Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lunch With Friends

Four of us happily here not in Sudan order sub Saharan sand-
wiches triple-decker crisp fries in friendly fire we sit al fresco
commune with chopped salad green imperialism of oil
and vinegar how it colonizes the caramelized walnuts
talk of Tripoli to Tribeca enhanced interruptions suicide road
side burger blood-rare clots the streets no boots on the ground
round just bodies collaterally damaged with intelligent failure
drone remotely controlled missed the misbegot tempers rise and
plunge like Dow’s got the jitters while we sip iced tea talk bomb-
bastically as pensions are lost fortunes made topical tropical far
from barricades even as bulls and grizzlies gorge and gnaw. Who’s
wealthy stays wealthy and who’s Standard & Poor stays standard and
poor so much to chew on and on our plates full of subsidized crops
there’s a genetically tampered tomato gets us juiced while the suits
foxtrot on FOX over which tea is right enough for Iowans to round up
the bus-boy with undocumented arms up his sleeve refills our cups
clears our scraps one eye watching to make a run past border cops
while we chat umbrella cool Bachmann confers with God knows who
sending his wrath for you know what all we’ve been and all we’ve not.
Big government and who needs them I ask you says to evacuate
it’s on the move exactly where and when up from unrecognized Cuba
here comes Goodnight Irene. Check please keep the change. Climate
is as climate does no change and dumb is dumb and woe is we
Noah’s in his ark on the warm Atlantic soup in a boat of split pea.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stellar Event

It only happens every 10,000 years or so. We’re talking about a super-massive black hole swallowing a star. Beware of these dark spaces in the galaxy. If a careless sun strays too close it can be devoured and slurped, followed by radiation jet burps. No table manners. With the gravitational pull of a million suns, these holes can’t be taken anywhere.

Personally I seldom leave my neighborhood anymore. Many a time I’ve been devoured on the 405, sucked into a super-massive snarl and luckily spit out on the nearest off-ramp.

One fine morning about twenty years ago I became my own Sig Alert. I was driving to work minding my own business in the slow lane (my favorite lane) when a car to my left suddenly decided the next ramp was his destination. He swerved in front of me. In order to avoid hitting him I had to make my own ramp which turned out to be about 50 feet into the landscaping up a hill. I finally stopped in front of a tree.

A mile of cars had to slow down thanking God it was me and not them. When I resumed my place in the parking lot we call a freeway I heard myself reported as a spin-off causing a back-up. My fifteen minutes of infamy, sucked into the morning traffic news that grinds out flashes of sizzling tips to motorists of what to avoid in their orbit to nowhere.

A man is called to the personnel office. He is told that his job is now in Asia at a fraction of his salary. All the oxygen leaves this black hole of a room. The arc of his life has been violated. He hears nothing else but static and that he is now a fraction of the person who walked through the door. He is disappeared; sucked into a vast silence.

Or it might work the other way. Ecstasy, the word derived from being out of stasis. We fall in love and travel to another realm as if lifted by the orchestra of a million celestial bodies. We happily relinquish our grip. We are buoyed as if drawn in, inspired by a deep breath and returned to what feels like home, yet unremembered, a place of belonging, having been met.

A sun, the size of ours, in the constellation Draco is vacuumed into dark nothingness, a lamp extinguished in the night sky. The event is captured on film by our satellite observatory. Somewhere a fishing boat is trawling on a river with just an apostrophe of a moon overhead. Its navigation guided by a writer at his desk lit by a candle. The writer helps light the way and when the wick burns down who will guide the commerce of the world?

A life fully lived is dangerous. Growing up we leave Eden. We find our center and prowl the suburbs, the far reaches. We may get a glimpse of the black hole and risk getting close. In the approach we are enlivened the way a heart grows by being broken. Relationships, convictions, discovery of self are all a dare. To not voyage out or within is to shrivel. Better to leave a trace before our bulb goes out.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Peeves and Gripes

Showers with little water pressure…most often found in B&Bs or motels where they leave the light on for you…..or in my bathroom. I want water with conviction, with needles.

Movies which all critics loved; my friends can’t stop praising, Peggy is crazy about. I was bored, irritated. Maybe I didn’t get it. Maybe I got it and still…

Politicians who side-step good questions and do it so well. Do members of both parties go to some secret night school in the sub-basement to learn how not to answer directly and spend two minutes doing it?

