Friday, December 30, 2011

Along the Timeline


This year ends; the next begins. The king is dead; long live the king. A calendar is as good a marker as any to serve the grand chronicle. In another sense, nothing ends or begins. It just keeps rolling along in every which way.

We tend to look at history longitudinally asking, and then what happened? We think in terms of stories. Nothing wrong with that except that by picking up one thread we often ignore what else happened at the same time which may have had unintended ripples.

I recently read part of a 900 page book about the role of England during our Civil war. 250 pages were enough to get the idea and it was due back at the library. The Northern blockade of Southern ports denied the Confederacy its chief export but also deprived the Brits of their needed cotton and caused half a million British workers to be unemployed. It came close to bringing England into our war. An impassioned letter from Lincoln to Parliament saved the day.

If we think associatively we get a broader picture of the times. Pick a year, I said to myself, and I came up with 1906. Cezanne died and so did Susan B. Anthony and Henrik Ibsen but Dmitri Shostakovich, Satchel Page (we think) and Samuel Beckett came into the world. Monsieur Curie (married to Madame) departed, replaced by Philo Farnsworth, Billy Wilder and Oscar Levant and lots of others including my Uncle Harry who was famous only to Aunt Nettie.

Mark Twain was still alive and Emile Zola was still dead. The Chicago Cubs were so good they won 116 games and lost 36, a winning percentage never equaled. When the season was over President Theodore Roosevelt left for Panama and got his picture taken on a tractor, becoming the first president to leave the country while in office. When he returned he was named recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his help bringing the Russo-Japanese War to an end. T.R. had also played a part, earlier that year, in mediating the Moroccan crisis between France and Spain. This sounds like Friday and Sunday fighting over Saturday night.

It was a summer of seismic belches and burps. Vesuvius erupted on April 7 burying Naples and 11 days later San Francisco was hit by a 7.8 earthquake and fire. An even larger temblor killed 20,000 in Chile 2 months later and a typhoon and tsunami swallowed another 10,000 in Hong Kong.

On the good news ledger, the first phonograph, the Victrola, appeared and the first radio broadcast occurred: a poetry reading, a violin solo, and a speech. In December of 1906 the world's first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was released. The worlds longest tunnel (12 miles) was built under the Alps connecting Switzerland and Italy. The Dreyfus Affair ended with his full exoneration which is said to have led to the separation of Church and state in France and a disgraced military. By year’s end The Wasserman test diagnosed syphilis and a tuberculosis inoculation was developed. As tectonic plates were stirring, the Lusitania, the world’s largest ship, was launched... only to be sunk nine years later by Germnan U-boats. A sign of trouble ahead.

And just when you might think a new age of enlightenment was upon us, the U.S found a reason to occupy Cuba. We had already helped ourselves to Guantanamo Bay three years earlier. Across the Atlantic the British built the battleship Dreadnought. It was the first of an entirely new class of warships giving the vessel unheard-of speed. The launching of the Dreadnought was a first step in a naval armaments race with Germany and we know where that led. At the same time the Muslims of India began separating themselves from the Hindus which resulted in the establishment of Pakistan 41 years later.

The agonies and ecstasies of today have their antecedents 106 years ago. Whether these happenings had a cameo role in each other’s story I leave for professional historians and story tellers. As the world shrinks and connectivity grows it’s hard to imagine any local trouble not becoming seismic. I wonder if tears or cheers marked the New Year parties ushering in 1907.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Jam

The word keeps following me. I can remember when other words made their best to get into my head, Embedded had its run and so did, narrative. My nominations for this year are occupy and cloud. Certain words sneak into sentences and self-promote until exhaustion sets in or my ears grow deaf to them. But jam hasn’t been rehabilitated by some techno-nerd; jam is just plain old jam.

Flaubert described a sunset as the color of red current jam. In his book, Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes has a character so obsessed with the Madame Bovary novel that he tracked down the manufacturer of that jam from Normandy still in business a century and a half later and still the same color, just as the sun still hemorrhages nightly before it dips.

This morning I learn that when the Americas discovered Columbus he was introduced to jam or at least sugared fruit, preserved, which he brought back to lay at the feet of Isabel and Ferdinand. That must have been a great time to be alive….unless you happened to be Jewish, Moslem or the Indigenous people about to be slaughtered. But for Christian Europeans their palate would be astonished by tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, sugar, avocadoes and chocolate. God’s price was to be tooth decay, diabetes and acne...and collective guilt.

It must be jelly, cause jam don’t shake like that, was arranged and played by Glenn Miller and sung by Woody Herman on another label maybe while jammin all night… and the now jam won’t let go. To get in the spirit for the festival of lights I bought a Chanukah donut (swear-to-god) at the Jewish bakery. It had no hole and was filled with raspberry jam. Makes me wonder why they don’t call the jelly donut, a jam donut. The jelly/jam song, by the way, was written by someone named Chummy MacGregor, piano player for Glenn Miller. These are essential facts in case you are also followed by a jam shadow.

When the dairymaid was summoned for the King’s breakfast, his royal-ness requested, as is the monarch’s wont, a bit of butter to his royal slice of bread. Milne was given his due at our Christmas dinner last night. The table rocked.

What we call jam, was once called sweetmeats. One theory as to the origin is that some child, with his eye on posterity, exclaimed, j’aime, I love it. Doubtful provenance but, j’aime.

Now I will jam on the brakes with Jelly Roll Morton who started playing his piano in New Orleans’ brothels about the same time & place Satchmo blew his horn. Why he was called Jelly Roll may not be fit for print but it stuck and their fame spread as jelly/jam does.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'll Try To Be Brief

…but I probably won’t, due to vestiges from a previous incarnation when loquacity was esteemed. Fewer and fewer words are now the fashion. Adverbs are deemed to be (really, very) superfluous and adjectives are regarded as weak props, from saccharine to ponderous.

When did brevity become such a virtue? Are we a lazy people or just in a hurry to get where we’re going so we can think great thoughts? Is this our way of getting back at long-winded rhetoricians; those bloviators in the halls of Congress or men of the cloth intoning everything God has to say?

The 19th century was a time when working-people became literate. Novels were the rage and many authors got paid by the word. It was also an age of pretension and ornamentation. A well-shaped sentence on the page with a preamble and digressions of a dozen commas and semi-colons, was considered a thing of beauty. The elegantly crafted phrase at the dinner table got you re-invited. Henry James could separate the subject from the predicate with as many words as it took a Minimalist to write a short story. Lincoln’s four minute Gettysburg Address was preceded by Edward Everett’s two hours oration.

Then the pendulum swung after the First World War. Limbs were shot off and sentences got clipped. Romanticism was overthrown along with the monarchies of Europe. Jazz was the staccato to accompany urban speech. Concision entered poetry. Literature became stripped of frippery the same way the Bauhaus School brought Modernism to architecture. Hemingway wrote what must be the world’s shortest novel:

Baby shoes for sale; never used.

Badinage at the dinner table no longer insured a return visit. In fact, that word, itself, hasn’t made the final cut in dictionaries for decades. Public oration is barely tolerated. We’ve discovered the power of the under-statement. Monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon pushed aside polysyllabic Latinate.

Get to the point. Spit it out. Twenty-five words or less. Button your lip..

Brevity shortened our perceptual span, or maybe it was just a better fit. The president of the United States is now POTUS and the State of the Union is SOTU. Some linguists believe that language precedes thought. Fewer words limit ideas. A broad vocabulary trains the mind to think in more nuanced ways. The positive side of all this is that greater demands are expected of the reader or watcher to participate.

Ellipsis is fine but have we not taken it too far, moving beyond brevity to bites, texts, tweets, and duh? If we continue in this trajectory we will end in the place from whence we came; shrugs and grunts.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Abbreviations, Acronyms and Signifiers

It’s bad enough that I don’t know how anything works but I'd like to think I still speak the common tongue and, at least, know what I don’t know.

I was just told what Wi-Fi means. I’d been seeing it all over town but all I knew is that my life hadn’t changed because of my ignorance. Since the sign had appeared in eateries I thought it referred to waffles or some new sushi. And now I know.

Wi- Fi "refers to wireless fidelity; networking technology that allows computers and other devices to communicate over a wireless signal," according to TechTerms. Wi-Fi communication is between the device and a router, which is connected to a modem that provides access to the Internet for connected devices. Wi-Fi is now used in many cell phones and other mobile devices.

I'm glad we've cleared that up.

One sure sign that the world is passing me by is when abbreviations appear and I haven’t the slightest idea what they mean…yet I go for six months or even 65 years faking it. The meaning slowly becomes clear with repeated usage until I get curious enough to Google the derivations.

The most recent one is TMZ. I finally figured out it refers to celebrities but why those letters? And the answer comes up, Thirty Mile Zone, which originated in the 1960's. Due to the growth of on location shoots, studios and various talent guilds established a thirty mile zone, outside of which shooting is considered to be a location shoot, requiring per diems and other travel and living expenses to be paid. The center of the zone was around the old offices of The Association of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, where everything happens. Everything, that is, if you care about that universe….as we must.

The oldest of these is D-Day. I lived through that summer day in 1944 as well as V-J Day. Now that was easy. ..victory over Japan but D-Day always eluded me. Apparently I’ve not been alone.

Many explanations have been given for the meaning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the day the Allies invaded Normandy from England during World War II. The Army has said that it is an alliteration, as in H-Hour. Others say the first D in the word also stands for day. The French maintain the D means disembarkation, still others say debarkation, and the more poetic insist D-Day is short for day of decision. General Eisenhower said that any amphibious operation has a departed date; therefore the shortened term ‘D-Day’ is used.

Words and signifiers seem to be entering our language with increasing rapidity….and possibly exiting it just as fast. It took me a few years to catch up with bling and wonk. I notice that spell-check still hasn’t admitted the former into its lexicon so I don’t feel too bad about that. I was even late for 24/7.

