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.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

What Thank You Brings

No Worries, she said when I requested a booth. And NoWorries again with bread for the table. I never suggested she had anything to worry about or even a cause for concern. A final, NoWorries, when I asked for a napkin and then the check. I’m glad we got through our meal without distressing her any further. By now I was longing for, No Problem. Apparently her serving our lunch resulted in neither worries nor problems…nor early onset Alzheimer’s nor zits nor her rent check to bounce.

How did this happen, all this negativity? When did, You’re Welcome, vanish? say nothing of You’re Very Welcome. Is, No Worries the end point of, Don’t Mention it or Not At All? I want to petition for the return of, My Pleasure or Happy to Oblige. With it might come the restoration of civil discourse and the end of road rage, police brutality and maniacal Tweets.

I fear we’re trending in the wrong direction. At least, No Problem was singular. Now we must be slipping into the abyss of multiple perturbations with plural worries. A problem is like a busted shoe lace or a piece of spinach left on your tooth. But worries seem to me one step before dread. That No doesn't help; why bring it up in the first place.

When I hear No Worries I imagine the server is saying, You’ve been a pain in the ass but this is my job and I can put up with anything till my shift is over since I have a high threshold of endurance. Or is she implying that I shouldn’t fret about having inconvenienced her?

But what if I want to worry? It's like my right not to Have a nice day. Even with my napkin and bread the planet is being choked with foul air, homeless people are begging for shelter, asylum-seekers and refugees in flight for their lives. No worries indeed!

I wonder if Trump said, No Worries, to Kim Jong Un when he promised the cessation of War Games. Also curious what the Korean expression is for, No Worries when Un promised to denuclearize, Hey, Don’t worry about it, Buddy Boy.

We live in a time of obliquity. Not only deviating from moral rectitude but indirectness. Can I get you a drink? I’m good. I didn’t ask whether you’ve behaved yourself today or whether you are an ethical person or a good for nothing. I merely asked whether you would care for a drink.

Maybe all this is a form of poetry. It was Emily Dickinson who said to tell it slant. No Problem, No Worries, I’ll get over it. I’ll take English as a second language. No really, I’m good.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Pulse of America

Thump, thump, Trump, harrumph. Ah, that elusive pulse. When you think you’ve got it, you don’t.

Only a science fiction writer would have imagined a coalition of Charley Lunchbucket and Wall St. Suits along with Bible-thumpers and assorted female-haters. Maybe it’s the same marriage of that singing-waiter, Irving Berlin, who ended up living in a fifty room mansion with no less than 134 servants, writing songs of the common man (God Bless America) often sung during the 7th inning stretch of ball games.

The rather mawkish petition to the Almighty was first composed in 1918 and revived twenty years later. It was the form of patriotism designed to remind us of our values yet keep us out of the war. We were, after all, exceptional and separated from those rascals by an ocean white with foam. God would protect us in the night with a light from above.

Ronald Reagan seemed to have his finger on the pulse of America. As the voice denigrating the role of government he conveniently forgot how his father worked for the W.P.A. during the Depression along with his brother and himself.

I have voted dozens of times against candidates who gave me that same finger in their victory speech. Sometimes it seems the country has gone moribund with no pulse at all. Today we have two bodies each with its own throbbing surge. One lives on Planet Fox, fabulists for the mobocracy. The pulse I feel and hear and taste is an inclusive, vibrant brotherhood/sisterhood of aroused citizens deeply offended by the miscreant in office. 

God does not bless America, alone. Not now. Not with the desecration of Emma Lazarus’ words at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

She had her finger on the pulse when she wrote her sonnet in 1883 and even twenty years later when the New Colossus was inscribed on the Statue, seven years after her death. She wrote about a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning and her name is Mother of Exiles. America was a sanctuary nation. When did we lose our way?

Ironically, hundreds of birds lost their way when the Statue served as a lighthouse in its early days. The single light confused them and as many as 1,400 dead birds lay besides the inspired words on a single morning in 1903. At first the carcasses were sold to New York milliners but that practice soon ended. A metaphor for the false beacon of hope yet to come.

Emma Lazarus sonnet is now again being mocked. That lamp beside the golden door is no longer lifted to the tired, poor, wretched refuse and tempest-tossed yearning to breathe free. Instead our disgraced President and his religiously hypocritical Attorney General have slammed the door and young children are being torn apart from parent’s arms in an unconscionable policy of calloused indifference to humanity.

