Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Last Time I Saw Yahweh

His/her heart was not young and gay. It was withering, somber and distant. I could no longer hear that voice from on high since the April day two years earlier when PresidentRoosevelt died. FDR’s name was one long word. I knew no other president. He intoned my version of God. I was now fourteen. I know this because I was called in to make a minyan. Called in to what was already a familiar and sacred place.

My father’s corner drugstore, Kew Forest Pharmacy, was a few yards from the apartment house where we lived. What was once a thriving location on a heavily-trafficked street had suffered a fatal blow when the Grand Central Parkway was built a few years before I was born. His store became inaccessible to most of his customer base. I didn’t know this till years later. The store limped along for about a dozen more years until he went bankrupt during the war.

It was an elongated shape with a soda fountain and ten stools plus a couple of booths where high schoolers would sit for hours at a time sipping a cherry coke with two straws. The prescription department was in the rear signified by two globes of colored water and a raised platform where my father presided.

The wall on the outside became my own personal ballpark where I would throw a pink Spaldeen or tennis ball. I was pitcher, batter and fielder all in one. It also had an essential ledge. If I hit that ledge, I could soar higher than a pop fly.  I beat those balls against the wall so many times it became my portal to enter and I later became my father.

The drugstore went dark with glass wax on the windows around 1943 or ’44. It remained vacant for several years. I passed it daily on my way to everywhere. One morning, with my 1st baseman’s mitt soaked with neatsfoot oil, I was stopped and yanked into those familiar walls. The pharmacy had become a storefront synagogue with a modest congregation. Once determined that I was a Bar Mitzvah boy I became the tenth man.  

All I remember is dropping my baseball mitt for the requisite yarmulke and shawl, several barouches and davening. The arcane words held no meaning for me nor did it arouse my sense of the spiritual. Drugstore vapors had been replaced by a musty odor. As the other nine men worshipped the Torah, I saw, instead, my father in his place reverently dispensing kindness and wise counsel to his own congregants while crude drugs and botanicals escaped from apothecary jars like some aromatic intoxicant.    

I was done with Yahweh. He’d been replaced by my father who, in turn, became interjected into me. We become our own Yahweh, our own shepherd and assume that self-possession to see us through the pilgrimage. The way ahead is not promised; it is earned, all stumbles forgiven. There were to be no prayers, no petitions to any grand puppeteer. We are here to enrich our habitat, share it and care for each other, nothing less. I have come to reject religion, the noun, in favor of the adjective as in religious experience for which there is no prescribed behavior. 

Transcendent moments come least of all in a house of worship. They arrive as my father did, unbidden, with my heart open as a deep harbor.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Speak, Tables, Speak

I think it was blue. It had a drawer with utensils. Forks to stab, spoons to slurp and knives to make wounds. My brother and I didn’t speak much but he never let me forget who had rank by four years. Fortunately, that was enough distance between us for me to go my own way. That table might also have been where I learned pinochle, Parcheesi and backgammon or did they all happen on the living room rug? The kitchen table was the place of high level policy decisions. My parents would settle world affairs as if on some summit. Of course, they pretty much agreed with themselves. When it came down to less lofty matters, like cursing Uncle Irving for Gods know what or how to get Mr. Dalebrook to settle his outstanding bill after the drugstore went belly-up, what better place to reconcile differences.  

Oh yes, I suppose we ate there too.  I have fond memories of burnt liver and boiled chicken which I tried, in vain, to hide under the mashed potatoes. But then there was also my mother’s world class pot roast and I shall leave with that plate on the well-remembered table.

The Algonquin Round Table, or Vicious Circle, was comprised of NYC literati including Dorothy Parker who had a habit of committing suicide unsuccessfully, Robert Benchley, Jascha Heifetz (to my surprise), a loquacious Harpo Marx, the NY Times theater critic Alexander Woollcott, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman to name-drop a few. It all started when a few members decided to surprise Woollcott by roasting him. It turned into a ten-year lunch. They were said to have viper-tongues and concealed stilettoes as they jabbed each other with taunts, barbs and gleefully mean wit. It was the post WWI roaring 20s, the Jazz Age, with a dozen speakeasys on every block in midtown Manhattan.  Gradually they drifted off to Hollywood or sobered up with the crash of 1929. The table outlasted them all. 

