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.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Off-Shore Flo


Folks inland don’t know about her. Or those in the San Fernando Valley. Beverly Hills is where it is because they wanted no part of Off-Shore Flo. We in Santa Monica and other beach towns greet her every morning. Sometimes she hangs around till sundown so Valleyites drive here all day to get away from the 102 temperatures and make a U-turn when they land in this country with a different climate. Sorry folks but there ain’t no sun up in that sky. Not with Off-Shore Flo.

One hundred plus years ago, before it became a collection of outskirts, Los Angeles was a sleepy little Pueblo. It was settled about thirty miles inland from the ocean. Orange groves thrived in the sun. Hollywood stars and starlets craved it. Nothing like a healthy suntan. Might as well smoke a pack a day while you’re at it. They just couldn’t handle Off-Shore Flo. The coastal towns were for poor people who couldn’t afford a slice of sunlight and aircraft mechanics during the war who caught a few hours’ sleep in tiny bungalows which now sell for a million dollars or more.

Here we are six blocks from land’s end. We’ve come to appreciate Off-Shore Flo, aka Marine air. Having lived for decades in Reseda, North Hollywood, Canoga Park, Granada Hills, Woodland Hills and Sherman Oaks Peggy and I combined have had our fill of scorching, stale air. We happily traded sizzling smog for salty, sunless gusts. 

Off-Shore Flo is Poseidon’s breath, whales spout, the fresh breeze from Asia, what remains of their typhoon, gulls surfing in on drafts of salt spray, and surfers riding the green room to the sand. It is the force which will blot out the sun for an hour or an afternoon. 

When Gusty Winds met Off-Shore Flo it was a marriage made on a Greek Isle. It launched a thousand ships to Troy with bloated sails. It favored the Brits and howled against the Spanish Armada for Francis Drake. It led Ahab to his watery grave messing with the Great White Moby. Flo and Gus wave the flag, boys, and carry the ball over the fence for a walk-off grand slam or the exhalation stored in  Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks that blows his trumpet and John Coltrane's bluesy sax in a jam session at Hermosa Beach where the Lighthouse keeps jazz alive.

Don’t blame Off-Shore Flo for those wildfires. That’s her wicked cousin, Santa Ana, those desert ill-winds bending boughs with cyclonic fury in her tantrums and torching chaparral. Gusty winds belong below the canyons. Unlike Off-Shore Flo, Gus causes mischief upturning trailers on the Grapevine. Years ago he wreaked havoc at an art installation by Christo lifting an umbrella, turning it into a lethal missile.

(My mother was fluent in the language of wind. She could hear that dreaded draft howling outside our window like a wolf at the door. What seemed like simple wind to me was a miasma to her which penetrated my three sweaters with its evil germs. Something had to be blamed for that sore throat and fever. After 2-3 days off from school with a constant flow of therapeutic air from the vaporizer I was restored but not until I spent a half day inhaling swaths of fresh air in the sun. Ah, but I digress.)

The weather report, which is 98% accurate 2% of the time, says the high at the beach today will be 80 degrees. But we know better. That will be for ten minutes as the sun goes down. For now it is an overcast 65. We have inherited the wind. What Hollywood promised to be Gone with the Wind when it burned down Atlanta (at the NW corner of Overland and Culver Blvd.) never did leave us…. with strange fruit hanging from trees one hundred years later, then choke holds and quick triggers.

This morning is another slow dance between cloud cover and the sun behind it. Off-Shore Flo is a shroud mourning our sorry planet in this Age of Donald. Until solar power burns it off it feels as if the world could be starting over again. The diva is gargling back stage. The curtain hasn’t gone up yet. We are coming out of our primordial ooze. In this half-light the brisk air is nascent. It could be Creation 2.0 in that great gettin-up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Mystery of the Sphere


Every hour it ripes and ripes and every hour it rots and rots. Cut open the orb at its peak and you release the sun and the moon, the music of the spheres.

Melons fiercely hold their mystery. They must love the surprise. I’ve seen buyers at the market knocking on their skin and listening as if they could overhear a conversation among the pits. I’m fine with the unknowing. It reminds me of life itself.

I’ve been watching it for the past five days. I pick it up and feel for? For what, I don’t know. This morning I spoke to it. Are you ripe and ready? I think I heard a high pitch beep but that may have been a garbage truck backing up. What the hell, I bought it last Thursday. If I wait another day I may have missed the propitious moment. Everything in its time.

There are no signifiers. No bag of waters breaking. No contractions at short intervals. Every birth is Caesarean. So now I am making my incision straight down the mid-sagittal line to eventually create perfect quadrants….as if the judge from Uzbekistan is scrutinizing my grip for the Olympian gold.

Peggy declares this one a 6.9. She’s a tough grader. I would grant it a 7.4. I know what you’re thinking. That’s what I get for shopping at The Ninety-Nine Cent Store. But we’ve eaten some nines from there. In fact I think Whole Foods slips in the back door and resells them for $3.99. 

Maybe melons rate us on a scale ranging from feckless to reckless. He who hesitates gets mush. He who rushes gets a sort of potato.

What better way to start the day slicing open a cantaloupe to find the sun. It’s the solar power to energize the day. Today’s had the shining orange but required a knife to pierce it into bit-size pieces. I’ll never know if it was a premature emancipation or this globe just didn’t have it to give.  

