We grew up as Zionists in New York in the years after WWII. Even though there were few Jews in our town, Pelham Manor, the few we knew were smart and decent. Micky Schwerner came from our town, went to high school with my oldest sister. He was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi while trying to help black people register to vote.
That is incidental. What is not incidental is the fact that, as a little boy, my first exposure to naked bodies, other than my parents, was seeing piles of them pushed into ditches by bulldozers. They were the murdered victims of Nazism. Those newsreels were played over and over and over again.
As I got older and more involved with New York City and photography and the arts, I met more and more Jewish people. Some had numbers still tattooed on their arms, from the concentration camps.
At that time Leon Uris’s book, Exodus was popular and many of us were caught up in the idealism and excitement of Israel, a new homeland for the Jewish people after the holocaust.
We all admired David Ben-Gurion and Gold Meir and many others who led the early country and defended it passionately.
There never has been co-equality and hardly even co-existence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What I know about Palestinians is that they hate the Jews and want to “push them into the sea.” Since the Israelis are highly developed and disciplined, have all the weapons, and know how to use them, it seems to me that the Palestinians should adjust their attitude.
Not only do the Israelis hold all the cards but they also control the water. This might be the most important of all. Israel is a beautiful, lush country and Palestine is a desert by comparison.
One card Israel does not have is the suicide card. Apparently, the one thing Palestinians can do is blow themselves up and take as many Jews with them as possible. I still remember the “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in my thinking. A pregnant Arab woman got into a big Jewish wedding and blew up about fifty people including herself and her unborn child. Any kind of sympathy I might have had for the Palestinian cause disappeared.
Currently there has been more violence in the West Bank and Gaza, ugly violence, with lots of people killed and many buildings destroyed. I am always shocked to think of all the effort it took to build those buildings, and now to have to build them again.
It is ever the same. What could possibly change it? As long as the Israelis think the Palestinians hate them and want to destroy them, they will keep making sure that can’t happen.
Note: Some of my friends were shocked by my thoughts, “dismayed” was a word I heard. It is only my perspective, one perspective, but also a history of how I came to feel the way I do. That is all we have, to express it as we feel it and experience it. There is dualism before non-dualism to be philosophical about it.
The writer and activist, Grace Paley (RIP) was someone much admired by almost everyone in the progressive/left community. We knew her in Vermont and one day a group of us were rehashing the tribulations of the peace and freedom movements of the sixties. In response to something she said, I replied, “I am too cynical,” to which she countered with, “Don’t be cynical; it’s too expensive.” I have thought about that often over the years.
It is so easy to give up on the world, to think it’s all bullshit, that everything is a lie, that money and power control it all, and there is no truth either knowable or worth seeking. Are there only two choices? Is it either “all bullshit” or, for the new-age person, “all is one.” My take is “Fuck you, it’s all bullshit. Fuck you, all is one.” To me, those easy outs, either one of them, is avoidance, giving up on the struggle to resolve the contradictions of life.
One of the brightest guys I knew growing up, John, became a deep hippie. When I knew him, he was funny and kind. As he got more and more alienated from the establishment and more “out there” in hippy land he became cynical and less kind. He died at age thirty-nine.
Some years back I met his younger brother, Tom, for dinner in New York. Seeing me, he cried because I had known John well and we were close. Tom said, “His last two years were tough. They were not good years. He got to believe it was all bullshit.”
“Yeah,” Tom continued, “but you still have to take a shit every day.”
We are in a body, stuck in it but stuck in it for a reason. What’s that? There is a spiritual thinker and writer I like very much, Richard Rohr. He put it like this: “The people who hold the contradictions and resolve them in themselves are the saviors of the world. They are the only real agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.”
Nobody said this is easy. If it was easy, it probably would not be worth doing. A Trappist priest gave me a small Dhammapada, sayings of the Buddha. It has a triangular copper bookmark and on that page: “Few cross over the river. Most are stranded on this side. On the riverbank, they run up and down.”
Ricker Winsor, Surabaya, Indonesia
Auron’s nurse came into the house and said, “There is a bird in the garden. I don’t think it can fly.” Sure, enough there was a bird, a baby dove, walking around, not a new born, but not ready for the world either. Like Icarus he had fallen from the sky, from a nest high in the big Linden tree shading the house. I picked him up and decided to try to save him, normally a fraught situation ending in the pet cemetery. I knew that the fledglings feed from their parents’ mouths. They stick their head into the parent’s throat and eat some mysterious milk-type substance they find there.
