Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tall Timeless Tale

I’ll begin with Einstein who insisted that past, present and future are illusions however persistent. Time does not flow. It just is. Maybe I am writing this yesterday or tomorrow.

So Thoreau (he pronounced it Thorough) is very much alive. This is his 202nd birthday. Also alive is Emma Lazarus. She never died nor her poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. And yes, Donald Trump has always been with us. He wore the dunce-cap in the little red schoolhouse and beat up kids in the yard. He roused the rabble, bought slaves and led the lynch mobs. The card sharp is Donald, the con-man selling phony cure-alls and breaking picket lines, the robber baron and slumlord. All of them are Trump.

Taking a break from his lucrative pencil business Thoreau thoroughly visits Staten Island seven times. He lives with Emerson’s brother and tutors his children. Here he is roaming the streets of Manhattan dodging stray pigs and trying to sell his writings. No buyers.

I live in NYC for my first twenty-one years and go to Staten Island just once. I take the ferry one day with my brother just for the ride. It was s nickel back then, gradually inching to five bucks. Now it is free. An acceptable instance of creeping Socialism, n’est-ce pas? But time doesn’t creep, I almost forgot, it just is. Now I am passing the Statue of Liberty. I can hear the huddled masses yearning.

Thoreau’s last visit to the Island was in 1843. At first he isn’t very charmed by the place though he notes the variety of flora and fauna, different from Massachusetts. While he’s heading back to Concord to start building his cabin at Walden Pond he is also considering another cabin in Staten for a spell of solitude? The man is a visionary. Does he envision the Statue of Liberty? Of course he does.

Staten Island now has half a million people. It is the wealthiest and greenest borough with 170 parks. By any measure it really should be part of New Jersey. At one point it has the highest altitude of all the boroughs; higher than Mt. Vernon, Washington Heights or Forest Hills, all of which are barely useful for sleigh rides. It’s the only borough with wildlife not in a zoo. Snakes, fox, feral turkeys and coyotes have been spotted in the Fresh Kills Landfill. Thoreau is changing his mind about this place with its forests and estuaries, bird sanctuaries, salt marshes and tidal wetlands.

Let chronology collapse. Thoreau is jailed in protest of the Mexican-American war and all others to follow with the exception of those fought against slavery and Fascism.

On nearby Bedloe/Liberty Island the Statue of Liberty, with its torch held high, is an inadvertent lighthouse to woodcocks and phoebes in their migration. Trump would call them illegal birds who deserve to die anyway. Thousands fall disorientated at Mother of Liberty’s feet as they smash into the 25 glass windows at the crown of the Colossus. That is corrected as dotted glass replaces the original which birds alone recognize.  

The Statue is a global gesture. The island upon which it stands was first settled by the Lenape tribe. Sculpted by Frederic Bartholdi in France with an early model in Germany it is gifted to the U.S. to be erected in this Dutch-occupied harbor, grabbed by the British to serve as a beacon to Irish, Italians, Polish, Russian refugees and inscribed by the Portuguese Sephardic Jewish poet.

Did Thoreau visit Emma Lazarus in his Manhattan treks? Why not? Here he is presenting a box of his world-class pencils having discovered the perfect mix of graphite and clay. And she writes….

Keep your storied pomp says Emma to Donald. Yes, you high in your Tower. And get your hands off these tired and poor yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of these teaming shores are pleading. But Donald is deaf to the cries as he sends his wretched garbage golf balls and caviar leftovers off to the Fresh Kill Landfill where a ragged forest is being born. A gigantic garbage dump as mulch. Pieces of Twin Towers among the 150 million tons of Big Apple trash.

Is that you, Henry David Thorough, living in a grove of pine and willow, surrounded by native and undocumented woodland groping for new life? It’s called Phoenix Regeneration. The forest floor reveals an occasional shoe, shopping bag and Styrofoam cup. The latter takes 1000 years to decay. Thoreau is writing with his super pencil in his notebook about restoration. Nature persists. It repairs our human folly. The message is hope. There is a lamp lifting beside this golden door.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Conventional Wisdom

The Democratic carnival, I mean primaries, begin in about six months. Carnival, as in carnivorous, is not far from the mark as the candidates continue to devour each other. The twenty names will be reduced by half for the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3rd. One month later we in California, along with fifteen other states, will weigh in. I expect another five names to fall away by March 3rd. Still too many going into the convention set for July in Milwaukee.

