Still, life

Van Gogh, 1887 Netherlands

When I taught Art Appreciation at Saint Leo University on the Naval Base in Norfolk, over the course of almost thirty years the most common comment among my mostly retiring active-duty military or already retired vets, when I showed still life paintings, was, “Who Cares? Who would want that on their walls? I’d rather have a real bowl of fruit!”

Rarely did anyone catch on that it was a set-up; I knew they’d say that.

“Why do you think?” I’d retort like any good psychologist might.

At first the responses were always the same, semester after semester: the dude liked fruit (or flowers); some family member painted it and they felt obligated to hang the thing; it was on sale; it came with the castle. Then, someone would offer a constructive perspective: the artist couldn’t afford a model; it represented wealth—having paintings of fruit or flowers or livestock meant you could afford those things (as well as a painting of anything at all, actually); the colors matched the throne.

“All true, but anything else?”


I’d put on the screen some of the more famous and celebrated still-life paintings. Caravaggio’s fruit, Cezanne’s apples and curtains, or his famous skull painting, Braque’s violin and candlestick, and perhaps most famously, my favorite, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

“So that’s it? They liked the colors? They liked a good Mcintosh apple? I’d ask.

“Maybe they had paintings of those things because they couldn’t see them. Back then people might not have even known what an apple or a sunflower was, or at least never had seen them,” some thoughtful student might inevitably contribute.

“Except the skull.” We’d laugh.

“Excellent, and, sorry, but why else?”

Eventually someone would see it. “That’s a damn good sunflower.”

There it is. The texture, the perspective and color. The very notion of sitting and looking intently at a flower or an apple or even a skull is met with a laugh—we walk by them, of course, and they’re pretty. But to “Whitman ourselves” into some deep study of a leaf of grass or the pedal of a tulip is met mostly by ridicule. But when it is a painting, no one questions it. We are not wigging out on nature; we are appreciating the intense talent it took to capture the life itself and make it permanent. “Here we are,” I’d say, “One hundred—no, two, three hundred years later, and we’re still looking at the same flowers that Caravaggio had on his table. He keeps showing them to us.”

“Now I want an apple,” someone usually quipped. We’d laugh and I’d move on to the abstractionists, which was an entirely different head game.

But the still-life paintings were the ones I used on quizzes. They couldn’t get the answer wrong since it was a personal response, but after they studied endless names and paintings and periods and movements, the actual questions surprised them.

  1. Part A. Look at van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” for at least three minutes—study the strokes, the perspective, the context, and any narrative you find, and write about it in 500 words.

Part B. Why don’t you do that in nature? Why is it you can appreciate a painting and look at it a long time, but you don’t stop in nature and study the flowers, the texture of a tree? Respond in 500 words.

And other questions bent in a similar fashion.

I have a passion for art and some of my closest friends, several of whom have passed on, have been visual artists. I deeply appreciate art because, in part, I can’t do it myself. I have paintings by friends like Mikel Wintermantel, James Cole Young, George Tussing, and more. I have shelves of books with work by Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh, of course. The quality of his drawings exceeds his paintings in my opinion. As a writer and therefore an artist in the more general understanding of the term, I connect completely to the notion of trying to repeat in art what we experience in nature, and while my list of writers who have succeeded in that talent is impressive, my list of visual artists is far more extensive.  

That which captures nature and holds it up for us to see in the small rooms of tall skyscrapers, or paintings of Provence hung in living rooms in Arizona, is an example of human creative potential that is so revered that the names I’ve mentioned are household names, and the artists died centuries ago—that’s their staying power.

Still, life is not two-dimensional. It cannot be hung on walls or captured with acrylics and oils. It is an experience. It is kinetic. Life is the aroma of sunflowers in a field outside Pamplona, Spain, or the honeysuckle along a sidewalk in South Philly. Life is the soft sounds of rain on a pond in a park, where Monet’s lily pads cover the green surface, and you can hear a bullfrog, and you can feel the moistness on your skin. It is the sound of dry leaves on van Gogh’s path in the Netherland woods, or the slight chill in late fall where birch trees break the horizon like an Elliot Porter photograph.

If we can go for a walk and keep still, life is the original model, the inspiration and original cause, not art. Art is there for us, and it is beautiful and eternal and, personally, brings me peace.

But it is always imitating life. It did when Plato called it a false reality of life, and it did when van Gogh said, “Still, life is what matters most and the true artist in this world does not work on canvas but with flesh, heart, and soul.”

Home, 2019 Virginia

Full Exposure

I read from my new book the past few days and it went well and I enjoyed it and the food was fine and the wine was just right and I was happy and they seemed to enjoy it.

During the last question and answer session, a twenty-something woman stood up and established herself as a non-fiction writer, a journalist, with an inquisitive mind, and she believes small details can truly reveal a person more than the longest discourse with them. I expected a question about Siberia, or about one of our cabinmates on the journey, or the food, or my son, or anything anyone might ask, only smaller and with more detail. But no:

“How did you get that scar on your cheek?”

I sipped my water, and several attendees seemed suddenly uncomfortable. It felt like a 19th century question, like she should have been standing too close in some flowing corset gown and I would sip cognac in some dapper suit, and she’d say, “Tell me Robert,” putting her finger just a little too close to my face, “how did you acquire this scar? Do tell.”

