Friday, March 30, 2012

Story-Telling


Everyone has a tale to tell and once told is fair game for an artist to sculpt, choreograph or fold into a wider narrative….or is it? Suppose you had a moment in your life when you took a brave and principled stand in the face of career-threatening risk and proudly related that episode to a friend.

It was in the early fifties when Cold War hysteria caused churches and state universities to require loyalty oaths be signed. He was a professor at UCLA and he refused, citing academic freedom even though his subject had no political association. He not only declined to sign the statement but rallied others to follow his lead. He retained his position and his efforts eventually won the day.

A colleague and aspiring writer-friend appropriated his travail but turned it around so that the professor not only signed the loyalty statement but also named others as suspected subversives. My friend, the professor, related this to me many years later, still feeling betrayed by the writer. Was this a violation of trust or a rather the product of an impoverished imagination?

Can real-life people become characters in a book with a simple name change and have their lives distorted and defamed? Apparently it is all grist for an author’s mill. Maybe every figure in a novel is a composite even if the writer thinks he or she sprung fully-fleshed from the imagination.

Truman Capote insinuated himself as a celebrity-clown in New York’s dinner party scene. Was Holly Golightly based on Carol Grace, Walter Matthau’s wife, as speculated? He gathered notes from around the table and fabricated the rest. Shocking, Claude Rains (Captain Renault) may be heard saying.

In a recently-read novel about a violinist in London, a minor character named Nicholas Spare is introduced. He is a music critic, described in faintly negative terms. The real-life person, Nicolas Spice, stepped out of his several pages, took umbrage and wrote a rather savage review of the book for the London Times Literary Supplement.

The line between the real and fabricated is ever blurry. Poetic license seems to have been conferred on anyone with a pencil, tape recorder or I-Pad, as if published writers are those who listen harder in crowded elevators or overhear more from the next booth
at the deli. It is better to pick up the gist of a story with antennae in a crowd than subverting a friend’s brave act.

Even Proust’s masterpiece was a novel nearly indistinguishable from memoir. I’m sure those depicted knew who they were or a least the names generated lively speculation. Shakespeare, no doubt, also had to disguise his subjects and dodge the authorities. Time renders the allusions to character less relevant. What makes the work endure, as with the Bard, is the unsurpassed language, profound insight into the human psyche and astonishing reach of his imagination.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Now Hear This


He has taken his seat in the auditorium along with his wife of 25 years. The concert will begin in a few minutes. He comments on the full house or the weather or the evening’s program, when an older woman in front of him turns around. She says, Would you be Harry Isaacs? He nods, Yes, with no recognition. She tells him she was his teacher in 1st grade and never forgot his voice.

I have vivid memories of my years in elementary school. The names of 35 classmates at one time or another and all my teachers from Kindergarten through eighth grade, are stored in my head. I offer this less as a positive feat of recall than a case of arrested development. Unlike me, they undoubtedly grew up and if any one of them sat behind me in a theater and spoke, I wouldn’t know that voice from the mumble of a crowd scene.

I do not have much of an ear, sad to say. When I had the pharmacy it was hard enough to remember customer’s names when they walked in. Occasionally someone would call on the phone without identifying who he/she was. I was expected to know and if I did I might be asked, How did you know it was me, to which I would reply, I only have two customers and the other one just hung up.

Certain voices in the public realm are unmistakable. Vin Scully has been at the mike reporting Dodger games for 62 years. I’d know it anywhere. Sinatra, Crosby, Nat Cole and Louis Armstrong are embedded in my brain matter along with Billie, Sarah and Ella. Then there’s Bogey, Cary, Groucho and I’m sure others if I put my mind to it. I think I’d know our presidents from FDR on, try as I like to forget some.

Impersonators depend on our collective memories for voice and gestures. They always get a rise from me. How one person can get into the skin of another is magical.

