Friday, November 29, 2013

November 29, 2013--Day After

We did go to Chinatown. It was disappointing so we will do our turkey Marsala and risotto thing this evening. I will be back here on Monday.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

November 28, 2013--Thanksgiving

I'm taking the day off to think about dinner. Either we will make turkey marsala, porcini risotto, and baked Brussels sprouts or go to Noodletown in Chinatown for some soft-shell crabs and pork pan fried noodles.

Of course the holiday is not about food but giving thanks. Fortunately I have a long list of things to be thankful for and will get to that over either the risotto or noodles.

Have a happy day.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

November 27, 2013--Fajr and Sijil

At times, the tragic and the absurd merge to become indistinguishable. I can think of no better sad example than the recent case of the lion cubs of Palestine.

Last week two were born in, of all places, the Gaza Strip. Hamas proclaimed this blessed event as evidence that life goes on quite well in even this godforsaken and embattled place.

And, of course, they gave credit to themselves for creating the political and cultural environment that enabled this to occur. Sort of like what the Soviets used to do with Olympic athletes--shoot them full of hormones so that they would win dozens of gold medals and then cite that as proof of the superiority of their system.

But then the cubs, Fajr and Sijil, "dawn" and "stones of clay" in Arabic, proclaimed by Hamas to be symbols of "resistance, beauty, power, and strength," died.

Ignoring the craziness of attempting to breed and raise wild animals in such a forbidding environment, Hamas blamed, who else, Israel for the cubs demise.

Never mind that raising lions in captivity requires sophisticated zoological facilities and expert veterinary care (the mother lion, which is not unusual for animals in zoos, refused to feed the cubs) and they need to be monitored at all times (the lioness last Tuesday stepped on and killed the cubs), it was still all Israel's fault.

Hamas claimed this was because an Israeli warplane dropped three bombs on a Jihad training camp in northern Gaza not far from the zoo and this spooked the lioness who then . . .

Aware of the emotion surrounding the birth and untimely death of the two cubs, Israel quickly let it be known that the bombing was in retaliation for attacks on them earlier in the day, by rockets Hamas calls fajr.

There are a dozen so-called zoos in the Gaza Strip. According to the New York Times, at one, workers painted stripes on two donkeys and passed them off as zebras; at another, Hamas zookeepers stuffed dead animals and put them on display. I assume a similar fate awaits Fajr and Sijil.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November 26, 2013--Roar Lion, Roar

When decades ago I arrived at Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus for freshman orientation, upper classmen devoted themselves to two things--first, to find unique ways to haze and humiliate us (a favorite was making us at all times carry a roll of toilet paper) and, second, to teach us the three essential college songs--

The alma mater, Sans Souci ("What if tomorrow brings sorrow or anything other than joy?"); and the fight songs, Who Owns New York? ( "Who beat West Point the people say") and Roar Lion, Roar (" . . . and wake the echoes in the Hudson Valley").

Though we had two fight songs, my classmates and I quickly learned that the college had forgotten one thing--to get the football team to fight. My freshman year the team went 0 and 10, losing all its games by lopsided scores.

I was reminded of this last weekend when the Lions lost to Brown 48 to 7 and ended another winless season. Again they went 0 and 10. We couldn't even beat Brown where I always assumed no one played football since all the students were busy writing poetry or organizing food banks for the homeless.

Sure, half of Columbia students were premeds who slept in the zoology labs; but the other half came from normal high schools where sports were as important as SAT scores. Maybe more important. And yet, year after year, decade after decade, we were fortunate if we managed to win two games against godforsaken teams from downscale places such as Fordham in the Bronx and Monmouth College in West Long Branch, New Jersey. This year we lost to Monmouth 37-14 and to Fordham 52-7.

In the past 50 years the Lions managed just three winning seasons and in the last 100 years, only 23. Back in the day the team somehow managed to beat Army and that improbable victory was instantly memorialized in the lyrics to Who Owns New York--"Who beat West Point?"; and in 1934 we shocked Stanford and won the Rose Bowl 7-0. The Rose Bowl. Well before it hit the big time and well before my time. But still . . .

The best thing about Columbia football was the marching band, a ragtag group of about 19 sort-of musicians. In addition to the inevitable Roar Lion, Roar, where we sang about waking the echoes of the Hudson Valley (whatever that means), each week they came up with special material. Witty stuff about politics and college life.

My favorite was when one year we made the mistake of playing Rutgers University, a big-time team and like Monmouth (and Princeton!) in New Jersey.

At halftime, as usual, we were behind by about 30 points and to have pity on us Rutgers had already taken out its starters and deployed the junior varsity. Thankfully, it was time for the marching bands.

The Rutgers band, in resplendent uniforms and numbering at least 100, engaged in well-rehearsed and intricate routines and formations. They played a medley of other colleges' fight songs--Michigan's legendary--

Hail to the victors valiant
Hail to the conquering heroes
Hail, hail to Michigan
The leaders and best.

And Notre Dame's even more famous--

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame
Wake up the echoes cheering her name
Send the volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky.

What is it, I thought, about waking up all these echoes?

While having these thoughts, out sauntered the Columbia band in uniforms so rumpled that it looked as if they had been worn by their predecessors in Pasadena in 1934.

If you can believe it, the special material that day was about Columbia professors. About I. I. Rabi, a father of the atomic bomb who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1944; about Moses Hadas, the world's leading authority on Greek literature; and my favorite, world-class literary critic, Lionel Trilling.

They taunted Rutgers and the team's fans, singing about how while we listened to Trilling lecture about Kafka, Rutgers students were studying such grimy subjects as mechanical engineering and cattle raising.

Mean spirited as it was, it helped make us feel better about ourselves while our pathetic Lions were getting their asses whipped.

Looking back on this, it seems so puerile. All of it. The hazing, the toilet paper, the school songs, fraternity life, and the obsession with football. (Columbia, however, did have a strong chess team!)

Rutgers, it turns out, had an excellent English department and Columbia had quite a good engineering school. Things were more complicated than they seemed. Even our alma mater was something to think about--San Souci, to be "carefree." Yet, "what if tomorrow brings sorrow or anything other than joy?" By now we know how true that is.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

November 25, 2013--Good Cop, Bad Cop

Thinking about the deal just struck with Iran to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for some loosening of sanctions, wouldn't it have been brilliant if Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu had had this conversation three month ago--

Obama: Bibi?