Among these sweet gourds are the usual watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew along with the Casaba, Crenshaw, Gallia (which looks like a cantaloupe on the outside and honeydew on the inside) and Persian (reason enough to make nice with Iran). These are just a few of the 30 distinct varieties.

Last week we swooned over a 9.9 honey dew. Come to think of it let’s give it a ten. And yes, I got it from that store where the homeless shop. Nothing is beneath me. 

Adjectives are incapable to describe the pulpy flesh. Honeydew in its prime offers its lunar meat you want to linger and luxuriate in your mouth. Beyond luscious. It sings. It zings. It summons Orpheus’ lute accompanying Pavarotti hitting high B in the lost language of melon.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tall Timeless Tale


I’ll begin with Einstein who insisted that past, present and future are illusions however persistent. Time does not flow. It just is. Maybe I am writing this yesterday or tomorrow.

So Thoreau (he pronounced it Thorough) is very much alive. This is his 202nd birthday. Also alive is Emma Lazarus. She never died nor her poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. And yes, Donald Trump has always been with us. He wore the dunce-cap in the little red schoolhouse and beat up kids in the yard. He roused the rabble, bought slaves and led the lynch mobs. The card sharp is Donald, the con-man selling phony cure-alls and breaking picket lines, the robber baron and slumlord. All of them are Trump.

Taking a break from his lucrative pencil business Thoreau thoroughly visits Staten Island seven times. He lives with Emerson’s brother and tutors his children. Here he is roaming the streets of Manhattan dodging stray pigs and trying to sell his writings. No buyers.

I live in NYC for my first twenty-one years and go to Staten Island just once. I take the ferry one day with my brother just for the ride. It was s nickel back then, gradually inching to five bucks. Now it is free. An acceptable instance of creeping Socialism, n’est-ce pas? But time doesn’t creep, I almost forgot, it just is. Now I am passing the Statue of Liberty. I can hear the huddled masses yearning.

Thoreau’s last visit to the Island was in 1843. At first he isn’t very charmed by the place though he notes the variety of flora and fauna, different than in Massachusetts. While he’s heading back to Concord to start building his cabin at Walden Pond is he also considering another cabin in Staten for a spell of solitude? The man is a visionary. Does he envision the Statue of Liberty? Of course he does.

Staten Island now has half a million people. It is the wealthiest and greenest borough with 170 parks. By any measure it really should be part of New Jersey. At one point it has the highest altitude of all the boroughs; higher than Mt. Vernon, Washington Heights or Forest Hills, all of which are barely useful for sleigh rides. It’s the only borough with wildlife not in a zoo. Snakes, fox, feral turkeys and coyotes have been spotted in the Fresh Kills Landfill. Thoreau is changing his mind about this place with its forests and estuaries, bird sanctuaries, salt marshes and tidal wetlands.

Let chronology collapse. Thoreau is jailed in protest of the Mexican-American war and all others to follow with the exception of those fought against slavery and Fascism.

On nearby Bedloe/Liberty Island the Statue of Liberty, with its torch held high, is an inadvertent lighthouse to woodcocks and phoebes in their migration. Trump would call them illegal birds who deserve to die anyway. Thousands fall disorientated at Mother of Liberty’s feet as they smash into the 25 glass windows at the crown of the Colossus. That is corrected as dotted glass replaces the original which birds alone recognize.  

The Statue is a global gesture. The island upon which is stands was first settled by the Lenape tribe. Sculpted by Frederic Bartholdi in France with an early model in Germany it is gifted to the U.S. to be erected in this Dutch-occupied harbor, grabbed by the British to serve as a beacon to Irish, Italians, Polish, Russian refugees and inscribed by the Portuguese Sephardic Jewish poet.

Did Thoreau visit Emma Lazarus in his Manhattan treks? Why not? Here he is presenting a box of his world-class pencils having discovered the perfect mix of graphite and clay. And she writes….

Keep your storied pomp says Emma to Donald. Yes, you high in your Tower. And get your hands off these tired and poor yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of these teaming shores are pleading. But Donald is deaf to the cries as he sends his wretched garbage golf balls and caviar leftovers off to the Fresh Kill Landfill where a ragged forest is being born. A gigantic garbage dump as mulch. Pieces of Twin Towers among the 150 million tons of Big Apple trash.

Is that you, Henry David Thorough, living in a grove of pine and willow, surrounded by native and undocumented woodland groping for new life? It’s called Phoenix Regeneration. The forest floor reveals an occasional shoe, shopping bag and Styrofoam cup. The latter takes 1000 years to decay. Thoreau is writing with his super pencil in his notebook about restoration. Nature persists. It repairs our human folly. The message is hope. There is a lamp lifting beside this golden door.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Conventional Wisdom


The Democratic carnival, I mean primaries, begin in about six months. Carnival, as in carnivorous, is not far from the mark as the candidates continue to devour each other. The twenty names will be reduced by half for the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3rd. One month later we in California, along with fifteen other states, will weigh in. I expect another five names to fall away by March 3rd. Still too many going into the convention set for July in Milwaukee.

But this time around the primaries may not matter very much. It’s the secondarys and beyond which will be most telling. According to the crystal ball I just bought at the 99 cent store no candidate will attain a majority. Most states apportion the delegates providing they reach the threshold of 15%, anything less does not get counted. Though in California only the top two will be selected. However all this pertains to the first ballot only. After that it’s a free for all and so-called super delegates also enter the fray. Suddenly we are back to 1924.

