Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Winter Seen

Christmas time as we know it is a Norse holiday; a confection of Charles Dickins’ Scrooge, Clement Moore’s, Night Before… 1823 poem and Thomas Nast, the 19th century cartoonist whose depiction of Santa Claus stuck. It conflates pagan myths with Christian piety with Hallmark cards and a few adjectives like jolly and merry saved for the occasion. The Romans named it Saturnalia. Like Chanukah the calendar calls for candle lights or bonfires to answer the dark days of December. And, oh yes, there is Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

We in the Northern Hemisphere should apologize to folks below the equator, for whom this is the summer solstice, the longest 24 hours of sunlight. It must exert the imagination for them to get into the snowy scenes of North Pole St. Nick.

For me it recalls those wintry days in New York with ear muffs, galoshes, snow shovels and my trusted flexible flyer sled. It was also a time to prowl the hills and canyons of my inner landscape…to find a quiet place away from the holiday noise.

At age eight (1941) going on nine (in three months I'd be a year older) I had to make some sense of Jingle Bells with Silent Night, the good cheer of Bing Crosby singing, White Christmas alongside, a date which will live in Infamy still resounding from FDR’s voice. Gift-wrapped boxes under trees and not a sign of them under our roof. Disbelief vs. Yes, Virginia there is …… Skeletal trees outside, tinsel and bulbs inside. And then there was the superintendent holding back on the radiator heat and my mother’s curses.

For 25 cents an hour I helped at a Christmas tree lot. Yes, we had empty lots back then. This was Noble’s Lots owned by a classmate’s family. The following year an A&P was built on that spot. Why I was paid and what I did, I can’t imagine. All I remember is my nose falling off even with a scarf around it. 

It was the time for a kid to grapple with a world gone askew. It’s a good thing my flyer was flexible. I’m still grappling and my sled still flies. It has taken me across wintry scenes into Robert Frost’s, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Whose woods these are I think I know, he says in the first line of the poem. Everyone must enter their own woods over the years. It is forbidding... dark and deep as the poet tells us, yet also lovely and seductive. If we lose our innocence, life experience is our gain.

As Stephen Sondheim reminds us the mystery of the woods, an elsewhere, remains even with the promises we have to keep…the responsibilities and the illusion of clarity we claim is ours. Maybe winter solstice is our way of coming to terms with the paradox of being, of holding in our head the dying of the light and the glitz, the mark we’ve made and the snow that covers our prints. It is a time to reconcile our lives still to be lived, the myth of the new-born, the lit darkness…..with mortality, that ultimate white out.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

So What's the Story?

Every story has a back story and a side story. Sometimes we don’t need to hear it as when a friend told of a fall she took and the woman coming to her aid felt it necessary to first tell how she happened to be there at that particular moment on her way to visit her ailing sister who recently moved. Just please call 911, my friend interrupted. I can imagine how 911 operators must get antsy having to put up with meta-narratives.

Just the facts, Ma’am, Sargent Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet.

My deaf daughter once got a speeding ticket. She challenged it and when the judge noted her hearing loss he started into an empathetic story of his neighbor who was likewise impaired. Never one to ingratiate herself at the right time my daughter spoke over the judge and said, I don’t care about your neighbor, I’m here to talk about my ticket.

Jokes are small stories as when the guy walks into a bar and says….but not all stories are jokes. Innocent A must avenge the killing of his brother, B, by murdering C who is then wiped out by D.

The Greeks invented gods for the full range of human behavior, from Nemesis to Hubris. In the classic family squabble Agamemnon, the father, sacrifices his daughter as instructed by the goddess, Artemis, and is in turn murdered by his wife who gets rubbed out by her son along with sister, Electra, his accomplice.  Her grief extended only to her father’s death and mourning became her. Her version of the tale arbitrarily began with her mother’s revenge never questioning what led her mother to such rage. The house was cursed, as we all are, with the capacity for inflicting hurt to answer some cry from a primitive place within.

We each pick up the narrative at the point which serves us best. As if the attack on the World Trade Center had no antecedents. Or the recent crash of the stock market or any other historical event. 

He started it, I probably yelled to my mother, when I shoved my brother after he had whacked me. But his grievance was likely festering since he lost his status as an only child. I never got around to apologizing for having been born.

We think in terms of narratives. Washington had a good one as did Abe Lincoln who is said to have built the log cabin he was born in. Trump has a great story of the self-made man. Too bad he fabricated the entire thing.

My window into the socio-political world reveals a chronicle of steady social progress, starting with FDR in 1933 and moving even through the Carter-Nixon years up until 1980. Since Reagan there’s been a systematic dismantling of government’s role. Soon, it seems, we’ll be back to square one. But square one began long before Roosevelt into the Gilded Age with greed as our creed, through the Federalist Papers, the Enlightenment, back to Marcus Aurelius and probably the cave men. 

Stories don’t begin or end; they only stop to take a breath.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


I’m getting to be a library junkie. Seemingly every book recommended by friends, Amazon, NPR and literary sections ends up on my queue. I’m number one through fifty-seven on hold. The librarian must think I’m a speed reader. Let it be known I’m something between a slow reader and a non-reader. I go through the first twenty pages and often give it up. The reviews were better than the books. There was a time, long gone, when I thought the 11th commandment was to finish what you start.

I have no patience for books about Nazis, Popes, amnesiacs, drug-addled slackers, coming-of-age stories, arduous journeys through ice fields, futuristic apocalyptic tales or historical romance, How I Chanted My Way Out of Ebola or Found Happiness in an Ant Farm, or Parlayed My Last Eleven Cents Into a Condominium in Marina Del Rey, or Thirty Recipes for Moo-shu Pork, lurid horror, Life in the Gulag, Cockroaches I Have Known, biographies about golf pros or professional bowlers…. as told to.  I’ve had my fill of Churchill, Jefferson and Civil War battles. I’m done with such as the untold story of Abbott and Costello or the real James Dean.

