Thursday, May 31, 2012

Noir


You strike a match against a jagged wall, bent to the night air for music. A bluesy sax sucks you down. The voice says drop it and don’t turn around. You are Orpheus, Marlowe or Spade. It’s a trap, like life, and you know it but that’s your middle name. There’s no return now. You’ve come this far. Is that a zither or the chambers of your heart skipping a strum? The plot is a knot, maybe a noose you’ve got a nose for. Follow the Spanish guitar, these stains, those steps, that sedan and step on it. Even without a history you know too much. You can’t be bought and love’s not the answer. You don’t trust soft with life so hard boiled. What was that? Sarah scatting Duke or midnight chimes? The heat’s on. This time it’s for keeps. Even at noon it’s shadows and alleys, today’s paper below the crease. Slow pan to open window with curtains, ashtray, a speckled banana and a ticket to a locker. You’re a loser in an uneven world, like the goon behind the racing final, behind the shades, behind the wheel dumping you off in the middle of nowhere, an inner map of hilly dunes. You claw your way to a phone booth, call Charlie who’s got nothing to his name but moxie and owes you one. Or Trixie, that waitress in your all-night haunt who never asks questions. She patches your wounds and gets you back up….on your feet too. Charlie says to lay low but there’s still the keyless locker, the neon sign with every letter out but one, the envelop you mailed to yourself and that tenor sax wailing from the lighthouse at the end of the pier. What’s unasked will stay unanswered. Hoagy is playing Honky-Tonk, cigarette smoke swirls into a trench coat embracing a blonde in stilettos, sizzling, forbidden. Dissolve.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Doubt


Was it hubris back then
or fear disguised
when I knew everything?
But that’s all I knew.

I woke in an orchard,
that marketplace of ideas,
and thought I had to choose
between apple and orange.

Too scared to juggle, too un-
prepared for hybrid thoughts,
I didn’t see the sun-shower,
insisting it was either raining or not.
I was hungry for opposites
but had no taste for bruised fruit,
only for the unspeckled in its rarefied air.

This was no Eden of good or…
It was the garden of good and…
It took years to row from Or to And,
to shake Hegel from my hair,
the habit of my vows,
to un-furrow my binary brow.

Now I’m filled and empty
with Wiki-smarts.
Wisdom’s in the unknowing,
in bewilderment, wonderment
and doubt.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Populism


Frank Capra would have had a birthday last week if he hadn’t died in 1991 at age 94. Some saw his feel-good movies as Capra-corn. His first big hit was the 1934 film, It Happened One Night, which walked away with five Oscars. He is probably best-known today for his box office failure in 1947, It’s A Wonderful Life. I was a mere slip of a tot when his most telling movies came out from 1936-1941. The films are, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. All deal with a nobody becoming a somebody, however briefly. They are stories of honest Everyman confronting the corrupt and devious engines of Power, particularly banks, media and political office.

In each of these films the people, the collective, are a central character. They vacillate from hard-working, honest and ultimately wise to a mindless mob. Capra was something of a closet preacher with his populist exhortations, delivered perfectly by a gulping, stumbling, bumbling Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. At issue was democracy, itself.

Director/actor John Cassavetes (of all people) praised him with these words, Maybe there really wasn’t an America, it was only Frank Capra. He created an idealized myth of small town America, so persuasive that even city dwellers adapted that vision as their own. Tragedy would be no more than a temporary state in this fabulist narrative.

Puncturing the Capra model is too easy but looking back at these movie themes I’m struck by how they speak of those times when we as a nation confronted the near-wreckage of Capitalism and the threat of Fascism. Capra took on these forces, albeit simplistically and sentimentally, but he caught the Zeitgeist.

The pulse of the people has always been the great enigma of our political system. Political party operatives have tried to manipulate it, pander to it, capture people's fears and tap into their aspirations. What were the masses in Capra’s day (132 million) are now the uber-masses (311 million), a polyglot of races with gaps in generations and religions, not to mention class divisions and technological wizardry offering challenges never before encountered.

The greater the connectivity the more pronounced are the centrifugal forces pulling us apart. It would be hard to imagine a John Doe today speaking for everybody but I miss Capra with his vision of our better selves. He thought in terms of a national character that we may have thrown out with the bathwater.

