Michel Legrand

Rest in Peace, Michel Legrand. Though it seems like you could write about little else these days besides politics and the death of the great artists of the 1960s, Legrand is a big one.

A composer of film scores and film songs, he straddled the world between the New Wave and the middle brow establishment. He was the French Mancini and Lalo Schifrin and Bachrach, and made music with Miles and Coltrane. Few of us can forget the first time we ever watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (and I’ve written in the past about Jacques Demy’s next film, The Young Girls of Rochefort).

Not long after discovering that, my wife and I watched The Donkey Skin (Le Peau D’Ans) and were blown away by the twisted Freudian fairytale.

It was years later when my mother gave me a CD of Legrand playing solo piano. I put it on for some background music one day, and my wife came into the room, spatula in hand, and recognized one of this songs, singing its chorus from memory.


Legrand made music for 250 films…and looked good doing it.

“Is this from Le Peau D’Ans?!”

I looked it up and it was. Music is alchemy to me, and I was amazed that she remembered it so many years later, having heard it once. I guess it’s not so amazing, considering that’s what musicians do, put aural nuggets into our brains that we can’t forget. They add spiritual substance and feeling to narratives, and everything else.

His niece, incidentally, is Victoria Legrand, a graduate of Vassar and one half of the band Beach House. Rest in peace, Uncle Michel.

Poem For a Winter Morning

It’s hard to take good photos of sunrise. It’s worth trying only because of the sad but warm feeling you get when you try showing someone the cell phone snaps you took, and then explain to them that they really had to be there.

People present at bombings and other violent disasters sometimes say it was “just like in the movies.” In nature when the sun is at its most expressive, we think of landscape painters. This morning, blinded by the sun gleaming off the frosted branches, I thought of Turner:



Coffee In Bed

We told each other stories about

our own courtship – biscuits made from

comic memories. The farmstand

milk in the coffee had a dank

terroir, unmistakably cow shit.

Deer outside fed on bushes just

an armslength from the carcass of

their roadkill sister. Everyone

was trapped in their own completion.

©2019 Charles Bowe




100 Years of Armistice Day

There was a curiously crude World War I monument in the middle of the oldest intersection in my town, a suburb of Trenton, when I was a kid – my first encounter with World War I.

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The Hamilton Square monument, before my time.

At the corner of Nottingham Way and Mercer Street, what had been a little farming town with a factory, a few churches and a greater Trenton street car line in 1918, was already surrounded by aluminum-sided Cape Cod houses by the 1970s, when the local suburban housing boom went into overdrive, but that squat block of cement and ill-fitting stones was still there slowing traffic down.

It honored “the citizens of this vicinity who served our country in the Great War of 1914-1918.” Sometime in the ’80s it was moved to the corner lot, which the town turned into a mini-park that no one ever visits.

It was and is, all too fitting. A war so weird we didn’t have a definitive name for it. A nebulous scope (“this vicinity”?) and an oddly misleading timeline (1914-1918) for a country that couldn’t take a side till 1916. A war that those of us who grew up on World War II and the Cold War could never get our heads around: it had none of the moral certainty, and none of the heroism. A war that we remembered mostly for the great generation of alcoholic writers who were scarred by it.


A few years ago a friend loaned me Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, which I promptly put on a shelf for a year, then picked up one night and couldn’t put down. Like me, Dyer’s encounter with World War I was through memorials.

Like the World War I vets marching down Nottingham Way on the Memorial Day parades of the 1970s, everything about it seemed old, old, old, even 40 years ago.

Yesterday my friend Rick Carney wrote about “the greatest and most powerful anti-war films ever made.” Here are his  “5 absolute must see films in this category”:

“J’Accuse”- Abel Gance
“Westfront 1918”- GW Pabst
“All Quiet on the Western Front”- Lewis Milestone
“Paths of Glory”- Stanley Kubrick
And in my opinion the greatest (and most humane) of them all, Jean Renoir’s, “La Grande Illusion.”

