Thursday, December 31, 2015

Losing It

The other day I spent two hours looking for our telephone book. It’s a red one about 5 by 7. Maybe you’ve seen it. Usually when I lose something I find something else that I lost but didn’t know it. This time I got so flustered I also lost one of our land-line phones.

I hate wasting my time looking for things when I could be wasting my time doing other meaningless things. I once spent an entire day looking for Peggy’s medication that hadn’t arrived yet in the mail.

Now in the search for both the phone and phone book, I hit upon one of the most profound thoughts in the history of epistemology, namely, that everything is somewhere. I’m not sure if the inverse is also true… that nothing is nowhere. But I am willing to go out on a limb and declare that some things are certainly somewhere.

Life is a series of losses. We lose our virginity and that’s really a gain. We lose our innocence but not entirely if we’re lucky. Peggy went on a diet and lost height. Then there are a series of lost causes. Even countries have disappeared from the map. After World War I an entire generation was lost. One by one our children scatter and we gain a bathroom. We lose our temper, a few teeth, hair and hearing. I’ve lost my shirt once or twice by dumb investments. In the end we lose our marbles.

Slowly we get dispossessed. It all starts with a prodigal sock which slithers out of the washing machine and makes its way across the street where it shows up in a garage sale a year later. I have lost two cameras while on trips abroad and a sweater which I left in a New Orleans taxi.

I’m stalling now waiting for my lost objects to make an appearance. I have imaged them both, pleaded, meditated and chanted for their safe return.

Aha, you rascal you. Here it is. The red phone book was leaning against a photo of Peggy wearing a red robe. Two minutes later I got a vision of the phone tangled in the bed sheets and there it was just where I left it.

I hope they didn’t feel neglected but in mitigation I must admit I was looking for them with only one good eye. My sinister eye has been delinquent for the past two weeks. Now I’m only hoping my lost vision returns.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Remembering Ernie White

He was a sophisticated man. A dear friend and a highly regarded psychiatrist with a well-developed aesthetic. Yet he also had a bit of Huck Finn in him. He gave mischief a good name.

Ernie loved language like nobody else I’ve ever known. He elevated listening to an art form. He investigated words, their sound, their weight and elasticity. Also their derivation. We enjoyed many moments together knocking phrases around to see if they stood up to scrutiny.

Ernie liked to tell of his days of truancy in elementary school. He refused to make the curlicues in penmanship demanded by his teacher. For this he was banished from the room, made to stand outside in the hallway when his favorite story was being read.

Maybe it offended his aesthetic, his singularity. He owned his own voice, his particular way of seeing. I cherished the way Ernie had of re-framing a work of art or a film or a life experience.

He integrated this particular gift through his profession, his appreciation of art and his entire being. Like any artist he was both intensely present and deliberately truant. He found his perch … just outside the door.

I’d like to believe that during these past few years when he fell nearly silent he was still present refusing life’s needless curlicues.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Number One Christmas Song

I can almost remember Christmas in a previous incarnation. There I was back in merry old England with fellow wassailers, scarf flowing, hot toddy running warm and wild in my veins while our dulcet tones harmonized a repertoire of carols. A ha-penny or slice of mince pie was our recompense. Off behind the snow bank Charles Dickens could be seen scribbling his tale of a repentant Scrooge making his way to Bob Cratchit’s hovel. One man’s stab at addressing income inequality.

Many carols came out of Victoria’s reign. Even Old King Wenceslas, as we know it, was written during the mid-19th century. The Czech king actually lived nine centuries before. That was one of my favorites until I worked in a store where it was played on a continuous loop and numbed me into a catatonic stupor. It got so bad I welcomed Jingle Bells and Bing Crosby’s syrupy, White Christmas.

The one song commemorating the birth of baby Jesus that has always caught my fancy is the Cherry Tree Carol. It tells of Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem. Stopping in a grove of cherry trees Mary asks Joseph to gather some berries because she is with child. Her husband angrily tells his pregnant wife to have the father of the child do it. At this point, Jesus, speaking from the womb, lets Joseph in on their little secret by commanding a branch to lower with an offering for his mother. And the rest is pseudo-history.

The song goes back to the Middle Ages. It doesn’t have the usual refrains of other carols. Whether this is a nativity carol or a ballad seems to be a matter for scholars to ponder along with the number of angels dancing on a pin.

On yet another level it can be taken as the subversive Jesus with his seditious ideas about rich man/poor man, cheek-turning and do-unto-others, being carried by the feminine sensibility. This is not to be confused necessarily with the female as in Carly F. or Sarah P. The message brought into the world is being delivered to the masculine ear.

