Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ice Cream

I knew early on I was either destined for greatness or there was something seriously wrong with me when I looked around and saw everyone else licking their ice cream in a cone, while I bit mine. Not big gulps, just nibbles.  I deemed it more of a joy to my teeth than to my tongue. There could be a profound truth hidden in all this but it eludes me at the moment.

Back in those halcyon days the only territorial issue at hand was the rivalry between the Bungalow Bar truck versus the Good Humor. It might have ended in a food-fight. They both patrolled our streets bonging away as we kids salivated like Pavlovian dogs. Even though the corporate giant Good Humor was twice the price for a chocolate bar they overwhelmed the Brooklyn-based Bungalow Bars with their nation-wide fleet and variety of toasted almond bars, Dixie cups and popsicles. I bit them all. My teeth have been where only tongues have gone.

I remember nibbling an Eskimo Pie, which was neither Eskimo nor pie, when news came that that other war was done. I think I dropped my non-pie ice cream. It was always a small tragedy when ice cream fell off its stick. It is one of life’s set-backs that ultimately toughens the individual for other existential crises.

It all started in Iowa in 1920 when a boy couldn’t decide whether to invest in a chocolate bar or a scoop of ice cream in Nelson’s candy store. He felt a light bulb go off overhead and started experimenting to get chocolate to adhere onto ice cream. While Einstein was enlarging on E=MC sq. Nelson got together with none other than Russell Stover, a local chocolate supplier. All things being relative, the rest is history. Einstein too.

To trace ice cream back to Iowa is not surprising. There is something so Americana about the stuff. Though I suspect nobody anywhere doesn’t love it except perhaps in west Waziristan where pie a la mode becomes pie Allah mode. Hold the Jihad, please. 

Last week we got to talking about ice cream with friends Theresa and Dave, both from Davenport. They mentioned Whitey’s ice cream as being cited as one of the ten best in a national magazine and a few days ago a huge package arrived at our front door containing 6 pints of Whitey’s ice cream packed in dry ice. It is very rich and flavorful and it wouldn’t hurt to have a cardiologist handy after a dish.

One might register their maturation over the years by noting variations in their favorite flavor. I suppose I was a vanilla sort of kid until first grade when I discovered the inherent psychedelic alkaloids buried deep inside chocolate. I had a strawberry phase and possibly even forays into orange and raspberry sherbet. Butter pecan has never been short-listed. I’ve always resented the intrusion of nuts into mix however I went through some rum-raisin phase.

In recent years, no thanks to quantum physics, new flavors have emerged which I would not mind being preserved in, cryogenically. Among these are peach, pumpkin and chocolate malt crunch. I shall not bite the dust but the ice cream.

Life used to be simple and not only in Iowa. Coffee was coffee. Now we order a decaffeinated Sumatra dark-roasted, cocoa-dusted macchiato dolce espresso. Ice cream-lovers also have to call their psychiatrists to find out which flavor they want when faced with Cherry Garcia peanut-butter cluster Heath bar yogurt or black-mountain praline caramel ripple with bacon bits. Bacon bits? Try licking that!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Trekking In the Galapagos

Take it from me. It’s no picnic for an octogenarian on the equator in the noonday sun even in these new boots bought for the trip. Not on this jagged lava rock with orange-eyed gulls overhead and iguanas below.  

But the mating dance of blue-footed boobies is spectacular. Who knew the females got such a turn-on with shades running from azure to aqua to periwinkle? Remind me to buy some blue-suede shoes. You had to be there to experience the century old tortoises and the guiltless load they carry. Even penguins, seemingly with no sense of direction, were spotted. This is the only place in the world above the equator where they call home. Then there are the sea lions up-close and the scuba-diving going nose-to-nose with yellow-tailed razor surgeon fish and other species I’d only seen in tanks at the Chinese restaurant. I shall always remember it as great trip but exhausting.

Which is why I never did go gallivanting to Galapagos particularly since I could sit in this rec room viewing photos from friends Judy and Len taken on a National Geographic cruise without breaking a sweat. No missed connections, pesky tour-mates, jet lag or worry about stray rockets.

