The Use of Talking

There is no end of things in the heart.

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Ms found in a fortune cookie

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Wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age. I know that firsthand, and if you don’t believe me, just ask Mrs. C or any of our children. I’ve spent countless hours consuming knowledge, most of it entirely useless. And a lot of what I’ve read on blogs or in books, or heard on podcasts or, in days gone by, the radio, especially if it’s outré, stays with me so I can drag it out to amaze and astonish the unfortunate souls who have to put up with me. All that stuff came in handy at work in the days before Google, but since I’ve been retired, not very much. But here are a few things I’ve learned over the last 66 years. They’re about all the wisdom you’ll ever get from me.

  • The flavor of ice cream you didn’t choose is always better.
  • The number of interesting things you hear on an all-night radio show are inversely proportional to the length of your insomnia and directly proportional to how early you have to get up the next morning.
  • As difficulty increases, interest decreases.
  • Babies know when you’ve just fallen asleep. That’s when they cry.
  • Books do furnish a room, but your wife won’t necessarily think so.
  • The more you need it, the harder it is to find.
  • Pride goeth before a fall, but so does almost everything else.
  • The closer you are to a deadline, the more likely that the copier will jam.
  • Matzoh-ball soup won’t cure a cold, but it sure tastes good.
  • It’s always impossible to remember the brilliant idea you had at three o’clock in the morning after the office party, and all things considered, you’re lucky it is.
  • Don’t blog at three o’clock in morning, whether you’ve been to a party or not.
  • You will always just miss the bus or the subway.
  • The early bird will annoy his/her spouse.
  • Other people’s music is always too loud.
  • You never have any pennies when you need them.
  • You always notice the typos just as you’re clicking Publish.
  • There’s nothing more embarrassing than having to take the pauper’s oath at the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Don’t ask. And a word to the wise: Don’t try this on the Jersey Turnpike.
  • People who post lists usually have better things to do, and so do the people who read them.

Well, that’s enough of that. But do follow me so you won’t miss my pearls of wisdom about UFOs.




Written by hans castorp

March 13, 2015 at 3:02 pm

September Song

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Well, it’s a long, long time
From May to December.
But the days grow short,
When you reach September . . .

That song has always been a favorite of mine. I’m a fan of the bittersweet, be it chocolate or songs. This May, though, the song hits closer to home. Back in October I officially become a “senior citizen.”

Nicholas_Roerich_in_Tibetan_RobeThe thing of it is, I don’t feel like one. When I look in the mirror, I don’t feel resigned or indignant; I’m incredulous, wondering where this old man with the white beard and the neck bands (that’s what Google says they are) came from. I’m bewildered when someone offers me a seat on the subway. Can’t he see that I’m just as capable of standing as he is?

At sixty-five, I ought to be wiser than I was as a twenty- or thirty- or forty-year-old, at least a little. But somehow I find myself repeating the old mistakes and making new ones.

At sixty-five, I should have accumulated a useful stock of knowledge. After all, I’ve lived with (and in) books all my life, and I’ve always used them as both a resource and a refuge. Instead, I’m constantly reminded of how much I don’t know, of the deep waters I really can’t swim in. (The internet makes it worse; I discover my limitations there every day.)

At sixty-five,, I ought to be able to look back with some satisfaction at what I’ve done. But even my genuine accomplishments (and I do have some, starting with my five children) can be sources of regret for things not done or not done as well as they should have been.

Now, being sixty-five does have its advantages. There all those senior privileges: discounts at museums, on carfare, even at the opera; kind young folks giving you a seat on the subway even if you really don’t want one. And there are the drawbacks as well, aside from having a closer look at the guy who played chess with Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal.  It may be because I was so late coming to that road I was talking about, but I’m pretty tired of people looking at my son and me and complimenting me on my good-looking grandson. And then there are the disappointments—believe me, not retiring to Florida or Arizona isn’t one of them. In my feyer moods, I thought I’d give myself permission to be eccentric—all right, more eccentric—when I reached this milestone. I saw myself parading around the neighborhood in oriental robes, like Nicolas Roerich (that’s him on the upper left), or at least wearing a homburg and carrying a walking stick. But Mrs. C. put the kibosh on that. Maybe when, Deo volente, I turn seventy, she’ll relent.

