Category Archives: History
Some short time ago, I became interested in gins. Not just interested, but fascinated. I am not a tippler. I barely drink. A bottle of Plymouth gin I have is still more than half full and it is more than eight years old.
Gin, and gin and tonics, are nothing new to me. My Aunt Esther and Uncle Dave used to give them to me when I was four. Maybe even younger than that. But I could go years without one. I liked them, but no big deal.
But now I became preoccupied with gin. The differences in tastes, textures, bouquets. And, so I, with my friend Craig, looked for a place that had gins to taste and came up woefully short.
One place I called used to be a favorite more than a year ago. It was one of the last places I took my wife to eat before she died, before she was no longer able to leave the house, before hospice, before her death. Even toward the end, hard as it was for her to be out, to enjoy her days, they had great patience for her, for her needs, and for mine. I called with trepidation, but Matt’s Casbah, I thought, was a good bet for gin and, I had hoped, I could reclaim this place as a favorite happy haunt instead of only associating it with radiation therapy.
No, they did not have any different gins, the manager, Justin, told me. But rarely had he heard of anyone else interested in gin, and he happened to have a bottle of Smalls, a “boutique” distillery that produced, what he felt was a superior and different gin. And he remembered me, and my Lee, and asked if I would come in to have a drink with him, on the house.
I was delighted. Elated, really, and I did go there, to have a drink with Justin. I took Craig with me and we sat, happy, sharing a bottle of small-batch gin, fragrant, strong, viscous, with Justin. With our first sip, we toasted Lee. It was a small thing, but a great kindness, and it allowed me to reclaim something I had lost, and in that, I knew I could reclaim other places, other things, I had lost. Other things associated with pain could be brought back to joy.
Some days later, Jazmin handed me a National Geographic. In it was an article about dying languages she knew I would be interested in. It discussed languages and how they formed, and were formed by, a culture’s way of thinking. In one section it discussed Kazakhstan, and the word for juniper, which, of course, is the main flavoring for gin, coming from the word genièvre, French for juniper. It stated that the Kazahks burned juniper berries to allow those who have passed to move on, and those who were still alive, to live on. It cleared the souls who lingered for the rest of their journey. Kazakhstan is the part of the world from which Lee, the doctor, the shaman, and her family comes and she but one generation removed.
And here I was, at the one year anniversary of my wife’s passing, fascinated, preoccupied, with gin, with genièvre, with juniper as distilled in spirits.
When the soul reaches, listen and lend it your hands. And gin is what I was reaching for.
Since then, I have tried many gins. Many awful, many wonderful. I found a bar in San Diego while there for a book signing that had over forty gins, Aero Club, and the barmistress set me up with a tasting. I described what I liked, and she set it up. All for a Jackson and a tip. Junipero, one of the first small distillery gins, made by Anchor Steam, the first microbrewery to make it big. Farmers Botanical Organic Gin. Smalls. Hendricks, well-known but under-appreciated. Others. Many wonderful. All different.
I feel much better. And, I know, so does she.
Have a Shamanic Gin and Tonic
When a friend or loved one’s passed
(we know the body doesn’t last),
but the spirit’s not moved on
of those whose time has come and gone,
or those alive are still bereft
over one who long has left,
there is a cure one can employ,
a special drink one can enjoy,
to clear the space and tears away
and free a soul who mustn’t stay.
Have a shamanic gin and tonic
served tall in a glass that’s cold and conic,
prepared by a shaman with a twist of citrus:
cinchona bark and a gin that’s viscous,
and cubes of stone that fizz when you drop ’em
(better than pills that appall when you pop ’em,
or capsules or tinctures or some New Age option
is tonic and gin, the shamanic concoction)
or cubes of ice—they’re even freezier
(they dissolve in the drink, and that is much easier).
Then sniff the bouquet of the herbs and the roots
or the leaves or the stems or the barks or the fruits
or the spirits of plants that the gin spirit suits!
Have one or two
with a friend or a few,
and beat a skin drum
or rattle bones some—
then slip with a buzz down a hole or a drain
to discover your lack or the source of your pain
or maybe the unattached bits of your soul
that keep you from feeling as though you are whole
that fled long ago and now can be found
safe in the keeping of leopard or hound
or in a small cave or hole in a tree,
and finding them now, you set yourself free.
Then bring them back home as you drum with your drink
(it’s really quite easy, just try not to think)
with the cubes made of stone
as you journey alone
in the land underground (or is it within?)
assisted most ably by tonic and gin.
And what herbs or roots or fruits should we add
that would be good—or by virtue of excess or vacuity of some constituent or actions or combinations thereof—would be bad?
Cucumber’s a wonder in high summer heat
but in juniper, gin should be more than replete,
and filled with the spirits that cleanse and abide
for clearing the home (or office or what-have-you) and sending them outside,
so inside and happy now people can live
without items disappearing or dishes crashing or things going bump in the night, and they can be happy and productive and get a good night’s sleep without antidepressants or therapy or a sedative.
So toast those now gone, or gone but still here,
and raise them a glass in celebration and cheer!
And don’t take to drugs or psychiatry or colonics—
just drink some shamanic ice-cold gin and tonics.
I was there when the first pits were dug,
after the trees were cleared; torn, dragged and burned.
My family and I searched for concretions in limey sand
that had not seen the sun
in a span of time that can be measured, but not understood.
Set as coral in the ocean,
became my home.
I use to roam and dig under what is now
in what was an elegant, high-rise my girl comes three days a week part of Miami,
now The City of Aventura
which lies engorged between the end of
a double-decked Atlantic Ocean causeway,
named after a State Representative
who owned a Chevrolet dealership,
and a bypass so long, so high
I can no longer see the vast expanse of shrinking ocean.
Only solid walls of perpendicular road
and the mall.
After the palms were greased
and the foundation razed,
one of the first stores to open
was a New Age Giant,
moved from across town,
far from its humble beginnings
as a place to launder cocaine
money through the sale
of health enhancements only slightly less dubious
like vitamin k, brain hemispheric synchronizers,
Angle Cards, singing bowls composed
of cave grown,
high-pressure hose harvested
designed to draw the harmony of nature and increase inner-peace and compassionate abide, and
classes teaching the myriad ways to simply life.
It opened after the protests
and the building and the pickets
and the building and the threats
and suits and the building
to sell books about the preciousness of the environment
and bumper stickers exhorting patrons to “Thank Goddess”
customers took home in pastel pink paper bags
printed on each side with delicate seashells.
And they were swamped
along with the Sears and Burdines
and Macy’s where the Cellar had to be on the top floor
because two feet underground,
just below where I use to dig,
The mall became a focus
for the area
as it drained and dried the commerce and custom from the west
as events were held to
draw crowds like the
“Parade of Whores”
The Cardiologists’ Wives Look-a-like Contest,
The Peach Polo Shirt and Beige Shorts Fashion Show and,
just down the road,
a bit past the beach you don’t dare tread barefoot,
“Race to the Floating Bale.”
And so the mall grew,
so much so, soon
it was suggested the East Coast,
should be extended
to allow for its expansion
and, last time I was there,
I swear I saw it breathing.
