No Time for Tricks ~ No Taste for Treats

With goblins, ghoulies, and ghosties skulking along the edge of consciousness. and with every horror movie that refuses to die — Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca — being pulled from its grave, it must be Halloween.

While more sensitive little ones delight in dressing up as princesses or pirates, blood is dripping and body parts are piling up for the vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable creatures of the night who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil terror. 

Apparently, there’s gold in them thar dismemberments. From neighborhood haunted houses to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone  is trying to take a bite out of the consumer.  Since we love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it doesn’t count, the witches’ brew of  Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats, and whacked-out pumpkins makes Halloween our perfect holiday. All those sugar highs are lagniappe.

In a season dedicated not only to thinning the veil between life and death, but also to ripping it asunder, one of the most unlikely purveyors of horror is the American poet, Carl Sandburg

Sandburg isn’t much in favor these days. He’s too common, too plain-spoken.  In his own time, he wasn’t considered particularly literary. Today, he might well be left out of most symposia and cocktail parties.  But his vision was sharp, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged his debt to the workers and builders, families and business people who knit this country together.

After decades of ignoring his work, I began thinking again of Sandburg after the devastation of Hurricane Ike.  Standing in the midst of tossed boats and shredded houses, the words which resonated were his: the introduction to the gripping Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind.  “Yesterday” was gone, indeed: along with Bolivar Penninsula,  a goodly portion of Galveston, and the security of people up and down the coast.  “What of it?”  asked the woman named Tomorrow.  “Let the dead be dead.”

Whenever I’ve pitted Sandburg against Faulkner on the nature of time, both past and future, Faulkner always won.  Sandburg felt too bleak, too resigned, too dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life.  When Faulkner gave Gavin Stevens the line, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” the tone seemed to me quite different: more attuned to my own experience of reality.But both men are communicating truth, and it’s Sandburg’s truth I consider today.

In recent months, as economic devastation, social upheaval, and political crosscurrents have surged their way through our national life, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Sandburg. He couldn’t have known, when he published his works so many years ago, what form his beloved country would have taken years hence. And yet his words are chilling, nearly prescient: as sharp and timely as though he meant to speak them precisely to us, the countrymen and women he never would know.

A Lincoln scholar, a lover of history, a straightforward man of integrity who could touch the hearts of his contemporaries,  Sandburg should speak to us today. Let the thrill seekers crowd into their theatres, and the living dead prowl their haunted houses.  Let the role players smear their blood and the would-be vampires try for a second bite. This Halloween, I’m tired of tricks, and I don’t need the treats that are being offered. I’d rather see my country clear-eyed, hear the poet speak, and share his unmasked words with those who dare face our own unnerving horrors. 

Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind

Carl Sandburg ~ 1922
The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.
The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
and paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
…and the only listeners left now
are…the rats…and the lizards.
And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,”
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are…the rats…and the lizards.

The feet of the rats
scribble on the doorsills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a doorsill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

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82 thoughts on “No Time for Tricks ~ No Taste for Treats

  1. 1922, huh? Wow. Hubris comes before nemesis and there are, unfortunately, more hubristic Americans than not. Nature bats last and Wendell Berry was right. Thanks for a most thoughtful post!

    1. I suppose it’s my midwestern roots, but Sandburg’s always been there, even when I neglected him. He certainly is more than fog and little cat feet, and some of the best funny tales for kids that there are. Sometimes I marvel at how much the world has changed since 1922, and sometimes I realize it hasn’t changed at all.


  2. Wow. Great post as always, Linda. Sandburg’s poem is a stunning slap in the face. An American Ozymandias.
    And your comment above– “Sometimes I marvel at how much the world has changed since 1922, and sometimes I realize it hasn’t changed at all” is all so true. We seem to live to repeat the patterns of the past, even the failed ones. It is who we are.

    1. I thought of Ozymandias, too, Gary. And I’ve been thinking a good bit about history: especially about what they say about those who chose to forget it. Sometimes it seems as though we’ve got a forced choice between the path of least resistance and that road that’s paved with good intentions. But maybe, just maybe, there’s another road — one like those you paint, that actually lead somewhere new.


      1. I also thought of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

        I met a traveller from an antique land,
        Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
        Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
        Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
        And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
        Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
        Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
        The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
        And on the pedestal, these words appear:
        My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
        Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
        Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
        Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
        The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

        There are ruins in many places that tell a similar story. Among the first I ever saw in person were the Mayan ones at Tikal (Guatemala) and Copán (Honduras). When I went there in the 1960s, most archaeologists thought the carvings represented deities, but now it’s known that most were kings doing their boasting in stone like Ozymandias. All are equally gone.

        1. There’s nothing quite like discovering another gap in my knowledge. Of course I’ve known about the Inca, the Maya, and the Aztec, but your mention of them here, and the reading I’ve done since, has revealed an ignorance that comes pretty close to abysmal. I’m not using “ignorance” perjoratively. I simply never have been exposed to those cultures in any kind of detailed way, or been moved to explore them. What I’ve found is amazing. .

