Saturday, June 27, 2020

Baseball as Life

You had to be there. Maybe you had to be me at age eight and a half, Oct 5th, 1941. I remember it being a Sunday. (Yes, I’m right. I just looked it up). Fourth game of the World Series and the Dodgers had it won but managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It changed my life even though I didn’t have much of a life before then.

I won’t go in to what happened with two outs in the ninth inning. If you’re a fan you already know. It has never happened again. If you are not you’ve probably stopped reading this anyway. The point is that I never got over it. As a consequence, I have never, not once, counted my chickens before they are hatched. Of course, I’ve not counted them after, either. I assume nothing.  I cushion bad news. I prepare for every eventuality. Well, not every. I don’t go to sleep in a wet suit in the event of a tsunami.

Baseball teaches us how to fail…..and live for another day. The greatest hitter of all time failed sixty percent of the time. If a player today failed seventy percent of the time, he’d have a long-term contract for about twelve million per year. If a brain surgeon had that rate of failure, he’d be selling shoes at Big-5.

Baseball at age eight is its own universe. It is the first thing I knew my parents didn’t. (No, Mom, they are not pillows; they’re called bases.) I was fluent in its jargon. Stay with it and discover poetry in its stanzas and heroic couplets. There is a Euclidian elegance in its infield proportions, a randomness in the outfield, an existential moment at the plate while the umpire confirms subjective reality.  

For refugee families arriving here in the 1930s baseball was their portal into the English language. After a year or two one could speak fluent Baseball. The game was segmented into orderly innings. It was a repudiation of the chaos and incivility in Europe. Then as now it offers the illusion of manageable drama. It is linear. The narrative moves sequentially with innings as decades. The runner travels counter-clockwise around the bases back to home where he began and back to where I began.

What happens on the field is of no real consequence and that’s not a bad thing. Trump is still an infestation to our national heritage. Even as he divides our people that other virus, Corona, is multiplying.

Soon the season will begin in defiance. Controlled pandemonium meets pandemic. Let me hear the crack of bat, the thump in the mitt, the chatter in the infield even if the stands are empty. I’ll be on the couch, eight years old again reliving my early trauma or maybe this time I’ll be on the other side taking a bow for an amazing comeback with four consecutive home runs in the bottom of the ninth to live another day.

Baseball is my arrested development. Some of us grow up. I hope to keep the kid alive in an eternal run-down between third base and home, heedless of the clock.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Further Father

My father had a Dickensian beginning. His mother died when he was two and his father couldn’t cope. My grandfather was destitute and an alcoholic. If this were a novel there may have been great expectations awaiting but this was real life with no inheritance on the next page.

So it was that my Dad was sent to live with equally impoverished, but sober, Aunt Rose and Uncle Peretz whose profession was a peddler selling shoe laces and socks. I don’t imagine there was very much food on the table. Day-old bread would have been a luxury. I can imagine them eating a soup made from the top of carrots which were thrown away. I can almost hear my father saying, Please, Sir, I want some more. The Dickens, you say.

Wait, I lied. There was a rich Uncle Henry. But where was he? Maybe he hadn’t become rich for another three decades and even then I remember being invited to Rose and Peretz for lunch one day when I was about ten years old. I was served pot cheese and sour cream. As I recall I did not plead for some more.

When my father went to kindergarten the teacher warned the class to pay attention. In his state of anxiety he heard it as, Pay a pencil. Alas, like Simple Simon he hadn’t any. I don’t know how far he went in elementary school but I know he never went to high school. He sold newspapers in front of Bushwick Stadium in Brooklyn. At three cents a throw I guess he got to keep a penny.

Along came my mother to tutor him sufficiently to pass a high school equivalency test and then on to college for the required two years to receive his license to practice Pharmacy. He must have been dyslexic; it took an inordinate amount of time for him to read a newspaper article.

