Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Nothing Happens... And Yet

Most movies, particularly American, make a lot of noise if not in decibels than in the commotion around plot. You can hear the twists, the levers and squeaky doors opening and closing. Denouements have a way of knocking over furniture with contrivances. The more preposterous the louder the thud.

This could be why I welcome the quiet movie, usually low budget, where very little happens. All the tell-tale signs go nowhere. The gun, in close-up, is not fired and if it is it squirts water. The headache does not mean a brain tumor is coming. Much as I love that movie cliché where all the suspects are gathered in the library of the manor house and the chief inspector exposes the lies in everyone’s alibis to reveal the killer, tension is ratcheted followed by the clatter of spilled beans. Give me the hushed movie where seemingly nothing happens with no crescendo of a resolution.  

Of course much is happening when nothing happens. It may be implied or discovered between the words or in the way the character walks or holds a cup of coffee. In the new film, Paterson, we follow a bus driver in his routines from morning alarm clock to an evening with his wife at the movies during which time the dog eats his notebook. His unremarkable daily patterns seem like stanzas of a poem with their own internal rhyme scheme.

The title of the film is both the protagonist’s and the city’s name as well as the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams. In fact the great doctor-poet shadows the narrative as if his own work might have been derived from the same mundane material in plain language. The English bulldog, the waterfall, home-made designer cupcakes, the local bar are all characters in their repetitive ways. Patterson doesn’t say a lot but he listens well or rather overhears passengers in the front of the bus or from his bar stool. We see him dwell on a match box which turns into a love poem. He jots lines on his pad during spaces in his workday much as I used to write poetry in the pharmacy in between labels. This is not the stuff of grandiose Whitman in mid-19th century who hears America singing. This a contemporary voice of small epiphanies, an egoless, Zen voice who shrugs when his art is destroyed as if he knows anything done is done forever. The end is the beginning with a book of blank pages.
   
The poems composed during the film were written by Ron Padgett, he of the so-called New York school of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch et al. Here are a few lines from a Padgett poem not in this movie which seem to me emblematic of the story. Take care of things close to home first. / Straighten up your room before you save the world. / Then save the world.  
   

 Paterson is one of several recent films featuring working stiffs. The 
 brothers in Hell and High Water shoot their way for a piece of the rock. Fences peels the layers off the character of a garbage man struggling clumsily for empowerment and Manchester gives us a handyman carrying the world on his back. We see the face of loud and quiet desperation. Yet Paterson strikes another key with a man heroic in the way he is both caught in a scheduled life and at the same time has found access to the floating world through his imagination. I know the feeling. It took me years before I found my way as a pharmacist, beyond counting and pouring, to get closer to patients, to their troubles and small triumphs and, by extension, my own resources.


This sort of movie slows the senses even as it wakens them just as the blockbuster ones numb the mind as they rattle it with razzle-dazzle. Finding a portal to the inner life of a character requires a sure hand and the presumption that there is an audience out there eager to have some demands made upon them. It is particularly needed now in these days when our sensibilities have been shredded by special effects and our brains twittered to narcosis.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Remaindered Thoughts and Resolutions

It’s over. We who fancy bagels, baguettes and almond milk and read the N.Y. or L.A. Times lost to those who buy white bread and six-packs and get their news from The National Enquirer.

This election may have done America a favor. It has taken us to the sausage factory to see how it is done, given the heartland someone to hate and revealed how rapacious Capitalism functions based on greed and deceit, unregulated, untaxed and unaccountable. It has multinationals salivating. Now let us see if working men and woman can live on their drool and crumbs falling off the boardroom table.   

Seems like the time to wrap it up and look around the corner. Courage is a word I keep running into. To that I shall add, inconvenience. We need to do what is disruptive and what can be more so than calling the moving truck and relocating to those gerrymandered districts to color the map blue. Hillary won California by 4.3 million votes. If 10% of that plurality moved to Red America we would re-claim the House, the Supremes and the Oval office. Even 5% would have been more than enough. Feel the rust. Income distribution would follow population redistribution. If you can’t handle the cold move to Arizona. If that’s too hot we need you in Wisconsin. Central Pennsylvania is bucolic. Michigan is close to Canada. North Carolina has the most flagrant redistricting of all but with a rich cultural heritage. It’s time to toss the salad and stir the soup.

In the meantime our inspirational leader is unable to find any entertainers for inauguration day. He may have to settle for the marching band of Alabama’s football team. Surely there must be some down and out guy in his constituency who can play the harmonica or the washboard. Or maybe he can hire a stripper to do the hoochie-coochie.  

