Alchemy

Alchemy Crucible

That morning I drank for about an hour and a half and thought about Brenda; the manner of her death, or the moment of her death. I would put it all in a box. It would need to be light enough for me to lift. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Joel’s knockout of a wife had been clubbed like a ham hock and thrown thirty yards by a refrigerated produce truck sliding through a yellow.

The broad bug-flecked plane of the grillwork saw to it that she would neither roll nor sidle past nor sashay around the frank inertial cruelties that wreak such easy havoc in these settings.  Witnesses describe the contact as hammer-blow-like.  Brenda arced obediently through shrieking summer air, following the famous immutable laws.  She would have been, by then, a worthless husk.  Witnesses describe a flapping rag doll the size of a human being.  She hit the asphalt half a block away and rolled like a stunt dummy.  The Bible says not to expect thanks for doing what’s expected of us anyway, but sometimes the brute ingratitude from on high is too much for the rational heart to want to bear.  There may be a dark and bemused comic mind somewhere, perhaps just drifting, like Donovan’s Brain, in a puff of ether.  It can conjure a plague of frogs and can execute a man’s wife by seeing her tossed like garbage, powerfully, into a row of decorative roadside bushes. Brenda negotiates a horizontal flapping pirouette, quite violently, into the bank of dirty pfitzers. Again again again. That’s the picture I see.

She was somewhat hastily buried two days later, on Saturday, but first the coroner had fixed the cause of death, which was one or another kind of trauma.  The funeral had been brief, nearly perfunctory, in accordance with what Joel assured us would have been Brenda’s wishes in this contingency. Almost exactly halfway through the ceremony, Joel fell down in complete silence, sprawled, like a vaudeville drunk. Those who rushed to help him found Joel’s expression blank, though not slack. The muscles of his face were prone, his mouth was agape slightly, his eyes were aimed skyward and dry.  He seemed about to say something. But the face didn’t move, and was mask-like, something to me at that moment as disorienting as the focused, intense stare of the dead. Trying to get Joel on his feet was like trying to hoist a corpse, or, again, a stunt dummy.  So we just held him where he lay on the wet ground, three of us on our haunches.

The following Wednesday morning at around nine I sat at my kitchen table.  I’d had a shot of scotch and was preparing to have another.  My kitchen serves as a dining area as well, and there are two enormous windows. My smallish back yard and patio were beautiful to see. Sun fell all over the place. The oak shivered restlessly in early breezes. Two red birds the size of flashlight batteries stair-stepped down from somewhere overhead in a controlled flutter-and-drop descent and alighted on the brickwork. I dribbled another shot into the glass.  The phone yelped like a Tourette’s patient and I banged the shot glass against my teeth. It was Joel.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one!” he managed through a kind of ongoing guffaw. It sounded like he might be laughing with food in his mouth. What could this mean? Why did it have to mean anything? I flashed on a snapshot-like image of myself sitting almost forlornly under a demure little reading lamp with a book on my lap, and I thought for that instant I might burst into true hysteria.

“Joel.”

“’I’ll never dance with another’. Here’s a kid writing a line like that. But he did dance with another.”

“I know.”

“He went on to dance with another.”

“I know it.”

“Aren’t you something. My wife was butchered in traffic, you know. Remember Brenda? Remember her? Her body did not come apart, so there is that to be grateful for.”

“Well, ” I murmured experimentally, the booze encouraging forays into terra incognita I hoped might yield some traction, something to arrest the helpless sliding and careering. “This life is a kaleidoscope. You always said so.”

“Yes, yes. The box of chocolates. A dimwit in a crew cut selecting chocolates from a box.”

I reconnoitered. “Why don’t you come over here and have a drink with me?”

“And if I accept?” he replied with the sudden and disorienting air of a dilettante shooting his lace cuffs.

“I’m asking you to accept.”

He seemed to think about that. Then,  “No. I’ll see you Monday.”

“Monday –“

“At work?” he yelled.

“You’re going to back to work? You…you can’t. Not yet.”

“Man lives by bread alone,” he managed, through what sounded like a yapful of bread.

#

We’re slapped into stunned tears by startling and unearned cancer diagnoses, see our loved ones raped and murdered, lose limbs and senses in horrific leisure time accidents involving hammocks, oars, mowers, kitchen utensils, sporting goods. We bear personal witness to spirit-breaking tortures and massacres and mop up the viscera with both hands. An hour or a day later we are immersed, impossibly, in the full-bore asininity of the workaday. The limned fluorescence of the ordinary seems almost to holler. The clock on the office wall ticks like a rude farting idiot, ergonomically calibrated office chairs reach out with their thalidomide arms, promising comfort. Our little fabric cubicles assume the aspect of veal stalls; they are tenderizing us by preventing any meaningful movement. Staple removers begin to enrage the senses and one is tempted to gales of laughter at the sight of an office colleague standing expectantly before a fax machine, arms slack. The small trash cans yawn extravagantly and everything thrums with the unstoppable and banal energies of the river we are all famously borne down.

No one was more terrified than I when Joel entered the 10 o’clock Bettany triage . The recent and reportedly irreparable travails of the Bettany account were shining Grail-like at the far end of the small conference room; Stone’s laudable PowerPoint presentation of everything the team was dismantling through its ineptitude. When Joel entered unceremoniously and without a knock, a kind of suggested gasp befell the room. He was clean-shaven and hustled by with the ordinary alacrity of a well-rested but tardy office drone. He was wearing an unfamiliar necktie whose motif was visible even in the near darkness. As he made for his seat at the long long table crowded with suddenly bowing heads, I saw in a cinematic flash the timeworn and culturally predictable drama about to play out; the newly minted existentialist waving his arms, gesturing grandly, if crazily, at the explosive lack of meaning we marinate in daily. The stupid glowing PowerPoint and its pitiable suggestion of technology’s triumph of over whatever vagaries haunt us, the perfumed carcasses in their carefully chosen shirts and blouses. What a fat slow moving target is a marketing meeting to a newly minted existentialist! Fish in a barrel are more elusive than the ghastly nebulae of emptiness that sink down around the heads of assembled marketers in a meeting whose sole aim is to conjure the means to move unneeded product; a sleight of hand whose terminus is dust. Look at these heads, these sideburns, breasts, earrings, pearls, shoe tassels, wristwatches, collarbones, etc. See the swollen eyes and cleft chins, all the phantoms killing time as the river bears them away and away.

