Friday, March 28, 2014

CESAR CHAVEZ

March 28, 2014:

          Today's NY Times has a review of a biopic about Cesar Chavez, who founded the farmworker's union back in the 1960s and became a cause celebre when the Left thought it was going to change the world. The movie doesn't sound like it's very good and I'm not going to see it, but the review brought him back to mind. I think it was 1968 when I met him. I was working for Sherman Fairchild as his business historian, but as an adjunct to that job I was asked to investigate the U. S. medical system and write a report for the Fairchild Foundation identifying research opportunities for the Foundation to invest in. This was a big job and it sent me to various places around the country. I talked to the heads of the Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health, and any number of scientists from New York to San Francisco. At a conference in Boston Ralph Nader tore into me because one of the Fairchild companies had just made a prototype for a super-safe automobile under some sort of Federal contract, but wasn't following up on it by going into the car business; and this seemed to be my fault. I've thought Nader was an asshole ever since.

          I think it was at this same conference in Boston that I met a representative from the farmworkers' union. She was there to ask for help for the medical clinic that the union had set up in Delano, California. She worked for Chavez, or had donated her time to him--I wasn't sure which--and asked  me, if I was going to be in California, to come with her and see him. As it happened I was going to California to talk to some other people, and I agreed to drive up to Delano with her. I flew to Los Angeles, talked to somebody at UCLA, had dinner with this woman one night, and then we drove to Delano the next morning and she took me into Chavez's room. It was the ninth day of his famous fast. The room was absolutely bare except for the narrow cot he was lying on, one chair, and a crucifix on the wall facing the cot.

          She--I wish I could remember her name--sat down on the cot and held his hand while they talked. I simply listened. They talked about non-violence and the importance of sticking to it, worried about another activist who was advocating violence, went over some other problems the union was having. Nothing earth-shaking was said. He was not making a speech for my benefit. He more or less ignored me. He was, of course, very weak. You can't starve for nine days and be anything but weak.

          Yet he glowed. I've never forgotten it. I mean, literally, a kind of glow enveloped him, and it was very, very powerful. Inner strength? Spiritual power? It was transfixing; it silenced whatever was going on in my head; it made me want to cry. You could not help but feel you were in the presence of a saint. You felt as if, if he touched you, you would be healed.

          Back in New York I wrote a memo suggesting that the Fairchild Foundation make a small donation to the farmworkers' clinic. One of the nurses, an Anglo, as they would have called her, came to the city to try to raise funds, and I took her to every foundation exec I knew. I spent six months doing this. All in vain. Nobody would give them a dime. I learned a lot about American charity and its limitations in the process. I also almost got fired by my own charity, which went on, after they ignored all my suggestions as to research opportunities, to give their money to the hospital where Fairchild's own doctor practiced. It was one of my many failures. To be sure, I was a spy in the house of business so shouldn't have been surprised when all that work came to nothing. I understand business, watched it go on around me from the top down. It was an education. Fairchild had two companies on the Fortune 500 list employing 30,000 people; he was a director of IBM, which his father had founded; I saw firsthand the interconnections at the top between business and government. I had by that time long since lost my innocence. But I was no businessman. I didn't have the instincts for it, and you have to be who you are.

          Chavez was no saint, of course, but he did accomplish some of what he set out to do, and his cause was, without question, just. The conditions under which farmworkers did their jobs were unspeakable. Those I talked to afterwards warned me never to eat lettuce that hadn't been thoroughly washed. The owners refused to put Portapotties into the fields and the workers had to use the fields themselves as their bathrooms. I wouldn't be surprised if the same conditions still prevail in agribusiness. Money gets given to charities all the time, but how much charity is there in people's hearts? How much?

