Tuesday, December 21, 2010


December 21, 2010:

Yes, 7,000 books. I haven't actually counted them; what I did was count the books on a few standard-length shelves, then count the shelves, then guess the numbers of books piled up on various floors, and finally guess the number in storage. Doing this is to be reminded of Henry David Thoreau's rueful remark to somebody, possibly Emerson, after his publisher sent him the two or three hundred copies of his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that had failed to sell (the bulk of the printing), that he now had a library of six hundred books, about half of which he had written himself. I have something similar, several cartons of books I edited for the National Geographic Society Press, but I don't count those as part of my library. I'm trying to find a place to give them away to, but can't imagine why anybody would want eight or nine copies of, say, Sven Hedin's My Life as an Explorer, fascinating as it is.

The other day I picked up a book that's been kicking around my library for many years, Roland Barthes's Mythologies. It, too, is a fascinating book, and I looked through it to see what I had made of it when I first read it, because it's full of my notes. I had bought it in the early 1970s from England--I once had an account at Blackwell's, the Oxford bookseller--because English books were a bit cheaper than American books, and the bookseller's catalogues were far more interesting, and also because I wanted to keep up with French thought, which was beginning to take over humanities studies in this country. I thought it might provide a method; at the time I was trying to figure out how to approach the American dream. I had a contract to write a book about the history of the American dream, and it seemed clear to me that the American dream was a myth, but it wasn't clear what kind, or how it worked in the culture. And I thought Barthes might provide a way to think about such things.

The book turned out not to be all that helpful; rereading the book, I find myself as puzzled now as I was then by Barthes's analyses. On the ways the public "reads" particular events, like a wrestling match, or particular things, like wine and milk, he's brilliant. Wine, for example, he calls a "resilient totem," which is an excellent phrase, and notes that it "supports a varied mythology which does not trouble about contradictions." For the common man, wine connects him to his Frenchness; everyone 'knows' that French wine is the best, and that only the French really understand wine. For the writer, however, it serves another function. "The local white wine or the beaujolais of the writer is meant to cut him off from the all too expected environment of cocktails and expensive drinks (the only ones which snobbishness leads one to offer him). Wine will deliver him from myths, will remove some of his intellectualism," will turn him into a man of the people, in short, connect him with the proletariat he longs to relate to, make him more virile, and so on. It's amusing and illuminating; we all know intellectuals who hang out in bars because that's where the "real people" are, the carpenters and plumbers who play darts and watch football and occasionally get into fights.

But when Barthes writes about the more abstract questions of how myths operate semiotically, it becomes much harder to follow his distinctions. Here my old notes express confusion and frustration, and as I read the section over again I am no clearer on what Barthes is trying to say.

Nevertheless I love this book. It is, for one thing, quite handsome. The dust jacket is a soft purple, darkened with age, and the back cover holds a full-page photo of Barthes himself, looking sideways at the camera, a cigarette in his right hand, which rests on an open book--what is a French intellectual without his cigarette?--and a small, dry smile on his face, itself handsome and somehow very French. The book has been moved many times, from residence to residence; it has been packed in boxes, rearranged on shelves, and it shows its wear, not only internally with my notes--my handwriting has hardly changed at all in the last thirty or forty years--but externally, with little scuff marks, a scratch or two, and the oil that has come off my skin and soaked into the paper of the jacket and lent it a certain patina. We talk about rooms looking lived in. Books can look lived in, too, and one of the pleasures of collecting rare books is precisely this lived-in look they acquire with age; it is the smell, the feel of them, and their aura. I once owned a book that belonged to Daniel Webster; it had his signature in it, on the front free endpaper (in rare book parlance that's FFE), very firmly, boldly written. It is fatal to grow attached to books, or to anything, and I have sold thousands of my books over the years, including the rarest, but their beauty simply as objects, quite apart from whatever knowledge or pleasure the reading of them reveals, continues to attract me. They are the other half of a relationship that is in some ways like a friendship. Whom shall I be talking with today? The difficult Barthes, or shall I once again follow the elderly American Lambert Strether as he walks the streets of Paris for the very first time and begins to understand that the life he has not had any opportunity to lead is the life he was meant for. That, of course, is Henry James, the book is The Ambassadors, I've read it twice and my copy of it, which is not distinguished in any way, is also something I love. Because the text is not just a text, available on an electronic device nobody could possibly love. It is a physical thing, paper, cardboard, cloth, glue, ink. It has a feel and a familiarity that makes it yours in a way no electronic gadget can supply.

The only thing I have from my parents' house, my house, besides a few pictures and the family photographs, is a small round table that holds books in a revolving case beneath the top. I asked my mother for it and she gave it to me on the spot. I remember my father after he retired reading the World Book Encyclopedia, which they had bought for my brother and me to help us with our schoolwork, volume by volume, cover to cover. Sometimes I wonder where it came from, the various intellectual passions, the insatiable curiosity. Was it indeed my father? Does it come from forebears at all? I don't know. I'm probably living out my own mythology, trying to be the hero of my own story, the last independent scholar. It certainly seems so. And so it may be: learning may not be the way to enlightenment. But it's the way I chose and I'm not going to change now. What's the Zen saying? Live as if you were going to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were going to live forever. Exactly. If I thought I were going to die tomorrow, what would I be doing now? I would be reading one of my books.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


December 16, 2010

Our front porch is enclosed and semi-heated, although it faces northwest and nothing facing northwest, which is where Canadian cold fronts come from, is ever going to be really warm here except in summer; but it doesn't matter, we don't use it anyway even though I have a large desk there. I actually work upstairs. The large desk mostly holds the bills. And the room itself holds books. When people walk in through our front door they pass through this room, and it is not uncommon for them to say, I love this room, or words to that effect. They have a vision of themselves taking a year off and finding a nice chair someplace and burrowing through the books to their hearts' content, nothing to stop them from reading and reading, and reading some more.

I had lunch with my friend Ken Robbins today and he told me about somebody he knows, or knows of, whom he calls a "peripatetic reader." This is a person who reads while he walks, holding a book in front of his face as he ambles down the street or across the room; he reads, he says, up to 18 hours a day, and at the same time manages to navigate the world. Remarkable. As a result, says Ken, he's incredibly erudite. I also would sometimes like to be incredibly erudite, drop appropriate quotations into conversation, add facts to arguments that completely destroy one position or maybe its opposite, call in examples from Darwin or refer to Shroedinger's cat while discussing Keats: dazzle, in short. I've never been particularly dazzling. Not aggressive enough, too unsure of my ground. My trouble is that I never think I know enough. I have all these books, 7,000 of them, but I don't pretend to know all that much. Well, OK--sometimes I do pretend, but in fact I'm well aware of my limitations.

The truth is, it's not all that easy living with so many books. They sit on your shelves and stare at you, wanting your attention. You look at a book you decided to keep when it came in for review and you wonder, what happened to the great interest I once had in this subject? and you realize, the interest has faded. Or it's there, dormant, but you don't have time for it now. And it's not just the time reading takes. I sometimes pick a book off my shelf to read and find that I've already read it; the margins are pockmarked with my notes. Yet I have no memory of what's in the book, and I don't remember when I might have read it. Are the filing cabinets in my brain full? Can nothing more be jammed in there? And books do take so much time. In the midst of life, bedeviled by errands, meals, friendship, sleep, movies and TV, parties, gardening, and the endless task of straightening up the house, it might take months to read a really long book. It took months to read Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder, which I loved; but it was a really long book, I had to fit it in to my other work, and into my life, and it took months. Who has months? Sometimes I think I should have just one book, or a few. Three hundred years ago most people had a Bible, and not much else. Maybe a Book of Common Prayer, or an almanac. They would know those books extremely well, I imagine. Whereas I know a great many books, none of them well at all. If I had to confine myself to a hundred books out of my library, which ones would I choose? Probably they would all be classics, books that the experience of centuries of readers has certified as what lasts. But think of the difficulty of so drastically refurnishing one's mind! I might be too old to do it. The fox knows many things, as Tolstoy said, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Well, I'm a fox by nature. I can't be content to know just one thing well; I have to know a great many things, if only superficially.

I've had two significant dreams about books in my life. In one, I came upon a large tower of books, a four-sided bookcase three feet taller than myself, and all the books in it were bound in leather, they were eighteenth-century books, and they were mine. But they were ruinous. Water damage, fire, something had ruined them. In the second, a similar event: upstairs on the third floor of my dacha was my library, low bookshelves under the windows on all floor walls of the room. They were all in Russian. But the roof was open to the sky and the books were soggy, unreadable, papier mache. I have no idea whether these dreams about books have any significance. But they were deeply disturbing, and I have not forgotten them.

