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.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Between Barack and a Hard Place


The hard place is the boulder of the emboldened, that group of congenital Progressives, impatient, unyielding and unforgiving. In their eyes Obama has drifted too far toward the center and beyond, into a Nixonian space.

In political terms he has taken them for granted and might get their vote but neither their wallet nor energy as campaign workers. Or, as in the case of the Anthony Weiner seat, not even their vote.

Obama has only conciliatory bones, down to his marrow. Aside from his skin shade the one quality that infuriates the descendants of the Confederacy most is his lack of zealotry. He has no brimstone. He hasn’t loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. Even supporters who elected him because he plays well with others now want him to run with scissors.

He is who he is, not only by temperament but because the game is rigged. Our four year election cycle is a carnival (as in carnivorous) that never sleeps. It is a billion dollar media bonanza and as such, requires the players to feed at the same trough. Corporate America funds both parties and the boat must not be rocked too much to unsettle the benefactors.

There was a time when I thought I knew everything. In adolescence my simplistic mind worked this way: if the U.S. was stained by inequities, racism and imperialist designs then its enemy must be the embodiment of virtue. If we were bad, the Soviet Union must be good. This is a function of a mind without nuance; an inability to hold doubt or opposing ideas in one’s head without insisting on the full embrace of either one.

Low-Information (lazy) voters throw one person out of office assuming that the other will be better. They have implicitly accepted the terms of the contest as if the two parties represent the full spectrum of possibilities and the presiding leader has implemented his plan by executive fiat. If the country isn’t prospering under Obama then his opponent must surely have the answer.

As we know Obama has been stonewalled by a Congressional chorus of naysayers. They have even defeated their own proposals when offered by the president. Is this anything less than treason? In good times it would be dismissed as party games. In these hard times it is seditious.

If the phone rings and the question is whether the government is broken, I wouldn’t be sure how to answer. A YES reply is what the Republicans are looking for, but a NO means I’m satisfied with things as they are. The real question is, Who broke it? And the answer is McConnell,Boehner, Cantor et al.

However if he continues to woo the Independents at the expense of the disaffected he does so at his own peril. He seems not to get much traction with the fickle electorate anyway.

Since his speech before Congress last week he seems to have rediscovered his voice, in style if not in substance. He is taking his case directly to the American people to demand of their representatives that they enact his jobs bill. The problem is to find the pulse in the body politic. Is it moribund or too cynical to be engaged? If he were addressing a rational public his argument would be clearly evident but the voting public seems less inclined to think than to blame mindlessly.

He is better off making his case with the Democratic constituency rather seeking favor with Independents, even if his programs go nowhere in Congress. At very least he could articulate the principles of his followers and lay naked the treachery of the Far Right Conservatives. His legacy would be a one term president who gave voice to the disadvantaged, to those of us who yearn for an end to our foreign misadventures and to the 50 million living in poverty who have seen the export of their jobs and the ill-gotten gains of the privileged few.

I can only hope he retains the presidency at least to halt the corporate/nit-wit coalition stampeding us off the cliff. In this climate perhaps all we can expect is an attenuated version of the last gasp of an empire going down with its multitude.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Red, White and Black


As Red state after Red state challenges the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known derisively as Obamacare, it becomes clear that it will stand or fall according to Justice Anthony Kennedy. Several Federal District courts have affirmed and several have struck down the bill. I haven’t been keeping score but it doesn’t matter. The Supreme Court will decide its fate next spring which is to say that Kennedy’s vote will tilt the Court 5-4 one way or the other and the smart money is that he will side with Thomas, Scalia et al.

There was a time when observers might have held their breath over the outcome of such a ruling. In the long history of the Court there have been some significant defections from one camp to the other.

Most notable in recent years is Black and White. Hugo Black traded his Ku Klux Klan white sheets for a black robe in 1937. His white supremacy views gave way over his 34 years on the bench to the point that he became the most liberal, anti-segregationist Justice of the Warren Court.

Byron (Whizzer) White was appointed by President Kennedy in 1961. He traded his football jersey for a black robe. White had been an All-American collegiate running back at Colorado Univ. and later a star in professional football. Assumed to be a Liberal he went the other way voting against the Miranda decision and stood with Chief Justice Rehnquist as the lone dissenters in Roe v Wade.

