Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Moving Finger Writes ...

When Night spreads its peace over tumultuous Day and birds pause in their proud, brave  songs of life, much arcane lore is whispered among the gray-garbed old ones gathered secretly in secluded glades.  Now grown very old, I am granted permission at last to don the robe and to sit at their councils.  Listening, privy to their ancient wisdom, I have learned much.
They speak in wispy, withered voices of legends from distant, fey, near-forgotten lands.  One such tale concerns a book.  Not a book as found in our libraries.  No, this is a book writ large — a book so immense that there are individual pages in it devoted to each and every living person.  And every person who has ever lived.  Also to be recorded in this book, they say, will be the future of humanity, stretching on and on into a blazing, unimaginable sunset.  It shall be recorded through the deeds, good and evil, of every person who shall yet live before our race, too, passes into that great unending darkness.

This vast book is arranged in a curious fashion.  No matter where you open it, no matter how you turn the gargantuan sheets of parchment [for such is the stuff of legendary books, my dear,] you will find that for each and every soul there are two pages, identified at the top with the person’s name.  Wherever you choose to open the book you will find, inscribed in an elegant elfin script, all the events of one single life displayed.

Look more closely, child.  The book is open to a name.  See?  On the left-hand page is written, neatly in order, all of the bad things that person has done.  And, as you might guess [this being a true legend,] on the right-hand page, again in strict order, each and every good thing he or she did is put down, line by line, day by day, detailed for all eternity in ink of deepest black.

New entries are made each day for those now living.  If an evil or bad thing, it is entered on the left-hand page.  If a good thing, on the right-hand page.

Attend me, now.  There is one curiosity in the entries.  If one has had an opportunity to do something pleasurable, something which does no-one an injury, and has for whatever reason abstained from the doing of it, the entry records the choice … on the left-hand page.
Four by four.

Let’s talk quatrains. First thing to know
Is that each verse has four lines. So,
When we are working in this style,
We’re thinking four (4) all the while.
With that all set, let’s count the beat.
There’s four? Te-tra-meter. That’s neat!
(If five, we’d call it ‘pen-ta-‘, no?
For three, ‘tri-’ is the way to go.)
Then there’s the rhyme scheme: it can be
(and yes, this can go on all day.)
So there it is: a simple way
To structure what you wish to say.
(Quatrains are often where it’s at.
They’re all you’ll find in ‘Rubaiyat’.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pencil sketches [aboard the Carnival Miracle, early June, 2009]

Grand Turk Island, morning, 6/4/09

Phthalo? No, not that intense blue hue. Rich Ultramarine perhaps, with Cerulean sky behind clouds of Titanium White, themselves under-girded with hints of Payne's Gray.

I've known that sky, but not this ocean! Blue on green on colors too strange in context and juxtaposition to name -- much less mix on palette.

The meaning of watercolor is now for ever changed.


From the ship the sand of the beach mimics the sand of home. Up close, it displays its parentage to those who ask: coral by coral it is, not northern quartz out of granite.

I'm a stranger here on this alien beach in this foreign world.


I try to take what my eyes see here and mold it, shape it, transpose it into words.

But eyes have no dictionary and can't spell very well.


I would know the people of Grand Turk Island, but they're busy making their livings. They have no time to spare now -- our ship here for so few hours. We pass without touching each other.

Sailing time arrives too soon for us all.


We're back aboard. It's air-conditioned, orderly, quietly civilized. Free pizza by the slice in six variations.
The little biting flies of the water's edge have no passports.

It's back. The subtle shuddering of the decking, a slight shiver in the bones of the ship. The engines are up again. We're breaking our tenuous ties to this too-briefly seen land. Adrift again with fragmented memories of things sensed. The tip of the island is just visible in the window, slipping astern. My face feels the furnace sun's touch even yet.
I look out again and see only sea. The ship, it's dock-nap over, is again full awake.

At sea, 6/4/09


Writing can be frustrating work. It's hard to wring reality out. First to go is space: three dimensions compressed, squeezed into two. Next are the colors and the sounds. Smells also fade, disappear. Taste is gone. Touch is reduced to the feel of dry paper.
My sense of the world shrinks, becomes the image of black letters forming, one by one, words -- those strange things -- on a white background.

Reader! To a generous helping of words, add Life. Stir gently to mix. Season to taste.

Serbia's unofficial ambassador

One of the waiters at our evening meal is, without knowing it, performing an extraordinary feat. His name tag gives his home country as Serbia. The US news media, almost without exception, has painted Serbia in dark and sinister tones for several years. Americans are expected to harbor no love for that misfortuned nation.

Perhaps totally unaware of this, our waiter is simply himself: a man of great good heart and warm, outgoing nature. All alone, he nightly wrestles with the image fixed in my mind by the press and, with gentle word and guileless smile, defeats it with the skill and grace of a blackjack dealer turning over his hole card.
He has become a trusted friend in these too few days. We shall truly miss him. Once more home ashore, I shall drink to his health with dark, aged slivovitz.

