Saturday, December 30, 2006

December 30, 2007--Saturday Story: The Passive Voice--Part One

Found separated and divorced within a year of his discovering Lydia’s graphic Diary were Lloyd and Lydia. And with that, he entered a period of life where the objects of his actions became more important than its performer. Lloyd, in other words, found himself living life in the passive voice.

The Writers Workshop never again convened after the blackout because Bobby Richman of Kiddihood fame crashed his car on the way home; and though he escaped serious injury, was found to have more than the legal limit of alcohol in his blood--any in his case would have been damning since he was too young to drink legally--and traces of non-prescription drugs were discovered in his system—no one was old enough for a discovery of that kind to be ignored.

Nor was faculty advisor Zazlo’s responsibility for this or, worse, its lack thereof to be ignored; nor was it by the administration of Brooklyn College, which suggested that it might be a good time for him to find another campus that could serve as his professional home.

Which he miraculously was able to do by simply answering an advertisement on the Education page of the Sunday New York Times—Queens College’s English Department was seeking applicants for non-tenure track instructors in Composition and Literature. Within a month of submitting his résumé and a well-crafted cover letter he was interviewed and the following day hired. The chair told him it was this clever and self-deprecating letter that drew attention to his application—otherwise it would had been ignored in the stack of the more than 100 that were submitted, most, the chair seemed to take pleasure in informing and tweaking Zazlo, from young scholars who had already completed their PhDs and had publications in refereed journals. Lloyd realized, from this, that he had been wise not to make reference to the story that was published in that rag Black Sun.

Thus assigned to him were two sections of freshman Composition and one of the required genre course—The Novel, in which Pearl and His Brother and The Dirty Books was unlikely to be found on the reading list.

This move to Queens College also meant that though the college was quite near Patty Moriarity’s house in Flushing, without the Workshop there was no natural way for them to stay connected; and he did not want to make any active efforts to see her or continue to commit adultery with her while fighting with Lydia and her lawyer about alimony and the division of their meager assets. With Lydia’s Diary in his possession as evidence of her perfidy he held all the strong cards and did not want to give away any of this advantage by any illicit activity of his own.

The teaching went reasonably well. The students at Queens College were indistinguishable to Lloyd from those at Brooklyn—typically the first in their families to attend a college, occupationally ambitious, and without much interest in or pretence about the value of learning for its own sake. Or maybe, he thought, it was just the way they responded to his teaching. When he took the risk to ask one, over a quick sandwich gobbled down in the college cafeteria (at Queens there was no concept of lunching—everyone was too busy running from home to class and back home and then off to part-time jobs) they invariably told him, no, it wasn’t him at all, actually quite the contrary—they liked his ironic style and enthusiasm for the subject matter. But in addition to all of this necessary racing about, which interfered with anything resembling careful study or reflection, they represented themselves, with averted eyes, as less “cosmopolitan” (some said “sophisticated”) than the students he was familiar with at Brooklyn College. They, they claimed, were serious about their studies—“Not like us.” Hadn’t there even been Nobel Prize winners who were Brooklyn College graduates they asked? Not, he thought, during the years I was on the faculty. Not since 1943. But he did know that Dr. Frank Field, the popular TV weatherman was a more recent graduate.

But they clung to their contention, citing the fact that Queens College was geographically further from Manhattan than Brooklyn. As he was still living after the separation in their house in Flatbush, he knew that too was not true. From the top floor of the Queens College administration building you could at least catch sight of the Manhattan skyline. But from even the tallest building near where he continued to sleep and eat (Lydia departed like a gleefully escaped prisoner to a sublet in Greenwich Village) all you could see were other undistinguished apartment houses and, if the air was clear, the wooded hills of Green-Wood Cemetery. How fitting, how ironic he thought.

Thus it came to him to attempt to make his professional way at an institution from which the City could only be partially glimpsed, where Patty had undoubtedly already forgotten him, and in a borough through which he needed to drive back and forth along roads laid over the ancient cinder fields of Flushing, under the fictive relentlessly udging eyes of The Great Gatsby’s Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.

To be continued . . .

Friday, December 29, 2006

December 29, 2006--Friday In (Yes) Florida: What Ifs?

When walking the strand at the end of the continent, it is irresistible not to think about how we got here, for sure up out of that glorious water, and where we are headed. Not too many insights yet, but we still have a week here to try to figure things out. As if that were enough!

But last night, at the sushi bar at Yama’s Restaurant in Delray Beach (not bad at all), we sat next to a distinguished gentleman of 75 who, it turns out was a very high-level official in the Republican Party and then in Congress, back in the days of, yes, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bush 41. I think he would prefer for me not to tell you more than that about him. Because of what he told us.

He talked, Ancient Mariner style, for well over an hour, anguishing about the demise of moderation in the GOP, Bush’s mistakes and “incompetence,” and his distress about the Evangelical Right taking control of his party.

But then he also told us some behind-closed doors stories about Nixon and Ford, timely ones considering the events of the week. Of possible historical interest he spoke about newly-sworn-in President Ford’s efforts to select a vice president. (See linked NY Times article on the subject.) He set up a small advisory group headed by the Pennsylvania governor Bill Scranton. George H. W. Bush was eager to be named VP and had his surrogates make a full force effort to get the Scranton group to recommend him. Up until the last minute it very much looked as if this campaign would succeed.

Our dinner companion was eager to see Nelson Rockefeller selected; and since the Bush team was misrepresenting the sentiments of much of the Republican leadership—telling Scranton that the vast majority supported Bush—from his position as a party leader he knew this was not true. And so he forced his way into the center of the process, arranging an off-the-record meeting with Scranton to tell him what in fact was going on. The night before Scranton was to pass along his views to President Ford.

Scranton, the record shows, changed his mind over night and recommended Rockefeller to Ford. Ford selected him, and our new friend was hated by the Bush family ever since.

But what if he had failed and Bush had become Ford’s vice president? It is likely that he would have been on the Ford ticket for the election in 1976 and would have joined Ford in defeat. Might this have meant that Reagan would not have put Bush on his ticket in 1980 and thus he might never have become a VP? And if he hadn’t, he would likely not ever have been nominated and elected president.

So, finally, here’s my biggest What If—if there was no Bush 41, would there ever have been a Bush 43??

These kinds of thoughts can make one crazy so it’s back to the beach for me.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

December 28, 2006--Getting What You Don't Pay For

At a time when everyone knows we have a crisis in public education that will doom us in the long run and that the best way to begin to overcome the problem is to hire qualified teachers for every class, the NY Times reports that average teachers’ salaries increased by only $1,000 per year between 1993-94 and 2003-4. (To see article go to and click on Education and then on the posted graphic.)

Though not everyone agrees that higher pay would guarantee better teaching, everyone agrees that it is one essential component of attracting better-qualified people to the profession.

In the “old days,” when public school teaching was considered to be “women’s work,” and when women who became teachers were either “trousseau teachers,” those teaching to keep themselves occupied and to make some small amount of money before getting married, or “spinsters” who were living at home with their parents and didn’t need that much money, there was little need to pay them a “living wage.” And since there wasn’t much opportunity for “career women” to enter other professions, teaching attracted many very talented people.

But times have dramatically changed. Woman have many more occupational options and since everyone needs to work to support a family, how much one is paid for teaching is a big part of the equation for anyone considering this profession.

Sad to say, since teacher salaries have not kept pace with other forms of work, one consequence is that most classes in our poorest schools are taught by under-certified, poorly trained teachers. And we know the results—by every measure our schools are among the lowest performing worldwide and fully one-third of our public school kids are in dysfunctional public schools.

If we look at the Times graphic, we see just how little America values its teachers—in literal dollar-terms. The average annual salary for teachers is about $46,500. Full professors, on the other hand, average about $95,000.

Who’s more socially valuable—a full professor who teaches one or two classes per semester and works 28-30 weeks a year and then gets full-paid sabbaticals to research and write about the Kwakiutls (nothing wrong with them), or an inner-city second-grade teacher struggling to teach reading and writing to 28 children who come from homes where English isn’t spoken?

Who’s more socially valuable—an accountant who earns on average $55,000 per year to help people like me cheat on my taxes, or a teacher in a El Paso high school attempting to teach chemistry in a lab where there is no running water or gas?

About the professor the answer is obvious. About my accountant, however, I’m a little less certain.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

December 27, 2006--Beach Walk

They’re playing sexual politics both in France and here. But here in a transgender mode while there it’s Fem all the way.

Ségolène Royal is the nominee of the Socialist Party for the upcoming presidential election, and she is given a very good chance of winning. Hillary Clinton is the presumptive frontrunner for the nomination of the Democratic Party, and if successful is given at least an even chance of winning the general election.

That’s where the similarities end—Ségolène (that’s how most French refer to her) is using her sex as an asset, representing herself as the mother-protector of the nation; Hillary on the other hand (that’s how most Americans refer to her) is running away from her sex by representing herself as our potential father-protector, more macho and tougher on the war in Iraq than former prisoner-or-war John McCain.

In “soft-power” France, where their cultured and socially-protected way of life is proudly proclaimed, Ségolène’s strategy is sound. She is pledged to protect and preserve their vaunted social safety net, months of vacation, lifetime employment, and early retirement entitlements. She models herself after Marianne, the mythic female who represents the ideals of the French Republic—both nurturer and warrior.

While they have their Marianne, we have our Uncle Sam who challengingly and eternally points his stern finger at us, saying “I want you!” So the last thing in the world we want in our leaders is a wimp, much less a female one. Thus we have Hillary attempting to assure us that she will be as fierce as Uncle Sam.

What is remarkable in France is that their politics is fraught with overt sexism of the lowest common denominator. Every female politician there has stories of being aggressively harassed—hit on in the hallways of the National Assembly, called Barbie Dolls behind their backs, and represented this year, as they were on the seasonal greeting card of the deputy mayor of Paris, by a close-up image of a vagina from a Courbet painting.

So it’s rough there and yet there is the Ségolène phenomenon. Rather than running as tougher than any man (they have Sarkozy doing that) she campaigns in what the NY Times describes as “flouncy skirts and close-cropped jackets” and the public apparently loves it. (Article linked below.)

Hillary on the other hand is never seen in anything resembling flouncy or close-cropped (except maybe her hair which is intentionally, don’t you think, a little butch) and always appears in those funky pant suits, seemingly of her own design.

But then here I go as well—talking snidely about her hair and outfits while trying to talk seriously about the situation and extracting a little insight from the cultural comparisons.

Clearly I require more consciousness raising; but since I’m in Florida, and it’s a magnificent morning, I think I’ll opt instead for a long walk on the beach. Maybe that will bring me to me senses.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

December 26, 2006--Mr. Tron's Revenge

When my high school French teacher, Mr. Tron returned from a summer in France, in addition to sporting a new moustache and wider ties, he brought back with him a new Renault 4 CV.

