Thursday, December 10, 2009

On Emily Dickinson's Birthday

This short verse is based on a fragment Emily Dickinson left in her notebooks

Love is like life, only longer—

Love is like death, only stronger—

Love is like Zion, only farther—

Love is like iron, only harder—

But prone to rust—

Love is the Holy Ghost telling dust—

Live, because you must.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kaylie Jones Lies My Mother Never Told Me

Kaylie Jones’s new memoir , “Lies My Mother Never Told Me,” comes out this month.

The book is a brilliant gem. I read it twice, it was so filled with humor, insight and courage.

There are so many amazing stories that one immediately wants to tell someone else.

Her mother’s exploits will top most every “You won’t believe what my mother did” story. Once, Kaylie’s mother smashed her car through a truck that blocked her into a parking spot. She totaled her car, but drove on. Jones also shares intimate moments with many of the writers she knew, from her father, James Jones, to Kurt Vonnegut and Ron Kovic, author of “Born on the Fourth of July.”

Every storyteller’s child struggles to put together their own version. But James Jones gave his daughter the wisdom to see beyond anyone’s truth, to see both sides of a story. The encounters she chronicles can be divided into two kinds: someone fights to be right, or someone gives unconditionally. Those who fight to be right always end up losing more.

The title, “Lies My Mother Never Told Me” captures the way stories people tell sometime cover darker truths. And one can lie with silence.

The book shows that the only way to speak the truth is to speak with love. As James Baldwin says, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

Ms. Jones found the courage to face her own secrets and deal with her fears, to work to become stronger. It struck me, in reading this, that it takes so much courage to make peace, and we must start with our own battles—lost or won. As the daughter of a writer who sought to chronicle the story of the common soldiers of WWII, she has taken his lessons and worked to speak out for peace.

The story of Kaylie’s well-lived life, her father, whom she lost as a child, and her troubled, brilliant mother reminds me of these lines from Roethke’s notebook, “Straw for the Fire.”

I live in a country

The land of the free—

Did I eat my mother

Or did she eat me?

Or was the devouring done mutually?

I cherish her image

When I look in the glass,

I was a true son:

Of the middle class.

But now shapes and shadows

Throng the stair and the hall

And I lie thinking

Nothing at all, nothing at all.

Outside, the slow winds

Move through the long grass,

Where my father keeps moaning

Alas, alas.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

We Can Change the World

I heard that these lines are inscribed on a tombstone in Westminster Abbey:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.” ~Unknown monk, 1100 AD

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Melville on God

Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!—pause!—one word!—whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? 

wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!—stay thy hand!—but one single word with thee! Nay—the shuttle flies—the figures float from forth the loom; the fresher-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Earth Day

                                                                   Happy Earth Day!

I say this in a whisper,

for the time has not yet come—

only with long, hard labor

may obscure heaven be won.


Our sky is temporary,

and never forget this fact:

heaven’s a house you carry

forever on your back.


Osip Mandelstam—translated by Holly Woodward

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Single Shoot

            Manet painted one small asparagus stem on a miniature canvas and sent it to a collector who had paid two hundred francs more than the painter had asked for his picture of a bunch of the stems. 

If you look closely, this one shoot, pale, plump, lying across the canvas like a nude, holds every color of the rainbow: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and rose.  All his life Manet wanted to be accepted and couldn’t understand why such an apparently simple aim proved beyond his grasp.  But this tentative stem that appears after the first spring rains, stretches, a frail rainbow of hope over the edge of a marble (cutting?) slab, reaches out to us like the innocent, hopeful finger of Michelangelo’s Adam.

