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Arlington

I drove down to Northern Virginia earlier this month to see old friends Richard and Tim. There was a time when we saw each other much more frequently, but distance and family and the circumstances of life separated us. Once we were collaborators in that grand dot-com enterprise called Recipe du Jour that reached many thousands of readers six days a week, but that was then. We are not those people anymore.

We could see the changes in each other – older, not so quick on our feet, though not necessarily any slower of mind. We were there to inter Tim’s mother, Jane, at Arlington National Cemetery, in a piece of ground next to her late husband, Colonel Lee. Tim had brought a vase of her ashes from the lake in North Carolina where he lives. It was a sunny day, on the edge of chill.

A large extended family and we friends walked through the white stones that stretched far off into the distance. A military chaplain of the appropriate faith interwove the facts of Mrs. Lee’s life that must have been provided to him, with thoughts on the military calling and the rewards of heaven. I have been to far colder funerals than this.

It was all handled with military precision as seems appropriate being repeated many times a day amid so many men and women in uniform. The capitol dome was visible in the distance. Tim wore a T-shirt under a new sports coat. I’m not sure he has owned a shirt with a collar since 1995.

Until this visit I had nurtured the unspoken hope that we might renew our collaboration in some new form. But I think that spark has died. We may continue on our individual projects, but we are in another stage of life, one where we look back more than we look ahead. If that sounds too depressing or despondent, it’s only the way all stories end. Hopefully, there were a few good stories –like Richard’s Vietnam vignettes or Tim’s humorous recollections of the many times he maimed himself.

I will remember the way our readers seemed like a large extended family, keeping in touch with cards and emails, birthday wishes, generous comments and contributions. That was why we continued for so many years, and we thanked Richard for the many hours he put in making a place for us to share our stories with the 20,000 strong Recipe du Jour family.

We have been best friends since high school. That’s a long time. Longer than we’ve known our wives, or in Tim’s case, ex-wives. On my drive down from central Pennsylvania to Leesburg, Va., I conjured up memories of some of the best times, moments that I would like to relive for a little while. Like the trip with Tim to New Orleans when we popped the new Stevie Nicks CD in the stereo and watched the gas flares burn off on the oil rigs in the dark. Or driving in Richard’s family station wagon out to Virginia Beach and turning on the radio to hear Richard Harris singing his monumental version of MacArthur Park, everything still unknown and possible.

Did we live up to the promise we saw in each other as teenagers, proud of our brains and creativity and difference from the crowd of high school yahoos? Maybe not. But there are a hundred days and hours I would happily relive again with these guys. Proud to be one of their kind.

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Earlier this week, National Public Radio ran a show on the new exhibit of paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. The artist whose works they are exhibiting is one of the French Impressionists, but not a household name like Renoir and Monet, with their reproductions hanging in dentist’s offices and motel rooms around the country. Gustave Caillibotte hardly ranks with their fame, but he is, in my estimation and apparently the curators of this show, their equal in talent. I saw Caillibotte’s paintings at a heady time for me. It was San Francisco in the late 1980s, and I had recently finished a novel, now tucked away in a drawer, that an agent was shopping around to the publishing houses whose names were on the spines of my favorite books. I felt ready to leap into a new world in a city that seemed forever fascinating. Because my novel was about an unknown impressionist painter in the late 19th century, I felt a compulsion to visit the big Impressionist show that had come to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The other paintings at the show melt away in memory, but the painting called The Floor Scrappers and the one of the rooftops of snow covered houses viewed from the artist’s Paris studio are still vivid. The Floor Scrapers is roughly 6 ft. by 5 ft., filled with a golden light. It does not have the kind of hazy brush strokes of typical Impressionist art, but it does have the light. The story goes that this was a new studio his wealthy father was remodeling for his young artist son. The three men refinishing the floor have removed their shirts in the heat and they are immersed in their work. The artist appears to admire their skill as they strain against the plank floors. I was so moved by the paintings that I went home that day and wrote a poem about View of Rooftops. I tried to put myself into his thoughts as he painted, staring out the window at the white roofs in the gray winter light. It reminded me of the scene in Hemingway’s memoir of Paris called A Moveable Feast where he describes the cold room that he rented in order to write and how he carefully shaved the tips of his writing pencils and put a few pieces of coal on the stove to cut the chill. Caillebotte’s most famous, almost iconic, painting is called Paris Street, Rainy Day. The beautiful wide street of the new Paris, the triangular building in the distance, and everyone strolling along in the misty rain under their identical gray umbrellas – you are there in the moment, although the year is 1877. That is what I hoped to convey in my own writing – that sense of being there in a particular moment in time and the way it felt. I don’t know if I ever found that, but it always seemed the most important thing in writing or in painting. I think we will be able to go to this exhibit next month when we head south to visit my family in South Carolina. I think it will bring back memories of that summer in 1988, when my wife and I, newly married, saw the Impressionists in Golden Gate Park.

