The Miracle of the Water

The Miracle of the Water

These questions haunt our age: Why do men with bushy Friedrich Nietzsche moustaches torment us by eating eat ice cream cones? By what strange devolution of studio engineering did the cracking snare sound of 1967’s Penny Lane sink to the mid-seventies signature snare sound – a hand puppet hitting a shoe box? Oh, and how do I stop drinking?

Drinking…drinking. Ah yes! Now I remember. It is, simply put, marvelous. Why on Earth would you want to stop?! It’s practically free, perfectly legal, and an always available, authentically ecstatic experience that puts you immediately in mind of a truth-seeing little magus in a velveteen cape. He is sunk comfortably back into the plush velour of your frontal lobe, lazily scissoring his crossed legs, and by your second drink he is laughingly, and with tiny magus-like ge­­­stures, parting every curtain you’ve ever hoped to see through. It’s all right there, right in front of you; a glorious dopamine countryside whose untended gardens beckon like a mother.

Ice Cream and Nietzsche

no ice cream cone für Fred

And what a feeling it is. What a feeling! You drop the little charge of amber fluid down the inner velvet of the neck and it strikes the tummy like a gushing Peter Max explosion of warmth that is lovelier by half than any other sensation you shall ever thenceforth know. Within a handful of seconds you are seeing, unmistakably, the Next New World. John Cheever, my personal deity and a famous fallen lush (for a time) both decried and helplessly praised “… the euphoria of alcohol when I seem to walk among the stars.” I do believe that about sums it up.

Glass half empty: the predilection for alcohol is classified as a disease. Because what but an abnormal and skewed constitution can possibly explain the desire to feel really freaking fantastic all the time? “I would love to feel really freaking fantastic all the time!” “Yes, well, that is the nature of your disease.”

Really? At this writing (and according to a talking head who briefly held the floor on my car radio this afternoon, if you know what I mean), recent discoveries based on some over-excited twiddling of the human genome seem to indicate that alcoholism is about 50% genetic and about 50% willful. Yeah. Uh, thanks, science. You laboriously teased apart the double helix and that’s the best you could come up with? Hope your beakers and stuff didn’t cost too much.

I’m no scientist (to say the very very least) and a yen for hooch may well be partly genetic, but this “disease” classification of boozing seems to me a little overweening, having sprung, at least in its initial rollout, from our collective altruistic impulse to let the alkies off the hook. “We gotta let these boozers off the hook! How do we release them from this prison of shame? Can we just say they caught a disease or something? A drinking disease! Yeah, that’s it! How else to humanely explain this embarrassing desire of theirs to feel freaking fantastic ALL THE TIME?” No, dear ones. Wanting to feel really really good all the time is not a sign of illness. Quite the opposite.

eddie-and-jeffy-in-throes-of-happy

I dabbled in fire water once upon a time; never quite got the hang of it, though. I started late, for one thing. While my more sensible acne-bedeviled compatriots were skulking around the high school parking lot on game night, gulping from bottle-shaped paper bags, laughing like morons and finally attacking each other in zipper-festooned bellbottoms (this may date me), I was going to Young Life meetings and Bible studies and listening to earnest Believers with diaphanous teen-beards strum guitars and sing about the beautiful baby Jesus. I treasure that time and would not trade it for anything. Those days formed the best parts of me – but it cost me dear. I lost my place on the Practiced Drinking continuum. I never quite caught up. In those days I wore a delicate little gold cross around my pencil neck and walked around in tiny 70s short-shorts I would today severely punish my daughter for even glancing at on the sales rack at Marshall’s. In my Christian finery and Caucasian ‘fro and three-striped knee socks, I was scarier and more off-putting to little children and the general population than the most ravaged vodka fiend. Which is all to say, at a time I should have been practicing my drinking with the fellas, I was diverted by other pursuits.