As for resolutions I wish I smoked so I could stop. My weight is what it was sixty years ago but I have less height to carry it. I vow to exercise more in 2017. I’m going to start by getting up from the couch with no hands. I can still put on my pants while standing as long as there is something to lean on. Yes, I shall drink more water though my doctor says water is over-rated.  And yes I’ll make an attempt to organize my papers, clean the refrigerator and find a good home for another slew of books. I may even learn how to use my smart phone with all its apps and clouds….but I doubt it. I wish I remembered my taste for an occasional wee drap. I do love martinis but not so sure how my esophagus feels about that.

Love is always the answer……regardless of the question. We, as a nation, need to cuddle more. To cherish each other and say so. Ah, the consanguinity of kindred spirits! To put flowers on the table. To care-give. I need to write more to my grandkids so they know how weird I can be and they can learn to cultivate their own eccentricities. Maybe we can even love Trump to death. To fill the country with so much creativity and soul it will devour the unreason and malice, to kill it softly with a song...to be reconciled, not resigned.

I can feel it. Songs are being composed. Books written. Poems. Visual art. Euripides is writing another subversive play. Artists are still free to create though it may become an underground activity conducted in Anne Frank’s room or over a barber shop in So-Ho where Salman Rushdie hid. But it will happen. We’ll have our day again.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Winter Seen

Putting aside all so-called religious fables which are more tribal than spiritual we are left with a shared calendar. Even then, in the Northern Hemisphere, winter shows its many divergent faces. The only true commonality of the day is the solstice, the dying and reemergence of the light; from here on daylight makes a comeback.

During my first 21 winters in Forest Hills / Kew Gardens I was the kid with two or three sweaters under a hooded Mackinaw with ear muffs, gloves and scarf dragging my Flexible Flyer three blocks to a dip in the topography we called the Toilet Bowl. It was a perfect place for sleds however if you went too far, too fast you just might end up in the Grand Central Parkway never to be heard from again.

Today the difference in temperature between here and there is about 45 degrees. Sleet and slush are not in our vocabulary. Styrofoam snow or Glass wax on windows don’t quite conjure up the white stuff that piles up in driveways and streets back east causing skidding and white-out conditions.

We pretend to keep the Norse legend alive. What can hurt? More than that we need our seasons as Vivaldi heard them. We need to end the imaginary year, to slow, be still, correspond to skeletal trees, to keep to the cycle of life, and listen to the stillness of everything gone. We need the mind of winter.

Short days, long nights give us ample time to align ourselves with the natural word of death and rebirth, our fears and hopes, as well as the urge to compensate for the cold and lifeless dark with hot toddy and gift-wrap under lit evergreens. We Jingle-bell the silent night and decorate the barren landscape with bulbs and seasonal language.

This year, more than ever before, it is hard to escape a sense of dread owing to what appears as the death of decency, inclusion, progress, science, of the planet itself. After these most noisy and nasty months we might welcome the solstice for its elongated shadow that signals introspection even as an ill-wind blows.

The ancients feared the sun might never return.  We know the feeling. We can join Europe in doom-saying as available light is rekindled. Or we can take it as a time to access our faith, yes faith, in a compassionate and equitable society and seed those values to reassert themselves in their own time. The solstice is the day for renewal of what must prevail. Otherwise we risk riding our sleds into the toilet bowl and disappear in the traffic of history.  

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Life and Death of Language


There’s nothing more organic than words. They rise and fall at the speed of an idea. Even dumb ideas. There goes another one. This past year has seen a proliferation of adjectives…crooked, rigged, stupid, light-weight (Marco Rubio, Megan Kelly, Lindsey Graham), moronic, disastrous (them), amazing, tremendous, smart, great (him). All rather juvenile language he made even more so.

Politics has a way of killing words through repetition whether on Teleprompters or Tweets. In this devolution of Life as a Reality TV Show audiences have come to accept agreed-upon lies as part of the theater. Candidate as celebrity. Go ahead, blurt. Its shelf-life is less than 24 hours.

Bernie bequeathed us,Yuge. Hillary’s camp has given flesh to bully, xenophobia, misogynist, narcissist, demagogue and denier. All clinically correct. Psychologists, sociologists, historians and writers will have material enough for at least a century coining new phrases to describe what just happened. That child running with scissors has become the man running the country cutting it to shreds.

Sixty years ago the word to describe the Republicans would have been, Reactionary, meaning regressive or resistant to new ideas. I suppose that one fell into disuse through exhaustion. I can remember when the tag, Liberal, was a pejorative to Progressives. Maybe it still is or have we drifted so far to the right that Conservatives have targeted their venom for the lesser label? Be careful what you say, warned Dennis Potter, you never know whose mouth those words have been in.