Manet's Painting of the Folies Bergeres

Manet at the Folies-Bergère

You realize as you look at the serving girl’s face that you have just asked for something she doesn’t sell—at least to you—though it is on display.  Intoxication.  Everything glitters as if glazed: the fruits, the liquor, her eyes.  That marble slab that looks like the lid of a sarcophagus—is she holding it up or down?  It seems that she is pressing down with all the weariness she can muster.  Nevertheless you will never get over it.  Beyond her you see the ugly face of a man in need and realized with a shock it’s your own reflection.  Under his lips are two blood-red spots; his raised fist grips a dark stick.  Now you understand the expression on her face.  And that all these people must also see it.  This is a theater, and through some terrible mix-up, one of those extravagant rearrangements the dream director is never too tired to manage, the theater has been completely rearranged so you are at the center.  The acrobat’s death-defying feats in the far left corner are a lame attempt to distract the audience from its own self-denying death.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bernard Madoff and a current bestseller

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” was written by the Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, who died shortly after completing the book in 2004. It is a thriller with a powerful financial criminal and the crisis he brings to the financial markets. The resemblance to our current crisis, and Bernard Madoff’s role is eerie.  Near the book's close, Larsson speaks of the stock crash:
The Stockholm Stock exchange found itself in freefall and a handful of financial yuppies were threatening to throw themselves out of windows.
And the hero says:
“The idea that Sweden’s economy is headed for a crash is nonsense,” Bloomkvist said.
“We are experiencing the largest single drop in the history of the Swedish stock exchange—and you think that’s nonsense?”
“You have to distinguish between two things—the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day . . .. That’s the Swedish economy and it’s just as strong or weak today as it was a week ago. . . . The Swedish Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions. It doesn’t have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy . . .. It only means that a bunch of heavy speculators are now moving their shareholdings from Swedish companies . . . systematically and perhaps deliberately damaging the Swedish economy in order to satisfy profit interests. For at least twenty years, many financial reporters have refrained from scrutinizing [the greatest perpetrator of fraud]. On the contrary, they have actually helped to build up his prestige by publishing brainless, idolatrous portraits. If they had been doing their work properly, we would not find ourselves in this situation today.”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What Really Matters

Malcolm Gladwell's new book, "Outliers" is, like all his books, clear, concise and innovative in its perspectives.
He focuses on getting to the facts under the accepted illusions. What characteristics are crucial for success in life, and which hinder it? As a teacher, I found it required reading, for its gimlet-eyed view of what does and doesn't work in our schools today.
One thing: he says that one test question seemed impossible:
Teeth are to hens as nests are to ?
That's easy.  There's an old expression that something is as rare as hen's teeth.  So what bird rarely has nests?  The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other species, so I think the answer is:
Teeth are to hens as nests are to cuckoos.
Check out his website for more info.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Life Well Lived

