Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Memories

I grew up with Israel Berlin’s White Christmas….just like all the ones he used to know. If he could remember all those sleigh bells and glistening tree tops in the shetyl, so could I.


I’ll never forget the nickel, dime and quarter I used to trace a snowman in art class. Next to Glee Club these were my most dreaded hours at P.S. 99. I was a handicapped specimen of a child; I couldn’t draw and I couldn’t carry a tune. There was a large chunk of my genome missing. Snow scenes were beyond me and they were mandatory. If this were a true meritocracy I'd still be in fourth grade for the 75th year with my three coins. However my mother was a force to be reckoned with on the P.T.A. and she probably sprung me.

I just read that Christmas is celebrated by 95% of America. I must have been in that 5% which has nothing to do with the 1% who run off to one of their off-shore accounts and visit their money for the occasion.

For me Christmas was the time when other kids got Lionel trains, complete with tunnels and bridges. I think I was about nine when I did receive a Monopoly board game. I’ve spent most of my life ever since on Baltic and Mediterranean. I got as far as Marvin Gardens once but ended up in jail. I remember that morning so well because my brother refused to play with me. He was a big-shot at thirteen. I was small fry and I suppose it was beneath him to stoop to my level. I don’t think Arthur ever forgave me for being born, ruining his status as an only child. By the time he was thirty I was older than he. He was not at home in this world and would be dead at thirty-three.

As an adult I always celebrated the holidays possibly as compensation for those early years being left out. I’m all into it as long as I don’t have to draw Dickensian pictures of scarfed carolers, one-horse open sleighs or red-nosed reindeer. I love giving presents however about five years ago Peggy and I put a halt to the ritual. We’ve run out of wall. Our bookcases are bursting. Closets packed. If I get one more sweater I’ll put it on e-Bay. We are in relinquishing mode.

I could tell you how we went to midnight mass last night, baked bread this morning for the big feast when Abner and Abigail are coming over and we let our crazy uncle down from the attic to sit at the table along with my sister and her no-good husband and how my teenage son is being released from drug rehab with an ankle bracelet ......but none of this ever happened.

I wonder if Izzy (Irving) Berlin ever wrote of the vivid memories of those dreams he really had in his Russian village running all the way across the ocean to the lower eastside. And now how marauding soldiers gather around a fire singing about his White Christmas.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

Solstice Ramble


Now begins our hemisphere’s return toward the sun in our celestial geometry. Our dear friend, Len, was born on this date which feels like the sun’s birthday as well. It can only get brighter. He will have to share the solstice with Jane Fonda and Emmanuel Macron. Lead the way good people toward the vernal equinox and invincible summer lying within.

Why do you say goodbye, I say hello? Maybe it really is darkest before the dawn. Hello to the shutdown which Ebenezer Scrooge might have done just before Christmas. Hello to the burst bubble on the street called Wall where Dow is ¾ of Down and to that other mother of all walls. Hello to our legions come marching home. Hello to glimmers of light in the Humpty-Trumpty reign in which we are ruled by whim and blurt; nocturnal emissions disguised as deliberative regal decrees. William S. Gilbert (from G&S) described Donald in Iolanthe:

When you’re lying awake / With a dismal headache / And repose is tabooed by anxiety / I conceive you may use / Any language you chose / To indulge in without impropriety…

History reveals that Humpty-Dumpty wasn’t an egg after all. That was only Lewis Carroll’s depiction. The hard-boiled fact is that it was the name given to a canon placed on the wall of Colchester, England, when the Royalists within were under siege by the Parliamentarians. The Royalists who favored the monarchy as absolute ruler found one bright day in 1648 that their Humpty-Dumpty weaponry had fallen irreparably when the wall collapsed. So all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put scrambled Donald together again, however Oval his chamber may be.   

Just about this time 2,018 years ago, plus or minus a whiff of frankincense, Joseph and Mary were said to be trudging across the dry land. There was no room at the inn and no coverage by their H.M.O. All of which brings to mind my favorite Christmas carol.

Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild:
Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child
Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child.

Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee


And wouldn’t you know it… from her womb Jesus ordained the tallest branch be lowered and Mary had her cherries by command. I like it for its interplay between human emotion and the otherness. Or maybe because Joan Baez sings it so beautifully. It is probably the only song of the season that doesn’t drive me up the wall.

Which brings us back to the damn wall. Did something go wrong with Trumpty early on? Did a class bully knock down his blocks or was he the bully so busy with tantrums he denied himself the opportunity to build his own?  Maybe our Bozo sees that China has one and Bibi has his so why not us? Something there is that doesn’t like one. We can only hope the returning soldiers are not assigned the task instead of building bridges and roads.

The sun sets at 4:48 today, one minute later than yesterday. Soon there will be buds on the high elbows of the cherry tree. Absent any providential intervention I take this as hope.







Sunday, December 16, 2018

The List of No Lists


This seems to be the time for year-end letters and lists. I enjoy hearing from friends however being a card-carrying contrarian and certified grouch, I refuse to  partake. Instead I’d like to list my reasons for not making a list.

First is my ever-diminishing brain. I can’t remember what happened last week or last month. I could say we traveled to Nova Scotia but research shows that was eleven years ago. It feels like yesterday when we visited Peggy’s Cove outside of Halifax……a fishing village with lighthouse, rocks, seals and a restaurant where Peggy ordered Finnan Haddie as from the lyrics of the Cole Porter song, My Heart Belongs to Daddy. As I recall it was awful. The fish, haddock, that is.

