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.


A Life-Changing Quotation

Every once in a while, I come across a quotation that really stands out. I like this one, though I don’t recall exactly where, or when or how I came upon it, but thought you might like it too:

Did I offer peace today?

Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?

Did I say words of healing?

Did I let go of my anger and resentment?

Did I love?

–Henri Nowen (1932-1996)*

Nowen*Nowen, priest, theologian, and author, lived the life he preached, loving others, and writing some 39 books, translated into thirty languages. His most famous book: The Return of the Prodigal Son.





Snobbery’s Menace


Politics can be a mean way of life, filled with scurrilous attacks on opponents, replete with prevarication, and downright lying. I stay away from it, as much as possible.

Case in point, just the other day former Vermont governor and one time seeker of the Oval Office, Howard Dean, took a shot at Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, commenting on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “The issue is, how well-educated is this guy?”

Walker, who may throw his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination in 2016, dropped out of college almost at the finish line in the spring of his senior year to join the Red Cross.

Our Constitution, however, lists only three prerequisites for our nation’s highest office: natural born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a minimum of 14 years lived in the United States.

Maybe Dean and others of his stripe might want to try amending our Constitution to secure their elitist government.

I would contend our government is just too elitist as it is, an oligarchy of power interests distanced from the vast majority of working Americans, three quarters of whom don’t sport a college degree.

I would also question the underlying assumption that a college degree automatically confers knowledgeability on anyone for any job.

I was a prof for 40 years and I can tell you first hand my students learned best, not from books or lecture, but hands-on. That’s what internships are all about, Dean, and you of all people, a medical doctor, should know this, since M. D.’s do a year of internship followed by several years of residency.

I have to confess I made a lot of dumb mistakes as a young prof despite 10 years of college before I was really fit to step into the classroom.

I would like to ask Dean how it was, judging by his own maxim, he was suddenly fit to be governor having trained to be a physician. That’s a huge gap. Maybe Rand Paul can help us out here.

My father had only an elementary school education, dropping out of the public schools like so many of his generation in the pre-World War I years. Like several of my uncles, he worked as a leather tacker for all of his working life in a brutal environment of body-sapping humidity and toxic fumes in one of the most deprived areas of Philly.

But for all his lack of schooling, he was one of the wisest men I’ve known across a life time, intuitive, and possessed of a healthy dose of skepticism whenever the facts didn’t seem to line up.

Not only do I owe my love of baseball to him, but the importance of being aware of what’s going on the world. The TV evening news with John Cameron Swayze or Douglas Edwards was time out and you’d better not be talking while they were on.

Every Sunday morning, he’d send me up the block for the Philadelphia Inquirer, just a dime then (imagine!) and split the newspaper with me on my return, which I’d eagerly devour, sprawled out on the floor. At 10, I was fully aware of a new war in a far off place called Korea, and spell bound by the firing of MacArthur not long after.

I remember his love for Winston Churchill, who had warned the West in the early thirties of the menace of Joseph Stalin.

My father was always slow to swallow the government line, speculating that we might never really know the facts behind that “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor, a surmise that historian John Toland’s recent book. Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, lends credence to.

I take offense when the snobs start wagging their tongues, the privileged lording it over the common herd, whether in the political area or anywhere else

Money, celebrity and, unfortunately, education–one of the most rampant bastions of elitism– can become divisive weaponry in putting down others to boost yourself up.

Or to efface those opinions you don’t like. Dummies!

Snobs always want to impress. As Virginia Woolf put it, herself a snob, “The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people.”

I like best how one of my favorite authors, D. H. Lawrence, who came from miner stock, defined it: “[Snobbery] is the desire for what divides men and the inability to value what unites them.”

Ah, let me call to mind just a few names of those from a humble way of life, without college diplomas, who have made a positive mark upon the world. You just may be surprised:

In Science:

Thomas Edison

George Washington Carver

In Business:

Henry Ford

John D. Rockefeller

Steve Jobs

Mark Zuckerberg

In the Arts

Thomas Hardy

Mark Twain

William Faulkner

Vincent Van Gogh

William Shakespeare

In Politics

Andrew Jackson

John Glenn

Winston Churchill

Abraham Lincoln

These are my heroes.

These are my greats!

