Saturday, May 29, 2010

All That Goo

BP spills and says oops. Obama spills his heart out five weeks too late. Conservatives spill their beans asking for more federal response.

If our beloved president could only gush the way the black stuff does. He needs to respond less like a dispassionate wonk and more with the voice of outrage. It doesn’t matter that the light is on in the White House till the wee hours and he’s been working through the night with frayed nerves. The American people require visuals; a montage of the man in charge scolding the crooked and greedy and reaching out to Louisiana fisherman and environmentalists. He is too cool when he needs to get hot.

Maybe he is too smart for the office. He thinks and acts substantively instead of stylistically. He needs to get ahead of the narrative because his absence is loudly registered.

This crisis is a fastball down the middle; a big fat pitch he could have hit out of the park. It is the propitious moment to call out the rapacious oil companies, a clarion call to demand safeguards for all existing off-shore wells. Drilling four miles from the earth’s surface demands far more rigid back-up plans for disaster. Canada requires a second rig on location in case a relief well is needed to seal a blow out. This can be a wake-up call to weigh the true price of fossil fuels against the urgency to invest in renewable sources.

Half way into his second year in office it seems clear that Obama is more than a bit misaligned with the vox populi; not the populist rage steeped in tea but the reasoned, independent and/or liberal voice of his constituency. His inherent empathy seems directed more toward the financial crap shooters and giant multi-nationals than it is with the screwed………the pensioners who have lost their retirement, buried miners, those dispossessed of their homes and workers who have seen their jobs sail away.

Capitalism is a hungry beast. It can never be satiated. It is also the engine that drives our economy and we all have a piece of it. How to tethered it, curb its avarice and re-kindle its other mission as a public trust? From newspapers to mega-stores to big oil corporations, each has a greater role in society than beating last year’s bottom line.

The government is the agency of the people. Of, by and for are more than diminutive prepositions. Since Teddy Roosevelt government is recognized as the only institution acting on behalf of the public good with enough muscle to curb business abuse and promote the general welfare.

Republicans have perfected the art of speaking out of both sides of their mouth. We repeatedly hear about big government except when they want federal intervention to stop the oil geyser or patrol the border or subsidize agri-business or police the world. Wanton disregard for our planet as evidenced by this current oil spout is miniscule next to the gush of deceit issuing from their mouths.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

That Summer Of '45

On my way to learn the lost language of the tribe, Yahweh died for me along with FDR, in the tabernacle of the radio. The first initiation in my thirteenth year.

Clouds mushroomed, treaties signed, bodies counted, new wars were kindled. History was happening. Doors opened; others slammed shut.

Mrs. Danziger lived on the floor below in our four-story walk-up. Flowers bloomed from her fingers which she fashioned onto women’s hats. She chose me to deliver them. This would be my exodus and my gospel was the Manhattan grid. I was sent off with six boxes at a time to learn the language of money, two bits a box.

I was the kid who disappeared into the subway with my stack of hat boxes. There was a magician in the change booth who knew the weight of twenty nickels when given a dollar bill.

In sweltering August when the humidity was tied with temperature in extra innings I made a small clearing in the forest of bodies around a pole. If I sat I’d have stuck.

The boxes felt empty. I, too, was weightless with my fantasy taking flight beneath the overhead fan, in the company of unremarkable subway faces, brave in their dailiness and distant eyes. The air was thick with dreams of elsewhere. Some were sailing with Odysseus, some as Penelope, entertaining suitors and others soaring with Icarus.

I didn’t know it then but I know it now. Macy didn’t tell Gimbel. But Lord spoke to Taylor and I overheard.

Now Peggy is younger than I but she was twice my age that year. We swayed together, embracing the straps over the straw seats where she might have stretched as some odalisque. She was the girl on page seventy-two of my dog-eared paperback. The viva la difference from the French resistance whom I’d pull my parachute for. No Short Subject but a preview of coming attractions; my passport to another world.

I, of a dozen years merely, fumbled my light-as-feather boxes to the trot-foxing of the whish and whirr. Each chapeau sprouted floral felt and velvet vapors. In that steamy hot house, gardenias opened on Peggy’s scanty sun-dress from Saks.

She was off to ballet and she Ballanchined me a pas de deux as we pirouetted under the eternal blades. Did we not take our vows that sultry afternoon thrusting in God under the river in that wind-rush tunnel?