Or we can forget all that and just enjoy the haunting melody.

Joan Baez has a beautiful rendition available on you tube

Friday, December 18, 2015


The two directions could also pertain to our current divide. This country is more polarized than ever between people who agree with me and those who don’t. I suspect my ten worst anything list is their ten best. I’m comforted to know that a mere 24% of Americans are registered Republicans and 40% of them adore Donald Trump which means 90% of us don’t. But then there are those Independents who have allowed fear to damage their moral compass.

On yet another level there are times when I know the Janus-head feeling. I don't always agree with myself. That other face may be my disowned one. It's not a bad thing to stand on a threshold looking at both the wreckage and repair of one's life.
At this age I certainly have more memories than plans, more auld lang syne, old time's sake, times gone past, old long ago. Any excuse to raise a cup and bend an elbow, works for me. And so we sing with blood alcohol rising:

And there's a hand, my trusty fere! 
And gie's a hand o' thine! 
And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught, 
For auld lang syne.

It makes a lot more sense after emptying a bottle of bubbly. The song laid fairly dormant till Guy Lombardo, my least favorite big bandleader, popularized it on radio in the late 20s and then later on TV. Had Robert Burns known about this he would have disowned the tune. But he didn’t own it to begin with. Its origins go back before the Scot.

On the Eve I always talk to my friend, Stanley, who remembers me from kindergarten as I do him. He promises not to reveal how I embezzled money as milk monitor and parleyed eleven cents into an empire of high-rise buildings in Manhattan. Like many memories this never happened but it could have been how a certain Republican candidate got his start.

This past year has been packed with notable events to record. We look forward to taking at least as many trips next year as in 2015…without leaving our computer screen. Traveling is far less strenuous with You Tube plus photos from intrepid friends and family.

I can also report that the dog we don’t have didn’t die. My three daughters graduated from high school but that was 35-40 years ago. I finally got enough punches on my car wash card to get a freebie in October. Everyone I know will soon be a year older except Peggy whose spirit is of no age.

Like the fabled Janus we look ahead, we look back and all the rest of the time we live in the moment. There goes another one.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Wanted: New Name for the Common Cold

Outside it was 29 degrees. The temperature in my body reached 102.6, rectally speaking. I was nine years old in 1942. The war wasn’t going too well; not over there and not inside me with germs, (were they not Germans?) invading my nostrils, east and west and the only throat I had. My bones felt like they’d been overrun by a Panzer division. My mother blamed the dreaded draft and the three sweaters I didn’t wear.

When Dr. Schildkraut was summoned for a house call I hoped my fever stayed up deserving of his attention. He stood at my bed carrying that outside air with him. What my mother cursed as miasma suddenly was transformed into fresh air. He scoped my ears, tongue-depressed me with an AH and prescribed Argyrol to paint my throat. He also ordered Empirin Compound, Neo-Silvol nose drops and Terpin Hydrate with Codeine cough syrup along with Compound Tincture of Benzoin for the vaporizer.

Argyrol, by the way, may have had no therapeutic effect but it made Albert Barnes a millionaire with money sufficient to pack his museum with great impressionist art…but I digress.

All of those remedies have since been declared worthless even if the smell felt good. We’ve come a long way. Yet we’ve lost some good words in our progress. The doctor diagnosed my misery as The Grippe. When I returned to school at least my larynx and pharynx had earned the purchase of that word, Grippe. Anyone can have a cold but to be in a vise was serious stuff. We have to do better with our nomenclature if we want a Telethon to wipe out the Common Cold. A cold is bad enough even without the adjective.

When I came to California I first heard the word, Croup, a barking cough. Now that’s a good one. It gets closer to croaking. Back east we didn’t bark, we whooped, as in Whooping Cough or Pertussis. We also had nasal Catarrh or Rhinitis, a copious discharge of mucus from inflamed membranes. Those words elicit more sympathy than running nose or sniffles.

Back among the pages of Charles Dickens, people suffered from much better sounding ailments such as chilblains, ague, apoplexy or dropsy. Folks had consumption before it was even conspicuous. Such maladies have either been eradicated or the words have passed into the romance of medical glossaries. Even lumbago has evolved to sciatica.

It might take lower respiratory bronchitis with pulmonary involvement to get the remaining Dr. Schildkrauts of the world out on a bitter winter night in Los Angeles when the thermometer dips below 60 degrees. More than likely the call to a doctor will just say to dial 911 or get yourself to the emergency room.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Vision Thing

I have double vision which is not half as bad as it sounds. If I buy 6 bagels it looks like a dozen. Every ball game is a double-header. When I come to a fork in the road I take both. On the other hand 30 minutes of a so-called Republican debate feels like I’ve wasted an hour of my life. I reported my double vision to my ophthalmologist… both of them.