The latest creation of Karl Rove is a Romney commercial that lies in every syllable of every sentence. It is a masterpiece of mendacity which might have found a place in a Capra film with Edward Arnold playing Rove. Through words and images it suggests that Obama is responsible for outrageous spending, foreclosures, high taxes, unprecedented student loans and appeasement abroad. The opposite is true. He might just as well have thrown in undercooked spaghetti and overdue library books.

The Populist movement in our history has ranged from a farmer-labor coalition to antiwar students to state-rights bigots to the current tea-partiers whose distrust of government has been tapped and incited even when that is the very institution whose benefits are the one thing they can depend upon; a classic example of the demotic underside where anger has been subverted through repetitive deceit. If this were a Capra movie they’d wake up in the last reel. Where is Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck to rouse them and Cooper or Stewart to stop them from shooting themselves in the foot til they haven't a leg to stand on?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Naming the Baby


As if I needed another reminder how life is passing me by, I’m looking at the list of most popular names for newborns. Liam leads followed by Noah for boys and Charlotte and Sophia run one, two for girls. Who are these people? I never met a Liam or a Sophia.

In my day, Robert and William prevailed with John and James short-listed as well. We also had an assortment of Stanleys, Stevens and Sheldons. Irving and Harry belonged to the generation before as were Hilda, Selma, Thelma and Gussie before that.

I thought I was keeping up with the times when I recognized Debbie and Wendy but those have been passé for decades. Names come in on cat’s feet and leave in a fog.

Everyone named Sylvia and Shirley along with Betty and Barbara is likely to be on Medicare. That old standard, Mary, which tops the composite list for the past hundred years with 3,670,000 namings, is now in 63rd place and fading while Brooklyn is 27th. Brooklyn is actually a lovely bucolic name; at least it’s better than Bronx.

We have five Judys and four Ruths in our circle of friends which relegates them to bright ideas in pre World War II years.

I note three trends in the naming universe. The first is the urge to break from the flock. All babies are unique but some are more unique than others and deserve a special distinction from the get-go. This tendency however needs to be reconciled with the tradition of honoring an ancestor, if only with the first letter.

The second inclination among Americans seems to favor the Anglo-Irish which has bequeathed us not only Liam but landed Aiden, Oliver and Ethan in the top ten. Jewish kids end up with Ryan and Sean, a lifelong incongruity to go along with Lipshitz and Goldfarb. My mother and father seemed, even then, to be gripped by this deracination, pulling us away from Eastern Europe roots. My brother was given Arthur Mitchell and I was crowned Norman Phillip.

The other thrust I have noted is the turn toward the Old Testament. Noah ranks high and Isaac, Joshua and Jacob are in ascendance along with Gabriel and Benjamin. I wonder if Nebuchadnezzar is waiting in the wings? It is also true among girls with Rachel, Rebecca and Sarah on the rise. On the other hand, Naomi and Esther seem to have had their fifteen minutes.

I suddenly realize that the 2012 list is now available. Mason has climbed into first place and shoved Liam down to third position. Among new girls in our midst Emma and Olivia are one and two with Sophia, Ava and Isabella rounding out the first five. Ava Gardner, wherefore art thou?

I see that James and Robert are so dated they have made a comeback which proves that fashion is not linear but cyclical. If I live long enough my classmates from P.S. 99 may all return including Ursula and Constance and maybe even Myron and Harvey.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Old Men

There’s no accounting for what images adhere and which get transferred in our brain to spam & trash. We’ve been twice to Venice, Italy and many pictures remain crowding my diminishing brain-space. One of them is of four or five elderly men in suits without ties standing around a piazza smoking or playing checkers or just staring into eternity together, as if a daily ritual. Being silent among old friends can only be earned after years of close friendship.

I expect old men do this everywhere. In much of the world old men become so designated at age 55 or 60. Now in my 80th year I almost see myself as one of them, reluctantly. When I was young I regarded 40-year old men as old but now that I’m twice that age I still have trouble seeing myself in those terms. I fully understand people in their 90s refusing to move to facilities because there are too many old folks there.

In 1935 Pres. Roosevelt called the Supreme Court justices, nine old men. It turns out their average age was barely 70 and only one, Louis Brandeis, was older than I am today, young by my standards.

