Face Value


I’ve made a few dozen trips to Russia and on each trip bought a few dozen pieces of Khoklama. This is traditional, Russian hand painted wood, usually bowls, spoons, vases, and even swans and tables. Mostly I bought bowls, but hundreds of these beautiful red and black and gold gifts are stowed about the house in Rubbermaid storage containers. These things ended up in boxes, behind shelves and in drawers. I like them. I use some for coins, some for pens, some for flowers or a candle, or candy. One holds exactly a one pound bag of M and M’s. Really, I could open a gift shop and make some serious rubles.

One of the first times I traveled to Russia in the early nineties shop-keepers still weren’t trained in selling these things and when I asked how much for the beautiful hand-painted bowl with the lid the woman said after much discussion with her colleague, “How about one dollar?” I’m still somewhat certain had I negotiated I could have walked out with two or three for a buck. But as it was, a dollar seemed fair for what would eventually cost in the same shop seventy five to one hundred dollars. I bought twenty that first time. I gave them as gifts, I used them, and I stowed them away. Once one broke and while part of me was disappointed since it came from one of my early trips, it wouldn’t be missed.

When my son was younger he liked to dig. He was convinced somewhere on our property, which sits near the Rappahannock River near where the troupes marched during the Civil War, is spent ammunition. He may be right. There are mounds along the perimeter that resemble casements, and a few seem too much like burial hills. So he dug. And it was Michael who came up with the notion that if we buried a few dozen broken Khokloma bowls, a few spent bottles of vodka, and perhaps a torn up book written in Cyrillic with some beets in an old campfire, a thousand years from now archaeologists will rope off the area and attempt to figure out the trade route that brought Russians from Western Europe to central Virginia. Future Phds might note these ancient people most likely couldn’t survive due to a fondness of bad alcohol.

Recently a horde of Bronze Age weapons was unearthed in England. From this very cool discovery of what resembles small shovels, pick-axes, and what can best be described as head-cracking-open thingys, researchers and other people who know determined the Bronze Age inhabitants of that part of England were violent nomads who couldn’t organize enough to conquer each other. Okay, on the surface I can see where it appears that way, but perhaps they just liked each other. Maybe those small Bronze Age bronze tools and so-called weapons were their version of our cold war stockpiles of nuclear threats so we won’t attack each other. They may, in fact, have meant to defend themselves against aliens but when they arrived they all got along simply divinely and they buried their hatchets in celebration of inter-galactic accords and from that time we gained the expression, “Let’s bury the hatchet.” Who the hell knows? Maybe they were the Bronze Age equivalent of ashtrays from seventh grade shop. The shovel and head-cracking-open thingys were all they could figure out how to make. “It was supposed to be a lamp, Ma!” little Zorr might have whined. “Oh honey it looks lovely,” his mom answered in a pre-British accent as she tossed it in the neighborhood pile of trash.

They didn’t recycle. Time passes.

So we’ve decided to make an archaeological compost pile. This one, Russian, perhaps in a few years after several more trips to Prague, another pile on the other side of the property made from Czech glass and pottery. We might even toss in some torn and tattered nonsensical language and send the diggers searching for a new Rosetta Stone to break the code of these Slavic people speaking odd English in America.

Yes, we are scientists of a different era, ready to guarantee future funding of necessary research projects insuring jobs to graduate students a thousand years from now. We are doing our part. Open the vodka, have some M and M’s, let’s get started.

But first I need to unearth something closer to my own surface, some relics from my recent past. I’ve gathered information and ambitions through time and place and often it is difficult to see how they match up. Did the farm house in Pennsylvania where I spent some intensely happy days in ’86 have anything to do with the Mexican blankets? And those stories an old friend of mine told me while driving to Niagara Falls on random weekends; are they related to my trip across Siberia or Spain? On the surface these events seem so disjointed, but when I dig deeper and understand the language of time a bit more, it all starts to make sense. While Browning believed, “The past is in its grave,” Jackson Browne said of the past, “I’m looking back carefully. There’s still something there for me.”

