Assassination

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.

Next entry will be posted on Wednesday, November 22nd.

Ravens

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.

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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.

Vulgarity

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.

Dilemma

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.

Spookiness

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!

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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.

Love

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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.

Dreams

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I hear lots of talk lately about the “American Dream” and people’s right to pursue it. Immigrants follow their dream by coming to America, college students work toward it, the poor and middle-class are motivated by it, and the rich try to live it. The general idea of “dreams” is that they are a comfort or motivator from the future: what will happen? What will I become? What will I attain or achieve?

Naturally, we dream success and fulfillment and joys for ourselves in the future. The future doesn’t exist as a solid thing that we enter or a hard-and-fast truth that descends upon us…it is created every second as we live it and our hope is to create our future the way we dream it:  success and fulfillment and joy. Like the dreams that come to us when we sleep, these waking dreams are often difficult to define: What kind of success awaits us? What kind of fulfillment? Typically, and naturally, we strive and trust every day toward a future that we dream for ourselves.

But I have learned, too, that the idea of “dreams” comes with the negative concept of nightmares. It is sobering to remember that dreams can be a deep torment, a terrifying uncertainty from the future. Who hasn’t known the torture of anxiety from nightmares of awful possibilities, a failure, a pain? In a nightmare, the brain can storm the heart to racing, the breath to panting, and turn a peaceful sleep into an upright screaming waking in the dark.

Dreams have the power to create an unreal reality—whether good or terrifying; to create a longing and then quickly but momentarily satisfy it—as if quenching a thirst in a cool pond; to create a presence despite an absence—that makes the absence feel greater. As in Lou Reed’s song “Dreamin’” from his 1992 album Magic and Loss, his dreaming is a remembrance of a lost friend…and his experience is a presence and an absence of that friend:

If I close my eyes,
I can’t believe that I’m here without you
Inside your pale room and your empty red chair
And my head.

Others have framed and questioned this danger: the risk of falling victim to dreaming dreams:

♦ Langston Hughes says that, “Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly” if and when dreams die.
♦ Emily Dickinson looks at the dangers of Life and thinks, “We dream — it is good we are dreaming…It's prudenter — to dream.”
♦ Robert Service asks, “Oh why should some dreams be like heaven/And others so resemble hell?”
♦ But T. E. Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, looks distinctly at the differences between types of dreamers and types of dreams:

All people dream, but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind,
Wake in the morning to find that it was vanity.

But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people,
For they dream their dreams with open eyes,
And make them come true.

So I will dream of my future, but it will be dreams of the waking world: I will dream waking dreams of success, fulfillment, and joy.  I often enjoy dreams of my sleeping world, but they may become nightmares at any second!  I prefer—and pursue—what Fitzgerald calls, “the greatest of all human dreams…something commensurate to [my] capacity for wonder.”

Colors

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The arrival of fall on Friday immediately puts people in mind of colors…the colors of fall explode across the northern tier of the world. Last year when I wrote about the arrival of fall, I noted how John Keats’s poem “To Autumn” luxuriates in everything his senses perceived…but for most people, the fall means color. States like Vermont and New York advertise a color index to tell potential tourists when the colors will be at their peak: reds, violets, golds, oranges, yellows.

As I searched for fall colors in photographs—because sometimes there isn’t a word for that—I came across a number of summer colors, too. As we prepare to leave summer behind, I thought I’d celebrate the colors of summer…very different than the vibrant, widespread colors of fall…but strongly seasonal notwithstanding. Of course, summer starts with greens of every shade, but it encompasses the rainbow, too.

Forest green.

Forest green.

Fresh basil green.

Fresh basil green.

Fluorescent green.

Fluorescent green.

Golden green dotted with poppies.

Golden green dotted with poppies.

Green interrupted by wild strawberries.

Green interrupted by wild strawberries.

Green covered in lilac.

Green covered in lilac.

Green covered in pink.

Green covered in pink.

Or just plain pink.

Or just plain pink.

Dramatic pink turning purple.

Dramatic pink turning purple.

Shades of blue.

