De ratificatie van de Vrede van MunsterOver several years in the 1870s, composer Bedrich Smetana wrote a series of six tone poems for orchestra that he titled Ma Vlast, or “My Country.” Although the patriotism explicit in Smetana’s music is genuine, the fact is Smetana was a citizen of the Habsburg Empire and grew up speaking German. His most popular piece of music is “Vlatva,” a glorification of the river that runs through what is now the Czech Republic, but is almost universally known by its German name, “Die Moldau.”

It is one of the stranger and unremarked oddnesses of history that most of those Nationalist composers of the 19th century had no nation to call home. Dvorak had no Czechoslovakia, Liszt had no Hungary, Edvard Grieg’s Norway was ruled by a Swedish king, and despite all the mazurkas and polonaises that Chopin wrote, there was no Poland on the face of the earth. Even the Germany extolled in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” was only a gleam in the eye of Otto von Bismarck.

In truth, they were not so much “nationalist” composers as composers of ethnic awareness. Which brings up an important point. What we mean by a “nation” is a fairly recent concoction, and although we tend nowadays to assume that a map divided into colors bounded by border lines is a natural and inevitable reality, history tells us otherwise.

We hear politicians and demagogues harangue us about national sovereignty and the threat of immigrants diluting our national character, and we tend to regard our country — regardless of whether it is the United States, Germany, China or Iraq — as a fixed and permanent “thing” consecrated by history and natural law. But a closer look tells us otherwise. Our idea of a nation-state is rather new in history, and may have been merely a temporary thing. To take it as unchanging and unchangeable is a serious miscalculation.

Going back before reliable history, kingdoms were just areas successfully defended by military leaders who demanded taxes in a kind of protection racket. No one spent much fret over what languages the subjugated people spoke, or what their ethnic descent might be.

Through the Middle Ages, when we speak of Henry V at Agincourt what we are talking about is real estate. Henry ruled land, not people. He owned most of the British Isle and a good chunk of the Continent. The people living on his land owed him taxes and fealty — meaning a term in the army when needed. There was no legal construct known as England or France or Germany, but feudal cross-relations and family ties securing deeds of title to chunks of real estate. The idea of a nation as we know it didn’t exist.


It wasn’t until 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia that the concept of the nation-state emerged, and we developed a sense that France exists whether or not a Bourbon sat on the throne, and that national borders were somehow permanentized — although, of course, they weren’t. Wars — now between nations instead of between kings — kept those boundary lines in flux.

Later ideas gave us different concept of nationhood, often in conflict with the Westphalian ideal. Ethnicity gave many people a different sense of identity, even though ethnicity itself is a slippery thing, and can swell and shrink through time, including and excluding various groups and subgroups. Are you European? Are you Polish? Are you a Slav or a German?

Ethnicity sometimes falters in face of language identity. We talk of “Russian speakers” in Ukraine. Are they Ukrainian or Russian? Certainly they are Slavs. Where do we draw the line?

The historical result of all these shifting ambiguities can be seen in the unstable borders seen on maps. Let’s take Poland as an example. If we think of the country as it exists currently, stuck between Germany and Ukraine, we might assume this was somehow the true and ultimately proper place for Poland. But the country has rolled around the map of Europe like a bead of mercury on a plate. At times it reached the Black Sea, at times it vanished from the face of the earth. You can see this in a clever You Tube video at:

Poland pre-war outlined in blue; postwar outlined in red.

Poland pre-war outlined in blue; postwar outlined in red.

At times Poland expanded, at times, joined with the kingdom of Lithuania, after it was split into pieces and annexed by Prussia, Russia and Austria in 1795 it ceased to exist as a nation, until it was reconstituted in 1918 at the end of the First World War. It was invaded in 1939 by both Germany and the Soviet Union and essentially disappeared again. After World War II, because Stalin refused to give back his half, the entire country lifted up its skirts and moved some 200 miles to the west, where it set itself down again and became the Poland we have now — although that is no guarantee that it won’t move again sometime in the future. The eastern half of Poland became part of the Soviet Union until it split off and became Ukraine, while the eastern third of Germany, having lost the war, turned into the western half of Poland and millions of German-speaking inhabitants were politely asked to relocate in East Germany — which later reunited with West Germany to be the Germany we have today.


You might consider Yugoslavia, which is now several different sovereign nations, or the “sovereignty” of Czechoslovakia, which finally gave Smetana and Dvorak their own nation, only to dissolve into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

These constantly unsteady borders should not be seen as anomalies, but rather the norm. You can find another entertaining video displaying the bubbling ferment of national border from roughly AD 1100 to now at:

(It should be noted that the dates in the animation are not terribly accurate, and should be taken as a general indication of the era demonstrated by the time-lapse maps rather than a precise year-by-year definition.)


We have talked primarily about Europe, but the same sense of unstable borders and the comings and goings of nations can be seen worldwide. Another video worth watching:

So when some knucklehead politician tells you that the U.S. should defend its “natural” borders, consider the phantom nature of nationhood and its outlines. The United States itself began as a group of 13 separate nation-states joining together for the common good and soon spread outward and westward, eating up other nations, evicting other peoples and other national authorities, stealing most of northern Mexico and reconstituting that nation’s “natural” borders.


