Posts Tagged ‘Books’

…the universe squeezed into a ball…” (T.S. Eliot)

November 19, 2012


(all that’s missing, above, is the easel)

*   *  *   *



What a joy having FOUR whole days off from work in a row!

Away from the office FRIDAY, SATURDAY and SUNDAY is wonderful enough, yes.

But — waking up on MONDAY, with the knowledge that all the other employees in your section of the office are reporting to work and YOU ARE NOT — is beyond wonderful.

During this particular FOUR-DAY weekend, quality time was on the agenda.



I finished the painting I’ve been working on!


(apologies for the grainy iPhone photo)


Practiced Schumann’s Remembrance on the piano  (a small piece I’ve always liked; I’m determined to learn and memorize it).


Woke up early and drove to the Jericho Cider Mill on Long Island; stocked up on all things apple: Cameo apples (my favorite), apple cider, apple sauce; apple turnovers; apple oat bran muffins…

Apple Nirvana


I found a THURSDAY parking spot (which means we won’t have to move the car until one week after Thanksgiving)!


I read the essay on T. S. Eliot by Mark Ford from the New York Review of Books that I had dog-eared a month ago and set aside for a later date.

Facts I learned from this detailed, erudite review of The Letters of T.S. Eliot (3 volumes) by Valerie Eliot (Eliot’s widow):

  • Eliot was born into a comfortable, Unitarian family in St. Louis, MO and summered with them in East Gloucester.
  • An anglophile, he moved to England and readily acquired an accent. He became more “English” than the English. He  joined the Anglican church and eventually became a citizen.
  • He was born under the sign of Libra, went to Oxford, studied philosophy and Sanskrit, taught at Harvard.
  • Eliot was a virgin when he married his first wife, Vivienne, after knowing her for just a couple of months.
  • Vivienne suffered from mood swings. She was diagnosed with a “hormonal imbalance” (parlance of the day for what resembled bipolar disorder) and endured a host of physical problems; i.e. “female problems” (another euphemism).
  • Vivienne lived on a trust fund endowed by her wealthy family, over which Eliot would later assume governance.
  • Virginia Woolf once called Vivienne “a bag of ferrets.”
  • Ezra Pound was a friend of Eliot’s and was instrumental in launching his career as a poet.
  • Bertrand Russell, also a friend, lent the newlyweds one of his flats and was rumored to have had an affair with Vivienne.
  • Poetry notwithstanding, Eliot was encouraged by his father-in-law to take a position in a bank.
  • In one of his letters, Eliot describes what it was like working in the bank:

“I hope to become less of a machine–but yet I am frightened–because I don’t know what it will do to me–and to V.–should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses–I have deliberately died–in order to go on with the outward form of living–What will happen if I live again?…Have I the right to be I–But the dilemma–to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person?”


  • The misery of Eliot’s bank job produced these lines:

He didn’t know if he was alive / and the girl was dead

He didn’t know if the girl was alive / and he was dead

He didn’t know if they both were alive / or both were dead


  • The opportunity in hand, the next logical step was to re-watch the film, Tom and Viv. Which I did.

I first saw the film in the mid-1990’s when it was released. With Willem DeFoe, Miranda Richardson and Rosemary Harris, it’s a gorgeous film. The character of Ezra Pound is noticeably absent (perhaps because he was an anti-semite). But the film includes Bertrand Russell (an extramarital affair, or the allusion to one, naturally being a more juicy topic).


  • To complete my experience of total T. S. Eliot immersion, I pulled from the bookshelf my marked up college edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and re-read The Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

As I contemplate (dread, more like) returning to work tomorrow, these lines stand out:

“And indeed there will be time

To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’

Time to turn back and descend the stair…”


I’ve made a promise to myself that, one day, I will dare.

But in my case, my descent will take place in the elevator — and I’ll be eating that peach.

Music, Films, Books – Recommendations

July 31, 2011


My absolute favorite band of late. Their music, lyrics and utter creativity makes my hear soar.


Praise be to our Roku box, oh magnificent streamer of Netflix instant video directly to our TV, through which we recently viewed this immensely satisfying documentary: Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, featuring this undeniably brilliant, still relevant, thrilling band. Maybe the best rock band ever.


I’m a fan of Wolitzer’s witty, literary novels. I’ve read The Wife twice and recently finished The Ten Year Nap. I breezed through this latest book because I didn’t want to put it down. The novel centers around a local high school’s teaching staff and the changes wrought by the new drama teacher when she decides to shake things up by staging Aristophanes’ drama, Lysistrata, as the school play (in the Greek comedy, women of Athens decide to deny the sexual privileges of their husbands and lovers in an effort to put a stop to an ongoing war). It’s a clever, fun, heartfelt and poignantly relevant reading experience.

Midway through, I wanted to cheer, when one of the students stages a bed-in reminiscent of John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace:

If only this sort of thing would happen more often.


I love the low-budget grittiness of this decade of film. Here’s a few that I’ve recently streamed through the Roku box:

A WEDDING – vintage 1970s Robert Altman, meandering, kooky, punctuated with improvisation and parody, filled with name actors.