I’ve finally mastered IMHO, BTW and LOL. We live in global shorthand. I’m glad we’re moving toward universality but we’ve traded away a nuanced vocabulary. I’m reminded of the story about a group of comedians who met regularly and knew each others material so well they numbered the jokes. One fellow stands up and says, 43. Nobody laughed. What’s wrong he asked and was told he didn’t tell it so well.

It’s tough getting old. My impulse is to look backwards into the illusion of historical clarity rather ahead into the dystopia. The present is undecipherable enough. I’m running as fast as I can just to stay still.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Through Un-Arable Soil


A young woman, recently widowed, walks alone in rugged, inhospitable Connemara. She has left the comfort of her apartment. You imagine a smell of garbage about her and her fingernails crusty. Everything she owns is on her back including a blue plastic rolled-up tent in which she camps every night. For the first 15 minutes of this movie there aren’t a dozen words spoken and not too many after that.

She happens upon a house on the tip of a peninsula jutting into a body of water. The owner is Stephen Rea, past middle-age, also mourning his wife’s death. He welcomes her company but neither offers a name or their past, as if they have none and have returned to an elemental existence. When he pushes near she pulls away. When she finally trusts enough to abandon her tent and sit at his table, he becomes more taciturn.

Rea’s face is a biography of his wounded life, cratered but kind. She returns repeatedly to a cliff overlooking this strange phallic-like stretch of earth with the cottage at land’s end. They have both come to the end of their tether in a craggy place strangely embraced by a green belt.

The countryside is as stark and raw as their interior landscape; yet sensually suggestive as the camera closes in on her fingering sinuous, slithering kelp and he pulling onion and chive from his garden. Together they dig and stack peat moss for fuel, transforming the austere and barren into something Edenic.

She peels potatoes and cooks him soup. He offers her his music. Her taste runs to the classical and his to country. He teases that she is too educated to know what’s good. She dances a jig.

The blue of the tent becomes a blue jar on the sill, his blue shirt and the blue light at dusk. Their early insistence of anonymity slowly yields to intimacy, unable to resist forbidden knowledge in spite of themselves and the film’s ironic name, Nothing Personal.

As simple humanity emerges he suffers a heart attack. His heart has been attacked as it opens. She watches over him and when he succumbs she wraps his body in a sheet and embraces him in her nakedness. It is a most memorable movie image, highly erotic and poignant, unlike any I’ve seen before.

There is redemption of life through hard-earned love, the way potatoes grow between ancient stone and bogs, pushing up through un-arable soil.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Extra Paper, Read All About It

In the old movie, an editor calls downstairs to stop the press. In the next scene stacks of papers are thrown from the truck. Newsboys hawk the special edition on the corner, taking in the three cents faster than the execution switch at Sing-Sing. In real life, big black headlines seared themselves into my head: ROOSEVELT DEAD, D-Day, JAPAN SURRENDERS.

All that’s left now is the L.A. Times with their second section called, Extra, a few pages of regional and national stories. It seems always to be bad news on a small scale rather than the first section which is bad news on an international scale.

Last Saturday’s edition gave us a shooting spree at Sunset and Vine on the first page. A crazed gunman fired randomly at passing motorists. A witness said he wanted to die a loud death and he did as police finished him off in a surreal scene. Bystanders thought they were watching a movie being filmed.

Other stories on page one concerned a child molester, overcrowded jails and corruption revealed by an audit. I turned the page and read about the unclear motive of a campus shooter in Virginia after he killed a policeman and turned the gun on himself. Fear is said to have returned where a deranged undergraduate killed 32 students four years ago on the same campus.

Woe is us, sorry, woe is we. Life has become the shoot-em-up movie I do my best to avoid seeing.

More negativity on page three with an article about the millions of dollars lost to recent wind damage. I finally spot a happy story on the bottom of the page. A red-flanked bluetail was spotted on San Clemente Island. The bird is indigenous to Europe and Asia. It either had no sense of direction, disoriented perhaps by climate change or was seeking a new homeland. In any case no one accused it of being undocumented. It caused delirium among birders who welcome what they call a vagrant; and beautiful it is with its blue rump and tail, cinnamon wings and reddish flanks.

Turning the page to the obits I joined in celebrating the eighty years of Hubert Sumlin. When Howlin Wolf howled through Wang Dang Doodle who do you suppose was thumping his snarling guitar? None other than the great bluesman, Sumlin. He riffed hard one moment and sighed the next. Once he strapped on his instrument his sound was lacerating.

As John Garfield says in Golden Boy as he risks everything, What are they going to do, kill me? Everybody dies.

The best we can hope for is a life lived, loudly or not, on our own terms. Better the end doesn’t come on the mean streets as a random shooting. Howard Sumlin said his piece with his ferocious guitar. The red-flanked bluetail made it to the new world even if it was impaled a few days later by a loggerhead shrike, as I just learned.

Life is various; good news and bad, intertwined. On the last page of Extra, I see that it is 88 degrees in Rio and minus nine in Winnipeg.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Football


Baseball is life, so they say, and I don’t disagree. But that was when we were pastoral and puny; a diamond in the rough, heedless of time as we ran around the bases counter-clockwise. Now football is our pastime, a metaphor for business and for war, for all things adversarial. It is America’s game; what we do at home, vicariously, while our military is occupying enemy territory, shocking, awing and droning. 18 of the top 20 most watch T.V. programs are football games, as befits our muscular foreign policy.

We bet on outcomes as if we were generals, fantasizing our armies, devising strategies. Concuss or be concussed. Football players do battle in padded gear and we sit on the couch growling and guzzling. I know; I’m one of them, feeding my reptilian brain.

Of course I look at it as a choreographed ballet of bulky bodies; a cerebral sport with blocking assignments, Hail Marys, fakes and audibles improvised at the line of scrimmage as the quarterback reads the defense. The gridiron is a chessboard with an occasional stretcher.

The game itself often brings out 100,000 fans on Saturday and brings in ten of millions of dollars for division one NCAA schools. It is a growth industry on many campuses. Few student-athletes make it as professionals. Whatever glory is achieved and no doubt,embellished over time, is generally accompanuied by scars followed by an early blue plaque for handicap parking.

Strange, how it is a peculiarly American game, unlike the futball played by the rest of the world. Consider the shape of the ball; American exceptionalism again. Kick, run, pass. Use your hands, your feet, your helmet. A score is not one point as in soccer; it is six and with a conversion,7. There are no ties. We have sudden death as if life itself was on the line.

Football is an elongated march downfield, a muddied advance, played in rain or snow in defiance of the elements. Many exercise their right to bare arms. It is a manly game that spills hormones all over the field. Needed yardage is bulled for, straight ahead. Ulysses inches his way from post to post like the rest of us …. to swooning Penelopes cheering on the sideline. They huddle, we huddle. They fumble just as we bumble; missed assignments, sacks, broken patterns, interceptions. Once I may have punted on first down. This time I go for it on 4th and inches. One team gets to the end zone with victory swagger. It could be me.

The fans at the stadium suit up or down for the spectacle like a paramilitary unit with their gladiator faces, fangs and tattoos, often stripped for action. Aggression sublimated, one hopes.

It’s both brainy and brutal. I gladly let them reenact the ancient ritual. Perhaps football was more symbolic of trench warfare when armies battled for every foot of real estate. Today, our wars are fought with remote buttons against guerillas who vanish into caves or tunnels. The new national pastime might be a series of computer games which simulate both terrorism and occupation along with the next misadventure of a world power foolish enough to imagine we can police the planet. However, until drones come to our neighborhood, football will have to do.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Such a Deal


The New Deal happened under my very eyes but my eyes were just seven years in this world by 1940. Whatever hardships or remedies occurred, they entered my consciousness as normalcy, as mother’s milk.

I only knew that money matters were whispered about in the next room. My mother moaned and railed about the hard times with her gevalts. She had an enormous vocabulary for curses and an affinity for the woes of life, yet I never missed a meal or felt deprived. As she did combat with the world, I became a pacifist.

I just finished reading Michael Hiltzik’s book, The New Deal, which details the conditions of the thirties and FDR’s legislative agenda to turn it around; all the politics of the day which passed me by.

History brings another dimension to the present, the necessary antecedent in the continuum. Reading the public rhetoric from back then makes me hum, I’ve heard that song before. The world hasn’t moved much in the alignment of opposing forces.

It is tempting to compare Roosevelt with Obama and make the case for that man as FDR was derisively called. The closer we look, the matter becomes a bit more muddled. Certainly he had a quality of voice, unequalled. It was, at once, warm and authoritative. He was the ultimate charmer. Obama was not to the manor born and lacks his Patrician ease. Many folks feel un-met. However, our current president has a greater intellect and can be equally inspiring to a large audience. Justice Holmes assessed FDR, Second rate intellect, first rate temperament.

Both men practiced pragmatism, shunned ideology, made missteps, appeased the opposition, spoke contradictory statements and evoked the wrath of both the Left and Right. If Obama has the baggage of Tim Geithner at Treasury, FDR stuck himself with Henry Morgenthau whose call for a balanced budget never ceased.

By 1936, Roosevelt enjoyed a 5:1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the Senate and a 4:1 advantage in the House. Is it any wonder he was able to have his way with an alphabet of agencies? When the Supreme Court struck some of them down he had a tantrum which caused him to squander much political capital in Congress for a while. However, as the nine old men died off he was able to make key appointments who stayed on the bench well into the 50's and beyond. William O. Douglas remained until 1975.

The accomplishments of the W.P.A. are impressive by any measure. It produced 124,000 bridges, 8,000 parks and 24,000 schools, to name a few. The Tennessee Valley Authority brought rural electrification to millions of people. Locally, after the Long Beach earthquake of 1933, the federal government built or repaired 536 new schools. In NYC it constructed the Triborough Bridge. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment was Social Security which eventually led to Medicare. The Republicans can’t forgive him for that.

