DUDEOFACOUNTRYA woman whom no one knew entered the Ecuadorean Embassy and asked for Julian. He was not there and they showed the woman out. She came back. He was not there again. They showed her out again. But now they told Julian about her and he laughed and wanted to see the woman. When she appeared for the third time, Julian took her with him back to his office on the third floor of the embassy. About 40 minutes later, he came out again with the woman. Julian put his left arm over her left shoulder and looked at her. She squinted and looked back at him. Julian was in a good mood and he and she said a friendly, even cheery, goodbye.

Back in his office, Julian laughed at his friends and colleagues. “You’re imagining things.”

Silence. “Cat got your tongue?” Julian looked into their eyes.

Silence. “Penny for your thoughts.” Julian brushed a crumb from his shirt.

Silence. “What’s supposed to be wrong with her?” he asked them.  “A sincere woman. Down on her luck. Needs a victory.”

“Over you!” a voice like thunder shot back.

“I’m afraid I can’t help her there. You’re crazy, all of you!” he told his colleagues.

And afterward, he made a point of saying to them: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”

The woman did not come back.

But then a week or so later, Julian was looking out over the street from the third floor of the Ecuadorean Embassy when a turnip-shaped female officer leading a small Ecuadorean military patrol entered the embassy, came up to the third floor, confronted him, grabbed hold of him and called him by his name. She said she would have to arrest him on orders of the Ecuadorean government. Julian recognized her as the sincere woman down on her luck, needing a victory, who he had taken back to his office.

Julian reminded her of their time together in his office. The turnip-shaped female officer said she was sorry, but she couldn’t talk about private conversations in someone’s office.

“But that office was mine and I have very pressing business myself now at my office that you begged to be let into.”

Several more friends and colleagues wandered in and suggested that since Julian was not even attempting to resist arrest, there really was no reason why he should not be allowed to go to his office. And so the turnip-shaped female officer agreed to let him go. Two officers stood guard outside the door to his office.

But Julian did not come back out. At least not right away. He called his bitter enemy, the London police, and told them what was happening. The London Police came and arrested the small Ecuadorean military patrol led by the turnip-shaped officer.

At police headquarters, the female officer admitted that she had personally arranged Julian’s arrest. The fact that she had failed in her effort was solely the result of Julian’s calling the London police.  She had not included that in her calculations, but she was known for her long memory and in time would come up to Julian again, hug him and whisper in his ear, “Now what do you think of your old friend?”

But what was the point of it all? Why did the female officer do it? Who ordered her to do it?

It wasn’t political, she declared. She had no use for politics. But a nonprofit organization whose name she couldn’t recall had offered her $375,000 if she brought Julian in. “It had nothing to do with guilt either. No guilt involved. The whole thing was just a kidnapping.” She threw her head back and made a sound like a hearty laugh.



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FIGURE IT OUT THINKERThen I sprinted towards him. Faster and faster.  I caught him in my arms and crushed him to me.
“I thought I’d never see you again!” I cried.  I lifted him high in the air and saw the sunset gleam behind a bend in the river.
“Oh!”  I cried again, “I thought I’d never see you again!”
Hand in hand we went to the train station, and on the way I tried to help him figure out why he hated America so much. America! His own country.
“Why do you hate your own country so much?” I asked him.
“Because it has over 700 military bases around the world. Five hundred and eighty in the Middle East alone. And they can obliterate the world.”
“That’s not the real reason.”
“Did you ever hear of Camp  Bondsteel?”
“You need to be more honest with yourself.”
“I knew you hadn’t.”
“And with me.”
“It’s in Serbia. It’s the biggest base in the United States empire. Almost as big as Manhattan. Nine hundred and fifty-five acres with eight-foot high concrete walls. Amazing medical facilities, two massage parlors, softball and football fields, a burger King, two chapels, day care centers, guidance counselors.”
“I went to school in Manhattan.”
“That’s how big it is. Americans don’t know about it.”
He tipped his hat back. I loved the gesture. “I will help you figure it out,” I thought to myself, “if it kills me.”
“My train is leaving soon.”
We looked at each other.
“I love the way you look at me,” I said. “I want to help you figure it out.”
He walked away from me towards the train. When he was almost there, he stopped and slowly turned to face me.
“We were not always prepared to do the things we are now prepared to do to each other,” he called to me.
“Were we ever not?” I called back, figuring it out in the sunset silence.