If I invite a boy some night / To dine on my fine finnan haddie
I just adore his asking for more / But my heart belongs to Daddy


I might also devote a paragraph to the passing of our dog except we don’t have one but if we did it would be an Irish setter and he would fetch Frisbees, the morning paper, my slippers and lick envelopes.

I’m reminded that we don’t travel anymore except vicariously as friends report back their adventures. I find this much less tiring and I recover from jet lag immediately. Suffice it to say we allow ourselves to roam the world the way Emily Dickinson did without leaving her habitat. Even as our architecture swells, stiffens and quietly screams as long as headquarters hums along and creative juices flow our spirit carries us far.

Much can be said for going nowhere and just enjoying (or not) whatever pops up without comparing it to something else. It’s safe to say Peggy will have written 365 poems this year minus those days in the hospital and rehab and I have managed about 75 blogs. The older we get the more inscape there is to revise, regret or embellish. Notable are the three books (two poetry chapbooks and a novel) Peggy has published through Amazon and one of mine soon to be available.

Calendars are, of course, an arbitrary point of demarcation though Hollywood loudly announces the year-end by flooding the big screen with its block-busters so Academy voters with creeping senility will confer their blessings on the latest razzle-dazzle. Award nights have a dozen or so winners and hundreds of losers with crumpled acceptance speeches in their tux and purses. I prefer the sleeper released in the spring with low expectations flying below the radar. I should add we have seen a few very fine films and read several brilliant books but won’t name them because…..

Second, or is it third of all, lists are hierarchical and I dislike rankings. Books, movies, art etc… should not compete, especially people. We don’t rate our friends, after all. (You're all tied for first place). Did Mozart and Beethoven have a food fight? Picasso and Matisse? Billie or Ella, Coltrane or Charlie Parker, De Niro and Pacino? Streep and ??

Golden Globes, Oscars…all of them strike me as an exercise in hyperbole. We get enough superlatives from the Bozo in the Oval. Last year the big question was whether Donald would leave in handcuffs or a strait jacket. It remains still unanswered but now seems he remains protected by an extended definition of executive privilege. 

Where is Tiresias the Greek who prophesied what lies around the next corner? The ancients must have listed Soothsayers in their Yellow Pages. They had a penchant for Olympian intervention. The best we can do are pundits who seem to live on different planets, the fabulists on Fox on one and the truth-seekers of CNN and MSNBC on the other.

My final reason for not making lists of what just happened is that I’m more interested in what’s up. I’ve already spent too much time in the rear-view mirror reviewing what went wrong….. until I met Peggy and now it’s all good. Bliss is a blur.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Winter Moments

Blank paper on a winter day. If I lived in North Dakota this could be a meditation on whiteness. But, alas, there is no snow here and it isn’t even winter yet so says my calendar, until the solstice. Even then our imagination has some heavy lifting to conjure fake icicles and Styrofoam snowdrifts with a major exertion of memory. The fondest moments are the ones that never happened.

I could talk about my Grandpa who came across the Great Plain in a covered wagon with a blizzard in his face….. except that’s a fabrication, pure as the driven snow. More likely he inched his way across the Russian Steppes one haystack ahead of a horde of drunken Cossacks. I’d like to think he hid in a cellar in a heap of potatoes with shoots that reached into steerage on a ship in New York harbor.

Maybe he saw gulls in the sooty sky which reminded him of pages from the Torah. Or more likely he sold schmattas out of a pushcart or washed pots and pans in the backroom of a Delancey St. deli. Grandpa never went uptown to those imaginary pans of Tin Pan Alley. He was no Israel Beilin (Irving Berlin) dreaming of a White Christmas.

I shall leave Grandpa behind among the sleet and the slush. My flights of fancy have met white-out conditions.

If only there were hills in Forest Hills I might have become a great skier but that will have to wait until my next incarnation. My childhood unfolded on flat land void of ponds for ice skating or even mounds for snowball fights. But we did have that meager dip in topography we named the Toilet Bowl just right for Flexible Flier sleds to navigate among clumps of bushes. If I steered into the brush I would hardly feel it under my three sweaters and galoshes. Yet there were high fevers and double pneumonia as my mother cursed the dreaded draft.

On Dec. 7th, 1941 I was close to nine years old hanging around my father’s drugstore. There was a small radio up front alongside the cigarettes I was helping to stack. I half-heard a radio program interrupted with alarm in the announcer’s voice. It was cold outside with a gusty wind but no snow. Now a crowd gathered. Sentences halted, faces froze into increments of dread. My father had a look I’d never seen before.

When FDR spoke the next day he sounded like God. I came into the grown-up world that Sunday as if I had left part of me behind forever and traveled across some dangerous threshold.

Soon my world would become black and white, life and death. Blood on the snow. Maps on the front page showing dark and light divisions with arrows. It was a winter of new words. War bonds, blackouts, air-raid wardens and a different kind of draft. Saboteurs, Blitz and refugees. U-boats and convoys. Praise the Lord for the white cliffs of Dover… then pass the ammunition. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

I-Thou

That word, Thou, traveled a long way in my head from another four-letter word with three of the same letters; namely, Thug. But enough about Trump.

Martin Buber’s 1923 book, I and Thou, sums up what has vanished during these times that try men’s souls. The I / thou relationship elaborated by Buber describes a meeting of intimacy of subject with subject. No one is objectified. That word, Thou, takes on a sacred meaning not necessarily in a theological sense, at least in my mind, but in reference to what is in the process of fully tending to the other, the soulfulness of human beings. The Other could be someone close or even a brief encounter with a stranger. It could even be a work of art, a tree, flower or table etc … which we relate to in the full presence of our being.