In short, I'm a certified snob.

Which leaves me overlooked classics, books about people with inner lives written with a flair for language … quirky, non-narrative, and character-driven preferably. Poetry or near-poetry, for sure. In non-fiction I’m still a sucker for some political and social history with something new to say.

I like finding my name on the will-call shelf; I’m even getting familiar with other Levines and their preferences. An email shows up when a book has arrived and when it’s due. Last week I owed them a dollar. I didn’t haggle. The book was in my trunk ….and then forgotten, hastily moved there when I went to car wash.

There’s a special feeling being in a benign place where hardly any money is exchanged. People are helpful, patient and happier having switched into another gear…. unless you are homeless and this is the pit stop you depend upon to wash yourself and stay out of trouble. My daughter, Lauren, was a librarian and saw it from a different angle having to contend with the great unwashed, at times drugged out and occasionally violent. Then again that guy with his life’s belongings in a shopping cart could be a former professor who lost his tenure and couldn’t handle a job flipping cheeseburgers. 

I don’t quite understand why the library is so under-used. Imagine Barnes & Noble if everything were free. It’s a no-brainer. I suppose some folks don’t want to wait till their turn comes around. And then there is the pride of ownership; the obsession to collect or to write marginalia.  I wonder if it is better to be number ten with one book in the system or number one hundred with ten circulating. 

My Ocean Park branch library, built in 1918, was one of 2500 funded by Andrew Carnegie, that penny-pinching robber baron who decided to give it all away in his twilight years. In his heyday he had turned down labor demands for a two-cent an hour raise. Was he making peace with his maker or was it all about amassing power and keeping his name alive? I read a Carnegie biography and still don't know.

I can think of no better place to be trapped in when the next earthquake strikes. There are worse ways to go than to be buried under thousands of pages of well-chosen words. And if I still had a pulse I could read my way out.  I would even bless Andrew Carnegie and forgive those best-selling authors for writing the same book a dozen times and all the bloated volumes and particularly the ones I wish I had written myself.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Oscars Everywhere

December is the month when hyperbolic adjectives are dragged out to adorn movie titles. It seems as if every new film is the greatest, best, most compelling, not-to-be-missed, if-you-see-no-other of the year, the decade, of all-time. All are Oscar-worthy which got me thinking about that name, Oscar, and all the Oscars I have known. Actually none.....hardly.

Sixty years ago my first job as a pharmacist was with Thrifty Drugs in Beverly Hills. I was newly licensed and thrust suddenly into a galaxy of Hollywood stars. Cary Grant called up one day to make sure his wife, Betsy Drake’s uppers and downers, were put on a separate bill from his. Robert Cummings stayed young buying vitamins I couldn’t talk him out of. My favorite customer was Oscar Levant. In his lugubrious voice he would phone for early refills on his favorite sedative, Paraldehyde, which fell out of favor decades ago. I’d hate to think I contributed to his delinquency.

He really didn’t need my help plunging from wunderkind piano virtuoso, composer, radio star of Information Please, actor, author, and wit to mental patient stung by his own acerbic tongue as if he quipped himself to death. He was one of the most quotable entertainers in town, e.g. In some situations I was difficult, in odd moments impossible, in rare occasions loathsome but at my best unapproachably great.

Oscar Levant never won an Oscar but Oscar Homolka, the Viennese-born character actor, got a nomination for his supporting role in I Remember Mama…a movie I’d sooner forget. Oscar Peterson was another Oscar I saw several times when he performed at Birdland back in the early 50s. His fingers moved on the keyboard effortlessly yet so dazzlingly I was carried away with the cigarette smoke.

Oscar Hammerstein II was possibly the most famous Oscar of them all in my lifetime. His grandfather, Oscar the first, born 1850, made a fortune in cigars but also built eleven theaters mostly in what came to be known as Times Square. Oscar, the younger, won two Oscars for best song. He wrote hundreds too numerous to mention collaborating first with Jerome Kern in Showboat and later with Richard Rodgers. Hammerstein also mentored Stephen Sondheim who has taken musical theater far beyond Oscar’s reach.

Oscar, he of Academy Award fame, owes its origins to the stuff legends are made of. There are at least four claims to the naming from Bette Davis to Walt Disney to Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, to Margaret Herrick, librarian of the Motion Picture Arts and Science. She is said to have looked at it back in 1931 and thought it bore a resemblance to her uncle, Oscar.

With apologies to Oscar Wilde, Oscar de la Renta, Oskar Werner and  Oscar Robertson, I have almost depleted my store of Oscars. Not a bad gallery of dignitaries. The name has never ranked high among boy’s names; it is now 175th in popularity with about 1500 new Oscars in maternity wards each year. One version of its genesis derives from the French word for Golden City which would be apt for the 8.5 lb. trophy.

Finally a nod to Oscar Mayer Weiners whose jingle was once suggested to replace the Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem.  It works for me.

Friday, December 5, 2014


Life is full of loneliness, misery and unhappiness...and it's over so quickly.
                                                                         Woody Allen

The same could be said of the morning newspaper,
part of our breakfast table still-life
along with cereal box, tea bag and bowl.
The paper comes wrapped in plastic
useful for dumping cantaloupe seeds and rind.
The news is also rancid, read online last night. Once is enough.
It is all increments of suffering which cast a pall
over my oatmeal. The radio agrees. Turn it off she says.
Violins are incapable. Even Coltrane cannot haul it away.