Irving Berlin might have taken back his patriotic anthem. He actually did use Lazarus’ words in his 1949 musical, Miss Liberty. Instead he might defer to her entire poem which was, in fact, put to music by David Ludwig in 2002 and performed at President Obama’s inaugural in 2013.

Is this is the pulse of America? No, I say, these are days of infamy. The question is whether we have lost our moral compass, our heart.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Further Father

How the mind meanders!

I was thinking how a large minority of our country appears to be concussed. As if having received a severe blow to our brains defending the infantile tantrums and bloviations of Trump for almost two years.

Which led me to imagine all those Friday night fights I listened to on the radio imagining Rocky Graziano or Jake La Motta taking a beating. Why was I such an avid fan? Ask Rabbi Schulweis.

I had the privilege of meeting the late Rabbi on two occasions when he officiated the marriage and Bar Mitzvah of close friends. He led a large Conservative Jewish congregation and was also an inter-faith religious leader and a voice of reconciliation in Los Angeles and nationwide for decades. A peace-loving, contemplative, enlightened man whose hobby was an enduring interest in prize fighting. Seemingly incongruous with his nature.  

And this led me to my father. He was the embodiment of equanimity. A calm surrounded him tinged with caution. I remembered him in the pharmacy receiving a prescription, studying it as if it contained some arcane message. In those days it actually did with Latin the prevailing language. Q.S. ad…a sufficient quantity to make or Misce et Fiat…mix and make. Powders and elixirs were to be weighed and measured in minims, grains and scruples. My father deliberated as if weighing the world on the torsion scale.

His love held no contingencies. Though he worked very long hours…from 8A.M. to 10 P.M. when he owned his own store, he was, in my mind, a constant presence. His conscience was unshakeable as was his commitment to the causes he gave himself to. When visited by Hoover's men in suits during the McCarthy era and asked to give names he stood tall and blocked their entrance. His silence was his spine.

I think of my Dad as a kind of shaman, custodian of leaves & stems, rhizomes & roots. His secret was less in this herbal garden of dubious value in apothecary jars than in a single, simple virtue. He listened. Not only to the words of patients but he read their faces, their woes and small triumphs. My father was not a reader of books. He was late to literacy, possibly dyslexic. He healed by being altogether present and exuded the precondition for self-healing.

I have to watch myself before anointing him for sainthood. There were a couple of flaws that saved him, thankfully, from a seat next to the gods. Found among his papers was a legal admission of guilt signed by him, in 1931, admitting to violating the Prohibition law by dispensing twelve ounces of ethyl alcohol without a proper prescription. He paid the twenty-five dollar fine. Pharmacists were permitted to handle alcohol and dispense it accordingly only with a doctor’s signature. Hard times led to desperate acts.

Secondly, he liked to bet on the horses, not compulsively but now and then. The other side of his risk-averse identity. One day he took me along to the harness racing at Roosevelt Raceways. His bets were two bucks, not the rent money. I think we broke even or close enough that his internal scale remained balanced. There was a thrill of winning in life denied him which he hungered for.

I love him even more for these incongruities. He did risk. Like the good Rabbi he allowed his shadow side a day in the sun. Father, you went beyond yourself, you went further.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Some Words on the Fly

There he goes or is it one of those floaters
roaming the outskirts of my eye?
He’s like my personal fly, a meta-vision,
possibly a preview of my next incarnation.
I can let it loose like a fly on the wall
who has tales to tell if only he could
or that one where the customer calls the waiter over
to complain about the fly in his soup.
I’ll stay with the one on the wall even if
this fly is enjoying his backstroke in tomato bisque.
It’s a short span for either one dodging swatters.
Flies are not fleas but life flees in any case.
Amazing what you find out in the course of writing.
I just looked it up and fleas don’t fly they
don’t even have wings but they jump a lot,
sort of like words…little black squiggles and smudges.
Back to flies, Bill Clinton had trouble with his.
Even now in his political after-life he can’t quite zip it.
I know this from my observation point on the wall
listening to his bumbling blather.
What a way to live. There goes another one.
I might be better off as the fly in the ointment
raising necessary havoc
from where I’m perched here on the ledge
salivating over the fruit bowl
which can use a bit of blemish and disruption
as I’m famous for in Dutch still-life, portrayed
on a pear or petal as death itself, not very
flattering given our mission in the eco-system
to feed on aphids, clean up decay and pollinate.
Where has it gone, my floater? Could be impaled
on that jagged right-hand margin of a poem.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Under Cover

