Thursday, June 30, 2011

A More Perfect Union

What’s a young and beautiful country like us (U.S.) doing with a decrepit constitution like the one we have? Isn’t it time to reconstitute the Constitution and what better time of the year? It is not a sacred text, Scalia to the contrary notwithstanding. The very prerogatives claimed by the Supreme Court are not specified, but asserted early on by John Marshall.

It was flawed then and 27 amendments later it is arguably more flawed. Of the 900 attempted amendments less than three percent made it through the arduous process. First the floundering fathers institutionalized slavery which took a century to fix and another century to enforce with true voting rights. In today’s world it stands as possibly the most undemocratic document among modern states. Washington and Jefferson recognized the need for change before the ink was dry; hence, the Bill of Rights. In fact Jefferson argued that a constitutional convention be convened every 20 years.

Much of the original document was designed to appease the small states so they wouldn’t be swallowed by the giants, Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. Now with two centuries of unimagined population growth, on both coasts, plus Texas and Illinois, we have a Senate which ranks lower than even the House of Lords, in disproportionate representation, since Blair dissolved the old peerage system. How does Wyoming with less than 500,000 people have the same two senators as California with 38 million? My math would give us 152 senators, not 2. Would somebody explain to me the justification of a bi-cameral legislature?

Since New York and California are firmly Blue and Texas is Red no candidate bothers to visit them except to raise money. The same is true for Delaware, the Dakotas and Vermont, which do not carry enough electoral votes to make it worth their resources. Therefore Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and other swing states get the bulk of attention.

The Electoral College is an anachronism. Even the notion of States is meaningless; a vestige of the 18th century. Is there any difference between Kansas and Nebraska in geography, history or custom? If we wish to apportion the country at all, let us have five or six regional districts similar to the federal court system. We need to have direct elections. That would, at least, have spared us George W. Bush. We are no model of republican-democracy for this modern world nor a nation dedicated to the prepositions Of, BY or For.

Why not elect the President for 6 years with no second term? I would also limit campaigns to six weeks without corporate money buying votes. The constitutional scholar, Sanford Levinson, suggests an 18-year term for Supreme Court justices. That way, one Justice would rotate out of office every two years and ensure a less ossified court and one subject to the scrutiny of the voters at least indirectly. It would also eliminate the present custom for a Justice to retire when the party of his persuasion is in office to replace him.

It can be argued that our current polarized landscape is the wrong time to consider broad changes. We could end up with something worse. The present document, flawed as it is, ensures either grid-lock or long deliberation, depending on one’s perspective. If , Do No Harm, is the best we can expect then let it be. On the other hand, I believe we can do better.

In spite of the emergence of a mindless herd of disaffected, called the Tea Party, we still need to put our belief and faith in the will of the majority with safeguards for the minority. To this end, the changes above are sorely needed. At the same time we must not become what J.K. Toole called, a Confederacy of Dunces. Campaigns of deceit backed with corporate funding subvert our democracy even more than our anachronistic Senate and judiciary. The upcoming election will, once again, become a plebiscite on the good sense of the American people.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

To Be Met

..for Peggy

You, on your way to sharpen a pencil,
I, hurrying to the kitchen for a cold nectarine
meet in the hallway like two ships merging
in harbor light. How could I not embrace you,
stopping the clock, the orb in its orbit,
to say how we’ll never forget this moment?

We laugh knowing we will forget,
there being so many stoppages.
And yet when I spot you in the market
weaving your way down the aisles
I navigate past the frozen lotus,
black-eyed peas and Jolly Green Giant,
to hold you in my arms and halt Homer
in the blinding light of mid-sentence as if
Odysseus is home to Penelope again and again.

To be renewed daily
in quadrants of morning melon, the passing of pills,
our ritual tea with glumper dish,
a touch of milk and biscotti, dunked.
The choreography of us:
each other’s step and hesitation,
the measure of our silence and stare,
a charged word and it’s cargo.
How we know where not to go and meet there
In a shared unknowing.