But Joel took his seat without fanfare and aimed his face at Stone’s glowing cartoon. A stylized seismographic line reached a summit then headed back down to earth, and Stone, after a pin-drop pause at Joel’s entrance, indicated this uninspired symbol of failure with his laser pen.

“Here. The drop is precipitous,” Stone breathed with stagy disappointment, tracing the jagged nosedive with his little red beam, clearly enjoying his moment. And why all the sneaking embarrassed glances, tipping and bowing and peeking over at Joel in the darkness, dipping their dumb little heads to sneak a look? What do they hope to see? What suggestion of the Next New World do they hope to glimpse in the person of this bereaved tick-tock man, my Joel?  Isn’t there something that ought to be said by someone in the room? Something on this occasion that might trump even Stone’s laser? But there is no right way to acknowledge this stuff, no standard way to die or to remark on death, no template for tactfully leaving this plane, or for referencing absent acquaintances who have done so. All these accidents and murders and so forth, in all the world! All the throbbing clocks that are suddenly or slowly made to stop ticking, in the cities and villages, in beds and forests, out on the open sea, on carpeted living room floors and in the monoxide midst of traffic. Living people are as various as the accidental and premeditated acts of physical congress that produce them, but the dead are all the same. There is a kind of magic in that transubstantiation. Is that why we imagine the dead as roaming phantoms? Transluscent ectoplasmic tatters of visible energy gracefully negotiating the winds between the stars? Supernature has its allure, but it’s been all but proven that there is no wind up there but solar wind, which blows everything away from the sun and its light.

“Joel, your comments,” Stone was saying, and at that I felt my complexion flare. I imagined Joel driving downtown alone in the after-work dusk, windows down, his thinning hair blowing. He is looking for something or someone, a friend, two friends; driving among and past the alleyways and shadowy declivities of the city, the shop fronts and hanging electric works of the place, civic light fixtures designed with love and a sense of grandeur, I imagined, by excitable men and women with pencils behind their ears. And for what? But a moment in the sun is no less enjoyable for being merely a moment, as they say. Joel took Stone’s gauntlet without pause.

“The ROI on the Bettany debacle is a stinker,” he said evenly, not looking up from the table where he had flattened his palms, as if in the throes of analysis. “Largely because we failed to speak to the target in any comprehensible language. If we refuse to talk to our constituencies in the vernacular they use in addressing each other, we’re climbing up our own asses.”

“Our own asses,” Stone mused, thoughtfully. He cocked his head in a gesture of frank reproof. “Joel, I admire your coming here today, but it’s too soon, I think. If I may say so. You need to be here, but now is not the time. You are jumping the gun.”

“Why.”  Joel’s response was absent the interrogative lilt that would have indicated actual interest in what Stone had to say. “Why jumping the gun.”

“Because I say so,” Stone offered without pause, in his own haste to have done with this episode retreating to the humdrum hierarchies of the office. “You’ll break yourself this way.”

Joel looked up at Stone and squinted appraisingly. “Because you say so?”

“Joel – “

“Your say-so, Stone.”

Then he turned to me to speak, and I recoiled. “She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

And at that Joel sprang noisily out of his seat, and he is hanging there still, his necktie a crenellated ribbon frozen in time, forearms reaching out of rolled-back shirtsleeves; strictly business. And the stars wheel and the solar winds gust and eddy through the firmament and the angels, all of them, are blown to heck by the tumult.

Some Marvels

Batman and Robin

Lorenz Hart

Miserably closeted, self-hating and almost constantly booze-sickened, Larry Hart could nevertheless write a song lyric like a crazed angel, and his stupefying lines (married to Richard Rodgers’ unbound melodies) adorn many many many of the tunes that comprise the Great American Songbook. When Hart dashed out a lyric he did so with such single-minded enthusiasm that he was known to leave the bathtub overflowing as he pursued the perfect line he’d only sat down momentarily to scribble. You can feel Hart’s light bulb going off over these things. His short conflicted life ended in a literal NYC gutter within days of his having been pushed away and his longtime partnership dissolved by tune-twin Richard Rodgers, who could no longer bring himself to write and work with the scary, ruinuos drunk Hart had become. They’d penned a canon of the most enduring and melodically insane pop tunes the world has seen, but on this night Hart seated himself on a storm-swept sidewalk outside an 8th street bar, bombed out of his sorry gourd, having been earlier refused entry to his own show, what would be his and Rodgers’ final Broadway collaboration, ‘A Connecticut Yankee’.  Rodgers had given strict and panicked orders not to allow his increasingly drink-maddened partner into the theater this opening night, and the celebrated lyricist was dead within two days, of pneumonia. Rodgers would go on to form an iconic partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II and redefine the American stage musical, those two all but inventing the idea of show songs as actual bearers of a play’s narrative and not just pretty placeholders sprinkled through the acts. But never again would a songwriting team crank out with such seeming ease the context-free uber pop Rodgers and Hart alchemically produced without pause for two decades. Though the language of critical praise hadn’t advanced sufficiently to allow for overspill (favorably comparing McCartney to Schubert, for instance, as happened within a short 25 years or so), the critics unanimously praised Rodgers’ melodies at a time when Melody was a commonly understood artistic element and the successful songwriter’s Grail, RIP.  He and Hart became very wealthy and very famous indeed. Even this ascent wasn’t enough to staunch Hart’s lifelong hemorrhage of self-opinion. Despite the ghastly hangovers and daily torment (or maybe due to them), Hart’s lyrics are hardened spun glass. His stuff can make you both swoon and bark out loud with laughter in the same stanza; lyrics whose life-informed undercurrent of bitter regret has given these songs a darkling piquancy that ripens them with age. It Never Entered My Mind is a tune around which someone ought to construct a religion. Please listen to that within the next 48 hours, preferably Julie London’s exasperatingly sexy take on it. Rodgers and Hart also wrote (among many many others) Manhattan, Where or When (a moving, smokily melodious  reincarnation tale of two reconstituted old pals meeting in another age and having the pleasing sense they’ve met before; Sinatra chose it as the last song he would ever sing to a dying Sammy Davis Jr. at Davis’ mute final public appearance, a star-studded tribute. Frankie sang the absolute balls off it.), My Funny Valentine, Bewitched (Bothered and Bewildered), and the miraculous I Wish I were in Love Again, in which performing seals are conscripted to offer a sensible lesson on how pain can exalt. Hart was a doomed Magus who never made it out of the 40s. We owe him..

