Sunday, May 27, 2012

a place worth finding...

Beyond serendipity       At that time, on the outskirts of Havana more than 15 years ago, as I hiked up the shady concrete driveway to Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban villa, Finca VigĂ­a , the question I carried with me about Hemingway didn’t seem to have an answer. At least not one I could discern.

When the path opened to reveal a driveway that circled by the front side of his home that was close to its corner room with wooden shutters, wide open, I hurried to look inside, then to take pictures of what I saw. I wanted clues to help answer my question, the one I didn’t come close to answering when I was in Key West touring Hemingway’s two storey stucco and its community of six toed cats.

“No! No!” I was told by two women in khakis, security guards without guns. “Cinquo dollares,” they told me, if I wanted to take pictures. My admission ticket hadn’t paid for that.

Suureptitiously, pretending not to understand, I took three or four more shots as I’d peered into his simple bedroom, its ordinary furniture, the posters on the wall advertising bull fights in Spain. Finally, one woman, while blocking my view,  pelted me with what may have been the only English phrase she knew. She insisted, “Five dollars, please!”

Refusing that, I put away my camera, then walked inside. Next to Hemingway’s bed were ordinary brown leather lace-up shoes (about size 9 1/2), modest and well worn. Wire rimmed glasses sat on a night table. It was mid day; I couldn’t tell whether they were meant to indicate whether he may have been coming or going. Indeed, even though his boat, Pilar, had been hauled out in and stored in a building not far from his house, it appeared to be temporarily at rest rather than parked forever. If I’d seen Pilar’s captain in a nearby room, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

That flashback had been stowed away for a long while until last night when I was driving home from Hillsborough, NC, a place I never tire of returning to. I’m drawn to three blocks of its downtown anchored by the Weaver Street Market and its organic bounty.

But last night I hurried from Weaver Street to make a few more stops before 8:00 p.m. However, I needn’t have rushed to Matthew’s Chocolates (although I always do!) or to the Eno Gallery. Since this was the last Friday in the month, all shops were open to 9:00.

At the Eno, I was greeted by Mark Donley and Tinka Jordy and their angel colored German shepherd. “Sorry I couldn’t make the opening last night,” I quipped, as I sped upstairs to see the sculptures of Daniel Essig and the fiber works of his wife, Vicki Essig. Mark followed.

He caught up with me as I reeled with delight at Daniel Essig’s $25,000 book monster, a gator mobile with tiny handmade books that fit into notches hewn into its wooden spine. Every inch of the more than two foot long piece featured textural details that defied anticipation; I couldn’t have known tiny watch faces could work like symbolic scales, that any man made creature could carry time and literature like an irresistable vendor of both.

I wanted to shrink to a size small enough to hike onto, into, and around Essig’s work. Each piece was too intricate for a quick study. But that’s all I had time for. Indeed, I wanted a magnifying glass and time enough alone with each of his three dimensional pieces so that my mind and my eyes could sink into each one. Years earlier, at a gallery in D.C., on a day when snow kept most visitors away, I had the same feeling as I scanned more than a dozen Vermeers less than a foot from each canvas.

But I moved on to Vicki Essig’s work, each piece so clean and clear, each reminiscent of a Zen garden framed. As much as I wanted to tinker with her husband’s work, I wanted to meditate on hers. Each was a shrine to immaculate detail and balance. A number of pieces sang to me as if they had copied the harmony of trees, as if they had borrowed perfect moments made perfect forever. Some were that hypnotic.

“This one’s a steal,”  Mark announced. He had no way of knowing that I’d made it to the work of Alberto Ortega Rodas the way a leaf makes its way to the other side of a yard. I’d been carried along by the Essig jetstream, its current of creativity that worked as oars on my unthinking feet.

I snapped to a gallery-goer’s attention. “Love it,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t sound like it had barely emerged from a back room at the house of Essig. “And you’re right about the price. I saw the same thing when I searched for artists in Havana. For a few hundred dollars each, I bought two masterpeices.”

