Unfair to Middling 

Picture a picket line with one marcher carrying a sign: “UNFAIR TO MIDDLING!” 

Passers-by may ask, “Who’s this Middling guy, how is he being treated unfairly, and what am I supposed to do about it?”

Some might recognize in the sign the phrase “Fair to middling” and wonder: Is a pun afoot? Is a door a jar? Have these pedestrians gotten trapped in another one of my cockamaimie home newsreels? The Rooster crows in confirmation.

It may be unfair that fair has a much bigger following than middling. But “fair is fair”, after all, and so is “fair use.” Rest assured, the Sheriff is aware of this inequity, which is why this news path is devoted to middling, a word in need of a hug. 

Here are some definitions of middling I culled from a few on-line dictionaries: 1. medium, moderate, or average in size, quantity, or quality · 2. mediocre; ordinary; commonplace; pedestrian; lacking exceptional quality or ability. “the performance was middling at best”; mediocre, all right, indifferent, so-so (informal), unremarkable, tolerable, run-of-the-mill, passable, serviceable, unexceptional, half-pie (N.Z.)

It’s surely a form of madness to feel sorry for a word— especially if the pity is because of the meanings that word has accrued, such as “half-pie” (half-baked) from New Zealand. But I’m not feeling sorry for middling so much as I’m hoping to enlighten its users, current and potential, about the importance of being middling. 

Most of the time it’s used as an adjective,.  And thoughtful wordies agree that the main test of an adjective is how catchy it is (ad-ject meaning in Latin, “thrown to”). Mind you, not all things thrown are cleanly caught. Indeed, success often comes with a catch.

Ah, baseball metaphors. So prolific and generous, especially regarding human achievement. There’s fair, and failing fair, there’s foul. Moreover, sometimes the outcome is in doubt for a long suspenseful time, like Carlton Fisk’s willed-fair home run in Game 6 of the ‘75 World Series, its legitimacy assured by Fisk’s euphoric body language as he mind-melded the towering arc of the ball to clang into the Pesky Pole, which signified fair—not foul.  But as exhilarating and ubiquitous as  the decisive home run  is (don’t forget Mazeroski’s in 1960, Kirk Gibson’s in ‘88, Joe Carter’s in ‘93) doesn’t such guaranteed glory run counter to the half-assed, borrowed-luck, spirit of middling?   Well… Not  when you take into account Game 7, the game after Fisk’s magical homer for the Red Sox, the game the opposing team won, along with the Series.  

I’m just saying: It all balances out. And of course we revere the poetic justice of the hero’s vindication, so long as we leave room for the middle, the honest effort. even the  defeat snatched from the jaws of victory that may not palpitate the pulse, but has the power to surprise, to defy expectations set too low to begin with.

Does it really all balance out? Not the outcomes, maybe, not the scores.We’re not all fated to be feted, Or to be fetid either.  So what then?  Maybe just getting your at-bats.  Taking your hacks. Swinging for the downs.   Clobbering air. Having another at-bat. And this time, who knows?

That stirs one more baseball memory from third grade. The boys were up to bat. The girls were cheerleading. They were chanting, “Roy, Roy, he’s our man! If he can’t do it, Gary can! Gary, Gary, he’s our man! If he can’t do it, Hal can! Hal, Hal, he’s our man, If he can’t do it…”  I didn’t really like that chant. I didn’t like the pressure to succeed and on the other hand, I didn’t like how quickly the girls, whose  approval I coveted, gave up on us men as incapable. Well, actually, the only man I cared about was “Hal, Hal” If I couldn’t do it—whatever it was, hit a home run or drop a bunt—the cheering squad was ready to just move on to the next batter on deck. Nor did I derive any solidarity from all the other boys facing the same pressure. Their agony amounted to a mere stamp of my own. 

In a middling world, where you lower your expectations to the wide welcoming whatev, this third graders’ train wreck of success and failure might not ever happen. The middling way is not a matter of obeying rules but observing yourself. Follow your aspirations, kid, by all means, the loftier the better. Exude perspiration and inspiration where you find it. But expectations are not so clear-cut. There’s an overlap between the grant you take (the home run you didn’t expect), and what you take for granted. 

Wait. I got a better one. Can I just… Yeah? Thanks!  In other words—as I step off this path with a concluding wave—in other words, don’t let the hype get ahead of the hope. 

Not bad, eh? Can I call that the Middleman’s Maxim? And end with a little poem? Yeah? Thanks!

MiddlIng

Fair to middling’s
just a joke:
a trick of mirrors,
a puff of smoke.

It holds a riddle
inside a conundrum:
how wide is a middle?
What makes life turn humdrum?

Take middling’s measure
in pain or pleasure,
in safety or peril.
feral or tame,
The fee is the same.

If middling means
you don’t have as much stuff,
more or less—más o menos—
may be just enough.

And hunting abundance,
can lead to redundance.
If you’re missing Butch Cassidy,
ride on with Sundance.

Fair to middling
shrugs off improvement.
Yet even a snail’s pace
conducts a slow movement.

Seeking the most,
you risk losing the least.
Sufficiency
ensures a feast!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Paths and Doodles

Paths and Doodles

I’m a newshound— especially via the radio, a pursuit that begins most days with NPR’s Morning Edition at 7 am and is exhausted (as am I) between midnight and one, with “As It Happens,” a CBC interview show I remember fondly from my years living in Canada.This dependency on acquiring the latest news is sensitive to the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO),lest the news change from hour to hour. It needs an independent source that will never run out, a source such as ourselves. We take for granted, ignore, or forget about our own news, which our brains keep compiling like an ever-filling reservoir. We need to revisit our private stories, our meaningful, customized news that we own but insufficiently acknowledge. 

So: what to call this personal info archive? Brain News? Too intellectual.The Monocle Chronicle? (Say what?) Then an aha. I bethought me of the old newsreels whose era I caught a parting glimpse of in the 1950s. They played before the movie feature and (most often) the Tom and Jerry (cat and mouse) cartoon. And that thought called to mind the company that produced a lot of those newsreels —Pathé— and its symbol, a crowing, wing-flapping rooster. Why a rooster? Dunno. Viaduck? Maybe because the world, and Europe in particular, was more rural in the Pathé brothers’ heyday. And the cock ruled the roost like an auctioneer.

Pathé and the maestro’s cock-a-doodle-doo led me to the soubriquet  Paths and Doodles, words that go well with the narratives and observations that make up much of the gnews gnawing my brain from minute to minute. To illustrate, here is a sample of some of my recent paths and doodles.

Path 1. This was not directly my news to claim, but collateral news counts.  Cue the tune.  “My wife’s in Iceland…Iceland…with her good friend Judy D… My wife’s in Iceland. (add twirly “Graceland” riff. OK, ditch the music). Iceland is kind of a bare place in my imagination, because I’m not—or wasn’t—there. And Iceland is usually a white blob on the map. I have been to Iceland once, in my 20s, when the cheapest student flight to Europe was on Icelandic Airways. I sat on the tarmac of Reykjavik airport for hours reading Catch-22. It is not a rich template to draw on. Moreover, what can you do with news that’s mainly secondhand? Just absorb the fact that Iceland has temporarily swallowed Carol and  balleen-squeeze what I can from her text messages: lava fields…gravel road a 2-hour drive to the lodge…poorly marked roundabouts…cafe overlooking the water…birds flitting and hovering. Not really my path, or maybe it is. I feel like I’ve misplaced Carol. (Where did she…? Oh, right. Iceland.) Here’s a short poem I found today called “Separation” by W.S.Merwin: 

Your absence has gone through me

like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

It’s also probable that there will be more of these travel separations to co-own in coming years.But it’s oke!

Path 2: Another newsworthy item I chanced upon was an interview with actor Alan Alda on The. New Yorker Radio Hour. For a while it ambled along like a typical celebrity piece. But what elevated it to the News path was the news (to me) that Alan Alda had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease seven years ago. How had I missed that? It happened with Michael J. Fox, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Diamond, among others: A member of the League of Eminent Exemplars unexpectedly joins the We Have Parkinson’s Too Movement. 

Alan Alda’s enrollment in the Parkinson’s Too Movement made me want to reexamine what I gained from both groups. From the celebritIes I  got a model of ideal how to be, even if it was imagined. Co-owning PD with Alda spoiled the ideal but made us brothers under the skin, which made me feel sorry for him, feel keen to welcome him to the club, and feel a little trespassed on by him, all at once. I felt like bucking him up while scrutinizing his credentials. When the interviewer asked him how he was doing, I felt a twinge of spite at his reply, thinking “Naturally you’re doing ‘surprisingly well’ and reaping the benefits of exercise; you’re Alan f-ing Alda.” Obviously, not all of these news items reflect well on me, which might reflect better on them as news items. Work those quads, Alda. You go, me.

