Motherhood

  Is there anything more comforting...?

Is there anything more comforting...?

With Mother’s Day only a few days away, naturally my thoughts turn to my mother—like everyone’s thoughts, I assume, turn to their mother. Naturally, too, my thoughts turn to the mother of my children, my wife, whose motherhood is certainly a blessing for me, almost as much as it is for my children…maybe more, but in a different way.

At the same time, I importantly differentiate between “mother” and “motherhood.” Technically, “mother” is someone who has given birth to a child…the result of an act; but motherhood is a continual state of being that encompasses physical, emotional, spiritual, psychic, even surreal benefits. Motherhood is an amazement: someone who both gives you life and then sacrifices her own to see that your life is safe, joyous, and successful. Real motherhood is a special quality, like my father’s idea about heroism: doing more than one’s duty, more than what’s expected…all for the love of one’s child. Motherhood creates otherworldly happenings: the mother who senses across the miles an injury to her child; the mother who lifts a car off her child; the mother who works multiple jobs or goes nights without sleep or risks her life for the benefit of her child. Real motherhood ineffably links lives to one another.

I frequently hear stories that horrify me about women who don’t have that special quality of motherhood despite being, technically, mothers. Women whose children suffer or long for the love, strength, support, and sacrifices of motherhood. I hear reports about criminals, rapists, murderers who hated their mothers or never knew them…and I compassionately think, “Without the benefits of a mother’s love, how could anyone prosper, even survive?” Yet I also hear stories about people who prosper despite their mothers’ shortcomings or the early loss of their mothers; I pityingly think, “How could they have succeeded without a mother’s love to buoy them up?”

Young Mom.jpg

I fear that a blog about Mother’s Day will be too trite, too corny…because the quality of motherhood is too essential to be evaluated, too precious to be defined. The racks in card stores are filled with trite, corny, pretentious cards trying to express the inexpressible…in 1976 in her Saturday Night Live monologue, Madeline Kahn explained it simply: “There just doesn’t seem to be any way to repay…my mother gave me birth…and I gave her a scarf!”

  My mother in the midst of her motherhood.

My mother in the midst of her motherhood.

Because in my life, the motherhood that my mother provided me was as essential as food, as life-sustaining as water. Yes, she gave me birth, and then she gave me love and faith and knowledge and security and understanding...she nursed me through illness, coached me through dating, helped me through school, hugged me through disappointment, praised me for success, and encouraged me through failure. Of course, she wasn’t looking for repayment because there isn’t any…even though we all keep trying.

Of a million stories I could tell, one is clearest: I visited my mother in the hospital at the end of her battle with cancer. As I was preparing to leave for the night, I said to her, “I love you.” She replied, “I love you, too.” Only as a tease, I asked her, “Do you really? Are you sure?” She simply but very emphatically answered, “Oh, yes, I’m sure.” As I walked to my car I realized that I was sure, too; a certainty I’ve relied upon my whole life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms whose motherhood is an amazement!

Next entry will be posted on Wednesday, May 23rd.

Death

 USS Hancock  casualties buried at sea, April 1945.

USS Hancock casualties buried at sea, April 1945.

A coincidence of the calendar and the phases of the moon made 1 April 1945 and 2018 both April Fool’s Days and Easter Sundays. But fate made 1 April 1945 the start of the US invasion of the island of Okinawa, the deadliest battle of the Pacific. The battle for the island continued until 22 June 1945, resulting in more than 250,000 deaths: 12,000 American military, 100,000 Japanese military, and 140,000 Okinawan civilians. As many people died in that one battle as died in the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

  USS Texas  at sea, with two Quad 40 antiaircraft guns at the fantail—the very end—of the ship.

USS Texas at sea, with two Quad 40 antiaircraft guns at the fantail—the very end—of the ship.

My father was there on the battleship, USS Texas, serving in the Marines and manning what they called “Quad 40s,” antiaircraft guns at the fantail of the ship. Having survived the battle of Iwo Jima just three months earlier, the captain of the Texas, Charles A. Baker, believed that the best way to stop the Kamikazes was to be ready: crew lived at their stations 24-hours-a-day for 50 days. Decades later, my father wrote,

“There will be no scurrying up ladders; the crew does not dislike the idea. Our guns stay manned and ready.  K-rations and sandwiches are the bill-of-fare with the ever-present cup-a-joe….but the snap in the air sharpens the appetite, minimizing the difference.  At night, I lie down to sleep on the predictably hard deck. My life jacket—we called them, “Mae West”—makes a pretty good pillow. The Pacific’s star-spangled sky proves a beautiful bonus.”

  Kamikaze an instant before it strikes the  USS Missouri . No U.S. servicemen were killed but the pilot was killed instantly; his remains were recovered on board. The  Missouri ’s Captain William M. Callaghan ordered that the pilot be given a military burial at sea, complete with a three-volley rifle salute and a bugler playing “Taps.”

Kamikaze an instant before it strikes the USS Missouri. No U.S. servicemen were killed but the pilot was killed instantly; his remains were recovered on board. The Missouri’s Captain William M. Callaghan ordered that the pilot be given a military burial at sea, complete with a three-volley rifle salute and a bugler playing “Taps.”

Maybe the readiness of the Texas crew or maybe just luck, but death never visited the Texas that spring, even though Kamikaze attacks rained death on the Navy. Kamikazes sunk 36 ships and killed 4907 sea-going personnel, the heaviest single-battle death toll for the Navy. Describing April 12, my father wrote,

“The USS Tennessee is cruising abreast of us to port and is attacked by five planes.  Four are splashed but the fifth crashes the ship.  Tennessee’s stern is awash in flaming fuel; it is terrible to watch.  We later learn that there are more than 100 casualties.  The plane hit a 40mm mount manned by marines. Texas marines wonder about their sea-going friends.”

But even as the death toll climbed at Okinawa, as faceless lives were lost by the thousands, each life still mattered.

“About noon one of our carrier planes crashes 5000 yards off our port bow.  Another plane circles to mark the spot until destroyer Williamson rescues the pilot. The circling plane and the rescuing destroyer, to save one man, is reassuring.”

  Gun crews on the  USS Texas  track—and kill—a Kamikaze as it heads for her decks.

Gun crews on the USS Texas track—and kill—a Kamikaze as it heads for her decks.

Days later, an enemy soldier was also spotted in the water. A whaleboat is sent out to pick him up.

“About noon we sight a man in the water 500 yards off starboard.  We worry that suicide swimmers might attack the ships, so a few marines are ready with rifles.  This swimmer is indeed Japanese, but not bent on suicide: he is a pilot, shot down the night before, in good condition but scared.  He is the first live Japanese we see close up and the curious crew gawks.”

  Kingfisher spotter plane is hoisted back onto deck on the  USS Texas.

Kingfisher spotter plane is hoisted back onto deck on the USS Texas.

The struggle to save each life, even in the face of countless deaths, even in the midst of endless killing, is personal.

“On April 27 we witness a highly emotional event.  The ship's Chaplain, Lieutenant Dickinson, tells us over the loudspeaker that one of Texas's spotter planes has been hit and the main pontoon has a gaping hole and cannot stay afloat long. The plane is returning to the ship. Each of our seaplanes carries a pilot and an observer—we are told the observer is badly wounded. Normally, the plane lands, taxies alongside, and is lifted aboard by a crane. We wait and watch.  The plane touches down about 150 yards off the beam.  A sizable hole in the main pontoon, clearly visible, fills with water; the plane stops dead and immediately begins to sink within perfect view of us on the fantail. The pilot, ensign J.R. Thompson, is up and out of his cockpit in an instant, climbing precariously toward the wounded observer, H. Jahnke.  The pilot has now reached the wounded man. He straddles the fuselage and puts his arms under the observer’s arms.  Every man watching pulls with him.  The plane begins sinking fast.  Now a whaleboat is underway but will not arrive in time.  Jahnke's only hope is the pilot.  Helplessly frustrated, we can only watch.  The pontoon is quickly submerged and they are going down with the plane! Then Thompson, after seemingly endless minutes, somehow pulls the red-headed sailor free and tosses his deadweight into the self-inflating raft.  The sailor seems lifeless as the ensign plunges into the sea; the plane disappears.  A rousing cheer—like at a football game—goes up from the crew and lumpy throats abound.  The ship's log, in abbreviated, icy rhetoric, will read: ‘At 1310 plane #5-0-7 made forced landing, pilot and observer picked up as plane commenced sinking.’  For me, it is one of the most unforgettable moments of the war.”

The lesson of Okinawa’s huge death toll was that the seemingly inevitable invasion of Japan would result in millions of deaths: accepting defeat was a foreign concept to Japanese culture. Harry S. Truman, the new president following Roosevelt’s death on April 12, made the decision to use atomic weapons to convince them to surrender. Thus, the half million war-deaths in the Pacific from April through August was considered a success compared with the millions who might have died.

