House Rules

Thanksgiving is a unique and marvelous day, one in which every person is given carte blanche to eat however much he or she wants.  There is a Thanksgiving celebration in the United States as well as Canada, and I do hope everyone else does not envy us too much.

However, it is also a very Easy day, easily adapted, easy for all to enjoy.  All one has to do is follow three simple rules.

Do not be greedy:

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Do not ignore your family:

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And do not question your good luck, your wonderful bounty, no matter where you find it:

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Lest We Forget

“We can bear almost anything. But now the sweat breaks out on us. We must get up and run no matter where, but where these cries can no longer be heard”

Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was published in November, 1928, nearly ten years exactly since the end of the war it documented. It was a rich time for the publication of manuscripts, diaries and novels from the war: written perhaps out of a sense of delicacy, when the pain of the survivors was just beginning to wane. Or perhaps they were written out of fear: that a topic of great monetary potential was being passed over – that a calamity that had been called ‘great’ was about to be forgotten.

Before it had been two years in print, it had sold 2.5 million copies and had been translated into 22 languages. Its coarseness and vulgarity was taken by some to be mere attention-getting for its schlock and shock value. For its ugly realities ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was one of the first degenerate books to be publicly burnt by the Nazis in 1933.

The novel opens with a statement which is a declaration of honesty and distance, that it is “neither an accusation nor a confession”. The author’s intent is only to describe the experiences of a single platoon of German soldiers, whom “though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war”.

Specifically, it is the story of Paul Bäumer whom, along with the rest of his class, was urged by his professor to join the army. His classmates were eventually scattered throughout the trenches that had just begun to circulate, branching like veins, from Belgium to Switzerland. Battles were never mentioned by name, but retained a shroud-like presence in every chapter, a destructive force even when the guns are silent or when the soldier is on leave.

Paul endures the filth and boredom of trench life that was never mentioned in his professor’s idealistic tirades. The stress and fear which makes a soldier long for home is relieved only by the detachment he feels when he gets leave to visit that haven, wary of describing experiences no one could understand. It creates a sickness of mind (‘shell shock’, ‘neurasthenia’) that would only be recognized, and just barely, later in the war.

Towards the end of the war, all of Paul’s friends are either missing or dead. Despite the rumors of peace he only sees a future that is empty, trapped within a generation that will be perpetually misunderstood. On the day of his death, the report from the front to headquarters was “all is quiet on the western front”.

And it is there that the novel ends; a harrowing journey that ends in the worst way, with a death that means nothing, that symbolizes nothing – a single, blank, unrecognized effort among millions.

In 1930 the book became a film of the same name. Screenings were besieged by Nazi-organized protests; there were mob attacks on theater goers: proof that the war was not over. But for all the ugly attention, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its lead actor, Lew Ayres, became a star.


Ayres work on the film did something more important than inaugurate a career. It made such a profound impression on him that in 1942 he was registered as a 4E conscientious objector and sent to a CO camp. He eventually served in the Pacific as a medic, setting up evacuation hospitals and providing care to soldiers and civilians in the Philippines and New Guinea, winning three battle stars. All of the money he earned during the war he donated to the American Red Cross. When Ayres resumed his career, he continued his work in film, but never attained the peak he attained when he played a soldier suffocating in mud and despair.

I have seen the film, and it is an honest, honorable effort. Hollywood however could not help but tie too neat of a bow on an ending which was supposed to mirror war’s hopelessness and desolation. Towards the end, Paul – who counted butterfly collecting amongst his civilian hobbies – sees a butterfly alight on the soil and wire of No Man’s Land. He is off screen, but the viewer sees his arm outstretched towards the creature. Suddenly, there is a crack of a sniper’s rifle, the arm stiffens, and then is still.

Before the screen is dark, there is an image of white crosses, marking an expanse of German graves. It fills the screen. Superimposed on the crosses is another image: that of a group of young soldiers clad in gray and wearing their pickelhaube helmets. One by one, each looks over his shoulder towards us: his expression full of disbelief, distrust, confusion, fear. It is a vision that is hard to forget.

