Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tuesday Blues

We are in a very large florist shop in Kew Gardens which serves as a polling place. My mother is behind the green curtain voting while I'm in a baby carriage, crying my head off. This is my earliest mermory. Is that possibble? I'm 20 months old which makes it the off-year election of 1934. Or was it the 1936 election and I was not in a carriage? Or is it 2004 and I'm still crying?

The first Tuesday night in November has generally been an occasion for depression,despair and grief. As the returns come in I'm hearing an accompaniment of funereal music or Bessie Smith singing the Blues.

I have a vivid memory of FDR buttons in 1940 though I didn't know a Blitz from a blintz. By 1944 I stood out in the rain to wave at Roosevelt and his motorcade. I began my political involvement in the 1948 campaign for Henry Wallace. I was scampering around apartment houses with pamphlets one step ahead of the superintendant. We had the best songs but came in fourth. This launched my habit of losing. That was year that Dewey beat Truman in the midnight edition of the Chicago Tribune and lost by the morning edition.

Since then I've voted for Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, McGovern etc... which means I have suffered through Nixon, Reagan and two Bushes besides such local luminaries as Sam Yorty, Daryl Gates, Deukmajian and Schwarzenegger. With each election I feel more misaligned with the body politic and often wonder if that body has a pulse...or a brain.

When I walk into an elevator I'm aware that most of my fellow vertical passengers hold diametrically opposite views about most issues. It's a good thing I haven't experienced a power failure.....yet. If the elevator is in Dallas or Salt Lake City, I'm doomed.

When I was in the eighth grade, in my puckish phase, I led a group of like-minded nasties, in electing Robert H., a kid with learning disabilities, as class president. A cruel joke. The school principal invalidated the election. The crop of Liberbagian candidates this year reminds me of that act of malicious mischief. Where is the principal to yank them off the ballot? Has the American electorate lost their decency? To install a slate of semi-literate, delusional and malevolent fools is a cruel joke on all of us.

I'm preparing myself in an undisclosed bunker. I've got black arm bands at the ready. Dirges are playing. I'm checking the bus schedule for Canada. I'd consider defenestration except I'm in the basement. It's been a hard life rooting for those who would rather be right but been done wrong.

A parting look back at 1934.... was I crying with separation anxiety or (so I’m told) because I had a chronic ear ache? Either case might serve as a apt metaphor. Perhaps I've lived my life separated from the conventional world.... and/or deaf to that misinformed majority. In any case I’m bracing myself for those November blues.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wholly, Un-holy Halloween

I love these pagan rituals...Christmas, Easter and Halloween. Christianity usurped the first two but couldn't quite get church doctrine around the latter. All Saints Day, as such, is pretty much ignored. But the holiday survives stronger than ever in this country and Ireland now that its roots, as the beginning of winter, have been commodified as an occasion for vampire films, costumes and candy.

The origin goes back to the Druids and Celts who noted November first as the start of the dark half of the year. It was regarded as a magical time when the dead walked among the living. The few days between the eve and day following Nov.1st were seen as no-time when the rules of society which allowed tribes to cohere, were temporarily suspended, a short period when chaos prevailed. Hence the mischief, dress-up and cross-dressing.

The veil between the living and the dead was also lifted so those spirits gone were celebrated for their wisdom, bravery or magic. Enter Christianity. Unable to rid the peasants of their tradition the Church built upon it, just as many European cathedrals were built on former pagan sites.

My memory of the holiday is associated with colored chalk. We would mark each other's clothing and engage in benign pranks. Through the years, this evolved or devolved to trick or treating, a mild form of extortion. You gimme this or I'll do that. Of course kids, with their parents behind them, aren't about to do anything except receive compliments on their get-ups. The origin of it all comes from the old notion that evil spirits roamed about and were pacified by a treat left out which also ensured a plentiful crop for the year to come

A more positive interpretation of our practice is that it introduces children to strangers and reaffirms the social fabric of the neighborhood. Fear and mistrust are bridged and adults get to relive their own childhood.

