Leap Frogging

frogsI continue to read Shinzen Young (The Science of Enlightenment), and always with the thrill of discovery. No one, and I mean no one, has opened up the insides of mindfulness meditation more for me.

You know you’re keeping good company with a book you can’t stop scribbling in with notes and highlighting. Later, I become this grasshopper–or better–a frog leaping pages, landing on passages, sometimes amphibiously diving beneath, feeding on nuances that the residual of absence makes clearer and often multiplies.

My guru tells me that any experience, even if painful, yields relief when I pin it with concentration rather than avoidance as many of us do.

Doing so, we make a breakthrough, at long last, mining insight into our Self, that vein of subterranean opaqueness affecting so much of our surface life. The frog thing again.

If mindfulness begins with concentration, it succeeds with clarification, simply because it detaches us from the Self or Ego within us, affording us that rare objectivity.

A still further dividend is that our own wrestlings dissolve in a humility energizing our capacity to love each other more fully.

We measure mindfulness’ success in the amelioration it brings to our daily lives in the acceptance of the finiteness within ourselves and others, creatures never standing still, but always becoming.

While mindfulness can lead us to moments of ecstatic release from the shoulder heavy burdens of anxiety, worry, and resentment–even physical pain– it’s not really about that. Physical suffering, for example, may linger, but it no longer pervades.

Successfully done, mindfulness helps us live happier lives. independent of life’s circumstances with their undulations of good and bad:

Ordinary experience, when greeted with concentration, clarity, and equanimity catalyzes a process of insight and purification which culminates in the ability to have complete experiences whenever you want. This theory is quite elegant. It has all the marks of good science….It well deserves the name, “science of enlightenment.”

There’s so much more I !d like to say, but it’s early morning as I lie in bed, prepping for a new day with its granary for both promise and regret; but as Frost insists, “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

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Live Longer Now

Bodybuilder Ernestine Shepard, 78

Bodybuilder Ernestine Shepard, 78

It’s funny how your mind takes vast jumps, transcending time and space, hurling you into the past or thrusting you into the future. It’s happening to me now.

I remember sitting in my sixth grade class in Florida, fascinated with my teacher’s story of Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth, motivating him to travel to a new place, which he called Florida.

I think we’re all Ponce de Leons in quest of perpetual youth. We fear ending, the withering of our youth with its exuberance and beauty; the diminishing of resolve motivated by idealism, born of innocence; the advent of entropy and the descent into morbidities presaging that eternal sleep.

We evade our mortality in many guises, obsessing about film icons who seem to have the best of good looks and agelessness.

Advertisers grow rich, pedaling snake oils to mummify us from time’s erosion.

Religion offers consolation; materialism, avoidance; power, the illusion of mastery.

Mortality is the underlying cadence of the arts, arresting time’s flow in capturing the moment’s essence. Think Keats’ Endymion: “A Thing of beauty is a joy forever/Its loveliness increases;/it will never pass into nothingness….”

Medical science isn’t any less pervaded by its own Ponce de Leon quests into unlocking the mysteries of aging, harnessing our genetic codes, refining the regimens of diet and exercise.

A good number of scientists are busy at work, confident that they’ll ultimately win the day. There is Silicon Valley’s California life Company (Calico) for example, determined and well-funded, zealously hiring the foremost scientists on what it deems a moral mission to vastly beat back aging and pre-empt physical demise.

And there are other start-ups, too, like Venter with its ambitious plan to augment Calico’s efforts by creating a gargantuan database of one million human genomes by 2020.

Unfortunately, the landscape of new technologies is littered with bad case scenarios of Frankenstein prototypes unleashing their new horrors on humanity.

I’ve been reading this wonderful book, The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young, an immensely learned Buddhist monk who has made it his mission to reconcile the best of Asian mindfulness practice with contemporary neuroscience.

I happened to come across this passage that set this present blog in motion on how we needn’t concern ourselves with whether science succeeds in its endeavors of extending longevity. We can have it now:

Now imagine that you will live just a normal number of years, but that your experience of each moment will be twice as full as it currently is; that is, the scale at which you live each moment will be doubled. If you only lived each moment twice as fully as the ordinary person lives it, that would be the equivalent of one hundred twenty years of richesse. Not a bad deal.

Hey, I’ll buy into that. I’m 76 and well aware of the math underpinning insurance actuaries. I’m lucky to have gotten this far, and with reasonable health, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me overly if my demise had been at 60.