My high school peer group were not ‘partiers’. While our desperately healthy counterparts were doing the inebriated hokey pokey in the back seats of innumerable cars, we were spending long evenings in the balmy lamplit Baskin Robbins parking lot, doing Monty Python skits and flirting with the girls, all of us wearing those gender-neutral rugby shirts everyone wore then. My later boozy training was imperfect and uneven. I would drink a Bud Light and curl up and fall asleep on the couch. This drinking just makes me tired! It did not occur to me to have another fortifying drink when the effect of the first began to flag. This was in my 20s, and it went on like that for a while.

all ye who enter

all who tipple are not wounded

Once I’d moved into a group house with my longtime friends, you can just imagine how it went. My roommate, an equally inept tippler, would mix a pitcher of Martinis comprised mostly of saline slime dumped from an olive jar. I swore off Martinis for years. When I did finally discover the delights and horrors of hard liquor I was in a band and doing shots and all the rest. How many evenings did I hustle outside to the back yard of our band house to forcefully bark out a variegated mist of pilfered fraternity wine under watchful stars? Many evenings.

Well. What happens is, you grow older. It becomes more and more difficult to lift bags of potting soil without hollering like an animal. At work you exit your sporty little car with difficulty in the covered parking garage, and the inadvertent echoing groan escapes you like a cry for help, unnerving the 20-something gal three spaces away who briefly looks at you the way Anne Bancroft looked at the Elephant Man. Worst of all, the effects of the two day Scotch Squall become sufficiently horrific and unavoidable to give you real pause. I was finally spending a lot of time feeling crummy and not readily bouncing back. I once calculated that if I lived to be 80, I would have spent nearly 5 years of my life feeling out of sorts due to post-drinkum.

It was neither guilt nor shame nor a sense that I was wronging myself or my loved ones (though I was) that gave me the bright idea of stopping: it was the Humble Hangover that unhitched my wagon. I grew to dread them, really; to loathe them. When I stopped drinking, and I did it in a day (to my own surprise and following 25 amateurish years of boozing), it helped that the returns were immediate. I began to converse delightedly at gatherings again, unafraid of slurred inarticulation, I apprehended the afternoons and evenings through 5 rinsed and buoyant senses. I would awaken on glorious new mornings without the feeling that a hot pig was trying to burrow out through my forehead.

I never dreamed it would be that easy to just…stop. But I didn’t count on how positively reinforcing the clear days and nights would be. It’s like the cloud that lifts when, as a kid, you have your last spasm of stomach flu over the toilet, your mom with her cool hand on your back. Then suddenly the nausea lifts, and the feeling of normalcy and gratitude is like the most stridently beautiful sunrise you have ever known. Everything looks gorgeous. Remember getting over the flu?

Friend and neighbor, you have taken care of yourself and your loved ones, haven’t climbed behind the wheel of a car while tipsy, haven’t gone off the deep end. You’ve been responsible with your sipping (mostly), but you’re concerned. Are you a drunk? Are you sick, or worse? I dunno.

But I do know you are not a laggard for wanting to feel really freaking fantastic all the time. Everybody wants that. The desire to feel good is not a disease marker. Thanks to the thermodynamics of feeling good, though, your not unreasonable pleasure-seeking comes with a price tag; gagging flashes of nausea and the dislocating sense you have been scrambled in a transporter accident out near Starbase 11. Society calls this a bad hangover, and it did me in. If you’ve had one too many of those, you can call it whatever you want. You can even call it quits. If that’s the way you want to go, let’s get started. The nausea minutes continue to pile up, and the gilded wonder of a clear-headed morning awaits. Your call.

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue; St. Valentine Went Through the Ringer for You

20150603_195902

Love is in the air. What’s worse, civil authorities have warned that, thanks to prevailing winds, this free-floating toxic event is headed our way. Instructions on the sealing of windows and doors have been issued on a short-wave emergency frequency and the population is being advised to stay inside. Ha ha, lol and rotflmao (I think). Just kidding. Love isn’t really in the air. It’s in our jeans; or at least it parks its sports car there. Or is Love more than sex, more than the procreative impulse, more than blind animal instinct, more than careful coupon-clipping for discounted twelve-packs of Kirkland Bacon-Flavored He and She Body Grease at Lustco? COSTCO I mean! (sorry).