We have some healthy snacks around: roasted almonds and sunflower seeds. My best idea was to chew up some of that, mix it with some water, and do my best to get the baby to eat. With a spoon and some persistence, I got his beak into the porridge, such as it was. I saw that he opened his beak a bit and took some. Success! But there was a lot more to do before I would be confident, he would live. We got a small cage and I put some of the mash I made plus some water and he started slowly to eat it.
He was never tame, never friendly. When I would bring the food and water and open the cage, he would raise one baby wing in a “ward off” gesture as in Tai Chi. That was all the defense he had; just to raise a wing. When that didn’t work, he would become panicked and frantic. He would hyperventilate, flapping around hysterically, blood pressure through the roof. Some of his young feathers were getting damaged.
My job was not a pleasant chore. My goal was to get him to the stage where he could fly and be free. As far as I was concerned that could not happen soon enough. There were still no feathers under his wings but he was getting stronger.
Happily, he was eating solid food; cracked corn I smashed up, and the almonds and sunflower seeds also busted up by hammer. After two weeks, a bit prematurely perhaps, I took him out in the morning and let him go. He flew across the street and it seemed like he landed in the neighbor’s walled veranda, the kind of place where he might be trapped. We asked the neighbor to check and he was not there.
Then he was seen at different places along the street. I was happy since I felt he was going to be ok. Over the next few days, I thought I might have seen him with other doves, some about his size, maybe his siblings. I put some food out where his cage had been and also in the street where the doves often feed on things they find and on bits of dry food my wife puts out for the homeless cats in the neighborhood.
And that was that. Yesterday, after about a week, he came back. Our driver, Romulus, was out sitting under the carport awning as he usually does when he not doing errand and helping with various things, and he told me the bird was back. The two dogs were out. I went and sat down quietly on the step and held one of the dogs so he didn’t bother the dove. But she didn’t bother the dove at all, like they knew each other, and the dove actually flew down a few feet from me and even closer to the other dog who moved, but not aggressively. The dove smoothly flew away and landed on the gate, then on the garbage can almost right next to me, and then back to the wall where we had been putting out food.
“Pak Rom, “I said, “Get some of the food and put it out.” He did and the dove didn’t fly away but ate contentedly. Our maid had to go out to buy some vegetables and she went through the gate right next to the dove. He barely noticed. The same thing happened with my wife. He knew us all. And to me that is the most remarkable thing.
During the two weeks he was in his cage he observed everything and knew we were no threat, even the dogs. A renowned naturalist I knew, Larry Killham, an expert on crows and ravens, told me, “Just because a bird has a small brain doesn’t mean there is not a lot in it.”
I have seen him a few times but each time more at a distance. He seems strong and healthy, proud even as he sits on the apex of the roof of the house across the street. He was never a pet, but magically showed that he was and is aware, with feelings.
Surabaya, Indonesia 2020
Thomas Merton, in one of his many books, said something to the effect that, “Monks are like tall trees in the forest, silently purifying the air.” The life of the contemplative centers on quiet purification through prayer.
Among the many Zen practitioners of China and Japan, the ones we know about wrote poems and some also practiced calligraphy. Some taught. Centuries passed away, and still their contributions shine with intensity and truth.
One of the most famous is the poet Basho from seventeenth-century Japan. He wrote Haiku, a structured form of three phrases. Here are a few:
a fascinating body
in summer rain
would you be happy with
the moon’s face
has spring come
or the year gone away?
second last day
Haiku poetry is deeply rooted in the awareness and appreciation of nature. Many of the Zen practitioners lived far from villages in small huts up on the sides of mountains. There, they faced two common enemies: poverty and loneliness.
In contemplation there is no hiding place; we make what we can from our choices. Work overcomes the difficulties and the result can be a gift of beauty to the world.
The image of a solitary monk living alone in nature is compelling but nature is everywhere, even in the city. And solitude is also everywhere, even in the city. Solitude is a condition of humility and peace. Ironically, contemplation might be more easily attained in the city where one is reminded frequently of what one needs to avoid.
Surabaya, Indonesia 2020
This is a Story for You Hermano (for Luis Francia)
I have wanted to write this for so long but I get tired of my regrets and my shame of one kind or another. These days I try my best to find some shiny nuggets among the dross but mostly come up empty. I succeed most in looking at the clouds or at the sun through the leaves of green tropical trees.
But back to the other. When I was a freshman at Brown in a sociology class, I wrote a paper about new movements in American politics. I attended the Communist Party Presidential Convention in Manhattan. The year must have been 1963. It was a small convention, about twenty-five people gathered in an upstairs room somewhere in midtown. I remember the presidential candidate was an albino negro which was different.
