Dom Pérignon and Reefer

 

(Clicking on the above is worth it.)

Roy Cohn, J Edgar Hoover

no doubt no approve of Muddy Waters,

amassed, I reckon, a dossier on his ass

duly noting his non-workin’ mojo,

dat black cat bone,

his association

with John the Conqueroo.

second cousin of the accused.

Accused of what?

Possession of champagne and reefer.

 

O, the Years, the Years

Jack, cat killer

33 years ago yesterday Judy Birdsong woke me up with this message: “I have some good news and some bad news.”

She was a week overdue, and I had slept in the guest room to avoid the ocean swells generated by our waterbed when she turned over or got out of bed to use the toilet.

She was smiling, so I knew the bad news couldn’t be all that bad. “Okay, let’s have it,” I said.

 

Judy in Rantowles pregnant with Harry petting Jack’s mate Sally

“The good news is that I’m in labor. The bad news is that Jack’s killed a neighbor’s cat.”

Jack was a springer spaniel, very agile, adept at killing cats, squirrels, and raccoons. This was when we lived in Rantowles off Chaplin’s Landing Road in our first bought home, a ranch style three bedroom brick house overlooking Log Bridge Creek. Judy had taken Jack for a walk through the woods, and he had bolted and snagged and dispatched a cat.

Judy explained where the crime had occurred, on the corner of the adjacent street, Burrow Pit Road. So I went to deliver the news to the cat’s owner, retracing Judy’s steps through the woods. When I reached the house, I encountered a couple of fossilized automobiles, you know, the kind with four flat tires. The good news was the place was crawling with cats.

scene of the crime as it appears on google maps today

I went up and knocked on the front door. And older lady opened up and greeted me.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but my dog killed one of your cats.”

She actually chuckled. I’m not making this up. “Oh, don’t worry about that, honey,” she said. “That’s just human nature when it comes to dogs and cats.”

So that was that. I hightailed it home and got into the Lamaze mode of timing contractions. Harrison was born the next morning in the wee hours.

Time flies, but actually it doesn’t seem like yesterday at all. It seems like a hundred years ago.

17 July 1984

 

A Thing Called Perception: A Review of “Portraits of a Marriage” by Sándor Márai

[…] all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,

And what perceive.

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

 

Whether your sunglasses are off or on

You only see the world you make.

John Hiatt, “A Thing Called Love”


I’ve just finished at a former student’s strident insistence the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai’s last work, Portraits of a Marriage. I don’t know if we lose something in the translation of the title, but the narrative might more accurately be dubbed: Satellites of Love or Chain, Chain, Chain of Partners or A Sociological Study of Class Relationships in Hungary from 1930 – 1950.[1]

The thing is that no title can do justice to the mighty compression of meaning that the novel holds. Divided into four parts, the narrative unfolds in the style of a Robert Browning dramatic monologue, with each section narrated by a different character. We are in a concrete setting, a bar or bed, and along with us there is someone listening to a monologue, but we never hear that person speak. Instead, we get remarks like: “Sorry . . . What did you say? Why I started weeping when I saw him just now?”

This auditory technique may be off-putting in a culture dominated by visual imagery where we expect cinematic quick cutting, and I admit the conceit does add a bit too much ballast to suspension of disbelief; however, the articulation of the perceptions of the first three monologists is at once meaningful and conversational.[2]

It begins in Budapest between the wars. Here is Ilonka, the first wife of Peter, an industrialist, describing to a female companion her reaction to finding a decades-old love token in her husband’s wallet, a token that predates her relationship with him:

And now I knew that whatever wonderful or terrible things were happening in the world, it was pointless to accuse myself of selfishness, lack of faith, lack of humility, pointless comparing my problems to those of the world of nations, the problems of millions suffering their various tragedies, because there was nothing I could do – selfish and petty as I was, obsessed and blind as I was – except to get out on the street and search out the woman I had to confront face-to-face, the woman I had to talk to. I had to see her, to hear her voice, look in her eyes, examine her skin, her brow, her hands.

We can’t blame Peter for fleeing such suffocating obsession, and in the second section he tells a colleague what that first marriage was like and how he fared in his second marriage to a servant girl of his household named Judit, the girl who had given him that token, a peasant who literally grew up in a ditch. In England, after she leaves the household, she transforms herself into a highly credible Pygmalion-like creature who knows which fork to pick up. Upon her return, Peter defies social convention and marries this underclassling.[3]

Here is Peter describing the object of his obsession:

It wasn’t a “lady” or a glittering socialite I yearned for. I hoped for a woman with whom I could share a lonely life. But she was terrifying ambitious [. . .] wanting to conquer and take occupation of the world.