Unless we witness a timely demise from the Court’s right flank either part or all of the Healthcare legislation is likely to go in the shredder. Clarence Thomas seems to have emerged, after twenty years, as the most ardent, if least vocal, conservative member of the high court. Whereas it was commonly thought that he carried Antonin Scalia's briefcase it now appears that it is the other way around; it is Clarence Thomas' decisions which are most widely hailed in far right circles... particularly with Dick Armey and the Heritage Foundation where his wife, Ginni, is employed.

We had our chance in 1981 to not only defeat but disgrace this spokesman of Libertarianism and corporate America. At that time the Democrats held sway in the Senate and Joe Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee. Our now vice president denied five people the opportunity to corroborate the testimony of Anita Hill. Shame on him and woe is me and you. Even then, why did the Democratic majority affirm him 52-48. It is roughly the equivalent of Noam Chomsky being endorsed by the Repugnants.

It is now five years since a peep has been heard from Clarence Thomas during the presentation of oral arguments before the court. In fact no one is sure if he isn’t catching up on his sleep as he leans back in his chair parallel to the floor. But either Justice Thomas or his law clerks write opinions dazzling to the assembled. He dips into history allegedly channeling the minds of our founding fathers as they turn over in their graves. I'd be interested to question Clarence Thomas if he also regards himself as three-fifths of a human being as our founders did.

So far has the spectrum drifted to the portside that even Antonin Scalia has taken exception to Thomas’ historical revisionism. Thomas ignores all precedents citing only the Constitution as if it were sacred text. He calls himself an Originalist. I call him an ideologue who has learned the knack of finding anything he wants to support his pre-existing dogma.

When questioned before Congress, John Roberts, under oath, assured his interrogators that he believed firmly in stare decicis which upholds court precedents. He and Alito then betrayed our trust by reversing the McCain/Feingold law and allowing unlimited corporate money to buy elections. The conservative majority are originalists when it pleases them and activist, quasi-legislators when it serves their clients’ interests. The validity of the mandate provision of the healthcare act lies in the power of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce which has been in place since 1937. Thomas will undobtedly argue that it nowhere appears in the original gospel of the 18th century. I wonder what Jesus thought.

The chasm in the political spectrum finds its model in the polarity of the Supreme Court. In fact it may well be the source of the conservative creed.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Baseball As Life


There is something about baseball that is irresistible to poets and writers. It could be the geometry of the field, the architecture of the game itself, its disdain of the clock, the sequential nature of the innings or the equipoise between going by the book versus the hunch. It is surely an exercise in frustration and nowhere has this inherent failure been more vividly enacted than in the book I just read called Bottom of the 33rd.

New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Dan Barry, details the longest game ever played. It happened on Easter eve in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1982 and lasted eight hours, barely beating out Jesus in his annual resurrection. The paid attendance was 1,700 with 19 diehards left in the stands at 4 o’clock in the morning. The temperature hovered around 40 degrees. To keep warm fires were lit in oil cans. Actually the game was called after 32 innings and resumed two months later only to be abruptly ended the next inning.

The futility of the players to end the marathon earlier is overshadowed by their persistence in playing out the ritual as if they recognized their role in some archetypal struggle. It was a re-statement of the adage that one finishes what they start. Their devotion to the game and the umpires reluctance to end it earlier became a national news story at the time; a reminder that our National Pastime possesses a defiance of time itself. Every at bat is a re-winding of the clock as the runner goes around the bases counter-clockwise. Baseball, our pastoral sport, has persevered a century of the tyranny of the stop-watch, two-minute warnings and urban razzle-dazzle.

The Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston’s farm team, finally prevailed over the Rochester Redwings, the Baltimore affiliate, in the Triple A International League. The author gives us the personal lives of several players in great detail; their marriages, how they got there and what glory or ignominy was to be their script. Two players on the field that night went on to The Hall of Fame, Wade Boggs and Cal Ripkin Jr. Others also made it to the Major Leagues but most were either has-beens or wanabes

Minor League players have Major League dreams and when they die it is with a thud. The saddest story belongs to a Pawtucket player, Dave Koza, who was never called up to Boston. His hit finally won the game but his seven years in expectation followed the myth of Sisyphus. He pushed the rock up the mountain expecting to reach his goal only to watch it dribble down, season after season. The killing of the dream led him to alcoholism and the end of his marriage.

The early adulation an athlete receives often ends in bitter disillusion. For most aspiring ballplayers the minor leagues are a graveyard. They have gambled a valuable decade in pursuit of fame and fortune often the last to see their own limited skills.