I have just come back from a three and a half mile walk. Why? I am just a little bit more serious about long walks. Soon I’ll be pushing a stroller with you in it. Then walks in the park. Then maybe some road-trips to places you want to go. Then, who knows?
I want to be here a long time. Not just for you. That would not be true. I want to see your Father older, happy, smiling at you as you grow up. I want to see your Aunt Sef, my daughter, achieve everything she wants in life. I want to see your Grandmother, forever.
I want to see the family together. Your Father, your Mother, your Aunt, your Grandmother. Together. Again and again and again. And I want to see you. I want to see you crawl and walk and graduate college or learn the arts or whatever it is you want to do, I want to see it. I want to see my granddaughter. I want to see you happy.
As I write this, you are a month before you are born. I have felt you kick, I have talked to you through the wall of the womb. “Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?” Yes, Pink Floyd lyrics. If you like Pink Floyd, you can blame me. You heard them in utero.
See, even before you are born, I love you. I can’t help it. Maybe it is biology. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I can imagine talking you for walks, playing in parks, seeing things together. Being a good Grandfather.
I’m sure I’ll make as many mistakes as a Grandfather as I made as a father. There are no instructions for either. And I have no role models for it but I’ll do my best.
Last night I was sitting at the kitchen table with your Aunt Sef. She is, as I write this, 25 years old and in pre-med in New York City. I am telling you this because I hope you, unlike me, will know who your family is without having to put puzzles together. In part, that’s why I am writing this letter.
In a chair, near us, is your Grandmother. Dusty is on the couch with Sef’s boyfriend, Joe. Maybe he will be your Uncle. We sort of hope so. Her dog, Godiva, is on the other side of him. On the other couch are your Father and your Mother. She’s kind of on top of him and you are happily warm inside her. You three are startlingly cute together.
Sef and I are going through boxes of pictures brought up by your Great-Grandfather. He doesn’t know who most of the people are. I asked my Mother, your Great-Grandmother, Sheilah, for whom you are named, but by the time the pictures came to my attention, she could not identify some of the people, was unsure of others, changed her mind. Remembering not remembering was hard for her, stressful, upsetting. I let it go.
Really, that’s what this letter is about. It’s about introducing you to your family. And, as time moves on, I will label pictures better, Years, people, events, relations. I’ll do a better job than those before me.
Let’s start before there were pictures.
Your Father’s side of the family is all I can describe, of course. So I’ll talk about your Grandmother and Grandfather, Lee and myself, with that understanding.
Way back, maybe six or seven generations, both families were in Europe. On my father’s side, Galicia. Don’t confuse Galicia and Galicia. And there is a Galatia. A letter can make a big difference and sometimes there isnt. Language is funny that way, as you’ll discover.
One Galicia is in Spain and it borders Portugal. The other Galicia is also in Europe and it was sort of between Austria and Poland, but is now Western Ukraine and that’s the one your Great-Great Grandfather is from. Both had an awful lot of Jews which is why they got their own names and they got invaded a lot because when Jews live somewhere, it’s treated like no one really lives there.
On your Grandmother’s side, they were from Kazakhstan and migrated to Ukraine. On my side, your Great-Great Grandmother came from Ukraine too. More on that later.
Your Father is Jewish. I know – it’s hard to tell. See, it’s a religion, yes. It’s a culture too, yes. It is also a race. Sort of. Kind of. No one can tell from your genes if you are Catholic or Baptist or Mormon or Buddhist or what-have-you, but you can tell if you are Jewish. Even if you are a Cohan, Levite or Israelite. Your Father, by the way, is a Cohan, a member of the priesthood, traditionally. I can explain all that to you later. It’s kind of cool and kind of doesn’t matter anymore.
Genes. You can track the genes for the Jewish people for the female lineage by mitochondrial DNA. And for the male lineage by the haplotypes of the Y chromosome. Ok, so you are minus one month old and maybe not up to anthropological genetics. Besides, your Aunt loves genetics and she can explain it to you when you are older and able to understand. When you are four or five maybe.
You Father is Jewish. His entire side of the family is. Here’s how we got here.
Your Great-Great-Grandfather, my Grandfather, my Mother’s father came from England. Albert Cohen. His family was from Galicia. The one near Portugal. His last name was Cohen. His family had to leave Galicia and went to Portugal. Had to means the governments said, “Hey, you. Jews. Convert or leave.” Sometimes it was just, “Leave.” And sometimes the request to leave sounded an awful lot like hoof-beats and rifle shots. They settled in Portugal and then they were told to leave again. This was 1496.
They could be forcibly baptized, or killed or leave. They could stay as “Crypto-Jews” which are also called Marranos, which means they outwardly convert but practice in secret. Many Marranos find out centuries later their families are Jewish and that is the reason they have customs and practices that are not quite Christian. Many even practice in cellars as part of their heritage but didn’t know why. Your family chose to leave.
They went to The Netherlands. There they were welcomed and in the 1670s you family helped create The Portuguese Synagogue. There is a lot of history there and we should go see it someday.
In England too. I have a picture of my Grandfather’s father or uncle. I cannot tell. He is the Lord Mayor of Hereford. He is standing next to King George VI and The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth’s mother. King George is in military uniform. They are on a street, in a group, in one picture. In another, looking at a bomb site. This is WWII Britain.
I never met my Mother’s father. He died of pneumonia when my Mother was a teenager. Or younger. He ended up in England, following his father, I think. Or his Grandfather. I am not sure. But he then came to Canada before WWII and was in the Canadian Forces and fought in that war. He was an electrical engineer. He met your Great-Great-Grandmother. I am not sure how. He became an American.
Looking through the photographs, I find pictures of him. He is in his 40s, maybe. Some in uniform, some not, some in a suit, a wedding picture. I find pictures of his brother, Uncle Dave and his sister, Aunt Jane. Great Uncle and Great-Aunt, actually. Your Great-Great Great Uncle Dave (Wow, three greats) was a jazz musician. He died in the late 1990s. He was amazing on a piano and would tell us stories of all the famous people he played with. He was married to Aunt Ester. We would go over to visit them often when I was small. Less than seven years old. They lived in New York then. They lived in an apartment. Their chihuahua bit me.
When they moved to Florida, as did we, we’d visit them in their home in North Miami. She would give me gin and tonics. I was twelve, thirteen.
Aunt Jane. There is a picture of my Mother with Aunt Jane and Uncle Al. My Mother is in her 20s. Great-Aunt Jane met my Great Uncle Al when they were both 14. He had a pushcart in New York City. He sold various items from it. He met Aunt Jane. They were married 78 years. In their late eighties they would go to the old age homes and play for what Aunt Jane called “The Old People.” Most of them were ten to twenty years younger than they were. Aunt Jane would play the piano and sing and Uncle Al played accordion.
She got sick and died within two weeks. She was in her nineties. That was 2007. Uncle Al took me aside and asked me what he was supposed to do. What do you do without your best friend? He asked me this because, he said, he knew I would understand. I didn’t have a good answer. We just sat. He died in 2009. I still have his number in my phone.
