Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Designer Genes

There was a time when DNA meant, Does Not Apply. Now it conjures a world of cutting edge science which can nail a suspect, free an innocent prisoner or serve as a marker to identify a dreaded disease.

However a most recent application has me concerned. It comes close to the dangerous and discredited pseudo-science of eugenics. While the mapping of the human genome has demonstrated that we are 99% identical that other 1% has recently received a good deal of attention.

Some geneticists are linking race and even behaviors with certain groups after centuries of inbreeding. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews share a particular Haplogroup E1b1b1 Y chromosome which traces them back to the North African Mediterranean and Near East region. However this same gene is found among Berbers of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

When Genghis Khan died in 1227 he had fathered so many children that today he is said to have sixteen million descendents. I’m sure Irving Kahn, the Kosher butcher, isn’t one of them.

To all this I say, So what? Is this really what the world is asking of us?; to find more ways of separation …….and worse. The latest speculation has us assigning certain smart genes to European Jews and the lack thereof among Africans. I don’t buy it. It is racial stereotyping one more time. It calls into question the quantification of intelligence, a far more complex set of factors than an I.Q. test is designed to measure; in fact the totality of brain function is beyond metric.

Am I alone in thinking that the pro-Semitism smart gene carries the whiff of being the flip side of anti-Semitism? Peggy, who is half-Jewish, can’t quite figure out how to operate the remote control ......but which half is that.......and which half writes her amazing poetry?

I know that most of my friends take exception to this but I contend that our identity can be known by how we act in our lives; our capacity for forgiveness, generosity and enabling toward others and ourselves and our reverence for the natural world. You may now send in your saliva to determine your tribe and which tent to sleep under. That says very little to me of the measure of a man.

We need to pay more attention to our children’s children than our father’s fathers. As we move to confront global challenges which transcend national borders how does it serve us to fix our gaze backwards? The issues are planetary and we must come together,as the poet said love each other or die.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Missing Cars And Moo Shu

This time it’s a dark and stormy night…….usually it’s a sunny afternoon…and I can’t find my car, again. It may be the twentieth car I’ve lost this year. Good thing it’s only my usual dream otherwise I’d have been cancelled by my insurance company. Did I say only?

I’m often in a strange town, on a trip or having attended some large gathering. For what seems like hours I’m looking for my parked car, my vehicle, my getaway, my transport. It’s gone or more frequently I have no idea where I'd parked it.

In my waking hours I’m more careful. Maybe because I know what it’s like in nocturnal time. When I find a spot in a parking garage I’ve gotten in the habit of calling out where I am so I can hear the voice in my head on the way back. I must confess my handicap in such matters. I can’t tell my Honda from any other. All cars look alike to me; I go by color. Sometimes I click my alarm key to see which red lights flash to welcome me. When I locate my car after considerable wandering I can feel the embrace of my seat like an old shoe with the radio set to my numbers.

But this is not about mere parking spaces. This is my recurrent dream; serious stuff. The subject came up while lunching with a friend at a Chinese restaurant.Over the construction of moo-shu my psychiatrist friend suggested it sounds like an identity dream or some anxiety I have with transition or control. I considered all that while watching the waiter deftly folding the dough and dividing the vegetables at our table. During those thirty seconds I imagined first if he had control issues and dismissed that after witnessing his dexterity. Then I flashed on him losing his parked car after work wondering, perhaps, what he was doing so far from home.

Since that lunch I’ve not had my disappeared car dream. If I do I’ve decided to embrace the feeling of being lost and flip it. When I write my blogs I often inhabit another country inside myself. The imagination is a garden of unfamiliarity. I have no need for a car or a map. It’s a wandering place. It’s my Moo-shu; a mix of veggies almost but not quite unrecognizable enclosed in its own skin.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Shirts

When you think about it the shirt is just about the only piece of clothing a man wears with any color. More than that, it's a statement: the apparel that doth proclaim us. The removable tattoo, bumper sticker, flag, skin as billboard. Not just message-bearing T-shirts...