I like to walk carefully through the woods near home. If I am not paying attention I might think I’m walking through Heckscher State Park on Long Island’s South Shore where I spent many happy years; or it could be the Berkshires, or the Enchanted Mountains of Western New York. I believe if I were to look at my life many years from now to trace my journey on this earth, what on the surface seemed decisions as random as the ricochet of a pinball, underneath it all I would fine everything connected by passion and desire and some quixotic need to keep digging.


Now She’s Gone


Six swans have made their home here at the river. I saw them for the first time last night and then again this morning. The water today is absolutely still, like glass, like ice, and looks more an inverted sky than brackish river-water.

My son says the swans have been there for a week or more. I hope they’re here to stay, at least a while, but more likely they have been fooled by the warm temperatures—in the seventies—and are headed north. Soon they’ll reach the Southern Tier of New York where the weather is not so kind right now, and turn around, questioning their internal clocks.

And osprey, too, glided from the duck pond across the river to Windmill Point—a mile and a half across the river where the Rappahannock meets the Chesapeake. Osprey are abundant here on the Bay, but not now; not yet. Usually we are still graced with bald eagles, which don’t get along with ospreys and so they somehow split the seasons between them. Apparently our osprey friends who return late every spring from Central and South America cut their getaway short.

In Tennessee a friend of mine woke one day this week to flowers blooming in his backyard and questioned the month; in Utah and Colorado the ski season has yielded to floods from melt and rain, and in Texas my retired brother just keeps playing golf in short sleeve shirts. The seasons are out of whack and it is difficult to determine when something is dying and something is coming to life.

This isn’t about global warming. I stood a long time last night watching the swans, listening to one of them hiss, the water quietly lapping at the rocks and sand. I want to appreciate them as long as I can. I was relieved they were still there this morning. I’m sure before long they’ll be gone, and who knows which one of us will not be here next year. I’m plagued with persistent thoughts of “enjoy this while you can, you never know.” I think that comes from my maternal grandmother whom every time I would say “Talk to you soon, Grandma” to on the phone would answer, “God willing.” I laughed back then.

This is why art history; this is why journals and writing. This is why long walks along the river and Bay. I spent Thursday night at the fine Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, with my art students, and I am always grateful for the likes of Fra Angelica, Monet, Sisley, Rodin, and more. They used their talents to isolate time and pass it on to us, centuries and millennia later. We can stare at the work of the good Dominican painter and see the beauty of his subject matter, of course, but also see the 15th century, the European sentiment, the philosophical bend, the life of then.

This morning I watched the swans and recognized the extremes in my world. There is the art of it, for example, made permanent by artists such as my friend Mikel Wintermantel, whose landscape paintings hang in my house, or my son’s own abstract water photos which fill my soul with such calmness. They bring instant peace of mind as well as transport me to pastoral locales I love to wander; but there is also the temporal reality of it, as moments pass, as loved ones pass, as we realize the greatest treasures can’t be recreated or often even remembered—only experienced, now. Right now.

The swan spends her life hissing. It is a gentle sound, and I don’t know better but it is almost as if she is trying to harmonize with the water or the soft breezes through the reeds along the shoreline. But right before she dies she lets out a long, serene call, just before the end, as if to offer us one last beautiful moment before she leaves us for good.

It is, literally, her swan song.

Sometimes when my mind is clear and I’m not distracted by the give and take of going and coming back, I can sense every aspect of nature in the constant call of her swan song. It is then that I am inspired to do the same, to stop hissing and make every call as beautiful as I can, even if I do wake up ready to try it again the next day. It is how I wish I could be all the time, to bring as much beauty as I can, to see as much beauty as I can, as often as I can. And then tomorrow—God willing—do it again.

Mikel Wintermantel

1301 K Street


I spent a good deal of time in Washington DC when I was younger. Not enough to know it well, but certainly enough to develop an extended, deep appreciation of not just the architecture, but the foundations upon which those structures and monuments were built. No one needs me to linger through a litany of historic and political references and landmarks, footnoted by great Americans with sometimes fate-bending accomplishments or sometimes questionable motives. From the portrait gallery to the Lincoln Memorial, to King, Vietnam, Jefferson, and World War Two memorials to the outrageously symmetrical Capital and the tonnage of objects at the Smithsonian, just walking by these places is a humbling experience; more of an event, really.