The Dutch signified death with decayed flowers
or flies in the arrangement of fruit.
Print, like insects, blackens the petal of the page…
choke-hold, hands-up, mass graves, death row, separatists,
decapitations, molestation, dirty money, drones
frack the common air.

I take refuge in the drama of the sports section,
that improvisational theater which signifies nothing.
Strategy with stretchers, stats to ponder.
Sublimated rage, controlled violence, passion spent
except when the spigot won’t close, they take it home
and the story moves to page one alongside the carnage.

Can I steel myself against the breaking news?
I shall read it for omissions; for all that is un-newsworthy.
The missing generosity. Unannounced miscegenation.
A song heard across a border. Safe arrival of planes
not disappeared, the welcoming arms at airports.

Novelists, said Graham Greene, aim for truth
while journalists write fiction. This is my morning hope,
that what I’m reading is a litany of agreed-upon lies.
Real life is our landlord planting a camellia bush,
the two Pyrenees dogs walked by our window every morning,
the rash that healed overnight and friends calling
to check on last week’s infirmities. 

All of the above are true.
The parched, the flood and every station between.
Para-military police too real to dismiss.
Golden boughs un-leafing.
Have we moved an inch? Forward or back, I cannot tell.
The empire declines and falls with a thud... as it must.
At the breakfast table buds have opened in the vase.
I am adversarial with the macro, affectionate with the micro,
held in the tension of the in-between.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Getting It

Peggy has written her morning poem and I don't get it.
Sometimes she says, that’s good as if not getting it 
is what she’s after but today she says, 
how can you not get it? You’re being too rational.
Yes, I admit it. My mind is looking for threads, connective tissue.
But, getting it, isn’t logical, says she. Let it just wash over you.
I’m soaked and still trying to enter her realm
even if my gain is ill-gotten. Aha, here it is,
an aperture where I can crawl in and be there inside her poem
with the grand piano,  love seat and the woman
with the open button on her blouse,  clues she has dropped
which add up to, I know not what. 
I got it. I got it. I don't got it as in the Mel Brooks movie.
Now I've got it. by George I've got it. 
Her poem is about not knowing what it’s all about,
not unlike this moment when my mind is frazzled worrying
about my daughter even while she is worrying about her cat
but the unworried cat gets it  because worry is part of not getting it,
IT being the collage in our heads, the vacancies and scraps,
as if Sherlock's breadcrumbs lead nowhere; elementary my dear
whats-his-name with his deductions that never entered a poem
or could find its way out of life’s maze even if the 4:57 out of
Hammersmith was delayed because of roadwork 
and the tobacco stains on his left hand are clearly 
of a Turkish blend indicating that the killer
must have been right-handed since his wrist was bandaged 
using a knot employed only in Anatolia and now 
if you think you’ve got it you really don’t since life 
doesn’t rhyme nor is it a straight ahead train
of thought which stops at Hammersmith station but instead 
goes to Heisenberg's Uncertainty just like the shadows on the rug
in Peggy's poem and the blue air curling.

Here's is Peggy's Poem


Clues leave vacancies to give the mind
a chance to wander.  A baby grand,
a love seat, the curtains lifting in and out.

The man, perhaps a philosopher, has entered.
Wings beat as the sound of music drowns
the words forming on his lips.  Another first

has fallen.  Her blouse unbuttoned.
He longs to hear the song she is singing,
but his hand reaches to catch the wind.

She watches the dove, inconsistent as
the curling blue air.  There is a beginning with
thought giving way to the shadows on the rug.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Giving of Thanks

A montage of Thanksgiving memories from early school days…….orange construction paper with drawings of turkeys gobbling or on the table, Pilgrims on Plymouth rock. My turkeys looked more like Pilgrims and my Pilgrims could have been mistaken for Plymouth Rock. Then there were happy Indians and a hymn hummed…….

We gather together …..Nothing wrong with that.
To ask the Lord’s blessing ………this is suspect, maybe we don’t deserve it.
He hastens and chastens ……nice rhyme and catchy tune but what’s with the rush? And who is he scolding with his chastens?
His will to make known …………OK, get on with it.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing ….more rhymes but what are we singing about? Who’s doing the oppressing and who is being distressed?
Sing praises to his name ……………It can’t hurt. If we said thanks loads, Lord, for the good life,she would reply, You Betcha, No Problem.
He forgets not his own. …..Is it only his own he remembers? This sets up the all too familiar Us and Them.

So we have the Native American hosts and first European settlers, those uninvited guests who stole their land and never left. Something went wrong with this arrangement from the Indian point of view.... to say nothing of the turkey's.

From out of our rapacity and manifestly ungodly destiny it has evolved that we sit down for a sumptuous feast, by the accident of geography, unless we happened to be indigenous people or needy people or those living in the rubble of bombed or bulldozed homes.

It turns out this hymn was written during the Eighty Years War between Holland and Spain in the 16th and early 17th century. The Dutch were Protestants looking to break away from Catholic Spain. So gathering together was itself a subversive act. The oppression was from the Papacy who saw their grip on Europe unraveling. We revived it in the twentieth century beseeching God to lift the distress caused by the Axis powers’ oppression. …and he’d better hasten and chasten.

In its travels the hymn has gone from the front lines of war, where it is always a good idea to have God on your side, to the dining room table where, in his name we hasten without chastening the chardonnay and stuff ourselves with stuffing just short of exploding. No hint of distressing from oppressing unless you count some insufferable neighbor who wrangled an invitation and arrived an hour late causing everyone to fill up on nibbles. But it is the season to forgive such transgressions even as our gluttony is followed by sloth. God pardons such sins once a year on Thanksgiving. Aren’t we all pilgrims stumbling and bumbling our way trying to make sense of our brief allotment of time?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Life As We Know It

Thank you for calling ^%$#@

Beware of being thanked for calling. Can you Imagine how much more grateful they’d have been if you hadn’t called?

