SYMPTOMS OF NATIONAL DECADENCE IN THIS HOUR OF DELIBERATIONS

The diliberations ended. The verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was multiple counts of guilty. Good. And there was no added destruction. Good. But there remains the lingering sense that we live now cowed by mob rule; that the mob will attenuated its grievances and its demands and play out its hand endlessly — in hapless Minneapolis and across the nation.

I feel the need, on this Florida morning of rumbling thunder, lightening and gray light, to speak of how these past months of violence and insipient Marxist-style terror and political rage and lies may well have signaled more than the beginning of the end of our nation — our lapse, by slow decades and degrees, into division and decadence, while a complicit media covers for the destroyers.

The simplest, most imprecise definition of decadence is “moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury.”

But that calls for a great deal more refinement and explication. Troubling symptoms of decline in our nation — like those that beset Rome in its final century — go well beyond “excessive indulgence in pleasure and luxury” — at least in my inexpert observation. I’m just one American, looking around me, and within me.

Decadence can touch individuals AND the masses and multiple institutions, be they of human or divine origin, slowly and simultaneously. Allow me to quote the Catholic historian James Hitchcock, writing circa 1980, about “The Problem of Decadence in the Catholic Church,” to name just one “institution”:

Decadence in a culture can be defined as the loss of self-generated energy and interiorized purpose, a condition which inevitably results in confusion , ennui, the rapid erosion or even reversal of established taboos, and bizarre relationships between the individual and the traditions which have nourished him.

Ponder that. Look about you in America and see if this shoe fits.

I myself shall spend this day pondering the matter, in distress — as we wait to see the flames inevitably rise up again in our nation, and the likes of Maxine Waters rear their heads once again, filled with a kind of perverse, anarchic energy now common among so many in power while others, their seemingly powerful counterparts, stand powerless — indeed seem to have lost that “self-generated energy” that could save us. I feel that loss within myself, and fight against it.

Representative Waters and her ilk will continue to have their media apologists. (Yeats comes to mind again, as he has so often for me during this past year: “the best lack all conviction, while the worse are full of passionate intensity.”)

Those jurors in Minneapolis may well have been the bravest, most self-sacrificing souls in our nation at this hour. But was their verdict in any way conditioned upon a desire to be spared the fate of one trial witness — to have pig blood spattered all over their doorway? They might not have known of that specific incident, but likely were aware of the turmoil and menace hanging in the Minneapolis air like a thin, poisonous miasma. They were not, prior to their deliberations, sequestered.

For now, I don’t need to know of their state of mind. I know only that I’m glad for that conviction, but fully expect, as the trial judge has already predicted, that the public blather of Representative Waters and others will provide a basis for appeal that likely would not have existed had she kept her mouth shut. And that means the George Floyd case will not be put to rest. This, I’m sure, is the desire of the activists. I can’t blame them for that. This seems the realpolitik reality of the present moment. It shall be exploited.

The trial judge warned us, indirectly. But the ultimate judge will be history. God help us.

MIDNIGHT, MID-APRIL, AND A “MOMENT” AT THE LAST MILE

I said I was going to post something about “pain.” It was not going to be especially “painful” though perhaps a little provocative. I was hoping so, anyway. Why bother write about anything so serious as pain if you don’t intend to “provoke” a few deep thoughts on the subject — which can be painful.

But THIS — is getting painful: talking about something I don’t intend to talk about right now. In addition to which, It’s quitting time for anything on the painful side of time, meaning it’s getting near midnight. I had a painful day in my life, one in a series. I’m talking about emotions, the psyche, my soul….

I need to feel no pain.

Therefore, I’m going to head to that space deep in this blog from which I’ve been too long absent, but only briefly, for it is, as I said, quitting time, meaning Last Call –at The Last Mile, that dive deep in my imagination. For the purposes of this rumination, I shall imagine that, in defiance of the whole world’s draconian pandemic restrictions, The Last Mile (named thus by its former federal inmate absentee owner) has managed to stay open. (I wonder if said owner has dusted off somebody in high places?) In the past, I’ve introduced you to two of the “regulars” — Sticky Sammartino, offspring of a survivor of the infamous 1919 Boston molasses explosion) and Jackie the Crow Kantner (I’ve never before revealed his last name.)

The Last Mile, a place where a name change has been contemplated for a half century, is in a jumble of dense old woodframe houses in neighborhoods just a matter of yards –or, actually, mere feet –off Rte 1A in Revere, Massachusetts; just a billow of thick exhaust from the old hard scrabble city of Lynn. And as I enter the Mile tonight, past a dark window in which the neon signage is fluttering nervously (the “o” in Rolling Rock is blinking like an eye freshly doused with bleach), I see in the darkness near the end of the bar the woman named Athena Leroy. (Sticky and the Crow are not present, as it happens. Thursday is their book club night at their rooming house a few blocks away . I’ve been meaning to make it to that weekly event, if for no other reason than to see what books appeal to the residents of the Seaside Arms. I do have an invitation. The club night would be over by now, of course, and all its attendees retired to their various rooms in the Arms.

