Friday, September 21, 2018

Your Call Is Very Important to Me

But I can't come to the phone right now. I’m too busy thinking great thoughts and looking for good news. If you are calling about molestation and harassment by Hollywood, the Holy Hierarchy or High Court, press one. If you are calling about derangement in the White House, press two. Melting glaciers and estranged polar bears, press three. Homeless folks living in cardboard boxes while the Dow is bursting its buttons, press 4. If you are asking for contributions to the policemen’s ball leave your message before the beep. If you are calling to tell us that Peggy’s Cat-Scan got mixed up with somebody else’s leave a message after the beep.  

The morning newspaper is filled with stories of bodies buried in a typhoon landslide, 124 immigrants found packed in a cargo truck, opioid drug overdose and a variety of mayhem and misdemeanors. Cable stations are feasting on bulletins of disaster. Netflix is bloated with serial killers, epidemics, carnage and apocalyptic scenarios.

As a kid I followed WW II in the New York Times. I remember feeling some pride learning how to hang onto the subway strap with one hand and folding the paper with the other. The pages were all about Allied retreats and advances, bombings, surrenders, liberations and maps of Pacific islands. It was a geography lesson. It all ended in the summer of ’45 and I wondered what there would be to write about. It seems that bad news is inexhaustible. Even in good times I read somewhere there are always about two dozen small wars going on which apparently don’t merit our attention.

Maybe some bad guy died. Does that count as good news? It’s probably why some people watch the Hallmark channel. Here’s a story of a woman living in her car for the past year who, along with four others, found a room in a five-bedroom condo through some charity.

The macro doesn’t match the micro. Just last week a woman let me ahead of her on line at the check-stand with my three items. The bonsai plant is still looking pleased with itself. That book the library claimed I didn’t return turned up on their shelves and they apologized. The honey dew I bought in August is almost ripe enough to open. At least I asked if it was ready and it didn’t protest.

Contrary to the impression left by Breaking News I don’t know any mass murderers, double agents, or human traffickers. I’ve yet to have lunch with a suicide bomber or been targeted by a drone. There have been no jack-knifed big rigs on our street. Dog-walkers bag their poop.

Singularly we are a noble lot. We hold the elevator door for each other. We stop (more or less) at stop signs and may grumble over prices but don’t blow up the market. There is no one on the road to incite me into rage. For the most part the milk of human kindness flows in every vein. And yet as we cling to some sort of neo-tribal identity the beast within is given legitimacy. We regress to feral-survivor mode as if…

We’re experiencing a high call volume. Your expected wait-time is seven hours. Best to call back between midnight and three when you can be assured no one will answer the phone.

As for that Cat-Scan, we are dealing with it. Peggy lives by these words of wisdom: No Resistance.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Where I Came In

Saturday between noon and one o’clock we’d be there inching our way across an aisle in the dark theater, my brother and I. It didn’t matter that the movie had started. Being four years older he was stuck with me; I was five, plus or minus. We were probably well-prepared for a long afternoon with boxes of Jujubes, Necco wafers and assorted agents of tooth decay and future zits. 

We would stay until we could say, This is where we came in. How many movies did I watch starting in the middle and working itself to the end and then the beginning? You might think that the lesson would have taught me that life is cyclic like the seasons. But it didn’t quite take. The counter narrative is linear sequential.

I expect most of us behave as if the world started when we fell to earth. Page one. Anything before was preamble. Progression was assumed, corresponding to our own growing up. Life in the 1930s was simple because I was a simpleton and my senses were rudimentary. See Dick run … and he did.

Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger sang union songs extolling the working class. You can’t scare me I’m sticking with the union…till the day I die, went one song. Another lyric was, They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there / You either are a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair. Blair was a coal mine owner who probably had brought in scab labor during a strike.

In today’s world of the absurd we have descendants of these mine-workers voting for Blair’s would-be chum, Donald Trump. This isn’t progress. It is regression. Some sort of twisted dictatorship of the proletariat. Karl Marx had it all wrong. The down-trodden masses have turned into the mob and cast their lot with the guy in the penthouse. The forgotten are led by the misbegotten. The sit-down strikers of the thirties are now marching to the hokum of a flimflam man. 

We knew those fat cats back in the day. Sydney Greenstreet, Edward Arnold, Eugene Pallette and Charles Coburn weighed in at about half a ton. They nearly always played the filthy rich tycoons indifferent to the man asking, Brother, can you spare a dime.

As Ma Joad said in the Grapes of Wrath: Rich fellas come up an’ they die and their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cause we’re the people.

Yes, the people keep on coming but they took a wrong turn, it seems to me, back in Vietnam war days when unions of hard hats mistook it for WWII and felt left out of the social upheaval. They became misaligned with their own welfare and miscast with the generals and war profiteers.

Oliver Hardy famously said to Stan Laurel, Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into. Their movies were part of my Saturday matinee menu along with the double feature, newsreels, March of Dimes collection, Looney Tunes, and a serial such as The Lone Ranger. We are currently in a bigger mess than Stan Laurel ever imagined and no William Tell Overture to signal the return of the masked Ranger or Tonto to set the world right.