Listen carefully. Our menu options have recently changed.

Their menu options change more often than Izzy’s Deli. Do they get some pleasure from doing this? Pity the poor guy who has just hit “3” and got disconnected because he didn’t listen carefully even though that worked yesterday.

If you are a Civil War veteran, press one.
If you're a terrorist and wish to turn yourself in for enhanced interrogation, press two.
If you are a visitor from another planet, press three.
If you just went out the wrong exit in a parking lot and experienced severe tire damage, press four.
All other calls remain on the line.

What if I am all four of the above?

Your call is very important to us and will be answered in the order received.

If it’s so important why are you putting me through all this? Must I continue listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? I feel as if I’m in the fifth season. I’ve read the entire newspaper including the temperature in Tegucigalpa. I’ve looked at the obits and I think I spotted myself.

We are experiencing an unusually high call volume.

What if I called back between midnight and three? Have you ever not experienced a high call volume? If you had more than one operator this occurrence would be less usual.

Your expected wait time is one hour and forty minutes.

Translation: Only a loser would continue to hold….shut-ins or people who are wasting their lives anyway or lonely folks eager to have someone to talk to since they have no friends or just returned from their dentist who wouldn’t let them get a word in except for a grunt and occasional spit.

You can always go on-line and access our frequently-asked question page.

What they’re really saying is that there is nobody there and never has been except for the guy who comes in three times-a-week to change the menu.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Twelve, More or Less

There is a certain elegance about numbers; the way proofs clinch the correct answer and how twelve always follows eleven. A foot can be counted on for its twelve inches and a half day contains no more than twelve hours. And then there is mid-night.

However a Baker’s dozen is thirteen and the twelfth month of year is named after the number ten (Decem). Twelve is the last year before teenage-hood but some stay there forever. In soccer and football the twelfth man refers to the 50,000 to 90,000 spectators cheering or jeering at the right time to give an advantage to the home team.

There is also the story of twelve in my life. How I was minus twelve when Peggy was born and she came to Los Angeles to feel the earth quake my barging in on the world in 1933 ... then returned to New York... not to meet me until I was twice twelve in 1957, back in L.A. She doesn’t remember that occasion but 24 years later we met for good. A match when I was five and she seventeen would have been highly unsuitable but at age fifty & sixty-two almost unremarked upon. And now, somehow in defiance of the calendar, we are the same age.

On Tuesday Republicans swept the country…….or did they? The bottom twelve Red states combined (19 million) have half the population of California (38 million). Even with the addition of the next ten they comprised less than the number California residents. Yet these 22 Red states will send 44 senators to Washington while we send two. In other words the great majority of Americans live in urban settings and are solidly Democratic. The Republican vote represents ranches, golf courses, equestrian trails and mega-farms owned by the 1% and where few people live.

In the twelfth century things didn’t look so good either. The Hanks and Dicks were exchanging thrones in England bathing the countryside in regal blood. There were twelve knights at Arthur’s Round Table itching to joust and with a nose for trouble though a can opener might be needed to reach their nostrils. The Church still held a choke hold on the lives of the flock. Yet the stage was being set for the burst of a Renaissance to follow. A millennium later, out of today’s dark period, embers may yet light up the centuries to come.

Twelve has shown itself to be a portentous number. The last time I bought a dozen bagels the woman gave me the senior discount by adding an extra one. Jesus thought he had twelve apostles but we have to subtract Judas making it eleven. Christianity flourished nevertheless. 

Perhaps in two years the no-shows will show up on Election Day and vote to throw the rascals out. Twelve is bursting with the seeds of (can I say this word?) revolution. For Republicans who think they have a mandate, think again. The President got a mandate two years ago when the whole nation voted. Think, Twelve Angry Men and remember, Twelve Years a Slave won the Oscar last year. The twelfth day of Christmas (January 6th) is Epiphany Day. I never met one I didn't love.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


I gave her a scroll in the bark of eucalyptus.
She gifted me a nest in the stump of an oak.
I offered her reptilian roots of a ficus.
She called, quick, catch the hemorrhagic sunset.
We gave each other the same book by Wendell Berry.

I led her to the rush of white water.
She took me to its silence.
I found fallen leaves swimming like fish.
She heard a song in the grove of flowering acacias.
I promised gladly to be her mother, brother, father, lover.

I gave her the joy of driving off the map.
She took me to a safe unknown.
I pointed her to white horses that were llamas.
She led me to the place where we peed in the Forest of Dean.
Together we were Hanseled and Grettled.

When I showed her the wind-pocked rock
she found an answering elm in the reflecting pond.
We saw petals fall over a footbridge in Kyoto
though we’ve never been to Japan. We listened
for the clarinet concerto in an estuary of migratory wings.

I led her to the breaking news on the radio
She showed me a portal to the realm of nocturnes.
We traveled to Ketchikan with its totems and raven rattles,
then found our own creation myth
in how we were born together.

Together we died on Oxford Street rolling off the bus.
And died again on a wet road in the Dordogne,
were lifted as the tides rose in the Bay of Fundy.
We are old together in the albums of our bones
And young as the sun inside our morning melon.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Disease of the Week

Peggy must be getting better. Her appetite has returned. I know this because she eats my cooking which only a desperately hungry person would do. I have mastered her eggs at 4.5 minutes. A croissant nukes exactly 29 seconds in the microwave straight from the freezer. An then there was the chicken marsala...

