How Clowns Go

I confess that I thoroughly enjoy end-of-year stories with titles like “Those We Lost,” roundups of the best-known celebrity deaths before we move on in the new year, and get on with the business of more or less forgetting the dead and buried. They’re the top specimens of The Grim Reaper’s harvest from the previous season laid out in one cornucopian basket. This year I pictured him making last-minute rearrangements for the eleventh hour death of Joan Didion before plopping Betty White on top like a bunch of grapes, because the guests were already arriving.

On the one hand I hate-read them, the way we all read media to second-guess the priorities of our sources and the company we keep. You think, “Why such fawning over [I will not speak ill of recently deceased mediocrities] when you haven’t even mentioned Robert Bly?” You shudder at the breadth of love bestowed on downright dumb personalities. Then you whipsaw between finding out that someone you had a soft for had died without your noticing, in my case for 2021 Stephen Dunn, and the realization that another such as Ferlinghetti had actually still been alive so recently!

A grumpy part of me bristles at celebrity deaths for the habit my friends have taken up, of paying them overly effusive respects. It almost feels dis-respectful. “I liked Sound of Music too, but let Christopher Plummer’s family have the last word here.”

I was genuinely touched this year at the passing of Charlie Watts, one of a handful of drummers who created the rhythm of my early life, and did it with understated flair. Death, however, demands utter honesty, and I also felt a pang when the drummer Graeme Edge died. Though I spent years embarrassed by my early teen obsession with the Moody Blues, and especially their poems that Edge wrote, give credit where it’s due. He turned lots of people on to popular poetry, and that was poetry as I knew and loved it then.

Around the same time that Days of Future Past came out in 1967, a 22-year-old poetic force was emerging in Poland.

I think I first encountered Adam Zagajewski the way most of my friends did, with his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” published in The New Yorker shortly after September 11th. Years later a friend loaned me one of his collections, and I’ve had his poem “How Clowns Go” memorized more or less ever since.

“How Clowns Go” could be a good title of an article about dead celebrities, come to think of it. Death, I am supposing, looks very similar to the widely famous and to the rest of us the closer and closer it gets. I only found out months after the fact, when talking with some Polish guests at the restaurant I manage, that Zagajewski had died back in March.

Zagajewski in 2017

I was not surprised to read that, like Charlie Watts, he had a soft-spoken air about him. With verses like those, who needs bombast? His obituary in The Guardian summarized his poetry like this:

He preferred to use traditional free verse (“Rhymes actually irritate me, a bit like the bell calling you to kneel in church”) and avoided poetic experimentations as his focus was on communication and understanding, yet still engaging in “a dialogue with the imagination”. He demanded that poetry tell the truth (“we write to understand the world,” he claimed), and once wryly concluded that “some French poets say Polish poetry is just journalism, because you can understand it”.

That is poetry as I know and love it now.

How Clowns Go by Adam Zagajewski

An old clown hands out flyers at the station
for a traveling circus. No doubt
this is how clowns go—replacing vending machines (or children).
I watch him carefully: I want to know how clowns go.

The captivating balance between sadness
and mad, infectious laughter slowly slips;
each year the furrow in the cheeks grows deeper.
What’s left is the desperately oversized nose

and an old man’s clumsiness—not a parody
of healthy, silly humans, but a broadside
on the body’s flaws, the builder’s
errors. What’s left is the large gleaming forehead, a lamp

made of white cheese (not painted now), thin lips
and eyes from which a stranger coldly
gazes, perhaps the face’s next tenant—
if the lease on this grief can be renewed.

This is how clowns go—when the world’s great indifference
invades us, enters us bitterly, like lead between our teeth.

(Translated by Clare Cavanagh)

What Birds Do

What Birds Do

You talk about birds as if they are calling

to you through the window at the bottom

of your long list of things to do, the oblong

-shaped aspirations, the unfinished

sculptures and empty shipping boxes you

can’t bring yourself to throw away just yet.

“Listen,” you say, “That finch just announced an

extension of the grace period.”

Fine. Take some more grace. Light your room with it,

but let that finch, if that’s what it is,

do what birds do, sing to no one in

particular, and fly, God knows where.

For the Love of Trees in April

They’re changing costumes like mad!

It’s that particular week of spring when daily tree-watching pays off again and again, in either surprising or perfectly predictable ways: the week the trees bud out.

“It wore that yard like a dress.”

I often note, on winter walks, how much more you can see with the leaves gone for the season. What trails have vistas invisible in summer. What neighbors have swimming pools tastefully tucked far from the road. How much shade and privacy trees provide.