November 11 goes by the name “Armistice Day” or “Remembrance Day” in other countries – countries that suffered a lot worse than ours did. To us, “Veterans Day” is a time to thank the vets. This year the Left is using it to try shaming Trump; every year the Right uses it to try shaming anyone who ever questioned any war.

How often I’ve wished that I lived in a time and place when respecting the dead of past wars was not purposefully confused with supporting the possible wars of today. In any case without question the journey of remembering, to appreciate the scope of what happened and how it changed people at the time – and how we understand it through the ways others chose to remember it – makes you a more sensitive person.

Tony Hoagland on D.H. Lawrence

I was sad to hear this week that the poet Tony Hoagland died. I’d only met him once, but when I got married eight years ago my wife and I never discussed whether to have one of Tony’s poems read at our ceremony. We only discussed which one.

We settled on “The Time Wars,” a poem that hit some unexpectedly dark notes for a wedding, but got one of the points of a wedding across: that we plan to get old together.

I also frequently cite his poem “When Dean Young Talks About Wine,” when I encounter a certain kind of connoisseur, in wine, in food, or in literature:

“His mouth is purple as if from his own ventricle
he had drunk.
He sways like a fishing rod.

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.

But when a man is hurt,
he makes himself an expert.”


His Times obituary rightly focusses on his humor and accessibility, and surprising wallops of truth, and I guess that’s what drew me to him too. I first found him when I asked my friend the poet Jay Leeming the impolite question, “Who does what you do but better?” and he did not hesitate: “Tony Hoagland.”

I’ve enjoyed turning many people onto his collections Donkey Gospel and What Narcissism Means To Me. The latter book makes a cameo appearance in Joe Swanberg’s film Drinking Buddies. (I can’t find our copy, so I must have given it away, again.) Donkey Gospel includes a poem called “Lawrence” that captures his fun, slightly cranky voice.

Good night, sweet prince.


by Tony Hoagland

On two occasions in the past twelve months
I have failed, when someone at a party
spoke of him with a dismissive scorn,
to stand up for D. H. Lawrence,

a man who burned like an acetylene torch
from one end to the other of his life.
These individuals, whose relationship to literature
is approximately that of a tree shredder

to stands of old-growth forest,
these people leaned back in their chairs,
bellies full of dry white wine and the ovum of some foreign fish,
and casually dropped his name

the way pygmies with their little poison spears
strut around the carcass of a fallen elephant.
“O Elephant,” they say,
“you are not so big and brave today!”

It’s a bad day when people speak of their superiors
with a contempt they haven’t earned,
and it’s a sorry thing when certain other people

don’t defend the great dead ones
who have opened up the world before them.
And though, in the catalogue of my betrayals,
this is a fairly minor entry,

I resolve, if the occasion should recur,
to uncheck my tongue and say, “I love the spectacle
of maggots condescending to a corpse,”
or, “You should be so lucky in your brainy, bloodless life

as to deserve to lift
just one of D. H. Lawrence’s urine samples
to your arid psychobiographic
theory-tainted lips.”

Or maybe I’ll just take the shortcut
between the spirit and the flesh,
and punch someone in the face,
because human beings haven’t come that far

in their effort to subdue the body,
and we still walk around like zombies
in our dying, burning world,
able to do little more

than fight, and fuck, and crow,
something Lawrence wrote about
in such a manner
as to make us seem magnificent.


The Shipwreck We Missed in History Class

The first time I heard Stuff You Missed In History Class, I knew I’d found some some kindred spirits in Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson. Each episode is like you drove a Subaru hundreds of miles through the Appalachians, to arrive at a college town just in time for a dinner party where everyone’s educated, and you sit between two engaging women with subtly different Southern accents, who tell you all about a topic in thirty minutes. All that, except you didn’t have to leave your Subaru.