Oh, and if you have a homburg or a walking stick you’re looking to get rid of, drop me an email.

Written by hans castorp

May 2, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Posted in Autobiography

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I’ve always thought of myself as a semi-Luddite in the matter of reading. I don’t want to smash everyone else’s reading machines, but I certainly wouldn’t want one of my own. I’m a forty-year veteran of the publishing industry; I go back to the days when postmen and messengers trafficked galleys from editor to author to compositor, when pagnook hd+es were made up and pasted by hand. What could replace the experience of holding a new book, the new-book smell, the texture of the paper, the design, the typography, the heft of a book in the hands? Certainly not a piece of plastic.

But recently I switched iPods with my middle daughter: my Classic for her and her Touch for me. She had dropped the Touch,  leaving a spiderweb of cracks on the lower right. It was unsightly, but still operable. I had intended to use it just for listening, but on impulse I downloaded the Kindle app and a ridiculously inexpensive edition of the complete works of Henry James. reading Roderick Hudson on the absurdly small screen and trying to guess the words that hid behind the cracks.To my surprise, the text outside the cracks was quite readable, and it didn’t take me long to finish the book. The experience wasn’t the same as reading a physical book, but the words seemed to slip easily from the screen into my head. While I ‘d still rather read academic books o paper, fiction reads very well on-screen; and you can’t beat the portability.

Then her generous grandparents gave that same middle daughter a Nook HD+ for her birthday. I was consumed with envy. (Now, it’s a humiliating thing to be jealous of one’s daughter, and you should give me some credit for admitting to it.) Books aside, I’m not a particularly covetous guy, but one of the few things (books aside)


I’ve ever really wanted is an iPad. When all the vice-presidents at the company I used to work for were given them, some ostentatiously using them during during meetings, my envy was kindled. Now, the Nook is an Android tablet, not an iPad, but I thought that, all things considered, it would suit me very well. I was even more covetous when I tried reading on it, a great step up from the iPod. My mind was alive with schemes for coming up with the money, which, given our financial predicament, came down to selling more physical books. I’d sold quite a few over the last six months, though, and my supply of salable ones had diminished greatly.

By now my fever has abated somewhat, but my change of heart remains: there’s much more to be said about e-reading than I’d been able to imagine. I’m now ready to charge full-speed ahead to 2007—or 2010, if anyone wants to send me an iPad.

ADDENDUM: One of the attraction of e-books is the amount of space they don’t take up.

Written by hans castorp

August 20, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Technology

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De Occulta Philosophia

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macroanthropos tree of lifeAs you might have guessed by now (see here), I’ve always been fascinated by the strange, the unusual, and the bizarre. During my teenage years I went to an orthodontist in midtown Manhattan and as a reward for enduring the pain, I’d visit the Marboro bookshop a few yards down the block. For those of you younger than I am, Marboro specialized in remainders, publishers’ overstock with substantial markdowns. And almost always on the remainder tables were titles published by Lyle Stuart’s University Books, reprints of long-out-of-print occult titles: A.E. Waite on ceremonial magic, tarot, Rosicrucianism, and the Holy Grail; Montague Summers on vampires; Frank Podmore and F.W. H. Myers on spiritualism; Theodore Besterman on crystals, κτλ.  When, as a college freshman, I discovered Samuel Weiser’s bookshop south of Union Square, I was hooked.

My interest in all this was never practical (well, hardly ever). I had (and have) no belief in the efficacy of the occult arts. But I became increasingly fascinated with the history of occult groups and practices, the impact or non-impact of occult ideas on politics, philosophy, literature and art, the lives of occult practitioners from Dr. John Dee to Aleister Crowley, and the system(s) of correspondences that esotericists use to understand the putative connections between the inner and outer, human and natural  worlds—microcosm and macrocosm—together. 

