Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Category: Culture

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation
forces an impressionist painting of a river
displayed in our dining room to
hang at a five-degree angle.

Passers-by adjust it, usually with a thumb
and forefinger at one of the lower corners
with delicacy, leaning back on their rear
leg, with a squint and a tilt of the neck

to ascertain the line of the adjacent
window. Alas, the truth of the matter
is the square of the distance of its center
is perfectly equal: it is the house itself,

more than two centuries old, that lists,
to the opposite degree of the art, a mimetic
representation of the river that rushes
by our Westerly windows. The structure

is subject to time and its universal effects
on its earthly subjects, shifting sills,
listing beams and turning arthritic joints,
all the while still housing us, embracing us

with silent stoicism, paternal wisdom
and immortal affection.


Answer only the question posed,
Offering no additional
Information than what was
Originally requested:
Sage advice from childhood
Development specialists.

The first answer will undoubtedly
Lead to a second, a third, etcetera,
For the more inquisitive of
Tots, until the parent has pieced
Together a daisy chain of examples,
A regular Kotex ad of explanations
Beginning with “in my uterus” and
Ending abruptly, by,
“Sexual intercourse.”

The most precocious of them, however,
Will push deeper, if you will,
Skipping the “Disgusting’s!” and the
“You did WHAT with Daddy?” and turn,
Instead, to the stickier of subjects.

“But where did the first person
Come from?” Blushing, the parent
Stumbles over Genesis and Darwin’s
Hominids, Adam’s agnostic
Rib, which couldn’t possibly have taken
Residency in the cage of
Mitochondrial Eve.

Tripping down an endless path made
Beautiful by Natural Order,
It’s divinity subject to
Personal interrogation,
One as endless as the
Expanding Universe, the
Young prodigy, shakes her head,
Exclaiming, “I thought
She was from Texas.”

Election Night

The world now enveloped
The newborn’s perfect, pink skin
From the tip of his pointed skull,
Cone-shaped from the trauma
Of birth, to the terminus of every
Corn kernel-shaped toe.

Terrified at the prospects of raising him,
Those left to his charge grew panicked
And educated in the world of
Emotional intelligence: with
Love comes great vulnerability,
Now that the air touched his body,
Still pruned from the protective
Maternal bath made wholesome
By clean living.

“Forget the striped birthing cap,”
His father nervously chuckled,
“Give him a stove-pipe one instead!”
As his anxiety-ridden mother
Conjured Abraham Lincoln himself,
Remarking to his new lot
Of hard-fought constituents:
“Well, boys, your troubles are over now,
But mine have just begun.”

The Springsteen Phenomenon

Certainly, Bruce Springsteen’s popularity extends beyond the borders of his own Garden State, yet the hype that surrounds him here is impressive.  His popularity is written on many a New Jersey sleeve (or tattooed on an arm. Yep. Seen it).   While sitting in customary Route 3 traffic, I have heard the heavy brass of his late saxophone player, Clarence Clemons, blaring through the open windows of an adjacent car.  I have – with my tongue planted firmly in cheek – joined in an impromptu sing-a-long of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out at our local King’s supermarket.

It seems to be a mutually endearing relationship: Bruce chose his native New Jersey as a home base for him and his family, and references to Jersey run amuck in his lyrics. (This is how I learned that people in New Jersey don’t go to the beach, but they go “down the shore,” where, apparently, everything is all right).

I am not a New Jersey native.  I started this blog as a stranger in a strange land, yet will wholeheartedly admit no true, discernible cultural difference can be found between my not-so-bucolic hometown of Bristol, Connecticut and much of New Jersey.  Both have the distinctive blue collar roots from which Bruce’s poetry blooms.  I remember the New England jovial version of Brucemania which surrounded his Born In the USA tour, which included a stop at the Hartford Civic Center.  I was not allowed to attend.

This curious New Englander finally got her chance a week ago, when Bruce performed his River Tour to a sold out crowd at the Prudential Center in Newark, for which I obtained tickets by some stroke of dumb luck via Ticketmaster online.  With a click of the button at the allotted time of 1o AM, I asked for the “Best Available” seats, and got two in the nose bleed section.  Turns out the entirety of the stadium, which is home to the New Jersey Devils hockey team, sold out in less than ten minutes.

