Monday, November 20, 2006

Fuzzy Memory and the death penalty

Years ago, I read a short citation about judicial decisions concerning the death penalty. It appeared an American history textbook – those ‘review questions’ that were always printed at the end of each chapter, to see if you were paying attention when you read your homework. It included a quote from a Supreme Court justice. I filed the quote away, and occasionally it rises out of my memory banks when I read about the death penalty. The quote was something like, “The death penalty is our way of saying to someone, you messed up your life here, go take your chances elsewhere.”

The Justice’s context, supposedly, was that such a statement was empty. The death penalty was not a human or humane way to treat another individual, no matter how heinous the crime.

I decided to search for that quote, and typed variations into the Google search bar. Either my memory, or that textbook, was fuzzier than I expected. Probably both.

The case was Furman v Georgia, the seminal 1972 case in which the Supreme Court determined that the death penalty was cruel and inhuman punishment and was contrary to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Justice William Brennan, in his concurring opinion, quoted a line from an 1864 tract written in favor of the death penalty, in which that phrase “take your chance elsewhere” was used. Judge Brennan did not use the phrase directly to support his own argument.

But much of his written opinion is brilliant, nonetheless. The citation is from the Cornell University web site of US Supreme Court decisions ( ):

Death is truly an awesome punishment. The calculated killing of a human being by the State involves, by its very nature, a denial of the executed person's humanity. The contrast with the plight of a person punished by imprisonment is evident. An individual in prison does not lose "the right to have rights." A prisoner retains, for example, the constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion, to be free of cruel and unusual punishments, and to treatment as a "person" for purposes of due process of law and the equal protection of the laws. A prisoner remains a member of the human family. Moreover, he retains the right of access to the courts. His punishment is not irrevocable. Apart from the common charge, grounded upon the recognition of human fallibility, that the punishment of death must inevitably be inflicted upon innocent men, we know that death has been the lot of men whose convictions were unconstitutionally secured in view of later, retroactively applied, holdings of this Court. The punishment itself may have been unconstitutionally inflicted, see Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), yet the finality of death precludes relief. An executed person has indeed "lost the right to have rights." As one 19th century proponent of punishing criminals by death declared,

When a man is hung, there is an end of our relations with him. His execution is a way of saying, "You are not fit for this world, take your chance elsewhere."
[n39] [p291]

39. Stephen, Capital Punishments, 69 Fraser's Magazine 753, 763 (1864).

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Poetry Thursday, Late

November in the Park

Oak leaves are the last to fall.

They skitter up and down the sidewalk,

clutter the dormant fountains,

fly updrafts past dull statues

that reflect pale sunlight filtered through thin clouds;

they climb the roof to a bell tower

streaked with green patina across once-shining copper clothing.

The maples and birch and ash long ago dropped their color,

their leaves swept away,

leaving the field to these boorish brown intruders.

The oak stays loaded with more volleys,

ready to drop another round that gets underfoot.

Soon the white carpet will arrive

and bury these drab epilogues to autumn.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Entitled to Stuff

A friend of mine is in her first year of teaching English at a liberal arts college. She is only one year removed from finishing her doctorate, and there is very little age gap between her and her students. I asked her how her first year is going, and what one thing about her classes has surprised her the most. She replied that she is taken aback by the sense of entitlement that most college students have – this notion that the teacher, the school, and society in general should be giving them their kudos and guaranteeing their success.

The same day that we had this conversation, I attended a meeting of my college alumni board. We heard a presentation from our Director of Admissions, and he discussed the challenges that the college faced in communicating with today’s prospective college students. Prominent on the list of challenges in his powerpoint: students’ sense of entitlement.

What have we wrought? I am part of the boomer generation that has raised these kids. It makes me wonder whether we have been overly-generous with our children while they lived under our umbrella.

These issues came to mind again when I read an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s collection of essays, The Way of Ignorance. Berry writes of our desire for more and more stuff:

"[we] seem to be living now with the single expectation that there should and will always be more of everything, including 'life expectancy.' This insatiable desire for more is the result of an overwhelming sense of incompleteness, which is the result of the insatiable desire for more. This is the wheel of death.”

Somehow, many of us believe we need more and more things. Worse, we think we deserve them. But we still end up cleaning out our parents’ homes when they move on – whether to a smaller living quarters or to the final calling – and most of this stuff ends up on a dumpster.

Our memories, our relationships, are much stronger than all our physical possessions. We should teach our children before we need our own dumpsters.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Poetry Thursday -- a day early

September Breaks

The day opens with summer:
the sun teases morning mist out of the grass,
the sky hues to a darker blue as it warms towards mid-day.
But the seasons are fleeting
and they tread on each other’s feet;
dark clouds rumble in
and bring the colors of fall.
Some of us look up and sigh,
resigned to the downslide of cold skies and snow
Others will ride the exploding colors
that brighten the crisper northeastern days.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Better words than mine

Eight men hijack airplanes and turn them into weapons. They kill themselves and a few thousand Americans.

