31 December 2009


The end of the end of 2009 occurs tonight. I have never put much stock in New Year’s celebrations, though I have over the new years participated in some new year’s events. Once I even went to Times Square and had a miserably cold and crowded experience.

I think my favorite New Year’s occurred somewhere in the relatively late 1970s or early 1980s. Then, I lived in New York City on the Upper West Side. On the last day of the year, I visited with my dear therapist at about noon and spent a glorious hour talking about myself. Then, abusing myself with illegal substances, I subwayed down to the Cinema Village Theater to meet my favorite woman at the time for a triple feature screening: The Last Waltz (the end of The Band); Gimme Shelter (the titular end of the 1960s); and Let It Be (the end of the Beatles). It was a glorious and meaningful way to end the year. Then we subwayed our way back uptown for a small dinner and gathering at the apartment with friends.

There seemed to me substance and intimacy in this celebration, and even a bit of spirituality, as we relived our tumultuous decade and participated in its ending in that theater, and then as we gathered quietly to converse through the official passing of the year. There was no screaming and yelling and drunkenness; no constructed joy and merriment; no bacchanalia. It was a quiet, serious and joy-filled experience. After all, the music itself celebrated life, sometimes despite the events portrayed in the film.

At midnight, a second changes 2009 into 2010. It is a meaningless gesture: whether we record it or not, time passes. I’m not sure what the moment celebrates, or is meant to commemorate. Survival, I guess, and that is not an insignificant accomplishment, though mere survival is hardly sufficient: I think there must be meaning to and in that endurance.

Actually, I hope to be asleep when the ball in Times Square drops, and to awaken in the morning first, to the writing and then, to run with Gary.

27 December 2009

New York redux forever now

I grew up in New York City. Oh, I was raised on Long Island, and lived many years there as an adult. But sometime in the 1970s, I moved to New York City, and I put away childish things for things that were absolutely fun. I went to the movies and I walked the streets of the City—sometimes I even think I prowled those streets—I went to concerts and theater and then more movies. In the days before Netflix, I saw at least three movies a week. Even today, thirty or so years later, I recall viewing certain films I had long forgotten I had seen. I re-screen them now on Netflix. In New York City I anonymously walked the streets open to experience, though not to all of it, of course,

I learned to live in New York City. Which is to say that I learned in New York City what I enjoyed and what I didn’t so much like; I learned walking the streets of New York City to think for myself and even about myself; I learned in New York City to be the man I’ve become and of whom I have grown a bit fond. I adored living in New York City. I loved myself in New York City.

All of this in preface to a brief, preliminary report of my recent foray in New York City over the past several days. Staying on the Upper West Side, my home during my years of maturation, I walked the streets again, but both the streets and myself had changed. I didn’t know where to go comfortably, though I did find one bar where no one was half my age. The wine was lovely, though the music didn’t appeal to me, and it was too loud. And the later it got, the more noisy and crowded it became—fortunately I had to leave early because I go to sleep and awaken early.

It was delightful to see old friends. It was delightful to sit in crowded bars and crowded subway cars, to walk the streets again stopping in stores and cafes and even a Mall at Columbus Circle. I liked knowing how to get around: to buy the MetroCard and not once get lost on the subway. Everywhere there were people dressed in jeans, (I’ve grown to dislike the ubiquity of jeans; for me they will always be dungarees. They became fashionable in the 1960s as we identified with the working class and tried unsuccessfully to lose our middle class situation. I remember a poster from the 1960s during the heyday of the beatniks and incipient hippie-dom, in which everyone was dressed in jeans and the poster said, “Protest the rising tide of conformity”). But it was delightful in the streets of New York City to see the display of clothes and elegant finery that people who want to flaunt themselves wear. People who would dress knowing they will be out and seen in the world: who are dressing for themselves and the world. I love the grace and stylishness, even if it is faux. And I am honored at the attention.

New York is not like the rest of the world; it’s so nice sometimes to be out of this world, and I’ll be glad to return to it tomorrow.

19 December 2009

Closing doors?

I’ve been listening compulsively to Anne Hills 1998 album Bittersweet Dreams. I get the concept.