Shades of blue.

The intermingled colors of peach.

The intermingled colors of peach.

Oranges and more of heirloom tomatoes.

Oranges and more of heirloom tomatoes.

Burnished gold of roasted corn.

Burnished gold of roasted corn.

The beauty of flaming white.

The beauty of flaming white.

The threat of growing gray.

The threat of growing gray.

Delicate black and gold.

Delicate black and gold.

Fading summer.

Fading summer.

Heroes

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Some words are used so often and for so many reasons that they soon lose real meaning. An easy example is the word, “amazing”; if the word “amazing” really meant “causing astonishment and wonder,” I know many people who would spend their lives in a constant state of bewilderment because they describe everything as “amazing”: TV shows, books, movies, videogames, restaurants, flavors, songs, places, people, actions…everything. The word “amazing” doesn’t really tell us anything anymore.

Another word losing its meaning through overuse is “hero.” These days, anyone who achieves something difficult or survives something terrible or exhibits some rare quality is called a hero. These people may be determined or brave or outstanding, but I’d like to conserve the word “hero” for something exceptionally special. "Hero" is an important word worth protecting.

I got this idea from my father, who—having survived World War II—claimed that heroism was something more exceptional, something rarer, something deeper than just doing one’s duty, or doing one’s best. When he’d tell the story of enlisting in the Marines in 1943 at the age of 17, many people would respond with a comment about his being a hero. “No,” he’d say, “I was no hero…I simply did what everybody knew they had to do.” He enlisted, and he believed that his contemporaries enlisted, because they had a sense of obligation and expectation.

In his experience—he conveyed this sense of real heroism to me—a hero is someone who does the very difficult even when not doing it would be quickly accepted. That was the differentiating feature of heroism: doing more than one’s duty, more than what’s expected. In his experience, a hero was that rare person who took the risk or pushed the limit even when it would have been reasonable to play it safe. Enlisting wasn’t heroic…giving your life, leading a deadly charge, saving a buddy in combat—that was heroic.

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I think readily of the First Responders on 9/11/2001 who entered the Trade Centers and the Pentagon and the passengers who stormed the cockpit on United Flight 93 as true heroes. Who among the living would question or criticize if any one of them had stopped to reconsider entering those situations? If a firefighter or police officer or EMT had stopped at the base of the towers and thought, “Let’s see how this develops,” wouldn’t we all have thought it reasonable? If the men and women on Flight 93 had waited to see what the hijackers were really going to do, wouldn’t we all have thought it reasonable? Instead, First Responders and common people demonstrated real heroism by doing exceptional things, amazing things…more than their duty, more than anyone expected of them, probably more than they expected of themselves.

On June 6, 2014, I landed at the Paris airport and hailed a taxi to take me into the city. Soon we were caught in a terrific traffic jam and the driver apologized, “There are many delays today because of the (70th) anniversary of the Normandy Invasion…you know the Normandy Invasion?” I told him that, yes, I knew it and my father had been there on a battleship. “Oh, your father is a hero!” he very kindly said. I was tempted to correct him, because my father would have wanted me to, by explaining that my father had just done his duty…while many others had been heroic. But I let it go and said, “Thanks. There were many heroes there that day.”

People

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Regularly, facts dispel my perceptions and/or beliefs. I discovered this week that the U.N. estimates that the world population reached 7.5 billion in April…and it’s growing. Despite all the death and destruction that I see on TV and read about online…the world population increases every day. I also discovered that the top ten nations (from a total of 233) make up 60% of that total; the top two—China and India—make up more than a third, with 1.388 and 1.342 billion each…but that number has grown since I discovered it! Vatican City, the tiniest of world nations, has a population of 801 (800 when the Pope is visiting Argentina) and has maintained a 0 population growth for decades.