He drove it to Brooklyn Tech one morning and all the smart-alecky students hanging around outside smoking made so much fun of his "toy car" that even extra-macho Emile Tron parked it quickly and slunk into the building to escape our taunts.

But we were not through with him or it--during the day a bunch of us snuck out and lifted the car off the street, it was that small and light, and put it on the sidewalk, thinking it would be great fun to watch him at the end of the day when he discovered it there. We also thought that by doing so we were asserting the eternal superiority of all things AMERICAN! Especially American cars.

We laughed and laughed. But at the real end of the day, today, he, wherever he is, and Renault and other foreign car manufacturers are having the proverbial last laugh.

You see, according to the NY Times, Toyota this coming year will supplant GM as the world's largest producer of cars. GM had that distinction for the past 75 years, since 1931. But no more. It's over. (Article linked below.)

We all know what happened—out of contempt for the “other,” for what was “foreign,” the Big Three auto manufacturers ignored the first signs of this invasion, thinking we would shrug it off and defeat it just as we had beaten the Axis powers during the Second World War. They assumed that real Americans who could buy gasoline for 35 cents a gallon and who wanted enough horsepower to accelerate from zero to 60 in nine seconds would never give up their steel and chrome muscle cars and be caught dead, or mocked, driving around in one of those under-powered Jap or Kraut or Frog cars—Volkswagens, Toyotas, Hondas, Renaults.

And besides, except for the handmade Rolls Royces and Ferraris, American cars for quite some time were much better made.

But during the 1960s, a full 40 years ago, all of these balances began to shift—the quality of American cars, measured by something called “fit-and-finish,” began to decline; with gas prices rising as a result of the emergence of OPEC, foreign cars used much less fuel; and they began to power up without sacrificing either safety or acceleration. And thus, on pie-chart graphs that compared market share among all manufacturers, imported cars slowly began to grab a larger and larger slice of the domestic market.

What did Detroit do? Basically nothing. Stuck in arrogance or self-denial they continued to make bigger and bigger cars, now best exemplified by gas-guzzling SUVs. And what did Toyota and Honda and Nissan and Fiat and Morris and Peugeot and Volvo and Mercedes and BMW do? They continued to improve the engineering of their products so that now in the rankings on fuel economy almost all the most efficient cars are made by foreign companies. And when it comes to the results of crash tests, just recently all ten top rated cars were imports.

If I look at my own consumer behavior, since 1963 I owned a Karmann Ghia, an MG-B, an Opel, a Citroen, a Mazda, a Toyota, and for a splurge a Mercedes. All great cars that ran forever.

Oh, I forgot, for a short time I owned a Chevy Vega. I was interested in it because, as a subcompact that was largely built by robots—also to keep pace with the Japanese--it was the product of GM’s attempt to stem the Japanese invasion. I was trying to be a good citizen. But there was only one problem—in automotive annals it became a legend of poor quality: early models overheated due to poor cooling channel design. The engine typically burned oil not due to cylinder wear (which was the rumor) but instead due to poorly designed valve stem seals.

Now I do not own a car but rent them frequently. In the USA, mainly from Hertz and AVIS that “feature” Ford and GM and Chrysler products. In Europe I get a chance to drive German and Japanese cars. So I get to see what most of these manufacturers are up to.

I do not have good things to report. If you’ve read his far, I do not want to add to your post-holiday depression; but suffice it to say, from my direct experience, I’m not at all surprised that Toyota is about to become number one. For a simple reason--they deserve to be; they earned it.

On the other hand, Mr. Tron got his revenge. In spite of 40 years of fair warnings, we continued to ignore reality and thus there is not excuse for why this once proudest part of our economy is so humbled.

All sorts of metaphors are to be found lurking in this sad story--more fair warnings.

Monday, December 25, 2006

December 25, 2006--Merry!

Blogging resumes tomorrow.

In the meantime, let's enjoy the holiday.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

December 23, 2006--Heshy's Second Complaint

“You sent me a copy of ‘Give Him A Treatment Boys!,’ which, though I liked some of the stories, is a shitty title.” It was Heshy Perlmutter returning my call.

I had hoped that he would simply say, “Yes, it’s OK to use my real name in it.”

“Well,” I retorted, “I kind of like it. I think it’s provocative and suggests what the book’s about—how in life we have to endure a variety of ‘treatments.’ Metaphorically, of course. And how, though the words from the title were actually spoken by my high school French teacher, in the book I tried to imbue them with much more than their literal meaning.”

But as I was speaking these words, I realized I was, like last time, setting myself up for another of Heshy’s lectures. Once again I couldn’t just keep my mouth shut!

And as if to prove my point, Heshy shot right back, “Like with the last book, the title is once more evidence of the failure of your imagination. This phony thing again about a ‘fictional memoir,’” I could hear him mocking me, “it still makes no sense. It’s simply pretentiousness and posturing.”

I was sorry my publisher told me I needed to run the manuscript by Heshy, for indemnification purposes, and either secure his written consent to use his name and the facts of his life or I needed to come up with a new name for him and fictionalize things more. The lawyers were skittish about the latest draft I had submitted to the publisher. So my plan was to shut up and let him have his say and maybe he’d agree to sign off. I had worked pretty hard on it and frankly didn’t have the energy for another major revision. He was the last person in the world I wanted to talk to about what I was attempting to do. I simple wanted him to sign the friggin paper. Maybe if I let him blow off some steam it would work out. Me and my big mouth!

I knew from my recent reconnection with Heshy, after more than forty years of no contact, and from some of the things I wrote about in “Dirty Jew Bastards!”—which by the way he signed off on—things that he found upsetting and untrue, that he was unlikely now to be so casual. The first time around I think he had simply enjoyed seeing his name in print; this time I suspected he would be a lot more cautious. The entire matter, I also felt, was made much more complicated by his recollection that it was I, and not just time and circumstances that had severed our friendship. He felt that I had wanted to distance myself from “the old neighborhood” and all that it stood for in my mind, he had emphasized that, and that he and his family had too much represented that reality for me to want to remain his close friend. I had opted to move on and wanted to cut my ties to what he thought I still considered a version of the shtetl. And though I conceded that I had been eager to make a different life for myself, hadn’t he as well; and wasn’t it therefore true that we both left, albeit in separate ways? And wasn’t what happened between us more the result of us moving on, along different paths, rather than my jettisoning him?

After all, he, not I, had had a nose job! And was that new nose, by the way, an act of fact or fiction?

But I needed to contain those thoughts since there was no winning this argument. I needed to just shut up and hear him out. And then depending on where this settled, I or the publisher would have to figure out what to do.

“Last time you went on and on about ‘what is truth after all—the literal truth versus the essential truth.’ Bullshit like that. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that you need to decide—is this a memoir or is it fiction. If it’s a memoir then you need to stick to the facts of what really happened in your life, and in mine, thank you very much. And if it’s fiction, which I think this volume mostly is, than at least have the courage to call it that. And if it is fiction, I hate to say this to you after you put such a good spin on the things you wrote about me, then I think you need to work a little harder to make this more interesting, more surprising, more, how else can I put this, imaginative. If you want people to read this, and I know you told me that all you care about is that people buy it, which frankly is more bullshit because didn’t you also talk about wanting to give your writing a ‘literary patina’? I got a good laugh out of that one and, you may recall, so did some of the critics!”

That stung, and in spite of my editor’s warning to me that I should keep my mouth shut and let him rant on if he wanted to, I said “Actually Harold, some of them thought it was pretty good and even quite well written.”

“OK, let’s forget about that and get back to what’s really at issue. Let me try to help you understand my point. Take the last story, ‘Bull Gang,’ that’s the one where I’m a central character. . . . “

Again, in spite of myself, I was unable to remain silent and said, with some frustration, “I told you the last time, Heshy, they’re ‘chapters,’ not ‘stories,’ and you are not a central ‘character,’ you ‘appear’ in this or that ‘chapter.’ I conceived and wrote this as a book, not a series of interconnected ‘stories.’”

“You’re making the point I was trying to illustrate by talking about the ‘Bull Gang’ story. But let me continue, please.” He was growing annoyed at me. “You may recall that though you did work on a bull gang one summer, and yes it was the Tishman Building, it was your college roommate, John Bell who worked with you. Not me.”

“But didn’t I make you the hero of the last chapter?”

“I don’t know about that. I think Eddie Ribori is the hero and he uses both of us, not just me, as surrogates for what had been snatched from his life. That is assuming there was in fact an ‘Eddie Ribori’ and the things you wrote about him did happen.”

“There was and they did.”

“Again, that’s my point—I know you’re not going to believe this but though I admit that I do enjoy seeing a version of myself represented in your work I am actually more interested in the truth. And please, no more lectures about ‘socially-constructed’ truth and ‘post-modern this and post-modern that.’ Though you have me reading Sartre in ‘Bull Gang,’ and in French, I never read much of him, certainly not his philosophical writing, more his political stuff and never in French. I didn’t know enough French to do that.”

“And by the way,” he continued, “who is this ‘Sigrid’ character? You never told me about her. She sounds very hot.”

At least about that I was able to restrain myself and not respond to the old Big Dick!

“Actually, when I think about your Sigrid,” I knew he wouldn’t be able to get her out of his mind, “it only reinforces my contention that the structure of your so-called book is confusing and ultimately doesn’t work. This whole business about ‘chapters’ versus ‘stories’ is a case in point—you have Sigrid appearing in, what two stories, or OK, chapters, ‘The West End,’ which by the way I think works pretty well, though I don’t for a minute believe you ever met Alan Ginsberg, and then she appears again in ‘Bull Gang.’ Right?”

“Yes Heshy.” I assumed he was aware of my exasperation.

“So what happens to her? She just disappears, no? If as you contend this is a book and not a bunch of stories bundled together you need to resolve things. You can’t have someone as important as a Sigrid just evaporate. You can’t do that in a novel, if that’s what this is. In a fully realized work of fiction, frankly, you couldn’t get away with this kind of laziness.”

I managed to calm down so as not to incite him further, for the sake of my editor and publisher; but still I said, “I am working this way quite intentionally because I want whoever picks this up to do some resolving on their own. For example, I think I tell enough about Sigrid and Lloyd’s relationship with her for readers to participate in the fictionalizing, to on their own, without me telling them, think about what might have happened to her. Which I think is quite appropriate because, one, I did not have an affair with Sigrid, though she is a version of someone I knew about since one on my classmates did spend a year with a girl like her, and I observed that from a distance with curiosity and envy; and, two, since as I am arguing this book is in part about the fictionalizing process I want you and others to engage in it too.”

To which Heshy snickered, “More bullshit.”

I felt I had been making a strong case for myself and thus added, “I wrote about all of this is the Prologue to 'Dirty Jew Bastards!'

