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.


— United States National Archives

The March on Washington in 1963 brought 250,000 people to the National Mall and is famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream.”

Fearing he would soon die, the great American writer John Steinbeck packed his poodle Charley into a souped-up camper-truck — named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse — and started out to, as the Paul Simon song goes, “look for America.” It was 1960 and Steinbeck was 58.

Two years later, Viking came out with “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” in which Steinbeck shared with America the nation he and Charley saw. It became a best-seller; America was looking for a mirror to see herself in.

I like to believe Steinbeck’s trip was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which appeared three years before. Kerouac said he had been engaged in the same kind of activity; he too was looking for America.

In that truly American classic, Kerouac says he and traveling companion Dean Moriarity (Neal Cassady in real life), “embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and FIND the inherent goodness in American man.”

They were looking for the America of dreams, the America in which neighbor offered succor to neighbor, mutual-aid-America, payment an insult.

In terms of genres, “On the Road” is part of the Beat literature generation, a movement that began two years earlier when Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” blew through America like a whirlwind.

His jeremiad begins: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/ angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

Ginsberg said his poem was “a lament for the Lamb in America,” the tender-hearted lambs America was feeding on like an angry Moloch. Like an Old Testament prophet, he said America needed to retrieve her tender heart, she needed to retrieve the tongue she was born with.

You can see why the Beats ruffled America’s feathers. They kept reminding America she was more or less than who she was but not who she was. As Paul Simon says, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

The great American poet William Carlos Williams became, shall I say, obsessed with America too. He wanted to find America’s tongue, her idiom, he wanted to hear how she spoke, he wanted to see how her tongue was connected to her heart.

A small-town doctor for 40 years, Williams listened intently to his patients as they told about their pains and joys and daily peccadillos. Were they speaking American?

In 1950, New Directions came out with “In the American Grain” a book of essays where Williams described the lives of Daniel Boone, George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe, Abraham Lincoln, and others. wondering if each spoke American.

Williams wanted his work to serve as a mirror in which America could look at herself from time to time and assess whether she was being true to her dreams.

Some people have a hard time grasping the concept of an “American tongue”; they’re more familiar with Democrat-ese, Republican-ese, Socialist-ese, and all the other ese’s that are not American.

Some think the American tongue means the way New Englanders talk or families along the Bayou, not seeing that those are regional idiomatic linguistic patois derivatives, not the American tongue.

Some cynics say why worry about the American tongue, America is dead; you can’t hear someone who doesn’t exist.

The poets say there is something out there, something that looks like America but she — as Ginsberg would say — is howling because her tongue has been severed from her heart, a symptom of breakdown.

In 1831, the French government sent 26-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville to the United States to study American prisons with penologist Gustave de Beaumont; the pair took notes on the assigned institutions but de Tocqueville, like a socio-cardiologist, kept tapping into the American tongue.

He published his notes in a grand two-volume ethnography, “Democracy in America,” which he gifted to America as a mirror for her to look into.

At the very beginning of the work, de Tocqueville says, “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions among the people.”

General equality of conditions. I assume that means equality was at the heart of the American tongue. He said it was having a “prodigious influence ... on the whole course of society.”

He added, “There is no class of persons who do not exercise the elective franchise, and who do not indirectly contribute to make the laws” except, he admitted, those called “slaves, servants, and paupers in the receipt of relief from the townships.”

A generation later, America sought to right those wrongs. Some still say the wrong wrongs were righted or not righted at all. Former United States attorney Joseph diGenova says we need a second civil war to finish the job.

“The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future in this country” he said on a radio show, “is over. It’s not going to be. It’s going to be total war. And as I say to my friends, I do two things — I vote and I buy guns.”

In an essay on the ways people are connected in real life, the great British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere said we all have a tendency to view each other in “isolation.” It’s a “convenient fiction.”

She said, when one of her patients came to see her in “the analytic room; in two minutes we find that he has brought his world in with him.” She added, “There is no such thing as a single human being, pure and simple, unmixed with other human beings.”

Riviere said, from the day we’re born, we’re all “formed and built up ... out of countless never-ending influences and exchanges between ourselves and others.” Personality appears to be nothing more than an osmotic piece of skin because “other persons are in fact ... parts of ourselves … . We are members one of another.”

A few days ago, as reports of the spread of the coronavirus came in, the President of the United States took $37 million from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — a safety net to help those in need pay their heating bills — to help pay to contain the viral epidemic.