This week in mid-April, with few exceptions, they’re either covered with buds, or the buds are bursting open, or mini-leaves are already visible. The willows are bright with pale green hair. The forsythia, forget about it.

What looks to the sun-washed eye in summer like a grove of more or less identical trees can be quite different these weeks the buds and flowers are out: “Where did that stray fruit tree come from?” “This one’s buds are a different shade of red.”

Seeing trees in starring roles always reminds me of Marie Howe’s poem “The Copper Beech,” from her book What the Living Do. It has an opening line as memorable as “I sing the body electric” or others for the ages:

“Immense, entirely itself,

it wore that yard like a dress…”

Iambic tetrameter with a surprising punch at the end: Im-MENSE, en-TI-re-LY it-SELF / it WORE that YARD LIKE a DRESS. The meter trips on itself as it delivers the surprising metaphor. Sure, some trees, like some people, are entirely themselves, but to compare its relationship to the house and yard to a lady wearing a dress, that’s poetry.

The tree is in control. The tree is on the red carpet. The tree is dressed for an occasion, and we are its accessories.

I have a dear friend from Britain who’s gone native here in the Hudson valley, but still pronounces forsythia as if it has a scythe in it: for-SIGH-thee-uh. (North Americans generally say it as if the second syllable rhymes with “pith.”)

Thinking of him during one morning walk, I kept muttering “That’s a Greek word!” every time I saw a forsythia, a joke repeated throughout My Big Fat Greek Wedding. You can be a naturalist-poet, after all, and still have a brain that’s a boiling mess of pop cultural references – or at least I will die trying. But why did this “Greek word” not keep the tell-tale ph- at the beginning?

I looked it up, and how wrong I was. Forsythia is named for the 17th Century Scottish botanist William Forsyth, who was a chief gardener during the aristocracy’s manic investment in giant gardens that showcased plants from all over the empire and beyond (Forsythia from Asia.). This incidentally would have been a full generation before the English started walking the mountains around me in search of Douglas firs – which are named for another Scottish-born botanist. Now here we all are, getting worn by these gorgeous plants.

Going Home to “Return of the Native”

Sitting around an open fire one sunset this fall I proposed reading Return of the Native to my wife, and we took turns reading chapters of it out loud between Thanksgiving and Christmas, till we read the whole thing. Natural enough, I guess, since the book starts, memorably, with exactly that kind of scene:

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.”

The first time I read the book, I was a teenager, and it was one of the first serious works of literature forced on me that actually stuck. You don’t meet the ostensible hero till you’re a good quarter of the way into the story, which reinforces the reading of it that says it’s the heath, the geography that’s the protagonist.

The second time I read the book, in my 20s, I was living in Minnesota, my adopted home state from the time I was about 22 until my 30s. One phrase from the book I never forgot was also a description of the heath. Possibly because so many of my friends on the East Coast could not fathom why I’d moved to a place so bland as The Midwest, I liked to repeat that Egdon Heath, said Hardy, “appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct.”

Furze, or something like it.

In the same passage that I felt flattered my taste by calling my instincts “scarcer,” Hardy writes, “Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity.” Though I don’t remember what my 24-year-old self made of a landscape being “emphatic in its admonitions,” this was to my mind a defense of my fondness for the prairies of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

I guess there’s something of Egdon Heath in the valley I live in now. I live minutes from the mountains but am just as happy watching old pastures in the flatlands “embrown” themselves.

Otherwise, my young self’s reading of the story tried extra hard to see sexual politics in it, and I did moral somersaults to rally to Eustacia Vye’s defense. To me it was a village full of hypocrites who had to punish its one extraordinary woman who dared to think bigger than cutting furze, and only had the bad luck to cross paths with the guy on an opposite trajectory, who was coming home to furze-cutting from the grand life she wanted.

I guess age and experience made me appreciate that there really are some manipulative people out there, whose combination of sex appeal and bravado dares you to get involved with them, and rewards you with conflict. Jealous of your attachment to anyone else, even your own family, and certainly your exes or admirers, they’ll sooner or later try to wedge you apart. And that’s Eustacia.

The other lasting impression Return of the Native left on me this time was its lack of sex. I know, it was 1878, and it’s clear enough that Eustacia and her guys probably weren’t just standing around on the heath when they met late at night. But with no hint or suggestion of their going to bed together, even after she’s married Clym, it left me unsure whether to root for or against their marriage lasting.

I know, because I can read a book jacket, that Hardy broke taboos and made it possible for writers a generation later to be sexier, but I suspect I’d get a lot more feeling out of my rereads if it were clear whether Clym and Eustacia were happy, and not just defensive of their marriage.

