Thursday, June 30, 2016

Binary Thinking and Seventy-Two Raisins

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday Western Civilization seems to be under siege, disintegrating as if we’d Hiroshimed ourselves with fundamentalist fools terrorizing our precepts and inciting a band of disgruntled armed followers. But enough about Donald Trump.  

His cousins calling themselves ISIS also practice binary thinking. The enemy is defined as anyone who doesn’t agree with the dogma or slogans. They can be ordinary folks in an airport terminal, night club or protest group or person of color. Decapitate or delegitimize. Waterboard, torture, insult, smear or bully. Anything goes because They are not like Us.

Binary thinking leaves no room for nuance or pluralism. They have zero tolerance for compromise or shades of olive. It is either raining out or it isn’t. You are for us or get out of here. They have whittled a complex tree of life into a simplistic hunk of wood. The illusion of order is insisted upon. Fear of outside forces leads directly to hatred of otherness. Any perceived threat can justify violence.

Dichotomies such as night and day, male and female, coffee or tea preclude third choices. They are exclusionary and they narrow the mind needlessly. When I was twelve I remember thinking since X is bad Y must be good. Or since FDR was a near-God therefore the opposition party must be near-Evil itself.

Those caught up in the binary have a way of inventing facts to support a rigid mind set. So Donald swears there were Muslims rejoicing in New Jersey over Sept. 11th. His imaginary convictions are buckling and require propping up with a constant supply of fabricated facts. Brexit supporters also concocted their own faux-facts to scare the disaffected. Truth becomes an expediency to convert those wandering in the storm.

Fortunately on Tuesday, Thursday and weekends sanity seems to prevail. The half-light between day and night could just as well be dawn rather than dusk. That demon approaching may be a reflection of ourselves.  The unrecognizable new idea or technology or neighbor can turn out to possess some eternal verities in an unfamiliar form or dress. It is reassuring that so much of the new technology in the past century has brought people together.

I think it’s fair to say that when I was twelve I was also eight in some ways and eighteen in others. Maturation comes only when everything else fails. We grow as old paradigms no longer hold up. Eventually, as we ripen, we can even carry opposing views in our heads at the same time and not require resolution.

Terrorists have a hard time with that. There is no pay-off for hatred. No 72 virgins. That promise turns out to be a mistranslation of 72 raisins. Nor is there any reward for striking terror in a constituency with real grievances when you offer nothing but vitriol-laced Pablum.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Extra Paper, Read All About It

Those films with the newsboy shouting are gone forever and how I miss them. The hard-boiled reporter, soft-boiled sucker and the rotten eggs in City Hall. The editor chomped on a cigar, the newsman chained smoked and the publisher upstairs puffed his pipe. I miss all the clich├ęs… the deadline and the scoop. Stop the presses. Get me the city desk on line two. Where the Trib reporter gets the low-down from his snitch to beat the Post on the other side of town.

In, His Girl Friday (1940), fast-talking and conniving Cary Grant not only beats the deadline for the headline but wins over Rosalind Russell, with moxie to spare, from milquetoast Ralph Bellamy, the ultimate second banana.

Newsman Jimmy Stewart doggedly pursues the truth to free Richard Conte from jail in, Call Northside 777 (1948).

Fast-forward 28 years to, All the President’s Men, where Redford and Hoffman become Woodward and Bernstein to reveal Nixon’s dirty deeds thanks to Deep Throat. Investigative journalism turned from zany comedy to real life expose of the imperial presidency.

A more current cover-up was probed, not by a newspaper, but a team of Sixty Minute T.V. investigators led by Dan Rather. On the verge of revealing Dubya as an incompetent draft-dodger during the Viet Nam war Rather and his producer were shown the front door. Score one for corporate America defending its stooge.

The genre is gone because newspapers are on life-support. What was once an essential public trust is slowly becoming a second banana, some vestigial artifact of the last century.

Yet I can’t imagine a morning without my paper. Not to say that I read it all but I like the clutter of it, the way it takes its place in the still-life of our table. If it only arrived yesterday it would be fresh.