His daughter, Judy, my cousin, lives in New Hampshire.
Your Father met them. He was lucky. Aunt Jane and Uncle Al were two of the nicest, kindest people I had ever met. I believe, if there is no heaven, surely one was created for them.
Back to your Great-Great-Grandfather. Albert Cohen. Here is what my Mother told me about him. He was never cross, never unhappy. There was no day he did not smile.
My Grandmother. My Mother’s mother. I have pictures of my Grandmother with my Grandfather’s parents. I saw a picture of her at the dock when the survivors of the Titanic were brought back. It listed her as a survivor too. She wasn’t. She was just at the right place at the right time and the journalist took her picture, her name, and made an assumption. Her last name was Governor then. It had been changed when she came through Ellis Island. It was Governosa. Ukrainian. Her Grandmother’s last name was Chansky.
Names. You can’t tell a Jew by their name no matter what some people try to tell you. We were pushed, pulled, kicked from so many places. Forced to hide, assimilate, evaporate, leave, relocate. That meant being flexible. So we each had two full names. A Hebrew name and a regular name. We let the regular names go and come as we needed. We didn’t tell anyone about the other names.
So when the border between Poland and Ukraine shifts east or west, now you are Polish, now you are Ukrainian, today you are Austrian, tomorrow, Slovakian. Pass through Ellis Island and your name is hard to spell. They change your name for you. Let it change. You are lucky to be here. They can still turn you away. Life goes on.
Most ethnic groups have a landscape they can adhere to. It is made of space and mountains and rivers. Not us. Our landscape is made of time.
So Grandma Chansky, as my Grandmother used to call her, came to the US. It wasn’t really by choice. Jews were being expelled from Russia and Ukraine. In the Pogroms, which were official systematic forced removal of Jews. If you were in the rural areas, by Cossacks. If you were in the cities, by mobs, or army units, or by not being allowed to hold jobs or go to school or buy bread.
They came to the US. One day, you and I and your Father, at least, should go to Ellis Island. And we should try to get Aunt Sef to go too. She loves to learn about her family and she and I both like research. Sef went by herself one year. And your Grandmother and I, another. Here is what we found in the archives.
Blue Star Line. From Kyiv to Buenos Aires, Argentina to the US. My Grandmother, her mother, her sisters. I have pictures of them. Aunt Ann, Aunt Gert, Aunt Ethel. And there are pictures with their husbands much later. Uncle George. Uncle Red. Uncle Murray, whom I adored and still do. I made sure Sef got to meet Aunt Ethel. And she met her Grandmother many times. She missed seeing Uncle Murray. Your Father had not met any of them. All are gone. The links to the old land are gone and nothing is left but time.
He did not meet his Great-Grandmother either. He was very young and she was very sick. She was sick a long time. She did not help herself to not be sick. She was angrier even longer than that. She did not help herself to be not angry either. My Mother told me that, when her father died, her mother became angry and stayed that way. Grandma sure did love me. I know that. But it didn’t help her to not be angry. She died at eighty two or eighty six and she was angry half her life. Isn’t that a shame? All the things we could have done, what we could have laughed over, the games we could have played. Don’t spend your time angry.
She lived with us from when I was little. She died a few weeks after your Father was born. He came in and she went out. I buried her myself. All I can say about her is she loved me and she was angry.
I have pictures of her as a bride. In a bathing suit. Outside with my Mother. After your Great-Great-Grandfather died, the pictures nearly stopped.
She had your Great-Grandmother and your Great Uncle Teddy. I saw Teddy a dozen times, maybe. He talked me into going to speech therapy when I was in second grade. I could not tell “F” from Th.” Imagine that. Sadie, I don’t think you will get to meet him.
Your Great-Grandmother Sheilah. Some of the pictures of your Great-Grandmother are stunning. I see photographs of her at age three or so. Age six or seven with her father. Playing, on a bike, at the park. Age ten with Uncle Al, in her teens at the beach, in a bathing suit. Pictures of her at her wedding.
She was born in a suburb of Boston. She was smart but not well educated. She went to secretarial school. She met my Father, your Great-Grandfather, in her 20s but I’m not sure when. Or where. I know my Father snuck her aboard ship when he was in the navy. My Father’s father had friends in high places and my Father got an honorable discharge. Not just for that.
She was active, rode her bike, went hiking, went prospecting for gold, diamonds, emeralds. We did lots of stuff when I was a kid. As much as we were able. We didn’t have much. I can remember sitting on the floor watching Star Trek when it first was on TV, walking to kindergarten, taking trips. She made dolls, painted clothing, refinished furniture, made wood puzzles, did arts and crafts. She played the piano and sang.
But she didn’t rest. Your Grandmother and I took a trip with her and your Great-Grandfather. She had pneumonia. She refused to rest. She ended up in the hospital on the trip. She took no time off. So she got sick. Then she got very sick. I wrote a lot about your Great-Grandmother. You can read some or all or none later on. Let’s say that she was pretty cool most of the time.
Anyway, she had me. And she had your Uncle Merrill. Great Uncle, I guess. He is three years, one month and four days younger than I am. We don’t hear from him much. You can ask me why, but I would not be able to give you a good answer. I just don’t have one. Sometimes, things are like that. It upset your Great-Grandmother though. She was hoping everyone would be closer.
Your Father didn’t know your Great-Grandmother well. He never met her when she was active. She died when he was barely eighteen and she was sick for that many years. He knew her only with a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. But your Aunt knew her as a more active person. One day, ask your Grandmother about her. They were good friends from even before your Grandmother and I were married.
Me. I was born in 1964, in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside Boston. I was kind of sick. I couldn’t swallow food, and I had a hole in my spine, and a blood disease. I wasn’t supposed to live. Or see. They said I’ve never learn to walk either and the doctors told my parents to institutionalize me. Bu I did learn to walk – really late. I was over three years old. I didn’t see well. I still don’t. My Mother taught me to read when I was four because the doctors and the schools said I never would. My first book was Duck on Truck. After that, all I did was read. I taught myself most everything else. Except math. Your Grandmother taught me that. They didn’t know, I didn’t know, I was autistic until many years later and it took me a long time to figure out who I was and what I was doing. Or maybe just to figure out how things work and not be angry with the world. Or just to figure out what I really wanted. I’m just me.
I met your Grandmother when I was fifteen and she was twenty-one. She was a good friend of my Mother’s. I remember her asking my Mother if there was any way she, as in my Mother, could get rid of me. My Mother said yes. Your Grandmother and I got married when I was twenty. My Mother, your Great-Grandmother, told your Grandmother she should have been more specific.
Your Grandmother and I were best friends. Still are. Like Uncle Al and Aunt Jane. Best friends. I wish the same for you. It is the best wish I can wish for you. Really.
She and I made plans. It took a long time. We made them real. So whatever you want to do, I’ll back you. You can do it.
My Father’s side. I can’t tell you much. I wish I could. There are nearly no pictures. They don’t talk much. They tend to be not very close. I could tell you a few things though.
