Places

I can’t be alone in this perception, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else who clearly expresses it: I usually have a sense of where I am on the globe…yes, the globe. Places for me always have a context…a dot on a map in my mind. I grew up using paper maps, the kind that open and close in accordion style and lived in the glove compartment of cars. I collected world and continent and country maps from National Geographic; with the help of my father, I collected maps of all 50 states from gas stations, although some maps were available only as a group of states: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and DC, for instance. When I saw a map, I appreciated the exact place that it represented.

I used to plan trips on maps, tracing out the shortest or best routes along the bold black lines denoting super highways or the bold red lines showing state highways. I plotted ten different routes from my home to the Jersey shore. When I drive to the shore at night through the Pine Barrens, I get lost in the immediacy of the flat scrub-pine darkness around me even though I have a techincal image in my head of the arrow-straight Atlantic City Expressway cutting southeast across the state. Such night driving can be dreamlike, populated now and again by deer who pop up their heads in reaction to the light or I think that maybe the Jersey Devil will make an instantaneous appearance across my path in a flash through my headlights…but I know, too, exactly in reality where I am. In 8th grade, I took a bicycle hike to the Jersey shore with two friends; we avoided the highways and stayed on county roads and when we’d get to a main intersection, I could spread out the map and quickly find the place and say with authority, “We’re here!”

Zooming into Cape May Point on Google Maps.

Zooming into Cape May Point on Google Maps.

I know that when I visit Cape May Point and stand on the southernmost point of New Jersey, I can see and sense exactly where I am on the globe…the way that one can zoom in on Google Maps from a satellite view of the world, down to the United States, to New Jersey, then to the southernmost cape. I love to watch offshore the turbulence of the waters of the Delaware Bay as they crash into the waters of the Atlantic, current against current, and enjoy the riches at my feet of shells and seaglass that result from that crashing hundreds of yards from shore…in my head is a dreamy sense of the ocean and the bay and all they contain…yet I know that it’s my self standing at the tippy end of that teardrop of land.

Sureness of place: Africa on the horizon from atop Gibraltar.

Sureness of place: Africa on the horizon from atop Gibraltar.

I always sense the same sureness of place, but especially when the place is geographically unique. I sailed one evening from the southern Spanish port of Algeciras across the Mediterranean Sea to Tangier; for the two hours of the voyage, I had a sure sense of moving south of the Iberian peninsula across to the northwest coast of Africa…I could see it in my mind and understand my place on the globe. The next day, my friends and I ascended the Rock of Gibraltar and I could clearly see from its elevation what I had sensed on the boat: the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Africa beyond, and Spain and Europe behind me. Last year, I rode the train from Copenhagen to Malmo across the Øresund Bridge that spans the Baltic Sea…I saw in my mind’s map the expanse of sea between Denmark and Sweden, the North Sea stretching to the north and the Baltic spreading out to the east. I was soon enjoying a drink in a square in Malmo, looking at the St. Petri church tower built in 1380…again, I was lost in the immediate beauty of the place while technically I could sense my exact spot on the globe. I can often get lost, even though I know exactly where I am.

Next entry will be posted on Wednesday, July 26th.

Creativity

Patti Smith

Patti Smith

I love to see paintings, read books, watch films, and hear music to experience a fuller sense of knowing the world. Standing in front of a painting can connect to something right down inside me, where it tells me things I’d never known or makes me recognize things I didn’t know I’d known. I’ve had the sensation of seeing the world as someone else saw it and captured it and painted it; or reading a sentence in a book or poem that perfectly captures a certain something too ephemeral to explain other than to read that sentence; or watching a moment on film and knowing way down in my gut exactly what that experience is, to learn something and understand it in a way completely new, or to know that someone else knows what I know and I know what he/she knows.

We could all, I suspect, name those paintings or sentences or movie scenes that present a moment of truth:

  • The first time I stood in front of van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on display at New York’s MOMA, I recognized it as more than the iconic painting that it has become. The canvas is exposed irregularly around the edges, reminding me how it is only a painting, but it is so dramatic in color and shape and motionless movement—the swirling, manic sky over the dark and silent town…I’ve known that juxtaposition and competition in life.

  • I remember asking the professor, “Who are ‘the dead’ in the title?” when I first read “The Dead” in James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. I originally thought that it referred only to the boy who died for love of Gretta; but I have grown to understand a universality to the story, how our lives are tied to and ruled by ideas of the dead. I think the closing line of the story is perfectly written: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

  • Every time I see The Godfather (1972), my spine tingles when the baker, Enzo, startles Michael in the hospital and without an instant’s hesitation offers his support and loyalty…“…for your father, for your father”…even to his unnerved posing as an armed guard at the hospital entrance; I’ve known that generosity and loyalty in life.

  • Something undefined about Patti Smith’s Beneath the Southern Cross grabs me still every time I hear it…the pounding guitar rhythm and Smith’s barking of the mystical lyrics. “To greet, lame, the inspired sky,” always gives me a sense both of a lame humility and a glory in the face of an inspired/inspiring universe; I’ve known both such humility and such glory.

I nurse a jealousy of the creativity of others…I’d love to be able to capture my experience of so many things, a hotbed universe of experience: fear, joy, happiness, wonder, passion, confusion, horror, anger, humor, lust, betrayal, disgust. Moments and feelings and life one slice at a time…I wish I could find a way to spin such moments in the context of the bigger story in which they’d been lived, spin them into something others might enjoy. Because I remember tasting smelling hearing seeing sensing so many things that had such meaning…I wish I had several more senses and talents just to exploit it all.

Next entry will be posted on Wednesday, July 19th.

Freedoms

When I was a boy, I loved our family’s celebration of July 4th each year. We hosted a family picnic for my father’s side of the family, pretty much the only day all year when we saw many of these relatives. Unlike my mother’s side of the family—she was an only child, so I had no maternal cousins—my father’s side of the family came with lots of cousins! July 4th was a day of kids and kids’ games and what I thought was “cookout extreme!”

In memory, the day always began with my putting out the flag. In our small house, we had a room in the front gable—a room with pitched ceiling and a small window overlooking the street. On the sill of the window was a brass flag holder, where I would lean out and insert the flag pole and tie down the line to display our U.S. flag. At the ages of 8, 9, and 10, I felt very official—but was probably officious—hanging the flag for the day. July 4th had begun!

Next, some of us would climb in the station wagon for the short trip to the Clementon Ice House, a big warehouse-of-a-building where we bought a few huge blocks of ice. My father would pay the man and then he’d open a big insulated door and frost would swirl out into the humid July air, he would disappear into the building, and return with two blocks of ice hanging from his ice clamps. We’d load them in the car and continue to the liquor store, where my father picked up a heavy keg of beer and its mysterious hoses and pump and tap. Then we’d race home as the ice blocks and cold keg started to glisten with a watery surface. My father had an ice clamp—God only knows where it is today—and he’d carry each block to the metal tubs set-up in the backyard and then chop it into chunks with a pick and then add water…it seems like a different world to remember it.

My father hefted the keg into one tub and we’d load soda cans into the other, soda cans that were heavy tin and required a “church key” to punch two small triangular holes around the rim. The can opener hung by a string from the tub handle to keep it always at hand; without the opener, the soda cans were impervious, and on those hot July days, we freely ran through cases of soda! I can remember fishing into the bottom of the tub late in the day to find the flavor soda I wanted, and how the icy water quickly hurt my hand.

Guests began to arrive midday and our backyard quickly filled with energetic kids and the picnic table was surrounded by adults smoking cigarettes. The older kids organized games of kickball or threw a football, the younger kids ran endlessly around the yard and bothered the parents to light sparklers or set off firecrackers. Our house, in those far-ago days, was not air conditioned, so there was no temptation to go indoors…we spent the day in the shade of trees, cooling ourselves with soda or beer.

Finally, my father would load the grill with charcoal, spray on lighter fluid, and throw in a match…woof! The flames exploded in and rose from the grill and the children were recruited to carry dishes and napkins and silverware and a huge bowl of my mother’s potato salad and a huge bowl of my mother’s macaroni salad and jars—not plastic squeeze bottles—of mustard and ketchup and relish and pickles and olives. Then the burgers and hot dogs hit the grill…and they couldn’t grill fast enough. Kids ate first and sat at the table where the grown-ups had moved away, moms huddled around them fixing each plate. Soon the kids were again running around the yard and the adults moved back to the table and the meal continued.

