Monday, May 30, 2011

Bridging Differences

I can imagine a few friends thinking, How can Norm think that way about Israel? Otherwise he’s a thoughtful and decent guy. But here he’s a dunderhead.

At the same time I’m thinking, How can F and R say what they do about Israel? They seem like rational guys who feel compassion towards others, but now they are thinking tribally.

Politics, today more than ever, seems hopelessly bi-polar with so many hot-button issues. Each side has its own set of facts not shared by the opposition. Forgotten in the heated exchange is the emotional dimension which may account for our place on the spectrum. It may also be the closet which needs to be opened and sorted out if there is any hope for a civil conversation. Otherwise we are just shouting across the chasm.

The purpose is not just to have a Kumbaya moment, but to find a path toward self-discovery. What can hurt? Some of our most cherished beliefs might be traced back to emulating or defying a parent or staking a position as an act of individuating early on.

In the travails of my adolescence I found a rather hermetic home in Marxist philosophy. I can see now how that closed and exclusionary thought-system set me apart in ways which served some neurotic needs. Drawing open that curtain does not necessarily invalidate the conviction but its provenance can be the first step in loosening its grip and viewing it more objectively. If the psyche was bruised we might even remove some scar tissue.

Enter: David Brooks, the center-right wing New York Times columnist and author of, The Social Animal. In it he argues that intractable social problems can best be approached by an awareness of how our passions and intuition have a place alongside the usual rational and cognitive elements. In fact, he argues, emotions already play a far greater part in problem-solving than we give them credit for.

As an example of the impact that unconscious forces have upon decision-making he offers the recognition of weaknesses and how we control those impulses. That would include guilt, and the compensatory responses we use to express it. Some may identify with our brethren who lost their lives in the Holocaust while we escaped by accident of birth and geography. “Never again”, is their mantra as if WW II were being re-enacted.

Brooks doesn’t enter into a disquisition on the Israeli / Palestinian divide nor do I wish to examine the volleys from the respective arsenals. I am interested more in finding the thought-process which might lead toward a common denominator between people who generally share the same value system except for these emotionally charged subjects.

Others dis-identify with what they regard as the aggressive behavior of Israel as well as the victimhood stance of present day Israelis. Their empathy has attached itself toward the perceived new victims, the Palestinians.

Both sides claim empathy and the moral high ground. They would do well to trace the origins of their rhetorical geyser to its emotional spring. Human relationships which include generosity of spirit and a true taking in of the other person have the power to bridge differences or at least lower the decibels of discourse and un-stick ourselves from heavily laden labels.

Brooks cites our invasion of Iraq as an example in which policy was made with insufficient weight given to non-cognitive street-smarts concerning the threat our presence posed to their cultural mores.

The cold calculation as applied to the financial sector also failed to weigh the reckless risk-taking and insatiable greed of the players as they declared outrageous bonuses for their nefarious deeds. We now know how irrational the privileged class can act.

The point is that we develop a set of arguments which we regard as just, historically supportable and well-reasoned. The words are often incendiary even as they issue from our mouth, limp and weary from over-use. The debate proceeds like a reflexively-played chess game on a less conscious level than we care to admit.

We need to bring together the full dimension of mind, heart and glands into the discussion and, more importantly, into our daily being.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

From Head To Toe

Off the top of my head I think of how I’ve hit nails right on them and fallen over mine with my heels. It feels good when I have my head on straight and even more rewarding when it goes awry for brief excursions. We’ve been told what a terrible thing it is to waste. We have a bit to say about that but just south of the mind/brain is our assigned face about which we deserve no credit nor blame, yet must come to terms with.

I’ve grown accustomed to my face. It took a few decades before I resigned myself to my lot. Early on, before shaving, I seldom looked in the mirror. By early adolescence I probably had more pimples than hairs; at least that’s all I saw. Growing up I only knew that I bore no resemblance to Henry Fonda or Cary Grant. Even now I sometimes question if I’d recognize myself if I ran into me in an elevator.