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Poetry and the Pebble King

POETRY AND THE PEBBLE KINGLook who just became president of The Poetry Foundation. It’s Gordon The Pebble King and he is going to have fun, lots of fun learning the ins and outs of poetry and not just thinking all the time about pebbles and money.

Gordon had made his countless millions in pebbles. He also speculated in credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and bought foreclosed houses on the cheap. Life in the desert is often very difficult. The wanderers search and search and one day you come upon their bleached bones. Gordon know it was not the best of times to have not one poem in his head, not one poem he could count on when he was feeling low or when the chips and pebbles were down.

Yes, he had learned John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Barbara Frietchie when he was just a kid in public school, and yes he did think she was kind of sick in the head for offering her old grey head just so they wouldn’t shoot her country’s flag.  But now he was a big boy playing in the big leagues. He wanted big league poems, lots and lots of them. And he didn’t have one.

The pebble king began his journey to poetry on a beach at twilight. He owned the beach and every pebble on it at the green water’s edge.

His great friend Steven wanted to buy Gordon’s beach. They were strolling at twilight on Gordon’s beach and negotiating.

Steven:   I’ll give you one million dollars.

Gordon:  No.

Steven: I’ll give you two million.

Gordon:   I don’t think so.

Steven: What do you want?

Gordon:  (picks up a handful of sand.) I want a dollar for each grain of sand in my hand.

Steven: Come on, Gordon, don’t be ridiculous.  Negotiate in a businesslike way.

Gordon: There aren’t as many grains here as you might think. I suppose there’s about 50,000 grains in my hand.

The two friends continued strolling

Steven:  (A few minutes later) How about half a handful of sand?

Gordon:  But Steven, that wouldn’t be businesslike.

Suddenly, everything turned white and Gordon the pebble king heard himself talking to himself. When color came back,  he told Steven that he was sorry he had suckered him, had toyed with him. He told Steven that he didn’t want to sell the beach, wanted to just let it be.

This is what the pebble king heard himself saying to himself when everything turned white.  

 They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
   Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
   We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
    Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
   Within a dream.

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TOO FAR GONE OCT 8 2015You know how it is. Sometimes you just want to go fabric shopping but the European Union (EU) calls you to Brussels for a meeting on what to do about the deaths of two hundred and twenty five-thousand healthy human beings, a lot of them children, in the Syrian Civil War.

Many know that the EU is too far gone too collapse,  but it still has a hearty appetite and its 28  members dined well in in the high gastronomic firmament of Brussels several times before the first meeting.

Even the famed leader of the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization al- Nusra showed up, mistakenly thinking the meeting had been called by ISIS.  If things had gone right, Abu Mohammad al-Golani   would have been shot dead on the spot when he tried to enter the opulent hall, but his famished looks enabled him to get by security. He stood next to the delegate from Latvia, gulping large-grained Beluga caviar from a spoon.

The Latvian delegate tugged at al-Golani’s arm. “I’m confused,” he said.

Al-Golani didn’t look up, went on gulping greedily.

“Are you confused too?”

“About what?”

“You are not alone.”

“That’s good.”  Golani tossed the spoon away and licked his fingers listlessly.  “Syria is on the ropes,” he said.

“That’s why we’re here.”

The delegate from Slovakia, who liked to be called The Giant, patted the delegate from Greece on the shoulder and told him, “if you’re ever in Kosice, just ask for The Giant.”

