Friday, January 31, 2014

Rainy Words

There is a thirst here in this rescued desert, a water table wanting. In 2013 some areas in California received less than half the previous worst year’s rainfall on record. On the radio listeners are sending in their rain-songs and kindergarten classes doing rain-dances. Come on sky, let it go!  Rain on picnics. Call off the ball game. Wake-up windshield wipers. I want to see kids floating popsicle-sticks down the gutter-rivers, umbrellas blooming like peonies, Gene Kelly splashing. Where are you Ethel Waters, Gale Storm and Claude Rains? I’m thinking downpour. I’m concentrating on puddles. I’m waiting with a bucket for my roof to leak. Go ahead, rain on my parade. It's raining, it's pouring. The old man is snoring.

I’m remembering, fondly, the trips Peggy and I took when it rained. There was a deluge that day in Delft and roofs had a glisten to them seen from across the water where Vermeer stands in our memory on the cobbles of the town square, a palette of tulips covered with drops congealed like pearl earrings while in the field cows chewed wet grass, their cud going to milk and back to that pitcher he caught the maid pouring as if from her breast.

Because of rain we stole a kiss or two.
The cloudy day gave way to skies of blue.
We must thank that moisty, misty window pane.
We found our love because of rain.

It also rained in that seaside town we’ll never forget whose name we can never remember. We watched from our window the Atlantic churning against rocks going to pebbles going to sand. In the aftermath we walked under a wheel of gulls and a carbonated night sky spreading an enormous calm on the beach. Waves found their own insistent music.  We took that rhythm inside, our own turbulence going from Beethoven’s Ode to a Chopin adagio.

Albany rain torrential and relentless in its spillage turned streets to gullies and dips in the road to tubs as we sloshed our way into the restaurant, sat by the fire celebrating our willingness to be lucky and how we ended each other’s drought, lives like plants parched then quenched.

Now I am thinking Hiroshige wood-block prints of fine rain, a canvas of verticals and bodies under parasols running for shelter. I’m imagining snow falling on cedar and a blizzard of petals from cherry trees. Landscapes of white rolling hills. Let it cover the Sierras with drifts as wide as a blank page and now let it slip-slide away.

I started writing this on Thursday under a partial sun and when I finished the streets were wet. I’m prepared to take credit for a fraction of an inch.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

Getting stoned at a concert calls up images of booze, grass or any number of street drugs. Back in 1949 it meant something else entirely….. union and protest songs, red scare, mobs, complicit police, rocks and broken glass.

My friend Stanley and I were bussed to Peekskill, New York, to attend a Paul Robeson outdoor concert. He sang against the deliberate provocation of an overhead helicopter. It took his bass-baritone timbre to overcome the noise. Robeson’s voice could set bones rattling and stir 16 year-old kids to follow him anywhere.

Before Paul Robeson began, Pete Seeger warmed up the audience in his inimicable way. He engaged our voice not only our ears. He was 30 but he looked 19 and he still looked 19 a decade later.There was something about the way he stood, erect with his Adam's Apple out there and his head unflinching. It wasn’t just his voice though that was a clarion call. It wasn’t only the sound of his banjo or 12-string guitar though that was his alone. It was his posture, his presence which said, I shall not be moved. There was a gentle unshakable vehemence in the man.

I had attended other hootenannies the year before when Pete Seeger sang during the 1948 presidential campaign for Henry Wallace. I listened, over and over, to his 78 rpm record album, Talking Union sung along with Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays. Perhaps he was preaching to the choir but choirs need preaching to when the struggle seems overwhelming.

The concert that day went on in defiance of the police interference and whipped up jeers of the hoodlums. Trouble began as we boarded the chartered busses to leave. Local authorities directed our exit down a one-lane road lined with a rock-throwing mob while police looked on amused. We were forced to the floor as the stones came through the windows shattering glass. Dozens of people were hospitalized.

Seeger later gathered those stones and used them to build a fireplace in his home nearby. This was his statement turning weaponry to plowshares. As his song goes, To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season for every purpose under heaven. A time to dance, a time to mourn, a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.

Friday, January 24, 2014

God in Movie Guise

The other night we watched the 1936 film, Our Man Godfrey, in which William Powell sets the world right. Just as God would do if he/she answered prayers. Godfrey, as one of the Forgotten Men, is plucked from among the filthy homeless to become butler in a household of the filthy rich. Homeless filth washes off but the soiled lives of the mindless moneyed family takes God(frey) an amusing ninety minutes to wipe clean.

Carole Lombard is the perfect ditz; Powell, the no-sweat hand of providence. Both earned Academy Award nominations. In those hard times I suppose we needed gift-wrapped endings.