Occultism has always been a stew of obsolete (scientists say discredited) sciences and philosophies with a long pedigree (/Hermeticism, gnosticism, astrology, geomancy, alchemy, practical and theoretical Kabbalah, scrying, theurgy, and their like), fairly recent additions: Rosicrucianism (a post-Reformation invention) the occult Tarot (a post-Enlightenment production), Freemasonry, spiritualism, and a variety of oriental systems and practices such as yoga (tantric and otherwise). In its present form, it was cooked up mostly in the nineteenth century, by a former seminarian who went by the name of Eliphas Levi (nothing more kabbalistically impressive than a Hebrew name), a Russian-American-Indian-English adventuress named Helena Blavatsky, and Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers, a Scots pseudo-aristocrat and psychopomp of the Order of the Golden Dawn. And its capacious arms have opened to welcome extraterrestrials, ancient and otherwise, pyramidology, pseudophysics alternative archaeology, Jungian psychology (which many would say was occult to begin with) and a wide selection of conspiracy theories. All of it, you might say is dross, but it does contain some wonderfully imaginative (and even beautiful) nuggets.

What have I gotten out of all this? Well, not much (my wife would say nothing) that’s of any real use; maybe a certain sensitivity to real or factitious connections But it continues to fascinate (that’s an occult word) me, and I continue to read about it. And in our digital world there’s a lot to read. And a lot to write about, even by a cynical unbeliever. It poses some very interesting questions: Why does its popularity wax and wane from one period to another? Why is do self-professed agnostics and atheists believe parts of it? How has it influenced the development of mainstream philosophy and literature? Why do so many people invest so much time and money in pursuing it?  If you’ve got answers to any of these questions, please let me know.

Written by hans castorp

August 17, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Behind the Mask: Confessions of a Viator Vagans 3

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Part 1    Part 2

Long before my conversion, I knew I had to be Catholic—Roman Catholic. The few doctrines that divided Anglos and Romans, papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas, were no problem for me. And I was haunted by the feeling, slowly growing into a conviction, that on the moral matters that A-Cs often took a pass on, mostly the sexual ones, Rome was right and we were wrong.

But, as I tell my therapists, for me at least there’s a gulf between knowing something and doing anything about it. I’m change-averse by nature, and the bigger the change, the more averse I am. And this was a big change. For a while my hesitations centered on externals—polyphony, hymnody, incense, ceremonial, Anglophilia. But these were all secondary. The real rock of stumbling was in my own heart. There’s a whiff of playacting about Anglo-Catholicism; certainly there was about mine. For me the call to Rome was the call to get serious.

So I dithered for a while, disinclined to turn assent into obedience. Then, one after another, changes seemed to force themselves on me. The rector of our parish was fired by the self-perpetuating board of trustees; I seemed to be stuck in a dead end at work; my personal relationships were confused and confusing; and my mother was struggling with cancer and postoperative radiation treatments. One winter evening in a Catholic church I was in the habit of visiting on my way home from work I saw an announcement for a course introducing the faith to non-Catholics. I decided to give it a try.

It was hard to walk into the classroom the first night, and even harder, when the course was over that spring, to ask the old friar who taught it to receive me into the church. But a few weeks later, on Pentecost, I found myself signing the profession of faith and making my confession in the friary, then joining a small group of mostly Anglican friends in the church to be confirmed and receive Holy Communion.

And that’s that, right? Many conversion stories end at the font or the altar, with a few lines tacked on to assure the reader that the convert has reaped the fruits of his or her decision. Not mine. I’ve been a Catholic for thirty years, but I can’t say that I’ve made much progress in holiness. I confess the same old sins over and over, although I have managed to trade in one or two for some others. I go through periods of rebelliousness, indifference, anxiety, and despair, and I even spent a few years back among the Piskies (where, by God’s mysterious grace, I found Mrs. C). But wander where I will, somehow I always come back.

So what, dear reader, if reader there be, is the takeaway from this story? That HC can’t bear to face reality? That he misses his daddy? That he’s a fuming cauldron of resentments and unprocessed guilt and repression and . . . You get the picture; all plausible, after all. But for me, it’s this:

I could (which you cannot)
Find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn’t there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?

—W. H. Auden, “Precious Five”


Written by hans castorp

October 23, 2012 at 9:55 am


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I ‘m a Catholic by faith, the son of a Jewish mother and a Southern Baptist father, and I live far from the Intermountain West. Yet ever since I walked into the Mormon pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair,  I’ve been fascinated by Mormonism.