The conversations – and there are hundreds of them – could be about Victoria Woodhull; about Copernicus; a concise history of air conditioning; the Lumiere Brothers (two episodes); Martin Luther’s wife; the woman who led the repeal of Prohibition; the Sepoy Rebellion; or anything else.


I mention them today because they recently told the harrowing story of the sinking of the S.S. Princess Sophia, which left Skagway, Alaska on October 23, 1918, around 10 pm, three hours later than it should have, going a lot faster than it should have, and you can either guess the rest or listen to them tell it.

Theirs is the only podcast I’ve ever truly binged on, more than once in fact, and what’s remarkable about it is how spare the story-tellers are at injecting any kind of first person. Sure, they’ll say “I think” here or there, or leave you with some impression about them while having an ironic chuckle, usually at the expense of some ill-informed or overly confident participant in their stories, but they graciously keep that to a minimum.

I guess I do know that one of them is a mother and the other an animal lover, and any mention of cruelty to animals or kids gets a “You know this pushes my buttons” comment. Otherwise they leave out any of the personal-voyage-of-discovery anecdotes that tend to flatten every story in the National Public Radio orbit. It’s like, you can’t hear about a murder-mystery without the narrator mentioning the nature of the epiphany she had while on her way from the coffee shop to the crime scene.

Others have written about them with more access than I have. They have lots of stories about women, a sympathetic appreciation for religious subjects, and a sense of wonder about entrepreneurs.

Stuff You Missed History Class has that rare balance, both a sense of humor and a reverence for its subjects. In those hundreds of hours you rarely hear any theoretical rhapsodizing, though Holly Frey has a knack for stepping back and reminding you of the context of the story. In the case of the S.S. Princess Sophia, she muses, the end of World War I and the world flu pandemic kept us from committing this utter disaster to public memory.

What a vision, by the way, to think of a ship full of the bodies of the dead pulled from the water, arriving at a Canadian port on November 11, while people are celebrating the just-announced Armistice that ended the war.

I, for one, would have been tempted to stop the story and say “Think about that! Now that’s irony.” The Stuff You Missed History Class ladies, however, almost always stick to the third person and keep answering the question every story-teller should: Then what happened?

The Environmental “About Right” Point

I took a trip down Hippy Lane last month staying with old friends in Ithaca, New York. This is a guy who was a mentor of sorts, though he’d bristle at that responsibility. I used to tease him about his being a descendant of pilgrims on the Mayflower – often enough that I suspect he regretted ever telling me that.

I hit it off with his wife too, but hadn’t been to visit in years, since their wedding, and their daughter is now 6. My texts from the road saying I was running late had gone unanswered, and when I got there we sat right down to dinner.

Like friends in the city, you tend to “lose” them when they have a child. You naturally get replaced by their peers in childbirth and child-rearing. They’ve entered a new economy of baby-sitting favors and pre-school fundraisers, and when you do get together it takes a lot of explaining the new reference points. Since I’d hardly had a chance to see these friends anyway, we wasted no time apologizing for being out of touch.

I’ve always taken pride in good manners, and still feel the need to excuse myself to use a cell phone, even to check a message, when I’m with real people having a real conversation. I was expecting an email and excused myself once to check it after I got there. Then I remembered to text my wife that I’d arrived. After that I figured I’d better wait and see what the local customs were regarding cell phone use.

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E-Waste processing in China.

And I waited, and waited, and the phones never came out. It was just good conversation late into the night in a house full of books – “late” with a different numerical meaning upstate, in a house with a child in it.

That’s when I realized I’d forgotten my iPhone charger. The only one on offer was the older, wide “30 pin” model, circa 2010. I said “No problem!” I’d figure something out the next day. Which I quickly realized meant buying another. I admit that I kept this to myself in a house where we composted walnut shells and wore sweaters instead of hitting the thermostat on chilly fall nights. (“Chilly” in Ithaca meaning “cold” in points south.)

