Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Great Migration

When we consider large numbers of people moving themselves in this country we think of the Great Depression which saw 300,000 rural poor making their way from the Oklahoma/Arkansas dust bowl to California. Perhaps because John Steinbeck wrote so eloquently, followed by the film adaptation, this event is regarded as the prime example, certainly of the 20th century.

I've recently been made aware of another, far greater, migration from 1915 to 1970. Isabel Wilkerson in her book, The Warmth of Other Suns writes the story of six million Blacks escaping the Jim Crow South. In 1910, ninety percent lived in the former slave states, virtually the same number as before the Civil War. By the end of this Great Migration the number was fifty percent. More Blacks lived in Chicago than the entire state of Mississippi.

There were three streams of population shift. From Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia large numbers moved to Harlem, Philadelphia and Boston. The Mid-West of Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago emptied Mississippi and Arkansas. Los Angeles saw many ex-Texans and Louisianans. These were arduous moves. Their rural roots were severed. Schedules for north-bound trains were smuggled in by Pullman car porters. They moved from tenant farms to big cities, from an agrarian culture of segregation and intimidation to urban communities

A Black family driving their car from Texas could not expect to find any accommodations until they reached California and that was not certain. It was even dangerous for a Black man to park and sleep. No colored signs were commonplace well into the 1950s.

Segregation was not only an abomination for those oppressed but for the oppressors as well. The psyche of White America is poisoned in ways that are still playing themselves out. Today's violence that pervades our culture is traceable to racism as much as any strain of lawlessness in our history. What was latent is now becoming blatant. Certain Red states are revising textbooks in an effort to remove this stain. It must be confronted, not erased.

For three centuries Europeans crossed the ocean seeking opportunity and freedom from persecution. The Black experience, in chains, was opportunistic only for white Europeans and their colonists.

The Great Migration of the 20th century within our borders was an extension of the Civil War itself, an attempt to redress racial grievances and a flight from lynching, humiliation and economic bondage.

What many of us had hoped was a final chapter to our national shame with the election of Barack Obama has, so far, proven to reveal the deep fissures in our society. His successful presidency and reelection can be seen as essential in our healing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

SOTU, Part Meat, Part Tofu

The president's State of the Union speech seemed to me cooked by competing chefs. Part chewy, part bland. Overcooked and under. Juicy and dry. No Reagan jelly beans (thank God) but some pie in the sky. The pie could be pizza or pumpkin; a yummy dish fit for a kingdom but how to bake it with the oven off. He gave us a needed menu and well-conceived but by embracing a domestic spending freeze can it ever be served?

Words aside, the music was a hymn to his lost Indies with an occasional fanfare for the old base. So much political rhetoric is orchestrated elevator music we need to grow antenna to pick up any new themes beyond the static. One waits for an improvisational riff.

What I heard was an embattled president in campaign mode trying to navigate the ship of state through reefs and high winds with Teabaggers at the ready to dump his cargo.

Can he waltz with his right foot and tango with his left? It would take some fancy dancing without falling on his face. He proposed closing tax loopholes followed by a quick two-step to lower the corporate tax rate. His single sentence to end oil subsidies got the Democrats to their feet while the offer to bring ROTC to campuses got the Republicans off their rump. Regarding the Healthcare shuffle, his olive branch to tackle medical tort restraints and small business paper work may have dismayed the left but his defense of insurance reforms landed him on his feet. It looks like we're in for twenty months of twirls and splits.

One impulse I have is to say, wake me up when it's over but, try as I might, I know I won't be able to desist. I may vow to ignore the malice of the far right, the deceit of the near-right and the cowardice of the center-left but I expect I'll be looking in at the spectacle and my mental health will suffer.

American politics is a carnival, as in carnivorous as well as the usual sense. The tents are going up for our quadrennial circus complete with blarney, clowns, cotton candy and much hoopla. We seem to be moving more to the cultivation of carnivores at least on the one side. The lion is untamed.

It may take a stack of six-hundred page novels, a long queue from Netflix and a supply of good music to keep me distracted until November 2012. Was it always thus? Maybe retirement has brought me closer to the fray; too close. Would the world keep spinning if I wasn't keeping watch?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Venice Here, Venice There

That city on the Adriatic is a great place but they need to do something about those streets.

Our Venice has to do something about its waterways. We could do with more of them. Old postcards show gondoliers in striped shirts taxiing parasoled women and men in straw hats.

