Sunday, May 30, 2010


 Every now and then -- and again last night -- I am awakened at 3 am by the sound of a shopping cart rattling past my house. No voices. Just a lonely, ghostly, shopping cart. It has that eerie sadness Woody Guthrie used to sing about -- like “that long lonesome train a-whistlin’ down.” Except it rattles.

The sky is dark, the street lights bright outside my window. All other noise has ceased. Squad cars prowl silently, if at all. Donna is sleeping, and the cats breath quietly at our heads and feet. Wordsworth said it: “The holy time is quiet as a nun/breathless with adoration.” Except there is a shopping cart. Rattling.

Who is out there, pushing? Who is searching the recycle bins and garbage for nickel bottles and cast-off clothing? Who must be up this early in the morning to ensure his meager catch?

In daylight hours I would probably revert to my social/political thought chain: the ghastly state of current American capitalist politics, the ripping away of the safety net from under the freefall of the poor. But in the middle of the night, my thoughts often go to the amazing end of Schubert’s song cycle, Die Winterreise, the Winter Journey.

In the standard frame of nineteenth century romantic poetry, a lover, spurned by his beloved, must “get away” from his memories of her, must avoid the possibility of seeing her with her new husband. He wanders out into the winter, his tears freezing in the icy landscape. He has dreams and nightmares. He longs for mail, though he has no address. He communes with birds and beasts; he hallucinates. There are many amazing and moving images in these 24 connected songs, but none is more mysterious and compelling than that of the last song, “Der Leiermann”, the Hurdy-Gurdy man. Of all the songs, it is the quietest and simplest, a bare vocal line alternating with a little organ-grinding refrain in the piano.

After all the wildness of nature and passion -- this last strange encounter: with an old man outside a village, playing his music as best he can, his fingers numb, standing near his empty cup, barefoot, on the ice. Nobody listens to the organ-grinder, nobody pays any attention to him -- except the dogs, who come -- to bark and growl. But the old man just lets it all happen without complaint, grinding out his simple tune, never stopping. Coming upon him, our heart-weary traveller is dumb struck.

We think it is a simple little story, a narration about some striking character met along the path. The first surprise comes in the last verse. Is our sad young man repulsed by the organ grinder, frightened by his situation, thinking “there, but for the grace of God, go I”? No. “Strange old man,” he says to himself, “shall I go with you? Will you grind out music if I sing?” And the second surprise is -- that’s it. That’s the end. The hurdy-gurdy phrase runs it’s course and this incomparable masterpiece just stops -- quietly, with a question, a question leading out into infinity.

As I lie in bed listening to our local Leiermann, his shopping cart singing its sad, repetitive song, I -- this person snuggling next to his sleeping wife, nuzzled by his trusting kitties -- I want to go out there and join him. I want to experience the emptiness and beauty of the street late at night, the sense of the world stopped around me, the non-hustle and non-bustle and time of my own creation. I want to give up my deadlines and assignments, my enslavement to the little property I own. I want to simplify my life, and have the basic tasks of my cro-magnon ancestors, to live from day to day, to hunt and gather, to relate to the turning of the sky.

Not to romanticize the brutal life forced on the poor by devil-don’t-care capitalism. My late-night dream does not contain having to figure out where I can poop, or where to get a shower after two weeks without. I don’t have to scrounge for quarters for the laundromat, or worry about my things being stolen while I sleep on someone’s porch to stay dry. I don’t even have to hang on to my empty bottles and cans -- but can give them, a pathetic, inadequate gesture, to those who build their lives around them.

Still, there is freedom out there, late at night. Dream-freedom. We humans have always paid a lot for freedom. At this very moment, somewhere on earth, there is blood being spilled -- for freedom.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I didn't begin "getting into" Wagner till I was 30ish. Who had the time for five-hour operas? And who had the money for 12- or 15-LP sets, or fifty bucks a pop for way-high at the Met? Forget it. Plus I didn't even like opera, and still mostly don't.

