Saturday, February 25, 2017

180 Degrees

How could we? What does it say about voters to go from best to worst? Probably the same as going from worst to best. Consider James Buchanan, formally regarded as the worst president ever. And he preceded Lincoln. Now the worst president distinction needs to be seriously revisited.

Buchanan fell the furthest considering his impeccable resume’. He served in both houses of Congress, was twice ambassador and Secretary of State. Yet he allowed slavery to expand, applauded the infamous Dred Scott decision and sat on his hands while Southern states seceded from the Union. He bequeathed the entire mess to Lincoln in 1860.

Then there was Young Bob and Fighting Bob. The two La Follettes were Wisconsin’s distinguished Senators from 1908 to 1946. Robert Sr. was named, by a select committee of Congress, among the five most highly regarded Senators ever to have served along with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. He founded the Progressive Party and three times ran for president. His son was a favorite of FDR and a champion of unionism and redistribution of wealth.

Yet the voters of Wisconsin, in their infinite wisdom, replaced Robert Jr. with none other than Joe McCarthy whom history remembers as a man with no decency having been censured by his Senate colleagues for reckless smears and fear-mongering.

And now we have Donald Trump following two terms of Obama who has dignified the presidency in ways few of his predecessors ever reached. His humanity, high consciousness and deliberation set the bar higher for all to follow. And who follows? A man consummately unfit for the office who exhibits signs of dementia or malignant narcissism or some, as yet un-named disorder according to serious mental health professionals.

It’s small comfort to know that this 180 degree turn of the electorate is not without precedent. It reveals the two strains in America which have co-existed since our inception: the Puritan ethos, authoritarian, punitive, indifferent to the less fortunate, xenophobic along with the Liberal, inclusive and empathic with a belief in role for the federal government.  

Technology has brought with it change both accelerated and largely hidden. Disruptions hit certain sectors harder than others. This time around Charlie Lunch Bucket felt it and bought into Trump’s hollow promises.
One can only hope for a return to the fold as factories remain shuttered and the economic disequilibrium gets tilted even more in favor of Trump and his buddies who live in some alternative reality.

In the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, Trial by Jury, the defendant, who has found a new subject for his affections, is being sued for breach of contract of marriage. He sings to the jury, But this I am willing to say / If it will appease her sorrow / I’ll marry this lady today / And marry the other tomorrow.

Without a feel for the fundamental values of a particular party one enters into a rocky mismatch ripe for betrayal. The working people of the Rust Belt will soon discover they’ve been cheated. The ill-gotten gains of corporate America are misaligned with the out-of-work and under-employed. Their health care and Social Security are in jeopardy as is the air they breathe… and nobody is going to invade our frozen yogurt shops.

These Trump-Democrats won’t have to travel the full 180 degrees/ The Dems also have to turn some and address the grievances of displaced workers. To everything turn, turn, turn.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wets and Dries

It wasn’t quite a forest anymore. More like a garden of botanicals. Exotic with rhizomes and roots, excrescence on some trees. Leaves macerating. Acacia slightly rancid in the glue bottle. It was those arcane names that drew me in and their intoxicating breath.

They asked me, what’ll it be? You’re seventeen. Who are you? I only knew who I wasn’t. My brother, four years older, with a tool box, tinkering under the hood. Never owned a library card. No. I would become my father.

I entered his world of pharmacy as it was withering. 1950, still with ancient vapors I had inhaled as a kid. Apothecary jars on the shelf labeled podophyllin, glycyrrhiza, aqua hamamelidis. The glossary became a second language.

Four years later I was licensed but the Edenic garden was nearly gone. It had become bottled alphabetically. The aromatic elixirs had vanished or fallen into disrepute. Squibb, Parke-Davis, Upjohn, Eli Lilly, Burrough-Welcome claimed the space, now deodorized. But we still had the Wets and Dries.   

That’s what we called it. Compound tincture of benzoin and oil of eucalyptus were some of the wets. The stuff put into a vaporizer whose mingled odor in the steam certified a sickroom. Bicarbonate of soda was one of the dries. They were a part of a section dividing the prescription area from the front.