I’ve lived my life up to the brim with world travel, including third world countries, conversing and making friends; gone from a Philly street urchin, raised by an alcoholic father,  to a professor of English, privileged to share the beauty and wisdom of literature with several thousand students who’ve enriched my life and, I trust, theirs.

I’ve filled my life with passions that have anchored my happiness–a love for reading, nature, languages and writing.

I wake each day, plotting new ventures. As the remarkable Hellen Keller wonderfully put it, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”

Not least, there’s been Karen, who entered my life some twenty-five years ago, balancing my introversion with her openness and steady optimism, igniting new vistas with her refusal to foreclose on possibility and stunning ability to rebound from life’s vicissitudes.

Hopefully, the best part of all of this transcends Self in its yield of an encompassing empathy that’s taught me how connected we are to each other and the absolute that we love one another.

For Shinzen Young, longevity is best measured experientially, not chronologically, when we live mindfully in the present. “Meditation is the key to this kind of non-mythical life extension,” he writes. “By developing an extraordinary degree of focus and presence, it allows you to live your life two or three hundred percent ‘bigger.'”

I couldn’t agree more.

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On Reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch

rebecca-mead-my-life-in-middlemarchAll of us have a favorite book we wouldn’t mind reading again. For me, it’s David Copperfield, simply because I identify with much of what happens in it. The same holds true for Rebecca Mead in her bibliomemoir, My Life in Middlemarch, which explores Eliot’s masterpiece as a personal game changer.

I’ve always liked Eliot immensely as well (see Brimmings, 8/17/16), especially for her bottom line, “the truth of fellow feeling,” as she aptly phrased it in Adam Bede. As Eliot put it later,  “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.”

She had been raised in a fiercely Calvinist home, sharing its piety, until she began reading German “higher criticism,” which read the Bible as a human rather than divine construct. Rejecting Christian theology, she retained its ethic core of human sympathy, or what today we term empathy, i.e., the putting of yourself in another’s shoes.

Put into practice, we’d wake to a better world.

Although I had read Middlemarch way back in grad school and made Eliot a centerpiece in my later teaching of Victorian lit classes, the years had taken their toll, so I wanted to pursue Eliot’s classic again as backdrop for Mead’s book, and I’m glad I did.

Mead skillfully assembles the nuances of both Middlemarch and Eliot’s life that have resonated for her over the years, underscored through subsequent re-reads; for example, Eliot’s rural upbringing, her several loves until finding in her middle years a sustaining relationship with a fellow writer, her delineation of love’s growth and the empowerment of women—or lack thereof.

But some readers may think Mead lapses into narcissism, reading herself into Middlemarch. Mead devotes, for example, considerable space to Eliot and her companion, George Lewes and his three children, drawing a parallel to her own commitment to a man with three children: “…a few years later [following a failed relationship] I met a man who had three sons, not very different in age than were the Lewes boys when George Eliot met George Lewes.”

At another juncture, she reflects at length on Eliot’s maternal relationship with her stepson “Thornie,” and her own role as a step-mother.

She later notes that Eliot and Lewes lived, though briefly, in her Dorset town of Radipole, now incorporated into Weymouth.

Eliot prefaced each of her many chapters with an epigrammatic quotation. Mead extrapolates several of these for her own chapter headings, rendering them congruous with events and discoveries in her personal life.

Ironically, Eliot had written an early article for the Westminster Review decrying readers who overly identify with a character, as Mead acknowledges.

In her defense, while the analogies do pile-up, it’s a minus only if we leave things there. It’s not the analogies, but their lessons that matter. Besides, we’ve all come across books delivering a right uppercut that staggers us into questioning our assumptions and grants us new vistas and resulting options.

Some books not only make us wise, but better people for having spent time in their company.  If we lose ourselves in such books, might we not also find ourselves there as well?  Thus, I fully enter into her meaning when she writes that “there are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader, as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.”

If Mead strays, it may be she admires Eliot to excess, sometimes appearing defensive when finding Eliot in real life not quite the paragon of moral virtue given off in her novels. She could sometimes prove harsh, if not cruel, in her patronizing and judgmental strictures. So George Eliot was no St. Teresa of Avila. I rejoice!

Perhaps what Mead appreciates most in Middlemarch is Eliot’s psychological acuity as the first novelist to dwell on the interior life of her characters, fraught with tensions delivering them from stereotype. Governed by every human emotion and vicissitude of mood, affected by both choice and chance, they become ourselves and enter into our experience. Mead quotes D. H. Lawrence pioneer observation, “It was she who started putting all the action inside.”