And what Jew could become a fan of Hitler's favorite composer? My father wouldn't even ride in a Volkswagen. Nevertheless, he did name our first family car, a 1950 Dodge, Brünnhilde. I should have known some interesting paradoxes were at large.

Jews, however, are big on Jewish guilt, so sometime in the mid-sixties, to make up for my reprehensible ignorance, I taped a Ring-cycle (at slowest speed, fidelity trumped by pennypinching) and discovered that this stuff did need some looking into. Quite interesting, it was. Quite.

As a musician, I was already familiar with the short, commonly played selections. I loved the various preludes and overtures -- the complex stateliness of Meistersinger, the etherial spirituality of Parsifal and Lohengrin, the drunken passion of Tristan. I was well aware of the revolutionary role of RW in western musical history -- his breaking open the tonal paradigm, and clearing the path for complex contemporary music.   But other than that, I hadn't "gotten into" him -- which would involve serious listening to, and study of, the operas.

Teaching at Goddard, I had the opportunity to do just that. (In the Goddard model, without departments, one could teach what one wanted to study.) I offered a course in The Ring where we listened with scores, studied the texts, read the criticism and Jungian analyses, and "grokked" the work. THAT was "getting into" it. I didn't need any more convincing. Even putting its anti-capitalist nature aside, The Ring is big, deep stuff, just meant for me.

It was inevitable that crazed Wagnerians would show up in my fiction.  So I share with you today, for Wagner's birthday, a little section of a vast chapter from my Insect Dreams.

Gregor Samsa, a six-foot, talking cockroach, having just made a disastrous attempt at lovemaking with Alice Paul, has come to see Dr. Lindhorst about amputating his middle legs so that he might be more attractive to women. Lindhorst tries to dissuade him with the story of Pygmalion -- complete with all its subsequent disasters -- but Gregor decides to go ahead with the body-sculpting. Gregor is strapped to the operating table, and Lindhorst's assistant, Miss Mozart, is called in.

I think this will excerpt tolerably, but should you want to see the whole, you can probably find the book at your library (it won all sorts of awards), and you'll certainly find it at amazon.  Here's the scene:

