Sunday, July 30, 2017

My Back is Back

Here I sit not broken but bent; my back, that is. It happens a few times a year. Me and Clayton Kershaw. In these late innings it takes me longer to straighten back to the vertical. It could be that I’ve entered my decrepitude. The way I’m hobbling along, if it were 1955 and I was on a bus in Alabama, Rosa Parks might have gotten up and given me her seat.

Diagonal isn’t that bad; horizontal is worse. I’m getting reacquainted with the floor and the sidewalk. I can’t say I am emotionally attached to my back. I’m not sure I’d recognize it in a police line-up. We’ve never actually met except for my fingernails in upper regions. I imagine it all as a map of the U.S. If I have an itch I depend on Peggy to scratch me in Ohio or Illinois. The most I can handle is from Maine to Montana. The problem now is in my panhandle.

I’m told I need to strengthen my core. I’m not so sure I even have one anymore. In my salad days I was a passable athlete. The more I think of it the greater I used to be. Every Sunday I played basketball in the park…until they started calling me, Sir. When I was thirty-nine I broke my ankle on a legendary jump shot and that began my life of kinetic passivity….or creative lassitude.

I’m no longer that Jack who was nimble and quick or the one who climbed the beanstalk. I’m more like the Jack who went up the hill to fetch a pail and came back pooped and stooped.

I wish I could say I earned my weary back by toting barges or lifting bales but the truth is I probably got it from throwing out the trash or maybe even picking up a tissue. Such is the state of my posterior fragility.

My greatest exertion these days comes on the couch cheering White House stumbles and bumbles or conversely from rage over Paul Ryan’s smirk. Another week with McCain’s heroics and Scaramucci’s acerbic tongue and I’ll end up in traction. Human sacrifice, if that’s what it takes, is the least I can do to ensure Republican dysfunction. I’m considering enrollment in a rehab clinic in Malibu for a twelve-step Trumpectomy program. However, with my diminishing core, withdrawal seems too daunting.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Pardoning The Pardoner

Pardon my French but something is fucked when the guy in hand-cuffs pardons himself on the way out the door. He might as well pardon John Wilkes Booth while he’s at it. After all, Lincoln was a loser; he lost his son, Willie.

I was raised on Cagney, Bogart and George Raft movies in the late 30s and 40s. But I never saw this one……….

Come out with your hands up. The place is surrounded. Your situation is dire. We’ve got you between the muck and mire.
Oh yeah? I’ll take a flier ‘cause my alibi is as tight as a pliers. But just in case, I fired the guy who hired the guy who’s got me on his wire. So go tell it to your choir.

My sympathies have always been with prisoners but I’m willing to make an exception in this case. Count me among those who root for the bad guy to break out of prison. Of course it helps if he really wasn’t bad, just down on his luck or better yet, framed. In those old movies he was often the poor sucker who took the rap for his ungrateful brother and went up the river for a stretch in the big house. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cool Hand Luke was the last one of that genre I saw. I get no kicks from brutality or even confinement particularly if it’s solitary. It feels too much like an extended time in an MRI.

Some of my favorite people were jailed. Thoreau spent a night in the slammer protesting a poll tax which went to support slavery and the Mexican-American War. To his credit Eugene Debs was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War I. He even ran for president from there and received almost one million votes. He was pardoned by Warren Harding, of all people. The poet, William Stafford, one of my all-time model human beings, spent World War II in federal camp as another conscientious objector. And then there were the Hollywood Ten whose crime was that they wouldn’t name names and Martin Luther King in solidarity with other Civil Rights workers and finally the Viet Nam war–protesters, some of our best and brightest.

In the matter of the Trump family, Flynn, Manafort et al versus the people of the United States I really don’t care if these people are incarcerated, only that they are indicted and removed from public office. Maybe the in-laws could be assigned to community service with Planned Parenthood or the Black Lives Matter movement. As for Donald perhaps we could smuggle him across the Mexican border to pick the avocado crop.

