Saturday, April 27, 2013

In My Dreams....But Seriously Folks

I’ve been around the block a few times, had women from Shanghai to Singapore. In fact I was once Shanghaied to Singapore. I shaved Samson for Delilah, knew Bathsheba biblically. I twirled Ginger away from Astaire, took Liz for hot fudge on a hot tin roof and ended DiMaggio’s streak with Marilyn. I’ve had stars in Bollywood from bars in Hollywood, got Bergman from Bogey with letters of transit, taught Bacall how to whistle, kissed Kim under mistle in Kismayou, met with Josephine on the outskirts of Waterloo. I gave a damn with O’Hara, spied with Mata Hari, put up with Mia and shoved Sinatra aside to catch Ava. I went East of Eden with Mae West and south to Rio with Nanook of the North. I’ve been in every port from Switzerland to Nebraska, known geishas from Kyoto and J-Lo in Pollo Loco. I hung with Virginia before Bloomsbury bloomed, Gatsby’s Daisy before she blossomed and Claire Bloom before Portnoy complained. I’ve intuited with Inuits and hit Brad Pitt with a writ for whomever he’s with. I Kaned Orson for Rita, caroused with Lolita, even rode with Zita in Santa Anita. 

But Peggy has them all wondering how. How at 92 (on Thursday) she can do what she does, make a fiction of those numbers, give the lie to calendars, live with the zest of a dyslexic 29.

Where I see a weed her eye sees dried pods exhausted from bursting, zigged elbows zagging at impossible angles, constellations pulled down from Pleiades. How can she write a poem each morning? Because she contains multitudes, lives expansively in the country of her imagination, because she speaks a language of the vivid unseen where the music stops and birds kindle the forest. She articulates the pause between words, the hum of connective tissue and marries phrases unmet before. For all opaque life that slips by, the tedium and malady of the unremembered ordinary, Peggy has found a portal, a mid-distance perch from which to silence the noise, halt the parade, assemble and caption the collage.

With a photograph of bicycles as her subject Peggy leaps from pedals to wheeling petals delivered into the winddrawn through the fog into the bravery of trees. About the Watts Towers she writes, A huge Hosanna as the sky is pierced / He measured his immeasurable gratitude, cast it in steel, a winding salutation /… The towers keep their vigil / his adopted land / reversing the indebtedness. From the day’s headlines Peggy imagines, Water buffalo laze in the river… Idyllic / Her body a carnival for men since ten /… That old Paradise / too far gone to be remembered. She will feed / the household, wait for the parachute of night.

For this she rivals Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets of the Portuguese from Wimpole St. or Emily of Amherst who traveled the world in her room. Peggy’s long reach didn’t drop to earth like an unexploded drone; she cultivated it over time as a second language. Writing as a poet means living as a poet. Her words are an extension of how she embraces her life, alert to slits of sun printing on the wall, the baby upstairs  (small feet instead of rain), a garbage truck backing up; to a persistent pondering and unrelenting sympathy with other’s predicaments and expression of this immeasurable love between us.          

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I once asked my friend Roger, a landscape architect, how he managed to keep his ficus plant so healthy looking…and it wasn’t plastic. He told me his secret: Go to a nursery and pick out the greenest, sturdiest plant, water it properly, give it some sun and nutrients, talk nice to it, play Paul Desmond’s mellow sax or Mozart’s clarinet concerto  ... and when it starts to droop and look sick throw it out and buy another one.

When your vacuum cleaner breaks you bring it in for repair. When your computer crashes you call your son-in-law or better yet, your grandson. When the government breaks you get even more cynical and disengaged, exactly as Republicans would have it.

There is nothing so broken as a broken government. Our damage is systemic and the prognosis is to call the Neptune Society. The site of trouble is in the 224 year-old immutable document called the Constitution, unsuited to this age of urban concentration, multinational corporations, media saturation, instant messaging, commodification, insatiable consumerism and a profoundly new demographic. These are just a few faces of modernity beyond the imagining of James Madison.

Originalists on the high court are the equivalent of fundamentalists by holding our constitution as sacred American Testament in line with the Old and New Testaments.

Well-conceived as it was by an enlightened elite many were slave-holders whose concept of inalienable rights, suffrage and liberty did not extend to women, the un-propertied and those in bondage. It was a compromised arrangement drawn up to appease certain states for certain ratification.

A bicameral Congress provides senators with constituencies of grass, desert and swamps (scrub, shrub and bubbas) as voting equals to those representing millions of people. We don’t need two Houses; we certainly don’t need sequestration or filibusters and a gerrymandered chamber sitting in stolen seats. Washington has become the place where legislation goes to die.

What was the wonder of the world in the 18th century has since devolved into a dysfunctional legislature, paralyzed executive and ossified judiciary. What we call checks and balances is a model for gridlock, a body of mostly old men who take dictation from lobbyists and are generally disconnected from the American people. They don’t look like America and no longer speak the same language. In an historical moment of accelerated change Congress resists change like a punitive headmaster. They are blind to societal movements and deaf to the voice of science.
As new nations emerge and others throw off colonial rule the United States is no longer the model of representative government. I know of no country in the world that has chosen our division of powers with three branches as their blueprint. Instead, countries have instituted the European parliamentary system of democracy. Representation is more proportional and the heads-of-state more accountable and better able to respond to shifting events.

