Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Vox Populi

The voice of the people. Frank Capra, like Whitman before him, heard America singing. The song Capra heard became an anthem for his movies in the late 1930s-early 40s. He was a household name at the time and for some years later but he seems to have faded away along with his notion of Populism.

His hit films in that period were Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. (2 of them are being shown on TCM this week)

Ironically, those 3 films were studio hits but his glaring failure at the box-office was the 1947 flop, It’s A Wonderful Life which is now part of the American grain.

His themes were about politics but were not political in the way we think of that word today. He identified Everyman, townspeople, simple powerless folk, the American myth. John Cassavetes, of all people, said, Maybe, there was no America. It was only Frank Capra. 

His obsession was democracy itself. Nobodys became somebodys naively taking on the stuffed shirts and bloviators who grabbed power through corruption. Hiss the villains. The common man was played by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, men who knew how to gulp and say aw shucks while the love interest was supplied by perky Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck.

Capra’s invention of an idealized smalltown America was so attractive it was adapted in big cities as well. If Everyman stumbled as they did in his movies it would soon be remedied in his fabricated narrative. I bought what he was selling, along with most of the country. He either captured the Zeitgeist or created it.

What happened along the way is beyond the scope of B-movie backrooms. The downtrodden masses have been played as if some flimflam man rode into town, stoked their grievances and transformed the good folks into a lynch mob. Athens has become Sparta. Democracy is being threatened by racist demotic forces which have always smoldered just below the façade of old movies.

Where are you now Frank Capra? Some called his body of work, Capra-Corn but his vision gave us worthy aspirations, even if simplistic, sentimental and moralistic. He didn’t foresee the level of mindless subversion we are witnessing among Bible-thumpers and a working class having abdicated their autonomy to an authoritarian.

The Populist party of a hundred years ago was the Progressive party with an agenda of direct election of senators and woman suffrage. The word itself has been usurped. Now we see the fetid underbelly of America ripe for descent into fascism. If Capra was preachy, it was of a piece with the hard times and capitalism itself being questioned as we were entering into a war against a Nazi dictator.

The country numbered 132 million when Capra wrote. Today it is triple that with his cast of Caucasians soon to be a minority. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants. The new Everyman / woman has a different look. If this were a Capra movie the heartland would wake up in the last reel with city folk and the rural working class finding their common thread.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Hard-Earned and Simple

I was fourteen once. It took me a year to get over it. Apparently, the movie-going public today has found a way to remain at that age well into their forties and Marvel Cinematic Universe has obliged with comic book juvenilia. Audiences can’t seem to get enough superheroes, mayhem and special effects to bedazzle their senses.

All this has left me longing for quiet, simple cinema. I flashed back to one such movie from about twelve years ago set in inhospitable, rugged Connemara, Ireland. Not a pub in sight.

A young woman (Lotte Verbeek) appears in flight from we know not, as I remember it. Her worldly goods are on her back including some sort of roll-up blue tent, her sanctuary. Just a few words are spoken for the first fifteen minutes and not many after that.

She comes upon a house set at the end of a peninsula, owned by a lugubrious Stephen Rea. He welcomes her company but neither offers a name or anything of their past as if they have none. We are transported to life reduced to its elements. Genesis reenacted, perhaps.

She is fiercely independent, rejecting his move at goodwill. Yet when she begins to trust he pulls back. Over time she accepts his invitation to sit at his table even as he becomes silent. Rea’s face is a biography of his wounded life, cratered but with a heart of kindness.

The craggy countryside is as stark and raw as their interior landscape. Yet it is sensually suggestive as the slow-paced camera closes in on her fingering sinuous, slithery kelp and pulling onions from his garden. Together they transform the austere patch of land into something nearly Edenic.

She cooks him soup. He offers her music. She dances a jig. The blue of her tent becomes a blue jar on the sill, his blue shirt, the blue light at dusk.

Their insistence on anonymity yields to a primordial intimacy. They are unable to resist forbidden knowledge in spite of themselves and the film’s ironic name, Nothing Personal.

As simple humanity emerges, he suffers a heart attack just as it opens. She watches over him and when he succumbs, she wraps his body in a sheet and embraces his nakedness; a most memorable movie image both erotic and poignant.

There is a redemption of life through hard-earned love, the way potatoes grow between ancient stones and bogs, through non-arable soil.

Marvel's big budget movies usually deliver bloated characters. Their out-sized urges tend toward good or evil of allegorical proportions with loud and tiresome lessons of morality. The villainy is monstrous and the righteousness a form of vigilantism which further undermines our institution. By contrast Nothing Personal finds an audience who cherish matters of the soul and the shared quiet of a cinema experience.


P.S. I don't believe this movie is available on streaming. However my friend Marcia just told me it can be ordered from Netflix by mail.

 

 

 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Come To Think of It

Now, there’s a phrase deserving of another life, come to think of it. It’s one of those throwaway clauses I want to pluck from the doomed to the recycled can.

We say it to announce the arrival of a small but sudden insight or mini-epiphany. Nothing monumental like the discovery of Saran Wrap or 3.14 as Pi. I doubt Einstein said, come to think of it, E=mc sq.