The only things she fears is

[h]er own hypersensitivity to offense, some mortal wound to the pride glowing in the depths of her life, her very being. That was what she was afraid of, and everything she did by word, silence, and deed was a form of defense against it. It was something I could never understand.

So what we have here is the Rashomon effect, contradictory accounts of the same event. In the course of these dialogues a quarter of a century passes; we see the class stratification of Hungary before the war, Budapest’s leveling during the war, and its Soviet occupation after the war. All of our principals but Ilonka become ex-pats.

It’s Judit who devours the narrative scenery, talking to her latest lover, a jazz drummer whose stage name is Ede. They’re in Rome in a hotel bed after one of his gigs.  Judit possesses the most experience, having risen from abject poverty to enormous wealth. She’s the least socially conditioned one, and she is able to look upon the events of her life with a sort of anthropological detachment:

High culture, it seems, is not just a matter of museums but something you find in people’s bathrooms and kitchens where others cook for them. Their way of life did not change, not a bit, not even during the siege, would you believe it? While everyone was eating beans or peas, they were still opening tins of delicacies from abroad, goose liver from Strasbourg and such things. There was a woman in the cellar, who spent three weeks there […] on a diet, a diet she maintained even when the bombs were falling. She was looking after her figure, cooking some tasty something on a spirit flame using only olive oil because she feared that the fat in the beans and gristle everyone else stuffed themselves with out of fear and anxiety might lead her to put on weight! Whenever I get to thinking about it, I marvel what a strange thing this thing called culture is.

There is one other character, Lazar, who doesn’t get his own monologue but who appears in every section. He’s a writer, perhaps Márai’s alter ego. Of course, I identify with him because, not only is he bald, but he’s also a pessimist (and who wouldn’t be scrounging around a bombed out city).  He has several quotable passages throughout, but I’m going to have Judit describe him instead of having him speak for himself:

What’s that? Was he a snob? Of course, he was, among other things, a snob. He couldn’t stand being helped because he was solitary and a snob. Later I understood that there was something under this snobbish manner of his. He was protecting something, trying to preserve a culture. It’s not funny. I expect you’re thinking of those olives. That’s why you laughing? We proles, we don’t really get the idea of “culture,” sweetheart. We think it’s a matter of being able to quote things, of being fussy, of not spitting on the floor or belching when we’re eating, that kind of thing. But that’s not culture; it’s not a matter of reading and learning facts. It’s not even learning to behave. It’s something else. It was the other idea of culture he was wanting to protect. He didn’t want me to help him because he no longer believed in people.

As I was reading through the individual sections, I found myself put off by these people’s egocentricities, their obsessiveness, but once I got halfway through Judit’s monologue, the cumulative effect suddenly came upon me like revelation. What we have here is a deep meditation on love, loneliness, obsession, culture, family, and perhaps most profoundly, the limitations of personal observation.  The gulf between these people’s perceptions of themselves and others’ perceptions of them is an unbridgeable breach.

This might not be a great novel – I won’t judge until a second reading – but if you’ve reached this final sentence, you’re likely to find it worth your while.


[1] In Spanish the title translates into “The Righteous Woman”

[2] The 4th narrator Ede, a jazz drummer-cum-bartender, lives in “a pad.”

[3] Let’s not forget that Hunagry in the early part of the previous century was not L.A. I can’t come up with a good analogy. Prince Phillip marrying Billie Holiday?

Sándor Márai as a child

Hank, Cormac, and Daddy

from left to right, Cormac McCarthy, Hank Williams, Sr., Wesley Moore, Jr.

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


I want some old school raspy voiced chain-smoking musician from Alabama or Mississippi to write me a song called “Crushed Out Cigarette in Hank Williams’ Ashtray.”

Hank was high-strung, jittery, an ADD-riddled Cormac McCarthy. The glass ain’t half full with them two, and their assessment of the glass ain’t even as positive as half empty. The glass is half-empty and carcinogenic. [1]

I remember being a kid at The North-52 Drive-in with my parents and seeing the trailer for Your Cheating Heart, a biopic of Hank’s life starring George Hamilton with Hank Jr. providing the soundtrack vocals.[2] In the olden days, I’d have to describe the trailer for you based on my short-circuiting memory, but now you can see for yourself.

