Monday, October 29, 2018


Arguably our major holidays are a conflation of pagan (peasant) rituals. Christmas is Chanukah just as Easter is Passover. The one being a festival of lights as days grow darker in the northern hemisphere and the other a version of spring renewal. Birth and resurrection or liberation, there isn’t a nobler cause for celebration. 

Soon the calendar says Halloween followed closely by Election Day. I sense a merging and I’m getting spooked. The ghost of Election Days past has got me. It all goes back to my first November voting experience at the wee age of three and a half. No, I didn’t run precociously for office on a platform of forgivable toilet training. Nor was I campaigning playpen to playpen. It was possibly my earliest memory, one which has stuck to my bones ever since.

Not knowing what else to do with me my mother took me along to vote. She then disappeared behind the green canvas curtain. Was it separation anxiety or chronic earache that caused me to start bawling? Or was I grieving for the plight of the nation? It was 1936. Perhaps I was weeping for the dust bowl, the breadlines and the rise of the Third Reich. Or maybe a leftover diaper pin was sticking me. I’m told I was a world class cry baby and still am albeit a bit more contained.

John Maynard Keynes put it this way: Capitalism is the astounding belief that the wickedest men will do the most wickedest things for the greatest good of everyone. This could serve as the epithet for our Age of Trump. The man with sinister impulses, both vain and ignorant at once, is being offered as a referendum in absentia and still half of registered voters will probably sit it out. It is the ultimate trick or treat.

When I was a kid (older than 3 ½) Halloween was a time for colored chalk, a nickel mask and some semi-malicious mischief. We might move a garbage can onto the lawn or chalk a front door. Now that the beast has been uncaged by Donald we’ve had our fill of malice.

Costumes? Why not? As Woody Allen quipped, My only regret in life is that I’m not someone else. There are certain people in Congress I wish were someone else and for more than one night.

The Day of the Dead comes along with Halloween. It brings to mind all those candidates I voted for on past November Tuesdays and grieved over their defeat......Adlai Stevenson, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern. Comatose and nearly dead is our dysfunctional Senate where aged white men from 35% of the population decide our fate in complicity with a deranged executive.

May the first Tuesday of this November not be an extension of another horror movie. May we expiate our demons who sit in citadels of power. May their ghouls be un-chalked from the great ledger.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

What's the Big Idea?

My default position seems to be looking for the big idea. That transcendent wisdom or folly extracted from the minutiae of the mundane. Show me a cough and I start to think cough syrup and I then wonder whether coughs should be suppressed or expectorated. And furthermore whether anything should be inhibited or let loose. What did Spinoza or Schopenhauer have to say about that?

In the case of cough preparations a friend swears by the narcotic syrup, Hycodan, which acts on the cough reflex to quiet it down. Socrates may have had a coughing fit when he chose the ultimate suppressant, Hemlock, demonstrating that sometimes the examined life isn't worth living either.

And speaking of coughs it’s a short leap to focus on Kleenex. I’m looking for a subject so ordinary it escapes observation and any sort of overarching significance.

It occurs to me that there may be something wrong with my nose. It drips. Where are you     running, nose? And not only my east and west nostrils but also my bilateral eyes. A partial parotidectomy in 1981 seems to have tampered with my salivary glands causing an oversecretion. In addition ever since cataract surgery about ten years ago my eyes no longer reabsorb tears so they make their way out of their sockets and travel down my cheeks as if I’m weeping. Of course our geopolitics offers much to weep about. 

North of the neck I count seven orifices. Only my ears behave. As a result we have no less than nine boxes of Kleenex in our two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. I just counted them. They are always at the ready at easy reach. Peggy joins me in this mishagosh.

Maybe nine boxes are a function of old age. We are crying for you, Argentina…..and everything up from there on the map. We are crying a river. Our body humours are speaking in the only language they have. I grant them their fluency.

So call me rheumy, call me lachrymose, just don't call me before 8 A.M. And bless the tissue; so perfect in dimension (form follows function), so sublime in texture, so rectilinear and virginal as the driven blizzard in North Dakota only to find its demise as crumpled as Ohio or, better yet, the shape of Frank Geary's next building. 

What did folks do before Kleenex or any other tissue? Why they used handkerchiefs, of course. I used to have one in my pocket during my time at P.S. 99. I think my mother even ironed them. 
When you stop to think of it hankies are really not very sanitary. Far better to employ one of those downy swan-white tissues. There is nothing whiter and softer except perhaps a wad of cotton but wholly unsuitable for the task at hand.

Before handkerchiefs I suppose there was always long-sleeve shirts but that’s as far as I want to take this. I must stop myself before I start looking for the big idea. There is no big idea for a change. What a relief! Don't get me started.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


October would be my favorite month with all that pumpkin flavored ice cream and such along with golden foliage. If it wasn't for the saturation with memento mori.