I returned that day, initiated in ways beyond the arcane mumbles of bearded elders, having crossed the waters and found something of myself.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Libertarianism Revealed

I miss William. F. Buckley. Buckley liked to use elongated and near-dead words delivered with his reptilian eyes aglow.

Rand Paul offers but a pale version of his erudition. On TV the other night Paul’s applied credo spilt the beans from the tea bag and he stood there naked with his calloused foot in his mouth.

The Libertarian creed was revealed as the self-serving, counter-clockwise, morally repugnant force that it is.His statement denouncing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reminded me of Buckley's utterance at the time. Buckley said the White community must take what measures are necessary to prevail because they are the advanced race. Years later he retracted and the next day Rand Paul was still trying to eat his words.

He can’t because the supremacy of property rights over human rights is the logical extension of the Libertarian creed. The right to refuse service to anyone, whose skin shade is found to be disagreeable, or to deny facilities to the disabled, trumps any immoral considerations in their minds

Libertarians are the latest incarnation of the 18th century anti-Federalists. They would have us return to a loose confederation of states with no enforceable federal laws; no oversight over food or drugs, no regulations over reckless oil companies, surely no concern with how Wall St. squanders pension funds, abolition of the Federal Reserve, the Dept. of Education and EPA.

Aside from the two Adams, our first seven presidents were Southern slave-holding plantation owners. Their arguments, in varying degrees, against Federalism were a thinly veiled defense of that peculiar institution. Washington and Madison had divided sympathies. To this day the noisy vehemence of Conservatives is little more than an excuse for continued abuse of power by local bigots or corporate thugs.

In hard times there are always a body of displaced workers, latent racists and low-information malcontents whose rage is easily harnessed by Libertarians. They speak for the inarticulate and turn their anger away from the very forces which set it in motion and toward this easy abstraction called big government.

We should have learned by now how scapegoats misdirect and dissipate legitimate anger through simplistic rhetoric. Will they prevail or will this become the teachable moment?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Doesn't Everybody?

I'm currently reading a bedroom book, two living room books (fiction & non), a stack of literary mags, a classic we read aloud every evening and a novel for our literature class a poetry book or two in between. They have a way of running into each other or eclipses the other.

It's not so much the clash between poetry and prose or history and fiction; it's the writing styles themselves and the universe they inhabit.

I'm not so sure I subscribe to the paradigm of the left brain not on speaking terms with the right brain. I trust in my bridges and canals shooting across the hemispheres. The writing about Alexander Humboldt can be as imaginative as a magical realist. There's a good deal of connective tissue between Whitman and Thoreau.

To the extent that reading is a creative act I give myself over to the language itself, whatever name it goes by. However I have had a tough time moving from Robert Penn Warren's, All The King's Men to Kazuo Ishiguro's, A Pale View Of Hills. Maybe it's generational or simply the gulf between two pre-eminent writers.

Warren's narrative is three times longer with lengthy digressions and passages that could stand alone as lyrical poetry. He explores the inner life of his characters through the unreliable narrator who is a key player himself. The words that come of their mouths feel conversational.

The Ishiguro story is also told by an unreliable source who has a decidedly pale view of her own story. The language is spare with scenes presented like brush stroke Japanese paintings. It is as if the book is what remained after hundreds of pages of manuscript were pared down to a gesture here, a change of a pronoun there. The dialog is stilted to the point that nobody seems quite real. It is told as blurry memory, deliberately withheld against a background of the Nagasaki bombing.

The one book is capacious and the characters concrete; the other is pinched and spectral. Bookended as these two have been I found the corridor between them a difficult crossing but the reward was worth the effort. The lesson for me is allowing sufficient interval after finishing one before immersion in the other.

It's not unlike the spell a movie casts when those words, The End flash on the screen.The credits roll and the crowd is filing out while I'm still humming the theme music. As I make my way I'm noticing how the lobby is lit and angled and the montage of candy counter, posters and faces in the crowd scene.

I have no memory of getting home having already started to shoot my own movie with images uncontained even on the big screen. Good thing they did away with double features. 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Fine Mess

Here’s another fine mess you've gotten us into...said Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel.

Or to put it another way, "While you sleep with Preparation H your hemorrhoids shrink, shrink, shrink."And so did our piles of money in the treasury.

If I may offer two tiny reasons why...

The first tiny reason is that giant multinational corporations are not paying taxes. Last year G.E. added zero to the national treasury. Exxon, which reported the largest earnings in recorded history at 45 billion dollars managed to have no tax liability. They avoided taxes by creating subsidiaries in Bermuda, The Bahamas and Cayman Islands. Won’t you come home Bill Bailey, won’t you come home.