“Not to my satisfaction,” he shot back. “You still have that tendency to feel that whatever you say is the final word. Maybe back then it was because of your special status on our block, coming from such a fancy family,” he was dripping irony, “but which as it turns out,” he snorted, “was, by your own admission, ‘fiction.’ But that was then and this is now; and the truth, not you, has the final say.”

I should have just let him rant but again said more than was wise, “If you really believe that why then have you been sending me emails, addressed by the way to ‘Lloyd,’ which isn’t my name, and not to ‘Steven’? Emails in which you too make stuff up about our earlier lives.”

“I’m not following you here.” It felt good that I had managed to befuddle him.

“Well, you just sent me one of these emails the other day in which you make things up. Let me quote yourself to you, I have it here. I printed it. You wrote:

Hi, Steve Do you remember Lloyd being locked in his bathroom accidentally, crying hysterically until Mr. Perly released him, by taking the door off its hinges? This happened at least twice! Regards, Hesh

“That did happen,” he spat back at me, “I remember it distinctly—how stupid and inept you were at times and how your family, with all its airs, when the shit hit the fan who did they turn to—to the Perlmutters who knew a thing or two about how the world worked and how to fix things.” He paused, “And by that I mean more than bathroom doors.”

“Well I have a pretty good memory too and would swear in court that that never happened. You want to know what I really think? I’ll tell you anyway,” he hadn’t indicated any interest in my views about this, “I think you’re playing with me. You too want to get in the act of fictionalizing our lives. You give me grief for doing that but now that I’m writing about that time, and it’s getting published, you either want to tear me down to get even for whatever it is that you are still pissed about, from all those years ago, or you’ve stumbled onto a different strategy to make me crazy, also as an aggression, by playing with my mind.”

He was silent for a moment: but then in a barely audible whisper, pronouncing each word carefully and separately, he said, “It’s you, not me, who’s doing the playing.”

That shut me up and I needed to confess that he had me there. After a moment I said, “Let me then try a different tack: Both books are about fictions, about how our families and neighbors, everyone together created a fictional world for us to grow up in. To protect us from the world they left and in which they had suffered. To create a fictional space where we for a while could remain innocent and protected. To not have to experience what they had gone through, what they had suffered. Knowing what was awaiting us in adulthood. That we deserved that. That’s what America and they could provide. Remember, this was right after World War II. I have been trying to write about that fictionalizing through my own version of it—to talk about that gift they provided for us and the darkness that lurked behind it.”

For a minute there was only static on the line. Then Heshy said, “That I get. I may even agree with you about that, though my childhood was a lot less innocent than yours, and I don’t just mean the Big Dick part. ”

“But” he continued, “I think you make things too unnecessarily complicated, to quote your Bull Gang chief Eddie Ribori, by writing fiction and calling it a memoir.”

This time I didn’t have anything to shoot right back at him, and after a moment finally said, “You make some good points so let me think about this some more and call you back in a few days.”

He was right—this was getting too complicated.

* * *

After I recounted this conversation to my editor and the publisher they decided it was all right to continue to call this a “fictional memoir,” but that I needed to find a new title, a different name for “Heshy,” and do a lot more fictionalizing.

What a pain!

Friday, December 22, 2006

December 22, 2006--Fanaticism LXXIX--We're Still In Kansas

Kansas, in this case, is right across the river in New Jersey.

In Kearny, to be specific, where in an 11th grade public school history class, an Accelerated Progress (AP) class no less, the teacher, David Paszkiewicz, told his students that the Big Bang and Evolution where not scientific fact; while on the other hand, he taught them it is a fact that dinosaurs were saved from the Flood by having been included on Noah's Ark.

I guess, “saved” until they became extinct some 60,000 years ago. Although that is probably also just a theory because wasn't the world created only 6,000 years ago?

But then again, where are the dinosaurs?

I'm all confused, but the principal of the school isn't--even though he "had a talk" with Mr. P about these and other comments captured on tape by a smart-alecky kid in his class, he still thinks "he's an excellent teacher." (See NY Times story linked below.)

He’s so excellent that, like all good teachers, when students struggle with difficult subject matter, he finds ways to present the material in a manner which assures that his charges learn their lessons. The other day, for example, he drove home the lesson about God and creation and related matters by telling his class that only Christians have places in Heaven reserved for them; and, again caught on tape, he said, “If you reject his [Christ’s] gift of salvation, then you know where you belong.”

And here he was not referring to detention. He was alluding to that other place of punishment--the eternal kind.

Matthew LaClair, the kid who did the taping and blew the whistle on Mr. P, it may surprise you to learn, is finding himself in big trouble. Kearny is after all is just a scant 8 miles from midtown Manhattan! But, nonetheless, check out the Website to see what's going on there. You will find calls for his suspension from school! And, according to the Times, if you talk to kids on the sidewalk outside the school, most say, “I’m on the teacher’s side all the way.”

Far be it for them to screw up their chances of getting good letters of recommendation when they apply to college. Though does Bob Jones University even require them?

Then again it looks as if Matthew might have brought this wrath down upon himself—he had the audacity to ask Mr. P why a loving God would consign humans to hell. Though Matthew’s tapes show that he didn’t begin all the religion talk, other kids claim that he “baited” the teacher with religious questions.

Matthew—if you are having any problems with your letters of recommendation, drop me a note and it will be my pleasure to help you get out of Kearny as soon as possible.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

December 21, 2006--We're Number Ten!

These days it’s not enough for many of our large public universities to want to be Number One in just football or basketball. They also want to be Number Ten. Actually, they aspire to be included among the Top Ten ranked academic institutions.

Here’s how it works; and, even though the NY Times reports about this as if it were a recent phenomenon, it’s almost as old as America itself. And it’s not a pretty picture, that is if you care about democracy. (Article linked below.)

In the Colonial period all colleges were private and were reserved for the (male) children of the elite. By the middle of the 19th century only about 5 percent of what we today think of as college-age students attended places such as Harvard or Yale or Columbia.

But with the vision and leadership of Vermont Senator Justin Morrill, in 1862 the first so-called Land Grant Act was approved by Congress and signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. It set aside at least 90,000 acres of government land per state which they could sell or use to fund and establish colleges that were by law required to provide post-high school educational opportunities for the children of farmers and mechanics. Thus began the long process to democratize higher education opportunities.

So far so good. But within decades of the establishment of these “people’s colleges,” most began to offer more and more liberal arts courses in an attempt to emulate the offerings of the still-elite private colleges. And quickly they began to become more selective—less open and democratic.

To maintain the commitment to open access and to continue to teach and especially train young people for jobs in the growing and complexifying economy, at the end of the 19th century the country began to invest in the founding of what at the time were called “junior colleges.” These quickly took over what had been the initial role of the Land Grant colleges. But since they offered just the first two years of a complete undergraduate education, if children of the working classes wanted to earn baccalaureate degrees they needed to transfer to four-year institutions to complete them

So far, not so good because it happened along the way that our system of higher education became highly stratified with the lowest-income students more and more needing to start at two-year colleges (now renamed “community colleges”) either because of lack of academic preparation or because they couldn’t afford all of the costs associated with beginning at the more selective and expensive senior colleges. And since very few managed to complete community college, much less transfer to four-year colleges or ultimately graduate, this also led to a stratification in the results of higher education—the gap between rich and poor in degree attainment grew and grew so that it is now unacceptable in a country that calls itself a meritocracy: if you work hard, you all will have an equal chance to succeed.

Now we see that many public universities that have retained at least a measure of equal access are striving to become more exclusive. This means they are turning away many students who in the past would have qualified for admission. And in order to compete with the highest-ranked institutions for the most sought-after faculty they have had to increase tuition to be able to “buy them” (that’s the phrase in common use) and are as a result beginning to price themselves out of the reach of good but low-income students.

All to be ranked in the Top Ten. Shameful. They should stick to football.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

December 20, 2006--TMI (Too Much Information)

To tell you the truth I not a big fan of Census data.

I don't need to know about what and how much "average" Americans eat and drink in a year (no surprise—too much); how many square feet their apartments have (twice as many as mine); or, for that matter, how much they weigh (also too much).

I always thought that the Census was carried out every ten years, as required by the Constitution, to see how many of us there are so that congressional districts could be apportioned among the states based on the size of their populations. To accomplish this, Census Bureau folks used to send out forms to every household; and to follow that up, they would hire canvasers who would visit every household to see if you were hiding anyone up in the attic.

So how did they get from that into counting how many gallons of bottled water we drink each year (23) or how tall we are (24 percent of Americans over 70 years of age are shorter than 5-foot-6)?

It's enough to make a strict constructionist out of me--someone who, like Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, wants the Constitution to be taken literally: just count the noses but stay out of my medicine cabinet, or bedroom. For example, do we have to know that 11.2 percent of women admit to having had same-sex "contacts” but only 6 percent of men were willing to fess up? (See NY Times article linked below for all the salacious details.)

I’m most fascinated by the statistic that reveals how much more bottled water we have been drinking in recent years. Ten times more than in 1980. Has the quality of municipal water declined so precipitously? Or is it that we are going to the gym more and are taking bottled water along with us to keep us hydrated or looking cool? Or is it because of all the Wall Street bonuses, splurging on a $7.00 a bottle of Evian or Pellegrino makes a better impression than drinking plain-old New York City Tap?

Which brings me to another point—I’m getting a little worried, from a national security perspective, about our growing dependence on foreign bottled water. With the price of these, gallon-to-gallon, actually higher than the cost of imported gasoline, aren’t we putting ourselves in danger of being held hostage by our enemies, including and especially the French?

What would happen, for example, if France and Italy and Poland (Poland Springs, no?) were to form OWPEC—the Organization of Water Exporting Countries—and imposed a bottled-water embargo?

Now I’m beginning to understand why President Bush just announced that he’s going to increase the size of the army—for use when we have to preemptively invade Perrier.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

December 19, 2006--Remembrance of Things Present

Scientists have all the fun. Though it’s not every day that they get to compare humans with dogs.

But out in California, where else, a group of researchers, ever curious, devised a series of experiments to see how good humans are at olfactory tracking. We’re not here talking about our capacity to evoke childhood via the unique scent of Madeleines. Rather, they wanted to determine if humans would make good hunting dogs. Really. (If you don't believe me, see NY Times article linked below.)

They were surprised to learn that we’re pretty good at it. Especially if the undergraduates they used as their “experimental animals” were willing to let it all hang out and get down on all fours, put their noses right at ground level, and crawl along, following the scent trail, an inch at a time. That worked best. In fact, with a little practice humans on the scent learned to move along at a two-inch at a time clip. Not bad, but still not up to beagle speed.

For the dogs that they used as their control group the scientists found that the best target was a dragged dead bird; the humans did best when the scientists laid down a chocolate trail. No surprise in either case.

Though this may sound trivial and a waste of time and money (they probably had a federal National Science Foundation grant to underwrite this), it has larger implications—

It is yet another reminder that we too are animals and that we retain many characteristics of animals that we needed tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago when we were hunters and gatherers, before we developed agriculture, formed communities, and eventually used the discoveries and developments of science and technology to dramatically alter the way will live.