I’m not going to answer that call. It could be the Agency again. I told them I’m done being a double agent urban guerilla. I’ve infiltrated my last gang. I’m too all in to be outed. I can’t handle the prospect of having my cover blown. They’ll throw me off the bowling team. I’ll have to resign as president of the P.T.A. Everyone in Bible study group thinks I’m a mild-mannered pharmacist. I’ve seen friends disappear. In fact I vanished for eleven months in Tierra del Fuego at some penguin-ridden safe house. Those black and white birds aren’t cute after a few weeks. 

When my kids played in the Little League pennant race I was impersonating an arms dealer in a Cappadocian cave. When they graduated from high school I was turning an election in Indonesia. Besides, my memory is faulty. I can’t remember why I helped overthrow the Ukrainian regime or which side I fought for in Guatemala. At one time I could lie in seven languages but couldn’t tell the truth in any of them. It’s all over now, those glory days. I have so many skeletons in my closet there's no room for the vacuum cleaner. I don’t remember if I have three kids with my second wife in Slovenia or two kids with third wife in Slovakia. I just flushed my cyanide pill down the toilet.

They won’t even let me write my memoir. I’m sworn to secrecy. No one would believe me anyway unless I set it on another planet with three-headed cockroaches running around taking over the world kitchen by kitchen.

When the Commander-in Chief is chummy with the Russian Mafia the jigs up. Them has become Us. We’re doomed. What’s happening in Washington smells like an equatorial swamp where bodies are buried, or like the coup I engineered in Chile. This is where I came in. The Banana Republic used to be a clothing store. Our Parliament, I mean Congress, have all cowered and gone mute. The High Court is rubber–stamping his edicts. The beast has been un-caged. Oh, that fearful symmetry. He is hungry for walls and parades. Money is being dropped off at all-night laundromats. He is writing pardons with both hands. I know a dictator when I smell one. I staged all that with rigged votes back in the day. He’s making me nostalgic but no, not here. It can’t happen here…..can it?

I’ll need a new face with new papers. Or I could put on a few pounds and become a bouncer at a salad bar. Or maybe pose as a Sherpa tribesman at low altitudes or a Talmudic scholar and spend my remaining days in disputation going from the man who knew too much to the guy who can never know enough.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Sniffing Backwards

I read somewhere that we hold thousands of smells in our olfactory vault. I wonder if I can trace my way back from today’s burnt croissant to yesterday’s gasoline fume at the pump….and back eighty-five years to my first diaper change. I think it was on a Thursday but I really don't want to talk about it.

Donald has provided us with the malodorous stench of deceit and malice. I need to clear my lungs. The flower section of Trader Joe's has many spring blossoms but they have no odor at all. Both the orchids and tulips have traded vivid colors for scent. Even those hot-house roses come to us deodorized. I feel cheated. My nose leads me to the stargazers to take a deep whiff.

Peggy first writes her poems in a notebook with a number two pencil. I’m the guy who sharpens them. I admit getting a temporary high from the shavings. Not high enough to write my own poem but often achieving a height sufficient to write a blog.

I’m seldom hungry………until I see and smell the plate. That wakes my salivary glands and I get in trouble trying to subdue the flow. As I write this I’m thinking of the peach crumble pie in the refrigerator. Speaking of food I’m the only one I know, outside of my daughters, who doesn’t like feta cheese. In fact I can’t stand it. My brain registers it as vomit. Blame it on a blemish in my double helix.

Among other vapors I could live without are newly laid black top, coconut, rancid acacia and asafetida. I don’t expect anyone to connect with the last two. They transport me back to those years in pharmacy. In my father’s days in his drug store there were no glued labels. The pharmacist made his own out of acacia powder dissolved in water turned upside-down with gauze covering the opening of a wide-mouth jar. After a week or two it stunk and that rancidity has never left me. Asafetida is a gummy substance used to ward off evil spirits which emits a pungent odor one wants to run from out of the room along with the spirits.