DILLINGER – (1973) starring Warren Oates as Dillinger, Richard Dreyfuss (!) as a very good Baby Face Nelson, Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd (these three criminals were actually in the same bank-robbing gang, at one point), Michelle Phillips (from The Mamas and the Papas) as Billie, Dillinger’s girlfriend, Ben Johnson as the Special Agent tracking him down, and notable extras, such as the never-disappointing Harry Dean Stanton. A great film!

THE ONION FIELD – (1979) Unforgettable film about two decent cops and a traffic stop that goes terribly wrong. Tremendous performances by  John Savage (The Deer Hunter) and Ted Danson (Cheers) as the cops, a magnificent James Woods as the psychopathic killer.

SUPER FLY – (1972) Starring Ron O’Neal as Priest, dope dealer and reluctant pimp, and cameos by Curtis Mayfield and The Curtis Mayfield Experience providing the excellent soundtrack. Notable for its unflinching footage of down and dirty NYC ghetto life. And a much better film than I remembered it to be.


THE RED BALLOON  – Utterly magical, uplifting jewel from France.

MOONSTRUCK – An all-time favorite. Masterful, funny script by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote “Doubt”).

MANHATTAN – A Woody Allen masterpiece. A perfect film.

MRS. DOUBTFIRE  – Never, ever fails to make me laugh.

STARTING OVER  – One of my favorite romantic comedies. Great work by Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh.


SUNSHINE CLEANING  – Don’t let the subject matter of the film (crime scene clean-up), which, admittedly, kept me away initially, deter you. With stars like Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin, you can’t go wrong. You won’t be disappointed.

COLLISION – Enthralling 5-episode drama from British T.V. about a six-car crash and the ensuing investigation that unearths lots of dark secrets as well as a murder. An obsessive viewing experience. Highly recommended.

VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR – Fascinating entry into the over-the-top world of designer Valentino and his long-time companion. A sumptuous visual experience.

BORN RICH – Illuminating documentary on the trials and tribulations of a group of financially privileged young adults.

NO IMPACT MAN– Maybe you’ve heard of him, a documentary about the guy who gave up toilet paper, etc. to live simply with his wife and child…? Much better than I thought it would be. Worth catching.

THE ECLIPSE – Atmospheric, supernatural thriller from an Irish playwright (i.e., well-written) centering around a strange presence inhabiting the house of a recent widower. Really good film.

ISLANDER – Drama about a lobster fisherman imprisoned after a tragic accident on his boat and his attempt to rebuild his life and win back the love of his wife and daughter and the esteem of the town that has shunned him.

As you can see, a lot of film viewing with the benefit of air-conditioning in this hideous hot weather!

A Lifetime of Books

January 29, 2011

A love of books was instilled in me by my parents. As a youngster, I have fond memories of both my mother and father, usually reclined in bed, with their noses buried in their respective books.

My mother’s taste was non-fiction, but not strictly. When I’d become old enough to appreciate “literature,” she suggested a reading list, important books she had loved as a girl and thought I would, too.

Although I don’t recall every entry on that list, a few are still embedded in my soul: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (one of the best books I’ve ever read, about the mounting consequences of untruths and the despair of self-deception); The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham (influenced my dreams of becoming an artist); Jane Eyre (the importance of women speaking up for themselves) by Charlotte Bronte; Seventeen (the trials of adolescence, as depicted through humor and satire) by Booth Tarkington; and, most important,  Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl:

Anne Frank

I read this earnest, wise and tender work of art at about the same age as Anne was when she wrote it. It helped shape much about how I would view the world. I took so much away from this book. The need to sustain hope in spite of impossible ignorance and cruelty, the value of relationships and the beauty in growing up and accepting (and honoring) the changes that go along with it. Not too long ago, I purchased a hardcover edition of this book, which I will someday reread.

This spate of serious reading came on the heels of an earlier obsession with Nancy Drew, girl detective. I’d read 42 of these mysteries novels by Carolyn Keene. Make fun if you like. But Nancy demonstrated to me the importance of being independent (yes, she had Ned, her boyfriend, but equally valued her two close girlfriends, Bess (girly-girl) and George (the un-girly-girl) — and Carson, her lawyer-father, who encouraged her along these lines.

I attribute my lifelong love of clutch purses to Nancy. She always carried a pencil and pad inside, with which to record any “clues” she might uncover that would help unravel a mystery.

I am also never without a pad and pencil — in my clutch bag.

My father leaned more toward reading fiction, and also poetry. Hemingway was a favorite. He wrote a brilliant thesis paper in college about the Nick Adams stories. My parents shared a mutual love of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and would frequently recite stanzas from it at the dinner table.

On many a night, my father would lull my sister and me to sleep reading Longfellow’s tragic The Wreck of the Hesperus (a father ties his daughter to the mast during a fierce storm at sea so she won’t blow overboard, but she freezes to death in the process – the lesson being: it’s the thought that counts) or, more inspiringly, Henley’s Invictus:

…It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Those last two lines still give me chills.

The thought of writing this post came to me because, since my last post, I’ve read four books and all of them were unforgettable and superbly written:

Nemesis by Philip Roth (his latest, about the polio epidemic in the 1940s, set, as usual, in his hometown of Newark, NJ) – If you want to learn how to “structure” your novel, read Roth. He’s inventive, clever and seamless – a masterful writer. One of the best. And, boy, does he know how to end a book.

