Monday, November 29, 2010

Matters Of Life And Death

This past week a friend died. Truth be told we didn't know Maurice very well but are close to his wife, Bonne. The obituary in the Times listed his varied career as musician, actor and thirty years in the financial world. His last wish for a memorial was a celebration complete with jazz band.

The best response to dying is living the joyful noise; meeting sorrow head on. At a certain age we know there's a man going around taking names and we're on that list, somewhere. Maurice was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just three weeks ago and choose not to prolong his allotted time. He went out on his own terms, even directing his posthumous passage as if speaking through the piano, trumpet and drum.

A few days ago Peggy and I had a rare argument. I felt wronged, she apologized, I lashed out further, she withdrew, I was contrite, and 12 hours later we were back in each other's arms. Even that is too long estranged; a small death. Love, for us, is nothing less than being defenseless with trust implicit. We put our lives in each other's hands.

Perhaps this is healthy; to pull back and refresh our perspective. I'm not persuaded.It feels more like a needless waste

The way we tell of a life in an obit is a pale coda. We list one's achievements, titles; the sort of material Google might note. Yet we know this is not the measure of the man. How can a life be summed up? Perhaps it lies more in the Being than in the Doing. How generous and present we are, offering our vulnerable self and receiving others, how forgiving and enabling we live, how congruent we live out our principles and how well we love. Invest meaning in each day as if our lives depended on it, all ways beyond measure.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Fantasy Table

Such a strange holiday Thanksgiving is. Three hundred million of us, give or take a dozen, sit down to the same meal this Thursday. We eat and drink until we're crapulous (great word, look it up) with family and friends whose company we cherish….. or barely put up with. Considering the rivalry of siblings, festering grudges, generational divides, crazy uncles, bores and vulgarians it seems like a good time to plan my fantasy guest list......dead or alive.

I'd probably be tongue-tied if I sat down with Shakespeare, Mozart or Einstein. Jesus and I may not hit it off either. I'll let him and Marx chew on some communal scraps in the kitchen

Bill Clinton sends his regrets but says he agrees with everybody.

Orson Welles says he agrees with nobody but felt there wasn’t room at the table for another genius.

Sylvia Plath arrives late having been in the oven with the bird.

Sammy Davis Jr. was afraid the turkey wasn’t Kosher. Phillip Roth was afraid it was.

Tom Lehrer sits down at the piano and sings our benediction:

We gather together to ask the lord's blessing
For turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce.
It was slightly distressing but now we're convalescing
So sing praises to his name and forget not to floss.


Oscar Wilde is here after getting through immigration telling officials, all he has to declare is his genius. Mark Twain accepts the invitation when he sees the opportunity to violate at least a couple of the deadly sins….gluttony and sloth. Pass the Chardonnay.

Dorothy Parker is disappointed that the table isn’t round but sits between them because she always wanted the twain to meet They chat it up over all the stuffing they’ve known along the way. I let Yeats and Keats carve the bird and settle the white and dark meat as they figure out how to rhyme their names. Peggy supplies the contemporary poet's voice to bring them up to speed. Tom Lehrer tells John Keats that when the poet was his age he’d been dead for 56 years. Open the Merlot.

John Prine gets his gravy and lets loose with, it makes no sense that common sense don't make no sense no more just to bring the conversation down to my level. Molly Ivins passes the dark meat to keep us honest. If anyone’s a Vegan she reminds them of all that land out there God made good for nothing but grazing. Everyone digs in including Chief Seattle who hopes we haven’t forgotten how our ancestors came over here, undocumented, stole the land, killed their hosts and never left. Always forgive your enemies, Wilde chimes in, nothing annoys them so much. At that point Keats interrupts his ode to a turkey breast (thinking of Fanny) and injects his Negative Capability idea that we can hold opposing views without seeking resolution. He gets no argument about that nor is there any broken treaty over pumpkin pie. More white wine?

When Twain lights his cigar and starts raconteuring about those stiffs of the Gilded Age, Molly Ivins tops him with a description of Ronald Reagan who was so moribund that if he got any duller she’d have him watered twice a week. As to those Robber Barons she tells about the new barons of the 21st century who are so far up on the pyramid they can’t see folks on the bottom. Parker adds that if you want to know what God thinks about money just look at the people he gave it to.

D. P. asks to fill her chardonnay. She says she’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy. She knows she’s among friends and doesn’t care what’s said about her as long as it isn’t true. Oscar has found a kindred spirit. He tells her that a little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. Everyone’s feeling a bit crapulous. Yeats mumbles something about the center not holding as he slouches under the table asking which way is Bethlehem. Twain says he doubts what he reads in health books. One can die of a misprint. He remarks that all generalizations are false including that one as he disappears into his cigar smoke.

