Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane-force Lessons

Yesterday, before twilight, I went out onto the back deck (which I'd completely cleared) and stood watching the trees in the woods behind my house bending almost sideways in the wind gusts. I have heard writers talk about what it means to truly experience the awesome force of nature and how it feels to be riveted to a spot despite (or maybe because of) the danger. Well, there it was.

The wind had a volcano-deep rumble I had never experienced and I could actually smell sea-salt in the air -- presumably spun up and trapped in the vortex of the massive storm as it had gathered force over the Atlantic, ever since Cuba -- even though my house is some sixty miles from the coast.

Camuccini: "Fallen Tree Trunk"
I turned from the woods to the massive split-trunked oak on the garage side of my house. I stood perched to jump back into the house as the wind gusted again. But the old man stood more firm than any of his cousins in the woods. There wasn't the slightest flex in his trunks and his upper branches only waved as if they were enjoying gentle spring winds. This is a tree we were warned to have removed. "It will come down," a tree guy told us. "Just a matter of when."

But time passes and you don't bank on hurricanes.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Cot: "The Storm"
It will be a quick one today. As I write, 8:30 am, Monday, October 29, 2012, the state of New Jersey is about to be directly hit with "the second biggest hurricane in recorded history." Our house right in its projected path, though not on the coast, where the most devastating damage is already being done. They say the shoreline will be permanently altered by this one. When a storm is being called worse than Grace -- The Perfect Storm -- it's nothing to sneeze at.

So, we're in a historic moment, here. There are some who are really aware of that and who are intrigued, as I am, and there are others who don't care. There are those who are petrified. There are those who are not the least bit fazed. There are those who are courageously defiant in the face of danger.

Just so, as with most remarkable things, this storm sets up a microcosmic portrait of humankind: the fools, the paranoid ones; the heroes; the simply and rationally prepared -- they are all exposed by their reactions to Hurricane Sandy.

Friday, October 26, 2012

John Tanner and William Tanner (A Parable)

On a still-dark Sunday morning in the Middle Ages, John Tanner awoke to the shriek of the rooster. He rose in darkness, just as he had gone to sleep in darkness. It was cold; his breath floated in a cloud as he leaned to stoke the fire. One of his children (the only one who had survived three of these winters in this same one-room hovel) coughed a wet cough. He'd been coughing like this for nearly a month, and John and his wife were beginning to be concerned. The boy was sleeping away days, now.

Konrad Witz: St. Chritopher
John had become used to the stench of his work, but that same stench meant that his house was far away from the others in the village. Most days were isolation and work and close contact with the urine that was used in his trade. Most days, he woke in the dark, worked through the light, and went to bed. His life was work and darkness. Except on Sunday...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


It was a long, hot, dusty day of dusty deeds. We drove the long highway in silence. She had her hand on my knee, but it lay there flat as some flat fish that would never be not flat, no matter how hard it tried. Flounder flat, if you must know.

I glanced over at her and smiled, if you can call pressing your bottom teeth against your top lip a smile. She did it back. She always did it back. Her two middle bottom teeth cower behind each other like little kids being introduced to scary grown-ups. In a pretty kind of way.

"Hungry," she said.

"Me, too. And thirsty."

The inspiration for this masterpiece.
But there was nothing but desert and cacti, spread out over the never-ending (and, furthermore, infinite) beige landscape like a scattered army of running-backs celebrating touchdowns with green, prickly, upraised arms. Multi-cacti. She was counting them, moving her pretty lips silently: "Four-hundred-one; four-hundred-two..."

Sinatra was buzzing low on the radio -- so low that he was only dropping hints about what Johnny Mercer was trying to lay down, like some musical mouse whispering secrets through a tin can phone to an almost-deaf guy on the other end (who wasn't really listening, anyway, because he hates Sinatra).

The wheels rolled. The flat fish on my leg crumpled into a fist.

"Hungry," she said. "I need food."

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Social Prison

The other day I was at an educational conference and one of the speakers -- a very peppy, short-haired woman with, if I'm being fair, a lot of talent as a teacher -- uttered the phrase: "None of us is as smart as all of us."

Those of you who read my stuff from time to time probably know what is coming next: God, I hate phrases like that. And, besides, it just isn't true. (This is a generally profanity-free blog, or I would make reference to the excrement of a particular horned animal with a strange attraction to red capes and the rib-cages of Hispanic fellows in tight pants.)

I can't stand acrobatic phrases like the one the speaker used. It is supposed to be a "we get more done when we work together" phrase, but it twists and flips itself to be so. And, truth is, it winds up really being yet another of our steps toward a world in which the individual is continually smothered or assimilated, whether it be philosophically or politically.

Some of us are smarter than all of us. There are people who can accomplish feats of creativity and problem-solving in the solitude of their rooms or studies or labs that no committee or board or think-tank ever could.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A New and Unique Book

I'd like to shut up for the day about my own ideas and use this post to mention a book that has just been published by a blogosphere friend of mine: Mr. Jeff Sypeck. Jeff is a medievalist and he is the keeper of the blog Quid plura? which is dedicated to identifying and commenting on medievalism in America and in American letters. He is also the author of an excellent book on Charlemagne.

