Hard times

It may be that the economy’s on the upswing, but New York City’s homeless people might argue with that analysis. So, too, might the folks I encounter nearly daily in central New Jersey.

As my son and I walked along Canal Street and up Second Avenue in lower Manhattan, a few days ago, we saw more homeless people than I remember seeing in NYC for a while, including a young couple camped out on a sidewalk in late morning, the girl sleeping on a pile of blankets while her companion stayed awake and kept watch.

Next day, early in the morning, at a park along the Raritan River in central New Jersey, I saw what has become a familiar sight: three homeless men, wearing all of their clothing (including winter parkas in 80 degree weather, as they left a small, wooded nature preserve in Highland Park where they apparently spend the night and then headed toward a long-established encampment along the riverside in the shadow of the New Brunswick-Highland Park bridge.

I believe that many of us these days are so distracted by our own lives and other issues — that the problem of poverty, both urban and rural, has faded from our view. There’s a feeling, I think, even among well-meaning and caring people, that food pantries and government programs and volunteerism have got the problem under control. But, just walk around Manhattan these days, just visit rural Virginia as I did last fall, and drive around the old section of my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, and it’s clear that as the rich are getting so much richer, the poor are getting so much poorer.

Here’s Woody singing his “Hobo’s Lullaby” —

Here’s Dylan, singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” —

And here’s John Prine, singing his classic song about being invisible and lonely, “Hello In There” —

The rich get richer (what a surprise)

Maybe the answer to the closing the ever-widening and positively despicable gap between rich and poor — a chasm into which more and more of the middle class are tumbling — lies in the title of a book by P.J. O’Rourke and songs by Aerosmith and Motorhead: EAT THE RICH.

Maybe the answer is for people to truly understand what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said “That man is rich whose pleasures are the cheapest,” which echoed the wisdom of Lao Tze: ” He who is contented is rich.”

Or maybe we should ponder the remarkable wisdom of W.C. Fields — “A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money” — and listen to this stimulating but sobering speech by my favorite socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, on tax breaks for the wealthy (and other outrages):

Forewarned is forearmed?

You decide after you read friend Bathsheba Monk’s essay “My New Gun” in the March 1, 2009 edition of the New York Times Magazine —
yes, indeed, Bathsheba makes her second appearance on the back page with an essay in the “Lives” series in which she talks about deciding to buy a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum — partly in response to a rash of break-ins in her neck of the Pennsylvania woods but also out of  fear that the financial apocalypse, the continuing series of calamities that makes it feel like Ben Bernanke of the Federal Reserve might actually have changed his name from Ben Beelzebub and that any minute now a pale rider on a pale horse will be spotted galloping down Pennsylvania Avenue toward Capitol Hill.

Me, I’d never buy a gun. Ever. I’d run. I’d hide. I’d give them all my money. There’s no way in the world that I could ever shoot someone.

But Bathsheba’s an intelligent, articulate, reasonable person  – -her essay’s not going to send me running to the nearest gun shop but it certainly got me thinking about what kind of world this must be if  B. Monk, who I’d wager subscribes to the theory that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, neverthless feel compelled to choose both the pen and the sword — or, more specifically, both a computer keyboard and  a .357 Magnum.

Here’s a link to Bathsheba’s essay in Sunday’s Times:

Here’s a link to her earlier “Lives” essay, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” —

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/02/magazine/02lives.html

And here’s a link to her great blog, Bathsheba Monk Explains Everything:

http://www.bathshebamonk.blogspot.com/

The working world

I should not ever consider, if I consider switching careers, anything that involves even the slightest expertise in science or math. Nor should I even bother applying for any job involving high risk or high adventure.

Good thing I spent a half-hour this morning filling out an apparently well-regarded career counseling questionaire which helps you focus on jobs that match your interests, skills, aptitude — or lack thereof.

The survey’s overall impression of me: My interests “are spread broadly over many different areas, with no intense concentration.”

I’m not sure if this is a compliment or an insult. It may be that the computer program has me pegged — accurately, I believe — as a 21st century Renaissance man. Or it may be that what the comment really means to suggest is that I’m a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Overall, the anonymous career counselor advises me to pursue careers in writing and the culinary arts, to consider developing my skills in farming and forestry, to avoid a military career, to look into honing certain skills that might lend themselves to success in advertising and marketing, and to avoid any job involving religious activities.

That last one is particularly bothersome. It means I can pretty much rule out that the Tibetan monk recruitment team will knock on my front door and announce I’ve been chosen to be the 15th Dalai Lama.

The survey may not have detected my deeply spiritual side — maybe it’s because I’m basically a transcendentalist, which means I keep quiet and listen — but it did notice certain talents or interests that led it to suggest I might have a future as a media executive, a hotel manager or a public relations director. This part of the report again emphasized that I should avoid anything religious, that I should not pursue a career in accounting and that I would not make a good psychologist (which means this particular career guide does not accept the premise that it takes one to know one).

