OF BRIEF ENCOUNTERS…

I told you about the Prince and our brief encounter (which I will continue, perhaps tendentiously, to refer to the Charles’s only on-the-record “interview”) during a brief state visit to Boston.

A disgraced prince of the entertainment kingdom came within earshot of me once as well. I speak of Bill Cosby, comedian, actor, author — now serving prison time for aggravated indecent assault. He seemed — and still seems — a tragically unlikely person to have so deliberately committed the outrages of which he was convicted. But the evidence, being the testimony of several women, seemed irrefutable and damnable, not to mention shocking and disappointing.

But, during a very different period in his formerly brilliant show business career, he paid a visit to Boston — specifically East Boston — on a good will mission the nature or purpose of which I frankly don’t recall at the moment. But I do know I was assigned to cover the appearance. I’d estimate it was around 1997. I believe I was freelancing for WBZ-TV at the time.

It was another rainy day. Dignitaries including the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who in some fashion was also involved in the event and cause being advanced, were on hand to greet Cosby and share the stage with him. It all had something to do with the promotion of education, because the venue was a school. Cosby was known to support numerous philanthropic and educational causes, among them Keep a Child Alive, Jumpstart, Boys&Girls Clubs of American,etc.

And so, there I was with other reporters waiting in the rather dark hallway of an East Boston public school as Cosby, surrounded by his hosts, came toward us. I said, once he was in earshot, “Mr. Cosby, what are you doing in here today?”

“It’s raining,” he said, and kept walking amid great laughter. That was all he’d have to say to reporters that day, if memory serves me.

No serious criminal charges had been lodged against him at that point — for drugging and assaulting a number of women over a number of years. But there had been a woman somewhere in the country, not long before this event, who had publicly accused him of fathering her child. A legal battle had ensued.

That was the context for a lighthearted moment during the formal program in the school’s auditorium ( for presentation of a check or award or something). A woman in about the second rose to compliment Cosby for his work and also, for some reason ( I forget what reason) called attention to the fact that she had her small child with her that day. Cosby rose from his seat, walked to the edge of the stage, peered out at the child, barely visible above the tops of the seats, and quipped, “nope, not mine.”

Laughter rang out again, Ted Kennedy’s among the loudest.

It is so sad, thinking of that moment, that so funny and once so beloved and charitable a figure — a man who, for over a generation, shed so much light in the world — should have turned out to have such a dark side.

But, along with Prince Charles, I once occupied his consciousness for a fragment of a second. I pray for his victims, and for his soul.

And I’ll always remember the famous stand-up routine of a very young, new-to-the-scene Bill Cosby in which he pretends to be Noah in his arc during The Flood, cooped up with all those animals, bitterly complaining to God, “have you seen the bottom of that arc? Who’s going to clean up that mess?”

THE PRINCE AND ME

Once upon a time — on a “a dark and stormy night” — listen, call it a cliche’, the classic embodiment of “bad writing,” but I kind of like that old chestnut. It’s so — evocative.

Nonetheless, I’ll amend it to say that it was just a “dark night,” (and, of course what night isn’t dark unless you happen to be in the Antarctic?)

But I digress….though this will be, ultimately, about the weather.

So, once again, it was a dark – and rainy – night in Boston. Prince Charles was visiting the city. Yes, that Prince Charles! A big deal.

This was before Diana, or maybe after the marriage but before the car wreck and subsequent royal train wreck. Before Camilla -and all that rot. It was way before William and Catherine, and way before Harry and Meaghan, much less Louis and Archie. Charles was still a mighty august figure, pure, young, and generally grandly admired. That gray pall of scandal and decadence had yet to descend upon the empire.

I was working the night shift for Boston’s Channel 7, standing out of the rain in a gaggle of reporters and photographers corralled alongside the bright, red carpeted, canopied walkway leading in and out the Copley Plaza Hotel, waiting for the prince to emerge. He was in that elegant old hostelry for some kind of meeting with some kind of notable, just who — well, I forget.

Anyway, as we reporters waited, Channel 4’s Dan Rea, standing beside me with his photographer, suggested we put our heads together, figuratively speaking, and come up with something we could ask the heir to the British throne — on this dark and rainy night. Alas, we’d been told already that the prince would be giving NO public interviews. Of course that never stifled any reporter worth his or her salt from throwing something at the wall.