But she was a j-student working on her masters, took copious notes during the reading, and sat with her pierced, tattooed boyfriend.

I touched my face. “I forget, to be honest.”

She nodded, and I knew she was thinking about it, wanted to push me, since she must have noticed it too big to “forget,” but she held enough decorum to let it go. But my host? No such luck. “You wrote about it, though, Bob, didn’t you?” he called from the back of the room. “Unless that is different.”

“I did write about a scar, but, ironically enough, this time I wrote about a different scar; The Iron Scar.” Everyone laughed. “Shall I tell you how I arrived at that title for a book about the Siberian railway? They encouraged me to do so. And I did, and she took more notes, and her boyfriend listened intently, and my host kept the pace and let it go.

But he was right. And here is the piece which appeared first in Southern Humanities Review and later the collection Borderline Crazy. But I should say that since the reading my mind has tumbled into a place I’d not thought about for quite a long time. We wonder what it is that will trigger a memory. Usually it is an aroma–smell is the strongest catalyst for recall. Often a photograph. But without really thinking about it, when she asked, I touched my cheek, almost as if to see if the scar was still there, if that part of my life really did happen, and my mind just kept spinning away.

Full Exposure

I have a scar on my cheek from a jagged section of chain link fence. But that is not what I told my son when he was two and ran his finger across it. One hand rested behind my neck the other outlined the scar, or pushed it, or pulled at it. “How did this happen, Daddy?”

I would smile, and with a story-telling voice, say something different each time, like: “I was escaping from a lioness when I accidently stepped on her cub, and just as I dove off the edge of the waterfall, her right paw clawed at my face.”

“Wow!” he responded, amazed for a moment, and then, “No, really. How did you hurt your face?” I’d laugh that laugh we use to dismiss what we said as recognizable nonsense, as if what we are about to say is the real story, and I would tell him “I fell off a train in Mexico and when I rolled safely into the Sonoran Desert, a scorpion stung me. Since I had no antidote for such stings, I had to dig out the poison myself with a dull pocketknife.” I would set Michael back down on the floor and he’d run off satisfied, not with the truth but with adventure, mystery, and more to think about. His vocabulary and imagination gathered these non-sequiturs—scorpion, lion, desert, waterfalls—and they would dance in his mind as he made up his own tales of near-death encounters and narrow escape.

At night I read Curious George to him and when the stories were finished, he would lean against me and ask what’s new or how my day was. And then after a few minutes of silence he might say, “Daddy. It wasn’t a scorpion.”

“What do you think it was?”

“I think you were born that way.”

“Well I wasn’t. I can show you pictures.”

“Well, then it must have happened at work. I think a student did that to you.”

“I’m sure many have wanted to, but none have tried…yet…so that isn’t it.”

“Then what?”

I would think a minute and say, “Son, honestly, it was a rabid vulture,” and he would sneer at me, laugh, and jump off the couch exclaiming, “I guess it’s time for bed.” After he ran off, I would sit and think awhile; kids do that to you. They say something, or ask, or sometimes just laugh a certain way that rakes up what had been settled matters, and you can’t help but think awhile before heading up and tucking them in and letting them know everything is fine and that you’ll be fine and when they wake up, you’ll be there, safe and whole, albeit with a few imperfections.

Scars are not unusual. For some, they are the unfortunate leftovers of disease, for others battle scars not treated or tended to, or untreatable. And for some they are souvenirs, notches on the skin akin to those carved on walking sticks or gun barrels. George Washington had scars left over from Smallpox, as did Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whom as a result was called “Pocky.” When Andrew Jackson was a boy, a British officer demanded Jackson shine the officer’s shoes. When the boy refused, the soldier cut his forehead with a saber—a mark which the future President of the United States did not hide.

George Custer’s younger brother, Thomas Ward Custer, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient, was shot in the face by a confederate color bearer when Custer reached for the man’s flag. The younger Custer killed the confederate and carried off his flag only to be shot and killed eleven years later beside his brother at Little Big Horn. Ironically, Crazy Horse had also survived a shot to the face, his by a war chief whose wife he stole. Go figure.

Me, well, I can still taste the dust, smell the rotten fruit of the nearby marketplace. I can still feel the fence, not on the way in but on the way back out.

When Harriet Tubman was young, an overseer threw a weight at her head which not only caused seizures most of her life but left a “horrific scar” which she said never let her forget “the horrors suffered during slavery.” A glance in the mirror may remind some of a tragic event, but that same memory might serve as inspiration, the signature of survival, the markings of the moments they overcame unthinkable odds. The picture of the slave’s back whipped to shreds and left to heal like a topographical map is also a document of inhumanity recorded for posterity. Branded numbers on holocaust survivors’ forearms forever keep alive the knowledge that evil walked these lands. Scars are history; they infect our psyche with sometimes unconscionable reality to make our history present. They are proof we survived our past despite odds, sometimes despite logic.

Some marks are merely fictional scars which, because of literature and film, are closer to legend than falsities teased by a father to his son. Harrison Ford’s marked chin comes from a car accident at twenty, but has since become an asset, a distinctive feature and part of his personality, even incorporated into the storyline of movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss exchange stories in Jaws of which sharks left their teeth marks on their legs. The scars render pride in their ability to survive. These souvenirs and conversation starters carve their credibility into bone, and they read like brail to tell us that these people have been there.

