Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How Tru, How Tru

Too bad Harry isn’t around to speak to Donald. One was a …man, the other an…mp. A Tru-MAN, the other a Tru-(I)MP.

Yes, I do love words. To stretch, pulverize and then dissect them to see what may be hiding inside. So here is the Imp writ-large, a demon or goblin noted for wild and uncontrollable behavior. He doesn’t qualify to be an ump. That would entail mediation between factions but he is already a faction, the guy who has moved the goal posts.

Both the 33rd and 45th President assumed the office at momentous times. The former presided over the beginning of post-war America. By any measure it was a new epoch. Our 45th POTUS seems to be ending that seventy-year period of America as a beacon, a defender of Europe through alliances and a promoter of free-trade agreements.

To the admiration of their constituencies, both men were elected because they said it as it is. Harry spoke in short, clipped phrases. He was a citizen of the heartland, a plain-spoken man without rhetorical flourishes. The buck stopped here with him. When his time was up in the oval office he simply got on a train at Union Station and rode, by himself, back home to Missouri. What you saw was what you got. Unlike the Imp.

Donald ventriloquized disgruntled Americans, particularly from the Rust Belt, orated in conversational style with locker-room vulgarities and schoolyard slander. He stoked fear and long-simmering hatreds while all the time gloating as celebrity. Truman lived with his famously insufferable mother-in-law in a small town. Trump lives on top of his tower in Bigtown. What we got was not what we reckoned for.

HST was a quick learner. He had to be after being sent into the next room by FDR which rendered him out of the loop regarding the Manhattan A-bomb Project and all matters pertaining to meetings with heads-of-state at Yalta and other summits. His load was the heaviest of any president. Twenty-five days after taking office Germany surrendered ending the war in Europe. Two months after that he met at Potsdam with Churchill and Stalin and weeks later made the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war in the Pacific.

I cannot imagine our Imp presiding over the carnage and restoration of order in the world, with millions of refugees and displaced persons seeking asylum, returning G.Is looking to the government for educational opportunities along with labor unrest, segregated armed forces and the transition to a peacetime economy.

When I was fifteen the 1948 election campaign was underway. I was a staunch supporter of Henry Wallace, the Progressive party candidate. Unlike other kids doing normal things like stealing candy from Woolworths or sniffing airplane glue I was scurrying from floor to floor in every apartment house for blocks at-a-time distributing political material attacking both Truman and Dewey. Forgive me, I was living in an idealized world built on peace and justice. We had Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger to sing ourselves to an imagined place. Truman, of course, prevailed beating Dewey and also trouncing all that Truth I had slipped under doors which went unheeded.

Looking back I have a greater admiration for Truman. He had to emerge from Roosevelt’s long shadow and he did, steering the nation through a troubling period. There are several areas where he fell short but compared to our new president he shines with a bright and true light.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

History in Real-Time

From an early age I have regarded History as one long camp-fire story. From mouth to page little was lost. I nearly shivered at Valley Forge and took the bullet for Lincoln at the Ford Theater. Events jumped off the page directly onto the canvas of my mind.

After WW II CBS produced a radio program called, You Are There in which they re-created a singular event from the annals of history. It later became a TV show hosted by Walter Cronkite and ran until 1958. The first one televised depicted the explosion of the Hindenburg dirigible (1937) over New Jersey. Later broadcasts brought us Paul Newman as Brutus in the assassination of Julius Caesar, John Cassavetes as Plato, James Dean in the Capture of Jesse James and Kim Stanley as Cleopatra. The program always ended with Cronkite saying, What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with events that alter and illuminate our time……and you are there.

No matter the medium, the drama unfolded on the stage of my head. But even then it had a certain remoteness set back in time. In fact I wasn’t really there. I probably had three sweaters on while reading about that winter at Valley Forge.

Where is Walter Cronkite now that these days are filled with events that alter and illuminate our time? I want his reassuring voice to tell me I’m not there, this is not happening, not in America eighty-four years after the Nazi Party took over Germany. I love history but I don’t want to be in it. Of course, we are always in it, eye-witness or not.

