Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Speaking Of Conversation

My research has yielded the following early conversations:

Your cave or mine?.....Have I got a headache. You’re getting old. You’re 23…. Tomorrow, you hunt and I’ll gather…...Gimme that rock.

The above was said around the fire with a series of grunts and gesticulations. Nothing much has changed. The greatest leap forward was Edison’s invention of, Hello. Prior to Hello people didn’t know how to break the ice and the Ice Age ended a week ago Thursday. Now they say What’s happening? or just Hey.

Marina Abramovits, the conceptual artist, conversed wordlessly, or rather communed with folks from one minute to several hours as they wished. This took place at the Museum of Modern Art last month. A friend of ours waited in line for seven hours to have her audience. A few seconds of eye contact brought tears to both their eyes.

This points to the wide spectrum of conversation possible; from non-verbal communication to non-communicative verbiage. So much can be expressed through our eyes, facial gestures and body language. Even in normal discourse silence is essential. As the old adage goes………If you have nothing to say the very least you can do is shut up.

On the other hand one wonders that so little can be said in so many words. How many times have I overheard a monologue in a restaurant where two or three people are seated at a nearby table and only one voice is audible?

Mark Twain once said that a man’s character can be learned from the adjectives he uses. I agree words are important. A friend won’t order a salad unless the menu describes at least one ingredient as being drizzled on. A good conversation is more than chatter. It is a spontaneous poem, a semi-controlled ramble. Authentic voices leaping without self-censure. The mind makes its own tracing as it dips and doubles back then segues into left field.

I confess I have experienced myself barely, but politely, listening to a friend, waiting for my turn to say something brilliant or clever. Of course in recent years I’m more likely to forget when it’s my turn ….. only to remember in the car on my way home.

I think I’m getting better at it. I like listening, even to old jokes when told well. I enjoy the teller enjoying himself tell it. Just like those complaining cave dwellers a chunk of time must be allotted to our misbegotten bodies. Why not? It’s the only one we’ll ever have except for those replacement parts. And we can form an emotional attachment to them, too. Tell me about your new hip. I’m here for you.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

My Brother Was An Only Child

…..for four years. Then I was born and probably ruined his day and every day after that. I don’t know why I was their favorite. I wasn’t particularly cute or cuddly as far as I can recall. Maybe he bit my mother nursing or just came into this world at the wrong time. My brother, Arthur, was born two months before the market crashed in 1929 under Herbert Hoover. Maybe they took it out on him while I got credit for Franklin Roosevelt.

Recently I wrote about my father; how safe I felt with him and equipped I was going out into the world. I doubt if my brother would agree. He lived a short and unhappy life which ended at age 33. I'm going to try now to step into his shoes and put words in his mouth.

My first memory was being forced to hold the crayon in my right hand. It didn’t feel right. I was also too tall and sent to the back row. I couldn’t see the board well and read slowly. I never got any stars and one day I wet my pants. My first grade teacher, hit me and Mom came to school to complain but she also yelled at me for being left-handed with bad eyes and tall and probably dyslexic though that word hadn’t been born yet. But Norm was right-handed and colored inside the lines and finished his vegetables.

Mom was loud and took up all the air in the room. Dad was too quiet and didn’t shut her up. Maybe he was afraid of her like me. He wasn’t home much. He worked late and didn’t eat with us. He wasn’t there to help with my homework. I got Cs and Ds in class. When Norm started school the teachers compared us; I couldn't wait to get out of P.S. 99.

They sent me to a vocational high school because I flunked most tests. But I heard music, saw movies of Dixieland and Swing bands. This was my world. Nobody could come in. I heard Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa on Decca records and walked to their drums. Metronome and Downbeat magazines were my textbooks. Tunes ran through my head; Hot Lips Page drowned out the subway noise. I argued with myself over Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw and moved in stutter steps to Charlie Parker’s riffs.