Arguably Trump is the largest president in history which is to say he takes up the most space. There isn’t a day in the past year when his inane blurts, boasts or barbs haven’t dominated the print and otherwise-media. He has colonized my psyche, an affliction for which there may be no known antidote. Consider my blog as a primal scream. One can barely remember a time when he wasn’t there. Ceding territory is not something he may be capable of doing, and yet…..

To beg your own pardon while pleading innocence, firing the investigator and damning your opponents is something only Donald could have conceived of. It probably began as the schoolyard bully, when revealed as the goat of the game, taking back his ball and going home. The ultimate chutzpah. If Louis XVI had thought of this he might have saved his head. It seems that our inspirational leader was absent the day they taught civics in school. Maybe he cut class and went off to see The Madness of King George instead.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Politician and the Poet

When I hear Trump speak or read his blather, McCarthy comes to mind. Not Joe but Mary McCarthy and her famous response to Lillian Hellman’s memoir, Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.  When Donald leads the chant, Lock Her Up, he wasn’t talking about Hillary, he was really speaking to himself and when he proclaims himself the smartest and greatest that is Trump talking to Donald saying,You are the dumbest and least. We have an inside-out man of total projection. If he weren’t so ignorant and malignant the inmate in the White House might be a passable contemporary poet.

John Ashbery is regarded by most in the poetry universe as one of our finest living poets. I don’t disagree. His voice is elusive always darting around corners. Just when you think you’ve got it, you don’t. His ideas appear to be kinetic, on their way to another place. He manages somehow to resist interpretation almost successfully, as Wallace Stevens put it.

There is something alive in-between his words which reminds me of Trump. The President gives non-sequitur interviews and tweets like compressed manifestoes offering conflicting accounts of the same event. And that’s just fine in his scrambled brain because Truth has no capital T. It is just another version of reality in the rotating kaleidoscope.

Ashbery presents a glimpse of a childhood memory in his poem:

Tulip garden / old dutch / home all our own until / recall once more / fashion in shoes / dog cast in / days before / were almost learning to forget / happy / fear came from a trough / kin.

In other poems I get lost in a forest of pronouns. But his story is not to be read literally. Forget about verisimilitude; the most to expect are snatches or distant associations. The words are merely an exercise to cultivate our imaginative muscle. If they aren’t his truth they could be somebody else’s truth, with a small, t.

Both president and poet had authoritarian fathers. Ashbery's was a poor farmer in upstate New York. Trump's Dad was the reigning patriarch who collected rent on properties. Donald became fluent in gibberish to close a deal after his counterpart finished a three-martini power lunch. Ashbery began writing in coded messages when he discovered his parents were reading his diary. He mastered obliquity in a sui generis voice confounding the interloper as it now confounds us. Trumpian logic is Mandarin-style chop suey, cooked in a wok of misdirection. A recent interview with Trump:

I inherited a mess with jobs, despite the statistics, you know, my statistics are even better, but they are not the real statistics because you have millions of people that can’t get a job, OK. And I inherited a mess on trade. I mean we have many, you can go up and down the ladder. But that’s the story. Hey look, in the meantime, I guess, I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not. You know. Say hello to everybody, OK?

Here’s a secret I would never reveal to anyone…My peculiar criteria of a poet’s worth, particularly during a poetry-reading, is to what extent he / she puts me in some sort of trance. If I stay fully awake the poet has failed. I’m there to set myself in transit, out of my critical faculty. John Ashbery is a soporific with creative leaps and that’s why I believe he ranks at the top. I attend in the hope of being transported, semi-comatose, into my own writing mode.

I’m going to try to apply this to Donald; to step back a few steps and listen to his rambles, to enjoy his incoherence as if his yelps are from a chirping bird. Maybe he is fluent in the lost language of finch though, when rattled, he sounds more like the squawk of crows. If he is fettered to a teleprompter he reads like someone delivering the minutes of the last PTA meeting. But let him loose unscripted with a mike and he becomes a carnival barker, fabulist and screw-loose demagogue capable of spell-binding his deplorable gullibles.