As a former international correspondent and, currently, a staff writer for the New Yorker, the ability to discern the unspoken when interviewing would obviously appeal to Mead:
“…being a journalist for all these years had taught me a few things: how to ask questions, how to use my eyes, how to investigate a subject, how to look at something familiar from an unfamiliar angle.”

It may seem incredulous, but in deftly applying these skills it’s as though Mead just pulled off a live interview with her subject, intuited the unspoken, enabling both biography and memoir; thus my earlier term, bibliomemoir, or a book about a life of reading.

I think of other salient bibliomemoirs, notably Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time and William Deresciewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter. There is also Helen Macdonald’s Hawk, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, that I recently read and esteem greatly. Reading My Life in Middlemarch has opened up a new portal of discovery for me via this sub-genre.

In many ways, Middlemarch’s supreme ambience is one of melancholy in its depiction of the changing fortunes of its principal characters as they experience the dissonance between desire and result; and yet the novel rebounds with achieved happiness for several of its characters, including its heroine, Dorothea, whose initial disillusionment yields to a discerning maturation.

As Mead observes in quoting Eliot, “We cannot give the young our experience. They will not take it. There must be the actual friction of life, the individual contact with sorrow, to discipline the character.”

Paradoxically, however, Eliot does a whole lot of that in her thumping moral asides, awkwardly delivered in convoluted prose, throughout her novels. Jane Austen. on the other hand, succeeded without the editorializing often repugnant to contemporary readers.

In reading Middlemarch again, I remembered my own lugubrious involvement with a chosen author–in my case, James Joyce–the tracing of a life, traveling, papers, interviews, contact with manuscripts and, yes, myriad readings of authorities on one’s subject.

Mead proves scrupulous and unsparing, eloquent and moving, in exploring authorial events possibly shaping the novel’s characters, commanding a prose that often approximates poetry. That said, In her scholarship, she owes a considerable debt, among others, to Rosemary Ashton’s 142 Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London.

If you read Middlemarch, whether for the first time or anew, I highly recommend you try out Mead’s testament of affection as a sequel to this greatest of Victorian novels.
I did, and for all my reading of Middlemarch and study of George Eliot over the years, Mead made me wiser and more sensitive to Eliot’s resonance in my own life and for
our own time.


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Revisiting George Eliot’s Middlemarch

MiddlemarchJust finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch a few minutes ago. I actually had read it in grad school, but since that was several decades back, much of it had become a tabula rasa for me in rereading it.

What got me started was New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead’s recent memoir, My Life In Middlemarch, that intriguingly offers parallels to Middlemarch gleaned from her own life.

Rereading this novel of 900 pages came easily to me, since I’ve always admired Eliot deeply for her keen mind and “truth of fellow feeling,” expressed movingly in her earlier Adam Bede. I also identify with her painful transition from evangelical piety to fervent humanism. It will be interesting to see if Mead finds affinity with this aspect.

No other writer, apart from John Stuart Mill has influenced me more.

Unfortunately, I suspect Eliot isn’t much read by people today apart from English majors, but that’s a pity since Eliot never fails to deliver on those fundamental truths promoting understanding and tolerance and, consequently, a greater happiness, despite all hell breaking loose around her.

Set in 1832, the novel’s action occurs against the backdrop of Britain’s political turbulence in the guise of the First Reform Bill addressing social inequity and the first serous environmental impacting of the Industrial Revolution with the coming of the railroad.   Thus, Middlemarch offers parallels with our own times and lessons to be learned.

Virginal Woolf famously commented that Middlemarch was “one of few English novels written for grown-up people” (Times Literary Supplement, November 1919).

Eliot, surprisingly for someone writing before the nascence of modern psychology, exhibits a profoundly intuitive grasp of the inner origins of human conduct. Middlemarch is ultimately a novel about wrong choices and their consequences, or of great aspirations and colossal blunders. Freud might have found it demonstrative of the psychical conflict between Id (idealization) and the Super Ego (reality) with its polarity of indulgence vs restraint.

Middlemarch also exhibits a Darwinian flavor: those who adapt, survive; those who can’t, perish, a pervasive thread prescient of the incipient rise of naturalists like Zola, Hardy, Dreiser, Crane and Norris, who would convert determinism into literary art.

At the same time, Eliot exhibits a heightened sympathy for her characters caught in the web of human weakness, however well-meaning. Take the idealists Lydgate and Dorothea, for example. Both want to promote the public good. Both tragically make wrong marriages, blinded by youthful idealization, frustrating their ameliorative quests. Both live with the anguish of narrowed options as a result.

