Friday, December 29, 2017

Goodbye / Hello

I don’t know why you say goodbye / I say hello.
                                                            The Beatles, 1967

So long 2017; yes it has been so very long. How did we ever
get through this first year in the reign of Trumpdum? It has been a great year for Ignorance, Greed and Mendacity. For buying the second yacht or seventh home or leaving a billion to that good-for-nothing son.

I am left with T.M.J. from gnashing my teeth. I lost a molar which I shall not replace. My tongue enjoys the cavern too much. My blood pressure went up twelve points. And now I am either losing my hearing or all my friends have conspired to talk softer and mumble. I‘m scheduled for an audiogram in a few weeks and probably a hearing aid. Maybe my ears have been numbed by Trump-trash. It can be said with certainty that as I approach eighty-five all my body parts are also eighty-five and out of warranty….. no longer returnable even at Costco.

But we’re still here. Americans have witnessed a decline in civility, compassion and decency while cringing, and reaching for new adjectives to describe the menace. We disown the man who speaks from the Tower, not in our name.

The Dow-Jones bubble grows larger and thinner and we wait for crumbs to drop, off-shore money to return along with those factories in China.  We say hello to the upcoming election; may it be momentous.

We said Hello to the record rainfall which painted the desert floor with wildflowers galore. And more recently Goodbye to the fires and floods. Hello, climate change. Hello, darkness my old friend.  Hello, Robert Mueller, let us hear from you.

It has been the year of women's voices raised exposing perverse male behavior. Goodbye Harvey, Roy, Matt et al. Yet the Predator-in-Chief still presides.

Hello, new movies: Phantom Thread, Loving Vincent, The Post….my favorite English language films of the year. Best foreign: Foxtrot (Israeli), The Insult (Lebanese) and Loveless (Russian). Hello also to the great newly found streaming site called, Kanopy. (It’s free…with a Los Angeles library card) which provides access to hundreds of movies including documentaries.

Hello to new poems from Peggy whose muse has taken permanent residence. She sees vividly into the opaque, overhears conversations in the next booth, raids the inarticulate, sends tendrils of connectivity to disparate species and strikes the dark air for music. All this visits her in a divine frenzy and creative burst. A gust of wind fills the room which sustains my blogs.

Goodbye to fallen friends whose absence is deeply felt. Hello to orchids unfolding which I'm counting on this spring, more birthdays and to the wonder of it all.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Humbug, Home-Coming and Ho, Ho, Ho

I’ll be home for Christmas / You can plan on me / There’ll be snow and mistletoe / and presents by the tree.

Hallmark provides the answer to all the dread of our times. The company has been producing cards for over a hundred years reminding us of those white Christmases we ought to have had. They also churn out their own made-for-T.V. mushy movies whose theme seems to be the perpetuation of the Norman Rockwell canvas. Warm hearth and good cheer with frost on the window and presents galore. There is usually a heartless Grinch around the edges who just doesn’t get it. He is probably one of those urban sorts who has lost his way unlike the real Americans in the rural heartland.

Humbug is a forbidden word. It is practically subversive to resist the monetizing of the holidays or the family traditions associated with it. Somebody once said, tradition is the illusion of permanence, but he has been gagged with duct tape and deposited in the basement for the duration of the season. I have come around to accept many of these family rituals as serving a valuable human need. In these days of social upheaval and divisiveness the agreed-upon customs shall prevail. They cut across tribal tents, even joining coastal with fly-over America for the last two weeks of the calendar.

As for Christmas childhood memories I have none. My mother declared it a goyish holiday and Chanukah hadn’t much traction with us either. I worked in a Christmas tree lot one year in Forest Hills but didn’t return when my nose fell off into a cup of hot cider. As a designated Listener in elementary school I was consigned to the last row as the (mostly Jewish) class sang about Baby Jesus born in Bethlehem. Why not? It’s all part of the package.

Absent any snowmen or sleds here in Southern California there is still the coming-home of grown sons and daughters. The home, the haunt. That word, haunt, originally meant to visit or appear frequently or as the noun... an old haunt. Nothing haunts us like memory. So we return hoping to recover shards of it which is to say, to recover our youth as it might have been but probably wasn’t.

In Greek mythology Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War and got a short, sharp shock in his kishkes by his wife, Clytemnestra. Ulysses took his time. After bouncing around for ten years he assumed a disguise before revealing himself to Penelope. Take note, prodigal children. Being expelled in Greco-Roman times was the closest thing to capital punishment. Ovid was exiled and never heard from again.

Peggy and I are celebrating our 33rd holiday time together. The shower of presents has been abolished; we’ve also given up the tree. What’s left is my step son and extended family of two more generations. We feast, we giggle, we wow at the tree, remember absent members and marvel at the new. All illusions of permanence we happily endow another year.