Childhood fills my nostrils. There were faint vapors of chalk mixed with bubble-gum from baseball cards. Airplane glue for a short time. Neatsfoot oil soaking into a leather mitt. Citronella to repel mosquitoes. Licorice or wild cherry syrup in cough medicine made respiratory infections not all that bad. The eucalyptus and compound tincture of benzoin in the vaporizer took away our suffering. My father’s store breathed a curious mixture of aromatics which he carried on his body … a smidge of Evening in Paris perfume comingled with tuna fish from the sandwich board along with malt from the fountain and all this triturated by the overhead fan with crude drugs leaking from the apothecary jars, sometimes sulfurous, mostly warming, ancient, botanical, and slightly intoxicating.

Subways smelled of sweat especially with raised arms holding onto dangling straps. The straw seats retained traces of everyone who sat there. We inhaled each other and exhaled our communal air. Maybe we even got to like what we smelled recognizing a whiff of ourselves in the mix.

During the war years we had many refugee kids join our class. They wore suits and were all smarter than us. Most of them skipped. But they spoke a broken English and I first thought the boys smelled until I realized it was the smell of leather briefcases. I had a nose for trouble but it was a remediable one.     

Then there was Mrs. Spizzeri’s parmesan cooking on the second floor from which I dashed holding my breath on the way to my sanctuary apartment 3 FB in our four-story walk-up. Today I love chicken parmesan reminding me how far one comes away from those first foreign aversions before our noses can accommodate and finally embrace them.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Artifice vs Authenticity

The last three or four novels I’ve read seem not to be novels at all. No plot, nor arc. No distinct characters I could love or hate. And then what, is not an operative question. Don’t worry about losing your place; you can start at any point. The page-turner has disappeared along with toe-tapping melody in show tunes and rhyming poetry. Of course, I’m a bit late to the party. This has been the case for almost a century (Joyce and Woolf), evidenced here and there in book, movie, song, opera or poem. Where have all the flowery passages gone, the June, moon, tunes?

They all give off the whiff of artifice, of contrivance. About 30 years ago when Peggy and I were traveling in the Yorkshire Dales we struck up a conversation in a pub with a bunch of blokes. I mentioned how much we liked Upstairs, Downstairs. That’s rubbish, they said. So what do you watch, I asked. Dynasty, and Dallas, they chimed in, that’s real. Maybe our nose for the authentic only applies to our own artifice.

It could be cyclic but I doubt it. It should come as no surprise that a generation which shows an indifference to history would also reject a narrative which traces a protagonist through time. What we may have regarded as psychological depth the new sensibility may see as just another construct…no closer to truth than an exploration of surface. It strikes me as part of an inexorable move away from ornamentation and excess, from the tidy narrative, from the deductive logic of a sleuth and suspicious even of Truth itself with a capital T. Resolution has given way to irresolution and the open text.

A hand came out from behind the curtain and stabbed Clive with a knife. Who did it, we asked, as blood poured out of tuxedo. L.B. he mumbled and right away we knew it must be Ludwig Beethoven or Leonard Bernstein or Lauren Bacall or Lucretia Borgia or Lizzy Borden or Lenny Bruce or maybe it was Lionel, the butler or perhaps he was just saying, I’ll be damned.

Tell me a story, Daddy. Once upon a time….and they lived happily ever after. Then we hear about the Moses myth or Jesus fable. Metaphors be with you! If only we accepted that these tales are not to be taken literally. Religion is the great, as if. Maybe we need it to navigate the chaos. Maybe we don’t. Who doesn’t love a good story? Today we might ask, who stole the narrative as if there was only one. At the far end of the spectrum we have a man in the bully pulpit who has mastered the art of faux-authenticity with fabricated blurts repeated to numb the brain.

In real time our day is a hodgepodge of distractions and digressions. Life doesn’t rhyme…except with strife (internal) particularly today with a surfeit of options pulling us in infinite directions. Randomness and uncertainty are those forces at work which we try to wrestle to the mat. Fiction is an attempt to impose order on all that but it doesn’t pass the smell test for the literati. In its place we get a sort of auto-fiction in which the author takes a few hundred pages to offer snippets of how it is to be alive in this time and place.

The streets of Manhattan are seen by a Nigerian man with a German mother in Teju Cole’s, Open City. Or the global experiences of an ethnographer finds connectivity between a hub city airport shut down by bad weather and the strands of a parachute which didn’t open in Tom McCarthy’s, Satin Island. Before those was W.G. Sebald and Ben Lerner wandering through their respective landscapes. The reader is asked to find patterns in their perceptions, not linear but arbitrary and quite often a stretch too far.