I wonder also to what extent our disposition is revealed by our eyes, our smile or the arrangement of our mouth. Do frowns, smirks or jaundiced eyes take over on the cynic’s face? Does a sour puss have a sour puss?

We just got pictures back from Peggy’s party. I did indeed recognize myself……or was it just that great shirt I was wearing? Some close-up shots were cruel and unusual to look at. My face was so red I looked like I was ready to open up a casino.

Maybe over time we grow into our face sculpting it with seasons of angst and seasons of love. Our sense of the absurd must also find a place between the ears. Just by giving our assent and owning it all, has to count for something. We can’t alter our advancing nose or the retreating remains but I’d to believe that generosity and forgiveness register themselves somewhere.

I doubt if toes get as much attention throughout our lifetime as in that first moment of birth when they are counted as a sign of normalcy if they number ten, no more, no less.

Unforgettable are those days when my mother took me for new shoes and I got to see my toes in the fluoroscope? Little did we know I was being irradiated. The fit of the shoe always rested on the wiggle room of my toes.

I was once famous, in my family, for the perfection of my toes. They were so well-behaved, lined up like boy scouts in the hierarchy of toe-ness. And they knew their place. Not only were they well shaped but strong, as toes go. My daughters called me Chief Big Toe when I demonstrated my prowess picking up marbles and even a hand of cards.

Now my toes have fallen from grace to disgrace; my nails, that is. There was a time when I broke scissors on them, so tough were they. Now they have grown sick and ugly, one by one, riddled with some fungus disease which blackens the nail. I don‘t want to talk about them. They have turned on me and don‘t deserve my mention unless one can cultivate an appreciation from the fungus’ point of view. I suppose they have provided a homeland for the much maligned, onchomycosis. It is often called jungle rot but I haven’t been to any jungle I know of; and certainly not barefooted.

Over a lifetime we stub our toes and tap them, go toe to toe and trip our toe on the light fantastic. They get their final due in the clich├ęd morgue scene when an I.D. is tagged onto the big toe. They bookend our lives from cradle to grave.

And so, from crown to toe, between eye of newt and toe of frog, therein hangs a tale.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mid-Century Night's Dream

Mid-Century Night’s Dream In the year 2050, when I’m 117, I’m on my way to Costco to pick up a modular of lungs and kidneys. Mine have run out of warranty. But first I have to park my car which runs on pee. I get about 100 miles to the bladder. No problemo, as they say, in Waziristan, since vehicles are stacked vertically and retrieved by entering my cage number at the check stand.

I might first grab a hot dog still $1.50 after all these years or a virtual hot dog available at the vending machine where for a buck I can have the sensation of having eaten one without the calories or carbs. Both are bargains compared to the $6.00 stamp for a letter.

As usual Costco makes me buy three organs at a time just as cereal is sold by the silo and oranges by the grove. If I don’t manage to sell off the remainder while waiting in line I can always go around door to door. I wonder if they’ll take back the neck I bought last year to replace mine which I sold to a turkey.

The buzz is that Melia Obama is going to run for a second term if she doesn’t get stiff opposition from an aging Chelsea Clinton. Either is regarded as a shoe-in now that the Republicans have been exposed for what they are and garner no more than 5% of the vote. That figure represents the actual number of privileged people who have off-shore bank accounts, read Ayn Rand and sleep with guns in their pajama pocket. They are currently pushing for a law that makes it mandatory for pregnant women to drive in the carpool lane on the freeway.

Ever since the Israeli/Palestinian dispute was settled 21 years ago it has been considered fashionable to have Bar Mitzvahs in Baghdad. Klezmer bands are hot with Hamas and designer prayer rugs are all the rage in Tel Aviv. Business is said to be booming at the Suicide Bomber Museum with re-enactments a favorite with nostalgia buffs. The pirates of Somalia are now the world’s greatest theme park.