Constancy

  Blue-green Uranus (upper left) appears close to Jupiter (lower right) and her four Galilean moons, even though they are approximately 1.3 billion miles apart—a deception of the telescope. © NASA

Blue-green Uranus (upper left) appears close to Jupiter (lower right) and her four Galilean moons, even though they are approximately 1.3 billion miles apart—a deception of the telescope. © NASA

All my life, I have taken comfort in the constancy of the skies. Even as the Sun, Moon, and planets continuously cross the sky, their movements are completely predictable and dependable. Last summer, for instance, tens of millions of Americans planned their travels and parties for the few hours of “The Great American Eclipse.” This July, Mars will dominate as the fourth brightest object in the sky (after the Sun, Moon, and Venus) when it passes within 36 million miles of Earth—the second closest pass in 60 thousand years! Because of the constancy of the skies, we can calculate, predict, and enjoy with certainty.

The American poet, Robert Frost, writes, “You'll wait a long, long time for anything much / To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud,” lines that suggest to me a kind of disappointment. He goes on to write, “We may as well go patiently on with our life, / And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun / For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.” I vehemently disagree…I don’t need “shocks and changes” to keep me sane; I feel an unreasonable comfort knowing where and when the Sun and Moon will rise and set…their predictability gives me sanity, security. The sky does not disappoint.

  Jupiter, in profie. © NASA

Jupiter, in profie. © NASA

Of course, the skies offer a constancy of beauty as well: the brilliant winter constellations, Orion and Canis Major with our brightest star, Sirius; summer’s predictable but surprising Perseid meteor shower; solar and lunar eclipses; the elaborate, colorful images of planets, especially as the images get bigger and better—Jupiter’s storms, Saturn’s rings, the blue-green of Uranus, the deep blue of Neptune, the red of Mars; and Pythagoras’s “Music of the Spheres,” the slow interlaced orchestration of barely perceivable movement every night.

The moon, in particular, moves noticeably and predictably every night, a confirmation that days go on, the world goes on, the universe goes on. With neither weather nor atmosphere, the surface of the Moon is nearly unchanged since I first started watching it decades ago, nearly unchanged since Ptolemy watched it in the Second Century or Columbus watched it when he sailed the Atlantic in 1492! Tonight, April 15, 2018, the Moon will be New—invisible in the glare of the Sun. Then, each evening, it will appear as a slightly larger sliver than the evening before, a little higher in the sky. When so much else around us seems shocking and changing, I welcome the constancy of the skies.

20170329_1911_DBP_4713.jpg

A few years ago on a sunset cruise in Florida, the first mate on board—who served as “tour guide” for the sunset—had no idea about the skies, even though he sailed every evening at sunset. Sailing on the day after the New Moon, I told him to expect to see a thin crescent of Moon just above the horizon after the Sun had set. I was shocked when he pointed to the east and said, “No, the Moon comes up over there.” I explained that it crosses the sky every month (the word “month” comes from the word “Moon”): from newly waxing crescent in the west just after sunset, to Full Moon rising in the east opposite the sunset, to waning crescent just ahead of sunrise. He thought I was crazy until a few minutes after sunset, the skies darkened to show a slip of crescent Moon above the western horizon. Soon, Venus was visible, then later Mars, then Jupiter. I knew they’d be there…the sky does not disappoint.

Riches

I saw a television commercial last year, only a few times before it disappeared from broadcast, that showed a series of people describing themselves by one word. A talking head appeared and the person said, “Mother”; then another talking head and the person said, “White.” Then “Gay.” Then, “Musician.” And on and on… Each word was so limiting—and often politically charged—that I hated the commercial from the first (I don’t remember what it was for!). In my mind I imagined additional descriptors for each person…after all, I never think of myself as one word. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, I think of myself as more and more words all the time: birthrights, physical attributes, mentality, experiences, interests, habits, knowledge, tastes, etc. I’ve even come to object to my own resumé: I don’t think I can be effectively summarized!

I say the same for people I know: I don’t think they can be effectively summarized. I’ve written in the past of how I see people as “types” just so I can manage all the possibilities, while in reality, I recognize that people one-on-one exhibit an infinite assortment of qualities and values: riches. Humans comprise riches we haven’t learned to understand yet.

  • I have a friend who is artistic, academic, emotional, very politically conservative, intelligent, loyal, loving, shy, talkative, philosophical, pensive, literary, happy, and yet he can be angry, caustic, and melancholy. I’ve seen him on the verbal attack at all kinds of people.
  • I have a friend who is an accountant, a rocker, pugnacious, funny, deeply loyal, conservative, professional, conspiratorial, sports-obsessed, quick-witted, and yet he can be judiciously liberal, ironic, and encouraging. I’ve seen him get emotional over little things.
  • I have a friend who is a psychologist, truly liberal, patient, nonjudgmental, attentive, responsive, very smart, and yet I’ve known him to be foolish, fickle, and guilt-ridden. Once, he nearly cut off his own hand.
  • I have a friend who is technically and interpersonally brilliant, inspiring, welcoming, self-deprecating, patient, very hard-working, dedicated, loving and open, friendly, and yet she can be incisive, demanding, unrelenting, while uninformed. I’ve known her to cut to the heart of a matter while making the offending party feel corrected, not rebuked.
  Kenny from  Seinfeld  and Janice from  Friends .

Kenny from Seinfeld and Janice from Friends.

Television shows easily create comedy by using characters who are one-dimensional—caricatures who can be defined by a single word—so that they aren’t really human characters at all. On Seinfeld, for instance, Kenny Bania (Steve Hytner), another comedian, aggravates Jerry over four seasons by his shallowness…it’s easy comedy to maintain Bania as one-dimensional. On Friends, Janice (Maggie Wheeler) is a self-absorbed drama-queen caricature throughout the 10 seasons; the friends are annoyed by her but the audience loves her because she is one-dimensional. If a character becomes more complex/more human, the audience begins to empathize and finds it more difficult to laugh at them.

  People we think we know…but don’t.

People we think we know…but don’t.

Which is pretty much where the world is moving today: turn everyone—especially people who aren’t like us—into one-dimensional caricatures, often based on differences…and it’s easy to laugh at them! In the political world, it’s epidemic; in the social world, it’s epidemic; in the racial, religious, economic worlds, it’s epidemic. As if the 140 characters in a tweet can define a topic or a person! Like the commercial, “I’m white,” or “I’m old” or “I’m conservative.” Too many people want to lump me, lump each other into very limited categories. Then no one has to be a real, complicated human and no one has to empathize or sympathize. Except that I know we’re missing the riches that knowing each other brings.

Easter

IMG_3220.JPG

For many of us, Easter season includes the annual ritual of dyeing Easter eggs. But a few years ago, our family began to “color” Easter eggs, which included traditional dyeing, but expanded to include painting them with food color. The variety of colors available by dyeing is significant—colors changed by length of time in the dye, number of colors applied to an egg, assorted shapes of the color applied (e.g., half the egg one color lengthwise or heightwise or diagonally), and the dynamic wax pencil used to write on the undyed egg), but by using Q-tips or paint brushes with undiluted food coloring, the possibilities seemed infinite!

PAAS FOUR.jpg

When I was a child, PAAS made the obligatory egg dyeing kits: color tablets, wire egg holders, and punch-outs in the box to hold the eggs as they dried. We cobbled together assorted teacups, dropped each tablet into a mixture of vinegar and boiling water, and the dyeing began. Even though I was proud of my own creations, my father or mother always seemed to create the year’s best egg. Over time, PAAS expanded their dyeing options—marble, egg stamps, and overlays…moving the whole tradition further away from the religious symbolism it first offered. Originally, egg dyeing was limited to red—to symbolize the blood of Christ; on the hard shell—to symbolize the tomb; and, of course, the egg inside—to symbolize rebirth. Like most religious traditions, it lost its religious significance and devolved into a secular entertainment.

Designs.jpg

Once my family began coloring eggs—creating designs well beyond even the newest PAAS product—suddenly my imagination burst wide open. Easter eggs could be as varied and exciting as my talent and patience would allow.

IMG_3214.JPG

We created patchwork eggs, polka-dot eggs, striped eggs (up-and-down or side-to-side), graphic designs, disguised eggs (e.g., globe or watermelon), even eggs that became characters! Our experience of Easter changed. Hiding the eggs and finding them on Easter morning adopted a kind of specificity, because they were no longer just blue or red or yellow eggs: “Where’s the globe egg?” “Where’s Mr. Egghead?” “Where’s the kitty egg?”

Characters.jpg

Each Easter egg became a kind of self-expression, a nexus of imagination and talent and patience. First, we had to imagine what the egg could become; next, we had to plan the design; and lastly, we had to produce carefully, patiently, precisely to make it work. It was always great fun to spend the evening as a family, each of us delving into his/her psyche to find a new self-expression.

