Friday, January 17, 2020

My Afternoon at the DMV

I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home gnashing my teeth while watching Cable News and count my brain cells sloughing off. But enough about Trump.

I received notice in early Dec. that my license is up for renewal on March 21st. 2020. Naturally I put it aside for two weeks. I was still digesting Thanksgiving gluttony. And naturally when I remembered to make an appointment the first available was April. 7th. I was forced to give up on-line in favor of in-line.

I saw myself standing behind fifty others at 7 A.M. in the brisk morning air to beat the crowd. However I got a hot tip from a dear friend which I shall now pass along. Don’t get there early, get there late. You might as well get a good night’s sleep. And don’t bother reading the manual. You’ll forget everything anyway.

I was there for two reasons: license renewal and a Real I.D. card which requires multiple confirmations. Several folks ahead of me in line had to drop out because they didn’t come with the requisite papers. Still one window shuffled me to another and I waited over an hour to watch the screen for my number to come up.

This was the sea of humanity I’d heard so much about. A cross section of America, Black and Brown, Asian, Anglo, Millennial, Gen X, Boomers and pre-Boomers. Faces registered agitation, annoyance and apathy in equal parts. These are also the voters who will either throw the man-child out of office or drive us over the cliff….a question which would not appear on the test.

I had no book to read. This would be my time to wonder instead of ponder. Just stare. Just be. I can’t say enough about clearing the head. It’s like cleaning the refrigerator, dumping that forgotten leftover, the green cheese in the back, wilted lettuce and stale bread.   

In by 2, out by 4:30. It could have been worse; I could have failed but I didn’t because I had an uncluttered head…uncontaminated by double yellow lines, which way to point the wheels when parking uphill or speed limits in a hospital zone. It was a triumph of common sense over rote memory. 

Here is another bit of advice: if you don't know the answer, skip the question. You are allowed three of these. I let one such nonsensical Q go unanswered. It had to do with the penalty for evading a police officer. Suspended license? A year in jail? or $1,000 fine. Who cares? If I ever run from the law I wouldn't stop to weigh the consequences. 

I must have been carrying a fair amount of tension because I felt lighter driving home. My neck was unstiffening, my hair didn’t ache anymore and I could enjoy the art of forgetting. Order had been restored. My unthinking body parts had been returned to preside over my cerebral cortex. As Queen Victoria said, Home James and don’t spare the horses!                                  

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Day I Left the Flock

Flock as in sheep. The supernatural Lord was no longer my shepherd. I found no external rod or staff to comfort me. Instead I began to grow my own. It all took place in what was formerly my father’s corner drugstore.

My father opened his pharmacy in 1929. He was located on a highly trafficked street with six apartment buildings across the wide thoroughfare and a subway stop close by.  A few years later the Grand Central Parkway replaced that road. It became a cavernous hole in the ground impassable to those in the apartment buildings and it slowly destroyed his livelihood. He gave up the store during the war years and it remained vacant, with Glasswax on the window for two years.

My father was, in my mind, a shaman. Deliberate over the torsion scale, quick with a cinder in the eye. He had a way of Being which aligned him with his customer/clients. They always had his ear. The vapors from apothecary jars had seeped into him. They offered assurance and a measure of herbs and fluid extracts direct from a garden of sorcery. When he dispensed a prescription it worked as if everything he believed in was contained in it and because he said so with a quiet authority.

What I’m describing was witnessed by me as a child but I’ve not had reason to alter my memory down through the thirty more years he lived. In fact his presence cannot be captured in mere words. I would now call it transformational.

In the summer of 1946 I had lately become a Bar Mitzvah. Doubt and Faith were already slow dancing in my head. The empty store was on my path to the schoolyard. I had just bought a first baseman’s mitt and soaked it in Neatsfoot oil the night before to soften the leather. So it was that I wore that mitt when I was stopped in my tracks.

As it happened the space was no longer vacant. It had become a storefront synagogue behind the white-waxed windows. A man in orthodox garb intercepted me. He asked if I had become a Bar Mitzvah and, if so, would I please come in to make a minyan. Apparently God didn’t bother with anything less than the requisite ten males. Females need not apply.    

I was appropriately fitted with a yarmulke and prayer shawl and probably lip-synched the arcane mumbles. The Torah had been housed just about where my father presided in a raised place between globes of colored water. As the other nine davened in that direction I swayed in honor of my father and sensed my own personal shepherd. I was smelling green pastures and was transported besides still waters. As for protection from evil or the shadow of death there would be no out-sourcing. I would be a pilgrim in the landscape within. I shall not be wanting. The actual raised to sublimity carries with it far more spiritual moments than any sacred scroll.

