Books From the Get-Rid-Of Box

Some books can move you to tears just by packing them in boxes.

I know, because we’re starting to pack our Brooklyn apartment to move to a farmhouse up the Hudson valley by the end of summer: something I once found unimaginable, but now I can hardly wait. It feels like we’re on a well-worn path, but well-worn for a good reason.

One thing I look forward to is more time to read, and packing books after you’ve lived someplace a while (eight years at this place), I find emotional.

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Among the books I’m keeping.

It’s something that moving forces you to do: separate them between the books you haven’t read yet but still aspire to, books you’ve read and want to keep so you can re-read them or give them to just the right person, and books you’ve given up on reading – and now you’re facing it, it’s time to get rid of them.

It’s emotional for me because that stack of books I’m ready to say “I’ll never read that” about, that is a measure of the distance between the reader I once thought I was – or the reader friends thought I was – and the reader I actually am. As I age I have less patience for any bullshit in this regard, and packing books this week was a big step in the direction of reality.

I suppose I’m simply becoming more like me. I’ve always been a lot more open to getting hooked into a long history book than a long novel. Anna Karenina was just never going to happen. The Power Broker, which is now finally in the get-rid-of box, to go back to the great used book store shelf I found it on, lasted a whole delicious summer.

In the years after reading The Power Broker, in fact, I became that somewhat familiar, annoying guy who could never help himself from pointing out how Robert Moses had changed whatever New York City landscape I was standing in. I guess I kept devoting two inches of shelf space to it in case I ever needed to refresh my memory about a legal fight about a bridge in the 1950s – or I enjoyed the reminder that I was a member of that club of Power Broker spokespeople. And now I’m letting that membership lapse.

Having said that, I’m also choosey about what I read for one simple reason. I’m slow! Even with history books, I can’t just plow through one for the hell of it, it has to be something I care about. And when a book was given to me as a personal gift, this conflicts with my natural agreeability.

So if I have a conversation with my friend Kevin about how much I enjoyed a trip I once took to Tennessee, and he tells me about a novel he loved that’s set in Tennessee, and then gives me his used copy, and I say “Thanks,” then part of me feels I owe it to him to read that book. Even though I never asked for it, and even though I’d specifically told him I only read a novel or two per year. A part of me genuinely did want to read it at one time – the reader I once thought I was, that is – and part of me has long been ready to embrace the future. And so it sat there, until the purge came.

In this sense, letting go of a book can be like letting go of a trumpet you haven’t played for years, or a sewing machine or a set of golf clubs. It feels right, not just to have made a definite decision, but to be released from a misconception about oneself.

So, with apologies to all the historians and novelists I’ll never commune with, farewell to your masterpieces. If you ever drive past our house, I’ll be the guy in the garden with a book of poems in his breast pocket. No hard feelings.

Catalpas and Princesses

“Do you know how, once you learn something you start seeing it everywhere?”

No joke, my friend in Kingston, New York said this to me as I was snapping a photo from her roof, of a tree I kept seeing all day, the catalpa, which is plentiful in that part of the Hudson valley.

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A catalpa tree in bloom, Rosendale, NY.

From a distance catalpas have the same pale green and fifty feet height of other trees, but as you get closer you realize the leaves are giant, heart-shaped and up to a foot long. Stan Tekiela’s Trees of New York Field Guide says the catalpa, or catawba, is native to the lower Mississippi valley but took to New York when it was planted here for decoration.

Sometimes called the Cigar Tree or Indian bean tree, it’s distinct for the long pods it grows later in summer, like enormous string beans. It makes sense that a catalpa would blossom a month or so later than oaks and maples, since it’s used to Alabama or Mississippi, where summer comes about a month earlier than here. And since this is the week they’re in bloom here, you can see in plain view how many there are.

Catalpas look a lot like those of another tree called the Paulownia or princess tree, except the princess tree’s fruit isn’t a bean-like pod, but clusters of wooded pods that look like almonds. A native of Asia, guides sometimes call princess trees “invasive,” since they grow tenaciously in urban places.

Like the new discipline of permaculture, and like the poet Stephen Dunn, I hear the phrase “invasive species” with caution. “Bad plants? Nature would say, Careful now, watch your language, let’s just see what survives,” Dunn writes.

