The Birthday Gift

[May 10 is Greta’s (my sister) birthday.  She would be 90 years old this year, but she died almost 10 years ago.  For a time I continued to write her letters.  I had to do this to make peace with myself.  There was so much I still wanted to talk to her about, even if I didn’t get an answer.  There is still so much I want to talk with her about, and I know that will not happen.  I have this picture on my computer desktop.  It gazes out at me and I’m not sure that it comforts me with her permanent presence; or hurts me with the reminder of her absence.  I know I don’t want it to go away.  Maybe sometimes, as I sit at the computer not sure where to begin with what I need to do, I find encouragement in the smile on her face.  Maybe after I hear something new in music, like some of the songs composed and played by Adam and OneLove, I talk to her photo.  And on this May 10, on her 90th birthday, I revisited what I wrote as I was about to have my mitral valve surgery in what I called my Memento 5,  and also what I wrote (along with Diana) about this visit to Schneider Haus and the quilt competition that Diana took part in, to commemorate Greta (you can click the links to find those pieces). Maybe instead of letters, I’ll write poetry now.  LR]

The Birthday Gift 

by Lew Rosenbaum

The photograph gazes at me

from ten years agolew-greta-diana-schneider-haus-kitchener-may-2008

your birthday, Greta,

three of us standing to the side of lilacs

your eyebrows arched slightly, Greta,

eyes glimmer – are they brown?

they must be brown, all our family

has brown eyes – but my memory fails

and what I see could be gray or even

green, but I do catch the interest

as, alert, you look at the camera, not at me

standing by your side, but gaze at the

Josef Schneider Haus docent

she holds the camera and we pose

frozen in time and yet as I look at you

now alive, lips turning up in a sly smile

you betray the disease that robs you

of your humor, your laugh, the glint that

sparkled from those brown/gray/green eyes

the creases in your face melt away

I can hear you chuckle from that photo

you had just turned 80 and you could not

remember the road we had driven

many times before – we got lost on the way

to the Schneider Haus, that frightened you,

but for an instant,

standing next to the lilacs,

Diana laughs and revels in the company

in the symmetry of our mouths

a river of amusement washes over us

the three of us bathe in the pleasure

of the moment, of being alive together


My eyes stray from the joy I take

looking at your face to notice your gray hair

short cut, blown in the cool May breeze,

it’s not carefully combed or straight

as you are accustomed to wear it

and your red plaid shirt, the heavy one

you are wearing because it is a cool May day,

it hangs open and to the side, not the

impeccable way you would have worn

this or any other shirt, it’s that disease,

we’ve seen it before, both of us, Greta,

when you showed me how our mother,

our Chana, our Anna, would not, perhaps

could not, keep that neat appearance that

had been her hallmark, and how you

made me see the vacancy where the sentience

had inhabited her dark brown eyes, see the

hairs dangling disheveled from the corona

of braids she still wore when she could.


There: a smile threatens to break out on your face,

see the dimple forming in that left cheek

as the lips turn upward ever so slightly?

this is how I used to be, you tell me from the photo

remember me this way, I won’t be able to

hold this attitude much longer, you may not

see me like this again, hold me, hold onto this

moment, my brother, this, my birthday gift to you



Let’s Break Out The Booze!

Let’s Break Out the Booze!

Lew Rosenbaum

[The first version of this was a response to a facebook post about the large number of young people who will never have a job, by a person recalling all the jobs he had over the years and partly what he had learned from them — LR]

The first job I remember was selling Good Humor ice cream in high school — my senior year at Hillhouse High — New Haven, CT. Since I was the new kid on the scene, the


Stuck on a lonely corner, I ate more than I sold. No way to make a living.

company gave me a route out to a deserted highway corner, where I pedaled my tricycle style vehicle. Then I sat on the vehicle seat, ringing the handlebar bells, hoping to get cars whizzing past on the way to the beach to stop. They mostly didn’t. I ate more ice-cream than I sold, and gave up after two days.

