Sunday, September 20, 2020

Plenty of Nothing

As Alice said to the White King In the Looking Glass, I saw which he replied, I only wish I had such eyes to be able to see Nobody. Nobody is like Nothing…… And Nothing’s plenty for me.

What’s up? Nothing much. And therein lies the tale.

Shakespeare, that rascal, wrote Much Ado About Nothing but his nothing was a pun for No Thing, thing being the term for phallus at the time. Nothing has quite a history.

Poetry changes nothing said W.C. Auden………but people die everyday for lack of it wrote William Carlos Williams. Maybe that nothing which poetry changes is worth looking into.

There is a vast something in Nothing. It’s the absence better left unsaid or unsayable. Look for the meaning of a poem in among the words. The intervals make the music. The pause is pregnant.

When a friend needs our ear we are best advised to be quiet and reflecting. Just being present and silent allows the flow. All is nothing at all.

One of the problems with this world is our hunting and gathering of too many things. As the comedian says, I don’t want everything. Where would I put it? With our consumer brains we want, we grab, we accumulate heedless of consequence. The earth is scarred. The air is toxic. Our souls are not fed.

On that Streetcar Named Desire we lose touch with a healthy simplicity. Maybe that new car, shirt, shoes, I-phone was merely a distraction. Much can be said for nothingness.

At this age our time is now to liquidate. No attachments, the Buddha said. Disowning isn’t all that easy. That Kwakiutil mask is still blessing the Hopi pots. I’d like to think those books on one shelf are in conversation with those on the other. Wittgenstein is in dialog with Foucault and Samuel Clemens with Dorothy Parker. Reluctantly we'll let them all go. I’ll invite them to our fantasy Thanksgiving table.

In the end we have the Nothing which is Everything. It has all been interjected one way or another. The album is in my inner vault, that inviolable place which takes up no space, gathers no dust and is impervious to the next quake.

As Janis Joplin screamed about freedom…. It’s just another word for nothing left to lose.


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Magical Thinking

For those of us in California, PCH means Pacific Coast  Highway. It’s that vertical ribbon of highway which runs through Malibu and later winds into and out of Big Sur, with waves crashing below. However, to folks in Dreamsville, USA, PCH is short for Publisher’s Clearing House. The wait for that phone to ring or that knock on the door is their retirement plan.

Wait, says our inspirational leader, one bright morning the coronavirus will just disappear. Yesterday he also proclaimed that the weather will soon get colder. Since autumn begins in a week that’s a fairly safe bet but it won’t necessarily mean the end of the fire season.

Trump, in his infinite wisdom, relies on his audience’s short term memory loss as his unfulfilled promises stack up. As a devout naysayer to science and one who sits next to Jesus he believes there’s a time for fire and a time for floods; a time for pestilence and a time for hydroxychloroquine. Gaia sighs awaiting his next delusion.

And when a tree falls on your car or your house explodes it must be part of God’s plan. After all, everything happens for a purpose, doesn’t it? Actually no, it doesn’t.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you. That’s nice. I suppose. This has become the stock phrase for politicians. Translate as, Don’t expect this fire, this hurricane, this mass shooting to bring with it any new legislation.

Those words get the bearer off the hook. Too bad the sentiment is wasted. When we extend our fervent wish for a friend’s recovery it is all we have to express our love. And that matters to the extent that self-healing can happen.

But do thoughts and prayers travel through the contaminated air into the bloodstream of the infirm patient? Or vibes? Or pulsating energy transfers? Or pins in an effigy?

Count me among those who do not subscribe to wishes or curses. Nor can I, as an avid fan, determine the course of a ballgame by standing on my head or opening an umbrella while sitting on the couch.

I’ll probably lose a few friends saying all this. Prayers are wishes sent to God but she doesn’t answer mail no matter how many candles we light or gospel we mumble or how loud the exhortations from the pulpit.

What causes God’s wrath? We do. From denying, from abusing our habitat, from electing morons, from abdicating our duties as custodians. God’s wrath is nothing more than a cocktail of neglect and randomness.

Don’t bother me, say those in their moral torpor, I’m waiting for the phone call with my PCH sweepstakes retirement check.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Hidden Spring

On Friday Peggy took the stairs. All nine of them. A small step for humankind but a giant step in her return to ambulation. We didn’t plan this burst of energy; it came about because the medical transit vehicle was a no-show.

We may never know what resources we have until called upon to make the leap. The other lesson learned by me is that aging is a one-time adventure. We don’t get to rehearse our stumbles and bumbles. It’s all improvisational. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Peggy’s appointment was for an infusion of iron for her anemia; a certain motivation for making her way both down the stairs and back up on our return. The benefit of the I. V. has yet to be in evidence. The shortest distance from here to there is a zig-zag, sort of like life itself.

Part of the drama of aging is the discovery of what stuff we’re made of. In Coleridge’s Kubla Khan he writes, Where, Alp the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.