I prepared for the concert by watching videos of swooning fans reaching out to an agile Springsteen as he crooned a gravelly tenor into a microphone.  There were women of every background and age being pulled onstage to “dance in the dark,” including his mother, his daughter, and even a four year-old who bafflingly knew the chorus to Waitin’ On A Sunny Day.  OK.  I get it…  This guy knows how to connect to his audience.  But more: he’s a hometown, good guy, lacking any trace of narcissism that seems to be the trademark of so many other rock stars.

Teetering on a steep balcony over 20,000 like-minded folks who came to see Bruce in his native habitat, I was about to satisfy that curiosity.  Qualifying remark: this was my first big stadium show.  I have no experience seeing Some Big Rock Star in Some Big Stadium.  Previous concerts for me have been limited to smaller venues, with lesser known performers, or ones that had past their prime.  I preferred an intimate show, where I could sit in my accustomed Connecticut reserve and comfortably, quietly enjoy the music that held personal and private significance.  I didn’t need to wear it on my three-quarter-length sleeve.

20,000 people howling Bruuuuuce! in unison?  Amusing.  First name basis and all.  Then the screams…  Jumping up and down, dancing like it might be outlawed tomorrow.  I couldn’t possibly get this excited about someone to whom I didn’t make love or give birth.  I couldn’t join the choir; I didn’t know the words.  And how can the guy behind me know EVERY DAMN lyric to EVERY DAMN song?  Maybe I was just feeling left out.

Surrounding spectators, who I observed like an anthropologist, were either clinging to their loved ones, or swaying in a solitary trance.  One of my fellow concert goers likened the experience to going to a church service of rock and roll, where one worships The Boss.  He took no breaks for close to four hours. At 66 years-old, he even allowed his sycophantic fans to pass his body from a mosh pit back to the stage, an exaltation of supporting hands.  One can even touch his denim garment, for the price of floor seats!

I was converted when the stadium lights were illuminated to reveal his disciples as he performed Lonesome Day, a tune which Salman Rushdie once declared as the best piece written about September 11th.  I was overcome with emotion hearing 20,000 voices sing, “Let kingdom come, I’m gonna find my way, through this lonesome day…” One quarter of all casualties of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center were New Jersey residents, and although there is some debate as to the meaning behind the lyrics, which might be construed as a depiction of more personal loss, the message received by this crowd was one of collective understanding, joyful noise, a healing: even for those that didn’t touch his garments.  And yes, I suppose, many in attendance were so engaged because they probably did make love with Bruce in their ears, perhaps were celebrating in the audience with that same partner, maybe even gave birth with him, too.  Seems as though even the youngest fans know the lyrics, and understand the value of coming together for a few hours, to lose the stiffness and praise Bruce.

Jersey exuberance: 1.  Connecticut Puritanical reserve: 0.



In the last blush of dusk
A child strikes two pieces
Of rose quartz, tumbled
To a high unnatural gloss.

Together with successive
Clicks, he replicates what
A bohemian docent with
Feathered earrings
Explained to him:
People of the Ute,
Land of the Sun,
Conjured the Spirits of
Mid-summer with the
Same crystals nestled in
Rattles of translucent
Buffalo hide.

Glowing Internally,
A mechanoluminescent
Wisdom, mysterious,
Creates encapsulated sparks, as
Every neuron, firing dendrite,
Axon of his golden body, synapse lit in kind,
Forms his Self.

Housed by an ephemeral
Pop-up cathedral
Of transparent skin,
Muscle, native drops of
Aboriginal sanguine fluids,
Flow through
A conduit of an
Equally black-lit blue,
Mixed amongst
Ten pints of various,
Standard, original

His own firing light
Nurtured by a protective housing,
Animates him,
Transports him through space,
Allows him to love and fear and despise
Privately. House and home
Protecting the other,
Cooperatively leaving what once
Will be known as a footprint,
An impression, a suggestion of
Him which will lighten the grey
Of the longest systemic shadows
Cast from ivory tower
Or ceremonial rattle
With a dull flash.

