Thursday, May 31, 2018

Sniffing Backwards

I read somewhere that we hold thousands of smells in our olfactory vault. I wonder if I can trace my way back from today’s burnt croissant to yesterday’s gasoline fume at the pump….and back eighty-five years to my first diaper change. I think it was on a Thursday but I really don't want to talk about it.

Donald has provided us with the malodorous stench of deceit and malice. I need to clear my lungs. The flower section of Trader Joe's has many spring blossoms but they have no odor at all. Both the orchids and tulips have traded vivid colors for scent. Even those hot-house roses come to us deodorized. I feel cheated. My nose leads me to the stargazers to take a deep whiff.

Peggy first writes her poems in a notebook with a number two pencil. I’m the guy who sharpens them. I admit getting a temporary high from the shavings. Not high enough to write my own poem but often achieving a height sufficient to write a blog.

I’m seldom hungry………until I see and smell the plate. That wakes my salivary glands and I get in trouble trying to subdue the flow. As I write this I’m thinking of the peach crumble pie in the refrigerator. Speaking of food I’m the only one I know, outside of my daughters, who doesn’t like feta cheese. In fact I can’t stand it. My brain registers it as vomit. Blame it on a blemish in my double helix.

Among other vapors I could live without are newly laid black top, coconut, rancid acacia and asafetida. I don’t expect anyone to connect with the last two. They transport me back to those years in pharmacy. In my father’s days in his drug store there were no glued labels. The pharmacist made his own out of acacia powder dissolved in water turned upside-down with gauze covering the opening of a wide-mouth jar. After a week or two it stunk and that rancidity has never left me. Asafetida is a gummy substance used to ward off evil spirits which emits a pungent odor one wants to run from out of the room along with the spirits.

Childhood fills my nostrils. There were faint vapors of chalk mixed with bubble-gum from baseball cards. Airplane glue for a short time. Neatsfoot oil soaking into a leather mitt. Citronella to repel mosquitoes. Licorice or wild cherry syrup in cough medicine made respiratory infections not all that bad. The eucalyptus and compound tincture of benzoin in the vaporizer took away our suffering. My father’s store breathed a curious mixture of aromatics which he carried on his body … a smidge of Evening in Paris perfume comingled with tuna fish from the sandwich board along with malt from the fountain and all this triturated by the overhead fan with crude drugs leaking from the apothecary jars, sometimes sulfurous, mostly warming, ancient, botanical, and slightly intoxicating.

Subways smelled of sweat especially with raised arms holding onto dangling straps. The straw seats retained traces of everyone who sat there. We inhaled each other and exhaled our communal air. Maybe we even got to like what we smelled recognizing a whiff of ourselves in the mix.

During the war years we had many refugee kids join our class. They wore suits and were all smarter than us. Most of them skipped. But they spoke a broken English and I first thought the boys smelled until I realized it was the smell of leather briefcases. I had a nose for trouble but it was a remediable one.     

Then there was Mrs. Spizzeri’s parmesan cooking on the second floor from which I dashed holding my breath on the way to my sanctuary apartment 3 FB in our four-story walk-up. Today I love chicken parmesan reminding me how far one comes away from those first foreign aversions before our noses can accommodate and finally embrace them.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Artifice vs Authenticity

The last three or four novels I’ve read seem not to be novels at all. No plot, nor arc. No distinct characters I could love or hate. And then what, is not an operative question. Don’t worry about losing your place; you can start at any point. The page-turner has disappeared along with toe-tapping melody in show tunes and rhyming poetry. Of course, I’m a bit late to the party. This has been the case for almost a century (Joyce and Woolf), evidenced here and there in book, movie, song, opera or poem. Where have all the flowery passages gone, the June, moon, tunes?

They all give off the whiff of artifice, of contrivance. About 30 years ago when Peggy and I were traveling in the Yorkshire Dales we struck up a conversation in a pub with a bunch of blokes. I mentioned how much we liked Upstairs, Downstairs. That’s rubbish, they said. So what do you watch, I asked. Dynasty, and Dallas, they chimed in, that’s real. Maybe our nose for the authentic only applies to our own artifice.

