Sunday, August 12, 2007

la chascona #5: robert desnos

[la chascona was the santiago home of chilean poet pablo neruda—a home in which portraits of walt whitman adorn the study]

this year marks the 35th anniversary of the first publication of robert desnos’ poetry in english translation. desnos’ “selected poems”—translated by carole frankel and william kulik—was published in 1972. (translated by carolyn forché and william kulik, the definitive “selected poems” was reissued in 1991.) it also marks the 80th anniversary of the 1927 publication of the collection “la liberté ou l’amour!” in which he included several poems for singer yvonne george.

born on july 4, 1900 in paris—the son of a café owner—desnos became a literary columnist for the newspaper “paris-soir” after attending business college. his poems first found homes in the dadaist magazine “littérature” in the period immediately following wwi. his first book—a collection of surrealistic aphorisms—was published in 1922. these were followed by “language cuit” (1923), “deuil pour deuil” (1924), “journal d'une apparition” and “la liberté ou l’amour!” (1927), “the night of loveless nights” (1930), “corps et biens” (1930), “état de veille” (1943), and “le vin est tiré” (1943).

while at “paris-soir,” desnos met fellow poet benjamin péret who introduced desnos to the dada group in paris and andré breton. desnos became an active member of the surrealist group and developed a particular talent for “automatic writing.” this involved drifting into a trance and then recording the associations and leaps of the subconscious mind. desnos' poems from this time are playful (by utilizing puns and homonyms), sensual, and serious. in the 1930s his poems became more direct and musical while retaining his earlier playfulness. during that decade, desnos branched out into extensive work on french radio and writing reviews of cinema and jazz. his break with surrealism can be seen in his lyric poem about solitude, “the night of loveless nights,” which was written in quatrains and more similar to baudelaire than andré breton.

upon france’s state of war against germany in 1939, desnos returned to the french army. in paris during the german occupation (with its rampant collaboration), desnos used pseudonyms such as lucien gallois and pierre andier and published a series of essays that undercut and mocked the nazis. such articles—in combination with his work for the french resistance—led to his arrest. sadly, desnos’ arrest by the gestapo that february morning in 1944 cut short the work of a writer whose craft had evolved over myriad twists and turns. as his biographer william kulik points out, “contreé” (the last book published before his arrest) was a culmination of that evolution: it consists of of 25 poems written in alexandrines or syllabics, many of which are sonnets or resemble them.

from “contreé,” we have the poem “cascade,” translated in “the selected poems of robert desnos” (ecco press):

What sort of arrow split the sky and this rock?
It quivers, spreading like a peacock’s fan
Like the mist around the shaft and knotless feathers
Of a comet come to next at midnight.

How blood surges from the gaping wound,
Lips already silencing the murmur and the cry,
One solemn finger holds back time, confusing
The witness of the eyes where the deed is written.

Silence? We still know the passwords.
Lost sentinels far from the watch fires
We smell the odor of honeysuckle and surf
Rising the dark shadows.

Distance, let dawn leap the void at last,
And a single beam of light make a rainbow on the water
Its quiver full of reeds,
Sign of the return of archers and patriotic songs.

desnos was sent to first to the auschwitz/birkenau death factory, but—as the soviet forces approached—he was transferred to térézin/theresienstadt concentration camp in czechoslovakia. weakened by typhoid, he died on june 8, 1945, just after the camp’s liberation by allied forces (and is buried in paris’ montparnasse cemetery).

desnos's poetry has been set to music by a number of composers, including witold lutosławski with “les espaces du sommeil” (1975) and “chantefleurs et chantefables” (1991), and francis poulenc (“dernier poème,” 1956). desnos translator forché names him as a significant influence on her own work. to access the wonder, complexity, and texture of desnos’ poems, check out the following web sources:

(the last three poems on this website of surrealist poems are those of desnos.)

witold lutoslawski’s “les espaces du sommeil” and “chantefleurs et chantefables” can respectively be played at:

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

daytrippers 1: staten island

[basilio’s, jacques marchais tibetan museum, conference house, view of narrows, alice austen house, garibaldi-meucci museum, snug harbor, staten island railway (sir)]

from end to end, this borough is a great place to explore. daytrippers can only skim its “surface.” other amazing spots on staten island include the national lighthouse museum (, the davis wildlife refuge (, sandy ground historical museum (, and the staten island zoo ( at which is found one of the most amazing and complete collections of reptiles—especially rattlesnakes and other poisonous reptiles. birthplace of joan baez, emilio estevez, and mother bloor, as well as the former home of paul and jane bowles, there is much to discover here.

staten island museum (, where my mother once exhibited one of her paintings in the mid-1960s, is just two blocks away from the staten island ferry terminal. also known as the staten island institute of arts & sciences), it is new york city’s only general interest museum—exploring the arts, natural science, and local history through permanent and changing exhibitions.

