Eclipse

Arguably, total solar eclipses are a rare occurrence…they are visible somewhere on Earth about once every 18 months. Too often they cross over the empty Arctic region or the vast South Pacific where very few people can witness them. But this Monday, August 21, 2017, possibly the most people ever to witness a single eclipse will be treated to the “Great American Eclipse” as the Moon’s shadow travels coast-to-coast across the contiguous 48 states.  Other kinds of eclipses happen—there are partial eclipses and annular eclipses—but the divinely designed “total” solar eclipse is rare.

A partial (l) and annular (r) eclipse.

A partial (l) and annular (r) eclipse.

  • A “partial” eclipse is when the Moon covers only part of the Sun’s face; during the upcoming eclipse, being too far from the path of totality here in the Philadelphia area, I will see only a partial eclipse…about 80% of the Sun will be covered.

  • For an “annular” eclipse, the Moon needs to be at its farthest from the Earth at the time of eclipse (the Moon travels in an ellipse around the Earth, not a circle, moving between 221,500 miles and 252,700 miles from Earth), so its shadow appears to be smaller than the face of the Sun, leaving a bright band—an annulus—of the Sun visible around the edges.

total-solar-eclipse.jpg

But a total eclipse is so uniquely, perfectly, randomly created that it meets all the criteria to be called “divinely designed.” Designed by a power in the universe that seemingly dares us to understand how the universe works. It’s a simple math equation that makes this true: the Sun is about 400 times larger than our moon, but it is also about 400 times farther away…the apparent disk sizes of the Sun and the Moon align perfectly.

During the minutes of a total eclipse, we can see and measure and try to understand things hidden to us in the normal light of day. The Sun’s corona, for example—that shadowy shimmering brightness that glows around the total eclipse—becomes visible only during the minutes of totality. Science has learned that the corona is about 5 million miles deep and burns at about 2 million degrees and is responsible for the solar wind (which, in turn, is responsible for the Aurora Borealis)…except during a total eclipse, this massive expanse of colossal energy is invisible to the naked eye.

Photograph from the total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919. The image of the star is moved by the Sun’s mass, just as Einstein predicted. The red dot shows where the star would have been without the sun's interference. (Credit: Royal Observatory, Greenwich)

Photograph from the total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919. The image of the star is moved by the Sun’s mass, just as Einstein predicted. The red dot shows where the star would have been without the sun's interference. (Credit: Royal Observatory, Greenwich)

A total solar eclipse was used in 1919 to prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity…because during the eclipse, scientists could see and measure things that regular sunlight otherwise made impossible. They measured the positions of stars that appeared in the darkened sky near the eclipsed Sun and compared them to the positions of the same stars when, six months later, they appeared in the night sky; scientists learned—as Einstein had predicted—that the Sun’s mass “bent” space, making the stars appear to shift their place in the sky. The universe has always done it, Einstein imagined it, and the total eclipse made it visible…a divine design.

For me, eclipses make visible the very fact that we are adrift in a gigantic, mysterious, and divine universe. We live surrounded by a universe of space and time and laws and powers to which we are subject and from which we can/should learn. The world will change in response to the total eclipse, if only for the few minutes of totality: the power and scope of the Sun will be briefly visible; the grace and ease of the Moon’s motion around us will be briefly visible; weather will cool and animals will wind down as if night had quickly fallen; and many millions across this country will pause in their day to look skyward in wonder. Divine.

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

Naïveté

Naïve nuclear readiness…regardless of the position.

Naïve nuclear readiness…regardless of the position.

I remember the fall of 1962 not because it was my second-grade year but because it was the year that we practiced air-raid drills in school by single-filing into the halls and sitting on the floor with our heads tucked between our knees and covered with our arms. I remember fearing the nun’s wrath if we talked more than fearing the supposed nuclear threat. It was the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in my naïveté, Sr. Ellen Elizabeth was far more threatening than the Soviets.