Everyman by Philip Roth (because one book by Roth is never enough, I needed another). No other writer I can think of can write a novel about aging and death and leave you feeling transcendent at the end. My love for his writing knows no bounds.

Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg – The subject matter is just what it sounds like – strung together in short, anecdotal chapters of about 5-6 pages, all set in New York City. A perfect book for the commute, too. Greenberg has a very well-reviewed novel that I’m planning to check out. An excellent writer.

Legend of a Suicide: Stories by David Vann. Set in Alaska, a kind of blend of Krakauer’s Into the Wild and the John Sayles film, Limbo. Structured in linked chapters, a fictionalized “novel” of the events and emotions surrounding his father’s suicide when Vann was a young boy. What he has done with the structure is a marvel. As I pored over it, its eloquence and inventiveness reminded me of Mozart’s “Variations on a French Folk Song” (Ah, Vous Dirai-je, Maman…). His writing style is unique, existential, empathetic, wondrous, suspenseful and not to be overlooked. Please don’t allow the subject matter to deter you. It’s so much more than what it seems. An essential book.

And since I began this post with a photo my sister took in London last year (I’d asked her if she would please go to “84 Charing Cross Road” and snap one and she happily obliged!), I must recommend the the book of the same name by Helene Hannf, particularly if you’re a writer — as well as the lovely film of the same name, starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft (available as an instant download on Netflix!)

Once again, happy reading!

Books and Reading and Commuting in 2010

January 17, 2011


Last October, when I moved back to New York, I looked forward to doing lots of reading on my morning and evening commute to and from work.

In less than 15 months — mid-October through this past December — I’ve read 54 books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s approximately 4 books per month (or 1-a-week). Not that I’m counting, but 2010 was the first year I’d actually kept a list.

Because I love talking about and sharing the names of books I’ve enjoyed with like-minded readers, I’ve taken the liberty of  listing my favorites of 2010.

Honorable mentions are also included, as are would-have-been-favorites, if not for their disappointing endings. There were also some real clunkers. But, I’ve left the clunkers off the list. I don’t have the heart to pan a novel outright, because I’m more than aware of the blood, sweat and tears that are part of the novel-writing process.

Anyway, here are my lists.

My Favorite Books of 2010 — in no particular order of importance or release date — (these are books I continue to think about long after I’ve finished them; books that changed my way of thinking on some level; books that are deftly written).

1) Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (Antonia Fraser) – Diary entries, excerpted from Fraser’s own, beginning the moment these two eloquent writers first meet, at a party. Fraser, about to leave, walks over to Pinter, who is seated. He looks up at her and says: “Must you go?” A true love story and literary delight.

2) Brooklyn (Colm Toibin) – A pithy story, heartfelt, poignant, surprising, with such beautifully drawn characters. A twist of fate, misreading of intentions, wrong assumptions, alter the lives of the characters forever.

3)  Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout) – A series of stories linked by the formidable character of Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher. Warmly crafted, elegantly written, with an ending so perfectly rendered, you’ll rejoice.

4)  The First Family – The Birth of the American Mafia (Mike Dash) – A fascinating, obsessive factual account of the beginnings of the Mafia in this country, grandfathered by a fiercely murderous individual nicknamed “The Clutch Hand.”

5) Mattahorn – (Karl Marlantes) – A tour de force fictionalized account of Marlantes’ harrowing tour of Vietnam as a Marine. Unputdownable.

6)  Bright-Sided – How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America (Barbara Ehrenreich) – A breath of fresh air. Smart, trenchant and honest exploration of America’s penchant for denial.

7) Into the Wild (John Krakauer) – A fantastic book, which I’ve just gotten around to reading. Maybe you’ve seen the film adaptation. As good as that was, read the book.

8) Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s (Tim Page) – A funny, astonishing, emotionally educational and heartbreaking account of living with this Asperger’s, by a brilliant writer and music critic.

9) The Sea (John Banville) – Lovely prose, witty, atmospheric, it’s a book I didn’t want to end. Highly recommended.

10) Tree of Life (Hugh Nisseson) – Haunting, unique, unlike any other book I’ve read before. I will never view Johnny Appleseed in the same way again. Nisseson is an amazing writer.

11) Just Kids (Patti Smith) – Very entertaining, great writing.  A loving, revealing chronicle of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, full of juicy tidbits, characters and anecdotes of the time period.

12) Suite Française (Iréne Némirovsky) – Set in Paris during the Nazi occupation — a novel that resurfaced years after the author’s death at the hands of the occupiers. Enough said. Don’t miss it.

13) The Night Stalker (Philip Carlo) – A masterpiece of the genre of true crime (my guilty pleasure reading).

14) Abide With Me (Elizabeth Strout) – Stunning in its irreverence, emotional depth and spare writing. An eccentric minister and his young, motherless daughter endure the small-mindedness of a small town, with grace and strength of character. A spiritual triumph.

15) Morphus Eugenia (A.S. Byatt) – a.k.a. “Angels and Insects.” Nothing short of fantastic. The “underside of the tapestry,” to quote Joan Didion.

16)  Stitches (David Small) – A graphic memoir focusing on a horrific truth withheld from Small in his childhood. Starkly rendered illustrations. Beautifully done.