About half my friends are older than I, which is one way to stay young. When we get together for lunch it is often at restaurants with octogenarians at other tables. Their conversation is not unlike ours; universal complaints not only of our withering bodies but the state of things. How to explain this unrecognizable, new-fangled world of astonishing gadgetry, yet devolving, dumbed down, coarse, with government and transit in gridlock? Has it always been thus, with grumpy old men idealizing a time seen through innocent eyes?

What ever happened to…? What are we doing in….? Remember when….? It used to be that… Did I ever tell you about the time when…? Back then we…

One table at the coffee shop might be re-enacting Jackie Robinson’s steal of home with a knife and fork while another is moving the salt and pepper shakers around with napkins to illustrate, to the tedium of others, how his infantry division fought their way onto and out of Normandy Beach.

If we old men take refuge inside our memories we can be excused because there is such a vast landscape in that rear-view mirror. Of course the stories get embellished with each telling. We are all leading men in our movie. Maybe it’s just a way of staving off mortality or going out with the belief that we left our fingerprints at the crime scene and our footprints heading to the getaway car.

Yesterday, in our three-some, one shared his worry over a life-threatening disease. Another asked if his wife had our email address in case he died. I told him I needed him for my eulogy. This sort of black humor can only happen with old men. Old women would never risk that depth of crude candor and intimacy which bonds old men.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Fat Lady Sang


Psst, don’t let it get around but we went to the opera on Sunday for the first time and I still don’t like it. Granted it was a performance by a community college with several rather weak voices and Cosi Fan Tutte may not be one of Mozart’s finest. If he had set music to any unlikely story-writ large, the experience would have been no different for me. Perhaps the small absurdities of plot must be subordinated to the larger truths of the music. Yet silly, melodramatic and un-nuanced are adjectives that come to mind. Having said this I should add that my learned friend, Earl, tells me Mozart gave no stage directions for the ending which has subsequently been performed with three different resolutions.

It may be said that I haven’t earned the right to make a judgment. Three hours is like reading three pages of a novel and denouncing not only the book but the entire art form. Yet I fear I’m beyond redemption. As a cultivated taste, my ear, in its foliage, may be beyond cultivation. You can’t take the rabble out of the boy.

I realize I’m treading on highly sacred ground. Opera holds an elevated place in haute culture. Some of my dearest friends are drawn to opera and I risk everything by my admission. Maybe after continuing exposure I may come around. I reserve that right. In general my sensibility runs toward the small epiphanies on the page or close-ups on the screen and away from the extravagant and grandiloquent.

However I was glad to find a fellow un-appreciator in Mark Twain when he wrote, I attend operas whenever I can not help it. I am sure I know of no agony comparable to the listening of an unfamiliar opera…that sort of intense but incoherent noise which always reminds me of the time the orphanage burned down.
I enjoy listening to Mozart’s orchestral music, his string quartets and sonatas but I was too distracted by the antics on stage to fully hear the arias, in tranquility. Next time I won’t divide my attention with sub-titles or even the over-sized gestures. Someone said it doesn’t mater what language an opera is sung in as long as it is one he doesn’t understand. Wagner, himself, said, The aim of Opera has ever been, and still is today, confined to Music merely so as to afford Music with a colorful pretext for her own excursions.

Again, Mark Twain…There isn't often anything in an unfamiliar opera that one would call by such a name as acting; as a rule all you would see would be a couple of people, one of them standing, the other catching flies. Of course I do not really mean that he would be catching flies; I only mean that the usual operatic gestures which consist in reaching first one hand out into the air then the other might suggest the sport I speak of.

That word, unfamiliar, may be key. The pleasure in most music is the anticipation by the ear, heart and mind waiting for what is to come and riding with it when it arrives.
Some might say that the reverence, with which opera is regarded, is a badge of distinction attainable only by the sophisticated few and is accompanied by a smidge of condescension. Of course I would never say such a thing. Sir Kenneth Clark wrote that, Opera, next to Gothic architecture, is one of the strangest inventions of Western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process. If the art form belongs more to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, leave it to opera to claim one of the longest deathbed scenes in history. This bespeaks of elements more enduring and universal, which I must have missed in my first experience. Its strangeness may be one of them.

