30 August 2012

Three Quarter Moon

It is too early in the morning. Perhaps I was awakened by the heat . . . but I don’t think so. In the center of the dream there was something troubling, something incurable, something dark. Interestingly enough, I was not threatened so much as disturbed by its presence, and having awakened from the dream at 3:45am, I could not fall back asleep. The moon is just past full, but its brightness illumines the landscape about my house, and it looks like day at night. The house casts its full shadow on the North side, and as I glance out of the window, I think I live in a mansion. I love the moon’s illumined glance into my room; it reminds me, I hope, that there is work to be done. Indeed, past my house at 4:00am I hear the start of the day: the tires whine on the road as workers head toward their labor.  And even that sound seems to have begun early this morning.
Gary took his grandchild to the Minnesota State Fair this past week. When we moved here from New York City the State Fair represented as dramatic a change of environment as we could imagine. Suddenly we were surrounded by sheds filled with cows and chickens and rabbits and horses; thousands of people roamed through the fair grounds eating anything as long as the consumption didn’t interfere with their rambling. Anything that could be fastened on a stick became edible. The air was redolent with the aromas of fried foods, cotton candies and animal excrement; sounds of live music floated throughout the fair grounds as did the imploring insistence of hawkers and rubes. The ferris wheel ladened with screaming happy children spun like the earth’s own pin fan, and the fair’s paths were stuffed with visitors who had traveled many miles with their year’s savings to enjoy this event. For us city dwellers, life didn’t get more strange than this proud display of agricultural achievement and hedonistic carnival of consumption.
And so Gary took his grandchild to the Minnesota State Fair this week. It was the child’s first visit, though Gary had over the years attended his share of fair events. For Gary, it wasn’t the Fair but the child’s visit to it that had brought him to the fair grounds this time. And it puzzled Gary that it wasn’t the horses or the cows or the rabbits or chickens that interested his grandchild; rather, it was the display of the skulls of small animals that intrigued the child most. “Why do you think that is?” he asked me. And I answered: “Perhaps it was for him the earliest hint of mortality.” I think that this statement figured in the dream from which this morning I awoke. Spinoza said that a free man thinks least of all of his death, but freedom is not given but must be achieved. We still have a long way to go.
But outside my cabin window now in this very early morning is the call of a pheasant who has nested in the near vicinity; the blanket of crickets chirp unconcernedly, and the black cat wends his way toward my cabin door and his breakfast. When he arrives he will call to me, hiss performatively, perfunctorily, but politely at my presence, and thank me for the food. I will return to the Monks of Tibhirine and to the room of my own. There is, indeed, much yet to be done.

24 August 2012

What Is This Shit?