But it’s not all insults and reality checks. The survey actually gave me high marks for creativity. It says I could find success as a writer, editor or liberal arts professor. With a little more training or a slight shift in orientation, the survey says, I could become a chef, a public-relations director or a librarian.

Somehow this computer program apparently learned or sensed that I never earned a grade higher than “C” in any math or science class I ever took — algebra, geometry and statistics and chemistry (in which I somehow managed to get a grade of 42 on the final exam in my senior year of high school) — except for a college biology class in which I somehow, miraculously managed to get an A. Maybe I should become a biologist! No, the online career adviser says careers I should avoid because I lack the necessary analytical skills — in other words, I’m way too stupid — include chemist, engineer, math teacher, science teacher, statistician and systems analyst.

The report tells me, too, that reading between the lines of my answers it detected that I have an interest but no skills needed for the following careers: veterinarian, landscape architect and airline mechanic. I am very attached to my daughter’s pet, Noodle the Poodle, and I’ve done a pretty damned good job on the perennial flower beds all around my house. Where the airline mechanic thing came from I have no idea unless the folks who run the career-counseling computer were having a slow morning and decided to have a little fun with me.

But they got right down to brass tacks (and knuckles) when they warned me, practically urged me, to avoid at all costs any job that involves adventure, danger or risk and then listed specific jobs I should especially avoid: police officer, soldier, ski instructor and test pilot.

How did they know I’d always dreamed of being a test pilot? And how do they feel now, knowing that they’ve sent my dreams into an out-of-control nose-dive?

The survey lists a whole bunch of other jobs I should look into, careers I might find interesting, including actor, ballet dancer, cartoonist, caterer, clothing designer, comedian, dance teacher, fashion model, floral designer, literature teacher, movie director, opera singer, philosopher, agricultural extension agent, air traffic controller, commercial fisherman, fireworks display specialist, massage therapist, prosthetist, rancher,  immigration inspector, postmaster and travel accommodations rater.

Well, if I can’t be a test pilot, all of those  jobs have some appeal, and maybe I could even do more than one of them: sorting the mail while singing the role of Pagliacci, contemplating life’s meaning while shooting  off fireworks, telling  jokes while delivering trays of lasagna to office parties, stretching and limbering at the barre while bringing a big Boeing 767 in for a safe landing.

Or else maybe I should just keep trying to be a writer.

Putting on the dog

So last night I attended the finals of the American Kennel Club’s Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden and today I learned that the top dog — a Sussex spaniel from Texas who answers to the name “Stump” but is known in this strange world of deluxe dogs as Ch. Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee — actually shares my birthday!

This might be even more amusing and surreal than the notion that I even attended a dog show, that there had to be 10,000 people there last night chanting the winning dog’s name as they tried to pressure the judge into choosing the Sussex spaniel over the Standard poodle or the pug or the Scottish deerhound.

That Stump and I were both born on Dec. 1 (and, no, Stump and I are not anywhere near the same age either in dog years or human years) might even be more amusing than the guy who sat behind me and in all seriousness made comments about each dog including these personal favorites: “Oh, look! Like a little runway model!” and (referring, as I recall, to a pug as it strutted around the Garden floor) “How proud my little boy looks!” and (referring to a poodle) “You can just tell how much she loves the applause!”

Now I have to admit that my own enthusiastic companion oohed when she saw the beautiful Siberian huskie and aahed when she saw the elegant Scottish deerhound and even sighed and murmurerd a little “awwwwwww….” at the sight of the cute little Yorkie. And I have to admit hat I kind of envied the folks who were sitting right down near the floor — the actual dog owners and card-carrying members of the AKC, I’d imagine — all decked out in their tuxedos and gowns, drinks in hand while I debated whether to spend $5 for a bottle of water.

But I also have to admit that I had second thoughts about how harmless and amusing this whole affair really was when I headed downstairs to Penn Station to wait for a train back to New Jersey, and there was only one seat available on the bench, and it was next to a homeless woman who coughed right on me in her sleep, which prompted me to move to another part of the waiting room where I watched a man throws a McDonald’s bag into a trash can and then watched another homeless woman walk quickly over to the trash can, remove the bag — and look inside it to see if any scraps of food remained.

I wonder what the poor woman would have thought if she’d seen the extravagent, frivolous, oblivious celebration that erupted upstairs after Ch. Clussexx Three D Glinchy Glee won that Best of Show crown. All that money spent — for show tickets and Manhattan hotel rooms, on booze, on those elegant gowns, on training and breeding those perfect dogs, and, yes, the more than $100 we ourselves had spent earlier on a Cuban dinner and Italian dessert downtown in the Village — would have bought those poor women downstairs at Penn Station a safe, decent place to live and a hell of a lot of Big Macs.

Do good things come to those who wait?

To get an answer to that question, I guess readers of these essays will have to wait and see.  Come to think of it, so will I.