An Allied correspondent views the remains of the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima a month after the first military use of an atomic bomb. | STANLEY TROUTMAN / AP

An Allied correspondent views the remains of the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima a month after the first military use of an atomic bomb. | STANLEY TROUTMAN / AP

Today is the 72nd anniversary of the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Japan—into the city of Nagasaki—in America’s pursuit of an end to the Second World War. By the end of that year, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had killed more than 210,000 people. That is a fact that expresses an enormous and deadly naïveté, worse than my second-grade naïveté…it took two atomic bombs over a three-day period and another five days of political intrigue before Japan surrendered.

On the American side of the war, there were plans underway to continue to create and drop more atomic bombs until Japan surrendered. The American politicians and military wrestled its own intrigue, deciding how and where best to drop the next and the next and the next bombs. Without having witnessed the power, devastation, and death of either the first or second bombs, their planning and decision-making were as a naïve as my sitting on the hall floor with my head protected by my bony knees and skinny arms.

A Philadelphia Family Goes to War…my father and his family in May 1943.

A Philadelphia Family Goes to War…my father and his family in May 1943.

In preparing for publication of the WWII-era letters among my father and his family (including his father, a Philadelphia policeman; his sister, Mary; his brother, Bill, in the U.S. Army in the Philippines; and my father, Jack, a Marine on the battleship USS Texas), I’ve come across several dozen letters written after the atomic bombings of Japan. Enormously clear to me is their complete naïveté about their entry into the Nuclear Age…theirs was a correspondence about the “end of the war” and going home again.

Below are excerpts from three letters detailing their perceptions of and reactions to Japan’s surrender. My father mentions the atomic bomb as well as the “wonderful” advent of atomic power, but in the days of August 1945, he—and the world—was naïve of the enduring impact of world developments around him.

August 10, 1945

Dear Mary,

Nothing much on board [the USS Texas] is different, same old routine. The morale has zoomed a bit skyward in the past week due to the "Atomic Bomb" and also Russia's entry into the war. The crew are all expecting the war to end any day now, no kidding! I must ad­mit I wouldn't be too surprised to hear it myself. Wouldn't it be wonderful? This atomic bomb is unbelievable isn't it? Looks very much like this atomic power will change our whole way of living, it may take the place of electricity and water power. Sounds like it might be a different U.S. we are going back to than the one we left.  …

Lots of love to all,

Jack

August 15, 1945

V-J day

Dear Dad & Mary,

Today is the day!- We received word over the radio that the Japs have thrown the towel in for good. There wasn't too much excitement today, but the other night when they said they were willing to accept — the boys (including me!) really went crazy. All the ships in the area were blowing their whistles, shooting up flares, raising h--- in general. This may be a dead part of the world, but I never saw anything like it. The sailors & marines danced, yelled and made noise with anything they could lay their hands on. Some guys were actually dumb­founded, just stood there, not believing their ears. It was like a thousand July 4's all rolled up into one.

I am honestly thankful to God that Bill & I came thru alive, there were times when I never thought I'd see the end, and I know Bill could say the same. But it's all over now, and although I may not be a civilian for some time, I feel 1000% better. Don't know when we'll be heading back, there's a big deal out here that has to be cleaned up. Whether or not the Texas will partake is something I couldn't say.  …