This, in contrast to what happens when a thug lives on flattery and fealty. When he distances, with insults and ridicule, any who do not bend to his will. 

Listening to the eulogies bestowed on George H.W. with Donald, the elephant in the room squirming, bring to mind those virtues which are not in our would-be-monarch's vocabulary nor in his consciousness.

Even if Bush has been a bit mythologized having had his role as CIA director, in their nefarious interventions, erased along with his authorized dirty tricks campaign concocted by Lee Atwater against both George Dukakis and Gary Hart….he nevertheless is eulogized at a time when such virtues beg to be restored. Whether he warrants the nobility of a later day Founding Father, as John Meacham bestowed upon him, is irrelevant. We need to be reminded of our values even as aspirations in a democracy.  

Trump was seated in the front row alongside people he had branded as illegitimate, not a man, spoiled child, sad sack and lock-her-up. I can think of no person farther from I / Thou engagement than our current executive.

It is striking how the virtues ascribed to our 41st president at the Washington Cathedral seemingly have no place in the discourse down the block in the halls of Congress or White House. Respect for personhood would be a good place to begin. What better way to remember George H.W. Bush? In his dying, he helped to bind the wounds of a nation. And at the same time take a look at the shameful acts of the C.I.A. during his brief reign, before and after. In addition there was Clarence Thomas...but don't get me started.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Dark Ages

Two years ago we threw a blind eye at the miscreant. We first saw him as Bozo the Clown, then, P.T. Barnum. He soon became Elmer Gantry and finally Tony Soprano. In the cauldron a fevered vulgarity is steaming along with colossal stupidity and pernicious greed.

Now a feral beast roams the countryside. It is the winter of peril for our Democracy. A callous indifference to human suffering, to the precepts of our founders and a degradation of common decency and civility as well as the very survival of our planet have thrown us into a shadowed place. The fabric of our nation is stained.

It is as if we are witnessing Athens turning into Sparta. Virulent nationalism has fueled a testosterone-driven underbelly to sanction our police force into acts of a paramilitary organization. Racism and antisemitism have been reignited. Gun violence with assault weapons has become commonplace in spite of a majority of Americans demanding commonsense regulation. Our returning legions abroad with P-T-S-D are yet another toll of foreign misadventures. Neo-Fascist groups have become legitimatized and are now calling for well-armed militias, as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A few weeks ago we turned our clocks back. Days are shorter as we move into this metaphorical darkness. The holiday season has always been a time of compensation for diminishing light, in my mind. By the alchemy of commodification Silent Night is loud with Jingle Bells.The spirituality of December holy days has yielded to the hypocrisy of consumerism. Black Friday now prevails for six weeks. In contrast to most songs of the season, Buffy St. Marie, an American Indian folk singer captured it in her song: Little Wheel Spin and Spin, Big Wheel Turn Around and Around.

Merry Christmas, jingle bells
Christ is born and the Devil’s in hell
Hearts, they shrink, pockets swell
Everybody know, but nobody tell


Now a more profound and actual darkness has descended upon us and eclipsed our vision. The welcoming torch of liberty is nearly extinguished. Our executive along with a compliant judiciary and a complicit Senate allows criminal behavior to exist in high places with impunity.

Rage, rage, said Dylan Thomas, against the dying of the light. May darkness have no dominion. Our rage (like this rant) only serves to release our animus before it festers. At the same time it seems to further entrench his mesmerized supporters. 

The season of Good Will is upon us. Yet no amount of holiday movie re-runs will grant us a Wonderful Life or gift wrap our eyes. Ho, Ho, Ho along with Fa, La, La are insufficient to brighten the landscape for the homeless and asylum-seekers. It is already bright with the tyger’s eyes fearful symmetry of William Blake.

However the recent election demonstrates that we shall not go gentle into that good night of Donald’s malice and mendacity. There are bigger wheels turning around and around with sparks of awakening. Flashes of lanterns appearing in the heartland have flipped the Statehouses in Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. The stark illumination of naked subversion and dereliction of office are in full view. There is a certain incandescence which truth itself gives off. The sunflower in a vase on our table refuses to die. Last week it drooped. Today it is upright and shines. I look for omens where I can find them.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Correspondence With Myself

(The following only makes sense if you use GMAIL. Google not only reads my email but provides a choice of responses.)

It didn’t work. Al is on to me and my mischief.  I tried writing an email to myself to see if the Google Algorithm would supply a ready-made answer. I apologized to me for missing my Thanksgiving dinner. I was hoping for instant forgiveness by Al. Nothing. Then I congratulated myself for winning an Oscar as Second Banana. He didn’t slip on that one either.

I was beginning to rely on their two-word appropriate response. This morning a friend sent a joke. My choices were, Love It or Good One or Very funny. Al nailed that one.

When given the three choices my impulse is to say anything but that. After all, the very least we can do is struggle against conformity. That’s the challenge. Maybe after a year or so of denying Al his appropriate answer he’ll leave me alone or have to come up with another set of replies.

This feels like a slippery slope. I expect the algorithms are always four steps ahead of us. Someday we’ll sit down at the keyboard and type in a word or two and, Voila or Shazam, our entire message will pop up on the screen complete with our sui generis nuances and quirky wit and maybe even a few emojis and an attachment or two.