It could be cyclic but I doubt it. It should come as no surprise that a generation which shows an indifference to history would also reject a narrative which traces a protagonist through time. What we may have regarded as psychological depth the new sensibility may see as just another construct…no closer to truth than an exploration of surface. It strikes me as part of an inexorable move away from ornamentation and excess, from the tidy narrative, from the deductive logic of a sleuth and suspicious even of Truth itself with a capital T. Resolution has given way to irresolution and the open text.

A hand came out from behind the curtain and stabbed Clive with a knife. Who did it, we asked, as blood poured out of his tuxedo. L.B. he mumbled and right away we knew it must be Ludwig Beethoven or Leonard Bernstein or Lauren Bacall or Lucretia Borgia or Lizzy Borden or Lenny Bruce or maybe it was Lionel, the butler or perhaps he was just saying, I’ll be damned.

Tell me a story, Daddy. Once upon a time….and they lived happily ever after. Then we hear about the Moses myth or Jesus fable. Metaphors be with you! If only we accepted that these tales are not to be taken literally. Religion is the great, as if. Maybe we need it to navigate the chaos. Maybe we don’t. Who doesn’t love a good story? Today we might ask, who stole the narrative as if there was only one. At the far end of the spectrum we have a man in the bully pulpit who has mastered the art of faux-authenticity with fabricated blurts repeated to numb the brain.

In real time our day is a hodgepodge of distractions and digressions. Life doesn’t rhyme…except with strife (internal) particularly today with a surfeit of options pulling us in infinite directions. Randomness and uncertainty are those forces at work which we try to wrestle to the mat. Fiction is an attempt to impose order on all that but it doesn’t pass the smell test for the literati. In its place we get a sort of auto-fiction in which the author takes a few hundred pages to offer snippets of how it is to be alive in this time and place.

The streets of Manhattan are seen by a Nigerian man with a German mother in Teju Cole’s, Open City. Or the global experiences of an ethnographer finds connectivity between a hub city airport shut down by bad weather and the strands of a parachute which didn’t open in Tom McCarthy’s, Satin Island. Before those was W.G. Sebald and Ben Lerner wandering through their respective landscapes. The reader is asked to find patterns in their perceptions, not linear but arbitrary and quite often a stretch too far.

This is not to say that the traditional novel is dead. I still love a William Trevor short story above all else. His writing is exquisite, as if sculpted down to the bare essentials. But I’m an old guy misaligned with the new novel and trying to make room for it.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hold on, I Need to Take This Call

Yes, speaking.

You have what?

What sort of dirt? On whom did you say?

I love it.

How soon can we meet?

(This will score some points with Dad. Maybe he’ll increase my allowance)

How will I recognize you? You have one of our red caps? Fine.

How do you spell your name?  Is that with three z’s?

Ok, Ok, don’t get upset.

Yes, I’ll bring him along and him, too.

How much? Unmarked bills, you say? I’ll have to call my Dad.

Just take the elevator to the 37th floor and ask for Junior.

One of our men will take you the rest of the way in a private elevator.

Yes, we are closer to God. Good breeding, I guess.

Make sure you’re not being followed.

Yes, I get it. Sure, those sanctions can be lifted when we get in. No problem.

They’ll disappear faster than your dissidents in the Gulag.

(Wait till my sister hears about this. Maybe I’ll get an office of my own))

By the way, my brother-in-law has this property on 5th Ave which he needs to…

Hello? Hello? I thought we were disconnected. So he needs a small loan...

You say you already know about this? Yes, of course, I’ll see that he’s there with me.

Natalia…may I call you Natalia?

This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And yes, I’ll have Paul also with me. You may have some mutual friends.

Ask Vlad about that hotel in Moscow while you’re at it.