But even with all this fun and self-expression and change, I miss the Easters of my youth, when religious ritual reinforced my faith. I was an altar boy and served Mass on Easter mornings, which meant lighting lots of candles on an altar overflowing with lilies. The weeks before had included the Stations of the Cross each Friday…for my young self, it was actually awesome: stopping in front of each of the 14 stations; incense swirling; struggling to hold the cross correctly when I was the crucifer or to hand the thurible to the priest and take it back at the right moments; the priest reciting prayers at each station, creating a kind of reverie of repetition. I looked forward to Palm Sunday with the reading of The Passion, even in all its length and graphicness, except when Easter came late in the calendar—back then, the church was not air conditioned so it could be stifling and standing for the whole story became a kind of suffering all my own.

For me, the tactics have changed, but Easter remains a time of expressed faith.

Lies

   © Disney

© Disney

What if we recognized a lie when we heard it? Like in Disney’s 1940 classic, Pinocchio: Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies and the Good Fairy knows right away! She says, “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” In reality, lies—even small lies—are secret, insidious, treacherous, designed and executed to fool us. They undermine our very ability to live: what if we couldn’t trust anything or anyone, if we needed proof for everything we do? Trust is such an essential part of living and every lie undercuts that.

Yet if you challenge someone about a lie, the daring response is, “Are you calling me a liar?” Lying is a fundamental failing that no one wants to admit…liars easily lie to deny! We instinctively find it hard to answer, “Yes, you’re a liar!” And so the lie and the liar live on!

The terror is that liars and lies are everywhere; today, people use the euphemism, “fake news,” but it’s really institutionalized lies. Now I question everything I read; even once-respected news sources report things that turn out to be lies because instant news is more valued than facts!

Of course, it’s an old story:

   "A lie told a thousand times."

"A lie told a thousand times."

  • In the 1940s, Hitler and the Nazis rose to power based on promises and treaties they never intended to live up to: lies. They “relocated” millions of people into death camps: lies. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, understood when he professed, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Their lies, of course, led to mass murder and dragged the world into war.
   Joseph Welch of Hale & Dorr (l) to Joseph McCarthy (r), “Have you no sense of decency?”

Joseph Welch of Hale & Dorr (l) to Joseph McCarthy (r), “Have you no sense of decency?”

  • In the 1950s, Sen Joseph McCarthy built his power on lies, even producing false evidence. His lies ruined careers and lives and it took years—and Edward R. Murrow—to prove him a liar: his smear campaign began in 1950 and continued until he was censured by the US Senate in 1954.
   "I said things that were not true," said Richard Nixon.

"I said things that were not true," said Richard Nixon.

  • In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon perverted the election process, lying repeatedly to the American people and proving the Good Fairy correct. It took 783 days for Nixon’s lies to lead to his resignation. In 1977 when Nixon was interviewed by David Frost, he admitted that, “I said things that were not true,” but he admitted to neither “lies” nor being a “liar.”
   "I misled people," said Bill Clinton.

"I misled people," said Bill Clinton.

  • In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton was charged with perjury—lying under oath, an elevated form of lying—regarding a sexual relationship he had had with an intern. The lies continued and expanded until he went on national TV to announce, “I want to say one thing to the American people…I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  A plain, public, prominent lie.  It took 212 days for Clinton finally to admit the truth. “I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people,” he said. His admission focused on the “inappropriate” relationship, and never really addressed his easy ability to lie.
  • In 2008, Bernie Madoff and his Madoff Investment Securities LLC were charged with massive fraud, whereby they lied to more than 13,000 clients and stole an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion. Clients had paperwork and records to “prove” their claims, but in the end, everything was based on elaborate lies, lies that grew from the early 1970s until 2008.

The devastation that grows from lies is really a reflection of our need and willingness to trust. Nations grow, businesses are built, relationships deepen based on trust. But when liars and their lies break that trust, there is no going back. A lie may steal our money or pervert our election or even lead us to war, but worse: it makes us doubt our nature to trust. Conor Oberst in “Ladder Song” writes (even he can’t call them “lies” and “liars”),

Don't hang around once the promise breaks
Or you'll be there when the next one's made.
Kiss the feet of a charlatan.

I think that’s the right image: don’t hang around after the lie. I have known and worked with liars and been victimized by their lies; they deny them. Yet I’ve moved on with those I trust. It isn’t easy to recognize a lie, it isn’t easy to spot fake news, but I don’t forget liars once I’ve recognized them. I pay no more attention to Trump’s tweets than to Joy Behar’s comments on The View. Leaving the lies and liars behind, I’ll struggle to recognize truths…that’s where I want to be.

Greatness

ali and liston 1964.jpg

I have a complaint…it centers around an innocuous television commercial for the iPhone X by Apple—innocuous except that it plays about a thousand times a day. To me, television commercials are both a reflection of public opinion and formative of public opinion. When Apple or Coke or Ford designs a commercial, they often pick up on a small idea that we all recognize and inflate it into a “truth.” My complaint is about this commercial’s “truth,” which I believe is mistaken.

In the commercial, the voiceover is Muhammad Ali in one of his monologues/rants about being “the Greatest.” When Ali entered the sports scene, he was one of the first—if not the first—athletes to profess his greatness. Prior superstars had usually offered a kind of humility as one of their attributes. (Listen to Lou Gehrig’s humility in the face of tragedy.) Ali added a sense of showmanship to his stardom, usually bragging about his greatness and taunting his opponents. But Muhammad Ali delivered on his claim of greatness (“It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” he said.): he won boxing’s heavyweight championship three times; compiled an amateur record of 100 wins/5 losses and a professional record of 56 wins/5 losses; won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics; endured/overcame a ban from boxing for refusing, as a conscientious objector, to be inducted into the armed forces for the Vietnam War; was crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.

Under Ali’s voiceover in the commercial is a parade of selfies: young, old; male, female; black, white, Asian. The commercial suggests that the selfies are each person’s announcement of their being  “the Greatest.” At one point, one of the selfies appears to wink at the viewer in time with Ali’s saying ironically, “I am modest.”

 © Apple Inc.

© Apple Inc.

And therein lies my complaint…the mistaken modern idea, exploited and reinforced by the commercial, that simply being alive makes each of us great! “Because I exist, I am great!” It is a pervasive attitude: everyone feels entitled to assert themselves, bemoan their problems, insist on their opinions, criticize others, post pictures of themselves, recount every activity…but I find so little evidence of actual greatness! I am not cynical enough to think that people are worthless; we all and each have rights and opinions and value, but only one can be the greatest. We all and each can post our pictures or tell our stories, but only one can be the greatest. I feel that much of the discontent in today’s world is related to people’s almost instant and grossly inflated sense of their own greatness.

Which leads me to an overwhelming question: What is greatness? Merriam-Webster says that it’s “exceptionally high quality” with synonyms including: excellence, perfection, preeminence, superiority, and supremacy. All very high targets! Greatness is a quality of being, an achievement, a goal.

I like the stream of selfies in the commercial—many of the faces are charming or beautiful or intriguing. But taking one’s pictures does not equate to greatness; work, effort, dedication, endurance, even suffering for achievement is greatness. As Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” Maybe if the images were of people striving toward a goal, Ali’s voiceover would have worked. Or if the voiceover had been Sinatra’s “My Way” at least there would have been a tinge of realism—planning, effort, care, tears, and even regret.

If there really are 7.5 billion people in the world, then I assume that there is an equal number of ways—unrelated to selfies—to live a life, and maybe to achieve one’s own greatness.

Auvers-sur-Oise

   “There are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” (Vincent in a letter to his brother, Theo, July 1890)

“There are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” (Vincent in a letter to his brother, Theo, July 1890)

It doesn’t qualify as a city—the French officially call it a “commune” and its maximum population is only 7000—but Auvers-sur-Oise still overflows with the beauty and serenity that attracted its most famous resident, Vincent van Gogh in 1890. I traveled the 20+ miles northwest of Paris just for the day to enter a village that presents so much of its van Gogh history without overdoing it…I enjoyed a quiet stroll through the village and found—neither confronted nor attacked by—many of its van Gogh treasures. Van Gogh spent his last months there, where he painted nearly 80 paintings in 70 days, where he died, where he was laid out on a pool table, and where he is buried.

Auberge.jpg

I left Paris from the Gare Saint Lazare and changed trains in Pontoise (realizing halfway through the trainride that the name means Bridge [Pont] on the Oise, the same river that gives Auvers-sur-Oise its full name). Within an hour, I was standing in Auvers across the street from the Auberg Ravoux where van Gogh lived, worked, and died.  The day was sunny and hot, but the town was empty of the tourists I’d been warned about. I started at the Hotel, which manages its fame very carefully, very graciously; a young lady at the Fenetre de Billet (ticket window) told me all about the hotel and how to find other sites around town that would suit my interest.

Room in the Auberg.jpg

Soon I was climbing the austere spiral stairs to the attic space that served as his room; as plain and empty as they show it, I imagined the room with stacked, still-drying canvases as it may have been when his brother, Theo, came to Vincent’s death bed in 1890: portraits of Dr. Gachet, Daubigny’s Garden, the Auvers Town Hall, a field of poppies, so many visions of the world that would become treasures.

