Friday, July 3, 2020

Fourth of July

This is the day Thomas Jefferson declared that all propertied white men are created equal. The rest of you guys, get over there. And you too, wives, sisters and daughters. You may be equal but not to us plantation owners who are more than equal. Nor are these savages who were so hospitable we never left. Nor are those dark-skinned people we buy and sell who have built this country. They have no inalienable rights but they shall count as 3/5 in the census. All these conditions were enshrined in the Constitution. There was cotton to be picked, stolen land to be tilled, bales to be lift and barges to tote.

Where do I sign, said our Founders. And these were the enlightened. But not enlightened enough to imagine that our creator endowed everyone with the right to life, liberty and to the pursuit of happiness. The declaration begins with the phrase, When in the course of human events... Are those who are shackled, dispossessed or indentured not human? 

In fairness it needs to be said that our floundering founders were bold and brave men. By signing their names to this  document they were committing sedition with a bounty on their heads and subject to hanging.   

From 1800 to mid-century the slave population quadrupled from one to four million. The face on our twenty dollar bill was a particular abomination. He hungered for their land and was particularly angered because the Choctow nation of five tribes were reported to be harboring runaway slaves, all 3/5ths of them. He then relocated 46,000 Native Americans about twelve hundred miles away, indifferent to their Trail of Tears or the thousands who died along the way. Jackson was no visionary. He dumped them on oil-rich land which then meant further displacement generations later.

Is it fair to judge our Founders for their role in human bondage? I believe it is. The truth about inhumanity is self-evident. In the case of Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette urged him to liberate his slaves and the Polish military commander and engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, offered to compensate our esteemed author /architect / inventor / and President for his losses. But the man from Monticello declined, even upon his death bed. Apparently, he had grown accustomed to his privileged position and Black lives did not matter. After all, manumission might have set a bad precedent.

In fact, upon Kosciuszko’s death, in 1819, he bequeathed $20,000 to Jefferson but T.J. took the money and passed on his enslaved men and women to his nephew. So much for declarations of independence.  

In Lincoln’s prose-poem we call The Gettysburg Address he got his first sentence wrong. Maybe on purpose. Four score and seven years ago in 1863 our fathers did not conceive of a new nation. We were not a nation for another eleven years when the Constitution was ratified. In 1776 we were, at best, a confederation of states. The sovereign states, to this day, are loathe to relinquish many of their Antebellum ways.

This is no year for fireworks. The country is already combusting. Let this Fourth of July be the time to revisit and redress the omissions and injustices baked into our Constitutional yeast.

Our cherished document is yet to be realized. The legacy of Independence Day is still aspirational. The lofty words need to be brought down to ground-level. Heirs of Thomas Jefferson’s 230 slaves have been emancipated on paper but not as yet freed from economic suppression, disenfranchisement, daily indignities nor from the festering worm of racism in the minds of the dominant class.  

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Baseball as Life

You had to be there. Maybe you had to be me at age eight and a half, Oct 5th, 1941. I remember it being a Sunday. (Yes, I’m right. I just looked it up). Fourth game of the World Series and the Dodgers had it won but managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It changed my life even though I didn’t have much of a life before then.

I won’t go in to what happened with two outs in the ninth inning. If you’re a fan you already know. It has never happened again. If you are not you’ve probably stopped reading this anyway. The point is that I never got over it. As a consequence, I have never, not once, counted my chickens before they are hatched. Of course, I’ve not counted them after, either. I assume nothing.  I cushion bad news. I prepare for every eventuality. Well, not every. I don’t go to sleep in a wet suit in the event of a tsunami.

Baseball teaches us how to fail…..and live for another day. The greatest hitter of all time failed sixty percent of the time. If a player today failed seventy percent of the time, he’d have a long-term contract for about twelve million per year. If a brain surgeon had that rate of failure, he’d be selling shoes at Big-5.

Baseball at age eight is its own universe. It is the first thing I knew my parents didn’t. (No, Mom, they are not pillows; they’re called bases.) I was fluent in its jargon. Stay with it and discover poetry in its stanzas and heroic couplets. There is a Euclidian elegance in its infield proportions, a randomness in the outfield, an existential moment at the plate while the umpire confirms subjective reality.  

For refugee families arriving here in the 1930s baseball was their portal into the English language. After a year or two one could speak fluent Baseball. The game was segmented into orderly innings. It was a repudiation of the chaos and incivility in Europe. Then as now it offers the illusion of manageable drama. It is linear. The narrative moves sequentially with innings as decades. The runner travels counter-clockwise around the bases back to home where he began and back to where I began.

What happens on the field is of no real consequence and that’s not a bad thing. Trump is still an infestation to our national heritage. Even as he divides our people that other virus, Corona, is multiplying.