Going back in time to mid-18th century Merry Old England, Samuel Johnson sat with Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon and assorted luminaries around a table every week at Turk’s Head Tavern. James Boswell was there to record the pearls of wisdom dropping onto their plates and into their ale. Twelve pence (one shilling) could buy you beef, bread and beer with one pence left over for a tip. Oh, for those pubs of yesteryear! The group was called The Club. One had to have a silver tongue to gain a seat at this table. I wonder if their waiters wondered if they’d put their money where their mouth was. In later years, Tennyson, Kipling, and Eliot made the cut but not Dickens, Trollope or Hardy.  Some tables don’t have a leg to stand on.

Johnson was neither a poet or playwright of note. Yet he was author of the Dictionary of the English Language which ultimately led to the Oxford English Dictionary. When Johnson spoke, one listened. His sentences were rounded and sculptural, patterned with equipoise, antithesis and irony. His words were precise and mellifluous yet not ornamental. One could be happily reprimanded and save the insult under glass as Lord Chesterfield did.

Perhaps the greatest export of imperialist England was language itself. It flowed around six continents leaving its mark of empire upon which the sun never set. Johnson recognized that language was a living thing; it grew organically out of the magnificent chaos of human discourse, ever expanding as well as shrinking and fading away. Johnson not only gave definitions but offered examples of usage bringing in both idioms and literary references including Shakespeare. An elegant sentence might find the beginning phrase separated from last by a dozen commas. By the fourth round of Guinness, it’s a wonder anyone could remember the initial clause as, one by one, they may have drunk themselves under the table.

From the sublime to the banal, I remember when a group of male friends recreated their fifteen minutes of glory by moving a salt shaker, napkin and sweetener around a table, enacting some war scene or sports heroics. All the while a man in the next booth might be deconstructing his blintzes as a fly finds a homeland in his sour cream.

Return me to a corner table in the Automat where I could introvert into my coffee and take communion with a Kaiser roll.

For millennia, lofty oratory and humble mumbles have passed across tables. Speak, tables, speak.


Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Spring Sprung

Spring is like a perhaps hand, wrote e.e.cummings, coming out of nowhere…. arranging, placing there a strange thing, here a known thing / changing everything. 

We never celebrate the end of spring, only the beginning. The rapture of the burst but not the gust of the rupture. To do honor to the fruit we need to regard, with wonder, its full arc, including its spasm of farewell. The ripe and the rot. As D.H. Lawrence wrote, the marriage of heaven and hell.

As a counter-narrative to William Carlos Williams (No ideas but in things), it is not enough to focus on the thing or the being. The real task is to consider the becoming. When I write, my joy is to stay inside the poem or paragraph; not to finish, to luxuriate in the process before it becomes a mere product. Not even to stay but to meander, to hitch a ride on the flying carpet, catch the bus to elsewhere. Each fruit is on its way to somewhere, maybe nowhere, a micro enactment of ourselves.  

Only the sun and moon are eternal and we’re not so sure about them either. We have to settle for the happy illusion of finding immortality in those fleeting instances we can be altered by. There lies the mystery. Not in the fixed succulents of the still-life but the way of the speckled banana.

I’m reminded of the way Peggy would write a poem. She could be struggling with some metaphysical concept and along might come a dog or a dog walker with an orange cap. That dog or that cap would enter into her poem. She gave it a line, incongruently, which gave the poem an inclusiveness as if to say nothing is apart from anything else and that includes the outer with the inner, the head mingling with the heart. The poem, like all poems, is about the writing of the poem, the futile attempt to still the temporal and the ecstasy of failing. Wisdom is in the unanswered questions punctuated by an exuberance of exclamation points.

We are creatures in motion even in our sleep. We had an idea and slept on it. Something happened. We wake up a smidge different along with the summer fruit.

Here is the serious joke: to align ourselves with the rhythm of the peach and the melon. Because of a bogus ripeness from sulfur dioxide the peach got bitten before its flesh was ready. I waited too long with the melon and had to hurry my devouring. A loving relationship has to do with discovering each other’s rhythm and disequilibrium, the struts and stumbles.