          This experience was one of the reasons that I knew early on the Left was not going to change the world.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

PICTURES OF HELL

March 18, 2014:

          In one of those odd coincidences in which life abounds Yale University Press has sent me a review copy of an enormous book about aerial photography, even though they could not have known that I am an expert on the subject. The title of the book is The Great War Seen From the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914-1918, it contains more than 500 aerial photographs made during the war, and I spent eight years as a young man working for the aviation pioneer Sherman Fairchild, known in the industry as the "father of aerial photography." I was his personal historian, an odd enough job in its own right. After the Great War was over he invented the first aerial camera accurate enough to be used to make maps, and his company went on to become the premier aerial camera manufacturer in the world. The aerial cameras used in the Great War were not Fairchilds; he designed his cameras to correct their manifold inadequacies. So technically advanced were they that when America went into space, highly sophisticated Fairchild cameras went along. They were used all during World War II, of course, and the company expanded in the 1960s when it pioneered in the development of silicon transistors, which put the world into the computer age. As his historian I studied the cameras that were used in the Great War and know their inadequacies thoroughly. The book is more than welcome. Thank you, Yale.

          But enough about me. The book is welcome, and it's splendid. The Great War was the first war in which airplanes fought and the first to use aerial photography systematically to take pictures of battlefields from the air. This revolutionized warfare. It was no longer possible to move large bodies of troops without being detected. Reconnaissance from the air made artillery fire much more accurate. Trench systems were now fully exposed to enemy scrutiny. The effects of bombardment could now be clearly seen. All of this the book illustrates, in detail, following the course of the war as it stalls in Belgium, northern France, and elsewhere on the Western Front, explaining, using pictures, text, and diagrams, what the pictures reveal, and showing how constant bombardment changed the landscape. Its overall effect is chilling. Whole communities simply disappear from the ground as the war goes on and on, with neither side gaining anything substantial. Cemeteries grow larger and larger. Farmland turns into huge fields of craters, craters turn into defensive positions. The book uses photographs taken from the ground to complement the aerial photographs, and plastic overlays printed with trench lines and other features to help with the interpretation of the photographs underneath them. And it covers the whole course of the war. Indeed, it continues beyond the war. I found one set of photographs in particular quite striking, photos showing the Belgian town of Nieuwpoort on the North Sea at the end of the war, when little is left of it but ruins, and again in 1923, five years later, when it has been almost completely rebuilt.

          The Great War goes on. It destroyed empires, unleashed ethnic and nationalistic forces that still engulf us, made instant enemies of the United States and Russia after the U. S., at the end of the war, intervened in the civil war then being waged in Russia between the Bolsheviks and the so-called White Russians loyal to the Tsar. It unsettled the Middle East when European powers created instant "nations" there without regard to the indigenous population and its tribal divisions. And of course it triggered feelings in Germany that led directly to the rise of fascism and World War II. I just finished a piece for Military History magazine on the English war poets who emerged in the Great War and have written on the civil war in Yugoslavia during the Nazi occupation in World War II for the same publication, and that sideshow, too, came out of the Great War. We are now entering on the centenary of the Great War's beginning in 1914 and already publishers are flooding the market with books describing various aspects of it. But none of them can surpass this book's visual explanation of how it was waged, and what effect it had on the landscape. People are still occasionally killed when their plows run into unexploded ordinance in Flanders. The trench lines ran all the way from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Millions of people died; on one day alone, at the first battle of the Somme, there were 27,000 casualties. War is hell, said General Sherman. Take a look at The Great War From the Air if you want to see what hell looks like.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

DARK VICTORIES

March 11, 2014:

          One aspect of being a writer is that you tend to wind up knowing other writers and forming many of your friendships among them. That's especially true here in Sag Harbor, which has attracted writers since John Steinbeck ended his days here, in a house and writing shed overlooking the water. As far as writers, editors and the like are concerned, Sag Harbor is Manhattan East. I suppose it's a clannish thing. We share the experience of struggling with language trying to make it come out right, we have all failed at that, and tried again, and again, and we know how humbling that can be; and we also know how it feels when we do get something right and the world acknowledges it by publishing what you've written. Then, if you're really lucky, you make some money. Usually not much. Mostly you live for that feeling.

          So I'm here today to celebrate the victories in this struggle of two of my friends, Kathryn Levy and Jim McMullan, who have recently, after years of work, each published a book, an exceptional book in both cases, breakthrough books that won't necessarily make a lot of money but that represent for each of them a victory of sorts, a culmination, and a new direction.