Soon the season will begin in defiance. Controlled pandemonium meets pandemic. Let me hear the crack of bat, the thump in the mitt, the chatter in the infield even if the stands are empty. I’ll be on the couch, eight years old again reliving my early trauma or maybe this time I’ll be on the other side taking a bow for an amazing comeback with four consecutive home runs in the bottom of the ninth to live another day.

Baseball is my arrested development. Some of us grow up. I hope to keep the kid alive in an eternal run-down between third base and home, heedless of the clock.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Further Father

My father had a Dickensian beginning. His mother died when he was two and his father couldn’t cope. My grandfather was destitute and an alcoholic. If this were a novel there may have been great expectations awaiting but this was real life with no inheritance on the next page.

So it was that my Dad was sent to live with equally impoverished, but sober, Aunt Rose and Uncle Peretz whose profession was a peddler selling shoe laces and socks. I don’t imagine there was very much food on the table. Day-old bread would have been a luxury. I can imagine them eating a soup made from the top of carrots which were thrown away. I can almost hear my father saying, Please, Sir, I want some more. The Dickens, you say.

Wait, I lied. There was a rich Uncle Henry. But where was he? Maybe he hadn’t become rich for another three decades and even then I remember being invited to Rose and Peretz for lunch one day when I was about ten years old. I was served pot cheese and sour cream. As I recall I did not plead for some more.

When my father went to kindergarten the teacher warned the class to pay attention. In his state of anxiety he heard it as, Pay a pencil. Alas, like Simple Simon he hadn’t any. I don’t know how far he went in elementary school but I know he never went to high school. He sold newspapers in front of Bushwick Stadium in Brooklyn. At three cents a throw I guess he got to keep a penny.

Along came my mother to tutor him sufficiently to pass a high school equivalency test and then on to college for the required two years to receive his license to practice Pharmacy. He must have been dyslexic; it took an inordinate amount of time for him to read a newspaper article.

His model was compelling enough for me to follow that path into pharmacy. I remember how deliberate he was reading a prescription. In those days the ingredients were often written in Latin with a sort of educated scribble, unintelligible to most, as if the doctor and pharmacist were engaged in a clandestine operation. Simply counting and pouring came much later. Prior to 1950 drugstores were gardens of herbs with crude drugs emitting a vapor from their apothecary jars.  My father carried that scent in his body, pungent, organic and intoxicating.
A single inhalation could pacify my world.

The mean streets seem not to have left its mark on him except  his compassion for the disadvantaged which came out as a kind of abstract vehemence against greed and injustice. It landed him, apologetically, in left-wing politics. 

In the meantime his father had remarried and accumulated four more children. All of them were raised in an orphanage. Perhaps in a state of inebriation my Grandpa Louis named one his new sons, Samuel, forgetting that he already had a son with that name. Sam, meet your brother, Sam. Even Dickens couldn’t make this stuff up.

He loved his half-brothers, particularly his namesake whom I remember for his beautiful handwriting in the V-mails we used to receive during W.W. II where he served in the Merchant Marine in the North Atlantic.

Here’s my question. How does a boy, discarded by his birth father and raised as a street urchin, turn out to be such a soulful, loving, even-tempered father? I have no memory of him ever raising his voice. He never complained. He seemed at home in this world. Where did that sweet nature come from? I ask you Charles Dickens?   

My father took the hand dealt him and went further, father.


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Words, Those Squishy Things

Yes, I do love words and I couldn’t have said that without them. I love their sound, their layers of meaning and the long journey they’ve undertaken to get here. One has to admire their elasticity, how they can stretch, bend and bounce. There is nothing more organic, rising into usage from someone’s mouth into the common tongue if it has the legs for it.

Some years ago the poet and publisher of Sun-Moon Press, Doug Messerli, prefaced his poetry reading by saying how he was more interested in the relationship between river and rivet than he was between river and bridge. I never forgot that. Doug was a language poet. His focus was not on any narrative but on language itself. In fact, his idea of a poem was to call attention to itself so the reader would accept his terms. Don’t look for a story, particularly for a single point of view. In a visual sense this was analogous to moving from representative, even impressionistic painting to cubism.

The river / rivet note came to mind recently when I discovered that the word rival also refers to river. It can be traced back to a time when opposing points of view were debated along the banks of a waterway. The provenance of words enriches their meaning.

In poetry one can assume each word has been weighed and carries with it a secondary reference. When Lewis Carroll mentioned qualities of sand in his Walrus and Carpenter poem he may have been thinking about the sand in an hourglass which is code for mortality and how he would miss Alice as she left childhood and innocence behind.

Words are for leaping in some poets’ hands. Rub them together and sparks fly. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – of cabbages and kings. When Dodgson / Carroll brings in Tweedledee and Tweedledum as mirror images could he not be speaking of his two selves, Dodgson the math and logics professor and Carroll, the playful spinner of yarns? Add to this a third self, the social satirist taking a swipe at British Imperialism.