Dad was too slow, too cautious behind the wheel; I'd be his opposite. He didn’t know tools. If I’d only had the tools I could fix things. I left home without them. Dad was no hero to me. He didn’t press against the world, didn’t show me how to dazzle women, didn’t make trouble. I needed to make some trouble.

On my last night there was music in my head. I had a few drinks and drove my Austin-Healy through a wall on a mountain road to find the sounds on the other side.

When the police knocked on my door at 4 AM to inform me of my brother’s fatal crash I had to break the news to my parents a few hours later. My father’s response was that he died the way he lived. He meant recklessly. I heard the disappointment in his voice that Arthur never met his expectations. My idealized father dropped a few notches in my estimation. He was merely human, flawed like my brother and all the rest of us.

In an odd turn which can only happen in a small town like Los Angeles my brother had a crush on a jazz singer whose career he would follow. Among his possessions were a stack of her recordings. I credit Arthur with especially good taste. Her name is Ruth Olay and thirty years after his death I was introduced to Ruth by Peggy who had known her since the fifties. I now count her as a dear friend. She is more than a link; she's a vivacious, gifted, funny and politically conscious woman who has no memory of ever meeting Arthur. Yet he and I were both drawn to her. He passed along his ear for jazz; his portal to the other side and my portal through to him.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Speak, Monuments... Or At Least, Listen

Here we are between Father’s Day and July Fourth. Imagine our founding fathers breaking through their marble and bronze and coming to life….elongated George Washington no longer an obelisk, Lincoln and Jefferson down from their thrones and Franklin Roosevelt out of his bronzed wheel chair.

Of course FDR isn’t a founder but we need him for the poker game and also to explain to Jefferson why the government that governs least is NOT always the government that governs best.

If we plopped the first three in Times Square or the L.A. freeway interchange we might have to exhume Benjamin Franklin. How else to explain double-decker buses, triple deck sandwiches and Multiplex theatres? I'd leave to him a quick course in all our wireless wizardry.

Wouldn’t you, George, father of our country, (who fathered no children) be surprised to hear your name used pejoratively, as in Washington insider or Washington is out of touch with the real America? And what would you, T.J., think about your initials bringing to mind not our author of July Fourth but, Trader Joes? Somehow I expect Thomas Jefferson to get over it fast enough. But would you get over your now famous liaison with Sally Hemmings and attend the family reunion with descendents perhaps in the thousands?

And honestly Abe, you humble guy, could you imagine 16,000 books written about you? Would you please set them straight. Now let me tell you about your son, Robert, who got rich and infamous as the V.P. of Pullman Railroad Co. and his role as strikebreaker extraordinaire.

I wonder if the vast number of people would be the first clue that your utopian vision had gone dystopian. Our current population of 350 million-plus would surely be beyond computation for those who saw an agrarian country of five million they checked out circa 1800.

Even with your encyclopedic brain, Jefferson, you had a small fraction of knowledge compared to the average six-year old sitting in front of Google or Wikipedia. Sorry, Tom. But you, of all people, would welcome the refreshment of change.

I’ll have to break the news to Lincoln that in spite of your good works inequities persist in this land and our house is still divided against itself seven score and seven years later.

I suspect, F.D.R., you would not look kindly on Reagan who dismantled your alphabet of agencies, smashed unions and set into motion the national tide against government as a provider of services for the less privileged. Patrician that you were, you would also shudder at the diminished I.Q. which Reagan established for our highest office. On the other hand did you not contribute to our national shame with your illegal internment of Japanese and unconscionable indifference to Jewish refugees?

Given these several missteps and revisionist history they might all wish to take refuge back in their metal casting. Their images are secure in stamps and currency. Their names live on in highways, bridges and universities.