My brother was never at home in this world. He returned after three years in the army and remembered why he had left. Within a month he was gone again in the grip of his haunts.

My life is haunted by visitations. Not spooks but good spirits hovering. My three daughters are thousands of miles away yet they feel close to me, in this room. We are singing off-key in our separate versions of what was, exchanging the gift of ourselves and our amazing journeys.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Winter Solstice

Darkness is descending over this land. Deep shadows are falling. But enough about Trump.

No, Virginia, there really isn’t a Santa Claus. Get over it. Chanukah and Christmas are pagan (peasant) celebrations and that’s good enough for me. Our ancestors were the ancient star-gazers in awe of the diminishing light. Who knows what they thought as December 21st approached with its early sunset and late sunrise? 9 1/2 hours of sun, 14 1/2 hours of dark. It could be the end. We better make a fire and sacrifice a goat or chant until the sun reappears.  

Our Judeo-Christian holidays are magnificent metaphors; festivals of candle lights and ornaments to compensate for all that is gone. Drag a tree inside, ever-green, gift-wrap our eyes. We have an urge for renewal, a child maybe with a fabulous back-story.

It’s all good. It works every year. The unconquerable sun will inch northward granting us shorter nights and longer days. We’re good to go for another round.

Ignorant armies clash(ing) by night* … might cease and find their commonweal. Might all the Ebenezers among us pause and dare open their hearts and wallets to care for the Tiny Tims in our midst? Words, dormant all year can be heard… jolly, merry, good cheer. Memories of winter scenes that never happened come to mind. Choirs will carol familiar songs to the waiting choir.

As for St. Nicolas and paraphrase the poet**, Over golden groves unleaving / It is for childhood you are grieving. We believe in Santa until we become him finding within us that gift of giving.

Will it last as days lengthen, candles go out and the tree withers? Can we remember that brief peace, generosity and the will to do good…and what we have bequeathed to our newborn? The peasant in me says yes we must. In the end, that’s all we have.

·                 * Mathew Arnold’s,  Dover Beach

 **Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Living History

It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your imagination and make them pop like chestnuts. -Gustave Flaubert

We’ve been served an inordinate number of bio-pics this past year. I’ve seen or read about films depicting the highfalutin and erudite like Albert Einstein, the Austrian writer, Stephen Zweig and Srinivasa Ramanujan (The Man Who Knew Infinity), plus Emily Dickinnson (A Quiet Passion) to the low-falutin Tonya Harding (I, Tonya). We were served two Grahams from Gloria (Annette Bening) who didn’t quite die in Liverpool to Katharine (Meryl Streep) who rescued the Washington Post by publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Last year Bryan Cranston popped out of the frying pan as Lyndon Johnson and this year Woody Harrelson took his turn as LBJ. It seems like all chubby British actors get their licks as Winston Churchill. Albert Finney was followed by Toby Jones in past years and this year we were well-served by Brian Cox (Churchill) and Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour). Sir Winston is getting to be as popular as Hamlet; everyone wants to give it a go. I almost expect Meryl Streep to step into his cigar in 2018.

A bit of hokum is to be excused for dramatic purposes as long as it doesn’t come from the fake news fabulists of Breitbart whose fidelity is to their delusional narrative rather than to the actual.

Sally Hawkins made a great Maudie as the real-life naïve folk artist while Vincent Van Gogh was played by the Polish actor Robert Gulaczyk in a most dazzling display of painterly animation.

(Back in the day we kids thought Don Ameche invented the telephone and Spencer Tracy was Thomas Edison. Maybe in times of upheaval folks need their heroes to cling to. I was so confused I imagined Tracy picking up his light bulb and saying, Hello?)

Who am I forgetting? Oh yes, there was Marshall (Thurgood Marshall), Victoria and Abdul, The Crown, Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs (Battle of the Sexes) which I found unwatchable. I also saw the story of Mark Felt who was known to Woodward and Bernstein as Deep Throat. His leaks led to the ignominy of Richard Nixon who left the presidency uttering, I am not a crook.

We live in an age of rapid news cycles with executive tantrums, blurts and exposes; skeletons are falling daily out of closets. Yesterday’s news is already regarded as stale and ready for the history books. People hunger for a good story and everybody has one, which can be rushed to the big screen with a bit of doctoring and embellishment.  

J.D. Salinger made it with (Rebel in the Rye) along with Tupac Shakur (All Eyez on Me), and P.T. Barnum (The Greatest Showman). Why bother with the latter when we have his incarnation sitting in the oval office elected by the mobocracy of Suckers born every minute.

