Monday, December 31, 2012

Year-End Lists

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall or a list. Except for walls to hang pictures upon or play handball against or lists of things to do like shopping lists (Chopin Liszt).

But walls and lists divide and exclude (best ten this or worst three that) slamming the door on all else. A year-end list feels like a wall of time.The artifice imposed on art with its hierarchy must be what I resist. I like to roam in the messy, muddy, middle ground with uncategorizable boggy blogs that boggle and blur.

Another reason not to list my ten favorite movies is that I can’t remember what I saw before November and even if I could I doubt if there are even three films I would cheer about.

As for year-end anything the idea seems arbitrary. Calendars are mere constructs we allow to impose a sort of order to life, a marker like a wall,even though we know nothing stops. I Don’t Know Why You Say Goodbye, I say Hello.

Robert Frost’s poem about a wall ends with the narrator’s neighbor asserting that good walls make good neighbors, the cliché handed down from his father, the staunch Yankee, no-nonsense farmer. But Frost is the poet, all about moving under, around or through barriers. Something there is That sends a frozen-ground-swell under it / And spills the upper boulders in the sun, / And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Spring is the mischief in me, Frost tells us. The poem is the Mending Wall and Frost is happy to repair it as a way of engaging his neighbor (process is all) even though he knows it will fall again as all walls do.

Humpty Dumpty fell from one and scrambled his yoke. We live in a fractured world. Might as well go for the omelet, throw in some cheese, a few mushrooms, maybe spinach and call it a meal, cholesterol and all.

As for lists I feel as Gilbert & Sullivan…..

And 'St— 'st— 'st— and What's-his-name, and also You-know-who —
The task of filling up the blanks I'd rather leave to you.
But it really doesn't matter whom you put upon the list,
For they'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed!


Neither missed nor blessed. The only exception is Bill O’Reilly who is still the biggest waste of an apostrophe for the third year in a row.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Lost Language of Gulls

He arrived a frightened boy sleeping in steerage wrapped around a sack of potatoes like a question mark. He came up on deck in the harbor to see a congregation of seagulls paper the sky like pages of Torah.  

Peretz remembered the Cossacks as clean-shaven except for their black moustaches dripping with drink. His people had the beards.

Later he tried to forget. He would buy and sell, socks, yarn, thread, anything. No salesman, he, but a peddler. Brushes, he bought and sold. The moustache he grew registered his forgetting.

He lived by the book’s commandments and raised my orphaned father to meet the mean streets with an incongruous grace. Where but from Peretz could he have tamed the tenement life? My father was a lamb grazing among Goliaths, hushing the yells and haggles from pushcarts.

By three subways and a trolley Peretz came to our apartment. I still see him in a well-worn suit, his weary face with full moustache, the Jewish newspaper and brown bag he carried. My mother fed him pot cheese and sour cream; a fleck stayed on his upper lip and those bristles. He opened the brown bag handing me a pair of argyle socks.

It was agreed I was to have a Bar Mitzvah. All my refusals, my disbelief gave way to a final Yes, only for Peretz. He was among the chosen…. having survived. I would not deny him that day.  

Years later when I knocked on his door he saw my full moustache and ran into the closet hiding from my Cossack face. The early pogroms had pillaged his memory.

Now his moustache is wizened into wings. Only I could spot the sour cream. Brown bags were carried off by the wind. For a moment the formation of gulls was an argyle in the sky.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Winter Solstice Wedding

Was it Plato or Yogi Berra who said, You gotta take the good with the bad? In fact the good becomes better with a modicum of hardship. And so it was that we made our way to Iowa in the middle of a hundred year storm which probably happens every other year.

In the enhanced version our covered wagon halted on the great plain enveloped in sleet and wind-chill temps near zero while Custer made his next-to-last stand, Buffalo Bill rehearsed his buffaloes and Black Hawk, the tribal chief, puffed his peace pipe in indecipherable smoke.

What actually happened were white-out conditions and all flights out of Chicago canceled. Moline and Rock Island in Illinois stare down Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side of Old Man River, constituting the Quad Cities…and now you know. The sister cities apparently have no sibling rivalry. It was a peaceable kingdom. Even Buffalo Bill was honored for having been born there. Everywhere we turned seemed to be a Christmas scene with icicles and snow outlining the branches of naked maple trees.

The reason for our trip was not to check out the Democratic caucuses for the 2016 election. I’ll leave that for Hilary and Jeb. We were there to witness the marriage of Dave and Theresa. I'm sometimes suspicious of December weddings imagining they are scheduled on the advice on an accountant but not so this one.. 

Blackhawk was the name of the beautifully refurbished hundred year-old hotel where we stayed. Seven of us came from California arriving by motorized prairie schooner or maybe Mississippi barge while the locals presumably came on their flexible flyers and one-horse open sleigh. There were no no-shows.

Dave first met Theresa in grammar school. She was the girl next-door who got away. Now emancipated from her first marriage she has two grandchildren. Dave heard Hollywood calling where he edits, shoots, writes, directs, teaches and breathes cinema. Two years ago they reconnected and they are now living their happy ending which is really a new beginning. 

The ceremony took place at the Figge art museum; how fitting, Art being our religion. When two people are fully met something sacred happens. Everybody present seemed to be kin. Peggy wrote and delivered a beautiful epithalamium. Passages were read from first Corinthians which says something about putting away childish things. It’s fine if that means dumping his Yo-Yo and bubblegum cards but I’m sure Dave will remain a cinephile which is his bliss even if it has been relegated to second place. They will return to live here in L.A. where the snow is fake but the dreams are real for a return to the art of cinema.

It was an adventure being where the tall corn grows though the snow drifts are higher at winter solstice. I was wondering if these folks are any different from Californians, whether the four seasons align them better to the natural order of things. Living with the elements may call for resilience and accommodation while we have gotten soft and indulged. However we do have our quakes, mud-slides and fires to keep us alert for the next tantrum of the gods-that-may-be.  

While their seasons are cyclic ours are more random. I’ll never understand why they insist on having so much weather in the mid-west; we have practically none at all and get along just fine.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Master

When we read powerful fiction, get drawn into a painting or transported by a film those characters are no less real to us than our best friends or worst version of ourselves. They penetrate our psyche, like it or not, tap into our mythos as archetypes and we disown them and squirm or welcome them as role models.