Never before in my lifetime has History felt so close. Even though the man was elected with 46% of the vote, this has the feel of a coup. Long-held precepts are being undermined, constitutional guarantees put aside, executive edicts issued, agencies gagged, the mechanics of governance dismantled. Our acts of resistance, or inaction, are being noted and given paragraphs in the great chronicles, in real time.

For a number of reasons we have raised a generation of young voters with little interest in what has preceded them. They can’t be bothered with the past when the present is so dazzling with gadgetry, with so many celebrities to follow, so unlike anything seen before. Antecedents are too yesterday in this altogether new age. Or so it may seem to them.

So why know history? Because you learn that the Middle Ages was not the time when everyone was middle age, that Aristotle was not alive when Lincoln was, that there are trends and progression and you can find yourself in that larger context. And when you get a handle on it you don’t vote because of a candidate’s hair or if he’s a nice guy to have a beer with but more by policies, platform and experience. You might even fear the consequences of a particular candidate handed over the power of the office.

In fact all this has a familiar whiff. In 1933 Adolph Hitler, with 37% of the vote, formed a coalition government. It could have been stopped had the Communist Party been willing to join with other left-centrist groups to form a majority. What ensued is the abomination of the Holocaust. Of, course his rise to power was abetted by certain elements in Germany who thought they could use him for their purposes. In fact he used them. The Republicans think the same thing and so does Trump. We shall see.

Millennials did not show up in our November election. Their numbers were the lowest since 1972. When they did, almost half, among whites, voted for Trump or third party candidates. Perhaps they never heard about Adolf and his deplorables or the civil rights movement or the women’s rights struggle. A slumbering society is exactly what elects a Trump.

Many have asked how a cultured nation like Germany with composers, thinkers and scientists, could have abdicated their power over to a ranting, ruthless dictator. It was, in part, his full grasp of the power of the new media, radio. One might also put the question to us. It took a perfect storm; the confluence of an aggrieved work force, a bit of misogyny, foreign interference and a man who tweeted his ill-tempered blurts to a forgiving electorate.

Too bad Walter Cronkite isn’t around to Tweet or text a camp-fire story, in bit-sized pieces, of how it was, how it is and how much worse it can get.



Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sheep

Bad leadership requires a constituency of sheep. For a large chunk of America our new shepherd is idolized as the smartest guy in the room. For the rest of us he has been analyzed, scrutinized and demonized for the past twelve months. The only question remaining is whether he is insane, ignorant, ill-mannered or some, all or none of the above. I’m done with it. He wins. He is indeed the greatest. No one generates more ink, or more ire. He is the master manipulator of media; the greatest since some herdsman 10,000 years ago managed to move thousands of sheep into a narrow gully and have his way with them. He has rustled the electorate and harnessed them.

The thing about sheep is that they are generally docile, incurious. The curious ones get slaughtered early on so as not to pass along their subversive gene. … And everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.

Our shepherd doesn’t like questions. He is, after all, the one with the staff or shall we say, wand. He waves his wand and they do his bidding like Dudamel leading the philharmonic. Except our beloved conductor doesn’t belong in the same paragraph with Donald. Dudamel listens closely and interprets with the greatest of fidelity. Whereas our man with the wand has perfected the art of the lie. He orchestrates an alternative symphony.  

Apparently it doesn’t take a whole lot to herd sheep. There are sixty million of them in New Zealand and only 3.5 million of us two-legged creatures. Our shepherd-in-chief has learned the language of sheep. He hears their Baa, their every bleat. He is fluent in bleat.

He can declare that Thursday is now between Monday and Tuesday and Sunday precedes Saturday. If challenged he will either insult, fire or sue that person or else announce that he never said anything of the sort. If his surrogate can no longer defend the statement an apology will be issued on the bottom of page 37 in next year’s Farmer’s Almanac.