Remarque’s bleak and realistic depiction of war struck a chord with the survivors – of the warfront and the home front – and commentary around the world was passionate, whether it was positive and negative. Critics accused him of denigrating the German war effort, of exaggerating its horror and sins. They insulted his endeavor. In short, many of them did not believe him.

I began this piece with a quote from the novel. The cries referred to are not from the men, but from the horses – terrified, eviscerated, their eyes rolling upwards in white-eyed panic. The sound is not human, but it is not quite animal. The horses haven’t the wit to wish for death, to pray to God or beg for help. All they know is an agony that is unexplained and inescapable.

The men heard these soul-destroying cries and one, named Detering, – who had been a farmer – is particularly appalled. Before the all clear is sounded and the wounded men could be gathered, he tries to bolt from their trench to shoot the animals and put them out of their misery. But he is stopped, lest their current position be revealed. In disgust, he says “It is of the vilest baseness to use horses in the war”.


For me, this one episode puts the lie to all the claims that ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was nothing but a fantasy published to demean the German army and cash in on the new pacifism. Simply said, no one could make something like this up. This is another vision which is hard to forget.

And this could be war’s saving grace. That the dreadful memories will one day lead to a universal disgust and leave us only with a collection of histories that can’t be forgotten.


The Old Souls

The draft horse gets its forename from Old English, from the Dutch and German languages. The guttural appellations meant “haul”, “draw” and “carry” – indicators of distant blood lines that partnered with the working man in long-forgotten fields and roads.

The muscles of the draft horse are broad and patient. They are built for slow and tedious jobs. They are not curving and shapely, like a Baroque violin. The bodies of the Frisians and Lipizzaners are coiled and sturdy, but their blood is a heady mixture of draft and Andalusian, Barbary or Destrier. Frisians were dark and made of muscular silk; the Lipizzaner dated to an 18th century studbook as exclusive as any gentleman’s club; Andalusians were compact vessels of barely contained fire; the Destrier quartered its ancestry with the crests of knights it carried into war or the jousting stage.

In the competitions at fairs I enjoy watching the draft horses pulling coaches in tandem with shine and power, pockets of dust raised around the steel crescents of their hooves. The earth shakes with the buried energy pounded by over 1500 pounds of domesticated flesh. They move with a substantial, physical grace. Bridles and harness shake in dainty, metallic tremors – the teams of workers detached from their plows to go on holiday.

Later, I’m able to visit these gentle laborers in their stables. I admire their serene nobility, and I tell them so. I brush my hand against the lavender velvet of their muzzles, and place it against their cheeks, carefully tracing the spiral tread of hair. Usually their mane and tails are unraveled, but sometimes they are still wound with ribbons and flowers. But no treatment affects their dignified calm, their dark, evocative eyes.

However, when they shake their heads with a rare bout of impatience, and I hear their feathered ankles rustle the straw like restless birds, I know that it’s time to move away. But I always wait, hoping for another visit.

Because they are old souls, evocative of a loving history. And it would be an honor to speak with them again.

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Bedtime Story

There was once a king who, when he was about to be married, summoned all of his carpenters and decorators to gather around him in a single, expectant battalion. He wanted them to use all of their skills and dainty armaments to build a marriage bed. And he wanted it to be decorated exclusively in pearl. He wanted it to be rich and rare, chaste and pure – as pure as his young bride.

The king was Henry VIII, and he was in love. Not politically, physically or intellectually in love – but foolishly and blindly…a doomed emotion, short-lived yet fraught with danger. The year was 1540: he was nearly fifty, and his bride-to-be was eighteen. Her name was Catherine – soft and curved, stupid and immodest, madcap and pathetic.

Catherine - an unconfirmed portrait, however

Catherine – an unconfirmed portrait, however

Her king was fat and clumsy, with suppurating legs which kept him immobile and irritable. He was over a foot taller than Catherine, and at their wedding ceremony stood next to her like a reeking colossus.

Yet court witnesses all attest to his inelegant caresses and embraces: he would crush her to him like a fragile bouquet, pink and white, petals undamaged: and upon releasing her was himself unharmed – she was indeed his ‘blushing rose without a thorn’.