For most Americans the New Deal instilled the precept, in Hiltzik's words, economic security is a collective responsibility and therefore a function of government. That this notion is now under attack is unfathomable and tragic.

While Roosevelt prepared us for war and led us through it, Obama is trying to wind down our foreign adventures while still maintaining homeland security. Both have had to navigate between Hawks and Doves, between Keynesians and naysayers. If Obama has put too much faith in the engine of banks, FDR made a pact with the Devil in keeping the Solid South. He did not support anti-lynching laws or an end to the poll tax. The New Deal was more of the Old Deal for Blacks. Such are the shameful compromises of politics.

In certain ways Obama’s narrative is more compelling than Roosevelt’s. It is the chronicle of a struggle through humble beginnings, with no father in a foreign land, then raised by grandparents in a country still gripped by racism, all transcended with a meteoric rise to our highest office. FDR led a privileged life until he was struck by polio and overcame that hurdle by grit and the force of his personality.

Both are public men whose inner lives remain largely unknown. Roosevelt never wrote his memoir. His personal side has come down to us through letters and recollections from dozens of family, friends and historians. He was most certainly the right man for the time and arguably saved our system, for better or worse. Obama’s legacy remains to be seen. He has been dealt a Raw Deal from an unconscionable opposition. I suspect history will be kinder towards him than our current observers.

1904, T.R. spoke of a Square Deal when addressing a labor dispute. FDR offered the people a New Deal in 1933 and Harry Truman called for a Fair Deal. As divisions continue to grow between the privileged and disadvantaged, the deck, itself, needs to be re-examined.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Riddle of Days


Vermont, Statuesque, Swedish, Arthur's, Africa, Sensation, Misunderstood

How do these words connect? It’s a riddle a friend sprung on me. I enjoy these word games if I can figure them out. I can’t stand them when I don’t. I regress to those times in school when I forgot my homework. In this case I hadn’t a clue. I looked at the vowels, their order and the consonants that surrounded them. The alphabet ran in my head. I came up blank. And then he gave me the answer ……… they all contain an abbreviation for the days of the week.

That got me thinking about these names, from whence they came and what memories and meanings are attached to them.

Monday derived from the Old English. Monandaeg, was seen as Moonday by astrologers because it aligns with the moon. I’ve learned never to argue with astrologers, fearing they might consign me to horoscope hell. I’m retrograde enough as it is. For many Americans it is named Monday because that is when Monday night football happens.

The question whether Monday is the first or second day of the week is still unsettled even though the major religions all assign Sunday as the first day of the week. God labored in his creation experiment for six days and gave us up as hopeless, sleeping in on Sunday. Accordingly, Monday is day two. However pious we may claim to be, Monday, in the workplace, is seen as day one.

All I know is that Monday began the school week and in the pharmacy it was, by far, the busiest day. It is also the preferred day for suicides, the numbers swelled perhaps by overworked pharmacists.

Tuesday follows, regardless of whether it is the second or third day. It’s what happens when you get through Monday and wake up alive. Tuesday Weld was not the first person to think of the name. Tuesday is another well-worn word having passed through Norse and Germanic hands; our version of Tyr, which is the Old English translation of Mars-day. Suddenly I’m remembering Meatless Tuesday during the good war when we sacrificed together and felt noble about it. It is also our election day which generally means a night of teeth-gnashing and mourning.

Next is the day that Ash Wednesday always falls on. Wednesday positions itself in mid-week with its silent “d” that could stand for double agent, having infiltrated a word for no apparent reason… other than it came down to us from the Anglo-Saxon, Wodon. If you’re still alive by now you are half-way through the week.

Thursday is my favorite day. It feels juicy to me as having had its Thirst-day quenched in my mouth. It comes to us from Jupiter, by Jove, translated as Thor as in thunder. Thursday night was my time to dial up God ….for a few hours, to get me through the Friday tests. My non-belief didn’t keep me from a chat every now and then. I’m told that Thursday is the new Friday (the same way 80 is the new 60) when college kids start partying. No wonder our nation is in steep decline.

We have Good Friday and Black Friday which is even gooder, at least for merchants. I understand that Good Friday is the best day to plant potatoes. I must remember that for my next incarnation. Then there is Friday the 13th which is a bad day to do anything except perhaps to have dinner at TGIF. For those with their heads in the clouds it is somehow connected to Venus. The word itself is again bequeathed from the Norse God, Frigge. One should never do battle with a Norse god particularly on Friday.

Days are named for the planets, which were in turn named for the deities so Saturday belongs to Saturn though it is not necessarily saturnine. In fact it is our reward having gotten through another week. Saturday is Sabbath, for observant Jews, football for orthodox fans and the loneliest night of the week growing up unless you enjoyed a juke-box Saturday night if you were sentient in the
'40's

Finally we come to Sunday and not a minute too soon. I can tell by the weight of the newspaper. Before it was the Lord’s Day, it belonged to pagans who worshipped the sun. Like so many other rites this is another instance of the Church appropriating the day for its own purposes. God rested and ye shall come in your Sunday best and sing praises to his name. And while you are here you might just drop a coin in the cup for the edifice complex.

If I allow myself to regress to childhood, Sunday night was an early bath with Lifebuoy soap and my sailboat, then out in time for radio programs starting with Jack Benny and ending with Fred Allen. However, retirement is a seven day weekend, all days indistinguishable; part of our campaign to ignore the calendar.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Big


Big is broken. Big cars eat gas. Big waistlines are deadly. Big bankers have bloated egos. There is a move afoot to shun big box retailers in favor of small shops. Even long sentences are yesterday.

In predatory waters big barracuda gulp guppies. Unchecked, multinationals swallow their competition; it is the way of monopoly capitalism.

If we look at recent troubled areas we see ungodly behavior in Catholic churches, molestation in university athletic programs, campus police abusing their authority, a dysfunctional Congress, errant drones from our military and excess on Wall St. The common denominator is the unaccountable practices of large, insular institutions.

Big government has long been the bogeyman of Conservatives, as if bigness in every other power base if perfectly acceptable. I would argue that all these centers of power and privilege have grown exponentially with hierarchies answerable to no one.

The Vatican protects its own under the eyes of saints in stained glass. The Penn. State football program brings in over 70 million dollars annually and was deemed too sacred to be meddled with. The trouble in Happy Valley, PA was a case of academia gone amok; incompetence layered over with secrecy. The incident in Davis was also a function of mismanagement and stupidity. The response of uniformed officers to the occupiers has brought out peppered police in contrast to the passive resistance of those assembled.

Health insurance companies along with Big Pharma are granted all the decision-making prerogatives regarding premiums, exclusions, co-pays, deductibles, fee schedules and availability of medications. Their unconscionable practices entitle them to write legislation via lobbyists, buying off the Congressional watchdogs.

Is it bigness, alone, that breeds such ill winds? We live in a power-based society in which self-serving policies and corruption multiply, without constraints. Any organization too big to fail, has already failed in its public trust and lost its moral center. The model for abuse in government occurred under Nixon’s imperial presidency with its nefarious plots, enemy lists and arrogance.

Democracy is a messy process. Sometimes I lose my faith in the electorate as they choose representatives least likely to serve the public good. However the American people are still the best hope. We need to demand transparency of our institutions as they drift behind closed doors. It is yet another argument for regulation and oversight.

The Tea Party, with all its mindless racism and misplaced animus against social programs, remains viable because it struck a chord in the heartland. Their anger has largely been subverted into far Right conservatism but the Populism that militates against big banks and mortgage companies still prevails and rightly so. To that extent they can shake hands with the the occupiers.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Truth/Beauty Conundrum


In his enduring Ode to a Grecian Urn, Keats ends his poem with the lines, Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty/, That is all you know and all you need to know. However those lines are in quotes and may or may not be the urn itself speaking. In any case those words ignited almost two centuries of scholarly conversation.

When Keats celebrates the common scenes depicted on the urn he is raising the everyday to high art and a certain truth inherent in those representations. The beauty lies also in the inspired words the urn has evoked from the poet which complete the act.

Anything can be seen as true and sublime in both the natural and the made-world; behold this sunset, that saucer, the human form as replicated in nature.


All You Need To Know

Before stapled center-folds
there were photography magazines
an introduction to the female form.

My first pin-up was Edward Weston’s
nubile bell pepper with beads of perspiration
and contours writhing
daring me to see as he did
voluptuously.

His camera made a mistress of
shells calyx sand
as skin.
I was a voyeur to the thigh of a dune
the shadow of a gull upon it.

There’s an odalisque in the bok choy
as much truth in artichoke and zucchini
as in the sinews of a Grecian urn.

Those words, Beauty and, Truth have undergone a makeover down through time. We all know that the ugly can also be true and beauty often lies. In fact the beautiful can be ugly and the ugly quite beautiful. Some have noted that there was a certain beauty about the mushroom cloud of the A-bomb. While prettified art is often hard to look at.

We might say that mathematics holds truths. That proofs are intrinsically elegant but even here the matter has been held up to question. Quantum mechanics presents us with possibilities that defied Einstein or my 8th grade math teacher who knew everything.

Since the Age of Romanticism, TRUTH seems to have been decapitated to truth. Absolutes were dethroned. The monarchy of big truth is now deconstructed into points of view, seen the way Picasso saw in his cubist paintings.

We look for the imperishable or at least what will outlive us. A music that survives the centuries. Maestro, Bard, the artist’s stroke that wakes us from our non-sensory sleep. Yet what passes for historical truth is often nothing more than the dominant power's version of it. God bless... America the Beautiful. I doubt if God plays favorites or if we can lay claim to beauty above all others in spite of our amber waves of grain.