And right in the middle of it all, gently set back from the center of the mall, is the White House, the President’s Mansion. To think that a handful of people over the course of the past two centuries changed the course of human events just inside the fence across from Lafayette Park, moves almost everyone who walks by, pauses, takes a picture and then a deep breath, and moves on.

I drove into town last week and rolled slowly by the White House, and I got depressed. No, I’m not going to criticize, analyze, lambaste, ridicule or even remotely pass judgement on who is inside and what is going on, except to say I was depressed. I normally sensed the occupant of the White House moved about inside with purpose, of course, but did so always rooted in respect for the position and the place and the people who came before. I just assumed the president would always carry the weight of this country in his or her arms with the strength of our history in his or her spine. I often disagreed with policy and perspective, but I never doubted motive or morals. Still, last week I was sad by what seems to be a mockery of over two hundred years of checks and balances, of respect, of dignity, of morality, of history and the human condition.

I went to a writer’s conference, hung out with some friends, ate, drank, laughed, and forgot about where I was until I went to the Ford’s Theatre. I couldn’t watch the play without also glancing up at the box where Lincoln was shot, and I thought about how even now, more than one hundred and fifty years later, the respect citizens have for this sacred location is unwavering. Later, I walked north and wondered just how this country is going to survive. I didn’t turn toward any problems over trades and economic sanctions and immigration and fences and treaties and ecology, but instead I worried for the rapid erosion of our sense of self. We always lived in this country with the historic and absolute truth that the people who worked in these places would at the very least act with a firm conviction for the future of humanity. And I just don’t believe that is the case any longer. This is not a partisan problem, it is quite concretely a matter of trust that we can face our problems with honesty, integrity, and for the better good of us all. And I was depressed for the first time in all my travels to Washington, D.C. because of the seeming absence of honor and respect for institutional memory. Gone. Depression turned to worry. Worry turned to Pinot Grigio.

Then I got to 14th and K Streets. There against the evening sky is the most bold, imposing building on this side of the Capitol. Most of the office lights were lit though it was after eleven p.m. and I had the immediate sense that something subversive and determined and important was going on. This, of course, as noted in majestic letters at the top near the two towering points illuminated by red lights, is the headquarters for The Washington Post.

I stood and stared and remembered my youth at college, listening to lectures by real journalists explain how the American Experiment is still strong because of the Checks and Balances not just of three branches of government but because of the Fourth Estate. Now, in a world my late advisers could never fathom, where true, honest reporting is as rare as it has ever been since the days of Rome’s first newspaper, the “Acta Diurna,” it seemed to me while I stood on the street looking at the monstrosity of a building that it was now, somehow, rebel headquarters. I have a strong sense of security knowing that if we are ever under attack from within, we have at our disposal some of the world’s and history’s most dangerous weapons—trained journalists who know how—often better than administration insiders—to find the truth and disseminate it to the world.

These guys are good. 47 Pulitzer Prizes, 18 Nieman fellowships, 368—friggin’ 368—White House News Photographers Association Awards, and still counting. The work of writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with Editor Ben Bradlee, brought down the Nixon White House because of persistence and an unwavering commitment to accuracy and the truth.

Journalism history is riddled with examples of one honest voice deafening the screams of a thousand liars. Ida Tarbell unearthed the secrets of Standard Oil and the Rockefeller’ empire, redirecting the rivers of investigative journalism, Upton Sinclair’s famous work concerning the meat packing industry forced the development of the Pure Food and Drug Act and new standards in the packing industry. Murrey Marder of the Post exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings and brought an end to them and the senator. David Halberstam of the New York Times wrote extensively about Vietnam and Seymour Hersh, also of the NY Times, changed events in this country by writing about what became known as the My Lai Massacre. These people and others championed investigations, often life-threatening, to get at and expose the truth. This has not changed by one syllable. It might seem as if the pure waters of honest journalism have been diluted by the brackish facts of a million streaming tributaries, but there are some organizations whose commitment to truth is so grounded in history and tradition that they can still be counted on to call out the criminals and charlatans.

At the top of that list for internal investigations of governmental affairs are the two men who inspired my choice of major in college—Woodward and Bernstein.  

I’ve been to DC many times through the years but for one reason or another either I never walked up that way or simply never noticed, but there I was standing on K Street, at first feeling depressed and even frightened for the future of the country, then suddenly at ease.