The last horror movie I saw was probably Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. I was fifteen and that hardly qualifies but I’d had enough. Earlier, I sat through Dracula, The Wolf Man and assorted graveyards, ghouls, zombies, vampires and haunted houses. The older I get the less capacity I have for what goes on in those dark and stormy nights.

In fact I can’t imagine what the attraction ever was. Are people starved for sensation? Just watch the news of carnage in Syria or corpses half buried in the latest typhoon. If it’s rage you enjoy check out the last Trump rally.

I abhor brutality, torture, can’t handle Holocaust films, prison movies or even fake autopsies in T.V. dramas. I close my eyes for butchered animals and cock fights. I can only handle food fights and pillow fights. I must admit to enjoying the controlled violence of a football game. Indefensible, I know.

I suppose healthy people get inured to horror by laughing at it. I wouldn’t know. I’m not that healthy. My empathy gets in the way. I immediately become the victim of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Whatever catharsis that’s supposed to take place in the viewing doesn’t happen in my psyche. I understand folks watch Nightmare on Main Street in order not to have nightmares. I remember seeing One Million B.C. when I was seven years old. While Victor Mature wrestled with dinosaurs and assorted monsters I wondered how I would ever get home outrunning a saber-toothed tiger.

Here’s my problem. I must have suffered a mild but chronic case of post-traumatic stress. Maybe Nosferatu took a drink from my bloodstream. A Jungian would say I’m not facing my shadow side.  I don’t disagree. Some form of arrested development prevents me from differentiating the real from the imaginary. I know it’s not actual but it feels that way.

If there is a membrane between the graphic images of suffering in Yemen and the latest version of Hollywood spook… that membrane is no longer impervious. The shock and schlock of human depravity along with gratuitous scenes of blood-curdling beasts registers in my unconscious as a threat to my well-being. 

Strange how I wasn’t nearly so much of a scaredy-cat in childhood as I am now. I'm sure creeping mortality has something to do with it. My cerebral cortex doesn’t stand a chance against my reptilian medulla.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Doyle, Donald and the Penny Dreadfulls

It is a stretch, I know, to find the thread between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Donald J Trump but I’d like to give it a go. Arguably Doyle’s invention of Sherlock and Donald’s invention of himself are both high functioning sociopaths. Sherlock Holmes was one which fit the late Victorian age. Trump is less of a man than a phenomenon who came along to fill a vacuum created by an age of dislocation and accelerated change. The sleuth with the deerstalker hat was a noble outlier; the Donald is a megalomaniac who offers a satchel full of empty promises. 

Penny Dreadfulls were read by an estimated one million Londoners each week. They were illustrated sensationalist rags with stories of cheap thrills, piracy, murders and science fiction, aimed at young men. They ripped off versions of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes’ exploits were fodder just as Trump and the National Enquirer use each other to fabricate his exploits while vilifying Hillary. For eight years they had Barack and Michelle divorcing with as much credibility as a JFK citing or alien landing. The Dreadfulls were the social media, the Tweets of the day. Both were the creation of fevered minds. At least the 19th century version presented itself as fiction while Donald seems unable to distinguish fact from fable.

Victorian England was at its peak of Empire. Think globalization. Big bucks were being made by a few people. The air was foul. Tradition under assault. Science seemed out of control with epochal technology and new-fangled gadgets. The bucolic countryside was fast disappearing with a growing divide between rural and urban consciousness. There were 200,000 prostitutes in London. Homelessness, filth and indenture coexisted with a genteel civility. People knew their place. Social mobility was virtually unknown. Rigidity and rectitude were giving way to randomness and relativity. Society was held together by a veneer of respectability, class fixity along with a sense of order and resolve. Every disruption had its resolution.

Enter Sherlock Holmes. He brought rationality and logic. He deduced. He rooted evil out and restored civility. He was their defense against a random universe. He never died because he never lived. Arthur Conan Doyle’s invention rested on the shoulders of Edgar Allen Poe’s invention and upon Sherlock’s shoulder came Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade…the genre is still digging.  Detectives detect. They mostly act on their own as benevolent vigilantes offering the illusion of justice.

The new sheriff with the technicolor hair who rode into America’s heartland, on the last train from Yuma, is Donald Trump, that old robber-baron, land-grabber, in disguise. He and he alone nails the most-wanted posters to the wall. He leads the posse, locates the hanging tree and prepares the noose. He is the faux-detective offering simplistic words with a ten-year old’s vocabulary to complex problems.

Yet both Doyle and Donald appear at pivotal moments, albeit 125 years apart. Brits also encountered immigrants from their jewel, India. Holmes pandered to Londoners xenophobia with a distrust of foreigners. Many Indians ended up in Newgate Prison on the barest suspicion. Gay behavior was criminalized just as many Red states would have it today. It would be decades before women were fully enfranchised in England. Their first voting right act in 1918 was restricted to propertied women over thirty. 1895 Britain and the American Heartland bear some resemblance in their racism and misogyny.

