Sunday, April 29, 2012

Take Me Out To the Ballgame

It's not the way I remember it back then when we got to Ebbets Field at 10 for Sunday double-headers riding the F train then GG local and transfer to the el all for a nickel with Jackie, Campy and Newk gods mingled among us then bleacher seats fifty cents seven hours no back to lean on when we knew players without programs both teams even the umps man inside the scoreboard darting around pushing out numbers quietly no blasts no replays no cameras zooming no jerseys on our back white shirts ties even we could smell cigar smoke hot dogs peanut shells the mowed grass this was Flatbush Brooklyn with no bushes and no brooks

Now in Chavez Ravine with increments of green San Gabriel’s distant grey rolling as pastoral as it gets crickets drowned by amplified noise non-stop L.E.D. ads here then gone and back again to the game starts with bombastic anthem what so proudly we hail to the home of the free-agency for next year’s fat contract blessed by Irving Berlin’s stretch in the bottom of the 7th Americana home sweet home runs by God almighty thank you Jeez the jeers the cheers high fives Friday fireworks bursting the night sky higher than a pop flying peanuts at six bucks a throw washed down by ten dollar beer white with ocean foam waves in the stands ring the stadium

Scully still part bard his voice captions the field with more than stats upon stats everything and nothing has changed brush-backs signs by cap & chin spit and scratch nose-to-nose with umps still the unaccountable streaks and slumps as if it matters and somehow it does while millionaire boys of spring, summer and fall with surgically repaired arms congenitally endowed raised on Olympus to keep the continuum of Hermes / Hercules / Hero stay Spartan stay large stay loose stay stoic as the 44,812 go wild as a Greek chorus can go

What inning of life this is we don’t know maybe we’ll get picked off third and be gone or thrown out stretching maybe caught in a rundown going on for years or be the pitcher yanked after a slow trot to the mound or just finished with a walk-off hit no double-headers anymore let the ground crew rake wet and smooth the infield earth so defined such symmetry the order that exists no where else Euclidian precision the rhyme of ninety feet an order promised so we thought that is nowhere

Friday, April 27, 2012

Once, Twice, Thrice Upon A Time

Tell me a story, Daddy.

I find a parking spot, grab a shopping cart and walk into the supermarket. Then I realize I forgot my canvas bags. I return to the car and start back again when I’m approached by a man waving a petition and then …….

The latest film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, was the Grand Prix winner at Cannes in 2011 and is a masterpiece of cinematic story-telling. The first forty minutes are excruciatingly slow. A stream of lights winding along at night in desolate, stark country looks like a train in the long shot but as the camera moves closer we see there are three vehicles. The lead car contains a police commissioner and another officer, the driver, a coroner, and a disheveled man. They stop and get out. In the second car are men with shovels and the prosecutor. The third is a military jeep.

Is it here?
Yes, I think here.
Where? Where?
No, not here.

The man under duress is a prisoner who has killed someone and buried the body. Again and again they stop, look and go on. It happens in what seems like real time. We are annoyed, irritated, even bored just as the officials are bored and the way life is boring between the telling points. The director is most concerned with what goes on in those between moments when the characters are so filled with tedium they start to reveal their stories. Interests shifts to the back-stories of the police chief, lawyer and doctor.

Everybody has a story. The man with the petition is asking people, Are you a registered voter? Three out of four say, No. I’m thinking, No wonder we ended up with Bush and the Tea Party. This is Santa Monica, not Bakersfield. Doesn’t anyone care?.............but that’s another story.

The best films tell their story with the camera. They give us fragments. They make demands on us. They digress us, draw us in with images, with tones of shadow and light, close-ups and wide angle shots. Ambient noises are heard. They tell it with pauses and elisions. We experience what is revealed or concealed as if through a window in the rain or are reminded of life’s randomness by the trace of an apple as it falls from a tree and rolls into a stream. We are not told in so many words.

The newspapers say that Obama has lost his narrative as if he misplaced it or fumbled the ball, as if there is only one narrative per person. We contain multitudes, Whitman proclaimed, in his barbaric yawp. People seem to elect the best story. Will it be a fable that puts them to sleep or a tale of awakening; words that pander to dreams deferred or a narrative that urges them to think beyond their fears and cynicism.

