Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Boy Scouts and Me

I was a boy scout once. I left in disgrace failing to make the requisite knots. We had to demonstrate our dexterity with square knots and clove hitch, bowline and nooses. I could say it was the noose that got to me but actually it was all of them. I think a part of my brain is missing or tied up in knots. Let’s just say I never learned the ropes.

I’m not sure if I left as a Tenderfoot or never even attained that low rank. I remember wearing the uniform and marching. Left, right, left right. Another abhorrent activity. It reeked of soldiering. When we weren’t marching, mindlessly, we played boy/men games such as alley-oop. And other masculine nonsense.

The one prank which revealed the reckless nature of our troop was the Hidden Rope Trick. Three or four scouts would gather on each side of Lefferts Blvd as if pulling on a rope that wasn’t there. The purpose was to fool the cars. In fact, cars did screech to a halt endangering the drivers and those behind. Great fun for the brainless.

These memories returned to me recently when reading about the removal of a statue of the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell. It seems Baden-Powell was not only an imperialist and racist but also an admirer of Adolph Hitler and Mussolini. Why am I not surprised?

The one thing I came away with is the scout’s motto, Be Prepared. In fact, Baden-Powell came up with these two words in honor of his own initials, B.P. Here’s another initial which could be applied, B.S. as in Boy Scouts.

I suspect I didn’t learn preparedness from them. I tend to think I was born preparing for every eventuality. But even that has its downside. Living with anticipation or readiness robs one of spontaneity, of living in the moment. Should I smell the flowers or run in for an umbrella? There must be a balance between considering consequences and ordering key lime pie. Peggy is one who mostly lives in the moment. She has tried to teach me but I need another thirty or forty years of remedial lessons.

When B-P founded the organization 110 years ago fitness was all the rage. Teddy Roosevelt was a model of the slight, bespectacled kid becoming the intrepid wild-game hunter and exercise freak. When shot by a would-be assassin he merely paused and continued his speech. How else could he charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba? Let the fool charge. Let him lead the cavalry against machine guns in World War I.  I’ll stay home reading the manual about helping old people cross the street. And now I’m one of them.

I don’t suspect even Baden-Powell prepared for the ignominious removal of his statue in Poole Quay, U.K. before he would be dumped into the ocean. I wonder if they used one of his damnable knots to hoist it down.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Late Years

Peggy is regaining her stamina in accord with her own clock. About the pace in which a melon ripens or paint dries. In football terms it would be a ten yard gain followed by a nine yard loss. I count that as a one yard pick up. I push but not too hard. She needs to reinvigorate after being deconditioned by eleven days in the hospital. At ninety-nine this is no easy task. She carries each of those years in her step; a century of freight.

Her spirit and her body are not yet on the same page. The vitality in her voice and voltage of her imagination must wait for her bones and blood flow to get the charge. She is not spent. Her best poem is the one she hasn’t written yet.

Aging is an adventure if you don’t let the inflammations, irritations and occasional lapses of memory get you down. We get to laugh at ourselves. It may be the gun lap but that can take years. In fact there is no clock; we swallow it along the way.

My dear friend, Roger, is in his final days. He chose not to have his brain tumor treated. He is leaving us on his own terms just as he has led his most remarkable life. Born in France in 1937 he was sheltered by a farm family just outside Paris during the war and came to this country ten years later to live with the family of his half-brother. Abused by the disturbed woman in that household he ended up at Vista del Mar where he spent his teenage years. He had a steep climb ahead.

He found his calling as a landscape architect where his burgeoning imagination blossomed designing parks and public space. Roger carried with him an enormous solitude out of which his creativity soared. He lived his movie; the storm and the wound, the insistent drive, fierce integrity, bold vision, robust aesthetic issuing from his indomitable core.

Organizing a garden is like writing a poem as it domesticates the wild but not altogether. It reenacts the cycle of life as Roger reinvented himself. Plants assert themselves bending toward the light. The poetry of bringing together disparate elemental life became Roger’s legacy finding expression in his watercolors, ceramics and glass work…and most of all in his loving nature. He had the gift of renewal and was rewarded in his final years with Adele, the love of his life.

Peggy, even in these dark times, continues to write affirmations. She has earned it. If they are love letters to her circumscribed world it is because she has found the joy, even eroticism in language as words seek new couplings. She has an affinity toward the light part of which is her own incandescence. As the photographer, Paul Strand, said, All light is available light. She bends toward the source.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Missing In Action

A funny thing happened to me in high school. I disappeared. There’s a hole in my chronicle. I might say that I sat in one of those brownish chairs wearing my special brownish shirt and vanished into the woodwork but that was in college when I prayed to the God, I swore I didn’t believe in, not to be called on.