Italy's fabled city is sinking by inches and not just from the weight of tourists who come to listen to its sighs on the bridge in an endless deathbed scene. The sea has been reclaiming it for the past four hundred years.

Our beloved town nestled between ritzy Santa Monica and ritzier Marina del Rey has become a destination for hippies, yuppies, bag people, artists, poets, skaters, and bicyclists. And then there is Muscle Beach and a boardwalk full of musicians, palmists, psychics, assorted vendors and people-watchers. I once asked someone for the time and he gave me a dime. It must be a great place to pick up easy change.

Old Venice is a living theme park with its skin peeling, bells kneeling and groaning under the load of pillaged goods as it slouches toward Byzantium. It has been largely abandoned by Venetians to hawkers, pilgrims and pigeons. But the sky is still the one Turner saw spiked by ninety churches. And a mirror brings Tintoretto's ceiling close.

Venice, here. is a $15 parking place for Sunday brunch to slum with real people down on their luck who live above barber shops or in the back of tattoo parlors. It could be worse; it could be Pismo, the end of civilization where Jesus made a comeback and is homeless on the off-ramp, where Allah is stuck on an oil slick, Buddha's on his motorcycle chanting his repair kit, Yahweh is yesterday since all my friends are atheists and Noah lives with Joan of Arc over in the trailer park.

Venice, there, is an unsinkable ship. Call off the dirge. The patient is critical but not serious. It drank Hemingway under the table. Now it is buoyed by its own obits and the chronicle in its grime. There's a wry smile in the prow of the gondola. The wash hanging from palazzos is doubled in the corrugated canal like a ship's bunting.

Each Venice is a rescued swamp at land's end, one with an over-wound clock, the other still ticking. Ours has also produced some world-class artists like Robert Graham and many literary figures along with our beloved funk. For decades Beyond Baroque has been a major poetry venue for some hard-edged words issuing from that jagged right-hand margin. It is the mix of class and cultures which keeps the blood moving and the air charged

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Still Coming Of Age

We watched a coming-of-age movie last night I would recommend in spite of a few too many movie-familiar turns and improbable detours. It also has a political subtext which seemed to me as plausible as any other for JFK conspiracy believers. The film is An American Affair.

My response to coming-of-age books or screen versions is often a surprise to me. If the events seem too close to mine I feel robbed. If they seem too other I might feel shut out. It may not be the story at all but my receptivity at the time. It's one of those mysteries I'm happy to leave unsolved.

This one set me off thinking about the few memories that still cling to my bones since those formative years. What happened to all the rest? Could I even bear it? Imagine the wondrous moments seeing/hearing/apprehending for the first time. How we meet the natural world and have it colored by the fear or welcome of a parent’s voice. Imagine if we could recover that early aha when Dick saw Jane run on and off the page.

I think of the complex behaviors devised to protect us from the shame of stumbling and bumbling. Conformity pulls us toward anonymity. Being the last one standing in a spelling bee was almost as bad as being the first one to sit. The risk of being oneself, even glimpsing that shadowed person is continually being played out. Coming-of-age is the still-happening age of becoming.

Coming is just a part of coming-of-age. My experience was not so much an earthquake as a series of small seismic events. I was a slow starter out of the gate, but by age 21 found myself married, moved from N.Y. to L.A. and a pharmacist.

In other blogs I’ve written about my first job and other entrees into the adult world such as the emotions shared with grown-ups the day President Roosevelt died and a ten-day bicycle trip around New England at 16 with friend. Each of these was a beginning journey from home to which I would never fully return. Having matured perhaps too fast, my late teen years would make a fairly dull movie. It’s taken me a lifetime to claim my youth.

Some of us may have lit and explored all the rooms in our mansion early on. I suspect most of us are not yet fully at home in the attic or basement. Where's that flashlight? Ain't it fun?

Actually, no, not always. More than likely we live with our myth, the small fictions that seem to serve us well enough. We tidy up the canvas with omissions, erasures and vivid remembrances that never quite happened. That we grew up at all seems a drama enough; if not a conspiracy of time and place, at least a series of contingencies that have taken us this far. Glories and defeats, like scraped knees, are scarred over with Band Aids worn emblematically.

We have to make do with whatever still clings. Yet there is so much flesh we cannot reach wrapped around that etched bone. It’s as if we hear a faint lyric but not the music that went with it. Or is it a symphonic wave still resounding and the words that have vanished?

