Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year Resolutions

I'd better get them down fast before I forget them. Interesting how we start every year with great resolve and end with irresolution. My default position is the unresolved, muddled state which I call a work-in-progress. There is nothing heavier than a new leaf being turned over.

Most promises are wishes we want magically to happen like dieting or wearing matching socks. No wonder they are devoutly to be forgotten by the second week in January. Last year I went on a diet and lost height. At this age habit has a strong grip. I know health is a major issue but it is so boring with too many body parts and surely all that I hear about proper nutrition doesn’t apply to me, does it? As for socks, mine range from black to navy blue and I can’t be bothered sorting them.

2011 is my year to be more conscious of cutting down on carbs; swear-to-God. This could mean that I will eat the next chocolate Danish that crosses my path…. but with a brief sting of guilt and full consciousness of transgressing. I might also resolve to come to a full stop at all Stop Signs but I know in advance I don’t have it in me.

I’ve decided that breaking a promise such as this is not the worst thing. It’s only a promise to myself, not to others so it doesn’t make me untrustworthy. In any case we’re best advised keeping such goals to ourselves.

As for my incorrigible penchant for chipping cups or my resistance to eliminating books from our shelves I swear no oaths. Nor shall I resist the next hard-crusted French baguette which is a habit hard-wired. To do so would be Contra-Naturam; like turning the wheels in the direction of the skid.

Can we extrapolate any of this to our nation? Like bringing our legions home? Or setting aside immediate gratification to preserve our planet. Would that it were so. I wonder if the sum total of our folly is the equal of our country’s.

I’m sure change does happen but I wonder how. Is it an act of will or fear? More likely, I think, it occurs when we’re not aware. New relationships make for new behaviors, n’est-ce pas? Look how I have been made over during my time with Peggy. I used to be a #$%%^^&* and now I’m at *&^%%$# and I didn’t even know it was happening.

I expect any changes from now on will be in the category of wonderment rather than betterment. I’ll settle for heightened perception of whatever comes my way or around the next corner.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

2011

Soon we shall be done with 2010. I expect I'll start getting it right on my checks in about six months.

Eleven is my favorite number. It's also very funny the way Thursday is funny. When I want to exaggerate how many people were at our table I'll say eleven or how many times I took a makeup exam it's always eleven. It's the only number that rhymes with heaven.....if you ignore seven.

Eleven is the first number beyond our fingers or toes. The one preceding a dozen. A football and soccer team.

It is the age when nothing happened. Think of 1911 or 1811. There were no elections, no wars or overtures written. I can't remember what I did at eleven years-old. I was too thin to be noticed, too dumb to get skipped and too smart to be left-back. The year before pimples. Innocence was still there but beginning to wear at the edges.

Eleven was made famous by the armistice ending the Great War. 11-11-11, hour, day, month...six upright verticals as if to compensate for all the millions gone horizontal.

FDR was in office eleven years. I was in 6th grade at eleven learning how the Dutch discovered Manhattan or rather how the Indians discovered the Dutch stealing Manhattan.

It was 1944 and movies cost eleven cents which was the deposit from three milk bottles and a soda bottle. Eleven was two popsicle sticks; perfect balance between safety and risk. It was the easiest number on the multiplication table. And the fourth number which reads the same upside-down. If ten is perfect, eleven is one better.

The eleventh hour is one that gets our attention. It must have something to do with elves.

December 26th

Jesus is one day old today. All that fuss. Already he is toilet-trained, posing for portraits and speaking in parables. Joseph has settled the manger bill with his HMO, insisting it was not a pre-existing condition. Nights are noisy again.

If you think he was an adorable child you should see his pictures. Aren't you a baby?...chubby and precociously beatific and that halo as if....

Jesus, they're making a myth out of you from old wives' tales and other stories. Do you know you're being followed? You're getting some good ink. But some got it bad and that ain't good. After your Bar Mitzvah you may want to get away for a while. Lay low and think it over.

Now you are out there turning cheeks and doing unto others etc... getting into the messiah gig, a congenital rabbi you are and more. One might say charismatic.