The poet, with all his cryptic lines, has aesthetic intention and that delineates the opposing worlds. He doesn’t set out to obfuscate but to evoke. He demands his audience work a little in order to find a portal into his universe. I’m sure his meaning is perfectly clear to himself even if it doesn’t reach for resolution. He is too busy finding connective tissue among fragments of disparate images or the voltage between high and low language. Ashbery’s poetry is like an atonal symphony or Thelonius Monk on piano. You come away with shapes, colors or opposing sounds and it’s all just beyond articulation.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

If You Live Long Enough....

…you get to see period-piece movies about events which you were witness to. Well, not Ben Hur or even Gone with the Wind but here comes Dunkirk. That pivotal World War II battle is soon to become a summer blockbuster.

In the spring of 1940 I had mastered Dick and Jane but not much else. Yet that name, Dunkirk, had reached my ears through RKO Pathe News. The five minute newsreels sandwiched between Saturday afternoon double features was our window to the world.

Six years later I was fairly well-politicized having followed the progress of the war on two fronts daily in print and pictorially in Life magazine. We lived it with air-raid wardens and blackouts and in the classroom collecting tin foil, knitting squares for quilts and filling books of war savings stamps sufficient to buy a $25 bond for a mere $18.75. In this we competed with other classes for top contributors. Our sixth-grade had a wealthy girl name Claire Weiss going against the seventh-grade who boasted of an affluent contributor represented by Patricia Yellen. Could that be the same Yellen family whose Janet now heads the Federal Reserve?

Dunkirk was the small beach town in France from which the Brits evacuated nearly 350,000 Allied troops including over 100,000 French over a nine-day period. It was celebrated as a brave and brilliant effort by a combined fleet of over 1000 small craft and the British navy. In his inimitable oratory, Churchill, who had just taken office a month before, turned a colossal disaster into a rallying cry which proved decisive in turning the tide. It was particularly inspiring because of the involvement of what amounted to a people's navy.

Now one wonders how that ill-conceived deployment of troops and equipment ever got launched. If Britain was dumb Hitler was dumber. Had the Germans acted more forcefully the war could have ended right then and there. Hitler had the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) trapped but failed to act. By waiting three days he gave Great Britain time to recoup. Ten days after Dunkirk the French surrendered.

I can’t help but think of the Gilbert & Sullivan lines from the Gondoliers.

In enterprise of martial kind
when there was any fighting
He led his regiment from behind;
he found it less exciting
But when away his regiment ran his place was in the fore-O
That celebrated, cultivated, underrated nobleman, the Duke of Plaza-Toro

In today’s world of cable news Dunkirk would probably be regarded as a case of masterful spin. Wars aren’t won by retreat however masterful. It was a victory in the same way that Pearl Harbor may have lost the day but might be seen as a brilliant strategy to get us into the war and preserve Western Civilization.  It would seem to me that 1940 landing of the BEF is a classic example of military blunder. They penetrated too far from their supply lines, totally underestimated the size of the Nazi tanks and air power and had no exit plan in place.

I have little appetite for military thinking. There hasn’t been a conflict or skirmish since in which tactics hold even the slightest interest for me. However over lunch with my octogenarian friends this war we lived through remains a continuing fascination. We relive the battles moving salt and pepper shakers around the table along with packets of sweeteners as if we are generals. At no point did we come so close to losing…..and the U.S. was still eighteen months away from formally joining the fray.

There was a story in circulation, at the time, that Hitler saw Great Britain as a potentially willing partner in terms of sharing their empire. Indeed there were proto-fascist elements in England welcoming a German invasion. However Churchill had better words than Gilbert & Sullivan, in his Blood, Tears, Toil and Sweat speech before the House of Commons.

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Two weeks later in a radio broadest he stiffened every British lip with …..

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

As to what happened with my tinfoil I expect it's probably at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. In April,1941 alone 700,000 tons of war materiel from the U.S. headed to  Britain was sunk by German U-boats.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

I'm With You But...

Dear Gentlefolk at Compassionate Care, Natural Resources Defense Council, Amnesty International, Southern Poverty Law Center, DNC, Planned Parenthood, Save the Polar Bears, UNICEF, ACLU, PBS, AARP, International Rescue Committee for Syrian Refugees, Doctors Without Borders, Friends of the Earth, Habitat For Humanity, Coalition Against Gun Violence, Santa Monicans For Renter’s Rights…. plus KPCC and S.M. Emeritus which receive monthly pledges and those I’m sure I’ve forgotten…. I have supported you all and you’re all deserving and tied for first place.