Compared to the Essigs’, the work I’d seen in Cuba was old-fashioned art, its brushwork stunning and meticulous in a more classic sense. “One was a nude, a Venus in a Caribbean sea. Impeccable.”

Too impeccable; it intimidated my ex. “I had to give it away,” I said, wistfully thinking about the art I couldn’t buy in Cuba the day before I visited Hemingway’s Finca Vigia.

Mark grimaced. More than a few times, he told me how much he wanted to visit Cuba, to see it before it was spoiled. Hearing him made me think of Old Havana, the stories I could tell about that place, the joy those memories bring. Mark would have listened. That’s one reason I’ll come back to Hillsborough, maybe as soon as tomorrow.

What it offers me is akin to the good energy Hemingway tapped into when he escaped to his Vinca. That was my question about why Hemingway loved the places he loved so much that he always returned to them. I’d found its answer in Hillsborough in the eyes and hearts and words and art I’d met there. Coming back was not an option. I’d return to dive into the Eno stream, its current fed by the Essigs, by Lobe and Jordy, by Isner and so many others.

Yes, I now knew why Hemingway returned to the places he always returned to once he found them. Like me, he may have been carrying the door to his artist’s life with him until he found exactly where it fit.

                                       B. Koplen 5/27/12

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

late spring love poem...

                       Lover’s perusal

Extra pages, their undiscarded chapters,
I read them with my hands---
lines on her face she regards
as sentences to be revised, neck and eyes and cheeks
to be edited, reworked,

parts of spring to be pulled from winter just in time
to avoid indelible creases
that don’t matter
to me when our kisses hide in sun shadows
that cover us and our forewards,

our children;
our book, its story, set aside then,
illegible as our unshared pasts,
paper smooth histories,
until our eyes reopen.

                          B. Koplen 5/24/12

Friday, May 18, 2012

...need to know

 By way of explanation            Since my ‘unofficial’ visit to Cuba years ago (the State Department’s rep negotiated with me, after I was caught on my return, for a fine of a ‘mere’ $2600; it could have been fifteen times that much), I have marveled at the politics that continue to maintain our country’s ridiculous embargo. Although I don’t side with Castro (nor defend the land grab, etc. many suffered due to his revolution), I think it’s time for America to allow Cuba to become, again, our trading partner.

In a real sense, that has been happening for a while; Cuba’s currency of choice is our American dollar. Indeed, the summation of an AP article, Cuban president's daughter gets US visa by Andrea Rodriguez,makes it clear:

"It's a very positive thing they give her the visa," said Wayne Smith, America's former top diplomat in Cuba and a critic of the U.S. embargo on the island. "You have to consider the source, where the criticism is coming from. They don't want dialogue."

I agree. Not wanting dialog runs counter to democracy. When it takes the form of well-reasoned debate, dialog can prompt progress. Even when it’s less formal, it promotes the airing of ideas and often can lead to deeper understandings and enhanced perspectives.

That said, many resent my stance on Cuba (“How can I ignore that it’s a Communist country?” they ask). Seldom does that bother me; at least their resentment is a result of having heard my point of view. Although I don’t resent them for theirs, I often gain an insight into their perspective and how it is formed.

Perhaps that’s why I relish controversy. It’s also why I often foster discussions that seem to be emotional trip wires. What I often get to see is where reason stops and emotion takes over. When emotions take charge, often a reader feels they have been insulted.

That’s never my intent. Indeed, I intend to challenge rather than offend. Often I make that point (or reflect on it) when I write about (radical) Islam. In the few sentences that follow, I will do that for the sole purpose of clarifying my support of Israel when it comes to the absolute necessity of the measures that country takes when it comes to self defense.

Regarding the danger posed by Hamas controlled Gaza to Israel, the facts are clear. If read closely, Article 13 of Hamas’ charter offers absolute clarity about its (Islamic) attitude towards having Israel as a neighbor.

