Saturday, January 25, 2020

Remedy for the Situation

Trial by Senate brings to mind a few dire images. First is one of those boxing matches in old movies where the fix is on. No matter how many blows are landed the referee turns a blind eye. The outcome is foretold. Big bucks have been laid down by the mob. It’s curtains Lefty.

I’m also hearing echoes of Gilbert & Sullivan’s first collaboration, the one-act operetta, Trial By Jury.

Hear me, hear me if you please / These are very strange proceedings / For permit me to remark on the merit of my pleadings / You’re at present in the dark.

Indeed Mitch and his kangaroo jury have shuttered and snoozed through four days of evidentiary pleadings having reached a verdict months ago without benefit of witness or document. They have shamed their institution. The word subversive seems fitting.

No minds will have been changed because no words have been listened to. The conclusion will follow script having been ordained by the Little Foxes of Rupert Murdoch, The Federalist Society and an army of Deniers and dunces.

All of which brings me to an antidote for this poison. To reclaim my sanity I recommend a book which sings with humanity. One such is Niall Williams’ latest, luminous novel, This is Happiness set in a small Irish town in the 1950s. I’m savoring it with a slow read pausing on almost every page, every paragraph, at the marvel of his language perfectly pitched.

There is an embrace of life in all its contingencies. One woman is described as having received two bits of bad news and waiting for the third. Another looked like he was in mid-sum realizing he had forgotten to carry the one. Just being alive is all the happiness we need and that includes the sorrows of it all.

In the wreckage of what Trump has wrought we hunger for writing like this. To be enchanted. To be restored. The rapture of being alive resonates in the fullness of each person’s ordinariness, their malarkey, their lore, piety and quirks. The cast is simple and sumptuous at once. I won’t say more.

The curtain will soon go down on the impeachment theater followed then by nine months of political theater. The air will be foul. We need our oxygen and the Niall Williams book offers a deep inhalation.

Friday, January 17, 2020

My Afternoon at the DMV

I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home gnashing my teeth while watching Cable News and count my brain cells sloughing off. But enough about Trump.

I received notice in early Dec. that my license is up for renewal on March 21st. 2020. Naturally I put it aside for two weeks. I was still digesting Thanksgiving gluttony. And naturally when I remembered to make an appointment the first available was April. 7th. I was forced to give up on-line in favor of in-line.

I saw myself standing behind fifty others at 7 A.M. in the brisk morning air to beat the crowd. However I got a hot tip from a dear friend which I shall now pass along. Don’t get there early, get there late. You might as well get a good night’s sleep. And don’t bother reading the manual. You’ll forget everything anyway.

I was there for two reasons: license renewal and a Real I.D. card which requires multiple confirmations. Several folks ahead of me in line had to drop out because they didn’t come with the requisite papers. Still one window shuffled me to another and I waited over an hour to watch the screen for my number to come up.

This was the sea of humanity I’d heard so much about. A cross section of America, Black and Brown, Asian, Anglo, Millennial, Gen X, Boomers and pre-Boomers. Faces registered agitation, annoyance and apathy in equal parts. These are also the voters who will either throw the man-child out of office or drive us over the cliff….a question which would not appear on the test.

I had no book to read. This would be my time to wonder instead of ponder. Just stare. Just be. I can’t say enough about clearing the head. It’s like cleaning the refrigerator, dumping that forgotten leftover, the green cheese in the back, wilted lettuce and stale bread.   

In by 2, out by 4:30. It could have been worse; I could have failed but I didn’t because I had an uncluttered head…uncontaminated by double yellow lines, which way to point the wheels when parking uphill or speed limits in a hospital zone. It was a triumph of common sense over rote memory. 

Here is another bit of advice: if you don't know the answer, skip the question. You are allowed three of these. I let one such nonsensical Q go unanswered. It had to do with the penalty for evading a police officer. Suspended license? A year in jail? or $1,000 fine. Who cares? If I ever run from the law I wouldn't stop to weigh the consequences. 

I must have been carrying a fair amount of tension because I felt lighter driving home. My neck was unstiffening, my hair didn’t ache anymore and I could enjoy the art of forgetting. Order had been restored. My unthinking body parts had been returned to preside over my cerebral cortex. As Queen Victoria said, Home James and don’t spare the horses!                                  