A Terrible Beauty

Claude Monet, once you were dangerous,
now we’ve made you a cliché.
You rhyme with lily pond and footbridge.
We have measured you with coffee mugs,
devoured you as magnets and umbrellas.
You have disappeared into the familiar.
This is how we love someone to death.

Set up your easel in the plein air.
Turn from the haystacks
toward the smoggy sunset
and wings of gulls,
weighted from oil-stained waves.
Capture their cargo of fractured light
visible only with the eyes you gave us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Garage Sale


In Beverly Hills they call it an Estate Sale where crazed hunters/gatherer connoisseurs go looking for a missing Vermeer or Picasso vase.

In my neighborhood it’s called a Yard Sale and the best you can hope for is a Kincaid poster among three-legged tables and broken toasters.

Why do all clothes look like schmattas laid out on lawn? The most expensive shirt seems like it came from a 99 cent store. I suppose context is all. Thrift stores, at least, put them on hangers.

Part of the fun, I’m told, is the haggling. Having spent over fifty years behind a counter I have a low threshold for bargaining. It’s a good thing I wasn’t born in Tangiers or Tijuana. The marketplace is not my kind of place. Name the price and I’ll either buy it or walk away. The last time I protested the price of anything was In Heidelberg, Germany when we bought a doll and I told the vender it was too cheap.

I imagine there are two sorts of people who go Saturday sailing. The weekend explorer searching for a nugget of El Dorado buried in the flotsam; a signed folio by Shakespeare or perhaps a page from the Gutenberg Bible, inscribed by an apostle. Also included in this group are the collectors obsessed with orange juice squeezers or salt & pepper shakers.

The other is the one-time shopper searching for a specific need like a half-moon end table or ergometrically designed computer chair. Or they may be in search of that wayward yellow sock which escaped from a washing machine last year and inched its way across the street. Garage sales are a great source for single socks. Actually I have a thing for un-matched socks. One yellow, one white will do fine though people might talk if they found my body with asymmetrical footsies; so I’ve narrowed my spectrum from navy blue to black to brown.

The whole notion of putting out one’s wares for sale seems to me a noble way of re-cycling for some small change…which could add up to serious money. It’s an underground economy for some folk…selling stuff that fell off the back of a truck. At this stage of life, buying anything ranks low on my list. We are in liquidating mode. When we pass an estate/garage/yard sale we say factiously, It could be important but drive on.

The one notable item I ever picked up occurred over 27 years ago when I first moved in with Peggy. We were cruising around Santa Monica and she was telling me about a book she had read and greatly admired. It was Aldo Leopold’s, Sand County Almanac. She noticed a yard sale up ahead and suggested we check it out, as if there had only been a few dozen books ever written. We spotted a pile and sure enough, there it was, Sand County Almanac. I knew then I was with a woman of remarkable powers.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Raymond & Highland


If they didn’t intersect I’d never get home. And they are such modest streets. As Churchill almost said, They have much to be modest about. Raymond gives up after three blocks and Highland runs about twice that length exhausting itself in funky Venice.

Raymond has been deemed worthy of only one stop sign. It yields to 7th St. in humility. Highland's flow is interupted three times. It pauses for a full stop when it consorts with Raymond right outside our window; hardly time to contemplate the existential state of mankind but enough for a quick smooch.

If Samuel Clemens lived on this corner he may not have named himself, Mark Twain. We would probably know him as Raymond Highland. In fact if I were looking for a pseudonym I could think of none better. Maybe Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver had the same idea.

There seems to be Raymond streets wherever we go. I could feel at home in Pasadena or Inglewood, even San Francisco and Philadelphia. Highland is well-named since it sits on a rise off the ocean shelf. I count on it to keep me dry in a tsunami.

Highland suffered a humiliation a few months ago when the Post office whisked away its mailbox. I’d become emotionally attached to that big blue mouth swallowing my letters. Now I must walked down a steep hill to deposit my returning Netflix which is good exercise but the return trip takes twice as long.

Both streets are quiet and sporadically tree-lined with a mix of apartments, condos and single-family homes. I wonder if there is an ordinance against children. In 27 years we’ve rarely seen any ghost or goblin kids at our door on Halloween. The neighborhood is home to a mix of aged Hippies, wannabe artists, folks who bought Microsoft at 3 and retirees who got in during rent control… like us. Few pedestrians can be seen except for dog-walkers, particularly now that they’ve removed my mail box. We have an early Frank Gehry building across from ours which will never be confused with Disney Hall.

The south leg of Highland ends with a street named, Ozone; not very thin air. Our air is often dense with its marine layer. Much of the time the sun doesn’t debut till mid-afternoon, having to fight its way through the cloud cover. It must be tough on the heliotropic blossoms but I spotted a regalia of passion flowers in summer dresses last year, one of which I couldn’t resist plucking.

Raymond, in its three-block life-span, comes to an unfortunate end, emptying itself into car-crazed Lincoln Blvd. It is blemished with an auto repair shop on one side and a car-wash on the other.

Bless Raymond Ave for its walkable length and bless Highland, too, for sending a compassionate policewoman to my door, one morning two years ago, alerting me to move my car for Monday street cleaning, rather than giving me a ticket. Not every street would be so forgiving.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Uniforms

I miss uniforms. I was in Costco today and asked the wrong person where the artichokes were. He didn’t work there. How can we tell anymore?

Try finding a sales clerk in a department store. We’re on our own. The only ones on the floor are security guards and cashiers. Even the manikins have gone. Electronic outlets are no better. I try to spot the nerdiest guy but everyone looks nerdy except for those of us looking lost. Teachers show up wearing football jerseys. My old dentist comes to the office straight from pulling weeds. Even my barber disdains a smock. Doctors have shed their white coats to help patients whose blood pressure rises when they see a white coat.

It must be part of the leveling effect. We’re all in this together, is the dress code. This is the age of pretend classless society. No assigned roles No pretenses. If you insist on uniforms go to the ball game.

It occurs to me that the uniforms I’m thinking of disappeared about fifty years ago along with their jobs.


Apparel Doth Oft Proclaim


With her bright red jacket and flashlight
she patrolled the aisles,
then hushed and ushered us
through the pitch dark,
projecting herself on the big screen,
then fading to black.

Gone, too, the doorman with his epaulets,
our peacetime commander,
who lived on tips, waved, whistled
and launched a thousand taxis,
having fled Europe himself
as constable or professor.

And where is the elevator operator,
in authority for the length of his shift,
traveling vertical miles on one spot
from Icarus to Orpheus as he alone
contracted and expanded
those wrought iron lungs?

She had no name, saw plenty
of wandering arms in the balcony.
The other two wrote novels in their heads
from what was overheard, answered
to first names, spoke politely to Mr.& Mrs.
then slipped away unnoticed,

loud uniforms, shiny buttons and all.
Jackets and caps now in a vintage shop,
indignity and pride embedded in the fabric.
In one pocket dried lipstick and a stick of gum,
in another, an empty flask and
a check for two bucks, un-cashed.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Spencer and Sam


In my delirium I like to fuse my father, Sam, with Spencer Tracy. They looked alike, at least to my eyes, and since nobody had ever seen them together they might as well be the same person. Same body-type, same equanimity and deliberate nature. Tracy lived with Hepburn all those years but I can’t bend my mind into making her my mother or imagine Spencer living with my Mom.

As we now know, Tracy’s on-screen calm and assured delivery masked an inner turbulence. His drunken binges and infidelities went along with the guilt he felt over the congenital deafness of his son, John. Perhaps the only peace he found was in front of the camera. My father dealt with his grand-daughter’s deafness in stride but who knows what suffering he repressed. Perhaps it was a wounded decency they both possessed.

Their lives intersected only after Spencer Tracy’s death. In 1964 my daughter, Janice, attended the John Tracy Clinic program which was started and presided over by Spencer’s wife, Louise Tracy, who I was privileged to meet as well as his son, John. In 1968, at Janice’s graduation ceremony, my father was also introduced to them.

It isn’t the early Tracy of Father Flanagan or Captains Courageous which captivated me, though I was beginning to see him playing my father as Thomas Edison. I could barely imagine Sam being Spencer in the nine Hepburn films, except for, The Keeper of the Flame written by Donald Ogden Stewart, later blacklisted. In it Tracy spoke with an inner conviction I also attribute to my father, patient but resolute. He plays a persistent journalist who uncovers the fascist activities of a wealthy industrialist. In 1945 there was still a large audience for such themes, seen as an extension of WW II.

By 1950 he was cast in roles, giving away daughters, starting with Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride. He also parented Jean Simmons which would have granted me two beautiful sisters.

It was in his later movies that the two of them became one. That was my Dad as the Chief Justice at Nuremberg, Darrow in the Scopes trial and giving Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan a bad day at Black Rock. In the latter, Sam/Spencer wins the day with one arm missing. Also missing was any bluster or weaponry. A triumph of dry and tough stoicism. The film was not only an attempt to redress the stain of Japanese internment but also an allegory of the days of the black list and complicity of a passive community (society).

Neither Sam nor Spencer ever got in their own way. Tracy once said that acting was simply learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture. His silences spoke paragraphs.

My father, in his quiet integrity, could command attention with a look of displeasure or convey love with his eyes. Like Tracy he made a word feel as powerful as a gesture. If he felt ferocity it was self-contained. He never abused the furniture or anyone in the room. There was a grace in him as he presided in his drug store; the way he received anxious patients, took in their alarm, even grief, and shared their troubles, unburdening them.

As an actor Spencer Tracy was always himself; nothing more nor less. He displayed a moral center that flowed organically, unforced and unadorned with decibels or religiosity. His model of a hero has been largely replaced today by a noisier, self-congratulatory kind; telling of our times.

It is remarkable how a man could find his true self slipping into the skin of the characters he embodied. His persona on screen revealed a man with indomitable integrity, what was unattainable in his flawed real life. If his Catholicism confirmed his sins and left him without absolution, he became his idealized self only in his film roles.

