Saturday, October 12, 2019

Aftermath


Wars have a way of upsetting the narrative…as if there really ever was one. Looking backward some of us try to connect the dots and trace a shift in the way things were...and then weren’t anymore.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, which was particularly uncivil, our history was marked by betrayal of the cause along with the rise of monopoly capitalism and the American version of Dickensian poverty. On another level, sensibilities shifted. Calvinism, with its rigidity and literal interpretation of biblical fables gave way grudgingly to a looser code; at least among academics, poets, writers and journalists. For the Blacks not enough was gone by the wind but immigrants ultimately provided diversity and then there was Charles Darwin even if many hadn’t yet evolved.

The First World War yielded the Jazz Age and Lost Generation…..lost to fertilize the fields of Europe, lost to the flu pandemic and lost in bewilderment. The notion of never-ending progress was snapped by the colossal stupidity of ignorant armies clashing in the night, as Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach put it. For a decade we let loose, drinking in Speak-Easys and living on margin with Dow & Jones until the bubble burst into a dust bowl of apples.

World War II was so disrupting it resulted in a decade of conformity with millions of new homeowners in tract homes with scrupulous lawns and  2 ½ children. Under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Eisenhower presided and everyone knew his place, still with separate drinking fountains and swimming pools. Under the Doris Day / Rock Hudson immaculate conception a controversy of birds was stirring on those metal trees on the roof and in the devil grass among dichondra. In came the Beats, the hair, the hemp, the flower-girls, freedom-riders, soldiers marching, sit-ins and love-ins.

Trump has been President for almost 1000 days. History may well regard this period as a wartime. We have been under siege with his pernicious mindlessness, the moral violence he adds to our daily discourse, his barbed mendacity, bellicose rallies which reek of Nuremberg and his frontal assaults on our democracy. I may be getting ahead of the arc but I see the decline and fall of his quasi monarchy close at hand. I can smell it. We are nearing the point when even the unconscionable Senators are bending under the weight of his wanton disregard of our Constitution. The White House is blanching, aghast with his reckless, indefensible behavior.

When he is gone there will be an epochal change. Gradually we will return to civility just in time for the Thanksgiving table. No more food fights. The word Truth will reenter our vocabulary. Hypocrisy and loathing will lose their currency. Make room for common sense as applied to gun laws, the degradation of our planet and immigration.

The common-weal will replace pseudo-Populism. We contain multitudes, always have and are richer for it. In the words of e.e. Cummings, We who have died are alive again today. When the monarch is removed along with his con-men, hit-men and Yes-men we will enter into first a period of repair and then a recognition of necessities. We may even put to rest those festering issues over which the Civil War was fought as well as checking the rise of fascism before a swastika replaces our stars and stripes.  


Friday, September 27, 2019

Ukraine

Something happened along the way. Ukraine lost it’s The, its article.  At one time Ukraine was like The Bronx and The Vatican. I never understood what gave The Bronx that distinction. Manhattan didn’t have it or Brooklyn. It turns out the Bronx was named after a farmer named Bronck who lent his name to a river and that land became a borough when NYC appropriated it from Westchester County. That’s the story but it doesn’t justify the The.

In any case we now just say Ukraine. Maybe that’s when the trouble began. Ukraine simply means Borderland. And it is abundant with borders, not necessarily with very friendly neighbors. Poland has had a few bites and, of course, it has Russian teeth-marks in its vitals. I suppose that’s the privilege of a Motherland. And then there are Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary nibbling when they felt the urge. It could be worse without the Carpathian Mountains to the west and Black Sea at its southern flank it could have been carved up for a Slavic feast.

Today we have Ukraine the subject, once more, of all news sources unless you live on Planet Fox. As Henry Higgins might have said to Eliza Doolittle, The reign of Trump’s brain has mainly been deranged in the Ukraine.