Lido deck, 9PM

Country and western music. The usual something about somebody doin' someone wrong.
Ship's officers in white walk past, speaking quietly in soft Italian syllables.
We're making 21 knots, heading nor'west somewhere east of the Bahamas.
I sit and sip my coffee and wonder where everyone is. There's not a passenger to be seen.
The sea is calm tonight. Overcast hides a half moon.

All is blackness outside the window.

Half Moon Cay, 7AM, 6/5/09

Early morning, and we're a few miles off Half Moon Cay. Far, far to the north the Hudson River flows south past Beacon, under the Tappan Zee Bridge and on past New York to the sea. Its waters once knew for a brief moment the hull of the ship which shared its name with this obscure Bahamian isle.
The sea is gray this morning, shielded from the tropical colors by an overcast dawn sky. Gray -- like the color of the waters near the Hudson River's mouth.

Gray is the color of history, too. Time blurs the sharp distinctions of black and white.

People are a-stir in their cabins. Today will soon enter, stage left, for Act I. Scene I.

Second Breakfast

The first is driven, commandeered by insensitive, impatient Hunger.

The second, though, is contemplative. Choices are carried out to the next starboard column of significance. The luxury of unassigned time fleshes out the anticipation and refines the experience.

Nuances matter.


A huge ship of steel! Steel ribs. Steel plates. Steel decks. All painted in brilliant white.
Inside, she glows with the rich browns of lovingly polished woods.

Steel is newly come to our specie's awareness. Wood, in contrast, has been our companion for millennia. Wood's warmth shields us from the harsh reality of cold modern metal much as the steel of the ship protects us from the forces of the sea.


Here comes the tender alongside. A quirk of language bestows the same word on a small boat in service to a ship as to a boat of poor lateral stability -- a 'tippy' boat.

In what coin does the ship tip the tender for extraordinary service, I wonder?

Waiting for afternoon

There's no one in the hot tub. No one in the pool. A few people sit, and sip, and read. Some gently graze the counters of food displayed, provided in great abundance.

The tenders come alongside, exchange people with the ship and leave again for the cay. I sip coffee and wait for my Lady, my party of one, to return. And for the afternoon to begin. It's really the same thing, you see. An afternoon without my Lady is not really an afternoon, but something less.

I scribble words in my journal.

It's so quiet ...

Wardrobe change

In the casino they're replacing the felts on the blackjack tables with new ones while the passengers are ashore.

The joyful gamblers of the evening hours must never see that Lady Luck's garments have become tattered and faded ... that hope, too, grows old.

Sunday, northward, 6/6/09


Cabin beside cabin, deck atop deck, people sleeping away the debris of the night or snuggling into a last quick blanketed nap before breakfast.

Above them Horatio's hoards the early morning quiet. I sit there, sipping dark coffee, watching the water and enjoying the last of the ebbing silence.

Our cruise, like the sunlit skies above the inky depths of the sea, brightens for a moment the surface of our lives.

Two ocean views

The ocean presents its surface to the eye as a myriad of glittering wavelets.

It's only later, by looking very carefully, that we can sense the underlying pattern of slowly advancing swells.

Tiny yellow ocher plants in patches the size of dinner plates, adrift in rows on an intensely blue ocean.

What strange creatures come to graze these miniature pastures?

Tea time and courage

The falling tide of British colonialism left behind many traditions stranded in strange places. One of them, tea time, managed to stow aboard our cruise ship.

In the afternoon on sea days we savor tempting cakes in an aural setting of classical music. A young lady sits at the piano, playing perhaps as much for herself as for the little groups of people chatting comfortably at the tables. I wonder if she would feel it an intrusion if I rose and turned pages for her? I remain seated. Waiters circulate silently. The music, far more than the cakes, satisfies a hunger for me.

Do the people listening know the endless hours of practice behind the apparently effortless unfolding of the pages of Clair de Lune? What do they understand of sight-reading musical scoring? Have they ever heard Suite bergamasque in its entirety?

Why courage? Our talented, unassuming pianist, now many miles and many months away from her Romanian homeland, is making her way in a world of strangers with nothing but her playing to protect her. Do the listeners, the tea-sippers, know that? Do they see that she relies only on the armor of the most abstract, most transparent and most fleeting of all the arts ... music?

Like British traditions, courage can be found in unexpected places. It was present in that lounge, alive and well in the heart of young lady seated at the piano, bringing to life once again the music, the beautiful legacy of Claude Debussy.

People notes

Musical notes are much the same as people. Those with true staying power are clothed in the plainest dress. The brilliantly beribboned semihemidemiquavers last but an instant.

Monday, last day at sea, 6/8/09

Lido deck, 7AM

Coffee. Warm, rich, freshly brewed.

The ancient Egyptians had their Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth. I indulge myself in a slow, ritual observance of the opening of my eyes.




Freshly brewed.

