Friday, December 6, 2019

Not of This Tide

Rudyard (may I call you Rudy?) Kipling was a most celebrated writer around a hundred years ago. He was esteemed by Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Freud, William James and his brother Hank. William J. compared him to Shakespeare. Even Edward Said, fierce opponent of colonialism, admired his work along with Salman Rushdie. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first English-speaking author. The next was W.B. Yeats sixteen years later.

Kipling was honored in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author."

In 1916 he wrote this very moving poem conflating his son’s death with that of a British sailor during W. W. I.

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has anyone else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!


Rudy’s star has been in the descendant for the past 75 years. He is not of this tide. He got it all wrong. The White Man’s burden is nonsense. Manifest Destiny is bull shit. Along with his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, he was an architect of imperialism. He loved the idea of building up man’s body with a good war. Even his beautiful poem damning war couldn’t help itself in the end by holding your head up high as if the folly of that Great War were not a crime against humanity.

Kipling lived in Vermont for about 18 months where he wrote some of his finest stories and began his novel, Kim. Here’s an example of his account of a railroad magnate, having procured an entire train for his personal use, traveling across the country during a great recession of 1892.

At night the bunched electrics lit up that distressful palace of all the luxuries…. swinging on through the emptiness of abject desolation. Now they heard the swish of a water-tank and the click-clink of hammers that tested the Krupp steel wheels, the oath of a tramp chased off the rear platform, now the solid crash of coal shot into the tender and now a bearing back of noises as they flew past a waiting train. Now they looked into the great abyss, a trestle purring beneath their tread or up to the rocks that barred out half the stars…..  

He wrote with poetic immediacy, drive and cadence as he suggests an unrest in the heartland. Yet for all that I regard Kipling as the finest last gasp of the 19th century. He was, for the most part, on the wrong side of history.

Can we separate the poet from the poem, the writer from his words or any artist from his art? I would like to believe creativity issues forth from the center of the creator but it seems not to be so. Consider Picasso’s womanizing, Eliot’s antisemitism. Rudy Kipling is one of those lost voices well worth a re-hearing. Genius is a gift not to be so easily dismissed. It is one of those conundrums I can live with.  

For anyone whose appetite has been whetted I recommend Christopher Benfey’s 2019 book about Kipling called, If, Penguin Press. By his account Kipling was a conflicted man with opposing voices moderating his view of war and imperialism. In his Epitaphs of the War, he spoke with regret
assuming the words of the dead,

If anyone question why we died,
Tell them becaause our fathers lied.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

In the Middle of the Air

When those in human bondage looked down they saw cotton. When they looked up they saw sweet chariots coming for to carry them home. 

Ezekiel saw the wheel / Way up in the middle of the air / Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air
Little wheel run by faith / Big wheel run by the grace of God / Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.
Now you never can tell what Ezekiel will do / way in the middle of the air / He lie about me / He lie about you / way in the middle of the air.

They may also have seen Lucifer falling from grace. According to Mormons Lucifer was Jesus’ brother. Not so, say everyone else. After all, only begotten sons generally don’t have brothers. Especially to rival them. Lucifer was no ordinary sort. When he fell he landed with a thud not unlike Humpty-Dumpty who was too much for all the King’s horses and men.

(The closest I could ever imagine is getting stuck in an elevator during a power failure. That’s not on my bucket list. Along with Severe Tire Damage it’s among those experiences I could easily live without.)

Lucifer was one of those pagan figures appropriated by the Christians to suit their fable. He was, in fact, the name for Venus, the morning star which seemed to fall out of sight daily. The New Testament took his beauty, his brightness and worldly brilliance and consigned him to eternal deviltry. How dare his curiosity which can lead to defiance. Lucifer takes the rap for Adam munching on that forbidden apple or pomegranate. Have a piece of fruit, he said, and for that gets a sentence of life plus forever. The lesson is, don’t mess with the Divine.

Icarus was another mythological young man who dared to defy authority. His father, Daedalus, who built the labyrinth that bested the Minotaur, warned his boy not to fly too close to the sun or his feathered wings held together by wax would melt. The accepted lesson seems to be that Icarus displayed hubris and paid the ultimate price. The way I see it the kid showed gumption. Who listens to their father? Fathers are yesterday’s news. The next generation pushes the envelope. How else would we have Saran Wrap or smart phones?

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him…is the name of a great book by Sheldon Kopp. Kill him metaphorically, of course. Listen to authority and then go beyond. Listen to yourself.   

Icarus was out there investigating in the middle of the air and then took the plunge. But there is more to the legend. Breughel, the Elder, is attributed as having painted, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.  The scene depicted is the legs of a figure going into the sea while a plowman is tending his field oblivious to the important splash in the green water. Benign neglect? Calloused indifference? There is a Flemish saying, And the farmer continues to plow, describing man’s indifference to human suffering.

In 1938 W.H. Auden took that theme and ran with it. In his poem, Musee des Beaux-Arts, the poet imagines several Breughel paintings showing town-folk ice skating, playing or doing chores and never looking up to the middle of the air. Auden was dismayed at the rise of Nazism of the eve of World War II.  I regard his poem as a cautionary tale of wanton disregard for the peril at hand.

This is my long way around to warn a somnolent American public of the imperative to vote in the presidential election, less than a year away. Too many voters seem uninformed or complacent, busy in the counting house counting all their money or at the table eating bread and honey. Next Nov. 3rd is not the day to caulk the bathtub or become a no-show because our candidate is far less than perfect. 

The Devil Donald with his brimstone of malice and mendacity must be defeated. The state of Grace seems to be unknownto him and one he will never carry. It is the one word which least describes him.