How emaciated it looks, poor thing. Many sections have been folded into one or vanished altogether. Department stores have largely departed with their full-page ads depriving the paper of its heft. Doesn’t anyone buy sofas anymore…washing machines, T.Vs, mattresses? Having reached the age when we are done with travel, happy with our couch, our car and appliances I’m OK with the morning paper having little to bulk it up.

I suppose those big ticket items warrant their own section in slick color. They must be the pages I immediately throw away along with market coupons.

In fact the real reason for buying the paper, particularly the Sunday edition, is the joy of sorting. Living as we do in a sea of glut I cherished the illusion of separating the essential from all the rest. It’s almost like weeding out your junk drawer… long-expired coupons, dried-up pens, single shoe laces. The detritus of our lives.

None of this shows any promise of making it to the big screen. There’s no snappy dialog dividing the newspaper into two piles and then carrying one to the recycling bin.

Of course we need investigative reporters more than ever but they can do it for on-line papers like Slate or Huffington Post. I suspect subscribers like me will continue to dwindle until we meet underground once a week watching old movies with the faint odor of newsprint still in our lungs.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Our Greek drama teacher, Frank Dwyer, is not only a scholar, poet, translator, stage actor and director; he is also a master of digressions. Before we get to the play he will speak of his weekend which takes him to the opera or philharmonic leading to an anecdote about a performer, then a recitation from Shakespeare which may then segue into a display of another imbecility from Trump or words of wisdom from Yogi Berra… all said parenthetically. After 2,500 years Euripides doesn’t mind the wait. This could eat up the first hour. And that is not a bad thing.

Digressions expand the margins and remind us of larger contexts. They are proof of connectivity. They mimic the way our brains think. We leap spontaneously in everyday conversation. Sometimes we fall on our face, other times make it to the next ledge.

Peggy also writes digressively. One poem starts with a white horse always out of reach a field away, then it asks if her totem is merely a comfort like a Gummy Bear. The final stanza tries to make sense of her daughter’s death at 63 and the last line references the tragedy in Orlando. You might ask, how did I get here? Tracing the thread of her intuitive mind is the challenge and the joy of the poem.

One person’s digression is another’s distraction. The most famous one belongs to Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, in 1797, is said to have been interrupted by a person from Porlock, a neighboring town, when he was on the verge of composing Kubla Khan. As it is he wrote 54 lines but he claims to have envisioned 200. Not everyone believed him. It was more likely his opium dream that deserted him.

Today we have devised thousands of Porlockian pulls to tease our minds out of focus. There’s a knock at the door. The poet lets him in. In Frank O’Hara’s poem, The Day Lady Died, it takes him 25 lines before he mention’s Billie Holiday’s death. What precedes it is 4 stanzas of digressions. The poet has framed the extraordinary shock of the news against a litany of the ordinary.

Stevie Smith, the British poet, saw the person from Porlock as death itself and she welcomed it. That’s what depression can do to a person. Theodore Weiss imagined Porlock representing the move away from the fanciful toward a more reality based sensibility. The only problem with that idea is the nearly 100 years of romantic poetry still to come before Whitman’s yawp or Emily’s terse realism is widely heard.

The stately pleasure-dome of Xanadu with caverns measureless to man was ultimately replaced by Eliot’s Prufrock measuring his life with coffee spoons. Women coming and going speaking of Michelangelo were finally shouted down by Ginsberg’s Howl. But I digress!

Hold that thought, the announcer says, while we go to a word from our sponsor. Every thought has a sponsor. And did I tell you about the funny thing that happened to me on my way to this page?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

My Father and All He Carried

Often I am eight returning to my father and the air around him. His face was a harbor of unconditional love. That equanimity and affection carried not only in his eyes and unraised voice but most profoundly for me in those drug store vapors which clung to him.

His pharmacy was on that proverbial corner where many lives are turned. The door just a few feet away from our apartment house. The store was the shape of a bowling alley with a soda fountain on the left, perfume behind glass on the right and two globes of colored water in the rear signifying the prescription counter where on a raised platform he presided.

There was an odor to the pharmacy which I don’t think shall ever be replicated. Floral scents escaped from atomizers of perfume mingling with egg salad from the sandwich board along with fountain syrups. Put these together with fumes from fluid extracts, tinctures and rubbing alcohol.