By George, here’s the pair of glasses I thought I had lost last year. No, that’s not quite right either. More like, come to think of it, I shouldn’t have ordered that tiramisu since I’m really not as hungry as I thought I was. Or come to think of it, I already saw that movie you just recommended. It comes with a lightbulb overhead rather than a drumroll.

Coming is the destination of going. The idea has traveled with the speed of a thought. Where did it come from? Another synapse? Left field? A bolt from Zeus? It hasn’t just come, it was welcomed and received just in time.

There’s something faintly subversive about the rush of whatever we have just come to think of. It carries a deviation enough to upset the previous given. It’s a reversal, or swerve, a course correction or at least a whimper of change. Let’s take this side road. I’ve always wondered where it leads.

Do I detect a fleeting moment of admission in it as if a fog just lifted revealing a glimpse of lucidity? Such an ah-ha presents itself regularly but it is not seized until the come-to-Mama/Papa instance. To seek is one thing; to find is another.

Come to think of it, does not suggest much deliberation. More like an intuitive exclamation which bypassed all the filters of self-censorship. Come to think of it, writing this page was a spur of the moment (there’s another expression worth a moment’s pause) act which caused me to come and see what I was thinking about.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Dear Friends, Enough

Please, do not send me any more articles about our withering democracy leading to nullification of Roe v Wade or Ukraine v Putin and his barbarism. Just those two. My threshold of endurance has been reached. My mailbox is full. Strike that, make it four subjects. Add climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. I’ve had my fill of exasperation and wrath, the chronicle of deceit and stupidity. Might as well call it at five. I have no more brain cells left for vilification of immigrants either.

Part of this is self-serving. My own tongue wags too much sometimes with a penchant for barbed language. When I hear the litany of dangerous buffoons like Trump and other miscreants it engenders my sardonic and strident voice. I would forgive you for not forgiving me.

Though forgiveness has its rewards. Mark Twain said, Forgiveness is the fragrance violets shed on the heel that crushed it. So, I take a deep whiff and forgive everyone who stepped on my toes in crowded elevator and other misdemeanors but I’m unable to forgive those who have subverted our democratic experiment.  

I want to live out my allotted time eating peaches and other edibles, round and juicy. Sloppy-Slurpy. Or listening to music for transport from Joshua Bell to John Coltrane, bypassing my head to my heart. Topsy-Turvy. Or immersing myself in the soufflé of good words rising. Warble-Babble. Or the exuberance felt by visual art or dance. Razzle-Dazzle, Merry-Molly.

There is too much to love about life, my friends and even my enemies though I can’t think of any adversaries outside of the above mentioned whom, thankfully, I’ve never met. I have also never met many friends on Facebook expanding the definition of the word.

There, I feel better already. One needs a brief sabbatical from evil. Gaze into the abyss too long and its gaze back gives off a noxious vapor I might inhale. Maybe the malodorous air in our midst is that last gasp from a place of moral vacuity.    

 

 

 

Friday, May 6, 2022

The Book and the Eye

I’m reading a book entitled Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, as if on two levels. My rational mind is asking, and then what.  But there is no then what. There is only the narrator in her stone cottage in rural Ireland telling us how it is to be alone in this stone cottage. On another level I’m being drawn into her aloneness and my own.

Unaccountably, I jump up looking at my walls. No stones. In fact, there is little wall unadorned with art: pictures, masks, assemblages and bookcases. I realize how much of it is unseen by me. Sadly, the artwork has become invisible to my eyes from familiarity, almost like furniture.

As the woman in the book takes possession of her space so too am I taking ownership of this room and the next. I find myself rescuing the Polish poster of Robinson Crusoe stranded in the bedroom, into the living room. The watercolor of the Rose Café interior is shifted to the dining area along with the encaustic still life which has always yearned for more light. The Van Gogh poster of a Japanese footbridge has also been brought to a different wall. I find myself shifting eleven pieces to new habitats.

I am reminded of the Japanese aesthetic which demands more space around each piece as if to let it breathe. Addition by subtraction. We had one wall with eight masks and assemblages. There are now just three. The unintended consequence is a pocked-marked wall yearning for spackle. If I painted one wall I'd have do the entire area which entails moving seven bookcases. I entertain no such thought. Instead I shall regard the nail holes as an absurd junk sculpture.

In the movie, First Monday in October, I recall a scene in which the crusty Supreme Court Justice played by an irascible Walter Matthau is asked by his wife to close his eyes and describe the wallpaper they’ve been living with for years. Of course, he cannot ... whereupon the marriage ends.

In a moment of benign mischief, Peggy once told me to cover my eyes and describe what hung on the wall across from the couch. It could have been worse; she could have asked me what she was wearing or the color of the wallpaper we don’t have. I was getting off easy, only the one wall which I had lived with for decades. I bumbled my way through with some lucky guesses but missed two African masks and a Oaxacan wood carving. One might have to know our walls to appreciate everything I got right.

As Niels Bohr said, No, no, you are not thinking. You’re just being logical.  Forget about wallpaper. There is much more that passes by unnoticed, particularly in the realm of the imagination beyond logic.

The artwork is given new life. And I’m revitalized as well. I’m back into the book now feeling somewhat aligned with what the author is feeling. Her words have bypassed my censorious brain and given me permission to alter my walls. No small thing.

