Saturday, August 15, 2015


August 15, 2015: A PALTRY THING

                                                         An aged man is but a paltry thing,
                                                         A ragged coat upon a stick, unless
                                                         Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
                                                         For every tatter in its mortal dress.
Famous lines from Yeats. I'm aged, and I feel that way sometimes. Then why am I so mortally busy? It's been that way this whole summer. I have just last week, or was it this week, finished a book I've been writing off and on since 1997. A book about Rome. A short  book about Rome. (There's a long story about that.)  I have volunteered once more to be the Chairman of the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review here in Sag Harbor. An onerous job, requires lots of time. But now I'm planning the next book. I've taken to just writing the damned things. Getting a contract before you write them, the traditional method, is getting harder and harder to do. So what's left of my life is all mapped out for me. Writers don't retire. In cases like mine, they can't. You're driven, and you're broke, too. But I know wealthy writers who keep on working when they don't need to. It gets in the blood. It's what you do, how you live.

          But the village thing is something else. I was the Chairman of this Board when it was founded, helped found it, spent four years as Chairman. This is citizenship. This is the idea that if you live someplace, and care for it, you have a responsibility to get involved, to serve. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." I was talking about this the other evening to a woman, aged like myself, who grew up in a prominent political family, and she felt the same way--it's about serving. You belong, you serve. It's that simple. I've written about this before on this blog, that a national service program of some sort, not necessarily military, should be mandatory for people in their early twenties. It is in other countries. Military service is mandatory in Israel. I did my own military service via ROTC after I graduated from college. Learned a great deal about this country. Service is an obligation. Political involvement is an obligation. That's what citizenship is all about. You don't get the privileges without the obligation. Not if you take it seriously.

          Well, my soapbox. This fall I'll be preparing a second edition of the Lewis and Clark Journals I did for the National Geographic Society some years ago. HBO is doing a series on L & C. It's all in the timing. I feel rushed, even as I write this blog. And I'm old. I'm tired. I need a nap every day. But the challenge of writing if you're born to it never leaves you. It's what Eliot wrote about, the struggle with language, the wanting to know what you actually think about things, and follow through to see what that might mean. So the next book calls, and the next, plus the magazine articles. I can't believe it--torn cartilage in my knee, a slowing brain, iffy hearing: the shadow of the inevitable. A ragged coat indeed. But it's not over 'til it's over, said the immortal Yogi. And it ain't over yet.

Sunday, May 31, 2015


May 31, 2015: The Adoption Tragedy

          Lorraine, my wife, is within a day or two of signing off on the last corrections to her new book, HOLE IN MY HEART, and very soon thereafter Amazon will be publishing it, making it available via Kindle or as a bound book, selling for a price yet to be determined, but probably around $12.00. What a long road it has been--five years, as many versions, always refining it and making it better. I'm proud to have traveled this road with her and done the little I could do to encourage and help her. The book is, as most of my readers will know, about giving up her daughter for adoption, reuniting with her years later, Lorraine's campaign to open adoption records, and her sometimes troubled, sometimes happy relationship with her daughter.

          From very long ago I have known that adoption was an iffy business at best. When I was eleven my cousin Joan came to live with us. She was sixteen and pregnant, and we were her safe haven, my mother hiding her in our small house, taking her out to the doctor only in big loose coats to prevent the neighbors knowing her condition, and Joan with the red eyes, the crying fits, and all the rest involved in such a profound loss as giving a child away entails. She never had a choice. Worse, the father of the child, a boy she loved, was told by his parents to spread the word that Joan had slept with a bunch of other kids as well as him, so how could they be sure--and help pay the costs--that their son was responsible? Joan, and Joan's life, was never the same. Her own mother was an alcoholic, and she used to tell me that my mother was the only real mother she had ever had. But my mother presided over the private adoption, arranged through the family doctor, that took her child from her.

          So I was not shocked or surprised when I met Lorraine and she told me her story--young woman, married man, the mess that is an affair and the sometimes terrible consequences. Shit happens. Happens all the time. People make mistakes, especially when they're young, and sometimes they suffer the consequences the rest of their lives. I already knew from Joan's experience something about the void the loss of a child creates in a woman's life, and while I also knew that adoption was sometimes the only solution for people, I knew it was a desperate solution, a tragic solution.

          That's largely because of the secrecy involved. And here, I realized when I started to think about it, was the crux of it. And the crime of it. According to the laws that dominate adoption in the United States, the mother who gives birth and whom circumstances force to give up her child is never to know what happened to him or her. While the adopted child is never to know who his actual parents are. You don't think this haunts them both? It certainly haunted Lorraine, as her book amply demonstrates. It also haunted her daughter, as her daughter's testimony in the book also amply demonstrates. For the adoptee, it means that she has no natural identity, and no right to it. She or he can never know whether she's of Irish heritage, or English, or Spanish, whether her or his grandmother also had red hair and big ears, who their flair for dancing or mathematics came from. On my mother's side I am descended from Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged at Salem for witchcraft in 1692. On my father's I am entirely Swedish, which accounts for my height, my square head, my quietness, and something of my natural calm. Quite apart from all the writing I've done in my life, my accomplishments, such as they are, and my relationships with other people, these things are a major part of my identity.

