Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Peggy Day

Peggy will be 50 years into her forties on Monday. This will make her ninety by the fiction of the calendar but I've seen nonagenarians and she's no nona.

At one time she had twelve years on me but since we've been together she has taken off a year each birthday and now I'm older. The disparity in our ages has become my challenge to keep up with her imaginative energy.

Every day I bear witness to her creative burst. She is effervescent, writing a poem a day for the past 8 months. There’s nothing to it when you are plugged into the muse, overhearing the music of the realm and noticing the extraordinary ordinary that passes by us mere mortals.

Even as stenosis narrows her spine she shows no shortness of breadth. Her enthusiasm for life takes her to the far reaches beyond all margins. Her collages are visual poems rubbing disparate images together to create sparks.

Her words on paper probe and extend the limits of language. Often I will run into the market to pick up a few items and when I return she has written a poem based on a casual observation in the parking lot, juxtaposed with some remark from the radio drizzled with a dream figure and an old song lyric thrown in. She breathes a rarefied air.

Even more than the making of a poem is the living as a poet. Peggy listens with antenna ears, sees with connectivity and thinks metaphorically, at the ready to transform this into that. No stump goes un-noted, no night sky; even our short walks find her salvaging a mottled leaf or pod.

She can't be in a waiting room for a minute if she doesn't strike up a conversation with another woman, nurse or technician. She'll make a new sister or she'll be Mom to a young person she didn't know ten minutes before.

Four score and ten is a lot of bubble baths, a lot of quiet moments between the exuberance which people don't see much when she might be meditating or journal- writing or filling her common place book, a chronicle of assorted articles, art pieces cut from magazines, ticket stubs, greeting cards etc... I even made the cut with some of my poems.

Three years ago I wrote:

Four score and seven years ago
your mother brought forth
in the continent of her arms
a new notion
conceived in libidity
and dedicated to prepositions
and exclamation points
of which there is no created sequel.

I stand amazed with it all .......her elongation of youth, an ageless presence, a life fully lived, irrepressible in its wonderment. My only wish is for many more May 2nds in our astonishing life together.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Footnote To Pharmacy

About halfway into my somnambulance as a pharmacist I discovered some choices within the choice I had made. I found my satisfaction in that special relationship with customers/patients. It is unique to see the same people at regular intervals over a period of years, knowing what keeps them alive, literally, and yet not quite knowing them personally. I got to know many of them in ways unrelated to their medications.

At the same time the definition of what a pharmacist does had changed from dispenser to consultant. We were allowed to have ancillary help who could also count to 30 while we would discuss the use, cautions and management associated with the meds. This was the human interchange that lifted me out of the confined space and woke up my senses.

I had grown weary staring down apothecary jars or trying to coax the mystery out of elixirs. I experienced the person standing on the other side of the counter, the troubles, anxieties, ways of coping and, at times, their full dimension.  It was enough that I offered my listening ear.

This was my portal out of that petty space. I discovered poetry by the late seventies gradually finding my voice which grew organically out of my life as a merchant/pharmacist along with all the other cargo I carried.

I started writing what would pass for poetry. I attended a workshop around 1976 run by a respected poet with well-established writers. After a year at it I left and was told that I had yet to write a poem. The leader, Alvarro Cardona-Hine, insisted that a poem cannot be willed, that it comes intuitively, unbidden. I feel strongly both ways. The idea can be deliberate but the lines come from a confrontation with my unknowing and the transformation slips in from out of the language itself.

Nowadays most poetry I come across seems like carefully ruined prose, a chopped up paragraph with a jagged right hand margin. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have no use for categories; they remind me too much of Pharmacy.

The word poetry or poetic is used today to describe something beautiful or a piece of writing with elevated language. For a poet, the last thing he wants is to write poetically. Too precious, too limp from overuse.

In 1980, about the time when I started doing poetry readings, I had also bought my own pharmacy and more importantly I met Peggy. Everything that has happened since, I credit to her muse, her spirit, her love. If transformation is the operative word I had much to transform.