Then again, it’s clear that I have a lifelong relationship with this book, and it’s too late to choose that. It may be the only book I’ve read more than twice. You can’t choose your family, and these people, presided over by this landscape, are my book family.


A Deep State Film Festival

Two films I watch about once every year are titles that, I admit, I sometimes hear or say as I’m picturing a scene from the other:  The Manchurian Candidate and Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

They’re both made during the Kennedy years, both broadsides in their own spectacular way against the American Cold War mindset. In them you can see an educated and liberal people married to the Cold War who foresaw the marriage falling apart, and are trying to imagine where they’d go next. The war in Vietnam would soon take care of that, but they didn’t know that at the time.

A mind-bending film about anti-Communism and gender, made by people hyper-attentive to the anti-anti-Communist narrative, but self-taught about gender. Starring Ol’ Blue Eyes!

I can’t be the first person who lumps them together in their own mini-genre, but when I watched them both back in January, during the impeachment of President Trump, it occurred to me that they both have a principled and sane army officer as a lead character. I kept seeing Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, the whistle-blower who made such a credible witness leading to impeachment, in Peter Sellers as Capt. Lionel Mandrake in Doctor Strangelove, and also in Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennet Marco in The Manchurian Candidate.

Mandrake is the British officer assigned to the nuclear base that goes rogue under General Ripper. (Strangelove was written by Terry Southern, Peter George, and Stanley Kubrick based on George’s novel Red Alert.) Marco is the Korean War vet whom the Army reassigns to public relations, who starts sensing that something’s wrong with his old commander Col. Raymond Shaw – and Shaw’s stepdad, Senator John Iselin. (The Manchurian Candidate was written by George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer, based on Richard Condon’s novel.)

Sellers as Mandrake, one of three roles he plays in the film – another being the Stevenson-esque U.S. president.

Both characters are the “normal ones” that you follow into the underworld of Cold War madness. I find myself quoting them both in everyday conversation, both Mandrake trying to sweet talk the security codes out of Ripper, and Marco berating himself for his mishandling of Shaw: “If the Pentagon ever wants to open a Stupidity Department, they know who to call!”

I watch The Manchurian Candidate for the perfectly executed thrills, and when it’s time to tune in to how deeply misogynist American manhood can be. You would think the climactic scene in which Raymond Shaw, shall we say, channels Orestes via Oswald is the prime piece of evidence, but there is another scene that’s not so much loaded as downright embarrassing:

As Marco is struggling at his job (Communist brainwashing and PTSD will do that.) he takes a break from D.C. to visit Shaw in New York. On the train, somewhere around Wilmington, he meets Rosie, played by Janet Leigh. He’s too frazzled to light his own cigarette and confesses that he’s on leave from the Army for psychiatric reasons, and she’s still so smitten she gives him her address. Once they’re in New York, and Marco gets into a bloody fistfight with the first guy he sees (albeit with good reason), Rosie comes to get him at the police station; she’s already broken off her engagement to another guy.

The only woman in the cast of Doctor Strangelove is Miss Scott, played by Tracy Reed, the secretary and mistress to General Buck Turdgison. Campy and comic as their dialogue is, it has more gravity and believability than all of Janet Leigh’s scenes in Frankenheimer.

Tracy Reed and George C. Scott.

Thinking what else might fall under that genre, I revisited Seven Days in May, the film Frankenheimer made after Manchurian Candidate – and which never grabbed me in the past. If The Manchurian Candidate is about Communist infiltration of the American radical Right, then Seven Days in May puts the blame squarely on homegrown fascism inside the military. And the hero this time is – guess who? – Army Colonel Jiggs Casey.

Will the coup coalescing around General Burt Lancaster topple President Frederic March? Not if Kirk Douglas as Casey has anything to say about it! It’s also noteworthy that Seven Days in May (written by Rod Serling, based on another novel) has a delicious part for Ava Gardner. She’s like Miss Scott ten years later, after she’s been around the block a few times and slept with a few more colonels.

Ava Gardner and Kirk Douglas.

With the pandemic and the uprising, who remembers impeachment, right? Well, this week I returned to all this. The Criterion Channel adds new titles at the beginning of each month, and for June it’s including the early verité documentaries Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, from the Kennedy years. Crisis, directed by Robert Drew and produced by ABC News (with some footage by D.A. Pennebaker) shows the two or so days leading up to JFK’s June 11, 1963 forced integration of the University of Alabama and TV address to the nation about race.

The arc of the 45 minute film begins and ends with Bobby Kennedy – and you get the impression he could talk circles around his brother. In between, however, it makes a hero of someone I’d never heard of, Nick Katzenbach. A native of Trenton, New Jersey, he was the assistant attorney general RFK sent to Tuscaloosa to orchestrate things.