jacques marchais tibetan museum ( near historic richmond town is an amazing collection 1,200 objects of tibetan buddhist art--from tibet, mongolia, and northern china—dating from the 15th to early 20th century. nestled in a most contemplative place on lighthouse hill and resembling a small himalayan monastery, this architectural gem is surrounded by meditation gardens and its collection is especially rich in statues of buddhas, lamas, arhats, protector deities, thangka paintings and 18th century qianlong cloisonné. do check out its 60th anniversary exhibition, “from staten island to shangri la: the collecting life of jacques marchais,” which runs until december 31, 2008.

historic richmond town ( occupies 25 acres of a 100-acre site with about 15 restored buildings, including homes, commercial and civic buildings, and a museum. historically furnished interiors and museum exhibits are but a segment of its resources. of special note are the “open village,” bluegrass festival, and richmond county fair. nearby one can find st. andrew’s episcopal church, the cemetery of which contains the grave of elizabeth ann bayley seton (1744-1821) , the first american-born roman catholic saint (as opposed to mother cabrini who was the first american saint). her grandfather was rector of the church.

alice austen house ( is a national historic landmark at which are presented exhibitions of the work of alice austen and other photographers. austen's work is significant because of its high quality, range, and level of expression that together form a view of 19th century america. the site itself—with its history, architecture, landscape, and waterfront location at the foot of hylan boulevard with a great view of the narrows—is of note.

garibaldi-meucci museum (, owned and operated by the sons of italy, is located in rosebank. historic home of antonio meucci (the actual inventor of the telephone) and legendary italian patriot giuseppe garibaldi, this building was erected in the 1840s in gothic-revival style. seeking refuge in new york in 1850, garibaldi lived here until 1854 when he returned to italy to lead its victorious unification.

conference house ( is surrounded by the conference house park at the very tip of staten island in tottenville. here, in september 1776—at this house built in 1680—john adams, edward rutledge, and benjamin franklin represented the continental congress in negotiations with britain’s admiral lord richard howe. while the group put forth options for a peaceful end to the revolutionary war, ultimately no agreement was reached and hostilities continued another seven years. tours of this restored house provide a glimpse of what life was like at the time.

snug harbor cultural center (, now affiliated with the smithsonian, is a cultural center set within an 83-acre national historic landmark on staten island’s north shore not far from the staten island ferry. containing the finest collection of greek revival buildings in the united states, plus beaux arts, italianate and victorian style architecture set in lush parkland this gem exists today only because citizens fought tirelessly to save it from destruction. the deteriorated buildings of a seamen's retirement home have been transformed into a center for the arts. found here are the newhouse center for contemporary art, the actors harbor theater, the staten island children’s museum, art lab art school, the staten island botanical garden, and the noble maritime collection.

staten island railway runs from the ferry terminal in st. george to tottenville and is the surviving—though thriving—segment of a system that once had south beach and north shore lines. in 1953, the b&o railroad, the private owner of staten island passenger train service threatened to end that service. new york city agreed to subsidize the tottenville line. the south beach and north shore lines then became defunct. in 1971, new york city bought staten island rapid transit from b&o at a cost of $3.5 million.

for staten island ferry departures and connections to mta and new york city transit:

for the mta staten island railway timetable:

a great overall source for happenings, events, and cultural resources on staten island is the council on the arts and humanities for staten island (coahsi) and its very thorough newsletter at:

a boomer's niche

[555 mcclean avenue in staten island’s south beach houses, p.s. 46 on reid avenue]

from this little corner of the world i spent years 5-10. during this period--corresponding to the years 1964-1969--i started kindergarten and finished fourth grade. as i explored the south beach houses and the surrounding neighborhood, lyndon johnson trounced barry goldwater and the “great society” commenced. civil rights workers michael schwerner, james chaney, andrew goodman, james reeb, and viola liuzzo were murdered. the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965 were passed overwhelmingly and signed into law. watts, newark, and detroit blew up. our ill-considered vietnam incursion “escalated” out of control and young men--including those in our precincts--came home in body bags.

when we first moved to staten island at the height of beatlemania, a ferry ride to manhattan or brooklyn was required to “connect” to another borough. plodding across the bay this way took us to the world’s fair. yet, looming above us in the near distance was the almost-completed verrazano-narrows bridge. when president lyndon johnson came to inaugurate that wonder, we welcomed him with “hello lyndon” sung to the tune of “hello dolly.” sounds of 77 wabc and the wmca good guys provided a delightful score over am waves to ease racial tensions or the anxiety of vietnam and events such as the soviet crushing of prague spring and dubček’s “socialism with a human face.”

