Thursday, January 31, 2013

Life Stories

At age 37 Jack Nicholson found out that the person he thought was his sister was actually his mother and his imagined parents were his grandparents. Could this somehow account for his being a rabid Laker fan? No, but it’s enough to re-write one’s narrative.

A friend once told me she was convinced that she was a surviving twin. Another way to re-imagine a life. We all have constructed our own neat story which is probably two-thirds fact and the other third surmise, conjecture and myth. Then there is the fourth third which may be the material withheld, otherwise known as family secrets.

Another friend was shocked to learn, around age 70, that his mother did not die from pancreatic cancer just after his birth, as he had been told. In fact, she had post-partum depression and committed suicide by defenestration. His whole life he had been concerned about a family history of cancer which did not exist.

Yet another old friend whom I have been closely in touch with since kindergarten was recently told that he has or had a half brother. It seems that his father, a no-nonsense health professional, had a liaison with his nurse and fathered a boy around the time of my friend’s birth. Stop the music! News like this could signal re-visiting childhood remembrances particularly since his father died when my friend was in his early teens and his mother a few years later. An older brother and sister chose not to reveal the full story during their lifetime. It certainly suggests another dimension to the family dynamic.

Some of us may not wish to know what really happened. What really happened, might  never be more than yet another version with material added or subtracted.. An artist immerses himself in the possibilities; it is his soft clay to be sculpted, sometimes beyond recognition. If we are to believe that we must knock off those early voices to find our true self than so be it.

There was a book in the 60s, If You Meet the Buddha On the Road, Kill Him, which argued that the preferred route toward self-realization was through self-discovery. Nobody can furnish the answers, however wise or authoritative. It occurs to me that the notion of individuation may be a Western value and not hold up universally. 

A similar theme is expressed by Colm Toibin in his new book with the arresting title, New Ways to Kill Your Mother. The act of murder is, of course, metaphorical as is mother, father, or homeland. The point is that a writer, and perhaps anyone, must free himself from those interjected voices that stifled, censored or even deadened his own creative impulse. Toibin is an Irish writer citing the flight of other Irish writers who had to relocate in order to liberate themselves from the grip of the Church or rigidity of family. Philip Roth’s advice was to write as if your parent’s are dead.

Most of us are not going to write at all but we may walk around with the documentary movie in our head waiting for Spielberg or Ang Lee to come along.  The chronicle, as we know it, is all lined up which explains how we got to be whoever we think we are. As we get older we repeat it so often it moves from semi-fable to fact. My guess is that the text is more open than we’ve ever dreamed.    

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Being Lance Armstrong

Where’s my cocktail?... just a tad of testosterone; doesn’t everybody? A drip of EPO and I’m ready to pedal down to Patagonia across the Pacific to the Punjab over to Waziristan, dodging drones, roadside bombs, stray bullets from bare arms… up the Steppes where I’ll meet with Pushkin or is he still dead, then play chess with Putin, my one testicle against his three. It’s downhill both ways on the Pyrenees. Which way to Paris? My legs are so, are so … not there I could pump up the Eiffel Tower and coast down the Pompidou, cycle the Seine left bank to my bank, pop the cork on a ’53 Bordeaux and guzzle my way to the next arrondissement through the Bois and shift gears to Montmartre, back in time to the cafes of starving artists with absinthe in their pee. Nothing wrong with that. Crowds cheering, flags flying, where is everybody? Did they spot my I.V. on TV? Did some one blow the whistle? I’ll deny then deny I denied; it’s the American way. They wanted a hero on a pedestal and I gave it to them; now I'm under the pedestal but it’s not about me, it’s all for my people, the Live Strong Foundation, the sponsors, the shoes and beer, the myth, the inspiration, it’s for the cause, the anti-cancer campaign, for the Tour, the team, for my country. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, I did …where’s Oprah?... prime time…how much? …can we haggle?... that’s not me, it’s the juice talking; stick a fork in me, I’m done.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Art and Society

The decade of the 1930s was the worst of times which, paradoxically, tapped into some of our best American resources. Millions of unemployed were put to work building dams, bridges and tunnels. Rural electrification was undertaken along with agricultural measures yielding hybrid vegetation along with erosion and flood control.

The Works Projects Administration (W.P.A.) lasted eight years. In addition to laborious   projects concerning infra-structure, thousands of playwrights, dancers, photographers and painters were also supported.

The Federal Art Project was the visual arts arm of the program lasting from 1935-1943. During that brief time 200,000 works are said to have been produced including paintings, murals and posters. Most were representational, interpreting both the plight and hope of society. Never before or since has public art reached such significance in our history. They hung in hospitals, libraries and schools.