People were still getting bombed and burned and dying in Syria when they started the meeting. Angela Merkel was fishing around in her briefcase.  The delegate from tiny Belgium minced over to her and asked, “Are you confused too?”

She looked at him with her startled eyes and pulled out from her briefcase a printout of the armed groups in the Syrian Civil War, which included 31 rebel factions. “You’ll just have to memorize this,” she said, thrusting it into his hands. She crossed her arms impatiently until he looked down at the list.

“That’s a lot,” said the delegate from tiny Belgium.  “I’m confused.”

And there may be more tomorrow,” she said sternly. “Army of Mujahedeen wants to be listed.”

“There’s no getting away from it.” The delegates from Austria and Poland linked arms and sauntered up to the meeting table.  “We simply must get some nitrogen mustard.”

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I met Phyllis’ husband once. He was in the paper business. He had married Phyllis for her money – her father owned a paper making company and gave Robert a high-paying job in it – and then he came to love her. Robert also liked my children, Ruth and David.  The one time I met him, he was as nice to my kids as to his own, gave them dinner and sent them downstairs to watch TV. After they were out of the room, I realized that Robert didn’t like me. He changed from relaxed and joking to almost frowning and not looking at me.

It turned out what he didn’t like was that from the moment we came in the door, I started playing CDs from the 70s, hopping around the room, dancing and saying “isn’t he great?” and “isn’t she great?” as though the musicians had done something incredible.

“They were just babies,” Robert said, looking at the musicians hopping and dancing around on the CD.  “Look at that baby face.”

“They were young,” I said.

“Babies,” he said. Like our kids downstairs. They hadn’t become people yet. How can you talk about the wisdom of a baby?”  Robert demanded.

“I didn’t say they had wisdom. But those lyrics……”

“You can’t pretend that Mick Jagger is Martin Luther King, or some other person taught by suffering. These kids……..”

Robert didn’t like that I referred to present day singers as though they were heroes, as though they had done some enduring serious thing that would matter for a long time.

Turns out that Robert had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, before he was born. And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously – finally frantically – and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us and then, remembering all he had seen of how things were from his great height, he had settled gradually to earth and birth. (Full disclosure: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote most of that.)

Robert had never entirely forgotten that great flight, and so he had not been entirely born. People like that, like Robert, lift their wings and fly high again, years too soon.

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high time merkelIn spite of everything, it’s September again – high time for the delegates from the European Union to meet in Brussels to discuss the refugee crisis. The delegates would have wished to classify the refugee invasion as an “alleged influx,” but too many people all over the world had seen videos and pictures of masses of people leaving their countries. Thirty years ago, the delegates probably could have gotten away with “alleged” and so not worth bothering about. But it was September, it was now, and they had to hammer away at an issue on which they daily lost ground.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor from Berlin, dropped in on the meeting, causing everything to turn out differently from what little Malta and Cyprus, who had squeaked into the Union by the skin of their un-European teeth, had imagined. The chancellor had not wanted to take the refugees in. Then she had changed her mind and wanted to take a lot of them in, but then she changed again and got frightened at the prospect of a million refugees sloshing around Germany and decided to continue to deprive her country of the menial workers it was starved for. After all, everyone knew the refugees could be fussy about what hunger they would be willing to fill and what they would not be willing to fill.

The delegate from Malta scratched his nose and spoke. “It’s a big crisis. That’s what Assad said.”

The delegate from Cyprus grabbed an apple from a bowl on the table and took a bite out of it. “Why don’t the Arab countries take them in?”

“They want to come here, to Europe.” The delegate from Malta scratched his nose, harder this time.

The delegate from Cyprus took another bite of his apple.  “You can’t just barge into someone’s country because you want to,”  How would you feel if 5000 people decided they wanted to come live with you in your apartment?”