17)  Fierce Attachments (Vivan Gornick) – Exemplary memoir. Superbly written.

Honorable Mention (more than worthy reads):

1) This Is Where I Leave You (Jonathan Tropper) – Very funny – Tropper has a great sense of humor – it’s his heartfelt account of the confusion, sorrow and attempts to move on after a breakup of his marriage.

2) The Privileges (Jonathan Dee) – Witty, erudite, sharply written – I admired the writing, but disliked all the characters, which made it difficult, in the end, to like the book.

3) Sag Harbor (Colson Whitehead) – A coming of age novel about what it was like to spend your summers growing up as a young black man in one of the black communities of Sag Harbor, Long Island, in the 1980s. Add a star if you’ve lived in or are familiar with the area.

4) The Signal (Ron Carlson) – Haunting, in the way only Ron Carlson can be haunting. Suspenseful story of a once-happy marriage, now over, and the erstwhile couple’s final, annual, camping trip in a forest teeming with danger.

5) Invisible (Paul Auster) – A story within a story, what you’d expect from an Auster novel, this time venturing into deeper psychological territory than some of his others, centering around an incestuous relationship — and, then again, maybe not.  Not my favorite Auster novel, but, I’m a longtime fan of his writing.

6) The Possessed (Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them) (Elif Bauman) – Liked it, especially when she mentioned Russian authors I’d actually read. Not as enjoyable when she wrote about those I hadn’t. Bauman’s mind is perceptively keen and she’s so damn smart — I just loved what she had to say about writers’ groups and workshops.

7) Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia (Chris Stewart) – An armchair traveler’s delight, written by the former drummer of “Genesis” and talented sheep-shearer, who leaves England and buys a broken down farm in Anadalucia, where he and his wife put down roots and befriend one of the colorful locals.

8) Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Wells Tower) – Read this collection, so you won’t miss his unforgettable story, “The Leopard,” which, when it first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, just thrilled me. It’s that good. I’d read the story twice at the time, back to back, and was delighted to encounter it again in this collection. All the stories are well worth your time.

9) Bitter Harvest (Ann Rule) – An insane, brilliant physician in Kansas slowly poisons her husband. One of Rule’s better true crime thrillers.

10) Lay of the Land (R. Ford) – I began this book shortly after it was released. Got about 2/3 of the way through. Put it aside. Picked it up a few years later, in 2010, and finished it. The fact that I had been stalled, well, I supposed the story had slowed down a bit. But — I did remember everything I had read up to that point, when I picked it up again, so that says a lot. I’m a fan of Ford’s writing, and have a soft spot for his novels (not to mention that I’d met him at a reading and he’d signed this very book, so I was obliged to finish it). I’ve read the first two novels in this trilogy, “The Sportswriter” and “Independence Day,” and also his short story collection, “A Multitude of Sins” – which I loved. This last novel is not his best, perhaps, but I feel as if I have come to know Frank Bascombe intimately (the main character that appears in all three novels). And, in the end, I was satisfied to have finished it.

11) Backing into Forward (Jules Feiffer) – For years, I was a fan of Feiffer’s cartoon strip in The Village Voice, which led me to this memoir. It’s one of the few books I actually “purchased” in 2010 – some of his strips (which I actually remembered – this was a plus, too) are reprinted in the book.

12) Lost and Found (Essays about N.Y.) (Various) – Just plain enjoyable. Add some stars if you live in N.Y.

13) Diary of a Mad Housewife (Sue Kaufman) – A reread of an old favorite. Still enjoyable, but a bit dated, this time around. By the way, the novel was made into a very entertaining movie, starring Richard Benjamin, Carrie Snodgrass and a very young and handsome Frank Langella (playing the part of one of the most cold-hearted, miserable, nasty, egotistical writers you’d ever want to meet, let alone sleep with). Still waiting for it to come out on DVD…

14) Dear Husband (Joyce Carol Oates) – A collection of stories. I loved “Death by Fitness Center,”  which made me laugh out loud. Most of the collection is on the grim side, which I don’t mind, such as her fictionalized story about Andrea Yates, the born-again mother who had a psychotic break and killed her kids. I’ve always admired Oates’ writing and compassion for abused women and how she keeps them in the collective consciousness by writing about them.

Good books with disappointing endings:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery) – At the end, the main characters weepy breakdown in a restaurant, of all places, seemed totally out of character. Kind of ruined the book for me.

– This Book Could Save Your Life (A.M. Homes) – Very enjoyable, until it’s Hollywood ending.

– The Three Weissmanns (Cathleen Shine) – Compulsively readable and funny, but the ending was a letdown, too Hallmark. I felt cheated.

Should have taken a pass:

Nothing Was the Same (Key Redfield Jamison) –  Jamison’s memoir, The Unquiet Mind, about her bipolar disorder, was piercing, powerful and poetic, and infinitely better.

– The Hilleker Curse (James Ellroy) – Yes, we know that Ellroy is a flamboyant egomaniac and self-promoter. In keeping with that reputation, he shares the details of his romantic conquests and so-called relationships in a decidedly unromantic, rather emotionless way. Frankly, he comes across as an idiot in his behavior, but without a fulcrum of irony or humor. Why would these women choose to live with him, I continually asked myself as I read? Worst of all, he blames his bad behavior and relationship failures on the “Hilleker Curse” (i.e., his lifelong hangup on his mother and her shocking murder). So why did I BUY this book? Because Ellroy’s “My Dark History,” a memoir of his mother’s murder, is a masterpiece.

