Saturday, January 20, 2018

The thing with feathers

The term "bird watcher" seems to imply someone overdressed in khaki fatigues, wearing a floppy hat, with an enormous pair of binoculars drooping around his or her neck, a notepad in hand, in which she or he, in ecstasy, scribbles down the latest sighting of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Profession: librarian or accountant. I mean, really, who would spend a day squinting up into trees for a possible furtive glimpse of a bird when they might be off mountain climbing, running rapids or just walking on the beach?
                                                                   
Scarlet Tanager

I would. When I lived in New York City, I loved the ten or so days when birds were migrating north (spring) and south (fall). You could go to Central Park and see up to thirty or even forty species of birds in a single daytwenty or so species of warblers alone. Birds, and most especially the songs of birds, make me feel optimistic. (Emily Dickinson used birds as a metaphor. The title of this post is hers.) These days, like all of us, I sorely need a strong dose of optimism.  At 72, even more so.  With birds, I get that.  When I was a boy growing up in in southeastern Virginia, I would wake up to the sweet cadences of the song sparrow. Take a second to give yourself a jolt of beauty by listening to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's recording of that bird's song. (Click on the second recording for the prettiest melody.)                              

You can ask the question, why do birds sing? I'm sure there's an answer. But how do you answer the question, why do birds sing beautifully?
                                                                             
Prothonotary Warbler

I'm like any person who has ever watched a bird defy gravity. Not only that, but make a mockery of gravity, with sharp dips, pivots, swoops and dives.  It's no wonder that when in a dream you're flying, it always feels exhilarating and, in therapy, is always a positive sign.

For me, though, it's the hues of these birds that make me crane my neck, searching high in the branches, for hours. To see, even for a few seconds, the deep oceanic blue of an Indigo Bunting or the fierce black and yellow of a Magnolia Warblergo ahead, make my day. These photographs go some way to explaining the thrill, but you have to catch the glimpse in the wild, catch the appearance of the bird perched high in the treeso much color in so small a form!to get the full charge.

Sidebar:  Sometimes, there is an advantage in going to the dentist.  In the waiting room today, I found a copy of the new National Geographic.  In it, there is a elegiac, concerned essay by Jonathan Franzen, "Why Birds Matter."  I urge you to read it. I actually think he answers the question, in prose that soars like the creatures he describes.  
                                                                               
Indigo Bunting
                                                                             
Magnolia Warbler

I live in New Orleans now.  When I talk to people about Hurricane Katrina, time and time again I hear the same thing, "It was so quiet after the storm. You didn't hear a single bird singing." How, then, could you feel even the slightest bit of optimism? I can't imagine.  Because, in Emily Dickinson's words, the thing with feathers ishope.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

My insane Iran connection

I received an e-mail via my website today.  It was from Iran.  Here is the first line:

"It's so hard to find the best opening sentence when someone wants to write a letter for a great writer."

They think I'm a great writer in Iran!  Well, someone thinks I'm a great writer in Iran!  Unbelievable.  I've never had an Iranian fan, as far as I know.  I wonder how they got my books?  Or what book of mine they read?  I settled back, ready for Persian adulation.  The e-mail continued:

"It's a long time I'm trying to buy or a book of yours ; "how to hide your insanity", i live in Iran and my country is banned by the laws of US government. I can't buy it from amazon or anywhere else or even download it from some ebook websites can you help me by that? from your loyal fan Saj"

For just the briefest second, I thought: Did I write How to Hide Your Insanity?  The thing is, I want to hide my insanity.  I need to hide my insanity.  If I didn't write that book, I should have.  Thinking carefully, though, I realized I probably hadn't written it.  I'm pretty sure, anyway.  Great title, by the way.

So what Richard Goodman did write this book?  And how could I order it?

Google turned up the book on Goodreads, but the author is Richard Goodmoon.  Not me, Richard Goodman.  It's not listed on amazon. You can't buy it anywhere.  A little more poking around, and I conclude that it seems to be a fake book--i.e., ha ha.  There appears to be no person named Richard Goodmoon, either.  At least neither Google nor facebook brings up anything.  But some people really want the book!

On Reddit, somehow they link Goodmoon to me (why?) and to my website, and so I figure this is how Saj found me.

Sorry, Saj!

Then I started thinking about Saj.  (Is Saj a male name? Female?  No idea.)  I wonder if Saj is being observed writing to me, somehow.  Will this mean consequences?  I hope not.  Then I thought, how in heaven's name did Saj find the fake book, How to Hide Your Insanity?  Did Saj do a search for books that help you conceal your insanity?  Is Saj insane? 

Or, like me, does he/she just feel that way a lot of the time, especially these days? 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Thread count

I got an e-mail from a friend telling me about an emerging literary dust-up.  Seems a writer just published a short story in The New Yorker that some people are calling out as being a ripoff of a story by Mavis Gallant.  The writer Francine Prose is probably the most vocal of those in the hue-and-cry camp.

