Monday, December 28, 2009

Seekers And Finders

As Socrates said to Aristotle just before his Hemlock shake, The unexamined life is not worth living. Internal Revenue, I’m sure, would agree.

Most of us have been self-examining for decades; lifting rocks for small but tell-tale signs, seeking patterns, pondering the imponderable. We have paused more than once wondering what life is asking of us. Ever on the verge of a grand reply we are always met with yet another even grander question.

My step-son, Ron and his wife, Laura, have a ritual of inviting ten guests for New Year’s Eve dinner. A six-course banquet is served at the rate one course per hour during which time a question is thrown out to be chewed on until the next dish appears on the table.

I have no quarrel with questions. Some of my best sentences end with question marks. But let's hear it now for exclamation points! My wife takes it that one step further. Peggy is not only a seeker, she is a finder.

Finders are rare. They are the ones who make the most of what is right in front of them. They listen and hear music or overhear a voice in the next booth. They see and they notice a line of beauty in something discarded, the way a shadow is thrown against a wall

Peggy has antennae. She picks up sounds I hear as static. She stops the clock just as she has halted the calendar. Pushing 89 she is the youngest person I know,

While I’m busy weighing bloated abstractions she is down on her knees collecting fish-like leaves or an angular twig that will sculpt the space around a vase.

True, the journey itself is sufficient for most. Self-help books keep bookstores in business; readers seeking large truths waiting for the light bulb to shine. While seekers are riding the waves finders are dwelling in harbors.

Our forefathers aren’t called founding fathers for nothing. The enlightenment produced many great thinkers but it took Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams et al to actualize the vision.

Life gives us moments, the poet Eleanor Graham wrote, and for these moments we give our lives. Peggy lives her life in moments. Her poems are often found-poems plucked from the quotidian. And even more astonishing to me are the close relationships she has forged out of casual encounters.

Several of her doctors have a regard for her close to family. When a favorite checker in the market died she was the lone white person at her memorial service. She became the confidant and dear friend of a teller at the bank. In a hill town in France I dropped Peggy off at shop while I fetched the car. Ten minutes later I returned to find she and the shopkeeper had bonded like sisters..

Hers is a life self-realized. She looks In, she looks out; a discovery without end. This is not necessarily an endorsement of what already is but an engagement with life, various as it is. Beyond the final No there can be heard a Yes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Rally Around Barack, Boys

Our president is beleaguered. He's been vilified by the vile opposition for the past year and now his own followers are abandoning ship.

His natural instinct seems to be toward conciliation and quieting the rhetoric. Perhaps he has been threading the needle too much. His attempts to placate conservatives have gained hardly a peep of support from them. In the meantime his staunch supporters have reason to be dismayed.

However we need some perspective. Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass execution of Indians in history when he allowed the hanging of 37 Sioux.

Our greatest president also passed the Railway Act in 1862 which gave away ten miles of land for every mile of railway built. A corporate windfall creating the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.

As for abolition of slavery, that took him two years. Before emancipation he opposed only the extension of slavery.

The point is this. Obama needs our voice to push him to do the right thing. He needs to feel a ground swell at his back to counter the noise from the nitwits and corporate interests. What he doesn't need are the rants of condemnation.

There are those in our midst whose habitat is some distant perch from where they shoot down everything which isn't as they would wish. I know this radical posturing. I was one of them. It's too easy and self-serving. It gives vent and secures a safe argument but does little to advance the agenda.

To be sure, decisions have been made by this White House which seem indistinguishable from the previous administration and demand an explanation. e.g. defending John Yoo of the torture memos, opposition to the landmine treaty and delayed reversal of the Don't ask, don't tell policy to name a few. I believe we're going to see a correction on these very soon.

It has been said many times that there is a shadow government in place which operates regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. To the extent this is true the president has a mostly custodial job minding the shop.

We ask that in his second year Obama be bolder in his initiatives for job creation and show the door to his economic team whose protection of the banks has not yet re-started the engine. Clearly the faces are too familiar and chummy.

It took Lincoln far too long to dump his incompetent generals. I would hope Obama connects the dots and we see some correctional changes in 2010. His is the only name on the marquee; we must seize his term of office as an opportunity not as a dartboard.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Solstice

Such a fuss over a birthday. From menorah to manger….get a good fable with powerful metaphors, tie it into the solstice and tell it often enough so folks take it literally and you have a religion.

It didn’t hurt when Charles Dickens gave us some cozy images and Hallmark cards smelled a good idea. Then drag out a few choice words and phrases just for the occasion like Merry and Jolly and peace on earth.

Buffy St. Marie sang this song 40 years ago.

Merry Christmas, jingle bells
Christ is born and the devil’s in hell
Hearts, they shrink, pockets swell
Everybody know but nobody tell

I don’t want to think that hearts shrink. It has become a secular holiday of gift-giving and partying, maybe even a pause in combat and some familiar songs.

Here’s a poem I wrote a while back which fairly well sums up my sense of the holidays.


Jesus, it’s the anniversary of you.
Time to mark the day in our neo-pagan way
With our hemisphere un-leafed
we drag in the remaining green
and illuminate our shortest days
with menorahs, glitz and fallen stars.
We look for you in other J.C.s……
Joseph Campbell, Jacques Cousteau,
Judy Chicago and Joseph Cornell

Irving Berlin’s on Musak again
and Wenceslaus is in the elevator.
The money-changers are loose.
Cash registers toll while politicians
rant about good will and the robed men
who made you into Julius Caesar
mumble in their edifice.

Jesus, you look weary. Forgive us
for the misdeeds done in your name
and your early subversion we have bungled.
Just tell me this….did we get the story right?
Are you a man, nothing less?
A Jewish-Christian, Jimminy Cricket,
Jeepers-Creepers, Jellico Cats,
juicy cantaloupe, jeweled constellation?

From your manger in a cardboard box
by the off-ramp
come silence the night, halt our traffic
so we might pause and wake
with astonished eyes, re-seeded
for another go round as if
in a haloed world, as if
with turned cheeks, as if………

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Couldn't Have Said It Better

It occurs to me that my main reason for writing is to organize my thoughts. The blank paper seems to work for me in that way.

Every so often I come across a work of fiction whose characters articulate a world view pitched to my own. One such book is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

I’m not referring to the movie which took just a piece of the narrative and ran with it. My memory of the film was of a steamy love story between two characters, very constrained, very taciturn, very English. Ralph Fiennes has a constipated look throughout and Kristin Scott Thomas displays her usual pinched demeanor. Their love affair becomes a metaphor of the passion that breaks through all these boundaries.

The novel focuses on four people in a bombed-out Italian villa immediately after the end of the war in Europe. In their proximity to death all of them are, in degrees, haunted by the recent past and almost ghost-like in their non-attachment to the world. The author has set them free to muse on renaissance art, dislocation, possession and identity.

I have long felt a dis-indentification with my religion. Even before my Bar Mitzvah I turned away from the theology. What I first regarded as a sham, irrelevant and hypocritical has since evolved into something offensive to me. The transcendence and soulful dimension which organized religion lays claims to is too important to cede to any institution. The religious experience is a relationship between people who are fully met or lifted by the power of art beyond themselves.

In this context of universality I see any form of nationalism as divisive in nature and tribal; a vestige of pre-history. My notion of identity has nothing to do with the usual givens of nationhood, geography, religion, job etc.. It crosses borders, gender, even time. It has to do with a kinship of like minds.

These sentiments are not meant to persuade anybody. They are an attempt to locate my position within a larger belief system. I'm also aware that my wish to reach beyond the conventional margins is most probably fraught with challenges and resistence by forces in society just as the characters in the book are also doomed.

In the pages of the English Patient we are presented with characters and images which are universal. The desert sand constantly shifting. The Sikh sapper halfway around the world as questions begin to focus for him. The English patient who is not English yet might as well be. The professional thief who sees himself re-distributing wealth. The young nurse exploring different facets of love.

All these find resonance in me as they speak to a recognition of a life beyond our petty grievances into a community of caring persons. Even as I write this I’m aware that we have few words to say what I’m reaching for. I’ll try this poem instead.

The Sahara was a sea
of dunes in waiting.
The Sahara is the lovers’ skin,
oasis and cave.
The sand of bodies shifting,
no border between
the rise and fall of.

The Cave of Swimmers
records the names writ on water.
Bedouins have a dozen words for wind
that make Egyptian sand, Libyan sand.
As cartographers work through the night
re-drawing lines
they are over-ruled by winds and war.