          One of the best introductory sites I found for Copán is this one. I think one of the reasons it’s so good can be found on the About Us page. “Us” actually is one person — Anibal Villatoro — and the site clearly is a labor of love. Makes a difference.

          Anyway, thanks for steering me into all that. Once I’ve learned a bit more, I’ll make a trip into Houston to the museums, and see some of their exhibits.

          As for the history behind “Ozymandias”, I thought this was interesting and amusing:

          “Shelley and Smith remembered the Roman-era historian Diodorus Siculus, who described a statue of Ozymandias, more commonly known as Rameses II (possibly the pharaoh referred to in the Book of Exodus). Diodorus reports the inscription on the statue, which he claims was the largest in Egypt, as follows: “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.” (The statue and its inscription do not survive, and were not seen by Shelley; his inspiration for “Ozymandias” was verbal rather than visual.)

          “Stimulated by their conversation, Smith and Shelley wrote sonnets based on the passage in Diodorus. Smith produced a now-forgotten poem with the unfortunate title “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” Shelley’s contribution was “Ozymandias,” one of the best-known sonnets in European literature.”

          The monuments are different now, but it’s a fact that the impulses behind their building haven’t much changed.Thanks for pointing that out in a different context, and for piquing my curiosity.


          1. The site you linked to made me nostalgic for Copán, which I haven’t been to for three dozen years now. And aren’t those Catherwood illustrations wonderful? I haven’t looked at those for a good while either.

            Thanks for the story about Shelley and Smith and the background of “Ozymandias.” All of that was new to me.

  3. Grandson is reading from the Magic Tree House series “Abe Lincoln at Last,” by Mary Pope Osborne. On the dedication page she includes a quote by Carl Sandburg, “Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is hard as rock and soft as driving fog…” I can’t help but think that similar words could be spoken of Sandburg, not as an historical figure but for the literary influence he brought in the 1920’s, especially after reading this poem.

    I want to read more: more of the Rootabaga Stories, the American Songbook and his biography of Lincoln. He cared so much about our country in message and deed. The Rootabaga Stories that you have mentioned before in other posts attests to that in that he created not just fairy tales, but American fairy tales.

    1. There are words from Sandburg himself that might support that steel-and-velvet metaphor, Georgette. In “The People, Yes,” Sandburg writes:

      “A tough will counts. So does desire.
      So does a rich soft wanting.
      Without rich wanting nothing arrives.”

      Sometimes, I wonder if we as a nation understand either willing or wanting: especially that “rich soft wanting” he so beautifully describes. We’re very good at wishing and consuming, but those are different things.

      In any event, “The People, Yes” is a great tonic for certain ailments. Here’s a snipped about Lincoln from the poem:

      He was a mystery in smoke and flags
      Saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
      Yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
      Yes to the hopes of government
      Of the people by the people for the people,
      No to debauchery of the public mind,
      No to personal malice nursed and fed,
      Yes to the Constitution when a help,
      No to the Constitution when a hindrance
      Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
      Each man fated to answer for himself:
      Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
      Must I choose for my own sustaining light
      To bring me beyond the present wilderness?”


  4. Recently I have had the urge to re-read the Rootabaga Stories, which happen to be the Sandburg that I’ve had the most exposure to, though I did own his biography of Lincoln at one time. Your post is provoking in a good way; thank you for reviving a poem that does seem all too fresh. The grandmother metaphor is powerful.

    1. Coming as I do from a generation familiar with the rituals of hair-pinning, the beginning of the poem always has been evocative for me. I see my own mother and grandmother before their mirrors, making sure each pin was in place, gossiping and musing over the passage of time.

      The “Rootabaga Stories” are delightful. If you decide to dip into a bit more of Sandburg, there are resources galore, like this online collection of his Chicago Poems. “The People, Yes” is another wonder. Even though it’s long, it’s easy to take in small doses.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for commenting. I appreciate it.


  5. Both writers give the glare of reality that is uncomfortably harsh for many readers these days. Do you think in the future they will be thought of like we think of older sci-fi authors – seeing with objective eyes far ahead of their times?
    Outstanding choice of illustrations – as “heavy” as the words. (They don’t say that any more, do they, but words like Sandburg’s have weight, so it seems to fit).

    So ready for all the zombies/vampires – especially the whimpy ones – to leave the stage…YAWN and annoying…new ideas- new “trendy” things – soon, please!…next is the Christmas movies that also played over and over during the summer.

    Powerful post. Haunting – for good reasons

    1. Goodness, Phil. I can’t figure out what’s going on today — predicting the future is utterly beyond me. I will say that attitudes and practices which seemed unbearably old-fashioned to me in my early twenties have been revealed over the years for what they are: valuable ways of being human, and being in community.