On Dec. 16th I’m having surgery to correct the problem. It seems that the lens, from the cataract procedure four years ago, has slipped. Who knew I had a slippery slope of my own? It’s called subluxation. They are going to replace the lens, insert it in an anterior position and suture it to the tissue. Ouch!

The medical term for left eye, is o.s….oculus sinister. Southpaws in sports are lefties and there’s nothing sinister about them. I suppose early on all things left were suspect. In my case it is well-named. My left eye has let me down or I’ve let it down.

I’m OK with surgery. I usually just put myself in the
medical team’s expert hands, hope they got a good night’s sleep and close my eyes. Except now my eyes will be wide open. At least one of them.

Jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those peepers / Jeepers creepers where’d you get those eyes? / Gosh oh, get up how’d they get so lit up / Gosh oh, gee oh, how’d they get that size?
My peepers have become weepers. I’ve become a lachrymose sort of guy. The cataract surgery from 2011 also left me with dry eyes which is characterized by wet eyes. Blocked tear ducts produce constant tearing. I not only cry for Argentina. I weep for America after a Ted Cruz sound-byte. I even cry during football games…and that’s before the concussions.

I’ve grown accustomed to my eyes, compromised as they are. They’ve helped me stumble along this far. I’m willing to forgive them for picking out the wrong man at a police line-up. I couldn’t even spot Groucho Marx, without his mustache and cigar, photographed with his other four brothers.

Either I am color-blind or Peggy is. Not that I go through red lights but I see forest green where she sees teal. However we both agree her eyes are green…. all four of them. It’s become a daily challenge to pick out matching socks for her.

If I go blind maybe I’ll suddenly learn how to play the piano like Ray Charles though my preference would be George Shearing. If l live another fifty years I might just go to Costco and buy a new pair of eyes. Except they’d probably come six in a box. I’d have to go door to door to get rid of the surplus.

I’m expecting a full recovery. The test will be whether every sandwich still looks to me like a club. Otherwise I’ll have to rely on my third eye which is turned inward where everything is blurry anyway but is seen with imagined 20/20 acuity.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Writing the Cold War

When WW II ended, millions of GIs enrolled in colleges. The Cold War was heating up and creative writing programs reflected this change in subtle ways. Efforts were made in academia to create a climate of anti-communism. Any whiff of subversion, of the artist as disruptive to the system, was soon gone. Bohemian creativity of Greenwich Village was relocated to the heartland.

Foundation money was funneled to those institutions which encouraged a new American style distinct from that which marked the 30s. Writers became more provincial and personal. The thrust was to bring it close and then closer yet. Soon they were writing about themselves, disguised as him or her. 

Art became abstract. Confessional poetry bloomed. Attention turned inward. Both prose and poetry was safe. It lacked a certain reach in terms of language and substance.

What's wrong with that picture? What's wrong is what's been left behind. Absent was a global consciousness necessary for social comment. Doctrine had been drummed out the door and with it the language of critical discourse which requires a reasonable distance from the subject. Gone is the historical sweep from a mid-distant perch. Such thoughts were relegated to the non-fiction shelf.

The burning issues of the day was off-limits: root causes and dimension of the Holocaust, the loss of European empire and rise of the developing countries, emergence of the U.S. as the dominant power. In short the moral imagination of creative writing.

This is elaborated in Eric Bennett's new book, Workshops of Empire, which takes aim at writing as taught in universities, particularly the Iowa Writer's Workshop and at Stanford, under Wallace Stegner, in the three decades after WW II. Bennett's thesis is that from the beginning of the Cold War the prevailing anti-communist agenda encouraged academia to push fiction and poetry away from the social radicalism of the 30s into a more non-ideological direction.

America emerged from the war as the new world power, insular and superior. In spite of Ginsberg's Howl and Miller's Salesman a new aesthetic was born. It bore no resemblance to the social protest songs of the Depression era or even Steinbeck's, Grapes of Wrath. Instead we got Anne Tyler’s quirks and Updike’s Rabbit running through decades.

We swallowed a version of the American mythos so pervasive it went virtually unnoticed. Creative writing changed along the way. Eastern European writers released an new imaginative voice. Post-Soviet and post-colonial literature, has a decidedly different feel. The 2015 Man-Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James is both an immediately felt and politically-charged text. In fact all writing is political whether by commission or by virtue of what it omits.

