Monday, November 28, 2011


Big is broken. Big cars eat gas. Big waistlines are deadly. Big bankers have bloated egos. There is a move afoot to shun big box retailers in favor of small shops. Even long sentences are yesterday.

In predatory waters big barracuda gulp guppies. Unchecked, multinationals swallow their competition; it is the way of monopoly capitalism.

If we look at recent troubled areas we see ungodly behavior in Catholic churches, molestation in university athletic programs, campus police abusing their authority, a dysfunctional Congress, errant drones from our military and excess on Wall St. The common denominator is the unaccountable practices of large, insular institutions.

Big government has long been the bogeyman of Conservatives, as if bigness in every other power base if perfectly acceptable. I would argue that all these centers of power and privilege have grown exponentially with hierarchies answerable to no one.

The Vatican protects its own under the eyes of saints in stained glass. The Penn. State football program brings in over 70 million dollars annually and was deemed too sacred to be meddled with. The trouble in Happy Valley, PA was a case of academia gone amok; incompetence layered over with secrecy. The incident in Davis was also a function of mismanagement and stupidity. The response of uniformed officers to the occupiers has brought out peppered police in contrast to the passive resistance of those assembled.

Health insurance companies along with Big Pharma are granted all the decision-making prerogatives regarding premiums, exclusions, co-pays, deductibles, fee schedules and availability of medications. Their unconscionable practices entitle them to write legislation via lobbyists, buying off the Congressional watchdogs.

Is it bigness, alone, that breeds such ill winds? We live in a power-based society in which self-serving policies and corruption multiply, without constraints. Any organization too big to fail, has already failed in its public trust and lost its moral center. The model for abuse in government occurred under Nixon’s imperial presidency with its nefarious plots, enemy lists and arrogance.

Democracy is a messy process. Sometimes I lose my faith in the electorate as they choose representatives least likely to serve the public good. However the American people are still the best hope. We need to demand transparency of our institutions as they drift behind closed doors. It is yet another argument for regulation and oversight.

The Tea Party, with all its mindless racism and misplaced animus against social programs, remains viable because it struck a chord in the heartland. Their anger has largely been subverted into far Right conservatism but the Populism that militates against big banks and mortgage companies still prevails and rightly so. To that extent they can shake hands with the the occupiers.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Truth/Beauty Conundrum

In his enduring Ode to a Grecian Urn, Keats ends his poem with the lines, Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty/, That is all you know and all you need to know. However those lines are in quotes and may or may not be the urn itself speaking. In any case those words ignited almost two centuries of scholarly conversation.

When Keats celebrates the common scenes depicted on the urn he is raising the everyday to high art and a certain truth inherent in those representations. The beauty lies also in the inspired words the urn has evoked from the poet which complete the act.

Anything can be seen as true and sublime in both the natural and the made-world; behold this sunset, that saucer, the human form as replicated in nature.

All You Need To Know

Before stapled center-folds
there were photography magazines
an introduction to the female form.

My first pin-up was Edward Weston’s
nubile bell pepper with beads of perspiration
and contours writhing
daring me to see as he did

His camera made a mistress of
shells calyx sand
as skin.
I was a voyeur to the thigh of a dune
the shadow of a gull upon it.

There’s an odalisque in the bok choy
as much truth in artichoke and zucchini
as in the sinews of a Grecian urn.

Those words, Beauty and, Truth have undergone a makeover down through time. We all know that the ugly can also be true and beauty often lies. In fact the beautiful can be ugly and the ugly quite beautiful. Some have noted that there was a certain beauty about the mushroom cloud of the A-bomb. While prettified art is often hard to look at.

We might say that mathematics holds truths. That proofs are intrinsically elegant but even here the matter has been held up to question. Quantum mechanics presents us with possibilities that defied Einstein or my 8th grade math teacher who knew everything.

Since the Age of Romanticism, TRUTH seems to have been decapitated to truth. Absolutes were dethroned. The monarchy of big truth is now deconstructed into points of view, seen the way Picasso saw in his cubist paintings.

We look for the imperishable or at least what will outlive us. A music that survives the centuries. Maestro, Bard, the artist’s stroke that wakes us from our non-sensory sleep. Yet what passes for historical truth is often nothing more than the dominant power's version of it. God bless... America the Beautiful. I doubt if God plays favorites or if we can lay claim to beauty above all others in spite of our amber waves of grain.