I’ll Have a Perfect Manhattan Up with a Twist

manhattan dry

For Jack

We argued over piddly things
My shoelace broke while tying
I forgot my keys on the desk
And some days I feel like crying.

Let’s go out for a glass of lunch,
I find myself a quart low;
That conference call went on and on
And my meter’s running slow.

A perfect Manhattan straight up with a twist
Made with only high shelf booze
Two parts Whistle Pig rye whiskey
That ol’ bourbon, Barkeep, lose.

The afternoon seems fruitless
I skipped office coffee hour.
It’s certainly five o’clock somewhere
So let’s blow this office tower.

Let’s go out for a glass of happy
I find myself a quart low
There’s plenty of seats at the bar
And I ain’t drinkin’ no Merlot!

A perfect Manhattan straight up with a twist
Made with only high shelf booze
No chardonnay, Barkeep, please;
For my dry blood needs to transfuse.

The nights are long, when you are gone
I’m trying to distract myself
And every hour that you don’t call
I look up to that high shelf.

So let’s go out for a glass of supper
I find myself a quart low
The phone’s grown cobwebs, does it even work?
This evening’s been a lonely go.

A perfect Manhattan straight up with a twist
Made with the high shelf booze,
Add a dash of Angostura bitters
To chase away my bitter blues.

The dirty brown water has crept back in
To pollute my pristine way;
I’m starting back at the first of twelve steps
Powerless, I’ve gone astray.

A perfect manhattan straight up with a twist
Made with the high shelf booze
Gave me a hangover, I now regret
Trying to drown those bitter blues.


©2014, All Rights Reserved

Lyrics: Christine Adams Beckett

Music: Mark Louis Miller

For more from Mark Louis Miller, please see:

The Front Porch

In Appalachia, they showcase

Moldy and holy upholstered couches,

Dueling banjoes

And Christmas lights in July.  Children

With no shoes or after school

Dance recitals instead spit

Watermelon seeds into cans

Nestled into dirt that once

Sprouted green grass.


Now the bare and rotted wood,

dangerously open to the hiding place

Below the planks

Introduces to passers-by

A public representation of the

Private squalor in which the inhabitants live

Behind the rusted screen door.

A shrouded world where

Rodents are the main course

And frustrations give birth

To abuse and neglect

And the start of a generational

Cycle of despair.


Further north, in suburbia

The same allegorical bridge:

The threshold, extended,

Includes potted flowers

And wicker and a bridge to

Gap the public and private worlds

In an historical, architectural parable.

Unused, the elaborate presentation is but

A semi-public representation of what lies inside.

The door is opened, only ajar,

Offering an eyeball and a sliver of

A bathrobe, a mumbled no thank you and

A vertical slice of the neatly folded basket of laundry

Lying prostrate at the bottom of the staircase:

The backbone of the Center Hall Colonial,

A vestigial organ of an American Dream.


Somewhere, in between,

The door is opened, and coffee is shared

Over which one discusses socially acceptable topics:

Weather, the headlines, home improvement.

Neighbors admire the passing communal children

Tripping by with their pets and jump ropes.

The smell of roasting onions wafts out to

An outsider’s set of nostrils, enticing one to enter

A more private, intimate realm

Where one removes their shoes, revealing

Striped socks, or, provocative bare toes

That are folded every night into the sheets of

A marital bed.


A door closes, locks, a private dance ensues

Where fear is left outside to freeze.

The next morning, the inhabitant bids adieu to the

Once-welcomed family member,

Spit out from hearth in the same T-shirt in which

She dined, slept, made the morning coffee.

The guest crosses the threshold

Recycled once again into the public world

Where the face grows more stern

But the eyes still reflect the nourishment

Of a private love.

The Postmodern Cache Tucked Under the Bed

Herb and Dorothy Vogel are very well known to those residing in the seemingly exclusive art world. They were avid collectors of contemporary art, obtaining over the course of their marriage a varied cross section of modern works from hundreds of artists. Spanning more than five decades, the collection grew to more than four thousand oeuvres by many obscure artists, as well as a handful of very well recognized ones such a Jean-Claude and Christo, Sol LeWitt and Richard Tuttle (who, for those Braving the Wilds of New Jersey, will appreciate was born in Rahway).