All across the world, there are people corralled inside those lines screaming to get out: Basques and Catalans in Spain, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, Chechens in the Russian Federation, Russians in Ukraine, Scots from Great Britain, Quebecois from Canada, Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium, Uighurs in China. Driving around southern France and the Camargue, you will come across angry graffiti demanding Occitan separatism

Nationhood is a dynamic; it is not permanent. Russia is altering the map around the Black Sea and globalization is destabilizing the Westphalian arrangement. Corporations are now transnational, the European Union is subverting ancient sovereignties (with considerable pushback from rising nationalisms) and the post-World War I national borders in the Middle East seem ever more tenuous and artificial. Can the Kurds create their own ethnic state? Can Shia and Sunni ever coexist in a multi-sectarian state?

Instead of assuming that the world cannot change and the Rand-McNally maps we grew up with are the way things should be from now into posterity, we should recognize nations as transient entities momentarily agreed to by whoever is powerful enough to maintain a stalemate.


Next week, my wife reaches a milestone; not one with a round number, but perhaps more significant: She fills 75 percent of the century-long container she was born into. She has passed her “three score years and ten” by five.

While she is hampered by a dozen ailments requiring enough medicine to count each morning as a full breakfast, none is immediately life threatening.

But it started me thinking about those traditional milestones we set for ourselves. There are annual birthdays that we count off, but really, is there that much difference between being 32 and being 33? So, there are longer stretches that actually count out time that feels significant. For many, watching the odometer turn over from 29 to 30, or from 39 to 40 is accompanied by an unwelcome breakfast of existential angst.

“Am I really getting old?”passages-cover

Gail Sheehy wrote a famous book about the changes we go through as we grow. But Passages is more about the psychology of such changes. What I’m talking about are the arbitrary milestones. In Sheehy’s book, the lifestages are sequent, but not hardwired to a specific age, but a likely decade — your 20s or your 30s. What I am looking at here are not the stages themselves, but the signposts that we recognize as they pass.

For me, this starts with age five, when we first leave home daily to attend kindergarten. It is a great wrench in our lives, and we are no longer always safe in our nests, cared and fed by an attentive mom.

bar-mitzvahThe next big one is when we turn thirteen. Eleven and twelve are technically “teens,” but only when we hit thirteen does it seem to count, perhaps because the syllable “teen” is explicit. On your thirteenth birthday, you proudly consider yourself no longer a child, but an adult, or at least and adult manqué. “Today, I am a man,” goes the rite of the bar mitzvah, along with the gift of a fountain pen.

Houston quinceaneras photography. Photography for quinceaneras. Fotos y videos para quinceaneras.Next up is a bifurcation of genders. Girls have their “sweet sixteen” party, or, if Latina, their quinceañera, marking their fifteenth or sixteenth birthday. In the past, this advertised their marketability as brides, although nowadays, when people marry later, it is a vestigial celebration of “coming out” as a wearer of party dresses.

For boys, sixteen goes by unannounced. When I was growing up, boys had their counterpart at 18, when they signed up for their Selective Service card, marking their eligibility for the military draft. Then, it was accompanied by a deep hard swallow and a nervous smile waiting for a letter from the draft board. Nowadays, without an actual draft, registration is largely a formality.

For boys and girls, there is the age of the learner’s permit for driving, but this varies widely from state to state, beginning usually at fifteen, but for some not till eighteen. Northern states tend to a later age, Southern states tend to let their bairn get behind the wheel much younger.

Eighteen also marks the official “age of consent,” demarking the legality of sex. This is currently an age more honored in the breech than in the observance. It is also voting age, also honored more in the breech.

For most states, eighteen is also the age of legal majority, save Mississippi, where you still must reach twenty-one.

free-white-and-21-2Twenty-one used to be the standard bar for majority, when you become legally responsible. In less enlightened ages it was accompanied by the boast of being “free, white and twenty-one.” Now it is primarily the age at which it becomes legal to get drunk. It is the signal irony that just at the moment the person in question finally declares him- or herself a grownup, he (or she) is most likely to do the most immature thing imaginable.

Most of these age signposts seem front-loaded into growing up. After that, they become more spaced out over time. For some, turning thirty is a hazard, for others, it hits turning forty; it is the moment you realize you will never be young again, that the responsibility of adulthood, family, career and citizenship have replaced dating, playing and experimental sex. Sobriety hits, and it isn’t always fun.

Fifty is a quiet marker; most people find they are relatively happy at that age. There is, perhaps, more satisfaction at having reached the half-century mark than unease at getting on in years. Most of us, at fifty, are still vital and energetic, and we have the added benefit of all that accrued experience.

(When I was young, I calculated how old I would be at the turn of the millennium and realized I would be fifty-two, and I was daunted because I really didn’t believe it likely I would live that long. When it actually happened, it almost snuck up on me. I was hardly aware I was over fifty.)

social-security-cardSixty is stealthy, because it comes and goes hardly noticed because one’s eyes are firmly on the big sign ahead: sixty-five and the finality of retirement. They keep moving the finish line on us, upping the age for Social Security, but sixty-five is so deeply entrenched in our collective psyches, that the subsequent years just seem like a tiny hesitation. george-burns

The round numbers seem less meaningful than the fivers. Seventy-five is three quarters of a century and an accomplishment more than merely a signpost. Beyond that, the years seem less important than the life put into them. Currently the average life expectancy for American men is seventy-seven and for women, just under eighty-two. Past that, the only one that really counts is the even hundred. The George Burns point. Beyond that, you begin to count every years once again, just as you did as an infant.


I just got back from jury duty, and boy, are my arms tired.

It was my first jury duty summons since moving to North Carolina; it’s taken them four years to track me down. I must be a favorite of the legal system, because I’ve been on half a dozen juries in my life. Others in my recent panel said they have been on one or two, or none, over the course of their lives. But I am old and I’ve seen a lot.

