Friday, December 6, 2019

Not of This Tide

Rudyard (may I call you Rudy?) Kipling was a most celebrated writer around a hundred years ago. He was esteemed by Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Freud, William James and his brother Hank. William J. compared him to Shakespeare. Even Edward Said, fierce opponent of colonialism, admired his work along with Salman Rushdie. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first English-speaking author. The next was W.B. Yeats sixteen years later.

Kipling was honored in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author."

In 1916 he wrote this very moving poem conflating his son’s death with that of a British sailor during W. W. I.

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has anyone else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Rudy’s star has been in the descendant for the past 75 years. He is not of this tide. He got it all wrong. The White Man’s burden is nonsense. Manifest Destiny is bull shit. Along with his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, he was an architect of imperialism. He loved the idea of building up man’s body with a good war. Even his beautiful poem damning war couldn’t help itself in the end by holding your head up high as if the folly of that Great War were not a crime against humanity.

Kipling lived in Vermont for about 18 months where he wrote some of his finest stories and began his novel, Kim. Here’s an example of his account of a railroad magnate, having procured an entire train for his personal use, traveling across the country during a great recession of 1892.

At night the bunched electrics lit up that distressful palace of all the luxuries…. swinging on through the emptiness of abject desolation. Now they heard the swish of a water-tank and the click-clink of hammers that tested the Krupp steel wheels, the oath of a tramp chased off the rear platform, now the solid crash of coal shot into the tender and now a bearing back of noises as they flew past a waiting train. Now they looked into the great abyss, a trestle purring beneath their tread or up to the rocks that barred out half the stars…..  

He wrote with poetic immediacy, drive and cadence as he suggests an unrest in the heartland. Yet for all that I regard Kipling as the finest last gasp of the 19th century. He was, for the most part, on the wrong side of history.

Can we separate the poet from the poem, the writer from his words or any artist from his art? I would like to believe creativity issues forth from the center of the creator but it seems not to be so. Consider Picasso’s womanizing, Eliot’s antisemitism. Rudy Kipling is one of those lost voices well worth a re-hearing. Genius is a gift not to be so easily dismissed. It is one of those conundrums I can live with.  

For anyone whose appetite has been whetted I recommend Christopher Benfey’s 2019 book about Kipling called, If, Penguin Press. By his account Kipling was a conflicted man with opposing voices moderating his view of war and imperialism. In his Epitaphs of the War, he spoke with regret
assuming the words of the dead,

If anyone question why we died,
Tell them becaause our fathers lied.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

In the Middle of the Air

When those in human bondage looked down they saw cotton. When they looked up they saw sweet chariots coming for to carry them home. 

Ezekiel saw the wheel / Way up in the middle of the air / Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air
Little wheel run by faith / Big wheel run by the grace of God / Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.
Now you never can tell what Ezekiel will do / way in the middle of the air / He lie about me / He lie about you / way in the middle of the air.

They may also have seen Lucifer falling from grace. According to Mormons Lucifer was Jesus’ brother. Not so, say everyone else. After all, only begotten sons generally don’t have brothers. Especially to rival them. Lucifer was no ordinary sort. When he fell he landed with a thud not unlike Humpty-Dumpty who was too much for all the King’s horses and men.

(The closest I could ever imagine is getting stuck in an elevator during a power failure. That’s not on my bucket list. Along with Severe Tire Damage it’s among those experiences I could easily live without.)

Lucifer was one of those pagan figures appropriated by the Christians to suit their fable. He was, in fact, the name for Venus, the morning star which seemed to fall out of sight daily. The New Testament took his beauty, his brightness and worldly brilliance and consigned him to eternal deviltry. How dare his curiosity which can lead to defiance. Lucifer takes the rap for Adam munching on that forbidden apple or pomegranate. Have a piece of fruit, he said, and for that gets a sentence of life plus forever. The lesson is, don’t mess with the Divine.

Icarus was another mythological young man who dared to defy authority. His father, Daedalus, who built the labyrinth that bested the Minotaur, warned his boy not to fly too close to the sun or his feathered wings held together by wax would melt. The accepted lesson seems to be that Icarus displayed hubris and paid the ultimate price. The way I see it the kid showed gumption. Who listens to their father? Fathers are yesterday’s news. The next generation pushes the envelope. How else would we have Saran Wrap or smart phones?

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him…is the name of a great book by Sheldon Kopp. Kill him metaphorically, of course. Listen to authority and then go beyond. Listen to yourself.   

Icarus was out there investigating in the middle of the air and then took the plunge. But there is more to the legend. Breughel, the Elder, is attributed as having painted, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.  The scene depicted is the legs of a figure going into the sea while a plowman is tending his field oblivious to the important splash in the green water. Benign neglect? Calloused indifference? There is a Flemish saying, And the farmer continues to plow, describing man’s indifference to human suffering.