As evening started to descend on the backyard, we were called to scour the edges of the yard for good marshmallow-roasting sticks…long enough to protect our hands from the heat, thin enough to stab the marshmallows without ruining them, green enough not to snap when used. Marshmallow toasting is a delicate operation, too delicate to be left to young children. Young children aren’t patient enough to let marshmallows toast properly nor dexterous enough to hold them close to the coals without touching. But a well-toasted marshmallow…slightly browned and slightly sagging as it melts…is the essence of a cookout.

Before actual sundown, my father would remind me to take in the flag…he was a stickler for flag etiquette. But sundown also meant that we’d head to Silver Lake, a short walk downhill, where we could sit and watch the Clementon Lake Park fireworks. The Park was a mile away, but the fireworks could be seen exploding into the open sky above Silver Lake. We’d wait in the darkness, tortured by mosquitoes despite our burning punks, lighting sparklers and throwing them into the water seconds before they’d burn out. Finally, the fireworks would start and the whistle of them rising in the dark and the dazzling light and loud bang of their explosion dazzled us for a time that was always too short…before we wanted it, the finale would start and fireworks would rise and explode rapid-fire and I’d have to hold my ears against the booms.

As a child, I celebrated July 4th as a family-picnic day…never understanding the Americanism of our freedom and liberty, never understanding the strong statement I made when I hung the flag out the window.

Maturity

Peter Warne (Gable) and Ellen (Colbert)

Peter Warne (Gable) and Ellen (Colbert)

Years ago in a college course called “History and the Film,” I first saw It Happened One Night (1934), starring Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert. It is a classic film for many reasons and in many ways…not least of which is its taking the five major Oscars—Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Writing. I clearly remember that as a 19-year-old student, I identified with Clarke Gable’s character, Peter Warne, a barely successful newspaper reporter who stumbles onto a sensational story: an heiress-in-hiding who has married a man against her millionaire-father’s wishes. Gable’s performance creates a strong, smart, brash, quick-witted character. Peter Warne has principles and humor and strength…and he has Clarke Gable’s legendary good looks. I was only 19 and dreaming of the life I would live. Peter Warne as portrayed by Gable seemed a good option.

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

About a year ago on a night when I couldn’t sleep, I watched It Happened One Night again. Again, I loved the movie beginning to end, all its charming characters, all its humor. I laughed all over again at Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), a fool who tries—and fails—to outwit Warne; and Danker (Alan Hale, Sr.), who turns every thought into a song. But I soon realized that I identified now—more than 40 years later—with the father, Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly). He is steadfast, clearheaded, and dedicated to his daughter’s happiness. In some ways, it was like watching a completely different movie…the banter and charm between Warne and Andrews's daughter, Ellen (Claudette Colbert), was entertaining, but now the scenes between father and daughter had a new power for me…I’m a father. When Andrews visits his daughter on the morning of her wedding, I envied his ability to root out her feelings. “If it’s as serious as all that,…” he commits, “we’ll move heaven and Earth…”

Naturally, the movie hadn’t changed between viewings…I had. In my changing over time, dreams have become realities, been abandoned, or have simply faded away. Fantasies—or things that I had thought were fantastical—have become realities. Even realities—absolute facts on which I’d counted—have been redefined…some for the better and some for the worse. Where my 19-year-old self had envisioned life’s possibilities—dreams and fantasies and the charm of Clarke Gable as Warne, my current self accepts life’s responsibilities—realities built on dreams and the steadfastness of the father, Andrews. While much has changed, much abides: I still love the movie, dream dreams, entertain fantasies, and embrace realities. I still wish I were as handsome as Gable, as quick-witted as Warne, and as steadfast as Andrews. 

I will assume, therefore, that in 1802 William Wordsworth was correct when he wrote, “The Child is the Father of the Man.” I have become the natural progression of what I started out to be. “My days [are] bound each to each,” as Wordsworth writes, but life evolves, too…matures. I especially like the scene in the movie when Warne meets with Andrews about both money and Ellen…it’s political, strategic, passionate, comic and tragic. It has a certain “calendar reality” that pits the dreams and fantasies of youth against the responsibilities of adulthood…a most natural opposition.

Degree

Scarlet tanager (used with permission, www.raymondbarlow.com )

Scarlet tanager (used with permission, www.raymondbarlow.com )

This morning as I was making my “constitutional” around the yard—watering the plants, pulling a weed or a stick or a rock here and there—when I was surprised by a bright red bird cutting across the backyard. I watched it fly at eyelevel across the yard and light in a plum tree on the corner of my property. I quickly recognized that it was a scarlet tanager…the first one I’ve seen since I was 8 or 9. It was so brightly red that anyone would call it scarlet, with its wings folded back black and neat. It preened a second, long enough for me to distinguish it from other less-red birds that I see more commonly: cardinals and red-headed woodpeckers and even red-winged blackbirds (disappointing birds, because the wings are not red, but are topped with a shoulder of red). The male cardinals are completely and brightly red, but a cardinal’s red compared to the tanager is like my bank account compared to Oprah’s. It preened a second and was gone down the street into the trees. Stunningly beautiful. 

But like Proust tasting the madeleines, I was instantly transported to myself as that 8- or 9-year-old boy, because when I saw my first and only other scarlet tanager, I was in the backyard of my boyhood home on a summer morning with my mother and when that tanager lighted on a log—I can see it in my mind as if it were happening now—I was equally stunned and I said to her, “Mom, what’s that?” and when she instantly knew its name, “That’s a scarlet tanager,” she said, I was as amazed at my mom’s omniscience as at the beautiful bird. Of course, the complexity and poetry of the name added to the whole glorious moment… “a scarlet tanager,” a two-part name that distinguishes the degree of the red. I can see my mom and the backyard…it too was two-part, with the yard that was immediate to the house and then one step up into what we called “the field,” an expanse of grass large enough for shagging fly balls or playing good games of kickball, edged with a typically South Jersey pine forest and separated from the forest by logs encircling the field. The scarlet tanager had perched on one of the logs, looked about nervously as birds always do, and then she, too, was gone into the woods. I could almost feel my mother’s grip on my hand, as if we stood watching this tanager again together. Wouldn’t that be nice, my standing holding my mother’s hand…except this time I’d say, “Hey mom, another scarlet tanager!” as if the 53 or 54 years were just a flash. But my point, really, is how red birds can distinguish themselves by degree of red…this magically scarlet bird that made other red birds seem only to be pretending.

I find that kind of difference regularly…I’ve seen movies and read books, I’ve seen paintings and heard songs, I’ve been places and tasted foods and drunk wines and smelled flowers that have each defined for me what the essence of things is: a movie that rises to the degree a movie can reach; a book that rises to the degree a book can reach…etc. I’ve known people who rise to that degree, too…too few, but I’ve known them and know them…people who rise to the degree a person can reach: vision, compassion, integrity. Like the scarlet red of the scarlet tanager.

Next entry will be posted on Wednesday, June 28th.

Daring

Sylvia Beach

Sylvia Beach

In the February 2017 issue of Vanity Fair, while describing the legal entanglements of managing/maintaining the remarkable modern art collection of Peggy Guggenheim and the Venetian “palace” where it’s kept, writer Milton Esterow quotes one of her biographers as saying, “[Guggenheim’s] choices affected the course of twentieth-century art history.” Her collection included works by Picasso, Pollock, Brancusi, Dalí, Giacometti, and many more. She also is reputed to have collected lovers—perhaps as many as 1000 men. The article does not report, however, that she inherited today’s equivalent of about $35 million on her 21st birthday…an important fact, I think, that gives her success and legacy a different flavor; as Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

I want to tell a different story of another woman of other means who affected the course of twentieth-century literary history…this is a story of daring and charm and determination. Sylvia Beach, an American expatriated to Paris, established and operated an English-language bookstore and became godmother to one of the most exciting periods in English and American literature. The bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, has become mythic because it served as a library and post office and weigh station for dozens of writers, including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Archibald MacLeish, Sherwood Anderson, Janet Flanner, and of course…James Joyce. But it began as a small idea based on $3000 funding from her mother. The loan request worried Sylvia when she wrote her mother on July 26, 1919, “I would hate to risk your money mother—that would be awful, if I failed!!!”

Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, 1939.

Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, 1939.