One of my favorite Woody Allen lines is, "My only regret in life is that I'm not someone else." Costume parties allow us, for one night, to shed our skin for another. If it takes Halloween to do it, I'm for it.

Up until recently people lived closer to death. The Mexican, Day of the Dead, is a healthy way to experience the natural inevitability. A small act to relieve our repression and meditate on our own mortality.

Halloween is rooted, literally, in the earth tied to seasonal planting, harvest and a recognition of the solstice. It is a time to recall our connection to the natural cycles of the seasons, a universal observance, one way or another. Pass the pumpkin pie and pumpkin ice cream, only available November 1st.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's In YOUR Wallet?

My wallet has grown fat. No, not with money but with plastic and assorted scraps of paper where I jot down very important websites or disembodied email addresses I cannot live without and restaurant coupons which probably expired last year, and tickets from the dry cleaner who doesn't need them because they have my phone number but mostly with essentials such as my four library cards two of which I've just decided to remove (Beverly Hills and L.A. County) but that doesn't help much since I must carry my Kaiser card and Peggy’s AARP card for prescriptions and would never leave home without my Auto Club membership or car insurance card and business card from my trusted auto repair shop to cover other contingencies and then there are punch cards from a frozen yogurt shop I haven't been to in three years, one from a carwash I no longer use and the Video rental store all of which I'm ready to jettison leaving me now with a few pictures of grandchildren, preferred cards from the three markets and two drug store reward cards (whatever that means), four doctor's business cards (you never know), a Barack Obama card I think I could leave home, a museum card, driver's license, organ donor card, ATM card un-used since our last European trip and two credit cards (Master and AMEX).

Having now removed all of them my wallet is flat. I shall now put them back, one by one, in order of importance, and assign the rest to my dresser drawer under a rubber band.

All of which reminds me of the bubblegum cards under crossed rubber bands bulging out of my back pocket through childhood until they vanished one day. I believe that was the same day I realized they were probably worth hundreds of dollars. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio... and childhood?

I must make a note of that but if I do, my wallet will start rising again. I can already see one side is triangulating a few degrees like a devouring mouth. Maybe I should transfer it from my side to back pocket like most people where I can sit on it until it behaves.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

More Memories Than Plans

Nostalgia has a bad name in literary circles. It has been relegated to the basement in the ivory tower. Yet not as bad as in the 17th century when it was considered a pathology serious enough to send a mercenary home for treatment or a sailor to get a pass back to port. Homesickness was regarded as a subset of melancholia. Try getting your HMO to pay for that today.

In any case, nostalgia is what we old folks do at a typical lunch with friends after the obligatory organ recital. Even if we don't start traveling down memory lane, our complaints about this new-fangled world and the degraded state of politics, is an implicit reference to those good old days.

For many of us the past looms not only vast but present. 1941 may be more vivid than last Thursday. Our own personal history can and should not be dismissed in the human shredder. It is only when those memories are romanticized that it falls into nostalgia.

Mark Twain said that as he got older he not only started to forget things but also remembered events that never happened. Nostalgia tends to conflate and polish the shards into jewels of past glories.

All of which leads me to get nostalgic about old radio. We all had favorite programs which kept our rapt attention and loyalty, never missing a single episode. My friend, Fred, recently told how a fifteen minute radio show may have saved his life. He never complained when feeling ill so his parents were appropriately alarmed when he announced that he wasn't going to listen to The Lone Ranger one night. They called the doctor who rushed him to the hospital for an appendectomy.

Radio left much to the imagination. We conjured movies out of voices, suspended our disbelief when the whole world tumbled out of Fiber McGee’s hall closet week after week. In fact, we waited for it along with Mr. Kitzel, Sen. Claghorn or Archie the manager to announce that Duffy ain't here. The fulfilled anticipation became our reliable clock and a measure of predictability. Another instance where the media itself, far more than the content, insinuated itself in our psyches in ways we weren’t aware. If they held a beauty pageant on radio we would imagine the contestants. We even presumed that Edgar Bergen's mouth didn't move when he became Charlie McCarthy.