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A princess tree in an auto body shop: “Foreign & Dometic.”

Princess trees were brought from Asia because they grow fast and look pretty, and it’s true they’re invading Gowanus, the neighborhood of Brooklyn where I work. Famous for the polluted canal that sits in its midst, Gowanus is now a dining and bar crawl destination, but still a good place to get a flat tire fixed.

This winter I could see clusters of princess trees’ fruit while the branches were bare. This month I got to see them bloom: The Royal Horticultural Society says another name for them is foxglove trees, since their blossoms look like the flower. Now the flowers are almost gone and the fruit regenerating.

Is the catalpa’s “invasion” less of an affront to our Yankee ecosystem since it came from Memphis, while the princess upsets our order since it came all the way from central China?

Don’t know, too late, we’re all New Yorkers now.

Jack Gilbert: “How is THAT a poem?”

One book that got me through this grueling winter is Refusing Heaven, a collection of poems by Jack Gilbert, from 2005. I handwrote one poem from it, “Trying to Write Poetry,” and carried it around in my pocket when I didn’t feel like carrying a book, in a not-too-successful attempt to memorize it.

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It could be that some lines from it resonated with the idea of poetry I got from Irish theologian John O’Donohue, who talks a lot about finding truth in the penumbral places. “Trying To Write Poetry” starts: “There is a wren sitting in the branches/ of my spirit and it chooses not to sing./ It is listening to learn its song./ Sits in the Palladian light trying to decide/ what it will sing when it is time to sing./ Tra la, tra la the other birds sing/ in the morning, and silently when the snow/ is slowly falling just before evening…”

“Knowing that passion is not a color/ not confused by energy…”

In many Jack Gilbert poems, you ask yourself “How is that a poem?” Which is always a completely legitimate question of the reader to ask – and often the door to the room where the meaning is clear.

Sometimes Gilbert’s poems are best read as extraordinarily concise character-building sketches, that character being the “I,” the narrator. That’s not something we usually say about poets, but take this poem from Refusing Heaven:

By Small and Small: Midnight to Four A.M.

For eleven years I have regretted it,

regretted that I did not do what

I wanted to do as I sat there those

four hours watching her die. I wanted

to crawl in among the machinery

and hold her in my arms, knowing

the elementary, leftover bit of her

mind would dimly recognize it was me

carrying her to wherever she was going.

A touching memory, but how is it a poem? I couldn’t really defend it from someone who says it isn’t one! Though I do see some poetry in the title: “By Small and Small.” The late night hours are often called the “small” ones, and the small memories and regrets can be the ones that stick in our craws. And small mercies can be the most meaningful ones, at the end of life and throughout.

Gilbert’s favorite topics are his young years spent in Italy, his home town Pittsburgh, and his late wife. In “Less Being More” he writes of a “he.” “It started when he was a young man/ and went to Italy. He climbed mountains…” (The first choice a poet like Gilbert makes is to write of an “I” or a “he” or a “she.”) It ends:

                           …. He began hunting

for the second rate. The insignificant

ruins, the negligible museums, the back-

country villages with only one pizzeria

and two small bars. The unimproved.

 

My kind of guy! And my kind of poet.

Letter From Mid Winter

So much has happened. So much to talk about. It’s deepest February. Snowdrops are popping out of the ground. The Olympics are back. Though I never really watch them, all this talk about Mikaela Shiffrin got me listening to Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-American arranger and film score composer, a master at putting bugs in one’s ear, including the Mission Impossible theme.

The first cut in that clip – and this is news to me – is called “Danube Incident,” and it’s what Portishead sampled for its 1994 song “Sour Times.” Schifrin is still alive at 85, and “Sour Times” is now in fact older than Mikaela Shiffrin.

Another mass shooting this week. Not much else I can say about that.

Neil LaBute lost his job! Two things about that strike me. One, so far the reporting says nothing about why, and that says something odd about the times we’re in, when they don’t even have to say why he’s out: we can safely assume it’s sexual harassment. Ask yourself, did you ever think for a moment Neil LaBute wasn’t a harasser?

I’ve been working as the general manager of a new restaurant in Brooklyn, the most ambitious “day job” I’ve had in years. Every day is like film production, and it’s relegated my writing life to a few hours of poetry in the mornings.