This is not to say that the traditional novel is dead. I still love a William Trevor short story above all else. His writing is exquisite, as if sculpted down to the bare essentials. But I’m an old guy misaligned with the new novel and trying to make room for it.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hold on, I Need to Take This Call

Yes, speaking.

You have what?

What sort of dirt? On whom did you say?

I love it.

How soon can we meet?

(This will score some points with Dad. Maybe he’ll increase my allowance)

How will I recognize you? You have one of our red caps? Fine.

How do you spell your name?  Is that with three z’s?

Ok, Ok, don’t get upset.

Yes, I’ll bring him along and him, too.

How much? Unmarked bills, you say? I’ll have to call my Dad.

Just take the elevator to the 37th floor and ask for Junior.

One of our men will take you the rest of the way in a private elevator.

Yes, we are closer to God. Good breeding, I guess.

Make sure you’re not being followed.

Yes, I get it. Sure, those sanctions can be lifted when we get in. No problem.

They’ll disappear faster than your dissidents in the Gulag.

(Wait till my sister hears about this. Maybe I’ll get an office of my own))

By the way, my brother-in-law has this property on 5th Ave which he needs to…

Hello? Hello? I thought we were disconnected. So he needs a small loan...

You say you already know about this? Yes, of course, I’ll see that he’s there with me.

Natalia…may I call you Natalia?

This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And yes, I’ll have Paul also with me. You may have some mutual friends.

Ask Vlad about that hotel in Moscow while you’re at it.

Remember, if anyone should ask, this meeting is all about adopting babies.

Hold on, I need to take this call from The United Arab Emirates.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"The Wall"

Two little words yet they require time and place to be defined. “The Wall” for the past two years in Trump-speak is clap-trap for his so-called base pandering to their fear and loathing. The words get a loud shrug from most fiscally-conscious Senators across the aisle and sneers and jeers from the majority of Americans. But “The Wall” has a history with entirely different references for me and for other people at other times.

Though it is over 2,000 years old, in parts, the Great Wall of China is still the Mother of all walls snaking over 13,000 miles. Contrary to a rumor (I just started) it is not the inscrutable origin of Chinese hand ball. The emperor Trump of his day had it built to keep out those nasty foreign invaders and to protect the Silk Road from assorted rapists and bandits.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the map, the Western Wall, aka Wailing Wall, was built on the temple mount. Maybe Trump got his idea from here where messages are left, holier than tweets.  However it is well-known that neither Yahweh nor Trump answer mail.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and here I am throwing my trusted tennis ball against an exterior Wall I deemed to be holy. It stretched about one hundred feet. Long enough on the inside to accommodate about ten stools at a soda fountain plus the prescription department of my father’s drug store. It did attain a kind of holiness when the space became a store-front synagogue after my father went out of business during World War II. I was yanked in one day to make a minyan on my way to play baseball in the schoolyard. There I stood with my 1st baseman’s mitt mumbling toward the raised place against the Wall where my father once presided between globes of colored water.

The best seller in 1950 was John Hersey’s novel, The Wall, which read like dramatic reportage of the plight of over 400,000 Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto. The book describes the heroism of several characters during the uprising against the Nazis. Hersey’s earlier book, Hiroshima, was possibly the first of the so-called New Journalism which merged fiction and nonfiction. No Wall there.

Though it was written before the First World War, I first came across Robert Frost’s, Mending Wall, in high school. I tried to memorize it but couldn’t. The first line is the poet’s tell, Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. It is the voice of the natural world… That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it and spills the upper boulders in the sun. Think Sisyphus. Frost gently mocks his neighbor who mindlessly repeats the old adage that, Good fences make good neighbors. The narrator observes that he seems to move in darkness and will not go beyond his father’s saying. Are you listening, Donald? No, probably not.

In Germany for three decades The Wall referred unmistakably to that dreaded and dreadful one separating West from East Berlin. What would John Le Carre have done without it? Chunks are now selling on e-Bay for $11.95.

In 1963 the thought of a Wall conjured the one my brother drove his car into on a mountain road. He was a troubled guy who loved jazz. I like to think he heard some Blues solo, in an alcoholic haze, which he needed to chase and penetrate. He died instantly maybe finding the promised place inside that Wall.