All of this makes for a sort of living history for those born after World War II, Vietnam or Watergate. The generations following Baby Boomers seem to have a remarkable disdain for antecedents so all these movies might whet their appetite to investigate what really happened and how we got to this sorry state.

I expect more of the same in 2018. I’m sure the Harvey Weinstein story is going through final drafts along with accounts of the Al Franken / Roy Moore debacle. But the grand prize must go to the decline of the presidency from Barack to Donald, the most precipitous fall in American history since Mrs. Lincoln’s moving van pulled away making room for Andrew Johnson to sleep on Abe’s pillow.

You can’t make this stuff up, this absurd tragi-comedy script unfolding daily. There is no fiction that rivals the dystopic horror movie we are living in, each of us with cameo roles popping like chestnuts.

Monday, December 4, 2017

At A Theater Near You

I have written close to ninety blogs this year and they are all tied for first place….which is to say they’re also tied for last place.

So it is with movies. Each one gets a full page ad in the newspaper proclaiming it the year’s best. Curbing their enthusiasm is not what these critics are being paid for. December is the time of the year to dust off and drag out those hyperbolic adjectives. Compelling, brilliant, spell-binding, riveting, fierce, impeccable. Leaves you breathless, soaring. The last four are part of a full page ad for a movie roundly condemned by just by just about every critic.

If you see no other movie this year you must….After watching 
that one I may not want to see another. Movie criticism has become part of the fake news industry.

Soon the Golden Globes will bestow their honors foretelling the Oscars….or not. We will root as if it mattered yet I can’t remember which film won the Academy Award two years ago. In fact the most enduring and endearing ones seldom get the votes. Instead we get the one with the biggest splash often with low satiety. Think of Donald Trump on Mt. Rushmore. 

In 1943 Casablanca got nosed out at the Golden Globe by the now unwatchable, Song of Bernadette. The Oscar went to How Green Was my Valley over Citizen Kane in 1941. This was a personal snub of Orson Welles. Vertigo, Grapes of Wrath and The Graduate were also overlooked in their respective years. Hollywood spends over half a billion bucks in promotion for the grand prize. Only six of the top twenty all-time best American movies (according to the A.F.I.) won an Oscar. The prize seems to go to the one with the biggest buzz in the weeks leading up to the event, testimony to our low attention span. God help a movie released in early spring.

Art abhors a hierarchy. At least among the worthy. Why not just honor those approximately dozen works for their excellence and let it go at that? The chances are several would be exemplary of the craft in far different ways. Comedies, which are generally shunned, may receive their due. Musicals, as well. A serous dramatic work operates by different standards. Performances likewise. The comic genius of a Charlie Chaplin should not have been in competition against Fred Astaire or Spencer Tracy nor should one have to choose between Liza Minnelli and Meryl Streep.

Imagine Matisse going against Picasso for the grand prize or 
the pianist of the philharmonic vying with the first violinist.
It all has the whiff of the huckster. Oscar night is an occasion for a celebration of the marketplace not the art of cinema. Foreign and low-budget independent films with no inclination or means for a massive advertising campaign, are ignored unless word of mouth becomes a loud chorus.

I expect to be reaching into my bag of adjectives watching this year’s contenders.  If the short list follows previous years I’ll be muttering vacuous, insipid, juvenile, mind-numbing, inert, cacophonous and stilted dialog. Any sense I have of being out of touch with the popular taste will be confirmed.  

It has been said that everyone in the theater sees a different movie owing to what they bring to the viewing. Maybe my jaundiced eye is just a bad fit for the fourteen year-old sensibility which seems to be pervasive these days. There must be a number of us who have outgrown comic books and don’t wish to pay money to have our nervous system strung out. Nor do we require an obligatory vomit scene and a pile of corpses torn apart in close-ups. In the name of authenticity the Special Effects department presents us with a version of life in extremis leaving little to the imagination. The net effect prepares our psyches for gratuitous violence and gore.

The struggle between the art form and the bankers is inherent in the medium; what we eventually get to see is a collaborative concession, the reconciled negotiation between the integrity of an artistic vision and the financial backer looking for a return on investment.

Now that I've emptied my spleen I don't want to end this piece on such a sour note. In fact I have seen a few films so far this year to which other adjectives apply such as incisive, soulful, visually transforming and imaginatively daring. Pass the popcorn.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Mistaken Identity

All these years and I’m still not accustomed to my face. If I met myself in a crowded elevator I’d probably think the guy looks slightly familiar but then again….

There is a face in the mirror but it hasn’t registered with me. When I shave I see a chin, a neck, a nose (still in the middle of it all)… the sections but not the aggregate.