Friday, June 24, 2011

From Tiananmen To Tahrir

It all started when someone sneaked out of the cave, found a clearing in the woods, maybe swallowed a naughty root and communed with his/her hallucination. The result was a vision that answered questions no one dared ask. The shaman told his story of how it is ……..and who doesn’t like a good story?

Troubadours sang the news. Fabulist rabbis-priests-imams preached it from on high.

Fast forward a millennium, plus or minus, and enter Guttenberg. The printing press allowed one person’s version of things, or the church’s, to be read by all who could. Then newspapers, movies, Walters… Winchell & Cronkite distilled what was important from what was more important. Even the Internet, with all its options, reinforced what we wanted to hear.

In all the above we were consumers. Choices multiplied from a single hunter bringing home the day’s kill to a fruit stand to a world marketplace on the keyboard. But our options were still limited by the provider or programmer.

Amazon has the power to cut off Wikileaks and they did. When we go to Google the websites that pop up are more custom-made than we might realize. Google knows me. They know my preferences, who I vote for, what I eat for breakfast, what car I drive, and my favorite ball team. That information arranges their responses on the page.

The seed of something new is now afoot.

In the move from the electronic age to the digital a huge amount of data or info can be stored and processed in a tiny space. We can all become programmers. The new literacy is not measured by linear-sequential print technology. It has more to do with pattern recognition and creation of new platforms. The flow can originate from the multitude; the emergent spokesperson in Tahrir Square spreading the word, not the government telling those gathered in Tiananmen Square. In twenty-five years there has been a shift. Everybody gets a piece of the megaphone.

Wikipedia is fed from the bottom up by amateurs with expertise. Safecast is a web page started by an individual in which Japanese people are invited to monitor radiation readings on site, recording the levels around the Fukushima nuclear plant. Another site, Sea Cliff, was initiated by a person in a New England town to track pothole repair. These are all examples of citizens returning media to local hands. Blogs, of course, are also largely non-professional; clumsy and blabbering perhaps but also free of serving any constituency.

In the case of Wikileaks, so-called classified information was made available to everyone. In fact three million government workers already had access to it. What is classified in one country is routinely made available to security agencies of our allies. The day of secrecy is slowly yielding to transparency.

Technology is just one of many forces that impact our lives. Weight must be given to social constructs, evolved human consciousness, economic cycles, climate changes etc… But, I would argue, that new inventions and breakthroughs in transportation and communication have had profound and hidden influence on all the others.

Those on the cutting edge are questioning old assumptions and deconstructing institutions and social conventions; our monetary system, the Constitution and the way our cities are laid out. We live with needless dissonance, misaligned with what is organic to our needs. We are moving away from a centralized Internet with a bias toward branding, to a social network designed by and for individuals to share concerns and effect change.

To be sure there will be abuses in the hands of narcissists and fools. We are still learning how not to play with fire. The old adage applies that if you have nothing to say the very least you can do is to shut up. However this can also be a pivotal moment without precedent in human history; like anti-gravity moving from the bottom up.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cloud Drift

Wordsworth, strolling lonely in his bones
past daffodils, and cows. How now
the heifers in a crowd, some brown
some, no, no, no…he felt a poem come
beneath the clouds. If only Dorothy…

He turned his head across the vale
to the sound of saxophone,
half a century before it was,
such a visionary, he. The Bird,
not nightingale nor cottage dove

came in alto waves, be and bop.
Charlie P. would take the train far out
of town from Kansas City to district
lakes and serenade the green Grass-
mere cows to yield in their milky way.

In that cathedral abbey, not Tintern’s
stones, but gothic Brooklyn Bridge,
another jazzman, round midnight, wailed
his chords to those on the ledge, lonely
as a cloud, they listened till foggy dawn.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Memory, That Blurry Lens

Memory is the unreliable narrator, a fiction sleuthing for the truth. So much so that many vivid scenes from my past may have happened to me or my brother or not-at-all except in my fecund imagination. I have visited them so often I can’t tell the difference or where the facts, by extension, become fantasy. What purpose is served in the retelling if they aren’t actual? Because the fabrications have grown into my mythos, my reality, my truth.