I just wrote my message about missing Thanksgiving dinner to both myself and to Peggy. Again I was offered no canned answer on my page but Peggy was supplied with, O.K. we will miss you and Thanks for letting me know. Al still knows I’m messing with him but I can get away with my nonsense addressing Peggy.

Even now as I am typing Al is finishing my sentences. Damn him. We’ve been colonized. It may be time for something subversive. A call for iconoclasts to say the unsayable. The right moment to speak in fluent Trash. A plea to push the margins into gibberish if necessary. But how can we reach each other without his noticing?

What began as a lazy man’s service to dispose of a message with a click may yet become a full takeover of our selfhood. And while I think of it why is there no second “I” in algorithm? Obviously because Al has stolen my “I” and substituted myself for himself. Case closed.

Since I’ve been thoroughly Googlized by Al he can go on beyond my remaining allotment of years (days?) into my afterlife. It’s a great comfort to know that my email correspondence might continue posthumously. It could happen to anyone. With a little effort they might capture the sentences of my favorite long-gone people. Imagine an epistolary relationship with Euripides, Shakespeare or Yogi Berra.


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Fantasy Thanksgiving Table (originally posted 2010)

Such a strange holiday Thanksgiving is. Three hundred million of us, give or take a dozen, sit down to the same meal this Thursday. We eat and drink until we're crapulous (great word, look it up) with family and friends whose company we cherish….. or barely put up with. Considering the rivalry of siblings, festering grudges, generational divides, crazy uncles, bores and Republicans it seems like a good time to plan my fantasy guest list......dead or alive.

I'd probably be tongue-tied if I sat down with Shakespeare, Mozart or Einstein. Jesus and I may not hit it off either. I'll let him and Marx chew on some communal scraps in the kitchen

Bill Clinton sends his regrets but says he agrees with everybody.

Orson Welles says he agrees with nobody but felt there wasn’t room at the table for another genius.

Sylvia Plath arrives late having been in the oven with the bird.

Sammy Davis Jr. was afraid the turkey wasn’t Kosher. Phillip Roth was afraid it was.

Tom Lehrer sits down at the piano and sings our benediction:

We gather together to ask the lord's blessing
For turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce.
It was slightly distressing but now we're convalescing
So sing praises to his name and forget not to floss.


Oscar Wilde is here after getting through immigration telling officials, all he has to declare is his genius. Mark Twain accepts the invitation when he sees the opportunity to violate at least a couple of the deadly sins….gluttony and sloth. Pass the Chardonnay.

Dorothy Parker is disappointed that the table isn’t round but sits between them because she always wanted the twain to meet They chat it up over all the stuffing they’ve known along the way. I let Yeats and Keats carve the bird and settle the white and dark meat as they figure out how to rhyme their names. Peggy supplies the contemporary poet's voice to bring them up to speed. Tom Lehrer tells John Keats that when the poet was his age he’d been dead for 58 years. Open the merlot.

John Prine gets his gravy and lets loose with, it makes no sense that common sense don't make no sense no more just to bring the conversation down to my level. Molly Ivins passes the dark meat to keep us honest. If anyone’s a Vegan she reminds them of all that land out there God made good for nothing but grazing. Everyone digs in including Chief Seattle who hopes we haven’t forgotten how our ancestors came over here, undocumented, stole the land, killed their hosts and never left. Always forgive your enemies, Wilde chimes in, nothing annoys them so much. At that point Keats interrupts his ode to a turkey breast (thinking of Fanny) and injects his Negative Capability idea that we can hold opposing views without seeking resolution. He gets no argument about that nor is there any broken treaty over pumpkin pie. Pop another cork!

When Twain lights his cigar and starts raconteuring about those stiffs of the Gilded Age, Molly Ivins tops him with a description of Ronald Reagan who was so moribund that if he got any duller she’d have him watered twice a week. As to those Robber Barons she tells about the new barons of the 21st century who are so far up on the pyramid they can’t see folks on the bottom. Parker adds that if you want to know what God thinks about money just look at the people he gave it to.

D. P. asks to fill her chardonnay. She says she’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy. She knows she’s among friends and doesn’t care what’s said about her as long as it isn’t true. Oscar has found a kindred spirit. He tells her that a little sincerity is a dangerous thingand a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. Everyone’s feeling a bit crapulous. Yeats mumbles something about the center not holding as he slouches under the table asking which way is Bethlehem. Twain says he doubts what he reads in health books. One can die of a misprint. He remarks that all generalizations are false including that one as he disappears into his cigar smoke.

Wilde stares at the tablecloth and says, one of us has got to go. Keats, in his cockney voice, says something about consumption. No one disagrees.

It’ll never get as good as this but Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

In the Time of Our Scanning

Don't you know that stuff causes cavities? 

That's me talking to a dentist in the medical building where my pharmacy was located. Every afternoon after lunch he would come in for a candy bar. No, no, he said, it doesn't. Haven't I told you what causes cavities? It's my pencil mark on the X-ray.

If I wasn't a cynic before, this did me in. I've never altogether trusted imaging since then. Yet everybody's doing it. Florida is scanning. Georgia is scanning. Peggy got scanned four times since October. And I've been scanned twice this week.  My knee is either osteoporotic or the technician left his pencil smudge on my X-ray. Yesterday another doctor took the scenic route up and down my alimentary canal...snipping polyps along the way. No other trouble in River City.