James Hood and Vivian Malone, the first black students to enroll in the University of Alabama, June 11, 1963.

I highly recommend tracking this film down! For one, it’s a portrait of political animals who are also desperately trying to do what’s morally right, just because it’s right. I also couldn’t help noting how different life was without social media, etc. At one point Bobby Kennedy signs off from a phone call with Katzenbach with an air of finality, “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Of these four films, Crisis, the documentary, is the only one about the triumph of an ideal over a practical impediment. The rest are about the struggle of centrism and wholesome common sense against ideological extremism. And even Crisis centers on a bureaucrat. In the mid 20th Century there was, it seems, a great deal of respect afforded to career officers and government bureaucrats, whose combat service and centrist politics made them eminently credible. Or at least there was a movie-going public that liked that kind of character.

The fact that Katzenbach went on to throw his whole career into a defense of LBJ’s Vietnam escalation goes to show that they can be wrong too, but the public could take what they said at face value most of the time. If Trump’s impeachment was a revolt of the public servants against the ideologues or plain old self-dealers, then we’ve come a long way since the early 60s.

Impeachment 2: Why It Didn’t Work

What mystified me most about the Democrats’ impeachment strategy back in January was why Adam Schiff was allowed to talk for so long.

In baseball (sorry friends overseas), after you’ve had a bruising playoff series, you sometimes face the question: Do you start Game 1 of the World Series with your tired ace pitcher, or do you announce the day before that you’re going to your bench for a well-rested, lesser known pitcher that the opponents’ lineup is not expecting?

Schiff was our ace, but we had already seen plenty of him during the hearings in the House, and by the time they got to the Senate, Fox News had already defined him for the Republican following – and not in a flattering way. I thought for sure the Democratic leadership would pull a switcharoo at the last minute and make someone else the lead impeachment prosecutor.

Rep. Adam Schiff

Schiff got high marks from fellow liberals, notably my favorite up-and-comer Preet Bharara, but we had heard his good guy rap already. Most minds were made up, and Trump was keeping the heat on the few who were wavering. I thought the best person to carry that message would have been one of these Gulf War vet guys who was holding down a volatile swing district, maybe a Clintonian good ol’ boy.

They could have kept Schiff on the team to deliver the deepest, most precise punches, but made an overall case that was more like, “I’m with you, boys. I was skeptical too. Do we really have to impeach? Unfortunately we do…” If we had taken this tack, we might have peeled off one or two more.

John McGiver as Senator Jordan.

Adam Schiff reminds me of Senator Thomas Jordan in The Manchurian Candidate – the one whose very name makes Angela Lansbury blurt out “The Communist?!” A cerebral liberal whose kindness to lost-in-the-anticomminust-psychic-wilderness Raymond Shaw gets rewarded with murder, he is, like Sellers’ portrayal of the U.S. president in Doctor Strangelove, both reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson and slightly effeminate.

Earlier in The Manchurian Candidate, when Shaw commits a test murder against his newspaperman boss, the man is wearing his deceased wife’s nighty in bed for warmth. (Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause also has a prominent scene wearing a feminine apron, it was a trope at the time.) When Shaw kills Jordan, he is holding a quart of milk exactly breast high, the bullet entering his chest through the carton, and the milkman of human kindness dies.

The macho Right loves to think it knows how to “dominate” the unruly, Hobbesian world that the Lockean Left is too effeminate to handle, but should we really let them decide who our caucus’ impeachment managers are? If we want to win, yes.

Does that matter now? Arguably, no, but if we had peeled off one or two more votes, the lasting damage may have helped get a few more votes out of those croakers this spring, through the virus, the Black Lives Matter uprising, and what might still turn into a constitutional crisis. And let’s remember in the future, it’s not about how we sound to one another, it’s how we sound at the V.F.W. in Milwaukee.

Like Garlic Mustard? YOU Eat It

There’s an allelopath on the loose in my town, committing crimes in broad daylight, and I’ve been spending a good part of this quarantine handing out vigilante justice.

It’s edible, as many people have reminded me. They say steam it. They say chop it fine and use it to replace lemon and parsley. They say flatten it on cookie sheets and toast it then sauté it. They all say make a pesto out of it. We’re talking about people with a steady supply of it right outside their windows, and I don’t see any of them walking around with a colander picking its leaves.


Alliaria petiolata.

I’m talking about garlic mustard. Jack-by-the-hedge. Poor man’s mustard. Alliaria petiolata. “Alliaria” means it resembles an allium, but’s in the brassica family. As in “brass balls.” Its olfactory bait and switch is just one of many duplicitous things about this plant.

