Thursday, March 31, 2011

Turning The Corner At Eddie's Deli

I was about 11 years old (plus or minus) when either my mother was in the hospital with a detached retina and my father was working or my father was hospitalized with pneumonia and my mother was working at Macys. I was left a note with a dollar bill telling me to eat my dinner, alone, at the local deli, Eddie,The Sandwich King.

I remember worring about the prospect. What, me Order a server? The very idea of having this sort of power probably caused another pimple to erupt. On the other hand I imagined a scenario in which I would walk in, sit down until closing time and remain unnoticed. I was, after all, a mere slip of a lad and not at all sure that I existed.

A few years earlier I sat in a dark movie theatre with my brother when a man groped his way along my aisle. Since my feet didn't quite reach the floor how could he, eyes still wide with the sun, know that I occupied a seat unless I rattled my Good & Plenty. Was I sat upon? Who remembers? I only recall the ignominy of even thinking that.

Maybe I had listened to too many radio programs such as the never-seen Shadow with his snickering laugh and warning what lurked in the hearts of men. Or was it the Lone Ranger who was off with the first note of the William Tell Overture as a townsman turned and asked, Where is that masked man, to which I may have murmured, Hi Ho Silver, away.

Away is where I preferred to be after being passed around a circle of uncles and aunts receiving the obligatory pinch of cheek and cloud of cigar smoke in my face. They would then remark on how I'd grown or not grown whereupon I was dismissed and disappeared in the tobacco air neither seen nor heard from again. Invisibility became my default position.

I put on a bright shirt for my deli dinner rather than my usual beige which blended in with the furniture and sat in the middle of the room improving my chances. My existence was confirmed when a waiter placed a plate of peppered pickles in front of me. Existential crisis resolved. I eat pickles, therefore I am.

In my mind I return to Eddie, the Sandwich King Deli and thank them for their part in helping me find myself, stepping into my own skin, not unlike a briny cucumber transformed into a pickle.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Restaurants I Have Known

As a working-class kid brought up on lumpy mashed potatoes, boiled chicken and burnt liver it's no wonder my palette wouldn't know truck-stop food from the fancy-schmancy in a double-blind study. My mother barely mastered recipes from the Shtetl cookbook. However, or perhaps in compensation, I would now drive two hours for an atmospheric eatery.

I'm a sucker for restaurants in houses. I can forgive their overpriced food for the coziness of the small rooms. The ambience is worth the menu. All the dishes taste like home cooking; thank God not the one I remember.

House-restaurants seem to be an endangered species disappearing faster than Jamba Juice joints are popping up. Perhaps chrome and noise have won out over wood and quiet.

Warszawa, on Lincoln Blvd., is one with about six or seven rooms and old Polish theater posters on the walls. The lacy-curtained windows are particularly romantic in the rain while exchanging poems as we do, after a martini, with sounds of a violin or harp playing off to the side or was that my imagining?

The Raymond House in Pasadena is another such destination. The long drive is part of the fun and makes it more of a dining than eating experience. Which reminds me of a quaint place near Lake Arrowhead called Casual Elegance; and it is just that, with sorbet between courses to clean the palette, served in rooms not suggested for claustrophobics.

There is non-house restaurant in Fullerton, The Cellar. Well-named, it is subterranean and dark (but not dank) with the feel of a cave. It's good to remember this in case you become famous and wish to avoid being seen. In fact I'm told that Kobe Bryant and some Laker buddies frequent the place descending in a private elevator.

We just discovered The Secret Garden in Moorpark's which seems like a good place for a witness protection hideaway. The chef is French, formerly with some of A-list places in Los Angeles. We had the entire room to ourselves for one o'clock linner. Not a house but homey and the food was like my mother didn't know from.

My daughter, Shari, and Jim took us to one of those areas in L. A. which I associate with Donald Trump and other robber barons. I imagine an Obama bumper sticker would be a felony. Terranea is a resort hotel on the Palos Verde peninsula. We had an uber-lunch overlooking the ocean which they threw in at no extra charge.

For tasty and shamelessly immense hamburgers nothing approaches 26-Beach. Their burgers are high enough to challenge a yawning alligator.

