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.

Next entry will be posted on Wednesday, March 21st.


   “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.


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?”


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.



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!


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.


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.


   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.


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.


   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.


   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.


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.


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.



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.

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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.



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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.
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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.


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.

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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


   Headlines on November 22, 1963.

Headlines on November 22, 1963.

As I recall it, despite it’s being 54 years ago, it had been a bright sunny November day, so bright and sunny that we had spent lunchtime recess running across the school parking lot in a game called “Freedom-All,” a two-team game of chase and capture. That year, my third-grade year, our class was held in a separate building, the Social Hall, across the street from the main school and behind the church. There must have been 50-60 children in the class—we had been divided into two classes in second grade and would be again in fourth grade, in the main building. Being in the separate building added to the drama of the day, to the impact on my young imagination.

It wasn’t quite 3:00 and the day was winding down, when an older student opened the door to the Social Hall, walked quickly across the room, and whispered something into Sr. Joann’s ear. “What?” she said to the student, very excitedly—she was an easily excitable person. He whispered the message into her ear again and drew back to watch Sr. Joann go visibly pale. “OK, thank you,” she said to the student and he left the building just as quickly.

Sr. Joann sat for a moment and we all sat quietly watching her, waiting, wondering what the message could have been…we understood that it was bad news, but what could it have been? “Students,” she said solemnly, “Someone has shot and killed the President…President Kennedy has been assassinated.” I remember her announcement clearly because I had heard the word “assassinate” only in connection with Abraham Lincoln; but now, here, today, another president had been assassinated.

Sr. Joann then led us in a litany of prayers, first for Kennedy himself, then for his family, and then for the nation. Without really understanding the events, we all prayed as earnestly as third graders can pray and then quietly gathered our things and headed out to the buses. I don’t remember much else of that day or that weekend, until Sunday afternoon.

   The assassin is assassinated.

The assassin is assassinated.

After Mass and our traditional Sunday breakfast, my siblings and I were playing a board game on the living room floor in front of the TV. All channels—there were only 3 channels in the Philadelphia area back then—were broadcasting the events in Dallas as follow-up to the assassination. Before our eyes on live television, we watched as a dark figure flashed out into the crowd and shot Lee Harvey Oswald…then a tumble of bodies and a confused announcer tried to make sense of what was going on. We watched the events unfold right in front of us, still hardly understanding what we’d seen. As the scene settled down, we ran into our parents’ bedroom to announce that the assassin had been assassinated!

   My siblings and I in the troubled times of 1963.

My siblings and I in the troubled times of 1963.

Suddenly and uninvitedly, I learned and understood the word: assassination. In subsequent years, I would hear it too many times: in May 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was doing my homework as I heard it announced on my transistor radio; two months later, I awoke to my clock radio announcing stories of Bobby Kennedy’s overnight assassination. Later, I—like everyone—was stunned when John Lennon was assassinated in front of his home in Manhattan, and then 4 months later when an assassination attempt on President Reagan failed. While some assassinations are attributed to mentally unstable people, most often they are attributed to “rational men” for political reasons. In today’s bitter political climate filled with countless accusations and recriminations, I think it’s important to remember that assassination for any reason can’t be judged as rational.


   Adam Mathews, © 1994.

Adam Mathews, © 1994.

I have been visited by black birds—call them black birds, ravens, crows, rooks: they are all relatively the same—and they have been pursuing me for some time now.

It began a few years ago when my wife and I returned home to find what we thought was a crow in the street in front of our house, pecking and tearing away at a squirrel carcass. “I hate crows,” my wife said. “They’re huge and gross!” And it was huge…I had never noticed before how big crows are, which probably meant that it was actually a raven—the bigger of the two species, although in the same family: Corvidae. Ravens grow to be 2 feet in length, have a wingspan approaching 4 feet, and weigh 2 to 3 pounds. Crows are somewhat smaller at about 18 inches in length with a wingspan of less than 3 feet. And it was gross…its razor beak was tearing the carcass easily. Since then, we’ve had murders of crows in our yard and solitary ravens in the garden and other occasional black-bird visitors here and there…each time I remembered the raven and its carrion.