Auvers and vines.jpg

I wandered the town to find sites I knew from the paintings: the Daubigny house and garden, and house of Dr. Gachet, and the church of Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption. Soon after arriving in Auvers, van Gogh wrote to Theo, “Auvers is very beautiful…it is profoundly beautiful, it is the real country, characteristic and picturesque.” I  am no van Gogh, but neither am I Caliban—I could appreciate why he was moved in Auvers to paint and paint everything. Maybe because I knew his paintings and had read his letters, I was sensitive to the shapes, colors, lighting, and elements of the area. Lost at one point on a back road, I felt I recognized a place where the forest is thick with twilight dark except that a shaft of midday sun pierced down deep within the trees and lighted the background undergrowth; the countryside was filled with tiny pink flowers atop sturdy carnation-like stalks, purple ferns, poison ivy everywhere, and rows of yellow iris; winding lanes lined by stone walls or trees invited me in by virtue of their cool shade on such a hot day and twisted right or left out of sight, beckoning, “What’s just around that bend?”

Churches.jpg

On my way to the cemetery, I passed the Notre Dame church on the edge of town (the sky was as blue as in his painting but the stone was not at all the same purple-blue). I was happy to find an unlocked door (the piano tuner was at work and had left the door unlocked), so I walked in where it was cool and sat quietly cooling myself. Only the piano tuner and I were there, but he paid me no mind and kept banging C-C-C D-D-D E-E-E as he finished the tuning.

676.jpg

I continued uphill to find the cemetery across from a picturesque hayfield dotted with orange poppies under the same blue sky. I’ve written before about the graves and how beautifully simple they are…as van Gogh once wrote to his brother, “How difficult it is to be so simple.” I used my broken French to ask the groundskeeper to take my picture, which he did, and he art-directed me in his broken English.

 

681.jpg

I saw not even a single painting in Auvers-sur-Oise, but I did see many of the places and things that became van Gogh’s paintings. I got to enjoy my little knowledge of him and certainly got to add to it, but clearly added to my understanding of the beauty of van Gogh's art.

Tangier

TangierbyNight2.jpg

My visits to the cities I’ve described over the past few weeks have been short two- or three-day jaunts, usually tacked onto the end of a business trip. Rarely have I gotten to know a city, although I’ve squeezed as much as I could into very little time in each place. My most compact experience of a city was in Tangier, Morocco: little more than 5 hours from when we disembarked until we re-embarked the ferry.

The full trip—a true odyssey—began with an 8:30 a.m. train from Madrid to Algeciras/Gibraltar, on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. From the train window, Spanish cityscape quickly turned to Spanish countryside: mountains, orchards, farms, and old crumbling buildings long abandoned. Arriving on time in Algeciras, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to the docks for the ferry, which departed nearly two hours late, forcing us to rethink our plans…little sunlight would be left on arrival.

  Jebel Musa in the Rif Mountain range, Morocco.

Jebel Musa in the Rif Mountain range, Morocco.

The hour-long ferry ride across the Mediterranean was visually beautiful: the Rock of Gibraltar to the north, Jebel Musa to the south, and the moon was up…adding to the mystique as my two traveling companions and I approached Africa for the first time. We arrived at the docks of Tangier-Med, to realize that we were about 30 miles from the city. Through the border offices, we negotiated a taxi fare into the city and climbed into an old Mercedes cab: no carpets and lots of squeaking parts. The driver navigated the N16—a coast road that wound past new hotels and condos that enjoyed beautiful views of the Mediterranean, the mountains of Spain, and the setting Sun. More abundant were dilapidated houses, ramshackle garages and warehouses, and lines of people carrying loads by the edge of the road. We tried not to be terrified— the driver paid no heed to pedestrians, traffic, signs, nor double yellow lines.

Hotel.jpg


Having abandoned our plans to visit the Medina—it would be closed or closing, we went directly to the Hotel El Minzah, tucked into a busy neighborhood a block from the Medina. The Hotel El Minzah is perfectly Moroccan, the front desk clerks were fawning, the décor exotic and distant, all with a feeling of colonial France overlaid on Moroccan/Berber/Moorish elements. The lobby opens from Moorish arched doorways, and is laid with oriental carpets over marble floors.

WIne Bar Sign.jpg

We were directed down into the central Andalusian patio—the heart of the hotel—and the Wine Bar, where we waited until the restaurant opened. A very talkative and enthusiastic sommelier opened a bottle of Moroccan wine that we were surprised to enjoy…similar to a merlot, but not so good as the Spanish and French wines that he had steered us away from.

Soon our dinner reservation was ready and we were sprawled at table on low couches, attended by servers in traditional Moroccan uniforms, complete with fezzes. We were entertained by a four-piece Moroccan band and treated to a belly dance: maybe it was no more than their version of Disney-does-Morocco, but the food was good and plentiful, the music was good, and the dancer had a certain Old-World charm.

Tangier-by-night.jpg

The return taxi ride to the ferry was more civilized and less dramatic. The driver took us through the edges of the Medina, most of which was closed, except some fruit vendors who, the cab driver explained, stayed open longest to sell their perishable goods. We were satisfied that we’d seen something Moroccan, even though we’d missed the Medina. We’d met and talked with several Moroccans who were proud to tell about their country and city, happy to befriend us tourists. The ferry back to Algeciras was again an hour late, but a moonlit cruise across a misty Mediterranean completed our exotic adventure.

Madrid

Museo_del_Prado_(Madrid)_21.jpg

People seem to give one opinion of Madrid: they love it!  The basis of each opinion varies:  some love the food, some the wine, some the people, some even like the bullfights! For me, Madrid offered a profound richness of art…although the food, wine, and people were great! Running a meeting in Madrid, I arrived early to adjust to the time change, landing midday. I headed right into the city to the Paseo del Prado, a beautiful tree- and fountain-lined boulevard, leading me and a friend to the Prado.

Nearly 200 years old and housing a collection of 17000 items, the Prado could be overwhelming (like Paris’s Louvre and New York’s Metropolitan)…but I had a focused list for my short visit, because unlike the all-encompassing collections of the other museums, the Prado focuses on artists, not all art.

  © Museo Nacional del Prado

© Museo Nacional del Prado

I started with the Italian Fra Angelico Annunciation from the early Fifteenth Century. Like many other treatments of the subject, it is beautiful, holy, devout; but he adds the fall of Adam and Eve to the left of the main image, revealing what the Prado calls, “The damnation and salvation of Humanity.”

Then I turned naturally to the Spanish painters: El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, and Picasso.  

  © Museo Nacional del Prado

© Museo Nacional del Prado

I was surprised to love several of the El Greco paintings—especially the portraits, which seemed to introduce me to real people whom I felt I could know…even though they lived 4-to-5 centuries ago. The famous Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest is an unnamed gentleman whose identity pours from the canvas: he meets the viewer with a confident gaze and with his hand seeming to offer a pure heart. The nobility of the gentleman is plain, and so is his humanity.

  © Museo Nacional del Prado

© Museo Nacional del Prado

The Prado boasts the largest collection of Velazquez, including portraits, editorial pieces (religious or mythic), even the bizarre. The most intriguing piece in the collection is Las Meninas, a tricky self-portrait/portrait/commentary. Velazquez appears to be painting the royal couple—visible in the mirror near the center of the image—and instead presents himself, the princess Margaret Theresa and her entourage. Considerable in its size (10.5’x9’), the painting is provocative of the relationship among artist, art, and viewer. Velazquez looks out of the shadows at the royal couple and at us, the viewers: he is seeing us seeing him and I was well aware of sharing the position of the royalty, watched and watcher.

  © Museo Nacional del Prado

© Museo Nacional del Prado

I moved on to see the paintings of Francisco Goya, which were more impassioned than El Greco’s or Velasquez’s.  His The Third of May, 1808 is stunning: the victims are terrified yet visibly innocent, many covering their faces or holding their heads in fear; the central victim is brightly lighted and offers himself in a glowing Christ-like posture of crucifixion; conversely, the murderers are hunched and hidden in shadow. It is a strong political statement against the tyranny of Napoleon, whose troops punished an earlier revolt by killing hundreds of rebels and innocent bystanders alike.

  © Museo Nacional del Prado

© Museo Nacional del Prado

Then I came to Goya’s Black Paintings, 14 paintings discovered after his death as mural decorations in his home. They were displayed in continual galleries, where I tried to appreciate the concept of someone’s finding all these paintings in Goya’s home, images ranging from fear and rage to tranquility. Most famous among them is Saturn, a terrifying and grotesque image, especially as home décor! Although he left no explanations of his intentions, Goya, in his mid-70s, must have been raging or fearing or regretting something powerful to compose his horrific Saturn.