Don’t expect an invitation for dinner. I’m not ready for prime time. Besides, we don’t carry a renter’s policy against gastro-intestinal reflux disease. There’s already too much illness out there. Imagine the days when measles, mumps and whooping cough were the scourge. Now we have new imported worries and gazillions of bucks spent on maladies unimagined a generation ago.

Every sporting event is interrupted by Viagra and Cialis commercials as if impotence had reached epidemic proportions. I contend that our true national health issue is Electile Dysfunction.

Each off-year November, Liberals go limp while Conservative get aroused at the poles…I mean polls. Is there something about meanness and mendacity that transmutes to eroticism? I can’t imagine Mitch McConnell as an object of desire. If there is anything sexy about Karl Rove it eludes me. Yet enlightened folks, by the millions, will stay home, semi-comatose, while the far-right will stiffen themselves and ejaculate at the voting booth.

It would seem to me that the party who authors legislation to suppress voting rights would be enough to excite you students to get it up and cast your lot at least for a one-night stand. Think of it as recreational sex if you must. Vote for your manhood. For your student-loan. Go get your identification card. Take a friend to the polling place. Have yourself an orgy. For virgin voters come and feel the earth move a fraction of an inch.

The newspapers say that Hispanics will be sitting this one out because they’re upset with Obama. Six years in office and he’s lost his sex appeal? The Dream Act is still hot. Know who your friend is. Think Sonia Sotomayor. Think which party begs for immigration reform. Think minimum wage.

Who are these people who do vote? Have they gone to bed with the Koch Bros.? Has the message reached their glands and stopped before it got to their brains? I suppose vague discontent answers to simplistic slogans. God is not on the ballot. If this country ignores science, goes further into war and tramples on its own work force with stagnant wages it will be because Republicans found the way to eroticize their message of fear and loathing.

Maybe a telethon is called for to end Electile Dysfunction. Must Democrats run Gwyneth and George or Angeline and Brad for the voters to get Viagrified and show up on Tuesday? 


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Peggy's Week That Was

Every evening for 10 years Peggy and I have read books aloud to each other. Usually ones that we missed when everyone else had read them. We can count Thomas Hardy, Thomas Mann, Thomas Wolff and Thomas Pynchon and 40-50 other authors not named Thomas. Back before the Ebola scare we decided on Camus’, The Plague.  So here I am reading it to her as she lies in bed at St. John’s Hospital. Certainly not the best choice but who knew?  We have about 75 pages to go and must return it to the library. My words are causing her to nod off.

I’ve been here for nine hours watching Peggy sleep on and off, or chasing after the nurses to remind them what they promised to do twenty minutes ago or trying to reconcile what her eleven medical professionals are saying. We have the voices from the admitting doctor, internist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist, infectious disease doctor, oncologist, wound specialist, pulmonologist, respiratory technician, physical therapist and occupational therapist. They all concur there is fluid around her left lung. They don’t know the cause of it or how to account for her malaise and loss of appetite. Pneumonia? Yes & No. Pleurisy? Not quite. Congestive heart disease? Not typically, wrong side. An auto-immune event? Possibly. T. B.? No, test was negative.

Illness can be the greatest unsolved mystery of all. What went wrong with this body of 93.5 years, this micro-universe of cells and organs beyond all imagining? Who dunnit, this malfunction, this dis-ease?  We want to give it a name as if it matters. 

Now the chaplain walks in with his halo of silver hair. Father Paddy carries Ireland on his tongue channeling Beckett and Yeats. No Jesus... thank God. Just talk of literature (our religion) and the mother country. Our kind of guy.

Care-giving is, for me, just another way of being there as a nurturing presence. It’s an opportunity to find a new, deeper dimension for our love by anticipating her needs and aligning myself with her emotionally. 

Peggy is an inspiration for everyone who knows her. An irrepressible spirit and indomitable optimism are fed by her faith in the creative source within. She is a person who dares. In her person and in her poetry. Her imaginative power continues to stretch into the far reaches. Her poetry is inspired. It’s fair to say she is still in her prime even as I watch her fall asleep inside her poem with her head dropping onto her open notebook and the pencil still in her fingers.

And now the operative word is aspiration as the pulmonologist walks in the room to aspirate around her pleural cavity. His needle goes in through her back and slowly he draws out the yellow-brown fluid, almost a pint of it.

She has now been here six days and we just got word she can leave tomorrow. Still a hung jury as to the cause of her illness. Maybe we’ll know, maybe not.

In a recent poem Peggy wrote, How the unseen affects the seen… So much of us remains hidden even to ourselves. Let the sleuths keep probing. It’s enough to find our resources and live in the astonishing now. I learned that from Peggy.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Between Upheaval and the A-B-C

The word, overthrow, just got my attention in the newspaper.  It was never in my vocabulary but in the fevered minds of fear-mongers back in the 50s who stood as sentinels at the gates. They railed against those Commies who advocated the violent overthrow of the government….or so they proclaimed.

My father was a card-carrying one and he couldn’t even overthrow my mother in her noisy unease with the world. I was witness once to devil-grass overthrowing my dichondra lawn. Their victory was celebrated by yellow flags of dandelions. I’ve always had a soft spot for weedy things.

The word popped up in today’s Sports section about a pitcher who overthrows. Translation: he hits 98mph on the Radar gun but has no idea where the ball is going. This is why they have protective screens for folks seated behind home plate. His wildness would send him packing as a menace to the fragility that baseball is.

The operative word is control. Some of us require it more than others. Conservatives have a nose for disorder. It’s as if a smoke alarm goes off when early signs are detected of disarray, dysfunction or dis don’t look familiar. They try to make life tidy. Everything in its place (including people). Gated communities, Law & Order. Documentation. Republicans also have a knack for mischief on their own. Consider the suppression of voters to correct voter-fraud where none exists.

