Tuesday, June 29, 2021


Jesus Tries His Hand at Stand-Up

"For thou art Peter," He said.  "And upon this rock I will build my church."

Ba da bing.  

The same logical structure as another play on words, once heard by my father in the schoolyard.  Something about "Ophelia Bumps" ...

In English, the Answers that Simply Replicate the Questions

As, for example:

"What must be done?" 

"What must be done."

Sunday, June 27, 2021


Comfort in Clive

In "Cultural Amnesia," Clive James profiles perhaps a hundred people.   Some (Hitler and Mao) are world-historical figures, some generally known but not for having stood astride the world (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, W.C. Fields), and some pulled out of obscurity, many of these last remarkable writers and intellectuals who died, directly or indirectly, at the hands of the great tyrants of the 20th century.

And Clive has a point of view, an unabashed one, about all of them.  He is able to put them in perspective.  And thus he soothes the feeling, natural to us of a certain age, that everything that defined our culture will die with us.   Someone said that when one is contemplating his last days, it is not fear of losing the future that is psychologically disabling so much as fear of losing the past.  Clive provides hope that there will be archeologists to examine and to catalog everything that will be plowed under, perhaps lending a little more meaning to what we have been through.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021


Meaning by Extension, Cont'd

The "rest stop" on the highway.   Euphemistically, a "restroom."  Your personal trainer might suggest that you take a rest between reps.  Even God Himself, on the Seventh Day, rested.

All implying a time-limited respite, after which the animated subject will be back in action.

But inanimate things can rest as well.   A body at rest tends to remain at rest.  That polished stone has rested on my mantle since I placed it there, in 1973.  The waitress is nervous because the crystal glass rests half on, half off the table.

And so we use this duality to play a trick when referring to the dead.  The minister intones that Claudia is not really dead.   Today we take her to her eternal rest, which, eternal or not, implies getting back up again when circumstances permit.  Indeed, according to the Apostles Creed, He will come to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day, when all shall be raised.

And of course, even if we don't believe, we still wish that all but the most dastardly may ... rest in peace.

Monday, June 21, 2021


A Fantasy Indulged

That it would be as easy to erase the engraved words above the stately columns of the United States Supreme Court as it would be to erase a sixth-grade blackboard.

Uncle Sam himself, down from Capitol Hill and on stilts.  He being right handed, he would start from the right and move, methodically, to the left.  "W-A-L  R-E-D-N-U E-C-I-T-S-U-J L-A-U-Q-E."  The marble would show only a faint trace of what had been there when he was done.

And then, after a decent interval, the eminent sculptress Friedriechsdottir Borglum would work her magic with hammer and spike for a little more than a month, building 22 letters and spaces into a length that lately had held 23 - "OUR LEADERS ARE MORONS".

Friday, June 18, 2021


The Mystery of Meaning by Extension

  • "Adherence."  Of two blocks of wood that have been glued together, and also adherence to a creed.
  • "Arousal."  From sleep, or carnal arousal.
  • "Cement."  See "adherence."  The pieces of a plastic model airplane, or a relationship.
  • "Collective."  All things taken together, or a political subset sharing (often unorthodox) views.
  • "Detachment."  An ability to see things from above as it were, with objectivity, but also a military unit carved off for separate assignment.
  • "Fire" (as a gun).  This historical.   There was a time when a match was used to create a fire that set off the gunpowder charge in a cannon.  Now we can say as well that one of the Wallendas was "fired," hydraulically, from a gun in the circus.
  • "Pattern."  A template or a design that repeats itself.  But, by extension, there may not be much commonality in the things that are said to "fit the pattern."  A landing pattern, for example, can scale up radically, but always a downwind leg, followed by a 90 deg turn onto a base leg, followed by a 90 deg turn onto the final approach, which is followed by touchdown.
  • "Unraveling."  What does the unraveling of a tangled rope have in common with the unraveling of a politician caught with his hand in the till, or with both hands on some uninvited body parts?
Our ability to expand the edges implies that meaning is not discrete.

Sunday, June 13, 2021


Man and Woman

A perfect moment, created out of nothing.  