What if Jack Nicholson wandered from Five Easy Pieces into Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk Café and had a tantrum ordering the waitress to hold the chicken from his chicken salad sandwich? When he slams the table and sends her reeling Hopper’s melancholic paint would run with Pollack’s rage. The palpable mood of estrangement would be shattered. Chaplin would stop eating his shoe and all the while Oliver Twist might be in the corner pleading, Please sir, I want some more.  

Imagine early Brando, the brash biker from Wild Ones with a touch of the longshoreman On the Waterfront and throw in Stanley Kowalski with his ripped undershirt. Now add Nicholson from the Cuckoo’s Nest. Make room for Ratso Rizzo and stir well. You now have Joaquin Phoenix in the Master, a damaged, dysfunctional, womanizing, volatile alcoholic ex-G.I. you wouldn’t want your sister to hang around with.

It’s not quite Frankenstein meets the Dracula. But when Phoenix (Freddie Quell) meets the Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman, we have the conjunction of two demented products of a mid-century America, gone wrong. On the surface the Eisenhower decade was noted for conformity and consumption yet it also seeded small pockets of unrest and marginal behavior. The cauldron was bubbling with incipient radicalism, dissent, drugs and bogus spirituality.

As Master of his Scientology-like cult Hoffman is a charismatic, manipulative megalomaniac with erotic overtones. He takes on the Phoenix as his reclamation project yet Quell’s damage is irremediable and he exits the film how he entered. Hoffman, on the other hand, flourishes from small-time charlatan to international pseudo-spiritual guru. By this time I didn’t care whether they both floated off to a distant galaxy or got vacuumed into a black hole.

In the 1960 film Elmer Gantry, Burt Lancaster is the flamboyant evangelist selling eternal life under the threat of fire and brimstone.  Why bother summoning Jesus when, as Master, Hoffman becomes the supreme schemer? Both are hard-drinking traveling salesman of a sort, the ultimate hucksters of our market economy. The Sinclair Lewis preacher was exposed and ridden out of town but Scientology prospers. A congregation of the lost is always to be found, ready to surrender their autonomy. By creating a community these prophets fill the vacuum where soulful relationships may have once existed.    

With God irrelevant, in an interminable deathbed scene well into its second century, the field is wide open for demigods and false idols. Masters of all stripes are a growth industry for a gullible public. While this movie was unsettling and unintelligible at times I have a feeling the images will cling for a while. As for the co-leading men I went away humming, Still crazy after all these years.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ink

My friend asked for ink. The clerk at Staples shrugged. You mean ink toner? Cartridges?

The Ink Age is gone. You know, that stuff fountain pens use to run out of, the blue-black substance that would leak all over our hands and shirt pockets.

Raise you hand if you have the same mental picture I have of a hexagonal glass bottle of ink. The name Waterman comes to mind….then Schaffer.  The aforementioned bottle turns out to be Waterman’s ink.  I just looked it up. They still sell it online. In my day fountain pens were part of the back-to-school package. Today they have fallen into the same category as ink eradicator and blotters.

Ink is one of those lost things that vanished the way invisible ink vanished. In 1949 when someone invented an ink that dried instantly Papermate pens were the next best thing. Fountain pens became another collectible and ink bottles, that item which an enormous stationary super store can’t find room for.

Now I am back in the third or fourth grade. I’m sitting at my desk with an inkwell at the far corner. We wrote with a long stylus with a nib at the end which had to be dipped. This was a spelling test. The word was genuine, a tough one which threw me. I spelled it with a j then I pictured it from the window of Brenner’s Hair Salon which advertised, Genuine Permanent Waves. I needed to change my answer but alterations were not allowed. My life down the forbidden path was launched. I managed to drop a glob of ink over my wrong answer and re-wroie it correctly.

Returning to the scene of my crime I ask myself why that nefarious act has stayed with me over seventy years. Bad boy that I was I’m not sorry for it. I own it, my shadow side, the god of mischief took up residence, compensation for too much obedience, testing the margins, early subversion against the rules. There was an element of resourcefulness if not creativity in my misdemeanor and none of it is possible with a ball point pen.

Ink that in the great ledger. I’ll take my chances that the principal and all the teachers in P.S. 99 are long gone and I won’t be left back to repeat Spelling class or worse, get an F in good citizenship or work habits. At least I didn’t run with scissors.    

Channeling my inner Huck Finn depended on that property of ink to spread its wings on the page. Pass me the Rorschach test and I’ll tell them what I really see. It's all, Inka dinka do, thanks to Jimmy Durante.

Movie-Going, Now and Then


With a red Netflix envelop in the mailbox at a steady pace and a dearth of watchable films we don’t get to the movies much these days. Studios hold back their best of the least for release during the last six weeks of the year but even most of those are relegated to Wait for Netflix status. However we did go this week and I’m reminded why it happens with a frequency approaching zero.

It isn’t just the prices and the parking it’s the sensory assault we’re subjected to. The movie was scheduled to begin at 4:45. Forty minutes later it actually started. By that time we had endured non-stop commercials at 100 plus decibels and a stream of mindless, screaming previews with razzle-dazzle sufficient to frazzle my nervous system. And no mute button. If the feature film is meant to be transporting why is the pre-trip so agitating? Is the sensory overload designed to numb us into submission? Next time, if there is one, we’re arriving half an hour late and waiting in the lobby until ours is rolling.

Back in those black and white days we would walk into the dream palace, heedless of time, with our Milk Duds and Necco Wafers. The Valencia Theater had a ceiling like a planetarium. It induced both fantasy and movie reality. It was at the movies I learned that babies came from hot water and towels, that most everyone wore tuxedos and all sailors were great dancers. I came away with the certainty that I’d know a cattle rustler if I met one. It remained for me to figure out that even though Victor Mature wrestled with Tyrannosaurus Rex in One Million BC (1940, age 7) I wasn’t likely to encounter any dinosaurs on the way home.

I never felt pummeled, aurally or visually. Movies were low-tech, less graphic and therefore left more to the imagination. Only recently I understood that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represent the White House and Supreme Court with Dopey writing decisions. But I digress.

