Sunday, March 31, 2013

Vertical / Horizontal

On the 96th floor of the Hancock building Peggy and I celebrated our anniversary in our usual way reading poems to each other after dinner. when Peggy realized she left her poem behind in the hotel I leaped out of the window where a falcon was nesting….well not quite. I took the elevator down, raced across the street to our hotel, rode up to our room, then down and zoomed back up the 1,500 feet, on time before dessert arrived. Up and down travel is fast and free; why is that?

Twenty years before that we found ourselves in the heart of London having gotten off the bus from the airport. We knew we were in the general neighborhood of our hotel but I hailed a cab to take us to the address. He drove about 50 yards and charged us 4 pounds.  Horizontal moves cost.
Springtime is famous for having sprung us in both directions.  Jesus ascended this year in sync with Moses parting the sea; so say the testaments. Rejoice, Hallelujah and Let My People Go. Both are fine metaphors for new growth, for seeding and nourishing. But have they lost sight of the natural sources?

Just open the window; imagine a deep breath of tulip. The matzoh-colored hills are smeared with mustard weed and otherwise suddenly greeny scapes. The spectrum won’t hold still for a minute. Peggy’s green eyes have turned bluish. Our coral tree raises its first red flag. Daffodils have popped their cork into yellow days. Verbena is a Sig Alert creeping beside the slow lane. Birds of paradise are laying orange eggs.

It’s blooming bloody April spring. Whales with any sense of direction are spouting it. The first pitch is being thrown on Opening Day. March Madness is down to the final four. The Dow-Jones bulb has pushed up through its dark days higher than hyacinth, higher than mysterious wisteria, the highest since Standard met Poor. The season is ripe for awakenings, uprisings and renewal while roots, shoots and shouts move horizontal. Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Beethoven and Then

By all accounts Beethoven wasn’t the sort of guy you’d likely have over to watch the Super Bowl or chat with over the back fence. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. Hollywood has portrayed him as a short-tempered man given to emotional outbursts. His monumental Ninth Symphony, Ode to Joy, was a compensatory creative burst which revealed his enormous embrace of universal brotherhood.

We are complex creatures with hidden rooms in our mansion, some doors bolted, others ajar.

Kobe Bryant is as competitive an athlete as there is in professional sports. When he loses he doesn’t slam the water cooler or talk trash. He sits down at his piano and plays Moonlight Sonata. Kobe channels Ludwig!

Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Kiesler in Beethoven’s Vienna with his music running through her veins was the paragon of movie glamour in the years before and after WWII. Her face was an ode to behold. Fellow actor, George Sanders, remarked that when she spoke one just watched her mouth moving and marveled at the exquisite shapes made by her lips. We were all startled to learn that she was also co-inventor of a process known as frequency hopping which prevented jamming of torpedoes aimed at enemy ships.

The U.S. military never did use her device. In the Pacific the Japanese navy was in shambles by 1945. Their most effective weapon was human sacrifice in which 4,000 died in the Samurai tradition using their plane as coffins. Kamikaze pilots were a precursor of today’s suicide bombers.  In missions they called Floating Chrysanthemums the Japanese managed to sink 47 U.S. vessels and damaged 300 others. Fortunately 86% of their attempts missed or were shot down.

Surrender was tantamount to shame and dishonor while their flaming death was perceived as a glorious act. Many of them composed poems sent to their families.  Here are a few fragments of poetry left behind:

Green grass dies in the islands / to be reborn verdant in the homeland.

How could we rejoice over our birth /But to die an honorable death/

Maybe Beethoven has that effect on people. Listen to his music and anything can happen.
If you immerse yourself long enough you will begin to brood and be unfit company having dwelled in your shadowy places. At the same time you will dare the outrageous and see glimpses of the numinous.

Beethoven showed us the back side of ourselves, the untamed and disowned.  He released from us sonatas and odes, the mathematics behind a chiseled face, the poet buried inside the zealot.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bumper Stickers

I don’t recall having had trouble removing a bumper sticker before. But my Obama/Biden sticker must be designed with the audacity to remain in perpetuity.

We had two such with political messages on our rear bumper. The other was to Stop Voter Suppression. I scraped that away after somebody tore off a corner in what looked like Tea Party rage. Is there a posse of Suppressionists out there armed with razor blades and long finger nails?

I am no less an Obama supporter now than I was six months ago, except perhaps his propensity for droning, so what’s the problem, I hear you ask. The problem is that I have a complex. I feel compelled to wave cars ahead at stop signs as if I’ve been anointed ambassador of the Democratic Party. At Costco I unload my shopping cart in record time to accommodate cars waiting for my parking spot. I’m on my best behavior. I’m modeling compassion, demonstrating empathy. Now I’m longing to return to my wonton ways of benign misdemeanors.