A few sheep might be disgruntled and they would be on tomorrow’s menu as lamb chops. All that wool to be pulled over their eyes when the promised-land doesn’t show up. In time, one hopes, the flock will become dismayed and thin out. Word gets out, even in sheep-dom, when the shepherd leads them over the cliff.

Speculation has it that the first sentence spoken by Homo Sapien, was something like, I smell a lion.  Sheep, no doubt, also have a nose for trouble, especially when their guy with the tweeting mouth and mustard hair is revealed as a fake and leads them into the abyss.


Soon a new little girl or boy blue will blow the horn, learn the speak and turn the Baa to an ah or better yet into an aha. Not the way Hillary Bo-Peep did losing her sheep. They won't come home wagging their tails behind them. We need a voice more like Bernie whose flock felt the burn and saw green pastures good for grazing.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Identity, Again



          A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.
                                    Ralph Waldo Emerson

Small minds also reference drunken Irishmen, dumb blondes, cheap Jews, Italian shoemakers and rigid Germans. Dozens more could be added to the list and they all belong in the non-recyclable garbage bin. Conversely not all Blacks are great dancers or athletes nor are all Asians inscrutable and brilliant students. I think it’s safe to say we’ve moved on beyond those stereotypes.

Personal identity is another matter and one that I grapple with. It is easier to look in from outside the tent that out from inside. If I am to identify myself tribally as Jewish I subordinate my free will to a pre-existing condition. But what if I reject that set of beliefs? If I find the religion irrelevant, at best, and exclusionary fables at worst, which when taken literally lead followers astray? Furthermore, if I take issue with the current Israeli leadership, and I find myself dis-identifying, am I still Jewish?

Yes, say some of my friends, I must be one of those self-hating ones. I really don’t hate anyone, particularly myself, but if that makes them happy so be it. I know, I know, if Hitler’s goon squad came knocking they wouldn’t care what I had to say. But I can’t live my life letting others define me. On the other hand I probably look Jewish, talk so, eat in delis, am endowed with Jewish humor and whatever else attaches itself to the cultural heritage. Tradition offers continuity but can also be seen as the illusion of permanence. I squirm with hollow rituals.

If we leave the tent have we lost our identity? I see it not as a flight from… but an embrace of… To the extent we are allowed to assert free will I choose secular humanism, a universality that seeks behaviors and beliefs which join rather than divide people. We are all inscrutable, graceful-clumsy, cheap-magnanimous, sober-intoxicated and brilliant-dumb. Rejection of my faith feels, to me, like inclusion in a wider community of kindred souls.

As for religion I don’t mean to dismiss it altogether. My belief is that it is too important, too sacred even, to be left to the conventional practitioners. I believe in the adjective, not the noun. A religious experience is what goes on between people at a level of full authenticity or those transcendent moments when one feels a creative burst, a connectivity to a larger plane.

To carry this further, is there really such a thing as identity? Who am I, is one of those ultimate questions. The answer is a work-in-progress. For me it has little to do with my birthright or profession or where I live or my life as a Dodger fan or my political preferences.

Small minds seem to require categories along with consistency. They like a fixed resolution they can file away. But life is messy and largely inexplicable. Sometimes I don’t agree with myself or hold opposing views at the same time. As David Brooks asks, do we live for our resume’ or our eulogy? I think the latter. 
Those core attributes are the measure of a man, the ones most of us aspire to, rather than the credits and successes to be aggrandized ….unless you are the man, with the small mind, now presiding over our lives.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Identity

Christ killer, George Leggett muttered under his breath. Again, You Jews killed Christ. We were playing touch football. My first thought was I had no alibi. Maybe I did and it slipped my mind. Who could account for their whereabouts 2000 years ago?

Then Russ Demetrius shouted it at me and he shoved me against the chain link fence. One-handed touch can escalate into near-tackle when tempers flare. I was the glue-fingered receiver having stretched to make a circus catch for a touchdown. I was 15 in 1948 and this was my first and last encounter with anti-Semitism.

