Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Greatest Story Ever Told


“Are you Norm Levine?” she asked. I checked my driver’s license and sure enough I was. And still am. “I was at your poetry reading in the summer at the old Venice jail and I love your work,” she gushed.

She was obviously a person whose misguided opinions I could learn to admire.

“I’m Peggy Schultz,” she went on. “Peggy Schultz, Peggy Schultz….I remember you.” said I.  22 years ago my wife and I came to your house in Reseda for a ten session UCLA extension course on Introduction to Poetry. 

Peggy, I came to know over time, is a world-class finder. She finds a certain beauty in the ordinary…. cups, bark, stamps, roots, pods, clouds, tree stumps…anything. She finds subjects to write about every day. She found me. Even before I found myself.

Our fateful meeting occurred in the fall of 1980. She was happily unmarried and I was unhappily married. Peggy was pushing sixty. I had been 48 for many years. Our twelve years difference was of small consequence. It would have meant something when she was 21 and I was 9. But at a certain point age becomes a fiction of the calendar. Peggy is soon to be 95 but functionally more like a dyslexic 59.

Back to that life-changing moment in 1980:  We were leaving a Robert Bly poetry reading at the Unitarian church in Santa Monica. Bly read every poem twice; the second time accompanying himself on a dulcimer.

I had come alone. She was with a girlfriend. “Are you going for coffee?” said I. Isn’t that what people say after an evening of imaginative words which release a susceptible person from the bonds of an exhausted marriage?

Cordial invitation and harmless enough, I thought. Her friend said, “Why don’t we go back to Peggy’s apartment? There’s half a bottle of wine left over from dinner.” I had no strenuous objections. Her friend left after twenty minutes and we spoke till midnight, the air between us was charged. Peggy told me she fell in love that first night. I remember driving home hearing a dulcimer in my head.

In the weeks to come we met to go off together for a poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque. Our first kiss happened along the Palisades. She said it would complicate my life. It's been a magnificent complication.


After a while we didn’t get around to the workshop and just created our own poetry. Our resonance and lyricism broke windows in Pasadena. I knew then I had won the human lottery.
  
That was to be chapter one of Life: Part Two in the greatest story ever told. That Christmas we gave each other the same book (by Wendell Berry). We were a number, two poets who found their muse in each other. Peggy had been writing for decades. When she doesn’t write she creates visual poems in Joseph Cornell-like boxes.

Our personalities meshed like a heroic couplet. We rhymed like sun and moon,clarinet answering a bluesy sax. She has always been effervescent with enthusiasms. I am more contained and feast on her appetites.

Over the next three years, three months she read me the emancipation proclamation. But I was still singing spirituals on the back forty. It took that long for the chariot to swing low, for me to reinvent myself as the guy who would pack his toothbrush. She waited. I could have lost her but she somehow knew.

I had recently bought my own pharmacy after toiling for decades in chain stores. I called it Norm’s Pharmacy and told friends that my mother was a visionary and named me after the store. Ownership gave me a new sense of empowerment or at least the illusion of that. Possibly under the influence of hallucinogenic vapors I declared myself a poet and wrote poems in between labels.

Peggy was a newly licensed psychotherapist with a thriving practice. We both performed miracle healings particularly on ourselves.

One day in mid-March, 1984, I called to tell her there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that Reagan had sent more aid to the Contras. The good news that I was ready to move in with her on Sunday. There are times when we find ourselves in a room without any open windows or doors so we must walk through the wall. And the rest is history.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Everything Contained in Anything

For a few years in the nineties I collected presidential buttons. I have over 200 of them going back to Lincoln. I can tell you that William McKinley buttons are fairly plentiful as are FDR’s. I remember filling a beanie hat with Roosevelt’s when I was seven years old. Sadly, George McGovern must have put all his resources into buttons demonstrating some inverse proportion between their number and success. I can also report that recent buttons are ten times larger than early ones. If it’s any measure of ego I expect Trump’s buttons to be the size of billboards.

While I was busy with the above Peggy was searching for old mechanical pencils. She has a couple of dozen from the 19th century. Low tech but retractable; some were worn on vests. They were both ornamental and always for use at the ready. A small universe of pencil collectors and political button folk exists unbeknownst to normal people. Collectors also collect collectors, kinship souls. There are far crazier ways to find an alternative reality.

We met those who collect early orange juice squeezers, even salt shakers. I had a small number of whirligigs, now gone with the wind. Peggy and I still take pride in our Polish movie posters and signed first editions. Then there are her perfume bottles and old business cards.