These facts have made me wonder about the people I’ve met…how small is my circle of experience and how small is my mind that I seem to recognize people as “types,” not always really seeing the actual person. I see types...types of people I recognize as types, who I immediately lump into a genre and feel as if I know something about them. I’m afraid that it’s a kind of “ism,” although it isn’t meant as a derogation or a meanness…I think it is a defense mechanism against having to know and understand so many people. I know that's unfair but my brain rushes there, grouping people as types that I recognize, limiting the seemingly infinite number of people into a finite number of understandable types. I don’t lump people together based on race or ethnicity, but my mind grasps generalizations as a starting point. I see and quickly categorize: burly guys in sloppy NFL sweatshirts; polished and posing metrosexuals; nerdy women with funny haircuts; middle-aged women trying poorly to portray younger versions of themselves (with too much make-up and too tight clothing); middle-aged bald guys in khakis and blue blazer; ersatz athletes in sweatsuits that never experienced sweat. I wonder which type people reduce me to, based on my size, age, hairline, or clothes.

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Then, very often, I’ll have a brief exchange of words—two of us in line at the Post Office or grocery store, or with a waitress in the diner or the old man behind the counter—and the type crumbles to sand. People one-on-one exhibit an infinite assortment of qualities and perspectives and values.  I meet people who are, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, “so dumb they don’t even know they’re alive” and they struggle to find the words they want; I meet others who are so much smarter or more articulate than I’d expected and they spout out surprising jewels of perception; still others startle me with their anger or sadness or joy and how they wear it on their sleeves; I’ve worked with people who have no reason to lie and steal, and yet they easily do; I’ve worked with people who are so genuine that their honesty is flattering; I’ve met people who readily instill and share loyalty and others against whom I’m instantly guarded. People who love music and others who don’t know a note; people who can calculate huge sums and quotients in their heads and others who can’t count change; people whose hearts melt at the sight of an animal and others who are bothered by a bark in the distance.

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All this begins to overwhelm me and I want to slip back into my protective “ism”…my defense mechanism…of seeing people in generalities, as types. If each person really is unique, if each person really has his or her own qualities, perspectives, value and humanity, then I am justifiably overwhelmed. While there may be 7.5 billion unique people struggling on the globe right now, it has been estimated that there may have been more than 100 billion people who’ve ever lived and the number keeps growing. So while my perception is that the world is filled with “types” of people, the facts seem to dispel that idea, insisting that humanity blossoms and is shared one person at a time.

Anticipation

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The last week of summer…the days before Labor Day…always a rather provocative time of year. I suppose it comes from the 16-year habit of preparing to launch into a new school year: new notebooks and pencils and erasers and binders…anticipating the regathering of all your friends again and wondering if you’ve grown or changed as much or as well as they have over the summer’s hiatus….imagining the possibility of a new teacher or maybe joining a teacher you’ve known over the years—which will it be? And starting a new grade, feeling that being a fourth- or fifth- or sixth-grade student was a big deal compared to being in third or fourth or fifth grade…a real sense of moving ahead and advancing and growing up, naïvely believing “I’m going to focus really hard this year,” and dreaming that you’ll stay on top of the workload and not wait until the last night before reading your assignments or working on projects, a naïve belief which lasts only about a week because you notice that Lynn is cuter this year than last or that Debbie is paying more attention to you this year than last…but it always starts out with the best and most exciting and most delusional of intentions, having the teacher talk about the new year and what you’ll be learning and somehow each year the end of summer makes the new school year feel like the brightest and biggest and newest opportunity.

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Maybe it comes from the fullness of the end of summer, how the porch plants have overgrown their pots and the neighborhood trees are blotting out views of the sky and drooping with thick volumes of leaves, and you notice that their volumes are two and three times the size of your house. By late summer, the roadside stands are fulsome with high mounds of corn and tomatoes and peaches and the squash and pumpkins and baskets of apples and pears are beginning to appear there, hinting of the coming fall. But for now, the Jersey tomatoes are delicious and plentiful, the Jersey corn is sweet and tender, and grilling peaches makes them even sweeter, even juicier.

