Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Every Friday at Three

Tea for three it is; our weekly tea-time with Carol Davis for the past ten years, or is it twelve or fifteen? Time eludes me in these twilight years like a slippery tea bag having galumped into the hot water. I’m getting good at the art of putting the kettle on and pouring. One need not scald the tea, I read somewhere. Then there’s the setting of the table and putting out our version of biscuits or scones which could be Babke or strudel. Peggy takes her Earl Gray. Carol and I prefer Good Earth Sweet & Spicy. It all feels very British as in the Cotswold’s, perhaps, where all vexing matters were to be sorted out over a teacup of hot nice, as we have named it. 

If this were a scene on a BBC Masterpiece Mystery it would be the perfect prelude to a murder or two. One could never trust what fiendish plots were hatched under a thatched roof.

However our conversation is mostly of family triumphs and travails and literary. Poetry acceptances are celebrated or rejections consoled, T.V. shows not to be missed are noted or those devoutly to be avoided. It’s all so civilized except for our habit of balancing the empty mug on its handle as it teeters on the placemat. This Mad Hatter’s ritual is something which has evolved over the years but is no match for the madness about to be let loose to tremble the body politic; more than any detective chief inspector could unravel.

While it is mid-afternoon here the clock has struck evening In Trump Tower. Time now to fire one or two aides, issue an imperial decree or royally deranged pardon in the hope of a quick burial over the weekend. Sorry, Donald but your last Friday night dump came through in neon lights.

Friday already has a dark reputation. Nixon, cornered as he was and in an agitated state on an October Friday night 1973, set in motion what is now known as the Saturday Night Massacre when he fired the Special Prosecutor, Attorney General and Deputy A.G. It seems that the account of that usurpation of power may well be Trump’s book for summer reading.

It has come to the point where the country holds its breath waiting for the next febrile act from our Carnival-Barker-in-Chief. By now you’d think he would know that Friday at six, Eastern Time, is not a propitious moment to hide another body. As the clock strikes mid-day here and eventide there, cable news braces for the next exhibit of our quasi-monarch’s tweeted mind, writ-large.

We need to cherish these moments of calm retreat, congeniality and reasonable discourse. Let us sip and slurp while the birds may chirp but under no circumstances shall we allow the megaphone from Mar-a-Lago to disturb our peace with Breaking News.  

Saturday, August 26, 2017

First Words

Ilaria is one of the new people in the world. My step-great granddaughter is now 10 months, 2 weeks old. Just about the time for the miracle of words to come chirping out of her mouth. First comes parroting and then …… paragraphs in which she will name her garden and know the power of language.

The video sent to us has her almost repeating CAT as her father points to their furry pet. Four years from now she may recognize a Catalpa tree with its heart-shaped leaves. The growth that shall occur will be in leaps and she may be unrecognizable as the butterfly is from the caterpillar. Nothing prepares us for all this. We witness it with wonder…. if we haven’t lost our awe to the geopolitical Catastrophic Cataclysm. But let’s not go there.

Where I find myself going is back to the process of acquiring early speech which went on when my ex-wife and I taught our daughter how to speak. We discovered Janice was congenitally deaf when she was about 20 months. It took almost another year for her say her first word.

Unlike with hearing children the word was not denotative. It was to be an action word which gave her a sense of dominion, of moving her world. The word was Open. Under the guidance of instructors at the John Tracy Clinic we created a number of situations with doors, windows, lids, caps and ultimately our arms. She was urged to say the word in order to effect a change. Open was a good first word; it welcomed the world.

We not only had to get her to make eye contact but also to place her fingers on our mouths and feel the breath of the P. It was demanding on her but we persisted until it all clicked. Maybe there was a moment of sudden recognition that people spoke and sounds were being made which she could not access like others. And these openings and closings of mouths resulted in something called speech and communication. It must have been both a trauma and an epiphany for her. An Oy and an Aha maybe at the same time. 

My guess is it came incrementally and that hers would be a different path. Over time she would learn to hear with her eyes. She now sees more than I have ever heard. She notices a frown and how my nostrils flare, so I'm told, when I'm trying to be funny. Janice's fingers have written more poems in the air than I have ever composed on paper. 