They are from Galacia. Remember, that middle letter, a instead of an i, means a lot. That is the area around Poland and Austria. The Gal in that word, both words, means the Gaels, the Celts settled there. A very Jewish area. Where they lived became Austria. Their name became Tritt, which means “step” and then they had to leave. That was in the early part of 1900s. The ones who stayed aren’t alive anymore. The ones who stayed died in the Holocaust. Sorry. I can’t make that sound good or pretty or nice. Your Aunt and I once went to the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach. You should do that someday. I can go with you. Your Great-Grandmother, my Mother, went to the one in Washington DC. When you go in, they give you the name of a victim to carry through with you. She was given a relative. What’s the chance of that? She was not ok for weeks. It happens, I guess. I have never been. I don’t know if I could.
Some of your Great-Grandfather Fred’s family lives in Israel now. His brother, Warren, your Great-Great Uncle, and his wife Merav, live in Tenafly, New Jersey. You have cousins in New York. And in Israel.
Let me tell you a little bit about your Great-Grandfather. He can be fun. In his own way, he is, has been, was, brilliant. He designed things. You and I, out and about, will probably see some of them. Some even in museums. Some in supermarkets. Labels, posters. He is a paradox. That means, in some ways, some of his qualities seem out of place when you look at some of his other qualities. I can say there is certainly no one else like him though.
He and your Great-Grandmother were activists. They were busy in lots of causes and, without a doubt, played their part in history.
Your Father and Aunt call your Great-Grandfather Pinkponk. Go ahead. Ask him why one day. Your Great-Grandmother they called Grandma. She really really loved them.
Let’s go back to your Grandmother Lee and her side of the family.
Your Great-Grandmother Shirley, she’s Bubbie. It’s Yiddish for Grandmother. Grandfather in Yiddish is Zeda. Great-Grandfather Lou didn’t want to be called that, or Grandfather, or anything like that. He wanted to be called Lou. He got it.
I have no idea, by the way, what you will call us. It doesn’t matter to me.
Your Grandmother and I grew up hearing Yiddish. But no one would teach us. The generation before, your Great-Grandmother, could understand it but not speak it. So it goes.
Back to your Grandmother, little one.
Remember Ellis Island and that Blue Star Line in 1922? Guess who else was on that? Your Grandmother’s family. Funny, huh? From Kiev to Buenos Aires to the US. Some of her family stayed in Buenos Aires. There are lots of Jewish people there. How? Well, remember The Netherlands, where they were accepted? They could start business and be part of culture. Many got involved in the Dutch East India Tea Company and they helped start business, on behalf of that country, in South America. You still have relatives there.
Your Grandmother’s Great-Grandmother went to Montreal. Then the family ended up in Philadelphia. Your Great-Great-Grandfather, your Grandmother’s mother’s father, a huge fellow who looked shockingly like Rasputin, was a deserter from the Tsar’s Army. Tsar Nicholas II. He left before the October Revolution and Lenin. He left during the Pogroms. The same things that sent my Grandmother and her Mother and sisters to the US. The Army carried these out with the help of Cossacks. There were several. This one was between 1903 and 1906. Who could blame him? I never met him.
Your Grandmother’s family on her mother’s side is really really nice. And fun too. You will meet lots of them, no doubt. Her sister Fran is wonderful. Great Aunt Fran. Really. You’re going to love her and she’ll love you. Your Grandmother has a brother too, Great Uncle Mitch. He’s in the Air Force. We don’t see him much. He’s a nice guy. He has three kids. They are your cousins. Jonah, Sydney and Danielle. Your Grandmother’s cousins are cool too. Fran and her kids, Harriet and her kids, Cheryl and Bob and their kids, Robin and her kids (and one of her kids has kids.), Jack and his kids. They all look a lot alike. At least the girls do. The Levin Girls, they call themselves.
Those cousins are the kids of your Great-Grandmother’s brother Ed, a wonderful fellow, and her sister Helen. Great-great uncle and great-great aunt. Helen was married to Uncle Shelly. He died not long after I met him. Some liked him, some didn’t. He was kind of unusual. But he was great to me and helped smooth me into the family. I miss him, really. He died pretty young. Here’s a hint how. Don’t smoke. Just don’t. Funny, but I don’t have any pictures of him. But I have pictures of all your cousins.
On her Father’s side, I have met Margo, your Grandmother’s cousin. She has two kids. She is nice and very kind and will love to meet you. Past that, I can’t tell you anything about your Great-Grandfather’s family. They don’t have much to do with each other, it seems.
You and I will look at all these pictures together. In this age of Internet and Facebook, there are a lot more pictures and, in some ways, it is easier to keep track. But the old pictures need to be saved, fixed, labeled and appreciated. We can do that together.
We can do lots of things together. Because you are going to be amazing.
Let me tell you. I liked your Mother from the first moment I met her. Really. I’d do anything for her. She’s wonderful. She is strong-willed and has a really good brain. And I am looking forward to getting to know her better as the years grow.
You are going to be proud of her. And she loves you already. You should see her walk around with you, showing you off. She is so looking forward to being your mommy. You two are going to be great together.
And your Daddy. He is as good and kind a person as anyone could want a person to be. And he is crazy smart! I’d be happy to know him even if he wasn’t my son. The world is lucky to have him.
Maybe he’s a little like I was in that he’s still figuring things out in some ways. But one thing he doesn’t have to figure out is that he loves you. He is so happy you are on the way that it’s obvious to everyone who sees him. He is doing everything he can to make a wonderful life for you. Everyone is. But he is working extra hard at it. You are going to be proud of him too.
And I can’t wait for you to meet your Aunt Sef. She is bright, and nice, and fun, and, and… Oh, Sef is Sef. She’s wonderful and amazing. You two will be friends, I am sure.
And your Grandmother. She is the best. I mean that. I hope you get some of her drive and determination and brains. Your Grandmother is incredible.
And, so, I know the best, most amazing ladies in the world. Your mom, Sef, your Grandmother and you, Miss Sadie. And that makes me the luckiest Grandfather this world has ever ever seen.
Welcome to the family.
I have been asked by Craig Smith, he of “Notes from the Dreamtime” fame, to post my notes for a workshop I often teach.
He posted a blog entry called Poetry’s Power and thought of my workshop, which I am proud to say he has participated in twice.
These notes are designed not to be read at the workshop but as fodder for discussion. I tell participants that I am happy to read for an hour or two, but it is my desire I be interrupted at every turn with question, comments, poetry of their own. It is meant to create interaction and creative thought on the state of poetry, past and present. It is meant to open a few eyes and a few ears to the place of poetry in our culture.
So, imagine yourself in a group of ten, twenty or thirty people, all eager to listen and share.
These are the notes we never get through.
Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft
A workshop by Adam Byrn Tritt
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
From as far back as there are records, poets have been by the side of the monarch in court and in battle. The words of the poet were known to be magic and an insult from the poet could sway a battle. This post was often called the Jester. He spoke the truth, did so without fear and did so in rhyme. His words had power.
Words have meaning, rhythm and sound. Their power comes from the vibration of these three. But, sometimes, the rhythm and sound are all that is needed as these impart their own meaning.