The next morning on my way to make the purchase, at the local gas station of all poetic places, I thought about a private message I’d gotten back in July after posting about Apple, the company.  I’d accused Apple of the environmental crime of planned obsolescence, among other things, and a friend of mine called me out on it. Instead of pissing and moaning about having to buy a new iPhone, did I even think about buying a new battery for $29?

Answer: Well, no.

The conventional wisdom among everyone around me was that I just had to suck it up and buy a new one, and I didn’t question that.  This would not have happened if I’d just called my friends in Ithaca – on their landline.

If there’s a spectrum from environmental angel to environmental devil – with the hero being the vegetarian who carpools to work and only takes airline flights when he knows he’ll stick around for a few weeks on the one end, and the villain tossing plastic bottles one after another in the trash (or littering them! I mean, why not?) while driving a Hummer to a ribfest with outdoor air conditioning – I feel I’m more conscientious than most, closer to angel.

I also suspect that most of us would place our own position on that spectrum at the “about right” point, and it’s never a bad idea to revisit that.

When presented with a basic consumer choice I decided not to question, but to dig a little deeper in the cobalt and nickel mines for a new phone because that just sounded easier. I could blame the nice guy at the iPhone store for not saying, “You could just get a new battery,” but then I’d be holding Apple to a higher standard than any other business.

Puritanism and its effects on the American pscyhe is something I honestly think about every day. Those Pilgrims on the Mayflower, my friend’s ancestors, are still with us.


John Calvin.

On the one hand, their perverse belief in predestination – that we are already chosen or damned by God  when we’re born, and that our life is a series of signs that illustrate that choice – can make us maniacal in our pursuit of being good. As if the decision about whether or not to carry the seltzer can the extra few minutes to the recycling bin is more than a practical choice, it’s a reflection of one’s soul.

But Puritanism also gave us our faith in the perfectibility of our community or society. Without John Calvin there’d be no Billie Sunday, and no Ted Cruz, true. But without John Calvin there’d be no Karl Marx, and no Bernie Sanders either.

So here we are, the generation that has to make the biggest decisions yet, with implications for centuries to come. And we’ve got 16th Century minds to do it with. You don’t get to pick the cosmological hand you’re dealt.

That Summer Feeling

Who went on summer vacation this year? This blog did, that’s who.  I did.

Not that it was a vacation exactly. I was packing up my house in Brooklyn and moving into an old farmhouse in Ulster County, New York. All the while holding down a job managing a restaurant in the city while I look around up here.

The hardest part was packing up the house, not the physical work – though that adds up too: It’s emotionally taxing to sort through old belongings, especially when one of your parents has died in the years you lived in that old place. And, when your closets are full of artifacts from unfinished projects and notions. The antique lamp you were going to get rewired one day. The fixtures that would have made a mind-blowing sculpture.


“When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it…”

Not that we’ve moved to a goat farm hours from the nearest cell phone tower: We still need paying jobs, after all, and our friends who have really gone for it in that sense report feeling a longing for human contact after being so used to it. We consider this more of an intermediate step, but it is a hundred and thirty year old house on a former dairy farm.

Near a creek bed, with sate forests nearby, it’s wetter than the city. Dishes sit on the dish rack and don’t dry. This morning near the equinox I took a stroll around the garden in my bare feet and felt the cold in my arches.

I can tell you already that natural beauty has the capacity to inspire insipid writing. Perfect sunrises come to represent new beginnings. Birds taking flight represent steps toward freedom.

On the other hand, you think more clearly with fewer things in front of you. I’m already writing with more detachment and humor about that most elusive and chaotic well of subject matter, my own memory. No wonder it was so emotional. I was packing up a young man’s house and unpacking a middle-aged person’s house.

Throughout the process my wife and I started listening to I, Jonathan the Jonathan Richman album that we believe we’ve listened to more times in 2018 than anyone else. The songs that made us tune in were the catchy, toe-tapping numbers like “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar.” The song that grabbed me hardest and longest, though, was “That Summer Feeling.”

