Friday, August 23, 2013

The Answer is Brooklyn

So what’s the question? Not anything about Coney Island or the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Bridge or Navy Yard.

Brooklyn has a glorious history. Just ask George Washington how he lost the battle of Brooklyn Heights but won the war by a tactical retreat saving his rag-tag army for another day.

In my day Brooklyn was the butt of many jokes. People spoke with an accent that sounded like they lived on Toid Avenue and Toidy-toird St. I suppose it’s true that you can take the boy out of Brooklyn but can’t take Brooklyn out of his mouth. A residue remains. It has stayed with Barbra Streisand, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen but who knew Anne Hathaway and Mickey Rooney are natives?  My first wife was also from Brooklyn but I married her anyway.

The fine literary critic and Brooklyn-born, Alfred Kazin, wrote that his move across the East River to Manhattan represented, for him, a transformative moment in his life as if across an ocean. 

I went to Pharmacy School in Brooklyn. I’ve heard the building morphed into a mosque and the college itself now occupies what was once the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. There is a certain symmetry to these transitions. My father’s corner drugstore became a storefront synagogue and my experience at the college felt like a bad movie.

There is something about Brooklyn that resists a grid. I often lost my sense of direction while driving there. Unlike Manhattan which has a definitive north/south Brooklyn is a sprawl particularly for those of us raised on subterranean transit. I lived in Queens and for one nickel I would make my way across boroughs transferring three times and surface an hour later at Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers. At no time did I know which direction I was traveling.

The Park Slope section has recently become a prestigious address. At the turn of the 19th century it was regarded as the richest neighborhood in the entire country. Now it is home to artists, actors and writers such as Laurence Fishburne, John Turturro, Pete Hamill, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Sarsgaard and Paul Auster….but what ever happened to Murray, the chicken-plucker?

As for the question you may one day be asked on Jeopardy, the answer is Brooklyn to the question: What was the 3rd largest city in the U.S. in 1860 ….and for much of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1898, fifteen years after the completion of the cathedral-like Brooklyn Bridge, that Brooklyn combined with Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island to form greater New York City.

It was no easy matter for the boroughs to join. Many opposed the idea including the Brooklyn Eagle, their newspaper for 115 years. Walt Whitman had been their editor fifty years and many leaves of grass earlier. If they had resisted annexation Brooklyn would now be the fourth most populated city in the country with 2.6 million at last count.

As a final note I would imagine it also contains the largest concentration of Dodger-haters in the world since the team left their beloved fans bereft having taken the subway to Los Angeles 56 years ago. I had deracinated myself in 1954 calling L.A. my home and regarded the move as providential intervention confirming my suspicion that God was a Dodger fan after all and was looking after me. My religiosity lasted not more than twenty minutes but I still refuse to put away childish things instilled in Brooklyn.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Ouch, that smarts. I think I’m being hacked. Nothing like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre but still. In fact it’s bloodless until I might one day discover there are generic versions of me turning up in places like Latvia and Malaysia. Google which monitors my blabberings and spies on the spies, tells me I have 45 readers in that Baltic state alone, and others in Southeast Asia.

First I was flattered that I’d achieved such a world-wide readership. I imagined families huddled around their computer screen salivating over my every word. Or possibly I am read to put children to sleep. 

More likely I’m the subject of Latvian Hacking 101, an international band of hoodlums in the boiler room of some abandoned warehouse busy decoding my passwords and buying Jaguars in my name. Wait until they find out I do all my shopping at the 99 cent store, and live on dented cans and day-old bread.

Whether all this is my flight of fancy or incipient paranoia is yet to be determined. My health insurance company will probably call it a pre-existing condition in either case.

I’ve never quite understood the mentality of that other breed, the harmless hacker. It must be the Mt. Everest Syndrome. They do it because it’s there and they can. O K, I’m here and possibly at this very moment being climbed by adventurers and Sherpa tribesmen having a peak experience.

I can understand a would-be Jean Valjean, stealing my loaf to feed his ailing and destitute brood, particularly if he has a booming voice deserving of a standing ovation. One man’s Les Miz meager table is another man’s banquet. But why do hackers hack? Just for the hack of it? Is it to affirm they are alive? O K, I see you. Indeed you do exist. Fun, is it?

I long for those days when a virus was a tiny organism which eluded antibiotics. Do you have a cold? No, it’s just a virus.  Then it would go away anyway with a little luck. Those were manageable virus which knew enough to exit when they weren’t welcome. Then there is the AIDS’ virus but let’s not go there.

Now a single nerd with a grudge can bring down his high school, corporation, government or worse, me. I’d like to believe I’m more transparent than they are anyway and happily so. Must I live out my days with a firewall?  Do I need to change my password as often as I change my mind over a menu in a Chinese restaurant? What about those secret questions such as my father’s middle name and my first pet?