Does our unique democracy have the capacity for self-correction? Perhaps I’m too close to the ficus plant watching it shed its green vibrancy. Maybe it is calling out to be shocked into new life with major pruning. Is our Constitution sufficiently organic to aerate its soil and bend toward the light? Is a new Constitutional Convention possible? I doubt it. Will government as we know it from civic classes wither away to be replaced by global conglomerates? Now there’s a scary thought. Show me the way to get out of this world into a grove of ficus trees. Love those roots.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Where There’s A Will There’s a Won’t

500 years later and Shakespeare is still a growth industry. So much ado about who wrote those words that trip so mellifluously off our tongue. For most of us it was the Bard from Stratford, not the titled scholars, who authored 37 plays (plus or minus)and over 150 sonnets. Only he knew how to write for the actors and had a thorough knowledge of the theater.

However for card-carrying conspiracy-theorists it all comes down to pedigree. Show them a commoner-genius and they’ll show you a hoax. Every question unanswered invites an alternative narrative. Every name is an anagram. Every text contains a cipher. Speculation is a feast for those who think in such terms.
It’s time we settled all this. Now hear them out:
Here’s the rub. How could this Stratford actor and merchant have known so much about Venice and Verona, about the succession of royalty, about human nature, legal affairs and speak the King’s English?  As sure as Henry the 8th followed Henry the 7th  how could a mere actor/tradesman have seen into the heart of his fellow men and women and tower over the greatest minds of his day?
Did he bring home the Bacon? Francis, that is? Isn’t Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford a likely choice? After all his name, de Vere, is hidden inside any line containing the word, ever.  And then there is the case for Christopher Marlowe who died in a barroom brawl pre-maturely…or did he?

Shakespeare was obviously the invention of a scholar to the academy-born. The plays and sonnets must have been penned by a man of erudition with advanced degrees of higher learning. Someone like George W Bush who graduated from Yale and Harvard or a man with a searching mind like Donald Trump, graduate of Wharton Business School and University of Pennsylvania. Men of distinction. Not a 14 year-old dropout, surely.

Without a doubt Abraham Lincoln could never have written the Gettysburg Address. This Daniel Day-Lewis lookalike did not go past the 5th grade. He couldn’t possibly have scribbled the most eloquent and concise words emanating from a public figure in our nation’s history. Those ten sentences rival other presidential utterances such as, You’re doing a great job, Brownie or those immortal words from Richard Nixon, I am not a crook.
The mystery still persists as to the real author of Huckleberry Finn. Certainly it couldn’t have been Samuel Clemens whose formal education ended when he was twelve. Yet Faulkner must have been taken in when he called Mark Twain the Father of American literature.

Any literary skeptic might also question the poems of Emily Dickinson. How could an Amherst recluse be the author who challenged the literary conventions of her day and arguably invented modern poetry? Surely it must have been some prominent Harvard scholar who used Dickinson’s name as a front not to expose his radical approach.
Wherefore art thou, Folio? Your words would smell as sweet no matter their attribution.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Silent Film with Sound

It takes a movie such as this 2008 work from the great Hungarian director Bela Tarr to remind us what an art form cinema once was. The film is The Man From London, an adaptation of a George Simenon detective novel.

It felt like fifteen minutes before the first words were spoken and when they were it almost broke the spell, like an intrusion. I was mesmerized by the glacially slow movement of the camera and how it saturates the viewer’s eye in textures of wall, glass and water. We are drenched in the fog, puddles, shadows and angles of divided white and blacks.

When the characters finally vocalize, their words take a subordinate place in the film narrative. This is movie-making which does its telling visually. It makes demands on us as all good art must. It disrupts our usual viewing pattern and forces a new ratio of our senses into play. I found myself first resisting and then yielding to the maestro’s direction. The intersecting lines and contrast of straight against curve set up the dialectic of opposing forces to follow.

The setting is an un-named seaport town where a ship is met by a train, all watched over from a tower by our protagonist, Meloin. The camera assumes his eyes as he observes the proceedings in his tedium. Tonight he witnesses a struggle on the quay between two men in which one shoves the other, along with his suitcase, into the water drowning him. Our observer waits and then fishes the case from the water. It contains 60,000 British pounds which is useless currency to the man without arousing suspicion. The moral question is posed.
How the money affects Meloin and his routine is the subject of the film. It creates the interface of two realities; the watchman’s small universe, his chess partner, domestic troubles with his wife and indignity of his daughter’s job. The larger context is the aged police inspector, the man from London, concerned with a justice alien to the main character. These two realities suggest the position of an individual in a broken social order; how they might accidentally collide and set into motion a new consciousness.  