But you’re killing me with Thank You notes. When I send you twenty-five bucks you send me $23.00 worth of acknowledgements in the form of bumper stickers, address labels, shopping bags, T-shirts, coffee mugs and maps. Enough already; just cash the check and shut up or remove me from your list. I know you are out there. I don’t need these costly mailers. Get a grip. Please, no more slick pictures of emaciated children, melting icebergs, mass-shootings, battered housewives or shipwrecked rafts. I get it.

You are clogging my mailbox, real and virtual. I spend an hour each day deleting the glut of petitions and surveys from Democratic Headquarters, Move-On, Nation Of Change, solicitations from worthy magazines, research for diseases from AIDS to Zika, Congressional campaigns and advocacy groups for the elderly. Yes, yes, I know about the dwindling bee population, danger of pesticides, reckless greed of Big Pharma and cruelty to chickens. How should I rank the pleas? Is the threat of a dysentery epidemic in Mali more or less deserving than rebuilding homes in the devastated ninth ward still waiting after Katrina? What about the inhumanity in the treatment of our undocumented detained and deported? Or the homeless right here in Los Angeles? And notice, I haven’t once even mentioned Trump, the elephant in my brain.

I’ve reached the point where I dare not open the mail. Saying, No, hurts too much. I wish I were a rich man! Fixed incomes don’t stretch. I apologize for having been born Here in the cosmic crap-shoot as opposed to There. Yes, I do live under fair skies, all body parts accounted for, neither ill-clad nor ill-fed with fair skin in this white-man’s bubble of humanity. So writing is what I do. A message in a bottle thrown off the Santa Monica Pier, as Maud said to Harold, so I’ll always know where it is

Even the best words in the best order won’t feed the hungry or reverse our acceleration to Fahrenheit doom but words can become swords with the addition of a single letter. Poets, and writers do best when they render their authentic selves, not as diatribe but as expressions of imagination and honesty, the ultimate subversion. Deceit lies at the core of our ills and truth-telling through art is a threat to the masters of denial and subterfuge. It is no coincidence that support for the Arts is on the chopping block.

As for the marriage of Art and Society, that’s a subject for another day. The task is to channel vehemence into an evocative voice which speaks to an audience beyond the choir … without expectation of return mail.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Hacked By Russians

Ouch, that smarts. Do you feel my pain? Google tells me that this week alone 273 Russians macheteed their way through my firewall, eluding my anti-virus first defenders. Google, which monitors my blog informs me how many hits I get from each country. I have a few followers in Israel, Norway, Portugal and France but to suddenly get almost 300 visitors from Russia smells like pickled herring to me.  

I know you’re out there lurking in my data base, nesting in my bar codes, fondling my case-sensitive passwords. I’ve never been fracked but being hacked, I think, is worse.

You folks couldn’t possibly be actually reading my blog. Could you? Russians haven’t read anything since Pushkin. Your reputation precedes you. Wait, I’m only kidding. I’m confusing you with Trump whom you had elected and his voters. Their literacy is limited to 140 characters.

Now that you control my life, my appliances, my car should I start taking the bus? Was it you who burned my English muffin this morning in the toaster and then ran our dishwasher for 3 hours? And why does my toilet keep flushing?

I should say I’ve long been a fan of everything Russian. I've read Akhmatova. I watch Andrei Tarkovsky films. I use your salad dressing whenever I run out of honey mustard. Peggy and I are reading Gogol aloud every night. You must know this already if you’ve hacked into my library account.

May I ask what is it you want? Maybe you’re confusing me with someone in high places. I’m the other guy, a man of no importance.  I’m not worth your trouble. The last office I held was in the 3rd grade 77 years ago. Sure, I voted for your arch-enemy, Hillary, but so did almost 66 million other Americans.

Maybe you are just mischief-makers working on your class project for middle-school nerds. Does your mother know what you are up to? Tell me what I can do to help you graduate into the KGB or whatever it is called now. Or perhaps your office is in the subterranean boiler room below the Moscow subway and you hack for the hell of it on your lunch hour.