I’m often confusing faces. When we watch a movie at home I’ll say to Peggy how this guy looks like Cary Grant and she’ll tell me he looks more like Ulysses Grant.. Of course I could tell Danny de Vito from George Clooney or Woody Allen from Kobe Bryant. But young Pacino looks to me like young De Niro and ten other people. I just recently found out that John Hurt, William Hurt and William Hurd are not the same person.

I am your classic unreliable witness. Thirty years ago I was held up at gun point in my pharmacy by a crazed drug addict. I gave him what he came for; even offered to gift wrap it for him to get him out of the store. He was so pleased by my service he returned a few months later. Even called me by name as if we were old friends. He was a white guy with an afro hair style. All I saw was the gun and the hair.

When he was caught I was asked, along with about ten others, to pick him out of a police line-up. Of course I nailed the wrong person…as did 2 other victims. Fortunately they arrested him anyway and he was convicted no thanks to me.

When I met Peggy in 1980 she was sitting alone during my poetry reading at the old Venice jail. During intermission I went over to her and greeted her a loud HELLO…as if I’d just recognized an old friend. I have no idea what prompted that. Maybe I confused her with Ava Gardner. Or maybe I had read my life story and knew this was the woman I would marry in a few years.

In Pharmacy College I was one of 150 students. The highpoint of my time spent in that drab institution was in my sophomore year. By then I realized that just about everyone cheated on exams. The fraternities had the test before-hand. In fact the same questions had been passed down from the previous decade. A few of us chose not to join any frat. One day a classmate came up to me after a midterm test.

You are Wolitsky, aren’t you?
No, I’m Levine.
Damn, I just copied the whole exam from you.
Not to worry, I copied from Wolitsky.

That proved to me I had a common face, easily mistaken for Wolitsky and probably a dozen others. In fact maybe that impostor in the elevator really is Wolitsky. Where are you now Wolitsky? I want to see what I look like.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Ours Alone

Two mugs, these gifts. In the green
freedom of Sunday morning. You,
with late coffee watching the hot architecture
of tyrannosaurus blooming while I sip
my good earth hearing a piano recital.
The English muffin is not burnt.
Your maple syrup has 50% less…
My fiberized cereal has 30% more…
One cup says Carnegie Hall,
the other from the Natural History Museum;
with hot brew the flesh of Rex reveals its bones,
is then restored as it cools. Even
those things extinct can be recovered. I’m thinking
of that breakfast in Connemara.
Now you are walking in the Bois d’Amour.
What passes between us is hushed
across this table of boisterous still-life beyond
even Vincent’s lovingly crazed impasto.
Everything is for sale in the Sunday paper
but we have (common)wealth and need nothing.
You shape a new poem 
with super califragilistic fecundation
deciphering the off-shore fog.
Buzzy-the Hummer is a no-show, nearly 
bare branches, empty bowl.
The silent “n” at the end of autumn.
What I blurted yesterday was 
bourgeois, you say. 
I laugh because it’s true.
Like Rene Descartes almost said,
Sometimes I think therefore
Sometimes I am.
Oh, this extravagant life, this quiet jubilation.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thursday Thanks Day

Of all the holidays on the calendar,
all those three-day weekends,
Mondays with mattress sales,
dead presidents,  dead soldiers
dead words     stump speeches
myth of manger and arcane mumbles

And in spite of…….
240 million dead turkeys (is that possible?),
how we killed our hosts and never left,
breaking bread with a Trump guy, 
(no food fight, please),
Black Friday tomorrow madness,
All the lonely people, 
Where do they all …….

is the one
where we test our threshold
for two of my favorite sins -
gluttony and sloth,
free of piety     secular, 
Can't we all just get along?
inter-tribal   sit down together
second-helping-Day pass the Chardonnay
have a piece of pie      plenitude
abundanza, y’all come-Day,
white and dark     meat
not, I got mine, up yours-Day
but Gratitude Day
our happy accident, 
cosmic crap-shoot Day.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Speaking of All-Night Laundromats

Never been in one but I’m glad they’re there. I imagine these are great places for co-conspirators to meet during the spin cycle with plans to rig an election. If you came to launder money your limo made a wrong turn. This may be where John Le Carre does his best writing. Insomniacs can congregate and bore each to sleep or watch single socks slither out the door…and then show up in a yard sale next month. Those round windows remind me of early television screens by Philco or Zenith. Who does their laundry in the wee hours? Maybe folks on their way to early Mass or nurses coming home on the graveyard shift or some guy who spilled ketchup on himself while eating at an all-night diner.