Abyss Resurrection Marvel

Ed Harris Convincingly Shouts His Ex Back From The Dead in The Abyss

The Abyss is a movie about non-terrestrial intelligences from a deep sub-oceanic trench hazing the freaked occupants of a sunken oil rig. Okay? The film features hyper-articulated water tentacles, giant glowing jellyships and a water-breathing argonaut. Still, the audience wants believable. The scene in which Ed Harris resurrects his drowned ex-wife with shouting has invited sophomoric titters of ridicule since the movie’s release in ’89. In the shot, the crew are gathered despondently around the dead woman and witnessing with some disgust the actions of her manic ex as he pleads for his recently despised ex-wife’s life. The thing is, the scene is actually hair-raising and jumps out of the film like an Olivier moment amid 2 or so hours of otherwise capable acting. Harris takes the game up several notches and seems not to be acting at all. He gets lost and it’s a heart-wounding bit of cinema ~ 3/4 of the way through a pretty good sci-fi movie, but the setting could have been anywhere. His desperate death rasp, his veil of tears, his clasped hands and prayer-rattle at the end of the resuscitation? You stare. It gives me Wet Eyeball Fire. Can you really shout a loved one back from the dead? Uh, yeah?? The scene has been widely mocked, even by the most ardent suspenders of movie house disbelief, but is in fact one of those cinematic miracles that happens when all the stops are pulled out. Ed Harris!! In this movie and elsewhere. Don’t try to make me feel stupid about this.

McAloon And Smith

All The World Loves Lovers

Paddy McAloon’s family outing Prefab Sprout (comprised of Paddy, his girlfriend Wendy and bass-playing, jug-eared brother Martin) scampered lithely onto the scene in 1984 with an indefinable prog-folk thingy called Swoon, an album brimming with gorgeous melodies (that again!), hyper-literate wordplay and unearthly arrangements never quite heard before or since. It was a somewhat turgid thicket of high art with a couple of glowing palliatives in the mix (listen to ‘Cruel’ from that album if you ever get the chance; magnificent – ‘Cruel is the gospel that sets us all free, then takes you away from me‘). Then T. Dolby came along and had Paddy sit down and play him some of his new stuff on guitar. The resulting high-pop-watermark, an album called Steve McQueen (Two Wheels Good in the States, because marketers recognize us as literalist clods) was a crisp 4/4 color wheel with such songs as can make your spirit gasp like a surfacing pearl diver (sorry). By the time the Sprouts recorded Jordan: The Comeback the gloves were off. All The World Loves Lovers from that album is a beautifully faceted hunk of chandelier-pop, sprinkled tastefully with confectioner’s sugar and just possibly a demure thimbleful of meth (to bowdlerize Ms. Poppins) so lifting is this danceable hymn. The bass just chugs along, every so often Wendy weighs in with the unembarrassed one-note proclamation ‘Love’. It soars. McAloon is a bitchin, literate lyricist who doesn’t play dumb however naked the sentiment; one of those songwriters who wears his heart on his sleeve and then leads with his sleeve while walking around, shopping, doing laundry etc. Every song he writes waves its arms like your giddy friend at the airport. You approach smiling and he rushes over and desperately embraces you with his eyes squeezed shut. This isn’t for everybody, but I’m into it, big time.  ‘All The World’ takes a transporting 4 minutes to mesmerize with an embarrassingly bald truth. We love love!

Great Expectorations Marvel

Stylish Spitting

This modern world is many things to many people, and we are daily stunned by a new innovation or piece of super shiny crap. These days people go to their deaths typing behind the wheel of a moving car. This is the future, Nostradamus. Even you missed it, and who can blame you? Typically the driver’s last message to the world is something like ‘I’m typing and I’m driving’. So if nothing else there is a helpful surfeit of meta-irony anymore. In the wake of these tragedies the heartbroken are known to express their otherwise unspeakable grief through tweets, as in “Heartbreaking Tweet…”. If we had half a mind left as a culture, the very phrase ‘heartbreaking tweet’ would have us laughing till our asses gasped. Alas we do not have half a mind as a culture, and neither has this Guilded Age of witless advances managed to stamp out world hunger or eradicate poverty, but g*d what gadgets! These modern times somehow seem only to have increased the number of men in sleek pricy jeans and sunglasses who launch slobber balls as a fashion statement. To my mind this oral tradition began around the time the iPhone became the First World’s must- have. Maybe just coincidence. Or maybe all that jawboning at the bottom of a wifi funnel has overstimulated the male salivary thingys. You’ve seen this guy walking our streets and sidewalks, hands in pockets, staring straight ahead with a studied nonchalance. Without warning a strangely coherent wad of goomba loops balletically from his unmoving yap and falls to earth in a tiny ballistic arc. Excuse me, but wtf? What and why are you spitting onto our crosswalks, outdoor markets and street corners? And may I approach you and ask that very question without you pushing me down to the ground with a hand on my startled face? I marvel.