Scanning deserves to be scanned. The word originated with the Latins who stole it from the Greeks who lifted it from Sanskrit. Poetry is its mother as in scansion having to do with where the stresses are.... iambs and dactyls etc...Originally it referred to the mount or rise and fall in the metric foot of a poem, a beat or rhythm as in toe-tapping. A poem scans when it rocks, when the body sways to the small leaps of the lines. In its travels the word has come to a halt in medical technology. Now it seems to mean, a close, careful gathering of data or image by a sensing device. 

In the end we have to trust our dentists and our voting machines, Trump to the contrary notwithstanding. Maybe he only trusts his dentists if they tell him he has no cavities, a perfect occlusion and a set of molars designed to make America grate again. Such a mouth should be donated, at the appropriate time, to U.C.L.A. for further research.

In the meantime. Our voting apparatus would be well-served if monitored by some Banana Republic where Democracy has taken hold after studying models of old American Civics books. The Republican Party seems to have forgotten all rules of decency and inclusion. First they close down polling places, then remove citizens from registration rolls, provide broken-down machines, run out of ballots, and finally poison the entire process by shouting "rigged" with no evidence to support the claim.  

After several Scans-Pet and Cat... Peggy awaits word from her from her doctor with results from her Tuesday ultrasound. May there be no smudges, no hot-spots or shadows. Or hanging chads.

There is some poetic justice about scanning. The way the machines spit out the ballots, knocking one Republican after another from a long-held throne in the House of Reprehensibles.

Listen, my children, to his midnight Tweets / the rants of a man in his web of deceit. 

In this ongoing opera Donald's arias do not scan well. His words are clunky, juvenile and hyperbolic. He is off-key and doesn't hear America singing. It ain't Whitman's yawp. It’s his own malice and loathing. There is a counter voice being heard. Millennials are stirring. The suburbs are waking. 


Thursday, November 8, 2018

One Thing Leads To Another


And that can send us out of this world.

When Peggy’s bronchitis was at a low point about ten days ago we thought it best to take her temperature. I had to search for the thermometer which we hadn’t used for at least twenty years. It was that old-fashioned type. After a few minutes of twisting and turning the mercury was still elusive and seemed to be stuck around 98 degrees before and after a few minutes under her tongue. I didn’t trust it and went out and bought a new digital one bringing me into this century.

I started thinking about that strange element, mercury, which I probably played with as a kid rolling the glob around, not knowing better. Quicksilver was the common name. It was quick and it was silver. Was it liquid or solid or both?

Before antibiotics or sulfa drugs mercury was used to treat all sorts of infections from syphilis to malaria. It was a favorite of alchemists who turned quicksilver into quick death. A corpse or two never stopped them.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a great believer. His mercury panacea, Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, was so toxic it poisoned and partially destroyed whatever organ it touched. He gained fame by fighting off a Yellow Fever epidemic. Bodies reacted by purging it along with our partially poisoned entrails.  Lewis and Clark packed six hundred Rush’s laxative pills with their gear while exploring the western territory. Sam Kean in his book, The Disappearing Spoon, tells how traces of the stuff can still be found which tell us where William and Meriwether built their campfires. Lewis died shortly after their return from an apparent suicide possibly with effects of that slippery substance. Mercury took its toll.

At one time hat manufacturers used a mercurous compound in the separation of fur from pelts. Hence the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland. The stories of mercury take us to a land of wonder. As the vet said to the cat-owner, I’m afraid it’s terminal. She has a case of curiosity. Kids and cats can die from it. Fortunately my curiosity stopped short of getting enough of that wonderful stuff spilling out of broken thermometers.

The Romans renamed Hermes, Mercury just as Zeus became Jupiter. Mercury gave us the words merchant, merchandise and mercantile. Hermes/Mercury, with his winged feet, was the messenger whose swift delivery corresponded with its rapid orbit closest to the sun (Apollo). Its elliptical itinerary is speedy but its spin is slow and the ancients mistook it for a sudden reversal of its west to east orbit. Actually it is just zipping around the sun at a faster speed than Earth giving the illusion of going backwards. Hence the notion, dear to astrologers, that Mercury is in retrograde 3-4 times a year. In Greco-Roman society Mercury, the demigod, reigned over communication, commerce and travel. He even escorted the dead to Hades and some of us living to an optical illusion.

It explains everything……if you are a believer. The missed flight, the bad phone connection, the overdue library book. Everything except a random universe and why quicksilver results in quick slivers when ingested. That glob of spilled mercury became a small planet, inhospitable to us earthlings and a trouble-maker as a nostrum for centuries. If anything is in retrograde it is America since Donald took office.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Peggy's New Poetry Chapbooks


I’m the guy who sharpens her number two pencil. Every morning, without fail Peggy Aylsworth, now in her 96th year, writes a poem in her composition notebook. And that’s not the only reason I married her.

We don’t travel anymore. Ambulation has its challenges but her spirit is undiminished. The poems are extensions of her perceptions and that vast country within called the imagination.


Her subjects range from trees, real and imagined, blossomed plants and feathered creatures at our breakfast window to an orange cap on the head of a dog-walker to an article about tragedy in South Sudan. All of these might find their way into one poem. She doesn’t linger to milk a metaphor. She darts, like a hummingbird, having distilled just enough from a single image to create a thread.


Peggy's poetry is an amazing web of connectivity. A collage of disparate notations. A quiet yet rhapsodic orchestration of what her senses register and her mind intuits. She is able to transform the largely un-noticed passing parade into her own language we call, Aylsworthian.