from my perch in 2A i cheered on my hero and fellow left-hander sandy koufax—whether in the ragweed-laden field next to p.s. 46 in the dusty summer of procul harum’s “whiter shade of pale” or that christmas we celebrated german-style with the army family the rushtons in dongan hills when “hello, goodbye” by the beatles and “you better sit down kids” by cher made those holidays even more amazing. immigration guidelines had already changed, which would forever change the face (or actually faces) of new york city in the years that followed. chicken pox erupted a few weeks before 1967’s six day war commenced, allowing me to stay home from school for a week to savor old “donna reed show,” “leave it to beaver,” and “biography” (mike wallace’s version) reruns on morning television. “groovin’” by the rascals was my score to that.

studebaker exhibited its 1964 line-up at the coliseum auto show. the assault by michael quill and his transit workers union upon the nascent administration of mayor john v. lindsay unleashed the unrelenting municipal union troubles of his idealistic tenure—whether the blue flu of nypd, huge piles of refuse uncollected by sanitation workers, and the fiery belligerence of albert shanker and his uft (who struck for two months when i was in fourth grade). during the period of that strike by teachers over decentralization, richard nixon squeaked by to victory over the chicago-tarnished hubert humphrey. lights and appliances in 555 mcclean avenue came to a screeching halt with those in the rest of the city during the great blackout of 1965. that event occurred close to the election of mayor lindsay—the first candidate for whom i ever rooted. [interestingly, the mayor of “gotham city” on the tv show “batman” (which went on the air in 1966) was mayor linseed.]

the summer of 1968 a boy named david (who suffered from brittle diabetes) moved across the hall from us. he writhed in pain in our car as our moms returned from a saturday shopping trip to korvettes (and josé feliciano’s remake of “light my fire” came over the car radio). [feliciano would be greeted by detroit tigers fans with bottles and cans at the world series a few weeks later when he sang the national anthem.] david succumbed to his disease during the teachers’ decentralization strike when it seemed “hey jude” by the beatles never stopped droning on and on.

while i struggled to tie my shoelaces, i delighted to herman’s hermits singing “henry the viii, i am” and tom jones’ “it’s not unusual.” that summer after first grade when i learned to swim at the fort wadsworth pool, the troggs’ “wild thing” and frank sinatra’s “strangers in the night” came over the snack bar’s radio. in the aftermath of bobby kennedy’s assassination (in which my overwrought third-grade teacher mrs. o’brien had to leave the room), i enjoyed burgers at wetson’s on hylan boulevard with my friend allison rushton and brother keith to the strains of richard harris’ “macarthur park.” allison’s sister mimi and her mom had been visiting at our place two months earlier when word of dr. king’s assassination came over news bulletins while we watched “bewitched.”

days before our move to suffolk county, men walked on the moon, upstate roads were clogged with revelers headed to yasgur’s farm, and a chain of events occurred in a place called chappaquiddick. “spinning wheel” by blood sweat & tears and sly & the family stone’s “hot fun in the summertime” provided succor with reruns of “julia, “here come the brides,” and “the ghost & mrs. muir.” vietnam dragged on, wreaking havoc on the vietnamese people: young americans continued to return from that useless conflict in body bags or damaged emotionally.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

woes of nomenklatura clinch another german oscar

[a collection of german oscar winners (color) and nominees (black and white) as follows: “nowhere in africa,” “schtonk!”, “the tin drum,” “sophie scholl: the final days,” “jacob the liar,” “downfall,” “the lives of others,” “beyond silence”]

florian henckel von donnersmarck’s film “the lives of others,” a tale of the nomenklatura—those birds imprisoned in the gilted cages—again brings german film, deservedly, to the wider world audience. winning the 2007 oscar for best foreign-language film, is this poignant story of a stasi agent (ulrich muhe) who spies on a playwright (sebastian koch) and his live-in actress girlfriend (martina gedeck)—becoming enamored of their “artistic” lifestyle in the process. this more sinister representation of life in the ddr stands in contrast to the more comical, “ostalgie” peeks at the former communist dictatorship. an example of the latter genre is wolfgang becker’s “good bye lenin,” in which a loving son attempts to spare his true-believer mother the reality of her beloved “socialist” east germany’s downfall. he does this by transforming their apartment into a vestige of the ddr.

“sophie scholl: die letzen tage” (“sophie scholl: the final days”) was nominated for the “best foreign language film” academy award last year. this riveting drama focused on the apprehension and subsequent prosecution of the white rose resistance in nazi germany. it is with gratitude that i managed to attend the u.s. premiere of this rich film at moma’s kino festival. starring actress julia jentsch as sophie, the script drew from interviews with survivors and court transcripts that had escaped scrutiny in the bowels of the east german archives until 1990.