Stains that don’t come out with dry cleaning; in fact they are now permanently set because you, like a dummy, didn’t just wash the damn thing.

V-neck undershirts that aren’t V-necked enough so that a diagonal of white shows beneath your black shirt.

Waiters in Italian restaurants who are probably from Brooklyn but took a course to learn how to speak with an Italian accent.

The person entering his car in slow motion in a parking garage backing up 11 other well-intentioned cars….like mine

Cantaloupe which look ready from without but taste unripe within. Peachy looking peaches which are mealy. Tasteless tomatoes.

Firecrackers still going off at midnight on July 6th.

Movie songs which have had their melody carefully removed…if they ever had one.

Sunday morning panel discussions in which both parties have their talking points and dispatch themselves on every channel saying the same thing.

Ballgames I record decided in the final two minutes beyond the recorded time.

Laugh-tracks. Unfunny stand-up comics. Comedians who can’t get over how funny they are. Old jokes told badly. Bad jokes told well. Nostalgia told over and over……….unless it’s my own; even my own; particularly my own.

Baseball players who spit. Do they do this at home, too?

Bloggers with nothing to say except complaints…….

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Five Point Eight

What rattles Easterners in 22 states would barely toss the salad or stir the tea out here in the wide-open West. A 5.8 wouldn’t interrupt a waiter auditioning the specials but it might get the attention of folks in a crowded elevator.

Now Easterners can imagine how we sleep every night under the dining room table in our wet suits, clutching an earthquake kit, checking our supply of bottle water, and a good waterproofed book. They’ll get the hang of it. The lemurs in the National Zoo knew about it 15 minutes before the Richter scale.

We need our benign quakes every now and then to lift us out of complacency. It may take a cosmic event to wake us from our atomized life. The last big one in Los Angeles introduced us to our new neighbors on the stairwell. The word, cleave works both ways.

Temblors pry open our eyes and reposition our perch, even one or two degrees. I wonder if Eric Cantor has been moved enough to now recognize the role of government since the gods have conspired to target his district as the epicenter. What mischief-makers they can be.

One might argue that we already have too many fissures in our society with fault lines, financially, culturally, politically and generationally. All these are dwarfed by cataclysmic events. The god of carnage is met by the god of grace and survival. Buried deep inside are those better angels we keep hearing about.

Natural disasters are something like wars in exotic places. In recent years I’ve become aware of Mogadishu, Kismayo, Strebrenitsa and now Bengasi. I was similarly amazed to see that Detroit and Cleveland were so close to Virginia; at least proximate enough to know the feeling of a swaying chandelier. Out here in shake & bake country we tend to forget how squashed together those blotches of states are in New England. Thanks for the Geography 101 lesson.

My friend on Long Island thought, so this is how a stroke feels while others reported a transitory attack of vertigo. Next time they will know it’s just a domestic quarrel of the gods throwing tectonic plates.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Telephone Conversation

She……Hello, Peggy?

Me…….This is Norm

She……Why do you sound funny?

Me…….I’m in the shower.

She…….What are you doing there?

Me…… Next to waking up …..I do some of my best thinking in the shower.

She……Maybe you should wake up in the shower.

Me…… I’ve been here since last Thursday.

She……I think you’re clean by now.

Me…….Someone sent me an e-mail with photos from an electron microscope showing all the organisms in our eyebrows and fingernails.

She…… And some of them are good bacteria, I’ll bet.

Me…… I wish they were labeled.

She……All creatures great and small.

Me……As we speak, trillions of microbes are going down the drain.

She……Sounds like the Republican platform.

Me……..Maybe you should hang up so I can call Standard & Poor for a re-evaluation.

She……I wonder why they say “Triple A” or “Double A plus.” Why not say 100, 99, 98.

Me……I like the “Double A plus.” It makes failure sound like something wonderful.

She……Failure makes you try harder.

Me…….What are we talking about? I suppose you want to speak to Peggy.

She……I forgot what I was calling about.

Me…….That’s OK. I forgot why I’m in the shower. Peggy is in the bathtub.

She........Is she thinking, too, or just getting clean?

He…….. I can hear her singing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

They Didn't Give Up Their Day Jobs

It’s a good thing William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens or Franz Kafka stuck it out. It didn’t seem to limit their output; in fact they mined their professions in quite different ways.