  © Museo Nacional del Prado

© Museo Nacional del Prado


Then I moved from Spanish to Dutch: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights may be the most famous painting in the Prado, and it was way more freakish than I had anticipated. Bosch had no predecessor for his creation of bizarre, freakish, scary creatures all across the landscape doing all kinds of bizarre things. Had he painted in the 1950s, we’d assume that he was using drugs. The painting was startling and overflowing with tiny, bizarre details, all adding up to the story of the creation, downfall, and punishment of Man.

  © Museo Nacional del Prado

© Museo Nacional del Prado

I was equally startled to see Pieter Breughel’s, Triumph of Death. It was as scary and freakish as the Bosch, but Breughel had had Bosch as a trailblazer. In his Triumph, Breughel shows no downfall, but places everyone at the threat of Death, a skeletal army led by a sickle-wielding skeleton on horseback. He constructed this view of the world in umber, giving the entire scene a hellish feel.

  © Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

© Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

For our final view of Madrid’s artistic treasures, we ran four blocks to the Reina Sofia Museum to see Picasso’s, Guernica before the museum closed. I am not usually a Picasso fan, but Guernica is awesome. The size (11.5’x25.5’), the stark lack of color, the confusion of overlapping shapes, the numerous open mouths crying out (especially the Cabeza de Caballo)…it was awesome. It portrays the result of violence: pure suffering and agony…it shows nothing of the planes or bombs or fires that prompted the image; the only sign of violence is a broken sword in a dismembered hand at bottom center. Yet, its antiwar meaning is powerfully clear.

As evening came on, we went to an old section of the city to the Mercado San Miguel to feast willy-nilly on tapas, manchego, serrano ham, and Spanish wines—clean, fresh, and fragrant; but impressions of the art dominated our senses.

Valentine's Day

   Me and my mom, 1959.

Me and my mom, 1959.

Probably one of the highest highs I’ve had as I’ve grown older was to learn about the bottomless well-source of love of which a human soul is capable, of which I am capable. To love a person feels so fulfilling: to feel this overwashing and all-encompassing sense of one’s self and how that self is connected or offered or fulfilled in the other person.

   From where does all this love bubble up?

From where does all this love bubble up?

I’ve also been surprised to learn how an additional person can come along and “Bam!” I can feel the same-but-different sense of myself and how that sense is connected or offered or fulfilled in this additional other person. I think of how I loved my wife no less when my son was born, even though he created in me the same-but-different overwashing sense of love; I loved him no less when my daughter was born, yet she created in me the same-but-different overwashing sense of love for her…from where does all this love bubble up? Is the well-source actually bottomless?

I’ve realized that through my life a very few people, here and there, fill or create a place in me which is otherwise void or almost nonexistent until I meet that person; suddenly my life has another whole unexpected aspect to it and I love that person for how they have changed and expanded and enriched my life. I am a new person because of and with that person and I like to think I’m a better person, too, and how could one not love a person who does such a wondrous thing to one’s life? Yes, I understand that the flavors of each love is different, but none of the loves diminishes any of my other loves even in the most infinitesimal amount; love seems to add to love in an unexpected and unexplainable and ever-expanding way. It’s really a marvelous and frightening and wondrous realization about this bottomless-well.

Additionally, I have found that love can withstand the fadings-of-time that happen with so many other emotions…ironically, my mother died on Valentine’s Day 2002, and yet I find 16 years later that my sense of her and myself in relation to her—my love for her—has faded not one jot, not one tittle. I remember her hugs, I remember her voice, I remember her laugh—she laughed easily and well. After 16 years, one might expect a certain fading, but there are certain senses—perhaps they’re from the soul, not the mind—that just don’t fade. I still find myself thinking—at least for an instant—to phone her when something exciting or delightful happens, when my son and daughter were accepted to the college of their choice, or when they graduated. That sense of myself connected with my mom has persisted, as has my love for her and my sense of her love for me.

And my siblings, whom I see but once or twice a year: my love for them persists despite time and distance. No wonder Valentine’s Day is such a great day to enjoy! What a funny and glorious thing to be human, what a funny and glorious thing to love!

Amsterdam

Bridge 2.jpg

Completely by chance, quite by accident, the city of Amsterdam has become connected in my mind with an image drastically different from its history and its reputation. From its early history, Amsterdam has prospered, has welcomed international trade and visitors, has been a sanctuary for religious outcasts of other cities; it has been a haven of tolerance, capitalism, even libertine behavior. Prostitution and marijuana use have long flourished there.

I’ve been to Amsterdam twice, once on New Year’s Eve 1981-turning-1982 and again on a completely unrelated trip twenty five years later. Both times, any mention of my going to Amsterdam was met with a  wink and a nod…prompting me to explain that my trips were completely legitimate sightseeing trips.

   From left to right: The Royal Palace, Centraal Train Station, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

From left to right: The Royal Palace, Centraal Train Station, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Of course, there was the sightseeing: central Amsterdam is a series of concentric parabolic canals that encircle “the Dam,” the center of the city where the Royal Palace looms. The city is view-after-view of picturesque bridges, tree lined streets, and bicyclists everywhere. Buildings are shockingly narrow, built on “invented” land (recovered from marshland centuries ago) and crested often with a block-and-tackle to allow furniture to be lifted in and out through the front windows. At the north end of the city stands the cavernous Centraal Train Station, a beautiful Renaissance Revival building from the 1880s; at the opposite end of the city is the magnificent Rijksmuseum, housing several paintings by Vermeer and more than 20 paintings by Rembrandt, including “The Night Watch” and “The Syndics.” Further to the south is the Van Gogh Museum…for me, the reason to visit Amsterdam.

But my impressions of the city were formed by serendipity: I repeatedly met with new understandings of women…not of a woman, but of the complex idea of women. On my first trip there, I traveled with a friend who was a “girl”—not a girlfriend, but a longtime friend who didn’t want to travel alone. We toured the city, saw all the sights, and toasted the New Year in the hotel bar, where many international travelers found themselves because the New Year is a family holiday in the Netherlands…most shops, restaurants, and bars were closed! We drank with a newly-wed couple from Malta, a petroleum-industry man from Scotland, and a very drunk Frenchman…as well as with every other customer because the bar was jammed and everyone was holiday-festive. Even while it was happening, I knew that I was having a different experience of the city than I would have had alone.

Moms.jpg

Twenty-five years later I returned to Amsterdam with a coworker for a whirlwind two days. We started our trip with dinner at Moeder’s, a restaurant in the Oud West section of the city. The restaurant is dedicated to the memory of the owner’s mother and focuses on celebrating all mothers; bring your mother on her birthday and she gets a free dessert and is regaled with a birthday song from all the diners. Bring a photograph of your mother, and they’ll hang it: the walls are covered with thousands of smiling moms. We had each brought a picture of our mothers, and the owner made an “event” of accepting them from us…he returned to our table with a bottle of Dutch gin and poured three glasses to toast our mothers! To this day, I wonder where the pictures hang.

   Statue of Anne Frank beside the Anne Frank House.

Statue of Anne Frank beside the Anne Frank House.

The next morning, we toured the Anne Frank House…we are both fathers of daughters, so the impact of this place—partially a memorial from a father to his daughter—was multiplied. Despite the epic poignancy and tragedy of Anne’s story, the museum is understated; it presents the facts and the reality of how she lived and what she endured for two years and allows the story to speak for itself. Her diary has been labeled a “testament to the indestructible nature of the human spirit,” and the House reinforces that label: the original diary pages, her movie-star pictures still hanging on the walls…a sense of this young girl’s spirit remains to be felt throughout the rooms.

The night before we left, we wandered the city and, like so many tourists, walked through the infamous Red Light District. It was a huge mistake. For all the nobility and sanctity of women that I’d already experienced and celebrated, this neighborhood undercut it all. Women of all ages, barely dressed in lingerie, sat in storefronts or stood in doorframes, beckoning to passersby, offering themselves for hire. The district was overrun with gawkers and I regretted being there, regretted being seen as a gawker or worse.

Thus my experience of Amsterdam has much to recommend it: history and architecture and art and exceptional moments. But, like all modern cities, it also has some things to avoid, some things to correct.

Dublin

   O'Connell Street Bridge over the River Liffey.

O'Connell Street Bridge over the River Liffey.

In just three days in Dublin, I experienced a very low low and a very high high. I had had business that ended late on Friday in another part of Europe, so I raced Saturday morning through airport connections and taxi rides to Dublin…I had a ticket to see Pavarotti’s final concert in Ireland—his Farewell Tour—that evening. According to the Irish Times, Pavarotti began his career in Ireland when he performed in Verdi's Rigoletto in 1963. He supposedly had a “soft spot” for the Irish since that time and had proved it two nights before with a rousing what-would-have-been penultimate performance for Ireland at the Point Theater.

   The Gresham Hotel.

The Gresham Hotel.