He gave her jewels and enameled beads tipped with gold; gowns of twilight-colored silks and amber brocades. He gave her French hoods which perched saucily on the back of her head, revealing a daring view of forehead and hair. And he gave her a glowing, pelagic bed.

It flourished in the evening, a shining lake as translucent and pale as a saucer of milk. It was so pale that the moon, as curious as a cat, hovered low on the horizon to look at this reflection, this simulated echo. And when the inquisitive moonlight spread across the earth, it embraced the nacreous ornamentation as well, to create a radiance that was depthless and alive.

However, it wasn’t long before the King began to retire alone to his personal chambers – whether drunk, incapacitated with overeating or dulled with pain: he was no fit occupant for the dainty bed. And soon after, courtiers, whose only job was to lurk and listen, would hear the queen’s tiny hands open the door to welcome a new resident.

Eventually Henry found out about his flower’s guilty and treacherous secret. And when he did, Henry VIII – the proud, feared behemoth – broke into tears. He then gathered his wits to order her immediate execution. At one point he picked up his own sword and threatened to exact the punishment himself.

But he allowed the cruel laws of the 16th century to progress. Adultery and treason coiled into a single deadly helix with only one penalty: another queen was to be beheaded. (Catherine’s cousin was Anne Boleyn – they were buried in the same unmarked grave.)

She died early in the morning, in February 1542. She knelt in front of the block, her neck showing white against the wood, dark and scored by the marks of earlier condemnations. Courtiers and advisors had assembled, as well as ambassadors and spies who would write accounts for their masters, scattered across Europe.

Very few of them were sad. But in the distance, the moon, which would not be setting for another hour, watched with pity the little girl who each night had laid like a pearl in her oyster bed.

There is no other record of the pearl bed. It could have been sold, forgotten. It could have been destroyed, so that no memory of the shameless queen and the king’s humiliation would remain. But perhaps there came a night when the moon decided to linger before floating upwards like a ship through the twilight currents. And within that winsome pause she decided to embrace the lonely nacre to her, so that they could journey together – leaving only a pile of abandoned quilts and splintered wood behind.

Holiday In Hiding

Sparklers erupted in the tiny garden:  Independence Day bursting from late summer blooms. Like filaments of electricity, brought down to size, brought back to earth, the white stems arched with a delicate voltage.

Fireworks will wait for the night, when the moon agrees to recede for an hour or two. But these blooms hissed in the morning, within their effervescent lawn. They possessed no color, only a white heat that bleached their chlorophyll, melting it like pearls.

Pearls were used for decoration: loved so dearly that they were given names: La Peregrina, Hope, Canning, Cleopatra’s, Aphrodite’s. They were crushed into poultices, powders and pastes. They were also used for tears, believed to be drops from the moon that had fallen into the sea.

And now…the delicate pyrotechnics were rooted into the ground, with threads that flared with a comet’s passion and virtuosity. Silently, it burst and crackled. Yet its iridescent core was as cold as nacre. A confusion of temperature and color, they grew in barbed bouquets, content to spurn any grasp and to grow in beds as quiet as an oyster’s.

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Autumn Is Beckoning

I think autumn is beckoning.  I can see its witchy fingers lengthening, the dark and daring shades.  They leave shadowy scars across summer’s honey-colored skin and I welcome that fleshy damage.  It is a stinging reminder that soon it will be time to leave.  It was a heady three months, but the equinox of bronze harvests is coming and the dog days of August must now slip back into their collars.

Cats, which for weeks lay like silk carpets of muscle and bone on baking sidewalks, became emboldened by the muzzled days.  They basked like soft icons in the long afternoons; in shadows stretching like Nosferatu, they clenched their eyes and listened for the onset of the hunting season.

I too listened for the harvest-colored season – the fields and orchards in the sky.  I smelled the wheat, the cherries, and the corn that rejoiced above my head.  I heard the hunter’s moon rise through their rustling acres.  And I so wished I could taste the atmospheric bounty that ripened above me.


