14 January 2010


I don't remember who started it, but it was finals week in fifth grade, in Mrs. Stitzer's basement classroom in the oldest part of the school, and somehow, after an easy exam that many finished quickly, some boys joined the girls playing jacks on a space of floor cleared by pushing aside empty desks. Naturally we lost to girls our own age, but it was fun picking the small sharp metal stars — so alike in shape to the scrap-metal barricades littering the beaches our fathers had stormed in the last war — off the worn but shiny yellow linoleum.

And when I took my new skill home to try out on my younger sister, it didn't take long for me to beat her at that, too, as I did with checkers, Sorry!, and Fish. (She made me pay, of course, later, by teasing me until I slugged her, requiring our mother to whack me five times with the wooden spoon on my bare bottom, because there's no hitting in the house.)

I remember the girls kidding us, mercilessly, and some were really angry that we'd invaded their turf. And a couple tough guys sneered & called us sissies. But the girls we were playing were loving it, & put them down sharply, which got at least one of us beat up on the way home.

To me, though, the fun was in picking up something new, as shiny & sharp as a new jack, finding sudden joy in an unexpected place.


08 December 2009

Minutes of the meeting, Thanksgiving 2009

Time: ~0800, the morning after Thanksgiving 2009

Place: The kitchen, 79 Rittenhouse Rd, Sergeantsville NJ 08559

Members present (in order of appearance): Peter Spellman, BBly, Deborah Spitalnik, John Weingart, Claire Spellman, Deborah Griffin Bly, Molly Weingart.


Old Spellman family joke:

What are we this year — Polish or Russian?
O thank God, I *hate* those long Russian winters!
— Peter Spellman

Deadly Medicine, Series at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington — Deb Spitalnik

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers: the story of a Muslim family of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. — Pete

Review in NY Times.

Also see Josh Neufield's wonderful webcomic, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, serialized in Smith magazine — BBly

"... this should appeal to their fans." — John Weingart, quoting the harshest criticism imposed by reviewers in the bluegrass magazines he reads.

Translation: Life's too short...

How is Your Brain Like a Zebra?, from a podcast Deborah Bly listened to last night as she was falling asleep.

Olivia Judson, every Wednesday in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times. — Pete

This week's post: An Evolve-by Date, on the importance of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Adam Gopnik, Angels & Ages — Claire Spellman

Review in Washington Post.

The Little Book (NOT Strunk & White!), about Vienna in 1890s, the height of civilization. — John

Review in January Magazine.

Bella Abzug's mock American Express ad. — John

We were talking about the existential questions young kids often ask their parents. Two of BBly's favorites, from his daughter Nelly:

Deb remembered one she asked her mother: What Do Black People Use for Band-Aids?

All agreed: Great idea for a book title.

Back in the day, Deb Spitalnik recalled, Bloomingdale's had a counter for Charles of the Ritz, where they would formulate face powder based on your skin tone, then mix it up out of big glass jars.

John recommends Stephen L. Carter's New England White, et. al., mysteries —

Review, excerpt, and reading at NPR.org


John's Picks for movies to rent from Netflix:

I didn't hear the beginning of John's story about a party he & Deb went to at a Harlem home on 144th St between Convent & Amsterdam, where the owner had set up a jazz club in the basement: the joint was packed, with a kitchen in one corner and a jazz trio in the other — and all the musicians were white.

Deb Bly regaled us with many a tale of her old boyfriend Sam's mother Mickey Hurwitt and Thaddeus McDowell. (Darling? perhaps you'd like to write them up?)

Claire recalled BBly's post-prandial Sermonette on The Five Real Things in Life:

  • sex
  • bearing & raising children
  • taking care of the sick & helpless
  • teaching
  • making beautiful things

Everything else is logistics.

Too many TLAs around here. — Pete.

John's favorite xmas tree ornament: Merry Christmas from the Savages

Last but not least, the poem BBly meant to read at dinner, but left at home on the dining room table:

The Landing Game (April 23, 1500)

As our longboats approached,
I can tell you now, each of us aboard
struggled with a thrill of terror.

We could see men coming donw to the beach
in twos and threes—naked, young,
their skin the reddish-brown

of mahogany, their heads tonsured,
like our monks—butt for the fringe
of straight, dark hair below the ears.