“Do you long for her, or for the way you were?”

More soon, friends.

“Hating” Apple

Ironic, that one of Apple Computers’ longest legal disputes was against the Beatles’ record label, also called Apple. I’ve never had any patience for people who say they “hate the Beatles,” or who make a sport of comparing them unfavorably to other musicians. Last week, however, when my iPhone died I got a taste of what they must feel.

It started when my iPhone SE’s battery abruptly went from 40% charged to zilch and could not be revived. Apple is generously offering the current model for $100/month for 13 months. The SE is known a “really old model.” It was launched in 2016 to please those customers, like me, who were happy with their old iPhone 5S’s, a really old model…from 2013. And my best option, I kept being told, was to put up and shell out.

“I hate Apple,” I keep muttering. Masters at creating the accoutrements of futuristic bubble environments, and at enabling addiction to the instant gratification those devices offer until it remakes the economy so much that all of us have to tune in, they’re basically another tax-dodging corporation, but with a really tight design team – and one that people have an outsize fondness for.

I couldn’t help feeling, back in 2010, that the sanctimonious backlash against monologist Mike Daisey for the inaccuracies in his piece The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was fueled by a widespread, irrational affection for Apple devices. It’s almost quaint, in the age of Russian-financed Big Lies, to think that just eight years ago a story-teller in a theatrical setting got pinned to the wall by American public radio for his lapses in journalistic standards – almost quaint, since it’s something liberals only seem to do to other liberals.

And let me tell you, you are never more aware of Apple’s omnipresence than the two days you spend refusing to buy another phone. When I suggested I was going to look at other brands, friends laughed. When I repeated, “I hate Apple,” they responded with “Aw, come on now” retorts that sounded like I do whenever someone tries telling me, as they have over the years, that they hate the Beatles: that song for song the Kinks are better; that Pet Sounds is better than any Beatles album; that the contemporary American rhythm and blues were better than the Beatles throughout the 60s; that the Smiths (?!) were better; etc. etc.

I can’t disprove any of those claims, but you hate them? It makes me not entirely trust your musical motives.

Truth is, while writing this post on a MacBook Air, I’ve used Apple products to take a photo of a check and pay pay a vendor for an order at my job, to thank another vendor for going out of his way to help me (via a GIF of Cheech Marin driving a car), to record the contents of a box I packed at home, and to text my mother – all while listening to All Things Must Pass, for which I paid fractions of pennies, on an Apple device.

Somebody’s doing something right at Apple, and not just in its marketing department.


“I’m looking through you. You’re not the same!”

Still, as I packed up my apartment this month, and started assembling a pile of all the extra stuff I wouldn’t bother moving, I got struck by lightening when I put my old Apple laptop on top of my ex-landlord’s mother’s Singer sewing machine. I couldn’t help wondering, would anyone in 80 to 90 years hesitate to toss my MacBook into a recycling bin?

(The answer is Yes, I suppose. In 90 years we’ll have learned to handle heavy metals with a little more respect: They’ll gently place it on a recycling shelf.) It’s marvelous to think that, as old as this Singer is – over 80, I figure –  Rubber Soul, at 53, is closer to it in time than it is to my iPhone, and not by a little.

So I guess I should be specific. I hate Apple’s penchant for planned obsolescence: it’s environmentally grotesque and ethically just plain shitty. I hate how its devices sync with its devices but struggle to do so with others, a “keep it in the family” ethos reminiscent of the Mafia. I hate the free pass Apple’s followers give it for its faults. Most of all, though – and here I suspect that on some level I’m also speaking for the drunk who once tried telling me that the Ronettes were every bit as talented as The Beatles –  I mistrust the widespread, incurious resignation Apple fans have regarding its omnipresence.

Let’s hope it’s just a phase.

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.


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.


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.


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.