— Photo by Caleb Zahnd

Bobbing for apples is a messy business.

People of a certain age will recall with fondness that, when the extended family gathered on Halloween night for food, conversation, and games, some of the kids got carried away with laughter. You could hear them across the room.

One of the games our family played on the hallowed eve — of el Día de los Muertos — was ducking or bobbing for apples. When I tell older folks about it, they say their family played it too.

Several dozen apples were set afloat in a large metal wash tub filled with maybe a foot of water; one of the adults overseeing the project — while the kids turned their backs so as not to cheat — pressed a coin into the flesh of one of the apples, covered the scar and set it afloat with the rest; you couldn’t tell which one it was. Back then, the prize was a dime or a quarter, which everyone liked.

One by one — I think by age — we kids knelt beside the tub and plunged our head deep down under to pin the winner against the side or bottom of the tub with grinned teeth.

It wasn’t easy; there was a time-limit; some of the kids couldn’t hold their breath and quickly shot back up gasping for air. The sorry soul took two or three deep breaths and was back under.

Part of the giddiness came from how crazy a person got, getting wet — hair, shirt, the floor — some panicked when they hit the water but it never stopped them. An aunt or an uncle stood by with a towel to help mop the sops off.

And someone always got the coin. Everybody was happy, not just the person who “won” but everybody because it was such good fun. I know it had to do with — at a subconscious level — reaffirming family. Plunging into a tub of water was a small price to pay.

No one in the family’s collected data on the event and I don’t recall anyone who won, or even if I did, but there was no envy; winning was luck.

And at no time were we told that a win signified something more than the coin, for example that the game foretold something about the future.

But for centuries in Europe, communities believed that that game, and divination games like it, foretold what was in store for the winner — he would be first to get married or the first to have a child. At some weddings now, the bride throws her bouquet into a group of “eligible” women and the person who catches it will be the first married.

Games of future-telling on Halloween are remnants of the life of herd-tending communities who considered it the eve of a new year — on November First, a new life-cycle began.

The famed Irish writer, Patrick Joyce, says in his beautiful two-volume classic “The Social History of Ancient Ireland,” that the herd-tending communities divided “The whole year .... into two parts — Summer from 1st May to 1st November, and winter from 1st November to 1st May.”

On the eve of the new year, when the light of day had already shifted, the pensive mind attended to the other world and the soul grew open to the future.

Even kings wanted to know. Ireland’s fifth-century Dathi, when visiting Sligo one Halloween, told the local druid to find out his future.

The story says the priest went up a hill and spent the night thinking; when he came down, he told Dathi what he saw — ancient sources say it all came true.

For those of lesser means, and without a druid to call upon, bobbing for apples and the “nut game” were their Halloween seers.

In the nut game, a young couple wanting to know what was in store for them, placed two nuts by the fireplace; the woman was one, the man, the other. How the nuts behaved in the heat foretold things to come. Friends and family looked on with delight.

If the nuts burned together, the couple would be married; if it took a long time, their marriage would last; and if the fire burned bright, happiness would be theirs.

But if one of the nuts got too hot and jumped away from the other, the pair would go their separate ways  — there’d be no wedding — and the nut who jumped away was responsible!

One of the paradoxes of Halloween is that its “ceremonies” have long dealt with not only the future but the past as well. The hallowed eve was a time when the community thought about the dead: friends, relatives, and saints who helped along the way.

Ethnologists say on Halloween the spirits of the dead came around the house looking for warmth, a cup of tea, and conversation, and then they’d be gone — the extended family in attendance.

Nobody ducks for apples any more. At some point, parents didn’t want their kids sticking their salivary mouths into a pool of water where other salivary mouths had been, even those of kin.

The game changed to chasing an apple on a string but the giddy laughter of diving into a tub of splashing water was gone — plus (sociologically) the family had radically changed.

Now, with the coronavirus upon us, bobbing for apples will never be played again, and disappear from cultural consciousness, except for the ethnologists. The human family has one less tool to consider its future.

In the old days, the ghosts wanted to come inside for warmth but now, with the virus, “inside” is a place of danger, an enemy, and, with winter coming (we’re told) it will worsen. Where will the dead go?

And what other means do we have to consider our future: as a family, a state, a nation, a species? We’re still struggling to talk to each other without ill-will and rancor — wasting precious psychological energy.

Halloween? Every day is Halloween now. Every day is the eve of a new dawn. Some of us have learned the benefit of wearing a mask but a lot are still having a hard time speaking with an open heart.


— Photo by Brian McMillen

Willie Dixon at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1981.

Let’s start with a short culture quiz.

The first question is: Which is the greater work of art: Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” (1964) or Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937)?

You have until the Final Jeopardy! song ends to give your answer.

And the second question is: Which is a greater song? Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” (written in 1825), or Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” which Howlin’ Wolf premiered in 1961? 

With respect to the first question everybody of a certain age knows who Warhol and Picasso are, so their choice of painting might be more or less à chacun son gout.

In terms of the two composers, Schubert is 99 times better known than Dixon and his song has been played in practically every church on Earth. With Willie Dixon people ask: You sure you don’t mean Willie Mays?

How a person responds to both questions is a measure of that person’s view of “the sacred” and “the profane,” a division that derives from the value a person puts on people and things when constructing a vision of the world. Despite the denial of many, it’s a primary category of thinking.

When those in the “sacred” camp hierarchize, they use metaphors like holy, God, divine grace, and virgin birth. The images are so powerful that sometimes people forget they’re economic variables reflecting the price put on something. Concepts like value, worth, compensation, payoff, and “equity” are part of it.

Incidentally, when ordering their world, some people decide to reject hierarchy altogether — the basis of anarchist thinking — which means a person is equal to God. Holy God is holy Me and holy Me is holy All — what Allen Ginsberg announced in his footnote to “Howl.”

The major problem with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is not that it’s soppy with emotion but that, exegetically speaking, it does not reflect the story that happened: the story of an angel appearing to a young woman telling her she will have a child, not only that but the child will be a god, and not just any god but the savior the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures longed for for centuries.  

Even taking into account à chacun son gout — how many people can say that “Ave Maria” changed their lives or shook up the way they think?

On the other hand, Willie Dixon is not just one of the great songwriters of all time but a man who penned words that allowed Black men to speak about their identity in direct and truthful ways. He said, men, we have a need to express our love just like white men.   

Rolling Stone magazine ranked Willie 51st on its best-ever-songwriter list — Dylan is 1, McCartney 2, Lennon 3, and Chuck Berry 4 — but Willie deserves to be right there with them because he helped restructure identity.