In sensory terms, radio is a low-definition media. It gives us little and therefore demands more participation to complete the experience. Today's stations offer music and news but before TV it was our ready window to life. When Edward R. Murrow broadcast from London during the Blitz, his words became embedded in our hearts and minds. Just as FDR's fireside chats came into living rooms as families gathered around and stared into the gothic-designed speakers.

We were astonished at the quick minds of the panel on Information Please and celebrated the precocity of the Quiz Kids. We honored smarts back then. Paradoxically, with our Googling glut of information today we mock intellectuals and elect morons.

It may be the 7th inning of life or the 9th but we still have a few plans and hopes. One would be to re-visit our past to see where we went wrong to have ended in this sorry place. If it's innocence we lost we must have traded it for more jaded eyes.

Is it nostalgia that leads me here with its rosy lenses? I think not. Resistant as we are to looking backward, we are not well-served to ignore the values in the static of old radio even as they are encrusted with their own illusions and folly.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What's New In The Novel

Pick up any novel and we expect to turn each page, silently muttering, and then what, between Once upon a time and …..lived happily ever after. Who doesn’t love a good story? We each have one or more to tell. At the same time we know life doesn’t quite happen that way. We omit the boring parts and embellish the rest with each telling. Henry James said, ”There are no plots in life.” They are constructs; the illusions we create and cherish in order to sort out through the clamor and simultaneity . Over time we even get to believe our own consoling myths.

Something has been happening in all the arts for the past century. There’s murder afoot, as Sherlock would say, an assault on old forms to which we still cling. Poetry yielded its end rhyme but some can not accept blank verse even though it has been around since Whitman. The butterflies have fluttered by. There are still those among us who choose art on their walls to match the throw pillows. Impressionism, which we loved to death, is safe since it first offended sensibilities 125 years ago. Now we embrace it as we would a bedtime story.

James Joyce put a gun to the head of 19th century lyrical fiction with Finnegan’s Wake. But it was only a flesh wound. Even Beckett and Pynchon only scarred our taste for the straight ahead narrative. Perhaps the tidy tale set in a chronology is grounded in the receptors of our double helix. The paradox is that we really don’t think that way. Do we?

My head is swarming with digressions and ellipsis. I’m inhaling odors, looking out the window, scratching my back, hearing a car alarm, wondering what time it is, which reminds me that we’ll soon be setting our clocks back an hour and I’ll need to take my car in because I can’t figure out how to re-set the clock……

If literature, like any other art form, is meant to shake our perceptions shouldn’t it be at least faintly subversive? Not to lull us with a recognition of the familiar but to upset our complacency a bit. To wake our resistance and do battle with the new terms offered. What was Warhol about with his repeatable Campbell soup labels except to call attention to the broth of images we are drowning in?

Certain givens may be in for review….such as the belief that language can reveal truth, unravel the mystery and offer us the meaning of life. That authenticity of character can be revealed through deep probing into our psyche and old wounds. That a coherent childhood memory comes to us resulting in a great ah ha. That a perfect metaphor can be an essential key to unlocking the door towards resolution. Even though the cloud looks like Kentucky or my grandfather’s beard or a reaching hand it is just a cloud.

On the other hand what is left after stampeding our sacred cows over the cliff? Is there a literature of a wireless age for the generation whose eye reads a field on a computer screen easier than we read the linear sequential of a page? Can we even conceive of a new literacy that rejects the singular POV for the one claimed by Picasso’s cubism? Perspective in art or on the page suggests a dominant, singular eye. The Rashoman approach allows for infinite telling.

If you are disturbed by all this, move over. I can’t quite give myself over to the literary revolution either. But I know it’s out there and coming at us inexorably. A new way of saying follows a new way of seeing. Instead of epiphany, authenticity is achieved by accumulation of bits and scraps; by circling the subject as the Cubists did from shifting eyes including what is absent or unsayable. Characters, are hard to identify. They are more like blank screens on whom reality is projected from the material world. Ultimately, what connects us is a shared sense of bewilderment and a reaching, like Ahab, for the unattainable.