As for pharmacy or any other work situation one might feel trapped in, I offer this advice: infinite possibilities, maybe everything, is contained in anything.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

White Paper

When I sat down to write the previous two blogs about Pencils and Pharmacy the single image I had in mind got lost in the shuffle. It was the 4 ¼ X 5 ½ inch white paper called an Rx or prescription; perhaps the last such hand-written note still in use in our daily life. Shopping lists are as ephemeral as poems written on napkins. Restaurant receipts, even dry cleaner stubs, are print-outs but prescriptions remain in much the same form as they did a century ago. They are actually legal documents, required by law to be retained from three to ten years.

So why are Rxs seemingly scribbled as if the doctor was breaking in a new pen? Is the writing deliberately careless or carefully unintelligible as if to preserve its arcane roots? It says to the patient, don’t ask questions, just do as you’re told. Even today an Rx preserves scraps of abbreviated Latin and a residue of its esoteric history. Most pharmacists can spot a forgery. The neat penmanship a dead giveaway; it lacks the authority and disdain for clarity of a true prescriber.

A prescription is a hot potato fraught with potential ambiguities. For example, Q.D. (one daily) can be read as Q.I.D (4 times a day) if the pen slides or a spec of lint lands and makes the dot between the Q and the D more than a dot. A grain (gr.) which is a measure from the apothecary system is easily confused with gram (gm.) from the metric system. The more I think about all this I seem to be getting a brain ache and I suddenly remember why I retired.

Some doctors have a habit of embroidering their Rx with redundant Latin phraseology such as misce et fiat which means mix and make where there is nothing to be either mixed or made, but simply counted. Liquid preparations still bear the old q.s. to indicate quantity. These are initials for quantum sufficit a medieval way of saying how many ounces. The signifier, Rx, is short for recipe, which means, take. The symbol is also claimed by astrologers and Greek scholars.

A patient hands me the white paper as I stand on a raised platform, as if a pedestal. From that angle, stationed between globes of colored water, I become a descendent of the brother/sister hood of shamans and alchemists. Instead of stirring a potion of plucked feathers, bark and berry I have merely to read the Rx and pluck the product off the shelf.

Every doctor seems to have his/her sui generis way of prescribing. Some have chicken scratching only a mother could love. Others have their own shorthand meaningless to any but the pharmacist in their building. My first prescription was written as P.B. I had no idea what that was. As I looked at it quizzically the patient said to me, Don’t you have any Phenobarbital? This was an abbreviation not recognized in academia. (It could just as well have meant, Pentobarbital). I received my initiation in the real world.

Whatever romance of the sorcerer is attached to a prescription written with a flourish there is an accompanying danger of misreading the name, strength or directions. It happened to me a few times though without grave consequences, I’d like to believe… or is that why some regular customers didn’t return? The pharmacist’s lot is not a happy lot, happy lot.

In this computer age more prescriptions are being transmitted electronically. At Kaiser-Permanenteas well as other medical facilities, all medical records including lab results and prescriptions are entered in their data base to be shared by every doctor and checked for contra-indications or duplications.

Soon every Rx will look the same; Ariel or New Times Roman. Much safer but much less collectible as an artifact of squiggly lines. A reasonable trade-off, I think. A time may come when archeologists in pith helmets will sift through ruins of ancient cities pulling out these curious odd white papers in scribbled glyphs.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

My Enigma Of Arrival

1950. I walked up the subway steps right into the four story brick building that would be something like my penal servitude for the next four years. Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, I'm told, is now a mosque. Rules, like bricks, upon rules. A part of my body shut down from day one. It was my brain. If I were conscious I would have turned around. But I set aside my enthusiasm for language, history and geo-politics. 

Instead of following my bliss I walked into a Blitz. A bombardment of memorizations, structural formulas, botanical origins and pre-digested monographs most of which were soon to fall into disrepute. Faraday's Law, Pythagorean theorems, Avogadro's number, the Krebs Cycle... all that's left are the names and scar tissue on that part of my cortex. 

