Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Muddle-East


Let me see if I have this right. We are close to an agreement with Iran and thLat is good but Israel, our staunch ally, says that’s bad because they support Hezbollah and Hamas, while King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who is a good-bad guy, is bombing those bad Iran-backed rebels in Yemen but we need those other Iranian good-guys in Iraq and Syria to fight Issis who are trying to overthrow Assad, the not-so-bad guy anymore, who used to be bad but now is getting to be more good because he is less bad than the fundamentalist Sunnis but the Saudis are Sunnis and we really prefer the Shiites, the good bad-guys, particularly the secular ones like Sadam Hussein whom we killed because he got too uppity and Rouhani who rules our new best friends, Iran, except for the Ayatollah who is fundamentally a fundamentalist and then there are the Kurds who everybody likes, except the Turks, because we haven’t any idea what they believe in and there is Egypt who overthrew Mubarak, another good bad-guy, who used to be good enough but then we help depose in order to have open elections which elected a bad good-guy we didn’t like so we now support General Sisi, yet another good bad-guy, who is more authoritarian than Mubarak but not for long, says he, only until order is restored which can take a few decades during which time Yemen can become the new Afghanistan and Lebanon the new Iraq unless we just bring the legions home, send the combatants to temper-management class and have a nice day since we no longer need their black stuff under the sand and then our Bible-thumping evangelical fundamentalists can meet their Koran-thumping, Wahhabi-Issis fundamentalist cousins and they could agree at least about Abraham and what’s good and what’s bad for the rest of us and probably never know they are all irrelevant.     

Saturday, March 28, 2015

You Can't Be Good At Everything

My mother sometimes said I was a good for nothing kid. True, I never had a knack for mountain climbing, playing the accordion or tying a noose in the Boy Scouts. However she was wrong. I was good at remembering what she said. And after a while I learned to climb trees (if they had good elbows), play the horn at birthday parties and tie my shoes.

Achilles had that heel to blemish his resume. Baseball players are labeled all-field, no-hit or vice versa. There are no more sixty-minute players in football. FDR had a second-rate intellect, according to Justice Holmes, but a first rate temperament. Reagan had no intellect at all but he got by well enough. Fred Astaire most likely couldn’t play Macbeth and Macbeth probably couldn’t twirl Ginger.

Early on, the term, Jack of All Trades, was seen as derogatory. In fact it was written as a slur against Shakespeare in the late 16th century. Perhaps he couldn’t play the accordion either but History has a way of correcting mistaken blurts. The Renaissance was a time when Jacks become generalists. Jack Da Vinci. Jack Michelangelo.  

James Madison was not among our notable presidents. Maybe he was too short to be noticed; even by his wife, Dolley, who was a head taller. He did not serve in the revolutionary army being too slight at under 100 pounds. Nor did he have a law degree.  However Madison was the first among our Founding Fathers when it came to conceiving a Constitution.

Just the other day I was communing with Jemmy (as he was known to friends) about his document. Never intended to be sacrosanct, said he. Clearly it can use a re-write. The legislative branch is both gerrymandered and absurdly disproportionate; the Senate is presently controlled by 18% of the population. The judiciary has become a quasi-legislature and the executive, a smear upon our nation's heritage. All of them wholly owned subsidiaries of corporations.

Madison was taken aback by what he saw and remarked that they had subverted his intent. He lived long after his presidency, until 1836, and declared several times that revisions were needed in each generation. For this he stands tall.

How I ended up here may vindicate my mother. One never knows where the keyboard will lead. I seemed to have landed in the midst of a good-for-nothing Executive, Congress and Supreme Court, its extension, notable for tying nooses.  Do their mothers know what they do for a living?

It needs to be said that, at some point, I learned to translate my mother's personal attacks to a general grievance with the world. They fell on my deaf ears. She cursed God for God knows what. She cursed trucks while crossing the street and damned the superintendent for holding back on the heat in winter. She had no kind words for merchants, even verbally abused neighbors. The expressions she uttered were like some mindless phrases passed along from her family which included five brothers. The no-good kid was probably herself after being teased by them. My mother lived like a frightened child masquerading as a domineering woman with a nasty tongue. Life was combat until she mellowed toward the end. 

Somehow I survived those years, not suited for everything, but for somethings and that's enough. I forgive her and even thank her for not depriving me of a deprived childhood. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Happy Birthday To Me

I’m told I was born on March 21st. I wouldn’t know.  As I recall I was busy that day. How could I concentrate with all that fuss? I was still trying to make some sense of FDR’s inaugural speech a few weeks before which I heard umbilically. Something about not fearing anything except for the fear of fear. Now I would know about fear having been washed ashore from that embryonic sea and summarily slapped for my effort.

Surely the date of my arrival is a tribute to family planning. I never took my mother and father to be such visionaries. The first day of spring is Nature’s birthday, at least in this hemisphere. I took my first breath as the lilies were exhaling, hyacinth bulbs emerging and coral trees hanging their first red lanterns of the year. Whales and migratory birds were in transit on their appointed paths. Seasonal resurrection was in the air.