But who we are is more than the aesthetic; we are all branded in one way or another. The injury, disease, or self-inflicted wound caused the mark, but our character traits, from malicious villain to a hero with integrity are what we see. In both fiction and reality, the imperfection is just that because of its diversion from “normal.” Most people do not have scars, not visible ones. So when someone does expose such diversion from the expected aesthetic, judgment often follows. “If not for the wound,” they say; “He should have done something about it,” they say; “He should get it taken care of and move on,” some say. Of course, I didn’t seek out the wound like some scarification ritual; it isn’t an African osilumi—a mark of sorrow made after the passing of a loved one. It isn’t for fashion, similar to the tattoo-like Mehndi in India. It isn’t even political or ethnic as most African traditional markings. Some scars prove the woman can meet the demands of childbirth; some symbolize lost children either during childbirth or to slavery. And slaves themselves were branded or scarred to make less attractive or more noticeable. In other locations scars were burned or cut and then left to heal on their own to mark temples or foreheads or forearms for the pride or disgrace of a group. And paleontologists trace scarification to 50,000 BC.

When Michael was three, he slipped on monkey bars at a park and hit his head on the crossbeam. He wrapped himself around me and cried, but it was only when I checked to see if he had a bump that I noticed a hole in his forehead where a bolt on the beam had punctured his skull above his eye. Ultimately, he was fine, and his tears quickly resulted not from pain but because we left the park to go to the hospital where they sewed him up and we went home. More than two decades later there really isn’t any scar, but for a few years when he was little it was obvious. For others the scar briefly took attention away from his head of thick curls.  For me it was a crevice through which I traveled back to that moment, my shirt covered in blood, his piercing screams, the hole in his head. The scar is no longer visible. The markings of that moment of impact cannot keep pace with the persistence of my memory.

Years may pass before someone once again asks what happened. And by then, what happened often gets watered down and what seemed to happen takes over. Then, the story is either exaggerated or forgotten altogether.

Until you touch the cheek.

A border patrol guard asked for my papers but actually wanted another payoff.  I can still smell rotten fruit; taste the red dust. That was more than three decades ago; that was just now. You see a scar; I smell sweat, I hear the low buzz of a generator not far away, the diesel sound of a truck. I smell rotten fruit and feel the tug of children begging for money. You barely see the unevenness of my face; I feel and taste the sweetness of my blood dripping into the corner of my mouth, I taste the significance of a terrifying moment. Sometimes the worst of our scars marks the best of who we were at that point in our lives. 

After the monkey bar incident, Michael and I returned home from the hospital, his head bandaged and a new book in his hands. We moved on. The physical wounds of war or personal battles are transient. Even when they seem permanent, they fade to some accessory-like marking, barely noticeable for seeing it all the time. No, the wounds which usually keep opening are the stinging reality of memory which wakes us at three am. For someone it is the love which melted into hatred and bitterness; for someone else it is the belittling by siblings, spouses, parents; it is the cuts on the wrist; the two-thirds of a man; the inability to vote—look at their scars, just under the skin, healed, forgotten, and then like magma rise out to flow through months and years, to grab us and say, “Yeah, now you remember.” It’s the vet. It’s the abused wife. It’s the battered child, the neglected, the forgotten, the Jew, the Serf, the back of the bus, the separate water fountain, the depression; the depressed. You can touch my scars, run your finger along the ragged edge where skin never really met skin again, and find some tale there, but it might be closer to myth. It can never be simply facts and dermatology. Really, it could totally have been a hot curling iron; no, a kitchen knife. Cancer. Ask me again, and I swear I will tell you the truth this time. The thing is: the truth never completely heals.

Maybe I was born this way. Perhaps my DNA bends toward crossing borders. It is possible I simply was not cut out to keep intact, and these scars have always been just below the surface waiting for the right place and time. Check points and jagged fences might have been inside somewhere while I was still gathering adventurous words and fantastic ideas.

That night after the hospital, on the couch after listening to me read him another story from one of his books, Michael touched his forehead, freshly stitched and bandaged, and then touched my face. “Will I have a scar like yours?” he asked, paying more attention to his bandage.

“No, of course not,” I said.

“How come?” he asked, and I truly wasn’t sure if he was curious or actually disappointed.

“Well, the doctor fixed yours right away and it won’t be long before it isn’t there anymore. But I couldn’t get medical help for a while.”

“How come?” 

I pulled his hand away from his bandage. “Well,” I said. “Once I pushed the mother dingo away from my head and pulled her paw far enough away to come out of my cheek, I had to rush her cubs to a vet to get them care.”

He was quiet, opened his book and fingered his forehead, then said. “Daddy, you can do better than that.”


Joe “Pop” Urso, my mother’s father

Growing up I was German/Irish. That was a standard combo on Long Island. Even Robert Duvall in The Godfather says, “I’m German/Irish” to the film producer.  The German might be obvious from the name—my great-great grandfather came from Lohr en Main, Germany, in the 1850’s with his three brothers. The Irish is my maternal grandmother. In fact, DNA shows me at 51% Irish (some slipped in from my father’s maternal family as well). But that should have been it. This is simple arithmetic. Mom—Irish. Dad—German and Irish.