We swallowed a compendium of obsolescence. During those four years pharmacy would change from the rather mystical, arcane compounding of crude drugs into the dispensing of counted and poured pre-packaged preparations. It became deodorized. We were taught about elixirs, excrescences and exudates. The macerated leaves and dried roots, fluidextracts and decoctions, the substances and techniques of past centuries that were largely discarded by 1954. 

 My vocabulary expanded. I now had a set of exotic polysyllabic words to drop at a cocktail party but, alas, belonging to a universe gone by. We learned how to role suppositories, the art of making emulsions from immiscible liquids, and the weights needed for the torsion scale to measure individual powders. During the subsequent 53 years I was never once called upon to use this knowledge. Minim by minim, scruple by scruple the old world gave way. 

Even if I had been prepared for the real world of pharmacy I had only a passing interest in the subject. As if my mind had been pulverized in a mortar with a pestle, my imaginative life was ground into dust. Now I return as an archeologist might return to an excavation site piecing together shards from the rubble and blur. 

Math and science came easily to me in high school. My preoccupation was politics. I was not an avid reader of literature. English composition was my poorest subject. The logic of my grades led me to pharmacy. I should add that my father was a pharmacist and his footsteps marked a path I might well follow. Here is a case of the illogic of logic. What is not factored in is how little I knew of myself, my fears, and my buried passions. In those days one could major in the Humanities at a university. Had I done so I believe I would have found a more congruent place to be creative and open a few more doors in my mansion. 

At the time making a living was not far from the mind of my parents whose head was still haunted by the Depression years. Pharmacy as a profession would always give me something to fall back on. That it did. I fell back on it for over fifty years and paid a price. Enigma of Arrival is the name of a V.S. Naipaul book taken from a painting by Chirico which depicts a mysterious, shadowy port city; the piece of a narrative perhaps. I've tried to capture my passage through a door not meant to be mine.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Arguably the greatest technological breakthrough in history (next to Saran Wrap) is the pencil. It gave us art, design, communication, and education.......even if I can't read my own hand-writing.

Of course lead pencils haven't been made from lead since the Romans wrote themselves off. Graphite took over from the lead stylus in the 1500's. At first the graphite was wrapped in string. The wood casing has claimed many trees since then but for a worthy cause. There are currently 15 billion pencils manufactured each year.

Why yellow, I hear you ask. Because around 1900 the best ones came from China and yellow represented royalty. No longer true but the color persists except when it doesn't as in reddish ones.

In spite of pens, typewriters and computers, pencils are so abundant we hardly notice them. One pencil can write 45,000 words and go on for 35 miles. I'll take their word for it.

Imagine going to school without one, back when. We even had pencil sharpener monitors..... a minor post along with eraser or milk monitor but one had to start somewhere.

Erasers are an American phenomena. Europeans evidently don't make mistakes; at least they do not attach them to their pencils. A good eraser might have averted a war or two. We allow for them; think of them as teachable moments. Thomas Edison never left home without one.

Ben Franklin sold pencils. Thoreau manufactured them from New England cedar. Frank Lloyd Wright drew with them. Steinbeck went through over 50 pencils a day writing Grapes of Wrath. Most people use a number two pencil. Peggy insists on the softer number one....which is not the only reason I married her.

Engineer-types keep theirs in a shirt pocket. My father wore his pencil on his ear. I don't see that anymore. I have always associated his short stubby pencil with a kind of austerity as if he were willing to see it through to its end however the inconvenience; a kind of denial of self along with his preference for the tapered ends of rye bread.

Imagine all the stories a pencil could tell, well-traveled from office to home, consigned for years in an old suit, then recovered and given extended life, always at the ready. From doodles to shopping lists to brainstorms; a history of fingers with no acknowledged trace.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Assessing Obama

Obama's Ship of State is under siege and not only from the low-information-high decibel and virulent far right. His left flank is also shooting canon balls over the bow. Some of them are whining over unfulfilled wet dreams, others say he got his priorities wrong or coddled the bankers or relinquished his bully pulpit. As more progressives disown the president they seem heedless of the center-right drift in the political spectrum caused, in part, by the vacuum left by their absence.