The islands looked paradisial with finch chirping, reef puffer fish gurgling, Sally Lightfoot crabs crawling and iguanas with faces that couldn’t launch even a single ship. …and no predators, except dumb humans.

We were told that one island has a resident population of 30,000 therefore trouble could not be far off. Those who aren’t in a witness-protection program or selling T-shirts, are fisherman who have apparently over-fished the waters leaving a meager portion for certain shore-birds. The National Park Service may have to restrict the haul of sardines. In turn the fisherman threaten to bring back pigs and feral goats which once roamed the island when three goats swelled to 40,000 about 50 years ago. They have since been eliminated after gobbling the vegetation which ended the species of Pinta island giant tortoises.

Lonesome George, the last of his kind, died two years ago around his one–hundredth birthday…though he may have lied about his age. There was another tortoise, named Harriet, which lived 188 years. She died in 1985 and was inching along to greet Charles Darwin in 1835. It was here that Darwin noted a variety of finches with different sized beaks adaptive to various islands in the chain. Out of this came his theory of Natural Selection.

I can hardly wait for Judy and Len’s next trip to the canyons of Manhattan where the wolves of Wall St. tangle with the bulls and bears while the elephant in the room looks on. And then there is the zoo. With Judy’s sharp eye and intrepid shots down dark alleys while dangling from lamp posts and Len’s indefatigable technical support I never have to leave home again. They expect to take in some artisanal eateries and I’m salivating already. Also scheduled is a boat ride to the Noguchi museum across the river into my old borough. Maybe they'll run into one of my childhood friends hobbling along like a tortoise. I’m counting on them to send me off on another flight of fancy.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Poets To the Rescue

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. So said Percy Shelley (1821). Hogwash, you say? Well, the elected ones aren't legislating so who is it leading us to the abyss and numbing our souls? 

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than / Than teach a thousand stars how not to dance.         e..e.cummings

Shelley was referring to the way poetry can stir the mind and set free both our imagination and rational thought process. When metaphorical language penetrates and rocks the spirit it can transform what seemed like a mountain into a dune. The intractable problems we face require re-framing and a replacement for dead language.

What we hear in Washington is rhythmic noise. We don’t even need to make out the words. Robert Frost believed that our cadences are charged with a sonic meaning. Unfortunately today’s Lingua Franca is vehemence and vitriol. Poetry is a language of harmony however the muffled meaning. Comprehension enters before any explication can happen. There is no reason to translate the rhetoric when you overhear the blather.

Shelley argues that we enter the world with the linguistic impulse to make order out of it. Today we are witness to the clamor, the glut of sensory input and welter of information all of which insist on some sort of filtering. Enter the poet to take this material and shape it into something with harmonic resonance. This very act is moral with an element of unity and delight out of which comes civilization itself.  

Tom Robbins said his Quasi Motto is yanking the bell rope despite physical affliction. Joy in spite of everything.

Frost was a grumpy New Englander whose poetry about roads not taken and the something that is that doesn’t love a wall are beloved for their levels of truth and the rhythms of speech. Once again the poet makes beautiful that which appears distorted. That beauty is not necessarily free of ambiguity but it alters our angle of vision and according to Shelley lifts the veil.

As legislator of the world Shelley saw the poet bringing together analysis with synthesis, the known and unknown. He wrote that reason is to imagination as the body is to spirit, as shadow to substance. In bridging these differences he offers a glimpse of what might be out of the chaos of what is. It can be the voice of suffering as well as the moon in her phases.

Poetry can also be banal, a part of the static which assaults us every day. This is not what Shelley had in mind. He saw the poet as prophet not as prognosticator but as one aligned with the flow of history.

As Cummings suggested it is more preferable to listen than to teach. And we have more to learn from Nature before we destroy it. Poets know this. We would do well to praise that alien figure fast approaching instead of shooting or shouting at it. It is called the Future. It is of our doing.  Poets are revolutionaries, essential in the healing of this world’s failed imagination. Creativity itself is faintly subversive lobbying for what is yet to come. Coexistent with the language of belligerence is a universal one of creativity understood by all nations.  

It may not be possible to define exactly what it is in poetry that can save us yet as William Carlos Williams wrote, men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. Even if it seems like poetry makes nothing happen, the world would be impoverished without it. It is a tough argument to make but Shelley seems to be saying that poetry brings order and unity into the world in a way that cuts across borders. As legislators they could do no worse than what we’ve got.

