Saturday, December 29, 2007

Foreboding, Hope, and Peace

I have a powerful sense of foreboding today. The first contributing factor was last night's dream. I dreamt of leaky roofs and water running down our interior house walls, probably because it rained rather hard at one point during the night. Pam was marching around the house, hollering that we needed to do something, while I just looked at the walls and shrugged as if to say, do what? I can’t control these things.

The other factor was Andrew (always the kids). He drove to Long Island yesterday. We had lunch at Mike’s Hot Dogs and he left from there at about 1 in the afternoon. By 5:30 we had no phone call; naturally, I was mentally pacing by that time. I dialed him and got his voicemail. He called soon after 6; traffic from the northern suburbs and across the ThrogsNeck bridge had been heavy, slow going, but he made it with little problem. I shouldn't worry, he's a responsible and careful person; but it's instinctive for parents, I guess.

So it’s not the rain and a leaky roof. And Drew is no longer driving all over metroNewYork, and will be in good hands with his girlfriend and her family through New Year’s. The first isn't reality, and the second is just parental fears.

The final factor is Bhutto. Her assassination is startling to me. It could be foreseen: attempts on her life were made the day she re-entered her native Pakistan in October. She was under constant guard, and she choose to lift her head through the sunroof of her protected vehicle. She now becomes a martyr, but with a different style: female, beautiful, Harvard-educated, the political daughter of a former prime minister who hugged her father before he was hanged for political reasons years ago. I do not know the social, political, and familial dynamics of that country, but she seems to represent a social order that is the current antithesis of the religious intransigience from Al-Queda and the Taliban.

The Jewish/Islamic middle east has five fuses: Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. They have been smoldering for decades, and a few of them have exploded at various junctures. Bhutto’s death might signal another explosion, and it could be the most dangerous of all.

We just celebrated Christmas, a holiday that represents the essence of hope and peace. Hope for Peace.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Within a Forest Dark

A friend of ours, Michael Virtanen, has published a book. Within a Forest Dark is the story of Jack Kirkland, an insurance adjuster in Saratoga Springs whose life is unraveling – his wife has left him, his secretary calls him a jerk, and his boss is cutting him out of the business. The core of the story revolves around a life insurance case he is investigating in which the widow may have had a hand in the death. Jack falls in love with the woman and has to deal with his own conflicted feelings as he digs into the details of the case.

As they say, those are the facts of the case. But the book is more than just a detective whodunit. Since Michael is a member of our book group, and we have selected his book to discuss at our next meeting, I can't express more than this.

I can say this: buy the book. You won't be disappointed.

Within a Forest Dark: An Adirondack Tale of Love and Suspicion, by Michael Virtanen. Lost Pond Press, Saranac Lake, NY. .

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Jethro Tull

Andrew and I attended a rock concert on Thursday night, where a flute and string recital broke out.

Jethro Tull has existed for nearly forty years. They started as a blues band and migrated through heavy rock, pop, extended soft-rock operas, and Celtic-influenced folk music. Ian Anderson, the leader of the group, is a rakish fellow from Scotland with a devil complex. His signature instrument is the flute, which he plays while hopping around the stage or standing on one leg, the other doing its own little back-and-forth exercise like a flamingo.

The first number in the concert was Anderson and his guitarist, Martin Barre, doing a short blues song in a single centered spotlight. Anderson played a harmonica between phrases, Barre throwing in the typical blues riffs in response. That was the end of the R&B portion of the night.

In fact, the rock groupies in the crowd were likely disappointed by the whole evening. Jethro Tull’s signature album was 1970’s Aqualung, a loud dark collection of true heavy rock. Because classic rock radio has kept that flag flying for four decades by playing songs such as the title track, Cross-Eyed Mary, and Locomotive Breath, all but diehard fans associate Jethro Tull with these guitar-driven rock songs.

But that is not what Ian Anderson creates today, nor where the group even shines. Some of the change is due to musical maturation. Some is simple age and health – Anderson’s voice no longer has the strength or range to holler all those lyrics over the decibels of big guitars and drums. The weakest number all night was Thick as a Brick, a long piece whose thin construction was exposed ; Anderson is no longer capable of holding a note past a couple of beats, and he had to take a break while the band did an instrumental.

And so, the flute takes the lead. A string quartet consisting of four young women from Boston joined the group on stage for about half their numbers. Their first foray was with a medley of songs from War Child and Songs From the Wood. Anderson would throw in a flute line, and then run off stage, only to return a few bars later to toss another flute solo over the warm strings. This was all done over strong understated percussion played by the drummer on bongos and the bass player on hand tympani.

Anderson joked between every song, usually telling some cute story about the next number. He introduced Aqualung by saying that the next song would feature a way to insert his flute into the classic “Stairway to ….[pause] Aqualung.” The strings started the number, and Anderson played the opening vocal parts on his flute. The song had a totally different life, one with shifting tempos and patterns; only once did Martin Barre step to stage front fringe and rip off the signature riff at full volume.