      I suppose for some people Faulkner’s too southern, and Sandburg’s unbearably industrial-age. No matter. They’ll be around long after no one remembers the Kardashians.

      I confess that “A Christmas Story” plays over and over around here during The Season, but it’s entirely too soon. I nearly walked out of Randalls when I discovered their floral department stocked with all things Christmas. Poor Thanksgiving doesn’t have a chance.

      Thanks for the good words. And watch for flying veggies!


  6. Unfortunately for me, I only remember Mr. Sandburg very faintly from high school literature classes. Glad to have my education continue by your thought-provoking post.

    All of Halloween’s tricks and treats have grown to huge proportions — at least of what I can see in my everyday commute. It will be a visual relief when Saturday comes :-)

    1. As I recall, we were introduced to hm through his short poem about the fog coming in on little cat feet, as an example of metaphor. And of course, being midwestern, he was thought to be one of “our” poets, especially through his Chicago poems, and most especially through his poem called “Chicago,” which celebrated the city as:

      “Hog Butcher for the World,
      Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
      Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
      Stormy, husky, brawling,
      City of the Big Shoulders…”

      There’s no question he helped to make us proud of who we were.

      As for the over-the-topness of the day, I’m mostly with you. But I have quite a fondness for this house at an intersection I pass every day. (One of my neighbors and blog friends took the photo.) There are several trees hung with these jack-o-lanterns and assorted ghosts, and they’ve done it for years. After Hurricane Ike roared through one September, the decorations still went up in October. It was wonderful.


      1. I like those hanging lanterns :-) Creative decoration always brings a smile. There was one house on a residential street I used to pass when I worked six miles from home (instead of the 26 today) that somehow had access to a lot of mannequins, each one decked out in a full costume from policeman to superman to ghosts and vampires. Each day in October brought a new character to a position in the front yard.

        And thanks for the further examples of CS and his influences.

  7. Sandburg is a name I know, but I know very little about his work. The Four Preludes is frightening… did he sense the Depression coming? When I googled for information on Sandberg I found this “When a nation goes down or a society perishes, one condition may always be found – they forgot where they came from.”

    The way in which Halloween is celebrated now is a forgetting of where it came from; where we came from. Are we perishing? I hope not but it wouldn’t hurt us to stop and pay attention, and to consider the idea that, yes, indeed, nations can go down.

    1. Personally, the word I would use to describe this work by Sandburg is “bracing.” It was written at a time when the world just had emerged from two disasters — WWI and the flu pandemic of 1918. Given his convictions about the importance of history, I suspect (although I don’t know for certain) that the poem is Sandburg’s way of saying, “Now that you’ve seen it, don’t forget it.”

      In context, the dialogue between the woman named Tomorrow and the Grandmother, Yesterday, becomes understandable, and the line, “Let the dead be dead.” is piercing. Figures vary, but it’s generally agreed that 37 million people died in WWI, and 20-40 million died in the 1918 pandemic. That’s a lot of people to dismiss with, “Let the dead be dead.”

      There’s a great human tendency toward denial. The reasoning often goes like this: “It won’t happen, and if it does happen, it won’t happen here, and if it does happen here, it won’t affect me.” I’ve found Sandburg’s poem a worthy nudge toward a different way of thinking: “What are they telling me about events in my world? What do I see happening in my world? What am I going to do about it?”

      Sandburg certainly wasn’t all gloom and doom. He seems, at heart, a great optimist, and nothing’s more optimistic than this excerpt from “The People, Yes.”


      1. Yes, there is optimism in that excerpt from The People, Yes. And , surely, a person who writes Rootabaga Stories has to be an optimist. When reading older poems it is easy to forget context; for me anyway. It does make a difference to know context. I am not reading anything “New Zealand” at the moment but I keep thinking, in these same months in 1918, 8,000 New Zealanders died. The numbers are staggering. The epidemic on top of the war must have affected every aspect of NZ life, but ,yes, with a great bundle of grief, the people did live on.

        1. When I checked the death toll for the flu pandemic, I saw the figure for New Zealand. I have to think some of our own military leaders, who support temporary quarantines for soldiers serving in Ebola hot zones, have stumbled across the relationship between the WWI and the pandemic, too.

          It does please my “both/and” self to know that the Rootabaga Stories and this poem both were published in 1922. It’s a nice refutation of the argument some make that what writers produce necessarily reflects their internal state. There couldn’t be a better example of a great writer addressing different audiences in wonderfully different ways.

          And have you seen this, from the storyteller himself?

          “[The storyteller] knows, it seems, that young people are young no matter how many years they live; that there are children born old and brought up to be full of fear; that a young heart keeps young by a certain measure of fooling as the years go by; that men and women old in years sometimes keep a fresh child heart and, to the last, salute the dawn and the morning with a mixture of reverence and laughter.”