He stole the money because the budget he created had cut funds designed to deal with such medical crises. And the temperature in Sinclair, Maine last night was forecast to drop down to 11. A mockery of the “general equality of conditions.”

In July 1854, the 12th President of the United States reasoned to the nation, “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Abraham Lincoln was speaking the American tongue long before Riviere discovered that her patients spoke similarly. The president was saying that Americans are “formed and built up since the day of our birth out of countless never-ending influences and exchanges between ourselves and others ... We are members one of another.”

The American idiom says, “Crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea.”


— Photo by Bo Lane

A pitcher reads a code from the catcher, telling him what to throw.

Dedicated to Janet Malcolm

When I was in my late 10s and early teens growing up on Staten Island, playing competitive baseball meant you were on a parish team. Every parish had one. There was a citywide league, I think run by the Catholic Youth Organization. Little League didn’t reach the Island until 1953.

I played for St. Mary’s of the Assumption in Port Richmond with my brothers and cousins and other kids in the neighborhood. We lived just blocks from each other.

For three years straight, our team won the Staten Island championship which meant the following week we were on our way to Manhattan or the Bronx to play the winner of that borough, in the semi-finals.

One year we played at Fordham’s Coffey Field, the next at Baker Field at Columbia. There were no backstops, it was like the big leagues.

The other day, I thought of one of the games we played there when I saw an article in the paper that said, during the 2017 baseball season, the Houston Astros cheated during its regular-season home games and that’s why the Astros won the World Series.

I thought of our game because the coach of the other team played an insidiously dirty trick on me, the pitcher, as I was looking for the sign from the catcher. It cost us two runs; we lost the game. The story never made the papers; this is the only report.

With respect to the Astros, the public might never have found out what happened if Mike Fiers, a pitcher for the team from 2015 to 2017, hadn’t told reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of “The Athletic” that, during the 2017 season, the Astros had a spyglass set up in the outfield clubhouse.

By using a telephoto zoom, their mole was able to decode the signs the catcher was giving to the pitcher, and wire the information to the dugout where one of the players signaled to the batter what pitch was coming.

If you’ve played baseball beyond tee ball, you know that knowing what pitch is coming increases your chances of getting a hit. Any ethical hitter or pitcher will tell you the same thing.

That is, when the catcher tells the pitcher what pitch to throw, he doesn’t yell out to the mound: Hey, Al, they’re hitting the fastball, go with the curve!

No, from between his legs the catcher flashes a sign with a confusing flurry of fingers. Only he, the pitcher, and their team know the code that was worked out before the game.

The opposing team knows what’s going on; they do the same thing but, when they are in the field, their job is to break the code. Again, when a batter knows what’s coming, he gets more hits, his job security goes up, his bank account explodes. He becomes a star.

Baseball has an unwritten rule that says it’s OK to “steal” signs the other team is using to outsmart you — but only with the naked eye. It’s a game within a game.

But there’s another rule, written as well as understood, that says superhuman telescopic spyglass equipment is verboten. No James Bond X-Ray glasses allowed.

When Major League Baseball read the piece in “The Athletic,” they went bonkers: another scandal! First steroids, now a Joker with a spyglass?

It’s a strange phenomenon, isn’t it, that a team could feel so insecure about its ability to win that it had to borrow strength from an electronic eye to overcome the deficit. In Freudian terms, it’s the son borrowing strength from the father to withstand the hardships of life, the origin of the superego.

Baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, did not hesitate. He sent his hound dog Department of Investigation out to see out who was responsible. They spoke to executives and conducted preliminary interviews with current and former Astros.

In his report, the commissioner named those responsible for the swindle and what punishment was meted out to each. First, the general manager of the Astros was to be banned from the game for a whole year; the same for the Astros’ manager, A. J. Hinch.

And the Astros’ assistant general manager, Brandon Taubman — who vehemently denied involvement in the scheme — was told that, if he even smelled a baseball for a year, he’d be banned for life.

If you think those penalties harsh, consider that the next day Astros owner, Jim Crane, fired Hinch and his general manager on the spot.

And the ball kept rolling. Alex Cora, the bench coach for the 2017 Astros, and subsequently the manager of the Red Sox — Boston’s ownership fired him on the spot as well. The commissioner’s report said Cora was a ringleader, that he “arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout.”

Then the Mets joined in. On the spot, the Mets fired the team’s newly-hired manager (and supposed savior) Carlos Beltrán who played for the Astros in 2017 and was a known catalyst in the swindle. He was the only player named in the report.

