Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Witless Presidency

The wreckage of the Trump presidency is a matter of lived history. It has all been well and duly noted. Our planet is menaced, our nation's precepts stained and our daily discourse debased. From tweet to tweet we witness a man bent on unconscionable acts whose goal always points toward self-aggrandizement. Those who continue to support him are complicit in a way no less criminal than the Germans of the thirties who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven while they implemented a program of bestial behavior towards their neighbors. They shall live in infamy.

What has been lost in the rubble of the past three years is common sense, common decency and concern for the commonweal. The man simply does not have it. If he once had it is now gone. No further indicator is needed than his absence of a sense of humor. He seldom laughs and when he does it is a snicker of ridicule at someone else’s expense. He has the funny bone of an eight-year old. No irony. No word-play. Certainly not any self-deprecation. I submit that humor is a matter of maturity, intellect, nuance and quickness of mind.

In an effort to explain behavioral types the ancients came up with the nonsensical notion of four body humours, blood (sanguine), phlegm (apathy), yellow bile (aggression) and black bile (melancholy). Amazingly this theory lasted until the mid-19th century. Whether Trump should be described as bilious (violent) or choleric (self-important) I leave to my betters. None of these humours have anything to do with wit.

Wit and humor do not reside in slow minds, said Cervantes. We don’t seem to tell jokes much anymore; just one-liners. Either way, to get a punchline we need to go along with a sort of leap into the unexpected. It jolts the mind and propels us into a new perspective.

A sense of humor is a function of empathy. It calls for extending oneself into another’s skin, living his/her momentary experience. It all happens so fast it resists analysis. But when it is absent and replaced by insults, derision, verbal daggers and innuendos the air we breathe feels noxious. This is yet another pollution the President has bequeathed us.

During the vacuum of his presidency a Golden Age for comedians has been generated. We take solace in the absurdity of his mis-speaks, his tone-deaf blabberings and blunders, the very outrage of his misanthropy and our own human predicament. It has become a refuge from derangement. If it is true that laughter stimulates the immune system maybe we can laugh our way through the next fourteen months.

A horse walks into an Oval Office……….

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Out of Vilna

Thanks to my middle daughter, Lauren, we have discovered the soil of our family tree. Going back four generations our roots belong in Lithuania….at least on one side. Lauren is our chronicler, our seer. While others ask what she, with her wide eyes, asks when and where. She is our noticer. The one who spots the incongruous hat or shoe in the canvas be it a scene in a movie or a photo album. She has always been able to identify the year and location of an image by what the apparel doth oft proclaim.

A sense of antecedents drives her questioning. I share that curiosity but on a more macro plane. Lauren sniffs out details, the animating particulars in order to create a soulful presence. She reminds me of all the questions I never asked.

In her seventeenth year Lauren left regular high school to finish in an independent studies program on her own. After two months she took and passed an equivalency exam which gave her a diploma. That spirit of self-discovery has never left. She answers to her own interrogating voice searching for beginnings. Maybe that wondering and wandering began her Out of Vilna moment.

My grandfather, Morris, made his way out of Vilna in his seventeenth year also. His journey brought him to the lower eastside of Manhattan in 1887. It was a difficult decision and it was also an easy decision. Tough to leave family and friends behind along with the teeming cultural and literary scene of Vilna which was the Paris of that region. The Jewish population of the city reached 40%. Yet it was also a city under siege by Poles, Belarussians and Prussians. Pogroms ate away at the outskirts. Conscription was the fate of young men. I imagine young Morris hiding in a cellar from a band of drunken mustachioed Cossacks. Perhaps he was concealed under a large stack of potatoes and he found his transit on the shoot of a potato. 

He was part of a mass migration from Eastern Europe to Hamburg to New York harbor. Was he by himself? We don’t know yet. But I’m sure he traveled in steerage coming up on deck to pass that newly installed Statue of Liberty, then on to Ellis Island and from there to a tenement on a street of pushcarts. In 1891 he met Yetta and the tree was watered.

In my seventeenth year I was lost. I might as well have been in Vilna on the wrong road out. I had no idea it was a family tradition. Girls were still a foreign subject. Politics and sports were my strong points. I thought I knew the good guys from the bad guys... in government and on the playing field. I wasn’t altogether wrong but not altogether right either. A year later I chose my profession and three years after that I was married. Not very prudent with either choice……….but then again I wouldn’t have Lauren to learn from if I had embarked on that road not taken.

Did my father, Sam, have his Out of Vilna intersection? I’ll have to make all this up because I forgot to ask. He either didn’t finish or never started high school. Too poor. He sold newspapers on Flatbush Ave. and played the mandolin in a pick-up band, a piece of DNA not passed along to me. He earned loose change cashing in deposit bottles or as a runner dashing from the telephone in the candy store to call down the neighbor. He left his Vilna behind when he met my mother who tutored him for the two-year pharmacy college straight through to his license.