My distaste for the current movie experience is a sure sign I've entered the cranky old man stage of life. At a certain age we’ve witnessed enough of the real thing, man-made and natural, universal and personal to render the cinematic version preposterous and needlessly jangling. Nobody I know speaks, thinks or looks the way movie figures do. Somewhere along the way I lost my patience for hundred million dollar productions of parables, or extended sitcoms called date films. Vigilante justice worked better for me in Hollywood Westerns than the mega-explosive paramilitary version with bodies littering the wide screen.

Must seven-year-old kids go through alien worlds with slackers as role-models to come out on the other side? With a pantheon of anti-heroes crowding the new Mt. Olympus make a little room for Abe Lincoln.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Money Talks, But

It doesn’t necessarily win elections or championships.

The Dodgers thought they bought themselves a pennant this summer and were short-changed. Almost doubling their payroll got them second place and barely. The Lakers seem to be following the same pattern, a collection of bloated reputations rather than fresh legs on hungry bodies.

Karl Rove squandered 300 million bucks on a loser. If you’ve got nothing to say it doesn’t matter how many times you say it. Maybe voters can smell rancid ideas coming from a robotic mouth. Even those Sabbath gas-bags on Sunday morning shows couldn’t make the case.

We live in a saturation of brands, not only corporate-hyped names of products but public figures are also branded from Oprah to Barbra to Clint and Kobe. Tiger is a fallen brand climbing his way back. Manny and A-Rod are yesterday. Mitt is the day before yesterday. Bibi and Barack are today. Hilary and Jeb could be tomorrow.  

In most matters I’m so out of it I don’t find out about today until it’s last year. There is nothing so perishable as the marketplace. Has there ever been a laundry soap that isn’t labeled NEW? Why are cars changed annually? Was there something wrong with last year’s model?

To be sure, neither a team nor a candidate nor the latest wireless wizardry without which life cannot be lived… gets very far without a ton of money. Because of this we love the underdog, the one who achieves more on merit than noise and splash. We root for the small-market team of no-names to show-up the bloated marquee types with all their swagger and bling.

Bottom line: We seem to require some name recognition but resent being over-sold. We like to pretend we’re not being manipulated. We don’t like losers but also like to topple the winner. We believe the myth of the Natural, who comes from nowhere and whose rise is meteoric. That person becomes us, humble and incorruptible, however briefly.

There are limits to power; witness U.S. misadventures from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The mightiest arsenal in human history is helpless against guerrilla warfare.

On the other hand Americans are still infatuated with power, from the Goldman Sachs’ boardroom to Tony Soprano’s backroom.  During the long descent of his slipping-down life Tony loses his hold on us. When Wall St. similarly falls with a thud it takes us all down like the story of my uncle who was wiped out in the crash of 1929.  Some banker jumped out the window and landed on his pushcart.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Speaking of Love


Winter is the time of my content and I want to tell the world. 

There are four women who have made me the lucky guy I am. First is she who breathes alchemical air creating sparks and charging the space between us. Second is the youngest woman I’ve ever known who lives daily with astonishment. Third is the one who inhabits caves, ancient and her own interior landscape. Last is the woman who has gifted me with love and the opportunity to love back. They are all Peggy Aylsworth Levine.

She is a most remarkable person. Peggy still laughs at my jokes. She cooks a world-class fried cauliflower. She designs jewelry, has written a children’s album recorded by the Modernaires, done 66 collage books, dozens of Joseph Cornell-like boxes, plus the covers of my two blog books. And these are not the only reason I married her.

Every morning she writes a poem with 54 of them, so far, accepted for publication this year alone. In her 92nd year she is at the height of her creative power. She sees wide across years and into deep pools. Her poems are lyrical and imagistic with a palette of language that stretches and leaps across chasms. She’ll take a headline, an overheard conversation, a photo and make of it a poem. A dog-walker, scrap of a dream, a garbage truck and an odd word can become a soufflé-poem rising.

Her poems are not just a special talent; they are a natural extension of the way she meets the world. Her doors are open wide. If life seems closed she finds a seam through which to enter … and if there are no doors or windows she walks through the walls.

There is an unshakeable optimism she glows with whose illumination I’ve come to rely upon. It is a light-source from within having dwelled in her own dark caverns and found their spring. It comes hard-earned. Orphaned at eight she came to rely not only on the kindness of strangers but the strange unfathomable resources she possessed to find her way.

Find is the key word. Peggy is a finder / founder. She seeks and knows when she’s arrived, not as an end-point but a destination itself in which every step is worth the wonder. The hunter gathers. The questioner finds answers, however partial, which raise new questions. It takes a certain faith to stop driving, examine the stump, the peeling bark, reptilian roots at our feet, the calligraphy of bare branches, congealed light in a drop of rain. 

Sometimes things are too close to be seen. In this elongated twilight I am able to take an essential step back and assess my good fortune; how these past near 29 years together have been both a lifetime and a wink. The gift of love works both ways, to see and be seen, to receive love and be emotionally naked feeling myself fully received, entering into a safe unknown. Our love taps into shuttered rooms and fills vacancies. We care-take each other, choreograph the steps of leading and yielding and when we can’t or won’t budge, laugh about it.

Having said all this I feel there is something more which is unsayable, an essence that eludes words. Each of us retains a mysterious core better left alone. Our love sanctifies It and in that way creates a third entity also beyond articulation.

We write in the same room and there are long silences between us to be cherished. Paper rustling, pencil sharpened, curses at the computer, tea brought in when the kettle calls. Love is in the sensing of each other’s pace, mood, when to not speak….and when to speak as I am now.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The House of Reprehensibles

This is the 200 anniversary of the term Gerrymander. In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor redrew districts to insure his Republican-Democratic party’s reelection in such a way as to create an area resembling a salamander, claws and all. The practice has never left us.

With Democrats sleeping during the 2010 election, the Republicans stole the House of Representatives for a decade. What was off-year for a presidential race was very much on-year for the census and redistricting.

One hopes the lesson has been learned. The good guys depend on high voter turnout. We were taught in Civics class that democracy rests on informed participation. The red states urge us to stay home and if we get aroused they will do anything from broken machines, intimidation at the polling place, restricting early voting and misinformation about time and place. Goebel lives.