As a performer, Willie — all six foot, six of him — could put a song across, but the singing of his songs is most associated with Muddy Waters, the greatest blues artist of all time. He’s as good as Sinatra.  

In January 1954, Chess Records came out with a forty-five with “Hoochie Coochie Man” on Side A — Muddy singing and on guitar; Willie is billed as Songwriter/Composer.

The song starts with a stop-and-go bump-and-grind heavy bass rhythm and then words flow, telling Black men they no longer have to hide their manhood. It’s an anthem of liberation.  

On YouTube, you will see Muddy proclaiming the message, not strutting up and down the walk like a banty rooster but laying out the facts of Black identity as if making a presentation before a Fortune 500 company — but is in no way matter of fact.

Muddy begins:

The gypsy woman told my mother

Before I was born

I got a boy child’s coming

He’s gonna be a son of a gun

He gonna make pretty womens

Jump and shout

Then the world wanna know

What this all about

And who’s that son of a gun?

Muddy says:

But you know I’m him

Everybody knows I’m him

Well, you know I’m a Man

Yeah, everybody knows I’m him

And when you hear his emphasis on eev-ree-body, you realize Mr. McKinley Morganfield — Muddy’s birth name — is not singing “Hoochie Coochie Man” he is Hoochie Coochie Man. 

Dixon wrote more than 500 songs. Two others he gave to Waters are “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “I’m a Natural Born Lover,” and to Wolf he gave “Little Red Rooster,” which the Stones shared with the white world in November 1964 — introducing that world to Willie Dixon and the electric blues of Chicago. 

By saying how a little red rooster handles the barnyard Willie was giving all men a context to explore their sexuality.

The world is a strange place though for, as “Hoochie Coochie Man” was making the rounds at Chicago’s radio stations, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from that city was visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi — 100 miles north of Lynchburg where Dixon was born — and, while there, was beaten, shot, and submerged in a river tied to the fan of a cotton gin to keep him down.

The facts reveal that, when Emmett went into town to buy a pack of gum one day, the 21-year old owner of the store, Carolyn Bryant, said the boy got sassy, he whistled, and on the way out shot back, “Bye baby!” Carolyn’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, showed up and took the story from there.

Sixty-two years later, the lady-judge storekeeper whose words sentenced Emmett to death, said she made it up; there was no sex-stuff. It was her white supremacy speaking, her repressed-sexual libido was pining for a Hoochie Coochie Man.

When the United States established a draft in World War II, Willie got messages to come get fitted for an army hat but he threw them in the trash, forcing officials to come to one of his gigs and arrest him. 

Willie told the draft board it was nothing personal; he couldn’t serve because he was a conscientious objector — 30 years before Muhammad Ali!

Willie said that American society said he was a non-person and a non-person can’t fight in war because there ain’t no one there!

He was put in jail but raised such a ruckus that the draft board classified him 5-F and set him free; the whole story is in Willie’s riveting, and disarming, autobiography (with Don Snowden), “I Am the Blues.”

How can a person, Willie kept saying, help a system stay afloat while it’s dragging him down tied to a piece of a cotton gin?  

Toward the end of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Ma Rainey declares, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”

And that’s what Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers was trying to figure out last week, speaking about America’s treatment of Black men: “We keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back.”

— By Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health &ampField notes

A triage station in Suippes, France during World War I.

For Pete Hamill

I predict that the “word of the year” for 2021 will be “triage,” pronounced: tree·aazh. And that’s no small claim considering that the word for 2020 hasn’t come out yet — and here I am betting on 2021.

As you might know, every year the major dictionary companies pick a “word of the year” because they can’t find a word in their book to say what they need to say — so they invent a word, add it to their dictionary, and share it with others.

It’s an extraordinary event really because a word is being born before our eyes; on a global scale, the human race is given greater competency to speak about what it needs to stay alive — if only by a word.

For 2019, the Oxford Dictionaries chose as their word of the year “climate emergency.” They said it referred to a “situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”

They could not find the sentiment in their book so they created “climate emergency” to allow the human tongue to speak with greater confidence about, again, what it needs to stay alive.

For 2019, Merriam-Webster chose “they.” You might say, hey, “they” is already in the dictionary! But Merriam-Webster said no, the company was now using it as a singular to refer to a person whose gender identity is “nonbinary.”

A deeply profound statement. A “he” can now be a they and a they can be a “she.” And a “they” can be any other expression of gendered-being.

And yet all the grammar books, all the lessons we learned growing up about “number” say you can’t refer to more than one person as a he (or a she). You have to say they. And you can’t refer to one person as they; they are more than one — a rule that religions disregard.

Through their choice, Merriam-Webster changed the way we speak about identity. They saw using “they” instead of “he” as a matter of justice for it takes into account the needs of people whose identity stood in a “no-man’s” land.

Those are two instances of the word of the year for 2019 by two great dictionary companies; now we await 2020.

But I suggest, as we do, that we pay attention to the word I chose for 2021: triage — and, yes, it is in the dictionary.

By 2021, “triage” will be seated deeply in the conscious of every American — and every other soul affected by the coronavirus — because it means a group or committee will be making decisions about who will live and who will die by culling the herd.

That is, part of the population will be denied the resources it needs to stay alive — capitalist ideology on steroids — because those resources just aren’t there.

Webster’s Third International says triage is: 1 Brit a: the process of grading marketable produce; b: the lowest grade of coffee berries consisting of broken material 2: the sorting and first-aid treatment of battle casualties in collecting stations at the front before their evacuation in hospitals to the rear.

The last is what most people are familiar with. Fans of the TV series M*A*S*H know all about it. In the show’s 122nd episode, “Margaret’s Marriage,” Chief Nurse Major Margaret Houlihan performs pre-op triage in a wedding dress!

And with “triage” we find ourselves once again in the field of economics because we’re talking about the value of some thing or some one as opposed to the value of some other thing or some other one. It’s “Antiques Roadshow” with people being appraised.

Triage says there’s only so much to go around and too many in need, so some will be sent to the desert to let the birds of the air have their say.

It’s very much related to the concept of “the value of a statistical life” (VSL), which is a measure of whose life is valuable — calculated by how much society is willing to spend to keep a person (or group of persons) alive. Triage says some are not worth the price; they cost too much.

You can see how all this relates to the distribution of the vaccine we have been promised to inoculate ourselves against COVID-19. It’s no small thing.

What if the vaccine is “strong enough” so a person can go to the mall any time he wants, can wade into the thickest crowds at the shore, can shop day or night without the slightest fear of catching anything — no mask! You want to be first in line?