I reported about it as best I could in my notes but my main interest at that time was in a guy known as Malcolm X. I got information about him from magazines such as Jet and Ebony. If I hadn’t been a spoiled preppy of eighteen, I might have sought him out and gotten the skinny from the source, but, as it was, the paper I wrote got a high grade and went into the Sociology Department files. My teacher knew it was important somehow.
Fast forward to 1987 and I am at “the lonely café” in the Catskills where I ate sourdough pancakes almost every morning before going back to my barn to make cabinets and furniture for rich people like: Larry Rockefeller, Auchincloss (Louis, and his wife, Adele, a Vanderbilt, Babe Paley’s kids, Amanda Burden, and others). Don’t ask! I rejected them all including a Countess in Spain.
There was a big fat black lady whom I saw several times at the café. She had escaped from the New Age Health Spa ( and fat farm) a mile or so down the road to stuff down some worthy vittles. I liked her without knowing her and finally we had a few words. Something about racism came up.
“Are the people around here (boondocks) racist?” she asked.
“No more than anywhere else,” I replied. “I don’t have to tell you.”
“No,” she said.
I think she liked that and asked me if I would possibly make a Playground Spinning Wheel for the kids in her neighborhood.
“Oh God,” I thought, “pro bono for the hood.”
And I did think about it, not for any humanitarian reason probably, but because of the challenge of building something like that, building it the right way out of steel and serious ball bearings, something that would last forever. And, in my thinking, it would cost a lot of money and effort.
So, I replied, “I am too busy now working for Rockefeller (true).”
I don’t remember when I realized she was Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife. Maybe I saw a picture of her somewhere but then I had a full dose of regret.
I don’t know how different it might have been. At least I could have mentioned my history with the civil rights movement and my research on Malcolm (he was my favorite). And probably, knowing she had some money, I would have gotten involved with the playground project.
I have been watching the series, ”Who Killed Malcolm X,” at least the first episode. Not sure I can continue as it hurts.
Saludos y un Abrazo,
from Ricker Winsor’s book Pakuwon City
Muslims fast during Ramadan. For a month between sun up and sun down, no water, no food. Caddies pass out on the golf course or quit after nine holes. Some don’t fast and pretend to do so. Some fast quietly. Some swoon dramatically. For the ruling class this Muslim condition creates problems. The rhythm of the game is disrupted. And, at the end of Ramadan, there is Lebaron when they go on Mudik, a journey to the home town to celebrate for a week. We are expected to give extra money to one and all. There is a mass exodus as the cities empty themselves of people. Countless families climb on motorbikes and travel as far as four-hundred miles that way- two adults and two kids on a 100 cc Honda! It’s the biggest holiday of the year. All of a sudden it is very quiet. Six-hundred people died on the road going home to celebrate this year.
I visited my old friend and college roommate, Mark, and his wife Nicole in Jakarta. She is French and he, American, from Massachusetts. They are permanent expats living a very refined and luxurious life in Jakarta. Every morning begins with fine espresso coffee, and sprouts perched on perfectly poached eggs along with some cereal and yoghurt. The two cooks have been trained to a fine degree of excellence, following instructions and producing the requisite dishes that are organic, fresh, tasty and healthful. Three times a week a personal trainer shows up punctually to help them move their bodies in unnatural and painful ways to create stiffness in soft places and strength where weakness once ruled. After that, they go their separate ways for a while- she to the pool for a mile swim and he to the golf course in pursuit of a lower handicap. Then there is a sumptuous but low caloric lunch and maybe some movies and some attention to clients mixed into the day since they are both head shrinkers and life coaches in different ways. Certainly their life is a refinement of the life available to the wealthy in this part of the world. Their staff totals five which is not so many since I think they had about twelve in Nepal. Other than the kitchen and house team, Kareem and Marney, there is a driver named Bhari and two guards on the gate- one for day and one for night. They all make life easier in different ways. For example, in this part of the world one never picks anything up. If something needs to be picked up one just stares at it for a while and soon a person will pick it up. A jerk of the head in the direction of the object’s destination usually suffices and saves the energy of having to raise one’s arm to point. It is remarkable how quickly one adapts to this style of life.