Jeff has just published a book of poetry -- of poems inspired by his photographs of the gargoyles on  Washington's National Cathedral. The poems are whimsical and often profound and Jeff makes use of many formal poetic forms, including medieval forms, like alliterative verse. Whether you care about poetic formalism or not, I think you will find Jeff's book a delight. His gargoyles speak in the voices of characters who are distinct in a way that I would imagine only gargoyle characters can be.

What's also cool is that Jeff is donating 75% of his proceeds to the cathedral, to contribute to the repair of the damages incurred during the earthquake in 2011. A worthy cause -- the support of one of America's architectural wonders.

Jeff's new book is much recommended for those who are interested in fantasy literature, medieval literature or in finding a kind of unique traditionalism in poetry. In short, it is derned good stuff and you would be helping a good cause by ordering a copy.

Follow the link to Jeff's site for all ordering options.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

True Suffering

I could be lonely. I could be sick. I could have a child and have no means to care for it and no paper on which to write a letter to the Sisters of Mercy for his doorstep basket. I could be starving, or under fire. I could be losing my wife to man with big muscles and golden hair and more income. I could be disabled. I could have just accidentally swallowed some poison that looked exactly like lemonade. I could be the thrall of some alien tyrant on a frozen planet in another solar system where thralls are worked mercilessly for twenty years and then tortured to death for thirty. I could be really, really ugly. (Like, bulldog ugly.) I could be friendless (perhaps as a result of my extreme ugliness). I could be dying. I could be wanted for a crime I did not commit. I could be inexplicably depressed. I could be a brilliant singer who was born without a voice.

But I am not.

I'll tell you one thing, though: if this idiot behind the drive-through window doesn't hurry up with my coffee, I'm going to lose control. One thing I cannot take is slow service. It drives me nuts.

Degas: Melancholy

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Leaving Home

It occurred to me, the other day, that some see "home" as a cocoon; a retreat; a place to hide from the world's ugliness for a precious few hours each day. (Okay, guilty as charged.) Others seem to see home as a base of operations; a place to get showered and changed before heading back out; a place for parties; a place that keeps the rain off of one's head. I wonder which is the healthier view.

I'm thinking much in the same way the I did in a recent post: there is a certain uneasiness in having succeeded in taking good advice. You work and work to get yourself conditioned to take that advice, then you either become a weirdo for being one of the few who accomplished the desired outcome, or, you start to wonder if the good advice is really that good after all. 

For instance, we are always told to treasure the moment -- to put less emphasis on the past and the future and think of now; to drink it in and savor the experience. I'm the king of this. This, I've gotten down.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dear Albrecht VIII

Albrecht Soothspitz, b. 1347

He has returned! That master sayer-of-sooth; that sculptor of philosophical fantasticness; the man with the inside scoop on all things social, internal and think-aboutable: Albrecht. I know it has been awhile, but you wouldn't believe how hard it is to convince Homeland Security that the guy living in the woods behind your house is really a philosopher from the fourteenth century. They wanted to "send him back." Needless to say, that is a pretty tall order. So after much negotiating, phone-calling and the painting of a few sweaty governmental palms, old Albrecht now is an official American citizen. This, of course, has sent him on a binge of American gluttony. I have never seen a human being devour so many hot dogs in my life. And now he's into  football, so we had to get him a satellite dish for his hovel. Dude never leaves the woods now, and getting him to answer your letters has been tough...but, here is the next installment for which the world has waited...

Dear Albrecht:

My friend Alice has the biggest butt I have ever seen. She's like an upside-down mushroom with legs. I almost expect her hips to go "ding-dong" when she walks. I swear the tides get stronger when she is at the beach. Just plain massive. A pair of white pants on her, some popcorn and a projector, and we could open up a drive-in movie theater. I can't even have her out in the garden for tea because the prolonged butt-clipse she causes withers my daylilies. In short, she could rent herself out to movie companies as a cushion for stuntmen who have to jump out of buildings.

The problem is that she has been wearing these really tight short-shorts in public and people look at her funny. I'm not sure if I should tell her or not. What do you think?


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Singing to the Goldfish

Courbet: "The Desperate Man." Decidedly not normal. 
The other day, as I walked in to a particular room in a particular house, I heard a particular (and beloved) person referring to me and saying, "...a normal person would be able to, etc, etc." This person quickly added, having, I suppose, become aware of my sudden presence, that "he's a scholar." (Hence, not normal, but studiously so.)

This thing that I could not do was a rather important home maintenance project.

I think the person added the "scholar" bit because he or she felt that he or she had insulted me. In truth, saying I am not a normal person is, as far as I am concerned, a compliment of the highest order. I treasure that status.

The problem in all of this, though, is in an age-old misconception: that "normal" is reflected in the people with whom we are generally surrounded. It so happens that this person is routinely surrounded by many mechanically capable chaps who not only do home maintenance but who even do such things professionally. But one's proximate world is not necessarily a clear reflection of normalcy.

