Category Archives: Commentary

Long Shadows

I sit facing the late-afternoon sun. It makes it hard to text, hard to see the screen with all the bright sunshine. I don’t care. I am there to soak up as much sunshine as I can in the year’s remaining shirt-sleeve weather. I look at the plants before me in the flower bed, with petals of periwinkle, violet, and lemon yellow. Against the dark mulch, the flowers fairly glow in the sunlight, shining through each little petal like through a stained-glass window. The flowers are small, but they have long shadows.

I’m done with work for the day , so I’ve gone down to the lobby to watch for my bus. It’s not cold out, so I don’t have to just peer through the glass of the doors. The weather is nice enough to wait outside in shirt sleeves, which is pretty good for mid-October. The angle of the sun in the sky seems surprisingly low, and the length of the shadows makes it seem later than the clock says.

A few years ago, there was a very popular song by Five for Fighting, entitled “100 Years”. (It is from 2003, surprising me with its being already 11 years in the past.) Listening to it, I visualized each person as having their own personal area, 100 years in length. Most people will not last the full hundred years; some will live longer, but not by very much. It belongs to us, and we may do with it whatever we can.

I visualized a green progress bar, such as you see when downloading and installing a program. When the bar reaches the end of the space, the download is over. The space is our hundred years; the download, of course, is our own life. But there is a glitch in the programming on the progress bar. When the download is done, the bar might not have reached the end of the space allotted, so you have no idea how much of the download is left. Do you have time to duck out for a cup of coffee or a smoke before your computer reboots? You sure can’t tell from that progress bar.

Life. Looked at in retrospect, it resembles a TV cop show – all shootouts and car chases and courtroom drama. In prospect, however, it more resembles police work – long stretches of boredom, piles of paperwork, and occasional moments of sheer terror. It isn’t the years that make you old. The years burn up like paper in fire, but you have to live 24 whole hours, every day of that vanishing interval. It’s not the years, but the days that wear us out.

I made an Excel spreadsheet that would automatically calculate the number of the current day of my hundred-year life, which if fully downloaded, would come to 36,525 days. Tomorrow will be my day 20,200. For a while, I kept going to the spreadsheet and putting the number of the day on that day’s page in my datebook, but when I thought about it long enough, I quit. It really doesn’t matter what day it is, as long as you remember that there is a limit. One day will be our last, and we are just going to have to be okay with that.

So while the autumn sun shines, be marvelous like flowers, glow like sunlight through a stained-glass window, and mulch and protect the young, new flowers coming up. One day, someone in the future, similarly to Sir Isaac Newton, will be thinking “I stand upon the shoulders of giants.” Those shoulders will be ours, and we will be those giants.

Ask not – we cannot know – what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings, Leuconos. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs!
… Even while we speak, envious time is fleeing: seize today, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow! – Horace 65 – 8 BC

War Defines Humankind

Years ago, in a National Geographic article, Jane Goodall was interviewed about some of her findings over the years about chimpanzees. Living in one particular group was a family of chimpanzees – one older female and her two daughters – that was different from all the rest. They were cannibal psychos that would eat other chimps’ babies if they could get their hands on them. Other chimps stayed the hell away from them.

I imagined how the situation might be among human beings. Chimpanzees do organize themselves into groups for specific tasks. The group that reminds me most of human beings is the males who band together in order to hunt. They go out in the forest and work together, often hunting red Colobus monkeys, shaking them out of the trees, and eating them. It takes a certain amount of teamwork. So the concept of group action is not alien to them.

But it never occurs to them to work together to deal with the problem of the cannibal psychos. Humans are very good at imagining the world being different from what it is right at this moment. At first, certainly, humans would stay away from a family of known baby-eating cannibals. But, eventually those psychotically violent people would catch one more young mother unawares and kill again. I don’t think it would take very long for a plan of action to crystallize in the human mind.

We would realize that, although it it was possible to drive this monstrous family far, far away from where our group lived, our ability to image the world that does not yet exist comes into play. It might lead us to realize we would just be passing the problem off on other people, who would have to learn the hard way about the cannibal family. We would realize that we needed to band together to hunt and kill the cannibals.