Ninety-six years ago the Democrats convened in Madison Square Garden with William McAdoo and Gov. Al Smith, the frontrunners, going head to head. Each had their armies poised for the big prize. Franklin Roosevelt, signifying his return to political life after contracting polio, put Smith’s name as nominee. The Ku Klux Klan had a lot to say about the outcome. Smith was unacceptable because he was, after all, a Roman catholic. 20,000 Klansmen gathered across the river in New Jersey to burn crosses. McAdoo had the Klan’s support. Those with eye-slits in their bedsheets hanging in the closet were staunch Prohibitionists while Smith was known to bend his elbow now and then.

In the early rounds of balloting McAdoo jumped to garner about 40% of the delegates. Then Smith did the same. The rules at the time required a 2/3 majority so neither was even close. So-called favorite sons were offered for consideration in the early voting. It was party time in every sense. Each name shouted out was worthy of a mini-parade with bands and banners. Fistfights broke out. Trump-like obscenities filled the hall. The punch bowl was most probably spiked. An exhibition of pure Americana.

A Wall St. lawyer named Davis ran way down on the list with 3% on the first ballot. By the 10th roll-call he still had only 6%. But this convention was to run for sixteen sweaty days. Sixty names were offered for consideration. The outcome was decided on the 103rd ballot with John Davis on top. His running mate was Charles Bryan, William Jennings Bryan's brother, then regarded as a prairie radical.

Next July will be a time of boisterous hoopla and sober reckoning at the same time, as momentous as the first constitutional convention. If the wrong ticket is chosen to defeat the pernicious President our experiment in Democracy may be doomed.

All those candidates who sloughed off in the winter of 2019 will re-emerge as compromise figures. Beto and De Blasio are likely to rear their heads along with Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Jay Inslee. Deals will be struck, debts paid, horse-trading, threats and favors called in. The winning ticket may be decided in a cannabis-filled room. It could be everybody’s favorite, None-Of-The Above, if the gap between Progressives and Centrists cannot be reconciled.

Syrian ruler, Bashar al Assad is an ophthalmologist, Zelensky President of Ukraine, a comedian, the head of Liberia was a soccer star and Mohammed bin Salman, King of Saudi Arabia hung out with Silicon Valley nerds. None of them qualify to run the P.T.A.; and certainly not our dangerous clown. 

In these bizarro times of pseudo-Populism with mistrust in experience and institutions I’d be fine with a ticket of Jon Stewart, Megan Rapinoe and/or Bruce Springsteen, Michelle Obama or Tom Hanks.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Treeness


I never met a tree I didn’t like. Some of my best friends…..But puuulesse don’t tell me they talk or are crafty or curious. They don’t vote or bully or start wars or slip on banana peels. Leave those follies to us. Trees, like all genus and species, do their best to survive. They don’t act with volition. When a tree bends towards the light it isn’t because he has a crush on the sun or wants to speak his mind. It’s called heliotropism.

Richard Powers’ new book, The Overstory, reveals the highly complex life of trees, at their roots and trunks and leaves. He writes of the ways they “communicate”. It’s called an ecosystem and it’s a matter of life and death to us all. My problem is the anthropomorphism. He ascribes human attributes to the arboretum not unlike Walt Disney.

When I was a street urchin in New York we called a sycamore, second base, as it stood majestically in the middle of the empty lot. That would have been in the summer. By October it was the goal line. I went fishing once, broke off a twig. Got myself a nickel from the sewer.

Trees were for climbing if they had ample elbows. There was a large one in the backyard of our apartment building whose branch looped over the shed of a candy store where deposit bottle were stored. My brother wanted to see if he could swipe a few. He managed to climb halfway up but lost his grip at about twenty feet. Was that a snickering I heard from the tree when he fell and broke his ankle? No, I don’t think so.

When I first starting writing poetry the naturalist-poet Gary Snyder advised me to first know the names of trees. We were at a ten-day poetry conference at Port Townsend, Washington. It brought home to me the obvious truth that I was a big city guy with very little to say about the natural world. I didn’t know bear shit from dog shit, a swallow from a sparrow or an elm from a maple. The advice couldn’t hurt but another piece of wise counsel is to write what you know. And what I knew was my ignorance with enough to fill volumes.

Of course trees don’t know their own names. Just as birds wouldn’t recognize themselves if they saw their painting in an Audubon book on the coffee table. But they all deserve the respect of differentiation and we owe them their due from. So now I know not to call it a spruce when it’s a Douglas fir. I have learned when to expect our coral tree to burst with red candles or the jacaranda to purple the prose of my life.

The poet Howard Nemerov enters the Language of Trees to demonstrate the dialectic between theory and experience, between nomenclature and the actual. In his poem he throws a glossary of names at the reader to describe the shape of leaves or texture of bark. It all comes out of books which are, of course, the yield of trees. Yet the chaos of experience is something else. Names tell us little about their secret life.

Slowly I am learning to love certain trees. Must I love all of them? Even those anorexic palms yearning to become telephone poles? Some trees seem not to do a very good job at treeness while others grow high and wide with a crop of leaves serving as canopies shading the street. I could spend quality time communing with the reptilian roots of a ficus or the peeling bark of a eucalyptus.  Thank you, guys, don't be modest.

As for poetry there’s no need to assign an emotional life to the forest. I’ll turn to Robert Frost’s Birches where one can do worse than become a swinger of its branches. Where a boy bent them almost to the ground discovering when it’s too soon to launch himself into the world. Where he ascends to the top and back down again knowing that Earth is the best place for love. He knows of no place better.

