Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Both Sides Now

January is well-named after the double-headed god Janus looking in opposite directions. Janus Head comes to us from ancient Rome as the god of transition with opposing faces. One looks back and one ahead. 

 I don’t know why you say goodbye / I say hello.    Paul McCartney

The two directions could also pertain to our current divide. The country is more polarized than ever between people who agree with me (plus about 80 million of my closest friends) and those who don’t. It wouldn't surprise me if my ten best anything list is their ten worst.  Maybe by next year Janus won’t even bother giving the MAGA folks a glance.

On yet another level there are times when I know the Janus Head feeling. I don't always agree with myself. I swing between hope and despair; fortunately that's a vast space. It's not a bad thing to stand on a threshold looking at both the wreckage and repair.

Viewing it all in the rearview mirror, the world doesn't stay still for a minute. Nickel candy bars cost $1.50 but more than that is the challenge to see things again as if never before. Everyday our eyes are new to experience life with full consciousness. I think it is still possible and that will be my new year's wish. No resolution; I prefer to keep it unresolved and still becoming.

At the end of our exploring we arrive where we began and know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot

Putin's war on Ukraine brings out the love/hate in me. Of course, I honor the sovereignty and defense of democracy by Ukraine but every morning I wake hoping to hear that negotiations are underway to stop the carnage. It should also be noted that the money appropriated by Congress for weaponry can also be seen as a giant bonanza for Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and  Raytheon who must all be enjoying every minute of this needless war.

It's fair to say most folks my age are bewildered and threatened by the new technology. I know. I'm one of them. We are more comfortable looking through the blurry lens of what once was than aligning ourselves to confront the monstrous digital age. As I write this I'm reminded of these lines by the poet Robert Haas:

We asked the captain what course / of action he proposed to take toward / a beast so large, terrifying and / so unpredictable. He hesitated to / answer, and then said judiciously / "I think I shall praise it."

At this age I certainly have more memories than plans, more auld lang syne. Any excuse to raise a cup and bend an elbow, works for me. We sing with blood alcohol rising:

And there's a hand, my trusty fere! / And gie's a hand o' thine! 

And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught, / For auld lang syne.

It makes a lot more sense after emptying a bottle of bubbly. The song laid fairly dormant till Guy Lombardo, my least favorite big bandleader, popularized it on radio in the late 20s and then later on TV. Had Robert Burns known about this he might have disowned the tune. But he didn’t own it to begin with. Its origins go back before him.

On New Year’s Day I always talk to my old friend, Stanley. He promises not to reveal how I embezzled money as milk monitor and parlayed eleven cents into an empire of high-rise buildings in Manhattan. Like many memories this never happened but it could have been how a certain Bozo got his start.

This past year has been packed with notable events to record. I’ve been to dozens of countries thanks to the National Geographic channel, and friends Judy and Len with photographs of elephants (not in the room). Traveling is far less strenuous from the couch.

Everyone I know will be a year older next year but only in the calendar of our bones. If we manage to keep the child alive, we’ll remain at any age we dial. Like the Janus Head we look ahead and we look back and all the time we live in the moment. There goes another one.

I’ll end this ramble with a poem of mine apropos of nothing except that it was published in 2001 by Janus Head literary magazine. They describe themselves as a journal of interdisciplinary studies of literature and phenomenological psychology. (Not sure what that means but I'm impressed by the big words.)

 Deer of Denman Island

The big buck waited for his cue

Behind a green curtain overgrown,

listening for our motor’s purr,

the wipers metronome.


We had seen the yellow signs

along the road, half caution, half ads

but after all the no-shows

put him out of mind.


Winding through the rainforest

our talk went to musicals,

Kelly and Astaire, the one

joyously drenched owned the street

while the other slender and tailed

went cheek to cheek with hat rack and broom.

God knows, with cameras, anything goes

up walls and ceilings as he crooned.


The highway after all

was nothing more than a clear-cut path

of cut roots and severed stumps,

their wrath paved-over for predators like us.


As we took the curve,

Klieg lights in his eyes like stars

he choreographed his leap

reminding us whose woods these are.


