Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Second Sight

The teacher announced that he usually wears glasses but prefers to see the class as a blur so he isn’t distracted by faces. I admire him for that. In the same way, a hearing-impaired person develops more visual acuity. The senses have their own compensations

I’m beginning to think that’s how I’ve gone through life; seeing the world askew. My astigmatism turns me inward, illuminates my inner world.


Now he has me bound to a chair in a pitch black room. The walls are closing in and he’s in my face going over everything I say, every letter,backwards and forward, looking for inconsistencies. “Come clean,Levine, first you said this and now that.”

I can’t keep my story straight. With teary eyes I break down, admit my life of crime; road rage, tax returns, college cheating, return trips to the salad bar, the unspeakable acts in my room. (It’s a wonder I didn’t go blind).

Suddenly the lights go on. The optometrist says, “No prescription change” as if he didn’t hear a thing I’d said.”


In a moment of malicious mischief my wife said to close my eyes and describe what hung on the wall across from the couch. It could have been worse. She could have asked me what she was wearing or the color of the wallpaper we don’t have. I was getting off easy;Only the wall which had become invisible from familiarity not unlike my own face which I might not recognize if I met myself in a crowded elevator. I bumbled my way through with some lucky guesses but missed two African masks and a Oaxacan wood carved lizard.

I am not a reliable witness. At a police line-up once I picked the desk sergeant. (The man with the gun in my face had gained eight inches in my mind). Everyone looks like someone else to me particularly in British movies where I’m constantly losing bets to my entrepreneurial wife who has come to rely on my astigmatism as a revenue source.

By now I’ve grown emotionally attached to my faulty vision. I must be seeing something, after all. Maybe life is a collage, a running joke, a diffused gladness and part of the colorless air I breathe which I’d surely recognize if it wasn’t there.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Charleston, Stuck In Time

In recent weeks South Carolina has captured headlines for their ignominy. From the State House to Congress they have displayed hypocrisy, mendacity and incivility. And behind all this shame is their heritage of racism.

I'm reminded of a trip to Charleston taken about twenty years ago. I felt as if I had wandered behind the enemy lines. The Civil War, which they call, "Mr. Lincoln's War On The South" seemed to be still in progress.

Here is my letter to Charleston written at that time.......

I love your crab-cakes, your palmettos and Spoletto, Charleston, city many-times charred where charm oozes over cannons and cobblestones, where Gable lives and gives a damn for that ante-bellum syrup Aunt Jemima made which didn't go with the wind. Into this place, Charleston, charleton, I come as tourist complicit in your fiction, breakfasting on your version of grits as the history major turned carriage driver tells us Yankees what really happened to Calhoun and Gen. Beauregard, how the darkies loved their home etc. And for the ride I am his confederate to demonstrate northern hospitality in this revisionist Gray which is your growth industry.

You are a charmer, Charleston, consorting with the gods to keep the demons away. You could be Los Angeles Or Detroit. These cities are no better. Better is nowhere. Only Charleston could be better than Charleston.

You are not chaste and in that "late unpleasantness" at Appomattox you did not win, you placed. But you talk a different talk and there is an atrocity you have not walked. You kick sideways with one foot as the other stays in place. This is the dance you know. Even the dead do it.

They hover just above the ground in the churchyard between the marbled men who were certain of their place in this world while the dead across the swamp have turned over more than once as they did, alive, "knowing their place." In this city of genteel violence cemeteries buckle and heave as the forgotten, prowl and haunt your sleep, Charleston, gnawing at the lie.

Along the road out of town, woman weave and hum. Everything they have endured goes into their baskets. Sweet grass and pine needles in their mouth and all the sorrows no longer swallowed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Conversation Between Him And Me

Him: My sister-In-law is staying with us for a few days.

Me: Is that good news or bad news?

Him: I enjoy her ……..

Me: … for the first hour and a half?

Him: Right. When I visit relatives overnight I always stay at a motel. I like my privacy and expect others do, too.

Me – That’s because you didn’t have any pajama parties as a kid.

Him: I didn’t even have any pajamas.

Me: Now they call them sleepovers. In our day I can hear mother saying, “I never heard of such a thing.” Besides we were so poor…,..

Him: How poor were you?

Me: We were so poor I slept on the kitchen chair.

Him: Who had chairs? The floors was too good for you?

Me: We rented out the floor to pay the rent. I lived on the fire escape.

Him; I was raised on day-old bread and dented cans and thought everyone was. I miss fire escapes.

