Monday, December 30, 2013

Five Years A President

In 1930 shortly after the stock market crash Babe Ruth was asked how he justified his $80,000/year salary which was greater than President Hoover’s $75,000. The Babe replied that he had a better year. Ruth was the highest paid player in the game.

The MINIMUM paycheck for a major league baseball player is now $500,000. This exceeds Obama’s by $100,000. He’s also had a pretty bad year. Yet even with his low approval rating of 28% he is still the most admired man in the world according to a recent Gallup poll.

A ballplayer’s career, on average, is around six years. After that he has to find a way to live on his accumulated millions and stay out of trouble even if it is his middle name. It’s too easy to begrudge athletes their outrageous salaries. The money is there for the grabbing and we put it there by consuming what advertisers tell us to buy.

What to make of Obama’s numbers?  We must think well of the man but regard him ineffectual as chief executive. My sense is that our president will receive higher marks by historians than from our disgruntled left or maniacal right. An objective assessment requires an amplitude of vision and historical sweep.

All our presidents claim credit or bear the brunt of the times they preside over. Hoover didn’t cause the Wall St. crash though his policies after it may have exacerbated the plight of millions. Clinton accomplished very little but emerged in a positive light owing to the end of the Cold War, tech boom, sub-prime housing loans, the illusion of non-existent terrorist threats and a budget surplus. Forgotten are his de-regulation of banks, free trade agreements which contributed to the Rust Belt, tightening of welfare benefits and failure to pass healthcare reform.

Obama Inherited bank failures, oil spills, housing busts, Congressional lynch mobs, auto companies on the brink, two insupportable wars and virulent racism.

His presidency demonstrates the limits of the office.  Our overseas misadventures continue even as he pursues a policy of disengagement. The Pentagon and vast universe it contracts with seems impervious to the direction of its Commander-in-Chief. There is an untold story here.  His over-reach on security measures can be seen, in part, as a function of those forces.

The Affordable Care Act is flawed but perhaps not as much as the Social Security Act of 1935. It was defunded by filibuster (Huey Long) before it got started. There were no employment histories available at first. The Social Security Administration was housed in an old un-heated Coca Cola factory with rats running around. Woman and Blacks were virtually excluded due to state’s rights provisions in the South. And all this with a heavily Democratic Congress.

Presidential rhetoric rarely matches one’s deeds. In Obama’s case he’d have been better advised not to open his mouth at all when pitching his healthcare act or setting red lines regarding Syria. He is clearly not at ease on the Bully Pulpit. He operates without the leverage of LBJ, the charm and duplicity of FDR or the fire-in-the-belly of Theodore Roosevelt. He is, by nature, a conciliator at a time when differences are irreconcilable. My wish is that one day Obama be named to the High Court. If Hillary is elected may it be so. 

The fact that a certain athlete is currently rewarded eighty times the remuneration as the person in the Oval Office speaks volumes about our values as a nation. Even if he had a better year….. and he didn’t.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's Christmas Eve, By God

Everyone loves a good story and the Jesus myth is one of the best. It deserves all those great hymns, choirs and carols. The sense of awe it creates has me thinking of my own tumultuous birth and the eleven days that shook the world. This is how the second greatest story ever told came to pass.

In the near spring of 1933 Peggy found herself in Los Angeles living with her uncle. She had been driven out here from Manhattan where she lived with another aunt. But why, I ask you, did destiny locate her in so propitious a place so far from home?  Early on a March morning she felt the earth move.  

As far as I know it never moved for Mary and Joseph. However buildings rumbled from Long Beach to Beverly Hills. It was the heralding of a momentous event. It was a 6.4. It was portentous. It was me……or rather I, being born. And grammatically correct as well.

Peggy was not yet twelve at the time; far too young to interpret the colossal significance of these Ides of March. Of course I have no pretense, no unearthly claims. I’m but an ordinary man with the milk of humble reduced fat 2% running, by the pint, in every vein. No haloes. No three wise men, except perhaps the Ink Spots singing a cappella with a messianic harmony.

Peggy returned to New York for the fall term. It would be years before the extraordinary conflation of events would become clear. Could it have been anything less than providential intervention which brought her to witness the quake that was my boisterous journey down the birth canal? Never mind that I was born in a manger-turned hospital in Queens, NYC.

Twenty-four years later we were brought together no less than six times under Peggy’s roof for a poetry group. I must have been a ghostly figure as yet not altogether materialized since she has no memory of my corporeal being. This only further demonstrates the mysterious ways of the Almighty.

Another twenty-three years would have to pass before we were brought together and in a church no less, albeit a godless Unitarian one. Shortly after, we were biblically joined. Need I say that windows broke in Pasadena and the Richter scale has never fully recovered?

Our union is no less holy than that other one of great repute, as are all such communions of love sanctified by devotion and daily renewal. We are all the stuff of legends and hallelujahs!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Goodbye. Hello.

No rage against the dying of the light. Bring it on. Let the solstice have its day. Our occasion to shed and recede inward, to find our deep pools toward renewal. Out of the mud, a lotus.

If you don’t like it take the A train down to Santiago or Sydney where that other solstice reigns. After today in this hemisphere days elongate, bulbs underground push up a fraction and the calendar flips to another imagined number.

Goodbye 2013. We’re done with your dose of discontent, year of infamy, of fractures and dysfunction, micro, macro. Up from the nadir in their sleep skeletal trees dream of green pastures. The body’s architecture is reminded how to knit its wounds. Maybe polar parties will budge and budget their way to sense.

This is my year-end letter to myself. The children are well into their respective journeys. We have no dog that didn’t die but we did throw out a few stuffed animals, lightened our shelves of some books and assorted objet d’art. We traveled the way the bird of paradise travels with its orange beak pointing to some imagined place.

Instead we rearranged the furniture of our lives confronting the accumulated years and its demands of walker, cane, transfer chair and handicap bars to steady us in the shower.  It’s fun getting old…sort of. Our love found a new intimacy and expression in caregiving.  In the offering there is a creative burst, a new door to walk through as others close. Being there for each other and extending our reach is a gift both given and received.