Which brings me to one of those, We Never Close, eateries. I won’t mention the name but it rhymes with Hell. They call themselves a Drive-In. After having lunch there last week I’d like to drive my car right through the place. Peggy and I thought to give it a try around 3 o’clock. P.M. that is. I can think of five reasons why we’ll never return. The soup was cold. The service, non-existent. Prices were immodest. The air conditioner made us feel we were in Costco’s meat locker. And most egregious was the hundred decibels blaring from the juke- box with a continuous loop of rock music enough to percuss our ears, jangle our nerves and numb our brains. When Sinatra came on for one number with, Strangers in the Night, I thought the torture was over but it then resumed. I was yearning for John Cage’s, 4’, 33” of silence.

The place must be a truck-stop for big rigs headed to San Francisco. Maybe the cacophony along with the frigid air is intended to re-charge their adrenalin for the next 500 miles.

CVS pharmacies are another one with their lights on in this city that never sleeps. Are these for shoppers who hate crowds? Or suddenly woke up in a panic because they ran out of Q-tips or One-A-Day vitamins? My guess is the pharmacist during the day leaves all the routine paper work for the poor sucker on the night shift.

I was a stranger in the night once or twice. The occasion was cramming for final exams in college. Along with two friends I rode the subway through the wee hours in order to stay awake, memorizing structural formulas and botanical origins for a course called Materia Medica. We stuffed our heads with a glossary of name from rhizomes and roots to the inner rind of fruits. None of it had the slightest relevance to my life as a pharmacist counting and pouring. 

Could it be, at the midnight hour, white sheets from the laundromat floated over to the pharmacy like ghosts of alchemical ancestors over a smoky cauldron to do their sorcery in the dark shadows of a CVS all-night inner sanctum? Could it be? I doubt it.

Friday, November 17, 2017


There is no word for it. Those long moments when you are not quite asleep but not awake either. The clock says 2:14 and the next time you peek it is 2:57 and then 3:41 yet you could swear only five minutes have passed. I’ve been told whatever you do, never look at the clock. Therefore I do.

On the board game of sleep you are stuck at Yawns. And that was hours ago. The next station is Snores or at least a snort and chortle. You’re waiting for Uber to take you to Dreamsville. But instead your arm itches. Your leg twitches. You’re hot. You’re cold. A car alarm goes off four blocks away. Did you forget to take the clothes out of the dryer? There goes a motorcycle revving its engine.

Now you are traveling back to 1943 when your friends would look up at the sky and say B-52 or Lockheed P-38; how they could identify airplanes or cars by the grill or talk about carburetors…….and you knew not a thing nor cared a hoot about any of this. But why dwell on that in the middle of the night?

Dreams are a collage of debris, shards of broken pots or pot holes as if floating in inner space. Unresolved moments. Fears materialized. Where did I park my car? Will I miss my flight? Here is my father turned into Spencer Tracy who becomes Barack Obama. And then there’s the mystery of why the cool side of the pillow is the one facing down.

There is no predicting a night’s sleep. Some nights are seamless with dreams of exotic flowers strewn around on a path of rolling hills like the belly of a giggling Buddha. Other nights feel endless punctuated by a restless bladder and dreams of a besieged pharmacist in a flu epidemic with screaming babies, six phones ringing and a broken keyboard.

It’s a bone-brain thing. Those hours in the nether world of half-sleep seem to be a misalignment. The body is bone-weary but the brain thinks it is 2 P.M. instead of A.M. Eyes close but synapses are buzzing. Peggy uses Azerbaijan as a mantra. I wish some word would transport me to a third world country even if I’d be looking for my parked car.

It is now 4:03; too late to reach for a Melatonin, too early to rise. I’ll just stay put reviewing my entire life starting with carburetors, manifolds, fly wheels and gaskets…all those strange words which already are putting me to sleep. Here I am drifting off. But not quite.

I had a breakthrough dream last month. I suddenly discovered myself sitting in the car that I was looking for. I think I was in the back seat. Uber me home.

P.S. I have now been told that there is a word for that half-waking, half sleeping consciousness. It's called a hypnagogic state. I learn something every day and if I hadn't written this down I'd have forgotten by now.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Making America Grate Again

Oops, wrong homonym. Be careful Donald. America is great because America grates.

The dictionary defines the word, grate, as

1-  To reduce a substance to small pieces
2-  To make a rasping sound

By his very presence he has concentrated the national consciousness as a negative model by shredding the culture of male dominance till it screeches with the toppling of predators. 

It is certainly no coincidence that the president’s female grabbing, revealed during his campaign, has led to the fall of Harvey, Kevin, Louis et al along with Roy Moore. The sound you are hearing is the crumbling of the patriarchy.

