Sunday, September 27, 2015

Berra not Serra

A humanist pope? It’s almost an oxymoron but as popes go Francis is the best. His message was more universal, lower-case catholic than upper-case. It has been a good week for the planet.

In a few days he changed the conversation, shunned opulence to be among the least, modeling a back to Jesus moment for the faithful. He reminded the suits that refugees and the homeless are not just numbers but humans, called for responsible governance, urged action be taken to halt climate change, argued against the death penalty and even got John Boehner to pray for him, step down, stop crying and start smiling again.

Yet he got one thing wrong. He canonized the colonizer, Junipero Serra. At the time of the American Revolution Serra was busy in California jamming the cross down the throat of the indigenous people whether they liked it or not. There is evidence that he enslaved the Indians and forced them to build nine missions.

The Church was part of the Spanish rapacious power structure; a shameful chapter in European history still with its after-shocks.

No doubt by some act of providential intervention Yogi Berra choose this time to die. Now here was a man who not only performed miracles, he was one. He took the fork in the road less travelled to get to the restaurant nobody went to because it was too busy. He didn’t even say half the things that he said. This is enough to be sanctified.

His feats on the field also left us scratching our head. His strike zone seemed to extend from one dugout to the other. He swung at pitches from his shoe laces to his helmet. Yet he never struck out more than 38 times in a season. Compare this with today’s sluggers sometimes whiffing over 200 times. Standing at just 5 ft. 7 inches he was still a power hitter. Four more home runs and he would have surpassed Joe DiMaggio. As Yogi said, 90% of the game is 50% mental.

At the mention of Yogi Berra’s name a smile crosses your face. While Father Serra stole the native language, Father Berra gave voice to the common tongue. His blurts became immortal and raised illogic to new heights. Yogi not Junipero, Berra not Serra should have been sainted.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Other Side of the Fence

Kew Forest is its name. A residential tree-shaded, narrow street three blocks long. It was my crucible, the center of my canvas in the neighborhood of my mind. We lived on the edge of Kew Gardens and Forest Hills. Hence the name, Kew Forest. Lifted from the British Kew of Botanical Gardens, there were no such gardens here nor were there any forests or hills.

A few steps from our apartment house was my father’s corner drugstore, named Kew Forest Pharmacy, the vapors of which still reside in my nostrils. That special mingling of perfume, egg salad or tuna from the sandwich board and crude drugs seeping out of apothecary jars can never again be replicated.

Against the outer wall of the store I spent many innings of my childhood throwing tennis balls or pink Spauldeens in a simulated ballgame of which I was batter, fielder and ump. Over time I beat a portal through that wall and took my father’s place.

All this was recently brought back to mind by, of all people, Donald Trump. It seems that for two years he attended Kew Forest School, now a blemish to the street of my memory.

Directly across the entrance to my building was the private school. I never set foot inside. My school was first P.S. 99 and later a public high school. Kew Forest School took up an entire block most of which was a grassy field, the perfect park for us kids. From age 8 to 21 we scaled that chain-link fence dozens of times to play touch football or softball.

One day I went over with my buddy, Johnny Kassabian. He was holding a knife in his hand for some Boy Scout project. The blade went through his arm decommissioning two fingers. Out of this I learned the technical name for the nerve damage, Palmar fascia aponeurotic expansion of the palmaris brevis. It marked the beginning of my love for language.

The snooty students would frequent my father’s store. Many took booths, ordered drinks from the twelve-seat soda fountain and sat for hours with two straws nursing a cherry coke.

I missed Donald by a few years but I can see him commanding his peers on the baseball diamond, hurling insults at the opposing team having learned a life of privilege and posturing behind that fence.

Though he has now become part of that street of many returns I won’t let him tarnish my Edenic tableaux. Yet into each garden a little rain must fall.

He is a reminder how I once stole a broomstick from the basement of my apartment house for a stickball bat and of my many trespasses climbing over the Kew Forest fence. And didn't I boast and lie and sneer back then more than once? I'm sure of it. That was the Donald Trump in me. I can't recall ever winning at Monopoly, stuck for the most part at Baltic and Mediterranean while Donald was building hotels at Park Place and Boardwalk.. on the other side of the fence.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Spoiler Alert: We're All Going to Die

Not now, not even soon. But some day. I hate to give away the ending but Shakespeare did in the first ten lines of Romeo and Juliette.
     From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
     A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.

Again in two of my favorite novels (The Transit of Venus and The Hand That First Held Mine) around page 57 we learn that the protagonist will die young and one in a plane crash yet. Now I know what she doesn’t know. For the next 200 pages I find myself anxious for her. What seems like a spoiler actually creates more tension. It may be counter-intuitive but it is a clever device.