Nobody owns anything, even lovers;
particularly lovers.
Artists know this and thieves
who upset the order under a communal moon.
The Indian Sikh de-fused bombs one by one
then blows up at the assembled
over the atomic news in Asia.

In the end everyone is a patient
and everyone is English,
the one, black as Hiroshima
and the North Americans,
sick with the geometry of maps,
all those lines and false colors.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Life Stories

People, like nations, have several autobiographies in them,
multiple versions as if the shard of glass in the kaleidoscope shifts a bit with each retrieval.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday I might be the hero of my narrative; the one person whose autograph I cannot live without. On Tuesday and Thursday I could be the guy who bluffed his way this far with a paucity of smarts and a plethora of nonsense. On weekends I abstain and the wise-fool emerges.

It helps to have a long memory for events that never happened. Like some pebble on the beach polished by the rush of waves I can see myself rounding the bases after hitting the homerun and the ovation in my ears is deafening . Too bad I didn’t make the team.

When I wrote my memoir I did it as a manuscript of about 90 poems. Many were imaginings or outright fabrications. My references were not necessarily factual but sought an emotional truth instead. They were just one version of the chronicle. From a slightly different perch I could view it otherwise.

Was FDR the compassionate and bold leader who responded to the economic crisis with social programs that made him beloved to every class and race? Or was he the president who denied entrance to Jewish refugees, interred the Japanese-Americans and continued Jim Crow in the armed forces? He was all of the above.

When we first studied American history in school we got a simplistic account of our past. As young adults we probably add some movie images into our heads and come away with a pale distortion which serves us for a lifetime. How many of us think we know the French revolution from the film version of A Tale Of Two Cities?

If we are serious about our beginnings we would do well to reconsider our presidents, our wars and the entire arc of our relatively young republic. Too often we are taught military campaigns apart from social history or technological innovations or religious movements or through the lens of architecture, language or entertainment.

Neither individuals nor countries can escape the distortion of a single perspective. As muddled as they may be lives are dimensional and warrant a cubist rendering, up close then back then off to this side and that as various as the viewer.

We have art, Nietzsche said, so we shall not be destroyed by the truth.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Two Presidents

There's so much to be said about our beloved president and his recent wrong-headed Afghan move. I doubt if I have anything new to add to the conversation.

Instead I shall talk about another president who didn't get the ink of his predecessors yet held the most public offices of any American before or since; and that was almost 200 years ago. I am speaking of James Monroe.

Our 5th president served as a Virginia state legislator, U.S. Senator, Governor, Ambassador to England and France, Emissary to Spain, Sec. of State, Sec. of War and two terms as President...elected with no opposition.

Also of note is the fact that Virginia at the time extended west to the Mississippi and north to the Great Lakes, an area greater than Texas and California together.

In the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware the other figure standing up was Monroe. In fact he led an earlier crossing that Christmas night and attacked the 3,000 Hessians from the rear while Washington took Trenton and turned the war around.

Though Jefferson got all the credit Monroe actually negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. He was sent to Paris with nine million dollars to obtain New Orleans. He personally borrowed another six million and got the entire French possession in continental America.

While Madison invaded Canada leaving Washington D.C. unprotected in 1814 he handed over the defense to Sec. of State Monroe who then assumed Sec. of War duties as well. It was Monroe who saved the day directing our fleet to Baltimore harbor and at the dawn's early light our flag was still there.

And how do we remember James Monroe today? The answer is none of the above. He is consigned to one paragraph at the end of the chapter called, The Era Of Good Feeling.

We rememember only his Monroe Doctrine which said to Europe, Hands off, it's ours.The Caribbean is our pond. Central and South America are ours to exploit, invade, install canals, bases and puppet governments. It laid the groundwork for our sphere of influence in Latin America and was the first example of our muscular foreign policy leading to overt and covert actions in support of the United Fruit Company, American Railway interests and a century of corrupt regimes.

There is an undercurrent of aggresssion in our history running alongside another strain of pacifism. Let us hope Obama hears the latter and has the courage to reverse our course into yet another needless foreign adventure.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Fact-A-Day

On Monday I learned that George Washington freed only half his slaves upon his death. The other half belonged to Martha and, after all, how would she live without slave labor? I ask you.

(Starting in the late thirties there were 200 quiz shows on radio. The smartest one was Information Please. We valued intelligence in those days. What a concept!)

On Tuesday I found out that we now constitute the largest mass of protoplasm on the planet. We nosed out termites for first place just 20 years ago...(proving that night baseball will never replace sex).

(Rene Descartes never said, Sometimes I think, therefore sometimes I am.)

On Wednesday I read somewhere that beer should be first poured directly to the bottom of the glass to release the aroma and then on the side of the glass to trap the bubbles.

(It was Hemingway who cracked, "Write drunk, edit sober." Good advice, make it straight up with a twist.)

On Thursday I heard that Mark Spitz, the Olympic champ from ’72, had a Russian swimming coach. When pressed to shave his mustache he told the coach it was aerodynamically advantageous. For the next Olympics all Russian swimmers had mustaches…including two woman.

(That was less than interesting even for sport fans. It shows what a small mind you have).

On Friday I read that the Louvre was stocked by stolen loot pillaged by Napoleon. So why, I ask you, was it not itself looted when Napoleon met his Waterloo?

(The Brits, did in fact, take the Rosetta Stone.)

On Saturday I read on the paper attached to a Good Earth tea bag, Jung's words, Who looks outside, dreams, who looks inside, awakes.

(And so we inch along half in, half out of this world with our eyes open. All three of them while the tea steeps.)

By Sunday I started to get a brain ache and forgot everything from Monday through Wednesday. How would we get by without our faculty to forget? Memory loss must be terrible but maybe not as bad as remembering everything.

The real question is whether knowledge leads to wisdom. Maybe it’s best to keep the cave walls shadowy; too much light can blind.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Way It Used To Was

Saturday afternoon. We’d come in anytime. Who had watches? There were two movies, a serial, Looney-Tunes, RKO Pathe News, a Pete Smith Special, previews, a sing-along and the March of Dimes collection box. Five hours.

The guy from the other side of the tracks got the girl next door. The schoolyard bully did a stretch up the river while the smarmy class prez went from the D.A.’s office to the Governor’s mansion until a cub reporter got a scoop that he threw his wife down the stairs and the big time lawyer fell while the newspaperman rose and the world was set to rights.

Having been suckled on matinees we had movie-smarts. We could tell the suave double-crosser from the honest sucker by his mustache alone. And when we were ready for the mean streets, just a bit unprepared for the grit and grime we remembered what Tarzan said to Jane, It’s a jungle out there, and that’s when our skin grew its necessary fur.

If the Shadow knew what lurked in the hearts of men who knew what lurked in the heart of the Shadow? Did he have a double life? Was he a mad scientist in his subterranean garage? Not likely.

The villain operated out of an abandoned warehouse on the other side of town. One day the place would be surrounded by incorruptible police and the chief would shout for him to come out with his hands up. If he shot his way out the good cop would simply nurse a flesh wound while Pat O’Brien would appear to give the nut case his last rights.

It was a tidy world. Even second bananas knew who they were. They taught us about the unattainable. If there was an object of desire to be had these were the one’s who never quite got it. There was usually a fellow with glasses who ended up with the second banana(ette). She was crazy about him anyway. How nice when seconds marry seconds, the rule of bananas.

It’s a good thing we don’t get to see the movie of our life before we live it, or even the coming attractions. Then we would know our place by the billing alone and the rest of it wouldn’t be the worth the price of admission.

We got weary as the plot finally caught up to what we already knew. This is where we came in, somebody mumbled. When we left the theatre we almost believed that life made sense. Look how the middle always connected the beginning to the end.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Well-known to all septua and octogenerarians and TCM watchers, Frank Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington featured Jimmy Stewart as everyman saving the day with his Senate filibuster. Along with Gary Cooper he was one of those aw shucks actors who charmed us with his Adam’s apple and absence of guile.

In the real world the filibuster has been used since 1841 most often to block progressive legislation. It is a Senate rule and nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. The House of Representative dropped it well over a century ago. In fact it is antithetical to the democratic process.

The so-called nuclear option would be the suspension of the filibuster by the majority party. Another alternative would be the to pass the current legislation by budget reconciliation which requires the simple 51% vote.

The word comes from the Spanish filibustero, to pirate. Indeed, it has been employed most often by Southern senators to high-jack anti-lynching laws and abolition of the poll tax. Why should a three-fifths vote be necessary when we are told that majority rules?