My preference is for asymmetrical design; splotched and motley. Something I'd hang on the wall. A walking abstract expressionist piece. An unfocused crowd scene. A poem in motion. Visible music. As an extra advanatge I can also spill Ragu sauce on myself and get away with it. (You can't take me anywhere)

Of course a spectrum running from black to grey is also a statement. It says to me, Life sucks and I have stones in pockets looking for the L.A. River or I'm a humble, anti-flamboyant guy or just Stop looking at me. When I was in college, going through a period of profound stupidity, I wore a particular shirt to physical chemistry class which ensured my anonymity and disappearance into the seat..or so I thought.

To stay calm we keep our shirts on. When I bet on the wrong team I'd lose it. To prove friendship we are asked to offer the shirt off our backs. I can remember back in high school I loved my shirt so much I wouldn't have given it off my back. It was a long-sleeved yellow one whose sleeves I rolled two folds resting below my elbow. At the time I thought it was pretty cool. I can't imagine what I was thinking.

Black shirts were the uniform of fascists and Nazis wore brown ones. While two-bit gangsters wore dark ones with pink ties and pimps favored pink ones with black ties. I suppose if you were a Nazi pimp hoodlum you had a tough time getting dressed in the morning.

In our push for some sort of democratization we've eliminated distinguishing shirts. Try walking into a large store and looking for a salesperson. How many times have I asked a fellow lost shopper where widgets are and been directed to the wrong aisle?

Turtle-necks signified poets and rumpled shirts, preferably stained and untucked told us we were looking at an absent-minded nerd or brilliant artist working through the night.

There was a time when Chinese laundries were more common than Starbucks and fast-food eateries are today. In the thirties there were over 350,000 in New York City alone. For nineteen cents you could have your white shirt washed and starched. The way things are going there may soon be American laundries opening all over Beijing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Horrors And Heroes

I was an impressionable kid and still am. When I watch a film I often forget they're just pretending. The visuals get lodged into my psyche and under my eye-lids.

My first movie was One Million B.C. in which Victor Mature, ever grimacing, did battle with dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers and assorted beasts badly in need of orthodonture work.

To this day I don't do well with reptiles. Probably the last film I'd ever want to watch is the one about snakes on a plane. After sitting through that I expect I'd have to get to Europe by row boat.

When Dracula met with Frankenstein and the Wolfman I was convinced they were conferring as to which would make of me their next meal. I was sure at least one of them lived in my closet and I avoided full moons for a season or two.

Even now I can't handle torture. I don't mind planes dropping bombs or bank robbers shooting their way out to a waiting horse or black sedan. It's those close-ups I haven't the stomach for.

Special effects don't make it any easier. In the old days when Jimmy Cagney walked that last crooked mile to the chair the scene shifted to the local bar where the lights went dim for a few seconds. Now we have to witness the body absorb the volts and are practically made to stiffen and shrivel in our theater chairs.

Of course, I really wouldn't know since my eyes close at the anticipated moment. Too bad ears can't be similarly un-plugged.

Peggy calls me Zelig, Woody Allen's chameleon-like character who assumed the identity of everyone he encountered. Once disbelief is suspended I have trouble finding my way back. It’s one of the traps of empathy…walking in another’s shoes so much you forget your own size. But it works both ways.

Cereal boxes were probably my first newspaper. Staring at the Breakfast of Champions I became Johnny Weissmuller one month and Bob Feller the next. I sent to Battle Creek, Michigan for decoder watches and wore buttons on my beanie cap.

I remember the first issue of Superman comic book. There was no question in my mind that I was dropped to Earth from another planet I looked for a telephone booth to change into my cape. Fortunately I tried jumping off small cartons before attempting to leap over buildings in a single bound. As a street urchin I ran pretty fast but not quite the equal of a speeding bullet.

