Thursday, November 26, 2020

Bad News, Good News


The bad news is that we’re having a big Thanksgiving bash. The good news is that nobody is invited. In accordance with Dr. Fauci’s guidelines I thought this would be the perfect year to have my fantasy holiday party; only people already dead will be there.

Carl Sagan was briefed at the door over our low regard for science and decided to opt for life in one of those other galaxies.

James Madison was in distress over what we’ve done to his Constitution. He and his fellow plantation owners will only eat white meat. Tommy Jefferson is seated between Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin getting a lesson on the soul of America.

Fred Ebb (from Kander & Ebb) is composing, Come to the Cabernet, My Friend. Dorothy Parker says, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Mark Twain has stopped smoking cigars for the third time today. When told how books were written on the dangers of tobacco he says he never reads health books because one can die of a misprint.

Molly Ivins says if George Dubya Bush was a shrub then Donald Trump is a stump. Winston Churchill arrives, uninvited, when he hears about the soft-underbelly of Turkey.

Homer and Virgil are having a food-fight over the Iliad and Aeneid. Homer accuses Virgil of ripping off his epic work. The Roman admits he’s always had it in for the Greeks since he heard Cleopatra was in bed with laryngitis.

Freud arrived declaring that he never travels without his couch. He is upset when Sinatra starts to sing, You Make Me Feel So Jung.

Here comes Spencer Tracy showing off his red hair which no one ever saw on the big screen. I have to include him because he always reminds me of my father….even though  my mother could never be mistaken for Katharine Hepburn.

John Keats and W.B. Yeats are over there in the corner trying to get their names to rhyme. In the other corner Einstein is talking to the Barber of Seville about, at least, a trim. Descartes is quibbling with him over MC cubed instead of squared. When offered a glass of champagne he says, I think not, and disappears.

Socrates declines a swig of Merlot remembering the last time he had a drink. Euripides is conferring with Shakespeare whether or not to be or have been

Lincoln wants me to check if the current president ever slept in his bedroom. I assured him Biden will have the sheets changed since Donald probably donated them to the KKK.

Sylvia Plath was late to the party having spent some time in the oven with the big bird.

I almost forgot to mention that Antonin Scalia crashed the party. He was arguing with everyone citing Hammurabi's Code and a list of proclamations from the Oracle of Delphi. When he got up to scream at the assembled, Rosa Parks took his seat.

Now we shall sit alone mumbling our gratitude how we’ve made it so far and get down to some serious gluttony and sloth.


Friday, November 20, 2020

Ankle Talk

First, my back, then the knee, now the ankle. Is this the thousand cuts I’ve so much about? Up until this morning I couldn’t even strut and fret upon this stage. Of course, I’m still with some sound and fury and, as always, it signifies nothing.

I’ve never much given quality time to my ankle. And when I have it’s always been my left one which I broke playing basketball in one of my highlight moments. Now my right one is clamoring for equal time.

In fairness it isn’t really the ankle itself, just surrounding tissue for which I have no name; that mass of soft matter resistant to x-rays.

Thursday I was in a wheelchair at the doctor’s office. The visit was for blood work, physical therapy and radiology. The P.T. was out of the question. However, the lab work revealed an alarming increase in two markers which my rheumatologist has been tracking. One went up from 8 to 84 and the other from 6 to 160.

The phone call came from the doctor who immediately bumped up my dosage on Prednisone. Voila, I am now ambulatory again. I’d kiss my ankle if I could. It will have to settle for the same undemonstrative love to which my elbow has grown accustomed.

The older we get the more familiar we become with long-neglected body parts. It may be time to show some love to my metatarsals, my phalanges and to my spleen. I’ve got only one of those and the last I checked Costco doesn’t carry any. If they did I’d probably have to buy six and look for matches.

A friend suggested a brace but I don’t want to create a scarcity. I expect the entire Trump family will soon be wearing ankle bracelets. Maybe I could borrow one from previously indicted Trump racketeers who expect a pardon any day now.

This afternoon I went to throw out the garbage, both recyclable and otherwise. My plan was to put the 2 bags in the car and drive around the corner. However my key-clicker didn't open the car door so I had to do it manually. Then I couldn't open the back door so I put the 2 bags on the front seat........then I couldn't get the car started because the battery was dead. So I took the bags out and decided I'd try to use Peggy's walker to take one bag at a time on the walker..........but the bag dropped and broke open. I was picking up shrimp tails and banana peels off the sidewalk when a neighbor came along and rescued me from my distress. She took both bags and here I am. Now I must call roadside service to charge my battery. It seems that I left one door ajar and that must have drained the battery. And that's my story.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Campaign of '43

Reminds me of that bitter election in the 4th grade when I ran for President against the class bully, Donald Smathers. It was a grueling campaign as I remember it. There were unfounded reports that the teacher favored me in spelling bees lobbing softballs my way. I wouldn’t call upholstery or genuine easy words.

But rumors took hold when my opponent started a whispering campaign. It didn’t help my chances when he wrote on the blackboard, before the teacher came in, that I wet my pants. He’d been saying that since Kindergarten when he tipped over the milk carton onto my knickers. I think he’d had it in for me ever since he knocked down my blocks and I reported him.  He branded me a tattle-tale, teacher’s pet, bed-wetter.

