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.