Monday, December 31, 2012

Year-End Lists

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall or a list. Except for walls to hang pictures upon or play handball against or lists of things to do like shopping lists (Chopin Liszt).

But walls and lists divide and exclude (best ten this or worst three that) slamming the door on all else. A year-end list feels like a wall of time.The artifice imposed on art with its hierarchy must be what I resist. I like to roam in the messy, muddy, middle ground with uncategorizable boggy blogs that boggle and blur.

Another reason not to list my ten favorite movies is that I can’t remember what I saw before November and even if I could I doubt if there are even three films I would cheer about.

As for year-end anything the idea seems arbitrary. Calendars are mere constructs we allow to impose a sort of order to life, a marker like a wall,even though we know nothing stops. I Don’t Know Why You Say Goodbye, I say Hello.

Robert Frost’s poem about a wall ends with the narrator’s neighbor asserting that good walls make good neighbors, the cliché handed down from his father, the staunch Yankee, no-nonsense farmer. But Frost is the poet, all about moving under, around or through barriers. Something there is That sends a frozen-ground-swell under it / And spills the upper boulders in the sun, / And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Spring is the mischief in me, Frost tells us. The poem is the Mending Wall and Frost is happy to repair it as a way of engaging his neighbor (process is all) even though he knows it will fall again as all walls do.

Humpty Dumpty fell from one and scrambled his yoke. We live in a fractured world. Might as well go for the omelet, throw in some cheese, a few mushrooms, maybe spinach and call it a meal, cholesterol and all.

As for lists I feel as Gilbert & Sullivan…..

And 'St— 'st— 'st— and What's-his-name, and also You-know-who —
The task of filling up the blanks I'd rather leave to you.
But it really doesn't matter whom you put upon the list,
For they'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed!

Neither missed nor blessed. The only exception is Bill O’Reilly who is still the biggest waste of an apostrophe for the third year in a row.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Lost Language of Gulls

He arrived a frightened boy sleeping in steerage wrapped around a sack of potatoes like a question mark. He came up on deck in the harbor to see a congregation of seagulls paper the sky like pages of Torah.  

Peretz remembered the Cossacks as clean-shaven except for their black moustaches dripping with drink. His people had the beards.

Later he tried to forget. He would buy and sell, socks, yarn, thread, anything. No salesman, he, but a peddler. Brushes, he bought and sold. The moustache he grew registered his forgetting.

He lived by the book’s commandments and raised my orphaned father to meet the mean streets with an incongruous grace. Where but from Peretz could he have tamed the tenement life? My father was a lamb grazing among Goliaths, hushing the yells and haggles from pushcarts.

By three subways and a trolley Peretz came to our apartment. I still see him in a well-worn suit, his weary face with full moustache, the Jewish newspaper and brown bag he carried. My mother fed him pot cheese and sour cream; a fleck stayed on his upper lip and those bristles. He opened the brown bag handing me a pair of argyle socks.

It was agreed I was to have a Bar Mitzvah. All my refusals, my disbelief gave way to a final Yes, only for Peretz. He was among the chosen…. having survived. I would not deny him that day.  

Years later when I knocked on his door he saw my full moustache and ran into the closet hiding from my Cossack face. The early pogroms had pillaged his memory.

Now his moustache is wizened into wings. Only I could spot the sour cream. Brown bags were carried off by the wind. For a moment the formation of gulls was an argyle in the sky.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Winter Solstice Wedding

Was it Plato or Yogi Berra who said, You gotta take the good with the bad? In fact the good becomes better with a modicum of hardship. And so it was that we made our way to Iowa in the middle of a hundred year storm which probably happens every other year.

In the enhanced version our covered wagon halted on the great plain enveloped in sleet and wind-chill temps near zero while Custer made his next-to-last stand, Buffalo Bill rehearsed his buffaloes and Black Hawk, the tribal chief, puffed his peace pipe in indecipherable smoke.

What actually happened were white-out conditions and all flights out of Chicago canceled. Moline and Rock Island in Illinois stare down Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side of Old Man River, constituting the Quad Cities…and now you know. The sister cities apparently have no sibling rivalry. It was a peaceable kingdom. Even Buffalo Bill was honored for having been born there. Everywhere we turned seemed to be a Christmas scene with icicles and snow outlining the branches of naked maple trees.

The reason for our trip was not to check out the Democratic caucuses for the 2016 election. I’ll leave that for Hilary and Jeb. We were there to witness the marriage of Dave and Theresa. I'm sometimes suspicious of December weddings imagining they are scheduled on the advice on an accountant but not so this one.. 