WAGNER--Rubin, 89. It is with profound sorrow that we announce the
passing of Rubin Wagner, for over 66 years the proud husband of the late
Sima Wagner, patriarch of our family and mentor to so many. Ruby lived a
life devoted to his wife, his children, Harry and Leon, his daughters in
law, Myra and Marsha, and his grandchildren Elliot, Lauren, Gabriel and
Daniel. For his dedication to his family, to his friends, to those in
need; for his jokes, "have you heard my latest?", for his good humor and
love of Judaism and Israel, and for the respect with which he treated
his fellow man, rich or poor, Ruby was widely loved by the countless
people whose lives he had touched. Born Ruvke Wajner (pronounced Viner)
in Vilna, Lithuania, Ruby was the older son of Aron and Sore Chana, both
of whom perished in the Holocaust, and brother of Mendel who disappeared
into the Ponary forest. At the outbreak of World War II Soviet Russia
invaded Vilna and ceded it to Lithuania. On February 20, 1940 at the age
of 20, Ruby eloped with the love of his life, Sima Benosher. In June
1941, Soviet Russia annexed Lithuania and closed Jewish institutions.
Sima, Ruby and baby daughter, Sheyna, lived together with his parents in
a life of relative comfort where their baby's 'feet never touched the
ground' from the constant love and attention she received from her
grandparents. A year later the Germans entered Vilna. Ruby cared for his
family in the ghetto. He survived the war in concentration camps often
working as a barber, a skill he had learned in his mother's thriving
beauty salon. Ruby was liberated in 1945 unaware that his daughter had
perished or that his wife survived. Sima and Ruby were reunited to begin
life again, lived in Heidenheim, Germany among many friends, had their
first son, Aron (Harry) and in May 1949 set sail for America. Beginning
in a railroad flat apartment at 1958 Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn,
Ruby did what he had to do to support his family eventually becoming a
barber in a shop in the basement of the famous Hearst Building near
Columbus Circle. A few years later he had the opportunity to go into
partnership to build one single-family house in what was then the
farmland of Huntington, New York. He asked the advice of one of his
successful clients who told him, 'the barber chair will be here if it
doesn't work out.' Founding Ripley Associates and Forest Green Ruby and
his longtime business partner, Victor Cynamon, built many homes,
developed much property, at one time becoming a large landowner in
Huntington. Moving to Roslyn, New York then Aventura, Florida Ruby was
always active in his community whether planning cantorial concerts,
doing what was needed at his synagogues, or participating in Holocaust
remembrance. Throughout his life Ruby was a proud 'Vilner', to him a
very special identity. Vilna was an important center of Jewish life, a
center of Jewish learning, a nexus of Yiddishkeit. Ruby was one of the
publishers of 'Vilna in Pictures' a highly regarded pictorial history by
Lazar Ran, the longtime editor of 'The Daily Forward', a project on
which he and his colleagues worked for many years. From his youth an
aficionado of soccer, Ruby came to love the Brooklyn Dodgers and New
York Mets. He loved his weekly poker games, vacations in the Catskills;
he loved happy occasions, Chivas, and any food that starts with the
letter 'a' (as in 'a shtikkele cake, a drink', etc.). Finally, Ruby
deeply loved the country that gave him and his extended family the
opportunity to rebuild their lives and flourish from the horrors that
they had survived. Funeral service will be held on Sunday, March 8th at
12:00pm at Gutterman's, 8000 Jericho Turnpike, Woodbury, NY 11797 P:
516-921-5757. Shiva will be held on Sunday through Wednesday: Sunday and
Monday at the home of Harry Wagner 23 Tamara Court, Melville, NY 11747
Sunday: all day, Monday: beginning at 6pm, Tuesday at the home of Leon
Wagner, 8 Lincoln Woods Purchase, NY 10577, beginning at 6:00pm,
Wednesday at the apartment of Elissa and Great Neck Richman 860 United
Nations Plaza, #35A New York, NY 10017, beginning at 6pm. In lieu of
food, the Wagners would appreciate a contribution in memory of Rubin
Wagner to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 15 West 16th Street,
NY 10011.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Notes on the Neighborhood

Our solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago.
If the sun were hollow, it would take a million moons to fill it up. The sun is average in temperature: 10,000 F. The energy of nuclear reactions at its core takes 30,000 years to reach the surface.
Mercury’s temperature varies between 800 by day and -300 at night. One day lasts 1400 hours; it spins slow and orbits fast.
Venus is the hottest planet at 900 F. Venus’ day is longer than its year, 225 earth days.
Mars has no intrinsic magnetic field. It has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, the Latin words fear and panic.
Saturn’s rings are thousands of braided, differently colored rings of gas. It takes 29 earth years to revolve around the sun. The main rings of Saturn span 165,000 miles, but the bands are on average only 150 feet thick.
Saturn is seven hundred times Earth’s size, but so light that if one could drop it in a pool, it would float.
Saturn spins so fast that its day last less than eleven earth hours.
The planet is still molten, mostly gas, but the force of the planet’s mass turned hydrogen into liquid metal that creates a great magnetism. So its wide atmosphere is wracked by updrafts and storms. Winds blast at supersonic speeds, thousands of miles an hour.
Saturn has thirty-five named moons. Its moon, Iapetus, is half black, half white—one side of its icy surface may have been bombarded.
The largest moon, Titan, more massive than Mercury, is like the surface of crème brulée, a thin burned cover on molten stone. Rain may fall every century or so.
Jupiter is so large (a failed star) that it’s shrinking and that produces great heat; its core is hotter than the sun’s surface. Jupiter’s surface is covered with clouds hundreds of miles thick. Jupiter’s spot is two to three earths across; it’s a storm that has changed pattern but has never been known to move. Under the clouds, Jupiter is covered with volcanoes; it is entirely resurfaced every few years. It has at least sixteen moons; one, Io, is unique among moons for having volcanoes, too.
Uranus is on its side and half is in a 42-year night.
Neptune has the fastest winds, up to 700 mph. Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, orbits in the opposite direction of the other large moons in our solar system. It orbits the sun every 60,000 days or 164.7 years.
Astronomers argue about whether Pluto is a planet or a sad piece of flotsam; it has not cleared an orbit for itself; its moon, Charon, is the biggest moon proportionally, jerks Pluto around. Its orbit is the only one on a different plane from the others, and it’s elliptical. Pluto is closer to the sun than Neptune 20 of every 250 earth years (it takes 250 earth years for Pluto to orbit the sun, at a speed of 10,000 mph.) It has hardly enough mass to keep an atmosphere.
Ceres, the largest asteroid, is about the size of Texas, six hundred miles across.
There are at least 64 moons in our solar system.
Our moon always shows us the same face.
Earth speeds eight times faster than a bullet.
The earth is smoother than a billiard ball.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Van Gogh's Oleanders