People; IS there such a thing as love, or is Love just another frightened and distancing ritual devised by the wildly misguided species that believes Olympic Luge is a sport? From our exalted position at the top of the food chain we humans are a haughty bunch, believing ourselves miles above the “lower animals”, the helplessly copulating grab-asses in the rest of the animal kingdom who hook up in the wild without so much as a how-do-you-do. We snicker like naughty school kids when we see dragonflies engaged in sexual congress while flying through the air, secretly marveling at how amazing that must be, except for the tiresome arm-flapping. Are we really so different from the African Elephants whose lumbering sex rituals we watch for hour upon mesmerizing hour on YouTube while nursing a series of too-strong rums-and-coke behind drawn curtains? No, I say. You want to see a lower animal in the throes of the procreative instinct? Go stand in the greeting card aisle at CVS the night before Valentine’s Day and observe the defeated males, rumpled househusbands and strutting hair-product hipsters alike, as they stare forlornly at 60 feet of pink folded cardstock. It is positively heartbreaking. Watch with your hand over your mouth as the hapless Y-chromosome victim selects for his beloved an $8 electronic “novelty song” card that screeches colorfully when opened. She’ll love it! Shake your head in goggle-eyed wonder as the doomed nitwit then augments that ruinous purchase with a romance-spurring bag of Sour Gummy Hearts plucked off the “impulse buy” rack at checkout. It’s a wonder we are still able to populate the Earth.

First Spat

But if Love is just an edifice of our own invention, why are we so enamored of it? Why is it so central to the very idea of being human? Since speech and song entered the human culture some two million years ago, Love has been the dominant theme of human expression. Yes, humans’ first heartfelt Ur-language would have sounded like anguished, phlegmatic grunting, and the songs were probably pretty crummy – maybe only a little better than One Direction. But the paleontological record suggests that what we now call Love followed quickly on the heels of language, as did face-slapping, cheap-bouquet-mockery, and the then grotesquely glottal “does this light covering of hominid fur make me look fat?” Love and language! It was as if some inchoate, utterly human quality had been patiently waiting through the tormenting eons to be freed by language itself. Thus liberated from its silent prison, Love as an object, something to define and articulate, entered our world. Of course all hell broke loose. But there was a guy in an annoyingly floppy burlap robe-thing who once made it his mission to unite young lovers and, in the climate of his time and place, raise a bold middle finger to the Establishment in doing so. Have you heard of him?

St. Valentine – Mischief-Making Matrimonial Martyr

In the late Third Century the Roman Empire was throwing itself a party, and then some. Romans were it. Their footwear laced fashionably up the bare lower leg, their tunics were nicely tailored, they had tactless orgies at will and ate hoisted leg of lamb all day while laughing inexplicably. And who wouldn’t laugh? These guys ruled the known world. They also wore their hair in an ill-advised cut that today would be called “baby bangs”, as in “oh my goodness,that @#$%&! hairdresser gave me @#$%&! baby bangs.” At that high point in Imperial Rome’s La Dolce Vita period, the Empire’s armies were constantly at war, clobbering their enemies with spiky clubs and spears and whatever else they could lay their hands on, the battered Roman soldiery both brutalizing and brutalized in the name of ruthless world domination.

Into this milieu strolls our star-crossed hero, the Patron Saint of Hallmark, Valentinus. He is said to have been a Christian priest who lived under the Emperorship of churlish, war-making, anti-Christian Emperor Claudius II. In that period it was known that unmarried men were the preferred Roman soldier, and were more likely to be drafted into the bloody expansionist Roman juggernaut. Bachelors on the front line were known to do fierce battle without reserve; without the implicit hesitation of, say, a husband and/or father, who may reasonably be imagined flying into battle with combat tactics more informed by a desire for personal survivability than unfettered bloodlust. So Valentinus went about his business, and he reportedly stayed very busy. In order that more young men might be spared the rigors and death of war (and just incidentally be brought into the monogamy game at a time that permissiveness and polygamy were fairly common), Valentinus made it his business to marry, in secret Christian ceremonies, as many earnest young Roman couples as he could wrangle, scurrying around on foot in the Age Before Uber.