Lydgate emerges a nearly Hamlet figure, knowing what he must do to save his marriage to the narcissist, spendthrift Rosamond, yet unable to muster the necessary resolve. Ironically, his innate sensitivity proscribes his hurting someone he loves, impinging not only on his happiness, but potential to shift the paradigm of traditional medical practice to one rooted in modern science and innovation.

Then there’s the quixotic Dorothea, marrying a man thirty years older than herself, believing it will amend her cultural shortcomings and lead to achieving a social good by helping her pedantic husband, Casaubon, succeed in his massive, never ending study, The Key to All Mythologies, only to find him a repressive, paranoid, vindictive spouse indifferent to her selfhood and social idealism. As with Lydgate, Eliot holds nothing back in her graphic depiction of Dorothea’s descent into an emotional maelstrom.

In many ways, Middlemarch is our first feminist novel, replete in its championing the right of women to self-realization in a patriarchal society.   Consider Lydgate’s sexist notion of the ideal woman:

An accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labors and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair’s breadth beyond–docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from beyond that limit.

Eliot also succeeds brilliantly in taking the pulse of small town life dominated by its xenophobia, unyielding mores, and proclivity for gossip. Appropriately, Eliot’s sub-title, A of Provincial Life, hints that a principal theme of her story embraces the quest for emancipation from the tyranny of one’s small-minded fellows.

Middlemarch isn’t by any means a perfect novel, as Virginal Woolf noted in her essay, among its weaknesses a fondness for using two sentences when one would suffice.

Some Eliot readers find her editorializing intrusive, as though she can’t risk readers missing her point or foregoing an opportunity to superimpose her worldview; but I don’t mind this at all, for her rummaging through the morass of conflicting emotions in her characters and expansive reflections work to heighten my sensibility to the novel’s nuances and, best, expose me to Eliot’s spacious mind and resonant empathy sufficient to encompass even the hypocritical banker Nicholas Bulstrode, cloaking himself in religious piety. Her empathy enlarges my own.

The Guardian in its ranking of the 100 best novels written in English, ranks Middlemarch at 27th, and deems it the greatest of Victorian novels, no mean compliment in an era of Dickens, Trollope, Hardy and Thackeray. There are others, however, and not a few, who rank it first among the myriad novels written in English. Noted critic Harold Bloom thinks Middlemarch is among the greatest novels written in any language (Western Literature, 1994).

I always like to end any book review I write with resonant passages that may entice readers. While there are many in Middlemarch. I like this one best, coming at its close:

But the effect of her [Dorothea] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Great books deserve re-readings, as by their very nature, they never fail to enlarge our awareness, advance our human sympathy, and promote optimism for, if not a better world, at the very least, a life lived in reconciliation with our fellows.



















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New England Memories

York Beach, Maine

York Beach, Maine

Sometimes a long delay gives you better perspective. I hadn’t been back home to New England in eleven years until our recent trip. Thinking of Thomas Wolfe’s dictum, “You can’t go home again,” I didn’t really know if my previous enthusiasm about the place could withstand a revisit after being away so long.

But it did:

There was exciting Boston with its history, culture, and trail-blazing architecture. And being a retired prof, I salivated thinking of those 100-plus colleges and universities within its 4.5 million metropolitan area. Unfortunately, we could only spend one night there, but at least Karen and I got over to Fenway for a night game to watch our beloved Red Sox. Yeah, they lost; in fact, got routed, but we were compensated big time exploring the Prudential Center’s seemingly endless mall with its myriad shops and culinary haunts.

Then Rowley, founded in 1639, where I lived several years. My cousin, Susan, more like a sister than a cousin, still lives there. Sharing memories was just the right brew amid the town’s quiet ambience with its 5000 population, though only 35-miles north of Boston. It had 1500 people back in 1957 when I left, yet retains its delightful small town feel. Like so much of New England’s sleepy rural towns nestled in bucolic splendor, time hasn’t played its heavy hand.

And then our visit for a week to Maine with its inviting beaches at York Beach and Ogunquit, “lobsta,” “chowda,” freshly caught fish and fried clams. As a child I had loved the nearby sea, whether living in Rowley or visiting New Hampshire or going ” down” to Maine as New Englanders like to put it.

The same crescendoes of waves hurling themselves against the rocky shore echoing the tidal poundings that I could hear sometimes from my bed at night in Rowley just six miles away from the Massachusetts shore..

No, we didn’t get to my favorite part of Maine reaching up to Boothbay, Camden, Bar Harbor and resplendent Acadia National Park. I’ve yet to see jagged Mt. Katahdin with its spectacular hiking trails and grand vistas, or the many forest secluded lakes that comprise northern Maine’s landscape that fascinated Thoreau; but it’s all there to be drawn upon for future visits, perhaps more often because I’m frankly running low on time.