The front was where customers stood. Back in the day the Rx compounding area was raised so the pharmacist was looked up to as he presided between globes of colored water. My father was on that pedestal for me but now I was eye to eye with a man faking a cough to get his hands on a bottle of Terpin Hydrate with Codeine, aka G.I. Gin, which was among the wets. His signature in the registry book was required; today it was Joe Smith, tomorrow Bill Blotz. Poor guy. If the codeine didn’t get you, the alcohol did.

Wets and Dries are the last gasp of early pharmacy. Old preparations or chemicals so long in use they couldn’t be patented and sold as proprietaries still hang on. Iodine would be another one.  Epsom salts, in five pound boxes remain, usually filling the bottom shelf of the section. Flowers of sulfur (brimstone) used for acne, no longer. The wets included cascara sagrada (laxative), spirits of ammonia (smelling salt), peppermint water (mild carminative) and Stokes expectorant (demulcent and suppressant). Those names still get me.

In the 1970s, the FDA required proof of efficacy and safety for all items sold having a therapeutic effect. There was no pharmaceutical company to bear the expense of an approval process. Old standards such as Mercurochrome fell away along with dozens of others. I also fell away but that drugstore air remains in a corner of my lungs, pungent, floral and earthy in a special proportion I can conjure with any number of old-world words…cimicifuga, asafetida, opodeldoc.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Making America Grate

Taking in a Trump news conference makes me nostalgic for George W Bush. Both men had to drop breadcrumbs to find their way out of a sentence but Dubya seemed benign, even humble. Of course he had much to be humble about.

Our current POTUS forgets the question in the few seconds it takes for a reporter to finish asking it. Regarding the spread of anti-Semitism he replied that he won 306 electoral votes, the largest margin ever. This was the answer to some imagined question in his head and a falsehood, at that.

His attention span and thought process are offensive to a rational mind. His non-sequiturs belong on Saturday Night Live. And he butchers the English language like a fingernail screeching on a blackboard which, I understand, is the same frequency as a baby’s cry provoking our ancient brain to shudder. One might say, Grate. 

Words don’t lie. People do. In the wrong mouth language can lead us into sinkholes, incite a mob or melt a glacier. The more we fear the more we loathe and that demands a fresh supply of negative terms.

With his fifth grade vocabulary Trump rants about everything wrong with the world in some sort of post-literate mindlessness.  His hyperbolic superlatives have the effect of numbing the brain. His favorite word is I but it seems as if it is, very, which precedes every adjective unless he can add the est as in greatest, smartest, biggest (himself)….miserable, disgusting, nasty (everyone else). His opponents are all losers, total-losers, stupid, idiots or morons….and more recently, fake.

His constituency might call it authenticity. The rest of us see it as near-incoherence, the ultimate dumbing down of America. On the other hand maybe this is not retardation but the ultimate salesman who has found a mono-syllabic way of communicating with his base.

The English language favors the nay-sayers. There are many more negative words than positive ones. We are hard-wired to express trouble. Grab them. Throw him out of here. Lock her up. Trump has tapped into the reptilian brain of aggrieved workers and the God-Gun folks who must imagine some monstrous threat to their existence.

There seems to be a correlation between corporate greed and low intellect. We may never know Trump’s I.Q. Clearly Republican choices since 1980 are not for smarts but for electability.

Aside from his grating the English language Trump’s first month has caused more grief, needlessly, to millions of Americans. America has gone tribal not unlike the Sunnis and Shiites. His cabinet and Supreme Court nominees have further grated us. We are in for four years of more grating, more shredding of international pacts on climate control, torture and assaults on our Constitution. Will his presidency grate even his own party sufficiently to move the conscience of Congress?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Nocturnal Emissions

It may be raining and pouring but the old man isn’t snoring. I am snoozing soundly when pulsations charge the air. No, it isn’t my bladder calling or a dislodged blanket. The clock says 1:30 A. M. which translates to 4:30 Manhattan time.

Our Twitter-In-Chief is at it again. Birds are not yet chirping but Donald is tweeting his nocturnal emissions. He has the attention of the entire planet which listens or not at their peril. Does he dream these blurts or set the alarm to wake the world with his tantrums and 140-character manifestos?

Past presidents deliberated over their manuscripts, draft after draft, weighing words with scrupulous exactitude. Even then they didn’t always get it quite right. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg is regarded as the greatest political oration in history. It is more than that. Those three paragraphs rise to the level of poetic-prose in their concision, lyricism and complexity.