But when I was fifty-seven-years old I found out my maternal great-grandfather was Giuseppe Urso, a stonemason from Sicily, and his son, my grandfather, Joe Urso (Pop), owned the Metro Diner in Albany, New York. My mother suspected from her youth that the man she knew and loved as her father was not, in fact, her father. The details aren’t important, but when she was born in 1933 life in Brooklyn had not advanced between the Irish and Italian immigrants. It turns out my very Irish (McCormick) grandmother fell in love with a very Sicilian man in the neighborhood. Apparently, both of their fathers forbid any wedding despite her pregnancy (to be fair no one knows if they yet knew about her pregnancy). This was real—this was a time when marrying someone not from your village was taboo, let alone from enemy territory. So Joe headed to some family friends in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Catherine met and married Ernie—the man my mother knew as her father.

In Florida one day at lunch with my brother, who had done some research online and ended up in contact with someone who popped up on the family tree after all of us had done the DNA thing, he told me about the Urso family, about Giuseppe (Mom’s grandfather) and Joe (her father), about the forbidden romance.  I had never heard the name Urso in my life. But serendipitously, that night while standing on the ninth floor of a building at the University of Tampa, I looked out the window to the next building where in huge letters read, “FRANK URSO BUILDING.” No relation, but creepy nonetheless.

Then I found an article about Pop Urso, Metro Diner owner, who had two sons—Joe and Jim, and how Jim took over the family business until the diner closed in the ‘80s. The author of the article was Jim’s nephew, Jack Urso. Then I read Jack’s bio: Jack Urso teaches college English at a community college and has a blog. Nearly identical to my bio. So I wrote him, the first line of my email said, “This is going to be the strangest email you’ve ever received.” He replied with a beautiful letter, and thirty minutes later I received an email from Jack’s sister, Annmarie. We corresponded a lot with pictures and information, all of us amazed at the undeniable resemblance between my mother and their father Joe—Mom’s younger brother by about eight months, and a nearly identical resemblance between Mom and her father, Pop. It seems Pop left Brooklyn and hightailed it to Scranton where he married a woman and had a son just eight months after Mom was born (Joe–Annmarie and Jack’s father). No one knows if Pop knew about the pregnancy. My new cousins told me about “our” grandfather. Then I read Annmarie’s email signature—a college professor at the same SUNY college where one of my dearest friends of four decades works.

So I texted my friend. “Liz, do you know Annmarie Urso?”

“Hey Bob. Yes, of course. How do you know her?”

“She’s my cousin.”


Yes, exactly. WTF?

Eventually when I did meet Annmarie, it was as if we knew each other our entire lives.


Writer John Edgar Wideman wrote in his book Brothers and Keepers that everyone needs two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, then sixteen, then thirty-two, sixty-four, one hundred and twenty-eight. He comments how about two hundred years ago sixty-four men made love to sixty-four women in various places, none of the couples ever meeting at all in their lifetime, all in some grand genetic conspiracy to eventually create you.

I love the stories of ancestry. What did they do for a living? Who excelled, who disappeared, who emigrated and who stayed behind to tend to family matters? We all have our stories, and the fact we are “present” makes our stories less interesting or even relevant much of the time. But one hundred years from now will some young man be looking through old documents to see what I did for a living? What happened to me? Will someone wonder why some of my story is from Long Island and some from the South? What questions will I leave unanswered?

Here’s the answers as they stand now:

I’m 51% Irish, mostly because of my mother but very strongly my father as well as his roots return to Connemara, and that’s where my chart places more than half my blood. I’m 21 percent Italian—specifically, northern Sicilian. If we use the old-fashioned, commonsense method of determination, my ancestry is traced to Ireland (maternal grandfather), Italy (other maternal grandfather), Germany (paternal grandfather), and English/Irish (other paternal grandfather). But under this reasoning my German should be about one quarter or so as well, but it barely makes a reading at 6 percent. In fact, I have more “Jewish People’s of Europe” in me than German, though I have no clue as to what JPE is exactly.

Still, my maternal grandfather owned a diner in Albany, the other a glass company in Brooklyn. Their fathers were a stonemason and a butcher respectively. Those men and their wives left their homes for whatever reason—war, famine, disease, hope—and came here without means of communicating with home except by hand-written letters which could take months each way. No, it was a time when those brave souls left everything well aware they most likely would never be back and never see any of those left behind ever again. We can’t begin to wrap our mind around this concept when we talk several times a day to all living generations no matter where in the world they live.

My parents come from what we commonly call the Greatest Generation, but their parents might be part of what could be named “The Bravest Generation.” The sacrifices they made to ride on a sliver of hope are inconceivable.

Mom has olive skin and hazel eyes, different than her fair-skinned and blue-eyed brothers and sister. The suspicion lasted her entire life, though always deep in the background, and certainly not anything the rest of the family knew, let alone talked about. It was ancient history. Except while growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, kids would point out how she looked different than the rest, and her maternal grandfather, she remembers, did not like her—the Irishman who forbid his daughter from marrying the Italian leaving room to believe they all knew who Mom’s real father was and were not happy about it. Through the years we all joked how Italian she really is—not in some insightful way, but in her lifestyle—her sister-in-law and best friend for many years were both Italian and taught Mom the art of cooking their food. It is ironic now, of course, but somehow quite fateful.