Would it help my case for you to know that my grandfather was born in Russia…or was it Poland? No, I didn’t think so. The border changed so often back then. Those Russian winters were just as bad in Poland. At least in those good old days a Czar was called a Czar and he didn't even have a Swiss bank account.

Did I tell you I sold my store twenty years ago to a fine Russian family? They’ve been very generous to me. Oh wait, they’re from Odessa. Sorry, wrong country. What’s that? Not for long, you say.  

Would you like me to infiltrate the Bernie Sanders headquarters? Sorry, I’d make a rotten double-agent given my failing memory and proclivity for alternative facts. I apologize for wasting your time with this blog. I imagine you have more pressing nefarious acts to tend to. Instead, why not just hack into our immigration system where you can slip into the front of the line and live happily ever after in the Silicon Valley hacking your way to the good life. 

Maybe we can meet on some neutral ground. You name it. We can talk about this over a glass of spiked tea. You bring the samovar; I'll supply the industrial strength Stoli. My tooth brush is packed along with some long underwear in case I wake up in a Siberian gulag.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Not Your Summer Reading Book For the Beach

Lincoln in the Bardo, was chosen for our book group so I was obligated to give it a go. My first take was repulsion since it concerns the death and passage of eleven year-old Willie Lincoln, son of the President. Set as it is in a cemetery /mausoleum / chapel it’s a subject I am not quick to engage. Furthermore it accepts the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a premise which I regard as hocus-pocus.

But plunge in I did. Without trying to summarize the plot, no pun intended, I found myself being drawn in as my resistance withered. This is often the case for me. The book-train leaves the station and I’m either left on the platform or hanging on the caboose dragged along.

As it is, the narrative of this book matched my incapacity to give myself over to it. The letting go process corresponds to Lincoln’s slow release of his son. The President is filled with guilt as well as grief. Historians have recorded that the typhoid fever which took Willie’s life happened upstairs in the White House as a presidential party was in loud celebration downstairs.

The bardo is a transitional space across the great divide between life and death (and rebirth if you will), what Christians might call, purgatory. In the Saunders book it is populated by a chorus of deceased souls not unlike Spoon River Anthology. Three characters, in particular, are prominent, each with unresolved issues. Some of their stories are reliable and others disingenuous. It takes a while to sort them out. Maybe this is an echo of what Whitman meant when he heard America Singing, part comedy, part gravity.

The moment of transformation occurs, in this bizarre story, when the unalive characters in the bardo exert an extraordinary communal burst of empathy and inhabit the body and soul of Lincoln urging him to surrender his love into an acceptance of the loss and to move on.

Against this personal tragedy is the greater one which demands his attention. The nation has been ruptured and hundreds of thousands more will die in the carnage. When this occurs our main characters are also free to make their passage. In some strange way, Willie becomes the Great Emancipator of those caught souls, leading them to get un-stuck and continue their journey.

The author, George Saunders, brings the historical moment of the Civil War into our consciousness of today. Seen from the long view the conflict is the American Hundred Years War, or rather our two or three hundred year one. Since our inception we have slaughtered our hosts and imported human cargo for enslavement. 

If we extend the metaphor of the novel it becomes a plea for entering into each other’s mind with an enormous empathy to reach the place of soul. In fact the author suggests that it was only when Lincoln released his son, with help from those of the floating world,that he was able to go ahead with the Emancipation Proclamation.

The book was my struggle along with Lincoln’s. First I circled around it, scoffed then sniffed at it, picked it up and put it down, then I skimmed it and finally read it and accepted the schtick on its own terms. I remain unpersuaded regarding after-life, though it is a comforting fable. It can also be seen as a literary device for engaging the reader in a variety of imaginative speculations.