The elite status dates back to its early patronage by the monarchs of Europe and continues to this day with prices ranging from a week’s to a month’s groceries. Recently it has been made available to a wide audience in movie theaters with tickets gobbled up faster than Figaro here, Figaro there… and I expect to give it another go…..if they’ll let me in.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Argument As Intimacy


At breakfast she places the pitcher of milk
on top of my tiny, helpless baby aspirin.
I can’t decide if this is from calloused indifference,
calculated aggression or careless abandon.

Do I retaliate by pushing her aspirin aside? No,
I do not because I am not a vengeful sort
but pouring from the kettle I might allow
her pouch of Earl Gray to jump overboard

into the saucer, whereupon she may inquire,
owing to her thirst for scientific knowledge,
if the inordinate number of blueberries
in my bowl of cereal is really necessary

for its anti-oxidant property or if my hoarding of them
was done with heedless disregard thus depriving her
of a fair portion to do battle with her free radicals
in their appointed mission to oxidize her.

Actually none of this happened except

for the inadvertent lifting of my aspirin, soon forgotten
since I am distracted by something in the newspaper
and she is staring through the window at a hummingbird
working hard just to stay in place as our tea bags mingle.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reading Proust

Our teacher, Frank Dwyer, who is also a poet-actor-director-raconteur, is reading aloud to the class, in his mellifluous tones, Remembrance of Things Past, starting with Swann’s Way, in between his own digressions which only peripherally connect to the text just as Proust himself seems to have had total recall for events and observations in their minutia which probably never happened though it reads like a memoir and he writes in enormous sentences like this one with the subject and predicate separated by a dozen subordinate clauses so that without Frank’s anecdotes, such as the one in which he had recently finished his role in a high school production where he sat in a large cushioned chair and portrayed a king or some such potentate and later was walking in New Orleans with a girlfriend when he spotted a similar looking chair in a shop whereupon he entered, sat down and his friend grew angry and started crying and when asked why, she first said nothing at all but then admitted that she no longer recognized him when he sat in that cursed throne and so this somehow illustrated a point made by Proust but no one could remember just what that was; nevertheless we were all thankful for his interruption of himself so we wouldn’t, ourselves, slip into some reverie because our collective lids were getting heavy, not from boredom but due to the transport of his delivery of Proust's language as if forgotten ports were calling and we could not resist the flotilla down small tributaries, nor could we suspend the effort of holding the heft of the narrator’s brilliant illumination of bourgeois conventions many of which still pertain; namely how we do not quite say what we mean for fear of revealing aspects of ourselves we do not wish to disclose to those persons, though they may already be well-known to them or possibly how we withhold our true sentiments in polite conversation by habit and perhaps, on the way home, rehearse retroactively what we had wanted to say, all these revelations of the psyche worthy of pause commensurate with their value to us as truth-seekers, as I lapsed in and out of consciousness I was rewarded by the way meticulous details conveyed by the author brought to mind my own madeleine which was cooked bell peppers served at a neighbor’s table when I was about six years old and stored in my olfactory warehouse since then, along with my association of a brief inability to pronounce words beginning with the letter “L” causing much embarrassment since a girl across from me was named Lillian; all this comes back to me as Proust slowed time so that we, too, might regard the objects of our lives, largely unseen by familiarity, to be apprehended in their fullness, not only visually and by touch but metaphorically for what cargo is carried in each for us, as symbols; how a rubberband might regress me to age nine when I carried baseball trading cards in my pocket under crossed rubberbands or a sheet of onionskin paper reminds me of letters sent during World War II by an uncle in his graceful hand and the flood of memories released in that image in addition to which Proust’s rendering of a church steeple or a visit by a priest to his great aunt is described with manifold allusions which align him with the impressionists who painted seasons of haystacks as well as the cubists in their prismatic depiction of the human face as seen from various angles, all anticipates the demise of the European colonial system, thereby replacing the single perspective of a dominant culture with the post-modern view that we contain a multitude of versions.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What's In A Name?

Many years ago a story went around about one of my all-time favorite rado comedians. His name was Henry Morgan. His humor was droll and he got himself in trouble with his sponser, Murine eye drops.He said on the air that if you take away the first letter it spelled the contents of the product, Urine.