If I hang around with only guys who wear Richard Nixon masks and who sing show tunes to their goldfish on Sunday afternoons, I might easily see that as normal. The weirdo would be the guy who sits and watches football on the couch with a frosty barley treat and a bowl of chips.

Truth is, I'm willing to bet that most of the men in the world would not have undertaken this project (moderate in difficulty, though it may have been) that this person feels any "normal" people would do. And, in a way, it sort of diminishes the talent and/or skill of the guys who can do this stuff, to sum it all up as "normal." I respect those who can do these things.

I wonder if they respect my ability to plausibly explicate Ezra Pound?

Ah, well. Where'd I put that Nixon mask? Here, fishy, fishy...

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Shock of Transcendence

The Taoist weirdo.
What they never tell you, these philosophers and spouters of wisdom, is that, if you reach the desirable states that they recommend, you will have officially become a weirdo. You may even question whether your mind is working as it should. Transcendence, for instance, is quite alarming -- not when you manage it once, but when you finally make it part of your life on a daily basis.

Right now I am going through very difficult times outside of my home. I'll leave it sans detail, but it has been heart-breakingly rough over certain intervals.

That said, I'm not suffering much for it. I do wish things were better in this outside-of-the-home situation, but I find myself happy, otherwise. Sure, I would still love to fix what it broken, but I am not, in any way, feeling dragged down by it, in terms of my life. I'd rather these difficult things weren't so, but I do believe I have learned to take the advice of the wise to heart: to keep things in perspective and to give credence to those things that are truly important.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Pleasing Processes

From time to time, as many of you know, I come back to "happiness" as an issue. What philosophical chap who's worth his weight in cheese doesn't? So, along those lines, it occurred to me that ends are never good. We humans hate ends of things, death especially. This is why we are thinking all wrong when we seek the attainment of a goal -- any goal -- and equate the "arrival" as a potential state of happiness.

I'm not just handing you a superficial bit about the evils of consumerism. It's more than that.

I think for most sane human beings, this formula is true: HAPPINESS = PLEASING PROCESSES.

It's just another version of "the journey, not the destination" thing, I guess.

Lewis and Clark:, in action. Musta been cool. 
All I know is that, for me, my happiest times come down to three things: family, exploration (intellectual or actual) and art. These are all works in progress, aren't they? Just having babies with my wife didn't make life wonderful -- the process of watching them grow and helping them find their way in the world does. As far as exploration is concerned, find answers is satisfying, but it doesn't bring the lasting happiness that the search did. And, with art, the process is the thing. I was happy to have finished my first full length CD, but that happiness has worn away; now I wish I were still working on it, because nothing compares to the contentment I feel sitting at my piano at midnight in my little studio. (So, I begin working on another...)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

After a Day of Screams

Tonight, I don't want to unravel anything.
I don't want to delve into my soul --
Don't want to talk of wonders,
Or critique humanity,
Or fight,
To win -- something.

Tonight, my thirst won't be slaked in streams of ideas.
There is no need to move an audience,
Affect their lives --
Fill their minds,
Or hearts,
With hope -- for tomorrow.

Tonight I crave only peace,
My children in my lap,
Ravel's Miroirs in my ears,
His sonic textures: sanity --
The only real sanity I know.

Forgive me for trading you --
Tonight --
For peace.
After a day of screams,
I need just to breathe and to hear my breath...

Monet: Sunset at the Cliff in Etretat

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Cultural Compliment Conundrum

I can't believe I have to suffer under the weight of "political correctness." I don't subscribe to the idea that there are "proper" ways to say things, in regard to race, culture, sex, etc. I do, however, believe, as I have said many times, in self-policing; in thoughtfulness and manners. And I try to do my best. I know, however, that things are going askew when I want to say something that I see as a compliment, and I feel self-conscious about how to say it -- fearing someone will not see it as "politically correct."

This happened today. I was driving home from food shopping and I drove past an old Indian man, in a neighborhood with a thriving immigrant Indian population, and he was walking a walk I had seen there many times: He was in traditional Indian dress, hands behind his back, steps measured and slow. I wanted to say something about this, so I posted this to Facebook:
Elderly Indian men seem to walk with such an easy, un-arrogant type of dignity.
"So what?" you say. "There is nothing offensive in that. What were you worried about, Chris?" Well, that was the third draft of my statement. It's not like the first or second draft called for ethnic cleansing, or's just that I feared it might sound too much like an over-generalization. I didn't want to sound like I was painting a caricature of an old Indian man. I wanted to draw a portrait of a certain kind of dignity that I feel is particular to older Indian men.

Am I paranoid? If so, it might be for good reason. I remember, once, at a the end of a Christmas party, we were talking about the old TV specials when we were kids, and a friend reminded us of one, in particular, in which all of the kids who went to Santa were dressed in the traditional costumes of their countries. "How politically incorrect that would be now," my friend concluded.