This calls for a sidebar about my own recent PD misadventures. I might frame it by cautioning Hawkeye to be careful swallowing pills,citing a few instances lately of pills getting stuck in my gullet, after they stubbornly refused to take the waterslide to freedom, choosing instead the path of leashed resistance, even though it meant the acrid dissolving of the pill where it wasn’t meant to dissolve, and a nasty case of throat burn that came with it. These news paths entail lots of side trips in the weeds. Nevertheless I’ll risk a fraternal warning to Hawkeye: You will know them by their trappings:  micrographia (tiny handwriting), bradykinesia (the polar opposite of quarterback Tom Brady’s speed and agility); and constipulation, a burden with the density of a legal brief.

Too much information? No such thing, not when it’s  In the age of FOMO. I’ll close this newsreel with an item that could be a path if I gave it enough room, but probably doesn’t warrant more than a doodle. I am referring to a half hour of my life that I lost the other day to my growing  gallery of misspent guilty pleasures. It was a brief sampling of “Beach Party” on Turner Classic Movies, the first of the spring break beach blanket bikini bingo teensploitation films that led off the sixties with the help of borrowed joy from The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Ventures and others who sold the sand, surf, and sex culture.”Beach Party” came out in 1963. I was 15, part of the target audience of yearning virgins, but El Paso, where I Iived, was far from the beach, whether Florida’s or LA’s. Of course I had a long-nurtured crush on Annette Funicello (we all did), dating back to the Disney days. I fantasized my chances with Annette were pretty good, considering the uninspiring smarm of my rival, Frankie Avalon, with whom she was always paired in those movies. Imagining Annette as my girlfriend was enough to fuel my dreams, let alone imagining her imagining me as her boyfriend. But what about “Beach Party”?  Seriously? Trying on the clothes you wore as a teenager is never a good idea.  Even Annette came close to silliness singing to her reflection in a mirror, a tune called “Treat Him Nicely” in which she berates herself for not being kinder to her movie boyfriend (Frankie, I assume). Nay, seek not guidance nor relevance in a beach bunny romp. Still, a kind of bent fun lives on in a representation of 1963, before the sixties figured out how to leave Ike and the Edsel , cope with JFK’s assassination, and make room for the Beatles, Stones, Janis, Jimi, Dylan, Woodstock, and all the rest. We did, somehow, maybe by first making room for Frankie and Annette.

I was equally fascinated by the group of “sophisticated” adults trying to steer a path of irony through the horniness of the kids. I recognized a few of them from their presence in other more familiar TV settings: Bob Cummings as a sex researcher, Morey Amsterdam as a chef sea captain, and Harvey Lembeck as an undangerous (except to himself) leather-clad biker named Eric Von Zipper. I didn’t see myself in “Beach Party” any more than I saw me in Iceland. But I did see an in-between age (‘63, teenage, mid-life)  trying to locate itself, fumblingly, yet gamely—and that I could relate to.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Absent with Leaves

Recently I had occasion to not attend my 50th class reunion among the granite battlements of Colgate U, where I gained valuable practice in writing fiction and cultivating lifelong friendships. I was sorry to miss out on hobnobbing with my fellow wizards—my physical powers were not up to the mythic challenge of The Hill— but at the behest of my old roommate Jim Smith, a.k.a. Logic Man, I wrote the following essay to reune for me in my absence

Absent with Leaves

I’m glad to report that I no longer have dreams in which my graduation is in doubt, owing to an unfulfilled obligation—final exam, essay, proof that I can swim. I settled the debt by solving a puzzle in another dream. The answer was, as usual, WHISK BROOM. But that would-be password was, of course, refused. Luckily there was an old stipulation, grandfathered in, that your grandfather could vouch for you. You just had to get his signature to the registrar by “the 50th adversary of your graduation.” This was not a typo! How was I supposed to know the identity of my fiftieth adversary? Dream luck rescued me again: it turned out that any adversary would work—Covid; Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life; a Russian oligarch with a made-up name—as long as your granddad signed. To help speed things along, I used my own aged appearance to convince the registrar that, as the old song goes, “I’m my own Grandpa!”

Would that all colleges nestled as comfortably as ours does between the realms of the factual and the fanciful. For example, who would have guessed the seminal role that leaves would play in my years at Colgate, with the cooperation of certain fellow believers. As freshmen dorm-mates Jim Smith and I recognized in the first weekend of October a modern myth worth keeping. That apotheosis of foliage and the sublime fed our souls way more than mere “leaf-peeping” could. It was a reward and a responsibility. For at least a decade following graduation, like acolytes maintaining a religious observance, we checked in with each other on each first weekend in October. Were we spending the time with due celebration? Were we according it the gravity (and levity) it deserved? It never occurred to us that we were overreaching, any more than that we were overreaching in the epic leaf-catching contests that climaxed in November, attended by a growing number of participants.

Leaf-racing and leaf-catching surely belong to all eras. While no cave drawings have come to light depicting early humans crouching beneath a tree whose leaves have broken into flight, then springing up to intercept the escapees before they hit the ground, it doesn’t prove there weren’t any wild leaf hunts. There had to have been ritual, coming-of-age, leaf-grabs in arboreal cultures to test the speed and agility of young rivals in pursuit of plump birds or one another.

We sophomores of the Colgate autumn leagues took to heart Dylan’s dogma that there’s no success like failure. And we had a lot of practice in the failure that’s no success at all. We chased the spinning whirligigs and the angular plane-slicers, committed ourselves to a slapstick slip-stack of attempted snatches that snared nothing, gambled on go-for-broke dives and non-paying, hubristic divinations. It called for the same athletic grace that would soon be devoted mainly to football and Frisbee. But this sport of ours had a deeply rooted appeal; it relied solely on human effort and the vagaries of nature–the dictates of wind and wing or subtler air currents, the fickle enthusiasms of gravity, resulting in long interminable waits where no leaf so much as stirred, and the even more mysterious, sudden migrations of leafage, unforced by any obvious command and giving rise to legends of mock heroes like Leaf Breezecheater or to theories on tree will.

There’s one more leaf to drop. We all know the power of second chances, enshrined in the idiom “turning over a new leaf.” Less familiar is the power of the leaf as a document. I’m thinking of the leaf that concludes “A Place From Which to View the World,” Howard Fineman’s great essay in our 50th class reunion book. Howie recounts finding an old maple leaf among the pages of Thoreau’s writings, a volume that carried memories of Joe Slater’s English Dept. That leaf signifies a meeting of a moment and a friendship. Or nature and sig-nature. Carefully inscribed in black ink on this unassuming folio are both our names, signed by Howard D. Fineman and Harold R. Ober. Too sparse to be called a time capsule, humble enough to fend off pretensions, it’s a useful leaf first.

So, even though limited mobility compels me to be a no-show this weekend, I will excuse my absence with an affidavit signed by my grandfather. In any case, don’t mark me AWOL, See me instead in a more inclusive context. Consider me AWL. Absent with leaves.

Aunty Dotes / [sic]

Aunty Dotes

[sung to “Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats,” 1943]

Oh, aunty dotes
and granny dotes
and Charles Lamb wrote essays
A ram’ll eat essays too
So would ewe.

While Grandpa dotes
on anecdotes
about his time at Harvard
He lettered an Ivy, too:
Harvard crew.

Now, this may sound forced
and leave you kind of hoarse
and galloping all tipsy and tantivy…

But the antidote
for a bad sore throat
is cool vanilla yogurt;
with melon balls (a few)—
honeydew!

[sic]

Not my fault!
so therefor thus:
[sic] [sic] tsk tsk!

I err not, errors!
No terrors do I sum on.
Ergo, frisky words
go err risk-free!
Sic no editor on me! 
But bail I out, alibi
and blame less be

Sick transit,
glorious Monday!
You got that wrong:
Fungible Friday,
33 ⅓’s day,
Whack-a-mole wen’s-day,
Satyr bud weiser day:
I’m taking a [sic] day.

What’s that you say?
You’re revoking my licentia poetica 
Because I left out sixty [sics]?
Is this some kind of [sic] joke?
I knew it all along.

Golfing with Susi Dog

Permission to Approach

There’s a hurdle when approaching any big subject: just granting yourself permission to approach. I remember a famous “Honeymooners” episode where Ed Norton is teaching Ralph Kramden the fundamentals of golf. In the first lesson, Ed models “addressing the ball.“ He tips his cap and politely says,”Hello, ball!” Ralph isn’t amused.