Two thirds of both domestic and foreign corporations pay no federal income tax. It's not the tax rate that needs fixing so much as the loopholes that need closing. For almost fifty years starting in the 1930s corporate income tax accounted for 18 to 40 percent of the federal budget. Last year they paid 6%.

The second tiny reason for this fine mess is the cost of maintaining the American Empire. The global reach of our empire dwarfs Al the Great, Genghis the Not Bad and those jolly-good Brits.

It's time to bring the legions back to our native shores. We currently operate over a thousand installations in 135 countries. Why? What are 50,000 troops doing in Japan and Korea and 100,000 in Europe?It takes no small change to support this standing army not to mention another nearly 300,000 uniformed men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan counting the so-called special forces and contractors (mercenaries), seemingly accountable to no one.

If we withdrew wouldn’t the bad guys take over and we'll be under siege? I say, No, not any more than we already are.

Al Qaeda is a loosely joined band of thugs. With all our soldiers, weaponry and remote-control drones they still launch attacks. If 9/11 was hatched in Afghanistan it can now operate in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen......or Yonkers or Brooklyn. We have accomplished nothing in those regions where we are deployed after nine years.....the longest war in American history.

In fact a case could be made that every misguided missile with civilian casualties is a recruiting advertisement for more cohorts. The leaders we have installed are known to be incompetent and corrupt which only generates further animosity for our occupation.Yes, we need tight security. Yes, we need Interpol cooperation. And Yes, we need to win their hearts and minds.

After a millennium of slumber their social progress and technology shrunk along with their hemorrhoids. The male-dominated family structure is being threatened by the Western model. Let them figure out how they want to live. Enough policing of the planet. Bring our troops home. We'd be no less safe.

The pay-off for this country would be huge. A diminished Pentagon budget would pay for essential infrastructure investment, educational needs, strengthened Social Security, Medicare and retirement of our national debt.

As we turn away from our imperial design we will witness a reduction in the un-seen casualties of war. Eighteen suicides per day among veterans is a national disgrace. The number of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome cases will be immediately noted. How can we measure a gradual turning away from the brutalization in our national psyche?

Just a few tiny ideas for national suggestion box.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


There is not much I like about hair cuts. I let it grow almost two months and give in only when I'm on the verge of going deaf and blind as hair covers my ears and my bushy eyebrows are full-grown hedges.

I never pay more than ten bucks with my senior discount, plus tip. Any chair in the shop will do; I have no preference among the six barbers. English is their second or third language which suits me fine.

The small talk in barber shops is smaller than any other place I can think of. Usually the banter is about the latest mutilation/ futuristic/ high octane/ apocalyptic flick. I can only surmise this from the overhead TV. It confirms my suspicion that I am an effete snob.

Sometimes they use scissors but mostly I get mowed. No matter how often I tell them, not too short, I get scalped. I walk with Albert Einstein hair and leave as a runner-up for the Yul Brynner look-alike contest.

I can't rely on their comic books to get me through the deforestation of my scalp so I always come with my own book. However after my last cataract surgery I can no longer read without glasses. Therefore I must first go to the library and check out a book, any book, from the large print section.

The smartest barber I ever had was Steve. He was so ahead of his time he invested all his money in some Pay-TV cable channel. It was 1970 and he lost everything including his barbershop. He was probably 75 years old, forty years ago but I wish he'd consider a comeback.

I miss the hand vibrator on my back for 15 seconds and his visionary talk. It’s not that I want to discuss the future of Postmodern minimalism. My only wish would be to ask Steve whether he’s enjoying his afterlife, if it's true that hair keeps growing and folks still need haircuts in heaven.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Humboldt, The Generalist

I don’t suppose folks in the Dark Ages ever knew someone had turned off the light nor was Renaissance Man listed as such in the Yellow Pages of his day.

We don’t see the times we live in anymore than fish see the ocean. We swim in a sea of information taking on water faster than we can gulp it down. The age of the generalist has returned.

If my doctor tells me I have Tsutsugamushi Fever I run home, Google it, and suddenly know more about it than the specialist….or so it seems. Of course facts beg for interpretation and they are certainly not art. There is still the muse that sings beyond the genius of the sea.