Prayers are in the form of poems and songs. A rabbi taught me . . . if you don’t know the words, hum. There is power in the tune, in the rhythm and sound.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug
Poetry is just the right word, the right sound, the rhythm that conveys just the right feeling. In a spell, we want to create just the right vibration, at a state event, at a prayer, we want just the right meaning and to leave no room for a meaning other than what is intended. Poetry is meaning, sound distilled until there is no doubt left. Anything that is unsaid is as carefully crafted as what is said. Hence, poetry becomes powerful in its economy, its concentration and its intention and all of this is built on carefully constructed meaning and sound.
Spells are often placed in the form of rhymes. Poetry has power in the natural and supernatural realm. But as important as the poetry is, the poet is a position of even greater mystery. Our Monarchs and presidents have poet laureates. Chaucer was paid in wine. Our own national poet laureate is paid less than a beginning school teacher but is expected to compose and appear at affairs of state and the position so contentious an anti-laureate is voted upon as well. Only three US poets, Piercy, Walker and Angelou, make a living from their art. Yet, despite this, poets have honours of which other artists can only dream.
We will explore the power and place of poetry and rhyme in ancient and modern culture and religion and leave you exploring for yourself how we can use poetry in both our magical and ordinary lives, as though we should be able to tell them apart.
Poetry has power. I once taught at a public high school where poetry could not be taught without permission slips being signed. One child became upset about one poem. One parent called.
I was asked to head up a poetry reading at a book night at Barnes and Noble to benefit the school. I wrote this and dedicated it to our Principal.
Gather your permission slips, parents, teachers,
All school activities possess the possibility of danger, always
An unsuspecting student may come back broken,
Different, changed or
Not come back at all. Some tender child
May come back
Not a child at all.
Children know some activities possess danger,
We cannot wholly shield them. These are undertaken by
Brave students must have permission slips during
Such activities may result in loss, or gain
Read the fine-print
Parents, your children may not come back
The same tender child may not return to you
As you remember.
Sign to state your contrition
Your baby might grow up different
Than you had anticipated. Beware.
(Adam Byrn Tritt)
Poetry is not to be taken lightly. It is not for the faint of heart.
Obviously, poetry is political.
The Chinese word for poetry, shih (詩), is composed of two idiograms. One, yan (言), means “word; language” & the other, szu (寺), means “temple, monastery.” Hence, poetry is a “temple of words.” Yan itself is composed of t’ou (頭) “above” (heaven, Tao), erh (二) “two” (earth, duality), & k’ou (口) “mouth” (pass). The mouth, the sound that connects Heaven and Earth. Poetry, The Temple of Words, the Great Connector. Shakespeare must have intuited the Chinese ideogram for poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.1.12 (1595):
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
The Chinese words for culture is wen hua (文化) meaning “literary” or “transformation.” We see the Chinese looked at words, at poetry, as a definer of culture and civilization. They connected poetry to change, transformation and alchemy.
Muriel Rukeyser spoke of this as well, in her writing about the two different kinds of poetry: the poetry of the unverifiable fact, love, art, feelings, and the poetry of documentary fact, literal accounts of strikes, wars, barbaries. She said, in 1974:
The poet today must be twice born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and have gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet.
And so, we have a calling. We have an art and talent with which one is born, a born magic, a way of seeing the world and words which is shaped—forged and tempered—by the world and then set out again. A natural skill honed. It is a synthesis of the gift of the gods, heaven, and the practices of men, of Earth. It is an alchemy.
As for alchemy, the poet Gary Snyder tells us:
As for poets
The Earth Poets
Who write small poems,
Need help from no man.
The Air Poets
Play out the swiftest gales
And sometimes loll in the eddies.
Poem after poem,
Curling back on the same thrust.
At fifty below
Fuel oil won’t flow
And propane stays in the tank.
Burn at absolute zero
Fossil love pumped backup
Stayed down six years.
He was covered with seaweed.
The life in his poem
Left millions of tiny
Criss-crossing through the mud.
With the Sun and Moon
In his belly,
The Space Poet
No end to the sky—
But his poems,
Like wild geese,
Fly off the edge.
A Mind Poet
Stays in the house.
The house is empty
And it has no walls.
Is seen from all sides,
Power has often been associated not with words, certainly not with Poetry, but with physical might and control over others. Again, Snyder tells us:
We all know that the power of a great poem is not that we felt that person expressed himself well. We don’t think that. What we think is, “How deeply I am touched.” That’s our level of response. And so a great poet does not express his or her self, he expresses all of our selves. And to express all of ourselves you have to go beyond your own self. The Zen master Dogen said, “We study the self to forget the self. And when you forget the self, you become one with all things.” And that’s why poetry’s not self-expression in those small self terms.
A poet is indeed a priest in a temple of words, that power is a voice linking heaven with earth. That is a poet’s real work. A poet’s work is to show us the ordinary in a way that makes it new and fresh, perhaps, even alien and to take the alien and show us how it is familiar.
by William Carlos Williams
As the cat
the top of
first the right
then the hind
into the pit of
And we value this. We value this after it is done, though we neither value the effort of the poet him or herself. How may poets make a living from poetry?
Williams still had to practice medicine. Most poets teach, or work at drug stores, newpapers. Few even work in the arts. E.E. Cummings, a staple in the cannon of American poetry, could not get his work published even. His mother had to self publish his first collection.
We honor poetry after the fact.
For the Young Who Want To
by Marge Piercy
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms
is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
Part of this is because we forget how powerful words are. People only faintly recall the worth and power words once possessed. Words gave order and shape to reality: To know the name of a thing was to perceive its essence and therefore to master it. To name a thing not present was to summon it into being, so that the thing itself existed in the words for it.
“I was many things before I was released, ” sang Taliesin, a man thought by many to be the Merlin of lore. “I was a word in letters.” A name could be moved and manipulated and placed in new arrangements, and all of these activities would affect the object named.
The outward sign of the inner powers of a wise woman or man was the knowledge of words and names and the songs made from them. This was true of the celts and of the native American. That is why so many shamans and workers of magic prefaced their spells with transformation songs—verses that claimed they had taken the shape of everything in creation, from raindrops and starlight to bubbles in beer, and thereby had gained infinite understanding. Words were the bricks of all charms and incantations, all spells, riddles and conjurations. Look at the words we use. Spell from the German Speilan, or story. And Incantation from the word chant. In Hebrew, the one who says the prayers is the cantor, the singer the enchanter, the one with the incantations. He binds us to god with words even if the words are unknown to us.
Our own King Authur, JFK, had this to say about poetry and the Poet Laureate at his inauguration:
Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
Poets have had the power to affect culture even while they are outside of culture and even when part of a despised minority.
Pope. Swift. Catholic, diminutive, sickly.
Mr. Pope did not demur
To attack a poet he’d scarce endure.
His whetted wit exposing flaws
With metric feet and raptor’s claws.
This wasp would sting at authors dim
Even those who feared not God, feared him.
(Adam Byrn Tritt)
Not respected. Not paid even when feared.
Not paid. But certainly valued even when reviled. Right up to, but, it may seem, no including present time, poets were outside rebuke. It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sasoon that helped bring what WWII was really like home to the masses and was as instrumental doing so as the verse of Phil Ochs was during Vietnam.