My favorite people also spring from everyday people I’ve known who never did a mean social thing in their lives like dismissing others for their lack of money, possessions, or the right diploma; or practicing a trade; or for being Black, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, or gay; or because their political beliefs don’t mesh.

I measure people by a different yardstick: people who inspire with their kindness and compassion, from every walk of life, whose praise comes from the mouths of others and not their own; whose intelligence makes room for them to lead; who, to go back to Lawrence, unite rather than divide.

I like Shaw’s wisdom in his play Pygmalion, where he has Professor Henry Higgins put his finger on what makes for good manners–not whether what you do is in itself good or bad, but that you behave the same way towards everyone.

I must warn, however of another kind of elitism that has taken vogue, of a pride in defiance, or smashing icons for its own sake; a snobbery of rebellion where even norms that have given life grace, and with it, expectancy, are trampled upon in a frenzied allegiance to a vulgarity of self-indulgence of antinomian hue.

Snobbery is a way of life that will always be with us, but you and I, forewarned, needn’t embrace it and, by doing so, gain so much more.

























A Poet Reminisces: Essays After Eighty

ows_141652973541643I have always liked poetry and poets, in particular, because of their sensitivity to human experience.

One poet I like a lot is Donald Hall, a giant among contemporary American poets, although he’s given up the craft, or as he puts it, since “poetry abandoned him.”

Hall is now 85.

Let me assure you, while the tropes may not come as easily as before, his acuity remains vibrant in his newest book, Essays After Eighty, a slim volume of 120 pages, yet filled with reminiscence, keen observation, and sober wisdom.

I first got introduced to Hall by way of his textbook, Writing Well, which I used for a number of years in teaching college composition. The book lived up to its title, emphasizing sentence clarity and how to achieve it, with eloquence added in.

Hall has always been a diligent stylist, whether writing poetry or prose. He confesses that he’s written some individual essay drafts for Essays After Eighty upwards of eighty times to get things said right.

I used to tell my students that the name of the game in all good writing lay in revision, pointing out that scholars have come upon nearly fifty drafts of Yeat’s famed “Second Coming” poem.

I like how Hall says it: “The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.”

I’ve always held that a good style is etched by its economy, the right words sufficing for empty fillers drowning readers in verbosity; a pleasing rhythm like waves, in and out, upon a sea shore.

Good prose, like poetry, runs lean.

And Hall is the great master.

Let me give you a sampling of Hall’s trademark writing acumen, simple, yet keen with observation, each detail chosen well, verbs especially, accumulating into a verbal, painting, reflecting the ethos of a skilled artisan:

In spring, when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, bluejays that harass them, warblers, red-winged blackbirds, thrushes, orioles. Mourning doves crouch in the grass, nibbling seeds. A robin returns each year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw, twigs and lint. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them….

Reminiscence weighs heavily upon these essays, not surprising for a writer in his mid-eighties. the ghosts, as it were, looming out of the past–grandparents, Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, friends;  wife Jane Kenyon, the love of his life and fellow poet, succumbing unexpectedly to cancer at age 47.

Even the northern New Hampshire topography has yielded to change, farms giving way to rebirth of forest as the new generation migrates to the prosperous cities of southern New Hampshire.

As I read this moving collection of personal reflections on sundry topics, I made sure to highlight a number of striking passages, and some of them I’ll share with you.

On writing:

As I work on clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little to do with import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.

If the essay doesn’t include contraries, however small they be, the essay fails.

Nine-tenths of the poets who win prizes and praises, who are applauded the most, who are treated everywhere like emperors–or like statues of emperors–will go unread in thirty years.

I count it an honor that in 1975 I gave up lifetime tenure, medical expenses, and a pension in exchange for forty joyous years of freelance writing.

I expect my immortality to expire five minutes after my funeral. Literature is a zero-sum game. One poet revives; another gets deader.

On aging:

When I limped into my eighties, my readings altered, as everything did.

In the past I was advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do.?

On leisure:

Everyone who concentrates all day, in the evening needs to let the half-wit out for a walk.

On mortality:

It is sensible of me to realize that I will die one of these days. I will not pass away.

At some time in my seventies, death stopped being interesting. I no longer checked out ages in obituaries.