They say it was imported in the 1800s from Europe, where it’s been used for centuries, for food and as a diuretic – and where it has 69 kinds of herbivorous insects that eat it, that we don’t have here. Without these controls, it takes over. It’s considered one of the worst invasive plants in temperate forests across North America, and my little corner of New York state has it bad.

In the warm days of April, garlic mustard shoots and leaves are among the first to peep out through the forest floor. You see it and coo, “Spring!” like when the puffballs come in Amarcord. When the trees blossom, garlic mustard’s already shin-high. Some of the bigger ones are waist-high when it flowers in mid-May. It seems to prefer the shade but thrives in the wide open sun too – though I have noticed that in the sun it seems less monopolistic, more able to share the soil.

“Able to share”? It’s also allelopathic, meaning “suffering mutually.” More specifically, it produces chemicals that harm other plants, which is easy to imagine when you’re picking it. Its stem, when mature, is purplish on the bottom, the color of the rutabaga. When you pull it out by its main root, which I’ve done hundreds of times lately, you smell something like synthetic horseradish extract.


Biennials, the first year they look like this.

Is this the exact chemical that inhibits other plants? I don’t know. I do know that the New York State webpage devoted to garlic mustard says, “Herbivores such as deer and woodchucks only remove up to 2% of the leaf area in a stand of garlic mustard. This level of herbivory is ineffective in controlling reproduction or survival of garlic mustard.”

Aside from loving the word “herbivory” – Scrabble opponents, take note! – it’s worth remembering that deer and woodchucks eat everything. Plant nurseries around here offer deer resistant selections, and they munch them down like snow peas at a salad bar. If they don’t eat garlic mustard, that’s telling you something.

When I’ve spent all afternoon yanking horseradish extract pods out of the ground, the last thing I want to do is pull the heart-shaped leaves off the stem so I can say I have locally foraged chimichurri in my fridge – that I never actually eat. Because here’s the dirty secret of the locavore movement: some of this stuff tastes like weeds! And I would put garlic mustard in that category.

A few weeks ago, one unseasonably cool evening, I was bored and walked up the road. I was admiring a neighbor’s garden. I’d never met him, but he came outside with two cans of beer, which is not out of character for how people are behaving here lately. He and his wife are herbalists – I knew this already, because it’s a small town – and conversation came around to plants. I pointed to the garlic mustard next to his shed. “Do you eat that stuff?”


A roadside ditch in High Falls, NY, overrun.

He leaned forward, like the ramps might hear him. “Such a pain in the ass.”

I discovered this myself last  last spring – my first one here since leaving the city – and had some friends coming over, so I spent an afternoon picking and washing garlic mustard. I used it to make a saag, a versatile dish I’ve made many times, that works with any green: chard, mustard, kale, etc. I went heavy on the butter and put toasted cashews on top, and it tasted…edible.

“Artisinal isn’t always good,” as a food writer once told me. I would add, “Foraged isn’t always tasty.” And any time you’re told more than once that something is “good in pesto,” that’s like a root veg that’s “good in soup,” or something like a wine region “known for its rosé.” It’s something that’s edible when its flavor is covered, or it’s known for more misses than hits in its hit-and-miss vintages.

The First Agricultural revolution happened 10,000 years ago. If I promise not to make an extra trip to buy it, and to compost the stems afterward, will you forgive me for just eating spinach?


If the deer don’t eat it….

Mysteries of Mithras: Klimov, Macfarlane, and You Know Who

In the first scene of Elem Klimov’s Come and See, two boys are digging in a sandbank pulling out Nazi helmets and belt buckles. It’s not clear if they’re in an old campsite or a mass grave. The only places I’ve ever seen like it, topographically, are the banks of Midwestern rivers like The Platte and The Wisconsin.

It’s Belarus in 1943, and the younger boy is throwing voices, taunting Flyora for not having a gun. A truck full of live Nazis drives past, and the boys know exactly what to do: they dive out of sight. The truck is gone and Flyora, who looks 14 or maybe 40, now has his hands deep in the sand, rocking to pry something loose underneath. He humps the earth for a minute then stands up proudly with a German-made rifle he just pulled from the ground.



Weirdly resonant, this scene made perfect sense to me, since I’d just read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey. (Everybody else was reading The Overstory, and I was reading Underland, go figure.) It’s one of those books that gets called “narrative non-fiction,” but I don’t think it would be an insult to just call it a long-ass magazine article. A very well-read nature writer gives himself an ambitiously broad mandate for underground places to visit and tells us what he sees.