Therefore before I leave my visitation to that distant period I need to confess my life as a near-felon. Let me set the crime scene.

I have spoken about the candy store we called Pops. The owner was an old man (to my eyes) with a graying mustache, probably in his early 50s. My friends and I collected bottles from here and there and brought them to him for deposit, two cents for soda, three cents for milk bottles. This was big money for us. Eleven cents got us into the movies. Otherwise we’d have to risk sneaking in from the side alley.

The backs of Pops candy store and my apartment building faced each other. Our rear yard looked out onto his storage area. Pop kept the empties there in a shed. The rickety structure looked like somebody put it together on their lunch hour. The walls and roof were mostly chicken wire. You might say I cased the joint. An apple tree in the grassed area of our apartment house looped over those gleaming empties which looked to me like Fort Knox.

Was it I or my brother or neither of us who climbed that tree with an eye on a section of loose wire large enough for a hand to slip through to the mine of gold bullion? Maybe it was biblical, being an apple tree, that providence intervened and I/he fell to the ground with a broken ankle. Huck Finn would have succeeded, I’m sure. Maybe we just weren’t cut out for malicious mischief. And if we’d swiped a few bottles and walked them back in the front door, Pop would probably have spotted them anyway. He could look at a bottle and know if it was his or the A&P’s.

Innocence isn’t lost so much as misplaced. It kept coming and going those pre-pubescent years. The front of my apartment building on Forest Lane faced a private school. It was for rich kids from the real Forest Hills with its restrictive covenants, not for pretenders like me. But it had this grassed area so green and so vacant, ringed by a fifteen-foot chain link fence. Such a playing field should not, by any law of justice, stay un-trodden. We would scale that fence regularly and were regularly shooed off by a custodian or the school principal who passed us walking down the hill for his morning paper. One or twice he called the police.

One day my friend, Johnny Kassabian, and I went over that fence. He slipped coming down and a knife he was carrying went into his arm. Why the knife? Certainly not as a weapon. His purpose had something to do with a project for the Boy Scouts but whatever we were up to escapes me with the emergency of stopping the blood and getting out of there for treatment. It turned out to be a lesson in tying a tourniquet and a large dose of remorse for trespassing.

The knife severed a nerve in his upper arm and Johnny lost use of two fingers. I remember looking up his condition in an anatomy book at the time. It had a name which I’ve never forgotten, Palmar fascia aponeurotic expansion of the palmaris brevis. This string of glossolalia had a ring to it. He managed, somehow, to compensate for his loss and was a fine draftsman and engineer.

I had four close male friends during those years from age ten to twenty. One is still close, one died early and the other two have long since disappeared from my life. I can still hear their voices, except for one. If you’re out there Johnny Kassabian, please contact me. Did I lead you into temptation going over the walls of Eden? Say I wasn’t so.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Small World In The Hood

In the 1930s and ‘40s neighborhoods in the boroughs of NYC were defined by subway stops. The exits from the train could stretch two blocks in some cases. Union Turnpike was my station; one end brought you up into Kew Gardens, my end was in Forest Hills. At the mouth of the steps you were met by a candy store with a news stand. We called ours Pops. Pop was always there with his change belt sagging down his front; fast pennies, slow dimes.

As a kid growing up, my universe was even smaller. Our apartment house was next to my father’s corner drugstore. That took up the whole block of Forest Lane, a tree-shaded street which didn’t get a lot of traffic. The entrance to his store was just around the corner, so that a wall the length of his soda fountain and prescription department on the inside became my ballpark on the outside.