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Day I Left the Flock

Flock as in sheep. The supernatural Lord was no longer my shepherd. I found no external rod or staff to comfort me. Instead I began to grow my own. It all took place in what was formerly my father’s corner drugstore.

My father opened his pharmacy in 1929. He was located on a highly trafficked street with six apartment buildings across the wide thoroughfare and a subway stop close by.  A few years later the Grand Central Parkway replaced that road. It became a cavernous hole in the ground impassable to those in the apartment buildings and it slowly destroyed his livelihood. He gave up the store during the war years and it remained vacant, with Glasswax on the window for several years.

My father was, in my mind, a shaman. Deliberate over the torsion scale, quick with a cinder in the eye. He had a way of Being which aligned him with his customer/clients. They always had his ear. The vapors from apothecary jars had seeped into him. They offered assurance and a measure of herbs and fluid extracts direct from a garden of sorcery. When he dispensed a prescription it worked as if everything he believed in was contained in it and because he said so with a quiet authority.

What I’m describing was witnessed by me as a child but I’ve not had reason to alter my memory down through the thirty more years he lived. In fact his presence cannot be captured in mere words. I would now call it transformational.

In the summer of 1946 I had lately become a Bar Mitzvah. Doubt and Faith were already slow dancing in my head. The empty store was on my path to the schoolyard. I had just bought a first baseman’s mitt and soaked it in Neatsfoot oil the night before to soften the leather. So it was that I wore that mitt when I was stopped in my tracks.

As it happened the space was no longer vacant. It had become a storefront synagogue behind the white-waxed windows. A man in orthodox garb intercepted me. He asked if I had become a Bar Mitzvah and, if so, would I please come in to make a minyan. Apparently God didn’t bother with anything less than the requisite ten males. Females need not apply.    

I was appropriately fitted with a yarmulke and prayer shawl and probably lip-synched the arcane mumbles. The Torah had been housed just about where my father presided in a raised place between globes of colored water. As the other nine davened in that direction I swayed in honor of my father and sensed my own personal shepherd. I was smelling green pastures and was transported besides still waters. As for protection from evil or the shadow of death there would be no out-sourcing. I would be a pilgrim in the landscape within. I shall not be wanting. The actual raised to sublimity carries with it far more spiritual moments than any sacred scroll.

I left those confines and have rarely returned to what we call religion. The root of the word is to bind which evolved to a deep reverence dwelling on the divine. For me that divinity is within. Religion has nothing to do with edifice or prescribed behavior or ancient text. It is in the lift, the experience of oneness. Religion, the noun, is lost on me; I have only the adjective, religious. Yes, there are religious experiences and they're least likely to happen in a place of worship. That word is nearly exhausted in favor of transcendence which doesn't have the reach either. As for the flock, the congregation, I can only say Bah.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Identity and Self

So close. I had 3.2 million bucks in my hands and it slipped through. Of course I was in my 6th year. It was 1938. I had deposited a few soda bottles and managed to save a dime which bought me the first Superman comic book. A few years ago it sold at auction for over three million dollars. I should have known then I would never be a visionary.

With a little foresight I might have had a signed first but Clark Kent had no time for autographs. He was too busy looking for a phone booth where he could rid himself of that mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet and set the world right.

The Shadow was another one who could assume his identity in other people knowing full well what evil lurked in men’s heart except for the Lamont Cranstons of the world. And then there was Captain Marvel who materialized from some crippled newspaper boy.

I was still looking for my Self and he had two of them. Batman, as well and the Green Hornet. I suppose the unmasked Lone Ranger was the second self of that guy riding off to the beat of the William Tell Overture with Tonto at his side with a GPS.

I had a suspicion I didn’t really exist when a late-comer to the Saturday matinee was about to sit on me in the dark row. He mistook me for an empty seat because my feet didn’t quite reach the floor along the aisle. This is why children need to be equipped with a box of candy or wrapper to announce themselves.