By telling us, maybe the author is also declaring that she subordinates plot to either the larger issues raised or her language itself. Plot may be nothing more than the piece of red meat the burglar tosses to the watchdog while he raids the house.

In the real world, of course, we also know the last page but spend our lives convinced it doesn’t apply to us. We start dying the day we’re born and start living. Fortunately I’m now too old to die young. If it said so on page 57 it must have slipped my mind. If I forget to die there are always enough momento mori around to remind me.

The Greeks struggled with the notion of mortality. They invented the gods to account for fate, happenstance and bad hair days. Any behavior bordering on hubris (chutzpah) or otherwise offensive to the imagined gods received a ruler to the back of the hand…or worse.

Oedipus ended up a husband and son to the same woman, committed patricide and then got a poke in the eyes, self-inflicted. It was enough to ruin his whole week-end.

The audience knew well the story of the myth but ate up the telling of it. No spoiler-alerts necessary. Humankind is admonished to know its place and not stray into the precincts of the gods. Unanswered questions were to be addressed to Zeus and his accomplices. Messages are answered in the order received…even if Mt. Olympus is experiencing a high-call volume.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


This Sunday the world will continue its wobbly spin. Trump will thump his chest while bloviating. The least and dumbest among us will appear on morning talk shows.

At the same time butterflies will flutter by and the neighborhood hummingbird will brunch with his considerable beak into our gourmet feeder celebrating our 29th anniversary. Not just another day for Peggy and me.

In 1986 we made it official after 2 ½ years together. We got it right this time. Only a few people in attendance that day are still with us. It happens that way the second time around. How to describe bliss? I suppose it’s bad form to publicly proclaim one’s good fortune. I might sound like Donald Trump. But the fact is I won the human lottery.

At 94 Peggy is still in her extended prime. We don’t travel any more but her imagination carries her to far regions off the map. If she takes daily flights of fancy I ground her and in the process she lifts me enough to claim a distant perch.

As a surrogate mother to at least a half dozen young(er) friends, besides our combined families, she is a model and inspiration of how one might be in this world pulling on inner resources. She is a harbor for my voyage both in and out.

Peggy enthuses and her ardor is an affirmation of being alive. It charges the air around her. Her ground, her gaze becomes a fertile garden of possibilities with hybrid consanguinities. In a recent poem she connects secular saints (transformational artists) with lame religion and the faithful watching a sixteen inning baseball game.

Peggy was orphaned at eight. As a consequence she had the benefit of two mothers. One offered unconditional love and nurtured her imagination. Her aunt who took over gave her the tools to make her way in the world. How she made her way to me and I to her is the stuff of a French film where a man and a woman drift inexorably toward one another, almost meet, then almost don’t, then do. It’s called life. It is our movie.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Religion

Most of my friends are Jewish atheists. There are also some ex-Catholic atheists and few other denominational non-believers. (I’ll put my Buddhist ones aside since of them I know not). I devoutly believe it is more likely for an atheist to be religious than those observant of a religion. Or to put it another way in order to have a religious experience it helps not to have a religion.

A house of worship is one of the least likely places to be lifted to an, aha dimension. I regard fundamentalist orthodoxies as a form of mental illness or at least some sort of neurosis. Those whom I’ve encountered seem to have a desperate need for the absolute with no room for doubt or deviation.

The noun, religion, has been so degraded by hollow ritual, hypocrisy, fables, divisiveness and irrelevance that only the adjective survives for me. Even then I wish for another word. Our vocabulary is impoverished in expressing spiritual, numinous or transformational moments.

In my view organized religion has usurped and subverted the true experience which I regard as touching one's soul. We are asked to park our brains outside. The congregation of the lost hungers for that other realm but must settle for warmed over passages which numb the mind separating instead of joining with people outside those walls. 

Maybe this is as it should be since these special happenings are beyond articulation. They can be described but not explained. However I think those soulful instances where one feels most aligned and lifted might be more recognized if we had the words to say it.

If I’ve stepped on sacred toes talking about that which we are never to speak God help me. It seems to me the very subject we ought to share. I have this need to turn around the negative of non-theism into something positive.

The atheism I embrace is not simply a statement of rejection of a Godhead. It is an affirmation of humanity. Walls of temples are not sacred, nor icons and edifices, nor days of the calendar, nor ancient texts and their poetry-turned-literal. Life is holy. The natural world deserves our reverence. How we are stewards of the planet is religious; how we care for one another through generosity and forgiveness, how we open our hearts to suffering, how we love and receive each other…these are among the daily opportunities given us to go beyond.

