Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Memories

I grew up with Israel Berlin’s White Christmas….just like all the ones he used to know. If he could remember all those sleigh bells and glistening tree tops in the shetyl, so could I.

I’ll never forget the nickel, dime and quarter I used to trace a snowman in art class. Next to Glee Club these were my most dreaded hours at P.S. 99. I was a handicapped specimen of a child; I couldn’t draw and I couldn’t carry a tune. There was a large chunk of my genome missing. Snow scenes were beyond me and they were mandatory. If this were a true meritocracy I'd still be in fourth grade for the 75th year with my three coins. However my mother was a force to be reckoned with on the P.T.A. and she probably sprung me.

I just read that Christmas is celebrated by 95% of America. I must have been in that 5%
which has nothing to do with the 1% who run off to one of their off-shore accounts and visit their money for the occasion.

For me Christmas was the time when other kids got Lionel trains, complete with tunnels and bridges. I think I was about nine when I did receive a Monopoly board game. I’ve spent most of my life ever since on Baltic and Mediterranean. I got as far as Marvin Gardens once but ended up in jail. I remember that morning so well because my brother refused to play with me. He was a big-shot at thirteen. I was small fry and I suppose it was beneath him to stoop to my level. I don’t think Arthur ever forgave me for being born, ruining his status as an only child. By the time he was thirty I was older than he. He was not at home in this world and would be dead at thirty-three.

As an adult I always celebrated the holidays possibly as compensation for those early years being left out. I’m all into it as long as I don’t have to draw Dickensian pictures of scarfed carolers, one-horse open sleighs or red-nosed reindeer. I love giving presents however about five years ago Peggy and I put a halt to the ritual. We’ve run out of wall. Our bookcases are bursting. Closets packed. If I get one more sweater I’ll put it on e-Bay. We are in relinquishing mode.

I could tell you how we went to midnight mass last night, baked bread this morning for the big feast when Abner and Abigail are coming over and we let our crazy uncle down from the attic to sit at the table along with my sister and her no-good husband and how my teenage son is being released from drug rehab with an ankle bracelet ......but none of this ever happened.

I wonder if Izzy (Irving) Berlin ever wrote of the vivid memories of those dreams he really had in his Russian village running all the way across the ocean to the lower eastside. And now how marauding soldiers gather around a fire singing about his White Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Solstice Ramble

Now begins our hemisphere’s return toward the sun in our celestial geometry. Our dear friend, Len, was born on this date which feels like the sun’s birthday as well. It can only get brighter. He will have to share the solstice with Jane Fonda and Emmanuel Macron. Lead the way good people toward the vernal equinox and invincible summer lying within.

Why do you say goodbye, I say hello? Maybe it really is darkest before the dawn. Hello to the shutdown which Ebenezer Scrooge might have done just before Christmas. Hello to the burst bubble on the street called Wall where Dow is ¾ of Down and to that other mother of all walls. Hello to our legions come marching home. Hello to glimmers of light in the Humpty-Trumpty reign in which we are ruled by whim and blurt; nocturnal emissions disguised as deliberative regal decrees. William S. Gilbert (from G&S) described Donald in Iolanthe:

When you’re lying awake / With a dismal headache / And repose is tabooed by anxiety / I conceive you may use / Any language you chose / To indulge in without impropriety…

History reveals that Humpty-Dumpty wasn’t an egg after all. That was only Lewis Carroll’s depiction. The hard-boiled fact is that it was the name given to a canon placed on the wall of Colchester, England, when the Royalists within were under siege by the Parliamentarians. The Royalists who favored the monarchy as absolute ruler found one bright day in 1648 that their Humpty-Dumpty weaponry had fallen irreparably when the wall collapsed. So all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put scrambled Donald together again, however Oval his chamber may be.   

Just about this time 2,018 years ago, plus or minus a whiff of frankincense, Joseph and Mary were said to be trudging across the dry land. There was no room at the inn and no coverage by their H.M.O. All of which brings to mind my favorite Christmas carol.

Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild:
Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child
Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child.

Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee

And wouldn’t you know it… from her womb Jesus ordained the tallest branch be lowered and Mary had her cherries by command. I like it for its interplay between human emotion and the otherness. Or maybe because Joan Baez sings it so beautifully. It is probably the only song of the season that doesn’t drive me up the wall.

Which brings us back to the damn wall. Did something go wrong with Trumpty early on? Did a class bully knock down his blocks or was he the bully so busy with tantrums he denied himself the opportunity to build his own?  Maybe our Bozo sees that China has one and Bibi has his so why not us? Something there is that doesn’t like one. We can only hope the returning soldiers are not assigned the task instead of building bridges and roads.

The sun sets at 4:48 today, one minute later than yesterday. Soon there will be buds on the high elbows of the cherry tree. Absent any providential intervention I take this as hope.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The List of No Lists

This seems to be the time for year-end letters and lists. I enjoy hearing from friends however being a card-carrying contrarian and certified grouch, I refuse to  partake. Instead I’d like to list my reasons for not making a list.

First is my ever-diminishing brain. I can’t remember what happened last week or last month. I could say we traveled to Nova Scotia but research shows that was eleven years ago. It feels like yesterday when we visited Peggy’s Cove outside of Halifax……a fishing village with lighthouse, rocks, seals and a restaurant where Peggy ordered Finnan Haddie as from the lyrics of the Cole Porter song, My Heart Belongs to Daddy. As I recall it was awful. The fish, haddock, that is.

If I invite a boy some night / To dine on my fine finnan haddie
I just adore his asking for more / But my heart belongs to Daddy

I might also devote a paragraph to the passing of our dog except we don’t have one but if we did it would be an Irish setter and he would fetch Frisbees, the morning paper, my slippers and lick envelopes.

I’m reminded that we don’t travel anymore except vicariously as friends report back their adventures. I find this much less tiring and I recover from jet lag immediately. We allow ourselves to roam the world the way Emily Dickinson did without leaving her habitat. Even as our architecture swells, stiffens and quietly screams as long as headquarters hums along and creative juices flow our spirit carries us far.

Much can be said for going nowhere and just enjoying (or not) whatever pops up without comparing it to something else. It’s safe to say Peggy will have written 365 poems this year minus a few days in the hospital and rehab and I have managed about 75 blogs. The older we get the more inscape there is to revise, regret or embellish. Notable are the three books (two poetry chapbooks and a novel) Peggy has published through Amazon and one of mine soon to be available.

Calendars are, of course, an arbitrary point of demarcation though Hollywood loudly announces the year-end by flooding the big screen with its block-busters so Academy voters with creeping senility will confer their blessings on the latest razzle-dazzle. Award nights have a dozen or so winners and hundreds of losers with crumpled acceptance speeches in their tux and purses. I prefer the sleeper released in the spring with low expectations flying below the radar. I should add we have seen a few very fine films and read several brilliant books but won’t name them because…..

Second, or is it third of all, lists are hierarchical and I dislike rankings. Books, movies, art etc… should not compete, especially people. We don’t rate our friends, after all. (You're all tied for first place). Did Mozart and Beethoven have a food fight? Picasso and Matisse? Billie or Ella, Coltrane or Charlie Parker, De Niro and Pacino? Streep and ??

Golden Globes, Oscars…all of them strike me as exercises in hyperbole. We get enough superlatives from the Bozo in the Oval. Last year the big question was whether Donald would leave in handcuffs or a strait jacket. It remains still unanswered but now seems he remains protected by an extended definition of executive privilege. 

Where is Tiresias the Greek who prophesied what lies around the next corner? The ancients must have listed Soothsayers in their Yellow Pages. They had a penchant for Olympian intervention. The best we can do are pundits who seem to live on different planets, the fabulists on Fox on one and the truth-seekers of CNN and MSNBC on the other.

My final reason for not making lists of what just happened is that I’m more interested in what’s up. I’ve already spent too much time in the rear-view mirror reviewing what went wrong….. until I met Peggy and now it’s all good. Bliss is a blur.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Winter Moments

Blank paper on a winter day. If I lived in North Dakota this could be a meditation on whiteness. But, alas, there is no snow here and it isn’t even winter yet so says my calendar, until the solstice. Even then our imagination has some heavy lifting to conjure fake icicles and Styrofoam snowdrifts with a major exertion of memory. The fondest moments are the ones that never happened.