These days most old people die in profit-making dormitories. Their loving sons and daughters are busy and don’t want to forgo the routine of their lives.

Essays After Eighty has been a wonderful read for me with its acerbic wit, cogent wisdom, delivered in a simple, yet elegant, style, proving again that the best art conceals itself.

And yet there’s a melancholy that haunts these excursions into reminiscence, a sense that the best is over and, now, there’s just the waiting. As Hall confesses, “My problem isn’t death, but old age.”

Hall, of course, is addressing physical decline with its imposed limitations and dreaded dependency; but surely his words resonate still more–the sense of ephemerality that mocks our labors and brings to an end all that we love most dearly.

For Hall, “There are no happy endings, because if things are happy, they have not ended.”

Still, this work, perhaps his last, formulates a testimony to a life lived well.

And, very rarely, do you find such honest telling.


Brian Williams Remembers What He Disremembered


There you go again, Twitter folks!

Turning on the light to bang those damn cockroaches scuddling down the wall.

You can’t do that, people!

Not to NBC News anchor, Brian Williams.

Is everything just fair game to you guys?

Doesn’t show much gratitude to a man who’s spent his life getting at the truth.

And I really resent your making me into a dumb ass just because I like the guy.

But Brian, I know full well someone like you, clean-cut, ageless all-American boy that you are, could never stoop to any kind of falsehood, though I know you’re no George Washington, who never, ever told a lie, even about that cherry tree.

Tell me I ain’t wrong, Brian!

You simply disremembered. That’s it!

I know you said your helicopter came under fire while you were reporting on a news story back in Iraq in 2003.

A really long time ago, huh?

I know it took you a some time to remember again and you needed help from the people who got to the light switch

But now you’ve got the story right.

Anyway, it doesn’t the f–k matter.

I know you walked a tightrope over Niagara Falls.

I’ve got this photo that proves it. Pictures don’t lie.

And you were in the first wave, hitting Omaha Beach.

I would never have believed it. You look so young.

Like the song says, “They can’t take that away from me.”

I think that was written for you.

What, you wrote it?

I never knew that either.

I really like how you stand-up for yourself.

No, you don’t need to say anything more.

You were just in a mental fog.

We’ve all had days like that.

Months, years?

Hey, what the hell!

Let me say my piece, Twitter people!

Give the guy a break!

You think he should be fired?

Well, I can tell you right now it ain’t happening.

Fortunately, he works at NBC and we know their loyalty to their people.

Take Al Sharpton at sister MSNBC….

He’s got this whole show to himself.

He says the rich should pay more in taxes.

He should know.

After all, he’s rich and is just dying to pay his full share.

Yeah, I know he’s 4 million behind in back taxes.

You gotta give a guy time to remember what he’s disremembered.

He’ll catch-up.

But back to you, Brian.

You’ve got real balls.

No apologies.

And why should you?

I love this in you!

A lot of others like it, too.

Like Al Gore, who invented the Internet.

Especially these guys in politics like Mark Kirk, Richard Blumenthal, and Tom Harkin.

They all disremembered, too, when it came to war.

But the people understood and made damn sure they got elected.

We’ve got your back, Brian.

What, you were with Clinton when he unzipped his fly in the Oval Office?

Wow, and you’ve held back till now?

Yeah, you disremembered this, too, but now you’ve got it right.

Yeah, I can understand why you waited.

You guys were cronies for years.

Hey, Brian, old faithful here can’t wait to see you on the news tonight.

You’re interviewing Armstrong?

Oh, I know Lance finally fessed up to being on dope all those years.

What do you expect a guy to do in a stress event like The Tour de France?

Yeah, it took him a while to remember, but he got it right.

Now he just hit two cars the other day and got so shook up that he disremembered again and thought it was his girlfriend driving.

But he got it right this time much quicker, remembering what he disremembered.

Just like you, Brian!


Note:  Williams apologized on his newscast last night:  “I made a mistake in recalling events of twelve years ago.”  The facts show he repeated his version on several occasions, the story growing with the telling.  It’s one thing to make a “mistake”; it’s another thing to lie.  I don’t buy into the twelve years ago excuse either.  If it hadn’t been for the military, Williams would still be exploiting the story for personal advantage.  Meanwhile, MSNBC didn’t cover the apology until 10:45 pm.  It’s been my experience that when caught, liars are disingenuous with language.

