Wednesday, March 29, 2017


1945-46 was a busy time in high places. A year earlier we were singing, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. Now the hit song was, Chi Baba, Chi Baba and soon the Hit Parade would be topped by Patti Page singing, Changing Partners.

The U. S. was frantically changing partners. Our new best friends, Germany and Japan, were yesterday’s vile enemies. Russia, our former ally, was now the hated one. We were in a race with the U.S.S R. grabbing Germany’s best scientists. We got Wernher von Braun who Tom Lehrer captured in his lyric, Once the rockets go up / who cares where they come down. / That’s not my department says Wernher von Braun. As late as March 1945 his V-2 rockets were raining down on London killing more than 3,000.

For the bewildered, early teenager that I was our embrace of the former Axis powers felt like an enormous act of forgiveness. The enmity against our old friend more like a divorce.

When a country learns to hate on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday it can remarkably find forgiveness by Thursday and Friday. By the weekend we demonize another people. I predict Iran will be our buddies in a decade or two; maybe even a destination for quirky Bar Mitzvahs.

It would seem that we need someone to hate. Ahab had his Moby Dick and Sherlock was shadowed by Moriarty. Both, perhaps, projections of themselves.

Matters are not so black and white…unless one is talking about Byron White and Hugo Black. Black was appointed in 1937 to the Supreme Court by FDR. He was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan but turned out to be one of the most liberal judges during his 34 years on the bench. White was a JFK appointee and voted the wrong way on Roe v Wade and the Miranda decision. One never knows.

Nations change; people change. Therein lies hope. Japan, in a gesture of friendship, gifted the U.S., in 1912, with seedlings for over 3,000 cherry trees. They were our staunch ally in World War I. Twenty-three years later we were bombing each other to smithereens. After the war we replaced their ruined trees with cuttings and they returned the favor when many of our trees died a few decades later.

Today we seem more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. But suppose the polarities are not on a straight line but a curved one close to meeting their counterpart. I marvel at the Trump administration embracing Russia. Unthinkable forty years ago. The populist themes of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump drew some of the same audience. 
New configurations may be the order of the day. The world won’t hold still for a minute as Bob Dylan noted.

Change may not yet be blowing in the wind but there is a stirring of discontent which could be where wind comes from.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


School day always opened with the Pledge of Allegiance. In the 5th grade I can remember reciting the words, or rather the sounds, something like this. I plej allejence to the flag….and to the republic for Richard Stands……. I wasn’t too bright. It was 1943. We were at war. Some things you just do.

Then there was that word, indivisible, which I probably said as, invisible. The most important phrase was, liberty and justice for all. Who could argue against that? After all, free speech, assembly, free press and religion were all givens. The Norman Rockwell posters on the wall confirmed it with his, Four Freedoms.

Now we are engaged in a great war, said Abraham Lincoln. We still are. If not a shooting war, an ideological one with more or less the same opponents. One nation very much divisible. It strikes me that those two words, liberty and justice, are at the heart of it.

Republicans have exploited the concept of Liberty to mean no regulations, get off my back or don’t bother me or I got mine, screw you… with Big Government as the offender. Therefore, why pay taxes? Nobody’s going to mandate that I get health insurance or clean air or safe medicine or vaccinations or take away my guns. It’s a free country, ain’t it?

The idea of justice is certainly much more than punishment as in, being brought to justice. It has to do with a social contract providing safety, educational opportunities, housing, employment, a living wage etc… Justice is an open term, subject to a range of ideas with inclusion implicit as in, justice for all.

Both words have become bloated, one might say invisible, on the tongues of politicians, invoked without much specificity. But for those of us in the thick of it the two words seem loaded, almost to be in opposition. Liberty vs Justice. Of course Liberals have not ceded the concept of Liberty to Trumpdom. We cherish the freedom of a woman to choose as well as the right for a compassionate death. Similarly a Libertarian has no argument with Stop Signs or red lights. We need to recognize the value system of our counterparts in order to have a conversation. Justice, after all, does not curtail liberty; it assures responsibility.

Whether we meet in the halls of justice or under the Statue of Liberty we must come together. Let our allegiance be pledged for this. Richard Stands would agree… whoever he is.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spring is a Perhaps...