Remember, if anyone should ask, this meeting is all about adopting babies.

Hold on, I need to take this call from The United Arab Emirates.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"The Wall"

Two little words yet they require time and place to be defined. “The Wall” for the past two years in Trump-speak is clap-trap for his so-called base, pandering to their fear and loathing. The words get a loud shrug from most fiscally-conscious Senators across the aisle and sneers and jeers from the majority of Americans. But The Wall has a history with entirely different references for me and for other people at other times.

Though it is over 2,000 years old, in parts, the Great Wall of China is still the Mother of all walls snaking over 13,000 miles. Contrary to a rumor (I just started) it is not the inscrutable origin of Chinese hand ball. The emperor Trump of his day had it built to keep out those nasty foreign invaders and to protect the Silk Road from assorted rapists and bandits.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the map, the Western Wall, aka Wailing Wall, was built on the temple mount. Maybe Trump got his idea from here where messages are left, holier than tweets.  However it is well-known that neither Yahweh nor Trump answer mail.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and here I am throwing my trusted tennis ball against an exterior Wall I deemed to be holy. It stretched about one hundred feet. Long enough on the inside to accommodate about ten stools at a soda fountain plus the prescription department of my father’s drug store. It did attain a kind of holiness when the space became a store-front synagogue after my father went out of business during World War II. I was yanked in one day to make a minyan on my way to play baseball in the schoolyard. There I stood with my 1st baseman’s mitt mumbling toward the raised place against the Wall where my father once presided between globes of colored water.

The best seller in 1950 was John Hersey’s novel, The Wall, which read like dramatic reportage of the plight of over 400,000 Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto. The book describes the heroism of several characters during the uprising against the Nazis. Hersey’s earlier book, Hiroshima, was possibly the first of the so-called New Journalism which merged fiction and nonfiction. No Wall there.

Though it was written before the First World War, I first came across Robert Frost’s, Mending Wall, in high school. I tried to memorize it but couldn’t. The first line is the poet’s tell, Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. It is the voice of the natural world… That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it and spills the upper boulders in the sun. Think Sisyphus. Frost gently mocks his neighbor who mindlessly repeats the old adage that, Good fences make good neighbors. The narrator observes that he seems to move in darkness and will not go beyond his father’s saying. Are you listening, Donald? No, probably not.

In Germany for three decades The Wall referred unmistakably to that dreaded and dreadful one separating West from East Berlin. What would John Le Carre have done without it? Chunks are now selling on e-Bay for $11.95.

In 1963 the thought of a Wall conjured the one my brother drove his car into on a mountain road. He was a troubled guy who loved jazz. I like to think he heard some Blues solo, in an alcoholic haze, which he needed to chase and penetrate. He died instantly maybe finding the promised place inside that Wall.

Our most honored Wall is Maya Lin’s art work on the Washington Mall which memorializes the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who gave their lives fighting the Vietnam war…which in some ways has never ended. Two acres of war dead. Were they too dumb to skip to Canada or too brave? Or too poor to have a doctor sign off on bone spurs in their heels like our illustrious president? This Wall is all the more powerful and poignant for not depicting the usual patriotism but honoring each of the fallen. It was privately funded by 275,000 donors. Though it was divisive at its inception it has become the most visited of all Washington monuments and still a work in progress with 300 names added since the installation and with daily offerings of flowers, letters even dog-tags left at the base. A Wall which embodies an America in its national folly and individual heroism.

To end on a more personal note Peggy will soon be breaking out of rehab going over the Wall.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Notes from the Grounded

Call it a repair shop. Not a junkyard. Nobody’s been totaled. We call it a cruise ship to nowhere, this convalescent rehab. It’s neither a hospital nor hotel. But they do have room service and the food’s not bad. I know because I eat what Peggy doesn’t. Best of all there are no I.V.s or monitors beeping at all hours.