My flights all ran on time, my luggage magically arrived at the carousel, and my cabbie told me I had plenty of time to get from hotel to venue. I checked in, donned my black suit, and tied my bowtie on the first attempt! When I got to the front desk for directions to the Point, the clerk suspiciously asked me, “Are you going to the Pavarotti concert?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I am very sorry to tell you that it has been cancelled due to illness.” Luciano Pavarotti cancelled his performance because of a serious throat infection. Dublin suddenly seemed a very uninviting place. With complete dejection, despite being at the Gresham Hotel in the heart of Dublin, I went back to my room and changed into casual clothes to explore the city. I wandered O’Connell Street past the Post Office scarred with bullets holes from the Easter 1916 uprising; I crossed the River Liffey on O’Connell Bridge; I ended up in the Temple Bar section of the city. Overrun by tourists, Temple Bar may not give a true picture of Irish life…but it offered abundant cheer, shops, live music, bars, and restaurants. My evening there lifted me out of my disappointment.

roads.jpg

On Sunday, I toured the countryside, which was as green and lush as one would expect of Ireland. Every mile of winding road was bordered by heaped dry-stack rock walls, cleared from the adjacent fields; every mile spoke to me of a hard life eked out of the landscape. But beyond all the walls were vibrant fields and forests, crops and grazing herds.

   The Powerscourt Estate.

The Powerscourt Estate.

We stopped at the magnificent and opulent Powerscourt Gardens—a landscape that has been designed and worked for 150 years into flowing gardens and waterscapes, dotted with statuary. They were striking for their formality and perfection.

   The environs of Glendalough, County Wicklow.

The environs of Glendalough, County Wicklow.

Further into County Wicklow, we stopped at Glendalough and St. Kevin’s Monastery. Dating from the Sixth Century, the ruins of this monastic city are as haunting as the glacier-carved valley is beautiful. Wandering past the ruins into the valley beside the lakes, I understood St. Kevin’s inspiration to establish a monastery in that exact place.

7 Eccles.JPG

On Monday, I visited the James Joyce Centre, where I had made special arrangements (because they are closed on Sunday and don’t normally offer tours on Monday) to hire a guide for my Ulysses tour of the city. A very brogued young lady began my tour and we followed Leopold Bloom’s wanderings as described in the book: Parnell Street and Bachelor’s Walk, across O’Connell’s Bridge to Sweny’s Pharmacy, Trinity College, Merrion Square, St. Stephen’s Green…and ended at the disappointing location where a hospital now replaces 7 Eccles Street—Bloom’s address in 1904. The original door to the house (all that remains) is on display at the Centre, where I thanked my guide at the end of a lengthy and tiring tour. I, of course, tipped her for the efforts, especially on what would have been her day off. She gratefully took the money with a bit of surprise and said, “Oh thank you. Now I can get myself a new pair of shoes!” She was sincerely grateful and yet the irony of a tour guide needing new shoes was not lost on me.

My small experience of Ireland was that kind of mixture throughout: kind and open people—happy tourists and the Irish, interesting and beautiful places, history and literature intertwined, disappointment and surprise.

Prague

   The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, founded in 1385, dominates Prague’s Old Town Square.

The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, founded in 1385, dominates Prague’s Old Town Square.

Over a decade ago, I squeezed in a 2-day visit to Prague in the Czech Republic and I remember feeling an evolved constancy of the city…it was modern, but it was a palimpsest of centuries layer-on-layer. Despite being bombed at the end of World War II, Prague is one of Europe’s largest cities to have endured and commingled so many centuries. Prague’s Old Towne Square intertwines cathedrals and buildings from the 1300s and 1400s, shops from the 1600s, the Apostle statues were added to the Astronomical Clock in the 1800s, and the striking Jan Hus statue from 1915 dominates the center. It all blends to offer itself as an ancient yet modern city.

   Wenceslas Square, Prague, looking northwest.

Wenceslas Square, Prague, looking northwest.

A mile away in the New Town section of Prague is Wenceslas Square. The area was originally laid out in the middle of the Fourteenth Century as a horse market, but it has evolved to become the modern city’s financial, business, and political center; Wenceslas Square was the central location for the Velvet Revolution in 1989, freeing then Czechoslovakia from Communist rule and Soviet control.

Prague for me on those two frozen February days was a warren of unlabeled streets, cold expanses of squares and the open Vltava River bank, but every building—new or antique—was warm and welcoming. The people met me with their halting English, though I could not even attempt Czech; there are no cognates between the languages, so I was careful of my words and they were patient with me. It is the only European city where I met a shopkeeper who knew no English; she was young and knew no German nor French, either; I left the shop disappointed.

That same strangeness of language was present on the streets, where old trades and specialty shops (the marionette museum, for instance) thrive among modern fashion stores, hotels, and fast-food vendors. The streets are neither the gridwork of Colonial design, nor the circles of Roman design; they wander and end abruptly. I’ve written before about getting lost in the city at night, only to find other tourists equally lost.

   The Astronomical Clock with the Apostles parading past the upper windows.

The Astronomical Clock with the Apostles parading past the upper windows.

Embracing the city’s strangeness and my occasional “lostness” led me to wonderful discoveries all around Prague. I had set off from my hotel on a frigid morning—with snowflakes on the air and temperatures struggling in negative Celsius—seeking Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral on the hill above the city. I wandered into Old Towne Square, where I joined a crowd to watch the hourly procession of Apostles around the Astronomical Clock. Most haunting and surprising was the discreet bell-ringing skeleton…tempus fugit.

   The Old Jewish Cemetery.

The Old Jewish Cemetery.

I adjusted my course—mistakenly—and happened upon the Old Jewish Cemetery. Visually, it is stunning with its 12,000 headstones standing edge-to-edge, tumbling onto each other. It is astonishing historically and culturally, as well: because it was the only burial place for Prague Jews from 1439 to 1787, it’s estimated that 100,000 souls are interred there, sometimes in graves 12-layers deep. For me on that cold morning, the dusting of snow added to the eerie sanctity and the beauty.

   The Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral above.

The Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral above.

When I reached the Charles Bridge to cross the Vltava River, I realized the bridge with its 30 statues is a destination in itself. I found myself lingering at many of the statues, reading explanatory plaques or eavesdropping on others’ conversations; I snapped several photographs for strangers—in 2005, people still used actual cameras; I paused at the statue of St. John of Nepomuk—who, legend says, was thrown from the bridge in 1383 by King Wenceslas IV. Like all the other tourists, I touched the base of the statue (where it was rubbed to a golden shine from constant contact) to invoke the superstition that I’d return someday to Prague.

   Some of the St. Vitus Cathedral gargoyles.

Some of the St. Vitus Cathedral gargoyles.

I continued and made the long climb uphill to the Prague Castle and the St. Vitus Cathedral. Like so much of Prague, it layered modernity (security lines and heavily armed guards) over its antique Gothic beauty (construction began in 1344 and continued for almost six centuries). The Castle guards bundled against the weather and topped with large, furry hats reminded me of the witch’s guards in The Wizard of Oz and the Cathedral’s countless gargoyles recalled the movie’s flying monkeys.

I have a strong memory of sitting that night in the hotel restaurant for dinner, enjoying a cocktail, and watching as the snow continued falling. The fireplace crackled behind me, the street was lit but empty through the window. The server brought a basket of bread to the table and I remember thinking that it could have been almost any year and I could have had this very same experience of Prague.

Rome

   The Tiber River flows and glows through Rome.

The Tiber River flows and glows through Rome.

I said last week that being in a city is being “among the dreams and intentions and designs of Man.” But when I was recently in Rome, I had two distinct responses to it: one was a dire confusion about the personality of the city and the other was absolute confirmation of what I sense as Italian culture. Rome is Rome, but its prolonged and shifting history made it challenging to understand, while its readiness to share and enjoy its riches seduced me entirely.

   Michelangelo’s  Slaves: Awakening, Young, Bearded,  and  Atlas.

Michelangelo’s Slaves: Awakening, Young, Bearded, and Atlas.

We had visited Florence a few days earlier, and that city—even though it pre-dates the Renaissance by about 400 years—has a purely Renaissance personality. The preeminence and power of the Medici family flowered in Florence in the 1400s and introduced the Italian Renaissance; to this day, the city exudes all things Renaissance: the Uffizi collection is all about the Renaissance: Giotto, Botticelli, da Vinci; Michelangelo’s David and his unfinished Slaves at the Accademia breathe the Renaissance; the squares throughout the town may house modern life, but it’s life in the remnants of the Renaissance.

Coliseum.JPG

Rome did not offer such a concise experience: the Coliseum and the Pantheon date to the beginning of the Christian Era; the Vatican and all Vatican City date to the 1600s; the Spanish Steps and much of the city’s baroque flavor date to the 1700s; and Mussolini’s modern influence dates to the early Twentieth Century. Too much of Rome presents itself out of context as a confusion of times and flavors and designs—I should have done more homework to learn the history and focus a context ahead of time…the Coliseum is fascinating, the Pantheon is beautiful, St. Peter’s Basilica is overwhelming, but I had no context that told me a story of Rome and the people who created it.

