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 needs 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.