I'm blown away to see this photo—for the first time!—of my grandfather, Charles John Phillips. He's probably about 30 here, in his World War I outfit. The man Grandma Alice loved. The father of my mother & my 3 uncles. He was a violinist & violin teacher, a professional-level candymaker, I forget what else. He looms so large in our family & I know so little, I realize. He was born in Bath. He was a year younger than his wife, which came out when she turned 40 & one of her brothers slipped up & said something. He was the conductor of a transatlantic ship's orchestra, stage name Martinique. My grandparents met when Alice was the singer. When she looked at Jack for her cue, he winked. "I was never so shocked in all my life!" she told me, many decades later. He was gassed in the War & died at 50, when my mother was a girl. He's buried in Anfield Cemetry, across the street from the house she grew up in.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
~ Franz Kafka
Today Jennifer Firestone's dark & luminous Gates & Fields is just that. A book of grieving that shows you joy.
Yesterday it was Louise Penny's latest, A Better Man, who writes about kindness & community in the face of anger & evil.
Every day, there's a book to make me think, feel, sweat, jump up in amazement or anger. Every day I am grateful that I will never run out of books.
We work in the nostalgia industry, at least we did yesterday, when Andrei Codrescu, David Henderston & I comprised a panel moderated by Jeff Wright on "Second Avenue." As Andrei said, that's like asking people in New Orleans to talk about Bourbon Street. We managed to narrow it down, to the chagrin of one listener who wanted everyone to know our era didn't spring from nothing, that there were scenes & arts that came before us. Of course there are, I said, we're not historians, just people with stories. New York will always be New York, at least I hope that's true, a place for young artists & misfits to discover & make their own.
At the Nursing Home
Until it was renovated into fancy condos, I would go once a month to a nursing home on 5th Street to conduct a short Sabbath service for the Jewish residents, at least the ones I could persuade to attend. Challah bread and grape juice were my top offers, but I also told them there'll be singing and camaraderie. I have been known to stand in front of Lucie and beg her to come. It's not that she will participate, but she's sentient. On a good day I get half a dozen, several of whom are wheeled in, asleep.
One woman I'd never seen before asked me to take her home to live with me. When I declined, she said what was I doing there, then? Not helping.
I told her I had a 4th-floor walkup, and she said, "oh" and quit badgering me.
Sidney clutches my hand and can barely be pried loose. Irving looks down my shirt, almost vestigially.
Only Louise won't miss services. Louise is the mayor of the nursing home. She's got the perfect personality for this kind of place. She's friendly to everybody without assuming she's your new best friend. She stays awake and always tells me I have a beautiful voice. She means it but mostly means thank you for coming.
I always ask about upcoming holidays. What happens on Passover (which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt)?
"The oil burned for eight days," Louise says. (That was Hanukkah.)
"You've got the eight days right," I said. "What do we eat?"
I go to the neighborhood supermarket & plunk down 3 cartons of yogurt at the register. She rings them up at $1.34 each. $4.02, she says.
They're 3 for $4, I point out.
She agrees. The rest is tax, she tells me.
There's no tax on food, I say.
It's $4.02, she says again.
3 for 4, I say again.
Mike! She calls to the manager.
Correct, no tax on food, he says. But this is how the computer rings them up separately.
Note that they weren't scanned—she keyed in each carton: $1.34, $1.34, $1.34.
Yes, but together they are $4, I say again.
This continues, to their utter bafflement. I can't get through to them! The guy in line behind me is snorting. Finally, I say, give me my money back, & I walk out without my yogurt. How is it possible that they cannot comprehend where they are wrong?
It's not the first time there, either. The last time I tried to explain the very same thing, the cashier finally gave me 2 pennies, but without understanding my point at all. IT'S VERY SIMPLE MATH! It's not the computer's doing!
Johnny's from an Irish "18 & Out" family. Traditionally, as soon as a son gets old enough, he has a fight (I'm talking about shoving & punching—this is not done with words) with his father & leaves home. They may reconcile but they more or less never speak again.
That's what Johnny did, only he was 15: cutting his sons off at 18 was a step up. Johnny left home & lived at the Catholic Worker, where he hawked their newspaper ("Catholic Worker! Only a penny!"), got his girlfriend pregnant, graduated from Catholic school, went to college & so on.
I love this photo because it shows that his sons have done a better job than Johnny, who did a better job than his own father, of changing those tough family ways.
(By way of contrast, when I was 20 & living in Maine, one of the guys I was living with asked who I'd been on the phone with just then. My folks, I said. I thought you weren't speaking to them...? With no sense of irony, I said, Just because I'm not speaking to them doesn't mean I don't check in every week.)
Aw, my much-liked blue-with-dots duvet cover finally devolved into thread. Every time one of us turned over it ripped a ittle more. Usually, that kind of thing goes on a ridiculously long time in our household but for once I marched right on over to Bed, Bath & Beyond & got a new one.
Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have understood neither the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.
~ Karl Popper
There's a lot more than this that I don't understand, believe you me!
I'm trying to figure out the 19 parts of the 5 ballot questions & mostly I wonder if it's ever possible to know in advance if they'll do what proponents hope. It seems as though every single change brings about unintended consequences, some positive, some not. I'm not at all saying that's an excuse to cling to the old ways. Just that I am never surprised when the promise fades.
Anyone miss me? I don't know that I meant to take time off from my blog, but I seem to have done so. I've been avoiding the news & I guess that made me duck all sorts of things. Anyway, I'm re-inspired to start back up again. I have a few things jumping around in my head & it helps me think them through when I commit myself to publishing regularly.