They rented a small one bedroom apartment in Manhattan and took to the business of collecting, amassing, as it were, an impressive cache of contemporary art at a time when these works were finding their own significant place in art history, establishing a new genre in its own rite worthy of catalogue and course. They lived off of Dorothy’s salary alone, and used Herb’s for nothing but collecting art. They had no children, save their art which Dorothy declares they “loved equally as if they were children.” They cared for cats, turtles, fish and piles and piles of art, until their own living space became an art warehouse, storage crates eventually replacing the furniture. There were portfolios neatly stashed under their marriage bed, rumored to have to be raised over the years to accomodate more art.

Lucky for us Americans, during their unassuming life together they became recognized, oddly rubbing shoulders during the decadent ‘80s with other more well-heeled collectors. Artists began to seek them out upon completing an endeavor. Their collecting was a deliberate, educated, steady course that relied on their own personal aesthetic as well as a keen knowledge of the developing world of contemporary art.

They lived simply whilst nurturing a gift: that of a shrewd eye and modest funding for collecting. Out of generous necessity, that collection, which began to push them out of their space, became not a retirement fund but an endowment. They simply gave it all away. And so it is that The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States became one of the largest gifts in the history of American Art. The 2500 works are catalogued on line and in its entirety making it truly accessible for all.

Loose Leaf Notebook Drawings, Box 18, Group 13 R. Tuttle, Water Color on White Lined Notebook Paper Courtesy of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection

Loose Leaf Notebook Drawings, Box 18, Group 13
R. Tuttle, Water Color on White Lined Notebook Paper
Courtesy of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection

It is perhaps the Vogels’ personal relationship with Rahway’s own Richard Tuttle and his minimalist works that is allegorical, representing the Vogels’ married life together: steeped to a perfect strength of “beauty out of humble materials, reflecting the fragility of the world in his poetic works.” (from The Vogels were humble civil servants, Herb a postal worker and Dorothy a public school librarian in Brooklyn, and although they spent some time as newlyweds occupying a rented studio in Union Square to work on their own art, eventually gained more pleasure by collecting others’. Today, they share the beauty of that fragile world with all of us.

Amongst the more controversial works of the collection are Tuttle’s Looseleaf Notebook works, a postminimalist body of work that had been scathingly reviewed by the New York Times as “less has never been as less than this.” Yet his work in its simplistic beauty, offering a gripping and unoffensive, accessible narrative, can be found at other world-renowned museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and The Whitney. Lucky for those of us residing in Montclair, several of his Looseleaf Notebook drawings currently reside at the Montclair Art Museum, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, thanks to the 50×50 Collection.

A scene in the film Herb and Dorothy, recently screened at the Montclair Art Museum as part of the Free First Thursday event, Dorothy carefully thumbs through Tuttle’s Looseleaf Notebook watercolors, her hands carefully enveloped in white cotton curator’s gloves. Tuttle, the creator of some of Dorothy’s figurative art work “children,” was also the one most adamantly opposed to breaking up the collection. He perceived it as a violent and blasphemous act, as tragic as separating the two true stewards of love and beauty, the Vogels themselves. Thankfully for all of us, Tuttle came around to recognize that there was no practical way for such a large collection to remain together and endorsed – actually aided – its redistribution via The National Gallery.

It is a fitting full circle of events that the Vogels spent their Honeymoon in Washington, DC, mostly at the National Gallery of Art, and at the end of their collecting life negotiated with them an agreement by which the same Gallery at which they feted their marriage would provide stewardship of their collection.

Today Dorothy keeps close tabs on each states’ gifts, making sure that each institution exhibits the collection within the agreed upon period of time of five years. She regularly peruses the 50×50 website, ensuring that each work is photographed and downloaded online so that those who are unable to physically visit her “children” can do so by simply logging on. These are the tasks that keep Dorothy busy, as she declares her collecting days over. Now physically separated by the other half of her philanthropic collecting team, as Herb passed in 2012, she now focuses on redecorating her now barren apartment, visiting her donated works, and answering questions as a panelist at 50×50 museums across the country.