          And one's identity is a natural right. Fundamental to being human. What gives a government the right to mess with it? Nothing. The laws on adoption are an aberration, a disgrace, designed only to protect the adoptive parents from the loss of their illusion that they are the real and only parents, and the knowledge that their gain--some other woman's child--is that woman's tragedy. The United States was founded on natural law, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the right to one's own identity is without question part of that heritage. I cannot imagine myself without my own identity. As Lorraine's daughter testifies eloquently in Lorraine's book, adoptees walk around fantasizing about being the children of princesses, or somebody famous, or prostitutes; they make up scenarios; or they improvise identities. But they never really know. The right to know who you are has been taken away before they have any say whatever in the matter. They walk the earth always with this feeling of incompleteness, of missing something essential--who they really are--and always with this question--why was I given up? What's wrong with me?

          Lorraine has spent much of her adult life trying to get the laws changed. She reunited with her daughter, with my encouragement and that of friends, by paying a searcher many years ago. The story she tells in her book is poignant, sad, compelling. I cannot read parts of it without crying; I was there. Other parts make me laugh. It has the feel, the substance, of lived lives, in all their complexity; and it is all true. She and I, like all married couples, have our differences, but they vanish here, in our joint belief that adoption in America needs to be rethought and reconfigured, that a quiet but fundamental injustice has to be corrected. To that end, she has written one hell of a fine book. The kind you'll remember. It should be available in a week or so.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


April 15, 2015

          I have a piece out right now in Military History about the American intervention in the Russian Revolution in 1918 and '19, at the end of the First World War. I was thinking about it this morning reading the NYTimes after seeing a letter by someone talking about the weakness of Obama's foreign policy, which seems to be a mantra these days. Actually I rather like Obama's foreign policy. He's cautious. Woodrow Wilson was cautious, too. He's famous for wanting to make the world "safe for democracy," but what he's less famous for is not wanting to interfere with other nations' right to self-determination.

        Obama will be known historically for being realistic about the ability of the United States to affect the course of events internationally, and not wanting to start yet another stupid war in the Middle East. Maybe he's read history, knows that Afghanistan has always been at war with itself, has always resisted or ridden out foreign invasions, from Alexander the Great on, that's its citizens are all armed, that Afghan culture is divided into tribes, and two languages, and that warfare is part of their tradition. Maybe he has read enough to know that Iraq is a made-up country, a creature of the arbitrary "nation making" of the French and British at the end of the First World War, that it has no national history, little national feeling, and is radically and deeply divided on religious and tribal grounds, with the Sunni and Shia sects carrying on, incessantly, their mutual hatreds, which will extend far into the future. Democracy? The Middle East is theocratic, even Israel. The so-called nations there do best--i.e., do not stir up trouble with their neighbors--when under the control of dictators. I know, we don't want to think about that, but the wiser of the American politicians of the '40s and '50s, men like George Kennan or Dean Acheson, understood it well.

          Kennan has to be the guide to the American intervention in Russia in 1918, too. He wrote a two-volume study of it, the second volume of which I've read. It began when in 1917 Russia ended their participation in the war, made a separate peace with Germany, ceding the Germans an enormous amount of territory in the process, and freed up 40 German divisions to go fight in the West. The Allies were desperate to persuade, or force, the new Communist government to reopen the eastern front. The Allies were exhausted by the war, were running out of manpower, and knew the renewed strength on the German side might bring about their defeat. The Americans at the time were in the war but not ready to fight. So Churchill mounted a relentless effort to persuade Wilson to send American troops to both Murmansk and Archangel, in the west, and Vladivostok in the east. Wilson was extremely reluctant to do this. He felt it was up to the Russians to decide their own fate. He delayed for months. But ultimately Churchill got to him, he felt he no longer had a choice, and in the summer of 1918, even as American troops were beginning to make the difference on the Western Front, he sent troops, under British commanders (most of them incompetent), to fight the Bolsheviks in Russia.

          Machinations. Churchill wanted to revive the Eastern Front, yes, but he also wanted to do whatever he could to stop Communism while he thought it was possible. Churchill was arrogant, ambitious, aggressive. This was one of his many mistakes, nearly as big as Gallipoli. Wilson had no such intentions, he was only trying to please an ally. We can forgive him for this one, but we cannot forget. George Kennan makes the point that the Russians have certainly never forgotten, that their enmity to the United States begins in Murmansk, and that we lost, by this bungle, any opportunity we might have had to find some reasonable way to develop a mutually tolerant relationship with each other. The intervention itself was a disaster. Russia is huge. No one seemed to remember what happened to Napoleon when he invaded Russia. American soldiers died in the snow and swamps for nothing. When we left in 1919, all we had done is make a permanent enemy.