Too bad humanity is messy, random and, to some extent, inexplicable. When we are called to step up into the batter’s box better be prepared for some chin music (high & inside pitch). The hard stuff can come at us from any angle.

I once Googled my name and up came a namesake who famously ran a half-marathon but got lost en route. When he arrived at the finish line from the wrong side, a dozen others were right behind him. He not only upset the order but he gathered a following along the way.

Out of the mud, a lotus but not always. Some mud brings Mussolini’s who got trains to run on time even if they ran into an abyss. Hitler seized power out of the chaos of Wiemar Germany with hyperinflation, unemployment and the weight of reparations.

The divide is seen in parenting as permissive or strict. In gardening the English sprawl (sort of like this blog) stands in contrast to the Italian geometric design.  Even our Founding Fathers had their differences as articulated by Jefferson, who supported the French Revolution and John Adams who warned against the tyranny of the majority.

Artists are said to make order out of chaos. To do so they must be well- acquainted with disorder. They confront and embrace it while the rest of us live in the illusion of a tamed universe. Artists see a collage where we see a rubble. Out of the clash of opposites one either envisions something new or rushes in to re-establish a hierarchy. Enter ISIS. Sharia Law. In time that too will be overthrown when people remember the need to breathe. We meander the wide field between these poles as the pendulum swings.

I’ll have the club sandwich on rye toast instead of sour dough, with extra turkey but hold the bacon and substitute fruit for the fries. Sorry, Bud, no changes allowed on menu items. Don’t make trouble.

And I'd also like a side order of trouble.


Monday, October 13, 2014


 75 years ago we learned to fear and hate the Japs and Germans. I was so young I conflated Germans with germs. When I had a fever I imagined those Nazi germs attacking my body and in recovery I saw them in full retreat, swastikas and all. Five years later they were our new best friends.

Now we are frightened by ISIS. They scare the bejesus out of us and even those who have no bejesus in them to begin with. They raise their terrible swift sword and we loose our fateful lightning from thirty thousand feet. Their killing is loathsome, barbaric and up-close; ours is sanitized, targeted and distant.

Not to say any of these evildoers, then or now, are anything less than abominable. The carnage of the Holocaust and atrocities of the Japanese set new thresholds of bestiality. An Allied response was imperative. Whether fire-bombing Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear incineration of civilians in Japan was defensible, is now a moot question.

In the case of ISIS the slaughter of Christians, Shiites and Kurds returns us a thousand years to a dark period in human history. We shudder at their ferocity, suppression of woman and disregard for human life. Yet it was the Holy Roman Emperor who turned out the lights in Europe. The Church presided over burnings at-the stake, inquisitions, slave labor building Missions and suppression of science. For the time Muslims were the ones who enjoyed a high civilization. Beheadings were an accepted form of capital punishment in Europe a couple of centuries back. The custom was to tip the guy with a cleaver to assure a short, sharp chop and quick departure.

The point is that under the aegis of religion horrific acts can occur with impunity. It has always been thus. The fervor whipped up by holy men or supreme leaders taps into the psyche of the faithful. It turned cultured Germans into first mindless sheep and then wolves and is turning dispossessed Sunnis into hooded thugs.

Religion is by nature divisive. It sets tent against tent splitting hairs and often heads. It diverts attention away from essential human needs. The pages of our Testaments and their Koran contain ample support for slavery, stonings and a variety of killings and coercion in the name of a higher power.

Islam has no exclusivity on such nonsense and excess. If it were inherently evil we would have been witness to jihads for the past sixteen centuries. We have not. The word infidel is a Christian notion. 

Yes, large numbers of Muslims have found their way into Europe. Is it not true that Pakistanis emigrate to the U.K. and North Africans to France as a consequence of their early colonization of these parts of the world? They have come home to roost; and while they roost they multiply at a higher rate than their hosts which furnishes a labor force to pay the pensions of the elders.

My sense is that the current spread of fundamentalist Islam has its appeal, not in religion, but as a unifying vessel in which to pour their grievances. They seem to have traded prayer rugs for masks. The Western world is a broad target easy to hate and we are there in the sky serving as a recruiting poster. The West has exploited the region most recently for that black stuff under the sand and before that for the Suez Canal as a gateway for the Brits to their Indian Raj and opium trade. 

If we were to withdraw they would confront their Internecine differences and might even discover their common denominator. Think of that. Protestants and Papists seem to have found their Kumbaya. And now look who loves the Jews. 

It would take great courage on our part to disengage. The vacuum created by our departure would remove their greatest object of derision and encourage the folks in the marauding army to stop and build a society that truly serves their needs. It is their call. Hatred is not sustainable. There is nothing holy about a holy war.

As for the phobia that Islam engenders perhaps it is our own shadow; that propensity for revenge, unforgiving righteousness and pernicious violence in our own culture. Indeed there are no Muslims in my muslin sheets.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Life Before Birth

If the Evangelical Teabertarians have their way in November personhood will be declared to begin at conception. Pregnant women shall drive in car pool lanes, Hallmark cards will have a new shelf-space and our entire population will have gotten nine months older over-night.

I’m preparing for this eventuality by focusing in on my early life. It was a sultry June evening when the light bulbs of my father's eyes was met by a coquettish welcome of my mother. Together they proved that night baseball would never replace sex. I was the consequence of Dad’s Y sperm which got to Mom’s egg with a tremendous sprint in the final straightaway. Whether all this was on the advice of their accountant I’ll never know. After all, times were tough and another exemption wasn’t a bad idea. Their union was accompanied by a unison shout, as I recall, that rattled windows in two boroughs of New York and caused complaints from the family living on the floor below.