Suicide in the Trenches
by Siegfried Sasoon
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
by Wilfred Owen
(First and last verses)
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join.—He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell, was published in 1945. What did it do? Listen.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Prior to this, most people actually did not know how the B-17s and 24s fought and protected themselves. Jarrell, himself, thought it was necessary, but also that the people in the war with the shortest life expectancy deserved to have their fates understood by the people for whom they fought. He did this in an obvious, yet amazingly poetic and political way. It was widely distributed. Poets enjoyed an immunity.
That immunity seems to be waning. In 2003 First Lady Laura Bush canceled a White House poetry symposium in fear of finding poetry and poets critical of the administration and its policies. She feared the invited poets would recite poetry against war. Laura Bush defended her actions citing her freedom of speech. A spokesperson for the First Lady said, “While Mrs. Bush respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she too has opinions and believes that it would be inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum.”
Poets around the world have cried foul. Two former U.S. poets laureate, Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove, have criticized the cancellation. The result was, instead of a symposium at the White House with one hundred poets, a backlash, anti-war symposium with over 3,600 and a collection of poetry assembled on the topic of which I am delighted to be a part.
Far from showing a waning power, this demonstrates the power of poetry is still quite understood and, in some cases, feared. Kings, and would be kings, know what a poem can do.
“What are big girls made of?”
by Marge Piercy
The construction of a woman:
a woman is not made of flesh
of bone and sinew
belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe.
She is manufactured like a sports sedan.
She is retooled, refitted and redesigned
Cecile had been seduction itself in college.
She wriggled through bars like a satin eel,
her hips and ass promising, her mouth pursed
in the dark red lipstick of desire.
She visited in ’68 still wearing skirts
tight to the knees, dark red lipstick,
while I danced through Manhattan in mini skirt,
lipstick pale as apricot milk,
hair loose as a horse’s mane. Oh dear,
I thought in my superiority of the moment,
whatever has happened to poor Cecile?
She was out of fashion, out of the game,
disqualified, disdained, dis-
membered from the club of desire.
Look at pictures in French fashion
magazines of the 18th century:
century of the ultimate lady
fantasy wrought of silk and corseting.
Paniers bring her hips out three feet
each way, while the waist is pinched
and the belly flattened under wood.
The breasts are stuffed up and out
offered like apples in a bowl.
The tiny foot is encased in a slipper
never meant for walking.
On top is a grandiose headache:
hair like a museum piece, daily
ornamented with ribbons, vases,
grottoes, mountains, frigates in full
sail, balloons, baboons, the fancy
of a hairdresser turned loose.
The hats were rococo wedding cakes
that would dim the Las Vegas strip.
Here is a woman forced into shape
rigid exoskeleton torturing flesh:
a woman made of pain.
How superior we are now: see the modern woman
thin as a blade of scissors.
She runs on a treadmill every morning,
fits herself into machines of weights
and pulleys to heave and grunt,
an image in her mind she can never
approximate, a body of rosy
glass that never wrinkles,
never grows, never fades. She
sits at the table closing her eyes to food
hungry, always hungry:
a woman made of pain.
A cat or dog approaches another,
they sniff noses. They sniff asses.
They bristle or lick. They fall
in love as often as we do,
as passionately. But they fall
in love or lust with furry flesh,
not hoop skirts or push up bras
rib removal or liposuction.
It is not for male or female dogs
that poodles are clipped
to topiary hedges.
If only we could like each other raw.
If only we could love ourselves
like healthy babies burbling in our arms.
If only we were not programmed and reprogrammed
to need what is sold us.
Why should we want to live inside ads?
Why should we want to scourge our softness
to straight lines like a Mondrian painting?
Why should we punish each other with scorn
as if to have a large ass
were worse than being greedy or mean?
When will women not be compelled
to view their bodies as science projects,
gardens to be weeded,
dogs to be trained?
When will a woman cease
to be made of pain?
I am in my office, the floor littered with books. I call it research. Next to me, flowing over the recliner, is a wild dog.
I had no idea she was a wild dog when, a year and a half ago, we strolled the aisles at the pound. All we knew was, of all the cages and all the pens, of all the dogs, this small fawn-coloured pup, at eight months old, breed unidentified, was the only creature that was silent. She watched us as we walked up and back, as we inspected the dogs for the one that pulled at our hearts. We passed her by. She was too old.
But my son kept returning to her, staring at her through the kennel chain-link. At that time it had not occurred to me she was the only silent pup there- the only dog not making an unholy racket. We had walked once through, looking at Corgies, Beagles, far too many Pits, Catahoula after Catahoula after Catahoula, and there was this one dog I could not identify and, still, second time through, silent, to which my son lingered closer and closer. Of course she was still eight months old so we walked again, fully planning, at least I was, on coming back to the pound once a week or so until the right dog arrived.
It was my birthday week. August of 2007, and I was about to turn forty-three. We were finally settled in our new old home, in a new practice, retired from an old job and marketing my new book. I wanted a dog.
It is never a good idea to get a dog. Never the perfect time. Just like a child, that perfect time does not exist, never comes. But the opportunity did, my son and I were ready and, it seemed, absolutely, my wife was not. So all the stars aligned in as nearly perfect an order as they get and so we found ourselves at the pound.
And he kept going back to the fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified pup.
We grabbed a leash and opened the door. She sat there. We put the leash around her neck and she sat looking up at us. Silent. It seemed she wanted to be carried. She, already a bit too big for that, I, bending at the knees because I do love the sound of creaking so, we walked out to the yard—a father carrying his too-large child. Once there, once down, she walked by my side. When I ran she trotted right with me until I found myself on my back, flat, staring at the sky,head slightly ringing, my leash-arm straight behind me. Fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified walked over and stared into my face. Apparently, she had decided to stop mid-trot and have a liedown. At the door in from the yard, she stopped to be carried again and looked with disdain at the other dogs. Never a sound.
“What kind is the mute one?”
“We don’t know.” This was the Pound-mistress talking.
“The paper on the kennel says Lab question mark. She’s not a Lab.”
“Nope. But we have to write down something and we have no idea.”
“The paper also says she is untrainable, incorrigible, does not know her name, and is an escape artist. Can you tell me anything good about the dog?”
Pound-mistress explained to us they must, by law, write what the owners say when the dog is dropped off. But, and she moved close to my left ear, this family kept the dog out all day and let her in only late at night, never trained her, never called her by name. It was her opinion she was a good dog with no training that got stuck with a bum family.
We left, knowing what was going to happen. We should have pulled her papers and plunked the cash but I wanted my wife to see her.
And we looked back at her as we walked from her line of sight.
I planned on soft-selling the dog, working my wife up to a trip toward Eau Gallie and the pound with promise of old pottery and fresh fish. Instead, my son got to her first, with the pound open but one more hour after she got home from the practice. He told her we were going to the pound because it was only fair, Daddy says, for her to see the dog we’re getting. This resulted in the need of much more in the way of promises extracted from both I and my son.