Shopkeep.JPG

Conversely, the small details of the city—the people and their enjoyment of the riches of everyday life—could not have been richer or more defining. We met a 96-year-old woman who ran a small novelties shop on Via Frattina; she readily shared with us details of her long life, how she had survived the War, and her plans to close the shop for good very soon. When my wife complimented her English, she pointed at my daughter and said to my wife, “She has time to learn Italian. But you, not so much.” Conversation first, business later. We had engaged a tour guide for the day who insisted that we enjoy a coffee at the bustling Casa del Caffé Tazza D’oro around the corner from the Pantheon: coffee first, architecture later. She later had us cool off in an ice cream shop at the gates to Vatican City with bowls of ice cream: ice cream first, statues later.

But for me, the most defining event was our dinner on the first night in Rome, on the Via della Vite at a restaurant called, Life. The place and food and service could not have been better: tucked onto a cobblestone street in Rome; with no time limit—a delightful aspect of dining in Italy is that they expect you to use the table all night; thousands of Italians and tourists strolling past; being charmed and spoiled by an overly attentive young Roman server; with the coolness of a spring evening descending on us as we ate…it was perfect. Of course the Italians do nothing so well as they do bread, which came to us by the basketful. I started with a carpaccio of beef dressed with black truffles and olives and olive oil…wonderfully sweet, truffley, and salty/olivey yet subtle. I next had ricotta ravioli in a truffle cream to which I added fresh basil leaves that I stole from my son’s plate. I overwashed it all with a very affordable 2008 Barolo. For dessert, I simply had strawberries, but I asked that they add a dollop of a Chantilly cream from a different dessert recipe that I had noticed on the menu—the server congratulated me that the dessert chef was more open-minded to changes like this than was the head chef. Then I finished the meal with a Grappa.

If the design of Rome had been confused for me by the ages, the details of life’s riches were everywhere offered, shared, and enjoyed…a story of Rome and its people that is easily understood.

Cities

east-passyunk-ave-e1407871681428.jpg

On a recent evening, I met some friends in the city for dinner…a frigid evening with the streets exhaling steam from grates and the curbs hidden under packed layers of ice. We circled a few times in search of parking and then walked a few blocks to the restaurant, navigating frozen sidewalks, peaks of slush-turned-ice, and intersections glazed with tire prints. We were on Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia—a reborn neighborhood that evokes a communal feel of an evening’s entertainment: brightly lighted restaurants and bars, valet-parking stands, storefronts with frosted windows. When we entered the restaurant, I felt the impact of the décor and table settings, I was made hungrier by the rich scents from the kitchen…all human planning and execution. I realized that being in a city, any city, imposes intended experiences on me: all intended and designed by the hand of Man—man or woman. Despite the cold and ice, the city streets are a concentration of human planning, creation and expression: from the streets, sidewalks, and parks up to the sky-tops of buildings…and everything contained therein. On a smaller scale, I think of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, where every piece of the environment is designed as expression…cities, to me, are equally and always expressive of a human spirit.

   A peek into Philadelphia's Magic Gardens.

A peek into Philadelphia's Magic Gardens.

When I’m in the city, I become a kind of “experience gatherer” who sees and senses and appreciates in a particular “audience” way—I’m attuned to and expectant of seeing things seeable, hearing things hearable, tasting things tasteable. In Philadelphia, people have turned many walls into gigantic murals; people have designed the city squares as urban islands; people have placed statues and architectural ornaments everywhere; and at the time of our evening out, people had decorated the streets for the holidays—greens and ornaments and lights. Look up or down, look ahead or behind…everywhere in the city is an intended experience, and as Peter Gabriel sings, “All of the buildings, all of the cars / Were once just a dream / In somebody's head.”

   North Square - North End - Boston      © 2015, Joann Vitali

North Square - North End - Boston  
© 2015, Joann Vitali

I can remember the same impact of being in cities very different from Philadelphia: DC, Miami, Houston, San Diego; or cities very similar to Philadelphia: Boston and New York; or very distant cities: Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, Prague…always the hand of Man has shaped the cities and thus shaped my experience. Who were the rulers, the architects, the artists, the builders, the public that created these cities and the aesthetics of these experiences? Cities, to me, are esoteric: intended to create specific impressions on people. I visit cities ready to appreciate the hand of Man: building facades impress me; museums draw me in; theaters and restaurants, squares and boulevards, bars and stores and neighborhoods and shopping districts all offer me their esoteric intentions and I am ready to appreciate them.

Ridley Creek.jpg

In contrast, when I sit in my garden in the suburbs or wander a state park, my impressions are entirely about the simplicities of existence…the plants, the birds, the animals, the sky. The rural and bucolic worlds are obviously the hand of God…I expect to grapple with things beyond my understanding and wonder at things wonderful.

Phila Skyline.jpg

But in a city, I am in my own element: among the dreams and intentions and designs of Man. Even if my understanding is incomplete or incorrect or if I don’t understand at all, even if I disagree with or condemn the intention, I am in my own element ready to appreciate what it says about us, what it says about and to me.

Time

Clocks.jpg

Lately, I’ve plowed through life with the thought in my head as Tom Waits phrased it on his Orphans (2006) album, “There’s lotsa good rubber left on these tires /And I got all the time in the world!” But New Year’s Day is a time when everyone takes stock of time: time-spent and time-to-come—and I am no exception. I have taken stock to realize that actually…I don’t have all the time in the world.

I don’t mean this as a panic of old age or a morbid sense of impending doom…it is simply a realization: I don’t have time; I pass through time at varying rates and never really “have” control of it. I can’t dole out time carefully, nor can I make time hurry past. I remember thinking in November that I “had time” to get ready for Christmas…until a day or two before Christmas, when I panicked that I still had much preparation to do and no time left! Where had my time gone?

Max Hugging Pip.png

As I’ve been taking stock on this New Year’s Day, I watched the Twilight Zone marathon and heard Max Phillips (Jack Klugman) bemoan a regret in the episode, “In Praise of Pip” (1963). He says, “I should have known how little time a man has to raise his son.” Looking back over time-spent usually makes it feel foreshortened; long-ago never seems so long ago! I can remember holding my newborn son and later my newborn daughter in my arms and it feels like yesterday. When I stood in the hospital and held each of them, this day more than 26 and almost 24 years later seemed impossible to imagine…maybe because the possibilities were infinite, the time-to-come seemed very, very far away.

Looking back, I feel as if most of my life were “just yesterday”: growing up; school days; being a boy, then a teen, then a young man; my wedding; the children; all the losses and changes along the way…as if they were all just yesterday.

snow.jpg

By comparison, looking ahead to 2018, I feel as if it’s distant time-to-come…just getting through the current cold snap feels as if it will never end! The flowers of spring seem too distant to imagine; the warmth and produce of summer seem too distant to dream; and the holidays of 2018…will I be ready in time? But I won't let myself rush through the time-to-come because I don’t have time…I spend time and I should spend it carefully.

Last New Year, I told about the success of my 2016 resolution to begin and maintain this blog; keeping that resolution led to side-benefits I couldn’t have foreseen. Today, I will make a resolution for 2018: to spend each day of the new year as carefully as I spend my money—365 days-to-come: where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. Then, on New Year’s Day 2019, I wonder if 2018 will have felt like too little time.

Focus

larger.jpg

I wish I had a list of all the movies that I’ve ever seen—movies I've watched and to which I’ve paid attention. I’ve seen so many and seem to remember so few! Over this holiday break, I’ve come to realize that while many movies may be excellent, some very few movies have scenes that are so perfectly crafted that, for me, they focus the film: one scene that captures either the moral or the turning point or some defining characteristic of the main character or the entire film. Not all excellent films have such a moment, but I find that such focal moments happen only in excellent films.

Casablanca.jpg

I love Casablanca (1942) and think that everyone knows it as the smoldering, undeniable romance between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Berman)…but to me, at the movie’s core is the sequence with Rick and the Bulgarian refugees…especially when the young wife, Annina, (Joy Page) confides in Rick about her worry and willingness to do “a bad thing” for the love of her husband and the chance to come to America. Listening to her story, Rick moves from glib to resentful to regretful to compassionate, even generous; this scene is the precursor of Rick’s emotional arc in reckoning with Ilsa. Page at 18 embodies the romantic and redemptive power of love that Rick thought he’d had—and thinks he retrieves—with Ilsa.

Ma Bailey.jpg

In It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a fairytale is portrayed as real to deliver an optimistic moral: we don’t appreciate the importance and impact of our own, small lives. When George Bailey (James Stewart) has almost reached his limit, when the horror of a world-where-he’d-never-been-born begins to sink in, he turns to his mother; who doesn’t understand and who hasn’t said at some point in one’s life, “I want my mommy!” In the world-where-he-never-existed, George finds his mother, Mrs. Bailey (Beulah Bondi), running a boarding house…but, she doesn’t recognize him—and it terrorizes him! When she answers the door, he calls her “mother” in desperation. She defensively narrows the door opening and he panics, “I thought for sure you’d remember me!” By the end of the scene, he stares madly into the camera…I recognize not only his terror, but also his isolation in knowing the world both with George Bailey and without George Bailey. His terror and isolation are the antidotes that make clear the value of his life lived.