At some point her receptive and expressive language grew exponentially but still not sufficient to express or receive abstract thoughts. There are far too many ideas which cannot be visually re-created. Her conceptual development required signing and finger spelling. She picked it up from peers and soon her fingers flew like small birds uncaged.

From Ilaria words will also fly. Her babble and gurgle will make the earth move in ways beyond my imaginings. Some day I will look to her for instructions of how to make sense of this world. I’m reminded there is nothing to suggest a sprouting of wings in the crawl of a caterpillar. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Party

In our household growing up, The Party, was short for the Communist Party. During the war years, for a short time, meetings were held in our living room once a month. Who knows what nefarious plots were hatched on the other side of that wall? None at all, I’m certain. Our newspaper was The Daily Worker, an organ of the Party. I never thought of asking but could assume that my mother and father were members at least during the early forties.

Two F.B.I. agents knocked at our door when I was fifteen. They wanted names from my father. He blocked their way and offered them a loud silence instead. At the time he was working as a pharmacist for a nearby drugstore chain. Later that week he was fired.

With youthful eyes and from a distance Communism looked fairly attractive. Up close it looked like a system better to be seen from a distance. With binary vision and a thirst for absolutes, I reasoned since the U.S. had committed genocide on indigenous people, built the country on slave labor and supported tyrants in the Americas…therefore the USSR must be a more equitable and anti-fascist regime. Wrong! In fact they were worse.

However American communists, in my admittedly limited sphere, had very little to do with what went on in Soviet Russia. My parents were political idealists. There was a romance about it. They had compassion for workers and people of color along with a vehemence against the power elite. Jim Crow abuses angered my father. But he could no sooner overthrow the government than overthrow my mother. She was the reigning matriarch who cursed the butcher for an imagined finger on the scale. She also cursed the landlord for holding back on the heat in winter. Gonif, Schnorrer, Momzer! I think her entire Yiddish vocabulary was in curses.  

Ardent as I was for a more just system with evenly distributed wealth I enrolled for two classes at the Jefferson School in Manhattan to study the philosophy of Marxism. It was clear by the end of the fifties that the F.B.I. was inadvertently the biggest supporter of the Communist Party. So thoroughly had they infiltrated the class I attended that the teacher would address us as, students and F.B.I. agents. They were busy reporting on each other.

I don’t believe an average American, then or now, understands what the word, communism, meant. It was aspirational. An illusory dream of fairness and justice. It was certainly not what went on in the U.S.S.R.

It was also naïve but allegiance to a society of brother and sisterhood was basically harmless. What was wide-spread and respectable in the thirties became branded reprehensible and subversive a decade later.

Today we have a world turned upside-down. Republicans are contorting themselves to excuse their President for his Russophilia while what’s left of the American Left denounces his embrace. Of course, the word communism, has been excised from the conversation. But Putin’s Russia bears a strong resemblance to Stalin’s with Capitalists, instead of bureaucrats, grabbing power. 

The party is over. Call it Socialism or don't call it anything but a recognition of necessities with a reinvigorated role of government to provide for health, housing, education, employment and support for Science and the Arts. Call it civilization. 

The planet spins and words, like heavenly bodies, get eclipsed. Sometimes we even get to see them with new eyes.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Up Close and Poisonal

Seeing clips of the hate-filled faces in Charlottesville I was reminded of the same toxic look I was confronted with from a Peekskill mob when I was 16. Two weeks from tomorrow will be the 68th anniversary. The occasion was a Paul Robeson concert on a Sunday afternoon at a field in Westchester County, N.Y. 

One week before, the event was called off when hundreds of KKK demonstrators burned crosses and hung Robeson in effigy. He was determined to be heard so the concert was rescheduled for the following week.

We arrived by chartered bus without incident joining twenty thousand others. After the national anthem Pete Seeger sang a few songs and then Robeson held us in awe for about an hour ending with Old Man River. His base baritone voice seemed to shiver my blood stream. I remember a police helicopter flying over the stage as a token of harassment and an omen of what was to come.