Stevens was a Modernist poet who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. He died that summer having worked up until his death as a lawyer for Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. He was offered a faculty position at Harvard but declined because it would have interfered with his post at the insurance company.

His desk job as vice president of Hartford Insurance was what Stevens called, his necessary angel. He regarded reality as an essential grounding for his imaginative flights. Without it maybe he would have written in tongues from cloud nine. As it is, Stevens’ body of work is both cerebral and sensual; sometimes silly, other times it resists interpretation almost successfully.

A few years ago Peggy and I made a pilgrimage to his Hartford home; a modest house on an upscale block. He is said to have walked to his office and back each day, about a mile, rain or shine. There is a story of someone offering him a lift one day which he accepted provided there would be no talking. Apparently when his work day ended he switched immediately to his transcendent mode and guarded that time fiercely.

Dr. Williams was a Rutherford, New Jersey general practitioner. He didn’t write so much about his medical experience but it made him a close listener and observer. His poetry picked up the cadences of ordinary speech. Many contemporary poets, including Allen Ginsberg, are his heirs. Williams was a descendent of Whitman in terms of his plain language and inclusiveness.

I once met a woman who was delivered by Dr. Williams. Imagine being brought into this world by the pre-eminent poet; first seen by his knowing eyes. That would be better than a signed first edition. I wonder if she carries that specialness around with her.

I expect Franz Kafka labored, not happily, at his job with the Workers Accident Insurance Company. Yet he was able to transform the tedium and detached nature of the work into high art. He captured the predicament of twentieth century man. Kafka grasped the existential despair of bureaucracy and the labyrinthine path which separates man from the consequences of his job.

It is remarkable how these writers found the creative energy, after a day’s toil, to give us the gift of their genius. Most poets in America are forced into academia. Yet Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate, was also in the insurance business and Philip Levine still draws upon his days on the assembly line in Detroit.

In South America it isn’t uncommon for writers to hold political office. Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa saw no division or distraction from their chosen art form.

The closer an artist can live in the working world the more enriched is his work, provided he doesn’t get sucked up in the workaday mindlessness and conventions. The writer/poet/artist lives both in and outside the circle. Too far inside blunts consciousness, too far removed blinds and deafens the scribe.

And then there is Emily Dickinson………….

Friday, August 19, 2011

Back To School

Late-August and some schools are already in session. Makes me think of those old days when we got ourselves ready to shift gears from summer lassitude to the chill of regimentation and rules like bricks upon rules. Early on there was a wardrobe rule and sitting-up-straight rule; no-talking and a sort of dress code. All of this was accepted without protest as long as we had new back-to-school shoes along with some hand-me-downs that felt like new.

Everyone was equipped with a three-hole notebook, reinforcements, ink eradicator, ruler, fountain pen and 2 or 3 sharpened pencils with erasers. We also needed book covers for the textbooks that hadn’t changed in fifty years.

Nowadays I imagine the back-to-school supplies (for high-schoolers) include an i-Pad, i-Pod, i-phone with 100 apps and possibly a box of condoms….along with ripped jeans, nose ring, tattoos and T-shirts all chosen with a careful disregard.

Returning to class might also have been a way of comparing myself to my classmates and generally suffering by the comparison. Voices had changed. Some of us were 4 ft. 10 and other 6 ft. 2. Suddenly I noticed girls. A few had learned the mating dance over the summer. Where was I? Maybe they found the meaning of life while I was learning how to hit a curveball. By eighth grade a few boys had started to shave. Some girls were almost women.

My most dreaded class was always English Composition with the first assignment to write what we did on our summer vacation. In point of fact I did nothing or could think of anything noteworthy. I hadn’t yet learned the truths that emerge from fabrication. I could have told about my trip exploring Africa with Captain Spaulding and how I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got there I’ll never know.

Or I might have written about my summer of neighborhood mischief. I was 11, no matter how you looked at it, with a nose for trouble (my middle name), when I started trailing Mr. Rios. He was a cross between Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. When he dashed I flew after him in my new Keds. When he stopped to tie his shoelaces, I froze into invisibility. He led me down into the subway underworld where I might meet the Deadend kids or the Hardy Boys and with a little luck, the Boppsy Twins and Nancy Drew. Instead I was led into the laboratory of the mad scientist with his frothing flasks and bubbling beakers. I can’t give away the ending as I saved Gotham from the unthinkable.