To his band of red-capped rally-goers I say, Question Authority. The man at the podium is a false idol with no chariot to deliver you. He lie about you. He lie about himself.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

When the Micro Meets the Macro


There is something in us that looks for correlatives, signs within that correspond to that external world which exists on cable news or right outside the window. It is as if we might align our private life with the events of history on one long continuum.  Historical events we find ourselves in the midst of have their way with our psyche whether we know it or not. Sometimes we mirror the news, other times we may act out its opposite.

In literary terms the objective correlative can sometimes be regarded as a tired, cheap shot. The patient is dying while outside the bedroom window a leaf is in advanced state of decay. The dark and stormy night references the weather inside the house as much as outside. Yet art of any kind conveys emotion best when revealed indirectly and not told.

When Rudyard Kipling visited Japan on his prolong honeymoon it was Kyoto’s season of cherry trees in bloom. He wrote about walking under this blizzard of petals as well as an azalea tree on the verge of bursting with fruit. All of this was possibly code for his wife’s pregnancy.

Four days ago was the 57th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The shooting took place one day before my daughter, Janice’s, first birthday. Lke many one-year old babies she was not talking yet. In fact she wasn’t even babbling; she was congenitally deaf. We had suspicions but no confirmation of her hearing loss yet I had witnessed her sleeping through loud noises. One doctor brushed it off, another confirmed our worst fears. While probably not historically accurate I conflate the Kennedy shooting with my daughter’s diagnosis. It felt like an assassination.

April 12, 1945, Thursday afternoon. I was coming home from Hebrew School, about a year in advance of my Bar Mitzvah when the news hit the street: Franklin Roosevelt was dead. People were openly weeping as if giving permission to each other. For me it was his voice now gone. Roosevelt was my President, the only President in my lifetime and he was more than that. His intonations shivered me with a beneficent divinity. I realized he was my God. His death was, for me, the death of my religious belief.

My body is in its Trumpian upheaval. A whistle has been blown. The deconstruction of our Democracy under his malicious imbecility is matched by the precipitous fall of my anatomy. Suddenly arthritis is having its way with me from ankles to shoulders. My joints are inflamed and testifying loudly. Bones are conspiring to overthrow my constitution. I am being impeached.

I can’t blame Donald alone for all this. Like the Fuhrer he needed help. I blame the invertebrates in Congress who have made a Faustian pact to throw a blind eye and deaf ear at the miscreant in order to serve another term. Perhaps only a spontaneous remission can save my architecture and the structure of government conceived by our Founders.


The only good that comes to mind about Trump's presidency is the Golden Age of Comedy it has engendered. However Peggy's love along with her irrepressible spirit and creativity are ample compensation for me. The more I moan the more she flows. So I shall shut up; I'm a lucky guy. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Messages Unsolicited


It may be mid-day in Mumbai but it’s in the wee hours of the day here when the phone rings. Just one ring is sufficient to rouse me from a hard-earned sleep. One and done. The No-Robo system works that way. All day the damn land-line is tolling. Ask not for whom says the poem. Sorry, John Donne, not for me. When I am asleep I am an island unto myself.

Again with the phone. Now it is ringing in earnest demanding to be answered. After all it could be Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Or the Nobel Prize Committee looking for that other Norm Levine. But no. It’s some guy telling me it is open enrollment season. I should only have my health. I figure if they really cared about my wellbeing they’d leave me alone. This time it’s 10 A.M. I am picturing the caller in some rented space between a tattoo shop and Thai massage parlor in a low-rent district in Manhattan. Seven o’clock here so I might as well meet the day.

Another barrage of one-ringers over breakfast which I’ve learned to ignore like punctuating fits and starts, some abortive sound and fury signifying nothing.

Now it is ringing again. Some campaign worker in Arizona working the phones for Mark Kelley or the Ditch Mitch office pleading for a few bucks. Too close to call says the volunteer in Maine telling me everything I already know about Susan Collins. The problem is I agree with everyone and I’ve already pledged on line.

Now it is Doctors Without Borders or the A.C.L.U. or Habitat for Humanity or Natural Resources Defense Council or Southern Poverty Law Center. They send me maps, calendars and address labels. Stop already, I’m not worth it.

This time the phone voice says, Hi, this is Bruce from Microsoft Service Center. You have been hacked by foreigners so you must go to your computer right now or we shall disable your Internet. To which I reply, Two sentences and you’ve lied to me four times. If your name is Bruce, I am Mahatma Gandhi. Secondly you are not from Microsoft; they don’t call people and lastly they never threaten their clients.

Next, I am told, in combative tones, that Social Security is after me or my credit cards are overdue or maybe my sister is stuck in Nairobi and needs money. Good thing I don’t have a sister unless I’d misplaced her at an early age.

Now an online pharmacy is calling because I foolishly left my phone number eleven years ago when shopping for I know not what. By this time I ask the man who is trying hard to disguise his Indian accent if he really wants to spend his life annoying people. Does your mother know what you are doing, I inquire. This always elicits an early click.

(Much can be said about getting rid of a landline. Mobile phones can always be stored in the far end of the house during sleep and set to low volume or vibrate. I might vibrate myself to happiness) 

Email shows a message from my Greek friend, Basil, suggesting a foursome early dinner at a new Mediterranean restaurant next Wednesday. By now I am crusty, cantankerous and curmudgeonly. I don’t like driving after sundown, say I and I also hate goat or feta cheese. I suppose that would mean I’d be stoned to death in Athens or turned into an ox. He says I’d be saved because the gods could't ever agree on anything and an ox sent to India would not lead a bad life.

My day was made. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Cleaving


Say that we have cleaved and you can’t go wrong. Even the word has been cleaved with each meaning, (separating or coming together) derived from a different source.  It’s one of those Janus two-headed ones staring off in opposite directions. Henry the 8th had it both ways. He first cleaved in marriage and then had some wives cleaved by decapitation if they didn’t produce. He gave new meaning to separation anxiety.