We invade a country and topple their government, because the perpetrators of the airplane attack were financed, protected, and sent from that country. Then we invade a neighboring country under the same war flag, labeled ‘war on terror.’

Others have written much better than I on this subject, and with much more information and background. I do not need to elaborate on the strength of these arguments from "Foreign Affairs".

Or this from columnist John Tierney in today’s New York Times:

….Instead of declaring victory against terrorists after routing the Taliban and sending bin Laden into hiding, [America] invaded Iraq, reinvigorating Al Qaeda with a new tool for recruiting. Instead of putting the terrorist risk in perspective, Bush (with the full cooperation of Democrats and the press) set an impossible standard for making America safe.
“We’re on the offense against the terrorists on every battlefront,” Bush said last week, “and we’ll accept nothing less than complete victory.”
When you define victory that way, when you treat one attack from a disorganized band of fanatics as a menace to civilization, you’ve doomed yourself to defeat and caused more damage than they could. You can’t completely stop terrorism, but you can scare people into giving up liberties, wasting huge sums of money and sacrificing more lives than would be lost in a terrorist attack.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Poetry Thursday: Blue?

30 Years On

A man opens his trunk,

takes tentative backward steps as the lid slides open,

careful of the wheelchair slightly opened at his side.

He moves slowly,

lifts the metal chair awkwardly

over the lip of the trunk.

It is probably not his;

he brings a companion to today’s appointment,

a trip that will fill most of the day

until they return home

to the silent soundtrack of slow waiting.

I am just a passing driver on the road,

pulling out of the store with fresh coffee

and a donut, happening upon this scene as

I rush out into the sunshine and pleasant summer day,

having already slammed the lid on my trunk

after tossing in the golf clubs and shoes.

I have a different appointment on my calendar,

oblivious to the pace of this man

who lives a different day.

I hope he was me at one time,

and I know my future contains his day.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Katie Couric

How relevant is Katie Couric’s presence on CBS News? About as relevant as CBS News itself. In other words, not very.

In 1965, we all got our news in the early evening. First the local station for 30 minutes. Then the three networks brought national and international news. Cronkite, Huntley/Brinkley, and…and…who was on ABC back then?…fought it out for viewer eyeballs. These men were icons of the news, and they claimed a certain level of credibility by the sheer weight of their ratings.

That monopoly – and fight for advertising dollars – no longer exists. We now have a much broader choice of alphabet soup from CNN, Fox, MSNBC, PBS and their various segmentations. The major networks no longer have the volume of viewers, nor do their news operations have the same cachet they did forty years ago.

Katie may sit in Walter’s chair, but she doesn’t sit on the same pedestal.

And it has nothing to do with gender. The cable stations have had numerous female anchors, even going solo in front of the teleprompter. As one columnist noted today, when Katie Couric signed a $15million-a-year contract, she was the first female anchor to get a major promotion. But she was no Jackie Robinson:

Actually, the minute Katie Couric was given a $15 million paycheck to read from a teleprompter for 15 or 20 minutes a night, women won. Women have been doing that at the BBC and on American cable stations for years, and for a lot less dough. Jackie Robinson represented a revolution; Katie Couric represented a promotion.

The sad truth is, women only get to the top of places like the network evening news and Hollywood after those places are devalued. (Maureen Dowd, New York Times, 9-6-2006)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

This is not War

We do not understand this conflict. A group of men lived in our midst for months and then, acting upon orders from a religious leader the other side of the world, flew four airplanes on destructive missions. Another group of people, again dressed as our neighbors, strapped explosives to their bodies and set them off in the London subways. A Spanish train is blown up, supposedly by more compatriots of the same Islamic group.

None of these people wore military uniforms. They are not part of an organized national army. They claim no allegiance to a nation-state. We cannot see them through our night goggles, call in the coordinates, and destroy their army.

But our own leadership invokes World War II, Nazi Germany, and the cold war politics of the Soviet Union and communist China. They have no understanding of our attackers. Yes, they are evil and dangerous. But our response has been all wrong.

This is not war. This is a cultural and ethnic conflict, fought with any available improvised explosive device.

We have the wrong people in charge, and they will continue to make matters worse until we nullify them with a more powerful opposition in Congress, or vote them out.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Long live summer

Summer is over. Long live summer.

The steady summer warmth fades away by late August in upstate New York. Swimming pools are no longer useful because the evenings reduce the water temperature, and the sun cannot bring it back. Our tans begin to fade by Labor Day. We still wear shorts and shortsleeve shirts, but sweatshirts and fleece get pulled out of the closet after dinner. We will swap wardrobes within a week, and darker heavier clothes will fill our dresser drawers.