Those of us suckled on radio got an earful, attuned to the tones and cadence of voices. With T.V. images this faculty was somewhat compromised. The ratio of our five senses makes adjustments to input, in the same way that print displaced our heightened auditory sense.

The acuity of the aural in pre-literate cultures is remarkable. Their survival depended on sounds of approaching animals and communal calls. One of the astonishing features of our times is the leap they have made into a technology-based world of cell phones. Pre-literate people adapt more easily to post-literate than those of us who grew up in the visual universe of literacy.

We still retain a sensitivity to voice inflection in ways we may not be altogether aware of. An authoritarian tone might stir obedience or defiance in us. If a waitress repeats our order using the same words in the same register he/she will end up with a higher tip.

The anecdote above was told to me by my late friend, Harry, over a dozen years ago. His teacher's discerning ear is all the more notable since his voice changed along the way. How she stored and retrieved his voice is miraculous. I hope she donated her ears to medical science for further study. As for my ears they can be filed on the other end of the spectrum, approaching vestigial. Even if I manage to memorize a lyric or poem it probably happens through my visual sense. My ears don’t take in information well and hardly store it at all. I’ve been known to fall asleep at poetry readings; even my own.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Taxi To Everywhere


Michael had searched weeks for a seldom-performed recording of Beethoven’s string quintet, opus,104. He was elated when he tracked it down in a dusty London record shop. He took a seat on a bus headed home, filled with anticipation. When traffic stopped on Oxford St. he glanced over at a bus going in the opposite direction and spotted a woman he’d been in love with ten years before.

At this point I put the book down and found myself with Peggy on Oxford St. hesitant to disembark from the back of a bus as it came to a stop. We jumped out as it started to move and fell on top of each other, two bodies splattered on the busiest street in London. Maybe, in a parallel universe, we were run over and killed that day. If so the past twenty five years have been our after-life. I’d settle for that.

Michael, our protagonist dashed off the bus and started running after the other. He finally hailed a cab. Traffic was thick. He didn’t say, follow that bus and step on it. When he thought he’d do better on foot he bolted from the taxi, chased the bus and boarded it to no avail. Julia was gone and to his dismay so was the Beethoven.

And so was my cashmere sweater left in the back seat of a taxi in Vienna. We had just come from the only two blocks in that moribund city we found to be vibrant. It was the neighborhood of buildings designed by Hundertwasser. The architecture looks something like Gaudi after a three-martini lunch. The floors are wavy, the colors playful and some tops have minarets. He must have been inspired to do the opposite of the ponderous oversized grey structures of Vienna built as the capital of the Austro-Hungary Empire. My sweater was an homage to Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Julia would be lost by page 70 but she is to be found twenty-five pages later in Vikram Seth’s novel, An Equal Music. In real life my sweater stayed in Vienna just as my camera left in a taxi in New Orleans would be my gift to that great city. Maybe I was a bit tipsy from a spiked Slurpy or just intoxicated by the parties, parades and Dixieland sounds coming out of Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz nightspot.

Michael is elated, a few days and a dozen pages later, when the taxi driver returns the recording. How he found our protagonist is yet to be revealed. At this point all we know is that Michael is a serious musician who plays the violin in a string quartet. His instrument is older than Beethoven and the plot is older than that but I’m caught in the whole affair of chamber music and lost love.

Today is my 79th birthday. Hummingbirds are humming. Our kitchen clock is tweeting. The garbage truck is beeping. Meryl is streeping. Car alarms are singing with the only voice they’ve been given. I’m hearing music from imagined larks. My love has been found. The coral tree outside our patio is ignited with its red lanterns. I can hear swollen bulbs bursting. Today I’m allowed to be a little delusional.

Every story is still in progress. My life feels like fiction. I think I’ll linger a while on this page.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Trajectory of a Fiery Liberal


He was a pharmacist who completed the two year course in six months. Like many druggists of his day he wanted more. I know the feeling. Our sameness ends there.