One second had been split by screech

and balletic flight. There would be

no close-ups, no other takes.

He vaulted weightlessly without a trace.





Friday, December 23, 2022



I thought I would drop another page of choice words from my betters. worth pondering*...................

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people    Thomas Mann


Madame: Winston, you are drunk.

Churchill: Madame you are ugly

Madame: Winston, you are very drunk.

Churchill: You are very ugly…but tomorrow I shall be sober.

 I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have. August Wilson

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That's what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act. Orson Welles

The "leap of faith," that faith is not possible without doubt. One must doubt the existence of God to have faith in the existence of God. Belief without doubt is just credulity. Soren Kierkegaard

The haves have not what all the have-nots have so
much of having is the need to have.        Samuel Hazo

My music is best understood by children and animals. Igor Stravinsky

Herman Hesse -   The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment, every sin already carries grace in it.

Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue. -Robert King Merton, sociologist (4 Jul 1910-2003)

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root. -Henry David Thoreau,

The most valuable possession you can own is an open heart. The most powerful weapon you can be is an instrument of peace. -Carlos Santana, musician (b. 20 Jul 1947) 

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. Raymond Chandler

Men of genius are often dull and inert in society, as a blazing meteor when it descends to earth, is only a stone. -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I said if he had stolen a railroad, he would be a United States Senator. Mother Jones

Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down. Ray Bradbury.

For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself and heard with a sudden, unaccountable loneliness, the whisper of wind in the night reeds.Loren Eisley


The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there. -Robert M. Pirsig,

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land. Desmond Tutu

The best poety, when you read it, you hear two voices, the poets and your own voice.C.K. Williams

Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads. -Marianne Moore, poet

Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead. -Arundhati Roy, writer and activist (b. 24 Nov 1961) 

The force which makes for war does not derive its strength from the interested motives of evil men; it derives its strength from the disinterested motives of good men. -Norman Angell

If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief Franz Kafka

Elitism is the slur directed at merit by mediocrity. -Sydney J. Harris, journalist (14 Sep 1917-1986)

When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set. -Lin Yutang, writer and translator (10 Oct 1895-1976)


Every noon as the clock hands arrive at twelve, / I want to tie the two arms together, / And walk out of the bank carrying time in bags. -Robert Bly, poet (b. 23 Dec 1926)


Edward Albee said: "I take pretty good care of myself, and I have no enthusiasm whatever about dying. I think it's a terrible waste of time, and I don't want to participate in it."

 If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels. Tennessee Williams 


The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. Calvin Trillin


The key to being a good manager is keeping those who hate me away from those still undecided.  Casey Stengel 


There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread. Gandhi

That’s enough….Norm Levine









Monday, December 19, 2022

Yes, But

Some well-reasoned and well-researched ideas are so obvious they bring out the contrarian in me. It seems too easy to note the changes brought about by social media. Or to state it more bluntly the damages visited upon us by the new technology. How our attention span has been shortened, how we live in a glut of distractions and our critical thinking has been compromised. Moments of contemplation engendered by books have been sacrificed by our new habit of tweeting, skimming and truncated messaging.

I want to say, yes, but to all the above.

The book I’m reading by Maryanne Wolf is called Reader, Come Home. One should never argue with a neuroscientist. She could probably tell me which synapse in my grey matter needs remedial help. In fact, she brilliantly describes the area of our brains which have adapted to sequential reading and now are threatened by extinction if we yield to this newfangled way of receiving information or possibly, knowledge and, dare I say, wisdom.

Perhaps it’s a matter of attribution. Wolf ascribes all our highest qualities such as empathy, deep reflection and philosophical thought to print technology. Without it we might return to grunts in caves. Wait, stop the world, if that were true I, too, would want to grab the wheel and change the trajectory of spaceship Earth.