It’s come to this…a bifurcated nation with Us, the Good Guys cheering for Trump’s removal and Them, each watching the news as it breaks and each off to our respective cable-planets. If Trump were dragged from the Oval on MSNBC and CNN, on Fox they’d be showing a car chase in Wichita.

Then we cleave the other way with 100,000 coming together to cheer their team on any Saturday afternoon football game. The Super Bowl gets ten times the rating as the Democrat debate with over 110 million watching, betting, munching, cheering, jeering.

Let us cleave. The Democratic convention next July will be held in Milwaukee, about ½ hour flight from Cleveland. I mark that as a good omen. If the country can’t cleave together at least the Party must. We have the bigger tent, by far. We also have the largest electorate who cleave off in a stupor on Election Day; maybe they still can’t get over Saturday’s big game.

Nearly 60 million people play Fantasy Football. Do they cleave?  I wouldn’t know but in my Lyft rides last week I was able to speak that universal language with three of the four drivers. I doubt if they ever heard of Adam Schiff or John Bolton.

Joe is fading, Pete is rising, Elizabeth and Bernie are neck and neck. Newbies are leaping in. It’s almost like a football game with players being carted off in rhetorical stretchers and non-roster faces showing up not on the program.      Where are the household names, the All-Americans by acclamation? The guy with FDR's voice, JFK's vigor and Jimmy Carter's folksy sweater and Bible creds.  

It looks to me that no candidate will reach a majority. We’ll be looking at a brokered convention probably decided by super-delegates who weigh in after the first ballot. My guess it will likely be None of the Above.

Donald has set the bar so low any used-car salesman might be the one. We need somebody who can have a beer with Joe the Plummer, who can look Charlie Lunchbucket in the eye and talk the talk and at the same time speak fluent soybean with Farmer John and health and welfare to the rest of us.

Or do we need a Black Hispanic woman billionaire with magnetic charisma, name recognition, oratorical skills, unintimidated by the Bozo with broad-enough appeal to Never-Trumpers and who doesn’t strike fear in the Heartland? Did I almost describe Oprah Winfrey? Maybe but…I don’t think she’s the one either. Maybe what I want is a composite. What ever happened to Gregory Peck? Call Central Casting.

I am writing all this to find out what I think. I have until July 13th, 2020 to change my mind but it is becoming clear to me, with a mere 50 weeks to November 3rd, it all comes down to a single issue. We must win the White House or the American experiment in Democracy will cease… to be replaced by four years of tyranny and irreversible destruction to our planet. Nothing else matters for now. Not the form of healthcare nor even income inequality.

Yes, yes, of course I agree with Elizabeth Warren but she is a 
Hail Mary (football talk). Sadly she doesn't connect with enough receivers.

There was a time when no one I knew was to the Left of me. Now there are voices I’m hearing that a Centrist is no better than a Republican. They are wrong. A Biden-like substance would not stand in the way of a progressive Congress, nor would that person appoint judges out of the Federalist Society, nor would he/she block vital climate change measures or sane immigration measures. I don’t care if our candidate takes money from hedge funds. Wall St. Bankers also have grandchildren. Some even have a conscience.

There is no need to score a touchdown to win. A field goal will do; even an extra point. This is the moment for  Americans to cleave as in forming a huddle. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Vigilante Justice

Just behind Mom and apple pie there is nothing more American than good old vigilante justice. From Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger back to the noir detectives and before that the singing cowboy of the Wild West. For every cattle rustler there was a Lone Ranger and even lonelier Tonto. Who was that masked man and where'd he go?

The wheels of justice are far too slow or too corrupt and cumbersome for our extra-legal hero. Besides, who wants to sit through the tedium of the real world.  After all, the rugged individuals we are noted for can’t wait to set things right. He's got a nose for trouble. He has a few heads to crack, rescue a damsel and send the bad guys up the river. It all comes down to this: man, alone versus the institutions. The real enemy may not be the outlaw but the courts, due process and government itself.

Vigilantes always think they know better. The guy in the lynch mob knows where the hanging tree is just as the moron at the Trump rally knows the chant. 

Our heroes are the ex-cop or private eye who defy medical science as he tears himself free of his I.V. and walks out of the hospital twenty minutes after surgery to save mankind. Even better is the ordinary man or woman minding their own business when spiraled into a web of ordeals with dragons.

Everybody’s favorite is Clyde. When banks started foreclosing on farms in his day he didn’t wait for trickle-down economics to put a few crumbs on his table. He went directly to the bank. His withdrawal slip was a gun. Everybody needs a hobby. Too bad thirteen people got in the way of his bullets. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie redressed their grievances in that rugged American way. Somehow between holdups he managed to write a letter to the richest of all captains of industry. It doesn't get more absurd than this............


Mr. Henry Ford, Detroit, Michigan
Dear Sir, 
While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove [sic] Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever [sic] other car skinned and even if my business hasn’t been strickly [sic] legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.

Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Suddenly Old

A funny thing happened to me after my 86th birthday. I got to be 86….suddenly.  It’s been a cruel seven months. Up until my birthday I was thirty-nine, plus or minus. I used to play basketball in the park on Sunday. Now if I tried to slam-dunk I probably trip over the foul line and bang my head on the bottom of the backboard.

Aging knows no grace. It doesn’t inch or creep; it leaps, precipitously. One day you’re vertical and next, diagonal. I look at people in the restaurant with walkers as kindred folk. And they nod back as if to say you’re one of us now. Get over it.

