Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Simpler Times

Boulevard 3-3998. That was my telephone number in 1946. Our first phone and it was a party line. They weren’t available during the war years. If you wanted to chat you wrote a letter; two mail deliveries a day. If it was an emergency you might have called the candy store or corner drugstore where runners hung around and, for two bits, would dash up three or four flights of stairs and tell Mrs. Scarlotti or Mrs. Lipshitz that her uncle was in an accident and wouldn’t make it for dinner.

Certainly we have it easier today, blessed with all manner of technology yet life seems more complicated than ever before. Each of us has to master remote controls, a dashboard that resembles a 747 and command an assortment of computer prompts, apps and clicks. 

Life was simpler then. Or was it? Simple, perhaps, in that we knew our place and our limits, the terms of the givens and how to live within those choices. There were far fewer options. We also knew we were the good guys; we had just beaten the bad guys, Germany and Japan.

The double feature confirmed our values. Gangsters and cattle rustlers had grungy faces. The sheriff must have shaved three times a day and was humble in just the right measure. The clean-shaven got the girl and the scruffy got the chair.

I don’t know that I’ll ever know. Was it really a simpler time or was it only those child’s eyes I was seeing through? I never got around to asking my father what he thought. My guess is he would have yearned for 1910 when it was an even simpler time.

World history and personal history have a way of aligning in one’s mind. I like to believe that America came of age exactly when I did. The simplistic patriotism of the forties yielded to a more ambiguous post-war, cold-war decade just as I was ready to handle it. How convenient! Hollywood grew nuanced along with me. Suddenly the good detective had a back story. He was a recovering alcoholic or fathered a child he abandoned in Italy.

The broadcast-journalist, Tom Brokaw, called those men and women who endured unimaginable hardships both during the Depression, then later as G.I.s or on the home-front, as The Greatest Generation. If they were the greatest we would have to settle for being only the goodest. And we were good conforming as we did until the sixties when we un-conformed, got iconoclastic and less simple.

Socrates complained that the youth of his day had bad manners, contempt for authority and disrespected elders. I imagine he also longed for those simple times of Homer.

Simpler times may be another way of saying, those good-old days. A longing for youth itself along with the dread of being out-of-touch just as I feel when I pick up the entertainment section of the newspaper filled with apparent household names I’ve never heard of, performing their antics I have no interest in, at prices I can only wonder at.

One day I’ll ask my grandchildren if millennials think of these times as simple. They probably won’t entertain such thoughts till they reach middle age and look back having lost their simple child’s eyes. By that time mobile phones will have been implanted in newborn’s fingers at birth. It’s really a simple procedure.  

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Long of Tooth

George Washington could never tell a lie. However, before chopping down that tree he may have eaten all the cherries and forgotten to mention it. Teeth don’t lie either; they register every Milky Way bar and malted milk that ever passed through their ivory gates. Every childhood has its cavities of truth.

Proof that we weren’t meant to live this long is the state of our molars by the ninth decade. Friends of ours have opted for implants spending enough money to buy a new Lexus …which their dentists probably did instead. My old buddy from New York traveled to Florida where the cost is about half. If he’d kept going south to Brazil he could have saved another few thousand. In fact rumor has it there’s a dentist in the Amazon rainforest who will do it for the price of a bicycle. And he might even use previously-owned jaguar’s choppers.

I lost a molar a few weeks ago. I didn’t really lose it. It just wanted out having grown tired of my mouth after all these years. My dentist offered it to me for an under-pillow visitation but I declined. I’m enjoying the negative space. My tongue, which is the most curious of organs, keeps exploring the cavern. The alternative is to crown the adjacent teeth and get a bridge but I don’t want to die with my daughters’ inheritance in my mouth so I shall learn to love my new line-up.

I imagine dentists must dream of boy scouts or chorus girls perfectly lined up like corn on the cob. There’s something faintly fascistic about that much order. On the other hand fangs have little to recommend themselves either. Saber-toothed tigers went through life without benefit of a veterinary orthodontist. No wonder they ended up in the Tar Pits on Wilshire Blvd.   