          Since the piece appeared I've heard from a couple of readers that, hey, if we'd only sent enough troops, we could have killed Communism in the cradle. Hawkish and unwise. Look at the history, check out the circumstances, and anyone can see it wasn't possible. Now we have yet more of the unwise, noisier than ever, trying to kill Obama's effort to reverse 50 years of hatred and distrust between the U. S. and Iran, which stem from equally hawkish and unwise actions on the part of the CIA when they managed to depose Mossadegh.

          We are not as strong as we think we are, and we are definitely not smart. Our nation is in decline by any number of standards. Yet all the hawks can think of is shock and awe. While our President, who seems to know the history, see the limitations, and understand the law of unintended consequences, pulls back from foolish threats and aggressive policies. There's a time for everything, but this is certainly not the time to pull us deeper into the rabbit hole that is the Middle East, and I have no confidence whatsoever that any of the Republican candidates has the wisdom to be cautious.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


March 11, 2015:

          I read a back issue of the New Yorker at Starbuck's yesterday morning and came upon a piece by Michael Pollan called "The Trip Treatment," about using psychedelic drugs to help cancer patients cope with their condition. It is a powerful piece about a powerful drug, psilocybin, the difficulties involved in doing research with it, especially in designing scientific experiments, since the results are all self-reported, and public attitudes about psychedelics. But what affected me the most was remembering my own experiment with a psychedelic, LSD, which I conducted on November 4, 1972, in a little cabin in the western Catskills near a village named Downsville.

          It was indeed an experiment. I had recently received a contract for what would be my first published book, the one I discussed last time in this space, Reality Police, about the mental health system. I knew that LSD was said to mimic a psychotic episode and I wanted to know what that was like before I actually checked myself into a mental hospital. So, with a couple of friends, one of whom had some LSD, we drove to Downsville, borrowed the cabin, and I and the friend who had the LSD took tabs, while the other friend kept tabs on us. It was a misty, cloudy day. The flies in the cabin, just warming up with our arrival, buzzed at the windows. Somebody put some music on. And it began.

          It was intense at first. Perceptions changed quickly. The flies, for example--the buzzing of the flies slowed down, organized itself, and became a kind of music, and the music was, in a way I cannot describe, beautiful. When I breathed, the room breathed with me. While my perceptions slowed down, my train of thought sped up. Long meditations on subjects like the order of things, the question of whether our lives are fated or chosen, and other subjects that seemed to go on for an hour, each of them, had taken, when I looked at my watch, a few minutes at most. In the midst of this I could sense, even caught a glimpse of, other presences in the room, three of them, and realized that each of us had a guardian with us, they floated about two feet off the floor, and they were talking about us among themselves. They made me feel safe, and I was never afraid during this entire experience. And it continued to build. I thought about who I was and how I had gotten there, and came to marvel at the immensely long train of events that creates each one of us, the apparent infinity of accidents that point one forebear down this road rather than that to meet the woman or man he or she will marry, only to create this other forebear, rather than someone else entirely. And how precise this process is, and yet at the same time how fluid, and how fixed fate and loose freedom intermingle and work together and fill the universe with this splendid dance of life.

          We had been listening to baroque music, Bach, Haydn and the like, but I found it too slow and not very interesting, so somebody put on Ravi Shankar, the great Indian sitarist, and I realized at once that this was the true music of the gods, and a kind of ecstasy flowed into my mind. It was like wisdom pouring into me. Presuppositions, limits in the mind were melting away. By this time I was lying on the cabin's one bed and beginning to tremble and the friend who had not taken acid came over to see if I was OK, and she said out loud exactly what I was thinking--whatever I'm experiencing, this is how things are; this is the way the world really works. And that sense of being let into the actual, into reality, at its deepest level, has stayed with me ever since, for more than fifty years. She gave me thorazine to bring me down, but it only brought me down partway. I remember walking out of the cabin into the dull November light and looking at the surrounding hills and thinking that there was nothing beyond them, that we had to go out and create the world at every minute, that the universe is empty except we fill it up. That it's all far, far stranger than we think.