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Today, June 16, is Bloomsday, the day James Joyce had his first date with the incredible Nora Barnacle, who became his long suffering wife and the inspiration for Molly Bloom in his novel Ulysses. According to the Writer’s Almanac, Joyce choose this day for the action in his novel to take place based upon that first date, an afternoon walk along the River Liffey in Dublin.

Nora was also the inspiration for Joyce’s exquisite short story, “The Dead,” in his collection Dubliners. Read some Joyce today and be thankful for the muse Nora Barnacle.

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We went to England in late June expecting fogs and rain, but it was cool and clear most days, seldom getting above 70 degrees. We had not considered how deep into the evening the light would persist. Northern England, where we stayed in the tiny village of Newby in the beautiful Lake District, is farther north than all of the U.S. except Alaska, and the light comes early and stays late.

On a walk in the Lake District

On a walk in the Lake District

We wore long pants and layers and carried umbrellas that were seldom used. The narrow country lanes were largely empty of traffic and we walked between hedgerows and used public footpaths across neat fields of sheep and cows. Sometimes we would see a farmer far away on a red tractor or mowing his field of hay. There were wooden steps to climb over gates and we walked between villages, each one with its ancient church and historic pub. Albion, the original name for the British Isles, was all around us in the lingering daylight.

The sun rose early, well before 5 a.m., but we dithered around the cottage, making tea and English breakfast, fried eggs and sausages, thick bacon, toast, often with beans. Dairy Cottage was neat and highly efficient. Every outlet had its own breaker and the washer and dryer were in one small package. The girls slept in twin beds under a skylight and we had a larger room with a double bed. Our window looked out on the neighboring dairy farm, though we were on one of the short main streets of Newby.

Window seat at Dairy Cottage looks out on a working farm

Window seat at Dairy Cottage looks out on a working farm

One morning we took a short drive and visited the cottage where William Wordsworth lived with his wife and sister Dorothy. Dove Cottage was small and dark, though comfortable enough. He discovered the cottage, a former inn, on a walking tour with his pal and Lyrical Ballads collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It looked down on Grasmere Lake and off to the hills. He and Dorothy moved in to the cottage and planted a garden, and a few years later, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson and filled the cottage “edgewise” with children and notable guests, like Ivanhoe author Sir Walter Scott and the Opium Eater Thomas De Quincey. We sat on the bench on the hillside behind the cottage where Wordsworth composed some of the most beautiful poems in the English language and his sister worked at her journal that details the life of a place and the poets who lived and visited there.

Grasmere Lake

Grasmere Lake

We walked down the road to the lake and circled it on a quiet path near the shore. Grasmere is touristy, but in an old fashioned, pleasant enough way. We bought sandwiches made of local cheeses and chutney from a small shop, and ate in a park across the road. All during our trip we bought interesting sandwiches or packed them ourselves and often ate our lunch outdoors. Many afternoons we stopped in tea shops for a light meal and pots of tea, and for the first time I understood why the British are so fanatical about tea. Later, in London, we visited the original Twinings tea company store, a long, narrow shop in the old City with shelf upon shelf of boxed teas, with a sign out front that gave its founding as 1706. Maybe Samuel Johnson, whose house was a few blocks away, strolled in to buy his tea while Boswell hung at his elbow, jotting down his witticisms.