Fast-forward a dozen years. Lombard had died in a plane crash. Indeed the whole world had crashed in the carnage and abominations of the war. A new God appeared in Samuel Beckett’s, Waiting for Godot. He wrote the play in 1948 and it was first presented five years later. In fact God did not appear. He was a no-show as he was for millions in the camps. Estragon and Vladimir aren’t sure if they are standing at the right tree at the right time but it doesn’t matter. Beckett evokes the absurd as the two men echo Laurel and Hardy. In another play he spoke of a shrub as a hardy laurel.

In the mid-fifties God makes a comeback in the first Godzilla movie. Now God is a mutated monster from the effects of nuclear radiation. This became Japan’s cautionary comic-book tale of the dangers of continuing Hydrogen bomb tests. The creature is killed in the way Beowulf got his. At the bottom of the sea… which could be our unconscious. Since then almost thirty other Godzilla movies have roamed the big screen.

During these years we were rescued, abandoned and warned. By 1972 we are held up to a mirror with the ultimate sympathetic anti-hero, Brando / De Niro / Pacino, the Godfather. The business of America is business and Michael Correolone tells his wife after a round of blood-letting, It’s only business. The Godfather is an extended version of what this country, in its grotesquerie, has become. Worshipful of power some of us have turned away from humanity. The almighty dollar replaced God almighty.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Over time even the false idols have left. The Miracle Worker went over the cliff with Thelma and Louise. Godfrey could not be accepted in today’s American Hustle. There is no million dollar payoff from a magazine sweepstake in Nebraska, no Silver Lining Playbook. Nor can we wait for Godot. We’re on our own. The Boyz ‘N the Hood want a piece of the rock and why the hell not? 

Back in the day we Praised the Lord and Passed the Ammunition and assumed we had God on our side. He may be at the Next Stop, Wonderland….but I doubt it. The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. As Tennessee Williams said, We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window.

Monday, January 20, 2014


We have been to Europe eleven times, fifteen countries, and all the trips are tied for first place. I regret we somehow never got to the Scandinavian countries or to the Greek isles.

But we went to Lichtenstein.

 About ten years ago our plan to cruise along the coast of Norway and into the fjords was scraped at the eleventh hour.  The itinerary would have included Denmark, Sweden and possibly even Finland and Estonia. Too bad. I’ll have to settle for Ingmar Bergman films and Pers Petersen novels.

Lichtenstein, of all places!

As for Greece I leave that to my imagination and hope I’ve not offended the gods in the rubble of Olympus who may or may not hold sway over my fate.  I’m resigned to the certainty that I shall never meet Zorba.

Many people have lived their entire lives without going to Lichtenstein. It’s easy to miss. Since we are not among them I found out certain things I can no longer hold to myself. The average per capita income in Lichtenstein is an astonishing $141,000….highest in the world. The main industries are casings for sausage and false teeth. It is also a haven for tax-evaders.  

We went there for lunch from Switzerland. We had also heard they had good-looking postage stamps. We moseyed around a post office or was it a stamp store but didn’t find anything remarkable. However their cows were interesting. There is nothing quite like a Lichtenstein cow. At least we thought so at the time. Now I can’t recall what it was except maybe it is that famous cash cow I keep hearing about.

I do remember the busy single street filled, quite possibly, with money-launderers looking to stash their ill-gotten gains and while they’re there pick up a salami and a new set of dentures.   

Maybe everybody has a Lichtenstein in their life, a Hebrides or Tasmania, where very few have ventured. My guess is either one of those would have had more to offer than Lichtenstein. Or better yet, some interior Lichtenstein where they can go while waiting through an MRI.

As for Norway and Sweden I shall content myself with  the Peer Gynt Suite on my way to Stockholm to pick up a Nobel Prize.

I just discovered what it is about those cows. While chewing their cud wondering what they are doing there they have a contented look from a diet of hay spiked with alpine hemp. They parade around as if they are imagining Scandinavia. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Living in the Moment

I tried it once but it didn’t work. Life is too hectic to halt and my head is a hive. I was gazing out the window when the garbage truck beeped its back-up just as I was closing in on the meaning of life while the radio played an Oldie about this spin I’m in, and then the phone rang.

So I’ve decided to stop living my life and start recording it to watch the next day. Here I am on Thursday viewing Wednesday. It’s a compelling drama from the opening scene as I can’t decide whether to get up and pee or stay snuggled under a fluffy comforter. (You had to be there).  An executive decision such as this foretells the existential conundrums one faces in retirement. 