 Consider the Walrus and Carpenter landing on a beach where the sun is shining at night. Sounds a lot like another colony in a distant part of the Empire upon which the sun never sets. Not to belabor the point but those shoes and ships and sealing wax are all part of Victorian civility along with cabbages and kings. Gobbling oysters is what colonists do to native populations. It is all about domination and those cunning settlers.

Dodgson / Carroll sailed down the river, Isis, with Alice and her sisters telling riveting stories. The rivals were within the author and his disparate aspects. Can a conservative, devout, tradition-loving Oxford professor with a penchant for postulates and proofs write a so-called nonsense verse translated into seventy languages which hides within the lines a disparaging view of the establishment? Is that what poetry can do? Shine a light, unwittingly, upon a dark corner of society which would be deemed subversive in a more frontal attack? Let the artist roam. Allow the muse its full throat. Who knows where it may lead?     

On the other hand maybe I am all wrong. No need for cryptic messages. I don't wish to analyze it to death. Dodgson's poem stands on its own walrus feet. Millions have read it since publication in 1871, finding delightful bafflement in its illogical logic.  

Friday, June 12, 2020

Ticket to Elsewhere

There is a vault of memories which is endlessly fascinating to myself  usually bringing a smile to my face. These are probably the same remembrances that others find insufferable and never fail to elicit a yawn. And then there is trivia from that time back when I was a wee slip of a lad. Names jump out of the trash bin accompanied by a constellation of images.

So it has come to this. Mention Tex Beneke, Harry Babbitt or Anita O’Day and Helen O’Connell. I’m transported back 75 years to my neighbor’s apartment where we listened to Martin Block on Saturday morning for the top ten recordings. Which would be up three notches to number one? We would take turns being the announcer speaking into a hair brush which served as a microphone.

Trivia can be a shorthand for the long forgotten, some sort of time machine depositing me in the 1940s when radio shows, ball games and movies engraved themselves on my bones. I expect the roster for the 1941 Dodgers will still be clinging to my entrails after I forget what I’m doing at this keyboard. As for that elusive meaning of life I had it a few seconds ago but it just slipped away. 

My buddies, Earl and Fred, have a warehouse full of names to throw at me. It is what happens to late octogenarians seeking a time when we had a grip on things, or so we thought. I remember everything from that period and they know everything but we all have different everythings.

Earl has total recall. He has appeared twice on Jeopardy. Fred also has a mind for celebrity ghosts. Names like Zasu Pitts to Fritzie Zivic send me in a spin. What we saw by staring into the radio is a universe of faces and places from Duffy’s Tavern to the crusading editor of The Illustrated Press with Edward G. Robinson’s timbered voice to the mowed grass of Ebbet’s Field or the Yankee Stadium. We could even smell the mustard on hot dogs.

The three of us meet on certain subjects such as history, sports, politics, movies and pop music. Then Earl leaves us behind with his encyclopedic knowledge and passion for classical music, especially opera. There is enough common ground to keep us unburying the notable deceased.

Why do I remember everyone in FDR's cabinet but hardly anyone in Obama's? What ever happened to Joel Kupperman and the other Quiz Kids? Was Mutt and Jeff the inspiration for pairing Sydney Greenstreet with Peter Lorre?

We all carry those indelible moments. In these baffling times old names become momentous. There is nothing trivial about trivia. It conjures an essential elsewhere. Anywhere will do but we might as well be immersed in those Edenic years of innocence and excitation. As Saul Bellow put it, Everyone needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. They also energize the synapses and we can travel, unmasked, without fear of the damn virus.

Now where was I? Oh yes, Walter Winchell to Whitlow Wyatt to Whirlaway. From Jughead and Archie to Archibald MacLeish to Archie Leach. These are my Letters of Transit. Find Bogart. He'll always have Paris. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Ovid As In Covid

Hidden inside that word Covid is the Roman poet Ovid even though he pronounced it Ahvid. He was all about love and transformation. Two of my favorite subversions. Love is what we are here for and transformation offers a new dimension to our lives. For some indiscretion in the eyes of Emperor Augustus he was given a one-way ticket to Romania, a fate worse than an afternoon in the Coliseum with hungry lions.

It strikes me that Ovid got it right. We are in the middle of a societal convulsion. Transformation is the operative word. The virus from bats has brought with it a toll of over 400,000 lives, a wreckage of economies and some profound behavioral changes. The confluence of this with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets demanding cultural and structural reappraisal would have brought a smile to Ovid’s face.

In fact, the two storms have interfaced. Massive unemployment has allowed for more marchers, masked and unmasked, even at greater risk for the virus. Racial injustice and inequality are, themselves, health matters and centuries of systemic racism have turned White America, us, partially deaf, blind and soulless. Liberals may not be racist but our silence renders us accomplices.