Every morning Peggy writes a poem. Most of them tunnel between a morning observation over breakfast and the carnage happening in the vast elsewhere. A dog-walker in an orange cap becomes a Separatist in Ukraine. How does change happen? Maybe it seeps into consciousness with a continental leap when our sentinels are asleep at the gate.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


Him- It’s a crazy, ugly world out there.

Me- Yes but there’s sweetness mixed in with the sour.

Him- You mean like Chinese food…sweet & sour?

Me- I was thinking more like the rhubarb crumble I had yesterday.

Him- Rhubarb? Why would anybody eat those celery-like red stalks?

Me- You’re 87 and you’ve never tasted rhubarb? You have much to live for.

Him- My mother would either send me to my room or make me eat rhubarb. I always went to my room. It’s punishment.

Me- It is tart but just add sugar and as a crumble you get a good balance.

Him- Where do I go for this vegetable pie?

Me- It was officially declared a fruit to avoid a tariff. I got mine at the King’s Head Pub.

Him- Maybe it was the two Guinness you washed it down with.

Me- Actually I did have a large Newcastle ale but rhubarb carried the day.

Him- When Red Barber announced the Dodger games he called any on-field argument a rhubarb. I remember Leo (the Lip) Durocher going nose to nose with the ump and kicking dirt on his shoes… and this is what you want me to eat?

Me- Would you rather eat humble pie?

Him- No, I’d rather eat key-lime pie.

Me- Try rhubarb once with a side order of key-lime. Both have that necessary sour to remind us of Ukraine, Baghdad, Kabul, Malaysia, Nigeria, Gaza and Texas.

Him- Can’t I just read about them?

Me- No, you have to taste the experience in the rhubarb. It contains the sort of fiber you need to face the world.

Him- I’d rather plunge into a key-lime pie. Just call me when the world settles down.

Me- I remember reading somewhere that rhubarb is what people say as background noise in movies. Rhubarb, RhUbArB, rHuBaRb. It’s a stand-in for everything incoherent. Now you can have your crumble and eat it too.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Forever Young and Easy

If Dylan Thomas hadn’t pickled his liver and drowned his lungs at age thirty-nine he would be a hundred years old this year. He gurgled his last words in a Manhattan hospital after emptying eighteen shots of whiskey, by his account, though the bartender at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village says it couldn’t have been more than half that amount.

The silver-tongue poet with a voice that sent shivers down to your socks was also the doomed poet. He is one of those voices whose popularity among the general public has never waned.  Robert Zimmerman took his name and became Bob Dylan but few could recite with such Welsh resonance. Even Richard Burton seems a pale imitation. Listening to his rich intonations is itself intoxicating. Many would-be poets have heard him recite and can't get that voice out of their heads. I was one of them.

By most accounts Dylan Thomas was a gifted lyrical writer whose genius dribbled away at the bottom of demon drink. Of the ninety poems he wrote more than half were completed before his twentieth year. Fern Hill, one of his most anthologized works was completed at age 21. It begins, When I was young and easy under the apple boughs (available on You Tube). In a sense Thomas never stopped being young and easy. He was what Jungian psychologists call a puer aeternus.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
       The night above the dingle starry,
               Time let me hail and climb
       Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
               Trail with daisies and barley
       Down the rivers of the windfall light.

It was of Eden he was dreaming... in his marriage and in much of his poetry and longer prose-poems, Under Milkwood and A Child's Christmas in Wales.

Described by some peers as a self-loathing, serial womanizer, sponger, coward, liar and thief, he wasn't the man you’d want your sister to have married. Last night we watched the 2008 film, The Edge of Love, in which Dylan Thomas comes off as the reprobate-artist, feckless, reckless and a betrayer of friends.

I’m left with the question I’ve often asked myself. How can such mellifluous words issue from the mouth of such a loathsome person? Is there a disconnect between one’s art and their character? Does the sublime enter through the backdoor as a mysterious visitation?