November was frantic and December was chaotic and January so far has been…What’s a good word?….Ominous? Apocalyptic? Nostradamussy? Did I just invent a new word? The economy collapsing all around us…layoffs and a just-announced one-week furlough without pay at my own job…probably a big friggin’ meteor heading toward us from behind the blinding sun…wars and rumors of war…icebergs melting…Old Faithful no longer so faithful…publishing world still hasn’t recognized its obligation to publish “Half  Moon” and “Gloryville” and “The Dogs of Arroyo” by Nicholas DiGiovanni… it’s like Dylan sang back in the 1990s because he knew this was all gonna come down like a hard rain a-faillin’…ain’t no use jivin’…ain’t no use jokin’…everything is broken.

So that may explain why, much to my surprise and chagrin, I’ve paid only about a half-dozen visits to my very own World of Wonders in the last two months. But now that’s going to change.

Spring training’s right around the corner, maybe the meteor will miss us, Obama’s about to become president, and Dylan’s still touring, and things just have to get better, right? So here’s some of what I’m going to write about and I hope you’ll want to read about in coming days:

Poets Joe Weil,  Maria Gillan and Rita Dove. Dylan expert Michael Gray. My latest quests for arts-colony invitations and arts-foundation money (and why is it that I just now realized the similarity between “arts colony” and “ant colony).  Ray Bradbury. Niagara Falls. The future of newspapers. Puerto Rico. Louise Gluck and her recent great poem in the New Yorker. Extremely cold weather. New Year’s Eve in Vermont and a January 1st visit to the Weston Priory. A commentary on Thomas Merton’s relationship with his lady friend. More about my much-missed friend Robert Lax. More reasons why I want someone to offer me a job in Vermont. An account of a dinner conversation in which I explained to my wife why I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton. Musings (I’m being inspired by the Muse) on the nature and meaning of true friendship. A long overdue report on a bunch of fine writers I got to meet at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival this past October. Some (I hope) catholic commentary about the Catholic Worker movement. Some talk about books I’ve read recently. Some thoughts on recent and upcoming books by writer pals Steven Hart. Christian Bauman and Bathsheba Monk. Further explanation of why I’d like to live forever, even if that meant outliving all of my friends and family. Thoughts on whether I really do remember being in my mother’s womb. Thoughts on whether my late father and other dead people I once loved really do speak to me in my dreams. And, most important, of all,  my thoughts on the Yankees’ acquisition of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.

And much, much more! So stay tuned!

The Federation of Light

It’s all starting to fit together, like one big preordained Zen puzzle, like a good mystery with a surprise twist that you never suspected but makes absolutely perfect sense in retrospect.

It started when I read an article about a worldwide marathon reading of the Bible, starting with the Pope intoning “In the Beginning…” all the way through to some time next week when a cardinal in Rome will read the chapters of the Book of Revelations, which describes the Apocalypse.

I seize opportunity when I sees it. So I quickly wrote a satirical essay titled “Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Palin.”

Then CNN.com — possibly because it uses an automated search engine that prowls blogs for keywords and phrases but more likely because it was preordained by God as part of the sequence of events He’s planned for the End Times — picked up on my essay and linked to it on their European news page and the Associated Press article about the Pope kicking off that forementioned Bible-reading marathon.

God bless the Pope. God bless Sarah Palin. God bless St. John the Divine, who wrote the Book of Revelations. God bless all of you who are reading this. And God bless CNN because its link to my “Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Palin” essay led more than 100 people to my Web site in less than a day!

But despite that good news for Nicholas DiGiovanni’s World of Wonders, the stock market plummeted again today, dropping as much as 800 points during the course of the day, and you know the Book of Revelations has to have something in there that refers to bulls and bears and the “crash” at the end of days, and that there has to be something in there about Sarah Palin if you read between the lines, and that there’s also got to be some sort of cryptic reference in there to a “world of wonders.” But we need one more piece to complete this metaphysical puzzle. And this could be it:

The Internet is abuzz with the news that a medium named Blossom Goodchild has received a message from an alien race called the Federation of Light announcing that one of their huge spaceships will visit Earth next Tuesday, Oct. 14, and will hover for three days and three nights in the skies over the state of ALABAMA, which makes absolute sense if you think about it.

A rare video image of an Alabama alien
A rare video image of an Alabama alien

Here’s the link to Blossom Goodchild’s Web site, where you’ll find the complete text of the message she received from the Federation of Light:

http://www.blossomgoodchild.com/

Meanwhile, it’s too late for me to log into my 401(k) and switch from stocks to less-risky investment choices like government bonds and Treasury notes. But it’s not too late for me to post this to my Web site and hope that maybe the folks who run the Federation of Light’s Web site like it enough to include it in their blog links and maybe generate some intergalatic page visits to my site before the aliens arrive in Alabama and fry all of laptop computers with their heat-ray guns (see above).