          Kathryn is a poet and that alone more or less guarantees that there's no money in what she does, but she has always written poetry, she identifies herself as a poet, she basically has no choice in the matter. It's her calling, her vocation; she was born to it. She doesn't make a fuss about how deeply her life is entwined with poetry but if you quote a line or two of Keats, or Wallace Stevens, or Zbigniew Herbert or almost any poet to her, she's likely to complete the quote. She belongs to a reading group devoted entirely to Shakespeare; the group meets once a month, has done that for many years, and has gone through the complete works four or five times. She has taught poetry to young disadvantaged children in the New York City public schools in a program designed to free their imaginations. She also worked for a long time at the New York City Ballet, running the volunteer department, managing fund-raising benefits, and running a poetry program there, too, for public school students. She knew Balanchine, who's buried in Sag Harbor, and knows his work from the inside out. But she's not a dancer herself. Her real passion has always been writing poetry, and she has been doing that for a very long time.

          But not publishing it. Out of a certain diffidence, out of shyness, perhaps out of fear of failure, she did not go through the process of trying to make her work public. It is, in fact, a miserable process. The poetry world is small, intensely political, cliquish, and often quite nasty. I stopped writing poems myself for this reason; it just didn't seem worth the effort. Her friends have been urging her for years to just do it, take her chances. But poetry often grows out of pain, out of the darkness of early experience, out of bad dreams, losses of all kinds, your world at three o'clock in the morning. Working those parts of yourself into poems, and then exposing them to an indifferent world, is no easy thing.

          A few years ago, however, she finally published her first book, Losing the Moon, with Sag Harbor's occasional publisher Canio's Books. It meant very limited distribution, but it was at least a book, she could hold it in her hand, people could see her work. And now her second book, Reports, is out from New Rivers Press, she is actively publicizing it, it has gathered considerable praise from established figures in the poetry world, and not only that--IT'S REALLY GOOD. The pain, the distilled despair, the darkness at the core of her world is still there in the poems, but now she has turned it into small works of very powerful art, words like drills, words that take unexpectedly subversive directions in your mind. Just a few lines from "Driving All Night":
               You can say I feel free, here
               up in the mountains.
               This air is thin, breathing is hard.
               But I'm free, I feel free.
               Shout it, sing it--
               the air won't mind. It
               has you and it's not
               letting go.

          You have to read whole poems to get the full effect and I don't have the space in my little blog to put them in. But trust me, this is impressive work, written by a poet I'm proud to know. What is a black tulip but a victory in the night? The night has not gone away; but it has produced a flower.

          Jim McMullan is a whole other story, a world-class illustrator who for many years has done the posters for the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, who has illustrated children's books for years as well, many of them written by his wife, Kate McMullan, and is also well-known for doing the illustrations in New York Magazine for the story that morphed into the film Saturday Night Fever. Lorraine and I have known the McMullans since 2002. A few years ago I interviewed him for a show on LTV, the local TV channel here in the Hamptons where I occasionally talk to writers and artists about their work. We filmed it in Jim's studio and I was startled by his early work in magazines when he pulled examples of it out of storage. It was edgy and it was dark. Figures loomed out of uneasy backgrounds, smiles were rare, objects, events, portraits did not aim to be pretty. I was not expecting it, but as we got to know him better and he talked about his childhood we began to see where, in a literal sense, he was coming from. He was born in China in the mid-1930s to a British father and a Canadian mother. The family had lived in China for several generations, first as Christian missionaries, then as business people. They had attained a comfort level that included servants and Western luxuries, and the family had founded a prosperous business that gave employment to young girls who had been abandoned as infants--a not uncommon custom in China. But it was the 1930s. Japan was already at war with China. Eventually the war reached Cheefoo, where they were living, and their life changed radically. Jim's father went undercover as a British agent. Jim's mother took him to Canada, to her family, on the next to last boat allowed to leave, then, as the war wound down, to India, where they could see Jim's father, who, shortly after the war was over, was killed when the airplane he was flying in crashed in the Himalayas. Through all of this Jim was growing up, learning firsthand what it means to have your life intersect violently with history, before you're ten years old. To make it that much harder he was a sensitive kid, loved to draw, didn't play sports, wasn't macho, was small, timid, easily bullied. His mother, who descended from time to time into alcoholism, wasn't much help.