Those who have any baseball memory know what the Astros did the New York Giants did in 1951 when they won the pennant with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” The Giants had a coach sitting in the team’s center-field clubhouse working the spyglass.

For his Jan. 31, 2001 article in “The Wall Street Journal,” “Was the ’51 Giants Comeback a Miracle, Or Did They Simply Steal the Pennant?,” reporter Joshua Harris Prager interviewed Al Gettel, who pitched for the Giants that year. At 83, Gettel said, “Every hitter knew what was coming ... Made a big difference.” Thomson, interviewed as well, spoke like a politician. He did not want to tarnish one of baseball’s golden moments.

With respect to what should happen to the players involved in the scandal, the commissioner caved, “I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability.”

But you have the power, Mr. Commissioner, to set up Truth and Reconciliation-like hearings and ask each player on the 2017 Astros: Where did you learn to cheat? Did your parents teach you or did you learn that later in life? When did you become an entrepreneurial brand ready to sacrifice dignity for a diamond ring?

By avoiding the healing narrative that emerges from a truth commission, Major League Baseball is avoiding the structural problem at hand and cheating every Little Leaguer of what he needs to know about to how avoid the lure of larceny.

Do Little Leaguers think that golfing great Bobby Jones was a square for calling a one-shot penalty on himself in the 1925 U. S. Open when he said his ball moved as he set up for the shot. The lost stroke cost him the most prestigious golf tournament in America.

When people lauded Jones for his honesty he said, “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”

Charles Van Doren — the Columbia prof who cheated his way to a big-money win on the popular TV game show “Twenty-One” in the mid-fifties — died last April; the headline of his obituary in “The New York Times” read “Charles Van Doren, a Quiz Show Whiz Who Wasn’t.”

My sense is that, when every man who played on the Astros 2017 team dies, his obituary will say, “A World Champion Who Wasn’t.”


Sigmund Freud, photographed in 1921 by Max Halberstadt.

In 1930, the small publishing firm of Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith came out with the first English edition of Sigmund Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.” The book was a kind of Dear John billet-doux to humankind.

Freud, the father of psychoanalysis — the man who sought to understand why human beings find enjoyment in repressing themselves — was wondering whether a civilization, a country, or any social relationship that’s in psychological trouble, can actually rid itself of the aggression that’s killing it.

Three years earlier, when his celebrated “The Future of an Illusion” came out, Freud asked the same question but on a “spiritual” level. He was wondering what kind of psychological succor formal religion can offer a person to get through the day; on a larger scale help that person find meaning in life; and on a still larger scale, help him understand the structural conditions, the social institutions that deny succor to some because of the way they look or think or maybe they’re not a boy or a girl. And the succor is always offered at a price.

I would not recommend “Discontents” to everyone because it contains a lot of mind-testing words from the Freudian lexicon, but the book’s persistent query is: Is it possible to live without aggression toward others (in word and deed)? Why do so many feel compelled to carry a six-gun?

I just finished re-reading “Discontents” to celebrate its 90th birthday this year. The odd thing is, I feel Freud could have written the book about the United States of America today where aggression runs so high that half of the population can’t talk to the other half without waving a stick or carrying a six-gun.

Freud said the questions about discontent and how we might free ourselves from its ravages are “fateful,” that is, they affect the way we live now and well into the future.

He said the “the human species” may never reach a point of “cultural development,” that is, develop the necessary tools, to respond to “the disturbance [that’s affecting our] communal life.”

We’ve “gained control over the forces of nature,” he said, and some people seem ready to use that power to exterminate “one another to the last person.”

I’m sure his tone was affected by the late-1920s Austria where the political left and the political right clashed in the streets. A right-wing paramilitary group, the Heimwehr, decked out in Tyrolean fedoras, could be seen, gestapo-like, parading through Vienna seeking to destroy socialism. A “revolt” took place in July of ’27 where 89 protesters were shot and killed; five policemen died; it is said 600 protestors and as many policemen were hurt.

History tells us Freud was right in using the word “extermination.” In Germany’s September 1930 election — the year “Discontents” came out — the Nazis won 107 seats on the German Reichstag.

On the day parliament was seated, the 107 came dressed in brown military shirts. When the roll-call came to them, each shouted “Present!” punctuated with “Heil Hitler!” Every Jew in Austria could feel the coming Lebensraum.

I’ve been in conversations where the topic turned to people’s likes and dislikes — “I like vanilla ice cream better than chocolate.” “The Yankees are better than the Mets.” “Black and white movies have it over color.” — and, when appropriate, I have asked someone: Do you hate anybody? And if you do, do you do it without guilt?