Granted, God is more complicated than a golf ball. I have assembled a miniature golf course of portals for addressing the whole pantheon—windmill (Creator God) to bird’s nest (Nature God) to tunnel (Avenger God) to lighthouse (Referee God ) to man-cave (Fixer God, also known as…

The Adept Custodian 

God invites me over 
to watch the Red Sox – Yankees
season opener 
on the adequate TV 
in his furnace-warmed office. 
I wouldn’t call 
the blue corduroy couch and 
bowls of kettle corn “godly” 
but they suit me. 

He doesn’t flash the magical 
influence a god is said to have. We argue  
about who controls those powers, 
him or humanity. It’s the old who-created-who? debate 
that usually ends in a kettle-corn food fight. 

I wouldn’t make him too far beyond
what I’m capable of or aspire to. 
No burning bush, no 
show-off plagues. For me, an adept 
custodian, fixer of faucets,
rewirer of doorbells,
and folktale factotum — 
good enough.

A Brief History of a Belief

I seem to recall a time in my childhood when it mattered to certain people whether or not you believed in God. If your answer was heck, yes, you were safe. if you dared to identify yourself as an atheist, though, you could end up with a bloody nose. Belief was aggressive in those swaggering years of the mid-Fifties, and there was no refuge in privacy. Little tolerance for doubt or nuance. Or for tolerance. And in the matter of You vs.The King of the Universe, it was better to be safe than sorry. So as a kid I subscribed to the occasional “Please dear God…[wield your awesome power to keep this relative or that friend or me out of harm’s way]” and even more elaborate addresses mumbled under the covers, like prayers beginning “Oh God, Ruler of the Empire State Building” and sometimes ending with “God forbid it.” There was something undeniably persuasive about a supernatural being whose powers billions of ordinary people accepted. It would take a series of significant events—my dad’s death, my canceled bar mitzvah, and a bunch of riots and assassinations, coupled with the advent of popular human idols like the Beatles, before I decided it was not just okay but advisable to paddle my canoe without the company of a protective, Biblical-era miracle maker. It seemed like an important discard of an old dependency. Also persuasive was that since the Seventies, declaring your atheism to random believers no longer meant getting served a knuckle sandwich. 

Omnipotence depends on belief, but deprived of that fuel, a canny, or even an uncanny, god can command unexpected sympathy. I could and in time did, imagine (that was my fuel) a bond between us as fellow creators, fellow characters. True, a writer did not quite measure up to a universe-in-a-week-er. But by accepting the elastic rules of fantasy, we might find a way to work together, the Big Pronoun and me. I would refrain from holding human miseries and miniseries against It and he wouldn’t act like She had all the answers. We might agree on a collaboration based on ideas, I do’s, and I don’ts. And if that sounds like might-y convenient malarkey, well, just donate what credence you can when the can comes around. 

Dangerous Concepts

Kindly indulge my hopscotching the time line a little further (Hey! No cutting, bub!). What does my choosing God as an essay subject say about the current state of our me-and-Thee relationship? Sez that supreme entities can’t resist the lure of a big pronouncement and, when necessary, Big Pronoun Cement (“for an almighty grip”). Sez that the revising of a role model—be it an adept custodian or the Rock of Ages—is an evolution (wink, wink) inspired by necessity and change. Just as the spark of my current scrutiny owes a lot to the catapulting conundrums of getting old and getting Parkinson’s; and just as a previous revisit had to do with taking a vaguely familiar journey with my son, Matt—introducing him to his Jewish heritage and history, and aiding him on the path that I had abandoned a few months shy of my 13th birthday: namely, preparing for a bar mitzvah. 

Right away, this new-old relationship with God was tested by the Torah portion Matt was assigned to intone in Hebrew. It was from the book of Leviticus and described how the two nephews of Moses, the sons of his brother, Aaron, had the effrontery to create an unsanctioned tribute to God, using the wrong kind of incense. I picture a label on the packaging with the warning: ALIEN FIRE! God was incensed by the unauthorized incense. He smote the blasphemers with a mighty smite, vanishing them to wherever it was presumptuous improvisers got smote.

I was initially stunned by this rash act, which was reminiscent of God’s role in the attempted filicide of young Issac by his dad, as described succinctly in Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited:” God said to Abraham, Kill me a son. Abe said God, you must be puttin me on! God say No. Abe say What? God say You can do what you want Abe but next time you see me coming you’d better run…[pause]…Abe say, where you want this killing done? God say, “Down on Highway 61.” But before I could build up a righteous rage I remembered that the whole thing was fiction and the rules of fantasy, which apply to the Bible as to all literature, protect the fictional felon from the judgments of the credulous. Dylan would have made a good witness, too, but no matter. There was potentially useful testimony from another rock god. I could cite John Lennon’s song “God,” with the opening line, God is a concept by which we measure our pain. I’ll say it again. And he goes on to name all the icons he doesn’t believe in anymore— ending, shockingly, with “Beatles.” On the other hand—this is true—I once used Lennon’s description of God as a measurer of pain in the final exam of a Philosophy & Religion class in college, which asked us to define man’s relationship to God. And for my pains and loyalty to an ex-Beatle I got an F on the test and in the class. This no doubt influenced my resolve to never again use God  as a measuring device, despite the wide advertising of God’s availability for any human calculation: God knows, God forbid, In God we trust, Lord love a duck, he has more money than God, God bless! Good Lord, Dios mio, Gott in Himmel, Goddamn your eyes, and most especially: omigod, OMG, and oh…my…god!

Poor God!

I’m not quite sure what “using the Lord’s name in vain” means, aside from its being something humans do a lot. In vain as in “uselessly”? Or “with vanity” as in using God as a personal accessory and often as not, a disappointing one? In any case, swearing does seem to be the most common employment we have found for the Big Pronoun. Which must be something of a come-down for any supreme deity, but maybe it goes with the territory of the puissant—or the pissant. Was that an almighty Chuckle I heard?

You can’t help empathizing with our scapegoat-in-chief. Especially when one of us supposedly created the other one in his/her/their own image. There is a resemblance. But what if the job of the Principal of Principles for the Human Race was exactly the burden it seems to be? And what if perfection isn’t any easier up there than it is down here? Should we be worried that on the seventh day, He rested? Rest is good—for us—but for a maker of miracles? Once again I began to recognize a kindred spirit in this guy. I could tell he was a freelancer, like Me (I just wanted to try on the capital letter. Curiously bracing!) Seriously, though, wouldn’t a freelance rivalry  explain God’s rage at those two nephews of Moses with their ALIEN FIRE?)

Anyway, these were straws in the wind. I still didn’t believe in an omnipotent Ace of Powers, but I had to admit, I was identifying with him. Poor God! Frankly, he seemed a bit irrelevant to the religious discussion you’d have thought he’d dominate. Oh, he played an important part, of course! the ten  commandments, the Red Sea, the tales, the wonders. I’m just saying he interested me more for who he wasn’t than for who he was. Not larger than life, but the same size. And this happened gradually. I mean, I did wonder what the deal was, why God didn’t make more of an impression as a character. I mean, he was God, so, like, omigod, whatever? And why was I talking like this? 

At One-ment

Sorry to bend the time line with more hopscotching, bub. To clarify, this bar mitzvah business was before the Yom Kippur understanding, before the dove story (but after its precursor, the woodpecker story) and certainly before “Susi Dog does a backflip.” Suffice to say, I noticed God didn’t have many lines, then or now, especially compared to Moses or even Pharaoh, and I was okay with that, as long as he could do a faithful impression of Charlton Heston. Ethical guidance, not so important. Even in a cultural context, for me God took a back seat to Klezmer music, Fiddler on the Roof, “dayenu,” potato latkes, the Golem, and pride in famous Jews like Zero Mostel and Danny Kaye. (Not Charlton Heston, though. He wasn’t one of ours.)

Yom Kippur was another tradition I towed along with me. Not just because it was the holiest of the high holy days. There was also something (sho)far-reaching about the blowing of the ram’s horn; the deep viola vibe of “Kol Nidre”; and above all the sweet deal of a day of atonement — earning the right to be forgiven for all your misdeeds and regrettable actions of the previous year. Clean slate. And from whom does that forgiveness emanate? To paraphrase the Church Lady on SNL: Could it be…GOD? Hmm. Perhaps certain fictional characters should get one day of rest in the realm of actuality, a kind of reconciliation. After all, atone comes from the words at one, which could mean that people (Heston and Mostel alike!) get to be “at one” with God or at one with nature, or it could mean “God and nature reconciled,” as it says in the Christmas carol (I didn’t even know they’d had a falling-out.) Anyway, more straws in the wind. But when things get muddy, mixing in straw can make for strong brick and mortar. Where am I going with this? No worries: on to the aforementioned Yom Kippur understanding. 