Blackhawk was the name of the beautifully refurbished hundred year-old hotel where we stayed. Seven of us came from California arriving by motorized prairie schooner or maybe Mississippi barge while the locals presumably came on their flexible flyers and one-horse open sleigh. There were no no-shows.

Dave first met Theresa in grammar school. She was the girl next-door who got away. Now emancipated from her first marriage she has two grandchildren. Dave heard Hollywood calling where he edits, shoots, writes, directs, teaches and breathes cinema. Two years ago they reconnected and they are now living their happy ending which is really a new beginning. 

The ceremony took place at the Figge art museum; how fitting, Art being our religion. When two people are fully met something sacred happens. Everybody present seemed to be kin. Peggy wrote and delivered a beautiful epithalamium. Passages were read from first Corinthians which says something about putting away childish things. It’s fine if that means dumping his Yo-Yo and bubblegum cards but I’m sure Dave will remain a cinephile which is his bliss even if it has been relegated to second place. They will return to live here in L.A. where the snow is fake but the dreams are real for a return to the art of cinema.

It was an adventure being where the tall corn grows though the snow drifts are higher at winter solstice. I was wondering if these folks are any different from Californians, whether the four seasons align them better to the natural order of things. Living with the elements may call for resilience and accommodation while we have gotten soft and indulged. However we do have our quakes, mud-slides and fires to keep us alert for the next tantrum of the gods-that-may-be.  

While their seasons are cyclic ours are more random. I’ll never understand why they insist on having so much weather in the mid-west; we have practically none at all and get along just fine.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Master

When we read powerful fiction, get drawn into a painting or transported by a film those characters are no less real to us than our best friends or worst version of ourselves. They penetrate our psyche, like it or not, tap into our mythos as archetypes and we disown them and squirm or welcome them as role models.

What if Jack Nicholson wandered from Five Easy Pieces into Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk Café and had a tantrum ordering the waitress to hold the chicken from his chicken salad sandwich? When he slams the table and sends her reeling Hopper’s melancholic paint would run with Pollack’s rage. The palpable mood of estrangement would be shattered. Chaplin would stop eating his shoe and all the while Oliver Twist might be in the corner pleading, Please sir, I want some more.  

Imagine early Brando, the brash biker from Wild Ones with a touch of the longshoreman On the Waterfront and throw in Stanley Kowalski with his ripped undershirt. Now add Nicholson from the Cuckoo’s Nest. Make room for Ratso Rizzo and stir well. You now have Joaquin Phoenix in the Master, a damaged, dysfunctional, womanizing, volatile alcoholic ex-G.I. you wouldn’t want your sister to hang around with.

It’s not quite Frankenstein meets the Dracula. But when Phoenix (Freddie Quell) meets the Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman, we have the conjunction of two demented products of a mid-century America, gone wrong. On the surface the Eisenhower decade was noted for conformity and consumption yet it also seeded small pockets of unrest and marginal behavior. The cauldron was bubbling with incipient radicalism, dissent, drugs and bogus spirituality.

As Master of his Scientology-like cult Hoffman is a charismatic, manipulative megalomaniac with erotic overtones. He takes on the Phoenix as his reclamation project yet Quell’s damage is irremediable and he exits the film how he entered. Hoffman, on the other hand, flourishes from small-time charlatan to international pseudo-spiritual guru. By this time I didn’t care whether they both floated off to a distant galaxy or got vacuumed into a black hole.

In the 1960 film Elmer Gantry, Burt Lancaster is the flamboyant evangelist selling eternal life under the threat of fire and brimstone.  Why bother summoning Jesus when, as Master, Hoffman becomes the supreme schemer? Both are hard-drinking traveling salesman of a sort, the ultimate hucksters of our market economy. The Sinclair Lewis preacher was exposed and ridden out of town but Scientology prospers. A congregation of the lost is always to be found, ready to surrender their autonomy. By creating a community these prophets fill the vacuum where soulful relationships may have once existed.    

With God irrelevant, in an interminable deathbed scene well into its second century, the field is wide open for demigods and false idols. Masters of all stripes are a growth industry for a gullible public. While this movie was unsettling and unintelligible at times I have a feeling the images will cling for a while. As for the co-leading men I went away humming, Still crazy after all these years.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


My friend asked for ink. The clerk at Staples shrugged. You mean ink toner? Cartridges?

The Ink Age is gone. You know, that stuff fountain pens use to run out of, the blue-black substance that would leak all over our hands and shirt pockets.