Of course I’d always known about decrepitude but surely that didn’t apply to me, did it? I had pluck and spunk but that was then. When I go marketing now the first thing I do is search for a shopping cart (my walker) in the parking lot….even if I’ve come only to pick up a bread. 

In terms of endurance, agility or brisk walking, this is the age of subtraction.

What did you do yesterday?
I threw out the trash.
What else?
I changed the paper toweling.

About six weeks ago I went to sit down and I missed. It was in the E.R. when Peggy was brought there in the early morning hours. I had a newspaper in one hand and a cup of water in the other. My balance deserted me. I thought nothing of it when I landed on the floor apparently with my shoulders taking the impact. If I had given it any thought I would have landed on my face. A rearrangement of my nose, mouth, cheeks, etc… could do no harm.

In that nanosecond if you are granted a multiple choice do not opt for shoulders. They get nasty when insulted. They’ve served me well all these years and we’ve grown emotionally attached. Now I can’t reach or tuck in my shirt or even scratch my head without wincing. I can still shrug all right but I’m not in the mood for shrugging. The pain gets particularly loud when I’m trying to sleep. Hush, I say to my aching upper arms. I never knew it had such a low threshold of pain.

Add to this malady my neuropathy which has been mostly dormant for decades. It seems to have coordinated a frontal attack in my upper regions causing an enervation of the musculature in my lower extremities.  In addition my right knee and left ankle are arthritic along with a bone spur. Not one of those fake ones for people who live in towers but a real one for which there is no remedy.

To say that ambulation has become a challenge is like saying the Trump presidency gives one pause. In baseball terms if I hit a ball against the centerfield wall and the two outfielders ran into each other, then one woke up and threw wildly back into the infield……….I might or might not make it to first base.

Now I must return to my exercises, jumping to conclusions and running off at the mouth… if I can only get up from this chair. I must learn to act my age; something I thought I’d never have to do. 

Yes, I agree. Nothing is more boring than hearing about someone else’s woes. I’m putting myself to sleep with all this self-pity. It must be time for a nap.


Saturday, October 12, 2019

Aftermath


Wars have a way of upsetting the narrative…as if there really ever was one. Looking backward some of us try to connect the dots and trace a shift in the way things were...and then weren’t anymore.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, which was particularly uncivil, our history was marked by betrayal of the cause along with the rise of monopoly capitalism and the American version of Dickensian poverty. On another level, sensibilities shifted. Calvinism, with its rigidity and literal interpretation of biblical fables gave way grudgingly to a looser code; at least among academics, poets, writers and journalists. For the Blacks not enough was gone by the wind but immigrants ultimately provided diversity and then there was Charles Darwin even if many hadn’t yet evolved.

The First World War yielded the Jazz Age and Lost Generation…..lost to fertilize the fields of Europe, lost to the flu pandemic and lost in bewilderment. The notion of never-ending progress was snapped by the colossal stupidity of ignorant armies clashing in the night, as Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach put it. For a decade we let loose, drinking in Speak-Easys and living on margin with Dow & Jones until the bubble burst into a dust bowl of apples.

World War II was so disrupting it resulted in a decade of conformity with millions of new homeowners in tract homes with scrupulous lawns and  2 ½ children. Under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. It was a decade of Pax Americana. Eisenhower presided and everyone knew his place, still with separate drinking fountains and swimming pools. Under the Doris Day / Rock Hudson immaculate conception a controversy of birds was stirring on those metal trees on the roof and in the devil grass among dichondra. In came the Beats, the hair, the hemp, the flower-girls, freedom-riders, soldiers marching, sit-ins and love-ins.

Trump has been President for almost 1000 days. History may well regard this period as a wartime. We have been under siege with his pernicious mindlessness, the moral violence he adds to our daily discourse, his barbed mendacity, bellicose rallies which reek of Nuremberg and his frontal assaults on our democracy. I may be getting ahead of the arc but I see the decline and fall of his quasi monarchy close at hand. I can smell it. We are nearing the point when even the unconscionable Senators are bending under the weight of his wanton disregard of our Constitution. The White House is blanching, aghast with his reckless, indefensible behavior.

When he is gone there will be an epochal change. Gradually we will return to civility just in time for the Thanksgiving table. No more food fights. The word Truth will reenter our vocabulary. Hypocrisy and loathing will lose their currency. Make room for common sense as applied to gun laws, the degradation of our planet and immigration.

The common-weal will replace pseudo-Populism. We contain multitudes, always have and are richer for it. In the words of e.e. Cummings, We who have died are alive again today. When the monarch is removed along with his con-men, hit-men and Yes-men we will enter into first a period of repair and then a recognition of necessities. We may even put to rest those festering issues over which the Civil War was fought as well as checking the rise of fascism before a swastika replaces our stars and stripes.  


Friday, September 27, 2019

Ukraine

Something happened along the way. Ukraine lost it’s The, its article.  At one time Ukraine was like The Bronx and The Vatican. I never understood what gave The Bronx that distinction. Manhattan didn’t have it or Brooklyn. It turns out the Bronx was named after a farmer named Bronck who lent his name to a river and that land became a borough when NYC appropriated it from Westchester County. That’s the story but it doesn’t justify the The.

In any case we now just say Ukraine. Maybe that’s when the trouble began. Ukraine simply means Borderland. And it is abundant with borders, not necessarily with very friendly neighbors. Poland has had a few bites and, of course, it has Russian teeth-marks in its vitals. I suppose that’s the privilege of a Motherland. And then there are Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary nibbling when they felt the urge. It could be worse without the Carpathian Mountains to the west and Black Sea at its southern flank it could have been carved up for a Slavic feast.

Today we have Ukraine the subject, once more, of all news sources unless you live on Planet Fox. As Henry Higgins might have said to Eliza Doolittle, The reign of Trump’s brain has mainly been deranged in the Ukraine.