Coleridge never finished his poem. He was famously interrupted from his opium dream by a Person from Porlock. The poet, Ted Weiss, took this to suggest the beginning of the end of Romantic Poetry. In his book, The Man from Porlock, he makes the case that this was the metaphorical imposition of reality upon poetic flights of fancy. I doubt it. There was much more gas left in the tank. More likely Coleridge’s imagination simply dried up or the narcosis wore off.  

Thirty-five years ago, we visited the home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He is said to have believed that there were underground waterways in that region of England. In fact, we all possess some untapped springs within and Peggy reached deep down to find that stream by which she navigated those nine steps.

What allows the athletes to push themselves beyond themselves to break the four-minute mile? Up until 1954 it seemed an impossible barrier. When Roger Bannister first did it he ran seven tenths of a second below four minutes. Today the world record is almost seven seconds faster. Who cares, I hear you ask.    

I do, for one. When I followed such things, I used to listen to track meets on the radio. I recommend it for exercising the muscle of the imagination. Staring into the art deco speaker I could see the runner panting his way around the track and collapsing but not quite finding that extra push to beat the stop-watch. Perhaps he was nine steps short.

We don’t know every room in our mansion. There are  locked doors with secrets inside. The poet knows this but conceals as much as she reveals. The poet manages the nine steps but the well from which it is sourced and scooped remains mysterious and not necessarily replicated. Today we dip once.

Another poet, Ann Lauterbach wrote a book entitled, On A Stair. She suggests it may also be read as, Honest Air. For Peggy managing those stairs required a deep breath of honest air.



Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Land's Sake

In the past 170 years we have gone from Alice’s Wonderland to  T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland to Walt’s Disneyland. If this is progress, I’m on the wrong bus. And now Trump seems to think Kamala Harris wasn’t born in this country because she’s from Oakland. He must be thinking of Thailand or Iceland. Or maybe he is just upset because he couldn’t buy Greenland. Or perhaps he can’t forgive New Zealand for their enlightened approach to the Covid virus.

My preferred Land would be Wonder. Not as in white bread but the state of being astonished. There is an immense mystery to life which Eliot seems to be wary of without the presence of a supernatural being to propitiate. April is not cruel; it is full of wonder.

Yes, of course, Western Civilization was shamed by the cruel folly of World War One which had just ended when Eliot wrote his monumental poem. He lamented the absence of God in its aftermath. Could it be God picked up Lewis Carroll’s adventures of Alice and got curiouser and curiouser. Maybe it killed him the way curiosity killed the cat.

The bulbs that burst in April do indeed wither and go to Mulchland but that’s not the way Walt Disney saw it. His flowers are paper or silk; they never die. Just as Mickey Mouse and Pluto have found immortality, his Frontierland perpetuates the American myth.

Part of that myth is, Land of the free and home of the brave. I prefer Woody Guthrie’s, This land was made for you and me.

As far as Lands go my stop would be at Birdland, the jazz joint I remember from the early 1950s where Ella, Sarah and Billie sang and Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie blew. Those were the sounds that deposited me in a place to wander and wonder.  

Going back to Land’s Sake, I think that expression passed out of our common tongue about seventy years ago along with, For Pete’s Sake. Land is a euphemism for Lord and Pete stands in for Christ all of which brings us back to T.S. Eliot who couldn’t find God in the Roaring Twenties or in Be Bop and certainly not with the Mad Hatters so he landed in the Church of England. 

Some of us are willing to walk that Lonesome Valley all by ourselves. Not even Walt Disney can grant us a constant renewal on our lease.


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Boy Scouts and Me

I was a boy scout once. I left in disgrace failing to make the requisite knots. We had to demonstrate our dexterity with square knots and clove hitch, bowline and nooses. I could say it was the noose that got to me but actually it was all of them. I think a part of my brain is missing or tied up in knots. Let’s just say I never learned the ropes.

I’m not sure if I left as a Tenderfoot or never even attained that low rank. I remember wearing the uniform and marching. Left, right, left right. Another abhorrent activity. It reeked of soldiering. When we weren’t marching, mindlessly, we played boy/men games such as alley-oop. And other masculine nonsense.

The one prank which revealed the reckless nature of our troop was the Hidden Rope Trick. Three or four scouts would gather on each side of Lefferts Blvd as if pulling on a rope that wasn’t there. The purpose was to fool the cars. In fact, cars did screech to a halt endangering the drivers and those behind. Great fun for the brainless.

These memories returned to me recently when reading about the removal of a statue of the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell. It seems Baden-Powell was not only an imperialist and racist but also an admirer of Adolph Hitler and Mussolini. Why am I not surprised?

The one thing I came away with is the scout’s motto, Be Prepared. In fact, Baden-Powell came up with these two words in honor of his own initials, B.P. Here’s another initial which could be applied, B.S. as in Boy Scouts.

I suspect I didn’t learn preparedness from them. I tend to think I was born preparing for every eventuality. But even that has its downside. Living with anticipation or readiness robs one of spontaneity, of living in the moment. Should I smell the flowers or run in for an umbrella? There must be a balance between considering consequences and ordering key lime pie. Peggy is one who mostly lives in the moment. She has tried to teach me but I need another thirty or forty years of remedial lessons.

