Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Early Trump and the Late Joe Biden

In a display of his wit and intellect JFK gathered his Ivy League brain trust together and declared, There has never been assembled in the White House so much intellect in one room since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

To paraphrase his statement in the converse one might say upon entering an institution for the criminally insane, There has never been assembled so much pathological malice under one roof since Donald Trump dined alone.

What went wrong with little Donald? I have some insight on the subject, whether real or imagined, owing to an accident of geography. From 1st to 7th grade he attended Kew Forest School directly across the street from my apartment building in Forest Hills.

My father’s drug store was also located across from the school. Though he closed his doors a few years before Trump appeared on the scene I have distinct memories of students from that private school occupying the three booths adjacent to the soda fountain for an hour or more with two straws sipping a cherry coke. They were heedless of others waiting for a booth. Privilege was a given. A few had charge accounts never paid when my father gave up his store.

According to a classmate and friend of his in those formative years Donald was a hair-pulling, spitball-throwing mischief-maker who boasted of giving one teacher a black eye. He was pulled out in 7th grade and placed in a military academy.

The school took up one large square block surrounded by a chain link fence which ensured the privileged of minimal contamination from the less fortunate. During summer months and on weekends when classes were not in session we neighborhood kids would climb that fence and put their grassed area to good use. It became our baseball diamond and football field.

Maybe that fence was the seminal barrier that took root in Donald’s mind. The beginning of Us and Them. The only immigrants among us were my two German refugee friends, Peter Dalebrook and Frank Loeb. Another friend and neighbor, Johnny Kassabian came from a family of asylum-seekers out of the Armenian genocide. Not a rapist or drug-dealer among them.

I can only imagine an exchange between Donald’s teacher and his parents…………….

Dear Mrs. Trump, So sorry you were unable to attend parent’s 
night. We have much to discuss about your son’s behavior disrupting the class and threatening others with his nasty mouth.

Dear Mr. Trump, Your support of our beloved school is well-appreciated however you abuse your position on the Board of Trustees. You must know that having me dismissed does no favor for your child who will likely grow up a menace to society.

Why anyone would vote for the man with arrested development, the brat behind the fence.... is a subject to be studied by the usual array of academicians along with forensic criminologists, brain surgeons, evolutionary biologists, comedians and tragedians.  

Tonight begins a long season of Democrat debates. Where have you gone JFK, and all your best and brightest advisors? Can Rip Van Biden be resuscitated in time to recall that thirty-five years have passed since his last new idea? His old mediocrity is not enough. He is late for his train which left the station decades ago. He lacks both the grasp and the gumption to stand up to the Bozo.

The time is now ripe for a true populism. Not by an imposter but by one who speaks truth to power, who hears the aggrieved and underserved as well as the peril to our planet. That word electability cuts both ways. Let the low-information Centrists wake up to a Progressive agenda. Or else those outside the chain link of privilege may not bother to show up in 2020. Let this not be another campaign demonstrating the evil of two lessors.    

Sunday, June 16, 2019


Here you are, after the shipwreck, hanging on to a piece of driftwood having hastily grabbed the essentials of life: toothbrush, floss, a few protein bars, a portable de-salinization unit (no such thing) and a couple of books to see you through the adventure as you paddle your way to a desert island. The question is: what books.

Kindle won’t work nor can you order books from Amazon and wait for the next drone to drop. Alas, batteries don’t get re-charged on this island even by the occasional lightning strike. So let us say you have been regressed back to when people actually bought books from bookstores and turned pages.

If I were allowed two books the first should be a self-help volume on how to build a raft out of coconuts and palm fronds. My second choice might be a novel by Wendell Berry, either A Place On Earth or The Memory of Old Jack which I last read about 25 years ago. I usually don’t re-read books. I came late to the party and there are still too many classics I haven’t read for the first time. But Berry’s voice stands alone among American writers and is worth revisiting.

His characters inhabit a universe unfamiliar to me: the small farm in Kentucky. They speak a language, spare and to the bone. As custodians of the land they are challenged by the vicissitudes of unforgiving weather, morally compromised townfolk and encroachments of corporate agribusiness. It is the values embedded in his community of extended family which enter me as if I’m experiencing some spiritual reawakening. Immersed in his pages one is returned to a hard-earned decency and caring for one another.