The very make-up of the Senate, itself, subverts the notion of one-man, one-vote. Wyoming with half a million has the same two votes as California with 34 million. Of the top ten states in population which represent 55% of the country, only five of the twenty senators are Republican. Conservatives are disproportionately assigned power in our bicameral legislature. The filibuster makes it worse.

It is one thing to protect the rights of minorities but grid lock in Congress is nothing more than obstruction. This goes beyond our forefather’s concept of checks and balances.

There was a time when a filibuster actually required the minority party to hold the floor with oration. Now it is the mere threat of endless rhetoric which requires a cloture vote to stymie. It is my wish that Harry Reid demands the Conservatives bring in their cots if they wish to muscle their way to ignominy.

I am aware that it can work both ways. With all the Republican bluster only five percent of G.W. Bush’s appointees to the bench were held up by the Democrats during his tenure. In the long haul democracy is best served by the will of the majority along with the powers assigned to each branch in the constitution.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thanks-A-Lot Day

What a great idea! Maybe not for the indigenous people on whose land we trespassed, brave but undocumented, stayed for dinner and never left. Nor is it so wonderful from the point of view of the turkey. But the observance of a day set aside to gather around the hearth and give thanks is somebody’s gracenote.

I must have endured a deprived childhood because my mother declared Thanksgiving to be a goyish holiday. If we even had a chicken it was bargained for with Murray the chicken-plucker. My memory of the butcher shop has been reduced to a saw-dust floor, hanging flypaper and a bloody apron. As for the chicken it was ultimately boiled until tasteless; great soup but not much else.

Now the forth Thursday of November is a cherished time. Aside from the gluttony and sloth it is an occasion to express gratitude for being here as opposed to there. There includes most anywhere else on the map. If I had been born in Kabul or Mogadishu I would probably be long dead by now. So I bow in thanks for the cosmic crapshoot.

White meat, thank you. No, not the Jell-O mold again. Yes, I’ll have another helping of yams. Pass the Chardonnay, please. Fabulous stuffing, what did you put in here. No, I don’t want to know. Oh my, pumpkin pie. What could be bad? I can’t move. A wee drap more of wine, wouldn’t hurt.

Of course it is harvest time in the Northern Hemisphere and celebrated as such in Canada (Jour de l’Action de Grace in Quebec) on the second Monday in October. Not a bad idea, separating it from Christmas and a three-day holiday.

But four days is better for traveling and returning to the nest. It’s a time when the grown children regress and resume their rivalries, the crazy uncle comes down from his attic room, old memories get embellished and someone gets up, half-drunk, to offer a secular prayer for another year of good cheer and that word reserved for this day, bounty.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Art and Society

How is music, the visual arts or literature affected by geo-political issues? Do the dire circumstances of our times impact the Arts? Does the artist integrate his concerns into his work or strive to disassociate from the noise of war, revolution, tribal skirmishes, terrorism, genocide, climate change, etc…?

We’ve witnessed the impoverishment of art when it served the state under Stalin or Hitler yet much powerful work was spawned during the Depression years as the artist painted, wrote and composed as an expression of the overwhelming circumstances of that decade. Disengagement can be a betrayal to one's art, as well.

It seems to me there are traps on either side. The urge to pour one’s political passion into creativity is compelling but it needs to be transformed into another pitch. Polemics seldom evoke. Americans turn away from being scolded or rallied to the barricades. We are more likely to be aroused by the nuanced, indirect word, the metaphorical rendering.

As Auden said, poetry makes nothing happen however artists presumably feel deeply about more than their notes or clay or paint. They take in the world around them and that passion becomes shaped in ways not necessarily recognizable. Stretching our perceptions can be a subversive act in itself as our eyes and ears are awakened into new areas. Unless his address is in the ivory tower the artist is engaged in society.

For the past century many artists have chosen counter moves or alternative forms within their media as a way of expressing opposition to conventional modes. We have heard atonal music, seen abstract art and read post modern writing. All these can be seen as part of a movement challenging the 19th century conventions of a single perspective. Post colonial literature with its magic realism is one more rejection of the old Western model. The art is in the resistance to the givens as well as the constrictions within.

We may or may not accept the new sounds or visuals or the non-narrative writing but I believe it is the artist's response to the fragmented, random and often irratational world we inhabit. As Gertrude Stein remarked, the new always seems ugly.Though it is also true that the ugly is not necessarily anything new.

I was recently brought to tears watching a documentary on Joan Baez when she and a Bosnian cellist brought chairs and sat on a busy square in Sarajevo during the war in the nineties. Together they made their art as a plea for sanity against the senseless loss of life.

Maybe the ultimate statement any art can make is a reminder of our shared humanity and our hunger for beauty within or outside of the familiar ecstatic forms of the past.

In Eva Hoffman’s novel, “Appassionata” a concert pianist is challenged by her Chechnyan lover to question the relevancy of her art. After a great deal of struggle she finds defiance in Beethoven beyond the solace as well as mercy and tenderness in the notes which comes after rage. The music is tiered with complex patterns containing the only force we have to cry out with fierce affirmation against the inhumanity around us.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's The Big Idea

I was just about to say something profound; one of those enormous ideas that explains everything. It was brilliant, original, connected all the dots and yet altogether simple. I was so exited I took a bow and patted myself on the back.

Then I noticed a spec in my peripheral vision; either a tiny fly or flea or one of those floaters in my eye. The name Mittendorf’s Dot popped into my head which made me think of my old high school friend, Mel Mittledorf which, in turn, led me to Dusseldorf, Germany where an earlier friend lived before coming over as a refugee. I remembered Frankie and his dachshund. All this in a second or two.

Just then I started humming a tune I must have picked up as it orbited the globe. They say a joke takes half a minute to travel from New York to California.

By now the big idea has been lost to my self-congratulation, reminiscence, a toe-taper and a re-cycled joke. My antenna is full of static; that Babel to which I have grown accustomed.

Maybe the great insight that flashed through my small brain wasn’t meant for me in the first place; just a cosmic wrong number. If it chimes again I probably won’t even recognize it since it belongs to that more opaque world when it strayed into this one never intending to be caught in so many words.

As a young man when I thought I knew everything I was caught by one of those grand ideas having to do with economic determinism and later a different determinism related to technology and media. But who wants to be determined ?

One can take refuge inside these immense systems but there is always a piece hanging out that won't be embodied within. It is these exceptions which may be the next big idea.

Over time these generalizations can be suffocating. The contrarian in me sneaks out of the tent for a deep breath of nuanced air. The Bedouins have about a dozen words for wind. A parched mind gasping for breath requires at least that many.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Benign Perversity

Pull back the curtain the way they do in the movies, See that guy across the street holding up a lamp post. He’s been trailing me for a long time. Sometimes he sits on my shoulder nodding or shaking his head. Other times he is hidden behind a newspaper on the subway and he has my number. He knows all my heresies and lame alibis.

I can hear him coming up the stairs. Now his dragging foot has stopped. His knuckles against my door, there’s a familiar knock and a face I’ve seen in mirrors more than once.

What's with the limp?, I ask. What’s with the mouth?, he replies.
We go off together without a word to face the hung jury; not quite guilty but innocent no more.

In a season of benign perversity when I was twelve, plus or minus, my friend and I started following people for no good reason. We picked odd men maybe because we wished to be more odd ourselves. We were hunting for our edge, that margin where danger lurked. Anyplace but here. Anywhere but the too safe and familiar, hoping the strange man might lead us down the subway to some underworld.

That promised land would become an interior place, a country to conjure and a necessary one. It keeps me in this world and out of it, at one time. I slip across the border like a paratrooper met by the partisans. It’s very useful in MRIs or dentist chairs.

After looking at teeth all day I imagine my dentist must dream of fangs at night or stalagmites growing out of cave walls. I wonder if I remind him of his father who never let him get in a word without interrupting. Now he is in my face yakking about money or movies or money. Maybe my mouth looks like his Dad’s and he has finally silenced him. Open wide he says and tells me about his past life orphaned in the tenth century and then in a palace intrigue to kill the king. He’s regressed me. I can only answer in pre-historic grunts. I consider a clever remark when he lets me rinse and spit but it’s no use. If his hand slipped I’d be doomed. No, I’ll be here for him to fill his cavity.

Everyone follows their piper.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Time, That Shadowy Thing

It flies; it hangs heavy. We make it, spend it, waste it. Time is that illusive thing, part relentless, part of our own doing. When I’m writing, two hours seems like a few minutes. When I’m bored it gets stubbornly slow. In L.A. in order to arrive on time for an appointment we have to risk being twenty minutes early.