On the other hand, some of these all-too-human residual characteristics and capacities present considerable danger to us and the planet. We “progressed” much faster, thanks to our large brain, in our ability to “control” nature and alter our environments than we did in other biological ways. Thus, we are still more violent than we needed to be back then in order to survive. We still have all those hunter capacities that no longer have natural outlets, and thus they tragically spill over into other forms of deadly aggression and combat.

Therefore, it’s probably a good idea to get our noses off the ground so we can stand up and take a look around at the mess we’re making.

Monday, December 18, 2006

December 18, 2006--Weighing In

A favorite pastime is exchanging airline stories.

For example, the time I flew from New York to Buffalo and had a ten year old kid who was traveling alone sitting next to me who shortly after takeoff turned to me and said, “Mister, I’m feeling sick.” I ignored him; but when he repeated himself, not willing to get directly involved--I wanted to read my paper in silence--I summoned the flight attendant. But before she could get to him, he told me again how sick he was and demonstrated that he wasn’t exaggerating by throwing up all over me.

My cousin Chuck would respond by telling the story about a flight he once took in Russia. Not only didn’t they assign seats out of an ideological belief that under communism everyone was equal, but they routinely overbooked. Instead of bumping enough passengers so that those who raced onto the plane would have seats, they allowed everyone to clamor on board and those that didn’t make it to a seat were welcome to fly anyway, by standing or lying down in the aisle.

Everyone has these kinds of stories; but a pet peeve of mine, since I have very long legs, is about why airlines pack so many seats on their planes, considering that on any given day a percentage of them remain empty—why not make more room for people and advertise that they are making passenger comfort a priority. I have thought that this would give any airline that did this a competitive advantage.

Jet Blue announced recently that they are doing this. By removing just six seats in the Airbus 320s they will be able to give passengers four more inches of leg room—this may sound like a little but in comfort terms it’s nirvana. (See NY Times article linked below.)

And then, in the spirit that sometimes doing good can also mean doing well, by removed just this few seats they will be able to reduce the number of flight attendants required from four to three. This alone, more or less, will make up for their projected loss in passenger revenue.

But my favorite part of the Jet Blue story is that by having seven fewer people for the plane to have to lift off the ground will also lead to significant fuel saving because these seven, plus their luggage, weigh well over 1,000 pounds!

This brings me to another of my airline peeves—accommodating overweight passengers. If you get stuck with a middle seat and are surrounded by a couple of 250 pounders, your trip turns into a nightmare.

Which brings me to my suggestion—either require over-large people to buy two seats or charge them for every pound over, say, 220. If you bring along too much luggage they charge you for it (typically $50-100 per extra or overweight bag) so why not do the same for passengers—weigh them in and if they are beyond the limit charge them the same per-pound rate that they charge for baggage.

And, of course, pass the savings along to the rest of us.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

December 16, 2006--Saturday Story: "Ludavicio et al."--Concluded!

Part Four was largely devoted to Lloyd Zazlo’s four sessions with Dr. Boris Merkin, the psychiatrist who his wife Lydia moved on to after her Orgonomist, Dr. Luven, did not achieve the results she had been seeking—to help her, with Lloyd’s semi-skilled and tireless assistance, “get there.” Things did not begin well with Dr. Merkin: Lloyd found him decidedly ordinary for a shrink—bald; lumpy; without the hint of a distinguishing accent; and, above all, trained in Brooklyn and not Berlin, much less Vienna. Lloyd did, though, like the fact that Merkin valued talking about family dynamics and intrapsychic issues, using “dream material” as a window into the unconscious. And so he was quite surprised when, at the fourth and final session (Lloyd had been limited to just these by Merkin and Lydia), the doctor had asked him to draw on a pad a picture of the female vagina. Lloyd confessed to himself, after making a feeble effort, but of course not to Merkin, that he had not to date made a close study of actual ones and thus was only able to produce a cartoon-like version. But Dr. Merkin corrected him and Lloyd came away from the session with a much better idea than previously of the anatomically correct location of the critical clitoris. Two days later, with Lydia in Connecticut for a dance concert, he resumed his role as faculty advisor for the Writers Workshop. Though she slipped in late, Kathy was there, wearing an alluring tank top (to help her endure the heat and humidity) and read a powerful and deeply affecting poem that enthralled Lloyd, just before the onset of the big blackout of the late 1970s. Still intoxicated, Lloyd insisted on driving Kathy home to Queens through the darkened and dangerous streets.

And so, at long last, this brings us to the final
Fifth Part, with Lloyd still in Queens and . . .

* * *

On her doorstep, Kathy said to me, “You’re not goin’ home tonight. You saw all those kids up to no good along Kissena Boulevard. It’s getting worser by the minute.” From inside her house, like all the others piled one atop the other, I heard what sounded like manic pounding. Noticing this, Kathy said, “Oh, that’s just Billy,” as if that were sufficient explanation. It was, at least for the moment. “You can call your wife from here, you’re married, right?, if the phones are workin’, and let her know.”

“We’ll, she’s out of town and I wouldn’t know how to reach her even if I wanted to.” That last admission just slipped out and so I quickly added, “They’re probably blacked out there too.”

“So,” she said, swinging the door open, “then there’s no problem. You can sleep on the sofa.” I was beginning to feel intrigued by the unfolding situation, even though everything made good sense--it was dangerous and I really didn’t know my way around Queens, especially with all the lights out; and then, with her son Billy there, her invitation felt just thoughtful and totally innocent. The perception of which, the practicality, released an immediate wave of disappointment—with the city blacked out and Lydia out of town, and out of range, with Kathy’s poem and her husky singing along with Miles still mixing in my mind, not to mention the lingering high from the marijuana and wine and the lurking sense of danger, who needed, who wanted innocence! If only Billy would evaporate, who knows . . . .

“Billy,” Kathy came to a version of rescue, screaming at him, “Get that out of here, will you. Dr. Lazlo’s gonna be sleeping on the sofa tonight.” Billy sat in the middle of the living room surrounded by lit candles and a professional-seeming drum set. That explained the pounding I had heard.

“Do I have to, Ma? I’m scared and don’t want to sleep all the way up in the attic.”

“That’s where his bedroom is,” Kathy explained to me in an aside, “I made him move up there after his father walked out so I could have some privacy for my studyin’ and writin’ and whatever; and wouldn’t have to listen to him drummin’ all night.” Privacy sounded like a good idea to me too, particularly when it came to whatever she meant by the “whatever.” In the threatening city I was feeling adventurous and bold!

Billy reluctantly and with considerable attitude hauled himself up out the chair and began, piece by piece, to drag the various drums and cymbals up the steps to the third floor, mopping and sighing with every dramatic step.

Kathy poured herself a tall tumbler of Bourbon and for me some white wine, still chilled from the silent refrigerator. She collapsed onto one of the chrome chairs at her kitchen table, signaling to me to join her. Which I did. She again shrugged off her sweater. Even in the candle light her electric blue tank top shimmered as it were animated by her deep breathing and swelling chest.

“It’s in the past,” Kathy mused, as if to herself, “but it’s at times like this that I think about Matty. That shit. What he did to me and his only living breathing son.” I began nodding, the version that I hoped communicated understanding and compassion. “I was no angel, that I’ll confess, but will spare you the details,” though I carved them. “He on the other hand, after he came home from the war, all strung out, all he did all day was begin to drink himself to death. The VA had a good detox program; but, no, he was too much of a man,” she sneered, “to admit he had problems much less be willing to put himself into one of those groups where he’d have to talk about what he did over there and what that did to him. He kept tellin’ me he could stop any time he wanted to. Sure. ‘No fuckin’ big deal,’ he said to me every time I nagged him about it, since I knew where all this was headed.”

She paused to gather herself, “I have the scars to prove it.” And with that she popped out her upper plate of teeth and, holding it before her, showed it to me as evidence of how life at the end had been with him. I kept nodding and slid my chair closer to her so I could take hold of her hand. I began to stroke it.

Distressed with my reaction, I couldn’t believe how sexually stimulated I became with her still holding her teeth out as if they were an amulet of her pain. She began silently to allow tears to form and shuddered. I put my other arm around her, softly needing her tense shoulders. She leaned against me but quickly, snapping out of her spell, pulled away, saying lightly, “Can I get you a refill? I sure could use another.” She emitted her trademark throaty laugh. “And then let’s get you to sleep. Right?”

What was I supposed to say to that—“Sure, good idea, it’s getting to be past my bedtime. I need to get up early in order to . . . actually to do nothing.” I wasn’t the least bit tired and sensed that neither was she. It was only about 9:00 and Billy was now drumming away even more violently from his room up in the attic as if to drive away the demons let loose in the city by the blackout.

Sensing I was neither tired nor eager to let go of her so soon she proposed we look for my jazz station on her battery-operated radio. I showed her where to find it—106.4 FM, still broadcasting, with auxiliary power, from the crypt of Riverside Church. Now they were broadcasting John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman out into the ruby night.

Somehow we found ourselves clinging to each other and moving together to their thick, desolute sound in a sort of mongrel form of dance. In truth, using what passed for dancing as an excuse to just hold onto each other.

Though I can barely carry a tune I found myself singing along with Hartman, obliterating every nuance of his, every held note--

You are too beautiful
for one man alone
one lucky fool to be with
when there are other men
with eyes of their own
to see with . . .

Kathy snorted, “Just perfect,” I thought she was about to make ironic fun of my attempt at singing, “Perfect. ‘Too beautiful,’ for a dog like me.” And with that she began to sob. Her tears in an instant wet right through my shirt. I felt them drench my chest. There was no comforting her now, but in the midst of her tears she still managed to add, almost choking from laughing while crying, “Not that this isn’t also a comment about your singing.”

This broke the second spell of the evening and we both, still embracing, tumbled onto the sofa where we quickly found ourselves to be naked, the tank top the first thing to disappear, and immediately making love. Unlike with Kim, there was thankfully no flaccidity this time. We fucked for like what seemed like forever to the cacophonic mix of both Coltrane’s Elvin Jones and Bobby Dugan on drums.

I didn’t think even once about Lydia except when Kathy “got there,” with thunderous vengeance. But I did find myself wanting to say, “Thank you Dr. Merkin for showing me the way!”

* * *

I slipped out of Kathy’s house just as the sun began to rise and retraced my diagonal path across Queens back into Brooklyn, through the cemeteries, via the same Interboro Parkway. With no promises exchanged or expectations about what might happen next, we had said goodbye at 3:30 a.m. when she left me on the sofa to go up to her bedroom where she wanted Bobby to find her when he awoke.

I again found myself imagining how it might feel to be like Jack, on the road. From my overstocked brain, I recalled his line, “Burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Stars Kathy and I had seen together as we cut through the black streets and then later the candles as we shuddered with pleasure in each others arms, aware also of the spidery sadness lurking at the center of our lives.

