Friday, November 29, 2013


We deep-fried our turkeys yesterday.

No, I am not going turn this into a cooking blog (but you simply must try it).

Anyway, we bought this fryer that needed to be assembled, so I did that in the morning. (Only one piece was left over, which is good, for me.)

Ansel Adams: Old Faithful
The best part about this is that you can prepare your turkey for consumption in less than an hour. I cooked two birds. The thing is, though -- you have to stay with it. I know from working in restaurants, during my school years, that you can't trust hot grease. In short, I had to sit outside, in the cold, for two hours, watching turkeys do their danse macabre in the in the roiling liquid.

Once I dropped the first one in (after the initial violent bubbling and the spew of liquid death) I thought about calling one of my sons to get the book I'm reading. Instead, I sat close enough to the fryer for warmth but far enough to avoid blindness, and I watched: pot, sky, trees, clouds and all of sunshine's creation .

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On Controlling Teacher Ego

Teaching is a profession that puts one in danger of developing a big, fat ego.

Every time a student comes back to visit, after a semester at college or after a few years, it is a great confidence boost. You think: Well, if this student stopped to see me, I must have mattered. Of course, it could be the student was on his or her way to see another teacher and made eye contact with you and didn't want to be rude. See? There are variables.

The other day, however, a student came to visit and she said, "If it wasn't for you and Mr. K (another English teacher in the school) I would have never have..." I had to disagree. This girl had immense talent and a passion for the written word when she entered our classrooms. The other guy is probably the finest teacher I have ever known, but I think he would agree with me. (He retired, so I didn't get a chance to discuss.) I had to tell her: "No, not really. You were good to begin with. Don't give us the credit for your achievements."

And it is always true. None of my students who have gone on to success in letters or in education or, specifically, in the field of English, owe that success to me. At best, I played a small part. All of those really successful students would have reached great heights with or without me.

If I ever make any remotely profound impact on a kid, it is in making him or her aware of his or her talent. That part is important, and I take it seriously. And it is not easy, because it requires earning the student's respect; if the student does not respect me, he or she won't really care about my perception. That, in itself, is a tall order. Somebody has to be able to see it, after all. Beyond that, sure, I can help, but...

Monday, November 25, 2013

Shirts, Hearts and Facebook Profanity

My wife used a bad word on Facebook. I'll explain why in a minute.

But, here's the thing:

If you are going to publicly chastise a woman on Facebook (as one of her "friends" did), you should probably not do it to the wife of a guy who has a blog with a fairly decent-sized global audience.

Nah -- don't worry. I'm not a sour grapes kind of writer. I am not going to name this guy. In fact, I probably would have chosen not to write about this at all if he hadn't insisted, when I contacted him in defense of my wife, that he has "every right to speak out about things I c on Facebook." (I would have used brackets to better incorporate that quotation, but his use of "c" was just too precious to fiddle with. Uh, with which to fiddle...) And, in the end, this post is, as you might expect, not so much about him as about a concept...

By his logic, if he is offended by something in a public forum, even one like Facebook that is focused on friends and family, he can say what he wishes. He has a RIGHT. He can dispense with consideration of the pond-ripple effects of audience simply so that he can get things off of his chest. (That, to me, is always an exceedingly egocentric statement: "I need to get things off of my chest." It always has an "it is all about me" vibe; it always feels so much like a cutting off of everyone else in the interest of self-catharsis.) Here's what he said... (Hey -- he made it public... ):
How r u going to like ur kids using the trash mouth words u use? I always thought u were a classie lady not a F---ING trash mouth

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Stranger in an Ever-Stranger Land

It annoys me when artists wallow blissfully in their weirdness. It doesn't bother me when they are weird; it bothers me when they wallow in it and wear it as a badge -- and especially when they feign it to seem more artistic.

Maybe I should go to a priest and confess: "Father, forgive me. I fall asleep with no problem every night. I have no drug addiction and I don't drink absinthe. I don't wear scarves or knit caps when it is hot out. I come from a close-knit family, with a mom and a dad and a sister and a dog. I don't focus on pain in my writing. I have a whole bunch of what some might label "traditional" beliefs. I even think there is a God up there. Father, forgive me -- I have sinned against the artistic archetype."

That said, every stereotype has its origins in some fleck of reality, I suppose. We creative types can be a strange lot.

For instance, I am wrapping up composition of pieces for my next CD (a CD of piano music; no vocals) I need to decide when I have enough "stuff" to wrap it up. A few days ago, I finished writing a cycle of pieces called "American Sketches." So, last night, I was clicking around on my computer, wondering if I had any unfinished things that might merit completion...and I found something I had completely forgotten about: a symphony.