I threw seasons of tennis balls against that wall while sculpting my imagination. Better yet were Spaldings, those pink, hairless balls which bounced higher and faster than my Keds were meant to travel. While other kids were reading books and developing their minds, building model airplanes (sniffing glue? who knew?) or experimenting with their chemistry sets discovering new elements…. I was smashing my Spalding against the wall of my father’s store.

The wall was my green pasture and I was not left wanting. In my mind’s field, one bounce was a single, two a double and so on. However, few got past my superior reach and agility. Damn, I was good (even if my mother said I was a good-for-nothing-kid). I could leap as high as a pop fly into another realm. Of course I was the pitcher, batter and fielder wrapped in one. And then there was the ledge. Every wall worth its vertical had to have a ledge upon which I, the pitcher, could aim for me, the batter, to elude me, the fielder. You had to be there.

There was a wide sidewalk in front of the wall which gets even wider in my remembered landscape, and then the street. Any car that dared interrupt my playing field was cursed in my limited, ten-year old vocabulary. I do remember getting into a fight with an ex-friend once. As he had me on the ground, struggling in a half-Nelson I called him a fucking-bastard-sonovabitch. (I might just as well have called him a buttered flannery salamaguch.It had a certain mellifluous ring to it that I never forgot. My first poem perhaps, the way it meant nothing to me except the strange music of the words.

The sidewalk was seldom without chalk. We filled bottle caps with melted wax and moved them around inside the lines or were they on the lines? Girls jumped rope. Boys flipped bubblegum cards or played marbles or mumley-pegs with pocket knives. Amazing how knives seemed harmless then; merely ways of slicing the earth for early geometry. There was a tribe loose in the neighborhood called children. Kids taught kids. An oral tradition got passed along, in tact. Tell me it’s still there; A my name is Alice, Ring-a-leveo, One-Two-Three O’Leary, Can’s Up, One Potato, Two Potato etc…

It all happened within a few feet from my apartment. I don’t dare go back to see if it has survived. I can return anytime in my head on an August night lit by fireflies with air so thick I could climb it and run with a Mayonnaise jar catching them; holes punched in the lid for breathing. That light, my lantern, has never gone out.

By the time I was thirteen the pharmacy was closed; converted to a storefront synagogue, of all things. One day, on my way to the schoolyard, with stickball bat and glove in hand, I was pulled into that familiar space, the tenth to make a minion. I laid down my sword and shield, mouthed the mumbles and looked up to the raised place where my father once presided dispensing his elixirs as if each contained everything he believed in.

As for the wall, I wore a hole in it, a passageway. Eventually I walked through into the pharmacy and took my father’s place.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Remembering my Father

When I think about my father I see a montage of small moments, yet the sum of them does not add up to the place he has in my heart. Many are scenes in which he says nothing but conveys volumes in his eyes and facial expressions. He provided the leavening to calm my mother’s noisy unease with the world and gave me a model for making my way. Not to say that I have ever achieved his level of equanimity but of all the voices, interjected, his measured words are the most resonant.

He was Spencer Tracy in a household of Ethel Merman and a sullen James Dean. My brother, who died in a car accident 50 years ago, would probably have a dissenting view. He felt that he went out into the world ill-equipped. The prescription my father offered was therapeutic for me but insufficient for my brother.

My father was the presence who dialed down the amplitude. He allowed me to feel that life would be malleable; that I too could shape it to some extent and if I couldn’t I might, at least, find a sanctuary of my choosing. He radiated an inviolable self; an imperturbable core.

I watched him settle agitated patients from his raised place between globes of colored water in the pharmacy. He gave them the gift of his ear. When he spoke, they listened and when he didn’t they heard that too. Medicine worked because he assured them it would.

One deep inhalation and he is here with that old drugstore smell, now extinct. There was an air about him, as if the mingled vapors from crude drugs, soda fountain syrups and perfumes had been triturated by the overhead fan into a heady vapor which clung to him and sustained me.

