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Standing on The Corner With Omar & Satchmo

We are a puzzle, we humans. We find ourselves in the midst of life and don't know how we got here. Our parents tell us we were born. Our teachers say DNA or God or accident. None of them know and both upbringing and education are a form of propaganda which bends our minds to perpetuate the most acceptable myths. By mid life we have settled many of our questions into answers in order to concentrate on pay checks and careers and families. Still, in quiet moments we sense the old, gnawing uncertainties. We think we have settled the questions of where we came from, who we are, why we are here, and what we want, but there they are, still waiting for real answers, not doctrine, so we put them back in their place and go on with our lives until one day we die.

At our funeral, people will say he was a good man, or she was a good woman, all with the obligatory eulogy, as if words could explain the mystery of our existence, our birth and death. For myself, I would prefer a CD player and a tune by Louis Armstrong. After his trumpet licks, he would sing "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If whiskey don't get you, then women must." Not that the words would describe the tone of my life, but that they are sacrilegious and give the raspberry to your standard eulogy. Shocking, they would be, and I would have people scratching their heads, wondering, Was he really like that?

I come from a long line of ancestors, and will some day be one myself. As they say, I will be history. History, though, true history, is the incalculable sum of single faces shining for an instant, then gone. True history is not told by events or by nations, or by names of kings and presidents and dictators. If you want to know true history, visit the Grand Canyon. True history is Kaibab Plateau, Toroweap. It is the Colorado River cutting through geologic layers, coursing into California, all of it under the moon, which once long ago broke free of Earth, but not totally, left to orbit, and then creatures left African savannahs and became known as homo sapiens. That is history and it is also ancestry. All humanity has filed like one frightened, migratory tribe, crossing in a thin dark line across continents, through mountain passes and down valleys, kneeling to drink, then turning faces to the moon. In some distant epoch Earth itself will become a huge, faint moon, and hence a question. The question is akin to a tree falling in a forest without a person there. Will that, too, be a history, a kind of ancestry, when humanity no longer survives to know it?

That old Persian drunkard Omar Khayyam saw in grapes a temporary solution to the problems of existence, although the same problems drove his poetry . "Into this Universe,and Why, not knowing/ Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:/ And out it, as Wind along the Waste,/ I know not Whither, willy-nilly, blowing." (Rubaiyat, XXIX) That is the irony. Even though his words posed more questions than answers, they provided him consolation, for he had created something. "And that inverted Bowl they call the sky,/ Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,/ Lift not your hands to It for help--for It/ As impotently moves as your or I." (LXXII) Even in his despair we find beauty.

Stand on any city street corner and you will see life's essence. Honking horns, flickering chrome, gurgling exhaust, scurrying pedestrians, fluttering pigeons, changing lights, skittering thoughts. Look again and everything is gone. All of it is solid only in our preconceptions; yet we call it real. It is Heraclitus' river that you can't step into twice. It is what we have instead of certainty. But it is beautiful, even the exhaust fumes. Beauty surrounds us and we can escape it only by closing our eyes. We are puzzles to ourselves, as is the universe to us, but in the midst of life we have more than enough to sustain us.

Take it Satch. Lead us out of here with South Rampart Street Parade.

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