If you read, or listen to, or watch, any of the major news sources in the country (world) today, there is considerable discussion about how fair the upcoming distribution system will be. The word transparency keeps cropping up; nobody wants to be cheated unfairly.

What’s troubling is that the matter is already before us. On July 25, Nicole Chavez and Kay Jones reported for CNN in an article “A Texas hospital overwhelmed by the coronavirus may send some patients home to die.”

“May send some patients home to die” means triage, the desert, the birds of the air having their say.

The medical staff at Starr County Memorial Hospital in Rio Grande City — located on the United State-Mexico border — said they couldn’t take it anymore, they were out of gas, nothing was left in the cupboard, they were sending people home, to die, in some cases alone.

In a Facebook post, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said with wistful sadness, “Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die by their loved ones. This is what we did not want our community to experience.”

Later she said, “Our backs are against the wall. We are literally in a life and death situation.”

Committees were being set up at Starr County Memorial Hospital to decide who should go home. Starr County? I keep thinking of Star Chamber.

Who then should get the vaccine first? Doctors, nurses, and all their assistants, who keep bodies lined-up in hospital hallways, alive? There seems to be universal agreement they should get the shots first.

What about “vulnerable populations?” Are they next? Recent epidemiological data say the poor, African Americans, and Latinos are the worst hit by COVID-19. Should not they, our poor, our black, and our Brown citizens be next in line?

What about the agèd? Those 75 and over the virus blows through like a locomotive. Should not they be next? But some will say: Those old fogies had their day; let’s focus on younger souls to give them a shot at life.

These are the kinds of variables that comprise America’s (the world’s) value of a statistical life index today and will determine who will be culled from the herd.

And if Miss Corona rages even more so this coming fall and winter — as is universally agreed she will — there will not be enough beds to go around. Who should be the first to get — as they used to say in vaudeville — the hook?

Footnote: Hospice teams will be stretched so thin, they too will send folks to the desert to die, some alone and some spiraling in wonderment as the birds of the air circle above. I can hear them now: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” 

And, if it does, they’re saying, why ain’t it waving for me?


— National Archives and Records Administration

Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington. Four months earlier, he had written in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream.”

Anyone living in the United States who’s read a newspaper or been near a television in the past two months is well aware of the persistent and wide-scale chants for “systemic change” in American society, most recently instigated by the violence the American justice system has perpetrated against Black Americans.

A dozen years ago, people were calling for change in the way Washington worked; now, as biological and racial viruses eat at us, people are calling for fundamental changes in the way America works — systemic problems require systemic change.

I understand what people mean when they say “systemic” but I find the term too generic and linear so I use “structural.” Structural better gets at the depth of the problems at hand.

For example, we can talk about “structural violence,” that is, the violence that results from the way American institutions are structured whereby greater value is assigned to some while the needs of others are minimized or dismissed altogether. Whites are rated over Blacks, men over women, straights over gays, Christians over Muslims and Jews, and people over planet Earth.

And the system’s distribution outlets are set up to provide bounty for those assessed greater and to insure that the lesser get less: of pay, compensation, and all the goods and services that meet a person’s — to channel Abraham Maslow — “safety needs.”

We all know that the resources a person has available deeply affect his peace of mind. How sad then that a land of “amber waves of grain,” as Jordan Weissmann pointed out in a 2013 article in The Atlantic, is a system “Where the Poor Don’t Get Holidays Off.” Nor healthcare.

The ideology that underlies, and is used to justify, such a distribution is best described as “deservingness.” The rich say they deserve what they got because they worked hard for it, and those in power say they earned it — and most believe they did it on their own.

The Russian philosopher-geographer Peter Kropotkin found such a claim absurd. In his famed essay “Our Riches” he emphasized, “There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property”; everybody rises on the shoulders of others.

He said there were, “Thousands of inventors, known and unknown ... [who] died in poverty ... Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, [who] labored to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought, without which the marvels of our century could never have appeared.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of a “desserts-based” economy is that it inflicts debilitating lifestyles on millions and produces a stream of poor who never get out from under misery.

What do we tell a woman — who takes three buses to work each morning and three back home after chipping the morning toast off the toilets of the rich — when she overhears her “client” talking about a four-million-dollar house she just bought in Malibu and the thousand dollars her husband spent on dinner the night before?

And what do we tell a farm worker, who gave his life to a farm for 40 years, and was sent to retire without a penny of pension?

These souls might not understand the subtleties of Keynesian economics but are well aware of the resentment they feel about division.

As we continue to wrangle over who America is and will be, the first thing we need to do is stop the indiscriminate, random, violation of the human rights of American citizens sanctioned by law enforcement’s “‘I Can’t Breathe’ Handbook.”

What is needed is not a defunding of police but a serious and intensely systematic re-evaluation of the meaning of “protect and serve.” John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor David Kennedy says cops need to take a Hippocratic Oath.

And those cops who suffocate, or shoot in the back, unarmed Black men, are not a few bad apples because the barrel has rotted. Conspiratorialists say the methods police use to screen out racist applicants are not designed to weed out bad apples but to screen them in so their violence can “teach a lesson” to those intent on challenging the system.

And it’s paramount to keep in mind that racists do not simply despise people of color, they denigrate all categories of people they deem less: They say women are inferior to men, they laugh at gays, they heap scorn on Jews.

Thus America’s Personal Value Index (PVI) not only defines Black people as less than whites but pays women on the job 81 cents for every dollar a man makes; it mocks LGBTQs who seek a seat at the table; and treats Jews like, well, what a sad night in American history it was when neo-Nazi sieg-heiling torch-carrying confederates in Charlottesville chanted “blut und boden” and “Jews will not replace us.”

Even the president of the United States got in on the act when he applied the PVI to the people of Mexico, calling them a band of drugged-up criminogenic rapists.

Any time we use words like “more” and “less,” “deserving” and “undeserving,” “value” and “worth,” we situate ourselves in the field of economics — which is essentially a science of human enjoyment. Economics measures the means we use to find enjoyment in life and who we allow to share in it.

Of course that a nation assigns value to people is not an oddity. We all do it in every relationship we have so we might get a better read on the “other.” You’re assessing me right now while you’re reading this.

But the ultimate purpose of assessment is to improve relationships, to relieve people of stress, and to allow the least to sit at table with the rest of us.

You can understand how all this turmoil is creating problems for “the American Dream.” James Truslow Adams was the first to use “American Dream” in the way we understand it today, in his 1931 “The Epic of America” where he describes America like a “city on a hill.”