Another Laurel quote: I had a dream that I was awake and woke up to find myself asleep. America is half asleep under the spell of malarkey. There is a card sharp robber baron and his band of cattle rustlers running the show with tacit support from the town folk. I am waiting for the part when the clean-shaven sheriff calls them out. It is high noon at the O.K. Corral. I’m waiting for the drunken doctor to sober up. For the schoolmarm to ring the bell and the saloon-keeper to prohibit brawls and shoot-outs. For the decent poor folk to figure out how their bread is buttered and stop shooting themselves in the foot. I can't leave now. I'm waiting for the scene when I can say, This is where we came in.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Damn Those Greeks

Rumor (which I just started) has it that when Trump heard Stormy was in bed with laryngitis he shouted, Damn those Greeks. He was overheard uttering the same epitaph when told the New York Times op-ed piece was written by Anonymous. Who knew our inspirational leader was a classical Hellenistic scholar.

Perhaps he was drawn to the Greeks when told that their early version of Democracy included slaves and that hubris was a feature of Greek heroes ... before they had their comeuppance. Trump has enjoyed many highlight moments usurping the prerogatives of the Gods. Zeus, himself, that old mischievous hurler of lightning tweets, when he wasn’t having his way with nubile nymphs, would surely have taken umbrage with our Donald. The Olympians didn’t suffer fools gladly.

Sparta, rather than Athens, might have been a better fit. Bone spurs to the contrary notwithstanding, he would not have shied away from an invasion or two. And certainly there would be no skimping on parades. Of course, any military action would have been fought by lesser men, the fools and losers. Trump would have watched from his eponymous (another Greek) Tower demonstrating his Edifice Complex.

To prove his immersion in all things Greek Trump follows Socrates dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living. He has tweaked it by declaring that the unexamined Tax Return is not worth showing. As for Plato’s assertion that we are mere shadows on the wall Trump seeks to test the notion by building a three-thousand mile wall. In the world of mythology heroes routinely kill dragons.  Rather than look inside at his own demons he has set out to kill the imagined one, namely, Government. Had he directed his angst against corporate greed we might have reason to hail him.
He has identified with Narcissus fixed as he is with his own face and hair. Opposing women’s control over their reproductive rights Trump might have looked toward ancient Greece where many an unwanted baby was set out among the rocks or caves …only to pop up years later (Ion and Oedipus) with dire consequences.

But Trump is, archetypically speaking, the Trickster. Though that designation insults the coyote. He certainly is not the disguised shaman or healer. His forked tongue may be his Achilles heel having put his foot in his mouth so often. He is part Odysseus with duplicity and deceit and part Orpheus charming his way into the underbelly while he lip-syncs the illusory dread in the Heartland.

My guess is Trump’s favorite Greek name is Xeno, meaning strange voice; hence xenophobia, that base fear which he has inflamed among his fearful base.  Damn those Greeks.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Conversation with the Other

In a recurrent nightmarish day-dream I’m the last one standing. Aliens have arrived and I’m there to greet the spaceship hoping, at least, for someone to have lunch with. After the usual small talk about our respective planets and what went wrong with mine I ask what took them so long. The pilot apologizes because they’ve been monitoring our decline and fall for many moons, alarmed at our recent planetary suicide but he says they just didn’t make the lights.

The three-eyed android who more resembles an over-sized grasshopper or an under-sized rhinoceros, remarkably, speaks a perfect English. Good thing because I only took Trash as a second language. It had been a while since I’d spoken at all and found myself fluent, at first, only in gibberish till I regained use of my tongue.

He then turns to a pile of what we used to call technology inquiring how all the gadgetry works. I dread the moment and plead total ignorance. Fearful of raising his hackles I try to explain that we earthlings used a lot of things but most of us had no idea how anything worked. His hackles did indeed rise. I worried that some form of inter-galactic enhanced interrogation was coming in which I might find myself impaled on one his hackles.

He seemed to accept my ignorance since, after all, we had convincingly demonstrated our collective stupidity by electing an infantile despot to lead our nation. The visitors regretted their delayed arrival and having to deal with such a poor specimen as me to enlighten them on our human progress. I could only assure them that there used to live among us some who could explain how the loom with its punch cards led to player pianos and eventually to programming the computer. I told him there were a few of us undaunted by hot wires or hard drives who could fiddle with links and algorithms and blue teeth and black holes. If one of those had survived they could build it all over again from a handful of dust. However I was not the guy.

All I had to offer was the paper clip, coat hanger and orange juice squeezer none of which he had ever seen before. We agreed to call it a start and besides it would take a lot more than things to get it right next time around.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

I Forgot the Question

But Arlen Specter is the answer. These days lunch could not be complete without looking up some piece of trivia on a smart phone. I don’t have one but my friends always do. It leaves no question unanswered except, perhaps, for the meaning of life, what are we doing here and what just went wrong with our country. As for Arlen Specter, Google him if it matters.

I doubt if any of our ancestors had as much knowledge crammed into their grey matter as we do. Our heads are stuffed with gigabytes (whatever that means) of facts. Too bad knowledge doesn’t translate into wisdom. Was it Plato or Yogi Berra who said that, knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in fruit salad. Actually it was Miles Kington who deserves attribution. He also said that a pessimist sees a glass as half empty. An optimist is the guy who drinks what’s there’s and orders another. I know all this because I just looked it up…but at least I waited till I came home.

Given my creeping senility and early signs of nominal aphasia I expect to forget his name by next week, deleted in the clutter. Knowledge has a shelf life. Wisdom is more like what we know but cannot quite articulate. Wisdom is likely to be an interrogation. Why and How rather than Who or When. Possibly what happened when we didn’t notice. The ineffable. A instance of congruence in the discord. A pattern seen from a distant perch.

Knowledge has its place. It is one step ahead of info, data and nomenclature. If they opened me up out would come pouring a compendium of pharmaceutical terms, a dictionary of words and an encyclopedia of political events, a smattering of history & geography, a gaggle of ballplayers, movies, actors, big-band leaders and a libretto or two from Gilbert and Sullivan. The stuff that might get you on Jeopardy.     