I’m struck by the grace of his simplicity. The fields and woods become characters themselves brought to life and matched by an exploration of the interior landscape in each person. Responsibilities of husbandry toward the crops are mirrored by the fidelity of their marriages. His people recognize and honor their lineage. They hold dear a set of convictions as inviolate.

Strange, the paucity of our English tongue. How we lack words for the most elemental, life-enhancing moments. That much abused word, spiritual, seems appropriate to Berry’s novel; soulful humans reaching for each other or struggling for alignment with their core values. What I come away with is not the noun, religion, but the adjective as in religious experience. A reverence for life. A transcendence not above the toil and hard times but through it towards a communion with one another aligned with rhythms of the natural world.

Having re-read the above I'm not altogether sure I agree with myself. I part company with Berry when his advocacy goes astray. He defends rural values against the advances of Science and urbanity which he foolishly identifies as threats to his idealized community. His condemnation of modernity is painted with too broad a brush as if pesticides and weaponry could be conflated with medical science and climatology. Even worse, he sometimes scolds his characters when they stray off his moral map. I'm remembering now why it’s been so long since I last picked up his books. However his narrator’s voice remains, for me, both penetrating and one sorely missed though I didn’t know till it arrived.

Here I am buffeted between his ennobling vision of humanity and the whiff of the preacher claiming a high ground. It's not an altogether bad place to be. In Berry's own words: When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work. The mind not baffled is not employed.

Looking back across our shelves of cherished books I can barely remember most plots or quirky characters. Yet there is a distillate which endures from the best of them. Something ineffable that eludes description. Wendell Berry has it for me. Though I’d forgotten the details of what happens in these pages the residue is as fresh as I felt it the first time around. The effect of his language is to move me to another realm. A lift sufficient to get me off this island. I think I spot a row boat with an empty seat…and my name on it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Remembering My Father

It might have been a hot and humid July night, in 1942, with air so thick you could climb it. Gnats came out in numbers sufficient to postpone the Dodger game. Now they covered the window of my father’s corner drugstore. The Ex-Lax sign disappeared behind a swarm of thousands. An agitated crowd gathered as if this was IT. The Orson Welles-staged radio invasion of aliens was still on their minds. German U-boats had been spotted off Rockaway Beach. My father, in his equanimity, quieted their apprehension. I witnessed him speak a few words with a reassuring grace in his manner which scattered the insects and sent the folks home settled, or so it seemed to this nine year-old kid.

Yes, I idealized my father. He was Yahweh, FDR and Spencer Tracy in one. God, in the way he drove locusts from pages of Exodus, Roosevelt in his fireside chats and Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg, Keeper of the Flame or Bad Day at Blackrock with his insistent, passionate calm. My Dad was imperturbable and deliberate by nature as if everything had been weighed on a torsion scale and come to equipoise within him.

There was something of the earth, an elemental knowing in my father. The air around him was a shaman's air of vapors escaped from apothecary jars, macerating leaves and aromatic oils as though he possessed an internal mortar and pestle ever at work grinding course matter into fine powder. He carried that breath of botanicals on his body, his overcoat, into my memory. 

Many of the elixirs and emulsions he compounded would be deemed of negligent value years later but when he dispensed them the remedies worked. They were curative because he said so. Everything he believed went into each bottle. Patients were met. Listened to. They got the gift of his full presence. It was not the balsams, tinctures or infusions that healed. It was my father who transferred that power for self-healing.

He possessed a quiet authority, one in which you always felt safe. He tamed the loud unease my mother felt in this world. He would never violate your personhood, your sacred space. Yet he was unyielding in his convictions. I’m thinking now of his left-wing politics in terms of identifying with labor and oppressed minorities. During the anti-Communist hysteria in the late 40s he stood firm and closed-mouth when two F.B.I. agents at our door asked him to name names. His silence was his spine.

How he came to this centered place within shall ever remain a mystery. His mother died when he was two and his destitute father gave him away to be raised by an equally destitute uncle and aunt. His father later remarried and named one of his several sons Samuel, the same as my father. Did he forget he already had a Sam? Sam meet Sam. My father’s three new half-brothers were all raised in an orphanage while my father sold newspapers on the corner to get by.