In the film, Woman In the Dunes, which I recently watched, a man is seen collecting bugs which live in the shifting dunes. He is later trapped, like one of his specimens, in this habitat along with a woman who has made of it a home. The static world is always in motion as sand seems transformed to water, like a movable sculpture, while the two of them find their own choreography living a shape-shifting life.     


Friday, June 10, 2022

Summer Fruit

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may / Old time is still a flying / This same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.

                                                                                                                Thank you, Robert Herrick

Why wait till June 21st ? Summer’s lease is short enough. Those plump and squishy fruits are calling. Yes, and virgins too as Herrick intended.

Round and juicy, from blueberries and grapes to apricots, peaches, plums and nectarines. Marble-small to nearly baseballs to basketballs of melons. 

There are apricots like succulent golf balls. Have two, they’re small. Your teeth and tongue will rejoice. But first behold their color. Such beauty is to be savored.  

Here are the plums from blood-red to purple to bursting. Plums are poems in the hands of William Carlos Williams. His is called: This Is Just to Say

I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox / And which you were probably saving for breakfast / Forgive me, they were delicious, so sweet and so cold.

No ideas but in things, Williams declared and here it is, a no-fooling image, sensual, immediate and plain-spoken. There’s no denying that cold and fleshy fruit. Satsuma or Santa Rosa, all the better that it is forbidden. I bought mine at Costco, a dozen of them. There’s an art to this I’m willing to share. Eat one while on the longest line you can find. You have nowhere to go anyway. Try selling some to the person in front or behind. Better yet, make them a gift since they’re having a birthday this year. Offer some to your neighbor. There’s no time to waste before they turn into prunes.

Melons are all about communing with that life teeming inside. Are you ripe, I ask? If they don’t answer for three days, make that incision and go for a quadrant or sextant. You will discover the morning sun in a cantaloupe. Watermelons are for diving into and slurping yourself in that red sea, pits and all. Honeydew tastes like dew that’s been honeyed.

Peaches are the subject of songs and poems. As John Prine sang…. Blow up your TV / Throw your paper / Go to the country / Plant a little garden / Eat a lot of peaches / Try and find Jesus on your own. 

It could be a Come-to-Jesus moment for some. Times a wasting and peach trees are sagging. So luscious, fuzzy and plump. From Freestone to Babcock to Clings. Let it slurp. Cezanne used peaches in his still-life to capture light. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock had to ask, Dare I eat a peach? Not unexpected from a man who measured his life with coffee spoons and heard the mermaids singing each to each, but not to him. To bite into peachy skin is to hear mermaids sing. Let it drip. It’s all we have in this land of sticks and stones, parched of our precepts, going from grape to raisin. 


Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Speaking of Silence

I once read that the average person speaks for only seven minutes a day. Hard to believe. The thought of somebody going around with a stopwatch is almost unspeakable.

At this time of my life, I can go through some days saying only seven words and they might be, damn, no, not interested, wrong number and thanks. The first when I burned the toast and the others answering scams. The last word might happen if a neighbor notices a package at my door. Maybe this is why people own dogs, to hear themselves give orders and then say, good boy. Instead, I now have Alexa to do my bidding.

As a kid I would guess I never came close to that seven-minute mark even between school and schoolyard banter. It occurs to me how little I spoke while sinking my jump shot or hitting the ball over the fence. Damn I was good and silently so. Baseball taught stoicism. Trash talk had not yet become a second language.

On the other hand, as I became politicalized, I thought I knew everything and I took it as my mission to set the world right. Those were my obnoxious years. I told them what to do and did they listen? No, and with good reason.

 My father was a man of few words which gave added credibility to them when he chimed in. As a pharmacist I, too, learned the weight of words; listening was more important. In the early days we were actually prohibited from telling any more about prescriptions than the doctor had ordered. I remember some physicians wrote Do Not Label so even the name of the medication was to be withheld. Now, full disclosure is mandatory. The definition of a pharmacist has changed from dispenser to counselor.