In his long epic poem, Metamorphoses, Ovid has people turning into stone or animals. Indeed, slumbering America has ossified in plain sight. It has taken a tragic loss of life to stir the consciousness of  the dominant race (us) into outrage. To measure up to Ovid’s standards we need to see the placards and chants transformed into legislation which redefines the mission of policing and revisits the standards of uniformed men and women. Public safety must not be regarded as a menace particularly to communities of color.

Seismic shifts can refresh the tree of liberty. We must not let this moment go. The act of dismantling and defunding the Minneapolis police department is a way of confronting the stranglehold by the union which has provided cover for unfit officers to remain on the job. Caught on camera some police are revealed as criminals or at least ill-equipped to deal with incendiary situations. Lethal power should never be put in their hands.      

Ovid was born in B.C. (43) and died in A.D. (17). Those were also tumultuous times. Whatever he wrote was deemed a threat to the empire. We know now when in Rome to do as the Romans do. He didn’t and for that had to pack his toothbrush and get out of town. Western Civilization is significantly the poorer because of that.

Incarceration is our idea of an enlightened form of banishment only because there is no longer anywhere isolated, uninhabited or unconnected. The shouts against brutal authority have become global. Prisons could be largely emptied without any threat to society. In fact they already have with the Coronavirus looming over the inmates.

Can legislation change a culture of racism? I say, Yes, it can and it has to some extent. Progress has been made compared to the segregation before the sixties. Clearly it is not nearly enough to enjoy black athletes, actors and musicians. Even a black president didn’t significantly alter the daily indignities suffered by people of color. But legislation with the support of leadership can bring us closer to a just society. Transformation from this to that. Ovid, I think, would agree.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Awakening for Change

Vandalism, screamed the newspapers, will not be tolerated. They will pay for this.

So said the London press in 1774 reporting about the Boston Tea Party. And we did pay for it through heavy taxation. Two years later it was Great Britain who paid even more beginning with the Revolutionary War.

Uprisings are not tidy. They are reckless, sometimes given to excess and, at times, self-defeating. The Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who organized the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor are now considered patriots. If you would like a cup of tea I wouldn’t advise dipping into those waters though one of the 342 cases is now in a museum commemorating that act of looting.

Torching buildings and stealing merchandise is indefensible. I do not condone it. It is the red meat over which Fox News salivates to make the lead story. Bad optics. It is even tragic for small businesses who have already been devastated by the virus shutdown. Even the L.A. Times made looting the headline after Sunday’s widespread, largely peaceful, gatherings around the country and even in European cities.

It is unclear to me whether the bad guys are gang members exploiting the situation or White Nationalists who have infiltrated into the protest movement in order to provoke ill will. Or is this an expression of rage from a lifetime of abuse and inequality. Whether calculated or not the wanton destruction strikes at the heart of White dominant society, property rights. It is a symbolic act, however doomed, of redressing income inequality.

The upheaval we are witnessing is meant to have Liberals squirm out of our comfort zone. It takes that sort of jarring disquiet to reexamine our values. If fear has been generated it is cousin to the fear Black and Brown people live with every day of their lives. If traffic is halted so be it. If the marchers disrupt our lives it is the same disruption Susan B Anthony and the other Suffragettes caused in their decades-long battle for the vote.   

This has got to be more than a teachable moment. It must be translated into legislation which changes the culture of policing and addresses the virus called Racism. We have been rendered ignorant of our own history. Our morality has been warped. We have accepted the privileges of domination and even elected a president who lives by that creed. Our belief in the primacy of property rights goes back to our nation’s inception when slaves were regarded as property.

As for income inequality systemic shifts are long overdue. The wealth of our nation must become the Commonweal to be shared more equitably. This includes access to guaranteed healthcare, housing and education. It may take an insurrection but it shall happen if this country is to survive.

In the meantime have a cup of tea. It may or may not have been looted; if not from our mother country then from the underclass in Indonesia or India. We are a mere 4% of the world’s population gobbling up 30% of its goods. There is reason to squirm. In another thirty years Asians and Africans will comprise 80% of the world population. It is time for us to wake up from a lengthy malaise.  

Friday, May 29, 2020

Remembering an Old Friend

I have never wished to kill anyone but I must admit it would give me great pleasure to read of certain person’s demise. But that’s not why I’ve gotten in the habit of reading the obituary pages. If I don’t spot my name I proceed to cut the morning melon and burn the toast.

Last week I did see a name of an old friend, Nick Seidita, which set in motion an album of memories. He was 98 years-old and it’s been over fifty years since I last saw him. Nor have I heard a voice like his.  Either he was a vanishing breed or that is a measure of how far I have strayed from the path of the righteous.

Back in the late fifties and on into the sixties I was a very involved member of the Valley Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship. Most of us in the congregation were in flight from orthodoxy along with a need for some community of kindred souls. The new minister fresh out of Harvard Divinity School was Paul Sawyer. He devoutly believed in the transformational power of the Arts. It was said that the last time God was mentioned in the church was when the janitor fell off a ladder. No Bible, No Jesus. Hymns were replaced by the words of Whitman, Frost, Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olsen et al.  Poetry, literature and visual arts along with social action was our agenda and it was, for me, a perfect fit. Indeed, the Arts became central to my sense of a religious experience. It has never wavered.

