Monthly Archives: September 2013

old elvis 1

Elvis is America.

I am not entirely delighted by that fact — even somewhat embarrassed by it — but there is no other figure, public or private, from the past 200 years that sums up so succinctly what the United States is all about.

And three and a half decades after his disappearance and reported death, Elvis Presley remains both what Americans are and what they want to be.

Of course, what they want to be is Young Elvis — brash, sexy, talented. And, compared to most Old World cultures, that is just what America is. Its pop culture has preempted many indigenous folkways throughout the planet precisely because it is so appealingly energetic. Content doesn’t matter nearly so much as style points, and Elvis — and America — can swivel and two-step like a blue demon.6/30/00 DS - REF="Elvis_ao_MCos.psd"

The effect is so pervasive that in deepest Africa, you don’t hear tribal drumming so much as you hear Top-40 tunes. And Japanese karaoki is not, after all, based on the music of the classical Noh plays.

No, what appeals to the world is America’s optimism, its lack of guilt, its comfort with itself. America may be a novice in world history, but it is a refreshingly guileless novice — or at least, it has been.

Like Young Elvis, we think of ourselves as dangerous without being threatening.

But America would prefer not to notice the Old Elvis in the mix, which is also part of our Elvis-selves.

For America is also crass, loaded with bad taste, money-chasing, conspicuous consumption, anti-intellectualism, sentimental Christianity, drug hypocrisy, junk food and mindless consumerism.

On the surface, the Young and Old Elvises seem like opposites, but they are not: The one naturally evolves from the other. You cannot have the Young Elvis without the Old One waddling behind, two halves to the same coin.

The flip side of our energy is our anti-intellectualism; our self-confidence is also our provincialism.

Our sober, well-educated founding fathers envisioned an America modeled on republican Rome — or rather modeled on imperial Rome’s nostalgic vision of its republican past.

Washington, Madison, Adams and Jefferson imagined something brand new in the world, something bursting with energy, new ideas and vitality.

That is Young Elvis. But just as republican Rome turned into the empire of Tiberius, Nero and Elagabalus, so America quickly added to its repertoire the Jacksons, the No-Nothings and the Tea Party and Neocons.

Indeed, Andrew Jackson, who kept goats in the White House and stabled his race horses on the grounds, was probably the first Old Elvis in our history. He was even known as “The King,” in his day — King Andrew, he was called by his political opponents, who disliked his monarchical yet proletarian ways.

There is something in American culture that is illogically ambivalent about royalty. We claim to be a classless society and righteously argue that anyone in America is as good as anyone else. Heaven help anyone who “puts on airs.”

Yet, Old Elvis is what America wants to be, too.old elvis 2

It is the ultimate goal of American democracy, not that we all share equally a modest and comfortable life, but that everyone should be a millionaire — and Old Elvis is America’s vision of what a millionaire should dress and act like.

So, we make an image of our desires and create a kind of celebrity aristocracy and pay homage to them by gobbling up tales of their every peccadillo in tabloid exposes.

It is a kind of trailer-park version of royalty: Bad taste, emphasis on wealth and glamor.

Glamor is to beauty as rhinestones are to rubies: There was some genuine grace in the Young Elvis; the Old Elvis is cubic zirconia to the bone.


We enter the second week of the pro-football season, and I have to make a decision: To watch or not to watch.

Like any red-blooded American male, sporting the mangled Y-chromosome that defines malehood, I cannot easily resist armored behemoths in a demolition derby of sinews and ligaments, with the prize being lifelong damage from accumulated concussions.

(A confession here: I am really a baseball fan, so my interest now is whether the Red Sox will be able to hold on, or whether they will collapse in the next few weeks. I care rather less about the NFL.)

I watch football, though, it’s just that I cannot justify the time wasted doing so. It is something like an addiction and just as fruitless and just as absurd.

After all, the game really can be summed up, as my wife says, as “he runs with the ball, he throws the ball, he falls down with the ball.” There isn’t much else that happens. Oh, yes, there is quite a bit of measuring.

Not that much happens to fill up that three-and-a-half hours on TV that a game takes. And, as a recent experiment on my part proves, even those things don’t happen much.

I timed a game.

What I actually did was record the game and play it back with a stopwatch in hand, fast-forwarding through the chaff, timing everything from each snap of the ball to the referee’s whistle ending each play.

To my utter amazement, three minutes and 25 seconds into the experiment, the gun sounded on the first quarter. Whoa, that was a rush.

In the three hours-plus that the game would have eaten up of  my Sunday afternoon, there was exactly 14 minutes and six seconds worth of actual playing time.

The rest was huddling, timeouts, zebras in confabulation, replays, reverse-angles, ex-jocks analyzing the fine points of the left tackle’s trap block and, most importantly, beer commercials with pneumatic women.

I have tried to go cold turkey. Last season I went 11 weeks into the NFL season before watching a game. I was a more productive member of society; I felt righteous.

But I finally caved in, sneaking a bit of a Giants-Redskins game. I watched till the end of the season.

This year so far, I have only watched one half of one game. I am hoping to avoid the steroidal monkey on my back.

But I have also found a way to enjoy the game without wasting my time waiting three hours for those few minutes of actual football: I have learned to dilute my drug of choice. I now put the game on and turn the sound off. I put some Brahms or Stravinsky on the stereo and I sit down in my favorite chair with the Sunday paper. I read, I listen, and when the ball is snapped, I can look up at the screen and catch all the action. And I mean all the action. It’s a great way to get something done and see those 14 minutes and six seconds that actually count.

Lyndon Johnson

If it weren’t for popular culture, some people say, America would have no culture at all.

But that’s a bad rap. Popular culture is America’s one great gift to the world. If Greece gave us logic, democracy and high art, America in her 200-year infancy gave back Good Golly Miss Molly, the moonwalk and Flav-R-Straws. Who is to say this isn’t an even trade? There is a dynamism in pop culture that makes European high art look positively flat-footed. Pop bounces; it’s witty, clever and brash. It explodes in your mouth like Pop Rocks. And if you get bored with the latest incarnation of pop, another will be along, like a bus, in 15 minutes.

Hey, you can’t dance to Wagner.