Fast-forward to breakfast: It’s Metamucil, stewed prunes and All-Bran for me (the usual food-to-go)….on alternate mornings I substitute cantaloupe for prunes and I can be seen cutting perfect quadrants for which I was judged a 9.8 by the Bulgarian judge in the ’84 Olympics….and for Peggy I am pouring orange juice and measuring her oatmeal. It doesn’t get more exciting than this as we both sip our respective teas, Earl Grey and Good Earth spice followed by a moment of intimacy as our spent tea bags mingle in what we call glumper dishes.

Spirited conversation follows and when I ask how she feels about the upcoming Sochi winter games Peggy says she really doesn’t know much about that………which then leads to a misremembered chorus of, I know a little bit about a lot of things but I don’t know enough about you. To which she replies, You know I went to school and I’m nobody’s fool that is until I met you.

The value in recording one’s life now becomes self-evident. I can play this over and over and live in the moment all day long. ….were it not for the next epiphany whenever that might appear. One must remember not to dwell too long on these highlights or you might find yourself living two days behind your lived life instead of just one.

There is also the value of the fast-forward button when we are in a deep ruminative state which loses much in translation from the inner to outer realms. If only I could recall what great thoughts I was thinking I might do a voice-over but such transcendent deliberations probably weren’t meant for merely human ears to ponder.

The mute button also comes in handy when deletion is the better part of documentation. Otherwise my grunts would be heard helping Peggy on with her playful new socks. Stretching each one over the arch and lining up the heel can take ten minutes on a good day, particularly when I’m laughing through it. Ten minutes is a lot of moments.    

I can hardly wait till tomorrow when today becomes yesterday and I can find out what I’ve been doing all day.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Nominees are….and the Winner Is….

Oh my, I never expected this. I’m totally unprepared. Can I borrow your speech, Meryl or yours, Bradley…the one crumpled up in your pocket?

Thank you Hollywood Foreign Press, whoever you are. And I want to thank Horace, Morris and Doris and also Sherman and Herman. And thank you, too, for the gaffer and grip (whatever it is that you do) and to the caterer and my agent who never gave up on me even if I gave up on him and to my 5th grade teacher who let me play Miles Standish in the school Thanksgiving play rather than the turkey. I also want to thank my speech therapist who got me over my lisp and stuttering and overcame my Brooklyn accent, as well, even though I was raised in Queens.

I should also apologize to my brother for being born and thereby have him lose the privileges of an only child. Apologies also to my mother for not having me eating the liver you burnt but you always said I was a good-for-nothing kid. And I want to take this opportunity to ask forgiveness from the library for my overdue books and to the post office 00for once re-using an un-cancelled stamp and to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles for the full stops I didn’t come to.

I’d also like to give a special thanks to the woman on line who let me check out in front of her with my one item. And to the man who waters the lettuce and the guy who collects shopping carts in the parking lot even when the temperature dips below 60 degrees. I might also use this occasion to publicly rebuke my dentist for all those inane remarks he made when my mouth was full of cotton and clamps and I could only grunt and spit.

I’m so nervous in front of all you, my peers, who know deep down, let’s be honest, I really don’t belong up here and I almost didn’t bother coming tonight but I was in the neighborhood anyway.

Just think, I almost didn’t answer that ad for extras in some C.B. DeMille epic where I got my start and then went on to play dead bodies under a sheet but I knew someday I would rise and be vertical.

Yes, yes, the music is playing and they want to yank me off the stage but there must be someone I forgot to mention. Special kisses to Boris and Delores, my twin grandchildren who are probably watching even though I told them not to stay up late for Grand Daddy but they are twenty-three after all. And most of all kisses to my wife without whom I would still be living in a cold water flat boarding house in some 1930’s film starring Bette Davis or up the river in Sing-Sing taking the rap for George Raft while Ida Lupino promises to wait till I’m up for parole in eleven years.

Friday, January 10, 2014

"To Trod On My Favorite Corn"

In Russia and apparently other European countries this expression is so commonplace as to have attained cliché status. Chekhov used it and in transit to English it reads, to strike a nerve. What a loss, say I. Not so, says the translator. Chekhov wrote it as a common figure of speech, not the rich expression I hear. Furthermore the Russian ear might be dazzled by having struck a nerve.

This is the trade-off of literary translation. Without it all but the English-speaking world would be bereft of Shakespeare and we would be deprived of Tolstoy, Flaubert or Borges. One wonders if all the virtuosity of the Bard has survived the leap across from that sceptered isle, that England.   

Of all interpreters of an art form none strive to go unnoticed like translators. Their task is to capture both the voice of the author and along with it the entire culture it comes out of.  And to do it without calling any attention to themselves or to stumble. Like an umpire at a ballgame crucial decisions are made hopefully without a whimper. Indeed they get scant mention and sometime no royalties.