No, I am not kidding. I had totally forgotten I wrote a complete symphony a few years ago.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Transcendence of Reason

Lao Tzu
The Sage learns to transcend, right?

Lau Tzu thought so. The Bible has that bit about being in the world but not of the world. Emerson and Thoreau picked up the ball and ran with it (ran away with it?). Yogis and stressed housewives move to yoga and meditation to transcend the daily lameness of living. Businessmen stand on lawns in industrial complexes in shirts and ties doing Tai Chi before going back in to be told they are not putting up good enough numbers...

I could go on. In fact, I think I will.

People play video games to leave the world. They read novels. They choose ways to forget about their problems. They find "diversions" from "reality." (I put "reality" in quotation marks because I think it is very debatable term. But that is another post.)

Are "diversions" the same thing as "transcendence," though? To me, the two are not the same. Transcendence, as I understand it, is a breaking away from the bonds of "the world" -- the world being everyday life, in all of its manifestations, from work to beddy-bye.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Gall dern me and it is that makes me like this.

Every once in awhle, maybe once per week -- sometimes once every few weeks -- I will stop at a Dunkin' Donuts on the way to work. Each time, I pull up to the speaker and order the same thing: a ham, egg and cheese bagel and a medium coffee with cream and sugar.

To my surprise/horror/delight, the guy behind the speaker eventually started recognizing me (I guess they have a camera) and saying, in what I am pretty sure is a slight Lebanese accent:

"Hey, bahddy. Hameggandcheesemediumcoffeeonev'rythingbagel?"

(Don't worry. He never actually puts the coffee on the bagel.)

To which I reply, "You got it! Thanks." Or some variation, thereof. (I actually do try to remember what I said the previous time, so it doesn't become a scripted dialogue. I find is useful to add a "thank you, sir" to the end. Anything to break the repetition. My counterpart behind the speaker never seems concerned about this: "Hey, bahddy. Hameggandcheesemediumcoffeeonev'rythingbagel?" Every time.)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Justified Punch in the Beazer

I saw this video last night. It's not new news, but it was the first I had seen it:

I have written about violence before. I hate it. I have not gotten into a fight since the playground in boyhood, and, even then, I remember being reluctant to hit back the kid who was hitting me, for fear I might hurt him. Even then, I realized that it just is not worth blinding someone over a dirty play in a pick-up football game.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Orwell Was Wrong: It's Worse

Orwell was off with one major thing.

His Big Brother wielded an openly phony type of warmth to rule the people; it was warm, placid water with the shadows of sharks visible below; it was a slogan with intentional ambiguity that chilled the blood: "Big Brother is watching." Let's not forget, as well, that "Big Brother" is also a carefully chosen "family member" -- the one who can be your biggest protector or your greatest tormentor.

It's not like that, though -- now that we are all "on the grid" and under the microscope. The ones who want us to think in flocks of thought that dart left and right in neat phalanxes use more insidious techniques. They are chumming up to us. Worse, they are making the things they wish to be so so, simply by acting like they are; eventually, if they keep doing us, those who disagree are bound to shake their heads and realize it was all just a dream.

Owell didn't have a dark enough view of human nature, believe it or not. We don't let our evil intent seep through in shadowy speech and pointed innuendo. We don't put a crooked finger up to our lips and rumble a low laugh. In fact, we don't even think it evil to try to control the thoughts of others. It's "just business"; or government. No need to take it personally, my friends. It's finance; it's security; it's the status quo.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Pocket Full of God

A soldier, WWII
A rare repost, from two years ago, but it is a summation of the way I feel about our veterans, and about one veteran in particular, my great uncle. 

I knew a man from South Jersey. He was the sweetest, most lovable old fellow you would ever want to meet. He'd been a welder who built great ships, but an accident had rendered his leg lame. Still, he could always be seen walking the main road in his town, usually with frequent stops to talk to every one who know him -- which was, really, everyone. He was my Great Uncle Vince.

He had been a soldier in World War II. In fact, he had been in the D-Day landing. Sometimes, he would tell me stories, cautioning me not to tell my mother -- he feared she would be shaken up by the details. But I think he believed that every little boy should know a little of what war was. Maybe he was right.

In short, if you ever saw the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, you got the truth. The stories my Uncle Vince told me matched that opening in such detail, I would have placed a bet that Spielberg had interviewed my uncle, though he had died many years before the film was made.

But the best story I ever heard was this:

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Tale of Three Dogs, Minus Two

Some years ago, in my neighborhood, I began noticing a man who would walk his three dogs. They were all small, white, West Highland Terriers. Anyone who knows Westies knows they are small, but sturdy and fearless. Cute little dudes.