So there are chapters about cave exploration, giant mines under the North Sea, a days-long punk tour under Paris, nuclear storage facilities, and rivers under glaciers. Here’s a typical anecdote delivered matter-of-factly:

“Another day, near the highest point of the Mendip plateau, Sean and I walk what is known as ‘gruffy ground.’ ‘Gruffy’ means ‘rough,’ ‘rugged,’ and gruffy ground is the relic landscape of lead-mining activities dating back more than 2,000 years. Small-scale Roman mining left behind hundreds of small heaps of tailings; in the eighteenth century these were heated to melt out any residual lead ore. This double working of the landscape has left the ground humped with small hills of toxic slag…shunned by grazing animals which sense its contamination.”

You had me at “gruffy”!

Reviews of Underland tend to focus on its scientific pessimism about the anthropocene epoch, but the anthropology in it turned me on the most. That early humans buried their dead long before they had permanent homes for the living seems to me something we need to contemplate if we’re going to kick the plastic and petroleum habits.

No part of Underland hit me as personally as the short section on Mithraism, about the god Mithras. A Mediterranean interpretation of a pre-Zoroastrian Iranian god, you could call it a perversion of the Persian, but the cult of Mithras does not even get a mention in the pocket bible on mythology I grew up with, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Mithras had a following all over the Roman empire, but especially, they say, in Western Europe.

The Mysteries of Mithras was a rival spiritual insurgency in the centuries before Constantine made another fringe cult the official religion of the empire. Mithras was typically shown killing a bull, and membership in his mysteries was limited to men. (The Christians converted women, and were sometimes accused of subverting the patriarchal family.) His followers included many soldiers, who would stop at a mithraeum – which was always underground, or at least decorated to look like a cave – on their way to or from battle. That men fearing for their lives, or preparing to do violent things to others, would stop to worship a bull-killer underground resonates somewhere deep in the male psyche.

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 7.31.35 AM

Macfarlane looks fearlessly at questions like “What radioactive isotopes will outlast the human species?” but Mithras seems to give him the heebie-jeebies, and he quickly pivots to a more hopeful future: “Thinking of the diver-explorers of the Timavo as modern Mithraists…I am reminded of the historically gendered nature of the underland.” He touches on Orpheus and Eurydice, et cetera, then anecdotes about “women rewriting these ancient archetypes with courage and expertise”: female cavers in Uzbekistan and a microbiologist at Wind Cave in South Dakota.

That’s great, but it seems like a cave left unexplored. Why men? What do they see underground? Is it birth envy re-expressing itself long into the era of the hunter-agricultural division of labor? The women grow things every day, and the men might kill a large mammal only once in a while, so they have to get their earthy creation groove on?

Three years ago, I weakly tried expressing the profoundness of Black Sabbath’s last show at Madison Square Garden by saying it felt like a chthonic rite. What I was hinting at was more Mithraic: men going underground.

This week we learned that, partly for obvious reasons, we’ve passed a milestone: renewable energy has surpassed coal in the U.S., and that’s good news. What’s more, what little hope there was for a reprieve for the coal-burning power plants scheduled to be shut down in the next few years is also gone, and that’s great news.

Realistically though, the bond between man and pickaxe, and the psychic satisfaction of the journey underground, have not gone away. By itself, “solar panel installation” will never hit the bass notes, or monosyllables, of “coal mine.” When Trump said in 2016 that he was going to bring coal jobs back, a few gullible people might have believed him, but many more stood up and cheered because it was a profession of faith. That the men should be in the mines carries the weight of “God is in His heaven.”

The Soviet Cinema Power Couple

If you’re feeling like four and a half hours of emotional horror, watch a Soviet double feature about the worst days of World War Two. I did just that, to “celebrate” the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

Only after I’d gotten through the first half, The Ascent by Larissa Shepitko, did I learn that the two films I’d chosen were made by respective halves of a power couple of Soviet cinema: Shepitko and her husband Elem Klimov. You would think, from the black and white look of The Ascent, that you’re dealing with a historic film from the 1950s or early 60s, but it was made in 1977.

You could say that American filmmakers were already attempting the great Vietnam film, and those poor Russians were still stuck in World War Two, but then you’d have to acknowledge that The Ascent and Come and See (1985) were just plain better all-around films than any American war film.


THE ASCENT is full of details reminding you that these are familiar people doing and enduring horrific things.

War, in my childish imagination, meant lining up tens of thousands of soldiers along a line of scrimmage between territories, and trying to move that line. The first army to move it to the other’s capital won. Add a dose of moral certainty and you’ve got Lincoln and Grant surrounding Richmond, or Eisenhower crossing France. You can use a color pencil set to trace the slow triumph of good over bad.

