Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Late October Gore

October would be my favorite month with all that pumpkin flavored ice cream and such along with golden foliage. If it wasn't for the saturation with memento mori.

The last horror movie I saw was probably Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. I was fifteen and that hardly qualifies but I’d had enough. Earlier, I sat through Dracula, The Wolf Man and assorted graveyards, ghouls, zombies, vampires and haunted houses. The older I get the less capacity I have for what goes on in those dark and stormy nights.

In fact I can’t imagine what the attraction ever was. Are people starved for sensation? Just watch the news of carnage in Syria or corpses half buried in the latest typhoon. If it’s rage you enjoy check out the last Trump rally.

I abhor brutality, torture, can’t handle Holocaust films, prison movies or even fake autopsies in T.V. dramas. I close my eyes for butchered animals and cock fights. I can only handle food fights and pillow fights. And I must admit to enjoying the controlled violence of a football game. Indefensible, I know.

I suppose healthy people get inured to horror by laughing at it. I wouldn’t know. I’m not that healthy. My empathy gets in the way. I immediately become the victim of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Whatever catharsis that’s supposed to take place in the viewing doesn’t happen in my psyche. I understand folks watch Nightmare on Main Street in order not to have nightmares. I remember seeing One Million B.C. when I was seven years old. While Victor Mature wrestled with dinosaurs and assorted monsters I wondered how I would ever get home outrunning a saber-toothed tiger.

Here’s my problem. I must have suffered a mild but chronic case of post-traumatic stress. Maybe Nosferatu took a drink from my bloodstream. A Jungian would say I’m not facing my shadow side.  I don’t disagree. Some form of arrested development prevents me from differentiating the real from the imaginary. I know it’s not actual but it feels that way.

If there is a membrane between the graphic images of suffering in Yemen and the latest version of Hollywood spook… that membrane is no longer impervious. The shock and schlock of human depravity along with gratuitous scenes of blood-curdling beasts registers in my unconscious as a threat to my well-being. 

Strange how I wasn’t nearly so much of a scaredy-cat in childhood as I am now. I'm sure creeping mortality has something to do with it. My cerebral cortex doesn’t stand a chance against my reptilian medulla.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Doyle, Donald and the Penny Dreadfulls


It is a stretch, I know, to find the thread between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Donald J Trump but I’d like to give it a go. Arguably Doyle’s invention of Sherlock and Donald’s invention of himself are both high functioning sociopaths. Sherlock Holmes was one which fit the late Victorian age. Trump is less of a man than a phenomenon who came along to fill a vacuum created by an age of dislocation and accelerated change. The sleuth with the deerstalker hat was a noble outlier; the Donald is a megalomaniac who offers a satchel full of empty promises. 

Penny Dreadfulls were read by an estimated one million Londoners each week. They were illustrated sensationalist rags with stories of cheap thrills, piracy, murders and science fiction, aimed at young men. They ripped off versions of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes’ exploits were fodder just as Trump and the National Enquirer use each other to fabricate his exploits while vilifying Hillary. For eight years they had Barack and Michelle divorcing with as much credibility as a JFK citing or alien landing. The Dreadfulls were the social media, the Tweets of the day. Both were the creation of fevered minds. At least the 19th century version presented itself as fiction while Donald seems unable to distinguish fact from fable.

Victorian England was at its peak of Empire. Think globalization. Big bucks were being made by a few people. The air was foul. Tradition under assault. Science seemed out of control with epochal technology and new-fangled gadgets. The bucolic countryside was fast disappearing with a growing divide between rural and urban consciousness. There were 200,000 prostitutes in London. Homelessness, filth and indenture coexisted with a genteel civility. People knew their place. Social mobility was virtually unknown. Rigidity and rectitude were giving way to randomness and relativity. Society was held together by a veneer of respectability, class fixity along with a sense of order and resolve. Every disruption had its resolution.

Enter Sherlock Holmes. He brought rationality and logic. He deduced. He rooted evil out and restored civility. He was their defense against a random universe. He never died because he never lived. Arthur Conan Doyle’s invention rested on the shoulders of Edgar Allen Poe’s invention and upon Sherlock’s shoulder came Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade…the genre is still digging.  Detectives detect. They mostly act on their own as benevolent vigilantes offering the illusion of justice.

The new sheriff with the technicolor hair who rode into America’s heartland, on the last train from Yuma, is Donald Trump, that old robber-baron, land-grabber, in disguise. He and he alone nails the most-wanted posters to the wall. He leads the posse, locates the hanging tree and prepares the noose. He is the faux-detective offering simplistic words with a ten-year old’s vocabulary to complex problems.

