Tuesday, May 16, 2023


I Closed My Eyes

The earbuds in.  

Just then I heard loud, sustained applause, without vocalization of any kind.  Neither "yays" nor "bravos," not even the movement of feet, or a cough suppressed only so long as the performance neared its climax.

Here's the thing.  The sound of the applause was completely indistinguishable from the sound of a heavy rain that comes on, at once, with a strong, fast-moving front, in the dog days and evenings of August.

Friday, May 12, 2023


Something Old; Some Things New

The "something old" is trench warfare, at scale, on the European continent.

Putin started his war in February of 2022 with less than 200,000 troops committed to the effort.  The Russians have lost about that many, killed and gravely wounded, since the "special military operation" began.  And yet they now have some 300,000 soldiers on the territory of Ukraine, many of them in defensive positions -- largely simple slit trenches without the electrified dugouts and other amenities that we have seen, for the officers at least, in WWI films like "1917" and "All Quiet on the Western Front."  It seems that the Russian officers are further back, in positions of relative safety.

But arrayed against the old-fashioned trench lines are two new things -- small quadcopter drones that are able to drop grenades or converted mortar shells into the slits with great precision, and sophisticated cameras on the drones that both reconnoiter for targets and record, in black and white, their deadly effect.

This should be as big a breakthrough in bringing the horrors of war into the American home as were the first photos of Antietam taken by Mathew Brady.  Most people, however, still want their news of what's going on in the world filtered through their preferred sources, sources that whether left or right eschew the worst of the violence.

Twitter and Telegram channels fill the gap.  One, called "The Dead District," focuses almost exclusively on short videos showing the physical destruction of Russians.  So now, for the first time, we are able to see, again and again, young men in the last minute of their lives.  We can see it even before they know that they are about to be slaughtered. 

From the perspective of the drones and against a backdrop of dark dirt, we see very little blood.  When a bomb hits, the victims often scurry quite like ants away from the blast for a few moments, running on adrenalin, then fall to the ground.  Sometimes they get up again and try to limp to a position of safety.  In such cases the Ukrainians show no mercy; they dispatch the wounded with a second or a third round if they are able.  Medics seem nowhere to be found.  Nor do the unscathed take it upon themselves somehow to carry their wounded comrades to safety.  This is probably wise, because they would just be sacrificing themselves as well.

Now, just in the last 24 hours, we have drone videos of two very graphic suicides that have taken place within the trenches.  In one, a wounded soldier tries at first to use his AK-47 as a crutch.  When that fails, he lies on his side and fires a round through his head from under his chin.  His body seems to give a little shiver, and then he is still.  If this were not enough, in the second, the wounded man takes off his helmet and holds a grenade to his head; there is nothing left of his head at the close of the clip.

Both men will be praised at home for their valor.  The Russians will say, en masse, «царство ему небенное» -- "May he be in the heavenly kingdom."  The boys fought for the Motherland, and the stupider the war, the greater their heroism.  That seems to be the logic that prevails within the great red fortress of Moscow.

Sunday, May 7, 2023


Rapid Rabbit Respiration

I gave up my adjunct teaching position at Pace College (now Pace University) after only three years, in 1990.  The truth is that I grew weary of and exasperated by my students, by the petty disputes that seemed to sustain them, by their refusal to grant me any authority over them by virtue of my modest position.  Perhaps, I said to myself,  I hadn't earned any such authority, but I was convinced that were Max Planck to wander in to try his hand at teaching Physics 101, he would have been dissed in much the same way.  It was cultural and it got worse from year to year.

The last class that I taught was called "The Use and Abuse of the Cliché in Modern American Literature."  I thought that it would be fun to trace the origins of now-tired expressions and also to explore how, tired as they are, they might be used to place a character, by inference, into a certain sub-culture or social class, and how they might be enlivened by being used unexpectedly in a literal sense, for example.  The man selling newspapers at the kiosk at 81st and Broadway who could not stop repeating his tale of a pedestrian that he saw killed by a box truck at that very intersection some years ago, the man left "flat as a pancake" for 20 minutes until the cops arrived and screened the corpse from view.  In a much different narrative, a Perelman story in The New Yorker that traced a bear hunt in the Black Forest, was Hector's hound literally "barking up the wrong tree?"

The straw that broke the camel's back, as it were, was a singular dispute with young Andreas DeVoto about an otherwise forgettable tale of his, no doubt closely mirroring an incident in his own life, when, to escape a knife fight, it became prudent to fly down the stairs into the Chambers St. Station and jump the turnstile, with his enemies in hot pursuit.  The doors of the Z train clipped one of his heels as they shut.  It was a near thing.  He came within "a hare's breath" of being stabbed or beaten, "to a pulp" of course.

Andreas, drawing on two trips to the Prospect Park Zoo, insisted that the respiration of a rabbit is both so rapid and so shallow that the animal, at rest, appears to get by without breathing at all.  This is well known.  And it's an illusion that has come to turn the respiration of the rabbit into a stand-in for any ephemeral iota.  Something like that.

After that insistence that I could not wear down, I decided to fold my cards and my tent; I threw in the towel when it came to teaching.

Thursday, May 4, 2023


Relegated to Daguerreotypes

There will come a time when all of the colors of your life reduce to sepia.  When the bleu cheese on your tomato, on your tongue, begins to taste of chalk dust.  When you pause routinely at the foot of the stairs, plotting your strategy to ascend them.  When most all of your words go unheard in the wider world, because they are spoken by a Creature from the Past.  

So we are to be forgiven for asking to be forgiven, for falling back on supplications to "the Lord," whether He be the Lord Jesus or the Lord Krishna, or even supplications to a Lady, as perhaps of Fatima or Lourdes.

The trouble unique to this time is that while we sense an imminent, world-historical tearing of the veil that will release us from our earthly suffering, the world beyond, insofar as we can discern it, seems filled with devils, demons, djinn, mechanical elves, fraudsters and tricksters.  Perhaps there is a path to the Divine Godhead beyond them, but will we have the strength, weakened by our earthly struggles as we are, to break through the phalanx of the djinn?  Is this intermediate realm where the concepts of purgatory and of hell find their ancient source?