Raise you hand if you have the same mental picture I have of a hexagonal glass bottle of ink. The name Waterman comes to mind….then Schaffer.  The aforementioned bottle turns out to be Waterman’s ink.  I just looked it up. They still sell it online. In my day fountain pens were part of the back-to-school package. Today they have fallen into the same category as ink eradicator and blotters.

Ink is one of those lost things that vanished the way invisible ink vanished. In 1949 when someone invented an ink that dried instantly Papermate pens were the next best thing. Fountain pens became another collectible and ink bottles, that item which an enormous stationary super store can’t find room for.

Now I am back in the third or fourth grade. I’m sitting at my desk with an inkwell at the far corner. We wrote with a long stylus with a nib at the end which had to be dipped. This was a spelling test. The word was genuine, a tough one which threw me. I spelled it with a j then I pictured it from the window of Brenner’s Hair Salon which advertised, Genuine Permanent Waves. I needed to change my answer but alterations were not allowed. My life down the forbidden path was launched. I managed to drop a glob of ink over my wrong answer and re-wroie it correctly.

Returning to the scene of my crime I ask myself why that nefarious act has stayed with me over seventy years. Bad boy that I was I’m not sorry for it. I own it, my shadow side, the god of mischief took up residence, compensation for too much obedience, testing the margins, early subversion against the rules. There was an element of resourcefulness if not creativity in my misdemeanor and none of it is possible with a ball point pen.

Ink that in the great ledger. I’ll take my chances that the principal and all the teachers in P.S. 99 are long gone and I won’t be left back to repeat Spelling class or worse, get an F in good citizenship or work habits. At least I didn’t run with scissors.    

Channeling my inner Huck Finn depended on that property of ink to spread its wings on the page. Pass me the Rorschach test and I’ll tell them what I really see. It's all, Inka dinka do, thanks to Jimmy Durante.

Movie-Going, Now and Then

With a red Netflix envelop in the mailbox at a steady pace and a dearth of watchable films we don’t get to the movies much these days. Studios hold back their best of the least for release during the last six weeks of the year but even most of those are relegated to Wait for Netflix status. However we did go this week and I’m reminded why it happens with a frequency approaching zero.

It isn’t just the prices and the parking it’s the sensory assault we’re subjected to. The movie was scheduled to begin at 4:45. Forty minutes later it actually started. By that time we had endured non-stop commercials at 100 plus decibels and a stream of mindless, screaming previews with razzle-dazzle sufficient to frazzle my nervous system. And no mute button. If the feature film is meant to be transporting why is the pre-trip so agitating? Is the sensory overload designed to numb us into submission? Next time, if there is one, we’re arriving half an hour late and waiting in the lobby until ours is rolling.

Back in those black and white days we would walk into the dream palace, heedless of time, with our Milk Duds and Necco Wafers. The Valencia Theater had a ceiling like a planetarium. It induced both fantasy and movie reality. It was at the movies I learned that babies came from hot water and towels, that most everyone wore tuxedos and all sailors were great dancers. I came away with the certainty that I’d know a cattle rustler if I met one. It remained for me to figure out that even though Victor Mature wrestled with Tyrannosaurus Rex in One Million BC (1940, age 7) I wasn’t likely to encounter any dinosaurs on the way home.

I never felt pummeled, aurally or visually. Movies were low-tech, less graphic and therefore left more to the imagination. Only recently I understood that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represent the White House and Supreme Court with Dopey writing decisions. But I digress.

My distaste for the current movie experience is a sure sign I've entered the cranky old man stage of life. At a certain age we’ve witnessed enough of the real thing, man-made and natural, universal and personal to render the cinematic version preposterous and needlessly jangling. Nobody I know speaks, thinks or looks the way movie figures do. Somewhere along the way I lost my patience for hundred million dollar productions of parables, or extended sitcoms called date films. Vigilante justice worked better for me in Hollywood Westerns than the mega-explosive paramilitary version with bodies littering the wide screen.

Must seven-year-old kids go through alien worlds with slackers as role-models to come out on the other side? With a pantheon of anti-heroes crowding the new Mt. Olympus make a little room for Abe Lincoln.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Money Talks, But

It doesn’t necessarily win elections or championships.

The Dodgers thought they bought themselves a pennant this summer and were short-changed. Almost doubling their payroll got them second place and barely. The Lakers seem to be following the same pattern, a collection of bloated reputations rather than fresh legs on hungry bodies.

