The Fall To-Do List

I’m guilty of making too many lists of things I need to do. This weekend I got an email with suggested fall things to do. Along with the usual autumn list (fall foliage leaf peeping, apple and pumpkin picking, apple cider and donuts, Halloween-ish things), there were some others that I already do this time of year but probably are not on everyone’s lists. That’s if you have any lists. You don’t have lists? I envy you a bit.

For so many years of my life, September meant back to school, either as a student or teacher that I can’t help but think about that even though I’m no longer in classrooms. I still have school dreams. I still like watching movies about some schools – Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Cub, and Good Will Hunting, for example. Or maybe a fall football film, such as Rudy or Remember the Titans. There are films that just have a kind of autumn aesthetic, like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “When Harry Met Sally.” I’ve lost some of my interest in Halloween and scary movies but that makes some lists.

I spend a lot of time outside in September and October and always hope to continue working in the garden in November if frosts and winter don’t arrive. People like to decorate their homes with fall chrysanthemums, dianthus, black-eyed Susans, and pansies, but I prefer the optimism of planting in fall for next spring. As I dig up cannas and gladiolus I am also planting tulips, daffodils, peonies, and Shasta daisies.

My mental fall list also has things that might not be any “official lists.” ( I wrote a short poem this morning about that.) One such item is something that often appears on this site – nighttime celestial events. On a cool night, I will pour a warming drink, start up the fire pit, and sit outside looking for the Draconids and Orionids meteor showers in October and the South Taurids, North Taurids, and Leonids meteor showers in November. It is often cloudy and sometimes even on a clear night I won’t see any “falling stars” because of light pollution. But sitting there is a bit like fishing for me. You don’t have to catch a fish or a meteor for the time to be enjoyable.

Finally, my favorite spontaneous autumn thing is taking a drive to nowhere special but somewhere rural. Yesterday, we drove north and ended up near Warwick, New York after driving through many farms and fields and where I walked years ago on the Appalachian Trail. We ended up at a brewery for a beer and lunch. It is early for foliage but lots of people were out apple and pumpkin picking, taking kids on a little hay ride, and going through corn mazes. I love an unplanned stop to see a view, take a photo, and buy some cider and donuts. The air was cool and clean with a hint of someone’s fire or some ribs smoking.

It does feel like autumn. The equinox untitlted the Earth. How are you feeling?

The Summer I Read Colette

I think my only earlier connection with the writer Colette was watching the 1958 musical film Gigi. It stars Leslie Caron and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is based on a 1944 novella by Colette about a young Parisian girl being groomed for a career as a courtesan. She has a relationship with the wealthy cultured man named Gaston who falls in love with her and eventually marries her. It was also a play that starred the yet unknown Audrey Hepburn, and then another play based on the film (Lerner and Loewe) which is described as the “unexpurgated 1973 stage musical” that was not a hit on Broadway but was still revived on Broadway in 2015.

My more recent contact with Colette came through watching a 2018 biography film, Colette, directed by Wash Westmoreland and starring Keira Knightley.

I read that the film was “inspired” by her early “Claudine” novels: Claudine at School; Claudine in Paris; Claudine Married; Claudine and Annie. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was pushed by her first husband, Willy, to ghostwrite novels based on her own youth.

My wife, who studied in France and taught French, said that she read those novels when she was in high school.
“Were they any good?” I asked.
“They seemed pretty good when I was 16.”

So I thought I’d give one a chance and I got the audiobook of Claudine at School. She was right. It would be a pretty good book if I was a 16-year-old girl in high school. In the novel, Claudine is smart, cultured, sarcastic, and a little ahead of her schoolmates and teachers. It is a somewhat flirtatious tale that probably was considered more than that in 1900.

That book and its sequels were published with her husband, Willy, listed as the author. The books were very popular and should have made Colette immediately a well-known author. But she only becomes recognized as a writer in her own right with her book about her music hall experiences, The Vagabond (La Vagabonde, 1910), which was published under her name.

Colette costumed for “Rêve d’Egypte”at the Moulin Rouge Link

The young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette began an affair with Willy (the pen name of Henry Gauthier-Villars) and he brought her to Paris as his bride. He considered himself to be a “literary entrepreneur” and employed a number of ghostwriters to write for him and asked Colette to write for him too.

Colette wrote a draft of Claudine à l’école based on her own life, but Willy rejected it. Still, when he is in debt, he took out the draft, suggested revisions which she made, and the novel was published. He did not expect it to be a bestseller. Not surprisingly, but surprising at that time, it attracted a large female readership. Delighted, Willy tells his publisher a sequel is almost finished. There is no sequel. Willy buys a country house with his new money and his anticipated wealth. He locks Colette in a room there and forces her to write. She initially objects but ends up writing Claudine à Paris which is another bestseller.