My watch has been in for repair the past two weeks and I haven’t missed it very much; I think I swallowed my own clock long ago. For the most part I’m aligned with its tick. When I get up to pee in the middle of the night my bladder keeps time. It says to me, 2:51 or 4:11 and It’s generally within five minutes of being right.

In my seventy-seventh year I have probably slept about twenty-five of them. A fair allocation for my unconscious but I fear for the millennials, those born into this world of the virtual where information is at avalanche proportions.. How to process it and how to carve out some down-time to reflect and refuel. At some point we all need to un-busy ourselves.

If, indeed, our perceptual span has been whittled down and we think in sound bites maybe it mimics pre-literate man whose world came at him with simultaneity. As he hunted, touched by the wind, he relied on smell, and sound while he read the footprints and shadows. So too, today, the ratio of our senses has been rearranged.

Last week we set our clocks back and re-gained that hour lost in April. In my time tunnel I can recall how it was in elementary school when we went on Daylight Saving Time. I thought of that lost hour as if it were the lost day when I was out with whooping cough or mumps and when I returned the class had grown into adults. I could never catch up. Their pimples were gone, voices changed. Suddenly boys could build radios and girls spoke a language only my hormones understood.

It’s taken most of my life to accept that all of us were absent that day when the meaning of life was explained. In my worst nightmare I’m the last survivor on the planet unable to defend my ignorance to visiting aliens, neither the walls that separate us nor the mysterious workings of the clock.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Doctor Says I'm Normal

But I don’t want to be normal… in spite of my name. After being bled, scanned and scoped all’s well. And there I was planning my next incarnation. Can’t I be just a little bit Abe Normal? At a certain age one starts to cultivate one’s eccentricities.

I started thinking of all the things I’ve never done; like experiencing severe tire damage or a pie in my face. I shall never play the trombone or sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In fact I can’t carry a tune from here to there. Nor can I draw anything beyond stick figures. 

Normal guys hunt and fish and bowl. Not me. Normal men change their oil, recognize a Chevy from a Ford or DC7 from a DC5. Count me out.

I reject the herd with its Bah for the lone Ah Ha. My preference is to wander away and graze off an interior pasture. I don’t want the picture over the couch to match the throw pillows.

Have your vanilla ice cream; I’ll go with half pumpkin praline and half rum raisin jamoca ripple.

If there’s a Bar Mitzvah going on I’ll wait in the car. I dislike rituals of a prescribed nature where the meaning has long since been replaced by arcane mumbles. I have my own religion and it is necessarily beyond words.

But in the end it’s no use. Compared to a double-agent urban guerilla, I’m normal. Or an influence peddler-power-broker I’m the mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. And, yes, the report from my doctor really was good news. All clear along my alimentary canal. And so I shall set sail with Peggy at my side, wing to wing, oar to oar.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


On the eve of Halloween in 1938 Orson Welles scared the hell out of thousands of people with his version of that other Wells’ classic, “War Of The Worlds.” In case there was any doubt the power of radio and public gullibility were demonstrated. I was five at the time and have no first-hand stories to relate but folks hid in their cellars, jammed the highways and wrapped wet towels around their head to offset the poison gas.

My early memories of Halloween have to do with colored chalk, marked clothing and early graffiti. Benign vandalism graduated into a more malicious mischief Huck Finn might have done; knocking over garbage cans and other assaults on private property.

By the mid-fifties the last night of October became an occasion to dress up kids to go Trick or Treating. I always regarded the concept as a form of extortion. You gimme this or I’ll do that. …except there was no that. We just wowed at the costumes and dished out the goodies….. which probably caused stomach aches, tooth decay, acne and early onset diabetes.

Barely noticed at the time a group of children collected money instead of sticky, gooey stuff. It was 1950 and UNICEF was the beneficiary. Kids giving to kids. That first $17 started the custom which has now grown to over 144 million dollars donated on Halloween.

Around 1970 the Mexican Day Of The Dead started to merge with the Celtic origins of our All Hallows Eve. Embracing Dia de los Muertos we honor the dead. Not a bad way to bring the reality of death into our consciousness as part of the continuum. It shouldn’t be surprising that the pagan rituals persist, almost universally observed. They persevered through the Spanish conquistadors, Christianity, chalk, vandalism and Trick Or Treating..

Tonight we dress up as ghouls or watch zombie movies or just turn out the lights as if we’re not home all in observance of the dead souls roaming the earth.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Elevator Thoughts

I overheard myself thinking: why are vertical rides free but we are always charged for horizontal ones?
Conversation on medical building elevator:

Person #1 : I like your shoes.

Person #2 : Thanks, You want to buy them?

Person #1: I'll take one of them

Person #2: Sorry, it's a package deal.

Person #1: Pull up your pants so I can see them both.

Person: #2: I just came from the doctor and he told me to pull my pants down.

Why do I apologize when I’m bumped into on an elevator?

Conversation overheard on the 11th floor going down:

You make a lovely couple. Do you know each other?

No, never seen him/her before in my life.

Would you mind moving closer together?

Like this, sure.

Now, with the power vested in me I pronounce you husband and wife.

Just in time; we're in the lobby. My car's in the parking garage. So is mine. How about lunch for our honeymoon?

I wonder if the birthrate jumped nine months after the last power failure in New York City.

My first job (not counting shoveling snow) was with a woman in my apartment building who made artificial flowers for hats. I delivered them into Manhattan on the subway. Sometimes I was asked to pick up ribbon or velvet in the garment district. I still have residual fear of those freight elevators with no ceiling to separate myself from the roof. Twelve years old, seventy-six years old, still crushable.

Monday, October 26, 2009

World Serious

Are you serious, baseball in November? Given rain delays and the demands of television which dictate the scheduling it is now certain that the games will extend beyond October.

In our collective imagination baseball is a pastoral game but the pasture is frozen. On city streets the manhole cover is no longer home plate; it’s the new goal line. You can't play stickball with galoshes. Footballs are spiraling, basketballs are dribbling yet baseball goes on.

Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball; baseball invented him. He was, indeed, a real person, a civil war officer but his connection to the game ranks up there with Casey and Mudville. In fact baseball probably goes back to the first caveman when he hit a rock with a stick. Maybe there was a championship game between the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. But it was surely played on a hot summer day.

I can hardly wait for the season to be officially done so the real competition can begin with free agency, trades and arbitration supplying our fantasies for the coming year. A baseball fan never sleeps.

In recent years the World Series has become well-named. The major leagues are filled with players from Caribbean countries, Central and South America, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and has now spread to The Netherlands. There was only one Anglo among the position players for the Dodgers starting team this year. The game has practically been out-sourced and the sweat-shops have returned to our shores. But the players own the shop.

Being a baseball fan is a humbling experience. The best players fail twice as often as they succeed. No one questions this ratio anymore than the distance between bases. It feels like an a priori number. Yet the dimensions of each ballpark are different. Some things must just be accepted. Life ain’t fair. Umps miss calls. If you’re on a streak, don’t gloat. If you knew what you’re doing right you would never have any slumps. Stop thinking so much and remember, for everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Getting Lost, Getting Found

So here you are at the airport rental car trying to find your way out to route whatever. Miss one sign and you’re back to Baltic or Mediterranean. Already you are lost and isn’t that the reason you are traveling? Sense of direction, familiarity, control? You have come willingly to give it up for a while, to experience yourself in the unknown. You are a cork on the wave. A runner who rounded first and isn’t sure where second base is. Every trip is a re-enactment of that first voyage out.

It could be the Gehry museum in Bilbao or the renaissance cathedral in Milan. The stones on the Salisbury plain or the cave walls in the Dordogne. You are here for the otherness.

In Florence the street names seem to change on every block. In the U.K. they’re all driving the wrong way and the roads are equestrian trails. What‘s the matter with these people? And why don’t they have a place to pull over so you can take a picture? Give it up. Enjoy your disequilibrium.

Why travel at all except to shed old skin and turn away from the paved landscape to a canvas of Pollock drips. Maybe that rush of water under the bridge is your own blood finding new tributaries. If you had a map you wouldn’t be on it.

With a zither for a heart your own disquiet is now prime minister in a parliament of rooks. Maybe you are preparing for your next incarnation as a fly in the soup doing the backstroke. Or you could be trailing the guy with the too-perfect alibi who just stepped out of an Edward Hopper café lit by blinking neon and a sixty-watt moon.