She did not fail. Shakespeare and Company opened for business on Monday, November 17, 1919. According to her biographer Noel Riley Fitch, “Within months of the November 1919 opening of her bookshop, she would become a personality. Within two years she would be a literary leader. And within six years she would be, … ‘probably the best known woman in Paris’—the ‘Sylvia Beach’ of modern letters.” 

As a hostess in a home to writers, much has been written in praise of Ms. Beach and her bookstore. 

  • Janet Flanner writes, “Her little Shakespeare bookstore in the rue de l’Odéon…had become an incalculably large radiating center of literary influence and illumination over which she modestly presided, as small in her person as in her premises,—adolescent in her size, with a schoolgirl cut of bobbed hair and white low collars, and economical steel-rimmed glasses.” 
  • Malcolm Cowley writes, “Her central characteristic was a passionately unselfish interest in new writing. If we said we were writers, she was always glad to see us, even if we couldn’t afford to buy books from her.” 
  • Allen Tate writes, “Sylvia was kind to me from the beginning. I never knew why, except that true kindness needs no reason.”

I tell all this about Ms. Beach because she lives under a different, prominent shadow: she is known first as the woman who dared to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. As Bloomsday approaches—June 16—and the world turns its attention to James Joyce’s epic and its main characters, Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, and Stephen Dedalus, we should also remember the publisher who brought it to reality, Sylvia Beach. One writer remembers, “[Sylvia] did not escape the publisher’s fate …as the beast of burden struggling beneath the crushing load of a singular author’s genius and egotisms.”

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach (center), John Rodker (left) and Cyprian Beach (right) at Shakespeare and Company, 1921 (Image courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.)

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach (center), John Rodker (left) and Cyprian Beach (right) at Shakespeare and Company, 1921 (Image courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.)

In 1920, several periodicals had been prosecuted and destroyed for publishing obscenity by serializing episodes of Ulysses. Joyce complained to Sylvia, “My book will never come out now.” She tells in her memoirs, 

It occurred to me that something might be done, and I asked: “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?”
He accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. …
Undeterred by lack of capital, experience, and all the other requisites of a publisher, I went right ahead with Ulysses.

It was a daring decision that would change and expand her life…but it was not the totality of her life. She had dared to decamp alone into post-war Europe; she had dared to start an English bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris; she had dared to dedicate herself to books and to writers yet unknown. Unlike Guggenheim with her extravagant Venetian legacy, Sylvia Beach’s legacy was simpler. As framed by one writer, “The person who can bring to an ‘ordinary’ profession a sense of dedicated vocation, restores to that profession its genius…She was a bookseller.”

D-Day

Leaving New York, 1944

Leaving New York, 1944

My father went onboard the battleship USS Texas, on April 4, 1944 at Pier 51, North River, New York as a US Marine. He was assigned to the team that manned one of the two four-barrel 40mm anti-aircraft guns—called quad-40s—that were situated at the fantail of the ship: the 8 black barrels in the picture above and at the lower left of the image below. Three days later, Texas got underway to head to Europe and the war. He writes, “Going to sea for the first time on a battleship headed for “the war,” when you are only 18, is not something one forgets. What I had dreamed became a reality.”

Below is another installment of my father’s remembrance of his experiences of World War II, specifically of D-Day, June 6, 1944. He wrote this remembrance years later, but years ago, too. 

USS Texas

USS Texas

We weighed anchor and departed Scotland on April 29 bound for Ireland. Six hours later we were in Belfast Lough. Preparation began in earnest for the big invasion we knew was coming. We went on extensive maneuvers and fired our anti-aircraft guns at targets for the first time…

We were told General Eisenhower was going to pay us a visit. We took this to mean the big invasion was imminent. On May 19, the crew was turned out long before the General arrived; it was a classic example of “hurry up and wait.” Ike was popular with all servicemen, but that day he pushed it…we waited in a steady drizzle, fallen out with rifles, belts, and bayonets, fully expecting a personal inspection by the Supreme Commander. Waiting in the rain provoked some unflattering remarks, until his launch was sighted...in the excitement, all was forgiven. But to our disappointment, he did not inspect us personally and strode on by with his entourage to a platform set up on the fantail of the ship…right next to my quad-40s. Ike was truly a soldier’s soldier. He looked and acted the part, natural and unassuming. His prepared remarks sounded unprepared; he was genuine; he was sincere; you believed him. His talk lasted only three minutes, and he ended by telling us, “Knock that damned Hitler out of the war!” He made you want to fight, to make him and the folks back home proud. 

We continued maneuvers with both the British and the French every day, until the morning of June 3 when we left Ireland and headed for Normandy. The weather continued miserable, causing the postponement of the invasion for 24 hours. We changed course to proceed in the opposite direction for 12 hours and then reversed course again…ships of all Allied nations surrounded us. It was a great comfort being with them, safety in numbers, I suppose.

We arrived at Omaha Beach before dawn, Utah Beach to our right and the British target Gold Beach to our left. When we dropped anchor, I felt vulnerable: I never realized we would be anchored during an invasion…the old ship didn’t move very fast even when the hook was up and I wanted to be ready for a quick get-away! 

USS Texas fires a salvo of its 14-inch guns.

USS Texas fires a salvo of its 14-inch guns.

Lying off Normandy in the darkness, I thought of the people ashore. It was not unlike lying off Atlantic City. Were they looking out and seeing all this power about to explode on them? Or innocently sleeping? I recall the quiet until 0315 when the bombers came over and dropped their load on the beaches. About an hour-and-a-half later, we weighed anchor and moved toward our firing position. Mine-sweepers were at work—I don’t remember having given mines a thought—because the area was reputed to be the most heavily mined in the war. We commenced firing at 0550 and continued for 40 minutes. Then I watched the landing craft filled with soldiers pass by the fantail heading for Omaha Beach. I actually felt a kind of envy…in my young mind, “hitting the beach” was a test of your manhood, right up there with jumping out of a plane.

Quad-40 crews at post (l) and watching the landing craft go ashore (r).

Quad-40 crews at post (l) and watching the landing craft go ashore (r).

We anti-aircraft crews had nothing to do but watch that day; German planes were nowhere to be seen. All guns were manned, but only the main and secondary batteries fired. After the initial bombardment, we took on targets of opportunity. One such target was a church tower that, we were told, the Germans were using as an observation post. We all watched as the steeple was blown off the church, taken out with one shot from a 5” battery. Another target—which we couldn’t see from aboard ship—was a German gun that was firing on the beaches as well as at the ships. Everyone was told to watch in hopes of spotting its muzzle-flash…finally it was located behind a burning building—the flames had been concealing the flash—and it was quickly eliminated. But overall, our guns could do little for our men on the beaches because of the danger of hitting them. 

German prisoners onboard USS Texas.

German prisoners onboard USS Texas.

On D+1 we took 27 prisoners aboard. The crew of the landing craft that brought them out to us wouldn’t release them until we lowered some swabs and buckets…the prisoners had gotten seasick and were made to clean up the mess. They were a motley looking group, hardly the “supermen” they advertised themselves to be. Then a strange thing happened while they were waiting to be taken onboard. Two German planes made an appearance and came in very low on the far side of the ship, out of view of the prisoners. Naturally, anti-aircraft guns commenced firing. About half the prisoners had been taken onboard just before the firing began, so those still in the landing craft thought we were executing those on deck…thinking a firing squad was waiting, they needed considerable prodding to climb aboard!

Bringing the wounded alongside and then onboard.

Bringing the wounded alongside and then onboard.

Another landing craft came alongside with 35 wounded Rangers and one dead Coast Guardsman. The sailor’s body lay face-down lashed to the boat. He was the first American dead that I saw up close. Oddly, I remember looking at his shoes and thinking, “When he tied those shoes this morning he never realized it would be the last time.”  I remember one Ranger who had been shot or taken shrapnel that went through both cheeks without even loosening a tooth. Though wounded, the Rangers sat with us on the deck and were in good spirits. They had taken heavy casualties and were delighted to be alive. They were very appreciative of the work our bombardment had done. “You guys knocked the hell out of ‘em,” one said.

I watched these guys with a tinge of guilt. I still felt like I should have been one of the guys hitting the beach—that’s what I had expected when I joined the Marines. I mentioned this to Walter Ress, a corporal who was “older and wiser” than I. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You can wind up just as dead right where you are.” Before long, I learned how right he was.

Within two weeks during an attack on Cherbourg, France, Corporal Ress was proven correct. USS Texas would be hit by two German shells, wounding 13 and killing the helmsman, Christen Norman Christiansen, the only combat fatality aboard the Texas during the entire war. 