Pop culture is so persuasive that virtually every nation on Earth yearns to assimilate it whole. T-shirts and jeans have become the international habiliment, as American English has become Earth’s lingua franca.

How did it come to be this way? There are many mileposts on the way. They are the Great Moments in Pop Culture.

Some might say pop culture is made up solely of great moments, since the concept of great moments is by itself a pop phenomenon.

Lyndon Johnson showing us his surgery scar; the invention of the ice cream cone; the first televised professional wrestling. The latest is Miley Cyrus and her Wrecking Ballmiley cyrus wrecking ball

More great moments: the first waffle; the invention of tassels; the day Hanna met Barbera; black-velvet Elvis; and instant replay.

Each was a defining moment in a culture that redefines itself every moment of existence.

There was Nixon saying, ”Sock it to me” on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In; the first TV couple sleeping in a single bed; paperback books; Ron Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman.

In a sense, the perfect incarnation of pop culture is the Madonna-Lady Gaga axis. It is the phenomenon that most accurately describes what America is all about.

In Europe, class traditionally has defined who you are and what you can be, but democratic America is about social mobility and the rock-hard belief that no one is better than anyone else. When they called America the land of opportunity, they meant not only the land of $60-million no-cut contracts, but the land that lets you inflate your breasts with silicone, join the Hair Club for Men or rise from Bedtime for Bonzo to president.

European high culture is divided into the seven arts: painting, music, dance, literature, theater, sculpture and opera. Critics in the 20th century often add an eighth: cinema. But all are longhair and, when properly appreciated, require uncomfortable clothes, usually worn by audience and artist alike.

American pop culture requires no more than shirt and shoes for admission, and sometimes not even that. High culture is French wine; pop culture is a twist-off cap on a Lite beer.

But pop culture, too, is divided into seven components. They might be the race car, top hat, old shoe, wheelbarrow, iron, thimble and terrier of Monopoly, but they’re not.

The real seven lively pop culture components are: Horses, Roman Numerals, Dirt, Nudity, Cheese, Hair and Golf. Any aspect of pop culture fits into one of these categories.

Let’s take and examine them one by one.

Howie Mandel

Howie Mandel

Hair, for instance — by far the largest category — includes rock and roll, television evangelists and local TV news anchors. Howie Mandel is included as the negative of the proposition, an honor he shares with an increasingly large number of pop icons in the brotherhood of the shaved head.

Boxing falls under Hair, via Don King.

Horses includes everything from Hoot Gibson to Mister Ed to that ’78 Chevy with 300 horses under the hood.

Richard Harris also fits here.

Roman Numerals take care of the Super Bowl, Halloween movies and Thurston Howell III.

Under Cheese we can find most of the American diet, from pizza to cheeseburgers. Fondue is here.

But so is reality TV: Not much is cheesier.

Nudity brings us Madonna (of course), Playboy magazine, Robert Mapplethorpe, Danielle Steele novels and Sports Illustrated.

Dirt is self-explanatory: It is gossip, and includes not only People magazine, Entertainment Tonight and Kitty Kelley, but also the entire political process, especially as it has devolved into the intellectual equivalent of mud wrestling. johnny carson golf swing

And, of course, Golf. Johnny Carson’s monologue punctuation, the nation’s space program (golf is first interplanetary sport), the late Mr. Blackwell’s honorees and anyone else who wears tasteless clothes.

Name any pop phenomenon and you can find a home for it in one or more of these resting places. The Simpsons, for instance, falls under Hair, based on the tonsures of Bart, Lisa and Marge and the lack of same in Homer.

Sally Rand’s fan dance or Betty Grable’s legs fall under Nudity, along with Bernie Madoff (under the Emperor’s New Clothes clause).

And where the eggheads add cinema (as opposed to movies) as a late-developing fine art, we must point out that pop culture has added T-shirts. T-shirts are the personal communication medium of an age that no longer writes complete sentences.

The T-shirt category also includes vanity license plates and bumper stickers. yellow kid

The history of the message T-shirt is really as old as The Yellow Kid. Often considered the first comic strip, The Yellow Kid premiered in 1895 in the New York World. Unlike modern strips, with dialogue in balloons, the Yellow Kid’s words first appeared on the front of his shirt.

The Yellow Kid’s creator, Richard Outcault, later felt his dialogue was uncomfortably constrained by the device and invented the word balloon as a solution. It was one of the great moments of pop culture.





It’s tough to decide where to begin a list of pop culture’s greatest moments. Should it be 59 B.C. with the first newspaper, in Rome? Or maybe 1530 with the first state lottery, in Florence?

Gutenberg’s printing press got three No. 1 votes in the coaches’ poll.

Even more likely candidates are Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 in 1598, which prefigured our current sequelitis, or the first newspaper correction, printed in 1721.

But I decided the real start of pop culture was one year before the Declaration of Independence. Pop culture is almost perfectly coexistent with (and maybe codependent on) the nationhood of the United States.

Nothing in this chronology is made up. These things happened.


1775 – Carbonated water is invented by John Mervin Nooth.

1801 – Elisha Brown Jr. makes a cheese weighing 1,235 pounds; six months later, it is presented to President Thomas Jefferson at the White House.

1812 – First lawn mower (horse-powered) is patented by Peter Gaillard of Lancaster, Pa., making golf possible.

1823 – John Wayne gets his first role, when James Fenimore Cooper publishes Pioneers. Wayne, Gary Cooper and even Clint Eastwood would not have been possible without Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” tales, including The Last of the Mohicans.

1825 – Thaumatrope is invented, early movie predecessor. Others: Phenakistiscope, Zoetrope, Zoepraxiscope. Americans become intoxicated with Greek-derived words.

1848 – Dentist’s chair is patented by M. Waldo Hanchett of Syracuse, N.Y.

1854 – Accordion is patented by Anthony Faas of Philadelphia

1857 – Joseph C. Gayetty of New York City invents toilet paper, made of manila hemp. With his name watermarked on each sheet, it sold at 500 sheets for 50 cents and was known as ”Gayetty’s Medicated Paper – a perfectly pure article for the toilet and for the prevention of piles.” atlantic city elephant

1860 – Dime novels hit the newsstand when Ann Sophia Stephens writes Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter.