I Do

This was, understandably, a bandwagon many starry-eyed young couples were eager to board, and his scheme met with some success. Though these marriages held no water in the eyes of the Roman court, Valentinus’ efforts threw a wobbler into the momentum of the Roman war-making machine, and before long he was, of course, arrested. Claudius, a baby-bangs jerk straight out of Central Casting, gave Valentinus the usual stark choice of dumping his faith or being beaten with clubs, then stones, then finished with a sword. “Do you choose death over renunciation of your foolish faith?” Since our guy is today known as Saint Valentine, we can guess at the refusenik’s reply. By several accounts, the evening before his execution Valentinus was approached by one of his jailers, a hope-filled fence-sitter named Asterius, whose beloved little girl was blind. When Valentinus healed Asterius’ daughter of her blindness, the jailer was thunderstruck, and wept tears of gratitude and joy, but was unable to save our mischief-making love martyr. When the young girl awoke the next morning, Valentinus was gone, having been, as promised, thrashed outside the city gates unto death. But she found a note he’d left her. Thanks to her new friend she was able to read it. History has forgotten what the note said, but he’d signed it, “From Your Valentine.”

Love is Approximately All You Need

Today this selfless love bug’s sacrifice has metastasized into a 2 billion dollar annual orgy of Caring here in the U.S., centered around the yearly commemoration that bears the poor guy’s name and the ritualistic mob-purchases of Candy, flowers, jewelry, and enough poorly chosen Valentine’s Day cards to fell an old-growth forest. If his desiccated body bits weren’t spread over thousands of miles of church naves and reliquaries, I can imagine St. Valentine roaming our Sour-Gummy-Hearted world with arms outstretched, not zombie-like but in an attitude of imprecation; “Really, you guys?!”

It’s kind of a mess. Where is the Love? Is it All Around? A Many Splendored Thing? Full disclosure: I’m deeply in love and so are you, and love isn’t just the foolhardy invention of a self-enamored, smartass animal species in a benighted little corner of the Milky Way (which incidentally only looks like a tub full of stars swirling down the drain, but is more importantly the birth spot of Brubeck and Mel Torme, to name but a couple of other saintly personages native to the neighborhood).

Love is no more an invention than the wheel. It’s a discovery, a revealed element, like arithmetic. 2 + 2 = 4 everywhere in the universe, whether or not this plain fact is given voice. In the purely mechanistic view of reality, we may well wonder: what is love for? Not sex, but Love itself. Procreation can happen without Love. Is there anything in the evolving, mechanized omniverse that isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary? The evolved heart is a muscle with rooms. It moves the exhausted blood through the lungs for the life-giving pick-me-up of oxygen, which is then handed around to the rest of the living body like candy in a parade. That’s what the heart is “for”. Likewise, the tongue tastes, the fingers grasp, the crazy wetware of the brain apprehends. What, exactly, does Love DO? We partake of it whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not. We didn’t come up with it ourselves. Goodness knows it often visits us when it is the very LAST thing we want. So it’s an organic thread in the dense fabric of All This, an unsung footnote on the Periodic Table. What is Love doing here? Ours is not to question – but inquiring readers want to know.

Yeah, there are mishaps. In the early eighties Burt Bacharach and his then-wife Carol Bayer-Sager went to a showing of E.T. with their pal Neil Diamond, and we can suppose lobby-witnesses shrank in terror at what they knew these three might concoct once exposed to Spielberg rays. Of course the songwriters were sufficiently moved by the film and its co-dependent, diaphanous, indefinite-article excluding alien, to write and unleash upon the world the 1982 glycemic seizure “Heartlight”. So things can go terribly wrong (true story).

But by and large Love is a mystery, a marvel, and a deep mine of gold; the sort you plummet into after dark with a stifled scream if your flashlight has failing batteries, say. Oh, and sex? I have to go with Bob Hope on this one: “Three beautiful women were frantically banging on my hotel room door all night. Couldn’t sleep a wink! Eventually I had to get up and let them out.”