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A few days later, I was driving to see a client and the person in the car with me noted a black bird perched at the tippy top of a tree, both hanging over the road we were to travel. “Don’t go under that tree!” she shouted. “A black bird is a harbinger of bad things!” I said that I thought walking under a ladder was bad luck. “It is, but so is a black bird!” she said. We laughed it off and had a successful visit to the client. I think I don’t believe in harbingers of bad luck or in most superstitions like that.

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But one day after work, I was greeted by four crows above the parking lot calling at me…even for a non-superstitious person, it was a bit unnerving: four black birds sitting in the girders calling out in staccato barks. I had no idea what they were trying to tell me, but I stood for a minute and watched and listened and wondered. On the ride home that night, two black birds were perched in a different tree above a different road; I drove home below them and wondered if any of this could really mean anything.


A month later, I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the summer solstice. Everywhere around the town I found  pictures and paintings and even stuffed animals of ravens. I dined in an elegant restaurant—Kol—where on the wall was painted the head of a raven. I began to think about harbingers. The following morning I asked the tour guide whom we’d engaged: “Why are there images of ravens everywhere in all the stores and restaurants?” At first, he said that he didn’t know…he thought, and thought so long that I thought he didn’t have a better answer. Then the answer occurred to him, “Oh the black birds! They are the ravens of Odin, Iceland’s mythologic god. They fly over the world and collect information for Odin. Huginn is ‘thought’ and Muninn is ‘memory.’”

I liked this idea better than the “harbinger of bad things” idea: black birds flying over the world to provide thought and memory. I enjoy my thoughts and treasure my memories and like to experience them as if they were ravens, coming and going, from here and there, mixing reality with myth.


Juxtaposition: last week, I watched an episode of The Andy Griffith Show and later an episode of Mom, both on TV Land. I remember thinking during Andy Griffith how naïve and innocent the show was. Of course, it was made in 1961…when the whole world seems to have been more naïve and innocent. The storyline is based on everyone’s fear of hurting Aunt Bee’s feelings that her homemade pickles are the worst they've ever tasted. Andy and Barney secretly switch the “kerosene cucumbers” with store-bought pickles, but Aunt Bee’s decision to enter them in the county fair presents a dilemma. According to IMDB, “this is one of the most popular episodes of the series.” The moral to the story is summed up by Sheriff Taylor when he says, “What's small potatoes to some folks can be mighty important to others.” Could life—as reflected in the TV—be any more wholesome?

By contrast, the episode of Mom was as honest, gritty, and base as a show can get. The storyline is about a pair of drug-and-alcohol-abusers—a mother and daughter—who try to reconnect. The show is filled with anatomical humor, sexual humor, drug-abuse humor, all laid over a world of teen pregnancy and fathers who abandon. Fortunately, it is a funny show and mostly well acted…but it is a monstrous distance from Mayberry! Could life—as reflected in TV—be any more vulgar? I found it hard to align the juxtaposition: how can a single network attract viewers who enjoy both shows? How can a single network attract advertisers who support both shows?

I clearly remember a time when the world began making the shift—airing all its dirty laundry, so to speak—ostensibly as an effort to increase honesty and reality. The Watergate debacle turned every elected official into a target for accusations; that attitude persists as a new kind of “given.” I remember when sports stars and movie/TV stars were revered and they made public efforts to appear worthy of that respect; today, many celebrities build their celebrity on scandal and indiscretion. I remember when Roseanne was beheld as rude, crude, and “pushing the boundaries”; today when I watch an episode of Roseanne, I’m hard pressed to recognize its daring.

The juxtaposition is an accurate representation of where I regretfully find myself: I was born, raised, and still have a mindset in the times of Andy Griffith, but I’m living in a Mom world. Even though I am no saint,  interactions with the world today surprise me, disappoint me, or even shock me with a constancy of vulgarity. The world of politics is peopled with self-righteous but highly flawed individuals and headlines are a litany of accusations and denouncements. Any trip to a sporting event is constantly punctuated by rude behavior and crude language: the F word seems to be the only adjective some people use. Now, even more than the TV programs themselves, TV commercials bombard me with ideas and images that I’d rather avoid: football-sized rat droppings, wrong-sized menstrual pads, diarrhea, stools, and oil-enhanced intimacy.

