Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Barely Was There Barley

Sharing old memories with middle daughter, Lauren, we went through family albums. As in most, the last twenty pages or thereabout were blank filled in by images we’ve carried around so long they might even be true.

I reminded her of those hard times when some people slept on the floor but we were so poor we didn’t have a floor. How the temperature reached 23 below on the Great Plains and we stayed warm by getting cabin fever. She reminded me she was born in Granada Hills where it was so hot she saw two trees fighting over a dog.

I recalled how we lived as gypsies around the campfire where she learned the fiddle at age three and was later first violinist with Leonard Bernstein conducting. She could only recount her accordion lessons with Harvey Goldstein and how she quit after two sessions.

We reminisced about our days in the circus where we performed as the Flying Levines and perfected the Triple Lutz-Half Gainer, with a twist of lemon, without a net. She had a faint memory of riding on an elephant while twirling eleven plates.

She regressed us to a past life in which I was her daughter, half Iroquois, half Mohawk and half Mohegan. I was the next to last. The two of us warned the tribe, too late, not to sell Manhattan to the Dutch but if they do, to get on Antiques Roadshow with those trinkets.

We both remembered the day I taught her that 8 plus 6 equals 14 by leaping up a flight of stairs or maybe that was 3 plus 2. We couldn't agree whether I was reading her Three Blind Mice when she was 4 or Four and Twenty Blackbirds when she was 3.

Missing is the picture of her taking a journey inside a watermelon or the story of how she went through childhood with a white mustache after piling extra powdered sugar on her French toast.

Even if it never happened we still talk about those days crossing the prairie with nary and barely was there barley.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Upheaval In North Africa

The sweep of history is such that it is almost imperceptible living inside it. We need to step back to lift the blur and step way back to bring it into full focus.

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt can be seen as part of the same movement that led to the American and French revolution. We got Washington and Jefferson, the French landed Robespierre and Napoleon. Ironically our Revolutionary War succeeded, in large part, due to French assistance. We benefited from the century-old conflict then being played out by Hanover George and Bourbon Louis.

Revolutions create vacuums and we know how nature feels about them. Our founders were at the ready to bind the colonies into a nation in an experiment born of the Enlightenment. It didn't happen overnight however. The separate states resisted for years, to move from a loose confederation to a federal constitutional government.

Today's reports out of the Middle East talk about new democracies emerging after years of dictatorship, oligarchy or monarchy. That word Democracy gave me some pause. The term would have made our early patriots tremble because democracy meant majority rule with no safeguards for the minority. And many of the early colonists were those very minorities who fled European tyranny.

Remember the pledge of allegiance we recited in elementary school? ....... and to the republic for which it stands....... I can recall mumbling those big words, and to the republic for Richard Stands... I had no idea what I was pledging or even what allegiance meant or indivisible It is worth looking back at that word republic which is a representational government that guarantees the Bill of Rights for all including the few.

The French traded a monarch for an emperor but Europe convulsed and again in mid-century when workers took to the barricades in Italy, France and Germany ultimately leading to fuller suffrage and the formation of Republics.

These words Democracy and Republic do not translate well into the Democratic and Republican parties. The rights of the under-served minorities have long been defended by the Democrats.

We don't hear the word Republic very much in current usage. It seems that Democracy has come to mean self-determination as applied to the regime changes underway in the developing world. As they move toward modernity I would hope that the emerging governments extend protection to dissenters and support inclusion for all citizens. The sound and fury I'm witnessing in North Africa does not look or sound like a people settling for anything less than a non-theocratic participatory government.

Friday, February 18, 2011

National Time-Past

National Time-Past

In uncertain times one needs an alternative universe. When have times ever not been uncertain and when has the baseball season not served that purpose?

Football is done. Basketball is over-done; too many games with too many points. Even though I played the sport against dead backboards in schoolyards and as a freshman in college it doesn't conjure the sensory memories of baseball with its smell of bubblegum cards, the fervor of a box score, the feel of a first baseman's mitt and the infield chatter, Chuck easy baby.

Spring training is soon upon us. Just in time to save me from the malice that spews from Fox fabled news. Daily they test my threshold. Of course baseball also tests my tolerance for greed and arrogance but somehow my infantilism has emerged in tact. Anything to keep that inner child alive.

Maybe it's the pace of our pastoral game that slips me into reverie. The absence of a clock and irregular expanse of outfield grass puts it on the margin of space-time.

In the popular imagination baseball is associated with open spaces or sand lots yet urban kids found facsimiles in stoop ball, stick ball, punch ball and hitting fungo. Manhole covers served just fine as bases or home plate. And if you didn’t play you could follow the sport as living history arcana.

I think it was the first thing I knew that my parents didn't. An entrée into the grown-up world; not all adults but enough to give it some legitimacy. For many first generation kids or refugees, baseball was a portal into American life. I expect many immigrants learned English listening to the radio broadcasts.

What Joe DiMaggio did for Italian-Americans, Hank Greenberg did for the Jewish population in and around Detroit. The war years interrupted both these icons in their prime but not sufficiently to deny them a permanent place in the hearts of their followers.