In 1938 W.H. Auden took that theme and ran with it. In his poem, Musee des Beaux-Arts, the poet imagines several Breughel paintings showing town-folk ice skating, playing or doing chores and never looking up to the middle of the air. Auden was dismayed at the rise of Nazism of the eve of World War II.  I regard his poem as a cautionary tale of wanton disregard for the peril at hand.

This is my long way around to warn a somnolent American public of the imperative to vote in the presidential election, less than a year away. Too many voters seem uninformed or complacent, busy in the counting house counting all their money or at the table eating bread and honey. Next Nov. 3rd is not the day to caulk the bathtub or become a no-show because our candidate is far less than perfect. 

The Devil Donald with his brimstone of malice and mendacity must be defeated. The state of Grace seems to be unknownto him and one he will never carry. It is the one word which least describes him.

To his band of red-capped rally-goers I say, Question Authority. The man at the podium is a false idol with no chariot to deliver you. He lie about you. He lie about himself.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

When the Micro Meets the Macro

There is something in us that looks for correlatives, signs within that correspond to that external world which exists on cable news or right outside the window. It is as if we might align our private life with the events of history on one long continuum.  Historical events we find ourselves in the midst of have their way with our psyche whether we know it or not. Sometimes we mirror the news, other times we may act out its opposite.

In literary terms the objective correlative can sometimes be regarded as a tired, cheap shot. The patient is dying while outside the bedroom window a leaf is in advanced state of decay. The dark and stormy night references the weather inside the house as much as outside. Yet art of any kind conveys emotion best when revealed indirectly and not told.

When Rudyard Kipling visited Japan on his prolong honeymoon it was Kyoto’s season of cherry trees in bloom. He wrote about walking under this blizzard of petals as well as an azalea tree on the verge of bursting with fruit. All of this was possibly code for his wife’s pregnancy.

Four days ago was the 57th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The shooting took place one day before my daughter, Janice’s, first birthday. Lke many one-year old babies she was not talking yet. In fact she wasn’t even babbling; she was congenitally deaf. We had suspicions but no confirmation of her hearing loss yet I had witnessed her sleeping through loud noises. One doctor brushed it off, another confirmed our worst fears. While probably not historically accurate I conflate the Kennedy shooting with my daughter’s diagnosis. It felt like an assassination.

April 12, 1945, Thursday afternoon. I was coming home from Hebrew School, about a year in advance of my Bar Mitzvah when the news hit the street: Franklin Roosevelt was dead. People were openly weeping as if giving permission to each other. For me it was his voice now gone. Roosevelt was my President, the only President in my lifetime and he was more than that. His intonations shivered me with a beneficent divinity. I realized he was my God. His death was, for me, the death of my religious belief.

My body is in its Trumpian upheaval. A whistle has been blown. The deconstruction of our Democracy under his malicious imbecility is matched by the precipitous fall of my anatomy. Suddenly arthritis is having its way with me from ankles to shoulders. My joints are inflamed and testifying loudly. Bones are conspiring to overthrow my constitution. I am being impeached.

I can’t blame Donald alone for all this. Like the Fuhrer he needed help. I blame the invertebrates in Congress who have made a Faustian pact to throw a blind eye and deaf ear at the miscreant in order to serve another term. Perhaps only a spontaneous remission can save my architecture and the structure of government conceived by our Founders.

The only good that comes to mind about Trump's presidency is the Golden Age of Comedy it has engendered. However Peggy's love along with her irrepressible spirit and creativity are ample compensation for me. The more I moan the more she flows. So I shall shut up; I'm a lucky guy. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Messages Unsolicited

It may be mid-day in Mumbai but it’s in the wee hours of the day here when the phone rings. Just one ring is sufficient to rouse me from a hard-earned sleep. One and done. The No-Robo system works that way. All day the damn land-line is tolling. Ask not for whom says the poem. Sorry, John Donne, not for me. When I am asleep I am an island unto myself.

Again with the phone. Now it is ringing in earnest demanding to be answered. After all it could be Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Or the Nobel Prize Committee looking for that other Norm Levine. But no. It’s some guy telling me it is open enrollment season. I should only have my health. I figure if they really cared about my wellbeing they’d leave me alone. This time it’s 10 A.M. I am picturing the caller in some rented space between a tattoo shop and Thai massage parlor in a low-rent district in Manhattan. Seven o’clock here so I might as well meet the day.

Another barrage of one-ringers over breakfast which I’ve learned to ignore like punctuating fits and starts, some abortive sound and fury signifying nothing.

Now it is ringing again. Some campaign worker in Arizona working the phones for Mark Kelley or the Ditch Mitch office pleading for a few bucks. Too close to call says the volunteer in Maine telling me everything I already know about Susan Collins. The problem is I agree with everyone and I’ve already pledged on line.