And at the back of my mind, Socrates, who professed to know nothing, and was always asking his pupils for instruction and then reasoning with them to show them that they, too, did not know what they thought they knew. That's one reason, perhaps, why history attracts me--at least it's over. It's not still happening. It's fixed. But of course it is still happening; history drives through us like, to mangle Dylan Thomas's line, the flower drives through its green fuse. We are the fruit of all the centuries before us, and what those centuries were, what they meant, is not revealed until we come along, and understand it at last. And, obviously, this is a continuous process. So, Socrates: there is no solid knowledge. We drift about on a sea of uncertainty, and for the most part this sea is far too deep for any anchor to find bottom. I could read all 7,000 books in the house and I would not be any closer to wisdom.

Well, maybe a little.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


December 7, 2010:

I woke up at five-thirty this morning from a dream in which somebody was pounding on the door, or the floor, and could not go back to sleep. Yesterday's blog entry--that poem--I knew something was wrong. You always know something is wrong. I can't tell you how many versions of it I've been through, lengthening the list, shortening it, trying to find out what it needed. It needed something. Even when I had posted it yesterday I kept going back to it, changing a word, two words, but focusing on the last line. It was the last line that really bothered me. It was weak, didn't quite convey what I wanted, which was that sense at night when you hear the trains in the distance, as I used to do when I was a child, and you can't sleep, that sense of distance, of things passing away and passing you by, of loss and loneliness; and all that was congruent with the mood of the poem and I thought it was just a matter of finding the right combination that suggested that. But it didn't feel right. It felt clumsy and obvious.

So here I am, fresh from my own sleeplessness, after struggling with this and trying to doze off and failing, with the newest version. I can't promise that I'm done with it, but this one is better, I think, and it tells us more about this person and how much he's holding inside; and maybe it even says something about pain. I don't know. You tell me.


Sunlight folded into the window curtains.

The five doors out of the house, the seventeen inside.

A cherry side table we both wanted once.

Your translation of Proust, and mine.

The wall clock in the kitchen, still ticking.

The wedding photograph in its Tiffany frame.

Lamplight and solitude in the long evening.

Train whistles screaming through the night.

Let me add that my mother had an old cherry side table, and my brother took it into his house when she died. It was a beautiful table. The doors into the house are now "out of the house," the connotation being that the house is, in a sense, a trap; and why five? I once lived in a big old house that had five such doors, during my first marriage. It also had more than sixty windows. Poems are made of these bits and pieces, personal and impersonal. We've all seen wedding photos in Tiffany frames, but I've never owned one. Wall clocks always work, don't they, and go on working, and time always passes.

But I say too much. I like this version better, and it's now after eight, and I can forget about this poem for a while. Until I see something in it, at any rate, that shouldn't be there, or something else that should. I'll let you know if that happens.

Monday, December 6, 2010


December 6, 2010:
I sent four of my poems to TLS (the Times Literary Supplement) on Saturday. I wrote them all many years ago, when I still had ambitions to be a published poet. At the time I had no reason to think I couldn't be a published poet; TLS had taken a poem of mine at that time, and shortly after several other publications took poems. The late Ian Hamilton was the poetry editor of TLS then, my college friend Michael Fried was Hamilton's friend and living in England as a Rhodes Scholar, he recommended the poem to Hamilton, and voila! there I was, in print. TLS was the first publication to pay me for something I had written; ultimately a check came for $7.63, or something close to that--three pounds in English money. The poem ran right above a review of one of Norman Mailer's books.

But in the end I was not moved to pursue poetry as a career path. I had always wanted to be a writer, but not necessarily a poet; I wrote poems mostly because I had no time to do anything else. I was working full-time, I was married, I had children, I commuted back and forth to the city, and the work I was doing involved writing. Under those circumstances, writing anything more ambitious than a poem was more or less out of the question. So that's what I did, write poems, working in the little spare time I had, and learning in the process how to bring a piece of writing to an end. In lyric poems, the end is everything; if you can do endings you have taken a very big step in learning how to write.

Poetry as a career path, however, was something else. Just about nobody makes a living at it. In those days, and even more so today, to survive as a poet you either had to teach, like almost every poet then and now who didn't have an independent income, or you had to have another job. Wallace Stevens, insurance lawyer. William Carlos Williams, doctor. John Ashbery, art critic and editor at Art News. I disliked teaching and wasn't very good at it, so that was out. I could have gone on with poetry after the peculiar writing job I had came to an end--I was a wealthy businessman's personal historian; when he died, so did the job; but he left me and his other personal employees seven years salary, tax-free, as a parting gift--since I then had a bit of money. But the money wasn't going to last all that long, and then what? Another job? Try teaching again? No thanks. It wasn't only the lack of an income, it was a certain amount of distaste for what a poetry career involved, especially the nasty competitiveness that was part of it, too many ambitious people striving for too few rewards. I wasn't that ambitious. I knew I was good, but I didn't think I could be great. I still wrote poems from time to time, but getting them into print no longer seemed that important. I wrote them for myself, for my own pleasure, and as a form of verbal play. When a line came to me, I pursued it. Many of them emerged from pain. Poetry is one of the great clarifiers when it comes to pain.

Ultimately I wound up with about twenty, maybe twenty-five unpublished poems that I liked well enough to keep in my files, and in the past couple of years I've been looking at them again and fiddling with them. And it's interesting: the original feelings that led to these poems have softened, if not entirely dissolved, and I can see their faults much more clearly. With that has come the insight necessary to find ways to make those faults go away. They are now much better poems than they were originally. Michael Fried and Thomas Carnicelli, who was our official "class poet" and I, all of us trying to write poems at the time, used to talk in college about the poem as a made object, a verbal artifact, and we all knew that what we were writing didn't have much to do with what bad poets think of as "self-expression." We were trying to make art. Our feelings had little to do with it, they were merely the occasion, the spark that kindled the process of making. And that process is fascinating, both to pursue and to watch oneself pursue. It's a little like doing a crossword puzzle, but much more intense and much more difficult, and you find yourself wondering every time, can you do it? Can you find the right word, the turn of phrase, the gut punch at the end that doubles your reader over with its power? And because I have no attachment to publication, though that would be nice, or to a career as a poet, the whole thing has a purity about it that I really like. So I'm back to it.

How long does it take, then, to write a poem? Sometimes thirty or forty years. I remember reading Rilke on this, in his Letters to a Young Poet, where he talks about the poem working its way into your blood; not until then, he said, should you write. Or Alexander Pope, who advised the wannabes who sent him poems to read to put them in a drawer and lock that drawer and not open it for a year or two. I speak from experience; it's good advice.

I have no idea whether TLS will take these poems, and it doesn't matter. I'd like to see them in print, but I'll be happy to have written them even if they never see the light of day. They're good, I know that, and I'm satisfied with them, and I'll send copies to my friends who read poetry, or write it, and let it go at that. Or maybe to the handful of people who follow this blog.

Here's one of those poems:


Sunlight folded into the window curtains.
The five doors into the house, the seventeen inside.
A cherry table we both wanted once.
Your translation of Proust, and mine.
The wall clock in the kitchen, still ticking.
The wedding photograph in its Tiffany frame.
Lamplight and solitude in the long evening.
Train whistles at night, with their associations.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I read recently that Rand Paul and other Tea Party members newly elected to Congress want to return to a literal reading of the Constitution and eliminate a number of Federal departments and functions: Education, I believe, is one; Housing and Urban Development another. There must be more, but I can't keep up.

At first I was alarmed. It's going to be hard enough losing NPR, public television, and school lunches, which I'm sure are on their list. But then I sat back and thought about it for a while, and came to the conclusion that they weren't nearly ambitious enough. When I was putting together my edition of the Lewis and Clark journals I read up on the Louisiana Purchase, and learned all about Thomas Jefferson's struggle with his own conscience about the Constitution and its interpretation when Napoleon offered him the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson could not find the authority anywhere in the Constitution for him to buy the Territory, and he didn't have time to go to Congress and obtain that authority because Napoleon wanted a decision, and the money, right away, so he could resume his war with Great Britain. Jefferson made the purchase, but suffered a great deal of anguish in the process. He did indeed violate the Constitution, which nowhere gives a President the right to buy land and double the size of the country. Don't think the country was thrilled by it, either. Whole sections, especially in New England, objected to it. As they saw it, Jefferson had overstepped his authority, and the move must inevitably diminish their own power as population and opportunity shifted west.

Now the Tea Party seems to have the balance of power; therefore now, if ever, we have a chance to redress the wrong Jefferson did to the Constitution. I suggest that we offer to sell all that land back to France. I'm quite serious about this. I can see all kinds of benefits.

A/ We could sell it back at the same price, but with interest. The money must come to several billions by now, and we could put that toward reducing the national deficit.