Winter Discontent: Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light”

dickinsonI’m sitting here in our sunroom, looking out this afternoon on our backyard, smothered with frost. We had our first snow cover a week ago, which came early to Kentucky.

I’m a warm weather lover, and while those around me complain about heat, I say, more is better.

You’d think coming from New England, I’d be more tolerant of snow and ice and lashing wind, but I can tell you that over time I’m liking old man winter much less.

But neither am I some isolated crank in finding winter oppressive.

Take fellow New Englander, Emily Dickinson, for example, that fervent champion of spring and summer, and with them, birds, flowers and even snakes populating her many poems, emissaries of nature’s cornucopia and the inherent goodness of its plentitude.

Understandably, she didn’t soften her distain toward winter in a poem I’ve memorized, “There’s a certain Slant of light.”

I’ve always admired this poem, like so many others she wrote, cerebral, observant, brief, but dependably engaging, centered in detail, redolent in ambience.

Here’s the poem, followed with my commentary:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

 Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

 None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.

 Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, this one deals with death, as ultimately revealed in its closing line. Keenly aware of the temporal, she always dreaded saying good bye to not only visiting friends, but the passage of the temperate seasons.

Appropriately, the poem’s ambience is foregrounded in emerging darkness on a winter afternoon, signified in the angular, or slanted, solstice light. While “Slant” suggests not only a way of seeing things, it more likely connotes a cosmic knife that wounds, amplified in the second stanza’s “hurt” and “scar” allusions.

In the first, stanza, however, this visual image of a slanting light evolves into one of sound, the light being like the “Heft” of Cathedral Tunes, heft denoting heaviness, or the solemnity of perhaps tolling bells or funeral music.

The speaker’s reference here to cathedrals plainly suggests the poem exceeds depiction of a gloomy New England winter’s day, entering into metaphysical concerns embracing religion, God, and mortality.

Dickinson, after all, was not only a rebel in writing non-traditional verse, both formally and thematically, but in her strident skepticism when it came to the assurances of Christianity.

In stanzas two and three, the persona traces the cosmic sources of the day’s oppressive gloom to Deity (1.e., “heavenly hurt,” “an imperial affliction /Sent us of the air”).

As to the specific nature of the transient day’s mood, it is rightfully left ambiguous (“None may teach it–Any–“), underscoring the persona’s angst in a cosmos ruled at best by a silent deity, who allows death’s intrusion into every aspect of nature.

The speaker can only offer analogies in attempting to articulate her resulting emotional dissonance in response to the waning light, since words often prove ineffectual in rendering matters of our psyche:  “We can find no scar,/But internal difference/Where the Meanings are.”

The persona’s allusion to the Book of Revelation with its apocryphal judgments, “T’is the Seal Despair,” underscores the angst of this “imperial affliction” in its psychological reign.

In the concluding stanza, two additional analogies appear, the first employing personification:  “When it comes’ the Landscape listens–/Shadows hold their breath–”

The pronoun “it” brings us back to the slanted light of the initial stanza, reminding us again that we are at the moment when the winter sun is about to slip below the horizon. With anxious anticipation, afternoon shadows stand at attention like sentries.

In the final analogy, the speaker breaks through with simile to the source of her angst in the sun’s passage:  “When it goes, ’tis like the Distance/On the look of Death–”

Or like viewing a corpse, distanced from every human concern.

In the poem’s absence of any proffered reunion or resurrection, Dickinson’s deep vein of skepticism is readily apparent, despite her Puritan forbears and living in a culture still permeated with conservative Christian belief.

But it didn’t come easily to Dickinson, earning my admiration for her candid questioning of cherished communal beliefs. In an early letter, she would confess to “an aching void in my heart which I am convinced the world cannot fill.”

Though often thought of as eccentric, preferring solitude to company, the truth is Dickinson relished her family, had close friends as her extensive correspondence confirms, and received occasional visitors.

Separation from those she loved was always acutely stressful.

And death, of course, which came early and often in her time, was the ultimate ransacker of human bonds. In a three year period she would lose some forty-six friends and relatives.