The air contained camphor, cascara and Cocilana one day and eucalyptus, benzoin and menthol the next. Herbs might be seeping from apothecary jars, volatile oils from corked bottles. Acacia grew rancid in the glue bottle. In those days pharmacists made their own glue from acacia. Labels were not sticky otherwise, nor was there scotch tape or plastic vials. This was an arcane world and my father brought it home with him.

The store became an enormous Wedgewood mortar with two overhead fans as pestles rotating the immiscible aromatics and botanicals. Or maybe the vapors were condensed and scooped into a metal malt container spinning its sweet breath. One inhalation intoxicated me with his presence. The olfactory sense is an old factory, a warehouse of smells safely preserved. I can still conjure up that air.

My father died 40 years ago, today. He lives in me as much as I’m able to aspire to and in my daughters who knew him too briefly. Sometimes I pretend he is Spencer Tracy. They both exude a certain quiet assurance, a contained vehemence and vulnerability which made the world safe.

If there were an emergency his arms were the ones you’d want around you. He could be quick removing a cinder from an eye or deliberate listening to a customer/patient’s woes. There were an invasion of gnats on an August night which covered the Ex-Lax sign on the store window. It was his voice you wanted to settle the neighborhood crowd.

On that December Sunday of infamy I was in the store putting cigarettes in their respective bins and listening to the radio when the program was interrupted by the news of Pearl Harbor. I didn’t quite understand but the air was suddenly charged with a new voltage. He closed early that day after Mr. Buckley, the neighborhood drunk, came in for his daily bottle of cough syrup.   

My father took on that gravity of the times. His business declined till he finally lost the store before the war ended. He was accustomed to loss. His mother had died shortly after childbirth; then raised by an aunt and uncle who was an impoverished peddler. My father sold newspapers on the street but was barely literate himself. He passed a high school equivalency test only after being tutored by my mother. It was sufficient to see him through two years of college with a license to practice pharmacy.

He also nearly lost his own name. My father’s father remarried and proceeded to sire three more sons, all raised in an orphanage. Perhaps in a state of intoxication he named one of them Samuel which was my father’s name. Sam meet your brother Sam.

Somehow he emerged from these travails intact. The hardships he carried seemed to have called up his inner resources. When he joined some left-wing groups in the thirties it was out of compassion for the downtrodden. Later with two FBI agents at our front door asking him to name names he stood tall finding his spine in silence.

I’ve written earlier how the outside wall of the store was the length of the soda fountain within. That wall with its ledge was my imaginary ballpark as I threw pink Spauldeens against it hundreds of times. It was as if I eventually beat a portal through that wall and I walked through taking a place alongside my father.

During my four years in pharmacy school (1950-1954) I witnessed the changes that would deodorize drug stores. Gone were the crude drugs and most compounded prescriptions by the time I graduated. Bottles suddenly appeared on the shelves from Squibb, Parke-Davis, Upjohn; all later swallowed by even Bigger Pharma.

While going to college I worked at night in a local drug store where my father was also employed. He had a way of holding the moment and slowing the world down to his deliberate pace. He carried a certain weight as if there were a heavy load on one side of the torsion scale he needed to balance. I found myself out of sync with him, unable to reset the weightlessness of my youthful clock. There was a gulf between us I couldn’t bridge until much later in life.

He did not aggress the world nor would he allow it to aggress him. No, he didn’t really look like Spencer Tracy. Tracy, at his finest, looked like him. He brought my father to mind with his patience and persistence depicting Thomas Edison and his quiet toughness in Bad Day at Black Rock.

The air my father carried remained as pungent as ammonia, bracing as bay rum, sweet as Evening in Paris and organic as the rhizomes and roots of shamans.

Monday, June 13, 2016

114 Postcards

just counted them. They are all faces of writers, artists and a few actors all looking down in my direction. Also Einstein, Billie and Duke and there’s Seeger and Guthrie. All pinned to a corkboard the length of my writing room.

I’m listening to an on-going conversation and perhaps a lost chord hoping to pick up a dropped pearl of wisdom. In any case I enjoy their company. They nudge me now and then. It’s almost like having a dinner party without having to cook.

Charles and Ray Eames are riding a bicycle built for two. Nabokov looks like he’s flying a kite or is that a balloon. It couldn’t be a butterfly net. Thomas Wolfe is getting on a bus. Maybe he just dropped off a few thousand pages on Max Perkin’s desk.