But this time around the primaries may not matter very much. It’s the secondarys and beyond which will be most telling. According to the crystal ball I just bought at the 99 cent store no candidate will attain a majority. Most states apportion the delegates providing they reach the threshold of 15%, anything less does not get counted. Though in California only the top two will be selected. However all this pertains to the first ballot only. After that it’s a free for all and so-called super delegates also enter the fray. Suddenly we are back to 1924.

Ninety-six years ago the Democrats convened in Madison Square Garden with William McAdoo and Gov. Al Smith, the frontrunners, going head to head. Each had their armies poised for the big prize. Franklin Roosevelt, signifying his return to political life after contracting polio, put Smith’s name as nominee. The Ku Klux Klan had a lot to say about the outcome. Smith was unacceptable because he was, after all, a Roman catholic. 20,000 Klansmen gathered across the river in New Jersey to burn crosses. McAdoo had the Klan’s support. Those with eye-slits in their bedsheets hanging in the closet were staunch Prohibitionists while Smith was known to bend his elbow now and then.

In the early rounds of balloting McAdoo jumped to garner about 40% of the delegates. Then Smith did the same. The rules at the time required a 2/3 majority so neither was even close. So-called favorite sons were offered for consideration in the early voting. It was party time in every sense. Each name shouted out was worthy of a mini-parade with bands and banners. Fistfights broke out. Trump-like obscenities filled the hall. The punch bowl was most probably spiked. An exhibition of pure Americana.

A Wall St. lawyer named Davis ran way down on the list with 3% on the first ballot. By the 10th roll-call he still had only 6%. But this convention was to run for sixteen sweaty days. Sixty names were offered for consideration. The outcome was decided on the 103rd ballot with John Davis on top. His running mate was Charles Bryan, William Jennings Bryan's brother, then regarded as a prairie radical.

Next July will be a time of boisterous hoopla and sober reckoning at the same time, as momentous as the first constitutional convention. If the wrong ticket is chosen to defeat the pernicious President our experiment in Democracy may be doomed.

All those candidates who sloughed off in the winter of 2019 will re-emerge as compromise figures. Beto and De Blasio are likely to rear their heads along with Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Jay Inslee. Deals will be struck, debts paid, horse-trading, threats and favors called in. The winning ticket may be decided in a cannabis-filled room. It could be everybody’s favorite, None-Of-The Above, if the gap between Progressives and Centrists cannot be reconciled.

Syrian ruler, Bashar al Assad is an ophthalmologist, Zelensky President of Ukraine, a comedian, the head of Liberia was a soccer star and Mohammed bin Salman, King of Saudi Arabia hung out with Silicon Valley nerds. None of them qualify to run the P.T.A.; and certainly not our dangerous clown. 

In these bizarro times of pseudo-Populism with mistrust in experience and institutions I’d be fine with a ticket of Jon Stewart, Megan Rapinoe and/or Bruce Springsteen, Michelle Obama or Tom Hanks.

Thursday, July 18, 2019


I never met a tree I didn’t like. Some of my best friends…..But puuulesse don’t tell me they talk or are crafty or curious. They don’t vote or bully or start wars or slip on banana peels. Leave those follies to us. Trees, like all genus and species, do their best to survive. They don’t act with volition. When a tree bends towards the light it isn’t because he has a crush on the sun or wants to speak his mind. It’s called heliotropism.

Richard Powers’ new book, The Overstory, reveals the highly complex life of trees, at their roots and trunks and leaves. He writes of the ways they “communicate”. It’s called an ecosystem and it’s a matter of life and death to us all. My problem is the anthropomorphism. He ascribes human attributes to the arboretum not unlike Walt Disney.

When I was a street urchin in New York we called a sycamore, second base, as it stood majestically in the middle of the empty lot. That would have been in the summer. By October it was the goal line. I went fishing once, broke off a twig. Got myself a nickel from the sewer.