The exercise area is loud with walkers scraping, bikes buzzing, bones grinding, folks groaning and a small army of occupational and physical therapists urging the worn bodies to surpass themselves from yesterday. Resistance also has a voice. Their faces register a sort of bewilderment how they landed here after the fall, remembering how to ambulate all over again. 

In the room women come and go speaking of sixty years ago. Octo and Nonagenarians learning like their great grandchildren to waddle across the room. Everyone has a back story, besides the story of their back. Each person needs to assert who she is beyond that woman in 418, bed one. 

Flowers arrive painting Peggy’s room with their bright palette…….and then they droop and she watches them wither…but the sentiments remain in full bloom. She celebrated the 97th anniversary of herself here with a dozen heart-shaped balloons and many well-wishes expressing amaze. Her juices still abundant.

Blood presses with both a contracting heart (systolic) and a resting one (diastolic) and takes its measure through our arteries. Too high is a concern, too low even a greater one. Peggy's high was too low at 75/40. They need not to push beyond her pace. She came close to fainting.

For the frail, morbidity has a number devoutly to be avoided. I watch bodies droop like five-day old tulips but humans can be reinvigorated... and she was.

In the room alpha males come and go no longer the bully C.E.O. It’s a humbling time moving from the fast lane to the Good Ship Lollypop. Maybe for some a mirror.

This is a way-station between the operating room and home. It is a cautionary interlude, a confrontation with the brittleness of bones. They will walk out a bit sobered; a preview of coming attractions, perhaps. 

For Peggy this has been a homecoming from her nine week stay in 2013 when she had a titanium rod installed in her thigh. Soon she’ll be sprung. Having entered horizontally, she has moved through the diagonal to the near vertical.

Out of this room Peggy will get up and go...

Monday, May 7, 2018

Imagine My Surprise When .

.... a check for $130,000 arrived in the mail today. I thought it was one of those phony sample gimmicks from Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes or that my signature upon endorsement would buy me time-sharing in Aleppo or Pyongyang. But I saw it was drawn from the Crimean branch of the Bank of the Kremlin and signed by M. Cohen with a contract attached stipulating that I keep my trap shut. I figured if the fund is slushed my tongue can be hushed.

True, I’ve been running off at the mouth lately, particularly after a wee drop of spirits, but I’m not a squealer. I notice I've become a blabber mouth (like now) when I really have nothing much to say... especially when I have nothing to say.  But for that kind of money I can happily shut up. For another $130,000 I might agree to duct tape.

The sudden windfall has given me pause. I couldn’t help but wonder what it is that I know and when did I know it. Fearful of being dragged into a grand jury room to spill the beans I began to search my ever-diminishing memory bank to question if I had any beans at all.

Could it be what I overheard from the next booth at Fromin’s Deli? Or was it something said in a crowded elevator? Maybe a long-forgotten whisper of a scandal from the school Donald attended across from my apartment building sixty-four years ago?

My grandfather’s name, on my mother's side, was Morris and I had an uncle named Max…. both with last name Cohen. Maybe this is some sort of inheritance. But why the hush?

In college someone called me Stormin Norman. I never knew what the reference was until now.

I’m getting the jitters. I think I better lay low on the other side of town till the heats off. Some goon who looked like a sparring partner for Jake La Motta gave me a dirty look last week when I didn’t apologize after he stepped on my foot.

Unless I join a monastic order and take my vows I doubt I can handle the silence. I had lunch with friends today and didn’t say a word. I nodded a lot and grunted a few times, then blurted that I had to go. Nobody seemed to mind when I picked up the check.

But I can see the hushed life is not for me. I’ve decided to send the check back to the shell company in a thousand shreds. I can’t be bought even if I have no idea what I’m selling.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Age of Peggy

Peggy was born ninety-seven years ago yesterday. Warren Harding was president but she can’t be blamed for him. In fact she probably cried when she got the news. Harding’s cronyism scandal and sexual peccadilloes ranked him among the worst presidents ever. All things being relative he deserves a reassessment. We’ve had three or four since then who make Harding look not all that bad, in fact he may have set the standard for the present occupant.