Although I have had some experience with privilege at different times in my life I chose to learn to work, having romantic notions about the value of that, of being able to fix things instead of calling an “expert” as my mother used to refer to anyone who had an ad in the yellow pages, anyone who knew how to do any manual labor. And I did learn and truthfully gained a lot of satisfaction from it. I learned carpentry, furniture making, electricity, and plumbing and even had a cabinet and furniture manufacturing business for ten years. I worked as a contractor, did the electrical on two houses, built and renovated four or five houses- the whole megilla. Why then, when I came back from a recent trip and found that my electric power was off in my house, did I immediately and frantically call people – experts- to rescue me? God love them, they came flying over on motorbikes, fraught with panic lest “Boss” be inconvenienced even a minute more. Looking around, they went to the main switch just by the front door in perfect sight and flicked it on. Experts can do these things! I would like to say I didn’t know about that switch but I did know. When “experts” are around, however, it is easy to forget!
Back in Jakarta with my friends in the middle of their sumptuous life I begin to hear anxious tones and whispers. The kitchen staff will be leaving for mudik, the exodus to the villages for Lebaron the end of Ramadan. For the last three days of my visit we will be on our own without servants. This is serious! I suggest we just check into a hotel for a few days. They like this idea but can’t do it because of obligations to clients looking to them as “experts” to fix their struggles with the human condition. And, of course, everyone else has the same idea so the hotels are booked solid! So we talk and decide that somehow we will “tough it out”. The time approaches. We shop for provisions. Kareem and his wife leave. Life careens downhill. Who is going to cook? Mark volunteers and manages the soft boiled eggs and sprouts for breakfast. Some leftovers for lunch suffice. Not bad. At dinner he decides on a fine meal of salmon and special greens and some other good things. His standards are very high so a meal like this requires a staff- me! I chop and chop and chop! Nicole pokes a head in the door and says before quickly leaving “You know I like good food but I don’t want to spend all this time on it. I just want to eat it. I am fine with chocolate and cheese and some bread.”
In fact the meal does take quite a bit of work and produces more dishes than I have ever seen. It is very good but quite late at night by the time it is consumed and then all those dishes!
“When is your kitchen help coming back?” I pleaded. “Maybe we can just throw all these dishes and stuff in the corner for a few days?”
“It’s too long,” Mark says. ”It will attract bugs and things.”
“Oh, “I say, taking a different tact, “Don’t you think they are sick of their village by now?” “Probably their relatives are pestering them for money.” “Can we call them? Probably they miss being here. It’s got to be much nicer here than at a hut in their village!”
Mark says, “We’ll just have to do the best we can. I did the cooking so I would like to be relieved from the dishwashing.”
“Oh, oh,” I am thinking to myself. So I say, “I am not good at dishes. Francine would never let me wash them because when I do they come out dirtier than before.” Nicole had already rewashed something I had tried to wash earlier in the day so I had some credibility.
Nicole says, sighing, “Ok, I will wash them if you dry them and put them away”.
I counter, not giving up,” Listen you know they are missing us very much and wondering how we are getting along without them. How about a helicopter? Will they take a credit card? ”
Nicole says, “You can’t get a helicopter at this time of year. Everybody wants a helicopter. I say, “Can the pool guy be trained to cook? How about the garbage guy? Maybe he could work up the food chain …”
A day earlier Mark had asked me to paint one of the walls in the house- a big mural of a traditional Indonesian village. I am an art teacher and a landscape painter.
“It doesn’t have to be too good” He said. “ It’s going to be background for some photography I want to do celebrating village life. ”
“No sweat, Bubbie” I said. “I am happy to help you to promote the native culture living close to mother earth!”
While Nicole and I struggle with the aftermath of the sumptuous salmon dinner he prepared I happen to hear him talking on Skype using his laptop in the room with the painting on the wall. He is talking to his ex-wife, someone I know well since we went to college together and I was the best man at that wedding. They had recently made contact and were interested in resolving some difficulties needing attention after about 40 years. What’s more, she’s one of the founders of the voluntary simplicity movement and quite famous in that- Opera guest, author etc. So while I am drying the multitude if dishes one at a time I poke my head in and listen and understand that what she is seeing on Skype is Mark, now out of his silk pajamas and stripped down to a T shirt and shorts, with an Indonesian village in the background.
“Oh yes Vicky” I hear him say,” we have simplified our life and reduced our carbon footprint to help our mother earth. We even make our own toothpicks from trees that have died of natural causes. In place of toilet paper we use the leaf of the Po Po plant just after the seeds have dropped. We use no Po Po before it’s time!”
I am liking this all very much. “Wow” I muse, “This guy can think on his feet!”
Back in the kitchen, Nicole is repeating, just audibly, “Just give me some chocolate and bread. My hands will stink for weeks from these rubber gloves! Merde!”
Mark finishes his call and checks on the progress here in the kitchen.