When I was twelve, plus or minus, Peggy was twice my age. Now, of course, she is considerably younger than I. Back in1945 I worked for a woman in my building who designed hats and fashioned floral decorations for them. I was paid 25 cents a delivery plus a nickel to and from Manhattan, about 6 subway stops from Forest Hills. On a sticky August afternoon I would board the train with 4 or 5 weightless hat boxes. I was weightless, too, dreaming (retrospectively) of meeting Peggy on her way to the ballet. In that wind-rush tunnel I might have Ballanchined her with a pas-de-deux. Will you wait for me, I asked and she said yes even if it takes 34 years. And so I emerged on Lexington Ave. having crossed the waters into my new world.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Poems Everywhere

When a friend sent word her email is being used
by a Viagra company, I knew at once
there must be a poem here somewhere
about erectile dysfunction being hacked.

A magazine article suggests that wolves,
while circling the campfire figured
their chance of survival would increase
with a career move, trading their howl and fangs
for a doggie door.
That big bad wolf who made a meal
of Red Riding Hood
is now a man’s best friend fetching Frisbees,
Yet after all these years they
still haven’t domesticated us.

There are poems everywhere waiting
to be written….. in the cloud that looks
like Tennessee or in the trampoline
the autistic child bounces on
just to feel grounded. The higher he goes
the more joy in his return.

In a courtyard pond of an office building
local gulls have long gathered
for a bit of drink, bath and beyond
after a mid-day meal of trash.
Whose woods these used to be, no longer holds.

As the shore birds scissor the sky,
painting white the green grass below,
hired birds of prey scare the bejesus out of them
with their talons and menacing eye.
The falconer calls his lanner bird, Marlon Brando,
for the way he chews up the scenery.
Audrey Hepburn is the Barbary falcon
which sounds right to my ear

though I’ve known many pirates
in my day and she’s no pirate
nor is this a poem unless I say it is…
The phallic hacker with a vertical leap,
a falconer with predatory movie stars,
a space in the sky that a howl once made,
the winged boy in articulated glee.

…..put together they are the stuff
of which people have died
for the lack of even dreaming of.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Every morning I get emails about penis enlargement and longevity. I suppose some guys might say, “How did they know” or “What’s it to you?” Does this mean that large penises are like banks….too big to fail?

But my Gevity is long enough………I’d like to believe. Admittedly I’ve never conducted a double-blind study with evidence-based conclusions. Nor is that in my plans. Peggy assures me that size is not all…….hmmm, what should I make of that?

The images I have of enhancement or augmentation makes me wince. I suppose that means both length and breadth. God help those with shortness of breadth. I would hope these penile doctors are heavily insured with no more than a one inch deductible. Is this where all our Medicare money is going?

Apparently Anthony Weiner was concerned enough about his manhood to gamble and lose his mensch-ness. Or was his and Eliot Spitzer’s behavior just compensatory? I seem to remember some movie star extraordinarily endowed but I forgot who that was. He probably died young.

As for other longevities leading to eternal life, I’m not so sure I like the idea. If we all lived forever think how crowded the planet would be. Even now I have trouble finding a parking place at Costco. Have you ever called Verizon when they are not already experiencing a high-call volume?

I decided long ago that it’s too hard to be good. I’m not ready to give up an occasional Reuben sandwich on corn rye with seeds slobbered with mustard, melted Jack cheese, sauerkraut and thickened with fatty pastrami in favor of tofu with a side of cottage cheese. Some forbidden foods are worth an abbreviated inning. Isn’t this what Yahweh meant for us………to munch the forbidden and live our days in eviction?

I ignore muscle milk, eat fiber, ignore gingko but swallow multivitamins containing A, B, C, D and E…..enough letters for a game of scrabble in my bloodstream.

Death serves a purpose besides making room for the new-born. Without it we’d have nothing that gives urgency to life. Immortality would surely lead to big-time procrastination. With mortality hanging over us as the ultimate given we can do better than measure our lives with coffee spoons. Momento mori confers meaning while we’re still on this side of the great divide. It’s our goal post, our calendar.

At this point the only elongation I care about is the quality years remaining on my allotment.

I just looked up that aforementioned movie star. He wasn’t in many movies and he didn’t die young. He was Milton Berle. It makes me wonder if longevity here means longevity there...or is it just that he laughed at life for 94 years?

