Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Identity

Christ killer, George Leggett muttered under his breath. Again, You Jews killed Christ. We were playing touch football. My first thought was I had no alibi. Maybe I did and it slipped my mind. Who could account for their whereabouts 2000 years ago?

Then Russ Demetrius shouted it at me and he shoved me against the chain link fence. One-handed touch can escalate into near-tackle when tempers flare. I was the glue-fingered receiver having stretched to make a circus catch for a touchdown. I was 15 in 1948 and this was my first and last encounter with anti-Semitism.

The two of them attended Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, a parochial school, a couple of neighborhoods away. I guess they needed motivation to play and an excuse for losing. Perfectly understandable. I’m sure a few minutes in the confessional booth would work wonders.

I grew up in a bubble. It was the time of Four Freedoms as depicted in the posters of Norman Rockwell displayed on Post office walls and in schoolrooms. Unlike today, Brotherhood was all the rage. My classes were well represented with refugees. They were usually the best students. In spite of language barriers the foreign-born were the ones who skipped.

Fifty years later I learned that Kew Gardens was a destination for asylum-seekers. My world was sufficiently Jewish to delude me into thinking it was an accurate microcosm.

We were playing that day on the grass area of Kew Forest School, a private property whose fence we had all scaled.  The game was interrupted when I spotted the head-master of the school strolling down the hill before he spotted us. Instantly we all ran for cover behind a portion of the building which jutted out hiding us from view.

Suddenly we were all trespassers, partners-in-crime, in violation of some covenant if not commandment. Guilt joined us.

Jewish guilt was a worthy rival for Catholic guilt. They could finger their beads and do the arcane mumbles. I had to deal with my mother’s gevalts, her litany of aggravations. I might have been better off complicit in the Jesus caper, however, by now I suspect the statute of limitations would be in effect.

A few years later our president-elect would be attending this same school along with other boys and girls of privilege. Who knows what infractions they committed or what distortions were bred in the bone giving license to bragging, bullying and worse?   



Friday, January 13, 2017

I Can't Go On, I'll Go On


                                         The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett

Here I am in my subterranean laboratory, with cauldrons bubbling and a blackboard full of chalk. I am feverishly working through the night to calculate the algorithm for an elixir to ingest so I could nod off for four years and wake when all this is over. 

The alternative is to live my twilight years inside an apocalyptic sci-fi spoof given a zero rating by Rotten Tomatoes. Even the Hollywood Foreign Press offered no thumbs up.

The story begins when in 3rd grade, the class disrupter trades in his dunce cap to run for class president. On the promise of no more homework, short lines and the return of hickory sticks, for anyone disagreeing with him, he wins in spite of his tantrums, history of embezzling milk money and habit of throwing spit-balls. His opponent gets more votes but he claims a landslide victory after capturing aisles 2, 3 and 4 but losing all of 1 and 5.

Saying anything more is too easy. Word-weary stale, I’m spent. He has us raiding the glossary for adjectives. Is there another word for Thesaurus? I ask you. Did he ban that too, he of barbed tweets? Onceuponatime boidies churped. Now they are turned away from migratory routes, undocumented.

One tablespoonful should do it. Maybe two with a shot of….

But wait, I can’t swallow the potion yet because Peggy is putting together a chapbook of two dozen poems written over the past 25 years …all about movies. Her poetry is a distillate of films which struck chords in the far reaches of herself. So much so that the names of the movies have been erased from memory in some cases. This very act of transmutation gives me hope.

I must go on also because our friend Peter Merlin offers his art for exhibit at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. In one piece he has rendered a workingman’s boot on a pedestal. It could be Van Gogh’s shoe, crumpled and encrusted. But it isn’t; it strikes meas a juxtaposition suggesting today’s populist supported elitism. His portraits are fractured, demanding our attention from multiple perspectives.

It is alright that all roads lead to youknowwho? All we can do is to try to go on beyond the Donald. To listen hard for the voice of other Peggys and Peters and Becketts. Or as that other Nobel laureate put it…Oh Mama, can this really be the end / Stuck down here in Mobile / with the Memphis blues again.

No, not the end. We’ll go on.