Each time I serve, I get a lump in my throat because I see from the inside how seriously each of my fellow jurists takes the job. Only once in all those juries was there the stereotypical white businessman on a cellphone barely able to spare a moment to consider the case. He was roundly drummed by the rest of the members and eventually forced to put down the phone.

This case was both simple and dull. A man was charged with drunk driving. He was videotaped during the initial traffic stop and after the arrest, tested via the breathalyzer and shown to have double the legal limit of hooch in his veins. We were all charged by the judge in the case to maintain our presumption of innocence. The defendant sat quietly next to his lawyer and until we heard any evidence, I certainly had no trouble assuming he might be innocent.

If you have never had the pleasure of sitting in a jury box, you might not understand how slow and methodical a trial must be. You can’t ask a witness what someone’s blood alcohol might have been; first you must establish that the witness is qualified to testify and that the equipment used had been recently maintained and whether it was a test accepted by the state of residence and other states in the union. Then the district attorney will take us through the process of administering the test, step by slow, slow step. This simple process of asking the police officer in the witness box whether the defendant had a blood alcohol level above the prescribed point-zero-eight percent can easily fill up an hour, during which time we learn how long the officer has been with the force, what his previous jobs were, where he lives, whether he is married. They nearly asked him to empty his pockets to see what he carries.

During the entire trial, the defendant said nothing, either to the court or to his lawyer, sitting next to him at the table. He might as well have been a stuffed teddy bear. Meanwhile the two D.A.s spread out all the evidence, had us watch the dashboard camera videotape of the traffic stop — most of which was taken up by the man standing behind his car waiting for the police officer who was off-camera in the car filling out paper work.

There were frequent interruptions while the jury marched out of the courtroom into the holding cell while the lawyers conferred with the judge on some legal matter, after which we were marched back in to resume the glacial accumulation of damning evidence. We also learned the marital status of two more police officers. The first witness was the officer who pulled the defendant over at 2 p.m. on a Sunday morning after noticing that he was weaving back and forth in his car. But because that officer hadn’t yet earned the proper certification, he called in backup — an officer cleared to administer the field sobriety tests necessary to determine if an arrest was warranted. The second officer — married, by the way — then gave our borrachista three standard tests, whose scientific pedigrees were painfully explained in trial testimony. We saw on the video that the defendant had trouble with all of the tests — walking heel to toe down a straight line and stumbling on the way; following a pen the officer moved back and forth in front of the defendant’s eyes; and standing on one foot for a prescribed period of time while answering questions.

After a lunch break of an hour and a half — during which time, we are assured, the judge and lawyers were not just imbibing three martinis, but were continuing to conference and work while grabbing a quick bite of sandwich their wives must have packed them in the morning — we resumed. It was time for the defense. The defendant’s attorney stood up professorially and said with due gravity, “No witnesses, your honor.”

The judge turned to us and explained that we were now to hear the summations, which we were not to take as evidence, but purely as spin — although he did not use that precise characterization. The prosecuting attorney just rehearsed the evidence they had previously presented — the failed sobriety tests and the breathalyzer test showing a point-one-five.

He sat down.

The defense attorney got up, walked to the jury and reminded us that the machine that tests a driver’s breath for alcohol was a large, opaque box and we could not see into it, and so, could we really trust the numbers it spit out on a ribbon of paper? Clearly he was grasping at straws.

The judge then explained the law we were to apply and the questions we were to answer and the bailiff marched us back out into the jury room, where on a fast show of hands, we convicted the poor fellow. We were also supposed to decide on two aggravating conditions. The remaining time in the deliberations were spent on deciding if we thought the defendant had been “grossly impaired” while driving, and whether he had reached the aggravating limit of a point-one-five alcohol level. The machine answered the second charge, but we seriously considered the question of what was meant by “grossly.” We sent a note to the judge asking for guidance, and he sent back a not saying “It’s up to you.” We argued back and forth for maybe 10 minutes before we all agreed that we might be able to give him the benefit of a “reasonable doubt” about the word “grossly,” and let him off the hook on that one.

We marched back into the courtroom, went through the prescribed ritual of a jury poll and delivered the verdict and were released by the judge. Everyone else went home. I went back to the courtroom to hear the sentence. Our man was given 180 days in county jail, suspended; a year’s probation; a mandatory alcohol rehabilitation term; loss of driver’s license for two years and a $200 fine. No change of expression on his face.

As they were leaving the courtroom, I asked the prosecuting attorneys if it were not odd that a case with essentially no defense at all should make its way to a jury trial. It would have seemed to the defendant’s advantage to take a plea deal. Why did he insist on going the full monte? “From what I heard,” said the D.A., “pure spite.” He cost the county two days of court time (I haven’t mentioned the first day, which was spent entirely on jury selection. Most of those selected were eventually dismissed. After the panel was finalized with 12 men and women and my name had not been called, I felt something of a relief, until the judge announced, “Now we have choose an alternate.” Bingo. My name. In further news, the next morning when I arrived to be the alternate, one of the jury’s elect had been hospitalized overnight, and so I became Juror No. 6.)

I now am free from jury duty for the next two years, and pocketed a quick $24 for my service. But I have to say, I have never looked upon serving as something to be shunned. Not only is it a civic obligation, it is genuinely interesting. Especially now that I am retired, it provides a welcome break in routine, but even when I was working, it was something I felt was a meaningful look at a part of my humanity that I otherwise would not know, at least no more than what I had gleaned from watching old Perry Mason episodes.