Yet one could challenge its opening sentence. Four score and seven (87) years ago our fathers Did Not bring forth a new nation. He was referencing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and we were not yet a nation but a Confederacy of separate states. That happened twelve years later with the ratification of the Constitution. The notion of State’s rights has been used to extend Southern crimes against Blacks up to the present day.

Of course Lincoln knew his history. He also knew about inequality. His words were aspirational. In addition he spoke with humility, something which has almost disappeared from public discourse since our 45th president took office.

We cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here……

Lincoln was a mensch. Tough, resolute and humble at once. He was both visionary and pragmatist. Deliberate and decisive. Folksy shrewd and idealistic. He read. He listened to his rivals. (He even did a great impersonation of Daniel Day Lewis.) In short he was everything Trump is not.

To have come this far in science and technology, this close to an enlightened version of capitalism…. and then to retreat a century is a punch in the gut. I need my rest; a good six or seven hours with dreams of a better world inside my pillow. A good night’s sleep is a many-splendored thing at my age. It’s the final entitlement they better not take away. Let the nightingale trill and gurgle overwhelming any tweets emanating from the tower. May the bird, in full-throated ease, sing its ode answering those nocturnal emissions.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sticks and Stones

100,000 years ago, give or take a week, there were at least six of us Homo (humans) roaming the earth. Genus, that is. Homo Erectus, Homo Neander, Homo Denisovan, Homo Sapiens (that’s us) and a few others in the area around Indonesia and elsewhere. This all comes from Yuval Harari's 2015 book, Sapiens, which has been translated into 26 languages. No doubt we mingled, particularly with Neanderthal who may have been irresistible. Grubby ahead of their time. They did have bigger brains than us and were stronger. However we had one thing all the others lacked which has gotten us this far. We could hit a curve ball.

Or to put it another way, we, alone, could imagine. We could visualize what isn’t there and not only get nine men on the field to play a game but get hundreds of millions of us to believe in some construct such as religion or nationhood. In a famous softball game that never happened Homo Sapiens beat Homo Neanders. Thus did sticks and stones start evolving into Major League Baseball.

As an aside, one might wonder if Donald Trump has more Neanderthal in him than the rest of us. I would argue he has less since he can fantasize beyond the actual and call it truth.  But I digress.

I can almost hear it. The thud of a ball going into a mitt, the crack of a bat, the infield chatter, Chuck easy, Baby. In a few days the Boys of Summer will be reporting for spring training in mid-winter hoping to play in the fall classic. They are men for all seasons. For me it is a way of setting my seasonal clock.

Rookies will astonish, veterans will disappoint or as Shakespeare put it when he was a sportswriter……
         From hour to hour we ripe and ripe
         And then from hour to hour we rot and rot.

New surgeries have restored otherwise wrecked careers. We’re getting close to bionic arms defying laws of physics throwing the ball at 104 mph. Baseball is the traditionalist’s sport where the scoreboard contains no clock and batters run counterclockwise back to pastoral America. Yet the game has changed in ways only fandom knows, too esoteric to elucidate.

The astonishment of baseball which has never left me is the measurement, the feet and inches between bases and the distance from pitcher to home plate. It seems to me divinely inspired. Another few inches plus or minus would change everything. Furthermore the velocity of the pitched ball appears miraculously to correspond to the bat speed of the current players. Some Homo Sapien had a vision.

Our Tweeter-In-Chief has decreed that there are to be only winners and losers. Baseball defies that commandment. The best hitters fail 70% of the time. Teams on top generally lose 60-70 games each season. 

My guess is that Sapiens lost to Neanders more than once but eventually prevailed. Maybe it was our quilted loin-cloth uniforms that carried the day. Motley is the only wear.     

It is as we like it. And thereby hangs a tale.  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Holiday / Holy Day

February is marked by two dates which together form America’s two faces. Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday, or for those of a different stripe, Stupor Bowl. It is our update of Roman gladiators battling to the death or at least to a conclusion which makes Las Vegas odds-makers salivate.

Count me among those who allow the hormones to flow feeding my suppressed alpha male which, for no apparent reason, snarls and growls for 3 hours. The players pretend to brutalize each other and I pretend to care in the hope that all my aggression for the year is sublimated.