Nick was all about social action. He possessed a high level of vehemence but I never heard him raise his voice in anger. He was a model of creativity in terms of moving from mere rhetoric to concrete steps for effecting real change. He moved me from bystander to player. It was Nick who started telephone trees for protests, composed and circulated petitions, organized sanctuaries for draft-resistors, led vigils in front of defense plants, arranged to supply food for the needy and he brought together diverse agencies and churches for a common purpose. 

I was part of the Fair Housing Initiative in the late 50s driven by Nick Seidita. And later I went on to bring in monthly speakers from Civil Rights advocates to Black listed writers to Vietnam War resisters.

There was no issue too remote for Nick. He had a messianic urge to level hierarchies and regress grievances. He started the Nuclear Freeze movement. I understand he even pushed for the Pope to proclaim for a universal free-lunch program for children.  Nick and his wife Mary Jo were the conscience of our congregation. There must have been a way to say NO to him but I never found what that was. Every cause was more worthy than the last one.   

It never stopped. Nick was relentless. At times I secretly regarded him as a pain in the ass but I also had great affection for him. He had a certain sweetness in the midst of all this outrage. He must have been driven crazy by these dark days in which we now find ourselves. I guess he also knew when to drop the curtain down and leave this stage. For every Nick Seidita in this world there are thousands of guys like me. We talk a lot mostly to ears already persuaded. Nick never gave up. He told them what to do. And did they listen? Sorry Nick, I’m afraid they did not.

When I read his obituary I contacted his eldest son, Michael, who had a different take. He left me with the impression that his father’s words were received at a different pitch than those I heard. At least they generated a resistance within him and he turned away from politics. It must not have been easy living with a god.

I am left wondering what all of Nick’s exhortations amounted to. Perhaps a few minds were aroused. For him there was no alternative. Social action was the continuing mural which demanded his attention. He heard the anguish of the under-served and made of it a kind of music to be sounded at the barricades. It was his art form.

Monday, May 25, 2020

That Fearful Symmetry

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake wrestled that metaphorical Tiger with his bright menacing eyes and the beauty and terror it signified. Call it Evil as opposed to the Lamb in his Song of Innocence. Call it Coronavirus. Or call it mankind in the garden of good and peril. Welcome to the forest of the night and the Song of Experience. We’ve got to take the good with the bad.

The Lamb and the Tiger are the fearful symmetry in whose midst we have come to live or die. Lamb chops and fleece or a carnivorous meal? From the point of view of the virus this is The Golden Age. They are just doing what we do; as their tribes increase so they survive.

Why would God do such a thing? A temper tantrum?  Punishing us for our transgressions? Just showing off? Reminding us we share this orb with other tenants invisible even in this year of 20-20 vision?  I wouldn’t know; I’ve been truant from houses of worship since I was thirteen though I have vivid memories of stale wine and sponge cake.

Maybe this is the reckoning. We are at the tollbooth paying the price for shrinking geography and hyper connectivity via the information highway. Add to this the search for cheap labor to supply an insatiable appetite for consumer goods. Erase China from your map and gone is Costco, Amazon and life as we know it.

It took the First World War to bring us the previous pandemic as if the colossal stupidity of European monarchs wasn’t enough to fertilize Flanders Fields. God is reputed to act in mysterious ways. Does he/she really ask us to congregate? Does the great puppeteer require the hymn on page 37 and the top of page 38? To get through the night?  I doubt it. Faith is an inward many splendored thing. No edifice complex. No checks in the collection box. No Hail Marys or Baruch’as.

William Blake was an early Romantic. He lived with angels and Satanic figures in his head which he etched and engraved. I’m not so sure I’d have wanted my sister to marry a man like him. But, then again, I never had a sister. He regarded the imagination as the greatest gift of human existence which would have endeared him to me and made him a good lunch partner as long as he doesn’t order roast tiger, medium rare.

I take him to mean that our lives are precarious, a fragile marriage of heaven and hell, beauty and terror, innocence of the sheep and ferocity of the feral cat even when it is no longer visibly reduced to droplets. In our mindless rapacity we must make room. Call it symmetry. I call it the human predicament.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Out of this World

What better transit out of this world of pathogen-Trump and virus–Corona than to crawl down the rabbit hole or into the looking glass provided by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll?  His pen name derived from the Latinized scrambled letters of his first and middle names (Lutwidge). The man was a polymath of the first order.
His right and left brain spoke to each other They stammered and pondered and jostled and romped. He contained Euclid and Dionysus, axioms and word-play, in equal measure. There existed within Dodgson his mirror image, Lewis Carroll. The one, a man as exacting as solid geometry alongside the other, unfettered in flights of fancy. 