          1. That is a wonderful quote. I would like to hug Sandburg for that piece of wisdom. I am also intrigued that there seems to have been a fairy tale renaissance in the early 1920s. That is just going by the number of books I have found on fairy tales with publication dates around the 1920s. Any fairy tale experts out there who could verify this???

            1. I don’t know any officially sanctioned fairy tale experts, but I do know a couple of people who might (as they say) have a clue. I’ll make some inquiries.

    2. It took me a while to track down that Sandburg quotation: “When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found: they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along.” I finally found a source that identified it as being from Remembrance Rock, Sandburg’s only novel.

      I don’t know how education is faring in New Zealand, but it’s discouragingly common in America to find high school “graduates” who know very little of this country’s history.

      1. Thanks for that Steve. My children are well out of the NZ education system now so I have lost track of what is currently happening. I expect most NZ students would have some knowledge of their country’s history. Not much of it was taught to my peer group. We knew all about British history and quite a lot of world history but NZ history was an optional extra! As for NZ literature and poetry…we were taught very little of that. Again the focus was on British literature with a smattering of American classics.

        1. I’m sorry to hear you weren’t taught much NZ history, but at least you learned about Britain and the world in general. The same American “graduates: who know little about their country’s history know even less about the history of the rest of the world. If you show American students a world map with the outlines of all the countries but no names, most of those students can’t pick out even major countries. Discouraging, as I said.

          1. As I said, I don’t know exactly what students are taught nowadays but I fear we may have swung too much in the other direction. That is, students may know about NZ history but their grasp of other histories or world history may not be as good as it once was.

          2. Never mind the rest of the world. Far too few Houston students know any states other than the one they live in, the one that’s home to their favorite sports team, and perhaps the one where Grandma lives. There was an interesting “man on the street” bit a while back where people were asked to name as many U.S. states as they could, and put the names on a piece of paper in a rough approximation of their location on a map.

            All I remember is that the results were terrible. I tried it myself this morning, and forgot Massachusetts, Indiana, and Rhode Island. I could line up every state west of the Mississippi exactly where it belongs. I did all right with the SE and the first tier of states east of the Mississippi but New England was a different matter. Maine is easy, but NH, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland still are a blur. At least I know their names, even if I don’t know exactly where they are in relationship to one another.

            1. Having grown up in New York (and having collected road maps as a hobby), I never had any doubts about which state is where in New England or the mid-Atlantic.

              Granted, I was unusually aware, but there’s no question that kids today know almost no geography, alas.

      2. Thanks for tracking that down, Steve. I’ve heard of “Remembrance Rock,” but never gave it any attention. At 1,100 pages, it’s a bit of a rock, itself. When I looked it up, I was pleased to see that a Thomas Hart Benton painting, “Landing on Plymouth Rock,” was used for the cover in at least one edition. It’s a good pairing.

    1. Being the strange creature I am, I do find much of Sandburg’s work comforting — strangely, even this. I hope you found some comfort here, in his words, Z. And know that we’re all thinking of you and El Matal. It’s such a hard thing to watch.


  8. Your photos illustrate the feeling of Sandburg’s words perfectly. We like to wear rose-colored glasses. It’s painful to stop and consider the real picture, the real story, the hard things. But important, like your post today. Thanks, Linda.

    1. Sometimes we take off our rose-colored glasses, and sometimes life reaches out and rips them off. It isn’t necessarily a good experience, and we’re quite capable of demanding, “Gimme back those glasses!”

      But even when reality seems at its worst, there can be signs of hope. One of the best visual metaphors for the experience is this photo of Bolivar Peninsula after Hurricane Ike. There are lessons there, many having to do with how to build a house in a hurricane-prone area.

      More than a few people kept this image around while they were rebuilding their homes. I suppose there are lessons their for people building lives, too.


  9. It’s stunning to realize Sandburg penned this one in 1922, isn’t it? How very far-sighted he was! I love the rhythm of this poem, the repetition of certain lines, and the desolate picture he’s painted. It certainly provides food for thought when viewed from today’s perspective.

    I love Sandburg’s description of Chicago as the “City of the Big Shoulders.” He probably wouldn’t recognize much of that city today, though its “player with railroads” identification is still apropos.

    During these final days leading toward another election, with all the barbs and outright lies being bandied about and all the money being shamelessly wasted, we would do well to read some of our old masters and ponder their wisdom.

    1. Debbie, there’s another part of the poem that amuses me no end, and causes me to wonder what Sandburg would think of our citites today:

      “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
      so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
      Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
      job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
      little soft cities…”

      It made me wonder if there was a little underlying jab there at another city (New York?) Civic rivalry has been around for a while, just as it is today with Houston and Dallas.

      I think as change has speeded up, our sense of history — or, at least, of what we consider “historical” — has changed. After all, my own mother was born in 1918, that pivotal year that surely influenced Sandburg, just as it influenced her first months of life because of the flu pandemic.