I am not naïve and while I can still enjoy Andy Griffith, I don’t really want to live in a world so far removed from reality. At the same time, I am uncomfortable in the vulgarity of the modern world, at having everyone else’s indiscrete sense of “honesty and reality” forced upon me. The world I live in now doesn’t seem to recognize the impact or degree of change. For now, I’ll have to keep searching to find the place in the middle where my naïve hopes for the decency of life can intersect with a reality that isn’t just ignorantly offensive.


   All images ©1993 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

All images ©1993 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

I have organized my own collections of movies (overall favorites, black-and-white favorites, Christmas movies, Halloween movies, etc) and each year I face a very fun dilemma: is Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? Should I watch it during October or during December? It is obviously filled with all the horrific characters of Halloween Town, but it also sings the praises and wonders of Christmas and Santa Claus! What do I do?

The movie opens with a montage of Halloween characters—ghosts, ghouls, vampires, witches, and monsters—singing about the frights of Halloween. They congratulate themselves at having completed another successfully scary Halloween. Enter Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King in charge each year of the Halloween celebration…he is excellent at his calling; “There are few who'd deny, at what I do I am the best/ For my talents are renowned far and wide,” he sings.

But, Jack is plagued with the existential question…“Is that all there is?” He is no longer satisfied with being the Pumpkin King and yearns for something new, something more. In one of my favorite songs, “Jack’s Lament,” he complains,

Yet year after year, it's the same routine
And I grow so weary of the sound of screams
And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.

Lost in thought, Jack literally stumbles into Christmas Town and quickly comes to believe that Christmas can fill the emptiness that grows inside his bones. He realizes, “In my bones I feel the warmth that’s coming from inside.” He returns to Halloween Town, inspired to re-invent Christmas…despite not fully understanding it: he thinks that Sandy Claws is in charge of Christmas and that he can “set out to slay with my rain gear on.” He struggles heroically to understand Christmas…but as we all know, tragedy awaits any character who steps away from his destiny!

The next montage, and the next 20 minutes of movie, is about “Making Christmas” with a distinctly Halloween flavor. Jack, dressed as Santa Claus and flying in a casket-turned-sleigh pulled by skeletal reindeer, sets out to find his new sense of fulfillment. Of course, Jack doesn’t succeed because the two holidays are each distinctly unique and can’t be combined. The horrors of Halloween terrify everyone on Christmas morning.

But the dilemma continues…is it about Halloween or Christmas?

Typically, Tim Burton—the movie’s producer and writer—tells the story romantically…Jack is pursued, helped, warned, and loved by Sally, a Frankenstein-like character created by Dr. Finkelstein. She is innocent but insightful, compassionate but vulnerable, clever, brave…and in love with Jack. Sally is the only sane character in Halloween Town…even the real Santa, after Sally and Jack save him, says, “I’d listen to her! She's the only one who makes any sense around this insane asylum!” Of course, Jack has to go through his existential trial before he comes to recognize what’s right in front of him: the redemptive power of Sally’s love. If you’re jaded and modern, you may reject the idea; but if you’re a romantic, Sally saves Jack’s life.

My dilemma is resolved, because it really doesn’t matter when I watch this movie...October or December: the characters are loveable, the music is delightful, the visuals are fantastical, the stop-action is fascinating, and it combines two wonderful holidays. Nightmare Before Christmas is a dream of a movie.


I watch Halloween movies throughout October to deepen my appreciation and extend my enjoyment of the holiday—movies about monsters, ghosts, and the line between the living and the dead (I never developed a liking of the slasher-movie tradition).  For me, the month of October is the time when darkness comes noticeably earlier, when the weather turns noticeably cooler and breezier, and when outdoor life withers, dies, and changes into swirling piles of crunchy leaves and bare branches scratching across the sky. Even the summer song of cicadas, katydids, and crickets fades to the silence of wind through bare branches. All this deadening of the outside world forces us in onto ourselves in the shadows of early dark…culminating on October 31st, Halloween. So October, for me, is a 31-day trek of spookiness.