Nothing is beneath me....except perhaps a vending machine at a car wash. For the best value and healthiest food what beats The Soup Plantation? However the gluttony in my reptilian brain often slays my higher constraints. I tend to lose my proportion with unrestricted visits to the frozen yogurt machine. If I enter as Humphrey Bogart I leave as Sydney Greenstreet.

Maybe you can't take the shtetl out of the boy. I'm still learning how to hold a fork. If I remember, I wear shirts that can accommodate a splotch of Ragu sauce in their pattern. An occasional splurge to my favorite restaurant is like sneaking into a house on the right side of the tracks.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Start Of Something Big

Yesterday, March 25th, was Annunciation Day when a gynecologist angel whispered in Mary's ear, Have I got news for you. It marks nine months exactly from Christmas Day. As conceptions go this one was immaculate.

Imagine Joseph's face when he came home from the carpentry shop. And no medical benefits beside. Hence the manger.

One can't say enough about beginnings. Tristram Shandy tried to tell his life story but every place he began had its antecedents. He is finally born toward the end of a 620 page book.

It's fun to imagine how we were hatched. A nanosecond before or after and I could have regrettably or happily been someone else. In fact maybe I am someone else. The real me is bound with duct-tape in a warehouse on the other side of town.

Suppose the sperm that nosed out the runner-up in the final stretch was disqualified for waging his tail. That might account for my second-rate mechanical skills.

Flannery O’Connor began her fame as a five-year old who taught a chicken to walk backwards. We don‘t know if it crossed the road but I’d like to think it did……in reverse. That is as good a place to commence a writing career as any. As the English writer, Penelope Lively, observed, We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestors we do not even know. We are walking lexicons preserving Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse: we carry a museum in our heads, each day we commemorate people… we have never heard. Think of all those early grunts and shrieks we have chiseled into mellifluous sentences.

The 25th was also a sort of anniversary. Twenty-seven years ago I moved in with Peggy and began Life Part Two. Before that I was singing spirituals on the back forty in that lonesome valley. My life was cul-de-sac'd when she read me my emancipation proclamation. Her chariot swung low and carried me home. Amen.

At one time Annunciation Day was also the beginning of the New Year. It makes sense to start the year with Spring but the ego of kings and contortions of popes messed things up. Religion has a way of fabricating myths to fit the natural world. So it was that Caesar and one of his fellow Romans along with Gregory's papal bull added two months to the original ten and Christians settled for resurrection instead of conception day. Let’s call it Easter! What a concept. Why they couldn't have thirteen months and assign each 28 days, plus a New Years day, is yet to be uncovered.

I rather like the idea of Jesus being born in the dead of winter. In the poker game of life it is a flush of counter-intuitive which trumps intuitive which, in turn, is better than a royal hunch or even two bright ideas.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


If Giuseppe Verdi had been born in this country he'd have been known as Joe Green. Whether he would have composed 28 operas is one of those what ifs. Place does mean something but probably not as much as it did in the 19th century. Like it or not we live with connectivity as never before.

Japan claims our front page and our consciousness as we track its radioactive cloud. Suddenly we know cities in Libya, like it was Wisconsin. The global village is an amorphous glob; push it here and it pops up there. A nuclear belch can poison our next inhalation like an inter-continental missile. Tsunamis are undocumented visitors to our shores. Monarchs are migrating, butterflies and tyrants, both.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, in physics and social movements. Accelerated change, for some, means dislocation, psychically and otherwise. I see the Teabaggers as the party of push-back to change. In times of upheaval, conservatives pander to our fears. Resistance takes the form of nostalgia as well as xenophobia, racism, weaponry and fundamentalism. Their message is toxic. Goebbel's playbook of lies said loud and often enough claim an undeserved status for equal time in our heads.

One way to manifest fear is the building of walls. From gated communities to our Mexican border fence to the Israeli wall, barriers have sprung up which create only an illusion of safety. In fact, walls disperse crossings with suicide bombers, missiles, biological weapons and un-manned drones.