Friday, January 6, 2017

In Our Midst

Low expectation enhances an experience and conversely only Dickens could get away with great ones. When I find myself touting a movie or book I have that sinking feeling of over-selling it. On the other end of the transaction my critical voice is likely to be aroused if someone tells me La La Land is the best film of the year or the latest Joyce Carol Oates novel a must-read.

Count me as one of those cranky card-carrying contrarians. I can do without fan-fare maybe because it robs me of discovery. Having said that ………..

I’m going to toot my horn for a sleeper masterpiece novel. The book is C.E. Morgan’s epic saga entitled, The Sport of Kings. Don’t let the name discourage you. There is a touch of irony in the title. It is more about southern racism than horse racing. In fact the core of the narrative is the joining of these two in the folly of human and equine breeding. No one in the book, on two legs or four, ever quite escapes their lineage, descendants of slaveholders, those in bondage or those bred.

Morgan’s language has echoes of Melville and Faulkner. Her voice is viscerally tough yet as lyrical as any poet who comes to mind. She gets close, then inside her characters, their skin and vocabulary. At the same time she sings the Kentucky landscape off the page. Add to this a spiritual dimension as an extension of her capacious humanity. It doesn't hurt that she attended Harvard Divinity School.

C.E. Morgan is forty years old. She shuns celebrity even as her first book, All the Living, won significant literary prizes seven years ago. Sadly, this book seems to have been overlooked in spite of notable reviews in the New Yorker and NY Times. I say this because I have been able to renew it twice from my library with nobody on the waiting list. Perhaps the 550 pages turn readers away. After I read it Peggy is having her turn. 

Both of us have savored one passage after another pausing to marvel at her linguistic risks. She plunges the reader into nether regions and then lifts us to transcendent heights...often in the same paragraph. In one digression two runaway slaves are crossing the Ohio river into Cincinnati from Kentucky...

He could already feel his ball and chain spirit becoming no heavier than a feather. He unties his tattered, sand-caked brogans and leaves them on the shore. He does not want to wear the shoes of slavery on the other side. Carry us, carry us, carry us and then the rocky bed swoops away from under their feet. The hungry current carrying them as they plow through the eddies.... A brief thrashing sound, another gasp and she slips below. Her hands then crash once more on the surface like the sound of two oars smacking. He tears his eyes from salvation to look back and sees only the white ructure she's made on the water. He is pulled powerfully between two worlds.... Her legs draw up suddenly in a wrenching spasm and her arms whip wildly about and spin for purchase... then release and like a stone, Abby drops away. He fights for the shore as if the devil himself were after him.... He's weeping in horror and drinking the river.... His broad, white latticed back is a curtain drawn on the crude festival of the South.

If she is given to excess, bless her for it. If the plot stumbles here and there it is to be forgiven. Her ambition cannot be contained nor is her grasp ever beyond her reach. One major character is, like Shakespeare's Falstaff, an essential voice but not quite of this world. The Sport of Kings exposes the sham and shame of racism, its virulence passed along as self-hatred. This is a book for the ages, an American classic in our midst.



Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Breakfast In the Dark Age


The sun is a bagel, the moon a croissant.
My head’s in the bowl reading Cheerios,
you ponder your flakes while sipping
a cup of antioxidant brew…but that was then.

Now our toast is burnt in a raisin bread sky
scrambambled eggs have been hacked,
Humpty-Dumpty is Trumped 
and the tea leaves spell doom.

Mold on the muffin, no sun in the O.J. Oh say
can you see that our flag's at half-mast.
The air has been fouled with fibs.
It's mourning in America (that's with a you).

How sweet the sound, not the word.
He promised to bring home the bacon,
to make grate the hash browns,
but they've been hash-tagged and nuked.

He’ll deport the dish-washer, the chef,
the guy who picks berries with an illegal smile.
The 4 AM tweet said let them eat cake,
those crumbs that fall from his plate.

He says he’s pro-life, it’s time to repeal.
Once they're born, who cares?
No more free lunch for losers.
If you’re sick, God forbid. The menu is rigged.