Fine. In the car. Grab a Philly steak sub knock-off. On the way we talked about the description on the kennel door and what Pound-mistress said about fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified.
Get to the pound, walk in the second time that day, into the building and quickly past the cats at which my wife sneezes and itches, out to the dogs and to fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified.
The noise was awful. The barking, whining, howling. All but her. All but fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified. She sat at the kennel-front and looked at my wife.
“She is eight months old,” says Lee.
“At least she’s a mutt.” My wife insists on mutts.
“No idea what she’s made of. Just random dog.”
We opened the gate and repeated the carry-out to the yard. She behaved perfectly, silently. When Lee noticed fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified never made a sound, that was all it took. Sixty dollars on the counter, come back in two days, a sad look back from my son and an even sadder look at him from fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified.
The sign on the door said her name was Dusty. A common, nondescript name. Alek called “Dusty” and fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified perked her ears straight, sat at attention with the widest eyes I had yet seen on a dog.
Two days later we picked her up, groggy from the morning’s spaying, and she was cuddled home.
Within a week she was housetrained. With the help of Robert at Petsmart, we got training to train us to train her. Within a few weeks she walked with us, ran with us, leash or none. She sat, stayed, came and laid down. And in this time, she still did not bark.
I remember the day she did start making noises. It was late afternoon. Someone in the house was laughing. It did not sound familiar. I peeked into Lee’s office and nothing on Stargate seemed the least funny. No surprise there. I asked Alek but he said he’d heard it too and was looking for the source. He, too, thought it was his mother laughing. Dusty followed us.
Giving up, we each went back to what we were doing, Dusty in Alek’s room this time and I again heard it. Alek, running from his room, looked up at me and said, “That was her,” pointing to our dog, “and that is the strangest sound I have ever heard.”
When she is satisfied after a meal, and she eats sparingly, never gorging, she’ll spread flat on the floor and a low, guttural sound, not a growl in any way but from someplace deeper, more bass-rumbly, will resonate the room. When she wants something, she will open her mouth and high-pitched whistle talk to us. If she could manage to make it any louder I am sure the few remaining bits of household crystal I have not already broken myself would shatter. If we forget to feed her, she will stand by her bowl and whistle. If there is low water, she will nose it and whistle. When we come home with bags, she will not jump us but will instead back off, sit at the couch and, when the bags are down, lay back over the couch arm, belly up, and whistle for us to pet her.
Once, on a morning walk, Dusty and I passed a student of mine. I had been out of teaching for some months then and my neighbourhood is full or ex and barely-ex students.
“Mr. Tritt.” I can’t get them to stop calling me that. “Is that your dog?”
“You have a Dingo?”
Apparently she had been studying Australia and was more than a little surprised to see a dingo walking with last-year’s English teacher. More and more people asked us the same thing. A bit of research, a check with people who should know and, sure enough, we have ourselves a wild dog. Once upon a time I wanted a wolf. I’ll take my dingo dog any day.
Far from being a baby-eater, she is the most gentle of creatures. She will instinctively sit with the infirmed, laying her head on a lap, patiently allows little ones to pet or pull or poke. She seems to have no preference for any particular member of the household and will become mopey if any one of us is away for too long. If one of us is not feeling well, she is nearly impossible to move from the sick one’s feet. When Lee had a week-long flu, Dusty was in the bedroom doorway all day and slept next to her, half under her, under the bed, all night.
She will walk through a crowd with ease and not give other dogs the time of day no matter how much they bark. She has barked on occasion but rare enough that, when she does, we listen, we get up, we see what’s there.
Dusty the Dingo Doggy went from being a good dog to great dog to wonderful companion we look forward to coming home to, one that can stay in the house by herself, will walk out the back yard when the gate is left open only to sit on the front porch and wait for us to remember we had forgotten to let her in. She plays ball with herself, tossing it into the air and catching it again on the way down.
And there is one more thing she does—Dusty wakes us each morning. As the sun rises, as it starts to colour our south windows, she walks into our room, whistles, puts her front paws on the bed and jostles Lee’s hand with her nose.
Neither of us has ever been a fan of alarm clocks. This is perfect for us. Up with the sun, more day in each day, awake in plenty of time to eat, shower, dress, do what needs to be done and get what needs to be got. No jingles, jangles, bells or chimes. A whistle and a paw.
Each day she wakes us, slipping slightly more than thirty seconds later toward the Summer Solstice and back as the Winter Solstice approaches.
And then came Benjamin Franklin and he screwed it up.
We are big fans of Franklin. My wife from Philly and I from his quotes, quips and scientific queries. There is more to Franklin than most know. Sure, he was a notorious womanizer but, as seen for the times and locations he lived, that seems to detract little from establishing libraries, the Postal Service, and newspapers as cultural standards. It does not detract from the creation of bifocals, which I steadfastly refuse every time I get my eye checked (the ophthalmologist checks them both but I’m not sure why he bothers—I think just look to see the other one is still there), the flexible catheter (which I also have no experience with), the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, the odometer, and more and more. He invented the Glass Harmonica, an instrument of ethereal aural beauty (which, in the early days gave off lead dust, but I accept that we all suffer for our art).
As people who would be happy if our televisions got only Discovery, History, and the Science Channels, that means quite a bit. “Well done is better than well said.” Ben, I agree.
But one thing he did that is fully, forever unforgivable was the creation of daylight savings time.
To be fair to Franklin, he did not really invent it. He suggested though, while living in Paris, Parisians should be awakened each morning by bells and cannon-fire so the stay-ups would tire earlier in the evening and conserve candles. He published this suggestion anonymously.
But the idea was taken up again, later, by William Willett who started pushing the idea in London in 1905. While good for local business that feed from late-shoppers, the original idea of saving candle-wax is no longer quite as valid as once was. Electrical savings are found to be nonexistent with usage simply shifted to the dark morning hours in summer and dark night hours in winter in an economy that does not work simply dawn to dusk. And international commerce certainly suffers, though not as much as agrarian economies still tied to daylight.
In the past, clocks were simply adjusted through the year to divide the day into twenty-four equal parts. The hours got a little longer or a little shorter and things ran quite fine that way.
We think with all our technology we can’t run that way now, but with some areas on DST and others not, we still become fully fouled up. Even in areas that do use DST, there are pockets that do not and time zones that opt out which, this month, are an hour behind and next month are not. Some US counties even opt out.
I say, make six a.m. the time when the sun comes up. We can certainly make clocks that can handle that. If the day is a bit longer, we have a few extra inter-hour minutes between five and six am. If shorter, fewer, but six comes when does the sun.
That way my dog would not be broken.
She was waking us at 7:16, then 7:15, 7:15, 7:14 and, the next day, gently, whistly, at 6:13. Daylight savings time had ended. This morning, as the sun peaked in through the windows, it was 6:04. Next week it will be before 6:00. Come DST again our dog alarm will move ahead one hour and, try as we might, we can find no dial or button to adjust her.
If I were born fifty years earlier
I would sit in a café in Paris,
Trade wit, find work writing copy
And critique, adventure in the arts and love,
Drink dark coffee and absinthe.