The episode caused me to remember my previous trials, beginning with the first in the mid-1970s. It was for a man named “Babe” who had shot up a pizza parlor in Greensboro, N.C. Babe had come that night with his teenage daughter, who, we learned, was a regular, where she would leave each night with a different man. On the night in question, the comely daughter was approached by a potential suitor (if that is what we might call him) and the father took offense, especially over the haggling of a price for the evening. Apparently Babe didn’t know what line of business his daughter had adopted. Anyway, a fight broke out, beer pitchers were smashed and shards of glass proffered as weapons; Babe then took out his Second-Amendment argument and proceeded to use it to punctuate the ceiling of the establishment. Needless to say, the joint emptied out rapidly and eventually the police came and arrested Babe.

At the trial, Babe, a graduate of no known law school, decided he should be his own defense attorney. The judge asked him if he had ever been arrested before. Babe said yes. The judge asked, “What for?” And Babe said, “You name it.” Let’s just say the defense went downhill from there. Babe’s primary witness was a friend who had run from the pizza parlor the moment the fracas commenced, so he didn’t see anything, but offered himself as a character witness. The judge asked him “Have you ever been arrested?” “Yessir.” “What for?” “Assault on a woman.”

The next trial I was called for was in Arizona and left me with a bad taste in my mouth for civil trials. It was a case where one party claimed the other party had failed in its obligation to a contract. Let me say right now, that if you ever find yourself summoned to a jury, pray you get a criminal case and not a civil one. We in the jury sat through a week of financial statements, ledger books, fine print, receipts and transcribed telephone conversations. Day after day, the slow build up of numbers piled on top of numbers, witnesses claiming this fiduciary that and that binding word this. At the end of the week, we were called back from the jury room and told we were dismissed, as the parties had settled out of court. That is a week of stultifying boredom I will never have restored to my brief span on this earth.

On the other hand, a criminal trial can be unimaginably depressing. The next trial was one of domestic violence, and both the perpetrator and victim were such wretched specimens of my species that it was all I could do not to weep inconsolably at the sight of them both. Poor, unschooled, barely able to cover their hides with decent clothing, we first tore our hearts for the wife — barely skin and bones — who had been whipped by her man and left bruised and battered. We were ready to draw and quarter the villain. But then, he was himself so wretched, had been battered as a child by his father and was so inarticulate that we knew the only communication he knew was by knuckle and beltbuckle. He was guilty as hell, and we knew we had to convict him, but we also hoped that the judge would recognize the misery in front of him on both counts. Please, I thought, feed them a decent meal, send him to jail, and find someone to look after the battered waif.

On television, criminals all seem to be supervillains, drug lords or serial killers so clever they leave tantalizing clues written in ancient Greek scrawled on the bathroom mirror. But my experience with the court system tells me that the bulk of those hauled in to trial are no geniuses, but sorry specimens, usually poor and uneducated with few good options in the furtherance of their lives. They do stupid things and are caught because they are notably not clever. My heart goes out to them, while not excusing any crime they might have committed.

The final case I sat through in Arizona was a double homicide, in which some gang-members with a beef with some guy, blocked his car in a parking lot and went up to the side window and shot both driver and passenger. They didn’t seem to notice that there was a teenage boy in the back seat. During the trial, the boy was the chief eye-witness. The defense attorney attacked him mercilessly on the stand, but the kid was so honest and innocent, he didn’t notice he was being badgered, and just quietly answered each question with open-faced sincerity. If the kid had once weaseled or hesitated, the attorney would have pounced, but the kid was imperturbable. He simply sank any potential defense.

The district attorney laid out the details and evidence with such simple efficiency, one after another like pops from a machine gun, never for a moment making a simple rhetorical flourish or cheap aside. Just an accumulated pile of fact burying the defendant. The poor defense attorney had little choice but to pile the theatricality thick. Red herring was his primary weapon. Did the witness say it was a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol? Did he not contradict himself? The lawyer jumped and pounced and began to sound rather like Foghorn Leghorn. He had no real evidence to present, so all he could do was pretend the prosecution evidence was somehow a pile of beans. Several times he tried to make a point that depended solely on a bad translation from Spanish to English. There was no ambiguity in the Spanish. Living in Arizona, we, the jury, had no problem understanding the Spanish in question, so it only made the defense attorney look more desperate and hopeless. My heart goes out to any poor defense attorney with no legs to stand on. It’s a thankless job.

In several of the cases I observed, there was a highly educated lawyer in a good suit seated next to someone who could barely write his name, wearing a rumpled Goodwill suit and tie, probably bought for them just for the trial date, looking like a deer caught in a headlamp, never fully comprehending what was happening around him, and probably headed for his second or third stretch at the county jail. At the other table was the prosecuting attorney, in another good suit, with piles of condemnatory notes in front of her and both tables facing a superior court judge, also with a fancy law degree, a good house in a gated community, a second or third wife, and a BMW waiting in a parking spot with his name on it. Behind them, in the grandstands, sit those witnesses waiting to be called: prosecution witnesses often in police uniforms, or doctors called as expert witnesses; defense witnesses in Goodwill suits that don’t quite fit and sporting mullets and professional-wrestling mustaches, and maybe a tattoo or three.

Somehow, it hardly seems like a fair fight. The indictment says it all: “The State vs. so-and-so.” One cannot help but think of Franz Kafka. Perhaps that is why I feel so proud of the jury, which is made up of — in this most recent case — farmers, teachers, car mechanics, students, grocery-store clerks, and at least one retired art critic. The jury is notably more representative of the society we live in than the lawyers who run things. I hope it all serves to even the odds.

van gogh

I am sitting in my car in the parking garage of the local mall, waiting to chauffeur my granddaughter home after a shift at the food court. It’s one of the perks of being a grandfather; we get to talk on the ride. But I have been  misinformed and I’m an hour early. No problem, I sit back in the shade of the parking garage and pop in a CD of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, the heartbreaking beauty of which always leaves me weeping.