It may be that wisdom comes in two sizes: petite and extra-large. The tiny wisdoms probably depend on a fair amount of basic knowledge. One couldn’t draw lessons from Karl Marx  without familiarity, at least, with the language of economics. There’s even wisdom in Harpo. Sort of like knowing what it takes not to add tomato (or ketchup) to the fruit salad. Harpo got to us with a shrug, a nod and a honk.

The great wisdom said to be found at the foot of the Himalayas or the bottom of your oatmeal bowl comes to those with a mind empty of distraction, ego and noise. When the Zen novice arrives at the monastery seeking answers he is told to wash his bowl. The floating world is that which eludes Google over lunch but may be accessible to the dishwasher in his reverie. In simplicity and silence one learns to listen for the wisdom which lies within.

Peggy knows all this. The poet doesn’t exert herself scrambling for the word. She receives it. The poet is not only a seeker, she is a finder. There is an art in the joy of irresolution, in the universal muck. It presumes a portal to the unknown. That may be the only wisdom I have ever witnessed.

Yes, Virginia, life is a fountain and a journey but those have exhausted themselves into platitudes. Wisdom is more likely to be found in the roots of an old ficus tree, Liszt's First Piano Concerto, a succulent peach or in Harpo's overcoat with his one roller skate, (unsmart) telephone and a cup of coffee... artifacts of a fractured civilization. He saw a broken piano and made a harp of it.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Planning My After-Life

As a mid-octogenarian it’s not too soon to entertain such thoughts. I’ve been forgetful lately. Maybe I already died and it just slipped my mind. Peggy and I like to think it may have happened about 30 years ago when we fell off the back of a bus on Oxford St. in London and were splattered under traffic. In that case this bliss could be eternal.

But just in case we survived that day I have a plan B. I look to the caterpillar. Not in her wildest dreams does she imagine morphing into a butterfly. If it’s good enough for that fuzzy creeper it works for me too. My shoulders have agreed to sprout wings.

In fact I’ve been in consultation with my aged body parts and they’ve all given their consent to make a contribution…or at least they haven’t said No. We recently signed up for donation of our organs and tissues. Have a spleen, a liver, an eyeball. (Pick up and drop off are free) I would hope that DJT has made similar arrangements so medical science might study what went wrong with his genome. He owes us that much.

Don’t get excited. Neither Peggy nor I have any imminent plans of leaving this mortal coil. I have set my dial to her present age, ninety-seven, which will make her a robust 109… unless I am a piece of broccoli with a pulse and nothing else. If you are reading this, Death, get away from our front door, even our mailbox.  

Depending on how you look at it this is either the best of times or the worst of times for a demise. I’d prefer my curtain to go down when the country is on the ascendant. That is to say, when Donald is a mere asterisk in our chronology, when the reign of tyranny and virulent imbecility has passed. I am foolish enough to believe in Progress however zig-zaged. Call it a spiral with its plateaus and dips but moving nevertheless toward higher consciousness.

Maybe I missed my chance to check out on election eve, November, 2016. Now it’s too late.  What a sadness it must have been to end it alI in 1914 or ’41 when we were on the brink of wreckage. I want to be here, not for happy ending, but for the happy continuance, to bear witness to our repair and reinvigoration. I would like to be around for the restoration of Science as we heed its call to save our planet. And when we learn to love each other or else.

Then I shall get my wings out of the dry cleaner and investigate the pollen in the flower bed. Hold the harps. I'll flit to the music of the spheres and at rest recall my previous incarnation grounded and always at the ready for transformation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Con Artist vs Artist

I give up. In a previous blog I said he is an aggregate of ignorance, arrogance, mendacity and malice. My store of invective against the Nameless One is exhausted. I have the feeling he enjoys being vilified as long as his name appears…. which I no longer can bring myself to utter. We’ve been sucker-punched. What is red meat for his cohorts has also been our empty feast. The maggots and the birds together get their bellyful. The menu for Fox (faux) news to be revered is the same for MSNBC to be ridiculed.

It keeps us busy for the news cycle and distracts us from creating our own agenda. We need to make news, grab the narrative. Make the case for taxes as providing services, for Entitlements as compensation earned, that education is a Right without becoming a debtor for decades. For diversity. For healthcare, clean air and water as Rights which can be afforded by the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

If the Nameless One is an artist it is a con artist, creating a model for Mussolini-like Fascism. He is the master sculptor having turned the soft clay of amorphous fear and grievance into a hard edged hatred impervious to reason. He promises order out of the chaos of his own creation, repairing what he just broke. He resets the clock, makes sure the trains run on time…and the train of thought as well, absent of dissent.

Fifty years ago I had dear friends who saw their lives also in turmoil and the country mean and soulless. They joined in a counter-culture community with a powerful leader. I attended one of their meetings in San Francisco. The group of a few hundred were clearly under his spell in what I regarded as hocus-pocus paranoia. There was a jazz band. The members had been persuaded that society threatened their fellowship. Gradually they gave up their autonomy. Their dying began when doubt was forbidden. The judgement of the man at the helm was not to be questioned. His name was Jim Jones. My friends, Claire and Richard survived but lost their two teenage children.

The one whose name I cannot utter has also reached cult status. He can insult, act impetuously, fabricate, have tantrums and surround himself with incompetent and admitted criminals … all with impunity. His rallies generate chants. On cue his base drinks Kool-Aid staunchly supporting policies detrimental to their own livelihood.