Places yet to renew my spirit in an increasingly savage world of human abode, New England with its mountains, lakes, thundering seas, white steepled churches, long history where time gets honored over newness; sailing ventures to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket; 4th of July bonfires and the Boston Pops along the Charles; Harvard Square teeming with bookstores; nature’s autumnal artistry transforming foliage into flaming hues of red and flamboyant orange; jazz festivals in Newport and on Yale’s green; and, yes, the fall of snow bringing hush to a busy world.

After so long absence, I’ve been like a lover returning home, renewed in spirit, “surprised by joy” as Wordsworth put it. Somethings remain stubborn against time’s ceaseless push and you really do find you can go home again.



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Memorial Day: “Neither shall they learn war any more”

th2Tomorrow once again commemorates Memorial Day, when we fittingly honor those who forfeited their lives for our country. I think of the Civil War with its estimated 600,000 deaths and World War II with another calamitous toll of 400,000. And then there are the recent 6,000 deaths in the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts. Altogether, some 1,300,000 of our men and women have died in our conflicts from the Revolutionary War through the present.

Wars, regardless of why they’re fought, are troubling in what they say about the human condition and consummate surrender of our humanity. We can boast of our scientific advances all we want, but the truth is we’re as primitive as ever in our troubling aggression, capacity for anger, and acting out our malice, often over quarrels that a century hence will nullify their significance.

Today marks another memorial of catastrophic horror that makes our Gettysburg with its 3-day violence and 75,000 dead and wounded, pale in comparison. One hundred years ago today, French and German forces engaged one another in what became a 10 month stalemated trench conflict, resulting in 800,000 deaths, until German withdrawal and forfeiture of just five square miles of ground.

I could tell you about other conflicts as well such as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in which an estimated thirty percent of the German civilian population perished from famine and disease, or more recently, of the deaths of 7 million Soviet citizens in WWII.

Voltaire had it right about the scourge of war when he remarked that “men appear to prefer ruining one another’s fortunes, and cutting each other’s throats about a few paltry villages, to extending the grand means of human happiness.”

The greatest thing you and I can do to honor our war dead is to be peacemakers, shunning those who preach violence, often for political ends, appealing to our fears rather than our capacity for love, empathy and compromise in promoting “human happiness.”

In a park across from the UN in New York you can find what’s called “the Isaiah wall” with the message of that Old Testament prophet epitomizing that so far allusive quest: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.”

That journey begins right now, this Memorial Day, with you and me.


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Before Surgery Reading: Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small

I’ve always loved animals. I can’t say where it comes from, but maybe it’s in the genes. Both my nieces exhibit the same trait. Currently, I’ve been reading James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. If you’re old enough, you may have seen the BBC rendition back in the late 70s and into the 80s, ninety episodes in all. It’s good reading for me, given the sciatica pain that’s turned me into virtually an invalid replete with cane these past five weeks. Now comes surgery at dawn tomorrow.

Herriot’s work is much more about human eccentricity than animals and delivers dependable relief beyond medication to me in its rich mix of humor and humility garnered from thirty years as a 24/7 veterinary surgeon in the hollows of England’s remote Yorkshire country, regionally fictionalized, like Hardy and Faulkner, as Darrowby.

I had missed out on the BBC series, but came upon Herriot’s work providentially with a chance to download his works in one sweet bundle at just $2.99.

By the way, James Herriot is a pseudonym for James Wight (1916-1995). A devoted fan of soccer, he took the name from a soccer goalie named Jim Herriot.  At the time, tooting  your own horn in professions like law and medicine was considered bad form.

I hadn’t realized Wight was a prolific writer of animal stories for children as well, although a good many of his adult stories can be read that way.

I love the outdoors and sorely miss being out in my garden, hoe or weedeater in hand, accompanied by the fellowship of fauna and flora busy in their pursuit of life. Herriot reminds me of my lost bliss and kindles my enthusiasm to get it back.

I’ve found no one commenting on Herriot’s keen writing skills and the focused observations he brings to his narratives, earmarking him as one our better nature writers. Take this passage, for example, describing the artistry of a night wind in shaping morning’s wintry landscape:

But as always, even in my disappointment, I looked with wonder at the shapes the wind had sculpted in the night; the flowing folds of the most perfect smoothness tapering to the finest of points, deep hollows with knife-edged rims, soaring cliffs with overhanging margins almost transparent in their delicacy.