 

SB Sentinel Vol 5 Issue 3 Feb 12-26

exodus

birds march grandly

bright blue-breasted bird
with a laughable mohawk
jumps from branch to branch
to branch to branch to branch
to branch to branch to branch
to branch to branch.
stopityouidiotcantyouseewhatyouredoing!!
up the worn steps i go
as mechanically as the jumping bird.
i carry an outsized valise
that worsens the climb.
gears turn
a breeze dutifully blows
trees waver and rustle.
not fooling me!
Minutes are on the march,
a dusty endless column of the dispossessed,
they trudge along with their carpets and pans
one turns to me in passing
and says matter-of-factly
“your village is emptying
and there is naught to do.”

Starry, Starry Day

starlight in a growing womanI don’t understand by what relativisitc Einsteinian sorcery the years pass like months. Songs and books and laments have featured this phenomenon forever, I know. But our former saucer-eyed little bowling ball Stella is a willowy young woman today with the carriage and demeanor of a smartass gazelle. How I wish my mom were here to see this day; Stella is built with great exactitude from Aloha’s blueprint. Mischief-making, wild spontaneous laughter and radiant love are the salient features. Another fuzzy little Earthly soul who awakens every morning laughing and pirouetting. It’s madness. Any scanning electron micrograph of Stella’s DNA would show Aloha climbing the double helix, waving and laughing from the highest rung. Today is Stella’s day; not at all coincidentally it is the shortest day and longest, starriest night of the year.

 

Aloha Gist with PeeWee Lincoln NE 1938

A Serpent

A Serpent

I hope and trust
there is an alternate Earth somewhere
that didn’t stumble onto the microchip
or vacuum tube, or whatever;
the precursor that gave us this dumb sadness
60 passwords to do laundry
and buy gum
or type out a thought
and hand-held windows
to nowhere
through which we gaze unblinking
in a flatline trance
of phony, whistling,
race-killing largesse.

Aloha, Aloha

Aloha Gist maybe 1933

As I type this we’re in the sky over Minneapolis. A riveted tube the size of a supine office tower has just heaved itself into the air with the usual difficulties, my fellow passengers and I staring grimly forward as the fool machine, obeying the laws of physics but little else, shakes and rattles like a gigantic Chevy Vega. A rear-mounted engine buzzes like an enormous electric razor just outside the paper-thin fuselage. Is it supposed to sound like that? etc. It’s all but certain the enormous winged rocket will come roaringly apart 6 miles above the earth, hurling vertical stabilizers, mach trim actuators, and other expensive union-built junk across the night sky in a moonlit flume of flightless debris. The first seconds of the disaster will offer a sudden pleasing sense of extra legroom to the passengers and some will stretch and sigh with gratitude even as they begin their descent to ground, the quaint cosmetic seat belts lashing them to plummeting fabric.

Yes, you see that I am in truth a nervous flyer. This is an idiotic way to travel. Period. I do not want to Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth, in the words of that flight-celebrating pilot of yore. I like the bonds of Earth, the surlier the better. But I’m traveling with my mother and it is as it should be. We’re headed east, to Washington D.C., to move her back in with Bob, from whom she’s been separated for some 20 years, since his passing. She carried on with mixed success without him, 14 of them under my care. Following a brief denouement of spirit-breaking difficulty, she passed in late May this year. Now we’re flying to Washington D.C., where Bob has a little home at Arlington National Cemetery, to which an addition is shortly to be made. And so the two lovebirds will be, in the immortal phrasing of Peaches and Herb, reunited. It feels so good.

Regular readers of these pages may remember my mom, Aloha Wing, she with the fiery spirit, ribald sense of humor, and tendency, in her Autumn years, to answer her apartment door with one foot bare and the other shoed and socked. She’d lived a smartass life. Following a mischief-driven childhood spent on army bases, she’d met my similarly smartass dad at an Air Force USO dance during wartime, they’d hitched in 1943 and hit the ground running. On an Air Force base in North Africa in 1968, as described in the aforementioned encomium, the timing was right for her to come to the smartass rescue of a neighbor on whom the Gaddafi regime was exerting pressure, and she and her smartass bff at the time, a fellow Air Force Wife named Stephanie, had thumbed their noses at Gaddafi in a daringly stupid smuggling scheme that could’ve gone very badly for both of them. From girlhood, when Aloha wasn’t actually in trouble she was looking for a way in. When her partner in laughter, Bob, passed in 1993, Aloha lost a bit of her mojo. Friends more or less stopped visiting, the weekend bridge meetings ground to a halt, the phone stopped ringing. Still, she maintained her acerbic sense of humor and continued to view each dawning day as an opportunity to seek the humor in things, however dark they might appear at a glance. Despite her continuing determined application of this lifelong positivity, after some years alone she began to drift. In 2000 my wife and I drove to Phoenix and loaded her belongings, a lifetime of accrued stuff, into the back of a rented moving truck.