Nice folks do not necessarily make good art so why should the converse be true? It would seem that the most profound artistic expressions come from those who have found a way to step out of the tent, out of the passing parade in order to see with fresh eyes and sing the song or find the words that stir the rest of us. It takes some misbehaving and Thomas in his self-absorption ignored conventions.

He seemed to believe that life and by extension, his personal behavior, moved inexorably by its own rhythm as in his poem, The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower. Life, Death and Life again. In another of his famous poems, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, he argues for the renewal of life as through the simple daisy as it opens each morning claiming a small victory over the sun. Our spirit, our love remain unvanquished. They are realms over which Death has no dominion.

This life force knows of no morality. It destroys and regenerates and we live our lives mimicking that process; some of us intertwined in a fierce tango. Perhaps Dylan Thomas self-destructed in accordance with this belief. In any case he lived an unfettered life and certainly one too short.

We made a trade along the way. In the name of authenticity we gave away Thomas' wondrous imaginative language-stretching for a more conversational one. Much has been lost and we are poorer for it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hold Some of My Calls

Sorry I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m busy looking for some good news. If you are calling about the deportation of four-year olds press one, about civilian bombing press 2, parched crops press 3, gang mayhem press 4, voter-suppression press 5.

The morning paper is replete with killings, corruption, kidnappings and man-made cataclysms. The Internet agrees. Cable News can’t get enough of the latest disaster. The array of prize-winning mini-series are varieties of villainy. We traffic in treachery, carnage and apocalyptic dystopia. The mirror is cracked. The game is rigged.  We are a failed experiment.

No news might be all I could hope for. But no news requires a sensory deprivation tank. Or a life watching 1940 films on T.C.M. Let me check the obits; maybe some bad guy died.

On my Big Rock candy mountain the bull dogs all have rubber teeth and hens lay soft-boiled eggs. Is that a Good-Humor truck I’m hearing or somebody’s cell phone? I don’t know any drug dealers, molesters or double-agent urban guerrillas.  I’ve never met a religious zealot. I only associate with humanists. I hope never to go to lunch with a suicide bomber nor be sitting next to a drone target.

Good news is not to be found in the macro yet it abounds in the micro. There’s a hummingbird nest in our parking garage. Local streets are lined in yellow ribbon with gold medallion trees. The library book I thought was overdue was, in fact, renewable. Peaches from 3 days ago have finally ripened. One of these weeks the honeydew I bought last month might also be edible.

Two birthdays have happened in recent weeks.  Barbara is a lovable, rare, uncensored nose-in-book with still un-cut pages. Even her blurts are adorable. Ralph is the guy I call when I have nothing to say and he has nothing to say and together we talk for 40 minutes about the nothing that is everything while artfully choreographing our steps to avoid the topic we don’t dare mention.

How is it possible for individuals to be so noble, generous, even-tempered and forgiving yet so scheming, vengeful and vitriolic as an aggregate? It seems there is a beast within us ready to spring if the tribe gives it legitimacy.

Wait…here’s something on page AA2 that could be a ray of hope for our species. The Pentagon (of all places) has developed a prosthetic brain-enhancer which can stimulate cognition and retrieval. Anything for Parkinson patients to by-pass damaged areas and bridge gaps in neural circuitry is all for the good but I’m not so sure about lost memories. Given our record up to now we might be better off forgetting.  

Still, your call is very important to me. If you have any good news please leave your message after the beep; otherwise leave it before the beep.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Yankee Doodle Day

Holidays in general bring out the contrarian grouch in me. I seem to have a resistance to prescribed behavior. No better example than July 4th.  Am I allowed to say that fireworks are a bore and parades are the sort of hoopla and um-pa-pa that test my threshold of endurance?

The bombast of the day extends into bloviations from politicians which are even worse. John Adams had the good sense to shun July 4th celebrations. He reminded folks that the Declaration of Independence was signed and approved two days earlier. But God got him at the end by snatching him away from the living on the fourth of July along with T.J. fifty years after the 1776 document.

Most speechifying on the occasion is self-congratulatory with ample references to Jefferson’s lofty ideals which he himself violated as a plantation owner. Nowhere in American history is the gap wider between words and acts. I’ll give it “A” for aspirational and “F” for fatuous. The disenfranchised Blacks, Native Americans, un-propertied and woman at the time must have thought it ludicrous. We were loudly unequal and our current Supremes seem bent on returning us to those days.

