About jsjacobs

I am a former English professor, dormant poet, manager of international higher ed programs, and trying to write more. The title of this blog comes from when I worked in Portugal and my boss reprimanded my Portuguese colleague about something by saying, "Até o Josh sabe!" ("Even Josh knows that!") A good motto to stay humble when making magisterial pronunciations online.

Books of Consequence: Amherst reads Wolf Hall

Best book about Amherst ever? Love the classic cover art

Best book about Amherst ever? Love the classic cover art

I was psyched this summer to hear that the local Amherst alumni club was starting a book club. I’ve never had the chance to be in a book club, and despite the possible Lives of Consequence-having pretension and Mercantile-wearing post-Valleyness you might associate with a roomful of Amherst grads, you could probably expect everyone to bring something good to the discussion. Our first meeting was on The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, by Jennifer Cody Epstein (Amherst ’89 dahling!). This novel intertwines family stories (American, Japanese, and hybrid) through the history of Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II and the American bombing raids on Tokyo. Some of the writers in the group talked about what shapes a novel, and we had a most Amhersty exploration of the ethics of writing about cultures and traumas that are not the writer’s own.

Wriothesley "Call-me-Risley" Road, right near my house, keeps 'ol Hilary in my heart every time I run by

Wriothesley “Call-me-Risley” Road, right near my house, keeps ‘ol Hilary in my heart every time I run by

I signed up to organize the next meeting, and offered three unbeatable options: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Swamplandia!, and Wolf Hall. I hope we read them all but the first-round winner is Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s brutal, beautiful and eye-opening portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s consiglieri and fixer. This is a 600+ page, Booker-winning beast of a novel, so no attempts at summary here. There is also a well-known play, A Man for All Seasons, about Cromwell and his enemy Thomas More, in which Cromwell comes out the bad guy. I haven’t read it! But in the hopes of persuading my fellow Readers of Consequence (cue Masterpiece Theater theme song) to pick up finish the book, and for the fun of transcribing some of Mantel’s language, I thought I’d take a stab at talking about some of the themes that run through the book. I was a bit sad to find some book-club bloggers on Wolf Hall were not very impressed, felt it was too long, etc. We can’t have that! So, some Notes Towards a Book Club Study Guide:

“Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as though you could afford to be”

“Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as though you could afford to be.”

1) One of the obvious strokes of brilliance by Mantel is in writing the book in the present tense, third person, with the Cromwell protagonist addressed as “he.” For me this decision is a big part of achieving such a contemporary and urgent feeling throughout the book. But in a few key moments Mantel addresses a “we” or “you,” bringing readers into a new present-tense that suggests we are still enmeshed in the mythical and real history of Britain. Or, as Faulkner says, the past is never dead; it’s not even past. This passage early in the book, just as we enter into the grim back story of how Cromwell’s first master, Wolsey, fell from grace, brings “we readers” into this continuing connection of a present (ours? Cromwell’s?) to Britain’s history.

Whichever way you look at it, it all begins in slaughter. Trojan Brutus and his descendents ruled till the coming of the Romans. Before London was called Lud’s Town, it was called New Troy. And we were Trojans…Arthur, High King of Britain, was Constantine’s grandson. He married up to three women, all called Guinevere, and his tomb is at Glastonbury, but you must understand that he is not really dead, only waiting his time to come again…[Had Arthur lived] Henry would likely be Archbishop of Canterbury, and would not (at least, we devoutly hope not) be in pursuit of a woman of whom the cardinal hears nothing good; a woman to whom, several years before the dukes walk in to despoil him, he will need to turn his attention; whose history, before ruin seizes him, he will need to comprehend.

Beneath every history, another history (p. 61)

So, reading buddies: how does the time/tense in which Wolf Hall takes place figure into your understanding of Cromwell and of the book’s events?

2) 2) The passage above highlights two other key themes: violence and magic. The book begins with Cromwell as a boy being beaten almost to death by his father, and includes scenes of assassination, burnings at the stake, and torture. Here is the aftermath of a scholar burned at the stake: “At Smithfield Frith is being shoveled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty; a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.” (p. 443) Cromwell remembers how as a boy he wandered into the scene of another burning, and that afterwards the martyr’s companions smeared the fatty ash that remained onto Cromwell’s hand to remember her. He is a blacksmith’s son, a figure of physical intimidation and violence, while also steering Britain’s leaders away from war and torture. Here he is talking to the Duke of Norfolk:

“We can’t win,” the duke says, “but we have to fight as if we can. Hang the waste: money, men, horses, ships. That’s what’s wrong with Wolsey,  you see. Always at the treaty table. How can a butcher’s son understand—“
“La gloire?”
“Are you a butcher’s son?”
“A blacksmith’s.” (161)

Reading buddies: how does the violence in Wolf Hall figure in your understanding and/or appreciation of the book?

As you can see in Mantel’s earlier quote about the prehistory of Britain, magic for her percolates below the surface of all that happens in Wolf Hall. It emerges as a threat to the state in the person of the “Holy Maid,” a country girl whose contrived visions of the Virgin and of the king’s downfall are useful to enemies of the Tudors. Cromwell eventually breaks the Holy Maid and forces her public penance, as he says, to dispel the grip that her particular kind of hucksterish and predatory magic has on the people:

It is necessary to break the hold of these people who talk of the end times and threaten us with plagues and damnation. It is necessary to dispel the terror they create. (476)

Right around the time I read this passage, a member of the United States Congress stated that Obama’s policy in Syria was a sign of the end times, which she indeed welcomed as a harbinger of Christ’s rebirth and the apocalypse foreordained in Revelations. Cromwell’s opposition to such ideological world-enders and magicalists is needed in every era. Yet Mantel conveys throughout the book what you might call a rational acceptance that magic exists, that it overlaps the world of the real in various ways that people can exploit or use to find comfort. In this she builds on her earlier novel, Beyond Black, about contemporary women psychics.

My friend Rod who is a lucky BAST*DRDGD about to see the London stage production of Wolf Hall

My friend Rod who is a lucky BAST*DRDGD about to see the London stage production of Wolf Hall

Reading buddies: how did you consider the role of magic in this book nominally about affairs of state? I thought Mantel used magic as a way into reckoning with the lives of royalty, who back then were inevitably both mortal beings and evanescent representations of The State and other virtues. Here’s another passage on Henry and this duality:

The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being; you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be hunting in the forest, while his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas. (445)

3) Wolf Hall also finds in Cromwell a much greater capacity for positive relationships with women, children, the poor and displaced than most of the other Men of Consequence in the novel. The stage for these relationships is the household, which is described as not just the home of a family but also a workshop, office, and small fortress. Here Mantel depicts Cromwell’s household and the people in it as his pupils and troops, to whom he needs to impart some of his own ability to see matters from both sides:

The Austin Friars is like the world in little. These few years it’s been more like a battlefield than a household; or like one of the tented encampments in which the survivors look in despair at their shattered limbs and spoiled expectations. But they are his to direct, these last hardened troops; if they are not to be flattened in the next charge it is he who must teach them the defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne. (239)

In all these matters—the inescapable violence of England, and the need to resist it; the nature of the King, as both Monarch and scoundrel—Mantel finds in Cromwell an irresistible bridge between these two tendencies. I don’t know whether her fascination for the character is admiration exactly, but she creates a character for him that serves her amazingly well as protagonist. Here he is inspecting a new carpet that Thomas More has bought:

His hand skims the surface, rich and soft. The flaw in the weave hardly matters. A turkey carpet is not an oath. There are some people in this world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person. He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight. Leases, writs, statutes, all are written to be read, and each person reads them by the light of self-interest. More says, “What do you think, gentlemen? Walk on it, or hang it on the wall?”
“Walk on it.”
“Thomas, your luxurious tastes!” And they laugh. You would think they were friends. (211)

Just another great moment in which Mantel’s narrator gazes through the fourth wall to bring the reader of the novel into the scene of “reading” the matters of state and life she depicts. It is fitting that More’s house, a much chillier household than Cromwell’s, is the scene.

