Rome

The Tiber River flows and glows through Rome.

The Tiber River flows and glows through Rome.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

Next entry will be posted on Wednesday, January 24th.

Cities

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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.

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

Time

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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?

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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.

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

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

Focus

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

Purring

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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.

Magic

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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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.

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.

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.

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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.