Our most honored Wall is Maya Lin’s art work on the Washington Mall which memorializes the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who gave their lives fighting the Vietnam war…which in some ways has never ended. Two acres of war dead. Were they too dumb to skip to Canada or too brave? Or too poor to have a doctor sign off on bone spurs in their heels like our illustrious president? This Wall is all the more powerful and poignant for not depicting the usual patriotism but honoring each of the fallen. It was privately funded by 275,000 donors. Though it was divisive at its inception it has become the most visited of all Washington monuments and still a work in progress with 300 names added since the installation and with daily offerings of flowers, letters even dog-tags left at the base. A Wall which embodies an America in its national folly and individual heroism.

To end on a more personal note Peggy will soon be breaking out of rehab going over the Wall.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Notes from the Grounded

Call it a repair shop. Not a junkyard. Nobody’s been totaled. We call it a cruise ship to nowhere, this convalescent rehab. It’s neither a hospital nor hotel. But they do have room service and the food’s not bad. I know because I eat what Peggy doesn’t. Best of all there are no I.V.s or monitors beeping at all hours.

The exercise area is loud with walkers scraping, bikes buzzing, bones grinding, folks groaning and a small army of occupational and physical therapists urging the worn bodies to surpass themselves from yesterday. Resistance also has a voice. Their faces register a sort of bewilderment how they landed here after the fall, remembering how to ambulate all over again. 

In the room women come and go speaking of sixty years ago. Octo and Nonagenarians learning like their great grandchildren to waddle across the room. Everyone has a back story, besides the story of their back. Each person needs to assert who she is beyond that woman in 418, bed one. 

Flowers arrive painting Peggy’s room with their bright palette…….and then they droop and she watches them wither…but the sentiments remain in full bloom. She celebrated the 97th anniversary of herself here with a dozen heart-shaped balloons and many well-wishes expressing amaze. Her juices still abundant.

Blood presses with both a contracting heart (systolic) and a resting one (diastolic) and takes its measure through our arteries. Too high is a concern, too low even a greater one. Peggy's high was too low at 75/40. They need not to push beyond her pace. She came close to fainting.

For the frail, morbidity has a number devoutly to be avoided. I watch bodies droop like five-day old tulips but humans can be reinvigorated... and she was.

In the room alpha males come and go no longer the bully C.E.O. It’s a humbling time moving from the fast lane to the Good Ship Lollypop. Maybe for some a mirror.

This is a way-station between the operating room and home. It is a cautionary interlude, a confrontation with the brittleness of bones. They will walk out a bit sobered; a preview of coming attractions, perhaps. 

For Peggy this has been a homecoming from her nine week stay in 2013 when she had a titanium rod installed in her thigh. Soon she’ll be sprung. Having entered horizontally, she has moved through the diagonal to the near vertical.

Out of this room Peggy will get up and go...

Monday, May 7, 2018

Imagine My Surprise When .

.... a check for $130,000 arrived in the mail today. I thought it was one of those phony sample gimmicks from Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes or that my signature upon endorsement would buy me time-sharing in Aleppo or Pyongyang. But I saw it was drawn from the Crimean branch of the Bank of the Kremlin and signed by M. Cohen with a contract attached stipulating that I keep my trap shut. I figured if the fund is slushed my tongue can be hushed.

True, I’ve been running off at the mouth lately, particularly after a wee drop of spirits, but I’m not a squealer. I notice I've become a blabber mouth (like now) when I really have nothing much to say... especially when I have nothing to say.  But for that kind of money I can happily shut up. For another $130,000 I might agree to duct tape.

The sudden windfall has given me pause. I couldn’t help but wonder what it is that I know and when did I know it. Fearful of being dragged into a grand jury room to spill the beans I began to search my ever-diminishing memory bank to question if I had any beans at all.

Could it be what I overheard from the next booth at Fromin’s Deli? Or was it something said in a crowded elevator? Maybe a long-forgotten whisper of a scandal from the school Donald attended across from my apartment building sixty-four years ago?

My grandfather’s name, on my mother's side, was Morris and I had an uncle named Max…. both with last name Cohen. Maybe this is some sort of inheritance. But why the hush?

In college someone called me Stormin Norman. I never knew what the reference was until now.

I’m getting the jitters. I think I better lay low on the other side of town till the heats off. Some goon who looked like a sparring partner for Jake La Motta gave me a dirty look last week when I didn’t apologize after he stepped on my foot.

Unless I join a monastic order and take my vows I doubt I can handle the silence. I had lunch with friends today and didn’t say a word. I nodded a lot and grunted a few times, then blurted that I had to go. Nobody seemed to mind when I picked up the check.