Netanyahu: Barry?

Obama: Can you talk?

Netanyahu: As long as your NSA isn't tapping my phone. (He chuckles.)

Obama: Or your Mossad. (He chuckles.)

Netanyahu: I told them to take the afternoon off. I'm all ears, Barry.

Obama: So here's what I'm thinking, Bibi.

Netanyahu: Shoot.

Obama: That's why I called.

Netanyahu: I'm not following you.

Obama: About shooting. Actually bombing.

Netanyahu: Go on.

Obama: Look, we both know we don't want to bomb Iran.

Netanyahu: True. Though we have to keep the heat on them and the best way to do that--we both agreed--is to convince them we're prepared to do so. Israel especially.

Obama: That's what we agreed to. You'd be the bad cop and we'd be, sort of, the good cop. You'd publicly put pressure on me to draw red lines. To state that though we want diplomacy to work every option is on the table. Including military action. But we'd emphasize negotiations while you'd press for bombing.

Netanyahu: And I'd keep prodding, critiquing your Iran policy, and playing your Israel Lobby both in Congress and the Jewish community in the states. To convince the Iranians that though you might be rational and reasonable we're out of control. Particularly your control. That we're prepared to go it alone, go rogue--to quote one of your favorite politicians. (Obama chuckles.)

Obama: So, here's my new plan.

Netanyahu: I'm listening.

Obama: We get Kerry to start talking with the new Iranian regime, telling them that our Congress, including all sorts of Democrats, are chomping at the bit to increase the sanctions--they're so serious that they're even willing to override my veto--and that you guys are getting ready to arm your nukes. He tells the Iranians that if we don't get some sort of deal done in the next few months who knows what the Israelis will do. That I can't keep you on hold.

Netanyahu: Great plan! So as soon as we hang up I'll give the order here to move to a higher state of readiness as evidence of our seriousness or, if you prefer, our craziness.

Obama: Exactly, Bibi. The more we ramp up the diplomacy the more crazier you behave. We have to scare the you-know-what out of them.

Netanyahu: I love it. You'll work out some kind of deal that's good for us--at least the beginning of a long-term deal--which will also be good for you. It will get the Republicans off your back--talk about crazies--at least for awhile.

Obama: Maybe for half an hour. (Netanyahu chuckles.)

Netanyahu: I hear clicking on the line. Are you sure the NSA doesn't have this phone bugged?

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Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 2013--Still Numb

Everyone old enough is thinking back to 50 years ago.

"Where were you when you heard?"

No one needs to ask, "Heard what?"

I was typing notes for a class I would be teaching later in the day at Queens College. That and everything else except the grief was suspended. It was not necessary to call the college to see if classes were being cancelled. I just knew. We just knew all we needed to know. The assassination. That was it.

There was fear. We were still waging the Cold War and, who knew, maybe the Russians were responsible and there would be more. It was only a year and a month since the Cuban Missile Crisis when we stood at the brink of a full-scale nuclear war. That was not propaganda or political posturing. It was one minute to midnight.

If you had someone to cling to, to weep with, you did.

And watch on black-and-white TV through that longest day and into and through the night and next day. And the day after that. And then one more day.


Still numb today.

It will never be different. Or the same.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

November 21, 2013--NYC: The Shoe Lady

The only thing I have from my father--in addition to his DNA--is a pair of black leather gloves. When I wear them I feel as if I am in his hands, a place I occasionally want or need to be.

Like last week.

The transition from small-town Maine to very-big-city New York was traumatic. We have done this many times before but each year it becomes more difficult. Perhaps because any change at a certain time in life is disorienting and frequently upsetting.

And upsetting this time it was.

I have less motivation and stamina to negotiate the teeming life of the streets. People, cars, buses, careening taxis, and now more and more people on municipally-provided bicycles--Citibikes named for their sponsor Citibank.

Everything feels even more commodified than in the past; and though we are fortunately financially comfortable, reentering the world of the one-percenters is a vivid reminder of the other 99 percent. Of both what people have and do not have. Reality here ranges from $100 million condos to rent-controlled walkups in the outer boroughs. And the palpable frustration nearly everyone appears to evince, particularly those blessed with so much who ironically, in that state of being, are aware of what they do not have and which will always be out of reach.

It's a tough town.

My father's gloves needed some repair. I am careful with them, as you might imagine, but during the 15 years he has been gone one of the finger tips frayed and needed to be expertly stitched.

Rona knows a place where the work will be carefully done. Shops of this sort have become uncommon in the city where even modest retail space ranges upwards from $5,000 a month.

As we were heading toward the shop Rona had in mind, she said, "I hope it's still there and hasn't been converted into a cafe or bank."

"Unlikely," I said, "As I remember it, it's too small for a bank or--"

"But not for a coffee shop. We've already passed three new ones that opened while we were up in Maine. I'm beginning to think New Yorkers have become coffee addicts."

It in fact the shoe and leather shop was still there on Sixth Avenue.

The glove required a simple repair and we were told that if we had the time we could wait while they stitched it. So we plopped down in comfortable chairs and read through Curve magazine, which says that it is, "The nation's best-selling lesbian magazine [and] spotlights all that is fresh, funny, exciting, controversial, and cutting-edge in our community."

"We are for sure back in New York," I said, for the first time since returning feeling good about my town.

In came a woman who looked frazzled. On the counter there was a bell to ring for service. Sweating though it was chilly outside as well as in the store, she began pounding on it.

From the back, someone said, "Hold on a moment. Please. I'm fixing someone's glove. I'll be out in a minute."

The woman seemed so agitated that I feared she would have a thrombosis. "It's OK," I called out, trying to help, "We're in no hurry. Please take care of your other customer."

The repairman appeared and the woman thrust a claim ticket at him. He squinted at it. "Am I right?" he asked, "This is for 14 pairs of shoes?"

"I'm in a hurry."

"That's a lot of shoes. Give me a moment, if you will, to round them up." She began to tap her foot as he disappeared behind the counter.