B/ The move would immediately save us billions as well in the agricultural subsidies we now pay to farmers in what would become, once more, French territory. I haven't looked closely at a map, but I believe that would encompass all of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Montana, Colorado--all the lands, in short, drained by the Missouri River. Plus Louisiana, Arkansas, and the City of New Orleans. Just think of it: next time a hurricane blows into New Orleans and drowns it, the problem wouldn't be ours. Nor would Midwest droughts. The French are famous for subsidizing their own farmers, and protecting their interests with high tariffs on imported farm goods; they've been doing that since Jefferson's time.

C/ By eliminating so much of the so-called Heartland, the sale would move the location of the "real" America and "real" Americans, with their "real" values, which appear to have relocated to the Midwest sometime in the nineteenth century, much closer to the East Coast again, making those of us who live there feel authentically American again.

D/ It would move French influence, French culture, French educational savoir, not to mention French food, much closer to us, with results that could only be beneficial. French schools, for example, are rigorous about spelling. There would be no more embarrassment about the signs that show up at Tea Party rallies, which must inevitably raise difficult questions about the intelligence and sophistication of Tea Party members.

E/ Closer means easier to reach. It would take a while for French cities to spring up in Kansas or South Dakota, but I can foresee a future in which Americans, who would now all be living east of the Mississippi or West of the Rockies, would find a place like Des Moines very attractive, if only for its three- or even four-star restaurants. Turn a French chef loose on a good Midwestern steak and who knows what new levels of culinary pleasure might emerge.

F/ And the French are known for not being obese, even though they eat so well, and so much cheese. Again, it might take a while, but surely French influence would work miracles on the current level of obesity, and all the costs associated with it, now found in the Midwest. And speaking of health, I'm sure the Midwest, instead of losing population, would gain; people would emigrate just to get in under the French health care system, one of the world's best.

G/ Last but not least, millions of the residents of this territory would learn French. It's an elegant language, an advantage in itself, but more than that it has been known ever since the Enlightenment as the language of Reason (yes, with a capital R). These new French citizens would be encouraged to read the Enlightenment philosophers, up to and including Jefferson himself, and learn something about the principles on which the United States of America, their former homeland, was founded.

But overriding all these considerations, however beneficial, is the fact that the move would correct one of the major historical errors in American history and return the Constitution to its proper place as the sole source, the only guide, by which the country can be governed. Not only would this return us to a state of absolute purity, it would make the current members of the Supreme Court supremely happy.

Friday, November 5, 2010


I've been reading Jules Witcover's book about 1968 and it has brought it all back, not just the turmoil in the nation but my own pesonal turmoil. That was the year my first wife and I bought our big old house in Shrub Oak, the year I almost left her and did, actually, stay away a couple of nights, and... well, not a good year. Mid-life crisis? Hardly; I was only 31 years old. The mid-life crisis came later. But otherwise, out there in the world, a huge crisis. The protests against the war in Vietnam were getting bigger and bigger, blacks were continuing to march, demanding a chance to live the life the rest of us took for granted, the pressure on Lyndon Johnson to end the war was growing unbearable, finally forcing him out of the race for the Presidency, and then the assassinations: first Martin Luther King, Jr., then Robert Kennedy. Unrest on a scale not seen in this country since the Civil War.

If you look at a crisis as a teaching tool, however, you can learn a lot from it. I had grown up as part of the Silent Generation, so dubbed in Life magazine, I think it was, or maybe in Time, because we didn't speak out about much of anything and stayed out of politics. But there wasn't much to speak out about. Our elders had invented and used atomic weapons, we were raised to dive under our school desks when the sirens went off, and when the Beats came along most of us watched from a distance. I was a child during World War II. My brother and I read the papers, two of them in the house every day, and thus at an impressionable age learned something about the world and what kind of place it was, and what human beings were capable of. In college I went by myself to see the famous Holocaust documentary Night and Fog and there were the piles of human skin destined for lampshades, the living skeletons in the camps and the horror, all of it sickening beyond belief. I think we all collectively concluded that the private life was best. Human beings are irredeemable. We retreated into ourselves.

Then the Sixties came and we watched the draft age kids march and riot and occupy university buildings and demand change and reform and freedom. Freedom, the old cry. And I, for one, thought, what is this? Freedom? In this country we're all pretty much free already. At bottom, I believed, what they wanted was to be free of the draft. And I was right. When the draft ended, so did the marches and the protests. The war went on, but the Sixties and all they supposedly meant were over. The net result of the Sixties was Sixties style, blue jeans, a whole new kind of music, and the nostalgia for those things that crops up in revivals like Hair. Otherwise little had happened in this country. Our politics was the same. No significant portion of the population retreated to countryside communes. It was all about the draft. After the Sixties came the Me Decade. I wrote about this for GQ in the late '80s, and made enemies among the editors; but they printed the piece. We do not live in a revolutionary country. We live in a rather staid, commercially minded, conservative country where most citizens just want to make money--as much as they can. The rest is relatively superficial.

So it remains today. I try to tell my liberal friends, hey, guys, we live on the East Coast among our kind and the rest of the country is different. The novelist and poet Jim Harrison calls New York and the West Coast the "dream coasts." In between, the "real" America. It's actually no more "real" than the dream coasts, but it is definitely different, another country, really, and it is a miracle we've stayed one country for so long. Right now things look very bad for liberals, and I am one, but I think in the long term not much will change. What will the result of this election be? Stalemate. Gridlock. The sentiments of the country will remain deeply divided, the human chain saws on the cable channels will rev up and do their absolute best to make as much noise as possible, and volcanoes will continue to erupt and floods come and the news will be dire.

But hey: they've got nothing on the Nazis. Injustice of all kinds is prevalent and the people are ignorant and delusional, but that's always been the case, here and everywhere. It's contentious, but so far it's not killing, and we've been relatively lucky: no recent assassinations.. And yes, there's Abu Ghraib, but even there they didn't make lampshades out of human skin. We should all calm down. My brother was a Republican all his life and you couldn't walk into his house without Fox News being on the tube, but I loved him anyway. His kids are mostly Republicans, I suspect, but I love them, too. And with luck the economy will improve and Obama will wise up, having learned lessons from this particular crisis of his own, and next time things will go better for those who believe that it is possible to bring a little more justice into the world, even though this world is pretty much out of anybody's control.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I've made a kind of joke out of missing the sexual revolution in the 1960s. I was married in 1958, the marriage lasted eighteen years, those eighteen years ran right through the sexual revolution, and I did my best to stay faithful and save my marriage, because two people were seldom as different as my first wife and me and if I had been unfaithful we wouldn't have stood a chance. As it was I did fall miserably in love with somebody halfway through, and suffered for it for at least a year. But we had kids.

Still, all around me men and women were getting laid at a great rate, and my friend Bart and I used to get together once in a while and lament our bad fortune at missing it. To miss it was to miss out on the times, the zeitgeist, as if life was passing one by. I felt as if I were standing on the river bank and everybody else was midstream, bouncing up and down on their wild ride through the rapids. They, of course, were laughing. I was biting my lips. Isn't it important to be part of one's times, to get on the horse, to participate in history, live life as fully as possible?

Actually that's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer to it. Would Emily Dickinson have done better if she left her house once in a while, joined the Lady's Village Improvement Society, sang solos in church, had an affair? Henry James had an extremely social life but apparently never had sex with a woman, and probably not with a man, either, although it seems likely he was gay. But it doesn't seem to have kept him from understanding a great deal about human beings. I read most of the first volume of his collected letters a few years ago and found out that, a, he suffered from severe constipation, b, he once attended a dissection in a teaching hospital in Europe and watched as they took a dead body apart, c, he walked over the Alps, Switzerland to Italy, and then down into the Italian valleys, and d, he fell into a kind of ecstasy as he walked around Rome for the first time and wound up living in Rome for a grand total of four years off and on during his life. There are those who think he could have used a good lay, but I'm not one of them.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll--basically, I missed them all. Born too soon, I suppose. Rock and roll I'm not in the least sorry about. I love the Beatles but can't stand heavy metal or the Rolling Stones or the loudness of the whole business. The loudness is just noise, and it barely has structure for me and no appeal at all. Once Lorraine and I were in Oregon, we were having dinner with a friend of mine, Jody Proctor, and his wife Kit Sibert, and also with the drummer for the Blues Travelers, a well-known rock group; the drummer was engaged to Jody's daughter and after dinner we would all go to an auditorium where the Blues Travelers would be giving a concert. Before we left Jody gave us ear plugs. We never got past the intro band. It was deafening, even with ear plugs. I hated it. I'm a quiet man. We sometimes wind up at dinner parties with shouters, men especially who get a bit drunk and want to dominate the conversation and will shout you down and will not listen, and I just shut up. I won't compete with it. It's not really conversation. Evenings like that are boring and irritating.