Last Tuesday I took a rare break to go see a Bergman film, Sawdust and Tinsel. His best, you could argue. Only seen it on the big screen once. Got distracted. Went to a wine tasting. Got talking shop. Missed the film. Had a cannoli. Met my wife and went to the Beacon Theater to hear First Aid Kit.

Instead of dour old navel-gazing Sweden – Bergman, who preferred the emptiness of Faro Island over the bustle of … Malmo – I got a young, global, Americana-loving Sweden:

You know I love to psychoanalyze bands. “Why does Mick worship the ground Keith walks on?”  That sort of thing. And so often it’s about the fraternal bond between them, that we get to warm our hands by. Seeing how they interact is one of the rich things about live performance, and it shapes how we appreciate the music.

It took two songs to figure out First Aid Kit: Johanna Söderberg, who has a voice as pretty as Iris DeMent, also has a little sister Klara who’s got a gusher of songs coming out of her. At the ripe old age of 25, she’s got something good figured out.

Oh, and my film had a screening this week! “Six Women,” which I wrote and produced and Teddy Schenck directed, finally had a New York screening at the Anthology Film Archives. Marvelous to see it in a theater!

After ten or so film festival rejections, it’s easy to second-guess choices you made in finishing a film, and in our case, as writer-producer, I admit I was revisiting some choices about what we paid attention to on shooting days. Had we given the director and camera “department” too many liberties to make what they felt were pretty images?

Seeing it on a computer screen, you could forgive me for suspecting as much. Seeing it a hundred feet wide, all that attention to creating beautiful images feels like it was worth it! It deepened the meaning and in some scenes conveyed the meaning of the action like it just does not on a 12-inch screen.

Much, much more coming.

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Just Kids

I was a little surprised a few nights ago to read on the IFC Center marquee that it was reviving Casablanca for a 75th anniversary run. One wonders, how much longer can World War II still keep the moral imagination of cinema-goers penned in like it has?

The fact that I was walking to the train from a revival screening of A Matter of Life and Death only made the length of time seem longer. The characters who fought in the war – and many of the soldiers filing into heaven in the film – were just kids, after all.

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“There’s no Technicolor in heaven.”

Kim Hunter was 26 when the film got made, David Niven a full ten years older, though smoking cigarettes and fighting world wars seemed to age men’s faces faster back then, making this one of those hard-to-get-your-head-around age gaps, watching it now.

Gorgeous film, written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It’s a good example of a film getting lost in history because it was too topical, too of its time: When Niven’s British pilot falls to earth and falls in love with an American before the bureaucracy in heaven can track him down, it goes to an administrative trial that, you’d expect, is about love, but turns into an amusing but way beside-the-point argument about British-American relations. Brits apparently know it much better than we do – the BFI once ranked it the 20th best British film of all time – but if it hadn’t gone so out of its way to make a point about diplomacy and politics, it could have been one of the most celebrated love stories ever.

It’s just marvelous how it turns the Wizard of Oz dichotomy on its head. Heaven is bland and bureaucratic – and black and white. Earth is Technicolor. There is no place like home.

Away In a Trough

I’ll never forget the first Christmas after I’d taken a French class. A manger, as far as I’d known, was a decorative place where hay gets stored, roughly the size of a baby carriage most of the time, about knee high.

NativityThen I recognized that word: manger, to eat. It dawned in me that a manger was a trough where an animal eats. They’re often longer and presumably not as snug and inviting as the fake ones I’d seen.

Around this time I was a waiter who was learning how foie gras gets made – and yes, I do think there is a place in hell for those who make it and eat it. I’d seen gras before, something about Fat Tuesday.

Another time I was shopping with an immigrant who needed to pay for something small and produced coins from his pocket. Instead paying with them, he handed them to me, who was quicker with these five- and twenty five-cent pieces, and the ten-cent coin that was mystifyingly the smallest of all.

I tried explaining that it wasn’t that hard. The quarter was a quarter of a dollar. The little dime was…could the d-i in dime be the same d-i -in diez, for ten cents?

Then there was the time I noticed that the White Mountains were in New Hampshire but the Green Mountains in a place called Ver-Mont.

Discovering new, esoteric words and congratulating oneself for being able to place them via their cognates is an elite kind of pleasure, like the day you hear about an old relative who has tachycardia and you know what it means because you know what a tachometer does.