To call him an artist does a disservice to all artists. True art doesn’t promise Order. In fact its vitality is in its association with the disreputable, disruptive and reckless. It more closely resembles the demography of this country in all its shades of skin and beliefs. It is inclusive and welcoming of the new. It challenges convention which Republican reactionaries uphold as a fixed ideal. Art resists margins. There is a democracy inherent in paint and words ever pushing toward a new way of seeing, rearranging the senses and interrogating the unknown.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Rites of Passage

Part of me is still a street urchin and will never leave the candy store. My place of first permission. Hearing street talk, unfiltered. To mingle with grown-ups. To watch them cry the day Roosevelt died. It was raw. Buying and selling, haggling and yelling. Fast nickels and slow dimes. Nasty and sweet together. This was the stuff of poems. If the candy store was a baptismal the drug store was my Bar Mitzvah.

I went from the smells of Gishkins to the aromatic vapors of the drug store. A few years after my father’s store closed I worked after school in four different ones through high school and college. I’ll merge the first three. I was the stock clerk / soda jerk / delivery boy. One store had no typewriter; labels were hand-written. We made our glue from macerating acacia.

I lasted just half a day behind the fountain; the toughest job I’ve ever had. Trying to remember who got the black & white shake, who ordered the vanilla malt, the strawberry frosted and who the root beer float. There were sundaes and frappes, Charlotte Ruses and banana splits. I put a bottle of Pepsi in the freezer when I started that day and forgot about it until it exploded by day’s end. Never again. I take my hat off to the memory of those who stuck it out….and still somehow found time to smooch with the girls.    

Thanks for coming in today, is how Buddy, the regular fountain 
man greeted everyone who walked in, even the pharmacist, cosmetician, salesclerk and me, and again as he left for the day. He must have been high on cough syrup. His chatter never stopped. After my first and last day, by mutual consent, I stayed away except to make myself an extra thick malt (which almost broke the mixer) as a reward to myself before going home. 

I was the guy who wrapped the Kotex and Modess in green paper. God forbid its name would show. Such were the times. All the merchandise was behind the counter, on shelves or in drawers. Windows were dressed by artists down on their luck, Bromo Seltzer, Ex-Lax and Epsom Salt stacked architecturally in empty boxes with pins. At fifty cents an hour plus tips I walked around with coins jingling in my pocket. I was almost rich enough to catch a few sets at Birdland listening to Dizzy, Ella, Billie and The Prez.

Pharmacy as practiced as late as 1950 was part sorcery and I was the sorcerer’s apprentice. The dispensing area was like a garden of herbs or at least their crushed leaves, elixirs, resins, and fluidextracts. Botanical names had to be learned, Prunus Virginiara (Wild Cherry syrup), Glycyrrhiza root (licorice), aqua mentha piperita (peppermint water) are a few that still cling to my bones.

My final drug store experience happened one summer in midtown Manhattan. This turned out to be my initiation into gangster capitalism. I was a clerk in the Roosevelt Hotel pharmacy. The owner had stores in five other high end hotels as well. I was startled, one evening when I heard the pharmacist invite the boss up to his apartment and see the new art he bought with money he had stolen during the month. Hundreds of dollars had gone into his pocket instead of the cash register…and that was perfectly O.K. with the owner because he was satisfied getting half of the $200 paid for a $5.00 bottle of Testosterone tablets. For reasons unknown to me very wealthy playboys and businessmen from South America and the Caribbean stayed at that hotel. On another occasion I was told to bring a box of Kotex (wrapped, of course) to the hotel cashier. I was to collect $39 instead of 39 cents. The money flowed and was regarded as nothing more than a redistribution of wealth.

All that old pharmacy air had vanished between my entrance into college and my graduation. By 1954 the store became deodorized and deracinated. Gone was the romance, the rhizomes and roots.  A deep inhalation yielded only plastic and glass. To reach the vapors escaping from apothecary jars I had to close my eyes and imagine. The old organic remedies had fallen into disrepute. They could not pass the F.D.A. test for safety and efficacy. In some cases the active ingredient in the crude drug had been synthesized to yield a more exact therapeutic measure. I was now a counter and pourer and would remain so for the next fifty-three years with all this arcana withering in my head.

Two months in that hotel pharmacy gave me a glimpse into a world I would never encounter again. I had traveled from sorcery to larceny. This was the territory of Donald Trump. There must be stops in between to be discovered. It was time to get out of town. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018


The candy store was the hub that defined the neighborhood. A block away with six apartment buildings between was a different neighborhood. They had their own.  Ours, around the corner by the subway steps, we called Pops. Old man Pop was out there day and night with a change belt sagging around his waist taking in nickels, giving back pennies with a double click. Like the man in the Automat he knew the weight of twenty nickels if you gave him a buck. In the early hours he sold the Daily News, Mirror, Times, Herald, Compass and Trib. In the evening was the Journal-American, P.M., Post, Sun and World-Telegram. At night around nine a truck pulled up with the Racing Final. He was always there to cut the rope.

Deposit bottles got us two cents; he could tell if it was his or the A & Ps. He stored them in a shed in the back covered with chicken wire. I could see them from my window on the third floor. In my criminal mind I dreamed of scaling the tree that hung over the stacked bottles and slashing my way into the empties. Too many serials watching the Dead-End Kids. I could have ended up like George Raft or Cagney doing a stretch up the river, even gotten the Chair with Pat O’Brien walking me down that last crooked mile.