Reading buddies: what did you make of Cromwell’s relationships with, and mourning of, his wife and daughters? Do  you think his household is “modern”?

4) Mantel also has a few passages in which she rips off a poetic descriptive rampage, stepping outside the frame of the narrative to deliver an authorly soliloquy that reminds me of Whitman or Melville. Here is a passage that comes after Cromwell encounters Francis, King of France, who of course views one tradesman as just like another. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, differs:

One tradesman the same as the next? Not in the real world. Any man with a steady hand and a cleaver can call himself a butcher: but without the smith, where does he get that cleaver? Without the man who works in metal, where are your hammers, your scythes, your sickles, scissors and planes? Your arms and armor, your arrowheads, your pikes and your guns? Where are your ships at sea and their anchors? Where are your grappling hooks, your nails, latches, hinges, pokers and tongs? Where are your spits, kettles, trivets, your harness rings, buckles and bits? Where are your knives? (306)

You have to just bow down to Mantel on this one, which, given the violence throughout the book and in Cromwell’s history particularly, ends appropriately on knives. Seamus Heaney would be happy with this evocative tear conducted primarily in Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate words.

Reading buddies: what is your favorite passage in the book?

Hendrik Hertzberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates at MIT

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg at MIT, 10/29/2013

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg at MIT, 10/29/2013. Love the old-school blackboards and equations.

Tonight I got to see a conversation at MIT between Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Atlantic author/blogger and currently an MLK Visiting Scholar at MIT. This was a talk on the theme of “What’s the “Journalism” in Opinion Journalism?” and focused on the writerly craft of writing opinion pieces, as Hertzberg does biweekly for “The Talk of the Town” and “TNC” does multiple times a week on his blog, and occasionally in the NY Times.

A model of a hacked MIT Police cruiser in the Stata Center festooned with origami

A model of a hacked MIT Police cruiser in the Stata Center festooned with origami

I wrote about TNC on the occasion of his first talk at MIT two years ago, and since then I have felt a unique sense of pride and respect for the work he does on his blog. Pride, in the sense that as part of “the horde” (his blog commenter community, tho I am but a lurker) I see how his own intellectual pursuits have drawn upon the relationships he develops with his public–plus he is at MIT! Respect, in seeing how he has grown as a writer in the 5 years or so since his blog emerged into broader view. Just in the past month he has been cranking out really amazing work connecting his reading about postwar Europe and the legacy of slavery in the US. So it was great to get the chance to see him and a beacon of the opinion establishment talk.

Quick hit: who are Hertzberg and TNC’s favorite bloggers? No big surprises: both follow Andrew Sullivan, Jim Fallows, Jonathan Chait, Talking Points Memo. RH also likes James Walcott, and TNC also reads Grantland and The Toast (woot! nice to see The Awl’s tentacles reach into these precints).

For my jealous homies who wish they could have been there, some fan’s notes:

  • TNC asked whether Hertzberg really had a writing teacher who gave him insights into, for example, the lessons of Orwell on the use of metaphor and avoidance of cliche. RH said that as an editor at the Harvard Crimson all the opinion writers would submit their work to public critique by all the other staff, and that this was the toughest and best instruction he had.
  • RH said he went to college wanting to be a newspaper man, and that his favorite job at the Crimson was laying out the front page. He said his sense of composing a sentence or an essay drew upon that graphic sense of laying out the newspaper, and arranging the elements of his work.
  • On whether opinion writers write beautifully: “Leon Weiseltier’s writing is way more beautiful than his ideas…Beautiful writing attracts readers and gives the possibility of preaching outside the choir”
  • In praising TNC, RH said that he possessed “Sitzfleisch,” or the ability to sit for hours focused on writing, as opposed to RH who is a classic tortured writer, pulling at least one all-nighter on a mattress in his office per column
  • Both talked about blogging as recreation: it allows you to come up with things that writing a formal essay does not (though in his preview of this talk, TNC pointed at the value of writing within a strict form like the Talk of the Town leader).
  • There was a lot of talk about gatekeepers in opinion writing, from the old days with more limited outlets to now where everyone with a Tumblr account is an opinionator, nominally open to the whole world as an audience. TNC said that this explosion of access to the public is part of a broader “end of boredom” environment, in which essay writers need to work even harder to grab readers by collar and say read this, care about this
  • The question was posed as to whether our dire state of politics relates to the dire/cheap/silod state of writing? RH said such claims, i.e. of “epistemic closure” on the right, are exaggerated, and that most of journalism has always been about the current equivalent of the Kardashians.
  • Sounding the same alarm as Fallows, RH says we blame our problems (on climate change, guns, immigration) and failure to address them on everything except the broken machinery of our government. He said he is such a one-noter on the filibuster and its associated problems that it is a running joke in the New Yorker–but that he believes people are starting to come around to his view on that topic.
  • Someone asked about the Snowden/Assange leaks and Glenn Greenwald as “opinionated” journalist vs. “objective” New York Times (along which lines, this interesting debate between Greenwald and NYT ex-editor Bill Keller this week was very interesting). TNC said that he was glad Greenwald raised the question of the Times’ refusal to call US torture by its name, and that such examples show how we hide behind ideas of objectivity and civility to obscure what are in fact very partisan stances.

MIT reactor tour: back to the Nuclear Age

The MIT reactor control room

The MIT reactor control room (Photo: Boston Globe)

My dad and I got to join a tour of MITR-II, the research reactor that MIT has maintained in one form or another on campus since 1958. It was an unbelievable step back in time to an  era when Nuclear was king. The analog stuff in this joint is beyond belief! Not just the control room, with paper reports to be filled out daily, but the airlock doors, the Eye-Ease Green paint  on every surface, and the ancient schoolhouse chairs we sat in for our briefing were all seemingly from a retro sci-fi movie. On a campus where all the new buildings exude the techno cool you associate with the Apple Store, the relic status of Building NW12 is a palpable statement about which sorts of science and engineering have been tops on the priority list lately.

Not so very different from the real control room...

Not so very different from the real control room…

This out-of-time quality for nuclear research was striking in so many ways. Sad, in the sense that you can sense so many possibilities with a bit more focus on this area (not to say it isn’t getting its Federal research $$, just that it has been stigmatized in the popular imagination). The tour guides noted that the MIT reactor supports research towards much safer and more efficient reactor designs. In the archaic control room and in using the Geiger counter after entering the reactor area, I was also reminded of the pervasive fear of nuclear war when I was growing up. The idea of an 18 year old MIT undergrad at the helm of the reactor brought to mind the leaked reports recently that Air Force officers in the Minuteman silos in North Dakota had been caught repeatedly napping while the door of their control capsule was open, or the scary new book on “broken arrow” nuclear weapons accidents by the Fast Food Nation guy. Those nukes are still in the silos, at the ready.

Humans are pretty weak reeds to be entrusted with the keys to the destruction of the whole world. Some say the world will end in fire, and being in the reactor was a strange reminder of how in a few short years we have moved from assuming the fire will be delivered by a bomb with a crazed officer in the saddle to, now, believing it will be simmered up under the carbonous lid of our atmosphere. The great thing about being at MIT is you can at times feel hopeful that people might be able to intervene in humanity’s bumbling towards immolation.

Shanghai travels in the shadow of Ted Yoho

In Pu Dong with the Bund across the river

In Pu Dong with the Bund across the river

As Americans struggled to understand how a small group of people featuring small-time cranks and singin’ funeral directors could nearly destroy the full faith and credit of the US, I went to Shanghai this week to staff a visiting committee for our partner graduate program. These visits always bring up their own fascinating inter-cultural communications issues, though not across quite the gap that lies between me and Ted Effin Yoho (R-FL) [I urge you to click through to this piece by Charlie Pierce, which really sums up why Yoho is the apotheosis of the last few decades of political extremism].