Outside, in the sun, the breeze blows the branches and leaves of a tree in eccentric and seemingly random arcs. A whole tree doesn’t blow this way or that, but becomes a symphony of animated parts, very like a dancer. Behind the tree, in the distant sky, brilliant white thunderheads rise against the blue; they are the source of the fresh breeze that moves my tree.

It is a moment of epiphany — a pulling back of the veil. It is one of those instant recognitions of intense beauty, the kind that makes your insides swell and overflow through your eyes. It is the thing about such moments that dozens of shoppers coming out of the mall and finding their cars can see the same thing and not be overwhelmed because seeing the beauty requires being ripe for its discovery. It is available there for anyone to see, but most of the audience — like me most of the time — are preoccupied and so the moment escapes and they are robbed of one of those times that transfigures the mere act of living and gives one a reason to be grateful.milky way 1

At such times, it is occasionally possible to be misled into believing that the world is truly a beautiful place and that we just don’t take the time to notice. The beauty is overwhelming in its persuasion. I’m not talking here about pretty scenery or colorful flowers, but about a metaphysical insight into the animating spirit of the cosmos. It is the sense one gets if you find yourself in an unpopulated region of the planet and can see at night the bright gash across the sky that we call the Milky Way. You sense something bigger, transcendent, sublime. It is both profoundly beautiful and also more than a bit scary.

One has a memory trove of such moments — and they almost all come in brief flashes; I’m not sure how we could stand it for any length of time. I felt it one dawn at the beach in South Carolina, staring east at the twilight getting brighter. At the moment the sun popped the horizon, when its movement against the stationary line dividing ocean and sky becomes apparent, like a second hand instead of a minute hand on a clock, I got dizzy, almost lost my balance on the sand, because instead of seeing the sun rise above the horizon, I felt as if I were at the top of a planetary ferris wheel, jerked forward toward the sun; I was moving, not the sun. The light played on the waves, dividing the lit from the shadowed water in a shifting network of obsidian black and glowing copper. The effect lasted only a few seconds before the quotidian world reasserted itself into a familiar sunrise, but the memory of that instant is burned into my mind with a fury and insistence that informs now every sunrise, even when I no longer lose my balance.

Arch Cape

Many years ago, I went to the Pacific Ocean with a woman I was crazy about. We rented a cottage on the Oregon coast and after a night of playing geography on her body and memorizing it (so that I knew every swell and bulge, every mole and wrinkle on it), when the morning came, we stayed in bed until our consciences ached. We smelled of each other and reveled in it, our muscles were sore. When Robin finally got up, she said, “I’m going to make breakfast this morning.” I stayed in bed with my head propped up on a pillow and I watched her silently going about her business. The world had stopped turning; the fury of machinery, trucking, commerce and struggle had ceased. Robin opened the curtains and the light poured in, but she was herself lit solely from within.saskia

She was more than just Robin at that time — she was transfigured in the light and seemed almost to glow. It was just a beam of sunlight that struck through the window, but the light seemed to come instead from some internal tungsten filament. She became all women. She was Ruth and Naomi, Eve and Rembrandt’s Saskia. She was not performing some minor task, but had hooked into the flow of the world and was living, glowing myth. Pure Archetype.

In a white blouse and black pleated trousers, she began fixing breakfast in a slow, methodical fashion and everything she did was the mimicking of thousands of years of daily living. She slowly cut off a piece of butter and placed it in the sizzling pan; she sliced the onion and cheese and with her arms holding the bowl on her hip close to her belly, she beat the eggs and prepared to dump them in the pan. The light was uncanny and I nearly cried for the beauty of that morning, the quiet intensity of her motions. All I know is that for 15 minutes Robin ceased being Robin and became everyone who ever prepared breakfast.

That moment couldn’t last, and neither could that relationship. Things beyond my ken were involved. They usually are.

P02969 001In the late 1960s I went camping at Cape Hatteras with my college buddy, Alexander. It was March, before the tourist season and the beach was empty and the wind was cold and brisk. One night we went out toward the cape point. The only light we had was our Coleman lantern and near the point the surf sounded from both sides. The air was thick with moisture and the lamp cast our shadows up into the sky where our heads touched the constellations. Our forms cast out on the cosmos and looked rather like the Colossus of Goya’s late “Black Paintings.” And I recalled the phrase from the Magnificat — “quia fecit mihi magna,” — and I felt magnified.

There are many instances of such epiphanies, although each will be personal to us, unshared in particulars, but common in outline. I have the climb up Mount Angeles in the Olympic Mountains of Washington to the lake with a pure John Martin waterfall on the opposite shore. There is the moment that slammed me in Port Jervis, at the joint of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when I saw a vacant lot by the railroad roundhouse that was blasted with fall wildflowers — ironweed, asters, yarrow, goldenrod, queen-anne’s lace, joe pye weed, mullein, cow itch — it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and even now I prefer weeds to domesticated gardens.



But I said such epiphanies can mislead us. For the religious or the sentimental, such moments speak of a beautiful cosmos. But these epiphanies can carry the opposite. When I was still a boy — probably five or six years old and it was just a few years after World War II — films from the liberated concentration camps were shown on television. I don’t know whether they were George Stevens’ films from Dachau or Army films from Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen. But these films burned into even my childhood imagination, those spectres, those skeletons, those harrowed, sunken cheeks, those piles of skeletons wrapped in sacks of their own withered leathery skin. Soldiers picked up the stiffened bony puppets and tossed them into the backs of trucks. This too is ephiphany, the drawing back of the veil.