The notion of Rockefeller Foundation or CIA intervention may not be so far-fetched. In 2012 Ian McEwan wrote, Sweet Tooth, a novel about a covert program by MI-5 to bankroll writers with a pro-Western, anti-communist proclivity. The idea is to keep them successful and not, heaven forbid, entertain any counter-cultural notions.  

If you've got a message, Sam Goldwyn famously said, send a telegram. They're not for movies or, for that matter, any art form. Yet the message of No Message carried the day via, Father Knows BestGunsmoke, I Love Lucy or the soaps. 

Hollywood showed women and people of color how to know their place and college workshops reinforced the American values with self-absorbed characters. There is room for both: vibrant ideas can challenge the margins while the language of introspection can burst with new life.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Plague on Both Your Houses

No, not those Capulets and Montagues but our very own Senate and House of Reps. Our legislative branch has taken the fun out of dysfunctional. They rank lower in public esteem than guys who pitch mattresses on TV. We have a Sig Alert in America with road-rage in our gridlock.

It takes 18 red states, with 36 senators, to equal the population of nearly 39 million Californians, granted 2 senators. The upper chamber is filled with mostly old white men representing a large land mass of grass, dirt, swamps, golf courses, ranches, tundra, massive lawns in exurbia and assorted agribusiness. But not a lot of people. It gets worse.

The House of Representatives has been hopelessly gerrymandered so the districts are a lock for the Republican Party. They need just 45% of the popular vote to control that body. Voting districts are neither squares nor rectangles nor any known geometric figures. They are salamanders, octopi, carefully calculated blobs.

In 2000 Gore beat Bush by a plurality of 500,000 votes but lost by decree from the Supremes. In 2012 Obama beat Romney by almost 5 million votes yet both legislative branches are owned by Republicans who together with the high court has been busy suppressing voter turn-out. What gives? The game is rigged but not only because of the above.

The real problem is the urban/rural divide in this country. The top ten states with the highest median household income are all blue while the bottom states with the lowest are red. Yet the cost-of-living is so much lower in the south and mid-America people might as well be living in a different country.

Is the only way to remedy this for large masses of urbanites to migrate and mingle with rednecks? No, I don’t want to join a bowling team and live in a trailer.

What we call red states often have 40% or more Democratic voters which are rendered silent and unrepresented. The same is true in reverse for blue states. Millions of people are disenfranchised and eventually don’t bother voting at all. There is a better solution which doesn’t shut out the minority vote in any state.

It is called proportional representation or Fair Voting. Louisiana, with 6 Congressional districts could increase the size of each and have 3 regions each with ranked voting from the various candidates. People would select a first choice, second, third and fourth. The state would retain their 6 seats but the minority voices would also be heard according to their share of the total count.

The same could be done in Massachusetts which would give the Republicans a say where they’ve been denied by the winner-take-all system. Suddenly Washington D.C. would be more reflective of our ethnic, gender and racial groups. The look of Congress would approximately describe America. Participation would be spurred along with a far greater voter turn-out.

I don’t totally understand how the balloting works but it sounds like a good first step. It is constitutional and already happening in certain municipalities In Minnesota and Cambridge, Mass. If interested check out this website and then you can explain it to me:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Giving of Thanks

This is certainly the most benign of holidays and the one I most look forward to. We gather, feel gratitude, said or unsaid. We eat, drink. We celebrate being here instead of there…. though, at times, elsewhere seems like my true address. We embrace at least two of my favorite deadly sins, gluttony and sloth.

Yet my mother, in her infinitude, decreed that Thanksgiving was a goishe (gentile) holiday somehow akin to Christmas. Maybe she never learned how to cook a turkey or Murray the chicken-plucker and kosher butcher didn’t know from turkey. In any case it was to be ignored.

In fact all holidays were unobserved in my childhood. I am a product of the Dis-identification Generation. My mother regarded holy days from Yom Kippur to Passover as being Old World and she was 100% American…except for vestiges of the shtetl which would cling to her until the end

My first Thanksgiving was at age 21, on the other side of the continent. I remember driving to the home of friends in Burbank having worked that day at Thrifty Drug Store in Beverly Hills. It was so foggy I drove off the freeway into the landscape. I was a pilgrim making my way to the new world almost landing on a rock with my Plymouth.

Somehow I untangled myself from the shrubbery, found the house and fit myself into the picture I had from Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post Cover. In my mind this was the model American family. Later that year the host couple divorced and the father of my friend shot himself. So much for Americana.