Off to college, I worked in the University’s employment office 20 hours per week, in exchange for receiving a tuition scholarship, which transmuted to a 40 hour a week summer job. This was Los Angeles, where the pay was $1 an hour at minimum wage (but better than my friend at the University of Arizona, who earned 85 cents an hour). I learned a lot about the demographics of the job market in the LA basin — the significance of the weapons and aircraft industries for example; not so much about the movie industry. And that nobody would hire a typist who could only type 20 words per minute; a typist could get by at 40, was good at 60, and fabulous at 120 words per minute (I hadn’t yet seen an electric typewriter). Mary, the one non-managerial full time permanent employee had a degree in counseling. She survived childhood polio and walked with the assistance of metal crutches. She’d wrap up a day’s work, straightening her desk and heaving herself into walking position, saying, “Another day, another dollar, and that’s about the size of it.” It seemed the music school placed a lot of its students at the employment office for part time jobs like mine — including Bob, a student maybe twice my age, whose bass-baritone voiced often boomed through the office his favorite work-time lyric: “una furtiva lagrima.” I later saw him perform at the Carmel Bach Festival.
While in medical school, I help start an organization called Student Health Organization. One of its goals/projects was to provide health care students with summer “jobs” learning about the delivery of health care to poor people and, in our minds, expecting to change some of those demographics in the long term. We didn’t change demographics, but we set up some significant opportunities in the San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco area, Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. I had jobs all over California in those four summers, learned more than I can say. Five of us, students from LA, Vallejo and Chicago, lived outside Merced for one summer, in Planada, a small town at the foot of Yosemite. Three of us wanted the experience of working in the tomato fields, and were hired on for one day. The field workers were incredibly kind to us: Rather than just making fun of our incompetence, their courtesy and kindness got us through the day, while they tried desperately to figure out why we wanted to subject ourselves to farm labor. We observed at the once a week clinic at the Planada Community Center, where a doctor and nurse


Workers gathered outside the community center waiting to see the clinic doctor

from the public health department would see farmworker families until there were no more to be seen — sometimes as late as one or two in the morning. There I met Jimmy, in his late 30s or early 40s, a migrant worker from Texas, and his wife Rosa. Jimmy with terrible high blood pressure; the two of them with 13 children; Rosa wanting something to prevent further pregnancy, but some way to do it without letting her husband find out.

After dropping out of med school, after Los Angeles public schools told me I was unfit to be a high school teacher in Watts (because I had long hair and a beard), I became a social worker for two years. I was among a group of rogue workers — we called ourselves the Social Welfare Workers Movement, a caucus in the welfare workers union allied with welfare rights organizations. In my office, we gave out too much money (as far as the County was concerned). With a target on my back, assigned from one office to another to separate me from other activists, and then placed under the thumb of a particularly punitive office manager, I finally quit that job having learned a bunch about the way the welfare system works to undermine welfare. One of my coworkers was Dorothy Durem, the widow of the poet Ray Durem, with whom I enjoyed many a lunch hour conversation and who taught me about jicama, chili powder and lime juice. I remember the day she shared this poem with me, perhaps warning me and knowing how well I would relate to it:

Award by Ray Durem (1915-1963)

A Gold Watch to the FBI Man who has followed me for 25 years.


Ray Durem

Well, old spy
looks like I
led you down some pretty blind alleys,
took you on several trips to Mexico,
fishing in the high Sierras,
jazz at the Philharmonic.
You’ve watched me all your life,
I’ve clothed your wife,
put your two sons through college.
what good has it done?
the sun keeps rising every morning.
ever see me buy an Assistant President?
or close a school?
or lend money to Trujillo?
ever catch me rigging airplane prices?
I bought some after-hours whiskey in L.A.
but the Chief got his pay.
I ain’t killed no Koreans
or fourteen-year-old boys in Mississippi.
neither did I bomb Guatemala,
or lend guns to shoot Algerians.
I admit I took a Negro child
to a white rest room in Texas,
but she was my daughter, only three,
who had to pee.