Our devious president, who can’t keep his mind out of dirt, thought he had some on Joe Biden and son Hunter. There’s no dirt like Ukrainian dirt. Putin can't get enough of it. It may well be that Joe Biden’s son follows the great American tradition of embarrassing bloodlines. There’s Jimmie Carter’s brother, Bill Clinton’s brother and Billy Bush, George W Bush’s cousin. Consider Donald’s illustrious family of no-good sons and then there is Jared.

Trump leans on the head-of-state, Zelensky. He dangles some pocket change (400 million bucks) in aid for any dirt he can convert to mud in the 2020 campaign. Does this bother the brethren? Don’t be silly. They’re too busy singing hymns about reverence, decency and humility. Thank you, Jesus.

Our president must have the Jim Jones playbook as his reading matter. He has managed to mesmerize the largest cult in human history. When he says, Drink, they drink. They swallow his arrogance and ignorance. They gulp down his deceit, his vulgarity and malice. They even cheer his inanities and misogynist escapades. They chant, they fear, they hate on cue. Their brains have been addled.

In the early seventies I found myself at the People’s Temple in San Francisco attending a Jim Jones jubilee. It was the closest I have ever come to a Trump rally. I had two dear friends who sought some alternative life style and were suckered into his cult. They ran a psychiatric facility under his auspices in Redwood City. They invited me to see for myself how wonderful Jones preached. After an hour of his hocus-pocus I ran for my life. Claire and Richard lost their two teenage children in the Guyana jungle.

If DJT gets reelected I’m getting on The Five Freeway and headed for The Bronx on my way to The Arctic, if there still is one.




                                                                                                          

Monday, September 23, 2019

Brisket

It seems like everyone is talking about brisket these days. Well, maybe not everyone but my friend Fred has mentioned it so often it sounds like a chorus. I think Costco had it on sale recently and he asked me to pick some up. Alas, there’s no room in our freezer to store brisket. However after filling up a page about lamb chops I told Fred I would give brisket equal time.

In fact I know nothing about brisket. But I know nothing about many things including fly fishing, sub-atomic particles, Gregorian chants, the Third Punic War and how just about anything works. 

I can tell you that it may be the only word that rhymes with biscuit… unless you consider Triscuit a word.

Maybe brisket is one of those staples one should always have at the ready in case people drop in. There are occasions when pickled herring just won’t do. This might be why I don’t get invited to dinner parties anymore. Do people still give dinner parties? It’s been so long I forgot which fork to use.

I’ve always associated brisket with Jewish tables. In fact I thought it might be a Yiddish word. A derivative of Bris as in circumcision.....but let's not go there. It seems to be standard fare for high holidays, what everyone is waiting for after enduring all the arcane mumbles.

However a map of your average cow shows the state of Brisket bordered by Shank or Shin to the south, Flank to the east and Chuck above. The brisket is Tennessee-like in shape on some Google sites and more New York on others. But always located in the chest area and nowhere near the Sirloin or Tenderloin. I’m glad we’ve settle that much.

Any notion I had, as a member of the tribe, that brisket was religiously-based were delusional. Texans called it BBQ. My mother called it pot roast. For all I know the Chinese may assign it to column B as number 37 on the menu presented as beef-broccoli. It’s also a favorite in Korea, Thailand, Germany and Italy. It could be the universal dish over which summit meetings are held….unless the leaders are vegetarians in which case a brisket-like substance must be concocted with transformational soy beans and massively worked tofu.

However brisket is a mainstay in Kosher or non-Kosher delis. It is the mother of corned beef or further devolved into pastrami with the right spices. Pile it high and grill it between two pieces of rye bread along with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut and the next thing you know you might be looking at a Reuben sandwich. Of course this wouldn’t be served in a Kosher deli due to the sacrilege of meat and dairy …..a marriage impermissible around orthodoxy; yet another reason why I have strayed far from the flock.    

Can anything more be said about brisket? I’m sure there can but I’m too hungry to go on. Pass the mustard or horse radish if you prefer.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Being There


My idea of camping out is checking into a motel with the windows open. And then there are people like Barry Lopez.

He sets up a tent in Cape Foulweather on the rugged Oregon coast, a violent storm on the way. From there he walks into an old-growth rain forest to experience the sense of being lost and the spatial closeness. He contrasts this with the wide open expanse of arctic regions where he lived with wolves or the fifty-foot waves he weathered between the Falkland Islands and Antarctica.

Lopez is an intrepid Nature writer. He is one of a kind. An essayist, winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction and also author of ten books of fiction. In fact his books erase categories. His latest, Horizon, published this year by Knopf might be called a memoir recalling six of his past adventures. Adventure is the wrong word. His life is devoted to encountering harsh ecosystems, their history, which is our history and the struggle for survival.

Above all else he is a humanitarian who somehow delivers a message of peril for our planet and, at the same time, offers hope.  His voice is both urgent and lyrical. He doesn’t just despair over clear-cut forests or land despoiled by fossil-fuel and mining interests. He subscribes to the notion that undisturbed land not only heals but can bring a distracted mind to a state of transcendence and release us to an awareness of the wondrous and salutary nature of the Other. Wondrous indeed was his witnessing a hundred kangaroos leaping in the Australian Outback. He mourns for the damage done by Europeans to the Asian sub-continent as well as to Africa and the Americas owing to their arrogance and rapacity.

Lopez reminds us that constancy is an illusion. In fact we may flux ourselves off the map. The Yupik and Inuit now live with this existential threat. It has been written about from every news source and shouted from every lecture hall but it can only be experienced by being there as Lopez does. What is regarded as a dreaded phenomenon to scientists is a numinous moment in time to Lopez. How these people strategize their survival and the thousands of indigenous folks who fought extinction before them, warrant our first-hand attention. We have much to learn from them.