Trees were for climbing if they had ample elbows. There was a large one in the backyard of our apartment building whose branch looped over the shed in back of a candy store where deposit bottle were stored. My brother wanted to see if he could swipe a few. He managed to climb halfway up but lost his grip at about twenty feet. Was that a snickering I heard from the tree when he fell and broke his ankle? No, I don’t think so.

When I first starting writing poetry the naturalist-poet Gary Snyder advised me to first know the names of trees. We were at a ten-day poetry conference at Port Townsend, Washington. It brought home to me the obvious truth that I was a big city guy with very little to say about the natural world. I didn’t know bear shit from dog shit, a swallow from a sparrow or an elm from a maple. The advice couldn’t hurt but another piece of wise counsel is to write what you know. And what I knew was my ignorance with enough to fill volumes.

Of course trees don’t know their own names. Just as birds wouldn’t recognize themselves if they saw their painting in an Audubon book on the coffee table. But they all deserve the respect of differentiation and we owe them their due. So now I know not to call it a spruce when it’s a Douglas fir. I have learned when to expect our coral tree to burst with red candles or the jacaranda to purple the prose of my life.

The poet Howard Nemerov enters the Language of Trees to demonstrate the dialectic between theory and experience, between nomenclature and the actual. In his poem he throws a glossary of names at the reader to describe the shape of leaves or texture of bark. It all comes out of books which are, of course, the yield of trees. Yet the chaos of experience is something else. Names tell us little about their secret life.

Slowly I am learning to love certain trees. Must I love all of them? Even those anorexic palms yearning to become telephone poles? Some trees seem not to do a very good job at treeness while others grow high and wide with a crop of leaves serving as canopies shading the street. I could spend quality time communing with the reptilian roots of a ficus or the peeling bark of a eucalyptus.  Thank you, guys, don't be modest.

As for poetry there’s no need to assign an emotional life to the forest. I’ll turn to Robert Frost’s Birches where one can do worse than become a swinger of its branches. Where a boy bent them almost to the ground discovering when it’s too soon to launch himself into the world. Where he ascends to the top and back down again knowing that Earth is the best place for love. He knows of no place better.

Too bad Richard Powers left out the two words, as if. As if they could warn us. As if they were patient or wise. His novel also fails, for me, because it is written in the service of an idea, a cause. To this extent it becomes a veiled diatribe, however persuasive. A work of fiction does not work as a mission.

I know I’m running into trouble with these subversive thoughts. Let us honor the woods, say I. They did well before we came. It was once possible for a squirrel to hitch a ride on treetops from ocean to ocean providing it could leap across the Mississippi. Now Elm St. is disappearing due to big box stores along with elm trees, victim of a fungus blight. We have not done well as custodians of the botanical world. Plant life doesn’t need to adapt our sensory apparatus to be deemed worthy.  

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Memory as Fragments

You grew up thinking you’re the star of the show while groping in the dark. There’s a war going on. Your father is an air-raid warden. There are Blackouts. Whispers behind closed doors. Meetings every other Tuesday in the next room with vehemence leaking thru the wall. Pamphlets are left. Maybe you aren’t the star of the show after all. Money is hardly spent. Your mother gets a bargain from the butcher. She's elated when the grocer forgets to charge her for the cottage cheese. Suddenly there’s a new radio-phonograph console. It has speakers with an Art-Deco design you memorize listening to Roosevelt’s Fireside chats.

These are a few dark corners of my childhood lit by Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, Warlight. It is a book of memory, and discovery; fragments which made no sense to the fourteen-year old boy in London just after the war in 1945. He was virtually orphaned, his parents having left him and his sister in the care of some shadowy figures. Love has many shapes.

In a sense we are all abandoned. We move into the world alone. We feel we are different. Our family is like no other. My father worked very long hours. He was largely absent. My mother had a temperament not like mine. She yelled a lot. Cursed the gods. She had a mouth and I grew silent. I moped, ill-equipped for the combat needed to survive this world. I orphaned myself.

Ondaatje’s young man, Nathaniel, has adventures and small anarchies. His Mississippi is the Thames sailing at night with a mysterious man who is up to no good but in a benign way. His initiation into the adult world. His education is not at school. The war which has ended has not ended. His mother has abandoned him in order to protect him. She is a hunted woman.