Globalization is a fact of our lives. Money moves at the speed of a hunch. Transcontinental travel disseminates germs. Europe imports its colonials. China is our bank. A single car has parts from seven countries. The Al Qaeda we are chasing in Waziristan is now in Yemen or Iraq or Brooklyn. Walls are an anachronism; good mostly for hand ball.

Fear may be assuaged somewhat but the crimes, smuggling or migrations go on undiminished. When psychic space is defined it deludes the people within but only challenges those without, to go over, under or around. Malignant ideas find their way through. They are best fought with better models, not higher walls.

After millennia of blood-soaked soil Europe has finally evolved to a single currency and the removal of border fences. Would that we might, one day, erase our separate states into regions and then, dare I say it, into one nation, indivisible.

In our new planetary village without walls maybe Giuseppe Verdi from Pittsburgh might play defensive tackle in the NFL and Mean Joe Greene could have been the toast of La Scala. Of course all this juxtaposing would require considerable tampering with the clock.

I should amend this by saying that my opposition to walls is meant, metaphorically. Certain countries are still in their tribal stage and must first assert their nationhood apart from their neighbors. Sovereignty may be a necessary step before a more regional consciousness can prevail. However I still question the usefulness of partitions.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Birthday Blog

Tonight is the eve of my 78th; not even a prime number thanks to 13 but prime enough for me.

In Irish lore Truth is an odd number. I'm fine spending a year in the untrue column. Anything to feed the fiction and fecundity. I like truth better without the capital T and many faceted. Since I'm about to be 78 it is also a fact I'll be in my 79th year, true enough.

The vernal equinox is the time of equal light and dark; an apt metaphor to own one’s shadow. As to the question, who am I, the answer is less certain than it was fifty years ago. Happily I'm discovering new versions every now and then..... preacher, manager of an all-night laundromat, third base coach, double-agent urban guerilla, alchemist, sorcerer and sleuth.

At this age only zero ending birthdays warrant much notice. The dirty little secret about aging is that the heft of the number bears no correspondence to wisdom. That sums up my contribution as a sage.

If I ever had it all figured out I've long since forgotten or disabused myself of such foolishness. The so-called meaning of life is a heavy burden to carry around. It feels better traveling light.

If you say life is a baseball game I must be in the late innings having thrown enough pitches to call it a complete game. It could be the top of the seventh or the last of the ninth. When it's time to check out I'd much prefer a walk-off home run to the slow steps out to the mound by the manager. But I must stop such talk at once. I'm not ready to start planning my afterlife.

I don't know why you say goodbye; I say hello.

I'm still greeting the greeny things. There is Peggy sprouting daily. And there are my daughters-three blooming in their separate ways. And there my grandest of grandchildren are still in the summer of their seasons and Ron and Laura and all my friends who are like family in this picnic on the grass. The brook is babbling, bees are bumbling and butterflies are fluttering by.If it rains, so be it. Our throats, like succulents, will open for the drink. When a softball game breaks out I'll be the guy in a rundown between third and home; it could last for years. Pop the cork, set in the candles, let's blow in the stars. After that final nocturnal NO, there is another Yes. It's everybody's birthday; the anniversary of yesterday.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hard Of Hearing

Such a curious phrase. We don’t say hard of seeing. Is it hard as in hardly or hard as hard luck?

Ears all look alike. Some, closer or further from the head or a bit larger but the same labyrinth, Even my daughter’s coil snails just like mine, but with nerves, oxygen-starved at birth.

From an embryonic ocean to this other soundless sea. Was I just a mouth opening and closing, coming at her? And when she cried was it a silent wail unheard by her? I might have said she was a good baby. Nothing woke her. I dropped a piggy bank one day; she slept through the spill of coins.

Unlike van Gogh’s hers appeared fine; un-bandaged. Like Van Gogh she noticed more than I. Not inside the iris of the iris or the spiraling sky but she saw lips and deciphered eyes. Later she read the choreography of fingers and became literate in the language of bodies and moods, fluent in facial gestures, the flare of my nostrils when I’m kidding and the early warning of a frown.

Her fingers, like small birds, knew when to begin their flight, articulate, loudly saying her needs, her name, Janice.