Kafka looks like he is on trial for God only knows what. Einstein is having a good hair day all things being relative. Keats and Yeats are negotiating to have their names rhyme. There’s Marilyn Monroe next to Emily Dickinson. They are giggling in girl talk.

Henry and William do not look like the brothers James but Camus, Chagall and Bogey appear to be related. Plath and Sexton seem happy enough to go on.

Pete and Woody are trying to overcome what Robeson couldn’t. Ellington is taking the A train and Chet Baker is blowing his heart out. That other Woody (Allen) is still not dead…maybe the only one alive in the gallery. He always said he didn’t want to be around when it happens.

I’d love to hear what Charles Bukowski has to say to Coleridge on the road to Xanadu. Eliot looks like he’s been etherized upon a table and Pound has a feral look like he was just uncaged. Sontag of all people is posed like an odalisque.

Dylan Thomas, without a drink, resembles Orson Welles and a thin Orson Welles is a dead ringer for Citizen Kane.

And there is Rin-Tin-Tin or possibly Meryl Streep in her greatest role.

How can I be expected to write a blog with so many eyes on me?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Deprived Childhood

From a writer’s perspective I could say I was deprived of a deprived childhood. Beyond the usual knee scraps and psychic scars I never rafted down the Mississippi nor was I orphaned early, sent to a workhouse where I had to beg for more gruel, and survived as a street urchin.

I lived from age eight to twenty-one on a quiet street in a four-story walk-up, called Tudor Arms, on the border between Kew Gardens and Forest Hills in the borough of Queens. Around one corner was my father’s drug store and the other, a subway entrance which took me to Manhattan by express for a nickel in twenty minutes.

Forest Hills had neither forest nor hills. I suppose at one time there were woods but they were leveled for apartments along with the bumps in topography. We had one depression of sunken land we called the Toilet Bowl. It was perfect for sleigh riding if you could steer around the bushes. The bottom was about the size of a football field but an errant pass might bounce into the Grand Central Parkway.

Kew Gardens was named after the Botanical Gardens at Kew in London. Toward the end of the 19th century the town was settled when a cemetery was built with a railroad station to deposit mourners.

Eighty years later in 1964 Kew Gardens suddenly found its name associated with the notoriety of grief on several levels. A terrible murder took place. It was incorrectly reported by the N.Y. Times that while Kitty Genovese was being attacked on the grounds of her apartment house on-lookers failed to come to her aid or call for help. In spite of later stories to the contrary of neighbor’s response the original narrative stuck. It is known as bystander’s effect.

It’s ironic that those neighbors in her building live in infamy for what they allegedly failed to do…but actually did. It was the police who failed to respond assuming it was a domestic quarrel…as if that wasn’t sufficient reason.

I knew that address on Austin St. It wasn’t Tudor Arms but could have been. If William Maxwell lived there he might have written his small masterpiece, So Long, I’ll See You Tomorrow, about this shocking incident.

The idealized images we carry about childhood come into sharper focus when they are stained like a microscope slide. What was idyllic becomes more shaded. Bucolic Kew Gardens had its weeds.

My neighbor, Johnny Kassabian, had three years on me but we were close friends living in adjacent apartments. His family was the first to have television. He even gave me the key to his front door so I could watch TV when nobody was home. We shared a wall and also the memory of a fence when I was eleven years old.

That fence we often scaled to play touch football is remembered as the one I climbed with him when a knife he carried for some Boy Scout project entered his arm, severed a nerve and he lost use of three fingers. Whether we ran to my father’s pharmacy to stop the bleeding and dress the wound or made our way to Dr. Prausnitz whose office was on the same Austin St. as Ms. Genovese, I don’t recall. Maybe we did both.

We drifted apart as kids do. He went to Boys Tech. High School in Brooklyn to study drafting and engineering. Did that injury affect his life’s work? I don’t have an ending to this story. Kids don’t say goodbye. Only so long, see ya. We are both actors and bystanders in our own movie.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

In That Great Gettin-Up Morning

Having slept….I’m coming back out of the primordial ooze…not of a sudden but of a gradual, cell by cell, loitering up the ladder into the texture of voices, listening to flowers open, sketching conversations at the hummingbird feeder. Now is the hour to be cherished. I’ll elongate it if I can.