The visiting committee consisted of three MIT professors and two people from US companies who work in their Chinese manufacturing facilities and support our sister program. What made the interaction even more interesting between this group and the Chinese deans, faculty, and students was that the MIT faculty were born in China and Greece, and one of the industry people was Iranian-American. In discussion, I was interested to hear some of the committee members talk about their own bicultural experiences of communications and authority, and having one personality in their native language and another in English.

The China Daily political cartoon on 10/14/2013 depicting the US shutdown and debt crisis

The China Daily political cartoon on 10/14/2013 depicting the US shutdown and debt crisis

What did the Chinese make of our political debacle? Here’s what the China Daily political cartoonist came up with…Halloween theme, frightened Obama scared of three spooky cats labeled Bonds, Payment Default, and Cash Crunch. I would have loved to see the artist’s rendering of Michelle Bachmann, but sometimes a Cash Crunch cat is just a cat. I guess there was a lot of official propaganda talk this week about America’s self-immolation allowing the “de-Americanization” of the global community…and a long-awaited re-Sinification! What’s weird to me is that this cartoon misses the most basic political reality of the situation, which was that it was Obama’s political enemies who made it all happen. If anyone who knows feels like telling me, I would love to hear if the cartoon’s version of things (Obama vs. scary things that came up out of nowhere) reflects a Chinese understanding of The Leader in absolute terms? Elsewhere in the paper, I saw pitch-perfect renderings of China Daily tropes: a story about the “Dalai Lama clique” and its nefarious work to orphan Tibetan children in the 60s, and one about rare brown-and-white giant pandas that raved about how cute they are (because honestly, who doesn’t love a panda? Or, by extension, China in general?).

Doorway in Tian Zi Fang

Doorway in Tian Zi Fang

I also went back to one of my favorite areas in Shanghai, Tian Zi Fang, a traditional alleyway residential area partially transformed into a shopping and gallery district. There are still people living there, their streets set off from commerce with “NO PHOTO” and “KEEP OUT” signs, and each visit I’ve heard the sound of kids practicing their instruments floating down from apartment windows. Perhaps because of those signs, I don’t feel like I’m getting into people’s living space when in Tian Zi Fang.

 

 

Dude with mohawk and camo floppy boots touching up the paint on a mock-carousel horse outside Burberry on Huaihai Rd, Shanghai

Dude with mohawk and camo floppy boots touching up the paint on a mock-carousel horse outside Burberry on Huaihai Rd, Shanghai

But later I was walking on Huaihai Road, where Gucci and Cartier have stores as big as Costcos, and found just a block off the street an even less improved stretch of alleyways, with people washing food in outdoor sinks and sitting on buckets under laundry lines. There was no way to walk down there and not be in people’s space. In its proximity to posher areas, it kind of reminded me of walking along a narrow promenade by the Douro River in the heart of Porto and having to squeeze by the laundry rack sticking out of a window.

This vase is pretty awesome

This vase is pretty awesome

Finally I got over to the Shanghai Museum. I’m the kind of uncultured lummox who generally will not cross the street to see fine ceramics, but the pottery at this museum really had me saying OMG in my head as I turned from one vitrine to the next. What’s more, there was a traveling exhibit of Impressionists and others from the Clark Museum in Williamstown (boo!), featuring none other than Gerome’s “The Snake Charmer,” which as everyone knows was on the cover of Edward Said’s Orientalism. I remembered enough of the book, which found in “Orientalist” art of the 19th C. an aesthetic reification of Middle Eastern peoples subordinated to the West, to realize that seeing its cover art in a giant Chinese boomtown whose leaders had just claimed their right to “de-Westernize” the world made for a very rich textual moment.

 

Larry and Alice Jacobs: 50 years in love

My folks had their 50th anniversary celebration recently. I recognize how fortunate they and I are for them to reach this milestone. We put on a nice dinner at their favorite pre-Symphony restaurant and had friends and family together to kvell. Here is my toast and some photos from the 50 years, including a sweet one of me from the 70s.

Mom and Dad entering their wedding reception at Tavern on the Green in NYC

Mom and Dad entering their wedding reception at Tavern on the Green in NYC

I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be here on such a happy and momentous occasion. Many different forces have conspired together to allow Alice and Larry to arrive at this time still together, still in love, enjoying good health and the company of family and friends, and able to look out on more happy years together. I think we all know how rare it is for a couple to get here and tonight is a celebration of that milestone.

What is it in my parents’ characters, both individually and as a couple, that have allowed them to get to this moment in their lives together? I think in addition to the qualities and values that Amy mentioned, I want to highlight a couple of things through stories from our lives together.

Dad and Mom with a furry young Josh

Dad and Mom with a furry young Josh

One thing I really admire about both my mom and dad is how they have both worked really hard to define a path for themselves, as a couple and family and also in their careers. Apart from being happy and successful, I don’t think either one of them is exactly where their parents might have guessed, but instead have gone way beyond what anyone might have thought achievable.

And I’m grateful that my folks recognized that they had carved their own path, but rather than imposing their new sense of what was successful on me and Aaron, they passed along this sense that hard work can create new possibilities. As an example of this, when I was 17 and up with my dad in Boston looking at colleges—having already put aside MIT, because I didn’t want the Bachelor’s of Science in Literature they offered—I was guardedly expressing to my dad that I probably wanted to major in English or something equally squishy. And he said, basically, that one generation becomes engineers or businessmen so that the next can become poets.

Mom and Dad with me in the 70s

Mom and Dad with me in the 70s

And I took that I think in the proper sense, which was my folks being grateful that they had created a wonderful environment from which I could feel free to choose a path that didn’t actually involve making a living. Of course, long story short, I now work at the MIT Sloan School of Management, so it’s a good thing I have that English major and can define irony.

The other thing that I admire so much in my folks is how they have expressed their love for each other, for me and Aaron, and for so many other friends and family. The generosity of this love made our house growing up a gathering place, for example in an annual Rosh Hashonah party that brought a hundred-odd people to Leigh Mill Road in Great Falls–not a great center of Jewish life–for ten years.

The family together

The family together

The steadfastness of this love is what got us all through the loss of Aaron, and enabled us to keep finding joy in life together. And the strength of this love is what is behind the work my mom and dad both have put into making their local library a real beacon for the community, and has created a wonderful environment for me, Amy and our girls, who are so fortunate to live down the street from each other.

At the Royal Chelsea Flower Show in London, 2013

At the Royal Chelsea Flower Show in London, 2013

I’d like us all to celebrate the love my mom and dad have created in their lives together, and which I hope we will all share in for many years to come.

Another pass at remembering Aaron through the noise of 9/11

MIT Police Officer Sean Collier honored at Fenway Park, August 28, 2013

MIT Police Officer Sean Collier honored at Fenway Park, August 28, 2013

Each year my experience of September 11 starts at some point in the month beforehand. Mine started in earnest a couple of weeks ago when my dad and I went to a Red Sox game, at which MIT Police Office Sean Collier was honored with his family throwing out first pitches. Collier, killed by the Boston Marathon bombers, seems to have been a fantastic human being, and his family always appear to be able to focus on celebrating his life. I was deeply affected by his loss among the Marathon bombings and their aftermath, and to have his smiling Irish punim on the huge display made me think, Oh my God, Fenway, what is it about coming here with my dad that you have to observe national traumas? It was a couple of years ago that we stumbled into a game that began with a ceremony about Osama getting killed, which figured in my first piece that explored Aaron’s loss.

Burns clean, no mess, great customer service: the perfect mourner's implement! 5 stars!

Burns clean, no mess, great customer service: the perfect mourner’s implement! 5 stars!

The next morning, I woke up and realized, “f@ck, I need to buy a yahrzeit candle.” Jews light a 24-hour candle on the evening before the anniversary of a loved one’s death. So I had a very this-is-how-we-live-now experience of going to the Amazon site on my phone, checking out the candles, and wondering, as I bought some, what it even means to have customer reviews of the paraphernalia of mourning.