Not everyone can claim an equinox. Equal parts day and night make for a balanced life, granting the shadow side its due. I do have a hate-list which includes religious orthodoxies, willful nescience and goat cheese. I’ve also led a double life on the astrological cusp in escrow between Pisces and Aries lo these many years. Gurgle and Bah, It’s been an amphibious existence, half in, half out of water.

So it was not a dark and stormy night. It was dark with intermittent sun or bright with patches of clouds. The weather report that day was light with increasing darkness toward night time. In political terms the headlines were breadlines with Roosevelt’s reforms about to happen. On the other side of the ocean Hitler was declaring the Third Reich. I must have missed the first two. J.S. Bach also has a birthday today. When he was my age now, he'd been dead for 17 years. Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Philip Roth had just been born a few days ahead of me and Calvin Coolidge had recently died. When Dorothy Parker heard the news she famously quipped, How could they tell?

My mother said I was a cry baby and I wouldn’t put it past me what with the Dust Bowl, Japanese invasion of China and Mussolini on the rise. Or it could have been a diaper pin. Whatever it was I got over it by the time I graduated from college.

It has taken me 82 years to get to be this old. It all happens when we’re not looking. If this were a movie the past 31 Peggy years would be my highlight reel.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Turner's World

At a certain age one sees the world less as a Warhol Brillo Box and more like a Turner sky….even after cataract surgery. The accumulation of years brings with it an acceptance of the opaque. Perhaps lucidity was a necessary illusion to get us through the early years. The Turner exhibit now at the Getty shows his sometimes blazing, barely discernible images with more resonance than ever.

Turner came from humble beginnings. His father was a barber and on his mother’s side were butchers. In a sense he barbered and butchered his canvases with an enormous palette which depicted light itself in all its variables. The French impressionists owed him a debt, acknowledged long after his death by Renoir, Degas and Monet. His oceans, skies, mists and fires all carry his signature. They convey his unease in the world as well as the turbulence of the American and French revolutions, the burgeoning British Empire and attendant urban squalor in his London sprawl from nearly one million to 2.5 during his lifetime (1775-1851).

Viewing a Turner, especially in aggregate, is a felt experience just as he literally immersed himself in his subject. In one instance, during a considerable storm, he insisted on being lashed to a pole on the deck of a ship for four hours so he could endure the fury of the wind, sea spray and upheaval of the waves. All the elements come through with his slashing strokes which overwhelm an image of the steamship.

And so it is in life.  Memory becomes a smeary distillation of moments. The residue could be simply a firm handshake, belly laugh or frown. It might be the drenching I took from a sudden downpour running happily through the streets of Amsterdam, a field of ranunculus we never found, or my astonished  eyes when Van Gogh’s, Irises, leaped out from the museum wall.

What would Turner paint today? The muddle of our hurried existence? The blur we’ve become? Stumps in what was once a rain forest? A degraded Arctic ice cap? If he fastened himself to our ship of state he might record our human folly and deliver to us a shock of recognition. One has to look hard to recognize the figure in the steamy mirror. With his low-definition canvasses the work is both demanding and compelling.

Turner’s canvases were less indigenous to England than they were universal. He often crossed the channel with the London fog still on his brush and found landscapes in which he could sketch or set up his easel. His address was in that vast elsewhere far from the conventions of his time. It is telling that many of his pieces, oils and watercolors both, were questioned posthumously as to whether or not they were finished. In this regard he is contemporary. Nothing is complete yet everything is if the creator wishes to leave it so and invite the viewer to enter.

In my dotage I seem to be on a slow mule grazing away from the fray looking in the rear-view mirror. (This mule was assembled in Detroit, fully equipped.)  The painter’s great admirer, John  Ruskin, said that Turner was continually endeavoring  to reconcile old fondnesses with new sublimities. I know the feeling, straddling the familiar and safe known as well as the forbidden, uncertain terrain around the bend. The people and places of decades past no longer exist. In fact probably never did as we remember them. And the present won’t hold still for a minute.

When parliament went up in flames in 1834 Turner was there to witness and render the blaze. Today we would have a media rush to record the scene but no one would quite capture the gradations of light that stretched beyond the spectrum into what he regarded as the sublime. To find beauty in this urgent and combustible world we live in requires the transcendent burst of an artist. Count him among those whose vision reached and whose language speaks to everyone across borders.   

                

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"I Really Don't Know Clouds At All"

It doesn’t take much to remind me how out of it I am. My idea of a cloud was some deity’s pipe smoke or a levitated pillow. A platform was that place where you waited for the subway or the planks in a political party’s promises which never happen. Now clouds and platforms have been purloined by techies along with viruses which used to be those microbes beyond the reach of antibiotics. Now when one is unleashed it’s an instant pandemic beyond anyone’s reach.

Back in the day when I  played basketball I was often hacked but it didn’t send me into a fevered hissy fit like the hackers of today who can crash your hardware into mush, freeze your software and slip their fingers into your virtual wallet. These are dangerous times.