Moments

Aunt Ada visits from Pittsburgh, 1930

Aunt Ada visits from Pittsburgh, 1930

Easter Sunday, 1934

Easter Sunday, 1934

I’ve inherited several photo albums from my parents and my grandparents and it is a daunting responsibility to have them. I need to scan them and share them with my siblings for “ancestry” reasons, but also for the sheer value of the moments in the life of our family…moments that go back to the 1880s. Pictures of my great-great-grandparents…very staid, austere portraits of people bundled in abundant formal clothing, showing no particular joy in being photographed. Pictures of my grandparents first becoming parents in the 1920s are more candid, my mother as a baby, and my parents’ younger years around the time they got married and started a family. But the pictures center around holidays or birthdays, weddings or reunions…the moments of their everyday lives aren’t captured.

The cousins gather, 1938

The cousins gather, 1938

Sorority sisters visit Atlantic City, 1944

Sorority sisters visit Atlantic City, 1944

In the past, picture-taking was more of a challenge and expense of both time and money—camera settings weren’t automatic, camera-flashes were expensive and awkward, and development and printing of photographs took days. Thus each picture had more of a purpose than they seem to have today…posed pictures around the Christmas tree or the Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner tables; group pictures of “all the kids” crowding into frame; fashion pictures of new dresses or Easter outfits or new fancy hats; group pictures of “the sorority sisters” in their Senior year; and, of course, carefully posed wedding pictures.

Christmas, 1949

Christmas, 1949

These old photo albums are of moments and feelings and life, one special slice at a time…I find myself thinking about the moment when the picture was taken: planning, posing, framing the shot, checking the settings; all the while, the person/people in the picture waiting anxiously, patiently to be captured in that moment. They seem to be moments of pride or joy or beaming love. My mother’s early years—1 through 22—are captured in just 40 pages of 180 “moments.” I wish that I could find a way to spin it all together and fill in the blanks to know her whole life better…

At the end of the 1982 classic, Blade Runner, the leader of the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), describes the precious value of the private fleeting moments we all have in life. There is a privacy to each of our lives, and the old photo albums confirm that: they show me highly selected, shared, public moments…and they tell me, too, of all the private moments that happened when the camera was set aside. I know my family as a combination of the photos in the albums and all the imagined moments I’ll never really know. Roy Batty tells it well, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…and all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

I tend to view the old pictures in contrast to today’s abundant pictures of family and friends on Facebook and Instagram. Life seems ridiculously more happy and entertaining today than it was 100 or 80 or 60 years ago. In contrast to the photo albums, we all know people who post 180 pictures a month…maybe even 180 pictures a week! In reality, I’m not sure these modern moments are better preserved…I think we only notice and remember the great ones.

Sadness

Shirley Booth as Lola Delaney

Shirley Booth as Lola Delaney

It used to be that a smile could fool me, but I’ve learned that apparent happiness can happen even when sadness persists beneath it all. I was put in mind of this when I saw Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) the other night…a movie that won the Oscar for Shirley Booth as Lola. Justifiably. (She may be the first Best Actress winner to stumble up the stairs, but it does not prevent her from delivering a very gracious acceptance speech.) Booth is magnificent in the role and I think it’s because she creates an unrelenting sadness at the base of the character, even when she plays joys and laughter and diversions over top. A sadness underlies the entire character, no matter what moment she is playing in the movie. When the sadness finally comes to the top—when she discovers that the whiskey bottle is missing and the source of her sadness breaks through—she simply reveals what the character has suppressed all along: sadness. She makes a panicked call to a friend, she serves dinner to the two young lovers, she entertains her guests…but her sadness is as thick as an encyclopedia. I hate the movie because I love it so much…Shirley Booth’s performance and Ketti Frings’s screenplay (based on the play by William Inge) are poignant, piercing, and very human.

Happy Aunt Ada and tragic Uncle George, August 18, 1928  

Happy Aunt Ada and tragic Uncle George, August 18, 1928
 

Throughout the movie, the character of Lola and her underlying sadness put me in mind of my very favorite great-aunt, my Aunt Ada. We always included Aunt Ada in all our birthday celebrations—we counted on her each year for new underwear and socks and a soggy kiss on the cheeks. We included Aunt Ada in all our holiday celebrations—as a child, I always sat next to her at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, where she would load my plate and then praise my great boyish appetite. But like Lola, Aunt Ada had an unrelenting sadness underneath her joys and laughter. It may have started when, at the age of 5, she lost her mother and was then sent to an orphanage at age 11 with the death of her father.  But her sadness was surely established when, in 1938, returning home from work, she discovered her husband’s body in the kitchen where he had committed suicide. I don’t know what had driven him to such an act on the eve of his 38th birthday, but I know that she regretted having stopped to pick up a birthday cake on her way home that night…right or wrong, she thought she could have prevented his actions. That was 1938 and I believe that she never really shed the sadness…

She went on to reunite with one of her sisters—my grandmother (a third sister was lost through adoption)—and become a beloved fixture at all our family events. Aunt Ada loved the attention my mother heaped on her and loved us as if we were her very own grandchildren. She delighted on being introduced, escorted to her seat, and applauded at our wedding reception… “such an honor for me,” she said. But regularly, the sadness below would rise to the top. 

Emily Dickinson wrote a powerful poem of sadness, “My life closed twice before its close—” because she had suffered and carried with her all through life two terrible losses…and yet she also wrote poems of great joy, bliss, and optimism.  I don’t know that it is particularly a womanly strength, but I’ve known many women who have lived that kind of occasional happiness on top of sadness, layer on layer.

Silence

Brian Eno  

Brian Eno
 

I think that I have never experienced true silence. I know I’ve enjoyed versions of quiet that I’ve understood and interpreted as silence even though sound was entering my ears, but I’ve never experienced true silence. I’ve never experienced an absolute lack of sound, like floating around in space where there is no atmosphere to carry the sound. I’m not sure I would like true silence.

The only silences I’ve known have been filled with soft or regular or peaceful sounds…the kind of sounds that blend into my consciousness without notice, and so they seem like silence. A background of unobtrusive sound, like ambient music that presents a kind of smoothed background but no foreground. Brian Eno, I’m told, invented the concept of ambient music long ago and debuted the concept with Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978. I play that music a hundred times a year because it never intrudes on my thoughts and it prevents other sounds from doing just that…intruding. I’ve played it at the office and in my car and on Sunday mornings just to create a “silent” background of sound. My mind seems to focus well on top of Eno’s calming, harmonic sounds of silence.

Night freight rolling, rumbling through New Brunswick

Night freight rolling, rumbling through New Brunswick

When I was in college in New Brunswick, NJ, I lived in an apartment that was just blocks from the main Amtrak corridor. Trains of every size and length and speed used to roar and rumble past all day and night. Local commuter trains passed most frequently; the bigger, faster Amtrak trains shot through regularly; and freight trains, sometimes of astonishing length, rolled through slowly and their weight added a bass rumble to the sound of their wheels squealing on the rails. My sister once visited and asked me in the morning, “How do you stand those trains all night long?” I realized that I had grown accustomed to them so that I simply didn’t hear the trains…they had become an element in the city’s nighttime sounds of silence. 

Many summers I lived in an apartment in the quietest end of Wildwood Crest, NJ, where I enjoyed the privacy of a second-floor deck that overlooked a compact backyard with a view to the bay. At the end of many days, I’d treat myself to a glass of tawny port and a snack and ease into the evening in the quiet of the deck. During the noisy activity of the day, cars and buses and tourists created a staccato, unpredictable din across the neighborhood. But at night, the cars settled and the buses stopped their runs and tourists migrated to the boardwalk and amusement rides miles north, leaving me to my wine, the growing darkness, and an ocean hum from the distant beach. As I began to hear the periodic whisper of waves in the distance…rhythmic, breathy, humming…I recognized it as the evening sounds of silence.

On a recent television show, a person who had been born deaf had a device implanted to give her hearing. The show was broadcast live and unscripted…a bit of a gamble. When the device was turned on, the woman was appropriately startled and amazed and wide-eyed at first perceiving sound. She spoke to hear her own voice and then listened to hear her daughter’s voice. Everything happened as I had expected…until the woman tried to describe her experience. “Words have shape,” she said. She didn’t have an understanding of, or a way to describe, sharp sounds or deep sounds or smooth or harmonious or cacophonous sounds. To her, who had lived in a truly silent world, words had “shape.” I wonder what I would think, how I would understand it, how I would describe it…if I were to experience it—without hums or whispers or harmony—if I were to experience true silence. 