The two of them attended Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, a parochial school, a couple of neighborhoods away. I guess they needed motivation to play and an excuse for losing. Perfectly understandable. I’m sure a few minutes in the confessional booth would work wonders.

I grew up in a bubble. It was the time of Four Freedoms as depicted in the posters of Norman Rockwell displayed on Post office walls and in schoolrooms. Unlike today, Brotherhood was all the rage. My classes were well represented with refugees. They were usually the best students. In spite of language barriers the foreign-born were the ones who skipped.

Fifty years later I learned that Kew Gardens was a destination for asylum-seekers. My world was sufficiently Jewish to delude me into thinking it was an accurate microcosm.

We were playing that day on the grass area of Kew Forest School, a private property whose fence we had all scaled.  The game was interrupted when I spotted the head-master of the school strolling down the hill before he spotted us. Instantly we all ran for cover behind a portion of the building which jutted out hiding us from view.

Suddenly we were all trespassers, partners-in-crime, in violation of some covenant if not commandment. Guilt joined us.

Jewish guilt was a worthy rival for Catholic guilt. They could finger their beads and do the arcane mumbles. I had to deal with my mother’s gevalts, her litany of aggravations. I might have been better off complicit in the Jesus caper, however, by now I suspect the statute of limitations would be in effect.

A few years later our president-elect would be attending this same school along with other boys and girls of privilege. Who knows what infractions they committed or what distortions were bred in the bone giving license to bragging, bullying and worse?   



Friday, January 13, 2017

I Can't Go On, I'll Go On


                                         The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett

Here I am in my subterranean laboratory, with cauldrons bubbling and a blackboard full of chalk. I am feverishly working through the night to calculate the algorithm for an elixir to ingest so I could nod off for four years and wake when all this is over. 

The alternative is to live my twilight years inside an apocalyptic sci-fi spoof given a zero rating by Rotten Tomatoes. Even the Hollywood Foreign Press offered no thumbs up.

The story begins when in 3rd grade, the class disrupter trades in his dunce cap to run for class president. On the promise of no more homework, short lines and the return of hickory sticks, for anyone disagreeing with him, he wins in spite of his tantrums, history of embezzling milk money and habit of throwing spit-balls. His opponent gets more votes but he claims a landslide victory after capturing aisles 2, 3 and 4 but losing all of 1 and 5.

Saying anything more is too easy. Word-weary stale, I’m spent. He has us raiding the glossary for adjectives. Is there another word for Thesaurus? I ask you. Did he ban that too, he of barbed tweets? Onceuponatime boidies churped. Now they are turned away from migratory routes, undocumented.

One tablespoonful should do it. Maybe two with a shot of….

But wait, I can’t swallow the potion yet because Peggy is putting together a chapbook of two dozen poems written over the past 25 years …all about movies. Her poetry is a distillate of films which struck chords in the far reaches of herself. So much so that the names of the movies have been erased from memory in some cases. This very act of transmutation gives me hope.

I must go on also because our friend Peter Merlin offers his art for exhibit at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. In one piece he has rendered a workingman’s boot on a pedestal. It could be Van Gogh’s shoe, crumpled and encrusted. But it isn’t; it strikes meas a juxtaposition suggesting today’s populist supported elitism. His portraits are fractured, demanding our attention from multiple perspectives.

It is alright that all roads lead to youknowwho? All we can do is to try to go on beyond the Donald. To listen hard for the voice of other Peggys and Peters and Becketts. Or as that other Nobel laureate put it…Oh Mama, can this really be the end / Stuck down here in Mobile / with the Memphis blues again.

No, not the end. We’ll go on.

Friday, January 6, 2017

In Our Midst

Low expectation enhances an experience and conversely only Dickens could get away with great ones. When I find myself touting a movie or book I have that sinking feeling of over-selling it. On the other end of the transaction my critical voice is likely to be aroused if someone tells me La La Land is the best film of the year or the latest Joyce Carol Oates novel a must-read.

Count me as one of those cranky card-carrying contrarians. I can do without fan-fare maybe because it robs me of discovery. Having said that ………..