Look Away Marvel

Band Pics With One or More Members Looking Off-Camera

When in the long history of band photography did it become de rigueur to have a member or members looking away as if dreamily distracted by the wonderment we dance floor peons can only vaguely apprehend? For decades we band pic looker-atters have had to contend with this madness. Incredibly, and after all this time, the bands themselves seem not to know they are following a trope that is about as hip as The Wheel of Fortune. Notice this phenom next time you are leafing through your local news and arts journal. You’ll see several local bands with a singular askance-peeking rebel operating like a fifth column within the larger group.  All of whom considered themselves rebels till they eagerly ran to snatch up their Thursday afternoon edition of the local rag with themselves on the cover, where to their chagrin they see that Carl has singled himself out as the band’s  sidewise-glancing Token Mystic; the Death Metal Walt Whitman. It’s time to put a stop to it. Then I might start to miss it. These hideous conundrums define me.

Cunning Linguists

Human Language

Someone’s lippy yap moves around a little; a wet hole ringed with jagged bones and featuring as its star attraction a pink pseudopod, clicking and sliding and writhing around in there like a crazy serpent, producing moist antediluvian nonsense-gargling that oughtn’t mean ANYTHING AT ALL.  And we are able to interpret this wet gibberish with crystal clarity.  We can even recognize it coming out of the radio, and you can’t even see the mouth parts moving around in that instance. Does this make sense? Profoundly, no. Burroughs was right.

This has been a random sampling of many things I hold to be marvels. Not brief enough by half, I know.  Interesting, huh. At what do you marvel? At.

Nancy Sinatra Jr.

Nancy Sinatra Jr.

A sun-drenched Saturday and I ask my 11-year-old daughter if she wants to go out and get donuts.

“Yes!” She disappears into her room for 10 minutes, emerging in an outfit that would make Paris Hilton stammer. Her short-shorts are so tiny that at a glance she looks like a semi-nude dwarf in a cummerbund. She’s wearing dark brown pointy boots that reach halfway up her bare legs. I’d hoped to grab a glazed donut with my adorable 5th grader, not Barbarella.

“What…why are you dressed like that?”

“…like what?”

I want to say “Like the Diminutive Saucy Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s forgotten classic ‘Self-Actualized Girl Gangs of Oz'”.

“I don’t know if you should dress like that to go out with me to get donuts.”

“Why not? This is how I dress.”

“I….uh.”

She’s right, of course. Any weekend you can see it at the city parks, a Bruegel riot of swarming go-go dancers and their bedazzled/stupefied preteen male counterparts, struggling to grasp a feminine mystique that will yet elude them even as their teeth sneak away and they are felled by old age.

“Dad, let’s just go-ah!”

We go. Walking into the donut place I feel the accusing eyes of all affronted patrons are on Stella, this strutting half-pint Bardot who has just learned how to add fractions. In reality no one blinks. A couple of the patrons glance up from their newspapers and smile warmly.

“Morning.”

“Morning!”

Was that ‘morning’ or ‘mourning’? I fear the presence of a Child Protective Services mole at one of the tables, pretending to read the morning paper while secretly talking into his lapel. ’Ethically bankrupt dad has just entered restaurant with underage member of the Tom Jones Dancers. Send backup.’ If I had a moral compass it would be spinning like a mad propeller. I feel I can telepathically register the thinking of the rest of the angry fritter-wielding mob.

>We’re so sorry for your loss.<

What loss?

>The loss of the responsible partner in your charade of a marriage, who while alive would have known better than to let her daughter walk around like that in public.<

She’s not dead, she’s at the gym this morning.

>Oh. That explains it. Also, good parental modeling. While your wife is at the gym trying to improve her body and spirit, you are here with mini-Racquel, buying her a raised glazed.<

…to which I have no cogent telepathic response.

Tonight again I’ll read Laura Ingalls Wilder to my daughter while she sleeps, and one of these glorious mornings she’ll awaken and put on the neck-high frontier dress I bought from SwinginGingham.com. I just know it. There is hope.

Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty! (Behemoth II)

sam macroCheever, my mortal god, had it right. In his story A Vision of the World, a man completely at sea, vexed by the unfocussed oddness of life, awakens in the middle of the night to the murmur of rainfall. He sits up in bed and drops anchor by proclaiming to the darkened room: “Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!”

Sam graduated h.s. two nights ago. Cheever’s declaration (and credo) seems the very thing the assembled crowd should have been barking in unison, intermingled with the air horns, flatulent plastic trumpets, and odd bursts of extremely localized confetti.  All the shiniest qualities of humanity that inform our apprehension of the Wonder were contained in the convocation of jittery, mostly awkward teens awaiting advancement in ill-fitting ceremonial baggies and aerodynamically flingable mortarboards, pals and families rustling and yelling in the stands and grinning like idiots.  Like a Noah’s Ark procession the graduating class came down the hill 2 by 2, boy-girl, some of them waving triumphantly to the crowd like newly minted celebrities (many of these kids wore Ray-Bans), some, like Sam, skulking self-consciously. Some kids looked downright disgusted to be there – the Establishment wringing one last choreographed Subservience Ritual out of them before kicking them down the road to the obligatory Greater Things. We’ve raised Sam to be an aware guy with a sense of the weirdness of the ordinary, and his self-consciousness on that count looked to be operating at full throttle as he took his seat on the decorated football field among fake potted plants and looked around with annoyed wonder. When he received his (empty) diploma (slipcover) and shook the principal’s hand he ducked his head in thanks. Then increasingly aware of the faint ridiculousness of the scene he crowd-consciously marched to the photographer station nearby, enacting rather than Being, arms rising and falling, elbows levering outward; a chorus dancer crossing a stage.

To what are the kids advancing? Doesn’t matter. The celebration and hand wringing and hugging are an acknowledgement of forward Newtonian Motion. The kids are up and out and Destiny hovers like an angel of rough mercy. Decision/Indecision await, the spice of life. Love you, Sam.  When I drove over the rise and saw you standing in front of the condo with your girlfriend, in your cap and gown, my heart hoisted itself into my throat. When we parted at the stadium so I could take my seat with Judie and Stella and our gathered friends, at my prompting you gave me an initially unyielding but quickly warming hug, and something melted. This is an old story repeated millions of times, thank g*d.