Adams said the American Dream was a land “in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

He said a new car and a promotion at work are fine but the essence of the dream is when “each man and each woman [is] able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and [are] recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Sigmund Freud was a specialist in dreams; he said people dream to get something reality will not allow them during the day; dreams fulfill wishes.

Thus at 3 a.m. a slumbering soul needs to go to the bathroom but instead dreams of a waterfall flowing into a beautiful ravine, and feels relief — but soon awakens and has to run to the loo; the dream accomplished nothing.

Freud also saw there was another level of consciousness that, instead of supporting dreams being fulfilled, rises up against it like a confederate nation.

Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released the findings of a study of how much Medicare and Medicaid spend on seniors who get sick with the virus. The data say: If you’re Black and poor, you get the virus faster, you go to the hospital sooner, you say hello to death long before your white and well-off comrades do.

How do we deal with a system that’s ambushing the American Dream for all? How you respond to those 14 words says how just a person you are.

Thank you, Class of 2020, for offering me the opportunity to speak to you on this most important day. You climbed a mountain, you reached the peak, and here you sit before me, victors all; I’m thrilled to share your joy.

Your next step will be to take a short breath and consider the mountains to come.   

That might involve school, a job, or blocking out extended time to ponder what you’re meant to do in life, to find your calling as they say. I do not mean to be exclusive but I have a special place in my heart for those called to be poets and contemplatives.

When I think of life as climbing mountains, the “Purgatorio” of Dante Alighieri comes to mind, the second part of the “Divine Comedy.”

In grand poetic style, Dante says the struggle a person faces to find his true self involves not one but seven mountains. And each mountain represents a type of suffering we must go through to rid ourselves of the sin, vices, peccadillos, the falsity that keeps us confined.

Like the Desert Fathers, he called those barriers-to-selfhood “seven deadly sins,” each an attitude-cum-behavior that turns us against ourselves.

Among them are: being envious of what other people have or do (envy); acting with rage in our interactions with others (wrath); seeking more than we need in life (greed); and using power like a god to protect our possessions (pride).

In his classic work “Fear and Trembling,” the Danish philosopher-poet Søren Kierkegaard says the purgatory experience involves a scrubbing away of the rust of falsity so a person can be “that self which one truly is.” Refusing to do so, he says, is a sign of despair.

The 20th-Century psychoanalyst Carl Rogers highlighted Kierkegaard’s assessment this way: (1) the most common form of despair is “not choosing,” that is, avoiding the risk “to be oneself;” and (2) the most deadly form of despair is to choose to become someone else.

Kierkegaard and Rogers both saw that scaling the mountains to become one’s true self is the greatest responsibility we have to ourselves.

And Dante said that, when a person faces up to the transformations purgatory exacts, he becomes a spiritual being, that is, he lives with an equanimity close to happiness.

And “spiritual” does not mean something wispy and ethereal but the life of a body grounded in purpose, a body in communion with others, when political and economic realities align with justice.

In the third part of his trilogy, the “Paradiso,” Dante says no one gets to heaven who’s at odds with himself; heaven is for those who answer their calling. Such people treat others like they want to be treated, what Christians call being “Christ-like.”

The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), forever interested in human growth, saw what Dante, Kierkegaard, and Rogers saw but through a different lens.

He said, as he walked down the street, he could see in people’s faces “unlived lines,” signs of emptiness.

In the 12th poem of Book II of “The Book of Hours,” he says every forfitter’s “true face never speaks” wrapped as it is in a mask, a mask that thickens as faces are put on and cast off like old clothes.

“Somewhere there must be storehouses,” Rilke says, “where all these lives are laid away/like suits of armor or old carriages/or clothes hanging limply on the walls./Maybe all the paths lead there/to the repository of unlived things.”

Lived things have no falsity because they reflect the realized dreams Sigmund Freud spoke of in “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

We hardly hear the word “calling” anymore because long ago the Catholic Church took it over and limited its meaning to when a person becomes a priest or a nun — and, of course, the only voice worth hearing is the voice of God. Thus, all the revelations that come from the conversations we have with ourselves, deep in consciousness, are written off.

And, when we say “having a conversation with ourselves,” who is that other voice? Who are we talking to? Whatever you say, it’s certain that that voice, at its deepest, offers radical insights into our destiny and, like an empathetic friend, encourages us to persevere.

In “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” the noted New York Times columnist David Brooks says he is well aware of the pains of purgatory, and that there’s always another mountain.

And he may have added a new sin to Dante’s list: that of being an abstracted person, living an unlived life in personal relationships with others.

Brooks says that, although he achieved great fame as a journalist and thinker, the climb up the mountain-of-success rendered him “aloof, invulnerable and uncommunicative, at least when it came to my private life.” Sounding like Augustine of Hippo he confesses, “I sidestepped the responsibilities of relationship.

Dear Graduates, I beg your pardon for raising such weighty issues as you, your family, and friends are aching to go out for a bite and hoist a glass in your honor.

Take your time, enjoy the day, these questions will be here tomorrow: Who will you be in public? Who will you be in private? Will you live an unlived life and sport a face of unlived lines?

And remember, only Walt Whitman-like candor can move a person from purgatory home.

The rock musician Eddie Money used to sing a line: “I’ve got two tickets to paradise.”

I’ve got two too, one for me and the other for, well, what are you doing for the rest of your life?

Years ago, when I was with students nearly every day of the week, I often enough encountered a soul who said he wanted to be a writer, and I was thrilled.

For each of these tyros, I had a set of questions, made a recommendation, and then gave a small assignment to test their resolve.

The first thing I asked was: Did you write today? And (almost) always the answer came back no.

Then I’d ask: Well, did you write this week? Again (almost) always a no.

And finally I’d say: Is there something you’re deeply passionate about that you’d like to explore and share your findings with the rest of the world via pen and pad?

The response was, as some stand-up comics say, crickets.

The recommendation I made — and still do when the occasion arises — was that the aspirant read the first three sentences of James Joyce’s “Araby,” one of 15 stories in his beloved “Dubliners” collection.

“Araby” starts: “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”

In 61 words, Joyce paints the backdrop for a movie set. In three sentences he presents an endless flood of questions. Why was the street quiet? Did the boys from the Christian Brothers’ school live on the street or were they passing through? Were they loud and noisy and disturbing of the “decent lives?” Why was a house empty and what were the personalities of those living in “brown imperturbable faces?”

The assignment I gave to my tyro was to survey the space that extends from the period of each sentence to the first word of the next, and then to wade into that space the way he might wade into a pool. And once there, to listen.

When the tyros heard that, their faces twisted as if they had just taken a shot of vinegar.