 

                                                                     


Wednesday, May 4, 2022

In the Garden of Nettles and Petals

This patch of land we call Planet Earth needs serious attention. As custodians we have neglected the air and the water so that doom may soon have it over bloom, and weeds over seeds. This state of affairs has its corollary in language itself.

Someday they’ll have a softball game between the Yeasayers and Naysayers to settle the matter. The two strains run through our national character as the punitive voice comes up against a more liberating one. Our enlightened deist founders had to contend with those anal Puritans. Maybe the differences go beyond theology or politics.

If language is any bellwether, it’s no contest. Negative words far outnumber the positives. Google, which tallies our every utterance in some grand ledger, has it that un words swamp their counterpart by huge numbers. The bad to good ratio is 5 to 1, unhappy to happy 260 to 1. The Thesaurus lists twice as many synonyms for unpleasant as for pleasant.


Are we a species of sour pusses? Do we see out of jaundiced eyes? Why do we get such kicks from bad news, and ads from candidates which smear and scandalize their opponents? Make a vampire movie and they will come. The  lost, aggrieved, and seething anti-hero is favored over the Boy Scouts of America model every time. Flawed characters feel like us, perhaps that’s why. The late-great curmudgeon Oscar Levant once quipped that he was so guilt-ridden, when watching courtroom dramas and the judge ordered the defendant to rise he’d get up from the couch.


Freud and Oprah have consorted to encourage us to spill our guts. Anyone without a deprived childhood has been deprived. We are all in recovery. When asked at random for the intersecting event in their lives most people single out a death or trauma that forced them to be the way there are. Victimization is our default position and a vocabulary has been amassed to describe it. Cynicism has become to many what daffodils were to Wordsworth to paraphrase Phillip Larkin.


Maybe our negativity is an antidote to those insufferable happy faces, good fellow, well-met, painted smiles and happy endings. Perhaps skepticism is a natural response in a consumerist society with a built-in sniffer for hype and the inauthentic. Pessimism might be well-aligned with the decline of the American empire.

On the other hand it could be just a lag in language. Words for community, for caring, and all the varieties of love seem to have been nearly taken out of public discourse. We speak of childhood scars more than the nourishment we received. We are more fluent in varieties of despondency, despair, dejection, deceit and depression than in varieties of affection or the transcendence offered by art.

Boys have trouble using the word, love. If everything is described as awesome or cool the language becomes impoverished. Unlike Eskimos relation to snow we seem to lack the words to express empathy and compassion without risking ridicule.

Hallmark cards have pillaged the warm and fuzzy words and sucked the life out of them. They have raided the common tongue and now we mistrust sentiment. Writers seem more inclined to prowl the darkness than shine a light and critics hone their barbs rather than their faculty for appreciation. In the end, of course, life is a tender and clumsy dance with both violins and kazoos. We swallow the outsized myth of the super hero but have a paucity of words to describe simple acts of daily heroism.  

In spite of our inattention to preserving democracy and neglect over our resources it is too easy to convert the music of the spheres into a dirge. Revitalizing the lament can be an Ode to Joy as we discover nuggets in the sludge.

Now I should follow these words and hold my vituperative tongue against the new Confederacy and their slate of mendacious fools. But it comes so easily and if I swallow my rage I may break out in a rash. Besides, there is so much malignant about them that has earned my scorn. Maybe it is enough to know when to scowl and when to sing.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Color Wheel

Streets lavender with sudden jacarandas

lavish in their deceptive beauty 

of sticky, slippery flowers

cursed and extolled at once

exploding in loud declamations

of excess, purple as prose

hard to sweep from driveways of the mind

as those distant shadows of Ukraine

artillery gray with splotches of red hemorrhaging

each day a dark and stormy night

amber waves of wheat gone to

land mines and convoys in dark white smoke

while yellow trails of missiles scissor

blue skies seen through open roofs

against a green yearning

for return to the orange havoc of spring

and the unconditional victory of grass

along with apples and artichokes bursting

their baskets and bins in all their grandeur 

in this great spinning of the wheel.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Radio Days

I’ll never know whether times were simpler then or it was just the innocence of my simplistic eyes. We could close them and conjure the pie in Ma Perkins’ oven or Jack Armstrong paddling down the Amazon dodging poison darts and leaping piranhas.

We memorized the Art Deco pattern of the speaker behind which the voices intoned. Roosevelt said fear not, even as the Shadow knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men. Eighty years later I think Lamont Cranston’s Shadow had it right. I don't believe anything anything has lurked since then.

In 1938 Orson Welles and his ensemble broadcast a version of War of the Worlds. He reported at Martian landing by a spaceship in New Jersey This was the birth of fake news which Fox now cultivates in their plantation.

I was, of course, a mere slip of a lad. I took great pleasure in the thrill of expectation, fulfilled. The world could be relied upon when Fibber McGee opened the door of his hall closet and the warehouse of civilization tumbled out. I knew the routines of Benny’s vault or Allen’s Alley and believed the ranking of top tunes on the Make Believe Ballroom show, unaware of payola. 