Sunday, August 14, 2011


There is something about a collector you want to stay away from. I know, I’m one of them. That could be why I have no friends.

Collectors tend to make a fetish of things. They have a heightened sense of the acquisitive as if the next find will confer a power or godliness. And we know what the good book said about worshiping idols. Actually I gave it all up years back and I don’t recall having any golden calves.

I do remember the strange array of collectible items and the odd people that sought them out. Some folks kept an eagle eye for orange juice squeezers or Bakelite baubles. I would never stoop so low. But I did have a thing for whirligigs and presidential buttons. Peggy tracked down early mechanical pencils and old postcards. There is something about old paper, be they play bills, Civil War letters or Polish movie posters.

Our most avid object of desire, beside each other, was for signed, first editions of literary fiction. Crawling around musty, dusty bookshops had a noble ring to it, in my mind. It was the hunt that got us. We loved to brake for bookstores particularly in our travels. Back then second-hand bookstores were as common place as frozen yogurt shops. There was a distinct pleasure coming across an author whose work we admired whose name had not yet become a household word. We would also show up at book fairs and signings competing with other obsessive hunter/gatherers of the written word.

If we valued an author, we wanted everything he/she ever wrote. Their early books, with a small printing were much to be prized. We soon learned that a book was only as valuable as its jacket. To stumble upon a Virginia Woolfe or Fitzgerald first edition with a pristine dust jacket would have been enough to retire on. It never quite happened but we do have a few very special volumes including a signed Joseph Conrad, early Wallace Stevens and the complete works of William Trevor.

Even signed firsts had to be un-marked and not inscribed; only the author’s name signed under his printed name with a line through it would be worthy of a serious collector. If the price on the inside jacket is clipped or a page defaced with wormhole or pencil it is so noted and called, else fine.

Now the hunt is all behind us. Computers have taken away the labor and joy of discovery. We put away our maps and pith helmet. No longer is there a need to thrash through jungles of shelves and stacks. One need only go to the Amazon or ABE website and click.

We were crazed readers as well as driven collectors. We read what we owned. If we were possessed with our possessions so be it. There is a particular pleasure in rediscovering a book unopened for many years, in its physicality; the endpaper, deckled-edge pages, the flourishing font of chapter beginnings and cloth binding none of which Kindle can offer. And then there’s the satisfaction of feeling the weight of a book on my chest as I nod off.
Go find an author to sign a Kindle.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Philip Levine

Philip Levine is our new Poet Laureate. It’s about time. He has been mine for many years.

My earliest entre into poetry was in the late 70s after coming across a book by Philip Levine. It didn’t hurt that we shared a name. My middle name is Philip…swear-to-god. I told him this when we chatted after his reading at Beyond Baroque in Venice about 25 years ago. I assured him I wouldn’t trade on his name if he wouldn’t trade on mine.

His poetry has grease and sweat all over it. He wrote of auto plants in Detroit and the working class life in general. I was astonished to learn that poetry could be made of such stuff. It gave me permission to mine all that “un-poetic” material in my own life. Of course he lifted the grime to another level. Poetry is all about transformation and there was much to transform in that factory life. In his words we hear machines sing.

And at the end you saw the earth tip
and barns and trees and old rusted trucks
slide away,

In the end Levine is a Keatsean romantic. He has found the lotus growing in the mud. The stars are best seen from the bottom of the well. He is always close to ultimates, to what might yet be as well as to the soil from which he sprang.

You think I didn’t see
you open your hands
like a prayer and die
into them..

When he wasn’t writing about assembly lines or picket lines he was giving voice to victims of race riots or the brutality of life under Franco and more current indignities. But his language is particularized; both gritty and unstrained.

I own eight books of Philip Levine’s poetry which I took from my shelf to write this. In my search for lines to illustrate his poetics I had no need to go beyond the first half of the first one. Each of his poems rings with hard-earned truth. All these excerpts are from his 1976 book, The Names of the Lost.

I expect many young poets or otherwise will now be exposed to Levine’s body of work and be encouraged, as I was, to find their own voice not only as a way of seeing but also a way of saying. In the end poetry is the discovery of what is singing within and getting those sonic rhythms down on paper.