Credit Trump with this single accomplishment…unintended as it is. A nation nominally led by such a vulgar, narcissistic miscreant ignites an equal and opposite response. Call it revolution, American style. It took a Donald to rouse us from our slumber.

Now if we could only extend the outrage to his dismantling of government agencies, bellicose prattle and abject ignorance of climatologists we could further demonstrate the greatness of our democracy.

Sometimes it takes a tragic misstep in history to make us see with clarity and redress the grievance. The election in 2016 was one such event.

One hundred years earlier an Irish rebellion was put down. The British executed leaders of the uprising. Out of that tragic event William Butler Yeats wrote his poem, Easter 1916. The recurrent line in the piece is, A terrible beauty is born. The death of the revolutionaries had a reverse effect on the Irish people. The militants became martyrs and the movement was reinvigorated.

So too, the Trump presidency has seemingly consolidated the opposition. A terrible beauty is born out of the grating, the mass shootings, nuclear brinkmanship abroad, and threats to health of our planet. It’s the only one we’ve got.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Family Secrets

Pssst. Don’t let it get around but I have none. Family, that is.

I was the unintended outcome of a chemical reaction by a mad scientist in a subterranean laboratory. A precipitate in the bottom of a beaker, left in the wilderness to be suckled by wolves and then deposited in a shopping cart in front of a 99 cent store. Or so it seemed.

The great thing about being bereft is that you get to make up a lot of stuff. My mother actually had five brothers who lived in the Bronx. My father had four half-siblings who lived in Brooklyn. I don’t think the boroughs ever met. It should be noted that four half-siblings are not two people.

In any case these nine uncles and aunts yielded cousins by the dozens …none of whom did I know. They are out there somewhere. If, by chance, cuz, you happen to read this please contact me especially if there’s an inheritance involved. If, on the other hand, I owe you money, forget about it.

I have a dim memory of maternal grandfather, Morris, who lived with us. When he died I was about six. At that point my mother stopped talking to her brothers. It had something to do with who was to pay for his tombstone.

My father’s father was destitute and given to drink. After being widowed he passed along my father, Sam, at age three, to an aunt who raised him. Grandpa Lou then remarried and had four more children... at least three of them brought up as wards of the state. The first-born was a boy he also named Sam, possibly in a drunken stupor or memory lapse. Sam, meet your brother, Sam.   

My favorite cousin, whom I last saw about 78 years ago, is Mildred, daughter of Nettie & Irving. She would now be pushing 90 and happily unmarried. Whenever referred to in family lore she was known as Mildred-Who-Never-Got Married. I’d like to think she was way ahead of time.

Perhaps Mildred was a gun moll or paramour, hopelessly stuck on Bugsy Siegel or Mickey Cohen; in fact her last name was Cohen. Or maybe Mildred was thoroughly Modern declaring her preference for same sex union in a way that baffled Nettie and Irving.

When I was diagnosed with a motor neuron neuropathy about thirty years ago my doctor asked if there was any family history of such. The question prompted me to call my mother's last surviving sister-in-law.

Hello, is this Aunt Anna? This is Norm. Do you remember me? How are you and my cousins? How is Mildred?

You know, she never got married.

Though I wouldn't know her if we met in a crowded elevator Mildred-Who-Never-Got-Married is my favorite because she stood up against the chattering conventions. She is a reminder of why I left New York. One July week in 1954 I got my marriage license, pharmacy license and two tickets out of La Guardia airport. I’m sure that cousins and other members of my tribe meant well but nothing prepared me for relatives meddling or even whispering about my choices in life.

My idea of family consists of my daughters and step-son and family along with grand-children and one great. I would also include my step-niece or is it step-second cousin, Karen. I also count my ex-brother-in-law who has become closer to me since my divorce. Come to think of it my clan is bountiful and keeps growing. I prefer to think of friends as family and family as friends.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Parallel Universe

Seems like most books I read or movies I watch have, at their core, the issue of how to be OF this world but not altogether IN it. If there is an alt-universe there are times I want to get myself on that queue. However my guess is we’re already there. We live with one foot on the ground and the other perched in some mid-distance elsewhere.

It’s the last train to Clarkesville / And I’ll meet you at the station.

About thirty years ago Peggy and I fell from the back of a bus on Oxford St. in London. We had hesitated getting off and when it started up again we tumbled into traffic. Sometimes I think we were killed that day and all these years are just the beginning of our after-life. I could live or rather die with that.

So maybe I didn’t burn the toast this morning...and the Dodgers didn’t go listless in that 7th World Series game ….and Trump really isn’t President.

Show me the way to get out of this world / cause that’s where everything is.