Nathaniel finds a walled garden imagining seeds buried like unknown pieces yet to sprout. This becomes his place with borders he can live within.

I scoured apartment house basements. My time for small anarchies. I stole broomsticks for stickball bats. I collected baseball drawings by an illustrator named Pap. His drawings were only in the New York Sun, a dying newspaper. I would make my way into stacks of discarded paper looking for the sketches. I knew the smell of cellars. I studied college football teams. Every week I picked my winners. I didn’t know what was important from what was more important.

In a strange way the football predictions became very important. When I prognosticated 18 out of 20 my name became the headline of the sports section……..but the newspaper was the Daily Worker, the organ of the Communist Party. My name ended up in the F.B.I. files. Seven years later I was befriended by Fred Keavy, a man I’m now convinced was an informer for the Bureau. I liked the guy for his marginal ways. In a convoluted story, ten years after that, his wife, the niece of Bob Hope, was instrumental in getting my deaf daughter admitted to the program of the John Tracy Clinic where she learned how to speak. But that could be another book.

Warlight is a labyrinthine tale. It throws light on war’s aftermath; ripples stretch for decades. Skirmishes between Partisan groups and collaborators, between rival ethnic factions as in Trieste, didn’t get settled until 1947. Revenge lasted another generation.

The book has historical weight along with that other dimension which speaks to our life-long bafflement of how we got here from there. Childhood is war enough. Our parents may return to us as new characters in the cast. Life doesn’t rhyme but as we look back and re-witness ourselves in refracted light, it almost does. We are just players in a larger narrative yet also the star of our own movie.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

The Long and the Short of It

These quakes can be the sort of disruption we need to rethink the meaning of life. We get to meet our neighbors as God and Mrs. God are having their domestic squabble throwing tectonic plates. Yes, we are diminutive in epochal time; some more so than others.

Ever since David met Goliath in the great mismatch of pre-history, we've been rooting for underdogs. Or so we say. But when it comes to voting we tend to go big. Lincoln, at six ft. four in., was a full foot taller than Stephen A. Douglas who got trampled. Of course Lincoln was also stronger having built the log cabin he was born in. Abe was a gentle Goliath whom the Bible claims was nine feet tall. Michelangelo compensated for the disadvantage by sculpting David to seventeen feet.

Height counts. More than weight. William Howard Taft is probably last obese president we’ll ever have. Fat doesn't play well on T.V. There is a chair built specially for him at the Riverside Mission Inn which looks more like a couch to accommodate his considerable tuch. Taft is said to have gotten stuck once in the White House bathtub. All 354 pounds of himself.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson put aside their prospective careers as power forwards in the NBA to found our country. Both were six ft. 6 ft. 3 inches, give or take an inch. Madison was also 6 ft. 3 in. when on his horse. He is reported to have had a great outside shot but was too busy writing our Constitution.

Beethoven also had a tiny strike zone at 5 ft. 3 in spite of which, thankfully, he did what he did instead of becoming a baseball player. The result is our ode to joy. You didn’t have to be tall to be great in those days. It is doubtful Napoleon had a Napoleonic complex. He was average height at 5 ft. 6 in. Genghis Khan was more deserving of that term at a mere 5 ft. I in. when he finally got off his high horse.

I was surprised to learn that Stalin was a tiny 5 ft. 6 in. to FDR’s 6 ft. 3 in. I suppose they came in at equal numbers with Roosevelt in his wheelchair. Puny Putin twirls Trump around his finger while giving up 8 inches to our inspirational leader.

Mickey Rooney, at 5 ft. 2 in, was once asked how he managed to accumulate so many tall show girls. He said that he lied about his height. His first wife was Ava Gardner; between them there were 16 marriages. Judy Garland wasn’t one of them. At 4 ft. 11 in., she almost made Mickey look tall except that her booming voice seem to fill the room.

Pray we don’t go by height in the election of 2020 unless Beto somehow becomes the nominee. He, alone, looks down on Donald. Of course anyone of our two dozen contenders could reveal Trump as the hollow man that he is. His elongated limbs are perhaps compensatory for an absence of conscience and cognitive function. His official height of 6 ft. 3 inches probably includes the bumper crop on top of his crown and an ego to dwarf the Eiffel Tower.