Because it occurred to me at nearly midnight on a clear, cold evening in our Capital, that the building on K Street might just be the most important piece of real estate in Washington DC right now.



Their Future is Not Their Own


I sat in the Golden Tiger in Prague drinking a Pilsner when I figured out the problem with my students’ view of their future. First, a quick story:

I spent a great deal of time in both St. Petersburg, Russia, and Prague, the Czech Republic. I met some people in both cities whom became dear friends: artists and writers and business people. A colleague and I received a few grants to discuss American culture to Russian faculty who would be teaching American authors. This was the early nineties when communism had only recently “ended,” and Boris Yeltsin was president.

We discussed Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Douglass’ Narrative of Frederick Douglass, among others.  One example of the problems we faced is trying to help faculty teach “Death of a Salesman” and needing to explain commission sales, insurance premiums, and the American Dream. The faculty and citizens we met throughout the city all wanted to know everything about the United States, about democracy, about capitalism and the entertainment industry. They wanted to be us. But no one really understood how to do it. We told them to have patience; it took the United States a few centuries to get it right and we were still stumbling. But their primary problem was something different: no one in Russia had ever lived under any form of government that was not oppressive. And their history showed no difference; the Czarist system had its unique form of oppression but not any better than the Soviet system. Democratic principles were never, ever part of the country’s vocabulary.

Prague was slightly different.

When I taught a seminar at Charles University I was lucky enough to work with and become friends with best-selling Czech author Arnost Lustig. He grew up in Prague, survived the Terezine Ghetto, survived Auschwitz and the Nazis, and spent half of his time in Prague and, after the Soviet crackdown in 1968, the other half in Washington, DC. 

We sat one afternoon at the Golden Tiger and talked about the differences between Russia and Prague. It was an enlightening discussion. He pointed out that Prague was quite democratic for many years, and remained so even after the Soviets took over after World War Two, and by the late 1960’s, Rock and Roll, left-wing politics, and the hippie culture took the area known as Bohemia to heart and culminated in what was known as the Prague Spring—the first “Spring” of its kind. Then the Soviets sent in tanks and crushed the movements for another twenty years before the Velvet Revolution. But he said the reason Communism never worked well in Prague is because of “institutional memory” of so many of the citizens. “The Russians never knew freedom so well, so in the ‘90’s they really didn’t know how to handle it, but we knew freedom, we knew how to live with Democratic principles, so we really never took well to Communism to begin with. Like oppression of the Russian people is inevitable again because it is what the people are comfortable with and understand, Democracy in the Czech Republic was equally inevitable.”

When there are people to remember what it was like before, there are people to help us understand what is wrong with how it is now.

My freshmen students were, for the most part, two-years-old on September 11th, 2001. Even my older students were not nearly old enough to be out of grade school. All these people have ever known is a country looking over its shoulder, a Department of Homeland Security, the threat of terrorism in an era of wars, a life of sharing information online, of surveillance, of alternative facts. They’ve only ever known the need “to be protected,” “to report suspicious behavior,” to be weary of the monster on the other side of the Island.

They missed the whole America where we had the absolute conviction our future was our own, where the inalienable rights were not based upon criteria, and where respect of our government and the democratic principles proven for two centuries was universal, even if some of those countries didn’t like us very much.

My students for the most part came after the whole “hope” thing. They didn’t have any “moonshot” ambitions. They never had a chance to demand walls be taken down and gates be unlocked. This, right now, is their reality. It is one of apprehension and suspicion.

We can teach them the history and the social sciences behind the pre-911 way-of-life in the United States, and the world for that matter. But it is unlikely they will comprehend something we show no signs of ever heading towards again. So what are we left with to balance the increasingly questionable future these students have apparently decided to try and improve simply by their act of being in college to begin with?

I turn again as I have before on these pages to one of the most important letters written in the 20th century. It was composed by a contemporary of my late friend Arnost, as they both managed to survive a Nazi death camp, and the letter was published by Haim Ginott:

“I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. So I’m suspicious of education. My request is: help your students to be human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading and Writing and spelling and history and arithmetic are only important if they serve to make our students more human.”