One Yom Kippur, in my 20s, I was in New York City near Central Park and, despite the patchy state of my religiosity, I contemplated inviting myself to a holiday service in a nearby shul. Not sure where these notions come from—trolling for a miracle reconciliation of my own? The problem was it remained unfulfilled. Either the shul was closed, or I was inadequately attired, wasn’t a temple membeer, and needed a ticket. Nor was I well-suited to play the part of a lonely un-suited cheder boy hungry for learning. Which explains why I ended up instead reclining on a boulder in an autumny copse in the park, me and nature and maybe the Big Pronoun too, a fine trio of freelancers, one of us trying to figure it out, but not trying too hard.  The truth was, I was kind of enjoying my customized, improvised, PDQ approach to Yom Kippur. The boulder wasn’t the comfiest, but I lay on my sweater, and I was digging the crickets, I think. I can’t remember if the weather was co-operative. Not raining, anyway. Mainly I was pleased that I had observed Yom Kippur in my own way. I had discovered something useful, not about God exactly, but about nature dovetailing with self-reflection. I call it the Yom Kippur understanding: repeating, most years, the same template—combining a refuge in a natural setting with a pen and a fresh notepad for taking stock of myself— that originated in Central Park. 

Dovetailing 

Speaking of dovetailing, tailing a dove led me to another kind of divine revelation.Was it a criminal act or a heroic one? Exactly!

The abduction, or rescue, of the dove took place about twelve years ago on a winter evening in Boston. I was setting out on my homeward commute from work, down Boylston St. to the Arlington T stop. There was a snowstorm forecast for that night through the next morning. A sizable accumulation was predicted. My attention was drawn to a particular bird. It was a white dove (or maybe a leucistic pigeon) pattering along the sidewalk ahead of me. I was struck by its unwillingness to fly, despite all the foot traffic and motor traffic lumbering past.  I wondered what its back story was. Could it be the escaped dove of a magician, or one of those ambassadors of peace that get released at football games. I could feel an enmeshment in the fortunes of this bird taking hold in me, with the impending blizzard (and its inconvenient camouflage), the apparent disorientation of the little runaway (I’m a-walkin’ through the snow), and above all, the question of how, and if, I should intervene. 

Events seemed to plot their course without my help, though I’m not sure how the details played out. I couldn’t tell you how the dove wound up in the vestibule of a Boylston office building. Had it ducked (or dove) in there to evade my clumsy pursuit, or had I managed to herd and corner it? I’m a bit more aware of crouching next to the bird like a cop attending to some homeless soul and sheltering them (with murmured reassurances) inside my black XL leather jacket.

However it unfolded, the deed was done.  I kept my passenger safely zipped in for the next hour, changing trains, proceeding past the seven stops from Park St. to Alewife, never revealing to my fellow riders that I was harboring a stowaway (sensing that it would mark me an eccentric, at best), nor did the bird give itself away by coo or flutter. 

When I got home, I gave the dove liberty of the garage, where it stayed in the rafters for the next two days. I don’t remember how serious the snowstorm turned out to be. Not historic, anyway. I waited for the weather to be safe for flying before the Moses in me was able to persuade the Pharaoh in me to open the garage door and let the pigeon go. I never saw the moment of escape. I had no reason to suspect catplay. One minute the dove was there, and the next—true to its conjured magic-show past—Poof! Onomato-dis-opoeia

Woodpecker Triage 

I had come to the aid of a bird before. I’m thinking of the oft-remembered  woodpecker that knocked itself out, flying into our living room window. I was around nine. My dad and I heard the sickening thud and went outside to see. We found the still body by the rhododendrons. It may have been a downy, but more likely a hairy, from its size. (I was beginning to peruse bird books then.) It looked dead. What should we do? Bury it? My dad advocated positioning it behind the exhaust pipe of the idling car. I think it was the first time I rejected a decision of my dad’s. I recommended instead that we take the apparently dead woodpecker to the backyard bird bath. I won it a stay of execution. We lay the bird in a cardboard box and proceeded to the back of the house. I had barely placed it among the bird bath’s soggy leaves when the woodpecker exploded back to life, clambered up my pant leg, and took flight to the safety of the woods.  

You might conclude from these events that intervening in feathered affairs isn’t for amateurs. But amateurs are what we are, as well as fellow animals famous for not minding our own business. Maybe the moral is: “Don’t expect a medal for meddling.” I did accept an award from the woodpecker (the climb up my leg) for modestly saving its life. But the heist of the dove did not present so clear a choice between right and wrong. This was dove-napping, pure and simple, and as unprofessional as it gets. Also, it was based on a dubious sense of responsibility. In truth it was less a hero’s act than the duty of a scout pursuing a merit badge— and overdoing it. As if that scout were helping an old lady cross the street—and kept on going, despite her protests (Hey! That was my building!!). Nevertheless, I was so impressed by my own boldness, I awarded myself a medal for “meddling with good intentions.” In fact, the act  led me to coin (I thought) a new term for those who aspire to godliness. I dubbed us Junior Gods.

“Better Yet!”

The good thing is, none of us will make Senior God. Who’d want to head-butt that glass ceiling anyway? Gives me a headache just thinking about it. Nor is it one of those tests of strength where you swing a sledgehammer, striving for an ”Oh—My—God!” bell-ring. I pictured the Junior Gods as a community of freelance improvers. Call them the Imp Rovers or Gnomads, whatever name fis, so long as their deeds are rooted in betterment, and not just better for themselves. “Give Lois a silo of soil!” went one of the more obscure but farm-friendly chants. “Better yet!” was more succinct but maybe too understated. Junior Gods famously went through a lot of parade slogans and T-shirt captions like “Improvising for the Common Good” which proved to be a sneer magnet for the many who already took a contemptuous view of these wannabe divinities. The most popular T-shirt by far was the one depicting a scruffy puppy doing a backwards somersault, and named SUSI DOG. No one understood what it meant, but it sure was cute.

Susi Dog Does a Back Flip

Being godly without the burden of being perfect. It’s on us. Get it? Onus? Burden? Ha! Just a coincidence? or proof “there is a God”? Why not both? Sure there’s a God, but  we can define it, them, whomsoever, as we please, Including an image or character shared by millions, or the truthful and inclusive basis of widely divergent beliefs. Nor do I insist on consistency in my character. It’s like a dating profile: Fairness, kindness, wisdom are a plus. Must care about the planet, especially birds. Higher power? Knock yourself out. (Take It easy with those lightning bolts, pal.)

Confidentially, I’d settle for a chaperone with a sense of humor. Or an adept custodian. Or the wizard of Oz at the end of the dream, when he makes peace with being human. Humanizing God? It’s only fair. After all, God’s our creation. And we need a designated authority to unload the onus of being human, to download our woes, our oy gevalts.  We can borrow God for the same traits we’ve endowed it with. Fair’s fair. Haven’t we made ourselves into useful characters—thinkers, writers, artists, consciences, custodians? If our collaborator in this feat is a higher power, it’s one that depends on our own divine potential. The ventriloquist may give credit to the dummy, but there’s no doubt it’s the ventriloquist’s voice. We are definitely not godly material, but the night is young.. It’s important that we have a front to represent our better angels. Frees us to fuck up (did I say that?), so we can ask God for help.  

My portal to the vestibule of godliness was the dove, a well-practiced messenger (see Noah). The idea of God as a sidekick, confidante, and collaborator, dovetails with the not-so-magical but somehow still gasp-worthy fact that it’s time for Susi Dog to do her back flip. In other words, if you “flip back” the letters of Susi Dog, it will reveal a debatable but supportable cryptic truth: God…Is…Us!

Three Junior Gods

As I hinted earlier, the term “Junior Gods” has no claim on originality. But three Google citations I found made me feel in good company.  The first and most esoteric use of Junior God was a beginning level in a Skyforge video game. Unlocking your junior god form is apparently a crucial advancement in the game, enabling you to participate in invasions, operations, and intriguingly, Thea. And somewhere in the unlocked distance you might even cross paths with——Elder God.