[for those who have not already seen it, “die letzten tage” is a most compelling film (as is the larger story of “weißerose”) for a host of reasons. in the darkest days of the nazi police state, “white rose” cut across lines of protestant and catholic and north and south in a country where—even today—lines of ossie v. wessie, protestant v. catholic, prussians v. other germans, and bavarians v. other germans are far from simple. that sophie herself had been in the the nazi bund deutscher mädel (league of german girls) and that the men of white rose—such as hans scholl, alex schmorell, willi graf, and christoph probst—were wehrmact veterans who witnessed horrible atrocities on the eastern front is interesting from a standpoint of their rejection of the fascism and militarism of the third reich that they had earlier embraced. as to regional differences or to that invisible “line” between protestant and catholic germany, an affluent bavarian character with a great car and clothes to match—playing on larger german perceptions of bavarians as pampered and myopic—can always garner a good laugh in german cinema. the latter was found in hans stöhr’s “berlin is in germany”—a wrenching look at one person’s cognitive dissonance in the face of reunification—which premiered at the 2001 berlinale. the wealthy bavarian woman character in a party scene (and mocked or tolerated by prussians present) belies complicated currents of identity below the surface).]

nominated for this award the year before “sophie …” was “downfall” (“der untergang”), a 2004 film piecing together the final days of adolf hitler and the third reich in the shell-consumed berlin in 1945 and set almost entirely in the bunker. losing to south africa’s “tsotsi,” “downfall” was written by bernd eichinger and directed by oliver hirschbiegel. a battery of sources contributed to the script, most notably historian joachim fest’s book “inside hitler’s bunker” and the respective memoirs of albert speer, hitler’s secretary traudl junge, and siegfried knappe.

garnering a 2002 academy award for best foreign language film was caroline link’s “nowhere in africa” (“nirgendwo in afrika”). based on stefanie zweig’s autobiographical novel, it captures the experience of a jewish family that emigrates to kenya to run a farm and escape the holocaust.

another caroline link film, the 1997 “beyond silence” (“jenseits der stille”) lost to the netherlands’ “character” (“karakter”) in the race for an oscar. a coming of age story about a hearing young woman named lara, whose parents are both deaf, she acts as their sole negotiator. torn between her feelings of love and responsibility to her parents on one hand—and her love of music on the other, she decides to go to berlin to attend a music conservatory and begin the painful process of leaving home.

“schtonk!: der film zum buch vom führer”—which lost out to the lush french production “indochine” in 1992—was a farcical take on the infamous hitler diaries hoax of 1983 when the german magazine “stern” published 60 volumes of adolf hitler’s alleged memoirs. two weeks later the diaries turned out to be fake. this satire about “one of the greatest failures of modern journalism” is a notable cinematic departure for german film in its humorous take on this angst-producing period of german history. “schtonk!” signaled an openness toward humor in german film in general, and not just in relation to the great discomfort of third reich era subject matter.

volker schlöndorff’s film adaptation of günter grass’s novel, “the tin drum” not only garnered the academy award for best foreign language film in 1979, but it also won the “palme d’or” at cannes at a time when the political fortunes of the cdu/csu eclipsed the activist sdp/fdp coalition government that had fostered “ostpolitik.” for americans, this film will forever be tied to an embarassing incident in oklahoma in which police confiscated a videotape of the movie in clear violation of constitutional protections—an action upheld by an incompetent court that “banned” the film. subsequently, a federal judge ruled that “the tin drum,” is protected by virtue of its artistic merit under oklahoma and u.s. law.

a year previous to triumph of “the tin drum, ” “the glass cell” (“die gläsene zelle”) lost to the french film, “get out your handkerchiefs” (“preparez vos mouchoirs”).

germany’s oscar nomination in 1976 “jacob the liar” (“jakob, der lügner”) came out of the german democratic republic—and was produced by privileged members of the ddr’s nomenklatura portrayed in this year’s victor “the lives of others.” this poignant tale about doomed jewish inmates in the lódź ghetto was based on the 1969 novel by jurek becker—garnering the author a heinrich-mann-prize in 1971. while “jacob” lost out to “black and white in color” (“noir et blancs en couleur”) from the côte d'ivoire, hollywood later released its own version in 1999 with robin williams playing the role of the jewish protagonist jakob heym.

the berlinale film festival:

german film website:

sophie scholl movie (english):

Saturday, February 24, 2007

what would jane say?

a weighty jury including ronald shiffman (director emeritus of the pratt center for community development), john reddick (education director at the central park conservancy), arts patron agnes gund (president emerita of moma), cooper union president george campbell jr., “the new yorker” architecture critic paul goldberger, and david rockefeller jr. will decide on recipients of the newly created “jane jacobs medal.” this award will honor the activist, author, and urbanist who helped stop the desecration wrought by robert moses on new york city. two “jane jacobs medals” will be awarded by the rockefeller foundation annually to living individuals “whose creative vision for the urban environment has significantly contributed to the vibrancy and variety of new york city.”

at stake in award of these medals are prizes totaling $200,000, with one medal recognizing leadership and lifetime contributions while the other will recognize new ideas and activism reflecting jane jacob’s ideals. together, the two medalists will represent the creativity, innovation, and dynamism of gotham.