Some of our finest names came out of this program: Photographers Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange did enduring work. The painters included Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Romare Beardon, Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley, Louise Nevelson, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Raphael Soyer, Grant Wood, Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner and Maurice Merlin.

Our friend, Peter, invited us to the opening of his father, Maurice Merlin’s body of Depression Era work, now on exhibition at (of all places) the Huntington Library. He worked in a range of media including silkscreen, lithographs, woodcuts, posters and paintings. He captured the despair, loneliness and desolation in rural settings of the mid-west with its despoiled landscape as well as the grime and grit of urban Detroit. Yet the faces contained a certain vitality and dignity. This chapter of our heritage is recalled and revealed in the surround of Merlin’s oeuvre. We are shown fallow farms and city scenes of shuttered factories, men turned away seeking employment and picket lines.

One of the pieces shows a black woman and child with the ghostly image of a hooded Klansman. The woman was the widow of Dr. Earl Little who was murdered by the Black Legion, a paramilitary offshoot of the KKK operating in Michigan and Ohio. Dr. Little was the father of Malcolm X and the rest is history.

Extending a subsistence wage to artists nurtures an essential community for our culture and provides them with an opportunity to reach their public. Last evening we watched the documentary film, Searching for Sugar Man, about the singer Sixto Rodriguez who wrote and performed his poetic songs in the Motown of the 60s. His two albums got no traction except, unbeknownst to him, in South Africa, where his voice was an anthem for those struggling to end Apartheid. He received no royalties for four decades living in meager quarters.

There must be thousands of such artists whose success is subject to the whims of the marketplace with promotion and distribution a matter of chance. The Federal Arts Project was one brief moment in time when art and society were aligned. Of course artists require oxygen to create without any arbiter over their shoulder but we tend to ignore the power of money as an agency of suppression with its bent toward commercialism which can make or break an artist. Rodriguez’ story illustrates what a heavy price we pay in our money-based culture.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Violence, Grace and the Whole Damn Thing

In her 1952 novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor speaks a language in which I am nearly illiterate. She’s writes about the Southern fundamentalist obsession with Christ as seen through Catholic eyes. She creates a protagonist who talks of a new Jesus, murders a man, mortifies himself, renounces worldly goods and finds grace in the process. He does not just believe but he knows and thereby achieves a kind of evangelical sainthood.

In an interview, O’Connor spoke about the high cost of religion to an individual, how much harder it is to believe than not to. Many people, she says, think of faith as a warm blanket when it is, of course, the cross.

At one point Jesus is seen going from tree to tree, in his mind, motioning him to come into the dark where he might walk on water, not know it, then suddenly know it and drown. It is implied that the relinquishing of cognition and will are requisites for attaining faith.

As a secular humanist my notion of the religious experience is a soulful interchange with another person or a sense of the transcendent, that a larger metaphor can be felt in a universal sense. There might be an element of submission, a yielding to the inevitability of forces beyond my will. All the mystery I need is right here and there’s plenty of it. We are unfathomable creatures. There may be recognition of the limits of cognition but I see no need to park my brains outside.  

The South, then and now, is haunted by the abomination of slavery and the doctrine of original sin. The former lies in their subconscious the latter on their tongue. O'Connor depicts Christianity degraded by commercialism with billboards and hypocrisy. Today's religion is marked by televangelists, notions of material success and riddled with conservative ideology. It seems clear to me that the southern Church has been complicit in the continuation of racism over the past 150 years at very least by failing to exercise their moral imperative. 

O’Connor’s people are damaged goods, Southern grotesques. She wants us to stare evil in the face…. with the promise of grace to follow.  In his 1979 film version, John Houston seems to have grappled with the material and gives a slightly comedic touch to the book which works on a level I don’t think was intended by the author. Perhaps Houston didn’t know quite what to make of it all in the same way it baffled readers.

O’Connor is an American original who wrote like no other. Her language is precise and imagistic and her characters come alive on the page but they are beyond my imagining. If I ever met one my instinct would be to run like hell.

What I witness in Southern States, admittedly from a distance, and happily so, is anti-intellectualism, bigotry and resistance to change. I see a violent Christianity with fear and loathing at its base and little evidence of enlightenment or a sense of the religious dimension in terms of compassion.

We had a word, sixty years ago, for the political force that pushed back against progress. The word was reactionary. It seems to have withered away but deserves a comeback. The virulence against Obama and his proposals regulating assault weapons, promoting healthcare and other social programs, is as senseless as any outcry in human history considering that the agenda under attack is beneficial to those making all the noise. I can’t help wondering what role white churches have played in serving the reactionary voice we hear coming from our American underbelly.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


There was a time when my friend and I would climb over the chain link fence at the school yard with NYC temperatures hovering around 25 degrees, carrying a snow shovel to clear off half of the basketball court.