Too bad Richard Powers left out the two words, as if. As if they could warn us. As if they were patient or wise. His novel also fails, for me, because it is written in the service of an idea, a cause. To this extent it becomes a veiled diatribe, however persuasive. A work of fiction does not work as a mission.

I know I’m running into trouble with these subversive thoughts. Let us honor the woods, say I. They did well before we came. It was once possible for a squirrel to hitch a ride on treetops from ocean to ocean. Now Elm St. is disappearing due to big box stores along with elm trees, victim of a fungus blight. We have not done well as custodians of the botanical world. Plant life doesn’t need to adapt our sensory apparatus to be deemed worthy.  



Thursday, July 11, 2019

Memory as Fragments


You grew up thinking you’re the star of the show while groping in the dark. There’s a war going on. Your father is an air-raid warden. There are Blackouts. Whispers behind closed doors. Meetings every other Tuesday in the next room with vehemence leaking thru the wall. Pamphlets are left. Maybe you aren’t the star of the show after all. Money is hardly spent. Your mother gets a bargain from the butcher. She's elated when the grocer forgets to charge her for the cottage cheese. Suddenly there’s a new radio-phonograph console. It has speakers with an Art-Deco design you memorize listening to Roosevelt’s Fireside chats.

These are a few dark corners of my childhood lit by Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, Warlight. It is a book of memory, and discovery; fragments which made no sense to the fourteen-year old boy in London just after the war in 1945. He was virtually orphaned, his parents having left him and his sister in the care of some shadowy figures. Love has many shapes.

In a sense we are all abandoned. We move into the world alone. We feel we are different. Our family is like no other. My father worked very long hours. He was largely absent. My mother had a temperament not mine. She yelled a lot. Cursed the gods. She had a mouth and I grew silent. I moped, ill-equipped for the combat needed to survive this world. I orphaned myself.

Ondaatje’s young man, Nathaniel, has adventures and small anarchies. His Mississippi is the Thames sailing at night with a mysterious man who is up to no good but in a benign way. His initiation into the adult world. His education is not at school. The war which has ended has not ended. His mother has abandoned him in order to protect him. She is a hunted woman.

Nathaniel finds a walled garden imagining seeds buried like unknown pieces yet to sprout. This becomes his place with borders he can live within.

I scoured apartment house basements. My time for small anarchies. I stole broomsticks for stickball bats. I collected baseball drawings by an illustrator named Pap. His drawings were only in the New York Sun, a dying newspaper. I would make my way into stacks of discarded paper looking for the sketches. I knew the smell of cellars. I studied college football teams. Every week I picked my winners. I didn’t know what was important from what was more important.

In a strange way the football predictions became very important. When I prognosticated 18 out of 20 my name became the headline of the sports section……..but the newspaper was the Daily Worker, the organ of the Communist Party. My name ended up in the F.B.I. files. Seven years later I was befriended by Fred Keavy, a man I’m now convinced was an informer for the Bureau. I liked the guy for his marginal ways. In a convoluted story, ten years after that, his wife, the niece of Bob Hope, was instrumental in getting my deaf daughter admitted to the program of the John Tracy Clinic where she learned how to speak. But that could be another book.

Warlight is a labyrinthine tale. It throws light on war’s aftermath; ripples stretch for decades. Skirmishes between Partisan groups and collaborators, between rival ethnic factions as in Trieste, didn’t get settled until 1947. Revenge lasted another generation.

The book has historical weight along with that other dimension which speaks to our life-long bafflement of how we got here from there. Childhood is war enough. Our parents may return to us as new characters in the cast. Life doesn’t rhyme but as we look back and re-witness ourselves in refracted light, it almost does. We are just players in a larger narrative yet also the star of our own movie.
                                          

Saturday, July 6, 2019

The Long and the Short of It


These quakes can be the sort of disruption we need to reimagine the meaning of life. We get to meet our neighbors as God and Mrs. God are having their domestic squabble throwing tectonic plates. Yes, we are diminutive in epochal time; some more so than others.

Ever since David met Goliath in the great mismatch of pre-history, we've been rooting for underdogs. Or so we say. But when it comes to voting we tend to go big. Lincoln, at six ft. four in., was a full foot taller than Stephen A. Douglas who got trampled. Of course Lincoln was also stronger having built the log cabin he was born in. Abe was a gentle Goliath whom the Bible claims was nine feet tall. Michelangelo compensated for the disadvantage by sculpting David to seventeen feet.

Height counts. More than weight. William Howard Taft is probably last obese president we’ll ever have. Fat doesn't play well on T.V. There is a chair built specially for him at the Riverside Mission Inn which looks more like a couch to accommodate his considerable tush. Taft is said to have gotten stuck once in the White House bathtub. All 354 pounds of himself.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson relinquished their prospects as power forwards in the NBA to found our country. Both were six ft. 6 ft. 3 inches, give or take an inch. Madison was also 6 ft. 3 in. when on his horse. He is reported to have had a great outside shot but was too busy writing our Constitution.

Beethoven also had a tiny strike zone at 5 ft. 3 in spite of which, thankfully, he did what he did instead of becoming a baseball player. The result is our ode to joy. You didn’t have to be tall to be great in those days. It is doubtful Napoleon had a Napoleonic complex. He was average height at 5 ft. 6 in. Genghis Khan was more deserving of that term at a mere 5 ft. I in. when he finally got off his high horse.