A reconfigured world requires the demise of old terms and birth of new ones. Red as in Red-Baiting has died and then flipped in its new life as Trump’s new best friend. We are about to enter into the Age of quasi monarchs in a club of oligarchs. The billionaire is now the champion of the down-trodden masses. Marx is turning in his grave.

Rhetorical flourishes can reinvigorate discourse but it usually renders words limp and hollow. I turned a deaf ear to the constant use of regime-change until I realized that describes what has just happened in this country. From Lincoln’s of, by and for the people to FDR’s nothing to fear to JFK’s ask not what your country can do to Obama’s there aren’t two Americas… aspirational language even if untrue. But for this past year we witness high and lofty eloquence sink to the gutter and locker room. Obsequious words get rewarded; dissent is met by an arsenal of abuse. In either case our vocabulary is soiled.

It was Mario Cuomo who said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. If that was poetry we just lived through we’re in bigger trouble than I had thought. Poetry tells the truth, metaphorically, obliquely, sometimes clumsily but doesn’t set out to deceive.

Words can be weapons particularly when spoken at the right pitch to receptive ears. This faux-poetry we heard on the stump was not highfalutin oratory but low falutin sloganeering that mimics the common tongue. 

The fall of democratic values is accompanied by the death of language itself. Poets to the rescue....free of political jargon, fake news or fluff. Truth is on life-support. Get us to triage and then to the maternity ward not necessarily to give birth to new words just offer the existing ones a smack and breathe new life in the body politic.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

One No-Trump

I haven’t any idea what this means in Bridge nor do I care to know but for me it’s the challenge of filling up a page without once mentioning Donald except to say how this country has already been transformed. The past four weeks feel like four years. We are now a reality show nation of Winners and Losers. The former are generals and captains of industry or bullies, crooks that didn’t get caught, and those born on third base who think they hit a triple. The latter describes the rest of us.

Card-playing is yet another talent for which I am unfit. There are many other skills that consign me to the loser column in the administration's great divide. The new paradigm has me revisiting some early failures which disqualify me, thank God, from his inner circle. So pervasive is his impact that the bus to elsewhere is no longer running.

By age twelve the person I would never become was made clear to me. I shall never forget 7th grade. By any measure I should still be there repeating three classes for the 72nd year.

First there was Art. This time of the year we were expected to draw a Christmas scene. I imagined Santa stuck in a chimney or sleigh rides in Manhattan traffic but I was thoroughly incapable of representing them. I usually settled for a snowman traced by a quarter, nickel and dime. In compensation I’ve learned to paint with words.

Second was singing as in Glee Club. I could not carry a tune from here to there. Flat remains my default position. I was relegated to the back row with other remedial lip-syncers. My official designation was Listener and I embraced the role. Anyone can shut up but listening is a skill.

The third class which defines me to this day is my abject failure at wood-working. We were assigned to produce a bread-board from a slab of wood. What could be easier? All we had to do was make the four sides straight, square and smooth. Maybe I was entranced by the knots and burls or intoxicated by the wood-shavings. I would run a plane on the surface but the teacher’s T-square revealed unevenness. By the end of the term my bread-board was about the size of a large splinter. Color me uneven.

I had no idea what I would be when I grew up or if indeed I ever would but I would certainly not become Norman Rockwell, Frank Sinatra or Mr. Fixit. Over the years I have learned to change the paper toweling without calling in a handyman. I’ve even assembled a bookcase from Ikea but invariably there are left over screws.

My brother got the DNA that prepared him for manual arts. He had a tool kit. I had a library card. Possibly at one time in the pre-history of my double helix I also could work with my hands but that skill was dissipated after my ancestors built the pyramids.

How I ever got to 8th grade was an act of mercy and resignation by the faculty of P.S. 99. They probably figured I could do no harm singing in the shower. One day I might write a book entitled, How to Make Fire-Wood Out of a Coffee Table. For now I shall return to my coloring book. Pass the crayons.

The purpose of recalling these minor traumas is not to wallow in my ineptitude but to re-imagine them as soft clay and to sculpt those moments by addition or subtraction. Ultimately to accept my flawed self and set it all in a larger context. In this new country we find ourselves in I offer myself to the Loser column failing again to compose a blog of No-Trump.  


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Preparing For Trumpery Years


In an alternative universe Medea did not kill her kids. Only Euripides version had it that way. Maybe Helen never went to Troy. That was her phantom, the idea of Helen, her simulacrum. And in another iteration Hillary is the one and Donald is calling for recounts. How long will this delusion hold? It’s time to stop wringing our hands.

Enough analysis of what went wrong. The fact is we did win by a yuge margin. If we want to take the next election all we need to do is spread out. Scatter. Migrate with intent.  Relocate in those gerrymandered districts. We in California can spare 2-3 million to turn the tide. We need volunteers to reacquaint with real weather in the Rust Belt. Let’s not always see the same hands!