The lives in this movie are marked by regret, ennui and angst with a closing shot as the camera moves in and lingers on a face in transformation in which the brutal finding of science yields to a more humane version of the truth. Through cinema art, like any other, we come closer to our true selves. Yet there is an existential lawlessness at the center of human life, something buried perhaps, pulling apart our own stories even as we make them cohere.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Veal Cutlets and Heroic Couplets

I stopped writing poetry three years ago; about the same time I took up the cooking chores. Too many poets, like cooks, spoil the froth and the quaff. My cuisine still tastes like prose but occasionally I may come up with something transcendent that knocks at least one sock off.

In the kitchen and in the den the chef becomes his own best critic. What’s on the page and on the stove are both made things; a spicy word here, a pinch of salt there can make it a tasty dish to set before the king. An un-needed adjective is like too much garlic or over-cooked chicken. An unexpected word that warrants repeated readings is that hint of tarragon on the coc au vin or basil in the salad.

So now we have Peggy’s poetry cooking in her oven and I have hot stuff baking in mine. The difference is that she has to eat my offerings. Of course, I also subsist on her leaping metaphors which can launch me inter-galactically.

I’ve got spaghetti boiling its heart out on one burner, mushrooms and turkey meatballs braising in olive oil on another, beets warming on a third while I’m heating the French bread at 350 and throwing together a salad with stanzas of artichoke, pine nuts, snap peas and the usual greens.

Peggy brings me the poem she’s been working on. I have a problem with her word, hearty, to describe the air a spiky palm tree breathes. As I drizzle in the pesto she warns me about insufficient olive oil. She subtracts a line, adds another. I become more mindful of moistening the pasta.

Her poem ends with a zinger as the disparate parts meet in a tenuous whole just as I try to bring the dishes to the table to wake the tongue with spaghetti al dente, crisp bread, and salad with layers that resist identification.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Films From the Near-East

We’ve been watching quite a few movies lately coming out of Turkey and Iran. Each in its own way might start a conversation about the mores of the culture as well as the sensibility of the filmmakers. My favorite is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish director whose still photography is striking. I have not yet seen his latest work, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. The three films I want to talk about each offer windows into the daily lives of ordinary people and as such are most welcomed by Western eyes.

Certain behaviors are seen as universal such as sibling rivalry, coming of age and family conflicts surrounding care for the elderly. Other issues, somewhat more alien to us, grow out of gender politics and the degree that Muslim orthodoxy impacts their lives. Theocracy and the secular pull in opposing directions along with tradition and modernity.

In Abdullah Oguz’, Bliss, a young woman from a remote village is raped and therefore shamed as being a seducer. She is told to hang herself. When she refuses she is sent off to Istanbul with a cousin who is charged with throwing her off the train. He cannot. In fact he finds his own humanity over the course of their journey dodging family members. The film challenges the ancient, male-chauvinist practice, as it delineates the evolution of justice in the big city contrasted with the barbaric ways of Turkey’s countryside.

The Oscar-winning, Separation, by Kirnia Hosseini, might easily be enacted in many American cities which is why it found a large audience in the U.S. Family discord, a daughter’s divided loyalty, her confrontation with moral relativism, care for an infirm grandparent, single-parenting, outside help and the weight of the Koran… all come together in an artful confluence.

In the Turkish film, Times and Winds, written and directed by Reha Erdem, the focus is on three families in a small, rural village, each with children in early adolescence. Life is hard, goat-herding on rugged, un-arable land. The presence of Nature overwhelms, cinematically, with its long shots of the single mosque, marking the place against the vast landscape of wind, boulders and a shifting sky. The effect is to diminish individuality.

The children are lost between the urge of hormones and their place in the lineage of their prescribed life to-be. One boy fantasizes about ways of killing his father but this and all his yearnings will be crushed. The future of the children is foretold. Their identity is to be subsumed by the forces that have prevailed for a millennium. Authority rests with a town council, all male, and trickles down by a hierarchy from grandfather to father to son.

The film is punctuated by the headings, Night, Evening, Afternoon and Morning, the calls to prayer, in that order, which suggests that time moves back toward beginnings. Both the opening and closing scenes show a boy faced with his Imam father’s dying, running off to enlist another villager to call for prayer. Everyone is replaceable; continuity assured.

All these and other such films seem to me bold acts, making visible the shadowy lives of a struggling people. The artistry is evident, told metaphorically yet unsparingly. Turkey has always been a gateway between the Western and Eastern worlds, between two disparate religions and a thousand years of progress.