A reporter recently asked the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States Congress whether she was telling the truth when she said she prayed for the president, a man who makes fun of her face and calls her crazy. Does she hate him?

Nancy Pelosi blared: How dare you! Christians do not hate; the basis of our religion is: We deal with disrespecters with dignity. She did not mention Gandhi’s: “Do not fear; he who fears, hates; he who hates, kills.”

If Freud were analyzing the insidious neurosis afflicting the United States today, he’d say its people lack tools, interpersonal tools to get along with each other, and psychological-insight tools to envision a future without aggression — a place where everybody benefits, where everybody’s needs are treated like everybody else’s.

I once was a mediator in the Albany County courts, the small-claims division. When contestants accepted the offer of the judge to go off and reach a mutually-satisfying agreement face-to-face, they and I went to the jury room next door.

I sometimes felt like a marriage counselor for a couple whose righteousness had blinded them to the point they saw each other only as an abstraction.

Minutes before in the courtroom they were saying: Your honor, my opponent is a fool, and the fool would respond: Your honor, talk about fools!

In the mediation room, I quickly had to establish rules that disallowed using words that denied the other’s worth, indicating that mediation works when each person agrees to speak to and listen to the other as an equal.

In almost every case, as happens most times in mediation, things got worked out but I could see that the contestants never really bought the equal-value notion. They just didn’t want to go back to court and have the judge make the decision.

Of course every being can speak and every being can listen in some way but speaking to and listening to another as an equal requires a sharper set of tools, laser-sharp analytical competencies.

In restorative-justice sessions, when someone wishes to apologize to another for the pain they’ve caused, it sounds ridiculous but they have to be taught how to speak, to understand that what they say might cause further harm. The examples are endless.

Three years after “Discontents” came out, the Nazis started burning Freud’s books. Herr Professor told his colleague-friend and later biographer, Ernest Jones, “What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books.” Therapeutic irony.

It’s in the last paragraph of “Discontents” where Freud alludes to the possibility that human beings might “easily exterminate one another to the last man.” He said the fear of that causes “a great part of [our] current unrest, [our] dejection, [our] mood of apprehension.”

He said it comes down to whether Eros — Love — will be able to muster the “strength ... to maintain himself alongside of his equally immortal adversary,” Thanatos or Death, which manifests himself in the degrading way we speak to and act toward each other. Ladies and Gentlemen et al, America is not a happy place.

Freud felt compelled to add a final sentence to “Discontents” in the 1931 edition, “Aber wer kann Erfolg und Ausgang voraussehen?” Bob Dylan translated it in his 1967 anthem “All Along the Watchtower”: “There must be some way out of here ... There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”


Heavenly glow: Guido Reni’s 17th-Century “The Nativity at Night” shows blissful parents with their baby in a manger.

Whether you add an ox, a cow, or three wise men to the first nativity scene in Bethlehem, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph remain the stars of Christmas. For centuries, artists have shown the blissful parents looking down on their child stretched out in a manger — all three wearing a heavenly glow. Guido Reni’s 17th-Century “The Nativity at Night” is a good example.

Because the Roman Catholic Church wished to honor the Christmas trio, they set aside a day in December called The Feast of the Holy Family. It’s (supposed to be) a time for the faithful to reflect on how the “first family” showed them how to be better. But that may be more than the texts allow.

The feast is observed on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s and, should these fall on Sunday, the Family moves to the 30th. This year, they’re on the 29th.

To insure that the family continues to receive attention, over the years the Catholic Church has published documents explaining their essentiality. The Benedictine monk Bernard Strasser says in “With Christ Through the Year” that “The primary purpose of the Church in instituting and promoting this feast is to present the Holy Family as the model and Exemplar of all Christian families.”

A lot of people, when asked to describe this family though, conjure up the three in the manger scene and God forbid you interrupt the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Away in the Manger.”

For them, Jesus will always remain a child, thus they never hear what he said about “family” later in life. It results in a spiritual life that lacks the enlightened mind that William James described in 1902 in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”

I don’t read that much about Jesus but I recently came upon a passage in John Dominic Crossan’s “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography” (Harper, 1994) where he records what Jesus said about family later in life. Crossan says it’s an “almost savage attack on family values.”

And it started when Jesus was 12, traveling with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem, like the family did every year, to observe Passover.

All went well until, on the way home, after a day on the road, Mary and Joseph couldn’t find their son among the family and friends who made up the caravan.