I have projected these heroic traits onto my father as part of my mythos. In my revisionist history I can see Sam at our front door questioned by two FBI agents. They know of his membership in the Communist Party, the Tuesday night meetings, his subscription to the Daily Worker. They want names. He blocks their passage into our apartment, refuses to betray anyone. He is Spencer Tracy at Black Rock, taller than ever before. He is the Chief Judge at Nuremberg dispensing justice. He is Darrow defending free speech. I claim that wind as my inheritance.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Devolution

I imagine most of us, in our twilight years, would like to feel we will leave this world a better place than when we got here. Whether we participated in or just witnessed the passing parade it would be natural to take some credit for social progress or conversely, some shame, bequeathing a society less enlightened, less equitable and less likely to survive. With our country in peril or pervasive disrepair we are left to wonder what went wrong. I could swear I told them what to do but did they listen? No.

Are we now not meaner, greedier and dumber? The Republicans have seized the narrative, speak with malice and mendacity and have institutionalized avarice. Every day comes another abuse of state power to rig the election by re-districting or denial of voting rights. Where is Joseph Welch to ask, Have you no decency?

How could science and technology have made such unimaginable leaps forward since 1900 with breakthroughs in medicine, particle physics, integrative circuits etc… even as our social fabric seems to be degraded. The slate of Republican candidates runs from imbeciles to liars with a chorus of talk-show buffoons to repeat and amplify the deceit. Our films are mind-numbing sensory opiates while we continue to belch our way into planetary extinction.

Yet as seen from a distance we have moved a significant inch in terms of civil rights, suffrage, reproductive rights and Gay/Lesbian issues. Every gain has been earned against fierce push-back. I’d like to believe that the malevolent voices from the far Right are but the last gasps from a privileged class. Accelerated change, itself, is a perceived threat to many people who cannot find their way in this new dystopia. Add to all this is the decline of the United States as an imperial power.

Our bad news is some other regions good news. The rise of Southeast Asia seems evident. Singapore, India and China along with Brazil and possibly a secularized Islamic state will get their piece of the rock in the century ahead. Maybe the lifting of developing nations entails the diminution of our own as resources are spread more evenly around the world.

It would help if we accepted this reality. Our ranking in the world is shockingly low whether measured by social mobility, life expectancy or educational level. We need to bring home our legions, reinvigorate domestic repairs, reinvest in education to meet new demands and face the consequences of a damaged ecology.

I’m feeling better already. What has devolved here has evolved elsewhere. It may not be the American model but I can live with that. It is only by accident of birth that I benefited for seven or eight decades and I'm not leaving yet. The next chapter belongs to other continents, more densely populated and deserving of their prominence. Let us step aside with grace and humility and live as one among many.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Five

I have a request to write a poem for the 5 freeway. I might tell about the dog I rescued that wandered out between cars or the time I got a ticket for going too slow because my mother was in the back seat yelling that I was going too fast. However the first never happened and the second occurred on the 10 freeway…which must be twice a good as the 5.

As freeways go, the 5 is one of the few single digit ones I have known. The number 1 wins the prize for being so scenic one can die happily driving over the cliff. The 2 is stuck in Glendale and the 5 is notable for being the shortest but dullest route to the Bay area. It is so boring one has to plan ahead with loud music and stimulants.

In fact I can’t recall ever driving on the 5 unless it was that time I made a wrong turn and ended up on the road to Bakersfield. That might be the way Bakersfield was settled; by folks with no sense of direction.

Why do they post signs on freeways announcing distant destinations? Is that the work of visionaries intended for people who want to get as far away from here as possible? Bakersfield? Sacramento? I expect one to direct me to Patagonia or the polar ice cap.

If I lived in Lancaster or Palmdale, God forbid, it might be my favorite freeway, too, but I’m willing to live out my remaining decades without calling the Antelope Valley my home. The 5 Freeway receives most attention for the stretch known as the Grapevine as in I heard it on the…. It becomes a headline in the holiday season when thousands of travelers are stuck there for 48 hours due to black ice and fog. Seems like a good location for a soup kitchen.

A friend told me she and her husband found themselves on it during a sand-storm, getting off just before a multi-car pile-up. They pulled into a Mobil Station where she wanted to use the restroom. Upon leaving the car the wind started to carry her off. She wrapped herself around a gas pump till her husband rescued her. Never again on the five, she vows

As my mind goes south, I think how the five goes under the name, Golden State Freeway, and then the Santa Ana Freeway and finally it’s what happens to the 405 when it approaches San Diego. How can I love a freeway which can’t decide what to call itself?

I expect we all have a love/hate relationship with the freeway that gets us to and fro. I’m thankful I don’t need the 710 or 605 which specialize in jack-knifed big rigs or the 101 or 10 approaching downtown which inch sport fans to the Coliseum, Staples’ Center and Dodger Stadium.

My favorite is the Marina Freeway on a Sunday morning or any other time. It has only two exits and I could put up with anything for that long.

Sorry, my friend, I tried but have no ode in me, just few stanzas of off-ramps and a fender-bender for a heroic couplet.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Streets


National Blvd.

Making good time on my way to nowhere
I’m suddenly lost
(and this is not a bad thing)
at the intersection of National and National
bent to the perpendicular.
Some are in dread of you, National
how you’ve colonized the neighborhood,
claimed all four corners, violated the grid.
But I admire the way you meander;
a trickster, appearing and disappearing,
like a great idea that explains everything,
breaking the lineal sequential
in your fits and starts. National,
you are a mind that refuses to make itself up,
a contrarian paved in doubt, interrogating yourself,
hubris burning off at the stop sign.
You were the trail Odysseus took,
a cork on the wave following his nose into trouble.
Bless off-ramps and National Blvd.
where a man can leave the unrelenting
rush of his life and take a subversive turn,
meet himself coming and going and ponder
how once he was a Euclidean line
and now he’s an afterthought,
a riff on Charlie Parker’s sax,
broken-field runner, rider-less horse.
National, you are the fly on the still life
that won’t hold still the apple
that overthrew the bowl and bopped Newton.
The one Einstein ate. National,
Oh National, you are the twentieth century
drunk on lost causes, detoured dreams, down
but not out on the open road.
***************************************************************

Where Everybody Drives Because It's So Empty


Psst. I love you, Walgrove
but don’t let it get around.
Such an alternate route you are,
so un-congested and heedless of lights,
I love your contours, your long stretches,
the way you rise and dip.
Maybe we should stop meeting like this.
People will talk as if I’m taking advantage.
If word got out you could be ruined,
trafficked by the young and the reckless,
choked by foul emissions and abusive honks
like those other mean streets.
And look how coy you are
starting as modest 23rd St.,
fifteen blocks east of Lincoln
and when you’re done at Washington,
re-named and re-born, in your mysterious way
which admits no impediment,
so stealthily and svelte you have slithered
ten blocks west. Walgrove, Walgrove,
Your name alone takes me away --
descendent of Walden Pond,
as arboreal as a grove of walnut trees,
so cerebral with two schools at your feet.
My own path less traveled,
the one that brought me this far,
stumbling but still on my feet,
Whisper to me, Walgrove, I’ll follow you anywhere.
**********************************************************
Lincoln Boulevard

You are the north and south of us,
the missionary’s road,
before colonized by the car,
old sins paved over for new ones.
Ugly as a mirror,
beautiful as a Rauschenburg collage.
Lincoln, the emancipated street
conceived in liberty and dedicated
to billboards and signage
for paychecks cashed, hot videos,
palmists and thrift stores.
Whitman’s ear is listening hard
for bumper stickers singing.
O Captain, my Captain, turn away;
sprigs of lilac no longer bloom.
We’ve emptied the wetlands
in your name and filled the open road
with torrential traffic.
Lincoln, you are gasoline alley
thick with exhausted air.
Yet there are still some
who lean and loaf at their ease.
Salesman and surgeons mingle
at the Cock & Bull saloon.
A dentist stops a street vendor for a rose.
School kids with backpacks,
like day laborers, haul their load
and day laborers line the lumberyard.
The taxi driver keeps a screenplay
under his seat; the crowd scene got away.
Where the created equal eat
Sushi and Salsa, pad thai and pastrami.
Here is our body electric,
neon diners and all-night Laundromats,
Pollack’s drip and Ginsburg’s Howl,
clear as a dusted frappuccino.
You lead to the airport and take off
to Californificate the world..

Saturday, October 22, 2011

First Memory

I’m not a beer drinker and can’t tell the difference between Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, Coors, Miller or Bud. But I also can’t avoid their commercials…which shows what sort of programs I watch. I would never buy Coors because…. but I do subscribe to the philosopher-adman who stated the obvious, We only go around once in life and should therefore (spend our remaining days drinking Schlitz beer) or as he put it….live it with gusto.

One man’s gusto is another’s big yawn. At the moment my attention is turned back to how I got from there to here; the crumbs of my madeleine. I have always associated the recovery of time past as a personal detective story and a comedy. I think of Peter Falk as Colombo-Columbus discovering the new world called Truth or beginnings. There’s just one more thing

Maybe this comes from seeing too many movies as a kid. The intrepid sleuth snooping, the black sedan trailing him, the goon holding up the lamppost across the street, getting bopped in the alley, everyone a suspect and all of them assembled in the last scene. The detective deduces and detects. He unravels the essential mystery at the core as if now I know why my brother died early, why my father could barely read and my mother trusted no one or... how it is that I stumbled and bumbled and then got so lucky.

Now I am on an expedition in search of my first memory. I am reading a Julian Barnes book that begins, A child wants to see. He was able to walk and could reach up to a door handle. He did this with nothing in mind that could be called a purpose, merely the instinctive tourism of infancy. A door was there to be pushed; he walked in, stopped, and looked.