The muses are conferring, nakedly across the spectrum. Out of the muck, a lotus. From the fog, the illusion of clarity. Yesterday’s montage reconfigured into a pattern. Calligraphy in the scraps. This is the place of first permission.

What is allowed is a clue here, a knot there untied. Breadcrumbs to the door.  But the unsolved case remains. No, Holmes, not elementary, only put to rights for a while.

Leave it to the Brits with their endless chief inspectors, constables, double-agents, moles and probing clergy-detectives chasing ultimate questions. More than a match for our private eyes, our Sam Spades digging into traces of our mortal coil.

I am a sleuth. And so are we all. Trying to make some sense of life, this mystery… chipped away by any creative act. A brief mastery. But always a piece of the puzzle missing or a few extra ones after we think the jig-saw is complete.

Sometimes I fantasize a whodunit when a hand reaches out from behind a curtain. A shot is fired and the henchman flees. An inspector bends down over the body, Who did it, Mac, who did it? But all Mac says is, Whiskey, I need a drink, blood trickling from his mouth. That yellow-bellied sonovabitch, he whispers. But Mac, tell us and he utters, L.B, as his head drops.

So now we know, it must be Ludwig Beethoven or Lucretia Borgia, two-thirds of LBJ, Leonard Bernstein, Lord Byron or Lauren Bacall or Elbie, the janitor or L.B. Ipswich, the millionaire recluse or none of the above and maybe he was saying,
I'll be damned, as he stared into the opaque.

Sir A.C. Doyle was likely a man who valued his naps. He passed the habit along to Sherlock who, with the aid of Laudanum, could have several getting-up mornings a day and they were all great. It’s not the stupor of narcosis but the clarity of vision coming out of it. Crime solved! He got his culprit, always an aspect of Moriarity, aka, Evil, Death. Who Dunnit begs the larger question, What’s It All About, Anyway …and Then What?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Sleep, Perchance....

At midnight, when my itches are itching exponentially and the big toe hurts loudly and I’m turning the pillow over to its cool side… the person I envy most in the world is the guy who gets to sleep the moment his head hits the pillow. I want that DNA. I’d give up my Melatonin, Valerian and Benadryl along with my mantra which has never worked anyway.

From early on we were told that normal people sleep eight hours a night. If this is an average they must have factored in the 17 hours a baby gets. Even pre-teenagers clock in eleven hours/night. Therefore I must be OK with my fractured four, ninety minute naps.

It takes me about a fidgety hour to review my entire life, all the dumb things I did, said or wrote. (There’s a fresh batch every night). Then I set aside time to consider a litany of what ifs. Peggy calls it worry but I call cautious, contingent creativity. I might then remember some phone call I need to make in the morning or a light bulb or shoe lace that needs replacing or food to defrost or dry cleaning to pick up or blog to write…such as this.

I might even think of a song whose melody gets stuck in my head and won’t budge. With a little luck I can ride the tune into oblivion but just then the upstairs neighbor closes his window with a slam or someone in the street just outside our window starts talking on his cell phone. I require silence. My favorite line from On the Waterfront is Marlon Brando saying to Eva Marie Saint that he can’t move to the country because the crickets make him nervous.  

I read an article that tells me I could be one of those old folks who favored segmented sleep. In fact up until the Industrial Revolution most people had first sleep of four hours, then up for an hour or two followed by second sleep. In the middle of the night prayers were recited, plots hatched and babies conceived. Imagine meeting someone for breakfast at 3 AM. You’d probably have to find a truck stop.

Lately Donald Trump, damn him, has invaded my sleep. I’ve been dreaming of rouged clowns, schoolyard bullies and walls. I wonder if a Trump sleep counts as restorative of brain cells or if it contaminates them. Last night I dreamed I was being smothered between a stack of his red caps and a pile of orange straw. When I woke up I discovered my face had slipped under the pillow.

Speaking of which several questions remain unanswered. Was it really necessary to spend approximately 28 years of my life asleep and why is the cool side of the pillow underneath? Something to ponder at midnight.