Soon, cathedrals will be built, manuscripts illuminated, crusades, inquisitions, heathen-converting missionaries, genocides. Jesus, something went wrong. Help these fools. They're seeing your image on pieces of bread and cloud formations. Save them from their edifice complex, from their faux-religious pomposity and dogma. Remind them how subversive you once were yourself. How dangerous. And wanted dead or alive. Or did you die for nothing, I suppose?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Meta-narratives

It's been my habit to look for the metanarrative which is a way of locating a story within a greater context such as the Enlightenment or Feminism or the American Dream etc... To the post-modernists this is nothing more than a triumph of logos over mythos. They might say that my reading of the tapestry is weighted with certain pre-digested beliefs and expectations. What if I went to the other side of the tapestry and read the dis-embroided and absurd tangle. What if......

Well-suited said Marx of Hart & Schaffner to which Marx of Engels added, manifestly so, whose threads proclaim your class, at which time Marx, of many brothers, waved his cigar and with his eyebrows overthrew the order to the great dismay of Marx, the clothier, whose vested interest was seen as dialectical by Marx the bearded and seconded by Marx the mustachioed who declared whatever it was, he's against it while Harpo harped, communing with the down-trodden, as Chico fast-talked Hart & Schaffner selling them his Tuttsie-Fruitsie as Engels was installing Captain Spaulding, the African explorer, to head the dictatorship of proletarian Fredonia and that may be a wise-crack but I doubt it.

The problem with meta-narrative in history or geo-politics is that it assumes a single point of view, usually the one of the dominant culture. Brits are taught a different history from the French or Germans. Texans re-wrote their textbooks which have little resemblance to New Yorkers. We are in a prismatic world with everyone bearing witness. Twitter, Twitter!

However with competing small narratives, objective reality has been dismissed. Truth, drummed out of our vocabulary. We are becoming a nation with an erased past. History has been consigned to the revisionists who now oversee a growth industry. All this has tragic consequences. Global warming is relegated to just one of several opinions. Evolutionists are made to compete with the Bible-thumpers. Even vaccinations have been called into question. And then we have the Holocaust deniers.

I would argue that Science makes room for skepticism and pursues an evidence-based truth which is as close to objective fact as we can get. History happens in real-time to real people. To be sure, events are often clouded, even deliberately obscured but a measure of objectivity can be achieved. Even in literature the choice of words or their omission can reveal layers of meaning. There is room for all this in a pluralistic society and a reasonable place exists between relativism and the absolute.

Groucho is not Karl even if they both took aim at the upper class. But neither a Day at the Races nor a Night at the Opera compares to a year in the Gulag.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Year-End List

I was just listening to someone's ten-best list on the radio and realized that I can't remember ten of anything....so I started my pared-down version:

Biggest waste of an apostrophe;
Bill O'Reilly

Longest Fall From Grace:
John McCain…from maverick to hired hand

Best Sounding Food I’ve Never Tried:
Osso Bucco

Most Neglected Health Issue:
Creeping-sleeve syndrome in which pajama top sleeves crawl up one's arm causing annoyance and sleep deprivation.

Best T.V. Series Not Watched Till 6 Years Later:
The Wire

Only Understood domestic device, gadget or appliance:
Ice cube trays

Easiest Device To Explain When Aliens Arrive:
None

Best All-Time Bread Ever Baked:
Tomato-Basil Bread From Bay Cities Italian Deli.

Best Novel Written 30 Years Ago Just Discovered:
Shirley Hazzard's, "Transit Of Venus"

Best Recent Novel Read:
Let The Great World Spin

Best Jazz Pianist I'd Not Heard Of Before:
Bill Cantos

Best Lame-Duck Session Of Congress:
2010

Best Movie Of The Year:
The King’s Speech – A reverse Pygmalion. Aussie Liza Doolittle teaches Henry Higgins how to speak

Best Way To End The Year:
Don't Make out Lists

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Memories

I have none....except for a few enduring images which don't qualify as memorable.

There were those school songs about one horse open sleighs, singing angels and shepherds, which I lip-synched in P.S. 99, banished to the back row with a voice labeled, listener.

You can't be good in everything, I said to myself, but then there was Art class demonstrating that I was good at nothing. All I could manage were green triangles for trees and a snowman with coins of three sizes.

If there was any justice in this world I'd still be in 6th grade trying to draw a passable winter scene. Between piloting flying reindeer and tending flocks of sheep I didn't see any career opportunities for myself.