But I’m glad to see Athena.

“Thena,” I call out by way of greeting, glancing simultaneously a quick nod of greeting to Deano the bartender who normally wouldn’t be happy to see a newly arriving customer this late but generally doesn’t mind if it’s me. The Mile ( yes, that’s what we call it) never closes before 1 .a.m.. There are still three guys at one back table, a guy I recognize at Ben (an Haitian-American city public works maintenance man) sitting in his uniform at a table near the doorway to the boy’s and girl’s rest rooms. He’s on his cell phone (probably, if history is any guide, talking to his brother in Haiti.)

It is a moderate, mid-April night outside. (It’s tax day, though the pandemic has jumbled deadlines, even that one. The clock with Budweiser Clydesdales is showing dead midnight, both hands aligned under the horse’s hooves. The flat screen Sanyo is on but silent over the bar — some talking head is on the screen. (Deano usually only puts the sound up for sports, especially the Bruins). Athena (“Thena’ as you note I call her) has her long slender legs crossed and pointing my way. She has a red blazer on with the company logo over the breast pocket. She sells real estate in the daylight.

“Thena,” I say again, sitting down on the stool next to her. She has been nursing a Manhattan. “How’s business?”

I know the answer to that question. It’s a seller’s market. Business is great, from Revere to Wellesley.

Athena’s surname “Leroy” is, by the way, from two husbands ago. She’s Greek, from Lowell, and, to save my life, I couldn’t tell you her “maiden” name now. (Sorry for that sexist, almost antediluvian, thoroughly unacceptable moniker, if by chance you’re one of the legion of folks who take blanket offense at everything. So few people read this blog — I’m up to two now — I can’t afford to offend anyone.) Athena is the best looking sexagenarian I know, especially now that she’s let her hair go silver. She really ought not to be hanging around a bar this late, being only a moderate and strictly social drinker with a reputation to protect. It’s a mystery why she comes here, which could be said of many patrons, including me. She stops in to see Deano from time to time, having sold his sister a house in Swampscott. Deano’s always good company and Athena is, from time to time, a bit lonely. She’ll probably marry again soon, ending the current plague of solitude.

I can usually count on a few laughs with Thena. But tonight, she surprises me. She’s gloomy and silent. Maybe it’s the Manhattan speaking, and maybe she spent too much time lately around Husband Number Three before discharging him. He was Irish, dreary and fatalistic, lacking the consolation of all his lost faith, first in God, then in Buddha. She looks gloomy alright. The real estate market is through the roof! How can she be gloomy? (One answer, of course, would be that we aren’t our jobs.)

“Some grief, some misery is the portion of us all, “says Thena, philosophically, by way of “hello.” This is a cocktail of ancient Greek wisdom — and dark Celtic glumness. The sort of things Manhattans were made to sooth, I suppose.

Deano comes over to us. He knows I don’t imbibe and sets me up with my usual: bitters and soda. Seems ole’ Athena’s been mentally downing bitters.

“Winter’s over, I know,”she says. And I know it’s mild and lovely out, really… But, Greggie honey, I’m feeling cold and dark and dreary. I can’t figure it.”

Ah! The little black dog of depression. Considering possible sources, I recall that Athena had recently lost a pedigree toy poodle to old age, along with Husband Number Three (whose loss, unlike the dog’s, was her choice.)

“Well,” I say, drawing on my fragile memory of quotes from “The Waste Land”, April is the cruelest month, according to the poet.”

Quoting “The Waste Land?” In the Last Mile? How pretentious, and, offered as a cure for depression, how stupid!

“Breeding lilac out of the dead earth,” she says.

I’m shocked. I’m pretty sure she hasn’t gotten that quote right, but who knew my old friend Athena was ever anywhere near a book of poetry, the typical poem of which did not begin, “roses are red, violets are blue….” (I’m such a snob!)

“The vine still clings to the moldering wall at my place,” she says. “Every gust rattles my window pane.”

Wow! These are originals — spontaneous poetic products of the deepest gloom. Oh, my God! think I. Oh! This IS painful. And me having to hear it drinking only bitters!

“Life can be cold, and dark and dreary, honey,” she says. And, hearing this, I’m thinking her face, beneath a layer of make-up, confirms it

I sip my bitters. I notice Deano has made his usual “last call” pot of coffee.

“You need a nip of Deano’s brew,” I say finally, and, the muse suddenly lights gently on my shoulder, allowing me to transform that observation into a rhyme…

“And it will warm you through and through.”