I had a second candy store around the school yard where I hung, called Gishkins. I could smell it from dead backboards a block away…. and still do. It was his cigar mingled with bubblegum cards, throw in some airplane glue and a two-cent plain. There I am with my hand in the red cold-box outside the store fishing for a Mission orange soda or chocolate Nehi. Now I was Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy playing the kazoo. Gishkin sold them and harmonicas too.

Inside, in a miracle of concision, were comic books and school supplies (notebooks, reinforcements, stencils, book covers, fountain pens, pencils) and colored chalk. He had water pistols and Waterman ink, ink eradicator, jump rope, marbles and kites. Stuff and more stuff!

Both Pops and Gishkins kept our teeth in constant decay with their jaw breakers, juju beads, milk duds Milky Ways and dozens of bars, gums and suckers. Then there were baseball mitts, football needles, Spauldeens, toys, film and, of course, a dozen brands of cigarettes, Prince Albert pipe tobacco and White Owl and Dutch Master Cigars. It was Woolworths fit into a space shorter than a subway car.

There was a third candy store five neighborhoods away where I became famous. Famous, that is, in my family. I went there furtively in the shadows of an October Tuesday. Ask for Murray, they said. Luckily, I caught his shift. He passed along the issue of The Daily Worker where I was the headline on the back page having picked seventeen winners out of twenty in the college football pool. As the Communist Party newspaper it conferred no bragging rights. I knew then I would never be Gable or Astaire, neither a leading man, nor a song and dance guy. Just a, gulp, Jimmy Stewart, humble and Aw Shucks. I’d be the heroic G.I. who ditches the train one stop before his town to avoid the brass band and hoopla.

Pops, Gishkin and Murray along with Saturday matinees taught me everything I needed to know. As Tarzan said, It’s a jungle out there, but now I could handle it with enough street-smarts and movie-smarts to get by. Seventeen out of twenty ain’t bad in a world of upsets.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

What Grows in America

Crowds gather waiting for Amorphophallus titanum to raise a stink at Huntington Gardens. A matter of life and death together blooming with a stench of rotten fish and sweaty feet calling pollinators to spread the seed. The mortuary meets the maternity ward inside the greenhouse.

They call it a corpse flower. Is it the sight of the open petal with its five or six foot phallus that draws the vigil or the inhalation of death? Thousands have been coming to the greenhouse in Pasadena for the past week as Shakespeare put it to watch as each hour it (we) ripe and ripe and each hour it (we) rot and rot.

Beauty reeking to high heaven like truth. There is, of course, no death; only the smell of it to summon the bugs which roll around in the pollen, then fly away and propagate. At least that is what happens in the Sumatra rainforest.

In a few months the forests of New England will become a destination for tourists marveling at the dying of sycamore, birch and maple leaves. In late summer they lose their chlorophyll and by autumn their carotenoid blazes in ruddy to amber dress. Tis a glorious demise as if the diva has held back her most majestic aria as she goes down in full regalia. And yet again the bare branches are already pregnant with next season’s singing foliage.

The ecosystem is self-renewing. Some trees depend on fires for renewal. Whose woods these are, I think I know, said Robert Frost. Yet with heedless predators like us one wonders if they stand a chance. We are scorching our grassland and forests. Every year the fire season is expanded with record temperatures and high winds. We are witness not just to the smell of death or the cyclic grandeur of dying leaves but the bitter sorrow of lost Nature and slow burn of our Democracy.

As if the electorate has committed suicide we’ve entrusted our precepts, our heritage, our dignity, the very air we breathe to a man beneath contempt. The shell of a human being without soul or conscience. The stinkweed of America has been fertilized and watered so that now it creeps out from under rocks. It reeks of tyranny and brutality. It can only be eradicated as it is seen, an infestation not indigenous to this land or any.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Arrested Development

It’s based on greed. Deception is a virtue. There is violence and braggadocio. Collusion and obstruction are part of it. But enough about Trump.

I’m talking sports here. Playing professional baseball, football, basketball etc… belongs to the physically endowed. Watching it is something else. Spending my lifetime as a spectator must surely be a form of retardation. Not merely a spectator but a fan as in fanatic. There must be dozen of reasons to turn away from this fixation. The obscene profits by owners, outrageous salaries, commodification and endorsements such as by shoe companies, public money to build stadiums and conflation with the military along with phony patriotism to name a few.   

Like any addiction I can’t help myself. It defies the rational. The reptilian brain overthrowing the frontal cortex. It’s hormonal. My child is still alive. Grow up, I hear you say. But why would I want to do that? Maybe I was concussed playing touch football as a kid and never recovered. Sports is my alternative reality. That section of the newspaper I can count on to whisk me away from the even more duplicitous avarice of institutional malevolence issuing from the White House.

Indefensible as the case may be immersion in sports stats and personnel offers a ticket into an on-going human drama in which a curtain goes down at the end of each season only to open at the start of next with new hopes and dreams. As if we, as avid fans, can move a few chess pieces and declare victory. Don’t you love spending other people’s money? Of course you do.

Fans live vicariously with the joy of championships and die bitterly with defeats. We curse our team and players on Monday and embrace them by Thursday. They become us. And while they become old we never do. We are puer aeternus. There is always some young phenom with great promise waiting in the wings into whose skin we can crawl. Each new season we are reborn.

The Dodgers, once the Boys of Summer, haven’t won a World Series in thirty years though we have come close. I suppose some fans see it as death by a thousand cuts. Not me. All I ask is six or seven months of diversion. Go ahead, make me care. Provide me with transport like a good poem or any work of art.