It is now time to finally thank my mother for giving me material to write about. She must have done something right. I don’t suck my thumb or stutter and eventually I learned which fork to use for the salad. I even get re-invited now and then…particularly if I bring a $25 jug of wine. As Dorothy Parker said, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

My mother protected me from wild turkeys, Indians, the Salem witch hunt and runaway covered wagons whom she suspected of being potential assassins. I’m grateful for all that. She had a mouth on her that left me a legacy of insults. Momzers (landlords) should burn in hell and merchants were also doubly cursed as gonifs (thieves). Others were deemed khazers (gluttonous pigs) or schnorrers (money grubbers). She also cursed God for God knows what.

And where was my father during those bitter winters on the Great Plains? He kept us from the almshouse and me from the workhouse. He also taught me to turn a semi-deaf ear to my mother’s complaints and declarations of enhanced aggravation I had somehow caused her. She suffered mightily and loudly, poor Mom. I should ask the Lord to hasten and chasten his will to make known as he blesses our table.

When I was 55 years old I was fully orphaned. My mother mellowed considerably during her last several years. She surrendered her sword and shield and I saw the frightened little girl she always was. Thanksgivings might have been therapeutic for her. It would have been a great pleasure passing the cranberry sauce and complimenting her on the table she laid out. Maybe she would have taken a wee drop of spirits while we all joined hands in gratitude for our atypical family, mishagosh and all, just like any other.

Maybe the agreed-upon lie is Normalcy as per Norman Rockwell. The older I get the more I cherish our craziness

Monday, November 16, 2015

Fear and Loathing

….every boy and every gal
that’s born into this world alive
is either a little Liberal
or else a little Conservative.          Iolanthe, G&S

As the recent abominations in Paris were being reported I thought of the collateral damage to our own political landscape. It struck me that the brutality of the terrorists will be regarded as vindication to the Rumfelds / Cheneys of the world who never met a war they weren’t ready to send others to fight.

The Conservative psyche accepts evil as a given and fear as a natural state of being. In their mindset the veneer of civility is a thin construct of Humankind. We must therefore keep the lid on our savagery by rules, commandments and traditions and be at the ready to combat sin or anarchy with weaponry and ole time religion. Their instincts run immediately to the punitive. Unlike FDR’s message they might say, We have everything to fear especially from those who don’t look like me.

Liberals see the human condition running from the benign to benevolent. Terrorist behavior is aberrant. Or is at least a distorted act of rage against a perceived threat to their version of history. It falls outside the margins of rationality. Yes, we have that capacity for hatred but we also possess the constraints to contain it.

There seems to me a link between the barbarism of the perpetrators and the Neo-Cons of the West. Both are quick to violence and committed to the notion of revenge and retribution.

I have no answer how to respond except to hunt them down as sociopaths. ISIS militates against Western Civilization but their demands are not yet fully articulated. Their subjugation of women, rigid laws of social contract and medieval cruelty are anathema to Western values; I would say an offense against humanity.

However the marginalization of refugees in France aligns with the ISIS agenda and provides an ample pool of recruits. Hopelessness is a prerequisite to suicide missions but is no way to redress their grievances.

I can’t help but feel that the outrage they have engendered feeds directly into the narrative of the most dangerous voices in the Conservative camp. President Obama is courageous to warn against being sucked into full-fledged combat. We tried that in Iraq and arguably that misadventure has led to this. In the meantime. We must love one another or die. (W.H. Auden).

Friday, November 13, 2015

Room without Walls

I’m talking about our bedroom. Well yes, there must be 
something holding up the ceiling but I can hardly find it. 51 pictures paper the partitions. I just counted them. We have five bold Polish movie posters, 25 photos from trips, a few art posters, a batik and the rest are family photographs. Add to this 14 book cases and the walls are gone….but closing in.

I pity the landlord when the time comes to move. He will 
need a ton of spackle and a dozen coats of industrial strength paint to restore the wall to its virgin state. If a tsunami should ever reach us we can float away on the raft of ancestors and offspring.

Albums of our travels transport me from the standing 
stones of Salisbury to Gaudi’s fevered mosaics, from the canals of Bruges to Alaskan glaciers. Any one is a window to a charged destination.  

Here is picture of my brother, Arthur, and me, circa age 
three. I can’t quite find my face in this shot. Then again I’m not at all sure I would recognize myself today if I met me in a telephone booth. My brother was an only child for four years. I can see some sadness around his eyes. He’s trying hard to be obedient. Around my 30th birthday I became an only child. The cause of his death was the weight of heavy and great expectations. He drove into a mountain wall perhaps looking for a seam. The car couldn’t handle the turns at that speed and blood alcohol.