John Prine says he’s going to plant a little garden / eat a lot of peaches / try to find Jesus / on his own. Wilde stares at the tablecloth and says, one of us has got to go. Keats, in his cockney voice, says something about consumption. No one disagrees.

It’ll never get as good as this but Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Black And White Of It

Gulls and crows cawing and squawking outside our front door. I’m struck by their opposing colors; the forces of damn good against the God-damned. Reminds me of my mother washing the kitchen floor and laying newspapers down. Why didn’t she let it dry by itself? I never asked. What I remember is the way she cursed the evildoers of the world; the super who held back on the heat, the butcher who didn’t give good weight with her lamb chops, even an imagined sneer from a neighbor. The newspaper said it all in black and white.

No dark white or light blacks those growing up years. Mashed potatoes and over-cooked liver. Winter was black galoshes silhouetted against snow. Coal for eyes in snowmen.

Movies left no doubt. Van Johnson at 10,000 feet spots the sneaky Japanese pilot, coming out of nowhere. Bullets rip holes in the Zero and blood, black as his moustache trickles from the actors mouth. Always the same actor, wearing a white cravat.

Cigarette smoke curling around the noir night. Black sedans, Good Humor trucks, white shirts, bow ties. Which side are you on? Picket lines and placards. Rich or poor? Picket fence, tenements.

Black Crow licorice, marshmallow inside the Rocky Road. Baseballs, the cliffs of Dover. Piano keys. Dice. White tails, top hat, Fred Astaire.

Chalk on a blackboard, ink on paper. Below the headline, black arrow points to Allied advance, liberating Axis held land, islands, a continent going from black to white. The future was white sails escaping heart of darkness. Read all about it. Extra paper!

Eye chart. First you said this and now that. Which is it? Certitude of scales, finitude of clocks, rectitude of prophets' commandments on parchment. The sky is papered with crows and gulls cursing and blessing like pages of testament.

It ain’t necessarily so.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Elephant In The Room

There's one in our bedroom and it's the first thing I see in the morning if I'm facing west. I open my eyes to one of the fourteen bookcases scattered about our apartment. This one is crammed with an assortment of mostly non-fiction books from a baseball encyclopedia to the three volume letters of Vincent Van Gogh to a shelf of anthologies and some old left history books, too dated to read with too many memories to discard.

The elephant is a wind-up toy which sits in front of a collection of the Best Essays of the Century. She is riding a bicycle while her upright snout balances a beach ball from a long pole. I prefer to see the ball as the globe. As she pedals the world spins. It seems like a fragile thing but my elephant remembers how and hasn't let us down yet.

I had a dream last night that the home plate umpire took off his black to reveal an all-white attire. He then started pitching for Peggy and me and was unhittable. In the dream I remarked to Peggy how fortunate we are to have the ump on our side. At that I woke up.

I'm thankful for all our innings together and for the elephant in the room who keeps us in orbit. I almost typed obit. Strange how close and far away those two words are.

Maybe all this is my oblique way of dealing with death and dying; that other elephant prowling around but not yet in the room; just beyond my imagining. We have an entire lifetime to come to terms with it but can't.

If I first open my eyes in the morning to the east I see Peggy rhythmically breathing and making those wonderful sleep sounds we all make. That and the spinning planet are all the reassurance I need to ward off the dreaded elephantine shadows.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hemispheric War

A funny thing happened to me while reading Mario Vargas-Llosa's book, The Storyteller. I fell asleep. This is nothing new. I can often be found in my reclining chair napping with a book on my chest. But this was a more profound sleep; close to a trance.

Vargas-Llosa's book was chosen for our novel group because of his recent selection as Nobel Prize winner in literature. I sometimes have resistance to one book after being transported by a previous one. This time I caught my left brain declaring war on its counterpart. As hemispheres go, I wouldn't lay money down on my defenseless right side. It's Sparta versus Athens.

The Storyteller Is narrated by an academic from Peru who tells of his university friend drawn into the Amazonian jungle culture. He immerses himself in their primitive life and becomes one of them, a storyteller, constantly on the move from one group of Machiguengas to another. He goes not as anthropologist or ethnologist, for whom he has great scorn, but as one of the indigenous people.

The book is largely told by the narrator but interspersed with three or four chapters in the voice of the storyteller. In every case I found myself almost drugged within those pages. Toward the end of the book we are told of an American couple from some institute who lived with these people for 25 years. When asked about the storyteller they, too, had fallen asleep when he spoke for 12 hours at a stretch. I might as well have been a character inside the book.