          I've never taken acid again, but I would like to have it available if I know I'm dying. The cancer patients they're experimenting with at a few selected hospitals do know they're dying, and they pretty much all say the same thing after they've taken psilocybin. They achieve a level of calm, of acceptance, even of happiness that no one could have predicted. When I read this, I started to cry, very quietly, because this was Starbuck's, but real tears nevertheless. For what, I'm not sure. Myself and my own mortality? Out of compassion for those patients? Because we die without knowing essential things about life and death, and usually in fear? Because I will never get over my mother's Alzheimer's and the seven years she spent in a nursing home, not dying but wasting to nothing? We all seek the peace that passes understanding. So few of us attain it. But I had it for that day, and it has never entirely left me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


February 18, 2015:

          An op-ed piece in today's NYTimes brings to mind once more the eleven days I spent in Hudson River Psychiatric Hospital so many years ago, checking myself in--or being checked in by a friend--in order to find out what it was like to be a mental patient. I was doing research for a book, eventually called Reality Police, on the mental health system and no one at the hospital knew about my deception. They thought I was a real patient. I wasn't. I was taking notes. My friend told the admitting doctor that he had picked me up on the road, let me stay in one of his cabins, and I had smashed a radio with an ax. I had been hearing my separated wife's voice on the radio when it wasn't turned on accusing me of things, and he had brought me in. I just sat there while he told this story and stared at the floor. They gave me a shot of thorazine and put me on a ward where I slept on a bed with sheets, and under them rubber sheets. Everybody else on that ward was a real patient.

          Eleven days. Orderlies checking your mouth after they administered the drugs to make sure you had swallowed them. Once in a while, group therapy, if you were lucky. Bad food--that goes without saying. Other patients who were in some cases weird, like the guy who walked around, never said a word, and picked things up off the floor to put in his mouth (his own turds on one occasion), another guy who, at every meal, obsessively took nine or ten slices of bread, a third who had a cassette recorder, plugged a different tape into it every thirty seconds or so, never listened to a song all the way through. Frantic energy on his part. Add that to the noise from the ward TV set, which went 24 hours a day.

          And there were patients who weren't weird at all, just quiet. You talked to them, listened to their problems, and you saw that they weren't so much crazy, as far as you could make out, but just couldn't manage daily life, literally didn't know how to live. There was a pathetic air about them that was sort of touching. You felt for them. These are the ones who wound up in programs designed to teach them how to manage in the world. The one I remember is the box-making program. Cardboard boxes. Several of them were in this program, and they all knew how demeaning it was. How limited their lives were always going to be. How impossible it would be ever to be proud of themselves. It made them permanently anxious.

          The piece in the Times is by Christine Montross, a psychiatrist, and she writes about the necessity of re-opening the old giant mental hospitals, which is what Hudson River Psychiatric was, because the closing of them in the last quarter of the twentieth century merely substituted one institution for another--hospitals for jails and prisons. At the time I was writing, drugs like Thorazine were suppressing schizophrenic symptoms and making it possible for patients, once they were stabilized, to re-enter the community. The drugs had inspired the movement for community mental health centers to serve as transition facilities. But the money never really became available. The mental hospitals had always been a huge budgetary load on the states, intensified by the powerful unions that represented the people who worked in them. Once relieved of that burden, they breathed a sigh of relief and forgot the mental patients. As for the drugs, they had awful side effects, and lots of patients stopped taking them once they were free of supervision.

          And that's how things stand today. Historically, nobody has ever known what to do with, or about, the severely mentally ill, and that's still true. They are not, as the public supposes, violent, although a few are. Mostly they're just badly damaged, for reasons that remain hidden in brain chemistry, or in deep childhood, or whenever the bad luck intent on doing you in takes root in your soul. Back to the state hospitals? The Supreme Court ruled years ago that you can't confine, against their will, people who have committed no crime  unless they're a danger to themselves and others. The bulk of mental patients aren't a danger to anyone. We can't go back. And because psychiatry doesn't actually have answers, to put people in its charge is not necessarily a good thing. On that subject, you can read my book, if you can find it.

          Ah yes, my book. It never sold out its first printing. I was sued for libel. Defending myself cost me nearly $50,000. The case was ultimately thrown out, but that took nearly eight years. When it was remaindered for forty-nine cents apiece I literally could not afford to buy more than one copy. So much for muckraking. I did wind up on some television shows, but that changed nothing. According to a FB friend who has read my book and had some experience with the mental health system, nothing has changed. With much that is wrong with the world, nothing changes. For so many people, it's a bitter place.

          For my readers, by the way, I have decided to allow comments. For the first time. I can't promise that I'll post them all. Through my wife's blog I've seen how often comments are nasty and/or uninformed. Be interesting to see what, if anything, happens.


Friday, January 2, 2015


January 2, 2015:

          I was at a New Year's Day brunch yesterday and the talk in my corner of the room moved to some recent atrocity, I think the beheadings underway in Syria, which seem particularly gruesome, but I couldn't let it rest there. Since I've been writing so much military history in the last three years, for Military History magazine, as it happens, I've become fairly familiar with atrocities, and a few beheadings no longer strike me as unusual, or even significant, in the larger scheme of things. A story of mine about to go into print in  MHQ, which is Military History Quarterly for short, about the rebellion in the Vendee, an area of France, in 1793, ends with atrocities on a massive scale. The rebellion was an armed protest against the French Revolution, which had disenfranchised this very Catholic, very traditional area's priests, among other things, and when it was crushed it wasn't just crushed. The French army suppressing the rebellion proceeded to do everything it could, under orders from Paris, to wipe out the entire area, killing everyone in it.