What follows is from an article by a most remarkable man about the gist of that document, its twisted view of the world according to Sunni Islam [please see: The Really Weird Ideas of the Muslim Terrorist Group Hamas]:

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that:
1.The land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection
2.No one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it.
3.No Arab country nor the aggregate of all Arab countries, and no Arab King or President nor all of them in the aggregate, have that right, nor has that right any organization or the aggregate of all organizations, be they Palestinian or Arab, because Palestine is an Islamic Waqf throughout all generations and to the Day of Resurrection.
Who can presume to speak for all Islamic Generations to the Day of Resurrection? This is the status [of the land] in Islamic Shari’a.”
Then it refers to the Countries that are now Ex-Muslim:
“And it is similar:
1.To all lands conquered by Islam by force, and made thereby Waqf lands upon their conquest
2.For all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection.
2.This [norm] has prevailed since the commanders of the Muslim armies completed the conquest of Syria and Iraq, and they asked the Caliph of Muslims, ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab, for his view of the conquered land, whether it should be partitioned between the troops or left in the possession of its population, or otherwise. Following discussions and consultations between the Caliph of Islam, ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab, and the Companions of the Messenger of Allah, be peace and prayer upon him, they decided that the land should remain in the hands of its owners to benefit from it and from its wealth;
but the control of the land and the land itself ought to be endowed as a Waqf [in perpetuity] for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection. The ownership of the land by its owners is only one of usufruct, and this Waqf will endure as long as Heaven and earth last. Any demarche in violation of this law of Islam, with regard to Palestine, is baseless and reflects on its perpetrators.”
The European Countries that were Formerly under Muslim Rule
3.The South of France
7.Half of Ukraine.
10.Bosnia ( the majority there are still non-Muslim,like 60% )
15.Greek Cyprus
Plus including Kossovo (almost 90% Muslim) and Albania (70% Mulsim) that means that more than 50% of Europe should now be under Muslim rule.Once Muslim always Muslim,according to Hamas.For example,under the Ottomans,no less than 33% of all Europe was under Muslim rule,under the Sultan of Istanbul.
The Other Countries that were once also under Islamic Rule:

Chances are that, like me, you’ll find this to be truly amazing.

                             B. Koplen 5/18/12

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Snake tales...

 An overdue battle    Once steady rock slab stairs still climb the two steep terraces of Mom’s back yard. For years, she planted and pruned, trekked up and down. Eventually, succulents and periwinkle, azalaeas and dogwoods grew to crowd into each other. Once looming red dirt banks had been transformed; for a long while, her back yard looked to be a well-planned Eden.

Years after reaching its Home and Gardens pinnacle, troublesome changes took place. Rock stairs, though picturesque, tilted downwards, grew to be worn and slick. Wooden posts rotted; their rope hand rails became unreliable, dangerously so. Few climbed to the very top to harvest quince; the stone bench there colapsed and had to be removed.

Undeterred ivy claimed the heights and sides of the terraces. It marched and infiltrated, threaded through perwinkle, climbed oaks and dogwoods like an army of agile children. It joined forces with untrained ivy in neighbors’ yards from both sides. As if caught in a war with natural forces, there seemed a pincer movement staged for a final attack.

 Weeks ago, that’s what I found following early spring’s brilliant azalea and dogwood display on the first terrace, and after watching robins and their hatchlings in a shoulder high nest in a pot of hen and chickens set in an iron trellis nailed to the wooden frame of Mom’s screened-in porch. She and Betty, her saintly helper, watched the young birds grow feathers, then fly away.

That’s when the ivy charged. Or so it seemed. It had even crossed into the front yard where it hid under boxwoods that had long guarded the front of Mom’s house from intruders. Time had come; it had to be removed.

Underlying fears surfaced. Years ago, a friend and retired special forces operative had shared stories about Mom’s ivy covered neighborhood. “Snakes,” he said, “love to nest in ivy banks.” For many years, he had been the man to call when snakes had become a nuisance.