Trust was the operative word. We never doubted that Edgar Bergen’s lips didn’t move when Charlie McCarthy or Mortimer Snerd spoke. They probably held beauty pageants and we imagined Miss America. I visualized ball games; I could even smell the green grass and hot dogs. If it started to rain in Cincinnati, did I open my umbrella in New York? I wouldn't put it pass me. 

Blessed are those of us suckled by radio. It was a tonic for communal imagination. Our auditory faculty was extended until television came along which reset the ratio of our senses. In the same way the web of the computer screen with its collage of blurts, emojis and phrases is displacing print technology, for better or for worse.


Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Real Story

When I wrote my last blog I was just having some fun, or so I thought. Several friends took it to be true and in a strange way that made me realize I was reliving an actual event from forty-one years ago which I had consigned to a locked chamber.

In 1980 I opened a pharmacy in a medical building. I liked telling people my mother named me after the store, Norm’s Pharmacy. It is still there in Tarzana. The new owners from Odessa, in 1997, choose to keep the name even though it has become a Russian-speaking pharmacy.

One afternoon I was held up by a rather crazed gunman who ordered me on the floor with his weapon at my head. He wanted cocaine and all the opiates.

At this point my deaf daughter, Janice, walked in. First, she thought I was searching for my contact lenses. The man with gun told her to get down. I had to explain that she could not hear him as he grabbed her and threw her to the floor next to me.

She started crying in panic. The gunman had a wild look in his eye so my job was to assure my daughter and calm the bad guy. I had no inclination to challenge him. I'd rather be remembered for longevity than bravado on the police blotter. I gave him everything he wanted and he left happily, I suppose.

About six weeks later he returned calling me by name as if we were old chums. This time my other daughter Lauren happened to be there. Again, he wanted cocaine and I had to convince him I did not reorder it but I’d give him the narcotics so it shouldn’t be a wasted trip. When police showed up the following week, Lauren and I identified him from dozens of photos. She then went off to college up north.

Two months later I was called to the police station to pick him out of a lineup. He had held up about ten pharmacies so there were many witnesses like me. Three of us picked the wrong guy. I knew him as a white man with an abundant afro. However, this was apparently a wig. In fact, he was practically bald. He was also shorter than I had remembered; the gun added six inches to his height. Fortunately, there were enough eyes to arrest him. I’ve always wondered if I had picked the desk sergeant.  

He was convicted at court and sent away to Folsom. Two years later Lauren noticed our man’s photo in the Sacramento Bee. He was petitioning for early release so he wouldn’t die in prison from AIDS. Lauren wrote a letter saying he was still a menace as a drug addict.

All this felt like a B-movie script. Life sinks to that level sometimes. His name was Corlan Keller. He died in Folsom. I had many reasons to retire from pharmacy. This was one of them.

Life lesson: There are times when traumatic truth lies embedded in wit.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Hold-Up

(A product of my fevered imagination)

The man in front of me is one of the enlightened, I’m thinking, his nose and mouth are well covered. In fact, his whole head is covered in a ski mask and I didn’t notice any snow outside. He has just locked the door. All I’m here for at the bank is a roll of quarters. The laundry is in the rinse cycle and I need four quarters for the dryer.

The voice under the mask tells everyone to get down on the floor and shut up. He doesn’t say, This is a stick up. If he had used those words it would be a giveaway that he watches old Jimmy Cagney movies on TCM.

He is waving his gun. No, I can’t describe the weapon but I’ll take his word for it. I don’t know an Uzi from a water pistol. It’s just a gun as opposed to a bow and arrow. One of those phallic symbols called packing a rod in Hollywood.

He tells the teller to hand over all her twenties and above. He doesn’t say, denominations, which would have meant he wasn’t in a remedial English class.

The teller is frozen, pondering whether to press the panic button. I’m thinking NO, that will bring the police with helicopters and I’ll be a hostage, a human shield. I’ve never thought of myself as a shield before. I’m not fond of near-death experiences.

The ski mask is sweating. Give him the money already and get him out of here so I can dry my clothes. My pajamas will develop mildew.

The teller is behind bulletproof glass, still hesitating, probably wondering if it is really bulletproof. I’m wondering if I’m being recorded by the surveillance camera. I’m overdue for a haircut and probably should have got my nose fixed years ago. He shoots out the camera. I’m impressed. Should I be planning my afterlife or rehearsing some pithy last words that might go viral for the news cycle?

He's getting agitated as if up on cough syrup and cappuccino. If I survive the police will want a description. Were they Levi's or Wrangler'sWhat about his sneakers? Nike's or Reebok's?

I wonder if he has a getaway car with the engine humming. I’m trying to remember if Bonnie was Clyde’s driver or if they did their bank jobs together. Everyone needs a hobby.  A lot of extras got their start being gunned down. Imagine acting as a corpse. Hey Mom, I just got my first break in Hollywood.

Finally, a teller at the merchant window slips a stack of twenties under the glass. I’m thinking they must be marked bills with a GPS embedded in Andrew Jackson’s mane. The manager on the floor next to me yells, now go as if that hadn’t occurred to the gunman.

