Saturday, January 31, 2015

Beholden to the 1%

In their infinite fog of wisdom the Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision of 2010 has rendered our elections as money battles between rival billionaires. The Koch Brothers recent sponsorship of a forum of Republican presidential hopefuls is a shameless event of public servants parading under the money tree to see what they can shake loose. Democrats will have their own pandering to Liberal wallets. It’s the new normal.

All this struck a chord in my memory bank. I was regressed to my 5th grade class in P.S. 99. It was 1943-44 and I was ten, more or less. We were a nation at war. I can’t remember the day I went from not-knowing to knowing.  My father was an air-raid warden complete with helmet, arm-band and flashlight. I saved tin foil, even knitted squares to be sewn together to make a quilt or was it an afghan. The war was raging not only overseas but also played out in our classroom. Everyone, even kids, were urged to save their dimes, quarters and dollars to buy war bonds.

I can think of nothing that recalled the tenor of the times as well as those bonds. They bonded us together not only by raising money but rallying the home front. Both private companies and the government partnered in advertising. Movie theaters offered free admission with the purchase of a bond.  $18.75 got you $25 in ten years; 2.9% interest. Hollywood stars toured the country raising over 800 million bucks. Irving Berlin wrote with both hands. Any Bonds Today, was on The Hit Parade sung by The Andrew Sisters. Kate Smith weighed in with God Bless America. Three mediums and an extra large.

There was a most unique exhibition baseball game played between (among?) the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers and a team of servicemen. Prior to that was an old-timers game in which Babe Ruth hit a ball, thrown by Walter Johnson, over the roof of the Polo Grounds. My friend, Earl, is my witness. Only a war bond could get you in. The take was 56 million dollars. Final score…..who cared?

The fierce competition waged at school was between my class and the one above. We had our one percenter in Claire W. as in Double You and they had Patricia Yellen. Was she related to our current chief of the Federal Reserve? Maybe she printed money in her basement. Claire was more than Double Me. She had breeding…in her fashionable threads, her posture and her penmanship. I imagined her parents holding soirees where admission was a bond or two. In any case we looked to her to bring our total above our rivals. Certainly we couldn’t depend on those ten centers, like me, to do battle. Yet somehow I managed to buy two-$25 bonds cashed in when I moved to California ten years later. 

Who won? We all won. Money was an abstraction then and still is until you must do without. A psychiatrist friend once suggested that I don’t love money enough. I don’t disagree. But back in the day it was a bit less abstract. We were quantifying our patriotism.

I should say these four years were a brief window in the American chronicle as seen through the eyes of a kid. To be sure there were war profiteers and the class divisions, Antisemitism and racism before the war was in evidence after it.

By 1946 half the population (85 million people) had purchased war bonds. The 185.7 billion dollars raised is unmatched in history. (Thank you, Wikipedia) But that was then. Today we have a polarized landscape with class divisions like never before. Maybe the Koch’s pronounce their name to rhyme with Gotcha. But they didn’t get their way in 2012. It might take a planetary threat to mend the fabric of our nation so the interests of the 1% are indistinguishable from the 99%.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Alternative World of Downton Abbey

The last soap opera I can remember was possibly Ma Perkins. I had the measles or mumps back in the 30s and followed it for 3-4 days. As I recall, nothing much ever happened. One could listen to the radio show in October and pick it back up in March. There in the speaker of my RCA was pie was still cooling on the window sill and Uncle George hadn’t quite hauled all the firewood in from the shed.

These days about 8-10 million mostly Boomers and parents of Boomers watch Masterpiece Theater currently running season five of Downton Abbey. Unlike those old soaps Downton is filled with action of a sort. Somehow we hold in our ever-diminishing minds the dangling threads of twenty characters. Such goings-on! We can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff. What is it about these folks that demands our avid attention? It is certainly a testimony to the script, performances, polish and production values. And more.

My guess is we are seduced by their tidy universe; the civility of a world in which everyone knows his/her place. Quibbles and squabbles, yes, and any number of small spots of bother but nothing to upset the order. This has a powerful pull on our society, feeling as we do un-moored and dislocated where change has never before been so accelerated. An hour a week at Downton is almost enough to anchor us.

Enter, Ms. Bunting. Is she not obnoxious? Inappropriate? How dare she speak to M’Lord that way at the table? The woman has no breeding! No couth! She’s a flaming revolutionary! In a few sentences she has brought down Downton. Off with her head!

Yet she speaks truth to power. She is Michael Moore seated at the Koch brother’s dinner party. She represents the shock of abrupt change. We won’t have it. We want genteel, imperceptible movement, not alien ideas and certainly not at the sacred table. It reminded me of the phrase the Warren Court used when knocking down the Separate but Equal doctrine, with all deliberate speed.

(Bunting might have also reference Basil Bunting, the British poet of that time who was jailed as a conscientious objector during World War I. He also wrote Modernist poetry which was to overthrow the prevailing mode.)