But I’m here today not to praise Joyce — he has his legions — but to call attention to Joseph Mitchell, an American writer, a New York writer, an ethnographer, and lover of Joyce, whose stories, though different from his, are quite their equal. And Joyce is considered tops.

Early on Mitchell wrote for The New York Herald Tribune and then The New York World-Telegram. A collection of the stories that appeared in those papers comprise “My Ears are Bent,” which Sheridan House came out with in 1938. Mitchell’s ears were always bent to listen.

Readers know Mitchell of course, and collectors keep their eyes peeled for special editions of his work. A first edition cloth copy with dust jacket in near fine condition of “My Ears are Bent” is listed on AbeBooks for $4,500 ($10 first class shipping), The publication price was $2.50.

But the biggest change in Mitchell’s life came when Harold Ross, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The New Yorker took him on in 1938 to produce art with pen and pad. Though the magazine’s prospectus said it would not cater to “the old lady in Dubuque,” Ross wanted people who wrote chatty, informal, contemporary (hip) pieces.

When Mitchell’s work started appearing, people in every quarter of the country took to him — his picture was on the side of delivery trucks — they loved the way he told stories. And he had such a penchant for the lost and lonely of the world, those whose soul you have to look deep down into to find out who they are.

Some writers referred to them as “little people,” which set Mitchell on fire. In the intro to his 1943 “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” collection, he says: “Many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to [those people] as the ‘little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”

And he lived that way, a radical who became the voice of the voiceless — which people say contributed to his persistent sadness.

They also say “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” which appeared in September 1956, is his best work. Mitchell tells how, while visiting a cemetery on the south shore of Staten Island, he met a Mr. George Hunter, an 87-year-old trustee of an African-American church on the island’s Sandy Ground community. Hunter was the last of a breed of black oystermen who worked the island’s shoals at the end of the 19th Century.

As the pair walked past the cemetery’s stones, they came upon the graves of Mr. Hunter’s two wives, and then Mr. Hunter pointed to where he would rest. Mitchell paints him with such immediacy and fine strokes that we’re led to another world.

But there are two things you need to know about Mitchell. The first is that some of the people he wrote about were creations or composites of people he met, which his editor knew about and even allowed with other writers on the staff — but Mitchell still catches the brunt of critical scorn.

The other thing you need to know about Mitchell is that, once he finished his famed “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, he produced nothing else for the magazine. For 31 years and six months, he showed up at work every day, closed the door to his office until lunchtime; back from lunch, he closed the door until it was time to go home — nada. He died in 1996.

He told a reporter, “I can't seem to get anything finished anymore. The hideous state the world is in just defeats the kind of writing I used to do.”

“The Rivermen,” which appeared in March 1959, is one of Mitchell’s meditations on the gift of life.

It begins, “I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me. I like to look at it in midsummer, when it is warm and dirty and drowsy, and I like to look at it in January, when it is carrying ice.

“I like to look at it when it is stirred up, when a northeast wind is blowing and a strong tide is running — a new-moon tide or a full-moon tide — and I like to look at it when it is slack. It is exciting to me on weekdays, when it is crowded with ocean craft, harbor craft, and river craft, but it is the river itself that draws me, and not the shipping, and I guess I like it best on Sundays, when there are lulls as long as a half an hour, during which ... nothing moves upon it, not even a ferry, not even a tug, and it becomes as hushed and dark and secret and remote and unreal as a river in a dream.”

All the stories that appeared in The New Yorker can be found in “Up in the Old Hotel,” a 718-page omnibus of endless treasure that’s still in print and affordable.

His colleague at the magazine, Roger Angell, used to say Mitchell’s stories stand “firmly and cleanly in your mind, like Shaker furniture.”

That’s because he was a Shaker, he was a man who heard the voice of God in everyone he met.

— Photo from the Office of the President of the United States

The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, his press secretary claimed Trump drew the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, although photographs showed otherwise.

One of the most celebrated experiments in the field of social psychology is a series of studies the Polish-born psychologist Solomon Asch began conducting in 1951 with 123 students at Swarthmore College.

The scientific record lists this body of work as the “Asch conformity experiments” or “the Asch paradigm.” The paradigm spawned generations of great psychologists — the late Stanley Milgram among them — who sought to understand how deep a person’s ethical convictions run.

For example, if someone came along and told you to harm somebody else, would you do it? What if a lot of people said so? Would economics be a factor?

Anyone who’s been to college and taken Psych 101 — or found out otherwise — knows Asch’s work, unless they were sleeping in class or are simply lazy.

At Swarthmore, Asch wanted to see if a person would tell the truth if a group put pressure on him to say otherwise — psychological instigation of the upperworst kind.

Of course, any time a person caves to the will of others, as research shows, perceptions change, the person weighs and measures things from an angle of anger and defeat.   

But let’s not blame the eyes for misperception, the eyes are directed by the managerial-mind to gather data for its ends, which requires denying the physical world and blowing with the wind.  

But we can’t blame the mind either; the mind works for the heart, the libidinous heart, which uses the mind to calculate pay-off — the basis of all religion.

When I first read Asch’s studies I wanted to know if a person would actually sell himself out by sacrificing his most treasured tool: an accurate-recording pair of eyes.

I also wanted to know how a person handles such “treason” because it results in such an erosion of one’s ethical core and moral fortitude.

Asch had eight students sit around a table who were shown two cards, one after the other.

On the first card, there was a single straight line. The second card had three straight lines of different lengths — one of which was exactly the same as the line on card one. Everybody was asked to say which line on card two was the same as the line on card one.

But seven of the subjects were “in on” the experiment, that is, the researchers told them beforehand to pick the wrong line on card two; they wanted to see if a person would buckle from pressure.

Incidentally, the assignment was a no-brainer, a child could pick out the line.

When it came to the “dupe’s” turn, he kept looking at the lines on card two thinking about what seven others just said.

Pressed with a decision, his calculator ran up and down the list of pay-offs: what to do, what to do — I can hear the music of Final Jeopardy!

For those needing a more concrete example, it’s this: There’s an apple. You see the apple and gush: oh, what a beautiful apple!

Then a group comes along and says: Beautiful nothing! That’s not an apple, it’s a baseball. And ticktock your ethical computer starts churning: Apple or baseball? Baseball or apple? What to do, what to do.

When a person says baseball — as his eyes are looking at an apple and reporting to the mind “apple” — the mind has already intervened and translated the data politically.

If you’ve ever studied the origin of numbers, you know why 1 became 1 and not a 2, or one-and-a-half. The species had come to an agreement that 1 would be 1, always, a hair no more a hair no less. 1 is 1.