The Ascent, written by Shepitko and Yuri Klepikov, based on Vasiliy Bykov’s novel, is set in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where partisan guerrillas are hiding in the woods trying not to starve in winter. You shiver with them and watch in real time as handfuls of crunchy wheat bulgur get passed around, until two volunteers, Rybek and Sotnikov, head off to find some food for the group, and it doesn’t go well.

There is Rybek’s girlfriend’s parents’ farm, where he thinks he can find food – and it’s leveled. There’s the “head man,” a collaborator whose life they spare after stealing one of his sheep – and who turns out much more complex and sympathetic than they expected. And there’s Demchikha, the presumed widow trying to raise three kids, whose tiny house the guys happen to be hiding in, without asking, when the Nazis arrive.


Shepitko died in a car accident location-scouting the film after THE ASCENT. She had he coolest haircut ever.

All along the way there is the one partisan Sotnikov, an ideologue of pure socialist ideals, whose conscience steers them right at key moments – and whose chest cold, and then bullet wound to the leg, make him a literal drag on the mission. Rybek is the more experienced partisan fighter, and kind of a charming scoundrel, but with an impatient, angry edge to him.

Sotnikov is my kind of guy. I’m somebody you’d want around to keep the workers at the munitions plant in a productive mood when news comes that our rations are going to be cut, but I’m not the first person you’d choose to be with in a foxhole. You need both of us to win a world war, but I’ve lived long enough to know that the Rybeks of the world, with their get-shit-done survival ethic, find people like me frustratingly dreamy-headed.

Well, this Rybek in The Ascent, after all he’s done to keep Sotnikov alive, can’t persuade him even a bit that some moral prestidigitation with their interrogators is called for, to save them from being hung. It’s a genius dramatic conceit, and a setup for a gruesomely poetic finale.



That the story is something we experience from Rybek’s perspective, and without a full conversion to Sotnikov’s martyrdom, makes it very politically mature. “What do I do now that I have compromised myself?” is not something you’d expect from a major World War Two film of a country known for censorship and so invested in its own heroism.

Come and See, written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich, is set in Belarus around the same time. It was getting some attention before the quarantine, since it just got a 35-year anniversary restoration and was screening around the country.

Compared to The Ascent, Klimov uses a much more innocent protagonist to take you on a more hair-raising journey. It’s also about partisans – and includes another long sequence about a livestock appropriation gone horribly wrong – but this time the hero is a 15-year-old boy named Flyora. One of the endearing things about Shepitko’s Rybek is how he recounts his one sexual liaison with his girlfriend before the war, delivered in a way that makes him seem young and sweet, not just a combatant in a dirty war.


Flyora in custody.

Well, Flyora still has one foot in boyhood when he enlists, and his mother responds by slapping the crap out of him. He gets passed over for his unit’s first attack – forced to trade his relatively new boots with an older fighter. He’s dejected till he teams up with Glasha, a beautiful girl of about 16 who endures guerrillas staring at her, but opens up to Flyora.

When they’re not dodging bullets from passing Nazi paratroopers, they’re unchaperoned in the forest and understandably getting frisky. It’s like Moonrise Kingdom, but with live ammunition. It feels like cheapening the dead of the Eastern front, to say that Come and See is a story about teenage rites of passage, but it’s about something universal besides the war.

Short descriptions of Come and See often praise its surrealism, but those seem like accents to me on an otherwise focused and purposeful narrative. It has scenes that evoke Amarcord and Romeo and Juliet, and it rewards repeated viewing – I’ve now seen it twice since Saturday!

Only on second viewing did it sink in how much time was spent staging the group photo of the partisan brigade, and how that sets up a momentous photo near the end. When the scene of Glasha dancing in a wet dress in a sun shower for Flyora’s pleasure lingers on and on, it’s inviting the male viewer to enjoy looking at her – a setup to make you feel horrifically dirty at the end when you see her after the Nazis have had their way with her.

Come and See is more spectacular than The Ascent, and in color, and since it takes place near “the front” and not miles behind enemy lines, the world of us-versus-them is more about soldiers of The Reich and less about the shades of collaboration. It is also about an immature protagonist – about sex and politics. A 15-year-old who just wants to stay alive gets a free pass on the bigger questions, so you can watch things unfold as he experiences them, without ever really dwelling on the horrifying choices people around him are making…

…until the second-to-last scene, that is, when the band of partisans surrounds a dozen or so captured Nazis and gives them an impromptu hearing. I’m sure the denouement with its historical footage of Hitler has been written about many times – and I can’t wait till its safe to browse in physical bookstores again – but let’s just say this was not an out-of-place choice of two films to watch on Mother’s Day weekend either.


Happy Mothers Day, by the way.

