Wednesday, April 29, 2015



Just as waiting seems to be the true state of the motionless contemplative, so doubt seems to be that of the flâneur...Like an ascetic animal he roams through unknown neighbourhoods until he collapses, totally exhuasted, in the foreign, cold room that awaits him.
--Walter Benjamin


Sunday, April 26, 2015



“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not - to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

--Charles Baudelaire, from The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays

"I might have been myself minus amazement, / that is, / someone completely different.”
--Wyslawa Szymborska


Friday, April 24, 2015


Warsaw’s Ghetto Heroes Monument commemorates
 those who fought against the Nazis during the uprising in 1943.

Here's last week's arts and culture piecefrom The Tidings:

Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, ran this year from the evening of April 15 to the evening of April 16. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and is celebrated a week after the end of the Passover holiday.

A book that deserves to be better known is “The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps” (1976). The author, Terrence Des Pres (1939-1987), was an American writer, Holocaust scholar and professor at Colgate University.

In chapters with such titles as “Nightmare and Waking,” “Radical Nakedness” and “Excremental Assault,” Des Pres describes the psychological and spiritual torment endured by the inmates of the Nazi death camps.

Upon arrival, every inmate underwent an almost complete disintegration of personality. Those who survived came to accept that they were in fact awake and not dreaming, and adopted as their mission to figure out how to continue living for the next minute, hour, day.

“With the return to consciousness came a feeling of intense decision.”

Lone wolves, as in “real life,” didn’t make it. The inmates instinctively formed alliances, communities, friendships. They exchanged gifts — a piece of string, a bite of potato. A Treblinka survivor observed: “In our group we shared everything; and the moment one of the group ate something without sharing it, we knew it was the beginning of the end for them.”

Krystyna Zywulska, a survivor of Maidanek, was charged with “card-filing” the incoming prisoners.

In “I Came Back,” she wrote:

“I thought of my arrival and my first impressions of the camp. I knew that a person coming to a camp was afraid of everything and everybody, that she was distracted and terrified. The first word was so important. I decided to be patient, to answer all questions, to calm them and give them courage. My life began to hold meaning.”

In “Twenty Months at Auschwitz,” Pelagia Lewinska wrote:

“From the instant when I grasped the motivating principle … it was as if I had been awakened from a dream. … I felt under orders to live. … And if I did die in Auschwitz, it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be. … And a terrible struggle began which went on day and night.”

Personal hygiene was out of the question, for example, but many inmates grasped that their very lives depended upon at least making the gesture. They tore a tiny swatch from their coarse striped uniform, dipped it in the filthy water, and went through the motions of grooming themselves — after which the “washcloth” was rinsed out and secreted away for the next day.

Des Pres never stoops to sentimentality. Many vicious, cold-hearted inmates survived as well. Self-pity had no place in the camps. Once people died, they were not spoken of again. Moral dilemmas that in the outside world would be unthinkable were the inmates’ daily lot. Almost every survivor did things in the camps that he or she was ashamed to speak of later.

Still, a Treblinka survivor, quoted by journalist Gitta Sereny in “Into that Darkness,” observed:

“It wasn’t ruthlessness that enabled an individual to survive — it was an intangible quality, not particular to educated or sophisticated individuals. Anyone might have it. It is perhaps best described as an overriding thirst — perhaps, too, a talent for life, and a faith in life.”

In “Smoke Over Birkenau,” Seweryna Szmaglewska asked: “When there is no help, no care, no medicine — whence comes this magic will to live?”

In perhaps the most beautiful passage in the book, Des Pres responds:

“There is a power at the center of our being, at the heart of all things living ... already we can grasp some part, at least, of what the survivor’s experience reveals: that whether felt as a power, or observed as a system of activities, life is existence laboring to sustain itself, repairing, defending, healing.”

“The Survivor” could only have been written by a man of profound intelligence, conscience and heart. That Des Pres committed suicide several years after the book was published makes for a profoundly tragic coda.

He concluded:

“And as for an ethic based on selfless love, that dream cost two thousand years of misery, and like ‘faith in humanity,’ came to its end in Auschwitz, in Hiroshima, in the forest of Vorkuta …”

The notion that the death camps marked the death of Christianity is the one place that Des Pres and I part ways. It seems to me that Christianity, far from dying, was lived out in the camps to its farthest reaches.