1869 – Dr. William Newton Morrison creates a gold crown for a tooth, making Hip Hop videos possible.

1882 – First building shaped like an elephant is built, by James V. Lafferty in Atlantic City, N.J.

1886 – Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola and Hires Root Beer hit the market.

1894 – First movie theater is opened in New York, by Thomas Edison. First films are bodybuilder Eugene Sandow lifting weights and doing exercises, and Buffalo Bill mounting a horse and shooting his pistols. Cut to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood.

1896 – First automobile accident, as a Duryea Motor Wagon hits a bicycle rider in New York City.

1896 – Chop Suey concocted in New York by Chinese Ambassador Li Hung-chang’s chef, who devises the dish to appeal to both American and Oriental tastes.

Genevra Delphine Mudge

Genevra Delphine Mudge

1898 – First woman driver, Genevra Delphine Mudge, takes to New York’s streets. In 1899, she knocks down five pedestrians, initiating the creation of a new profession: stand-up comedian. Laughs on them: She became first woman race car driver.

1911 – Painted lines first run down center of road, in Trenton, Mich.

1922 – Belvin W. Maynard, ”The Flying Parson,” gives first sermon from an airplane, broadcasting from his Fokker over Tupper Lake, N.Y.

1926 – Electric toaster is invented by McGraw Electric Co., Minneapolis, under trademark Toastmaster. Pop Tarts not far behind.

1930 – First cow flown in an airplane, a Guernsey, goes aloft with corps of reporters and is milked during flight. Milk is sealed in paper containers and parachuted over St. Louis.

1930 – Twinkies are invented.

1935 – First parking meters, invented by Carlton Cole Magee, are installed in Oklahoma City.

1935 – Beer is first sold in cans.

1937 – First perfumed newspaper ad page appears in Washington, D.C., Daily News.

1937 – Spam is introduced by Geo. A. Hormel Co. as a health food.

1937 – First vanity plates are sold, in Connecticut.

1938 – Teflon is invented; Ronald Reagan is 27.

1939 – New York World’s Fair invents the future we are now stuck with. worlds fair

1940 – Arno Rudophi marries Ann Hayward above Jamaica, N.Y., in first parachute wedding.

1940 – Meat wrapped in cellophane is sold for first time, at A&P.

1940 – M&Ms are introduced, as a candy for the military.

1949 – UFOs hit headlines with first of a spate of sightings. Air Force investigates 244 sightings, says there are no flying saucers. Someone at Wham-o manufacturing company has a brainstorm.

1950 – ”If the television craze continues with the present level of programs,” says Daniel Marsh, president of Boston University, ”we are destined to have a nation of morons.” Aaron Spelling is 22.

1952 – Fish sticks are invented.

1953 – Playboy debuts with nude centerfold of Marilyn Monroe. John F. Kennedy is 36.

1954 – TV pictures are first transmitted from a blimp, for Tournament of Roses parade.

Eddie Rommel

Eddie Rommel

1956 – Edwin Americus Rommel becomes first major-league umpire to wear glasses.

1959 – Aromarama is introduced in movie Behind the Great Wall with slogan, ”You must breathe it to believe it.”

1959 – Plan 9 from Outer Space makes Aromarama redundant.

1960 – Nevertheless, Mike Todd Jr. develops Smell-O-Vision for Scent of Mystery.

1960 – First presidential debates on TV demonstrate importance of a clean shave.

1961 – Newton Minow, chairman of FCC, calls television ”a vast wasteland.” Bob Denver is 26.

1963 – Pop-top is patented by Ermal Cleon Fraze of Ohio.

1964 – Veg-o-matic is introduced.

1964 – Carol Doda displays first silicone breasts.

Carol Doda

Carol Doda

1965 – First TV husband and wife to share a bed are seen in NBC’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.

1968 – Beatles leave for India to receive instruction from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They complain of bad food. Ringo returns early; so does Mia Farrow. White Album follows.

1977 – First parade in which all marching music is supplied by transistor radio, Fourth of July at Streamwood, Ill.

1979 – Space Invaders video game released by Bally.

1989 – Tass, the Soviet press agency, reports alien creatures have landed in a space vehicle in a park in Voronezh, 300 miles southeast of Moscow, and a crowd describes one alien as 9 feet tall with three eyes. Tass insists it is not a hoax.

1990 – Strangest Dreams: Invasion of the Space Preachers, a TV movie shown incessantly on USA cable network, pretty well sums it up.

1990 – Hubble Space Telescope glitch proves next TV hit should be “Optometrists in Space.”

1991 – The World Wide Web is introduced, presumably also, the first cute kitten video.

1991 – The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings demonstrate that despite the introduction of the Web, pornography is still in the VHS dark ages.

1994 – Tonya Harding discovers way to pop culture fame by knee-capping rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan at Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

1995 – O.J. Simpson trial brings rhyming poetry to the tongues of lawyers.

1998 – Shakespeare in Love beats out Saving Private Ryan, Thin Red Line, Elizabeth and Life is Beautiful for the Best-Picture Oscar, proving that in America, nobody — and nothing — is better than anyone else, and even the least can win an award.

1998 – The epic saga of Monica Lewinsky begins, making the distinction between People magazine and the national political agenda meaningless. zimzamcola

1999 – Nation goes nuts chewing its fingernails over Y2K.

2002 – Iranian-made pop Zam Zam Cola is dubbed official soft drink of the Hajj.

2003 – Real-life “hobbit” discovered in fossil remains of Homo floresiensis.

2004 – Massachusetts becomes first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

2004 – Martha Stewart goes to prison.

2004 – At Super Bowl XXXVIII, Janet Jackson perfects the nip slip, which goes on to become one of the defining memes of the millennium. Since then, you can’t be a real celebrity without a nip slip playing on the internet. janet jackson nipslip

2005 – French surgeons carry out first successful human face transplant.

2005 – Cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in Denmark. Uh-oh.

2006 – Pluto demoted to “dwarf planet” status.

2006 – Vice President Dick Cheney shoots his friend in the face while quail hunting.

2006 – Singer Britney Spears one-ups Janet Jackson, and raises the ante on celebrity sex exposure, getting out of a car without underwear, a ploy later adopted by Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, among others.