When I skipped those passages and Llosa's voice resumed his narrative I found myself snapping back to wakefulness. What does this say about me? That I'm hopelessly rational? Not quite. I enjoy getting lost. If my socks match it’s by accident. The morning melon is never cut into four equal quadrants. My preference is for the asymmetrical. I love fairy tales True, I always wondered if the Jack that fell down and broke his crown was the same guy who climbed the beanstalk when he was supposed to be nimble and quick.

But seriously... I discovered that my left brain must have felt the tug of being pulled into the phantasmagoric tales of animism...... men turning into fireflies and back to jaguars then rescued by doves from crocodiles. My North American grip was loosened just a bit as I suspended disbelief and I went off in heavy sedation to the Amazonian rain forest.

Given these two control centers, complementary if not opposing, I would petition for some tunnels, bridges and a decent mass transit system between the two. It's about time they met...possibly over a brew of macerated cassava plant.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

By Bread Alone

It's possible I could not live by bread alone but it's worth a try. There are worse ways to go. I'd give up in half a day if I was restricted to white bread (Wonder Bread , Silvercup) but I can imagine a diet feasting on corn rye with caraway seeds. Toasted raisin pumpernickel is a meal in itself. Then there are warm baguettes of sour dough and French bread to say nothing of the olive and rosemary variety. I could make a banquet of bagels; onion was my favorite until pumpkin came along.

I might put myself to the test, one day, by ordering a Reuben sandwich in a kosher deli and tell them to hold the pastrami, cheese and sauerkraut; the twice-baked rye bread would suffice. Or I could have a plate of focaccia bread in a Ristorante and just imagine the tomato and olive oil. Pita bread demands a bit more magical realism to make of it a meal. But sopapilla (fried bread) from New Mexico to Argentina could keep me going through a few seasons. Would I be stretching the point with a basketful of croissants? An in-breath from the oven is all I need when a challah is baking its heart out.

To add or rather subtract from my life expectancy I see that zucchini has morphed from cake to loaf to its new designation as a bread. I have no strenuous objections.

Before sliced bread, I remember my mother holding a golden-brown rye against her chest producing perfect slices at the risk of her life. This is a lost art today with the slicing machine in the bakery and its three settings. Peggy likes her egg bread extra thin and then toasted. Anyone knows that bread is meant to be chewy. But I would fight with my life for her right to be wrong.

Is it any wonder I've now been diagnosed as a borderline diabetic? From now on the bread of choice must be multi-grain whole wheat which has fewest carbs. I'm not sure I can hold myself upright with this as my staff of life.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Image Behind The Name

Up until a few years ago the word tea suggested a warm beverage, the all-purpose restorative in British movies or even the preferred drink given to trapped miners when they emerged to daylight, if there was no brandy around. Tea conjured a civil conversation in a drawing room or a ritual-laden ceremony in Japan.

Now the rowdy, right-wing Mad Haters, whose preferred drink is a six-pack, have walked off with the name, Tea Party. Of course the name was plucked from the pages of history, the night of insurrection in Boston harbor. A bit of genius as coined phrases go; patriotic, simple and a long-time steeping. More like seething. Not my cuppa.

On the other side of the spectrum there’s been a name-change under our very noses. Since Liberal sounds too close to Libertarian, the left wing has re-discovered the term, Progressive. It, too, has a history. Theodore Roosevelt first called his splinter party by that name and later changed it to Bull Moose when an assassin’s bullet proved insufficient to bring him down. Twelve years later, in 1924, Robert La Follette ran for president under the Progressive Party banner and then again in 1948 it was the party of Henry Wallace.

Now I notice how Democrats, left of the administration, have taken on the name, Progressives. And why not? Since the Republicans stand for nothing more than obstruction and reactionary counterclockwise-winding, the opposition is well-named. A century of social reform, environmental oversight, food & drug protection, health and retirement benefits all fall under the agenda of the early Progressive platform.

The associations with that word, Progressive, are new and improved. Two of the advertising world’s favorites. As new voters come of age and old ones meet their maker, Progressives own the future.

Not so fast, Buster, some folks are threatened by progress and cling to other images of times gone by when horse-driven carts delivered milk straight from the cow and people watched T.V. by candlelight. There are those who think Republicans can restore Downtown before it was wiped out by Walmart or bring back the smoke stacks in Pittsburgh. Those were the days when people knew their place. A time of un-locked doors and Social Tea Biscuits. And now we’re back to that cup of tea.

Elections are won and lost by votes, not by demographics. If the youth will only stop long enough to vote their future instead of Twittering what they had for breakfast the Democrats have a good chance. Bring it on! Let Progressives run bravely on their programs, not run scared, pandering for votes. It’s alright to pronounce the g in words ending with one.