At long last, Charles, that boney, universally familiar escutcheon of the Anglosphere, strode out in all his magical royal splendor. Cameras flashed. TV cameras rolled. In seconds, in suit and tie and without raincoat, he was out in the darkness and a light drizzle, opening — or having opened for him — the door of his limousine. An obedient, unwonted, perhaps despairing silence reigned among us news people, seeing absolutely no chance to ask anything, however trivial, in hope of a royal reaction. Besides, we barely had time.

Yet I, a notorious shrinking violet when it came to breaching protocol, decided to seize the slippery moment and at least pass the time of day.

“Your Highness,” I yelled, “what do you think of the Boston weather? ” Charles, at that point — as noted — poised to climb into his limo, surprised me by looking my way quizzically and indulgently, apparently willing, on the humble behalf of a representative of all commoners everywhere, to breach the iron ground rules against public comments. He tilted one of his famously huge ears my way, indicating he wished me to repeat the question. Which I did, deliberately, pounding each banal word.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE BOSTON WEATHER?”

“Not much,” was the reply from Bonnie Prince Charlie, not without a touch of British drollery, after which he ducked into the limo and was gone.

But I’d gotten what I wanted — to my knowledge, the prince’s ONLY on-the-record interview during that long-ago state visit. It was slightly less substantive than my pre-performance press availability with Tony Bennett in a Symphony Hall back stairwell.

“Tony,” I asked, “have you ever left your heart in Boston?”

“No,” he said. “I still haven’t found it in San Francisco.”

The prince, by contrast, left two words. For me.

And, after all, what do Bostonians talk about when they want to break the ice with a stranger? Why, the weather, of course. Remind me to try it on Tony Bennett the next time I see him.

RIOTS

I gather Minneapolis is braced for a repeat of riotous devastation and flames if the mob doesn’t like the verdict handed down for the offending police officer. What juror cannot be aware of what might await them if they should fail, not just to convict, but to deliver the harshest of possible verdicts, even if the evidence doesn’t support it. Of course, it may or may not support it. I’m not there to judge. I just see a dynamic playing out that is poisonous to the American rule of law and the imperative of a fair trial and equality before the law. I see the incipient reign of intimidation and mob rule threatening our democracy. I am not alone, I’m sure.

I understand Minneapolis used to be a great place and that everyone of every race and creed pretty much got along.

In 1968, following the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, there were major episodes of political violence in Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Louisville, New York City, Pittsburgh, Trenton, Washington and Wilmington. These came on the heels of the long, hot summer that was the summer of 1967 in which 43 people died and more than 1000 were injured in Detroit riots. There were 26 killed in Newark. Atlanta, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cininnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City. Rochester and Toledo also erupted. There were a total of 159 riots that summer. It is my sense that Dr. King’s gospel of non-violence and peaceful resistance, so seeming effective to that point, was rapidly losing g round to the radical voices in the minority community — and to violence.

(I was working for the National Parks in California that summer of 1967 between my junior and senior years in college in Boston. The closest I came to the riots was to see black and white newsreel footage of burning Detroit up on the screen of a Fresno drive-in theatre. In San Francisco that summer, it was the Summer of Love. It is so unfortunate that the Love didn’t get spread around. However, the previous summer in Hunter Point, San Francisco, there was a neighborhood insurrection after police shot a youth fleeing the scene of a stolen car.)

What do riots and racial unrest and civic destruction of fear do for a city? Well, Detroit has yet to recover. The median family income of black households in Detroit sank to the ground in the 1970s, and my reading suggests to me that that was not because of a normal dip or rise in the local economy and a consequent uptick in unemployment. Rather, it was because much of the black middle class left the city in the wake of the riots.

The story repeated itself in other American cities: the flight of a black middle class combined with rampant white flight leading to a sharp change in the racial composition of urban cores, low black employment and wages, high rates of black incarceration and, generally, worsening unemployment. And, of course, crime, violence and gangs.