Our devious president, who can’t keep his mind out of dirt, thought he had some on Joe Biden and son Hunter. There’s no dirt like Ukrainian dirt. Putin can't get enough of it. It may well be that Joe Biden’s son follows the great American tradition of embarrassing bloodlines. There’s Jimmie Carter’s brother, Bill Clinton’s brother and Billy Bush, George W Bush’s cousin. Consider Donald’s illustrious family of no-good sons and then there is Jared.

Trump leans on the head-of-state, Zelensky. He dangles some pocket change (400 million bucks) in aid for any dirt he can convert to mud in the 2020 campaign. Does this bother the brethren? Don’t be silly. They’re too busy singing hymns about reverence, decency and humility. Thank you, Jesus.

Our president must have the Jim Jones playbook as his reading matter. He has managed to mesmerize the largest cult in human history. When he says, Drink, they drink. They swallow his arrogance and ignorance. They gulp down his deceit, his vulgarity and malice. They even cheer his inanities and misogynist escapades. They chant, they fear, they hate on cue. Their brains have been addled.

In the early seventies I found myself at the People’s Temple in San Francisco attending a Jim Jones jubilee. It was the closest I have ever come to a Trump rally. I had two dear friends who sought some alternative life style and were suckered into his cult. They ran a psychiatric facility under his auspices in Redwood City. They invited me to see for myself how wonderful Jones preached. After an hour of his hocus-pocus I ran for my life. Claire and Richard lost their two teenage children in the Guyana jungle.

If DJT gets reelected I’m getting on The Five Freeway and headed for The Bronx on my way to The Arctic, if there still is one.




                                                                                                          

Monday, September 23, 2019

Brisket

It seems like everyone is talking about brisket these days. Well, maybe not everyone but my friend Fred has mentioned it so often it sounds like a chorus. I think Costco had it on sale recently and he asked me to pick some up. Alas, there’s no room in our freezer to store brisket. However after filling up a page about lamb chops I told Fred I would give brisket equal time.

In fact I know nothing about brisket. But I know nothing about many things including fly fishing, sub-atomic particles, Gregorian chants, the Third Punic War and how just about anything works. 

I can tell you that it may be the only word that rhymes with biscuit… unless you consider Triscuit a word.

Maybe brisket is one of those staples one should always have at the ready in case people drop in. There are occasions when pickled herring just won’t do. This might be why I don’t get invited to dinner parties anymore. Do people still give dinner parties? It’s been so long I forgot which fork to use.

I’ve always associated brisket with Jewish tables. In fact I thought it might be a Yiddish word. A derivative of Bris as in circumcision.....but let's not go there. It seems to be standard fare for high holidays, what everyone is waiting for after enduring all the arcane mumbles.

However a map of your average cow shows the state of Brisket bordered by Shank or Shin to the south, Flank to the east and Chuck above. The brisket is Tennessee-like in shape on some Google sites and more New York on others. But always located in the chest area and nowhere near the Sirloin or Tenderloin. I’m glad we’ve settle that much.

Any notion I had, as a member of the tribe, that brisket was religiously-based were delusional. Texans called it BBQ. My mother called it pot roast. For all I know the Chinese may assign it to column B as number 37 on the menu presented as beef-broccoli. It’s also a favorite in Korea, Thailand, Germany and Italy. It could be the universal dish over which summit meetings are held….unless the leaders are vegetarians in which case a brisket-like substance must be concocted with transformational soy beans and massively worked tofu.

However brisket is a mainstay in Kosher or non-Kosher delis. It is the mother of corned beef or further devolved into pastrami with the right spices. Pile it high and grill it between two pieces of rye bread along with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut and the next thing you know you might be looking at a Reuben sandwich. Of course this wouldn’t be served in a Kosher deli due to the sacrilege of meat and dairy …..a marriage impermissible around orthodoxy; yet another reason why I have strayed far from the flock.    

Can anything more be said about brisket? I’m sure there can but I’m too hungry to go on. Pass the mustard or horse radish if you prefer.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Being There


My idea of camping out is checking into a motel with the windows open. And then there are people like Barry Lopez.