So I greet 2014. Hello out there. What have you got for us? Happy New Year. Together we’ll redefine Happy and discover resources lying dormant ready to spring and flower. What more can be asked of life other than a fullness of discovery in that continent within?



   

Monday, December 16, 2013

Jesus, Is That You, Jesus?

First I caught a glimpse in the cottage cheese ceiling now you are here in my oatmeal. I must say you are looking better than your depictions, particularly on the cross in churches. Aren’t you a little tied up this time of the year with birthday plans, hymns, and nativity scenes? Such a fuss over a simple man!

Then there’s the Super Bowl coming up soon where both teams will be on their knees saying prayers to you before they kick the kishkes out of each other.

Jesus, how have you managed to put up with the subversion of your early words? The pope is doing all he can to restore your good message. I’ll bet you never thought you’d see a pinko pontiff what with all the opulence, suppression, embezzlement and molestation the church has been obsessed with over two millennium.

You must have done a lot of cheek-turning down through the years. And now it’s all about buying stuff. How will we ever pass through a needle’s eye with all this horsepower and apps, libations and comestibles, in the midst of famine and drought, ignorance, disease and holy wars in your name?

Then again there is all the good cheer, generosity and lights on cut trees and halls decked with strung bulbs. It’s as if our eyes were gift-wrapped and carols broke the silent night.  I can tell you, Jesus, that Santa Claus nosed you out in a recent poll. But you‘d know I just made that up.

Do you ever wish you had a brother or sister? I don’t imagine you’d have any sibling rivalry and think of the help you would have answering mail, wishes and prayers. But now I’m confusing you with Santa.

Tell me, my man, this manger myth isn’t what it’s all about, is it? Do you mind if I call it the birth, or rebirth of our lost child?  The Eden we imagined? The first wonder before the clamor and clutter? The amazement of Dick and Jane lifted off the page?

Maybe you are there just to serve as a stand-in for the unattainable; something for us to reach for but not quite grasp very long. Peace on earth. Good will and all that. Can we get past the agreed-upon lies and declare compassion, trust and forgiveness in your name? Give us a break, Jesus. Dare we declare love? 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Early Career Paths

My ambition for public office had a short run. After an appointment as wardrobe monitor in Kindergarten I thought I was destined to be a leader among men. I had a penchant for ordering galoshes together with Mackinaws.

By first grade I moved to milk monitor, a position just a few steps away from Federal Reserve Chairman or Jamie Dimon’s seat at Morgan-Chase. Two cents got you a container of milk and a graham cracker. Even then the 1% could afford chocolate milk and chocolate grahams. It never occurred to me to abscond with the weekly loot or invest it into sub-prime mortgages. This was a tip-off that I didn’t love money enough to get ahead in this world.

By second grade I was nosed out by one vote for class president when I cast my ballot for my opponent. It seemed the gentlemanly thing to do. Runner-up was awarded vice-president but I hadn’t read Shakespeare yet and hatched no plot to overthrow Dorothy Sherashevsy.

I was glad not to carry the burden of pencil monitor the next term, much as I liked inhaling the wood shavings.  Now Peggy has me sharpen her number one’s in our electric sharpener and I can see the finesse it takes not to under or over-do the fragile point.

Clearly I had peaked early and was already in steep decline. I think there was also an ink-well monitor but that was far above my pay-grade. The thought of spillage would have stained me for life. By this time I was receding into anonymity yet to come, wearing shirts that blended in with the chair, or so I thought.

Eraser monitor was, I recall, another office, less coveted. In fact, wasn’t that the chore for undiagnosed ADD kids, staying after school with dunce caps on their heads while breathing in chalk dust?
By 7th grade they didn’t know what to do with me. I was designated as the one to accept a gift on behalf of the school traditionally left to P.S. 99 by the graduating class. The following year I was on the other side of the podium presenting a lamp or some such token of gratitude. With a little vision I could have pursued a career in the diplomatic corps, ambassador perhaps, in Equatorial Africa wearing a white suit and pith helmet while swatting mosquitoes.     

By my final year I had distinguished myself as outstandingly deficient in Music (branded a Listener), Shop (a Deconstructionist) and Art (difficulty making even stick figures). I showed some aptitude for spelling as one of the last ones standing in spelling bees but visualizing words on paper could only lead to a life of destitution while doing crossword puzzles.

How I eventually found my chosen profession could only be accounted for by failing at penmanship. An inability to make capitol D’s or S’s was a minor disgrace but awakened in me a collateral strength. Terrible hand-writing would have ensured me a place in medical school but my forte was an uncanny knack to decipher other people’s scribbles which led ultimately to my career as a pharmacist.  

         

Monday, December 2, 2013

Foot Notes

My baby’s got big feet / Tall, lanky, got nothing to eat / but she’s my baby / love her just the same / crazy ‘bout that woman / ‘cause Caldonia’s her name.                                            
                                                             Louis Jordan 1945

Peggy’s got big feet, too. But that’s not why I married her. Big feet, big heart, big life. As we get taller as a nation our feet grow to catch up with us. The average woman’s shoe size has doubled in the past century from 4 to 9.

Peggy wears a 10. I come in at 11 extra wide. As for a correlation between big feet and genital size I can put that fable to rest. Now it’s enough to have a large digital footprint.

I love you baby/ but your feet's too big  ...............Fats Waller                                                                                                                                                                   
Mine are nothing compared to Lincoln’s size 14, the largest on record though other web sites claim Warren Harding and still another says it was John Adams. The shortest feet belonged to Rutherford B Hayes and look what happened to him.  All this must mean something but the symbolism eludes me. If we ignore Harding we might  be on to something..

Teddy Roosevelt said to walk softly but carry a big stick. My preference would be to walk big(ly) and carry a soft stick.  George W Bush was famous for putting his foot in his mouth so it must have been no larger than a 9 ½. Obama found out that it is easier to talk the talk than it is to walk the walk.

In China up until recent years bound feet were the fate of girls supposedly to make them more desirable for marrying off. The Chinese phrase for this nonsense was, a tender young willow shoot in a spring breeze. No surer sign of societal retardation than this hideous notion.

