Sunday, May 29, 2022

Just Another Ho-Hum Lunch

 It wasn’t quite the Algonquin Round Table. Dorothy Parker was missing but the four of us probably topped well over 600 I.Q. points, and that included the drag of mine. We covered Odysseus (doesn’t everybody?), the lotus-eater, the schemer, was he or was he not a hero, I ask you, salad anyone? to Roger Angell, describing Carlton Fisk’s home run by contorting his body, telekinesis. Tinkers, to Evers to a Chance mention of astrology, heaven help me. Who is not drawn to the inexplicable, the unwilled combustion of the poem that must be written, he declared. Puccini, the fascist, versus Toscanini, with a side of Verdi’s Aida over eggplant sprinkled with sumac. I am back at P.S. 99 marching into assembly, no elephants. Speaking as we did, of mothers, are we not penguins, among the quarter million, who were found by our mothers? Found as Gilbert found Sullivan over songs and snatches. Kipling got a mention but not of this tide. Haagen Dazs and peppermint tea, mild carminative, I chimed. Pheromones, someone said. Soon she would be off to a retreat to ponder Catherine and Moses. No, not that Moses, the progenitor of Felix. All of them, great. Each, to our off-ramp, our sanctuary. Are you getting all this down Damon Runyon? It’s the stuff of more than patter with the D’Oyly Carte. Pass the hummus, would you, before you die, Wilfred Owen. Tell them, Rudyard, because those fathers lied. The talk goes from the Trojan War (as if yesterday) to WW I to Ukraine. Seen one you’ve seen then all; squandered lives by an ignorant patriarchy. Who the heroes are, we do not know.  Bogart, yes Bogey, as Sam Spade dug deep, I should have said, was an offspring of Ulysses. Hard-boiled softy at heart but shifty, got the best of anybody, criminal or client. Greenstreet and Lorre, what a pair but they all came to me at the stop sign. 



Saturday, May 28, 2022


I can’t say enough about them. They are my paint and my instrument. They splash and sometimes they sing. In a recent dream I saw Peggy turn a typewriter into a piano.

The best words in the best order and voila, a poem. When asked about his style, John Coltrane said he starts in the middle of a sentence and works in both directions at once. I believe it. Words could also be those last drips Jackson Pollock allowed, which said everything he had to say and sensing just when to stop.

Knowing when to shut up is part of writing like the intervals in music without which it can die from excess. Hush, sound needs space, like a Japanese scroll. Lincoln seemed to know that. His Gettysburg Address of ten sentences may have been the greatest poem of the 19th century.

An exhausted phrase feels dead on arrival, limp from misuse. Public discourse out of the mouth of a politician often reaches the ear like a discord of trumpets heralding its empty rhetoric. When Biden gives a speech, I generally turn it off. When Trump spoke, I never turned it on.

Oratory has become a form of political theater. In the aftermath of mass killings Republicans have been shown to be bought by the gun lobby. When they shamelessly call for prayers instead of meaningful legislation, each word is an added atrocity, an assault on common sense, a moral violence.

Add an “s” and words become swords piercing us awake. A poet casts a net to catch the butterfly of words as they flutter all around us. Butterfly is one of those words devoutly to be avoided in a poem ever since Hallmark cards have loved it to death. It belongs to a group of good words yearning to be revitalized.

There was a time when the well-shaped sentence on the page was regarded as a thing of beauty particularly when the subject and predicate were separated by a dozen commas. Even in spoken language, dinner guests had to sharpen their skills if they wanted to get reinvited.

After the first World War, limbs were shot off and sentences got clipped. Ornamentation along with monarchies were overthrown. The staccato of jazz, concision in poetry and the Bauhaus school in architecture more closely reflected urban discourse.

With our thumbs on the keyboard of life we have become practitioners of brevity. Me too, why not, got it, have replaced the elegant sentence. In contemporary literature adjectives are deemed saccharine or needlessly weighty and adverbs, really, very superfluous. Soon the rest of the letters may be replaced by a few emojis.

If we continue on this trajectory, we will end up from whence we came, fluent only in shrugs and grunts. 


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Plan B

Everybody seems to be drawing up contingency plans in case Trump, or one of his generic equivalents, should prevail in 2024. Everyone, that is, except me. I’ll be thinking about leaving this world for the next one. Do you mean there is no next one? In that case I’ll check out Craig’s List for an ice floe and be done with it. 

This brought to mind a phone call from one of my dear but wacko friends a while back. She left a message on my answering machine: Sorry I missed you but maybe you’re not back yet from Mexico. Hope you are having a good time in San Miguel Allende. I thought to myself: Did I forget to go to Mexico the way some folks forget to have children? Maybe I should hop a flight and look for the expat community. 