In my infantile tourism I am at a window about three flights up looking down. A car is on fire and I hear sirens coming. Across the street there is derrick moving dirt and bricks are being laid. Another apartment house is going up.

I’m not so sure anymore about the car fire because I may be confusing it with my Little Red Fire Engine book. The dirt-mover is certain. It is on Talbot St. in Kew Gardens and I am between 3 and 4. Why that image while thousands of other sights have been shredded? It was unusual enough to be retained and when I see bricks mortared today it comes back to me. How does this figure in the detective story?

The Big Bad Wolf ate the Little Pigs in their straw house and the one built with sticks but huffed and puffed and could not blow down the brick one. Fear and safety. Must be a dangerous world out there. Animals, untamed. Irrational forces. Mother’s milk.

Guilt. Something went wrong. I wonder what I did or didn’t. I was a poor eater. I violated the clean plate policy. Serious stuff . People were starving in China….because of me. I wasn’t listening. Didn’t wear galoshes. That third sweater. Went out unprotected. No wonder I got the measles, mumps, whooping cough even scarlet fever. What about polio? Don’t go swimming. And head lice? Don’t lean back on the movie chair. Don’t. Don’t. How will I ever remember all these don’ts?

The don’ts get embedded. I fight for my Do’s. The derrick moves the dirt. I climb the hill, gradually find my gusto. Case closed………but not so fast. I wouldn’t do that if I were you……………

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Doom and Bloom

Someday they’ll have a softball game or food fight between the Yea-sayer’s and Naysayers to settle the matter. The two strains run through our national character as the punitive voice comes up against the permissive. Our Enlightened Deist founders had to contend with those anal Puritans. But maybe the differences are more hard-wired than a function of theology or politics.

If language is any bellwether it’s no contest. Negative words far outnumber the positives. Google, which tallies our every utterance in some grand ledger, has it that un words swamp their counterpart by huge numbers. The bad to good ratio is 5 to 1, unhappy to happy 260 to 1. The Thesaurus lists twice as many synonyms for unpleasant as for pleasant.

Are we a species of sour pusses? Do we see out of jaundiced eyes? Why do we get such kicks from bad news, and ads from candidates which smear and scandalize their opponents? Make a vampire movie and they will come. The grizzled, womanizing, recovering alcoholic anti-hero trumps the Boy Scouts of America model every time. Flawed characters feel like us, that’s why.

Freud and Oprah have consorted to encourage us to spill our guts. Anyone without a deprived childhood has been deprived. We are all in recovery. When asked at random for the intersecting event in their lives most people single out a death or trauma that forced them to be the way there are. Victimization is our default position and a vocabulary has been amassed to describe it. Have we become as melancholic as the Russians?

Maybe our negativity is an antidote to those insufferable happy faces, good fellow, well-met, painted smiles and happy endings. Perhaps cynicism is a natural response in a consumerist society with a built-in sniffer for hype and the inauthentic. Pessimism might be well-aligned with the decline of the American empire.

On the other hand it could be just a lag in language. Words for community, for caring, and all the varieties of love seem to have been nearly taken out of public discourse. We speak of childhood scars more than the nourishment we received. We are more fluent in varieties of despondency, despair, dejection and depression than in permutations of love. Boys have trouble using the word, love. If everything is described as awesome or cool the language becomes impoverished. Unlike the Eskimos relation to snow we seem to lack the words to express empathy and compassion without risking ridicule.

Hallmark cards have pillaged the warm and fuzzy words and sucked the life out of them.They have raided the common tongue and now we mistrust sentiment. Writers seem more inclined to prowl the darkness than shine a light and critics hone their barbs rather than their faculty for appreciation. In the end, of course, life is a tender and clumsy dance, violins and kazoos, petals and nettles.

Now I should follow these words and hold my vituperative tongue against the new Confederacy and their slate of mendacious fools. But it comes so easily and if I swallow my rage I may break out in a rash. Besides, there is so much malignant about them that has earned my scorn. Maybe it’s enough to know when to scowl and when to sing.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lyrics For Life

10:30 Saturday morning listening to Click & Clack, the car-talk guys and my mind flashed back about seventy years to The Make Believe Ballroom, hosted every week at that time by Martin Block. It was the radio version of The Hit Parade. What would be number one, up three notches from last week?

Martin Block named Dinah Shore when he forgot her first name, Francis Rose, and christened her after the song, Dinah. He also contributed LSMFT (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco) to the language. Two significant contributions to Western Civilization.

I can recall reenacting a make-believe rendition of Make Believe Ballroom with my neighbor, Johnny K. as we took turns speaking into a hairbrush (microphone) while spinning our Bluebird label of Glen Miller’s Chattanooga Cho-Cho, Columbia’s Harry James’, Flight of the Bumble Bee and Decca or Okeh records something or other.

Of course Black musicians had to have a separate show with Armstrong, Basie and Ellington. But why do I remember Ella’s, A Tisket, A Tasket finding its way into the Saturday morning list. Billie Holiday?….forget it.

A few years later payola (paying for the Victrola) was exposed revealing how disc jockeys (Walter Winchell’s term) accepted money to plug certain recordings. Martin Block was never implicated and I don‘t want to know.

Certain moments must remain innocent, Edenic even, in my memory bank. I took lyrics literally wondering why her Daddy Beat her Eight-to-the Bar…whatever that meant. Or how it was that a Million Dollar Baby was found In A Five and Ten Cents Store? I imagined some girl Sat Under the Apple Tree with Nobody Else but Me while Bluebirds Flew Over the White Cliffs of Dover. Ah, sweet bird of youth!

I suppose the top ten were a way of ordering my bewildering universe. Maybe an attraction to baseball stats offered me the same illusion. Could it be that those times were just as fractured and random as ours today to all but a child’s eyes? Say it ain’t so, Joe.

Listen to the titles, It’s Gotta Be This or That. Easy enough, multiple choice. All we had to do was Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. What could be more simple? On the other hand came Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit, or Gimme that Frim Fram Sauce with the Ausen Fay and Chafafa on the Side. Excuse me? Life was getting complex. Was there a sub-text eluding me?

After the war came that ode to consumerism, How Much Is that Doggie in the Window? and, All I want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth but times were good if we could only remember to, Accentuate the Positive and Eliminate the Negative, Latch on to the Affirmative and Don’t Mess with Mister In Between.

Soon enough I learned that much of life happens in between. Annie got her gun some Enchanted Evening while Dear Hearts and Gentle People looked on. Nothing much has changed. Mac the Knife coexists with Peggy Sue.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Creative Lassitude


After 11 trips to Europe, 5 to Canada and visiting 26 states it’s time to stay put. With 169 years between us Peggy and I are spent, done with airports, security gates and jet lag. From now on any traveling we do will be expeditions within. It’s less expensive and easier on the bones. Some might call it a shut-ins’ retreat from the world; I call it sedentary frenzy.

We read (silently and aloud), correspond with a number of friends, write poetry and blogs and watch DVDs. New territories on no map are discovered in our vast interiors. And then there are daily lunch dates, two play-reading groups, Emeritus classes, monthly Sunday Salon and a bi-weekly poetry peer group. How else to ponder the human predicament in a godless world?

My day begins with a prolonged waking up. Those minutes tunneling out of sleep, stretched into an hour in the semi-wakeful state yield precious nuggets. The muscle of the imagination flexes and roams the cave walls. Retirement has extended this realm of dreams where associative images are most accessible. It‘s reason enough to take a nap during the day…just to gain that extra getting-up time.

Reading is a creative act. The inanimate book becomes alive when opened and read. The interaction begins. I could be happily transported to some version of Eden or find myself kicking and screaming as I’m carted off. It brings long-dead authors back to life. Their voices cast a spell. It’s a flight on Trans-Faulkner or Dickens Air Line. I remember settling on the couch and being so astonished with the virtuosity of William Gass I knocked over the lamp.

When we write we enter another country and become fluent in some second language. If we're lucky we wonder where it came from and barely recognize it as our own. It may speak back and even reveal aspects we thought we’d disowned or never possessed.

On the other hand the ultimate end of the poem is silence. It is a composition beyond telling as if we are deposited in a Tangiers Kasbah or on a Prague street in wonderment knowing that our tongue is past wagging. We can only listen to the clamor of the marketplace and meet it with a certain silence of our own commotion.

One can Google an avalanche on his way to oblivion. This is my prescription: to tame the noisy beast while remaining selectively alert making room for my own instrument, my voice, to sing. The busyness of our days is our own choosing; It is neither frenzy nor lassitude but a state beyond telling.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Atonement, No......At One Ment, Yes

As a non-believer of high or low religious holidays, I am, at the same time, very interested in their pagan roots. That word, pagan, carries darker freight than is warranted. It simply means peasant, country-dweller or rustic.. I look to them as the source. These occasions grew organically out of their attunement to the climate in the Northern Hemisphere. Organized religions grafted their myths onto these folk tales born of wonder, fear and ignorance.

I don’t see myself rejecting the feasts and fasts so much as embracing the deeper roots. The prayers, incantations and fables reenacted with great piety feel to me not only an irrelevant vestige of pre-history but a usurpation of the spirituality which has to do with people and the land. My religion is all about the communion between people and transcendent moments that may occur through this open-hearted meeting as well as the transport that Art can offer. What is sacred is right in front of us.

Most Judeo-Christian celebrations correspond to seasonal changes associated with planting and harvest time. The Jewish New Year marks the end of summer and the beginning anew, with the Day of Atonement ten days later. Why atone? Is that original sin I am to be washing away? Guilt? Repentance?....and by day’s end Absolution … providing one abstains from food, sex, leather shoes, washing/bathing and deodorant.