The man is somewhere around his late fifties, I would guess. He is sort of heavy, with a balding pate and, usually, when I picture him, I imagine a winter jacket with the collar turned up.

When I first noticed him, several years ago, he would walk his three dogs but he would only hold the leash of two of them -- the younger ones. As the "pack" made their way down the pavement, they would be followed by their elder, his leash dragging behind him on the concrete. I imagined this was just precaution; just in case the venerable old chap got a whiff of his youth in the scent of a passing squirrel and decided to make a dash for it.

I would see these four, day after day, and it always made me smile.

Then, maybe two years ago, he walked by, but with only two dogs. The most-honored, white-furred fellow was no longer with his family and, I imagined, no longer with the world at all. (I was struck by how much I missed the delicate sound of the dragging leash.) I let out a sigh and smiled a sad, warm concession to the cycle of life and death.

This morning, (maybe two years later) I saw the man again. This time, there was only one dog and he was slowly walking by his master's side, the leash dragging behind him, as the two took their leisurely stroll under the clouds and through the fallen leaves. The man's hair was a little whiter.

At one point, the little dog stopped to "do his business" and the man crouched down, cleaned it up, and, smiling, scratched his canine companion under the chin.

They walked off together, the man with his hands comfortably clasped behind his back, the dog dragging his leash over the beautiful, orange eventuality of the season that was littered around their six feet.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Spilling Boulders in the Sun

I know everyone thinks passing along values is a good thing. Tradition and all that. But what if the passing on of those values is just a formula for a future without evaluation; without thought?

I used to believe everything that my father and mother did. You have to start there. Then, you  need to think it over. It seems simple, yes? But the number of people who never get to step two is probably higher than we think. 

Do we vote how our daddy told us to? Do we judge others on the same criteria he did? Are we the proud wavers of mom's flag of prejudice; of father's banner of sexism; of Uncle Fred's angry religion?

It's nothing new, what I'm saying, but it came back to me as I was teaching Frost's "Mending Wall," recently. And, then, as I was considering people's motives for political views in an environment of indecipherable information. In the poem, the speaker is walking the property line with his neighbor, fixing the wall by picking up stones. The speaker questions the need to have the wall, at all, but the neighbor... 
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Then, the speaker feels like shaking things up:
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why  do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence .
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could  say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself.  I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed .
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying ,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."
The brightest image? The contrast to this fellow who "moves in darkness"? It opens the whole poem:
Something  there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun...
I think we are there, as a society. The brightest future might be in allowing some of the more useless stones of our parents' wisdom to topple down and lie, undisturbed, in the sun.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fence-Sitting, Then and Now

I don't get political, really. Sometimes, I will pick up a political topic, but it is usually something I approach with a more personal edge. (Once, for instance, I wrote a thing about Obamacare and its impingement on religious institutions. So, it happens...) Usually, I stay away from this whole subject.

This doesn't stop me, however, from causing the occasional Facebook brawl by posing politically-based questions. When the discussions begin, I tend to stay out. The only reason I ever ask is to gather opinions from my more politically-conscious friends, in order to help with my own understanding.

Last time, a friend asked me how the "view from the fence" was. I replied that I am not on the fence; I am in a helicopter. There is a difference.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Key to a Longer Life

What good is a long life if it feels short.

We all operate under the assumption that good diet and exercise are going help us live a long life. This is wrong. I mean, it is right, but it is wrong.

The reason for good diet and exercise is for quality of life, primarily. The length of time doesn't matter if it feels like a blink.

And what makes life feel like a blink? Constant motion.

Kwai Chang Caine walking on rice paper. 
It is no mystery to me, anymore, as to why time seems to go faster as we get older: we don't ever sit around and do nothing, after the age of, say, fifteen. In fact, if we do, we are perceived as lazy. Kids, on the other hand, spend a lot of time just "being."

Fill up your time with action, thought and tasks, and it will "fly." Think of the slow day at work with no customers. It is truly a slow day.

Today, I had off from school. I came downstairs and it was just me and the dog. I left the TV off and I didn't put on any music. I sat and had a nice breakfast with a good cup of coffee and I listened to the October rain.

After this, I sat on the couch with the dog, by the opened window. At one point, I looked at the clock: 10:45. Quite a while later, I looked back and it was 10:48. It went slowly, but pleasantly.

If we can string days together days with just this kind of solitude and stillness in them, maybe our life will be a little longer, whether we die at 55 or 95.

Seeking solitude and silence is not new advice, but it is still necessary advice, I think.