Today and tomorrow

Complex cities of clouds float above the horizon. At sea there are no trees, no hills, no buildings to block the view. The world of land will soon close in around us. The far horizon will be no more.

This is our last day to enjoy the magic of the Miracle. We exist in the moment. Tomorrow we'll be putting the last of our things into bags, closing zippers, peering into dark closets and drawer corners seeking possible stowaways.

Then we'll trundle our gear off the ship.

Everyday waits patiently for us at the dock.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Saturday Nights

It’s not the same now. Nothing ever is, you know. The Village I knew so many years ago is gone, the people dispersed or dust now. But it was really quite a place then, the Village I knew. Streets filled with young people overstuffed with hope and ambition, armored in invincibility, suspended in time for so very few years between the generations of Kerouac and Leary. Coffeehouses in abundance, a few to a block. Intense conversations at every table, as often centered on existentialism as not. We were something way back then, I'll tell you.

Saturday nights – no, make that summer Saturday nights – were special. Washington Square was the great evening gathering place. From dusk on into the far corners of the night the Square was brimming with people and talk and song.

Let’s set the scene. It’s about 8:30 in the evening. The last dim glow of the day can still be seen in the west down the street between the buildings. In one corner of the park a man sitting on a bench takes an accordion from its case and begins playing while singing softly in Italian. The song’s Core ‘ngrato. From all over the Square singles, couples, trios and more begin to move toward him, drawn by the music. As they slowly coalesce and form a circle around him they start to sing along in Italian. The music slowly swells along with the group. Song after song, each louder, richer, perfumes the evening with under-notes of rich oregano, espresso, sambuca.Two policemen were assigned in those days to keep order. Their instructions were simple: keep groups from becoming crowds. [Crowds become mobs.] They stay together and stand, waiting, near the fountain. They talk police talk quietly to each other. Like scientists working with fissionable uranium, they have winkled out the exact size of a critical mass. They wait, talk, and watch.

At some point the growing group of singers triggers a response from the policemen. They walk slowly, without swagger, sure of their timing and the people’s response. When they reach the perimeter of the impromptu chorus they request politely for the singers to move on. There’s no argument. The singers know well the rules of the game. The crowd begins to disassemble; a living Lego destined for transformation.

In another corner of the park another musician, on cue, begins playing a guitar and singing; this time in Spanish. The people, strung out now in moving knots along the pathways, coalesce to form a new chorus. Again the singing, this time in Spanish, slowly grows louder. Cumin and sea-dark tannic tempranillo.The policemen, back at the fountain, wait and talk as before.

For hours the scene repeats itself. Each time the group, quicksilver-like, breaks up at the touch of the law and reassembles, the language of its songs magically changed. French, and the scents are tarragon and inky Bordeaux. Then Russian caviar and a samovar of Caravan tea. Next, Scandinavian aquavit and cardamom. The people join in, somehow knowing the words and spirit of the songs. The policemen talk in low tones and wait. And watch.

As the scene fades from memory, my eyes fill with an old man’s tears.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Way of Thinking

A few years ago, a topic of after-dinner conversation was the concept of the two ‘cultures’ existing within the world of higher education: the liberal arts culture and the science culture.

There were many pages written to define what was meant by ‘culture’ and to distinguish between these two particular types. One area which came under scrutiny was how each approached problems and solved them. Of all the explanations, I think none exceeded the following for simple charm as well as depth of insight.

A college, it was said, wished to track incoming students to either the sciences or the liberal arts. To achieve this as quickly and efficiently as possible, the following two-step test was developed.

Step A.

A student to be tested is shown into a room. There is a sink with a cold water faucet [turned off], a gas stove [unlit], a table with a box of matches on it and, on the floor, an empty kettle. The student is asked to boil water.

All of the students tested pick up the kettle, go to the sink, open the tap, put water in the kettle, turn off the tap and place the kettle on the stove. They then go to the table, get the matches, turn on and light the gas and wait until the water in the kettle boils.

Step B

A student who had completed Step A is again shown into the same room. Now, the kettle already contains water and is already in position on the stove. The stove is unlit and the box of matches is sitting on the table. The student is again asked to boil water.

The students best suited to the liberal arts go to the table, get the matches, turn on and light the gas and wait until the water in the kettle boils.

The students best suited to the sciences take the kettle from the stove, go to the sink, empty the kettle and place it on the floor.

The science types solve the Step B problem by reducing it to the Step A problem, which they've already solved.


‘I’m in iambic pentameter and
If you will note the quotes ‘round “&”,
& call it by its proper name, (Please do!),
You’ll find that now my lines will scan, thank you.’

Now and Then

I look back on my Village days

so filled with life -- the many ways

we used to revel! Swords of light

arrayed against the dark of night.

Yes, we were quite another kind:

bright Knights and Ladies of the mind.

Bring on the World! Its equal, we

would conquer all that we could see.

But now my world’s grown rather thin.

I rest. I take my medicine

when it is time. My Lady sits

across the room. She hums. She knits.