working with the rockefeller foundation to administer these medals will be the municipal art society of new york, a private, nonprofit organization that promotes a more livable city through advocacy in urban design and planning, contemporary architecture, historic preservation, and public art. interestingly, the rockefeller foundation had an important--though little known--relationship to jacobs, who died at the age of 89 in april 2006.

in the 1950s, the rockefeller foundation launched an “urban design studies program” that helped foster the emergence of urban design and theory. as part of this groundbreaking initiative, the foundation issued a grant to jane jacobs, the then-obscure writer from greenwich village, to research and write “the death and life of great american cities”--now considered a classic.

beyond her writing and theory--which re-evaluated the balance between the needs of urban environments and those of living communities--jane jacobs is revered for her legendary and successful street activism against robert moses’ proposed lower manhattan expressway that inspired communities internationally as well as in new york city and the united states. had that expressway gone through, its construction would have decimated neighborhoods such as the village and soho.

sadly, new york city lost its indomitable champion when jacobs--a vociferous opponent of the vietnam war--exiled herself from the u.s. in 1968 in order to prevent her two draft-age sons from having to serve in that conflict. jacobs settled in toronto, where she resumed her visible neighborhood activism and her architect husband found ample work. ultimately, she became a canadian citizen in the mid-1970s.

set for a june 2007 announcement, the award ceremony will occur in september to coincide with an exhibit on jacobs opening at the municipal art society. nominations for the “jane jacobs medal” must be electronically submitted to the rockefeller foundation by 5 pm on march 2. with assets in excess of $3.5 billion, the foundation is one of the nation's largest.

for more information on jacobs and the award, go to:

Friday, February 23, 2007

pushing congress on the “safe climate act”

be sure to contribute to prevention of horrible eventualities posed by global warming--from chronic coastal area flooding and indefensible drawdowns of great lakes water levels to ever more destructive hurricanes. working toward solutions to global warming can be a challenge to bring us together as a society--and will leave our earth a better place for future generations. environmentally sound solutions we seek could potentially reap dividends for our economy and eventual energy security.

to prevent our being paralyzed by such a large issue, we can break from individual inertia and find accomplishable success. congress has offered us such a possibility with congressmember henry waxman's introduction of the “safe climate act.” if its objectives are realized, this science-based measure could reduce global warming pollution by 80% over the next 50 years. Bold action called for in this legislation includes: freezing u.s. greenhouse gas emissions to 2009 levels in 2010, starting in 2011 to cut emissions by approximately 2% annually and reach 1990 emissions levels by 2020, and cutting post-2020 emission by about 5% annually. it is hoped and projected that--by 2050--emissions will be 80% lower than 1990. such goals are similar to those announced by prime minister tony blair and governor arnold schwarzenegger with initiatives previously undertaken.

countering global warming demands nothing less. get your member of congress to co-sponsor the “safe climate act” and ask your friends and family to do the same. using the following link from “environment michigan” provides you an easy way to urge your representative’s co-sponsorship of the “safe climate act”--regardless of what state you reside in:

or you can use their suggested text and urge co-sponsorship by snail-mail:

"as power plants and cars spew out more global warming pollution, we will see rising sea levels along the eastern seaboard, more intense storms in the gulf, droughts in the west, and more dangerous heat waves across the country. but if we act now, and act decisively, we can stop global warming and protect future generations. i urge you to co-sponsor the “safe climate act,” which would prevent the worst effects of global warming by setting science-based limits to reduce global warming pollution by at least 15-20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050."

if you do not know your member of congress, you can find out who represents you and how to "sound off" to them at:

if you have any energy left over after this citizenly exercise, why not ask your senators to support legislation equivalent to the “safe climate act”?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

la chascona #4: peter balakian

while best known for his nonfiction such as “the burning tigris: the armenian genocide & america’s response” and the acclaimed pen/martha albrand prize-winning memoir “black dog of fate,” the poetry of colgate university english professor and guggenheim fellow peter balakian is sublime. though “black dog of fate” can be looked at in terms of its vibrant poetic nuances, balakian’s poetry books “father fisheye” (1979), “sad days of light” (1983), “reply from wilderness island” (1988), “dyer’s thistle,” and “june-tree: new and selected poems, 1974-2000” pop from the page.

pathos and whimsy tie together radically different historical milieus in balakian’s poetry to recall forced marches in anatolia, brutality and atrocities inflicted by turks against armenians in the 20th century‘s first genocide, and the social/cultural upheaval experienced by baby boomers from their childhoods in the fifties and sixties and beyond.

the sounds, sights, and smells of america’s “golden age of plenty”--the lawns, trips, college rite de passage--and the aching call of that privilege come to life in his wondrous verse. the realization that life and images explored by balakian--so absolutely american in scope--occur a mere handful of decades after those atrocities claimed his relatives and other armenians makes his poetry all the more poignant. hear the sound of a suburban new jersey lawn being watered. feel the cognitive dissonance of passing from the “new deal” paradigm to the more darwinist ethos of the 1980s. picture the outlook of a boy coming of age in relation to his parents. these and so many more twists and turns make peter balakian’s poetry a true powerhouse in which the reader has the privilege of traveling between whimsy and tragedy on a single page!