Spring is like a perhaps hand, wrote e.e. cummings, arranging, rearranging…
without breaking anything, light and dark in vernal equipoise
yet unstill in the commotion of spring,
with all its myths rising like soufflés, exudates from winter bondage
released as in held breath
while the world teeters in a fool’s hands; narcissus
bulbs loud with blather and tweets fake and foul the air
from high in the tower while men and women

with illegal hands stoop below,
the illegitimate potentate above gloats and concocts headlines.
Truth shredded as confetti to be dropped on 5th Avenue snowing us
even as we are seeded then sprung like those wild new-born poppies splattering
the desert floor of Anza-Borrego. Fauvists at their outrageous easel
signify what Cummings called the great illimitable earth. That Yes.
after the final No. There is an urgency that persists even
in my season of creative lassitude, a pod opens here and there,
this March madness, the number of red lanterns on the coral tree
has doubled overnight to six. Startled this morning by the juicy pear
under the bruised green skin might save me from ever ending.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Fighting Irish

Friday’s newspaper reads like an obituary of Western civilization. Every article on the front page is elegiac. Four photos depict Trump’s budget priorities, the winners and losers. The air we breathe and Arts which sustain us must suffer so that weaponry and border agents can add to their already bloated coffers.

It strikes me that we spend far too much time diagnosing and denouncing the president. Each blabber and blurt, however delusional, becomes a red herring whose scent is immediately sniffed by MSNBC and sautéed for endless hours while Congress is busy defunding every mark of social progress for the past half century.

This is not so much Trump’s budget. It is the wish-list of Republicans since FDR. The logical extension of laissez-faire economics articulated by Goldwater, popularized by Reagan and now coming to fruition. Ayn Rand lives. The soulless and simplistic manifesto of Greed is Good, appears to be our new creed.

Friday was also St. Patrick’s Day. This has always been, for me, an occasion to wear something green in honor of Guinness beer, my favorite writers and that brogue which has always charmed me. However this year it might also be an occasion to call out a segment of the Irish who may well be responsible for our current tragedy.

I’m speaking of the Scots-Irish; those colonists, largely from Ulster County in northeast Ireland, who resettled on the frontier which became the Appalachians and Ozarks. Some fled from Scotland to Ireland but the Scotch name refers to their Calvinist / Presbyterian religion in flight from the Anglican Church. They were guerrilla fighters of their day battling the Crown on the Scotland / England border and then again in North Ireland.

These are the Rednecks and Hillbillies. Both terms have honorable etymologies but have come to describe a rather tribal, head-strong, combative people, rugged individuals. One might say famous for making self-destructive decisions. There are now 27 million of them. Most regard government itself as the enemy as if they are still being suppressed by that British monarchy. Maybe they didn’t get word that the Revolutionary War is over.

These are not to be confused with the Irish-Catholic who emigrated to big cities and mostly vote with Democrats. The Scot-Irish are rural people who constitute a large piece of the so-called Reagan Democrats, now populist Trump America.

They have presented us warriors, music and as many as fifteen presidents, for better or worse. They are the Bible Belt, the Tea Party and possibly the reason why the world listens while the Donald tweets. Time would be better spent trying to figure them out than on the red meat Trump throws to the media to chew on while thieves in Congress rob us of our civilization.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My Birth Day, Before and Beyond

My friends Roger and Fred escaped the Holocaust, but barely. Peggy and friend Earl had Dickensian early years. I was deprived of a deprived childhood which forces me to fabricate my beginnings without the sterner stuff to work with. Myth-making is a privilege granted every octogenarian. Here’s my story and it’s all true with a few embellishments……….

In June of 1932 my mother and father are seen in the photo album frolicking on a hill in Hunter New York. They never went on vacation but that year they did to escape the heat and hard times. There was a twinkle in my father’s eyes and a coquettish turn of my mother’s head. It was the morning after. What a concept! His sperm had reached her egg and the following exchange took place:

Sperm: What’s a classy dame like you doing in dump like this?  No, strike that. Nice place you’ve got here.
Egg: Do you come here often?
Sperm: No I don’t get out much.
Egg: Enough of this small talk. Let’s make music together.