Prose writes, "I find it painful that Mavis Gallant is now so unread that one can claim to have written what's essentially her story and publish it in The New Yorker (where in fact her story first appeared) and it’s okay...It's just wrong."

Prose then goes on to enumerate on her facebook page, with examples, the ways in which the writer, Sadia Shepard, "borrowed" from the Gallant story.

But what really is the most important aspect of this story is the enormous, multi-headed thread Prose has going for her on her page about this.  I did a rough measurement, and it's at least fifteen feet long.  I'm sure I missed some of it, too, passing by a few "more replies" without clicking on them.

I'm so jealous.  I would do anything to have a thread like that.  A thread that went on and on, with all sorts of angry rebuttals and hearty affirmations and sidetrackings and bitter renunciations.  The importance of this person and what they have to say cannot be denied with a thread like that.

Where is my long thread?  Where are my bitter renunciations?

I have none.  Not one soilitary bitter renunciation.  Not to mention my threads in general are threadbare.  They can hardly be called threads.  Maybe threadettes would be more accurate.  Or quasi-threads.  

I want a bigger thread.  I know.  I know.  I can hear you: "Well, say something interesting or provocative.  Then your thread will improve."

That's why I'm seeking your help.  Can anyone provide me with something I can post on facebook that will get me into the big leagues of threads?  I don't mean anything sensational just for the purpose of being sensational.  Sure, I could post something like that.  But that would be cheating.

Is it too much to ask that before I die that I get just one awe-inspiring, jealousy-provoking thread that goes on and on and on as far as the eye can see?

I don't think so.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The last face


There comes that moment. It may be sudden, or it may take a week or a month. Nevertheless, it eventually arrives, if you live long enough.

It's the revealing of the last face. The face you have before you die. You can be old and still not have this faceyet.  It comes when the end is near. Gaunt, big-eared, nearly skeletal, the neck narrowed, there is no hope in this face. You have left you behind. This is the you at the close of day, with just hints of who you were. Sometimes the change is so marked, others don't even recognize you.

Do you know who this is?
                                                                                                                                     

Let me help:
                                                                                

I wonder what my last face will look like.

                                                           
Watch this space.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The 2nd Ave Deli


I am half Jewish (father), but I was raised Christian.  I always identified with Christianity. Until I stopped identifying with anything.

That changed when I came to New York City to live in 1975.

I was lucky. I arrived in New York at a time when the old Jewish culture was still alive in Manhattan, especially on the Lower East Side. It wasn't nearly as vibrant as it was years earlier, but it was still there. I moved to 10th Street, in the East Village, between Second and Third Avenues. On 12th Street and Second Avenue there was a Yiddish Theater. On Second Avenue and 10th Street was the incredible Second Avenue Deli. A mere three minutes from my apartment, this was my grammar school, my high school and my college for all things Jewish in New York City. It was probably the most famous Jewish deli in New Yorkneck and neck with Katz'sand was acknowledged to serve the best food.

On the sidewalk in front, were embedded the names of the stars of the Yiddish theater along with other names I did not know.  In the evenings, old people would have dinner at the Deli and slowly walk the two blocks to that last Yiddish theater to laugh or cry or both listening to a language that was slowly dying butnot yet.


The Second Avenue Deli was the perfect place for a sheltered, Christian-raised Virginia boy to get an education. It was raucous, it was noisy, it was crowded. The waiters were old, distracted and determinedly not polite. I did not know what 95% of the food they served was.

But if your first taste of pastrami was at the Second Avenue Deli between two pieces of rye bread, then God favored you. I don't even think I knew what pastrami was or corned beef, for that matter. A waiter must have told me to try it.

Holy Mother of God. As Mel Brooks once put it, "My tongue just gave a party for my mouth." I feel fortunate to have discovered and relished this food before I became burdened by the knowledge of its unhealthiness.  I only experienced the joy of it.  

Heaven, I'm in heaven...

And the people! The owner was Abe Lebewohl. He was everywhere, cajoling, ordering, inspecting, admonishing, greeting. Pudgy, with decreasing hair and unlimited energy, he really did seem to be three places at once. I heard him say to someone once: "I'm gonna be on Channel Five tonight! I made a huge Empire State Building entirely out of chopped liver!" R.I.P., Abe. 

Abe

What Fyvush Finkel, a famous actor in the Yiddish theater, said about eating in another Jewish restaurant two blocks away could well apply at the Deli, "I ate there for 30 years and never got what I wanted. The waiter always talked me out of it." Indeed, they did. That world! So liberating from my tight-sphinctered Virginia Episcopalian origins. People raised their voices! People gestured!  People disputed! People were alive! I felt like I'd been given a purge of chicken fat and matzo ball soup.  Ahhhhhh. Slowly but surely, simply by living in New York City, part of me became distinctly Jewish.  It still is.  

The deli is closed now, has been for years.  A bank occupies the space. (The Deli relocated in Midtown, but I haven't had the heart to go. I only want the original.)  But it will always be there, in my heart.  A cholesterol-laden heart, I'm sure, after eating so much of that calorific, delicious food.  But not so laden as to not always to have a place for the Second Avenue Deli.