And to plagiarize myself..........Real fans are descendants of pagans, idolaters who converse with the gods who know the power of a sacrificial act. If it takes closing my eyes I’m willing to miss the play. We are zealots who move our bodies into others to do battle, once removed, against the forces of darkness. We are beyond spectators. We suit up for the game in a different skin. For the next three hours we are possessed.

Maybe it’s not just distraction but some form of extension of the real world mysteriously connected to the larger canvas of human progress. Athletes do not regress. They are bigger, faster, and stronger than their grandfathers. Virtual Adonis-like with exceptions here and there. Yes, yes, I know about the greats of those good old days but as an aggregate, pitchers now throw faster, and more hitters hit farther. What is retrogressive is Trump.

If, as Marx proclaimed, religion is the opiate of the masses then watching sports on T.V. may be the myopia of the asses. But in these days of derangement we need our opiates. In fact it may even be healthier than wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth watching 3-4 hours of MSNBC. Better yet...I could go to the library, listen to Billie sing Gershwin, cherish Peggy, commune with my favorite tree or improvise on that recipe for bread pudding.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Yellow Days

Love that tune. It has colonized my head for a few days, especially the rendition by Tony Bennett...

I remember when the sunlight had a special kind of brightness
And laughter held a lover's kind of lightness
Yellow days, yellow days

She would hold me and the smile would spread around us so completely
And the softness of a kiss would linger sweetly
Yellow days, yellow days

I think it was triggered by all the Gold Medallions, aka butter daisies or melampodium in full bloom in my neighborhood. They are those small to medium-sized trees that pop up from an unremarkable green-leaf into yellow lollipops along the verge or grassway between walkers and drivers in West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. They are noted for tolerating a high level of neglect. And yet they bring the sun to the sidewalks with thousands of yellow bulbs from June to August.

Residents of Yorkville Guzzle Beer in Vats. That is how my 
physics teacher in high school had us memorize the spectrum. And there is (Yorkville) yellow flanked by two of my other favorites, orange and green. What’s not to like? Autumnal orange with its offspring, sienna, rust, pumpkin etc... and all those increments of greeny things. Yellow is, of course, the sun, brightness, optimism and daffodils, banana peel, lemons, scrambled eggs as well as one of the Lakers uniforms. What says summer better than mustard on a hot dog? And let us not forget, the color of Marvin Gardens.

I’m remembering back to my days in suburbia. Regardless of attention paid there were always devil grass and yellow dandelions in patches of dichondra lawn. It was a mix of weed and trim that had the ring of truth to it.

Along with yellow for Yes there is the suggestion of caution, slow down, look out for pedestrians and runaway trains. It is the color of school buses transporting our future. It also signifies cowardice owing to racist rant against the Chinese. Needless to say Chinese are no more yellow than indigenous people are red or Caucasians, white. And then there was Yellow Journalism, which today describes the National Enquirer and Foxy News.

Tied as it is to the seasons yellow is cyclic. Not seen much in winter except in Christmas tree lights and gift wrap as compensation. Even the song ends in a chilled heart.

But then came thunder
And I heard her say "goodbye"
Through tears of wonder
Now I'm alone and my heart wants to know 
Yellow days, where'd you go?

But then came thunder
And I heard her say "goodbye"
Through tears of wonder
Now I'm alone and my heart wants to know
Yellow days, where'd you go?

Life is empty and the sunlight seems so harsh instead of tender
And the laughter's just an echo I'll remember
Yellow days, yellow days.

In these dark days of Trumpadump we need all the Yellow we can find. The lights are out on the Yellow Brick Road.

"Yellow Days was written by Alan Bernstein and Alvarro Carrillo

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Awesome he said when I gave him my name and awesome 
again when I verified my address. One more awesome and I’m canceling my order and hanging up, said I. Your hyperbole offends me, I told him. It does violence to my ear. There’s nothing awesome about anything I said. Save the word. Stick it in your wall safe. Try to go through your day without using it. That would be awesome. Cool, he promised.

Strange how some words travel across the entire spectrum. Terror long ago became terrific which you would never use to suggest fear. But there may still be time to salvage awe.

Awe was cousin to reverence. It was evoked by the sacred. Awe accompanied an epiphany. It describes the sublime. It is the language of our discourse with the unknown. Awe is the last word before the inarticulate.

Awesome is an exclamation reserved for my first sight of Van Gogh’s Iris vibrating off the wall in Amsterdam or Paul Robeson’s bass-baritone voice shattering my glass anatomy. Awesome is Peggy, robust at 97. It is the Grand Canyon, the redwood forest, the pictographs at Chauvet, the amaze of the Gehry-Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as we turned the corner to our astonished eyes or the words on the page of a certain Wallace Stevens poem which knock my unmatched socks off.

Awe morphed into awful as if it contained some nasty seed for mischief. Now we have Shock and Awe describing what happens when a village is bombed to smithereens in a manner designed to break the opposition's will. I suppose Hiroshima was that instance of terrible beauty that Rilke and Yeats  referenced and awesome was the mushroom cloud as we witnessed the instrument for planetary suicide. With Beauty now discarded we have accepted the demotic into the notion of grandeur.