          This is the source, as he himself will tell you, of the dark vision coming from the brush of this kind, sensitive, brilliant artist. Catch the tragic sense of life when you're very young and it marks you. It leaves a message on the heart nothing can erase. A few years ago, going through old papers, he found his father's letters to his mother and himself and he decided to address it, to do a book, an illustrated memoir of his childhood, and it is just out now: Leaving China, from Algonquin Books. Brilliant indeed. The chapters are short, one page, and each one is faced by an illustration, and they work like a team. The illustrations are understated, subtle, and all the stronger for that. The text is straightforward, honest and open, and totally unsentimental. This is how it was; this is what happened. But these are dark events, awful to have lived through, terrible in what they tell us about human nature. To be able to back off from the tragedy of his early life, to see it and make art out of it like this--I don't want to deaden such an achievement with a trite phrase, but the phrase is accurate: a triumph of the spirit. This is what gives all his work its strength. It doesn't blink  at the way things are.

          Yes, they're personal friends, very good friends, and you can dismiss this praise if you want. But I was a book columnist for eighteen years, I have read and written reviews of more than 300 books, I've written about the visual arts, I've written published poetry, and I don't write about books written by friends if I don't like them. This is not about friendship, this is about brilliance and power and dark victories won over experience. All of which are rare. Find these books, read them. They are extraordinary.
              


Sunday, February 9, 2014

MY LONGEST LOVE AFFAIR

February 9, 2014:

     Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the day I met Lorraine. It was a sunny day, as I remember, at a  Sunday brunch in a ground floor apartment in Manhattan on February 8, 1981. I had just gotten back from California a few days before, having spent a month there researching magazine pieces. I was single at the time, my girl friend having left me six or seven months earlier; she was there at the brunch, but without her new boyfriend, who had set her loose already. I'm not good on my own and had dated people in the meantime, but not successfully. Most of them were ten or fifteen years younger than me and hadn't had children. For me, an uh-oh. I already had two children, both in their teens. I didn't want any more. I was broke in any case and couldn't possibly have afforded more children--so broke, in fact, that two-thirds of the way through my time in California I had to get from Carmel, where I was staying, to Los Angeles and didn't have enough money for gas to make the trip. I was only able to leave because I won $25 in a poker game. Overall, it was not a good time in my life. My ex-wife hated me. I was being sued for libel and invasion of privacy, to the tune of $3.75 million. Stress levels were, shall we say, high.

     But not so high that I didn't notice the unfamiliar blonde woman who was not ten or fifteen years younger than me standing by a couch talking to some guy I also didn't know. I figured they were together. Then an acquaintance, Gael McCarthy, took her by the arm, dragged her over to me, and introduced us. I remember I was standing by the kitchen. We started to talk, about what I have little idea. She was easy to talk to, bright, friendly, attractive. We talked for an hour and a half, until I had to leave to go pick up my daughter at college at SUNY Purchase and take her to dinner. At one point my ex-girl friend walked over and tried to interrupt us, but I think I was rude to her, as in, can't you see I'm busy? Or I just ignored her. But what I do remember clearly, talking with Lorraine, was her telling me she had been seeing some guy for four years, and was going to give him another year. At that I broke into a cold sweat--oh damn, somebody who might be suitable, and she's taken. Just my luck. What she remembers about the conversation is that I didn't react when she told me she had given up a child for adoption and had recently published a book about her experience. I didn't react because I had a cousin who had lived with us when I was eleven and she was seventeen and pregnant and my mother and father had arranged a private adoption for her child. Shit happens. I had, vicariously to be sure, seen how devastating that experience was, I had already walked a mile in her shoes. You learn, if you have any compassion at all, and after looking long and hard at your own mistakes, not to make snap judgments about other people.