He was unknown nationally when he addressed the 1948 Democratic convention and stirred the conscience of the delegates plus 60 million radio listeners. His words caused Mississippi and Alabama to storm out of the hall…


To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!

The pro-civil-rights plank was narrowly adopted and as a result the South splintered off from the party and formed the Dixiecrats which projected Truman’s defeat except that good sense and an aroused Black vote prevailed, returning him to office.

This champion for civil rights also spoke out for disarmament and was the first to propose Medicare in 1949 and the Peace Corps. He was elected senator three times before and twice after his term as vice-president.

As a liberal Senator he was largely responsible for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is useful to read the words of the Southern opposition because today’s right wing rhetoric relies on the same recycled phrases. …invasion of our liberties, federal government overreach, these people (Blacks) never had it so good.

He persuaded and cajoled the moderate Republicans, under Everett Dirksen, to gain their vote. In those days the Democrats needed 67 votes, not 60, to break a filibuster and they got it. To demonstrate how far we have devolved, the final passage received more Republican votes than Democratic.

Hubert Humphrey was the man. As Lyndon Johnson’s vice president in 1964 he spoke out at a cabinet meeting against the Vietnam War. His opposition to the bombing put him in LBJ’s doghouse for the next four years. Humphrey was never asked to Camp David and never flew in Air Force One… until invited, years later, by Jimmy Carter. Every public statement had to be cleared by Johnson.

By 1968 he became closely (and wrongly) identified with the president’s war policy which led to the protests in Chicago. The anti-war movement disowned him and the election went to Nixon by less than half a percent in popular vote. It was said that Johnson actually wanted Humphrey defeated.

After a year in academia he was returned to the Senate by a twenty point margin. However he is largely remembered as a muffled (perhaps muzzled) voice of Liberalism; a fiery Liberal who flamed out, another tragic political figure of the 20th century whose principles got crushed in the machinery of the system.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The South


In Pharmacy College we learned about certain botanical substances classified as excrescences. Ergot is one. It is a fungus growing on certain grains. An excrescence could be a wart or tumor, an abnormal proliferation of tissue. John Dean famously said to Richard Nixon that the Watergate skullduggery was a cancer on his presidency. This is the way I feel about the South; an excrescence, a barnacle on the body politic.

Why don’t they just secede, and declare themselves another Third World country, another planet, another species? With their guns and gospel they speak the language of unreason, blame and punishment. These are the haters of government, of intellect and science. Their head is filled with Rush and his feral Foxes. Why are they still fighting the Civil War which they call, Mr. Lincoln’s War? Honestly Abe, you should have freed those in bondage and let the states go their way.

Without the South as our underbelly this country would continue the Enlightenment, elect Deists, champion reproductive rights, properly fund stem cell research, teach real as opposed to fake Science, encourage full participation in elections.

I know they gave us novelists like Faulkner, Wolfe, Reynolds Price and Carson McCullers, and playwrights, Horton Foote and Tennessee Williams. They had stories to tell of race, repression, aberrant behavior and deranged bible-thumpers. Why, then, are Southerners so malevolent and gullible? Why do they murder abortion doctors, fire-bomb Black churches and care more about the un-born than the born?

They are still the old Confederacy. Solid as they were when FDR made a Faustian pact to let them lynch, burn crosses and maintain Apartheid in return for their vote. They are a region descended from pathological racists, still infected and taking aim at our president.

They stained our nation with the abomination of slavery and now shame us in this new century dragging us back to an imagined time when everybody knew their place. As a voting block they oppose unions, environmental standards, gender equality, full enfranchisement and fair taxes.

When Rush Limbaugh spews his bigotry and misogynist rants no one denounces him. Advertisers flee this virulent buffoon yet the Red State Republicans give their tacit approval because he apparently speaks for good ole Dixie. If Afghanistan has stood still for 1500 years, the American South seems also to be stuck in a time warp of its own, since our inception. Fundamentalists shake hands with Fundamentalists.