Centuries ago the Polynesians navigated over ten million square miles of the Pacific Ocean which astonishes modern seafarers. They not only built sea-worthy vessels but followed the patterns of migratory birds, knew the language of ocean currents and read the stars with the precision of our G.P.S. The people of Easter Island share the same tongue as those in New Zealand three thousand miles away.

Lopez’s reverence for life and his prodigious quest for historical sources are rendered with his felt language. One afternoon I pondered the sense of compassion I felt for Captain Cook and his first landing In Australia. I was prompted to do this by the bright riot of afternoon sunbeams ricocheting from the calm surface of the bay, by the distant clatter of dry eucalypt leaves roiled by the wind and the towering fair-weather cumulus clouds above, with their convoluted cauliflower heads. Together, these framed for me a Prelapsarian scene…I experienced a generosity of spirit in myself I cannot always find. An uncomplicated love of the world.

Though acutely aware of the broad sweep of philosophy, geography, botany and history, his response to the natural world is awe rather than analysis. He writes palpably about his sense of time in the wild. In his words, there is some other way to understand the ethical erosion that engenders ...a social entropy which suggests these problems are intractable. He finds that undifferentiated space offers an altered sense of time passing allowing more room to maneuver. What halts us is simply a failure of imagination.

Through his contact with indigenous people from pole to pole
he is able to re-dream the world for us. Against our virulent xenophobia, he pleads for diversity, for hard listening to the aborigines and trampled people everywhere, the wisdom revealed in their story-telling. Art aspires to converse and such a conversation is imperative. 

I’ve been able to renew this 500 page book twice. Apparently there is no queue waiting. How can this be? Barry Lopez needs to be heard. His voice sings with a fierce defense of our planet along with a music aligned with the pulse of the earth.



Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Chamber Music


What happens when the heart in its sacred chambers changes its tune from a Schubert string quartet to a jam session?  From thump tra la - thump tra la ... to Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman riffing with a frenetic Gene Krupa. Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar….except Peggy’s heart went 123 beats a minute at 3 A.M. She called it the jitters. The paramedics called it atrial fibrillation.

Let the fluttering heart wait till Valentine’s Day. Until then be still. No more agitating twitches or oscillating quivers. Enough with syncopated rhythm. We need our metronome.

We were reminded that at 98 all our disregarded organs and assorted body parts have been working away for 98 years. None has labored more relentlessly than the human heart. Both anatomically and figuratively. Peggy’s in particular. Call it capacious. Her heart reaches out and soars.

Once again I stand in amaze how she touches not only the doctors and nurses but the unseen woman who brings the tray, she who takes her blood and he who brought an inflatable waffle to ease her backside. She offers them her full presence and they become more alive in that brief exchange. They walk away regarded. Is this a strain on the heart? No, it thrives in the meeting. So it was that one of her nurses, Cassandra, is now a new friend. One can always use a Cassandra in one’s life to see what’s around the next corner.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet noted the man who is not passion’s slave as one close to his heart of heart (we amended the Bard’s word to make it plural). Peggy's heart, in its chambers, embraces both the Apollonian and Dionysian in a slow dance. Her heart is both a lonely hunter and a joyful finder. She asserts, enthuses and ruminates. Wherever she finds herself, on a gurney or in an ambulance, there is always the now to be cherished, to be grist for the next poem.

Atrial fibrillation refers to the upper chamber of the heart, the atrium. I have a habit of looking for a back story often found in the etymology of a word. So it is that when I chewed on that word, atrium, I thought of the Greek myth. Could it be derived from the cursed House of Atreus in Greek mythology? If so none of us stand a chance.

As it turns out I was on the wrong etymological trail. Atrium comes from the Latin word meaning main room which contains the hearth. Maybe hearth led to heart. The atrium is the northern hemisphere feeding blood into its southern counterpart, the ventricles; literally, little belly.

Strange how the heart belongs to Cupid with his arrows. The pierced heart is depicted as the seat of desire. Peggy’s heart is filled with love and soulfulness, what Donald Trump is missing. Open-heartedness is welcoming and forgiving. It’s got rhythm. It sings and it zings as in heartstrings. It is our core place as in the heart of artichoke. Have a heart, please. Peggy has a rare one. It is the organ which beats a Bolero even in its frenetic chaos.  In its settled state, her heart charms the chaplain, Father Patty, but, alas, he was off duty this time around. I didn’t want to bring it up or she’d have stayed another day.    

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Norm's Pharmacy


I used to tell people my mother was a visionary and named me after the store. 

I seldom write about my days as a pharmacist. In some ways it was my penal servitude. In another sense, the ground I paced and discovered a way into myself. Ultimately I made peace with the profession.  

In high school science and math came easily to me but in college I was soon to discover my aptitude and passions were elsewhere. One could say I majored in cowardice. Over the four years at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy (L.I.U.) I became even less interested in chemistry, physics and pharmacology, with all its structural formulas, laws of reactions and garden of botanical origins. Far too much memorization and not enough challenging ideas. History, literature and geopolitics were my meat but I couldn’t imagine how to put bread on the table with these subjects.    

I became a pharmacist because I didn’t know myself well enough to resist the certainty that a pharmacy license offered. My father’s footsteps called out to be followed. My mother said I would always have something to fall back on. I fell back and stayed there. Those fifty-three years counting and pouring are pretty much of a blur.

When I graduated in 1954 the pharmacy universe had virtually discarded everything I learned about crude drugs and the need for a mortar and pestle. Drugstores had become deodorized. The world I remembered of my father's drugstore would be consigned to my olfactory vault. 