Oceans continue to rise as plastic bags from Gelsons have been spotted washing ashore in Greek Isles while chunks of Greenland are floating in Galveston Bay where Galveston used to be. The Council of Deniers is meeting this year under water in Malibu. They have passed a resolution that glaciers never existed in Glacier National Park.

Those who have not yet had I-phones, pods and pads implanted in their hands are urged to do so. It is now an out-patient procedure along with a triple bi-pass and prostatectomy.

It’s great to have lived so long even if we are a second rate country with Brazil and China in the lead. Many U.S. citizens have found work in Beijing opening up American laundries while others are taking Portuguese as a third language behind English and Trash. North Korea has branded us a rogue state, given our arsenal of nuclear weapons. Many English-speaking people are slipping into Mexico to pick their avocado crop.

Of course we still have baseball even if we must travel to the Dominican Republic to see a ballgame. Now that Cuba has granted us recognition our application for foreign aid stands a better chance.

Dial-a-Dream has been a major breakthrough for insomniacs. It’s been a good eight hours and I suppose I should wake up.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Waiting Rooms

An …ologist for every organ. In a single week we might spend time, between us, with a dermatologist, ophthalmologist, cardiologist, neurologist and oncologist; to say nothing of internist and orthopedist. In addition we know the fish tanks, art works and magazine selections of phlebotomists, laboratory and X-Ray technicians, and out-patient surgeries. And then there’s our dentist. Cracked teeth, crowns and implants seem to be the latest cash-cow among our friends these days.

Still, all our equipment is original, minus an organ here and there. One gets emotionally attached to one’s body parts. I’m even starting to mourn my haircuts as my bald spots claim more scalp. Just protecting what we’ve got takes up so much time it’s fair to ask how we ever managed to fit in a vocation.

There are worse places than waiting rooms. Many pages have I read waiting to be called. Of course getting called is just the first station in the drill. I’ve practically gone through a New Yorker half undressed in the examining room, which raises the question whether it is better to sit in the waiting room or wait in the sitting room. My preference is to go through novels fully clothed occasionally glancing up at the fishes.

We never leave the house for an appointment, each without a good read. If it weren’t for doctor visits we’d probably be paying more fines for overdue library books. Of course we also get diverted by a Smithsonian or National Geographic but then we run the risk of learning something………for twenty minutes before forgetting it.

Peggy probably writes more than she reads. She finds examining tables, even gurneys congenial to composing her poems. If she had her hands free she’d surely do it inside an M.R.I. I require a keyboard since I literally can not read a single word of my handwriting. In fact, I have no handwriting. The small muscles controlling my fingers are dysfunctional so that every letter I scrawl looks like part of an E.K.G.

And so we wait….and read ….or write….or ruminate….or sleep. Or maybe talk to each other or a fellow waiter. Some people are eager to tell you how much worse their headache is than yours. But most are supportive and chatty with the company that misery famously loves.

The ultimate waiting room is like a bus idling until a minion is reached taking us to our just dessert. Or the place where the accused paces while the jury weighs or maybe hangs. And these days we don’t even get our parking validated.

However even as our fate awaits us we don’t have to sit around waiting for it. We can rage, now and then, against the dying of the light… thank you Dylan Thomas….or just ignore the whole damn thing. When our name is called we’ll know it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Communication, Heightened Here, Broken There

Saturday, early afternoon, our book group considered Shirley Hazzard’s novel, The Transit of Venus. Her writing was lyrical to some but lost in flight to others as it orbited the room. Like much serious literature her language provoked both gasps of joy and grumbles.

We then raced off to Dodger stadium to witness either an exhibition in offensive ineptitude, the artistry of pitching or both. The single run and lone hit for the victorious opposition came as a result of a miscommunication between our pitcher, catcher and shortstop. The catcher gave hand signals for a pick-off play, not read by the infielder and the winning run scored. Momentary inattention broke the chain. A flubbed gesture of arms so that the good news never reached Ghent. Some what makes it across the abyss and some what fails. During the ballgame we rose, as a collective, for the 7th inning stretch, listened to Irving Berlin’s anthem of God’s blessing and pretended to believe it, as we pretended that the game really mattered. Then we swayed uncaring if we ever got back, under the spell of the popcorn, crackerjacks, green grass and crack-of-the-bat.