Athena smiles then. If you must know, I think the sudden metamorphosis is of either metabolic or divine origin. Athena doesn’t even much like coffee. It’s as if she is emerging from hypnosis. The lights have gone on, suddenly. The elevator of her spirit has suddenly un-jammed near her pelvis and is rising rapidly to the top floor of her brain, loaded with bright thoughts. She re-crosses her wonderful legs like a seductress — like Eutychia, Greek Goddess of Happiness, sprinkling a powdery potion in the space between us where Athena can breath it into her very soul. It consists of all of what joy still manages to mitigate the evil and gloom beyond the walls of every long, dark gin mill such as The Mile — places otherwise redolent of only beer, disinfectant, boredom and exhaustion. I’m happy to say that it seems my words are the accidental and mysterious source of this sudden joy. Don’t ask me why. Does it have something to do with the soaking, boiling, fermenting nature of the steaming vision we might have at any moment of the invisible essence of happiness itself — percolating up from the depths of our own personal Inferno?

“Yes,” says Athena Leroy, gently, affirmatively, still smiling.

“I was talking about maybe a cup of coffee,” I say innocently.

“No, no, no,” says Athena. “I don’t need anything else to drink. Not coffee, not — anything. I’m — I don’t know — I’m not thirsty, not tired, not angry, not sad anymore.”

Well, I’ll be damned! This is when a soul says to itself, I’ll have what she’s having. And for a second, I confess, I feared Athena wanted — ME. But I shouldn’t flatter myself. I live in the swamps safely outside any portion of Athena’s romantic/carnal universe. And to tell you the truth, from her aspect, I was imagining she might now be a happy Ophilia, done with her Hamlet, ready to give up every real estate lead, every commission and blissfully head off to a holy cloister for the balance of her earthly life. Just speculation on my part.

But it was a different kind of moment for me. Just when I thought I might have some company, ole Athena takes her small purse off the bar, pulls out a twenty, lays it on the scarred old oak bar top for Deano (no doubt it includes her usual sizeable tip) and pulls a florid Covid mask out of the bag, a reminder of one of the factors , i.e., the pandemic, that is stealing humanity’s joy. (My mask is in the car and, as is his habit, Deano is letting me and every guy in the joint ignore this regulation, hoping not to get raided for his largesse by the Covid Blue Sockings.)

Athena slings the purse over her right shoulder, slides off the bar stool, pushes back her silver hair and loops her mask over both ears. Still smiling, she leans toward me, surprises me with a kiss on my forehead.

“You saved the moment,” she says. “I can go on now.”

And with that, she went on alright– walks in that statuesque Greek manner of hers (so incongruous in a Revere dive) out the front door. She always manages to park her Lexus close by, so I assume she is safe. Any potential mugger or, God forbid, rapist, would be scared off by that new aura, I believe. There are angels around her now., guiding her to her rest. (I think she lives somewhere in Beverly. She has a bit of a ride ahead of her. But she’ll plainly make the ride in peace, and, I’m guessing, wonderful silence in the smooth luxury of that conveyance.

“Did she drink much?” I ask Deano.

“That was it,” Deano says, picking up and indicating her empty glass with the cherry sunk in a thin residue of ice. “She’ll be fine.”

I sipped my bitters.”Deano, that was strange,”I say after a moment’s contemplation.” What do you make of it?”

Deano just shrugs and walks off. That table of straggler-bar flies is still by the back wall. I don’t look that way, but hear them now as they laugh uproariously at something.

There were scenes of rioting up on the TV screen. Athena Leroy was on her way home in our chaotic world, her midnight moment saved. (What are any of us doing out this late?) I’m glad the Holy Spirit or something allowed me to “save the moment” however unawares.

“This fragment I’ll shore against my ruin,” I think to myself.

“Strange lady,” I say to Deano as he comes over, as he always does, to grace me with some last-call bartender chatter, a special bonus The Last Mile affords sober people — and people, like me, Deano hasn’t seen in a while.

Dolce far neinte,” he says, reminding me that he is Italian. “Happy doing nothing, my uncle Geno always said. I don’t want to contradict Deano and tell him I think what’s up with Athena runs deeper than that. Something, not nothing, was going on there.

But I humor him. Deano, so capable of plumbing the depths of human motivation, didn’t seem to be in the mood for it tonight.

“You said it,” I say, laugh and polish off my bitters.

It’s time to go. I know I can’t get for myself whatever I or the Holy Spirit or the angels gave Athena. In some moment of grace, it may come my way.

And, pain? I’m happy to put that off — for another time.

NOTE….

I began an essay here today, on April 12, 2021, was three painful paragraphs into it, suddenly (apparently) hit two keys at once — and the whole thing disappeared. If there is a way to recover it, you tell me.

Otherwise, I don’t have the energy to begin again at the moment. I’ll tackle it again in a couple of days.

Ironically, the title of my new entry was, “Pain”.

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.