 

 

At the drive-in some of these scenes hit home a little too familiarly. In other words, I could relate. Like Hank, my daddy could be sweet and generous, but, like Hank, he had a fuse so short static electricity could set him off, especially if he’d been drinking, Nor was my daddy what you would call a feminist.

Like Hank, Daddy felt the urge to create. He rendered in shoe polish on our dining room wall a credible copy of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s The Lesesne Gates, 14 Greene Street. Late in life, he sculpted gnomes, which weren’t nearly as good as the mural. Not only was he creative in the visual arts, he was also scientifically inventive. He received a patent for a sonar-operated weir for sewer treatment plants, but rather than selling the patent, he tried to manufacture the product himself and went broke.

I wish I had a photo of the wall, but I don’t think we ever owned a camera. The wall’s been painted over three or four times. I do have half of a gnome, though, which I keep hidden in the closet of my classroom. Because they were never baked, they eventually fell apart.

Hank’s works, however, survive and will as long as humans are around to strum guitars. His pain lives on in a meaningful way. Listen to Lucinda pass it along to us.

 

 

I raise my glass to dissonance, to sweet songs of sorrow, to Hank and Cormac and Daddy.

Wesley Edward Moore, Jr.


[1] To my ear “ain’t” is a lovely word with that mournful diphthong.

[2] Actually Hamilton looks more like Townes Van Zandt than he does Hank.

Trafficking In Mockery

illustration by Pawel Kucynski

Constant change, or anicca, is a central concept of Buddhism, one of the three marks of existence, along with dukkha (suffering) and anatta (non-self). The Gautama Buddha (c. 567- 487 BCE) taught that attaching to impermanence (e.g., your childhood goldfish, your adolescent puppy love, your undergraduate hairline, your spouse, your existence) ultimately results in sorrow. To escape the natural inclination to become attached to objects of desire, Gautama Buddha points out a pathway that enables one to transcend ego, i.e., to enter a state of anatta, in which one becomes not even zero but this [1] [                    ].

The concept of constant change is inherent in quantum mechanics, cellular division, and, more obviously, in the shifting shapes of the clouds above. Everything is always in a state of flux. Not only did Eastern sages like Gautama come upon this concept of constant change, but also so did the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher — a contemporary of Gautama — Heraclitus, whose dates are c. 535 BCE – 475, BCE.

It’s easy to imagine Heraclitus’s most famous saying “No man ever steps into the same river twice” coming come from one of Gautama’s sermons. Unlike serene Gautama who suggested “a middle way,” Heraclitus, known as “the weeping philosopher,” was profoundly pessimistic. No doubt his pessimism contributed to what I hope are apocryphal accounts of his death.

According to Neanthes of Cyzicus, Heraclitus, suffering from dropsy, attempted to cure himself by covering his body with manure and lying out in the sun to dry, but he was made unrecognizable by the dung covering and was finally eaten by dogs. [2]

Heraclitus and Democritus
Johanness Moreelse

Not surprisingly, impermanence has been the theme of many a poet, and my main man WB Yeats is no exception. Take his masterpiece “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.”

Many ingenious lovely things are gone

That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude.

He offers examples of ancient art that has been lost:

[ . . .] There stood

Amid the ornamental bronze and stone

An ancient image made of olive wood –

And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories

And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

Or as the latin poet Aaron Lipka puts it:

Vita brevis, ars longa,
tamen non est sempiterna.

 

Yeats goes on to lament the end of the pax Victoria when “a great army [was] but a showy thing.” However, in 1919 the “days are dragon-ridden,” and “[t}he night can sweat with terror as before/ We pieced our thoughts into philosophy.”

He adds that he (or she) “who knows no work can stand [. . .] has but one comfort left: all triumph would/But break upon his ghostly solitude.”

He ends the first section of the poem with this stanza:

But is there any comfort to be found?

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,

What more is there to say? That country round

None dared admit, if such a thought were his,

Incendiary or bigot could be found

To burn that stump on the Acropolis,

Or break in bits the famous ivories

Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.

(Or, in the case of Hobby Lobby, traffic in stolen ancient Mesopotamian clay cuneiform tablets, perhaps looted by ISIS.)

Is what Yeats calls “ghostly solitude” anatta?”

Probably not. In Section 3, he refers to a Platonic theory of an afterlife. This theory holds that the greater a person’s accomplishments, the more likely those accomplishments will encumber her in her passage to the next world. Therefore, “if our works/Could vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death/For triumph can but mar our solitude.”