      Maybe we should start explaining to kids that poems were what people used to capture reality when they didn’t have smart phones and Instagram.


  10. From ghoulies and ghosts
And long-leggedy beasties

    And things that go bump in the night,

    Good Lord, deliver us!

    I was in Grace Cathedral in San Franciso when I first heard this, ever so long ago. I was with a youth group and a friend who was an Episcopal minister at the time. He had just played the ‘worms crawl in and the worms crawl out’ on the churches booming pipe organ and then walked up to the altar and recited the poem. It was pretty humorous. Ah that more ministers don’t have his sense of humor.

    I once memorized Sandburg’s “Chicago.” And bits and pieces of it still reverberate around in my mind. “They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.” For example… :) –Curt

    1. I’d forgotten that prayer for deliverance, Curt. On the other hand, I think I can make it through every verse of the wormy song — at least, as we knew it. Who even knows what pinochle is, these days?

      Thanks to you, I just dug out my copy of Didion’s “White Album” and read the chapter about James Pike, Dean of Grace Cathedral for a short period of time that some were convinced signaled the end times.

      I’d hoped that the section might be included in the Google books preview, but it’s not, so I’ll give you this little taste. If you haven’t read the essay, you really should.. For that matter, Didion’s collection is all about California, from Tate and LaBianca to Reagan’s ranch, to the distribution of water. It’s great.

      But to Bishop Pike:

      “Five years after he finished [the construction of] Grace, James Albert Pike left the Episcopal Church altogether, detailing his pique in the pages of “Look,” and drove into the Jordanian desert in a white Ford Cortina rented from Avis. He went with his former student and bride of nine months, Diane. Later she would say that they wanted to experience the wilderness as Jesus had. They equipped themselves for this mission with an Avis map and two bottles of Coca-Cola…

      …[After Pike’s body was retrieved and returned] a solemn Requiem Mass was offered for him at the cathedral his own hubris had finished in San Francisco. Outside on the Grace steps the cameras watched the Black Panthers demonstrating to free Bobby Seale. Inside the Grace nave, Diane Kennedy Pike and her two predecessors, Jane Alvies Pike and Esther Yanovsky PIke, watched the cameras and one another.”

      Speaking of wicked — that includes wicked funny. You’d laugh your way through the entire book.


      1. I remember Pike well, although I never met the man. Grace Cathedral was a very unique church at the time, fitting into the uniqueness of SF well. I imagine it still is, Linda.

        I was in high school when I memorized Chicago, a small town boy who spent his summers working on farms. I found the idea of painted women luring the farm boys off the streets intriguing.

        A coming of age event for high school boys from Placerville, was to go to a Sacramento strip joint and see the Alameda Lovelies perform. Mainly I remember airplane pasties.How they got the twirl going was truly a mystery to me. When we came out, a painted lady tried to lure me off the streets. You would have been amazed at how fast I made it into our car.

        I’ll have to check out Wicked. –Curt

        1. Speaking of rites of passage, I’ve heard a few graduates of Texas A&M mention their trips to the celebrated Chicken Ranch. Marvin Zindler was a good man, but there still are people who refuse to forgive him for closing down such a cultural treasure.

          1. Most of our locals would have gone to the Mustang Ranch just outside of Reno for similar services. I remember once that the owner sponsored the annual Heart Ball for the American Heart Association in Reno. Pretty humorous… but as I recall it was a bit much even for Nevadans. –Curt

    1. Well. That’s a question that’s been around for a while.

      The first time I remember giving it serious consideration, it was thanks to some musicians and some notable public events. There’s a great clip that shows Peter, Paul and Mary asking Bob Dylan’s version of the question, and then providing an answer of sorts in the song that follows.


  11. Powerful pairing of poem and photos. It’s been years since I’ve read dear Carl … I remember liking his style. Guess it’s time to revisit his work. Thank you for another wonderful post.

    Tonight, alone in the quiet, I was startled by three VERY audible knocks. No one was visibly present. Spooked on Halloween! :)

    1. I think it’s a very good thing, indeed, that our schools have begun teaching literature from around the world, but I also think it’s a shame that some of our best poets, novelists, and essayists are given increasing short shrift.

      Of course, we pick and choose, ourselves. Many people prefer Sandburg’s lighter pieces to poems like this one. Still, it’s fascinating to me that Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Stories” for children also were published in 1922. It’s wonderful proof, if we needed any, that a true artist can go in two directions at once.

      As for those knocks? Maybe the woman named Tomorrow and Grandma Yesterday persuaded their sister Today to go out trick-or-treating with them!


  12. The thing that disturbs me most of all is that nothing ever changes. The robber barons have different clothes and play different games, but still rob the same people who always seem to be getting robbed — the ones who try hard to make their lives better and never seem to manage it. The robber barons build empires and then jump out the window to escape responsibility and float gently to the ground on their golden parachutes, while the people who need a break and deserve a break never, ever get one. Just when we manage to start getting ends to meet, they move the ends again.