But I didn't entirely miss out on drugs. I came to like dope and used it once in a while, although never alone, and although I've never tried cocaine I did try LSD once, and that was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I was writing my first book at the time, on the mental health system, and wanted to know what a schizophrenic episode felt like from the inside and LSD was supposed to mimic it. My friend John and I drove up to the Catskills and picked up my friend Jody Sibert, Kit Sibert's sister, in Woodstock and we drove to a little cabin on an obscure road somewhere in the western end of the Catskills, a gray day, and went inside and I took a hit of blotter acid and waited, and nothing happened, and then things did start to happen. The room, for one thing, breathed when I breathed. The music of the flies buzzing at the windows organized itself into actual music. We listened to music, John and Jody and I, trying the baroque at first, but it proved, because your mind is moving at incredible speed, to be slow and tedious, so Jody, who stayed sober through it all, put on some Ravi Shankar and that, it turned out, was the actual music of the gods; and I thought most deeply, because that's what I did, I thought, as I say at great speed, about what had brought me there, all the twists and turns, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents taking this road instead of that, making an endless series of choices any one of which could have eliminated all chance of me being there that day; and it was as if the whole thing had been designed, all those choices, all life to that point, to bring me there to discover how infinitely complex it is, this tapestry the gods weave us into. Then I hallucinated our guardians, three spirits in human form standing about a foot off the ground, very shadowy, talking with each other; and at one point Jody bent down over me and said, whatever you're thinking right now, that's the way it is, and I had precisely at that point been thinking, whatever I'm thinking right now, that's the way it is. And this went on for hours. Toward the end we went outdoors into the misty rain and I looked at the surrounding hills and realized that beyond the horizon we were looking at, the horizon of hills, was nothing, only the potential, only not-yet-time, and that it was somehow our task on this earth to be, and ... well, I don't know. I took a Thorazine to come back down. The high lasted into the next day. I never felt the need to take acid again. Never wanted to. I had understood what I needed to understand.

None of this had any relationship to mental illness, as it happens. The book was a disaster, sold fewer than 5,000 copies, I got sued for libel for a case I described in which a child died, that cost me $45,000 in legal fees, the only consolation being that I not only won the suit, I made law in the state of Kansas. But that's a whole other story.

So here's the question: have I missed anything? Yeah, a whole lot. But maybe it all makes sense in the end.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


OCTOBER 16, 2010:

For months now I've been preoccupied, reading, trying to think my way through America past and present so that I can begin my next book, all in the midst of an election campaign dominated by the most remarkable crowd of lunatics and clowns this country has ever seen. The political positions are even more irrational than usual, the candidates a depressing bunch of ideologues and shameless liars, and the Tea Party is simply idiotic. It's one thing not to be able to spell--and they're famous for that--but it's quite another to fantasize that we can all can live in a world that vanished in the 1830s. The people who think there's too much government control, too many regulations, too many taxes, etc., will be the first to scream when the lack of protection wipes out their savings, say, or a bigger than usual pothole takes out their rear axle . Why, after all, should the FDIC--that's the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation--insure our bank deposits at all? Isn't that another unnecessary government program? How about we buy private insurance for our bank deposits? We could go back to private roads, too, like the turnpike that a company of entrepreneurs built between here, in Sag Harbor, and East Hampton in the late 1700s. We could all then pay a fee whenever we decided to drive someplace. We would have toll booths, and toll keepers: jobs! Why should there be air traffic controllers for that matter, or National Institutes of Health, or a Library of Congress? The Tea Party doesn't want to improve the world as it is, make things run better, elect smarter people. They want to pretend the world as it is doesn't exist.

It's hard not to see the country declining. I'm a historian, I'm supposed to put current events into perspective, but if you look at the figures, at what's happening to middle class income, which has been stagnant in real dollars since 1973 and actually in decline the last few years, at the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, greater than it has been since the 1920s, at a collapsing infrastructure, at the rate of global warming, at educational achievement, which continues to get worse and worse, the decline of the United States of America is impossible to deny. The mood of the country is not positive. Half the population, according to the latest poll, no longer believes in the American dream, no longer thinks they have much of a chance to do better than their parents, no longer gets starry-eyed about the future.

When the country's political life is so debased it becomes a nuisance and a distraction to pay attention to it, yet how does one not? I am reading books about Richard Nixon and the 1960s and 1970s, about the "meaning" of America, and also about the tone the Spanish first set in the Americas in the early sixteenth century, and you can see threads running from the Spanish obsession with gold and, along with it, failed Spanish attempts to set up utopian governments among the Indians, right through to the explosion of corporate greed on Wall Street during the real estate boom and the last hippie communes of the 1970s. It is a struggle, but I'm beginning to see a pattern. But outside my windows the yelling continues. Part of me thinks, well, let the idiots get into office. Maybe it will wake them up. Maybe they'll understand then that governing a country this huge, this diverse, this contrarious and this complex takes more than slogans and ideologies and mini-think. It takes, more than anything else, intelligence. Then compromise. A certain amount of good will, which includes a willingness to listen, and to think outside their little boxes. And a power of persuasion that goes way beyond singing to their own choir.

But it also takes something more. I think it was Walt Whitman who said that great poetry requires a great audience. So in politics: a great government requires a great electorate. Right now, I see no sign of a great electorate in the uninformed, irrational, angry voters of the United States.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Tuesday, September 21:

Yesterday, September 20, twenty-nine years ago, Lorraine and I got married. Right now our lives are in their usual turmoil, adjusted upwards by the work and anxiety involved in trying to get new projects into the air, but yesterday we let the work and the anxiety go, in favor of the day. We gave each other funny cards. I bought her some roses. We went to breakfast at Starbuck's, which we do many days, but lingered over the NYTimes. We went to lunch at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. Ted Conklin, who has owned the place for the last forty years or so, was there, and that was appropriate, because it was at Ted's grandmother's place in Westhampton Beach that we got married; Ted comped us a piece of chocolate cake in honor of the day but had to run, so we couldn't reminisce with him. After 29 years there's so much to remember, but that day was a standout. We had a band, the late Jim Chapin's band, and I stood up and sang "Sweet Lorraine" with the band backing me up. The whole group sang "Bye Bye Blackbird," the whole group being the friends and family who had gathered. My brother came with his wife and kids. It was one of the few times I ever really impressed him, because Ted's grandmother's house was grand, with a sun room, a billiard room, a third floor full of maid's rooms, an elevator, and it was right on the water, not the ocean but the bay side of Westhampton Beach. We danced, we ate, we laughed a great deal, my son was best man and toasted us--what was he, 16?--and did it beautifully, as he has done pretty much everything his whole life, and my daughter gave me a big big hug and danced and laughed and it was a joy to watch. Then we drove away in Ted's 1963 Bentley Continental, switching to our own car down the road where it was stashed.

After lunch yesterday, which lasted until almost three, I had to run a writing workship at a cancer care foundation where I'm on the board, but that's hardly work; and then at six I went next door with a drink and we had dinner there later and the evening was special and sweet, as time spent with these old friends usually is. Altogether a splendid day.

And what can I say about this marriage after twenty-nine years? Well, what do you say of your elbow, or your hand, or your heart? We are very different people, we like different foods, we don't often watch television together, golf bores her while I find it fascinating--to watch, that is--and she likes to go to the movies and I usually don't. We think differently; I'm slow and deliberate, she's quick, mercurial. But life is unimaginable without her. She is as much a part of me now as my elbow, my hand, my heart. And we do share a great deal: our political opinions, our general take on life, what you might call the emotional core. We both cry very easily at sentimental scenes, yet we recognize in each other a hardness at the core that is the hardness the Irish poet Yeats captured in his own epitaph: "Cast a cold eye, on life, on death. Horseman, pass by!" We both understand how much luck determines happiness. We are both totally committed to the work that sustains us, and gives meaning to our lives.

Next year will be our 30th. We fought for a year or more right after we got married, and it was partly about those differences I mentioned above but mostly about power, and who had more of it in the relationship. That happens with strong-minded people. For a long time I doubted we would make five years, much less thirty. But we weathered the turmoil. We each learned how not to be right, or rather how not to regard it as all that important whether we were or not. It took a long time, but here's the result. Us. A commonwealth of two. I lead in some areas, she in others. It seems to work. So far. If we can keep it up, we'll probably have another party. Ask all our friends, our families. Hire a hall, maybe. And I'll sing "Sweet Lorraine" again. I'm getting pretty good at it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blood relatives

September 8:

Last few days I've been hearing from Cindy, my cousin Joan's daughter. Joan died this year, having lived out her last years with senile dementia, which also made our grandmother's life at the end something you might imagine appropriate for monsters or Nazis or the like, but not for human beings. I had been sad to hear it. Joan, in fact, had a tough life all through. She came to live with us when I was about ten or eleven; she was sixteen or seventeen and pregnant, at a time in this country when being single and pregnant was scandalous and shameful. She had been living in Elmira, New York, with her mother and father. She came to us to get away, hide the pregnancy, hide the shame. My mother used to spirit her in and out of the house in big coats to the doctor's office. When the baby was born my parents arranged for her to be adopted privately, through the doctor, so that there would be no public record of its parentage. Was this legal? I've often wondered. Joan was no doubt told to forget the whole thing and get on with her life. She did, of course. We all do after tragedies and miseries. But I think it affected everything afterward. Many years later, having married one of the leading figures in this country advocating open adoption records--my beloved Lorraine--I asked Joan if she wanted us to help her find the daughter she had given away for adoption. She said no. She was too scared.