As an audience we are being prepared for the dissolution of the Edwardian ways. Lord Grantham is about to learn how to put on his own pajamas. Yet we resist as Lord Grantham resists. We don’t want it in our face as Ms. Bunting would have it. It would be too much of a stretch to say we are the Russian émigrés living in exile from the familiar life before the upheaval. However, gone is civil discourse, Ma Perkins, Rockwellian images, good wars, the Brooklyn Dodgers, double features without gore, rhyming poetry, and melodic music.

The very fact that Downton calls itself an Abbey recalls a time of great change. Abbeys were named as refuges for nuns and monks during the reign of the Catholic Church. Certainly this is more of a manor house than a mere abbey but the name sticks as a reminder of another period of dissolution.

I suppose every age has its turmoil. Just when we think we’ve got it in our grasp it slips away. We have one foot in Downton and the other leaving its print in the unknowable and forbidden moors. If Downton is no more than soap it at least washes away our worries for the moment and we walk away feeling cleansed.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Most Unarmored Man

Saturday about two dozen friends and family memorialized Sam Schultz. This was the second such event especially for those who couldn’t make it back in November. Sam is my late-step-ex-husband-in-law, once removed. Or to put it another way, Peggy’s first husband. We were, in certain ways, kindred spirits having been so chosen. It didn’t take long to find that resonance. Sam was a lovable guy and I grew to love him as a brother over the last third of his life.

We were treated to a projection of movie posters from films he had small parts in and his early photos showing him in the army where he earned two bronze stars for bravery building bridges across the Rhine in the liberation of Germany. Sam never spoke of it. Most of the stories told revealed him as self-effacing. How he lit a cigarette during a blackout during combat and the sergeant said, Oh, it’s you, Schultz. This became a running joke for the next 70 odd years.

Russ spoke about Sam’s visit to Alabama for a college football game just a few years ago. With their red Alabama t-shirts the two found themselves seated in the visiting teams cheering section. Sam’s big smile won over even the most ardent opponent’s supporters including the cheerleaders. Russ brought with him buttons for all in attendance with Sam’s winning smile.

Sam liked to go sailing as in yard sales. He could smell a bargain five garages away. Always on the lookout for an overlooked Jackson Pollock drip or Picasso lithograph he more than often walked away with an Irving Picasso…….his no-account brother.

He had a touch of the entrepreneur / visionary in him. About 25 years ago when I had the pharmacy he supplied me with a line of greeting cards he had created. I don’t believe I ever sold any because the over-sized envelope required 46 cent postage………….demonstrating that he was a man ahead of his time.

His spirit of generosity flowed constantly. When the family exchanged Christmas gifts he was always the one with the most. Even when we set a rule that nothing could cost over a dollar he raided the 99 cent store. I have a pile of flashlights, pens, screwdrivers, mugs and even a Norm’s Restaurant T-shirt.
But it wasn’t just things that he gave, he gave himself. If he detected some disharmony in the family he was eager to mend it.

How to take the measure of a man? By the feeling of warmth and humanity that overwhelms when he comes to mind. Sam was possibly the most un-armormed of men. Vulnerable as he was with his sight, hearing and knees failing, one by one, yet he was fully present in his quiet essence. As he retreated he grew another dimension, inward. Even to the end he saw the world absurd. A sure sign of wisdom.

A week before the end he sensed death and asked Ron to say goodbye and his love to everyone, friends and family. But Dad, Ron said, the doctor was here this morning and took your vital signs; you’re not going to die today. I’m not?, Sam said, then I’ll have a scotch.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Age is such a variable thing, a number that won’t hold still. Today with my back bent I am going on 82, at least. Two weeks ago I was no more than 52. By next week I hope to be back in my 40s. Aging may be nothing more than a weather report with patches of sun and clouds approaching.

I’m in my Quasimodo phase looking for a belfry to bong. I know how Jake La Motta felt, a raging bull taking the nine count on his back.

The Green Hornet had Kato (Bruce Lee) for his assisted living. Tonto was always there at the Lone Ranger’s side. I could use either one or both this morning. Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Flight of the Bubble Bee was the one cue and Rossini’s William Tell Overture brought Hi, Ho Silver galloping. Music inspiring enough to either lift me into a saddle or peel back a wall leading to an underground garage where my shiny car awaits. 

Unlike today there was always crime to fight. A stream of two-bit thugs, cattle-rustlers, syndicates, goons, shady night-club owners with casinos and card sharks in the back room. It’s enough to make a guy nostalgic. No one could escape the long arm of the law. When the bad guy had the good guy cornered in an abandoned warehouse on the other side of town someone always had his back. Now I can feel my own back reverting as I speak.

Here I am leaping higher than a pop fly. Now I’m the glue-fingered receiver making a circus catch on a bullet pass. Or driving to the basket twisting off the dribble with a hang-time of ten minutes, give or take an hour.