I thought that writing an Amazon-style review of the yahrzeit candle might be the seed of a poem. But happily for me and the unwitting Amazon users who might have seen something like that, I ended up being inspired (poetry-wise, in part by recently passed Seamus Heaney, Paul Celan, and ‘ol Adrienne Rich, plus The Kinks) to write something that looks at this benign but terribly lifeless object as the means for remembering all of the life Aaron had with me and others. The poem is at the end of this post, and here.

The weather the past few days has been the same bright, clear, cloudless pattern that so strongly evokes that day twelve years ago. But this afternoon summer has come back in, and the memorial service that my mom and Amy will attend tomorrow in Boston will be hot and humid…”9/10 weather,” you might say. The girls are all in school this year (!) and will come home after lunch tomorrow to share some memories and photos of Aaron with me, Amy and my folks. The yahrzeit candle is burning with a pretty strong paraffin smell, as though we were awaiting a hurricane. Not exactly the blank sensory canvas for one’s memories one might expect, though the light flickers nicely and the glass doesn’t feel like it will set the house on fire while we sleep. Three stars?

Aaron and Dad on Compo Beach in Connecticut, c. 1985

Aaron and Dad on Compo Beach in Connecticut, c. 1985

——–

A toast for a yahrzeit

How did this shot glass

So recently shared

Fill up to the brim

With cheap wax and wicking?

 

If memory serves,

This sticker says burn

All day and all night,

A “Girl—I want—to

 

Be with you” chorus.

But the mouth on this—

Its strained, perfect O;

A Day of the Dead

 

Spun-sugar skull, but

Wiped of its friendly

Smile and eye-sockets—

Seems hardly ready

 

To breathe out a song.

It waits to take in

What the fine print says

Is praise of God’s name:

 

To crisp up the words

In this modest flame

And add to the peace

Of Heaven. Oh, blessed

 

And honored—I’ll drain

The milk of those words

To this cup’s bottom

Today, and the rest

 

Of the year, I’ll drink

Something muddier,

Raising to life with you

As if it went on.

 

Copyright © Josh Jacobs 2013

 

Happy Anniversary, Amy!

I was getting all ready to post a ton of photos of Amy in her many guises from the past year when…my hard disk croaked today. A good reminder to always back up, and (in a geeky sort of way) of the fleeting nature of all things. This also has to be a fleeting anniversary salute.

AmherstKale

Rivalry

Growing up in a modern Jewish home, I wasn’t exposed to the notion of being “blessed” in the way it is usually thrown around in America. But that is a word I keep returning to in describing how it is to have met Amy post-college and now to have been together with her for 14+ years, 12 of them legal.

Amy is pretty awesome, and in a self-effacing way ends up providing vital love and friendship to a wide circle of people even beyond me and the girls. I am not exaggerating when I say that this past year in particular, some dear friends found in Amy a combination of love, candor and support that kept their lives on a good course. There are times when the busyness of three kids, many activities led and guided, and this circle of friends leads Amy and I to feel we are kind of ships hugging as we pass folding laundry at night (maritime metaphor listing to starboard there). But throughout I feel incredibly fortunate to be the constant companion of such a force of good in the world. Modestly, I see myself as kind of like the reticent brown dwarf star in a binary with a brilliant Sol-like G, hidden from distant astronomers’ view but detectable by the ever-lovin’ bright star’s orbital path (sorry for the technical astronomy jargon there).

This coming year I look forward to many more orbits around each other and of our wee planetoids around us. Some recovered photos of Amy in her element appear below.

AmyTreeAmy as woodland gremlin

AmyPoolGirlsAmy with the girls, who now can all swim thanks to her and Charles River Aquatics

Miss E with her papier-mache shoe that was the centerpiece of Amy's fabulous art camp she ran last week for nine girls

Miss E with her papier-mache shoe that was the centerpiece of Amy’s fabulous art camp she ran last week for nine girls

An ecstatic song in the face of DESPAIR

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the great New York band that Amy and I saw this spring, have a new video out for their song “Despair.” They shot it on top of the Empire State Building with the full support of the owner, who deemed the song “uplifting.” I think there is more to it than that: to me it feels like a kind of Greek-play ecstatic summoning of despair in order to see beyond it.

If you’ve ever despaired, loved, or love NYC, I hope you will take five minutes to watch the video:

Here is the first verse:

Don’t despair
You’re there
From beginning to middle to end
Don’t despair
You’re there through my wasted days , you’re there through my wasted nights
Oh despair you’ve always been there, you’ve always been there, you’ve always been there,
You’re there through my wasted years, through all of my lonely fears
No tears will run through my fingers
Tears they’re stinging my eyes
No tears
If it’s all in my head there’s nothing to fear inside,
Through the darkness and the light
Some sun has gotta rise.

 

I would love to have the feeling the band got in this video of rocking out at the top of NYC, blasting past despair as the sun rises over a changed but still living city.

 

“Boston Strong” is for the living

Today I ran in the BAA 10K, put on by the same group that sponsors the Boston Marathon. The route is from Boston Common out Commonwealth Avenue to the BU campus and back, through some beautiful areas of Back Bay. I was psyched to beat my goal on a hot day.

Greetings from the Eugene Marathon to Boston

Greetings from the Eugene Marathon to Boston

Before the race there were several big banners displayed with messages of support to Boston from different marathons across the country, and of course a moment of silence before the start. After the race I went over to Copley Square to see the spontaneous memorial to the victims of the Marathon bombing and subsequent attacks. I hadn’t been there and knew it was going to be dismantled in a couple of days.

Shoes in the Copley Square memorial

Shoes in the Copley Square memorial

The memorial stands out because of all the running shoes that have been left there as tributes, starting with Marathon runners the day of the bombing and accumulating since then. There are hundreds of pairs, some inscribed to Boston, and many bibs from the Marathon, from the Race to Remember to honor fallen law enforcement officers, and other events. I know even as a semi-runner I’ve been very motivated to keep going since this happened, and the shoes testify to how many others share this feeling.

Tributes to the four people killed in the Marathon bombing and subsequent attacks. Copley Square, June 23, 2013

Tributes to the four people killed in the Marathon bombing and subsequent attacks. Copley Square, June 23, 2013

There is also the more general, less running-focused memorial to the four people who were killed at the race or afterwards. This part of the memorial is more like what springs up at the side of the road or on sidewalks after someone has died. Apart from all the law enforcement badges around the image of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, there are teddy bears, handwritten notes, religious texts, Rubiks Cubes, and other relics that speak to the American desire to remember (in part) through stuff. The “FEEL BETTER” banner in the background is also something you wouldn’t see in, say, Portugal.

The Marathon memorial at Copley Square

The Marathon memorial at Copley Square

I heard a good WBUR show last month talking about the phenomenon of temporary/spontaneous memorials and how different this is than the typically very slow process of developing permanent, formal memorials to tragic events. The city has to figure out which of these fairly damaged tributes are worth saving, and how or whether to include them in whatever permanent memorial is developed.

Since the bombings/attacks, the “Boston Strong” theme has become pretty widespread, with some suggesting it has gotten away from the original intent–perseverance and community in the face of violent attacks–and become cheapened by being used as a sports rallying cry or with other, less memorial intentions. Adrienne Rich might have covered this ground when she wrote in “Living Memory,”

All we can read is life. Death is invisible.

A yahrzeit candle belongs

to life. The sugar skulls

eaten on graves for the Day of the Dead

belong to life. To the living. The Kaddish is to the living,

the Day of the Dead, for the living.

“Boston Strong” was already about other stuff, and not just a testament to the Marathon bombing victims, from the moment the phrase was coined. The way we remember tragedies is all about us, the living. Even for the survivors of the Marathon attacks and the wounded, I can only imagine that going down to the site of the bombings and to this or the future memorial will be completely different than it is for everyone else who wears the Boston Strong gear. In all of its temporariness I found this to be an effective call to remember those who died and were hurt, and a reminder of how hard it is to keep them in mind once the relics come down.