“By the way,” I mention, “what are we going to do about laundry? I didn’t bring that much spare clothing! ” Normally you throw your dirty stuff in some designated spot in the room and the next day Marney has it all ironed and back in the closet or on the shelf the way God intended it. But now??
“I don’t know,” says Mark who has lived in the house for 6 years. “I don’t know where they keep the washing machine. Is there a washing machine? ”
From Pakuwon City, Letters from the East
Mud Flat Press
There are strong currents underneath the great flow of history, currents that follow their own direction even as they are carried along. It is the counter culture, going against the flow.
I suppose I started early with my questions about it all. I was looking for something beyond the comfortable suburbs of my growing up and was attracted to Greenwich Village and “the beats”. Now, I have taken on, at this late stage, a more concerted study of them. Barry Miles’s biographies of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, each containing about six hundred pages of amazing description and detail provide the information. One wonders how his portraits could be that complete except that both Burroughs and Ginsberg were famous for a long time and both had numerous friends, lovers, situations, teaching gigs, and on and on that gave the biographer rich sources of information.
The average Romeo, who might consider himself an athletic, sexy type of guy, might be shocked, pissed off, and disturbed by the wild and crazy sexuality of both these men. Include Neal Cassady, who could “throw a football seventy yards and masturbate six times a day,” and you get the kind of picture that would make the average Romeo look like a boy scout, no a cub scout. About Ginsberg’s sexuality, or Burroughs’s, you can almost smell it. It’s like that.
This group remains mythic for a lot of reasons including their talent and the amazing chances they took with their lives with the idea of liberating the psyche and stretching it toward infinity, (I guess). That would be the generous way of looking at them. Another way would be to consider them delinquent, dirty bastards with deep psychological issues, the types of people who should be sent by boat to a small island with the job of making big rocks into small rocks. And in the fifties and early sixties “the establishment” overwhelmingly considered them in that way.
Allen Ginsberg was twenty years older than I. My older sisters and I were rebels without a cause in the wealthy suburb of Pelham Manor but not more than a half hour fast driving to McDougal and Bleeker Streets in Greenwich Village. Things were going on there we wanted to know about, things that gave us another view of our predictable and comfortable, conformist lives, the ones we were expected to live into the future.
“The Times they are a Changin” said Bob Dylan, and a truer lyric was never written. The history of the epoch known as “The Sixties” has been explored in countless ways. It affected everyone and everything in very personal ways. The bigger question for me now is why rebel? Why do we seem to hate peace? Because it’s boring? I wonder about that.
The Buddha was a rich kid unaware of anything beyond the luxury of his palace environment. Then he took a trip outside the walls and discovered death, suffering, and misery. The shock of it motivated his quest for ultimate truth. So, for me, in the company of my older sisters, to hear folk singers sing about peace and freedom, to see people with beards sling poetry on street corners and cafes, to be aware of free love and jazz, wow, it kicked me off the straight narrow road of my life and into the wilderness of choice without a compass. Oh freedom.
By nineteen sixty-eight I was part of a meditation group that met once a month in lower Manhattan. It was run by a Hindu man named Kumar studying philosophy at Columbia University. Allen Ginsberg joined us for meditation practice there. And I met him again up in New Hampshire and Vermont where he was chanting for peace and playing music with Peter Orlovsky and a guitar player, Steven somebody. Actually, in those days, it seemed like Allen was everywhere, an amazingly public person.
I have a project going to create a map of influence, a genealogy of values beyond the status quo and it goes like this in relatively modern times: William Blake, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Emmerson, Auden, Dylan Thomas, EE Cummings, WC Williams, all precursors to the core beat group: Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, Cassady and Corso who, along with many other accomplished poets and artists, created a culture bomb that cracked “the establishment”. When you learn how far they took things, especially in the area of sex and relationships, it is a shock, pure and simple. I can only share my confusion.
William Burroughs shot his wife Joan during a drunken “game” of William Tell, an expert marksman missing the shot glass on her head from close range by about four inches low. Was it an accident or the “ugly spirit” he talked about? People sometimes do bad things out of a perverted curiosity. And in Mexico he could get away with it. Burroughs’s wife was not the only one to die. Other people died. During the Columbia University days, Lucien Carr stabbed an older guy who was stalking him relentlessly. A woman Cassady used badly, killed herself. And those are just the ones we know about, the recorded history.
Why were they able to break out of conformity with such wildness? Ginsberg, who to me is the most important of the group, learned to accept craziness from his mother, Naomi, who was certifiably crazy and died in the nut house. Allen loved her and took care of her for years. She was normal in spurts before going crazy again which she always did. So, for Allen, accepting the behavior of his peers was not so hard. And they were all in it together, a real group.