Are the riots about poverty and police procedures? They can’t be entirely ruled out as factors. So, too, a sense of powerlessness among blacks. This, I submit, can’t be cured by legislation, more generous health insurance subsidies or by a duplicitous, Marxist movement with an agenda that would dismantle the nuclear family, and foist modern gender-related issues on us, regarding them equal to a call for an end to police violence against blacks. Matters might be marginally improved by more community-oriented policing and cop-community interpersonal relations ( the sorrowful recordings of a weeping, erratic, likely drug-addled George Floyd begging for understanding makes me wish some one of those cops had stopped the whole procedure and talked with the man, reassured him he was not a bad man — even if he was not, as we know, a man free of a criminal history. His story, and so much of the story of the inner city, is a story of drug addiction. Why else would a guy bother to pass a paltry fake $20 bill other than to feed his drug habit. What happened to him was unjust and damnable. I would love to see a remorseful cop on the stand, but whatever his attitude, he deserves a fair trial every bit as much as George Floyd deserved to live.)

Something I think, based on clear evidence, that would help: the shoring up of families, black and white, and the involvement of churches. The Civil Right Movement led by ML King was a religious movement. But Matthews gospel comes to mind –“since the time of John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God has been subject to violence, and the violent bear it away ( meaning, evil does triumph) — but not for ever. Not for the long haul.

So, will we see riots? Would they serve any purpose? Of course they would. A very bleak, evil and destructive purpose — which is the purpose of all anarchy — as our national divide gradually widens to becomes a Grand Canyon.

STONE SOUP

(Note: to readers of this blog. I plan — and fervidly hope — to update it every Monday without fail. By update, I mean, add a new entry. I am adding this one on a Thursday, but it will, for better or worse, live the life of a gypsy moth, (or, borrowing from the subject covered below, a Gloucester lobster), for it will be gone next Monday. So, read up! Sorry for the ramble. We’ll call it a — meditation.)

In October of 2020, Rolling Stone magazine interviewed the Dalai Lama. It’s a single page, seven questions and answers alongside a picture of His Holiness, displaying a smile I characterize as somewhere between serenely abashed and gently sardonic. It was as if he looked out and saw the manner of person who’d be seeing that picture, i.e., readers of Rolling Stone. Yes, quite a bunch, your Holiness. And not what you’d call a religious crowd. But some form of Buddhism seems regnant among them, in my experience.

Allow me, briefly, to digress — or go on digressing:

I once visited a Tibetan Buddhist manastery in Medford, Mass as part of a memorable story I’d done as a TV reporter about a grand gesture of animal compassion carried out by the monks of this Medford address, (actually a large Victorian in a quiet neighborhood.) They had traveled north to the port of Gloucester, laid out some $1000 and purchased dozens of Gloucester lobsters, removed the pegs that keep them from pinching their market handlers and released them in waters off the city to live another day or more.

The captain and jolly crew of a Gloucester lobster boat got word of this, found it very amusing and the next day, as they set out to sea, recorded themselves jokingly announcing their day’s agenda to be the “catching of Buddhist lobsters.” The crew member/ photographer, in a fateful misjudgement, decided the video was worth of posting on Youtube — where it went viral, enflaming the sensitivities of Buddhist adherents of varying degrees of orthodoxy or those who just thought these nautical wags were mocking someone’s religion.

Once embarked on the story over the ensuing furor, we found the poor boat captain sitting on a folding chair in his blacktop driveway in Nahant, Mass, farther down the coast. We were to be about his fourth TV interview. He was smiling and looking (here’s that word again) abashed, if exhausted — and I’ll add, grandly chastened — and full of multiple apologies. He seemed himself a gentle, inoffensive family man and product of hard-working fisherman stock who invited us to come back anytime for free lobsters and, of the Buddhist lobster hunt, said repeatedly, “we were just kidding around … we didn’t mean any harm. We love everybody — and those Buddhist love everybody, too. And we love them.”

And, of course, he knew but did not say what anybody with common sense knew — that those Buddhist-liberated lobsters were hardly distinguishable from the thousands upon thousands of their crustacian cousins on the sea floor and were merrily on their way far off the coast.

I guess what offended some pockets of the mass public was just the idea that the Buddhist’s tradition and universal practice of “life release” was being mocked, this being the prayerful ritual of saving the lives of animals that are destined for slaughter. How wonderful!h For my money, it seemed, though merely symbolic, far more venerable and worthy of respect than the antic annual ritual of pardoning a turkey on the White House lawn.