The operative word is transcendence. How to lift off, find the metaphor, burst through the margins, sometimes in an act of creative destruction. It may mean not only smelling the flowers but also listening to them. It may entail finding connective tissue that isn’t there, risk going crazy and it may be worth it.

One author (Jean Giono, Joy of Man's Desiring)) takes the pastoral road into a bucolic world of farmers communing with animals in a peaceable kingdom. Another writer (Richard Powers, Orfeo) sees the artist as a misunderstood fugitive in flight from convention and a fearful populace.

I suspect we all, to some extent, live inside our own paradigm, the one we’ve created in order to breathe freely in Trumpdum. Outwardly we exist in this agreed-upon world. Yet at the same time we inhabit that parallel one where Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto drowns out the sum total of all his majesty’s Tweets.

All four-legged, fin-legged, no-legged and winged creatures prance, slither, gurgle and flutter out their days hearing their own sounds beyond our frequencies and know nothing about the headlines that tremble us. Soon we may join them.

From pre-history on we have sensed a glimpse of an imagined beyond. We love the mystery; that unaccountable twinge felt when mad Uncle Abner dies three continents away or the word succotash appears in the newspaper at the moment it is spoken on the radio or that dog whom your neighbor thinks is her deceased husband having returned.

Conspiracy theories are yet another way out of here. Page eleven of the rag at the check stand tells of the half a mermaid discovered inside a tuna fish sandwich. On page twelve is a JFK sighting or was it Jesus in the arrangement of cornflakes in the cereal bowl.

Next flight in ten minutes. If I had my druthers (and when don’t we all have our druthers, existentially speaking?) I’d book passage on Rauschenberg Airlines or board a slow boat to China with a collection of William Trevor stories accompanied by a bluesy sax to see me off. Anything will do for transport to that other dimension, parallel or wobbly.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sport's Cliches

At some point a phrase falls limp from exhaustion. One day it is pithy wisdom; the next day it’s bad journalism or hollow string of words.

Q-Will you be ready for the big game tomorrow?
A-We’re going to leave it all on the field.

There’s no place like a locker room for dead language to pile up. Athletes are great practitioners, answering clichéd questions with clichéd responses.

Q-How did it feel hitting that home run?
A-I was just trying to make contact.

The sportswriter has a deadline. He/she’s got twenty minutes to file the story, get the close-up, the quote, the gem. But there is none. The player is numb. He hasn’t processed what just happened.

Q- How was your approach facing that pitcher having struck out in your last twelve trips to the plate.
A-I can’t hit and think at the same time. I live in the moment. I just try to slow the game down and focus.   

Professional sports is theater, human drama in real time, sometimes rising to the level of experiential art. It may be the only thing we don’t record. We want to see it live. Interviews are weak tea, superfluous captions to what we witnessed. Incapable words.

Q-What went wrong tonight? Were you feeling fatigue? How did it feel letting your team down?
A-Nobody’s perfect. Credit the other team. Now shut the hell up.

Q-What were the takeaways you learned from this series?
A-The Zen you find on the mountain is the Zen you bring with you.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Stuff Happens

I should have known it would be a bad day when the morning paper didn’t arrive. Then my shoe lace broke. When the toilet backed up I called the plumber. (What’s a “b” doing in there?). The guy swiped $75 from my drawer when I was in the kitchen ruining Peggy’s blintzes, one of which opened up. The crooked plumber then wanted to replace a root-encrusted pipe for $3,000 which prompted my landlord, in a drug-induced stupor, to scream at me till his wife told the guy to get lost.

I then drove to the airport to pick up my daughter, Lauren, at the Southwest terminal. Push button but no ticket. The gate of the parking garage won’t open. Five cars behind me are cursing. We all have to back up in a stream of traffic. I could fudge and report that when we tried to leave we were hemmed in by a construction truck whose driver decided to park behind me blocking our way…but that happened the last time I was at LAX.

To conclude the day, the World Series game ended badly for my team but worse than that the remote control was inoperative. I couldn’t get the mute button to work so we had to endure all the commercials.

It is tempting to make of this a metaphor…something to do with Trump… but sometimes, Dr. Freud, a cigar is not a phallus; it’s just a cigar. No women I know have penis envy, I think. In fact, if a bunch of guys were trying to problem-solve it would help if one of them had a vagina. But I digress.

When things go wrong it has reached the point that we, (alright, I) re-contextualize the schmutz, the broken blintz, the stuck gate, and assign every unmuted ad, a false attribution. The danger is in aligning our own moments of existential angst and random despair with the political minefield and wasteland. There may be a correspondence but we can’t allow this Age of Blight to contaminate our psyche and reinforce our cynicism.