There is room and reason enough to welcome both forms. If change occurs it will be glacial and the reading public may be the last to notice.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tea-bertarians

Remember those kids in kindergarten who knocked over blocks. Unhappy at their punitive parents' attempt at governance, they displaced their anger in less confrontational ways. Maybe Mom forced Junior to finish his vegetables or Dad scolded him for wetting his bed or big sister closed her door in his face. All good reasons to resent authority. And bad reasons to let out that frustration by striking at the first thing in sight.

Some kids fester, then become bullies. Meet today’s Libertarian / Tea Bagger. Impotent but seething, they seem unable to trace the source of their discontent.The best target is the one they can most easily demonize.

Bush channeled the outrage of America and, in his own personal tantrum, invaded Iraq. In a classic case of shadow-boxing the Bush/Cheney cabal sacrificed over four thousand more American lives and 100,000 Iraqis. With an incapacity to recognize the nature of the grievance, or diffuse location of the terror, they reduced it to Sadam Hussein. The bullies of the world are content when they have found someone to hate. You can’t invade an idea pervasive in a dozen or more countries so you take out your map as if it is the last World War. And what better time to secure another outpost in that region?

Two ill-conceived and unwinnable wars are now Obama’s inheritance along with a dysfunctional financial system, the consequence of unfettered greed. Restoration of sanity calls for a nuanced redirection. His opposition from the Left has swallowed the poison of cynicism while the sound and fury from the Right wing is indistinguishable from a lynch mob.

Listening through the static of Tea-bertarians, one hears the rant against government; again a misdirected bogeyman. Do these simpletons want to abolish mining standards, food and drug oversight, traffic lights, FDIC protection, libraries, public schools, prohibition against child labor? Do they know that our rail system was government subsidized, and our interstate highways; both put into place by Republican presidents? Tea Party candidates have announced their intention to abolish four cabinet offices, several constitutional amendments and one hundred years of progressive legislation. Their decibels shout down civil discourse. They have been incited to riot against two centuries of civilization, reason and social justice.

The anti-government movement is specious to its core. What sounds like populist rhetoric is the reworked platform of the rich and privileged whose creed is, I’ve got mine. Go get yours and don’t bother me.

The Boston tea Party from which they got their name was also a bit of legerdemain. John Hancock was a Boston smuggler who made his fortune bringing in tea, molasses and such from the Caribbean. He engaged a band of dressed-up Mohawks to dump the British tea and extend his market of tax-free tea. The legacy has not been lost. Let the disaffected do the work of the wealthy and fight the wars in their name.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

All Things Being Relative

My mother had five brothers which left me with five uncles all of whom bequeathed me with cousins. I have faint memories of a few going back over sixty-five years ago when I last saw them. Soon after, a family argument estranged my mother from her brothers and left me cousin-less.

Even as I write this I’m aware it is a lame rationalization. I had ample time to re-cousin myself, and didn’t. In fact after moving to Los Angeles my mother developed a correspondence with some of her sisters-in-law. But, alas, they were now on the other side of the continent and I was erasing my New York past for no good reason I can now think of.

There was one cousin whose picture had found its way into our family album. I was on the monkey bars with my older brother and cousin, Mildred, about twice my age, was pulling up her dress. Did she have any designs on my brother? Had they already played doctor? Such questions belong to a fevered imagination.

This much I know…… whenever my mother referred to Mildred, down through the years, she was always quick to add that she “never got married.” Over time, I referred to her as Mildred-Who-Never-Got-Married and that is how she is now known.,

Along the way I started thinking about this from Mildred’s point of view. I imagined her overthrowing her bourgeois beginnings, living a Bohemian life in Greenwich Village have fallen from grace on the Grand Concourse. I saw her as Thoroughly Modern Millie in a long term liaison with a jazz sax player who blew in and out of town like Be Bop riffs.

Or maybe she opened an art gallery in SoHo where she hobnobbed with the Minimalists until disappearing in a white canvas. Then emerged as a buyer for the United Nations gift shop and traveled the world snatching up Ghanan masks, Japanese netsukes, Oaxacan woodcarvings and Tlingit baskets. On top of the world, she scared men as the one consenting adult.