Yet both Doyle and Donald appear at pivotal moments, albeit 125 years apart. Brits also encountered immigrants from their jewel, India. Holmes pandered to Londoners xenophobia with a distrust of foreigners. Many Indians ended up in Newgate Prison on the barest suspicion. Gay behavior was criminalized just as many Red states would have it today. It would be decades before women were fully enfranchised in England. Their first voting right act in 1918 was restricted to propertied women over thirty. 1895 Britain and the American Heartland bear some resemblance in their racism and misogyny.

The name Sherlock suggests razor sharp certainty. I suppose he would be repulsed by the fuzzy mind of our Prez. The man from Baker Street could surmise a man’s entire profile by a glance at his hands and the smell of his tobacco. Our guy from the high tower smelled angst and fear and inflamed it into irrational rage. There is a mystery afoot surrounding Trump something like the yellow fog that fell on London Town back in the day. May Sherlock Mueller get to the bottom of it all.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Tragicomedy


According to Horace Walpole, 18th century British author, life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel. I'm not sure what that means but I suppose if we both think and feel it must be a tragi-comedy. In the Age of Trump what seemed like a slip on a banana peel now has us all tied up in the trunk of a car going over a cliff.

Arthur Conan Doyle also had Sherlock Holmes meet his demise off a cliff only to reappear eight years later. I hope we don’t have to wait so long. Moriarty disguised as D.J. Trump is as American as poisoned apple pie…and apparently unrecognizable to the multitude.

Mel Brooks’ idea of tragedy is when someone cuts himself. Comedy is a person falling down a manhole. Even as we sink into an abyss we are cutting ourselves into slivers; denominations, tribes, sects, tents. The zeal of orthodoxy seems to me a form of mental illness but what do I know, as one whose allegiance is for inclusion and universality.


Bill Maher quipped that comedy is tragedy plus time. Maybe it will look like comedy in the history books of 2100 …if that year is reachable for the human race.

What is the common denominator of all this ferocity and xenophobia? My guess is an inchoate fear as a consequence of accelerated change. Technology has people longing, squirming and confronting the unfamiliar as never before. We have now created congregations of the lost even as social networking also brings together pockets of kindred spirits clinging on to what passes for identity.

Perhaps we are merely witnessing the last gasp of nationalism and a rush into some sort of spirituality, false or otherwise, looking for a piece of the rock that assures survival, salvation or at least a meaningful moment. 

W.C. Fields said it is comedy when a sword bends but not when it breaks. I wouldn’t know. The last duel I engaged in was with rolls of gift wrap when I was a wee lad. It does seem that the bonds of civilization have bent but are not irreparably broken.

Aristotle wrote that tragedy is man reaching for the divine. I prefer to think we all have a touch of divinity in us. It is in our nature to seek some form of transcendence. If we fall on our face in the attempt it is still more heroic than tragic.

The human comedy may itself be tragic. What started as a family squabble in 1914 turned into a crime against humanity. Today’s rising oceans, toxic air, encroaching deserts and cyclonic winds in all their fury seem to be our tale told by an idiot. As the curtain goes down who will signify our fate…our monarch, mad Dick the Third wrapped as buffoonish Falstaff?  Or is it Beckett, the absurdist, I hear snickering off stage?

When Sherlock returns from sabbatical he is on the moors disposing of the hound of Baskerville. Civility is restored. Gone is the uncaged beast and villainy disappears into the foggy bog. It’s elementary, my dear whatshisname.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Scans and Scams


With apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ and his poem Spring and Fall, With golden groves unleaving / It is for this country I am grieving. Outside our window are large coral tree leaves toasted, exhausted and falling according to their autumnal schedule. For our country it feels as if we’ve jumped the season into winter discontent.  I look toward poetry to take its cue from Nature in its cyclic renewal.

Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley appear to be withered and well into their foliage. The White forty-eight men have long been the bent bough ready to fall, as Thomas Jefferson said, refreshing our tree of liberty with the manure of tyrants.

While our democracy gets scammed Peggy awaits her next scan. The procedure has been delayed because of a nasty cough. Thursday is the day for her Pet-scan which will tell us and the all-knowing eyes whether her suspicious mass is this or that.

Our body politic has also been laid bare as if the entrails of the White House and Senate are available for viewing. The superficial FBI investigation gave a few senators, posing as voices of reason, the cover they needed. However we may never see what the F.B.I. report said and, more importantly, what it didn’t bother with. Twenty-eight corroborating witnesses never got interviewed.  As long as it rhymes with scam call it a sham.