The imminent threat to America is less from Al Qaeda than from the subversion of Tea Party Rovenoids. In control of dozens of state houses they have become the proto- fascists in our midst. Aggressive and shameless, their latest ploy is to apportion the electoral votes not according to population but according to congressional districts which are considerably disproportionate in number.

Imagine a class of fifty students in a room with a hundred seats. Thirty are divided and bunched together on each side of the room. The remaining twenty are spread out here and there. This resembles a map of the red/blue divide in this country with both coasts bluish and a red middle excepting some rust-belt states.

It is also Pennsylvania, Philadelphia to the east, Pittsburgh on the west, containing the bulk of the population, heavily Democratic. What we are moving toward is a body of Congresspersons representing either blue population centers or ruddy, rural, empty space…. rocks, ranches and rows of crops. Grassland needs love, I know, but not from Congress.

Despite the 33 seat advantage held by Republicans over the Democrats in the House the Democrats actually got more votes for their candidates. Thanks to gerrymandering the tilt went in the opposite direction. While each seat represents the same number of people they are drawn to bestow great advantage to the party which dominates the state government. For example Ohio and Pennsylvania are two blue states for Obama but are controlled by red State governments. Obama won the former by 5% yet Pennsylvania ended up with 13 House seats for Republicans to 5 for Democrats. Likewise in Ohio the margin is 12 to 4. 
 
There seems to be a slight disconnect between the Obama brain trust and the DNC. Will the Jim Messina/David Plough computer design be passed along and deployed for the  Congressional races to come or was that a two-time phenomena reserved for the president?             

Greater still is a disconnect between the will of the people and the make-up of the Congress and Supreme Court. Republicans just appointed 19 people who will chair committees in the House, all white men. They ignore women in both leadership roles and policy-decisions. The demographic drift in the general population toward people of color must be reflected in the legislative and judicial branch.   

Even greater than a redress of the odious campaign finance decision, would be a federal ballot measure extending the Civil Rights Voting law to all states and prohibiting suppression moves such as we have seen and including Election Day as a national holiday. Instead, the five dangerous men on the Supreme Court will hear a case brought by Alabama which would end the Voting Rights law altogether. What would my high school Civics teacher say to that?

  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Push Button And Walk

While waiting at the corner to cross the street in Beverly Hills I was asked by a woman to push the button because she didn’t want to dirty her fingers. The hazard of a public button had never occurred to me before. After all, a mosquito with no sense of direction may have landed there with West Nile virus and it may be multiplying or dividing on that dreaded surface. From now on I think I’ll use my elbow.

So much can happen while waiting for red to turn green and the white walk icon to flash. As the count-down went from twelve to one I started reviewing my entire medical history including all the diseases I somehow eluded even with my reckless exposure to buttons, doorknobs and handles. Of course my mother, who was a pre-eminent scholar of miasma theory, discovered early on that all disease was caused by the dreaded draft and failure to wear three sweaters and galoshes from October through March.

I’m glad I came down with chickenpox, measles and mumps and got them over with as a kid. I’m not sure about whooping cough. I have a faint memory of whooping. Every kid should whoop once in a while. Diphtheria has a mellifluous ring to it but I suppose it was gone before my time. I didn’t know anyone with diphtheria however sweet the sound. Pneumonia was devoutly to be avoided and double pneumonia, twice as bad; triple would land you in the Guiness record book.

All of us were probably in the vise of the Grippe once or twice. Whatever hold it had on us seems to have loosened over the years. The last case was probably reported fifty years ago but you have to admire its evocative name. It turns out the Grippe was likely the flu or bad cold but you had more purchase returning to school having snapped the chains of the Grippe.

Scarlet fever was a mixed blessing for me. The bad news was my 103.6 temperature (rectally speaking) which probably had my mother cursing the sweaters and malevolent air. The good news was that it left me with a heart murmur which murmured selectively. It excused me from strenuous physical activity of my choice. I played my heart out in the schoolyards but exempted myself from running the mile or climbing the rope in gym.

By now the six seconds was changing to five. I still hadn’t come down with West Nile virus though who knows what colonies were thriving on my fingertip. I started thinking how I overcame another early deficit. My mother divided the world into good eaters and bad. I was the model of a bad one. I never mastered the art of hiding the liver under the mashed potatoes. And all that time people were starving in China demonstrating what a good-for-nothing kid I was. It was only a few years ago that I learned the people in China, even then, were told that Americans were starving. Somewhere along the way I became a good eater. If only my mother could see me now particularly in Chinese restaurants.

The green came on but there is always a car or two defiant of the tyranny of traffic lights. Pedestrians must walk with caution. I also learned this from my mother. She was convinced that cars, particularly trucks were driven by assassins. Making it across the street took a lot out of her. Getting to the other side was like crossing the river Jordan, a kind of deliverance having dodged road-rage and the forces of evil in noxious air.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Giving Of Thanks


Now that I think about it, next to Valentine’s Day (Eros), Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  Gratitude Day. Thanks-A-Lot  Day.  Lucretius Day….more about him later….what could be bad?

This is the one holiday, altogether secular …pray if you must…that commemorates no one or nothing except our good fortune to have landed here rather than there. We get to share with family and friends: to eat, drink and gather around the hearth even if we have no hearth.  What a concept!

We let cantankerous, crusty Uncle Crazy come down from the attic. We offer a place at the table and test our patience with that neighbor who can’t stop talking and some in-law who never speaks. Everything is possible for a few hours particularly after a feast of gluttony followed by hours of sloth. This may be the one moment of the year when we put into practice William Blake’s notion that the road of excess leads to a palace of wisdom. My guess is that we feel more crapulous than sagacious.

Even if we have modest means or dine alone, the notion of gratitude can still apply. The grace inside gratitude is simply meeting the life around us, the turning of seasons, increments of changing light and resources we have to make our way.

Coming together is a kind of communal experience….pot luck dishes, pass the stuffing. We might even forgive ourselves for stealing Indian land and for four centuries of indulgence. This is where Lucretius comes in.

He was a noble Roman who lived in the century before the year one, Common Era. As a follower of Epicurus he wrote persuasively and poetically articulating our purpose in life as the pursuit of happiness. Not narcissism or hedonism but rather the embrace of life in all its wonder, variety and awe.