I’m writing myself out of my backache shedding years with every sentence. Kelly and Astaire never ached or better yet, Baryshnikov.  These were anti-gravity guys who glided up walls in one take. I’m getting weightless as Busby Berkeley floats me up a stairway to the clouds, winged feathers and all. Wait, this is getting too close heaven. Let me down.

I’d rather be scooting around like Groucho overthrowing the order with a raised eyebrow and cigar as my artillery. I’m almost ready to be stealing home with Jackie Robinson or hopping a freight train with Woody Guthrie.

Why exert myself? Maybe I ought to just settle for Cary Grant, ever suave and debonair, who never worked up a sweat. His death at 82 is just a rumor. No number could really be attached. Trouble, like water, fell off his duck’s back. Where do I get myself a duck’s back?

Maybe I should be thinking, Mickey Rooney. At age 11 he was 5 ft, 2 and never grew which is probably my height at the moment. He lived to 94 close to the ground, and when asked how he won over all those statuesque woman (8 wives) said that he lied about his height. If my inner Daniel Day Lewis has become Al Pacino there must be a way back. With Peggy, hobbled though she is, at my side like Kato, I'll think of something.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Walking and Talking

The parade doesn’t end, it disperses into individuals meandering and mumbling into their cell phones. Pedestrians are faintly subversive in Los Angeles. You’d better have a purposeful look on your face as if you can’t find your car. Strolling can get you arrested north of Wilshire in a residential neighborhood. Home-owners might think you are casing the joint. Dog-walkers are also suspect particularly if they have no dog.

It wasn’t like this back in early 19th century England. Famous men went on famous walking tours. A few years after Napoleon walked through continental Europe John Keats left Hamstead Heath and ambled to Ambleside, 270 miles away, in the Lake District where William Wordsworth lived. He dropped off his collection of poetry which W.W. never opened. The pages were still uncut upon the poet laureate’s death 32 years later. Give a guy a title and this is what happens. I wonder if Keats told him he was just passing by.

For certain Russian poets the creative force is in the breath and that rhythm comes from walking. Of course if they were carted off to the Gulag I doubt if walking was the preferred mode. Andrei Voznesensky said that he never wrote his poems but composed them in his head while walking through the woods or down the street. There were hundred meter poems and thousand meter poems.

Many years ago a friend of mine had a hissy-fit when he was ticketed during the 30 seconds it took to run into a market to get change for a parking meter. He drove around the block and decided he would gum up the meter and then claim it was broken. He parked across from the market and ran to do his dirty deed when he was ticketed again by a police car for jay walking. I haven’t seen him since 1956. He must be the guy who walked the crooked mile.

Some people have no sense of direction. It took Moses 40 years to find the Promised Land. It only took Charlton Heston a couple of hours with Cecil B DeMille lording over him. But God distracted Moses with seas, bushes and a stack of commandments.

Dustin Hoffman, as Ratso Rizzo, in Midnight Cowboy knew his way across the streets of Manhattan. His famous words, I’m walkin here, I’m walkin, set the tone for the American century; too many boots on too much foreign territory.

Now we need to take a deep breath and find a new commandment. I’m listening here, I’m listening.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Passing Parade

The year begins with a phone call from Ralph who played the sousaphone from age six until his discharge from the army marching band sixteen years later.  I presume he took time off to eat. He recalled those freezing days in Chicago when the mouthpiece froze onto his lips and water had to be poured to unstick him.

We imagined the big brass bands in the Rose Parade blowing and percussing their hearts out on Colorado Blvd. between the petaled-floats flown in from far corners. Never for a moment in my 60 years in Los Angeles have I had the slightest urge to endure the elements to witness the spectacle when I could see it fine from the couch.

I hope somebody remembered the warm water to help remove the mouthpiece from those horn players. Life is hard enough without having to walk around with an appendage in the middle of your face. Though Ralph tells me that it helped soften his lips and got him a reputation for being a great kisser in those formative years. On the other hand there is the problem of spittle demonstrating that for every piece of good fortune there may come with it some unintended consequence.

I never have marched in a parade or learned to play a musical instrument and I plan on correcting that in my next incarnation. Though my choice would not be the um, pa, pa of Sousa but a bluesy sax of the Trane or the Bird and the march would be more of a mosey or a prowl.

Another thing I never had is the overwhelming curiosity to experience my tongue on a frozen anything, beyond a popsicle. It was enough to read about. I imagined some fool, last to leave Times Square on New Year’s Eve, trying to pry his tongue from a lamppost.

So here we are beginning our mosey / march for 2015 with frozen lips, but soft when thawed, making the best of it….batons twirling, drums beating, reeds answering brass, arms waving, flowers fighting for their lives transformed into cartoon phantasmagoricals and the whole passing parade, that’s us, high-stepping our way into the great unknown.

The botanical floats will wither before we do, I’m sure of it. The gloss is already off the rose. How many fields of blossoms were pulled from their green fuses for this pageant?

We will go through another round of Vivaldi’s seasons, stumbling and bumbling along, veering off prescribed routes and finding our own paths as we do. There’s a sousaphone in our heads we must answer to.