At some point along the way I settled for the mild-mannered guy that I am; neither the jerk who gets sand kicked in his face nor Captain Marvel uttering Shazam, that magic acronym which endowed him with other worldly powers.

Now, if I can just avoid those graphically detailed acts of bestiality, however faked, or better yet face them as one faces all the barbarity of this world...... without having my senses blunted and inured.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fear And Hatred Versus Hope And Forgiveness

Listening beneath the rhetorical sound and fury of the Republicans a pattern can be heard in stark relief to their counterpart.

There you go again, says the Ronald Reagan in me, with the "us" and "them."

The scolding voice of the punitive parent is echoed by the brimstone of the preacher and gains full throttle in the mouth of the fiery conservative talk-show hosts and sadists like Dick Cheney. In the alchemy of the psyche fear is converted to hatred. Their vocabulary ranges from menace to blame.

Don't tell me all Republicans are malicious and all Democrats are nice guys.

Did I say that? Only most of them. Those who were damaged early on. They must be descendents of the cave-dwellers who lived in terror of the next thunder or fire or attack from a fanged-beast. Woe is me became war on them.........the next tribe who didn't quite look like theirs.

FDR's We have nothing to fear.... can be contrasted to a century of Republican alarm. Nativism in the twenties was a movement damning the foreign-born as if they were barbarians at the gate. The national scare was a companion to rampant lynching and anti-Semitism along with the threat of a Chinese yellow menace. The Russian revolution was yet another bogeyman which whipped up hysteria and a virulent xenophobia.

Don't absolve the Democrats from joining the racist or jingoistic spirit of the times.They were just as virulent if not always as loud. The White Anglo-Saxon idyll scorned Eastern Europeans (Jews) and olive skinned Southern Europeans (Italians and Spanish).

Ironically these same forces didn't recognize a true menace when they saw it. They were the last to acknowledge the inhumanity of Franco's fascism and they resisted the Nazi abomination, indifferent as they were to Jewish extermination before war was declared.

So powerful is the instinct for survival that we are quick to strike back at the closest suspect without giving much thought to our acts. Roosevelt, himself, got swept up in the campaign of fear with his internment of Japanese-Americans.

There you have it. The liberal patrician shows his true colors. Maybe FDR had nothing to fear but his own avenging angel.

Following the war Joe McCarthy led the charge against the new enemy...atheistic communism and their godless atomic bomb. McCarthy was an alcoholic, paranoid demagogue who finally fell into disrepute after reigning over Cold War hysteria.

This was a bi-partisan effort as well. Plenty of blame to spread around. And who got us into Southeast Asia and escalated the bombing? It takes a lot of hate to carpet bomb a country and defoliate their crops.

Maybe the Republicans are just a tad more practiced at the game. Smear and scare is the way they talk to their base who recognize the code words that incite those down on their luck to join the militia, man the border, roam the streets and check for birth certificates. It's the same old song. The same American brand of tribalism. The pathology of racism that gnaws at our soul. An evolution of consciousness remains a distant hope; that thread of humanity that joins us rather than the differences that separate us; to consider forgiveness, starting but not ending with ourselves.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Someday But Not Soon

I was talking to James Madison the other day and he agreed something went wrong with Washington. Yes, the influence of corporations, buying of votes etc.... Yes, the former imperial presidency. Yes, the conservative ideologues on the high court. But he put his finger on a problem more structural. It was enough to upset his constitution.

It's our anachronistic bicameral legislative branch; specifically the United States Senate. Madison recalled how it all came about; a concession to those tiny hunks of territory such as Delaware and Rhode Island which were really land grants from British royalty, just to get them to ratify the document.

Whereas the House of Representatives is directly apportioned to the population, the upper house reserves two seats for each state regardless of whether it has more cattle than humans or if it is smaller than a large crowd. James M. admitted that at the time the Senate was regarded as the “wealthiest and wisest” institution while the House was seen as more “passionate and fickle.” Not so and probably never was.