As he heads for the door he steps on my hand. Sorry man. His mother had taught him manners. Maybe he just wants to pay off his student loan. A simple matter of redistributing the wealth. Now his footprints are on my finger prints. Exhibit A. 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Cruel and Buoyant

It's that time again. Call it the vertical rise of Easter or the horizontal trek out of bondage called Passover. For me it's Home Alone. I wouldn't know how to paint an egg or how to behave at a Seder table. Dare I say I would squirm given the Israeli oppression of Palestinians? Liberation cuts both ways. 

I contend the real holiday in April is National Poetry Month. Both the Jesus and Exodus stories are fables which some of us pretend to take literally. It's not a bad thing to worship what were once poems, metaphors for the emergent spring with a sax in the foxglove and trumpet in the daffodil. Any reason to be buoyant is good enough for me.

Buoyancy may be wrong word since T.S. Eliot tagged April as the cruelest month in the opening line of The Wasteland. How did he know? I suppose human folly can always be counted upon. Cruel indeed as the shock of awakening brings us unfulfilled expectations. Referencing that crime against humanity we call World War I, April was the month when military action began again wasting a generation of young men.

Perhaps it was Eliot's rejection of all myths, pagan and pious, surrounding spring. Could it be he is saying we are on our own in this pilgrimage? What appears to be calm and joyful with certitude gives way to ignorant armies clashing in the night (Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach).

On the other hand (there's always another hand) what can hurt by conjuring the season's burst of renewal celebrating its razzle-dazzle? We might follow Emily Dickinson down a lane of yellow leading the eye / into a purple wood / whose soft inhabitants to be / surpass solitude.

If happiness is fleeting it becomes our purpose in life to catch it. Jane Kenyon put it this way: Happiness is the uncle you never knew about / who flies the single engine plane / onto a grassy landing strip, hitchhikes / into town and inquires at every door / then finds you asleep in mid-afternoon / as you do so in the unmerciful / hours of your despair.

Leave it to Robert Frost to remind us how the sun lets go / ten million silver lizards out of snow...But if I thought to stop the wet stampede / and caught one single lizard by the tail.../ I have no doubt I'd end by holding none. The second stanza brings in how the wizard moon turns the swarm to rock and holds them all until day, / one lizard at the end of every ray. / The thought of me attempting such a stay.

Both Eliot and Frost allow the shadow side. Whatever stay he hears among its fractured and uncertain world would be a momentary one. But moments strung together are all we have. If April is cruel so is all emergent life. It is and it isn't. We can all be poets alert to layers of meaning inherent in everything. All light is available light.

As for Testaments one and two I regard them as enduring poems, nothing less. The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz put it this way: There is no evidence to suggest Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt in large numbers. They most certainly did not build the pyramids. When they arrived in the Promised land they, too, enslaved the Canaanites. It was the custom of the day. 

Jesus and Moses went up the hill to fetch the Word. Too bad the eleventh commandment wasn't: It's OK to eat shellfish but not OK to hold slaves.

As a footnote to the above, last night I watched a a most poignant and artful movie, Mr. Harvey Lights a Candle, on Amazon. I regard my immersion into this film as my own religious experience. I would even call it poetic. Rather than a tall tale meant for one tribe to cohere while vilifying the other here was a story striking a universal chord.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Toll

Ask not for whom the bell.

The dental assistant becomes a sniper.

Greengrocers and florists stop the convoy.

Destroyed tanks smolder among the crops.

Kyiv defended by librarians, accountants and teachers.

Unlived lives reduced to a number among body bags.

A headless doll found in the rubble.

Bombing his own with incendiary lies.

Ignorant soldiers looking for WW II Nazis.

Time itself has been struck running counter-clockwise into decades past .

Grass turns to blades.  

Neighbors in Brighton Beach, no longer speaking.

Baby carriage from Potemkin rolls down steps again.

Soft skin in his palm hardened into a fist.

War Crimes a redundancy.

 Civil War an oxymoron.

Innocence buried in the rubble.

Up from the shelters they danced a ferocious tango.

Bombs from 10,0000 ft. answered by painted eggs hatching.

 

 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Movie Moments, Real and Imagined

Won’t you sit down? 

I think this went onto the cutting room floor about fifty years ago. I’d never heard it said in real life.

 

I’m walking here, I’m walkin.

Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) slamming a taxicab, stopping traffic in Times Square to cross the street. I wouldn’t advise trying this on the 405 but he is the least among us, those words an anthem for the marginalized.

 

Shall we risk the trifle? 

Delivered to Jean Moreau by Joan Plowright, in a half-giggle, conspiring over high tea, both no longer young. Naughty, naughty. 


I want to say one word to you, Benjamin. Plastics. 

You mean those plastics that have clogged our oceans and choked our fish. The plastics disallowed in markets in favor of canvas bags, replaced by paper straws. That plastic!

 

Such a spot of bother.

Words which could have come of out of the mouth of Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey when told his valet was arrested for dubious reasons.

  

The problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans.

So said Bogey to a bewildered Ingrid, the words having been written by the Epstein brothers at a stop sign on their way to the studio, nowhere near Casablanca.

 

I like to talk to a man who likes to talk.

Sydney Greenstreet speaking to Bogey in the Maltese Falcon, followed by an enormous belly laugh filling the room while Peter Lorre mutters something inaudible.

 

There is a specialist in Vienna who has developed an experimental surgery. It’s our only chance.