This past Monday I received a letter marked personal and confidential. Anything not offering a large pizza for $9.99 was enough to catch my attention. It came from a law office in Toronto representing the estate of Jack Lasky. The first sentence identified them as executors. Right away I flashed back on all the friends I hadn’t made over the past 78 years.

The letter went on to explain they were looking for the certain Norm Levine who was a friend of the dear-departed, living in Southern California in 2002. I checked my driver’s license and sure enough I was Norm Levine and I have no memory of being anywhere else that year. So far, so good.

I then Googled, “Jack Lasky.” The first six hits had to do with a Jack Lasky from Long Island who is a Tea Party leader. I presume he is still alive and well, even if his politics locate him beyond my threshold of endurance in a country I hope never to wake up in.

The second Jack L. was my man. Born in Toronto, died in Honolulu with a plaque on a kibbutz in Israel. Sounds like Jack got around, especially posthumously.

I wrote back as requested regretting my lapse in never having made Jack’s acquaintance. Already I felt close enough to be on a first name basis. Had I been afforded the opportunity I'm sure I would have been a loyal friend. I can imagine us in animated conversation over Chinese Chicken salad and ice tea or better yet a Guinness. No doubt he was a helluva guy.

I have a distinct memory of letting a gentleman with one item get in front of me on line at Costco. And another instance in which I apologized when someone bumped into me in a crowded elevator. Almost knowing Jack Lasky has made me a better person.

I told the law office that I do have a friend named "Jack": and remember a Lasky.......or was it Lipsky.... in my college days. Does this count for nothing? I never met a Jack I didn’t like. There was the boy who went up the hill with Jill. And the other kid who climbed the beanstalk…. I hope not to fetch a pail of water. And then there’s the Lasky of all trades. I count each one as a friend or near-friend.

There are at least a dozen "Norm Levines" in Los Angeles whom I regard as my generic equivalent. As a retired pharmacist I naturally think in these terms. I do know another pharmacist who has a claim on my name; I can only hope that my checkered professional career hasn’t besmirched his.

I suggested to the lawyer that should they fail to contact the worthy Norm Levine I'm happy to serve as a surrogate. I have a particularly warm feeling for Canada.......Lake Louise, Canada Dry, the Northwest coast Indian art, Canadian Club and Carol Shield's and Michael Ondaatje’s novels. Then there is Christopher Plummer, the pre-eminent actor, I so much admire and Marshall McLuhan whose book on media wowed me 45 years ago. In fact we recently visited Nova Scotia. The main reason for our trip was to see Peggy's Cove because my wife's name is Peggy, I explained, hoping to score a few points.

If, by some massive imbecility, Rick Perry should get elected I would hope Canadians hold their fire as millions of Americans cross the border. I may even plead for entrance by pulling my Jack Lasky card.

Maybe it’s just as well. If I had been bequeathed a sum with many zeros after the number I probably couldn’t have made the adjustment. I would have had to deal with cousins I never knew I had. Then when it was my turn to check out I’d have to enlist my own lawyers searching for old friends from P.S. 99 in Kew Gardens.

It now occurs to me that maybe the real Norm Levine owed the late Jack Lasky some money......in which case I'm glad not to be him. Or as my friend, Fred, put it on his answering machine, if you owe us money please leave a message after the tone; if we owe you money leave a message before the tone.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Wish As Father To The Thought

Forty years ago I drove along the coast for 9 hours straight. Feeling hungry and bleary-eyed I saw up ahead a sign saying Knishes. As I approached I had visions in my head of downing a couple of steamy potato knishes.I pulled up to the place and walked into a dimly lit room. Before I got the knish word out of my mouth I read the neon sign again over the bar. It said Black Knight. In my diminished state any kni word was good enough to eat.

After 8 years of Bush-Cheney weren’t we all famished? Along came this tall man who announced his candidacy in Springfield, IL. I mistook him for Lincoln arriving to heal our house divided. I projected Honest Abe onto him. He was my Knish-Knight. I saw Raymond Massey. I saw Henry Fonda. I don’t blame Barack Obama; he never said he was the Great Emancipator. He is yet another Democratic politician in a long line that got de-railed decades ago.

I won’t try to make the case against Truman since he has found his place in our history books and in the public imagination as the no-nonsense, buck-stops-here guy. Though I believe our wrong-headedness was seeded there with our bipartisan foreign policy. The Cold War made the two parties split only on domestic issues. But the toll of our foreign misadventures was a constraint and drain on domestic programs.