If folks bought shoes the way stores sold them our closets would all look like Imelda Marcos's. They have running shoes and hiking shoes, jogging shoes and trotting shoes, shoes for strolling and others for moseying and a different one for loitering, shoes for mailing a letter and others for walking into the bedroom, to say nothing of shoes for every sport at every position. The last ones I bought were three years ago. I know this because the store moved about that time and I couldn't find it. It just got up and walked away presumably in special shoes.                                   

I wore my new shoes the other day. Not one of the eleven people we had over said a word. Maybe they all met afterward and couldn’t stop talking about them but I doubt it. There’s nothing quite like new shoes particularly when they fit like old shoes. When kids of my age got new shoes it was accompanied by a small dose of radiation, unbeknown to our mothers. We used to stick our feet inside a fluoroscope machine where the salesman would point out how perfectly they fit yet with room to grow.

Possibly my only talent as a young father was my super-human toes. I would delight my daughters by holding five cards between my toes. This earned me the title of Chief Big Toe. Now my nails have turned dark and unruly. Jungle rot, I suppose but I can’t recall every trudging through any jungle except at Disneyland. Not that we really need our toes. We can tap something else. In a few hundred thousand years they will probably fall off as vestigial organs. There’s no future in becoming a pedicurist.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Cynicism

As Mark Antony said when told Cleopatra was in bed with laryngitis, Damn those Greeks.

Back in the day, circa 500 B.C. give or take a century, the school of Cynicism in Greece was enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame…which is still happening 2 ½ millennium later though in an altogether different form. The word, cynic, derives from, dog (canine), as in the life of a dog. Diogenes was a well-known Cynic who rejected all the usual conventions of fame and fortune, sex, power etc… in favor of living for virtue which meant being in accord with Nature. He opted for the austere life of dispossession and is said to have lived in a tub on the streets of Athens. Legend has it he spent his life with a lantern in search of an honest man.

Early cynics did not disengage from the world; they would preach cautionary words railing against excess and gluttony; not the sort of guys you would save a seat for at the Thanksgiving table.

As a philosophical school they were doomed. There has always been enough poverty in the world without seeking it as a goal. However certain tenets remained and got incorporated into the Jesus story persisting with St. Francis and even Thoreau at Walden Pond.

Today’s cynics have different stripes. They are generally fed up with politics and how society seems to have devolved. They wish for a pox on both parties. They have turned their attention away from the fray. Cynics are exactly what the Conservatives have devoutly wished for, a disengaged electorate.

Certainly there is much going on in Washington to discourage Progressives. Diogenes would have a difficult time in the shadow of Congress shining his light on an honest man or woman. Our beleaguered president seems to have fallen into what that great baseball sage, Casey Stengel, warned against in his secret of managing.  Keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.

Whether through inattention, incompetence or caving in to the fear-mongers his support on both flanks is waning. As an art of the possible, politics calls for a pragmatic approach but Obama has been compromising with himself.  His opposition is absolute and recalcitrant even if those shrill voices ill-represent the concerns of the American people, 75% of whom now live in cities which comprise 3% of our land mass. The constituency of the Republican Party is largely the empty space between cosmopolitan centers. They have come to Washington not to govern but to dismantle.

To be sure our government, as presently constituted, is in grave disrepair. But the Right-wing broke it and only full participation from the Liberals can hope to restore some legitimacy. I, too, have thrown up my arms in despair from time to time but that's too easy. Now is not the time for cynics to sneer like disappointed romantics. It has always been thus to some extent. One works within the system to elect enlightened minds. It’s time for Diogenes to put his tub aside. Let us start a movement to encourage Democrats to relocate into those contorted districts where pockets of Conservatives felt safe. Gerrymandered salamanders are known to slither about and won't hold still for very long.                                                                                                                                    



Saturday, November 23, 2013

Those Not-So-Simple Times

My guess is that most of us regard the decade we were born into, and possibly the one preceding it, as the most fascinating. How it was and what came just before that becomes our own misremembered fiction/memoir/history book. Inquiry seems to me a form of vitality, even reverence.

When news of Pearl Harbor issued through the radio speaker I was about 100 days shy of my ninth birthday. I had no idea we had gone through a Depression or Dust Bowl, the abominations in Germany and Spain,  Russian purges or the rape of Nanking. I knew nothing of lynchings, sit-down strikes or home-grown fascism.

Franklin Roosevelt’s voice was lodged in my head; it was what I imagined God sounded like and as such I idolized him. I do have a faint memory of wearing FDR buttons on a beanie cap in 1940 and despising Wendell Willkie for no reason other than he was opposing my deity.

For a child the world is necessarily simple. The craziness of our families is our concept of normalcy …until we know otherwise, that nobody and everybody was crazy in their own way.

I lived in the bubble of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, a middle-class section in Queens. I experienced only faint expressions of anti-Semitism but no overt slurs or fist-fights that stick in my mind. Sixty years later I was told that this neighborhood was a destination for Jewish refugees. I had two close friends whose families had recently escaped from Germany but never thought of asking about their ordeals.

It is as if I was barely conscious. Looking back through the fuzzy lens I see a montage of composite moments, juxtaposed, merged, imagined, and misunderstood. One sculpts their scraps into a manageable and simplistic universe. 

By the end of my first decade the real world of war bonds, rationing, air-raid drills and V-mail had to be reconciled with movie images of zany mad-cap romps and girl-next-door romances. I knew nobody who wore a tuxedo or contended with cattle rustlers. We had some sorting out to do.

This has become a life-long process….separating or rather comprehending how competing versions of reality inter-penetrate. Humanity is a messy business. Just when you think you’ve got a handle it slips away. A piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit. Franco helps Jews to escape Nazi Germany. Eisenhower, of all people, once said, Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. Roosevelt vetoes the bonus promised to World War I veterans (but is over-ridden by Congress). The 1939 in-coming Princeton class votes Hitler the greatest person in the world (Einstein comes in second).