Peggy lost her father when she was three and her mother five years after that. A week after she was orphaned the stock market collapsed. History has shadowed her. Her aunt who raised her saw the family fortune disappear. Not that her cereal bowl turned to a dust bowl but she did attend eleven schools before high school.

As a teenager she interviewed Orson Welles for her school newspaper. He was the Broadway wunderkind and radio star of the Mercury Theater. There were only six years difference in age but fortunately he didn’t marry her. She also would second-act plays and go back stage and meet Maurice Evans, Joseph Schildkraut, Katharine Cornell and Gertrude Lawrence…household names at the time. Gutsy kid.

She cast her first ballot for FDR in 1944. The war had depleted the city of men; I was only eleven and of no use to her. She was living in Greenwich Village…presumably waiting for me to grow up or for the war to end, whichever came first. In fact we didn’t connect for another thirty-six years.

In the meantime bombs dropped and Peggy's fission yielded Christie, without benefit of clergy, demonstrating she was far ahead of her time. Her daughter was among the early baby-boomers and Peggy was a single Mom in the vanguard of non-conformists beginning the post-war age of conformity. 

She was rescued by an uncle who sent a ticket for a one-way flight to Los Angeles, a sleepy little town in 1946. Peggy got a job in Hollywood where she car-pooled with the Andrew Sisters, dated Jerry Grey (arranger for Glen Miller’s orchestra) and also got to know the Modernaires who recorded a children’s album Peggy wrote called, The Glooby Game.

She married Sam and Ron was born in 1951. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Joe McCarthy was ranting. Sinatra was crooning. The Beatles weren’t yet but she heard other voices, like the Beat poet’s howl and songs of social protest. She met Adlai Stevenson but he lost to Eisenhower anyway.  

Peggy has a hungry aesthetic ranging from the unseen ordinary to the never before. She brings news from elsewhere. Fronds and bark and pods are brought into her house. She’s a finder and she was a founder of the Valley Center of Arts filling a cultural vacuum in the San Fernando Valley. The organization sponsored programs in the visual arts, literature, music and dance.

She got involved in the Civil Rights struggles, read James Baldwin and joined anti-nuke demonstrations. She read voraciously… Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield and Emily Dickinson. Her poet of choice was and still is Wallace Stevens. Poetry, it has been said, changes nothing but every day thousands die for lack of it. And they did in Korea and Southeast Asia. All this time Peggy was writing thousands of poems and three novels. In addition she was smitten by the collages of Joseph Cornell and proceeded to create well over a hundred constructions herself.

The country took a turn in 1980 when a B movie actor was given the role to impersonate a president. He had to drop breadcrumbs to find his way out of a sentence….but that was good enough for an ill-informed electorate. Peggy got her license that year and began her practice as a Jungian psychotherapist to help and see what ails this country.

In 1984 Ronald Reagan was reelected. The very least Peggy and I could do was to live together. We had been seeing each other, naughtily, for a few years. I called up and told her there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that Reagan was supporting the Contras in Nicaragua. The good news was I was moving in on Sunday.

The world goes on like a spiral with dips, but upward, ultimately. At least she believes that paradigm and I concur, Trump to the contrary notwithstanding. There is a substance in us, said Stevens, that prevails.

She believes that Barack Obama is the most conscious of all our Presidents. If he failed as a politician he did with grace, a quality our country aches for. 
                                                                                                   Peggy is a force of nature. She has made history by her example. Few people whose path she has crossed come away unchanged. Without saying a word, the purple streak in her hair gives permission for others to do something daring, to risk an act of vulnerability.

The narrative of History seems to make little sense in its trajectory. But it’s fun to try to align it to our own. We sculpt our myth selectively. Peggy is not Penelope staying home waiting for the knock at the door. She’s out there encountering the gods and grappling with them but mostly finding some nugget right at her feet.