I share her sensibility when it comes to winter. I miss Nature’s teeming sights, sounds, and smells: my flowers in variegated hues blooming proudly, attended to by murmuring bees; the smell of Spring lilacs; the taste of fresh berries; chickadees in their yellow jackets at the bird feeder, impervious to the wind.

Looking out my window at a checkered landscape of grays and whites on yet another eclipsed day of light on a winter afternoon, I grieve their absence and share the sense of pervasive temporality that so haunted Dickinson.

And thus, like her, I relish the return of every spring, enjoying what I can, while I’m able, and with what light remains.






























Traits we should all want

leadershipI saw a recent piece in the Huffington Post, called “7 Habits of Natural Leaders,” and found it riveting. You don’t necessarily have to be in a leadership position, however, to benefit from making these attributes staples of your everyday life.

I’ll list them and give my own take on each of the attributes:

1.  They dare to fail: I was a prof for nearly forty years and found that most students opted to play it safe–take the easier courses, avoid the good, but tough professors who gave A’s only for singular achievement. I have often thought of Lincoln, who mostly failed in his early political efforts. But he never gave up, and the rest is history.

One of the problems with not assuming risk is that it can pursue us all our lives and we simply run away from all life’s tough spots and sometimes ourselves. If you think about it, we owe our country’s greatness to its founding fathers, willing to risk their lives to confront tyranny.

I have always liked how the poet Robert Browning famously put it: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

2.   They follow their purpose. In short, they stay the course. Over my lifetime, I’ve found the real nemesis of success is not that we quit, but that we quit so soon. Consequently we find ourselves saying, “what if?, when with perseverance, we might have achieved our goals.

Strong people can be difficult to get along with, since passion often governs what they do. At the same time, I find them attractive people, the kind you want to be friends with. They have a vision, know what they want, follow their bliss, and are exciting to be around.

3.   They give. I think we shouldn’t just think of giving in the way of money, but of ourselves. Currently, there’s a seeming panic going on about ebola. Several caretakers, or medical staff, have recently returned to the States, victims of the disease. What’s extraordinary to me is that they went to West Africa in the first place to confront this ugly disease. One of them has actually labored in Liberia for sixteen years, trying to improve its meager medical resources.

When it comes to the monetary aspect, while the vast lot of us aren’t rich, we can still give something. As Peter Singer, a philosopher who specializes in ethics, has said–if all of us in western counties just set aside five percent of our incomes for special needs, we’d eradicate poverty.  I would add, maybe a good many of our diseases as well.

I do know that what we give of ourselves and our assets is a sure indicator of our capacity to love.

4.    They give themselves a break: It’s important to sometimes treat yourself. Right now, I try to keep up my health as I grow older, working out on our elliptical machine and even lifting weights.

But I also schedule timeouts, one or two days when I don’t work out, like Wednesdays and Saturdays. It makes my exercise far more palatable, knowing tomorrow I can simply relax, and without the guilt. I sometimes suspect that dieters would be more successful if they’d cheat one day a week.

We Americans are hard-working and studies show we don’t take much time off.

That’s a pity!

5.    They really listen: Now here’s a trait I’m trying hard to achieve. After all, when we interrupt or ignore what someone’s saying to us, it’s a form of self-absorption, maybe even narcissism. Certainly, it’s selfish

It’s also demeaning to others, a way of saying you don’t matter or what you’ve come to me with is trivial. I don’t want to be this way. I want to value people and for them to know that. I want them to feel when they talk to me that they’re the only one in the room. In short, that they matter, for they do.

6.    They seek out new experiences and ways of thinking: Hey, I’m all over this one and hope you are, too. I like seeing new places, meeting people, chance conversations, reading serious books and magazines.

Guess that’s why I love being around college campuses, especially their real beauty–young people excited about life, filled with dreams, willing to challenge cultural norms turned into unthinking rituals.

Always, I yearn for stimulation, of being challenged to new ways of seeing things. TV doesn’t do that for me. I’m into romping blogs, trying new things, meeting people whose ideas may often challenge my own. I aim to grow, not stagnate, to wake tomorrow wiser than I am today.

7.   They empathize with others:  I like this a lot! Can’t come by a better trait than this, putting yourself in another’s shoes. This happened for me in a unique way many years ago when I took a chance and accepted an invitation form a college friend to visit his country, India.