Gregor, Love is brother  to his sister, Death.  Eros and Thanatos, my friend.  Longing always leads somewhere, and that somewhere is not always longed for.  You must appreciate this -- deeply --  before you take an irreversible leap of mutilation in the service of love.  If you understand and truly accept, your tissues will heal.  If you do not understand, if you do not truly accept, you will carry yet another unhealing wound.”  He paused to let his words sink in.  “Miss Mozart, you may begin.”
The slim, intense woman took off her shoes, and sat down at the Bösendorfer, barefoot.  Smoothing back the sides, and reaching behind her neck, she encircled the long fall of her golden hair with her fingers, moved it from her gown, and let it fall loosely onto her half-bare back.  Though Gregor could see every detail with his immense peripheral vision, he felt himself drifting back into a hazier space deep inside his cuticle.  Long echoes of Lindhorst’s hypnotic voice rippled slowly in circles of ever-softer sound.
Miss Mozart placed her right hand on the keyboard.  The first gentle A reached up a plaintive minor sixth, and hung there, suspended in non-time, until it’s own weight eased it down to the supporting net of the note below -- only to immediately fall through that net -- oh surprise! -- to the accented half step below, the awe-full D# of the Tristan chord, the chord of chords, that miraculous find of ambiguous, melancholy longing.  Miss Mozart’s left hand joined her right to urge the F and B below, while her right fourth finger struck the G# that would resolve upwards, and upwards again beyond what might have been its goal. The Tristan chord, F-B-D#-G#, a chord so extraordinary that one can search in vain through music to find its like.  Search was its name, and its mode, and its function.  Search.  But for what?  The beauty of despair?  The despair of beauty?  What trembling question was being asked by this voice in the night?  In the long pause which followed, Lindhorst whispered,
“Be in the silence, Gregor.  Let the sweet pain soak in at your soft joints.”  Then he signaled to Miss Mozart to continue.
The second phrase, a step higher, infinitely slow, exaggeratedly, tormentingly slow, left Gregor hanging as did the first, the Sehnsuchtsmotiv, the Leitmotif of Longing, calling him from the vast darkness of What.  His wound began to weep into its new dressing.  His dorsal gland began to moisten.  The meat at his leg joints began to soften, as if to bid welcome to the knife.
“Something is dissolving, Gregor.  What is it?  Don’t answer.”  He couldn’t have.
A third time the phrase called out, higher still, and longer, reaching upwards by two more notes, as if its fingers were stretching from an already outstretched hand.
“It hurts, my friend, does it not?”
As if to answer, the phrase returned, the same last, rising pattern, an octave higher, and then only the last two notes, a half-step reaching upward, and once again, the two reaching notes, an octave above, harmonic tension so great as to be humanly unbearable.  And yet it hung there, radiating, in the silence -- until beginning again, it  pushed beyond itself, and with a final leap,  reached beyond itself, above and below, to a land that could be footed, an almost safe place -- an accented chord of F-A-C -- but with a B above, a skyhook which let gently go, and allowed the hearer -- and the universe -- to collapse down to the floor of an ever-rising, but graspable flow of molten melody, the Motif of Love. 
“Now you can swim, Gregor.  Your wings are beginning to spread.”  And indeed, G could feel pressure at his back, once associated only with sexual excitement, but now with something more mysterious, sexual in part, but as larger as the sea is to the drop.  Miss Mozart’s fingers called forth the Bösendorfer’s magic, and the melody rang forth in quiet, sensuous richness, as if from twelve pianissimo cellos, though there was not a cello in sight. 
The clock had ticked off ten minutes, but there were no minutes here, only an expanded, warping space-time, similar to Gregor’s flight, but now colored with the depth of new emotional and spiritual dimensions.  The labyrinthine melody rolled on and on, reaching ever higher, falling back and reaching again, a melody of melting and surpassing tenderness, sweeping up in its wake the mists of the sublime -- that world so far beyond perceptual or imaginative grasp, that our sense of its beauty is deeply mixed with dread.  Alarming and reassuring both, it sweeps along, in ecstatic prolongation, immensely complicated, dissolving tonal language -- and any other -- as if God himself were exhuding enharmonics.  Complicated, yet beyond complicated, and thus simple: exaltation, transformation, an intoxicating brew of idealism and lust, delirious forces striving to embrace, exchanging the Kingdom of  Day for the Kingdom of Night.  
Fingers flying, Miss Mozart piloted this extraordinary tone poem back to its unsafe harbor, the Sensuchtsmotiv.  The Prelude to Tristan and Isolde sank down to its embers.
“After such love, why is there still longing?”  Lindhorst whispered, tears in his eyes.  Miss Mozart turned quietly to the very last pages of the piano score, and in hushed tones, began Isolde’s song of Love’s triumph over Death.  “Mild und leise,” Gregor knew the words, “wie er lächelt, wie das Auge hold eröffnet...”  She sang beautifully, as extraordinarily well as she played, and not having to overcome an orchestra, she was able to evoke the most delicate nuances of emotion and inflection as Isolde gazes upon her lover, transforming his death into eternal, living, life.  In the intimate murmurings of the first serene phrases, slowly rising through unbelievable ascending passages of modulating sequences, wave upon wave, lyrical, rhapsodic, ecstatic, to climactic heights of passion and transfiguration, Isolde makes her decision to die, to melt with Tristan into ultimate ground of being, to leave behind the torment of the finite doomed to infinite yearning.  Together they will be at home in the vast realm of unbounded night, borne on high amidst the stars, and then down, down, to where there is no down

In dem wogenden Schwall,
in dem tönenden Schall,
in des Welt-Atems
wehendem All --
versinken --
unbewußt --
höchste Lust!