Everyone was on the same page at the Lighthouse Cafe, Sunday morning, for the big band of Mike Barone; eighteen musicians seamlessly picking up each other's threads weaving into some crazy quilt. Here was a heated musical conversation between reed and brass punctuated by piano, bass and drum. Trombones and horns answered tenor, alto and baritone sax. Trumpets chased the flight of the bumble bee. Flugelhorn dialoged with dueling saxophones. Melancholy Baby was resonant with our bones as if they were born knowing and had a re-birth rocking us in our chairs. Some of the solos seemed to dive off the Hermosa Beach pier and ride back on the white caps.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Magnificent Muddle

I can feel something pulling me toward simplicity and I don’t like it. There was a time I had penchant for chaos, or at least, a manageable chaos. For most of my years in the pharmacy, where one would assume an orderly dispensing area, I was bored enough to allow a muddle of papers, vials, pens, bottles etc… It was my way of creating a small challenge to find a passage through to order. It wasn’t done intentionally; the seeming disarray evolved as a daily act against repetitive brain disorder. Now I notice my small pleasure when bills get paid, checkbooks are balanced, even when I’m chauffeured around, relieved of navigating. It must be a sign of aging, this intolerance for restaurants which serve NOISE as their specialty. The world is a noisy place, I know, but why seek out ambient decibels to accompany conversation? 

Soldiers are sent off to war as an act of simplifying complex dynamics into poles of good and evil. It provides a semblance of purpose reinforced by danger, as Shirley Hazzard put it. Every nation seizes the moral high ground with noble words and enough bombast to dispel doubt. Doubt is my default position. One of my most enduring lines, which Peggy commissioned to be written in a calligraphic hand and then framed, comes from a poem I wrote about friends who joined the Jim Jones sect. The phrase is, Dying begins when doubt is forbidden. I intend to keep alive by doubting and allowing loose ends to dangle. When I reach a point of irresolution I know I’m getting close to the truth, noisy as it is… the book or poem which throws me out of the car in an unknown place yet also feels familiar because this is where I live. The painting which claims my attention for its deliberate blur or distortion of what is safe or easy. The piece of music that has me stretching to a spot off the map. 

When I set out to write a blog like this, the blank page is another country. The vehicle runs on fumes of language. It sputters and lunges as if I have a drunken co-pilot. It has me walking like Groucho or Chaplin. I heard an entomologist say that the reason we are afraid of bugs is that we can’t predict the pattern of their movement. We have trouble making room for zigs and zags. Yet there is also the impulse to push button and walk across the street just like the chicken. Maybe aging happens on two tracks; one wants to seize the day, grab it by the collar and slap it around until it’s under our control and yields some meaning. The other takes us through a dreamscape with Mr. Rios, that mysterious companion, whispering in our ears to release our grip and let it all happen. At some point the simple and ambiguous converge. Maybe it was both, all along, simply unknown in terms of how things work and unknowable in so far as why. I shall open the window and let in the clamor as the garbage truck backs up; after all, it’s my garbage they are collecting. 
What starts off as a simple pastoral scene, confluence of bat and ball, has me running, in these later innings, uphill around the bases. I am rounding third trying to stretch a triple into an inside the park home run. Now I'm sprawled out in a cloud of dirt, a grainy tangle that could be a Rauschenburg collage of bodies, opposing uniforms contorted with blazing numbers, 32,609 umpires in the stands and the dark shadow of the final arbiter bent over, ready to pronounce me safe or out.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


When I was a street urchin just out of knee pants I had four best friends. Johnny Kassabian was in the apartment next door. Peter Dalebrook lived on the other side of the building and Frank Loeb was across the street. Stanley, my life-long brother, was six blocks away. Only Frank and Stanley liked each other. All the rest never hit it off. I've always wondered how I could befriend people who weren't friends with one another. Isn't that a violation of some geometric theorem?