Now Cindy wants to find her.

We'll do what we can, but it's going to be hard. But the whole situation makes me angry, and always has. I loved Joan. She was easy to love, spirited, cute, full of energy. What kind of country would do that to its young women, make them abandon babies to strangers instead of finding ways to help them keep them? Do you think rich girls had to endure this? Babies belong with their natural parents, the people who gave them birth. If that's not possible, and it sometimes isn't possible, we, collectively, as a society, ought to find ways to place them nearby, with blood relatives, with help from the state or private agencies dedicated to this purpose. Blood belongs with blood. It is inconceivable to me that I might have been denied knowledge of my origins by law because I might have been adopted. By law, in most states, adopted children cannot know who their parents were. This is barbaric. It benefits no one except adopted parents, who can then pretend that their adopted children didn't come from another family, another background, another way of life. I base my entire sense of who I am on the fact that my father was the son of Swedish immigrants. I have my grandfather's naturalization papers, and a photograph of his family, my father then a little boy, taken the day the papers came. I cherish these records. My mother was the daughter of a marriage between a self-made man of Danish/German origin and a woman whose family can be traced back to kings and queens. You think I'm not interested in this? Adoptees are not allowed to know this information. Their birth certificates are falsified, or locked away. Having an identity is surely one of the natural rights. But what good is having it if you are prevented from knowing it?

Cindy didn't know Joan had had another daughter, and given it away, but she told me that she had always sensed that someone was missing. I hope she finds this woman, who's now in her 60s. My Lorraine found the daughter she had given up for adoption under equally difficult circumstances; she now enjoys very nice relationships with her daughter's own two daughters. This is blood. It's fundamental; it's part of the human condition; and to ignore it, or think it doesn't matter, damages lives in ways we're only beginning to understand. We come from families, a network of relationships based on blood ties; and most of us maintain those ties all our lives. To break those ties by law is a crime against nature. Adoption records in a few states have been opened, but in the rest, no. Reform has been blocked mostly by adoptive parents, working in many cases through adoption agencies. Adoption has its place. Sometimes it's the only solution in difficult circumstances. But to keep knowledge of their origins from the people most concerned in knowing them is, plain and simple, a profound injustice.

Good luck, Cindy. Hope it happens. Hope you find her.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Empty Mind

September 5:

Last week I finished my book proposal, which required me to write not only an outline but a sample of a particular chapter, and now I am just empty. I have no thoughts, no ideas, not a whisper of insight or anything else. I must be resting. Maybe this is what the Zen people mean when they talk about having an empty mind. I've been reading back issues of TLS, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books--I have scores of them, neglected during times when I was full of thoughts and writing and working, too exhausted then to read book reviews--and that's been pleasant, but they often connect in some way to what I've been working on, and that hasn't been the case this time. Maybe it's the holiday. Labor Day weekend. The chaos threatened by Hurricane Earl, which passed us by. I've taken to watching golf, something I never did before, but I think I relate to the inwardness of this sport now, the way you play mostly against yourself and the turmoil in your mind, monkey mind, flitting from tree to tree in your patch of forest, always on the move, and never ever satisfied. Zen and the Art of Golf. There have been books along this line, Golf in the Kingdom comes to mind. Maybe that's not the title. But it must be extremely intimidating, standing on the tee, your ball before you, the hole as much as 500 yards away, and you have only five shots to get your ball in the hole and stay at par. Five hundred yards, and that hole is so small. That they can do it at all is extraordinary. They do it, furthermore, with cameras staring at them, hundreds of people nearby, muttering or holding their collective breath, all eyes on them. I finally get golf. Next lifetime, maybe I'll take it up. It may be the best test of focus there is.

Empty mind. An astrologer told me once that one of my tasks in this life was to achieve just that, higher consciousness, the empty mind, the ultimate openness. Thanks, Leor. That was his name. Any other little jobs for me? This isn't it, this current emptiness. This is more like exhausted brain. I was going for broke before I finished the proposal, cramming information in, plunking down little details here, there, that illuminated and fit and helped make sense of what was happening. In a way, and oddly, when you're in the zone as a writer you actually achieve a kind of emptiness; you yourself are not writing, something else is writing. What you are, if you stop to think about it, is in fact at those moments an open question. Lots of people have testified to this. Time passes without your being aware of it. You forget to get hungry, you forget to get thirsty. Something is playing you like a violin. You're not sure that you should be taking credit for this work. Maybe this is what Rilke meant when he advised his young poet not to rush into writing but to live, to let life get into the blood; and only then write. And Alexander Pope's advice to people who wanted to show him their work: put it away for a year, in a desk drawer, lock the drawer, don't look at it, don't think about it. When the year is up, rewrite it.

I don't have a year; I have about a week. That's when I'll go back and fix what needs to be fixed, and submit this thing, and then wait for an answer. While I'm waiting I'll be empty some more. Maybe I'll do some yard work, or go to New York and visit a museum, have lunch with my daughter, try reading a novel. Let it all go for a while. Pretend my mind is empty. Maybe then answers will come.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Reading Christopher Columbus's own accounts of his travels through the Caribbean, I have trouble containing myself; I have this strong desire to physically cry out to him, as if there were some kind of magic megaphone you could use to contact the past, look! be more curious! He mentions seeing a million cormorants--a million--flying over the ocean south of Jamaica, and then huge clouds of butterflies darkening the skies. A local chieftain comes out to his ship to see what manner of man he is, and what these ships are doing there, and he is naked, his body painted, great plumes of feathers on his head, gold earrings hanging from his ears, and I want an artist to be on board, to paint him. He is the first European to describe a Caribbean coral reef, but the description is so sketchy: lots of fish of all shapes and sizes, all kinds of colors. Isn't it a marvel. He does not make you see it. It's frustrating, because it all vanished so soon after he was there. By the 1520s the population of Hispaniola, estimated to have numbered around 350,000 people, had shrunk to around 60,000. The splendor of the Taino caciques had been totally lost. A few decades later the Tainos had disappeared altogether. Slavery, European diseases, suicide. They must have known they were doomed. The only satisfaction they might have gained from the circumstances is that they did have a kind of revenge. Before Columbus and his crew sailed to the West Indies, there was no syphilis in Europe. By 1493 it was at large in the Old World, and it came from the Americas, there's little question about that. It proved devastating. It was called the French disease, but a pox upon that; it was an American disease, and it was the Spanish, who could not get enough of the native women, who brought it back to Europe.

But it's getting to be fun to write about all this, to track down the first elusive traces of my subject in his writings, and in Vespucci's Letters, and in the writings of Peter Martyr and Oviedo and Las Casas, the early Church Fathers of the Americas. So often the subject was gold. I have been studying the subject, and the vast majority of the gold that came out of the Spanish Main went to finance the wars of the Spanish Kings, and was wasted. In Spain itself the wiser sort knew what was happening; what was not spent on warfare was spent on trifles and luxuries. It was not used to build commerce or infrastructure, to improve roads, harbors, to make farmland more productive. It went, essentially, into the ephemeral satisfactions of the rich and powerful. By the seventeenth century Spain was already beginning its long decline.

There's something soothing about all this. History is a calming sort of study. Consumed by our own problems, we lose sight of how much worse it has been in the past and how consistent is human folly and short-sightedness. We seem to learn nothing, certainly not from history; we make the same mistakes over and over, enter wars equally as senseless as the Wars of the Roses or the Hundred Years War or Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Egypt, one of my favorites. What you learn from history, if you learn anything, is caution. Prudence. You learn something about the Law of Unintended Consequences, and its universal application in human affairs. We had a mayor here in Sag Harbor some years ago who did nothing, and he proved an excellent mayor in many ways, because doing nothing is often the best thing to do. I voted for his re-election, but he lost. The people always want action.

Anyway, it's Friday. No more Columbus tomorrow. I have bills to pay, errands to run, maybe a yarde sale to try out. Next week I'll finish this section of the book, and see how it holds together. In writing, it's always a question of length versus depth; and since this will be such a long book, I can't go too deep here. So be it. It will take careful editing on my part. Wish me luck.