Loyalty

Wildwood, NJ 1978

Wildwood, NJ 1978

In a recent email to a friend, I remarked that she was one of those people who can “truly be remarkably loyal and dependable.” (I won’t recount my comment about the other kind of people.) She very kindly replied that I was “worthy of loyalty.” If you read my blog regularly then you know that I believe that words matter…those words mattered enormously. They mattered both because I hope to be a “loyalty-worthy” person and at the same time winning this particular friend’s loyalty is a valuable achievement…I’m as happy for her to think me loyalty-worthy as I am to have her loyalty.

This led me to realize that a few human relationships must be two-way—dual—or they fail. Loyalty must be met with loyalty-worthiness to be a completed act of loyalty: an intersection of complementary emotions. To attempt to be loyal to a person who is loyalty-UNworthy is sadly misguided; such intended loyalty is only an act of delusion or foolishness or ignorance. Or worse, the target of the loyalty may be guilty of intentional deceit, duplicity, or hypocrisy…on one side, the intended loyalty is pitiable; on the other, the deceit is contemptible. Such a relationship—devotion met with deceit—is still dual: an intersection of conflicting emotions…called “betrayal.” 

The same must be true of Trust, Dependence, Faith, Belief…all are devotions or commitments to someone of perceived worth. By definition, they must be two-sided relationships…they are paired, complementary emotions whose participants mirror one another. And they are all equally vulnerable to betrayal.

But I choose to enjoy and return my friend’s dual compliments to me: her loyalty to me and her belief in me. I’ve known betrayals, but I prefer to enjoy the loyalties, given and received. I could suffer the betrayals all over again and, to quote Shakespeare, “grieve at grievances foregone.” But I choose remembrances of good things past, so “All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.”

I love to remember my early summers in Wildwood, NJ, where I worked many years for a very loyalty-worthy man—Sid—and we enjoyed the dual qualities of loyalty. I worked in a boardwalk arcade where tourists played for coupons to claim prizes from the elaborate showcases. I got to know the “regular” customers who visited every night of their vacation and returned summer after summer for the familiarity of the arcade. I remember the night that an older couple, who had been very dedicated annual customers, asked me in hushed tones to “spot them” some extra coupons; their luck was falling short. I remember how scared and angry I was that they would ask me such a thing and put me in such a position. What I thought had been their loyalty to me and to the arcade instantly vanished. “You have one more night to play,” I answered. “Maybe your luck will return.” When I told Sid about their request and how angry I was, he looked at me with a sense of confident wonder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.” At that moment, we each recognized our dual sense of loyalty to each other. 

The next night when the couple returned, Sid assigned me some inventory busy-work in the backroom; he handled the couple and their coupons and prizes…I don’t know if they’d been lucky or disappointed that night. I know that Sid and I were very lucky that night…and a dozen more summers that I worked for him. 
 

Beauty

The idea of reading “antique” poetry is as foreign to today’s general public as reading a work in Russian. That is not the fault of the poet or the poem…it is our fault as modern readers. We have neither the patience nor the interest in what antique poetry offers. First, we have no interest in “difficult” language…we are unaccustomed to careful, elegant, and artful words.  Second, we don’t really value beauty as a talisman anymore…there was a day when the pursuit of beauty was its own reward…conceptual, emotional, spiritual, and actual. 

Beauty of any kind used to be an end in itself…beauty was seen as an aspect of the divine, of God, of heaven, and of human redemption. Artists sought to discover and express beauty as a vision of the divine. Dante in his Divine Comedy writes that seeing God was even more beautiful and wondrous than he could describe…after 12 years and 14,000 lines, Dante just couldn’t describe it! Loosely translated, he wrote, “'But what I saw therein no words could tell, no human memory from God's citadel retire with plunder of its wondrous store.”

Sometime in the early twentieth century—many have guessed that the terror of the First World War finally ended the delusion—beauty was overpowered by terror and suffering and Man’s inhumanity to Man. Society—and art as its expression—turned to “self-expression” as a core value. Look at me, look at my struggles and my sufferings against the world! Today “self” has become the talisman, and we implicitly feel that “self” is beautiful. Even if the self is ugly, we proclaim it beautiful…although we don’t really think about it in those terms. Where once mankind looked to God and Nature for beauty, now we purse our lips, take a selfie, and call it beauty. 

John Keats “selfies”

John Keats “selfies”

I’m inviting my readers to attempt antique poetry for a minute, to think about a divine sense of beauty…by considering a poet who called himself a “man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic on his own works.” John Keats, in the early 1800s, sought the idea/ideal of beauty…seeking and finding beauty, even if only conceptually, was a reward to him. As one of the premier Romantic poets, he fills his poetry with the careful, elegant, and artful language, images, and concepts to which we’ve become unaccustomed. Two of my smartest friends claimed, when presented with the poems of John Keats, that he was too difficult! If he is difficult, I have found him very worth the struggle…

One of his most famous lines—“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”—clearly states his belief: beauty is an absolute value. In nearly all his poetry, he pursues this idea and ideal, seeking the beauty all around him. The Romantic in him longs to capture beauty in his mind and hold it there for its redemptive quality…it elevates his thoughts, it enriches his life, it satisfies his soul. Many of us know his poems only by title…too bad, because he seeks and finds a divine sense of ecstatic beauty: he hears the song of a nightingale and he creates “Ode to a Nightingale,” a tale of a bird “pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” He sees an ancient vase and he creates “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a tale of a captured moment of ecstasy…the image of lovers about to kiss: “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet.” He beholds the beauty of autumn on a riverside in England, and he creates the voluptuous and sensual “To Autumn,” a delicious tale of how the “warm days will never cease.”

Yes, Keats’s language is lush, his images are rich and ecstatic, his ideas are ideals…he is an antique poet to us today. But his passion and his ideas, for me, are the kind of ideals I want. The effort to understand and appreciate the beauty in the world around us—not just our self-indulgent selfies—is an effort that will elevate our thoughts, enrich our lives, and satisfy our souls. His famous line with which I opened this blog goes on to tell exactly that...how a thing of beauty can become a place of reverie for us: where thoughts create a “bower,” a “dream,” and a “health.” Maybe this is an antique ideal, but it sounds like a very modern need in our very modern world. 

A thing of beauty is a joy forever: 
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Excerpt from “Endymion” 1817

Complexity

I’ve been fooled by simplicity, or what I had thought was simplicity, before. I’ve known people and situations, I’ve read books and poems, I’ve seen movies that I’d thought were simple—readily perceived, clearly understood, free from symbol or translation, easily dismissed. Oftentimes, I’ve come to realize too late that I hadn’t understood the complexity hidden in the simplicity. I’d been fooled—or I’d been the fool—to accept things right at the surface. Afterwards, I’ve recognized complexities hidden in the simple words or actions or diversions.

Such complexity-hidden-in-the-simplicity is what I’ve come to enjoy in reading Emily Dickinson, the third poet I’ll discuss in this Poetry Month of April. Emily is widely “known” as a quaint New England recluse poet from the mid-Nineteenth Century…she lived a nearly cloistered life by today’s standards. Dickinson is widely known for her simplest, most quaint poems, such as “I’m Nobody! Who Are You” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” If you read those poems as “simple” or “quaint,” I believe you’re missing their beauty and value.

“I’m Nobody…” is often read as a shy statement of a hidden personality who tells another “nobody” that anonymity is best. It is easy to read the second stanza as a denouncement of a Public life: “How dreary—to be—Somebody!” But there is a complexity underneath…the narrator “Nobody” finds an immediate connection with the other “Nobody”: “Then there’s a pair of us.” Public? Maybe not. But shy? Definitely not…the Nobody ironically isn’t anonymous and immediately makes a connection and invites a conspiracy: “Don’t tell.”

For me, therein lies the beauty of Dickinson’s poems: a deep complexity to her simple expressions. At first, her poetry wasn’t even thought of as poetry and wasn’t published the way she’d written it: her punctuation, vocabulary, and syntax were too idiosyncratic for contemporary publishers. But her idiosyncrasies create surprises.

