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.