Below that picture is one of my father and mother. He would become Spencer Tracy to me but she could never be Kathryn Hepburn; more like the elderly Shelley Winters. They tried to be perfect parents. What they offered worked for me but not for Arthur.

My daughters-three also keep me company at various ages wearing well whatever damage I caused them. The problem with parenting is that we are groping our way along at the same time our children are. In fact the journey never stops but they have forgiven me my stumbles. Many lifetimes chronicle this room I wake into every morning.

And there are ghosts as well for Peggy whose daughter’s allotted time was cruelly shortened by cancer. Unsaid words still hang in the air. My step-son and his wife along with Peggy’s parents she hardly knew fill another wall that isn’t there. I almost forgot our unforgettable grandchildren whose smiling faces illuminate the dawn’s early light.

There are voices in discourse bouncing off the shelves. The bookcase contains volumes which survived the last attempt of winnowing. How can we part with our William Trevor collection or Virginia Woolf or Eudora Welty? Then there are the journals of Camus and G. Manley Hopkins, letters of Keats and Faulkner, correspondences, diaries, memoirs. In front of the books are sentinels of ceramic pieces, wind-ups toys, fossils, very special greeting cards and assorted objet d’art.

The pillow is a repository of my dreams. When I’m not late for trains and planes or searching for my parked car I find myself having super idyllic dreams. Last night I was walking in amaze through rolling fields near Dodger Stadium at Elysian Park. The stretch of greenery was terraced leading down to the Pacific. This was one of many such, all of them in verdant settings I’m reluctant to leave.

This room is a sanctuary. A somewhat cluttered space with scrupulously half-read New York Review of Books and a stationary bike I have pedaled from Patagonia to the Punjab. In the waking-up time poems and prose are sprung, half-in half-out of my mind. With Peggy at my side supplying needed oxygen I wouldn’t change a thing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Autumn Finally and Then

Six weeks into fall, so says the calendar, and at last I’m in the mind of autumn. The delay has to do with our weather that doesn’t behave. Blame it on those 90 degree days of September and October. Our elongated summer that is slow to start won’t relinquish its hold. It has also to do with the coral tree outside our window still incrementally green with just a few leaves exhausted, going to yellow.

To get into the mind of the season I need the chill that suggests a change of palette to rust, burned sienna and cinnamon; pig skins in the air, migrations overhead, flannel pajamas, russet pears, oatmeal, chestnuts of childhood and cozy fires. A blizzard of adjectives.

Of course we get oranged in advance of Halloween. Pumpkins show up in ice cream, soup, cereal, pasta, bread pudding, even beer. I could die happily buried inside Trader Joes.  

Here in Los Angeles we don’t have harvests or swollen gourds except for those trucked in. Six years ago we went to New England to watch the spectacle of ruddy sycamores and maple leaves dying in all their glory. From a distance they looked floral. It was operatic. Golden groves of trees majestic in their last gasp death-bed scene. Divas, all of them. Fall is a season of life and death.

If I were a tree I too would be in my foliage or beyond. Some of my favorite hair has fallen. My limbs are getting brittle. Even names carved long ago into my brain are fast fading. I am weathered and wind-bent in my bough. Exaltations of larks no longer nest in my branches.

Autumn is portentous of winter’s finality. The last act, 4th quarter. But it also carries the hope and expectation of one more go round. The curtain comes down, the curtain goes up again. Why not? Another opening, another show.

This year the old incontinent sky is scheduled to wet us. Umbrellas will open like black narcissus. I want to be caught in a downpour. Drenched. Let me be puddled and pelted. Parched earth will be heard slurping. I can feel it already in my arthritic bones.

The planet’s lease shall be renewed. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

In the Presence of Mine Enemies

Sometimes I think I’m a closet preacher. I don’t like that voice but I let it out every now & then. If I could say my piece from a personal experience I would but even that would have a whiff of the sermon in it. I forgive you for not forgiving me.

Back then and still, we trade eyes and teeth, walking around blind and toothless. Call it revenge, honor if you must. Some call it justice or closure. Is it Human Nature that summons that endless chain of retribution? Yes, but so is forgiveness.

Mark Twain said that, Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that crushed it.

Hatred is a poison. We may think it is all directed outward but it also spreads within. It can metastasize and attach itself to other people or issues. The act of forgiveness need not be thought of as altruistic. Think of it as a self-serving gesture leading to a path, an antidote to rid the psyche of toxins.