So perhaps, I thought, unhappiness aside, though maybe, I caught myself acknowledging, unhappiness front and center, I had in fact stumbled onto the appropriate subject matter and voice for Pearl and His Brother and the Dirty Books. Twenty years after Jack I was revisiting in spirit, and to some extent in substance, what he had so brilliantly accomplished. He had both defined and put a coda on his generation of ultimately disillusioned seekers. Also imbued by despair and unhappiness. But, as Kathy had discovered and taught me, my appropriation, equally despairing, had a chance to work because I had set it in the spirit of my time, among the successor generation, and had found a way to add the essential coloration of irony.

Thus self-inspired, it was with great anticipation that I found, when back on my porch in Brooklyn, a thick envelope waiting from Black Sun Magazine, where I had sent the first chapter of Pearl, thinking that they would welcome it. They had, recall, published some of my earlier fiction, in fact my only published story, and to see a part of Pearl in print, even in the modestly-mimeographed Black Sun, would encourage me to believe in it, press on with it.

But before I could settle onto the sofa to savor what was inside, I noticed the light flashing on the answering machine. It was Lydia, asking if I could go up to her studio on the third floor and retrieve from her dance album something that had been written about her a couple of years ago in The Brooklyn Eagle, a review of one of her performances, her only such notice thus far, that would be helpful to her, she felt, up in Connecticut where Jose Limon was auditioning her and others for his company. She sounded uncharacteristically buoyant and left a phone number where I could call and read to her the part that mentioned her “supple and passionate movements”—that’s the part she wanted to be able to cite.

I left the letter on the end table and lugged myself up to the studio where I found it right on top of a pile of papers and notebooks she had stashed in a file drawer. She frequently looked at the photos of herself contained in it so I was not surprised that it was so easy to locate. From the attic I called the number she left and read the sentence in question onto the tape of the answering machine. There was even a grainy picture of the troop in which she had performed, and the younger Lydia did in fact look like the supplest of them. The passionate part, though, did not come through as clearly.

As I bent to return the album to its place in the cabinet, eager to get back down to the letter, I noticed, peeking out from a disheveled pile of folders and papers, a leather-edged book with “Diary” in gold script etched on the dark brown cover. Without thinking, while sitting on a stool for a moment to catch my breath before returning to the living room, I picked it up and thumbed through it, fanning the pages aimlessly from front to back, stopping at various times to glance at what was written there in Lydia’s familiar handwriting.

It was mostly notes about dance classes and rehearsals. Very matter-of-fact material, it seemed more like a list of things to jog her memory than reflections on events or perceptions or feelings—“Took class with Ruth. Had problems with pliés. Need to practice them more. Feet need to be stronger. Work on it!” Things of that sort. To exhort herself to greater effort.

But then, more tempting, I saw that there were also entries about sessions with Dr. Luven. Over one or two of these I did shamelessly linger; but they too were mundane and to my, yes, disappointment did not mention me or much about what they discussed—not that discussing was such a big part of his technique. So she wrote, for example—“Orgone Box again today. No blue light. No energy flow. So he had me do Bed Work. Did get some reaction. Hopefully more next week.” But then next week’s entry was more of the same, though laced with more feeling and underlining—“Nothing again! Fucking nothing!! This is not working!!” It was almost as if I could hear her angry voice leaping from the pages.

And then toward where the Diary broke off, more in the present, amidst the dance notes, there were entries about sessions with Dr. Merkin. These I spent some time reviewing, even forgetting the letter downstairs, since I had so recently seen him and his technique was more classically psychoanalytic—mostly talk. This suggested that perhaps her entries would be more detailed. More revealing.

Some of the earlier ones were in fact full of dream material. I suppose this was where Lydia kept her notes so as not to forget them. Considering the limit placed on the number of sessions I was allowed, I used just a bedside pad and pencil—no need to inscribe them in such a formal way. And as another way to record my dreams, I could always fictionalize versions of them in Pearl!

But her notes from the last few months, those from just before I had taken over her time for a month were of a very different sort—they were much more narratives in bulleted form. So about two months ago she wrote—

“Wore black knit dress . . . Merkin commented how good I looked in it . . . so I wore it again . . . no bra this time. [Slow to catch on, I wondered, what’s this all about?] . . . no panty hose either . . . remembered to insert diaphragm . . . hate it but . . . for first time he wasn’t wearing his jacket . . . also no tie . . . he too was ready . . . [For what?, still naïve, I asked myself. I wasn’t yet getting it.] . . . two fingers in my cunt . . . [What in her? What, cunt?] . . . nothing at first . . . it began then . . . better than last time [I restrained myself from flipping back to her notes about that prior session] . . . but still yet not what I wanted . . . [I knew very well what that was!] . . . so he ate me . . . bit on my clit . . . [About the location of that he was, I knew, quite the expert!] . . . and I came and came and CAME and . . .

There were more such entries, with many italicized words. I merely glanced at the next few, with my heart thumping. It was clear from these that that then had become their routine: Lydia would describe what she was wearing; if she brought along or had put in her diaphragm; how long it took before Merkin would get down to the business of cunnilingus; how many times she CAME; and, of the greatest significance, the anatomical site of her orgasms. Most times, it appeared that the eclectic Merkin managed to get her fully there!

I of course was furious to have discovered this prima fascia evidence of Lydia’s, not to mention, Merkin’s betrayal.

That prick bastard Merkin. So well-named—look it up. No wonder his fucking “rules of the road” so rigidly forbade me from discussing anything with anyone, especially Lydia. I could only imagine what she would have thought, how she would have inwardly mocked me, if I came home from the vagina session, for example, and told her about the clamshell incident! What she would have thought of me? I could only imagine.

I was sputtering, but quickly realized this was in truth no real surprise. I reminded myself of Ludavicio? That Ginny gigolo. I bet if I hadn’t been so furious and had been able to read more thoroughly through Lydia’s Diary I would have found all sorts of explicit notes about the things they had done to each other. I could also only imagine that.

Half my rage was because the surging reality of this discovery had imposed itself on the memory of all the magical things Kathy and I had just experienced through our blacked-out night. These were pushed so far back in time that they felt now as if they had been merely part of an almost forgotten dream. The delicious tactile reality of it had been substantially obliterated.

That cunt Merkin. That bitch Lydia . . .

And then, thankfully, I remembered that there was the letter. I raced downstairs to devour it, craving its news to take me away from all of this sordidness.

* * *

“Professor Zazlo” it began. Not a good sign, I was already squirming on the sofa since neither the “Professor” nor the “Zazlo” part, much less the lack of a “Dear” filled me with much optimism. From having published me in the past I would have expected a simple “Dear Lloyd.” And from that formal greeting things only got worse:

There was the blah-blah about how much pleasure it had given them some years ago [more than I was happy to acknowledge] to have been able to publish my first story and blah-blah how they, since their founding [“founding” did not seem to me like the best way for them to be thinking about the “launch” of a journal that was mimeographed in someone’s bedroom], since that time, the editor wrote, they sought to be among the first to publish the works of young writers who held the promise blah-blah of developing into major literary figures who embodied “unique visions and innovative styles.” [I knew from this set up where this was leading.]

“So it came as a great disappointment to us,” Chauncey Biddle continued [yes, that was his actual name], “to find you, after all these years [again with the “all-these years”] to be producing work so conventional, so derivative.” [But Kathy had said . . . and I had come to believe that . . . so why . . . ?]

Mercilessly he went on to say that though in my accompanying cover note I had indicated my debt to Kerouac and how in my revisiting and reimagining his “epic” I had attempted to “resituate” it in place and time while infusing it with an contemporarily-appropriate “tincture of irony” [Chauncey’s quoting me back to myself was such that, even in my misery, I sounded to myself, via this echo, pretentiously puffed up like a pseudo-literary hen]; but, as he went on, as if flinging the “tincture” thing back at me wasn’t enough, he continued to quote me when I wrote to them about what “was missing from Jack’s ominously serious, yet, for its time, brilliant achievement”—this lack of “angular self-reflection” I had called it [something more for me to choke on]—was something I had endeavored to include in my own text. Blah-blah.

Though this was more than enough for me to have to choke down, he had a bit more to say and did not choose to restrain himself—“You wrote to us about how the structure of the novel is made up of ‘a braided strand of narrative elements,’ which, you claim, resembles the way ‘memory is constructed and recalled.’ But then, as we looked even casually [only casually?] at your actual text, we found that it so lacks cleverness, much less anything inspired by, how did you put it, your ‘ironic muse,’ that all we found was you dancing on surfaces. You cannot write about the ‘inner life’ [he had here taken to lecturing me], again this is what you tell us is your intention, while never burrowing the depths beyond mere inches.” [Though I was not impressed by the “burrowing mere inches” part—it didn’t quite parse—I was desperately afraid, I was, that he was right.]

So I was glad when he concluded with the inevitable kiss off since I needed, I crushingly realized, to, how else to put this, I desperately had to do . . . something.

“What you submitted from Pearl and His Sister [sic] and the Dirty Books is just too turgid and affected, not a good combination, for us to even consider it for publication in Black Sun.” There was not even the obligatory, “We wish you well with your future endeavors and welcome the opportunity to review anything else you might wish to submit to us in the future.” And then he signed it using both of his phony WASP names.

That piece of shit rag!" I shouted to the empty house.

* * *

How I found my way there to this day I do not know. But there I was by my battered self looking out over the East River, past the ragged southern edge of Manhattan, on toward the setting New Jersey sun. Sitting out at the end of a broken-down pier. Even that image I sensed was exhumed from my reverberating literary consciousness.

And then it came to me—yet again it was from Kerouac! There was no escaping him, even though I supposed I had come to the waterfront to put an end to either my ambitions or myself. But there he was waiting to, what, yank me back or push me overboard? I was game for either.

Kerouac, who, twenty years earlier, had found himself also at the end of his road in quite similar fashion. But of course his broken-down pier was in Manhattan; mine was still anchored on decaying piles in Brooklyn.

He had written back then:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier [see what I mean?] watching the long, long skies over New Jersey [all I had been able to come up with was, “the setting New Jersey sun”—Chauncey was indeed right about me] and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge [I could have helped him make that better!] over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it [pretty good stuff, no? And wasn’t it Capote, that jealous swish, who had called this “typing”?], and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry . . . .

And as I too began to cry, I remembered something else Jack had written—

Nobody knows what’s going to happen . . . besides the forlorn rays of growing old.

So then there will be more . . . .

Friday, December 15, 2006

December 15, 2006--Fanaticism LXXVIII--Telling It Like It Is

Jimmy Carter’s in trouble again. This time it’s not for moping in the Rose Garden while Americans are held hostage in Iran or turning down the heat in the White House and needing to wear cardigans to keep warm or even for lusting in his heart.

This time he’s in hot water for his use of just one word--Apartheid.