Karl Rove squandered 300 million bucks on a loser. If you’ve got nothing to say it doesn’t matter how many times you say it. Maybe voters can smell rancid ideas coming from a robotic mouth. Even those Sabbath gas-bags on Sunday morning shows couldn’t make the case.

We live in a saturation of brands, not only corporate-hyped names of products but public figures are also branded from Oprah to Barbra to Clint and Kobe. Tiger is a fallen brand climbing his way back. Manny and A-Rod are yesterday. Mitt is the day before yesterday. Bibi and Barack are today. Hilary and Jeb could be tomorrow.  

In most matters I’m so out of it I don’t find out about today until it’s last year. There is nothing so perishable as the marketplace. Has there ever been a laundry soap that isn’t labeled NEW? Why are cars changed annually? Was there something wrong with last year’s model?

To be sure, neither a team nor a candidate nor the latest wireless wizardry without which life cannot be lived… gets very far without a ton of money. Because of this we love the underdog, the one who achieves more on merit than noise and splash. We root for the small-market team of no-names to show-up the bloated marquee types with all their swagger and bling.

Bottom line: We seem to require some name recognition but resent being over-sold. We like to pretend we’re not being manipulated. We don’t like losers but also like to topple the winner. We believe the myth of the Natural, who comes from nowhere and whose rise is meteoric. That person becomes us, humble and incorruptible, however briefly.

There are limits to power; witness U.S. misadventures from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The mightiest arsenal in human history is helpless against guerrilla warfare.

On the other hand Americans are still infatuated with power, from the Goldman Sachs’ boardroom to Tony Soprano’s backroom.  During the long descent of his slipping-down life Tony loses his hold on us. When Wall St. similarly falls with a thud it takes us all down like the story of my uncle who was wiped out in the crash of 1929.  Some banker jumped out the window and landed on his pushcart.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Speaking of Love

Winter is the time of my content and I want to tell the world. 

There are four women who have made me the lucky guy I am. First is she who breathes alchemical air creating sparks and charging the space between us. Second is the youngest woman I’ve ever known who lives daily with astonishment. Third is the one who inhabits caves, ancient and her own interior landscape. Last is the woman who has gifted me with love and the opportunity to love back. They are all Peggy Aylsworth Levine.

She is a most remarkable person. Peggy still laughs at my jokes. She cooks a world-class fried cauliflower. She designs jewelry, has written a children’s album recorded by the Modernaires, done 66 collage books, dozens of Joseph Cornell-like boxes, plus the covers of my two blog books. And these are not the only reason I married her.

Every morning she writes a poem with 54 of them, so far, accepted for publication this year alone. In her 92nd year she is at the height of her creative power. She sees wide across years and into deep pools. Her poems are lyrical and imagistic with a palette of language that stretches and leaps across chasms. She’ll take a headline, an overheard conversation, a photo and make of it a poem. A dog-walker, scrap of a dream, a garbage truck and an odd word can become a soufflé-poem rising.

Her poems are not just a special talent; they are a natural extension of the way she meets the world. Her doors are open wide. If life seems closed she finds a seam through which to enter … and if there are no doors or windows she walks through the walls.

There is an unshakeable optimism she glows with whose illumination I’ve come to rely upon. It is a light-source from within having dwelled in her own dark caverns and found their spring. It comes hard-earned. Orphaned at eight she came to rely not only on the kindness of strangers but the strange unfathomable resources she possessed to find her way.

Find is the key word. Peggy is a finder / founder. She seeks and knows when she’s arrived, not as an end-point but a destination itself in which every step is worth the wonder. The hunter gathers. The questioner finds answers, however partial, which raise new questions. It takes a certain faith to stop driving, examine the stump, the peeling bark, reptilian roots at our feet, the calligraphy of bare branches, congealed light in a drop of rain. 

Sometimes things are too close to be seen. In this elongated twilight I am able to take an essential step back and assess my good fortune; how these past near 29 years together have been both a lifetime and a wink. The gift of love works both ways, to see and be seen, to receive love and be emotionally naked feeling myself fully received, entering into a safe unknown. Our love taps into shuttered rooms and fills vacancies. We care-take each other, choreograph the steps of leading and yielding and when we can’t or won’t budge, laugh about it.

Having said all this I feel there is something more which is unsayable, an essence that eludes words. Each of us retains a mysterious core better left alone. Our love sanctifies It and in that way creates a third entity also beyond articulation.

We write in the same room and there are long silences between us to be cherished. Paper rustling, pencil sharpened, curses at the computer, tea brought in when the kettle calls. Love is in the sensing of each other’s pace, mood, when to not speak….and when to speak as I am now.