Watching us, they gathered on the sand,
so by the time we reached
the river mouth almost twenty of them

waited, bows and arrows in their hands.
And we, all along rowing slowly,
came unarmed—such pounding

in my chest—with caution
our only strategy, our only noise
the creak-and-splash we made.

But how to greet them? How to show them
courtesy? No one spoke.
It simply happened—one of us tossed his hat

into the gulf between our languages,
and the youth who caught it
threw his feathered headpiece to our boat,

so all of us let fly, until the air was full
of hats and feathers, full of laughter
at the useless trade.

Disembarking then, we waded
through the surf, breathing anew
like divers coming up for air.

And they advanced, putting down
their bows and arrows, encircled us to see
our strangeness—our clothes, our skin,

our bearded faces, especially those
of us with sea-tinted eyes. They wanted
to stroke our hair, like lovers.

Faces reading faces, hands gesturing, pointing
toward the land or toward our ships
anchored six leagues out, and all of us

so fully absorbed in mutual scrutiny how could we
have imagined—mingling that day
on the beach—the exchange we'd made?

— Jane O. Wayne, in River Styx 80, Fall 2009

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08 September 2009

Something to land on

I thump the spider on the outside of my sliding screen from the inside with my figernail, worried about finding her there, worried she'll get in. But, whereas an insect or slug would either fly away or fall, she just pops right back to the exact same spot as if held there by a strong rubber band, which, functionally speaking, she is, and grapples more deeply into the seam where the screen tucks in, like a — well, like a grappling hook, which she rather resembles, and I desist, knowing a repitition will injure her, perhaps fatally, if in fact I haven't done this already.

I wonder, as I walk to the kitchen to refill my coffee, what she's doing on my screen, high up like that, at eye level, then realize it's more her screen than mine — I merely rent it, while for her it's no different from the tree branch or the bush, from which she hangs her gorgeous deadly web. Our two worlds only intersect by accident: we humans manufacture objects and properties that we pretend to agree we possess; for the bugs & other tiny critters that live among us, these structures — including ourselves — are just something to land on.

29 August 2009

The fawn

Out of the background of joggers, speed walkers,
strollers, the saunterers with their leash-straining
pets, she gallops straight at me down the middle
of the street, so tall she can't be a dog, but too
small for a horse, stick legs drumming, black toes
clicking on the asphalt, just after I've pulled around
the corner, before I've picked up any speed; I jerk
my foot off the gas but can't find the brake, inch over
to the side, nearly taking the side mirror off
the parked cars at the curb
as she hurtles past, black eyes staring, wide,
unseeing, or in any case unmarking, a smear of
bright red on her chin makes me cry, "She's been hit!"
to no one who can hear
the fawn clatters by, nothing but running, running
for her life, for her death


24 March 2009

Morning bells

Ada Lovelace Day

It could be a thousand years ago. Maybe not. When the bell?
When the Roman Empire fell, the church used a bell
for a hell of devious scheme:
To summon their flock, they invented the clock
they made time with their new machine...
The mass bell at SS Simon & Jude cleanses the air of noise, driving city groan all the way to the horizon, each peal a stroke of the wet sponge down the slate blackboard, blackening it, its momentary purity pierced & puckered only by the come-and-get-it perorations of cardinal, bossy finch, lovesick chickadee — "O sweetie!"

After two dozen iterations, the door in the sky closes, erasing itself.... Crows crowd west, yelling, cars cram the sensorium with their belligerent being.

Left behind, I busy myself with shoveling empty time from here to there, until the next bell.

07 March 2009

Fifteen albums in 15 minutes (with bonuses!)

