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.