In an infamous review from perhaps 1968, Robert Christgau opened his screed directed at Dylan’s Self-Portrait with the question, “What is this Shit?” I don’t think he enjoyed the album very much, though over time he may have come to some appreciation of it. Of course, Christgau’s rhetorical question as the opening of his review lacked sophistication and indicated that there would be here no indirection to find direction out. And indeed, the tenor of the review never improved; to some extent, the review was worthless except to the consumer whose faith in Christgau’s judgment would incline him to purchase the album or not.  As for me, I was apt to purchase any Dylan’s new production sight unseen—and I am still so prone. The vinyl copy of Self Portrait lies still in the bin of vinyl copies of my collection, and I am forever interested in autobiography. Perhaps Christgau’s statement spoke to his disappointment with Dylan’s product more than it spoke to the product itself, but that is neither here nor there, nor do I mean it as the topic of this blog.
Which is:        
For reasons beyond my understanding, I have been receiving subscriptions to magazines  to which I have not subscribed. For a number of years I would find the unpurchased Rolling Stone in the mailbox, and I was content to peruse the latest news of my rock n’ roll heroes and glance cursorily at its upcoming stars. But lately I have been overwhelmed with unsolicited magazines: Reader’s Digest, Parents, Redbook, Oprah, The Handyman (my personal favorite since I don’t own a hammer or screwdriver), and Newsweek. The latter is the topic here: I look at the last two covers of Newsweek magazine and I say, “What is this shit?”
The cover story of the special double issue August 13-20 identifies the 101 Best Places To Eat in the World, the list chosen, we are told, by 53 of the (I suppose) world’s finest chefs. I am certain I cold not afford to dine in any of the 53 best places to eat, and so despite the fact that the magazine was sent to my house it was not meant for me. Further, I recall Newsweek not as a magazine primarily concerned with life styles, and certainly not those of the rich and famous. I recall Newsweek as a news magazine and somewhat left of center at that., despite the comments of George Will in the back of every issue.  In this revamped version of Newsweek , (now owned and published by the Daily Beast (or is it the other way around, I don’t quite know) the editors appear to have modeled Newsweek in the style of People or Entertainment. There is in this latest incarnation no news this week: only glossy pictures, gossip and entertainment. What Newsweek displays in fact reveals what has occurred to news in the 21st century: it is no longer news but entertainment.
Finally, to my main point: in this edition, across almost the entire bottom half of the cover is the supine profiled face of a clear skinned white woman. Her face is visible only from below the eyes: she can be seen but cannot see. Her lips, painted a deep red, are slightly parted and her upper teeth are in shadow visible. Above her lips are two stalks of bright green asparagus in an image that hardly disguises the phallic nature of the event portrayed on the cover. Whether she is about to perform fellatio, or her lips represent the vagina awaiting penetration, this cover belongs to the culture of Playboy and Hustler and Shades of Grey and insults the legacy of Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite, Severeid or Murrow. If the magazine were Playboy or Hustler I would hide it beneath the mattress of my bed and away from the eyes of my daughters.
            The next week’s cover offers an image of the President with a jacket slung over his left shoulder and his face peering backwards. The photos reminds me of the cover of Sinatra albums, though it is only the top third of Obama’s body that is shown. And the caption on the cover reads, “Hit the Road Barack,” the title of the cover story by Niall Fergurson, whose harsh critrique of President Obama’s first term calls for his ouster.

Fine with me. I don’t agree with Fergurson, and I do hold to John Stuart Mill’s opinion that “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.” He can say what he wants: but Fergurson’s article is not news and does not figure as a cover story in a magazine titled Newsweek. His opinion isn’t news.

22 August 2012

Leaving Home

The last daughter leaves for college tomorrow and then there will be no one home but the old ‘uns. I thought I had been preparing myself for this event with some care, but I realized last evening that I was wrong. Yesterday began the exodus of her friends to their respective schools, boarding trains and planes and loading up automobiles for the long trek mostly east, and I suddenly realized that it was not just the absence of AR that I had to consider, but the loss of a whole world of people to whom she was connected and to whom she connected me. They were going out and I was remaining here: my dinner table would not see their like again. As I hugged each, I parted with some consistency in my life.
And so last evening I looked more fondly at the black cat with whom I have entered an uneasy friendship. He comes about usually in the morning hours earlyhe waits for me outside my cabin door at 5:30amand I offer him sufficient breakfast. And then the cat heads off for the dayI haven’t the foggiest idea where he might go. Perhaps he has another home and another feeding hole. Perhaps he just wanders off into the shaded woods for a quiet, restful day; he may even pick up a mole or mouse for lunch! And at the end of the day he makes his way back to the cabin, and sometime about dinnertime he sits before my door looking in with hungry longing. He speaks to me. When I offer him dinner he partakes eagerly, but now, rather than head off somewhere else he sits down outside my doorsometimes on the mat and sometimes on the rough grassand relaxes. And though he remains somewhat edgy when I walk in and out of the doorarising and moving some steps away from mehe returns quickly to his comfort. As I return to the cabin I take the roundabout route to keep from startling him, and last evening he didn’t move when I returned with my tea. He accepts me and grants me leave to enter.
Of course, he does not replace my daughter and her friends, but it is nice to have a regular  companion to meals.
I will miss them. 