"Yes, fourteen. Make sure you find them all. I don't have forever."

"I'm doing the best I can," he said from floor level. "From the ticket I can see you brought them in ten days ago. There are so many and space here is so limited that I'll have to look carefully to be sure I find them all."

In separate brown paper bags they began to be tossed up onto the counter."

She was tapping her toe even faster. "Be careful with them, will you. Most are Pradas. I only brought them in to be polished," she sounded overwhelmed and exasperated.

"Are they all yours?" I couldn't help myself from asking. She glared at me. "I mean, I thought you might be--" I don't know where I was going with this.

"They're mine," she snapped, not looking in my direction. "Count them, would you." The shoemaker had reemerged, smiling at the heap of shoes he had tossed up on top of each other."I want to see what's in each of the bags. I don't want someone else's shoes."

He bagan to take the shoes out of the bags. "I think there are fourteen."

"I can count, thank you." She was sorting through the shoes. "As I said, I want to be sure they're mine. The last thing I want is to have to come back later and fight with you about giving me the wrong shoes."

"Whatever," he said, shrugging in my direction.

"I think these are all mine. You put new heals on these, right?" She showed him his handiwork. He nodded. "And tips on these?" He nodded again, smiling. "And what about these? Weren't you supposed to replace the full soles?"

"Not those," he said, taking the shoes from her. "But these. As you can see, these have new soles."

"How much?"


"How much do I owe you? For everything?"

"I think I have the bill in one of these." He began again to look into each of the bags in the pile. "Here it is. All together, it comes to, let me see, $276. Tax included."

"You charge tax for polishing shoes?"

"Just for the materials. For the heels and soles."

She snorted and muttered with some disgust, "Taxes, taxes. What'll they think to tax next? The air?"

"In some cases it wouldn't be such a bad idea," I said under my breath.

"You take checks?"

"Cash is preferred, but a check from you is OK."

"All these people love cash," she said to no one in particular.

She flipped the check in his direction, scooped up the shoes--which he had consolidated into three large shopping bags--and stomped toward the door, allowing one of the overstuffed bags to bang into a woman and small child who were trying to negotiate the tight space and approach the counter.

"Excuse me too," the childcare woman said to the back of the departing customer. "I guess time is money."

"Not to her," I couldn't help myself from saying. "In her case money is money."

"I get yuh," the new woman said with a knowing smile. Rona in the meantime was attempting to engage the little boy who appeared to be about three years old.

"Can you fix the chain on this pocketbook?" she asked the repairman.

"Let me take a look." He bent to get a closer look. "No problem. None at all."

The boy was fiddling with a stack of innersoles. Rona asked, "Do you know what they're for?" He smiled shyly. "You're too young to need them. When you get to be his age," she gestured toward me, "then maybe you'll need them." He continued to take the foam inserts out of the packages and stole a quick glance in my direction.

"How much you say this costs?" The caregiver seemed outraged.

"Twenty dollars," he said.

"I paid only twenty-five for that old thing."

He shrugged apologetically. "What you gonna do," she sighed, resigned. "Everything here costs so much. It's a wonder anybody can live in this place. Mercy." I thought about the woman with the 14 pairs of shoes.

"Now leave that nice lady alone," she said to the child. "Don't you see she's reading her magazine?" At its mention, Rona slipped Curves out of sight, not wanting the child to see any of the pictures.

"It's OK," she said, "He's not bothering me. Are you?" she turned to him. "He's adorable. How old are you?" Not looking at her he held up three fingers. "My, you're big for three."

"You should see the mother," the nanny said under her breath, to illustrate, raising her arm to at least six inches over her head. He moved toward her and hugged her leg, burying his face in her coat. "He gets like that sometimes. Clingy. Whenever I mention his m-o-t-h-e-r. To tell you the truth, he misses her. 'Specially mornings."

"I can understand that," Rona said. "It isn't easy juggling so many things."

"To tell you the truth, though it's what I do, it wouldn't be my choice."


"This." She pointed down at him. He continued to cling to her thigh. "Is this really the best way? I mean."

"Wouldn't be the way I'd do it," Rona said. "But I can understand. As you said about your pocketbook, things here are really expensive."

"I know I'm talking myself out of a job I need, but . . . ," she trailed off.

She left after leaving her bag, saying she'd be back in an hour to pick it up. "Glory be, twenty dollars."

Even though the weather was unseasonably mild, all the way home I wore my father's gloves.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

November 20, 2013--Bomb, Bomb, Bomb . . . Bomb Iran

Here's what has me worried--

As dramatically weakened Barack Obama confronts three more years of his presidency, with the unlikelihood of anything, anything being approved by Congress (it will get even worse after Republican victories in the upcoming midterm elections), as with other presidents who had second-term problems, he will likely be tempted to do something dramatic in foreign affairs where as commander in chief he has considerable independent authority and the ability to act without congressional approval.

This is not in itself a bad thing--plagued by sex scandals, Bill Clinton almost pulled off an historic deal between the Israelis and Palestinians; Ronald Reagan negotiated significant disarmament agreements with the Soviets; and even Richard Nixon made progress in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

But then there is the wag-the-dog problem--the temptation to get involved in overseas adventures to distract the public or repair tarnished presidential reputations. If was thought, for example, that to change the subject from Monica Lewinski and her blue dress, Clinton was itching to go to war in the Balkans.

Obama is on the ropes. The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act is just the most recent in a string of failures that has ruined his political reputation and seen his approval ratings sink to George W. Bush levels.

On that list of failures and blunders is his now infamous pledge to draw a red line in Syria--if Bashar al-Assad crossed it and used chemical weapons against the rebels, Obama forcefully stated, the United States would take military action against the regime.

Assad did cross that red line and Obama backed down. He ordered lots os saber rattling but no intervention. The situation was saved by Russian President Putin who put pressure on his Syrian allies to give up their WMD program, which they are proceeding to do under UN supervision.

This failure to follow through has ruined Obama's reputation in that region.

Not only do the Israelis distrust him--if he failed to act in Syria what is his word worth when it comes to Iran where he has drawn another redline about Iran's nuclear capabilities?--now our other allies, the Saudis, Turkey, and Jordan, wonder if we will come to their assistance if the Iranians develop nuclear weapons or there are threats to their survival.