Baseball is an alternative universe for fans like me. It keeps the child alive. No rational argument to the contrary dissuades me. Not the greed nor the swagger, nor the inconsequential outcome. It could be a metaphor for life itself. One of those inexplicable indulgences I’m happy to leave alone.

Dan Barry also presents us with the supporting cast on that historic night………umpire and bat boy, official scorer and vendor. Everyone has a story. It reminded me of Our Town with each life recorded in the great ledger. There is a symphony of voices to be heard even in a dilapidated ballpark on a chilly April night extending into Easter morning. It sounds like a hymn to America.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Going Into Labor

For most of us Labor Day signals the end of summer, beginning of school, another 3-day weekend or giant shopping sales. Forgotten are the struggles that gave rise to this day and labor leaders who lead the way.

As a kid I read about Eugene Debs who organized the railroads and founded the IWW. Jailed for his leadership in the Pullman Strike of 1894 and later as a conscientious objector during WWI he became an early hero of mine. While incarcerated he ran for president and got close to a million votes.

Growing up I heard about the sit-down strikes in Detroit, John L Lewis with the United Mine Workers, Harry Bridges and later, Caesar Chavez. Today union membership has dwindled to around 7% from 25% 70 years ago. What would Karl Marx say about the club of millionaire ballplayers in dispute with their billionaire owners? I can’t imagine Woody Guthrie singing, Which Side Are You On, yet their cause is a freakish part of worker exploitation given their short professional life.

More to the point are the labor conditions of a century back. One of my favorite poems is Robert Pinsky’s, Shirt which celebrates the toil and the product of the ladies garment workers and the tragic fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory of 1911. The poem’s genius is in the short, staccato phrasing which echo the rhythms of the labor and his focus on the detail and pride in the work.

SHIRT

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane's Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning."
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Patterns


In the march of time, if time indeed marches, I see four generations in the passing parade. Heading the procession would be my parents and bringing up the rear, today’s youth with my generation and Baby Boomers in between. In fact we all overlap and bump into each other but it satisfies my need to view from afar however dissonant the big brass band.

My mother and father were profoundly shaped by the Depression years. I understood their insecurities and the coming together against fascism. I have a fair grasp of my own contemporaries living through post-war prosperity, Cold-War anxiety and the upheavals of the sixties and early seventies. Our children experienced these social changes at an earlier age and came to terms, more or less, with an array of options including further individualization, Yuppie-dom and the falling away of community. Finally we have so-called Gen X, the Slackers, who fell to Earth in the wireless superhighway born with a silver phone in their mouths.

A century in brief admittedly over-generalized but all in the service of finding a pattern. We have gone from a nation of immigrants marked by assimilation, and ambition to a new lost generation which seems to have embraced a form of Nihilism. I witness a culture of repudiation, both in values and language. It feels like the beginning of dystopia.

Music is a rage against all the sentiment we accommodated. Pattern recognition, not literacy, is a measure of intelligence. Dress is a statement of disdain. Adolescence has been extended into the thirties. Our wars seem like an extension of computer games. Sensation function has replaced deliberation. Traditional institutions, political, academic and religious are regarded as irrelevant. Geography has been obliterated by the Internet. This may be the generation least conversant with History since the lights went out in the Dark Ages. There is a disconnect between an act and its consequence. One tweets their way out of a job…..like what just happened? Connectivity without purpose seems to prevail.

Another pehnomena which isn't altogether new is the tracing of dots that aren’t there as when the Far Right, who alone have a toll-free number to God, come back to tell us how we are being scolded with horrific weather. Let's blame those damn Liberals for those quakes, temblors and twisters.

New technology calls for new behaviors and perhaps the Slackers are more aligned. Some of our cultural norms need to be abandoned or repaired anyway. Do they smell deceit more acutely? Their short-hand language is a way of rejecting our sometimes graceful, sometimes bloated sentences and media rhetoric. Like it or not we are in the midst of Slacker Aesthetic.

Their Art is often random holding presumed givens to ridicule, challenging old hierarchies and rendering identities as battered. The Slacker Aesthetic is a declaration of cultural war. It is a call for raw authenticity mixed with detachment embedded in a highly commodified society. If the tattoos, lip-rings and torn jeans are a pose they are also a powerful signifier for like minds. Are we being re-tribalized?

Of course all my observations are noted from a distant perch. I’m trying to make sense of it with my habit of seeking a pattern. Maybe that very impulse of contextualizing has itself been discarded for being bogus. Maybe the Slackers need to be cut some slack; after all these are our heirs and this is the world we bequeathed them.