Last week my mother and I were talking about her Sicilian family and how thrilled she is to know the truth about it all thanks to DNA and my brother’s dive into our ancestry. She loves that Annmarie calls her “Aunt Joan” and sends her pictures, and was sad to learn that both her “new” brothers had passed away before she knew this. Annmarie said her father would have been thrilled to know he had a sister. This made Mom both so happy and a bit sad. I said that my new cousin Jack and I joked about writing about it and Mom got excited. “Please do so, at least before I die!” she quipped. “Really, I would love for you to write about it before I am gone.” She’s proud of her new old lineage. We looked together at pictures of her father, Pop, and the uncanny resemblance. I commented on the photo, noting how much she looks like him, and not much at all like her siblings. She asked again to remind her of who’s who in her father’s family. It isn’t age or mental capacity; this is all brand new. “I’m not sure I can remember it either, Mom,” I told her. “I don’t know all the facts; no one does.”

“Well write what you know,” she said.

Now, on the wall of my mother’s apartment is a large picture of my parents on their wedding day seventy years ago this week. Mom was nineteen. Inserted in the frame in the right corner is a small photograph of her father Joe “Pop” Urso taken when he was nineteen. The eyes and mouth are identical, and the skin tone. It’s crazy, this DNA, these connective songlines that make us descendants and ancestors.

One would think that with such technology the world would better appreciate how connected we all are. In my ancestry chart I can go back almost to where my ancestors roamed during the days of hunting and food gathering. It turns out we all can.

The article written by my cousin Jack Urso which I read and enticed me to first get in touch with him:

Mom and Dad’s wedding day when she was 19 years old, and Pop Urso when he was 19

We Believed in Things

(“Ending World Hunger Starts here: Please Don’t Waste Food” Sorry so blurry)

This poster hangs in the dining room at the Franciscan Mountain Retreat of Mt Irenaeus in western New York. It is more than forty years old. When I was last there, Fr Lou at the retreat was interested to know how I remembered its exact age. “I made it,” I said.

When in college I started the World Hunger Committee, which had a short-lived purpose to provide information about the plight of hungry at home and abroad. Maybe the greatest accomplishment of the group was obtaining permission to have just one day where all students who were on the dining plan would turn in their dining cards for that day and the money would go to World Hunger organizations. I do not know if that tradition continued, but we managed my senior year and it was quite rewarding to find out the dining hall was nearly empty the entire day (the staff knew ahead of time how many would not be there that day so they would not, ironically, waste food).

But before that, when I was a sophomore, I had twenty-five of these posters made and put them up around campus. A few went in the dining hall, a few in the campus café, and one in the campus ministry, where Fr Dan Riley, founder of Mt Irenaeus, was then working. I still have one at home.

It’s a bit surreal to sit at the dining room table at the mountain and see the poster. I can picture a young man, a boy really, standing next to one of the Wintermantel brothers in the then-brand-new Studio 4 East discussing the phrase to put on the poster. I came up with the words, and he came up with the idea of the wheat stalks up the side. It is like a different life, a movie I once saw and only kind of remember the plot. But that scene I recall just fine.

And here is the evidence that those times existed—like going from dorm to dorm to speak at floor meetings where we collected money to help the hungry. We were inspired by the late Harry Chapin, who championed efforts to end world hunger, and who had recently been killed. We held a coffeehouse during which we handed out information about the numbers of hungry in the state and the country. And we helped sign up volunteers to assist at the Warming House in the next town. It was a time—both the era and our age—when we believed in things like solving world hunger, like achieving world peace. We were so idealistic but we added some action to the mix. We were going to end world hunger; but if all we did was feed some of the homeless in Olean or made others aware of how much food we wasted, that’s fine too.

But like all twenty-year-old’s I aged, lost some idealism, got busy with life, and the energy of that time faded. Graduation has a way of filtering out idealism.

But on that day when everyone left the Mountain but me, I sat at the table and stared at the poster. It was like it suddenly became animated and was calling to me across the room, across decades, and it said, “Where the hell did you go?”

“I got sidetracked I guess,” I said to the wheat stalks. I thought about what I had for lunch.

It is coming on forty years later and today forty percent of food is wasted every year in the United States. Forty percent. 60 million tons worth of produce alone is wasted every year just in this country. According to a study published in The Atlantic, food occupies the single largest amount of room of all landfills. One reason is American’s maniacal obsession with perfection. Most of the waste is the result of blemishes on produce, or other such aesthetic “faults” which cause chefs both professional and not to toss food away.

Another reason is how cheap food can be, so throwing it away doesn’t have much impact on the budget. In addition the portions are insanely large, and to make it worse parents stand over their children trying to push in another fork from the way-too-big pile of corn and tell them to “eat every bite” because there are children starving.

Result? Some American kids get fatter while some American kids get nothing, and the balance gets tossed in the trash. The only punishment for the stuffed kid is “no dessert” for not gouging his mouth with more and the punishment for one in five American children is to go to bed hungry.