A Terrible Beauty

Claude Monet, once you were dangerous,
now we’ve made you a cliché.
You rhyme with lily pond and footbridge.
We have measured you with coffee mugs,
devoured you as magnets and umbrellas.
You have disappeared into the familiar.
This is how we love someone to death.

Set up your easel in the plein air.
Turn from the haystacks
toward the smoggy sunset
and wings of gulls,
weighted from oil-stained waves.
Capture their cargo of fractured light
visible only with the eyes you gave us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Garage Sale

In Beverly Hills they call it an Estate Sale where crazed hunters/gatherer connoisseurs go looking for a missing Vermeer or Picasso vase.

In my neighborhood it’s called a Yard Sale and the best you can hope for is a Kincaid poster among three-legged tables and broken toasters.

Why do all clothes look like schmattas laid out on lawn? The most expensive shirt seems like it came from a 99 cent store. I suppose context is all. Thrift stores, at least, put them on hangers.

Part of the fun, I’m told, is the haggling. Having spent over fifty years behind a counter I have a low threshold for bargaining. It’s a good thing I wasn’t born in Tangiers or Tijuana. The marketplace is not my kind of place. Name the price and I’ll either buy it or walk away. The last time I protested the price of anything was In Heidelberg, Germany when we bought a doll and I told the vender it was too cheap.

I imagine there are two sorts of people who go Saturday sailing. The weekend explorer searching for a nugget of El Dorado buried in the flotsam; a signed folio by Shakespeare or perhaps a page from the Gutenberg Bible, inscribed by an apostle. Also included in this group are the collectors obsessed with orange juice squeezers or salt & pepper shakers.

The other is the one-time shopper searching for a specific need like a half-moon end table or ergometrically designed computer chair. Or they may be in search of that wayward yellow sock which escaped from a washing machine last year and inched its way across the street. Garage sales are a great source for single socks. Actually I have a thing for un-matched socks. One yellow, one white will do fine though people might talk if they found my body with asymmetrical footsies; so I’ve narrowed my spectrum from navy blue to black to brown.

The whole notion of putting out one’s wares for sale seems to me a noble way of re-cycling for some small change…which could add up to serious money. It’s an underground economy for some folk…selling stuff that fell off the back of a truck. At this stage of life, buying anything ranks low on my list. We are in liquidating mode. When we pass an estate/garage/yard sale we say factiously, It could be important but drive on.

The one notable item I ever picked up occurred over 27 years ago when I first moved in with Peggy. We were cruising around Santa Monica and she was telling me about a book she had read and greatly admired. It was Aldo Leopold’s, Sand County Almanac. She noticed a yard sale up ahead and suggested we check it out, as if there had only been a few dozen books ever written. We spotted a pile and sure enough, there it was, Sand County Almanac. I knew then I was with a woman of remarkable powers.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Raymond & Highland

If they didn’t intersect I’d never get home. And they are such modest streets. As Churchill almost said, They have much to be modest about. Raymond gives up after three blocks and Highland runs about twice that length exhausting itself in funky Venice.

Raymond has been deemed worthy of only one stop sign. It yields to 7th St. in humility. Highland's flow is interupted three times. It pauses for a full stop when it consorts with Raymond right outside our window; hardly time to contemplate the existential state of mankind but enough for a quick smooch.

If Samuel Clemens lived on this corner he may not have named himself, Mark Twain. We would probably know him as Raymond Highland. In fact if I were looking for a pseudonym I could think of none better. Maybe Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver had the same idea.

There seems to be Raymond streets wherever we go. I could feel at home in Pasadena or Inglewood, even San Francisco and Philadelphia. Highland is well-named since it sits on a rise off the ocean shelf. I count on it to keep me dry in a tsunami.

Highland suffered a humiliation a few months ago when the Post office whisked away its mailbox. I’d become emotionally attached to that big blue mouth swallowing my letters. Now I must walked down a steep hill to deposit my returning Netflix which is good exercise but the return trip takes twice as long.