Dodgson illustrated his first book and was a well-regarded photographer exhibiting at the Royal Academy as well as author of eleven books on math, an ordained deacon and a prodigious inventor. Most of all he delighted the world evermore with his several children’s books which are all the more remarkable in their layers of meaning for adults.
While professor in mathematics and logic at Christ Church College at Oxford in mid-Victorian England he gave full voice to his imaginary life with stories told to the Liddell girls, especially, Alice, age 7-11. It was an oral gift he had, creating his own universe. Only later did he put the tales to paper.
His found the elasticity of words along with the absurdity of convention, through language. I can use a massive dose of that right now. Of course Trump butchers the English language daily but he doesn’t know it. Dodgson’s tongue is in his cheek, Donald’s foot is in his mouth. And my mouth is masked when here comes the Jabberwocky, burbling as he ambles, slain by the vorpol vaccine blade going snicker-snack and off he goes galumphing.
There is a menagerie out there in the garden. Of tiger-lillies, snapdragons and dandelions. I can hear them growl as they prowl. But it’s a peaceable kingdom in pre-Raphaelite England. And there is Gertrude Rose(n)Stein thrice declaring the flower as a three dimensional thing to be gathered now in May, tomorrow we may be …….no, not dying.
(I notice from the obits nobody dies anymore. They pass away. They go to the other shore. They are taken by the Lord. They cross over or go to a better place. Yes, there are days of despair when one (not I) is ready for that proverbial better place.)

It could be worse. We could be in some pestilential prison in a deep dark dock awaiting the sensation of a short sharp shock.
Tis brillig, says the White Knight, tea time, before o’clock. A ceremony ripe to be mocked. And we're in fine fettle so put on the kettle. Where is my hat, gone mad? Can this be the millinery-industrial complex? We shall under go to overcome.
Humpty's been dumped and I'm here with my runcible spoon. So we steep in this cup of madness yet for old land’s sake. The dormouse is stirring. Beware.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Nostalgia and History

Nostalgia has a bad name. Always has. Longing for the imagined past is an exercise in wishful thinking, at best. It is usually a sentimental journey.

In the 17th century it was regarded as a sickness, a form of melancholia suffered by seaman who couldn’t wait to return home. What greater punishment for the ancients than exile, banished from the city-state, the tent, the familiar. Ulysses, he of great turnings, left for a cup of coffee and took twenty years to return. When he finally made his way back to Penelope home wasn’t quite as he remembered, nor was he the same guy.

That’s the problem. The world doesn’t hold still for a minute and we are part of that flux, ever evolving, ripening here, rotting there. The older we get the more past we accumulate. Of course we embellish it, disremember our follies, construct composites from the shards and create a myth of ourselves which might bear only a faint resemblance to the actual. But what fun.  And there may be no witnesses around to fact-check our narrative. That home run I hit in the school yard is still traveling, last seen orbiting in a distant galaxy.

But history is actual. Never quite objective but closer to it. Genocide, slavery, the Holocaust happened whether or not we care to acknowledge it. Those abominations can be viewed from different angles but not erased. If we ignore history or contort those events we become intellectually impoverished.

The potato famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century was a man-made tragedy of stunning proportion. A blight killed the potato but British imperial cruelty wiped out a quarter of the population; one million died and another million emigrated to the U.S. In an unexpected gesture of solidarity with their plight the Choctow Nation of five tribes reached out to assist the Irish. Destitute as they were, having recently endured the Trail of Tears, they raised money equivalent to thousands of dollars in today’s currency. All the more remarkable since it was Andrew Jackson, son of an Irish immigrant, who ordered the forced march which killed half the 21,000 Native Americans.

Now, 173 years later, the Irish have donated two million dollars to the Hopi and Navajo tribes in their fight against the Corona virus. History is all about not forgetting. Grievances are redressed. Good deeds rewarded.

Attorney General Barr‘s shenanigans and the Trump White House are attempting to re-write the treachery of their tenure in office. History shall note his malevolence. Whether he is a high-functioning ignoramus or a genius of deception may be up for debate but his usurpation of the Justice Dept. carries the stench of a monarchy.  

Nostalgia sees through a rosy lens. History is less forgiving. The chronicle of these past three years is a litany of soulless malfeasance and deceit. While posing as a Populist Trump is the darling of the privileged who are now scrambling to concoct a moral justification for the naked greed he has granted them. Let it be noted.  
There are, perhaps, two distinct orders of Truth. The one is personal memory. The story we tell ourselves which cannot be verified but we are sure of it. It is our epic poem, each day another stanza, our journey. 