The name Sherlock suggests razor sharp certainty. I suppose he would be repulsed by the fuzzy mind of our Prez. The man from Baker Street could surmise a man’s entire profile by a glance at his hands and the smell of his tobacco. Our guy from the high tower smelled angst and fear and inflamed it into irrational rage. There is a mystery afoot surrounding Trump something like the yellow fog that fell on London Town back in the day. May Sherlock Mueller get to the bottom of it all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


According to Horace Walpole, 18th century British author, life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel. I'm not sure what that means but I suppose if we both think and feel it must be a tragi-comedy. In the Age of Trump what seemed like a slip on a banana peel now has us all tied up in the trunk of a car going over a cliff.

Arthur Conan Doyle also had Sherlock Holmes meet his demise off a cliff only to reappear eight years later. I hope we don’t have to wait so long. Moriarty disguised as D.J. Trump is as American as poisoned apple pie…and apparently unrecognizable to the multitude.

Mel Brooks’ idea of tragedy is when someone cuts himself. Comedy is a person falling down a manhole. Even as we sink into an abyss we are cutting ourselves into slivers; denominations, tribes, sects, tents. The zeal of orthodoxy seems to me a form of mental illness but what do I know, as one whose allegiance is for inclusion and universality.

Bill Maher quipped that comedy is tragedy plus time. Maybe it will look like comedy in the history books of 2100 …if that year is reachable for the human race.

What is the common denominator of all this ferocity and xenophobia? My guess is an inchoate fear as a consequence of accelerated change. Technology has people longing, squirming and confronting the unfamiliar as never before. We have now created congregations of the lost even as social networking also brings together pockets of kindred spirits clinging on to what passes for identity.

Perhaps we are merely witnessing the last gasp of nationalism and a rush into some sort of spirituality, false or otherwise, looking for a piece of the rock that assures survival, salvation or at least a meaningful moment. 

W.C. Fields said it is comedy when a sword bends but not when it breaks. I wouldn’t know. The last duel I engaged in was with rolls of gift wrap when I was a wee lad. It does seem that the bonds of civilization have bent but are not irreparably broken.

Aristotle wrote that tragedy is man reaching for the divine. I prefer to think we all have a touch of divinity in us. It is in our nature to seek some form of transcendence. If we fall on our face in the attempt it is still more heroic than tragic.

The human comedy may itself be tragic. What started as a family squabble in 1914 turned into a crime against humanity. Today’s rising oceans, toxic air, encroaching deserts and cyclonic winds in all their fury seem to be our tale told by an idiot. As the curtain goes down who will signify our fate…our monarch, mad Dick the Third wrapped as buffoonish Falstaff?  Or is it Beckett, the absurdist, I hear snickering off stage?

When Sherlock returns from sabbatical he is on the moors disposing of the hound of Baskerville. Civility is restored. Gone is the uncaged beast and villainy disappears into the foggy bog. It’s elementary, my dear whatshisname.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Scans and Scams

With apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ and his poem Spring and Fall, With golden groves unleaving / It is for this country I am grieving. Outside our window are large coral tree leaves toasted, exhausted and falling according to their autumnal schedule. For our country it feels as if we’ve jumped the season into winter discontent.  I look toward poetry to take its cue from Nature in its cyclic renewal.

Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley appear to be withered and well into their foliage. The White forty-eight men have long been the bent bough ready to fall, as Thomas Jefferson said, refreshing our tree of liberty with the manure of tyrants.

While our democracy gets scammed Peggy awaits her next scan. The procedure has been delayed because of a nasty cough. Thursday is the day for her Pet-scan which will tell us and the all-knowing eyes whether her suspicious mass is this or that.

Our body politic has also been laid bare as if the entrails of the White House and Senate are available for viewing. The superficial FBI investigation gave a few senators, posing as voices of reason, the cover they needed. However we may never see what the F.B.I. report said and, more importantly, what it didn’t bother with. Twenty-eight corroborating witnesses never got interviewed.  As long as it rhymes with scam call it a sham.

Nefarious plots are more visible when hatched in Washington or Mar-a-lago. Trump and his lackeys have achieved a kind of transparency due to his needy ego. He cannot resist the adoration of his mindless groupies who require a daily dose of scorn. As a result we get his instinctive pugnacious vulgarity. His message of moral violence requires constant stoking to keep the rage smoldering. As James Baldwin put it, One of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because, they sense, once hate is gone they would be forced to deal with their pain.

Peggy has been scanned and double-scanned. The Pet-scan (Positron Emission Tomography) coming up calls for an injected dye with a tracer which flares in the presence of abnormal cell-division. If Donald were somehow scanned it would likely reveal the absence of a conscience. Evolutionary biologists would be baffled by the curious phenomena of a devious ignorance and calculated impetuosity. They might have trouble locating his heart.

The ultimate mystery is the human body. We feed it and nurture it and yet… we never quite know what it is up to. Peggy, at 97.5, is still in her prime, cognitively, creatively and in her full humanity. Others in the tottering tower cannot deny the winds of change rocking their cushy cradle. When the bough breaks the body politic falls.