Both streets are quiet and sporadically tree-lined with a mix of apartments, condos and single-family homes. I wonder if there is an ordinance against children. In 27 years we’ve rarely seen any ghost or goblin kids at our door on Halloween. The neighborhood is home to a mix of aged Hippies, wannabe artists, folks who bought Microsoft at 3 and retirees who got in during rent control… like us. Few pedestrians can be seen except for dog-walkers, particularly now that they’ve removed my mail box. We have an early Frank Gehry building across from ours which will never be confused with Disney Hall.

The south leg of Highland ends with a street named, Ozone; not very thin air. Our air is often dense with its marine layer. Much of the time the sun doesn’t debut till mid-afternoon, having to fight its way through the cloud cover. It must be tough on the heliotropic blossoms but I spotted a regalia of passion flowers in summer dresses last year, one of which I couldn’t resist plucking.

Raymond, in its three-block life-span, comes to an unfortunate end, emptying itself into car-crazed Lincoln Blvd. It is blemished with an auto repair shop on one side and a car-wash on the other.

Bless Raymond Ave for its walkable length and bless Highland, too, for sending a compassionate policewoman to my door, one morning two years ago, alerting me to move my car for Monday street cleaning, rather than giving me a ticket. Not every street would be so forgiving.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


I miss uniforms. I was in Costco today and asked the wrong person where the artichokes were. He didn’t work there. How can we tell anymore?

Try finding a sales clerk in a department store. We’re on our own. The only ones on the floor are security guards and cashiers. Even the manikins have gone. Electronic outlets are no better. I try to spot the nerdiest guy but everyone looks nerdy except for those of us looking lost. Teachers show up wearing football jerseys. My old dentist comes to the office straight from pulling weeds. Even my barber disdains a smock. Doctors have shed their white coats to help patients whose blood pressure rises when they see a white coat.

It must be part of the leveling effect. We’re all in this together, is the dress code. This is the age of pretend classless society. No assigned roles No pretenses. If you insist on uniforms go to the ball game.

It occurs to me that the uniforms I’m thinking of disappeared about fifty years ago along with their jobs.

Apparel Doth Oft Proclaim

With her bright red jacket and flashlight
she patrolled the aisles,
then hushed and ushered us
through the pitch dark,
projecting herself on the big screen,
then fading to black.

Gone, too, the doorman with his epaulets,
our peacetime commander,
who lived on tips, waved, whistled
and launched a thousand taxis,
having fled Europe himself
as constable or professor.

And where is the elevator operator,
in authority for the length of his shift,
traveling vertical miles on one spot
from Icarus to Orpheus as he alone
contracted and expanded
those wrought iron lungs?

She had no name, saw plenty
of wandering arms in the balcony.
The other two wrote novels in their heads
from what was overheard, answered
to first names, spoke politely to Mr.& Mrs.
then slipped away unnoticed,

loud uniforms, shiny buttons and all.
Jackets and caps now in a vintage shop,
indignity and pride embedded in the fabric.
In one pocket dried lipstick and a stick of gum,
in another, an empty flask and
a check for two bucks, un-cashed.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Spencer and Sam

In my delirium I like to fuse my father, Sam, with Spencer Tracy. They looked alike, at least to my eyes, and since nobody had ever seen them together they might as well be the same person. Same body-type, same equanimity and deliberate nature. Tracy lived with Hepburn all those years but I can’t bend my mind into making her my mother or imagine Spencer living with my Mom.

As we now know, Tracy’s on-screen calm and assured delivery masked an inner turbulence. His drunken binges and infidelities went along with the guilt he felt over the congenital deafness of his son, John. Perhaps the only peace he found was in front of the camera. My father dealt with his grand-daughter’s deafness in stride but who knows what suffering he repressed. Perhaps it was a wounded decency they both possessed.

Their lives intersected only after Spencer Tracy’s death. In 1964 my daughter, Janice, attended the John Tracy Clinic program which was started and presided over by Spencer’s wife, Louise Tracy, who I was privileged to meet as well as his son, John. In 1968, at Janice’s graduation ceremony, my father was also introduced to them.

It isn’t the early Tracy of Father Flanagan or Captains Courageous which captivated me, though I was beginning to see him playing my father as Thomas Edison. I could barely imagine Sam being Spencer in the nine Hepburn films, except for, The Keeper of the Flame written by Donald Ogden Stewart, later blacklisted. In it Tracy spoke with an inner conviction I also attribute to my father, patient but resolute. He plays a persistent journalist who uncovers the fascist activities of a wealthy industrialist. In 1945 there was still a large audience for such themes, seen as an extension of WW II.