Now it is Doctors Without Borders or the A.C.L.U. or Habitat for Humanity or Natural Resources Defense Council or Southern Poverty Law Center. They send me maps, calendars and address labels. Stop already, I’m not worth it.

This time the phone voice says, Hi, this is Bruce from Microsoft Service Center. You have been hacked by foreigners so you must go to your computer right now or we shall disable your Internet. To which I reply, Two sentences and you’ve lied to me four times. If your name is Bruce, I am Mahatma Gandhi. Secondly you are not from Microsoft; they don’t call people and lastly they never threaten their clients.

Next, I am told, in combative tones, that Social Security is after me or my credit cards are overdue or maybe my sister is stuck in Nairobi and needs money. Good thing I don’t have a sister unless I’d misplaced her at an early age.

Now an online pharmacy is calling because I foolishly left my phone number eleven years ago when shopping for I know not what. By this time I ask the man who is trying hard to disguise his Indian accent if he really wants to spend his life annoying people. Does your mother know what you are doing, I inquire. This always elicits an early click.

(Much can be said about getting rid of a landline. Mobile phones can always be stored in the far end of the house during sleep and set to low volume or vibrate. I might vibrate myself to happiness) 

Email shows a message from my Greek friend, Basil, suggesting a foursome early dinner at a new Mediterranean restaurant next Wednesday. By now I am crusty, cantankerous and curmudgeonly. I don’t like driving after sundown, say I and I also hate goat or feta cheese. I suppose that would mean I’d be stoned to death in Athens or turned into an ox. He says I’d be saved because the gods could't ever agree on anything and an ox sent to India would not lead a bad life.

My day was made. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019


Say that we have cleaved and you can’t go wrong. Even the word has been cleaved with each meaning, (separating or coming together) derived from a different source.  It’s one of those Janus two-headed ones staring off in opposite directions. Henry the 8th had it both ways. He first cleaved in marriage and then had some wives cleaved by decapitation if they didn’t produce. He gave new meaning to separation anxiety.

It’s come to this…a bifurcated nation with Us, the Good Guys cheering for Trump’s removal and Them, each watching the news as it breaks and each off to our respective cable-planets. If Trump were dragged from the Oval on MSNBC and CNN, on Fox they’d be showing a car chase in Wichita.

Then we cleave the other way with 100,000 coming together to cheer their team on any Saturday afternoon football game. The Super Bowl gets ten times the rating as the Democrat debate with over 110 million watching, betting, munching, cheering, jeering.

Let us cleave. The Democratic convention next July will be held in Milwaukee, about ½ hour flight from Cleveland. I mark that as a good omen. If the country can’t cleave together at least the Party must. We have the bigger tent, by far. We also have the largest electorate who cleave off in a stupor on Election Day; maybe they still can’t get over Saturday’s big game.

Nearly 60 million people play Fantasy Football. Do they cleave?  I wouldn’t know but in my Lyft rides last week I was able to speak that universal language with three of the four drivers. I doubt if they ever heard of Adam Schiff or John Bolton.

Joe is fading, Pete is rising, Elizabeth and Bernie are neck and neck. Newbies are leaping in. It’s almost like a football game with players being carted off in rhetorical stretchers and non-roster faces showing up not on the program.      Where are the household names, the All-Americans by acclamation? The guy with FDR's voice, JFK's vigor and Jimmy Carter's folksy sweater and Bible creds.  

It looks to me that no candidate will reach a majority. We’ll be looking at a brokered convention probably decided by super-delegates who weigh in after the first ballot. My guess it will likely be None of the Above.

Donald has set the bar so low any used-car salesman might be the one. We need somebody who can have a beer with Joe the Plummer, who can look Charlie Lunchbucket in the eye and talk the talk and at the same time speak fluent soybean with Farmer John and health and welfare to the rest of us.

Or do we need a Black Hispanic woman billionaire with magnetic charisma, name recognition, oratorical skills, unintimidated by the Bozo with broad-enough appeal to Never-Trumpers and who doesn’t strike fear in the Heartland? Did I almost describe Oprah Winfrey? Maybe but…I don’t think she’s the one either. Maybe what I want is a composite. What ever happened to Gregory Peck? Call Central Casting.

I am writing all this to find out what I think. I have until July 13th, 2020 to change my mind but it is becoming clear to me, with a mere 50 weeks to November 3rd, it all comes down to a single issue. We must win the White House or the American experiment in Democracy will cease… to be replaced by four years of tyranny and irreversible destruction to our planet. Nothing else matters for now. Not the form of healthcare nor even income inequality.

Yes, yes, of course I agree with Elizabeth Warren but she is a 
Hail Mary (football talk). Sadly she doesn't connect with enough receivers.