Fifty-five of our closest friends gathered for Peggy & Sam's 180th birthday bash yesterday. Many had never met before but as far as I know there were no food fights or even minor skirmishes. It was such a pleasure to see people mingle and spark the air with their own particular voltage. New geometric configurations everywhere I looked. Most of us are still vertical; some bent, a bit diagonal. By my arithmetic there was about 4,000 years of wisdom and folly under that roof. Talk of infirmities was put aside. I heard more about plans than memories; upcoming travel to New York, Glasgow, Paris or Barcelona. I can't decide whether to go to Cornwall or Costco. Still ripe, not yet deciduous, we are.

I'm sure any of us could gather a like number of friends who may not have met before. It shows the many facets in the diamond. Old friends, new friends, friends of friends, neighbor friends, poetry friends, sports buddies, literary junkies, music aficionados, movie buffs and friends you forgot from where or how but just plain love. Often it turns out that old friends make new friends from the mix and that is gratifying. Lately I've noticed how some are just one friend away from having known us all along. But I suppose when you live in a small town like Los Angeles these things can happen.

Many of our friends are happily retired now, well into their second or third incarnation, re-making the world. In the room were potters, printmaker, photographer and poets, dancer, singer, musician, woodworker, artist, essayist and thinkers of great thoughts. Some have never stopped their movie-making and playwriting; many electrons bumping into each other and charging the air; many hills of beans. In addition are most of us, fully present as caring persons whom we hold close.

I told Sam that he is the ideal ex-husband-in-law, how we’ve grown close as extended family. And how I first met him and Peggy 54 years ago when they hosted a UCLA poetry group…. even though neither of them remember me since I was just a slip of a lad. We go way back and will continue to be here for one another, for better or wrose through surgeries or holidays.

Here are the words I put together to toast Peggy:

Peggy at Ninety

Of all the gin joints in the galaxy
we met first in ’57 when I was mere
and you were already launched
into orbits of art and leafy things

then in 1980 when our way was milky
my Fahrenheit frost, your centigrade sun
abruptly ablaze,
a glance became an avalanche
you effervesced in an eighth day of creation
glaciers calved from rupture to rapture
you Buzzed my Berkley, Budda’d my Pest
and we traveled through this
heart of light and darkness
the Africa of you, your Sahara and Serengeti
my call to prayer.
Not just your adjectives, laden as they are
but the verb of you
its many swerves and swoops
you make the gibbous moon, full.

How I witness you un-moored,
your voyage out,
singing with the genius of the sea
even in your Krishnamurti hush
seeing what is
you are the quiet noticer of rust
the peeling crust of masonry,
you rescue weeds, read
the calligraphy of un-leafed trees.
What feeds the violet on the sill
if not your spirit in the fuse,
who like Yahweh does a constant collage;
you architect the shards.

You are my high and low holidays,
my feast and my fast.
Your birthday is mine, each morning a genesis,
an afternoon exodus, an evening revelation and return.

Now at ninety, the fiction of calendars.
Ninety cannot even keep a straight face
so curvolinear it is. A kind of fuzzy math is at work
where you lose a year at each birthday.
Soon I’ll be a nonagenarian and you……
a Yes-Yes genarian

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mother's Day

Barely in time for Mother’s Day, some important news just reached me about my mother. The true where and when of her comes from my daughter, Lauren, who plumbed the archives and discovered that my dear departed Mom did not take the A train from the Bronx into this world on January 1st, 1900, as she always claimed. Instead she arrived here as a toddler in steerage from the shtetel probably a year or two before that.