When B-P founded the organization 110 years ago fitness was all the rage. Teddy Roosevelt was a model of the slight, bespectacled kid becoming the intrepid wild-game hunter and exercise freak. When shot by a would-be assassin he merely paused and continued his speech. How else could he charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba? Let the fool charge. Let him lead the cavalry against machine guns in World War I.  I’ll stay home reading the manual about helping old people cross the street. And now I’m one of them.

I don’t suspect even Baden-Powell prepared for the ignominious removal of his statue in Poole Quay, U.K. before he would be dumped into the ocean. I wonder if they used one of his damnable knots to hoist it down.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Late Years

Peggy is regaining her stamina in accord with her own clock. About the pace in which a melon ripens or paint dries. In football terms it would be a ten yard gain followed by a nine yard loss. I count that as a one yard pick up. I push but not too hard. She needs to reinvigorate after being deconditioned by eleven days in the hospital. At ninety-nine this is no easy task. She carries each of those years in her step; a century of freight.

Her spirit and her body are not yet on the same page. The vitality in her voice and voltage of her imagination must wait for her bones and blood flow to get the charge. She is not spent. Her best poem is the one she hasn’t written yet.

Aging is an adventure if you don’t let the inflammations, irritations and occasional lapses of memory get you down. We get to laugh at ourselves. It may be the gun lap but that can take years. In fact there is no clock; we swallow it along the way.

My dear friend, Roger, is in his final days. He chose not to have his brain tumor treated. He is leaving us on his own terms just as he has led his most remarkable life. Born in France in 1937 he was sheltered by a farm family just outside Paris during the war and came to this country ten years later to live with the family of his half-brother. Abused by the disturbed woman in that household he ended up at Vista del Mar where he spent his teenage years. He had a steep climb ahead.

He found his calling as a landscape architect where his burgeoning imagination blossomed designing parks and public space. Roger carried with him an enormous solitude out of which his creativity soared. He lived his movie; the storm and the wound, the insistent drive, fierce integrity, bold vision, robust aesthetic issuing from his indomitable core.

Organizing a garden is like writing a poem as it domesticates the wild but not altogether. It reenacts the cycle of life as Roger reinvented himself. Plants assert themselves bending toward the light. The poetry of bringing together disparate elemental life became Roger’s legacy finding expression in his watercolors, ceramics and glass work…and most of all in his loving nature. He had the gift of renewal and was rewarded in his final years with Adele, the love of his life.

Peggy, even in these dark times, continues to write affirmations. She has earned it. If they are love letters to her circumscribed world it is because she has found the joy, even eroticism in language as words seek new couplings. She has an affinity toward the light part of which is her own incandescence. As the photographer, Paul Strand, said, All light is available light. She bends toward the source.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Missing In Action

A funny thing happened to me in high school. I disappeared. There’s a hole in my chronicle. I might say that I sat in one of those brownish chairs wearing my special brownish shirt and vanished into the woodwork but that was in college when I prayed to the God, I swore I didn’t believe in, not to be called on.

High school was different. Maybe I was at the beach with a million other New Yorkers on a sweaty Sunday in August. No, that was when I was probably about eight years old. My family had rented an orange umbrella with black stripes. I dashed into the ocean and must have drifted a while because the black-striped orange umbrella had multiplied a thousand fold. In fact everybody had the same umbrella. I was rescued by a lifeguard who found me wandering aimlessly after I stepped on someone’s sandcastle.

I can name everyone in my eight grade P.S. 99 class plus all those who skipped as well as those who were left back but I cannot count more than five or six from the Forest Hills High School graduating class of 1950. Where was I? I was thin but not that thin. I majored in anonymity. Forest Hills was a perfect place to dematerialize. There were no forests and no hills. Nor was there a me.

I imagined that everyone else had grown up that summer of ’46, except me. Maybe I overslept or had the mumps. I surmised that they knew something I didn’t. Not academics. They knew how to be grown-ups. They wore sport coats. They shaved. They dated. They knew small talk and big talk, flirts and blurts.  They were equipped to make their way in this world. I was still in the ninth grade of elementary school…..except it stopped at eighth.

It had never occurred to me it was all a game and they were faking it. I had to learn the art of being an impostor, suave and debonair. I couldn’t do Cary Grant or Clark Gable. Maybe I could attempt Henry Fonda or Spencer Tracy. I finally settled for second banana, the guy who ends up with second bananettes.

Somehow I got through it all but thoroughly lost. Too old to be a street urchin, too young to be a derelict. I followed my father's steps into Pharmacy School. It was the wrong prescription. In my freshman year we had to deliver a presentation before the class of 150 on some topic pertaining to the practice of pharmacy. I spoke about hiccups. This should have been a clue I was on the wrong path. 

My years at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy were one big hiccup. When I found myself it was too late. My mother said pharmacy was something I could always fall back upon. I fell for the next fifty-three years.

Being found may be overrated. I prefer the idea of becoming. We're all works-in-progress. Even at this age this clay is still soft.