     Besides, I'm cool. So I got her phone number and called her Monday or Tuesday and suggested lunch. I didn't expect anything; I just liked her, I wanted a friend, I've always liked having women friends. She hesitated when I called, but agreed finally to lunch in Manhattan (I was living in Ossining) on Thursday. We met, found a quiet place to eat, a gay bar, in fact, on the East Side, and had a wonderful time. Talked for two hours. She told me all about her boyfriend. I thought she was nuts to give him another year (after four? are you serious?), and I told her more about myself: my current poverty, my work, my first marriage, the whole nine yards. After lunch I walked around the East Side with her while she did some errands. When we parted she reached up and pecked me on the lips. I thought, well, that was strange, but the truth is, I didn't think it meant anything. I never expected to hear from her again.

     Friday, a week later, she called me in Ossining. At the moment she called I was trying to work up the courage to call a woman I had had one date with, a double date, that had been, oh, kind of nothing. I was deeply lonely. Ultimately I don't think I would have made that call, but I didn't have to. The phone rang, it was Lorraine, and before she could say anything, I said, "Hi, do you want to have dinner tomorrow night?"

     She did. At dinner she told me she had ditched the boyfriend. Mr. No-I-Can't-Commit. This time I was speechless--uh oh, this is not just dinner with a new friend, this is a DATE. But after a couple of cognacs at One Fifth Avenue afterwards I loosened up, and we have not been apart since. Within a few days we were living together; within two weeks we were engaged, and on September 20, 1981, we got married.

     Is this not a sweet story? I think it is. Not that it's been sweetness ever since. We have different styles, different, deeply ingrained habits, and we're both strong personalities and have fought often over silly things and sometimes serious things. But happiness isn't the absence of conflict. Two people are happy together when they understand each other and accept each other for who they are, not who they want the other to be. Conflict is inevitable, and you have to accept it and face it and get through it. You do that by making the  fundamental commitment to listen, to admit your own faults and weaknesses and fears (even if only to yourself sometimes), and to understand--most of all, to understand. We had each lived full lives when we met, we each knew something about pain. There was an emotional depth we sensed in each other. And it in in those depths that we love each other, and believe in each other, and share the essence of our lives. It is in those depths that we're happy.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

DON'T LET YOUR KIDS GROW UP TO BE WRITERS

December 17, 2013:

          My readers will instantly recognize that I've stolen a line from Willie Nelson, or whoever wrote the song about not letting your kids grow up to be cowboys. Yeah, well, it's a good song, but riding herd on cattle isn't the only chancy profession.

          Take the question of "my readers"--who are they? My first cousin once removed, Chris, says this blog is required reading in his house, and I'm kind of amazed. And thrilled. I'm pretty sure some of my best friends have never seen it, either because they don't know about it or don't want to take the trouble, or the time, to look it up. So it's very gratifying to know that I have at least some readers, even if they are family. Nothing is more gratifying to a writer than readers. My last book sold in the low five figures, that's copies not dollars, but how many of those people actually read it? All the way through? I'll never know, and very few people wrote me letters about it. One, I remember, from England, wrote to correct an error I had made about a relative of Queen Victoria's. The book got very good reviews in England, which pleased me no end, and in the U. S., too, although the review in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review was rather disappointing. But at least I got a review, and a full page at that. Turned out the reviewer was writing her own book on more or less the same subject.

          But what got me started down this road was reading this morning Christopher Logue's introduction to War Music, his very loose translation of portions of Homer's Iliad. He said that after publishing portions of the book in magazines he heard from readers who were not poets, not professional scholars, just ordinary people hiding out there in the great seething mass of the public who could, and did, read Homer in the original Greek. And who wrote to tell him they liked his version of the poetry very much. Now those are Readers. There isn't a writer in the world who wouldn't pay good money to have readers like that.