I think not. I submit that post-literate society is more akin to the pre-literate one where the world is seen as a mosaic. Visual stress from literacy is yielding to a sense of acoustic space and a wider inclusiveness. Certainly, empathy was not invented by Guttenberg or the books that followed. A case could be made that the centuries of print had negative consequences. Print technology altered the ratio of our senses. It discouraged memory and oral disputation. The single POV is fixed as in perspective, fostering an atomized Western man, individualized as a solitary reader. Specialization and disassociation of action from feeling created Western power and efficiency. Arguably, this led to the nation state and imperialism, as McLuhan suggests.

David Hockney commented, Surface is an illusion but so is depth. He was referring to visual arts and I believe it has implications for the way young people approach social media. A new way of seeing and processing has been created. Disparate images as iconography along with words and symbols in a field approach replaces the linear sequential lines in a book. Life does not happen in sequence; it comes at us as a simultaneous happening. Young minds are trained to make sense of these surface stimuli in ways that we, steeped as we are in the serial logic of print, cannot take in.

Maryanne Wolf correctly calls these years a hinge moment in time. Those of us raised with books are adrift or at least straddle the two ways of perceiving just as those born into the digital age are still largely educated with books as the standard source of accessing the vault of history. Accommodations must be made but to suggest that the demise of literacy will take down humanity, is, I believe, a needless grieving.

If it seems that the social order is frayed by tweets and bytes it is also enhanced by new kinships and an unimagined connectivity. Collage has displaced figurative painting. Digressions and meta narratives are more common now than straight ahead plotting.  When John Coltrane was asked to describe his style, he said he starts in the middle of a sentence and moves in both directions at once.

Just to be clear, I have no love for social media or the new technology. There was a time when necessity was regarded as the mother of invention. In these unparalleled times invention is now the mother. Build it and they will buy it and make it a necessity. I, too, have had exasperated moments when I have to gnash my teeth and gird my loins trying to wend my way through a landscape of bots. The point is not whether we love the Internet but it has us by our vitals. Better to make nice.

I sense that the digital age has forged new neural pathways and unleashed creative forces as yet unrecognized by those with noses in books.




Friday, December 16, 2022

I Wish I'd Said That

Rather than offer a list of this or that, an end-of-year ritual which is usually hierarchical, I shall fill up this space with everyone tied for first place.  About five years ago I started a page of well-chosen words from others. My list of quotes is now long enough to be a book in itself. I have no right to hoard these gems. Here are a few:

You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave. -Billie Holiday


The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it. -George Marshall, US Army Chief, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Nobel laureate (31 Dec 1880-1959) 

All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography. -Federico Fellini, film director, and writer (20 Jan 1920-1993)

Charles Simic said: “If I believe in anything, it is in the dark night of the soul. Awe is my religion, and mystery is its church.”

In the end, the poem is not a thing we see; it is, rather, a light by which we may see--and what we see is life. -Robert Penn Warren, novelist and poet (24 Apr 1905-1989) 


 Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” Phillip Larkin

"Between two evils, I like to pick the one I haven't tried before." Mae West


Adrienne Rich said,  "Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone."


It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?" Vita Sackville-West

 "There is the view that poetry should improve your life. I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army." John Ashbury


A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, / to laugh and cry with the same eyes, / with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, / to make love in war and war in love."

Yehuda Amichai


No, no, you're not thinking, you're just being logical. -Niels Bohr, physicist


Someone is Hindu, someone is Muslim, someone is Christian / Everyone is hell-bent on not becoming a human being. -Nida Fazli, poet


He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. -Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher (15 Oct 1844-1900)


She: Tweeting is an art form

He: It isn’t art If it’s evil

She: It’s only art if it’s evil……………….Patricia Lockwood


"Poetry is, above all, a singing art of natural and magical connection because, though it is born out of one's person's solitude, it is a bridge between separated souls." Brendan Kennelly

Barry Hannah said, “I loved the life, the secret life, of the typewriter when the house was quiet… Writers maybe just stare, like cows — just staring. Most people don’t stare. A writer is unembarrassed to just keep looking.”

"Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake." Robert Penn Warren


Lionel Barrymore, who once said, “Half the people in Hollywood are dying to be discovered and the other half are afraid they will be.”


"Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality; we can be complete only when we are giving something away; when we sit at the table and pass the peas to the person next to us we see that person in a whole new way." Alice Waters


The eye teaches skepticism, the eyelid teaches faith.  Stanley Cavell


Charles Simic said, “I write to annoy God, to make Death laugh. I write because I can’t get it right. I write because I want every woman in the world to fall in love with me.”

When asked how one should prepare for a life in poetry, Charles Simic answered, “There’s no preparation for poetry. Four years of grave digging with a nice volume of poetry or a book of philosophy in one’s pocket would serve as well as any university.”


I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. -James Baldwin, writer (2 Aug 1924-19


Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. -Gustave Flaubert, novelist (12 Dec 1821-1880)


If I were a giraffe, I would love you in silence, gazing down at you from over the wire fencing, as melancholy as a dockyard crane, I would love you with the awkward love of the very tall, and, thoughtfully chewing a leaf as if it were gum, ………, I would slowly lower my neck on the pulleys of my tendons in order, tenderly, tremulously, to nuzzle your breasts with my head. From Lobo Antunes, “Land at the End of the World”


Tuesday, December 13, 2022

That December Sunday

On that first Sunday in December of 1941, my 9th birthday was a few months away.  I was in my father’s pharmacy and yes it was on a corner. The drugstore air I was breathing, is no longer reproducible without crawling into a time capsule. The vapors included crude drugs (long-since fallen into disrepute) escaping from apothecary jars, mingled with cheap perfume and assorted emissions from the soda fountain which included a sandwich board where an egg salad on toast including a coca cola went for 19 cents.

Into this intoxicating brew I was filling up the rack of cigarettes: Old Gold, next to Pall Mall, next to Chesterfield. The temperature had dropped, wind was gusting but no white stuff yet. Noble’s lot was beginning to get their first shipment of Christmas trees down the block. I was a dreamy kid remembering last year’s snowball fight and anxious to use my hand-me-down flexible flyer. The radio was playing a football game when the announcement interrupted the play-by-play with news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

I didn’t know Pearl Harbor from Pearl Mittledorf, my friend’s sister, but the gravity in his voice sent shivers from which those reassuring and familiar inhalations were no match. Suddenly our collective breaths were charged with a gravity unknown to me. Even my father with usually unshakeable calm seemed to lose his tranquility as if the torsion balance scale could not find a point of equipoise.                                                                             

I had since dismissed the notion of Santa, elves and ho, ho, ho, along with the tooth fairy. Times were tough with breadlines still in the headlines. My mother was always in combat mode doing battle against daily dragons. I grew an enormous inch that day as if I had passed some threshold of initiation into an adult world.

The next day at P.S. 99 we listened to President Roosevelt’s intonations of those words, live in infamy, describing this new state of war. Years later I learned that Winston Churchill danced in jubilation over our entry into W.W. II, just in time.

My universe becomes black and white, life and death. Blood on the snow. Maps on the front page showed dark and light divisions with arrows. It was the winter of new words. Panzers, War Bonds, blackouts, air-raid wardens and a different kind of draft. Saboteurs, Blitz and refugees, U-boats and convoys. Praise the Lord for the White Cliffs of Dover and then Pass the Ammunition, I’ll Be Seeing You and the Fuhrer’s Face.

The war moved inside me. I learned whom to hate. Moral absolutes leave no room for doubt as interred Japanese-Americans found out. It was either snowing or it was not. Dark days. Bright lights.



Sunday, December 11, 2022


My friend has asked me to write his obit. He is my age and he’s not even sick. But he doesn’t want to miss out in case of his untimely demise as if he’d be late for his own funeral. I shouldn’t say obit; it’s more like a eulogy. Why do we save our best words till it’s too late? In a perfect world there would be a rehearsal.

So, I did. I wrote it and he said he loved it which shows he is too easy to please or too forgiving. I cannot bring myself to speak of him in the past tense. Stan is my oldest friend whom I regard as a near-brother even though we’ve seen little of each other since 1950, living on separate coasts. The Atlantic is gigantic and the Pacific is terrific but they haven’t washed away the bond forged long ago.