H. L Mencken defined Puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. Epicurus was much maligned by the papacy. Christianity, in its day, was (is) a doctrine of original sin, banishment, suffering, denial and penance. Two, four, six, eight let’s all go out and flagellate. As much as the holy church made room for pagan (peasant) beliefs and rituals they begrudged a philosophy of pleasure, except of course, for themselves in the upper echelons.

Let Thanksgiving abundance be our answer to a culture of pinched minds, self-denial, repression and eternal damnation. In his eloquent poem, The Nature of Things, Lucretius expressed the essence of Humanism. What seems so elemental and obvious (to me) was to the Roman church, subversion; namely, that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that fear is damaging to humanity and that happiness, compassion, bodily pleasure is itself a virtue. He went on to write about the delusion of an afterlife. I celebrate his heresy. When do we eat?   

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The There, There


Yogi Berra was prescient when he said, you can’t get there from here. Take away our GPS and we, as a nation, are lost. There really is a there, there though 90% of American students couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map and a majority couldn’t even find New York.

Somehow, the No Child Left Behind Law, left behind certain basic subjects such as History, Geography and Civics. The three have become compressed into a single elective.

As a result we have college students who can’t name the three branches of our government, think that Aristotle was contemporaneous with Lincoln and barely knew that North Dakota is north of South Dakota.

Some of our prominent inspirational leaders illustrate the point. It was said that George W. Bush had trouble finding Europe on the map. When Ronald Reagan landed in Bolivia on a state visit he got off the plane and stated it was good to be in Bulgaria. Sarah Plain famously saw Russia from her porch. 

It may be a function of empire but British schoolchildren know, or at least knew, their world map and where the sun never set. Americans seem not to have received this collateral benefit even with military bases dotting the planet.

There is nothing like a war to cultivate a sense of  place names. Suddenly I learned about Sarajevo, Mogadishu and Waziristan. For children in the 40’s, islands in the South Pacific such as, Okinawa, Corregidor, Tarawa and Iwo Jima entered our vocabulary overnight.

Insularity ill-suits us in a global community. Maybe it is part of the push-back against change. It certainly behooves us to take a look at a map every now and then. Florida is still the phallic sticking out of our un-zipped fly but Puerto Rico might, one day, become our 51st state and what about the District of Columbia?

Cartography was a growth industry a few hundred years ago. Now it is once again a dynamic one with climate change causing map-makers to work through the night. The world map is in a slow tango with the rise of oceans and dips of land mass. Borders are being erased. Deserts are eating away at arable land. Forests are yielding to chain saws. Ice-melts are gulping islands, reclaiming ocean-view properties and opening up a northern shipping passage.

Cartography has also become an art form. There is great fun to be had at a website called strangemaps.com. or better yet enter in Google “weird maps to rival apple” and enjoy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

November 2012

For Republicans it is post-mortem time, pointing-fingers, giving each other the finger and slowly removing their fingers from their ears which have deafened them to the voice of the people. They might use their thumb to hitch a ride back from Oz. It must be a harsh re-entry and it seems that many of the knuckleheads have chosen to remain delusional singing, If I Only Had A Brain.


Not a single Democrat lost his/her seat and the president has won a 3 million vote plurality but the Republicans seem to think it was their victory with a resounding endorsement of the Romney/Ryan tax plan. Boehner and McConnell might as well be the scarecrow and tin man.

For those paying attention this was an historic moment. The diversity of America can no longer be ignored. The non-white population will grow by 30 million four years from now while the Whites will decline. White men are dying on the golf course every day.  The party which denies evolution, climate change and woman’s reproductive rights also denies that time moves forward. Their effort to turn the calendar counter-clockwise has failed.


It is said the first casualty of war is truth. This is also the case with culture wars. As the late Sen. Moynihan said, You're entitled to your opinion but not your own facts. We have witnessed candidate Romney repeatedly lie until his nose grew from here to the Cayman Islands. His statements had a shelf-life of less than 24 hours as he would renounce Monday’s remarks by Tuesday morning.


Even a part of corporate America felt compelled to correct his fib when he charged Chrysler with shipping jobs overseas to China. Romney lost because he is an inauthentic man caught in an untenable situation. He was called upon to pander and deceive and his ambition blinded him to the naked falsity of himself. The emperor finally had no clothes and no core.


A corollary to the sacrifice of truth is the degradation of language. Words are abused, bloated and exhausted. What remains is a battlefield strewn with limp words badly in need of triage. Language deserves better. Taxes, Government, compromise, rape, entitlement, liberty and personhood are casualties that beg to be scrutinized and revivified.  


The unprecedented purchase of air time particularly on Ohioan, Virginian and Floridian ears most certainly had somewhat of a numbing effect. Our bodies showed they are self-healing. To some extent our senses know when to shut down. Paradoxically Rove and his purveyors of disinformation got caught in their own echo chamber of deceit. They only persuaded themselves through repetitive smears and many are still trapped in a carpal tunnel of the brain.       


  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Poetry, Change and the Whole Damn Thing


Having gained an hour’s sleep last night I didn’t quite know what to do with it.  I knew I’d have to give it back one night next April.

So here I am awake in bed. The clock says 6:30 but I know this as a 7:30 sun. I want to get in another hour of quality sleep. But the dawn’s early light got me thinking about our national anthem and how much better Woody Guthrie’s hymn to us all would be rather than this bombastic-drinking song of Francis Scott Key.


I tried reciting those lines to myself and couldn't get past the twilight's last gleaming without bursting into silent song. It all comes down to this: Did you see our flag this morning that was there last evening? Wow! Can you believe it... you know, the one that was lit during the night by rockets and bombs, Is this a great country or what?

It’s all about our flag, that great signifier, which wouldn’t hold still for a minute given our expansionist impulse, adding new stars with rapacity for the next 100 years. After all, it stands for the home of the free and brave….except for those enslaved, indentured servants, Native Americans, and un-enfranchised women.

I have a likeness for signifiers; they are first cousins to metaphors. The anthem is actually about transformation. From, Oh say can you see to Oh say does that… banner still wave.

I’m still in bed semi-sleeping. From there my thoughts go to poetry. How poetry changes nothing, according to W.H. Auden. He was wrong, so say I, to the pillow. What does produce change then: bumper stickers? Uncle Irving? A lightning strike causing a forty-watt bulb to bubble up overhead?