He would be all right, even praised, if he had used it to describe the old days in South Africa, when it was politically and morally correct to apply it to the conditions there. He is being vilified now because he applied it to the emerging situation in the Middle East where, he contends, in a new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, that Israel, by its policies, is moving in a direction that will create an Apartheid situation where Palestinians will be kept in separate, segregated, fenced-in enclaves. His crime, thus, is equating conditions in Israel with those in racist South Africa.

To compound this political and moral crime, Carter also contends that the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. is so influential and powerful that it has succeeded in stifling debate about Israel’s alleged human rights abuses.

For this, the former president, as he roams the country promoting the book, has been severely criticized, which is certainly a legitimate thing to do; labeled a racist; and, of course, an anti-Semite. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Gentle soul that he is, though not muting his critique, President Carter the other night in Phoenix met with a group of rabbis and made peace with them—they wound up forming a circle, holding hands, and praying together.

No such luck for University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Stephen Walt when last spring they published in the London Review of Books “The Israel Lobby and the U.S.” Though somewhat flawed in its research, they nonetheless made a strong and persuasive case that a coalition of neoconservatives, Christian Zionist millennialists, leading journalists, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee exerts a "stranglehold" on Middle East policy and public debate on the Israel-Palestine stalemate.

The response to them went beyond outrage. Some called them neo-Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League called the paper "a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control." A University of Chicago colleague, Daniel Drezner called their article, in carefully-reasoned academic rhetoric, "piss-poor, monocausal social science." (Emphasis added.) And of course, Alan Dershowitz chimed in claiming that the men had "destroyed their professional reputations."

As a result of this assault on their characters and motivations they get shouted down almost every time they appear at a public forum.

So much for open discourse. Clearly no circle of rabbis or Kumbaya for them.

This kind of excessive response to the Mearsheimer, Walt, and Carter tells the amateur psychologist and Jew in me that . . . they’re on to something.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

December 14, 2006--Doubling Down

Lost in the NY Times’ report about the last stop on President Bush’s fictionally titled “Listening Tour” before he announces his new plans for Iraq, a meeting at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs, is the outline of that plan that is beginning to leak out.

The Times article focuses on the political issues—Bush saying that he will not be “rushed” to issue the new strategy, that he will wait until early 2007, presumably hoping by that time that the public, sated on PlayStations and overeating, will have forgotten the Baker-Hamilton Study Group report that sharply criticized current policy, including any effort to continue to fantasize about “victory.” (Article linked below.)

But it’s the emerging military strategy being leaked that is the real story. Thus far not covered by the Times. This strategy could be called Keep-Staying-the-Course or John-McCain’s-(Maybe-Hillary-Clinton’s)-Last-Stand-at-the-Alamo.

It calls for the “insertion” of tens of thousands of additional troops, some of whom will be “imbedded” in Iraqi battalions to serve as trainers while others will be used in combat to help quell the escalating violence.

The Neo-con Weekly Standard, though, has the story and calls it “Doubling Down.” They write:

Don't throw good money after bad. When you're in a hole, stop digging. . . . These are the kinds of things Americans are hearing and saying about the war in Iraq. It's understandable. When you gamble and lose, the natural tendency is to . . . mortgage everything you have to try to retrieve your losses. But as every undergraduate economics student knows, that strategy is a disaster. . . . When an investment isn't working, get out. . . .

All of which seems to apply to Iraq, in spades. A seemingly quick and easy military victory has turned sour. The costs, in blood and treasure, have escalated. Victory looks uncertain and distant. It seems the time has come, if not to cut and run, then surely to cut our losses. . . .

But that instinct is wrong. Warfare is not like investment banking. At precisely the moment an economist might say to stop throwing good money after bad, a wise military strategist might say to double the bet. . . . Why might that be so? For one thing, willingness to raise the stakes often wins the game.

Putting aside for the moment that Iraq is anything but a game, but staying with the doubling-down analogy, how in fact does doubling-down work in the game where it was invented—in Blackjack?

The opportunity to double down occurs only after you have been dealt your first two cards. At that point you can opt to double your bet (if you bet $25, you can increase it to $50), but after doing that you get just one final card. This can be a smart idea if your two cards total 10 or 11 points because there is the likelihood that the last card will be worth 10 points which would give you 21, the best possible hand.

So far so good. But here’s the problem with extrapolating this strategy to Iraq—in Blackjack you should only double down when you are in a favorable situation, one where you can dramatically increase your odds of winning.

The situation in Iraq is anything but favorable.

Maybe then the Blackjack analogy that would be more appropriate would be to think about doubling down there now as a Sucker Bet. For example, as if you doubled when your first two cards added up to 15 points and the third and final card would therefore likely put you over 21. In other words, as they say in the casinos, where you would Go Bust.

But then boys will be boys, and I suspect we’re all again about to be suckers.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

December 13, 2006--Same-Gender Eroticism

So another mega-church Evangelical minister, Paul Barnes, got caught with his pants down in the men’s room and had to give up his lucrative gig. This follows by just weeks a similar fate that befell the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals who kept finding himself driving to Colorado Springs to get soothing, “full-release” massages from a male prostitute.

They’re dropping like flies. Pun intended.

But there is some good news—Reverend Ted, according to the NY Times, is being helped by Minister H. B. London, Jr. to “restore the health and wellness” of his family. He believes this restoration is possible because homosexuality is a choice or an affliction that is likely the result of “a childhood trauma” and is thus curable. (Article linked below.) No word yet about what Mrs. Ted feels about all of this.

At least London’s not saying, like the Rev Dr. Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University, who is opposed to “same-gender eroticism” (those professors have a phrase for everything, don’t they) because to choose to be gay is to “choose to be evil.” Though he disagrees with those right wing talk-show folks who claim that homosexuals are “insatiable, promiscuous” people. The problem, as he sees it, is just that they opt to be evil.

There is even more good news—as a result of the fall of these esteemed leaders some evangelicals are beginning to show some semblance of compassion for men with this affliction. The new president of the National Association, the Rev. Leith Anderson, in spite of his ambiguous first name, said, “When you discover people you know and respect are struggling with homosexuality [poor Rev Barnes confessed, after he was outed, that he often cried himself to sleep, “begging God to end his attraction to men”], suddenly you’re more compassionate because they are real people [my emphasis].”

So he’s saying when you find out about just regular folks who are doing the same kind of struggling you don’t feel compassion for them—you just condemn them and relegate them to the eternal fires of hell—but when one of the big boys gets nailed (forgive me) and as a result maybe messes up the take at one of the big churches, then you’re moved to feel badly for him.

Well, at least it’s a start.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

December 12, 2006--"Thanks Condy"

Remember the Domino Theory?

For those of you too young to remember this was what worried the Cold Warriors and Neocons on the 1970s—that unless we achieved a military and political victory in Vietnam all the other Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand) would fall to the Communists like tumbling dominos.

This of course didn’t happen. In fact just last week George Bush, who managed to avoid serving in Vietnam, made his first trip there and the Congress passed legislation normalizing trade relations with this former evil enemy. Hideously, 58,000 U.S. soldiers died there all to make Vietnam a trading partner.

But before I move too quickly to jettison the Domino Theory, a version of it seems to be unfolding in the Middle East. From a U.S. perspective, a perverted version.

Actually, it was still an operative theory when we jauntily marched off to war in Iraq four years ago. Remember how we were told that it would be “a piece of cake” and that we would be welcomed with open arms because of a pent-up desire in the region for American-style democracy and products? And that after Iraq embraced our way of life all the other countries nearby would begin to do the same—in effect, we would witness a series of dictatorial dominoes fall to be replaced by democratic governments.

To test the viability of that theory, though we know we have a mess on our hands in Iraq, we should take a look at how things are working out in the neighborhood. Egypt had a limited kind of open election not too long ago as did the Saudis, and in Kuwait didn’t they even let women begin to do some voting? Then the Lebanese have a coalition government that includes Hezbollah; and didn’t they recently expel the Syrian military which was, for all intents and purposes, occupying their country? No wonder Condi Rice was so positive about the regional situation the other day when Bush was in Jordan.

But before we imbibe too much of whatever kind of Kool-Aid she is drinking, let’s take a brief look at the “facts on the ground” in Lebanon.

Just last week, the NY Times reports, there were a series of truly massive demonstrations in Beirut, all peaceful and joyous and all calling for the current government to resign. (Article linked below.) Prime Minister Siniora was reported to have been “puzzled” by the size, duration, and demands of the protestors. Don’t we have a democratically elected parliament, he opined, and doesn’t my cabinet fully represent all the country’s political factions and ethnic groups—Sunnis, Shia, Christians, and of course Hezbollah which recently “defeated’ Israel in the south? What do these people want anyway?

Well, what the protesters appear to want is a new government, one effectively controlled by the increasingly popular Hezbollah. In fact, the Christian leaders, seeing the handwriting on the wall, aligned their party with Hezbollah and are saying, in support of the demonstrations, that isn’t this very kind of popular uprising the U. S. has endorsed in places such as Ukraine? So why not here too? But now the U.S. is claiming that that was there and this is here—and we are thus calling what is going on in Lebanon a coup d’etat.

So the dominos seem to be toppling ,and it is no wonder that one of the signs on prominent display in Beirut read, “Thanks Condy” [sic].

Thank you indeed.

And by the way, where has Condi/Condy been since the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study group issued its scathing report? We haven’t heard a word from her about the now universally condemned policy for which she was a handmaiden. Perhaps she’s in an undisclosed location?

Monday, December 11, 2006

December 11, 2006--Who's My Roommate?

I’ve been having trouble with airport security. Not because of racial profiling or anything like that. But because of my name.

My first name is “Lloyd” and my middle name is “Steven.” But for some still inexplicable reason, my parents from day one called me “Steven.” So I’ve been “L. Steven.”

That in itself should not be much of a problem—there is the actor F. Murray Abraham, for example, and even a T. S. Eliot. Pre 9/11 neither they nor I needed to think much about this. I, for example, would purchase an airline ticket under the name “Steven” or “L. Steven.” It didn’t much matter. But it sure does now since my passport and drivers license both list me as “Lloyd.” To get past security these days I now need to buy tickets under my original, unused first name.

My wife Rona, who buys most of these tickets, and is very practical, suggested that I should change my name. Legally get the “Lloyd” removed. She even got me the forms I would need from New York City.

No problem, I thought, as I blithely began to fill them out. But I came up short when I was asked to add the reason I wanted to change my name. To help out, they listed a few examples—You are an actor and have adopted a stage name; You married and kept your original name [you can also ask the court to change your last name] and now want to use your spouse’s name; You got married and changed your last name and now you are divorced and want to return to your ‘maiden’ name; and then, You were born male but during the course of your life you have thought of yourself as female (or vice versa) and now you want to adopt a female name.