Prior to talking to the lobsterman, I first went to the Buddhist monastery where a few young monks relaxing on the wide front porch agreed to fetch the geshe, or chief monk, for me. How deeply — that word again — abashed (and sardonically amused) I was when this cheerful, bare-shouldered, orange saffron-clad man took one look at me and exclaimed, “ah, Greg Wayland.” Oh, how deeply gratifying it was to be recognized by a Buddhist geshe — and to know that they watch TV news in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. (Sure enough, I soon spotted their big old Sony Trinitron TV.)

I sat down with the geshe and his American, non-Tibetan assistant and they said they held no animosity toward the Gloucester fishermen, but only hoped they might come to understand — perhaps even embrace — this practice of letting living things, in this case destined to go into the broiler or head first into boiling water — live a little while longer, or perhaps forever. That, at least, is my recollection of our conversation in a serene downstairs room. (I suppose those fisherman could move inland and raise vegetables.)

Upshot: I love Buddhist, and Gloucester fishermen. (I never did go back for those free lobsters. That would have been — unethical. And, frankly, eating lobster, from my point of view (blue crabs are even worse) amounts to cutting your finger on sharp shards of lobster shell, squeezing a lemon on the wound in the process of squeezing it on the lobster, and, of course dipping the lobster flesh–extracted with great difficulty with assorted culinary tools — in melted butter in order to give it taste otherwise lacks.

Alright, maybe it’s not all that bad. Maybe upon occasions I have enjoyed lobster — but I’m still staring at that bug-eyed creature as I eat, knowing that only minutes before he had been crawling about in a tank with its buddies. ( Was it Whole Food that said they would not sell lobster anymore, because life crowded together in a tank was too streesful for them?) Now, I don’t here intend to anthropormorphicize (sp?) a crustacean that we mortals have been eating and enjoying for centuries. Perhaps I might, for the fun of it, like to read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster” to get that sensitive soul’s take on the practice of eating what is essentially a big bug but, perhaps, no less worthy of our consideration and respect– or at least as much as the human fetus, though we have not yet taken to eating those. (It was long ago brought to my attention that the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was very fond of the Greek delicacy breast of fetal lamb. I guess if I can’t stand the heat of our civilizational demise I should stay out of the kitchen.)

Now, back to His Holiness’s cameo in the pages of Rolling Stone. This was just prior to the November U.S. election. The last question put to him by Rolling Stone writer Alex Morris was, “if you were to meet Donald Trump, is there something you’d like to say?” (All journalistic roads, then and now, seem inevitably to lead back to Donald Trump.)

“Today,” answered the Dalai Lama, “my number-one commitment is, try to promote a sense of oneness of 7 billion human beings…(W)hen he became president, he mentioned ‘America First’ — with that I have some reservation.”

Well, so be it. So doesn’t the rest of the world, many thousands of whom seem intent on crossing borders and joining us here in our oneness.

Then, after talk of children playing together and having no sense of “their nation” or “my religion,” he again calls for oneness — and “warmheartedness.”

Who can’t like that? But, did you ever see warmhearted children fighting over toys, your Holiness? Or lobsters fighting with one another? (Did those furloughed Gloucester lobsters fold up their claws and thereafter abstain from all conflict in their eat–or-be- eaten ocean universe?)

Let me just end with this: Protecting innocent life, especially innocent human life at all stages — I wish we could all agree on that. Then, your Holiness, we can work on being vegetarian and strive to leave the lobsters at peace in their watery homes. Amen.

MAN IN THE DOORWAY

I’m remembering a poem I wrote in college, in which I reflected on a photograph by a fellow student and aspiring photographer. It appeared in the first issue of the literary magazine I founded and edited at Suffolk University; a magazine that survives to this day. Its subject is a man, seemingly an old man — though probably younger than I am now — standing in the sallow overhead illumination of the marquee above the doorway of the pensioner’s hotel called The Beacon Chambers at the heart of Beacon Hill in Boston. (The brick building on Myrtle Street that was The Chambers is still there — but probably a boutique hotel now, or expensive condominiums. Ghosts, old-man ghosts, must flock all around it. )

Time of the poem: It is the mid-to-late 60s. The man is glancing sullenly toward the camera, aware he is being photographed, though I’m certain the photographer, a fellow named Phil Bailey, hoped he was a good distance off in the shadows near the corner of Joy Street.