Beside the vase of flowers lies a much-read copy of Emile Zola’s Joie de vivre. Van Gogh clearly knows that the novel’s title has an ironic edge. The heroine’s life is a long tale of woe. But after all her trials, when her maid commits suicide, the heroine doesn’t understand how anyone could voluntarily renounce life.
If one looks closely at the oleanders, Van Gogh’s emblem of love—or at any of his subjects—one finds tortured ebullience. The leaves are twisting like a crown of thorns and the boughs seem about to break under the weight of their heavy blooms. Van Gogh paints the difficulty of beauty and the beauty of difficulty.
Even when he tries to be pessimistic, as in the “The Night Café,” he can’t manage the horror and despair of Munch, for instance. Van Gogh wrote of the café painting, “I have tried to show that the café is a place where a man can ruin himself, become mad, commit a crime . . . I have tried to express the terrible human passion . . ..” But the lights billow gold against the vivid red walls, the billiard table that dominates the room like a coffin is a lively green, and on it lie a few balls yet to be sunk into the holes.
And when Van Gogh is most optimistic, there is still a tinge of sadness. Though covered with blossoms, the limbs of his trees are permanently twisted. The oleanders that offer themselves so wholly still have an element of lonely isolation and a sense of the their own impending fall.

About Face

Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Aged 51
The Ellesmere Self-Portrait
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
In 1657, the year Rembrandt painted this self-portrait, he had gone bankrupt and his possessions, including his art collection, were auctioned. The canvas has been trimmed on the top and right sides, as if reality were closing in—or to make the painting less important-looking? In the picture, Rembrandt stands stripped of all ornament; even the light seems more miserly than usual.
But if Vermeer is the master of light, Rembrandt is the shadow master. What little light falls from above manages to illuminate all his blemishes and wrinkles. Still, the face strikes me as painfully beautiful. The lack of adornment helps one see that flesh is exquisitely complex. His skin seems at once enduring and delicate, rough and vulnerable. He seems to look out at us with hope and fear. His face marks time like an open watch, but more eloquently—on the human face, traces of the past are not erased.
Rembrandt’s brush dipped in black fate still illuminates love and pride behind shy modesty. The canvases hanging around this painting seem petty, busy and silly in comparison. Rembrandt seems to look out from a deep, dark box, as if gazing through a vat of inky water. He feels miraculously present yet sadly trapped in the past.
I sense in Rembrandt as in Van Gogh a wonder at the strangeness of having a face. At fifty, Rembrandt still seems surprised at being seen—and at what he sees in his mirror and canvases. How there is flesh from which come words. How our faces see and are meant to be seen, carved by millennia of scrutiny and desire so that they may give and receive.