Soon you’ll be home back in your old shoes that fit just a tad too well. With a little luck the eyes of your eyes will stay open and you might even find yourself on a street around the corner you have never seen before.

Monday, October 19, 2009

See Maples And Die

Samuel de Champlain is said to have named Vermont, Les Monts Verts, the Green Mountains. Apparently he didn’t arrive in October. The entire region including Massachusetts and New Hampshire is ablaze from ruddy to amber with increments of orange between. Nothing like the terrible fires in our foothills but the thought of beauty and terror in a "ferocious tango" came to mind.

Maple, birch and sycamore start losing their chlorophyll in late summer and the carotenoid is unmasked. It ain’t over till the diva sings and so she does in full regalia as the curtain goes down. How paradoxical that they are most spectacular in their demise.

I witnessed the human corollary as my step-daughter found her full humanity during her recent ordeal with cancer. We are most revealed and most fully realized in our relinquishing. When we face mortality we take on a new dimension. We feel free to drop our pretensions, our posturing and the defenses we thought, even unconsciously, we once needed.

One need not literally die but something in us may be ready to retreat or submit. My mother spent her active days in daily combat with the marketplace, suspicious of being cheated, her antennae on the alert for danger. In her declining years she mellowed an enormous inch or two. She was at her best in her foliage.

A mnemonic I never forgot for the spectrum came from my high school physics teacher. Residents of Yorkville Guzzle Beer in Vats. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. Now I am in my Residents Of Yorkville stage of life or even beyond. Our ten days in Vermont gave me pause to reflect on what old ways serve me no more, what singing leaves are ready to fall.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sweet Mystery

Thriller / mystery / detective / espionage books have now won over four friends. What is it about this genre that is so satisfying?

One of them urged such a book on me a few years back. It was 659 pages; hard to pick and tough to put down if plot is your thing. It answered the question and then what but not who cares? It could have gone on in perpetuity chasing its own tail the way our own narrative has us sleuthing along, sniffing for clues down dead-end streets. Throw in a few double-crosses, lame alibis and an heroic moment here and there and we could all become best sellers.

A chapter or two would have said it all, I thought to myself as I drove home from work in my daily car chase, wringing a few words from the wet rag of life and writing them in the dust on my dashboard.

In the end the Maltese Falcon is a hollow bird. There's a hole in the grail. My guess is that some of us see life as a mystery to be solved and it feels so good when we finally get to the last paragraph. It must be that illusion of order, as if Humpty-Dumpty has been put back together again. I accept the mystery but doubt the resolution. I see it as a feeble attempt to make the unknown, known.

It might be said that all novels and biographies move toward the revelatory and are therefore detective stories. But truth is too complex and random to be wrapped up between covers.

I remember an evening with Peggy in Ravenna. We sat in a cafe speaking of the blue mosaics and of those Byzantine alleys and unmapped streets that brought us here. Her eyes were a pool of melancholy and reverie; in an unreachable place that I preferred to keep as a mystery and not have explained. If it were a movie and I was foolish enough to speak it would have been in subtitles muted by a white tablecloth.

Sometimes I fantasize a whodunit when a hand reaches out from behind a curtain. A shot is fired and the henchman flees. An inspector bends down over the body, Who did it, Mac, who did it? But all Mac says is whiskey, I need a drink, the blood trickling from his mouth. That yellow-bellied sonovabitch he whispers. But Mac, tell us and he utters L.B as his head drops.

So now we know, it must be Ludwig Beethoven or Lucretia Borgia, Leonard Bernstein or Lauren Bacall or Elbie, the janitor or L.B. Ipswich, the millionaire recluse or none of the above and maybe he was saying, I'll be damned as he stared into the opaque.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Second Sight

The teacher announced that he usually wears glasses but prefers to see the class as a blur so he isn’t distracted by faces. I admire him for that. In the same way, a hearing-impaired person develops more visual acuity. The senses have their own compensations

I’m beginning to think that’s how I’ve gone through life; seeing the world askew. My astigmatism turns me inward, illuminates my inner world.

Now he has me bound to a chair in a pitch black room. The walls are closing in and he’s in my face going over everything I say, every letter,backwards and forward, looking for inconsistencies. “Come clean,Levine, first you said this and now that.”

I can’t keep my story straight. With teary eyes I break down, admit my life of crime; road rage, tax returns, college cheating, return trips to the salad bar, the unspeakable acts in my room. (It’s a wonder I didn’t go blind).

Suddenly the lights go on. The optometrist says, “No prescription change” as if he didn’t hear a thing I’d said.”

In a moment of malicious mischief my wife said to close my eyes and describe what hung on the wall across from the couch. It could have been worse. She could have asked me what she was wearing or the color of the wallpaper we don’t have. I was getting off easy;Only the wall which had become invisible from familiarity not unlike my own face which I might not recognize if I met myself in a crowded elevator. I bumbled my way through with some lucky guesses but missed two African masks and a Oaxacan wood carved lizard.

I am not a reliable witness. At a police line-up once I picked the desk sergeant. (The man with the gun in my face had gained eight inches in my mind). Everyone looks like someone else to me particularly in British movies where I’m constantly losing bets to my entrepreneurial wife who has come to rely on my astigmatism as a revenue source.

By now I’ve grown emotionally attached to my faulty vision. I must be seeing something, after all. Maybe life is a collage, a running joke, a diffused gladness and part of the colorless air I breathe which I’d surely recognize if it wasn’t there.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Charleston, Stuck In Time

In recent weeks South Carolina has captured headlines for their ignominy. From the State House to Congress they have displayed hypocrisy, mendacity and incivility. And behind all this shame is their heritage of racism.

I'm reminded of a trip to Charleston taken about twenty years ago. I felt as if I had wandered behind the enemy lines. The Civil War, which they call, "Mr. Lincoln's War On The South" seemed to be still in progress.

Here is my letter to Charleston written at that time.......

I love your crab-cakes, your palmettos and Spoletto, Charleston, city many-times charred where charm oozes over cannons and cobblestones, where Gable lives and gives a damn for that ante-bellum syrup Aunt Jemima made which didn't go with the wind. Into this place, Charleston, charleton, I come as tourist complicit in your fiction, breakfasting on your version of grits as the history major turned carriage driver tells us Yankees what really happened to Calhoun and Gen. Beauregard, how the darkies loved their home etc. And for the ride I am his confederate to demonstrate northern hospitality in this revisionist Gray which is your growth industry.

You are a charmer, Charleston, consorting with the gods to keep the demons away. You could be Los Angeles Or Detroit. These cities are no better. Better is nowhere. Only Charleston could be better than Charleston.

You are not chaste and in that "late unpleasantness" at Appomattox you did not win, you placed. But you talk a different talk and there is an atrocity you have not walked. You kick sideways with one foot as the other stays in place. This is the dance you know. Even the dead do it.

They hover just above the ground in the churchyard between the marbled men who were certain of their place in this world while the dead across the swamp have turned over more than once as they did, alive, "knowing their place." In this city of genteel violence cemeteries buckle and heave as the forgotten, prowl and haunt your sleep, Charleston, gnawing at the lie.

Along the road out of town, woman weave and hum. Everything they have endured goes into their baskets. Sweet grass and pine needles in their mouth and all the sorrows no longer swallowed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Conversation Between Him And Me

Him: My sister-In-law is staying with us for a few days. 

Me: Is that good news or bad news? 

Him: I enjoy her …….. 

Me: … for the first hour and a half? 

Him: Right. When I visit relatives overnight I always stay at a motel. I like my privacy and expect others do, too. 

Me – That’s because you didn’t have any pajama parties as a kid. 

Him: I didn’t even have any pajamas. 

Me: Now they call them sleepovers. In our day I can hear mother saying, “I never heard of such a thing.” Besides we were so poor…,.. 

Him: How poor were you? 

Me: We were so poor I slept on the kitchen chair. 

Him: Who had chairs? The floors was too good for you? 

Me: We rented out the floor to pay the rent. I lived on the fire escape. 

Him; I was raised on day-old bread and dented cans and thought everyone was. I miss fire escapes. 

Me: I’d go out there and pick up the hockey games from Montreal …. except they were in French. 

Him: The window with the fire escape was the most important thing about our apartment… cross ventilation. My mother didn't mind the four story walk-up, no incinerator, but it had to have cross-ventilation. 

Me: Right. My mother had a love/hate relationship with air. There were two kinds of air; the dreaded draft that caused all disease and fresh air that cured it. 

Him: We must have had the same mother. 

