Tuesday, April 28, 2020

I'll Have What She's Having

Peggy will be ninety-nine on Saturday. We've been together for the past thirty-six years and I'm still trying to find out how she manages to not act her age. In fact, she is of no age. The irrepressible and capacious woman I knew in 1984 is undiminished. Every morning a poem, a creative burst; every moment an enthused, welcoming and loving woman.

What I have witnessed is her risk-taking, pondering at the edge of elsewhere, that elusive unknown as well as the unseen ordinary most of us are blind to. Yet, at the same time, she truly lives in the present, not mourning over the past or anticipating or rehearsing bad news. She trusts in her own resources to save the day.

Her three novels, six books of poetry and over a hundred construction boxes are the product of an engagement with the world, a sensibility that issues from a way of meeting life. Her poetry is an affirmation of being alive just as her nature affirms that Yes even after the final No. If she never wrote another line she would remain a poet in her being. She seeks and she finds like nobody I have ever known.

Early on I was recipient of her remarkable gift. One Sunday afternoon we were driving around Santa Monica. Peggy was enthusing over one of her favorite books by the naturalist, Aldo Leopold, called Sand County Almanac. She spotted a sign for a yard sale and suggested we stop and look to see if they had that book. Some chance, I thought to myself, as if there had been only eleven books ever written. But sure enough, there it was. Could it be Peggy possessed some alchemical power to make the book appear by the force of her nature?

And so it has been. Unlikely things happen because she offers a wide and constant reception. There are nuggets in the sludge. Overheard conversations in the next booth. Weedy things, pods, fallen leaves taken in, deserving of another life in a vase or her Commonplace book.

Something is happening every day in its quiet or its clamor. Peggy is also happening, discovering connective tissue and reconfiguring the shards in this dissonant, disparate life. She breathes life into the inanimate and suddenly her words sing off the page. Her process of creativity is also her presence in relationship.

Peggy finds what is lost; she was orphaned at eight and found (rescued) by her aunt and later by an uncle. To be met is her pattern. Nearly a century of meeting this world as it reveals itself in its dailiness made momentous and numinous.

Life gives us moments, says the poet, and for these moments we give our lives. Peggy's life is comprised of such moments. With serious noticing she pauses and with a gust of wind her carpet is made buoyant by the exhalation of her spirit.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

To Go or To Stay

It has come to this. Red State folks are gathering in Bible Class, BBQs and bowling alleys. They have eyes on Fox News, God and the Dow. While Blue States are hunkered down, masked, cloistered and wiped. We have our eyes on Dr. Fauci, CNN or MSNBC and our Governors. 

If the South wanted to invade the North this would be the time. The only army we could muster would be a rag-tail battalion of Instacart delivery drivers. Our weapons would be Clorox and Purel.

There are two songs from bygone days which come to mind that might become our new anthems. Jimmy Durante sang one of them making a brief appearance in the 1942 movie version of, The Man Who Came to Dinner, when he sang...........

Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go
But still had the feeling that you wanted to stay.
You know it was right, wasn't wrong
Still you knew you wouldn't be very long
Go or stay, stay or go...........I'll go, I'll stay.

Durante is one of those entertainers who elude categories. He was a product of vaudeville who transitioned into radio and then T.V.  I found him adorable, his raspy voice, his antics, his whole shtick.

Groucho Marx followed a similar arc with the added exposure of thirteen movies with his brothers. One of his songs covered the same ground as Durante’s…

Hello, I must be going.
I cannot stay 
I came to say
I must be going.
I’m glad I came 
But just the same
I must be going.   

Groucho was subversive in his way, possibly more so than Karl Marx. With a raised eyebrow and a puff at his cigar he could overthrow governments. He played the con-man, the swindler, or an outrageous head-of-state. In this way he reminds me of somebody but I dare not speak his name. Groucho made America great again. He spoke in the voice of the street. He had moxie. He gave us the quick wise crack to get by in the urban jungle.

But it took his brother, Harpo, to answer the noise with his omniscient eyes, the cup of coffee in his overcoat along with one roller skate as if the artifacts of a fractured civilization. Then he spoke with his harp, recused from a damaged piano. When he played his instrument he brought all the clamor to silence. Even the virus was halted. A few plucks and corona is startled into submission. 