Sam. Goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye! See you tomorrow.

Pridequake

images

Earthquake struck about 10 minutes ago. My building shook momentously, an enormous cement-stiffened meringue. Without blinking I jumped up like a wild-eyed terrier and made my orderly exit, legs spinning in Warner Bros cartoon propeller fashion. Unlike Charlton Heston or some other jut-jawed leading man in an ascot walking languidly through falling plate glass, I found myself instantaneously at the other end of my office’s largish cubicle village before I even realized I’d wet my pants. The quake felt and sounded like the building was going to come down. The floor was swaying. There was rumbling. “Zeus or whomever! Stop this! Please?” As I lurched to the office exit on my pitiable sore foot I clearly saw myself buried in taxpayer-subidized University of California rubble, two statuesque palms sloping upward from the wreckage like a beautiful woman’s arms reaching for that famous California sunshine. The Golden State! Don’t flee the quake too recklessly, though, or you’ll sprint straight into the nearby forest fire. This is not a joke. Our bipolar Shangri-La occasionally and without warning morphs into a Dino De Laurentiis B-movie. Oh, we love it. 

I charged panting through the double doors and into the building’s main hallway. Our unflappable building maintenance guy was standing there and turned on his heel, a grinning celebrant, his cell phone raised like a daiquiri. “Heeeey! We shakin’!” Epicenter said to be 5k from campus, out in the Santa Barbara channel. Too close to shore to cause tsunami trouble but close enough to cause a middle-aged coward with thinning hair to waddle hurriedly for the exit like a panicked upright manatee. I was for once grateful I work in an enormous windowless bunker of grooved concrete. My heart is still aflutter as I type this. Note to self:  in rewrite excise mentions of incontinence and Fay Wray-like screaming.

Sometimes We Are Pierced By The Majesty of the Ordinary And It Can Cause One To Sink To One’s Knees and Sob Shamelessly With A Kind Of Irrepresible, Unbridled Joy Oh Did I Misspell Irrepresible Well What If I Did

Magisterial Life

Dadaist Sanctity – This is Not a Life

wpid-0107_Dr_Benjamin_Spock_Wikimedia_CommonsDear Gifted Public Servant, I mean no disrespect when in the echoing, legitimacy-conferring, statue-festooned halls of power I drop my souvenir Pentagon gift shop bag onto the polished floor and in a spray of projectile mouth juices begin to shout uncontrollably. It can’t be helped. You are a moron with the world view of a herring. To wit – when is Life Sacred? A legislative puzzle that torments, often across several turgid news cycles at a throw. Gifted Public Servant, I put this question to you because it confounds you, very publicly. I ask you this because in your sonorous public pronouncements on the matter you are a touching fool, a poignant reminder that even wall-eyed idiots can often dress themselves.

In the legislative chamber you will take the dais and hold forth excitedly on the sanctity of a fetus (a person, you point out), its having been infused with Specific Spiritual Gravity in the instant the sperm rudely head-butted its way into the blase and distracted egg. You’ll move your arms around in a Marceau-charade of righteous distress. Abortion is murder. While we are suspended John Glenn-like in our water-filled capsules (godspeed!) we seem to enjoy all the angry protections of our nation’s ironclad charter and the kneesock enthusiasts who composed it. Life begins at conception. Period. When does life end? For some it ends in the middle of an otherwise pleasant family outing in rural ____stan, a benighted place where, it is believed by some limp-weinered liberals, these devils gather to eat sandwiches in the sun and chat with family. A grown fetus in a faraway land may be poised to take a sip of tea. In roars the Phallic Party Crasher, an eyeless flying robot from the First World, come to secure Our Freedom in a messy flash of overcooked, previously sanctified viscera.

Gifted Public Servant, no matter your often teary, abject devotion to seedling spirits from Heaven, your raised right voting hand will opt to burn away grown fetuses in gusty explosive fires. Meanwhile your left hand caresses God’s Word and pleads on behalf of the spirit-filled zygote. Can you have it both ways? Yes. You are following the biblical injunction to keep your right and left hands in separate rooms. That is your gift. Your ethical bipolarity draws fancy comparisons to those quantum doo-dads which occupy several mutually exclusive reality states at once, and which can even be changed by the very act of observation. Sound familiar? So your seeming collapse of logic actually has its provenance in quantum fanciness. (Use the ‘quantum fanciness’ defense next Sunday when the libs corner you at your speaking engagement outside Ye Olde Flintlock Dispensary.) Gifted Public Servant, the zygotes have grown up in another jurisdiction, presumably at the behest of another, non FDA-approved God. Yes, you are an accidental pantheist. These folks are yours to Judge. We have seen to it. Judge them harshly. The limb-dispersing, life-story-concluding missile blast will leave a smoldering hole where fetuses gestured and laughed only seconds before.

For all that, the conflagration is very very far away. The eruptive hellfire will not ruffle or otherwise discomfit the pretty suit your keeper on K Street bought you, and which you don each morning without any evident sheepishness. The explosion will not alarm your extramarital pal, who it’s fair to guess would in any setting indeed be panicked by flying human guts. Gifted Public Servant, I ask you; what would protect these distant unfortunates from your remote-control righteousness? Were all the wedding guests to sport dangling umbilical cords, might that give you pause? Hey, you wouldn’t harm a fetus, would you? You promised! The ‘Stans could do a booming business in the sort of fresh placental accoutrement needed to protect them from the eyeless wrath of the Party Crashers we count on to keep the Homeland free and easy. Yes. A Pakistani wedding guest sporting a fashionably exaggerated, drone-visible Donna Karan Umbilical Accessory might just stand a chance. Our elected Dronestrike-and-Zygote-Adoring quantum ‘lawmakers’ might just give you a pass.