Sh*t My Dad Says (Justin Halpern) – A subtitle to this book might be: Sh*t His Son Writes. Sorry, I had to include this clunker – it’s on the N.Y.T. bestseller list (!)  Come on, America.

Last, but not least: Some Good Books About the Craft of Writing:

– Writing About Your Life (William Zinsser) – A memoir-writing classic.

– Don’t Quit Your Day Job (edited by Sonny Brewer) – A terrific collection of essays by Southern writers.

– My Reading Life (Pat Conroy) – I’ve never read any of Conroy’s novels (have opened one or two in a bookstore and flipped through them). I did enjoy this memoir, however, and read it obsessively on my commute. The opening chapter dedicated to mother is really beautiful. My eyes teared up twice on the F train.

The Art and Craft of Fiction (Victoria Mixon) – I recently ordered this book from Mixon’s website (she’s an editor) and have just begun reading. Not at all like the usual how-to writing books that are on the market. It’s so much more than that. Chocked with vital, well thought out suggestions, specifics you won’t find elsewhere. You can read excerpts and buy the book on her site Highly recommended.

As always, your comments and book suggestions are most welcome. Happy Reading…

Tis the Season

December 17, 2009

The arrival of the holiday season has been a gift. Besides the twinkling lights and general bonhomie, the business world has slowed down. I’ve been able to put aside the job search without guilt and accept the fact that no one is going to grant me an interview until after the start of the New Year.

Normally, I’d still be obsessing over this worrisome reality, were it not for a little volume that’s been lingering on my bookshelf for years, waiting for me to pick it up. The other night the right moment had arrived. I flipped it open for the first time and began reading.

The book contains the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. An instructive and rather profound little book, the teachings are based on methods that are over 2000 years old.

A simple visualization found inside these pages captured my attention right away.

I’ve been conjuring this image for the past several days:

Picture a clear lake in which you can clearly see the bottom.

The lake represents the mind.

The bottom of the lake represents the Atman (the spirit that dwells inside the body) — in other words, your true self.

Your thoughts create ripples on the lake.

Minor ripples will blur your vision of  your true self. Major ripples will create waves.

If the lake’s surface becomes agitated by waves, the water muddies and the bottom of the lake cannot be seen.

Performing this visualization has helped me keep my lake, for the most part, clear as glass.

Yet, losing sight of the bottom of the lake — my authentic self — through over-thinking and worry (which solves nothing, let’s face it) is deceptively easy. Particularly when it comes to the job-search.

It has dawned on me that I’ve been trying to sell myself to potential employers as someone I most definitely am not — with the hopes of getting group health insurance. Maybe that’s why there haven’t been any job interviews.

So, last night, when the urge to play the piano overtook me, I walked away from the computer and indulged myself and played for almost two hours. I can’t remember the last time I have done that. My fingers literally sailing over the keys, the playing had come so easily and my pleasure was so deep, despite nearly two years of no practice whatsoever.

I had to wonder, did I play so well because I’d been allowed clear access to an area in my brain that had not been muddied by erroneous thinking and worry?

Did emptying my mind of useless cogitation widen the space or vacuum the filter and permit the good to filter in?

I’m not sure, but I don’t plan on giving it any more thought. I wouldn’t want to muddy the lake, because there is nothing more peaceful than gazing into the still waters of yourself.

The Countdown Begins

September 22, 2009

The POD is coming to our driveway this Saturday, 9/26!

After we’ve loaded it with our stuff, the Podzilla will return the following Monday and haul it away. That’s when we’ll embark, unencumbered, on our cross-country drive to N.Y.

The waiting is finally coming to an end.

Time dragged for all of July, August and  into September, even more than it usually does in summertime’s hazy malaise. Back in July, when we’d committed ourselves (mentally, at least) to making the BIG CHANGE — the move to New York — we thought it best to defer that change to the fall — another sixty to seventy days.

Maybe that’s not exactly correct. I have been using the pronoun “we.” Actually, it was mostly “me.”

I thought that pushing back the date would give us more than ample time to stage a yard sale, pore through our stuff, sell some of it on Craig’s List and then pack in an unhurried, stress-free manner.

Also, I believed that pacing ourselves in tandem with the slowly recovering economy seemed wise. And, it was, as it turns out. But, what I hadn’t anticipated was being seized by the grip of stop-time.

That is, time that goes forward, and, yet, doesn’t go forward — for two and a half months.

Eventually, September rolled around, and with nothing but the computers wiring us to the outside world (T.V. disconnected), I’d taken to watching B/W episodes of The Twilight Zone on my iMac — which I’d found for free on the CBS-TV website.

The shows were just the right length (twenty-five minutes, apiece) and provided a welcome diversion at the end of an exhausting day of packing and sweating and packing and sweating in the L.A. heat.

What has happened now, though, with only one week left until until our departure, is that time has sped up. There are just not enough hours in the day and not enough sleep to be had at night.

