Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Greek Gods and the Human Genome

Imagine my surprise to find out I was unique. No, not just quirky, but really unique just as you are and everyone else. So says the International Hap Map Project whose scientists are busy mapping the human genome.

Of course, I had secretly believed I was different ever since childhood when my family bore no resemblance to those in movies or sit-coms. Nobody could curse the landlord (for holding back on the heat), the grocer (for not giving good weight) and the gods (for god-knows-what) at the same time like my mother. I sensed that other families were also, in their way unique, but we were more unique than any of them.

Now that our mini-micro architecture is being revealed we may discover the combination of why I gave up on Yahweh early on but believed in other larger-than-life deities. If my mother had given birth to me 2 ½ millennium earlier I would have embraced the Greek pantheon of gods for this and goddesses for that. For every human mishagosh, another god and why not?

With Zeus as the puppeteer-in-chief life was fraught with possibilities. Just curb your hubris and you’d get by. I could never keep all the names straight. As if the Greek line-up wasn’t enough, the Romans felt it necessary to rename them. So Athena became Minerva. Hermes morph to Mercury, Aphrodite to Venus and so on.  

You have to thank Chaos and Eros (Cupid) whose names have crept into the language.  Hercules was herculean, and Achilles had his famous heel, easy enough. Narcissus couldn’t get enough of himself reflected in a pool and poor Echo was consigned to repeat herself into oblivion by the god of revenge, Nemesis. But it’s too much to ask of us to remember that Artemis and Apollo were the twin kids of Zeus (Jupiter) and ever squabbling over turf. It seems that every God had half-brothers and multiple off-spring as if they needed the exemptions for tax purposes.   

It all becomes overload for my sadly unique brain. There are simply too many begotten and misbegotten. Prometheus passed along the secret of fire which fevered Zeus more than a centigrade or two. The Greeks imagined a price to be paid for every act. They must have puzzled long and hard over the array of human impulses and assigned a god or goddess to fit our woebegone behavior. They probably underestimated the extent of human folly. Otherwise Mt. Olympus would have been even more stacked with deities.

The notion of an extended family of flawed gods has more appeal to me than a single godhead especially one badly in need of an anger-management class. The array of Greek gods who made the cut is a credit to their grasp of human psychology. The allegories depict us as vulnerable creatures wavering between free will and possession by the fates & furies. The gods themselves had fatal flaws so why not us? Multiple gods suggest a way towards living with the ambiguity of contending forces. Fast-forward 2,500 years and we still have trouble with doubt. We want to know and when we confront the unknown or randomness we make connections that may not exist.

On the other hand Science keeps pushing into areas we previously thought off-limits. One wonders if they will ever be able to fish from the gene pool the DNA which accounts for such specimens as Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling. What went wrong with these miscreants? The Greeks may have sent a thunderbolt but we have to just put up with them. Do we really want to pluck the mutants from our midst? I ask you, Zeus, and await your reply.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Peggy Day

I’m not given to shouting but I am to sing the praises of Peggy on her 93rd birthday one week from today. Every morning she writes a poem; Peggy’s way of sharing her delight with the world or her grappling with its confounding ways. Over a hundred have been published in the past three years in literary journals. Her poems arrive more from a seemingly inexhaustible well than a vessel. They come not as an exertion but an affection. Poems are love letters to life. Even lines of vehemence against injustice suggest the alternative. 

When the poet. William Stafford, was asked when did he start writing poetry he replied, When did you stop? He believed we all began writing out of our unfettered imagination, but were discouraged by teachers, by parents and a society which doesn’t support flights of the imagination. Peggy never stopped.

We’ve ended our traveling days. Seldom do we go more than a few miles from home but that’s ample for her to feed that hungry beast, the imagination. The interior landscape is another country, a house without windows or walls. Peggy’s work snoops and prowls in far corners.

As Stanley Kunitz said, All metaphors are the same metaphor. When you touch the web of creation at any point the whole web shudders. This is how Peggy’s poetry dares to bring together disparate images and tones of voice. She rubs the colloquial against the elevated, cliché against classical, fresh juice squeezed from a fallen fruit juxtaposed with the exhausted language of cable news.

Peggy is a person of enormous enthusiasms but poetry requires a counterweight…and she has that too. She enjoys extended periods of silence in which ideas gestate. I witness the cauldron bubbling in her eyes. As long as it would take to gather the strangeness of myself / It eludes until I have some inkling / barely audible as traffic and the mind surrender their cacophony /… A transformation takes place, not magic but alchemical. The overlooked ordinary is made extraordinary and in the process something new is brought into the world. Call it a birth. She is a woman of manifold births.