It ain’t easy. And it’s not a single, simple act. It’s a kind of journey into a higher consciousness. Forgiveness is first the recognition that the perpetrator is not all that different than yourself. We all possess the same human capacities. It doesn’t help to demonize the other. That’s too easy.

Rather than dwell on the punishment it’s more important to consider how to cleanse the wound of the victim or survivors. When we are wronged I believe it is important to call the bad guy to accountability. He must admit to his wrongdoing with an open heart. That admission calls for an equally open heart by his accusers.

The two are bonded, like it or not. Only by finding one’s own humanity can a healing take place. Otherwise the injury festers. It takes its secondary protracted toll. Vengeance, however measured, does not satiate it only incites an opposing response.

In Nazi Germany there were men who read Goethe, listened to Beethoven then went to work as concentration camp guards. Similarly slave owners might have been church-going men and loving fathers who walked into the fields becoming bestial. The task is to help those compartmentalized men to see how they have strayed from the better version of themselves.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa held the torturers and oppressors during Apartheid to come forward and face their victims. In some cases reparations were assessed. Amnesty was granted with full disclosure.

The series of trials did not satisfy all the victims of abuse but the process, I believe, represents a giant leap in human civilization over the punitive model.

After 27 years of incarceration Nelson Mandela embraced his jailer, guards and prosecutor. The day he walked away from prison he let go of his hatred because he knew he would have otherwise remained their prisoner. It took an enormous strength to reach this point, an evolved heart.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Tempus Fidgets

I love my clock for its transient numbers. It sits on my bedside table laughing at me. The numbers change as the angle of my vision changes. It is digitally post-modern the way it won’t hold still. It moves randomly, not chronologically, allowing me choices. From one position on my pillow it says 5:32. If I lean an inch it could be 6:54 or 8:45. My clock has me traveling through three or four time zones. It’s a good thing every day is Sunday and I have nowhere to go.

In my working days I woke at 7:40 every morning according to some internal buzzer. I retired that one years ago. Discarding it has untethered me.

This one costs under ten dollars. The bright red numerals surface and recede as if in some sort of peek-a-boo competition. Time is no longer an objective reality; it is a subjective projection. A construct. An agreement between me and my clock.

During the night I get up a couple of times in obedience to my bladder. If I glance at my clock I always guess the right time within six minutes. I think my clock adjusts to my silent estimate just to make me feel good with myself so I can return to easeful sleep.

Punctuality has always been an issue for me. I’m rarely tardy. Tardy is a word I haven’t heard since elementary school. It was a grade on our report card like, Running with Scissors. The very least we can do in this world is not be tardy. Or so I thought.

Now I know better. One can be scrupulously late, especially for parties. Blame it on the traffic. Given the gridlock in L.A. one has to risk being twenty minutes early in order to arrive on time.

My clock is trying to break me of this compulsion. It may be too late. I’ve only been living on arbitrary time for about ten years. Besides, once I leave my beloved clock at my bedside, I’m captive of the other house-clocks and computer which adhere to the agreed-upon lie of fixed time.

What folly! Time is a rascal. It drags in an MRI and flies when I write. In a basketball game the clock is of another order. Four seconds can take ten minutes with time-outs and commercials. Peggy has transformed that annual clock, the calendar, into a supreme fiction. If I could make a watch out of my clock I might, with luck, be late for my own funeral.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Those Ferocious Tangoes

In his poem, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, August Kleinzahler writes of, Ambiguity and Reason, locked in a ferocious tango. The dance floor might show other partners in a similar embrace, Fate and Free Will, Imagination and Reality, Revenge and Forgiveness. Faith and Doubt, mustard and mayonnaise.

(When I was a know-it-all, age 17-30, I thought we had to make a choice. Now I know that mayo can coexist with that yellow stuff.)

The tango has always been faintly subversive rising as it did from the tenements of Buenos Aires with African as well as Caribbean and European provenance. The abrupt pauses, angular movements against soft curves, control and abandon all with unsmiling demeanor reflect a sense of longing. Eros is tangled with melancholy.

The containment of opposites is an uneasy state. Keats called it Negative Capability. It involves the overthrow of categories so that what seemed mutually exclusive begins to enlarge one’s capacity. It involves an ease living with uncertainty and the unknowable without the need for resolution.

We live in an age when the ferocity of the clash can drive one to despair. The three Republican front-runners, malignant buffoon, brilliant imbecile, and merchant of deceit leave a voter famished for sanity; all of them destitute of intellect and humanity. The alternative seems to be the limp rhetoric of mind-numbing demagoguery. What would Keats say to this morass? Maybe that’s why he died young.