But Rod Serling already knew that, didn’t he, with all his talk about time and dimensions — which is rather interesting, given that he’s become, of late, a significant presence in my home, after hours.

Is there a lesson to be learned from all of this? Yes, I think so.

It’s far better to fret, pack and perspire under the pressure of a time constraint than it is to extend the deadline too far ahead. The latter provides too much opportunity for losing sleep as you toss and turn and mull over all the what-ifs.

On the other hand, when it came to deciding on the place we wanted to settle into, we did that in a single day. It was a snap.

We chose Sunnyside, in Queens. We picked it because JC liked the name. It was that simple.

Before moving to L.A., it had always been just plain, ole Sunnyside to me — I’d never once stopped to consider the inherent optimism in its name. Until now.

L.A. encourages you to look on the bright side of life. Maybe because L.A. is so — bright.

Still, I must have mended some of my ways while living here, because I haven’t jaywalked since 1996 — the year I left N.Y. (Of course, the fine for jaywalking is more than $250, so that might have something to do with it).

Anyway, Sunnyside appealed to me because it’s a melting pot and leafy and a mere 15-minute subway ride to midtown Manhattan.

The relatively short commute does have its good and bad points, though. The subway had always been a favorite place for me to get some reading done. In anticipation of my new commute, I’ve gone so far as to plan the first novel I’d like to read: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin.

But I wonder, how many pages could I possibly cover in fifteen minutes? Not that many. Unless, of course, I just happened to become so engrossed in the book that I miss my stop…

The Zen of Everything

September 17, 2009


Every morning, without fail, this elderly Asian man can be found hunkered down in front of the Hon-Michi Los Angeles Shutchosho, meticulously pulling weeds. I pass by him twice a day, going and coming, on my three-mile walk down Wilshire Blvd.

Evidently the gardener or caretaker of this lovely property — one of the few non-eyesores in our not so lovely neck of the woods — I never fail to marvel at the intense focus with which he undertakes his daily chore.

On this morning’s walk, as I watched him, the memory of a day job I’d held years ago in N.Y. came back to me. It was a job that required an inordinate amount of xerox copying. Back then, I was reading a lot about Buddhism, Meditation in Action by Chogyam Trungpa, being one of my favorite books.

In the clinic where I worked, I was responsible for the newsletter, which I had conceived, written, copied, assembled and distributed to the patients and staff each month.

During the initial photocopying process, I’d developed a seamless, input-output, flow of paper-relationship with the copy machine — a robot-to-human connection based upon repetitiveness — which would put me into a kind of meditative state.

As the machine spit out the copies, I’d invoked Trungpa and instruct myself to become “one” with the process. At first, I just did it to make the chore go faster. And it did.

But the byproduct of this synergy with the Xerox machine was the feeling of peace that would envelope me. The kind of peace that’s only achieved through quieting the mind.

I know this may sound a little crazy, my going on and on about photocopying.

But, the truth is, if you fully enter into whatever it is you happened to be doing at the moment and become “present” with that activity — even if it’s a non-activity, like waiting on line at the Post Office — there’s a certain level of fulfillment to be procured from even the most stereotypically mind-numbing chore — if you can resist the urge over-think.

And don’t I know it. Over-thinking should be my middle name.

At any rate, I believe this is what Trungpa meant by “meditation in action.” It’s not always necessary to fold your legs, stiffen you back, and lock yourself away in a quiet room to find peace.

What’s most important is to pay attention to life. Just like this gardener.


One fails to see life as it is because one tends so much to build up one’s own version of it.” – Chogyam Trungpa

The List

August 12, 2009

103979867_3bb31282d4The Listmonster

When the future is unknown (and when is it not, despite tarot cards, astrology charts and the I Ching at your disposal? ) —

and when relocation looms imminently on the horizon —

and when there is not one more book to sell —

where do you turn?

To Craig’s List. You aim a cold eye toward your household frou frou, determine what is useless, brace yourself to let it go — and then put it up for sale.

PackingUp4Books in Boxes — never a good thing.

Dealing with respondents from Craig’s List is like going one extra round on the dreaded arm bike at the gym.



You suffer through it to impress your personal trainer, but you’d rather be eating a chocolate chip muffin.

Dealing with flakey people requires patience. Speaking of which, our first email inquiry arrived the day after we posted the ads. It was from an entity known as “Peace Waif.”

Okay, so this is L.A., remember. Lots of people who live here have names like Rainbow or Jesse James Hollywood or Peace Waif. P.W. expressed interest in an item we’d unimaginatively described as “Bench.”

Encouraged by his seemingly earnest request for the status of “Bench,” we typed our response right away. But, alas, we were not fast enough. Peace Waif, it seemed, had already left the planet.

A day or two later, we received another email, this time from Carmen. She definitely wanted the sofa, she wrote. Would definitely be coming over on Saturday, cash-in-hand, at exactly 3:00 p.m. to look at it and would definitely pick it up on Monday.

By 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, there was no Carmen, no email, no phone call.

So, we called her. “Uh, I’m stuck at work,” she said — but was still planning to come by on Sunday.

On Sunday, she emailed us the famous L.A. mantra: I am sooooo sorry!!!!

Due to a sudden hitch in her plans, she wrote, the keys to her new apartment would not be available for another two weeks.