The result is much more than a montage of imagery. Through the alchemy of her poetics and a finely tuned sensibility Peggy finds veins of emotional universality in what seem unremarkable.


Wisdom is one of those words devoutly to be avoided yet the pile of years does confer at least an amplitude of vision which she manages to bring to the page. There is a celebration of the elemental. Her poems seem to extract an affirmation even from the dread and daily defamations we have come to accept as admissible in public discourse. Peggy’s poetry suggests not only the yes from yesterday but that a substance within us shall prevail. 

The above was written by me a couple of years ago. She's now two years younger. (Every birthday, I subtract a year)

Two chapbooks of her poetry have been in the works for a while and are soon to be released. One, Better In The Dark, takes as her subject about thirty films seen over the past decades. Most of them are challenging to the sensibility of an American audience. She sees through the opacity and reconfigures the narrative in her uniquely slanted way. The result is not a plot summary but the essence of the movie into another art form. Actually this book is already available from Amazon. 

The second, Two Is A Sacred Number, is a collection of love poetry written to, of all people, me. What can I say? Of course, they are wonderful and surely more meaningful to me but I'm happy to share. In a sense all Peggy's poems are love letters to the world. Most of these are part of our exchange of poems on special occasions. Mine tend to be too referential to particular names and places. Almost thirty-five years ago we were washed ashore to set sail at first light, not as Ulysses or Ahab but ancient mariners rowing to Eden, oar to oar. This book is in the final stages and will be listed on Amazon in the next couple of weeks. 


Monday, October 29, 2018

Merging


Arguably our major holidays are a conflation of pagan (peasant) rituals. Christmas is Chanukah just as Easter is Passover. The one being a festival of lights as days grow darker in the northern hemisphere and the other a version of spring renewal. Birth and resurrection or liberation, there isn’t a nobler cause for celebration. 

Soon the calendar says Halloween followed closely by Election Day. I sense a merging and I’m getting spooked. The ghost of Election Days past has got me. It all goes back to my first November voting experience at the wee age of three and a half. No, I didn’t run precociously for office on a platform of forgivable toilet training. Nor was I campaigning playpen to playpen. It was possibly my earliest memory, one which has stuck to my bones ever since.

Not knowing what else to do with me my mother took me along to vote. She then disappeared behind the green canvas curtain. Was it separation anxiety or chronic earache that caused me to start bawling? Or was I grieving for the plight of the nation? It was 1936. Perhaps I was weeping for the dust bowl, the breadlines and the rise of the Third Reich. Or maybe a leftover diaper pin was sticking me. I’m told I was a world class cry baby and still am albeit a bit more contained.

John Maynard Keynes put it this way: Capitalism is the astounding belief that the wickedest men will do the most wickedest things for the greatest good of everyone. This could serve as the epithet for our Age of Trump. The man with sinister impulses, both vain and ignorant at once, is being offered as a referendum in absentia and still half of registered voters will probably sit it out. It is the ultimate trick or treat.

When I was a kid (older than 3 ½) Halloween was a time for colored chalk, a nickel mask and some semi-malicious mischief. We might move a garbage can onto the lawn or chalk a front door. Now that the beast has been uncaged by Donald we’ve had our fill of malice.

Costumes? Why not? As Woody Allen quipped, My only regret in life is that I’m not someone else. There are certain people in Congress I wish were someone else and for more than one night.

The Day of the Dead comes along with Halloween. It brings to mind all those candidates I voted for on past November Tuesdays and grieved over their defeat......Adlai Stevenson, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern. Comatose and nearly dead is our dysfunctional Senate where aged white men from 35% of the population decide our fate in complicity with a deranged executive.

May the first Tuesday of this November not be an extension of another horror movie. May we expiate our demons who sit in citadels of power. May their ghouls be un-chalked from the great ledger.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

What's the Big Idea?


My default position seems to be looking for the big idea. That transcendent wisdom or folly extracted from the minutiae of the mundane. Show me a cough and I start to think cough syrup and I then wonder whether coughs should be suppressed or expectorated. And furthermore whether anything should be inhibited or let loose. What did Spinoza or Schopenhauer have to say about that?

In the case of cough preparations a friend swears by the narcotic syrup, Hycodan, which acts on the cough reflex to quiet it down. Socrates may have had a coughing fit when he chose the ultimate suppressant, Hemlock, demonstrating that sometimes the examined life isn't worth living either.

And speaking of coughs it’s a short leap to focus on Kleenex. I’m looking for a subject so ordinary it escapes observation and any sort of overarching significance.

It occurs to me that there may be something wrong with my nose. It drips. Where are you running, nose? And not only my east and west nostrils but also my bilateral eyes. A partial parotidectomy in 1981 seems to have tampered with my salivary glands causing an oversecretion. In addition ever since cataract surgery about ten years ago my eyes no longer reabsorb tears so they make their way out of their sockets and travel down my cheeks as if I’m weeping. Of course our geopolitics offers much to weep about. 

North of the neck I count seven orifices. Only my ears behave. As a result we have no less than nine boxes of Kleenex in our two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. I just counted them. They are always at the ready at easy reach. Peggy joins me in this mishagosh.

Maybe nine boxes are a function of old age. We are crying for you, Argentina…..and everything up from there on the map. We are crying a river. Our body humours are speaking in the only language they have. I grant them their fluency.