Science is fake, jobs trump pollution,
drill baby drill, let the suckers melt, ask (Ras)putin.
The heatwave's a hoax, the floods and the drought.
Damn solar & wind. Burn it with coal, just don’t inhale.

What so proudly we hailed!
Some lives don't matter.The second 
amendment's twice as good as the first.
Read your Bible, then read his. Such a deal!



Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Nothing Happens... And Yet

Most movies, particularly American, make a lot of noise if not in decibels than in the commotion around plot. You can hear the twists, the levers and squeaky doors opening and closing. Denouements have a way of knocking over furniture with contrivances. The more preposterous the louder the thud.

This could be why I welcome the quiet movie, usually low budget, where very little happens. All the tell-tale signs go nowhere. The gun, in close-up, is not fired and if it is it squirts water. The headache does not mean a brain tumor is coming. Much as I love that movie cliché where all the suspects are gathered in the library of the manor house and the chief inspector exposes the lies in everyone’s alibis to reveal the killer, tension is ratcheted followed by the clatter of spilled beans. Give me the hushed movie where seemingly nothing happens with no crescendo of a resolution.  

Of course much is happening when nothing happens. It may be implied or discovered between the words or in the way the character walks or holds a cup of coffee. In the new film, Paterson, we follow a bus driver in his routines from morning alarm clock to an evening with his wife at the movies during which time the dog eats his notebook. His unremarkable daily patterns seem like stanzas of a poem with their own internal rhyme scheme.

The title of the film is both the protagonist’s and the city’s name as well as the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams. In fact the great doctor-poet shadows the narrative as if his own work might have been derived from the same mundane material in plain language. The English bulldog, the waterfall, home-made designer cupcakes, the local bar are all characters in their repetitive ways. Patterson doesn’t say a lot but he listens well or rather overhears passengers in the front of the bus or from his bar stool. We see him dwell on a match box which turns into a love poem. He jots lines on his pad during spaces in his workday much as I used to write poetry in the pharmacy in between labels. This is not the stuff of grandiose Whitman in mid-19th century who hears America singing. This a contemporary voice of small epiphanies, an egoless, Zen voice who shrugs when his art is destroyed as if he knows anything done is done forever. The end is the beginning with a book of blank pages.
   
The poems composed during the film were written by Ron Padgett, he of the so-called New York school of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch et al. Here are a few lines from a Padgett poem not in this movie which seem to me emblematic of the story. Take care of things close to home first. / Straighten up your room before you save the world. / Then save the world.  
   

 Paterson is one of several recent films featuring working stiffs. The 
 brothers in Hell and High Water shoot their way for a piece of the rock. Fences peels the layers off the character of a garbage man struggling clumsily for empowerment and Manchester gives us a handyman carrying the world on his back. We see the face of loud and quiet desperation. Yet Paterson strikes another key with a man heroic in the way he is both caught in a scheduled life and at the same time has found access to the floating world through his imagination. I know the feeling. It took me years before I found my way as a pharmacist, beyond counting and pouring, to get closer to patients, to their troubles and small triumphs and, by extension, my own resources.


This sort of movie slows the senses even as it wakens them just as the blockbuster ones numb the mind as they rattle it with razzle-dazzle. Finding a portal to the inner life of a character requires a sure hand and the presumption that there is an audience out there eager to have some demands made upon them. It is particularly needed now in these days when our sensibilities have been shredded by special effects and our brains twittered to narcosis.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Remaindered Thoughts and Resolutions

It’s over. We who fancy bagels, baguettes and almond milk and read the N.Y. or L.A. Times lost to those who buy white bread and six-packs and get their news from The National Enquirer.

This election may have done America a favor. It has taken us to the sausage factory to see how it is done, given the heartland someone to hate and revealed how rapacious Capitalism functions based on greed and deceit, unregulated, untaxed and unaccountable. It has multinationals salivating. Now let us see if working men and woman can live on their drool and crumbs falling off the boardroom table.   