It’s all coming back to me, those days as a fish-like substance, how I swam the back-stroke in that embryonic sea singing a medley of early Irving Berlin’s biggest hits. I never forgave him for, Mammy, particularly when sung by Al Jolson and it also didn’t take long to have my fill of, Alexander’s Ragtime Band. But I was in no hurry to leave my cozy umbilical life. Most of the time I just floated around biding my time and humming, How Deep Is the Ocean.

When I heard, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, I knew all was not well in that outer chamber. Then, Stormy Weather, came along and I saw no reason not to stay put. I never got around to thanking my mother for tuning the radio on to the Hit Parade.

I could have told you then, had anybody asked, that ontology does not exactly recapitulate phylogeny but I came fairly close. Which is to say I did not go through all the stages of growth and development of our species. On the other hand it sure felt like Eden during my nine month lease. While attaining personhood I was indeed more like a fish... and I have no regrets. Some of my finest days were spent snorkeling and gurgling.

I carry a faint memory of being 4 inches long and weighing in at about an ounce. Like most kids on my block I was enveloped in a fine placenta. Nutrients in, garbage out, made me the chubby baby I was soon to become.

It was FDR’s inauguration speech that caught my fetal ear. Nothing to fear but fear itself didn’t make much sense but it had a certain ring to it. Seventeen days later I busted out down the canal into that etherized air and was greeted by the customary slap. Ouch. My first instinct was to make a U-turn but it was too late.

Had we’d known then what we know now I would have celebrated my first birthday three months later. But it’s never too late to mark the correction. Thank God for these God-fearing Right-To-Lifers, God knows, who hold prenatal life, God bless 'em, in high esteem and care little for existence after birth.   

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Not at a Theater Near You

It might be over-stating the case to say that Hollywood movies have become Infantilized…vacuous comic books on a big screen. Certainly there is still a pocket of adult themed films usually held back until December for award consideration as if to appease the cineastes. Today’s L.A. Times has an article about some “high-risk” projects soon to be released. Yet half of them are by European directors. Also available through Netflix streaming is a fine array of foreign films which have never found distribution here. Ample proof that the art of cinema is still alive....just not here.

But for the most part American studio films aim only at my senses which are numb after a few previews and my hormones that are already spent. Heart and head have to be parked outside. The crop of blockbusters that show in theaters are deleterious to my fragile well-being. They spook and snooze me at the same time.

On my no-watch list are those about zombies, vampires, sharks, dinosaurs and man-eating tomatoes. No ghouls or grotesqueries. I’m also averse to coming-of-age films in which the characters are 37 years old with arrested development at age eleven. I’m done with haunted houses on dark and stormy nights. I have no interest in watching ninety minutes of explosions, close-ups of carnage with body parts or car-chases through a market place destroying dozens of fruit stands and assorted human beings.

I don’t care if they love all this in China. They also eat dog and scorpion. They loved Jerry Lewis in France but I won’t hold that against them. There’s no accounting for taste. Of all the millions poured into film-making can’t one studio accommodate the aging boomers and parents of boomers?  Are we, the chopped livers, not also a market?

The Brits know how to do it. All their world’s a stage. I’d rather watch Michael Kitchen grimace and twitch than Adam Sandler snicker and stare. European movies know what to leave out. They understand the power of the under-statement. They leave room for me to enter. Hollywood over-explains. Each scene foretells the next because it is formulaic.

I know that every story has already been told. But not quite in this way with those nuances by these actors. There is sufficient mystery in human relationships so one doesn’t need to introduce inter-galactic creatures invading our bloodstream with supernatural powers.

I’m aware that much of what was produced in bygone days was junk. But among the pablum were watchable films that didn’t rattle our sensory apparatus. The dream factory invented Noir. They sent our toes tapping with musicals. Capra defined Americana. Welles punctured it. The two Hepburns charmed us. Bogey hard-boiled us.

Now the covered wagons are gone and we are left adrift in the wasteland with a shuttered gate on the factory and broken windows. There is a speckled banana growing black in the fruit bowl.  Stories are rotting, untold, behind this window, that off-ramp.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Born Again

Here I am back as a millennial born when the clock struck the century. It was Y2K, the day the computer disaster didn't happen but it's been fairly disastrous ever since. True, I am semi-literate and hooked on post-apocalyptic movies, isn't everybody? I haven't a clue what our new war is all about or even that old one way back in naught three. 

I wish grandpa would stop calling me to fix his computer; I’ve been doing that since I was six. He couldn’t explain our current fighting in Syria, how we choose the ruthless dictator who gassed his own people over the masked sociopaths. He said we are bombing this extreme Muslim group because they cut off the head of two journalists. But our ally, Saudi Arabia, decapitates an average of four heads a week. So now our old enemies are our temporary friends but we don't want our new friends to win, just not to lose.

It’s too complicated for youngsters to understand, he said, after I installed his new modem, recovered his hardware, re-programmed his software, down-graded his cookies and up-graded his apps.

When he turned on the baseball game I knew it was time to leave. He offered to forego the game if I would stay to watch a Marx Bros. movie with him. He was laughing so hard he didn’t see me slip away. Too slow for my taste. Talk, talk. talk and then that guy with the harp. Pul-ease!

Grandpa promised me a new pair of hiking shoes if I got a library card. I already had walking, trotting, running and moseying-around shoes but I needed something to climb with.

I humored him about the library but the place is too quiet and what’s with all those books? It’s so yesterday. Why would I read a book if I can get the summary online in a few sentences? I’d probably need a power drink to keep awake anyway.

Do I really care what happened before I was born? Lincoln, Aristotle, Da Vinci…fine, I hope they all got along. If they couldn’t figure out how to live together in peace I don’t want to hear about it.  My inheritance is belched air and forests of stumps.... perfect for a makeover.