Those eyes that are not quite yet dead — that refuse to die — are not proof that God is dead: they are the light that shines in the darkness.

Those festering feet, still torturously, slowly, plodding are the feet Christ washed the night before he died.

That emaciated human being in rags and dirt with the heart to share her last morsel of potato is the person the disciples met on the road to Emmaus.

“They knew him in the breaking of bread.”

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Here's last week's arts and culture piece from The Tidings:

I grew up on the coast of New Hampshire. My first love was a surfer. When I moved to Southern California, I got to see the beaches I’d only seen before on TV: Malibu, Newport.

But until last year, I’d never heard of Eddie Aikau. That was when a reader from Hawaii wrote me, saying:

“Eddie Aikau was a surfer lifeguard and native Hawaiian who gave his life in loving service. They have signs all about Hawaii saying ‘Eddie Would Go’ to commemorate his willingness to go where needed. The family was Catholic. … They had monthly family meetings where all undercurrents of discord were uncovered, discussed, mended. They were a large family.

“Eddie gave his life because he did go — to seek help for those on a capsizing ship while at sea. He gave up his life vest for others and climbed aboard his surf board seeking rescue. He was never seen again.”

I had to know more. Here’s his bio, from the Eddie Aikau Foundation website:

“Edward Ryon Makuahanai ‘Eddie’ Aikau (May 4, 1946 – March 17, 1978) is one of the most respected names in surfing. He was the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay on the island of Oahu. He saved many lives and became well known as a big wave surfer. ‘Eddie’ was a true symbol of Aloha …

“Eddie braved surf that often reached 20 feet high or more to make a rescue … He won several surfing awards, including first place at the prestigious 1977 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship. The local saying, ‘Eddie Would Go,’ refers to his stoke to take on big waves that other surfers would shy away from and his courage to make a rescue in impossible situations.”

On YouTube, you can watch clips of Eddie surfing and a documentary called “Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau.”

You can find “Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero and Pioneer of Big Wave Surfing,” by Stuart Holmes Colman, at the Los Angeles Public Library.

I learned that this old-school, world-class “waterman” was indeed raised Catholic. He came from a close-knit family of six kids, presided over by the charismatic “Pops,” who moved his family to the Chinese graveyard on Oahu where he was caretaker, worked hard, and threw parties featuring roast pig, slack-key guitar, and a potent homebrew of pineapple, brown sugar and strawberry syrup called “swipe.”

Eddie quit school in the 11th grade to surf. He worked the night shift at the Dole cannery, hit the North Shore in the morning, and rode waves all day. His genius was noticed early.

After coming of age, he drank a bit too much at times and, even after marrying, had a bit of an eye for the girls.

But his real love was the sea, and Coleman does a beautiful job of weaving Hawaiian history, culture, language, food, music and the age-old, mystical connection with the water into the story of this almost otherworldly surfer-lifeguard folk hero.

Drownings and injuries were frequent at Waimea Bay. As a lifeguard there, Eddie routinely and matter-of-factly risked his life — often to save drunken, ungrateful tourists.

“He was a protector. It was a role he picked for himself and he was good at it,” notes ex-wife Linda Crosswhite.

He attempted over 500 rescues. Not one person was ever lost on his watch.

As a surfer, he rode waves nobody else would. He didn’t want to attack, carve up, use the wave as an object to showcase himself. He wanted to be one with the wave.

In a culture whose land had been stolen by a few white businessmen, whose language, culture, customs and even ocean had been commandeered by outsiders, Eddie didn’t want to fight. He was a peacemaker, which is the one thing, perhaps, that takes more courage than fighting.

He had the duende — roughly, style crossed with soul crossed with class — of bullfighters and certain ballerinas.

In 1976, the Polynesian Voyaging Society decided to sail the Hokule’a, a double-hulled voyaging canoe, on a 30-day, 2,500-mile journey that was to follow the ancient route of the Polynesian migration between the Hawa;iian and Tahitian islands. Eddie, deeply proud of his Hawaiian heritage, was chosen as a team member.

The Hokule’a set sail on March 16, 1978, in stormy weather and quickly sprung a leak. The boat capsized. One last time, Eddie went.

He paddled off on his surfboard into one of the most dangerous channels in the world, with 20 miles of roiling sea between him and nearest land: the island of Lanai. He seemed to know he was destined to die doing what he was born to do: look out for others; being one with the water.