Donald no longer ran with scissors but he did throw spitballs and didn’t play well with others. That was a minor matter compared to the money he stole when he was milk monitor in the 2nd grade. He blamed it on a hole in his pant’s pocket.

He had his group of trouble-makers come up with signs saying, I’d Rather Have Smathers. My constituency was a coalition of kids I knew, kids I wish I knew and a few who I barely knew but couldn't stand Smathers.

He had won in 3rd grade when he carried the most rows even though more votes went to Ursula Sherashevsky. There were five rows each with six boys or girls. Ursula won the first and fifth but Donald took the middle three. This time we were redistributed and I managed to eke out a win in three rows as well as the majority of votes.  

Then the trouble began. The war was raging across both oceans. Refugees were coming into our class. Donald targeted them for ridicule when they spoke with a slight accent.  All classes were urged to buy saving stamps to fill up a book worth $18.75 which would buy a $25 war bond, payable in ten years.* Our class was in competition with the fifth grade over the most bonds.

When he lost the election, Donald went into a tantrum shouting that he should be president for all time. He always boasted that his family was richer than the rest of us. Now he threatened not to buy any war bonds. Those of us who spent our allowance for the war effort were called Suckers. For this Mr. and Mrs. Smathers were summoned to meet with the teacher. They never showed up but sent a note defending their son. That was the last we ever saw of Donald.

Standing outside the room in the corridor waiting for the raised hands I knew then politics was not my meat. I would have to settle for an illustrious career as a shortstop or soda jerk or shaman.

(Part of this is true. It may not have happened to me but it must have happened to somebody.)

* Those war bonds raised 187 billion dollars during the war years.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Euphemisms

In my dotage I’m thinking fondly of euphemisms. There was something endearing about saying, Shoot, I just bit my tongue or Darn that freakin' neighbor.

Fig leaves fall as they must on their way to language Heck.  By Golly isn’t that where people go who don’t believe in Gosh?

Holy Moly, I suspect all the gods can handle being taken in vain every now and then from Jumping Jehoshaphat to Geez to Gad Zooks.

Having now endured four years of Donald, Dad Rat It, we can begin to assess the wreckage. With his eight-year old vocabulary he has debased the language to my dang ears like no public official before him.

If you can fake authenticity all the rest is a piece of cake. Movies have an obligatory vomit scene as if that confers a note of edgy reality. Trump has tapped into what he calls locker-room talk which allows for racist and misogynist slang. Grab her by her pussy, says the man who sits where Lincoln and the two Roosevelts sat.

He tells the American people that certain countries are shit holes. In a speech recently he described China as Mother fuckers. If someone at a rally looks suspicious, he yellsthrow the sonofabitch out. I suppose this plays well in a crowd of maskless morons ready to gulp his Corona-spiced Kool-Aid.

He utters lies but they are naked lies. Is trash-talk any more truthful than decent speech? At least athletes’ chatter comes out of raw emotions. Trump's words are calculated. The real-estate mogul is slumming among those he would otherwise describe as losers and suckers.

My ears are burning, my mind is tortured. We must remove this man-child from office, lickity-split.

If you know any Trump voters remind them that Election Day was moved to Wednesday.

 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Buttons

Did I ever tell you about the time I……….

Yes, Grandpa you did, many times.

 

Well, I was seven years old during the campaign of 1940. I remember the beanie cap I wore covered with FDR buttons. Henry Wallace was his running mate and Wendell Willkie, the bad guy.

Roosevelt was not only my hero; he was God incarnate. He spoke with patrician authority as if from on high with his fireside chats. I even imagined the fire.

Of course, Willkie turned out to be one of the best bad guys in political history. He and Roosevelt were on the same page in so far as recognizing the threat posed by Hitler and the Nazi war machine. The isolationist Republicans disowned him as he got trounced 449-82 in the electoral vote of 1940.

After the election FDR asked him to serve as a roving ambassador and he traveled abroad pleading the internationalist cause. In his book, One World, he not only advocated for a world order but also denounced Colonialism. Sadly, he died before the war was over.

Willkie deserved a special place he was never accorded on my beanie. Of course, my beanie is long gone but I do have a political button collection going back to Abraham Lincoln. Skip a few decades and I see Grover Cleveland’s face on one along with his running mate and there are William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson and I even have a Roosevelt/Cox button from his unsuccessful bid in 1920.  

George McGovern must have put all his meager resources into buttons. I have about forty of them. By the time Clinton ran, buttons started getting larger. An Obama button is ten times the size of some of FDR’s. I have one button showing the faces of nineteen ex-Presidents. 

Maybe that was a sign of their demise. I don’t see buttons anymore. Instead they’ve been replaced first by bumper stickers, then T-shirts and lawn signs and now by red caps and unmasked faces. We are walking billboards.

No button is large enough to contain Trump’s egomania. The only button needed for the first Presidential debate was the one Trump should have had on his lip. His behavior was so maniacal it called for a muzzle or mute button in last night’s debate though I don’t think it was used. In spite of his rambling bluster he did a fine impersonation of a grown-up.

I wonder if he has a Russian-American dictionary in his desk along with a one-way ticket to Moscow. The thought of his finger on the button to launch the nukes for another term is a prospect devoutly to be dreaded.

 

 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

LOST

Will the person who climbed through the window and stole my glasses please return them? No need for forced entry; just drop them off at the front door. No questions asked.