In “rock ’n roll,” balakian’s word economy gives the reader dividends unimaginable:
“I wasn't a fool in a satin tux.
I was Persian gold and blue chenille,
I was the son of the Black Dog of Fate.”

his verse travels back from teaneck and tenafly to give us a glimpse of the horrendous suffering on the march from diarbakir (and other horrors inflicted by turks) to the miraculous acclimation of survivors to a new continent and society with their resultant hopes, silences, and resurgence. in “end of the reagan era,” we make amazing leaps from a citation to willa cather and visions of saffron maple leaves to the distance between blue and red states in a struggle for the hearts and minds of america.

while it can take your breath away, peter balakian’s poetry is a trip so worth traveling.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

40th anniversary of “society’s child”

released in march 1967, janis ian’s landmark composition “society’s child (baby, i‘ve been thinking),” (which she recorded in 1966 at the age of 15) was largely ignored because its account of an interacial romance forbidden by the narrator's mother and frowned upon by peers and teachers was considered “too hot to handle.”

“society’s child” exploded onto the scene in 1967 when classical composer/conductor leonard bernstein featured janis ian and the song on his cbs tv special, “inside pop: the rock revolution.” (remember that in this pre-cable period--when most americans received only three or four television channels--television shows such as this had infinitely more impact.) the program’s resultant publicity allowed “society’s child” a #14 on the national billboard charts that summer by virtue of its reaching #1 or top 10 status in isolated “markets,” although most radio stations across the u.s. feared the song and refused to play it (either quietly removing it from their play lists or banning the song outright).

reflect on these lyrics written by ian (while waiting for her guidance counselor) and try to imagine the resultant furor that spawned apocryphal tales of disc jockeys beaten or radio stations burned down for playing the song:

Come to my door, baby,
Face is clean and shining black as night.
My mother went to answer you know
That you looked so fine.
Now I could understand your tears and your shame,
She called you “boy” instead of your name.
When she wouldn't let you inside,
When she turned and said“But honey, he's not our kind.”
She saysI can't see you any more, baby,
Can't see you anymore.
Walk me down to school, baby,
Everybody's acting deaf and dumb.
Until they turn and say,
“Why don't you stick to your own kind.”
My teachers all laugh, the smirking stares,
Cutting deep down in our affairs.
Preachers of equality,
Think they believe it, then why won't they just let us be?
They say I can't see you anymore baby,
Can't see you anymore.
One of these days I'm gonna stop my listening
Gonna raise my head up high.
One of these days I'm gonna raise up my glistening wings and fly.
But that day will have to wait for a while.
Baby I'm only society's child.
When we're older things may change,
But for now this is the way, they must remain.
I say I can't see you anymore baby,
Can't see you anymore.
No, I don't want to see you anymore, baby.

amazingly, these painful words shared the airwaves (in those cities in which it was “permitted“) in june 1967 with other such gems as petula clark’s “don‘t sleep in the subway,” the association’s “windy,” the jefferson airplane’s “somebody to love,” procol harum’s “whiter shade of pale,” spanky & our gang’s “sunday will never be the same,” the doors’ “light my fire,” the fifth dimension’s “up up & away,” van morrison’s “brown eyed girl,” nancy sinatra’s “jackson,” the turtles’ “she’d rather be with me,” scott mckenzie’s “san franscisco,” and stevie wonder’s “i was made to love her.” notably this period included the tense days of the “six day war.”

“society’s child” was produced by george “shadow” morton who also produced the shangri-las (of “leader of the pack” fame) and was working with vanilla fudge and janis ian at the same time. artie butler’s intense respective harpsichord and organ intro and ending of “society’s child” never fail to send shivers through those who remember the song and its impact. because the song was recorded onto only eight tracks (an industry advance at the time), butler had to run back and forth between the two instruments during the recording session.

although becoming a hit with verve records (which also recorded ian’s fellow high school of music & art alumna laura nyro at the beginning of her career), “society's child” was originally recorded for atlantic records. the latter company paid for the session but quietly returned the master after they heard the song, saying they could not release it. years later, according to ian, jerry wexler (then president of atlantic) apologized publicly to her for this, supposedly telling ian that, “if any company should have released “society's child,’ it was us.”

rightly recognized by the grammy hall of fame for its timelessness and influence in music history, “society’s child” was inducted into that canon in 2001. (the song garnered a grammy nomination for “best folk performance” in 1966.) some may better remember janis ian for 1970’s “jessie,” (parleyed by roberta flack into a pop standard) and ian’s 1975 gargantuan hit “at seventeen.”