Me: I’d go out there and pick up the hockey games from
Montreal …. except they were in French.

Him: The window with the fire escape was the most important thing about our apartment… cross ventilation. My mother didn't mind the four story walk-up, no incinerator, but it had to have cross-ventilation.

Me: Right. My mother had a love/hate relationship with air. There were two kinds of air; the dreaded draft that caused all disease and fresh air that cured it.

Him: We must have had the same mother.

Me: Wisdom traveled well in those days

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Art Of Recommending

This is serious stuff. Asking a friend to commit to three or four hundred pages carries a risk of rupudiation or indifference. It is a piece of ourselves we are sending out of a wish to share our experience.

I'm in the habit of recommending books and movies when they knock my un-matched socks off. I can't help it. I get up on the metaphorical rooftop and shout out the good news certain that everyone will be similarly zapped. It is rarely the case.

A few weeks ago we watched a British documentary, "Of Time And The City." The film is a meditation on the city of Liverpool. Peggy and I were both overwhelmed by the images and narration written and recited by Terence Davies. It is made all the richer by passages chosen from Eliot and Yeats. We felt it transcended its subject and rose to the level of an auditory and visual poem on memory and loss. Two friends agreed, one did not at all.

I was reminded of other times when I've heaped lavish praise on a book and been let down. Or conversely when good friends have touted their recent enthusiasm and I've had to oblige under silent protest.

Could it be the expectation itself that kills the joy? Think of the hyperbolic reviews of a movie that set up disappointment. Or might the uncertain reception speak to the multitudes within us all? Just when we're sure of perfect fit an unknown aspect of another person pops up which we didn't prepare for.

This is akin to the matter of friends in general. As a kid I had two or three "best friends" at various times.....none of whom were very fond of each other.

Every embrace or rejection of a shared moment is another layer of the onion peeled and revealed. What's it all about if not the continuing discovery of who we are , our reach and our limits. And when we find that resonance in another person it knocks our socks off a second time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What, Me Worry

Doesn't everybody?

If worry were a conscious choice I would gladly set aside twenty minutes in the late afternoon, prepare a bowl of fruit, get comfortable in my favorite chair, do some serious worrying and get it over with. However, worry is an involuntary act hard-wired into my marrow so I’ll have to make the best of it which usually means a 3 AM session.

One strategy is to re-name it; "concern" or "anticipation" as part of the "what ifs" of life. Wouldn’t the outfielder be better off wearing sun glasses in case he loses the fly ball in the glare? What if there's no gas station for the next 60 miles and my cell phone goes dead and then what...

So I bark and growl, like an early warning system ahead of the seismograph with a premonition for burst bubbles or tantrum from the gods. Maybe I’m ahead of the curve. Could it be that my bad-case scenario actually saved the day? Was it my creased brow that quieted the rupture and rumble? I doubt it.

When there’s nothing to fret over I fret over that. Could the quietude be the lull before that proverbial storm? Maybe it is only a scene in act two with a tragic third act to follow. Perhaps I’ve been trained by all those movies. About one hour in, when everything is peachy I pick up on the tell-tale cough or the raised eyebrow signifying the coming doom. Just when the G.I. from Brooklyn talks about opening up a Deli when the war’s over, he takes a bullet to the vitals.

Peggy has been working on me to see the gibbous moon as full while I’m still possessed by its apostrophe as if dark clouds were my preference over silver linings. She trusts her resources while I can only do the high wire act having previously negotiated with malevolent fate in advance. I cushion myself against that late-night knock at the door, prepare a table for its visit, drink from the half-empty glass, give it my nose for trouble and then finally kiss it off like old news.

If life is indeed a stage I’m the player wasting all those hours of rehearsal for tragedy when life is absurd theatre after all.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Centifugal And Centripetal Forces

Could it be that we are growing together even as we are coming apart? The fractures in our lives are quite visible; polarity in political parties, fault lines between evolutionists and creationists, inter-religious divides, separation walls, the loud and the quiet, technophobes and technophiles. At times it feels as if we are becoming re-tribalized; to each his tent.

However under the radar screen there are counter-signs of merging. In literature we have moved from Modernism to Post-Modernism to Post Colonialism. Many of our finest writers today reflect our multi-cultural world; Amy Tan, Salmon Rushdie, Sherman Alexie, Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri. Even as the Republican Party becomes the Party of Slime this nation's demographics are morphing under their intelligently-designed feet.