There will be brief reprieves in September. The temperature will break 75 for a short stretch of days, and we will stare wistfully at the blue skies and wish the sun would peak longer.

Then the colors will change. The green peels away and is overwhelmed by reds, golds, and brown. The sky takes on a paler blue for a canopy. We use the lawn mower less, until it sits idle in the garage with rakes leaning against it.

This is an annual transition, and we selfishly think it only happens to us. Only we New Englanders get to watch nature explode into colors as the sun wanes and the days grow shorter. Only we get to turn in circles and see the full canvas of fall painted on the hills that surround our lives. Only we can hop in our cars and drive two-lane back roads through the woods, stopping at farm stands that sell squash, gourds and pumpkins. Not true, of course – but all those Norman Rockwell paintings have created a certain level of ownership here in New England.

Count me as one who enjoys nature’s colorful show as it unfolds.

But I resent fall’s incursion into August every year. I will still wish for summer.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Writing on a word

The suggestion for Poetry Thursday was to write about a word that we like, or a word we dislike. I started working around a word that my wife's Mother hated: succulent. I started wrapping a concept or set of thoughts around that one, but couldn't get it done in time to post -- it's a work in progress, another time.

Instead, I got political. It's not a good word.


Glory does not come in the red flash
of an improvised explosive device
or in dusty streets sliced by bullets
from a dispersed crowd.
There are no orchestral crescendos
in the soundtrack,
or technicolor battleflags
ready to drape shattered flesh
after the deafening noise and searing fire.

This is war;
a short word hollered in nationalist fervor
after we stopped caring enough to share
all the other words;
a word that can take a long time to finish
as the R echoes in our throats
and rumbles across the unseen battlefield.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Marriage protection disconnect

"We're not going to stop until marriage between a man and a woman is protected," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Last week, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as being a union only between a man and a woman. The vote was 49-48.

Such a charade. Most of the arguments in favor of this amendment were simply a cover for prejudice against people who have different sexual preferences. Or, based upon sentiments such as Brownback's, they represent an actual fear of gays.

I fail to see how my marriage is threatened by two men, or two women, living together in a loving relationship. What is Brownback protecting me from?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

This week's poetry assignment

It's Thursday, and we write something about our connection to poetry. I'm not publishing verse, but will share a few thoughts about my own experience with it.

I trace my re-entry into the poetry world back to Billy Collins and 9/11, of all things.

I heard an interview with Collins on that day (or the day after, memory is fuzzy). He was the Library of Congress Poet Laureate at the time, and someone asked him what poetry would be appropriate to read in the wake of the national trauma that we had just experienced. He replied that we couldn’t do much better than read some of the Psalms.

He seemed such a thoughtful, common-sense sort of person that day, very soft-spoken but heartfelt. He pointed to the Psalms, full of passages both spiritual and poetic. So I determined to read his material.

I liked it. He writes of everyday life, his lines are direct and friendly. Most important, he brings humor into his poetry – something rarely seen in the dense, sometimes obtuse poetry written by many major Western poets over the last three centuries.

He also speaks about the role of poetry. It shouldn’t be so difficult. We work too hard at analyzing it. Poems are wonderful forms of communication, a way to tell a story or reflect on images and ideas; but they don’t have to be over-wrought. My favorite is one of his shortest poems, Introduction to Poetry:

I try to take his lesson to heart in my own material; I don’t always succeed. But we all keep writing.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Voices on PoetryThursday

This is the first week that I join with a few others who publish or write something relating to poetry every Thursday (Poetry Thursday). And just like a first-time student, I didn't get the assignment exactly right...The theme this week was to walk around for a day and listen to people talking -- and build a theme around the snippets of conversation that you hear.

I started writing a poem about neighborhood voices when I was a kid. The poem had a mind of its own and took off in a different direction. It still speaks of voices, but from a different viewpoint: hearing the voices of those around you before they become faint voices of the past.

Neighborhood Voices

I grew up next to a cemetery --
played baseball in an empty field
with headstones a distant home run to right;
rode sleds down a snow-covered hill
yet to be occupied by the dead

We were a neighborhood full of kids --
we feared the voices that might come
from the shadows of stones in moonlight,
but were daring enough to shelter ourselves
in sleeping bags near pitcher’s mound

We could read history in those acres --
a timeline running uphill in reverse order
spanning nearly ten generations of lives;
the voices began their story with hard facts
marking a calendar with birth and death

Some of the older pages had more to say --
verse scrolled along the bottom or
a carved picture framing the top,
epitaphs to give color to their lives
before the drab cold stone crumbled and forgot

My father’s grave stands in full view
of the house where my mother no longer lives,
but his voice has little to do with that place,
and so much more to do with who I am
even as the distance of place and time grows deeper.