Even though I am OK with all of these suggested reasons, including the last one, it gave me sufficient pause as I thought about it to help me decide I that liked all of my give names; and so what’s the big deal about buying airline tickets using “Lloyd”?

But then I read about something in the NY Times that takes this a step further—the New York City Board of Health submitted a proposal that would allow people to change their sex on their birth certificates even though they had not undergone a sex-change operation. Well that’s too much for even me. (Article linked below.)

I confess that I was glad to learn that the Board subsequently withdrew it. How would any of these folks get through airport security, especially if they had to go through a body search or the X Ray machines at the airport in Phoenix which are, how shall I put this, very explicitly revealing. Then what about hospitals? Don’t you want to know who’s in the bed beside you? And don’t you want the nurse to bring and insert the appropriately gendered catheter?

Not to mention prisons.

So call me old fashioned. And call me either “Lloyd” or “Steven.” Take your pick. I now answer to both.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

December 9, 2006--Saturday Story--Ludavicio et al.--Part Five

In Part Four Lloyd became faculty advisor to Brooklyn College’s Writers Workshop. His only real responsibility was to sign the form required to secure a room for the group and, if he attended, which he did, assure the central administration that no intoxicants of any kind were served. But half the reason he attended was because many were available and generously shared by the participants—mainly Vietnam vets and middle-aged women who returned to school after raising children and being dumped by their husbands. Lloyd screwed up his courage after months of attending but not participating and read the opening pages of his novel—in his mind a sort of Jewish On the Road. But it had provoked only laughter, especially from a mid-forties divorcee from Flushing, Queens who was not mocking it, as Lloyd at first had feared, but rather because she loved what she referred to as its ironic subtleties. Unable to get salt-of-the earth Kathy from his mind as he drove home, including her voluptuousness, in his mind he revisited his work, now through the lens Kathy had provided, thinking that maybe he had unconsciously stumbled onto something even better than he had intended. Perhaps even something that could modestly fit into the long tradition of works by American humorists. But all of this was rudely interrupted when he reached his house and found Lydia raging and ultimately telling him that he again had to be treated by her shrink—this time by Boris Merkin, the “eclectic,” who had replaced Dr. Luven, who she now perceived to be a failed quack of an Orgonomist since she was still not getting “there.”

So in the Fifth Part, we . . . .

To my considerably surprise, I came to enjoy seeing Dr. Merkin. My first impression, though, was not positive—of him or of me.

In regard to him, and I admit this is profoundly superficial, to me Dr. Merkin looked more like an accountant than anyone’s idea of how a real analyst should look. Dr. Luven, by contrast, in spite of the way he dressed, at least he had the appropriate middle European accent, serious hair, and had studied in Vienna and Berlin under Wilhelm Reich and other psychoanalytic pioneers. Merkin, by contrast, was a graduate of Brooklyn College—at my initial session the first thing I did was check his framed diplomas—and Flower Fifth Avenue Medical School, at the time the only commutable “safe” med school for Ashkenazi Jews recently moving on from the city’s outerborough ghettos. In addition, he had a hair problem—his head was rimmed by a two-inch wide band of inauspicious fuzz which looked as if it had been affixed to his always-perspiring head; and he wore baggy suits that only accented the lumpiness of his formless body. Then, when he stood, which was rare, he barely came up to the height of my chest. All of this, far from ideal. I thought that he could at least have grown a beard.

In addition to my own initial doubts, I wondered what Lydia saw in him, considering her various fixations on bodies and their various functions. He did not set a good example for any of that.

Then in regard to myself I also was not impressed—what was I doing there in the first place? Good question. And why had I so passively allowed her to decide I needed more treatment; why had I allowed her to select my therapist—assuming that I would agree to see one, which was, I needed to admit, a non-discussable and foregone conclusion—why did I allow her to schedule a time for me to see him without asking in advance if it was convenient? Good questions all. But there I was in any case--on a late-June Tuesday, precisely on time at 11:00 a.m. at his office right off Grand Army Plaza, taking over Lydia’s regular appointment. I was even found lying on his cracked-leather couch, with a box of Kleenex tissues on my chest as if I were a side table. What, I thought, was portended by the fact that he so automatically plopped them there?

But well before that thought could develop, he laid out what he called “the rules of the road”:

“It is not often my practice to treat two members of the same family.” Up to that point I had never thought of Lydia and me in this way—to me “family” meant my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. “But in your case,” he continued, “I feel that having a limited number of sessions with you,” I was relieved to hear him mention they would be limited in number, “might be helpful to you—in fact, if you prove to be honest and work hard I feel that you will benefit—but more than that it will be helpful to your wife.” Another term that I was not used to employing. “It is no secret to you,” that was an understatement, “that I have been working with her now for almost five years. Even by classical analytic standards that is a considerable amount of time.” And I was about to add, “money,” since I wrote checks for all of his fees—Lydia had for most of that time either been taking dance cases or performing in junior companies for pittances that barely covered her expenses—in fact in three weeks she was again going to be out of town at Connecticut College for their annual modern dance festival. “So, after careful discussion with her and our together deeply probing her feelings about this arrangement, she, and now I have agreed to allow you to work with me.” I was so glad to learn that my therapy, limited though it was decided by the two of them to be, had been so deeply analyzed—again I quickly calculated how much the discussion about that had cost me.

“I even took the time to see my own supervising analyst—I haven’t been to him in years: he is a great man,” how much more would that cost I wondered, “and he counseled me that if I take certain precautions, especially being careful to manage any potential transference issues that might emerge, that it would be permitted.”

Everyone was getting into my act I thought. And as a result of that feeling, which I analyzed on my own, thank you, by looking squarely at how I was reacting to what he was saying, not well I noted, I came to conclude that I was an unsuitable candidate for whatever it was that he had in store for me after he finished laying out the rules.

“And so we will work together for a month. I should quickly add, because I want to get us to work,” he checked his watch, “that there is often value in placing such limits on therapy (of course truth requires me to say that the concomitant potential benefits are equally limited)—it will force you to be efficient in your use of our valuable time.” Not just valuable, I thought, unable to shut off the meter that was ticking in my head, but also expensive. “Above all, in this unusual circumstance of treating spouses,” another concept foreign to me, “it is essential, I emphasize essential, that what happens here, what is discussed and shared, will remain completely and totally confidential.” I thought I heard the hint of a Germanic accent when he articulated, carefully syllable-by-syllable, com-plete-ly and to-tal-ly. As a post World War II baby I knew from that how seriously he meant me to take these orders.

“Are we in agreement?” he asked in conclusion, sounding again more like the Brooklyn boy he was. I pulled a tissue from the box, feeling I should get all of my money’s worth of services and goods, and nodded with sufficient vigor that he would be able to see me through his thick glasses. It was not difficult to get me to agree not to discuss any of this with Lydia—I could always put the blame on her Merkin when she picked away at me, demanding that I tell her everything.

And so we began. His technique was so different from what I remembered of my tortuous time with Dr. Luven. Over the course of the month, in place of body work, he had me talk about early memories, my feelings about my family, my actual family, especially about my father and his relationship with my mother. I sensed that he was probing here to see if there were any echoes of that resonating, my word, within my relationship, his word, with Lydia. He was particularly interested in what he called “dream material”—insisting that I keep a pad by the bed so I could record even fragments of dreams before they were lost to consciousness. To this I keenly agreed, thinking maybe I could work some of this into my novel—as a window into the unconscious and my authentic self, particularly if I could weave some irony into the way I transformed the material into narrative.

So, in spite of my hesitations and Merkin’s demeanor, I came to look forward to my time with him. I even on occasion found I made actual use of his tissues, especially in the next-to-last session when a dream about which I had scribbled 2:00 a.m. notes involved what he, and I eventually as well, suspected revealed very early hitherto hidden memories of something sexually untoward I had glimpsed going on between my father and one of his sisters. Yes, of course, it was Madeline.

At the final Tuesday session, Lydia by then was up in Connecticut, two days before the July meeting of the Writers Workshop—Kathy was again preoccupying my mind—Dr. Merkin, before I could share material from another dream, asked me if this time I would sit in a chair facing him. I of course did, being sure, since I had no idea what to expect from this radical change in routine, to bring the Kleenex with me.

When I was seated he slid a pad and drawing pencil across to me. “Please,” he said looking directly at me, “on this pad, draw a picture of a woman’s vagina.” I was stunned, but not enough to deflect me from wondering why he asked me to draw a women’s one—didn’t that go without saying?

A what?" I finally said, somewhat incredulously, “What do you want me to do?”

“I think you heard me clearly enough. If we had the time, this is unfortunately the final session, we could spend much valuable time analyzing your reaction to this. But now, with our limited remaining moments, please as I asked you to do, draw a vagina for me. On the pad,” which he tapped with the stem of his pipe.

Drawing was something I prided myself in doing well, even if I was untrained, but this assignment was so unexpected and emotionally ladened that I worked hesitantly, in truth not doing a very good job at all. What I produced was more a cartoon version of a vagina than one that was naturalistic, with finesse or shading.

But I also quickly had to confess to myself, certainly not to Dr. Merkin, that I had not had enough experience studying actual vaginas to enable me to produce one in perspective, with verisimilitude. I knew enough by then from my experiences with therapists, limited though they were, that to share and then deal with this properly would likely take months or even years.

“That’s quite incomplete,” he said to me when I paused. “Please proceed. You have produced just the barest outline.” He again tapped the pad; this time with his eyeglasses. “To me it looks more like a clamshell standing on end than an anatomically correct vagina.”

“Well,” I attempted to defend myself, “you didn’t tell me how specific you wanted it to be.”

Very,” he said sternly.

Feeling admonished I picked up the pencil again and fiddled some more with my drawing, adding some squiggles around the outer edge of the image in a feebly attempt to represent pubic hair.

I’m not interested in that,” he almost growled. I want you to deal with the inside.” I didn’t move. “I gather you were a pre-med in college. Isn’t that correct?” I nodded without looking at him, “So, for example, where’s the urethra? Not that I care that much about it. Much more important,” he pressed on, “more germane, considering the problems—forgive me, I should have said ‘issues,’” he was now taking great care to be professionally precise, “With the most significant issue in your family,” I again thought, what does any of this vagina business have to do with my ‘family’, “I am asking, of course, about the clitoris. Where’s the clitoris? You forgot to include it.”

“Oh that,” I said, attempting to sound as nonchalant as possible. “Why, it’s right over here.” And with that I drew a small oval in the middle of the clamshell.

“Well actually,” he said, “that’s not quite correct. It’s higher up.” He took hold of my hand, in which I still grasped the pencil, and directed it to the top of my vagina. “There,” he emphasized, “There.”

I sheepishly erased the first oval and inscribed a second one where he had placed my pencil. In the anatomically more correct location.