2008 – Opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics scare the bejeezus out of America, which realizes that perhaps, just perhaps, it’s now on the downslope of history.

2011 – Congressman Anthony Weiner attempts to get in on the act by sexting a photo of his weiner, which must be the male equivalent of the Britney move. Fame follows, or rather notoriety, and resignation from Congress.

2013 – Now running for mayor of New York, Weiner again looks to Britney Spears for career guidance, following the advice of her hit song, Whoops, I Did It Again. TV talk show hosts consider this a gimme.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

We all have our guilty pleasures. One of mine is the art of John Martin. Actually, I love all the various painters of hysteria and grandiosity, of vast Romantic and Baroque spaces, like the prisons of Piranesi and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

These incredible spaces — and I use the word “incredible” in its technical sense — are projections of the Romantic sensibility, that desire for transcendence and a grasping for the cosmic. And always, with the dark shade of annihilation lurking behind it.

There is a delightful strain of paranoia in the paintings of John Martin (1789-1854). It is that touch of insanity that makes his Romantic landscapes so, well, Romantic. He was known to many as ”Mad Martin.”

He certainly came by it honestly: His brother William called himself the ”philosophical conqueror of the universe” and wrote pamphlets that proved beyond question — to himself at any rate — that the prime element out of which everything in creation is made — is air.

His other brother, Jonathan, is known to history as the ”incendiary of Yorkminster,” after he set fire to Yorkminster Cathedral because of some presumed ecclesiastical insult.

The painter himself devised a vast plan to reform the sewer system of London and held patents on hundreds of inventions of questionable usefulness.

His one lasting invention was the steel mezzotint engraving. The copper and zinc plates used for etching and engraving made beautiful prints, but the edges of the engraved line wore down too soon to make the thousands of copies necessary to feed the growing mass media. Martin’s steel plates, while unable to take the fine and subtle detail of copper, lasted forever.

But fine and subtle weren’t in Martin’s vocabulary, anyway.

Of biblical proportions

Balshazzar's Feast

Balshazzar’s Feast

He specialized in biblical paintings that would make C.B. DeMille seem like a miniaturist in comparison. One painting of Balshazzar’s Feast (he painted several) includes a building 7 miles long.

You can tell, because he includes, among the hundreds of writhing figures, one man standing beside one of the columns in a gallery that extends nearly to the horizon line. If you take that figure, meant to provide scale, at 6 feet tall, you can extrapolate, via the rules of Renaissance perspective, the length of the building. At least, so Martin wrote. When I have tried to follow his directions, the measurements get snarled up in swirling mist and the diminution of distance. But I’ll take his word for it.

The Evening of the Deluge

The Evening of the Deluge

This weakness for gigantism is the defining quality of Martin’s art. Other titles bear this out: Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon; The Fall of Ninevah; and trilogies on the themes of The Deluge and Last Judgment.

My favorite is his Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, in which the tiny, exhausted and naked figure of Sadak, in the bottom corner of the canvas, climbs the sublime precipice complete with waterfalls that make Angel Falls in South America look like a drinking fountain.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Martin’s best work is his series of steel mezzotints illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost. He had some trouble drawing figures, which are often awkward, even childish, but he had no trouble imagining and picturing the vastness of time and space. Satan, of course, is his Byronic hero.

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

Martin was enormously popular through the 1820s and ’30s — he was knighted by Leopold I of Belgium in 1833 — and small engraved versions of his huge paintings were as popular in England at the time as Taylor Swift posters are now. He became very wealthy, but lost most of his fortune on his sewer-improvement scheme.

Critical favor turned away from Martin by the time of his death, and a century after his peak fame, his canvases sold for as little as $10.

American landscapes by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran owe much of their sense of hysterical grandeur not merely to the scenery they painted — and exaggerated in the process — but to the Romanticism that inspired Martin. Cole, especially, admitted his debt to the Englishman and at times imitated him outright.

But Martin’s most familiar progeny are heavy-metal bands such as Black Sabbath, King Diamond, Slayer, AC/DC, Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse. There is the same obsession with death, Satan and the black arts. king kong 3

And that sense of dark, vast space, craggy rocks extending to the skies, and winking light back in the distance, was an inspiration to the makers of the original King Kong, too.

It is all driven by an adolescent understanding of what Longinus called ”the Sublime.”

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Four seasons may seem like enough. Maybe for a resort hotel. It is the conventional way to divvy  up the annual circumambulation of the sun. But four is an arbitrary number. In some places, two seasons are all there is, rainy season and dry season, or in Arizona: unbearable heat, and respite from unbearable heat.

And even in those climes where the traditional four account for our calendar, there are really any number of discernible seasons: Indian summer, midwinter spring, mud season. In Maine, there’s black fly season; there’s tourist season at the Jersey shore. Many places have their annual infestations.

Some of the most interesting moments of the annual cycle are those that fall between the seasons, those moments that are neither quite winter nor quite spring, or neither summer nor fall.

Of these, my favorite has always been that slip in time between autumn and the harder breath of winter — when the color has passed from the cheeks of the trees but not all the leaves have dropped to gather in soft, brittle piles on the ground.

It was like that near the end of October at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston. The Canada geese were flying south in droves across the crisp sky, the alders at water’s edge were naked except for the tiny seed cone at the tip of each branch. The pond water was beginning to chill, but not so much that the fish lost their will to bite the hook.

Walden Pond is a small kettle pond, left in place just south of Concord by the glaciers that covered the land 10,000 years ago. It is essentially a dimple left in the ground by the weight of the ice. When the ice melted, the water remained in the depression.

Around the pond, the land rises up in places something like 20 feet above the water level in formations the geologists call ”eskers,” which are the loose junk left behind by the ice. The twin tracks of the railroad run along the back side of the pond.

On the October morning, before the sun arises, the temperature is in the low 40s and desert-dry. You can see the light catch in the tops of the trees along the heights of the eskers and slowly descend into the water as the morning progresses. walden pond aerial view

Walden is an oblong stretch of lake, with one shallow bubble along its northeastern side. A bit of the lake is cordoned off by a footpath causeway, leaving a shallow lagoon trapped in the backwater.