High school was different. Maybe I was at the beach with a million other New Yorkers on a sweaty Sunday in August. No, that was when I was probably about eight years old. My family had rented an orange umbrella with black stripes. I dashed into the ocean and must have drifted a while because the black-striped orange umbrella had multiplied a thousand fold. In fact everybody had the same umbrella. I was rescued by a lifeguard who found me wandering aimlessly after I stepped on someone’s sandcastle.

I can name everyone in my eight grade P.S. 99 class plus all those who skipped as well as those who were left back but I cannot count more than five or six from the Forest Hills High School graduating class of 1950. Where was I? I was thin but not that thin. I majored in anonymity. Forest Hills was a perfect place to dematerialize. There were no forests and no hills. Nor was there a me.

I imagined that everyone else had grown up that summer of ’46, except me. Maybe I overslept or had the mumps. I surmised that they knew something I didn’t. Not academics. They knew how to be grown-ups. They wore sport coats. They shaved. They dated. They knew small talk and big talk, flirts and blurts.  They were equipped to make their way in this world. I was still in the ninth grade of elementary school…..except it stopped at eighth.

It had never occurred to me it was all a game and they were faking it. I had to learn the art of being an impostor, suave and debonair. I couldn’t do Cary Grant or Clark Gable. Maybe I could attempt Henry Fonda or Spencer Tracy. I finally settled for second banana, the guy who ends up with second bananettes.

Somehow I got through it all but thoroughly lost. Too old to be a street urchin, too young to be a derelict. I followed my father's steps into Pharmacy School. It was the wrong prescription. In my freshman year we had to deliver a presentation before the class of 150 on some topic pertaining to the practice of pharmacy. I spoke about hiccups. This should have been a clue I was on the wrong path. 

My years at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy were one big hiccup. When I found myself it was too late. My mother said pharmacy was something I could always fall back upon. I fell for the next fifty-three years.

Being found may be overrated. I prefer the idea of becoming. We're all works-in-progress. Even at this age this clay is still soft. 




Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Two Good Men

There they were, two men I highly esteemed, at each other’s metaphorical throats. And poets yet.

In 1979 I found myself at Port Townsend, Washington, for seven days. It was the annual Centrum summer poetry workshop / conference.  I choose to be part of a small class headed by Stanley Kunitz. He was a mere 74 at the time, practically middle age for him. Kunitz was twice appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, first in 1974 and again in 2000 when he was 95. He died at age 101.

He was the most eloquent essayist I have ever read, writing about poetry. His erudition was vast and almost casual as it elevated his conversation. In the group Kunitz presided with a gentle authority. His criticism was constructive, severe at times, yet never personal. His voice seemed to carry the entire canon of Western literature with some Basho and Lao Tse thrown in.

In my private meeting with him I presented a poem (since lost) with some trepidation. He read it carefully and his response puzzles me to this day, in its ambiguity. He said, This poem cannot be improved upon. I’ll never know if he meant it was so good not to tamper with it or so bad it was beyond repair. As I recall I just thanked him and ran off.

In the room next door to the Stanley Kunitz workshop was another one of my heroes, William Stafford. He had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1970.  It wasn’t so much Stafford’s language that impressed me, it was his approach to poetry as if it issued directly from his being. Every morning, at dawn, Stafford walked a few miles and out of that came three poems. They were raw and immediate. He was a man without guile. His embrace of the world was especially non-judgmental. Most remarkable was the way he responded to the poems of others. 

I attended one session in his group to witness an interchange I’ve never seen before or since. When students read their work to the class Stafford’s rule was: No Praise, No Blame. He was able to work with the poet to guide that person in becoming his own best critic. It was transformational. He believed that all of us are poets with the innate authority to express our art.  That unique voice belongs to us; it only needs to be fully relied upon and released. No external authority figure needed.

A poem without secrets lies dead on the page. These are the words of Stanley Kunitz. I believe this is true of all art. There is a mystery to our being. Words dance around that inviolate core. We offer a glimpse which can describe but not explain its secrets.

One evening I was to meet with William Stafford in the dining hall for a private meeting. I arrived to see these two highly evolved souls shouting at each other across the room. It was a sight I would gladly have missed. I didn’t catch their point of contention. When Stafford greeted me, we left. I didn’t have the courage to ask about their disagreement. Maybe that falls under the heading of the eternal mystery. Even saints have pushable buttons. I had the profound experience of both men; clearly there were differences.

Stafford was probably the least combative person I’ve ever known, He was a Conscientious Objector during World War II. Kunitz was a lifetime gardener. He regarded his plants as little allegories representing the fierce will to survive. His poetry was an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of existence.

Maybe Stanley Kunitz took offense with the unpolished spontaneity of Stafford’s work. Or perhaps Stafford took exception to the position Kunitz assumed as arbiter which (he may have felt) robbed the poet of his own creative impulses. Or could it be they were at odds over the spiciness of the day’s soup?