Me: Wisdom traveled well in those days

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Art Of Recommending

This is serious stuff. Asking a friend to commit to three or four hundred pages carries a risk of rupudiation or indifference. It is a piece of ourselves we are sending out of a wish to share our experience.

I'm in the habit of recommending books and movies when they knock my un-matched socks off. I can't help it. I get up on the metaphorical rooftop and shout out the good news certain that everyone will be similarly zapped. It is rarely the case.

A few weeks ago we watched a British documentary, "Of Time And The City." The film is a meditation on the city of Liverpool. Peggy and I were both overwhelmed by the images and narration written and recited by Terence Davies. It is made all the richer by passages chosen from Eliot and Yeats. We felt it transcended its subject and rose to the level of an auditory and visual poem on memory and loss. Two friends agreed, one did not at all.

I was reminded of other times when I've heaped lavish praise on a book and been let down. Or conversely when good friends have touted their recent enthusiasm and I've had to oblige under silent protest.

Could it be the expectation itself that kills the joy? Think of the hyperbolic reviews of a movie that set up disappointment. Or might the uncertain reception speak to the multitudes within us all? Just when we're sure of perfect fit an unknown aspect of another person pops up which we didn't prepare for.

This is akin to the matter of friends in general. As a kid I had two or three "best friends" at various times.....none of whom were very fond of each other.

Every embrace or rejection of a shared moment is another layer of the onion peeled and revealed. What's it all about if not the continuing discovery of who we are , our reach and our limits. And when we find that resonance in another person it knocks our socks off a second time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What, Me Worry

Doesn't everybody?

If worry were a conscious choice I would gladly set aside twenty minutes in the late afternoon, prepare a bowl of fruit, get comfortable in my favorite chair, do some serious worrying and get it over with. However, worry is an involuntary act hard-wired into my marrow so I’ll have to make the best of it which usually means a 3 AM session.

One strategy is to re-name it; "concern" or "anticipation" as part of the "what ifs" of life. Wouldn’t the outfielder be better off wearing sun glasses in case he loses the fly ball in the glare? What if there's no gas station for the next 60 miles and my cell phone goes dead and then what...

So I bark and growl, like an early warning system ahead of the seismograph with a premonition for burst bubbles or tantrum from the gods. Maybe I’m ahead of the curve. Could it be that my bad-case scenario actually saved the day? Was it my creased brow that quieted the rupture and rumble? I doubt it.

When there’s nothing to fret over I fret over that. Could the quietude be the lull before that proverbial storm? Maybe it is only a scene in act two with a tragic third act to follow. Perhaps I’ve been trained by all those movies. About one hour in, when everything is peachy I pick up on the tell-tale cough or the raised eyebrow signifying the coming doom. Just when the G.I. from Brooklyn talks about opening up a Deli when the war’s over, he takes a bullet to the vitals.

Peggy has been working on me to see the gibbous moon as full while I’m still possessed by its apostrophe as if dark clouds were my preference over silver linings. She trusts her resources while I can only do the high wire act having previously negotiated with malevolent fate in advance. I cushion myself against that late-night knock at the door, prepare a table for its visit, drink from the half-empty glass, give it my nose for trouble and then finally kiss it off like old news.

If life is indeed a stage I’m the player wasting all those hours of rehearsal for tragedy when life is absurd theatre after all.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Centifugal And Centripetal Forces

Could it be that we are growing together even as we are coming apart? The fractures in our lives are quite visible; polarity in political parties, fault lines between evolutionists and creationists, inter-religious divides, separation walls, the loud and the quiet, technophobes and technophiles. At times it feels as if we are becoming re-tribalized; to each his tent.

However under the radar screen there are counter-signs of merging. In literature we have moved from Modernism to Post-Modernism to Post Colonialism. Many of our finest writers today reflect our multi-cultural world; Amy Tan, Salmon Rushdie, Sherman Alexie, Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri. Even as the Republican Party becomes the Party of Slime this nation's demographics are morphing under their intelligently-designed feet.

Old forms are giving way to hybrids; from cars, to corn to the Arts. We now have prose/poetry, docudrama, fusion music, neo-realistic art, experiential instalations etc...Our lives are given back to us prismatically as if a cubist painting.Inter-racial marriages are commonplace erasing old identities as cartographers work through the night erasing borders.

Without a doubt the most profound unifying force in human history is the Internet.
Invisible as it is it has shrunk the globe and created networks and kinships across the continents.

We'd have no trouble finding a Pakistani or Jamaican restaurant in London or North African food in Paris. There are Turkish quarters in Germany, Chinese sections in Indonesia and Haitians in Quebec. In some countries the pot is melting; in others it's still a salad. There may even be Eskimos, with no sense of direction, wandering the Sahara.

It is my belief that the high decibels we hear from the far right, be it home-grown or their fundamentalist cousins we call terrorists, are the rupture of the old order crumbling. That noise is the last gasp of those who cling to a mythical past that never quite was.

Some day, though not this week or next, we may wake up and realize our sameness; that we are all in it together on this orbiting piece of earth.I'm not suggesting homogeniety; viva la difference, culturally. I am simply recognizing the common needs of bread, literacy, a roof overhead and body temperature around 98.6.

Friday, September 11, 2009

About Face

A friend sent a photo of me that my wife mistook for George Bush. This is not the first time I've been mistaken for my least favorite public figure next to Dick Cheney.

It got me thinking about faces, how the picture of us at age five has grown over decades to this one we're wearing now. Has our wonder been retained or layered over by angst? I suspect my creases are on-ramps and off-ramps where I've been and where I haven't dared like a hung jury carrying both innocence and guilt. Have my frowns erased my giggles and my lucky life? I would hope that my passions have found their home in this landscape of a face.

Are eyes really a window that tell all? If I had been born in squalor and fallen in with a band of mercenaries would I have the same pair? To what extent do we wear a mask or a practiced pose? Maybe we are the last to know.

Back to George Bush. I'm reminded of something Allen Ginsberg said in the 1980s; how we need to love Ronald Reagan or maybe it was to love the Reagan inside us. So now I am determined to embrace the George Bush of me in the mirror.

While shaving this morning there he was even as I tried to mow the smirk away. There might even be a frat-boy in my face, an affable terrorist with a penchant for pranks.

I, too, have lied, white and grey. And I am given to warnings of doom when I need the attention. I've also bumbled my way in public forgetting whether I'm in Salzburg or Strasbourg. Neither one of us could stand the sight of our own blood which is why we both ran from Viet Nam; though I thought Canada was a better choice than Alabama. I remember once getting lost in a rain forest and agreeing there are too many trees.

Like you, George, I never thought of holding high office and when the vote came in for milk monitor I showed Dad I wasn't really a good-for-nothing kid. I'm feeling closer to you now. It's alright that you had zits, wet your bed and slept with a night light. Life can be tough in large families.

Listen to me, George, you're not listening. Alone in your oval office at night don't you ever think as much as twice, hear those voices you've been shouting down and let in just a trickle of doubt? Don't mis-underestimate it. Now, let's go have a beer and see if anyone can tell us apart.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Death In The Family

My step-daughter, Christie, died last Saturday after a 21 month heroic battle with pancreatic cancer. For years we called each other "Step." During this time I grew closer to her than even one "step" away; so that I began addressing my messages, "Dear Near" and signed them, "Stepless."

One of life's paradoxes is how the best in people is brought out in the worst of times. An outpouring of kindness and generosity came from caregivers and neighbors and expressions of deeply felt appreciation for her are still appearing on her website, Center for Jewelry Studies, from all over the world.

I recall how similar acts of compassion were daily occurrences when my daughter, Janice, was in her early years. She was born hearing impaired and received special education at the John Tracy Clinic from age two to six. I often wondered why this open-heartedness offered her couldn't be extended to all of us.

Christie was a self-taught jewelry historian. Her subject was as inexhaustible as her passion. She became a pre-eminent scholar in gemology, jewelry, it's design and historical context that brought these pieces into vogue. She authored three books and lectured internationally. Having created her life's work she was an artist whose narrative itself was her art.And in pursuit of beauty she became the lamp by which we all learned to navigate our own way.

I watched in wonderment as her friends, students and colleagues gathered around her with love and offerings of their time in her final ordeal; as if people were waiting to share themselves. In the confrontation with mortality we all go through a transformation into a deeper place.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Closure And Forgiveness

What better forum to stake out an unpopular personal opinion than a blog?

That word "closure" causes my bile to rise and skin to break out in a rash. It usually appears in newspapers at the time of jury trials when victims or families of victims are seeking a maximum penalty for the perpetrator.