I wonder if Donald dreams of playing half-court hoops with George and Tommy Jeff. They could talk about the glories of slavery and those savage Indians. If the conversation drifted to subjects like Democracy or a free press I expect Trump would grab his ball and go home. 

Some seismic temblors jolt us. The socio-political shift we’ve undergone in the past three years is a slow shredding, perhaps less jarring but more profound. Our tall president has been more destructive than anything registering on the Richter scale. It may take decades to retrofit our democracy. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Franklin and Winston

In geopolitical terms there were two iconic men who dominated the 20th century and saved Western Civilization with their decision making. One’s star is still in the ascendant and the other seems to be both stained and fading. One is British and the other American. The Brit is an American hero. I’m not so sure how he ranks in his own country.

I don’t recall any movies about Franklin Roosevelt since Sunrise at Campobello. Yet we can’t seem to get enough of Sir Winston Churchill. Sixty actors have portrayed him on film. More even than Henry the 8th. The acceptable narrative has Winnie the hero of World War II. Why not? He wrote the book. Actually six volumes with ample omissions and distortions. He assembled a team of writers and researchers to put together his Nobel Prize winning epic. FDR, of course, died in office and never got to write his memoir. It would have been a counter-narrative to Sir Winston’s.

This all comes to mind with the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy, known at the time as Operation Overlord. The fact is that Churchill did everything in his power to postpone, discourage and even scrap that momentous event until the very last moment.

He was, without a doubt, a great orator. He rallied his people. He wrote metaphorically with a gift to move his audience with the rousing phrase. The years from 1939-1945 was his finest hour….and yet he was also a Racist and military blunderer. A 19th century imperialist. A stubborn, duplicitous even treacherous ally to the real Commander-in-Chief of Allied operations, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Churchill squandered lives with his reckless folly in Gallipoli (190,000 dead) and Antwerp during World War I. He coined the term, soft underbelly of Europe, describing the Balkans which he pursued in both wars. He was wrong about an ill-conceived Norwegian landing, wrong about a proposed Turkey invasion and he was wrong pouring resources into the capture of Greek islands. He later admitted that the underbelly was not at all soft.

After agreeing with Roosevelt at their Quebec conference in August, 1943 to launch a second front in northern France he later tried everything in his power to sabotage that plan going so far as leaking and doctoring an inter-Allied message to Stalin behind Roosevelt’s back. With Churchill’s tampering of the communique it gave the impression that Overlord would be further delayed. He manipulated Eisenhower’s report to make it seem that the Italian campaign required more troops and weaponry rendering the cross-channel operation abandoned until the Mediterranean and Aegean seas were under Allied control. Churchill insisted that the capture of Rome was paramount even though Italy had already surrendered and the city had no strategic importance.

At that time it was rumored that Hitler and Stalin might again reach their own settlement because the U.S.S.R had borne the brunt of casualties (by war’s end 23 million dead compared to combined U.S. and U.K less than a million) with no help except Lend-Lease from the Allies. This was unfolding in November 1943 as FDR and Churchill were both on their way to Tehran to assure Stalin the Normandy landing would proceed on schedule.

President Roosevelt as American Commander-in-Chief, along with Generals Marshall and Eisenhower prevailed only because they ignored Churchill whose agenda put preservation of the British Empire first. It was Roosevelt who deserved credit for strategizing the conduct of the war. It was difficult enough to allocate troops and materiel for both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operation. The logistics at times seemed insurmountable. At times he had to override his generals and History proved his instincts correct. He possessed the temperament, historical perspective and military genius to see us through to victory. The outcomes were certain but pity he didn’t live to witness those days of unconditional surrender.

For anyone doubting Churchill’s military bumbling and his obstructionist partnership with FDR I recommend the British historian Nigel Hamilton’s three volumes, particularly the just published, War and Peace. 500 pages plus 54 more of footnotes.

Roosevelt can well be criticized for Japanese internment and not demanding asylum for Jews in flight from Nazi Germany. However he was a supreme military and political visionary whose place in history has been largely usurped by the more flamboyant high functioning alcoholic Prime Minister with the silver tongue.