Nefarious plots are more visible when hatched in Washington or Mar-a-lago. Trump and his lackeys have achieved a kind of transparency due to his needy ego. He cannot resist the adoration of his mindless groupies who require a dose of scorn. As a result we get his instinctive pugnacious vulgarity. His message of moral violence requires constant stoking to keep the rage smoldering. As James Baldwin put it, One of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because, they sense, once hate is gone they would be forced to deal with their pain.

Peggy has been scanned and double-scanned. The Pet-scan (Positron Emission Tomography) coming up calls for an injected dye with a tracer which flares in the presence of abnormal cell-division. If Donald were somehow scanned it would likely reveal the absence of a conscience. Evolutionary biologists would be baffled by the curious phenomena of a devious ignorance and calculated impetuosity. They might have trouble locating his heart.

The ultimate mystery is the human body. We feed it and nurture it and yet… we never quite know what it is up to. Peggy, at 97.5, is still in her prime, cognitively, creatively and in her full humanity. Others in the tottering tower cannot deny the winds of change rocking their cushy cradle. When the bough breaks the body politic falls. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Sounds and Ultra-Sounds


This past week has been a time of public testimony and political posturing. We have witnessed perhaps the final gasp of the patriarchy in a naked abuse of power and contempt … and finally being called to account. Dr. Christine Ford’s emotionally raw recall of her traumatic event with its clarion ring of truth was in stark contrast to Brett Kavanaugh’s seemingly rehearsed vehemence and, at times, sputtering evasion. Sounds of authenticity and fury of denial.

At the same time Peggy and I have had a week of personal dread, anxiety and some relief. A series of scans and ultra-sounds revealed a tumor in her uterus. In a separate matter a biopsy came back positive for a lesion on her hand. The latter will be removed in a procedure on Tuesday. We await word from an oncological gynecologist for the former. One doctor cheered us with the opinion that it may well be something of long duration and benign.

Amazing how certain words can alter body chemistry. Benign is certainly one of them along with negative when it means something affirmative. Just as mass, malignant and metastasize send the neuro-transmitters into survival mode.  

The macro and micro have also come together for me in past years. The day JFK was shot in Dallas I had just returned from a doctor with the news that my daughter Janice was first diagnosed with possible congenital deafness. We had suspected but dispelled the notion. It was the day before her first birthday. 

The two events have been associated in my head ever since. 
I have also joined, in my mind, the assassination of Robert Kennedy with my daughter Lauren’s first encounter with juvenile arthritis in 1968. Her elevated sedimentation rate inflamed her joints just as our country felt to me like it was coming apart at the seams.

It makes me wonder if troubled times have a way of spreading across my entire landscape. No, I won’t allow it. Whether the Republicans have their way with this nominee or the next one on their list the tide of history shall ultimately prevail. Women are taking back their agency, their bodies. Sex between one consenting adult is done.

It is all of a piece. The sexual abuse. The tribunal of disbelieving men twisting a trauma into a political vendetta. And the intemporate nominee to the High Court. Each of Trump’s candidates is an anticipated vote to overturn Roe v Wade robbing women of their reproductive rights. Life is indeed sacred. That’s why we have birthdays. Pregnant women cannot ride in carpool lanes. We are not suddenly nine months older than we think we are. If Republicans really held life sacred they would not display calloused indifference for human life, once born. So-called Right-to-Life is a hoax wrapped in a cloak of bogus religiosity.

Forty-five years ago John Dean described a cancer growing in the Nixon White House. Today that virulence in the executive has metastasized into the Republican Senate. Grassley and Graham et al (except Sen. Flake) turned a deaf ear to Dr. Ford’s story and voiced outrage in defense of their client as if spokesmen for the Good Old Boys’ Club. They were the voice of male chauvinist porcines snorting in a vanishing mud. May predatory men and out-of-control cancer cells no longer have dominion.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Your Call Is Very Important to Me

But I can't come to the phone right now. I’m too busy thinking great thoughts and looking for good news. If you are calling about molestation and harassment by Hollywood, the Holy Hierarchy or High Court, press one. If you are calling about derangement in the White House, press two. Melting glaciers and estranged polar bears, press three. Homeless folks living in cardboard boxes while the Dow is bursting its buttons, press 4. If you are asking for contributions to the policemen’s ball leave your message before the beep. If you are calling to tell us that Peggy’s Cat-Scan got mixed up with somebody else’s leave a message after the beep.  

The morning newspaper is filled with stories of bodies buried in a typhoon landslide, 124 immigrants found packed in a cargo truck, opioid drug overdose and a variety of mayhem and misdemeanors. Cable stations are feasting on bulletins of disaster. Netflix is bloated with serial killers, epidemics, carnage and apocalyptic scenarios.