"Justice", they say, "must be served.” Is this not the Old Testamont trade of eyes and teeth? The concepts of justice, closure and revenge have become conflated.

When the octogenarian driver lost control of his car and ran into a Farmer's Market killing a dozen people the survivors demanded "closure" as if his incarceration would bring the matter to a close. It wasn't enough that the man would never drive a vehicle again.

When the Lockerbie terrorist was recently released to die at home it caused a public outcry. The man will be dead by year's end in any case. How does the cruelty of punishment by the state serve to balance the equation? It serves only to perpetuate the cycle. Ideally the matter is settled only when forgiveness and redemption are extended.

I am not arguing for the release of all convicts. Clearly some are incorrigible sociopaths and need to be separated from society. However I submit that we have become a fear-based nation, armed as no other. Given our recent war crimes with elements of sadism along with a criminal justice system disproportionately administered a correction is in order. Punishment rather than rehabilitation seems to me our preferred design.

A few years ago a drunk driver killed a student in Santa Barbara. The mother of the victim expressed her grief by testifying on behalf of the accused. She did not want another life wasted behind bars.

This act of transcendence was her way of finding meaning in the tragedy. As our consciousness evolves I would hope that society embraces this notion; that we seize these occasions as moments of transformation. The quality of mercy is twice blessed........upon him that gives and him that takes.

Final thought.......... I'm coming to believe that life offers us moments when we can become more fully human; opportunities not to be squandered. It may be people to love or simply to meet, soulfully. Forgiveness is a form of giving and what we receive in that act is even greater.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Books

Call me nose-in-book. I can’t be without. It is needed oxygen. I love its feel, its heft, the way it lays on my chest when I nap. The transport it offers; the portal on the next page or light bulb. I must remember that phrase. I got it. I got it. I don’t got it but I know it’s there somewhere on the lower left…or was it on the right?

Maybe I am over-compensating for those lost years when I was a bibliophobe.Words were daunting early on. We were given paragraphs to read in the fourth or fifth grade with questions testing our comprehension. The clock was ticking and I remember going blank.

Growing up, something was missing in my house. We had no bookcase, no books. Newspapers, yes; some Life magazines and political pamphlets were always scattered about. Books were texts read for assignment or reference, for information to memorize.

I entered the Oz of books well after my college days; when I was done with rote.Now I could dare approach a book in my own time and give myself over to the author; or maybe not. I could wrestle with the paragraphs, have a lover’s quarrel, then kiss and make up by the last chapter.

About 25 years ago Peggy and I started collecting signed first edition fiction. We loved discovering new authors and following their progress. We loved the dust jackets, the end-paper, the physicality, the hunt. I put this in the past tense because ultimately one runs out of wall.

Now we either buy readers copies or go to libraries. We have bathrooms books and bedside books and the one or two always at hand. At night we read aloud some long-neglected classic or translation or tome that we had separately put off but find approachable as a couple.

Over the years I’ve become discerning; some would say a snob. I have low tolerance for sci-fi, detective novels or even most best-sellers. How -To and spiritual books are not my cuppa. At a certain age one takes a dim view of obese books of any sort unless in the hands of a master. Blow in my ear and take me anywhere.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why The Far Right Behaves As They Do

I wish I knew. I do have a few ideas and I’m opened to yours.

For purposes of sorting out the several factions in generic terms I am not focusing on the intellectual Republicans who have deemed that their self-interest is well-aligned with Conservative values and simply do not wish things to change under their watch.

I’m not addressing those who are defending their propertied and privileged life. These are the folks for whom institutionalized greed is regarded as a birthright. They are often bright professionals who regard their own success as proof of the perfection of the system. Those less fortunate are seen simply as lazy or lack the family values necessary to succeed. Compassion is not high on their list of concerns,except as a form of noblesse oblige.

My subject is the low-information, high-decibel, often pious, mostly rural voter.Is it fair to postulate that many of these good people were raised with a strong patriarch? I think so. The feminine component is subordinated, ridiculed or repressed. Empathy is dismissed perhaps because they are themselves not properly nurtured. Tears, forgiveness and expressions of love have been traded for a model of tough, taciturn and punitive.

These qualities find their home in the Republican creed. Guns?, of course. One needs to be defended because one always finds perceived threats. They are threatened by outsiders, by people who don’t look like them and by change; change of any sort; to our healthcare system, to our movies or music or these new fangled ideas taught in school.

These people, I submit, are easily bent to the will of authority. Be it from the pulpit or mass media or from grandpa who wants to leave this world the same way as when he entered it. There is a certain “speak” that their ears are opened to. They don’t recognize a demagogue when they hear one. They follow because the authoritarian paradigm is the familiar one.

They are also prone to scape-goating. Not adept at self-examination they find an easier path in blaming others for their miseries. An imagined enemy is always at hand, be it government, another race or religion or those darn intellectuals.

Permanence is, of course, an illusion and these are its sentinels at the gate. “Gimme that ole time religion. It’s good enough for me.” Too bad some of the Christian message got lost along the way. It created divisions and suspicions instead of compassion. The closing of the congregation foreshadows the closing of the mind. Indeed we are in an accelerated time of change. Whose fault is that? It's called technology, mass media, globalization. It seems to me corporations would have it no other way.

How agribusiness, oil and the other giants of corporate America have manipulated millions of people to reject unions, universal healthcare and green technology and then support imperial wars in which their own neighbors are sacrificed is the most remarkable and ugliest feat ever accomplished in our times.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Healthcare, Hope and The Whole Damn Thing

I have shied away from political comments only because it seems that all the words have been used up and degraded from their overuse. In the mouth of politicians and cable news pundits, rhetoric becomes bloated and limp with language itself, a casualty.

Now my threshold of endurance is being tested. Mendacity masked as free speech, complexity reduced to slogans and the repetitive decibels of noise all serve to silence discourse, numb the brain and ensure that no true debate takes place on healthcare or other imperative issue of our day.

When Obama was swept into office along with decisive majorities in both houses I felt we had, as a nation, reached a new level of consciousness. For nearly my entire adult life I regarded myself as misaligned with the tenor of the times. Election night was regularly an occasion for mourning.

I was reminded of my first (and last) venture running for high office, ingratiating the electorate. Did I dream this or was I a candidate for class president in 4th grade? My opponent and I waited outside the door while the votes were tallied. I almost remember voting for him, out of politeness, and losing by one vote. I knew then that my place would be out of the fray; an occasional scribe on some distant perch, far enough to witness the passing parade and close enough to note the gloats and sneers.

However in November I was enlivened with hope; not only from our president-elect but with a sense there was repudiation of our previous misadventures and misdeeds; that long-neglected domestic programs would receive attention and correction. It felt like an awakening from decades of slumber.

It may still come to pass but it does seem that resistance to change has engendered fear stoked by a conservative surge. I have to believe that it is fear that drives the folly and fear of change that has people clinging to bitterness, mindlessness and assault weapons. How else to account for half the population ready to shoot themselves in their wallet and trade their own common sense and well-being to recite the script handed them by insurance companies.

Language repairs in the years between the carnivals. Purple fades from the bloated rhetoric and suddenly a lofty phrase falls to earth and takes root in new soil. The bluster and piety vaporize and our nearly deafened ears sprout again hungering for sounds only truth can make.

The challenge I feel is to find a way beyond cynicism. There is always the diversion of sports and entertainment or the ultimate questions that the arts ask of us. More importantly one turns away from the macro to the microcosm of personal relationships for authenticity and intimacy. Will we ever reach a point where these two worlds merge? Where human relationships in society are aligned with our most honest and undefended selves?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What's In A Name? Everything

I have a cold. Even worse, it's a common cold. I expect no sympathy for that even though my voice is basso profoundo, my nose a faucet and malaise enough to return me seventy years when the doctor made house calls with his tongue depressor,thermometer(my fever was 102, rectally speaking) and cold hands. He might have declared: sinusitis or pharyngitis or if I really wanted attention: The Grippe. No, not The Grippe but then again I had to hope I was sick enough to have gotten him out in such weather.

Where are the namers of the world? They have overlooked the sufferers of seismic sneezes and the cluster of symptoms north of the neck. Calling it a "nasty" cold has some purchase but it will never rise to the level required for a Telethon.

My father once gave me the gift of describing a milk shake as a frothy, saccharine, lacteal secretion of a graminivorous quadraped. Why say it with two words when you can use six?

Many medical terms seem to have survived only in Dickensian novels. Catarrh, (nasal discharge)is one of my favorites. Others in the scrapheap are chilbains, dropsy and apoplexy. Look them up.