He sets up a tent in Cape Foulweather on the rugged Oregon coast, a violent storm on the way. From there he walks into an old-growth rain forest to experience the sense of being lost and the spatial closeness. He contrasts this with the wide open expanse of arctic regions where he lived with wolves or the fifty-foot waves he weathered between the Falkland Islands and Antarctica.

Lopez is an intrepid Nature writer. He is one of a kind. An essayist, winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction and also author of ten books of fiction. In fact his books erase categories. His latest, Horizon, published this year by Knopf might be called a memoir recalling six of his past adventures. Adventure is the wrong word. His life is devoted to encountering harsh ecosystems, their history, which is our history and the struggle for survival.

Above all else he is a humanitarian who somehow delivers a message of peril for our planet and, at the same time, offers hope.  His voice is both urgent and lyrical. He doesn’t just despair over clear-cut forests or land despoiled by fossil-fuel and mining interests. He subscribes to the notion that undisturbed land not only heals but can bring a distracted mind to a state of transcendence and release us to an awareness of the wondrous and salutary nature of the Other. Wondrous indeed was his witnessing a hundred kangaroos leaping in the Australian Outback. He mourns for the damage done by Europeans to the Asian sub-continent as well as to Africa and the Americas owing to their arrogance and rapacity.

Lopez reminds us that constancy is an illusion. In fact we may flux ourselves off the map. The Yupik and Inuit now live with this existential threat. It has been written about from every news source and shouted from every lecture hall but it can only be experienced by being there as Lopez does. What is regarded as a dreaded phenomenon to scientists is a numinous moment in time to Lopez. How these people strategize their survival and the thousands of indigenous folks who fought extinction before them, warrant our first-hand attention. We have much to learn from them.

Centuries ago the Polynesians navigated over ten million square miles of the Pacific Ocean which astonishes modern seafarers. They not only built sea-worthy vessels but followed the patterns of migratory birds, knew the language of ocean currents and read the stars with the precision of our G.P.S. The people of Easter Island share the same tongue as those in New Zealand three thousand miles away.

Lopez’s reverence for life and his prodigious quest for historical sources are rendered with his felt language. One afternoon I pondered the sense of compassion I felt for Captain Cook and his first landing In Australia. I was prompted to do this by the bright riot of afternoon sunbeams ricocheting from the calm surface of the bay, by the distant clatter of dry eucalypt leaves roiled by the wind and the towering fair-weather cumulus clouds above, with their convoluted cauliflower heads. Together, these framed for me a Prelapsarian scene…I experienced a generosity of spirit in myself I cannot always find. An uncomplicated love of the world.

Though acutely aware of the broad sweep of philosophy, geography, botany and history, his response to the natural world is awe rather than analysis. He writes palpably about his sense of time in the wild. In his words, there is some other way to understand the ethical erosion that engenders ...a social entropy which suggests these problems are intractable. He finds that undifferentiated space offers an altered sense of time passing allowing more room to maneuver. What halts us is simply a failure of imagination.

Through his contact with indigenous people from pole to pole
he is able to re-dream the world for us. Against our virulent xenophobia, he pleads for diversity, for hard listening to the aborigines and trampled people everywhere, the wisdom revealed in their story-telling. Art aspires to converse and such a conversation is imperative. 

I’ve been able to renew this 500 page book twice. Apparently there is no queue waiting. How can this be? Barry Lopez needs to be heard. His voice sings with a fierce defense of our planet along with a music aligned with the pulse of the earth.



Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Chamber Music


What happens when the heart in its sacred chambers changes its tune from a Schubert string quartet to a jam session?  From thump tra la - thump tra la ... to Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman riffing with a frenetic Gene Krupa. Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar….except Peggy’s heart went 123 beats a minute at 3 A.M. She called it the jitters. The paramedics called it atrial fibrillation.

