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.