I was surprised to learn that Stalin was a tiny 5 ft. 6 in. to FDR’s 6 ft. 3 in. I suppose they came in at equal numbers with Roosevelt in his wheelchair. Puny Putin twirls Trump around his finger while giving up 8 inches to our inspirational leader.

Mickey Rooney, at 5 ft. 2 in, was once asked how he managed to accumulate so many tall show girls. He said that he lied about his height. His first wife was Ava Gardner; between them there were 16 marriages. Judy Garland wasn’t one of them. At 4 ft. 11 in., she almost made Mickey look tall except that her booming voice seem to fill the room.

Pray we don’t go by height in the election of 2020 unless Beto somehow becomes the nominee. He, alone, looks down on Donald. Of course anyone of our two dozen contenders could reveal Trump as the hollow man that he is. His elongated limbs are perhaps compensatory for an absence of conscience and cognitive function. His official height of 6 ft. 3 inches probably includes the bumper crop on top of his crown and an ego to dwarf the Eiffel Tower.

I wonder if Donald dreams of playing half-court hoops with George and Tommy Jeff. They could talk about the glories of slavery and those savage Indians. If the conversation drifted to subjects like Democracy or a free press I expect Trump would grab his ball and go home. 

Some seismic temblors jolt us. The socio-political shift we’ve undergone in the past three years is a slow shredding, perhaps less jarring but more profound. Our tall president has been more destructive than anything registering on the Richter scale. It may take decades to retrofit our democracy. 



Monday, July 1, 2019

Franklin and Winston


In geopolitical terms there were two iconic men who dominated the 20th century and saved Western Civilization with their decision making. One’s star is still in the ascendant and the other seems to be both stained and fading. One is British and the other American. The Brit is an American hero. I’m not so sure how he ranks in his own country.

I don’t recall any movies about Franklin Roosevelt since Sunrise at Campobello. Yet we can’t seem to get enough of Sir Winston Churchill. Sixty actors have portrayed him on film. More even than Henry the 8th. The acceptable narrative has Winnie the hero of World War II. Why not? He wrote the book. Actually six volumes with ample omissions and distortions. He assembled a team of writers and researchers to put together his Nobel Prize winning epic. FDR, of course, died in office and never got to write his memoir. It would have been a counter-narrative to Sir Winston’s.

This all comes to mind with the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy, known at the time as Operation Overlord. The fact is that Churchill did everything in his power to postpone, discourage and even scrap that momentous event until the very last moment.

He was, without a doubt, a great orator. He rallied his people. He wrote metaphorically with a gift to move his audience with the rousing phrase. The years from 1939-1945 was his finest hour….and yet he was also a Racist and military blunderer. A 19th century imperialist. A stubborn, duplicitous even treacherous ally to the real Commander-in-Chief of Allied operations, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Churchill squandered lives with his reckless folly in Gallipoli (190,000 dead) and Antwerp during World War I. He coined the term, soft underbelly of Europe, describing the Balkans which he pursued in both wars. He was wrong about an ill-conceived Norwegian landing, in a proposed Turkey invasion and he was wrong pouring resources into the capture of Greek islands. He later admitted that the underbelly was not at all soft.

After agreeing with Roosevelt at their Quebec conference in August, 1943 to launch a second front in northern France he later tried everything in his power to sabotage that plan going so far as leaking and doctoring an inter-Allied message to Stalin behind Roosevelt’s back. With Churchill’s tampering of the communique it gave the impression that Overlord would be further delayed. He manipulated Eisenhower’s report to make it seem that the Italian campaign required more troops and weaponry rendering the cross-channel operation abandoned until the Mediterranean and Aegean seas were under Allied control. Churchill insisted that the capture of Rome was paramount even though Italy had already surrendered and the city had no strategic importance.

At that time it was rumored that Hitler and Stalin might again reach their own settlement because the U.S.S.R had borne the brunt of casualties (by war’s end 23 million dead compared to combined U.S. and U.K less than a million) with no help except Lend-Lease from the Allies. This was unfolding in November 1943 as FDR and Churchill were both on their way to Tehran to assure Stalin the Normandy landing would proceed on schedule.

President Roosevelt as American Commander-in-Chief, along with Generals Marshall and Eisenhower prevailed only because they ignored Churchill whose agenda put preservation of the British Empire first. It was Roosevelt who deserved credit for strategizing the conduct of the war. It was difficult enough to allocate troops and materiel for both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operation. The logistics at times seemed insurmontable. At times he had to override his generals and History proved his instincts correct. He possessed the temperament, historical perspective and military genius to see us through to victory. The outcomes were certain but pity he didn’t live to witness those days of unconditional surrender.

For anyone doubting Churchill’s military bumbling and his obstructionist partnership with FDR I recommend the British historian Nigel Hamilton’s three volumes, particularly the just published, War and Peace. 500 pages plus 54 more of footnotes.

Roosevelt can well be criticized for Japanese internment and not demanding asylum for Jews in flight from Nazi Germany. However he was a supreme military and political visionary whose place in history has been largely usurped by the more flamboyant high functioning alcoholic Prime Minister with the silver tongue.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Early Trump and the Late Joe Biden


In a display of his wit and intellect JFK gathered his Ivy League brain trust together and declared, There has never been assembled in the White House so much intellect in one room since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

To paraphrase his statement in the converse one might say upon entering an institution for the criminally insane, There has never been assembled so much pathological malice under one roof since Donald Trump dined alone.