Tea shop outside the gates of Warwick Castle

Tea shop outside the gates of Warwick Castle

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea

We spent a week at Dairy Cottage, exploring the Lake District, with a daytrip north by rail to Edinburgh, Scotland, where we wandered through the old alleys near the Castle and visited the National Gallery and the Library of Scotland. Then we headed for London, with an interesting stop along the way.

The author waits for a train in Edinburgh station

The author waits for a train in Edinburgh station

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The night is dark and filled with the rustle of leaves. In the downtown the lights shine out of the storefronts and the students walk in groups to and from the bars and restaurants. On busy South Allen Street, couples and groups of friends are entering the well-lit storefront of a secondhand bookshop.

There is movement and a hubbub of conversation. The café at the front of the store is doing good business in café au laits and Caffé Americanos.  Some of the crowd are students, but most are older, people whose cultural touchstones are the day John Kennedy died and the landing on the moon. There is much gray hair among the crowd, though some of it is tied back in ponytails.

Tonight there are chairs set up in rows for a few dozen spectators, and a makeshift stage with armchairs and tables, a lamp and some few stage props. The chairs fill quickly and latecomers stand in a semicircle behind the back row.

If this were taking place a hundred and fifty years ago, we might expect to see the sad, high-domed forehead of Charles Dickens at the front of the room near the stage. This was his kind of amusement, an amateur theatrical, a few friends with talent and a place to show off a new piece of writing.

This is the time of year it seems possible to see Charles Dickens on the streets of State College. I think he would like it here, the old stone houses that look like a London neighborhood of the 19th century, the big mansions that he would not suspect were the frat houses of a hundred college boys, all lit up now with a thousand Christmas lights.

Downtown across from the campus I can see Charles Dickens looking in the shop fronts and the restaurants, studying the menus, in a long frock coat, his hair long and brown with streaks of gray, interesting shoes. The college girls arm-in-arm go by, and laugh and look back, but he is oblivious; the cars rushing by and the stoplights changing color have distracted and delighted him.

We need Charles Dickens now, with Christmas of a new age coming on and the same old weary world with all its problems facing us anew.  It was Dickens, the sad, lonely genius, who made the world care for the poor and needy in this season. Christmas without Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption is hardly even Christmas. It was not just the campaign he waged against child labor in the bitter England of the 1850’s, or the book after book he wrote until he was wasted and broken – he gave us the human face of the season. Between the insane commerce of the shopping malls and the tender story of the savior in a manger, lies the art of the great humanist, Charles Dickens, who gave us this secular Christendom.

Dickens slips in to the back of the store as the play begins. It is the first stage production of “The Zombies of Montrose” by James Morrow, well-known science fiction author, who is in the audience. It is the sort of fun and witty farce that Dickens himself might have produced on a small stage for friends and well-wishers in the days of his great productivity.

This is what he misses most in his exsanguinary days, the intimate applause of friends, the center stage, his ideas thrust into characters unforgettable and eternal. Arabella, the Voodoo Queen, is on stage, dark and lovely, able to restore the dead to life, but only if they agree to serve the poor and needy. It is just his sort of play. Dickens leans forward, brushing aside a twitching newspaper columnist or two. He will work for the needy as always, he promises. Look at me Arabella, and cast your spell.

But it is only a play and the audience applauds and laughs and the author takes a bow. Charles Dickens wanders down the aisle to the fiction section, and there at the section labeled D, he disappears into the shelves of his own timeless creations.

 

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Today (Tuesday) is the birthday of British essayist and novelist George Orwell, who would be 110, if he were alive. What would the author of 1984, a novel about a totalitarian society that monitors its citizens’ every move, think about the massive spying apparatus of the US and British governments revealed by whistle blower Edward Snowden? I think he would not be surprised, though I hope he would be as outraged as he was in 1948, dying of tuberculosis and writing his classic novel while coughing up pieces of his lungs.
I’m not sure where that anger is today. Most of the outrage seems to be directed against Edward Snowden, just as it was against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, and Bradley Manning, the army private who is in federal prison for passing along government secrets about the ways in which governments, including our own, really work. Assange is trapped in a foreign embassy in London. Snowden is on the run. But the truth is out there, if we care to look at it.
All of the focus seems to be on the leakers, not on the information leaked. It’s as if Woodward and Bernstein had been the ones who were the defendants in the Watergate hearings instead of Richard Nixon and his gang of petty thugs.
If George Orwell were still alive, he would hear the clock striking thirteen, as it does in the opening line of 1984. Things are out of kilter in the novel, and they are out of kilter still.