We can come and go again. Let some gather by the river. Take me out to the ballgame.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Leading From Behind

Commander-in-Chief Trump, in his infinite wisdom, is demonstrating his leadership by beating a hasty retreat. It didn’t work out so well for Napoleon in that Russian winter nor for Hitler either, but Rear Admiral Trump is fighting a different sort of war. The enemy is invisible and Trump wants to be invisible as well as he leads the nation unmasked, unhinged, unconscionable and unaccountable.

I’m reminded of William S. Gilbert’s libretto from the G & S operetta, Gondoliers….

In enterprise of martial kind / when there was any fighting
He led his regiment from behind. / He found it less exciting.
But away his regiment ran, / His place was in the fore-o,
 / That celebrated, cultivated, Underrated Nobleman / The Duke of Plaza-Toro.

The Duke of Mar-a-Lago is far too busy receiving orders from General Hannity to risk his legacy as visionary and candidate for Nobel Peace Prize. In a brilliant maneuver he has positioned himself to take all the credit and none of the blame.  If things go wrong it is certainly the fault of Democrat Governors and Mayors; if they go right it is due to his absolute authority as the smartest person in the history of the world.

He has systematically dismantled Health and Environmental agencies and stocked them with sycophants. At the same time the Man in the Oval assumes executive powers bordering on monarchical. And yet in the midst of our death and dying he is nowhere to be seen having left it all to the states. History will note his colossal inaction.

When to evade destruction’s hand / to hide they all proceeded.
No soldier in that gallant band / hid half as well as he did.
He lay concealed throughout the war / and so preserved his gore, (O)
That unaffected, undetected, well-connected warrior / the Duke of Plaza-Toro.

Rear Admiral Trump has company in the grand retreat choreographed by that other military megalomaniac, Douglas MacArthur. He managed to retreat from Bataan leaving behind 70,000 G.Is, many of whom met a cruel death as the General staged his famous photograph landing on another Philippine Island. Apparently Old Soldiers never die, they just lead from behind.

One wonders if the Fuehrer also had delusions of grandeur as he led Germany from his subterranean bunker under the rubble of Berlin. Did he curse his own submarines and his Panzer tanks? Did he vent his fury at whistle-blowers, Bavarian beer halls, poison schnitzel, slow scientists and, of course, those Jewish money-lenders?

Military blunders can be spun into cri de coeurs which become rallying points in the hands of such true leaders as Churchill. Witness Dunkirk where over 300,000 British and French troops were rescued. But Donald is no Winston.

Back to work, says our leader, speaking from an undisclosed location. Let afebrile folks stock the shelves and scoop the frozen yogurt so the Dow can rise along with the morning sun upon which he can also lend his signature.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Cabin Fever Regression

All this has me thinking peril, thinking masks and radio days. How back then we saw what we heard. Those of us born before Pearl Harbor were raised by radio. Stare long enough into the Art-Deco speaker and you’d see Jack Armstrong dodging poison darts making his way down the Amazon or Henry Aldrich, Coming Mother.

If you had a head cold in November, bad enough to stay home from school, when Ma Perkins was baking a pie it would be coming out of the oven for your fever in February. Time moved slower then. Jack Benny strolled the department store with Rochester to meet Mr. Kitzel and the floor walker. In no hurry. When held up at gun point he was asked, Your money or your life? Again, Your money or your life…….10 second pause…..I’m thinking. I’m thinking.  

Thinking is what we did back then and esteemed radio shows such as Information Please, The Quiz Kids and Doctor I.Q. We wanted answers. Intellect was valued. There were not two versions of the truth.

Life was a meander not down Memory Lane or Easy St. but across Allen’s Alley to visit Mrs. Nussbaum and Senator Claghorn. These were the Boulevardiers just taking a walk and bumping into the voices: Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Great Gildersleeve. We saw the characters coming. We waited and were never stood up.

Conjured vividly from the radio we had a vision of the ballpark, the bar room brawl, even a beauty pageant. We saw what The Shadow saw.

Even though there were air raid drills, war bonds and blackouts the peril was distant. Two oceans kept us safe even when a German U-boat was spotted off Rockaway Beach. And then we had Superman. If that mild-mannered reporter was a disguised Uber Mensch then why not me? If I only had a phone booth.

Clark Kent, of course, wasn’t masked but Batman, the Green Hornet and the Lone Ranger felt the need to hide their identity. They all had side-kicks to help set the world right. When Kato was Bruce Lee his nationality suddenly changed from Japanese to Philippine overnight. Fair enough. You do what you have to do to get by.