When she reached me, she apologized saying she was thinking of somebody else who went to Hawaii. This is the way it works with octogenarians. I told her I couldn’t make it to Mexico but I’d been drinking margaritas to make up for it. I was glad not to have gone to Hawaii since I have a profound dislike for all things coconut. 

She said she was sorry to hear about my allergy to peanuts. I was also sorry to hear about it since I’d just had some peanut sauce with Chinese food. Was my body beginning to itch all over or was that a reaction from the coconuts I didn’t eat by not going to Hawaii? At least I didn’t have jet lag. 

I thanked her for saving me a visit to the dermatologist as well as an intestinal disorder from suspicious lettuce where I might have perished from dehydration in an emergency room, an unclaimed body with a tag on my toe. 

We need friends like this in our twilight years to check up on us as our diminishing memory turns into galloping senility and other childhood diseases. The phone is ringing again. This time from a friend who started telling me about the time he set fire to the shower curtains while his mother was taking a bath. He was seven and apparently a very curious boy. I didn’t ask when he was weaned from the breast. It was 1934 and times were tough. I’m sure this is not why he called but I forgave him his trespasses. How we segued to this defining moment neither of us could recall. That’s how life works. The chronology turns to mush. How 

I ever got to eighty-nine when just yesterday I was eleven can only be explained by missing a plane to Mexico because of the skin rash I didn’t get from not eating Chinese food in the bathtub with burned coconuts or was it caramelized walnuts? Back to a Trump-like substance prevailing causing millions of Americans to learn Canadian as a second language or a mass exodus to Portugal or Slovenia. The prospect of proto-fascism looms large but I plan on living out my shelf-life blabbering in blissful incoherence.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Dear Spam,

I know you’ve been trying to reach me. People will start talking about all those phone calIs and emails. I have to admire your persistence, but it’s time we put an end to this one-sided relationship. How can I say it any clearer? To quote Bob Dylan, It ain’t me you’re looking for, Babe. Whatever it is you are selling, I am not buying.

Do you think your mother would be proud of you working in the broom closet of a subterranean boiler room at an abandoned warehouse on the wrong side of town? Why not go back to school like your kid sister? I know everyone needs a hobby. Have you considered building model airplanes? If that’s not a take you could always sniff the glue.

Does one graduate from a night job as a hacker to a day job as a purveyor of spam or can you hold down both jobs as evidence of multitasking? I know you might think that being unanswered or hung up upon is a step up from your previous job as a hacker in the bowels of Uzbekistan. I grant you that.

I recall the feeling of being hacked. Nothing like the Texas Chainsaw but still I imagined pieces of me turning up in a moo-shu or bouillabaisse. But that was a different hack as I drove in for a behind-the-back-double-windmill slam dunk on the basketball court. (dream on, Norm)

Strange, the hours words keep as they morph and pop-up years later in new guises. SPAM used to be an acronym standing for Specially Processed American Meat, a mash-up of pork, potatoes and enough excipients to pass for an edible. It gained some sort of maligned afterlife in the hands of Monty Python, which loses too much in translation to make any sense. If you don’t already know, look it up. I expect it will live in infamy forevermore.

Let me propose we meet at some equidistant bistro over a bottle of kvass and discuss what it would take to remove me from your sucker list? Since you probably have my credit card already, I’ll let you pick the tab. After all, my paternal grandparents were from Mother Russia or was it my maternal grandparents from the Fatherland? We may be related. Is that you Cousin Igor? 

Why spam me? Maybe, you have mistaken me for someone important. My bank account isn’t worth the trouble. Wait till your boss finds out I do my shopping at the 99 Cent Store and I live on day-old bread and dented cans.

Tell me something, Igor : may I call you Iggi? I can understand if you were a descendant of Jean Valjean, stealing my loaf to feed your ailing brood particularly if you have a booming voice deserving of a standing ovation. One man’s Les Miz meager table is another man’s banquet. But why do hackers hack and spammers scam? Just for the hack of it? Fun, is it?  

I have never understood that other breed, the harmless hacker. It must be the Mt. Everest Syndrome. They do it because it is there and they can. O.K., I’m here and possibly at this very moment I’m being climbed and the adventurers and Sherpa tribesman are having a peak experience.

Must I live out my days with a firewall, whatever that is? Must I change my password as often as I change my mind over a menu in a Chinese restaurant? What about those secret questions about my first pet? If I forget what I wrote can I count on you for the answers?





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.