I search the voices of those who surround me
listening to the essence and beauty of their story;
I do not want to wait until dates and numbers
are etched upon a stone planted in distant hills,
waiting for the feet of a wary child chasing a ball.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Poetry Thursday

Since November 2004, I have posted a poem on the last day of every month. It seemed like a good habit.

Turns out, others are doing it better. I did some searching last week ( debuted a new search service that scans blogs), and found a community of bloggers who focus on some aspect of poetry every Thursday. Called "Poetry Thursday", it is spearheaded by a couple of poetry lovers who have a blog by that name (I added it to my index list).

It's a great community...I'm not sure I can keep that kind of timetable! But it is another great example of the links that can be generated through the internet.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Poetry community

The online poetry community is huge.

And no, I take no credit for it just because I have posted a poem on the last day of every month. But a recent column in the Philadelphia Inquirer points out the volume of poetry being written and posted on the internet. As with so many other facets of society, the internet is the new town square and everyone can gather. The technology can eliminate the phony walls put up by income, education, ethnicity....

A million flowers bloom. So many colors, scents, and sounds.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

May's Poem of the month

A Note from Wilma Hopkins

It sits at the top of my email in-basket,
a note from Wilma Hopkins
with the enticing subject line
‘Do you love me or not?’

I have never known a Wilma,
excepting the one that Fred Flintstone
bellows for in cartoon Technicolor,
but I don’t think she took on another surname.

And I doubt that this is truly a Hopkins,
or even a woman,
begging me to learn more about
her long-lost desire for fulfillment,

particularly since I don’t even know
what or who I would be fulfilling.

Every fearful synapse in my brain
says to ignore and delete such mail from strangers
since they usually have more devious intent
like spreading electron worms that eat my words.

But how do I resist such an inquiry,
carrying, as I do,
the usual male ego that craves attention
even from ghosts beyond the screen?

To click, or not to click,
that is the impulse,
whether tis nobler
to grasp at a dream of fantasy lust,
or to send Wilma and her erotic spam
to the recycle bin of email ether.

To answer your question, Wilma,
I need to know more, but that becomes the conundrum:
I cannot know more without opening the envelope,
which would then unleash your true identity
and render my answer meaningless –
which is to say, I love you not.

Monday, May 01, 2006

National Poetry Month

April was National Poetry Month. And I missed posting a poem on the last day, as has been my habit since November 2004. Well, to be honest, I posted one and pulled it. So one day late...

Illusion of Snowfall

There is no evidence that the snow has fallen.
I see white flakes randomly careening
across the neighborhood façade,
some of them running sideways with the wind,
the larger ones falling straight down
and creating their own right of way,
ignoring the roller coaster ride of the rest.
White lines are drawn across grey granite and red brick,
cut by cars and trucks that blow through the cold smokescreen,
all in an early April motif out my office window.

But nothing hits the ground.
The oblivious grass shows only the pale green of spring,
and no slick white covers the brown cold sidewalk.
Miles of sky is filled with clouds and wind
dropping its frozen cargo in a last ditch effort of winter
to derail nature’s return to brighter colors.
I can wait it out as the sky swirls with snow,
knowing that for all its effort,
the cold will only be a vestige of the cloud’s illusion
that it can block out the growing sun.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

More Coffin

Another excerpt from Letters to a Young Doubter, William Sloan Coffin:

…a sentimentalized Christmas is so much worse than a commercialized one.
The obvious answer is that the latter never pretends to be anything else. Sentimentality, however, does not arise from the truth; it’s what’s poured on top, blurring and distorting the truth…
Now consider the Christmas crèche. The baby lies in the manger because no one in the inn would make room for a pregnant woman. The ox and the ass are not picturesque guests who just had to come and see; this is their home. The Christmas truth is that he who was to be the bread of life for human beings is laid in the feed box of animals.

At the beginning as at the end of Christ’s life, God comes off wonderfully. We do not. The inhumanity, as we used to say, “of man to man” is exceeded only by man’s inhumanity to God. That’s why I think God is not too hard to believe in, just too good to believe in, we being strangers to such goodness.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Steve Howe

Steve Howe @ Northern Lights, Clifton Park, NY

Andrew, Alex and I traveled to Northern Lights after the Maunday Thursday service. We got there in the middle of his first set. Northern Lights is a large bar with a corner stage, a few tables scattered around the front. We stood at the back of the crowd for the first set, the clatter of pool tables behind us, the bar to our right. After intermission, we wandered to the fringe of the tables and had a clear view of the stage for the second set.

Howe is 59, rather scrawny and gaunt with brownish blonde hair that is seriously thinning and pushed back over his balding pate. His glasses and thin face make him look rather professorial. When he sits, he leans over his instrument as if trying to see its bottom half, and his right foot taps alternately between his heel and toes to keep a pulse. He chatted frequently between songs, although the sound system unfortunately blurred his words. He succumbed to techno backup only once, using a recorded acoustic strumming to back his singing and steel guitar on “Soon.” It didn’t seem intrusive.