Colette’s books are often described as racy or erotic. In real life, Colette had a lesbian affair with Georgie Raoul-Duval. When the jealous Willy finds out, he also has an affair with Georgie. This inspires Colette’s next novel, Claudine en ménage (translated as Claudine Married).

Though the Claudine books earned a lot of money, the copyright belonged to Willy. Colette and Willy separated in 1906 and divorced in 1910. She made her living on stage in music halls across France. She even portrayed Claudine in sketches from her novels. But her earnings were minimal and she was often hungry and ill.

She had a number of relationships with other women, something that had actually been encouraged by Willy. One of those affairs was with the gender-ambiguous Mathilde de Morny (who was born female but presented as the male “Max” and sometimes as the female “Missy”). They prepared an act and a 1907 onstage kiss between Max and Colette in a pantomime entitled “Rêve d’Égypte” caused a near-riot at the Moulin Rouge. The outrage made Willy believe that her books’ sales would crash, so he sold all the rights to the Claudine books for 5,000 francs without Colette’s knowledge.

That was when Colette decided to divorce him. Willy told an employee to burn the Claudine manuscripts, but the man returned them to Colette instead. She turned to journalism and photography and chronicled this period of her life in La Vagabonde which is about women’s independence in a male society.

Colette’s numerous biographers have proposed widely differing interpretations of her life and work over the decades. Initially considered a limited if talented novelist, she has been increasingly recognized as an important voice in women’s writing.

“The Summer I Read Colette” by Rosanne Cash
from Songs Inspired by Literature
see lyrics

A New Season Falls into Place

September is the ninth month of the Gregorian calendar, but the month’s name is derived from septem, Latin for “seven,” which was its position in the early Roman calendar.

September is the month of the Autumnal Equinox which occurs on the 22nd at 9:03 PM. Is it always on September 22nd? In the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox falls on September 22 or 23. In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinox occurs on March 20 or 21.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the equinox is when the Sun crosses the celestial equator going south. In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinox is when the Sun moves north across the celestial equator.

Today we move into autumn, also known as fall in North American English. Which word do you tend to use? The origin of “autumn” and “fall” for the season is interesting. Did you know that at one time (and still in some places) the season is called “Harvest?”

This transitional period from summer to winter is when (unless you’re in the tropics) daylight becomes noticeably shorter and the temperature cools considerably. This is best known as the time when the leaves of deciduous trees change colors as they prepare to shed. Early predictions for Paradelle here in the northeast is that a lack of rain this summer will mean a less-than-spectacular color foliage show.

Temperatures now seem to switch between summer heat and winter chills, but that is true only in middle and high latitudes. In equatorial regions, temperatures generally vary little during the year, and in polar regions, autumn is very short.

Old Man Hemingway

Henry “Mike” Strater and Ernest Hemingway with an “apple-cored” marlin. Bimini, Cat Cay, 1935. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain

In September 1952, Ernest Hemingway’s last novel, The Old Man and the Sea, was published. It was the last novel published during his lifetime and it was cited when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

I read that book in eighth grade. I had an overly ambitious or optimistic English teacher who had bought copies of that novel and Steinbeck’s The Pearl and The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Orwell’s Animal Farm and other “short books (novellas) by great authors.” She wanted to introduce us to literature and famous writers before we went to high school. I read all of them that year. I didn’t understand all of what I read, but it was influential. And she loved me for reading them.

It worked with me. I went on to read several other books by those two writers on my own that year and many others in the years that followed. I recall liking The Red Pony as I was going through a horseback riding phase and the other two books seemed a bit preachy to me. I went back to all three books eventually and Hemingway’s novel now is the one that is the strongest.

Ernest Hemingway had been working on a very long novel that he called The Sea Book. It was inspired by that WWII period when he was on his Pilar fishing boat looking for submarines in his attempt to be part of the war. That original manuscript was in three sections: “The Sea When Young,” “The Sea When Absent,” and “The Sea in Being.” It had an epilogue about an old fisherman.

Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream (1970). Hemingway also mentions the real-life experience of an old fisherman that seems almost identical to that of Santiago and his marlin in “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter” published in Esquire magazine in April 1936.

He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn’t seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue on its own which he called The Old Man and the Sea.

The novella begins, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” It tells the story of Santiago who catches the biggest fish of his life, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get back to shore.

The Old Man and the Sea was written while Hemingway was living in Cayo Blanco, Cuba, and Santiago is an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba.