The trouble was waiting for us in exiting the grounds. Both sides of a narrow road were lined with rock-throwing racists, American Legionaires or otherwise civil towns-people who had been whipped up to a frenzy by the media.

In a glaring example of fake news Robeson was misquoted by the Associated Press as having said, the U.S. is similar to Hitler and that American Negros would never go to war against the Soviet Union. He actually said, We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong and we support peace and friendship among all nations.

We were forced to make our way through a gauntlet of snarling faces into our bus and then take to the floor as a barrage of stones smashed the windows while we slowly made our way to the highway avoiding the broken glass on the floor. We were among the fortunate. Some cars had been overturned and passengers beaten. The mob was actually abetted by the police who were said to have supplied the stones and were photographed laughing during the attack.

The WE was my parents and friend, Stan. Telling this story today gives new meaning to getting stoned at a concert. How sad to be returned to America at its ugliest. Hatred dies a slow death particularly when endorsed by our president.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

When All Has Been Said

If you’ve got nothing more to say the least you can do is to shut up. So said Tom Lehrer.  This is me with nothing to say and yet ………

Standing aghast at the wreckage of America.
Anymore Breaking News feels redundant.
We have been violated
by one consenting adult (as in adulterated).
Call it rapacity.
There are stains on our fabric.
He is our grotesque mirror of mindlessness.
We must not turn away
from the noose and lashes,
from past covenants, quotas and deportees.
He has unleashed the feral beast
where the grapes of wrath are stored.
We need him unscripted, without clothes
to see ourselves naked,
to listen to his rants and blurts
in order to wake our own deaf ears,
to know civility again,
to end this Civil War

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Reading Melville Aloud

Every evening for about a half hour starting a dozen years ago, more or less, Peggy and I started reading aloud. We’re still at it consuming an A-list of classics from Proust, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sterne and Camus to Faulkner, Cheever, Nabokov, McEwan and Banville. I’m impressed with myself having been functionally non-literary for most of my life. I have somehow evolved from a smattering of ignorance to a shell of erudition.

One never knows when one will find oneself as a contestant on Jeopardy or in the company of true scholars. Now I can fake a conversation at a cocktail party providing the other people have long forgotten what they read in their university days. As a graduate of a four-year pharmacy college, which I regard as a trade school, I can safely say I was never formally educated.

We are currently swimming our way through Moby-Dick. It is our second attempt. Five years ago we ran aground during his tedious, encyclopedic exposition on sperm whales. Last night we skipped a chapter on how to decapitate a captured whale but we have vowed to stay the course. In those days whale blubber was a prized source of wax for oil lamps as well as soap and even margarine. I still have trouble reconciling the Save the Whale Movement with the way Melville describes his prey as a demonic creature with a diabolical intention out to do us all in. Of course I know it is to be read as an allegory of one man’s obsession but I wish he had chosen a different object of contempt.

Yet his language is so rich with the brine and froth of the sea and so biblical and vigorous in his exhortations one cannot help but be caught. His ariose sentences and the cadence of his vocabulary begs to be read aloud. You’d be cheating yourself otherwise. And it is great fun to hear your voice rise with the rollicking of the Pequod as if you’ve contacted your ocean within.

Then there is Bartleby the Scrivener. At first I asked myself, how was it possible for the same author to have written both classics. And yet…. Melville wrote this short story just two years after his monumental work. Moby-Dick had failed to win an audience unlike his previous novels, Typee and Omoo. He was distressed and broke. His two brothers had law offices on Wall St. and Bartleby may well be his answer to that walled life as Elizabeth Hardwicke suggests in her essay, Bartleby in Manhattan. He preferred not… repeatedly and with insistence.

Could it be that Bartleby was Ahab, inside-out? Not the loud, ferocious one-limbed vengeful hunter of the sea but the equally singular, taciturn renegade of industrial age dehumanized man. The one expansive and larger than life, the other minimalist and cadaverous but no less subversive. Just as Ahab becomes subsumed in his obsession so too does Bartleby become an apparition created, in a sense, by the conscience of the lawyer. Bartleby is a 20th century figure haunting the 19th century as if Kafka had a hand in his creation.