It’s possible that I soon will.  When the days are no longer heavy; steaming under a layer of captured heat and moisture – a boiling, constricted mist.  When the nights are clear and the planets glitter like sequins in a diamante veil.   And the moon, swathed in her stark and chilly shroud will roam at will, dressed for the harvest, bearing her starry scythe.


But there is some waiting to be done.  Still, occasionally, a cold and sly wind will slip through the dense weather.   Or I will see a leaf or two – tinted with ginger or caramel – at my feet.  It isn’t much.

But it is enough for me to know.

That autumn is beckoning.



I don’t sleep well

With a sleeper’s nostalgia I stare

Through the window

Waiting for the progression

Of color

Through Dulac’s whimsical palette

From twilight to turquoise

Over lavender lawns


I wade through the silence

That lies still and dark

Suffocating velvet

And listen for the dawn of birds

The clear songs

Balanced on the cusp of the sun

Heralding their children

With their bright and pretty courage

I listen to the world

As it uncoils each morning

Horizons stretching

Like a panther waking from its sleep

Night is vanquished

And fragments of light rattle in the air

Trapped in currents that rise and fall

Like a beating heart


I Hate Summer

I hate summer.

With the onset of its equinox boiling in the sky, insects begin to bloom like teeming gardens. From wood, curtains, carpets one wanders through a seething soup of unwelcome life for three unwelcome months.

I hate summer colors. In the sky they are blank and innocuous, with none of the sculptural intensity of clouds, save for the occasional low cirrus ceilings loaded with moisture – so low I could reach up and pull them towards me, trying to shake some sense into them.

On clothes summer colors are loud and foolish. They lack subtlety and wit. Summer clothes lack style – their only objective is to display bodies and limbs made taut through a spring of diet and torture.

I hate summer foods. They are light and lack interest. They are delicate. They labor under the misapprehension that just because one is enduring the inexcusable summer heat, one can only consume edibles whose only advantage is that they are cold and/or simple. Recipes are designed to keep one out of the kitchen – but has no one ever heard of delivery? Some say that ice cream is a summer food – I will say that if you consider ice cream a one-season food, then I can only pity you.

Foods spoil in the heat. Stomachs are in an uproar with flus and viruses – whether for 24 hours or for a week. I should know – I’m just getting over some sort of bug-bout myself.

I hate the summer heat – it builds and builds inside me like a sealed cauldron: a mushroom cloud waiting inside my torso. It sickens my blood. It saddens my heart. I hate the summer heat at night – it makes the darkness fidgety and nervous, like a jungle that is blistered with impatience.

I hate the summer air. It is thick and lifeless. It stuns the flowers and trees, turning their DNA sere and feverish – shocking them into losing their color. The viscous atmosphere smothers all breath and stills the wind. From each of their four corners of the map they turn their faces away, sullen and quiet.

And most of all, I hate summer in Southern California.

Because I know that things are so much worse everywhere else…and so I shouldn’t be complaining at all.


Weather Vane

The dolphin curved and bounded with great joy within the confines of its blue home – a generous playground.  It billowed like a ship through the maritime air with a prow that rode the winds with a smiling, salty grace.  It mocked and teased the still, morning air which expanded into a pelagic horizon cursive with waves:  rolling and breaking at its bidding.

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Air currents rubbed against the dolphin’s metallic skin with the insistency of the purring sea.  Sparrows and mockingbirds turned into seagulls; the stoic houses beneath it whales; and the lawns became ocean floors, littered with shells and jewels.  A tiny corner of my neighborhood transformed by the presence of a spinning statuette held high above a singular roof, a winsome silhouette held in the grip of the weather’s caprice.

The happy, airborne creature had paused in its gambols over the four winds:  their full cheeks and blowing curls building a cherubic compass.  It breached over a quadrant of arrows that pointed towards the vast corners of an earthly mansion, defining the map that sailed across the sky.  It laughed at the free-wheeling cartography that floated like stars, wrapping it in constellations and the trails of planets – the latitudes and longitudes of its joyful home.


In many ways, buildings are like people.  As they grow older, they wrinkle, creak and groan.  They become weak.  With age, other people lose interest in them.  They move away, taking away all care and affection with them.