armenian genocide resolution again introduced

more than 160 members of the house have added their names as co-sponsors of house resolution 106--the armenian genocide resolution. lead sponsor congressmen adam schiff (d-ca), joined with george radanovich (r-ca) and congressional armenian caucus co-chairs frank pallone (d-nj) and joe knollenberg (r-mi) to announce the support of that considerable number of their house colleagues for the introduction of this resolution.

joining these four members of congress as original cosponsors of the armenian genocide resolution are brad sherman (d-ca) and thaddeus mccotter (r-mi), both of whom are senior members of the house foreign affairs committee as well as strong supporters of recognizing this historic tragedy. prior to coming to a vote on the house floor, this proposed legislation will have to pass that committee.

h.r. 106 is similar to legislation introduced during the previous congressional session. while the house international relations committee (now the foreign affairs committee) overwhelmingly approved that resolution, its final passage was blocked by former house speaker dennis hastert (r-il). hopefully, the change in house leadership will finally lead to passage of this long overdue legislation.

debate on this resolution must spotlight the state department’s dismissal of ambassador john evans (who cited the historic reality of the armenian genocide) and the bush ii administration’s outrageous nomination of richard hoagland to serve as u.s. envoy to armenia (despite his denial of that genocide, which claimed 1.5 million). the inspirational courage of turkish writer hrant dink--whose recent murder in istanbul was incited by the turkish government’s outrageous campaign of denial, cover-ups, intimidation, and violence--forms an awesome backdrop to these developments.

please contact your members of congress to support this bipartisan legislation with their co-sponsorship. for more information, and to monitor congressional sponsorship of house resolution 106, contact the armenian national committee of america at

Monday, February 19, 2007

amtrak: destination holland, michigan

“how 1940s of you!” mused a manhattan friend of michigan origins when i told him of my plans to travel by train to visit my parents in the wolverine state.

at 3:30 on a saturday afternoon i walked down sidewalks on 7th and 8th avenues--teaming with people out shopping in the nippy weather. not much more than an hour later--ensconced in a large seat on amtrak’s lakeshore limited with lots of leg room--frozen ponds and the hudson‘s icy floes passed by. these stretches of icy marshes and bogs along america’s first river provided a backdrop for earnest snipes and other birds oblivious to our incursion.

with its bluffs and wooded groves, the train route from new york city to albany-rensaleer is inspirational. not having been up this way since a syracuse-bound trip in october 1987, i was accompanied on this journey is doris kearns goodwin’s “team of rivals: the political genius of abraham lincoln.” its riveting documentation of partisan politics and intrigue is more than familiar to one living in 2007. if you haven’t read this wonderful 2005 book by simon & schuster already, it provides a great window upon our nation’s worst war (our civil war having a higher american death toll than that of all the wars the u.s. has fought up through the first five years of the vietnam conflict). albany--with its newly (and tastefully) renovated station--yielded a nice stretch and a cup of coffee that my rush to get to penn station didn’t allow.

at some point in the snowy expanse of upstate new york, reading eyes surrendered to sleep--interrupted in rochester when flashlight wielding green-uniformed representatives of the border patrol came on board. “that your bag there?” one asked me while shining a flashlight into my sleepy eyes. when i answered “yes,” they were on their way down the car asking the same of others. they exited a few minutes later accompanied by four spanish-speaking individuals handcuffed to each other--one of whom sought assistance in rapid voice on his cell phone as he was led off the train. [on the return trip on march 1, a chinese gentleman came under their scrutiny--being interrogated in full view of other passengers.]

the bucolic scene at erie, pa.--with flurries bombarding that station’s sign--marked exit from the empire state’s large expanse. in dark early morning hours, a bright electronic sign at the stadium home of the cleveland browns overlooked that city's lakefront station.
we stopped in toledo to welcome--and bid farewell--to the number of detroit passengers who utilize that station. white encrusted farmland in indiana followed: straw remains of last year’s crop peeking above the snow. stops in south bend and elkart followed--our train blessed with a retinue of amish citizens. here, however, things got sticky. we trailed four freight trains that “took precedence” over us. what that meant was a substantial wait--making us several hours late for our 9:45 am chicago arrival. at one point, our train had to reverse itself to allow a freight train through on these undedicated tracks.

in chicago, i walked toward the loop and marveled at the icy waterways pictured above--passing by on a michigan avenue bridge named after that city’s mayor of the gangsters, william hale “big bill” thompson. snack wraps and coffee called from a food court a few blocks from the train station where i ingested the fast food and read about the incompetence of the prickly and disobedient union general george mcclellan.

unlike new york city’s penn station, in which passengers just board amtrak’s trains, chicago’s union stations is more “airport-like,” with its calls for elderly and people with small children to board first. competing for seats with scores of young girls and their parents--in chicago for a gymnastics competition--at 5:15 p.m. i made my way down the platform to the three doubledecker cars of the pere marquette en route to grand rapids via new buffalo, st. joseph, bangor/south haven, and holland. my minor descents into dreamland were broken by the antics of young girls playing tricks on their parents. (the latter quickly had dvds going to keep their daughters mollified by movies.)