I would meet people in occluded rooms,
Crowded stations, and hush
Listen carefully, I will only say this once,
Pass small slips with single names,
Hide men in my attic,
Wonder about tomorrow.
If I were born fifty years earlier
I would say the proper brucha
Each morning, listen to my papa,
Go to yeshiva, study Talmud,
Marry whom I was told.
I would look toward the steppes
And one day see the horses,
My small town in smoke,
My footprints and cart tracks behind me,
Hope for a ticket of passage,
Wonder about tomorrow.
If I were born fifty years earlier
I would go to school
In the town with everyone else,
Shop in the markets,
Consider myself a citizen.
I would one day hear the crashing windows,
See the walls built, the paint flow,
The armbands and the army trucks,
Wonder what we had done,
Avoid the uniforms,
Wonder about tomorrow.
About two weeks ago, riding in the car with my wife, we were listening to about the only station, locally, anyone is likely to find in our car – NPR. After the story about the upcoming political conventions the series “This I Believe” aired another in its weekly essays. I have written for the project, which can also be found in print, and while I cannot say I listen faithfully or find every one of the essays a treasure, a few stand out. I can remember hearing them and (this is the important part as a writer) they had an effect on me. As a writer, I could not ask for more praise or better praise. The sheer beauty of writing aside, if a work is forgotten, if a reader is not affected, then the sound and glory are nothing.
My favorite is by Penn Jillette and is called “There is no God.” As much a fan of Thoreau as I am, I cannot help but wish he had written this. It seems to be what he was trying to say through much of his time at Walden Pond. The essay is transcendentalism without the deism. It is a wonder of words and I am appreciative.
What we heard that afternoon in the car was by Sufiya Abdur-Rahman and is titled “Black is Beautiful.” It echoed so much of what I had written on the topic of the dark and lonely side of the headlong rush to assimilation and the expectation that we should all want to fit into a homogeneity so stark that we should have trouble telling each other apart. I am not a fan of Hyphenated-American-ism but what is wrong with have identities? I guess I am more a tossed salad American than a melting pot American.
I was moved to write Ms. Abdur-Rahman. It was rather hard to find contact information but I managed to do so by looking her up on MySpace. I sent a note to her from her MySpace profile.
I am writing to thank you for your essay on NPR.
As a second generation American, it has been my belief we need not be like everyone else to be an American. Indeed, it has been pointed out, and I feel truthfully, the differences among peoples are one of the things that have made this the amazing country it is. I applaud you essay for pointing out we can be, and should remain, who we are at our core.
I am Jewish. I was raised in the North and now live in the South. I have taken my children to see the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery to look upon the names of the heroes there and have pointed to the names of the six Jews next to the rest of those who fought for freedom. I have shown them the my parents took pictures of, when we moved to Miami, that said “No Niggers, Jews or Dogs Allowed.” I have explained that giving up our heritage means giving in. And we held on despite my daughter’s high school beatings for being a dirty Jew, the head start teachers command our son should learn to be a Christian so he can “pass” when he needs to, my own difficulties attaining academic posts because I did not attend the right kind of church.
We moved here during WWII. It was my feeling, after having lost two-thirds of my family, that it would be a slap in their faces to assimilate. My parents though, my grandparents, said “assimilate.” They spoke Yiddish. My parents understood it. I can do neither. Now my daughter, 23, and I are relearning what we lost. We have a long way to go.
Your essay brought the importance of that back to us. I applaud what you are doing and bless you for your struggle.
Adam Byrn Tritt
Did I get a response? You bet. It was quite a heartfelt note back and I shall not share it here. If you want a note from Sufiya, write her yourself.
Little Girl, I am not a Cracker. (An occurrence at The Martin Luther King Rec Center, Gainesville, Florida, the year 2000)
Little Girl, I am not a Cracker. (An occurrence at The Martin Luther King Rec Center, Gainesville, Florida, the year 2000)
I am here, just like you,
a citizen of this state,
at a city pool.
My son is your age
and he plays here with his friends,
takes swimming lessons,
splashes in the same water with you.
And, yet, you are none the lighter for it
and he, no more dark.
How old are you, little girl?
Who thought teaching you about Crackers
was a good idea?
There you were, with your friends,
And I, with my son,
passing by you, having just paid my fees
for his class,
and you talking to your friends,
pointing at us
You don’t like Crackers.
Never did like Crackers.
Little girl, I am not a Cracker.
My people were slaves, just like yours.
Go Down Moses, we sing at Passover.
Wade in the Water my favorite holiday song.
When my grandparents came here,
they were not white. They came from a ghetto,
moved to a ghetto. I can still hear them call me kike
like I’m in second grade.
Are you in second grade? What do they call you?
When Selma was marched upon,
My people were there.
We came from all over this nation
to beat back Jim Crow,
face the flame on the cross,
stare through the hoods.
Freedom Riders came
and in the obvious light of the Southern sun
we fought with you,
rode with you,
walked with you.
Our dead rotted in the summer swelter
just like yours.
Little girl, did you read
I Have a Dream?
I read it to my son.
Did your Mamma read it to you?
there is a memorial
to the many slain in the fight for civil rights.
Little girl, did you know there are Jews on that slab?
We lay next to you in memorial,
under the ground.
Little girl, I am not a Cracker.
Do not judge me by how I look.
I will try to do the same.
Since the writing of this letter, a new webpage has appeared on te net. The Republic ol Lakotah webpage is designed to discuss the need for, and assist in moving ahead with, what may well be called a two state solution.
My question is this: If secession is successfull, what will they do with the refugees who want to cross the border? I know what they will do with the Lakotah. What will they do with the disaffected non-natives? When citizens, black and white, come to the border? I Want to know. My wife may already be packing our things.
As an citizen of this country, as an American, I support this completely and applaud the effort regardless of the outcome. Further, I wish to know what I can do to make sure the outcome is as we both see it should be.
People expect assimilation. Cohabitation is not the same as assimilation. Far too much assimilation has taken place and far too much identity lost. Lost identity. Lost language. Lost land. Lost seeds. Lost rituals. Lost culture. Lost selves.
May your people regain all you can, all you lost, and stand as respected equals — the best you can be of who you are, not striving toward amorphism or an ambiguously defined version of what many Americans believe you should be.
I am new to this country. A second generation American, I am appreciative of the chances I have received, though can still remember being told by others I did not belong, being told I was not allowed here or there, being told by my family to fit in, assimilate, act like everyone else. What am I left with? A shallow sense of who I might have been. My children left to ask what we were and who they are.
My family, half of it, was in Germany. The other half in Russia. My family tree looks as though a chainsaw was taken to it and two thirds lopped off in jagged anger. Land taken. Lives taken. Identities taken.
And so, I can, in some ways, feel for what your people go through. But, I cannot imagine living with those who have done this to me. As you do. I cannot imagine seeing the land taken from me, knowing it is no longer mine. As you do. My reminders are in the past. Your’s are ever present.
And so, I wish to help how I can if such help is useful and desired. My time, effort and writing are here for the task.
My many thanks for your work.
(Adam Byrn Tritt, M.Ed, CHt)