Y’all go, ya here! You brought us Bush and Rove, Perry and Huckabee and Sarah Palin. Don’t you know when you are being pandered and lied to? Iraq was not responsible for 9-11. Obama is not a Muslim born in Kenya. He did not raise gasoline prices or taxes. He is not taking away your Medicare or Social Security. He did not bail out the banks. He is drilling now more than ever before. He is one of us; one of our best and brightest.

If, in November, the South prevails with its malignant, antebellum agenda we shall become a nation, never more divided. One founded on rational, democratic principles, the other an excrescence.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring Training


Late February, early March; it may be winter to most people but to baseball fans it is spring. Daffodils and tulips are inching up through their frozen fuse. Even with global warming, airports will be locked down from a blast of arctic air. Ski masks can be seen on faces which are not holding up a bank. But in the citrus and cactus leagues, where the living is easy, a crack of the bat and old bones can be heard.

Veterans swear they’re good for another season in spite of reporting to camp forty pounds overweight. Hungry rookies with fresh legs vie for the one or two open spots on the roster. This morning’s cantaloupe had ripe written all over it but clearly wasn’t ready for prime time. The mystery of melon is the same with ballplayers. Some peak early and never develop beyond that. Young prospects will feel the scrutiny of many eyes; whether they get a jump on a fly ball, whether they have baseball-smarts, if their faults are correctible, if they will ripen.

Reporters look for an angle and a back story. Statisticians sharpen their pencils. Announcers practice their clich├ęs. Umps prepare to get the lip. Ground-keepers go over their wet-down and smoothing of infield dirt. Is their anything more virgin, more Spring than an untrammeled infield?

Fans open the sport’s section and skip to page 6 or 7 for notes about their team. Any tidbit will do. A new clubhouse leader emerges. Another one, in three paragraphs, says he’s not talking to the press anymore.

There will be a month of freakish injuries which only happen to baseball players. A pitcher will cut his throwing hand on a can opener, so he says. Actually he was in a bar when he crushed his third martini glass. The promising young shortstop will slip a disc lifting up his 2-year old. Though unnamed sources say he was seen after curfew exiting a motel room.

You have to love the game for its non-athletic-looking athletes, alone. Some uber-arms often attached themselves to under-nourished bodies. Unlike most contact sports with jocks who look like they were genetically engineered, baseball has found room for nerds and wonks that would fit in at H & R Block.

Spring training is followed avidly by incorrigible fans still grumbling over winter trades that happened or didn’t. What do we care what the owner spends? The more he lavishes we take it as a form of love. He owes it to us after all we’ve done for him.

The players come with baggage, dragging columns of numbers. How does he hit against southpaws, at night versus daytime, with runners on base? With all this analysis the game remains a mystery. The outcome may hinge on a missed sign, a bad call, even the infield dirt, over-watered which slows a runner or the ball. As a fan I will feel a tad better or worse about life for a few minutes even as I know the outcome has no consequences.

I need this alternative universe. It is in my body rhythm. Nothing signifies renewal so much as the clean slate of opening day. Every player is batting zero. To start the season in 1940, Bob Feller pitched a no-hitter for Cleveland. By the end of the day everyone on the White Sox was still hitting zero. But the season was underway.

Hope springs eternal until mid-July when most of us accept our team’s fate, with resignation. Yet we continue to root for an individual, his streak, his stats, his record-breaking something. Every game is a new drama, unrehearsed, where a never-to-be-forgotten moment might occur. Sort of reminds me of life.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Have Mantra, Will Travel

What happens in Azerbaijan stays in Azerbaijan. It’s my mantra and I depend on it every night to mumble me to dreamland.

Peggy started all this as a way of falling asleep. With Honduras as her mantra I chose Patagonia where I might be close by yet real gone. When she learned of the prison conditions in Honduras and all the violence, the associations sent her packing.