We are told that Obama has lost the narrative as if there is only one ball to carry and he fumbled it running down the field. The world unfolds at the rate of a crisis-a-week. There is not one narrative but a dozen. To think otherwise is simplistic.

Ronald Reagan offered us Morning in America and the Evil Empire.....pablum for the sloganeers. What we now call, the narrative such as Big Government, Tough on Crime is nothing more than micro sound bites for the lazy mind. If Obama hasn't found the 2 or 3-word bumper-sticker to match his Yes We Can it's because governance is more complex than campaigning.

Is it fair to criticize his deliberate nature or inherent propensity toward conciliation? This is the man we admired for those very traits. Is he too smart for the office? Perhaps so, unable, at times, to reduce complex issues into a simple coherent message. Maybe his greatest fault is that he assumes we are intelligent grown-ups able to hold conflicting, even oppositional, ideas in our minds at the same time and accept something less than full resolution.

As one branch of a tripartite government how can an agenda be moved when the other two parts are intransigent at best or in the pocket of the opposition, at worst. Are we to measure the success of a presidency by how well the administration has reduced his program to a story line while at the same time presiding over an empire in decline, natural and man-made disasters unfolding at unprecedented rate, institutional corporate greed and an adversary whose aim is nothing less than the dissolution of government, itself?

I am well aware of all the compromises he has had to make, all the turnarounds and abandonment of promises however this is the nature of a pragmatic executive. If we must grieve, grieve for the cynicism that Conservatives have engendered. Grieve for the lost constituency that didn't vote in Massachusetts and the no-shows in Florida and Wisconsin.

If indeed, the Republicans have the dominant narrative thanks to Fox News and a consumptive society with a herd mentality, it is the one which they have been salivating over for decades; namely that social programs have raided the treasury when, in fact, it is the gamblers in finance who have destroyed millions of lives. If they had their way we would all step into a time tunnel and emerge in 1880 before income tax, anti-trust laws and the right to collectively bargain.

A compelling narrative for the Obama re-election might speak to the subversion of the Conservative movement; how it is misaligned with job creation and a more equitable distribution of wealth and available services. How Obama saved the auto industry, re-started the engine of lending institutions, curbed reckless practices of mines and oil drilling, resists the erosion of food, drug and environmental protection agencies. How he has begun to articulate a new foreign policy, while mindful of humanitarian calamities, resists U.S. intervention in favor of trade and diplomatic pressures. How he has begun to reverse the misadventures of the Bush era Neo-Cons. Can he find a way to articulate that Taxes are not a venal sin; that corporations do not pay their share and this is why we are in debt? More than can fit on a bumper sticker but hopefully a message which can waken the semi-comatose voter not to vote against himself.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Apples And Oranges

Like baseballs in size and shape.
Pitchers wish their Sunkist sliders
had that pebbled grip with its hundred pocks
or a jug-handle curve dropped
like an apple from the knowledge tree
and died at home plate.

In the Queen's Navy sailors died of scurvy,
citrus-starved. Bless the bloody orange
for its C, and bless bioflavanoids
and bergamot Earl Grey tea, rutin-filled rind,
bitter but better than butter
as many people nowadays like marmalade instead.

Bless Valencia's nectar, and the ten commanded
segments of the Navel, so peelable,
so Ronald Reagan, America’s drink
as when he proclaimed, Morning in America
even though every orange has resisted rhyme
and probably always will

unlike apples which grapple
with their rhyme as haps in crab-apps.
Grannysmith bopped Newton on his grave noggin.
Poisoned was the Pink Lady from the witch’s shelf.
Tell that to William when his arrow split the apple
on the head of his quivering son.

By Jove, buy Jonathan, buy Jobs
ask any owner of a Mac
standing sentry at the gate.
They'd sooner be bitten by the snake
than expelled from the Eden
of their bitten Mac.

Peggy takes her Fuji with knife and claw;
I crunch mine, tooth to core
Gala, they hung forbidden on the know-no tree.
Delicious, was that first bite which brought
the wrath of God and homelessness
in that garden of apples and oranges, evil and good.