Busy in his profession, we’re fortunate Herriot got down to writing at all, beginning at age 50 and, initially, not garnering any attention until we Americans put him on the map.

I wish I could have met the man, first rate not only as a writer but, more importantly, as a sensitive man of science endowed with empathy for all creatures great and small.


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A favorite poem: William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All”

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast–a cold wind.  Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen.

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leaflets vines–

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches–

They enter the new world naked
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.  All about them
the cold, familiar wind–

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curls of wildcdarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined–
It quickens:  clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance–Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

I’ve always liked the poetry of William Carlos Williams.  I like how he doesn’t put on airs, uses everyday vernacular, is strident for justice and filled with compassion.

Is he a romantic.  I can’t answer that.   Wallace Stevens said he was.  Williams, however, said no.

I do know that I cherish his imagistic prowess and his maxim, “No ideas, but in things.”  Accordingly, his poems sparkle with the presence of everyday objects like even a red wheelbarrow unlikely to attract our attention.

Reticent in symbolism, his poems nonetheless are latent with nuance and ultimately translate the local into the universal.

I haven’t  done a post on poetry in recent days, but it’s springtime now, bringing with it thoughts of one of my favorite Williams’ poems:  “Spring and All.”

It belongs to a genre  tracing back to the 13th century called “Reverie,” or poetry  celebrating spring.

I think of spring as the moodiest season of the year, sometimes stormy; other times, gentle.  Often it takes its time to make an appearance, stubborn, cross, and perverse.  Were it a psychological client, one might suspect borderline personality disorder.

Williams takes all of this in quite well when he likens a landscape adjacent to a road that leads to a “contagious hospital” (a facility for diseases  like tuberculosis) as analogous to the hospital, or replete with putrefaction and contagion, hinting at malady and death:  trees and bushes splotchy with red and purplish hue.

It’s Williams’ ingenuity, however, to undermine our usual negative take on “contagion” into just its opposite:  if there is contagion, then it’s not that of mortality, despite the ” dead, brown leaves under them/leaflets vines–”

In short, the small buds of reddish hue tell of spring’s incipient quickening of landscape as it makes its “sluggish,” “dazed” approach.

In essence,  William draws on the archetype of rebirth and restoration.  Spring emerges, inexorably, reversing winter’s tenacious sovereignty of the poem’s initial three stanzas.

They enter (i.e., the red buds) the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.   All around them
the cold familiar wind–

Now the grass, tomorrow,
the stiff curls of wildcdarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined–
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf.

Williams’ poem isn’t simply a listing poem of quick observations.   If you look carefully, you’ll find it’s carefully structured as dialectic, or into an antithesis of life and death, with the former achieving the new synthesis.

Dialectic informs the very imagery in its couplings of stillness vs. motion and of sky with earth in the initial stanza.

Appearance with its mortality nuances gets routed by spring’s  slow, dazed, but inevitable entrance.

…now the stark dignity of
entrance–Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

Addressing the human context, which Williams never neglects in any of this poems, the poem mirrors the continuity of life and hints of human resolve in spite of the ambience of mortality as a universal tenet.

I read somewhere, I think in the New York Times, that many critics regard “Spring and All” as one the last century’s greatest poems. You’ll get no argument from me.

















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The war on cancer: New treatments lock-out most of us

trialsDeath has many doorways, none of them particularly pleasant, but some downright gruesome, cancer for instance.

My father died from lung cancer at age 79. That’s a generous portion of life, when you consider the mean is several years less. Nonetheless, I remember his final hours at the Veterans’ hospital in Chelsea, MA, strapped to his narrow bed, and the moaning that even massive morphine couldn’t assuage.

And then there was my brother, Donald, so full of life, with robust talent and zeal to harness success. I had been doing a seminar at Claremont Graduate School in California that summer in 1979. Weekends I’d spend with him and his lovely wife, Barbe. Six months later, the devastating news of brain cancer, immediate surgery that made him no longer Donald, and death seven months after–cruelly, on his birthday. He had turned 47.

Then there’s my niece, Denise. She passed away several months ago from myeloma dysplasia (considered a blood cancer malady). I had spoken with her on the phone several months earlier. She’d been eagerly looking forward to her upcoming bone marrow transplant from brother, Richard. Initially, it went well, then relapse. She was 57.

Two of my siblings survived cancer. Ruth was experiencing intestinal distress suggestive of colon cancer, but doctors at the local hospital failed to find anything wrong after administering a CT. Thanks to my niece’s insistence on a second opinion, doctors at Massachusetts General, doing their own CT, found a baseball size tumor, diagnosed as Stage 3 cancer. They seem to have got it all in the surgery the very next day.