Peaceful transition of power at Amherst English

The day after the retirement, the sun still rose once more on Johnson Chapel

The day after the retirement, the sun still rose once more on Johnson Chapel

Last night the Amherst College English Department celebrated eight of its faculty who have collectively been teaching since the 1600s, if laid end-to-end, which is fact how they have been organized in Johnson Chapel for the past 60 years or so. While billed as a retirement party, most of those honored are scarcely reducing their activity or Amherst teaching load, but still the Department and College chose this moment to honor their generations-spanning commitment to teaching and scholarship.

Fog over the running trails behind the college

Fog over the running trails behind the college

My undergraduate advisor, Bill Pritchard, was tied with Jack Cameron for maximum service with 55+ years each. The formalities of the event began with Amherst President Biddy Martin. Martin framed her talk around the skepticism that former Wellesley president and Amherst trustee, Diana Chapman Walsh, once expressed about “Amherst exceptionalism.” The idea is that everyone outside Amherst scorns the idea that there is something uniquely wonderful about The College, but that with true intimacy comes the dawning realization that, in fact, AMHERST IS THE BEST. Martin suggested that if Amherst is exceptional for various reasons (intellectual curiosity, spirit of place) that it is in part these long-serving faculty who made it so. And, she and other speakers hastened to add, it will be the equally awesome younger faculty who take up this legacy. There was an amiable tension throughout the proceedings between the honors due the (Un)Retired 8, and the sense that their defining presence must now yield to whatever comes next, leonine or not.

After all this overdetermined praise, Bill Pritchard stood up to represent the Senior Colleagues and said, “It occurred to me last night to ask, is there anything that could be said against this? ‘On the other hand?'” And what he produced was something that absolutely fit himself and the moment in all its meanings. He quoted the “genial, gentle, even genteel” (only Pritchard can say that!) William Dean Howells, a literary lion of the late 19th century known as the “Dean of American Letters,” who in his old age wrote a polite screed against those who would politely praise him. “Let us alone, I say, so we can bear our burden.” We know how bad we look–don’t make us smirk and pretend it’s otherwise!

This really could not have been more perfect. The rather shy Pritchard found in the words of the “Dean of American Letters”–a title and concept alien to the present English department–exactly the elegant, defiant rejection of “nice job, grandpa” that he could not voice himself. It was the mirror image of Biddy Martin’s use of another woman president’s words, posing for scorn the idea of Amherst English Exceptionalism and then not-quite accepting it, to frame this honored and yet welcome (by some) departure from the scene. Pritchard read the quote, said “Howell said that, not me,” dropped the mic and walked off stage for good.

Viva la Casa Newport!

Viva la Casa Newport!

Seeing this succession take place brought me back to the excitement and fulfillment that I felt as an English student at Amherst, propelling myself all naively towards the PhD. It was quite a moment, which I was very happy to share with friends and fellow pilgrims Carrie and Gail. I also shared (barely…actually I pretty much ate it all myself) the delicious fruits of Atkins Farms, run by the estranged twin brother of the Atkins Diet guy who pursued instead a life devoted to scrumptious carbohydrates. Long may the doughnuts roll out the praises of the Amherst English Department.

I'll just have a wafer-thin half-dozen of those

I’ll just have a wafer-thin half-dozen of those

 

Spicy Moments: Shanghai trip

Shanghai Tower under construction. Citizens are eagerly awaiting the moment when the Great Eye of Sauron is lowered into place on the top and the tower can become fully operational. Credit: Wikipedia

Shanghai Tower under construction. Citizens are eagerly awaiting the moment when the Great Eye of Sauron is lowered into place on the top and the tower can become fully operational. Credit: Wikipedia

I visited Shanghai this week as part of my program’s collaboration with Shanghai Jiao Tong University in the China Leaders for Global Operations program (click through to see yours truly in a lineup with dignitaries). This program was modeled on the MIT LGO program and delivers a similar dual-degree MBA / engineering master’s program for top Chinese Engineering grads. The courses are all in English and most of the faculty have been hosted at MIT to be mentored in the courses they teach at SJTU.

Being introduced as “Professor Jacobs” to the CLGO students and invited to comment on their project mid-stream reports represent a few more steps on my Weird Journey (Back) to Manufacturing. But my peculiar expertise actually turned out to be relevant when talking to one student, who said that at his project host company (a major US-based computer manufacturer) he keeps being urged to be more aggressive and proactive. “But,” he said, “at school I have other interests, like Chinese classical literature, so at [the company] it is very different.” Tell me about it, brother! In general, the China LGO students do not yet have the high-gloss MBA polish of their MIT counterparts, but are highly valued by the CLGO partner companies for their combination of technical strength, MIT-based business/leadership experience, and Chinese cultural grounding. For the MIT students, regular summer visits to Boston by the CLGOs and opportunities for many to visit Shanghai for projects have made the connection to CLGO an important part of their experience (click through to read an LGO’s blog about the CLGO summer visit).

Jing'an Temple, with people trying to throw coins into the bell tower thingy for good luck.

Jing’an Temple, with people trying to throw coins into the bell tower thingy for good luck.

Silver Buddha at Jing'an Temple.

Silver Buddha at Jing’an Temple.

I got to see a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist temple right in the heart of the Shanghai super-luxe area. Jing’an Temple was apparently burned down during the Cultural Revolution and then reconstructed in the 80s. How does state government investment in Tibetan Buddhist cultural sites in Shanghai relate to state policy towards Tibetan autonomy and cultural identity in Tibet? Discuss. I would love for some distinguished authority on Chinese history (or Tibetan Buddhism) to clue me in on the many meanings I missed amidst the beauty, smell of joss sticks burning, and sense of combined serenity and routine that I associate with Buddhist observance. Looming over the temple is a giant image of a self-satisfied Hugo Boss model, because that’s how Shanghai rolls.

A beautiful loquat tree in Tian Zi Fang

A beautiful loquat tree in Tian Zi Fang

Another gorgeous tree behind the universal sign for ice cream

Another gorgeous tree behind the universal sign for steak/ice cream

Went back with my colleagues to Tian Zi Fang, an old alleyways community that got reclaimed by artists in the 80s/90s and is now still kind of real-feeling–still has people living there–even as encroaching gentrification threatens Disney-fication.

Fish head! It really is the best part

Fish head! It really is the best part. Claiming the vegan waiver for this one.

I had dinner last night with a Shanghainese guy who went to Middlebury and married a Jewish girl from Connecticut. They had various international adventures and decided to have the family base be right in our neighborhood in Boston, while he spends 75% of his time back in SH managing the Greater China operations of a sexy lifestyle headphone company, Skullcandy. If you are reading this you are almost certainly too old to wear them–sorry. We went to Spicy Moment, a Western-style hip Hunan place that is in a beautiful side street that feels a bit like the West Village. An amazing city, getting pricier by the minute.

 

 

“His dream is gone”: Rereading “Gatsby” with high schooler “H. Brown”

Fantastic promo cover tied to this year's Alan Ladd "Gatsby"...I mean the 1949 version. Credit: twentytwowords.com

Fantastic promo cover tied to this year’s Alan Ladd “Gatsby”…I mean the 1949 version. Credit: twentytwowords.com

With the advent of the Baz Luhrmann “Gatsby” movie, I summoned up all of my crotchetiness and decided not to see Leonardo light it up Jay-Z style, but rather to reread the Authorized Text in a paperback sitting right here between Faulkner (another Hollywood booze-drowned author) and Flaubert (Baz Luhrmann’s next subject). Have to say I loved Baz’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with the divine Clare Danes and great music, but 20 years later am feeling a bit more “get off my lawn.”

 

 

 

 

"His dream is gone." And, after this chapter, so was "H"s aqua highlighter.

“His dream is gone.” And, after this chapter, so was “H”s aqua highlighter.