Watching a ballgame recently, as if for the first time, I marveled how the outfielder settles under a fly ball. From the crack of the bat he gauges the trajectory. Maybe Mildred stuck out her mitt and muffed her chance, never having experienced that confluence of being well-met. Timing is all.

More likely, her preference was not for a man at all. She probably snared whom she wanted, roaming her own ground, having turned her back on expectant eyes long ago. There are multitudes of Mildreds out there and she found hers. A family secret then; hardly a raised eyebrow now.

About twenty-five years ago when I was diagnosed with some neurological condition my doctor asked if there was any family history. I called one of my aunts in the Bronx whom I hadn’t spoken to ages. After identifying myself as my mother’s son, I asked about my cousins, including Mildred. She immediately said, You know, she never got married.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hit and Run

It could have been worse back there in 1955 when I opened my front door to two detectives. They didn't cuff me or haul me away but handed me a summons to appear in court the next Thursday. I was charged with hit and run.

Two evenings earlier I was driving to a meeting with my friend, Frank. A full-grown collie darted in front of my car. It was a residential street and I wasn't going more than 35 but probably distracted talking politics with Frank. I felt the impact, a sickening soft thud. I got out of my De Soto but as I did the dog ran away. I remember Frank saying, "C’mon let's go or we'll be late." I also heard someone call out, "You'd better stop." That was either the dog's owner or my conscience.

My day in court was also the day when honor students from high school were privileged to sit in the judge's chair with the judge behind them. For the student's benefit and mine the judge lectured me about dogs being our best friend. I fully agreed and gladly paid the $25 fine.

Without saying I just barked up the wrong tree there's more to this tale. If Frank is still out there 55 years later he might tell it this way:

I was out of work but, through my wife, had a few connections with the right people in Senator Knowland's office. He got me a job working undercover for the F.B.I. We were hunting for subversives and I won the trust of Norm, by chance, just hanging around the campus of L.A. City College. Every Tuesday night we drove to a house where a radical journalist named Martin Hall would review the current geo-political news with a left-wing slant.

That night when the dog was hit would be my last chance to collect names for the field office. I couldn’t risk being late because everyone socialized before the speaker began and that’s when I learned their names. The whole episode got me a few paychecks and I don’t think anyone ever suspected why I was there. I also got a friendship with Norm which lasted about ten years.


If Frank used me, I also used Frank. His wife’s mother was the sister of a rich and famous entertainment figure. When my daughter was born deaf in 1962, my wife and I were eager to get her enrolled in the John Tracy Clinic program. The clinic is named after Spencer Tracy’s son and supported by Hollywood elite. It happened to have been a year with a large population of hearing impaired babies due to a German measles epidemic. The Tracy Clinic was regarded as the best pre-school organization for teaching children to learn lip reading and oralism as a first language. It was through a letter from Frank’s wife's aunt that Janice was accepted in the very limited enrollment.

Regrettably Frank disappeared from my life. I liked the guy for his easy manner and marginal life-style. He got his haircuts at a barber college and his teeth cleaned at dental school. I never suspected his role as informer until years later when I met the man at whose house we used to meet for our Tuesday gatherings. He told me he never trusted Frank and even wondered about me having brought him into the group. It prompted me to send for my FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. What I received was a three-page document with every word blacked-out except for pronouns and conjunctions.In the end maybe all the verbs and nouns can be left to the imagination. It's life's conjuctions that count the most.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sports Fans

Mid-October, leaves oranging and my three favorite sports all happening in stadiums with frenzied fans, an entity that barely existed 100 years ago. Fandom is the creation of mass media and the more massive is media the more ardent and universal are fans.

From gentle ladies and men in proper attire at Wimbledon or Forest Hills to hooligans in Liverpool or Philadelphia or Chicago spectators give themselves over to their home team and vent their spleen at those other guys.