How else to go one on one, perfecting my fall-away jump shot? On good days I was a white Kobe Bryant. The rest of the time we were just certifiably insane. Wind-chill hadn’t been invented yet. Our only complaint may have been the wind itself as it altered the flight of the ball.

Something happened to me during these past 56 years in Los Angeles, recalibrating my thermostat. I became soft, coddled, and a card-carrying kvetch. I may have what the old Geritol commercial described as iron-poor blood or thin blood or no blood at all. My comfort range has constricted. I’m fine in the upper reaches but anything below 58 has me running for cover. And that’s inside.

How is it possible to be colder in the house than outside? It must be a function of my sedentary life style. I suppose writing blogs doesn’t count as strenuous activity no matter how I run off at the mouth, make leaps and fall on my face.

Cold-adverse as I am I also disdain turning on the heat. It seems to dry up my skin and mucous membrane, the consequences of which are itchy arms and legs. I find myself getting up during the night to apply a moisturizing lotion. This is further complicated by one of the most dreaded and least talked-about conditions known to mankind; namely creeping sleeve syndrome and even worse, creeping-leg syndrome in which my pajamas crawl up my extremities on their own accord. Some day this malady will receive its proper due and perhaps a Telethon will raise money for further research.

Our apartment feels like a supermarket’s meat department. Even my hair is cold. The choice is to die of hypothermia or itchy dermatitis. In the meantime I might as well take Inuit as a second language where I can become fluent in their 28 words for snow.

So here I sit in what would probably be regarded as a heat wave in Minnesota, with my wooly Irish sweater I bought 27 years ago in Connemara never worn until now. I’m having a cup of tea which I periodically raise against my cheek to warm my face. The highpoint of my morning will be the scalding hot shower awaiting me where I shall lapse into tropical day dreams in equatorial climes where Peggy and I are sipping some libation with an mini-umbrella afloat under a sweltering sun.

It's a great time for smooching!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Life Underfoot

We had new carpeting installed the other day and while obsessing over its cushy feel I was transported back to the living room rug which saw me through my first twenty-one years. That venerable Persian carpet magically seems brighter and softer in my mind than it probably ever was. It just flew in with its sunny orange and regal blues along with the Byzantine design and odor of moth balls trapped in its fibers.

That rug was the preferred field of combat for Monopoly, Chinese Checkers, Parchese and backgammon as we sprawled ourselves upon it, rolling dice and moving around the board game of life. If I tried spreading my body out on this new carpet I might be lost for days in its plush and I expect it might take that long to get myself in an upright position anyway given the state of my bones.

My mother was observant of two ritual days, the one in late spring when we wrapped the carpet up in tar paper and moth balls and the day in early September when we unfurled it to cover the entire room. Like most high holy days it was never to be questioned. The preservation must have worked; at least it looks as good as new to me now. I don’t hear much about tar paper these days but then again I’m not in the roofing insulation business. Even moth balls have rolled out of my life.

Absent a hardwood floor, wall-to-wall carpeting is the only warm and fuzzy option I am aware of. Our version of wall-to-wall should be qualified. Four floor-to-ceiling bookcases are bolted to the wall and I had no interest in moving them. We call them, our wall, along with an eight foot wall unit at which point the buck stops. In the event of our joint demise the landlord will have to deal with the patchwork.

Materialism as a philosophical concept is in disrepute. In terms of spirituality Americans are denounced for excess consumption. But consider this: in all our buying and selling, our acquisitiveness, utilitarianism and impulse to discard and replace we tend to neglect the thing itself, its materiality and possible meta-narrative, even a certain energy in the way it redefines the space. 

Excuse me while I immerse myself in this thing. A few months from now it may disappear into that vast warehouse of life’s furniture, invisible from familiarity; right now I’m enjoying the polyester lawn under my toes and its newness smell. It registers my footprints with its lustrous yarn. The company calls it Brazilian Brown; Peggy says it is rosy rust. My choice is dusty rose. It says a lot about a fabric that defies description. I remove my shoes entering the room and I’m on my hands and knees checking for existential crumbs. Is there anything so new as new carpeting….except perhaps a new car? But why bother with a car when for far less money you can have a magic carpet?