Why would I want to park my brains outside before taking my seat (through Ticketron), bow before a scolding and vengeful God, kiss the withered text, mumble praise and beat myself for accumulated transgressions? Did I fail to come to a full stop, not contribute enough to NPR, eat that strawberry-rhubarb crumble, forget to send a get well card, blurt some inanity or think ill thoughts about the far Right? What can be said about a religion that asks for obeisance to a list of archaic rules and rituals? There is nothing holy about living out prescribed behavior. It seems to me a negation of the spirit. God is a gross and simplistic answer to a complex world. At the core of religions is the axiom: Do not think.

The word, atonement, is worth looking at. It has layers of meaning aside from confession. It can mean awe and even a sense of reconciliation which comes close to At One Ness. Now they are talking my language. I’m all for that.

Twenty years ago Peggy and I celebrated our fifth anniversary, which fell on Yom Kippur, with a weekend at Mammoth Lakes in the Sierras. While hiking we came across a wedding in the woods. The bride was Jewish, the groom Buddhist; another joining across a great divide.

In secular-humanist fashion we atoned for nothing, being at-one with each other and Nature. We celebrated the sin that brought us together, to this moonscape, to our salt. We were a minion of two, kneeling and devout.



Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Books, Books, Books


It seemed like the rooms were closing in, the walls inching forward from all sides. Not threatening but cozy and cradling us. It was our fourteen bookcases, friendly and familiar voices but indistinct in their cacophony. It was time to separate the once-important from the still-cherished. Some friendships decline into mere acquaintances, continuing long after their shelf life, ready to drift away or be dumped.

The stripping away process would be done with both cleaver and scalpel, from gladly to excruciating. After all, some of these books were the air we breathed. They sustained, even exhilarated us. And some provided the wind that fill our sails, battered us around or led us to unmapped ports.

In spite of my four public library cards put to good use we still find ourselves accumulating books; new discoveries, recommended books and classics that have passed us by. Now the shelves are sagging. Most of our bookcases are bolted to the wall but not all. In the event of a quake we could be buried under a ton of pages. There are worse ways to go, I’m sure.

The task at hand calls for tough love, giving up old infatuations. Some books are talked-out. Others are still jabbering or at least murmuring their secrets, wisdoms or mysteries. In the give-away pile are a bunch by C.Wright Mills who had my ear 50 years ago and some on dialectical materialism which had me by the collar a decade before that. I’m not ridding myself completely of either, retaining a few for old time’s sake. The question is not whether I’ll ever open them again. The dust jackets, alone, are like old photos which conjure a montage of memories.

Peggy and I have our separate struggles. I wrestle with my political and sport titles. She agonizes over art books and some older literary volumes with deckled pages and handsome endpaper which are hard to relinquish.

The sorting comes down to a matter of attachment or letting go. Can we rid ourselves of this poetry book when we have no particular affinity for the work…but it is inscribed to us? Are we really done with these letters of Eliot, essays of Twain, diaries of Nin, criticism by Nabokov, memoir by Paz?

We make two stacks; one, for family bibliophiles who would care for them as heirlooms containing a piece of us and the other pile for the library in the hope they would be passed along and valued by strangers.

After seven hours, we have completed just two bookcases and have pulled about 150 volumes. Many of the books to be ousted were lying on top of others or in closets. The stacks go into boxes too heavy to lift, barely able to even push with a leg.

Before we continue a more important matter needs to be settled. Peggy loves her objet d’art, which have had a home in front of each row. My eye sees it as clutter. Not to disparage the assorted horses (Etruscan, wood-carved, painted), vases, ceramic pots, tree bark, Hopi tile, a stone, fossil etc…but I see it as forest. Peggy sees each tree in its particularity. She has an aesthetic which can de-contextualize each article from its surrounding and zero in on what is beautiful. We compromise. Half return to their shelf place foregrounding the books and rest are yet to be determined.

If we have learned anything from these thousands of pages it is that everything has its season and no resistance is an admirable state. There needs to be an acceptance of finite space and time. The illusion of possession slowly opens its fist to the sweet sorrow of parting.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Annus Mirabilis (Remarkable Year)


It was a very good year. I suppose everybody has one. Mine could have been in 1939 when I was six. I could see Dick running to Jane on the page from the words alone; imagine 2 plus 3 equal to all the fingers on my right hand (my left hand came years later). Presumably I had stopped wetting my bed. I realized that Graham crackers tasted better than Uneeda Biscuits, that those puree marbles jingling in my pocket were important but not as important as the FDR buttons on my beanie. Maybe it was also the year I realized, while playing ring around the rosy, that girls were different than boys. My Annus Mirabilis year and I’ve been going downhill ever since.

1905 was Albert Einstein’s year. He published four rather game-changing articles including the one that gave us the E equals mc squared formula. I’ve never bothered to verify this nor for a minute doubted it. There are certain pronouncements in science not to be quibbled over even if he came up with it while doodling one day to break the tedium of his job in a Swiss patent office. I accept that it changed our views on space, time, and the fundamental nature of matter; though in all honesty I don’t know that I ever had any views on the subject. People like me don’t know how anything works; we rely on people who do. And they’ve done well with it all, giving us wireless communication without which life is unthinkable.

It is said that Einstein came to his revelation about the motion of light and connectivity of time and space in the middle of a conversation with a friend. I have also noticed my mind wander while half listening to friends but it has never landed me in the fourth dimension. He showed that light does not travel in continuous waves as physicists had believed. His theory of Relativity overturned what had been understood about the nature of existence and how the universe operated. It was enough to have his hair turn white and be un-comb-able; living proof that space and such are not absolute. And let us not split hairs over that.

John Keats’ Mirabilis year was 1819. He produced his Odes to a Nightingale, Grecian Urn, and to Melancholy (in 15 days), along with Eve of St. Agnes and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. These comprise the most remarkable poetry ever written in so short a period. It was as if he knew his days were numbered. He wrote under the spectre of his brother’s death and the spell of his love for Fanny Brawne. He had the fever of a creative mind whose reach extended back to the Elizabethans yet seeded modern poetry. Even as his tuberculosis took hold he sang in full-throated ease.

As an observer of the figures on the urn he became the thing observed, teased out of thought. In his Ode to Autumn, written in September of that year, his words became music. This was said to be the consummation of his Art. He rejected the fixity of his social status and of his selfhood. He had defined and embodied the liberated imagination. As Stanley Kunitz put it, Art emerged as a new kind of secular priesthood…making no concessions even to its own congregation.

And to think, he came to all this after becoming an apothecary-man. It makes me wonder if those years in Pharmacy school weren’t altogether a waste. Considering Einstein’s Relativity and Keats’ Romanticism I now want to claim 1980 as my remarkable year. It was the beginning of my Life Part Two. In March I bought my own pharmacy, in June my poetry was being published and by October I had met Peggy.

Being my own boss brought me no riches but a modicum of empowerment and I could welcome the muse in between labels. That summer I co-founded the Valley Contemporary Poets Series and found myself doing poetry readings at venues around town. It was at one that I first met Peggy; the confluence of two bodies moving through time and space and a life beyond measure. Dick and Jane meeting at the speed of a great idea finding a habitat on a Grecian Urn.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Summer's Gone



in this place of no seasons.
The calendar marks another equinox.
Yellows and oranges are left to
school buses and crossing guards.
Here and there a coral tree un-greening.

Pumpkin ice cream has been sighted.
Athletes, heroes in their summer day,
reduced to a one paragraph Obit.
My team’s final innings playing out;
mathematically eliminated.

In this weatherless place, it’s time
to bring all summers gone inside
where extra innings may yet wait.
Peaches and baseballs
overripe, still with juice.

When winter comes within
I’ll know by the return
of colors multiplied
by memory
alone.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Roman/Romance/Romantic


Rome was famously not built in a day. In fact the journey of the word and its derivatives is beyond its second millennium and still going.

Keats, Shelley and Byron may have been great lovers but that is not why they are high on the list of Romantics. As romancers they came out of the Middle Age tradition of passionate love affairs. But their claim as literary figures of the Romantic Age has a different legacy.

Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th century was a pendulum swing away from the previous Age of Reason and impact of the Industrial Revolution; the heart asserting itself alongside the head. The Enlightenment was, in turn, a needed response to the metaphysical period and the choke hold of the Church.

Dying young, was not a necessary part of the story but the three poets all did it dramatically and it wasn’t a bad career move either. The movement survived them quite well in terms of its celebration of individuality and a release of the power of intuitive sources within. Beethoven’s music was such a burst as never heard before as well as Pushkin’s voice which spoke in the vernacular Russian. The new movement was idealistic, emotional and visionary yet grounded… in the best Romantic artists.

When we say, romantic today we are usually describing someone in love, with his/her head in the clouds, not quite of this, the real world; a benign pejorative, a transient condition soon to pass with associations to chivalry and courtly unattainable love. This pretty much describes the way Peggy and I celebrate special occasions such as our 25th anniversary this past Tuesday; courtly though neither fleeting, unrequited or unconsummated.

Without the slightest impulse to swim the Bosporus with Byron or make a pilgrimage with Keats to the Spanish Steps (we did that already) we settled for dinner at La Boheme restaurant in West Hollywood. We may have been the only heterosexual couple within a half mile radius. The façade is a house; my kind of place. The inside is cavernous but cozy since we had a screen off booth. We always exchange poems, have the server take our picture, overindulge (remembering William Blake’s excess) and toast our bliss. It never hurts to stoke our affection and give ardent feelings their full expression.

The language of love reaches for sublimity but is rooted in the everyday. There is a twining of the two tongues. Anyone who speaks English is practically bi-lingual since our language combines the Anglo-Saxon with French/Latin. The royal language of England was French until the reign of Henry the 5th, while the peasantry spoke Middle English, a form of Germanic morphing into Anglo-Saxon. Modern English often has two words with very close meanings; one polysyllabic Latinate and the other generally a more clipped Northern European. Fabricate/lie, testify/swear, precipitation/rain, adoration/love, desire/want.