Clearly Obama wants to make a deal with the new, seemingly more moderate Iranian leaders. In fact, an initial, interim agreement may be struck as early as this week. This is not just a good thing for Obama's political reputation but a good thing in itself. We have to find a way to pull back from the brink. If Iran goes nuclear, it is virtually certain that the Saudis, Egyptians, and Turks will as well. This is not a part of the world where we want to see a nuclear arms race.

But beyond diplomacy, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu marshaling local as well as U.S. congressional opposition to any deal with Iran, threatening to take unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, the political pressure on Obama--at this vulnerable time in his presidency--is almost beyond calculation.

The temptation to show that his word is good--especially when it comes to staking out positions in the world where there are threats to our allies and to our own security--may impel President Obama to want to show some muscle.

He hasn't done very much of that with Congress and other than killing Osama bin Ladin and numerous al Qaeda leaders with drones (which is generally commendable), Obama has been a disengaged, passive leader more including to deliver speeches than exert forceful leadership.

One place where he can take a form of forceful action is in Iran where he can join the Israelis in bombing their uranium enrichment facilities in an attempt to set back their nuclear clock.

This could in time be necessary. But diplomacy may now be working and it will require considerable courage from Obama to fend off pressure from Israel and Congress to keep talking and dealing with the Iranians.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 19, 2013--Say It Isn't So Mariano

He made at least $10 million this year and more than $15 million in 2012. Over his career he earned $170 million, and it is estimated that his net worth is more than $90 million. So why does he need to do these tacky things?

He is Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankee's quintessential closer, the pitcher they turned to to get the last outs at the end of a game when they had a precarious lead.

He has been baseball's preeminent closer for nearly 17 seasons and retired in September, greatly honored and respected even by his fiercest opponents.

Those who know say he was the greatest of all time. He saved 652 regular season games during his career--more than any other relief pitcher-- and was essential to the Yankees winning five World Series titles. In five years, when he is eligible for the Hall of Fame, it is expected he will be unanimously elected. If this happens, he will be the only former player to be thus honored.

It is reliably reported that he is a fine family man (one of the few professional athletes who didn't fool around while on the road), an exemplary citizen of his native Panama, and a devout and practicing Christian.

So you can imagine my surprise when last week there was a full-page ad in the New York Times that announced a series of events that the public would be able to attend.

For a price. A hefty one.

"Meet Mariano Rivera," the headline proclaimed. "Here's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the star New York Yankee pitcher in the intimate setting of the New York Times Center."

At that event, he will "share memories of his extraordinary career."

Package #1 offers general admission and to the Q&A session. It costs $99.99.

Package #2 also offers admission, access to the Q&A, plus one "Mariano signed final season baseball." It goes for $349.99.

And the "V.I.P. Package #3" is a real deal--you get two tickets to the Q&A, two tickets to the V.I.P. cocktail party (Mariano doesn't drink), a photo with the closer, access to "two Yankee alumni mingling with guests," "passed hors d'oeuvres," and two Mariano Rivera signed 14x14 inch framed photographs.  

Package #3 will set you back $1,499.99.

I'll take a raincheck on the passed hors d'oeuvres and mingling Yankees and look back to October 16, 2003 when Mariano raced in from the bullpen to save the game for the Yankees who went on to beat the Red Sox to secure a place in the World Series. He came in in the 9th inning with the game tied. It remained tied until the bottom of the 11th when the Yankees scored on Aaron Boone's home run. Rivera pitched the final three innings and got the win by securing the final nine outs.


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Monday, November 18, 2013

November 18, 2013--Under the Weather

I'm a little under the metaphoric weather--feeling queazy--but will return tomorrow, Tuesday.

Friday, November 15, 2013

November 15, 2013--Midcoast: Bill In A Swivet

Bill came in all agitated.

"What's the matter?" Ken asked.

"Did you see this?" He thrust his newspaper toward us. He was fuming. I thought maybe there was bad news from the Middle East or something terrible happened up in Augusta. He's very political and ordinarily responds passionately to the news of the day.

"I'm not seeing what's got under your skin."

"Me neither," I chimed in.

"The story about Coca Cola. Not really about Coke." He pulled the paper back. "About the soda business. About what's going on with them."

"With them?" Ken was puzzled. "Let me take a look."  Bill handed the paper back to him and tapped on the page where the article was that had him all in a swivet.

"About how they're selling about as much water now as soda?" Ken read from the headline.

"That's my point," Bill said to Ken. "Terrible. Terrible."

"I really don't see why that's so terrible. You yourself never drink Cokes or Pepsis."

"That's not my point."

"What is it then?" I asked.

"That they, or anyone, would make money selling water. Water." He shook his head for emphasis.

"That's what got you so riled up?" his close friend Ken said, trying to calm him down.

"You know me," he looked toward me, the one liberal at the table, "I believe in making a profit. That's part of the magic of America. Business. The profit motive. All those good things. But from water? That I can't believe."

"True," I said, "it basically costs them nothing--the water's free--and they put it in a two-cent bottle, spend another two cents, if that, shippin' it, and then sell it for 99 cents. That's what I call making a profit!"

"I'm OK with those numbers," Bill said. "Again, starting businesses, inventing things is part of what made America great; but no one should make a profit from water."

Ken said, "They make almost as much selling soda. How much do you think the syrup costs? Again, maybe two cents a bottle. And they charge more than for water. So, I'm not seeing--"

"At least the syrup is something they concocted and have to manufacture. Water just comes out of a well or the tap."

"We do," I said, "pay tax on water both here in Maine and in New York."

"You know what I think about government in general and taxes," no need for Bill to remind me of that, "But the tax on water is to pay for the cost of getting it to you and making sure it's safe to drink. The town here and the city don't make a profit from it."

"Fair point," I conceded.

"But that's not what's upsetting me."

"What is it then?" Ken asked.

"You and I are getting on in years but have pretty good memories of the way things used to be."

"You can include me in that," I said.

"We still have a few years on you--"

"Just a few," Ken teased me.

"And we remember, don't we Ken, when it was illegal to charge for water."