The time of the specialist is already in the rearview mirror. Like it or not the voice of the elite is falling on deaf ears as we turn away from literary or film criticism. Anyone can get a crowd on the cyber soapbox. Our internal landscape is gutted with Twitters, texts, bloggers, junk mail etc... I know, I’m one of them. Ah. the price we pay for democracy.

Wikipedia is the model for the demotic. It has replaced the library of Alexandria. Go to it at your own risk but it is arguably as good as the old encyclopedias and certainly more current.

Ironic that in the midst of all this we still have the low-information voters who have masked their ignorance with repetitive noise.

All the above is to introduce a name which has been practically erased from history books but deserves to be exhumed. He was, at one time, the most famous man in the world next to Napoleon. He corresponded extensively with Jefferson and was his guest in the White House. He conferred with Simon Bolivar and was a friend of Goethe and Schiller. Darwin was a disciple and carried his book on the Beagle expedition. Emerson, Thoreau, Poe and Whitman regarded him as a mentor. Even the painter, Frederick Church. drew inspiration from him. His name was Alexander Humboldt.

Humboldt was born in Germany in 1769. Though rooted in the 19th century he speaks to the 21st. As a brilliant linguist, cartographer, geologist, anthropologist, botanist, meteorologist, humanist and author of many books he was the supreme generalist.

He explored and re-mapped the interior of South America and wrote extensively on the flora and fauna. He spoke out against slavery and subjugation of the indigenous people. His was a lone voice challenging the colonialist designs of European powers.

Perhaps the first ecologist, his writings inspired John Muir. His vision was of man and Nature as inter-related and he warned of climate change as a consequence of de-forestation two centuries ahead of his time.

In the first half of the 19th century Humboldt was regarded as the leading intellectual of his age and most famous scientist. Why has he not remained a household word? Because he inhabited a world of aesthetic holism before the split; before science and literature divorced along with environment and social justice. He was both master and jack of all trades who united philosophy, physics and the written word.

Humboldt may well be a new model for our times; a walking Wikipedia. He was a bridge between humans and the natural world, not a mere compiler of facts but a man with a universal vision bringing together our head and our heart to see us through these murky waters.

For anyone interested in reading more about Humboldt I recommend Laura Dassow Wells' new book, The Passage to Cosmos.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Memories Of My Mother For Mother's Day

My mother had a hard life....besides having me. She was born in NYC on the first day of the last century. I suppose my grandmother brought the shtetl with her and passed it along in mother’s milk. It didn’t help that my five uncles must have teased and tyrannized her because my mother lived most of her eighty-eight years in combat mode, armored with a mouth to scare the butcher and an eye to keep the grocer’s thumb off the scale.

It wasn’t until she was defenseless in her declining years that she grew into a mellow and fuller humanity. She came into her vulnerability and the little girl she never got to live.

In my childhood I knew my mother as a soldier in the trenches of the marketplace, as she saw it. I accompanied her to the butcher shop with its sawdust, flypaper and bloody red roses blooming on his apron. She was convinced he and the chicken plucker held the best cuts for her out of intimidation.

Aggravation was her longest word. It never stopped; the gevalts and the oy, yoy yoys. She didn’t carry packages; she schlept them. My, how she must have suffered. She would curse the superintendent, who should burn in hell, for holding back on the steam heat and damn the landlord, that gonif, for the rent. She even cursed God for God knows what.

I don’t think my mother ever met a cliché she didn’t mistake for wisdom. Believe me, she used to say, money doesn’t matter. You should only have your health. It was the preamble, Believe me, that gave weight to her sigh. After a while I got the message. If you’re near dead, give it up. Otherwise it’s all about money. The older you got to be, money and health ran a close one-two. I wouldn’t quibble about her ordering except that nothing else was short-listed.

To save my life I grew deaf to her words. The more you do for these kids the less they appreciate it. Believe me.

If she thought she was teaching me survival I never got around to telling her that there was no war in the streets. Cars were not assassins. The man in the fruit store was not out to cheat her. Maybe it was the daily skirmish that kept her blood moving.

When she complaind that she never got out, shooting from her recently fractured hip. I would take her for a drive and point out the pretty flowers or the homes in an upscale neighborhood. Just keep your eye on the road, she would warn me from the back seat where she did all her driving. Old habits cling to the bone.

From the rear view mirror I could see how she had reverted to a frightened child. So lost was she that she had to announce every intersection to know she was still there. The price of cottage cheese was no longer important to her. Nor was there any reason to fear the dreaded draft, that caused all manner of illness. Finally we entered a cul de sac in eloquent silence.