“Gatsby” is really just a long afternoon’s reading pleasure of foredoomed, beautiful attitudes and outfits: plus, as high schooler “H. Brown” pointed out maybe 15 years ago when she read the book, “irony.” Rereading it on the train, I was at first annoyed by her aqua highlighting and her rounded annotations, the letters marching up margins like dutiful bunny siblings in Beatrix Potter. But after a while I was able to bring myself back to the place of a kid taking on a Set Text for the first time, in a pre-Internet era when you were kind of on your own with the words. I remembered making these cipher-like shorthand comments like “Irony,” or “Description of Gatsby,” and thinking that I’d made a significant first step at analysis. Then came the realization that there were still many more words to write to fill out the scarecrow of my “irony” sentence, along with the nagging sense that irony was both less and more than the saddle I would try to throw athwart ol’ F. Scott’s burnished sentences.

Final page, on which H. Brown doggedly saw optimism, and Adrienne Rich found the title for her 1995 collection "Dark Fields of the Republic"

Final page, on which H. Brown doggedly saw optimism, and Adrienne Rich found the title for her 1995 collection, “Dark Fields of the Republic”

The other nice thing about sharing a palimpsest-like version of Gatsby with “H. Brown” is a reminder of the community of readers. This is not something that comes across for me on an e-reader. When I read something on a Kindle and come across a passage that thousands have “annotated” before me–probably dropping rich assortments of links to their own stinkin’ literary blogs!–it is a micro-rating system, informing me that 954 people gave an instantaneous “thumbs up” to “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” So far I haven’t yet found any interest in what others have annotated, or in joining their e-highlighting. But on this final page of “Gatsby,” I felt more a part of the history of readers coming to the novel with their own histories and abilities. I can only imagine that “H. Brown,” now maybe in her early thirties, has become acquainted with how Americans say “One fine morning…” to themselves about the most impossible outcomes, and that the optimism she saw then is tempered by age and loss, though hopefully not lost.

And just above this penultimate paragraph, in which Fitzgerald switches from what Gatsby felt to what “we” Americans feel and yearn, is the beautiful evocation of the dark fields of the republic–rolling past the Eastern cities and along out to the sparse towns of Minnesota and points west. This passage gave Adrienne Rich the title for her 1995 collection, but her desire to look across the whole of America and its people is obviously a theme that runs through her work for many years before that. Reading this copy of “Gatsby” in parallel with H. Brown is a palpable reminder that enduring books convene readers across huge gaps in time, experience and self-understanding.

 

 

Motherz Nite Out: Amy at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Amy rocks the Elaine Perlov rose t and the hotline phone in her back pocket while replanting annuals

Amy rocks the Elaine Perlov rose t and the hotline phone in her back pocket while replanting perrennials

Grateful to spend a happy and peaceful Mother’s Day and Motherz Nite with Amy and girls yesterday, with my own mom and dad boldly exploring foreign climes. I think the most powerful M-day gift I was able to provide was the combination of fostering happy family time AND blissful alone time for Amy to totally kick back and bliss out. Actually, if you have been following the blog you know that last part was a fib. Amy used her alone time to write a curriculum and replant some flowers, because the path to peace leads through a well-managed garden.

More flowers. Some day I will know their names.

More flowers. Some day I will know their names.

Probably Amy’s most distinctive contribution to our family culture is making the girls comfortable with regular sharing of good and bad moments of the day, as well as good aspects of each other. This is the kind of thing that might have seemed obvious or drippy to me before having kids…or before therapy. But I so treasure Amy’s ability to move on from the daily and hourly infurations of family life to guide us all in having these constructive conversations. We’re shoveling in neurosis-inducing influences with one hand, but thanks to Amy we are helping the girls articulate their mixed bag of feelings with the other. Needless to say, as the lone, introverted male, I also benefit hugely from her influence and tutelage.

Amy outside the House of Blues before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs show

Amy outside the House of Blues before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs show…still in her Elaine Perlov t! Wear it in the garden then out on the town!

After what Amy described as “the best falafel I’ve ever eaten” at Jake’s Falafel Corner with the girls, we got a sitter and went to the House of Blues to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If you don’t know the YYYs you might want to immediately purchase It’s Blitz!, their album from 2009 that is one of my absolute favorites ever with nary a weak song (and awesome acoustic versions on the extended version). Their 2003 hit Maps was described by Dave Grohl as the Stairway to Heaven-level love song of the new generation, forever playable at roller rinks and middle school dances (but with a heck of a lot less bombast!). Without getting into the details of how awesome they are, or what a ravishing 7-foot Korean-Polish-American bombshell their lead singer is, in the spirit of Mother’s Day I will just point out some uncanny similarities between Karen O and Amy:

  • Natural beauties that look great in any outfit
  • Focus their creative energy on connecting and inspiring the people around them
  • Liberal arts grads who aren’t afraid to jump up and down and look goofy
  • Wear sneakers with anything

See if you can compare and contrast further in this performance. Happy Mother’s Day!

 

 

 

Boston: the bombing, the lockdown, and the rest of our lives

Thursday night I went to bed wondering if the release of the Boston Marathon bomber suspects’ photos would lead to some tips or arrests. When I woke up early Friday I saw a dozen texts from the MIT alert system on my phone, and realized that the first step on the bombers’ night and day of violence had been the apparently unprovoked murder of Sean Collier, an MIT Police officer, as he sat in his car next to the iconic Stata Center. I spent a gut-clenching day alone at home, eerily quiet and warm outside, waiting for Amy and the girls to return home from Vermont and to see what would happen in our locked-down city. The end of the chase–but just the end of the beginning of finding out why this happened–was in a boat in a Watertown backyard, about five miles from our house.

And now, you might expect to see speculation about how “the healing” will begin for the city. Interestingly, there were several headlines before the craziness and lockdown of Friday to the effect of, city seeks healing, Red Sox return will help healing, etc. In fact, Thursday night I went to a book talk by Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy at the fabulous Waban Library that was, in effect, a lay healing ceremony for shocked Bostonians.

Since Friday night, the discussion has been more about the potential impact of these attacks on daily life in the city (or country), the legal status of the suspect in custody, and continued concern for the four dead and many wounded resulting from the attacks. I’ve been relieved in a way at this “healing” hiatus, but I know that inevitably the city and country will move forward. The Marathon next year will be bigger than ever, and I’ll admit to getting a Boston Strong shirt myself as part of this tidal force pulling the living and those only terrified by this week, and not bereft, towards a hopeful future.

The Green Building at MIT with a black ribbon design honoring slain MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, on April 21, 2013. Photo: David Da He

The Green Building at MIT with a black ribbon design honoring slain MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, on April 21, 2013. Photo: David Da He

But I feel so deeply for the families of those four people killed, and for those who will bear the physical scars of this attack, because the healing and unity that we collectively want after this attack are not really available to them. In a truly bizarre bit of synchronicity, I was reminded of this just this weekend, when my brother’s former fiancee came for a long-planned visit with her young daughter. For us, staying in close touch with her has been a very important part of our lives since losing Aaron. It has been a real blessing all around that we have maintained this connection, even as she has moved on to marry and have a child, and it is a tribute to her courage that she came up Saturday morning, a few hours after the all-clear released the city from its homes. It was wonderful to visit with her and connect her daughter to her “cousins.”

But it hurts to twist your heart back onto the should-have-been path of family visits with her and my missing brother. Even in what must be a best-case scenario, 12 years out from the loss (everyone basically healthy, material needs satisfied, all dug mostly from their psychological holes), this vital connection also plugs our fingers back into the outlet of raw emotion and longing that hasn’t let up at all in the intervening years. So when I think of the families of those lost this past week, I think of the incremental gap between their “healing”–may G-d grant it to them–and that of the city and country around them. The Globe has a good column today on just such an experience, that of the owner of a cafe in Back Bay who lost her daughter on 9/11. I hope that a year, five years out, they can find people who are willing to sit with them and talk about their missing loved ones, and simply focus on what this week and their loss has meant to them.