Looking back at our most visionary leaders it is clear that this country has always been in a fickle embrace between our better and bitter angels. From one angle we have made a Faustian pact trading our humanity for a muscular foreign policy, ignoring George's warning against foreign entanglements, marked by arrogance, and greed. From another perspective we are the beacon of freedom and opportunity. These four of our best and brightest speak to us from their graves of our duel heritage, the stain and the shine.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Remembering My Father

With Father’s Day coming up I find myself thinking about my own father who died 34 years ago. He is very much alive in me, still, as I suspect he is in my three daughters.

If Google had been around in his lifetime I doubt if his name would have registered on it at all. The mark he left on people was something almost beyond measure or even articulation. His achievement was not of the sort that could be enumerated by membership or citation. He won no medals, wrote nothing quotable nor did he achieve immortality through any self-promotion of his name.

Yet he remains an enduring model for me of how to be in this world; deliberate, quiet, almost imperturbable, enabling and attentive; all qualities toward which I can only aspire.

I never knew my father to raise his voice. His displeasure was conveyed through his eyes and a furrowed brow. His instinct was to resolve differences through empathetic listening. He seemed to know in his bones when to push me out the door and when to pull me back in or at least let me know the door was always open and he’d be there with a listening ear. It’s called trust. He trusted me so that, over time, I could trust myself.

He was not a big reader. In fact he read so slowly that my mother had to tutor him to get his high school diploma in order to be accepted into Columbia School of Pharmacy which was, at that time, a two year course. The only books we had in our house were those left behind by students in the private school across from his drugstore.

With all his equanimity and impulse toward reconciliation he held some radical convictions born out of compassion. His politics was an extension of this caring. I imagined him with his mortar and pestle crushing fascists into dust.

His own childhood provides no paradigm for his evolved parenting. His mother died in childbirth and his father was a hopelessly impoverished alcoholic. My father was handed over to an uncle who raised him also in much-reduced circumstances. My grandfather was so out-to-lunch he went on to re-marry and have four more children all of whom were brought up in an orphanage. In his inebriated haze he named two of his sons, Samuel. One of them was my father. My Dad, Sam, loved his brother, Sam.

My father was a man who lived his days unheralded but beloved, famous in the circle of family and friends for those moments that halted time. His presence, alone, could settle your own agitated life and you knew the world was safe enough to push on through.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Couch Questions

Where is it written that socks must match?

Should that picture over the couch pick up the green in the throw pillows?

Or should it clash loud enough to jar us awake and perturb our eyes?

Did Matisse’s painting register on the Richter scale when the polka dot wallpaper collided with the striped couch?

How would the couch feel if pictures were hung upside down?

What ever happened to beauty? Did I miss the obit?

Should words disappear on the page? Or should they call attention to themselves?

Why is it harder all the time to get up from the couch?

Did the jacarandas just bloom to rhyme with Peggy's alliterative purple pants?

Does apparel still oft proclaim the man?

Where are they now, those uniformed elevator operators, ushers and doormen?

Do men's suits make a statement as much as T-shirts, bumper stickers and tattoos?

Is it true that overnight my father didn’t wear a hat?

Why do some people slouch on their couch (like me) and others don’t?

Why are those hummingbirds (seen from my couch) refusing my feeder?

Did the parrots of South America speak the lost language of extinct tribes?

Where do dead birds go? Do they have a burial place like elephants?

Whatever happened to Sabu, the elephant boy, whom I saw in an old movie from couch-potato haze last week?

Where are those great Hollywood cinematographers who could light any face and make it gorgeous?

Why do today's actors walk into dark rooms with no lights except on their face... and barely?

When Freud fled Austria did he really take his couch along with all those dreams in its upholstery?

If couches could talk, would they?

What is the meaning of this? Won't you sit down?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Life As Theater

I wondered, early on, what I was doing in my dysfunctional family which bore no resemblance to radio households or Andy Hardy films. My mother yelled her lines and my father swallowed his. Her mouth seemed to grow in inverse proportion to her height while he hushed the clamor. As a theater piece we would have bombed in New Haven.