My friend John McDaid tagged me with this challenge, which really underestimates the amount of time needed for completing it. And when I finished, I realized I'd left a couple out!
Saturday 07 March 2009 2:40 PM
Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 15 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill. Get the idea now? Good. Tag, you're it!
(semi-chron order)
  1. George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, with the New York Philharmonic (I think) and Oscar Levant at the piano (I'm sure). On two 78-rpm disks that you stacked on record changer (remember those?) and flipped over when it was half-way done. When I was three I could identify it if I heard it anywhere: "That's George Gershin's Rapiddy in Boo!" Later, I got my own 33-rpm LP of the Los Angeles Symphony that I wore out learning how to conduct in the basement.
  2. I loved Henry Mancini in high school, when I first heard his music to the TV shows Peter Gunn and later Mr. Lucky. But the album that blew my mind was Quincy Jones Plays Henry Mancini. So cool and weird at the same time it made my teeth hurt (well, the orthodontia contributed).
  3. Well, duh, Meet the Beatles. I don't remember which Xmas my sister and I got this album (1 for both of us), but we wore it out and two copies after that. For me, it was the first time I actually paid attention to what each person was playing and singing, and I learned ALL the parts; it's also when I learned to play air guitar.
  4. Peter Paul & Mary: I can't remember which one I heard first — their eponymous debut, In the Wind, or Moving — but *that's* when I learned to play real guitar, so I could play in my first group: Bill, Phil, and Penny Ann. (We even had a secret name change, just like Noel Stookey: Phil's name was really Howie.)
  5. Simon & Garfunkel: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. S&G's first album after the triumph of the soundtrack for The Graduate, it contained lots of tasty finger-picking for me to learn, the better to lever my playing from OK to pretty good.
  6. Judy Collins: In My Life. This is Judy crossing over, after years as a luminary in the folk scene, and what's best about this anthology is the writers she brings into the same room: Dylan, Richard Fariña, Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, Randy Newman, Richard Peaslee, Donovan, John Lennon. Every song is a knockout, but the range is astonishing. And then there's the American George Martin, Joshua Rifkin, in charge of producing....
  7. Burt Jansch. His debut album, before he teamed up with John Renbourn. Paul Simon had erroneously (I think) attributed "Angie" to Burt, so when I saw the album in a leftover bin I snatched it up. His version of the definitive finger-picking solo is a lot more raw — lots of string snapping and no muffled bass line. Plus I learned how to pop in a harmonic every once in a while whilst picking like mad — I had arrived.
  8. Buffalo Springfield: Again, the second of their three albums. I'd bopped along with "For What It's Worth" and "Do I Have to Come Right Out & Say It" from their first album, and even worked a version of "Hot Dusty Roads" for my new group, Bill Bly, a Boy, & a Girl (don't ask), but when I heard Neil Young's "Expecting to Fly" and "Mr. Soul" they stoned me totally without need for chemical enhancement. And Steven Still's "Bluebird" is in my Top Ten Tewns of all time, and I'm um, still working on that acoustic riff in the middle.
  9. Beatles again: this time Abbey Road. It's hard to think of a thing to say that hasn't already been said better by others about this work, but, apart from the utter coolitude of "Come Together," I'd have to say my favorite part is the inverted fade-out of "I Want You/She's So Heavy" — keeps getting louder and louder until it breaks the sound barrier (or your eardrums) and you can't hear it anymore. I wonder if the Singularity of Ray Kurzweil's techno-rapture's gonna be like that...
  10. Laurie Anderson: Big Science. Hallelujah. After more than a decade of lyrics to make you gag, finally some to make you think. Very sexy.
  11. Don Henley: The End of the Innocence. I listen to this with utter delight at least once a year — an absolute masterpiece. For someone who doesn't have much of a voice, Don sure wails the crap out of these dark, dark songs of modern-day disillusionment, and the man's got a man's heart. "The Last Worthless Evening" and "The Heart of the Matter" still just kill me.Randy Newman: Man, this is hard, but I think I have to go with Land of Dreams. Everything before that's just (only) brilliant, but "Four Eyes," "Follow the Flag," and "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do" simply change the rules about what a song can be and do to a person.
  12. The Rutles: Archaeology. Yeah, I know it's a joke band, but have you ever listened to these so-called parodies? "Eine Kleine Middle Classe Musik" is pure genius, all the arrangements are tight as ticks, and the playing's clean but relaxed, just like you want a good band to be. And, well, they're funny.
  13. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Matapedia. As with Elvis Costello, I always found the McGarrigles' singing rather trying — though the songs were great, and I learned several to perform. But then I heard "Why Must We Die?" and I gave up being such a snob.
  14. Warren Zevon: Life'll Kill Ya. My buddy John McDaid had only introduced me to selected Zevon songs a short time before, so the first full album I got ahold of was a revelation. I immediately learned "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and "My Shit's Fucked Up" for breaking the ice at parties, and I'm working on "You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared" for the next Midnight Ramble....
The two I can't believe I left out? My sister Lynn reminded me of these when she tagged me back —
  1. Soundtrack from the movie version of West Side Story. I loved the movie, of course, and have since tormented my Intro Theatre stoodies with it so I could watch it over and over, but the singing taught me how to sing. Whilst crooning along to "Maria" in the living room back home, I learned how to use vibrato, which didn't come naturally. Ditto singing with feeling. Shy boy learns to cope.
  2. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, recorded by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Janice Harshanyi and Harve Presnell, soprano & baritone respectively. I first heard this in the mid-60s, and a couple years later my college choir sang it, with yours truly doing the countertenor solo, "Olim lacus colueram," the Song of the Roasted Swan. Since then its opening chorus "O Fortuna" has become a total cliché of satanic rituals in the movies, but the whole piece is still amazing. Turn the headphones up!

