Friday, August 29, 2014


According to Mel Brooks tragedy is when someone cuts them self. Comedy is a person falling down a manhole. In geo-political terms, by that definition, one might view our world situation as tragicomedy. Even as we sink into an abyss we are cutting ourselves into slivers; denominations, tribes, sects, tents. The zeal of orthodoxy seems to me a form of mental illness but what do I know, as one whose allegiance is for inclusion and universality.

Bill Maher quipped that comedy is tragedy plus time. Maybe it will look like comedy in the history books of 2100 (if that year is reachable for the human race) but it certainly feels more like tragedy as we live it out. Call it both. We are doing it to ourselves and falling on our face at the same time.

What is the common denominator of all this religious ferocity and xenophobia? My guess is an inchoate fear as a consequence of accelerated change. Technology has people longing, squirming and confronting the unfamiliar as never before. We have now created congregations of the lost.  However social networking has also brought together pockets of kindred spirits clinging on to what passes for identity.

Perhaps we are merely witnessing the last gasp of nationalism and a rush into some sort of spirituality, false or otherwise, looking for a piece of the rock that assures survival, salvation or at least a meaningful moment. 

W.C. Fields said it is comedy when a sword bends but not when it breaks. I wouldn’t know. The last duel I engaged in was with rolls of gift wrap when I was a wee lad. It does seem that the bonds of civilization have bent but are not irreparably broken.

While all these skirmishes fill the front page there are signs of optimism that don’t get the ink or even much attention on American screens. Indonesia has more Muslims than Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and 7 other countries in that region put together. A decade ago they were on the verge of an Islamic fundamentalist takeover. They recently had an election in which a secular, pro-democracy, anti-corruption leader ran and won against the party entrenched for a generation.

In India an election was held in which 67% of the 834 million eligible voters went to polls without incident and voted electronically. Are you listening Red States, USA? Prime Minister Modi won a clear victory in opposition to the Congress Party which had similarly held the power for many years.

While attention has all gone to illegals knocking at our Texas border the real story is the zero rate at which Mexicans have entered and departed. From 2005 to 2010 there was no net migration to the U.S. Mexico has enormous energy reserves and they are slowly but surely becoming a middle-class country. Half a million jobs have recently been created soon to make North America the world’s most robust economic trading group.

Aristotle wrote that tragedy is man reaching for the divine. I prefer to think we all have a touch of divinity in us. It is in our nature to seek some form of transcendence. If we fall on our face in the attempt it is still more heroic than tragic.

The human comedy may itself be tragic. What started as a family squabble in 1914 turned into a crime against humanity. In retrospect it seems like an absurd folly…the entire world slipping on a banana peel.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

That, Without Which Life is Unthinkable

Call me a Luddite, even a troglodyte but don’t call me on my cell phone. My number is like the Beverly Hills police department, unlisted. It rings so seldom I hardly know what it sounds like. Every time a garbage truck backs up I put the phone to my mouth and say, Hello.

I prefer to think of clouds as those pillowed-puffs overhead and tablets as the round things I swallow with orange juice that got me through childhood into pre-mature senility where I’ve been for many years; better known to non-pharmacists, as pills.

Granted, I may someday need a GPS to get from the bedroom to the kitchen however when I get there I probably wouldn’t remember why I bothered. True, if I take the wrong freeway coming home from the library and find myself in the outskirts of Bengazi I would certainly be thankful I have one. But the chances are the battery would be dead anyway. 

Not only is my cell phone not smart it’s at the bottom of the class. I picked it up at a Walgreen’s for $29.95 and I buy minutes. As is my habit the first thing I do is throw away the instruction book. All I know is that it has a lot of buttons and icons I shall never click, unless I sit on it.

Back in the day at least we knew who the crazies were, walking and talking to themselves on the sidewalk. Now I’m afraid I’ll be committed for not speaking into my little finger.

The only thing I enjoy about my dumb phone is losing it, then calling my number and following the ring which generally leads me under the car seat with a flashlight. Clearly it was an aborted attempt to escape like all those single socks which have made their way out of the drier and slinked around the neighborhood only to appear years later in someone’s garage sale.

After all this time why would I require a mobile phone, I ask you? True, it took Moses forty years to find the promised-land but he was never noted for his sense of direction anyway. Ovid didn’t have a GPS when he was banished by the Romans. Napoleon found his way around Europe without one. Even Waterloo. If I should ever again get to first base I’m sure I could find my way to 2nd.