Legend has it that Cadmus, the dragon-slayer, not only dealt the fatal blow but also removed the fire-breathers teeth which he sowed in the earth and up came the city of Thebes. One wonders how many teeth were needed for Los Angeles to bloom. Considering our sprawl they must have been gapped.

To set the record straight it is not true that termites got to Washington’s wooden dentures. Or even that he had teeth of wood. They were probably made from cows, horses, metal alloys or even humans. Possibly soldiers who didn’t make it through Valley Forge.

In the interest of historical truth (now out of fashion) it should be noted that Washington may have won the war because of his teeth. The British intercepted a message indicating that George would not be able to get to Philadelphia to see his dentist. The British Gen. Clinton (no relation to Bill & Hill) interpreted it to mean that Washington would remain in the New York area and not move his army south to Virginia and therefore the Brits needn’t bother to reinforce their troops. Washington, of course, did march his men to defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown, with much help from the French fleet.

One might say he cut the Red Coats into bite-size pieces. We need our teeth with all that history gives us to chew on.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

God Knows

My brother, Arthur, was an only child for four years. I’m told he had an imaginary friend he called, Borneo, made out of a stuffed animal or raggedy piece of blanket. Could that be why I was born, to replace his beloved schmatta? I don’t know if Borneo ever answered him back but eventually he either outgrew his companion or I replaced him. Maybe in my brother’s eyes I had committed fratricide. In any case Arthur tried to find his own way. The Lord would not be his shepherd. He walked that lonesome valley by himself.

God spoke to me in that unique Mid-Atlantic voice of Franklin Roosevelt. During the second week of April in 1945 as I was coming home from Hebrew school in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah news hit the street that my God had died. FDR had been with me for the first twelve years and twenty-two days of my life. When I told the rabbi I no longer believed in God he said, So you think God cares?

I would have thought God to be either angry or aggrieved over every missing sheep from his flock. In fact the feeling was mutual. For me Yahweh’s obituary was a slow death-bed scene. I became pious every Thursday night to get me through those Friday tests. By the afternoon I was on my own. At some point I decided I could do it without providential intervention altogether. If he didn’t care, I also didn’t.

Around 400 BCE, give or take a decade, Euripides wrote the great dramas which have survived millennia. Unlike his contemporaries, Aeschylus and Sophocles, he depicted man as he is rather than as he aspired to be. The plays explore the full range of human behavior in nuanced language. It was the Greek way to ascribe victory, defeat, revenge, betrayal, the several forms of love, etc … to one of a pantheon of gods. Whether Euripides actually believed in their existence is another story. One senses that for both him and his audience the occupants of Mt. Olympus may not have been a living presence. Besides, it’s a wonder how anyone could navigate between Apollonian rationality and Dionysian debauchery except as depicted on the stage.  

Sort of like the way we inflate our super heroes, hiss our villains and might allow for no 13th floor in a hotel. Or maybe the way Trump 
Deplorables cheer his reckless moves as the indecipherable acts of a super-being who holds his residence in a tower. Once we transfer our autonomy the rest comes easy to an authoritarian.

Besides fear of mortality which religion depends upon, there is something in human nature that embraces mystery particularly as those things inexplicable diminish. No, it wasn’t the wrath of Zeus which caused the mountainside to bury Route One at Big Sur. Nor did some benevolent god answer our prayers with enough rain to quench our drought. Sorry, but that diagnosis of lymphoma is not part of our creator’s grand plan. Gods wither when met by science. And when we have no answer it’s called randomness.

We have many friends, still. I can’t think of a single one who professes to be a believer in the literal sense. Paul Sawyer, the minister of the Valley Unitarian Fellowship in which I was an active member for a dozen years, used to say that in order to be truly religious one would be advised to stop believing in any supreme being. In other words atheists are better prepared to be spiritual people. Belief in a supernatural and all the falderal that attaches itself to the edifice and the Good Book detracts from one’s inclination to find his own communion with Nature and his fellow humans. There is certainly enough mystery in human interaction to keep us pondering until the curtain goes down.