But I can see the hushed life is not for me. I’ve decided to send the check back to the shell company in a thousand shreds. I can’t be bought even if I have no idea what I’m selling.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Age of Peggy

Peggy was born ninety-seven years ago yesterday. Warren Harding was president but she can’t be blamed for him. In fact she probably cried when she got the news. Harding’s cronyism scandal and sexual peccadillos ranked him among the worst presidents ever. All things being relative he deserves a reassessment. We’ve had three or four since then who make Harding look not all that bad, in fact he may have set the standard for the present occupant.

Peggy lost her father when she was three and her mother five years after that. A week after she was orphaned the stock market collapsed. History has shadowed her. Her aunt who raised her saw the family fortune disappear. Not that her cereal bowl turned to a dust bowl but she did attend eleven schools before high school.

As a teenager she interviewed Orson Welles for her school newspaper. He was the Broadway wunderkind and radio star of the Mercury Theater. There were only six years difference in age but fortunately he didn’t marry her. She also would second-act plays and go back stage and meet Maurice Evans, Joseph Schildkraut, Katharine Cornell and Gertrude Lawrence…household names at the time. Gutsy kid.

She cast her first ballot for FDR in 1944. The war had depleted the city of men; I was only eleven and of no use to her. She was living in Greenwich Village…presumably waiting for me to grow up or for the war to end, whichever came first. In fact we didn’t connect for another thirty-six years.

In the meantime bombs dropped and Peggy's fission yielded Christie, without benefit of clergy, demonstrating she was far ahead of her time. Her daughter was among the early baby-boomers and Peggy was a single Mom in the vanguard of non-conformists beginning the post-war age of conformity. 

She was rescued by an uncle who sent a ticket for a one-way flight to Los Angeles, a sleepy little town in 1946. Peggy got a job in Hollywood where she car-pooled with the Andrew Sisters, dated Jerry Grey (arranger for Glen Miller’s orchestra) and also got to know the Modernaires who recorded a children’s album Peggy wrote called, The Glooby Game.

She married Sam and Ron was born in 1951. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Joe McCarthy was ranting. Sinatra was crooning. The Beatles weren’t yet but she heard other voices, like the Beat poet’s howl and songs of social protest. She met Adlai Stevenson but he lost to Eisenhower anyway.  

Peggy has a hungry aesthetic ranging from the unseen ordinary to the never before. She brings news from elsewhere. Fronds and bark and pods are brought into her house. She’s a finder and she was a founder of the Valley Center of Arts filling a cultural vacuum in the San Fernando Valley. The organization sponsored programs in the visual arts, literature, music and dance.

She got involved in the Civil Rights struggles, read James Baldwin and joined anti-nuke demonstrations. She read voraciously… Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield and Emily Dickinson. Her poet of choice was and still is Wallace Stevens. Poetry, it has been said, changes nothing but every day thousands die for lack of it. And they did in Korea and Southeast Asia. All this time Peggy was writing thousands of poems and three novels. In addition she was smitten by the collages of Joseph Cornell and proceeded to create well over a hundred constructions herself.

The country took a turn in 1980 when a B movie actor was given the role to impersonate a president. He had to drop breadcrumbs to find his way out of a sentence….but that was good enough for an ill-informed electorate. Peggy got her license that year and began her practice as a Jungian psychotherapist to help and see what ails this country.

In 1984 Ronald Reagan was reelected. The very least Peggy and I could do was to live together. We had been seeing each other, naughtily, for a few years. I called up and told her there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that Reagan was supporting the Contras in Nicaragua. The good news was I was moving in on Saturday.

The world goes on like a spiral with dips but upward, ultimately. At least she believes that paradigm and I concur, Trump to the contrary notwithstanding. There is a substance in us, said Stevens, that prevails.

She believes that Barack Obama is the most conscious of all our Presidents. If he failed as a politician he did with grace, a quality our country aches for. 
                                                                                                   Peggy is a force of nature. She has made history by her example. Few people whose path she has crossed come away unchanged. Without saying a word, the purple streak in her hair gives permission for others to do something daring, to risk an act of vulnerability.

The narrative of History seems to make little sense in its trajectory. But it’s fun to try to align it to our own. We sculpt our myth selectively. Peggy is not Penelope staying home waiting for the knock at the door. She’s out there encountering the gods and grappling with them but mostly finding some nugget right at her feet.