The equivocation of the Democratic Party was sealed with Hubert Humphrey. His caving into the obscenity of Vietnam, with squandered lives and resources, was a prophetic moment. When Nixon overwhelmed McGovern the party of FDR had been rent asunder. I contend that no Democratic candidate or president since has stood up to the inexorable drift toward the right. Obama takes his place in this ignominy.

Perhaps it is a function of our mass media society that elections are bought. As labor unions lost their numbers along with our manufacturing base, corporations with their international reach have prospered. Democrats and Republicans line up at the same feeding trough for their funding. Clinton, Gore, Kerry and Obama and their antecedents are all beholden to deep pockets, albeit, perhaps, a more enlightened corporate America.

As an electorate we shall be the subject of sociological studies to fill libraries. What makes us tick? How can large numbers of voters be so mislead? Are we witnessing a palace coup? Why would the most distressed people turn against the only institution designed to help them? What can be said about our system which allows lobbyists to write legislation, which makes our representatives simple surrogates for their corporate clients, so misaligned with the concerns of its people?

We vote as consumers, with snap impressions, swayed unconsciously by nearly imperceptible language designed to seduce, the same way we buy Coke rather than Pepsi or Honda over BMW. We are manipulated by hidden persuaders. Is it any wonder that candidates have learned the speak? Many voters thought they recognized themselves in George W Bush and that was good enough.

Obama spoke in lofty terms and we imagined a promised land. The rose garden is a thorny place easily wilted not unlike the American Dream. But it became a global nightmare when Obama installed Clinton’s advisors, the very architects of the crime which gestated under Bush. Obama is no more the cause of the financial meltdown than Churchill was of WW II but the war must be waged and he has not rallied the country with words or deeds to meet the crisis.

I thought I heard a great man in 2008. He is merely a good one, ceding ground against a sea of ignorance and avarice. It seems as if we elected a man who plays well with others and now many on the Left want one who runs with scissors. He is a deliberate man. He is not, by nature, John Wayne; more of a Gregory Peck with an ear for many voices and an instinct for conciliation. Some day I hope he sits on the Supreme Court. Right now I see him uneasy in the political arena.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What If...

A friend put the question to me….what if Hillary were sitting in Barack’s chair? No, not on his lap; that was husband Bill’s hobby. Would Hillary Clinton have had more balls than Obama dealing with the recalcitrant Congress? Would she have even generated the brainless barrage of bashing endured over the past 30 months?

Of course we’ll never know but it makes for good conversation over a beer or a mocha-dusted frappuccino. My guess is that she would be receiving just a slightly modified version of the scurrilous attacks we hear today; same lies, same virulence with misogyny instead of racism. Would she have had more savvy, be less conciliatory, more confrontational than Obama? I doubt it. I remember her crying on camera before the New Hampshire primary.

Obama has more cool even if his instincts lead him toward compromise. I submit that he has his own narrative largely undecipherable to the chattering class. Like it or not he is addressing the Independent voter noted for a mind that refuses to make itself up. His rhetoric attempts to align itself with this sector which swings according to last night’s dinner and the price of gas. These are the pragmatists among us, generally low-information voters with no ideology. I once worked with a colleague who voted for Clinton because he liked Garth Brooks over John Prine....or was it the other way around? They are more likely to be swayed according to character, or perception thereof, than issues. Independents seem not to understand the consequences of their acts. Our president is positioning himself as the parent presiding over squabbling children.

The fact that Hillary Clinton seems resolute in her role as Sec. of State does not convince me that she would stand up to the far right anymore than Obama. The office of the president is beyond any analogy. In fact the highest decibels heard during his presidency came from opponents of his health care mandate which was, in fact, Hillary’s campaign idea. I don’t buy the notion that the senseless outcry against it would be any less if it were part of Hillary-care.

For those who prefer John Wayne to Gregory Peck, join Netflix. It is not in our president's character. In 1824 Henry Clay, Mitch McConnell's antecedent, had a dispute with Senator Randolph which began a decade earlier when Randolph brought his dog into the Senate. As any macho man knows the occasion called for a duel with pistols. Though it had been banned in Kentucky they went ahead anyway in Washington.
Fortunately they both missed. Have we come to this place again?