Not in a star-spangled way, poets say what they see. Many of us are poets by just living that sensibility in our dailiness.  It requires us to think symbolically and consciously, I'm thinking, as I slip into unconsciousness. For some folks, flag equals land of the free, home of the brave even when it isn’t true. It’s a worthy aspiration (though not for me) and summons feelings of pride and willingness to lay down their life.


Shakespeare put words on Henry’s tongue sufficient enough to send a boatload of Nigels and Clives over to Agincourt to fertilize their soil and centuries later to plant a generation of them in Flanders field. Maybe it is war that changes nothing, at least nothing much, for the good….except for those good wars which, with a modicum of awareness, may have been prevented before it was too late. By then I was off to sleep having saved mankind from future follies.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Weights and Measures


There you are caught in a web of algorithmic numerations falling off the fiscal cliff having swallowed indigestiible zeroes at 30,000 feet with time hanging heavy as Tarzan said to Jane it's an analog jungle out there and fast going digital glancing at your $400 watch to see that you’ll be 10 minutes late for the connecting flight but you win some and lose some it’s all a calculated risk since time is money and money is about the bottom line where top executives like you live more or less given a decent bonus if the Dow behaves without even hedging your bet but who’s counting and all vital signs are holding steady at 98.6 providing the 40mg tablet can be taken twice a day raising the HDL and lowering the LDL without a rise in blood sugar above the point of no return so you can rent a 350 XKE and if you make this light you’ll have the next five and arrive on time to beat the spread and out-flank your brother who was a premature long-shot but got all the breaks since 5th grade while you got the short end of the stick but you did the math and are now light years ahead so when our number's up  and we're light as a pin number we all die broke you always say.

More and more there is less and less night sky visible once full of blinks in orbit whose obit hasn’t reached us yet even in the space station where everyone is weightless looking down on us fellow mortals living our days in measureless ways love is uncounted in pluses and minuses and random kindness can go off the charts and be passed along without subtraction even as the nose of liars like you-know-who may grow an enormous inch or two visible to only half of us while the rest are half-blind with no IQ to speak of and now there will be no more polls (amen to that) just poles apart with infinite hope for us yet as the white majority in aggregate becomes the minority aligned with the human family then all of us will rise in the soufflé in the yellow submarine sandwich in the salad bar mitzvah in a group communion body and blood initiated mingling friending in a new numberless macro metric so long division so long columns A and B and so long to us and them. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ohio, USA

Ohio, Ohio, that’s all the chattering class is talking about. The fate of our nation rests with Ohioans. We’re told that the election all comes down to these 18 electoral votes. Gazillions of dollars are being poured in for radio and TV ads; 188 million at last count. I would think a saturation point would have been reached by now where the message falls on deaf ears, irritates the listener and might work in reverse. I’m almost ready to drive there and establish residence in time to vote.


There is much to admire about Ohio, topographically, geologically and historically. The geography dictates the climate which in turn plays a part in its political leanings. The southern border is the Ohio River, with Kentucky and West Virginia on opposite shores. This is part of coal mining Appalachia and Cincinnati (a blue inner-city dot in a sea of red) Sections to the north are Blue (Akron, Cleveland, Toledo), now wooded, were covered with glaciers at one time and are termed a glaciated plateau. The central area (Columbus) has a different soil and population, roughly divided as the nation is.

According to some Ohioans there are 4 seasons: Winter, Still Winter, Almost Winter, and Construction.


Between 1877 and 1923 Ohio gave birth to seven presidents, more than any state before or since. If the country ended at the Mississippi River it would be just about in the middle but it is still regarded at the beginning of middle America. What could be more American than its claim to be the home of hamburgers, Life Savers and baseball?


When I think of Ohio several great cities come to mind, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, Dayton and Akron. Yet the capital and largest is Columbus. Amazingly, 50% of the United States population lives within a 500 mile radius of Columbus and half of all North America is within a one day drive. Is that possible?


There is a piece of history between Connecticut and Ohio, little known except, I suspect, by Ohioans. After the Revolutionary War Connecticut claimed a strip of land extending into Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and eight other states, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They called it their Western Reserve. To pay off war debts they relinquished the land however a chunk in northeast Ohio, once called New Connecticut, still retains institutions with that name. One such is Case Western Reserve University. Moses Cleaveland headed the team of surveyors in 1785. The “a’ was dropped from his name when they named the city of Cleveland on Lake Erie, after him.


The major cities vote Democrat and have mayors and Congressmen of that party yet the state legislature is weighted with Repubs. Senators are often split. At one time Ohio had 26 electoral votes but has been in decline since 1968. They don’t call it a Rust Belt state for nothing. It has voted for the winning candidate all but twice in the past 100 years. Winning Ohio is regarded as essential for Romney. No Republican has ever been elected without it but Obama has other paths to reach 271 electoral votes.  It is, in a way, a microcosm of our whole country, sharply divided on urban / suburban / rural lines. With the Republicans in charge of polling places, early voting and their playbook of dirty tricks this election could well hinge on provisional ballots which are counted on the 17th. We may not know for a while whether to whoop it up or go into mourning.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Scale

In those days there was always a scale. A mortar & pestle, ointment slab and a torsion balance scale. A drugstore was unimaginable without it, like a barber without scissors or a shoemaker without nails in his mouth smelling of glue.

I watched my father place weighing papers on each side, adjust the bar until the sides balanced, then tap powder from an apothecary jar; sometimes it was crystalline granules, sometimes more powdery or it could have been black and gooey like ichthammol. I saw him finesse the spatula, remove a smidge, add back a half-smidge.

On the other side he placed weights, grains  and scruples. The apothecary system, before metric, was still in use.  It was a vestige from ancient times when pharmacists were sorcerers, bark and berry-pickers, shamans and alchemists, when potions brewed in smoky cauldrons, eye of newt, feather of finch.

When he opened any jar a breath of the old world escaped.  Flowers of sulfur bloomed.  Ammonia mingled with camphor, aloe with fennel. There were leaves macerating, volatile oils in the air. They would cling to his smock and his pores. I inhaled a lungful. It has lodged in my memory vault safe from this deodorized world.