Panicked, they bolted back to the city to find the boy, which they finally did, in a temple, sitting among rabbis, listening to what they had to say, but also asking questions, the weight of which made observers turn their heads and say: Who is this kid!

The miffed mother and father went up to the boy — to use a certain parlance — and said: Hey! what’s going on! We’re at our wit’s end! Have you lost your mind! Is this how you treat your family! Is the Holy Family thing off?

And the boy, still racing from the discussion on the moral questions of the day, says — to stay with the parlance — What are YOU doing here! I’m at work! Have you no sense of calling? Why ARE you here!

The two were stunned, the good book says, because they had no idea what the boy was talking about.

I’ve always imagined them saying back — to stay with the parlance — Hey, you! Shut up! Get in the car! You don’t talk to your parents that way! Wait till we get home.

It’s a funny image, isn’t it, the Holy Family of Christmas — advertised by the Roman Catholic Church as teachers of how to be better — themselves in a tizzy: mother and father in the front seat and the kid in the back.

The Gospel of Thomas says the separation language got worse, “Whoever does not hate father and mother,” the older Jesus says, “cannot be followers of me, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters ... will not be worthy of me.”

Hate? Hate Mary and Joseph? Is this the kid from the manger speaking?

And I must mention that Jesus, by introducing the concept of worth, was entering big-time into the field of economics. Later, as you know, he set a standard for price that was breathtaking.

I’ll add one more from Mark who says that one day Mary shows up at one of her son’s gigs — maybe he was 31. She sends a message, letting Jesus know she’s outside, with his brothers, and maybe he could step out and say hello.

When Jesus hears this, he doesn’t go: Wow, my mother, my brothers are here! Are they OK? Tell them to come in.

No, he says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” It must have driven the messenger nuts.

The gospel says he then turned to the crowd and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The messenger must have dropped a second time, hearing a proclamation on what it means to be a follower, a member of the Christian-Christmas family. That is, a loving community is your mother and brothers, a community that allows you to be born again.

Norman Brown in “Love’s Body” (Random House,1966) says that the issue of who’s your mother and brothers is the great political question of the day, of any day, and of every person who wishes to excel spiritually into adulthood.

Look at the annals of psychology, study the mystics, it’s not a Catholic thing or a Christian thing or even a Buddhist thing, but the struggle every person faces with how much they will give to the commonweal, to the outsider, to the good that cements a community of worth.

“Silent night, Holy night” is the quiet that allows a soul to find their community of worth and to create a Christmas in which they become the newborn child in the manger.

William Blake described the firmament as the Mundane shell we are all born in, like a womb; the Christians describe that womb as a living protoplasmic shell whose nutrients — like the yoke of an egg — feed each soul equally from the start and never flag in commitment.

That then is the message of Christmas, that every human being born — whether from a womb, a shell, or the firmament of community — can achieve divinity like Jesus did.

And that’s what the texts allow.

Feliz Navidad a todo el mundo.


— Photo by Dennis Sullivan

Mike Martin of Voorheesville served in the United States Army for 25 years beginning with a tour of duty in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. A highly decorated soldier, he sits on his scooter in the village park in Voorheesville in front of a monument dedicated to fellow villagers who died in World War II.

In November 1998, I was scheduled to deliver a paper at the annual meeting of The American Society of Criminology in Washington, D.C. It was part of a session called “The Requirements of Just Community.”

The conference that year ran from the 11th to the 14th, Wednesday to Saturday. Because Veterans Day always falls on the 11th, there’d be lots of people in town.

When I called a hotel to book a room, I was astounded to hear prices way out of whack for what a cloud-ridden November D.C. deserved — I did not know it was Veterans Day.

I asked the lady on the phone if there were discounts, like being a member of AAA. Whatever I said — I do not remember — the price went down 15 bucks. I asked another question and the price dropped again.

Then I asked the associate if that was the best price the hotel offered. She said, well, we do have something and quoted half the original price. I was puzzled; she said it was a “Bounce Back Special.”

Bounce Back? She said, you know, you’re out and about on the National Mall all day, you come back to your room, freshen up and bounce back! Ready to go again.

I booked a room and then asked why the original price was so out of whack for Washington that time of year. She said it was because of Veterans Day on the 11th; there’d be lots of people in town. Supply-Demand.

I said: You mean to tell me that for all the veterans who come to your city missing arms and legs — some still carrying shrapnel in their backs — come maybe to touch the name of a friend on a stone wall — and that for parents who lost a kid in war and still couldn’t shake the grief, for those people, you jacked up the price?