So call me rheumy, call me lachrymose, just don't call me before 8 A.M. And bless the tissue; so perfect in dimension (form follows function), so sublime in texture, so rectilinear and virginal as the driven blizzard in North Dakota only to find its demise as crumpled as Ohio or, better yet, the shape of Frank Geary's next building. 

What did folks do before Kleenex or any other tissue? Why they used handkerchiefs, of course. I used to have one in my pocket during my time at P.S. 99. I think my mother even ironed them. 
When you stop to think of it hankies are really not very sanitary. Far better to employ one of those downy swan-white tissues. There is nothing whiter and softer except perhaps a wad of cotton but wholly unsuitable for the task at hand.

Before handkerchiefs I suppose there was always long-sleeve shirts but that’s as far as I want to take this. I must stop myself before I start looking for the big idea. There is no big idea for a change. What a relief! Don't get me started.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Late October Gore

October would be my favorite month with all that pumpkin flavored ice cream and such along with golden foliage. If it wasn't for the saturation with memento mori.

The last horror movie I saw was probably Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. I was fifteen and that hardly qualifies but I’d had enough. Earlier, I sat through Dracula, The Wolf Man and assorted graveyards, ghouls, zombies, vampires and haunted houses. The older I get the less capacity I have for what goes on in those dark and stormy nights.

In fact I can’t imagine what the attraction ever was. Are people starved for sensation? Just watch the news of carnage in Syria or corpses half buried in the latest typhoon. If it’s rage you enjoy check out the last Trump rally.

I abhor brutality, torture, can’t handle Holocaust films, prison movies or even fake autopsies in T.V. dramas. I close my eyes for butchered animals and cock fights. I can only handle food fights and pillow fights. And I must admit to enjoying the controlled violence of a football game. Indefensible, I know.

I suppose healthy people get inured to horror by laughing at it. I wouldn’t know. I’m not that healthy. My empathy gets in the way. I immediately become the victim of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Whatever catharsis that’s supposed to take place in the viewing doesn’t happen in my psyche. I understand folks watch Nightmare on Main Street in order not to have nightmares. I remember seeing One Million B.C. when I was seven years old. While Victor Mature wrestled with dinosaurs and assorted monsters I wondered how I would ever get home outrunning a saber-toothed tiger.

Here’s my problem. I must have suffered a mild but chronic case of post-traumatic stress. Maybe Nosferatu took a drink from my bloodstream. A Jungian would say I’m not facing my shadow side.  I don’t disagree. Some form of arrested development prevents me from differentiating the real from the imaginary. I know it’s not actual but it feels that way.

If there is a membrane between the graphic images of suffering in Yemen and the latest version of Hollywood spook… that membrane is no longer impervious. The shock and schlock of human depravity along with gratuitous scenes of blood-curdling beasts registers in my unconscious as a threat to my well-being. 

Strange how I wasn’t nearly so much of a scaredy-cat in childhood as I am now. I'm sure creeping mortality has something to do with it. My cerebral cortex doesn’t stand a chance against my reptilian medulla.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Doyle, Donald and the Penny Dreadfulls


It is a stretch, I know, to find the thread between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Donald J Trump but I’d like to give it a go. Arguably Doyle’s invention of Sherlock and Donald’s invention of himself are both high functioning sociopaths. Sherlock Holmes was one which fit the late Victorian age. Trump is less of a man than a phenomenon who came along to fill a vacuum created by an age of dislocation and accelerated change. The sleuth with the deerstalker hat was a noble outlier; the Donald is a megalomaniac who offers a satchel full of empty promises. 

Penny Dreadfulls were read by an estimated one million Londoners each week. They were illustrated sensationalist rags with stories of cheap thrills, piracy, murders and science fiction, aimed at young men. They ripped off versions of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes’ exploits were fodder just as Trump and the National Enquirer use each other to fabricate his exploits while vilifying Hillary. For eight years they had Barack and Michelle divorcing with as much credibility as a JFK citing or alien landing. The Dreadfulls were the social media, the Tweets of the day. Both were the creation of fevered minds. At least the 19th century version presented itself as fiction while Donald seems unable to distinguish fact from fable.

Victorian England was at its peak of Empire. Think globalization. Big bucks were being made by a few people. The air was foul. Tradition under assault. Science seemed out of control with epochal technology and new-fangled gadgets. The bucolic countryside was fast disappearing with a growing divide between rural and urban consciousness. There were 200,000 prostitutes in London. Homelessness, filth and indenture coexisted with a genteel civility. People knew their place. Social mobility was virtually unknown. Rigidity and rectitude were giving way to randomness and relativity. Society was held together by a veneer of respectability, class fixity along with a sense of order and resolve. Every disruption had its resolution.

Enter Sherlock Holmes. He brought rationality and logic. He deduced. He rooted evil out and restored civility. He was their defense against a random universe. He never died because he never lived. Arthur Conan Doyle’s invention rested on the shoulders of Edgar Allen Poe’s invention and upon Sherlock’s shoulder came Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade…the genre is still digging.  Detectives detect. They mostly act on their own as benevolent vigilantes offering the illusion of justice.

The new sheriff with the technicolor hair who rode into America’s heartland, on the last train from Yuma, is Donald Trump, that old robber-baron, land-grabber, in disguise. He and he alone nails the most-wanted posters to the wall. He leads the posse, locates the hanging tree and prepares the noose. He is the faux-detective offering simplistic words with a ten-year old’s vocabulary to complex problems.