In poetry translators need to preserve the sound or musicality. For plays they must find the most sayable phrases that roll off the tongue. And in novels they must capture the flourishes and jagged edge the author intended. No easy matter.  

I would make a terrible translator. I couldn’t resist trodding my favorite corn. I would argue that there is a significant difference between a theater piece to be heard and a sentence to be read; between the stage and the page. Chekhov wrote plays and short stories. In the case of the former the flow of dialog would be halted for an American audience but print media allows for an arresting phrase here and there. If the spontaneity suffers I believe it is  worth the sacrifice.

To take it a step further a translator might just reduce the trod corn to an, ouch, and let it go at that. Since Hemingway there is a move in literature toward brevity and the unadorned. Much contemporary poetry has become conversational as if authenticity requires a flat dumbing-down of language. There are traps on either side but I think readers' sensibilities can be stretched to take in the metaphor fresh to our anglo-centric ears.

Ironically, Hemingway credited Tolstoy and Turgenev for his terse writing style. Perhaps he wasn’t fully aware that he was not reading either Russian novelist. He was reading Constance Garnett’s translations which we now know had arbitrarily omitted long passages of descriptive writing and contracted others into short, clipped sentences which must have attracted Hemingway.  

Dostoyevsky’s convulsive style was leveled into a mowed English lawn. She blurred authorial choices so that some said Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky sounded the same. Garnett translated 71 volumes of Russian literature. Today many have been replaced by the Pevear and Volokhonsky, husband-wife team.

Cervantes complained that reading a translation was like looking at tapestries from behind. You can see the basic shapes but they are so filled with threads you cannot fathom the lustre. Would he have preferred the trod on a favorite corn or have a nerve struck?

Friday, January 3, 2014

That Good War

We can’t get enough of World War II. Seventy years later, movies and books about it are still a growth industry. If you enjoyed hearing about the family squabble-turned crime against humanity called the Great War of 1914  then you’ll love reading about the Good War.

Not, of course, the horrific concentration camps or fire-bombings, the 26 million Russians dead or the Japanese internment or Anzio Beach or the Battle of the Bulge or even Hiroshima..

We return to those first five years of the 1940’s because we had the moral high ground, American soil was virtually unscathed and we emerged as the dominant world power. Arguably we were the undisputed good guys for the last time and we can’t let that righteousness go.    

Kids my age grew up thinking in absolutes. Teams win or they lose. Pass or fail. Movies were in black and white as if to mirror our minds. The American soldier was tough but humble, scared but brave as he took a bullet for his buddy dreaming of his girl back home or the candy store he would open when the war was over. Decent, ambitious, self-sacrificing……unlike those other guys.

Amazing how suddenly those bestial Nazis and Japs became our new best friends and our former Russian allies became our new enemies. Gee, maybe the world was more complex than our twelve year-old minds ever imagined.

My generation revives these glory years as if they have any relevance to our present foreign adventures. They do not. Since WW II we have engaged in undeclared wars called police action, skirmish, liberation, occupation or regime change. War without end seems to be an acceptable state. Call it anything or better yet, don’t call it anything at all. Forget about it. It’s remote and sanitized. There is no draft. No disruption. It’s business as usual and big business at that.

Undeclared wars are difficult to pin down as to starting date. Our Viet Nam folly can be traced back to the mid-fifties which makes it our longest war but combat troops didn't arrive until 1965. Their predecessors were merely advisers. Some would argue that Afghanistan is our longest war now in it's 14th year and being met with profound indifference by most Americans. 

In the aftermath of our favorite war Western Europe lost its grip on colonial empires. We obliged the French in Indo-China and replaced the Brits in the near-East. What the CIA could not covertly accomplish we now use drones in targeted assassinations. 

Still punch-drunk from that Good War we strut our stuff with muscle, privilege and rectitude. We are envied and resented at the same time. People still flock to our shores as a beacon of opportunity and freedom but I doubt if Americans are held in high esteem even among the Western block nations. We have much yet to learn from Old Europe.

The way of wars is always rationalized. They started it…didn’t they?  The dreaded Taliban suppress and degrade women… if our Saudi allies do not. We need to teach them a lesson in democracy even as our own democracy teeters in disrepair. The ways of peace are deliberation, forgiveness and tolerance. They take more courage.
A smattering of History can be a dangerous thing. Engagement and negotiation are not appeasement. Meeting with Iran is not Munich. Occupation is a violation of sovereignty. Those are not flowers being thrown at our troops as in Paris. This is not 1945. It's time for a different bedtime story.