Even more fun than having was the hunt. I recall how we would drive into a small town and brake for used book stores. There was a small aha in plucking a nugget from a stack of dusty books, some even inscribed. Damn the Internet. It has taken away both the discovery of the gem and the bookstores themselves.

One person’s prize lead pencils or button stash is another’s idea of clutter. Where we see objet d’art others may see tchotchkes. Our collections run from ephemera to folk art to fine art. Here I am gazing into our small array of netsukes; some of these ivory carvings are museum quality. Likewise our several Japanese woodcuts. Staying with something long enough can be a transcendent experience, finding realms within, the everything contained in anything.

We all need someplace to hide from the madding. Don’t we? Of course listening to Bach or Sinatra can serve that need. But there is a certain satisfaction focusing on the concrete object. Das Ding, as Heidiger put it. Ultimately ephemeral but not just yet.

Maybe it all started with bubblegum cards of ballplayers under crossed rubber bands in my back pocket. Where they went I’ll never know. Collecting becomes as much an experience of letting go as it is of gathering in. I should mention that we haven’t bought anything in the past twelve years or more having run out of walls and shelves.

Unless it’s a fox hunt with hounds one develops some sort of momentary comradery with others so afflicted. We used to go to Paper Shows where dealers and collectors would buy or swap; sellers were usually former collectors looking to divest. For sale was old paper, that is, Civil War letters or early currency and such. The scene becomes its own society of slightly obsessive people on the prowl.

What does this mean psychologically? We go from a vague sense of being hunted to becoming hunter. Maybe it speaks to an anchoring need and a certain honoring of what has come before; a way of ordering the randomness and creating an illusion of permanence not unlike any tradition or ritual. Maybe we’re clutching on to the material world unable to face mortality. Maybe not. It could be we have the sort of aesthetic that zeroes in on minutia.

Freud proclaimed collectors as being stuck in their potty-training phase. What did he know?  I have no memory of collecting poop. Siggy himself was an avid collector of antiquities which he displayed on his desk. A peek into his psyche? Why not? Everything we say or do … or withhold is a window into our unconscious, a mystery not to be solved.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Notes on Ken Burns' Jackie Robinson

I thought I knew it all coming in…the trajectory of his career on and off the field. He was my hero back in the day. I followed him from his rookie season. I even met him in the subway once. But there was some great old footage I’d either never seen before or forgotten. His wife, Rachel, adds class to the entire narrative providing striking details and warmth. She was Robinson’s life partner in every sense.

Baseball fans learn the lesson of knowing how to fail. The most successful teams lose about 60 games in a season. As a congenital Dodger fan I know the feeling. The identification never stops. With bad fortune I suffer a tiny bit; with good news I take credit. When they were the first to break the color barrier it was as if I were part of that decision. And when the Brooklyn team followed me to L.A. I nearly regarded the move as pre-ordained.

I’ve long felt that Jackie Robinson was the greatest all-around athlete in American history. His excellence in track and field, basketball and football was reinforced by the documentary. Baseball was an after-thought. The indignities of racism factored into his performance gave his athleticism an added dimension.

The prevailing comment often heard about Robinson was how restrained he was and commendable his enduring the threats against him. So much of this is a white man’s fantasy. After his second season he showed his fierce competitive spirit which the bigotry only ignited.

Jackie Robinson changed the game from a pastoral, gentlemanly one to an urban, daring sport. He put ghetto in the game. He enlivened it in the way Caribbean players are injecting energy and emotion again today. Baseball is by its very nature slow and stoic. Black players have changed the level of excitement of what was once our national pastime.

By 1954 I had begun to lose the thread. That summer I moved from New York. I was newly married and newly licensed as a pharmacist; a man-child impersonating an adult. As I was starting my career his was declining, probably due to undiagnosed diabetes.

His playing days ended with the effrontery of being traded by the Dodgers to the Giants in 1956. He quit rather than report to the crosstown rival. The team has since exploited his name and their part in desegregating baseball. They never speak of the way they dumped him.

Robinson evolved in terms of political consciousness. He resented how Democrats took the Black vote for granted harkening back to the days of FDR. He demanded something in return and he got it. After first embracing Nixon in 1959 he denounced the Republicans when Kennedy intervened for M.L. King’s release from prison after the Eisenhower administration walked away.

From then on he marched many times alongside civil rights leaders during the turbulent sixties. I hadn’t known the extent of his involvement. The program also reminded me of those dreadful days, the pathology of America and our continuing shame. It brought home the role Jackie Robinson played waking up white society to the evils of Jim Crow.