By the late forties I thought I knew everything which is akin to knowing close to nothing. For sure my core beliefs were in tact and we had the best songs but there was more to be nuanced. Villains have a claim on redemption, heroes have warts and our future leaders are revealed to be the most misguided among us. The early urge to re-make the world into neatly organized divisions shadows us for a lifetime. Keats, I believe, got it right. The ability to hold in our head life’s ambiguities and live the question is a noble state.

Rereading this page I see how I’ve wandered afield from my starting point. In keeping with where I’ve arrived I’m not going to change a thing.     

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Magnificent Exaggeration

I got a call from a friend I worked with almost 40 years ago. He said he heard that I had died. I assured him if I had died it wouldn’t have slipped my mind and I'd know enough to stop breathing. True, my back went out a few days ago and I’ve been laid low but surely that’s not quite the same.

Come to think of it when I looked in the mirror this morning I didn’t see anyone but this was after a hot shower and the glass was foggy. It got me thinking that if I had died this must be my after-life and it’s not bad at all.

The man he’d heard from about my unfortunate demise was a pharmacist I worked with about the same time. Pharmacists hang around with other pharmacists possibly because they are so boring nobody else would put up with them. I was happy not to keep any as friends. The profession itself was depressing enough.

I recall that there was another pharmacist with my name. I met him once and regarded him as my generic equivalent. One always thinks of oneself as a brand name. Perhaps it was this Norm Levine who checked out. I’m sorry for his family. To lose one of us is a misfortune. To have lost two would have been carelessness. (Thank you, Oscar Wilde)  

I take it back about all pharmacists. I met my match a few years ago in Jack. He not only turned his back on pharmacy but proved it by retiring 15 years before me. I have great respect for his vision and commitment to higher ideals. He is also my doppelgänger. We both graduated from Forest Hills High School, had pharmacies in the San Fernando Valley, had pharmacist-fathers who attended Columbia University and both have daughters named, Lauren.  We and our wives have become close friends and I sometimes call him to find out how I’m feeling.

In any case I’m sure if I had passed away Jack would have felt a twinge and called me at once. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Say It Ain't So, Joe"

These were the legendary and probably apocryphal words spoken by a kid to Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1920 after he and seven other ballplayers stood trial for “throwing” the World Series. It sums up the great divide between jocks and the fans.

Avid as followers of sports may be they have always been shut out of locker rooms and the so-called culture of teams off the field. The boy’s incredulity that his hero, Joe Jackson, would be party to a gambling scheme is testimony to the mythic dimension that baseball held and still holds in the public imagination.  We need our heroes and the big three spectator sports each provide that illusion for its fan base.  

We’ve always known our uber-athletes are really just specially endowed kids some of whom become handicapped having received inordinate adulation and mega bucks. The curtain has now been lifted for a larger peek. We’ve seen the hot dogs, now we get a tour of the sausage factory. Recent revelations have surfaced of hazing, bullying and racial slurs breaking that code of silence. Say it ain’t so, Jose and Joe.

Competitive team sports thrive on controlled violence; football and ice hockey more than any other. One might think that professionals have learned to contain their pugnacity but that may be asking too much. Their small universe promotes this misguided manliness and we, as fans, depend on it as we growl and exalt from the couch.

Why would we expect otherwise? The spigot of ferocity is not so easily turned off. A tiny percentage retire in suits and ties to broadcast or comment on the game at a far remove from the spilled blood, concussed brains and vile language among the gladiators.

Baseball, as a virtually non-contact sport, is a few notches apart from the gridiron or hoop court. Dodger fans have been blessed for sixty-five years by the erudition of Vin Scully who lifts the mundane tedium to near-poetic proportions. He dignifies the game and transcends the combat to both an archetypal and more fully human dimension at once. The effect is to preserve baseball in a pristine state as if the players were re-enacting the pastime in a pastoral tableau.

Yet we now learn that even here in the clubhouse a juvenile brutality still prevails with harassment rituals a regular part of the off-the-field antics. With power as the operative word it should be no surprise to learn that domination of the weak or recent arrivals is routinely practiced from pranks to criminal assaults. Call it a spillage of testosterone. Call it institutionalized bullying. Say it ain’t so……..but it is.

As one who watches these sports on the field it becomes yet another reason along with the hype, greed, arrogance, cheating etc… to close the book on that chapter of my life and I promise to emerge from my spectator bubble during the next twenty years or posthumously.....which ever comes first. The heart and hormones know of no logic.   

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Memos For Yelp

Newspaper Weather Forecast:  You said the high would be 68 and it reached 71. I was stuck with my itchy sweater which caused a rash and a dermatologist visit. You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.

To Eatery #1:  Noisy, small portions and the food was too spicy. That’s the last time I’m dining at the end of the aisle at Costco.

Hotel #1: Why is my room so far from the elevator? The advertisement promised a view however the lake was obscured by swans and some 17th century church steeple. Can’t you do something about that morning fog in front of the mountain?

Hotel #2: The elevator is too far from my room. The bathroom has no heater even if it is July. Why is checkout at noon but check in not until 4 o’clock. Does it really take 4 hours to make my bed?

Eatery #2: You offer all these choices yet you were out of my first three preferences. Can’t you keep this vending machine at the car-wash filled?

Fruit-of-the-Loom:  Why are your V-neck T-shirts cut so that a sliver shows when I wear a sport-shirt? Isn’t the idea to hide it? If I wanted my underwear to show I’d wear the crew-neck type.

Netflix: Why must I endure four previews before every movie? And furthermore why is the name of the film revealed but once….and even then I can’t remember what I want to make sure to avoid ever watching?

Local Library: Why do all the books in my queue for which I’ve been waiting several months, become available on the same day so I have two weeks to read all six, 500 page books? And why can’t authors say what they have to say in no more than 300 pages?

Lascaux, France: Why were your famous caves closed on that Wednesday when I was in the Dordogne? Tourist attractions are never closed on Wednesday here in Peoria.

Eatery #3: Why was there a hair in my Cobb salad….even if it was my own? And why are your portions so large? Must you add to the eighty decibels of noise with additional music?

Post Office: Why have you removed the neighborhood mailbox and have No Parking signs in front of the only one which is three blocks away and is uphill both coming and going?