From the Cambridge Introduction to WB Yeats:

Before the poet can take comfort in his conclusions, it dawns on him that the evanescence of mortal triumphs is precisely what makes us love them. The fact that great works vanish does not make it easier to cast off our attachment to them. Indeed it makes it harder.

Andrew Wyeth

Today marks the 8th Sunday since my Judy died. The Buddhist ideal of total detachment, although wise, is better suited for one with a monastic temperament. If you are a husband or wife, a father or mother, a pet owner, a lover of Billie Holiday or the Marx Brothers, detachment is inexcusable. That doesn’t mean, however, you should embrace Heraclitus’ model and wallow in melancholy.

Weep when you must; party when you can.

Also, cynicism, though not ideal, can offer some satisfaction:

Come let us mock at the great

That had such burdens on the mind

And toiled so hard and late

To leave some monument behind,

Nor thought of the levelling wind.

 

Come let us mock at the wise;

With all those calendars whereon

They fixed old aching eyes,

They never saw how seasons run,

And now but gape at the sun.

 

Come let us mock at the good

That fancied goodness might be gay,

And sick of solitude

Might proclaim a holiday:

Wind shrieked — and where are they?

 

Mock mockers after that

That would not lift a hand maybe

To help good, wise or great

To bar that foul storm out, for we

Traffic in mockery.


[1] Insert “the sound of one hand clapping? The formula “form = emptiness; emptiness = form? The inexpressible mental concept of non-concept? Your original face before you were created?

[2] Janet Fairweather.“The Death of Heraclitus,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies.

In the Days Before Digitalization

In the days before digitalization, people looked straight ahead when they walked, sometimes making eye contact. In the summers, it was hot at night (earth air temperature has risen only .5 degrees since Eisenhower), so people without air-conditioners sat on stoops or porches and conversed with passersby and neighbors.

If a disagreement arose, say, over how many strikeouts Lefty Gomez amassed in his career, precise information was difficult to come by. Unless someone could produce an almanac or up-to-date encyclopedia, the disagreement couldn’t be settled until later. Sometimes people called librarians to look up the answers to their questions, though, of course, libraries weren’t open at night. On some nights you might hear people raising their voices in disagreement over Gomez’s strikeouts or the name of the last Triple Crown winner.

However, in the daytime, most librarians would cheerfully agree to research your questions. In those days, most white workingwomen wore flesh-colored hose, which they attached to undergarments called garter belts, elastic contraptions worn around the waist that had metal clasps dangling around the garter belts’ circumferences. Women (and a few men known as transvestites) attached the top of their hose (also called stockings) to the clasps of the garter belts.

Most librarians were female in the days before digitalization. To find the answer to the riddle of the number of strikeouts, they left their stations behind a desk and walked to retrieve the information from a reference volume classified by the Dewey Decimal System. If the librarian were plump, the chafing of her hose would produce a swish-swish sound.

When she called to inform the questioner that Lefty Gomez had struck out 1,468 in his major league career, she had to dial the questioner’s number, each digit clicking clockwise downward to engage. Depending on the size of the community, telephone numbers might consist of as few as four digits. However, it took longer to dial four digits then than it does to punch in ten digits today. Before the 1960’s, all telephones were black.

In the days before digitalization, people were thinner (average female waist circumference 1950: 71.2 cm; circumference today: 91.44 cm). Rather than dieting or joining a gym, a librarian might wear a girdle, a constricting undergarment creating the illusion of a flat abdomen. These armor-like undergarments restricted movement. When a girdled librarian approached a talker with her forefinger pressed to her lips to issue a shushing sibilant, she could appear militaristic in her carriage.  Libraries were as quiet as mausoleums. They housed only books, magazines, and phonographic records.

In those days, dairies delivered milk to people’s porches on weekdays. Virtually all milk delivers were male.  Milkmen worked early hours and drove UPS-like trucks with open doors. They had daily routes, like paperboys, who rode bicycles.  Because of their recurrent journeys around the grids of city streets, milkmen got the reputation of producing children out-of-wedlock. In the days before digitalization, condoms were about the only mechanical means of birth control.

While he was at work using company time to call a librarian regarding Gomez’s strikeouts, a man’s wife could be going through the time-consuming activity of undressing in preparation for a tryst with a milkman. For each digit her husband dialed, she could unclasp on average two garter connections, completely disengaging the hose before the first grating sound simulating the distant phone’s ringing.

In movies, women called this process “slipping into something more comfortable.” Because of the conspicuousness of a milk truck parked on the curb outside a house, these sexual unions were completed rapidly. They took place in less time than it took the librarian to receive the call, research the question, and return the cuckold’s call.