The bearded doctor with a monocle declares success as he removes the bandages to the chagrin of the greedy nephews imagining new-found riches unaware the rich mogul has left his fortune to his pet turtle.

 

It’s not what it looks like. I can explain everything.

Actually, it is what it looks like, Cary. It’s about time you and Grace or Audrey or Eva Marie came clean. Suave and debonnaire can take you just so far.

 

Now look here waiter, I asked you for more Pinot Noir ten minutes ago. Do you realize who you’re talking to? I’m the guest of honor in charge of North American Operations.

I heard you. Do you realize who you are talking to? I’m Vito, the sommelier, in charge of the wine cellar.

 

We have to talk.

Uh, oh, this can mean only one thing and it isn’t about the burnt toast; more like your life is about to become toast.

 

You’re probably wondering why I called you all here today.

Brace yourself for a transfer to South Dakota where that raise promised eleven years ago will never happen.

 

How long has it been since your last confession?

Trump: I never confess to anything. If I replace your old organ and repair the stained-glass window will that buy me absolution?

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

My Father's Father

How he made his way, 130 years ago,

from there to here. There,

being this very spot in today’s newspaper

fertilized by dead bodies

in the indifferent spin of seasons.

 

How he hid from the clean chin and moustache,

buried himself in a cellar of potatoes,

how he got here riding a shoot

of the potato, swallowing his scream,

boots across the nonsense of borders.

How he staggered into steerage.

 

I know this because no one ever spoke of it.

I know it as the truth of my imagining.

I heard all the silence of the sorrows

my father had swallowed

yet how gentle he was as if sprouted from weeds.

He bloomed between thorns.


Now the children's children 

of Cossacks are falling

from clean, shiny mines and bombs

in the cyclic atrocity of history

while others are huddled in cellars.

Do they hear echoes of hooves overhead?

Have they visions of black tubers or know

of their fallen on top of the bearded fallen?

Can new light, briefly gorgeous, emerge 

through the shrapnel of thorns?

  

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Enough With the Slap

Watching the self-congratulatory Oscars got me imagining how I might be sitting there among the nominated few rehearsing my spontaneous remarks­, and my aw-shucks moment when my name is called.

I’d probably klutz my way to the stage wondering how the losers were coping with the crumpled speeches in their tux or purses which we will never hear. Am I hearing myself being silently cursed, how the studio practically bought my Oscar with all those billboards and full-page ads?

Of course, I must feign equal parts shock, humility and chutzpah. It’s all theater, after all and there’s only one take. I’ll say I wasn’t prepared for this but I was in the neighborhood anyway so I just dropped in.

Then I’d better drop the names of my fellow actors whom I barely put up with on the set. I wouldn’t want to get a karate chop to my kishkes for neglect. I know everyone at my table was high on coke or meth anxious to party through the night and a few are already in anger management programs.

Actually, I’ve been rehearsing this moment for years since I started out as an extra in crowd scenes and worked my way up as a dead body with a tag on my toe trying not to giggle as the coroner cracked a joke. 

How I got a speaking part I’ll never know but I want to thank the best boy, gaffer and the grip. I never got it straight who gaffed and who gripped. And then there is my favorite person, the caterer without whom I might be mistaken for a cadaver back in the morgue.

Finally, I’d have to thank my loving family, especially my daughters who have done well in life by knowing when to ignore my advice. I told them not to stay up so late even though they are pushing  sixty or beyond. And a shout out to the dog I never had  and to Jack, my doppelganger; when I'm thirsty, he drinks. Special thanks also to my 4th grade teacher who cast me as Miles Standish rather than the turkey in the Thanksgiving play.

The music is playing and two goons are approaching to drag me off the stage. I have no parting zinger anyway.

I called my sister later to tell her the good news. She said, Do what you have to do.  

 

 

 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Life On Hold

I’m glad my call is important to you but apparently some things are more important.

I'm happy to hear he’s away from his desk right now. We all need a break know and then.

No, I don’t know his extension.

Should I be congratulating you now that your menu has changed?

I’m sure you’re experiencing a high call volume. Have you considered hiring more staff?

I’ll go with jazz for now. Can I change my mind after a while?

No, I can’t call back between midnight and three.

I already went to your website. That’s why I’m calling.

I’ve given you the last four numbers of my Social Security now you want to know my favorite movie? I can only say my least favorite is Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Now, you’re telling me your mailbox is full.

Wait, don’t hang up.

I’ve been waiting so long I’ve read the entire newspaper, the weather report in Asia, the police blotter and the obits. For a minute I thought I spotted my name.

Perhaps I was abandoned as a child and you've opened up the old wound.

The grandchildren have grown up. I’ve got the Neptune Society on the other line.

If you’ve changed your menu again, I’ll have the chef’s salad.

Now I’ve forgotten why I called.

I think it had something to about paramedics coming over. I couldn’t manage to perform a Heimlich maneuver on myself.

Yes, I know my call will be answered in the order it was received. I am trying to get on your queue in case something happens the day after tomorrow.

 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Majority of One

One of the reasons and possibly the only reason I liked Bob Hope as a kid was the way he crossed the line from standard comedy to bring in current events. His humor was topical, but barely.