This is our blessing, this is our curse: partially mediated by our cultures, we know the difference between good and evil. We understand when a situation is unendurable, we must try to make the world conform to our understanding of good, and minimize or destroy evil. It is why war is possible among human beings. Even if we were able to create an entirely peaceful world, war will always be stalking around in the background, a human ability waiting to be called upon when needed, and it will be needed. As long as one person can make war and teach others to do the same, it will have to be possible for the rest of us to band together, to resist war and to make war.

This is who we are. We don’t have to love war. When it’s needed, we just have to be able to do it.

I Ain’t Never Been to Deans

Deans is a place that exists. All my life I’ve been passing by the road sign that has a left turn arrow next to the word Deans, but I have never taken that turn. The sign is the only reason I ever knew it existed at all. Looking it up on the Web , I learned that Deans, New Jersey is an unincorporated area somewhere in South Brunswick Township. Google maps can tell me how to get there, taking Henderson Road, which becomes Deans Lane, which meets up with Georges Road, and that’s about the center of Deans. Apparently, I have been tantalizingly close to that center, between 1 and 2 miles. There are roads all around it that I have traveled on and roads all around it I’ve taken part of the way to Deans.

Being that this town, as well as I, exists in central New Jersey, south of New Brunswick, life is probably pretty much the same as it is in my town. But there are all these places I’ve never been, and people who live there know all about them. I’ve never been to Davidson Millpond County Park, or fished in the Millpond. I don’t know what Pigeon Swamp is like, nor who is the Tarnofsky they named Tarnofsky Lake after. I have never been, nor have I ever sent anyone to Eagles Landing Day Camp. Never dropped off a package at the FedEx there. I couldn’t tell you anything about the Tris Pharmacy. But there is a point to this recitation of ignorance.

I don’t know what life is like for someone who lives In Deans, and they don’t really know what life is like for me, exactly. They have all these stories in their minds about their lives and the lives of people they know, as do I. But why would I want to drive down Deans Rhode Hall Road? They would know. In my town, would they know whether they want to visit the Walgreens or go down to Somerset Park pharmacy? I know, but they don’t.

All around us there are countless stories that are going on right now, in South Brunswick, in Deans, in Franklin Park, in Somerset, and in New Brunswick. All over the world there are towns, and villages, and cities, all filled with possibly millions of people, up to 7 billion on Earth. I think of Midwestern farm towns, and Saskatchewan farm towns in Canada, villages in southern Italy and northern Spain, and countries that have nomadic herdsman who know of towns but do not live in them. Places where they grow rice in paddies are different from places where they grow hard winter wheat in dry fields. There are wars going on and people adapting to that. And permeating all of these things are the stories.

Pay attention to any person you see. They have a story that begins where they got up that morning, and the history that guided some of their actions from before that. They have an idea where they’re going, and they live in a home that you do not live in because you are not them. You have these stories to, and every single person in every one of these completely different places they have stories that only they know, and that we might have trouble understanding unless we go there.

You, and I, and they, have difficulty thinking about the every day lives of people one town over, much less half a world away. At any rate, we can try. But our human kind are extremely gifted in refusing to process such information. So easy for us to redefine people who are as real as we into nonhuman things whose welfare or rights or pains we need not care about.  It takes a lot of mental work to imagine the humanity of people whose lives are distant and very different from our own. But they are as real as we, and we are as real as they. And they are all like us, and we are like them.

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”  – Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon, “Naked City” (1948).

And that’s just one city.

Dry Sherry Is Not Optional

Life is too short to drink instant coffee or bad wine.       – Sparrow

A photo of Mount Whitney, CA

A photo of Mount Whitney, CA

A long time ago, when I was always looking for new cooking ideas, I enjoyed a subscription to Gourmet Magazine. In my favorite letters to the editors, readers shared colorful, interesting recipes from far-flung parts unknown.

The story begins when a pair of hikers, emerging from Inyo National Forest, found themselves in front of the Inyo Country Store in Bishop, CA. Their hike had been long, and they were hungry, so they ordered the Soup of the Day, which was a home-made lentil soup. It was so good, the hikers asked for the recipe, which they then shared in Gourmet.  Warmly colored with tomatoes and carrots, and fragrant with chicken broth and curry powder, it’s a friendly soup.