I can almost see young Spencer Tracy shouting, Extra paper, read all about  before he was Father Flanagan from Boy’s Town or Thomas Edison. Perhaps only in my eyes did my dad resemble Tracy. However if a movie were ever made entitled The Sam Levine Story it would have to be played by Spencer Tracy.

Of course off-screen Tracy was an incorrigible alcoholic while we had the same bottle of Manischewitz wine in our apartment for twelve years. While he didn’t touch the stuff many pharmacists got licensed during Prohibition years because they alone could dispense ethyl alcohol for so-called medicinal purposes. Among my father’s papers, long after he deceased, was a court order in which he admitted his guilt and was fined for apparently selling a four ounce bottle of alcohol for non-medicinal purpose. I admired his risk-taking which he so rarely allowed expression. 

Was it Aristotle, Yogi Berra or I who said whenever we might think we have wrapped up a person in a tidy bundle there is always something hanging out, unaccounted for? So it was with my Dad; a piece that didn’t fit. He played the horses; not through a bookie but he would go off to the harness races every few weeks. My guess is he put two bucks on the favorite to show. One night he took me along, maybe for good luck. We still lost. But the ledger could never show the value of dreaming a jackpot.

My father died far too soon. He never read my poetry or blogs, never got to see the pharmacy I bought in 1980, didn’t see my daughters grow past their adolescence, and never met Peggy. I also regret all the questions I never asked. Yet I feel his presence guiding me. There are locusts in our midst which need to be expelled. Our present miscreant in the Oval Office would have sent him to his mortar and pestle grinding Fascists into dust.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Cold Case File

There’s a story here as yet untold. It’s what I like to call the Goldberg Bafflement.

In 1965 Arthur Goldberg did the inexplicable. He quit his prestigious, lifetime job on the Supreme Court with these words, It is so ordered.  He would then take on a short-term repugnant position as U.N. Ambassador. It was particularly ugly work because it meant lying for Lyndon Johnson in front of the world body.

If I were to name the best and worst presidents in American history Johnson would be on both lists. During his five years as Commander-in-Chief he extended the war in Viet Nam with a build-up to nearly 600,000 U.S. soldiers accounting for the needless deaths of tens of thousands G.I.s and hundreds of thousands Vietnamese.

It’s almost as if there were two LBJs. The man who extended Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda with his War on Poverty, shepherding Medicare, Medicaid, Pell grants, voting rights and significant Civil Rights legislation through Congress. Then there was the other LBJ who systematically deceived the American people about the war in Viet Nam squandering lives, napalming villages and defoliating their crops. This was the vulgar, cowardly, tragic manipulator who, somehow, regarded military defeat as a sign of phallic impotence. 

In a room of reporters, when asked why he couldn’t end the war, he answered by unzipping his fly. The President seemed to conflate the misadventure in Southeast Asia with sexual potency. This strikes me as an act of cowardice almost as shameful as Daddy Trump finding a doctor to concoct bone spurs for little Donald.

Add to Johnson’s disgrace one more almost inexplicable act of political miscalculation.  Three years after serving as associate Justice LBJ asked-persuaded or pressured him to resign his lifetime position.  It’s like asking Justice Roberts to step down and take the job watering the lettuce in the market. Or collecting shopping carts in the parking lot. There’s got to be a story here never told. Why would anyone accept such a demotion unless Goldberg was under extreme duress? Maybe LBJ had negatives of last year’s Christmas Party which Goldberg wanted hidden.

Perhaps one day the truth about Goldberg’s fall from the high court will become known. Robert Caro may yet discover the secret among the 44 million documents in the Johnson library. But that book is yet to be written.

Without a doubt the following conversation will not be among those 44 million papers. My febrile imagination records the following ……. (Goldberg calling his mother in 1962 when JFK nominated him to the High Court.)

A.G.: Ma, I have great news. President Kennedy has just named me to the Supreme Court.
Mrs. G : Do what you have to do.
A.G. : I want you to come to my swearing-in ceremony.
Mrs. G:  I have nothing to wear. 
A.G.: Not to worry, Ma, I’ll buy you a new dress and I’ll send you a train ticket to Washington.
Mrs. G (to a bystander at the ceremony) See that man up there? His brother is a dermatologist.