"Illegal?" I was confused.

"Illegal indeed. If someone came up to your door and asked for a drink of water--and people actually did that back then--you had to give them a glass and you weren't allowed to charge them anything. Not that anyone would; but making it illegal was another way of saying that if someone was down and out, down on his luck, it was our responsibility to help them. Including with a glass of water."

"But the water they sell," I suggested, "is in the supermarket to people who don't want to drink tap water."

"Probably true for most," Bill conceded, "But by putting a price on it, marking it up so much, turns it into something other than being necessary to life."

"And as an opportunity to do good to strangers," Ken said. "Now I get your point."

"Me too," I added. "One more thing--what would happen if someone showed up at your door and asked for a glass of water and while you were getting it for him he smelling a homemade pie coming out of the oven and--"

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

November 14, 2013--Relocating

I am relocating physically and culturally to NYC and will return to blogging on Friday.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

November 13, 2013--Hillary in 2013

If anyone has been wondering if Hillary will run for president in 2016, yesterday there was clear evidence that she is already running in 2013.

From her principal surrogate--husband Bill.

Just the other morning, as Barack Obama's approval rating plummeted well below 50 percent and his disapproval poll numbers soared about 50 percent, Rona and I wondered how Hillary will run against her ultimate Republican opponent and the president she served as Secretary of State.

With Obama on the political ropes--largely because of the disastrous rollout of Obamacare--how will she distance herself from him? It will not work for her to campaign offering four-more years of what we now have.

Bill gave us our first public glimpse of her presidential campaign strategy.

Recall that when she was on ropes of her own after the early primaries in 2008--the upstart Obama was doing so well that it looked as if she was no longer the inevitable nominee--Bill was unleashed in South Carolina to get her back on track.

There he unabashedly played the race card, reminding South Carolinians, after Obama's victory, about how Jessie Jackson had won the Democratic primary there in 1984 and 88 and look what happened to him. The conflating of the decidedly black Jackson with the post-racial half-white Obama was considered by many well below the belt, even for the Clintons who take no prisoners.

Yesterday Bill was back in campaign mode suggesting very publicly that Obama should seek to change the Affordable Care Act to allow people "to keep their current health insurance, just as he promised" when Obamacare was controversially working its way through Congress.

Don't be surprised if Bill Clinton soon tries to put the blame on Barack Obama for the murder of our ambassador in Benghazi, Libya.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

November 12, 2013--Midcoast: Ken's Fault

It had turned cold and we were huddled in a booth at the Bristol Diner.

"Body heat works even better than our propane heater," Rona said, snuggling closer to Ken. "But the Rinnai does manage to make our living room cozy."

"So why are you leaving so soon?" Al asked. Sitting next to him I could feel heat coming off him like from a wood stove.

"It's November 10th," I said. "This is the latest we've ever been able to stay."

"It's all Ken's fault," I said, winking at him across the table. He smiled knowingly back at me.

"Ken's fault?"

"Right. It all started about four years ago. It was late September and we were having an innocent enough breakfast, I think in this same booth, and Ken began to ask us about our fireplace. 'You have one, right?' "Yes,' I said, 'but we haven't used it much.' 'How wide is it? I mean, can it handle logs about this size/" To illustrate, Ken held his arms out about 18 inches apart.

"'That's about right,' Rona said. 'It would help a lot if you made a fire in the morning,' Ken said, 'It would for sure take care of the overnight chill.' 'We'll have to look into our firewood situation,' I said."

"I'm not following this," Al said, signaling to Amanda to refill his coffee mug. "Nice and hot this time."

"So the next morning," I continued, "I was in bed reading and Rona was just beginning to rouse. It was about 7:30 when we heard stomping on our front deck. It sort of frightened me," I said, "Since we weren't expecting anyone--deliveries or workers--and sounds of any human activity so early where we live are not only rare but unknown. Rona with a start woke fully and whispered that I should get up to see what was going on."

"What does this have to do with Ken?" Al asked, sounding impatient, "Or how early or late you've been staying in Maine?"

"I'm getting to that. The stomping was coming from Ken. He had backed his truck into our driveway and was unloading this beautifully split fire wood onto our deck. Stacking it just perfect. I knew then why he had been quizzing us about the size of our fireplace.

"I went out both to thank and help him, but he waved me off. 'I had all this firewood we don't need anymore. When our house burned down about 15 years ago we rebuilt without a fireplace. We didn't want any more fires in our house. But I thought you could use this. You can keep your house heated and maybe that would allow you to stay on a little longer.'

"And with that and a wave he was gone. I thought, sort of like the Lone Ranger who does his good deed and doesn't stay around for thanks."

"That was about how many years ago?" Al said, "And what does that have to do with now?"

"Well, through the years, each year Ken either did something or suggested something we could do to keep our place livable as the weather got colder. As you know we have a cottage--a real cottage--without much, actually any insulation. With the exception of maybe above the dropped ceiling in our bedroom. The rest is open, uninsulated rafters.

"So Ken three years ago suggested we get a Rinnai heater and have it installed in the living room. Between the fireplace--and his firewood--and the Rinnai, he speculated we could stay at least a week more even if over night the temperature dipped below freezing. 'With that,' he said, 'plus running the hose faucets at night--really letting them drip--there's not much danger of the pipes freezing. So if you're cozy inside and the spigots are slowing draining, you should be fine.' And we were and could stay until at least the first week or so of October."

"Amanda, can I have so more coffee. Steve here is only up to three years ago, and I suspect we'll be here until lunchtime before he finishes his Ken story."

I knew he was fooling with me--Al likes stories as much as the rest of us--"But I'll speed things up," I said. "So two years ago, Ken began to talk with us about things we could do to insulate the place. Not change its character by lowering the ceiling in the kitchen, dining room, and living room, or sticking insulation up in the rafters and then covering it over--that would change the look of the place. We'd rather be a little chilly than take away what we think of as part of the place's charm.

"'I mean,' Ken said, 'you have that open loft behind the fireplace, don't you? Well, half your heat from the fireplace and the Rinnai is going up there and doing you no good, unless you move up there as well.' 'So, what should we do?' Rona asked. 'How about draping the opening that separates the loft from the living room?' Ken suggested. 'With insulated drapes? They work pretty good. You can get them ready-made at Kmart or Walmart and then tack 'em up to fit the sloping ceiling.'