What went wrong with little Donald? I have some insight on the subject, whether real or imagined, owing to an accident of geography. From 1st to 7th grade he attended Kew Forest School directly across the street from my apartment building in Forest Hills.

My father’s drug store was also located across from the school. Though he closed his doors a few years before Trump appeared on the scene I have distinct memories of students from that private school occupying the three booths adjacent to the soda fountain for an hour or more with two straws sipping a cherry coke. They were heedless of others waiting for a booth. Privilege was a given. A few had charge accounts never paid when my father gave up his store.

According to a classmate and friend of his in those formative years Donald was a hair-pulling, spitball-throwing mischief-maker who boasted of giving one teacher a black eye. He was pulled out in 7th grade and placed in a military academy.

The school took up one large square block surrounded by a chain link fence which ensured the privileged of minimal contamination from the less fortunate. During summer months and on weekends when classes were not in session we neighborhood kids would climb that fence and put their grassed area to good use. It became our baseball diamond and football field.

Maybe that fence was the seminal barrier that took root in Donald’s mind. The beginning of Us and Them. The only immigrants among us were my two German refugee friends, Peter Dalebrook and Frank Loeb. Another friend and neighbor, Johnny Kassabian came from a family of asylum-seekers out of the Armenian genocide. Not a rapist or drug-dealer among them.

I can only imagine an exchange between Donald’s teacher and his parents…………….

Dear Mrs. Trump, So sorry you were unable to attend parent’s 
night. We have much to discuss about your son’s behavior disrupting the class and threatening others with his nasty mouth.

Dear Mr. Trump, Your support of our beloved school is well-appreciated however you abuse your position on the Board of Trustees. You must know that having me dismissed does no favor for your child who will likely grow up a menace to society.

Why anyone would vote for the man with arrested development, the brat behind the fence.... is a subject to be studied by the usual array of academicians along with forensic criminologists, brain surgeons, evolutionary biologists, comedians and tragedians.  

Tonight begins a long season of Democrat debates. Where have you gone JFK, and all your best and brightest advisors? Can Rip Van Biden be resuscitated in time to recall that thirty-five years have passed since his last new idea? His old mediocrity is not enough. He is late for his train which left the station decades ago. He lacks both the grasp and the gumption to stand up to the Bozo.

The time is now ripe for a true populism. Not by an imposter but by one who speaks truth to power, who hears the aggrieved and underserved as well as the peril to our planet. That word electability cuts both ways. Let the low-information Centrists wake up to a Progressive agenda. Or else those outside the chain link of privilege may not bother to show up in 2020. Let this not be another campaign demonstrating the evil of two lessors.    

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Re-Reading


Here you are, after the shipwreck, hanging on to a piece of driftwood having hastily grabbed the essentials of life: toothbrush, floss, a few protein bars, a portable de-salinization unit (no such thing) and a couple of books to see you through the adventure as you paddle your way to a desert island. The question is: what books.

Kindle won’t work nor can you order books from Amazon and wait for the next drone to drop. Alas, batteries don’t get re-charged on this island even by the occasional lightning strike. So let us say you have been regressed back to when people actually bought books from bookstores and turned pages.

If I were allowed two books the first should be a self-help volume on how to build a raft out of coconuts and palm fronds. My second choice might be a novel by Wendell Berry, either A Place On Earth or The Memory of Old Jack which I last read about 25 years ago. I usually don’t re-read books. I came late to the party and there are still too many classics I haven’t read for the first time. But Berry’s voice stands alone among American writers and is worth revisiting.

His characters inhabit a universe unfamiliar to me: the small farm in Kentucky. They speak a language, spare but to the bone. As custodians of the land they are challenged by the vicissitudes of unforgiving weather, morally compromised townfolk and encroachments of corporate agribusiness. It is the values embedded in his community of extended family which enter me as if I’m experiencing some spiritual reawakening. Immersed in his pages one is returned to a hard-earned decency and caring for one another.

I’m struck by the grace of his simplicity. The fields and woods become characters themselves brought to life and matched by an exploration of the interior landscape in each person. Responsibilities of husbandry toward the crops are mirrored by the fidelity of their marriages. His people recognize and honor their lineage. They hold dear a set of convictions as inviolate.

Strange, the paucity of our English tongue. How we lack words for the most elemental, life-enhancing moments. That much abused word, spiritual, seems appropriate to Berry’s novel; soulful humans reaching for each other or struggling for alignment with their core values. What I come away with is not the noun, religion, but the adjective as in religious experience. A reverence for life. A transcendence not above the toil and hard times but through it towards a communion with one another aligned with rhythms of the natural world.

Having re-read the above I'm not altogether sure I agree with myself. I part company with Berry when his advocacy goes astray. He defends rural values against the advances of Science and urbanity which he foolishly identifies as threats to his idealized community. His condemnation of modernity is painted with too broad a brush as if pesticides and weaponry could be conflated with medical science and climatology. Even worse, he sometimes scolds his characters when they stray off his moral map. I'm remembering now why it’s been so long since I last picked up his books. However his narrator’s voice remains, for me, both penetrating and one sorely missed though I didn’t know till it arrived.

Here I am buffeted between his ennobling vision of humanity and the whiff of the preacher claiming a high ground. It's not an altogether bad place to be. In Berry's own words: When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work. The mind not baffled is not employed.