Much as I love words, their elasticity, itinerary and longevity, I’ve never had a fondness for anagrams. However with MITT ROMNEY and BARACK OBAMA, I make an exception.

Consider Romney’s letters as if you were stuck with them in a game of Scrabble. Right away MONEY jumps out and MORE and ME…….and TRIM, as in services and TINY as in taxes. Then there is ENMITY, REMIT and ROTTEN. Let’s not forget those two Is which might also signify the 1%. All very telling, I submit. I’m sure there are many others which I bequeath to the puzzlers.

Our POTUS, on the other hand, has embedded within, MBA (higher education), and ROCK ((as in He Rocks), If you throw in his middle name, Hussein, I see that BOHEMIAN lies within. If we add the word President, an anagram is COME PLAN BETTER IDEAS or BEST MAN POETIC LEADER. The last two come from a website submitted by folks who must labor over these things while waiting for the bus or hanging on trying to reach customer service as the company is experiencing heavy call volume…which is always.

Maybe he should have changed his name to ROCKY ALABAMA long ago to pick up a few votes from behind the enemy lines.

There is no need to rearrange the letters in anagrams, only to listen to their programs. If the ex-Governor who enjoys firing people (in order to create jobs) and hides his money abroad (It's the American way?) and whose answer to college loan debt is to borrow the money from your family… is elected it will be because the cynics stayed home and students didn’t show up; a victory for the disgraced Supreme Court having released gazillons of dollars in ads and a doleful note that the apparatus of our government is in grave disrepair. It will also be an indicator that people pay no attention to anagrams.

Why scramble the letters when they spell what is obvious? This is a contest between fairness and opportunity versus the aspiration to privilege. If Romney wins it will be from the vote of millions of mini-Mitts who think they, too, will someday own seven houses.

If he loses it will not be from the letters of his name but the hyphen between the letters of what he represents: flip-flop, off-shore and out-source.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mussel Shoals

I’d passed it dozens of times, this getaway ten miles north of Ventura and five miles south of Carpentaria off the 101. You know it is special when the exit is on the left. In fact for this small stretch it ceases being a freeway. The village of a few homes and hotel / restaurant is called Mussel Shoals as opposed to Muscle Beach. I much prefer the edibles to the bulging pecs and abs.

Presumably there are mussels in these shoals, these shallow waters. I’ll take their word for it though mussels were not on the menu at the Cliff House.

Since it was Peggy’s 91st birthday I pre-arranged for dolphins and seals to pass our reviewing stand. The view of the Pacific is wide and far. Another couple claimed they saw a baby whale but I suspect that was either a smooth black rock or some imposter.

As bodies of water go, I prefer lakes to oceans and rivers to lakes. I like the way the water meets and greets the land. The big attraction here is the nothingness, the mesmerizing waves breaking on the boulders and the enormity of the sea with unseen life teeming below the surface. To say, nothing is here is to say, everything: solitude, quiet, sky and shore birds. If you gaze out long enough you can hear that inner voice that sings beyond the genius of the sea.

The next time you might be checking out a spot for witness protection program this may be it. Remember Mussel Shoals when you are trying to write the great American novel.It is perfect place for ruminating, contemplating or meditating on the meaning of life…which is something I do every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday I just live it and on weekends I wonder what I did all week.

It is also romantic if you add the near-full moon, a bottle of wine and two poems I wrote for Peggy. No violins but if the moon is normally a sixty watt bulb it is now in its apogee and shines at 75 watts. We may or may have seen cows in mid-leap jumping over.

Native Americans knew good real estate when they saw it. The Chumash lived here for many moons until Pio Pico fought Alvarado in 1838. The Spanish land-grabbers offered the tribe plenty of Jesus and virtually wiped them out building missions. As for Pico and Alvarado they became boulevards.

Mussel Shoals wouldn’t be complete without mention of Rincon Island which is a man-made hunk of land about 1000 ft. off-shore connected by causeway. It is an oil and gas pumping station notable for its leaks and bankruptcies. Palm trees dot the land to hide the blight. Presumably the whales swim between the stilts and remember not to inhale the icky spillage.

Not to end on a blackish note, one can avoid any oily thoughts by a mere turn of the head to the left and admire the grace of the cove, the well-fed gulls and even the gopher in the grass who gave me the eye and then retreated to his subterranean condominium.