I left those confines and have rarely returned to what we call religion. The root of the word is to bind which evolved to a deep reverence dwelling on the divine. For me that divinity is within. Religion has nothing to do with edifice or prescribed behavior or ancient text. It is in the lift, the experience of oneness. Religion, the noun, is lost on me; I have only the adjective, religious. Yes, there are religious experiences and they're least likely to happen in a place of worship. That word is nearly exhausted in favor of transcendence which doesn't have the reach either. As for the flock, the congregation, I can only say Bah.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Identity and Self

So close. I had 3.2 million bucks in my hands and it slipped through. Of course I was in my 6th year. It was 1938. I had deposited a few soda bottles and managed to save a dime which bought me the first Superman comic book. A few years ago it sold at auction for over three million dollars. I should have known then I would never be a visionary.

With a little foresight I might have had a signed first but Clark Kent had no time for autographs. He was too busy looking for a phone booth where he could rid himself of that mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet and set the world right.

The Shadow was another one who could assume his identity in other people knowing full well what evil lurked in men’s heart except for the Lamont Cranstons of the world. And then there was Captain Marvel who materialized from some crippled newspaper boy.

I was still looking for my Self and he had two of them. Batman, as well and the Green Hornet. I suppose the unmasked Lone Ranger was the second self of that guy riding off to the beat of the William Tell Overture with Tonto at his side with a GPS.

I had a suspicion I didn’t really exist when a late-comer to the Saturday matinee was about to sit on me in the dark row. He mistook me for an empty seat because my feet didn’t quite reach the floor along the aisle. This is why children need to be equipped with a box of candy or wrapper to announce themselves.

Even at age twelve I doubted my existence when sent off alone to eat dinner at Eddy the Sandwich King, the local deli. What if the waiter would never come over? What if I really was invisible? But he did and I wasn’t. I was confirmed by a few pickles and some rye bread.

It was the Age of Psychoanalysis which shined a light on the inner life. Jung reminded us of the shadow side. R.L. Stevenson ran with it with his novel of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first Superman comic came out just about the same time as James Thurber's Walter Mitty.

If I had asked the bespectacled man from Krypton, Bruce Wayne (bat) or Britt Reid (hornet) each would say he was fighting crime and didn’t want to blow his cover. In fact they were projections of an inner hero practicing the ancient art of vigilante justice which seems never to go out of style.

All were models along with real-life athletes (Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson), actors (Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly) and even a few political figures (FDR, Churchill) who were interjected in my pantheon. Of course, they were all out of reach but somehow the myth of them remained as the Self searched for itself. I probably knew who I wasn’t before I knew who I was.

Now I’m thinking Self is that vital, inviolable being; identity is bogus. We attach ourselves to our job or (god forbid) Religion or (ugh) nationality and settle for those appellations as if they were our measure. I say we are far more complex to be summed up by a word or phrase or even a paragraph.

Our Self is our soul; also unsayable but the authentic being. Was Clark Kent yearning for Krypton or for Lois Lane? Even the owner of those million dollar pages will never know. Those super-heroes lived in a tangle of the author's alter ego. No cape needed.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Poetry and Disorder

Peggy went to nine schools before entering high school: two private, six months in a convent, one year in Beverly Hills, four public schools in Manhattan one in New Jersey. She was orphaned at eight and raised by a rich aunt and family who were wiped out in the Wall St. crash of 1929. Resilience builds character. Dickens could have written her story.

Mine was closer to the stable family which Tolstoy didn’t bother with. I was deprived of a deprived childhood having attended P.S. 99 for nine years including kindergarten. I can still smell the wood blocks, chalk dust, pencil shavings and pitted desks with ink wells. There I am running home with my report card of A’s and B plus but I never ran with scissors and played well with others.

If there is a poem in all this it’s not in the narrative. Poetry is less in the words than in the residue left after the words are gone. It is in the lift, the music, the illogic. Absurd leaps into unknowing. The poem is what words are incapable of saying, that ineffable sense beyond articulation. Like Impressionism the art is what makes the landscape tremble.

When Peggy was in Los Angeles in March of 1933 the earth shook to a measure of 6.4. The death toll was 115 but we prefer to think of it as my day of birth, the upheaval that was a sign, 3,000 miles away in New York.

My trajectory of an ordered life met hers filled with disruption, agitation and edge. Under the weight of rules and obedience something festers and then erupts with no sense of proportion.