Verizon: Is there ever a time when you are not experiencing a high- call volume?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Complainers vs Critics

As world-class consumers we have become chronic complainers, spectators demanding our money’s worth. We think as consumers, holiday as consumers, even vote like consumers.

(By, we, I don’t mean you or you or even me………..but all those other people.)

We want what we want and if we don’t get it we become whiners and throw hissy-fits. Interactive technology has created a society of quasi-experts. We all have virtual bullhorns to tell the world what not to eat, where not to eat it and how best not to get there. How am I driving?  the back of the truck asks in our face, call 1-800…..  Teachers’ jobs depend on student evaluations. Stay on the line to answer this short survey. We grumble. We have road-rage.  Corporations look at test-marketing groups to see which direction their thumbs are pointing.   

Yelp elicits our feedback. We’ve been trained to have high expectations and encouraged to tell all. Revenge of the demotic. As befits a nation that consumes 30% of the world’s products, with only 5% of its population, we have grown passive even as we deplete the planet of non-renewable resources and account for 30% of its waste.

Yet we are probably less discerning than we might think. The corporate world saturates our senses in ways beyond our consciousness. They are on to us. They not only know what we buy and what we drive, wear and eat they even know what we think.  

And how we think is not very long, deep or well-considered. As an art form intellectual and literary criticism ain’t what it used to be. Where are the John Leonards, Susan Sontags, and Edmund Wilsons?  Yes, we have Daniel Mendelsohn and  James Wood but their voices reach only an elite few. Siskel and Ebert are history. What would Pauline Kael have to say about the crop of post-millennial block-busters? Even Frank Rich evidently had his fill and moved from Broadway shows to that other theater we call, politics.

Of course writers aren’t very fond of critic’s acerbic tongues. Kurt Vonnegut once quipped, Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lampost what it feels about dogs, so said Christopher Hampton.

I must admit to enjoying an erudite review sometimes more than the work itself. Their use of language and keen analysis is particularly welcome in this age of mediocrity.

Being opinionated doesn’t necessarily develop one’s critical faculty. I believe the difference is worth noting in these times when everyone and no one is an expert.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Getting Words on Paper


Baguettes and bagels ……..Freud knew a phallic symbol when he saw one but what did he think about the twenty cigars/daily he smoked for sixty years? Then there was Mrs. Freud who squeezed toothpaste onto his brush every day. Hmmm? Or didn’t they have tubes in those days? All in the service of finding time to write, she got his plate on the table at 1 o’clock sharp which made him a happy man but reports that he sang, You make me feel so Jung, are a rumor I just made up.

Jung’s preference was a more austere life style. He built a stone cottage retreat by a Swiss lake, without running water or electricity, which turned into Bollingen Tower. Here he thought great thoughts and wrote his body of work by oil lamp. Unlike Freud he did not have a barber call every morning to trim his beard.

Many of the juicy tidbits on this post come from Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals, which offers over 100 short pieces on the working habits of writers and other artists. We learn that Thomas Wolfe told his editor, Maxwell Perkins, he wrote better while fondling his genitals. What would Siggy have said about that? One can imagine the 6 ft. 6 inch Wolfe’s 800 pages of, You Can’t Go Home Again, coming to him as he wrote while standing up using the top of his refrigerator as his desk. His verbosity might be forgiven as ejaculations.

Freud might also have had a field day knowing that Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, would come to parties with an oversized handbag containing a head of lettuce and a hundred snails which she apparently found more convivial than people. Penis envy?

Stravinsky found it necessary, when blocked, to stand on his head to clear his brain. Doesn’t everybody? Idiosyncratic behavior seems to be tied to creativity. Nabokov started writing Lolita in the back seat of his parked car. Glenn Gould was such a hypochondriac he would hang up the phone if the party he was speaking with started to sneeze.

Time management is a priority for most artists and writers. They establish a ritual around smoking, drinking or eating. Eric Satie could manage a thirty-egg omelet while Proust existed on café au lait and a croissant as a daily diet while writing away bedded in his cork-lined room. Surprising how many, in mid 20th century, relied on massive doses of drugs. Was that Sartre talking or his amphetamines?

If I’d known that’s what it takes I’d have cultivated some eccentricities. Not that I include myself in such distinguished company but after writing about 460 short essay-blogs I can say I do know the feeling. Finding a subject can be so daunting it brings me to my knees… except when it comes in torrents. My best time is in the morning soon after waking. If I took naps it would be anytime right after waking. The key is to extend the half-awake state and drag myself to the desk hanging onto the clarity and imaginative material. A kind of focused meandering is my mode.

Professionals assign themselves to a rather rigid daily schedule and adhere to it. There are good days and bad ones with deliberation and doubt never far away. Flaubert once said that he spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.

Philip Roth, in his day, regarded each book as a form of combat which energized him. Though he wrote form mid-morning to late afternoon he said he was on call 24/7 like a doctor in an emergency room and he was the emergency. I resonate with that. The seeds of an idea reveal themselves any hour of the day if the antennae are in a receptive state. One of the wonders is that the antennae turns into fly paper with ideas and images sticking to it that would have otherwise gone unnoted.
     
  




Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Update

It said an update is ready, click here, so I clicked afraid if I didn’t I’d be left behind, out of the loop, which is worse than exile in 300 B.C. Greece, left to wander across barren pages, void of typographical topography until I make my way to an ice flow recycle bin for deletion. Inclined to do as I’m told I then hit download and that brought me to six paragraphs of fine print scrupulously unread by me or anyone including the person who wrote it. Naturally I swore I’d agree to every syllable and then hit the next button and watched a green worm make its way across the page until I was congratulated for successfully following the prompts and as a result …..

I’ve lost all my passwords so my bank doesn’t recognize me and they aren’t sure I am me and I’m also not sure I’m me… but I just checked my driver’s license and sure enough I am me thus avoiding an existential crisis… because I failed to answer my first security question which was, What is your favorite movie? They don’t ask me something like the street I was raised on or my father’s middle name which never changed but my favorite movie changes from film to film so I guessed at a musical and was wrong and then made another stab. (Strange how most films that come to mind were made before 1960….Casablanca, Citizen Kane, His Girl Friday, Inherit the Wind, The Third Man,The Godfather. Lives of Others…some Ingmar Bergman, Krysztof Kieslowski and a few Woody Allen).