But like people who have become more and more antique, buildings of a certain age become mysterious and eccentric.  They harbor odd secrets; hidden twists and kinks that defy explanation.  Or if there is an explanation, it sometimes lingers close to the unbelievable.  One walks timidly towards its shore, as if it were a lake made of fire.

During these contemporary times we quake with fear.  And in our anxiety we turn to technology to protect our homes.  They are monitored with wires, alarms and machinery; they are locked, bolted and secured with fences and gripped with steel.  We see our threats in the night; we hear the footsteps – the hand on the door, the nails on the window.

But before all the modern devices, the gears and utilities, the engines and the tools, during a vague, historical time, the enemy was more nebulous.  It was part of an obscure and ethereal population, one which cast no shadow and possessed no dimension. It was born from the elements, lived in the shadows and huddled in spectral corners.

So the weaponry that people resorted to was odd, symbolic.  They were designed to pierce the haunting spirits that cast no reflection; the invisible wraiths that gathered outside, their breath collecting on the windows like troubled clouds.  They hid them in the depths of their homes, in the comforting places:  inside hearths, below beds, nestled in the frameworks and timbers of doorways.

Witch bottles, filled with an assortment of curiosities and charms that represented the earth, the body and the home, would be buried deep in the structure of a building.  Witch bottles could contain sea water, earth, sand, feathers, flowers, salt, oil, vinegar or wine:  fragrant, worldly and safe.  Sometimes urine, hair, nail clippings, bone and blood would be added – the remnants of humanity.  Each bottle had its own complex recipe to counteract the nefarious magical schemes of all evil spirits.

The dried bodies of cats have also been found within a home’s walls – posed courant, fleshless and feral.  Their desiccated muscles are still tense – prepared to attack whatever malevolence that would dare permeate the wood and brick of their arid coffin.

Entire skeletal menageries reclined deep inside a building’s heart, like benign parasites.  Rats and horses’ skulls kept their strange and silent vigil, waiting for the inevitable, invisible invasions.

A 14th century English saint once claimed that he had trapped the devil in a boot – the monster’s acrid breath coiling between leathers and singeing the laces.  Ever since then shoes have been closeted in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – homely icons symbolic of humanity born of the earth.  These waiting collections were the scuffed charms used against the evil machinations surrounding the home trapped inside dark perimeters.

The only outward sign that a house was under spiritual protection were the “witch marks” that were tattooed across rafters and the wooden frameworks of fireplaces and bed chambers.

An assortment of circles, triangles and crosses invoking the Virgin Mary, vague geometric shapes knitted together to create cat’s-cradle-like “demon traps”, they have been found in buildings such as Knole House, the Fleece Inn and Sevenoaks.

Marks have been found scorched and scratched into the dense oak beams beneath the floors of 17th century Knole, in particular near the fireplace, a common entrance for witches and demons with no fear of flame and ember.

Originally built during the 1400’s, the Fleece Inn is laid equally thick with such traps – they have also been found by the door, to keep inopportune devilish visitors out.

In the early 17th century, the great house at Sevenoaks was being prepared for the anticipated visit of James I.  It was shortly after the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 and was a time of national paranoia:  it was not enough that the conspirators were condemned to a traitor’s dreadful tripartite death, or that the new tradition of the effigies of Guy Fawkes burning merrily had been born.  The carpenters working to construct the new state rooms of Sevenoaks took no chances, carving witch marks and demon traps in the bed chambers that had been prepared for James.

Embargoed to 0001 Wednesday November 5 A view of the 17th century 'witch marks' hidden beneath floorboards of National Trust property Knole in Sevenoaks, Kent, which were discovered during a major repair and conservation programme currently underway at the property. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 4, 2014. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

They are scattered across countrysides and crooked streets – the old, whispering houses, with their mysteries rattling deep inside them or scored across their fragrant skin.  It is said that some are haunted, and perhaps they are – by owners or patrons not ready to vacate the comforting buildings with their walls of patterned woods.  Or maybe they are troubled by the spirits and familiars that still struggle in the demon traps that were set for them long ago.