed of the current players. Some Homo Sapien had a vision.

Our Tweeter-In-Chief has decreed that there are to be only winners and losers. Baseball defies that commandment. The best hitters fail 70% of the time. Teams on top generally lose 60-70 games each season. 

My guess is that Sapiens lost to Neanders more than once but eventually prevailed. Maybe it was our quilted loin-cloth uniforms that carried the day. Motley is the only wear.     

It is as we like it. And thereby hangs a tale.  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Holiday / Holy Day

February is marked by two dates which together form America’s two faces. Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday, or for those of a different stripe, Stupor Bowl. It is our update of Roman gladiators battling to the death or at least to a conclusion which makes Las Vegas odds-makers salivate.

Count me among those who allow the hormones to flow feeding my suppressed alpha male which, for no apparent reason, snarls and growls for 3 hours. The players pretend to brutalize each other and I pretend to care in the hope that all my aggression for the year is sublimated.

It is also our time to commune over pizza and beer. Over one hundred million of us will be watching, Blue and Red, growing fangs on the couch together. This year Liberals will be likely rooting for Atlanta against New England because the owner, coach and star quarterback for the Patriots are avowed Trump supporters and therefore beneath contempt. Makes sense to me.

Football is not what it seems. Think of the huddle. The camaraderie. Now think of eleven overs-sized or otherwise combatants each assigned to a specific role having memorized a lengthy play-book adjusting in an instant to the other eleven men’s counter strategy. It is practically chess on grass with an occasional concussion.

Our other face turns to love. Valentine’s Day is set aside to remind us how fortunate we are to have found our chosen mate. To tell him/her, not necessarily with chocolates and flowers, but with any expression of devotion. For the past 33 years Peggy and I have made this day special with poems and candlelight dinner. It’s getting to be a challenge finding a restaurant with a soft-backed booth and white tablecloth. But the main course is our poems usually replete with private language, un-translatable.

Feb. 14th can also be the designated day to forgive ourselves for everything we didn’t say, but felt, toward the other. All that affection that went unarticulated. We might even shout a forgiveness for that guy who didn’t hold the elevator door and while we’re at it offer a nod of pity for all those who have allowed the barbed voice to poison their minds and impoverish their souls.

For us the day is merely an extension of all the rest. I’m a lucky guy and I want to say it. It is made sacred by the sanctity we give it, our shared reverence for being alive in each other’s closeness. It doesn’t get any better than finding the one in whose company we can discover our full self. Let this Valentine’s Day be our filibuster against the madness of our country, our stay halting the moral violence in the common air.   

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Trump-Free Zone

It has come to this. We’ve experienced thirteen days that shook the world. Tectonic plates have shifted. The air is noxious. Saying President Trump has me gagging. I require three Heimlich maneuvers to expel the syllables. To regain a semblance of sanity I need to in-dwell, retreat from the noise, and re-center myself.

Here I am at the breakfast table. Today’s paper is being scrupulously un-read. It sits at the base of a vase containing yellow tulips, now seven days old, in full erection, bursting their incandescence like the bulbs they are. I had bought them still folded and now the petals are open wide like a parched throat having found a spring. It must be the sugar water I fixed for them or maybe they just enjoy our conversation over Handel’s Water Music.

In my Trump-free state I can see the still-life of our table. The yellows connecting from flowers to banana to cereal box of Golden Grahams. I think the carefully arranged clutter would challenge a Dutch master. The bowls, cups and glasses, milk pitcher and melon, utensils, place mats, sugar bowl and napkins. I almost forgot the yellow Splenda.

Could even Rembrandt capture it all? And would he need to? He would find the pattern in the jumble the way Rauschenberg would see it as collage or Pollack might give it a splatter with a yellow streak. It was all invisible to me until just now.

Outside the window leaves hang from some nameless tree. I must find out from either Roger, my dear landscape architect friend of many years, or from the landlord who lords over his plantings around the building rather lovingly. Confucius said to first know the names of trees. I’ve gotten this far without that knowledge but I wish I could respect the tree with its proper caption. I wrote poetry for a long while without the nomenclature. My subject was my ignorance of such things. As a kid trees were called, 2nd base or the goal line.

I should also know the names of birds. Then I could report which one it was that just chased away a crow four times its size. As Paul Harding reminds us in his wonderful 2009 book, Tinkers, the natural state of Nature is strife. The hummingbird is constantly in flight from predators. Does the cut worm forgive the plow? Adversity drives adaptation. The bough struggles for a sliver of sun.

We need to make peace with it all. Resistance is exhausting but so is it exhilarating and sometimes, as now, necessary. Wait, I seem to be veering back to the unmentionable. I shall not go there. This page is my therapeutic ramble away from the fray.

Back to the table. Yesterday I bought a melon. If it were a cantaloupe I’d be cutting it into perfect quadrants. But it isn’t; it’s a honeydew. I’m getting adept at cutting it into equal sextants or even octants. I didn’t know these words till I looked them up. It’s the least I can do in compensation for not learning the glossary of life outside our window. The large honeydew is my act of optimism. I expect it will be ready for consumption in two weeks. I hope to still be here. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How Tru, How Tru

Too bad Harry isn’t around to speak to Donald. One was a …man, the other an…mp. A Tru-MAN, the other a Tru-(I)MP.

Yes, I do love words. To stretch, pulverize and then dissect them to see what may be hiding inside. So here is the Imp writ-large, a demon or goblin noted for wild and uncontrollable behavior. He doesn’t qualify to be an ump. That would entail mediation between factions but he is already a faction, the guy who has moved the goal posts.