Aleppo, 2016

Aleppo, 2016

I see something of the same in the eyes of Syrian refugees, I see revenants of postwar Berlin in the bombed out walls of Aleppo. There is beauty in the world, but there is also horror. Ugliness to balance that transcendence, evil to mock the elation.

One thinks of all the genocides, mass murders, atrocities and pogroms of history, the cities razed to the ground with all their populace put to the sword, of all the gulags, all the dead Cathars, Tutsis and Hutus, all those drowned in the cataclysms of swollen rivers, ravaging earthquakes, the decimation of populations through plague, the millions lost to bizarre insect-born diseases. As soon as you find yourself Panglossing over the glory of a sunrise, you catch yourself short remembering Cain and Abel and the real meaning of the brotherhood of man.

One could make a list of those moments of disillusionment and disaffection. Such a list is a weight around the neck of any afflating joy. One recognizes the moment when you realize someone you have loved no longer loves back, when one is betrayed at work or by a friend, when you see the ravages of illness in those you care most deeply for. The world is not an easy place to love. Suffering is universal; even the rich lose their loved ones.

The truth is that we seldom live in the joy or the pain, but rather spend our days in utter banality. Banality is our salvation: If we lived in the joy we would go mad; if we lived in the pain, we would also go mad. So, we don’t see the dancing tree and we ignore the drowning refugees so that we can get on with our lives. It can hardly be otherwise. The world would come to a halt if we all lived in the beauty, if we all bore the suffering.


pieta 1Yet, we cannot ignore our epiphanies, either. They sneak up on us, and for a brisk instant we glimpse eternity and its glorious, horrible uncaring. We recognize our place in this swirling inhuman chaos, both ecstatic and virulent. We ask our artists to memorialize both. They can take the two and bind them together, such as the exquisite beauty of Grunewald’s painting of the torture and gruesome death of a man on the rack of a crucifixion, or the sorrow of a mother grieving over the death of her son.

Certainly not all art addresses this special issue, but a surprising amount of our art, whether painting, sculpture, music or poetry, attempts to remind us of the forgotten intensity of existence, whether on the side of ecstasy or on the side of suffering. Even so simple as a watercolor of a vase of flowers hints at this.

If it is banality that saves us from madness, it is art that saves us from banality.

We’ve reached the end. Six days in Palm Springs looking at a hundred or more short films. The judges now have to sit down and parse out who will get the awards. Some judges are better at this than others. Notes I took as one of those jurors in 2000 at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival. 

Judges Attend The Annual Service At Westminster Abbey To Mark The Start Of The UK Legal Year

Aug. 6

Today is judgment day.

We met as groups in the Festival office beginning at 9 a.m. Jack and I sat in one booth with a VCR. Sharon and Andy took the conference room. Selise and Norman took the larger office.

Jack and I had already discussed out choices for documentary the evening before, so we had a good idea where we were going. But Jack, very generously had gone and viewed my choice for documentary another time.

“I looked at Esther, Baby and Me one more time this morning,” he said. “And I’m willing to change my mind on it. I’ll agree it is a documentary. It’s not a traditional one, but it does examine the filmmaker’s state of mind during his wife’s pregnancy, and although he gave her lines to learn and perform, I guess that is the only way you could film it.”

esther the baby and me 4

Note from 2016 — Decide for yourself; See Louis Taylor’s Esther, Baby and Me:

Jack surprised me several times with his generosity and willingness to consider other points of view.

Indeed, during the juroring process, he was always willing to negotiate and bargain and compromise. I take that as a sign of a very good juror. I also was willing to compromise. I think it’s the only way to do it successfully.

At any rate, we got through our choices in about a half hour and it only took that long because we stopped to view one of the films another time.

I conceded his first choice for documentary — The Sunshine, a straight documentary about the bums living in a Bowery flophouse — and he accepted Esther, Baby and Me as the second prize winner.

For Live Action 15 minutes and under, we both agreed on This Guy is Falling, although, if he had wanted to argue the point, he might have said it wasn’t really live action, since all the sets and backgrounds were computer generated. He didn’t so argue.

this guy is falling fire extinguisher

Note from 2016 — the film by Michael Horowitz and Gareth Smith explores what happens if the gravity switch is accidentally turned off. See This Guy is Falling:

Our previous first choice, Echo, about a pair of holocaust survivors, one blind, the other deaf, fell gracefully into second place. Done.

In the conference room, Andy and Sharon had twice as many categories to go through: all the student films. It took them about an hour and they were done, too, with no rancor.

We waited and waited. I went out to the car and got a book. We watched a few favorite videos while waiting for Selise and Norman.

At one point, Fred Linch came into the booth with two videos.

“I’m going to have to cast a tie-breaking vote,” he said.

As head of jury, that was his job, although in six years of the festival, he had never had to actually do such a thing before. He watched two animations and finally made a choice. We heard a few grumbles from the office where Selise and Norman were arguing.

Another hour goes by. Fred comes in with another two films to cast another tie-breaker.

The voting was supposed to last from 9 to 11, if necessary. It took till 2 in the afternoon, because Norman and Selise didn’t know how to compromise and negotiate. They were both stubborn, although, as we found out later, it was mostly Norman who was the horse’s ass.

During the full-jury session to pick “Best of the Fest” from our selections, Norman blocked us, slowed us down and vacillated constantly.

“No, wait. Did I vote for Edge of Dusk? I meant to vote for … no wait, what were the choices?”