All right, forget all that. I’ll take the rap. I haven’t been out for three days so it’s got to be here somewhere. The truth is I don’t wear them much. They are bifocals and I can read better without them except for tiny subtitles and when I’m driving.

It’s understandable that the glasses might be upset. The last time I drove (I can’t remember when) I sprayed on some shaving cream to prevent them from fogging up. After wiping, the film is supposed to prevent the haze from wearing a mask.  

Or maybe they’re upset because Peggy has about seven reading glasses from the Ninety-Nine Cent Store scattered around the house and they don’t want to be associated with low-life cousins. It could be they escaped like some of my socks. I could swear a few of them made their way across the street and showed up in yard sales.

Looking for anything always turns up something else. So far, I’ve discovered a small flashlight behind my night stand and a set of car keys from a Honda I owned eleven years ago. Usually I find my credit card when I’m looking for my checkbook. Of course, my cell phone knows how to ding when call it.

Listen to me, glasses, if you're out there, it's true I've never cared for you much. I was always afraid someone would mistake me for an intellectual. And then what? So maybe this is payback. You're hiding because of my constant vacillation. One day I'm seeing through rose colored lenses and the next through a glass darkly. I can't help myself. Call it existential dread.

Could it be you are hiding to teach me a lesson? If you think I'll go blind and suddenly play the piano, forget about it.  Nor will I become a seer even with the beginning of macular degeneration. There's a long tradition in literature to assign inner vision to the blind. I have no wish to become either Tiresias or Homer. However I have gained a bit of insight in this grand search.

I have discovered a most profound philosophical concept. Are you ready? Namely, drumbeat……… that Everything is Somewhere. The converse is also true: Nothing is Nowhere. This is the kind of wisdom that is hard-earned after losing something every couple of weeks over the past 87 years.  

Now I’ve taken to imaging. I can picture my glasses all spread out behind or under something. They’re just lying there with their astigmatic correction maybe missing my nose or my ears. Who knows what emotional attachments they’ve made?

I can’t take this much longer. It’s one thing to lose my glasses but another thing to be numbered among those known as Losers. Trump has got my number. Not only a Loser but maybe a Sucker also. If I find them will I suddenly become a Winner?

Ah-ha, I got up this morning and spotted them looking forlorn on the floor around my computer. I forgive them for their wanton ways. In the words of Donald, I take all of the credit and none of the blame.

 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Untied States of America

 America is a sandwich with artisanal squiggly breads of rocky shores on either side and rigid perpendiculars of Dakotas in the middle.

The Blue coastal states are a bluesy sax blowing grievances and joy as if those islands in the Pacific Northwest were new ideas bubbling overhead in a comic strip and the Florida Keys, a work in progress. Maybe someone took a bite and these were the indigestible chunks.

California is a baguette and Oregon an Everything Bagel while Puget Sound is the piece of an argument that resists containment, giggling and probing into some vivid unseen.

Jersey is seeded rye. The Carolinas ready to burst and Georgia has a blue moon rising. Maine is mainly independent indigo and from Massachusetts to New York harbor diverse as huddled masses yearning to be free.

Here are Wisconsin and Michigan which obey no ruler, shaped by the deep blue lakes and Pennsylvania is stretched out in blue-collar blue under an azure sky.

The swampy bottom of Louisiana is shaped by a parade down South Basin Street to the St. James Infirmary. I’m seeing red going to purple or is that Texas inching out of the red from the Rio Grande northbound.

In the mayonnaise middle is Oklahoma, long as their buried Trail of Cherokee Tears. Alabama, the Crimson Tide. Mississippi, red from Strange Fruit that hung from their trees. Arkansas red as rednecks.

And what does West Virginia think it is doing sprawled out in public with Kentucky blushing red as a MAGA cap while Illinois is belly-laughing into Missouri?

Kansas and Nebraska, lined up like Boy Scouts busy behaving themselves at the hundredth meridian. There’s Utah and Wyoming, straight as the page of Donald’s tax return, caught red-handed. Iowa is straight as a cereal box.

Arizona, home of well-fixed retirees used to be red as John Phillip Souza’s um-pa-pa marching in file on their fixed border but now there is a purple dawn rising.

We are a color chart turning from red herrings to blue remembered hills. From rectilinear slabs of red meat to plates of quinoa and kale. Not yet united but, at least, untied.     

Monday, October 12, 2020

Monarchs

I am monarch by decree

To which my family all agree

Whose praise the heartland heartily chants

And so do my daughter and my sycophants

My daughter and my sycophants   

                                    (With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)


 

Look, Peggy enthused, at that huge monarch butterfly.

She saw it flutter down, through the window,

and settle on the end of that branch.

Five minutes later it still hadn’t moved.

Perhaps, just perhaps it was a golden bough unleaving,

from the Gerald Manley Hopkins poem.

 

That’s the way it is with monarchs.

They can make us see what isn’t there.

Sometimes it’s not the butterfly that flutters by.

We can’t wish its existence like monarchs do

from inside their wooly caterpillar chrysalis.

 

Donald is having another tantrum flapping

his monarchial orange fuzzy-wuzzy

as if he were a maga lepidoptera

buoyant and flamboyant   

having astonished his mother-worm

with leaves masquerading as wings.

                                                                                            

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Individualism: Rugged or Rigged?