Status Report

Boston Marathon runners in the 3:30 finish range wave to the camera at Km30/Mile 18 in Newton on April 15, 2013

Boston Marathon runners in the 3:30 finish range wave to the camera at Km30/Mile 18 in Newton on April 15, 2013

I am really grateful to all those who thought to ask how I and my family are doing today, after the horrific and tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line. Here are some answers:

  • TERRIFIED: This was an awful flashback to 9/11, the London Tube bombings in 2005 (which I missed by an hour or so), Newtown, and the various other horrors we have faced in the past 12 years. Amy got a text from a friend asking when another friend running the Marathon had finished, and did we hear about explosions at the finish line? The first reports were of multiple devices, severed limbs on Boylston St. and a dozen people killed. It was a terrifying afternoon as the fog of war descended on the race course, far-flung areas of Boston (like the JFK Library) and throughout the area. Amy, my parents and I relived the awful moments of not knowing that we experienced on September 11th.
A Running Burger costume, discarded on Stuart St., is searched as police officers examine every stray article after the bombings. Photo: Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe Staff

A Running Burger costume, discarded on Stuart St., is searched as police officers examine every stray article after the bombings. Ms. A. proudly counted a dozen people running in these things, and then they turn into suspicious packages. Photo: Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe Staff

  • INFURIATED: We were out on the course for hours with our kids and many other neighbors cheering on friends from the neighborhood who ran (just to name one example) to save their kid’s vision, or just to stay one step further ahead of encroaching time. It was amazing to see the number of people running for a cause or for an important person in their lives, and inspiring as always to see how dedication to each other has allowed the Hoyts to go so far beyond what their bodies / ages might suggest they’re capable of doing. And there is also the quirky side of the marathon, in which Ms. A. and I saw a dozen people go by with a hamburger outfit (one of which is sadly examined in the photo above as a suspicious package). Any day a terrorist bombs our city is a shocking, horrible tragedy, but to target this day in particular feels like a truly devilish act.
  • RESOLVED: The Boston Marathon is not going out of business as a goal that people carry with them throughout their lives, or a thrilling example of competition and loving sacrifice that we who live here are privileged to witness each year. I can only imagine the fear that all of us, running or not, might feel next year along the course or in Back Bay, but I do not think it will turn many away, and many more may stand up in their place.
  • RUNNING: I’ve been training for a half-marathon in a few weeks and just yesterday ran the peak pre-race run (12 miles). I’m up tomorrow before dawn to start the taper and to think about those who ran yesterday and those hurt by this brutal and ugly attack–plus my brother, who ran this course. Looking like an all-Fugazi mix. If you are motivated to do the same, you might take a look at #RunForBoston.

Thank you so much to everyone who reached out to us today.

The Green Building at MIT on the evening of April 15, 2013. Credit: Twitter user @tochtli_exe

The Green Building at MIT on the evening of April 15, 2013. Credit: Twitter user @tochtli_exe

David Ferry at the Waban Library

David Ferry reads at the Waban Library Center in Newton, MA, on March 20, 2013

David Ferry reads at the Waban Library Center in Newton, MA, on March 20, 2013 (delightfully, the works of Richard Wilbur and Sylvia Plath AND a Nancy Drew book are in the shelves behind him. Thanks Mr. Dewey!)

Last week I had the great privilege of seeing poet David Ferry read at the community-run Waban Library Center. This charming space is led in good part by the person the Boston Globe called its “volunteer coordinator, community liaison, and biggest cheerleader”: my mom! Another volunteer at the library, Marcia Karp, knows David Ferry from poetry circles and also read her work that evening.

In 2011 I attended a seminar at Amherst on James Merrill and David Ferry’s poetry, put on by my old advisor, David Sofield, plus visiting professor Richard Wilbur. At the time Ferry’s book Bewilderment was still in galley proofs, and he allowed the seminar group to read several works from it. Ferry won the National Book Award last year for Bewilderment, and it got a brilliant writeup in the New Yorker by Dan Chiasson, Amherst ’93. Chiasson in a way is Ferry’s successor as Amherst Poet Dudeman On Campus at Wellesley College, and graciously did an interview with me before the Amherst seminar.

Waban Library Center volunteer coordinator Alice Jacobs describes the library to guest poet David Ferry, March 23, 2013

Waban Library Center volunteer coordinator Alice Jacobs describes the library to guest poet David Ferry, March 20, 2013

Ferry is a poet and scholar of humbling talent, and a marvel of togetherness and productivity at 89. He is also a truly gracious man, which I am most struck by today in terms of his poems in Bewilderment that recall his late wife, the critic Anne Ferry. Ferry read his translation of the Aeneid, Book VI, a scene in which the souls of the unburied dead mill about on the banks of the Stygian marsh, waiting for a hundred years to be ferried across by Charon, that “longed-for crossing.” The next poem in the book is “That Now Are Wild and Do Not Remember,” which as Ferry said builds on the scene from the Aeneid, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem to a lost lover, “They flee from me,” in order to define his mourning in terms of being “dislanguaged.”

Where did you go to, when you went away?
It is as if you step by step were going
Someplace elsewhere into some other range
Of speaking, that I had no gift for speaking,
Knowing nothing of the language of that place
To which you went with naked foot at night
Into the wilderness there elsewhere in the bed,
Elsewhere somewhere in the house beyond my seeking.
I have been so dislanguaged by what happened
I cannot speak the words that somewhere you
Maybe were speaking to others where you went.
Maybe they talk together where they are,
Restlessly wandering, along the shore,
Waiting for a way to cross the river.

—”That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember,” from Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations

I was so uplifted and haunted at the same time by Ferry’s movement between the erotic register of Wyatt’s poem and the agonizing suspension of the souls in the Aeneid. He is so at home in the formal possibilities of poetry that it is precisely at the “turn” of this near-sonnet that he utters such a powerful line on his own lack of any resolution: “I have been so dislanguaged by what happened.” On this day when the US Supreme Court is arguing the legal merits of recognizing marriages by same-sex couples, it seems fitting to honor this record of a long marriage, and see this evidence of how it is through such loving relationships that people (of all kinds, goes without saying) can come to define themselves at the most basic levels of language, identity and self-understanding.

Iraq 10 years after: “No more victims anywhere”

NoMoreVictimsTen years ago today was the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq. I think if you’re reading this you probably agree in retrospect with Jim Fallows, one of the more prominent anti-invasion writers back in 2002, that the war would turn out to be false on its merits and ruinous, deadly and costly far beyond what was sold to the country and the world by our leaders. The saddest part of Fallows’ look back at Iraq over the past week has to be his conviction that we will not, in fact, learn anything from what happened, because of our leaders’ extraordinary avoidance of really seeing what went wrong and applying those lessons to current crises. But you didn’t need me to tell you that. Let me try to look back through my own very narrow lens.

For the 18 months between 9/11 and the start of the war, I was a high-functioning total mess. I was grieving for my brother while also trying to do my part as a new husband and father. Hating W and his minions, I still didn’t have it in me to be anti-war in any meaningful way. I was still inside the innermost concentric circle of my post-9/11 world, and couldn’t foresee (who did?) just how painful the rash misconduct of the war would be as an additional load on my conscience and the country’s, even though I had basically no personal impact from the war itself.

About a month after 9/11, these “NO MORE VICTIMS ANYWHERE” bumper stickers appeared all over Cambridge, and on quite a few cars too. It was part of a Green Party/Socialist Party/antiwar campaign. This one is right near my T stop and has survived the intervening years. At the time, I found this sentiment infuriating. I felt my own loss to be commandeered for the benefit of a basically anti-American political agenda that had no stake in seeking justice for my brother’s killers. While I didn’t feel any more at home with the American flag lapel-pin-wearing crowd, I felt a certain patriotic kinship there. Right after 9/11 I got an email from a former professor who tried to express, through the confusion of the time, her sympathy for me and my brother while also grappling with what she was certain was America’s imperialistic self-implication in everything that led up to the attacks. That was the place I felt the “no more victims” campaign was coming from, and I needed to go the opposite way. I’m not defending this self-centered perspective, just remembering it.

Well, guess what? The Statement of the Socialist Party Convention of October 12, 2001, which I have only read for the first time today, was 90% right in its perspective on the coming wars, and all the elite Washington figures calling for a preventive war were at best 90% wrong. “Recent events in New York and Washington used as an opportunity to further militarize U.S. society?” Check. “In our efforts to gain greater security in the future, it is essential that we defend our civil liberties.” Boy, I think about that every time I strip down for the TSA line.