As a Dodger fan I worshipped Red Barber, with his casual erudition, which raised the experience a notch or two. In those days I listened to re-creations of games played as far west as St. Louis, every pitch coming over ticker-tape. I could see the green grass in the radio speaker and even smell the hot dogs.

The game probably helped introduce me to early arithmetic with its batting averages, RBIs and pitcher's ERA. It is a world of numbers but it also contains a mystery that eludes the statisticians. Call it contingency. Call it the human factor. Call it life.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Overnight in Eden

The Emerald Iguana Inn in Ojai is afordable, close and yet seemingly far away. It doesn't get any better than this unless your idea of a romantic getaway is dinner at Denny's in Vernon, an evening of bowling and a Motel-6.

Maybe Genesis had this place in mind, a paradisial spot built in among the flora with old growth craggy oak, high bamboo and eucalyptus several hundred feet tall. We woke to plants with silvery speckles from the night's drizzle and a deep breath of whatever rain releases from plant life.

Julie and Marc Whitman, architect and proprietors, brought back the best of Bali decorating the cottages and landscape with Oceanic art which seemed somehow organic to the adobe arches and rustic grounds.

I could imagine the Chumash people sanctifying this spot as they hid from Father Junipero Serra and his band of zealots ever on the hunt for slaves and converts to their version of an Eden which the Indians had already found.

Ojai has become a refuge for folks who bought Google or Microsoft at three along with Hippies turned Yuppies and unreconstructed Hippies turned artisans or Buddhists, New Age aromatherpists, psychics and palmists. A fine mix of the enlightened along with those who don't agree with me. It is the town where Peggy and I trekked, 27 years ago, to hear Krishnamurti preach ("do not follow the speaker") and visit with Beatrice Wood, the potter.

They also host an annual classical music festival for four days every June which has been running since 1947 with composers and conductors ranging from Aaron Copland to John Adams.
There is an active Art Center where I was once invited to read some of my poetry; another indicator that there is still a place for mediocrity.

A closing note to say that getting away can be therapeutic as well as all the usual reasons for running off in the woods with one's mate. It’s a needed respite for the brain not to follow the latest political oscillations or seismic events and after-quakes in the Middle-East. More than diverting there is something healing to commune and not be two with nature. At this moment I want to recall my first inhalation this morning as I stepped outside filling my lungs with the scents given off by the wild and tended gardens of Ojai.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Omen, Amen

Plump sun vertically blind through the slats
punctuates itself on the morning door
as exclamation point.

It could be calligraphy from the beyond,
silently shouting what inning this is,
playing field returning to pasture.

Or it might be a call to arms for upheaval
in the city square. Pharaohs unraveled,
floating down the Nile to the sea

toppling hierarchy of pyramids from top
down to stone upon slavery stone
beneath the sand, fade to black.

Oil greases generals and uniforms rule
the unruly, drunk with overthrow
and the roar of silent guns.

Every end, a start of something new or just
a changing of the guard, the more
it changes it stays the same.

Even after centuries of worshiping Ra,
who is fluent in solar hieroglyph
to read the light or shadows on the wall?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Modernism And Post

I just finished a book which challenged or re-framed some cherished beliefs. I love being sent back to remedial education classes. The book is Art and Discontent by Thomas McEvilley.

It is a heady read which lost me for pages at a time with many references to Plato and his buddies along with Hegel, Kant and Hume. The subject is aesthetics and by extension how we stand in relation to the world around us.

First I had to overcome my phobia to toga'd Greeks and Romans with their abstract language and references. Then there was my scant conversancy with art history. Yet enough bubbles got through to light a few bulbs.

I first recognized his materialistic approach as faintly Marxist which is something I was happy to shed many years ago. By the end of the book, however, I was won over by both his common sense and erudition. McEvilley fills the space between formalism and social realism, between the metaphysical and propagandistic. He grounds art, removing it from a worldly beyond while still retaining its inexplicable mystery.

The author comes down on the Art for Art's Sake movement which tended to isolate writers and artists at considerable remove. He argues for content and context being inherent in any art work. Even if the artist sets out to make a statement against realism, as many Abstract Expressionists did, that too becomes a kind of content. Pollock’s drips and Sam Francis’ splatters may be seen as acts against figurative art as well as a rendering of representational concepts.

He denounces the notion that art can attain some sort of spirituality through transcendence. The post-Modern eye refuses to see words or any visual art de-contextualized. Everything exists in a given time and place. The Bushmen of Australia have a way of seeing unlike ours and their art reveals that. We don't see what they see. They live in what Marshall McLuhan called, acoustical space rather than a visual one. As such, pre-literate people can leap into the cyberworld more easily than literate people like us who measure intelligence by print technology.

McEvilley makes the case that the era we call Modernism which began its slow death about 30 years ago followed by Post-Modernism, is not a phenomena new to our time. The Greeks had theirs and the Romans. The Renaissance was another era of Modernism followed by a period of retrenchment. The notion of vertical progress up to an Omega point is replaced by a more cyclical, repetitive paradigm.