          The most conservative estimate is that they killed 250,000 people; other estimates are higher. They trampled children under the hooves of horses; they put priests and other people on rafts in the Loire, stripped them of their clothes, tied them to the rafts, and then sank them. In one town 2,000 people were guillotined. Crops were burned, livestock killed, farms destroyed. They turned the place into a wasteland. In France it is known as the first modern genocide. In the world at large it is not known at all.

          I did a story on Yugoslavia in World War II, where astonishing atrocities were enacted, not just by the Nazis but by Croats against Serbs, Serbs against Muslims, Albanians against just about everybody. People were half buried in pits, from the waist down, and then skinned alive and left to scream; the area would be booby trapped so that anybody coming to their rescue would be blown up. During Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812 the Cossacks would seize stray French soldiers, strip them of their clothes, and then leave them to freeze to death in the empty, shelterless steppes in the middle of December. Holes in the walls of a military hospital on the retreat route were stopped up with frozen body parts. There was no shortage of them. Puritan colonists in King Philip's War in the 1680s committed unspeakable acts against the Indians, burning entire villages with the villagers in them; the Indians did the same back. Range the world, it is everywhere the same. Cruelty, savagery, horror are common, and no one is innocent.

          So we should not expect Americans to be any better. They weren't. They aren't. Much has been made about the exposure of torture by the CIA in its interrogation of suspected terrorists, or of people who might have information about terrorist activity. The editorial pages profess to be shocked. Which only shows what short memories we have. I read a piece recently about lynching in the South during the '20s and '30s. These events were not always, or even often, spontaneous acts of rage and intolerance. Many of them were planned weeks in advance. Black men would be taken from prisons, tortured, and then hanged in front of large crowds, with people serving food on the fringes. A carnival atmosphere. We currently have one of the largest prison populations in the world. Rape and all manner of other horrors are common in this population. Does anyone think American soldiers did not commit atrocities during World War II? Think again. American soldiers waterboarded people in the Philippines in the early 20th century. Myths about American "innocence" or "moral superiority" dissipate in this context.

          I've told people that I always wanted to live in the real world, which turns out to be very difficult to do. Not only is it hard to tell what's "real" in any given situation, it is also the case that most people would rather not know. It's so much more comfortable to cling to the myths. This is what lets the Dick Cheneys of this world thrive, and commit war crimes with impunity. As newspapers fade away, as investigative journalism dies, people like Cheney in positions of power develop a contempt for the public and its unwillingness not only to accept the way things really are, in their view at any rate, but the kind of behavior the way things really are requires in response. In their view, terrorism requires torture. In their view, to quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, "you"--that would be us--"can't handle the truth."

          And we can't, apparently. Americans are not morally superior to the citizens of other countries, and America is not some sort of great good place where everything is the best and for the best and the people are kind and thoughtful. And the fairy godmother leaves quarters for children's baby teeth. To quote Hemingway this time--"isn't it pretty to think so."

Monday, December 1, 2014


December 1, 2014:

          If it's a choice between eating and reading, said Erasmus, buy books.

          Well, that's a little extreme, I suppose. I bring it up because a brand new book store has opened in Sag Harbor, called Harbor Books, at a time when independent bookstores are closing all over the country, Barnes & Noble can't seem to thrive, and, from my end, as a writer, it's harder and harder to get books published. But here is a sign of hope--a new bookstore, with a young lady as a proprietor. And another sign: a niece of my wife's has let it be known that she, too, collects books, she's a registered nurse, and one doesn't often hear of registered nurses collecting books. Signed copies, in her case. I'm impressed.

          I have signed copies, too. Dozens of them. But then I'm a writer, and writer friends sign copies of their books for me and my wife whenever they appear, or whenever we ask them to. I have thousands of other books, too, but then I'm a writer, mine is a working library, and almost all my books are associated in one way or another with subjects I myself hope to write about someday.

          Which is not to say that I don't collect books. I have been doing that all my adult life and once had a collection of rare books that impressed some people, although it didn't much impress me because so many of my purchases were targets of opportunity. I would find odd or intriguing volumes in the used book stores I  haunted in New York City or wherever else I found myself and snatch them up. One of my favorites--a little volume from the 1850s or so called "How to Be Pretty though Plain"--I bought simply for its title. Another, from just after the Civil War: "Is a Lie Ever Justifiable?" I used that once in a talk I gave before a chapter of the Ethical Culture Society, where I told my audience a story from that book, about a plan Union prisoners had cooked up to escape from the infamous Andersonville Prison Camp in the South. But it involved telling a lie and an essential member of this escape plan refused to do that. On principle. Then I asked the audience what they would have done, and why, and it began a lively discussion which obviated the need for me to lecture them.