There is still soft clay to be sculptured. As long as we can see and hear. the tape is running, the camera is loaded. The shapes and sounds are us walking into a moment we will never forget.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Golden Tarnished Globe

Who are these stars and where was I when they became household names? I kept waiting for Judy Garland (still dead) or Mickey Rooney (still alive) to put on a show?

Should I really care which films, series, mini-series and maxi-series are admired by the foreign press in Albania or Tasmania? Do the folks living in those places even care?

Was it noteworthy that The King's Speech, about British royalty, got nosed out by the American royalty of San Jose? The former is yesterday's news and the winner is today's. I can only surmise that this clandestine group of foreign journalists were teenagers ten years ago.

The Golden Globe awards are the product of about eighty people, as opposed to 6,000 in the Academy. Their identity is well-guarded. According to some detractors the membership knows more about hors d'oeurves than auteurs. Few of them are actually film critics or in any creative art. Neither Le Monde, the British Guardian or Haaretz are represented. Many are free-lancers for mostly obscure publications. Only four articles per year are required of them.

In a sense both films were about media, understandably a favorite topic of other media. Radio was the new-fangled communication of the thirties. Imagine being His Majesty with a speech defect and Henry Higgins nowhere in sight. Hitler had no trouble spitting and screaming into the microphone. FDR mastered it to better use as did Ma Perkins, the Lone Ranger and Sen. Claghorn; even the Shadow and Charlie McCarthy got the handle.

Fortunately for stutterers Facebook knows no such obstacles. Suddenly you realize you have 400 close friends whom you wouldn't recognize if you met them in an elevator. You can now tell the world whether your spaghetti and meatball measures up, bite by bite.

The other movie which came away with laurels was The Kids Are Alright which was produced by the husband of the daughter of my dear college friend and his wife .....along with 35 other people. I found it a very well-acted story of a lesbian couple with children via sperm donation. I thought Mark Ruffulo stole the show as the nuanced donor character. Another film very Now which, come to think of it, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney couldn't have managed.

The Golden Globes are a triumph of hype over art. Nothing new about that but at least the Academy Awards have a broader voting base with industry people weighing in. Hollywood loves to celebrate itself and millions of us tune in to the party. Awards, lists, winners all help us to bring the illusion of order on an otherwise messy life.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Question of Violence

Everyone seems to agree there's violence in the air. The hot air coming from the far right as well as the charged air generated by computer games (though I've never played one), rap music (so I'm told)) and competitive sports. The first two are out of my league but as to football, basketball and baseball I have no alibi.

While watching a game my reptilian brain takes over and I start cheering and jeering from my glands. If I get too emotionally invested I may even grow fangs and speak in grunts. Terms like, throwing a bomb, killer instinct and shot gun formation are all part of the vocabulary.

Does this make me an accessory to the fact? When the judge asks the defendant to rise should I get up from the couch? It begs the question: Does violence in movies, TV, sports etc... blunt our consciousness and lead us into temptation and worse or do we see it as theatre which sublimates that aggression?

This is a conundrum that has been argued since I was a kid with my nose in a comic book. I can only speak of my experience as a mild-mannered pharmacist. Even when I was held-up at gunpoint I didn't fly into a rage. In fact my instinct was to keep the gunman calm. I get more excited watching the Dodgers blow a three run lead in the 9th.

A distinction needs to be made between the images and language we are fed as entertainment and the inflammatory and mendacious messages we hear from the Limbaughians and Palinoids. Since shopping is our national obsession we are pretty savvy consumers. With even a modicum of discernment we know the difference between the real and make believe.

Trash talk among athletes or even spectators is usually left on the playing field. When fans yell, Kill the Ump or the contest goes into sudden death it's a degraded form of watching Shakespeare's Dick-3 or Hank-5. The players are high-priced actors and maybe we owe them a debt for vicariously spilling our collective hormones instead of declaring World War III.

They are of a far different order than the militia of armed nitwits seen at town-hall meetings and rallies shouting mindless slogans and holding malevolent signs. Ironically they are doing the heavy lifting for the very forces that brought them to their sorry state. The rage is orchestrated by right wing interests pandering to latent racism and a diffused sense of impotence. The assassin of the abortion doctor did not walk out of a sports bar nor are the Teabagians likely to have season tickets to Othello or Sweeney Todd.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An American Tragedy

A perfect storm......shut down mental health facilities, broadcast incendiary messages and ignore federal laws restricting guns to the mentally ill. The beast is un-caged. The beast is fed. Five run-ins with the local police, expulsion from college, death threats issued on the Internet add up to something that resembles causality.

