Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Big Con

First there was Phineas. P.T. Barnum’s autobiography was the bestselling book in the second half of the 19th century after the Bible. We love the con. We can’t get enough of the schemer, his ingenuity and audacity. It’s O.K. if it involves deceit, cheating and greed. After all Capitalism is all about scrambling to the top of the heap. Whatever it takes. It says nothing about how you get there, or the victims of the fraud. Call them losers.

Herman Melville’s last novel published in his lifetime (Billy Budd came posthumously) was titled The Confidence Man.  It is set on a riverboat making its way down the Mississippi. We are presented with an array of stock-scammers, charity hustles and panacea-peddlers. They feed on the trust of the sucker born every minute. Dismiss them and they call you a cynic. Try a bottle of this pain-dissuader. What have you got to lose?

Now who does all this remind me of?

We think we have the nose to know what can’t pass the smell test. But consider the trouble in River City, cure-alls, the flimflam man or the hidden persuaders who have us buy $400 sneakers. Gullible America voted for the real estate mogul who ventriloquized the grievances on the tongue of the working man. 

When institutions are deemed to be corrupt and hypocritical a vacuum is created which allows the demagogue to rush in with a compelling narrative, however false, with appeal to the aggrieved. Everyone wants to be part of new movement,  

Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) put one over on an A-list of prominent Captains of Industry, a 4-star general, diplomats and ex-president. They heard her out and were bewitched by her hokum that a drop of blood could yield vast amounts of data. Investors were charmed by her presentation. They all wanted in on the ground floor. Disbelief was suspended.

Blind trust and total mistrust are first cousins. The other side of the same coin generates fright. The enemy is out there surrounding us in the jungle, said Jim Jones.  The Deep State is destroying America, folks. Those immigrants are taking away your jobs and raping our wives in their spare time. Big Pharma is vaccinating us to death.

Militant mistrusters have bought into a counter narrative as heedlessly as those victims of the con man. Once you are scared it’s natural to hate, to loathe, to shut down your critical faculty. Swallow the hoax and all the rest follows. Even to take arms for survival.

Otherwise enlightened folks have conflated Science with Big Pharma. We may not have evolved much since Aristotle in terms of moral development but we have made great strides in medicine. I have no love for pharmaceutical companies but given our economic system they are the only ones who manufacture and distribute biologicals such as flu vaccine, MMR, DPT, shingles and polio vaccine, Pneumovax, etc… Get over it. We have conquered most communicable disease but without vaccines we are back to mid-18th century. The anti-vax fools not only indulge their ignorance but impose it on the rest of us indifferent to the consequences of fatal epidemics.  

The election of 2016 demonstrated we are, in part, a nation of Gullibles. Certainly it all began before Barnum met Bailey. Looking for answers we see conspiracies. Correlation is mistaken for causation. We are suspicious of evidence-based scientific method as if it were some establishment hoax. We spend billions annually buying nutritional supplements unproven as to efficacy or purity as if anecdote trumps clinical trial. The word Natural confers neither harmless or therapeutic nor does it strike a blow against drug companies. Think again. Think digitalis and belladonna. Think opium and strychnine.

The riverboat chugs along with half of America on it. Who wants to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Baseball as Poetry

In a few days it will be opening day. There is joy or at least hope anew in Mudville. The tilted square of baseball replaces the rectangle of all the other sports. …and no clock to play hurry-up against. Baseball is a stroll in the park. It re-sets our natural rhythm. No whistles or unnecessary roughness. Not a car-chase or a deadline to make. Baseball is a vestige of pastoral America….the one that maybe never existed. It’s not a blurt or a tweet or a byte. It is a novel by Henry James or an epic poem. Ulysses stretching, stealing, scheming his way across the island-bases, making his way home. Zeus on the mound throwing bolts. Baseball is a tribute to Euclid with his sublime dimensions. It is has a certain divinity in the infield yet an idiosyncratic, erratic outfield with alleys, corridors and ivy walls. Updike wrote of the great Ted Williams who never acknowledged the cheers. Why? Because gods don’t answer mail, he said.

What is it that draws poets to the game? The confluence of wood and sphere which reminds them of an epiphany on the page? The pause between pitches, between innings as if stanzas might be written. The crowd (collective) focused on the lone batter. His futility to hit the unhittable or say the unsayable. Slumps like writer’s block. And what of streaks when everything feels so right, so easy and they have exceeded themselves? The fastball down the middle they’ve been waiting for.

The next word, next pitch is unknown. Where does it come from? The poet’s line travels faster than a radar gun and defies gravity with a leap. The game is new every day or night. A curtain goes up on today’s theater. There will be a drama never before enacted. When you may think nothing is happening consider the gulls counting innings waiting to descend for a midnight feast. Regard the umps in black anticipating possibilities. Coaches wiggling signs. Fielders in deliberate choreography. The pitcher with his leg kick. The hitter with his cleats, fidgeting with Velcro on his batting glove. Arm angles, launch angles. The route less taken in centerfield. Tarpaulin rolled out for the thunderstorm, gnats of August, October fog. The wind seen in the flag.