The Lone Ranger wore one over his eyes while he hi-ho’d away to the overture when his white horse, Silver, heard William Tell. That mask wouldn’t have helped against this virus but Tonto’s bandana might have saved the day if he had covered his mouth and nostrils. Catching a cattle rustler or card sharp was a lot easier than battling this invisible blob crowned Corona.

We are now in a dark and stormy night. The heroes are the scientists and healthcare workers, truck drivers and grocery clerks. Heroes wear masks not to stay anonymous, just to stay alive. Our President refuses but his face is already a mask to
hide his deceit and bumbling self-absorption. Earth calling Krypton, Earth calling Krypton. Help! We have a situation here.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Spring, All At Once

Enter Persephone from the Netherworld

when the Equinox is Vernal

and April is busting out all over on the desert floor.

Lit bulbs called poppy, called hyacinth or tulip.

Technicolor urgency / emergency in their fabulous rising

into fables of resurrection, insurrection, erection

as in testaments from testicles (swear to God),

horizontal across forty years or vertical as in 

Easter like yeast, a souffle rising, leavened /

unleavened with bitter herbs and shank bone

as sweet chariots swing low.

No time for corn rye sliced with seeds,

but yes, seeds, for homelands and turning cheeks

for renewal, for overthrow of exhausted words.

Pagans as in peasants started it with awe

and gratitude. How spring is sprung another year.

Eliot knew how cruel April could be

turning dead roots into petals 

turned treacherous into particles,

their tribe increased in our soil. Banish them 

in a miracle exodus as in a C.B. DeMille movie

so we may once more gather in observance.

Rather than eggs or the prescribed plate

I’ll take wildflowers as my promised land.
Listen to the trumpet in the daffodil, 

the saxophone in the foxglove.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Shifting Pronouns

Overnight, it seems, we have gone from US and THEM to US and IT. IT may yet bring us together as the unifying force sharing our tenuous destiny on this orbiting hunk of dust. IT seeps under and over walls and gates and gulfs and chasms indifferent to the folly of borders and artificially color-coded maps. 

Yes, of course, there is ample blame to be assessed but it serves little purpose at this point although cable news thrives on it. It seems too easy. Vehemence has worn thin. The time to mock, vilify or (God forbid) praise HIM has passed. Leave that for historians. He has already established himself by a unique combination of arrogance and incompetence. But why waste our breath in condemnation; it could be our last.

It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can't remember where or when.

MY impulse is to look back in history toward those instances where the US and THEM dissolved and then resolved themselves. In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt presided over peace talks between Russia and Japan ending the Sino-Russian War in which both imperialist countries fought over control of Korea and Manchuria. For this T.R. was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a goodwill gesture Imperial Japan sent over scions from thousands of cherry trees which were planted along the tidal basin in Washington D.C. During World War II our bombers destroyed Japan’s prized trees. After their surrender we sent cuttings from our cherry trees back to Japan. Years later, when ours died from some sort of blight Japan sent cuttings again to revive our Washington cherry trees. US and THEM had vanished. Humanity can be a force more powerful that distant pronouns. THEM got replaced by WE.

This could be the propitious moment to find our commonweal. Sporting events are a paradigm for competition but they are also a model for hugs as we see in the NBA where arch rivals often engage in a long post-game embrace. It is, after all, a form of theater.

If all this sounds like I am over-selling the positives I don't disagree. I'm trying to convince myself as I write.

When the last ventilator becomes an objet d'art in a museum exhibit alongside Duchamp's urinal we will ask ourselves, What just happened. Greed and virulence lost to community and survival. Scientists along with that person who waters the lettuce in the market won the day. There is a substance within that prevails. Damn the C-virus but without it we forgot how we share a fragile tenancy on this place called Earth and how much we need each other as custodians. Otherwise we may lose our lease. 

In addition we are encroaching on wilderness land with no resistance to their many virus. Another teachable lesson to be learned. Globalization is a double-edged sword creating great wealth for some and destitution for others. I suspect this will help return some vital supply sources back to our shores.  

It does feel to me this is OUR existential moment. Whether we survive is paramount and how we regard one another and our kinship to our fellow survivors is where our focus needs to be. As the poet, Auden, wrote, we must love each other or die. 

This crisis may just be prelude to the next as chunks of the polar ice cap raise ocean levels and islands disappear. The message is to listen for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for all.