In her work as a therapist Peggy encouraged her clients to find an inner guide (god). Give him/her a name. Borneo, perhaps. Let that ally speak. Listen closely. Be gentle, it could be one of your gods, maybe a Greek from Olympus making a comeback.  

I’ve come to believe that the god concept is both a universally agreed-upon lie and a vibrant metaphor in the Greek sense, for the wide spectrum of human possibility which summons all the deities from the mountain top as players.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Here's Looking At You, Ms. Diefendurfer

Having now completed 725 blogs I want to thank my freshman English composition teacher at Forest Hills High School for giving me a hard time. It was my worst subject. With all the rules about missed commas, split infinitives and dangling participles my creative juices got clogged and clotted. She was an old-school sort who cared less for creativity than red-penciling subjects and predicates or ending sentences with prepositions, which is one of those mandates up with which I shall never put.

Our first assignment in September was to write about what we did during our summer vacation. I had no words for my loneliness. My friends all disappeared on trips or summer camp and returned with exotic tales. I walked their dogs and watered their plants. I waited for post cards and wandered neighborhoods outside my usual perimeter.

When my friend Stanley returned we took to following odd people. One man in particular remains in my memory. He was a sort of Ichabod Crane-looking fellow who spoke to himself. Of course nowadays doesn’t everybody? We trailed poor Ichabod for blocks down subway steps and out the other side of the street. Now I’m thinking Ms. Diefendurfer may have been following us and turn us in for a run-on sentence.

This was the sort of malicious mischief one could never write about nor could I fill a page snitching how I opened the side door of the Austin Theater to let in two friends who couldn’t raise the twenty cents for admission. Did she really expect an account of those salad days or was the content just a way of testing for proper grammar and penmanship?

Too bad Donald Trump never took a class with Ms. Diefendurfer. The world might be a better place. In fact while I was in high school Donald was going to Kew Forest School across from my apartment house. Had I known at the time I might have shadowed him around the neighborhood, bought a few distressed properties with my allowance and some deposit bottles and even learned how to become the second smartest man who ever lived.

Dear Ms. Diefendurfer,

I’m ready for my make-up exam. I want to write about my summer with the president of the United States.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Remembering Mumsie

Mother’s Day just happened. I’m only three days late. I suppose she was right. I really am just a good-for-nothing kid. Of course I wouldn’t have called her, Mumsie, until she’d been dead for a few years…even though it’s meant as a term of endearment. But she was all business. I have no memory of her ever laughing.  

She was a dragon-killer; those fire-breathing, feral beasts she did battle with each day. They never stayed dead, the trucks or buses driven by assassins out to get her, the gonif at the fruit stand with his thumb on the scale, the Italian shoemaker she haggled with over soles and heels, the teacher she fought with who failed my brother, the drunken Irishman who was our super and the landlord holding back on radiator heat. As Tarzan said to Jane. It’s a jungle out there.

Mumsie squeezed some life from my hand when we crossed the street, from imagined trench to trench. I’m not sure we ever got to the other side. She lived in combat doing battle with one Goliath after another. It was her tongue that brought them down.

She was the foot soldier in the family, angry and loud. My father stayed behind enemy lines in headquarters sticking pins in the ruling class, fascists and racists. He taught me how to close one ear, sometimes two. Survival required selective deafness. In his drugstore he might have concocted elixirs which granted him heavy sedation.

Mumsie was eighty-four in 1984 claiming January 1st 1900 as her birthday. I’m told how many immigrants declared that day as theirs as if landing in Ellis Island was new birth in the new century erasing everything prior. 