          Mostly we write in a vacuum. I must have written four or five hundred magazine and newspaper pieces in my career and still don't know whether anybody recognizes my name when they see it in print. Recognition, such as it is, has been local for me. When I wrote columns for the local paper, people would sometimes stop me on the street to say something about it, usually positive, and that was a nice feeling. I have gotten praise from some of the magazine editors I've written for, and a few of my pieces have been anthologized, mostly in writing textbooks aimed at high school kids. Once one of my nephews told me he had read an essay in one such textbook where the story I was telling, a family story, seemed weirdly familiar. Then he noticed the name of the author. He said he told his teacher, hey, that's my uncle who wrote that. The teacher didn't believe him. But what do teachers know? And would my nephew have noticed the name of the author if I hadn't been writing about our family?

          Like everybody else, teachers take writers for granted. It's content to them; it appears magically in books, magazines, newspapers, and it's only your fellow professionals who pay attention to bylines and know who you are. But otherwise the world is largely silent, responses to what you write are extremely scarce, and you don't know where you stand. There's no system for measuring reputation, no way of knowing how you're doing. Rates of pay are one measure, but I'm an historian for the most part, and history just doesn't pay very well. As a general feature writer I used to get good money, but never the top rates. I tell my friends about things I've written sometimes, and they occasionally ask to see it. So I send it to them, and do I hear back? You know the answer already.

          Why, then, don't I allow comments on this blog? Good question. My wife, Lorraine Dusky, has a widely read blog and she does allow comments, but from what I've seen the comments are often contentious, sometimes just plain nasty, and who wants that? Not me. To be sure, she's writing about a controversial subject, adoption, and she's got a lot to say about it. But I write about a considerable variety of subjects in this blog, I do it mostly to test out ideas, to amuse myself and maybe my readers, to touch nerves and hearts and to say things that I believe need to be said. It's like Johnny Appleseed, who planted the trees and then walked away. Plus I'm scared. What if I hear from the asshole ranks who just want to start a quarrel? What if a close friend finds my writing jejune, or stupid, or perverse? I'd rather not know. Courage fails me. And I've noticed that responding to all those people takes a whole lot of my wife's time.

          I don't want to spend time that way. I just want to write. There's no money in a blog. I doubt anyone will ever see an ad in this space, for which I would get some small percentage. But I love to write. No, I have to. It's a compulsion. An astrologer once told me that I was compensating for having burned down a library in a previous life, no doubt a barbarous life, because nothing is so barbaric as to destroy knowledge. So I have to replace all the writing that I destroyed. It's a fanciful tale, but I have no other explanation.

          Whatever the reason, I babble on. My apologies. Soon I'm going to write about something more interesting, more substantial. About loss, I think. Old friends are dying, really interesting friends whose lives remain unrecorded, unwritten about. They're joining the voiceless dead. I wrote a whole memoir--it remains unpublished--mostly to give the dead back their voices, to let them be heard. My daughter, who says she loves my work, tells me, keep on writing. It's all that will remain when you're gone. Maybe that's what's behind it all, that sense of coming to an end not having said all the things in my fertile mind that absolutely have to be said. Absolutely have to. Before it's too late.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BLOOD

December 4, 2013:

          My kids--kids; they're 53 and 49 respectively--and their respective spouses and offspring were here for Thanksgiving this past weekend, and we had a wonderful time. It's hard to describe the kind of wit we share. It's home-grown, let's put it that way, coming out of shared experiences in the past, a love of word play, and a willingness to be silly that has always been a presence in our lives. The silliness comes from my parents, who could be divinely silly, even in public. The gold standard event came when I was about ten and my brother fourteen, we were in Schade's, the local soda parlor, after the movies on a Saturday night, having chocolate floats, and my parents started blowing straw paper wrappers at each other, until my mother threw a glass of water in my father's face (on a dare) and we collapsed in laughter. My poor brother was mortified and ran out of the place; he had friends there and, being fourteen, hated the embarrassment. But in other contexts he was just as capable of being silly, and I've never doubted that it was in our blood, along with my physical resemblance to our father, our voices--you could not distinguish my brother's voice and mine on a recording--and our tendency to collect things, in my case books, in my brother's case tools, antiques, and a basement full of broken furniture he was someday going to fix. He couldn't let go of anything. I have learned to let go, but it hasn't been easy.