There was a time when no one I knew was to the Left of me. Now there are voices I’m hearing that a Centrist is no better than a Republican. They are wrong. A Biden-like substance would not stand in the way of a progressive Congress, nor would that person appoint judges out of the Federalist Society, nor would he/she block vital climate change measures or sane immigration measures. I don’t care if our candidate takes money from hedge funds. Wall St. Bankers also have grandchildren. Some even have a conscience.

There is no need to score a touchdown to win. A field goal will do; even an extra point. This is the moment for  Americans to cleave as in forming a huddle. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Vigilante Justice

Just behind Mom and apple pie there is nothing more American than good old vigilante justice. From Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger back to the noir detectives and before that the singing cowboy of the Wild West. For every cattle rustler there was a Lone Ranger and even lonelier Tonto. Who was that masked man and where'd he go?

The wheels of justice are far too slow or too corrupt and cumbersome for our extra-legal hero. Besides, who wants to sit through the tedium of the real world.  After all, the rugged individuals we are noted for can’t wait to set things right. He's got a nose for trouble. He has a few heads to crack, rescue a damsel and send the bad guys up the river. It all comes down to this: man, alone versus the institutions. The real enemy may not be the outlaw but the courts, due process and government itself.

Vigilantes always think they know better. The guy in the lynch mob knows where the hanging tree is just as the moron at the Trump rally knows the chant. 

Our heroes are the ex-cop or private eye who defy medical science as he tears himself free of his I.V. and walks out of the hospital twenty minutes after surgery to save mankind. Even better is the ordinary man or woman minding their own business when spiraled into a web of ordeals with dragons.

Everybody’s favorite is Clyde. When banks started foreclosing on farms in his day he didn’t wait for trickle-down economics to put a few crumbs on his table. He went directly to the bank. His withdrawal slip was a gun. Everybody needs a hobby. Too bad thirteen people got in the way of his bullets. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie redressed their grievances in that rugged American way. Somehow between holdups he managed to write a letter to the richest of all captains of industry. It doesn't get more absurd than this............

Mr. Henry Ford, Detroit, Michigan
Dear Sir, 
While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove [sic] Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever [sic] other car skinned and even if my business hasn’t been strickly [sic] legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.

Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Suddenly Old

A funny thing happened to me after my 86th birthday. I got to be 86….suddenly.  It’s been a cruel seven months. Up until my birthday I was thirty-nine, plus or minus. I used to play basketball in the park on Sunday. Now if I tried to slam-dunk I probably trip over the foul line and bang my head on the bottom of the backboard.

Aging knows no grace. It doesn’t inch or creep; it leaps, precipitously. One day you’re vertical and next, diagonal. I look at people in the restaurant with walkers as kindred folk. And they nod back as if to say you’re one of us now. Get over it.

Of course I’d always known about decrepitude but surely that didn’t apply to me, did it? I had pluck and spunk but that was then. When I go marketing now the first thing I do is search for a shopping cart (my walker) in the parking lot….even if I’ve come only to pick up a bread. 

In terms of endurance, agility or brisk walking, this is the age of subtraction.

What did you do yesterday?
I threw out the trash.
What else?
I changed the paper toweling.

About six weeks ago I went to sit down and I missed. It was in the E.R. when Peggy was brought there in the early morning hours. I had a newspaper in one hand and a cup of water in the other. My balance deserted me. I thought nothing of it when I landed on the floor apparently with my shoulders taking the impact. If I had given it any thought I would have landed on my face. A rearrangement of my nose, mouth, cheeks, etc… could do no harm.

In that nanosecond if you are granted a multiple choice do not opt for shoulders. They get nasty when insulted. They’ve served me well all these years and we’ve grown emotionally attached. Now I can’t reach or tuck in my shirt or even scratch my head without wincing. I can still shrug all right but I’m not in the mood for shrugging. The pain gets particularly loud when I’m trying to sleep. Hush, I say to my aching upper arms. I never knew it had such a low threshold of pain.

Add to this malady my neuropathy which has been mostly dormant for decades. It seems to have coordinated a frontal attack in my upper regions causing an enervation of the musculature in my lower extremities.  In addition my right knee and left ankle are arthritic along with a bone spur. Not one of those fake ones for people who live in towers but a real one for which there is no remedy.

To say that ambulation has become a challenge is like saying the Trump presidency gives one pause. In baseball terms if I hit a ball against the centerfield wall and the two outfielders ran into each other, then one woke up and threw wildly back into the infield……….I might or might not make it to first base.

Now I must return to my exercises, jumping to conclusions and running off at the mouth… if I can only get up from this chair. I must learn to act my age; something I thought I’d never have to do. 

Yes, I agree. Nothing is more boring than hearing about someone else’s woes. I’m putting myself to sleep with all this self-pity. It must be time for a nap.