Most of the trees’ leaves have dropped, leaving only the maroon of the red maple and the bright tan of the beech tree still hanging. A huge number of the leaves have collected on the surface of the lagoon, making it look as if it were paved in tree droppings.

On the water, about 50 yards out, I can see four ducks buzzing along, with their necks held flat on the water and their faces half-submerged as they wiggled their heads back and forth, gleaning a meal from the detritus of the pond. As they swam this way and that, moving like feathered zambonis, each left a wake behind it cleared of leaves.

Immediately, what had seemed a randomly mottled pond surface of tree-junk took on order and meaning as the old ”contrails” remained, leaving the water scratched with a history of duck dinners. Their names may have been ”writ in water,” as Keats had it, but those signatures had persistence.

I crouched down at the mucky edge of the water and waited. Patience pays off. The ducks slowly swam my way. Twenty minutes later, they were so close I could have stroked their slick, waterproof feathers. One started and flew off, leaving two females and a single male mallard. They scooted in circles, clapping their bills through the jetsam. One of the females came up to the water’s edge where I knelt down and began poking her beak into the mud. She found something to eat and continued.

A small boy approached on the path, calling back to his mother. I looked at him, put my finger to my lips to hush him and pointed at the birds. He looked briefly and walked right past. I wondered what he could have been racing to find that wasn’t right here: three ducks in arm’s reach.

It was early on a Sunday morning and the path around Walden Pond had perhaps 10 hikers on it. It is about a mile and a half to circumambulate the pond, so it never seemed crowded.

In addition, there were a dozen or so fishermen standing at the western and southern ends of the pond with their poles anchored in the sand and bobbing weights hanging like goiters from the poles.

”What do you catch?” I asked one.

”Trout. Rainbows and brookies,” he said in that dodgy Boston accent. ”This is our second time out this year” — said as “yee-ah” — “and we haven’t caught anything yet. There’s a fellow down the way there who pulled in a couple of them this morning.”

When I got to him, he had them strung on a line and submerged back in the water about three feet out. Each was about a foot long, one was speckled.

”Mighty good eating,” was all he said.

By the time I made it all the way around the pond, the sun was up and the temperature had climbed into the upper 50s. The light gleamed on the bark of the tree trunks and glared on the remaining leaves.

A century and a half ago, when Walden Pond first became known to a wider public, it was a quiet place, a few miles outside of town, where only the muskrats and crows came for recreation.

The silence was shattered only momentarily when the train to Fitchburg came through. Nowadays, a road passes right by the pond, and a divided highway sits only a quarter-mile away.

The sound as you walk across the far shore of the pond is a constant but subdued roar of whizzing cars, mixed with an occasional jet airplane and the same railroad commotion.

Oddly, though, as you walk around to the edge of the pond nearest the highway, its noise becomes blocked by the esker and the pond seems quiet once more.

Journalism is a funny profession, because its readers read about what happened yesterday and its reporters are writing what will be published tomorrow. It has little use for today.

But a day as distinct as this one on Walden Pond, in the cusp between the seasons, speaks only of the deliberate now, the specific and incandescent moment, as thin and sensuous as the membrane of the water’s surface as you stick your arm through it to pick a pebble from the pond’s bottom.


Patience is a virtue, they say, although you could never tell it from watching a driver hit the speed dial on his cell phone while in the drive-through lane at McDonald’s.

If it is a virtue, it is one of those quaint, Victorian or medieval virtues, like chastity or temperance, that seem completely beside the point in our modern world.

Ours is a world of channel-surfing, of Federal Express, of 24-hour Wall Street, of the Concorde. drive thru holding bag

When e-mail isn’t fast enough, we invent instant messaging.

Admit it: Haven’t you left something behind at Safeway because you just didn’t want to wait in the line?

Children cannot wait to be teenagers. Teenagers cannot wait to be adults. They are all in over their heads and don’t know it.

Adults cannot wait for the traffic light to change and gun their engines. They run up escalators and microwave their instant coffee.

If they could make their clocks run faster, they would.

And what do they gain by racing through the day?

A few moments to squeeze in something else too hectic to notice as it passes by.

It is our national impatience on each Election Day that we want to know the results before the ballots are actually counted. How has that worked out?

Don’t blame the media: It is our demand for instant results that drives the networks.

But, on the other hand, we should blame media. drive thru sign

I don’t mean “the press,” for which “the media” is often used as a synonym but rather the actual mediums of communication: the television, the computer, the iPhone.

We live in two competing time realities. Media time rushes at the speed of the electrons that form it.

Our computers run at a speed clocked in gigahertz, and if tomorrow they run at terahertz, we’ll trade in our outdated desktop.

But underneath it, there is the time that there has always been: The solar time that is barely perceptible, plodding at the pace of starfish crossing undersea rocks.

In our media experience, everything flies by, helped by keyboard shortcuts.

It confuses us into thinking we live in a fast-paced world. But we don’t. We live in a slow-paced world that is chronicled by ever-faster media. A day still takes a full 24 hours to cycle.

Because so many of us work on computers and spend our leisure time watching video screens, it is easy to mistake the mediated world for the real one. We are social creatures, and the means we have created for communicating with each other can seem primary rather than derivative. cell phone pix

Our new gospel might read, “In the beginning was the flicker.”

The problem is that the faster we speed up our interaction with the world, as mediated by our technology, the less we are actually engaged with the world we live in. Instead, we are engaged with our iPhones, leaving our world to fend for itself.

This was brought home all the more forcefully the last time I went to the zoo.

We visited with a friend’s 8-year-old boy and watched as he paced from exhibit to exhibit, looked in for a maximum of 10 seconds and moved on to the next animal.

Trained by the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, he expected instant animal action: The big cat should roar, the antelope should pronk. That is what they do on television, where all the “boring parts” are edited out. lions sleeping

The zoo, because it was there, in real time before his eyes, was a terrible disappointment. He hadn’t the patience to stand for a half-hour in front of the exhibit to see what animals actually do, as they sleep, scratch their furry behinds and tear the rinds off tangerines with their teeth.

The result wasn’t just boredom. It was a failure to identify with the animals, to scratch his bottom like the monkeys or to feel his own teeth in those tangerines. A failure of empathy.