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The summer heat from the dog days has eased, especially in the mornings when you find yourself curled under the topsheet, wishing you’d made the bed with a blanket, or pulling up the blanket to your chin in relief of the surprising morning chill, feeling too a sense of accomplishment at having survived the height of the summer heat, even though the Sun is still strong and the heat may return midday…maybe even turn into an Indian Summer of hot days in September or October. Evening darkness comes visibly earlier and cools palpably sooner in late summer. The Canada geese begin their v-shaped flights south…elegant movement heading somewhere.

Scenic001.jpg

The possibilities suggested by late summer are more real to me than the drunken imaginings of New Year’s Day.  For me, January 1 has much more a sense of completion…the year has ended and the holidays have ended and the decorations must come down; here in the northeastern United States, winter’s cold turns everything inward and the dark, cold, lonely days of January and February give me a sense of endurance and patience, the same sense of endurance and patience that the oppressive heat of high summer gives me, waiting out both the coldest nights and the hottest days of the year.

But the heat of late summer punctuated by the cooling in the evening and the chill in the morning gives me a sense of anticipation…change coming, opportunity, possibility. F. Scott Fitzgerald says in The Great Gatsby that life starts all over again when everything turns crisp in the fall…late summer gets me ready for that.

Once-in-a-Lifetime

Maximum coverage—75%— from my point-of-view in New Jersey.

Maximum coverage—75%— from my point-of-view in New Jersey.

Just as millions of others across the United States, on Monday I enjoyed “The Great American Eclipse” for a few hours midday. The eclipse is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that I didn't want to miss. Happily for this once-in-a-lifetime, I had the foreknowledge to plan and even enjoy with anticipation. I've had other once-in-a-lifetime times, but never with this kind of foreknowledge: times that floated down on me, where life suddenly offered a passing jewel of experience that I was lucky enough to grasp...if even for just a moment…a diamond in the Sun in front of me and I was sensitive enough to grasp it instantaneously. Of course I’ve had to let go, it’s being just a once-in-a-lifetime diamond, not really a coin that I could put in my pocket.

In my planning, I had ordered eclipse glasses a month ahead of time, but Amazon kept sending me emails announcing a later and later delivery. Fortunately, I also planned a Plan B—I could use my 50-year-old telescope to project an image of the eclipse safely onto a screen. On Monday morning, I received another Amazon email announcing the newest delivery date: August 23, two days after the eclipse (although interestingly 2420 days ahead of the 2024 eclipse!), confirming for me that Plan B would be the course for the day.

My grandmother, 1962.

My grandmother, 1962.

I had spent the night before cleaning the telescope, dusting the lenses, oiling the focus wheel…and thinking vividly about my grandmother, who had given me the telescope for a Christmas present in the 1960s. I found myself imagining her excitement at giving such a gift to her grandson, and her satisfaction at having me love it and use it so much. I found myself 50 years (or more) after that Christmas still enjoying every intricate piece of it, and enjoying a vivid memory of my grandmother, whom I lost 45 years ago! Now The Great American Eclipse had become uniquely and deeply once-in-a-lifetime for me: I’d be sharing my grandmother’s Christmas gift from 50 years ago with my wife and children and friends in a completely unimagined way.

The start of the eclipse.

The start of the eclipse.

I set up the telescope and carefully aimed it directly at the Sun…as I focused it onto my cardboard screen, I could see the tiniest incursion of the Moon’s shadow on the edge of the Sun’s intense white disk: the eclipse had begun and we watched it clearly, not with Amazon’s eclipse glasses, but with my grandmother’s Christmas gift. I constantly adjusted the telescope to track the Sun’s westward movement in the sky and we watched as the Moon slowly drifted eastward, covering more and more of the Sun. A little before maximum coverage—in Ocean City, NJ, we saw about 75% of the Sun covered by the Moon—we all noticed how the temperature had dropped several degrees and how the daylight had a grayness to it and how shadows were sharper.

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We were not fortunate enough to have the spectacle of a total solar eclipse…that supposedly mystical moment when the darkness of night happens midday and invisible aspects of the Sun become visible. But we were very fortunate to have had a Plan B, to have had clear skies, to have had my telescope, and to have the time and sensitivity to enjoy this moment that comes but once-in-a-lifetime.

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.

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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.

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.