It’s a sci-fi world we have come to. Even at this late age with affairs whittled down to their elemental nub life is still a tangled web abetted by on-line essentials we have bequeathed to the Googles of the world. We’ve laid ourselves bare and are now told of a possible amplifier in the cottage cheese ceiling or a camera hidden in a dust mote. Take me Latvia, I’m yours.  

Come to think of it Latvia may have been my motherland. My mother was always vague about her lineage. Eastern Europe, Western Russia was the best she could do. Maybe some of those avid followers in Latvia share my DNA. Is that you, Igor, Inga? Why don’t we meet, say, in Tallinn, your sister country, and we can talk this over in civil tones over a glass of kvass. Now that you probably have my bank info and credit cards you can pay my way and charge it to that fictitious version of me.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Who Are You?

Peggy often asks that question to new faces she meets at parties. Some people are stumped… at least it gives them pause. One time a woman ran over to her husband excitedly saying she’d never been asked that before and this person really wants to know who I am. Others might say they are so and so’s cousin or name their profession.

The story of doubtful provenance goes like this: There was a banquet honoring the chief justice of some state. When he asked his waiter for the third time for more butter he got irate saying, in his best authoritarian voice, Young man, do you know who I am? I’ve made decisions that have affected millions of lives. Now get me more butter. The man responded, Do you know who I am? I’m not your young man. I’m the head waiter and I’m in charge of the butter.

So much for titles.

I’m not sure how I would respond to the question.  Hmmmm, give me twenty minutes and I’ll think of something.  It is actually asking, what is your story, more than your bio. Your movie. Your mythos.

As Rebecca Solnit reminds us in her new book, The Faraway Nearby, this is what makes all of us artists, our created self. In a sense everything we paint, sculpt, write, compose etc…is part of that creation.

It is always a work-in-progress even though we have the general arc pretty well-rehearsed well before the final chapters. My guess is that there is the tale we tell and the one we don’t or won’t or can’t. The narrative of a life is necessarily non-linear. It stumbles and bumbles. There are missteps. We get lost and probably go off the map into unknown precincts a few times. If we look at our children we may discover some disowned parts like unopened doors in our modest manor house.

I have a habit of giving short shrift to my 53 years as a pharmacist. It has become my own faraway nearby. It seems distant; a half century stuck in a wrong turn. On the one hand it was my penal servitude. The consequence of having made a choice while still a man-child. It was the easy path laid out by my father and to some extent I became him. He was certainly my role model and a good fit if snug was to be a goal. Perhaps I sacrificed the necessary murky journey for coherence and the familiar.

On the other hand my time as a poet and now a blogger feels more challenging and risky if vulnerability and disclosure count for anything. Maybe I needed those years of gestation to help define myself by what I wasn’t. I got triturated in the mortar and pestle, ground to a fine powder and by that time the profession itself was unrecognizable.

Solnit writes about her turn in a darkened labyrinth and how we have named the middle ear by the same name. As a writer I find my voice, which is to say I’ve heard a sound in my labyrinth, that I can meet half-way in resonance. To be fully met on the page is a kind of congruence I would cherish.

Who we really are is more than the sum of what we did, who we married, where we lived, when we moved and how our health has fared. Even if we found the words pieces of ourselves would elude the statement. It really has more to do with being and maybe that’s the part we can shape but never fully see. It doesn’t get any better than sailing through the unknown with the ones you love.

Friday, August 2, 2013


They don’t tic anymore. Many have lost their limbs. A generation has been raised without knowing what counterclockwise means. Wrists are going unadorned in favor of genius-phones. There is nothing to wind in the digital age.  Remember how we learned how to tell time? I don’t either but I think I regarded it as a milestone.

Hi-tech has erased borders and shrunk time so we can call up Mumbai faster than my next thought which just slipped away.

In sports we stop the clock, beat the clock and work the clock but that’s not real time; only a scoreboard clock in its alternative universe where seconds take ten minutes to remind us of what we cannot live without.

Is there such a thing as real time? In school I watched the minute hand barely move to the twelve. It can fly or hang heavy. We spend it and waste it.  This is my hour of recalibration. I need to measure the days by a different clock.

Peggy’s progress has me in a new time zone. We are living in slow-mo. Welcome to glacier time. I say, we, because I have entered her space/time, her predicament. I also need to mend, to re-set my timer, to experience the art of changing lanes and give up my giddy-up. Empathy involves nothing less.

Yesterday her surgeon said she is within normal range of recovery and will probably require another month of rehab. This shall be our narrative. Her body will get over the insult in its own sweet time. The green fuse tunnels its way up through the soil and declares itself right on schedule according to its own clock. Here I am in the right lane, closer to inhale the greenery and perfectly situated for the off-ramp whenever it presents itself.

The first and last innings of life are the ones of great change. We are too busy growing up to know what’s going on and too fearful or bewildered to process the new us later on. Along with our wizened state comes an altered change of pace. To each his clock. If we listen hard we might even hear it toc.