Johnson installed his friend, Abe Fortas who resigned, under fire, less than three years later. Fortas was Johnson’s choice to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice but Warren’s choice was said to be Goldberg. The entire scheme fell apart. I cannot think of a more brainless series of political stumbles particularly coming as it did from the grand insider of Washington politics. His wrongheadedness serves as a model of executive incompetence rivalled only by the present occupant.

As a consequence we have not had a Chief Justice of the High Court appointed by a Democratic president since Truman's choice over seventy years ago. Of course Warren was a Republican but one with a conscience to guide him. However had Goldberg remained Nixon would not have been able to install Warren Burger as Chief who presided for seventeen years. The nation was deprived of a very decent and brilliant Chief Justice because of Lyndon Johnson’s ill-conceived, self-serving and brazen over-reach.

As a saving grace Congress denied Nixon his first two nominees to replace Fortas in 1969 and he finally settled for Harry Blackmun. Blackmun turned out to be that vanished breed, a centrist Republican, who authored the majority opinion in Roe v Wade. 

Perhaps our better angels got the best of the Avenging God. We lucked out but I’m still thinking of poor Arthur Goldberg and those parting words, It is so ordered, to say nothing of his non-existent dermatologist brother.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Speaking of Hacking

The word itself has been hacked. Seventy years ago, plus or minus, when I was in my prime on the basketball court I was both the hacker and the hackee. Driving in for a lay-up I got routinely clipped, smacked, slapped, slammed, shoved or axed. Hacked, as in hacksaw. In those half-court games we weren’t even awarded a foul shot; the offended player merely got to take the ball out-of-bounds.  Those were less punitive times.

Being hacked today leaves no bruises but we are even more battered, thrown into a state of disequilibrium, banished to an analog world of pencil and paper. It is akin to that word, virus. Back in the day a virus usually meant a minor respiratory infection resistant to antibiotics or sulfa drugs. Now it is a disabling tragedy remedied only by a visit from our grandchildren which is, of course, a blessing.

I started posting my blogs in June 2009. I’m now up to number 875. Google tracks such things. I’m told I have followers in Romania, the Baltic States, Russia, Italy and Unknown Regions. I’m particularly curious about Unknown Regions. Isn't that where Oliver North hatched his Iran-Contra plot and where Dick Cheney lived after 9/11? I’m sure most of these Unknown readers are nothing more than hackers. Welcome, cyber-freaks, having fun, are you? If you're going to ransack my habitat why not enter through the front door rather than climbing in through the window? Does your mother know what you are doing with your life? Have you considered going back to school like your big sister?

I can’t imagine what you want with me and my data. My bank balance, such as it is, seems undisturbed. I haven’t detected any Maserati charged to my credit cards. Maybe you’ve created another me in that Unknown Region. Does this mean I'm known inter-galactaly? Any chance I can meet my generic equivalent some day? We could chat over a glass of ouzo or kvass. Since you already have my passwords and pin number you might as well fly me to your local watering hole. I might learn Unknown Region as a second language. 

As for you hackers in the Baltic States I feel a certain kinship. In the board game of life one might say I’ve lived my years between Baltic and Mediterranean. My ancestors can be traced to Riga, Latvia. We may even be distant cousins. Will that grant me any privilege in the hacking community? No, I didn’t think so. Go ahead pick my pocket. Just leave me my library card and the punch cards for the frozen yogurt shop and car wash. I'm close to a freebie. May 

What a world we have made. Connected....but to whom? Must we all grow a firewall to keep trespassers off our grass? Not I. I already have a critic who sits on my shoulders. I give him his due and then try to shut him up. With Peggy's vast wardrobe our closet has no room for skeletons. 

It strikes me that everything we say or write is revelatory. Even my jump shot gives me away. When I sit down to fill this page I do so in order to find out what I’m thinking and share it with a resonating ear. Given my diminishing recall anyone scrupulously hacking into my blogs knows more about me than I do.... if they bother to read them. Listen to me, hackers, you’re not listening. It's only fair that you reciprocate. I may need you one day, particularly when answering those pesky security questions in case I forget the name of my favorite film or first pet.