"We did that last year and it made some difference. Ken also suggested we put draft blockers at the base of all our doors to eliminate much of the cold air coming from outside and from room-to-room where some rooms are warmer than others. Like we have a really efficient electric heater in our bedroom but cold air comes through the closets that share a wall with the unheated guest room. We did that too and, boy, did that make a difference!"

"Can we get to this year already?" Al sighed, rolling his eyes. "I'm have an appointment and don't have all day like you guys to drink coffee and tell endless stories."

"Well, this year Ken has had all sorts of suggestions about what to do with the pipes under the house."

"Wrap them?" Al said, attempting to move things along.

"That was one thought," Rona said, "But he felt it would be better to see if our plumbers could build an enclosure under the house around the core where all the pipes are. This wouldn't change the look of the place--you know we have lattice around the house that's open. We don't want to seal all that up since it would change the look of things."

"The 'look of things' again," Al said, giving Rona some grief.

"You know we're serious about the aesthetics of the place. We don't want to--"

"Change the character of the pace. I've heard you kids say that a hundred times. Maybe a thousand." he chuckled.

"Well, the Pendeltons, the plumbers came over last week and said it wouldn't be that hard to do. And, again at Ken's suggestion, they liked the idea of having insulating foam sprayed up under the floor. By doing that, they said, and it's been confirmed by the Seal-It insulation people, the floor would stay warm and with all the other things Ken has been suggesting, we probably would have no trouble staying all the way til the end of December."

"And come back in early May," I added, grinning.

"I gotta go," Al said. "To tell you the truth, I've been playing with you a little bit," as if we didn't know, "But, if thanks to Ken, you can stay until then, that suits me just fine."

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Monday, November 11, 2013

November 11, 2013--Amazonia

Is Amazon on a course to take over the world? The world of commerce? And who knows what else?

What started in 1994 as a small scale on-line book store has become a retailing behemoth--the world's largest cyber retailer.

In addition to selling virtually every book in print as well as millions of used books via AbeBooks, Amazon now offers almost everything. There is a recent book, the well-titled, The Everything Store, that tracks this remarkable and potentially ominous growth.

From books Amazon quickly moved on to sell DVDs, CDs, video games, and consumer electronics such as TVs and VCRs. After they, from Amazon one could purchase furniture, appliances, apparel, toys, jewelry, and food. In fact, I buy my cookware from Amazon as well as olive oil and even pine nuts!

And then there are other, more exotic goods and especially services that Amazon has been successfully marketing. Best known, through cloud computing, they have been offering infrastructural computer services to some of the nation's leading companies as well as the U.S. government. Clients include NASA and the CIA. Also, the Obama reelection campaign used Amazon's cloud services! Too bad they didn't ask Amazon to run the website for the Obamacare federal health care exchanges.

Amazon discovered that the computer, information technology, data, and storage systems they devised to service their own customers could be used by others such as Netflix. Rather than Netflix developing its own  system to serve its subscribers they in effect rent space on Amazon's enormous computer and data networks.

Beyond this, Amazon has been a leader in the field of big data. They know so much about anyone who logs onto to their website either to shop around or buy something (200 million annually by objective measure) that they are able to mine that data and use it to market other enticing products to us.

If, like me, you buy olive oil, pots and pans, and spices from them, they can easily determine that I might be interested in cook books and kitchen electronics. Or, if I looked for information about Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book about Teddy Roosevelt, they pitch me with information and special deals about the equally recent book about the 2012 presidential election--Double Down.

Some people find this to be helpful; others, me very much included, find it spookily intrusive. I do not like the idea that "they" keep track of what I read and other items I look around for on the Internet. But I guess we are living in a post-privacy world and I should surrender to it since living off the grid--not attractive to me--is the alternative.

As Amazon has grown in size and the services it offers, there is mounting pressure by investors that it begin to make money. Though income last year was in the $61 billion range, as in all the years since it began, Amazon has lost money. Because of increasing its investment in its e-reader, Kindle, in 2012 it posted a loss of $40 million. Thus they pay no dividends, reinvesting almost all their gross income to scoop up other companies such as Kiva Systems and Zappos and expand the range of its own products and services.

People have been wondering what founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has in mind as his long-range business plan.

I think the answer is simple--drive competitive bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and electronics giants such as Best Buy out of business by underselling them; and then, after they are gone or reduced in size, begin to raise prices and allow income to move into the black.

Home Depot put local hardware stores and lumber yards out of business and Walmart wiped out downtown merchants on their march toward market dominance; and then, after doing that with deeply-discounted prices, began to raise them as the competition evaporated.

But I've noticed something new stirring in Amazonia--a few small steps to increase profitability that might suggest their future corporate strategy: rather than continuing to cut prices to undermine competition, Amazon has begun to raise prices. For example, they are charging more to ship books and some of their book prices--always heavily discounted--are beginning to creep up.

Until now, shipping has been free for orders of $25 or more. Soon, just in time for the holidays, customers will have to order at least $35 dollars of goods to qualify for free shipping. This will save the company a few million dollars a year and may also increase sales by prodding people to spend at least $10 more to continue to qualify for free shipping.

But then book prices are also quietly increasing. The evidence thus far is anecdotal. According to the New York Times, if you placed a "save-for-later" order recently for the University of Nebraska Press' bibliography of the novelist Jim Harrison, it was listed as costing $43.87 and then a week later returned to your "shopping cart," you might have found that if you wanted to complete your purchase it would cost $59.87. And this pricing strategy is proving true for some more popular books

That new Doris Kearns Goodwin biography of Teddy Roosevelt, The Bully Pulpit, offers another example. When I went to look for it on Amazon I found that though the list price was $40, it was available for $24, including shipping. Wondering if I could do better, I checked AbeBooks (ironically, an Amazon company) and found a bookseller who had them available for $19.88, also including shipping. True, from Amazon the book would arrive in 2-3 days and from the Abe dealer it would take 10 or so days; but, if you are not in a hurry, the savings would be $4.