We think of “wasting” food as a “trash” problem. That is just part of it. Wasting food is also a consumption issue. Portions, again, are too large, snacks are too common, people eat between meals, multiple dinners, and while the recommended daily caloric intake is about 2000, the average American caloric intake every day is 2900, while 1 in 5—that’s ONE in FIVE—children’s average caloric intake is 700 a day. That’s just a little less than one blueberry muffin from Starbucks. I could go on; there seems to be some rekindled idealism in my dormant conscience. But the point is clear: we don’t need to feed the world to help the less privileged—the first step to ending world hunger is much closer to home:

But we are overwhelmed. The war in Ukraine; the climate, the fires, the floods, Covid, political unrest, racism, mass shootings. And on a personal level, I fell into a ditch a few years ago and every time I try and get back up, or every time someone tries to help me, I fall back down under the depressive weight of reality. I don’t mean to, despite lectures about how I need to do things differently. I’m sixty-two for God’s sake; of course I know better. So imagine how it is for children with no resources, no clue as to where to turn for assistance, or even that there is such a thing as assistance. In the world today, it seems like hungry children and starvation don’t even make the top ten of issues which must be addressed. Where’s the USA for Africa crew? What happened to Bob Geldoff and his mates? God, we need Harry Again.

The problem is we are, all of us, smothered with issues and problems. The world, simply put, sucks right now, and it can all seem too much to deal with. I went to a local organization a few months ago, left the car running to go inside for a second and offer my time in any way they could use me at their food bank. Well, it turns out they do so much–they run flea markets, food distribution, furniture sales, Habitat for Humanity, and a dozen other charitable efforts in a deceivingly large warehouse. The woman in charge whose name is on the building gave me a tour and introduced me to everyone–every single person–in the complex, explained to me what their missions were for each section, where everything comes from, where it goes, who does what, where they got the walk in freezers and where they hope to get more storage units. I made it back to the front door and a woman handed me my car keys. “I turned it off for you,” she said. Three hours had passed.

I went home (just a few miles away and I swear I had no idea what they did there), overwhelmed. I went in wishing to help but left with the impression they wanted me to do everything. My brain was on different meds at the time and I already couldn’t think straight, so I just didn’t go back. I found a half dozen rationalizations. There are always a few good ones laying around.

Then a few weeks ago a student wrote saying he knows the paper is very late but he decided to write about “School Shootings,” and he just doesn’t know where to start. I explained what all writing teachers do: you’re trying to write about a massive topic–no one could do that. You’ll never find the words to get started if you try and tackle too much. You’ve only got room on the pages for a sliver of that topic; how about one aspect of one shooting. Start there, let the paper communicate all you can about one thing instead of skimming the surface about everything and end up only communicating what everyone already knows. Standard lecture about topic choice.

You’re ahead of me on this one, I can tell.

Yes, I drove back to the center and apologized for not being in sooner and explained why–the overwhelming introduction that left me feeling like I could never remember anything. But I was there, and I wanted one task–one. I didn’t want to know just yet what else there is to do. Just let me pick up food or hand it out or clean up afterwards or whatever. Give me a task and let me rebuild my idealism that such seemingly menial efforts all add to the bigger picture, which IS the ideal: To feed everyone.

I am out of the ditch. But I learned something I had forgotten over the course of four decades–those ditches are packed with people who don’t know how to get themselves back on their own two feet again.

The poster had the answer all along. It doesn’t instruct how to revamp the agricultural system; it doesn’t suggest massive movements of crops. It says, simply, “Ending world hunger starts here: Please don’t waste food.” That’s it. A simple task that at one time I believed might change the world. It will.

“How I’d love to find we have that kind of choice again”

–Harry Chapin.

The Artist

art·ist /ˈärdəst/ noun • a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet, or filmmaker. • a person skilled at a particular task or occupation.


Artists engage in a daily battle between the belief their work is worthy—that it can stand the scrutiny of those who know better and it will be well received by critics and customers alike and is ready for publication or presentation; and the conviction that it is a complete waste of time—that it is predictable or trite or tiresome, will sit on shelves or in bins without so much as a glance, and a dozen better ways to approach the topic will become apparent while the brutal reality that no other creative work will ever emerge remains crystal clear.

Artists, writers, work for free, hoping, praying, someone, anyone, will order the book just out of support, just out of curiosity. There is no health care, there is no retirement plan, there is no guarantee the time invested wasn’t simply folly. There is no yard stick to measure how well it is going, how much longer it will take, which parts need attention, and which deserve to be deleted. Often, artists stare at the medium for hours, fiddling around, snacking, cleaning, engaging in any form of distraction and avoidance. On a good day, a writer may have a good page, sometimes three or four, and every once in a while, lightning strikes, but an artist lives with the strong possibility of waking up the next morning and chucking the whole project. Artists have panic attacks, breakdowns, and bad habits. They drink. They swear. It is the creative version of coping, of loosening the tie, but the work is never finished, unless one buys into Rembrandt’s insistence that a work is finished when an artist realizes the intentions.

Few occupations demand the tenets of faith like that of an artist. If they agree with Kahlo and paint their own reality, then artists demonstrate daily the belief in things unseen, constantly starting from scratch, always inventing, and always—by definition—always searching for originality in a world flooded with ideas and blogs and podcasts and books, and still the artist works in one of the original exercises of pure faith, well knowing that Gauguin was right, that art is either revolution or plagiarism.