What that meant was always unclear until my friend was bitten. Although he’d been bitten before, perhaps because he’d survived with an unenviable scar on his right hand, he told me not to worry. He said that from his bed at our local hospital.

I visited him a few days before his son called to say he’d passed away.

Staring at Mom’s ominous ivy, I flashed back to the last conversation my friend and I had had. Although, at the onset, ivy had been a useful ground cover, it had become a liability. It had to be removed.

In earnest, that process began last week. Following a rainy weekend, it continued. What had to be done was clear. After a headstart of at least twenty years, the ivy had become persistent and invasive, an enemy, as it were, to be dealt with.

Helping me was Jimmy Carter, an untiring hard worker and a gentle man with the strength of a Samson.

I felt his strong hand grab my shoulder yesterday, just as I was about to saw a low lying branch on the first terrace. “Watch out!” he yelled, as he guided me backwards, out of what he thought was harm’s way.

“Didn’t you see it?” he asked, his eyes focused on me and fearful, as if shouting a belated warning.

My hand had been inches away from a snake that was resting in an azalea, near the branch I was reaching for. I hadn’t seen the snake. However, according to Jimmy, it had seen me.

Jimmy was terrified.

I was unsettled, but curious. Closer to the snake, I saw its whitish under belly; it seemed to be two to three feet long. Although it reminded me of harmless black snakes on top, it wasn’t as shiny. Its pale bottom was a clue, but one I didn’t recognize. Indeed, the snake seemed a part of the ivy attack.

What happened next was scary. In short, I caught the snake with a rusty long handled clipper, then killed it. There may have been good reason for that. [please see: Black Rat Snake The Black Rat Snake is the largest snake in Virginia, growing up to eight feet long . son was bitten by a black snake with a white belly ( probably 5, 2010 – The snake you have described is a Black Rat Snake. They are black with white under the neck and a light colored underbelly. The have a very ...]

At least Jimmy and I thought so. Although I was shaken, I knew not to seem afraid if Jimmy and I were to complete our work. So we waded back into the ivy with a fury that might have seemed improbable to anyone who knew the whole story, who had seen it firsthand.

We’ll be back again in the morning.


                                             B. Koplen 5/17/12

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Report card!

A daunting question          If gaining an education were a team sport with a regimen of disciplined study, how many would be willing to pay that price to learn? 10%?  50%? More? Every educator I’ve ever known has shared with me his or her concerns about those numbers in moments of self-evaluation. Many have told me that the old mantra, “even if you only touch one child,” has never worked for them. Likewise, an  almost equal number have said that the “no child left behind” model wears like a well polished shackle.

What should we, as teachers, expect? How do we judge success? Often, I wonder whether we’re expected to think that anything less than a one hundred percent success rate is unacceptable. Student evaluations appear to shift the critical administrative eye to that of our students. In either case, it’s hard not to feel outflanked.

That’s why I’ve devised my own (unoffical) measurement for success. Each semester, I use it. It has yet to fail me. Or should I say that its results suggest that I have yet to fail.

Here’s why. Each semester, I require that my students read Light One Candle, a memoir by Holocaust survivor, Solly Ganor. On the last day of class, I receive their term papers, papers that describe their personal responses to Solly’s book. Since I spend almost the entire semester helping (or cajoling) them to read the book and to work on their term paper, I feel that what they have to say is a fair indication of our mutual success (and especially that of Solly’s book).

What they’ve written, this time, may confirm that my goals for their educational growth have been partially met. If you care to make a judgement about that after reading a number of their comments, please do. Your evaluations, and theirs, are most important to me.