“I live in a house. In Valetta.” The delegate from Malta scratched furiously at his nose. Only five years ago, he found out that he had a hereditary trait for itchy nose and had probably been born with it.

“OK, house. How would you feel?”

“It’s a tricky issue. Thorny. Could you hand me the Kleenex, please….  Maybe ISIS has recruited some of them to infiltrate and kill us.”

“They’re fleeing from ISIS, dummy.”

“Not all of them. Don’t call me dummy.”

“Give them to Saudi Arabia.”

“Can’t,” said the stocky president of Latvia. “Saudi Arabia won’t take ‘em.  Saudi Arabia requires visas.”

“They don’t need visas here?” the delegate from Malta was getting confused because his nose was driving him crazy. He put his headphones on. Soft music would quiet his nose.

“Nope. Schengen zone. You need to bone up on your immigration rules and regulations.”

“Get rid of Schengen then. Make visas required. We’re no slouches. We can require visas too.”

“Tell Saudi Arabia to…” the delegate from Cyprus began.

“They don’t have to. They’re Saudi Arabia,” snapped the Croatian delegate.

The Maltese delegate was feeling soothed by the soft music. “Whatever happened to asylum seekers having to seek asylum in the first safe country they enter?”

“I like your headphones,” said the delegate from Cyprus.

“We have to figure something out.”

“Your headphones say a lot about you.”

The Croatian delegate brushed a crumb from his shirt. “You can’t just shoot ‘em.  And you can’t build razor fences fast enough. I’ve been to the borders. You wouldn’t believe it.”

“How was it on the Serb-Hungarian border?”

“Um. . . . . . .loud.”

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cupidI’ve been thinking a lot about desire lately, and the different forms it takes.  How, if you are a male homosexual, you can never know what it is to desire a woman.  And if you are a female homosexual, you can never know what it’s like to desire a man. Even though you might “desire” to desire differently, you can’t. And conversely, though the way you desire is the only way that you can be, the fact is that others do not feel at all the same way, and they can’t feel any other way either. These thoughts fill me with a deep reverence for the truth of feelings.

I have a friend who was an BLOG SEPT DESIREillegitimate child and never knew her father. She does not know what it feels like to have a father. Imagine…. not simply having no father of your own to attach your feelings to, but having no feelings at all about a father. “Father” is just an abstract word like “democracy.” And when she talks of her father, it’s like she is imitating the way someone sings a song. She’s not singing the song herself, just repeating the words. For her, no matter how hard she might desire to, there’s a wall that she can never get through. Most of us can’t even imagine that wall, which for her is an impenetrable fact of her life. It awes me to realize that people can live in such different realities. And yet we manage to come to each other and connect to each other even though some of us live with walls we can’t get through and others can’t see those same walls.

Another desire of mine for many years has been to understand the people of the past, to desire myself back into their time. I try to understand Karl Kraus of Austria, and Oscar Wilde of England, and Beydrich Smetana of Czechoslovakia, and Friedrich Nietzsche of Germany. When I learn about them, though, I focus on each one separately. It never occurred to me until recently that they could have known each other. Why, they could even have had dinner together, and Wilde could have recommended a doctor to Smetana to consult about the oncoming deafness that was making him frantic.  I have to make conscious mental adjustments in order to think of them as living people living their mostly ordinary lives. What was extraordinary about them, after all, was a small part of the whole life.  The kicker comes when I think of them trying to think about us, the future generations. What strikes me is that my time, including me in all my aliveness, was an impenetrable wall for them, just like my friend’s fatherlessness is a wall for her. No matter how hard they thought or desired, we, so alive to ourselves, remained totally un-alive to them, totally the unconnected yet-to-come.

Chiseled into a tombstone in a small cemetery outside of beautiful Colmar, in France I saw:  “What you are, we were. What we are, you will be.”  The words stopped me in my tracks. They reached out, friendly and gentle, and took me by the hand. Connection. Big time.

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