He is still a nimble player. Most of his purely acoustic numbers could be combined into one long song and most people wouldn’t know the difference. The tone, cadence, and use of alternating strumming and glissandos sound much the same on songs like “Clap,” “Mood for a Day”, and “Masquerade”. This is not to take away from his technique; both Andrew and Alex said that Howe was a great technician and player, and I’ll take their word for it, since Andrew has played a little and Alex is a trained musician. Howe has always been considered one of the best guitarists in progressive music circles…

The highlights of the show were many. Some of them were in smaller moments, like his explanation of the nuances of a new electric guitar; it made sounds Howe had never heard before, just because he turned a dial the wrong way. He did an abridged rendering of “To Be Over” on a 12-string acoustic guitar that was both subtle and powerful. His steel guitar filled the venue with incredible piercing sounds, which segued into a wonderful version of “Soon.”

The crowd brought him back for an encore, and he invited us to sing along to a song he was sure we knew. Usually, I cringe when Yes uses “Your Move” as an encore, because they can do it in their sleep and it can lack energy after so many years. But Steve broke the song into its simplest components – a strumming guitar and melodic words, even throwing in the counterpart “All we are saying is give peace a chance” to go along with the audience’s chorus.

And of course, he ended with “Clap.” Nearly all the audience did just that.

Monday, April 17, 2006

William Sloane Coffin

William Sloane Coffin died last week. The former Yale chaplain and pastor at Riverside Church in New York City was a leader in two major social movements during the 1960s, the fight for civil rights by African-Americans, and the anti-Vietnam War actions later in the same decade.

Certainly, he was more than just a man who translated belief into social action. He was also a theologian who encouraged his followers to discuss their beliefs, to study and ask questions about faith, to treat it as a journey, not a set of inflexible dogma.

Here’s an excerpt from Letters to a Young Doubter, one of his last books, published in 2005:

I think self-righteousness is the bane of human relations, of all of them – interpersonal, international, and interfaith. I’m sure it was self-righteousness that prompted Pascal to say, “Human beings never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Self-righteousness blocks out our capacity for self-criticism, destroys humility, and undermines the sense of oneness that should bind us all.
Self-righteousness inspired the Christian Crusades against Muslims and, centuries later, the Easter pogroms of Eastern Europe, the sermon-induced slaughter of Jews after the morning celebration of the resurrected rabbi. Today this same self-righteousness encourages some American Christians to cheer President Bush’s messianic militarism, a divinely ordained form of cleansing violence, and all in the name of a Jesus Christ who is the mirror opposite of the Jesus of the four Gospels.
Self-righteousness makes believers of all faiths doctrinaire, dogmatic, and mindlessly militant.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Abe Lincoln on Good Friday

Good Friday. Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday. Lincoln had told his wife that he considered that day the end of the War Between the States, although Robert E. Lee had surrendered a few days before. Lincoln’s nightmare had ended, but for some reason, his role on this earth ended with it.

Do we need to know why such events are connected? We barely know how these events occur. Historians argue over the causes of the Civil War. Generals debate the reasons for success and failure in five years of military battles. Sociologists theorize on the clash between social and economic classes before, during, and after the war that shaped the future of this country. There are even variations to the story of the actual assassination that night: how Booth escaped, what he said to the audience when he jumped to the stage, where he went, how he was caught.

When we try to identify the why, we are probably crossing the line from history into spirituality, religion, and faith. A much longer discussion.

April 14, 1865 was just another day on the Julian calendar. Centuries ago, someone picked it to commemorate the death of a Savior for a large community of Christians. John Wilkes Booth picked it to end the life of the country’s leader.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gospel of Judas

A copy of the Gospel of Judas has been translated and released. The Gnostic text claims that in the week prior to his crucifixion, Jesus told Judas that he was the only disciple who understood the true nature of Christ, and asked him to betray him to the authorities. Thus, in this week before Easter, Christians face a new interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the potential rehabilitation of a loathed figure in history.

The document dates from about 180-250AD. No one knows for sure if that is when the actual ‘gospel’ was first written, or who wrote it. One observer noted that, if those dates are original, it is as if someone wrote an eye-witness account of George Washington’s inaugural in 1940 and passed it off as history.

But no matter. This gospel, when combined with other texts discovered in the last 50 years, add to the historical record of the time period, skimpy as it is. These documents bring real people to life. They describe conversations and daily life that separates them from the tainted versions we have created in movies or television. That is the most fascinating part of this discovery: history, the recorded actions and words of real people, explained in the written word. From this history, we have derived a religious faith in something that cannot always be explained through the written word: God, Yahwe, the word that cannot be spoken because it cannot be fully comprehended in human terms.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Poetic lessons

Locked Up at the Start

I wait to act or
put pen to paper until
all mistakes are purged from the field and
I can walk without obstacles that
could have blocked my mission or
cause my failure, which I assume from the start.