I saw not only the Taj Mahal, but more importantly, how much the greater portion of humanity suffers in the shackles of ubiquitous poverty, disease and early demise.

I have learned since, and am still learning, the way of compassion, for people, animals and, yes, a wounded earth. I wish I were wealthy, not as its own end, but that I might empty my wallet for others.

If there really does exist what they call an “emotional quotient,” or EQ, then surely compassion is its ultimate marker.

I want it, and want it bad. Hope you do, too!


A lingering malice that kills

To be happy in life comes down to feeling good about yourself. It isn’t about money, popularity, power, or other commonly assumed indicators of success. In fact, these may actually be forms of over compensation, masking our sense of unworthiness or inferiority.

Unfortunately, most of us think we have to earn our self respect by proving ourselves worthy in ways others will approve. Consequently, we allow others to become monitors of ourselves and miss living authentic lives. We are what we think about ourselves.

Where does it all begin, this failing to accept ourselves? Clearly, much of it comes from our childhood experiences, or the voices of the past, as these lay the foundation for self-esteem and the confidence it fosters–our ability to view others as friends, not rivals; colleagues, not conspirators; ourselves as lovable, attractive, and admired; not difficult to like, be around, or embarrassing.

Surprisingly, these voices often find their sources in the “friendly fire” of parents, teachers, siblings, and even playmates, who label us as unworthy through physical abuse, verbal assault, neglect, abandonment, and the social apartheid of cliques.

As a consequence, it’s been estimated that nearly 50% of us suffer from anxiety in its myriad forms–worry, panic, dread, phobias and defensive rituals. Unsure of ourselves, we relive our childhood trauma whenever we encounter people or circumstances echoing the voices of our past, or what we’ve assumed to be true about ourselves. The past colors our perceptions, often resulting in a paranoia that we aren’t liked, are being talked about, even plotted against.

Ironically, our negative attitude may turn our suspicions into reality, driving away the very people whose friendship can reassure us that we have worth. We can’t chance our being rejected yet again.

I’m struck with how many of those who get caught up in violence, frequently mass shootings, are unable to handle perceived rejection and, accordingly, act out. The recent killings of six young people in Santa Barbara by Elliot Rodger, age 22, can be added to a lengthy list. The focus of his anger shows the pattern–he aimed to get even with the women who had rejected him and the men they chose instead.

I’m aware that it can be argued that a good deal of such violent outbursts stems from mental illness. What normal person could possibly do such things? The fact is, they do, and what constitutes mental illness is often shrouded in legal ambiguity with court appointed experts often unable to agree. The vast majority of those with mental illness do not commit such acts anyway, and every day people we often live or work with often do.

Unfortunately, a good many of us are passive-aggressive, hiding our inner turbulence, only to have it spring like a panther into the open, suddenly, surprisingly, and vehemently. “But he seemed so quiet, always said hello, and sometimes offered help.”

By the way, you can find a good deal of what I call “angst poetry” online. Take this poem, for example. Appropriately, it’s titled “Rejection.”

 What are we so afraid of?
Afraid of wanting, but not being wanted
Afraid of feeling, but not being felt
Afraid of asking and being denied

 We all need love–and some of us, because of our childhood ghosts, require it even more.














Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard: Still timely and eloquent


I finally got hold of the late Peter Matthiessen’s classic, The Snow Leopard, after a several week delay at Amazon, which was out of it. I had never read Matthiessen before, even though I knew he was a fervent lover of nature.

He began writing the book back in 1972, essentially a daily journal, shortly after the death of his wife, Deborah, from cancer. It tells of his trek across the Himalayas with field biologist George Schaller in quest of the Himalayan blue sheep and, for Matthiessen, in particular, the elusive snow leopard. It would win the National Book Award on its publication in 1978, our country’s most prestigious literary award.

I, too, confess to loving nature intensely to the point that my graduate prof in a Wordsworth course told the other students I had a leg up on comprehending Britain’s foremost nature poet.

In the middle part of my boyhood we lived in Philly, and I do mean the city. Occasionally we’d drive over to the Jersey coast for relief from the asphalt oven that is Philly in summer. For me, it was liberation to be among trees, fruit stands, and the shore.