HOLD THAT LINE! CHARGE! DEFENSE! BEAT L.A!, OLE! , KO-BE!.

There is something ancient and tribal about this sort of animus against "otherness." Being sent into exile was like banishment to a nether world.

Consider the visiting team, braced to receive the verbal abuse from the crowd. Their players feed on that derision, like reverse acclaim and hate them back until the throng is silenced. The matador stares into the eyes of death and wins immortality, however briefly.

With the Dodgers out of the post season I needed some team to embrace and some team to hate. When I decided to give myself over to the San Francisco Giants my friend reminded me of Dodger history against the "hated ones" dating back to our New York City rivalry. How could I turn my back on this heritage as if I had betrayed a sacred trust and stepped into the enemy tent.

How indeed? Very simply by reverting back to the irrationality which is at the core of choosing sides. Most fans root for the home team if only because they get the most ink from local sportswriters. In this case my cheers go to the California squad. Do I need a reason beyond that? How's this one?........San Francisco is playing Atlanta; Blue state over Red state. Or........I like Buster Posey, the Giant catcher. I like his name. I like his face. Any reason will do.

But why (I hear you ask) must I wish one team to whip the other? Because I'm hard-wired that way. It's in my medulla and my glands. Indefensible, I know, but it ads to my enjoyment as a viewer. I cannot watch a game without cheering and jeering.

Of course every player on the field or court has a story.....this one’s brother died last week, that one overcame polio or donated money to Haitian relief ....... so I attach myself to them. I have a Zionist friend who asks himself which team's victory would be more beneficial to Israel. I recently made a decision to never root for the St.Louis Cardinals because their manager and star player recently attended the Glenn Beck rally.

I must stop now. The game is coming on and I need to find some reason to enter the skin of one of those two teams, quicken my pulse, sweat my palms, grow fangs and go berserk. Don’t worry folks, it’s only an alternative universe. I’ll return to Earth in a few hours and nothing will have changed for you mere mortals.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Marxism And The Maltese Falcon

If zealotry is in your life script it's best to have it come in youth and get it over with. I've come to this conclusion after watching a film on Dashiell Hammett whose trajectory included membership in the Communist Party in mid-life and a jail term twenty years later.

Hammett started as a Pinkerton detective, an agency famous for strike-breaking tactics. In the thirties he reversed himself and joined in left-wing action groups. I don't mean to disparage the work of these causes. However, along with labor organizing and civil rights advocacy came rigid ideology and a blind defense of the U.S.S.R.

My own parents were communists and I inherited some of their zeal and dogma. I regard their membership as political romanticism, a benign identification with the down-trodden. Partisan politics became part of my adolescence. It offered me a simplistic entrée into adult life and an outlet for my passions and occasional vehemence. At the same time it gave me a distant perch once-removed from the conventions of society.

It also marked me with some rigidity and limited my imagination. I took Marxism seriously. Not as an activist at the barricades but as a template for approaching social and historical events and as a lens through which to see my life ahead.

On balance I don't think I fared too badly. I haven't lost my radical persuasion or historical perspective. I've come to my senses about the Soviet Union without turning that embrace inside out. I recognize those early days as being close to a religious catechism in my apologetic for Russian repression. What, me religious? God forbid.

Hammett was a complex man and aren’t we all; reason enough not to think in doctrinaire terms. His writing went from hard-boiled to soft-boiled; from Sam Spade to the Thin Man. It's hard to imagine these two detectives springing from the same creator. As tough as Bogey in 1933 and la-de-dah as William Powell in 1936.

In a scene in which Spade turns his ferocity up a notch with particular menace he leaves the room and then his hand starts shaking. We are led to believe that his tantrum was an act he put on to cover his soft side as if Nick Charles lay in waiting beneath that veneer.

Fifteen years later Hammett was teaching a course at the Jefferson School in N.Y.C., devoted to Marxism. I was across the hall steeping myself in Dialectical Materialism. It took me many years to find my Maltese Falcon and a few more than that to fix a martini. But in the end the black bird is hollow. We're all detectives trailing our own shadow down a dead-end street,