Having been born into the Great Depression followed by World War II the role of the federal government felt like mother’s milk, even after I was weaned from the bottle. Roosevelt provided alphabet soup with his NRA, WPA, CCC  et al. If the New Deal had its enemies most of them fell away on that day of infamy, Dec. 7th 1941. The pronoun, WE, was the order of the day.

Since the second half of the 20th century, We the People, has given way to, Me/Mine. We’ve gone from plural to singular. On the political spectrum the greedy who ask, What’s in it for me or I got mine, don’t bother me, are aligned with the so-called rugged individualists who love their guns almost as much as the gospel. Together they comprise the Republican Party.

The Wild West on the frontier is now wild Appalachia and the Heartland for whom the beneficent government of my day has become, in their eyes, some diabolical force out to take away their Social Security and Medicare even though the government is the provider.

The notion of Man-Alone translated to Indian-Killers, slave-owner’s inhumanity vigilantes, and the lawlessness of Jim Crow lynch-mobs. 

The irony is that the so-called rugged individualists are really the conformists who march in lock-step to the demagogue having abdicated their autonomy in mindless obedience.

Poor Karl Marx. He got it all wrong. Groucho could have done better. The working class is allied with Wall St., coalmine operators and hedge-fund operators. The down-trodden masses have swallowed the opiate in massive doses. Maybe that’s why they are unmasked. After all, Macho men don’t get sick and I suppose they don’t care if you do.

Masks are the new bumper-stickers, the great signifiers. The unmasked face is the emblem of pathological individualism. Donald’s behavior suggests masks are for suckers and if you happen to die I suppose you’re nothing but a loser.

Walt Whitman in Song of Myself wrote, I celebrate myself, I sing myself. Even on the Progressive wing there is a confusion between Individuation and Individualism. Psychotherapists have long urged their clients become their own best friend. Self-actualization is not the language of community or necessarily receptive to global responsibility. In a perverse way it can lead to the Not In My Backyard argument as we see in the rejection of homeless shelters or wind-farms which are perceived as driving real estate values down.

We lack the words for collective social discourse, the language to express programs for the greater good. The case for public service or even sacrifice has been subsumed by louder protests of self-interest. America-First translates to America alone heedless of global concerns.

If asked why one either supports or opposes measures to meet the challenges of climate change, the answer is regarded as authentic if they make the person feel better about themselves. This, I submit, is a poverty of language. We are inarticulate speaking in moral terms.

Trump, of course, has exacerbated the situation with his malignant narcissism. If Whitman were alive today would he still hear America Singing? I expect he would hear two tribal camps in a discord of voices.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Small Pleasures

The specter of a Trump sweep feels like a diagnosis of metastatic carcinoma. Inept and uncouth barely describe the man. How, I ask you, how could anyone vote for a guy with no ept and even less couth.  But we’re too old to move and besides, my friend on a Greek island doesn’t have a spare bedroom. So I look for small pleasures to keep me sane.

I’m told it is now autumn. It happens here as soundlessly as that silent n. We have plenty of weather but no seasons. The only way I know is that Trader Joe has suddenly filled their aisles with everything pumpkin. I now have a supply of pumpkin bread, pumpkin beer, pumpkin biscotti and pumpkin pancakes. I can now die happy……almost.  

To reinforce the calendar the green leaves have turned golden on our coral tree. Their loss of chlorophyll becomes our brief spectacular show. The foliage falls in a blaze of glorious decrepitude. Sort of like the way I feel on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On the other days I’m filled with pluck and spunk.

See Naples and die, so said Virgil. I’ll take his word for it. I’ve read Elena Ferrante and that’s as close to Naples as I’ll ever get. So I say, See maples and die. And we did eleven years ago along with the sycamore and other deciduous leaves ablaze in the Vermont woods.

Here on the other coast the blaze is an inferno of calamitous proportion with nothing pleasurable about it.

Low-brow that I am I cannot claim to have watched any ballets. The closest I can get is the balletic leaps, spins and twists of LeBron James as he hangs in the air giving gravity the finger while throwing the ball through the hoop. Truly a sight to behold. Nothing matches the athleticism of a great basketball player. 

He reminds me of myself in my wildest dream. I played on the team in my first year of college enough games to get a varsity jacket. My one acrobatic move was grabbing a high rebound around the foul line and in one motion depositing the ball back in the basket. It gets better with each recollection.

Put the kettle on. We need our small pleasures to keep the wolf from the door.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Plenty of Nothing

As Alice said to the White King in, Through the Looking GlassI saw Nobody.to which he replied, I only wish I had such eyes to be able to see Nobody. Nobody is like Nothing…… And Nothing’s plenty for me.

What’s up? Nothing much. And therein lies the tale.

Shakespeare, that rascal, wrote Much Ado About Nothing but his nothing was a pun for No Thing, thing being the term for phallus at the time. Nothing has quite a history.

Poetry changes nothing said W.C. Auden………but people die everyday for lack of it wrote William Carlos Williams. Maybe that nothing which poetry changes is worth looking into.

There is a vast something in Nothing. It’s the absence better left unsaid or unsayable. Look for the meaning of a poem in among the words. The intervals make the music. The pause is pregnant.

When a friend needs our ear we are best advised to be quiet and reflecting. Just being present and silent allows the flow. All is nothing at all.

One of the problems with this world is our hunting and gathering of too many things. As the comedian says, I don’t want everything. Where would I put it? With our consumer brains we want, we grab, we accumulate heedless of consequence. The earth is scarred. The air is toxic. Our souls are not fed.