The second reference steeply downgrades the reward of being a Junior God. The title of Jackie Kendall’s book says it: SURRENDER YOUR JUNIOR GOD BADGE: EVERY WOMAN’S BATTLE FOR CONTROl. Beside it a red Jr God badge icon bears a negating slash. The accompanying blurb explains that women have long labored under the presumption that they must, exhaustingly, always be in control. The truth is, says the author, God is ready and willing to shoulder all your burdens! So give up your role as Junior God, Kendall urges. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Saving the best for last, I give you this poem by Canada’s bard of the far North, Robert W. Service, in full, from his 1917 collection, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone.

The Junior God

      The Junior God looked from his place
In the conning towers of heaven,
And he saw the world through the span of space
Like a giant golf-ball driven.

     And because he was bored, as some gods are,
With high celestial mirth,
He clutched the reins of a shooting star,
And he steered it down to earth.

     The Junior God, ‘mid leaf and bud,
Passed on with a weary air,
Till lo! he came to a pool of mud
And some hogs were rolling there.

     Then in he plunged with gleeful cries,
And down he lay supine;
For they had no mud in paradise,
And they likewise had no swine.

     The Junior God forgot himself
 He squelched mud through his toes
With the careless joy of a wanton boy
His reckless laughter rose.

     Till, tired at last, in a brook close by
He washed off every stain;
Then softly up to the radiant sky 
He rose, a god again.

     The Junior God now heads the roll 
In the list of heaven’s peers;
He sits in the House of High Control,
And he regulates the spheres.

     Yet does he wonder, do you suppose,
If, even in gods divine,
The best and wisest may not be those
Who have wallowed awhile with the swine?

Did you notice how this concluding poem starts with a golf ball? As does this essay, “Golfing With Susi Dog”? Must be a sheer coincidence.

self-portrait

My “self-pour” trait

grew up in a realm

of trees and time, 

roamed through a series of

increasingly difficult crossword puzzles 

like those that fill the newspapers in my dreams,

to which many answers are the names of birds,          

requiring the solver to distinguish between

the kettling of broad-winged hawks

and the teakettling of a Carolina wren 

with audio links to magic-fluting wood thrush,

beckoning bzeep of woodcock,

radio broadcasts of Bob and Ray

and Mazeroski’s home run

that carried the Pirates over the Yankees in 1960.

I assemble these pieces mosaically,

revealing myself 

in barley soup, Mad magazine,

Songs of the Red Army Chorus,

and the same train

I boarded one morning in late October,

passing the time 

drawing cartoon characters 

with tiny eyes and big noses,

and writing word portraits

that keep me company

until dinner is soived— brisket,

whipped potatoes, and for

dessert, kindly caboose me  

two scoops of coffee ice cream

on Betty’s apple pie.

Peom / Ab Sense

Peom

I made a peom

wrote a mope

I was this phenom

sporting hope

of borrowed feathers,

purloined letters,

music fashioned into birds

lines that crumbled into words

I made a peom

made it mope

carved it from a bar of soap.

It jingled like a nursery rhyme

it broke the rules and didn’t care 

and then that merry mope of mine, 

sorry to say, ran out of time.

I didn’t have a dime to spare.

‘Pencils down,” the proctor sighed 

and that was how my peom died.


Postscript: I am glad to say

my peom didn’t pass away

but lived to rhyme another day.

For while there’s ink inside this pen, 

peoms—ha!—will rise again!


Ab Sense

Prone to facing up,
Ab sent his regrets
for not being present
at the Paradox Fair.

Secretly forthright,
but left back
a grade for
poor attendance,
Ab (and one D)
abandoned
right for wrong,
sold out for a song.

Ab’s in the drunk
tank now,
dreaming of Barbarella—
absinthe makes the heart
grow Fonda:
Tom Joad or Hanoi Jane,
Grapes of Wrath or
the grape boycott?

Sense is hard,
words are easy:
synonyms sleep with antonyms, 
facts with fiction;
words have no fear of
contra diction.

The Consolation  Prize     

Pity….      

Standing alone next to a useless ellipsis, pity could use some company. What’s a pity? Pity who, and why? An answer comes—a song title from my childhood: “Pity the Poor Patat.” It was one of the 78s in an album called “Songs of the South African Veld.” The singer, Josef Marais, presented folk tunes from the 1940s in English and Afrikaans. Many of them had a sprightly polka style, heavy on accordion and clarinet. The song about the poor Patat was melancholy. I assumed that this “Patat” was a country boy like the heroes of other songs, “Jan Pierewiet” and “Johnny with the Bandy Legs.” But in fact it ‘s not a name; it’s the Afrikaans word for potato.

The song compares the poor patat to a tree. The tree he has a bark, Marais croons, A bark that’s thick or thin. Pity the poor patat, he’s only got a skin. The song goes on to name other endowments of a tree that the potato can’t compete with. The tree has a trunk that commands a lofty view of the sky; the poor patat sees nothing at all with its so-called eyes. The tree is crowned with leaves that “wave all around”; but no foliage has the patat, whose home is in the ground. In the last verse, the potato finally gets its due. The tree only gives us wood, Marais sings (understating a bit); whereas from the patat we get our daily food.

The topic of this post is pity, not potatoes. But the taters and trees illustrate one of the pitfalls of pity: it can be all kinds of misleading. For instance, how pitiful is a potato, really?  We’re urged to feel sorry for it because it missed out on being a tree. Does the average patat really wish it were armored in tree bark? Does it really dream of being able to see the sky? Would it really trade its earthy, underground home for a treetop perch? Or could it be that pity is the putty of human feelings spread on a spud that doesn’t need any solace, however well-intentioned? In truth, doesn’t this botanical brouhaha have more to do with me overthinking a folk ditty than it does with the folly of spending pity on potatoes? Folly? Why not call it practice? Why can’t pity be free-floating—a thought balloon in search of an idea? Even invented pity could be a powerful foe or ally, wielded with care.

The Fugitive

How did I fall in with pity to begin with? I meant  to write about it as another of the Parkinson’s symptoms and accommodations that I was claiming as my own. I was frequently taking inventory of these familiars, starting with bradykinetic slowness (honed over years of childhood daydreaming), old-crone posture, freezing in conversations, missed timing in attempts at wit . . . Feeling pity for me yet? More to the point, do I want pity? Or is this potato barking up the wrong tree?

Not everything was symptomatic. My writing was behaving more or less respectably, although often I caught myself putting on the Ritz, like someone “trying mighty hard to write like Geoffrey Chaucer’s…flying saucer!”  Furthermore, instead of exploring those symptoms and accommodations (grab bars, stair chairs, walkers, therapists), I kept reducing them to items on a list. The biggest of these unhatched eggs was the one for pity. While neither a symptom nor an accommodation itself, pity somehow oversaw my relationship with all those PD particulars. I’ll try to unpack that somehow somehow.

Meanwhile I began to see how hard pity was to pin down and define. For some reason, I kept referring to it as duty, which could mean either an obligation or a tax. Apparently pity had a more serious role to play than that of consolation prize or booby prize. It could be the key to explaining myself to myself and therefore to others.  if I could manage to lasso pity — shape-shifter that it is—then other aspects of Parkinson’s might reveal their truths.Clearly the itemized approach would tell no more about pity’s complexities than a wanted poster told about the fugitive in the photograph. I needed to travel with that fugitive, sit next to it on the bus, maybe offer it a macaroon. 

Say, aren’t you Pity? 

Rude of you to ask. (phony British accent!) As a matter of fact, being pitty is the distinguishing feature on my wanted poster, I had very bad acne as a teenager. 

That’s terrible! 

Well, I survived.  

No, I meant that pun was terrible. So are you really the personifiction of Pity?

Apparently. Unless you are.

Well-played. Just between you and me and the lamppost, do you think this dialog is working? 

Hard to say. What was the point of it? 

I’m not sure. Probably one of those writer-meets-character tropes I keep getting sucked into.

Well, if I were you—and I am—I’d go back to paragraph three, where you write that “pity could be a powerful foe or ally, wielded with care.” And speaking as one, I would slow-walk those metaphors of yours. Except maybe “slow-walk.” I like that one.

I wondered if  “slow-walk” was a reference to my number one symptom: slow walk, slow everything. As for cutting back on the metaphors, too late for that! I could already sense a gumshoe narrator creeping into my interior voice, trying to fit the puzzle pieces together. But “a powerful foe or ally…welded with care”. had posskibillikies, mused the one-eyed sailor. In fact, welded worked better than wielded. I could even picture a slogan: Pity: Mend a hole; make it whole. And while I’m at it: When in doubt, slog, slogan, or toboggan your way out.