If you’re wondering where I’m seeing all these, the Criterion Channel is one thing getting me through this coronavirus spring – the best eleven bucks I spend every month. You not only get to see an important (and often enough entertaining) film every day, Criterion’s extra features, its mini-lectures by critics and historians, are consistently on point and just the right length.

American Brands: In Praise of Average

This cup of Maxwell House in front of me is a perfectly balanced pre-breakfast drink all by itself. Funny, because yesterday I noticed its pecan notes pair well an afternoon piece of leftover chocolate birthday cake. Good to the last drop!

I predicted that  it would be alright to have around when I bought my first can of it in many years, back on March 12th. I even gave it that highest of consumer ratings, “It won’t go to waste,” but didn’t yet realize I’d be buying more and more of it – even after the unemployment benefits finally started.

It’s easy to remember Thursday, March 12th, 2020, because I manage a restaurant – a very good one – and Thursday falls on my weekend. I could already see the great shutdown coming, but we had plans: a mom, a dad, and a ten-year-old daughter, whom they pulled from school to come see us, so we weren’t going to cancel on them

I had an idea for a fun picture to take, to re-stage a family photo of my own mother from her childhood, with a round smile, surrounded by food. We always figured it was something her grandparents intended to send back to post-war Poland: Look how much plenty we enjoy.


Good to the last drop.

The shelves at my local supermarket that morning were more picked over than usual, and I felt the tension in the air starting to course through me. I reached for a box of Ronzoni spaghetti and grabbed three of them just in case.

I typically stroll through the coffee aisle without stopping: to my bourgeois but left-of-center taste, coffee is something you bought from a local roaster, or possibly from a food co-op with uplifting images of unionized-looking coffee bean pickers. But this photo needed some kind of coffee, and a plain brown bag wouldn’t do.

After some texting my mother told me my memory was off. There was no table full of food. That photo was merely one of her with a large loaf of bread in her hands. That’s the nature of memory – we might be remembering the point of the memory, then reimagining the truth to suit it – but I digress, and I’d already bought the Maxwell House.

Unpacking the groceries, I remembered what Andy Warhol, another Polish immigrant, said about Coca Cola: “What’s great about this country is that … the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too …. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”

“Is that what’s great about this country?” and “Are Cokes really good?” are just two reasonable questions, but I get his point in the abstract. Any vision of the American cornucopia without classic brands would not be accurate, and one of their pleasures is in breaking bread with the rest of the country.

Convenience and cost are two more good things about national brands, and another pleasure is of course nostalgia: Nabsico Shredded Wheat tastes like childhood to me. I remember seeing, in a European History 101 textbook, a woodcut print of medieval peasants harvesting leeks, and hardly knowing what a leek was. You probably couldn’t find leeks in my suburban New Jersey town in the 1980s, but I’ve since learned a few things to do with them, and one is to chop and sauté them and dump soup stock over them – and if I add some dried egg noodles, then it’s suddenly like I’ve been eating leeks since at least the 1400s.

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 9.39.56 AM

“New Look: Same Great Taste.”

The connection, I’m seeing now, is deeper than nostalgia. It’s basic comfort – and I don’t just mean the warm feeling of a spoonful of Campbell’s. It’s the sense that the sky is up and the earth is down. I was not surprised to read last month that in Poland a no-nonsense style of restaurant from the Communist era is thriving right now: that would be my childhood, and my earth and sky too, if my mother’s grandparents didn’t have so much get-up-and-go.

It also seemed like lucky timing for Land o’ Lakes to finally move on from its Native American mascot this month, of all months – with panache, I might add. You can make demands when you’re in demand, and brands and the comfort they bring are indispensable right now.

Lots has been said about how much cooking and baking people are doing while they’re home on quarantine, and my family of two (plus cats) was no exception, till the quarantine wore us out. I’ve complained over the years about how foodie culture has ruined that oft-abused and misunderstood concept of hospitality, and I’ve been guilty of that myself, fussing over parsley when I could be listening, really listening, to friends I rarely see.

Now that we are all talking about what things will be like after quarantine – prematurely, in my case, since I don’t see restaurants being nearly the same for a while – I sense that a lot of us will have had the gourmand demon exorcised from us. We’ll be ready to get together with friends, and we won’t much care about the garnishes.

So when you finally get to entertain friends again, let’s not kill the fatted calf every time. And let’s not be too eager to show off our quenelle skills. Reach for cream of mushroom! Love them with luminescent Green Giant peas. And if you must show off with a homemade dessert, bless them with a shoofly pie made from the the holy trinity of Grandma’s molasses, Domino’s brown sugar, and Hecker’s all-purpose flour. And of course brew a fresh pot of Maxwell House.