And I wrote of this man: Wind made him from careless ashes/ Leaning him where history wriggles vermin-like behind the honored stones/ And evening laughter, falling out of orange windows/ Blows along the bending streets/ And brushes, dead, against his feet.

Kind of a leaden echo where one hopes for a silver or golden echo in the words of a poem.

Is it any good? Not really. My favorite English professor didn’t think so, either. But — 50 years later, how about a little analysis of what was swarming about in 21-year-old Greg Wayland’s “poetic” brain.

The man, probably smoking though you do not see a cigarette, looked like a column of ashes to me; careless because I imagined all the burned-out ashes of every gutter in the city swept up into this burned-out human form. After all, we’ve just marked Ash Wednesday when we hear the words, “dust (or ashes) thou art and to dust thou shalt return…” T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem “Ash Wednesday” ultimately lets a sea of burned and blackened images collapse upon the prayerful, liturgical appeal, “And let my cry come unto Thee.” I now much prefer this recourse to the divine to the sentimental nihilism of my 21-year-old self.

As for “where history wriggles vermin-like…” Just a surly undergraduate’s pseudo-cynicism, his aspiration being to denigrate Boston’s and Beacon Hill’s much ballyhooed urban corpus, it’s “honored stones,” where, in fact, as every college renter might have attested in those days of the 1960s, cockroaches abounded. So history is just so many bugs infesting very old, possibly “historic” buildings. So I chose to see it, through a glass darkly, at that moment.

“….evening laughter, falling out of orange windows…” As I walked up, down and across Beacon Hill during those young, sometimes overly-idle years, I would hear voices, laughter coming out of lighted (“orange”) windows — or did I? Did I just imagine such voices, such laughter? Surely, there were people within those buildings; surely from time to time, I was among them, visiting here or there. Doesn’t every old city of the world have these old, crowded brick or brownstone sectors and can’t you hear the voices, the laughter? So that image, that imagining, went into my little “poem.” And the laughter could have “drifted” out, but I, clumsily, imagined it a physical thing “falling” out of those windows like strands of ribbon, and landing on Beacon Hill’s narrow “bending” streets; being blown thereafter along those streets by the same imagined gusts that blew the ashes into the form of a man in the Beacon Chambers doorway; a man whom I, sadly, deprived of his humanity by imagining him merely a pillar of ashes.

And I imagined these strands of laughter, after traveling like blown debris across Beacon Hill, ending up “brushing, dead, against his (the man in the doorway’s) feet.”

So there you have it. And, because I do not have the poem before me, I cannot show you how I broke up the brief stanzas, some of the words floating out there –“blown” out there — by themselves. The poem, by the way, had no title. It ran alongside the grainy picture of the man.

I feel some resentment now for that English professor, a favorite as noted, who should have given me a little encouragement. Writers, especially young writers, need praise, or, at least, encouragement. Surely this effort was not entirely without merit. He might have told me — he did not — exactly what was “wrong” with hit, or how I might have “improved” it, or told me how it did or did not compare with poems that had earned the name of poems. I, these years later, see the awkwardness, the (again) clumsy, leaden use of words. And a poem is all about the words. But the images — might this have been akin to the Imagists? Where might I have learned what little there might have been of merit in this poem? Whom was I imitating?

In truth, I do not always entirely understand poetry, especially modern, less accessible poetry. But I know I love it nonetheless, and that this means of talking, soul to soul rather than just ear to ear or eye to eye, is worth my time, like music that does not always reward my first listening. All the more reason to read it, listen to it, divine what, as one poet said of another poet’s poems, “how this contraption works.” Like paintings, abstract or representational, we, the viewer must make up our minds about the worth of the art object.

Whole epics from ancient times are often viewed through their literature, including, perhaps especially, their poems. One thinks of that ever-so-brief and yet so passionate and anonymous poem that has survived from the obscure Middle Ages, being, apparently, the longing of some lonely traveler or warrior — Western wind when wilt thou blow/ The small rain down can rain/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again.