Release!  Death powerless against the Inextinguishable -- love’s vast, immeasurable redemption.  Yet even here, after this inspired surging of metaphysical perception, even here, in the midst of yes, even here,  appear the ineffable harmonies of the Sehnsuchtsmotiv, longing beyond longing, even in final exhalation -- longing.  Then silence.  Profound silence.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


We've all become tutored in the past years about "tipping points":

-- the warming of the ocean releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, which warms the ocean, which releases more CO2 into the atmosphere...
-- the melting of the permafrost discharging floods of methane into the atmosphere, which warms the air which melts more permafrost....

I don't have to go on. Yeats nailed it right after the First World War:

"Things fall apart," he wrote. "The center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..."

With the industrial/scientific revolutions came "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" -- surely the myth of an era just passed. Most of you are old enough, or young enough to remember that marvellous sequence in (early!) Disney's Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse -- to the accompaniment of Paul Dukas’ symphonic scherzo, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice -- tries to get the multiplication of uncontrollable brooms to stop "fetching water" after his magic command.

A detail I particularly love is Mickey awash in a whirlpool, hanging onto, and frantically searching, a book of magic for the missing words, trying to find the formula to make the water stop -- and licking his finger to turn the page. I find this both hilarious and profound.

Goethe, 143 years before Disney, noted this significant tale in a poem once memorized by all German schoolchildren:
Stehe! Stehe!
Denn wir haben
Deiner Gaben
Vollgemessen! --
Ach, ich merk es!  Wehe! Wehe!
Hab ich doch das Wort vergessen!

[Stop! Enough!
For we’ve had
Our fill of your gifts.
Oh, I see it now, oi, oi, oi!
I’ve forgotten the magic word!]

Fortunately for the apprentice, the master finally returns to make all things well.

The theme of losing control of our tools is caught most beautifully for me in a little passage from Lewis Mumford (1952):

It is as if we had invented an automobile that had neither a brake nor a steering wheel, but only an accelerator, so that our sole form of control consisted in making the machine go faster. For a little while, on a straight road, we might feel safe, and even, as we increased our speed, gloriously free; but as soon as we wanted to reduce our speed or to change our direction or to back up, we should find that no provision had been made for this degree of human control -- the only open possibility was Faster, faster!

(The same might be said of capitalism.)

Think of Mickey's dream in which he stands on a rock conducting the planets and the comets and the sea, the surprisingly benign aspiration of a little mouse-man given complete control of the earth and its elements, a naive, diminutive Everyman sharing Tom and Huck’s dream of “having a spectacular lot of fun without being malicious.”

But now with us, the dream has turned malicious, the master does not return, the magic word seems lost.  And with the recent, uncontrolled, seemingly uncontrollable Gulf oil "spill" (like knocking over a wineglass?) we -- as a culture -- may have actually tipped.  Tipped into a paradigm shift.

The old paradigm: Go for it! If it breaks, we can fix it. Isn't science wonderful?
And behold -- the new paradigm: WE CAN'T FIX IT.  There is no magician, even with three PhDs or ninety billion bucks.

This -- for some -- is startling. For others -- many others -- it means death. If "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was the myth of the time just passed, the myth for now is Endgame.

Our Faustian civilization has reached its allotted time, and the end is Marlowe's, not Goethe's.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I recently did a radio interview focussing on the climactic struggle between sweet Arnold and nasty Keith, the leader of a neo-Nazi gang in the Bronx, in my novel The Education of Arnold Hitler. The interviewer had me read for comparison the original, and very different, version I'd begun with. I'd love to know what you think of my choice to go with the printed version. If you haven't read the book, you can hear the two sections compared on the podcast at Or you can see the printed version in  the Orphans section of my website,

The question of happy vs. miserable ending is one I struggle with all the time. Do let me know what you think.

If you care to read the whole book, you can get it at Amazon at prices ranging from its cover price down to the People's Price of 1¢.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


  From my novel, Golem Song:

Having been reminded by Debbie, one of his girlfriends, Alan Krieger walks into a drug store to buy a card for his mother. Needless to say, his relationship to her is problematical.