I used to travel a lot, often abroad, always with camera ready, but I got complaints that there weren’t any people in my photos. I simply preferred landscape and I’m still that way.

But back to Matthiessen, I read several tributes following his death in April and even wrote my own in Brimmings a few weeks ago. I knew I had a lot of catching up to do. After all, he wrote some 33 books, both fiction and non-fiction, excelling at both.

Certainly, I had to read The Snow Leopard after coming upon one reader’s comment that he goes back to it every year, always gleaning new insights. For someone to do this–it’s rare we re-read a book, let alone, continually–implies considerable substance.

Similarly, I also liked what eminent travel writer Pico Iyer, who wrote the Introduction, had to say:

I have been reading Peter Matthiessen’s silver classic for more than a quarter century now, and every time I do, like any classic, it gives off a different light, growing as I do and shifting to meet the needs of every moment,

After comments like that, how could I not want to splurge my time indulging in this book. Out of curiosity, I googled “nature classics,” only to be disappointed to find no mention of the book that deserves company with the likes of Thoreau, Muir, Carson and Leopold. Perhaps it’s because The Snow Leopard, while surely taking in nature with eagle eye observation recorded in some of the most elegant prose ever, moves past nature into spiritual autobiography. In brief, the outer search for the snow leopard ultimately symbolizes his inward pilgrimage to find meaning and, with it, himself.

This said, I hadn’t previously known that Matthiessen was a serious devotee of Buddhism, that gentle faith, from which he continually draws strength and insight in this book, or a sense of what matters in a cosmos of flux and temporality:

Amazingly, we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure and uninterpreted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free-swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and air and water from which we came.

I wasn’t prepared for how unflinchingly honest this book is: “I am aware of all that is hollow in myself, all that is greedy, angry and unwise.” Matthiessen acknowledges that things were not well in his marriage with Deborah. There follows his intuitive decision to commit; his ineffectual attempts to show love. After her death It would be a year before this prolific writer found himself able to take up the pen again.

Deeply sensitive and rich in compassion, he is always aware of the plight of nature continually ravaged by humans in their relentless self regard and unbridled exploitation. He laments how even the Himalayas are being depleted of their forests, unsafe despite their remoteness, and with their loss, a habitat that gave sanctuary to unique animals like the blue sheep and snow leopards. Always in Matthiessen you have a sense of a paradise lost, with Man the driving agent of its extinction.

I wish I had time to explore the depth of the book’s many insights, for The Snow Leopard is surely a repository of cerebral wrestlings, an exploration of what it is to live meaningfully in the context of impermanence frequented with suffering. Accordingly, neither the past nor the future really matters, for it is in the Now that we find our paradise and thus our deliverance.

I close with Matthiessen’s sobering admonition:

…almost everywhere, a clear and subtle illumination that lent magnificence to life and peace to death was overwhelmed in the hard glare of technology. Yet that light is always present, like the stars of noon. Man must perceive it if he is to transcend his fear of the meaningless, for no amount of “progress” can take its place. We have outsmarted ourselves, like greedy monkeys, and now we are full of dread.


Climate Change: Can we win the fight?


We just celebrated Earth Day on April 22, an annual fête of huge importance for those of us wanting to increase the public’s awareness of the challenge of climate change, and our substantial human contribution to it, and ways we might fight it.

It’s an important time for us in another way, too, as this yearly outpouring of Green advocacy transcending borders buoys up our enthusiasm, telling us we’re not alone in our caring. After all, sometimes it seems that we’re on this great big mountain we impulsively thought we could climb; so rituals of solidarity like Earth Day give us pause to catch our breath, reassess, and press on to our worthy goal of a humanity in harmony with nature as one species among others, each necessary to all. Just maybe we can pull this thing off. Anyway, good to dream big rather than live small.

The truth is that so much more needs to be done and that we’ve been moving at a snail’s pace in making climate change a palpable issue for the public. I saw this demonstrated all too clearly in the presidential debates in 2012, or just 18 months ago, with not a single question directed to environmental matters raised by debate moderators.