    (P.s., google SandayRanger. The sealcam is back up.)

    1. You’re right of course. And it’s also true that the utopians among us, the ones who would impose their vision of a perfect world, have as little care for the individual.

      Beyond that, breaking any kind of negative cycle can be hard enough in an individual’s life. It’s exponentially more difficult on a national or cultural level. I can’t find where I read it (note to self: take more notes!) but I remember an interesting observation about life on the Santa Fe Trail. For a time, following the path of earlier wagons made the journey easier, but as traffic increased, the ruts got deeper, and avoiding them became the issue of the day. We tend to forget that “getting stuck in a rut” wasn’t always metaphor.

      Thanks for the note about the cam, too. The feed is down just now, but I’ll check it out again in a bit.


  13. Beautifully done–The pictures and poem work together perfectly. Jeff’s comment that the poem was written in 1922 surprised me–and I scrolled back up to the post to confirm that he had the date right. Until I became aware of the date, I’d assumed that the poem was written during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The 1922 date makes me want to do some research on the economic situation at that time.

    1. One of the things I tried to do was find images that would suit the poem without overwhelming the words. I’m glad you think it worked, Sheryl.

      As for the poem’s place in time, economics surely played a role. But WWI had begun in 1914 (we know that year, don’t we!) and when it ended, in 1918, the great flu pandemic of 1918-1919 took place. In 1922, the memory of the millions and millions who died would have been fresh, and perhaps Sandburg was responding, in part, to people who wanted to forget and just move on.

      I’ve wondered a time or two if Helena’s silence in her diary might have been due not to a lack of things to write about, but to worries about the situation around her.


  14. What a brilliant post – and poem. Thank you for reminding us that all human endeavour is ultimately vanity – every person, every “civilisation” is subject to the same great cycle of life, death – and rebirth.

    In Nature’s great cyclic pattern, from the tiny to the vast – gnat or galaxy – the same basic stages apply: seeding, germinating, sprouting, flowering, ripening, harvesting, dying back in preparation for the new. This can apply to a life cycle of a day, and to one of millions of years.

    They all hold another factor in common: as modern physics has taught us, nothing that dies, being composed of energy, can ever cease to exist. It merely changes form. Death is a change of state, not an ending….so, what will arise from the crumbling wreckage of our current ‘civilisation’ we cannot know. But it will be something new…

    And I have had enough of the commerce-fest that Hallowe’en has become. This year, for the first time, I closed my doors…

    1. An interesting comment, as always, Anne. As I mentioned to WOL, above, breaking the negative cycles in life can be difficult. Sometimes, it seems nearly impossible. You’ve raised a corollary issue: how to replace (or transform) a negative cycle.

      I do get nervous when I bump up against the notion of human action as vanity — the striving after wind that Ecclesiastes mentioned. That can devolve pretty quickly into an attitude of “Why even try to change things?” or “Nothing I do is important, anyway.” I wonder from time to time if the anomie characterizing many younger people isn’t rooted in that kind of conviction.

      It must have been fascinating for you to track the issues in your own recent election. Change, permanence, tradition, security: all were issues at the time. And now, despite the continuation of formal ties, I suspect much is different. I think it must be an exciting, if stressful, time.

      You’re certainly right about the transformation that’s been wrought as far as Halloween and its traditions. I’m so old I remember a year when a neighbor, who couldn’t be home for trick-or-treating, left a basket of candy by the front door with a note: “Please take only one piece.” And we did!


  15. I never did like Halloween, not even when I was a kid at school and they gave us apples floating in a buckets full of water. Blood, vampires, lanterns, skeletons, spider webs and rest of the parapharnelia is definitely not my cup of tea.

    As the poet said, “let the dead be dead” and may they rest in peace. Yep, I see no beauty in the festivities of Halloween. Instead I prefer the birth of the Son of God during the Christmas Season. Birth, light, redemption, hope, humbleness—that is what I long for. Give me Christmas and keep the Halloweens. No tricks or treats for me.

    Haven’t head from Carl Sandburg for quite a while. Googled him and found out that “He attended West Point for just two weeks, before failing a mathematics and grammar exam.” Isn’t that ironic?

    Best Regards,


    1. Omar, Halloween was pure delight for me as a child. Of course, we had homemade costumes and homemade treats, for the most part, and there was only a slight edge of scariness — the sort that kids who’ll make a detour to avoid the graveyards love.

      On the other hand, I understand your preference for a different sort of celebration. Vampires and blood aren’t for me, either — although I’ll confess a fondness for funny dancing skeletons.

      I am curious about how Halloween came to Panama. Was it an imported holiday? Were the traditions of Halloween merged with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day? It’s interesting to see how one culture’s traditions come to be accepted by others.