Friday, August 20, 2010

South Pacific

August 20:

The other night Lorraine and I watched on PBS a performance of South Pacific, televised from the stage at Lincoln Center. It was nearly three hours long, but we sat in our kitchen and watched it on our smallest TV set, more or less transfixed. And what moved us the most was listening to the song "Some Enchanted Evening." We have a history with that song. During the first summer we lived together we got a bit drunk with some friends--well, more than a bit, maybe--and walked down to the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, where we live, which for those who don't know it is a small hotel with a gourmet restaurant and one of the ten best wine lists in the country. It is owned by a friend named Ted Conklin and has been for about forty years or so. Every Friday night that summer we gathered at the Hotel and sat at a round table under the moose with a bunch of other journalists, trading gossip, telling stories, boasting shamelessly about where we had been, whom we knew, what we had done. A great crew, we were, the Hotel our private club. But we rarely ate there. Too expensive. We only drank there.

But this was a Saturday night, when the elite with money came. There were, if I remember, five or six of us: a friend of Lorraine's named Peter Dee, a playwright; Chris Norwood, a writer; Peter McCabe, formerly the managing editor of Harper's, who was English; Lorraine and I; maybe one other. Memory fails. We had a guitar with us, one of us strummed it, and we stood there in the lobby and sang "Some Enchanted Evening," as loud as we could.

Ted desperately wanted us to leave. These were his paying customers. But he took it in good spirit, threw pennies at us, and couldn't help but smile. We did leave when the song was over, and life at the Hotel returned to normal.

So we sat there and the star who was playing Emile burst into this wonderful song and we both started to cry. Lorraine and I had literally seen each other across a crowded room, had gotten together soon thereafter. And of that group of five, Peter Dee was dead of lung cancer, and Peter McCabe had killed himself in Los Angeles. McCabe was not the best of men; he was known to be abusive to women, and his loss was not mourned by a lot of people. But he was what people used to call a boon companion, and very charming; for a while I loved him. As for Peter Dee, he never had the Broadway production he so much wanted; he never made it, as we say. The last time we saw him alive was in the Adirondacks, where a play of his was being produced, starring Julie Harris, who was a friend of his. Peter Dee was for a long time Lorraine's best friend.

So that song evoked all those mixed but very powerful emotions as only music can: Love, loss, and nearly thirty years of marriage. And now Ted Conklin has remarried himself for the third time, and we keep hearing rumors that he's sold the Hotel. He's seldom there any more. No wonder we cried. Time flies; and even when you're home, you can't go home again.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

August 15:

My daughter turns 50 today.
She was my first child, and I was quite young, a little younger than my first wife, in fact. I have a large head and my first wife was small, so in the interest of safety a Caesarean section was ordered and the birth, therefore, could be scheduled, and it was, for noon, at a hospital in New York that no longer exists. Women's Hospital, I believe, was the name. We checked her in that morning, as I remember, and she was prepped, and I sat outside in the waiting room with the New York Times. It was before the days when husbands would be admitted to the delivery room, to be part of the action. A nurse wandered by and commented on how calm and cool I seemed. In fact I was reading the same paragraph over and over again, for probably half an hour, trying without any success whatsoever to grasp the sense of it. I was so young, hardly more than a boy myself in many ways. Then, around one, a nurse came out and said I could go and see my wife, and my child, a girl. We had already decided to name her Katherine, agreeing that it should be spelled in precisely that way, and we would call her Kate.
Perhaps it was my child I saw first, before my wife. It doesn't matter. What mattered was the emotion, the surge of it that turned my life and my understanding of life upside down, on the spot. I was totally unprepared for it. Suddenly I was a father, I was responsible for a new human life, and it was a beautiful life, I could see that right away. Suddenly nothing else mattered. My parents had made great sacrifices for my brother and myself, and at a young age you don't appreciate them. Now I knew why they had given up so much. The whole experience was a version of enlightenment, a kind of satori, and I loved that child as I had never loved anything before, and I knew I would never forget that day.
I never have. Kate and I have been through some bad times, and for too many years we did not see each other or speak to each other. During those years anything relating to fathers and daughters, good or bad, in the movies or on TV, would drive me to tears. But I never forgot that day and never stopped loving her as intensely as I did that first day. There's a line in Rilke, a love poem, where he says that some god has tossed him aside like a spear and is living his life. Maybe its original is in Sappho. It doesn't matter; the point is, that's what it felt like. It still feels that way. Kate and I are very good friends now, maybe all the better because of how much we hurt each other those years ago. Don't know about that. But this is an important day for me. This is the day she was born. In a way it's my birthday as well.

Friday, August 13, 2010

August 13:
Here's how life works sometimes.
We're coming toward the end of fixing up our house, which badly needed maintenance, but one of the first things we did was to cut down the big wild cherry tree on the border of our property toward the back. A large branch had fallen off in a windstorm some years ago and damaged one of our cars, the tree was dying, with few leaves, and we were worried that a hurricane could take it down and do a lot of damage, possibly to the neighbor's property. One of the last people I want in my life is an insurance adjuster. So I asked Mark, a tree surgeon married to one of my nieces, if he wanted the job and he did, came out, cut it down, would not let me pay him anything (I donated some money to his kids' college fund instead, and that seemed to please him), but left us to take care of the wood. Which was piled up on the turnaround space at the back of our driveway. There was a lot of it. Some of the pieces were big thick things that it would take a front loader to pick up.
The wood sat there for a couple of months while contractors repainted the house, reshingled it, and tore out the old rotten deck and put a new one in. We couldn't do anything about the wood because a large dumpster was sitting in the driveway, blocking access to it. Then the dumpster was gone, the other work was done, and there we were, looking at a whole lot of wood and a huge pile of debris. So Lorraine, the bright one of the two of us, went to the internet to see what wild cherry was worth. A fair amount, it turned out, to the right people. She put an ad in the local paper to sell it: $100 to anyone willing to take it away. A woman named Anna came to look at.
Anna's husband, as it happens, is an Australian sculptor and furniture maker, currently in Australia but coming back soon, and he was looking to find some American wood. She said ours was just what he wanted. How about a trade? she suggested. I'll get my daughter's fiance to take the wood, she said,and he'll also take the debris, and there was a lot of debris, not just from the tree but hedge trimmings, torn up vines, all kinds of junk that would cost a fair amount to get rid of.
OK, sounds good to us, we said. The next day her daughter's fiance showed up with a truck. He turned out to be a landscaper and yard maintenance guy, and he indeed took the debris, and some of the wood, then came back the next day with a front loader and captured the big stuff. Then he wanted to know if we were interested in getting Bob out of our driveway. When we moved into this house Bob was a red cedar growing by chance at the edge of our driveway, between the curb and the madacam, and about six inches tall, and we let it grow, and grow, and grew fond ot if, and gave it a name, Bob, and now it's 22 feet tall and very handsome. But in the way. It was getting harder and harder to steer a truck, or anything, between Bob and the hedge that borders the driveway on the other side. People, in fact, think we're kind of crazy for letting Bob grow. But our new friend the fiance, whose name is Eugene O'Neill, said it was a $3500 tree now, and urged us to move it to safer ground. So we are moving it to safer ground: about six feet to the west. Now Bob can truly flourish, and harbor small birds, and offer us something green to look at in the winter. Meanwhile, to offset the cost of doing this somewhat, the Australian sculptor is going to make us a fine piece of furniture out of our wild cherry wood, and possibly, who knows? a piece of sculpture as well. And all this makes me very happy, because the tree is getting used, and Bob will flourish unchecked and grow handsomer and handsomer, and the old wild cherry won't fall on anyone, and, best of all, because it illustrates something I've believed for a long time and that comes straight from the Tao Te Ching: When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
If you understand that, you understand everything.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Augst 2:

My old friend Bart, who's a rare book and manuscript appraiser, called me today, we were talking about books and our own relationship to them, and I asked him what Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in the original dust jacket, was going for these days, and he told me that a really good copy had been sold recently for a quarter of a million dollars. That prompted me to find my own copy of the book, a Modern Library edition of 1934, and look it up on ABEbooks, the go-to site for used and rare, and look up values. I knew it had to have some value because Fitzgerald wrote a new introduction for that edition, so it was a first edition of the introduction. Aha! I said to myself when I saw the first entry, $2,000; but alas, that's with the dust jacket, and I don't have the dust jacket. Without the dust jacket, and without the remainder mark that so many of them have, because this edition did not sell well, and in decent condition, it's worth maybe a couple of hundred dollars. Which is something. I can't complain. Besides, I can read it without worrying about messing it up in some way, bumping a corner, say, or tearing the jacket, and reducing its value. I think that's what I'll do. I'll read it.