Her next stop was Morocco. There is something about three-syllable words with the emphasis on the middle one that she claims is essential. I yield the floor to my Mantra-In-Chief who knows far more about such things. Following her tri-syllable rule, I choose Kyoto which has vivid images for me even though I’ve never been there. As I drifted off I pictured myself in some sort of kimono nodding off beside a footbridge over a pond under a blizzard
of petals from a cherry tree.

I could use that scene for my next MRI but I must confess it never got me to sleep. Maybe my waking brain refused to cede it to my snoozing one. I had to relocate again and that’s how I landed in Azerbaijan. Before leaving, I offered Kyoto to Peggy who jumped at the chance to get out of Morocco. I traded my kimono for a fez she picked up in a Casablanca Kasbah.

And now I shall tell you my hard-earned secret. It’s not the images of place, however soothing they may be. It’s the sound of the word. Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan. Already my lids are getting heavy. I particularly love the zh, as in Azerbaijan. Unlike Kyoto, I have zero associations with the place and that is good. It is a blank mind I’m after.

A blank mind is actually my default position; but only in the living room in late afternoon with a book in my lap. Kyoto works, even Patagonia would do. Some day a PhD thesis will be written about the transformation which happens between rooms; how tiredness does not translate into sleepiness. It must be the glut of factoids chatting away inside my head. When I read in bed I can feel my brain getting recharged. My only passport to zzzzzzzzzzz is A Z E R B A I J A N.

And what happens on that blasted plain. It rains, it rains

Not exactly. The sky is azure as in Azerbaijan. I can report that my recurrent dream of missing the bus or plane has not been dreamt since muttering Azerbaijan to myself. I decided one night that it’s OK to miss the damn thing. No problem! I’ll stay wherever it is I’ve been deposited and call it home. Amazing what a night in Azerbaijan can do for a person.

Anyone wishing to use Azerbaijan is welcome to it. Just write me check for forty cents on any Azerbaijani bank. Maybe I’ll see you in my dreams.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Marty Powers, In Memoriam


I first met my friend sixty years ago. He must have had the same expression on his face as I, which said, What the hell am I doing here?

We were in our second year at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy. I suppose we read each other’s lost look. It was enough to forge a friendship which has survived the calendar, the miles and most of all, the lack of shared interests.

A majority of the 150 in our class splintered off into frat groups which supplied old tests and lecture notes along with the usual social scene. Marty and I were our own fraternity, along with Herb C. and Jack F. both of whom went on to the top of their profession as president of a major drug company and chain store executive, respectively.

The four of us met in the basement of Marty’s duplex. We pounded information into our vacant heads until the wee hours of the morning. To stay awake Marty played Gilbert & Sullivan music. Whenever I hear, Trial By Jury or The Gondoliers I see us in that room Marty had carpentered. On a few occasions we rode the subway all night to stay up, visualizing structural formulas or memorizing botanical origins of crude drugs which would be obsolete by the time we graduated.

Beyond our penal servitude in pharmacy school there was very little we shared in terms of political passion, literature or sports. I was steeped in left-wing values. His father worked on Wall St. I was (even then) rather contemptuous of religion and middle-class conventions. He was an apolitical person who embraced the givens of the day. He loved Broadway musicals and could recite Kipling’s, Gunga Din . I was going to hootenannies and reading the Beat Poets. If he was pop-culture, I was counter-culture or, at least, I talked the talk.

He is now critically ill and very much on my mind.

Though neither of us has changed significantly, neither did our affection for each other. Marty was an early model for me of how one might be in this world. He helped me enter into a version of adulthood. I recognized in him a way of being, direct, present and with a generosity of spirit. He was a man without guile, emotionally honest, neither modest nor self-aggrandizing. He accepted society as it is and preserved his integrity within its agreed-upon margins.

As an iconoclast I stood outside the circle. Marty gave me a portal in. I haven’t any idea what I supplied to him. I doubt if he thought in these terms. Maybe he saw qualities in me which I had disowned. Ours was a bond which set aside external issues for a more human interchange, a quality for which I barely have a vocabulary.