          Yesterday afternoon Lorraine and I saw Philomena, the movie about an elderly Irish woman whose 4-year-old child was taken from her and sold by nuns to an American couple who adopted him. For $1,000. You have to see it. Judi Dench plays the elderly woman, and she's masterful as always, and all I could think about throughout was blood. DNA, if you will; but it's really blood. One of the things that holds my family so tightly together is knowing who we are. My two children knew their grandparents, knew them well, saw them pretty often, and an aunt had a genealogy done and we also know that on my mother's mother's side we are descended from early American settlers, that one of our forbears, Rebecca Nourse, was hanged at Salem for witchcraft in 1692, and on my mother's father's side, and on my own father's side, we are thoroughly Scandinavian. Swedish and Danish. My father longed all his life to go to Sweden and find his relatives there. He was born in the U. S. but he spoke a little Swedish, read it fluently, and wanted to see the graves, and meet the cousins and second cousins. He could never afford to go, but he, too, knew who he was, the son of Swedish immigrants, raised in a tightly knit Swedish community in Plainfield, N. J. Someone whose mother made the best Swedish meatballs in the world.

          But Philomena's son knew none of these things. He only knew he was adopted out of a nunnery in Ireland. He didn't know who his forebears were, his mother, his father, the circumstances of his birth, anything at all but the name of the nunnery. When he was dying of AIDS he went back to Ireland and the nuns lied to him, told him his mother had abandoned him, all the records had been destroyed in a fire (the nuns themselves set the fire), sorry. When he died his lover buried him at that nunnery, at his request, so that his mother might at least someday find his grave. She does. She had been searching all her life for him.

          This is a true story, in case you're wondering. And if you have a heart at all it will make you angry, not just because of the nuns and their incredible cruelty, but because this is the common experience of adopted people all over America, who in the vast majority of states are denied the knowledge of who they are, where they came from, the circumstances of their birth, the experience of their actual grandparents, all the stuff the rest of us take for granted as normal and natural, which we never think of as a right because it's just the way life works.

          Fighting this injustice has been, as most of my readers probably already know, Lorraine's life work, and I ought to be used to it by now. But I never can get used to it. I saw what giving up a baby--two, in fact--did to my cousin Joan's life, I know what my heritage, my ancestry, my blood relatives, mean to me, and it just drives me crazy that this natural right, this thing we all take for granted, should be denied to anyone. Or that a mother or father should be denied knowledge of what happened to their child, or children. Unfathomable. It is our very identities we're talking about, the most fundamental knowledge of all. Who we are. Where we came from. How we came by our traits, our predilections, our blond hair or deep-set eyes or body type. What could be more fundamental than knowing the family has a history of mental illness, or tends to die young of heart disease? And this is denied adoptees? Routinely. It is one of the great injustices of our time. The right to our identities takes precedence over all other considerations; it is that fundamental. It's in the blood.

          I won't get into the laws in the various states, or the history of why we have these laws. Lorraine does all that far better than I could. But I will urge you to see this movie. What happened in Ireland is all too similar to what happens here. A natural right--and all law is built upon natural rights--is routinely denied to adoptees in the United States, the only people this denial serves is adoptive parents, and it's totally unjust. And it makes me angry every time I think about it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

MY FATHER'S BIRTHDAY

November 18, 2013:

          My father died in 1975, having turned 75 on this day in 1974. That Christmas I drove home to New Jersey for the holiday, as my first wife and I usually did, and he took me into the basement to show me the antique chairs he was recaning but really to tell me that this was his last Christmas. How he knew must remain a mystery, because I didn't ask; I was too stunned; I didn't know how to react. But he was right. He died a month later, in the hospital, after a heart attack. I wish I had said good-bye. My mother did. "It's been a good marriage, Ax," she said, leaning over him to kiss him on the temple. His full name was Axel Hjalmar Brandt, a fine old Swedish name, but he had changed the middle name to Elmer, which I always thought was a mistake. We visited with him in the hospital, then drove back to our home in Shrub Oak, N. Y., a little village in northern Westchester County. On the way home we were listening to the radio and a Beatles song came on, the one with the verse "Get back, get back, get back to where you first belonged," and I knew I should turn the car around and go back to New Jersey. I didn't. That evening my brother called. It was over. A second heart attack had killed him.