I've been reading so much lately about Christopher Columbus and now I'm starting to write, and it feels good to begin. How many years will it take? It will take years. So it's hard at this moment to think about reading other things, but I do. I read TLS as always, and the London Review of Books, all the book reviews, in fact, I look through the New Yorker, I read the daily paper, and the local papers. I wonder sometimes if it's making me smarter. I doubt it. Looking through old notebooks once in a while, I discover insights I had forgotten I had, and they impress me. Old thoughts, but real thoughts. I've talked about this before, having thoughts, original thoughts, ideas, insights, those moments that clarify and expand your understanding of the world and how it works, and how exciting that can be. I know writers who have spun out the one original thought they have had in their lives into entire careers. And you can see how that could happen, how you could get on that horse and ride it until it dropped from exhaustion, or you got bored with it. Think about people who lecture on one subject, over and over again. I'm thinking of joining that crowd. I have ideas for two lectures, attractive to businessmen, that would allow me to retire. They're really good ideas. I could expand them into books very easily.

It would kill me, no doubt, because it's not really what I want to do, but the money, the money.... Like a quarter of a million dollars for a copy of Gatsby in the original dust jacket. And if it were signed? Maybe this one was signed. I have thousands of books in the house and you would think I'd have something I could cash in on, but in fact I've already done that, sold most of my rare books, and there was nothing even close to that in value. Not even remotely close. But some nice books nevetheless. Sometimes I miss them.


But here's a new one, Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art, by Peter Barber and Tom Harper (University of Chicago Press, $45), it's the catalog of an exhibition at the British Library, it's a big handsome book and it describes the use of maps in the Renaissance when maps were expensive to produce, great huge things that covered walls and to be found almost exclusively in the palaces of the nobility. The first map that caught my eye in the book is a woodcut map of Venice so large, approximately four feet by eleven, that it had to be printed in separate sheets, then joined at the seams, and so detailed that a resident could easily have picked out his own building from the mass of buildings on display. This map must have taken months to draw; it looks at the city from an elevation that does not exist anywhere near Venice, so the mapmaker must have gone canal by canal, street by street, through Venice to mark the sites of buildings, their shapes and sizes, in order to make something reasonably accurate. The quality of the woodcut itself is extraordinary and shows the influence of the great Albrecht Durer. According to the text, it cost 3 ducats, "affrordable only to the wealthiest, not to mention the most tasteful, of art collectors and ruler."

I've never owned anything like such a map, but I've seen numerous reproductions of them. I remember when we were living in Rome in the apartment of an American sculptor, who in turn was living in our house in Sag Harbor, he had a map of Rome dating from the sixteenth century that showed the buildings like this map of Venice, and the building we were living in was on the map. That was kind of a thrill. I used to live in a house built around 1810 and I owned a map of our village made for one of the county atlases that were ubiquitous in the U. S. in the late nineteenth century, and it showed our house, and the other houses on our street; and it could not help but rouse one's sense of history.

It's quite a book. There are the maps stamped on coins and the miniature maps printed on the pocket globes that became popular in the seventeenth century; there are later maps such as might be found in the room of a secretary of state of some nation, or in a merchant's house, and of course my favorite, maps of the Americas with half of North America blank space, because it took such a long time to discover the whole of our own continent. The text that accompanies each map is informative and intelligent and never overbearing. A beautiful book. I'm grateful for it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

July 27:

Last night we went with friends to the beach to listen to the drummers who gather there most Monday nights in the summer. Close to a thousand people showed up; the evening was clear and windless; kids played at the edge of the ocean. The drumming was powerful, as it usually is, and young women danced to it with that barely controlled wildness that seems to come naturally to them. Then a full moon rose over the horizon, its color a burnt dusky orange at first, then slowly brightening as it rose in the sky. One could understand why early peoples worshipped the moon.

Today the calm, cool weather remains. Crows woke us early, calling to each other in the surrounding trees. If one only knew the language of crows.

I have been reading more about the location of paradise, i.e. the Biblical Garden of Eden, and the consensus seems to have been that it was located far to the east, probably at the eastern edge of India, or of Cathay or Mangi or Ethiopia, which were known primarily as names in the Middle Ages. This, it was thought, was where the sun first rose upon the world at the creation, and where it now rose at the beginning of every day, and it only made sense that paradise should be there, at that beginning, and higher than the rest of the world, out of the heat of the lowlands at the equator, which is where it was thought to be. Higher, too, in order to be the one piece of land on the planet to escape Noah's flood. Enoch and Elijah lived there throughout the Middle Ages, waiting for Judgment Day. Columbus was not the only explorer who believed he had come near it. On his third voyage he sailed farther south than usual and his first landfall was the island of Trinidad, which he named after the Trinity prompted by the three mountains he first saw on the horizon; then he sailed into the Gulf of Paria, filled with fresh water. He had come to one of the mouths of the Orinoco, and the volume of fresh water was astonishing, continental in size. He knew he had come to a continent, but he thought it was India, and that this was the mouth of the Ganges. The air was mild. He had already decided that he had been sailing slowly uphill. This was it, then; he was near the earthly paradise, where the Ganges, it was known, arose, along with the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. All four rivers sprang from a fountain in the midst of paradise that fed the trees, including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the flowers of many colors, the beds of these rivers glittering with rubies and sapphires and diamonds; then they vanished underground, to reappear in Asia Minor and India and somewhere in Africa, wherever the Nile arose. The people of Trinidad were fair, he noted, fairer than those in what we now call the West Indies, tall and well-formed, and this was of course only fitting, since they lived so close to paradise.

He thought that Hispaniola, the island where he established the first European colony in the New World, was the Biblical Ophir, from which Solomon had acquired the gold to build his temple. He styled it in his logs "the former Ophir." The Spanish ultimately exhausted the supply of gold on the island.

Here, then, are the two beginnings of America.

One tradition had it that in the earthly paradise Enoch and Elijah lived in a city built entirely of gold.

There on the beach the moon rose in its majesty, the drums beating as if to announce it, the young women dancing to it, and it made no sense for a little while to practice irony.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 22:

Yesterday I sat on the front steps watching a thunderstorm with big lightning strikes move toward us from the northwest. When I was a kid at the Jersey shore we used to do that, stand in the door onto the upstairs deck attached to our little cottage and watch the line storms come in from the west. The air would be disturbed, but not blowing hard; then you'd see the wall of rain coming across the water, and right after that the wind would hit, huge gusts of cool air that would lift boats off their racks if they weren't tied down, the wind was so strong, and then a great tropical deluge that would last maybe fifteen or twenty minutes; then it was over. We lived right next door to the harbormaster, old Captain Brown, and my brother and I worked for him, Charles more seriously than I (I was under ten; Charles was three and a half years older), and sometimes we had to row out and tow some of the lighter, more vulnerable sailboats to shore and beach them, so they wouldn't blow over at anchor. Once Capt. Brown woke us up at two in the morning to row out in the darkness, lightning illuminating the sky to the west, and rescue the boats. That my mother let us do that still amazes me, and delights me. Ever after I have loved storms.

We used to sail everywhere. How many times, in my little Barnegat Bay sneakbox, which was maybe twelve feet long, did I sail to the mainland, four miles away, and up one of the creeks that flowed out of the pines and the marshes, the water tanned as brown as a wood floor. I did it all alone, without supervision, when I was eleven and twelve years old. My mother would watch the sail from the deck, but often I was out of sight, and she was a nervous person. But she seemed to understand, this is what kids have to do, and should be allowed to do, with all the risks. In most places, at low tide, you could stand up in that big bay if you were in the water. The bottom was all eel grass and bay muck, and we clammed in it. When he was a little older Charles made quite a bit of money clamming, up to $20 a day, which was substantial in the late 1940s. I was much dreamier, not interested in making money; I read a lot, played alone a lot, and sailed. I have three little sterling silver sailing cups I won as a kid.

Sounds idyllic, and it was. Now I work as much as I physically and mentally can and haven't sailed in many years. But I still love storms. A few years ago we drove down to Long Wharf here in Sag Harbor to watch a line storm come across the water, and it was the same thing, the air a kind of shuffle of little breezes before it hit us, then the wall of rain, lightning everywhere and the great peals of thunder overhead, the wind gusts rocking our little light car back and forth. I was elated. We saw some people caught in a small boat in the harbor try to ride it out, then capsize; somebody in a power boat went out and got them. It's a mistake to grow up completely.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 15:

It has been a strangely lethargic day, a day of paralysis almost, even though I continue the reading I must do, and I realize that I'm lost. I've been immersing myself in an altogether alien world, among serious people who accepted without question that, far in the East, in India, or in Cathay, somewhere way to the east, in any case, the Garden of Eden still existed; that India and probably Cipango, the name they gave Japan, and other nations as well, were populated by races who had ears so long they could wrap themselves in them at night, use them as blankets, and yet other races who had no heads but did have faces--in their chests, and there were men with the heads of dogs and men with one leg, at the end of which was an extremely large foot, which they used to shield themselves from the sun when they lay on their backs. And this is just one window into their minds.