It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
William Carlos Williams
from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Barry Bonds

Every athlete looks for an edge. Something that shaves two-hundredths of a second off a miler’s personal best. Something that gives a speedskater a faster stride around the oval. Something that takes off one more ounce of fat and adds another ounce of muscle for the defensive lineman.

There are many ways to gain that edge. One more hour of training in a day. Better nutrition. Additional weight on the benchpress. Daily workouts during the off-season. Visioning, spiritual study, hypnosis.

There is a fine line between very good and excellent. The former may get a baseball player sent back to TripleA. The latter gets him a starting job at third base.

Major league baseball players have bent the rules to gain that edge for decades. Corking the bat. Vaseline or saliva on the breaking ball. Razor blades in the pitcher’s glove thumb. Sharpening cleats to a knife-edge for sliding into second base.

Barry Bonds, in his drive to be the best hitter of this and any other age, took his quest to extremes. He saw others get the attention and simply did not like it. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire were being called the saviors of baseball. Their home run derby was the biggest chart on the front page of every sports section for a whole summer. McGuire's batting practice was a spectator sport, even in Barry’s home park. Couldn’t be. Sosa and McGuire weren’t in the same class as Barry Bonds, didn’t have the family heritage, the right to claim such heights -- according to Barry.

We all run into people in our lives who rub us the wrong way. They announce themselves with their egos, they have to be the center of all attention. They put others down simply to demonstrate their own superiority. Their narcissm cannot be contained or changed.

I have learned to avoid these people. They rarely do any good for those around them, they poison any environment with their selfishness and boorishness. They add no value to life.

Barry Bonds has demonstrated that he fits in that class. He would have been considered a great ballplayer, between the white lines at least, without slavishly and deliberately using strength- and performance-enhancing substances. But his ego, his need to be the unquestioned best, had to be fed – regardless of the consequences to him, his family, his friends, his team, or baseball.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Last Day of the Month = Poetry


A peaceful ride at 5:30 in the dark morning,
it feels plenty fast enough at 60 miles per hour.
Snow-wrapped trees appear and disappear mutely
through our side windows;
no other cars share the four lane highway,
our world is void of all other motion.

A tanker truck barrels by on the right,
breaking the silent darkness
like a gleaming silver missile, intent on its target,
relegating me to the status of a bug in its path,
the afterburner of his taillights quickly becoming a speck
over the next knoll of blacktop.

The night has now been pierced,
and silence no longer envelops our short trip.
Now I feel we must get there, be done,
finish the job, join the multitude
that only finds meaning at an inhuman pace,
and my right foot races the engine past 75.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Baseball Hall breaks another barrier

The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown became significantly more diverse today.

The first woman selected for the baseball Hall of Fame is Effa Manley, an African-American. Effa Manley was owner of the Brooklyn/Newark Bears of the Negro Leagues into the 1950’s, a woman who loved baseball and was not afraid to challenge the established white major league owners who wanted to raid her team.

In one swift move, the Hall of Fame broke down all kinds of barriers, just like Effa did.

Once again, a member of the local baseball community had a hand in this. Jim Overmyer of Pittsfield, Massachussets published a major study of Manley and her team, Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles. Jim toils for a New York State agency in Albany, and was a member of the local Society of American Baseball Research chapter – the same chapter that championed George Davis of Cohoes, New York for the Hall in 1998.

Nice goin’, Jim!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Every Four Years in the snow

The Winter Olympics happen every four years. Once again, I swore that I would not watch hours of Olympic events every night. The television coverage is America-centric, the events happen hours before they are broadcast in eastern standard time, and then there are the constant commercials….It runs counter to my intent to reduce the time used up in front of a television.

But then that theme starts playing. The screen is filled with white snow, sharp skies, and all those colorful skiers slashing across the mountains. And I watch.

I even become a hockey fan every four years. Not because of the American team. They play the usual brand of dump-and-run hockey that predominates in the NHL: all the action happens along the boards between bodies smashing against each other, skates and sticks poking an an inert rubber puck. The European teams are more adept at stickhandling, passing, and strategic play. Much more fun to watch.

Add to that, the Finnish team was having a great run through the Torino Olympics. They allowed only two goals during the preliminary round and were undefeated. They out-skated the Czech team and beat the Canadians. Their key players led the Olympics in scoring and assists. The Finnish Lions became the darling team of the tournament.