19 August 2012

Sooner or Later

I have several memories of Stevie who died August 18 at the age of sixty-five years. I turned sixty-five years old Thursday.
Interestingly, he was always Stevie and never Steve. The feminine ending never referred to any particular characteristic as far as I could tell; but it never seemed appropriate to refer to him as anything other than Stevie. Perhaps in the midst of the existential angst of our adolescence Stevie recalled to us the simplicity of our childhoods. Of course, nothing about Stevie was simple: I spent some time with him during our high school years and I never suspected that he desired to be a medical doctor. Actually, I never imagined Stevie becoming anything: he would always be Stevie. He did become a very successful oncologist. The last time I saw him—we were sixty then and he was healthy though not in any healthy physical shape—I called him Stevie and there came no objection from him. He was Stevie.
I never understood what work his father did (as if that knowledge is necessary) but at least for some time I think he ran a photo laboratory. And I consider this because I recall spending a day or so at the laboratory playing with the equipment. It was because of Stevie that I transformed my bathroom into a photographic studio. In my memory I see the developing trays resting along the back of the toilet tank and the enlarger sitting like a stork on the sink. Despite the abundance of equipment and chemicals, I never acquired very much skill. I do not know to what extent Stevie later pursued photography; in fact, I can’t recall what provoked my interest then at all, because I don’t recall engaging in any discussion concerning photography with Stevie, nor can I recollect ever seeing him ever carrying a camera. Indeed, I think he became a relative Luddite, eschewing cell phones and answering machines. He preferred not to answer his landline telephone.
Stevie was the first entrepreneur with whom I had contact. (Of course, my father was an entrepreneur but mostly I thought of him as my father and that’s all!) Stevie had a small press on which he printed business cards. I think I helped him set the type for my small order: I had, after all, no business to advertise. Of course, Stevie charged for the service a relatively nominal fee which I dutifully paid. I don’t recall handing out a single card!
Of course, I can’t write a memorial for Stevie; having over the years lost almost all contact with him, I honestly knew little of his life. Five or so years ago we reunited for a very pleasant weekend. And then we lost touch again and his health declined precipitously. During his recuperation I talked with him on the telephone several times and we did not dwell on the past at all.
Perhaps memorials are mostly about the memorialist. We never really know anyone else, and what I write here speaks of my memories more than it expresses much of Stevie.
But one of us, I knew, had to be first. It turned out that it was Stevie, and he took a piece of me with his death.

16 August 2012

August 2012

I’ve turned on the web-radio and it is playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. All is well, I know. Whenever I listen to Beethoven I am calm and enclosed in beauty.
As I complete my 65th year I discover an interesting return of habits that once defined my daily presence in the world. In my twenties and early thirties I dressed almost always in various layers on the top of which lay a vest purchased in some vintage-clothes department down in some emporium in Greenwich Village. Then, I sported long scarves that flowed as I walked, and I wore jeans with a 29 inch waist. On my feet I wore saddle shoes or white bucks. I owned a Nehru jacket that I wore with some pride. I ran 40-50 miles a week accompanied on Sunday mornings by a radio and Vin Scelsa, but during the week I trained mostly alone.
Over the years I attempted other styles and fashions, but today when I look in the mirror I see a very recognizable face now quite gray and well-creased and a torso adorned in a manner that remains layered: at present in sleeveless cardigans or full sleeved cotton sweaters that rest atop cotton sport shirts purchased mostly from the Back Rack at Land’s End Outlet Store. Replacing the scarves I wrap myself in a necktie, and on my feet I lace saddle shoes! I have received not a few remarks concerning this style of footwear, but recently, while strolling down Hennepin Avenue, I pointed out to Mitchell a display of shoes in a very fashionable shoe store window at the center of which were nestled saddle shoes. I was clearly, I noted proudly to him, several years ahead of the fashionistas. I wear a Nehru shirt purchased in India for me by my sister, and I receive the same interesting remarks concerning it as I did back when I sported the jacket. I no longer wear jeans with a 29 inch waist, alas.
I remember once commenting to David that what I loved about wearing overalls was that in them I felt hugged by my clothes. In my layers I feel nested; I do glide smoothly through the world in my blue/bone saddle shoes. Perhaps I dress as if I am listening to Beethoven: calm and enclosed, if not in youth, then certainly in warmth and even some beauty. I’m afraid I’ve lost the nerve to wrap about me the French scarvesParis being where they were originally purchased (perhaps it is that we won’t always have Paris)but I have of late shopped in the vintage clothes stores looking for the right vests.
I run many fewer miles, but most morning I head out on the trails sans Vinny and the radio, but almost always with my dear Gary. I have begun again to study in Talmud and learn anew to be not afraid to sit up straight and study.
I believe I am returning to a core self. Back then I read Thoreau, and I find myself now intrigued by a similar seclusion and dedication in the Monks of the Carthusian and Trappist Orders. The contemplative and alternative life that Thoreau offered me then has returned in my interest in the hermits of the religious orders, though I am drawn more to the Trappist communality and community  at Tibrihine than to the more severe seclusion of the Carthusians at Grande Chartreuse. The public world of scholarship attracts me still, but perhaps over the years its many layers have repressed some central fundamental aspect of myself. Thoreau had one chair for solitude, and two for companionship, and three for company.
Perhaps this process of aging means to slough off what has accumulated over the years under the pressures of a compromised (and compromising) public presence, and like the performing clowns in the circus, as I remove layers of clothes I discover beneath only older costumes, until finally I arrive not at nakedness but at some authentic sartorial expression. I feel me. When Thoreau brought his clothes into the tailor for repair he was told that ‘they’ don’t wear this fashion anymore, and Thoreau answered that he was not ‘they,’ and he preferred his fashion to theirs. Like Bartleby, perhaps, I am today more inclined to prefer not to.
In his journal Thoreau wrote, “We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we acquire the faculty of expressing them.” Perhaps it is the task of aging to find those lost objects and shout them out aloud.
I wish myself a happy birthday and a good year.