An artist wants to scream “buy my book,” “purchase this painting,” “please listen to my music.” An artist wants to balance the need to promote her work with not wanting to come across as egocentric when in fact the very act of creating something from nothing under the conviction others will want to make it part of their lives is a level of egoism few professions demand. An artist deals with these tugs of war between humility and pride. The tug of war, as Merton writes, of finding oneself and losing oneself at the same time.

An artist keeps working because it is a race against time to not “die with the music in you” as Wayne Dwyer noted, with stories on the cusp of creation, with unfinished work, with incomplete manuscripts, because two things are absolute: one lifetime cannot accommodate the ideas and works and starts and restarts of an artist, and they will die sooner rather than later and it is coming on fast, no matter how long they will actually live, because perception is different for an artist, hence the need as James Baldwin insists, to vomit up the anguish.

An artist cries because so much time is wasted. An artist cries because it is impossible, it is just impossible to capture the turmoil in humanity, but the artist tries to abide by Pollock and paint “what he is” by sketching another river, writing another digression, composing another score where an oboe comes in high and slow in some minor-key attempt to capture the sadness which, anyway, a true artist well knows she will never aptly express, because all artists know that Rodin was right—the main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.

If one does not have a bestseller, a gallery, an audience, people consider the art a fleeting phase, never completely understanding the difference between art and commodity. An artist wants sales, of course, but only for the purpose of having the time to produce more art. An artist is disturbed by negative reviews and criticism, of course, but works anyway.  If a benefactor bestows funds for an artist to keep working without the stress of financial burdens so common in the creative world, that artist will produce. But for certain if no such benefactor exists, the artist works anyway, finds the freedom necessary anyway, producing the same work anyway, because the artist knows what Monet knew, that the richness comes from nature—the true source of inspiration. The world is graced with art because some people must create as certain as they must exhale, as certain as Chagall’s belief that the artist simply picks up where nature left off.

Artists are not amateurs, they are not hobbyists. An artist will spend hours figuring out the necessity of one word, an artist will step back after two months work and scrape off the paint of an oak to move it one inch for a better composition, an artist cannot eliminate a note or a phrase. An artist wants to leave a mark, believes, as did Trotsky, that art is not a mirror to hold up to society but a hammer with which to shape it.

Artists are shooting for something else, and in the end the art is merely a symptom of their desire to express the inexplicable. Because in the soul of an artist is the deep understanding and resignation that, as van Gogh insisted, the true artist works not with brushes and canvas but with flesh and blood, believing first in humanity.

An artist is never quite certain of her mental stability but has complete faith that how she behaves is perfectly normal. Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neil, Beethoven, Keats, Tennessee Williams, Vincent van Gogh, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens all lived with mental illnesses and any artist worth his salt will insist if any element of these great souls had been more regulated, more controlled, we would never have heard of them.

Georgia O’Keefe was right: Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.  Making your unknown known is the important thing, that is success. Something is that was not but for an acute thought, some simmering neurosis only settled by the act of creation. Hence poetry, literature, paintings, symphonies, and all.

An artist can quench the stress and anxiety of bill collectors and illnesses, of hunger and sleeplessness, by producing two or three decent pages, by catching the color of what will forever be last night’s sunset. An artist makes beauty permanent, makes our deepest emotional reactions permissible.

We walk that tight rope spanning obscurity, balanced only by a pole of phrases and transitions, of oil and acrylics, minor keys and crescendos. Walt Whitman had his Leaves of Grass, but an artist has a blank sheet of paper. This leaves the advantage with the artist. Everyone knows the work Whitman wrote and how it still grows in the literary field, but an artist has the uncriticable blank sheet of paper, and with the right choice of words, he may harvest his own Grass. To be an artist, Henry Moore said, is to believe in life, and life is mystery, and mystery is the flint which ignites creativity, without which, as Rene Magritte points out, the world would not exist.

An artist hopes for longevity but couldn’t care less about time. He worries about time but isn’t concerned about death. He is terrified of death but deep inside hopes beyond all reason the work will survive. Yesterday I put down a ton of bricks I’ve been carrying for several years, and today I wrote eight pages and walked four miles in 110 degree heat. I was invincible; I have been reborn, and I can write volumes again. Next week I’ll find a wall, some wall somewhere, and run head first into it with an absolute conviction that I have embarrassed myself, humiliated myself, lost the respect and faith of others. Artists do not need critics; they tear themselves apart just fine. Artists do not want advice; they have no intention of following it anyway.

We do the best we can with blank screens, empty canvases, charts without a single note. Writers in particular have no batting cage; it is all from scratch. A painter can mimic van Gogh until it is perfect and then move toward something original. Musicians are famous for cover songs, gaining a following, slipping in something original after a while. But writers have no such approach. We can’t retype For Whom the Bell Tolls and tell people, “Check it out, man. Just like the original.” No. We must start from scratch, invent some story, some way of looking at things, some turn of phrase, which never existed before, ever.

We want you to buy our books, a picture, a song. It isn’t money. It isn’t ego. It is a simple inexpensive way of letting artists know they didn’t just waste their entire life.