My brother David received chemotherapy and radiation for his colon cancer, following surgery. Proving the cure can be as devastating as the disease, radiation destroyed his digestive capacity, subjecting him to a hugely diminished quality of life.

I realize this is painful reading, but cancer insidiously invades our life premises in one way or another despite our efforts to wall it out. We get nowhere “crossing the street” to ignore it.

One thing about cancer is it is impartiality. It respects neither age, wealth, nor origin; the pious or the amoral.

One of its monstrous cruelties is when it ravages children. It’s what the Jimmy Fund is all about.

I remember how, in 1971, President Nixon, meaning well, declared war on cancer. Now, forty-five years later, it continues to assault many millions. Recently President Obama renewed that war in this year’s State of the Union address, pledging $1 billion for new research.

Each year, more than 500,000 Americans succumb to cancer.

That surpasses by more than 100 million the toll of American deaths in all of WWII!

In this year, 2016, an estimated 595,690 deaths will occur.

Even more ghastly, 14 million Americans have the disease right now!

But there’s good news to be had as well: a 21 percent drop in cancer mortality from 1991 to the present.

This may result from a more knowledgeable public, making lifestyle changes that include giving-up smoking, exercising more, eating healthier foods, undergoing yearly physicals, and taking advantage of screening venues that include colonoscopies and mammograms.

What’s more, there’s a plethora of new drugs along with innovative trial therapies that utilize one’s immune system, potentially bypassing radiation and chemotherapy protocols with their often serious side effects. In early phase 1 trials, we’ve seen B-cell leukemias and lymphomas disappear.

The problem is that these trials are often highly specialized, focusing on rare, sub-category cancers.

Additionally, there are all too few trials available even for those who qualify.

Frequently, doctors contribute to the dilemma, refusing to recommend patients for inclusion in a trial or committing to a new approach until the traditional cancer options of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery have proven ineffectual. In short, it’s imperative we advocate for ourselves, keeping aware of new methodologies and of doctors and cancer centers on the cutting edge.

Former president Jimmy Carter, however, lucked-out. On August 20, 2015, he made public that he had melanoma induced cancer that had metastasized to his brain. With a 3-5 pound tumor, experts gave him only several months to live.

Along with radiation, his treatment protocol included infusion of pembrolizumab (keytruda), one of several of the new immunotherapy drugs employing the immune system and endorsed by the FDA for those having exhausted other therapies.

On December 6, 2015, Carter shared the good news that his recent brain scans were negative for cancer.

This would seem to bode well for the rest of us that the day may be coming when we’ll see the scourge of cancer pushed back, sparing ourselves and our loved ones.

But keytruda doesn’t come cheap at $150,000 for a year of treatment. For seniors, the most prone to cancer, Medicare, which won’t even pay for your glasses, hearing aids, etc., isn’t likely to cough up money for your treatment any time soon. Same story with private or employee insurance.

Fame and fortune access, as always, the best medical care. The poor and minorities needn’t apply.

But let me add another caveat to all of this: immunotherapy, while promising, is hardly around the corner as a standard protocol any time soon. Was Carter actually cured, or is this simply cancer’s quirky finesse to tease with remission rather than resolution?

Beware media hype! In the trials for keytruda, 76% of 173 patients receiving the drug didn’t see their tumors shrink.

In the follow-up on those who did experience tumor shrinkage, the time element was a paltry 8.5 months. Normally, we’d like to view things in a five-year context.

As I see it, however, it’s the prohibitive cost factor that largely hinders the delivery of effective cancer treatment, delaying the finding of a cure.

In summing up, though life and death are inextricably bound together, we prefer avoiding any discussion of death and do our best to masquerade its occurrence.   On the other hand, when we confront our mortality we enter into the larger, more important question as to how then ought we to live?

We may not have an an answer to the riddle of cancer in our lifetime, but we can defy it with courage and living out our destiny with human sympathy and loving kindness,   indulging  in each new day as unique in its capacity to enthrall with the cornocupia  of life.








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On finding a new booklist quarry

Aaron Hicklin

Aaron Hicklin

I confess I’m addicted to booklists. No sooner do I finish one book, but I’m into another.

What surprises me is that I can’t remember anyone in my family serving as a role model when I was a child, either reading to me or picking-up a book for themselves, with the exception of the late intervention of my eldest brother, David, recently discharged from the army after WWII and anticipating college under the newly inaugurated GI Bill.