It did for me in eighth grade when I briefly had my Donald Trump moment as a mindless, nasty bully. My co-conspirators and I nominated a kid for class president who was somewhere on what is now known as the Spectrum. The poor soul would have been expected to address the graduating class. He had been left back so many times he probably regarded the school as his permanent residence. Our teacher, Miss Seabury, wisely nullified the election as a mischievous prank.

Somewhere along the way I found that putting words to paper caused a minor seismic event. I wondered there they came from and what I meant by that last sentence. Some laughed and cried at the same time. 

Peggy lives with a poet’s disequilibrium between order and chaos. It is the same slant that Emily Dickinson insisted upon. I strive to see the world askew with astigmatic eyes.

If a touch of chaos is the well-spring of creativity a massive dose of it can do us in. Enter DJT who as ringmaster of this circus has caused a stampede of elephants and uncaged the feral beast. He is the anti-poet who degrades language and leaves us all with impoverished discourse. Yet even now his pernicious flim-flam awakens an aroused public defending the precepts in the American grain being eroded. Our foundational values born in the Enlightenment have never before been under such threat.

Poetry is rooted in reverence, inclusion and diversity. It offers compassion and connectivity. Yeats said of the poem that a quarrel with others is mere rhetoric. Poetry is a quarrel with oneself. It allows doubt. To what extent are we complicit? Maybe Trump is the seismic shift we unconsciously invited to test our givens.  He may be controlling the narrative right now but the poem belongs to those many voices in this landscape of disquiet.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Year-End Takeaway Ramble

Here I am at year’s end looking for good news. The best news is that it’s just about over. My main takeaway is to take it away. I’m ready to gather 2019 in a Hefty bag and dump it in the non-recyclable bin.

Too many bodily insults, noxious inhalations of Trump-speak, rain forests torched, rising seas, dictators installed, populations displaced and borders slammed shut.

And yet, as always, it is a mixed bag……the grasshopper sparrow is making a comeback and the Galapagos tortoise isn’t extinct after all. In fact science has discovered 71 new species even as 3,000 are now on the endangered list……along with Objective Truth which has endured a nasty time of it. In spite of 80,000 deliberately set fires in the Amazon forest our planet is twice a green as it was two decade ago. And that doesn’t include my banzai plant which I’d nursed with a grow-light for 18 months till it finally committed suicide.

Then there is eggplant parmigiana, Everything Bagels and a new flavor ice cream call Black Cherry Root Beer Float. But first place goes to the discovery of Sherpa blankets, light, warm and fleecy-fuzzy to greatly enhance my sleep which I regard as one of those inalienable rights.

Yesterday I received a cane from my healthcare provider. Give me a top hat and I’m indistinguishable from Fred Astaire except I can’t sing or dance. Ginger is nowhere in sight. Mine is a quad cane spanning twelve inches across to keep me earth-bound.

Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan warned about the pervasive impact of technology and how unaware we are of it. In fact most act as if living in the previous media age which is now revealed because it is virtually dead. So it is that fish have no idea they live in water. Today we can barely swim through lunch without reaching for our mobile device for late-breaking news or to check the name of some obscure movie or sports figure. We live in a glut of data and info still trying to sort out what’s important from what never happened to begin with.

Calendar time says to say goodbye and then hello. At this age I’m eager for more hellos. More years of juice to squeeze. More days of wonder and ponder. I hope not to leave this realm with such discord. How a gullible class has chosen guns and gospel over government, their grievances inflamed by that odious, hollow man. These are the folks whose fathers and grandfathers survived as beneficiaries of New Deal programs …. rural electrification, job-creation and Social Security. Somewhere along the way they became the congregation of the lost.

Peggy, literally 98.6 is still in her prime; she became a year younger through some mysterious alchemy. She published two novels in 2019 and adds oxygen to the air with her daily poems.  

Time is what I’ve grown to cherish, to halt the hours. Age helps with that. To in-dwell. Rejoice, we are here with our brothers and sisters to keep our orb spinning in good health. Amazing how old-age has arrived at exactly the year of my aging. Last year I was still 39. I’m now aligned with the leap. I can't come to the phone right now. I’m communing with the last leaf on the coral tree outside the window clinging to a memory of summer. The two of us.

As Robert Bly put it in his poem, Wanting To Steal Time,………….Every noon as the clock hands arrive at twelve, / I want to tie the two arms together, / And walk out of the bank carrying time in bags.

Saturday, December 21, 2019


Somebody once told me I was my own worst enemy. He was right. I now find myself with two auto-immune diseases, as if one weren’t enough though neither appears to be an existential threat. I seem to be doing combat with myself, genes attacking their cousins. As Tarzan said to Jane, it’s a jungle out there. My money is on my body to win. The system is rigged.