By 1950 he was cast in roles, giving away daughters, starting with Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride. He also parented Jean Simmons which would have granted me two beautiful sisters.

It was in his later movies that the two of them became one. That was my Dad as the Chief Justice at Nuremberg, Darrow in the Scopes trial and giving Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan a bad day at Black Rock. In the latter, Sam/Spencer wins the day with one arm missing. Also missing was any bluster or weaponry. A triumph of dry and tough stoicism. The film was not only an attempt to redress the stain of Japanese internment but also an allegory of the days of the black list and complicity of a passive community (society).

Neither Sam nor Spencer ever got in their own way. Tracy once said that acting was simply learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture. His silences spoke paragraphs.

My father, in his quiet integrity, could command attention with a look of displeasure or convey love with his eyes. Like Tracy he made a word feel as powerful as a gesture. If he felt ferocity it was self-contained. He never abused the furniture or anyone in the room. There was a grace in him as he presided in his drug store; the way he received anxious patients, took in their alarm, even grief, and shared their troubles, unburdening them.

As an actor Spencer Tracy was always himself; nothing more nor less. He displayed a moral center that flowed organically, unforced and unadorned with decibels or religiosity. His model of a hero has been largely replaced today by a noisier, self-congratulatory kind; telling of our times.

It is remarkable how a man could find his true self slipping into the skin of the characters he embodied. His persona on screen revealed a man with indomitable integrity, what was unattainable in his flawed real life. If his Catholicism confirmed his sins and left him without absolution, he became his idealized self only in his film roles.

I have projected these heroic traits onto my father as part of my mythos. In my revisionist history I can see Sam at our front door questioned by two FBI agents. They know of his membership in the Communist Party, the Tuesday night meetings, his subscription to the Daily Worker. They want names. He blocks their passage into our apartment, refuses to betray anyone. He is Spencer Tracy at Black Rock, taller than ever before. He is the Chief Judge at Nuremberg dispensing justice. He is Darrow defending free speech. I claim that wind as my inheritance.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


I imagine most of us, in our twilight years, would like to feel we will leave this world a better place than when we got here. Whether we participated in or just witnessed the passing parade it would be natural to take some credit for social progress or conversely, some shame, bequeathing a society less enlightened, less equitable and less likely to survive. With our country in peril or pervasive disrepair we are left to wonder what went wrong. I could swear I told them what to do but did they listen? No.

Are we now not meaner, greedier and dumber? The Republicans have seized the narrative, speak with malice and mendacity and have institutionalized avarice. Every day comes another abuse of state power to rig the election by re-districting or denial of voting rights. Where is Joseph Welch to ask, Have you no decency?

How could science and technology have made such unimaginable leaps forward since 1900 with breakthroughs in medicine, particle physics, integrative circuits etc… even as our social fabric seems to be degraded. The slate of Republican candidates runs from imbeciles to liars with a chorus of talk-show buffoons to repeat and amplify the deceit. Our films are mind-numbing sensory opiates while we continue to belch our way into planetary extinction.

Yet as seen from a distance we have moved a significant inch in terms of civil rights, suffrage, reproductive rights and Gay/Lesbian issues. Every gain has been earned against fierce push-back. I’d like to believe that the malevolent voices from the far Right are but the last gasps from a privileged class. Accelerated change, itself, is a perceived threat to many people who cannot find their way in this new dystopia. Add to all this is the decline of the United States as an imperial power.

Our bad news is some other regions good news. The rise of Southeast Asia seems evident. Singapore, India and China along with Brazil and possibly a secularized Islamic state will get their piece of the rock in the century ahead. Maybe the lifting of developing nations entails the diminution of our own as resources are spread more evenly around the world.

It would help if we accepted this reality. Our ranking in the world is shockingly low whether measured by social mobility, life expectancy or educational level. We need to bring home our legions, reinvigorate domestic repairs, reinvest in education to meet new demands and face the consequences of a damaged ecology.

I’m feeling better already. What has devolved here has evolved elsewhere. It may not be the American model but I can live with that. It is only by accident of birth that I benefited for seven or eight decades and I'm not leaving yet. The next chapter belongs to other continents, more densely populated and deserving of their prominence. Let us step aside with grace and humility and live as one among many.