Let it begin with me, the song instructs us. So if I am the change I’ve been waiting for, must I drive like a saint? I’ve been turning my cheeks faster than a spectator at a tennis match. Try driving at the speed limit and tell me it isn’t a hazard. Would Gandhi change lanes or honk his horn?

Dare I drive in Orange County, particularly where there is valet parking? Who knows if Sarah Palin’s kids have a summer job down here? I don’t feel easy with a police car behind. Maybe a headlight is out and I’ll be pulled over to walk the line then thrown in detention for thinking evil thoughts like police brutality. It could be they’ll impound my car and remove the bumper altogether.

I’ll re-set my GPS so I don’t stray into Palos Verdes and confine my driving to Democratic strongholds with no chance of roadside bombs. I’ll do lunch in Pico Rivera and dinner in Compton. I figure I’m among friends at car-washes and at the public parking garage as long as I stay on this side of the enemy lines.

I believe in a lot of things: gun control, reproductive rights, troop withdrawals, sustainable energy sources. Must I tattoo my car with manifestoes shouting in the face of on-coming windshields? The answer is, Why Not.

Maybe the administration needs me to remind Fox News fools who won the election and who lost. I’ll accept the assignment and plaster over Obama with propositional Yes’s and No’s until 2016 when I can crown it with a Hillary sticker.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Unsung Hero

In 1940 my grasp of geo-politics consisted of the voice of FDR (which I conflated with God’s), faces in Life magazine, movie newsreels and the collection box for Infantile Paralysis. I also had Roosevelt buttons on my beanie cap but none for Wendell Willkie.

It was Willkie, in a sense, who saved the day and possibly the world. He was a political amateur who had never held public office. Charles Peters in his fascinating book, Five Days in Philadelphia, makes the case for Willkie’s place in history. In the winter and spring of 1940 the three Republican front-runners were Robert Taft (son of the former president), Arthur Vandenberg and Thomas Dewey. All were staunch isolationists as was 80% of the country. Willkie, an internationalist, scored zero percent in the Gallup poll three months before the convention. The Democrats were called the war party by Republicans.

A most unfunny thing happened in that time leading up to the late June convention. In early April Denmark fell in 24 hours followed by Norway. Holland and Belgium were overrun in May and finally, two days before the convention convened, France capitulated. The situation was grave.

These events muted the opposition shattering the isolationist argument and propelled Wendell Willkie to the forefront. His candidacy was supported by the Luce magazine empire of Time, Life and Fortune. He was an engaging, charismatic, erudite and handsome figure. Republicans had a candidate with sex appeal, said David Halberstam. Willkie came into the convention as a dark horse but won the nomination on the sixth ballot.

As late as 1938 he was a registered Democrat with many contacts in the party. As a lawyer and executive of a utility company he took exception to some of Roosevelt’s domestic programs, especially the Tennessee Valley Authority, but was in accord on foreign policy issues.

FDR breathed a big sigh of relief and Churchill even a bigger one when Willkie was named as the opposition candidate. Nothing less than the defense of Western Civilization was at stake. In the months just before the election the urgent task was to rush fifty U.S. destroyers to Britain. Isolationist opposition was mounting but Wilkie tacitly agreed with FDR and the ships caused Hitler to call off his invasion. Early in 1941 when Britain had run out of funds both supported Lend Lease and the first peacetime draft. With Willkie protecting Roosevelt’s right flank ships, ammunition and weaponry for England would be ratcheted up as well as our own armed services.

After the war Churchill wrote, At the time it was a sublime act of faith and leadership for the U.S. to deprive themselves of this very considerable mass of arms for the sake of a country which many deemed already beaten.
FDR won with 85% of the electoral vote but Willkie actually collected more votes than any previous Republican candidate.

It’s a stretch, today, to imagine the two parties so close as they were in 1940; it signaled the closing of ranks which was to follow after Pearl Harbor. It could be argued that Willkie merely got swept up in the events unfolding in Europe however he was well ahead of the curve breaking with his party’s orthodoxy and continued serving as an ambassador-at-large at FDR’s request after his defeat. His best-selling book, One World, envisaged a map free of colonialism and imperialism.  During the war he urged Roosevelt to increase the maximum tax rate even higher than 90% to finance our military expenditure.

In today’s climate of uber-conservatism one wonders what clients the fiscal hawks are serving. They would sooner dismantle the federal government than meet the challenges facing us. Where are the Wendell Willkies to step up and talk common sense?    