In early May this year a couple of telling incidents, harbingers of a coming loss of bearing, obliged Aloha’s independent living apartment complex to issue her an eviction notice, lest their exposure to liability and litigation, the twin Horror L’s of contemporary culture, land them in court. Her obligatory move was the day I’d dreaded for all the 14 years she’d lived in Santa Barbara, having moved here from her longtime home in Phoenix. Aloha Wing, from the time of her girlhood an inventive and energetic troublemaker, would not, I’d guessed, survive a move to a ‘facility’ of the sort the eviction now commended. And I was right. Following an incredibly stressed three weeks of trying to ‘adapt’ to her new, necessarily more restrictive surroundings, roaming the property like a caged animal and waking in the night confused and yelling for rescue, mom was knocked mercifully senseless by a stroke, and passed two days later at Serenity House. My former non-stop live wire of a mom is now traveling with my wife and I as a quantity of ash and ground bone in a 4” x 6” x 8” plastic box. Our rituals ask of us certain things that we’re not able to capably explain. This crazy transfiguration, from beautiful mother and pal to this box of legally actionable powder – it’s a miracle more wondrous than that of the consecrated wafer which, when placed on the tongue, becomes the flesh of a brutalized carpenter. If this is my mother, if this stuff in the little plastic box is my Burt Bacharach-loving, toast-annihilating, blue-eyed mom, then the universe is an ash tray. She’s gone. Wow, is she ever gone. The quietude of the mute little plastic box proves it. She has never been so utterly quiet. Ever.

The gatekeepers of our great nation’s airline security apparatus are, at least on this day at LAX, a loopy throng of youngsters in ill-fitting uniforms; kids playing dress-up. The container bearing mom’s remains must be x-ray translucent because in today’s terror-war climate even the dead may be recruited to make more dead. Despite our fretting, our careful research and determination to have everything in order lest the authorities confiscate my mother, the louche TSA twenty-somethings in their ill-fitting uniforms at LAX do not seem overly concerned with the fragility of the occasion nor with the rigors of their own protocol. Their strange, over-elaborate badges look like they were bought with Frosted Flakes boxtops. It is strange, given what we are still told is the gravity of the threat, that the gatekeepers of our airline safety are these youngsters. The guy scanning our laboriously removed belts and shoes, our laptops and jackets and briefcases, is wearing large fake diamond ear studs and a close-cropped beard whose topiary exactitude draws interested stares from the passengers/terror suspects in their socks. Suddenly the stocky young lady in uniform to my right is yelling at me with real disdain. I’ve been distracted by her colleague’s beard. “LAPTOP IN ITS OWN BIN!! SIR? SIR? SIR! LAPTOP! IN! ITS! OWN! BIN!!”

When we’ve cleared the screening process and are putting on our shoes a tall overweight kid with slipping spectacles and a nervous grin picks up my mother and summons his supervisor. The young man who arrives assures us in murmuring tones that they want the keynote of the process to be respect. Aloha is hustled away and in the background I watch a group of the TSA curious gather in an interested clot and all look at the sealed plastic box, which is then run through another scanning machine of some kind. My understanding is that they may not open a container of crematory remains, and they do not. Following some chuckling, amused attempts to get the box back into the attractive canvas carrying bag the funeral home had provided for travel, my mom is returned to me. “We want to make sure that was respectful,” the well-meaning but haphazardly trained young guy says to me, somewhat nonsensically. “Thank you,” I reply. “We really appreciate it.”