Trying to penetrate a poem is no easy matter. It calls for an effort something like love, to enter into the poet’s sensibility and be empathetically with them through all the leaps and stretches.  Peggy’s poetry is a strenuous voyage. She doesn’t linger very long on a metaphor where you can catch your breath. Nor is her work a mini-narrative. Hers is a poetry closer to music in terms of its spacing and shapes, at times combustive and other times, contemplative.  We see / the bravery of trees without wish or candles /  birds startle the branch into wings.. The lines spring intuitively often inexplicably. They operate on a plane with threads dangling and questions unanswered…just as in life.   

Poetry is not only a way of perceiving, it is a way of being. She has created a reception, a harbor, for everything washing ashore, sea life and debris. The senses are on alert. There is no way of being more fully alive. Like every poet Peggy has acquired a sui generis voice, authentic to herself. She writes under her maiden name, Aylsworth and we have together come to call this her Aylsworthian sound. She knows the weight of words and hears the rhythms of speech. .Even with diminished hearing she picks up the unsaid. The poem issues from the totality of her ninety-three years.

As the partial self pledges its allegiance
to a daylight tidiness of napkins on the table
stir the gibbous moon into your cup.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Friday Bloody Friday

It could have been worse. It was only a flesh wound, as they say, but my flesh. That knife. This blood. I’d know it anywhere. The point of a sharp knife went into my toe. If this were a circumcision I’d missed badly. Which toe? I’m not sure there was so much blood. Pools of it. The floor was a regular crime scene. I must have hit a gusher. The knife had fallen from the rack of silverware while I was emptying the dishwasher last night. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Let this be a lesson to all of you. Never walk barefoot in your own house. In someone else’s house it’s fine.  If something happened away from home you could always sue and settle out of court.

It was bleeding so much Peggy and I couldn’t tell where the point of entry was; either the little toe or the one next to it or in the space between or on top of them. So we finally staunched the flow. I’ve always wanted to use that word, staunched, as in the financial crisis when taxpayer money staunched the hemorrhaging of the big banks. Maybe we should have called Alan Greenspan or Timothy Geithner but they were probably busy staunching each other. Besides, I knew I wasn’t big enough to not fail.

Not knowing the origin of the wound all we could do was wrap a 4 X 4 gauze pad around the two toes very tightly. Under that I have 6 butterfly Band-Aids. I felt as if I’d been fracked. I had tapped into a long-dormant arterial flow and messed up the entire environment in its wake.

There’s something about blood. It’s so red. So healthy looking. And so scary when it is uncontained. The ancient code allows for trading eyes and teeth but no mention of toes. What have I done wrong? Never mind, I withdraw the question. I don’t want to be reminded. Maybe this is a stigmata. If so it’s not working. God knows, I remain an unreconstructed heathen.

Could the Old Testament God have gotten loose with another temper tantrum? Listen, Yahweh, I looked for onion egg matzoh in the store yesterday but they were all out. Enough with your bolts of lightning. Relax and have a piece of fruit.

Does everything happen for a purpose? Yes, I think so. And the purpose is to demonstrate that there is no purpose unless you want to make something of it. Random acts of kindness and creativity are matched by random acts of selfishness and destruction. As Tarzan said to Jane while swinging from a tree with a banana in his mouth, It’s a jungle out there. Don’t leave home without a loincloth and wooden shoes wouldn’t hurt either.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Baseball is what makes life coherent, said Plato or was it my step-son? I’ve never known him to be wrong about such things.  Seen up close it contains all the elements of human existence  from humility to Hubris, from heroics to dumb hustle. It also mirrors the racism that infects the American soul and the attempts to remedy our pathology.

Today is Jackie Robinson day. Every player in Major League Baseball wears his number 42 and ceremonies are conducted at each stadium to memorialize his achievement. Robinson was the first four-letter athlete at UCLA. A national Track & Field champion in the long-jump, he led the country in punt returns for the football team and started on their basketball team. He also excelled nationally in tennis. Baseball was his worst sport.

He enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor, rose to 2nd lieutenant and was then court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Texas. He was exonerated and received an honorary discharge.

By 1947 he had honed his baseball skills and broke through the segregated color-line in baseball. Much is made of the way he swallowed the threats and humiliation aimed at him. This has always struck me as the White man's fantasy of an acceptable Black man. I prefer to remember him as one of the most competitive and daring base-runners to play the game. I would say he and the score of Black players who followed changed the way the game is played.

Baseball is a stoic sport governed by unwritten rules of behavior which regard displays of emotion as show-boating. Robinson’s game was to taunt the pitcher when he got on base. He rattled pitchers with his long leads and fake sprints.  Nineteen times in his abbreviated career he stole home, arguably the most exciting play to watch. It took stealth and guts.