I’m going to toot my horn for a sleeper masterpiece novel. The book is C.E. Morgan’s epic saga entitled, The Sport of Kings. Don’t let the name discourage you. There is a touch of irony in the title. It is more about southern racism than horse racing. In fact the core of the narrative is the joining of these two in the folly of human and equine breeding. No one in the book, on two legs or four, ever quite escapes their lineage, descendants of slaveholders, those in bondage or those bred.

Morgan’s language has echoes of Melville and Faulkner. Her voice is viscerally tough yet as lyrical as any poet who comes to mind. She gets close, then inside her characters, their skin and vocabulary. At the same time she sings the Kentucky landscape off the page. Add to this a spiritual dimension as an extension of her capacious humanity. It doesn't hurt that she attended Harvard Divinity School.

C.E. Morgan is forty years old. She shuns celebrity even as her first book, All the Living, won significant literary prizes seven years ago. Sadly, this book seems to have been overlooked in spite of notable reviews in the New Yorker and NY Times. I say this because I have been able to renew it twice from my library with nobody on the waiting list. Perhaps the 550 pages turn readers away. After I read it Peggy is having her turn. 

Both of us have savored one passage after another pausing to marvel at her linguistic risks. She plunges the reader into nether regions and then lifts us to transcendent heights...often in the same paragraph. In one digression two runaway slaves are crossing the Ohio river into Cincinnati from Kentucky...

He could already feel his ball and chain spirit becoming no heavier than a feather. He unties his tattered, sand-caked brogans and leaves them on the shore. He does not want to wear the shoes of slavery on the other side. Carry us, carry us, carry us and then the rocky bed swoops away from under their feet. The hungry current carrying them as they plow through the eddies.... A brief thrashing sound, another gasp and she slips below. Her hands then crash once more on the surface like the sound of two oars smacking. He tears his eyes from salvation to look back and sees only the white ructure she's made on the water. He is pulled powerfully between two worlds.... Her legs draw up suddenly in a wrenching spasm and her arms whip wildly about and spin for purchase... then release and like a stone, Abby drops away. He fights for the shore as if the devil himself were after him.... He's weeping in horror and drinking the river.... His broad, white latticed back is a curtain drawn on the crude festival of the South.

If she is given to excess, bless her for it. If the plot stumbles here and there it is to be forgiven. Her ambition cannot be contained nor is her grasp ever beyond her reach. One major character is, like Shakespeare's Falstaff, an essential voice but not quite of this world. The Sport of Kings exposes the sham and shame of racism, its virulence passed along as self-hatred. This is a book for the ages, an American classic in our midst.



Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Breakfast In the Dark Age


The sun is a bagel, the moon a croissant.
My head’s in the bowl reading Cheerios,
you ponder your flakes while sipping
a cup of antioxidant brew…but that was then.

Now our toast is burnt in a raisin bread sky
scrambambled eggs have been hacked,
Humpty-Dumpty is Trumped 
and the tea leaves spell doom.

Mold on the muffin, no sun in the O.J. Oh say
can you see that our flag's at half-mast.
The air has been fouled with fibs.
It's mourning in America (that's with a you).

How sweet the sound, not the word.
He promised to bring home the bacon,
to make grate the hash browns,
but they've been hash-tagged and nuked.

He’ll deport the dish-washer, the chef,
the guy who picks berries with an illegal smile.
The 4 AM tweet said let them eat cake,
those crumbs that fall from his plate.

He says he’s pro-life, it’s time to repeal.
Once they're born, who cares?
No more free lunch for losers.
If you’re sick, God forbid. The menu is rigged.

Science is fake, jobs trump pollution,
drill baby drill, let the suckers melt, ask (Ras)putin.
The heatwave's a hoax, the floods and the drought.
Damn solar & wind. Burn it with coal, just don’t inhale.

What so proudly we hailed!
Some lives don't matter.The second 
amendment's twice as good as the first.
Read your Bible, then read his. Such a deal!