          I also have other old books that don't fit a pattern, books I bought because they weren't beyond my means and they were interesting in themselves. My oldest book came from an antique shop in upstate New York where the woman had no idea what it was. It is a small pocket-size edition of one of Cicero's philosophical works, in Latin, of course, it's handsomely bound in its original vellum binding, and it was published by the Aldine Press in Venice in 1546. I take it off the shelf sometimes to show friends what an old book looks like: beautifully printed on hand-made paper with no wood pulp anywhere nearby when it was made, so the paper is still white and fresh. The Aldine Press, founded by Aldus Manutius, was one of the great presses of the Renaissance. I paid $10 for it. Because somebody once used what looks like red crayon on a few pages, it's not worth much, but I don't want to sell it anyway. I was also able to buy quite cheaply at auction many, many years ago a copy of the first, 1710 folio edition of Nicholas Rowe's translation of Lucan's "Pharsalia," his epic poem on the civil wars in Italy between Caesar, Pompey, and the rest. I'll have that until I die, too. The full-leather binding is a mess, but internally the book is fine, it's full of wonderful etchings in great condition, and it gives me pleasure just to look at it once in a while. To get it rebound would cost probably $1,000 or more, which I don't have, so I'm happy to keep it. I've sold most of my rare books, the Modern Firsts, the 17th-century editions of English translations of the classics and the like, but these few I'll keep. And the working library, which I trim once in a while, sometimes dramatically, I have to keep. It's my life.

          But despite the two little hopeful signs I mentioned above, the sense of decline that pervades high culture in this country persists, and grows, and I, for one, feel like a dinosaur staring up at the approaching asteroid that's going to wipe me and my kind off the face of the earth. Anyone who collects books, who thinks that reading, the acquisition of knowledge, intellectual passion, is the highest pleasure life offers, cannot view the creep of ignorance, outright stupidity, and determined anti-intellectualism that seems to be one of the pillars of American self-esteem  penetrate into every corner of our national life without despairing. Young people abjure books. College students don't know who fought the Civil War. Congressmen who ought to be versed in American history don't know anything. In the book collecting world I know so well, rich  people no longer buy anything but the big highlights, "The Great Gatsby" in original dust jacket for two or three hundred thousand dollars (but no other Fitzgerald), "Moby Dick" for an astronomical amount (but no other Melville), "Ulysses" for a small fortune (but nothing else by James Joyce). This is trophy collecting, not book collecting--see, my checkbook is bigger than yours.

          I know, this is an old fart's lament. But it is connected--when Congressmen tell you that they're "not scientists" and therefore won't answer questions about global warming, well, guess what? It's their JOB to educate themselves about issues, however technical (and there's nothing that complicated about global warming), because they vote on them. I consider it my job as a citizen to keep myself informed about issues as well, because I, too, vote on them. And educating yourself means reading books. No other way is so thorough or leads to more knowledge and more understanding. But the dumbing down continues unabated, shamelessly, unconscionably, and the nation seems to be increasingly proud of its ignorance.

          What do you get from reading? A wider world. Insight. Understanding. It's like travel--it broadens the mind. It leads you to think. It can't make you think, but it offers the opportunity. It's like Mark Twain's discovery when he first saw India and the Indian people that their dark skin had a kind of glow to it, and that the colors they wore were beautiful and wild, and that he was utterly entranced.

          If you have to make that choice, in short, between eating and reading, buy books.

Monday, November 10, 2014


November 10, 2014:

          Thanks to my wife's get-up-and-go, she is now the theater reviewer for a local paper, which gets us free tickets to all the local plays, musicals, what-have-yous, and it has been a boon. Yesterday we went to see a production of Hamlet, locally produced but with some professional actors, and to prepare for that we watched the BBC production of Hamlet the night before. It was on CD and it starred Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, Claire Bloom, and other English actors. It was magnificent. The local play? Not so much.

          Hamlet is one of those touchstone plays, a measure of greatness in the theater, and everyone wants a shot at it. I've seen it a number of times, both on the stage and in the movies. I saw the Mel Gibson version, out of curiosity, to see what somebody like him would make of the part. I saw Richard Burton play Hamlet in Toronto, on the second evening of his tour in Canada and the U. S. Probably everyone has seen Olivier's movie version. The merit of the BBC production, besides the fact that it is so wonderfully acted, is that it presents the whole play, uncut. Most versions are cut. Uncut, it runs very close to four hours. Yesterday's version ran a little over an hour shorter. Even at that length it's long, and you have to admire the courage of the people who undertook it.