For example, Dickinson proclaims a quick and powerful four lines about a “Glory,” in fact her “one Glory”:

'Twas my one Glory —
Let it be
Remembered
I was owned of Thee —

But is her Glory a statement of personal subjugation to a powerful owner: has she surrendered to her owner, her controller? Or is her Glory a statement of pride and equality, that someone whom she values or loves—“Thee”—acknowledges and accepts her? Her concept of Glory turns on the word “owned.”

As a poet, Dickinson knows well the power of language—for loading meanings and sensibilities and surprises into the reader’s perception. What you perceive at first may have more depth beneath…or different meaning behind…or may be twisted into contradiction. 

Look at this piece: the sea parts to show another sea and then another…or is it just a “presumption” of the viewer…is it all one sea and did the sea part?

As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea —
And that—a further—and the Three
But a presumption be— 

Look at this piece: a prism is the polished glass that bends light and it is the resulting splay of colors of the rainbow…but Dickinson ignores that relationship and converts the concept from vision to sound:

The Prism never held the Hues,
It only heard them play—

Look at this piece: Dickinson lays out the separation of day from night—suggesting the movement of the “supreme” Sun—but changes the resulting image to one of personal existence…she finds it supreme “to be” no matter where she is.

The Day she goes
Or Day she stays
Are equally supreme —
Existence has a stated width
Departed, or at Home —

Sometimes, of course, her lines are very simple…rich in simplicity that makes life plain, such as “Forever — is composed of nows — / ‘Tis not a different time —” and “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.” They are the phrases and images that, for me, say things “just right.”

Dickinson holds a unique place in American literature…in world literature, one of greatly idiosyncratic poetry and observation. So often, she serves up small poems whose simplicity belies their depth of thought and expression, belies their complexity and richness. 

Translation

“The Peasant Dance” (1568) Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Peasant Dance” (1568) Pieter Bruegel the Elder

It’s very common when seeing a movie that is based on a book to be asked, “Was it better than the book?” Very, very rarely have I ever answered “Yes” to that question; in fact, I can’t think of a single example when the movie was even as good as the book. But my point is that we are used to making that kind of comparison: the translation of one art form into another: art in a dynamic audio-visual form compared to art in text.

I have experienced a translation where I’d answer “Equal” when asked to compare the two forms: Peiter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, “The Peasant Dance” and William Carlos Williams’s poem, “The Dance,” based on that painting (the full poem is below). Even though the painting predates the poem by nearly 400 years—1568 compared to 1962—I find something equal between them…very different, but equal. Despite the fact that the painting is guided by Medieval religion while the poem is guided by modern objectivity…I find them equal. Despite the fact that the painting is de facto a visual medium while the poem is per se an auditory medium…I find them equal. Despite the fact that the painting expresses a somber mood while the poem portrays a joyful dance…I find them equal.

Bruegel captures “a moment in time” in the painting, portraying peasant life on a Saint’s day celebration among the common people—no pompous royalty here: the peasants are seen mid-step enjoying their festival of dancing, feasting, drinking, arguing, kissing. He limits the scene within the town square surrounded by buildings, importantly including the church in the background…the revelers literally turn their backs on the church and Bruegel includes images of most of the Seven Deadly Sins. He gives us a lively, lusty moment of abandon with only slight editorial comment on the sinfulness of the world.

Williams works to equal the painting itself through lyrical language and vivid images. He pays no attention to possible symbols and focuses on the actual visual effect of the painting. He contains the scene, not in a town square but within matching first and last lines; he captures “a moment in time” with his run-on lines (few sentences end at the end of a line) and rhythm that pull the reader continuously through the poem…don’t pause at the end of a line, run on and on, like the figures in the painting. The rhythm gives movement to one’s reading…try reading “dancers go round, they go round and around” without feeling musical movement. The sound is repetitive—round, around, grounds, sound; and lusty—hips and bellies and butts; and kinetic—tipping, kicking, rolling, swinging, and rollicking. I think that Williams portrays exactly the response we all have to the Bruegel painting—the thought, the sense, the feeling—and puts it into poetic words.

Two media—one visual, one auditory—but equal portrayals: lyrical, playful, lusty, kinetic, continuous, self-contained. Maybe it is something unique to Bruegel’s style that makes his work translatable—Williams tried it in a second poem and W.H. Auden wrote a famous poem that focused on Bruegel paintings, "Musée des Beaux Arts." Or maybe it is something about modern poets who want to capture in their own words an idea that may be antique, but remains true.

The Dance
William Carlos Williams
In Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling
about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess.

Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) 

 

Poetry

04052017 1.jpg

I’ll report a little known and little cared-about fact: April is “Poetry Month,” started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets.  Thus, I am gladly turning my April attention to poems and poets I enjoy. Poetry was once the main written medium, but today it has fallen to an academic or esoteric pastime. For me, I continually find nuggets of gold…even diamonds…in poems: phrases and images that say things “just right.” For me, that is the value of poetry: capturing/expressing a pure idea in a perfect economy of words…expanding or enforcing the idea’s meaning with sound or rhythm or image. I feel that poetry has given me a rich vocabulary, because I call on poetic phrases and images regularly to illustrate my meaning.

I have referred to the poet T. S. Eliot multiple times in this blog…I find that he often says things perfectly. I would not recommend that novice poetry readers begin with T. S. Eliot, but if you want strong, beautiful images, ideas, and phrases, you’ll find them in his poems. He was born in the U.S. but became an English citizen in 1927 for the last 38 years of his life. Although he wrote relatively few poems, he is credited with writing some of the best-known poems in the English language and some of the most influential poems of the twentieth century, including The Waste Land (1922). I find Eliot’s poetry so rich in so many ways that I habitually appropriate his ideas. Naturally then, I start my Poetry Month blogs with Eliot. 

As I began this piece, I was struck by an irony in one of my favorite poems, “East Coker” (1940), one of Eliot’s Four Quartets. He champions the idea of rebirth throughout the poem— “Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended…/Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires.” He stresses how rebirth gives us something new, but he stresses that it is very new, not simply a recurrence of what came before. He worries that the poem itself is “a worn-out poetical fashion,” but goes on to explain that “the pattern is new in every moment/And every moment is a new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been.” He sees the old made new again…but newly different. His poetical fashion may be worn-out, but “every attempt is a wholly new start.”

I began to worry that by trying to discuss poetry, I may be foolishly trying to resurrect a dying or dead academic pastime. In “East Coker,” Eliot warns us about the ideas of the elderly…that there may be no value to “the wisdom of age.” He wonders if the elders have simply deceived us and themselves, that their “dead secrets” are “useless in the darkness.” He wonders if there is “only a limited value/In the knowledge derived from experience.” The passage below describes his worry, poses the question, and wonders if all we really get from the elderly is “a receipt for deceit”:

What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hope for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.

(excerpt from “East Coker”)

But he relents…a bit. While he doesn’t give complete relief to his worry, he gives us—he gives me—a moment of hope: Maybe we just haven’t recognized our own wisdom yet, we haven’t recognized yet that the pattern is new and shocking. He urges patience and openness of mind…a patience that might allow us to recognize all that we don’t yet recognize:

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

(excerpt from “East Coker”)

I worried that my love of poetry and its insights may be just my own dead secret…but then again maybe the darkness into which I’m peering is really just a different kind of light. Ironically, Eliot’s poem gave me both ideas! 

Tragicomedy

In college, I learned about “tragicomedy” when I studied Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, which was first performed in 1953. Roughly, it is a constant mixture of tragedy and comedy and pathos and empathy and satire…sometimes a character’s saddest moment is what causes us to laugh. I took to the form right away.

Then last year, I started watching a show on the FX network called Baskets…it is a perfect example of tragicomedy; in fact, I think the show is perfect. Not for everyone, but that adds to its perfection…it doesn’t pander to an audience via formula, it doesn’t go for the easy series of jokes, it doesn’t rely on a laugh track. Baskets pools a group of characters in places and situations and then lets the tragedy and comedy of life unfold and intertwine. Sometimes the comedy is absurdist, over-the-top…like when the twin brothers Chip and Dale (both played by Zach Galifianakis) ruin their mother’s home in a senseless fight; sometimes the tragedy is shocking…like when Morpheus (Tobias Jelinek) makes a bad decision to dangle from the side of the train; and sometimes the tragedy is comic…like when the mother, Christine (Louie Anderson…no kidding) finally gives in to her pain at the death of her mother—her scene in the bank should win Anderson another Emmy.