It’s the last cut particularly of which I would like to speak here. Anne closes this bittersweet album with Eric Anderson’s “Close the Door Lightly,” a song from the mid-1960s, from a vinyl album I own, by a performer I actually met walking the streets of Greenwich Village and whose shows I attended at the Gaslight Café. I was sixteen or seventeen then, and I wanted very much to be a beatnik, but I became a hippie.

I have always loved that song—have two versions of Eric Anderson singing it—but am finding her version heartbreakingly beautiful and sad. Heartbreaking, yes, in a literal sense of the word; every time I listen to her, I feel a slight tear in my heart (an interesting homonym here—it looks and refers both to a ripping and a leaking, to destructive and lachrymal action.). What is bittersweet here is the idea that there will be a leaving, and there is a bitterness as there must be to leavings such as this: “close the door, turn around, don’t whisper out my name, for like a breeze, it’ll burn a dying flame . . .” But there is a sweetness to the leaving as well: it has been a relationship not unpleasant, and it is a quiet door closing that should occur.

At that historical moment, there were other songs with similar sentiment: Don’t think twice, it’s alright, and It was the last thing on my mind. There was movement in the air, but it came at a price. I accepted the movement, but I wonder if it were possible to ever know the price.

Later, Dylan would sing You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go. Oh, things were lovely now, I think, but there was going to be a leaving, and that was not going to be an easy time, though it was inevitable.

I’m oversimplifying, as I must. It’s a protective strategy. “Who was the one who stole your time, and who was the one who stole your mind, And who was the one who made you feel unkind, so fare thee well sweet love of mine.” A sad, bittersweet ownership.

18 December 2009

Going Gently

Tiger is very old, and he is waiting for death in his peace. I suspect, he is now preparing to die. He sits in the basement on an abandoned recliner and sleeps and sleeps, preparing, I suppose, for his final rest. He seems to arise only to eat and to use the litter box. He does not come into the living spaces.

Tiger is our final cat. In our twenty years here, we have at various times been home to six different cats, two of which we brought from New York, and three of which found us here. One by one each cat moved on, one to old age, one to permanent and irreparable disability and subsequent residence at the Humane Society as a result of his inability to control a leaking excretory system, and three to violent deaths. The last death, not three months ago, was a gift from Gary when Emma was about three or four. He too (the cat, and of course, Gary) was getiing old—almost seventeen, I suspect. He was killed by a car, and Gary runs more safely.

Tiger long ago found his way here as word on the cat grapevine got around that here were good eats and a warm bed. He sat outside our door for several days before we admitted him into residence, discovering immediately that he was born with a defect: his eyes were too big for the sockets, or set back too far in the sockets, I never got it quite straight. The vetinarian offered to attempt to correct this problem pro bono if we would promise to keep the cat. Everyone agreed; she did the work but though no fault of her own, the eyes never improved. Tiger lived his whole life afflicted; some thickened liquid oozing from his sockets and obstructing his vision. He wasn’t the most pleasant feline, but he deserved his keep. Now, many years later, Tiger is veritably blind, walks into walls and chairs, and when he manages to find some way, he appears to follow the light.

And when his comrade was killed several months ago, Tiger slipped precipitously into decline (a remarkably common and accurate cliché, and I hate clichés as a clear case of dead language). I do not know what the nature of relationships between cats might be, but I think Tiger mourned the loss of his companion, grew lonely, and decided to move more actively toward death.

I do not think he will rise again. And it saddens me, I think, though I anticipate with some ease a cat litter-less home

15 December 2009

Tis not too late . . .

The music is calming; folk music from Folk Alley, out of somewhere in Ohio. And out of the window behind the computer screen which faces north, the sky turns steadily from a powderly blue to a cold steel gray. It will soon be dark except for the pin pricks that are the stars. The day closes quickly, I think.

I sense many endings at present. The day, of course, and the approaching solstice portends year’s finish. Classes close, and I wish good bye and good luck to students. Merry Christmas, too many of them say, when actually it is Chanukah. Oldest child finishes her semester and heads for the Spring to a season abroad studying in Israel. And what ending is this, I wonder. Perhaps this move suggests to me the move away and out, and though I feel some actual relief in my body at the exit, I feel also great sorrow as this comet heads off into the Universe. I know that these celestial wanderers fall into the Earth’s orbit at various times, but sometimes it is a long and silent wait. I watch the night skies.