We now know that my grandparents checked in at Ellis Island sometime in 1900. The only way she could have been born here, as she said, is if the boat landed at dawn and her mother gave birth that afternoon. Sorry to take away that auspicious birthday but it is likely a fib. Why quibble about the time and place?; because her secret tells me much about her and myself.

(My friend, Ed, once told me of a visit to his Grandpa, after many months away. During that interval Ed had grown a mustache. When the old man opened the door and saw his face he ran and hid in the closet. His mind had snapped back to those days of pogroms. Cossacks had the mustache. Jews had the beards.)

In those days new arrivals had much to put behind them. Life among the Jewish peasantry of Eastern Europe was filled with dread and danger. A knock on the door or the sound of hooves was a signal to hide. Secrecy and cunning were necessary for survival which translated well into the push-cart life in America along with a high value for education, helping them to assimilate.

In contrast to these immigrants who were heavily liberal Democrats are the more recently arrived Russian Jews. My experience with those who emigrated during the last decade of the U.S.S.R., is of a population which retains their native language, despises Gorbachev and votes as a Republican block. They tend to be observant in religion and are congenital entrepreneurs. They straddle the Communist culture of entitlement while embracing opportunistic Capitalism. But I digress.

My mother was a fearful person frightened, I suspect, by her five brothers who themselves carried their early traumas into the household. No wonder she spent her life dis-identifying with the Old World. The fiction of her birth date in New York City must have been prompted by a mixture of shame and her need for re-invention. She stuck to her story and deserves credit for her imagination.

Until the end, when she mellowed a bit, her days were spent planning for worst case scenarios; she squeezed some life from my hand, crossing the street as if cars were assassins, merchants out to steal her purse, landlords gouging her on the rent. Even as she concealed her true birthplace she revealed it in all the curses she carried in her mouth and the aggravation that stooped her back.

I tried to hold my mother as a negative model. I would speak softly, trust everyone and presume benign traffic in the world. However I also own my inheritance. I absorbed her denial of tradition, avoided Yiddish roots and rituals and anything with a whiff of the Old World as if I, too, had just fled mustachioed Cossacks ready to loot my village. If this explains the genesis of my disdain so be it. I prefer to think of it as an affirmation rather than a rejection. My belief turns toward a universality that bridges differences and celebrates life across borders and walls. Bless my mother for her arduous journey and her great fabrication which landed me here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Head Of The Dragon

After all the back-slapping, breast-beating, drinking and dancing on Osama's watery grave, comes the sobering slap in the face that, dead or alive, nothing much has changed except Al Quaeda needs a new poster boy and the president gets a needed bump in the polls.

For ten years we have been shadow boxing. At a great cost of lives, resources and a bending of the American psyche we have sought Osama bin Laden's head on a platter as if that were the single embodiment of all villany. Now that we've decapitated the dragon is the matter settled? Have their perceived grievances been addressed? Is it justice that has been served or retribution? Does death ever bring closure? It does to those who think in punitive terms in that interminable cycle exchanging eyes for teeth.

In psychological parlance shadow is one's disowned self. There is much in our culture and our geo-politics that is seen as threatening by the Muslim world. To some extent, that view is shared by American fundamentalists. Both rant about a secular, godless society, about vulgar language, images and about those fissures in society which foreshadow rapid changes in mores and family structures. Shake hands with the American religious right. While the changes that modernity has brought cannot be reversed we must let them evolve according to the traditions and mores of each country however repugnant their social order may be to us.

Certainly the tribal authority and upheaval of woman's role is at stake. Our collective glee over bin Laden's demise feels fairly tribal, to me, also harkening back a few thousand years.

I understand the national grief of 9/11 and the state of siege we have lived with since then, to one degree or another. However isn't this hunt and slaying of the designated evildoer more symbolic and illusory than real? I'm inclined to reserve my celebration for the day we bring our legions home. A strong case can be made that American troops on foreign soil engender the very terrorism that we seek to eliminate. Is it really a good day for America or an occasion to reflect on our goals and the price we have paid subordinating means to ends.