When questioned about which work she missed the most, Ms Vogel answered, “I really just miss Herbie.” To add tangibility to her statement: on the sparsely adorned, freshly white-washed walls of her modest apartment hangs one painting she never did get rid of: a 1960s portrait of herself by Herb, modern and representational, simplistic and beautiful as the nature of their lives together, and of the collection they so generously gifted to all of us.

Sharing the Table

Jean Shin’s evocative, allegorical sculpture “Host,” gracing the grounds of the The Montclair Art Museum, offers a distinctive glimpse into our unique suburban culture.  The piece consists of three segments of a tree: its stump, a log and a beautifully natural branch, standing upright lending the feel of a living sapling reaching for the sun.  It is made largely of donated flatware given by members of our community.  Stainless steel, plated silver, perhaps even a cast-off lone solid silver piece, no longer useful to an individual family, now feed an entire community and blind passers- and drivers-by with reflected brilliance.

Ms Shin, a Brooklyn artist commissioned by the Museum to commemorate its Centennial, is known for her work with cast off objects: a wall mural made of well-worn computer keys, houses constructed of scratch-off lottery tickets, a billowing sculpture made of umbrellas.  But “Host” is unique in that it touches upon an important connection to the natural and cultural functions of familial society: the act of breaking bread together.  It is how we physically sustain our human bodies, an avenue for teaching culture to our children, and a way to connect with our loved ones at the end of a long day.

In a typical American suburb, perhaps the act of sharing a meal together often involves more plastic sporks than unique pieces of flatware long missing their place setting mates.  But in Montclair, a town that boasts a fabulous farmers market, several community supported agricultural associations, even a Chicken Keepers Collective, the more formal flatware fits.  Beautifully.  We feed our souls as well as our bodies here, fabulous restaurants of various ethnicity abound, and local authors write about the importance of good food in their own families.  (For a feast, pick up a copy of Laura Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken.)

The donated silver is imbedded in an allegorical tree whose three parts represent a larger reality.  The stump signifies the tragic but necessary fallout of felling one, and Shin’s representation contains carefully bent knives curling around in circles that shape its imagined history.  An observer of the piece as physical object can’t help but wonder who used the simplistic butter knife or the one with the curlicued handle to smear his or her lemon curd onto a freshly baked blueberry scone, clotted cream onto a buttermilk biscuit.  It might have been difficult for the person to part with what might have been once construed as an heirloom, but did so in excitement that it would become part of a larger reality, a literal piece of art.  Perhaps the formerly cherished piece of flatware pitted from being placed in the dishwasher with everyday stainless pieces.  The silver plated pieces, with the floral motif,  no longer held the same warm significance after a difficult divorce.  Yet together, the cast-offs have changed in shape and significance.

The silver log is destined for celestial building projects.  Representing the Christ-like quality of a tree as gift to humanity: its own life so that others may live.  The branch is the tree in its original, natural and awe-inspiring state, its off shoots symbolizing the family and life itself.  One branch culminates in a fork, another a soup spoon, suggesting autumnal changes in its life cycle, having shed some of its “leaves”.  True to natural forces, the viewer is teased into wondering if in the Spring, the spoon bud will burst forth in full-forked bloom by May in Montclair celebrations.

Certainly none of David Schiller or Asa Miraglia’s flatware went to Shin’s work.  Unique Hosts in their own rite, David and Asa throw dinner parties for charity, charging attendees a small fee, all of which go to local food pantries to feed the hungry in our community.  “Sharing the Table” they call their movement, by which they serve their fabulous cooking with “friends new and old” over a leisurely dinner that offers a “unique vibe” at every party.  Interested parties should join their e-mailing list and be quick on the reply button; dinners fill within an hour of the e-mail invitation landing in the in box.  Which is why David and Asa need ALL their superfluous flatware: for their own works of art, delicious and representational of our charitable and life-loving community.