When an old order begins to die it becomes an art form, seen in new light. Perhaps this kind of film-making will allow us to see the universality of their human relationships; to recognize their family challenges as our own. At the same time one hopes these images and narratives might inspire change within their own borders.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tradition, Tradition

If I were like most people I’d wake up inside my tent, say my prayers, chant in praise of the unseen spirits that got me through the night or maybe curse them for not carting me off to paradise free of earthly travail. I might put on phylacteries or amulets or read from the holy book. They know the drill. They know what must be done to appease their God: sacrifice the goat, fetch the prayer rug, eat this, not that, sit, stand, damn that drought, bless this rain, avenge the cousin’s death, stone the sister’s sin.

Tradition is the easy act to follow. Join the crowd. Mumble the mumble. It is heresy to refuse. Don’t you dare. You are a spec in the Hajj to Mecca. Beware the pilgrim who loses his way, who refuses the wafer, won’t attend the Seder, doesn’t wash in the Ganges.

From the Gobi to the Kalahari, from Amazonia to Alabama people live between obeisance and transgression. Sin and confess. Thank you, Jesus, for that home run, winning basket, touchdown or for sparing my child, restoring my sight.

(Bear with me. I’m trying to come to terms with all this. There is some thing in my nature that abhors prescribed behavior.)

The Greeks put theirs to bed. Those were human gods and got exhausted from their pranks and foibles. They taught us how to live as if. And now we see the world symbolically as if spring were a resurrection or a passage out of bondage. As if the darkest, shortest days of winter brought on a festival of lights with candles to be lit or a baby to be born.

Some of us see these as metaphors. For others they are reality just as dreams are certain Indonesian tribes’ reality. What I see as poetic fables, others regard as sacred narratives. They look for purpose in the mystery, meaning for this randomness or a supreme answer to the overwhelming question.

In a Booker prize-winning book recently read about an impoverished Nigerian family, the author invokes the spirit-world of animism for 500 pages. It reads like an hallucinogenic trip yet for Ben Okri, the author, it is reality. In so far as their plight is concerned, nothing changes except the dreams seem to confer the promise of hope. Does immersion in this netherworld numb like an opiate or fortify as protein drink?

The tribe endures. It offers a kind of identity. It keeps the continuum alive and the wish to pass it on. Do as the ancients did and you are granted the illusion of permanence. Tradition guarantees coherence. It sanctifies the irrational and gives succor. It is the ultimate familiar; warm and fuzzy, the glue that binds a fractured life.

However, what assures the continuance of tribes also deepens the divide between people here and people there. Even as the Internet shrinks the planet, sends tendrils across the map virtually eliminating geographical borders, more partitions appear. Does this speak to the tenacity of tradition’s hold on the human psyche? Or are these differences inflamed by certain forces to distract and keep true believers in war without end. Or do I detect a glacially slow withering away of differences and recognition of some more universal kinship?

There seems to be a push / pull. The closer we are linked, technologically, the greater is there a perceived threat, with old orthodoxies feeling under siege and reacting accordingly. Is it not possible for traditions to persevere and coexist as we move toward universality? There is a richness of language, dress and customs which may be irretrievable.

(This is progress for me; letting in the value of ritual as an approach toward religious experience.)

Secular traditions have emerged which may serve the yearning for community. July 4th BBQs and fireworks, Super Bowl Sunday even Oscar night have become shared experiences under our communal noses. Pizza might be the communal breaking of bread.

Can art, music, literature speak the common tongue and offer transcendence? If the planet is threatened, as it is by climate change, are we capable of responding globally, as one people, putting aside these vestiges of pre-history which set us apart?

Friday, April 13, 2012


A couple of years ago I gave up on my retentive mind. Every time I had come across some wise and pithy statement I thought I’d never forget, I did. So I started to compile a list of them but now the list is so long it’s like reading another book.

I just went through it and plucked out a few which I offer:

We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome... John Steinbeck

Yesterday we attended our second memorial service in two weeks. Two very dear friends have died; quite different in temperament, both very loved. I had known Marty for over sixty years. He was a quiet presence yet touched me and scores of others as if his aloneness greeted mine. He made the journey noble.

Susan was a late and brief candle in my life. She was one of those who walk in our midst living out loud. She entered our lives about two years ago and I’d only spent time with her on four occasions. At her service yesterday I first learned of her accomplishments and the full reach of her generosity. Yet with all her zest and pluck she also had her interior moments of doubt and retreat; as if her solitary time was essential to return less lonesome.

Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.... Immanuel Kant

I think of those 1930 gangster flicks where Cagney or Bogart serves his time in the big house and tries to go straight, but can’t. He is shadowed by his past and the goon behind the newspaper trailing him in the subway. He is pulled back into the mob just for one last job. He owes it to Lefty. He needs the dough to help his crippled Mom and he owes it to Ida Lupino or Ann Sheridan who waited for him and now he wants to take her out of this slum to that picket fenced house in the country.

Life is like licking honey off a thorn……..Louis Adamic

Not always…but sometimes it feels that way. Everything has to be earned. There are dangers out there. Even as joy comes unbidden there can be heard dark music, the peril suggested by a distant organ. The hubris forecasts the fall. We see ourselves in that movie two-thirds of the way through when all issues seem resolved; the crop survived the storm, the manuscript was accepted, your horse came in and the kids will be coming home for the holidays when ………. However after the final NO there is a Yes.

Music recalls us to our lost unspoken selves ……Adam Phillips

I hear it and there is nothing to be said.

Monday, April 9, 2012

For Crying Out Loud

I was a cry baby, my mother announced to anyone who would listen. That probably caused me to cry even more. I don’t know why I cried so much. Maybe I was feeling the pain of the dust bowl farmers or the rise of Nazism or maybe there was an open pin on my diapers. She also said I had chronic ear aches. That news sort of got me off the hook.

The fact is that I was late in controlling my lachrymal glands. I have memories of tears filling my eyes around age seven when someone would look at me for what seemed to be an elongated moment. It was as if they were seeing into the shambles of my mansion.

At some point I learned to control my tear ducts like the rest of my gender. Boys simply don’t cry though I do remember crying at a scene in the 1944 movie, The Sullivan Boys. Anne Baxter got a telegram that her husband was killed in the South Pacific. He is one of five brothers who perished on the same ship. I don’t know if I identified with her or the dead sailors.

I’m sure I must have cried over the decades. There was plenty to shed tears over. The next big cry I had, which stays vivid in my mind, was when my father died in 1976. I literally could not stop. My gush actually came a few days before when he had a stroke. I went to the pharmacy that day and found myself unable to hold back the tears.

Cataract surgery has returned me to my infancy. Since then I walk around some days wiping away tears. My post-op leaky eyes may just be the result of clogged ducts. The tears are not being reabsorbed as with normal people. I am now apt to get glassy eyed more easily. But I’m not talking about that nor am I referring to droplets evoked from laughter or handkerchiefs of happiness at weddings. I understand those are even different in chemical composition than the hormone-endorphin packed tears we usually associate with pain or sorrow.

When I try to recall what prompts my tears I know it isn’t so much sadness or even distress. It seems to be some sudden moment of empathy or bonding with a person most vulnerable; involuntary compassion. Not the bombing of a city but hurt or humiliation of an individual. It is an outpouring; a recognition of being caught emotionally naked.

Not having access to our tears may prove to be a more serious deficit than going through life as a cry baby. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child. Maybe it takes that long to free our crying self from layers of inbitions. I can imagine having an emotionally intimate connection with a friend, which touches a nerve provoking tears that turn into laughter and back again.

On the other hand several friends, including Peggy, tell me that the tears no longer correspond with what they are feeling. Maybe dry tears are enough. If we cried for all the suffering in the world we might flood the planet.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Arrow of History

For many of us coming into political awareness in the 30s, 40s and 50s, the arc of social progress now in retrograde is hard to witness. Is our promised orbit ready for an obit? Is the wound self-inflicted, forensically speaking? Who are the killers of the dream?

FDR’s New Deal yielded needed programs for both urban and rural poor along with collective bargaining rights which arguably saved capitalism from the perceived threat of communism. The principle of a safety-net was established with Social Security.

After our entrance into the war anti-fascism united the country. Briefly, Russia was our friend. Who knew these were the glory days? We grew up with a common cause and common enemy. The G.I. Bill extended the role of government as a guarantor of certain rights and privileges which, to a large measure, created the middle-class and the promise of an American dream.

Lyndon Johnson was the last New Dealer to occupy the White House. Medicare and his war on poverty extended the reach of Roosevelt’s vision even as he tragically plunged us into a wrong war. The misadventure in Vietnam engendered a social upheaval which, along with a redress of racial grievances, began to polarize the country.