Neal Cassady spent most of his early life in jail or reform school. It is not clear that he even had parents. With a little more twist to his character Cassidy could have been like Charles Manson. They basically had similar backgrounds. Jails and reform schools are filled with people who either want to fuck you or beat you up. Gregory Corso was another one like that, mostly locked up in jail until he was over twenty.
So why follow people like that? The impulse of humanity is toward freedom. At least that is true in the West where we are brought up on a diet of independence and rugged individualism. When the beats came of age, society post WWII was conformist and materialistic, affluent but boring and facing serious problems such as nuclear destruction, civil rights, and, a bit later, a very destructive and confusing war in Vietnam.
In my own case I felt stifled and constricted, unable to breathe in the middle of a comfortable suburban existence. The movie, “Rebel Without a Cause” has to be seen as an important moment in the culture. Starring James Dean, Nathalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, it expressed what a whole generation was feeling to some extent or another: alienation, ennui, and angst, in what should have been a perfect world. It is hard to explain that impulse to rebellion other than by some need of the human spirit that is not met by the values of Main Street. Are peace and freedom incompatible?
Jack Kerouac, so important to it all, was the closest to normal of the group, if normal can be accepted as a condition. He was Catholic, a fine athlete from the lower middle class, able to go to an Ivy League school, Columbia. And yet he became unglued from that and proclaimed the values of excess, spontaneity, and instability. He was an alcoholic and died an alcoholic. Despite his contribution, he was, for me, the most confused of people, a mystery even to himself.
The wild chances the beats took with their lives in terms of sex, drugs, alcohol, and relationships were what they wanted to do and needed to do in order to create some side streets off Main Street. Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud were precursors. The idea was that it was ok to be wild; in fact, it was necessary.
Following that path, a lot of my generation got washed up on the shore, addicted, disillusioned. The ones, like myself, who didn’t see the beat model as fruitful long-term, turned to nature, a simple life close to the land. A percentage of a whole generation turned their backs on the bright lights of the city and settled in the country, grew gardens, and tried to live the good life as exemplified by Helen and Scott Nearing. Many succeeded and are still there. One of them was the poet David Budbill, RIP, who lived in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and David Kherdian, still writing, now in his eighties.
Some of the key people who were associated with the beats, but also kept their distance, are Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and Gary Synder. Snyder’s Buddhist practice over years invested him with a sense of peace and concentration that is both active and at rest. Whether he is describing his experience of nature or thinking about the workings of his own mind, his words are fresh and clear, unpretentious and powerful. These three poets are still alive, still healthy, and still producing. Ferlinghetti is well into his nineties and doing just fine. A point of pride for me is that he and I graduated from the same secondary school, Northfield Mount Hermon, in Massachusetts.
Not long ago, a friend offered the opportunity to get high again. I said, “I am weird enough without adding to it.” And I think that way about the whole world now. You can fuck a robot if you want, have your sexual equipment “reassigned,” take opioids, buy cheap heroin, or watch the political people we once respected act like idiot liars. The freedom of choice is endless and without guidelines.
The point is this: we don’t have to act out any more in self-destructive and irresponsible ways. I quote Gary Snyder from a recent interview. “When Verlaine and Rimbaud were young they were protesting the iron-grip bourgeois rationality had on all aspects of nineteenth-century French culture- the manners, the view of reality, and the exclusion of ‘the wild’ from public life. Rationality in business and society were dominant values. Deranging the senses was one strategy artists like Verlaine and Rimbaud employed to break free of that. Today, the bourgeoisie is sociopathic, overindulged, distracted, spoiled beyond measure, and unable to restrain its gluttony, even with looming planetary destruction. In the face of such a threat, it has, by necessity, become the responsibility of the artist to model health and sanity.”
This makes sense to me and so does this by Howard Zinn: “We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
It does seem heroic to stay steady with enduring values, the kinds that don’t change with the fashions or destroy your body or the people around you. The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is kindness. I don’t need complicated philosophies”. When I think about the beats in contrast to this kind of thinking and I reflect on what I know about their backgrounds, despite their talent, especially in Allen Ginsberg’s case, it is hard not to be confused. Were they truly the spiritual children of Blake, Whitman, and Thoreau?