Robinson brought a new dimension to the sport. He made every appearance fraught with possibility. He ignited the crowd, generated a charge and enlivened the game. Six times in his ten year career the Dodgers won the pennant.

Today only 8% of players are African-American. That works out to 2 per 25 man roster. Thirty years ago the number was twice as high. Actually three teams have none, the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks. Apparently the best Black athletes favor basketball and football where more scholarships are available and the jump to pro level is much faster. Baseball in the inner city is a tough sell.

However baseball has far more players from the Caribbean with black skin than ever before. It is the ticket out of abject poverty. Again the culture of the game is undergoing change. Recent defectors from Cuba have brought with them more emotion and risk-taking than we’ve ever seen before. Some of it has been called dumb-hustle which can put an entire career in jeopardy but it all goes under the heading of entertainment which is what fans come to see. It hardly needs to be said that the ugliness of human trafficking would disappear if our administration had the courage and political will to end the embargo and normalize relations with Cuba. 

Baseball needs to be goosed periodically. If it takes swagger, dugout dances and in-your-face antics so be it.  There are enough geometry and stats already. Bring on the loosey-goosey and unexpected elements that cannot be quantified.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

To Have and Have Not

In 1937 Ernest Hemingway published what even he called his, worst book. Critics agreed. It was a hodge-podge of short stories and a novella pasted together. He had lost his way after Farewell to Arms. Disappointing as the novel was you have to admire the title.

The name was about all that remained when Hollywood got through with it in 1944. Cuba, the setting in the book, became Martinique, under control of the Vichy government. Warner Brothers’ Howard Hawks tried to reincarnate Bogart’s Rick from Casablanca and give it a WW II twist. After all Casablanca was cash in the bank. In this version Bogey runs a small fishing boat in the Caribbean. The studio enlisted Hemingway’s rival, William Faulkner, to weigh in on the script and cast Hoagy Carmichael at the piano to play it again, Sam like Dooley Wilson to whom it was never quite said in the first place. The result owed more to Casablanca than Hemingway’s novel but was far more than a hill of beans.

The most memorable moments were Bogey’s liaison with Lauren Bacall. She was a sultry 19 year-old model from the Bronx who taught 45 year-old Bogart how to whistle. Just put your lips together and blow, became the most enduring line from the movie. They sizzled on screen and off in marriage till in death did he part in 1957.

The title had a double meaning or so it seems to me. The clear intention was to draw a distinction between the filthy rich and the great unwashed. However if an individual is to both have and have not anything it strikes me that it gets to a more metaphysical plane. To have achieved a measure of success or security is an illusory state which usually begs for more. You have it and you don’t. It’s never quite enough.

In any case the Haves and Have-Nots might be a caption for our times. The gap grows wider abetted by the High Court, stoked by Congress and fueled by Wall St. The top 1% own 40% of our country’s wealth while the bottom 80% own just 7%. The disparity has never been greater. The wealth of the Walton (Walmart) family alone is equal to the bottom 40% (140 million) Americans.

The numbers are numbing and headed south. They only hint at the human toll. The security and privilege that comes with wealth translates into political power. This insures continued domination of our policies and instruments of decision-making. Middle class stagnation can lead to a loss of personal empowerment. Many Americans have grown dispirited, alienated and cynical which removes them further from the agencies of possible change. The landscape of our youth exists only in the rear-view mirror. We have witnessed the slow collapse and disappearance of family farms, factories, downtown stores and inner cities. Morals have been bent so that greed is admired and with it corruption is a normal way of doing business, particularly in Washington.

Bogart seemed to know what was coming. The hard-boiled cynic finds his moral compass joining with the cause of the French Resistance. How far has our ship of state strayed? Seventy years later we have richer Haves and far more Have-Nots.

This country has been through many storms. Every generation or two we seem to experience a sea change of a sort. Yet out of the wreckage something new and unforeseen emerges. As Wallace Stevens wrote, There is a substance in us that prevails.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A to Z

From antelope to zebra, all herbivorous quadrupeds. The only thing I know about antelopes is that they rhyme with cantaloupes.  And here’s another thing. The word is an umbrella term for a group which include gazelle, impala, and even wildebeest. If you should find yourself in a telephone booth with either of the first two antelopes but don’t know which, both males have horns, of differing shapes, and a gazelle sports a black stripe on its side.  If you were not in a phone booth it might be hard to notice because they are a most jittery animal and very difficult to approach. Wildebeest, aka gnu, are far bulkier and live up to their name.

As any basketball fan can tell you the game is all about gazelles against impalas with zebras as refs blowing whistles. The two antelopes run tirelessly and with grace up and down the court. Occasionally the zebras get chewed out but in the wild zebras do the chewing. They all live and munch in either the grasslands, woodlands or savannas of Africa and none of them ever called a foul. They’re too busy running from cheetahs.