I do remember my nose falling off or at least leaving my body when I worked one brutal day at a Christmas tree lot. My mother who was a completely self-taught practitioner of medical science, knew that fresh air was both the cause of all illness and it's cure. One got a cold from the dreaded draft and was restored to health by fresh air. I can't recall which of these happened to me that day at the tree lot.

There must have been a moment when I both believed and didn't believe in Santa Claus. I knew he ran back and forth between Macys and Gimbles. One morning a game of Monopoly turned up. I would have settled for Parcheesi or Chinese checkers. On the board game of life I figured I'd spend my days between Baltic and Mediterranean and never get to Marvin Gardens. But here I am with hotels on Park Place (metaphorically speaking).

I still can't carry a tune from here to there but I came to enjoy the exile and did become a close listener over time. For fifty-three years as a pharmacist, empathetic listening may be the one gift granted me, by a stretch, from Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

To Each His Holiday

On one end of the spectrum are the pious who denounce the holiday for its revelry and commercialism. These were the Puritans and now the Jehovah Witnesses. They argue there is no precedent or command in the bible for the event. Furthermore the Santa Claus myth violates the Ten Commandments by fostering a lie to children.

On the other end are the non-believers, such as myself, who also decry the commerce but are fine with merry-making. We note the solstice which is the shortest day of the year and hence the compensation with lights.

The two poles bend toward a circle. Both recognize the pagan origins of the holiday. In fact the early church did not celebrate Christ's birth. This only came into the church when they appropriated the pagan rite as Catholicism was made the state religion by Constantine in the fourth century. While those who insist on a literal reading cannot accommodate the heathens. I’m just fine with them. In fact, as one myself, I celebrate out of the same impulse as the naturalists. Christmas customs have evolved from times long before the Christian period.

Chanukah comes closer, as a recognition of the solstice, with its festival of lights and accompanying story. The consumer orgy was a late after-thought.

Between the two poles are church-going, carol-singing, bell-ringing Christians who worship baby Jesus. Conservatives among them have noted a so-called war on the Merry Christmas greeting in favor of Happy Holidays. They claim the occasion has been secularized to render it politically correct. This is message from Fox News.

To this I say, of course, the holiday has been secularized because it is just that. Christmas has come to embody all of us for the entire month of December plus Thanksgiving and possibly extending to early November. At least stores, which have been salivating for ten months, take down orange Halloween in favor of red/green Christmas. If gift-giving is the message, I’m for it. My only reservations are: Why set aside generosity for just these few weeks and why not encourage a generous spirit without any material gift?

Instead we have turned a dying of the light into an ode to consumption. It is a celebration of Capitalism. With all the Christmas songs playing in the mall, nothing beats the joyful noise of the cash register ringing for the store owners. Black Friday puts them out of the red.

We just returned from an overnighter at the Riverside Mission Inn; a magical place for the season complete with animated Elves (Santa’s little schlepers), nutcrackers and angels in among 3.5 million lights. I didn’t count but I believe them. Absent was Jesus or any nativity scenes. Present was the Charles Dickens’ version which we have come to embrace, complete with a roving band of Dickensian carolers.

What could be bad? We were transported as if by a drunken Hollywood production crew to a version of the Alhambra….without the jet lag. It’s party-time; excessive and make-believe. All great fun in the spirit of the ancients who lit bonfires, dragged evergreen inside their huts and chanted to the heavens for the sun’s return. I join the revelers,.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Year-End Letter

I expect to be receiving some year-end letters from distant friends pretty soon so I thought I'd get a jump on mine.

Fishing on the Monongahela River was a highpoint or was it the Okeechobee? Actually I've never been to either one but it was fun writing their names.

I could tell about the time I was called to the hospital when my father took sick. I got there as they were wheeling him into surgery on a gurney. He whispered in my ear that there was five dollars under a flower pot on the window sill, ten bucks on page 137 of the bible and another fifty in an orange juice container in the back of the fridge. When he recovered he said to forget everything he had said because he changed them all. Except this happened to my friend, Fred, not to me.

Or I might talk about my days playing the sousaphone in the army band but that is Ralph's story or the time I sang a medley of show tunes at the Jewish Home for the Aged, but that Earl.