Even at her four feet, eleven inch fearsome height she struck fear into everyone. Everyone except Peggy who got over her initial fright and challenged Mumsie’s loose mouth which issued insults at me I had long stopped hearing. She tamed her.

Mumsie mellowed over her last four years as if she’d been waiting all that time for someone to lovingly welcome her to the real world – to assure her that there are no dragons out to get her, that no one wants to cheat her or run her over. After all, didn’t Murray the butcher put aside the best cuts for her? There was no need to curse God for God-knows-what as she mopped the kitchen floor every Friday night as if some Sabbath ritual.  

I never get out, she would say. I would drive her around the neighborhood choosing the pretty streets. Look Mom, at those magnolia blossoms in front of the Tudor–styled house.  Just keep your eyes on the road, she would reply from the back seat where did she all her driving. Another ten or twenty years she may have felt at home in this world.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Fans In the Stands

One hundred years ago it would have been a sea splattered

with straw hats, sixty-years back, with white shirts and fedoras.

Today fans wear jerseys with names and numbers

of their imagined selves, as if seventeen in perpetuity,  

living / dying / living again with every pitch,

smelling the green grass and hot dogs, yelling as if…

And here and there a suit and tie in a corporate seat

close to the dugouts. (Maybe a client to land a contract)

Vendors hawking, Hey peanuts, getcha peanuts,

low decibels of coiled expectation. Intervals

interrupted by action. The punctuation of baseball music -

barrel of bat meets stitched ball

spinning in orbit … crack of wood, sphere launched.

A young artist in the stands looks across the diamond.

Out of focus she sees the crowd as a

Jackson Pollock action painting, wide stretch                                               

of a pale blur in calculated frenzy.

She, too, on her feet in this charged moment -

all eyes on the sudden vortex of runner sliding home

with catcher-in-waiting and umpire in black leaning over,

horizontal form in combustion with vertical and diagonal ump,

cloud of dirt produced by spikes and a hand reaching

out to touch the plate in evasive twist of the body.

The artist knows then she will never paint still

life again; she will chase the wind with incendiary brush strokes,

spend decades bringing that fusion of forces

to life from palette to easel with  42,836 cheering / cursing

voices heard coming out of the canvas. 


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hubris, Chutzpah and the Whole Damn Thing

It’s a fine and wiggly line between hubris and chutzpah. The former was a crime in Greek society as in a violence committed for the purpose of humiliation. Think rape. Over time it took on broader meaning; an act of arrogant pride which trespassed into the province of the gods… of which there were many. Icarus got his just dessert when Zeus melted his wings.

If hubris stole the fire of the gods chutzpah sold it back on eBay. Trump might one day patent his slogan of making America great again and sell the t-shirt for $1,000.  The classic example is someone who kills his mother and father and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Chutzpah has its virtues. It might connote courage and risk-taking but audacity can also cross the line into shameful impudence, the sort of arrogant pride that comes before the fall.

American exceptionalism is a term which comes close to hubris. One is still advised not to mess with the gods. Our model of inclusive diversity no longer pertains. Empires come and go and we may be the last to know it.

Ancient Athenian Greeks also thought of themselves as special compared to Sparta. And they were, as the cradle of democracy, along with their drama, philosophy and architecture. Science and art flourished but so did slavery, subjugation of women and eventually a chest-pounding hubris which demanded expansion to bestow their gifts onto the entire region. The result was a resounding defeat in Sicily and the ultimate ceding of their domination to Rome.

The previous occupant of the White House held himself to high standards. He left his term with one of the highest approval ratings (almost twice that of Truman) because his temperament and demeanor transcended the acrimony of party politics, even to a fault, one might argue. By contrast the man who now sleeps in Obama’s bed has stained the presidency with unprecedented indignities which extend the definition of hubris to new depths. We have never before witnessed such recklessness, flouting the precepts of our founders. He seems heedless of the limits to executive prerogatives with pronouncements shamelessly self-serving.

In a new version of chutzpah and the orphan this administration has killed off the investigator, hot on his trail, claiming Comey was derelict in helping Trump become president six months ago.