I was that music splashing in an embryonic sea through a sweltering summer and blustery winter, through FDR’s alphabet of agencies and Hitler’s rise to power. I could faintly hear Roosevelt’s fireside chats and even slurped a drop or two when he ended Prohibition.

Meanwhile, a few miles away across the East River, in June of '32, Peggy got into a car with Aunt Tillie and Cousin Jeff, starting a cross-country drive to spend one year in California. When she got car-sick in Kansas it coincided with my mother’s morning nausea.

It was nine months after that Hunter weekend in the Catskills and Peggy’s car trip to L.A., on a sunny afternoon in March, 1933 when lamps shook and books fell. The Long Beach earthquake, 6.5, was my auspicious entry into the world, 3,000 miles away. I don’t remember ever thanking my mother for putting up with my seismic backstroke down the birth canal. Born March 21, 1933, two days after Phillip Roth and nine days after Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

This was the beginning of Peggy’s and my French movie in which we didn’t quite meet for another 24 years. Though we may well have been in the same subway car in Manhattan or brushed up against each other in a crosstown bus.

When Zeus or Yahweh or some other great puppeteer put us together in 1957 with a UCLA extension series for six weeks of Tuesdays at her house, it was a non-event. An imperfect first marriage and three perfect daughters later, fate gave us another chance.  

She had no memory of me but I remembered her 23 years later when we connected after a Robert Bly poetry reading. Aphrodite had her way with us. The earth still shakes. Why just last night ....

Sunday, March 12, 2017


It is a fact that Peggy loves her doctors and they, her. That’s a lot of loving. I count eight plus her dentist. Last week we saw six of them which adds up to many National Geographic and Sport Illustrated magazines in waiting rooms. Fortunately we’ve both learned to never leave home without our library books.

As far as I can sniff out all her doctors voted for Trump. That doesn’t make them bad persons, just in a brotherhood / sisterhood of self-serving, misguided professionals. It's almost comical watching them contort their brain trying to defend what is indefensible. I wouldn’t put any of them in the Ben Carson column who has somehow managed to have compartmentalized his brain so all his reputed smarts are crowded into one corner while all the rest of his synapses border on the imbecilic.

Do no harm, seems to have eluded them in terms of their political preference. In a brief conversation with the urologist he defended his vote with a grievance about all the many regulations he now has to meet. I suppose a urologist has a right to be pissed.

But I’ve gone astray. I really didn’t intend to move to the unmentionable one. I want to tell about the astonishing way, which I bear witness to, Peggy has with her otherwise good doctors. All are on a first-name basis and most get hugs and kisses upon entering the examining room. The exchange feels like a social call. The conversation might be about poetry, even if they hadn’t read a poem in 40 years. Or an inquiry about their family. Or where they might be traveling this summer. Almost forgotten is why we are there.

A few days ago the issue of creativity came up. The good doctor said he reads only detective stories outside of medical literature. He agreed how he likes resolution in an otherwise inexplicable world. The illusion of closure can’t hurt. As for being creative he felt one either had it or not. We disagreed but one doesn’t argue with the person burning off a pre-cancerous eruption or the guy prescribing an I.V. infusion.

Another doctor is a reader of real literature but told how he is stuck with Joyce’s, Ulysses. Peggy offered some tips. With still another the talk is of bird-watching and his striking photography which adorns the walls. Peggy writes poems for her doctors, some nurses, and Friday even wrote one for a woman waiting while her husband was also receiving an I.V. drip. She was struck by the woman’s generosity and good nature.

When I see my doctors, I’m ashamed to say, the transaction is all about me. I want answers even if there are none. I have no idea how they voted though, I suspect, it was not for Donald since I go to Kaiser. Their staff is less threatened by all those imagined demons Obama had set upon them and their bottom line is not affected one way or the other by our recent regime change. 

Peggy’s way of being is not a calculated strategy but her natural openness which resets the usual doctor-patient relationship. I can see their eyes light up when they see her. It is as if they are with an old friend. 

Her docs have seen her through nearly 96 years. She gets the best of them by offering the best of herself. There is a healing in the interchange.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Four Sketches on Sunday

A chronicle in reverse.