Now that that’s settled I’m looking for ways to batten the hatches for the self-inflicted turbulence ahead. While Trump commands the narrative I’m searching for meta-narratives, pockets of bliss, digressions, tributaries, untrodden peregrinations.

Old recordings of Ella or Sarah, Roy Eldridge solos, Benny and Artie can easily fill up an afternoon. I could get lost listening to Frank, Mel Torme, Anita O’Day or Keely Smith. Throw in some Kander and Ebb and I’m transported. I still shiver hearing Paul Robeson or Odetta. And then there’s Joan Baez in those good old draft card-burning years. I almost left out our Nobel Laureate Dylan in his early days before the music stopped for me. My loss, I know.

Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto answered by Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and a medley of Wolfgang’s biggest hits, selected Beethoven and just about any sound emanating from Joshua Bell’s Stradivarius and I’d be impervious to Trump for weeks at a time.

I might confer with that controversy of crows staking out territory in squawks and caws or the hummingbird, its laborious wings beating the air just to stay still. I could stand watch at the feeder or track the shedding of eucalyptus bark.

While the Repugnants have their way with us pushing the clock hands back a century I could dream of revolutions at the all-night laundromat watching the spin cycle. Here I am fluff and folding myself into a cocoon.

There goes a cloud that looks like Kentucky. I count five birds of paradise flowers ready for flight. I’m preparing for take-off. I just added a marshmallow to Peggy’s cocoa. I am melting with it in a sea of chocolate.

Gazing into my tea leaves I see our prez-elect leaving after eighteen months when he’s amply demonstrated he has made America great again. No, Donald, please don’t go. Your subalterns waiting in the wings are worse. All things being relative I could even learn to love you. I love you for your flip-flops, for all the things you said but didn’t mean. If you can stave off Paul Ryan there will be a space for you on Mt. Rushmore. Muzzle Jeff Sessions and I’ll even lick your stamp in ten years. It has come to this.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Tis the Season To Be Listing


It must be December. Year-end lists are appearing with the ten best and worst everything. Friends will soon be sending their personal chronicle for 2016. All a way of punctuating time, wrapping up one chapter and starting a new one. If only this past year could be so easily dismissed.

Looking over my shoulder has become a habit I’m not likely to break at this age. My body has been insulted here and there with scans, blockages and biopsies just as the body politic has quaked the needle off the Richter scale. Organs are making noise and it isn’t Bach. Nor is it Barack in macro terms.

We are still listing seismically from the election trying to retrofit ourselves. Hillary fumbled the ball while levitating toward the glass ceiling and with a sleight of hand Donald flipped a 2 and half million vote deficit into a landslide victory leaving us scratching our heads and gnashing our teeth for the next four years. It isn’t even officially winter yet but we’ve already begun our discontent.

The little list I don’t have shall never be missed. Lists are too vertical and hierarchical. And besides my short-term memory blurs after a week or two. Who can remember back to February and March? What I do recall turns out to have happened three years ago. Or never.

I can report that this past summer four bookcases were divested of their books which I hope have found new homes. We still have ten others crammed with voices in constant conversation. The pre-eminent short story writer, William Trevor, died last month. Every book he wrote remains on our shelves. I intend to re-read each one next year,

Our extended tribe has increased by a significant one; Ilaria by name. My daughters and steps continue on their respective journeys, some more arduous than others. I was about to say that friends have died but I think that was the year before. Each is still very much present for me. Time collapses and swells like the respiration of an accordion.

We now have a new car, called Blanca, actually 2-3 years old but as yet undented like our previous one. White doesn’t show dirt easily but it does reveal scratches which I’m sure will appear given my proclivity to squeeze into cramped parking spaces.

There are no travels to recount except those excursions by family and friends which have taken us vicariously from Portugal to Patagonia, from Myanmar to the Scottish Highlands. Judy, our intrepid photographer friend, provides us with near-daily wonderments her eye plucks from the passing parade.

Great writing deserves mention just so I’ll remember if I re-read this next year. Two recent books which rank high are The Sporting Life by C.E. Morgan and The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell. Both novels describe lives I would not otherwise ever know and they do it with language that sings. We just now watched what I crown the movie-of-the-year, Neruda, brilliant conception, performances and mythical in its power and poetry.

2016 also saw the birth of Peggy’s book of poems, Under the Unwed Moon, published by Letters at 3 A.M. Press. Her poetry continues to amaze; how she transforms the quotidian into her realm of otherness, sometimes edgy, sometimes a sensory feast. I close the year in this intoxication, this lift. As daylight decreases we can find incandescence in transport and love. Two essentials on my list.