So, I have a cold. Get over it! The cure for the common cold which is common enough without the adjectival diminisher, is in the hands of the lexicographer. It requires a name that confers the gravitas it warrants. Would the dreadful A.L.S. receive any grant funding if it wasn't known as Lou Gehrig Disease? FDR, we are now told, may never have had polio. All those dimes in the collection box and none went to Guillain-Barre, one of the un-sung, under-funded ills waiting for a celebrity to be stricken to get its due.

I can feel myself turning the corner. If my life were a movie the vigil of relations in the room would be breaking up. The squabbling crows outside my window are replaced by a twittering dove and a new bud just popped on the bough.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Health Information May Be Hazardous To Your Health

It's so hard being good and it used to be so easy. I finished my liver so I'd grow up to be strong and prevent famine in China. I wore galoshes and three sweaters because everyone knew disease came from drafts and I swallowed cod liver oil to ensure that I'd grow up at all.

Now, with an alphabet of vitamins playing Scrabble in my bloodstream and trace minerals making noise like a heavy metal band, my life is threatened daily by new findings telling me I'm doing it all wrong. What's a person to do?

My email is full of messages from close friends I've never heard of urging me to take ancient herbs for longevity but my "gevity" is quite long enough, thank you.

I ponder this as I'm pedaling to the Punjab on my stationary bike. I'm staying out of the sun to prevent melanoma only to read that I need more sun to get that essential Vitamin D. I'm drinking water to flush my kidneys but wait. The water is suspicious. No it isn't. Yes it is. O.K., I'll drink bottled water but the plastic is toxic. I'm doomed.

Eat organic. Is there anything in this world that isn't organic? Then it must be other-galactic. I have an herb-garden in my gut. Where did the rumor start that "natural" is necessarily beneficial and harmless? Opium, Digitalis, anyone?

I'm drinking tea as fast as I can. Black? Green? Or was it Oolong that is supposed to oxidize those nasty free radicals? And we all know about free radicals.

The latest bulletin warns against drinking tea straight from the whistling kettle which can scorch the esophagus. Now I am sucking ice trying some tepid extract from the leaping frogs of New Guinea awaiting next week's latest breakthrough. Maybe a new study will prove how hot tea really extends life so I can die on a Thursday instead of a Tuesday.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Summer Fruit

For those of us already in the autumn of our lives, if not the winter, it’s understandable that we dwell a bit longer in ripe August with fruit trees heavy
to bending.

Have peaches always been this peachy? Freestone which doesn’t and Cling that does, to say nothing of those white Babcock and the flat Chinese. I had a drippy one just now that T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock dared. I slurped it all over me like a blessing. With their fragrance and fuzz peaches are a full body feast for the senses.

Then there are this year’s plums, red to purple-to-bursting; Satsuma or Santa Rosa. Eat them cold and forbidden like the one William Carlos Williams ate because man is not made for such denial. I buy mine at Costco by the dozen.It becomes a happy race to gobble them before they become prunes. My advice is to start eating when you get on line, then sell them door to door or better yet give them away.

The honeydews are uncommonly honeyed. Watermelons you could dive into and swim through its red sea, pits and all. And tell me if the cantaloupe each morning does not contain the sun.

Gather them while ye may. It, too, shall pass and soon rust and orange will rule the day. Earth will re-assert its tones and call down the leaves in their best amber and golden dress, soon gone to mulch.

Never mind the preservatives and pesticides. I don’t want to hear about the sulfur dioxide additive to enhance the color. Let’s just savor summer for what it yields, its many birth days. Pass the grapes; they were never so fat and firm and succulent. This is a season to cling to, like the peach, to our essence. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Life On Hold

In the Depression decade when breadlines were the headlines we had up to three mail deliveries a day but no telephone. Instead most people depended on “runners” who hung around the drugstore hoping to make a nickel tip, They would dash up the stairs of our four story walk-up to convey messages or summon people to the community phone.

During the war there were none available so I was fourteen before we had a phone in our apartment; a party line, of course. With all these impediments I’m not so sure it wasn’t a better system than what we have today. Fewer digits to dial, friendlier operators to whom you might ask the meaning of life (on a dare) and phone booths where Clark Kent shed his merely mortal self.

Over the years we’ve witnessed one innovation after another from colored phones to match the bedspread to push-button to answering machines along with a monthly bill higher than our old rent.

Answering machines are a symbol of our age; a soliloquy addressing the elongated silence. First it’s just you and the beep. And now it’s your turn to grab the open mike without Interruption and say your piece, or burst into song, wax poetic or rant.

If you are calling a large company you are generally told how important your call is. This is what goes through my mind while on hold:

I’m glad you have a chance to get away from your desk. May I ask why you change your menu more often than my local deli? I’m sure you’re experiencing a high call volume. No, I can’t call back between mid-night and three. You’ve put me on an elevator with your music. Perhaps I was abandoned as a child and you have just opened up the wound. Is it my numb ear you are monitoring for quality assurance or my withered arm? Seasons have passed; my arm is in its foliage. I’ve finished the newspaper, the police blotter, weather reports in Asia and the obits. I’m almost mentioned. The grandchildren have grown. Life is slipping away. There’s no one left but that great operator in the sky and all humanity is on hold with faith that their call will be answered in the order received.

Instead, this could be an occasion for retreat and contemplation rather than reaction, a time to reconnect with a more elemental sense of who we are away from the buzz. Might it be that we are too connected and at some level crave the aloneness?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Money Enough

Money is sexy, it juices us. It represents security and makes the world go around or at least pays the fare and makes music jiggling.Or "It really doesn't matter," as my mother would say, "you should only have your health." I knew then that money was actually in first long I wasn't sick.

Money means power and privilege to most people. It's the mother of all metaphors yet a taboo word for many poets. The object of derision for artists who live in garrets, wash at the Exxon station and dine at the Automat on hot water and ketchup.Some worship the almighty buck and others romanticize its absence.

For me, money is an abstraction until I spend it or don't have any. On the board game of life I'm sailing between Baltic and Mediterranean but docking at Marvin Gardens.The trench coat in the shadows trailing me for sixty years would be a rich man today if he had noted all my buyings and sellings ....and done the opposite.

It takes a special skill to have lived in Southern California for the second half of the twentieth century and not made any money. It's like being unable to find a restaurant in San Francisco.

I sell before the souffle rises. A psychologist friend tells me I need to love money more. Regress me, then, to my days as milk monitor when everyone got cookies, coin or no. I'm with the queen eating bread and honey while the others are in the counting house playing with their money.

The teacher said to pay attention and my father, in kindergarten, heard it as ,"pay a pencil." When he found out he passed the good news along to me of what is free....pencils and all those other blues and greens. To make of life an art; and when you're spent to know the "voluptuous destitution" of having plenty of nothing; that place where we start and finish and in between it's enough to have just enough.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Geography 101

Psst....there's a map on your back. When my wife and I scratch each other's back we call out the location by states. Her itch is usually in South Dakota down to Nebraska and over as far as Illinois while mine tend to range from Kansas across to Kentucky. Just writing this has me reaching for my back-scratcher.

Strange the way our states are shaped. There's a story behind every border. The original colonies look the way they do as a result of squabbles between European royalty. Further west the lines seem penciled in by surveyors, sometimes without a good night's sleep.

Deleware, for example, was courted by both Maryland and Pennsylvania. Settled by the Protestant Dutch they resisted Papist Maryland and the Quakers of William Penn. In fact Maryland lost every dispute on its flanks.

Texas gave up land in four states to its north just to remain a slave state. Land grabs and grants and broken Indian treaties define much of the jigsaw we now take for granted.

I have known people who remind me of Utah or Colorado with margins rigid and absolute. There are times when order trumps folly and I'm glad we have such states. But I couldn't live with New Mexico or Wyoming for long. I can almost hear John Philip Souza's ump-pa-pa marching along their perpendiculars.

Give me New Jersey or Michigan which obey no ruler. They seem to be exploring themselves, stopping by for a drink or, like Florida, dribbling off for a nap.The swampy bottom of Louisiana seems shaped by an improvisation from South Basin Street. And just what does West Virginia think it is doing with Kentucky, in public yet while all the time Illinois is laughing into Missouri.

The Pacific Northwest is still a work-in-progress, P.C. green in my atlas as if those tiny islands might attach themselves by the next edition. Perhaps the coast has been bitten off and these are the indigestible chunks or the pieces of an argument that resist containment like an organism that won't hold still for a minute.