Europeans are much better at this than Americans.  Americans are children, and I don't mean that in a good way.  Petulant, myopic, lacking in sophistication and nuance.


Saturday, June 12, 2021


Why Bother With These Impressions?

What end do they serve?  When we were kids, the windows on the Blue Line subway cars would fog over in winter.  We would trace our names, backwards, in the condensation.  "Kilroy Was Here."  The short story, or the heartfelt poem, as bathroom graffiti.

Or even the small handprint, in primitive red pigment, on the wall of a cave in France, 10,000 years old, and the cave itself completely closed by natural forces from observation for eight of the ten.  Ms. Proto-European of 8000 B.C.E. making her mark, as if it mattered.

Sunday, June 6, 2021


Chagall at St. John's

What were the classes denominated at St. John the Evangelist School in Winthrop during my time there, circa 1957 - 1965?   Religion, English or Reading, Mathematics or Arithmetic, History, Geography, Music and, in the upper grades, French of a sort.

And then there was Art, which in the main demanded of us that we create works of our own, using Crayola crayons or water paints, the kind that came in a little tin and got all over you, but washed off pretty readily when you got home.  We were evaluated in Art on the basis of how much what we created looked like "the real thing."  In this I failed, not because I was a visionary frustrated by the aesthetic narrow-mindedness of the nuns  (though there was that), but rather by a simple lack of any artistic talent whatsoever.

Beyond our own creations, the nuns had few tools to introduce us to the realm of genuine visual artistic expression.  Since everything at St. John's, including mathematics and history, was filtered through the lens of Roman Catholicism, one might have thought that the nuns would have bombarded us with images from the Sistine Chapel or with saints as they were portrayed by El Greco.  But I remember no such thing.  Rather, I remember only a very few -- three or four -- "flash cards" that were handed out to be passed around the 55 or 60 kids in the class as evidence of what art was supposed to be.

One image in particular stays with me.  It struck me with its mystery, which no doubt is why I remember it still.   It was a cow that was painted by Marc Chagall, a purple cow with very evocative and sensitive eyes.  But what did it mean?   To my knowledge, there were no purple cows in real life, so why did he make the cow purple?   And why did it seem so human?  Why did this Chagall person not follow the dictates of the nuns and just make something with pen and ink or with brush and oils that looked just like a real cow?  Wasn't that the point of art?

Alas, the nuns themselves were ill educated in such things.  They didn't give us any context for the mysterious flash cards because they themselves had no understanding of any context that might have been supplied.

I looked at the purple cow.  I took note that "this was art," because it might be on a test.   Then I handed it on to Anne Marie Askovich or Mia Paone, who drew their own conclusions and, who knows, maybe later even drew their own genuine and authentic art, influenced if only subliminally by the great Chagall?


Friday, June 4, 2021

 Sound Advice, Cont'd

If you found yourself hot bunked on a 41-foot barge that was tethered to a corrugated iron pier in the Village of Clyde, New York, roughly equidistant between Rochester and Syracuse on the Erie Canal, the birds would awaken about 20 minutes later than in Boston, by the clock that is, which is to say letting the first rays of the sun be their alarm.

Even if the barge were held fast by bow and stern lines and a spring line, all bound to cleats "by the book," the boat would oscillate to and fro and in the yaw axis, in the wind, there being no current in the great canal except on the rare occasions when Lake Erie is opened to raise its level, west to east.  At random intervals, the stern would oscillate into an indentation in the pier with a loud bang and the boat would abruptly halt.

About 200 feet to the north, the main line of the CSX, and of Amtrak Boston to Chicago, the "Lakeshore Limited," would be active on the opposing bank day and night.  At midnight, or at 4AM, before even the soft whistle in the distance, a low rumble would be heard which, over about ten seconds, would build to a great crescendo.  The now very loud whistle would fall in pitch as Doppler predicted, and more than 100 freight cars would rattle by at speed or, in the case of Amtrak, a pitiful few wagons built in the 1970s or 80s, the club car conductor perhaps just then stocking sugared pecans and microwavable sandwiches for the day's run ending in the capital of the Midwest, in the great city that used to be the iconic heart of America.