12 August 2012

Into Great Silence

The film Into Great Silence is a long film documentary about the lives of the Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse Charterhouse in Southeast France. The Carthusian order, founded in the 11th century by St. Bruno of Cologne, is a community of hermits who in the mid-1990s gave to the film’s director unparalleled access for six months to their daily life in the charterhouse. The film, two and three quarter hours long, actually contains no more than a dozen sentences of dialogue: once during the induction of a novitiate into the order; and towards the film’s end a short statement from an elder monk concerning his fearlessness of death. Of course, always there is the occasional sound of the men at prayer, and the regular sounding of the bell calling the monks to these offices.
But mostly what is heard in the film is the silence in which these men live. The clearest sound is that of their footsteps as they move through the charterhouse, or the sound of their activity in maintaining their lives: chopping food or wood, the turning of pages of their books and their kneeling in prayer in their cells or in the sanctuaries. The men do not usually leave the cells in which they individually and solitarily reside, and on most days they engage wholly in study and prayer. Food is delivered to them and passed through a small revolving compartment; once a week, on Sundays, the men eat a communal meal in silence and once a week they take a walk on which they are allowed to speak to one another. Twice a year there is a community-wide day of recreation: in the film, the monks are seen in only their shoes sliding down a sharp incline in the mountain snow. In their simple joy they reminded me then of children at play, and in breaking the silence here one heard laughter in those who followed the ‘skiers’ move uncertainly and unbalanced down the slope. Once a year family members visit, and there is one scene in the film in which those family members (I think) are visible on that visitor’s day.
I have my images of the contemplative life, but I never imagined the perspective on it offered in this film and of these monks. These men do nothing but study, pray and write every day of their lives. They may tend their own gardens outside their cells and walled off from that of others, and they may do some manual tradeone sees a monk repairing the sole of his shoe; but for the most part they live a completely solitary existenceexcept in companionship always with their God. They do no missionary work and they do not interact with the public.
As the title suggests, the silence into which these men enter and the silence in which they choose to live is great as it is absolute, and the life that each man choosesof prayer and studyconsumes their whole existence. I considered how much of my life is taken up with concern and worry about the future: what must be next done. I am too much focused on what happens next. But I recognized that for these monks there is a great peace to their life: they do not have to hurry to do anything in order to get somewhere else. They need not worry about anything except the present: they have nowhere to go and nothing to do except study and pray in the quiet solitude of their cell. Everything about their lives is organized to allow this to occur smoothly and completely. And so the monks move slowly and easefully throughout the charterhouse: they have nowhere else to be. Indeed, their behavior offers another meaning to Estragon’s complaint, “nothing to be done.” For the monks, outside of study and prayer, that is exactly the point! During the screening of the film I found my breathing and pulse slowed and my mind achieved a relative calm. The regularity of the lives within the charterhouse occurred completely without incident or drama except that which took place in their spirituality. In a series of remarkable shots, the filmmaker offered portraits of each of the monks: for almost 30 seconds the camera looks at the face of the man and the man looks at the face of the camera and I could see in that gaze the peace that passeth understanding in which I think each of these men lived. I knew I could never enter such a life, but it was beautiful to watch the dedication and passion of these men to their Ideal. 