And so the night went: familiar tunes were toned to a different level, as the group clearly demonstrated its Celtic roots over any other influence. And it worked. The flute has center stage, and Anderson takes the lead. He creates his own language with the instrument by grunting, groaning, or talking through it while still producing raucous or lilting runs. He rarely stands still.

They ended the show with Nothing is Easy, and they made it sound easy. It could have been lifted right off their greatest hits collection. The crowd stood, cigarette lighters mixed with cell phone screens in the dark theater. The encore started with one spotlight on the keyboard player, and the rest of the band kicked into Locomotive Breath.

They ripped and tore right through that one. Rock lived.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Belated Humility

I rarely go back and read my previous blog material, mainly because I have to resist the urge to edit or rewrite the stuff, or I find it unreadable. Today I checked back to see how long ago I did my first post and I was reviewing some of the first postings in December 2004.

On Christmas Eve that year, I quoted from a story called “Jacob the Baker” by Noah BenShea. A friend had shared this rather famous story, and it was my first exposure to BenShea and his series. I was very touched by the story, and I quoted extensively from it. At the bottom of the post, however, I discovered something new:

Noah BenShea had left a comment on my blog.

It took me three years to read it. Today, my blog will notify me if I get comments. But back then, I was a neophyte on my first journey into blogdom, and unless I deliberately went back to re-read a post, I didn’t read comments left on my blog.

Noah said he was honored by my quote. Three years later, I am flattered and humbled that he would read my material. And rather nonplussed that I am only now acknowledging it!

Thanks, Noah.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A building falls in the neighborhood


You leave town for a few months, and things change. The neighborhood doesn’t look the same. Some of the buildings have fallen down. A few of the houses have a faded look to them. People have drifted away. Stray papers blow in the wind, down empty streets.

But that is the ephemeral nature of the internet. I discovered this when I revisited the Poetry Thursday site today.

I used to contribute to the website called Poetry Thursday. I had read about it over a year ago, in a column by a Philadelphia newspaper quoted in the poetry page on Two women, Liz and Dana, had begun a blog about poetry, and were soliciting contributors to write a poem every Thursday. You would post a poem on your own blog and link it to their site. The two bloggers would even suggest a subject for the weekly submission, and encourage – but not require – that the poems relate to that subject. It was a fun way to publish a poem in a quiet little corner of the world, get some feedback, and converse with a few other authors.

Because I have been AWOL from my own digital publication since July, I haven’t checked back with Poetry Thursday in a few months. Today I clicked to the site and discovered that the two women had closed up shop after 18 months. Each of them is moving on to other outlets and new educational adventures. They had solicited their last poems at the end of August, and promised to keep the site up as an archived web site into 2008.

Liz and Dana are two more people that I met electronically through these new communications and communities, but will probably never meet in person. For all I know, they could be two guys named Gus and Bill, but I doubt it. I do know that they provided a nice little service to a bunch of disparate (desperate?) poets around the world. Go read some of the creativity that they fostered, before it disappears.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer died yesterday.

Mailer spoke at the New York State Writer’s Institute this past May. He was physically rather weak; he used a cane in each hand as he gingerly approached a table on stage and sat behind it. But his voice was still strong, deep and resonant, as if it was coming from the deepest part of the bass clef. There were a few hints of the old braggadacio in his presentation, and I remember him challenging some of the questioners from the audience.

As is usually the case at these author forums, someone asked Mailer what advice he would give an aspiring writer. He responded by saying that there had to be some mental element that would punish an author who did not write. Every evening, an author has to schedule a certain number of hours that he or she will write the next day. You need to end the day by saying, I will write for three hours, or five hours, or some rational target, the next day. If that schedule is not kept, you will fail – you will never develop the necessary discipline to succeed at the craft, no matter how skilled you are at using the language. To Mailer, writing was a discipline triggered by guilt. You need the internal nag.

I have someone who acts as my nag. She consistently reminds me of the gaps in my writing. She recently pointed out that I might be writing, but if I’m not posting it, she can’t read what I am writing.

We all need champions, someone who identifies our particular skill and encourages us to use them. We need an angel to bring the message. The true incentive, however, has to come from our own mind, our own soul, our own hearts. It has to be an internal need – an itch to be scratched, an ache to be soothed, a craving that requires fulfillment.

From there, comes the discipline to succeed. The angel can remind and push us, but the true desire comes from inside.

Norman Mailer may not be the best of models. Much of his life was loud, impetuous, audacious, and deliberately confrontational. He was much older before he confronted his own stability and the satisfaction he gained solely from his written creations.

But his writing will certainly outlive him. His admonition – to listen to our internal nag -- is one for all writers to heed.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Independence Day

On a noontime walk, I visited the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, an Episcopal Cathedral built in the 1880s. Massive stone interior chancel and nave, smaller chapels in the side corridors, perpendicular to the main sanctuary. A plaque is mounted on the side wall of the eastern chapel with the words of George Ashton Oldham, the 3d Bishop of Albany (b1877 – d1963). Entitled "America First", the words on this plaque were from a sermon delivered in Washington, DC in 1924.