Ricker Winsor Surabaya, Indonesia 2018
What are we doing here in this life anyway? For a lot of people, a six pack of beer and a football game answer that question very nicely. For others it’s family, grandchildren, and community. To be an artist is to not be satisfied by those happy ways. To be an artist is to be an outsider looking in, like Thomas Mann’s “Tonio Kroger”, a character to whom I related strongly as a teenager. All those material and social comforts are not for us.
An artist has to find his own way, driven to respond to his experience of life in the best way he can. As my teacher and friend Harry Callahan put it, to share “what I feel and have always known”. That is the motivation, to do something, say something, make something that is a deep expression of who you are and how you feel about this mysterious life. On the most basic level, the artist is someone who produces something, but to be called Art the thing produced must have special qualities attached to it. Skill coming from talent is appreciated by everyone, easily appreciated. Skill is important but, to my mind, other values are more important.
In the best work there is a sense of passionate intention, the desire to capture a feeling in whatever medium. I started as a photographer and the great photographers were able to do that. My heroes were Cartier Bresson, Danny Lyon, and Harry Callahan. I knew them all. But for me, the simple, direct approach of a reed pen drawing in india ink on paper and oil paint on canvas provided a more satisfying experience. So that is what I have been doing now for over forty years.
How did this all happen? Why did it happen? The oracle of Apollo in Delphi said in Greek, “Gnothi Seauton, Know Thyself.”It is a hard directive, easier said than done. For whatever reasons, this idea attracted me strongly from a young age. When young Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, smack dab in the middle of teenage angst and confusion, went on a quest “to find himself” I related.
The affluent world I was in after WWII was not satisfying to me. And I noticed that it didn’t seem to make the adults I knew very happy either. It certainly didn’t solve the problems of our family, something I wrote about extensively in my book, The Painting of My Life.
What did make sense was my father’s clever and skilful cartoons, his writing, my mother’s excellent painting, the painting of my sister Mary, and the good reproductions of Van Gogh paintings on the walls of our house, “La Berceuse” and “Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer”, as well as my father’s black and white photographs. Our neighbour Rowl Scherman was a teen idol with the guitar and later a fine photographer working for Life Magazine. A book and a film about him came out in 2016: Eye on the Sixties: The Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman. His brother Tom was exceptionally talented in drawing and went on to work at Disney. Down the street, a woman twenty years my senior, Lee Schoenburg, was the editorial director at Magnum Photos. We became lifelong friends. My godfather, Paul Rhymer, wrote over three thousand episodes of Ma Perkins, one of the most popular shows on radio before television took over. He is considered one of the great American humourists of the twentieth century, in a class with Will Rogers. That is a whole lot of background, something I haven’t mentioned before.
For me, Art seemed to make sense as an antidote to the materialism surrounding me. I had spiritual awareness from an early age. Art seemed closer to religion than to business. The idea of it in my mind was quite pure. That being said, I think most of us start out wanting the élan, the fame, the honour, and the glory we associate with “specialness” and our art heroes. It is easy to forget that Van Gogh shot himself in the stomach and took three days to die, that he sold only one painting in his life, and that his mother used his paintings to plug holes in her chicken coop. We remember those things later when the artist’s path gets bumpy which it does.
I became a photographer and studied painting in the New York museums to understand art principles: light, composition, contrast, values, and many other things which were also applicable to photography. With my Magnum Photos connection, I worked in photojournalism, working to capture the street events of the nineteen sixties, working in league with great photographers as much as I could. I was just a kid, in my early twenties and they were twice my age, most of them.
But I also felt that photojournalism was not enough, not what I was looking for exactly. The beautiful idea of art was what I was seeking and if I didn’t know what that was, I did have a sense of what it was not. So I packed my bags and took my small R-18 1965 Renault all the way across America to Yosemite National Park to meet Ansel Adams and learn about photography as Art. He was a technical master and just at the beginning of getting the tremendous recognition he deserved.
But somehow his wonderful pictures, so controlled and technically beautiful, seemed dead and less personal to me than the street photography I knew so well. The workshop was a few weeks long and we had been asked to submit some of our prints for evaluation on acceptance, and I had done that. At a big introductory meeting of the whole group in Yosemite, I was very surprised to see that Ansel had made slides of several of my photographs, one of Janis Joplin I remember and a couple of others, and he talked, without having met me, about how good they were. This was very confusing since I was here in Yosemite to be more like him and less like me, or so I thought.
This gets into the essence of the oracle’s message, “Know Thyself”. Art is all about that, about being comfortable in your own skin, about showing who you are through your work. I now know I was better than I thought I was. Lack of confidence was blocking my path.