I went to sleep reading, Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf. I had never heard of it before finding it on our shelves. It is vintage Woolf. She writes the way Monet painted. Phrases like brushstrokes. A gesture here, fraction of dialog there, shadows on the wall, a room in the silence of doilies. Scenes drift, then return in mid-sentence. It is set before the turn of the century, then the war and after. Time slides. The diary of her life could have been found in between the words.

By 9:15 I was weary. Peggy and I had been reading aloud to each other for over three hours.  We’d been without power since noon, now suddenly the lights went back on. We each had a flashlight focused on a collection of short pieces by Thomas Wolfe called, From Death to Morning.

Nobody writes like Wolfe anymore. He gushes …but with eloquence. His spigot must have been missing a washer. He creates a torrent of words you find yourself swimming in. The book was written in 1935, probably edited by Maxwell Perkins. Poor guy. But these stories are restrained unlike his novels. A few years ago we also read Look Homeward Angel, aloud, 662 pages. An example of his style.

You see this man, his mistress, and all the other city people you have known, in shapes of deathless brightness, and yet their life and time are stranger to you than a dream, and you think you are doomed to walk among them always as a phantom who can never grasp their life  or make their time your own. It seems to you now that you are living in a world of creatures who have learned to live without weariness or agony of the soul, in a life which you can never touch, approach or apprehend; a strange city-race who have never lived in a dimension of time like you own…..but rather in fathomless and immemorable sensations….. There is no door.

Two Wolves, howling at the moon. Different spelling, happened this same day by coincidence, unrelated of course and at opposite poles in their writing styles. One spare, one effusive. They died within three years of each other. He suddenly at age 38, she by suicide in 1941.

Still light but without power. What does one do with no telephone, computer, radio or TV? One eats, does laundry, waters plants, talks…..and reads. First the Sunday paper, then a picture book just sent by a friend from New York.

It is over 100 pages of photos of Forest Hills, my old neighborhood, starting in 1909 when it was all farms, meadows and a dream of a developer to create a Garden City. And so they did with a little push from none other than Teddy Roosevelt who put it on the map with a July 4th speech in 1917. By then he was all flag and country beseeching Pres. Wilson to lead a cavalry charge against the Hun. Clearly time had passed him by. But Forest Hills Gardens was a success. It had the tennis stadium, a railroad stop and an inn, all part of a tree-lined, rather uppity community which carried the infamy of having restrictive covenants against those of Hebrew persuasion. Of course I lived outside the posh Gardens, literally on other side of the tracks.

In a touch of irony in 1966, it was the Jewish Community Council which led the charge against the construction of low-cost housing on the edge of Forest Hills. Not in my backyard. Harumph!  To compound the irony an unknown attorney was brought in by Mayor Lindsay to finally settle the dispute with a compromise. The lawyer’s name was Mario Cuomo.

In the late morning we were visited by Peggy’s great granddaughter (my step). Ilaria is now four months old. Such wonder in her eyes, everything seen for the first time.. She seems to be taking it all in for future reference. I look at her and think back to how it was with my daughters, living the miracle of life growing from babyness to personhood. How each of them with new eyes saw their way ahead in different directions. Ilaria transported me back to my own early memories and to the future she will have in this uneasy but unimaginable world we have bequeathed.

A most unusual day without electricity, living as characters in those books did, moving forward, then back in time. It was a day starting in the continuum of generations and moving toward timelessness.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Buddhism and Baseball or What's Wrong with Slow

Baseball is the last slo-mo sport, no hurry-up into the innings of an Ingmar Bergman film or Pinter play with long pauses, no sprint but a stroll, not a Louis Armstrong riff but a Gustav Mahler adagio, the slow streak of DiMaggio, no speed boat but a ferryman with a long pole crossing a river, an afternoon extended into shadows or a night game in the early hours of morning.

In this world we’ve come to of fast foods, Quick ‘n Lube, rush hour, racing against the clock with blurts and bites what better antidote than a baseball game which takes its time, allows spectators to go to the concession stand or to the refrigerator, if you’re home watching, yawning perhaps but that’s all right.

I’ve even seen players yawn or meditate between pitches, looking for the meaning of life in the outfield which may be the same meaning as in the infield…or not because there is earth in one and grass in the other but both see the same sky and can ponder the cosmology of epistemology.