Yet both Doyle and Donald appear at pivotal moments, albeit 125 years apart. Brits also encountered immigrants from their jewel, India. Holmes pandered to Londoners xenophobia with a distrust of foreigners. Many Indians ended up in Newgate Prison on the barest suspicion. Gay behavior was criminalized just as many Red states would have it today. It would be decades before women were fully enfranchised in England. Their first voting right act in 1918 was restricted to propertied women over thirty. 1895 Britain and the American Heartland bear some resemblance in their racism and misogyny.

The name Sherlock suggests razor sharp certainty. I suppose he would be repulsed by the fuzzy mind of our Prez. The man from Baker Street could surmise a man’s entire profile by a glance at his hands and the smell of his tobacco. Our guy from the high tower smelled angst and fear and inflamed it into irrational rage. There is a mystery afoot surrounding Trump something like the yellow fog that fell on London Town back in the day. May Sherlock Mueller get to the bottom of it all.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Tragicomedy


According to Horace Walpole, 18th century British author, life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel. I'm not sure what that means but I suppose if we both think and feel it must be a tragi-comedy. In the Age of Trump what seemed like a slip on a banana peel now has us all tied up in the trunk of a car going over a cliff.

Arthur Conan Doyle also had Sherlock Holmes meet his demise off a cliff only to reappear eight years later. I hope we don’t have to wait so long. Moriarty disguised as D.J. Trump is as American as poisoned apple pie…and apparently unrecognizable to the multitude.

Mel Brooks’ idea of tragedy is when someone cuts himself. Comedy is a person falling down a manhole. Even as we sink into an abyss we are cutting ourselves into slivers; denominations, tribes, sects, tents. The zeal of orthodoxy seems to me a form of mental illness but what do I know, as one whose allegiance is for inclusion and universality.


Bill Maher quipped that comedy is tragedy plus time. Maybe it will look like comedy in the history books of 2100 …if that year is reachable for the human race.

What is the common denominator of all this ferocity and xenophobia? My guess is an inchoate fear as a consequence of accelerated change. Technology has people longing, squirming and confronting the unfamiliar as never before. We have now created congregations of the lost even as social networking also brings together pockets of kindred spirits clinging on to what passes for identity.

Perhaps we are merely witnessing the last gasp of nationalism and a rush into some sort of spirituality, false or otherwise, looking for a piece of the rock that assures survival, salvation or at least a meaningful moment. 

W.C. Fields said it is comedy when a sword bends but not when it breaks. I wouldn’t know. The last duel I engaged in was with rolls of gift wrap when I was a wee lad. It does seem that the bonds of civilization have bent but are not irreparably broken.

Aristotle wrote that tragedy is man reaching for the divine. I prefer to think we all have a touch of divinity in us. It is in our nature to seek some form of transcendence. If we fall on our face in the attempt it is still more heroic than tragic.

The human comedy may itself be tragic. What started as a family squabble in 1914 turned into a crime against humanity. Today’s rising oceans, toxic air, encroaching deserts and cyclonic winds in all their fury seem to be our tale told by an idiot. As the curtain goes down who will signify our fate…our monarch, mad Dick the Third wrapped as buffoonish Falstaff?  Or is it Beckett, the absurdist, I hear snickering off stage?

When Sherlock returns from sabbatical he is on the moors disposing of the hound of Baskerville. Civility is restored. Gone is the uncaged beast and villainy disappears into the foggy bog. It’s elementary, my dear whatshisname.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Scans and Scams


With apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ and his poem Spring and Fall, With golden groves unleaving / It is for this country I am grieving. Outside our window are large coral tree leaves toasted, exhausted and falling according to their autumnal schedule. For our country it feels as if we’ve jumped the season into winter discontent.  I look toward poetry to take its cue from Nature in its cyclic renewal.

Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley appear to be withered and well into their foliage. The White forty-eight men have long been the bent bough ready to fall, as Thomas Jefferson said, refreshing our tree of liberty with the manure of tyrants.

While our democracy gets scammed Peggy awaits her next scan. The procedure has been delayed because of a nasty cough. Thursday is the day for her Pet-scan which will tell us and the all-knowing eyes whether her suspicious mass is this or that.

Our body politic has also been laid bare as if the entrails of the White House and Senate are available for viewing. The superficial FBI investigation gave a few senators, posing as voices of reason, the cover they needed. However we may never see what the F.B.I. report said and, more importantly, what it didn’t bother with. Twenty-eight corroborating witnesses never got interviewed.  As long as it rhymes with scam call it a sham.

Nefarious plots are more visible when hatched in Washington or Mar-a-lago. Trump and his lackeys have achieved a kind of transparency due to his needy ego. He cannot resist the adoration of his mindless groupies who require a daily dose of scorn. As a result we get his instinctive pugnacious vulgarity. His message of moral violence requires constant stoking to keep the rage smoldering. As James Baldwin put it, One of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because, they sense, once hate is gone they would be forced to deal with their pain.

Peggy has been scanned and double-scanned. The Pet-scan (Positron Emission Tomography) coming up calls for an injected dye with a tracer which flares in the presence of abnormal cell-division. If Donald were somehow scanned it would likely reveal the absence of a conscience. Evolutionary biologists would be baffled by the curious phenomena of a devious ignorance and calculated impetuosity. They might have trouble locating his heart.

The ultimate mystery is the human body. We feed it and nurture it and yet… we never quite know what it is up to. Peggy, at 97.5, is still in her prime, cognitively, creatively and in her full humanity. Others in the tottering tower cannot deny the winds of change rocking their cushy cradle. When the bough breaks the body politic falls.