Why does Montana with a population less than a one million have the same two votes as California with its 37.5 million? This is the American version of the House Of Lords. Jimmie Madison agreed.

Consider this: The so-called Red States, comprised of the former Confederacy plus a few scattered others have elected forty senators. These 37 men and 3 women represent less than 30% of the population of this country.

Short as he is at 5 ft. 4 in, my new best friend, Jim, loomed over me, incensed. He was appalled to learn how thirty percent of the electorate, through the threat of filibuster, control the passage of all legislation. I had to explain to him how the rules of the Senate usurped his intentions.

He also rose to his feet upon learning that the average age in the Senate was 68 years (before Robert Byrd's death) while the national average comes in at 35. Furthermore we have seventeen women standing in for 51% of the general population. There are now three Hispanics, two Asians and one Black in the Senate. Hardly representative governance, the Senate looks more like an Old Boy's club than the demographics of the line at Costco or Target or the DMV or a Dodger game.

J.M. and I agreed that it was time to recall the entire senatorial body and make do with a single legislative branch. Let them do their work for five or six years so their primary job is not fund-raising. Let the majority rule. Let them take back their mandate of declaring war .....or nay. Let them advise & consent. It should be noted that there are 39 Black Congressmen and women which comprises nine percent of the entire body, very close to the national average,

Was he just being agreeable or did I covince him that the Senate was an ill-conceived body of the elite; an institution well-suited for a convocation of the privleged whose purpose was to push back against social progress?

The two of us then sat down over a jug of cheap wine and I told him my next modest proposal: Since we've done away with the Senate is there really any reason for all these states? Why are the Dakotas divided horizontally? What is the difference between Kansas and Nebraska or the Carolinas? Can we not consider dividing the 48 continental states into four or six regional sections? At this point he slipped under the table and I thought I heard him dialing his more radical friend, Tom Jefferson, who said something about refreshing our system periodically.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sequels, Prequels and Re-Makes

Ever since the New Testament, sequels have been problematical. (Right away I'm getting myself in trouble). However as testaments go, this was arguably the most successful …. based on the Amazon rankings.

I'm going to lump together the three categories because the lines among them are rather blurry to my fuzzy brain.

When it comes to movies, for the most part, they should have stopped while they were still ahead. How come I know that and you know that but the studios keep throwing money on the cutting room floor?

A re-make would be a bright idea if they got it wrong the first time. But Hollywood sees it otherwise. If a movie is a smash hit they do it again two decades later and generally fall on their face. When a ballplayer reaches such heights they retire his uniform. The studios would do well to just re-release the original. I suppose the impoverished imagination reverts back to the old cash cow and milks it dry.

One of the funniest films we've ever seen was The In-Laws. Peggy laughed so hard I was ready to administer CPR. Peter Falk and Alan Arkin played off each other to perfection. The re-make was doomed from the opening credits

We recently watched a new version of Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Wouldn’t you think they’d know enough that these two are inimitable? At least in this case they changed the name to, The Truth About Charlie, perhaps so no one would notice the abysmal failure.

In all fairness, Sleepless in Seattle was a worthy makeover of An Affair To Remember just as You've Got Mail updated the original 1940 classic A Shop Around The Corner. As a sequel Godfather-2 was a superb follow-up to the superb original but the third ranks up there with one of the worst films in memory.

Sometimes they are able to re-invigorate the storyline along so it's a fit for today's audience. More often, in their zeal not to be dated, they fumble away the soul or spirit of the original. The difficulty they have in general is a basic misunderstanding of what makes a movie iconic. It's not the plot; or at least not just the plot. As a collaborative art form a film is the coming together of fresh dialog, imaginative direction, chemistry of the cast, lighting and editing….. and perhaps the music. Anyone one of these, under or overwrought, can destroy the project. It's an irreducible whole, greater than its parts.