One way to make sense of the militia groups that barged into the State Capitol of Michigan earlier this month armed with weapons of war, is that they were announcing to America 1 is no longer 1, and they had the means to prove it.

But, anyone who’s worked in a bureaucracy or mercantile corporation knows that such “proof” exists everywhere. The lead paper on the subject is “Hierarchy-induced conformity without an AK-47.” Workers on the lower rungs of organizations say 1 is not 1 all the time to save their jobs.

It reminds me of the Roman Catholic poet John of the Cross, a reformer who called for religious orders to return to the simplicity of Jesus.

Church officials didn’t like what he was saying so, on December 2, 1577, they sent minions to kidnap John and lock him in a monastery in Toledo, Spain. Art critics say you can see the building in El Greco’s “View of Toledo.”

John was put in a 10-by-6-foot cell with a sliver of light coming through a wall. On Fridays, the “administration” brought him to the dining room and knelt him before the monks. One by one, the men took up a whip and whipped John’s back while the rest kept eating. Criminologists call it preventive deterrence.

I’ve read several accounts of this event and nowhere does it say a single monk stood up and said: I will not do it! What would be the pay-off?

And then comes White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, meeting journalists on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump was sworn in, claiming Trump drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” Every photo taken showed the contrary.

Spicer said “PERIOD” with such a don’t-ever-challenge-me bang that he was saying 1 is no longer 1. The hammer of deceit had fallen on the anvil of truth.

I felt like I was one of Asch’s subjects sitting around the table at Swarthmore having just heard seven souls lie about what we all were seeing before our eyes.

If, as some say, a lot of people in America are angry these days, I say it’s because of the guilt they suffer from having sold their moral core like a bag of peanuts at a ball game.


In 1936, women pleaded with rebels for the lives of prisoners in Constantina, Seville during the Spanish Civil War.

For years, I taught a course at the Voorheesville Public Library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity.”

The group met once a month, sometimes twice, and around Christmas one year we sponsored a dinner-reading in the library’s community room. On neatly-arranged tables, we dressed the white linen cloth with pots of red poinsettia; everything looked grand, dinner buzzed with happiness.

After dessert and coffee, each writer got up and read a favorite story, mindful of the gift of those who came.

In 2015, the group came out with a book called “Tangled Roots: A Collection of Life Stories” that I edited and wrote a preface for. The stories are great.

Each contributor — there are nine — offered touching vignettes about how they came to be the person they were; who helped along the way; and who, in the words of the Geneva Bible, was a “Pricke in the fleshe.”

But the stories are not about thorns; they’re celebrations of life despite the thorns.

When people in our community referred to us as a “memoir” group, I told them right away that we were not a memoir-writing group but a writing-personal-history group and that the “history” part means a chronicler has to adhere to certain facts: names, places, who did what to whom, and how the “whom” fared afterward. It requires a discipline that calls memory to account.

I have looked into the memoir genre for some time — there are endless books, courses, and seminars on how to do it. I just searched “memoir-writing” on Amazon and more than 20 offerings came up on the first page — “how-to” after “how-to” after “how-to.”

There’s no need for names but some memoirists “hawk” their memoir-writing-tactics like aluminum siding. That might be too harsh a judgment but I get the sense a lot of them want to be fiction writers. Some have pushed the envelope so far in that direction that they’ve been called on the carpet for fiddling with the truth.

For them, it seems that everyday life lacks the juice or heft — Lorca’s duende — to interest family, friends, and posterity. And many forget that personal history is about the people around us, that we’re just part of the picture. We do not “own” our self.

When my late friend and great writer William Herrick (a determinedly-interesting person) started to write his autobiography, he ran into trouble right away. “Facts” clashed with his memory.

On more than one occasion, the former kid from Brooklyn told me that, during the summer when he was young, he went to live at the socialist/anarchist Sunrise Cooperative Farm in Saginaw Valley, Michigan. He said he met Emma Goldman there; no, he said he sat on her lap and fondled her, for our purposes here, unmentionables.

But when Bill started collecting data, he found that Goldman was out of the country then, having been deported to Russia (on the good ship “Buford” with 248 other souls) by the United States government.

He told me he was switching from autobiography to memoir because the rules were less demanding. Parenthetically, he said he began to wonder: If not Emma’s lap, then whose? Maybe there was no lap? Maybe no unmentionables!

What he finally did say about his life can be found in his head-turning “Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical” published by the University of Wisconsin in 1998. It has ’tude.

The “American Radical” part is when Bill went to Spain in 1936 to help Spain’s indigenous communities fight Franco’s fascist invasion. He wasn’t typing memos in an office, he had a gun, he was out in the field with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion listening to bullets whizz by — one of which caught him in the neck.

The doctors said, if they tried to get it out, he would die, so the bullet was with Bill on his deathbed. His wonderfully-enlightened supportive wife, Jeannette, used to say the only thing she wanted when her man died was the bullet in his neck.

Former Voorheesville librarian Suzanne Fisher — one of 27 librarians in the country singled out by The New York Times for its (distinguished) Librarian Award in 2005 — and I arranged to bring Bill to Voorheesville to talk about Spain.

He read a passage from his celebrated book on the war, “Hermanos!” It’s catalogued as fiction but Bill said it’s all true.

While he was in the hospital, he said, he confided in a nurse who then “ratted” on him to the commanding Stalinist wing of the revolution. He was escorted from the hospital to a church basement where members of the wing, the GPU, brought a half-starved Spanish boy before him and said, if he didn’t retract what he told the nurse, they would blow the kid’s brains out.

Bill said no way, and they blew the kid’s brains out.

They did this a second time with another emaciated soul and, when Bill refused again, the boy fell to the floor like a heap of wet canvas.

It happened a third time with a young girl and she was murdered too.

As Bill read about this sad traumatic period in his life, his eyes welled with tears. He told the crowd that, even after 50 years, he could not forgive himself for being righteous — he could have saved lives — and that his guilt would stay with the bullet.

In his writings and interviews later on, he spoke of the internecine warfare that took place among the leftist divisions in Spain, in some cases bullet for bullet worse than Franco.

What Herrick saw was what Orwell wrote about in “Homage to Catalonia,” that the Communist- and Stalinist-based factions fought against the grassroots collective efforts of the Republicans. They especially despised anarchists.

As we all live like Carthusians these days, I’ve heard that some older folk pace the kitchen floor wondering when dinner will be served, hoping maybe things’ll go better tomorrow.

I have a suggestion for them, and every other soul their age, and that’s to sit down at the kitchen table with pen and pad — asap — and write a paragraph of their personal history they would like the world to know about.