Our shelves were filled with ready-mades. Big Pharma was Baby Pharma but already dominant with names like Squibb, Upjohn, Parke-Davis, Burroughs-Wellcome and Ciba, many of which have already been swallowed by bigger fish. The pharmacist did the work of a vending machine with the occasional detection of an incompatibility or overdose.

In 1980 I opened my own store in a medical building in Tarzana. By this time I could write poems in between labels. Still, confinement was always an issue. A pharmacist cannot leave that petty space without locking the doors. I was held-up at gun point about five times and broken into twice. The good news was that Pharmacy was about to be redefined again. We were no longer seen as dispensers but as consultants. Of course we had always been that shoulder to lean on and well of information but now it was mandatory……..all without compensation, of course.

This aspect of the pharmacist’s role was my salvation. I took satisfaction listening to woes and weighing in when I had something useful to say. Often it was just receiving the patient’s ordeals and healings. They had my ear and my trust. For doctors I might have been a repository; a cauldron of arcane meds, labyrinth of insurance formularies and regulations governing controlled substances etc…

Into the Nineties another change was underway. Every wallet had an insurance card. We were paid a fee. Like it or not. All the power shifted to the fiscal intermediary. They set the terms. Mail-Carriers walked around with more medications than I filled in a day. By mid-decade many of my loyal customers were gone to mail order suppliers. One day the phone rang and I recognized the voice as Mrs. Benson. How did you know it was me, she asked. I replied, I only have two customers and the other one just hung up.

In 1997 I sold my pharmacy to a Russian family. Maybe they were distant relatives of my ancestors from Vilna but I doubt it. In fact they were from Odessa where courses of aggressive Capitalism must be taught. Any illusions I may have had about life in a communal state with a high value on social welfare were dispelled. Opportunism was in their DNA. The Russian emigres made an easy transition from communism to Medicaid.

At the height of a flu epidemic I might fill 85 prescriptions in a day. When they took over they filled 300 Rxs on a slow day and up to 600 on a busy Monday. I hung around for a few years and incrementally slipped away. I’m not sure anyone noticed. I forgot a fact a week so after a few months I knew nothing. The store still bears my name. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve become a household word in Odessa.  



Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Witless Presidency


The wreckage of the Trump presidency is a matter of lived history. It has all been well and duly noted. Our planet is menaced, our nation's precepts stained and our daily discourse debased. From tweet to tweet we witness a man bent on unconscionable acts whose goal always points toward self-aggrandizement. Those who continue to support him are complicit in a way no less criminal than the Germans of the thirties who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven while they implemented a program of bestial behavior towards their neighbors. They shall live with infamy.


What has been lost in the rubble of the past three years is common sense, common decency and concern for the commonweal. The man simply does not have it. If he once had it is now gone. No further indicator is needed than his absence of a sense of humor. He seldom laughs and when he does it is a snicker of ridicule at someone else’s expense. He has the funny bone of an eight-year old. No irony. No word-play. Certainly not any self-deprecation. I submit that humor is a matter of maturity, intellect, nuance and quickness of mind.


In an effort to explain behavioral types the ancients came up with the nonsensical notion of four body humours, blood (sanguine), phlegm (apathy), yellow bile (aggression) and black bile (melancholy). Amazingly this theory lasted until the mid-19th century. Whether Trump should be described as bilious (violent) or choleric (self-important) I leave to my betters. None of these humours have anything to do with wit.


Wit and humor do not reside in slow minds, said Cervantes. We don’t seem to tell jokes much anymore; just one-liners. Either way, to get a punchline we need to go along with a sort of leap into the unexpected. It jolts the mind and propels us into a new perspective.


A sense of humor is a function of empathy. It calls for extending oneself into another’s skin, living his/her momentary experience. It all happens so fast it resists analysis. But when it is absent and replaced by insults, derision, verbal daggers and innuendos the air we breathe feels noxious. This is yet another pollution the President has bequeathed us.


During the vacuum of his presidency a Golden Age for comedians has been generated. We take solace in the absurdity of his mis-speaks, his tone-deaf blabberings and blunders, the very outrage of his misanthropy and our own human predicament. It has become a refuge from derangement. If it is true that laughter stimulates the immune system maybe we can laugh our way through the next fourteen months.


A horse walks into an Oval Office……….


Sunday, August 25, 2019

Out of Vilna

Thanks to my middle daughter, Lauren, we have discovered the soil of our family tree. Going back four generations our roots belong in Lithuania….at least on one side. Lauren is our chronicler, our seer. While others ask what she, with her wide eyes, asks when and where. She is our noticer. The one who spots the incongruous hat or shoe in the canvas be it a scene in a movie or a photo album. She has always been able to identify the year and location of an image by what the apparel doth oft proclaim.

A sense of antecedents drives her questioning. I share that curiosity but on a more macro plane. Lauren sniffs out details, the animating particulars in order to create a soulful presence. She reminds me of all the questions I never asked.
In her seventeenth year Lauren left regular high school to finish in an independent studies program on her own. After two months she took and passed an equivalency exam which gave her a diploma. That spirit of self-discovery has never left. She answers to her own interrogating voice searching for beginnings. Maybe that wondering and wandering began her Out of Vilna moment.

My grandfather, Morris, made his way out of Vilna in his seventeenth year also. His journey brought him to the lower eastside of Manhattan in 1887. It was a difficult decision and it was also an easy decision. Tough to leave family and friends behind along with the teeming cultural and literary scene of Vilna which was the Paris of that region. The Jewish population of the city reached 40%. Yet it was also a city under siege by Poles, Belarussians and Prussians. Pogroms ate away at the outskirts. Conscription was the fate of young men. I imagine young Morris hiding in a cellar from a band of drunken mustachioed Cossacks. Perhaps he was concealed under a large stack of potatoes and he found his transit on the shoot of a potato. 