Like Beethoven she’s never heard the orchestra in her head but composes concertos from the amplified garble and static, her own atonal odes of joy. And if she’s been spared the chatter and clamor, the noise and hum of the humdrum, she dances, like her hands, to vibrations in the floor answering a beat I will never know.

In the Morris Broderson painting a man bends his ear listening to a flower, the contrapuntal sounds between petal and leaf. There is a symphony hard-earned in the flower heard only by the deaf with notes drummed and hard as brass reserved for the hard of hearing.

Just as I can close my eyes and see the vivid unseen so must Janice listen to voices of her own making, in realms unheard by me. She knows the hard-edged walls of this world and how to climb them.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Art Of Constraint

Calvin Coolidge, one of our least eminent presidents once said, The business of this country is business. He might also have said that our chief occupation is busyness. It is our habit to do, to act and react. With Power on a national level and empowerment as a personal creed we have a hard time with constraint.

Sometimes the best course is to not just do something but stand there. When the Lakers are imploding on the court Zen Master, Phil Jackson, does not call time out. He makes then figure it out for themselves. When the pitcher can't find home plate the manager may not pull him out of the game but show confidence and let him regain his rhythm. Inaction is also a choice and a difficult one sure to invite criticism.

President Obama is in one of those situations. The rebels in Libya are on the brink of defeat. Without foreign intervention we may be witness to a terrible massacre. Our impulse is to send the marines to the shores of Tripoli or at least Benghazi. The administration's refusal to do so, unilaterally, can be a defining moment. Unless the effort is sanctioned and staffed by the United Nations we must not deploy our combat forces.

For too long we’ve practiced a muscular foreign policy, policing the world and not necessarily for moral reasons. Our forces are more often an agency of our national (business) interests. Our thirst for that black stuff under the sand is never quenched. If cars ran on piss we’d be invading urinals.

The time has come to turn the ship of state and come home. There are limits to power and we have already exceeded that point. Our weaponry in the Libyan desert might save lives but at the same time create a backlash in the Arab world and mobilize them against us. We have earned the mistrust of those people having lent support for the regimes now under siege.

We need only ask, what would the previous administration do in this scenario.......and then do the opposite. Obama has pledged support for the insurgency in every way possible except committing our armed forces; freezing assets, embargo and accountability in the world court. Let us offer humanitarian aid with open hearts and hands, not with our fists.

In 1956 Pres. Eisenhower faced a crisis when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France sought a military resolution. We broke with our allies and stayed home. Constraint took courage and proved to be the wise option in constrast to four years later when we took up the military mission of the French in Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In Absentia

Is this part of aging, noticing all that isn't there, unseen plots being hatched in my body, vacant eyes, unfinished symphonies, the missing tooth and empty chair?

All those shadows we're chasing in caves and cave walls. The big one that never was in Iraq and the lives lost looking. Envelops undelivered in the Dead Letter office. Unlived lives.

Interval between the noise. The T.V. announcer at the ball game who knows enough to be silent. If you have nothing say the very least you can do is shut up. (Tom Lehrer). The elongated pause that loses out to the blurt.

Groucho topples power with cigar and raised eyebrow. Harpo communes with heaven and releases the stars. Chico asks how much you pay me if you don’t buy it.

Factories chained. Windows gone. Baseball bubblegum cards vanished with skate keys and football needles. Ink eradicator. Runner rubbed out stealing second.

The disappeared. Bones in mass graves. Europe irrigated with centuries of blood. Imbecilic wars and unrecorded genius we'll never know. Ground zero.

How my mother used to say, I never heard of such a thing. All that she never....

The space between that makes the music. …and nothin’s plenty for me. Melodies we mourn for when toes tapped. Rhythms and rhymes of life, the fundamental things of, gone by; remember you must. Absense that makes the heart grow.

Punctuation (comma) where art thou? Infinitives and participles splitting and dangling. Sentences I end prepositions with. i no longer follows e except after c. Rules, like rulers, overthrown.

All the incomprehensible words we live with. Derivatives, which do not exist, the untraceable bundling of mortgages; and what is a billion or trillion anything? Unanswered questions and unquestioned answers.