And now a word to our unwitting adversaries; if you have the irrevocable misfortune to be born in an Enemy State (that is, any place outside the contiguous United States, sometimes including Hawaii; Alaska is recently off the hook), for God’s sake hang onto your umbilical cord. It may come in handy later when you find even the Selena Gomez FetalWear out of your reach at the Lahore Walmart. Remember and repeat: fetus HOLY – wedding guest in ____stan COLLATERAL. This Freedom® business is getting complicated a big ol’piece of chocolate cake.

Zing! Vecht! Huil! Bid!

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artist. hero. life messenger. Dutch Guy!

In the iconic Weimar swan-song movie ‘Cabaret’, liberal-democratic 1933 Deutschland throws itself a final champagne-soaked party before the Nazis come in and churlishly stomp the balloons with their jackboots. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, a satin-draped Liza Minnelli delivers, from the stage of a nightclub, a vivid 11th-hour lecture on the evils of sitting alone in a room. She waves her arms around, Minnelli-like, shakes her cropped Minnelli hair and using her weird guttural Minnelli vibrato to great effect, preaches hedonism to the martini-quaffing sophisticates at their tables, a doomed pre-war demimonde who seem not to need the lesson. What good is sitting alone your room? she asks them. Life is a Cabaret! It’s a chastening song, particularly for those of us who favor sitting alone in a room. But the point is well taken. Life is happening out there.  Get out of the house! For some that ‘s easier said than done. Some of us are trapped behind plate glass, figuratively and otherwise, straining for a glimpse of what the rest of us take for absolute granted. We may all be stardust (CSNY ca 1968) but that message is a hard sell to some. We’re not all made of the stuff that pours into the evening boulevards, we don’t all feel the sparkle. To some the Aurora Borealis is an enormous mildew-stiffened shower curtain. The complicated world is cluttered with half empty glasses.

Enter Shaffy! In 1933, the last year of the Weimar fest (and the last year for quite a little while that fishnet stockings would figure in Berlin nightlife), a future lovable shaggy-dog Dutch troubadour with the unlikely name of Ramses Shaffy was born in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Half-Egyptian, half French, his dad would leave him, his mom would contract tuberculosis, and the fates would see him shipped off to an Auntie in Holland. This wounded high-school dropout’s self-discovery and reinvention as a young artist in the gezellig candlelit clubs and gathering places of Amsterdam, his rise as a beloved truth-telling cabaret figure in his own right, his lifelong artistic partnership with Lisbeth List (their Shaffy Cantata is a completely strange and surprising choral poptart – you must hear it) – these are the subjects of a lengthier essay. If you can imagine.

In 1972 Shaffy would pen a song of such ringing clarity and uplift it would define him;  a crazy diamond called ‘Zing, Vecht, Huil, Bid, Lach, Werk en Bewonder!’ I have come to adore it. It’s a song whose theme and accompanying melody I carry in my pocket like a talisman. It says everything. It’s narrative power is undeniable, it’s pure and transparent lyric an embrace, its urgency to redeem an indecorous 1000 watt light bulb without a shade.  The tune unfolds like a supernova on a slow boil. By the end it’s throwing off whatever powerful rays a supernova throws off. The first time I heard it, my sketchy command of Dutch gave me pause. Could he really be singing what it sounded like he was singing? Can you really yell something that transcendently simple in a pop song? The title is the chorus – a command, delivered in a fever of joy. First, though, the verses tenderly catalog the various shades of remove that define the ‘quietly desperate’, as Thoreau has called them.

‘For the one in the corner, behind glass, for the one with the slammed shut windows, for the one who thought he was alone; you must know this now; we are all together.’

‘For the ones with the firmly shut books, for the ones with the soon-forgotten names, for the ones who seek in vain; you must know this now; we are all together!’

The band America tried this sort of outreach with Dan Peek’s pleasant but fairly limp tune ‘This is for All the Lonely People.’ Their advice? ‘Don’t give up until you reach for the silver cup and ride that highway in the sky.’ Uh…thanks America. It always sounded to my teenage ears a little iffy. So I have to reach for this thing, this silver cup? And then, I guess..die trying? What, do I fall off the chair or something? I don’t want the Highway in the Sky yet! Just give me the freaking silver cup!  Shaffy’s remedy is more declarative, and in the mesmerizing video of the song has the added benefit of being shouted though a radiant, unrehearsed smile of solidarity.

Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!/ Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!/  But not without us.

The basic food groups of Life in a pop chorus, and an assurance. And just incidentally a tidy summation of the Dutch national character, as I’ve come to know it. The Dutch have humor suffused with a kind of informed, nourishing darkness; an artful satisfaction with the quotidian; bracing guileless love, the strength of steel. Oh, and all those tulips. None of the spokes on the Wheel of Life are lost on the Dutch. Shaffy’s litany should be in their national charter.

I’m a huge Sinatra fan, he of the heartfelt, personally penetrating song interpretation. But I have never seen a performer put a song and message across as wholly and triumphantly as Ramses Shaffy does this one. He is an artless singer and a stranger to stage presence. What power Shaffy has is indefinable.  At around 2:40 in the vid you can glimpse the power; he is reaching an inner crescendo on the last verse, barely containing himself. (you can see the vid by clicking the image up top; but wait)

For the one with the open expression
For the one with the naked body
For the one in the white light
For the one who knows we are together.

He then lets his imprecating gaze linger pleadingly for an instant, staring straight through the camera as if to say “You, you”. His face and vaguely Egyptian eyes urge the message through the glass to his shuttered benefactors. You can see the effort, the televised effort to link. When he bursts very unprofessionally into a warm smile and pulls away, it’s such a moment. By then he is so taken with his own message he is shambling. He turns his back to the audience and lopes like a hurried teenager to his mildly befuddled, beehived backup singers, spins happily on his heel and faces the audience in an endearing posture that can only be called “Prom Date Photo’, his mic raised awkwardly, his chest puffed out, his grin that of a dear beatific idiot. As Shaffy’s exultation increases, the middle singer in particular looks at him worriedly, or is just possibly in thrall to his carbonated, toothy unprofessionalism. ‘This is a job, dude.  What‘s all this?” He wheels on the studio orchestra and you see his bony back exhorting them with the message. He’s beside himself. It’s a strange and moving thing to see.