Even at age twelve I doubted my existence when sent off alone to eat dinner at Eddy the Sandwich King, the local deli. What if the waiter would never come over? What if I really was invisible? But he did and I wasn’t. I was confirmed by a few pickles and some rye bread.

It was the Age of Psychoanalysis which shined a light on the inner life. Jung reminded us of the shadow side. R.L. Stevenson ran with it with his novel of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first Superman comic came out just about the same time as James Thurber's Walter Mitty.

If I had asked the bespectacled man from Krypton, Bruce Wayne (bat) or Britt Reid (hornet) each would say he was fighting crime and didn’t want to blow his cover. In fact they were projections of an inner hero practicing the ancient art of vigilante justice which seems never to go out of style.

All were models along with real-life athletes (Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson), actors (Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly) and even a few political figures (FDR, Churchill) who were interjected in my pantheon. Of course, they were all out of reach but somehow the myth of them remained as the Self searched for itself. I probably knew who I wasn’t before I knew who I was.

Now I’m thinking Self is that vital, inviolable being; identity is bogus. We attach ourselves to our job or (god forbid) Religion or (ugh) nationality and settle for those appellations as if they were our measure. I say we are far more complex to be summed up by a word or phrase or even a paragraph.

Our Self is our soul, also unsayable but the authentic being. Was Clark Kent yearning for Krypton or for Lois Lane? Even the owner of those million dollar pages will never know. Super-heroes lived in a tangle of the author's alter ego. No cape needed.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Poetry and Disorder

Peggy went to nine schools before entering high school: two private, six months in a convent, one year in Beverly Hills, four public schools in Manhattan one in New Jersey. She was orphaned at eight and raised by a rich aunt and family who were wiped out in the Wall St. crash of 1929. Resilience builds character. Dickens could have written her story.

Mine was closer to the stable family which Tolstoy didn’t bother with. I was deprived of a deprived childhood having attended P.S. 99 for nine years including kindergarten. I can still smell the wood blocks, chalk dust, pencil shavings and pitted desks with ink wells. There I am running home with my report card of A’s and B plus but I never ran with scissors and played well with others.

If there is a poem in all this it’s not in the narrative. Poetry is less in the words than in the residue left after the words are gone. It is in the lift, the music, the illogic. Absurd leaps into unknowing. The poem is what words are incapable of saying, that ineffable sense beyond articulation. Like Impressionism the art is what makes the landscape tremble.

When Peggy was in Los Angeles in March of 1933 the earth shook to a measure of 6.4. The death toll was 115 but we prefer to think of it as my day of birth, the upheaval that was a sign, 3,000 miles away in New York.

My trajectory of an ordered life met hers filled with disruption, agitation and edge. Under the weight of rules and obedience something festers and then erupts with no sense of proportion.

It did for me in eighth grade when I briefly had my Donald Trump moment as a mindless, nasty bully. My co-conspirators and I nominated a kid for class president who was somewhere on what is now known as the Spectrum. The poor soul would have been expected to address the graduating class. He had been left back so many times he probably regarded the school as his permanent residence. Our teacher, Miss Seabury, wisely nullified the election as a mischievous prank.

Somewhere along the way I found that putting words to paper caused a minor seismic event. I wondered where they came from and what I meant by that last sentence. Some laughed and cried at the same time. 

Peggy lives with a poet’s disequilibrium between order and chaos. It is the same slant that Emily Dickinson insisted upon. I strive to see the world askew with astigmatic eyes.

If a touch of chaos is the well-spring of creativity a massive dose of it can do us in. Enter DJT who as ringmaster of this circus has caused a stampede of elephants and uncaged the feral beast. He is the anti-poet who degrades language and leaves us all with impoverished discourse. Yet even now his pernicious flimflam awakens an aroused public defending the precepts in the American grain being eroded. Our foundational values born in the Enlightenment have never before been under such threat.

Poetry is rooted in reverence, inclusion and the unexpected. It offers compassion and connectivity. Yeats said of the poem that a quarrel with others is mere rhetoric. Poetry is a quarrel with oneself. It allows doubt. To what extent are we complicit? Maybe Trump is the seismic shift we unconsciously invited to test our givens.  He may be controlling the narrative right now but the poem belongs to those many voices in this landscape of disquiet.