Art embodies all this. Music, dance, visual pieces and the written or spoken word offer a chance to connect. But there is also art in our dailiness. In the close listening and the bearing of witness there is a devotion I call my religion, Humanism.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Muscle Called Memory

Frank Dwyer stands in front of our assembled class of octogenarians-plus at Santa Monica Emeritus and recites a rather long Longfellow poem by heart. A minute later he is delivering The Canterbury Tales in Middle English or passages from Shakespeare. Frank is a mere seventy years old. The muscle of memory is what he calls it; something he nurtured back when. We marvel at our teacher’s prodigious recall.

Besides being a poet, translator, scholar and supreme teacher Frank is a stage actor.  Thespians are either the last vestige of the old oral tradition or the finest examples of a new one. Their memories are a repository of our cultural heritage.

Call it a muscle or a faculty it is what most of us let fall into disrepair decades ago when we learned how to read. Literacy replaced memory. It is hard to imagine a pre-literate society when news was disseminated by word of mouth often by troubadours yet hearing was the heightened sense in acoustic space. The auditory sense was acute, even essential for survival in the bush.

Ancient texts, like Bhagavad Gita and Homeric tales, were passed along orally. Traces of this can be found in the way children’s street-games survive intact across generations, at least that was the case when I was a street urchin in New York.

If memory is a muscle so can muscles hold their own memories. Baseball players often go through a seemingly mindless ritual just to quiet their heads and allow their muscles to work in concert.

Marshall McLuhan made the case that the advent of the printing press extended our visual sense inordinately. Literacy became our measure of intelligence. He argues we are now in a post-literate stage. A certain shorthand of emojis, hashtags, avatars and icons have created a universal language replacing the old rules of spelling and grammar. Long-winded passages have been ceded to tropes and memes. The preferred mode of writing is with words reduced to numbers and letters (U 8?) and acronyms (INMO). We live in a hurry-up world.

Millennials have a disdain for lengthy texts. A shorter perceptual span is compensated for by a more inclusive and broader visual non-linear field. As geographical borders are being erased we are becoming retribalized according to kindred interests.

It’s been noted that pre-literate people in undeveloped areas have made the leap to this post-literate age more easily than the literati. Just look at our pre-literate grandchildren whom we depend upon to get us through the day.

The effect of media goes largely unnoticed. Most of us live our lives looking in the rear-view mirror. We judge behavior by standards no longer viable. In this post-literate period will memory return? Perhaps it already has. We must remember pin numbers, Social Security numbers and passwords enough to rival a Longfellow poem. On the other hand I don’t see many people assigning long passages of literature to their memory muscle except for Rappers who sing endless verses without benefit of the page.

After we have digitalized all our printed words and then hacked and fracked ourselves to oblivion let the last few standing have their memory muscles flexed to pass along our received wisdom to the visiting aliens. It is properly called reciting by heart.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Celebrating Ralph Marcus

                               In  Memorium

Life minus Ralph will be a deep personal loss. He was my telephone mate. I celebrate that man I got to know particularly over this past year or two when we didn’t see much of each other but spoke regularly. I know he could be impatient and ill-tempered at times but the man I knew was his best version.

We would talk on the phone sometimes 4-5 times a week for half an hour or more, usually about nothing and everything. I was going to call him Monday afternoon when I got the shocking news of his death. I was about to tell him that he shared a birthday with Oliver Sacks. Now, like that other Oliver I want to say, Please Sir (Ralph), I want some more.

Though it happens spontaneously there is a certain art to conversation. It can be a creative act when the people are in resonance. Words flow and each sentence segues to the next…sometimes a leap across time and space. It’s a wondrous thing. And when it occurs you may look back and think, What just happened here?

How we got from A to Z is untraceable. One word reminded us of another word or a phrase and off we’d go talking from medical matters to baseball to Winston Churchill to some Labor-Zionist song of his to a shard in his memory vault playing the sousaphone in a marching band with frozen lips, to concerns about Judy, to an old movie, or a Yiddish expression, to an opera diva he watched from his chair-bed at 4 AM to the making of an ultimate martini, to money woes and we’d end either commiserating, laughing or both. And after all the verbiage there was something else, unsaid but understood.

In the course of all this zig-zag we had tapped into each other’s better angels, a room in the mansion seldom opened where we had a sort of brotherly affection and the words to express this love.

If this was an improvisational dance we also accepted that we had a major disagreement which required a choreography carefully avoiding the land mine that would have brought pistols at dawn. In a certain way this made our friendship even greater for what we valued as
higher than those hot spots.

We all have our stories to tell, part actual, part imagined or at least embellished. Pebbles underfoot, the polishing of years, make jewels of.  Sandy Koufax said it best, “The older I get the better I used to be.” So I lent Ralph my ear and he lent me his. Our narratives are finally all of what we own and in the telling we discover who we are and how we matter.

In the end it is about feeling seen and heard, beyond the persona, even beyond long-held beliefs and passions to finally arrive at the generous heart. Ralph found both that soulful place and high spirit. This is what shall live on in me.