I could talk about my Grandpa who came across the Great Plain in a covered wagon with a blizzard in his face….. except that’s a fabrication, pure as the driven snow. More likely he inched his way across the Russian Steppes one haystack ahead of a horde of drunken Cossacks. I’d like to think he hid in a cellar in a heap of potatoes with shoots that reached into steerage on a ship in New York harbor.

Maybe he saw gulls in the sooty sky which reminded him of pages from the Torah. Or more likely he sold schmattas out of a pushcart or washed pots and pans in the backroom of a Delancey St. deli. Grandpa never went uptown to those imaginary pans of Tin Pan Alley. He was no Israel Beilin (Irving Berlin) dreaming of a White Christmas.

I shall leave Grandpa behind among the sleet and the slush. My flights of fancy have met white-out conditions.

If only there were hills in Forest Hills I might have become a great skier but that will have to wait until my next incarnation. My childhood unfolded on flat land void of ponds for ice skating or even mounds for snowball fights. But we did have that meager dip in topography we named the Toilet Bowl just right for Flexible Flier sleds to navigate among clumps of bushes. If I steered into the brush I would hardly feel it under my three sweaters and galoshes. Yet there were high fevers and double pneumonia as my mother cursed the dreaded draft.

On Dec. 7th, 1941 I was close to nine years old hanging around my father’s drugstore. There was a small radio up front alongside the cigarettes I was helping to stack. I half-heard a radio program interrupted with alarm in the announcer’s voice. It was cold outside with a gusty wind but no snow. Now a crowd gathered. Sentences halted, faces froze into increments of dread. My father had a look I’d never seen before.

When FDR spoke the next day he sounded like God. I came into the grown-up world that Sunday as if I had left part of me behind forever and traveled across some dangerous threshold.

Soon my world would become black and white, life and death. Blood on the snow. Maps on the front page showing dark and light divisions with arrows. It was a winter of new words. War bonds, blackouts, air-raid wardens and a different kind of draft. Saboteurs, Blitz and refugees. U-boats and convoys. Praise the Lord for the white cliffs of Dover… then pass the ammunition. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


That word, Thou, traveled a long way in my head from another four-letter word with three of the same letters; namely, Thug. But enough about Trump.

Martin Buber’s 1923 book, I and Thou, sums up what has vanished during these times that try men’s souls. The I / thou relationship elaborated by Buber describes a meeting of intimacy of subject with subject. No one is objectified. That word, Thou, takes on a sacred meaning not necessarily in a theological sense, at least in my mind, but in reference to what is in the process of fully tending to the other, the soulfulness of human beings. The Other could be someone close or even a brief encounter with a stranger. It could even be a work of art, a tree, flower or table etc … which we relate to in the full presence of our being.

This, in contrast to what happens when a thug lives on flattery and fealty. When he distances, with insults and ridicule, any who do not bend to his will. 

Listening to the eulogies bestowed on George H.W. with Donald, the elephant in the room squirming, bring to mind those virtues which are not in our would-be-monarch's vocabulary nor in his consciousness.

Even if Bush has been a bit mythologized having had his role as CIA director, in their nefarious interventions, erased along with his authorized dirty tricks campaign concocted by Lee Atwater against both George Dukakis and Gary Hart….he nevertheless is eulogized at a time when such virtues beg to be restored. Whether he warrants the nobility of a later day Founding Father, as John Meacham bestowed upon him, is irrelevant. We need to be reminded of our values even as aspirations in a democracy.  

Trump was seated in the front row alongside people he had branded as illegitimate, not a man, spoiled child, sad sack and lock-her-up. I can think of no person farther from I / Thou engagement than our current executive.

It is striking how the virtues ascribed to our 41st president at the Washington Cathedral seemingly have no place in the discourse down the block in the halls of Congress or White House. Respect for personhood would be a good place to begin. What better way to remember George H.W. Bush? In his dying, he helped to bind the wounds of a nation. And at the same time take a look at the shameful acts of the C.I.A. during his brief reign, before and after. In addition there was Clarence Thomas...but don't get me started.