I can accept this negative awe for its proximity to something both numinous and destructive surpassing all else but not the debasement of the word to describe my name and address. Certain words deserve special handling as they travel across millennia. Yes, I know language is organic, growing wild outside the garden wall. It is what everyone says it is. And yet…

The problem is that to dispense awesome in a casual way is to debase it, to assign it to the garbage pail of exhausted words. It needs to be earned. We need to conserve certain language for our vocabulary of wonderment. Without it we are bereft. In these times of bereavement as Trump has raided our glossary with his third grade grasp of superlatives we have to at least protest against the theft of awe. The damage he has done to our democracy is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb but I wouldn't waste the word awesome on him.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tech, High and Low

The future has already arrived, I’m told. The past is not even past, so says Faulkner. I’ll take his word for it. Give me a break. It’s getting too crowded to live in the moment. As a mid-octogenarian I’m still reviewing my life and figuring out how I got to this page in my saga. Or more currently still asking, what just happened after the defeat of Hilary 591 days ago.

There is something about sci-fi or whatever names apply to that genre of cautionary tales about runaway technology which numb my brain. It’s the great what if and to be sure much of artificial intelligence is already with us. When Orwell wrote 1984 he was really addressing what he saw in 1948. Momentous change arrives on cat’s feet through the back door while I’m in a rocking chair on the front porch.

I bought shoes last month and can’t figure out what to do with those 54 inch laces. I trip over the excess aglets going into the eyelet or else buy a toggle. It probably took me eleven years to learn how to tie my shoes and I refuse to yield to the new technology. I’m getting nostalgic for those good old days when our mothers took us to the shoe store and we were treated to a dose of cancer-causing fluorescence to see our toes wiggle.

I don’t particularly like quinoa or kelp. Whatever happened to lettuce and romaine? Not good enough for you? When I call any large corporation I always hit zero in order to speak to a human being. It’s no fun arguing with a recording. But I understand that Google has now simulated the human voice with all our stammers and pauses to make us think we are talking to one of our fellow species.

I’m the guy who still gets the newspaper delivered. Here it comes now. I also watch T.V. by candlelight. Love those eternal verities.

I know it’s a losing battle. Even indefensible. I suppose there were folks like me resisting the innovation of lawn mowers. That led to the removal of grazing goats and assorted quadrupeds to trim the front grass…which in turn led to more social calls and then to tea servers and even costume jewelry worn by the hostess and who knows what else. I was born too late.

It’s hard enough getting through the day with all those apps plotting an uprising any minute provoked by a restless algorithm. Must I also read books and watch movies about soulless robots and clones? I find it too strenuous transporting my aged brain to dystopian precincts. Trump has already driven us to the edge of the apocalypse in a driverless chariot. If Donald is the future I want out of this comic book. Can I click and delete him? Where did I park my space ship? If that doesn’t work I’ll settle for a time-travel machine set in reverse, destination unknown.   

Monday, July 9, 2018

Flag and Country

My earliest memory of the flag is probably pledging allegiance to it in the 3rd or 4th grade. Of course, I had no idea what allegiance meant or who Richard Stands was either. Nor did I understand why our nation was invisible. I figured it was a good thing to be invisible so the Nazis couldn’t find us on a map and bomb us. It wasn’t till we learned long division that I got the concept of being indivisible. It’s a good word; one of those that no longer applies.  

Today we are very divisible. Not only in half but more like in thirds. In the 2016 election the largest fraction were the None of the Above party numbering 94.2 million eligible voters. We have become a country of no-shows. Then came the Democrats (65.8 million) and the smallest number went to the winners (62.9 million). Try explaining that to the kids in third grade.

The 4th of July brings out flags displayed in windows, on fences and poles to say nothing of mattress ads, holiday buying sprees and assorted block buster sales events. It’s the American way. Nothing is more patriotic than consuming.

Flag-waving is so pervasive it isn’t usually seen as the political act that it is. Like a bumper sticker or tattoo the flag is an advertisement, an identity. It has become the great signifier of the Republican Party. The word Patriotism seems to belong to those who watch Fox News because it connotes might and blind loyalty and never dissent. Just as the Confederate flag enraged Blacks in particular and Liberals in general the U.S. flag is rapidly reaching that powerful a symbol. Enormous flags are unfurled at opening day baseball games as well as professional football games along with planes buzzing the stadium and a military presence. It is a statement which says that the sport is allied with flag and country; that is to say, Power and Law Enforcement.

And then comes the National Anthem. The announcers are White. The owners are White. Those of us watching on T.V. are mostly White. The coaches mostly White. The players predominately Black. How to make a countervailing statement with a national platform? How else to protest but to take a knee? No disrespect to uniformed men in the armed service. No flag burning. Not even an arm raised as in the 1968 Olympic Games. Just a knee before 15 million viewers to remind us of a culture of police shootings of unarmed people of color, to remind us that the extravaganza of White dominance has an answering voice. One political act warrants another.

Response to the courage of Black athletes demanding to be heard has largely been outrage by sports writers and commentators. These are the same people who know nothing about the daily indignities and existential threats endured by the Black population. Just play the game, they say. Don’t bring politics into sports, they proclaim as if they haven’t already done so for years. The few football players who have knelt in solidarity have risked millions. 70% of the teams are Black. There would be no National Football League without Black players. Three out of every four players in basketball (NBA) are Black. There is a rich heritage of Black athletes speaking out from Paul Robeson to Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to LeBron James though the silence of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan is deafening.

The legacy of Robinson has been kept alive by the persistence of his wife, Rachel Robinson. She has been an equal hero for the past fifty years. However he is usually celebrated for his constraint on the playing field rather than his militancy. This is White society’s fantasy. It should be noted that Robinson, in his final years, DID NOT STAND for the national anthem.