The Convergence of Hard Truths

I walked along one of the country roads today thinking about how the stress slips away for awhile when I’m out there. It isn’t being “present” as seems to be the hip way to call “aware.” I’ve always been so in country roads throughout the world; I am rarely more in the moment than when I’m walking somewhere. But I’m also thinking about the times I’ve screwed up, the times I’ve made things work, the differences between the two which seems to be an ultrathin line as it turns out.

I’ve had a half dozen moments in the past five years I’d give anything to have back, to rethink how I approached it, how I’d do it differently. It is entirely possible—as was the case with me—to “do the right thing” in a situation yet completely fuck it up. That’s been me for a decade or so.

I’m quite tired of it. Indeed, I’ve absolutely had enough. I keep thinking of that traditional song, which I know because of James Taylor’s rendition: “If I had stopped to listen once or twice; if I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes. If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart. I’d not be on this road tonight.” Damn straight.

But here I am, nonetheless, confident I made the right decision at the time, confused as to how doing so could lead me to such places as I’ve found myself this half-decade. But I digress, which I’m apt to do from time to time. One paper once called what I do “Digressive Writing.” Okay, I like that, but it’s like trying to have a conversation with a radio, so I’ll get back to my point of the moment—the country road today.

When I was young there was a road which led from the main country road back to stables on the fringe of both a country club and a state park. My friend Eddie and I spent many days walking this road lined with tall pines. It ran behind the deli and the post office but branched off quickly so that nothing sat on either side of the road but woods. Eventually, stables, but until then the peace of nothingness, as if Eddie and I walked alone in the world, some Cormac McCarthy world but only in a good way instead of an everybody’s-probably-going-to-die way.

And we’d sing. Chapin, CCR. CSN. All the initialed ones. One time, and ever since then when I’m on a road like this, we both started singing “The Long and Winding Road,” at the same time. Instead of either of us stopping or both of us laughing, we kept singing, quietly, never looking at each other, never missing a word.

I needed that moment today and I found it right near my home, on another road which runs along the river, spotted by houses set back, but mostly road, trees, and quiet. No concerns about falling down or fucking up. No concerns about what to do next—it is next, there is no next, only a long string of both impossible and beautiful nows.

Just my feet on gravel. Some wind. A house wren, an osprey. No water as it was quite still today on the river. No neighbors, no cars, no dogs in the distance. Just my feet on the gravel or the grass and the light breeze.

And me:

Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried
Anyway, you’ll never know
The many ways I’ve tried

I’m not sure what happened next. I was engulfed by all things that have gone wrong; I had a clarity of every path, every diversion, every digression. I stood for a long time and thought of Eddie, of the stables, of a road I used to walk in Pennsylvania and another in New England. There have always been country roads for me. I suppose even my brief time in Brooklyn after college I could consider President’s Street a country road for all of the time my mind was wandering.

When else is a person to think about things?

My brother pointed out to me that someone—Einstein, maybe?—said the definition of insanity is following the same course of action hoping to reach a different result. Geez—lock me up now. Guilty. You know why? No, me neither, and that’s the problem. Sometimes it takes the right convergence of circumstance to cut short a dangerous cycle.

Which brings me to the past week or so. This is my convergence; these are my circumstances: I was in Utah and hiked and laughed and remembered and hoped. I was in Utah and pushed myself harder than I have had to in a long time and found out I could. And the sun set across a field of salt, and that moment is forever; that moment was thirty-five years old and thirty-five years from now. So, I came home and continued to hike, albeit mercifully at sea level. And I let go of my mistakes, my bad decisions. Sure, I still have some bluffs to call, some baggage to burn, and I just hope to high heaven those around me have a little more patience while I find my way back. But I came back and hiked, and today I walked that road down past the house of the late Walter Cronkite, and all the way to the dock and the pier sticking into the Rappahannock River, and I walked to the end of the road lined with pines and let my feet dangle, let my past week just hang out there, let my soul just float out there, and knew that everything we go through, everything, even the depths of bad decisions, brings us back to this moment now, and I took a long breath, let it out, watched a boat head out to the bay, and quietly sang, Eddie’s voice up in the clouds somewhere,

The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

Please: Take two minutes and seventeen seconds:

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Penance: Walking with the Infant

In 2007, I released a small, magical-realism work, Penance. It is a first-person account of nine days spent in Prague. Through the eyes of the professor, the reader explores the city, the monuments, history—both celebrated and tragic—the food, the literary life, and its famous underground arts community.

All the while, the professor carries on a conversation with Prague’s most famous relic—the Infant of Prague. Through these monologues, they explore not only this “City of a Hundred Spires,” but faith, doubt, death, war, and more.

On the 15th anniversary of its release, Penance is now expanded, including extra chapters left out of the original, and with a new introduction.

Critically acclaimed when it launched in 2007, Penance was endorsed by The Catholic Virginian, Asian Catholic, and listed by Inside the Vatican Magazine as recommended reading for anyone interested in Prague.  

Coming this November, could there be a better Christmas present than this tale of a professor and the Infant Jesus of Prague? This limited-edition book is available only by pre-order for inscribed/numbered copies. Reserve your copies today

$20 includes shipping

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