About twenty years ago I started collecting presidential buttons for a few years. I just checked and counted two of Lincoln, William McKinley, even William Jennings Bryan and fourteen for FDR. I still have none for Willkie. Shame on me.



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Art as Religion

Two fuzzy words and that’s not a bad thing.

I don’t mean Art as an investment or hedge against inflation. And I’m not referring to Religion as some sort of hollow ritual reeking of piety and drained of relevance.

In their best sense both are experiential and share the common goal of transformation and transcendence. They reach. They move us past words. And yet each is an expression grounded in the world of human possibility. The most intimate moments between people or a solitary in-dwelling have a religious dimension. When I was drawn into Van Gogh’s iris flowers hanging on the wall in Amsterdam I was as transfixed and lifted as I was viewing a Japanese ceramic exhibit or Oaxaca wood-carving.

The way dance or sculpture redefines visual space music rearranges acoustic space. They each bring us a sense of the sacred. So too does poetry by reinvigorating language and evoking what is ineffable. Peggy brings me her daily poem and I enter a realm beyond explication; not religion, the noun but, religious the adjective, as in a religious experience.

We need, at least I need, to be fed in this way. To find, in the quotidian, what is resoundingly and overwhelmingly true, felt palpably in my senses. There is an essence, a mystery to existence which poetry yields in glimpses. Particularly in these late innings as I approach the ultimate unfathomable state of non-being I look to the arts as an entre into the unimaginable.  

I avoid the word spiritual only because it seems to have been hijacked by the New-Agers, those inhalers of incense, quasi-Buddhists, who have changed their names to Sunset or Sylvan Glen Glade. Same with the word soul which has been debased by overuse. Too bad, I welcome these words back into ordinary discourse…. whatever they may mean.

I think of spirit as the breath, an outpouring of vitality, celebratory, an offering of oneself. Soul is a metaphor for that most vulnerable inscape; the place where we live in quietude, contemplatively. To live fully is to bring them together. One derivation of the word religion means to bind. It says nothing about the supernatural. As a humanist I feel no need to traffic in the heavens. It is enough to live wholly rather than holy. Or to put it another way, what humans do out of their spirit and soul is holy, worthy of wor(th)ship.

Here where winter hardly happens a burst of pear blossoms parody snow drifts ahead of the starter’s blank pistol. Elsewhere is on thin ice, fissures can be heard parting. Clocks leap an hour. Late light slips through. Bulbs erupt. The gulag becomes a grove. Bats crack and aging bones. A sense of yeast.  At dusk a comet will streak naked across the western sky. Haley’s? No, but Twains will be born everywhere, fathoms of huckleberries. Somewhere shadows will fall and somewhere defendants will rise and be forgiven.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Preparing to Be Eighty

Birthdays like this one are speed bumps. They slow you down to assess. If no severe tire damage you get back meandering with wonderment, glad to have been allotted this particular chunk of time in this most hospitable place with these loving people to accompany you.

When the equinox goes vernal in about ten days I enter the octogenarian club. My hope is to not start acting my age. It has taken me eighty years to become this old and yet…. I’m not quite ready. I don’t feel crotchety or dotty though I might be the last to know … and surely not wise enough. The only wisdom I have is that I have none, demonstrable every day.

True, I fall asleep during movies, get out-of-breath looking for the phone, require my Metamucil, miss about 10% of what is said by friends in noisy restaurants, require extra light to read, forget where I parked my car and remember things that probably never happened.

Last night I forgot how to sleep, too far from that embryonic sea. I know enough to close my eyes, get comfortable, empty my already-empty mind…and then what? Unfinished business intrudes. Business, what business? It could be an un-sent email, something I meant to refrigerate or defrost or worse. What shall I write about when I have nothing to say, sort of like now. Science talks about the blood-brain barrier. Maybe age thins it to a more permeable membrane and my approaching birthday may be telling me to shut up.

I’m slowly getting to accept the number. 80 is so curvaceous, so cuddly; three bubbles reconfigured. It is a child’s mouth singing, ring around the rosy or a snowman made from circles of snow. There’s nothing angular or hard edged about it. To get here one must circumnavigate. You have to admire it for that.

Yesterday’s lunch with three friends was called off; each of us with some infirmity. So many body parts withering and dithering and all out-of-warranty. Too much wear and tear, old plumbing, sun on skin, so heedless were we. True I did grow up on cod liver oil, scrubbed myself raw with Lava soap and ate my share of calf’s liver. Yet all those Necco Wafers, Eskimo Pies, Reuben sandwiches and Danish pastries will probably sink me on a Tuesday instead of a Thursday. Who knew?