From there I went to work on a Packard Bell stereo and TV equipment factory assembly line, working on the cabinets, until I sprained my ankle playing basketball and wound up in a cast for over a month. From there to a garment factory as a cutter, making sample books for salesmen. I cut sheer curtain fabric, material for men’s suits, and heavy upholstery fabric into squares; where I started at $1.65 an hour but was soon boosted to $1.85, while the women sewing the sample squares into books, who’d been working for more than a dozen years, were still making $1.80. And then, cutting heavy, “Herculon” upholstery fabric, I sliced the tip off my finger off one morning. The longshore union was organizing warehouse workers, and at their suggestion I found work in a small garment warehouse. There weren’t enough workers to organize in this place; just me, picking uniform shirts and pants to fill orders and bringing the garments to the shipping area, where Roscoe the shipper was probably singing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” at the top of his voice. He styled himself meaner than a junkyard dog too. A friend got me hired from there into a small print shop, so that I could learn some of that craft, ultimately to help out with some printing operations we had going. My official title was “stripper,” which meant in the printing trade making negatives of art work for offset printing. The negs would then be “stripped” into specified places on a paper or plastic mask, and checked to make sure the opaque blacks were totally opaque. Where dust specks and other white spots marred the negatives, I would apply opaquing fluid. And then, using a carbon arc, expose the plate. At the New Years Eve party for the staff, where alcohol was flowing freely, the boss laid me off. I drank a few more to get thoroughly soused on his dime and then drove home. Safely.

From then on its been bookstores (Midnight Special in Venice and then Santa Monica; Guild in Chicago; and Barnes & Noble in Evanston and Skokie) and two years teaching

Renny Golden with singers in a Latin American, Nueva Trova group I knew in Los Angeles (Erica on left) at Guild Books ca 1988-9

With Renny Golden flanked by performers from the Nueva Trova music group, Sabia, at Guild Books

high school history. A checkered career. After all that, after years of believing that life would finally begin when I could retire, and now eking by on social security, I understand fully when young people wonder about work: “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, well, let’s keep dancing, break out the booze.” In the voice of Peggy Lee.

Why in an era of abundance, when robotics more and more is creating what we need, should people need to have a j.o.b. When I first quit being a social worker, I could find a job the next day. But that’s not an option for today’s teens or college grads. So its more than an attitude of I don’t want to work; it’s also I can’t find work of any kind, never mind something with a promise of a future. The kind of learning that my jobs have given me is part of socialization — they haven’t been job skills as much as building relationships. Kids are still getting those, although differently than I did. And if they are learning that jobs are not necessary, then they’ve learned a lesson I wish I’d learned much earlier on in life. Maybe they are taking the first step toward finding out that the tyranny of corporate private property, that system that used to dangle the carrot of jobs before our anxious eyes, is not all there is. I’m ready to break out the booze and drink to that!

Happy Birthday Karl — 200 on May 5, 2018!

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  So wrote Karl Marx in his Theses On Feuerbach, and it remains one of his 185953258most often quoted statements. In fact, Jason Barker quoted it in his “Happy Birthday Karl Marx — You Were Right!” in the April 30, 2018, New York Times. Barker says — appreciates — that Marx seems to be achieving a new level of popularity since the millennium. One illustration of this is a new edition of the Communist Manifesto, issued in April, to commemorate his 200th birthday on May 5, 2018.  Yanis Varoufakis’ introduction to the volume was modified to appear in The Guardian. Varoufakis gets the poetry and the drama right in his introduction.  What he and Barker both get — something that is becoming painfully obvious even to the most recalcitrant believer in “job creation” — is the parallel between the industrial and the microchip revolution, and an inkling about the significance of the latter.  Marshall Berman wrote a review in 1998 of the Verso edition of the Communist Manifesto, published on the 150th anniversary of its first publication, which he concluded by saying:  “At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with the Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.”