And from there go to paragraph two.

When a soul takes time to reach paragraphs three, four, and five, and beyond, it sees that it’s engaged in a discipline of solitude that diminishes the pain of seclusion.

Everyone must then take their finished story — it might be only a page — and put it in the metal box where deeds and similar papers are kept.

And then begin on story two.

Imagine a granddaughter 50 years from now coming upon her grandfather writing about his childhood 50 years before — the span of 100 years — explaining how he came to be who he was. What a sense of roots!

All I can think of is the prophet Isaiah (11:10) speaking about the “root of Jesse,” saying his grounding would serve as a “banner” for all the world to turn to for guidance, a rootedness the Scripture adds, that rewards such souls with a glorious resting place.

I think that’s what my Voorheesville group was striving for, to be a banner to which family, friends, and posterity could turn for guidance and maybe help a soul along the way untangle itself from roots that deny it happiness.


— Photo by Inigo De la Maza

On Wednesday afternoons during the summer I turned 13, my grandfather and I would hop into his rack body truck and head to the farmers-market auction in Hightstown, New Jersey. If the bidding went well, we’d come home with a load of Jersey tomatoes.

Pop had as customers in his Staten Island enterprise a hospital and a large orphanage but most were mom-and-pop grocery-store operations. No matter the size, when customers put their order in for tomatoes, they knew Max had “Jerseys.”

I knew of “the Jersey tomato” from my grandfather’s business of course but also from the following summer when a peddler from Jersey asked me to work with him. Every day of the week, he’d cross the bridge to Staten Island with a truckload of produce and, neighborhood to neighborhood, would sing to the front of the houses in operatic fashion what the day’s fare was. He was very funny.

One day he’d have peaches, the next watermelons, and then a load of corn, but only one item a day. When he came piled high with tomatoes and the customers surrounded the truck, no one ever asked Moe if he had “Jerseys.” He just came from there!

Indeed no peddler had to “push” Jersey tomatoes throughout Jersey, metropolitan New York, metro Philly, and even parts of upstate New York in summer: Tomato-lovers in the region had a love affair with “the Jersey tomato.”

If a peddler came to a neighborhood without them, he’d get a cold shoulder and, if he dared come back, he came armed with an apology and an until-death-do-us-part commitment to “the Jersey.”

Of course when agribusiness took over the culture of farming in America — the history is there for all to see — tomatoes like “the Jersey” didn’t make it through the war. Agribusiness agents wanted varieties that shipped well, had shelf life, and could easily be picked by machine. Of course “the Jersey” didn’t fit the bill and gradually faded from the kitchen table.

The same was true for many other “indigenous” varieties of solanum lycopersicum — for the Latinists among us — such that you could hear frustrated shoppers at the supermarket referring to the offerings before them as “cardboard.”

And yet, as if some horticultural Circe had hexed the country’s taste receptors, Americans were drawn to an “idealized” tomato — red, round, shiny, hard, and unblemished — and it seemed the more a variety approached the ideal, the more it lost the sweet-acidic balance of that “old-fashioned flavor.”

Heavily-ribbed varieties and varieties that showed prominent blossom scars — the tomato’s belly-button — disappeared from the shelves of Ersatz & Sons Supermarket. The scar was too much to bear and the ribs looked like mumps.

A symptom of what was happening can be found in a 1990 scholarly article by Yonatan Eklind and colleagues in the journal “Euphytica: International Journal of Plant Breeding” titled “Genetic variation and heritability of blossom-end scar size in tomato.” The first sentence reads, “Large blossom-end scar is a disorder in tomato fruit which reduces its marketability.”

Disorder? The Freudian tomato doctor was ushering taste into the genetic dustbin.

There are a few things that need clarification here. The first is that, and it might seem surprising, there is no such thing as a “Jersey tomato” in the same way there is no such variety of cantaloupe as Saratoga County’s famed “Hand Melon.”

When I interviewed Aaron Hand in the summer of 1986, preparing a two-part series for The Enterprise on the famed Town of New Scotland’s Bender Melon — it appeared in our Aug. 28 and Sept. 4 editions — Hand said he and his father grew Harris Seed Company’s “Harvest Gold.”  There was no such thing as a “Hand Melon.”

In the same way, “the Jersey tomato” had no “Jersey” in the family’s genes but was made up of three varieties of tomato.

The first was Hall of Famer “Rutgers,” which breeders at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station developed and offered to the world in 1934.

The second was the seductive “Ramapo,” which NJAES worked on for eight years and finally released in 1968.

The third branch of the family tree was the “Moreton,” which oddly enough did not come from Jersey but from the breeders at the Harris Seed Company in Rochester.

When New Jersey farmers tasted it, they took it into the “Jersey” family right away; it was the first hybrid grown on a large scale in the state and everybody loved it.

“The Jersey tomato” therefore was three varieties and its lovers never knew which of the three they were taking home from the farmstand.

As far as agribusiness goes, the “Moreton” is a “soft” tomato, an imperfection its agents could not abide. They nixed it almost immediately.

They were right, of course: The shelf life of a “Moreton” is no more than from when the gardener cuts the stem to when the family sits down at dinner to eat it.

But, as we know from the diverse displays of heirloom tomatoes we see at farmers’ markets and even supermarkets today, a bottom-up rebellion occurred. The heavily-ribbed and belly-button scarred outcasts escaped the darkness of the therapeutic couch to sun themselves in the open-air markets of the neighborhood.

Among those who led the rebellion were Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy when they started Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa in 1975.

Worried about the loss of seed-gene diversity because of agribusiness’s dismissal of the varieties it couldn’t control, Seed Savers began gathering seminal treasures that had been part of farms and gardens for generations, in some cases centuries. The Exchange now has 20,000 varieties, many like the “Moreton” and “Ramapo.”

The inventive scientists at NJAES also joined the rebellion. In 2008, they created the “Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato Project” through which they were able to resurrect the “Rutgers,” “Ramapo,” and “Moreton,” announcing to New Jersey that they were returning treasures that had been stolen from them. They now offer seeds for all three.

When it comes to heirlooms, I always keep several copies of Carolyn Male’s titillating “100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden” on my bookshelves. I give away several a year.

The book is beautiful. Through thick-papered glossy photos, Carolyn’s centennial picks are shown on the vine and, in nearly every case, how they look sliced.

That late master gardener, who grew more than 1,000 varieties of tomatoes, never minded pointing out the imperfections of her babies. She says “Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom” is subject to “catfacing.”

But, in every case, Carolyn finds the words to sing a psalm of praise to each. She describes her “Brandywine Pink” as “winey, robust, mouth-watering, sweet, tart, and complex.”