Welding Class

Did I mention I know pity? Oh, heck, yes, we have a long history, going back to homesickness in summer camp, sieges of poison ivy, the aforementioned acne, and various disastrous dates.  In all honesty, those were probably occasions for self-pity. But It could be that pity is always self-pity—providing practice with shared or altruistic pity further down the road. 

“Weld with care,” said the fugitive. That could apply to a solitary welder or to a crew. Mending a hole, a rent, a tear. Explaining a change in oneself to oneself. Sharing that new self with others. Then returning the favor in kind(ness) That was a lot of jobs to handle, even for a seasoned shape-shifter. Sure this is pity we’re talking about? deadpanned the fugitive. Old boo-hoo-hoo, woe-is-you. pity? Suddenly it goes from a doormat to a diplomat?  You’d  better mend the hole in my understanding, for starters, writer.

Nice pass, fugitive. Understanding—that’s exactly what pity should be about. It’s the unexpected reward, the serendipity that contains the pity. Literally! No throwing puns at the conundrums, class. Lettuce leaf this word salad alone and return to real life—to review the nuances that separate pity from its synonyms, including sympathy, empathy, compassion, kindness, and the big one, misericordia, hovering like a dragonfly over a pond in mid-summer. 

Interesting word, that. [chalkboard clicking begins] You’ve got misery in the first part, and cordiality in the second (cordia is Latin for heart). And the two halves conjoIn to make a long word meaning “mercy” or “pity.” It’s as if the heart part overcame the misery that would have made the whole—well, pitiful. But a kinder heart took pity on the miser. And so here together we have the two sides of pity: the compassionate, extended hand; and the folded-arms “I’ll be the judge of that.” It’s the difference between the pity that welds—makes repairs, makes whole—and the pity that wields—as in a weapon, a hammer, or just power.

I’ve asked the Fugitive to model the negative side of pity.

I pity you, writer. I really do pity you…

Note the unmistakable whiff of contempt.

You’re a prisoner of your own ego, writer, trapped in a cage of unrealistic expectations and scared you’re really an impostor. Such a pity.

Okay, Fugitive, got it. Thanks.

Pity him, forest spirits! He used to hold his own in conversations. He prided himself on his wry wit. And now he lives in terror of missing the point. Oy, the pity of it! 

Don’t feel you have to go through every symptom, Fugitive, to show that pity can be nasty. It can also be nice! You’ve seen those dairy ads, right? 

Farmer! Has a painful chew put your bovine in a bad moooooood?  Well, don’t wield a cudgel to cow your cow. Why not use CUD GEL to soothe her sore gums?  It’s made with sorghum, so. you know it’s sweet!

And wasn’t there a lewd tag line in the old ads… “[snifffff] Aaaaah! Smell that dairy air!”

Is It Not a Pity?

So I ask again as I did at the outset: What’s a pity? Pity who, and why?” 

It’s a pity that  “it’s a pity” sets such a doleful, done-deal, tone. Whereas starting with “Isn’t it a pity…?” gives it a yearning and yielding tone, maybe because a question implies a choice. Or maybe because it reminds me of a George Harrison song I like. 

Isn’t it a pity, now isn’t it a shame

How we break each other’s hearts

And cause each other pain?

How we take each other’s love

Without thinking anymore

Forgetting to give back

Isn’t it a pity?

 Pity is one of those both/and propositions. What dragonfly or damselfly in distress would turn down a comfort/ifying word? Yet turn it down we do, even on a cold night of the soul. It turns out that trusting the sincerity of the extended hand is not easy. Something about pity’s evasive nature adheres to its Terms of Use. That whiff of contempt in “I pity you” amounts to a “shame on me” tax just for soliciting or accepting someone’s pity.

Maybe the trouble lies with the word pity. Maybe it would be less provocative to use one of the milder synonyms, like sympathy or compassion. No shame in that, But wouldn’t it be a pity to miss the arc of kindness in pity, the two-way street that enables the recognition of pain or need; the no-strings offer of help, defense, and repair; the reassurance that we aren’t alone, that we all have access to friendship, at least potentially?  

Bonus tracks / Seldom Answered Questions

How often does the pitier encounter the pitied on the same two-way street? (asks A. Nother Fugitive of Ayers Cliff, Quebec) 

If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked that, I’d have exactly ten cents. Sorry, Nother.  I don’t have the data to answer your query, But if you can imagine it, then I’d say it happens often enough. Pity seldom matches up the ideal pair, the George Bailey with the Clarence Oddbody from It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, more often than not the thunderbolt strikes on a one-way street called Rue du Self-Pity. Which is not necessarily the rueful preoccupation that the self-pitier/-pitied agonizes is its inescapable fate.Take it from yours truly.

You talk about how pity welds and repairs, but you’ve got to give poets credit for exposing the holes and rents in the human experience. Haven’t you? (asks Ann Other Fugitive from Duluth, Minnesota.) 

Good point, Ann. What would we do without Mr. Jones, the guy who knows something is happening but doesn’t know what it is, in Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”? Ironically, Mr. Jones doesn’t have a Mr. Jones to share his confusion with, unless you count Mr. Jones as his own Mr. Jones. But Mr. Jones is the confused one, so he’s hardly the best choice to explain what’s happening to Mr. Jones. On the other hand, maybe Mr. Jones doesn’t want an explanation.  Maybe he just wants someone to acknowledge that something is happening, before investigating what it is, himself. But you can’t really do that alone. You need another person’s opinion, sensibility, and extended hand—don’t you, Mr. Jones?

March Fourth

It’s the feast day for launching projects, possibly the only day of the year that sounds like a complete sentence, March Fourth. Assuming you’ve forgiven me for that whiff of dairy air above, I leave you, fugitives, with this final attempt at unpacking, or de-obfuscating, pity.

Pity the hot potato! Not easy! If you catch it, you burn your hand. But if you let it go, you’re out of the game. Kind of like owning these symptoms and accommodations that add up to a new identity based on a diagnosis I traded my old identity for,14 years ago. I didn’t quite believe it then, and I’m fairly sure I don’t get it now. But I also swapped my cow and a tub of CudGel for some magic beans whose label I misread as PITHY, and I thought, well. that’s lucky, I have a bad habit of rambling on, so…. 

So slow-walk those metaphors, boyo. No cow. No pity beans. Just a cluster of attitudes, gently used: 

Pity is a judgment, harsh or healing. A pat on the back. Schadenfreude—taking comfort in someone else’s pain. Pride at repairing someone’s damaged ego, including yours. The pressure of trying to be funny or conversant, and coming up empty, and accepting or suffering the consequences. Extending kindness or making your approval conditional. Pity is understanding. Determining your own grade. Underrating or overrating yourself or others. It’s what you can’t help being and what you can benefit from learning. That some rules are capricious. Others are fair. That we’re interestingly individual and in most respects we’re alike.

March forth!

The Cygnet Ring

The Bat Signal is on!

That was how Commissioner Gordon summoned Batman when some colorful ArchFiend (The Riddler, the Penguin, et al.) was messing with normality in Gotham City. In this case, the Foe is the Virus, a.k.a. the Pandemonic, that’s been interfering with our entitlement to a good time. I would add that my memory bank has been rapidly losing interest—my own interest. And as a result, I find myself relying on less than a firm grasp of what I formerly deemed important and necessary. (I could put the blame on Mame, to use a line from “Gilda,” or “dock the wage off age-ing,” but putting the onus on the Virus is, I dunno, battier, more Gotham.)  Anyway, you can see the degrading of the high-def we enjoyed in the old normal, no? Our jpegs are flattening; and yes, ok, some of us are losing faith in our memory retrieval, let alone our ability to compensate for what’s missing.

But shrinking wonder that we feel historically a little shaky, Battleax! It has been 100 years since we had to defeat a global virus, and 77 years since we took on the comparable task of winning a world war.  But are we defenseless? Not on your tintype, Bathmat. We have marshaled the troops of science to vaccinate that germy clan back to Pink Polka Dot Land, provided we have the sense to assert our right to bare arms! And understand that the jab won’t be done till we roughen the matrix back to a normal that we can all recognize! Time needs us as much as we need time, Battledore, and the strategy is the same as it was in 1776. Slow time down, pay it a visit, reassure it that it’s not being ignored or blamed for any bad events on its watch, and never presume to speak for time or co-opt its persona. Got that, writer? Love it then leave it—as a puissance, a power, a potency, not as a pet . Perplexed? The deliverer is in the details.