Love to All,

Jack

8 PM Wed Aug 15th 1945

Dear Jack,

Well it sure feels good to realize that the war is really over. As you know it all started here last Fri morning when the Japs said they were willing to surrender providing their Emperor was left intact. Well every hour brought us new flashes. Every­one was on edge, some said we ought to do this, others said we ought to do that. Sat, Sun no definite word. Sunday nite at 934 PM News flash "Japan accepts." In a minute everyone was shou­ting, then about 5 minutes later another flash. "Last report an error." Can’t account how it got thru. Then Mon. wait, wait & wait, it seemed like the Japs were stalling for time. Then Tue morning while I was working 12 to 8 AM a little after 2 AM the radio announced that Japan had accepted the terms & surrendered. The white house had said that no official statement would be made until after 9 AM. We were given orders to stay on the job. At 12 noon still no confirmation of said surrender. So we were sent home and told to report back if the surrender was confirmed. Well at last! 7 PM last nite the announcement came that our gov­ernment had rec'd the official surrender thru Geneva. Boy it started, whistles, horns, dishpans & what have you. Every auto horn in the city was blowing, kids formed parades of every des­cription. So off I went to work, got there about 9 PM. Our station house is located in an Italian section & believe me the Italians were out 100%, singing, shouting & drinking, plenty of beer & wine. They say in town was terrific. Well anyway a good time was had by all! Governor Martin declared a two day holiday Wed & Thurs as did the government. But all taprooms here closed at 7 PM last nite until Fri morning. Tonight everything is quiet. Seems like a Sunday nite. Now everyone is counting the days till all the boys will be home. At a celebration last nite at 49th & Thompson, the Italians had beer & wine, singing & danc­ing, different ones asked me if I had anyone over in the So Pac­ific, so naturally I was showing the pictures of you & Bill. Well a few young girls swooned.  …

Love from all,

Dad

The letters tell a story of a very different time and place, but I wonder how different…how constant is our naïveté…do we have that same lack of truly understanding, of being quick to see the surface of things without realizing—or trying to realize—the full, long-term impact? We live in times of institutionalized terrorism, a North Korean nuclear threat, political upheaval…I think I’ll enjoy my naïveté.

Summer

“The screen door slams.” is the opening line to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” the opening track on his 1975 magnum opus, Born to Run. Whenever I hear it, I remember stopping in the record store on Pacific Avenue in Wildwood every afternoon for about 10 days in a row waiting for the shipment to arrive…just as I remember slicing open the cellophane and sliding out the album to listen when I finally got my copy. Although he had captured many uniquely summer sensations in his two previous albums—this opening line on that hot day in August cemented the sound and image in my psyche.

I grew up in the days when home air conditioning was still a luxury, so opening all the windows and doors to the summer breeze was a “must.” At the back of our house, the screen door was directly below my bedroom, where I heard it slam when my father left for work first thing in the morning. If I tried to sleep late, I’d hear the door slam closed again and again as my sister and her friends kept running in and out, the way kids do in the summer. The sound of that door was a combination of slap and slam, the door being just a wooden frame hung on a pair of painted hinges, covered in silver screening with a grate at the bottom section to stop the dog from running through or kids from kicking it through, with a long diagonal adjustable brace, and a tight spring that powered the slam. Occasionally it was locked in place by a small hook-and-eye near the top of the door, but my brother could make the hook jump out just by banging the frame the right way.

Old-time summers, the kind I naturally yearn for, were simpler like that. As a kid, all I needed for summer was my Schwinn and my baseball glove (stamped with a fake Mickey Mantle autograph) and a bathing suit and a sprinkler and a mom who knew how and when to make lemonade or serve slices of watermelon on the picnic table. The neighborhood had plenty of kids and our cries filled the street all day long. Sooner or later, the Mister Softee tune would be heard as the truck approached and we’d all scatter in search of money. One girl, Cheryl, ran screaming every day as if she’d never had ice cream before and never would again…she always had the same panicked scream yet she enjoyed a cone every day. I imagine that every neighborhood has a Cheryl.

When the extended hours of summer evenings finally turned dark, all we needed was a flashlight for a game of flashlight tag, usually played at our house because we had an extra-big backyard and a good front stoop that served as “base.” We’d hide in bushes and behind trash cans or under lounge chairs and hold our breath as soon as the beam from the flashlight appeared around the corner of the house. Before long, we didn’t need to hold our breath anymore because the cacophony of insects in the forest and lakes nearby grew to an impenetrable din. Occasionally on Friday or Saturday night, my parents would pile us into the station wagon with some pillows and blankets and take us to the Atco drive-in movies. I’m sure we drove my parents crazy through the first part of the movie, but I don’t think I ever stayed awake to see the whole movie through…although I never missed the intermission countdown with its dancing hot dogs and self-buttering popcorn! For me, that was as fancy as our simple life got.