On that Streetcar Named Desire we lose touch with a healthy simplicity. Maybe that new car, shirt, shoes, I-phone was merely a distraction. Much can be said for nothingness.

At this age our time is now to liquidate. No attachments, the Buddha said. Disowning isn’t all that easy. That Kwakiutil mask is still blessing the Hopi pots. I’d like to think those books on one shelf are in conversation with those on the other. Wittgenstein is in dialog with Foucault and Samuel Clemens with Dorothy Parker. Reluctantly we'll let them all go. I’ll invite them to our fantasy Thanksgiving table.

In the end we have the Nothing which is Everything. It has all been interjected one way or another. The album is in my inner vault, that inviolable place which takes up no space, gathers no dust and is impervious to the next quake.

As Janis Joplin screamed about freedom…. It’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Magical Thinking

For those of us in California, PCH means Pacific Coast  Highway. It’s that vertical ribbon of highway which runs through Malibu and later winds into and out of Big Sur, with waves crashing below. However, to folks in Dreamsville, USA, PCH is short for Publisher’s Clearing House. The wait for that phone to ring or that knock on the door is their retirement plan.

Wait, says our inspirational leader, one bright morning the coronavirus will just disappear. Yesterday he also proclaimed that the weather will soon get colder. Since autumn begins in a week that’s a fairly safe bet but it won’t necessarily mean the end of the fire season.

Trump, in his infinite wisdom, relies on his audience’s short term memory loss as his unfulfilled promises stack up. As a devout naysayer to science and one who sits next to Jesus he believes there’s a time for fire and a time for floods; a time for pestilence and a time for hydroxychloroquine. Gaia sighs awaiting his next delusion.

And when a tree falls on your car or your house explodes it must be part of God’s plan. After all, everything happens for a purpose, doesn’t it? Actually no, it doesn’t.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you. That’s nice. I suppose. This has become the stock phrase for politicians. Translate as, Don’t expect this fire, this hurricane, this mass shooting to bring with it any new legislation.

Those words get the bearer off the hook. Too bad the sentiment is wasted. When we extend our fervent wish for a friend’s recovery it is all we have to express our love. And that matters to the extent that self-healing can happen.

But do thoughts and prayers travel through the contaminated air into the bloodstream of the infirm patient? Or vibes? Or pulsating energy transfers? Or pins in an effigy?

Count me among those who do not subscribe to wishes or curses. Nor can I, as an avid fan, determine the course of a ballgame by standing on my head or opening an umbrella while sitting on the couch.

I’ll probably lose a few friends saying all this. Prayers are wishes sent to God but she doesn’t answer mail no matter how many candles we light or gospel we mumble or how loud the exhortations from the pulpit.

What causes God’s wrath? We do. From denying, from abusing our habitat, from electing morons, from abdicating our duties as custodians. God’s wrath is nothing more than a cocktail of neglect and randomness.

Don’t bother me, say those in their moral torpor, I’m waiting for the phone call with my PCH sweepstakes retirement check.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Hidden Spring

On Friday Peggy took the stairs. All nine of them. A small step for humankind but a giant step in her return to ambulation. We didn’t plan this burst of energy; it came about because the medical transit vehicle was a no-show.

We may never know what resources we have until called upon to make the leap. The other lesson learned by me is that aging is a one-time adventure. We don’t get to rehearse our stumbles and bumbles. It’s all improvisational. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Peggy’s appointment was for an infusion of iron for her anemia; a certain motivation for making her way both down the stairs and back up on our return. The benefit of the I. V. has yet to be in evidence. The shortest distance from here to there is a zig-zag, sort of like life itself.

Part of the drama of aging is the discovery of what stuff we’re made of. In Coleridge’s Kubla Khan he writes, Where, Alp the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.

Coleridge never finished his poem. He was famously interrupted from his opium dream by a Person from Porlock. The poet, Ted Weiss, took this to suggest the beginning of the end of Romantic Poetry. In his book, The Man from Porlock, he makes the case that this was the metaphorical imposition of reality upon poetic flights of fancy. I doubt it. There was much more gas left in the tank. More likely Coleridge’s imagination simply dried up or the narcosis wore off.  

Thirty-five years ago, we visited the home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He is said to have believed that there were underground waterways in that region of England. In fact, we all possess some untapped springs within and Peggy reached deep down to find that stream by which she navigated those nine steps.

What allows the athletes to push themselves beyond themselves to break the four-minute mile? Up until 1954 it seemed an impossible barrier. When Roger Bannister first did it he ran seven tenths of a second below four minutes. Today the world record is almost seven seconds faster. Who cares, I hear you ask.    

I do, for one. When I followed such things, I used to listen to track meets on the radio. I recommend it for exercising the muscle of the imagination. Staring into the art deco speaker I could see the runner panting his way around the track and collapsing but not quite finding that extra push to beat the stop-watch. Perhaps he was nine steps short.

We don’t know every room in our mansion. There are  locked doors with secrets inside. The poet knows this but conceals as much as she reveals. The poet manages the nine steps but the well from which it is sourced and scooped remains mysterious and not necessarily replicated. Today we dip once.

Another poet, Ann Lauterbach wrote a book entitled, On A Stair. She suggests it may also be read as, Honest Air. For Peggy managing those stairs required a deep breath of honest air.