the pere marquette chugged into a snowy, well-lit holland, michigan station at nearly 10 p.m. on sunday--its parking lot filled with cars of those greeting arrivals. as i drove home with my parents in their suv, the three doubledecker cars followed behind their chugging engine into the blustery night toward their final destination of the furniture city.

our blood & treasure

a sniper’s bullet took the life of a 20 year old marine in early december 2006 in iraq’s al anbar province.

this marine’s father and i grew up near each other in california’s bay area and new york’s staten island during the “new frontier”/“great society” years when our respective fathers--both career service members--had similar postings. the young marine’s father and i both had younger brothers around the same age. our connection was that typical of preadolescent males at that time: riding our bikes, building “forts,” and hanging out with other abundant baby boomers.

the young marine's father and i parted ways the summer before second grade (1966) when his father was transferred. i didn’t run into him again until late in the summer of 1976 when he--enlisted in the military himself--was posted in my michigan “hometown.” my senior year in high school had just begun when i picked up slain marine's father at muskegon airport and brought him to his new post the next day. who would've thought that our country would again so miscalculate?

thirty years later his son is killed on the other side of the globe and i wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of what to say to him. in fact, i wonder whether words can even help in such a tragic situation. perhaps they do more harm than good?

and, perhaps, our presence in iraq does more harm than good as well. issues of oil and geopolitics aside, there is the fact of our mediating a civil war between sunni and shiite muslims. is that mediation between these relentless fanatics worth the blood of young americans?

in my humble opinion, the answer is “no,” but then i am only one american. i wonder how the families of british soldiers killed in northern ireland during the “troubles” felt about losing their loved ones to mediate that senseless conflict between warring presbyterian and roman catholic extremists in their respective “ulster defense” and “irish republican” factions. today, do those families feel the lives of people in northern ireland were worth the lives of their sons? i just wonder…

at very least, in the civil war that raged in vietnam when young marine's father and i were in grade school and junior high, our “enemy,” ho chi minh cautioned his people on radio broadcasts that americans were basically a good people: that the actions of the u.s. government were an aberration. today’s sunni and shiite iraqis largely hate us--across the board--as americans.

i am grateful for americans who willingly put their lives on the line for our “freedom.” it would be so much better if this effort and sacrifice were built upon reality and truth rather than self-serving and expedient rhetoric. while i am not--in any way--a major fan of my state’s junior senator, i do agree with hillary rodham clinton on her strong words to the iraqi “government” that “they cannot rely on the blood and treasure of america any longer.”

please pray for the many thousands of families whose lives have been turned upside down by this tragic conflict.

saving valuable ecosystems

while visiting my hometown, i found out about a most worthwhile organization called the “land conservancy of western michigan.” whether this particular organization or other like initiatives closer to home (including the land trust alliance and new york‘s pound ridge land conservancy), such groups that keep nature nearby have a number of advantages. any number of ecosystems--bogs, beaches, woods, and wetlands--are protected for locals and visitors by these initiatives. preserved land initiatives benefit all of us, especially providing a valuable legacy for generations to follow. natural areas preserved closer to larger population centers allow more people to enjoy the wild without squandering fossil fuels and contributing to greenhouse emissions. naturalists at lcwm and other land conservancy initiatives take students--of all ages--on guided hikes through nature preserves. by providing volunteer opportunities and the ability to make new friends, these land conservancy initiatives help build a badly needed sense of community in addition to preserving threatened ecosystems. not only are financial contributions to land conservancies tax deductible, but landowners who permanently protect their property by turning it over to preserves, donating conservation easements, and conserving river frontage might find themselves eligible for income, estate, or property tax benefits.

in new york, governor eliot spitzer’s executive budget for 2007-08 contains a $1 million appropriation for the new york state conservation partnership program--representing a 100% increase over the current year’s appropriation. if approved by the new york state legislature, this will make a huge difference in the ability to build land trust capacity and advance land protection projects in new york state.

[last august, federal tax incentives were added that allow conservation easement donors to receive increased deductions in any given year from 30% to 50% of the donor’s adjusted income. additionally, easement donors will be able to “carry-forward” any unused portion of their charitable contribution for 15 years, up from the previous five-year limit. unfortunately, this offer is time-limited. these new federal tax incentives will be in place for easements donated between january 2006 and december 2007 only--tax benefits that conservation organizations will attempt to make permanent. tax benefits for qualified conservation easements differ markedly by state.]

the 3,000 natural acres preserved by lcwm (and countless acreage preserved by equivalent conservancies across the united states) allow us to hear the myriad sounds of the outdoors--all the chirps, hoots, squeaks, and squawks. dedication to undeveloped areas can be an inspiration to people across various lines of experience.

land conservancy of western michigan:
the nature conservancy
land trust alliance (new york)
pound ridge land conservancy