If someone’s child had red hair in an otherwise dark-haired family, the jovial answer to the question “where did you get that red-hair” was “from the milkman.”

In fact, people still us this phrase even though milkmen have gone the way of hardbound encyclopedias, ink stamps, and ox ploughs.

 

Perry Mason and the Hardy Boys in Erle Stanley Gardner’s/Franklin W Dixon’s “The Case of the Oedipal Parricide”

Chapter 1 – It’s a Small World After All

It’s a typical sunsplashed Tuesday in Southern California where Perry Mason sits in his spacious walnut paneled office admiring his brand new state-of-the art intercom system. This is the age of rotary pay telephones, automobiles with tailfins that stretch out like prison sentences, an age when administrative assistants are known as secretaries.

Mason’s secretary, Della Street, shares the office with him. She’s an extremely attractive dark-haired woman in late twenties, buxom but wasp-waisted, slender, long-legged. Although the median marriage age for women is 20.6, Miss Street is single, and her desire for Mr. Mason is palatable. They frequently socialize, and his demeanor towards her is paradoxically solicitous yet aloof. Even though he often places his hand on her shoulder or waist as they walk together, there’s a distant formality in those gestures. Somehow she hasn’t intuited he’s as gay as a rhinestone-studded cummerbund.

As she leans over to place some papers on his desk, there’s a brisk knock on the door, and in strides Paul Drake, Mason’s private detective of choice. Drake is a strapping 6’2,” with sharp features and an abundant amount of blonde hair combed back from his forehead. He’s sporting a soon-to-be out-of-style checkered blazer and a skinny black tie.

He gives Della the once over and says, “Hello, beautiful.”

“Hello, Paul,” Mason replies.

Drake places his hands on his hips and frowns. “Look, Perry. I’ve asked you more than once to desist with these playful innuendos. I know you’re joking, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. I could claim harassment.”

Mason looks up an offers a slight, quizzical smile. “First of all, Paul. It’s 1957. There are no harassment laws. Second, I was looking down at these papers on my desk. You didn’t say, ‘Hello, Della. You look beautiful.’ You said, ‘Hello, beautiful.’ I assumed you were referring to my soulful protuberant eyes and the feline grace with which I move my broad-shouldered frame, my girth always well disguised beneath the impeccable tailoring of my Brooks Brothers suits. But, look, I didn’t call you here to match lawyerly wits but to get you working on a case.”

“Okay, Okay,” Drake says, surrendering.

Drake, Perry (seated), Della

“Ever heard of Fenton Hardy?”

“You mean the private detective who works out of Bayport, that small but thriving city of fifty-thousand inhabitants, located on Barmet Bay, three miles inland from the Pacific Ocean?”

“That’s the one.”

Della pipes in, “He has two sons. I read about them recently solving a case for their father.”

“That’s right,” Mason says. “One boy is dark, and the other fair, but there’s a marked resemblance between the two brothers, Eighteen-year-old Frank is tall and dark. Joe, a year younger, is blonde with blue eyes.   By the way, their father, Fenton is dead.“

Della and Paul, as if in a duet, simultaneously gasp, “Dead?”

“Murdered,” Mason says, holding up his palm, traffic-cop-style to prevent their gasping “Murdered?”

“Well,” Paul says, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, “There certainly are a slew of thugs, gangsters, insurance fraudsters who would have a motive. “

Mason, calmly, “Oh, they’ve already arrested a suspect.”

In unison, “They have?”

“Yeah, the older boy Frank, the darker one, has been arrested and booked for murder.”

“Back in Bayport?” Stella asks.

“No,” Mason replies matter-of-factly. “In Anaheim. The family was vacationing at Disneyland. Laura, the mother, and Joe had gone out to run some errands. Frank was back in his room recuperating from sprained back from a fall he’d suffered in Frontierland, and the father was napping. When Laura returned she found her husband dead in bed, gunned down by his own pistol, which was lying on the floor. The gun is covered in the older boy’s prints.”

“That’s Frank,” Drake asks, “the older one, the dark one?”

“Correct. Paul, I want you to drive to Anaheim to the Clearview Motel, Rooms 17 and 19 and to see if there’s anything Tragg has overlooked. I’m headed to the jail to interview Frank.”

“Okay, boss.”

“Della, I want you to come with me.”

As Della grabs her purse, Drake exits in a hurry, leaving the door open. Mason waits, places his hand gently on Della’s back ushering her out. He turns around and carefully closes the door.

[cue the ominous distinctive theme song]