My bohemian writer of a sister had come down from upstate New York some days before with her easy laugh and entertainingly elliptical viewpoint. She has spent her adult life experiencing and writing of the crazy moments that comprise the everyday, and here come a gang of such moments as one would capture in a treasure chest if that were possible. I know she is filing it all even as she lives it. My outwardly conservative and inwardly riotous brother and his similarly disguised wife Janet live about twenty minutes from Arlington National Cemetery in a forested neighborhood of brick houses and sloping lawns jeweled with morning dew this day. The area is rife with politicos and names from the headlines, those both above and below the fold. Dick Cheney lives nearby in a mansion with an actual turret. “I’ll bet it’s got a dungeon, too,” Judie astutely remarked one afternoon as we drove by it.

This morning we gather up mom’s red marbled urn and make for the car. She’d always loved red and we dismissed the various jars of stately gray slate and buffed metal, some of them looking like Track and Field trophies, or something you would store the Dead in. We wanted something less serious, something a little more festive; a polished stone party balloon. Something a future archaeologist would easily spot in the ruins and be happy to find. We’d inscribed the beautiful red jar with the single line of a tune mom had laughingly concocted over the kitchen sink in 1968, in Florida as we awaited our trip to dad’s final Air Force assignment at Wheelus AFB outside Tripoli. That single, deliberately corny line had long since been woven into family lore, and for 14 years my mom and I had often greeted each other by singing it together – our Masonic secret handshake.

In the omnipresent tense now, we leave my brother’s house and head for Arlington, piling into the car at 8am for a 10am interment, anticipating morning traffic. There is little to none and we arrive an hour or so early, make our way through Arlington’s gauntlet of uniformed guards and make for the admin building where our friends will gather to join us before we all convene graveside. Aloha passed on May 31 and it has taken the un-oiled and only fitfully tended machinery of government until October 10 to allow us to move her back in with my dad. As you approach Arlington via the George Washington Parkway, the Potomac and heavily wooded Roosevelt Island on your left, the Washington monument suddenly looms like a special effect, and there in the middle distance you glimpse the Lincoln Memorial, the distant Jefferson Memorial, the magisterial WWII Memorial and the still more distant Capitol Building, where overpaid do-nothings make daily mockery of the collective sacrifices of their forebears.

Arlington Cemetery’s 624 acre spread was established in 1864 as the Civil War was concluding, on land belonging to the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Arlington Estate was on a hill, so the threat of frequent rains to the dead in their boxes would not be a problem, and the notion that the establishment of what was initially a repository for Civil War dead would simultaneously deny General Lee a place to live also made the site an attractive choice for the federal government of war-torn 1864. There are about 400,000 people buried there, soon to be about 400,001.

At this writing the airplane is beginning to buck and there is a change in the pitch of the engines. The laissez-faire cabbies in the cockpit have not seen fit to switch on the Fasten Seat-Belt sign, and the airplane is a squall of clicking as jittery passengers nevertheless follow their instincts and buckle up of their own slightly panicked accord. Just making note in case this laptop is found, perfectly preserved, in the wreckage.

A bespoke gentle giant named Rafael had been assigned to our family and the quietly genuine hulk of a man offered his condolences to each of us with a steady eye, grasping our forearms, and walked off to read the riot act to a colleague. As dear friends of my brother’s family had begun to arrive in the lobby of the building, the life-celebrating laughter had dialed up to about a nine. How mom would have loved this! People leaning into each other and laughing through tears, sometimes simple tears of hilarity. She’d done plenty of that in her 90 years. But the laughter had compelled an Arlington representative to stop by and admonish our group. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask your party to tone it down a little,” she’d said, to which my brother had evenly replied, “That is not going to happen.” Rafael had then disappeared and returned some minutes later. “Sir,” he says to my brother on returning, smiling mildly, “the matter has been put to rest.” Rafael then instructs all of us on the manner in which we are to proceed, as a group, to the burial site. I hand him my mom’s party urn and he ceremonially proffers it before us as we all exit the building, make for our cars and convoy behind his black, American-flagged lead vehicle.