I know nothing of Mr. Oldham. The "America First" movement was a rabid isolationist initiative, a social and political belief that we should stay away from all foreign encounters. I do not believe Oldham espoused those same views. His message was a more compassionate one, a call to transform ourselves into a nation that is first in 'things of spirit', rather than 'treading again the old, worn, bloody pathway which ends inevitably in chaos and disaster.'

We celebrate the Fourth of July as a day to mark our country’s independence, to celebrate the freedom that our country supposedly represents. Oldham puts this freedom, and our role as its beacon, in a Christian context – a message that runs counter to our current actions in Iraq. Oldham's words ring just as true now as they did in 1924. But we have much to learn as a country and as a mentor for human behavior in the world.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

What Not to Wear, in Verse


Jane commented on my socks.
I saw them as black,
she said one was gray
and other was black,
and that made them wrong.
I only saw the alternate toe design,
one with a white grid, the other without,
so I suppose that made them different.

But when I put my sneakers on and stood,
none of this mattered.
Just a small strip of black between
the top of my shoes and
the bottom of my jeans.
By then, Jane forgot about
my sartorial inelegance

as I slipped my plaid tweed jacket
over a striped shirt
and we walked out into the July sun.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Baseball from 4000 feet

My flight from Dallas to Philadelphia ended in a holding pattern over Philly, as the plane took three circles around northern Delaware and southern Pennsylvania, each one tighter than the other. The pilot even made a joke about it, calling it 'The Philly Factor".

We were fairly low, so I gazed out the window and took in the sights in the setting sun. This still feels incomplete...

Row 747, Upper Deck

At four thousand feet,
I search for baseball fields.
They will appear stamped into the landscape --
sometimes a pair at angles to each other
in a green neighborhood square,
sometimes a collection of brown diamonds
and connected green outfields
symmetrically placed near a building,
probably the school,
sprawled on the fringe of town.

But what I wish for
is that random trampled ground
marked out with four uneven scars for bases
and pitcher’s dirt torn in the middle of unmanicured grass --
where a flock of kids chase a white dot
while one boy tosses aside his toothpick of a bat
as he streaks down the thin brown path
and lands safely on first,
wheels down, far below.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Poetry Thursday -- on Saturday

Spring Explodes

As the bird sings,
the flower shivers;
and I ask if spring
would always arrive
as a blue-sky storm.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Poetry Thursday

I haven't checked out the Poetry Thursday site for this week's theme -- or any theme for a few weeks. But it is Thursday, so let's publish.

On the train to NYC, 7:30AM

The spring river reflects an early morning sky,
the calm air keeps the mirror clean;
a thin streak of white cloud
floats quietly from shore to shore.
The pale blue background is broken
only by ripples from a duck
painting her way across the wet canvass.
Bare trees create a row of inverted wet brushes
dipping their stiff bristles into the picture,
the roots of unblossomed lilies.

I throw a rock.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Angry voices?

Where are the angry voices?

Over 3000 Americans have been killed in a country on the other side of the world. The President started the war using faulty reasons, based upon inaccurate and contrived information from his own advisors. He probably lied in order to cover the true reasons for invasion.

And not only are there few angry voices. But we elected the same guy to a second term as President.

Over forty years ago, another pointless war was launched with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. We now know that was a lie.

Déjà vu. There are so many things wrong with this picture. We were attacked, but it was not the act of a specific country – so it was harder to identify a boundary to cross, a capital city to capture, an army to defeat. We picked Afghanistan because we believed their management was of the same ilk as our attackers. Or, at a minimum, they were harboring the enemies that planned the attack.

Our military made quick work toppling that government. We never found our quarry, but few people seemed to mind. We gained some amount of vengeance.

It apparently was not enough for our own leaders. We flexed our muscle across another border, toppled another sectarian autocratic government – and set off a firestorm that has killed thousands, displaced more thousands, and created geographic chaos in an area that can ill afford more instability.

To what end? I see none. I see no end, because a weak man such as George Bush cannot back down. I see no end, because Iraq is torn into at least three pieces and American soldiers are the only buffer. I see no end, because our political and economic leaders fear losing access to a large pool of oil.

Vengeance, money, power, and oil. For this to accrue to the few, many must die.

Where are the angry voices?

Sunday, January 28, 2007



This is not just
the rung on a ladder,
or a long climb
up some steep hill,
For life is neither.
This is your heart
telling your soul
that it knows your path,
that you have the will to walk it,
And the sun is now yours.


Written for our daughter, who was recently sworn in as a new attorney in New York State. We should all celebrate our achievements, and this is all hers.

Do not shy away from the mark you make. Cherish it. And then use it.