My father weighed and measured everything and not only when he presided between globes of colored water. He calculated benefits of doing against risk of refusing, as if the scale was in front of him. I don’t know if that deliberation was an extension of his pharmacy, or if he brought it in with him. 

In his quiet passion he ground Nazis into dust with his pestle. He carried immiscible voices inside himself, vehemence and containment, unsayable curses and hummed songs. With an enormous silence he balanced the scale.

There was an incoherent complaint addressed to the world bellowing from my mother which he swallowed. He converted it to a hidden fist against racism and the ruling class. Yet he could neither overthrow the government or my mother. The effort to keep the scale at equipoise was his special grace.

The air he gave off was equal parts resignation and the assertion of a low decibel rage with competing vapors from elixirs and fluidextracts. It was as if fetid rhizomes and pungent roots were vying against odiferous buds and intoxicating herbs, having reached some conciliation.      

That indefinable drugstore smell may be the exhalation of natural forces. Dank, serpentine shoots that live unseen in deep soil, cut, dried and triturated with sun-soaked tendrils ever-climbing and their stored breath released.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Night In Court With The Supremes

Wasn’t that Franz Kafka being dragged out as I was coming in?

I rise to plead my case facing the robed justices behind polished wood. I cite Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v Wade and Bush v Gore but I still haven’t any idea what I am arguing.  My words are garbled. It doesn’t seem to matter because the justices aren’t listening, having already made up their minds. There is no courtly love in this court, not since Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s husband, Marty, died two years ago. He was the gourmet cook who probably turned Antonin Scalia from a medium to an extra large. He hasn’t exploded yet except with his acerbic tongue.

No longer are nine justices visible. Clarence Thomas has leaned his chair so far back, to catch up on his sleep, that he is parallel to the ceiling and out of view. Justice Ginsberg, at 4 ft. 11 inches, is slouching a bit and has disappeared below the bench. The remaining seven have forgotten I am here, all except for Nino Scalia. He wears a bumper sticker on his forehead and a Tea Party T-shirt under his robe. I can hear him think how my short-sleeve shirt is further proof that the second amendment grants everyone the right to bare arms.

Anthony Kennedy is seething because John Roberts has usurped his former role as the celebrity swing vote. Kennedy is now under Samuel Alito’s spell which has him programmed to shout out some epithet about broccoli during Obama’s next State of the Union address.

Is that Elena Kagen, a Manhattanite, and Sonia Sotomayor, from the Bronx, planning their dissent? Along with Ginsberg, from Brooklyn, they will meet on the subway, take in an opera, play a little softball and get to work. If I'm sliding into second base I want these three women as my umps.

I overhear justices Breyer and Ginsberg comparing their resignation letters. Both are fed up with the Court's drift to the right. They have their letters waiting in draft trusting Obama will be the one to make the call replacing them.

Scalia calls himself an Originalist. He regards the Constitution, like the Bible, as etched in stone, dead as the moose head on his wall. He devoutly believes our Founders’ words fell from the firmament, divinely inspired, including the way they abdicated suffrage rights to the states which limited the vote to propertied white men. I point out that in our first election the turn-out was 1.3% of the population. Our Founders elected our Founders. Irrelevant, he says. Ask any fertilized egg-person at conception. Ask any multi-national corporation-person. Ask me, Nino.
    

Friday, October 12, 2012

Consumer Politics

Americans are nothing if not consumers. Not only do we love to buy gadgetry, cars, and houses but we have come to think like consumers. Choices are weighed as if everything is a commodity. We buy into an image, a project, an idea and we cultivate a persona to sell ourselves.

There must be more to life than having everything. (M. Sendak)


We even approach elections, the market-place of ideas, with a similar mind-set. The candidates become salespersons offering themselves for consumption. We, in turn, gobble up the messenger as much as the message. We sniff out their sales pitch for deceit or empty rhetoric. I think we over-estimate our sniffer and get  less than we bargained for.


Three characteristics come to mind which seem to me more pronounced now than ever before, passivity, instant gratification and external thinking. If only I had this then I could do that. It has been suggested that it robs us of our creativity which comes from within. A consumer-based society is self-serving and insatiable.


We have become spectators to these debates the same way we watch a football game from the couch. Points are scored, gaffes noted, aggression is admired just short of hostility. Sportsmanship marked by civility and grace wins points as long as it isn’t perceived as weakness. We demand satisfaction. In short, it is theater. Performance trumps programs.


In last night’s vice-presidential encounter both candidates articulated their party’s position. They clashed as their principles clash. The faithful walked away satisfied that no ground was ceded. Who knows what the fickle few were shopping for? Were they looking for an imagined drinking buddy? Would they buy a car from this guy or that one? 


Does a debate offer us a glimpse of how decisions are made? I don’t buy it. Today’s version of the Repugnant party is characterized by fear and loathing. George W Bush got reelected by creating a climate of an imminent terrorist threat. His muscular foreign policy sent troops abroad with losses exceeding 9/11. Yet he presented himself as a benign fool. If the Bush years were a used car lot we bought a lemon.


Ultimately democracy relies on informed participation. To the extent that these debates promote a consumerist passivity they do a disservice. Perhaps they arouse the respective bases but how are the numbers moved in polling? I fear low-info voters, if they watch at all, are swayed by superficial images of frowns and smiles, posture and delivery rather than substance and veracity. Under the chrome and polish there’s an engine. One party is inclusive and will deliver us broad-based security, healthcare and common sense; the other will move us counter-clockwise and drive off-shore to the Cayman Islands.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Duplicity

Are we over the first debate yet? Not quite. The benefit of time and subsequent shocks and awes will bury the memory, Republican euphoria and Democratic dejection. However what lingers for me aside from the feeble presence of Obama is the emergence of the new Mitt. Obama was not prepared for this sudden transmogrification. It isn’t only that the president played softball fouling off pitches right down the middle while Romney played hardball. What happened was that Obama didn’t recognize Mitt’s newly reconstituted lying and denying persona.

Up until now Romney has campaigned against a fabricated Obama of his own making, a convenient straw-man who is lazy, not one-of-us, a Socialist–Muslim, who has expanded government and done away with the work requirement for welfare recipients. They blamed him for every ill in our times except, perhaps, the BP oil spill.