08 August 2012


I have returned to studying Talmud. Fifteen or so years ago I headed down into my basement and began to study in Bava Metzia. I remember my father telling me that when he began Yeshiva that this was the first tractate with which he began his study of Talmud, though that wasn’t my motive for beginning study in either Talmud or Bava Metzia. I found a great deal in Talmud that concerned education, and I published numerous articles and three books based in Talmud concerning curriculum studies, and I loved the work. I think that somewhat recently I became somewhat distracted (by what I cannot say exactly), and though once lost, now am found.
I have chosen for my effort the tractate Berakhot, in which the Rabbis deal with the prayers and worship of Israel. In nine chapters the Rabbis discuss the regulations concerning the substance and practice of daily prayer, and the forms that prayers of thanksgiving take over food and other occasions. In the latter category, for example, the Rabbis wonder what prayer should be recited when one sees a rainbow or hears a clap of thunder!
Berakhot is also filled with stories and anecdotes, the aggadah. Thus, in the midst of an extended discussion over various mishnayot of the obligations concerning the recitation of the Shema, the following appears: following the recitation of “the tefillah,” the Amidahvarious Rabbis offer different prayers. The concluding prayers of Rabbis Eleazar, Johanan, Zera, Hiyya, Rab Safra, Rabbi (Judah Ha-Nasi), Alexandri, Raba, and Mar are presented. The concluding prayers of Rab Sheshet at the end of his fast and the words of Rabbi Johanan after concluding the Book of Job are also quoted. Why, I wonder, are the prayers of each of the Rabbis given though a preference for no one of them is offered. Though I recognize the concluding prayers of Mar as closest to what has become liturgically customary, this listing in Talmud suggests that prayer is not a prescribed script, and that though there may be set prayers, to recite them as if they were no option is to issue a false supplication. Each of these scholars had a personal prayer to offer and each prayer was equally acceptable.
This democratic rationale seems to be made explicit in the passage that appears subsequent to the listing of the various final prayers of each of the Rabbis. This next section offers favorite sayings of some individual Rabbis. And in the midst of this particularized listing is the following: “A favorite saying of the Rabbis of Jabneh was: ‘I am God’s creature and my fellow is God’s creature. My work is in the town and his work is in the country, I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little. We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little; it is all one provided he directs his heart to heaven.’” This saying, unlike the previous and those that immediately follow, is attributed not to a single Rabbi but to all of the Rabbis in Jabneh—the center of the Babylonian exile and the seat of the judicial and intellectual authority. And it seems to me that this saying and its placement in the text asserts that at the base of their ethics the Rabbis argue for a radical philosophy of egalitarianism and acceptance. No exceptions. There is here expressed an egalitarianism that is remarkable in its uncompromising absoluteness. As long as we aspire to a certain devotionI am holy therefore you should be holywe are all the same regardless of our worldly situation. To engage in holiness is to remember the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midstthose most on the margins of society and most in need. How much better might the world be if it practiced what the Rabbis preached.
And then at the end of this Mishna appears the following: “Rabban Simeon B. Gamaliel says: Not everyone who desires to pass as a scholar may do so.” What does this mean in the context of this sugya, this piece of Talmud? I think here Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel suggests that to act in any way contrary to the favorite saying of the Rabbis of Jabneh is to deny one’s stature as a scholar.
I look at the front pages of the newspapers and I despair how few scholars exist today exist . . . 