On a something note. Bulbs have sprung with their spectrum of colors. Daffodil and tulip, unrhymed poems filled with ellipsis and Peggy's presence in the next room.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Stars As Brief Candles

I never got around to thanking my parents for not endowing me with any special genes, physical, mental or artistic. It was enough to know that I wasn't a good for nothing kid. Beyond that I have no ambition to rise above the ordinary. Pity the celebrities in our midst.

Of course many of them are also good-for nothing kids, grown up. Early adulation must be the least diagnosed handicap of our times. The suffering of self-delusion can be acute or chronic. Maybe we should hold telethons for these folks where others so inflicted could perform, to catch them from the long fall from grace. For every star in descent there is another in ascendance.

To be put on a pedestal and then put under it must be a painful procedure. Shakespeare said of glory, " it enlarges like a circle in water, till by broad spreading disperses itself to naught."

We have our athletes who generally flame out before they know it and our personalities in the entertainment field who are often little more than a pretty face. The cult of idolatry has also reached into politics, at times indistinguishable from the aforementioned, as with Sarah Palin whose claim on our attention rests with the anticipation of her next gaffe.

From JFK on to Barack Obama we have a way of projecting our pent up wishes and dreams on men turned into icons. No-Drama Obama has resisted this trap but such are the demands in a mass society to stage media events, at least while campaigning.

Those who adorn magazine covers are our royalty whose antecedents in ancient societies proclaimed their chosen for an annual reign and then offered them as human sacrifice to propitiate the gods.

The constant in all this seems to be the human need for transcendence, to extend or expand our measly lives for one greater and beyond. The ritual is complete when we partake of their fall. The hero has a thousand faces but may be nothing more than a consumer product which must be exposed, un-made and consumed.

I ought to separate these perishable kings and queens for a day from the deserving men and women whose achievements rightfully endure. We know who they are and the term, celebrity, is no proper fit. On the noise-meter they score low and probably have fewer friends on Facebook than the average high school dropout.

Our current age of celebrity has blunted our discernment and reasoning. We have trouble prioritizing what we had for breakfast from the latest breakthrough in mapping the human genome.

Given the fissures and disfigurement of society we've come to rely on celebs, interchangeable as they may be, to smile back at us. Through the glitter of L.E.D. lights we can no longer see the firmament but there is always the constancy of these other stars to assure us that all's well enough to get us through the night.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

As The Earth Quakes

The world won’t hold still for a minute and that’s not a bad thing if you’ve been living in much of Africa and Asia uncertain each day about surviving the next. While some of us quibble about broken narratives or fragmented routines we are witnessing the ten days that shook the planet, then another and another.

Permanence has always been an illusion; a construct we lull ourselves to sleep with. If, by accident, you live near the top of the heap you call it order, stability, tradition. If you’re on the bottom you heave and surge until tectonic plates shift.

At home Republicans are intoxicated, all strut and swagger, driving the country recklessly under the influence. They are running drunk with scissors shredding their bogeyman, government. They have overthrown FDR. Now they want the clock wound back a hundred years or more. Let the ground rumble under their feet and in their overeach may their plug be pulled.

Artists live with flux. They see around corners. When the unknown arrives disguised as ugly they see through it. They call it possibility or permission. They dare it or praise it or find its mirror. They prepare us for overthrow. They issue us letters of transit from here to there.

6.5 in New Zealand at Christ's Church
(of all places)
with rubble in Benghazi.
Oil up. Dow down. Humpty’s dumped.
Topsy’s been turvied. Seismic changes on the map.
A tsunami of people deconstruct the square.
Street vendor’s finger on the Richter scale.

Republicans drinking caffeinated Koch.
retrofit to lassaiz-faire. Unions brought to rubble.
Wisconsin is in Illinois. Arizona shoots to kill.
Texas at the O.K. Corral.

I’m hearing Woody Guthrie, America singing
Blues, Whitman’s yawp, made for you and me,
ain’t nobody going to turn us around.
New anthems heard
from the statehouse in Madison
to the shores of Tripoli.