And this whole following paragraph, especially the part about our arsenal and our ignoramus president and his cabal not preventing these attacks, rings very true:

The corporate controlled media has deliberately whipped up war hysteria. Dissident voices are marginalized, while the mass media present an endless series of commentators shrilly repeating the call for vengeance. We need an alternative media that can open the political discourse to those who challenge the established powers and call for peace not war. The recent tragedy has provided the administration and Congress with a further rationale to greatly increase military spending. Our security as Americans will not be secured by even more missiles and fighter planes. The United States already spends far more on arms than any other country. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were not prevented by our immense arsenal of weapons. We need to institute an immediate cut of 50% in the military budget, and we need to use the hundreds of billions of dollars thus saved for vital domestic social services and for humanitarian aid to those in less developed countries.

And it goes on, at some length, to describe how the turn towards war purposefully avoided grappling with issues of growing inequality and corporate domination, which of course built towards the Great Recession.

I never would have read this all the way through 12 years ago. But it’s precisely my lack of cultural identification with the people who were saying it–and being TOTALLY F#$%ING CORRECT–that kept me from realizing that I was far more in line, long-term, with my superficially “antagonistic” Socialist brothers and sisters than my superficially “supportive/competent” flag-waving xenophobic government and media. I cut myself some slack, but wish I had recovered more of a critical perspective and ability to speak out against the rush to war.

What have I learned?

  • Try to listen outside my comfort zone.
  • Don’t believe that any military action can be contained or can be as cheaply achieved as our leaders say it can be–even by drone, even by Obama.
  • Keep writing. I may be writing about birthday cakes and mundane stuff, but I need to build up my chops to be a better advocate of the causes that matter.

 

Frost(ing) at Midnight: To Amy on Miss E’s Birthday

The froster performs her secret ministry…

Adapted from Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight”

A very happy Miss E. with her 5th birfday cake, mfd. by Amy

A very happy Miss E. with her 5th birfday cake, mfd. by Amy

Since we’ve had kids, Amy has channeled some of her (vast) creative powers into making beautiful cakes to celebrate the girls’ birthdays (and our own). With her ability to craft amazingly representational images from her own delicious frosting (usually cream cheese, but sometimes just highfalutin’ sugar), Amy has made it possible for the girls to define a birthday theme (ponies, farm, mermaid, Robyn, etc.) that extends not only to decorations around the house but also to a lovingly crafted scene right there on the cake. Today, Miss E’s fifth birthday, was perhaps the most challenging cake of all, with three human figures (what would Shakespeare say of the pearlescent candies that were their eyes?), two unicorns, and a fully-rendered mountain range glittering with green sprinkle trees. Miss E was completely delighted, which made up entirely for the probably eight hours that Amy devoted to laying out the design on a piece of paper, cutting through the paper with a knife to “trace” the design on the base layer of frosting, and then working her frosting magic between 7-10AM this morning. This latter creative deadline burst, I should mention, happened during the first morning of the Bahá’i fast, about which more later, but it does sort of underscore the dedication.

A selection of Amy's birthday cakes through the years, with this year's equestrian princess in the center

A selection of Amy’s birthday cakes through the years, with this year’s equestrian princess in the center

As Amy collapsed just now after a long day of totally pushing it (between the cake making and the gymnastics birthday party were swim lessons for all three girls–and guess which fasting parent was in the girls’ locker room), we reflected on what it means that she has committed herself so intensely to expressing her artistry and love through cakes. Thinking in particular about how she feels when these things get eaten, Amy said it was a little bit like Native American sand painting, in terms of the form’s embrace of its own transient nature. We also referenced outsider art in terms of the inherently rough nature of attempting representationality in frosting. While birthday parties are soon forgotten, I do think the girls remember the love and effort that Amy has put into these cakes, particularly as they get older and are able to help with the design. Though their strength still lies in nipping little pieces of the cake before the party. When Miss E. had her first birthday, Amy made a bunny cake (left side of the montage, third down) and just before we drove to the party, we caught Miss M. nabbing the frosting off a whole edge of the cake. Amy always saves frosting for last-minute patching, but even at four, Miss M. knew the gravity of her crime and accepted not getting any of the cake at the party.

Five years with our amazing Miss E.

Five years with our amazing Miss E.

Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” is not just my goofball reference to Amy staying up to all hours to get these cakes frosted. The poem is a reflection on the poet’s own past and his hopes for his baby, sleeping next to him, wordlessly filling the interstices of every moment of his thoughts:

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!

As a midnight blogger, this is a nice way after bedtime to consider calmly the wonderful filling-up of one’s life that children enact every day. Our five years with Miss E. have been a true blessing, as she has always been a vibrant force of love, independence and hilarity in our lives and those of “the sisters,” as she describes her elders. Just a recent example of how she is wise and funny beyond her years…Amy was struggling valiantly to get the three slowpokes out the door on time one morning, and told Miss M. what she would do if M. continued to make like a conscientious objector to tooth brushing. Miss E. said, “Not very Bahá’i” in a sort of tsk-tsk way. Way to internalize the teachings, girl! We love you and are proud of you.

 

Smells Like Kingsley Amis

Quote

You can't mean for me to stick my paws in that foul device? Credit: http://jamesbond.wikia.com/wiki/File:Kingsley_Amis.jpeg

You can’t mean for me to put down my fag and stick my paws in that foul device? [Credit: http://jamesbond.wikia.com/wiki/File:Kingsley_Amis.jpeg]

Something is alive in our garbage disposal. Or, more likely, something once alive is no longer, and deep in the 0.5 horsepower disposal unit its life is seeping away, transformed into something rich and strange indeed, if by “rich and strange” the Bard was referring to shipwreck victims turning into vaguely soy-smelling blobs of stinky yuck.

I was coming around to the thought that I might have to make Amy clean the thing out when I realized that this dawning awareness of something awful reminded me of one of the funniest, most delightful passages in literature. Chapter 6 of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim picks up after our (anti) hero Dixon has had a night of it. He wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, and Amis so brilliantly walks us through each painful sensory increment:

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
Lucky Jim (NYRB Classics, 2012)

I had the great random fortune to delay taking English 11 at Amherst until sophomore year, when the curriculum was fantastic and I was maybe more ready to take it seriously. My instructor, the unstoppable Bill Pritchard, handed us this opening passage (I think we didn’t read the whole novel) and asked us to write a short response on what made it funny. Obviously the line about the small creature of the night is the killer here, and from my perspective as shoulda-studied-Latin guy I have the nagging feeling that more Classically trained readers would recognize something from Virgil in the buildup to “He felt bad.” I feel like the careful elaboration of each sensory brutality echoes in language the too-precise steps that the hung-over person takes to avoid having his/her head explode. If I had to submit something to Bill Pritchard today that would be it.

I will have to read the whole chapter aloud to Amy while she is roto-rootering the sink. Literature is truly the balm for all of life’s difficulties!

Sammy’s XXV

IMG_3103Comrades in attendance: 25

KidsJunior Comrades: 3 (ages 11, 10, 8)

GrayDermaOriginal Amherst ’91/’92 in the house who were there in January 1989: 4 (hint: Grateful Dead “Touch of Gray”: includes bonus father who introduced the whole concept)

IMG_3106Menu:
Pickled peppers
Chopped chicken liver with braised onions and schmaltz
Stuffed cabbage
Unbelievably good latkes
Hulking slabs of derma (pictured to left of above image)
“Mush steaks” (strip steaks with garlic mushed into them)
Veal
Salmon
Potatoes (Yiddish for “wholly superfluous”)
Rugelach
Egg creams

IMG_3135Floors up from the Chelsea streets where we chilled apres-fress: 7 (but felt much higher: thanks in absentia to Tam)

IMG_3115Lucky dudes to have Amy still love them even after eating like this: one

BartTaxiPeople who discovered their true animal identity on the way home: at least this guy