If life can be seen as a three act play I don’t mind that the curtain has gone up on the last act. But I’d hate to think of leaving the stage with the world not looking much better than it did with the opening lines. After all, I told them what to do but did they listen? No.

Suckled as I was on FDR, studio films and the good war I had every reason to believe that the trajectory was onward and upward. Evil was doomed, success was meritorious, the meek would get their inheritance and science was giving us better things through chemistry. And then I grew up.

Years later a photo turned up of my mother as a young woman on a tennis court like an elongated, athletic version of herself, rushing the net letting her forehand speak for her. Also uncovered, was a document, dated when I was minus three, of my father arrested for violating Prohibition, as a pharmacist. I’m proud that he dared cross the line and glad also that he was inept at it. I suddenly saw my mother with grace and my father with gumption. I’d had it all wrong. My first act was their second.

And now my third act is my daughters’ second. On a macro level I despair that their generation can fix our mis-steps. We seem to have devolved into a corporate universe. Greed has been redefined as a virtue. Deceit multiplied and amplified passes for truth.

With armies of mercenaries the next war might break out between British Petroleum and Exxon or maybe Toyota will invade General Motors. Multinationals with treasuries in Geneva and the Caymans reign over governments. Elected officials move laterally as lobbyists and C.E.Os take office as senators and governors.

Is it just my jaundiced eye that witnesses xenophobic and religious walls continuing to divide people. I see no sign that the heated rhetoric of orthodoxy is their last gasp? Nor do I have a vision of universality gaining any ground.

Our president is caretaker of an immense complex of corporations whose reach far exceeds any sovereign nation. Their culture is their own. Their sophisticated practices baffle any outside regulator and the risks they take ransom the planet.

Tell me that Democracy hasn’t been subverted into Oligarchy; that out-sourced jobs and off-shore money hasn’t consigned millions of workers into a marginal existence while the abstraction of government itself receives their wrath.

As a bit player in this historical drama I look back and wonder how this downward spiral occurred under my nose. Before I’m booed off the stage I can only hope the play will be re-written before Broadway, that mankind gets a glimpse of a happier denouement.

Maybe I have it all wrong in the same way I misjudged my parents. That the organism is self-correcting with even more grace and vigor than I recognize in my cynical haze.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Poet As Shaman

When Peggy started feeling light-headed last Sunday we knew it was something more than her usual flights of fancy. True, she had been writing poems with imaginative leaps but this one landed her in bed.

Her blood pressure was a bit high, lying down, and alarmingly low, standing up; a clear case of orthostatic hypotension. Naturally it was a holiday weekend when all emergencies are scripted to happen.

On Tuesday her internist puzzled over the numbers and drew blood. Her cardiac enzyme, tryponin, was significantly elevated and that sent us off to the emergency room. A Cat-scan revealed multiple emboli (never say embolisms) in her lungs and leg. Anti-coagulants did what they do and they are still doing it. After five days in the hospital we are now back in our humble hive.

Enough about medical matters. What I really want to talk about is how Peggy deals with adversity. She writes……….and by the way, it is therapeutic.

Some of her finest poetry has been written on gurneys and hospital beds. If poetry is about transformation she has had much to transform. It is said that art is a matter of making order out of chaos. Hers is a reordering of the chaos into something uniquely coherent upon multiple readings. It’s poetry, after all, and resists easy interpretation.

I’ve been witness to her process; how she takes pieces of conversation, heard or overheard, a dropped phrase on T.V, an observation out the window, a harmless sentence from a book which ignites a spark that sets off a conflagration, or some image born and sprung from deep in her recesses on no anatomical map.

Peggy has found a way of seeing and of saying with her sui generis connectivity. The result is a distillation of experience strung together, both reductive and expansive at the same time.

All of this happens with I.V. solutions dripping, monitors beeping and oxygen up her nostrils. It animates her even as it is a balm. Maybe most healing is self-healing …with a little help from exogenous material. When the body is dis-eased it begs to be reconstituted. Never underestimate the power of creativity.