The other is History, elusive but more or less irrefutable. Certain events did happen. Our stewardship on this planet is being called into question. We are living in one of those historical moments of epochal change, tragic because the man in charge, the scribe has merged the two, fabricating the narrative into an agreed-upon lie.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

House Arrest

If this were a prison movie from my boyhood Jimmy Cagney would be plotting with George Raft about making a break for it. Both were sent up the river for a stretch as lifers or maybe even the Chair. (No, not the chair!) They might crawl through the pipes or hide under the sheets and towels when the laundry truck leaves every Tuesday or maybe the priest would be found in his underwear and gagged while one of them walks out, Bible in hand.

But this is just a house arrest of indeterminant length even with good behavior. My only other reference goes back to the time I had the Grip (Grippe?), circa age eight, when Dr. Schildkraut was summoned to my bedside. I remember hoping my temperature was high enough to make it worth his while. I believe he prescribed Argyrol swabs for my throat (worthless), along with Neo-Silvol nose drops (worthless) and Compound Tincture of Benzoin in the vaporizer (also worthless but it smelled pretty good). At least leaches were no longer in style by then. I was probably quarantined for 3-4 days till my mother pronounced me fit, not to return to school yet but to take the sun and fresh air cure for one day. My mother possessed an extraordinary insight into the nature of wind. She could blame the dreaded draft for all illness and then distinguish that miasma from the curative fresh air. 

We have some eminent men and women in history with whom to share our penal servitude. Noble souls so prominent home confinement was deemed the ultimate punishment for fear of popular insurrection. In at least a couple of cases the Stay-At-Home order turned out to be a good career move. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, of Myanmar, was placed under house arrest, on and off, for twenty-one years during which time she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Upon release from her extended sentence in 2010 she was elected Head of State. However, as if to demonstrate how power corrupts she blemished her name with her indifference to the plight of up to one million Muslims in a forced exile to Bangladesh. The road to Mandalay, once known for where the flying fishes play, later became a treacherous road out of Mandalay.

Vaclav Havel was another one ordered under house arrest. The great Czechoslovakian playwright was imprisoned from 1979 to 1989 for his subversive writings. When Prague underwent their Velvet Revolution he was elected President, an office he held for twenty years. As far as I know he did not suppress dissent. In fact he released hundreds from incarceration, particularly political prisoners.

Galileo didn’t fare so well. He was remanded in his house for nine years for the heresy of not positioning this planet in the center of the universe around which the sun orbits. He would not recant nor would the sun and certainly not the mother Church. It took the Vatican another three hundred years to get around to it. They were too busy reassigning predatory priests.

Nikita Khrushchev was another one consigned to four walls at home. His sentence was seven years, enough time to become part of the furniture.  It could have been worse. He could have been sent packing in his thermal underwear to the Gulag communing with Siberian Huskies. 

All things considered house arrest is not so bad at this age. We don’t get around much anymore these days even before Corona. Slowing down and staying in place doesn’t come easily for some. Irving Berlin found it impossible to sit for long. He once lost a $50 bet that he couldn’t sit still in a chair for five minutes. I’m willing to give it a try, even to shut up for a while.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

I'll Have What She's Having

Peggy will be ninety-nine on Saturday. We've been together for the past thirty-six years and I'm still trying to find out how she manages to not act her age. In fact, she is of no age. The irrepressible and capacious woman I knew in 1984 is undiminished. Every morning a poem, a creative burst; every moment an enthused, welcoming and loving woman.

What I have witnessed is her risk-taking, pondering the edge of elsewhere, that elusive unknown as well as the unseen ordinary most of us are blind to. Yet, at the same time, she truly lives in the present, not mourning over the past or anticipating or rehearsing bad news. She trusts in her own resources to save the day.

Her three novels, six books of poetry and over a hundred construction boxes are the product of an engagement with the world, a sensibility that issues from a way of meeting life. Her poetry is an affirmation of being alive just as her nature affirms that Yes even after the final No. If she never wrote another line she would remain a poet in her being. She seeks and she finds like nobody I have ever known.

Early on I was recipient of her remarkable gift. One Sunday afternoon we were driving around Santa Monica. Peggy was enthusing over one of her favorite books by the naturalist, Aldo Leopold, called Sand County Almanac. She spotted a sign for a yard sale and suggested we stop and look to see if they had that book. Some chance, I thought to myself, as if there had been only eleven books ever written. But sure enough, there it was. Could it be Peggy possessed some alchemical power to make the book appear by the force of her nature?

And so it has been. Unlikely things happen because she offers a wide and constant reception. There are nuggets in the sludge. Overheard conversations in the next booth. Weedy things, pods, fallen leaves taken in, deserving of another life in a vase or her Commonplace book.

Something is happening every day in its quiet or its clamor. Peggy is also happening, discovering connective tissue and reconfiguring the shards in this dissonant, disparate life. She breathes life into the inanimate and suddenly her words sing off the page. Her process of creativity is also her presence in relationship.

Peggy finds what is lost; she was orphaned at eight and found (rescued) by her aunt and later by an uncle. To be met is her pattern. Nearly a century of meeting this world as it reveals itself in its dailiness made momentous and numinous.