What he sees on television are just pictures: information he can manipulate.

There is nothing human about it. It is experience as flat as the video monitor. But there in front of him at the zoo, if he had the patience to see it, is a 3-D world, one infinitely complex and fascinating. It contains not only unexpected behaviors, it contains sounds and — most pungently — smells that the iPad experience cannot deliver.

At such times, we can recognize that impatience is a vice. It blocks our understanding and our growth as humans. It diminishes the world and worse, shrinks our engagement with it.

The reverse is also true: The reason that patience is a virtue — and one worth cultivating even in the 21st century — is that it provides a chance to escape our egos.

It gives us the opportunity to empathize, at real time and with real beings, so that we may act morally and ethically.

Patience allows you to seep into the world and become part of it instead of just moving it efficiently from the in-box to the out-box, stamped by your momentary attention.

Instead of making life boring, patience makes it exciting and keeps us involved in it.

AS pingpong

No major composer suffers from worse press than Arnold Schoenberg.  His music is vilified, blamed for being ugly and for destroying classical music. But how many of those who think they hate Schoenberg’s music have actually listened — and listened with an open mind and open ear — to what he actually wrote?

The problem is that one’s expectations of the music so color its perception, it can be difficult to actually hear it. Ideas about the music clog the ears.

Schoenberg and his 2nd wife in a photobooth

Schoenberg and his 2nd wife in a photobooth

(A parallel case, though less debilitating, is the myth that J.S. Bach’s music is somehow “mathematical,” when the truth is, as a high Baroque composer, his music is often wildly irrational and excessive — the Baroque is, after all, a Romantic phase of cultural history in the eternal pendulum swing between the classical and romantic sensibilities. Listen to the C-minor Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance, which starts out as a repeated pattern of shifting harmonies, but then breaks into a series of appended and unrelated cadenzas. Bach tends to pile it on, not work out formulae.)

So, it is the myths about Schoenberg’s music that are the problem, not the music itself, which, given a fair hearing, is instantly communicative.

It is, however, different and unfamiliar.

“I feel air from another planet.”

These are the words the soprano sings in Schoenberg’s second string quartet (1908). Yes, a singer in the string quartet. Makes you reconsider what a string quartet is.

Although he’s one of the major composers of the German tradition, he also wrote music that dispensed with the familiar keys of, say, C-major or d-minor and developed a system for using all 12 notes — both the black and the white keys on the piano — of the octave, arranged in a series, instead of a melody. This atonal music still sounds strange to the ear, as if it came from another planet.

Hence the charge that his music is ugly; that he destroyed music; that it’s not music, it’s mathematics.

None of these canards is true, but they are persistent myths.

Myth 1: Schoenberg is all head and no heart.

If you look at the totality of his output, it becomes clear that Schoenberg is among the last great Romantics. The music is powerfully emotional.

Perhaps because Schoenberg became such an important subject for music theorists that this myth began. They analyzed the music without ever discussing the emotional content of the music. That’s not the composer’s fault: You need to listen to his music — all music — with not only open ears, but an open heart.

Those theorists looked at the basic features of Schoenberg’s theory of 12-tone music and discussed them as if they were the point of the music. AS smiling

That’s like discussing a person’s DNA but not the person’s character. No wonder it seemed to them mathematical and brain-oriented.

In fact, it may be that what really puts some people off is just how emotional it is: deeply and profoundly so, but its emotions are often painful ones rather than simple and happy ones. There is angst, pain and suffering as well as brilliant moments of transcendence, as in his early Transfigured Night. These are emotions particularly appropriate for the violent, chaotic 20th century.

He is more Bergman than Fellini.

Myth 2: Schoenberg destroyed tonality.

The problems with tonality occurred before Schoenberg. Western classical music had become so harmonically complex that often it was difficult to tell what, if any, key a piece was really written in.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, sometimes wanders into the far reaches of tonal ambiguity. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is structured around the tritone, of all things. Rather than trying to destroy tonality, Schoenberg was trying to find a solution to a problem that already existed.

Schoenberg saw what he thought was a directional arrow in musical progress, with each generation from Bach through Wagner more tonally complex and equivocal. He decided it was his duty to take music to the next step: atonality.

But he never destroyed tonality.

“There’s plenty of good music still to be written in C-major,” he once famously said, and much of his later music went back to tonal writing.

Myth 3: Schoenberg was an elitist.

The idea that the composer was an egghead has more to do with his bald pate than his actual demeanor.

He had an interest in many things, including playing ping-pong with Harpo Marx and tennis with George Gershwin. Gershwin painted Schoenberg’s portrait. When Gershwin died, Schoenberg wrote the eulogy.

George Gershwin with his portrait of Schoenberg

George Gershwin with his portrait of Schoenberg

He designed toys for his children and made them peanut-butter sandwiches cut in the shapes of animals. He enjoyed going to amusement parks, and he enjoyed jazz and socialized with Artie Shaw.

Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin

Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin

For his Society of Private Music Performances, which he and his colleagues arranged in Vienna before the Nazis drove them to flee, he arranged Strauss waltzes and songs from operettas.

It is silly to think he had nothing to do with the lowbrow.

He didn’t even have a high-school diploma, and when he was in school, he was an indifferent student.

It’s true that he believed music should always be the best it could be, but how elitist could it be if one of his ambitions was to score films? Although it never came to pass, he was considered for scoring the 1937 Paul Muni film, The Good Earth. Hardly an art film.

Myth 4: Schoenberg’s music is ugly.

Certainly beauty is in the ear of the listener, and some of Schoenberg’s music can be challenging, even to a seasoned audience. But there is little in music as ravishingly beautiful — in a perfectly traditional sense — than his Gurrelieder symphonic song cycle, which out-Wagners Wagner.

And even in the later, atonal and 12-tone music, there is great beauty to those who can get past their initial shock: The piano concerto at times sounds almost like Rachmaninov.

Listen to Hillary Hahn play the violin concerto: Ravishing.

In part, it is a matter of letting our ears become acclimated to the air from another planet. For some listeners, it may take years, but at some point, you wake up one day and say, “Gee, I’d like to hear Schoenberg’s string trio.” And it will give deep pleasure.