I find myself unable to appreciate the humor or the attraction of most other “sitcoms” today. I understand that they aren’t targeting me as their audience, but I wish they aimed higher for their own audiences…they should create a humor and characters and a story that bring their audience along for the quality. Many of today’s dramas seem to aim higher, seem to push the limits of drama and intrigue…but they can become intense; a friend’s recent comment claims that watching The Americans is, indeed, too intense. So where does that leave us when we want a good, comic, engaging show to watch? For me, Baskets has filled that void excellently: an innovative, tragicomic tone; expertly written; sensitively acted; always surprising.

Part of the Baskets troupe.

Part of the Baskets troupe.

In a nutshell, Baskets is about people who are more edgy than real, but too real to be ignored. The anchor to the story has been Christine, matriarch of the unlikely Baskets family, which includes her own twins Chip and Dale; her adopted twins Cody and Logan (Garry and Jason Clemmons); her mother, Grandma (Ivy Jones); and Chip’s ubiquitous friend, Martha (Martha Kelly). Even the smaller parts are strong and fresh, including Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) the French wife, Eddie (Ernest Adams) the rodeo owner, and Juggalo (Adam Zastrow) another would-be clown who ends up working at Arby’s.

Zach Galifianakis as Baskets the Clown.   

Zach Galifianakis as Baskets the Clown
 

The characters may come across at times as one-dimensional, because each has a focus of personality: Cody and Logan are millennial DJs; Dale runs a failing business college; Martha is an insurance adjuster; and Chip—ostensibly the center of the story—pursues his dream to be a clown, except that he realizes, “I don’t think clowns are needed as much since the world has become so clownish.” But like the overall mixture of tragedy and comedy throughout the show, each character surprises in any given episode with multiple dimensions. Chip proves to love his mother, despite his frustration with the apron strings; he is jealous of his twin and Martha, even though he dismisses them each regularly; he wants to pursue his dream, even though he recognizes that it is a nightmare.

Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets  

Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets
 

Louie Anderson as Christine has proven to be a stroke of genius for creators Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Jonathan Krisel. Anderson won an Emmy and the Critics’ Choice Award for the show’s first season, partly based on the writing but certainly based on the depth and complexity of personality that he infuses into Christine. He credits his mother and his sisters for a lifetime of inspiration and raw material…but I believe that the richness of his performance comes directly through him, directly from his heart: it is too genuine to be an imitation.

Baskets has completed its second-season run of ten episodes, and I’m thrilled because it has been renewed for a third season. I admit that I had doubts during the very first episode…I remember thinking, “Is this going to come together? Is this going anywhere?” Part of what confused me—in hindsight—was the tragicomic mix of both story and characters. Soon my confusion gave way to fascination…and to laughter and tears. I re-watched the first season as a binge-frenzied preparation for the second season; it was even better the second time around, and then the second season was better than the first. Find it online and binge on it…it’s not for everyone, but it may be for you, too.

Thought

I listen to what my wife calls, “the weirdest collection of music” that she’s ever heard on one iPod…we were driving long distance and she half-napped in the passenger seat while I enjoyed my music collection played at “random.” I think of it as an eclectic collection…not weird. But playing my list of several thousand songs at random has created occasional weird pairings: 1940s Big Band tunes before current noise pop cacophony; folk ballads followed by polished movie themes; highly original tracks after a cover song. Last night, I listened to Brian Eno’s “Bone Bomb”—inspired by a news story about a Palestinian girl who becomes a suicide bomber; it was followed by The Inks Spots’ 1941 classic, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” I found a certain irony in the juxtaposition…a modern threat of terrorism followed by a 1941 innocence, a pairing of bomb and fire, a surrender to death followed by a wish to be “…the one you love.” I enjoyed the juxtaposition because I thought about each song with a strange sense of the other, thought about them together as an irony, thought about the world then and now. 

In contrast, while watching the Academy Awards recently, I was stunned at the horrors of the documentary that won the Oscar for Documentary, Short Subject, The White Helmets (2016). I watched a very tearful producer, Joanna Natasegara, and a sincere Director, Orlando von Einsiedel tell in their acceptance speech about the 82,000 lives saved by the White Helmets, Syria's volunteer rescue force. Their speech ended and after a blink of the camera and a flourish of dramatic music, a politically charged Cadillac commercial followed, then a promo for Grey’s Anatomy. I don’t think they came as any kind of juxtaposition, because all the images and messages and emotions simply confused me, overwhelmed me. The power of The White Helmets clips was lost in the preachiness of the Cadillac commercial and then the absurdity of Grey’s Anatomy. I lost any thoughts about any of it as my mind struggled just to keep up. I had been so overwhelmed by the constant input that I had to go to Google to remember the name of the documentary.

Notice how sports arenas have become advertising venues over the last 50 years.

Notice how sports arenas have become advertising venues over the last 50 years.

It happens all the time because of the constant input of inputs…smart phone, internet, television, radio…in the car, in the waiting room, at the bar, at the restaurant…billboards and signs on the outfield walls and the ice hockey rink walls and shrink-wrapped buses and trucks. One’s thoughts are prevented virtually without interruption. I often have no time to think about the impact of what I read or hear or see. When I watch the evening news, I’m left with a confusion of frightening war images and political disputes and economic crises and dramatic weather video and sports clips and heart-warming human-interest stories…all underscored by a ticker at the bottom of the screen with other ideas and facts and punctuated by commercials. My thoughts about any single one of the stories never have time to take shape…which is fine because right after four more commercials, Jeopardy! comes on.

Open Facebook and see the posts that piled up since you last checked it: someone’s birthday, someone’s complaint or rant, a child’s success story, a pet’s trick on video…buy from this site, buy from that site…no time to think or assimilate or understand. Fortunately, Facebook lets us click the “Like” button to show that we saw the post…an instantaneous click about our instantaneous attention.

I enjoy the value of serendipity and how—like the songs I heard in the car—certain things can illuminate new aspects of other things. I enjoy thinking of one movie in comparison with another or old movies in comparison with new movies, or thinking about the book and film versions of a story…comparisons and contrasts and juxtaposition. But such thoughts are best gathered through focus and purpose…I like to take time to think about things, to weigh ideas, to evaluate meanings and intentions and process. I’ll challenge my readers: think about this post for a short time before clicking back to Facebook or heading off to another site and another topic. Think about the height and width and depth and quality of your thoughts…before you rush off to other ideas, images, and input.

Motion

Moon-animation-l.gif

When I was 11, my grandmother gave me a small telescope. With it, I’ve viewed the Moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. I learned to sight objects through the small finderscope on the side and then track them in the main lens for some amazing views. It’s not a great telescope, but it showed me the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, beautiful views of our Moon. I remember looking at the Moon the night that man first landed there…and I could plainly see the Sea of Tranquility and imagine men walking around there. 

Watching any object over time, I’d have to adjust the telescope every half-minute or so because the object would drift out of the small circle of sight. When I’d look directly up at the sky, nothing seemed to move; but when I focused on anything through the lens, it rushed across the field of vision and disappeared past the rim of sight. I knew—but didn’t really understand—that the world was turning under the heavens and moving my point of view. I also learned how the Moon moved slowly across the sky each month to wax into Full and wane into New; I couldn’t see the constant motion, but when I made a point to notice how the Moon was in a new place in the sky each night, I understood that it was moving. Then I grew to understand that watching carefully in the telescope, I could actually see the constant motion. It took me years to realize that I was seeing both the turning of the Earth and the motion of the Moon…but it required my careful attention and a telescope. 

Reykjavik, June 21, 2014: Looking north, the Sun sets from west to east.

Reykjavik, June 21, 2014: Looking north, the Sun sets from west to east.

Later—much more recently—I was in Reykjavik, Iceland on the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice when the northern pole of Earth is leaning toward the Sun. Some friends and I watched the sunset that night. As I watched, I realized that I was seeing the sunset apparently to true north and it seemed to move from west to east…it was completing a celestial circle around the pole of Earth and I was far enough north to see it. Watching sunsets in Pennsylvania has always been a matter of seeing it rise upward in the east and set downward in the west. But in Reykjavik, the Sun made a circle in the sky that night and I watched it set due north, moving west to east and then rise continuing its motion in the same direction. I could actually see that I was on top of the world. It didn’t take long to realize that I was seeing something that I’d read about and understood…but careful attention now allowed me to see it.