Wrong again so I called the 866 number and a robotic man gave me multiple choices to choose one address I had lived at among many; but none were familiar until I vaguely recalled that my ex-wife lived there 27 years ago and that saved me a visit from the Update Police, a branch of the National Security Agency who would have hauled me off for hacking into my own computer and sent me to Greenland to cool off for a while on a calving glacier.

The next time I’m asked to upgrade, update or upload anything I shall respectfully decline even if it goes on my record as, a Decliner, a most dreaded designation. They don’t tell you they are going to reconfigure you. Luckily my face remains symmetrical but I’m not altogether sure my nose landed in the middle. 

It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Decliners are the subject of some diabolical app by which you are dematerialized and wake up in a cave with other troglodytes typing away on their manual Underwoods with sticky keys using ink eradicator and carbon paper where the word, blog, does not exist. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

What Bounces And Rolls

Baseball is down to its last hurrahs with football well under way and the basketball season soon to come. Who cares, is a legitimate question for any mature, rational adult to ask. After all, athletes are arrogant, vainglorious, inarticulate brutes. Right? And owners are unyielding, greedy and obscenely rich. Furthermore collegiate sports programs have caused universities to lose their primary mission as they exploit their student-athletes.

Only an incorrigible fan who never grew up watches the World Series. I know. I’m one of them; unless, of course, you live in Boston or St. Louis and can’t help yourself.  My Dodgers have already gone home waiting till next year. So I must slip into the skin of one team and generate a slight antipathy for their opponent. It’s make-believe, this suspension of objectivity. Fans share the secret allegiance for a few hours. It’s no more indefensible than wearing a Halloween costume. One can be civil and constrained for only so long. Repressed vehemence is uncaged.

Being a sports fan is so demanding, so time-consuming, so distracting and ultimately inconsequential. And that may be why I’ve embraced it for lo these many years. Strategizing offers the illusion of control and coherence. To the disinterested, football is a game of violence. For students of the game it is a human chessboard with a concussion here & there.

Sports, like politics is theater. Instead of mendacious, soporific speeches and pandering we get live human drama. The real debate that never happens in Congress at least takes shape on the playing field with unrehearsed outcomes; a form of meritocracy prevails. It may not be as meaningful as health coverage but I would argue that competition is a pre-existing condition of our species. No harm, no foul. Let fevered opponents, pretending to care, do battle as entertainment and sublimate, for a nation, the urge to enter into real combat spilling real blood.

As William Hazlitt the great English essayist wrote, Nature is made up of antipathies without which we should lose the very spring of thought. Life would turn into a stagnant pool were it not ruffled by …the unruly passions of men. This was written in the early part of the 19th century when all we had were tugs-of-war and pitching horse-shoes; no sports bars, slam-dunks or point spreads.

The operative words, for me, are transit, transformation and transcendence. This has been a difficult year in the real world. I need my alternative universe. When my team loses I grumble for twenty minutes and push it away from my consciousness. But when they win, I win. They have represented me well, my imagined speed, power, agility, and grace; the competitive spirit I have otherwise disowned.


In last week’s playoff series the Dodgers were painted as overpaid Hollywood types, hot dogs, disrespectful to baseball traditions. The Cardinals became the team with proper decorum exhibiting little emotion in the manner of Middle America. Subtext: The Dodgers have a preponderance of Latinos particularly from the Caribbean. They brought a child-like enthusiasm to the game, a dimension apparently offensive to those who still regard baseball as an American pastoral sport. Seen through a political lens this was a contest between changing demographics. Si habla beisbol.   

Monday, October 21, 2013

Square One


We never know when we’re there unless we go back to it, as if life were a board game. And when we say we’re back to square one we really aren’t. You cannot enter the same river twice.  Was it Yogi Berra or Heraclitus who said that? You are not the same person nor is the river with the same waters.

So now Peggy is back at Berkley East Convalescent Hospital where she recently made her summer home. (Seems like just a few years ago we had fantasized summering in the Cotswolds). Same facility, same staff but her hip has healed and we are now dealing with a compression fracture of her T-12 vertebra.

Going back to square one may be some people’s idea of immortality, a wish to keep starting all over again until they get it right. Not an altogether bad idea considering the alternative. An instant replay of the whole damn thing!  In that case I’d need to crawl into my time machine. Where are my ski pajamas? Isn’t that what space travelers wear? Woody Allen says he doesn’t believe in an after-life, but just in case he’s bringing an extra pair of underwear.

I remember, in elementary school, the most egregious threat hanging over us was to be Left Back. What could be more dreaded and ignominious? On the other hand a few (not I) were skipped. Two early forms of time-travel, to be returned to square one or launched into the great beyond.

If life is cyclic rather than linear there is no turning back. The best we can do is to keep spinning with our receptors open and pass along what we live and breathe. Peggy with her nonagenarian bones and made-fresh daily, irrepressible spirit is stepping again into the stream like never before.

As we wait for the vertebra to knit I don’t dare pat her on the back. The spine is its own tree bent perhaps but still providing swift passage from head to hand and heart. On its branches birds perch, a child swings and messages are still being carved. She is still mid-life in tree-years. Ninety-two is insufficient to contain all the life Peggy has yet to live.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Modest Proposal

We are witness to a coup d’etat. Arrest the lot of them, the subversives who would overthrow our government. Send them to Boehner’s tanning salon for a few months, an American version of a gulag. Let them turn as red as their banner. Assign them remedial civics books.

They have committed sedition against the federal government, this minority of a minority party who hold office fraudulently, after surgically scissoring a district for themselves. These are the ones who ran with scissors in third grade and never let go of the scissor. They are the schoolyard bullies who defy the ground rules, move the goal posts and steal the ball if they don’t get their way. They want less government? Let the lawless have their own lawless country.

The fundamentalists within our borders are as great a threat to the democratic process as their fundamentalist cousins abroad. Al Quaeda must be grateful for the Teaburtarians who have created a model for chaos and regime change.