Both the 33rd and 45th President assumed the office at momentous times. The former presided over the beginning of post-war America. By any measure it was a new epoch. Our 45th POTUS seems to be ending that seventy-year period of America as a beacon, a defender of Europe through alliances and a promoter of free-trade agreements.

To the admiration of their constituencies, both men were elected because they said it as it is. Harry spoke in short, clipped phrases. He was a citizen of the heartland, a plain-spoken man without rhetorical flourishes. The buck stopped here with him. When his time was up in the oval office he simply got on a train at Union Station and rode, by himself, back home to Missouri. What you saw was what you got. Unlike the Imp.

Donald ventriloquized disgruntled Americans, particularly from the Rust Belt, orated in conversational style with locker-room vulgarities and schoolyard slander. He stoked fear and long-simmering hatreds while all the time gloating as celebrity. Truman lived with his famously insufferable mother-in-law in a small town. Trump lives on top of his tower in Bigtown. What we got was not what we reckoned for.

HST was a quick learner. He had to be after being sent into the next room by FDR which rendered him out of the loop regarding the Manhattan A-bomb Project and all matters pertaining to meetings with heads-of-state at Yalta and other summits. His load was the heaviest of any president. Twenty-five days after taking office Germany surrendered ending the war in Europe. Two months after that he met at Potsdam with Churchill and Stalin and weeks later made the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war in the Pacific.

I cannot imagine our Imp presiding over the carnage and restoration of order in the world, with millions of refugees and displaced persons seeking asylum, returning G.Is looking to the government for educational opportunities along with labor unrest, segregated armed forces and the transition to a peacetime economy.

When I was fifteen the 1948 election campaign was underway. I was a staunch supporter of Henry Wallace, the Progressive party candidate. Unlike other kids doing normal things like stealing candy from Woolworths or sniffing airplane glue I was scurrying from floor to floor in every apartment house for blocks at-a-time distributing political material attacking both Truman and Dewey. Forgive me, I was living in an idealized world built on peace and justice. We had Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger to sing ourselves to an imagined place. Truman, of course, prevailed beating Dewey and also trouncing all that Truth I had slipped under doors which went unheeded.

Looking back I have a greater admiration for Truman. He had to emerge from Roosevelt’s long shadow and he did, steering the nation through a troubling period. There are several areas where he fell short but compared to our new president he shines with a bright and true light.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

History in Real-Time

From an early age I have regarded History as one long camp-fire story. From mouth to page little was lost. I nearly shivered at Valley Forge and took the bullet for Lincoln at the Ford Theater. Events jumped off the page directly onto the canvas of my mind.

After WW II CBS produced a radio program called, You Are There in which they re-created a singular event from the annals of history. It later became a TV show hosted by Walter Cronkite and ran until 1958. The first one televised depicted the explosion of the Hindenburg dirigible (1937) over New Jersey. Later broadcasts brought us Paul Newman as Brutus in the assassination of Julius Caesar, John Cassavetes as Plato, James Dean in the Capture of Jesse James and Kim Stanley as Cleopatra. The program always ended with Cronkite saying, What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with events that alter and illuminate our time……and you are there.

No matter the medium, the drama unfolded on the stage of my head. But even then it had a certain remoteness set back in time. In fact I wasn’t really there. I probably had three sweaters on while reading about that winter at Valley Forge.

Where is Walter Cronkite now that these days are filled with events that alter and illuminate our time? I want his reassuring voice to tell me I’m not there, this is not happening, not in America eighty-four years after the Nazi Party took over Germany. I love history but I don’t want to be in it. Of course, we are always in it, eye-witness or not.

Never before in my lifetime has History felt so close. Even though the man was elected with 46% of the vote, this has the feel of a coup. Long-held precepts are being undermined, constitutional guarantees put aside, executive edicts issued, agencies gagged, the mechanics of governance dismantled. Our acts of resistance, or inaction, are being noted and given paragraphs in the great chronicles, in real time.

For a number of reasons we have raised a generation of young voters with little interest in what has preceded them. They can’t be bothered with the past when the present is so dazzling with gadgetry, with so many celebrities to follow, so unlike anything seen before. Antecedents are too yesterday in this altogether new age. Or so it may seem to them.

So why know history? Because you learn that the Middle Ages was not the time when everyone was middle age, that Aristotle was not alive when Lincoln was, that there are trends and progression and you can find yourself in that larger context. And when you get a handle on it you don’t vote because of a candidate’s hair or if he’s a nice guy to have a beer with but more by policies, platform and experience. You might even fear the consequences of a particular candidate handed over the power of the office.

In fact all this has a familiar whiff. In 1933 Adolph Hitler, with 37% of the vote, formed a coalition government. It could have been stopped had the Communist Party been willing to join with other left-centrist groups to form a majority. What ensued is the abomination of the Holocaust. Of, course his rise to power was abetted by certain elements in Germany who thought they could use him for their purposes. In fact he used them. The Republicans think the same thing and so does Trump. We shall see.

Millennials did not show up in our November election. Their numbers were the lowest since 1972. When they did, almost half, among whites, voted for Trump or third party candidates. Perhaps they never heard about Adolf and his deplorables or the civil rights movement or the women’s rights struggle. A slumbering society is exactly what elects a Trump.

Many have asked how a cultured nation like Germany with composers, thinkers and scientists, could have abdicated their power over to a ranting, ruthless dictator. It was, in part, his full grasp of the power of the new media, radio. One might also put the question to us. It took a perfect storm; the confluence of an aggrieved work force, a bit of misogyny, foreign interference and a man who tweeted his ill-tempered blurts to a forgiving electorate.

Too bad Walter Cronkite isn’t around to Tweet or text a camp-fire story, in bit-sized pieces, of how it was, how it is and how much worse it can get.