Let the fluttering heart wait till Valentine’s Day. Until then be still. No more agitating twitches or oscillating quivers. Enough with syncopated rhythm. We need our metronome.

We were reminded that at 98 all our disregarded organs and assorted body parts have been working away for 98 years. None has labored more relentlessly than the human heart. Both anatomically and figuratively. Peggy’s in particular. Call it capacious. Her heart reaches out and soars.

Once again I stand in amaze how she touches not only the doctors and nurses but the unseen woman who brings the tray, she who takes her blood and he who brought an inflatable waffle to ease her backside. She offers them her full presence and they become more alive in that brief exchange. They walk away regarded. Is this a strain on the heart? No, it thrives in the meeting. So it was that one of her nurses, Cassandra, is now a new friend. One can always use a Cassandra in one’s life to see what’s around the next corner.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet noted the man who is not passion’s slave as one close to his heart of heart (we amended the Bard’s word to make it plural). Peggy's heart, in its chambers, embraces both the Apollonian and Dionysian in a slow dance. Her heart is both a lonely hunter and a joyful finder. She asserts, enthuses and ruminates. Wherever she finds herself, on a gurney or in an ambulance, there is always the now to be cherished, to be grist for the next poem.

Atrial fibrillation refers to the upper chamber of the heart, the atrium. I have a habit of looking for a back story often found in the etymology of a word. So it is that when I chewed on that word, atrium, I thought of the Greek myth. Could it be derived from the cursed House of Atreus in Greek mythology? If so none of us stand a chance.

As it turns out I was on the wrong etymological trail. Atrium comes from the Latin word meaning main room which contains the hearth. Maybe hearth led to heart. The atrium is the northern hemisphere feeding blood into its southern counterpart, the ventricles; literally, little belly.

Strange how the heart belongs to Cupid with his arrows. The pierced heart is depicted as the seat of desire. Peggy’s heart is filled with love and soulfulness, what Donald Trump is missing. Open-heartedness is welcoming and forgiving. It’s got rhythm. It sings and it zings as in heartstrings. It is our core place as in the heart of artichoke. Have a heart, please. Peggy has a rare one. It is the organ which beats a Bolero even in its frenetic chaos.  In its settled state, her heart charms the chaplain, Father Patty, but, alas, he was off duty this time around. I didn’t want to bring it up or she’d have stayed another day.    

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Norm's Pharmacy


I used to tell people my mother was a visionary and named me after the store. 

I seldom write about my days as a pharmacist. In some ways it was my penal servitude. In another sense, the ground I paced and discovered a way into myself. Ultimately I made peace with the profession.  

In high school science and math came easily to me but in college I was soon to discover my aptitude and passions were elsewhere. One could say I majored in cowardice. Over the four years at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy (L.I.U.) I became even less interested in chemistry, physics and pharmacology, with all its structural formulas, laws of reactions and garden of botanical origins. Far too much memorization and not enough challenging ideas. History, literature and geopolitics were my meat but I couldn’t imagine how to put bread on the table with these subjects.    

I became a pharmacist because I didn’t know myself well enough to resist the certainty that a pharmacy license offered. My father’s footsteps called out to be followed. My mother said I would always have something to fall back on. I fell back and stayed there. Those fifty-three years counting and pouring are pretty much of a blur.

When I graduated in 1954 the pharmacy universe had virtually discarded everything I learned about crude drugs and the need for a mortar and pestle. Drugstores had become deodorized. The world I remembered of my father's drugstore would be consigned to my olfactory vault. 

Our shelves were filled with ready-mades. Big Pharma was Baby Pharma but already dominant with names like Squibb, Upjohn, Parke-Davis, Burroughs-Wellcome and Ciba, many of which have already been swallowed by bigger fish. The pharmacist did the work of a vending machine with the occasional detection of an incompatibility or overdose.