There were three choices, but he kept wanting to open it up to others, although no one else would have voted for them anyway, making the issue moot.

Over and over, Norman split hairs, argued points — all meaningless — and made us vote and revote. His notes were a salad of scrap paper with scribblings, in no particular order, so when he wanted to consult them, it would take him forever to find the note he needed, and then when he found it, it was no longer the point he was trying to make.

We were all pretty well exasperated by him, but finally drew the thing to a close.

Each judge was permitted to give one award to any film he wanted, no questions asked. Six “special merit” awards.

I gave mine to Titler, for the category, “Offensive in the Most Memorable Way.” In it a transvestite Hitler sings wildly obscene songs in various industrial settings. Note from 2016 — You can find it on You Tube, but I feel good taste and discretion recommends I not post it here.

After the five of us had done that, Norman came up with three possible merit awards and couldn’t make up his mind — more precisely, he couldn’t remember what they were. He shuffled notes, voted for one picture, changed his mind, no, wait, he went back the the first choice, but then, no, he found a third film and went with it, but wasn’t sure. We were beginning to form a lynch group.

Then Fred asked if there were any other films we should consider.

“I’ll allow up to two more merit awards, if you think they deserve it. But only two. I’ll leave the room and you decide what you want.

I nominated Tex, the Passive Aggressive Gunfighter. Everyone agreed it deserved an award.

Note from 2016 — Tex, The Passive Aggressive Gunslinger, by Brian Sawyer, features Bob Balaban as the deadly desperado who never needs to draw his gun. See Tex:

tex 3

Sharon nominated a slender little slapstick animation film. Norman had three or four — he couldn’t make up his mind which.

Selise joined in. One of Norman’s films was a socially aware film about child abuse. As she was an officer in the group called Women in Film, she jumped right on it.

When Fred came back, we wound up having to vote to see which of the films would get the awards. Tex came in first, so he passed.

To make Selise happy (we didn’t care about Norman), we agreed to give an award to the child abuse film. Sharon was very upset, because, she said, “No one understands animation. This film is very good. I know how hard it was to do it. Awwwwwww.”

Jack jumped to it.

“I’m going to change my choice. For my unchallengable choice for a merit award, I’m going to go with Sharon’s animation. My film already won another award.”

Here he was again, building consensus. Sharon was very mollified.

So, that is how it all ended. The best film didn’t win best of show, but the film that did win was very good. Jack and I had bartered and were satisfied with our awards. I managed to squeeze a special award in for Titler, Andy and Sharon were happy with their choices, and Fred’s choices for Norman and Selise’s two first-place awards were perfectly acceptable.

That is the way it is as a juror. You hope to come out not being embarrassed by the jury’s choices. We did. If the best films in any one juror’s opinion didn’t prevail, at least the second choices of all averaged out and we all came away satisfied.

Even Norman was finally satisfied.

We are winding down now at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and the actual judging has begun. These are notes I made as a juror back in 2000 and I hope they give some sense of what it was like. 

TV camera and reporter

Aug. 5

I was interviewed by the TV crew at the hospitality suite.

“I’ve seen a lot of very good movies,” I told the camera, with its light glaring in my eyes. “And no dogs. The quality level has been surprisingly high.”

“What about the filmmakers,” the camera asked.

“They ask, ‘Have you seen my film?,’ but of course, what they really mean is, ‘Did you like my film?’ ”

What I really meant to say is, when they ask, “Did you like my film,” what they really mean is, “Did you like ME?”

What I did say to the camera was, “Artists are so needy.”

The jurors symbolically bought lunch for the filmmakers today — the Festival paid for it, but we were there to “serve” it, which really meant just being there as the food was eaten. TV crews came, piles of Mexican food in drifts on the tables were gobbled up.

The filmmakers mainly talked to each other; they speak the same language. The jurors mainly spoke to each other for the same reason.

“I expected to be bothered more by the filmmakers,” I mentioned to Andy Friedenberg. “Fred said they would be on us all the time.”

“I thought so, too,” Andy said. “They must have gotten to them before it started and warned them not to talk to the judges.”

Nevertheless, a number have come up and looked at my judge’s neck tag and asked with the faces of puppy dogs if I had seen their films.

“That film is in my category,” I would respond.

“Have you seen it yet?”

“It’s in my category.”

It must have driven them nuts.

“Have you seen my film?,” another asked.

I parried, asking him which film it was. I was only looking at professional films and I thought he might be a student, which would get me off the hook.

“Are you student or professional?,” I asked.

“Well, I’m not enrolled in any school, so I guess I’m a professional.”

I thought, that’s a perfect way to define professionalism.

Jack Ofield

Jack Ofield

We started the day with breakfast with Jack. He explained how he got from arctic Canada to San Diego, beginning as a painter planning a career selling gallery art, moving on to scenery painting in local theaters, moving up to directing local theater, thence to a special program for local theater people at the Canadian Film Board, where he learned from Norman McLaren, then on to a life in TV documentaries and to a position as filmmaker in residence at Sand Diego State University.

“I don’t know anything about teaching,” he says he told them.

“A professor took me aside and said, ‘Do you know how much we work? We get three months off for summer, we teach three or four classes a week. The salary is fantastic and they’re offering you tenure. Are you nuts?

“So I took the job.”

We talked over the documentaries. His choices were diametrically opposed to my choices. The two films I voted for were both questionable as documentaries, but I figured, if the Festival accepted them as documentaries, it wasn’t up to me to second guess them. Besides, the films I liked were rich with the sensibilities of their makers. Personal films with distinct points of view. When you finished with them, you got the feeling you knew something about the men who made them.