“Eddie didn’t take off where everyone else took off,” observes his brother Clyde. “He took off deeper.”

The rest of the crew was rescued the next day by the U.S. Coast Guard. Eddie’s body was never found.

His memorial plaque overlooks Waimea Bay. It reads: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Thursday, April 9, 2015


 On my recent trip to Vashon Island, the proprietor of the Betty MacDonald Farm where I stayed had thoughtfully supplied piles of books: old, new, picture books, history books, books on architecture and design, books on Arctic explorers, books on flowers, shells and trees.

I can hardly imagine a more delightful afternoon than the one I spent propped up on the daybed, looking over Puget Sound and riffling through some of these dreamy, thought-provoking books. A sampling:

"Another true cypress is the Mexican cypress, usually called cedar of Goa. It was once mistakenly thought o have originated in Portugal, which had a colony in Goa, on the west coast of India--such are the ways names are given! The Monterey cypress, C. macrocarpa ("large-fruited"), was named by a German botanist employed by the London Horticultural Society to collect plants in California. When Karl Theodore Hartweg found the Monterey cypress in 1846, he said it "closely resembled" the cedar of Lebanon, but he didn't call it a cedar. The Monterey cypress grows larger outside its natural habitat in California. It is thought to have been stranded after the Ice Age in a less lush habitat than it originally had, and prefers."

--Diana Wells, Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, from the chapter "Cypress"

"It is safe to assert that in decoration with gold and yellow we cannot hold the candle to our ancestors: save, perchance, in the department of book-binding. One meets occasionally with a handsome gilt-edged book or a find modern yellow leather binding. But who can imitate parchment stained by age and time with yellow, or one of those pieces of creamy old ivory which, chased with with gold, present so beautiful an appearance? Most old things weathered by the air have a distinctive charm which no hand-process can produce.

Think of old white-painted houses, which with the passage of time have acquired a peculiar bright yellow, a yellow derived from air, which no decorator's chalk-wash can equal. The artificial colouring matter is simply different from the flavous coating with which the air gradually invests anything which boasts a white surface. It is a thing to note how in the long run in Nature's handicaps yellow carries its colours past all others to victory. What does age not turn yellow? Our human skin, our bones, old wood, white paper, and green leaves, all submit to its influence. Nature devises us a mournful treat in the autumn yellows of the woods: no strident yellow, no sheeny light-filled yellow of the spring, but a mild adieu-giving yellow, dissolving into violet atmospheric tones, or an orange ruddy yellow before a background of greenish sky. Of its leafage we gladly take a spray home with us and feel pleasure with its possession throughout the winter. Only the arrival of spring with its first brilliant yellow flowerets makes us notice that the yellow that so appealed to us is now grey and dust-covered."

--M. Bernstein, Colour in Art and Daily Life, from the chapter "Yellow, As Colour and Light"

"When Oregon pioneer Martha Gay Masterson's little son Freddie died after a sudden and brief illness, the family buried the boy in a place where he loved to play, so that 'the little birds he loved in life sang their evening songs over his grave.' His little playmates 'came loaded with lovely white flowers' which were strewn over his grave. Only a day or so before he grew ill, Masterson had cut his curls for the first time, and asked what should be done with the ringlets. Freddie had answered, 'You take one curl, Mama, then I will put the others out by the big tree and the birds can have them to build their nests.' Busy with her work, Masterson did not follow him outside and had all but forgotten the incident until late in the fall when one of her daughters called her outside to see a bird's nest she'd found. There in the tangled mass of sticks were little Freddie's golden curls. Twenty-one years later, Masterson still had that little nest."

--Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier, from the chapter "Behind Closed Doors: Pioneer Women and Family Dynamics"

"March 28 [the day I was on Vashon]: Gathered some of the young crimson catkins of the Black Poplar. The last few days have been very cold and dry, with keen north wind, and any quantity of March dust in evidence.

This morning I saw some Frog spawn which had been brought in from a pond, together with some Caddis grubs in their funny little cases of sticks and straws. One grub looked very smart, he had stuck his house all over with bits of bright green rush and water plant."

That was on a page with three charming small water-colors of "Moss-cups."

And on the previous page, with a painting of "Nest and eggs," this quote from E.B. Browning:

Then the thrushes sang
And shook my pulses and the elm's new leaves.

--Edith Holden, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady