Friday, December 27, 2019

Year-End Takeaway Ramble


Here I am at year’s end looking for good news. The best news is that it’s just about over. My main takeaway is to take it away. I’m ready to gather 2019 in a Hefty bag and dump it in the non-recyclable bin.

Too many bodily insults, noxious inhalations of Trump-speak, rain forests torched, rising seas, dictators installed, populations displaced and borders slammed shut.

And yet, as always, it is a mixed bag……the grasshopper sparrow is making a comeback and the Galapagos tortoise isn’t extinct after all. In fact science has discovered 71 new species even as 3,000 are now on the endangered list……along with Objective Truth which has endured a nasty time of it. In spite of 80,000 deliberately set fires in the Amazon forest our planet is twice a green as it was two decade ago. And that doesn’t include my banzai plant which I’d nursed with a grow-light for 18 months till it finally committed suicide.

Then there is eggplant parmigiana, Everything Bagels and a new flavor ice cream call Black Cherry Root Beer Float. But first place goes to the discovery of Sherpa blankets, light, warm and fleecy-fuzzy to greatly enhance my sleep which I regard as one of those inalienable rights.

Yesterday I received a cane from my healthcare provider. Give me a top hat and I’m indistinguishable from Fred Astaire except I can’t sing or dance. Ginger is nowhere in sight. Mine is a quad cane spanning twelve inches across to keep me earth-bound.

Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan warned about the pervasive impact of technology and how unaware we are of it. In fact most act as if living in the previous media age which is now revealed because it is virtually dead. So it is that fish have no idea they live in water. Today we can barely swim through lunch without reaching for our mobile device for late-breaking news or to check the name of some obscure movie or sports figure. We live in a glut of data and info still trying to sort out what’s important from what never happened to begin with.

Calendar time says to say goodbye and then hello. At this age I’m eager for more hellos. More years of juice to squeeze. More days of wonder and ponder. I hope not to leave this realm with such discord. How a gullible class has chosen guns and gospel over government, their grievances inflamed by that odious, hollow man. These are the folks whose fathers and grandfathers survived as beneficiaries of New Deal programs …. rural electrification, job-creation and Social Security. Somewhere along the way they became the congregation of the lost.

Peggy, literally 98.6 is still in her prime; she became a year younger through some mysterious alchemy. She published two novels in 2019 and adds oxygen to the air with her daily poems.  

Time is what I’ve grown to cherish, to halt the hours. Age helps with that. To in-dwell. Rejoice, we are here with our brothers and sisters to keep our orb spinning in good health. Amazing how old-age has arrived at exactly the year of my aging. Last year I was still 39. I’m now aligned with the leap. I can't come to the phone right now. I’m communing with the last leaf on the coral tree outside the window clinging to a memory of summer. The two of us.

As Robert Bly put it in his poem, Wanting To Steal Time,………….Every noon as the clock hands arrive at twelve, / I want to tie the two arms together, / And walk out of the bank carrying time in bags.


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Auto-Immune


Somebody once told me I was my own worst enemy. He was right. I now find myself with two auto-immune diseases, as if one weren’t enough though neither appears to be an existential threat. I seem to be doing combat with myself, genes attacking their cousins. As Tarzan said to Jane, it’s a jungle out there. My money is on my body to win. The system is rigged.

I suppose my fate is predetermined by some sort of genetic code. But maybe triggered by political aggravation or even that Perfect phone call I never made. I’ve always wanted to make a perfect phone call. Like:

Hello, Domino?  I’d like to order a large mushroom pizza. Twenty minutes? Fine. The name is Norm. You say you won’t make the pizza until I get dirt on Papa John. You just ruined my perfect phone call.

I don’t think pizza is the magic bullet against my immune system. I need to tamp it down. It’s un-hinged, raging like a deranged President.

Dear Immune System: I know it must be hard living with me all these years but can’t we talk? Have I offended you? Did you know you a have reputation of being fickle….or is that just your finger? Twisted, I would say. You’re a wild stallion, a marauder (I’ve never used that word before. See what you’ve done.)

There’s no need to enervate my muscles, stiffen my shoulders and inflame my connective tissue. True, maybe I’ve neglected you but I really do feel emotionally attached and you have an unlisted number.

All I can do now is suppress you. Muffle your pugnacity. Cut you off at the pass. I’ve let loose my terrible swift sword of Steroids. Please, no nuclear option. All I ask is a just peace with honor. A velvet regime change. I’d settle for peaceful coexistence as long as you know your place on the outskirts of my bodily precincts.  

Relax. Have a piece of fruit. Deep breaths. Can you feel my warm milk of kindness running through every vein? Yes, I see your lids are getting heavy. Just sit back and listen the music. I read somewhere that Wittgenstein’s brother lost an arm in World War I. He was a piano virtuoso and Ravel composed a concerto for left-hand alone. I offer this as proof of something but I forget what. We do have our arsenal of compensations.

Go on, have your fun with me. I'm starting to laugh at you, you, irascible old fool with nothing better to do with your haploids and double helix.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Tribalization

I was a member once. We, in the tribe, spent most of our waking hours together. We seemed to know exactly what to do though nothing was in writing. It was my eight years, plus or minus, called Childhood. Mysteriously, the rules of behavior were passed down….. marbles, chalk games, potsie, hop scotch, jump rope, mumblypeg, stick ball, curb games, stoop ball, ring-a-levio, kick the can, et al. All, a credit to an enduring oral tradition though I’m not all sure that tradition has survived suburban backyards. My tribe existed on the streets and sidewalks of New York, borough of Queens. I have no doubt the same language with the same rule books were played out in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

As we grew older we left the tribe as unceremoniously as we entered it. We got the word…….individuate! We became one-of-kind, or so we thought. Aren’t I unique! After all who but I inhales Peggy’s muse, worshiped Paul Robeson, have rooted for the Dodgers for the past 79 years, played basketball in college, hate goat cheese, love crazy asymmetric splotched shirts, adore all things pumpkin, and despise Donald Trump more than goat cheese.

Which brings us to this new tribalization of America. Today we have those of us who watch MSNBC or CNN and that other tribe who get their received wisdom from FOX News. The chasm is measurable in light years. Our vocabulary has diverged. Consider their refrain of Deep State, fake news, perfect phone call, witch hunt, pro-life, and the hundreds of juvenile terms of derogation issuing from the malevolent clown prince of obfuscation.

With our two tents are we no less tribal than Afghanistan with its 350 factions? No. I want to argue that there is but one tribe…that den of dunces, mesmerized workers, greedy money-counters and spineless politicians who chant on cue for proto-fascist acts. Those of us abhorred by his daily antics are a widely diverse group ranging from Bloomberg to Bernie, from George Will to Rachel Maddow with dozens of stops in between. Our voices are a cacophony, not a choir. Motley not monolithic. Centrists may not show up for Warren nor will the Progressives abide Biden. Opposition to Trump is not tribal; it is the surmise of common sense, of enlightened deliberation as well as daily outrage. He has exhausted my store of adjectives and managed, whether inadvertently or by design, to scar our landscape and blunt our critical thinking. He has retribalized millions with a potion of deceit and incivility which can only be issued by a person of pathological self-absorption.


Mumblypeg, also known at Territory, was played with pocket 
knives. We actually carried such things in our non-violent tribe. We tossed the blade into the ground creating angles to thwart our opponent. All very fuzzy in my head. There was a strip of land about the size of two doors lengthwise just outside my apartment building. It is where my memory takes me now.That hunk of earth was a mere 25 yards from Kew Forest School which little Donald attended for a few years.

Metaphorically, he has taken those knives and slashed the fabric of our nation disfiguring our democratic tapestry and all notions of decency and honesty. Whether that suppurating wound is reparable depends on his removal from office.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Not of This Tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Even in his well-known verse, East is East and West is West / and never the twain shall meet..
there are two lines to follow which somehow are seldom noted... But there is neither East nor West / nor borders, breed nor birth / When two strong men stand face to face.

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1, 2019

In the Middle of the Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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