The tango is a fierce language. It speaks of couples enacting a tamed violence, an erotic confrontation with an indifferent world.

(I resist slipping back into that shuttered, doctrinaire mindset vestiges of which still plague me. I abhor absolutes yet ... It isn’t that I thought I knew everything just that I had to be right in what I knew. If I was wrong about anything I might be wrong about everything.)

On the larger stage I make room for fate but insist it be randomly issued not by the gods but as a contingency of being alive. We don’t get our way but we don’t stop trying. Free will drives us but also runs out of gas. What happens next isn’t ordained; it is improvised.

The dance of accountability can be tempered with forgiveness. It is a move toward grace; that step, unstrained and twice blessed.

As for faith, mine is close by, not in the firmament or the parchment. It is in the daily YES that prevails. And when it doesn’t it confirms my inherent doubts. We live within that ferocious tango.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Everything Contained in Anything

If I had arcane knowledge of 11th century Turkish lutes or was an aficionado of bird-life…their nesting habits, mating dances and migratory patterns I might find the whole universe there. As it is I don’t know a sparrow from a swallow. But I do know my baseball, this confluence of stick and orb. It is bred in my bone, in my mother’s milk. In a previous incarnation I was probably a great swatter of flies.

The current state of the game reflects divisions in our society. More and more we see youthful exuberance and flamboyance contrasted with the old virtue of containment.  The pull of Caribbean players with their bat flips and joyful antics against the push-back of the stoic traditionalists.  

Baseball has always been a draw for statisticians. The new generation has taken it many steps beyond batting average, fielding percentage and pitching metrics. Sabermetrics is the new analytics. Enter the nerds with their algorithms and fractals. Every move is measured, weighed and assigned a numerical value.

The unintended consequence is that the once hunch-filled, seat-of-the pants, character-driven sport is moving inexorably toward a bloodless exercise in probabilities and prognostications.  The human factor is being factored out or at least consigned to the margins in the equation.

A case could be made that the Dodgers will not contend in the World Series because of it. Having charted the batting patterns of certain hitters the new front office out-thought themselves. They shifted the infield leaving a single man on the left side and the opposition won the day using a tactic unknown to the sabermetricians. It’s called common sense.

I know, it is time to go back to Bible class starting with Ecclesiastes which tells us to put away childish things. But it is in my bloodstream and besides what is more childish than the Bible.

No, I must learn to live with defeat, that field of littered dreams. Baseball is a lesson in failure. It has been said that the hardest thing to do in all sports is hitting a baseball (with authority). The best fail 2/3 of the time. Not unlike our elected officials.

The season is, for me, an essential diversion from that other reality where avarice, ignorance and deception are rewarded. In fact the hedge-fund statisticians long ago figured out how to rig the system so 1% are born on 3rd base and rest of us never get past first.  


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Complex Oedipus

It doesn’t take a Jungian to know that life is enriched living it symbolically. We live rational, hum-drum lives for the most part yet at the same time we sense there is something else going on of a different order.

Sheldon Kopp wrote a book in 1972, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. In it he argues that anyone with all the answers, guru / parent / psychotherapist, must be metaphorically killed.

Oedipus does it unwittingly thinking the person who blocked his way was a bandit. Unconscious as it may have been the act was an essential moment on his pilgrimage to selfhood. Along that road we must overthrow the constraints that come naturally to a father however much we may love him.

I loved mine and in many ways tried to emulate him but also needed to defy him. His cautious, deliberative nature wasn’t quite my prescription. In some ways my mother, with her strong animus, was the more dominant voice in the house. It’s a tricky business.

In the Oedipus myth he inadvertently marries his mother and fathers four children. On a symbolic plane males also need to cleave with the feminine principle to balance their more aggressive side. In a reversal of type I found these attributes more available in my father.

When our Greek protagonist discovers his wife/mother, Jocasta, hung from the rafter he proceeds to blind himself in self-recrimination. Looked upon metaphorically I take this to signify an act of attaining an inner dimension.

Earlier in the play we meet Tiresias, the blind prophet. A loss of sight brings with it compensatory faculties. I want to think of Oedipus in this way having attained a certain vision beyond the worldly.

So he is now ready to make his way, orphaned, yet having come to terms with his night of dread, a darkness we all know as we confront and stumble through this opaque and mysterious life. I'd like to think of it as the birth of existential man.

I would hope my own three daughters have, each in their own way, staged a palace coup and dethroned me. Of course it wouldn’t hurt if I have re-entered their lives, stripped of authority but there as a fallible but loving presence.