The rhythms of the game are poetic. The pitch, the crack, the dash, the throw…. constitute the line or stanza and then the long interval. It can be mythopoeic with outsized heroes, goats, scandals of the fix, the drugs, the curse, stats of super-human feats never to be met. Those glory days which get better every time I remember the feel of perfect contact which renders words incapable.

Baseball is a long haul. A season of sore arms, spiked calves, hitches in swings, pulled muscles, hours in the weight room, taunts from fans, ups and downs. Some salaries are obscene, some are bargains. Careers are uncertain and then what? It’s a game; it’s a business. For the fan it’s an elongated distraction from this deranged world of geo-politics. A magnificent regression to childhood. It was the first thing I knew that my parents didn’t. A time when we weren’t quite sure what mattered……but this would do for a while as we grew up…..and some of us never did.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Shadows of Doubt

To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, The trouble with this country is that right-wing nitwits are cock-sure of themselves and Liberals are full of doubt. True a hundred years ago and even truer today. However along with doubt are nuances, mitigation, forgiveness, empathy etc…

Judge Amy Berman Jackson castigated Paul Manafort for fifty minutes in what seemed like a prelude to an additional ten years in prison. Yet the final sentence was a mere three years plus. Spoken like a true Talmudic scholar. There’s this yet there’s also that. The Jewish tradition is disputative of text.

Search in and out and roundabout
And you’ll discover never
A tale so free of every doubt
All probable, possible shadow of doubt
All possible doubt whatever.

So sings a character in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Gondoliers. The tale told in this chorus is so unlikely it raises more doubt. The album performed by the D’Oyly Carte Company was played all night long during my college days in a friend’s basement to keep us awake memorizing structural formulas the night before a test. If I didn’t doubt how I would ever use any of this in the practice of pharmacy I should have. I would have been better off if we’d had the record of the Jimmy Durante song in the movie, The Man Who Came to Dinner.

I may stay a month or I might leave immediately… Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go / but also have the feeling that you wanted to stay?

Then there is Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers singing….

Hello, I must be going. / I came to say I cannot stay / I must be going. / I’m glad I came / But just the same I must be going. / I’ll do anything you say / In fact I’ll even stay / I must be going

Wit and doubt are first cousins. Humor is often irreverent poking fun at rectitude and authority figures with a puff of Groucho’s cigar or Chaplin‘s cane. There is an element of wit in the plural mind of rational thinkers which entertain multiple ideas in collision.

If doubt is funny it can also be essential. Intellectuals, said Zorba, are like grocers; they weigh everything. Tyrants make no room for doubt. I have never heard of Trump cogitating. Nor did Jim Jones. If I may be permitted to plagiarize myself… Dying begins when doubt is forbidden. This comes from a poem I wrote a long time ago addressed to my friends at Jonestown before they lost their two teenage children. Doubt encourages the freedom they were denied.

The trouble with the world, as Russell saw it, is also our strength. Progress can be measured in the extent to which we move away from absolutes, and dogma. People of true faith wrestle with doubt in their dark moments of dread. Keats wrote of Negative Capability which asks for one to live in a place of uncertainty and mystery without reaching for resolution. Sounds like doubt to me. The pre-condition for allowing the imagination full sway.

However when objective facts are gathered and well-considered by scrupulous, deliberative minds doubt can be overcome and conclusions drawn. In other words bring charges against the man in the Oval who now soils our national fabric.

What Keats described applies to the creative, not the political, process. He, himself, was fiercely opposed to the Conservative agenda of his day. There can be no equivocating in the search for truth.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Our Remembering Brain

I’m a sucker for odd facts.

Today I leaned there’s no such bird as a seagull. They are just gulls. Just as sardines don’t really exist but can be herring or many other short fish under six inches. I don’t know what to do with this info.

I might try to casually work it into a conversation. I tried that the other day with another startling piece of presidential trivia. Namely, the fact that three of our last four POTUS were born within six weeks of each other, Clinton, Bush and Trump, in the summer of 1946. Perhaps Mercury was in retrograde. Or atomic bomb fallout was in the air.

Yesterday I read that the violin was saved from extinction by Catherine de Medici, Queen of France in the 16th century. The instrument was first deemed by the Church to be licentious, too screechy and for scandalous dancing. Maybe they felt its sound resembled the seagull which doesn’t exist.

Here’s another tidbit to drop at a cocktail party: ten million trees are felled annually just to manufacture toilet paper even though 70% of the world population does not use it. On second thought better save this for another occasion and try the violin material for the cocktail party if you want to get re-invited.

Blame the Internet for all this. Folks before the millennium didn’t have the cargo we have to sort out. Has it elasticized our brain or must we forget something to make room for each new fact? I wonder what Google has to say about that.

Eighty-five years ago they may have been bursting with news they heard on that newfangled wireless wonder called radio or perhaps from RKO Pathe News shown in movie theaters. What will they think of next, I ask you? 