The problem may be how to translate social justice, compassion and science into non-threatening imagery. In Art, the new is necessarily ugly to most eyes. In politics it often means the shock and awe of truth which is not an easy fit for many folks. In running for president one hundred years ago Eugene Debs told a crowd. The other candidates come before you and tell you how smart you are. They do this to keep you stupid. I’m going to tell you how stupid you are, to make you smart. I wonder how that would play in Peoria today.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Cookie Is Crumbling

Seasons are on the move. November Wednesday was hotter than any day in August which makes it tough on camellias or coral trees not knowing when to put out their red lanterns. They’re lurching like a sprinter jumping the gun. Whales are U-turning and migratory birds are losing their sense of direction. The world won't hold still for a minute. The writing is on the wall. A minute ago those clouds were sky-writing. Brazil is subtracting its forest as the Sahara multiplies its margins and chunks of Greenland are in Galveston Bay, floating. The Third World is moving into the First World and what ever happened to the Second World. Soon but not soon enough we'll have One World. Armies are contractors who don't march in columns or wear uniforms because there's nothing uniform about them and columns are blurring into hybrids like engineered corn and Chevies. Music is fusion. Races are mocha. Fox news is an infomercial. Documentaries are fiction and biographies and Bibles while novels hold truth, even Truth. Poetry is prose and prose is poetic. Families are extended, three days here and four days there. Modernism is old. Even post-modernism is done. The new-fangled is aging. Europe is erasing its borders. Cartographers’ colors are running. It's no problemo in 200 countries. Humpty’s been dumped and is scrambled. Grammar is Tweeted. Infinitives splitting. Assets are toxic. Houses upside down flipping. The tornado is rearranging the trailer park. The minister is preaching into the wind. Cataracts are ripening but the cantaloupe can’t. Let the moon tug the tides and the cow jump over while Zenyatta goes from dead last to almost first.....

and all this time the Buddha is sitting.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Post Morten on the Body Politic...and Then

My previous blog was meant to cushion the blow. I have a way of rehearsing bad news turning it into old news when it arrives. It could have been worse. At least the lunatics are not running the asylum …………in every state or every chamber. The defeat of two thirds of the Palinoids has to count as a small accomplishment.

Now that the American voting public has once again delivered a near-fatal blow to itself one might ask the coroner what was the cause of near-death. Forensically speaking, what accounts for the self-inflicted wound? Small turnout from Progressives? Disinterested, low-information Independents? Angry white males? Aroused Tea-bertarians? Tons of corporate money? Poor communication from the White House? The economy, stupid? All of the above, I suspect.

If I watched CSI I might milk that metaphor further but I’ve never sat through a program. Maybe the more relevant question is what we are going to do now. Voltaire famously said to tend our own garden. Friend, Mel, wrote immediately that he was watching over his tomato plant. I’ve been partial to orchids myself. I keep listening to their wagging tongues for a message from beyond. Then there is the basketball season or winter trades in baseball and the crop of year-end movies to keep us distracted for a few months.

Voltaire’s advice came in Candide written in mid 18th century Geneva where he was exiled. It has layers of meaning. The operative word seems to have been, tend or cultivate rather than, one’s own. Tend is what he did. He was tireless in protesting the abuses of the Church and the monarchy. Twice he was imprisoned in the Bastille for leading the charge against the inquisition and barbaric torture practiced at that time.

Some interpreted the word, garden, to mean, field, which gives it a broader reference. However Adam Gopnik rejects that translation. He argues that the reference is to a garden, the place we build by love and generosity, not that ground we must toil in. In this way it is an expression of Enlightenment thought based upon personal responsibility.

In fact Voltaire employed two master gardeners, twenty workmen and twelve servants to tend his garden while he watched. The other essential to a garden is the presence of a gate. He kept out those pests, human and otherwise, with corrupting influences. His proclamation also suggests that we look inward and stop finger pointing.

It all boils down to staying engaged but not despairing. Live globally and act locally is the slogan of the World Health Organization. In fact we do live, for the most part, in the momentary micro while not losing awareness of our place in the macro. Acting locally suggests living out our principles, backing away from reckless consumerism, buying locally grown produce and living our days congruent with what we profess, in ways we interact with each other.

Obama needs to feel his constituency has his back. We can not allow the Reptilians to own the narrative and suck the oxygen out of our garden. The carnival (as in carnivorous) of election politics will soon be upon us again. Let's hope we don't wilt from the smoky air and acrid rhetoric we are about to inhale.