Though written twenty years ago the book confronts a vital question for today: how does this post-colonial world change our perceptions. Deconstructing literature and all art reinvigorates language and our entire value system. What we called voyages of discovery from Europe to the Americas can now be seen as voyages of plunder and conquest.

So much of the psychic dislocation experienced by Americans in terms of lost values, is the sense that old terms are no longer relevant. An analogy might be how heavy weaponry is irrelevant in guerrilla warfare.

We become less judgmental and more inclusive as we allow otherness into our lives. In time the grotesque no longer seems grotesque. Art criticism will become a study of cultures much like anthropology dependent on the vectors of time and place.

Monday, February 7, 2011


A few weeks ago I wrote about all the violence in the air. Wars, assassination,derangement, weaponry, bilious talk-radio rants polluting our next inhalation. Yet coexistent with all the drek is its polar opposite, love. If the dark side is shouted from headlines it is love in all it's permutations that quietly provides the background music to get us through the day. From sexual passion to mundane civility we are creatures insistent upon expressions of human contact. Is there any moment more life-affirming than being received whether it's making eye-contact with another driver letting him into your lane or an ecstatic joining with a partner? The very idea of setting aside a day to honor love is a measure of love, of higher consciousness. Valentine's day is coming. I don't want to hear how it's an invention of Hallmark cards or florists or candy makers. For Peggy and me it is the most cherished and celebrated holiday. We mark dead presidents, war memorials and myths we call religious which are really seasonal rituals. Valentine's Day may not be a union holiday but it is truly more a holiday of union than any other. Why write about it now, a week before the designated day? Because it needs an extended life, a few weeks, a month, any and all days. The word love itself is not in everyone's vocabulary. Boys have trouble saying it particularly if it isn't heard under their roof. For others the word is thrown around in excess and has become exhausted and limp. We need a way of saying our love that doesn't feel mushy or excruciating. In fact we need as many gradations for love as Eskimos have for snow. And while we're at it an entire language for civil discourse. The fact that we do not have it must certainly be a function of its relative absence in our social intercourse. Expressions of love in poetry or fiction are far more difficult than writing out one's shadowy side. Noir is the fall back position sure to get you in the gut. I regard gratuitous language and violence the way I do movie-cancer or vomit scenes; cheap shots aimed to elicit easy sentiment or a short-cut to authenticity. Love poetry is not to be confused with the doggerel on greeting cards anymore than literature is to romance novels. Peggy and I exchange poems with references to private moments in language understood only by us. What is summoned is a reaching into ourselves and shaping new forms from that inexhaustible source within. Expressing love in words is indistinguishable from any creative act, earned and on-going.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Right Side Of History

It's no easy thing getting on the right side of history, particularly when it collides with what we call our national interests.

For decades the U.S. has been on the wrong side with regard to the third world, propping up dictators in the Americas and Asia whose sole credential was their avowed anti-communism. We had no problem with corruption supporting Batista in Cuba, with brutal militarism installing Pinochet in Chile and Somoza in Guatemala or Diem in Viet Nam. We called Somoza a son of a bitch but OUR son of a bitch.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and communist threat Russia is our new near-friend and China, our creditor. As if waiting in the wings, militant Muslims have become public enemy number one. The tragic 9/11 attack fed both the fundamentalist Islamist terrorism and Neo-Con fundamentalist militarism. Rather than address the grievances that provoked the swell of anti-Americanism our response was a temper tantrum against Iraq and a futile chase in Afghanistan, follies for which we are paying heavily.

Try as he has to align our national creed with our national (corporate) interests Obama must confront near irreconcilable forces. Our thirst for oil has made for some slimy relationships. We turn a blind eye towards the despotism of Saudi Arabia because they are an acceptable theocracy while Iran is an unacceptable one. The one can co-exist with Israel the other can not. Yet both sprout terrorists and are anathema to our democratic values.

The thrust of history moves inexorably toward self-determination however its face may appear. Economic democracy takes precedent over political democracy. Infra-structure, jobs and distribution are far more important to the people than elections. Perhaps our model is not a good fit for most of the developing world and perhaps occupation of another's land does not ingratiate us to the host and perhaps our cultural values undermines theirs.

If the 20th was an American century it was and continues to be a time belonging to emergent nations. A muscular foreign policy is counter-productive. Bank-rolling tyrants carries the seeds of revolution. We need to bring our legions home, to find other energy sources and allow the aspirations of the people to find their own terms.

The subject of Israel is almost too hot to handle without adding to my list of ex-friends. In the fullness of time an just accommodation with their Arab neighbors must be reached. The survival of the Jewish people is essential; less so the survival of a Jewish state. Soil is not sacred, lives are.

A post-colonial world has a different look than the one in our collective consciousness. It is may be more inclusive and less a projection of American values and social mores. We are an empire no longer ascendent and that is not entirely a bad thing.