Jack, on the other hand, chose more traditional documentaries.

“I’m just not sure your films are documentaries at all,” he said.

We argued back and forth, in a good natured way.

“When the Maysles brothers began,” I argued, “there were plenty of people who didn’t think what they did was documentary, either. The camera changed the course of the action they filmed. People acted differently because they knew the camera was running. Now, we have no trouble with them. You complain that the film I love has people in it who are acting, and therefore they can’t be considered documentary. But what they act is the only way to show what was going on inside the head of the filmmaker. It is accurate and factual to the interior life of the filmmaker, and that is what he is making the documentary about. You can’t stick a camera in his ear and see what’s going on in his head. You have to show it metaphorically. That is what the recreations and fictionalized scenes do. They can’t show mere fact, so they attempt to show truth.”

Jack wudn’t having any of it.

At any rate, I finally offered a compromise. We could give first place to his choice if he would allow us to give second place to my choice.


We didn’t discuss our other category in depth, because we had both not seen all the entries yet. But based on what we did say, we won’t have such a difficulty agreeing on a winner.

Carole and I went to the office after breakfast to watch the day’s films in my category — professional live action films 15 minutes or under.

There were some very good ones.

As we were watching I heard someone enter the office and talk to the receptionist.

“Are you a filmmaker?,” the receptionist asked.

“No, but my son is,” she said.

Back in the year 2000, it is day 4 of the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, for which I am one of six jurors. These were my notes at the time. 


Aug. 4

Each day is a constant challenge to organize. The films I need to see to judge are scattered through mixed programs, some of which overlap. To catch up on the films I miss in the theater, I have to go to the Festival office to see on video. But sometimes the time it takes to watch the videos cuts into the next theater session, meaning I have to catch up all over again. It is a never-ending task. At the end of today, I have seen 74 films to judge, and many more outside my categories. By the end of the festival, I will have seen 91 of them.

I am becoming glazed over with short films. I can hardly tell them apart anymore. Sensitive guys learning to be gay, assertive women learning to be shallow, lesbian grandmothers teaching their grandchildren how to be themselves, men in flophouses learning to wear gold lame.

I should say something about the other jurors. We met at the beginning of the festival, but because we are seeing different categories, we rarely come across one another now. Except when we meet at the Festival office and jockey for video stations to watch films. The stations are prioritized. Jack Ofield likes the one in the carrel, separate from everyone else. Only one can sit and view films there.

The largest screen is in the east viewing area. It is usually chosen first by whoever is there. It is a mini theater and many can pull up chairs and watch.

A conference room down the hall has a small TV with a built-in VHS player. The chairs in that room are hard and the lights a little glary and the video player has no remote, which means we cannot pause during the credits to read something.

Finally, in the back of the office is the dubbing station, used by the Festival staff to copy tapes. The set is tiny and only plays mono sound, so some tapes sound like crap in it: You only wind up hearing one track of the stereo sound.

jack ofield 1

Jack Ofield

Jack is in my category, but he is an odd squirrelly fellow with shaggy hair. He’s about 60, I would guess, and is here with his wife, although we never see her. She has the car, so Jack is always bumming rides from here to there. He has a kind of lost look in his eyes and so far has been very good at not tipping his hand.

He has a PBS show called The Short List and obviously sees a lot of shorts. He also teaches filmmaking at San Diego State University.

We talked briefly about the Documentary category today, since we saw the last of them. It sounds as if his tastes are wildly different from mine and we agreed to meet for breakfast to discuss the category. He really liked the flophouse film, which I thought overlong and rather ordinary. We’ll have to see how it goes tomorrow.

sharon wu 2

Sharon Wu

Sharon Wu is a film instructor at the California Institute of the Arts and has been a judge at Palm Springs for at least 4 years now. A recidivist.

Every time we have gone to the office to watch videos, Wu is there. It seems as if she must watch all the films on tape. She is about 40 and just had a baby, which she calls the first baby of the Palm Springs Short Film Festival. She is well liked by all and a genuine regular.


Selise Eiseman

Selise Eiseman is director of programs for a group called Women in Films. She is married and a mother, thickly built and seemingly humorless, although I haven’t really had enough exposure to her to say that with assurance.

Andy Friedenberg is a shaved headed guy who is director of the Cinema Society of San Diego. He seems jolly and connected. He reminds me almost dead-on of Evan Handler on It’s Like… You Know.

andy friedenberg

Andy Friedenberg

(Outdated reference note from 2016: Handler was a regular on many TV shows more recently, including Californication and as Alan Dershowitz on American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But if the ref is too arcane, let’s just substitute Howie Mandel.)

Finally, Norman Gerard is a producer, writer and director of films. He talks like an industry insider, and is quickly dismissive of anything that seems to him to be a demo tape for an actor, suspicious of anything done on video instead of film, and he has that slightly curdling quality of the inappropriately intimate — you know, the kind of guy who calls me “Dick” the first time he meets me, or like the waiter who tells you his life story.

norman gerard

Norman Gerard

Fred Linch is the jury-meister, and is always lining us up with parties to go to when we have no time, or interviews with reporters who never call or get-togethers with filmmakers and studio people when I have to be at a screening. He is big bellied and jovial, with a gravelly baritone and — as I mentioned before — one missing front upper tooth that he seems unaware of.

I’m sure I must seem just as odd to them, always coming to screenings or office viewings with my wife. Carole and I are pretty close to inseparable. I rely on her taste and judgment, but I think the other jurors are perhaps a bit dismissive of her, telling her places she might like to visit while I judge films. Shopping malls and spas — you know, girl things.

Little do they know Carole.