Sometimes it is expectations that end. I’d hoped to re-establish some type of regular contact, but that did not occur as I had hoped. Perhaps I did not try hard enough, or else I tried too hard. The desire remains though the expectation expires.

Youngest child came home this past week-end wearing an eye make-up with which she did not leave the house. And what ending is that, I wonder?

Struggle continually to stay not intimidated by the assumptions of power and rightness by the Christian majority. Why should public school events be held in a sectarian institution of any denomination. I can’t see around this corner.

Finally, last night’s dream (night, as compared to evening, when I think my consciousness is more in control) were filled with endings, I suppose, and the mood of this day had been set by something that occurred to me yesterday or the day before.

Reading about Ludwig Wittgenstein. A very difficult man, I think. And yet another Jew whose work organized somewhat the consciousness of the 20th century.

I’m shopping for a GPS system. The compass for the 21st century—did Thoreau own a compass, I wonder?

14 December 2009

Closing Time

It is dark yet, though the lights in the house say that there is life in there. She prepares for school, not an unlengthy process these days. Sometimes I wish she’d devote similar energies to school matters as she does to dressing in the morning.

Daylight comes up so slowly, resistantly I think. It is for me not a metaphor but a fact: winter is for staying inside. Nonetheless, I’ve got my running gear on and I’m putting on the iPod and Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, and we’ll try to think through the cold. Or in spite of it, I suppose. I see that the temperature is well above zero.

Astrophysicists (oh, and others, too) teach us that the universe is expanding, but they do not tell us into what it expands. I think that into what it expands is our notion of God or immortality.

09 December 2009

Snow Days

Snow Day today—though twice it snowed in October, this could be called the first Winter Storm. Indeed, that is exactly what the weather people called it: last evening they issued a Winter Storm warning. And right on schedule, the winter storm arrived dropping inches of snow on the ground where it was instantly blown about by steady and heavy winds, the drifting snows landing almost directly in front of every egress and ingress on the premises. I spend some unpleasant time today shoveling my way into and out of Walden.

It must have been a serious storm because Governor Doyle closed all government offices—even the University campuses. Interesting, because yesterday afternoon the Chancellor announced that the University never closes. Immediately, it was closed. Ozymandias, King of Kings.

I’ve spent not an inconsiderable amount of time lately avoiding the news. Oh, I check the headlines to ensure that the world remains somewhat intact, and I look at the ages of those recently deceased, but I am loathe to despoil my days with rumor and innuendo and unpleasantries. I know that the health care reform travels with great travail through Congress, and that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rage and to continue. Men still cannot help but make fools of themselves: even as they advocate moral behavior for every one else they betray their venality. The latest exposé exposes Tiger Woods. Ah, how the society seems filled with Trojan Horses.

The semester draws again to a close; I’ve not done enough, and I’ve done too much. I’ll be glad to see it pass.

08 December 2009

Esau and Jacob

I come out here to Walden in the now-cold early mornings from a very warm bed. At 5:30am the air is crisply cold, and lately the night has been sharply clear. The stars don’t really twinkle, but rest in the skies setting limits to how far I can see. In Everyman, Roth writes that the stars remind him of imminent death, but then, this is a very unhappy book. Though in Roth novels there is great physical and even emotional joys at time, ah, they are short lived. I can’t cease thinking of the closing of The Professor of Desire, and Kepesh’s recognition that his happiness will soon end despite his sincere desire that it not cease.

I haven’t had much energy for concentration out here of late, and it has not been a time of peace despite the loveliness of the place. Trying to coordinate and support so many lives has become exhausting, and I think at times I’ve become the nightmare of my dreams. I obsess about things I caution others to let go; I pile up too many books to read and then can not decide which to next begin; I plan writing projects but distract myself with my own insecurities and inadequacies; I sweep the floor with too much energy.

I’ve been thinking of Symphony #1, searching for a structure because I think the themes are in place. And I’ve been thinking about Felix Mendelssohn, and Esau and Jacob.