Instead I'll mention that home run I hit in the schoolyard last spotted over Lichtenstein and still in flight Those glory days get better ever time I tell it and I'm not even sure it ever happened.

We really did celebrate Valentine’s Day in Julian which is noted for its apple pie and long drive to get there. The pie was great but the apples were trucked in from San Diego.

Peggy and I went away for one night in March. I can't remember much of what we did except that the hotel room was furnished in a Babel of Moorish, late renaissance and early rococo with touches of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

My calendar says that I had a dental appointment in April. All I can recall is getting a few words in edgewise when he let me rinse and spit.

We spent three nights in the Bay area and wine country for Peggy’s birthday in May. Remarkable how far they’ve come since the 1906 earthquake.

Peggy, who has genius for bringing things together in her poetry and collages, took it a bit too far in June when she aggregated her blood cells into multiple emboli. A few days in the hospital with anti-coagulants broke up those consanguinities. (another word I’ve always wanted to write.)

This was year the Dodgers were so bad I almost outgrew my infantilism...but not quite. I nearly became a Giant fan but attributed that to an overdose of artichokes and Vitamin D.

A few weeks ago I got up in the middle of the night and applied some toothpaste to an itchy genital instead of hydrocortisone ointment. It worked.

Also noted en passant: all those lunches & linners with friends, salads sufficient to feed sub-Saharan Africa, the thousands of pages we read which could stop a speeding bullet, plays hammed up, salons gathered and emails exchanged.

All this reminds me of my most dreaded class in school, English composition with the obligatory essay of what we did on our summer vacation. I spent most of August thinking of what to write.

Maybe it's not a bad thing to blank out on the past twelve months. It’s been a happy blur. All body parts accounted for though none are still under warranty. It’s been another voluptuous year in a very fortunate life ever since Peggy taught me how to be willing to be lucky.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lend Me Your Ears

I've grown attached to my ears, emotionally, that is. And down through the years my ears have become attached to me. I like each one without favoritism. They don't draw attention to themselves like Obama's or Leonard Nimoy's. I have no problem with my lobes and I rather enjoy my outer labyrinth though I wouldn't know it from anyone else's.

It's only when they give me trouble that I give them the attention they probably crave. Now my right one is calling, or rather not calling in the manner I've grown accustomed. The doctor says I have otitis media, a middle ear infection or inflammation with a blocked Eustachian tube.

I love all my tubes though I can't think of any but a Fallopian; equipment I wasn't supplied with at birth. If I got one now I wouldn't know what to do with it.

So I'm hearing as if one ear is under water or on an airplane in a dive. Noises coming from the bedroom sound like they're coming from the kitchen. I'm walking west instead of east. I have to lip-read in restaurants and watch Rachel Maddow in closed caption.

Diminished hearing has its advantages. I'm not missing the noise from backing-up garbage trucks and the rhetorical garbage from mouths of liars spouting agreed-upon lies.

Every now and then a tune pops up in my head making its way around the planet. Is this the music of the spheres or just some ditty which has dislodged itself from some barnacle of memory? My right ear hears it even better than my left because the tune isn’t there.

Several friends have hearing aids. They're always complaining about them. Either there is feedback or they amplify ambient sounds too much. I hope my tube opens up again under the influence of antibiotics, antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. That's a lot of anti for one tube to withstand.

My daughter, Janice, is congenitally deaf. When she was about eight years-old a well-meaning friend urged us to attend a miracle healing service. We arrived at the Shrine Auditorium in a bus from the Assembly-Of-God church. I lip-synched Bible songs so we wouldn't get thrown off or even under the bus. Jesus was scheduled to make an appearance. We sat in the balcony and Kathryn Kuhlman floated in wearing her white angelic gown. People were pouring onto stage throwing away their crutches and seeing eye dogs. Looking in our direction she said that she felt ears opening. I looked down at Janice. She said she had to go to the bathroom. Jesus had opened the wrong tube. Maybe I didn't believe strenuously enough. Or not at all.

Janice is doing fine now, thank you very much. She is herself a miracle, functioning well in both the hearing world and the deaf community with her lip-reading skills and signing. I only hope she doesn’t get any ideas about taking me to a faith healer. I don’t stand a chance.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

To Be Right Or To Be President

It's easy to be principled as a candidate or talking head or even lame-duck legislator but not so when it comes to governance.