In 1980 I opened my own store in a medical building in Tarzana. By this time I could write poems in between labels. Still, confinement was always an issue. A pharmacist cannot leave that petty space without locking the doors. I was held-up at gun point about five times and broken into twice. The good news was that Pharmacy was about to be redefined again. We were no longer seen as dispensers but as consultants. Of course we had always been that shoulder to lean on and well of information but now it was mandatory……..all without compensation, of course.

This aspect of the pharmacist’s role was my salvation. I took satisfaction listening to woes and weighing in when I had something useful to say. Often it was just receiving the patient’s ordeals and healings. They had my ear and my trust. For doctors I might have been a repository; a cauldron of arcane meds, labyrinth of insurance formularies and regulations governing controlled substances etc…

Into the Nineties another change was underway. Every wallet had an insurance card. We were paid a fee. Like it or not. All the power shifted to the fiscal intermediary. They set the terms. Mail-Carriers walked around with more medications than I filled in a day. By mid-decade many of my loyal customers were gone to mail order suppliers. One day the phone rang and I recognized the voice as Mrs. Benson. How did you know it was me, she asked. I replied, I only have two customers and the other one just hung up.

In 1997 I sold my pharmacy to a Russian family. Maybe they were distant relatives of my ancestors from Vilna but I doubt it. In fact they were from Odessa where courses of aggressive Capitalism must be taught. Any illusions I may have had about life in a communal state with a high value on social welfare were dispelled. Opportunism was in their DNA. The Russian emigres made an easy transition from communism to Medicaid.

At the height of a flu epidemic I might fill 85 prescriptions in a day. When they took over they filled 300 Rxs on a slow day and up to 600 on a busy Monday. I hung around for a few years and incrementally slipped away. I’m not sure anyone noticed. I forgot a fact a week so after a few months I knew nothing. The store still bears my name. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve become a household word in Odessa.  



Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Witless Presidency


The wreckage of the Trump presidency is a matter of lived history. It has all been well and duly noted. Our planet is menaced, our nation's precepts stained and our daily discourse debased. From tweet to tweet we witness a man bent on unconscionable acts whose goal always points toward self-aggrandizement. Those who continue to support him are complicit in a way no less criminal than the Germans of the thirties who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven while they implemented a program of bestial behavior towards their neighbors. They shall live with infamy.


What has been lost in the rubble of the past three years is common sense, common decency and concern for the commonweal. The man simply does not have it. If he once had it is now gone. No further indicator is needed than his absence of a sense of humor. He seldom laughs and when he does it is a snicker of ridicule at someone else’s expense. He has the funny bone of an eight-year old. No irony. No word-play. Certainly not any self-deprecation. I submit that humor is a matter of maturity, intellect, nuance and quickness of mind.


In an effort to explain behavioral types the ancients came up with the nonsensical notion of four body humours, blood (sanguine), phlegm (apathy), yellow bile (aggression) and black bile (melancholy). Amazingly this theory lasted until the mid-19th century. Whether Trump should be described as bilious (violent) or choleric (self-important) I leave to my betters. None of these humours have anything to do with wit.


Wit and humor do not reside in slow minds, said Cervantes. We don’t seem to tell jokes much anymore; just one-liners. Either way, to get a punchline we need to go along with a sort of leap into the unexpected. It jolts the mind and propels us into a new perspective.


A sense of humor is a function of empathy. It calls for extending oneself into another’s skin, living his/her momentary experience. It all happens so fast it resists analysis. But when it is absent and replaced by insults, derision, verbal daggers and innuendos the air we breathe feels noxious. This is yet another pollution the President has bequeathed us.


During the vacuum of his presidency a Golden Age for comedians has been generated. We take solace in the absurdity of his mis-speaks, his tone-deaf blabberings and blunders, the very outrage of his misanthropy and our own human predicament. It has become a refuge from derangement. If it is true that laughter stimulates the immune system maybe we can laugh our way through the next fourteen months.


A horse walks into an Oval Office……….