      As for Carl Sandburg, I’d never heard about his experience with West Point, and was surprised. It didn’t make sense to me that if he’d been accepted there, he’d be bounced after only two weeks. This is what I found on the PBS site, which provides a timeline of his education:

      “1899 – Carl receives an appointment to West Point but fails the entrance exams in math and grammar on June 6. He returns to Lombard College and becomes editor of the college journal and yearbook and captain of the basketball team.”

      Something else I didn’t know is that Sandburg’s Swedish immigrant parents met and married in this country, just as my Swedish grandparents did. I do remember pride being expressed in that community when Sandburg traveled to Sweden to receive the Arts and Letters medal from King Gustav.


      1. Panama and the United States enjoyed a close relationship due to the building of the Panama Canal. Americans lived in the Panama Canal Zone for almost one hundred years. They brought with them the American Way of Life. Christmas trees, Baseball, English, Halloween, Hamburgers, French Fries and what have you.

        We owe a large part of our culture to the American community living in the Canal Zone. If you come to Panama you will notice how Americanized our country is like, not matter what they say.



        1. I should have realized that. Now, you’ve reminded me again that the first time I saw the Swedish custom of Maypole dancing, it was in Liberia, at a German-Swedish mining project up on the Guinea border.

  16. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. George Santayana’s words are as true today as when he made them so many years ago. But, life is life, and human nature is what it is. So, we (especially leaders all over the world) keep repeating the very same things that bring pain, hardship, and decay to civilization after civilization, and generation after generation.

    Whenever I am presented with writings like those of Sandburg, or I think about the unpalatable aspects of what, who,and where we are, and why the world is embroiled in all those depressing events, I sometimes think of Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” for inner peace.

    Or, sometimes, I think of the words from the song “Que Sera, Sera”. This is not defeatist or pessimist thinking on my part. It is just an acknowledgement of what was, is, and will be under man’s superficial, biased reasoning in favor of a select few while discriminating against the vast majority.

    I prefer to think about the words from “Desiderata”, of course, for obvious reasons. And, I try, within my limited means, to draw others into that peaceful place.

    Another wonderful, thought-provoking post!

    1. How I’m smiling. “Que Sera, Sera” is a song from my childhood, one which my mother often sang to me when I was distressed over some childhood trauma. Now that I think of it, I sang it to myself from time to time, and it always made me feel better.

      I’ve not read “desiderata” for many years.. It always was a favorite, but somehow was set aside. Now, when I read it, I realize an interesting shift has taken place. I used to read it as a prescriptive piece, a guide to what life should look like in the future. Today, it’s much more descriptive: a reminder of how many of those prescriptions have been incorporated into my life.

      Age and experience(s) have played a role, of course. As the old saying goes, “So soon old, so late smart.” But late is better than never, and I suspect both of us have achieved a kind of wisdom we couldn’t have imagined in our youth.

      The good news is that, while we may not have the power to wave a magic wand and change the world to our taste, we have every power in the world to choose how we deal with the people we come in contact with. That’s not a bad starting place.


    1. You’re right, Bente. Magical thinking will not help. A wllingness to see the problems, and an even greater willingness to work to solve them, is so important.

      Just as it is with the Sami and the reindeer, sometimes hard decisions must be made. But in the end, great good can come if people are willing to make those decisions..


  17. Very interesting Linda. Sandburg is one of my favorite writers and poets. I wonder what his writing would be like at this time in America.

    Speaking of Halloween that is one celebration that I have never cared about- even as a youngster. My feelings have nothing to do with religion since I was raised Methodist and now consider myself as non-denominational.

    This post is food for thought after reading Sandburg’s poetry.

    He won two Pulitzer prizes for his poetry and one for writing about Lincoln He certainty does not get enough credit for his fine works.

    1. Whatever Sandburg might think about the state of our nation, if were he with us today, one thing seems sure to me, Yvonne. Whatever he wrote, it would be some of the best writing of our time.

      I smiled at your reference to the Methodists. I was raised as a Methodist myself, and while our congregation wasn’t willing to go head-to-head with trick-or-treating, there always was a Halloween party at the church. I don’t remember costumes, but I remember games like pin-the-witch-on-the-broom, and lots of apple bobbing and popcorn ball making. Taffy pulling, too. (Does anyone pull taffy any more?)

      I suspect part of the reason there was such emphasis on Sandburg during my school years is that he was winning his Nobel Prizes then. The fifties aren’t that long ago. It’s amazing how quickly we forget, and a shame that the schools today do such a poor job of educating.


  18. I had never heard of Sandburg: what a superb piece of writing this is. How many empires have there been and each one dies, and yet the lessons are never learned? And every government we have had loses touch with the common people. Despite the immense range of skills available, our leaders never learn from the past. They just re-make the same mistakes time and time again.