I have always thought that this old man’s struggles had to be connected to Hemingway’s own struggles as a writer and with the deep depression at the end of his life. Without getting all literary symbols about it, I think the marlin is his writing career as he tries to bring in one more “big book” and goes a long time without doing so. The little book he does publish is good but, like the remains of the marlin that makes it back to Cuba, it is just a part of a much larger work.

The novella is not my favorite Hemingway writing, but it is a good first read for someone who has not read him and wonders why he is considered such an important American writer.

Dr. Williams, Jersey Poet

Williams in his 1921 passport photo

It’s the birthday of poet William Carlos Williams, born in Rutherford, New Jersey, on September 17, 1883. He the first of two sons of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother of French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish ancestry. Growing up in New Jersey, I was interested in Jersey poets when I was in high school and discovered Williams through a used copy of his Selected Poems that I found at a yard sale. Seeing that it was his birthday, I took that old paperback off my shelf and read some breath into his poems again.

When Williams was in high school he decided he wanted to be both a poet and a doctor and saw no clash between the two professions. He pursued both vocations with equal passion for the rest of his life. He wrote poems on the back of prescription slips, and he drew from the passions and pain of the patients he visited in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City and, later, in his practice in Rutherford.

In my high school days, I fell under the spell of his contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and poetry that “sounded like poetry” and that took some digging to understand. I found Williams’ poems oddly simple and almost “not poetry.”

Apparently, Williams admired those poets too but found them “too European.” But along with Pound and H.D., he is considered a leading poet of the Imagist movement. It became his aim to capture a uniquely American voice. He wanted to use the plain speech of the local people whose lives he became part of in his medical practice.

In the second half of my poetic life, I lost interest in the most “poetic” poets and found my reading and writing closer to Williams, though more narrative in form.

The sixteen-word unrhymed poem from 1923 below is among Williams’ most famous poems.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

“The Red Wheelbarrow” should be called  ‘XXII’ since it’s the 22nd poem to appear in Williams’ 1923 collection Spring and All and that is how it was listed in that collection – but everyone refers to it as “The Red Wheelbarrow.” When I first became really interested in Williams, this poem intrigued me. It is so simple and yet its “meaning” is not so easy to explain.  That wheelbarrow is a metonym for something greater. The fact that it is “glazed” by rainwater is very much “Imagist.”

Williams’ poetic reputation was slow to form because it was a time Eliot’s “The Waste Land” was considered the pinnacle of English poetry. It was in the 1940s and beyond that Williams gained wider recognition, and his five-volume poem Paterson, (1946 – 1958) is considered his masterpiece.

It is a much more complex and difficult poem on first reading. (It is available online if you can read text on a screen – I can’t, so I prefer to read it on the paper page.) Yes, in high school, I took a copy of it to read beside the Great Falls of Paterson, New Jersey feeling very much a poet myself. Corny Romanticism, I suppose, but I still visit those falls quite regularly, without his book but usually with my notebook and camera.

But another of his best-known poems is this very short one that reads like a note left for his wife.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poem is very much “modernist and imagist” and so we look at it as dealing with temptation, guilt, and life’s simple pleasures as he apologizes and yet doesn’t apologize.

This post is not to say that all of his poems are so simple on the surface or difficult to understand as poems.

Take this opening of his straight ahead and rather erotic poem “Arrival.”

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom–
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles…

And I do love the idea of and this line “Who shall say I am not the happy genius of my household?” from his poem “Danse Russe.”

He certainly was a prolific poet. His Collected Poems take two volumes.

This post originally appeared on my poetry blog
connected to the website for POETS ONLINE.

Car-Free Zones

I live in a small northern New Jersey town but lately, I notice more often how intense the traffic is around the commuter and school hours. I don’t spend as much time in big cities but when I am there I am overwhelmed by traffic.

Adding more streets and more parking to accommodate cars is one reaction, but a more radical movement is pushing to ban cars in dense city areas. This would give more space for bike lanes, bus routes and pedestrian plazas while also reducing noise and air pollution.

I was in Paris in June and I never drove but when I was on a bus or walking I was amazed by the traffic. I can’t imagine ever driving there comfortably. Paris is another city resorting to drastic and controversial traffic-restriction measures. 

Photo by Joey Lu on

This is not a totally new movement. Copenhagen, Denmark, began putting the environment at the top of the agenda after the 1970s oil crisis and made urban planning laws that redefined the city’s public space and promoted cycling rather than driving. They have also proposed car-free Sundays.

They put a sales tax of 180% on any new car – a car worth $40,000 will actually cost you $100,000 to drive away. Former car parks have been turned into public spaces and pedestrian zones. That is radical and you can imagine the backlash if American cities did the same thing. But many cities, such as New York City, are experimenting with congestion pricing to discourage car use during the big commuter times.

America has a car-dependency problem. Watch a video about this