At the fair it was the strangeness that captivated me: the farm boy and the golden plates, the armies of Lamanites and Nephites, the American theophany of the risen Lord, the spookily lit copy of the Thorvaldsen Christus. I gladly took home a handful of pamphlets and a copy of the Book of Mormon. I read the former and occasionally riffled through the pages of the latter, and filed the Saints away in my Weird Stuff folder along with Tarot cards and UFOs.

When I was at college, two things reinforced my interest in Mormonism: A graduate-student friend who was an acquaintance of one of the sons of an LDS apostle, loved to talk about the history of the church and his own visits to Utah. Here again, the accent was on the oddness. Then I took a class in American philosophy where Mormonism was taken seriously as the answer to Emerson’s longing for a new revelation and as a window into our American self-understanding. I pulled out my Book of Mormon and start underlining passages in I Nephi (it took me years to get much further). A Deseret Book catalog found in a Mormon chapel—very strange-looking books, and at fabulously low prices!—started me collecting Mormon books, and it wasn’t long before I fell into the world of Sunstone and Dialogue and Signature Books.

Then along came the internet and hundreds of websites and mailing lists and discussion forums. Many are the hours I happily passed (or, as my wife would say, wasted) clicking from here to there and back again, from official sites to Protestant anti-Mormon ones to ex-Mormons, apologists, bibliophiles, fundamentalists, cranks. When Sunstone  began posting mp3s of its symposium sessions (the older ones for free), I loaded them onto an iPod to listen to while doing my evening chores.

What to make of all this? To Mrs. C. it’s an almost incomprehensible escape from reality, a frivolous squandering of temporal and financial resources at best, and a danger to my and the family’s faith at worst. To me, it’s a never-failing source of fascination, unique among the American-born creeds—which, like Christian Science and the Watchtower, are often tedious—in its creativity and its audacity. And in its current encounter with the wider culture and the acids of modernity, it provides insight into the negotiations and adjustments that all believers have had to make in a post-Enlightenment world.

Written by hans castorp

August 13, 2012 at 4:58 pm


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This post is very hard to write. The only way into it is to say what has to be said at the beginning: My son is fifteen years old; since the age of six, he has suffered from a serious emotional illness. This has resulted in a number of hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and a stay in a group home. He has had years of therapy and special schools and medication.

I wrote, “he has suffered.” In fact, all of us have suffered, his mother and I, and his four siblings, along with him. This illness has cost us tears and time and money; it has cankered our relationships with each other; it has flayed us to the nerves and made us afraid. It has kept me skating around the edge of despair, for him and for us. It has reopened old wounds and made new ones.

Sunday mornings are not easy here on the mountain. Our son’s resentments and irritation and anger and boredom and depression, always there under the surface, often show themselves then. This morning his talk suddenly became hostile and unpleasant, and his mother and brother went on to church without him. A reason for his mood soon surfaced—he was angry about losing his Sunday video/computer game playing time the day before—and after a half hour or so he was feeling better.

Today everything settled down. But in the back of all our minds is the chance that it won’t, that he won’t, settle down, that he will go too far down the road he’s chosen. And that will mean a 911 call and police and paramedics and an ambulance ride to the emergency room and a struggle over insurance, because, as of right now, he doesn’t have any.

The wounds every member of our family bears are unique to him or her. For me, the most painful is the knowledge that when I look at my son I look at myself, my own weakness and anxiety and depression and fear and, worst of all, my own stubborn and cruel self-absorption blown up from sixteen millimeter to CinemaScope. And with it the thought that it was I who passed all this on to him.

There are nights when I go to bed dreading what might happen the next day; there are nights when I go to bed too tired to care. There are nights when all I can pray for is another day’s endurance; there are nights when I can’t pray at all. There are nights when I’m up half the night worrying about his future: Will he ever go to college? Will he be able to support himself? Will he manage to stay out of the hospital? Will he manage to stay alive?

After my son had calmed down, we went to church together, to the big parish church down one hill and up another. On the way back we laughed, and he sprinkled snow down the back of my neck. A father and his son, just like all the others, on a bright sunny winter afternoon.

Written by hans castorp

January 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Posted in Autobiography

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