In later life Ramses Shaffy’s incandescence would dim, as seems to be inevitable in these cases. He would succumb to drink in his late-middle age, then very publicly be swept up in a kind of drink-enhanced Alzheimers called Korsakoff’s Syndrome, making addled public appearances and eventually living in a sort of convalescent group home; the outer flame apparently snuffed by the most mortal and ordinary poisons. He would finally manage to throw off the demon booze in his autumn years and then would be stricken with cancer. The thanks he got.

But holy cow! When he shouts out his message, (and he is still shouting it out) the flame isn’t sputtering, nor will it. Who would dare write a song chorus like this? “Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!”

But not without Us (Maar niet zonder ons).

 

Ramses_Shaffy_1970b

Icarus Dissembling

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Graham approached cautiously, a wild, sickening fascination drawing him forward.  The icon was an airplane. An airplane.  And fastened there a ragtime aviator, lovingly rendered; tweed cap and vest, goggles, billowy shirtsleeves, knickers, gloved hands outstretched and pierced by…joysticks?
He clapped a hand to his mouth and stumbled backward. From deep within the catacomb of gutwork his gorge readied itself anew for rising. He shakily moved forward and brushed his rancid fingers over the burnished silver convexity. On impulse then he saw fit to grasp the joystick piercing the tormented figure’s overlapping boots. He pulled back.  The knobless door recessed upwards into the ceiling with an electronic whisper.  Pastel colored light poured in from the next room and Graham leaped back to avoid being seen. He flattened himself against the wall, strenuously, the Single Bead of Sweat rolling momentously down his throbbing temple.  Martin Landau circa 1969.  From within the room a susurrus of voices chanted, or conversed.  Solemnly, rhythmically.  Graham strained to pick up what they were saying and leaned closer to the doorway.
“The plane…does not…have time…to fall.”
What was this?
“The plane…does not…have time…to fall.”
“The plane…does not…have time…to fall.”
Over and over.  And over.  It was chanting.  A room full of what sounded like a mixed crowd of men and women.  Chanting?  What was this about airplanes falling?
“The plane…does not…have time… to fall.”
Panic began politely to tickle Graham’s coccyx.  Do something.  Get out.  The chanting changed in modulation, tapered off without ceremony to be replaced by a generalized murmur, almost of disapproval.
“Who’s next to board,” a woman’s voice tremulously broke in.
“I”, someone responded.  A man….familiar…Jameson?
“Come forward.”  A chair creaked as someone rose.  Feet padded forward.
“Are you prepared?”
“I am not!”
“Tell it.”
The respondent sighed heavily.  What followed was clearly a recitation.  “A machine of that mass will stay aloft only by the most extreme applications of reactive airfoil faith. We trust the machine.”
“Oughtn’t we?”
“We ought not.”
“And why not?”
“A machine is but a limb, and the human limb operates at the whim of the ruined human.”
“Why ruined?”
“To place one’s trust in the elevator, the jackscrew, the artificial horizon, is to surrender sovereignty.”
“What must be done?”
“Daedalus must be sated.  To escape this mechanistic labyrinth, this ensnaring.  Daedalus must be sated.”   Graham rolled back along the wall, inching away from the door.  Whatever this nutty convocation was, it was exacerbating his condition.
“Have we a volunteer?”
“In the foyer.”
“Bring him.”  A dim and dust-covered light bulb flickered suddenly in Graham’s mind.  Time to go.  He gathered his energies.
“Luddites!” he hollered with cracking voice, and springing to the exit found his legs captured around the shins.  He hit the floor like a rolled carpet.  Grunting, he staggered to his feet. The booze informed his prone crouch, his pitiably crablike attempt at a defense posture.  A smallish Druidic claque of uniformed airline captains filed into the foyer, fingers laced in the manner of supplicants.  The tin wings on their caps glittered feebly in the dimness. A couple of them looked to be suppressing grins.  Dear Captain Jameson, dear lovely Captain Jameson stepped forward and took Graham gently by the arm.  A handsome brunette Doris Day with squarish shoulders took his other arm.
“Hullo, Graham,” Jameson intoned intimately.
“You’re not from England..” muttered Graham for the second time in as many hours, and raised a hand as if to call down a heavenly oath.  “Are you?”

The Various States of Aloha

Aloha and Bob 1942

 

My mother’s name is Aloha, and that’s just the beginning. She’s had an interesting and peripatetic (there, I said it) life. Her travels and her times have produced a card, a ham, a bon vivant and a wiseass. She and my dad were a matched set that way. As a preteen she would routinely climb out of her bedroom window in the wee small hours (as Sinatra would’ve described them) and roam the various Army bases she called home. No Army-issue bedroom window could hold her. Her return would usually be in the company of a base MP (Military Police) most of whom knew her by name within a few months of her family having arrived for the new assignment.

In one familiar story she creeps out of her parents’ Army quarters late one night and slinks by moonlight to the base movie theater where the scandalous Gable/Lombard film ‘No Man of her Own’ is playing. 20 minutes into the movie the MP’s familiar flashlight beam plays down the darkened aisle beside her. She looks up to see a resigned-looking white-helmeted base policeman standing beside her  “C’mon, Aloha,” he reportedly sighs. “Let’s get you home.”

Not Hawaiian

Aloha was born in Hawaii but is not Hawaiian. She was born at Schofield Barracks, the Army post that 17 years later would be laid waste by nervous Japanese pilots following the ill-advised orders that would eventually unplug their empire. Her father was an Army Colonel who had always adored Hawaii from afar and had finally secured his dream posting. In the full flush of his island fever, he and my probably less enthusiastic grandmother nearly named my mother after the last sovereign queen of Hawaii; Liliʻuokalani, which is unfortunately pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. In that case today my mother would be going by ‘Lili’, one hopes. It was a close call.