Legislation cannot be undone by threats. They subvert the Constitution as if they had kidnapped the president until their ransom was paid. They act in defiance of the legislative, executive and judicial branches. They are finishing what the British started to do in 1812, destroy the Capitol.

Who are these miscreants? Some belong to the 1% who say, I got mine, don’t bother me. There are the militia-ready rugged individualists who obsess over their penis-guns. Others include the Bible-thumpers staunchly compassionate about human life until the baby is born. Then there are the simplistic -minded who have reduced the complexities of modernity to slogans. Having identified Government itself as demonic the rabble is appeased. The sheep have their shepherd and know exactly what and whom to hate. Add to the above a deep vein of racism, that pathology which infects the American psyche, marshalled for the past five years against Barack Obama.
        
Would it be a different story if Hilary Clinton sat in the oval office? I think not. We’d have misogynists instead of racists to deal with. Born out of the Enlightenment our country from its inception has managed to coexist with the seeds of its own destruction. A slave-based economy, systematic genocide of indigenous people and suppression of women’s vote are all embedded in the American grain.

Sad to witness these malevolent strains dominant again as a counterforce to progress. The toxic worm presents itself, one hopes, as a last gasp against reason, empathy, diversity and inclusion.    


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Night-Train To Nowhere

It’s tough enough falling asleep these days and then when you do the night-train comes along and transports you to unforgiving destinations.

Here you are again in a large building with many rooms set in the surround of a grassed area. There are lots of people milling about. It's not a bad place but not a good one either, because you haven’t packed yet and the bus is waiting to get you to the station or airport. Where is the damn bus or did you get here by car and where did you park it? You’ve lost track of time or run out of money.

This is where you find, or rather lose yourself, about three times a month between midnight and five. The place is your unconscious, your Oz, and you seem to be anxious to get to back to Kansas.

Jung tells us to make the unconscious conscious and honor it. The dream is a hidden door which opens to that cosmic night beyond the reach of our ego. He would probably say that all those other people are also yourself. The fact that your dream is recurrent must be telling you something you need to tend to.

It has never occurred to you to stay put. The dream always starts with your leaving as if you had walked into your movie with ten minutes left. You have no sense of what preceded this anxiety state but you’re not escaping over the wall or running for your life. In fact you may be running away from your life.

I wish I had better access to my imagination in the waking hours. Wallace Stevens wrote about reality being the necessary angel. His poetry was a seemingly inexhaustible excursion into his imaginative life. But flights of fancy require grounding and his was at his desk at the Hartford Insurance Co. where he worked for decades and refused to leave even when offered positions in academia.

Reality begs for sorties into that vast unknown, whether we like it or not.  It is as if a forbidden rendezvous between the two happens nocturnally or otherwise. How we reconcile their ongoing dynamic can be a lifelong struggle or joy, a wrestling match down on the mat or a slow dance.

In his 15-part series currently being shown on TCM, The Story of Film…an Odyssey, Mark Cousins argues that movies of the 30s while escapist on the surface often ended with a soft landing back to the reality outside the theater. Scarlett O’Hara ultimately faced the death and destruction of the Civil War even if by that time Rhett didn’t give a damn. Gary Cooper gulped and accepted Lou Gehrig disease and Jimmy Stewart learned that Mr. Smith cannot go to Washington and remain innocent.

The hope is that by writing this I can own my dreamt place, then mosey around the corridors scribbling graffiti, read the shadows, maybe tunnel the basement floor under the moat of lawn across to the woods, climb a tree and release the stars. Then turn my back on the waiting vehicle and find a return on some gossamer thread of my own making.


Maybe the night-train doesn’t stop there anymore. There is no arrival and no clock. No need for a train or plane to get back. You’re just there and then you’re not.

Monday, September 30, 2013

But Is It Art?

He was scorned by the art world, particularly critics, but praised by William de Kooning and collected by Andy Warhol. He studied at the Art Students League in New York City. For years he was a patient and close friend of the psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. He joined the cause for nuclear disarmament and civil rights movement. His painting of a 6-year-old Black girl breaking the color line accompanied by U.S. Marshalls against a wall of KKK epithets became an iconic image of the school integration struggle. We share a first name and one other curious event.

In 1957 both Norman Rockwell and I attended a college extension course, albeit in far different parts of the country, called Discovering Modern Poetry. He married his teacher. My class was under the auspices of UCLA and held at Peggy’s house. I remembered her when we reconnected 23 years later and began my life part II. But I digress.

He was a frail man raised at a time when Teddy Roosevelt promoted the robust, athletic type as a male ideal. His work often showed older men and boys caught in embarrassing moments, projections of how he saw himself. He had three wives but was probably a closeted gay man. Few of his paintings depicted women at all.

At age 22, in 1916, Rockwell’s illustration made the cover of America’s most popular magazine. There were two weeklies with the word Saturday in their title. One was the Saturday Review of Literature. Readers of that literary magazine most probably looked down on the Saturday Evening Post which employed Rockwell until 1963. The Post was vigorously anti-New Deal and isolationist until it wasn’t supportable. 

During the war Norman Rockwell offered his Four Freedoms posters to the War Department and was turned down. After they appeared on the cover of the Post the government swallowed its pride and embraced the work reprinting them by the hundreds of thousands. Rockwell also created Rosie the Riveter in 1943, the iconography of the time.

Along with Edward Hopper, who captured urban desolation, and Grant Wood whose, American Gothic, spoke of rural life in facetious tones, Rockwell’s work largely depicts a vanishing Americana of small-town New England. He ranks as a first-class draftsman but was he an illustrator or an artist? Now that I’ve posed the question I want to discredit it.

Is it art, might also be asked about work hanging in many contemporary galleries. If art is defined as that which confounds, agitates and shifts perception then Rockwell could be consigned to the category of illustrator. He was not only dismissed by the Modernists but regarded as the bourgeois antithesis of what they were all about. While the New York School veered toward reduction and negative space Rockwell’s canvases were almost cluttered.