 

 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Land's Sake

In the past 170 years we have gone from Alice’s Wonderland to  T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland to Walt’s Disneyland. If this is progress, I’m on the wrong bus. And now Trump seems to think Kamala Harris wasn’t born in this country because she’s from Oakland. He must be thinking of Thailand or Iceland. Or maybe he is just upset because he couldn’t buy Greenland. Or perhaps he can’t forgive New Zealand for their enlightened approach to the Covid virus.

My preferred Land would be Wonder. Not as in white bread but the state of being astonished. There is an immense mystery to life which Eliot seems to be wary of without the presence of a supernatural being to propitiate. April is not cruel; it is full of wonder.



Yes, of course, Western Civilization was shamed by the cruel folly of World War One which had just ended when Eliot wrote his monumental poem. He lamented the absence of God in its aftermath. Could it be God picked up Lewis Carroll’s adventures of Alice and got curiouser and curiouser. Maybe it killed him the way curiosity killed the cat.



The bulbs that burst in April do indeed wither and go to Mulchland but that’s not the way Walt Disney saw it. His flowers are paper or silk; they never die. Just as Mickey Mouse and Pluto have found immortality, his Frontierland perpetuates the American myth.



Part of that myth is, Land of the free and home of the brave. I prefer Woody Guthrie’s, This land was made for you and me.



As far as Lands go my stop would be at Birdland, the jazz joint I remember from the early 1950s where Ella, Sarah and Billie sang and Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie blew. Those were the sounds that deposited me in a place to wander and wonder.  



Going back to Land’s Sake, I think that expression passed out of our common tongue about seventy years ago along with, For Pete’s Sake. Land is a euphemism for Lord and Pete stands in for Christ all of which brings us back to T.S. Eliot who couldn’t find God in the Roaring Twenties or in Be Bop and certainly not with the Mad Hatters so he landed in the Church of England. 



Some of us are willing to walk that Lonesome Valley all by ourselves. Not even Walt Disney can grant us a constant renewal on our lease.

 


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Boy Scouts and Me

I was a boy scout once. I left in disgrace failing to make the requisite knots. We had to demonstrate our dexterity with square knots and clove hitch, bowline and nooses. I could say it was the noose that got to me but actually it was all of them. I think a part of my brain is missing or tied up in knots. Let’s just say I never learned the ropes.

I’m not sure if I left as a Tenderfoot or never even attained that low rank. I remember wearing the uniform and marching. Left, right, left right. Another abhorrent activity. It reeked of soldiering. When we weren’t marching, mindlessly, we played boy/men games such as alley-oop. And other masculine nonsense.

The one prank which revealed the reckless nature of our troop was the Hidden Rope Trick. Three or four scouts would gather on each side of Lefferts Blvd as if pulling on a rope that wasn’t there. The purpose was to fool the cars. In fact, cars did screech to a halt endangering the drivers and those behind. Great fun for the brainless.

These memories returned to me recently when reading about the removal of a statue of the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell. It seems Baden-Powell was not only an imperialist and racist but also an admirer of Adolph Hitler and Mussolini. Why am I not surprised?

The one thing I came away with is the scout’s motto, Be Prepared. In fact, Baden-Powell came up with these two words in honor of his own initials, B.P. Here’s another initial which could be applied, B.S. as in Boy Scouts.

I suspect I didn’t learn preparedness from them. I tend to think I was born preparing for every eventuality. But even that has its downside. Living with anticipation or readiness robs one of spontaneity, of living in the moment. Should I smell the flowers or run in for an umbrella? There must be a balance between considering consequences and ordering key lime pie. Peggy is one who mostly lives in the moment. She has tried to teach me but I need another thirty or forty years of remedial lessons.

When B-P founded the organization 110 years ago fitness was all the rage. Teddy Roosevelt was a model of the slight, bespectacled kid becoming the intrepid wild-game hunter and exercise freak. When shot by a would-be assassin he merely paused and continued his speech. How else could he charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba? Let the fool charge. Let him lead the cavalry against machine guns in World War I.  I’ll stay home reading the manual about helping old people cross the street. And now I’m one of them.

I don’t suspect even Baden-Powell prepared for the ignominious removal of his statue in Poole Quay, U.K. before he would be dumped into the ocean. I wonder if they used one of his damnable knots to hoist it down.

 


Friday, August 21, 2020

Late Years

Peggy is regaining her stamina in accord with her own clock. About the pace in which a melon ripens or paint dries. In football terms it would be a ten yard gain followed by a nine yard loss. I count that as a one yard pick up. I push but not too hard. She needs to reinvigorate after being deconditioned by eleven days in the hospital. At ninety-nine this is no easy task. She carries each of those years in her step; a century of freight.

Her spirit and her body are not yet on the same page. The vitality in her voice and voltage of her imagination must wait for her bones and blood flow to get the charge. She is not spent. Her best poem is the one she hasn’t written yet.

Aging is an adventure if you don’t let the inflammations, irritations and occasional lapses of memory get you down. We get to laugh at ourselves. It may be the gun lap but that can take years. In fact there is no clock; we swallow it along the way.

My dear friend, Roger, is in his final days. He chose not to have his brain tumor treated. He is leaving us on his own terms just as he has led his most remarkable life. Born in France in 1937 he was sheltered by a farm family just outside Paris during the war and came to this country ten years later to live with the family of his half-brother. Abused by the disturbed woman in that household he ended up at Vista del Mar where he spent his teenage years. He had a steep climb ahead.