In its travels the word romance took on a popular meaning in the Middle Ages as tales written or told in the native words of the region; languages derived from Latin, like Italian or French, as opposed to Latin itself which belonged to the Church and legal announcements. Romances were stories of extravagant passion, wonder or violence and that seems to be how the Romance Novel got its name. A Roman a Clef (pronounced to rhyme with clay) is a novel in which real persons or actual events appear in disguise. This probably bumped it up a notch up from the extravagant romance stories.

Romantic is one of those well-traveled words heavy with baggage. Call me a romantic and I may blush but accept the compliment. Say that I’m not a romantic and I might suggest pistols at dawn…..better yet, water pistols.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Baseball Haiku

Opening Day
First pitch slow and wild
From celebrity

Opening Day
Flag tells nothing
of what’s to come.

Opening day
suspected bunt
Spring’s first lurch.

Swung on and missed
Amazonian butterfly
adjusts to the whiff.

Brush back fast ball
lost in straw hats and shirts
nineteen twenty four

Leaving early to beat traffic
Tea gulped
without ceremony.

Rally squandered
Over-watered grass
In mid-day sun

Picked off first
Naked and erased
Pale moon

Coach flashes signs.
Batter distracted
by butterflies.

Inside the park home-run.
Rounding third he knew
enough to retire.

Methodically the batter
Knocks dirt that isn’t there
From his cleats

Out stretching a double
Summer’s tenancy
expired.

Butterflies in his stomach
the knuckleballer
serves them to the plate.

Unshaven rookie pitcher
throws his menace
at patient veteran

Squeeze play.
Forty thousand eyes
crowd home plate.

On pitcher’s brow
beads of perspiration
he throws to hitter.

Ground crew
waters the infield.
Grass leans in thirst.

Conference on the mound
Gnats regroup
on raked hill

Cicadas drone requiem
for double-header
no longer played

Into a forest
Of green blades
A baseball rolls

Batter steps
out of the box –
crickets hesitate.

Early innings at night
Sun yields
To thousand bulbs

Mathematically eliminated
even as
moon rises.

The mirrored moon
in the tarp declares
game called

Somersault catch
Ants repair damage
while crowds cheer.

moon hurries
across the innings
one two three

pitcher fingers four seamer
as batter crosses
himself

Hot dispute
in the umpire’s face
who bit the moon

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Titles


Peggy is the titular head of our family. And that’s not the only reason I married her.

What I mean is that she is great at titles. To prove my point I offer the names of her novels; Morning in the Long Night City, Among These Several, and This Water, This Dry Land.

Her poems also have that Aylsworthian touch, a little slant, a lot memorable. Some of her sui generis best are: When Empty is Full, White as the Light Changes, City at the Edge of the Poem.

Tis a gift to be a namer; one who can create a short, arresting phrase that describes a manuscript and is itself congruent and worthy of the whole. Shakespeare, of course, had it with As You Like It or All’s Well That Ends Well but one wonders if he could have done better with Macbeth, Hamlet or Richard III. I always regard a character’s name as a failure of the imagination though with the Bard I know I’m on shaky ground.

I greatly admire Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Even Gone with the Wind, as a title, was more inspired than the book itself. Another gem was Catch-22.

I am in the process of compiling a book of my blogs. I’ve chosen which ones but I am at a loss for a title. I’d steal it if I could think of one. Moby Dick doesn’t work nor Rabbit, Run. I thought of Catch-11 or Great Expectorations but those will have to wait for another day.

I wonder if some authors think of a title first and then write a book to fit it, in the same way that I might come across a great greeting card and then make a friend who would appreciate it.

I seem to have no problem titling a single piece but now I need a few words which embody over one hundred essays varying from poetry to political rants, memories, musings, mischief and meditation told from a distinct perch with a touch of wit and the absurd.

A few tries that got shot down from within or by others were, WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?, SERIOUS FUN, and I GOT IT, I GOT IT, I DON’T GOT IT.

Indulge me; as I fill this page. It's my way of thinking. Now I'm getting drowsy, almost halfway to Honduras. Light bulbs are going on overhead. By George, I’ve got it. I think I’ve got it. I shall christen the book, THE MARRIAGE of EVERYTHING. Thank you and good night.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Potato Thoughts


The potato is a tragic vegetable. In 1992 Dan Quayle couldn’t spell it and lost the election. In today’s dumbed-downed America his ignorance would have been enough to sweep him into office.

The church at first denounced the tuber since it was not mentioned in the Bible. Makes sense to me. I doubt if sweet potato fries or potato latkes were mentioned either and now I’m getting hungry. It’s too bad, news of their condemnation didn’t reach Ireland in time for the blight of 1845-1850 which wiped out a third of their population, half through death and the rest by emigration to supply the Boston and New York City police force.

At first potatoes were scorned in Europe because they looked misshapen like leprous limbs and therefore must be the source of leprosy. A brilliant piece of illogic which might also have concluded that eating carrots and celery would lead to a tall and lanky population.

More likely, too many potatoes could hasten the onset of diabetes. They are high in carbohydrates but otherwise quite nutritional. At least they sustained the down-trodden during a century of the Industrial Revolution, but barely. They grow in soil otherwise un-arable which describes the land tilled by the peasantry. As a borderline diabetic, I generally substitute  coleslaw or fruit in lieu of potatoes

The region around Chile and Peru bequeathed potatoes to the world. Remains have been found which date back twelve thousand years. Spanish Conquistadors, obsessed with gold, had to settle for sweet potatoes. China, of all places, produces more of them now than any country. French fries must be America’s revenge to the Chinese who are becoming a fast food nation thanks to McDonalds and KFC. Leon Trotsky, who seemed always to be on the wrong side of history, thought it could feed Mother Russia but Lenin decreed there be all that wheat and no potatoes so now they drink it as the Mother of all Vodka.

Mash it or hash it, bake it or pancake it. Soup it, stew it or scallop it. Pomme de terres, being of the earth for earthlings, are well-named by the French. The English boiled theirs which may account for the fall of the British Empire.

Potatoes can change lives. When the actress, Doris Roberts, was in kindergarten she had one line in a play. She said, I am Patrick Potato and this my cousin, Mrs. Tomato. She heard laughter and decided to be on the stage from that moment on. Kids learn to count, one potato, two potato, three potato, four. When they grow up they will join a nation of couch potatoes munching on chips that we can’t eat one of.

My mother was famous in our family for her lumpy mashed potatoes; it was a perfect complement to burnt liver. As a result I had a fondness for potato salad. An early memory of potatoes occurred watching old war movies when a soldier was given K.P. as punishment. The next scene saw him peeling spuds.

One of my first poems depicted an imagined scene of my grandfather, as a boy, hiding from the Cossacks in a cellar and finding his way across the ocean on the rhizome of a potato. Indeed great migrations might be attributed to the wings of the tuber.

John Reader, in his book, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent, argues that this ubiquitous vegetable played a major role in the rise of both Western civilization and the current Chinese ascendency, mostly by keeping the multitude’s bellies full and their tolerance for poverty high; and that’s no small potatoes.

Perhaps life, as it is lived, is a series of small potatoes. As Alan Watts put it, Zen does not confuse spirituality, with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.

Friday, September 16, 2011

HONDURAS


Peggy goes to sleep on the wave of a mantra. And that word is Honduras; the sound of it carries her off in the arms of Morpheus. Since she drives her Honda to Honduras I have decided to pedal to Patagonia. I wasn’t even sure where Patagonia is but I’m gone where it takes me. I mention all this in case we bump into you in our nocturnal flight to the southern hemisphere. I wonder if folks living down there pass us on their way to Cucamonga or Escondido.

You don’t hear much about Honduras these days, and that’s not a bad thing. To go un-mentioned is a desirable state. It’s the geographical equivalent of diphtheria. In fact diphtheria would be a good soporific of a mantra. I prefer it to Honduras but whatever gets you through the night is fine with me. It is hard to separate the sound of a word from the cargo it carries. Otherwise syphilis would be my favorite.

Getting back to Honduras, the name jumped out at me the other day when I saw that my fellow sometime-pharmacist and mostly-writer, William Sidney Porter, better known as O. Henry, fled there in 1908. He might also have figured that people in Honduras only come for a good night’s sleep. It seems that Porter had his fill of pharmacy, found a job in a bank and took his work home with him, which is to say, he embezzled. Awaiting trial he jumped bail and knew exactly where to go.

I’m not surprised. Many pharmacists spend their life, day-dreaming about going somewhere. And why not Honduras? It’s a shorter trip than to Patagonia by any measure. The only problem may be that it is populated by other bored pharmacists counting and pouring their time away. While there, possibly dreaming, Porter coined the phrase, Banana Republic.

As it turned out, still-Porter-not-yet O. Henry, had second thoughts. When he got word of his wife’s grave illness he returned from Honduras (like any decent pharmacist) to her bedside in Texas. Like all pharmacists he performed a miracle healing with predictable results. She died. It was a bad week for Porter. They extradited him to Ohio where he was sentenced to a five-year jail term. It could have been worse; he could have rotted in a Honduras prison.

As the cliché goes, every calamity is a potential opportunity. And so it was for him. They provided him with paper and an ink well. He started writing short stories in his cell and published fourteen of them under his new name, O. Henry. Some say his name came from the first two letters of Ohio or from a prison guard. He claimed he picked it out of a New Orleans newspaper. My version is that he reversed the first two letters of Honduras.

O. Henry became a household name after publishing over four hundred stories. His endings with an ironic twist became his trademark. It’s amazing what a few months in Honduras can do for a career. He is still taught in English Composition classes and translated into many languages. One more notable fact deserves mention; the Oh Henry candy bar is said to have been named in his honor.

No wonder Peggy transports herself to Honduras every night while I’m stuck in the pampas grass of Patagonia.