Yes, the guy in the Oval room is beneath contempt. Yes, we’ll be fortunate for the planet to weather his tantrums and inanities but let’s not cede our inner landscape to his ravages. Eventually gates will open, news will arrive and it won’t be infantilized commercials.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Harvey and the Greeks

The Greeks have bequeathed us a great deal…. Socrates, Sophocles and Laryngitis. Philosophers, dramatists and language itself. They modeled a form of democracy, warned (some of) us about hubris and attributed much of what is inexplicable to a roster of gods.

In his monumental work on Greek mythology, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso writes that the role of men is: slayer of dragons. Woman are notable for their betrayals.

At this point I stopped reading and paused. Hogwash, say I, after thinking about Brutus and Judas et tu all the heads of state who betrayed and lost a generation in 1914 and later in Vietnam while suffragettes slew the dragon, injustice, to get the vote. I never met a dragon-slayer among my buddies. Nor was I ever betrayed by her or her.

He cited Ariadne and Medea. Sure, the former may have defied her father, Minos, by laying down thread, like breadcrumbs, for Theseus to find his way out of the labyrinth after he killed the Minotaur. In some versions he married her (that’s the least he could do); in others he just jilted her holding the thread. Who is the betrayer there, I ask you?

Medea got bad ink for killing her kids but that was less a betrayal than revenge. Besides, it was only Euripides account. The other playwrights did not have Medea committing infanticide though she is described as a sorceress. As a moon-goddess she  was deemed a lunatic by the Greeks. It was not uncommon labeling women as such, their ways being mysterious to men.  

In fact it was husband Jason who betrayed Medea by leaving to marry for money. You’d think the Golden Fleece would have been enough.

It seems to me this notion of female double-crossing was a fiction written by a fraternity of power-grabbing, insecure and domineering men who believe that sexual intercourse is what happens with one consenting adult….which brings me to Harvey Weinstein. He wrote the book.

Give a guy with an appetite below the belt, in a position of power within a culture of attractive women competing for parts. Put him in a room with one or two couches and the next thing you know the only dragon he’s fighting is his own demons. Harvey meet Donald. This is not eroticism, it is bullying and violation, Zeus asserting his dominance. It is betrayal of self as well as one betrayal after another against Mrs. Weinstein. Men betray but they don't call it that.

I wonder if the Greeks would call the dozens of women coming forward against the gropers, harassers and rapists as betrayers. That label is the twisted thinking of a newly emerged patriarchy obsessed with curses and revenge. All this in the Golden Age of Pericles upon which our Western Civilization is modeled. Harvey’s defense might be: the devil made me do it; an old story for which there is no corresponding myth except for Zeus, the predator-in-chief.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Light in the Dark Ages

Imagine living between roughly 500-1000 AD. If it wasn’t Goths pounding at the gate, it was the Visigoths.  No sliced bread, Saran Wrap or Seinfeld re-runs. They couldn’t even watch TV by candlelight.  But nobody knew it was dark until the lights went on.

Of course all this is the Eurocentric view. In the Middle East and Asia great civilizations were sprouting…which, in turn, sent armies of Christian Crusaders off to do battle with those infidels and later to colonize. In Africa it was the same story. As Desmond Tutu put it, When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, let us pray. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land…. which, more or less, brings us up to date. 

Today in Trumpdom we live in the shadow cast by his dangerous decrees, appointments and blurts. Our Western clock is being set back to end time. An ill wind blows fanning fires, leveling islands, raising sea level. The wrath of ignorance prevails while we watch comic books on big screens. We have become a nation of bar room brawls and shoot-outs at the OK Corral.

And yet…… there is not only good news to be found on page 11 or 23 of the newspaper but an occasional lotus can be seen pushing up out of the mud. I could cite the latest Dodger victory but that meant bad news for the poor Cubs.

In fact, kindness and generosity are so pervasive they wash over us unnoticed. Even those otherwise deplorable, paramilitary, climate-denying sheep who Bah mindlessly over Fox News, display continuing instances of normalcy, unlike their inspirational leader.

As we were driving to a non-power lunch yesterday the thought of road courtesy occurred to me. How we obey stop-signs (more or less), traffic lights, automatic signals and lane changes. How our very driving grants us the opportunity to practice civility. Without it we’d be bumping into each other. Thanks to the car we create our own psychic space and have learned to observe and honor our fellow strangers. And no highwaymen as in the Dark Ages.

It has taken a Trump to bring me to this search for acts of common decency. A very small sample size of glorious fall foliage is happening outside our window. Soon winter camellia will appear and then bulbs will return with their new spring collection of dresses. I expect there were also moments of illumination in that other Dark Age along with random acts of true spiritual humanity even within the stranglehold of the Church.