I opted to be patient and ordered it in hardcover from PaperbackShop--US in Secaucus, New Jersey, the AbeBooks independent book dealer. I was not only happy to save a few dollars but also liked the idea, in a small way, of not so automatically helping Amazon take over the world.

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Friday, November 08, 2013

November 8, 2013--Billions & Billions & Billions

Periodically, something from the world of science jars things into sharp perspective. For example, recent findings about Earth-like planets that could support life--very much including intelligent life--and apocalyptic implications about the just-discovered Higgs boson.

The Kepler spacecraft, launched into orbit in 2009 has as its primary mission calculating how many sun-like stars there are in our galaxy that have Earth-like planets: Eta-Earths.

Extrapolating from what Kepler finds to the entire universe, using the so-called Drake Equation (which is employed to estimate how many Eta-Earths in the Milky Way might contain intelligent civilizations), astronomers have been calculating just how likely it is to find various forms of life there and throughout the rest of the Universe.

Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan back in 1980, through books such as Cosmos and a popular TV show, "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," brought to non-scientists an enthusiasm for the possibility of life on other planets--SETI (Search for Extra-Terestrial Intelligence).

He famously began each show by talking about "the billions and billions and billions of stars" in our galaxy and claimed that "the total number of stars in the Universe is larger than the grains of sand on all  the beaches of planet Earth."

Though fascinated by Sagan's claims, many were equally amused by the breathless way in which he presented his ideas, including many times on the "Tonight Show" and on "Saturday Night Life" where he appeared as a guest and at other times as a target of parody.

As it turns out Sagan's speculations were on the mark.

According to recently announced findings based on images captured by the Kepler telescope, it appears that there are indeed billions and billions and billions of Eta-Earths in our galaxy and countless billions more in the 100 billion or so other galaxies in the Universe.

In our galaxy alone--the Milky Way--the current estimate is that there are 40 billion habitable Earth-size planets. Again, using the Drake Equation, many millions of them likely include intelligent life.

If this is not enough to make your head spin and fire your imagination, there is also significant news on the sub-atomic front. Specifically about the Higgs boson.

Physicist Peter Higgs a month ago was awarded a Nobel Prize for his theoretical work about a major source of energy that permeates space, confers mass on elementary sub-atomic particles, and gives forces such as gravity their distinctive features--the eponymous Higgs boson.

Until observed and identified earlier this year at the CERN particle accelerator in Europe the Higgs was an important but theoretical construct. But now actual Higgs bosons have been observed just where they were theorized to be.

There is general excitement all around. Higgs' work and that of the physicists at CERN is as important as any set of findings in at least 50 years.

But as with so much that is exciting and promising there is also a potential downside--in the case of the Higgs, a downside of literally cosmic proportions.

According to a report in the New York Times, the new boson could have "a fatal disease."

Some theorists, reviewing the history and future of the Higgs boson (with an emphasis on "future"), say that--
Taken at face value, the result [of these reviews] implies that eventually, (in 10-to-the-hundredth-power years) an unlucky quantum fluctuation will produce a bubble of a different vacuum, which will then expand at the speed of light, destroying everything. 
The idea is that the Higgs field could someday twitch and drop to a lower energy state, like water freezing into ice, thereby obliterating the workings of reality as we know it. Naturally, we would have no warning. Just blink and it's over.
Though 10-to-the-hundredth-power years is a very long time--very, very, very--this blink-and-it's-over business is a little depressing.

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Thursday, November 07, 2013

November 7, 2013--Tomorrow

I will get back to work later today and on Friday, for certain, will be ruminating about the Higgs boson, billions of Earths, and the apocalypse.

I know you can't wait.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

November 6, 2013--Lazy

I'm taking the day off but will return on Thursday.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

November 5, 2013--Size Matters: Concluded . . .

We found ourselves last week in Renys general store. Rona looking for cold-weather socks, me, out of life-long habit, wandering aimlessly among their stacks of men's shoes.

Maybe, I thought, I have a shoe, not a foot problem. But Renys stocks mainly shoes for carpenters and roofers, contractors and construction workers, not anything I would feel comfortable--socially comfortable--wearing back in New York City,  especially downtown in Soho.

"These's don't look that bad," I said to no one in particular. There were a pair of normal-looking Nunn Bush shoes on display atop a stack of shoeboxes. "A little clunky, but of the type that at least look that they won't cause any additional pain." Maybe, I thought, I should try them on.

"Thirteens, thirteens. I can't seem to find any." They had 9s and 10s, 11s and 14s, but no 13s. "Oh well," I said, again talking to myself, "business as usual."

"Oh well, what?" Rona had joined me, clutching a half dozen pairs of Earthworks socks.

"It looks as if one of us did well." I was full of attitude when it came to anything involving shoes and feet.

"I love them. They're expensive, but Renys' prices make them affordable. But what about you? You seem to have found some shoes to try on. The ones you wear all the time are ready to be dumped."

"I agree, but before I do that I have to find replacements. And for me, that's impossible. Timberland, of course, doesn't make my model any more.  I knew I should have bought six pair. But these, which sort of look OK, don't come in 13s. I mean Renys doesn't have any in that size."

"Why not try the 14s then? One never knows. Their 14s may be similar in size to Timberlands' 13s."

I was dispirited, moping around. If there is anything I hate these days it's thinking about my feet.

"Try them," Rona was attempting to be encouraging--she knew all about my shoe-feet phobias. "What have you got to lose?"

"They're so big they'll make me look like Clarabell the clown." Here I was again assigning myself to the circus. But, in spite of feeling grumpy, I pulled the box of 14s from the bottom of the stack and tried the first one on.

"To tell you the truth," I said with surprise, "it actually feels good."

"Try the other one too," Rona said, "And be sure to walk around in them for at least ten minutes. On the tiled floor too. Not just where it's carpeted."

Which I proceeded to do. Up and down, back and forth, up steps and down, I wandered all over the store. And then returned to Rona who was sitting, self-absorbed, on the bench stroking her new Earthworks. She looked up. "So what's the verdict?"

"Believe it or not they feel great and, even more amazing," I was genuinely excited about shoes, "if you can imagine, my feet, which have been killing me for years, don't seem to hurt at all. Could it be that . . ."