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28 January 2009

Voices in the Line

When the telephone first came to our upcountry farm in Kula,
there was only one wire. The numbers were a digit different,

but it was the same line. When anybody's rang, ours rang
in the kitchen, and so rang the receivers in every other house.
No matter what somebody said, anybody could be listening,

and everybody knew it, so nobody ever said anything important
or personal on the phone. Phones were public, like a restroom

or a library is public. If the words were private, they were taken
outside or penned. Nobody ever called anybody for no reason,

and conversations were short. Before the telephone, we lived
alone where we couldn't even see the neighbors' lights at night,
but the wires shrunk the world. No longer was there anywhere

you knew anybody you couldn't call anymore. So we called.
Whenever we picked up the phone, there were voices in the line.

-- Eric Paul Shaffer, in Rattle 30, Winter 2008.
I know this guy's story. I was a kid when this happened to me, living in one of the first of a five-house plan in what used to be somebody's front forty, our yard still an open wound in the earth, the view still clear down to the creek and the two-lane up the opposite bank.

Mrs. Wilson had the switchboard on a table in her dining room -- I saw it once when I went to play with her son Tad. She was in the kitchen, I think, and Tad showed me how it worked: pull this plug, stick it in this hole, crank the dial for numbers in the county seat 10 miles away, then you asked another operator for a hookup to Pittsburgh, where my grandparents lived.

The phone hung on the wall opposite our back door, in the short passageway between the dining room and kitchen -- a shiny black box with a hook but no dial, no white disk with number in its center. I'd sit there in a chair dragged from the kitchen table, holding the hook down with my free hand, talking into the heavy handset to pretend friends.

It was a party line, shared by six families, and the phone rang maybe once or twice a day; you listened to the pattern of rings to see if it was for you. Ours was long, short-short, long; the Clearys' up the hill was long, short, long-long. Mrs. Wilson did the rings by hand, pushing a spring switch on the panel next to the dial. I once asked her -- she was my Sunday School teacher that year -- who worked the switchboard when she was asleep. "Why, if somebody calls, I just get up and answer it. What do you think?" But what happens when you go on vacation? She just looked at me.

Our parents were our now-kids' age then, maybe younger; those of us watching our contemporaries roll off the table in ones and twos these days are beginning to realize there's a whole world evaporating atom by atom that will only be retrievable in little vignettes like Eric Paul Shaffer's poem -- and if I don't print out the blog for my descendants to find moldering in the bottom of a linen trunk (remember those?), it's likely this wispy commentary will vanish into the digital dark age like the rest of the artifacts we're impetuously entrusting to the cloud.

It's not just the world of quaint devices and their picturesque usage that's disappearing, but a world of relations to each other, as Shaffer's poem conjures with such lovely simplicity. Indirectly, he also evokes the world of silence and distance that his grandparents watched disappear, perhaps with the same nostalgia that he himself seems to be feeling now, and which may have supplied some motivation for writing the poem in the first place.

That silence and distance was not a gap in our relations -- as it appeared to technologists bent on improving "communication" -- it was a room, and each of us had one: in which to rest, to which to retreat, from which to sally forth when it was necessary to communicate with one another. There was peace in that room -- or maybe it just seems so to those of us too young to remember such a condition of things -- where tranquility was attainable in a way all but impossible in the noisy world today.

The heedlessness of technological progress is a dusty old trope -- think of the story of O say the Tower of Babel, or Icarus -- that doesn't much edify. The alarums about dwindling privacy among our young, who don't seem to know what the alarumists are even talking about, is probably in the same class of prudish or plain cranky ranting against change for ranting's (not change's) sake.

That doesn't make the prudes and ranters wrong. Here's what Kafka thought about "improving" communication:

Written kisses don't reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it's no longer any help, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. The spirits won't starve, but we will perish.
-- Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenká, epigraph to John Durham Peters's Speaking into the Air.

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