We met in kindergarten. Maybe I was a wardrobe monitor and he had the same brand of galoshes. Or perhaps we built a city together with blocks. I could say anything but Stanley would call me on it. We are each other’s fact-check. Though facts are no longer an operative word. Versions are more apt. Those awful wonderful humiliating exuberant moments are seen with kaleidoscopic eyes. Memories have long ago lost verisimilitude. They’ve become endearing moments in the blockbuster film of our lives with episodes so unlikely they must be true.

Growing up was clumsy. We followed odd-looking people for blocks at a time until it dawned on us that we were the odd ones. Stan reminds me how we preferred slices of bologna to candy like normal kids. Somehow life was sweet enough as evidenced by multiple cavities even as we discovered it was also full of baloney.

Stan’s professional life as a biochemist was notable in spite of our misspent youth. I will leave that for others more familiar with his contributions.

We weren’t very fluent in the language of flirting but we counted ourselves among the politically righteous and were ardent in pursuit of careers on the basketball court. One winter day, with temperatures below zero, we climbed the chain link fence with a snow shovel in tow into our school yard. We cleared the area around the basket to perfect our jump shots. All right, it was actually in the low thirties but it felt below zero with the wind chill.

Nobody is second banana in the movie of their life even though there were few heroics, no dragons slain, double-agents, rafts down the Mississippi or near-death experiences. We were, however, possibly first among our peers to get stoned at a concert. The event was Paul Robeson at Peekskill in 1949 and the stones were thrown by a crazed mob through the window as we took cover on the floor of the bus among broken glass. These were likely the grandparents of Q-Anon folks who are now merely following in their family tradition.

Stan and I went on a ten-day bike trip through five states in New England that same summer or was it the next? We must not have budgeted well since I recall splitting a Clark bar for dinner one night. We stayed at youth hostels or in barns. Unaware that Newport R.I. was above our pay grade we bought box seats overlooking the stage for a play on opening night, dressed in T-shirts.

We have albums of stories in our heads which get embellished like polished stones in each telling. The kinship between us has survived the decades, testimony to our shared values and a genuine affection. Could it be we instinctively knew that eighty-five years ago? All that has followed is a reenactment of galoshes and a city of blocks, the paradise we never quite left.

All these tableaus do not convey the measure of the man. Stanley was and is a gentle soul, cultured and with undiminished smarts along with a sense of humor we must have created together. Who else would laugh at my jokes?

With perfect pitch Stan sang in a choral group while I was consigned to the back row as a listener. I have been listening closely ever since. When we are ready for our afterlife, I expect him to sing us to heaven. I’ll start harp lessons any day now.  






Thursday, December 8, 2022

Honk If You're Hunkering

( Since the flu is having its way with us and new variants are busily mutating as we speak, in defiance of our best science....)

Here we are hunkered down. I never expected to be hunkered. Nothing has prepared me for this. Up until ten months ago, I doubt if I’d ever used that word. But now I’ve got a hankering to hunker.
Hunkered has a dank, down-in-the-trenches feel to it. It’s low-down and dirty. You don’t just hunker, you hunker down as in sunk or dump, even slam-dunk. Kerplunk!

I’m now in my subterranean laboratory hunkered and bunkered with a bubbling cauldron looking for the elixir of life.

Monks were hunkered; they called it cloistered. Not a bad place to be during the plague with a direct line to God in one of his tantrums.
From the depths of the well you can best see the stars. Whoever said that I’ll take his word for it.
Hunkered harkens to muck and mud. Mississippi mud as in Huck Finn. It's all hunky-dory with me.
You don’t have to be a hunk to be hunkered. We’re all in this together huddled and bubbled six feet apart.
One can get in a funk hunkering; even go bonkers while bunkering but it's all for the greater good.
I only unhunker to the laundry room or the trash can. If I ever throw out our clothes or wash the garbage it’ s time to leave this orb.
Wonks do it. People from the Bronx do it. Spelunks do it. Even educated punks do it. Let’s do it. Let’s all hunker-down. Insufferable uncles when they're drunk do it. Archie Bunker does it. Folks from Chunking do it. Even genetically modified skunks do it. Let’s do it. Let’s hunker-down.