So I flew the flag. I tracked the games on the internet. They knocked the American team out in the first round of the medal competition, 4-3. They then shut out the Russians, who had become a favorite for the gold. The final was an all-Scandinavian affair when the Swedes eliminated the Czech team. As the Helsinki Sanomat proclaimed, it doesn’t get any better than this. Nine million people in Sweden, five million in Finland, and nary a television set tuned in to anything else.

At 8AM this morning, my television set joins them for the gold medal hockey game. I could only watch the first two periods, and the score was 2-2 before I had to go off to church. The Swedish team snatched a quick goal in the first 10 seconds of the third period – and it was over, save for mad rushes by the Finns at the Swedish goalie over the final few minutes. To no avail.

All those beautiful winter pictures in the mountains. Skiiers slashing through fog and blizzard down the slalom; downhill racers going 75 miles an hour over the icy snow, and catching an edge; cross-country skiers poling down a track with sweat poring off their faces; distance skaters bent at the waste, one pulsing arm pulling them around a turn in the oval; ski jumpers pushing off the end of the ramp, leaning out over the hill, framed against the blue sky. Plenty of contrasts and sharp lines between glorious color.

Too bad it’s nearly over.

Monday, February 06, 2006

How I write

W.H. Auden: “At any given time, I have two things on my mind: a theme that interests me and a problem of verbal form, meter, diction, etc. The theme looks for the right form; the form looks for the right theme. When the two come together, I am able to start writing.”

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Winter Street at Night

The dark look of winter fashion
tries to mute the color of the street:
too many overwrought coats of black
and brown and subdued burgundy,
all dull shades that pretend to carry
the warmth of their fabric.

But they cannot smother
the white of the snow,
the red that snaps from the flags,
the bright wet rainbow of passing cars,
or the shimmer from low streetlights
that rises from your eyes.

Monday, January 23, 2006

More blackboard poetry

There is probably a web site somewhere that collects refrigerator poetry. I have the subset of that, with far fewer words and letters, with the 2006 magnetic poetry calendar. So here's the challenge: those that have this poem generator need to start collecting and sharing. You must only use the words and letters available with the calendar -- that means no caps, no punctuation marks. Here's my entry for the day:

collect blooms which shine
and another season can fall
with gray snow
but the flowers will melt morning storms

Here's the Wikipedia entry for Magnetic Poetry:

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Music formats affect their creator's themes

A friend posted a comment on my last short blog, noting some of the downsides of music formats over the past 20 years. So, to continue the conversation...

Albums, tapes, and CDs had two other benefits that are more difficult to get in today's world of individual songs:

*Artists could tie the music together in some way: a theme, an opera, a style, a particular message.

*Artists would create musical (or even spoken) seques between songs. There are some great seques in rock: parts of the Beatle's 'Abbey Road', particularly going into "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window"; Santana's "Black Magic Woman"; Led Zeppelin and 'Living Loving Maid'; Springsteen on "The Wild, the Innocent, and the EStreet Shuffle".

Can't do those things with single songs, randomized. I've tried to recreate them by making sure certain songs play consecutively; but my MP3 player still has a distinctive gap, and sometimes an annoying electronic beep as the digital code kicks on and off...

What are some of your favorite album seques?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Convergence equals quality?

We have gone from a full house to a kid-less house, at least for one night. Pam took Andrew down I88 today and returned him to Onondaga Dorm at Binghamton U this afternoon.
Erin, meanwhile, has learned that many social and networking events for Law School occur on Thursday night. So she has remained in Albany, had dinner, and gone out. So for now, I fill up a playlist on MusicMatch Jukebox and crank up the computer speakers….Such a change from 20 years ago. Then, I would have put an album on the turntable and tried to write in a paper journal. That could last the length of one album side, or about 20 minutes. A turntable, with a needle, connected to a 20-watt-per-channel Technics receiver, and an Onkyo cassette tape deck. The receiver still serves, tied to a 5-CD Panasonic changer we got as a Christmas present, 1989. I get the turntable out every couple of years just to play an album that doesn't seem to exist beyond vinyl; the cassette player gave up its mechanical parts long ago.

I wonder if the music recording has degraded in any way through all this electronic transference?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Marcia's funeral

Yesterday was Marcia’s funeral. The thermometer read two below zero when I got up at 7:30. Bright, sharp sunshine. The church echoed with sunlight through the windows and off the soft walls, bright columns, and warm slate floor. Brass rehearsed the two pieces, Andrew replacing me for the benediction piece since I was a pallbearer.

The church parking lot and sidewalks were covered with a thin layer of crunchy snow, mixed with ice chunks and salt. Drivers crawled carefully up the driveway into parking spots. Over 200 people filled the pews by 11 – townspeople all, each of them known to Nelson through one of a number of relationships. Rotary, town clerk, choir and church member, village board. At some point, we all got mail from the Town Clerk. Two police departments stood quietly in honor.