He found his calling as a landscape architect where his burgeoning imagination blossomed designing parks and public space. Roger carried with him an enormous solitude out of which his creativity soared. He lived his movie; the storm and the wound, the insistent drive, fierce integrity, bold vision, robust aesthetic issuing from his indomitable core.

Organizing a garden is like writing a poem as it domesticates the wild but not altogether. It reenacts the cycle of life as Roger reinvented himself. Plants assert themselves bending toward the light. The poetry of bringing together disparate elemental life became Roger’s legacy finding expression in his watercolors, ceramics and glass work…and most of all in his loving nature. He had the gift of renewal and was rewarded in his final years with Adele, the love of his life.

Peggy, even in these dark times, continues to write affirmations. She has earned it. If they are love letters to her circumscribed world it is because she has found the joy, even eroticism in language as words seek new couplings. She has an affinity toward the light part of which is her own incandescence. As the photographer, Paul Strand, said, All light is available light. She bends toward the source.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Missing In Action

A funny thing happened to me in high school. I disappeared. There’s a hole in my chronicle. I might say that I sat in one of those brownish chairs wearing my special brownish shirt and vanished into the woodwork but that was in college when I prayed to the God, I swore I didn’t believe in, not to be called on.

High school was different. Maybe I was at the beach with a million other New Yorkers on a sweaty Sunday in August. No, that was when I was probably about eight years old. My family had rented an orange umbrella with black stripes. I dashed into the ocean and must have drifted a while because the black-striped orange umbrella had multiplied a thousand fold. In fact everybody had the same umbrella. I was rescued by a lifeguard who found me wandering aimlessly after I stepped on someone’s sandcastle.

I can name everyone in my eight grade P.S. 99 class plus all those who skipped as well as those who were left back but I cannot count more than five or six from the Forest Hills High School graduating class of 1950. Where was I? I was thin but not that thin. I majored in anonymity. Forest Hills was a perfect place to dematerialize. There were no forests and no hills. Nor was there a me.

I imagined that everyone else had grown up that summer of ’46, except me. Maybe I overslept or had the mumps. I surmised that they knew something I didn’t. Not academics. They knew how to be grown-ups. They wore sport coats. They shaved. They dated. They knew small talk and big talk, flirts and blurts.  They were equipped to make their way in this world. I was still in the ninth grade of elementary school…..except it stopped at eighth.

It had never occurred to me it was all a game and they were faking it. I had to learn the art of being an impostor, suave and debonair. I couldn’t do Cary Grant or Clark Gable. Maybe I could attempt Henry Fonda or Spencer Tracy. I finally settled for second banana, the guy who ends up with second bananettes.

Somehow I got through it all but thoroughly lost. Too old to be a street urchin, too young to be a derelict. I followed my father's steps into Pharmacy School. It was the wrong prescription. In my freshman year we had to deliver a presentation before the class of 150 on some topic pertaining to the practice of pharmacy. I spoke about hiccups. This should have been a clue I was on the wrong path. 

My years at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy were one big hiccup. When I found myself it was too late. My mother said pharmacy was something I could always fall back upon. I fell for the next fifty-three years.

Being found may be overrated. I prefer the idea of becoming. We're all works-in-progress. Even at this age this clay is still soft. 

 

 

 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Two Good Men

There they were, two men I highly esteemed, at each other’s metaphorical throats. And poets yet.

In 1979 I found myself at Port Townsend, Washington, for seven days. It was the annual Centrum summer poetry workshop / conference.  I choose to be part of a small class headed by Stanley Kunitz. He was a mere 74 at the time, practically middle age for him. Kunitz was twice appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, first in 1974 and again in 2000 when he was 95. He died at age 101.

He was the most eloquent essayist I have ever read, writing about poetry. His erudition was vast and almost casual as it elevated his conversation. In the group Kunitz presided with a gentle authority. His criticism was constructive, severe at times, yet never personal. His voice seemed to carry the entire canon of Western literature with some Basho and Lao Tse thrown in.

In my private meeting with him I presented a poem (since lost) with some trepidation. He read it carefully and his response puzzles me to this day, in its ambiguity. He said, This poem cannot be improved upon. I’ll never know if he meant it was so good not to tamper with it or so bad it was beyond repair. As I recall I just thanked him and ran off.

In the room next door to the Stanley Kunitz workshop was another one of my heroes, William Stafford. He had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1970.  It wasn’t so much Stafford’s language that impressed me, it was his approach to poetry as if it issued directly from his being. Every morning, at dawn, Stafford walked a few miles and out of that came three poems. They were raw and immediate. He was a man without guile. His embrace of the world was especially non-judgmental. Most remarkable was the way he responded to the poems of others. 

I attended one session in his group to witness an interchange I’ve never seen before or since. When students read their work to the class Stafford’s rule was: No Praise, No Blame. He was able to work with the poet to guide that person in becoming his own best critic. It was transformational. He believed that all of us are poets with the innate authority to express our art.  That unique voice belongs to us; it only needs to be fully relied upon and released. No external authority figure needed.

A poem without secrets lies dead on the page. These are the words of Stanley Kunitz. I believe this is true of all art. There is a mystery to our being. Words dance around that inviolate core. We offer a glimpse which can describe but not explain its secrets.