Progressives projected a lifetime wish list onto Obama as if the messiah had finally arrived. And now he is accused of leading them off the cliff. I, too, am disappointed but not disillusioned or disaffected.

My dismay comes from his seeming inability to communicate effectively with the American people. It's hard to get their attention when times are tough and to reduce complex issues to Twitter-length slogans. Those critical of his Healthcare bill minus a public option should note that the original Social Security bill covered only widows and orphans.

No doubt he has err'd in the recent compromise by not including House Democrats at the table. Maybe he hasn't used the bully pulpit as well as some of his predecessors who presided in a time of American ascendance rather than in this period of our empire’s decline.

Analogies break down further in the details. FDR had seventy senators with him and a large majority in the House. He got them by selling his soul to the devil; the Solid South was promised no anti-lynching laws, no disturbance of the poll tax nor interference with segregation.

LBJ had 25 years experience in Congress and the key to the closet where his good old boys stored their skeletons. Indeed once he squeezed through the Civil Rights Act the Faustian deal with the Segregationists was kaput.

Obama has to deal with intransigent Red state racist populism not seen since ante-bellum days. Indeed even Lincoln, without having to deal with slave states after secession, took three years to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. For the first half of his term in office he was under attack from the Abolitionists.

The process of pushing through meaningful legislation is the art of the possible. There is not even a footnote in history books for those who deem it better to stay pure rather than give their vote to an omnibus bill containing some reprehensible paragraphs.

The current tax/unemployment legislation also contains other provisions which can be seen as a back-door stimulus. When the new Congress convenes Speaker Boehner will most certainly not bring these matters to the floor.

Some say that Obama, as quarterback, huddled with the opposition and punted on first down. I would argue that his lineman offered little protection and he was forced outside of the pocket. He settled for short pick-ups, first downs and is still marching down the field.......even as his cheerleaders have gone silent and his backers lost their shirt because he didn't cover the spread.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Identity...No Crisis

Two recent books have set me off again on that elusive issue of identity. The recent Booker prize winner, The Finkler Question, addresses the issue of what it means to be Jewish. Ian McEwans's 1997 novel, Enduring Love, takes on the illusion of a rational, safe and insular middle-class life.

Harold Jacobson is at once wittier than Woody Allen and more penetrating than Bellow or Roth. We are presented with three characters; an aged Jewish widower, a self-loathing and rather loathsome Jew and a non-Jew who yearns to be Jewish.

My dis-indentification, even flight from, Jewishness was halted by the author's hilarious turns of language. I discovered or re-discovered a resonance and affinity for the culture in the cadence of his sentences. In the exaggerations, ironies and constant self-examination I recognized something in myself.

Is it possible to reject the religion and view the Israeli-Palestinian morass from a humanist perspective free from any tribal allegiance? .... and still accept a certain home within the (Talmudic) questioning and unmistakable Jewish humor? My answer is Yes.

I am more than uneasy at Bar Mitzvahs and squirm at the observance of holidays, high or low, feast or fast. I regard them as vestiges of pre-history; hypocritical, irrelevant and divisive. Furthermore they are faux-spiritual having usurped the trappings and vocabulary of transcendent experience and delivering nothing but arcane mumbles.

But am I self-loathing? The last time I felt so was when I spilled Ragu sauce on my shirt or when I’m stuck with overdue library books. The issue of Jewish identity has probably been on my mind since I was in the crib wondering whether my circumcision would lead to a circumscribed life. To the extent that free-will is available to me I have tried to claim a more universal tag.

The protagonist in McEwan's novel leads a life familiar to me, governed by reasoned choices and a certainty in life's expectations. He is a science writer whose day is ordered and humane. All this is shattered by the ripple effects of a single incident when an irrational character insinuates himself into his life; the menace lurking at the edge.

The book could be read as a cautionary tale for people like me. Let in the outrageous, the inexplicable, and the folly that is all around us. It may be art; it may be the Dionysian, the otherness that envelops us. I could inhabit the writer and experience his existential crisis. No matter how well we wrap ourselves in a well-ordered life there is always a piece of us uncontained which follows no logic.

It seems the issue of identity is never quite resolved. It's a work-in-progress always under revision and creation. Perhaps the very quest is all the identity I need.