Myth 5: Schoenberg killed classical music.

Poet T.S. Eliot once complained that Milton had ruined English poetry for 250 years. Milton’s powerful voice left its imprint on all who came after.

Ironically, Eliot’s distinctive voice has been likewise imitated by everyone, especially by the bad grad-student poets in academic programs everywhere.

But you can’t blame Milton or Eliot for being good and therefore influential.

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

And it’s true that a generation of American college music programs were miserably stunted by the hegemony of 12-tone theorists in the postwar era. It is not Schoenberg, but rather that academic music that is mathematical and not emotional. That’s the music that really is ugly.

But Schoenberg himself would have been horrified at what has been done in his name since his death at 77 in 1951.

At the end of his life, when his disciples once told him that there were now more and more composers writing 12-tone works, he asked, “But, are they also coming up with music?”

Scholars will discuss the minutiae of dodecaphonic theory, but anyone willing to take the chance will learn that the real Schoenberg is one of the great composers of the tradition, whose work is moving, beautiful and — most surprisingly given the myths — deeply and profoundly beautiful.

inez fishing

I have a problem with aquariums. I love them and visit every one I can possibly find, but I can’t look at all those fish swimming around without getting hungry. All the fish look so darn tasty. Whether it’s the salmon, silver as Boeing jets, at the Seattle Aquarium, or catfish in New Orleans, which I fantasize wearing corn meal suits, I imagine all those finny beasts on my platter.

So, you might think I was a big fisherman. Catch my own dinner, hold up the sea bass for a photo, scale and gut it and fry it up in butter and white wine. But I have only been fishing three times in my life. I consider it one of my character flaws that I never became an angler; it’s a missed opportunity. But growing up in New Jersey did not nourish the outdoorsman in me. I knew a lot more about discount malls than I did about trout.

The first time I went fishing, I went out on a half-day boat with my uncle when I was a teenager, off the Jersey shore. We caught flounder and sea robin — certainly one of the ugliest of Providence’s creations — and the grown-ups drank beer the whole time. I figured that fishing, like TV football, was really just an excuse to lubricate the church key.

The second time I went fishing was some 20 years later when my wife and I were invited to a North Carolina pig pickin’, and were encouraged to fish in the trout ponds that our host had built near his house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I fished with cheese balls on my hook and caught a half-dozen rainbows and browns. They were good eating.

Norris Allen

Norris Allen

The third time, though, I went with my daughter in Alabama. We went out on a pier in Weeks Bay, off Mobile Bay, with Norris and Inez Allen. Inez was my daughter’s nanny for her twin daughters. In the South, a nanny is more than an employee; when you hire a nanny, you are starting a lifelong relationship. It’s more like hiring an aunt or an extra grandma for your babies.

We spent the day in October on the dock, casting and reeling in our bait. Norris caught some pinfish with our boughten bait, and immediately started cutting them up into little pieces, so we wouldn’t have to pay for any more chum. The fishing trip was really an excuse to picnic and gab.

It was a social event for my daughter, her twins, the Allens and my wife and me. Inez sat in an aluminum folding chair under the shade of a broad straw hat. She held a fishing pole over the side, but never paid much attention to it. Norris, though, was a dedicated angler.

Norris cutting chum

Norris cutting chum

“I like to go out at least once a week,” he said. “But I’ve had a problem recently, so it’s been a while. I got to go to the doctor again tomorrow.”

Norris was in his 70s and as lean as Inez was not. Norris caught the most fish, but I caught the biggest.

“What is it?” I asked him.

“That’s a white trout,” he answered.

It was about 10 inches long and weighed about two pounds. Most of what we caught were pinfish, three or four inches long, silvery discs in the hazy sunlight. But we caught a few white trout, too, long and torpedo shaped. They fought harder and splashed water angrily as we hauled them out of the bay.

White trout

White trout

I mention all this because of two things. The first is that we ate the best fish dinner that night I have ever tasted. I was in ecstasy. My wife can attest. I ate pinfish and white trout, fried in cornmeal the proper Southern way, and I nearly cried when I was too full to finish off any more fish.

The second is that the following day I went to the Weeks Bay Natural Resource Center, about a hundred yards from the dock where we fished, to talk to a park ranger and ask about the fish we caught. I wanted to find out more about our worthy opponents.

“What were they?” she asked me.

“Norris said they were pinfish and white trout, but I don’t know what their scientific names are.”

“Well, there’s no such thing as a white trout,” she told me.

(There really is, it’s scientific name is Cynoscion arenarius, and it is one of the weakfish family, not really a trout, but who cares?)

“No such thing,” she repeated.

“That’s too bad. It was the best tasting fish I ever ate. For that matter so were the pinfish.”

“Pinfish?” She seemed confused. “No one eats pinfish.”



“No? They were delicious,” I said.

“No. No one eats pinfish.” She repeated that mantra several times in our conversation as if that settled the matter, as we looked through several reference books trying to match up what we ate with the pictures and IDs.

It was one of those oblique demonstrations of the differences over race in America. The ranger was a White woman in her late 20s, obviously college educated, and just as obviously oblivious to the culture around her.

Black Alabamans eat pinfish with relish, but apparently the ranger’s well-to-do White family thought pinfish beneath comestibility. This wasn’t a case of overt racism, but an illustration of the profound breach between cultures, which is magnified in the American Deep South.

And I can guarantee, after eating a bellyful of pinfish, that it is White America that is cheating itself.

psycho showerhead

At the end of our travels, how often we long to be home.

“I miss my own bed,” we say, and think of the comfort of familiarity.

But, it isn’t really the bed we miss. In my experience, hotel beds are not all that bad, as a rule, and the linens are always clean. Or almost always; I can tell you a few stories.

No, it isn’t the mattress or the blanket we miss. What we miss is elsewhere in the house: It is the shower. When I’m coming home after being away, I cannot wait to hit the showers.

And that is because: Hotel showers are a horror. Psycho (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock Shown: Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane)

Many have “water saver” nozzles that limit the amount of water they spray to below the threshold needed to rinse off soap. It’s like standing under a restaurant mister. You sense the humidity, but cannot actually get wet.