Embedded as I am in Meloin’s conflict I am also uneasily at home in the value system of the inspector who could be from any elsewhere. In traditional detective stories a crime is solved and loose ends tidied up by the last scene. In Bela Tarr’s hands the thrills are reduced to their existential dread. Unanswered questions dangle as the screen fades to black in spite of the inspector’s attempts to impose his quick resolve. The greater mystery is human behavior and our tenuous hold on a shifting moral center.  
The movie may not hold the attention of the average moviegoer. When first shown at Cannes there were vacant seats by the last scene and probably more than a few who saw it as an opportunity to catch up on their sleep. However I find the images printed in my head like few films I have seen in recent years. While the cinematography called attention to itself at times and the music was somewhat grating I remain haunted by the deft composition of the scenes, the lighting and the spare power of the camera creating an emotional experience. Art, said Picasso, is the elimination of the unnecessary. Bela Tarr has cut to the bone. 


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Middle-Muddle

If you live in Kansas and are the second of three children it’s safe to say you are a middle child in mid-America. You also qualify for a middle name but nothing else is so certain. Sarah Palin’s idea of Middle America is probably a trailer park in Wyoming with more guns than books and the books all Bibles from which the kids are home-schooled. My idea of Middle America is an apartment in Chicago or St. Louis where the children go to public school and have library cards.
Middle age keeps drifting further from zero.  It is now anywhere from 40 to 60. Feel free to have your mid-life crises anywhere in that slot. If it happens before it might just be a seven-year itch.  For people who live a self-examined life any moment of existential dread or epiphany warrants a crisis.

One would think that the middle can be defined as that which lies between the near and the far. However the Middle East is also called the Near East. Maybe it all depends how close you are to it. If you’re standing in Istanbul it’s already near. It’s a decidedly Eurocentric designation. The Chinese must think of it as far-West. It seems to be the name given to the region which is always in oil or turmoil. No wonder the Middle East Peace Process is going nowhere. We can’t even agree where it is.

Mid-field in a football game and mid-court in basketball are pretty well agreed-upon terms but the middle of a batting order varies from number 3, and 4 hitters to 3, 4, 5, and 6.  A middle-distance runner usually means 800 meters but when you include the 5K, 10K and marathon it hardly seems mathematically accurate. In boxing a Middleweight weighs between 154-160 pounds except he can go over that and become a Super Middleweight whereas if he weighs below 154 he is a Super Welterweight. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. A left jab to the mid-section by any of them would have me doubled up on the canvas for a full count.
Politicians of both parties talk a lot about the Middle Class. That is the only acceptable reference to class in America. Ruling class and working class are tacitly forbidden terms. When Republicans speak of the Middle Class they have in mind their golf buddies who shower in the morning. The Democrats mean people who sweat at their desk or in a factory and shower when they get home. The working poor aspire to be middle while the almost rich get richer and also count themselves as middle but never have enough.

Those designated as poor now stand at 46 million including 20 million added to that class in the past six years. As the rich get Romneyer the bottom has fallen out of the middle class swelling the rolls of the destitute...better known among Repugnants as shiftless, lazy grubbers. In dysfunctional Washington with its broken compass drifting to the right one could get run over standing in the middle of the road. It's enough to wake me in the muddle of the night which is, in fact, early morning.

I was tempted to end this in mid-sentence however......


Friday, April 5, 2013

Telephone Free-Fall

She left a message on our answering machine: Sorry I missed you but maybe you’re not back yet from Mexico. Hope you’re having fun in Puerto Vallarta.

I thought to myself: Did I forget to go to Mexico like some folks forget to have children? Maybe I should hop a flight and look for a familiar face.

I tried calling her back but her voice mail was full. I figured she must have taken off for Mexico looking for me.

When she reached me she apologized saying she was thinking of somebody else who went to Hawaii.

I told her I couldn’t afford Mexico but I’d been drinking Margaritas to make up for it. I was glad not to have gone to Hawaii since I have a profound dislike of all things coconut.

She said she was sorry to hear about my allergy to peanuts.  I was also sorry to hear about it because I just had some peanut sauce with Chinese food. Was my body beginning to itch all over or was that a reaction from the coconuts I didn’t eat by not going to Hawaii? At least I didn't have jet lag.
I thanked her for saving me a visit to the dermatologist as well as an intestinal disorder from unwashed lettuce where I might have perished from dehydration in a Mexican emergency room, an unclaimed body with a tag on my toe.

We need friends like this in our declining years to check up on us as we brush up against creeping senility and other childhood diseases.

The phone is ringing again, this time from another friend who started telling me about the time he set fire to the shower curtains while his mother was taking a bath. He was seven and apparently a very curious boy. I didn’t ask when he was weaned from the breast. It was 1934 and times were hard. I’m sure this is not why he called but I forgave him for his trespasses. How we segued to this defining moment neither one of us can recall but that’s how life works.

The chronology turns to mush. And how I got to be eighty when just yesterday I was eleven can only be explained by missing the plane to Mexico because of the skin rash I didn’t get from not eating Chinese food in the bathtub with burned coconuts or was it caramelized walnuts?