Saturday, January 5, 2013


Avenue, street, lane….those were the three addresses of my childhood. Metropolitan Ave. was a major thoroughfare with trolley tracks. Talbot Street less traveled and Forest Lane hardly trafficked at all. It was as it should be. The last 13 years of my growing up happened on that tree-shaded, two-block long, idyllic lane. A short stretch of real estate yet it reaches all the way from Queens, NYC to Los Angeles, undisturbed for lo these many years in my mind. Every kid should have a lane to remember himself by.

All this got me thinking about those designations we give to lanes, long and short. It must have started with a Path which became trampled enough to become a Trail. When quadrupeds gave way to cars they became Roads and Streets. Arguably the most famous in the world is Wall St. yet it remains a mere street. In the usual order of things busy ones earn the right to those two French words, Boulevard and Avenue. Both have their origin in the military. A Boulevard was a promenade laid out on top of demolished city wall. An Avenue was first a way of approach for armies which evolved to a broad, tree-lined roadway.

In the hierarchy of nomenclature I’ve always ranked Avenues ahead of mere Streets yet I live on the intersection of two avenues and I know of nothing they’ve done to deserve the title. It all makes me wonder who designates these tags. Highways must fit in here somewhere or else we wouldn’t have had highwaymen who plied their trade while the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas and the road a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.

Forest Lane would do well enough for me to imagine a world of piracy and pennant-winning home runs. It emptied at one end into an even mightier signifier called a Turnpike. I don’t see that word much anymore. The borough of the Bronx borrowed another French word for their mightiest street, The Grand Concourse.  

Now I seem to have gotten myself into a mess straining to give every road its due. Let me not forget the Pass as in Sepulveda or Donner and the Drive such as Riverside to say nothing of the Way necessary for Dodger fans to get on Stadium Way or readers of Proust to travel the Guermantes Way. I might also mention the Walk (Cheney’s Walk along the Themes), the Alley as in Flask’s Alley in Hempstead Heath and finally the Court as in something but I forget what.

As a street kid we had no use for busy, wide roads which had ceded their space and right-of-way to cars. We cursed them for interrupting our stickball or touch football games. How dare they! Stoop and sidewalk were not quite enough as the action often spilled over onto the street. All this must sound alien to the suburban mind. Block after block are un-peopled in Southern California.

The passage from NYC to L.A. has been the move from pedestrian to driver. With my feet on the ground I saw the world close-up. I knew the sidewalk the way I now know potholes. I heard shop-keepers hawking and buyers haggling. I felt the rain and smelled its vapor rising from hot concrete. Sidewalks were chalked. Patches of earth were perfect for marbles or mumbly-peg. I stepped in poop. I knew trees if their elbows were good for climbing.

As a driver I resent speed-bumps. Ocean Park Blvd. has recently been beautified with an island of trees in the middle at the expense of a second lane of traffic. Harrumph!  Take away my car and you’ll deprive me of my psychic space, a form of wrap-around privacy unknown to pedestrians or riders of public transportation.   

I can take the beaten path down that Lonesome Trail to the fork of Memory or Lover’s Lane, hang a right on Easy Street to the Road of No Return and be last seen on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Or I could just stay home in my rocker, move around a lot but go nowhere.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Here are some stats, facts and quotes which have arrested my attention.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? -T.S. Eliot, to which Thomas Huxley may have replied, To a clear eye the smallest fact is a window through which the infinite may be seen.

Russia is almost twice the size of the U.S. yet Bangladesh which is smaller than Iowa has more people (152 million) to Russia’s (142 million). Hard to believe.

The driest place on Earth is not the Sahara but Antarctica… One section hasn’t had ice, rain or snow for two million years.

It is in the moral nature of man, where the sublime is, and the resources of astonishment are. -  Emerson

The New York megalopolis which was number two in the world population 35 years ago will drop out of the top ten by 2050.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo in west-central Africa is larger than all of Western Europe.

There are more cell phones in Africa than there are people in all North America and they are made in China…..the cell phones, that is.

Of the ten most poison snakes in the world eight of them are in Australia. This is not the only reason I will probably not go there.

Lines I wish I had written to Peggy: If I were a giraffe, I would love you in silence, gazing down at you from over the wire fencing, as melancholy as a dockyard crane, I would love you with the awkward love of the very tall, and, thoughtfully chewing a leaf as if it were gum, ………, I would slowly lower my neck on the pulleys of my tendons in order, tenderly, tremulously, to nuzzle your breasts with my head. -Lobo Antunes

Over the past century Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives 70 of those years. My guess is that the GOP gerrymandered the districts for the other 30%.

Coyotes are the only animal in North America which have proliferated since Europeans came over. Leave it to those tricksters. They alone know whose woods these are.

Joy in spite of everything is yanking the bell rope despite physical affliction — it has become my Quasi Motto. - Tom Robbins