After almost 40 years of separation, the brothers meet again across the River Jakkob. And seeing his brother, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” I’ve been thinking: why is the action described from the perspective of Esau? Other than his weeping (perhaps out of some relief that his brother, whom he had viciously tricked out of his birthright and his blessing), what was Jacob’s response to this meeting? Why doesn’t the Torah record anything but his fear of Esau’s retribution?

And then Esau seems to ask to be introduced to the groups of people traveling with Jacob, and then wonders what all of the company with which he meets him means. And Jacob says that all that he travels with is his gift to his brother, “To gain my lord’s favor.” And Esau refuses the offer, saying that he has all that he needs, and begs Jacob to keep what he has for himself. But Jacob insists, and Esau finally accepts the gift.

I know that it is very hard to accept a gift sometimes—often at times more difficult to accept than to give. But I think Esau sincerely has no interest in Jacob’s offer; Esau is content to be reunited with his brother. And Jacob’s insistence that Esau accept his gift is an insincere offer: the ‘gift’’ is a ‘bribe.’ Esau’s emotional response to seeing Jacob is not reciprocated; Jacob is again vying for position, continuing to prevaricate and manipulate, and responding with disingenuousness. My heart breaks for Esau, the older brother. I am an older brother.

Esau invites Jacob to his home with all his family and flocks and servants. “”Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.” Esau understands that Jacob is traveling with his children. Jacob suggests that his pace will be too slow, but if Esau will travel ahead at a faster pace, Jacob will soon follow. And Esau begs Jacob to let him leave some of his own people behind to assist Jacob on his way, and again, Jacob refuses the offer.

The plan was to meet at Esau’s home in Seir, but Jacob does not go there; “Jacob journeyed on to Succoth, and built a house for himself, and made stalls for his cattle.” And Esau waiting endlessly for his brother to arrive.

I suspect the Rabbis excuse Jacob whose mission was to return to the land of his fathers. They admire his devotion to his purpose.

I suppose the Rabbis excuse Jacob by impugning Esau’s motives and sincerity.

I don’t care. I ache for Esau.

02 December 2009

Cinnamon Toast

I think it was at Pierce Camp Birchmont. I was somewhere under the age of twelve, I suspect, but maybe not. Birchmont was where our parents sent us for eight weeks during the summers; we always believed it was for our benefits and pleasure, though in no small part were their motives selfless: eight weeks without children in the house after 44 weeks with them is no small vacation! They would, of course, visit us at least once during the summer—usually after four weeks had passed, and they even had begun to miss us a bit.

Camp was lovely for me, actually. There was the usual daily activities and rivalries, but on the whole summers at Birchmont were pleasurable and deeply satisfying to this young boy; except for the fact that Roy Fliegenheimer could do a perfect imitation of Donald Duck which would earn him all kinds of attention and social accolade, I don’t remember an unpleasant moment in the several summers I was in attendance. I had my first taste of innocent, sexual attraction to a girl named, I think, Denise.

But one sharp detail returns consistently in my memory: the breakfasts that consisted of cinnamon toast. That was it, just cinnamon toast, juice (though I suspect this latter might have been a variety of what we termed ‘bug juice’) and milk. The toast would arrive at the table in woven baskets (though they might have been baskets of red plastic), filled with deliciously aromatic whole bread slices cut on the diagonal. We could see the toasted mounds of cinnamon and sugar, and our mouths began tasting even before our plates were filled. Every one at the table (eight to a table usually) would get two pieces at the outset, and when the basket had been emptied, we were allowed to send back for seconds. On a good day, on a very good day, we returned for a third portion.

I don’t know how they made it, because I have never been able to reproduce the taste or the texture of this very special breakfast delight. I couldn’t make this myself, though not for lack of trying, because I lacked some very essential ingredients: summer and the Camp Birchmont dining hall. I recognize this now, and have almost ceased trying to duplicate the delicacy. I do keep trying to feed my children on my childhood. But the perfect tastes of buttered white bread toast, topped with cinnamon and sugar, and baked mostly to perfection (or was it simply placed briefly under the broilers?), served hot and just short of plentiful, opened the day with magnificence and delight, and even all my petty jealousies dissolved for the moments in the sweetness of that cinnamon toast breakfast.