Where this natural sense of conciliation with life came from is a mystery. His beginnings were humble in the Dickensian sense. Born to an impoverished peddler he was sent to live with his equally poor aunt and uncle when his mother died in childbirth 2 years later giving birth to a girl who lived just 3 months. My grandfather became an alcoholic who went on to re-marry and father four more children all of whom were sent to an orphanage. My father had a half-brother also named Sam. Sam, meet your brother, Sam. Did his father forget he had already given that name to his first-born? We’ll never know.

How does a man raised with uncertainty and destitution, who sold newspapers on the corner, who misheard the teacher when she said, Pay Attention, thinking she said to Pay a pencil (and he had none)….how does he grow into manhood feeling safe and secure himself? A triumph of nature over nurture or is this an instance where love trumps circumstances however reduced?

If my mother and father were both survivors of a sort they complemented each other. She was shrill and often inappropriate, in daily combat with merchants, he, behind enemy lines planned his strategy. His instinct was to bring out the trust in others and assume the best intentions. It didn’t always work. His pharmacy made it through the Depression but had to close its door during the war years. Was there a war within him when his customers who were our neighbors refused to pay their delinquent accounts?

It never seemed so to me but he did have at least a single release from sainthood….thank God. He liked to go to the race track. I barely remember a night at Roosevelt Raceway where he would put two bucks on the favorite usually to show. In later years my parents moved to Las Vegas and he played Keno; a small gesture going up against the gods.

The one area he would not negotiate was in politics, so identified was he with the plight of the down-trodden. When he answered a knock at the door from the FBI he stood steadfast and close-mouthed as they asked for names. They knew of his membership in the Party and the meetings in our apartment. He refused them and that silence resounds with me still.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Climate Change

We’ve got to hand it to the Republicans. They have successfully created climate change. They turned up the heat, clouded the air and sent thunderbolts of fear throughout the land, unleashing that terrible lightning. The sword is slashing at every social program in its wake.

For decades they have been salivating for a chance to dismantle the hard-earned progressive legislation passed under FDR and LBJ. Now with control of the House and the Court along with a Senate held hostage, they have taken advantage of a prolonged Recession and decimated housing market to stampede their agenda as a top priority.

Never mind that it was under their watch that the ill wind was first conceived. Never mind the unfunded wars, unconscionable tax cuts for the wealthy and unregulated banks which have brought us to the brink. Forget that factories have been pad-locked in a rush for overseas cheap labor. All this has been obfuscated by their smoke. Repeated lies hang over the country like an inversion layer. And hazardous it is to our health and well-being.

Perhaps the greatest legerdemain in political history has been the mobilization of the least-served among us, as a grass-roots counter-revolutionary force. If the Tea Party prevails in 2012 we will be witness to an act of massive self-destruction; as if a Tsunami had been turned against the very people who made the waves. They are not an insurrection of the dispossessed, they are a counter-force against the only institution prepared to cast a net; namely the government.

A true populist agenda would demand an end to corporate subsidies, job creation, both private and public and government investments, not shutting it down. Why would the disadvantaged give a hoot about debt ceiling or even deficit? Only if they are sheep being led to slaughter.

The climate change in the air is rife with doom. We are told that Social Security needs to be privatized and Medicare and Medicaid are unsustainable without putting an axe to it. I don’t buy it. An estimated 43 billion dollars per year will be saved when the healthcare bill is implemented just by not having the government pick up the charges for emergency care for the uninsured. Billions more can be recovered with tighter cost-controls over the program. Bumping up the contribution to Social Security of high-end wage-earners would restore solvency to the system.

Dare I say that the Republicans are engaged in a treasonous act? Do they want the Dow to plunge? Yes. Are they incentivized to keep the unemployment numbers above 9%? Yes. Their agenda is to see the economy fail. I regard it as sedition. Obama will not be running against any of their candidates. He’ll be running against the job market and foreclosure numbers. Without any chance of federal money pumped into stimulus I believe he will initiate an executive order forcing banks into mandatory re-negotiation before further foreclosure proceedings..