The more humbling pleasure is realizing you have been using a word for a long time without appreciating its simplest meaning. There are cognates hidden in plain sight, words we have a deeper connection to than we realize. We use them every day, making witty cross-cultural puns without meaning to.

I was reminded of another this week when I watched an episode of an excellent online series called Woodlanders – more on which another time. A woman in Greece harvests acorns, grinds the nuts themselves into flour, and takes the acorn caps and sells them to a tannery in Germany. Can you guess what the active ingredient the tannery is after? Tannic acid.

My neighbors as a kid in New Jersey were a working class family who called their living room their “poller,” or parlor, a word I prefer to “living room,” which is so antiseptic. It implies a room where you’d play parlor games, or maybe just talk, parl.

I could go on, but I must get back to work. Been too busy to blog. I promise I’ll write more by the full moon, which comes, incidentally, once a month.

 

 

 

2nd Amendment Fundamentalism

In the month between Las Vegas (58 dead) and Sutherland Springs, Texas (at least 26 dead) I’d shut off the notifications on my phone, so now I get no automatic notices when things like mass shootings or baseball playoff games happen. This way, I spent yesterday blissfully ignorant of the shooting, and got to condense the usual routine of my reaction down to a few minutes this morning.

See, they happen often enough for each of us to have a routine, like what we do when we catch a cold,  or a bee gets in the house.

First I pore over the titillating details. I know that if mass shootings are by design a shocking genre of theater, then we are abetting them by choosing to be audience members, but who can help it? I struggle, but typically manage to stop mindlessly clicking on links about it – but not before I’ve read up on the cultural slant it’s going to take.

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Ted Nugent.

“I wonder what they know about the shooter?” is a kind of code for “Is he a Muslim who snapped, or a white supremacist or what? What kind of fallout are we waiting for?” Many people made the case during the Las Vegas shooting that the coverage is very different when a white American does it, and that’s no doubt true.

The American Right went apeshit the moment rioters loosely affiliated with Black Lives Matter broke the law, let alone the horrible case of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had a long history of arrests and mental illness, bought a gun, shot his ex-girlfriend, drove to New York City, and killed two cops and himself. To the racist mind, this is proof that we should never-ever protest police treatment of minorities.

In all these shootings, including yesterday’s, the liberal asks, “How did this guy get a gun, and shouldn’t we try to make that harder?” I get that, but I despair of this horrific ideology that’s becoming more commonplace, of thinking of gun ownership as the source of our freedom. At each mass shooting, I think “Maybe this will open some minds,” but it’s dawning on me now that many gun enthusiasts actually like mass killings.

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Emmaus, Pennsylvania today.

Just look at the sticker I saw on a Buick in Pennsylvania last week, with a skull in the center: 2nd Amendment fundamentalists are a kind of heavy metal death cult. Like a teenage boy with an army jacket drawing photos of his automatic rifle all over his notebooks, the higher the death tolls the higher the stakes, the more euphoric he feels holding his gun.

Like other forms of fundamentalism, such as certain religions, 2nd Amendment fundamentalists use a fabricated notion of the past to build a false sense of right and wrong. As if paying taxes is what makes us contributing citizens (as opposed to the takers), and if we ever feel we’re getting a bad deal, then we can always get back to basics: me and my gun.

Joni Ernst is a member of the Republican majority in the Senate. Here’s how she won in 2014, a month before Ismaaiyl Brinsley killed two cops:

There is a radical, anti-government movement on the march, one that favors religious law over our constitutional traditions, and thinks killing like yesterday’s is an okay price to pay for our freedom to own military-grade weapons. It’s okay with vigilante violence as long as it’s being used against black people and the soft-headed liberals who sympathize with them.

And there is nothing comparable on the Left. Just compare the Democratic Party and Black Lives Matter’s reaction to the Ismaaiyl Brinsley shooting with the actual Republican support for the armed thugs in the Bundy standoff in 2014. They make us seem like the Rotary Club.

Let’s also never forget that if you’re locked in a room with an armed madman, then it’s you, not the madman, who has to figure out how to get out. The guy who did the shooting yesterday, like most of them, had a history of violence against the women in his life; one wonders what a “broken windows” policy toward domestic offenders would do to the violent crime rate.