Scrooge.jpg

The movie that sparked this idea is the unequalled 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (originally titled, Scrooge), with its defining scene of Scrooge (Alastair Sim) at the deathbed of his sister, Fan (Carol Marsh). Brought to her bedside, the older Scrooge witnesses the beginnings of his anger and resentment toward his nephew, whom he blames for Fan’s death. The young Ebenezer storms from the room before hearing his sister’s dying plea to care for her soon-to-be-orphaned son. It is a torment that the old Scrooge cannot bear. He grabs his head in his hands and begs forgiveness, “Forgive me, Fan! Forgive me!” It is a focused, defining moment that sums up all that Scrooge has failed to see and failed to live.

Kwai.jpg

In The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the bridge—even before it is built—is at the center of the movie. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) uses the bridge as a tool to establish discipline and pride among the British prisoners; Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) uses the bridge as an emblem of his dominance and leadership in running the prison camp. The story fools the audience into rooting for the bridge’s success, while simultaneously dreading its success: let the British demonstrate their skill by building a bridge that will help lead to their defeat! When the movie reaches its climax, the bridge is revealed to be an emblem of the madness of war, of the madness of the two colonels, of the power of delusion. If the audience is confused as the film progresses, Nicholson finally comes to his—and brings us to our—senses, as he utters his last words, “What have I done?” As a final point of clarity, the doctor, Major Clipton (James Donald), pronounces judgement in the final phrase of the film, “Madness!” The sequence gives an intense and dramatic focus to the film.

Aqaba.jpg

In Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the Arab army sweeps into Aqaba from the land in its first important victory…the only port in Jordan, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba on the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula. The director David Lean had spent the previous 45 minutes of the movie draining all color from the landscape: tan, beige, white, black, grey, dun, khaki, clay, umber…the Sun is so intense, it glares white/barely-pale-gold. As the camera pans, the grey desert sand is dotted with the white, black, and beige Arab robes; the Turkish soldiers are dressed in olive drab and khaki; the tan dust rises to obscure the scene, until the music rises to crescendo and deep aqua blue of the Gulf comes into sight…it dazzles. The blue is as refreshing to the eye as the water must be to the victors. Strategically, the city is important to the war—the Arabs can now be supplied by the British Navy; emotionally, it is important to the Arabs—tribes have uniquely banded together to defeat the Turks; personally, it is important to Lawrence—he had imagined and delivered a “miracle” for Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness). As Faisal had said to Lawrence, “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees.” The sequence cements the idea of having and pursuing ideals.  

I suppose I can name a dozen or so film moments that focus their film: the murder scene in Grand Hotel (1932); “Cheek to Cheek” dance sequence in Top Hat (1935);  Tom Joad’s speech in The Grapes of Wrath (1940); the closing scene with the German girl in Paths of Glory (1957); the bathtub scene in Big Fish (2003); or the police station scene in Manchester by the Sea (2016). Such scenes, I think, prove the power of moviemaking and convince me to keep going to the movies.

Purring

jake 1.jpg

Everyone knows (or should know) the sound—the breathy, rhythmic, soothing sound—of a cat’s purr. Surprisingly, the exact process of creating a purr isn’t known: the cat’s brain does something to change the function of the larynx to create soft vibrations in the vocal chords. But what purring usually means is clear: a purring cat is a happy cat. We have more than our share of spoiled cats in the house and at any given time at least one of them will greet us with a loud vibration of purrs. Even our redeemed-feral (after 4 years of spoiling her outside, we’ve converted her to an inside-cat) will climb onto our lap or shoulder, root down to insinuate herself to our shape, and begin buzzing with purrs. At that moment, it is clear that the purr is both an expression of happiness (she’s happy to be with us, safe and warm) and a method for creating happiness (the sound and feel of the purr is calming, relaxing, and delightful)…expressing happiness seems to beget happiness.

I’ve known a few of those moments when, just by taking time to recognize my own feelings, I’ve multiplied them. I don’t purr as a means of spreading happiness…but I’ve written on this blog about a few times when expressing a feeling made the feeling bigger, better:

  • I remember standing waist-deep in a Florida hotel swimming pool during a light rain, holding my daughter’s hand and wondering how many sons and daughters were watching us from the hotel windows wishing their old man had taken them swimming in the rain. Recognizing my own happiness made me happier.
  • I remember when we had enjoyed an unexpected family treat, late at night on the beach under a black sky streaked instantly with Perseid meteors that went instantly dark again. Realizing our own wonder made it more wonderful.
  • I remember how two friends and I had concocted an adventure to visit Tangier, Morocco for just a few hours: a Mediterranean ferry ride; a dinner; some pretty bad, pretty cheap, Moroccan wine; and a return ferry ride under a nearly full moon. Knowing the satisfaction of friendship made it more satisfying.
  • I remember how, by chance, we enjoyed The Great American Eclipse this summer as a once-in-a-lifetime sharing of my grandmother’s Christmas gift from 50 years ago with my family. Understanding the specialness of the moment made it more special.
Tree 2.jpg

I hope—and expect—that late on Christmas Eve, I’ll sit in our family room feeling exhausted, sipping a nog of some kind, maybe munching a cookie, looking in delight at our dazzling Christmas tree with all its ornaments, sizing up all the packages piled beneath, sensing the promise of the coming Christmas morning, enjoying the glory of the season, and seeing it all as an expression of happiness that will make me even happier. Chances are very strong that one of our cats will be in my lap or on my shoulder purring out her own delight…and that will make me happier, too.

Magic

Christmas Tree detail.jpg

The song says that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” but you and I usually call it a “magical” time of year.  Whether we’re referring to the lighted houses throughout the neighborhoods or the excitement of finding the perfect gift for someone special or the delight of receiving the perfect gift, the Christmas season is magical. Magic has two very different meanings: it can be “a supernatural power over natural elements” or it can be “illusions produced by sleight of hand or trickery.” I, of course, believe that the magic of Christmas is the magic of a supernatural power.

Each year when we break out our home decorations, simple objects inspire deep and complex reactions…natural things meet with supernatural feelings.

Deer 1.jpg
  • For the past 10 to 15 Decembers, I’ve carefully extracted our Fitz & Floyd reindeer from their cardboard-and-Styrofoam packing to place them atop the bookcases in our living room. I can’t clearly explain the power they have over my imagination and emotion…I think they are beautifully made and somehow majestic, but their power is that they were given to me (after I’d raved about them in the store) by my wife—a large move away from her practical side, way over to her romantic side; and that they recall and confirm for me the reality of Santa Claus and the magic of my childhood Christmases. When I put them in place for their month of decoration, I am an agéd, balding man become a wonderstruck tow-headed boy.
candlestick.jpg
  • Since her childhood, my wife has enjoyed the presence of sterling silver candlesticks on the dining room table. But at Christmas, they are transformed with a simple addition of silver tendrils with glittering Christmas globes …elements designed of a different time, elegantly cast, and dynamically bedecked. Their elegance and beauty transform the table—and the room—beyond just a gathering, beyond just a meal; and the fun of the clacking globes entices everyone to touch them expectantly. Their elegance, beauty, and fun must magically fill my wife with nostalgia as well as pride.
Nativity.jpg
  • Thirty years ago, before my children were born, my mother made and gave me a charming hand-sewn Nativity set—Joseph, Mary, the Christ child, and a sheep. They are Quaker-simple, soft, homey, innocent, and expertly crafted by her very steady hands. No flashing lights, no music, neither glitter nor sparkle. They speak directly to me about the reason for the season. Both my daughter and son just told me that they look forward to seeing them each year. I love how my Nativity runs a hand-stitched thread through our three generations.
Tree.jpg
  • In 1986, I built a pine box with a Christmas tree carved in the lid to hold my growing collection of ornaments. We bring it up when we begin to decorate the tree…opening it to find the tissue-wrapped, swaddled, boxed, bundled and tied assortment of ornaments: glass balls, felt figures, Santas, anthropomorphic critters, bells, stars, fruits, feathered birds, a bird’s nest, and coiled strings of star-like lights. Each ornament’s story is told—about childhood or earlier Christmases or the friends who gave them or the place where they were bought…as if the box were magically giving up its contents of the history of our lives.

I seek out this magic each evening, when I light the candles and wreaths around the house. I have avoided the 21st-Century automatic lights that come on and go off on their own; I prefer to  circumnavigate the house to click on each candlelight, plug in the strings of lights on the bushes and wreaths, light the spotlight on our Santa flag…I enjoy being the magician who invokes the supernatural transformation.