By 1942 she was a volunteer for the war effort in Florida, pushing crudely built model planes around a tabletop aerial map with a long stick, the better to differentiate, with the civil air authorities’ radioed help, the mean planes from the friendly ones in the air around the eastern seaboard. Cameras in space were still an Arthur Clarke daydream. She met my dad that year at a servicemen’s dance and the game was afoot.

Wheelus and Gadaffi

By 1969 she was an Air Force Wife. We lived on Wheelus AFB, just outside Tripoli, Libya; my father, my mother, my little brother, my big sister, and me. Quarters 4G, three blocks from the Mediterranean. We were there for all of a year and a half before Colonel Gadaffi rudely moved his belongings into the Royal Palace during one of kindly King Idris’ clueless junkets abroad. Shortly thereafter we were ordered to leave the country. Aloha managed to make a few waves in the time between our arrival at Wheelus and our gunpoint-inspired departure.

She spent much of 1969 with a similarly meddlesome gal pal, skulking around the foliage of the Base Commander’s expansive Air Force-issue home on a bluff overlooking the sea, snapping Polaroids of the Black Panthers sign that adorned his quarters’ front lawn, hoping to get him in hot water with the Air Force. They of course looked the other way despite his tacit endorsement of what was then considered a domestic U.S. terrorist group (but was in fact a strategically unconventional civil rights advocacy group whose business plan sometimes ran afoul of an entrenched, racially insensitive Establishment. Ahem). The commander, Chappie James, was already near-legendary and would soon enough be made the U.S.’s first black Four-Star General.  Some of my parents’ best friends were African-American Air Force peeps, but James wasn’t one of them. He fell out of favor with Aloha when he acceded to Libyan demands to imprison my mom’s neighbor.

Genevieve, Dan, and the Tuba Case Incident

General James, then head of NORAD, did famously finesse an orderly retreat from Wheelus AFB, an outpost of the Strategic Air Command. Chappie James foiled through negotiation what was meant by Gadaffi to be an embarrassing rout for the Americans and their base. Aloha was having none of it, though. As had many of the base’s residents, Aloha had objected to  James’ treatment of her neighbor Genevieve, to whose house arrest he had grudgingly agreed in the wake of her husband’s botched attempt to spirit a Jewish friend out of the country in a Tuba crate bound for Malta; a plot foiled on the tarmac of the Tripoli airport. Genevieve’s husband, Dan deCarlo, was my grade school principal on the base.

The newly installed Gadaffi regime—invigorated by the success of their recent coup—had been extremely displeased with his attempted rescue and in the placating atmosphere of the time our Base Commander had agreed to the new Libyan government’s terms of reprisal; orders to sequester the woman (a soft-spoken, unbowed French academic), strip her of all personal belongings, and send her out of the country to join her exiled husband in Japan following several months of housebound questioning.

Aloha and Stephanie Take the Wheel

Aloha and her mischief-making pal, when not busy trying to tattle on the Commander’s politically-charged lawn signage, contrived to smuggle Genevieve’s entire household out of Libya, incrementally, piece by piece. The success of the Aloha and Stephanie Moving Company reportedly involved some shameless flirting with the young, bashful and easily distracted Libyan guards. These stunts typify Aloha’s middle age. Still later she would become an avid scotch-and-water Bridge partner to my dad,  a gold-medal-festooned Senior Olympian in swimming, a Benson and Hedges-hoisting hostess to her dear friends and neighbors, all of whom have themselves left the stage. These various states of Aloha occupy her like the cozily concentric shells of a Russian nesting doll.

Judy Garland and Mussolini and Aloha

Aloha was very fortunate to have entered the world (Stage Left) in the midst of the sort of colorful epoch that favors the high-spirited. It was a time of intense feeling and color. Judy Garland and Mussolini were a couple of the players, for instance. It’s true that much of the intense color was ordnance blossoming brilliantly in the saddened skies over torn-up Pacific islands and ruined, smoldering European capitals. But these terrible conflagrations seize and enlarge the bruised human heart. It was, as a great Victorian artist with a poorly executed comb-over once remarked of another era, both the best and worst of times.

Aloha Lamour

Aloha is 89 now. Still possessed of her dark hair, her teeth and her attitude. She can’t pass the full length mirror in her apartment without stopping to strike a Dorothy Lamour ‘ready for my closeup’ pose; one hand on her hip, the other perched uncertainly atop her 89-year-old head. It happens without fail. Her humor is mine (antiquated and often indecipherable) and there are times we’ve had each other laughing so hard the Grim Reaper stirs, puts down his newspaper and takes notice.

I always make it a point to enter Aloha’s apartment with a wry comment at hand. When your aged, self-deprecating mom answers the door with one shoe on and one foot bare, the comic possibilities announce themselves and one would be a fool not to pounce. She happily jumps aboard, glancing down and guffawing, then breaking into helpless wheezing as I enter a soliloquy on the dignities of old age. If she could be summed up with a gesture it would be a bemused shrug. This endears her to some of her neighbors at the retirement village (fellow travelers through a wild and world-renewing fire), and others it bewilders and frightens.

There are moments I’ve thought my mother was going to laugh herself to death, times she couldn’t catch her breath as we both leaned into each other in helpless hilarity. When your physical machinery is 90 years old, raucous laughter is necessarily a more fragile operation. I expressed this concern once. We’d really got each other going, she was crying with laughter. Finally, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch her breath. She raised her hand to her chest, trying to draw air. I panicked.  “Hey! Hey! HEY!! MOM!! MOM!! MOM!!”

“What,” she coughed, waving me away.

“I thought you were going to leave us there for a minute!” I put my arm across her diminished little shoulder. She wiped her eyes and sighed through a rattling chuckle.

“Wouldn’t have been so bad,” she said.