All but one student spoke highly of the experience of having to read Solly Ganor’s Holocaust memoir. That student wrote:

...overall I thought it was a good book but there were some parts that I did not understand at all. [n.b.: This student attended sporadically, and, despite my numerous offers to help anyone who had difficulties with the text or with their papers, never asked for help and never mentioned difficulties with it.] This student continues: ...and then there were times when it was hard to put down. I just feel that it should be the decision of the reader on whether or not to read this book. [n.b. Two weeks before the semester began, I e-mailed messages to each student about this book and instructed each student to read fifty pages prior to the first class. When we finally met, I repeated the assignment about the book, suggested that anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t read it should take another Humanities class.]

from D. M.: ...I know this book has made me realize that I have taken life for granted and that I should be proud to have my freedom that I have now because to see what these poor people went through just kills me on the inside and makes me wish they never had to go through that terrible ordeal...Some people take life for granted and I know I used to be one of those people but now after reading Light One Candle and taking this Humanities class, I have realized that I should be proud of who I am and the freedom that I have.

from T.D.: ...I am glad this book was given to me to read. I have learned so much history from this book about how horrible people can be and just how much the Jewish community had to suffer for no apparent reason...This book will forever remain dear to me.

from M.G.: When I first ordered and received Light One Candle from, I thought it was going to be another book that I had to read to pass another college course...[But] I found myself being captivated by what I was reading...As I read what the Nazis had been doing to the Jewish civilization, I became angered at this. I hadn’t ever been so enraged by a work of literature like this in my life...Light One Candle was an eye opener for sure. Hands down, it was one of the best books I have read in my life.

from R.A.: ...Thanks, Solly, for sharing this amazing story. I have learned many things after all. I learned how to help others, appreciate that I am alive, and give thanks for the food and home I have. It was an honor to read this story...

from A.B.: ...Before I read Light One Candle, I did not give much thought to the Holocaust...After I finished this book I did much independent research on the topic of the Holocaust...This book really helped me appreciate everything I have in my life...As I was reading, I started to look around my room and my house and started to realize how great my living conditions are...After reading this book, I feel like I always took my parents for granted, and all of the things they do for me...This book has really taught me many life lessons that I probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise...

from P.B.: ...I am so glad to have had the opportunity to read your book...I am a homosexual and though I have never been through anything close to what you have been through, I do know what it is like to be hated because of who you are...Your book touched me and made me appreciate  life and all the simple things in it...

from T. W.: ...From the first day we started Mr. Koplen’s class and he assigned this book, I had no interest in reading it. I felt I knew everything I needed to know about the Holocaust. But, from the first to the very last page, I [realized I] had no mental idea of the inhuman, disgusting prejudice the Germans held against the Jewish people...Light One Candle was a great book I would recommend to anyone I know.

from C.D.: ...I also cannot understand how anyone can be so cruel, heartless, and evil...I am a black man, and I can personally tell you that racism and hatred are alive and well...Your story has made me realize that I don’t have to deal with much in comparison to what you went through...

from D.D.: ...Having read this book, my life has significantly and indelibly been impacted with a renewed sense of courage, compassion, strength, and endurance. When I am plagued with life’s challenges and hardships,...I think of Solly. Then I tell myself, if Solly survived, so can I.

from J.C.: ...I have always thought that African Americans were the only group of people who experienced such brutality like in the slave days with the burnings, lynchings, rapes, and beatings, but this book has changed all of that for me. When told by my professor on the first day of class we were to read your book and write a paper from it, I thought of some boring, uninteresting book about nothing, but once I got into the first chapter, I could not stop reading...In closing, this was the best, most disturbing, and educational book that I ever read. I thank you Solly for writing it and Mr. Koplen for giving his class the opportunity to read such a mind blowing novel...


                                                     B. Koplen  5/8/12

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Not an ordinary garden?

                    Conceive and conceived

We know what our garden will not grow, whether seeded
root will take hold, how our seasons fare.

Each time we plant, we expose our prayer, the sum of what
we pray for; sun and rain conspire,

at least we hope so. I call you Mother Earth; you dance,
take delight in our soil

my fingers are the color of. Nature merges in our cascade;
we are the water and the water fall.

We are givers of the life we drink and taste, aquifers deep
and sweet, feeders of honeysuckle

twine we can’t untie; its scent defines our intent. Where we
are planted, all but hatred grows.

                                     B. Koplen  5/2/12