Morris, can you hear me? We’re all in your debt. Had you stayed in Vilna none of us would be.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

War without End

Imagine being an asthmatic, near-sighted frail kid in the 1860s. That just wouldn’t do, said his robust father. So Teddy Roosevelt worked out. He boxed, did push-ups, rode on his horse when he wasn’t reading books voraciously. One might say he over-compensated in his lifetime with his regimen of brisk walks, taking a bullet in his chest with a mere flinch, cavalry charge up San Juan Hill, camping in the wild, hunting in Africa and daring the miseries of the Amazon. No shrinking violet, he. T.R was arguably the architect of U.S. Imperialism. 

However times change and some of us don’t notice. His offer to lead another horse brigade was deemed inappropriate for that great Family Squabble / Crime Against Humanity also known as World War I…  fought in the trenches and with machine guns and poison gas from 1914-1918. However T.R.’s legacy was embedded in the family DNA.

His son Kermit, the one who survived that Great War, had a son also named Kermit, aka Kim. Kim kept the family tradition alive as a C.I.A. agent under Allen Dulles. It took the partnership of Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower along with Kim to pull off the coup of 1953 in Iran. There’s nothing so tempting, I suppose, as a winnable war.

Clement Atlee and Harry Truman confronted by the duly elected but restless Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, urged caution, diplomacy and sanctions. How dare these Iranians wanting to elect their own head of state and own their own oil! But Winnie, with British Imperialism in his bloodstream would have none of it. And was Kim Roosevelt shouting Bully, Bully to himself ready to spill family blood to honor his name? Recently-released records show that Kim bribed officials and mob bosses, staged phony attacks to mislead the opposition, met U.S. troops on the beach and finally installed the Shah of Iran who sold out his people for a Swiss bank account.

Do Iranians remember all this from 1953? Do we remember Pearl Harbor? Could that be why they don’t trust us? The mid-point of this chronology would be the flight of the Shah and revolution in 1979. Like most revolutions they merely traded one despot for another but, at least, it was their guy and not ours. Unfortunately Jimmy Carter presided over the Shah’s flight and subsequent Iran-Hostage incident which ultimately elected Ronald Reagan as President in his greatest role since Bonzo.

Now we have Donald bent on some good-old American chest-pounding. I wonder if he was also a frail kid in Jamaica Estates needing to prove himself to Daddy. It seems to come naturally to him. He also had an appetite for blood but, unlike T.R. it better be someone else’s. Perhaps he had his conscience removed along with his tonsils at age six.

Since our inspirational leader doesn’t read books or even listen to daily Intelligence Briefings he may not know any of the above. The last horse he mounted was probably in a merry-go-round so there’s no connection to T.R. particularly when one remembers to credit the man from Oyster Bay with his conservation, anti-corruption campaign in New York and his trust-busting record. Had the two men been contemporaries the one would have surely been behind bars. But lust, power, muscular foreign policy, threats and exceptionalism are a dangerous potion in the hands of fools. Sabers on horseback to missiles in silos, brinkmanship and bluster. Only the form has changed. 

Over the past 103 years we’ve been at overt war, declared or not, for almost 40 years and engaged in covert operations, non-stop. This Iran overthrow 66 years ago is just one of a long list of misadventures unknown to most Americans. The annual Pentagon budget is a staggering 686 billion. 

Of particular note is the CIA record in Central and South America. Many dictators and generals are in our debt. Under the cloak of fighting Communism we have assassinated or otherwise removed Democratically elected leaders (Arbenz and Allende) and installed friendly heads of state, however brutal and corrupt (Batista and Samoza). Land reform is desperately called for but we have blocked any effort to upset the lopsided grip of the few ruling families. Is it any wonder these peasants are now knocking at our doors?

Imperialism has its price and unintended consequences. Wars need to be understood as an instrument defending or extending corporate influence. If indeed Troy was under siege by the Greeks for ten years it wasn't to rescue Helen. Nor did we sacrifice 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam out of our benevolence to the suffering peasants. There are always business interests weighing heavily at policy-making. 

It is ironic after a century of meddling in foreign affairs we have become the object of even more sophisticated meddling. The cyber war currently underway opens a new chapter in nefarious acts. It's a far cry from Teddy Roosevelt's sabers or even Kermit's subterfuge in the streets of Tehran. It is a war without stain or sweat, no end in sight.

Friday, August 9, 2019

On-Shore Flo

Folks inland don’t know about her. Or those in the San Fernando Valley. Beverly Hills is where it is because they wanted no part of On-Shore Flo. We in Santa Monica and other beach towns greet her every morning. Sometimes she hangs around till sundown so Valleyites drive here all day to get away from the 102 temperatures and make a U-turn when they land in this country with a different climate. Sorry folks but there ain’t no sun up in that sky. Not with On-Shore Flo.

One hundred plus years ago, before it became a collection of outskirts, Los Angeles was a sleepy little Pueblo. It was settled about thirty miles inland from the ocean. Orange groves thrived in the sun. Hollywood stars and starlets craved it. Nothing like a healthy suntan. Might as well smoke a pack a day while you’re at it. They just couldn’t handle On-Shore Flo. The coastal towns were for poor people who couldn’t afford a slice of sunlight and aircraft mechanics during the war who caught a few hours’ sleep in tiny bungalows which now sell for a million dollars or more.