Life gives us moments, says the poet, and for these moments we give our lives. Peggy's life is comprised of such moments. With serious noticing she pauses and with a gust of wind her carpet is made buoyant by the exhalation of her spirit.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

To Go or To Stay

It has come to this. Red State folks are gathering in Bible Class, BBQs and bowling alleys. They have eyes on Fox News, God and the Dow. While Blue States are hunkered down, masked, cloistered and wiped. We have our eyes on Dr. Fauci, CNN or MSNBC and our Governors. 

If the South wanted to invade the North this would be the time. The only army we could muster would be a rag-tail battalion of Instacart delivery drivers. Our weapons would be Clorox and Purel.

There are two songs from bygone days which come to mind that might become our new anthems. Jimmy Durante sang one of them making a brief appearance in the 1942 movie version of, The Man Who Came to Dinner, when he sang...........

Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go
But still had the feeling that you wanted to stay.
You know it was right, wasn't wrong
Still you knew you wouldn't be very long
Go or stay, stay or go...........I'll go, I'll stay.

Durante is one of those entertainers who elude categories. He was a product of vaudeville who transitioned into radio and then T.V.  I found him adorable, his raspy voice, his antics, his whole shtick.

Groucho Marx followed a similar arc with the added exposure of thirteen movies with his brothers. One of his songs covered the same ground as Durante’s…

Hello, I must be going.
I cannot stay 
I came to say
I must be going.
I’m glad I came 
But just the same
I must be going.   

Groucho was subversive in his way, possibly more so than Karl Marx. With a raised eyebrow and a puff at his cigar he could overthrow governments. He played the con-man, the swindler, or an outrageous head-of-state. In this way he reminds me of somebody but I dare not speak his name. Groucho made America great again. He spoke in the voice of the street. He had moxie. He gave us the quick wise crack to get by in the urban jungle.

But it took his brother, Harpo, to answer the noise with his omniscient eyes, the cup of coffee in his overcoat along with one roller skate as if the artifacts of a fractured civilization. Then he spoke with his harp, recused from a damaged piano. When he played his instrument he brought all the clamor to silence. Even the virus was halted. A few plucks and corona is startled into submission. 

We can come and go again. Let some gather by the river. Take me out to the ballgame.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Leading From Behind

Commander-in-Chief Trump, in his infinite wisdom, is demonstrating his leadership by beating a hasty retreat. It didn’t work out so well for Napoleon in that Russian winter nor for Hitler either, but Rear Admiral Trump is fighting a different sort of war. The enemy is invisible and Trump wants to be invisible as well as he leads the nation unmasked, unhinged, unconscionable and unaccountable.

I’m reminded of William S. Gilbert’s libretto from the G & S operetta, Gondoliers….

In enterprise of martial kind / when there was any fighting
He led his regiment from behind. / He found it less exciting.
But away his regiment ran, / His place was in the fore,
O / That celebrated, cultivated, Underrated Nobleman / The Duke of Plaza-Toro.

The Duke of Mar-a-Lago is far too busy receiving orders from General Hannity to risk his legacy as visionary and candidate for Nobel Peace Prize. In a brilliant maneuver he has positioned himself to take all the credit and none of the blame.  If things go wrong it is certainly the fault of Democrat Governors and Mayors; if they go right it is due to his absolute authority as the smartest person in the history of the world.

He has systematically dismantled Health and Environmental agencies and stocked them with sycophants. At the same time the Man in the Oval assumes executive powers bordering on monarchical. And yet in the midst of our death and dying he is nowhere to be seen having left it all to the states. History will note his colossal inaction.

When to evade destruction’s hand / to hide they all proceeded.
No soldier in that gallant band / hid half as well as he did.
He lay concealed throughout the war / and so preserved his gore, (O)
That unaffected, undetected, well-connected warrior / the Duke of Plaza-Toro.

Rear Admiral Trump has company in the grand retreat choreographed by that other military megalomaniac, Douglas MacArthur. He managed to retreat from Bataan leaving behind 70,000 G.Is, many of whom met a cruel death as the General staged his famous photograph landing on another Philippine Island. Apparently Old Soldiers never die, they just lead from behind.

One wonders if the Fuehrer also had delusions of grandeur as he led Germany from his subterranean bunker under the rubble of Berlin. Did he curse his own submarines and his Panzer tanks? Did he vent his fury at whistle-blowers, Bavarian beer halls, poison schnitzel, slow scientists and, of course, those Jewish money-lenders?

Military blunders can be spun into cri de coeurs which become rallying points in the hands of such true leaders as Churchill. Witness Dunkirk where over 300,000 British and French troops were rescued. But Donald is no Winston.

Back to work, says our leader, speaking from an undisclosed location. Let afebrile folks stock the shelves and scoop the frozen yogurt so the Dow can rise along with the morning sun upon which he can also lend his signature.