Even then there was something in me that didn’t love a wall. I smell trouble with anything divisive or exclusionary which separate people. Nationalism keeps cartographers busy with different inks but also breed wars.

If I had my way I would abolish states; start with three or four districts and call it at that until we learn to grow up. We are a nation, not a confederation. After that we can just settle for a hunk of landmass known as North America. 

Of course I don’t expect this to happen this afternoon or even the day after tomorrow. It is my idealized wish.

I suppose we must endure each ethnic group and sub-group reclaiming their identity. I see this as a stage out of colonialism but I envision a day when mankind finds its common humanity in spite of its differences. I am not calling for a broad leavening into one enormous mush. Paradoxically, the preservation of certain identities can lead to universality.

In the same way, specificity in a poem often strikes a chord felt by everyone. I dismiss categories which divide poetry from prose. In literature I often find more truth in fiction than non-fiction. Novels fabricate themselves into wisdom while essays  inflate, distort and indulge in redundancies battering the reader into submission. (Sort o like this.)

Did I spot a Reuben sandwich on the menu of a trattoria and Chinese chicken salad at a Jewish deli? Bring me the fusion menu.

Let us also erase the artificial border between entertainment, sports, business and the minefield of politics. Actors, whether on the stage, screen, halls of Congress or playing field, running around in colored underwear are all in the cast of this great human drama. For a brief time, they have a platform. If their image can sell cereal their voice can move minds, at least until the day when they return to chopped liver like the rest of us. Of course, we can always turn a deaf ear to their pleas.

It was a good nigt for deaf ears as Coda was the Academy’s choice for best film. This may serve to build a bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds.

I know, I know, the Ukrainian border with (or from) Russia asserts their sovereignty. True enough only because the bully country has devolved into unconscionable ways. Let us not regress into global tribalism. Can not individuation coexist with the universal and us and them thinking become just us.

One day, before our orbiting piece of dust withers away, we must put away our squabbles and regard ourselves as brothers and sisters looking after one another, citizens of the Planet Earth as custodians. A majority of one people.


Friday, March 25, 2022

The Emergency of Spring

No anthem this, of bombs bursting,

emerging vertically, from sky down

in a darkness at noon

while bulbs frolic in an uprising

of daffodils on a distant desert floor,

resurrect their dormant paint,

wild dresses of tulip and hyacinth,

a pageantry pushing up through

an upheaval of earth as buildings fall

with children huddled, like buds petal-closed,

their unlived lives. Will there

be yeast enough to raise his conscience?

Can a real garden overthrow

the fiction of borders? Will this clash

of opposites bring an insurrection

with joined hands?

 

 

 

 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

89th Anniversary of Myself

The person I once was is still me.

                                    Helen Bevington


Don’t make a fuss. It’s only a number and the wrong one at that. What we call our birthday is not our day of birth but rather the anniversary of that occasion. Furthermore, if mindless men in red states prevail, we will suddenly become nine months older than we thought we were. Happy fetus.

I have total recall of my days as a fish-like substance in that embryonic sea. I sensed there was trouble ahead during the last six months of 1932 and first three of ’33. The thought of eating apple sauce out of a  Dust Bowl was not appealing at all. Eleven days before my first breath I announced myself.

Peggy was soon to turn twelve. She lived in Manhattan but came to stay here in L.A. with her uncle just in time for the Long Beach earthquake of 6.4 on March 10th. That was me getting ready for the big swim down the canal. We always regarded that day as an omen though it took almost five decades till we felt the earth move together.

Birthdays are a fiction of the calendar. I suppose I do contain each of my eight-nine years, some a bit more than others. The chronology doesn’t always behave. At age nineteen I was thirty and at forty-eight I was finally, nineteen. My preference now is to be of no age which is to say, every age. The twenty-first of March used to be the first day of spring but the vernal equinox seems to have undergone a celestial makeover along the way .

Peggy never learned how to act her age and I hope to refuse also. When she was my age she was half as old, still in her prime at the century mark. Is that possible? Yes, it is. Here's what I have come to know. The best times are those outside of time when hours fly by unrecorded. Creativity and loving defy all measure of the clock. 

As for infirmities, I can't think of anything more boring to talk about. So I won't. I never realized how many body parts I have and they're all out of warranty. 

Did I ever tell you about the time I… Yes, you did, now be quiet. When all my stories have been told and shamelessly embellished it may be time to look out the window and marvel at this bush I have scrupulously overlooked now bursting with clusters of rhododendrons or that stump across the street the result of overzealous pruning. The coral tree has lit eleven red candles which I shall not blow out.

As a blogger I babble along with the proverbial brook though now and then I feel more aligned with the hush of it all. I have already told the world what to do and did they listen? No, they did not.

Celebration seems uncalled for as long as new wasteland is being created every day by unconscionable acts. Russian protestors are being hauled away for carrying signs that say nothing. Some silences are louder than words.

I have now lived longer than Mozart, Keats and Stephen Crane combined proving there is no divine plan in the allotment of years. My footprint barely registers but perhaps it’s O.K. not to succeed as long as one does it with an open heart.

I'm taking comfort in the words of A.K. RamanujanYou can count all the oranges on a tree but never all the trees in a single orange. Who knows what juice still remains under the rind?