Conversely, I don’t remember how many Motel 6 showers that have made attempts on my life with nozzles that so lethally concentrate the jet as to become like wet lasers attempting to slice my body in half. It makes me want to give away state secrets; there I am, some James Bond captured by Dr. No. “No, Mr. Bond, I don’t expect you to talk; I expect you to die!”

For such showers, you need to measure their muzzle velocity. You can see the knife of water so depress the skin down into the flesh as to threaten to punch through. One shouldn’t require stitches after a morning shower.

It isn’t only the flow rate that can be a problem. We have all come across water so soft that the rinse is even slimier than the soap. You rinse and rinse and cannot escape the slipperiness.

The worst was in a small town in South Dakota where the water came out of the showerhead with the mephitic smell of dead mammals. I couldn’t shake that stench from my nostrils for days.

Admittedly, when I travel I tend to stay visit out-of-the-way places that don’t always have Holiday Inns, so I wind up staying at some dubious hostelries. western motel ed hopper

I remember a motel in Shamrock, Texas, which had worn-out shag rug not only on the floors but halfway up the walls, like wainscotting. That was tasteful. The carpet also ran up the side of the bed, like a high tide threatening to sweep us away.

Or the motel in Forrest City, Ark., that came with fleas, and when we looked in the bathroom and saw the “sanitized for your protection” paper loop on the toilet seat, underneath a wet, crushed cigarette butt was floating in the water. mirror tourist court

I must admit, I have a soft spot in my heart for the old-fashioned motor court, with its separate cottages along a loop driveway. There is something nostalgic about those linoleum floors, so cold under your feet in the morning. Something about the squeaky iron bedsteads with their chipped paint, about the slightly musty smell — as familiar in its way as the aroma of clean wet moss. It smells natural, rather than the chemical cleaner scent of the chain motels. shower head

I prefer those old motor courts to the corporate disengagement of your standard franchise hotel, the uniform blandness that implies not that you have traveled somewhere new and different, but rather have somehow popped out of the dimension of real experience and into a kind of Disney parallel universe, a free zone, with no connection to anything. As if you were spending the night in a neutral corner.

But whether I have gone to a motel with enough layers of wallpaper to make the walls look upholstered, or to a Hyatt where, when I wake up in the morning I can’t remember if I’m in Boston or Calcutta, I can know that the shower will disappoint me.

And I cannot wait to get home to the water I know.


This blog reflects a correction sent to me by Pat Price, for which I express thanks. 

ontario goofy splice1

There must be something in these northern Ontario winters that drives a man to fill his world with giant concrete animals.

It isn’t just animals, of course, and it’s not all concrete, but in the 400-mile stretch of Canada 11 from Cochrane to Thunder Bay, there are quite a number of oddball statues by the side of the road.

It begins in Cochrane with the famous giant white concrete polar bear, named ”Chimo,” that marks the place where the Polar Bear Express excursion train leaves the station for Moosonee, 186 miles to the north on the edge of James Bay.

But it isn’t too much farther west, in the tiny but clean community of Moonbeam, that the local Chamber of Commerce office is decorated with an 18-foot-wide flying saucer made of Space Age plastics, on a tripod fabricated from playground swing-set pipes.

When I asked the woman at the information desk, she just told me the town was named for the beautiful moonbeams you can see there at night, and residents thought the flying saucer would remind them.

No, it doesn’t make sense to me, either. Perhaps it is a problem of translation. This section of Ontario is primarily Francophone, and the woman spoke English as a second language. Perhaps in French, it makes sense. It seems that when you speak French, a lot of things make sense that everyone else in the world scratches their heads over. Think of Jerry Lewis.

A local newspaper story lets on that there was controversy over the construction of the saucer, part of a $300,000 community revitalization program. Some residents wanted a giant beaver instead.

”The flying saucer won’t attract many jobs, like the beaver would have,” said local UFO critic Butch Bouchard.

Leaving the 25th century of Buck Rogers, we find ourselves back in the age of dinosaurs: In Mattice, the town’s only motel sits next to, and rather under, a giant freckled-concrete Tyrannosaurus rex, whose teeth have been further graced with a line of Christmas tree lights. Beside him sits a concrete stegosaur with a look on his face of a contented cow.

There is no mention of the dinosaurs in tourist literature; neither is there any reasonable connection with the motel. But there they stand, no more commented on than a couple of trees, with a few yapping dogs chasing each other around the lawn.

The community of Hearst is a mill town where almost everyone speaks French. Poutine1

One of the things that make sense to them is poutine, a local delicacy made from french fries covered in beef gravy and cheese curds. It’s what they serve at the local McDonalds: ”Do you want poutine with that?”

It’s not as bad as it sounds, but neither is it health food — a triple whammy of grease and enough cholesterol to clog the Chunnel.

Hearst is also the heart of moose country, so the local tourist office has a giant bronze moose out front. In comparison with the other animals, it is rather staid and conventional.

After Hearst, there is a long, long stretch of road with nothing to see but the walls of trees on either side of a straight two-lane road. Occasionally, the forest breaks open for a crystal river or waterfall.

But then, at Beardmore, a tiny village of Nipigon Indians, there is a 40-foot plywood snowman. It is, with the exception of an abandoned hotel, the biggest structure in town, and it wears a silly grin beneath eyes that look as if they come from a Hindu idol.

Next to it is one of those plywood paintings with circles cut out where you can put your head through and have a picture taken of yourself, in this instance, looking like a snowman. Perhaps this all makes better sense in the winter, when skiing becomes the regional passion.

And when Canada 11 meets Canada 17 to wind down to Thunder Bay, there is a small motel next to a 6-foot concrete trout. I should have expected it.

What I couldn’t have expected was a few miles on, standing in front of an auto-parts store: a 15-foot-tall Bigfoot chomping a cigar like a theatrical agent and giving a big thumbs up to passing motorists.

In Dorian, we stopped for the night. We could tell we had left the French area because we ate pirogis as heavy as einsteinium that sat in our bellies and weighed us down under the drowning pull of sleep.

We had a choice of two rooms at the Dorian Inn. One on the ground floor with two queen beds for $55 or one on the second floor above the bar for $26. I’m no fool. I paid the premium.