Marcia was his eyes. He cried for his eyes as we stood by the gravesite, our backs hunched over against the cold and the sorrow.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A dinner conversation

A friend described his job with a lending company early in his career. The company worked with car dealers to offer loans. Many customers were unaware of the financial arrangements that the dealers were making. One frequent dealer tactic was to arrange a car loan for a buyer, and then send them to the lending company to get the downpayment for the car. Frequently, the customer was unaware that the downpayment was also a loan, on top of the car loan…He also had a fellow worker who would stand outside the local bars on payday and corner people who owed money as they walked out…My friend expressed considerable consternation at how individuals can be bilked out of money by questionable methods.

Another friend replied, well, yes…But I have a hard time coming up with too much sympathy for individuals who put themselves in those situations. They have some responsibility for their choices, and need to be aware of what they are signing or agreeing to. They don’t have to buy that car, or enter into that contract – they signed it, they are accountable for it.

Contrasting viewpoints. And a basic conflict that government faces: how can we protect people from themselves? We live in a capitalist society where our individual livelihood depends upon performing some function that gains us money. A company lends money to individuals who pay it back with interest – thus gaining a profit. What is the responsibility of that company to educate the individual about the contract or agreement and make sure the person knows the fiscal risks, or his own ability to pay?

We, as a society, could determine that we need to protect individuals from hurting themselves by making poor decisions. What is the cost of that protection? Using the above example, what if we wanted to do something that restricts a lending company from certain tactics. There is a cost to writing the laws, setting the rules, printing and filing contracts, and creating a team of people who oversee and enforce that protection (a government agency, the courts, enforcement means such as police, etc.). What is the return to that investment? When is it too much?

How far do we as a society go to keep individuals from failing?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

That First Blackboard verse

It has a limited vocabulary, but the 'magnetic poetry' calendar does include enough words to create something. My first creation, for what it's worth:

easy melts that storm,
the sun shines
another love season blooms:
collect blue sky and believe

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Blackboard Poetry

I received a calendar for Christmas that includes a magnetic poetry board as an appendage. The words were all connected together in a single sheet, and I need to tear them apart. Right now some of the words are flying solo, black letters on a white rectangle, all scattered across the square black background. They drift askew as if they are floating by on the tide, tipping one way or the other. Other words are still in strips, slapped in a row in the bottom corner. The strips make interesting vertical lists:

make want when light snow;
which would spring winter while sizzle shiver.

So far, I haven’t created enough room on the board to put together a cogent verse. It would be more fun if I could shake the board to randomly rearrange all the words, as if it were a Boggle game. The results might be better than my own attempts at poetry.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Making God Laugh

You hear words or phrases repeated within a short period of time. Things you have never heard before, but are not new or unique. Does it mean something? Are there messages in these connections?

Pam recently gave me a recording of Billy Collins reading his poetry. It was recorded last spring in New York. During some of his banter between poems, he quotes a friend who had told him the following line: How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.

I asked a pastor friend if he had ever heard that joke. He smiled and said that he has it on a plaque in his office: Make God laugh. Make a plan.

I am reading Semaphore by G.W. Hawkes (a plug for Lycoming here: he heads the creative writing program at the College). Last night, I read this passage:

“…but time had taught him that Time decides. His father had said it once: Man plans; God laughs.”

Why would I run across this line twice within a week? A line, or joke, or phrase, that I have never heard before? It clearly is an old chestnut, probably spoken from pulpits worldwide for eons. There are plenty of pithy, interesting phrases that I have never heard or for which I am not familiar. But why this one, now?

Far too deterministic. But I no longer discount this type of connection….

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Role of Journalists

The media is full of their ‘end-of-the-year’ lists and summaries. Much of the material is about the natural disasters during 2005: the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the Asian earthquake, New Orleans floods.

Some months ago, I wrote briefly about the disconnect frequently felt by people when hearing of major catastrophes. The impact of these events feels overwhelming, numbing, and we don’t know how to react as individuals. How can we possibly help so many people? We have different levels of empathy that is inversely proportional to the scale of the event.

A columnist from the Helsinki newspaper had an interesting perspective on the role of the media in this. The above title is a link to the full article, but here is an excerpt:

Physical or psychological closeness is an important criterion of news. Journalists do not make news items simply of what is large and important, but also about matters that touch them and touch their audience or readers. In the case of the tsunami, the dreadful fate of the Finns naturally left nobody unmoved.

And yet responsible journalism demands something more. The task of foreign correspondents and reporters is to help the readers to see the world in a broader context. To provide an opportunity to feel strongly about matters that are more distant and less familiar.

The writer, the journalist, the broadcaster are not just purveyors and repeaters of the news. The media should bring more to the story than just the facts: the truth can be told in other ways, in other images, using different words, even if the truth has different definitions for different people. There is a difference between fact and truth.