It is a prayer, really. With weather.

But that lonely poem of mine is– to date, the only one I’ve written: I just might, someday revise it, as a more supportive professor might have encouraged me to do. Its subject can now become a source of abstract poetic speculation — about his humanity and his ultimate fate. His certain, long-ago death. Who stayed at the Beacon Chambers but lonely, nearly impoverished, often alcohol, even sick or dying men? It seemed to be a place only for men — and such men as this.

And what shall I call this poem?

I suppose it should be called, “Man in the Doorway.”

LET’S BE CLEAR…

Baffled but overawed, we might now and then browse the work of some renowned contemporary philosopher or social theorist (plug in a name here) and, while finding their paragraphs impenetrable, nonetheless feel obliged to assume a great mind is spawning truly original ideas way over our humble, ill-educated heads. But we might also look down at those words and wonder….does this guy, this woman, this “great mind” really need to be so obscure? Can’t obfuscation hide pretention? I maintain that the superficial — and what I call “super feces” — often lie among the thickest patch of verbal weeds.

In other words, it could be that you’re reading a big load of crap.

In The Elements of Style, Shrunk and White’s slim, well-thumbed and endlessly famous handbook on verbal clarity, there is a chapter on The Elementary Principle of Composition. George Orwell is summoned to provide an example of strong writing being “deprived of its vigor.” Orwell took a passage from the Bible, where you find plenty of strong writing, and, in Strunk and White’s words, “drained it of its blood.”

So here’s the bloodless example:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.

What is missing, besides blood, is any concrete language. And now, from the King James Version of Ecclesiastes, courtesy of George Orwell, comes the Biblical verse that untangles that coil of verbiage and renders it into comprehensible, rhapsodic, very concrete verse for the ages.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Clear? Yes, in a biblical way. Concrete? Solid!

You understand this, though it is essentially poetry, in a way you could never understand the other. The repetition seems to dance the words into your head. (Hey! Greg! Be “concrete” if you must, but must you keep messing with metaphors? Before you know it, you’ll be mixing metaphors like someone mixing a batch of concrete. There! Another metaphor! This, too, can be the enemy of clarity.)

Anyway, class, avoid the verbal “super feces” that lay hidden among the verbal weeds like cow plop. Yuk! (Does that make any sense? Metaphorical or other?)

Right about now, George Orwell can be heard groaning.

To be clear, the best writing is clear writing. Clear? Class dismissed.

JOY ON TAMPA WATERS

Tom Brady just wrapped up a joyous SuperBowl victory boat parade down the interlocking waterways of Tampa’s core. The celebration continues. Time was when wheeled Duck Boats carried Tom and fellow champions through the frozen gray heart of old Boston. The sun must be agreeing with Tom as he pilots his own boat, surrounded by family, Rob Gronkowski on somebody’s aft deck cavorting joyously and drunkenly, naked to the waist. Tampa and Tampa Bay are “new” in ways old New England isn’t. The Bay has won the hockey’s Stanley Cup and baseball’s American League Pennant.

Now that St. Petersburg has come into its own, I hope this sprawl of water and real estate and core cities can congeal into one cooperative urban base. People are fleeing the expense, weather and politics to the far north.

I guess I’m glad, though an unreconstructed Cod, to be here for this. And I’m glad Tom Brady actually grasped my hand once with that legendary right hand of his when I greeted him and he said, “Hi, Greg.” He didn’t and doesn’t know me, but I trotted behind him up and down the stairs of the Mass State House the day he, Drew Bledsoe and Troy Brown took a victory lap among legislative offices getting their “attaboys” for their combined win that began the Brady years. He was just a lanky unknown then. He belongs to sports history now.

And all this in plague times. (There were masks in evidence over in Tampa. I think it’s a city ordinance for the time being. But I saw no masks, lots of bare skin and plenty of booze onboard those boats.)

Through all this, there is that abiding reality about all our lives and our moments in the sun being brief — but it seems nothing is more evanescent than the career of an athlete. I just mentioned Drew Bledsoe and Troy Brown. Where are they now? Injuries, bodily limitations under the best of circumstances and the cold business realities of professional athletics necessarily mean that pro careers will, in most cases, be very brief. Small wonder they demand high salaries while the glory last and while they earn millions of dollars for their franchise overlords.