          In any case, having seen so many versions of it, I was wondering this morning what it takes an actor to inhabit such a complex part as Hamlet is, as opposed to merely acting it. Hamlet is sly, clever, devious. He is full of passion. He feigns madness, and may sometimes feel mad. He is brilliant. He cannot bring himself to do the thing he knows he must. He is witty. He mourns; he is melancholy; he is intense. He is resolutely indecisive. He loves; he hates. How does an actor transform himself into such a person? The local player yesterday seemed not to know; he was uniformly bland. He had memorized the lines, a feat in itself, he spoke them clearly, and he has trained in England to do Shakespeare, according to his biography, but only a certain emotional depth could prepare a man for this part.
          Emotional depth--and what is that? Tragedy is about emotional depth. It is about suffering, loss of all kinds, the crushing of hopes, running out of time. It is about the acquisition of wisdom. Nations must go through these things to become wise, just as human beings do. Is Hamlet wise at the end? Yes, he is at last. Fully equipped both to act out his revenge, and to bear the burden of the costs entailed in it.  But I wonder whether Americans in general are suited to play this part. We are not as a nation wise, as it is easy to see from the way we conduct foreign policy, our lack of education, the grotesque lack of intelligence in our Congress, our anti-intellectualism. The distance of our image of ourselves from the reality. The actor yesterday did not give the sense of having lived enough. He "got" only one or two aspects of the character. So it all too often is with America. We "get," as a nation and as a public, only one or two aspects of situations that in fact are extremely complex and difficult. We are the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. We aren't ready yet to play the hero in the continuous tragedy of our time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


October 29, 2014:

          No doubt like many of yours, my email inbox has been bombarded with political appeals, almost all of them for money, from the Democratic Party, mostly with scare quotes along the lines of "we're ruined," or "it's too late" or any number of other themes to the effect that my $5 is going to make all the difference. I did at one point give them a small amount of money, which only intensified the whole process. Four, five, ten appeals a day.

          But I can't blame them. In more ways than one, politics is all about money, who has it and who doesn't and how to best implement the getting of it, for one group or another. I was thinking about this at Starbuck's this morning while reading a review of a book about the great English political philosopher Edmund Burke, and the review emphasized the complexity of his thought and this somehow led me to think about the complexity of economies, the enormous minuet of products, buying and selling, worldwide trade, building and tearing down, banks, stocks and bonds, on and on and, well, here I am, wondering how far the Republicans will go if they win both houses of Congress. Because Republicans do not believe in complexity. In the name of what they call the free market, they will do their best to simplify, as they have to been trying to do for many years, the economy, and eliminate as many Federal regulations as they can. And that will be a disaster.

          The free market. What a joke that is. The free market will regulate itself, they claim. Right. Do away with the Food and Drug Administration and its rules and regulations and what will happen? Why, it stands to reason in their minds, evidently, contaminated food will be driven out by uncontaminated food, which will certainly happen in a free market, people being as rational as they supposedly are. So it stands to reason that producers should be allowed to sell contaminated food because the market will take care of it? Really? We should take the federal inspectors out of the meat factories, the state inspectors out of the restaurants, and the drug testers out of their labs, and let the public sort if out on their own? What this means is clear enough. Members of the public will die in the service of this thing called the free market, until the public as a whole finally figures out, WTF--we're  supposed to be guinea pigs for cutthroat capitalism?

         Regulations are not historically something an evil government dreamed up to control our lives, our entrepreneurial instincts. Ultimately regulations come from the public, not the government itself. They come from public demands, developed over time in a host of different industries, for safety and efficiency--for safe meat, safe drugs, safe air travel, safe and efficient roads. Would the Republicans want to eliminate the air traffic regulations that ensure planes don't start crashing into each other? Or is this BS about the free  market, as the cynical among us believe, all about the Koch brothers, the vast sums of money they invest in buying political power, and eliminating the rules that govern carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere? The Koch brothers, it would appear, would happily burn us all into oblivion if it increased their profits on a carload of coal.

          This has been going on for well over a century. Miners died by the thousands until regulations were instituted to make mining  safer for miners. They still die because mine owners ignore those regulations--it's always cheaper to ignore them--and try to get away with it. Does anybody really think that the public all by itself will inquire as to where the coal that fires power plants comes from, thereby singling out bad producers from good, as if that were even possible? We the public demand regulations because it's obvious that industries of all kinds will not police themselves, will not and do not if they can get away with it. Because it's all about money. Industry is not about public service, it's about profit for the owners of industry. The Center for Disease Control--will they want to get rid of that, too? Witness the panic generated by the current Ebola crisis, way out of proportion to the actual danger. The public demands protection. The government complies. All that regulatory paperwork--my Republican brother used to complain about it, on behalf of his business clients--well, the paperwork comes out of business itself, out of its crimes against the public, its indifference to the public good, its exclusive interest in profit.