“Good,” he said in a softer tone which helped to calm me. “I have asked you to do this, of course, because it has to do with the most important issue still unresolved in your relationship with your wife. Lydia.” He had not previously used her name. “The fact that you are clearly unfamiliar with the location of the clitoris,” he waved me off as I rose to object, “which in fairness I should add is not uncommon with pre-Masters-and-Johnson men of your generation,” this generational allusion made me feel decidedly middle-aged and I wanted so much to be able to retreat to the sanctuary and comfort of his analytic couch, “But this suggests,” he was relentless, “why you have been unable to satisfy your wife, Lydia, to--how shall I best put this--to bring here to resolution, to fulfillment.”

I knew of course that we were inevitably headed here—forget all the prior visit’s interest in intrapsychic, intergenerational problems. Or as he would have preferred to express it, “issues” within my family. I had been sent to Merkin, as I had been sent to Luven, so that Lydia could “get there.”

He went on, “I of course am familiar with her prior treatment with, I forgot his name . . . “

“Dr. Luven,” I said, “Dr. Arthur Luven. I saw him too. Three times. Like you, he also put a limit on my sessions.”

I thought it would tweak him to be compared to that, Lydia’s term, quack! But he was imperturbable. “I understand,” he said without evident emotion, “But my point is that his techniques lacked nuance. They were too much about mechanics. Plumbing, if you will. He is in my view insufficiently eclectic.”

Then what, I wondered, was all this drawing of urethras and clitorises? More plumbing, no? But as if he had read my mind, he quickly added, “Yet then again, some of it is just that. We are also animals, no? Biological? So we need also to know about these anatomical matters and must learn how to use them in our pursuit of an authentic and happy life.” He had me there.

“And so, here we are,” he inhaled deeply, sucked on his pipe, which was unlit, and looked over at me. Just as at my last session with Luven, I hoped we were about to run out of time. I did not respond or move since I was also attempting to stifle any revelations that might escape from my body language.

I successfully out waited him and so, under time pressure, he was forced to say, “We do not have the time for me to tell you all that you need to know about the differences between clitoral and vaginal orgasms.” Orgasms again--I was flashing back to my days with Luven. “Suffice it to say that the former potentially leads to the latter.” I was so distracted and confused that I could not sort out which he had mentioned as the former and which the latter. I continued to sit there as immobile as possible, not saying a word, counting the ticking of his Regulator clock. “And,” he said, “a woman’s full fulfillment requires you not to stop, feeling satisfied with yourself, when she, Lydia, your wife has reached merely the former.” I still said nothing while staring down at my vagina cartoon so as to appear to him to be making sure, by studying it so intently, that I would have a clear memory, after my treatment was concluded, of at least what was inscribed there.

“OK,” he said. Clearly we were almost out of time; and he popped out of his chair with more alacrity than I would have imagined possible, considering the considerable pull of gravity on his stump of a body, “Where does this leave us?” It was clear that he meant this now to be my final opportunity to say something.

After a few uncomfortable moments, in a way that I hoped would be light spirited and perhaps even amusing, I pointed at the clock, and offered, “I suppose, this leaves us out of time.”

I tried a smile, which clearly didn’t work since he said, “Not very amusing Lloyd. We have been engaging in serious business here, and I had hoped for more from you.”

“Well,” I said, restored to meekness, “I suppose I could try again.”
He peered at me, clearly wanting me to say more. And so I did, “With Lydia, I mean.”

“That’s more what I was hoping to hear.” He clapped his hands to signal the end of our session and the termination of my treatment.

I rose slowly and said as I turned to leave, “Thank you Dr. Merkin. I’m sure this will prove to be very helpful to me.” And without his needing to do any more chastising, I corrected myself, “I mean to us.” He did not respond.

But as things turned out, my prediction about the “me” and the “us” would soon prove to be more the former than the latter.

* * *

Two days later after my final session with Dr. Merkin, it was Thursday. The last Thursday of July and I was among the first to arrive at the Writers Workshop. I did not bring anything of my own to present but was keen to see if Kathy would read something of hers—she had indicated she was working on a poem and would bring it in if she could only find the right voice for it. Otis was there and busy rolling a half dozen joints that would help sustain us through another stifling night in our unair-conditioned meeting room. Howie was pulling the corks out of on two big jugs of cheap raffia-wrapped Chianti. That too would help.

Others drifted in and shared what we at the time called Black-Power handshakes—among others, Dean Mason was there, a demolitions expert who had his left arm blown off in Vietnam when attempting, while high on LSD, to defuse a land mine—he wrote surprisingly wistful poems about various forms of loss set in turn-of-the century rural French Indochina; also there was Ralph Santiago, an Air Force vet, who had been shot down over the South China Sea and somehow managed to survive in the shark-infested water for almost a week before he was miraculously rescued—he wrote short stories which were more a hallucinatory series of shouts seamlessly braided with epithets than coherent narratives set, as best as anyone could tell (they were that difficult to unravel and he refused to talk about them), in Manhattan’s barrio where we thought he had grown up; and also there was Loraine Nostra, one of the gut-spilling abused, who tried being a lesbian for a while, and wrote about that, in an attempt to redefine her life—she wound up a year later living with and eventually marrying Ralph; and then there was blubbery Bobby Richman, barely eighteen, veteran and survivor of a very different kind of warfare—his own battle against the most nouveau-riche upbringing the borough of Brooklyn was capable of imposing (there were many contenders for that distinction); he took this as his inspiration and wrote about that aspect of his life with more precocious talent and even genius than the rest of us combined could muster—about his mother’s “vinyl universe” of Staffordshire figurines and plastic slipcovers from which he extracted metaphoric truth, proving, back to Blake once more, that the universe could indeed to be found in just a grain of sand.

But no Kathy. Which sent me straight into a funk. With Lydia out of town and after my sessions with Dr. Merkin, especially the last of them, I felt ready for another try at adventure. Or at least the semblance of one.

Otis declared that we had a quorum, though we hardly needed one considering the business in which we were engaged—none whatsoever--and indicated by just beginning to read that he had something to present. A poem called Motherfucker. I think, actually, as I reflect back on that year, that all of his poems had the same title.

Since it, like the rest of the series, was not distinguished, and this narrative has gone on for about as long as you (and I) are capable of enduring, I will not quote from it or the discussion that followed—suffice it to say, since that discussion was so brief and thus will not divert us, it included Howie saying, “Far out”; Ralph offering his ubiquitous, “Too much”; and Lorraine spitting, “Men!”

And it was thus a great relief to me that, just as the last “motherfucker” ricocheted back at us off the black board, Kathy slipped into the room and sat down where I had previously dwelled-- behind the inner circle of chairs. It was obvious that she was agitated and, with a sigh of relief, grabbed at the perfectly-timed bottle of wine as it reached her. I watched as she took a long drink, which appeared quickly to help settle her. She shrugged off a crocheted sweater, which she wore even in this heat, and let it fall at her feet. She was wearing beneath it a blue spandex tank top, which, I could not help but notice, her breasts stretched almost to its elastic limit. And using the traction offered by her rubber-soled shoes she pulled her chair and herself, inch by inch, into the circle. I also noticed that she had a tightly folded paper in her hands, which were visibly shaking. I thought I understood why.

Then, like Otis, without any introductory comments, before anyone else could seize the floor, Kathy began to read, in a voice full of timbre from years of smoking, drinking, and who knows what else:

There will be no more songs at midnight
Nor no moans of life transporting
Or lives with meaning.
These, this was for another time
When there were lilacs in our dooryard
And you chanted songs to me.
This, these have shed their echo
And I am left
With nothing but this moon. . . .

There was more, but just this fragment was enough to intoxicate me; and, I sensed, the entire room of the wounded and left behind—the allusions (to Whitman?--I was still incapable of not being pedantic); the sentiment; the, yes, voice so different from anything I, in my stereotypical categorizing, had in truth been expecting. This was gut-spilling, true--I recalled her telling me about her prick-bastard Ex--but with an ironic, subtle vengeance!

And with that, as if on cue, the lights in the classroom, and from what we could see across the campus, all of these lights blinked off and we were left in total darkness and an uneasy silence broken only by the scream of the sirens set off by the emergency lights that flashed on to mark the exits. I was concerned about what flashbacks the vets might be experiencing.

After a tense moment, illuminated by only the glow of now multiple joints circling to help calm the many scarred nerves, I moved across the room and eased myself into the chair next to Karen. Bobby, who had been in the bathroom, burst back in and breathlessly reported that he had heard from one of the college’s security people that the whole city, maybe even the entire country was backed out—just like it had been in 1965. For him, it was a great adventure; for the rest of us at best an inconvenience.

In the nearly utter balckness, I heard Kathy mutter caustically, “Wouldn’t you know it. This really makes my day.”

I leaned over toward her, breathing her in, and said as gently as I could, “That was amazing. You accomplished just what you said you wanted to achieve, you . . . “

She cut me off, no longer thinking about her poem, “How the fuck am I gonna get home?” The spell was broken--she again was Kathy from Queens. “Billy, my kid will think the world is ending.”

“I’ll get you there,” I said, attempting to sound strong and assuring.

“But don’t you live in an entirely different direction? Maybe the buses will be runnin’. I’ll be OK. Trust me, I’ve had to get through much worse things.”

I did trust that and, thinking again of the things she alluded to in her poem and at the June meeting, I offered, “Not on your life. I’ll drive you and then I’ll go home.

“But it’ll be dangerous. The traffic lights will be out and I live in a dangerous neighborhood in the middle of Queens. There was all sorts of lootin’ the last time this happened. Two people got shot.”

But without real protest she allowed me to lead here out into the hallway, holding on to my hand, which I hoped was not trembling for what could have been many reasons, as we were guided along by the flickering emergency lights.

We quickly found the car and were soon heading diagonally across Brooklyn, seeking the Interboro Parkway, which would take us up toward Queens. She slouched against her door and smoked one cigarette after another, not saying a word. I put on the radio and we pulled in reports from around the country—it was indeed another massive power failure, and New York City was again totally paralyzed.

But thankfully the traffic was lighter than I had expected so to relax us I put on WRVR, my favorite jazz station. Wouldn’t you know it, Miles Davis immediately filled the car, his mellow sound mixing with the Kathy’s raspy breathing.

She began to sing along with him--

Can't get out of this mood
Can't get over this feeling . . .
But now I'm saying it,

I'm playing it dumb,
Can't get out of this mood . . .

I thought I heard her say plaintively, before the final line, “This coulda been written for me”--

Heartbreak here I come.

At that she chuckled, “I already been there. Not plannin’ to go back again.”

We could have been anywhere as we glided along deserted streets in a car full of the sweet breath of her exhaled smoke, drawn along, as in her poem, by a humidity-rimmed moon.

She had been directing me through streets unfamiliar to me as we got closer to the depths of Queens where she lived. In “Archie Bunker Land,” she joked as the asphalt-tile clad two-family houses sprang into view, lit by my headlights, as we probed our way into the heart of that, she was right, raw landscape.

To be concluded, finally, next Saturday . . .