Those whose mission in life seems to be the crippling and dissolution of government would do well to consider the cost to a civil society. In the service of their corporate clients who salivate over low taxes, no regulations and a misdirected anger, they have incited a constituency of hate-filled, unthinking or borderline malcontents. What smells like unfettered greed and rapacity to me must seem to them like some delusion of heedless opportunism.

A muscular foreign policy and indifference to human life finds expression in lawlessness and xenophobia. Their platform of fear and loathing provides ready meat for a parnoid mind. The micro mimics the macro.

When Tony Soprano told his lieutenants to take out his rival the meaning left no room for doubt. Nor did Nixon's orders to get Daniel Ellsberg or any of his perceived enemies. With impunity, Sarah/Rush/Glenn et al speak of targeting Democrats in cross-hairs and only shrug when a deranged and armed young man spills blood. The rhetoric and images posted give license and legitimacy to susceptible minds. Whether Jared Loughner was a follower of Fox news fantasies is a moot point. That he is a good fit for their rants seems clear enough.

Violence is a dominating thread in our national fabric. From slavery to genocide to lynching and wars-without-end we have been an outlaw country.Thankfully we are a creature with two heads, gazing in opposite directions.

Co-existent with aggression we have also been the haven of freedom and tolerance and the great experiment of political democracy. Almost all the issues since our inception are part of a dialog between these two strains in the American narrative.

The events in Arizona are an American tragedy, the consequence of a far right agenda which is no less a threat to our democracy than any plot coming out of the caves of Waziristan.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Doodling With The Moon

From silvery sliver to well-frocked roly-poly
geometrically perfect yet pocked and misbegotten
you ride the night sky for headless horsemen
and drive crazed men into werewolves then hang
plump and juicy over cars on lover’s lane
in your inconstant phases you are the lunacy
we love which cows jump over while the dish
runs away with the over-rhymed spoon scooping
all but a sixpence croissant from the paper
loon sailing over a cardboard sea tugging tides
and sonatas with your forty-watt bulb trailing shadows
down alleys having dropped and multiplied in puddles
on cigarette streets while hounds howl their silhouettes
and a tenor sax wails its blues in the indigo noir
to serenade us with Sinatra flying on gossamer wings
bouncing you like a toy balloon across a river
where a huckleberry friend waits around the bend
under a harvest of green cheese in the teahouse
of August which is a small step over Miami and a giant leap
for all the kinds of Mondays yet to kingdom come what may.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Language, That Squishy Thing

It's bad enough to realize you are thinking inside the box, even worse to know that you're not in the loop. Fifty years ago those phrases would have been unintelligible to anyone in the English-speaking world.

Dictionaries are rather stodgy, fat books; before the Internet, that is. Now we have on-line compendiums adding and subtracting words and phrases faster than you can say, No Problem. The old OED or unabridged Merriam-Webster are useful doorstops but are as obsolete as ink eradicator and White-Out.

Am I out of the box and into the loop yet? I doubt it particularly after hearing some of the new language in the Urban Dictionary. There are now about 5.5 million entrees, at the rate of 20,000 submissions per day. Where does an alien go to register?

Some of the recent phrases now in circulation are: That's what B.P. said as in we'll fix it (and bungle the job). Or: Protohype meaning generating buzz about a new product.

Of course we have the option to ignore all this until we suddenly realize we're speaking a different language than our children and need a translator for movies. I’m sure I was a few years late learning what a wuss was or the word bling.

I suppose words must shrivel and wither away to make room for new ones. We can handle only so many. Then again we are a population of many we's. There are those fluent in Trash or Nerd or Highfalutin Academia...and sub-sets for each.

As a living organism Language requires the oxygen of usage. Some words stick and get absorbed while others have a short season. Most new ones enter from the street or ground level; others from cyberspace and a few from the sciences.

Final thought: Our body of language is no more fixed and sacred than our Constitution. The current Conservative stunt to revere the document of our founding fathers is an attempt to make it immutable rather than a living set of precepts subject to interpretation. They would like us to believe the text was divinely inspired and handed down in some Cecil B. DeMille epic.