As a kid I followed WW II in the New York Times. I remember feeling some pride learning how to hang onto the subway strap with one hand and folding the paper with the other. The pages were all about Allied retreats and advances, bombings, surrenders, liberations and maps of Pacific islands. It was a geography lesson. It all ended in the summer of ’45 and I wondered what there would be to write about. It seems that bad news is inexhaustible. Even in good times I read somewhere there are always about two dozen small wars going on which apparently don’t merit our attention.

Maybe some bad guy died. Does that count as good news? It’s probably why some people watch the Hallmark channel. Here’s a story of a woman living in her car for the past year who, along with four others, found a room in a five-bedroom condo through some charity.

The macro doesn’t match the micro. Just last week a woman let me ahead of her on line at the check-stand with my three items. The bonsai plant is still looking pleased with itself. That book the library claimed I didn’t return turned up on their shelves and they apologized. The honey dew I bought in August is almost ripe enough to open. At least I asked if it was ready and it didn’t protest.

Contrary to the impression left by Breaking News I don’t know any mass murderers, double agents, or human traffickers. I’ve yet to have lunch with a suicide bomber or been targeted by a drone. There have been no jack-knifed big rigs on our street. Dog-walkers bag their poop.

Singularly we are a noble lot. We hold the elevator door for each other. We stop (more or less) at stop signs and may grumble over prices but don’t blow up the market. There is no one on the road to incite me into rage. For the most part the milk of human kindness flows in every vein. And yet as we cling to some sort of neo-tribal identity the beast within is given legitimacy. We regress to feral-survivor mode as if…

We’re experiencing a high call volume. Your expected wait-time is seven hours. Best to call back between midnight and three when you can be assured no one will answer the phone.

As for that Cat-Scan, we are dealing with it. Peggy lives by these words of wisdom: No Resistance.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Where I Came In


Saturday between noon and one o’clock we’d be there inching our way across an aisle in the dark theater, my brother and I. It didn’t matter that the movie had started. Being four years older he was stuck with me; I was five, plus or minus. We were probably well-prepared for a long afternoon with boxes of Jujubes, Necco wafers and assorted agents of tooth decay and future zits. 

We would stay until we could say, This is where we came in. How many movies did I watch starting in the middle and working itself to the end and then the beginning? You might think that the lesson would have taught me that life is cyclic like the seasons. But it didn’t quite take. The counter narrative is linear sequential.

I expect most of us behave as if the world started when we fell to earth. Page one. Anything before was preamble. Progression was assumed, corresponding to our own growing up. Life in the 1930s was simple because I was a simpleton and my senses were rudimentary. See Dick run … and he did.

Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger sang union songs extolling the working class. You can’t scare me I’m sticking with the union…till the day I die, went one song. Another lyric was, They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there / You either are a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair. Blair was a coal mine owner who probably had brought in scab labor during a strike.

In today’s world of the absurd we have descendants of these mine-workers voting for Blair’s would-be chum, Donald Trump. This isn’t progress. It is regression. Some sort of twisted dictatorship of the proletariat. Karl Marx had it all wrong. The down-trodden masses have turned into the mob and cast their lot with the guy in the penthouse. The forgotten are led by the misbegotten. The sit-down strikers of the thirties are now marching to the hokum of a flimflam man. 

We knew those fat cats back in the day. Sydney Greenstreet, Edward Arnold, Eugene Pallette and Charles Coburn weighed in at about half a ton. They nearly always played the filthy rich tycoons indifferent to the man asking, Brother, can you spare a dime.

As Ma Joad said in the Grapes of Wrath: Rich fellas come up an’ they die and their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cause we’re the people.

Yes, the people keep on coming but they took a wrong turn, it seems to me, back in Vietnam war days when unions of hard hats mistook it for WWII and felt left out of the social upheaval. They became misaligned with their own welfare and miscast with the generals and war profiteers.

Oliver Hardy famously said to Stan Laurel, Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into. Their movies were part of my Saturday matinee menu along with the double feature, newsreels, March of Dimes collection, Looney Tunes, and a serial such as The Lone Ranger. We are currently in a bigger mess than Stan Laurel ever imagined and no William Tell Overture to signal the return of the masked Ranger or Tonto to set the world right.

Another Laurel quote: I had a dream that I was awake and woke up to find myself asleep. America is half asleep under the spell of malarkey. There is a card sharp robber baron and his band of cattle rustlers running the show with tacit support from the town folk. I am waiting for the part when the clean-shaven sheriff calls them out. It is high noon at the O.K. Corral. I’m waiting for the drunken doctor to sober up. For the schoolmarm to ring the bell and the saloon-keeper to prohibit brawls and shoot-outs. For the decent poor folk to figure out how their bread is buttered and stop shooting themselves in the foot. I can't leave now. I'm waiting for the scene when I can say, This is where we came in.