His model was compelling enough for me to follow that path into pharmacy. I remember how deliberate he was reading a prescription. In those days the ingredients were often written in Latin with a sort of educated scribble, unintelligible to most, as if the doctor and pharmacist were engaged in a clandestine operation. Simply counting and pouring came much later. Prior to 1950 drugstores were gardens of herbs with crude drugs emitting a vapor from their apothecary jars.  My father carried that scent in his body, pungent, organic and intoxicating.
A single inhalation could pacify my world.

The mean streets seem not to have left its mark on him except  his compassion for the disadvantaged which came out as a kind of abstract vehemence against greed and injustice. It landed him, apologetically, in left-wing politics. 

In the meantime his father had remarried and accumulated four more children. All of them were raised in an orphanage. Perhaps in a state of inebriation my Grandpa Louis named one his new sons, Samuel, forgetting that he already had a son with that name. Sam, meet your brother, Sam. Even Dickens couldn’t make this stuff up.

He loved his half-brothers, particularly his namesake whom I remember for his beautiful handwriting in the V-mails we used to receive during W.W. II where he served in the Merchant Marine in the North Atlantic.

Here’s my question. How does a boy, discarded by his birth father and raised as a street urchin, turn out to be such a soulful, loving, even-tempered father? I have no memory of him ever raising his voice. He never complained. He seemed at home in this world. Where did that sweet nature come from? I ask you Charles Dickens?   

My father took the hand dealt him and went further, father.


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Words, Those Squishy Things

Yes, I do love words and I couldn’t have said that without them. I love their sound, their layers of meaning and the long journey they’ve undertaken to get here. One has to admire their elasticity, how they can stretch, bend and bounce. There is nothing more organic, rising into usage from someone’s mouth into the common tongue if it has the legs for it.

Some years ago the poet and publisher of Sun-Moon Press, Doug Messerli, prefaced his poetry reading by saying how he was more interested in the relationship between river and rivet than he was between river and bridge. I never forgot that. Doug was a language poet. His focus was not on any narrative but on language itself. In fact, his idea of a poem was to call attention to itself so the reader would accept his terms. Don’t look for a story, particularly for a single point of view. In a visual sense this was analogous to moving from representative, even impressionistic painting to cubism.

The river / rivet note came to mind recently when I discovered that the word rival also refers to river. It can be traced back to a time when opposing points of view were debated along the banks of a waterway. The provenance of words enriches their meaning.

In poetry one can assume each word has been weighed and carries with it a secondary reference. When Lewis Carroll mentioned qualities of sand in his Walrus and Carpenter poem he may have been thinking about the sand in an hourglass which is code for mortality and how he would miss Alice as she left childhood and innocence behind.

Words are for leaping in some poets’ hands. Rub them together and sparks fly. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – of cabbages and kings. When Dodgson / Carroll brings in Tweedledee and Tweedledum as mirror images could he not be speaking of his two selves, Dodgson the math and logics professor and Carroll, the playful spinner of yarns? Add to this a third self, the social satirist taking a swipe at British Imperialism.

 Consider the Walrus and Carpenter landing on a beach where the sun is shining at night. Sounds a lot like another colony in a distant part of the Empire upon which the sun never sets. Not to belabor the point but those shoes and ships and sealing wax are all part of Victorian civility along with cabbages and kings. Gobbling oysters is what colonists do to native populations. It is all about domination and those cunning settlers.

Dodgson / Carroll sailed down the river, Isis, with Alice and her sisters telling riveting stories. The rivals were within the author and his disparate aspects. Can a conservative, devout, tradition-loving Oxford professor with a penchant for postulates and proofs write a so-called nonsense verse translated into seventy languages which hides within the lines a disparaging view of the establishment? Is that what poetry can do? Shine a light, unwittingly, upon a dark corner of society which would be deemed subversive in a more frontal attack? Let the artist roam. Allow the muse its full throat. Who knows where it may lead?     

On the other hand maybe I am all wrong. No need for cryptic messages. I don't wish to analyze it to death. Dodgson's poem stands on its own walrus feet. Millions have read it since publication in 1871, finding delightful bafflement in its illogical logic.  