I’m not holding my breath. There’s no easy way forward, and here we are.

Marathon Sunday

That the New York City Marathon happens on the morning we set our clocks back an hour in the Eastern time zone only makes it more special. It passes by the end of my block, just a few miles into Brooklyn from its start on the bridge from Staten Island.

More than once I’ve woken up on Marathon Sundays to the sound of cheers, but most years, like other people, I wander outside my apartment and wonder that it’s still so  early. Half the clocks are wrong. Outside at 8:30 are the usual retirees drinking bodega coffee, and families shuffling off to church, but on Marathon Sundays there are more: Cops looking bored staring into their cell phones. Tape and police cars everywhere. And increasingly between nine o’clock and eleven there are neighbors with bedhead out to cheer on the runners.

The only thing like it is when a blizzard shuts the city down. The gentrifiers and the O.G. call a truce, and we make fools of ourselves cheering. First come the wheelchairs. Then come the tears. Then I scrounge up another cup of coffee, and we wait in the damp cold for the women leaders, who run past like quiet lightning. Thirty minutes later, the men come, the biggest cheers, then a weird lull.

Then they come. The masses, thousands of them. We yell for random countries. “Go, Costa Rica!” “Go Svensk!” I break out my Spanglish, shake a few hands, try to commit some names to memory, and the neighbors say, “See you around.”

Night of the Living Dead

As someone who used to see about a film per day – in recent years, more like two or three per week – I knew I was in for a shock when I moved to Shelter Island, New York for a job that lasted from 4th of July till this week: Zero cinemas and a house with poor Wifi meant practically no movies.

 

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Somebody’s a Zombie.

My first visit to a cinema back in the city just had to be something both classic and entertaining. Luckily a restored Night of the Living Dead was out. I loved it from the first shot – more like a regional indie film than pure horror. And the content, about a black man and white woman confined to a house together, started with so much promise.

Its problem – and not in a theoretical sense, I mean, it kept us from enjoying the film – was the female characters. One is a vicious nag, one is hopelessly in love, and one, The Woman, is in such shock she turns hysterical by minute ten and needs a slap across the face just to ineffectually help The Man, a little.

The girl who becomes “a ghoul” and takes a trowel to her mother’s face has the most get-up-and-go of any of them! For kicks I took a quick look at the 1990 remake, and in the first five minutes the heroine fights back more than the 1968 heroine did the whole time.

There you have it. Seeing a good film is so satisfying, that seeing an okay film gives you  the feeling you get when you want s strong cup of coffee and all you have is diner Bunn-o-matic. You feel like a ghoul yourself.

Harvey, #MeToo, and Me

Even before the #MeToo moment arrived on social media yesterday I was reading Marie Howe’s poem “Sixth Grade” a few times per week. It starts with her telling the story of a day when a gang of boys tied her and her friend to a garage door with a clothesline and mock-raped them both with the dried leg of a deer. It ends when she finally gets through to a boy she knew, her brother’s friend, who happens to be named Charlie:

“…And then more softly, and looking directly at him, I said, Charlie.

“And he said Stop. And they said What? And he said Stop it.
And they did, quickly untying the ropes, weirdly quiet,
Mary Lou still weeping. And Charlie? Already gone.”

So little effort on men’s part makes such a big difference in stopping sexual harassment, and yet we feel somehow like it’s a grand sacrifice worthy of hand-wringing. We can forgive Charlie from Howe’s poem for slinking away, since the repercussions among sixth-graders in the 1960s may have been real, but among adults 50 years later, what are we really sacrificing?

I speak with some authority on the subject, since I’ve been a sexual harasser myself. I hesitate to say so this week, since #MeToo has been lumping all kinds of sexual harassment together, and the differences do matter, but that’s the nature of moments like this. We didn’t speak up when it was easy to; now we’re going to be embarrassed into it when it’s hard.

Over the years female coworkers have had to remind me when my sexual jokes have gone too far, something I can own up to. Now that I’m a supervisor, and older, I try to make up for it by being a good mentor to the younger women, taking complaints seriously, and proactively establishing a workplace vocabulary that’s  all good vibes and yet manages to feel more free-spirit than apparatchik-speak. One detail from the Weinstein scandal that spoke to me was Gwyneth Paltrow saying she recalled thinking, “I thought you were my Uncle Harvey.” Once you say anything about how you want to create “a family,” and once they call you uncle, abusing that trust in any way, big or small, makes you a real asshole.