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Although Google is a wonderful thing and I have spent many a fruitful hour cruising on the digital highways and back roads known as the Web, there is still much to be discovered in the bound slips of paper known as a Book.

That thought came to me again early this morning when I awoke with a line of poetry buzzing in my head. I couldn’t quite recall all the words, but the rhythm was there in my ear – da da dum da dum da dum da da da dum. On the mountain something, something to the moon. Once I got up and took a shower and went downstairs and got the coffee going and fed the cats their first breakfast, I sat down at the computer and tried to find the poem whose line I misremembered. I tried putting in the words I was pretty sure were right – “On the mountain top,” “going to the moon,” but that was no good. I got lots of things about whether the moon landings were all a hoax, which I wasted a few minutes pursuing anyway out of sheer amazement. Then I added “poem,” and discovered there are many hundreds of poems about the moon, some of which I was familiar with.

I knew it was an American poet from the 19th century and thought it might be Sidney Lanier, who wrote a lovely long poem called “The Marshes of Glenn,” and who died of tuberculosis at age 39 and fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side. I learned a lot more in my search but none of it led me closer to my poem or poet.

It was getting near time to have breakfast with my family (feed the cats their second breakfast), and get ready for work. I took one last stab and googled American poets and began going through the a’s and b’s, but there were too many hundreds of poets, and I was out of time.

So, feeling reckless and frustrated, I did this crazy thing and walked over to one of the bookshelves and picked up The Pocket Book of Modern Verse, compiled by Oscar Williams in 1954, and reprinted 23 times before it got into my hands around 1975. I have carried it with me on many a move from Florida to California to Virginia and now to Pennsylvania. It is a handy little book, with the great and the near great, from Walt Whitman to Ted Hughes, and with a poignant dedication to Dylan Thomas, the great and doomed Welsh poet, who had died just before the original volume was published.

The book has one feature I particularly like, thumbnail photographs of many of the poets on the front and back and inside covers of the book. Yeats and Frost and Hardy, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson, Kipling and Auden, and there he was, my forgotten poet, Vachel Lindsay. I flipped to his section, which contained 16 pages of his poetry, a generous amount for someone who is barely remembered and probably never taught at any university in America. Flipped past his long poem, “The Congo,” and “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” about the founder of the Salvation Army, and past “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” and landed on – “The Apple Barrel of Johnny Appleseed.”

On the mountain peak called ‘Going to the Sun,’ – da da dum. I had gotten the words wrong and forgotten completely that it had anything to do with Johnny Appleseed. But 30 seconds with a book had salvaged my 45 minutes of wasted search on the Web. This probably says more about me and my failing memory than about search engines or computers versus books. At this point, it really is just a case of John Henry versus the steam engine, or better, the search engine. (If you don’t know that poem, google it.) Still, there is still a good reason for the physical objects and the places that contain them called libraries. Maybe that won’t always be true, but it will remain true for me through my remaining span.

For those who have read this far and might be interested, here is the poem. It would be a good one to memorize, if just for the music. You could declaim it at dinner parties and impress your friends.

The Apple-Barrel of Johnny Appleseed
by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)

On the mountain peak, called ‘Going-To-The-Sun,’
I saw gray Johnny Appleseed at prayer
Just as the sunset made the old earth fair,
Then darkness came; in an instant, like great smoke,
The sun fell down as though its great hoops broke
And dark rich apples, poured from the dim flame
Where the sun set, came rolling toward the peak,
A storm of fruit, a mighty cider-reek,
The perfume of the orchards of the world,
From apple-shadows: red and russet domes
That turned to clouds of glory and strange homes
Above the mountain tops for cloud-born souls: —
Reproofs for men who build the world like moles,
Models for men, if they would build the world
As Johnny Appleseed would have it done –
Praying, and reading the books of Swedenborg
On the mountain top called ‘Going-To-The-Sun.’

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