On winter nights, I bring the heavy tome to bed and start paging through as I did the year before, wondering what seed I’ll start on St. Patrick’s Day.

In the next room, I have under lights 15 varieties of seedlings just sticking their heads through the soil, the great “Dester’s Amish,” “Black Brandywine,” and “German Lunchbox” among them.

“German Lunchbox” is a red the size of a small tennis ball but tastes like a beefsteak and does not stop; last year I was picking them in October.

But I must add that I now have a new vade mecum, by Craig LeHoullier — Carolyn Male’s heir apparent — a beautifully- and creatively-done “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time.”

It sounds like he’s talking big but on every page it’s like: Set ’em up, bartender; Jersey tomatoes all around.


Alfonso Cortés celebrated the magnificent genízaro tree of Nagarote in his poem, “To the Historic Genízaro”: I love you, old tree, because at every hour/ you generate mysteries and destinies/in the voice of the evening winds/and that of the birds of dawn.”

Dedicated to Steven White

One night in the middle of February 1927, when he was 34, the great Nicaraguan poet Alfonso Cortés woke with a start. He went to his father’s room and said something was wrong; he didn’t feel quite himself.

His father said it was probably something he ate and suggested taking magnesia. Alfonso went back to bed only to return a short time later saying, “No, Daddy, something very serious is happening to me, I am not able to sleep and terrible ideas are coming to me.”

It was his Rubicon; the family never forgot the day: February 18, 1927.

And to the whole family — father and sisters (the mother died two years before) — it remained a mystery as to what occurred. In his autobiography, “El Poema Cotidiano,” which came out in 1967, Cortés called it “a hair-raising vision like the one in a profound style the Prophet Job refers to.” He felt he’d been sent to Dante’s Hell.

In her biography of her brother years later, Maria Luisa Cortés, said the family referred to the event (and all the after effects) as “nuestra tragedia.”

How ironic that, as a 12-year old, his classmates at the Instituto Nacional de Occidente in León called Alfonso “el poeta”; now, at 34, his neighbors and fellow poets referred to him as “el poeta loco.”  

No one doubted Alfonso had had a serious break with the reality he, his family, and fellow citizens of León, were familiar with. His close-knit family found themselves in a bind. They wanted their kin nearby but Alfonso needed supervision and sometimes restraint — he flew into furias, raging fits — but there was no insane asylum (manicomio) in León and the warehouse in Managua was out of the question.  

So the family decided to keep him at home, devising a way to chain him up and then link the chain to a beam in the ceiling. Maria Luisa said, “The poet continued to be chained up in a room which had a view of the street, always with a thick chain which hung from a strong beam.”

“So as to provide more comfort for him,” she goes on, “a bed was set up on which he slept (the same wooden bed over which we had kept vigil for my mother); days later by his request a trunk was brought to his room containing books and manuscripts which he read every day. On a number of days after reading this he had a severe attack, he was completely uncontrollable, and began to rip the papers and destroy the books.” The furias.

But there were periods of quiet lucidity when the fam took the chains off so the poet could stretch and maybe strum his guitar. The room had a single window that he spent a good part of the day looking through, thinking about space and time and being and God.

Ernesto Cardenal, a major Nicaraguan poet in his own right — the saintly maestro died last month — grew up in León not far from where Alfonso lived. In a brilliant introduction to a book of 30 poems he put together in honor of “el poeta,” he says that, when he was 8, in 1933, he attended the Christian Brothers school just a few blocks from the Cortés home. He passed by it every day.

Cardenal said on one occasion the front door of the house was open wide so he could see at the end of a corridor a man chained to the ceiling. When he got home he anxiously inquired what was going on. The Cardenal family servant told the boy he had seen “el poeta loco.”

Cardenal said one afternoon, when the kids were playing in the schoolyard, Cortés, having broken free of his chains, ran amongst the kids, terrifying all — he hurt no one of course. The school authorities called the police; they came and took Alfonso home.

I won’t list the conjectures his contemporaries offered as to why Alfonso went mad — one said it was his mother’s death — but he told Cardenal at one of their many meetings later on that, when he started writing poetry at 7 or 8, his soul opened to literature and “locura” simultaneously.

Cardenal realized, “I believe in fact that literature and insanity had been one and the same thing for him ... Craziness and poetry begin with him from the same dark source … .”

There is considerable truth in what he says; anyone who has taken the time to look into Alfonso’s work, soon sees no difference between the poems he wrote when he was “sane” and those he wrote after se volvió loco.

When for strange reasons the family home was sold out from under them, the sisters finally agreed to take their brother to Hospital de Enfermos Mentales in Managua, where he was given shock treatments. There he remained until 1965 — 21 years, five months confined — when his sisters brought him back to León and cared for him at home. He died in 1969.

As millions of Americans care for themselves enclosed at home during this viral tsunami, I’m sure few will come upon Alfonso Cortés in the course of their extended reading. The irony is that they, all of us, are in the same situation as the mad poet; we too are confined by walls; we see the world through a little window.

In honor of his window and the life it wrought, Alfonso wrote a now-famous poem “La Ventana” —  “The Window.” The first two lines read: Un trozo de azul tiene mayor/intensidad que todo el cielo.

“Trozo” in Spanish means “a bit” or “a piece of” and “azul,” as we know from azure, is blue. Thus the poem begins, “A little piece of blue”; of course, he’s writing about the sky he could see outside his window.

He then makes the extraordinary claim that that little patch of blue had more intensity than the entire sky (todo el cielo), the sky everybody else could see. Cielo is also the word for “heaven,” and for “marvel” and “delight.”

El poeta loco was telling the world outside his window that, within a tiny frame of life, one can experience a reality equal to, no, greater than, all the delights even heaven can offer.

The cynic will say: What! That guy was nuts! And I say, what do you see through your window and how does that match up with the greatest delights heaven offers you? Now of course it’d be: no coronavirus.

When he still lived at home, from time to time, Alfonso had to be taken to the hospital in Managua for tests. On the way in the car, he used to see out the window the magnificent genízaro tree of Nagarote, said to be 950 years old.

He needed to celebrate the tree. In an equally-famous poem “To the Historic Genízaro,” he writes: I love you, old tree, because at every hour/ you generate mysteries and destinies/in the voice of the evening winds/and that of the birds of dawn.”

As you, America, look at the world through your coronavirus-glazed window, what kinds of mysteries and destinies do the voice of the evening wind and the birds of dawn bring to you?

You’d better watch out; start talking that way and you’ll wind up in a manicomio.