Friday, June 12, 2020

Ticket to Elsewhere

There is a vault of memories which is endlessly fascinating to myself  usually bringing a smile to my face. These are probably the same remembrances that others find insufferable and never fail to elicit a yawn. And then there is trivia from that time back when I was a wee slip of a lad. Names jump out of the trash bin accompanied by a constellation of images.

So it has come to this. Mention Tex Beneke, Harry Babbitt or Anita O’Day and Helen O’Connell. I’m transported back 75 years to my neighbor’s apartment where we listened to Martin Block on Saturday morning for the top ten recordings. Which would be up three notches to number one? We would take turns being the announcer speaking into a hair brush which served as a microphone.

Trivia can be a shorthand for the long forgotten, some sort of time machine depositing me in the 1940s when radio shows, ball games and movies engraved themselves on my bones. I expect the roster for the 1941 Dodgers will still be clinging to my entrails after I forget what I’m doing at this keyboard. As for that elusive meaning of life I had it a few seconds ago but it just slipped away. 

My buddies, Earl and Fred, have a warehouse full of names to throw at me. It is what happens to late octogenarians seeking a time when we had a grip on things, or so we thought. I remember everything from that period and they know everything but we all have different everythings.

Earl has total recall. He has appeared twice on Jeopardy. Fred also has a mind for celebrity ghosts. Names like Zasu Pitts to Fritzie Zivic send me in a spin. What we saw by staring into the radio is a universe of faces and places from Duffy’s Tavern to the crusading editor of The Illustrated Press with Edward G. Robinson’s timbered voice to the mowed grass of Ebbet’s Field or the Yankee Stadium. We could even smell the mustard on hot dogs.

The three of us meet on certain subjects such as history, sports, politics, movies and pop music. Then Earl leaves us behind with his encyclopedic knowledge and passion for classical music, especially opera. There is enough common ground to keep us unburying the notable deceased.

Why do I remember everyone in FDR's cabinet but hardly anyone in Obama's? What ever happened to Joel Kupperman and the other Quiz Kids? Was Mutt and Jeff the inspiration for pairing Sydney Greenstreet with Peter Lorre?

We all carry those indelible moments. In these baffling times old names become momentous. There is nothing trivial about trivia. It conjures an essential elsewhere. Anywhere will do but we might as well be immersed in those Edenic years of innocence and excitation. As Saul Bellow put it, Everyone needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. They also energize the synapses and we can travel, unmasked, without fear of the damn virus.

Now where was I? Oh yes, Walter Winchell to Whitlow Wyatt to Whirlaway. From Jughead and Archie to Archibald MacLeish to Archie Leach. These are my Letters of Transit. Find Bogart. He'll always have Paris. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Ovid As In Covid

Hidden inside that word Covid is the Roman poet Ovid even though he pronounced it Ahvid. He was all about love and transformation. Two of my favorite subversions. Love is what we are here for and transformation offers a new dimension to our lives. For some indiscretion in the eyes of Emperor Augustus he was given a one-way ticket to Romania, a fate worse than an afternoon in the Coliseum with hungry lions.

It strikes me that Ovid got it right. We are in the middle of a societal convulsion. Transformation is the operative word. The virus from bats has brought with it a toll of over 400,000 lives, a wreckage of economies and some profound behavioral changes. The confluence of this with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets demanding cultural and structural reappraisal would have brought a smile to Ovid’s face.

In fact, the two storms have interfaced. Massive unemployment has allowed for more marchers, masked and unmasked, even at greater risk for the virus. Racial injustice and inequality are, themselves, health matters and centuries of systemic racism have turned White America, us, partially deaf, blind and soulless. Liberals may not be racist but our silence renders us accomplices.