Here we are six blocks from land’s end. We’ve come to appreciate On-Shore Flo, aka Marine air. Having lived for decades in six S.F. Valley cities Peggy and I combined have had our fill of scorching, stale air. We happily traded sizzling smog for salty, sunless gusts. 

On-Shore Flo is Poseidon’s breath, whales spout, the fresh breeze from Asia, what remains of their typhoon, gulls surfing in on drafts of salt spray, and surfers riding the green room to the sand. It is the force which will blot out the sun for an hour or an afternoon. 

When Gusty Winds met On-Shore Flo it was a marriage made on a Greek Isle. It launched a thousand ships to Troy with bloated sails. It favored the Brits and howled against the Spanish Armada for Francis Drake. It led Ahab to his watery grave messing with the Great White Moby. Flo and Gus wave the flag, boys, and carry the ball over the fence for a walk-off grand slam or the exhalation stored in Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks that blows his trumpet and John Coltrane's bluesy sax in a jam session at Hermosa Beach where the Lighthouse keeps jazz alive.

Don’t blame On-Shore Flo for those wildfires. That’s her wicked cousin, Santa Ana, those desert ill-winds bending boughs with cyclonic fury in her tantrums and torching chaparral. Gusty winds belong below the canyons. Unlike On-Shore Flo, Gus causes mischief upturning trailers on the Grapevine. Years ago he wreaked havoc at an art installation by Christo lifting an umbrella, turning it into a lethal missile.

(My mother was fluent in the language of wind. She could hear that dreaded draft howling outside our window like a wolf at the door. What seemed like simple wind to me was a miasma to her which penetrated my three sweaters with its evil germs. Something had to be blamed for that sore throat and fever. After 2-3 days off from school with a constant flow of therapeutic air from the vaporizer I was restored but not until I spent a half day inhaling swaths of fresh air in the sun. Ah, but I digress.)

The weather report, which is 98% accurate 2% of the time, says the high at the beach today will be 80 degrees. But we know better. That will be for ten minutes as the sun goes down. For now it is an overcast 65. We have inherited the wind. What Hollywood promised to be Gone with the Wind when it burned down Atlanta (at the NW corner of Overland and Culver Blvd.) never did leave us…. with strange fruit hanging from trees one hundred years later, then choke holds and quick triggers.

This morning is another slow dance between cloud cover and the sun behind it. On-Shore Flo is a shroud mourning our sorry planet in this Age of Donald. Until solar power burns it off it feels as if the world could be starting over again. The diva is gargling back stage. The curtain hasn’t gone up yet. We are coming out of our primordial ooze. In this half-light the brisk air is nascent. It could be Creation 2.0 in that great gettin-up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Mystery of the Sphere

Every hour it ripes and ripes and every hour it rots and rots. Cut open the orb at its peak and you release the sun and the moon, the music of the spheres.

Melons fiercely hold their mystery. They must love the surprise. I’ve seen buyers at the market knocking on their skin and listening as if they could overhear a conversation among the pits. I’m fine with the unknowing. It reminds me of life itself.

I’ve been watching it for the past eight days. I pick it up and feel for? For what, I don’t know. This morning I spoke to it. Are you ripe and ready? I think I heard a high pitch beep but that may have been a garbage truck backing up. What the hell, I bought it last Thursday. If I wait another day I may have missed the propitious moment. Everything in its time.

There are no signifiers. No bag of waters breaking. No contractions at short intervals. Every birth is Cesarean. So now I am making my incision straight down the mid-sagittal line to eventually create perfect quadrants….as if the judge from Uzbekistan is scrutinizing my grip for Olympian gold.

Peggy declares this one a 6.9. She’s a tough grader. I would grant it a 7.4. I know what you’re thinking. That’s what I get for shopping at The Ninety-Nine Cent Store. But we’ve eaten some nines from there. In fact I think Whole Foods slips in the back door and resells them for $4.99. 

Maybe melons rate us on a scale ranging from feckless to reckless. He who hesitates gets mush. He who rushes gets a sort of potato.

What better way to start the day slicing open a cantaloupe to find the sun. It’s the solar power to energize the day. Today’s had the shining orange but required a knife to pierce it into bit-size pieces. I’ll never know if it was a premature emancipation or this globe just didn’t have it to give.  

Among these sweet gourds are the usual watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew along with the Casaba, Crenshaw, Gallia (which looks like a cantaloupe on the outside and honeydew on the inside) and Persian (reason enough to make nice with Iran). These are just a few of the 30 distinct varieties.

Last week we swooned over a 9.9 honey dew. Come to think of it let’s give it a ten. And yes, I got it from that store where the homeless shop. Nothing is beneath me. 

Adjectives are incapable to describe the pulpy flesh. Honeydew in its prime offers its lunar meat you want to linger and luxuriate in your mouth. Beyond luscious. It sings. It zings. It summons Orpheus’ lute accompanying Pavarotti hitting high B in the lost language of melon.