I used to be a bit calendar-obsessed. I don’t mean pinup calendars; that’s a separate category. I mean the whole concept of organizing time by monthly traits, presided over by a central image that became more sophisticated as time’s passengers did. While I could, I still believed in the seasonal icons: March kites, August seashore, November leaf drifts; and I took obscure comfort in the calendar’s random information—the phases of the moon, world holidays, presidents’ birthdays, and even the dubious assignment of weather forecasts for every day of the year.

I myself joined this time parade as a participant in Twenty Ought Nine, at the junction of unexpected retirement and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. I put out an on-line almanac, attributed to “Old Hatch.” This was a decade before Covid 19, and I saw myself as time’s amanuensis for as long as normality remained. But after the covid paradigm shifted, well, tempus fuhgeddaboudit. Time wasn’t slowing down for an incurious stay-at-home who claimed to speak for time yet couldn’t always remember what day of the week it was, let alone update the month on the calendar, though armed with the best of intentions.

Fact: I have invested no money in the purchase of a new 2022 calendar. And here it is, January 15.

Fact: I haven’t hung the 2022 calendar I ended up with, an Audubon Society member’s freeebie. I can just glimpse the wingtip of the brown pelican on the cover, mostly buried under a bunch of unexamined papers. And here it is, January 15.

Fact: I have been harboring low expectations regarding 2022, disdaining its gray-suited uniformity and frankly doubting its ability to deliver better news than 2020 and 2021.

The question is, have I poisoned the well with these shows of disrespect, bringing on the very bad news I envisioned? Have I, with the help of Covid. imagined forth an undifferentiated time zone, discouraging originality and encouraging redundancy? Go ahead, say it. Time will tell.            

Or have I in fact stumbled into the restricted district of my nemesis: the character I call the Ruler—the grand vizier who lays down a minefield of rules governing every occasion. Writing rules. Social rules. Rules of time that stipulate each new year will be at least acknowledged, if not applauded. Why? Just for launching us on the latest solar orbit with a new four-digit number? We might as well introduce a Dr. Seuss rule ensuring that every tock gets ticked and every tick tocked? The Ruler’s eyes crinkle with humor and compash. The real objective, say the eyes, is to befriend time. Should I trust them? Why not, seeing as it’s me who’s the one pulling the strings.This kinder and gentler Ruler advocates a golden rule, counseling Patience and Prudence (the values, that is, not the two sisters who had a hit song of “Tonight You Belong to Me” in the year 1956).

Obviously, these rules are aimed at people, not time, per se. Though some rules pertain to both, like those two contradictory rules about waiting: All things come to those who wait; but Time and tide wait for no man. Good luck reconciling those.

Wait a second, wasn’t the real objective of this “Cygnet Ring” essay to rescue time from the predation of Covid, which has sped up the pace of time by making it ridiculously boring? Right, and therefore to slow time down you have to make it…ridiculously interesting! The devilry is in the details! Fictional? If necessary—and frictional! Every pearl of wisdom starts with an irritating grain of sand. You mean there’s still time to save it? Duck Soup, pal. Just turn time into a Marx Brothers movie. Did you know that Harpo was the Ruler’s nemesis, back when the rules had teeth? In fact, fangs! (Don’t mention it. Ever again!)

Befriend 2022! Not easy. As we’ve said, this new year, fifteen days in, has been short on inspiration. But the Ruler counsels patience. And a doctor counsels patients. Which has nothing to do with 2022, and makes it the perfect segue. Take a close look at this calendar. Cover one eye. Cover the other eye. What do you see? Nothing! Correct. True or false: This is idiocy for no good reason.”True? No, I’m sorry, True is false. False is true because it’s actually for a very good reason. I always believe in good reasons. I’m actually an optimist posing as an optometrist. You may uncover your eyes. Read line 4. No, not “E-Doc,” dummy. Letter by letter. “E . . . D. . . O. . . C”  Read it again, faster. “E-D-O-C!” Oh, so now you say it is idiocy. Make up your mind. Just kidding. I will now test your reflexes. ROARRR! Very good, you flinched. You just passed the Roar-shock test. You’re almost done. Now I’m going to test both your imagination and your optimism about 2022. Look at the calendar again and tell me what you see? 2022. Twenty twenty-two. (Yawn.) Are you sure you don’t see anything else? Take your time, please. Don’t disappoint me! What’s that you say? Swans a-swimming? Aha! And how many swans do you see? Three! Better and better! What’s that you say? One more thing? Between Swan number one and Swan number two, there is what? An egg! YES!!! Brilliant! You saw the three swans and the egg! You’ve graduated from the new normal! You’ve befriended time and successfully slowed it down! Congratulations! 

This concludes the lost Marx Brothers movie, Cygnet Feathers. But there are still two more observations to be wrung out of this E-D-O-C before the Ruler is satisfied that we can legitimately conclude this essay, “The Cygnet Ring.”

1. A cygnet is a young swan. As the new guest Ruler, I hereby decree that the swans a-swimming in 2022 are not adult swans but three cygnets. And a ring of three or more cygnets, I further rule, shall be called a cygnature. The most famous cygnet, of course, is the misunderstood and misnamed “Ugly Duckling,” which in truth is neither a duckling nor ugly, which is the point, I guess. But it begs the question, did Hans Christian Andersen, who was rather homely and ungainly, and was also rumored to be the illegitimate son of the future king of Denmark—did he see himself as an ugly duckling?

2. Getting back to 2022, now that it’s settled: those 2s are arguably three handsome cygnets, paddling west, we still need to account for the egg—and the Ruler confirms that an egg it must be. Not a zero. Well, there’s no mystery—a mystery is what it is. As mysterious as an unhatched egg, don’t they say? and if not, they should. Every new year ought to contain a conundrum, a cypher, an unhatched egg. What new crew member will the egg and the new year hatch? Another cygnet? A live decoy? A snapping turtle or a duckbilled platypus? And what fate awaits this ring as they ring in the new? Where are they headed?  To a coronation or an omelet? 

Say it again, Sam. Time will tell.

The Passing Parade

Lately I have been spending a lot of time with a phrase. I watched it go from a mysterious you-again? visitor to a valued bucker-upper, guiding me from the boggy ground of self-pity to a craggy, climbable landscape. Then back to the bog, but this time in the company of a familiar ally. Can a couple of words do that? They might if the power is mutual, with the electricity flowing from the phrase to the user and from the user to the phrase. In other words, it’s the old formula: part collaboration, part suspension of disbelief. 

These nearly-magic words were apparently conjured by baseball, or the lack of it. The World Series had just ended. The only two teams I cared about, the Red Sox and the Giants, had dropped out of contention in the playoffs. The eventual champions, the Atlanta Braves, were a team I had long scorned for its fans’ irritating, probably racist, war chant-pantomime, the so-called “Tomahawk Chop”. Even so,  I watched all six Braves-Astros games, just because it was the World Series. After the final out, I felt a gap that took the shape of some missing miracle catch or score-tying home run that I wasn’t allowed to see anymore and instead referred me back to a shoebox filled with 1950s baseball cards and the heroics of an earlier Braves team from Milwaukee, with players named Lew Burdette and Hank Aaron, a team that beat the unbeatableYankees in seven games, the last of which I remember as a bright, technicolored, exception to the gray-toned TV ballgames of 1957. 

The disappearance of baseball was expected, of course. It was the usual migration of teams southward to warmer regions, mimicking the exodus of buntings, tanagers, thrushes, and orioles. Yet I couldn’t help seeing it as another instance of things falling out of currency—the vanishing act of aging; abilities and goals forsaken, energy declined, and one particular item on a Parkinson’s questionnaire gaining new relevance: “Are you spending less time doing activities that gave you pleasure?” (or words to that effect) All of these ghosts and runaways needed a larger frame of reference to put them in a homier context. Through some connection I couldn’t retrace, the phrase that came to mind was “the passing parade.” 

Get Back

I had heard it before. I recognized in it the ringmastery of the era I was born into, the Atomic Age. A check with Google yielded a title for a series of movie shorts featuring a cavalcade of man-made marvels and historical crowd-pleasers, including the world of old barbershops; cartoonists who captained the funnies pages; and an actual parade of kaisers, tsars, archdukes and kings representing the endangered royalty of Europe. It partook of the would-I-kid-you? style of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and a scouts-honor evocation of “America,” even encompassing my ghostly shoebox full of vintage baseball cards. It was a more trustworthy form of the spiel in a carnival sideshow—see our inventions? our fallen heroes? all the past events we take for granted? Step right up! Time marches on, this parade of glories reminded us, with something more than a nudge not to forget, nor let it disappear. 