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Modern Man


Marc Antony: Where is Cleopatra?

Servant: She is in bed with Laryngitis.

Marc Antony: Damn those Greeks.


Yes, damn them, they bequeathed us modern man and look at the mess we’ve made of things.

Let us say it all started with Odysseus. No God, he. Mortal and nothing less. Emily Wilson, the great classicist translator, says he is a complicated man. (To say the least). Frank says, a man of many turnings. (Much better and lyrical). He cannot be contained in any word or phrase.

Of course, Odysseus (Ulysses) is an invention of Homer. Homer had the advantage of being blind which (in Greek myths) meant he saw into hearts and around the bend. If I were to invite Homer to my fantasy dinner party, I’m not sure If one man would show up or a legion of troubadours and bards with prodigious memories.

I contend Odysseus was Everyman, the entire aggregate of Greek men in all their passions and follies. In the Odyssey he is alternately punished by Poseidon and saved by Athena. Yet he emerges as man, alone, without providential intervention. He is without a moral compass, a cork on the waves given to expediency without any ideology other than survival. There are no moral imperatives to guide him. No sense of the greater good nor any ethical standards other than looking out for number one.

In the telling of the myth, he is beggar and thief, liar and good son /father/husband. He is resourceful and inventive yet pugnacious, duplicitous and treacherous. He is Hannity, with no regard for truth and Donald, pathologically narcissistic; also Hillary, Rachel, Bernie and Barack.

Leaders of this world are largely ancestors of Odysseus guided by nationalism still speaking the language of power and self-interest not yet recognizing our custodial role sharing the survival of this planet.

On stage today we are witness to a cast of players with both Greek-old tantrums and benevolence. Zeus and his brethren are long gone. Strange (or is it?) how Jesus and Zeus share most of their letters... and scramble Zeus he becomes the Suez Canal joining continents of thought.

He is the nerd fiddling with his algorithms as well as Mr. Fix It who could put it all back together from a handful of dust after we blow up the whole damn thing.

Why do we still read the Odyssey today? Maybe to see the soft clay we are made of. We go to it because it is the ultimate journey. Going home. The reception says everything there is to say.

Odysseus returns to Penelope because he needs the feminine principle to make himself whole. Menelaus dragged Helen back but he was too far gone. Warriors require the other to recover their humanity. Eros is the creative life force. When will the patriarchy ever learn?

 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Reign in Ukraine

Optometrist: Better now or now?

Me: Now

Optometrist: How about now?

Me: About the same.


When power is the lens through which you see the world then the flip side is fear of power. So much for binary vision. Imagined threats incite preemptive strikes. It’s all the same eyes.

Putin wears these glasses. In order not to be attacked and swallowed by NATO he erases Ukraine from the map. Get me the cartographer on line one. He hit me first, Mom, or was about to. What would mother Putin think of her little boy now?

Is it subversive to say all this carnage could have been avoided? Nothing could be worse than this humanitarian crisis.  

A less muscular approach might have proposed Ukraine as a demilitarized state with full self-determination as a sovereign democracy. This, I submit, would have granted Putin a saved-face and let Ukrainians live their lives as they see fit. Is that a lens too rosy?

Now it seems too late. Or not? There appears to be no path out but some form of the above. Of course, Ukrainians will forevermore be seething at the wanton destruction of their homeland. Putin will likely be overthrown having fallen out of favor among his henchmen. There is no shortage of tyrants to topple and denounce him. Move over, Vlad the Impaler.

 

Monday, March 7, 2022

The Shape of it All

Living under the Trump / Putin shadow for the past five years has changed my perception of the geometry of history, if indeed, there is one. I used to think, in broad terms, of a bumpy, irregular but nevertheless linear progression. It now seems more cyclic.

An argument could be made to demonstrate both progress and regression. For every act of higher consciousness there is a counterweight of democracy’s failure. Unarticulated and misunderstood fear of accelerated change has led to angry dislocations. Those amorphous grievances have found a home in mindless mobs and incipient fascism, American style.

If the Repugnants had their way we might revert to 1912 when Senators were elected by State legislators, there was no federal income tax nor did women have the vote. The party of suppression and obstruction could become the party of unraveling. 

Yet Russian truculence and the carnage in Ukraine have been met by universal outrage. Implicit in this condemnation is the sense that we have moved on, that nations just don’t behave like that anymore. Yet they do.

Furthermore, many of us, having lived through the insanity of Hitler and Stalin, wonder if this aggression is not a reenactment of the devastating war we witnessed eighty years ago. History, like barbequed beef, repeats itself.

Advances in technology are indisputable even if their consequences are barely understood. The geometry in that area is certainly onward ever upward.

However, given the fragility of our planet with deranged actors and unthinkable weaponry, I am thrown out the straight vertical into the morass of a squishy, monstrous circle leading back to ancient territorial destruction.  

I would like to believe Trump's demagoguery and Putin’s bellicosity might be the last gasps of inhumanity but I need more convincing. My jury is deadlocked.

As a kid we used to watch movies with no regard for when they started. Realtime history seems to be on that same continuous loop. Enter at any point and walk out when it gets to feel familiar.