Fear trumps common sense, only for a while. At some point along the way the mesmerized public is going to wake up and connect the dots. A new set of demands will replace the talking points originating from the board rooms. It may happen glacially or it may register on the Richter scale. Winds will come because they rise organically from what is just and true. Clocks do not run counter-clockwise.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sex And Politics

What is it about these Democrats who can’t keep their pecker in their pants? From Clinton to Spitzer, Edwards, Weiner, and the Kennedys and Gary Hart before them, the best and the brightest have been disgraced and as a consequence lost the power of their office. Certainly Ted Kennedy and Clinton had to cede the high ground after their episodes. Was their moral outrage against injustice a rhetorical cover for their own trespasses or are the misdeeds a logical fall from such lofty heights? Or are they human merely, flawed like the rest of us?

At least some of the shocking sexuality seems to me to be a dare; a bizarre extension of the audacity that got them to their high position. Power looking for its margins or the pressure and scrutiny that comes with the office seeking an escape hatch.

One thing seems quite evident; they do not understand that a public person relinquishes his private person. The new technology is a 24/7 camera with microphone. Nothing is off the record. Nothing is off-limits. The ones who are caught must think they are living in FDR’s day or Warren Harding's. The era when reporters threw a blind eye is long past.

I would like to believe that these transgressions are all beside the point having nothing to do with policy-making. However true this may be it does reflect a profound stupidity or indifference to the public trust and a betrayal of the agenda they have professed to advance. One’s character is surely decisive In voter’s minds and aberrant behavior and then lying isn’t likely to win over any hearts.

Of course promiscuity isn’t restricted to Democrats. Republicans match up well with Gingrich, Schwarzenegger, Mark Sanford and John Ensign. None of them are poster boys for family values. It must be the power and privilege that are aphrodisiacs. Republicans who fell from grace resulted only in broken homes. Democrats had to settle for abandoned progressive programs and the country suffered.

On the far-right we witness the spectacle of Bible-thumpers preaching against the sinners who turn out to be themselves. On the left we have Spitzer and Weiner, our most forceful and eloquent voices, scolding corporate America, speaking truth to power from a media pulpit in moralistic tones….and then having to eat their own words.

(I wouldn’t know about such things since the last high office I held was milk monitor and that flirtation in the wardrobe with the girl who cleaned the erasers doesn’t count, does it?)

In the Arts I’m an advocate of separating the art from the artist. Our opinion of Picasso, the man, shouldn’t color our experience of his painting and sculpture. Or Pound, Eliot or Frost. It’s hard to turn away from their misogyny, anti-Semitism or misanthropy but we manage to do so. We might hunger to know about Beethoven but not resist his genius. The artistry issues from a different place possibly as compensation or as an anguished expression of a fevered mind.

Up until recently this separation was undoubtedly in place. But dem days is gone forever. We live in an age of blurred borders. Politics is entertainment, fact is fiction, music is fusion and life is confusion. Maybe the only constant is our appetite to create out-sized heroes and then knock them down to our size.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Time Travel

Wait. Before you step into that time machine check the weather report. You might come out in the middle of Russian winter or Equatorial sandstorm. And all you asked was to spend a week with Pushkin or chat with Lawrence of Arabia. As my mother never said, You gotta take the bad with the good.

Woody Allen’s delightful new film has us walking down a Parisian street, 2011, and ending up in the 1920s in the company of Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and Cole Porter whose, Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love could have served as an anthem for the movie and for the decade. Paris never looked better even in the rain; particularly in the rain. Allen’s surrogate character is Gil played at perfect pitch by Owen Wilson; a not-too-exasperated Woody, just wide-eye innocent and dreamy. Paris sizzles in the company of the surrealists, Dali, Bunuel and Man Ray who pose and juxtapose and in soirees with Gertrude Stein where everybody was somebody.