In this respect, Tom Brady has been blessed with an unusual long and brilliant career. It’s no accident. He works hard. He is not, from all accounts, the best at any one aspect of what he does — doesn’t throw the hardest, can’t really scramble, etc..But he is great in the combination of all he does. And he seems to be a master strategist, mentally tough, very competitive. I guess I’d like to take a leaf out of his golden playbook.

Enjoy the interval, Tom. I know you’re dying to get back to work.

THE DEATH OF A MOUNTAIN

For this winter’s early February night, as snow closes in again on my old home turf in New England and I sit in the surprisingly cold bluster of a Florida night that resembles a chill — if milder — winter night in the north…on this night, I say, I offer the Russian master Boris Pasternak’s recollections of his life, from a little volume I’ve been toting about in move after move for perhaps two decades. I finally read it and found within the poet/novelist’s account of the wake, if that is how they thought of it, for that mountain of a man that was Leo Tolstoy. He gave us, among many other things, War and Peace. What literate soul doesn’t aspire to read it? I read some version of it around high school age, probably an abridged version. I own an unabridged version and dip into it now and then. It remains a mountain I mean to climb. It defines that long, unread novel on every serious reader’s bookstore and library ‘to do’ list. It also continues to define epic literary greatness. Few have disagreed.

Yes, a mountain of a man and artist was Tolstoy — but Pasternak, in a room in a Russian trains station where Tolstoy’s body was taken before its journey home, writes…

“It was not…a mountain that lay in the corner of the room, but a little, wizened old man, one of the old men created by Tolstoy, one of those he had described and scattered over his pages by the dozen. Little Christmas trees stood all around the place. The setting sun cut across the room with four slanting shafts of light and formed a cross over the corner where the body was lying with the thick shadow of winter-bars and other little baby crosses with traceries of the young Christmas trees.

“The railway hamlet of Astapovo was transformed that day into a discordantly noisy encampment of world journalism.”

I guess some things never change: the media gaggle descending with all its collective feet. I used to be a member of that gaggle — and would love to have covered the wake and funeral of the Russian literary giant; the Russian “mountain.”

And, Pasternak writes on….

“The station buffet did a roaring trade, the waiters were run off their feet, too busy to carry out all the orders of their customers and serving underdone beefsteak at a run. Rivers of beer were consumed.”

Sounds like an Irish wake! We’ll call it a Russian wake. Well, it was fitting that the literary giant — the mountain — should be grandly observed and celebrated upon his passing.

Pasternak continues:

“To the chanting of a requiem, the students and the young people carried the coffin across the little yard and the garden of the stationmaster’s house to the railway platform and put it in the freight care, and to the accompaniment of the resumed singing, the train slowly moved of in the direction of Tula.”

Tolstoy had died at 82 of pneumonia. It was 1910. He was buried at his home estate, Yasnaya Polyana near Tula, Russia. The estate operates today as a Tolstoy museum and park the master’s unadorned grave can be found on the property.  

Russia is not a congenial place for many, especially merchants of truth, including artists. But it’s good to know the remains of Leo Tolstoy lie there peacefully in the country he loved and that his memory is treasured, even if disingenuously, by Russia’s indigenous enemies of a free society and free speech who, in bygone days, made life so difficult for that other Russian master and writer of epic novels, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Pasternak offers here his own assessment of Tolstoy as a man and and artist who “all his life and at any given moment… possessed the faculty of seeing things in the detached finality of each separate moment, in sharp relief, as we see things only on rare occasions, in childhood, or on the crest of an all-embracing happiness, or in the triumph of a great spiritual victory.

“To see things like that it is necessary that one’s eye should be directed by passion. For it is passion that by its flash illuminates an object, intensifying its appearance

“Such passion…Tolstoy constantly carried about within himself, ” Pasternak concludes.

The memoir from which I drew this recollection is called, simply, I Remember.

I’m glad the poet and author of the novel Dr. Zhivago recorded these moments, both solemn and festive. Indeed, how could he have forgotten being present the moment a “mountain” was borne away — into posterity.