In one of my favorite poems, The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot, the very timid narrator says, “I’ve measured out my life in coffee spoons.” Sometimes, that line is the logo of my life: I’ve been cautious and methodical and conservative and I’ve lived in a very measured way. Sometimes, I can’t sense that things are moving at all…the motion is very hard to discern. Sometimes a morning in October seems exactly like a morning in the preceding April: same kitchen, same table, same chair, same coffee, same mug. I used to drive to work along back roads through the quasi-farmlands and suburbs outside Philadelphia, back roads that seemed not to change as well. The seasons changed, but even they are largely predictable. October has the same colors as April, except that it’s dying leaves of color rather than sprouting blossoms. 

This failure to see it is a failure of neither the motion nor my life…the coffee each morning is new and the roads of Pennsylvania change even in their constancy. It is purely a failure of my perception—maybe a failure of my coffee-spoon-measured caution—that prevents my seeing it. Because when I use the right tool or stand in the right place and look carefully enough, I see that all is in motion....we're all going somewhere.

Unequalled

My mother, 1949.


My mother, 1949.

I am well aware of the statistics that overflow the media and the marchers on International Women’s Day: women are underappreciated and undervalued and disrespected…all the statistics tell us so. I know that in many places in the world, women are truly treated as second-class citizens or worse, unprotected by law and policy and practice. Because women traditionally—and, dare I say, by instinct—care for the family, it is women who unequally assume the burdens of poverty.

However, my experience doesn’t reflect the numbers—I’m missing something or simply not understanding, and I don’t want to be ignorant. In my experience—overwhelmingly, women are shoulder-to-shoulder with me all the time, at times well ahead of me! I’ll start with my mother…she shared the weight of a four-children family with my father; I never doubted their equality nor witnessed an inequality (Did she “wait on” my father at times? Yes. But did he support her steadfastly? Yes…shared service.). At times, I saw her holding my father up with her strength on the few times his strength failed him, just as he held her up when she needed it. They played different roles, they shared the burdens and joys…they were equally invaluable to us and to each other. I don’t know what the statistics might tell me about her, but my mom was unequalled.

My sisters were supported and loved and excelled each in her own way. They both went to college and held jobs and built lives and families with husbands who respect and love and share the burdens and joys with them. I don’t know what the statistics might tell me about them, but my sisters are unequalled.

My wife shared the weight of raising our two-children family (and carries it still)…she carried the weightiest at-home part of the burden because I traveled often for work. She was—and is—always supporting our children; at the same time she supports her family, volunteers to help abandoned or injured animals, and is the truest friend to her friends. She is smarter than I am—she has a Master’s degree—but we stand shoulder-to-shoulder every day. I love her and respect her because her person commands it. I don’t know what the statistics might tell me about my wife, but she is unequalled.

I have a daughter in whom I have the utmost faith and for whom I have the utmost love…she excelled through high school and made the Dean’s list in college and now is starting her career in a city far from her home, demanding the best for and of herself. She is smart and funny/sarcastic and dependable and worth everything that any job will pay her. I don’t know what the statistics might tell me about her, but my daughter is unequalled.

I have a goddaughter/niece who has also created her life in a city far from her home…an apartment, a job, new friends and loves, a daily routine of her own making. She is artistic and musical and funny and generous. I don’t know what the statistics might tell me about her, but my goddaughter is unequalled.

Equals, 2012.

Equals, 2012.

I’ve worked in a woman-dominated industry for 30 years…worked with, worked for, hired and fired, relied on, been overwhelmed by, partnered with remarkable women. Editorial Directors who are accomplished pharmacists, managers, writers, peers; Medical Writers and Editors who are skilled and smart and personable and passionate; Account and Project Managers who carry the weight of whole teams on their shoulders and drive business and keep clients happy; Operations and Finance Directors who are smart and skilled and determined. Beyond knowing them at work, I knew them with their families and understood their tremendous 24-hours-a-day accomplishments. I don’t know what the statistics might tell me about these ladies, but they are unequalled.

In hindsight, I realize that none of these ladies ever felt compelled to demand or even ask for my respect.  They never once had to assert “We are equals.” It would have been superfluous…because as “people”—not as “women”—as people, they had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me and that’s where I naturally and proudly met them: unequalled equals. 

That has been one of my important realizations, that dealing with someone as an equal means not relegating them to a “type”…a woman isn’t just a woman. A woman is a daughter and perhaps a sister and perhaps a mother and perhaps a business person or teacher or writer or editor or a cancer survivor or any of a million things in a million ways. 

Ayn Rand (© 1962, AP)

Ayn Rand (© 1962, AP)

If you want a taste of multiple possibilities of remarkable women, unequalled remarkable women, watch A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); Katie and Francie Nolan are two strong, weak, humble, proud women struggling in poverty, struggling with their male counterparts.  Or read about the book’s author, Betty Smith, who rose from the tenements of Brooklyn to become an accomplished author. Or read about Dagny Taggert, the heroine—businesswoman, lover, visionary—of Atlas Shrugged. Or read about the book’s powerhouse author, Ayn Rand, a creative, intellectual dynamo who, I think, never asked to be respected or asked to be an equal. To quote Rand, “The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it is who’s going to stop me.”

Eloquence

As Oscars night approached, I began my annual rush: “better get to the movies and see the nominees.” At the same time, I’d been enjoying TCM’s "31 Days to the Oscars," their 24/7 showing of Academy Award nominees and winners over the decades. I’ll state the obvious: movies have changed over the nearly 90 years that the Academy has given awards: sound, color, acting technique, subject matter. 

This year, I’ve realized another difference: today’s films often rely much more on the empathy and emotional investment of the audience. Today’s films frequently require the audience to interpret and create a character and the character’s inside story. The audience has to perceive and understand the story rather than hear it told.

I watched the classic, All About Eve (1950), on TV. It is beautifully acted and it opens with a tight, narrated sequence, which shifts back in time to start the story. The story is driven completely on dialogue and some strong soliloquys; the script is rich in language with theatrical and movie references…the monologues and dialogues elevate the story and reveal the characters. Margo’s (Bette Davis) lines comingle sarcasm, anger, and resignation; Addison (George Sanders) is cutting, highly theatrical, and eloquent—a pompousness that drives his character. The audience has to tune into the language, or lose its way into and through the story. Watch the caustic party scene of Davis, Sanders, Anne Baxter, and Marilyn Monroe and hear the sophisticated banter; watch the intense moment when Addison blackmails Eve (Anne Baxter) by exposing her web of lies…and listen to his eloquent self-reproach before he walks out. The acting is excellent, but the language is rich, sophisticated, eloquent.

Moonlight (2016), on the other hand, moves forward almost without language. Key to the characters is their inability to understand or describe their state in life. The actors show us what they feel, invite us to understand their frustration, their inability to explain, their inability to communicate. The lines are few and very pointed…and often carry two or three times as much meaning as words. When the drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) demands money from Chiron (Ashton Sanders), the audience wants him to scream, to refuse, to revolt…but the words don’t come. The characters and the drama are driven by a lack of words, an intense inability of the characters to articulate in words…but the film articulates eloquently through situation, editing, and acting.

Once I’d made this realization—where words once served, now technique communicates—I found it over and over again. The romance of Casablanca (1942) unfolds in language that the characters speak—Rick (Humphrey Bogart) explains his pain to a glass of liquor and to Sam in the shadows of the late-night bar; the end of The Maltese Falcon (1941) is 15 minutes of excellent banter and quips and explanation…if the audience doesn’t listen, the story confuses them; Norman (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960) is revealed largely though his conversation with Marion (Janet Leigh) among his taxidermy or through the psychiatrist’s (Simon Oakland) prolonged explanation at the end of the film. 

Among the other Academy Award nominees that I saw for this year, Lion and Manchester by the Sea both featured characters and stories that develop and communicate through situation, editing, and acting. Lion’s main character, Saroo—whether young (Sunny Pawar) or old (Dev Patel)—was often mute in witnessing his own life: the boy’s silently joining the other children in the underground or the man’s searching the internet and his spiderweb of maps on the wall. Manchester’s characters suffer and support in near silence. Lee (Ben Affleck) bears the weight of an unbearable tragedy, but never really articulates it in words; even when his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) reaches out to him from her own pain, his answer is, “You don’t understand.”

Audiences should acknowledge this difference—just as obviously as they distinguish between black-and-white or color films. Typically, older films will tell you what they want you to know; newer films, more and more, will show the story and the audience has to watch closely to discover it.