One of my favorite scenes has Gil taking credit for suggesting the theme of Bunuel's 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Bunuel doesn't understand his own movie.

Of course most people were nobody. The city was devastated after the WW I with a generation literally and figuratively lost to the crime of war itself. I expect Paris was inhabited by cripples, amputees, widows and pensioners. However it was still a destination for many Americans as well as the French poets, artists, dancers and writers who found it a crucible for experimentation and counter-convention expression.... and the price was right at the cafes.

As the film shrewdly suggests this golden age did not seem so to all those living in it. The romantic interest for our time-traveler longs for the fin de siècle period of the Belle Epoque. When she is deposited there she opts to stay with Matisse, Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas, crazy for the Can-Can. We all romanticize the generation before us since the present is opaque.

Perhaps those in late 19th century were blind to Art Nouveau and pined for the grandeur of Versailles. But one needs to fine tune the time machine. A tad of a misdial could land a person in the mob storming the Bastille or worse; being knitted into Madame La Farge’s scarf.

Could it really be that these fin de siècle years circa 2000 will be some future dreamer’s idea of a great time and place to be, pondering the meaning of life in a godless world over a dusted frappaccino at Starbucks while clicking his apps? I’ll leave that one for Woody Allen’s disciples.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hair Apparent

Clark Gable had one and William Powell. Cary and Gary didn’t nor did Spencer Tracy.Gable and Powell (the Thin Man) had neatly trimmed mustaches and Charlie Chan was a master sleuth with a Fu Manchu. Aside from the aforementioned, good guys were mostly clean-shaven, particularly in Westerns. The sheriff looked as if he’d just walked out of the barber shop while the no-good rustlers had tell-tale stubbles.

Hair has long been a signifier. Ask Richard Nixon who lost to Kennedy in 1960 by the shadow on his face. Until the mid-eighties, or so it seems, we knew the crooked politician, serial killer or white collar embezzler by the frequency of his shaves. Now we have flipped. The grizzled look connotes a hard-earned, no-nonsense authenticity while the guy without a hair on his face or out-of-place on his head is as phony as a Dick Cheney smile.

The history of hair is the history of our country. Our founding fathers had clean chins. Evidence of manhood crept in with encroaching sideburns, then mutton-chops, followed, a generation later, by well-trimmed beards. Lincoln famously grew one on advice from an 11 year-old girl who suggested he grow a beard. He was actually elected, smooth-faced but grew a beard for his inauguration. This started a trend. All but two presidents over the next 50 years sported facial hair. The exceptions being Andrew Johnson and William McKinley, and look what happened to them.

Democrats have never had a properly bearded candidate. Maybe they were too busy splitting hairs over their platform. The last occupant of the oval office with a mustache was William Howard Taft in 1912. Charles Evan Hughes, whom Teddy Roosevelt called Wilson with whiskers, lost by a whisker to Woodrow Wilson in 1916

Had Thomas Dewey shaved in the two forties’ elections he might have prevailed but by then Gillette and Schick razor blades were advertising clean chins along with Burma Shave. Five o’clock shadows had a negative grip on the national psyche and remains so in the political sphere.

Interesting that Darwin, Dickens, Marx, Freud and Einstein were hirsute as were Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne and Hemingway proving something but I forget what.

Groucho Marx was also elected president but that was of Fredonia. He and Charlie Chaplin made a joke of the Hitlerian mustache well before Hitler. I believe the two or three day growth became a fashion statement as we came to embrace the anti-hero In movies. A little Macho, a bit of grime, a dash of insouciance all add up to being real. Anything less suggests a choir boy or repressed and conformist character. The movie-going public is trained to recognize these signs just as they know a man with a bow tie is either an intellectual or a Fred Astaire impersonator.

Peggy prefers me freshly mowed having been raised in those days of Dick Powell and early Orson Welles. But I use an electric razor and usually shave while on the stationary bike without a mirror. I never know what decade I’m wearing on my face.