Detroit looks toward four-legged creatures to sell their cars. Neither the Ford Bronco, Chevy Impala nor Dodge Ram could ever compete with the Ford Mustang. The less said about the Pinto the better….and then there’s the Jaguar. But horsepower is still the unit of measure which is an endearing way of honoring the past.

Creationists may argue that zebras got their stripes from the American flag or that God was watching a Laker game but everyone knows God is really a baseball fan and was fixated on the Yankee pinstripe uniform. It has long been noted that zebras are social animals. When they congregate, their stripes form what looks to lions as a huge blob and too much to take on. Another more compelling reason for the stripes is that they evolved over millennia as a protection from the tsetse and horseflies.

Horses, which lack horse sense didn’t think of it and rely on their tail to shoo the flies.  Zebras, with their striped skin, are deemed less inviting to blood-sucking insects. The flies are attracted to solid surfaces because the light waves emitted resemble the light reflected from pools of water where they breed. Survival wins out just like in basketball tournaments. One might think the horsefly would also evolve to get around this striped defense but that is probably too much to ask of these pests. From their POV the system is rigged

Zebras, stripes and all, don’t have what it takes for domestication. Horses were feral once also but opted for a barn and steady meal instead. In exchange they had to pull loads of men with whips. A few took to breeding and racing. They are a thing of beauty especially when they come in as fifty to one shots. 

Zebras should be credited as the first to come up with bar codes. They may all look the same to us but each carries a signature on its hide which singles them out to other zebras. For a long time we thought that was the only reason for their stripes. But now we know better. It is not a form of Z-Harmony in which lonely zebras get to meet their match. Scientists have noted that the biting insects congregate most in certain areas of zebra’s bodies where their hair is shortest and these are the very spots with the most active stripe-lines. One can almost sympathize with flies driven berserk by the refracted light coming off the display of patterns.

In case you are asked what color zebras are the answer is black with white stripes.      

Whether antelopes eat cantaloupe has yet to be studied.

All life forms evolve to give them the best chance of survival. We have neither the speed of antelopes or stripes of zebras. But man possesses both the creative and destructive power never before seen. Our most fearsome predator is ourselves. Four-legged creatures know better than to make such a mess of their habitat.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

In a lifetime normal men have 1 ½ wives (could be true), 2 ½ children (no longer true), 6 ½ cars (more or less true) and sleep 8 hours a day. But who among us wants to be normal? I’d fight with my life for my right to be abnormal. Yet all things being relative, compared to the CEO, now cocaine addict, sleeping in a cardboard box by the off-ramp, I am a normal guy. Therefore it was no shock to realize that at age eight-one I have been asleep for 27 years. ( 27 X 3 = 81)

That’s a lot of time spent in pajamas. And it doesn’t count all the hours, day-dreaming, spacing out starring into my bran flakes or napping. One might expect me to have stumbled upon some ancient truths by this time. If I had I’ve forgotten them.

27 years of sleep is not a bad thing. I am rowing my pea-green boat gently down the stream. Sometimes merrily toward Eden; other times fitfully in flight from paradise. Life is but a dream and with a little luck one I may not soon wake up from.  Just about every night, while the cow is jumping over the moon, I’m dancing  by its light as I act, direct and write my script in this absurd nocturnal theater piecing together scraps of the day. I dine on mince and slices of quince all with my runcible spoon. And just what is a runcible spoon? Don’t ask, just keep rowing.  

It is part of a runcible life we make up as we go along. The dream-life spills over into the light of day as a brief glimpse into an inner landscape. What a crowded mansion our dreams have laid bare seen as a drunken montage. It takes a pickled mind to dream a pickled dream, one marinated in the brine of eight decades. Our dreams present themselves with great truths written in a foreign tongue, upside down in a fractured narrative. 

Dreams remind us of the elasticity, the stretch and contours of imagination. We might marvel how time is collapsed and the sequential chronicle of life is in disarray. How fluent we are in gibberish. How unstuck from the Apollonian we can be to revel in the Dionysian.

Each day dies into sleep. MacBeth murdered sleep. Hamlet saw it as an end to a thousand shocks the flesh is heir to. Some nights are a balm to hurt minds but other seem to injure the psyche into an unease which could be truth. The dream never announces itself but comes in disguise entering through a door we’ve left ajar. We are such stuff that dreams are made of.

So I walk in somnambulance through my day, bursting with love and alert to a vaguely familiar place, a fecund inscape unseen by anyone else, teeming with remnants, overheard remarks, misremembered echoes of voices said or unsaid, amplified and lodged in my ears, early terrors from a childhood closet, disowned parts of myself. Or a vision of unsurpassed beauty beyond all adjectives except perhaps, runcible.