    The joy of your writing, Linda, is amplified by the comments it brings, and on this occasion they have excelled. I’ve read as the fire has died in the grate.

    1. What caught me, Andy, was your mention of mistakes. I make mistakes on a regular basis. I double the amount of milk in a recipe. I put the wrong fertilizer on a plant. I misjudge the weather, and varnish when I shouldn’t. We all make such mistakes, and we cope with the consequences, however slight or significant they might be. (Not changing camera settings comes to mind!)

      But more and more frequently, our politicians and bureaucrats plead “mistake” when, in truth, they’ve made no mistake at all. They’ve quite intentionally gone about making and implementing bad policy, or have engaged in bad behavior. Then, when all is revealed, they acknowledge that “mistakes were made” and plead for understanding. It’s a game custom-made for narcissists, and we have more than a few of those around.

      What comes of it all? Sandburg himself had something to say about that, in a poem called “Grass”:

      “Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
      Shovel them under and let me work–
      I am the grass; I cover all.

      And pile them high at Gettysburg
      And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
      Shovel them under and let me work.
      Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
      What place is this?
      Where are we now?

      I am the grass.
      Let me work.”

      I’ve tried to imagine a more satisfying and humbling comment from a reader than, “I’ve read as the fire has died in the grate.” I don’t believe I can.


  19. I did not know of Sandburg, so thank you for this opportunity to learn of him. Adjectives like “greatest” seem problematic at so many levels, and really point to human folly in an a-historic mode.

    As two poets attentive to time, it seems that what also holds Faulkner and Sandburg together is their appeal for a little modesty in life. These days many nation giants are being forced into periods of self reflection. Many of us hope and pray for a fresh start starting with some other than dreams of aggrandizement.

    1. What you say about the human love of hyperbole is so true. It’s what makes Garrison Keillor’s stories from Lake Woebegon so funny. We laugh at the name of “Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery” because we recognize our upper-midwestern-Scandinavian horror of superlatives and self-aggrandizement — and our secret desire to be “Ralph’s Best in the Galaxy Grocery.”

      I’m not sure where I first came across the concept, but apparently in some religious orders there’s a practice called “custody of the eyes.” Thinking about it now, I suspect the rationale somehow is connected to the kind of modesty you mention. Maybe we need a little “custody of the ego.”


  20. I’ve not been a huge fan of Sandburg, but I did enjoy this one. The Pike story was new and funny. I must have been living under a rock in those days. Those two bottle of Coke probably didn’t last long! I have always loved Halloween. Dressing as someone else for a few hours. The uglier or sillier the better.

    As far as the Mustang Ranch goes, I happened upon a brass token from the Mustang Ranch which states: “Ask for Peggy”. No idea who Peggy was, but I presented it to Dr. Advice on our 50th anniversary.

    1. Halloween does have a good bit in common with Carnival, doesn’t it? I saw someone raise an interesting point this year. When we were kids, the question most often was, “Who do you want to be for Halloween?” Today, you’re just as likely to hear, “What do you want to be?” It’s not a huge difference, perhaps, but it’s a difference nonetheless.

      Apparently Peggy understood the power of advertising. Lucky Dr. Advice, to have someone with a sense of humor! Now I’m a bit frustrated, though, because you’ve reminded me of something I can’t quite call to mind.

      Years and years ago, in the ladies’ room of a restaurant in Port Aransas, Texas, there was a variant of the old “For a good time, call….” message scrawled on the wall. It was far more creative than that, and funny beyond words. A friend who was in the group who saw it still is around. I need to call her tonight and see if she remembers what it was.


  21. A thought provoking and wonderfully written piece. Judging by all the comments you do touch a nerve with your fellow bloggers. I wonder when we human beings will ever learn from past experiences… I have to admit I don’t know much about Carl Sandburg, so I am glad you brought some insight. Thank you, Linda.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Otto. Sandburg was a fine poet, story-teller and historian, at least in part because of his respect for the people among whom he lived. We could use an extra dose of respect in this country these days — one reason I like to pull out Sandburg, Frost, et. al. — to remind people what’s possible. My winter project this year is making my way through his novel, “Remembrance Rock.” At 1,067 pages, it ought to fill the bill. Besides, if I give up, I always can use it as a doorstop.

      As for learning from past experience, it’s hard enough to do as an individual, let alone a society. But we do learn. I certainly have — so much so that I rarely wish for a do-over. Every experience forms us, even the bad. If we emerge fairly well intact, and haven’t done too much damage in the process, I suppose it counts as “success” rather than “fail.”

      It’s always delightful to have you stop by.

    1. Sandburg also was the author of a poem used in schools for decades to teach about metaphor. It’s very short, but memorable, and one that fits your life rather well, I’d say:


      The fog comes
      on little cat feet.

      It sits looking
      over harbor and city
      on silent haunches
      and then moves on.

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