However if backyard BBQs and picnics are the signifiers count me in. Any excuse for eating and drinking with friends will do just fine. It’s the next best thing to Thanksgiving.

And then there are the film re-runs to suit the occasion. I notice the TV movie listings today has Jimmy Cagney back from the dead as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, (1942). Hollywood transformed Cagney from America’s number one gangster to a lovable hoofer with Irish chutzpah. He could no more dance like Fred Astaire than could the suave tuxedoed Astaire push a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face as Cagney did in Public Enemy,(1931).

Cagney danced the way Groucho Marx walked. He strut with a ramrod stiff back, sang in a kind of patter and won an Oscar for his effort. The narrative is told as a flashback to President Roosevelt who calls Cohan to the White House to receive a Congressional Gold Medal. All we see of FDR is his back and cigarette holder. Cohan’s story is a mix of myth and reality…as befits Independence Day. In fact Cohan was actually born on the fourth of July as the title song says. I was nine years old when I first saw this film. It was perfect for the time, dripping with patriotism….a word no longer prominent in my vocabulary.

Since then I must have watched it again since some scenes are so vivid in my mind. Cagney’s exuberance carries the movie, as if he were on steroids. The net effect is  pleasurable schmaltz. You know the story has been sanitized but you don’t mind one bit. Cohan did write some standards that have endured such as Over There, Mary, Harrigan, You’re a Grand Old Flag, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, You’re a Yankee Doodle Boy and Give My Regards to Broadway.

The film captures the flag-waving day as well as any other; the lies and the glory, the pride and the folly.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How Am I Driving? Call 1-800...

Pity the truck driver. Does anyone actually call? It seems like every day there’s a jack-knifed big rig on the 605 or 710 freeway.

Imagine if we all had that bumper sticker on our back. How am I doing on this long-distance haul?

Last week my daughter, Shari, and son-in-law, Jim, were in town. We treated ourselves to a day at the Huntington Gardens. Jim and I took turns pushing Peggy in her wheelchair, which is to say, I lasted about 20 minutes through the hothouse of orchids and then Jim generously did the grunt work for the next 2-3 hours. The downhills were harder than the uphills.

Life is a zig-zag over speed bumps leading into dead-ends. If you don’t believe it try navigating a wheelchair through the spectacular Chinese into the Japanese gardens. The signage is poor but I’m not complaining since it allowed us to double back and linger longer and that's what it’s all about.

The paths were laid in intricate pebbled patterns one of which led us under a waterfall. Every wrong turn offered another angle to gaze and fix the image in our head for further contemplation. Pink lotus blossom in reflective ponds with stone bridges arching. Willows drape over the water alongside plum trees and lilac. Pavilions are perfectly placed with wood carvings. Huge, withered limestone edifices sculpted by wind gave a contrasting dimension to the scene.

A bamboo-lined road led us to the Japanese garden with a markedly different aesthetic, spare and simple. Boulders set within a large area of raked gravel offered an appreciation of negative space. Manicured Bonsai trees. Wooden foot bridges over orange koi fish. A tea-house built and shipped from Kyoto. Suiseki stones, an ancient art form are miniature landscapes in themselves. 

Both gardens are stunning. On some level you begin to experience the balance achieved by the solidity of wood or stone against the transient sky as seen in the mirrored water. The Chinese garden also inspires calligraphy poems which caption each vantage point.  

You have to hand it to these robber-barons. They pinched and plundered, bribed and connived their way to obscene riches. Henry Huntington rode on the fortune amassed by Uncle Collis and was smart enough to marry Arabella, the widow of his uncle. Together they put their 207 acres to good use. Ironic how the exploited labor of the Chinese who built the railroads is returned in the exquisite garden.

How am I driving? The journey is the destination. There is no speeding through the Huntington. We have been there about a dozen times over the years and still have not visited the Australian or sub-tropical foliage.  If life is a steady stream I’m a reckless driver, holding up traffic. Go ahead, call 800….. I’m too busy smelling the roses in their three acre garden intoxicated by the perfume and dazzled by the colors and textures.