Since those early days he prospered as a businessman peripheral to pharmacy. Upon graduation in 1954 I married and moved to Los Angeles. He remained in New York City. With a continent separating us our relationship continued by correspondence between Marty’s wife, Rene, and me. There were decades between visits but we kept it alive. When Peggy came into my life Rene and Marty were most gracious. Peggy immediately felt as I did toward Marty. In recent years we got together when they flew out here to see their daughter Amy and family.

The old divisions remained but we managed to find resonance in a common chord, beyond the usual notes in the choir; a dance devised between old friends who heard the same music but different words.
In the end it is less important what we think than how we think. Marty
cared too much about people to offend anyone. He thought as one who ministers to the people he loved.

The look on his face I first encountered, of, What am I doing here, was not one I ever saw again. The Marty I came to know was a man comfortable in his own skin. He was aligned with life and enhanced it. Peggy and I felt the gift of his affection and fully returned it. You’re a better man than I am, Marty Powers, Gunga Din.

It is now Thursday and I have just received word that my dear friend, Marty, has died. We are all poorer for it.



Thursday, March 1, 2012

Political Theater


How to bear witness to a play when you are in it? What we are witnessing this election year is theater of the absurd and we are all in the cast of millions. The Republican actors are crazed jesters beating each other up like the Three Stooges plus one, while they contort themselves, denouncing a president who bears no resemblance to the straw man of their fevered minds.

Some have time-traveled back centuries where they rightfully belong, conjuring a world of sweat shops, debtor’s prisons and grand inquisitors, those good old days when everyone knew his (and mostly her) place. These are the Fundamentalist fools, home-grown Taliban whose orthodoxy locates them in some Christian version of Waziristan.

Another, to the manor born, is unable to fake authenticity. He is a wind-up toy, a puppet with a Pinocchio nose which elongates with every flip of the flop. When he is not in the counting house counting his off-shore money he is backstage trying to memorize his script.

The fourth is the nihilist who would overthrow the government altogether so we might have food-fights at every corner to determine who has the right-of-way. Bodies may pile up on the street from foul air and poisoned food but who cares? We are tough hombres and the weak don’t deserve to survive anyway.

Let the curtain go down on the clowns. They have polluted the air with their noxious lies, played to the one gallery while the rest of us choke. As the cowboy, the manikin and two would-be Popes make their noise is anyone listening? Could it be that, with every repetition, their lunacy gains a bit of legitimacy in public discourse and moves the spectrum further yet to the right? However outrageous their prattling, it seeps into consciousness.

There is an element in our midst so poisoned with hatred toward Obama they have been deafened to reason. Let them go. Must we all endure this tragicomic drama much longer? One can only hope the so-called debates have revealed the vacancy of their agenda and the irrelevance of the issues raised.

Fortunately there will be another act where the Republican candidate will be forced to address the real matters of urgency. He will have to disown much of what he said to get the nod. Maybe then there will a real debate to determine if we want to live in the 21st century or the 15th, if we want a democracy or theocracy, if we want to lift the millions out of poverty, revitalize the middle class, return our manufacturing base, restore collective bargaining, and check the greed of the privileged few.

Democracy does not make an exciting movie or theater piece. The narrative is an open text, never entirely resolved and the curtain doesn’t go down. However if these months of circus are Act One, I expect the August Convention to be Act Two. My hunch is that the moneyed interests will declare all four clowns as unelectable and multiple ballots will ensue. This will, at least, break the tedium. Out will emerge another Bush or shrub like Daniels or even Christie. By that time he will have shed 100 pounds using the Huckabee diet in which all he eats is the communion wafer.

The Third Act will be the period after that, when Obama debates the real candidate. On Election night we shall either storm the Canadian border for asylum or rejoice that rationality and compassion have triumphed over imbecility and deceit.