Old forms are giving way to hybrids; from cars, to corn to the Arts. We now have prose/poetry, docudrama, fusion music, neo-realistic art, experiential instalations etc...Our lives are given back to us prismatically as if a cubist painting.Inter-racial marriages are commonplace erasing old identities as cartographers work through the night erasing borders.

Without a doubt the most profound unifying force in human history is the Internet.
Invisible as it is it has shrunk the globe and created networks and kinships across the continents.

We'd have no trouble finding a Pakistani or Jamaican restaurant in London or North African food in Paris. There are Turkish quarters in Germany, Chinese sections in Indonesia and Haitians in Quebec. In some countries the pot is melting; in others it's still a salad. There may even be Eskimos, with no sense of direction, wandering the Sahara.

It is my belief that the high decibels we hear from the far right, be it home-grown or their fundamentalist cousins we call terrorists, are the rupture of the old order crumbling. That noise is the last gasp of those who cling to a mythical past that never quite was.

Some day, though not this week or next, we may wake up and realize our sameness; that we are all in it together on this orbiting piece of earth.I'm not suggesting homogeniety; viva la difference, culturally. I am simply recognizing the common needs of bread, literacy, a roof overhead and body temperature around 98.6.

Friday, September 11, 2009

About Face

A friend sent a photo of me that my wife mistook for George Bush. This is not the first time I've been mistaken for my least favorite public figure next to Dick Cheney.

It got me thinking about faces, how the picture of us at age five has grown over decades to this one we're wearing now. Has our wonder been retained or layered over by angst? I suspect my creases are on-ramps and off-ramps where I've been and where I haven't dared like a hung jury carrying both innocence and guilt. Have my frowns erased my giggles and my lucky life? I would hope that my passions have found their home in this landscape of a face.

Are eyes really a window that tell all? If I had been born in squalor and fallen in with a band of mercenaries would I have the same pair? To what extent do we wear a mask or a practiced pose? Maybe we are the last to know.

Back to George Bush. I'm reminded of something Allen Ginsberg said in the 1980s; how we need to love Ronald Reagan or maybe it was to love the Reagan inside us. So now I am determined to embrace the George Bush of me in the mirror.

While shaving this morning there he was even as I tried to mow the smirk away. There might even be a frat-boy in my face, an affable terrorist with a penchant for pranks.

I, too, have lied, white and grey. And I am given to warnings of doom when I need the attention. I've also bumbled my way in public forgetting whether I'm in Salzburg or Strasbourg. Neither one of us could stand the sight of our own blood which is why we both ran from Viet Nam; though I thought Canada was a better choice than Alabama. I remember once getting lost in a rain forest and agreeing there are too many trees.

Like you, George, I never thought of holding high office and when the vote came in for milk monitor I showed Dad I wasn't really a good-for-nothing kid. I'm feeling closer to you now. It's alright that you had zits, wet your bed and slept with a night light. Life can be tough in large families.

Listen to me, George, you're not listening. Alone in your oval office at night don't you ever think as much as twice, hear those voices you've been shouting down and let in just a trickle of doubt? Don't mis-underestimate it. Now, let's go have a beer and see if anyone can tell us apart.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Death In The Family

My step-daughter, Christie, died last Saturday after a 21 month heroic battle with pancreatic cancer. For years we called each other "Step." During this time I grew closer to her than even one "step" away; so that I began addressing my messages, "Dear Near" and signed them, "Stepless."

One of life's paradoxes is how the best in people is brought out in the worst of times. An outpouring of kindness and generosity came from caregivers and neighbors and expressions of deeply felt appreciation for her are still appearing on her website, Center for Jewelry Studies, from all over the world.

I recall how similar acts of compassion were daily occurrences when my daughter, Janice, was in her early years. She was born hearing impaired and received special education at the John Tracy Clinic from age two to six. I often wondered why this open-heartedness offered her couldn't be extended to all of us.

Christie was a self-taught jewelry historian. Her subject was as inexhaustible as her passion. She became a pre-eminent scholar in gemology, jewelry, it's design and historical context that brought these pieces into vogue. She authored three books and lectured internationally. Having created her life's work she was an artist whose narrative itself was her art.And in pursuit of beauty she became the lamp by which we all learned to navigate our own way.

I watched in wonderment as her friends, students and colleagues gathered around her with love and offerings of their time in her final ordeal; as if people were waiting to share themselves. In the confrontation with mortality we all go through a transformation into a deeper place.