Silence in court. Nobody talks in elevators, libraries or when having a root canal. Husbands are famously non-communicative. Nobody likes a blabbermouth.

Fast forward half a century and we have grown less communal even as we are more connected. Messaging has muzzled our telephone voice. We are a crowded planet but atomized. Breakfast talk has yielded to a photo of French toast exchanged with a shot of scrambled eggs.

On the other hand a few decades back one might get arrested for mumbling while rumbling along a city street. Now the outlier would be the person not talking when walking. 

So I shouldn't be surprised when Google, that unimpeachable source, now says we speak eighteen minutes minimum per day. There we are, each in our cubicle, yakking or Zooming ourselves to oblivion. Of course, I am writing this in my imagined monastic cell so what do I know?

I can hear that cacophony in my head. Some of us are nearly deafened by all the mindless chatter on social media, ads for mattresses, restaurant noise, pundits bloviating and distant artillery. We may need to find that sanctuary within to mute the buzz. This would be what the poet meant when he aspired to make his silences more accurate.






Saturday, June 4, 2022

Lost and Found

The problem with childhood is that we only get one and so much of it goes unnoted. We’re too busy living it, as it should be. If we eat our vegetables and avoid having lunch with a suicide bomber, we might keep our child alive till we are ready for that horizontal goodbye. That’s what longevity is for: to rewrite what might have been.

What’s the big idea?

Why, you want to make something out of it?

 I wonder what that was all about? Tough talk for ten-year-olds. I have no big ideas so I need to make something out of the small ones. I seem to have a vivid memory of things that never happened. Of course, they could have happened to somebody.

Let’s say I disappeared when I was six at the 1939 World’s Fair in the plaza between the Trylon and Perisphere. Holding tight onto my father’s overcoat I looked up and saw it wasn’t my father. So it was, my new family set another chair at their table. Maybe some other kid claimed my designated piece of overcoat and entered my old family. A fair exchange.

On an August Sunday at Rockaway Beach my new parents rented an orange and black umbrella and we found a patch of sand. After digging halfway to China, I ran into the ocean heedless of the drift and undertow. I emerged, stumbling over other’s sandcastles searching futilely for that distinct umbrella among a sea of orange and black umbrellas. Finally, I found myself at the lifeguard station in Far Rockaway, only to be returned to my original family.

It's not a bad thing to vanish every now and then. You get lost, you get found or better yet you find yourself. The muscle of imagination needs the stretch; it’s all part of becoming. As far as I can tell I’m still a work-in-progress looking for both that orange-black umbrella and those threads of a coat.

From my distant perch above I am now my own father wearing a coat of many colors. The umbrellas have dropped me into the commotion of a field wild with poppies. Orange, as autumn leaves yet black containing pianistic colors of eighty-eight hues from havoc to hush.



Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Thinking of Peggy on Memorial Day

Not a fit. She never was at war,

not with weeds or aphids in the garden.

What garden?  Where lions were dandy,

she licked dew from nettles, no life squandered,

no uniforms here nor rows of reeds and trumpets.

Devils lurked themselves to absurdity.

The indigenous wed undocumented migrants.

Orchid’s tongues wagged a welcome.

Her zone was demilitarized, an orchard of juice.

Peggy did not turn away from combatants.

Between hummingbird and crow she negotiated an armistice.

Her habitat, from this soil we mulched, 

stalks sprung at midnight, emergent,

pulsing, she in-dwelled, 

saw rhizomes slither, heard

eucalyptus bark, read the calligraphy

of bare elbows in their naked season

contorting for a drink of sun.

Shapes slow-danced,

she never rehearsed the rot,

nor anticipated the ripe.

Paths leading nowhere she made somewhere.

She climbed the walls. Mr. Rios, we joked,

how mysterious wisteria disappeared.

To Chopin’s nocturnes, she hi-diddled-diddled.

In the genius of her lunacy she

made voluptuous what was gibbous,

probed craters for nuggets,

never returned with empty arms.

Finding a plant that splits the rock

was a political act.

Under a blizzard of pollen, bulbs opened

to their pistils, sang and are singing still.