There’s a long list of movies and books which I find unattractive including Gothic tales, gratuitous (even un-gratuitous) gore, apocalyptic, horror, disease of-the week, comic book adaptations and those with laugh-tracks. Maybe it’s my loss, at least for those which have received acclaim from people I esteem. Let this be a lesson for me. Sometimes the subjects I turn away from are the ones I might find most rewarding. And then the subject becomes why I was repelled in the first place. What I call discernment may be nothing more than an over-active critical faculty which can be self-defeating by limiting the possibilities and cramping one's aesthetic choices.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

In Search of Beginnings

Stanley Kunitz is not a household name except in poetry circles. Yet if he was not a first class poet of the century he was certainly a first class second rate one. In addition his voice as an essayist was erudite and eloquent. It was my great good fortune to have attended his seven-day workshop in 1978. In one of his prose pieces he writes about his childhood love, in rural Massachusetts, of a Lake Webster mainly because of its Indian name Chaugg…………………………………………….amugg, forty-two letters in all. It meant, I fish my side, you fish your side, nobody fishes in the middle. Naturally he learned to say it and never forgot.  He lived 101 years having twice been named Poet Laureate, the second time at age 95.

My urban experience was different yet his love of language resonates with me.

There were tribes back then in big cities. Not nomadic. They stayed close to home. I know, I was one of them. The proper pronoun is, We, and we had our oral, sometimes non-verbal culture. We belonged to a tribe called Children. Kids in New York City, probably also in Philly, Boston, Baltimore maybe as far west as Chicago were members whether they knew it or not. What made it tribal was the passing along of rituals, chants and rhymes along with an unwritten code of behavior. It arrived mysteriously as initiation and membership as if some invisible Moses descended from a rooftop with a stack of commandments. We were carriers of a long oral tradition and were given arcane knowledge unknown or long forgotten by parents. When we got to a certain age we modeled it for new members and it left us without a peep.

Tenements with stoops and four or five story apartment buildings created a density of street kids gathering and spilling out into the flow of traffic. Cars were cursed for interrupting our games. From about age six to twelve my pockets were stuffed, at various times, with marbles, bubble-gum baseball cards under crossed rubber-bands, skate key, football needle, tennis ball, hanky, house-key, and most importantly, chalk which sidewalks were made for. A patch of earth was ours for Mumbley Peg played with pocket knives. Bottle caps filled with melted crayons or wax were collected for playing skully on the pavement. Every game had its own ground rules agreed-upon but never put to paper.

One potato, two potato, three potato four. Ally, ally, In Come Free. "A"
my name is Alice. Marbles were played with aggies, bolders and purees. As a receiver in touch football I ran patterns of stop and go or button-hooks. Where did it all come from? Provenance was never questioned. No one dared ask. From neighborhood to neighborhood there may have been slight variations but the words had a certain universality across the boroughs. Maybe it’s still alive there. It’s certainly not here in L.A. where three people congregated in suburbia suggest a conspiracy.

I don’t know where the line is between cheap nostalgia and the genesis of Self. If I’ve crossed it I’ll take that risk. What I’m getting at is those seminal moments, the sense of a beginning. It happens slowly by accretion as much on the street as around the kitchen table. When as a teenager, my neighbor, Johnny K, had a knife slip through his arm while climbing a chain link fence it resulted in a severed nerve which disabled two fingers. I never forgot the medical term for his condition: Palmar fascia aponeurotic expansion of the palmaris brevis. It was a fascination with the music in that terminology which stuck.

In the same way was the flow of sounds that spurted from my mouth in the one fight I can recall, at age ten, plus or minus, when out came those immortal words, You Fucking Bastard Son of a Bitch. Tell me it doesn’t roll off the tongue. Meaning meant nothing to me; it still doesn’t. Just the cadence, the rhythm of it which could instead be,You plucking custard fun of a stitch. Like Kunitz, I have never forgotten that porridge of syllables.

My friend-de facto-brother, Stanley  D. (not Kunitz), and I invented our own country, Aduldabia, located it as an island off the coast of Siberia. We even invented our own language but never got past a secret greeting. Those words remain in my memory bank. (I'll never tell)

Carl Jung, who knew an archetype when he met one, wrote, No one can free himself from his childhood without first generously occupying himself with it. In a sense archetypes are nothing more than original patterns. I’m the guy who would rather order a frothy saccharine concoction of a lacteal secretion of a graminivorous quadruped….than a milk shake.