If sequels answer the universal, and then what, prequels attempt a stab at the pre-narrative. The Saturday matinee serials stretched our limits of disbelief. I could have sworn that car went off the cliff last week and now here it is screeching to a stop. Or the bullet our hero took in the heart resulted in a mere flesh wound to the shoulder. The back-story became the illusion that kept the narrative alive. But does anyone really care what Casablanca's Ric did when he was eleven years old or even the day before he met Ingrid Bergman? They've always had Paris and that's enough for me.

In the thirties Hollywood made six sequels to the Thin Man, even if Dashiell Hammett never wrote any. Fortunately we didn't have to watch William Powell grow a middle-age paunch. Mickey Rooney lived outside of time, as Andy Hardy. He had a serious case of arrested development; he never grew up. Nor did the studios. They still can't resist the wonderment of the winning formula and they are likely to continue making sequels and re-makes until Spiderman-86 gets to be eensy-weensy and tangled in his own web, then finally washed away by the rain.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Shoulders

It is hot; Italian hot. The headline reads, Caldo Record, record heat. If this keeps up cypress trees will wilt and statues return to their quarries. We are here in the parched Umbrian hill town of Assisi.

The spirit of St. Francis is in the air and in the dust. We can almost see him up ahead communing with stray dogs. There are birds nesting in his hair. He has shed his raiment for rags. He is walking barefooted just as the man in the square selling Gelato is bare-chested.

Peggy and I are glad for this slow and quiet place after hectic Florence where I gave up our car, unable to solve those streets of changing names. A sea of frenzied tourists blocked passage on the road and when I found a clearing it was because a pushcart had been over-run by a motorist.

Here in Assisi we walk. We walk up a hill to a castle ruin. On our way a family stops us offering grapes in a kind of communion. We bless them as if...

Down in town we are at the great door of the Basilica, I, in my T-shirt and Peggy in a sun- dress with her bare shoulders, smoldering. We are stopped and refused entrance by the friar at the gate. He cannot allow the sacrilege of her shoulders. As if Francis had never seen flesh or Cimabue and Giotto clothed all their immodest frescoes. As if he is protecting naked Jesus.

The friar may have lost his way in the smoky incense of confession and absolution. He doesn't see the nape for nave., what is sacred in front of him; forbidden contours of a body, her holy shoulders with the wings of a windhover in her blades and the parchment between. He has missed the swan of her neck sculpted for the glory of God.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tongues

Consider all the tongue can do. It probes, it wags and sometimes lodges in our cheeks. Without it I couldn’t say my name. It’s the most inquisitive organ we have as it pokes into spaces only it remembers, patrolling our teeth for remains of lunch.

I have a dim, enduring, memory at age four or five being unable to say the el sound. Levine was tough enough but Lillian, with its double el, was insurmountable. I had to ask my tongue to make a swift, return trip to the roof of my mouth. For the most part the tongue knows to get out of the way but try saying, the dog without calling it into service.

Without it the ice cream cone would never have been licked. We stick it out for doctors and stick it in to French kiss. We leave ideas on the tip of it. Discretion asks us to hold our tongue while fundamentalists go into a trance and speak in it.

When we’re most at home we speak our mother tongue and when we can’t find the right words our tongue is tied. When we can barely get them out of our mouth its because our tongue is twisted.

I haven’t had a tongue sandwich in years but there it is, under lamination, on the menu at Izzy’s Deli, Frieda’s Tongue Sandwich, $11.95, probably served with Russian dressing and mustard and a side of slaw.

A cow’s tongue is edible only if I don’t think about where it came from. But consider a giraffe’s tongue which is about two feet long. Or a blue whale's which is the size of one and half elephants.

American Indians discovered how tongues can be forked; a necessary division for politicians who speak out of both sides of their mouth. I prefer plain speak over the silver-tongue orator except for the Bard who has enriched our tongue………..

"That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man,
If with his tongue he cannot win a woman."

The tongue is our ready lyre, the instrument we are never without to contact the muse and convey words, trippingly, in our inimitable, mellifluous tones.