To be sure there have been missteps by the administration under-estimating the virulence of his opposition. I believe this is part of the liberal consciousness; to assume the good faith of opponents. Obama is no FDR or LBJ in their power of persuasion but neither does he have majorities in both Houses and a closet full of skeletons to bargain with. When the Democrats controlled Congress it did so in name only. Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman were crypto-Republicans during the healthcare debate.

Furthermore I don’t believe the personality of the individual in the oval office determines the tenor of the times. It was Bill Clinton, not Obama, who allowed the Glass-Steagall Act to be subverted leading to the Wall St./Housing disaster. It was Clinton who caved to Gingrich on so-called Welfare reform, who pushed for NAFTA and other trade pacts which began the closing of American factories. Whether because of his peccadilloes which weakened the power of his office, or his advice from Dick Morris (now with Fox news) or just his abandoning of core Progressive values in order to be loved, Clinton began the drift of the party toward the center.

Obama has done little to halt this movement. What is left of the left? The Nation magazine, Noam Chomsky and the scattered voices heard on MSNBC. Much of their time is spent attacking Obama to remind him of the abandoned poor, the heritage of the Progressive movement and his own roots. Fine, these are needed voices but the result has been a chorus of discontent which skewers his approval rating in national polls and does little but sow seeds of cynicism. For those whose inclination is to assign blame let them look at themselves; the 75% of eligible voters who didn’t bother to vote in 2010 and, by default, delivered us the largest collection of nit-wits in Congress and Governor’s mansions in history.

Let the Repugnants gloat over the debt-ceiling agreement. The pact is nothing if not spin-able. Boehner says he got 98% of what he wanted. The White House also claims victory. Instead of revenue we got defense cuts. Let the lackeys choke on that and if the committee cannot agree on further cuts, with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security off the table, let them answer to their benefactors in the Pentagon or Grover Nordquist. Most of all we need to send home the screaming anarchists in 2012 and embark on a sensible path for the 21st century....what if?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Past As Present

Is there anyone by their 79th year not carrying a selective history with them in their invisible trunk? The past is the one thing we own not subject to bubbles or market volatility though past glories do have a way of spontaneously inflating. Some of my best memories might even be true……but I doubt it. Most are composites of photos, wishes and the actual with embellishments and key omissions.

If you doubt the presence of the past just look up at the night sky with long-dead stars flaming. Or listen to the canned laugh track of giggles and guffaws recorded sixty years ago of folks belly-laughing their way to life everlasting; as if we need a poke in the ribs to tell us something funny just happened. In that preserve of uproarious laughter, I think of Aunt Agatha tuning in to I Love Lucy re-runs listening for uncle Abner’s hee-haw in the mix.

More appropriate today might be canned-weeping when the far-right spokespersons of the Un-enlightment, who know less than nothing, open their mouths. I can imagine the gravesites of our founders in upheaval. What would statesmen like John Jay say or Henry Clay or even Whirl-away? Nay!

Modern technology seems to have brought us new claims on immortality. The dear-departed husband of a friend lives in her answering machine; a more reasonable memorial than cryogenics, I suppose.

I wonder if the weight of past years has a counterpart in the pull toward the future felt by a pregnant woman?; something I will never know. That unknown future and this hefty past both have a place in the vibrant now, that elusive present which slips through our grasp on its way to oblivion unless we can halt the butterfly as it flutters by.

And then we have the not-quite-here but not-quite-gone, like Dolly Parton who opened her ample mouth before 20,000 at the Hollywood Bowl and out came her voice from 25 years ago. After all she didn’t want to disappoint the gathered with her weary pipes. Nothing to fret over; merely the past having its way with us.

As a society we don’t do well with aging or maybe it has more to do with change. I remember how painful it was hearing Frank Sinatra when he lost it or watching Orson Welles double his weight when he was already larger than life at age 22.

My guess is that our generation of septuagenarians and octogenarians is having the hardest time in human history, staying current. In the eyes of pop culture we’ve long since been regarded as yesterday’s news. Maybe there is an art to aging; solving the equation between jettisoning old baggage and taking on some of the new fangled. Making room not only for new gadgetry but more importantly a willingness to catch the Zeitgeist; to not resist the accelerated pace and a readiness to greet unfamiliar forms. Eternal verities may be there in unrecognizable dress.