But I abhor categories. Blurring the lines between is more fun. I’m all for inclusion. It can be argued that much of minimalist art is elitist, soulless and opaque. At least Norman Rockwell knew how to connect. His genre work offered immediate recognition. The first half of the 20th century was a time when immigrant America had to invent itself and he found the populist links and rituals. His genius was to create a human drama in the moment. Even if we never found our real selves in the scene, our idealized self would know the way around. And perhaps his homey representations were not as benign as at first glance.

One of his most famous pictures is Thanksgiving dinner as the representation of Freedom from Want. Those gathered around the table are not looking at either Grandma or the turkey. None are bowed in prayer giving thanks and one central figure has a look on his face as if he is only begrudgingly present. This could have been Rockwell himself. He was estranged from his own nuclear family as he took vacations with his male model and friends. Rockwell is less a realist than a fabulist.

Perhaps Rockwell can be compared to Robert Frost. In their separate art forms each took a path less traveled by avant-guarde movements. Their words and images will endure as Yankee-bred artists whose narratives welcome the reader and viewer and are deceptively familiar but demand repeated visits. Is it Art? I say, Yes, make room for him.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Season Within

The calendar says we turned a corner last week into autumn but you’d never know it here where we live without seasons. Seventy-two and sunny with no relief in sight. Another day without weather to speak of.  

Each of the four seasons carries remnants of the previous and portends of the next. In his poem, Autumn, Keats likened the early days to Dionysus or Bacchus swollen still with summer and the juice of the vine only to yield to Apollo preparing cerebrally for the chill of winter.

Here in Southern California September can be our hottest month, bee-loud glens (Yeats, not Keats) and increments of green outside our window. In a few weeks I’ll know the turning only when pumpkin ice cream shows up along with Halloween costumes and all things man-made orange.

What have we lost contravening Nature’s rhythms?  Is it enough just to listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? The barren landscape of a North American winter corresponds to our need for introversion; to be driven from external revelry and ripeness to experience the sting of deprivation and darkness.  We can compensate as we do with Christmas lights and giftwrap or just stay quiet exploring our inscape. Napoleon would have been better advised to stay home with a good book instead of trudging across Russian steppes in the dead of winter. Had he read Shakespeare he would have recognized winter’s discontent.

Father, father…do we live in Poland or Russia? Now, my son, this land is Poland. Thank God, father, I couldn’t take another Russian winter.

In my New York years summer’s lease ended abruptly on Labor Day followed by no-nonsense school days, rules, theorems, axioms and all attention to be paid. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know whether to attribute this swerve of seasons to my youth or Eastern weather. I haven’t experienced it since.

The scene-shifts are more subtle in the Southland where we have to find resonance with whale-watching, budding camellia or jacaranda trees unleafing. The languor and excess of July can extend far into November. It’s an adjustment I’m happy to make. The image of a goddess sleeping in the fields watching a cider-press (Keats, not Yeats) is quite compelling.

There is a weather we carry within. Let it shine and let it cloud. We have our own equinox and solstice and everything in between. The calendar is only a prompt to remind us.

I wish Keats' and Yeats' names rhymed, being poets, but they don’t, just as life doesn’t rhyme even on the equinox, being equal parts darkness and light. I was born on that other equinox. I’m told that puts me on the cusp between Aries the Ram and Pisces the fish. Maybe I’m the amphibian who left water to grow four feet and say Bah. Or maybe all words rhyme compared to silence.



Sunday, September 22, 2013

Maps


Maps have always held a fascination for me. Even spelled backwards they are fun. SPAM became one of Monty Python’s greatest routines, Hush, dear, don’t make a fuss. I’ll have your Spam; I luv it.

Early maps tell us much why the Dark Ages were well-named. Cartographers depicted dragons in oceans and distorted certain land-mass to comply with Biblical interpretations. As late as the 13th century a famous map represented Rome as the shape of a lion with Christ on top of the world and his hands spread out in the shape of Eurasia.

In 1492 Columbus was famously sent out by Ferd and Izzy to pick up some Chinese food and came back with a new continent on his plate. His discovery sent map-makers working through the night redrawing new squiggles. Some depicted Brazil as an island others thought it a hunk of Asia but all indigenous people were deemed worthy of having their souls saved….whether they wanted to or not. That was the least Europeans could do for those ungrateful heathens. And besides, the Spanish and Portuguese thought they smelled gold just around the next bush. 

At least they knew which way to turn their sails. Fast forward six centuries and George Dubya wasn’t sure where Europe was on the map but with some help from his friends, unfortunately, he found Iraq. Recent polls now indicate that 85% of Americans can’t find Syria on the map and, even more scary, 56% of those working in the Pentagon couldn’t find it either. One hopes they get their bearings before sending any drones.

300 million years ago, give or take a week, the entire land mass of Earth was bunched together. Geographers call it Pangea. The Americas fit into Africa which was knit into Eurasia just as Australia was linked with India. It was a golden age for fish unless they were swallowed by bigger fish. At least they were not menaced by fishing nets. But maps are organic; they are in flux and perhaps never more so than in this century with coastlines under assault and deserts inching into adjacent territory.

After WWI France and England carved up the Ottoman Empire the way one would carve that other turkey on Thanksgiving. They created new countries heedless of white meat and dark meat, today’s tribal allegiances. They may have been distracted, salivating over that black gravy under the sand.

Britannia ruled the waves for several centuries. All but 22 countries were invaded by the Brits. Except for our current misadventures countries don’t much bother invading anymore. They just let their corporations do the deed. The busiest McDonalds in the world is in Pushkin Square, Moscow, with 27 cash registers. Japan sells Big Macs in over 3,600 outlets. Americans can travel thousands of miles and feel like they’ve never left home particularly if they stay close to their hotel lobby.

There seem to be two opposing forces at work which describe our times. Science and Western-style Enlightenment threaten religious fundamentalism, male chauvinism and tribalism. As multinational brands and global technology are making us less differentiated, radical forces resist commodification and assert their traditions however self-serving they may be. It also diverts attention from the plight of those suffering from the accident of geography. At the same time there is much about our social mores worth resisting.

Can universality respect the Self?  Will future maps look like China, all in one color or more like Africa partitioned into 43 paint chips? Maps register partitions, some topographical, others artificial. Count me as one who doesn’t love a wall.