Saturday, October 12, 2019


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. 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


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


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.

Friday, August 9, 2019

On-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 On-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 On-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 On-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 On-Shore Flo, aka Marine air. Having lived for decades in six S.F. Valley cities Peggy and I combined have had our fill of scorching, stale air. We happily traded sizzling smog for salty, sunless gusts. 

On-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 On-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 On-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 On-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. On-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 eight 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 Cesarean. 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 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 $4.99. 

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 from Massachusetts. While he’s heading back to Concord to start building his cabin at Walden Pond he is 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 it 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


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.