Most summer days came to an end when my mother called us in or, if we were far from the house, my father hooked his fingers between his lips and blasted out his distinctive sharp whistle. We didn’t wait for a second call or a second whistle…we’d be homeward bound pretty quickly and we kids would intersect at the back door and pile into the house and we always let the screen door slam.

Mythical

Last summer, I had the surprise of seeing Santa Claus in person…the jolly old elf with long white hair and beard and a fur-trimmed red suit. He was real, in person, enjoying a vacation at the Jersey shore! I knew him as soon as I saw him…just as everyone did. Many people called out, “Santa! I know him!” imitating Buddy’s (Will Ferrell) line from the movie, Elf (2003). We all know Santa no matter where he shows up because an ancient St. Nicholas has become mythical—born of real life but made mythical by our need to understand life’s wonder and mystery. Santa’s mythical sense is clear to everyone: when you’re good, you’re rewarded; when you’re bad, you suffer.

Don’t misunderstand me, though. I do not mean to say that “Santa’s mythical sense” is always true—oftentimes bad people prosper and good people suffer…truth is different than myth. The strength of the mythical Santa is that we want to believe that the myth is always true…we love that when Santa is involved, the good are rewarded and the bad do suffer. The strength of anything mythical is that we want to believe…we want life’s wonders and mysteries to be understandable.

Ancient mythology tried to make sense of the natural world, explaining many mysteries that modern science has demystified. Modern mythology deals in exaggerated aspects of real human experience, to explain desirable ideals or fatal flaws…and give meaning to the chaos and randomness of life.

The bow of the Titanic on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

The bow of the Titanic on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Think of the mythical status of the RMS Titanic: a mythical name—named for the Titans of Greek mythology; mythical in size—the largest ship afloat when it was launched; the extreme height of elegance for First Class passengers. Mythically, what happens when mankind acts with such hubris? It sinks on its maiden voyage, tragically killing more than 1500 crew (the captain mythically went down with his ship) and passengers…we want to believe that when you show off, life humbles you.
The Hindenburg ignited and was consumed by flames in seconds, killing 36.

The Hindenburg ignited and was consumed by flames in seconds, killing 36.

  • Think of the mythical flight of the Hindenburg zeppelin…one of the largest airships ever to fly. Named for the President of Germany—the man who appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor—the Hindenburg was hailed as a technological marvel…it crossed the Atlantic in half the time it took by ship. But decorated with its belligerent swastikas, it no sooner arrived on its maiden voyage to the U.S. when it exploded in midair. One of the first disasters captured by movie camera and narrated for radio broadcast, the zeppelin mythically explained the threat of modern and mechanized society… “Oh, the humanity!”
Babe Ruth points out the target of his World Series home run.

Babe Ruth points out the target of his World Series home run.

  • Think of the mythical status of Babe Ruth…just a baseball player, and yet the city of Boston suffered through 86 years of the “Bambino Curse,” failing to win a World Series from 1918—when they sold his contract—until 2004! Or when, in Game 3 of the 1934 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, he pointed to the centerfield wall and called, and then hit, his next home run. True or not, we want to believe his mythology because “expert performance” is a desirable human trait.
Gehrig bids farewell to Yankee Stadium, 1939.

Gehrig bids farewell to Yankee Stadium, 1939.

  • Think of the mythical status of Lou Gehrig…just another baseball player, and yet he was dealt, what he called, “a bad break.” His “Iron Horse” streak of playing 2130 consecutive games ended when symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) wracked his body. He had been a Triple Crown winner, an American League MVP twice, on six World Series champion teams, and an All-Star seven consecutive times. But when his “bad break” ended his career and soon took his life, he still announced to the world, mythically, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” We want to believe the mythical sense of both his nobility and the world’s injustice.

I think I could name a hundred examples of real-life happenings that I raise to mythical meaning—even happenings here and now—because it gives meaning to the confusing chaos and randomness of ordinary life. It feels better, and more motivating, to believe that Santa will reward me when I’m good.

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.

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.

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 soon 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.

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.