He was part of a mass migration from Eastern Europe to Hamburg to New York harbor. Was he by himself? We don’t know yet. But I’m sure he traveled in steerage coming up on deck to pass that newly installed Statue of Liberty, then on to Ellis Island and from there to a tenement on a street of pushcarts. In 1891 he met Yetta and the tree was watered.


In my seventeenth year I was lost. I might as well have been in Vilna on the wrong road out. I had no idea it was a family tradition. Girls were still a foreign subject. Politics and sports were my strong points. I thought I knew the good guys from the bad guys... in government and on the playing field. I wasn’t altogether wrong but not altogether right either. A year later I chose my profession and three years after that I was married. Not very prudent with either choice……….but then again I wouldn’t have Lauren to learn from if I had embarked on that road not taken.

Did my father, Sam, have his Out of Vilna intersection? I’ll have to make all this up because I forgot to ask. He either didn’t finish or never started high school. Too poor. He sold newspapers on Flatbush Ave. and played the mandolin in a pick-up band, a piece of DNA not passed along to me. He earned loose change cashing in deposit bottles or as a runner dashing from the telephone in the candy store to call down the neighbor. He left his Vilna behind when he met my mother who tutored him for the two-year pharmacy college straight through to his license.

Morris, can you hear me? We’re all in your debt. Had you stayed in Vilna none of us would be.
  

Thursday, August 15, 2019

War without End


Imagine being an asthmatic, near-sighted frail kid in the 1860s. That just wouldn’t do, said his robust father. So Teddy Roosevelt worked out. He boxed, did push-ups, rode on his horse when he wasn’t reading books voraciously. One might say he over-compensated in his lifetime with his regimen of brisk walks, taking a bullet in his chest with a mere flinch, cavalry charge up San Juan Hill, camping in the wild, hunting in Africa and daring the miseries of the Amazon. No shrinking violet, he. T.R was arguably the architect of U.S. Imperialism. 

However times change and some of us don’t notice. His offer to lead another horse brigade was deemed inappropriate for that great Family Squabble / Crime Against Humanity also known as World War I…  fought in the trenches and with machine guns and poison gas from 1914-1918. However T.R.’s legacy was embedded in the family DNA.

His son Kermit, the one who survived that Great War, had a son also named Kermit, aka Kim. Kim kept the family tradition alive as a C.I.A. agent under Allen Dulles. It took the partnership of Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower along with Kim to pull off the coup of 1953 in Iran. There’s nothing so tempting, I suppose, as a winnable war.

Clement Atlee and Harry Truman confronted by the duly elected but restless Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, urged caution, diplomacy and sanctions. How dare these Iranians wanting to elect their own head of state and own their own oil! But Winnie, with British Imperialism in his bloodstream would have none of it. And was Kim Roosevelt shouting Bully, Bully to himself ready to spill family blood to honor his name? Recently-released records show that Kim bribed officials and mob bosses, staged phony attacks to mislead the opposition, met U.S. troops on the beach and finally installed the Shah of Iran who sold out his people for a Swiss bank account.

Do Iranians remember all this from 1953? Do we remember Pearl Harbor? Could that be why they don’t trust us? The mid-point of this chronology would be the flight of the Shah and revolution in 1979. Like most revolutions they merely traded one despot for another but, at least, it was their guy and not ours. Unfortunately Jimmy Carter presided over the Shah’s flight and subsequent Iran-Hostage incident which ultimately elected Ronald Reagan as President in his greatest role since Bonzo.

Now we have Donald bent on some good-old American chest-pounding. I wonder if he was also a frail kid in Jamaica Estates needing to prove himself to Daddy. It seems to come naturally to him. He also had an appetite for blood but, unlike T.R. it better be someone else’s. Perhaps he had his conscience removed along with his tonsils at age six.

Since our inspirational leader doesn’t read books or even listen to daily Intelligence Briefings he may not know any of the above. The last horse he mounted was probably in a merry-go-round so there’s no connection to T.R. particularly when one remembers to credit the man from Oyster Bay with his conservation, anti-corruption campaign in New York and his trust-busting record. Had the two men been contemporaries the one would have surely been behind bars. But lust, power, muscular foreign policy, threats and exceptionalism are a dangerous potion in the hands of fools. Sabers on horseback to missiles in silos, brinkmanship and bluster. Only the form has changed. 

Over the past 103 years we’ve been at overt war, declared or not, for almost 40 years and engaged in covert operations, non-stop. This Iran overthrow 66 years ago is just one of a long list of misadventures unknown to most Americans. The annual Pentagon budget is a staggering 686 billion. 

Of particular note is the CIA record in Central and South America. Many dictators and generals are in our debt. Under the cloak of fighting Communism we have assassinated or otherwise removed Democratically elected leaders (Arbenz and Allende) and installed friendly heads of state, however brutal and corrupt (Batista and Samoza). Land reform is desperately called for but we have blocked any effort to upset the lopsided grip of the few ruling families. Is it any wonder these peasants are now knocking at our doors?

Imperialism has its price and unintended consequences. Wars need to be understood as an instrument defending or extending corporate influence. If indeed Troy was under siege by the Greeks for ten years it wasn't to rescue Helen. Nor did we sacrifice 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam out of our benevolence to the suffering peasants. There are always business interests weighing heavily at policy-making. 

It is ironic after a century of meddling in foreign affairs we have become the object of even more sophisticated meddling.
The cyber war currently underway opens a new chapter in nefarious acts. It's a far cry from Teddy Roosevelt's
sabers or even Kermit's subterfuge in the streets of Tehran. It is a war without stain or sweat, no end in sight.