Inyo Country Store Lentil Soup

2 large onions, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
6 ribs of celery, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
3 cups chopped plum tomatoes
1 can (14.5 ounces) chicken broth
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 pound lentils, picked over and rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons ketchup

Cook onions in the oil until softened; add garlic, celery, and carrots and cook 10-15 min. Add chicken broth, dry sherry, lentils, bay leaves, curry powder, cumin, black pepper, salt, thyme, brown sugar and ketchup. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for two hours, or until lentils are tender. Makes 10 cups

The recipe says that the 1/2 cup dry sherry is optional. I disagree. If you have moral reservations against using wine, don’t feel left out – the sherry then simply represents all the admittedly optional good things of life which you deny yourself because you feel you somehow “don’t deserve them”. What I’m thinking about are things like half a cup of wine, or attractive clothes or a vacation, or a life free of fear. These things have nothing to do with your deserving. Life Is too short to make foolish deals with yourself. The day when you reach this mystic goal of deserving it is a day that might never come. There will always be something about you that you feel needs improvement, and the closer you get to your goal of “deserving it”, the farther away you might set the goal.

I agree with Sparrow – life really is too short to drink instant coffee or bad wine. But if you are in California and hope to find the Inyo Country Store you will be disappointed. It is long gone. The good news is however, the Serenity Salon & Spa is open where it used to be. You should go in and treat yourself to a haircut and a massage.

We Will Walk in Fields of Gold

But I swear, in the days still left, we will walk in fields of gold

Love songs, love poetry and love itself are full of promises. And promises are made to be broken, as they say. And no promises are better-made to be broken than those of love. When they are made, although they might be and might always remain truly meaningful and heart-felt, they usually have a problem with them. They are completely impossible in the real, earthly world.

“I will love you forever” is the most common sentiment. As someone once said, “forever is a really, really long time” – only it isn’t, because forever has no end of any sort. Taken literally, the person promising will not only live far beyond the natural length of their human lives, they will outlive the sun, the galaxy, the universe itself, perhaps. That is a promise that cannot be kept. (Although the question of whether forever is dependent upon the existence of time has not been authoritatively answered. If the Universe comes to an end, maybe one could say that the promise had been fully kept.)

The promise made in my sonnet is not only impossible, but it is, even worse, unlikely. To sum up the poem, I at some point in my existence have been transformed into a being of godlike powers, able to violate the lightspeed speed limit, a being for whom even the vacuum and radiation of deep space holds no terror, who experiences the harmony and beauty of creation and feels the very life force of all living things. Even in such a condition just about as far from the human condition as I can get, I will still want to share every aspect of that life, beloved, with you.

Looking back, I realize that if I could change anything in my past, no matter how trivial, it would be impossible to predict the effects of such changes, and would likely change every aspect of my past. I would’ve had different wants and experiences, different friends, different enemies, different love interests – I have no idea if I would even recognize myself. If there is so little I can say about the effects such relatively trivial things, how much less could I possibly say about such a large thing?

But I don’t think immortality needs romance, anyway. Romance is linked to our perishable nature, and lies in knowing that life is short, and joy can be fleeting, and then making these joyful, ridiculous, impossible promises anyway.

We Turn to Stone

The city streets are empty now
(The lights don’t shine no more)
And so the songs are way down low
(Turning, turning, turning)
A sound that flows into my mind
(The echoes of the daylight)
Of everything that is alive
(In my blue world)

I turn to stone
When you are gone
I turn to stone
Turn to stone
When you comin’ home
I can’t go on
– Jeff Lynne

One beautiful, sunny autumn afternoon, I was in a car, drowsy as I rode past a pretty little cemetery at a bend in the road. The grass was well-kept, lush, and very green, and the trees were beginning their melancholy transition to the reds and golds of fall. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. As we turned the corner, as if in a dream, I visualized myself not material and turning with the car, but continuing, ethereal, on a straight line, passing effortlessly through windshield, fence and trees and coming to a gentle stop on the face of one of the headstones. It startled me into wakefulness, this visualization.

When I was born, I was surrounded (like other fortunate people) with friends and relatives all interested in my welfare, eager to see me grow and grow up. This was the beginning, when I was first embedded in the network of family, friends, and acquaintances, all alive, as the song says, in “my blue world”. Who are you, and how do you fit into this network? That question can only answered by the memories that people have of interacting with you, what they do for you and what you do for them. Imagine this living meshwork, built of all the connections you have with people – the more connections, the more important any node is to the network. It’s built like the living brain. You know that when a person has a stroke, the lack of blood supply kills off brain cells. A person who survives such an event has to re-learn doing things that were wiped out in the stroke. Getting the job done requires the brain discover a different route to do it,. This network of people, in which you are one node, works very much like that.