When number 42 took the field thousands followed in his wake beyond the sports world, in every level of American life. His place in the history books is iconic.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Living History

The eyes of historians are upon us. Legions of them giving it their oblique slants. Call in the Cubists. Then Rauschenberg. Add Wallace Stevens’, 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. It would take a kaleidoscope to capture the multiple versions.

All the overheard conversations, tapped phones, hacked emails, unbelieving ears, off-the-cuff asides, battle-weary mis-speaks, retractions, cover-ups are being chronicled in the great ledger, everything said and unsaid.

Movie scripts are happening. Frank Capra. Preston Sturges. Francis Ford Coppola and Samuel Beckett. This is the stuff of dynasties, archetypes, shadows on Plato’s walls. Voices will appear in chapters, stanzas and songs. I hear an opera with trumpets. Smoke and mirrors. Limp words. Fiery phrases. Crowd scenes. Brawls. Get Euripides on line one.

Nobody will get it all. One camera’s close-up catches the smirk, another beads of perspiration. Off to the side Jeb fumbles. Off-camera Carson mumbles. Carly formulates a fib. Cruz practices his Joe McCarthy sneer. Trump is Mussolini. The actor will need a wig. Karl Rove confers with the Brothers Koch. Get the Brothers Grimm on line two.

Hillary stumbles. Gets up. Knows how to not quite say what she says. Qualified? Yes, too much so like all those who came before. To be…. president or not. That is the quest. Bernie rants, scolds, promises. He needs a long-shot. Cast Meryl Streep as Bernie, Eddie Redmayne as Hillary.

Stage-right Paul Ryan plots. The shadow government ignores it all, hatching plots as usual. Drones rain down. Ozone collects, glaciers melt, candidates deny. A puppet show, perhaps.

Stage-left the jurist waits for Godot. The Supremes waiver awaiting a tilt. McConnell vows. Give him an aria. Give him the math of eight means seven. But why doesn’t his six not mean five?

Where do we fit in, the chorus will ask. What were we thinking? The year is 2016. Is this when the GOP snapped like a twig, like a Whig? When the parties caught up to their base or overthrew it? The year the center disappeared? When the empire retracted, called the legions home for road repair, for the sake of the grid, for God’s sake? Fade to black.

Will the wall go up? That Manhattan St. close down? The glass ceiling shatter? Banks flail? Agencies dissolve? This could be The Year of Living Dangerously.  The Godfather. Or Duck Soup.

Bring it up close. A family feud. Does the bully want to run the schoolyard? Really? Can the other guy actually talk in tongues to America? Will the ex-prez visit his ghosts in the White House?

The curtain won’t come down. There is only one take. Keep the cameras rolling. It’s still act one.




Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The End of the Earth

The postcard arrived from Ushuaia, Fin Del Mundo, the end of the earth. This could be important in case a Republican is elected president and Canada builds a wall.

It’s good to know there is an end. Of course, if you were born there it would be the beginning unless you were in a witness protection program.

From the POV of penguins it’s the beginning and the end. Except for those who made it across to one island in the Galapagos, some strays in New Zealand with a poor sense of direction and assorted stuffed ones. Every story has a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order.

My friend is not in witness protection. Stanley and his wife took a trip to Patagonia, left the pampas grass and ended up in Tiera del Fuego. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, the gateway to Antarctica. If you’re looking for polar bears you’re in the wrong pole.

Just avoid the on-going conflict between Chile and Argentina over a disputed border which divides the land roughly in two. If you come down here to tango Ushuaia is on the Argentinian side. It is also a good place to write a blog about  if you have nothing much to say.

Darwin’s ship, The Beagle, also stopped there in 1833 to drop off some hostages they had snatched earlier along with a missionary to teach the natives about the true nativity.

If Cruz and his deniers prevail in November and we're faced with a full global meltdown Ushuaia may be an easy commute to the Arctic Circle where the next real estate boom could occur. What was once a glacier might become a Costco parking lot.

The postcard shows a red and white lighthouse on an otherwise barren strip of land. Actually there are 56,000 folks living in Ushuaia and not all are hiding out. In case of road rage or if I get lost on the L.A. freeways I could do worse than take the southern route away from it all and keep going to this archipelago. There is even a five-star hotel where I can cool my heels. With off-season rates in July and August it’s not as cold as Winnipeg and getting warmer every year.


To give Antarctica its due it should be noted that the south pole may be south but it is not down any more than the north pole is up. The center of our planet is the only down; all the surfaces are up. The arctic can even be seen as the bottom from a certain view. Our map is just one of those agreed-upon lies. The next time I go for a spacewalk I promise to confirm this.