An excuse about as lame — and made-up — as the one your high school boyfriend had used to break up with you: “I can’t see you anymore because I’m going through so many changes!

Apparently, The List’s correspondents are much more interested in filling their inboxes than furnishing their apartments.

The creepiest was “Edward.” His terse, serial-killer-esque email said: “I want to buy your computer. This better not be a scam. The computer better work.”

Even so, we still took the bait. We responded with an email brimming with reassurances. He ignored it. Either that, or he was too busy dumping a corpse.

Ever the optimist, I took another tack. Changing “Bench” to “Indoor-Outdoor Loveseat,” I brainstormed, might add some panache and result in a sale.

It worked. Immediately after the change, an email came in. The sender drove all the way from from Pomona that same night and paid for the “Indoor/Outdoor Loveseat.” He also bought the “Stargazer’s Lamp.”

But Craig’s List was way too much work. We’d only just begun and we were already done.

We borrowed a dolly, mounted the four-tier file cabinet in my office on top, and then rolled it out our front door. On the way to the corner — where we’d planned to abandon it with a “FREE” sign attached — I noticed a neighbor peering at us between the bars covering his window.

I hand-gestured: Do you want this? He nodded yes and came bounding out onto his lawn. “For my church!” he said. And that, as they say, was that.

Turns out, being charitable is a lot more fun and a lot less work than selling yourself cheap.

Parting With My Books

August 7, 2009


Chaos theory, according to Investopedia, attempts to see and understand the underlying order of complex systems that may appear to be without order at first glance.

Which sounds a lot like my bookshelves.

This past week, in anticipation of our move and possible relocation (I won’t explicitly say from where-to-where in this  post, because affirming it might jinx the outcome), I’ve been sorting through my collection of books. The goal was to scale down the amount of boxes I’d have to pack.

Maybe such an action seems premature, but I happen to believe that purging is good. Purging and paring down will help to disencumber and ready me for a sudden move to this undisclosed location should some miracle occur, like a job offer.

Letting go of your books is a tricky business. I must have gone through each of my bookshelves four or five times. I’d place a book on the “keep-it” pile, one day, and, then, in a fit of self-recrimination, switch it the next to “donate-it to the library” or “toss-it” — these being the piles of last resort. One book that gave me plenty of angst was Brideshead Revisited (I kept it).

For this move, and for the very first time, I also established a “sell-it” pile.

In 1996, when I moved to C.A. from N.Y., in a misguided act of charity, I’d donated bags of books — too many, in retrospect — to the local library. After I had moved, one day, I found myself looking to reread A Moveable Feast and realized, crestfallen, that I had given it away. A pocket-sized paperback, which took up no room at all. Given it away.

Keeping that in mind, this time, I bagged books by genre — beginning with books on the occult. Several unsentimental passes over the shelves yielded three bags of astrology, numerology, I Ching, graphology, tarot books and several decks of tarot cards.

My first stop was The Psychic Eye bookstore in Sherman Oaks.

so_storeThere’s an annex next to the main store where a bonafide witch (who is also a musician — I know this from our previous conversations) presides over the cash register. After she phoned the warlock for confirmation, I walked away from that transaction with $54.00 — thanks to the “rare” decks of tarot cards I’d included in the bag.

The next stop was Brand Bookstore in Glendale. I called the proprietor before my visit. Mentioning that his taste was eclectic and that he only looked at books from M-F, he also said, with particular emphasis, that he always broke for lunch. That made me laugh.

Which seemed to amuse him. “So what time do you eat lunch today?” I asked.

“H-m-m-m. Let’s see…this is Wednesday,” he said, pausing for a moment of contemplation. “Tooodayyyy, I’ll eat lunch from…one…to…two.”

brandbooksBrand Bookstore is an orderly shop with special sections dedicated to Paul Theroux, Peter Matthiessen and Paul Auster. My kind of place.

I emptied three bags-worth of books on the counter (the protocol for book-selling is that the seller always empties the bag). In the end, he told me, “At first glance, I didn’t think I was going to buy any. But when I started going through them, I actually wanted this stack over here!”

Seller beware: you are placing yourself at the mercy of book snobs, deservedly or not. Make sure to leave your ego at home.

At Brand, one bag’s worth scored me a premium price of $40.00.

The last stop at Alias Books in West Hollywood was the most humbling, for several reasons.


First, the high points. Notice the stuffed Bart Simpson sitting on the top shelf.

Also, in the entryway, there’s a portrait of the Mona Lisa hanging above a rack of discount books:


The man behind the desk asked me right away if I had “ever been to the shop before.” Telling him, no, I also added that I was new at selling books. “I have to empty them on the counter, right?”

I browsed around while he perused my offerings. After ascertaining that Alias Books was, in fact, a decidedly eclectic store, I was overtaken by a wave of chagrin when I remembered that I had included Prevention Magazine’s “The Fat Belly Diet Book” in the pile I’d left for him on the desk. Pretty funny — when I think about it now.

Anyway, I made my way back to his desk and greeted him anew. In his hand, he held the best of the lot — the two Paul Auster novels Brand didn’t want, and two others of comparable literary merit.