My inward focus in the dark may be a natural reaction to these changes in the outside world…or it may be a reflection of our most ancient tendencies and traditions. More than two thousand years ago, the Celts and their Druid leaders across northwest Europe observed October as the end of their year, naturally coming at the end of summer and the end of harvest time. Before the start of their new year— November 1—they believed that the border between the worlds of the living and dead grew fragile and that spirits of the dead could walk the earth. It was called Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) and it was celebrated with huge bonfires to ward off the coming cold, it was a time of communing with the dead in attempts to see the future, it was the predecessor to our Halloween.

In the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church usurped the Druid observances and named November 1 as All Hallows (Saints) Day and November 2 as All Souls Day…they overwrote the Druid tradition with Catholic dogma: holy saints and faithful souls were to be honored, not feared. But the ancient traditions have held on…and over the month of October the world still grows dark, things still die, and we still sense Halloween as a time when we lose the fragile border between the living and dead. If saints will soon be honored, then demons and monsters and ghosts must first be endured!


Of course, Halloween has grown bigger than this ancient tradition to become a commercialized fun day for children. Costumes range from puppy dogs and princesses to Wonder Woman and Spiderman. For adults, sexy costumes are as common as monster costumes. And candy bars are ubiquitous—Reese’s started advertising their peanut butter cups in early September!


The month has absorbed the ancient tradition and I celebrate it each year all month through. I start by purchasing a pumpkin or two; I scatter tchotchkes of ghosts and witches around the house; I hang a banner with a black cat in front of the house; I’ve read Dracula almost every October and I read various ghost stories, too; and I watch Halloween movies all month: Frankenstein, several versions of Dracula, The Haunting, Corpse Bride, The Innocents, Rosemary’s Baby, and many others. But if the border between the living and the dead really is fragile this month, I’ve yet to have proof, I’ve yet to see a ghost. I become acutely aware each October that things might lurk under my bed or hide in my closet, I’ve been startled by many dark and twisting shadows, and heard many things that go bump in the night…because for me October has always been just a 31-day trek of spookiness.


Venice Family (2).jpg

My son phoned me yesterday and I surprised myself with the joy it instantaneously brought me to talk with him. It was the same joy that sparked to life when I arrived in Boston to see my daughter. I’ve come to understand that that true internal, unfettered joy is an expression of something deep inside my core. Not a joy of having, not a joy of getting, not a completion, not an external fulfillment, but a plain pure joy of being: my son and I were together, if only by phone. Cursed is he who hasn’t known the joy of that joy…a wellspring that exists within simply in connection with someone special…in my case, my son and my daughter and my wife and some few others.

I think that the joy is an expression of something at my core, an expression of love that is my core, my self. Love is often expressed as joy: an automatic wellspring of joy in connection with someone. But pure love is separate from and at the foundation of that joy. I sense an instantaneous, core-felt, core-expressing, wellspring of joy; but at the core, at the source is love.

I love my mother and father, who have been gone for 15 and 8 years…I wish I could see them, hug them, be hugged by them, I wish I could hear my mom’s voice or get my dad’s advice, but none of that diminishes my love of them; I still have internally a wellspring of joy from them. Conversely, when each of them died, I had an instantaneous, core-felt sorrow…it was my self expressing its love as sorrow. Love is bigger than just the joy or sorrow, because love is the fundamental core that directs the other feelings: the joy of that pure love makes me enduring in its pursuit, dedicated to its preservation, steadfast against adversity, and complete in its presence; the sorrow of that pure love wounds and pains me right down at my core.

Therein lies a major confusion we add to love…“Some say love is a burning thing,” says the song…but I’m learning that we confuse “the burning” with the love we proclaim it to be; we confuse a physical desire or appetite with actual love. The burning is an appetite to enjoy more joy, to chase more joy, to give, feel, find, create, and have that joy. Wanting to express love in some outward way, to exploit physically the joy of love…that is a burning of desire, a burning of appetite. But love is separate from appetite, just as the flame is separate from the boiling pot…love is that feeling and connection of our “core self” to another. We sense it as joys or sorrows or appetites, but love is the feeling and connection at our core. Love, it seems to me, exists through divine miracle and simply “is.” All the feelings that surround and express it are the complications of knowing love.