I suppose my fate is predetermined by some sort of genetic code. But maybe triggered by political aggravation or even that Perfect phone call I never made. I’ve always wanted to make a perfect phone call. Like:

Hello, Domino?  I’d like to order a large mushroom pizza. Twenty minutes? Fine. The name is Norm. You say you won’t make the pizza until I get dirt on Papa John. You just ruined my perfect phone call.

I don’t think pizza is the magic bullet against my immune system. I need to tamp it down. It’s un-hinged, raging like a deranged President.

Dear Immune System: I know it must be hard living with me all these years but can’t we talk? Have I offended you? Did you know you a have reputation of being fickle….or is that just your finger? Twisted, I would say. You’re a wild stallion, a marauder (I’ve never used that word before. See what you’ve done.)

There’s no need to enervate my muscles, stiffen my shoulders and inflame my connective tissue. True, maybe I’ve neglected you but I really do feel emotionally attached and you have an unlisted number.

All I can do now is suppress you. Muffle your pugnacity. Cut you off at the pass. I’ve let loose my terrible swift sword of Steroids. Please, no nuclear option. All I ask is a just peace with honor. A velvet regime change. I’d settle for peaceful coexistence as long as you know your place on the outskirts of my bodily precincts.  

Relax. Have a piece of fruit. Deep breaths. Can you feel my warm milk of kindness running through every vein? Yes, I see your lids are getting heavy. Just sit back and listen the music. I read somewhere that Wittgenstein’s brother lost an arm in World War I. He was a piano virtuoso and Ravel composed a concerto for left-hand alone. I offer this as proof of something but I forget what. We do have our arsenal of compensations.

Go on, have your fun with me. I'm starting to laugh at you, you, irascible old fool with nothing better to do with your haploids and double helix.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019


I was a member once. We, in the tribe, spent most of our waking hours together. We seemed to know exactly what to do though nothing was in writing. It was my eight years, plus or minus, called Childhood. Mysteriously, the rules of behavior were passed down….. marbles, chalk games, potsie, hop scotch, jump rope, mumblypeg, stick ball, curb games, stoop ball, ring-a-levio, kick the can, et al. All, a credit to an enduring oral tradition though I’m not all sure that tradition has survived suburban backyards. My tribe existed on the streets and sidewalks of New York, borough of Queens. I have no doubt the same language with the same rule books were played out in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

As we grew older we left the tribe as unceremoniously as we entered it. We got the word…….individuate! We became one-of-kind, or so we thought. Aren’t I unique! After all who but I inhales Peggy’s muse, worshiped Paul Robeson, have rooted for the Dodgers for the past 79 years, played basketball in college, hate goat cheese, love crazy asymmetric splotched shirts, adore all things pumpkin, and despise Donald Trump more than goat cheese.

Which brings us to this new tribalization of America. Today we have those of us who watch MSNBC or CNN and that other tribe who get their received wisdom from FOX News. The chasm is measurable in light years. Our vocabulary has diverged. Consider their refrain of Deep State, fake news, perfect phone call, witch hunt, pro-life, and the hundreds of juvenile terms of derogation issuing from the malevolent clown prince of obfuscation.

With our two tents are we no less tribal than Afghanistan with its 350 factions? No. I want to argue that there is but one tribe…that den of dunces, mesmerized workers, greedy money-counters and spineless politicians who chant on cue for proto-fascist acts. Those of us abhorred by his daily antics are a widely diverse group ranging from Bloomberg to Bernie, from George Will to Rachel Maddow with dozens of stops in between. Our voices are a cacophony, not a choir. Motley not monolithic. Centrists may not show up for Warren nor will the Progressives abide Biden. Opposition to Trump is not tribal; it is the surmise of common sense, of enlightened deliberation as well as daily outrage. He has exhausted my store of adjectives and managed, whether inadvertently or by design, to scar our landscape and blunt our critical thinking. He has retribalized millions with a potion of deceit and incivility which can only be issued by a person of pathological self-absorption.

Mumblypeg, also known at Territory, was played with pocket 
knives. We actually carried such things in our non-violent tribe. We tossed the blade into the ground creating angles to thwart our opponent. All very fuzzy in my head. There was a strip of land about the size of two doors lengthwise just outside my apartment building. It is where my memory takes me now.That hunk of earth was a mere 25 yards from Kew Forest School which little Donald attended for a few years.

Metaphorically, he has taken those knives and slashed the fabric of our nation disfiguring our democratic tapestry and all notions of decency and honesty. Whether that suppurating wound is reparable depends on his removal from office.