One can only hope that this period which smells like tyranny carries with it seeds of its own destruction. Trump is redrawing that fine line from hubris / chutzpah to the criminally culpable. He has impeached the office. If it was indeed the voice of the people that mistook the real estate mogul for the messiah I can only believe it will be their awakening that will topple him from the pedestal.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

In The Presence of Mine Enemies

I wrote a blog the other day. It was full of smirks and scorn against the piƱata, called Donald Trump. The schadenfreude made me feel smug…then squirmy …and finally suckered. I deleted the whole thing.

The president offers himself on a plate for ridicule with a full display of daily incompetence and imbecilities. We write but the vitriol comes too easily. We don't need to spend our day gnawing at his bait. We are talking to ourselves. His supply of inanities is inexhaustible. I’m suspicious of the sport. Whether his dangerous nonsense is a calculated strategy designed for our distraction or the man can’t help himself is yet another subject for chroniclers of this new epoch.

Hillary misspent her capital with derisions and it got her nowhere. Trump is a gift to Bill Maher, Steven Colbert and other comics. He keeps historians, Michael Beschloss, David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin with constant employment as talking heads. It seems to me POTUS-45 enjoys offering himself up as human sacrifice. There is no such thing as bad publicity for the malignant narcissist.

The time has come to reinvigorate the Democrats with new messaging. Policy wonks do not reach many people. Few voters read detailed position papers. As the GOP has amply demonstrated constituencies can be formed by addressing grievances even if no concrete solutions are offered. Folks want to feel heard and in their own language. Americans are nothing if not consumers. The Heartland wants to be sold …be it a slogan, an image or a new face.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Extra , Read All About It

Wait, that extra virgin olive oil in your salad dressing may have deflowered a tree. You might have gotten something beyond pure; possibly super-chaste. How can olive oil or anything (one) else be extra virgin… except perhaps Immaculate Mary? Oscar Levant had a great line about knowing Doris Day before she was a virgin. That’s quite a burden to carry for the well-traveled and abused word.

Whatever ever happened to those kids peddling papers on busy corners? Extra paper, Strangler Gets the Chair or Dewey Beats Truman or Truman Beats Dewey read all about it. My father was one of them, sold the Brooklyn Eagle for three cents a throw. I wonder if he made a penny on each. It can add up fast. Two bits was serious money in those days but never a career path. Newsboy’s ancestry goes back to the heralds in court or traveling minstrels who were probably as reliable as Fox News by the time they reached a distant town.

That word, extra, has traveled a circuitous route. It is probably short for extraordinary and yet also means the opposite as extras in a movie who, at the bottom of the pay scale, are especially not extraordinary. With change belts around their waist, newsboys in movies, were extras hawking extraordinary messages. The word can mean both superlative or superfluous.

When those kids went to school they might get extra credit on their assignment if they wrote a short essay explaining why tiny Portugal and Holland became such world powers or how Washington and his troops endured a winter at Valley Forge. Extra paper, Washington Freezes at Valley Forge.

Extra also comes up in Scripture as something beyond the official text, as in extra-biblical literature such the Apocrypha or, I suppose, the Talmud in that other Testament. Every Testament had its extras. This extra is neither superlative nor incidental; it is other. My preference would always be with the extra other.

In our crazy language extra letters are sometimes vital unless you want to be the first to sit in a spelling Bee. The word, run, requires an extra n before the ing, particularly if you are running for class president in the 3rd grade. Otherwise you may end up cleaning the erasers instead which could be extra humiliating.

A recent book reveals that Nabokov’s favorite word was, mauve. Of course he’s still dead and can’t defend himself. I wouldn’t be extra-surprised to learn that extra is one of those words authors could live without unless one is describing olive oil which is what started me on all this and I still can’t believe there’s not another way of describing olive oil less acidic than all the others. How about calling one, Virgin, and the extra good stuff, Immaculate?