Now the race has come down to the old Mitt versus the new version. The previous guy had to feed the beast that is the Republican base, the party of unreason, of 19th century racism and Nativism who scream of sacred life at conception but only until birth, the proto-fascists who seek to suppress the vote. These are the American Taliban whose fundamentalism is no less male chauvinist.  You want assault weapons? Mitt’s for that. No regulations? Why not? No taxes? Where do I sign the pledge?  47% of us are grubbers. He spoke the speak and danced their dance.

And now, forget all that. He didn’t really say it….or mean it or he mis-spoke or was quoted out of context. He now most certainly believes in government regulations, in healthcare reform with a mandate. He now supports the Dream Act. He may even favor a jobs bill which his party has blocked repeatedly in Congress. How will this play in Dallas and Baton-Rouge? Wait till the Koch brothers hear about this.     

I don’t want to overstate the case. Basic differences remain even if the rhetorical tone has been softened. He is still the man of many hyphens… out-source, off-shore, flip-flop and out-of-touch. All his fancy dancing didn’t change the stripes. He objects to supporting NPR by allegedly having China write the check (0.01% of the budget) but has no qualms maintaining a bloated Pentagon of 2 trillion Chinese dollars. Does China know they are also paying for our weaponry?

Humans are complex. We have some of Hamlet in us. Indecision, ambiguity, equivocation are all part of our complex nature. We evolve and we devolve. Justice Black renounced the KKK becoming a New Dealer while Justice White dissented on Roe v Wade and drifted to the Right. But Mitt rewrites the soliloquy; he will both Be AND Not Be, depending upon the audience. He might as well debate himself. As Groucho quipped, These are my principles; if you don’t like them I have others.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Spinning A Bad Night

To paraphrase Gore Vidal, 50% of the American people don't vote and 50% are ill-informed. One hopes it’s the same 50%.        


Now we know it is not altogether the same fifty percent. Many avid voters are among the most misinformed. If they kept up with the two campaigns they would have known Romney disowned himself in the first presidential debate of the season. What we witnessed was a quick-change artist who morphed from that guy positioning himself to the right of Bachman, Perry, Cain and Gingrich to the new version of moderate centrist. The robot delivered his lines like the seasoned actor he is.


My sense of the first presidential debate was that both candidates ignored their base and addressed this nebulous body of fickle fence-sitters. Mitt fared better not from anything he said but from what Obama didn’t say.


So much of these events is political theater. If the sound were muted the president was a clear loser. He appeared alternately bored, tired and testy. Maybe it was the altitude, more likely, his strategy gone amok. His body language appeared to be of a man bamboozled and ill-prepared. If he was deliberately trying to be the conciliator, above the fray, avoiding a combative mode, the tactic failed. He looked scolded and demeaned.


Then there is the bubble effect. The president needs to get out more, watch cable news, have a pint at the pub, get into conversation in crowded elevators. If he wants to play basketball go to the public park. Dump Axelrod unless he can disagree with you twice a day, mandate it. Watch Fox News the same way a football coach views film of next week’s opponent. Learn when to expect a blitz, when to call audibles. The best offense is not a defense. It’s an offense.


We saw Obama reprise his role with Boehner and McConnell, ever the conciliator, withholding use of his arsenal. The chattering class on the left was left smoldering. Maybe the Tea Partiers felt the same as Mitt took on his new guise. I don’t know and I don’t know anybody to ask. It could be that the trouncing was only in the eyes of the decideds; maybe Obama won over a few who admired his constraint. The price was too high. We know you're a nice guy; we need more.


Memo to the Prez: Consider your left flank. We can win without compromising core values. We need you to articulate your accomplishments and call out Republican sedition with their congressional obstruction and allegiance to Grover Norquist. We need you to find new language to expose the virulent misogyny of the Republican Party and their attempts at voter suppression. We are waiting for you to assert the Democratic platform in terms of sensible gun laws, gay and lesbian rights, advocacy of the Dream Act and environmental protection.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Norman Conquest

In the year 2066, a mere 54 years from now, while most of us are enjoying our next incarnation as butterfly, butter lettuce or third-base coach, it will be the 1000th anniversary of the Norman invasion. I intend to celebrate the occasion regardless of what shape I’m in. As invasions go, this one was momentous and not altogether destructive. I’m particularly pleased about that since they did it in my name.

150 years before that, the French were ruled by Charles the Simple, who may or may not have been a drop-out. He accepted a horde of Vikings to occupy and protect a section of northern France which came to be known as Normandy (Norse Men). Thus was Norman born.

It was on an October Thursday. William, not yet, the-Conqueror set sail from northern France with a gaggle of wine-soaked men to defeat the more pixilated forces of Harold at the battle of Hastings. This is where Michael Kitchen now presides as Inspector Foyle. He might have sniffed out the plot and defended the sacred shores but, as most European wars, this was simply a family squabble, not to be denied.

Normandy Bill, with some familial ties, was promised the throne by Ed the Confessor of England, who inconveniently died and Harold, his brother-in-law would have nothing of it. His throne was also being challenged from the north by the ruler of Norway. These were the days when Europe’s monarchs were at each other’s throats, unlike today when everyone loves everyone else, except for those Greeks.    

It might also have been a food-fight in which French toast got the better of English muffins and the result was eggs Benedict. The Normans had made better dishes to set before the king and so they did. Thousands came over to occupy British soil. They not only brought their latest technology in the form of weaponry; they also brought new notions of society, government and their mellifluous tongues. Mingling took place with the Romance language of the Normans marrying the more guttural Anglo-Saxon speech of the Brits. The result was a most profound effect in the evolution of language, with the eventual meshing of Latinate and Germanic we now call English and speak, for better or worse.

At first only the court, administration and elite spoke French while peasants stayed with their old Saxon words. Over time the one trickled down and the other met it and merged. The word, government, itself, traveled the channel in the period known as Middle English.

It took a few centuries for the new vocabulary to become the common tongue. The old Brit words tend to be truncated and hard-edged while the French were often polysyllabic and lyrical. Those four-legged creatures in the pasture, sheep and cow, became French on the plate, mouton and chateaubriand or filet mignon. It is estimated that 10,000 French words have been folded into the English language. In that sense we Anglo-Americans are multi-lingual and all because of some Normans who came and never left.