We need skill; there are technical aspects, but the important part, as I know now, is honesty, sincerity, purity, true feeling, those kinds of qualities. When you know art history from the Venus of Willendorf to the work of Cy Twombly, or Horace Pippin, or Pierre Bonnard, or Joan Mitchell, you will know this is true. Unfortunately, most people don’t know much about art at all and real artists suffer from that, being compared unfavourably to the slick practitioners who fill the commercial galleries all over the world. That’s why most artists give up, fall by the wayside or sell out, even the most talented ones.
At about the time I made my journey to see Ansel and find out about photography as Art, I met Herman Cherry, a first generation New York School abstract painter and friend of David Smith, the sculptor, Ruben Kadish, the sculptor, Charles Pollock, Jackson’s brother, also a painter, and many more. He was part of the scene from the beginning and knew them all. I was twenty four when I met Cherry and he was fifty nine. We met through a mutual friend, Zena Voynow, a film editor who was the sister in law of Sergei Eisenstein, the legendary Russian film director, someone you study if you study film. We met in East Hampton, the most important place outside of New York City for artists. Jackson Pollock had a studio there and Willem de Kooning whom I got to know.
My first wife, Melynda, and I were sitting on the veranda of Zena and Andrew’s house and some small crab apples came rolling off the roof and onto the veranda. “That’s Cherry,” said Zena, and so it was. We hit it off immediately despite the fact that when he took us over to his house and showed us his new paintings, I said, innocently, “They look like what Frank Stella is doing.” Of course that is one of the worst things you can say to an artist, since artists, as I have mentioned, try like hell to let their own individuality come out, not someone else’s. Zena told me very quickly, pulling me aside, “Don’t ever tell an artist his work looks like someone else’s.” I remembered that.
I think Cherry appreciated my innocent honesty even if it hurt. At that time he was stuck as a painter, and not long after that he stopped painting for a number of years and wrote poetry, quite good poetry. He published a few volumes and was respected as a poet. From that point on I saw all of his life since we became good friends. I did some abstract acrylic paintings, small ones, which he liked and he was very appreciative of my photography. I became friends with his friends, Edie and Ed Dugmore were favourites and I still admire “Doug’s” abstract paintings very much.
Cherry was respected by everyone as a colorist but also as being super knowledgeable about painting, art history and many other things related to Art. He was exceptionally smart without making a big deal about it but it was recognizable to those who paid attention.
Over the next twenty four years, until his death, we were in touch and visited as frequently as possible. He started painting again and the work he did the last fifteen years of his life was truly great and appreciated by galleries and buyers. I was with him when I met my French partner, Francine, and I was at his wedding when he married a German woman my age.
He knew Aaron Siskind who became a photography teacher of mine at Rhode Island School of Design, (RISD). He had known Siskind’s great friend Frans Kline, whose work Siskind had followed in photography, a clear path and a successful one. And this mention of Aaron Siskind, a very good guy and a great teacher, ties into the fundamental value I am trying to reveal. I pondered this deeply at the time; how much of what Siskind accomplished was due to basically imitating in photography what Kline did with paint on canvas? Aaron did what he did very well and I won’t try to take that away from him. But what I was looking for was something more personal, deeper, and connected to the core identity of the person. If one believes in the idea of a soul, then that is what I was hoping to express. I want art to be, above all, soulful.
In photography Harry Callahan had that gift and so did Henri Cartier Bresson and some others but not many. For me expression in the way I sought was very difficult with a camera because of the machine itself, the mechanical thing between you and what you were hoping to express. And that’s why, as soon as I got to RISD at age thirty and was encouraged by classmate Jenny Holzer, (“If you want to paint, paint”), I jumped ship and spent the next three years drawing and painting with the support of very astute and kind teachers.
My first drawings in ink drew immediate attention. Out of my lack of experience came a direct, unfiltered, strong expression. Most of my classmates were impressed and encouraging but a few were upset because their more technically skilled works were not so appreciated. Technique is respected by everyone but not loved and technique alone is not Art, far from it.
I was thrilled to see what I could do with a reed pen and India ink and I still am. I believe strongly in what I do that way. Painting has been a lot harder although I think, after all this time, there is a sense of me, my own style and personality in my painting. It can take years to work through influences, other peoples’ ideas, before you become you as an artist.
What I might hope for is that my painting be as personal and individual as my drawing. I think that is everything I know about art. It is a special calling. Art is a rejection of materialism and comfort in order to find a deeper meaning and it comes from the belief that the individual has something special to say, to contribute. It is beyond the glitz and noise of this grinding world. It is an oasis of purity in the middle of all that. In its essence, Art is spiritual.
Surabaya April 2018