There is a kindness in not seeing ourselves as others see us. Our eyes age along with all the rest. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that I look so feeble Rosa Parks would have gotten up and offered me her seat.

The longer I live the more incoherent life appears to be. Melody has been drummed out of music, rhyme from poetry, beauty from Art, narrative from books. Life is, of course, atonal, unrhymed, disarrayed and random…yet, if only. So I write as a way of wrestling the beast looking for patterns until I begin to hear a faint music I can tap my toe to and enter the collage.

I haven’t any idea how most things work. Aliens from neighboring galaxies would find me of no use. Clearly our government is dysfunctional, both organically and functionally.  As George Burns said, Too bad all the people that know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair. In truth it is all easily fixable except to those willfully deaf to remedy.  

Information and knowledge seem to be at inverse proportions. Even beyond that, cause is at far remove from consequence for too many people. I can’t decide whether this is my diminishing vision or I’m seeing better into the muddle that has always been. Irresolution may be real life but many of us, at a certain age, prefer the illusion of a good short story, however tall.

I think I’m ready now; I’m rambling. Take me away where I can look back to see the imagined beginning and middle. I’ll write my own end.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Oh Yeah, the Lemons

The sign on the shelf said four bucks, not bad for a bottle of Pinot Grigio especially to one like me with no discerning palate. But examining the receipt in the parking lot I note that I’m charged $5.29.

In that instant I become my mother whose habit was to schlep, never just carry, her groceries home, put everything away and then study the penciled addition on the brown bag. What’s with the nineteen cents? she would exclaim confirming her suspicion she was being robbed. That gonif at Smiley Bros., she suspected, had a wandering thumb that ended up on the scale. Curses were directed at the bald head and mustache with a short stub of a pencil on his ear. Shopping was combat for my mother. Did she secretly enjoy the sport of haggling, the wins and losses, the quick eye, the gotcha? 

With my mother summoned to my side I confronted the market manager as if he were descended from the fruit store of yesteryear. He marched me back to the display with the $4.00 sign. Patiently as if this were a ritual performed many times before, he pointed out that four dollars-- in large print-- was the price only if -- in tiny print -- you purchased six bottles. Deceptive, wouldn’t you say? He agreed but pleaded that the chain store dictated these ads and he was powerless.

My mother would suddenly remember the 19 cents, Oh yeah, the lemons. If she had taken each item from the bag and checked it against the price marked she would have saved herself the rant. But this was not about logic. This was about her God-given right to aggravation. Better to pit herself against the Goliaths of the marketplace who were out to get her rather than put down her guard and smell the lemons.

Mumsie lives yet in my bones. I toast her with a glass of the white grape. I’m tempted to throw in a slice of lemon in her honor. Sparring with computerized corporate America is never about winning but it sure keeps the blood moving and wakes up the ghosts.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

English Is a Second Language Way Down In the Hole

Doris overhears Morris saying something to Horace about Delores. But she gets the meaning wrong when she tells Cloris who then conveys it to Boris. And now we have the makings of another B movie which is what happened to me this past week.

The doctor ordered two prescriptions, drugs A and B, which were Faxed to our AARP mail order service. An interim three-week supply was also called into our local pharmacy. The mail order alerted me that the price of drug A is $240 and drug B $900 for a 90 day supply. I told them to hold the order and do not proceed.

I then found I could get medication A for $12 at the pharmacy I once owned and discovered that drug B was available from Canada for $95.

Bear with me.

I then asked the doctor’s nurse to Fax the order to the Canadian pharmacy. She did but also Faxed it (again) to AARP which promptly filled and sent it off to us. By so doing we would fall into the dreaded donut hole. This is devoutly to be avoided because all other medications become charged at 80% of list price rather than the usual co-pay.

Are you still there?

There’s no stopping the AARP mail order but I’m told to send it back by overnight mail to a San Diego address when it arrives. I do but they refuse to open it because it isn’t in their special Return-Drug Kit envelop. The robots in North Carolina will not call the robots in San Diego.

Now we are running out of the interim supply obtained locally at our corner drugstore. We need a refill to hold us until the Canadian order arrives. The local pharmacy gets a waiver to fill a ten-day supply but the charge is $275 because of the damnable donut hole.

My vital signs have gone awry. My hair is falling out. I’m trying to reason with sub-humans over the phone. Trina will not speak to Tina about Lena.

If this weren’t so boring and void of interest to anyone except me it would make a great movie. Maybe it could be a sci-fi flick about life in a donut hole which must be what Dante had in mind writing about the circles of the Inferno.