Barker’s view is clear:  Marx has had “an impact arguably greater and wider than any other philosopher’s before or after him.”  That he calls Marx a philosopher rather than an economist or a sociologist is significant, and not only because Barker himself is a


Marx and his daughter Jenny

professor of philosophy.  You can look at Marx in three different ways, and each of them leads down a different path:  the Marx who elaborated theory;  the Marx who developed doctrine; and the Marx who established a philosophical world view.  It is easy to confuse them, because all aspects of Marx are embedded in all his writings. But there is a reason for looking at these distinct elements of Marx’s work. Both theory and doctrine apply most readily to distinct periods of history.  The historical scientist and the physical scientist have something in common:  their theoretical projections are limited to a context.  Often the context only becomes clear when the boundaries of that milieu have been superseded. In both, problems arise when theories that explain behavior within a certain field of operations are used to explain  behavior on another field.

Philosophy, or world view, has a broader palette.  Philosophy is a method.  Marx, the philosopher, sees the world around us as primary.  (The German philosophers of his era, products of religious narcissism that placed humans at the center of the universe, also placed human thought before the material world). The philosopher investigates the process of change itself.  This outlook is now referred to as “dialectical materialism.”

The important thing here is that Marx did not give succeeding generations a formula, as Barker points out, unless you try to apply the doctrine of, for example, the period of the First International to today. That effort is as useless as the Procrustean bed was — and at least as painful.  Why Marx is ever more relevant is because of the method, the scientific analysis, the tools for assessment and reassessment of the real material world.

Anyone who reads Marx’s masterwork, Capital, as an economic text can draw some important conclusions, but will miss some of the most significant observations and characteristics of the work.  The structure of the books are themselves an exercise in thinking dialectically, interconnected. They are also steeped in the extraordinary literary influence that Marx brings to his subjects. Francis Wheen, in a wonderful little book simply titled Marx’s Das Kapital – A Biography, quotes Marx in a letter to Engels in 1865:  “‘Now, regarding my work, I will tell you the plain truth about it. Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole.’ It was to poets and novelists, far more than to philosophers and political essayists, that he looked for insights into people’s material motives . . .” The Guardian excerpted part of the book under the title “Poet of Dialectics.”

Metaphor plays such an important part of Marx’s description of economic life — just the concept of “fetishism of commodities” is a perfect example.  But also this whole passage, from the end of Chapter 6, the transition from circulation to production:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

Here is the source of the contradiction facing the modern worker, the appearance of equality masking the essence of inequality.

But what of a period of history in which whole groups — increasing numbers — of workers have been eliminated from the process of even receiving a hiding! If we simply dsc_0091take this description and try to apply it to today, it’s inadequate.  It’s not Marx the dialectician that we are working with, when we look to the “point of production” as the essence of the modern human condition.  Marx, the materialist, strides forth and proclaims that the historical development of the realm of circulation of commodities, of the buying and selling of labor power, is undergoing a profound change because of a change in production.  Go back, he tells us, and look at where value comes from, what makes a commodity valuable.  Labor power itself is no longer valuable.  To have value in exchange, a commodity must have a use (even if it is a whimsical use).  When labor power has no use, it is also without exchange value.

Marx the philosopher — the dialectical and historical materialist — is vitally important today: The method, the rigorous science of society, far more than the ability to quote doctrine. Marx was born May 5, 1818,  200 years ago. He wrote in a period of massive upheavals, the victory of the industrial revolution was all around him disrupting society. We are at an even more disruptive period of history, where again “all that is solid melts into air.”  Marx’s method, his science, his philosophy gives us tools to understand the world and to make the leap into a new world where abundance is available to all and where we can make whole our relationship to the earth. You can’t fight in the present new period with the tactics of the past.  The point, after all, is not just to understand the world and watch it go to hell in a hand basket;  the point is to change it.