I know, I know, I should just go with the flow but the flow is an ice floe where I’ve been banished and deposited in some precinct of pre-history. It isn’t only new-fangled technology that has me in a dither, it is the food I put in my mouth and the language that comes out of it.

Yesterday we thought to try a new restaurant. At 3:30 the place was packed. The menu (another word lifted from eateries to answering machines) consists of two salads. One featuring charred escarole, pickled squash, kale sauerkraut, gherkins and bread crumbs. The other had romescu, collard slaw, crispy sage, harissa béchamel, and walnut mahammara. One could wash it all down with hazelnut milk. We didn't order. Instead we slithered out the door feeling nostalgic for junk food.

I drove a few blocks and spotted a Café 50s. I checked my rear-view mirror to see if we’d been followed by the millennial police. The restaurant was empty. A sure sign it was our kind of place. Peggy had a malt and cheeseburger. I feasted on a chef’s salad. Everything in the bowl looked familiar. No adjectives were required to describe the lettuce or tomato on the menu. Soon this sort of food will be deemed subversive, even felonious. 

Oldies but goodies played from the juke box. The walls were plastered with movie and rock stars from the 40sand 50s. We were in a time-warp. If you ordered pie ala mode it really was of- the-day but that day had passed. Everything about the place was yesterday…….and that’s where I want to be when people spoke in full sentences not OMG, IMHO and LOL.

I have to say I've got little patience for people like me, clinging to the past, romancing about those good old days. I’m not yet enfeebled even if I sound like a crusty old fool. It’s pathetic. It’s indefensible. But it’s true. In the cycle of all seasons I am in the Winter of my years having lost fluency with the new Spring. They’re speaking in universal glyphs and I’m still muttering from McGuffey’s reader.

Certainly there is much to admire about the miracle of the Internet even as I curse and howl to the clouds. Since first grade I’ve had a recurrent dream that I missed something in school when key instructions were announced; small things such as the meaning of life. Now this prophesy seems to be unfolding. Where was I when apps were explained, when texting became the preferred method of conversation, when cornflakes were replaced by spelt and kamut (ancient grains it says on the box)? I’m getting hungry for breakfast on my ice floe; pass the millets and gooseberries.
  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Future Not Foretold

About 60 years ago I had my fortune told. The only piece that stuck was that I would live to age 86. It was a safe bet. At 32 that seemed like forever. So far, so good.   I didn’t believe a word she said but I held on to that number, 86. Memory is a selective muscle. Soon I’ll be in trouble.

Thirty years later, just for kicks, I tried a palmist on the Santa Monica pier. She asked if I wanted the $5 reading or the $10. I told her I’d settle for the short version. My creases revealed that I’d live a long life. I wondered if for $10 I could have bought immortality. If I had said anything insulting she might have told me to leave by the back door which led off the pier into the bay of jellyfish…or worse, the waste water from the L. A. Basin. That would have shortened my life considerably.

When fortune-tellers show up in movies it strikes me as a cheap narrative device. They propel the story line and are never wrong, even when they are. If Emily Dickinson had her fortune told as a young woman she might have been told she would travel widely. And she did in her imagination even though she rarely left her room.

Soothsayers and seers go back to the Greeks who warned us to heed the prophesies. Of course we mere mortals often bumble it anyway. Oedipus' parents were told he would kill his father so he was left to rot in the wilderness only to meet his real father years later on the road and kill him. Who knew he had been adopted? A teachable moment: Be careful whom you murder.

Did Caesar listen to the call: Beware the Ides of March? Not on your life…or his. If he had we wouldn’t know about Anthony and Brutus and therein lies a tale. It all comes down to the struggle between free will and fate, aka the Gods, destiny, the unknown. The ancients had trouble with the notion of randomness and the opaque. For the most part we have learned to live with it without losing our inquisitive nature. Every question mark does not require an exclamation point to follow.

It turns out there is a hierarchy of prognosticators. Oracles had a direct line to Zeus, the grand puppeteer of the day, while seers had the gift only of interpreting mortal signs such as entrails, tea leaves or the pattern of birds. In this sense we are all seers. We call them hunches or intuition. Don’t try it at the racetrack with the rent money. The wish is the father of the bet.

However intuition deserves its due. After all has been quantified high intuitives pick up portents, scraps of overlooked information. They know an omen when they see one. They listen better, notice more and endow it with a new dimension... or so I'm told.

In one version of a Greek myth we read that Calchus, a great prophesizer, witnessed a fire dance by a warrior the night before his battle to the death with an opposing tribal strongman. All done for sport to distract the armies on their way to Troy. He intuited that this was a dance of death foretold. He was wrong. It was a dance of triumph. Even crystal balls need to be wiped from time to time.

We want to both know and not know what’s around the corner. Medical science, through identifying markers, can now predict certain hereditary disease but not all of us choose to peek into the future. I was glad to know I’d make it to 86 when it was an abstraction, but I’m not so pleased with the finish line up close. Like Melville’s Bartleby, I prefer not. So much of life seems like a multiple choice. I’ll go with,all of the above are true. We have an impulse to unravel the mystery but life is less a caper to be solved than a revelation to be lived.