It wasn’t as if I was auditioning metaphors. But I was glad to discover that the “passing parade” as an idea had no particular agenda and proved adaptable to my changing judgments and imaginings.  At first it offered a handy recliner in which to sprawl and brood about my bygone pastimes and foregone pleasures. It was too late for me, the obliging phrase agreed. The cheese had gone bad. I simply didn’t have enough time to achieve the perfection that I had been chasing and ducking all my life. No time to repair my flaws, make amends with all the friends I had allowed to think me lost for want of a timely email. No time to complete my magnum opus—all my unfinished writings (including this wandering essay) that still needed to find a home in a digital doc. (Sing it1! Jiggly digital doc, the mouse ran out the clock. And I’m afraid the whole parade has passed from lack o’ tick-tock!”)

It’s low-hanging fruit to equate the parade’s passing with passing away. It would be like getting off at the first exit you come to just because it’s there. Or starting with a useful old word for shortage, dearth, then realizing that if it lost one more letter, you’d get death. Hey, lose a different letter and you’ll get earth. Or heart. The choice is yours, rules the passing parade, depending on what you decide passing means.

So I visited the dictionary and I looked up pass

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, there must be a thousand journeys for pass, whose multiple meanings all proceed from passus, the Latin word for “step.”The first entry for pass as a verb is “move, proceed, go.” It’s followed by the unwelcoming second entry “go away, depart, die.” For a parade, going forth seemed to put a better foot forward than going away did.

But things do go away, become fewer, and lose their edge. Best to accept it, if you can. Maybe because I’ve been binge-watching the Beatles’ Get Back lately, I took a sidestep through George Harrison’s song “All Things Must Pass.” I liked the matter-of-factness of the lyrics, citing the brevity of sunrise, sunset, and night, the inevitability of moving on. This was not a ticking time bomb but the patient company of nature in progress. 

And I’d be remiss not to mention another Beatle-driven step forward, courtesy of Ringo and Paul’s grandfather (played by Wilfrid Brambell) in A Hard Day’s Night.

Ringo [defensively] : Books are good.

Grandfather : Parading’s better.

Ringo : Parading?

Grandfather : [nods eagerly]  Parading the streets! Trailing your coat! Bowling along! LIVING!

…which was enough to send Ringo off on a series of quixotic mini-adventures including wayward dart throwing in a pub; taking rolls of snapshots, then accidentally drowning the camera; and bonding with a fellow “deserter”, age eleven or so, all with a sad-hopeful guitar playing “This Boy” in the background. 

Leave it to George and Ringo, the least showboaty of the Beatles, to cover Passing and Parading between the two of them.

I haven’t quite finished with passing. But nor have I really started with parades.  What did my parade consist of? A solo excursion, like Ringo’s? Or could it be a parade of regrets, for shortcomings real or imagined? I could picture a float standing for Parkinson’s, with tiny actors in white suits displaying illegible ink scribbles, and dancing around on a mock notepad, meant to represent the downsized handwriting of micrographia. By contrast, why not a gigantic helium Covid balloon getting pelted with boos and overripe veggies from the crowd. Dare I request an Aging and Disabled Marching Band, performing close-order drills with cherry-red walkers followed by a squad of agile cane-twirlers?

I agree: borderline exploitative. A display I’d be smarter to eschew! (Gesundheit!) But this being my passing parade, I get to staff it or stuff it as I seef it. So send in the clowns—there ought to be clowns wearing buffoonish, cartoonish pajamas under their pinstripe business suits which they proceed to remove, piece by piece, in the world’s least titillating striptease. Give it up for the Passing Strange Klown Korps.

Parades often pause for a brief review, and I don’t mean a Fruit of the Loom fashion show. (Get it? A review of briefs?) Moving along, remember how the Tomahawk Choppers brought about the end of baseball, which  led to my brooding about the end of everything—crosswords, crossbills, crossing guards, and hot cross buns. This messy state of affairs called for a bold metaphor to contain the panic that all was lost due to the acceleration of time, which was due to climate change, entropy, and possibly me. As for that steadying phrase—“The Passing Parade”—what did it mean?? The cavalcade of events and people and ideas, since forever? Was time passing away, never to return? Or was the passing an ongoing process, constantly refreshing? Why not both? Why not others? A herd of elephants, trunk to tail, passing methane? Please. What was that about constantly refreshing?

 Bullish

Let’s cut to the chase. Did my metaphor do the job? And could someone remind me what that job was? To clean up after the elephants? No. After the clowns? No! I claim the aim was to change my role, and model changing anyone else’s role, from the missing non-participant to at least the attentive spectator and—why not?— the Passing Parader—disguise and theme music optional. 

Early in my acquaintance with this magic phrase that had no magic of its own, I was getting tired of tallying my various losses. So what if I was feeling reduced to the point of caramelization? At least I was tasty. In need of a more positive attitude, I wrote, “You can only bemoan your deficits for so long before you begin to wonder if you’re missing an opportunity to feel bullish about yourself.” Bullish was not a word I had ever personally tried on. Gain one more letter, it now occurs to me, and it could be bullshit. Close call!  It was after that, I think, that I began to see the Passing Parade not just as a solace but as an agency of change, an enabler, and even a collaborator,. 

A metaphor may engender many allegiances. I might pledge mine to the passing parade of unlimited opportunity—real clowns, fictional elephants, orderly ideas, illegible words, barbers clacking their scissors in cadence, my forgotten vocabulary words and forgotten names of movie stars, all scrunched in the backseat of a waxed convertible, waving bye-bye, never to return. And let us not overlook the passed ones, the spectators and cheerers and wavers who complete the circuit of spectacle. And why not a toast to the most valiant bystander of all, the lame boy in the story of the Pied Piper, who was unable to keep up with the other paraders, the ones who followed the Pied Piper’s music to a troubling ending, and so invented irony.

Ender

Should a Passing Parade ever end? Or should it continue on a loop, seeming to pass away, the cadence of drums and fifes fading into the distance; then gradually fading back in like a fulfilled promise, reviving the earlier excitement. In fact, I acknowledge: Intent as I’ve been on parading this metaphor (ad infinitum), I have omitted that excitement and other qualities of real parades, which, after all, model the magic for the metaphoric ones. Consider the range, the spectacle of a circus parade with marching camels and elephants (none mistreated!). Compare the diversity of a Pride parade, presenting people as people, alongside a parade of performers—jugglers, gymnasts, and Minutemen—aiming to awe or at least dazzle.

All things must pass. I’ll wrap things up (who cheered?) by recounting three parades, one real, one surreal, and one somewhere in between. 

The real one was a classic holiday parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue. Standing somewhere amid the throng, across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, were three friends, Brian McKenna, John McQueen, and Hal O’Ber (meself). We had bussed down from our upstate NY college for a taste of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, beginning with a tall can of lager tucked into our winter gloves (or at least in my winter glove) and I was feeling no pain by the time the Ladies’ Ancient Order of Hibernians swung past. Phalanx after phalanx of the most amiable women of indeterminate age, and how they beamed when we raised our voices and gloves in salute: “GOD BLESS YE, HIBERNIANS!” again and again. As far as I was concerned, my joy was pure, and the ladies were no doubt canny to the drift of the draught; their smiles were as tolerant as my memories still are of that ebullient ritual passage between the paraders and the passed.

Then there’s a mindblowingly surreal parade, a recurring sequence in the 2006 Japanese anime film, Paprika.It’s like a hallucinogenic dream as conceived by Hieronymus Bosch, if he were a Japanese cartoonist. Who were the paraders? Bowing and weaving, walking refrigerators and microwaves, joined by dancing umbrellas, toys and animals—frogs, rabbits, cats, geese—and a disturbing number of garishly made-up baby dolls as well as clowns and businessmen falling like slices of salami, also robots and demons, all moving rhythmically to a nightmarish beat.

The last parade is not as real as the Hibernians’, nor as surreal as Paprika’s. It occurs at the end of the movie, The Music Man.after Robert Preston’s Harold Hill has coaxed just enough ”music” from the assembled band members to convince their doting parents that this salesman is not a fraud, at least not anymore. There’s a new generous mood right here in River City, a willingness to believe in miracles or else movie magic. And borne on this faith, as the final credits roll, the ragtag musicians morph into a fully outfitted marching band in crimson and cream uniforms, a wish-fulfillment fantasy possibly conjured by the mayor’s lovestruck daughter, if not all the rest of us subscribers to the infinite opportunities of the passing parade, and soon all the movie’s characters join this group apotheosis to the tune of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” Some may quibble that this wish fulfullment is too computer-generated for fair use as a Passing Parade, but I maintain that every little thing counts.  And that’s why I need to add one more directive: let the parade pass!