The Pledge has more going for it than the Anthem. The latter is star-spangled bombast. The former has references closer to the Constitution in all its allusions to equality and justice. It was written by the socialist, Francis Bellamy. Maybe if Woody Guthrie’s, This Land Is Your Land, replaced Francis Scott Key’s drinking song it would bring the country closer together to what we might truly call, indivisible.

For further reading on the subject I recommend, Howard Bryant’s new book, Heritage, published by Beacon Press.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Loving Trump

Now that I have your attention…………….

I seem to remember how the poet Allen Ginsberg suggested we learn to love Ronald Reagan or, at least, find the Reagan inside ourselves and embrace him. Ginsberg led a poetry group at Naropa Institute in the mid-eighties in which everyone was asked to finish the poem with an opening line, I’m going to vote for Ronald Reagan because……………. My underwear is on backwards, said one student. Because my pen is running out of ink, said another …or because a squirrel came into my room yesterday.

Sorry, Allen none of these work for me.

I imagine Ginsberg, ever the Buddhist, would preach the same message today. However reaching for our interior Trump might require many hours of chanting to the wall in a loin cloth while inhaling massive doses of some intoxicating incense. We would also need a Bodhi tree and a new set of gongs. It strikes me as the ultimate alchemical transmogrification perhaps even too much for the Dalai Lama.

I wonder if Ginsberg thought Hitler was also lovable. True, Adolph did a great impersonation of Charlie Chaplin. A psychotherapist might praise him for not repressing his aggressive impulses. Go ahead, Adolph, get it all out. He appreciated Wagnerian operas and was said to be a fair painter. Perhaps all he needed was an affirmation here and there.

Coming back to Trump, first I must buy a red tie and get a total make-over on my scalp topped with a red cap. Now, under deep drug-induced narcosis I can seek out this shadow side of myself.

Here I am in kindergarten knocking over some kid’s blocks. I wouldn’t put it past me. Maybe I thought he stole my milk money.

Now I’m reusing an un-cancelled stamp and parlaying that three cents into a shopping mall and hotel where I act as a slumlord evicting poor families. Of course the property I buy is on the Atlantic City Boardwalk …but that was all in a Monopoly board game where I found my true habitat between Baltic and Mediterranean. Yes, I love you for that, Donald, revealing the primordial greed and avarice to myself.

Here’s another instance of my inner-Trump. I, too, colluded with Russians. Well, not really Russians. But Soviet apologists who turned a blind eye to Stalin’s megalomania during the early years of the Cold War. So vehement was I against U.S. support of assorted tyrants, military dictatorships and colonial repression. I join with you, Donald, as a selective isolationist. I even made the headline of the Daily Worker which no doubt got me a place in J. Edgar Hoover’s filing cabinet. Now look at me bragging about it. 

And yes, I probably insulted some ball players during the game. Call it trash talk. Call it the heat of competition. But it was all from the couch yelling at the T.V. set. Thank you, Donald, for legitimatizing my infantilism.

Is that enough? I feel myself coming back from the slime of my reptilian brain. Now I must take a very hot shower. Is it really fair to presume that we all have particles of Trump DNA infecting our soul? And if so must we descend to our own underworld and learn to love it? No, but perhaps it is useful to own it as a cautionary note … and then mature, grow up, gain some measure of enlightenment and compassion.

It’s too easy to demonize Trump as if he’s a visitor from outer space. The truth is he displays an aggregate of ignorance, arrogance, mendacity and malice, rarely seen in one individual, particularly in a public official. But all human deficiencies we’ve either disowned or outgrown.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Now Hear This

Peggy got hers from her late ex-husband, Sam, and now that’s being replaced by the generosity of M... who got his from a friend who died three years ago. This is no small gift. We’re talking about $7,000 hearing aids. For a mere $250 our audiologist has reset the instrument and provides new ear molds.

And why not? The damn thing is probably the most over-priced gadget in the history of over-priced gadgets. Yes, I’m sure world-class technology has gone into miniaturizing and fine-tuning them according to an individual’s frequency and decibel loss but once that mountain had been climbed there is little to justify such an enormous mark-up….even given the follow-up visits for adjustments.  

I suppose a hearing-aid dealer would argue that thousands of dollars of expertise goes into each instrument in addition to years of education in the creation of these state-of-the-art hearing aids. And considering the life-altering change it is a reasonable value. Furthermore that one cannot simply add the cost of material to determine the true worth. By the same reasoning a Reuben sandwich probably contains about 11 cents worth of ingredients and sells for approximately $15.

That argument falls upon my deaf ears. I still believe they are taking advantage of us old folks who in our eight or nine decades let in too much punk rock or Pavarotti. Pharmacists, having endured five or six years of higher education and licensing exams, dispense life-saving medications plus consultations for a fee set by insurance companies of five or ten dollars. When I arrived in California in the mid 1950s you could buy a house for today's price of a hearing aid. 

I wonder if Martha Washington passed along George’s old teeth or did the termites make a meal of them first. We’ll never know. But it’s a good idea to cozy up to Uncle Abner in his twilight years. It wouldn’t hurt to laugh at those jokes he’s told for the past forty years…even if you no longer can hear them as you wait for him to check out and stake your claim to his old trumpets.

It might be time to summon the lawyers to re-write the will. To my good-for-nothing son, Clive, I leave the heavily mortgaged manor house. To Marigold I bequeath my Lamborghini which no longer runs. And to Neville I hereby pass along my hearing aids.

On the other hand, with all the lies emanating from high places, maybe an irremediable hearing loss is the preferred state. I understand the new Blue Tooth bilateral devices come with an on and off switch to save us from the moral violence in the air.