03 August 2012

Another Way

It was another very warm day here. Ah, for the most part I don’t mind these days of sweltering heat—I do not have to move far or fast, and sometimes I don’t have to move anywhere at all! After the severity of the winters I would feel hypocritical to register any complaint concerning temperatures that hovered even in the nineties. This too shall pass.
I was engaged in a perfectly absurd conversation that delighted both myself and my companion. He had proposed an idea for a movie script that actually had promise, though neither he nor I had enough ambition or connection to ever make of this fantasy a reality. No matter, really, because the idea of the script was enough to occupy us throughout the meal and will delight us for the next several days, at least.
We were awaiting the delivery of our meal. At this particular eating establishment, the food is casual (I usually order a not-so-simple grilled cheese with tomato and chips, and today my companion decided on a plate of fancy scrambled eggs) and always satisfying. The waitresses are, however, notoriously and famously bad.
And when I looked up from my plate, at the counter I saw standing a lovely young woman who couldn’t have been more that twenty-five years old. She was slight, I think, by which I mean small in stature and bone. On her head she wore the scarf that covered her baldness. She wore a print dress with a scoop neck, and above her right breast and several inches below her collar bone lay the adhesive bandage that covered the port into which would drip the chemicals that would, I hope, cure her cancer.
And I considered: I hated that this beautiful young woman suffered this disease, but I admired her refusal to abandon her life to it unless there was no other choice. She walked proudly in the world, brushed her pallor with color, dressed stylishly, walked proudly, and entered the public world without embarrassment or trepidation. There was, her presence said, a way to confront the reality of the cancer treatments that were physically brutal and mentally challenging,  a manner that refused to retreat from the world defeated, and that insisted that life would, yes, continue as near as possible in its normal and daily course.

01 August 2012

Why the Question?

Where have I been? Without a question. I think I’ve been active: I run most mornings; eat a good breakfast; follow my course on line, comment on papers; do laundry; even go regularly to the movies—recently saw Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, an interesting film about a total loser. (I was going to write “a somewhat interesting film” but then realized I would have to explain what I meant by the qualifier “somewhat” and I didn’t want to do that because I’m not sure I could offer a satisfactory explanation). I drink coffee with M. and then dinner with M, and devote the evening to reading. I can account for my days, mostly.
The reading is steady and eclectic. The books accumulate and pile up on the tables, but I’m not sure what I’m looking for in the books that I read. The puritan in me refuses the motive of simple pleasure, though I do think I take pleasure in my reading.  But the reading ought to lead somewhere and the question points the direction.
Without a question there is no direction. The choices I make at any one time are random and, therefore, disconnected. I have claimed that in my active  inactivity I am filling the cup until it runneth over, but really I feel more like I can’t connect the dots. Without a question I don’t seem to go anywhere. As Dylan says, “It feels like I’m moving, but I’m standing still.” The question is what impels movement, though I understand it could also lead to immobility. I ceased to find a question.
So . . . there is a line towards the end of Tobias Woolf’s novel Old School. Interestingly, whereas this novel began with the description of the narrator and his classmates (the chapter entitled “Class Picture”), it ends with the biography of Archibald Makepeace, the former dean and teacher. This last chapter, “Master,” makes no mention of students but does recount Makepeace’s movement into the profession and his tenure as a teacher. The novel is predominantly about writing and writers—the narrator becomes a writer, and the novel offers some idea of motive and process—but the novel is also about teachers.  And I think that Woolf offers Makepeace as the quintessential teacher; what makes Arch a great teacher is his vulnerability and his flaws. Impulsively, he had left the school when the behavior of one student’s deception shone too much light on his own, but the final line of the novel quotes from the parable of the prodigal son: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.” Arch’s return to the campus as a teacher is the return to home. “Teaching made him accountable for his thoughts and as he became accountable for them he had more of them and they became sharper and deeper.” Teaching is about learning, and Arch is a learner; literature is the event in which he engages. “It was the nature of literature to behave like the fallen world it contemplated, this dusky ground where subterfuge reigns and certainty is folly, and Arch felt like some master of hounds as he led the boys deep into a story or a poem, driving them on with questions . . . until at last the truth showed its face for an instant before vanishing into some new possibility of meaning.” Literature is the answer to the question posed, and literary criticism is the attempt to discover the question to which the novel is an answer. It is, after all, the question that is central; the question is the only answer. Arch is a seeker. Arch is a teacher.
I have been unable to realize a question. And that is where I’ve been.