If the press can seemingly have no feel for the greatest issue ever to menace us with its destructive pay-load should we evade addressing it, then how much less can we expect the public to grasp what’s at stake? As is, individual lifestyle changes like driving less, getting rid of plastic, cutting back on electricity in our homes aren’t going to do the trick. We need more than bandages to treat the Earth’s hemorrhaging.

Now consider that a recent poll suggests that 37% of Americans don’t even believe in climate change. There exist also a good many, perhaps even more, who look at climate change as simply cyclic and that, just maybe, it might even right itself. Of course that view gets us off the hook and we can conduct business as usual.

Just recently the United Nations released the findings of its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a careful study by credentialed scientists encompassing some 40 volumes. Insiders say they toned down some of their language and projections so as not to unduly frighten, though their findings still emerge as deeply sobering, with none of us escaping vulnerability to what surely are predictions on an apocalyptic scale. In all honesty, I haven’t noticed any work-up by media or any concerted effort by members of Congress to hold hearings on the report and what we might do to save the day. Like many of you, I grow weary–and wary–of their feckless accommodations to corporate interests.

What’s vital is that we impact the political process, as happened with the Vietnam War, ultimately culminating in LBJ’s decision not to pursue reelection. It started with just a few protesters, then took hold and proved unstoppable. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything like this breaking out. I think this is because many of our projections for climate change impacting us lie still in the future, whereas flag covered body bags coming into Dover AFB were a daily, tangible occurrence, which the media ultimately caught up with when it perceived a muscular protest movement, packing a punch, that wasn’t going to go away.

On the other hand, if we haven’t been able to muster cadres of protestors against our Iraq and Afghanistan incursions with their costly toll in life and wounded for a dubious cause, how much less likely for an environmental movement devoid of blood and gore? And that’s what makes climate warming so horrendously insidious, or like some invisible killer we know is out there, but don’t know where he is, or when he’ll strike, or how.

Perhaps our young people will again show us the way as they did with Vietnam by way of their fossil fuel divestment sit-ins sweeping our college campuses, some 300 as I write, with several success stories, including Harvard with its $32 billion endowment. If it’s wrong to destroy our planet, it follows we shouldn’t be seeking to profit from those who do.   I wrote earlier of the Vietnam days when students rallied to make a difference. All of us: unions, retirees, teachers, tech workers, etc., might do well to follow their lead in choosing our retirement portfolios more discriminately.

But divestment has its limitations, too. While it was practiced widely in the 70’s and 80’s to pressure South Africa’s apartheid regime, the invariable result was that other investors stepped in. It’s true value lay in shaping public discourse, and I venture this holds true with this present endeavor.

Still, I question the wisdom of painting with a broad brush the fossil fuel industry as some kind of axis of evil. We need energy. Are our students willing to follow through and divest themselves of their cars and their electricity and take on an Amish likeness? We would do better to focus on the coal sector, our greatest polluter.

I still like our president–articulate in his efforts to assure health care access, social and economic equality, tax, immigration and drug sentencing reform. So far, he’s championed alternative energy efforts, sought restrictions on coal burning power plants, held out against the Keystone XL project, endorsed alternative energy efforts.

As for Keystone, he needs our support even as we must sustain, and grow our protests, to keep a fire under his feet. When I think of Keystone and the big money behind it–think Koch brothers–I get nauseous: the obscenity of it, given the perils of climate change; the stench of it, given its association with pet coke; the callowness of it, given its destruction of farmland, water aquifers, and wildlife habitat.

The President will presumably make his decision after this fall’s elections, but faces immense pressure, even in his own party. It isn’t a given he’ll opt for courage over pragmatism. In the end, it’s important we all get to the polls and endorse environmentally friendly candidates such as the courageous Gary Peters (D-MI), who hopes to succeed retiring senator Carl Levin (D-MI).   Peters has come out against Keystone, provoking the Koch brothers to contribute substantially to his Republican opponent, who now leads in campaign funding. Peters is our leading spokesperson on pet coke. (By the way, you can access online the Sierra Club’s political endorsements, which include Peters.)

If it came down to, say, an errant asteroid making its way to befuddle our planet as once happened, plunging the world into a rebirth of its pre-evolutionary darkness, then you can bet your life we’d all get off our bottoms and fight the good fight. Well, think of that asteroid as climate change.





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