Language changes because society evolves with new institutions and relationships calling for decision-making unimaginable to those squabbling statesmen of the Enlightenment. Consider how unrecognizable the hummingbird would be to a dinosaur.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Explaining The Inexplicable

Don't even try. If you did it would be like reading a box score instead of going to the ballgame with its crowd noise, green grass and smell of hot dogs The inexplicable is an honorable state. Take my shirt, for instance,...please. Or that cauliflower soufflé I had on Thanksgiving. They can be described but not explained.

Or more importantly music from Mozart to Thelonious Monk or a Pollock painting, even a Hopper. If we look for the recognizable we are lost. If Nijinsky or Astaire were reduced to words they would be lame on arrival.

Likewise a poem. Poetry's palette is, of course, words but it breaks them free of the dictionary. Eliot called a poem a raid on the inarticulate. Words fly. The right words in the best order provide flight and may drop you in the Rubicon where you can gurgle and flail trying to figure out what it all means or float to the other shore on its lift.

I think of the character in Mel Brooks', High Anxiety when he says, I got it, I got it, I got it. I don't got it. Any attempt to extrude the meaning, rationally, only diminishes the experience of the work.

Naturally there is a place for the rational. We become our best critics and that voice gets integrated into the creative process. It steers us away from missteps, weighs words and filters redundancies. But the work itself is enriched by leaps, inconsistencies and unexpected, unaccountable turns.

Page, canvas or in the ether, Art takes us to another country in which we have no fluency other than the terms of its own language. If a poem could be explicated in prose it should have remained a paragraph such as this one.

Too many of us read poetry the way we listen to the 6 o'clock news. The only news it offers is that, without which. people die miserably every day.

If we let the words wash over us like Wallace Stevens'late coffee and oranges on a sunny chair or Peggy's wandering shoes reform the alphabet or …lines drive water through the rock to opal, the sounds and images are transport enough.

Peggy's poetry doesn't tell. It suggests, offers a glimpse through ellipsis and withholding. Their portals do not always open easily but they are worth the effort and you are made richer for it. Eventually the analytical mind yields the floor. As one door closes, another opens. After the final No there is a Yes. (W.S.) I don't got it, I don't got, I don't got it. I got it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Where the Misinformed Go To Get Their Misinformation

I admit it. Call me a News Junkie. If there’s a nuclear holocaust out there I want to be among the first to know of it. This is why I’ve dropped Rachel, Keith and Farid. Never mind the N.Y.Times, Huff Post or News Hour. Since I put a high value on being an informed citizen I can’t resist the allure of the tabloids at the check stand. I’ve come to depend on the National Enquirer, Star and Globe to fill in the gaping holes in my understanding of geo-politics and the existential issues of our times. One needs to keep abreast with the stories behind the headlines in case an invitation comes for a cocktail party or I’m trapped in a crowded elevator during a power failure.

The long lines at the market for party shopping have given me a chance to discover that Michelle is still seething over Hillary’s remarks during the primaries and Bill feels snubbed by Barack. Who would have guessed that after our president asked Clinton to the White House and handed him the podium where he had to be reminded that he didn’t live there anymore?

Who knew such Shakespearean dramas were unfolding behind our backs. And who knew Rupert Murdoch was having such wet dreams?...Michelle as Lady MacBeth? Hillary and Bill hatching plots in a palace intrigue, raising a junta for a coup?... trampling where the grapes of wrath are stored?

Tabloid writers are the fabulists in our midst. Their fevered fictions keep the witch’s brew stirring and smoking. And it keeps the Birthers looking to Kenya or Indonesia for the secret document that proves Obama is not one of us. Maybe they should try Krypton. Sorry, wrong myth.

Only they have entre into the underbelly of America with access to messages from dead Kennedys. Tabloid reporters are at bedside for all last words uttered. Nobody dies alone.In fact nobody dies. Celebrities are assured of an even more sensational afterlife. And if you weren’t a household name above ground there’s still a chance. A frozen baby was interviewed from a cabin of the Titanic. Half a mermaid was discovered in a tuna fish sandwich.

From cemeteries to inter-galactic messages they have their antennae at the ready. How else can we track visitations from folks living in anti-matter. They may be quarks to us but they are just home boys to the Tabloids.

There they are at every register between the candy bars and latest diet plan eager to share their version of the Zeitgeist. We would be well-informed to sneak a peek into the cauldron of contorted factoids where rumors are hatched from minds that can't keep themselves out of dirt.