It wasn’t until 1920 when Melville received deserved acclaim. He saw deep and far. It took seventy years for society to honor how well he had harpooned his subject.

I’m not sure all great authors are enhanced by an oral reading but Melville certainly is. He is perhaps our version of the bard, singing even beyond Whitman's barbaric yawp. In these times of flat writing we seem afraid of rhetorical flourishes with the full orchestra of the language resounding. Melville is a reminder of an intrepid, authentic American voice. He prefers not to be reined in. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

What The...

Balzac famously said that he spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back. One has to admire his agonizing.

Take the for example. What would The Vatican and The Bronx be without them. Certain words demand the article as do, THE Museum of Modern Art and THE Metropolitan Opera. As I recall the main street in The Bronx was The Grand Concourse just like The Grand Canal in Venice.

Then there’s The French Quarter, The Renaissance and The Roaring Twenties. It would be unthinkable to leave out the The. Imagine if Hamlet had said, To be or not to be. That is questionable. I rest my case.

Yet my daughter, Lauren, who lives in northern California has the audacity to scold me for sticking, the, before our shared freeways. How dare she! Down here we have The 405, The 101 and The 5. Somewhere en route those major highways lose their,The. Maybe it happens in San Luis Obispo so that by the time it reaches San Jose they have no stomach for,The. What I call The Silicon Valley, she calls Silicon Valley. And to think, I raised my daughters in The San Fernando Valley.

May I point out that we don’t walk through valley of shadow of death? But rather through THE valley of THE shadow… Balzac, I’m sure, would agree. From a literary point of view it grants it the weight of specificity.

A little research tells me that we here in South California originated the freeway system and the 101, for example, was known as The Ventura Freeway or The Hollywood Freeway depending on where you were driving. The world doesn’t hold still for an L.A. minute. When our own private routes extended to the far reaches we lost the attached city but retained the prefixed article. But that doesn’t account for the above mentioned Valleys.

I wonder if The is on life-support. It hasn’t escaped my attention that what we used to call, The Ukraine, seems now to have been shortened to just plain, Ukraine. I smell Putin at work. I’m beginning to get nostalgic for what once was, The Soviet Union, now morphed into the crony capitalist state of Russia. Just another instance of the perils inherent in short-hand. 

        Like Balzac, poets also spend midnight hours grappling with that dreaded three letter word. Stanley Kunitz had written about his vacillation. In his great poem, End of Summer, he changed the first line from, The agitation of the air, to, An agitation of the air. His revision opened up the poem and accelerated the tempo. Then there is Wallace Stevens poem, The Man on the Dump, with this final line, What was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
         That says it all.
As for Lauren I forgive her for dropping her,The. It happens when you live in The Wine Country and I love her just the same..

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Monsoonal Air

Here it is again…sticky, sultry air so thick you could climb it. It slinked across the border undocumented, heedless of maps. Up from Sonora and Baja with its illegal water vapor. Better build that wall soon to keep us safe from the rapist, drug-laden dust which will contaminate our frozen yogurt shops and slip through the gated mansions.

I’m reminded of New York summers riding the subway, getting stuck to the straw seats. Ballgames threatened with rainchecks. Thunderstorms in the forecast. The smell of summer showers on hot sidewalks. Fire hydrants open with kids in sun suits splashing. Grasshoppers in the afternoon and fireflies at night caught in an empty mayonnaise jar poked with holes.

Those Julys and Augusts are all in the memory bank…and they can stay there. I’m done with high humidity, so I thought. If this keeps up we march on City Hall. There must be a law or ordinance. We don’t sweat here, do we?

But wait, this morning’s paper tells about Sahara particles feeding the Amazon rain forest and eventually carried by winds up to Yosemite. In fact those nutrients form the park’s grassland. Does Donald know about these incursions? It must be those liberal gusts with no regard for national sovereignty.

Next we’ll find out that America First, which means America Alone, is phony baloney and that the hoax of climate change is not fake at all…even in red states. And all this time I thought global warming was due to those Congressional swamps and the hot air coming out of the White House sufficient to melt a big chunk of Antarctica which might someday be found floating down the Potomac.