          In local communities, we take regulation for granted. We have zoning regulations, regulations on the size of houses on lots, school safety regulations, sewer treatment regulations, and we rely on them. I, personally, am not fond of shitting in the woods, and don't want to take a walk in any woods where people do this. So it's against the law, except, perhaps, in Alaska. I want environmental regulations that prevent the fouling of water supplies. In my community I founded and was the first chairman of the local architectural review board and we had the power to deny building applications because the architecture or some other facet of the building did not conform to various standards, including aesthetic standards. One result? Our little village was recently voted by an American planning associations as having one of the ten best main streets in the United States. How many main streets have we all seen made ugly by a community's failure to regulate?

          Republicans seem prepared to let business do whatever it wants, wherever it wants. That's their definition of freedom. This is not freedom, it's license. A totally different thing. We have regulations, rules, laws because we need them, and because we want them. "The main business of America is business," said Calvin Coolidge. Not so, Calvin. Calvin must never have read the founders, who understood perfectly well that a commitment to freedom was not equivalent to a commitment to profit. Jefferson died broke. George Washington gave up profit when he freed his slaves in his will. Things are much more complex than the Republicans want us to think.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


October 9, 2014:

          The other day I sent in to my editor at one of the history magazines I write for an account of the uprising in the Vendee in 1793, which is considered the defining event of the French counter-revolution, the only event during the counter-revolution  in which armed conflict predominated and a real, if short-lived war took place. The French government, then controlled by Jacobins--who would all soon lose their heads when something akin to sanity returned to France--, won this war and followed it with what is thought to be the first modern genocide, in which government troops devastated the Vendee area and killed every man, woman, and child they could find. One officer wrote, with a certain pride, that he had trampled children under his horse's hooves. Another oversaw the drowning of at least 2,000 people in the Loire. They were tied naked to rafts (clothes were booty to the soldiers) that were designed to sink as soon as the stopcocks were pulled out. Livestock was killed, farms were burnt. One expert in Paris suggested that they poison the wells. Another suggested gassing these people.

          This is one reason to read history. It has all happened before. The Vendee had a population of 800,000 people. Estimates of the number killed range from 40,000 to 600,000. Simon Schama, in his history of the French Revolution, thinks the number was about 250,000. That is indeed genocide.

          And now I read that the fanatic ISIS group in Syria and Iraq is busy killing people who are not as fanatic as they are in large numbers, as brutally as possible, and that the Kurds are next in line. Blood baths. Common throughout history.

          What a mess the world is in. Here, in our own country, we have a vast dumbing down, not just of the electorate, but of our own representatives, the people who are supposed to lead us. The Republican party has officially adopted the anti-scientific stance that global warming is a hoax, and those among us who owe nothing to the Koch brothers or the power companies find this astonishing. The scientific evidence for it is overwhelming. On the religious right a similar stance holds strong against evolution, even while the evidence for evolution becomes increasingly incontrovertible and no doubt remains as to its reality. Meanwhile the election of a black president has not, as many of us hoped, been an indication that racism in America was on its way out. On the contrary, the election of a black president has revealed levels of racism in the country that the more hopeful among us thought had been buried decades ago.

          I was not among the more hopeful. I have always believed that racism will decline only when intermarriage is widespread and people are everywhere light brown. History teaches you not to be very hopeful about human beings. History, as the historian Gordon Wood has said, teaches you caution, prudence, and, as I have mentioned before, all about the law of unintended consequences. Things very seldom work out the way we intended. History taught me long ago that Western values are not universal, that you cannot impose democracy from above on tribal people. Just as Native Americans could not be changed into farmers, as Jefferson and many others hoped, Arab tribes cannot be transformed into something called "nations."

          And religious fanaticism cannot be eliminated. Nicholas Kristof reminds us in today's Times that the Muslim religion has, for the most part, in its history, been tolerant, and that most Muslims today remain tolerant; but there are always fanatics, true believers, in every religion, every ideology. There are people who cannot abide doubt, even though doubt is THE fundamental consequence of being human, being conscious and self-conscious, because we do not know, cannot know, what happens to us when we die. It is so comforting--or so I imagine, being full of doubt myself--to believe in something like Heaven. A heaven of 72 virgins, if you are sex-obsessed, or a heaven of singing angels and green fields that go on forever, as you presumably will, too. A heaven of universal love, all conflict gone, all opinions moot, with a Father who will be eternally kind. Just read my Book. Etc.

          History goes on and on, both the writing of it and the living of it. It is always messy. There are always wars, there always will be, and the weapons, if not ourselves, will get smarter and smarter. There is always conflict, fanaticism, always people who cannot abide that you think and believe differently from them, that you live a different truth. For them it raises that awful possibility, doubt. For an historian, and I have read a great deal of it, human history is an appalling record of hatreds, futilities, error, interspersed with remarkable feats of heroism, sacrifice, and what is clearly love, the love of doing some good in the world, the love of other people. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that in the end the arc of history leans toward justice. Maybe. We can only hope so.

          But I doubt it.