          My brother put his fist through the wall. I just lay down on my bed and cried for a while.

          Only when they're gone do we begin to understand how little we knew our fathers. My own was a quiet man to begin with, and he was not a modern, participatory father, he didn't want to be our friend, he seldom did anything with us, and most summers, which we spent at the shore, we saw him only on weekends. Twice he took my brother and me to baseball games on a Saturday afternoon, first to Ebbetts Field and the Dodgers, then to the Polo Grounds and the Giants. The latter was rained out, but I still remember descending a long flight of stairs to the stadium. Going to the Dodgers game made me a Dodgers fan, until they absconded to Los Angeles. Those were the days of Peewee Reese and Preacher Roe and Jackie Robinson, all legends, and the age-old rivalry with the Yankees. In those days people worked five and a half days a week, Mon-Fri and Sat. morning, and occasionally my brother and I would go into the city with him on Saturdays and hang out waiting for him. He showed us how the IBM punched card tabulating machine worked, and that was amazing. And we saw how sociable he was in the office, where he was the assistant manager. It was a railroad insurance company he worked for, and he joked around with everybody, told stories, laughed a lot. We rode the train to Jersey City, where we took a ferry to lower Manhattan. It was a wonderful ride, the train cutting through the industrial heart of the state, by the backs of factories and rail yards full of abandoned, rusting equipment, then over the long bridge that crossed Newark Bay and into the yards at Jersey City, where the ferries were waiting. It was all very beautiful, in a masculine kind of way, and then there was the New York skyline before you.

          I didn't particularly want to be like him, though, didn't want his life, which was circumscribed by his job,and our little family, to which he was deeply devoted, and his daily routine. What he was at the office he wasn't at home, i.e. sociable; he arrived at six every evening from the city, our mother would have dinner almost ready, then in the evening he would help her with the dishes and read the World-Telegram and Sun, having read the Herald Tribune in the morning. I didn't want that, didn't want the emphasis on job security, the limited scope of his life, the frugality with which they lived. But here I am, about to turn 77 myself, and I am like him. I have the same body structure, the same head shape. Set photographs of us next to each other and it's obvious I'm his son. I'm quiet like him, too, but sociable in a group, just as he was; I like to read just as he did; I can crack jokes like he did; I do crossword puzzles as he did, and take pride in not having to look anything up. As he did. He could draw extremely well, and I can't do that. But he had a marvelous singing voice, too, and so do I, only in a deeper register. He was very kind to people. I am still working on that, but getting there.

          He had grown up without the advantages he was able to give us. He graduated from high school around 1918 and immediately went to work. His father was a skilled carpenter, a tool-and-die maker; my father started out as a secretary, at a time when male secretaries were the norm; my brother and I became professionals. As a family, we were climbing the ladder, and that was the way it was supposed to be in America. My brother and I both went to college, he to Cornell, and I to Princeton, then to grad school at Columbia, and there was never any question about it. We were going to college whether we wanted to or not. It turned out not to be all that easy to be fully educated when my parents weren't. I found that we had, in a way, less to talk about. My politics diverged from theirs. I traveled a great deal, mostly for my work, while my parents never had the chance to do that. I wanted to be a man of the world. They never had a chance to pursue such a goal.

          Yet I think of him every day. Expressing love was not natural for him. Neither of my parents put much store in hugs and visible affection. But it was clear early on they would do anything to protect us; they were fiercely devoted to our welfare, our future, and the development of our character. They would tell us repeatedly that we could do anything we set our minds to. They insisted that we were as good as anybody else in this country. I took it to heart. I've never been particularly impressed by rank and privilege, and the confidence they instilled in me has served me well. They gave that to us. I think of him every day, and am grateful to have been his son. He had an inner dignity, a beautiful soul. I have regretted since the day he died that I never told him when I had that chance, in the hospital, how much I loved and respected him. In his quiet way he showed me how to be strong, how to endure, and how love is not just what you feel, but what you act upon. I think of him every day, and I miss him enormously.