Seems like the time to wrap it up and look around the corner. Courage is a word I keep running into. To that I shall add, inconvenience. We need to do what is disruptive and what can be more so than calling the moving truck and relocating to those gerrymandered districts to color the map blue. Hillary won California by 4.3 million votes. If 10% of that plurality moved to Red America we would re-claim the House, the Supremes and the Oval office. Even 5% would have been more than enough. Feel the rust. Income distribution would follow population redistribution. If you can’t handle the cold move to Arizona. If that’s too hot we need you in Wisconsin. Central Pennsylvania is bucolic. Michigan is close to Canada. North Carolina has the most flagrant redistricting of all but with a rich cultural heritage. It’s time to toss the salad and stir the soup.

In the meantime our inspirational leader is unable to find any entertainers for inauguration day. He may have to settle for the marching band of Alabama’s football team. Surely there must be some down and out guy in his constituency who can play the harmonica or the washboard. Or maybe he can hire a stripper to do the hoochie-coochie.  

As for resolutions I wish I smoked so I could stop. My weight is what it was sixty years ago but I have less height to carry it. I vow to exercise more in 2017. I’m going to start by getting up from the couch with no hands. I can still put on my pants while standing as long as there is something to lean on. Yes, I shall drink more water though my doctor says water is over-rated.  And yes I’ll make an attempt to organize my papers, clean the refrigerator and find a good home for another slew of books. I may even learn how to use my smart phone with all its apps and clouds….but I doubt it. I wish I remembered my taste for an occasional wee drap. I do love martinis but not so sure how my esophagus feels about that.

Love is always the answer……regardless of the question. We, as a nation, need to cuddle more. To cherish each other and say so. Ah, the consanguinity of kindred spirits! To put flowers on the table. To care-give. I need to write more to my grandkids so they know how weird I can be and they can learn to cultivate their own eccentricities. Maybe we can even love Trump to death. To fill the country with so much creativity and soul it will devour the unreason and malice, to kill it softly with a song...to be reconciled, not resigned.

I can feel it. Songs are being composed. Books written. Poems. Visual art. Euripides is writing another subversive play. Artists are still free to create though it may become an underground activity conducted in Anne Frank’s room or over a barber shop in So-Ho where Salman Rushdie hid. But it will happen. We’ll have our day again.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Winter Seen

Putting aside all so-called religious fables which are more tribal than spiritual we are left with a shared calendar. Even then, in the Northern Hemisphere, winter shows its many divergent faces. The only true commonality of the day is the solstice, the dying and reemergence of the light; from here on daylight makes a comeback.

During my first 21 winters in Forest Hills / Kew Gardens I was the kid with two or three sweaters under a hooded Mackinaw with ear muffs, gloves and scarf dragging my Flexible Flyer three blocks to a dip in the topography we called the Toilet Bowl. It was a perfect place for sleds however if you went too far, too fast you just might end up in the Grand Central Parkway never to be heard from again.

Today the difference in temperature between here and there is about 45 degrees. Sleet and slush are not in our vocabulary. Styrofoam snow or Glass wax on windows don’t quite conjure up the white stuff that piles up in driveways and streets back east causing skidding and white-out conditions.

We pretend to keep the Norse legend alive. What can hurt? More than that we need our seasons as Vivaldi heard them. We need to end the imaginary year, to slow, be still, correspond to skeletal trees, to keep to the cycle of life, and listen to the stillness of everything gone. We need the mind of winter.

Short days, long nights give us ample time to align ourselves with the natural word of death and rebirth, our fears and hopes, as well as the urge to compensate for the cold and lifeless dark with hot toddy and gift-wrap under lit evergreens. We Jingle-bell the silent night and decorate the barren landscape with bulbs and seasonal language.

This year, more than ever before, it is hard to escape a sense of dread owing to what appears as the death of decency, inclusion, progress, science, of the planet itself. After these most noisy and nasty months we might welcome the solstice for its elongated shadow that signals introspection even as an ill-wind blows.

The ancients feared the sun might never return.  We know the feeling. We can join Europe in doom-saying as available light is rekindled. Or we can take it as a time to access our faith, yes faith, in a compassionate and equitable society and seed those values to reassert themselves in their own time. The solstice is the day for renewal of what must prevail. Otherwise we risk riding our sleds into the toilet bowl and disappear in the traffic of history.