In his long epic poem, Metamorphoses, Ovid has people turning into stone or animals. Indeed, slumbering America has ossified in plain sight. It has taken a tragic loss of life to stir the consciousness of  the dominant race (us) into outrage. To measure up to Ovid’s standards we need to see the placards and chants transformed into legislation which redefines the mission of policing and revisits the standards of uniformed men and women. Public safety must not be regarded as a menace particularly to communities of color.

Seismic shifts can refresh the tree of liberty. We must not let this moment go. The act of dismantling and defunding the Minneapolis police department is a way of confronting the stranglehold by the union which has provided cover for unfit officers to remain on the job. Caught on camera some police are revealed as criminals or at least ill-equipped to deal with incendiary situations. Lethal power should never be put in their hands.      

Ovid was born in B.C. (43) and died in A.D. (17). Those were also tumultuous times. Whatever he wrote was deemed a threat to the empire. We know now when in Rome to do as the Romans do. He didn’t and for that had to pack his toothbrush and get out of town. Western Civilization is significantly the poorer because of that.

Incarceration is our idea of an enlightened form of banishment only because there is no longer anywhere isolated, uninhabited or unconnected. The shouts against brutal authority have become global. Prisons could be largely emptied without any threat to society. In fact they already have with the Coronavirus looming over the inmates.

Can legislation change a culture of racism? I say, Yes, it can and it has to some extent. Progress has been made compared to the segregation before the sixties. Clearly it is not nearly enough to enjoy black athletes, actors and musicians. Even a black president didn’t significantly alter the daily indignities suffered by people of color. But legislation with the support of leadership can bring us closer to a just society. Transformation from this to that. Ovid, I think, would agree.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Awakening for Change

Vandalism, screamed the newspapers, will not be tolerated. They will pay for this.

So said the London press in 1774 reporting about the Boston Tea Party. And we did pay for it through heavy taxation. Two years later it was Great Britain who paid even more beginning with the Revolutionary War.

Uprisings are not tidy. They are reckless, sometimes given to excess and, at times, self-defeating. The Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who organized the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor are now considered patriots. If you would like a cup of tea I wouldn’t advise dipping into those waters though one of the 342 cases is now in a museum commemorating that act of looting.

Torching buildings and stealing merchandise is indefensible. I do not condone it. It is the red meat over which Fox News salivates to make the lead story. Bad optics. It is even tragic for small businesses who have already been devastated by the virus shutdown. Even the L.A. Times made looting the headline after Sunday’s widespread, largely peaceful, gatherings around the country and even in European cities.

It is unclear to me whether the bad guys are gang members exploiting the situation or White Nationalists who have infiltrated into the protest movement in order to provoke ill will. Or is this an expression of rage from a lifetime of abuse and inequality. Whether calculated or not the wanton destruction strikes at the heart of White dominant society, property rights. It is a symbolic act, however doomed, of redressing income inequality.

The upheaval we are witnessing is meant to have Liberals squirm out of our comfort zone. It takes that sort of jarring disquiet to reexamine our values. If fear has been generated it is cousin to the fear Black and Brown people live with every day of their lives. If traffic is halted so be it. If the marchers disrupt our lives it is the same disruption Susan B Anthony and the other Suffragettes caused in their decades-long battle for the vote.   

This has got to be more than a teachable moment. It must be translated into legislation which changes the culture of policing and addresses the virus called Racism. We have been rendered ignorant of our own history. Our morality has been warped. We have accepted the privileges of domination and even elected a president who lives by that creed. Our belief in the primacy of property rights goes back to our nation’s inception when slaves were regarded as property.

As for income inequality systemic shifts are long overdue. The wealth of our nation must become the Commonweal to be shared more equitably. This includes access to guaranteed healthcare, housing and education. It may take an insurrection but it shall happen if this country is to survive.

In the meantime have a cup of tea. It may or may not have been looted; if not from our mother country then from the underclass in Indonesia or India. We are a mere 4% of the world’s population gobbling up 30% of its goods. There is reason to squirm. In another thirty years Asians and Africans will comprise 80% of the world population. It is time for us to wake up from a lengthy malaise.