Imagine going through lunch with friends and not looking up who was the second banana to Gene Kelly in some MGM musical. Or the name of the general who said, Nuts, when asked to surrender at the Battle of the Bulge. Any more information in my head would drip on my Chinese chicken salad. It seems the more we know the less we know what to do with it.

Consider the bliss of being unreachable. You could listen to your inner voice and take dictation without any static. Commune with Nature like Thoreau at Walden. On second thought what could hurt if he got on his $29.95 toy and called Emerson to drop off an onion bagel on his way home, a quarter pound of lox sliced thin, a little cream cheese and a side of coleslaw? All right, hold the slaw.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Good Will Hurting

 He mimed, mimicked and he mocked. He was Mork from inner space. Robin Williams held up a cracked mirror and we all laughed. Now the comic has shown us he was crying inside-out, drowning, not waving.

His face was elastic, his legs acrobatic, his antics kinetic. He was a wind-up toy wound, but wounded. He scooted and skipped, spun and sprung as if coiled. He could be anyone, everyone, everywhere and also no one, nowhere.

Williams was the clown they brought in to bring lovers together, to pry open our eyes and see the absurd. He was the court jester who made us feel royal, King Henry’s Falstaff, made benign, playing the fool so we might see our own folly.

Give him a handkerchief and it became a hijab, yarmulke, or babushka. He turned a fig-leaf into a cape to anger the bull or a carpet launched and he was Peter Pan, Pop Eye, Fisher King and Captain Hook. Good Morning Viet Nam, Omaha, Manhattan, Marin.

A belt became a ribbon to gift-wrap our eyes, a leash to walk the beast, a snake in the garden, a whip to flagellate himself, a pull-string to bring down the curtain, a life-line unreachable. And finally a noose. 

Now Williams the conjurer is gone into the society of dead poets.

  e scoot     

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Monsoonal Air

Makes me swoon with the sound of it. Imagine a Bluesy sax in cahoots with a lunatic moon, a recording of Sleepy Lagoon. The air is syrup, in a soupy spoon, thick enough to climb that cratered balloon. Every year thirty days from the end June we get this undocumented air from Baja or maybe Beirut or Khartoum. It finds asylum in my head and with it a remembrance of a distant summer.

Low pressure trough, they say. It comes up like heavy over-ripe fruit, pregnant with its bag of water. Thunderous, tripping the sky electric enough to zap a few unfortunate folks. It’s a big show not enough to quench a thirsty plant with its tongue hanging out. But enough to monsoonal me back to those nights of sweaty summers.

What ever happened, happened to all of us. Or so it seemed to this ten-year old. The weather and the war, whooping cough, even Wendell Willkie and One World. We had our communal heroes and our shared menace, infantile paralysis and spies and the dreaded third rail.

A few inhalations carry me east to cartoons of Looney-Tunes, rain-outs and subways with sticky straw seats, August nights when I leaped in my Keds for fireflies higher than a pop fly. Neighbors slept on their fire-escape. The humidity and heat were tied in extra innings on our skin.

Fans didn’t do much but scatter the flies so people came out to unstifle themselves. So did the gnats. They swarmed by gazillions all over the front window of my father’s drug store. Windows in those days were much more than glass. They were an art form labored over by a window-dresser who, with pins in his mouth, built attractive castles from empty boxes of Bromo-Selzter, hot water bottles, Band-Aids, Bisodol Mints, Doan’s Pills, Gelusil and the ubiquitous Ex-Lax package. In the mix were an apothecary jar or two to dignify the fa├žade.

It must have been the flag colors of the Ex-Lax sign that attracted the gnats. They covered that part of the window and gradually the rest of it in sufficient numbers to excite the neighborhood. I don’t think the store ever had such traffic, at least the outside entrance. My father possessed a natural calm which could break a fever. He needed every bit of it to persuade the crowd we were not being invaded by an alien species. Triple digit heat does strange things to people.

Whether or not any of them ventured into the pharmacy to spend a nickel for a cherry coke with two straws, is doubtful. He returned to take his place between globes of colored water and I took in a deep draft of drug store air still lodged in my memory vault. By the end of that year, 1943, he was out of business.

The gnats left faster than monsoonal air departs from Southern California. We are now pretty much back to our usual non-weather. I need real weather the way Proust needed his Madeleine, whatever it takes to recover time past.