There was a second of silence and then the clerk sheepishly said: I never looked at it that way before. 

I tell this story whenever I can but still do not know who the MBA exec was, or who his hired-hand brand consultant was, who gave the green light to the worker bees to jack up rates on those suffering from war. Is that what “Demand” demanded?

Who said the dividends of rich investors should take precedence over the needs of a community striving to keep its consciousness alive by honoring its dead? Who said dividends take precedence over people walking around with one leg because the other was shot off by an enemy of the country?

I’m not a big fan of war but I’ve often wondered about the guy who carries a gun in a far-off land, sent there by supposedly honest officials, to prevent the electorate at Starbucks from having a plane crash into the whipped cream of their lattè.

Jacking up prices and empathy are enemies; capitalism knows empathy doesn’t pay.

I have not known that many people who fought — as opposed to sat at a desk — in war but my Uncle Neil — Cornelius Joseph Sullivan — served in the Navy during World War II and then in Korea, retiring as Commander Sullivan.

He looked beautiful in the full-dress whites of the United States Navy, a specimen athlete from childhood. He’s buried in Arlington National. My brother Jimmy went to see him; he came back saying Neil didn’t say a thing.

The Commander died at Bethesda Naval from multiple sclerosis. I don’t know a lot about medicine but I’ve always wondered if the thing that brought him down wasn’t the South Pacific. I know Ezio Pinza wasn’t singing “Some Enchanted Evening” there.

I’ve long thought that Uncle Neil was a casualty of “the silent residue of war,” those things, factors, biological realities, and psychological nightmares that produce sleepless nights having infiltrated the vet’s DNA long after the war is over.

The silent residue of war is subtle but it does make its way into the protoplasmic-psychological being of its “victims” who never return to “normal.”

Three of my maternal uncles also fought in World War II. I never heard anyone mention PTSD in those days but I never saw any of them dive beneath a table when a firecracker went off on the Fourth of July. 

One drank a bit. At the end of a wedding, he’d start crooning old standards in a nasal tenor so that the kids would run around saying: Uncle Franny’s talking French!

Years later, I heard his son say he thought his father was an alcoholic. I was surprised, not about the alcohol but whether Uncle Franny saw things no human being should ever see. But I have no data. As I said, the silent residue of war is subtle.

In John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” one of the fated passengers, Doc Boone, is played by the fiery life-affirming (Academy Award-winning) Thomas Mitchell.

He’s cast as a lush and, because of his drinking, gets kicked out of town — and onto the stage — where he continues to drink but, when called upon to save a life, he appears straight up, front and center.

It didn’t strike me at first, but a way into the movie we find out that Boone was in the Civil War — it doesn’t say as a doctor or whether he carried a gun — but after watching the movie many times I’ve come to the conclusion that Doc Boone was a victim of the silent residue of war.

Walt Whitman, our great national lovely poet Walt Whitman, entered that War to serve the wounded and depressed, to be a spiritual-comfort nurse, offering manly affection to young men hurt and dying of loneliness — 17-year olds pining for mother.

At a hospital in Falmouth, Virginia in late December 1862, he looked out back and saw a pile of severed arms and legs. His diary says, “Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart.”

People who knew Walt before and after the war — the photos confirm it — say he came back different. He suffered a stroke on January 23, 1873 that I believe was the silent residue of war come home to collect.

My friend Dan Okada, a teacher of justice at Sacramento State University, was in the jungle of Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, with the First Air Cavalry Division of the United States Army, constantly under enemy fire.

Since his tour of duty, he wakes up every 2:30 a.m. unable to find relief in sleep. His is a case of the silent residue of war.

Then I see my neighbor, Mike Martin, riding up and down our street on a scooter, having served in Vietnam the same time Dan did. He’s had two operations on his neck and five on his back.

He used to jump out of helicopters from 20 feet, weighed down by 40 pounds of gear and massive rounds of large-caliber ammo. With respect to “’Nam,” he can quote Chapter and Verse.

Looking at his scrunched-up spine, a doctor once asked: Were you a paratrooper? Mike said no and went shopping for the scooter.

To Mike, to Dan, and to all vets similarly situated, I’d like to say: America has not forgotten you. Happy Veterans Day.

I won’t say Thank You for Your Service — some say that’s required — because I have no idea what your war was like, but it makes me crazy to think about those hotel execs who decided to raise the rates on you and your family, looking for a decent place to sleep, some of you rolling into the hotel lobby on a scooter.