It is also our time to commune over pizza and beer. Over one hundred million of us will be watching, Blue and Red, growing fangs on the couch together. This year Liberals will be likely rooting for Atlanta against New England because the owner, coach and star quarterback for the Patriots are avowed Trump supporters and therefore beneath contempt. Makes sense to me.

Football is not what it seems. Think of the huddle. The camaraderie. Now think of eleven over-sized or otherwise combatants each assigned to a specific role having memorized a lengthy play-book adjusting in an instant to the other eleven men’s counter strategy. It is practically chess on grass with an occasional concussion.

Our other face turns to love. Valentine’s Day is set aside to remind us how fortunate we are to have found our chosen mate. To tell him/her, not necessarily with chocolates and flowers, but with any expression of devotion. For the past 33 years Peggy and I have made this day special with poems and candlelight dinner. It’s getting to be a challenge finding a restaurant with a soft-backed booth and white tablecloth. But the main course is our poems usually replete with private language, un-translatable.

Feb. 14th can also be the designated day to forgive ourselves for everything we didn’t say, but felt, toward the other. All that affection, inarticulate. We might even shout a forgiveness for that guy who didn’t hold the elevator door and while we’re at it offer a nod of pity for all those who have allowed the barbed voice to poison their minds and impoverish their souls.

For us the day is merely an extension of all the rest. I’m a lucky guy and I want to say it. It is made sacred by the sanctity we give it, our shared reverence for being alive in each other’s closeness. It doesn’t get any better than finding the one in whose company we can discover our full self. Let this Valentine’s Day be our filibuster against the madness of our country, our stay halting the moral violence in the common air.   

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Trump-Free Zone

It has come to this. We’ve experienced thirteen days that shook the world. Tectonic plates have shifted. The air is noxious. Saying President Trump has me gagging. I require three Heimlich maneuvers to expel the syllables. To regain a semblance of sanity I need to in-dwell, retreat from the noise, and re-center myself.

Here I am at the breakfast table. Today’s paper is being scrupulously un-read. It sits at the base of a vase containing yellow tulips, now seven days old, in full erection, bursting their incandescence like the bulbs they are. I had bought them still folded and now the petals are open wide like a parched throat having found a spring. It must be the sugar water I fixed for them or maybe they just enjoy our conversation over Handel’s Water Music.

In my Trump-free state I can see the still-life of our table. The yellows connecting from flowers to banana to cereal box of Golden Grahams. I think the carefully arranged clutter would challenge a Dutch master. The bowls, cups and glasses, milk pitcher and melon, utensils, place mats, sugar bowl and napkins. I almost forgot the yellow Splenda.

Could even Rembrandt capture it all? And would he need to? He would find the pattern in the jumble the way Rauschenberg would see it as collage or Pollack might give it a splatter with a yellow streak. It was all invisible to me until just now.

Outside the window leaves hang from some nameless tree. I must find out from either Roger, my dear landscape architect friend of many years, or from the landlord who lords over his plantings around the building rather lovingly. Confucius said to first know the names of trees. I’ve gotten this far without that knowledge but I wish I could respect the tree with its proper caption. I wrote poetry for a long while without the nomenclature. My subject was my ignorance of such things. As a kid trees were called, 2nd base or the goal line.

I should also know the names of birds. Then I could report which one it was that just chased away a crow four times its size. As Paul Harding reminds us in his wonderful 2009 book, Tinkers, the natural state of Nature is strife. The hummingbird is constantly in flight from predators. Does the cut worm forgive the plow? Adversity drives adaptation. The bough struggles for a sliver of sun.

We need to make peace with it all. Resistance is exhausting but so is it exhilarating and sometimes, as now, necessary. Wait, I seem to be veering back to the unmentionable. I shall not go there. This page is my therapeutic ramble away from the fray.

Back to the table. Yesterday I bought a melon. If it were a cantaloupe I’d be cutting it into perfect quadrants. But it isn’t; it’s a honeydew. I’m getting adept at cutting it into equal sextants or even octants. I didn’t know these words till I looked them up. It’s the least I can do in compensation for not learning the glossary of life outside our window. The large honeydew is my act of optimism. I expect it will be ready for consumption in two weeks. I hope to still be here.