Imagine you have an uncle, Ernest. You love to hear his stories of life on the road with, let’s say, the Los Angeles Dodgers, so many years ago. But one day your uncle dies. His node, you might say, goes dark and drops out of the network. He is buried, and the place marked with a headstone bearing his name, in a pretty little cemetery at the bend of a road. Because of the wealth of memories you have of him, in some ways, Ernest is still alive to you. It would make you happy if you could somehow here these stories again. Ernest’s many connections in the network still exist, and this gives you an opportunity. So you go to your dad, Nestor, and he tells you the stories as his brother told them to him. You have rerouted the connection.

Many people in his network will visit the cemetery and look at the stone, but they won’t see the stone, not really. They will remember Ernest as he was when he was alive with them. But life, and death, march on. Over time, more and more memories of Ernest are blotted out as more and more nodes of this network go dark. One day, you or someone like you, will be the last. When that happens, the way people have always gone, the stone with his name on it will be the only thing left of uncle Ernest on this earth, and of interest only to historians and eventually, archaeologists. He has turned to stone. That then, is the bad news.

But, there is good news hiding in there. You remember Ernest – he was wonderful, he was amazing, he had stories to tell, and people loved him. Thing to remember here is this: you, too, are wonderful, you, too, are amazing, and you have stories to tell, and people who love you. And remember, there is still that ancient hope, that the loss of connections in the darkening of nodes is just an appearance. The living connections will still exist, and the network will patiently wait for your node to light up in its new location. But you will have to wait, hopefully for a long time, before you know for sure. But in this world as we know it, at least we can know this: in the same way that you will always remember your uncle, for as long as they live, your people will remember you,

Shofar, So Good

You have, no doubt, seen endless television sitcom parodies of Dickens’ a Christmas Carol, where main characters get to learn something important about their own lives, and all the other actors on the show get to play other characters in the story. This is the only time I’ve ever seen such a parody that depended on Jewish ideas of sin and atonement.

(Please click on this link to enjoy an edited version of the show, before or after further reading!)

“Shofar, So Good”, is the name of an episode of Northern Exposure, which follows the character Dr. Joel Fleishman, who is helping pay off his student loan by working for the federal government as a doctor in some remote place. The place is Cecily, Alaska, a friendly,  if eccentric, town–small enough that a wild moose often walks down Main Street in the morning.

On the one hand, Dr. Fleishman is self-absorbed, unsympathetic, and has no tolerance for stupidity, either cultural or personal, and is not shy about letting people know exactly what he thinks about their stupidity; on the other hand, deep down, he really is a decent sort who knows that maybe, he ought to be nicer to people. He knows he is also possibly the only Jewish person in thousands of square kilometers.

In the episode mentioned, the Jewish high holy days are coming, and Joel answered his friend Ed’s questions about what that means. He tells him that during the high holy days, Jewish people are supposed to examine their lives and repent of their sins. On the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the gates of prayer and repentance, that were opened in heaven on Rosh Hashanah, close.

In the dream, or vision, Dr. Fleishman’s guide to his life is in the person of Rabbi Schulman, his old rabbi, who serves as the ghosts of Yom Kippur past, present, and future. When the rabbi asks him if he is as repentant as he ought to be, and then shows him that he isn’t, Joel begins to get the idea. As he stands by a significant grave, he sees in front of him the gates of prayer closing. In a panic, he tries to make it through the gate before it closes, but fails. Broken hearted, he desperately rattles the bars of the gate hoping that it will open for him. This is when he wakes up, and realizes it is still the Day of Atonement, that the gate has not yet closed. Properly repentant, and possibly happier than he had ever been on the show, Joel sits at the top of a wilderness hill and watches the sun set on Yom Kippur, praying and preparing to eat an orange to break his fast.

This episode is unique on American television. I never saw anything like it before I saw in 1995, and I have never seen anything like it afterward. The explanation of the high holy days given was probably the most detailed ever for us non-Jews in the television audience, introducing it to people who may have been ignorant of there being any imagery associated with these holidays at all. The writers of this show had the daring to intimately portray a Jewish character as a person not only “just like everyone else”, but as “NOT just like everyone else”. I consider it a meaningful and masterful episode.