And why do I have to know how to tell time? Clockwise, what’s that? My watch is digital. Ties? Shoe laces?..whats wrong with Velcro? I’m saving up for my first tattoo. Pass the kale salad with extra quinoa and some carrot and cucumber juice.

I have my eyes on a multi-lingual Asian atheist I met on my new cloud. I figure we could move to some undisclosed location where they’ll never find us to pay off our student loans. I've been tracking an island in the Indian ocean but it isn't there anymore. " A" my name is Alias and my wife's name's Aimee. We live on an Arctic ice floe and we raise arugula. The future belongs to us.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Roosevelts

I was transfixed by the 14 hour chronicle of the Roosevelts shown on PBS this past week. It returned me to that time in both tangible and ineffable ways. Footage and commentary were seamlessly joined. There was something about FDR’s intonations that moved me then and still does.

I entered this world a few weeks after his inauguration in 1933. As shown in Ken Burns' documentary, families gathered around for his fireside chats. I remember that scene growing up, even the cathedral-like speaker of our radio and his patrician voice like no other, a perfect fit for that new medium. PresidentRoosevelt was one word. There was no other one for my first twelve years and when he died it was God who died. And my innocence.

It isn’t possible for me to recall that period without his presence as if it always carries his voice-over narration. Without necessarily understanding the complexity of the issues we listened and believed. We had the moral high ground. It was a felt experience. The world was coming apart but the American people were together. Was this my youthful unknowing? Perhaps. I shall never know.

I only know the March of Dimes collection box for polio passed around in the movie theaters. The FDR buttons I collected in 1940 for my beanie cap. His open car that passed my apartment house in the rain in 1944. And the sight of people crying on the sidewalk when word came on that Thursday afternoon that he had died. It was like a death in the family. Hearts broke and in breaking the nation’s heart grew stronger.... at least for a while.

The war would soon be over and with it the end of those simple times. Or was that my childhood vision coming into new consciousness? Our former enemies became our new best friends and our ally suddenly our enemy. Pernicious racism had not been addressed. He had made a Faustian pact with the southern states. The forces of Conservatism once more returned. Reviled by certain corporate heads and bankers, that man in the White House, as he was derisively called, somehow saved Capitalism from alternatives that had swept Europe.

The film showed that against the duplicity inherent in politics there was always Eleanor Roosevelt whose compassion and humanity had FDR’s ear. Without her voice in his ear we might never had heard his. The arc of her life was a model of We shall overcome. Her moral outrage, vision and courage has proven to be the tough act no one could follow.

The American Century began with Theodore in all his bluster and invigoration, his redefinition of government, reining in of rapacious capitalism, preservation of the natural landscape along with his slaughter of wild-life whose habitat it was. He was the most intellectual and literary president we’ve ever had and perhaps the most child-like. His legacy was a mass of contradictions. We still live with some of them and a long list of new ones.

The Roosevelts both shaped the century and were products of their time. One wonders if their presumption of continuing progress is a delusion or if that faith just requires an amplitude of vision from a distant perch.  The national unity FDR either created or presided over is desperately called for. Where are you Franklin and Eleanor?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Just Another Ho-Hum Day

It didn’t start out well. I had put a shirt in the washing machine that turned out to say, Dry Clean Only….in Chinese. Then I drove to the mail box at a four-corner stop sign in which all the curbs are painted red. I pulled over to drop in my matching red Netflix only to see a police car waiting for me. What was this... entrapment at a pedestrian only mailbox? Or maybe I made a wrong turn and ended up in Ferguson, Missouri.

However the officer approached with a benign face and said he had instructions to drive me to the airport. I was needed at once for the White House conference to solve the Issis mess.

True I had a track record of untangling a potential crisis when eleven families had each offered spaghetti for a P.T.A. pot luck dinner. But that was fifty-one years ago. And then there was the time I negotiated a settlement at a board meeting of condo homeowner’s. The hot-button issue was whether visiting grandchildren had rights to the swimming pool.

I mulled over these accomplishments on the chartered jet flight to Washington. Of course this wasn’t the first time President Obama had summoned me to weigh in on some vexing issues. Hadn’t I prompted him to do some end-runs around the bozos in Congress and even halt the Cuban embargo? Soon to come is the normalization of relations with Raoul Castro. Mark my words.

I was whisked off to meet with the inner circle in a subterranean bunker three floors below the basketball court. My advice was to call Vlad and tell him to keep his shirt on, cool it in Ukraine and set up a conference call with his friend, Assad. Let them meet in Putinograd, formerly St. Petersburg. We promise a neutralized buffer-state in Kiev. In return (Ras)Putin gets Assad to join with arch-enemy neighbors: the rag-tag Iraqis, oil-slick Saudis, Old-Young-Turks, our new best friends... the Kurds, and maybe even the hated ones in Iran to squeeze Issis into oblivion. What they do next is up them. Let them re-draw the map according to their own passions.

If our senator hawks have the itch to put their boots on the ground tell them to FedEx them to Syria or better yet let them all go. Other than McCain none have worn a uniform since the Boy Scouts. I would also urge we get all our news people out of the region. We can watch Al Jazeera for coverage.

My second proposal was for American Evangelicals to convene a world-wide conference with their fundamentalist counter-parts in the Muslim world and Jerusalem. They all speak the same language starting with Abraham. They can compare gods. Maybe have a food fight in a house of mirrors so they might see what knuckleheads they all are. They might even learn what a metaphor is and how their holy texts were never intended to be taken literally.

By now it was getting late and I needed to get back and pull my pajamas from the drier. For my services I only asked that the next executive order mandates all mailboxes allow for thirty-second parking.