During the Cold War years the allure of the Soviet Union turned into a dreadful and dreaded opposition. When the U.S.S.R. crumbled a new narrative emerged. Republicans seized the opportunity to capitalize on the incompetence and abuse of strong central governments.

In the absence of any powerful model for further social programs and with the supremacy of the U.S. on the world stage, the Liberal paradigm fell out of favor. Anti-government rhetoric became the norm under Reagan in an era that saw the rise of evangelicals consolidating around conservative values. To a certain extent Regan Republicanism was a reaction against the anti-war and civil rights movements of the sixties and seventies.

The move to dismantle progressive initiatives is well underway. With diminishing push-back from Liberals the far right agenda prevails. Elections have become exercises in fund-raising. Democrats now feed at the same trough as their opponents. Bush II stoked fear and revenge giving free rein to the Neo-Cons, off the ledger, while dooming the country with financial recklessness.

Obama’s presidency, full of promise with a changing demography, has further incited racism from latent to blatant. The beast is un-caged. Our founding precepts are under attack with calls from the right for restoration of child labor, our declaration as a Christian nation, anti-contraception laws, voter restrictions, Nativism , fake science, abolition of income tax and other issues seemingly settled a century ago.

It doesn’t take a master sleuth to smell a corpus delicti. With heedless hegemony abroad and a semi-moribund electorate shooting themselves in the foot we have a body politic on life support. There is blood on corporate hands; having been defined as people, they are therefore culpable. Motive: greed and privilege, Weapon: demagoguery and a slumbering public, Accomplice: bought politicians, Casualties: resources wasted, lives squandered, Verdict: democracy subverted.

History is not an arrow; more like a pencil, first writing pages of progress, now flipped and leading by erasure. It is less a projectile than a football game with ground gained and lost.

A death rattle can be heard in the land; the noise of errant drones, of words gone limp on politician’s lips, the sound that lies make, an imperial army in retreat, the silence of shuttered factories and maybe the last gasp of resistance from the old boys club clinging to an imagined life where everyone knew their place.

Monday, April 2, 2012


It has been said that the chances of winning the lottery are just slightly better if you buy a ticket. With this in mind I almost bought one. I figure I’ve saved thousand of dollars over the years almost, but not quite, joining the frenzy. It’s only a buck a dream but this way I’ve enjoyed speculating over my new-found wealth which is what everybody else does, and saving almost as much as a winning ticket.

Sure we would have had some great moments distributing millions to our children and grandchildren with enough left over to pay off my overdue library books. I could have driven around buying modest homes for everyone living in cardboard boxes at the off-ramps and saved distressed properties from foreclosure. I might have played Mr. Magwitch from Great Expectations as secret benefactor to some unsuspecting youth who extended a kindness when I was in reduced circumstances.

However, when I think of all the attendant responsibilities I’m not sure I could make the adjustment. I’d have to change my bumper stickers, the locks on our door, even our phone number. The thought of moving our fourteen bookcases and objet d’art is too daunting. I expect I’d have cousins, by the dozens, showing up and that is unthinkable.

If I funded a drive to get a picture I.D. for all the disenfranchised voters in the South then I’d probably feel guilty that I didn’t buy mosquito nets for everyone in sub-Saharan Africa, instead. If I rescued inner cities from urban blight I’d probably start worrying about the rural poor, homeless from tornado damage.

I should start by getting my mother out of her trailer in Alabama….except my mother died 25 years ago and she never lived in a trailer in Alabama or anywhere else....but it's the thought that counts. Already I’m getting dizzy from the burden of saving us from ourselves. Philanthropy has its hard days.

Almost, but not quite, winning, ensures almost, but not quite, worrying about such matters. I can fantasize without having to choose between Amnesty International, Common Cause, N.P.R, Doctors Without Borders or the Southern Poverty law Center. We already get a letter-a-day from the White House, Nancy Pelosi or Barack, himself.

When I think of changing my life style, I shudder. Fine dining in French restaurants would mean learning which to fork to use to say nothing of a fully operative left hand, European style. Almost winning allows me to snack at Costco’s free-food tables with the down-trodden masses, clip an occasional coupon and look forward to my annual rebate. Four more car washes I get a freebee.

Give me the simple life of fixed income and senior discounts. Maybe if I was to the manor born I’d yearn for a return to my aristocratic roots but it’s not in my breeding. The closest I care to come to a regal bearing is the next Masterpiece Theatre. If I continue to almost buy a ticket my seat at the downstairs table will continue to happily be my lot.