I have a harder time forgiving myself for how mean I was as a sixth- and seventh-grader. One girl in particular, I used to intimidate, to the great amusement of my male friends. Like Groucho and Harpo, I had a chaotic sense of humor that was marred by spasms of outright cruelty. In retrospect we were intimidated by her, whose only crime was being the prettiest, most mature-looking girl in a room full of horny 12- and 13-year-olds. It’s all fun and games till you consider that she’s a human also.

I remember seeing her again a few years later. We must have been around 16, at an adult party I was attending with my parents, she with her 18-year-old boyfriend, smoking cigarettes around the pool table (the good old days!). I tried to be friendly and got completely frosted out, as in, it wasn’t yet time to forgive and forget.

I should add that I was on the receiving end of a serious bout of harassment when I was in college, and I try being philosophical about that too. I have zero interest in bringing it up and bothering some old closet case about it. On the other hand, I haven’t exactly checked on his well-being lately either.

It hurt yesterday, reading accounts of harassment my friends went through as kids. I would just add that many of the “perps” were kids too. I was by any other measure a “good kid,” but somewhere there’s a story in which I am that scumbag who harasses. I wasn’t as good at algebra as Harvey Weinstein was at producing films, but I could do the simple math: I read my history book cover to cover by October, and wrote book reports that would have passed in high school, and I wasn’t about to get into any serious trouble.

harvey-weinstein-meryl-streepMy only other word of caution is about the Puritan impulse that’s always close at hand on the American Left. “There was a type of man whom the Puritans never tired of denouncing,” as Edmund Morgan wrote in The Puritan Family: an upstanding family man, a successful farmer and conscientious citizen, who was nonetheless on his way to Hell. As if the purity of one’s heart is the true measure of a person, not the net sum of one’s actions.

Harvey Weinstein’s accomplishments, like Elliot Spitzer’s, make his fall all the more spectacular, but I see them as mitigating, evidence for the defense. Rutgers, my alma mater, should absolutely keep the money Weinstein gave to establish a chair in honor of Gloria Steinem. If the Devil dropped a solar-powered water purifier in Puerto Rico this week, I’d say “Hook that thing up.” Weinstein’s done, he’s not going to corrupt an academic department from his house in East Hampton, but I digress.

I’m not surprised that so few men spoke up with much more than a polite “like” button yesterday. To say “I support you” is to risk seeming like you’re glossing over your own complicity with sexual harassment, but to say “I’m guilty” requires a story, and, like I did, reminding friends that the differences of degree matter:

Weinstein’s asking an actress to sleep with him or else lose her job is harassment, and so is telling a blow job joke at the wrong table at a holiday party. One of them should get you run out of town. One should get you a “What the hell were you thinking?” talking-to. And those of us who rely on, or have relied on, that wiggle room owe it to our communities to take the lead when serious harassment happens. We should, like Scott Rosenberg, speak up when the time is right. There is no jury with the power to say we’re good or bad people. There’s just, always, the question of what to do now. Speaking up last year would have been more courageous than this year, but this year is better than next.

Years ago Kevin Smith described Harvey Weinstein as a “true vulgarian,” as is Kevin Smith, one reason I’ve never been a fan. While writing an arts feature about a film exhibitor in Minneapolis around 2000, my subject told me, “The Weinstein brothers are less ethical than Bob Guccione,” and I thought it was hyperbole. I can’t say I’m surprised now, but the big story here isn’t the “monster” or “ogre” – a word I’ve seen more in the past week than I had in the past decade.

The big story is the list of debonair guys and civilized ladies, all the aesthetes who went along because they were too protective of their own good fortune to ask any uncomfortable questions. The more of us that speak plainly about everyday harassment, and get in the habit of calling each other out and accepting guilt and moving on, the more we’ll see that it’s all kinds of decent, upstanding people who commit the petty offenses that create a sexual hierarchy. And the more likely we’ll get around to saying, “What about the boss?” And like Charlie from the poem, a single word from our mouths can stop it. Let’s just try not wait to be embarrassed into it.