I remember one day, after a typical heavenly meal, stepping up to the man behind the cash register to pay my bill. He looked to be in his sixties, was dressed in a faded shirt and tie. I recognized that tie!  

"Hey!" I said. "I have a tie exactly like yours!"

"If I were you," he said wearily, "I wouldn't be so proud."

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Becoming Jewish in New York


I am half Jewish (father), but I was raised Christian.  I always identified with Christianity. Until I stopped identifying with anything.

That changed when I came to New York City to live in 1975.

I was lucky. I arrived in New York at a time when the old Jewish culture was still alive in Manhattan, especially on the Lower East Side. It wasn't nearly as vibrant as it was years earlier, but it was still there. I moved to 10th Street, in the East Village, between Second and Third Avenues. On 12th Street and Second Avenue there was a Yiddish Theater. On Second Avenue and 10th Street was the incredible Second Avenue Deli. A mere three minutes from my apartment, this was my grammar school, my high school and my college for all things Jewish in New York City. It was probably the most famous Jewish deli in New Yorkneck and neck with Katz'sand was acknowledged to serve the best food.

On the sidewalk in front, were embedded the names of the stars of the Yiddish theater along with other names I did not know.  In the evenings, old people would have dinner at the Deli and slowly walk the two blocks to that last Yiddish theater to laugh or cry or both listening to a language that was slowly dying butnot yet.


The Second Avenue Deli was the perfect place for a sheltered, Christian-raised Virginia boy to get an education. It was raucous, it was noisy, it was crowded. The waiters were old, distracted and determinedly not polite. I did not know what 95% of the food they served was.

But if your first taste of pastrami was at the Second Avenue Deli between two pieces of rye bread, then God favored you. I don't even think I knew what pastrami was or corned beef, for that matter. A waiter must have told me to try it.

Holy Mother of God. As Mel Brooks once put it, "My tongue just gave a party for my mouth." I feel fortunate to have discovered and relished this food before I became burdened by the knowledge of its unhealthiness.  I only experienced the joy of it.  

Heaven, I'm in heaven...

And the people! The owner was Abe Lebewohl. He was everywhere, cajoling, ordering, inspecting, admonishing, greeting. Pudgy, with decreasing hair and unlimited energy, he really did seem to be three places at once. I heard him say to someone once: "I'm gonna be on Channel Five tonight! I made a huge Empire State Building entirely out of chopped liver!" R.I.P., Abe. 

Abe

What Fyvush Finkel, a famous actor in the Yiddish theater, said about eating in another Jewish restaurant two blocks away could well apply at the Deli, "I ate there for 30 years and never got what I wanted. The waiter always talked me out of it." Indeed, they did. That world! So liberating from my tight-sphinctered Virginia Episcopalian origins. People raised their voices! People gestured!  People disputed! People were alive! I felt like I'd been given a purge of chicken fat and matzo ball soup.  Ahhhhhh. Slowly but surely, simply by living in New York City, part of me became distinctly Jewish.  It still is.  

The deli is closed now, has been for years.  A bank occupies the space. (The Deli relocated in Midtown, but I haven't had the heart to go. I only want the original.)  But it will always be there, in my heart.  A cholesterol-laden heart, I'm sure, after eating so much of that calorific, delicious food.  But not so laden as to not always to have a place for the Second Avenue Deli.

I remember one day, after a typical heavenly meal, stepping up to the man behind the cash register to pay my bill. He looked to be in his sixties, was dressed in a faded shirt and tie. I recognized that tie!  

"Hey!" I said. "I have a tie exactly like yours!"

"If I were you," he said wearily, "I wouldn't be so proud."
                                                                                                 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Is there sex after seventy?


Thinking about sex between two older people is like thinking about your parents having sex.  You grudgingly admit the possibility, but the whole idea is abhorrent. 

No, I'm not asking you to picture that in your mind.  But I wonder what that would look like if I did?  I mean, why not: so, picture two seventy-plus-year-old people having topsy-turvy, ecstatic sex. Going at it!  Wall-shaking orgasms.  Neighbors complaining.  Dogs howling.  Car alarms going off.

"Was it good for you?"

"What?"

The power of words!  I wonder how long that will stay in your mind?

I can hear you from here: "Nooooooooooooooooo!"


I suppose in a way it just goes to show you that, in the end, sex, whatever age you are, is private, despite the wide-open nature of contemporary culture.  I think that many of us go along with this show-all, tell-all society we seem to have become, but, truthfully, it makes us uneasy.  

So, isn't it enough to know that, yes, I am still aroused by women, the juices are still flowing.  The sap is still rising.  I still fantasize.  I still lust. 


I was talking to a woman my age the other day.  We had been lovers many years ago.  I asked her if she had a boyfriend now.

"No, I've given all that up.  Thank God, I've lost that sex drive."

Really? You're thankful for that?  It's one of the glories of our existence!    

I hope I'm doing it until the day they cart me out of here.  

Aren't you glad we've had "the talk"?