"Yes it could. That you've been wearing the wrong size shoes. Thirteens are too small for you. You've become a 14."

"How could that be? I'm not getting bigger," Rona restrained herself from having some fun at my expense, "In fact, I'm getting smaller."

"Indeed." That she couldn't resist.

Ignoring her I continued, "I used to be 6-5 but now I'm only 6-3. I'm shrinking, not getting bigger."

"You could stand to lose five pounds."

"That's not what I'm talking about." Though Rona is in fact right--I have been overdoing the desserts.

"But you know that as you age you're feet can get bigger. Actually, do get bigger." And she repeated, "You used to be a 13, but now you're apparently a 14."

So I bought the shoes (they were originally $110 but at Renys only $54) and have been wearing them day and night. All my foot problems have been miraculously resolved. In truth, most of them. And I am not using any Dr. Scholls' prosthetics. Just the new shoes and sensible socks.

There is, however, one problem--just as 13s were almost nonexistent back when I was an overgrown adolescent, 14s are now equally hard to come by. To cover myself, I got Renys to find a second pair so I can warehouse them. I'm gentle on shoes and these two pair should last me at least five years. I wish Renys had four more. Then I'd be set for life.

On the other hand I'm not sure I'll last five more years, much less longer; but at least when it comes to shoes, I'm in good shape. Any shoes left over, can be part of my estate.

While looking at my new shoes yesterday morning, Rona said, half to herself, "I think they'll be OK in the City. But maybe . . ."

I cut her off before she could complete her thought, "I think they're cool. So I, I mean we should be fine."

"You'll be fine," she corrected me.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

November 4, 2013--Size Matters: Part 1

If you do not insist upon details, I will share a story about one of the few things that gets bigger with age.

First, some background--

I grew very tall very fast. I was at least 6-5 by the time I was 12. That was scary. If I kept growing until the typical time when boys stop, I calculated that I could get to be 7 feet tall.

My parents were worried I would become the butt of schoolyard jokes. They had cause to be concerned--there were quite a few nicknames in circulation about me, none of them flattering. "Beanpole" was the most benign. The others, I prefer not to recall.

One night I overheard my parents talking worriedly about my height.

Always not politically correct, my father said, "He's turning into a freak."

"No he's not," my mother said--she always tried to find ways to temper his frustrations, "He's just a little big for his age."

"A little big," he mocked, "Soon we'll be able to sign him up for the circus."

She was familiar with being disregarded, "The doctor said," attempting to change the subject, "we should Xray his wrists and feet to see how much growing room there is. That will give an indication of how much taller he'll get."

"So take him to the shoe store on Church Avenue. They have a machine there where you can Xray his feet. They use it to see if shoes fit. But you can just go in for the Xray."

And with that in mind my mother took me to the Treadeasy to Xray my feet.

Everything looked normal to me--I didn't see any big gaps between the feet bones, which suggested that there wasn't that much growing room left. Maybe, I thought, I'll stop growing soon and use my height to advantage when playing basketball. The only problem was that I was uncoordinated and had such big feet that when running up and down the court I kept tripping on myself.

But I did make a ritual of going to the Treadeasy store every Friday after school to Xray my feet. It's a miracle I didn't give myself radiation poisoning or cancer of the instep.

While there I pretended to be shopping for shoes. But in my size, 13, they had virtually nothing. Just an occasional pair of black Oxfords that to me looked like shoes for old men.

"Maybe," Morty the salesman said, "when you're older there'll be more people your height and size and you'll have more of a selection. In America, everyone is getting taller. Even girls."

"In the meantime," I said, "I'm doomed to walk around looking like I'm a 90-year-old immigrant."

But over time, what Morty prophesied turned out to be true. With so many very tall men around--6-5 nowadays is no big deal--for at least 15 years I have had no trouble finding shoes in my size. Even in Europe. Even occasionally shoes that actually look cool.

But in recent times my feet have begun to trouble me.

I hate going to podiatrists and thought I would either on my own figure out what the problem was and see if there were any Dr. Scholls' products available to ease my pain or, like other symptoms of aging, I would accept aching feet as part of my lot in life.

I tried Dr. Schools Orthotic Inserts (no help); Ball-of-Feet Cushions (no relief); Sport Replacement Insoles (worthless); Bunion Cushions (made things marginally better); and Molefoam Padding (about as helpful as Bunion Cushions). I even tired the good doctor's products in combination--I adhered Bunion Cushions to the soles of my feet and also inserted Molefoam Padding in my shoes.

But still I hobbled around. Now, with so much Dr. Scholls' product on my feet and stuffed into my shoes that they no longer fit and this made matters even worse.

Thus plagued, we found ourselves last week in Renys. Rona looking for cold-weather socks, me, out of habit, wandering aimlessly among their stacks of men's shoes. Maybe, I thought, I have a shoe, not a foot problem. But Renys stocks mainly shoes for carpenters and roofers, contractors and construction workers, not anything I would feel comfortable--socially comfortable--wearing back in New York City,  especially downtown in Soho.

To be completed tomorrow . . .

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Friday, November 01, 2013

November 1, 2013--"Someone"

The novel I am reading on a parallel track with Evan Thomas' biography of President Eisenhower, Ike's Bluff, is Alice McDermott's lapidary Someone. It is the story of a unremarkable woman's remarkable life.

It is as good as her memorable 1998 Charming Billy.

If you haven't yet read Someone, I cannot recommend it too highly.

To tempt you, here is a taste. A scene from early in the book when the narrator at seven is beginning to understand her world. It is about the light that illuminates her family's Brooklyn apartment, a light that she is coming to understand metaphorically--
The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining-room table where the cloth--starched linen expertly decorated with my mother's meticulous cross-stitch--had been carefully folded back along the whole length so that [my brother] Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood. 
It was the first light my poor eyes ever knew. Recalling it, I sometimes wonder if all the faith and all the fancy, all the fear, the speculation, all the wild imaginings that go into the study of heaven and hell, don't shortchange, after all, that other, earlier uncertainty: the darkness before the slow coming to awareness of the first light.
No one has ever written about light in this way.

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