Looking back across our shelves of cherished books I can barely remember most plots or quirky characters. Yet there is a distillate which endures from the best of them. Something ineffable that eludes description. Wendell Berry has it for me. Though I’d forgotten the details of what happens in these pages the residue is as fresh as I felt it the first time around. The effect of his language is to move me to another realm. A lift sufficient to get me off this island. I think I spot a row boat with an empty seat…and my name on it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Remembering My Father


It might have been a hot and humid July night, in 1942, with air so thick you could climb it. Gnats came out in numbers sufficient to postpone the Dodger game. Now they covered the window of my father’s corner drugstore. The Ex-Lax sign disappeared behind a swarm of thousands. An agitated crowd gathered as if this was IT. The Orson Welles-staged radio invasion of aliens was still on their minds. German U-boats had been spotted off Rockaway Beach. My father, in his equanimity, quieted their apprehension. I witnessed him speak a few words with a reassuring grace in his manner which scattered the insects and sent the folks home settled, or so it seemed to this nine year-old kid.

Yes, I idealized my father. He was Yahweh, FDR and Spencer Tracy in one. God, in the way he drove locusts from pages of Exodus, Roosevelt in his fireside chats and Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg, Keeper of the Flame or Bad Day at Blackrock with his insistent, passionate calm. My Dad was imperturbable and deliberate by nature as if everything had been weighed on a torsion scale and come to equipoise within him.

There was something of the earth, an elemental knowing in my father. The air around him was a shaman's air of vapors escaped from apothecary jars, macerating leaves and aromatic oils as though he possessed an internal mortar and pestle ever at work grinding course matter into fine powder. He carried that breath of botanicals on his body, his overcoat, into my memory. 

Many of the elixirs and emulsions he compounded would be deemed of negligent value years later but when he dispensed them the remedies worked. They were curative because he said so. Everything he believed went into each bottle. Patients were met. Listened to. They got the gift of his full presence. It was not the balsams, tinctures or infusions that healed. It was my father who transferred that power for self-healing.

He possessed a quiet authority, one in which you always felt safe. He tamed the loud unease my mother felt in this world. He would never violate your personhood, your sacred space. Yet he was unyielding in his convictions. I’m thinking now of his left-wing politics in terms of identifying with labor and oppressed minorities. During the anti-Communist hysteria in the late 40s he stood firm and closed-mouth when two F.B.I. agents at our door asked him to name names. His silence was his spine.

How he came to this centered place within shall ever remain a mystery. His mother died when he was two and his destitute father gave him away to be raised by an equally destitute uncle and aunt. His father later remarried and named one of his several sons Samuel, the same as my father. Did he forget he already had a Sam? Sam meet Sam. My father’s three new half-brothers were all raised in an orphanage while my father sold newspapers on the corner to get by.

I can almost see young Spencer Tracy shouting, Extra paper, read all about  before he was Father Flanagan from Boy’s Town or Thomas Edison. Perhaps only in my eyes did my dad resemble Tracy. However if a movie were ever made entitled The Sam Levine Story it would have to be played by Spencer Tracy.

Of course off-screen Tracy was an incorrigible alcoholic while we had the same bottle of Manischewitz wine in our apartment for twelve years. While he didn’t touch the stuff many pharmacists got licensed during Prohibition years because they alone could dispense ethyl alcohol for so-called medicinal purposes. Among my father’s papers, long after he deceased, was a court order in which he admitted his guilt and was fined for apparently selling a four ounce bottle of alcohol for non-medicinal purpose. I admired his risk-taking which he so rarely allowed expression. 

Was it Aristotle, Yogi Berra or I who said whenever we might think we have wrapped up a person in a tidy bundle there is always something hanging out, unaccounted for? So it was with my Dad; a piece that didn’t fit. He played the horses; not through a bookie but he would go off to the harness races every few weeks. My guess is he put two bucks on the favorite to show. One night he took me along, maybe for good luck. We still lost. But the ledger could never show the value of dreaming a jackpot.

My father died far too soon. He never read my poetry or blogs, never got to see the pharmacy I bought in 1980, didn’t see my daughters grow past their adolescence, and never met Peggy. I also regret all the questions I never asked. Yet I feel his presence guiding me. There are locusts in our midst which need to be expelled. Our present miscreant in the Oval Office would have sent him to his mortar and pestle grinding Fascists into dust.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Cold Case File


There’s a story here as yet untold. It’s what I like to call the Goldberg Bafflement.

In 1965 Arthur Goldberg did the inexplicable. He quit his prestigious, lifetime job on the Supreme Court with these words, It is so ordered.  He would then take on a short-term repugnant position as U.N. Ambassador. It was particularly ugly work because it meant lying for Lyndon Johnson in front of the world body.

If I were to name the best and worst presidents in American history Johnson would be on both lists. During his five years as Commander-in-Chief he extended the war in Viet Nam with a build-up to nearly 600,000 U.S. soldiers accounting for the needless deaths of tens of thousands G.I.s and hundreds of thousands Vietnamese.

It’s almost as if there were two LBJs. The man who extended Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda with his War on Poverty, shepherding Medicare, Medicaid, Pell grants, voting rights and significant Civil Rights legislation through Congress. Then there was the other LBJ who systematically deceived the American people about the war in Viet Nam squandering lives, napalming villages and defoliating their crops. This was the vulgar, cowardly, tragic manipulator who, somehow, regarded military defeat as a sign of phallic impotence. 

In a room of reporters, when asked why he couldn’t end the war, he answered by unzipping his fly. The President seemed to conflate the misadventure in Southeast Asia with sexual potency. This strikes me as an act of cowardice almost as shameful as Daddy Trump finding a doctor to concoct bone spurs for little Donald.