One evening I was to meet with William Stafford in the dining hall for a private meeting. I arrived to see these two highly evolved souls shouting at each other across the room. It was a sight I would gladly have missed. I didn’t catch their point of contention. When Stafford greeted me, we left. I didn’t have the courage to ask about their disagreement. Maybe that falls under the heading of the eternal mystery. Even saints have pushable buttons. I had the profound experience of both men; clearly there were differences.

Stafford was probably the least combative person I’ve ever known, He was a Conscientious Objector during World War II. Kunitz was a lifetime gardener. He regarded his plants as little allegories representing the fierce will to survive. His poetry was an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of existence.

Maybe Stanley Kunitz took offense with the unpolished spontaneity of Stafford’s work. Or perhaps Stafford took exception to the position Kunitz assumed as arbiter which (he may have felt) robbed the poet of his own creative impulses. Or could it be they were at odds over the spiciness of the day’s soup?   

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Hills, Stairs and the Big Climb


Our dear friend Judy R. is an ace photographer. What I merely glimpse she composes. Stairs at Disney Hall become an abstract of intersecting angles with increments of light and shade. What are stairs but a series of horizontals within a diagonal to reach the vertical? She is a poet without paper capturing creases in the landscape and on faces. Stairs are what humans do to hills and high rises. We step, we climb.

Like Jack and Jill to fetch our pails. Sometimes we break our crowns or, like Sisyphus, our boulders betray us at the top and roll back down.

Artists have to find their place, their perch. half in, half out of this world. As A.A. Milne put it…….Halfway up the stairs / Isn’t up / and Isn’t down / It isn’t in the nursery  / And it isn’t in town / All sorts of funny thoughts / Run round my head  / It isn’t really anywhere / It’s somewhere else instead.

Five hundred years ago the Inca’s built a city on top of hill in the Andes. This was far more than a hill of beans.  It takes 3,000 steps to reach the top. I’d hate to have made the descent and forgotten my car keys. They managed their crops by terracing the land around and preventing mudslides. It might also have prevented invading pseudo-pious Conquistadors. However by the time Spanish marauders arrived Machu Picchu was buried under dust and rubble. It wasn’t unearthed till 1911. 

Mt. Everest might be good for intrepid sled-riders but I’m not one of them. Forget about my Flexible-Flyer. I’d rather watch photos. Maybe, one day, Judy will take the wrong freeway and end up there with camera at the ready.

High as it is nothing compares to our figurative mountains. Those seemingly insurmountable heights we need to ascend. Peggy is on such a climb. At ninety-nine she is inching her way on her own path, in her own time. Among her vital equipment is a spanking new aortic valve. Her impulse is to rest. My mission is to push, just a little. Deep breath….hold….and out…..ten times…..three times a day. No stairs or escalators, just an arduous journey, a lift made possible by her buoyant spirit accompanied by a chorus of love calling her.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Virulence, Vaccine and Valve


To say that 2020 has been a bad year is to say that World War I was a family squabble or Moby Dick was a gefilte fish. This year has been twice blighted. First by the pestilence of Trump and then by his virulence actualized as Corona virus.  

In an episode of the Sopranos which has stuck with me, one of Tony’s thugs is killed and a memorial service is held in his house. After the priest says his usual platitudes he asks if any of the assembled would like to add a good word. A long silence follows until a voice from the back shouts, His brother was worse.

So our world got worse last Monday when Peggy’s heart attacked itself… or was it assaulted by the weight of the world? In came a squad of strapping paramedics at 3 A.M. and out they left with Peggy, horizontally, to St. John’s Hospital. I was told not to come; I wouldn’t be allowed in due to precautions set in response to the virus.

Indeed Peggy’s heart is capacious with a wide embrace touching the heart of everyone she has met, both personally and on the page. Her poetry issues from her being. Its incandescence is an essential lantern to see us through these dark times.

While awaiting an angiogram she wrote a poem for the cardiac surgeon. As many others it is both immediate and transformational. It will hang on his wall. After some probing and imaging, seven days after admission, she underwent a Trans Catheter Aortic Valve Replacement.

Success! She now has a spanking new bicuspid or mitral valve. The term describes a valve with two cusps or leafs allowing the blood to flow into the aorta. If arteries are highways this is the tollbooth. As the valve narrows it causes a Sig Alert. I prefer to think of it as a river running its course and getting refreshed as it cycles.

Another name for the valve is mitral, derived from the word mitre, as in a bishop’s hat. (I just looked it up; otherwise I wouldn’t know about such things.) How apt that the church has found its way on to this page. It was divine intervention from the hospital chaplain, Father Patrick, who on our behalf, blessed us twice. He and Peggy had formed a loving bond on previous occasions. Now he has prevailed upon the hospital administration to allow us to visit with Peggy in her room on two days leading up to the procedure. I almost considered converting but I’m afraid that would be a leap too far.

She will be coming home tomorrow. With a little help from her 2020 model valve I expect her Mississippi will be rolling along to steady chamber music. No muddying. No reefs.

May this sweet stream signal a turnaround for 2020. I can see a ship loaded with vaccine coming around a bend along with the restoration of dignity, compassion and science its cargo.

P.S. I’ve just been corrected. Forget what I said about the mitral (bicuspid) valve. It wasn't that one. It was the tricuspid valve.