One Sunday, almost seventy years ago at Cunningham Park, I swung and met the ball in all its velocity, met it with the barrel of the bat and sent the ball beyond the confines. In that union of wood and sphere is demonstrated the in-separate-ness of all life. Very Buddhist, so I’m told by my step-son. As for the ball, it was last seen in orbit along with Pluto as a dwarf planet.

So did Casey stand at the plate detached as Buddha himself might be sitting against the Bodhi tree, emptying his mind of all worldly matters, while pitcher and catcher move in a dance aligned as one, alive into this moment in all its artistry, and here is the wind-up on the mound and here is the batter timing his swing to that rhythm allowing his muscle memory of eye and hand to meet the ball as one might meet his maker in this timeless zone but, alas, mighty Casey has struck out and there is no joy in Mudville.

If contact had been made the base runner would drift counter- clockwise around this cyclic board game of life, to the safety of another base which appeared to my mother as a pillow upon which one might dream of compassion to one fellows. Or seek the illusion of security in the touch of a tree as in childhood tag…
even as pitcher looks in for another sign while catcher peers into the dugout for a voiceless message from the manager and in a paragraph of silent movements, head-scratch, cap-tilt, belt-hitch the communion is accomplished in fluent baseball tongue, arcane and unreadable to the 41,743 in attendance whose intermittent silence is profound against the chant of, Peanuts, get your peanuts here.

In no hurry to return to their frenetic existence as they have come to this temple, this place of worship for the home team so they can alleviate the suffering within, from their futile climb up the proverbial ladder to nowhere.

And all the while sea gulls have come in off the bay water, ants wait patiently for cleats to vanish. There is no trash talk. No two minute warning buzzer. The game ends quietly; it is simply one of many. There will be seen a four-year old boy asleep in his father’s arms. Twenty years from now he will say he remembers this night.

And don’t you think the game has slowed their heart rate, lowered their cholesterol, and they are kinder, gentler drivers on their way OMMMM, than they were upon entering? I ask you.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lost and Found

There is adventure in being lost. In Europe Peggy and I were often Hansel and Gretel. We would miss a sign or take the wrong spoke on a roundabout and find ourselves away from the destination into a place unknown. Here we are peeing in the forest of Dean or baffled by those twisting streets in Venice or taking a short cut through the Ardennes woods, a path ending in a bush.

At the same time there is a pull in me to be found…or better yet to find myself. Even in these declining years I can feel the tug in both directions; the allure of the uncharted, the security of the familiar in the geography of my mind.

Age six at the World’s Fair I clutched my father’s overcoat in the massive crowd. Except it wasn’t my father. Abandoned in a sea of bodies, was I exhilarated or frantic? Both, as I remember it.

For my first twenty-one years living in Queens, NYC I was happily lost. Like most New Yorkers I got around by shoe or subway. On foot I wandered within a series of what we called neighborhoods, vaguely defined by a candy store which served a half dozen apartment houses. I might also bike my way beyond that perimeter but directions never once entered into my navigation. I just pedaled away following this road or that.

As a passenger I lived in an imaginary underground grid that was about as accurate as a 7th century map of the world. The “E” train or “F” train actually ran on diagonals that to this day deposit me ship-wrecked when I think back to how cockeyed I was at the helm.

It never occurred to me that streets bend. I fixed my compass by a very wide thoroughfare of six lanes called Queens Blvd. My subway stop was there as were the two or three before mine. I knew that by following Queens Blvd. west I would go over the bridge directly into Manhattan. I then reasoned that the intersecting turnpike must go north and south. Not so. I was so wrong that to this day I cannot make the correction.

If my borough of Queens was a maze, Manhattan was a grid as if someone laid it out with a ruler. In fact it was shaped like a ruler with uptown, downtown and crosstown. People came there hoping to be found.

I am more tethered to the straight and narrow than I want to be. I’ve spent years trying to wrestle loose ends to the mat, to anticipate every eventuality and control the outcomes. I don’t believe we ever get a grip on our north, east, south, west. Only a vague idea of river and bridge; when to detour, when to cross. Is that an intersection or just another trail to nowhere? And if I allow myself to veer off can I ever stumble-bumble my way back? No, not back, not when I’ve found a new center.