One night before David left for the University of Miami, he gave me my first book, Huckleberry Finn. I still remember the occasion–eight years old, sprawled out on the floor of our Philly tenement, absorbed so fully in this really good book that it muffled the adjacent Front Street el with its interminable trains, dutifully groaning past our rattling windows every fifteen minutes.

Soon I discovered the Montgomery County Library. I didn’t mind walking the two miles, knowing what lay up ahead. It was  one of those supreme pleasures like feasting on a well-stacked hoagie or downing a cold strawberry ice cream soda on humid summer Philly nights; maybe I even liked it as much as playing stick ball every day against the factory facades lining our streets.

Books gave me refuge in a home torn apart by alcohol. I became aware of a larger world, where good really did exist, and people could be kind and often courageous. I found heroes like Lincoln, Gandhi, and Gehrig that would become staples in my life.  Books transported me to far away places—Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific.

Nearly as important as the library was a humble bookstore on Girard Avenue that I often passed on my way home from Chandler Elementary, filled with used paperbacks. What got my attention were two cardboard boxes piled high with comic books. I gravitated to the one filled with Classic Comics with their graphic renditions and abridged texts of literary fare.  The price, five cents, sealed the bargain!  I’d “picture” my way through, say, Les Miserables or Treasure Island, then pick-up the hardback version at the library. By the time I was 13, I had read many of the classics, including War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Silas Marner.

As for the many booklists I’ve ransacked through the years to feed my addiction, I’ll just say my favorite has been Brain Pickings, whose cerebral fiber fences it off from the traffic lane of your typical booklist..

For the most part, I shun the New York Times best seller lists, annoyed by their often fad offerings of dubious value other than to entertain or tell how you, too, can cash in and grow healthy, wealthy and wise.  A few weeks later, I’d find these books either gone awol or sunk to near oblivion.

Before the Internet opened up our information corridors, I’d reminisce earlier times venturing into a library, losing myself in its stacks, often looking for one book, but emerging with another. Call it serendipity, but the chance encounters I’ve had with library books have often proved fortuitous with surprising consequences.

Take, for instance, one chance venture when I pulled a book off the shelf by an author I’d never heard of. Lucky draw, it turned out to be Thomas Wolfe and his Look Homeward Angel. I was 17 at the time, a homesick GI in Korea resorting to the humble base library to annul slow time. Hooked, in subsequent years I rampaged all of his novels, ultimately enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Pulpit Hill of Look Homeward Angel.

Books often haunt my mind, ghosts of delightful company with motley heroes, or of vistas spinning new threads of excitement, belief, and desire in conspiracy against the old.

But I’ve found that even the Internet can surprise me. Several days ago, for example, I stumbled upon an extended New York Times Style Magazine series, “My 10 Favorite Books,” edited by Aaron Hicklin.

Hicklin edits a magazine called Out and recently opened up a bookstore called One Grand Books in Narrowsburg, NY. In a clever ploy to attract readers, he’s come up with the idea of asking well-regarded people from various walks of life what ten books they’d want to have with them were they marooned on a desert island. Each listing would feature annotated entries explaining their choices or how these books came to shape their lives.

Hicklin doesn’t want just another bookshop, a dubious business venture in this age of online behemoths like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but a resource for discriminating readers to find books of substance readily.

As I write, contributors to “My 10 Favorite Books” include, among many others,

 Allan Hollinghurst

 Edmund White

 John Irving

 Ta-Nehesi Coates

 Gloria Steinem

 Gia Coppola

Michael Pollan

Erica Jong

What’s nifty here is how when you select a contributor you get a cascading menu of ten annotated preferences.  In short, each menu constitutes a sub-booklist in the series.  Amazingly, very little overlap occurs among contributor choices, yet each listing is profoundly discriminating.

Absent from the list are two writers I’m unfamiliar who intrigue me for their choices, since they complement my own interests–artist Terence Koh and author, Brett Easton Ellis–the former for his love of Eastern thought with its subdued nuances in a sound byte world; the latter, in sharing tastebuds with me for writers like Tolstoy and Flaubert.

Hicklin, by the way, keeps an online blog, onegrandbooks, that provides you with an archive of previous contributors and a weekly focus on a current contributor, sparing you the cumbersome difficulty of finding each series individually online. You can even sign-up for his weekly newsletter and have your purchased item shipped conveniently to your doorstep.

I hope Hicklin’s venture succeeds. It’s a brave new world out there

Meanwhile, I’m on safari, exploring panoramas of infinite sweep_better because unanticipated, by way of my new booklist quarry.





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