A Connecticut Yankee in a New Jersey Food Court

There has been an eighteen year-long debate between the two main parties of my marriage. This heated exchange – that shows no signs of letting up – concerns two of our original colonies, now the great states of Connecticut and New Jersey. One party claims each as home, and each party claims his or her home is superior. Although one party must admit that any real intimate connection to the Constitution State is fading, spending only fair weathered days on its lakesides, simply paying a visit for a pleasant reunion. None of the hard daily living is done there any longer, so perhaps a bit of leverage should be given to the Garden State. One can obtain hard feelings towards the setting of hard challenges, guilt by mere association.

Yet the Nutmeggers from afar still appear to be tip toeing through Shangri-La, the land of lower taxes, bucolic farm land and the UCONN Women’s basketball team. No one there has to deal with children with learning difficulties (because, like the fabled Minnesota town, all the children are above average), commuting on sub-par rail lines, or Garden State Parkway traffic. (Of course at this point of the essay, the Other Party would interject that The Nutmeg State is a sobriquet referring to a less-than-stellar personality trait of those early inhabitants of the not-so-great State of Connecticut who sold wooden nutmeg to unsuspecting traders. But I unnecessarily digress…)

Here in New Jersey, we fret with each coming storm, knowing our power will be knocked out. We are sure Tony Soprano DOES live amongst us and wonder what is actually emanating from those smoke stacks in Elizabeth. Carcinogens, for sure. There is no wonder why New York City’s boroughs extended to the north and east, and not west: a fetid swamp mislabeled “The Meadowlands”. Sure, on the other side of it are rolling hills and lovely farms, but no matter. Somehow New Jersey still ended up to be the land of tasteless, overly fancified everything, big hair and nail salons.

The Other Party here would interject that there seems to be voluminous hair tangled through the pages of my own Connecticut high school year book and last he visited, he noticed a plethora of nail salons on the main drag of my hometown, where subs are grinders and we take a day trip to the beach, but never go “down da shore.” We never associate where we live by the exit on a super highway, but perhaps driving time from Downtown Hartford. As in, “We’re 20 minutes from City limits…” I would capitalize on the simplicity of the typical New Englander, the need for little, the frugal nature of their lives.

The Other Party would point out the Gold Coast of Fairfield County, where the homes in Greenwich look like hotels. I would respond with the former slave plantations along the Navesink River. The Other Party would point out how the original Puritanical harshness of Connecticut Colony forced many to flee, seeking true religious freedom in West New Jersey, where the Quakers took hold and proudly lauded separation of Church and State.

I respond with: Those bygone Puritanical theocracies left us a smattering of quaint Connecticut town greens, centered around a beautiful white washed church, innocuous now that we have accomplished disestablishmentarianism! How can that compare to the numerous strip malls, retail malls and pedestrian malls of New Jersey? The Other Party would point out The Danbury Fair and West Farms Malls. I would shoot back that there are more malls per capita in New Jersey than any other state in the Union, although I am not really sure that’s true. And they all have food courts! Big ones…

An honest admission: I have eaten in a food court. I have also had my toenails polished and even called a sandwich on a hero roll a sub. I remarked upon my first week in Montclair, as I led my children across Valley Road with the help of a charming retiree-turned-crossing guard to picturesque Edgemont Park to lead them to their public Montessori School: I half expect to see Jimmy Stewart running by, waving a throaty hello, offering to lasso the moon for my children. This New Jersey town is as lovely as my Connecticut one. The people that populate it have proven to be a dynamic community that has welcomed this foreigner with open arms.

I have enjoyed writing about Montclair and will continue to do so, although my posts will become more sporadic as I start a new project, research for a piece of historical fiction about Acadia in New France, Canada. Since a first contact story between a Frenchman and a Mi’kmaq Indian woman is part of my own history, the project has been floating about in the form of a nagging spouse in my head for some time now. I have to answer.

Finally, a public apology offered to The Other Party, who, when he has appeared on Connecticut soil, has been not-so-kindly referred to by certain members of my family as the “Non-Native Invasive Species” these last 16 years. I have felt nothing of the sort here.