Add to Johnson’s disgrace one more almost inexplicable act of political miscalculation.  Three years after serving as associate Justice LBJ asked-persuaded or pressured him to resign his lifetime position.  It’s like asking Justice Roberts to step down and take the job watering the lettuce in the market. Or collecting shopping carts in the parking lot. There’s got to be a story here never told. Why would anyone accept such a demotion unless Goldberg was under extreme duress? Maybe LBJ had negatives of last year’s Christmas Party which Goldberg wanted hidden.

Perhaps one day the truth about Goldberg’s fall from the high court will become known. Robert Caro may yet discover the secret among the 44 million documents in the Johnson library. But that book is yet to be written.

Without a doubt the following conversation will not be among those 44 million papers. My febrile imagination records the following ……. (Goldberg calling his mother in 1962 when JFK nominated him to the High Court.)

A.G.: Ma, I have great news. President Kennedy has just named me to the Supreme Court.
Mrs. G : Do what you have to do.
A.G. : I want you to come to my swearing-in ceremony.
Mrs. G:  I have nothing to wear. 
A.G.: Not to worry, Ma, I’ll buy you a new dress and I’ll send you a train ticket to Washington.
Mrs. G (to a bystander at the ceremony) See that man up there? His brother is a dermatologist.

Johnson installed his friend, Abe Fortas who resigned, under fire, less than three years later. Fortas was Johnson’s choice to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice but Warren’s choice was said to be Goldberg. The entire scheme fell apart. I cannot think of a more brainless series of political stumbles particularly coming as it did from the grand insider of Washington politics. His wrongheadedness serves as a model of executive incompetence rivalled only by the present occupant.

As a consequence we have not had a Chief Justice of the High Court appointed by a Democratic president since Truman's choice over seventy years ago. Of course Warren was a Republican but one with a conscience to guide him. However had Goldberg remained Nixon would not have been able to install Warren Burger as Chief who presided for seventeen years. The nation was deprived of a very decent and brilliant Chief Justice because of Lyndon Johnson’s ill-conceived, self-serving and brazen over-reach.

As a saving grace Congress denied Nixon his first two nominees to replace Fortas in 1969 and he finally settled for Harry Blackmun. Blackmun turned out to be that vanished breed, a centrist Republican, who authored the majority opinion in Roe v Wade. 

Perhaps our better angels got the best of the Avenging God. We lucked out but I’m still thinking of poor Arthur Goldberg and those parting words, It is so ordered, to say nothing of his non-existent dermatologist brother.
  

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Speaking of Hacking


The word itself has been hacked. Seventy years ago, plus or minus, when I was in my prime on the basketball court I was both the hacker and the hackee. Driving in for a lay-up I got routinely clipped, smacked, slapped, slammed, shoved or axed. Hacked, as in hacksaw. In those half-court games we weren’t even awarded a foul shot; the offended player merely got to take the ball out-of-bounds.  Those were less punitive times.

Being hacked today leaves no bruises but we are even more battered, thrown into a state of disequilibrium, banished to an analog world of pencil and paper. It is akin to that word, virus. Back in the day a virus usually meant a minor respiratory infection resistant to antibiotics or sulfa drugs. Now it is a disabling tragedy remedied only by a visit from our grandchildren which is, of course, a blessing.

I started posting my blogs in June 2009. I’m now up to number 875. Google tracks such things. I’m told I have followers in Romania, the Baltic States, Russia, Italy and Unknown Regions. I’m particularly curious about Unknown Regions. Isn't that where Oliver North hatched his Iran-Contra plot and where Dick Cheney lived after 9/11? I’m sure most of these Unknown readers are nothing more than hackers. Welcome, cyber-freaks, having fun, are you? If you're going to ransack my habitat why not enter through the front door rather than climbing in through the window? Does your mother know what you are doing with your life? Have you considered going back to school like your big sister?

I can’t imagine what you want with me and my data. My bank balance, such as it is, seems undisturbed. I haven’t detected any Maserati charged to my credit cards. Maybe you’ve created another me in that Unknown Region. Does this mean I'm known inter-galactaly? Any chance I can meet my generic equivalent some day? We could chat over a glass of ouzo or kvass. Since you already have my passwords and pin number you might as well fly me to your local watering hole. I might learn Unknown Region as a second language.

As for you hackers in the Baltic States I feel a certain kinship. In the board game of life one might say I’ve lived my years between Baltic and Mediterranean. My ancestors can be traced to Riga, Latvia. We may even be distant cousins. Will that grant me any privilege in the hacking community? No, I didn’t think so. Go ahead pick my pocket. Just leave me my library card and the punch cards for the frozen yogurt shop and car wash. I'm close to a freebie.

What a world we have made. Connected....but to whom? Must we all grow a firewall to keep trespassers off our grass? Not I. I already have a critic who sits on my shoulders. I give him his due and then try to shut him up. With Peggy's vast wardrobe our closet has no room for skeletons. 

It strikes me that everything we say or write is revelatory. Even my jump shot gives me away. When I sit down to fill this page I do so in order to find out what I’m thinking and share it with a resonating ear. Given my diminishing recall anyone scrupulously hacking into my blogs knows more about me than I do.... if they bother to read them. Listen to me, hackers, you’re not listening. It's only fair that you reciprocate. I may need you one day, particularly when answering those pesky security questions in case I forget the name of my favorite film or first pet.