At Arlington Memorial Cemetery spouses are buried alongside each other and share tombstones, each taking a flip side of the white marble marker. When we have all parked by Bob’s section, a young, impeccably uniformed and much-beribboned Air Force serviceman appears, walks in reverent cadence to Rafael’s car, turns 90 degrees on his heel, and retrieves mom’s urn from the back seat. I feel my heart hammering and in a sudden, unexpected, and nearly uncontainable gush of emotion I love this country and my mom with the burning fever of a Gray Flannel Establishment Square. Would that my other brother Patrick were here! How he would have been moved by this clipped and respectful and ceremonial series of gestures, he whose wild heart conceals in its innermost chambers a love of country and tradition and a nostalgia for another, more honor-bound epoch.  Love you, Pat.

We convene at the grave site under cloudy but politely withholding skies. Occasional commemorative gunfire can be heard at irregular intervals in the middle distance as other newly arrived guests take their places on the grounds and are seen off with honors.

My brother’s pastor speaks of the resurrection of the dead in casual and uplifting tones, and my nephew reads from a trembling sheet of paper of his love of his grandmother, his Tutu, with whom he shared the birthplace of Hawaii. Ryan paints in exacting, loving detail what his Tutu has meant to him, how his youthful swimming career and his regionally unbroken swimming records had been inspired by his Tutu’s late-in-life Senior Olympics epoch, during which time she blithely won 17 swimming gold medals against graying unfortunates in her age bracket. As Ryan speaks, struggling to avert a teary breakdown, my big brother, his dad, rises from his seat and joins him, placing a supporting arm across his shoulder and weeping too. What a sight. I’ll never ever forget it. Ryan soldiers on with difficulty, explaining how in her swim events Tutu never wanted to use the diving blocks in a swim event, opting to simply push off instead, and still managed to churn past the competition in the surrounding lanes despite having sauntered into a race into which her fellows had leapt with over-eager strength. Ryan’s keen observation is the perfect metaphor for mom! She conquered, like dad, quite casually and always in great humor, and always, always on her own terms. “In Hawaiian, Aloha means hello,” Ryan concludes with difficulty. “But it also means goodbye..”

It’s my turn and I stand before the assembled, give it a few seconds. I see in the corner of my eye the red party urn, my unmistakable mom; nevermore to swim or laugh or sneak into the Officers’ Club pool in the wee hours of a preteen morning, or later burn dinner to a foul-smelling crisp, or play a hand of bridge or strike a glamor pose for the camera. Where on Earth can all that largesse have gone? I count 5 and sing.

“One minute to Midnight, one minute to go – this moment must last us forever! Or will it be over? It’s all up to you!” I sing it with all my gladdened heart, my surprised brother and sister and dear Judie spontaneously joining in with broken voices from their seats, and in that screwy eternal moment I have it all. The delicious puzzled expressions in the back rows and in those standing behind them say What the hell is this? In the front row, though, my big brother and my big sister and my best pal Judie are grinning like wet-faced idiots.

Thank you for everything, Mom. Aloha.

Aloha Wing off to Wayne State circa 1940

Power and Might

Power and Might

‘# 1’ by Mark Rothko

Morning sun paints the low mountaintops while in the foreground a Big Brand tire store anchors an immediate tattered blandscape, one can imagine Big Brand and the other dumb little buildings there of stucco and lesser stucco rising and melting and rising and melting and rising and melting in a Rod-Taylor-in-The-Time-Machine daydream of sick and meaningless renewal, the mountains in that time-lapse just standing there, unmoving and unamused nightclub bouncers with their arms crossed. The sun doesn’t know ‘paint’ or poetry, is an insensate fire set by forces describable with chalk and arithmetic, it nevertheless holds our hope(s) and this is how to encumber a fire that wants only to convert one thing to another in a soundless ‘space’ (as it’s known) but for that blowy roar that could be a burning tree. What of it. A star is exhaustible and at the end goes down swinging in a sad burst of gamma or something, an embarrassingly grand display of nuclear failure, falls in on itself and shrinks as if to compensate for eons of unearned braggadocio, eons of radiant literature thrown off in a laundry list of exotic rays. Sinatra had them screaming in their socks at the Paramount and may even have punched Ava Gardner if you want to talk about astronomical largesse, and in the end he doddered around his house not feeling great and would only occasionally join his guests in a game of poker, emerging from his large bedroom in pajamas, a mountain a fleeting thought a tachyon. Those are the choices.