“My boss is really strict about buying right now, you know, with the economy and all,” he said, a bit woefully. I realized, suddenly, that he was treating me like one of L.A.’s most needy cases. “I can give you four dollars, if you want.”

I shrugged and said, “why not.” I just wanted the books off my hands, at that point. I knew I didn’t have the conscience to toss them out. I also wanted to avoid another donation trip to the library, which required a climb up a steep grassy hill with an armful of books. “I only have quarters,” he said. “Do you  mind?”

Pocketing the change, I took out my camera and announced that I was going to take a picture. “Something to remember you by,” was how I put it.

He looked uncomfortable, but didn’t object. Now, I guess you could say we were even.

Nine Years Later

July 30, 2009


July 24th was the nine-year anniversary of my father’s death.

Where did the time go?

The photo above (I’m on the left, my younger sister is on the right) was taken, possibly by my mother, at the beach in Coney Island, Brooklyn:


Some of our best times as kids were spent at the beach.

My dad was one of the few senior citizens who, when visiting the casinos in Atlantic City, brought along his swim trunks. He liked to take a restorative dip in the gray waters of the Atlantic before heading back home to Long Island. Beached hypodermic needles and used condoms notwithstanding, he swore by the magical healing properties he’d attributed to the sea.

One of his favorite poems was Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Maybe that’s part of the reason he revered salt water. On any given hot summer’s day during my childhood, or if he was particularly thirsty, he might spontaneously recite a few lines from it (which, long ago, he had memorized in grade school):

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We struck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Those were the salad days for our family. Days of reciting poetry, of weekends at the beach, dancing in the kitchen or committing our imagination to a good book. Both of my parents were big readers back then. A few years after this picture was taken, I would also share in their passion.

Perhaps, to guide us through the troubled times that would eventually overtake our family, the bedtime stories he told us each night changed from tales of chocolate soda fountains and enchanted forests to poetry recitations. Invictus (Henley) was one of his favorite poems. These last two lines have stayed with me all my life:

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

In raising us, he did his best with what he had to work with, which wasn’t a lot. His own father was a brute. So, for that, I thank him.

Right before he died, he was diligently at work, emailing Italy and Canada and copying us kids, as he cobbled together his family tree. He never was able to finish it. Death would claim him rapidly and unexpectedly, in just three months’ time.

While wading through the things he left behind, I came across an essay he had written in his forties, around the time he’d returned to school to get his bachelors degree. He had saved the essay for thirty years.

It’s a wonderful glimpse into the past, particularly, as it relates to the Italian immigrant experience in Brooklyn, N.Y. For me, it’s another piece to the puzzle that was my father.

The Old Neighborhood

by Frank Ambrico


When I think of the old neighborhood, I feel as though I were raised in Italy.

Most of the people in our neighborhood were Italian either by birth of descent. When you heard two people speaking to each other, it was almost always in Italian. As a child, it was a wonder to me that they could understand each other’s rapid conversation. The dialects were so different. As I grew older, however, I too learned to understand most dialects, Northern Italian and Sicilian being the most difficult to learn. The other dialects that were spoken by most of the other neighbors were only slight variations form the Neapolitan my parents spoke.

The music that was heard in our neighborhood, as would be expected, was Italian, too. Radios were always turned to stations VOV, WLIB or WEVD. Tulio Carmanarde, Nino Martino and Carol Butti were the favorite singers.

In the summer, all the religious societies held “feasts” in honor of their patron saint. There, you would find all kinds of favorite foods sold at stands where they were cooked or baked.

The “feast” that was held in honor of Saint Rocco seemed to be everyone’s favorite. This celebration always included a grease pole. This pole was as tall and round as a lamppost. At the top of the pole was a crosspiece loaded with fine foods and a ten-dollar bill. The pole was then covered with a thick layer of grease. Whoever could reach the top would take all that was there. Long lines of young boys would form to get a chance to climb the pole, some, as two-man teams, some as singles using a rope with a slipknot. This sport would go on for hours attracting hundreds of people.

There were many summer evenings that I enjoyed in a neighbor’s front yard singing Italian folksongs or just listening to the conversation of the adults. The singing would usually begin when some of the musicians from our block brought their instruments over and played a few tunes. All of the would-be “Caruso’s” would immediately join in and so the sing-along began.

There never was a shortage of singers; the problem was to get some of them to stop singing. Absolute quiet and undivided attention was expected when someone performed individually, even if he was unpopular. The custom was to show enthusiastic applause, and a spokesman would beg the performer to honor the group with another song even if the first one was terrible. Sometimes when the music went on past midnight and the children were in their homes asleep, the celebration would take on a quieter air.

At this point, the enthusiasm for music would taper off and the neighborhood comedians would take center stage. An Italian, it seems, cannot tell a joke the way an American does, with just a few lines. A three-line American joke becomes no less than a fifteen-minute production. The gestures and pantomime intermingled with the story make for an incredibly funny performance.

The comedy would eventually give way to the more serious or sentimental talk by the old folks about Italy or their youth. Occasionally, I was able to escape my mother’s eye and sit there with my eyelids at half-mast trying to fight off sleep so that I could listen to the stories the old folks would tell. They always enchanted us youngsters.

Whenever I happen to overhear a familiar Italian dialect or detect an aroma of Italian cooking, I can’t help but think of the old neighborhood.