OK, Walgreens. Let’s see, cards over there. Good! Mother’s Day still with us. Holy moly Shazam! I can’t believe it. I can’t fucking believe it. Let’s see -- one two three four five six seven eight nine ten times one two three four five sections, that’s fifty columns times one two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen rows. That’s fifty times thirteen. Fifty times ten is five hundred plus three times fifty --- six hundred and fifty! Six hundred and fucking fifty! Six hundred and fifty different Mother’s Day cards! How can you have six hundred and fifty ... oh, I see: categories. Different categories.

Soooo... here’s MOTHER like my mother, I guess, though who could be like my mother?...then what else? MOTHER-TO-BE. I wonder if they have “Mother-that-was” for miscarriages -- there’s a million dollar idea. HUMOROUS MOTHER-TO-BE. How about humorous plain Mother? But she's not all that funny. OTHER MOTHER. Nice rhyme. GOD MOTHER and GOD MOTHER ADULT. Is that like X-rated? Let’s see. Nope, stodgier. NEW MOTHER, ah, poor thing, should be in the condolence section with little packs of Valium attached. Oh, here’s a good one: LIKE A MOTHER. A Mother’s Day card for my “Like a Mother”? No, that would be too mean. I mean I’m mean, but I’m not that mean. Gottenu --- FRIEND'S MOTHER! One isn’t enough? You have to adopt more? I can’t deal with this. FROM MOM TO CHILDREN --- for Mother’s Day? What a rabid guilt-trip! I know you won’t remember to send me a Mother’s Day card, so I’m sending one to you, hope you feel terrible, love Mom. CARDS FROM BOTH OF US --- for the frugally-minded, no doubt. CARDS ACROSS THE MILES. Dear Mom, thinking of you from Challenger Two. Can you see me waving? SISTER, SISTER'S FIRST. RELIGIOUS SISTER For Mother’s Day? Our Lady of Fornication? Ah, NANA, ooo-la-la. Oop. We’re in the unspeakably hip section --- CARDS SUITABLE FOR SINGLE PARENT. Love them 90s! And last but not least, Ladies and Gentlemen, more lethal than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a TV commercial -- it’s SUPERMOM, who years ago, in the Orient, learned the secret of clouding men’s minds. How the hell am I going to choose? This is a Ph.D. thesis project. Limit the search, Alan. Back, back. Back, like the aging Goethe, to the simple realm of basic MOTHER.

OK, so then we've got only one two three four and a half sections of ten times thirteen rows. A little less than half the total, the exact arithmetic is beyond me at this hour of mental and spiritual exhaustion, but say three hundred cards to go through. Only three hundred? Well, we’ll do an adjectival inspection for relevance to our very own mother. Courage, Alan, this is no worse than cataloguing Saddam Hussein’s CBW holdings. “Gentle”? No. “Tender”? No. “Soothing”? Oi, oi, oi. “Guiding”? By contrast, perhaps. “Sharing”. A little less would be appreciated. “Understanding”. Possibly. Though what she understands is unclear. “Patient”. Like an adder. “Kind”. Yeah. To quadrupeds. “Undemanding.” Gimme a break. Must not be Jewish. “Dependable”. Like death and taxes. “Strong”. You bet, 200 proof, pH one point oh. “ -- though what kinds of thoughts they’re not saying -- kind -- didn’t we have that one before? -- unselfish.” Am I on the wrong planet?

"Am I on the wrong planet?" This is the fundamental question asked by hostages. And hostages are usually ignored.

Jesus, I’m only one row across one section. Two hundred ninety cards to go, I’ll never make it. “Always there.” Well, God knows that’s true. “Never too busy.” On the other hand, might it not be better to be been a latch-key kid? But they don’t hire corporate execs with rolled-down stockings. Oh, look at this. How sweet. She “always finds the sunshine”. And if the rains do come, she “keeps only the rainbows”. Ipecac ahoy. Here’s a mom that “always shows concern for others” and “expects very little in return.”

That’s it. I’ve had it. My cup of irony runneth over. We’re going to do this by the random method, and grit our decaying teeth at the result. Close your eyes, Alan. Now spin twice around, moving in a trajectory to your right as you spin, trying not to make a fool of yourself by poking your finger into someone’s pupik --- there! Got it! My finger directly on a card without falling on my face. Oh praise to your semi-circular canals, Alan, for their faithful service all these years ...