Now, of course, we don’t need to spell, multiply or memorize anything. It’s all there waiting to feel the call of the click. I’m beginning to feel badly for my Remembering Brain. It may become vestigial and slough off. All that’s left for us is to never forget our Social Security number, pin and passwords. The rest is in the device for perpetuity.

It should give me comfort as I pass into my dotage but memory is all we have in the end. It has become our measure of sanity. A little wear at the edges is permissible but large holes in the short term are scary. 

And why do we remember what we do? I knew the answer to this but I forgot. Etched in my gray matter is the roster of the Brooklyn Dodgers team of 1941 but that won’t get me very far.
Nor will the names of everyone in FDR's wartime cabinet.

Memory is a randomly selective muscle. About fifteen years ago a friend fell from his bike, splattered on the street when the paramedics came. To check his cognitive function they asked him who was President and he said he didn't remember the name, only that he was an asshole.

If I could only un-remember Trump’s presidency I might live happily ever after. I’d even gladly delete all I just learned about gulls, sardines and violins and focus on the meaning of life. I swear I was on the verge of unlocking the mystery but it just slipped away.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Eighty-Six My Birthday

When I was in my twenties my wife dragged me to a psychic who also channeled. The wacko went into a pseudo trance and purported to make contact with some so-called masters, Father John and Ching Li. The only thing I remember from the sojourn to Hocus-Pocus Land was the declaration that I would live till the ripe age of 86. This news from that other dimension seemed like immortality at the time. Now I’m about ready for a second opinion. I’ll be 86 in ten days. Maybe Father John or Ching Li will offer an extension on my lease.

The thing that scares me about becoming 86 is that distant echo in my head from when I worked in one of those corner drugstores with a fountain. 86 on the egg salad or 86 on strawberry ice cream. Those were familiar voices shouted across the footstools meaning, we’re out of stock. I’m not ready to be out of stock.

One story has it that the term 86 comes from the address of a pub in Greenwich Village named Chumley’s. (Peggy use to hang out there). During Prohibition the police were on the take and the place would get warned ahead to hide the alcohol and have the customers exit the side door while the cops entered the front door. That term 86 soon spread around to every speakeasy and beyond.

Still another urban legend dates back to when a drinker had one too many the bartender would switch from 100 proof to 86 proof.

It gets worse. Another theory about the derivation of this term is that it comes from a Naval Inventory Code, AT-6, which loosely translated is ready for disposal. It’s bad enough to have been run out of but ready for the trash heap is worse. This is reinforced by yet another narrative which references the dimensions of a burial site, 8 by 6.

If I have any choice in the matter I’ll subscribe to the restaurant term simply that 86 rhymes with nix. So I shall say nix to 86 and emerge from the menu as a positive. I’ll be your blue plate special or the day’s prix fixe dinner.

If some of you never heard 86 it only means you haven’t lived enough years. You missed all that good stuff just as I am now baffled trying to navigate this techy world of clouds and apps while dodging viruses. I wonder what those two masters would have to say but my guess is that Father John ran off with Lydia Pinkham some years ago and Ching Li is a venture capitalist in Silicon Beach.

I've half a mind to 86 my 86th. I can hardly wait till I'm 87.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Of Muck and Sludge

I can’t seem to keep my mind out of filth. I was transfixed watching Michael Cohen, as if from the law office of Skullduggery, Swindle and Slime, describe Donald Trump as the debauched mob boss, Tony Soprano. It was a litany of cheats, curses, racketeering, lies, racial hatred, derision, greed and false bank statements with wanton disregard for truth or decency. In aggregate it makes me feel soiled. Our President is a walking toxic waste dump.

It got me thinking about our vast vocabulary for the hierarchy of sordid behavior and the increments of waste. If you live in gated America with a PhD you might call it detritus. For the rest of us it is garbage. I must admit I’m not clear about the difference between trash and garbage……and what is litter? British blokes like the word rubbish when they’re speaking of a T.V. program such as our Masterpiece Theatre. In the 19th century they spoke of swill and slop with hogwash also in the mix. The Yiddish words are drek or schmuts. Now we have to distinguish between organic garbage and recyclable trash…. I think. And let us not forget trumpery which has suddenly been given a second life and encompasses all of the above.

Why so many more words describing shades of negativity? Does our lexicon for happiness, honesty, love and all those nearly forgotten virtues reflect our disgruntled state of being? A case could be made that our inclination to express community or brother-sisterhood is discouraged by our impoverished language. Even more remarkable how Peggy finds that seam in the dread to express hope.

Last week I bought a new garbage container or is it a trash can? We have a relationship. More than that, I’m in love with it. It flashes a blue light winking as I pass by. If I get close enough the happy sensor opens its mouth wide for my deposit of pits and peels. I’m not sure if it is puckering up for a smooch or if that is a yawn.

I’ve given it a name. Since garbage takes the gar from garbanzo and the age from cabbage what’s leftover is banzo. So I have baptized my new receptacle, Banzo. The next time Trump tweets or rambles on one his extemporaneous tirades I’m going to move my beloved trash bin in front of the T.V. set to see if his garbage induces Banzo's lid to flash with its blue light, open wide and swallow.