THE END OF THE MODERN WORLD

It was about 1955 that Theologian Romano Guardini wrote his THIN volume entitled, The End of the Modern World. He was born in Verona in 1885, grew up in Mainz and became a Catholic priest and monsignor. He taught theology at the universities of Berlin, Tubingen and Munich. He was a brilliant teacher, wrote many books outside the classroom and was regarded to be a master of intuitive psychology and a deep thinker who nonetheless managed an extraordinary clarity of expression.

Most, though perhaps not all of his books have been translated for the English-speaking world.

Writing in and around the mid-fifties, he expressed fears that our culture would one day come to idolize technology, all the while doubting or outright dismissing the truth-claims of religion and, especially, of Revelation. He observed powerful forces in contemporary life working to de-Christianize society and cast doubt on all fundamental supernatural beliefs that had guided us and much of the planet, especially Europe and the West, for centuries.

“As an absolute standard claiming the right to measure the direction and conduct of human life, Revelation was enduring more and more vicious attacks,” he wrote of the temper of in the first half of the 20th Century. “The new culture taking shape in Europe bred an outlook which thrust into prominence the increasing opposition to the Church.”

This prophetic, somewhat chilling diagnosis — at least from the point of view of believers — gets fully fleshed out in The End of the Modern World.

But it is also given a peculiar and paradoxical twist.

Guardini writes (and I’ve compressed)….We know now that the modern world is coming to an end….at the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies…Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another…the world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.

Dangerous, lonely — yet open and clean. How strange. Is it perhaps true of this moment in the 21st Century? Is Guardini’s “world to come” upon us? Was he right?

He was writing this around 1955. He died at 70 in the darkly eventful year of 1968.

ON SERIOUS EARTH

What do the times seem to require? A resort to permanent, essential things and a retreat from dirty, miserable politics. This would be an important heart and soul realignment at a time when politics has become a religion for so many people. Why else would the world of politics have become so desperate, especially on the left. On the right, where the most traditionally religious peoples in America tend to gather for mutual support, they are seeing their most cherish, deeply traditional religious and spiritual principles threatened — along with their religious practices and observances as legitimate pandemic-related health concerns get catapulted into extreme quasi-religious concerns and church-going and religion are viewed as less essential than commerce, entertainment and supermarket-going. Body vs. soul. Body wins in an increasingly, radically secular culture. A post-Christian culture, we were calling it — well before the pandemic. Religion is no longer viewed as something that keeps body and soul together.

This has led me to a decidedly secular, even probably atheistic or, at best, agnostic late British poet of some renown named Philip Larkin (1922-1985), an Oxford-educated librarian and scribe regarded to be among the spokesmen for the “angry young men” of Britain’s post-WWII generation. He wrote, among many other things, a poem called, “Church Going.”

From the beginning, as you read, you know church is not a natural place for Larkin to find himself. It was 1955. He was 33. England was still reeling economically and socially in the aftermath of war’s bombardment, privations and civilization-rattling concussions. There was the usual fevered political activity in the public square.

Larkin writes of being in church…

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on

I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

Another church: matting, seats, and stone,

And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut

For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff

Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;

A tense, musty, unignorable silence,

Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off

My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.

And so it goes on, for eight stanzas, as the poet explores this church. But I have to wonder what brought this “angry young man” into this particular space in the first place. I must read the poem again — and again — for a sense of that. It is an ruminative and enjoyable poem. It is far better sometimes to read what the non-religious, world-weary, agitated-in-mind and the cynical have to say about a church than what the pious and religiously convicted might spew. You can discern where the non-religious are hiding those natural spiritual impulses.

And Larkin asks,

I wonder who

Will be the last, the very last, to seek

This place for what it was…

Some ruin-bibber*, randy for antique,

Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff

Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?

*bibber in this context means addictand Larkin does make “antique” singular.

This might be called, far from a profession of faith, a cold profession of anti-faith. Larkin also asks, “for whom was built this special shell?” And though he wonders what it all might be worth in dollars ( or pounds), he adds, “it pleases me to stand in silence here…” in “a serious house on serious earth.”

We are standing, pre-and-soon-to-be-post-inauguration, mid-turmoil “on serious earth” in America. I, for one, plan to stop into a church, though feeling more like Philip Larkin than any regular church-goer (which I am). I’ll be in a place, as Larkin choruses,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.