Why, it’s Snoopy! Yes, Snoopy, why not? It matches her literary level, and is thematically appropriate, though she won’t get the obvious reference. What does Snoopy have to say to my sainted mother? Ah, a riddle. A conundrum, as it were. “What does a mother stand for?” Snoopy, my canine-ical friend, do you really want to ask that question? Are you prepared for the answer? But... I give up. What does a mother stand for? Open the card, and the answer is... “She’s so busy she doesn’t have time to sit down.” Good try, old droopy-nose, but avoidance will get you nowhere. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to hoodwink me, and it’s already 8:14 PM. But Mother Legree will like such innocence, and take it as a compliment. $1.49? For this devious piece of shit? That’s three and a half White Castle hamburgers? Well, this, plus a small bag of Hershey Kisses to support her habit, and perhaps absolve me of all but one passive peck ought to do it for under five bucks. Laudamus te, oh my sweet, reminding Debeleh, who hath spared us the heartache and nitroglycerine of another forgotten Mother’s Day.

Want to read the whole novel? Buy it for a penny!

Saturday, May 1, 2010


  SOS was the Morse Code signal requesting aid.  Mayday became the oral radio code, probably a corruption of the French m’aidez, “help me”.  And “help me” was what political Mayday has traditionally been about – a day of international workers’ solidarity.  This notion was eventually too much for capitalist, fortress America, which don’t need no help from nobody, and in 1961 (yes, under JFK), Congress passed a bill creating May 1st as “Law Day”.  That’s right, as you watch all those nice blue flowers come up, you can let your mind drift to the men in blue who protect and serve -- if you are white and middle or upper class.

A quick web search of  “Law Day” sites shows an interesting evolution of the custom.  Many are now maintained by lawyers’ and law school organizations, and are dedicated to the notion that lawyers are essential to “freedom under the law”.  This may be, if you are rich enough to retain the right one. But there are enough people who remember the political origins of May Day to be using the calendrical energy to combat the oppression of corporate globalization and US imperialism.

You know what?  It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon in early spring, and it thus occurs to me that there was once – and still is – more to Mayday than just politics.  Or maybe not.  Our Puritan forefathers spent much vituperation on Mayday – and Christmas – (see Hawthorne’s great story “The Maypole of Merrymount”) – which they felt to be superstitious and idolatrous.  Here is Philip Stubbes in 1583 railing against a “stinking idol” of a Maypole:

Against Maie Day, Whitsunday, or some other time of the year, every parish, town, or village assemble themselves, both men, women and children; and either all together, or dividing themselves into companies, they goe some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountaines, some to one place, some to another, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes, and in the morning they return, bringing with them birche boughes and branches of trees to deck their assembles withal.  But their chieftest jewel they bring from thence is the Maie-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus – they have twentie or fourtie yoake of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nosegaie of flowers tied to the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home the May-poale, their stinking idol rather, which they cover all over with flowers and herbes, bound round with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes it was painted with variable colours, having two or three hundred men, women, and children following it with great devotion.  And thus equipped it was reared with handkerchiefs and flagges streaming on the top.  They strawe the ground  round about it, they bind green  boughs about it, they set up summer halles, bowers and arbours hard by it and then fall they to banquetting and feasting, to leaping and dancing aboiut it, as the heathen people did at the dedication of their idols.

O, well.  There is always incorruptible nature:

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai

In the wondrously lovely month of May
Als alle Knospen sprangen,
when all the buds sprang forth
Da ist in meinem Herzen
there, in my heart
Die Liebe aufgagangen.
Love also broke out.

Im  wunderschönen Monat Mai
In the wondrously lovely month of May
Als alle Vögel sangen,
when all the birds were singing
Da hab’ ich ihr gestanden
then I confessed to her
Mein Sehnen und Verlangen.
my longing and desire.
(Heinrich Heine/Robert Schumann)

These are also Laws.