The sources of these particular races go way back, I think ultimately to folk myths; they appear in the ancient Sanskrit epics, in Chinese lore, and they reached the West via the Greeks at least four or five centuries before Christ. And they survived, that's the extraordinary thing, well into and then beyond the Middle Ages, so that Columbus, when he reached what he thought was India, expected to find them there, in what we know as the West Indies; and they appear in explorers' tales for a long time thereafter, always in the guise of the explorers being told by native informers that such races existed at the fringe of their territories.

There has been a great deal of scholarship addressing this pre-modern, mythical ethnography, and I've read a good deal of it now, but I find it doesn't help all that much. I think that if you could go back in time, even if you could speak their languages, and talk to, say, Columbus or Vespucci or Pizarro, you would feel utterly lost in their mental world, in what the French call their mentalite. If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein said, we could not understand him. It's the same thing; their assumptions, their way of looking at the world, their reactions to things: a great gap would divide us, and I doubt it could be bridged. Henry James wrote a novel on this subject, unfortunately unfinished, A Sense of the Past, and I've always wanted to read it but never did. Maybe now. Who were you, Christopher Columbus? There have been hundreds of books trying to answer that question.

And yet these strange imaginings survive. I remember vividly the scene in the bar in the first Star Wars movie, when Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan are looking for a suitable pirate to spin them off Skywalker's home planet to, where was it? the rebel hideout? and find Han Solo, and the place is full of just such creatures as I am talking about, including, if I remember correctly, somebody with the head of a dog.

On his third voyage Columbus found himself skirting the edge of the Terrestrial Paradise--the Garden of Eden. He thought the mouth of the Orinoco was the mouth of the Ganges. It fills me with wonder, and a kind of despair at the same time.

Monday, July 12, 2010

July 12:

It's odd to have workers painting the outside of your house when you're inside, doing your own work, and the noise of scraping and sanding, or the softer noise of someone with a trowel filling in holes in the wood, is right beside you, or behind you. It's like something is moving in your walls, it's half sinister, you have to remind yourself it's only the painters and they're two very pleasant men from Brazil who occasionally speak to one another while they're working in their strange language. I can understand a bit of Spanish but Portuguese has an altogether different sound. Mostly vowels. Which reminds me of Robert Stone, complaining about the title of the movie made from his novel Dog Soldiers, starring Nick Nolte, as I remember, and it's called Who'll Stop the Rain, and he said, what on earth compelled the producers to come up with a title that begins with a Swedish diphthong? The movie didn't do very well. But I can usually work with noise around me. I tune it out. Not music, however. Some writers, and I think most visual artists, work with music going. I generally start listening to the music. But Stone was right, and what was more impressive was that he knew what a Swedish diphthong sounds like. I don't, and my father was Swedish. Born here, but Swedish.

Work is a funny thing, though. With me it has a rhythm; I'll work very hard some days, other days I can't really get started, even when the subject fascinates me and if I don't work I'll lose precious time. I seem to have a large need for downtime, for gestating things, ideas, I don't know what. I need to read the papers. To straighten up my office. I need rituals, daily rituals, that must function as a kind of glue, holding me together. Me! Whoever that is. The rituals in a way are me, that illusion I spoke of some time ago, that construct. Whole societies are constructed of rituals. The daily vodka; the evening news, truly a waste of time; the crossword puzzle Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, because that's when they're the hardest. Rituals, chitchat, surface tension.

All to fill the silence, I suppose. Behind me one of the Brazilians is painting, and I can hear the paintbrush on the wall from time to time, knocking up against one of the battens, perhaps. It's a trifle eerie, but also reassuring. In horror movies the sounds are supposed to be terrifying, but perhaps at the same time they're a source of hope. Something, at least, is out there. It might have mercy. Isn't every creature capable of mercy?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

July 8:

Last night I watched episode #3 of the Tudors, which was even more cliche-ridden than the first two. In this one Henry VIII and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had a conversation about the New World and Aztec art that was even more unreal than the conversations between Henry and Francois I of France. And the scene between Sir Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn I found simply funny. Whether or not Wyatt was Anne's lover is still uncertain, and the one poem that seems to be addressed to her out of Wyatt's known works is not the one he recited from the tree in the show. I studied Wyatt in grad school and it was interesting to see that he made the show, and it was also fun to see that they found an actor with a large chin to play Charles V, who was known for the size of his chin; but they fail once more to catch the tone of royal conversation, the formal rodomontade, with the ever-present translators in the background. Most of all they get Sir Thomas More wrong. There he is, showing a kind of unease at the burning, on the King's orders, of Martin Luther's works, when in fact More was a great persecutor, relentless in his pursuit of heresy, and quite eager to burn heretics, not to mention books, at the stake; and most of all the producers are insensitive to the normalcy at the time of things like the burning of heretics and their works. Right now I'm working on Columbus and the Spanish attitude toward slavery, and Columbus and his contemporaries did not think twice about kidnapping natives and sailing them back to Spain to show to their sovereigns, or about establishing the slave trade in the West Indies. It is so easy to apply modern standards of morality and the rights of man to the past, and totally miss the mark. The rights of man had not even been invented in the fifteenth century. Mankind is not always and everywhere the same. Columbus was an avid Christian.


I have been intending to mention books in this blog from time to time. Having lost my book column when National Geographic Adventure closed last fall, I miss recommending books, something I've been doing in print since 1992, starting at Men's Journal; and since I'm talking about Spain and its rulers, I have in hand a new book out of Yale University Press by Henry Kamen, currently the leading light in studies of Renaissance Spanish history. His latest is called The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance. Spanish history is particularly interesting to me right now because my next book begins with the Spanish discovery of America, and the Escorial became a symbol of Spain's power and wealth at the height of its empire, when gold, silver, tobacco, chocolate, and the other products of the New World were making it incredibly rich. So what does a king build to show off his wealth? Something like the Escorial, which was palace and monastery all in one, the Spanish being nothing if not obsessed with the salvation of their souls. It survives as a major tourist attraction, but the focus here is really on Philip II, who built the Escorial (it took twenty years); Kamen had previously written a biography of the man, who also had a long chin, like his father Charles V. He was a fascinating king, capable of great festivities and great austerities at the same time, anything but the typical royal womanizer, and the first king in Spain to build on such a grand scale. He was inspired evidently by his travels in Europe. It was hardly normal for kings to go on grand tours, but Philip spent years doing exactly that, leaving a Hapsburg cousin as regent in Spain. When he came back he set to work on the Escorial.

Part of Kamen's mission is to rescue Philip II from the myth of his isolation, his timidity, and his instability. He works, of course, from a thorough knowledge of the original sources and years of immersion in Spanish archives. Kamen views have often generated controversy, but this book is persuasive about the character of the king and fascinating on the subject of the building. Over the past few years Harvard University Press has been publishing a series devoted to landmark structures like Stonehenge, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, the Dome of the Rock, and so on; these are excellent summaries of the current knowledge about these subjects. Except for its greater length, Kamen's book wouild have been a worthy addition to the series. For anyone interested in great buildings and their builders, The Escorial is well worth a look. [Henry Kamen, The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance, Yale University Press, $35]

And if you like royal intrigue in great buildings, and who doesn't, keep in mind as well a book to be published by Walker and Company next month called The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace. Its author is Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the organization that runs the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace (where some of The Tudors takes place), and Kensington Palace, and her method in this book is to take some of the royal portraits on display at Kensington Palace and use them as windows into the lives lived there during the time the first two Hanovers, George I and George II, ruled England, 1714 to 1760. It's the kind of book that takes more interest in George II's hemorrhoids than in, say, the War of Jenkin's Ear, or Whig and Tory politics; but I don't mean to trivialize it. Worsley has done a great deal of research, she knows the period thoroughly, and she demonstrates a lot of sympathy for the women especially, so often caught up in court intrigue or in the wars between royal mistresses for attention and influence. She writes well, too. It if isn't in the stores already, watch for it in the next week or two. [Lucy Worsley, The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace, Walker and Company, $30]

Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4:

One of those hot still days. True summer. We're promised a heat wave this coming week. It has been very dry, no rain for well over a month. I live close to water but I think of myself as a soil-based person; I seem to be more aware of the nature of soils and more interested in them than most, if not all, of my friends. Our own private soil on this third-acre of happiness is sandy and thin, glacial moraine soil, underlain with gravel and the ground-up stone of glacial debris. It doesn't hold water long, so we have been watering busily, to save the grass, the shrubs, the younger of the trees.

Maybe I take an interest in the soil from thinking about the glacier, 5,000 feet thick, that overlay this land only 11-12,000 years ago. That strikes me as a wondrous fact. I wish more people thought about these things; it might make a difference of a sort. We live in four dimensions, in the space we occupy and, within that space, the fourth dimension of time, which stretches both before and behind and upon which our lives cannot help but have an affect. I think about this little piece of the landscape a lot. About ten years ago, digging around one of our hedges, I found a small midden of clam and oyster shells, almost certainly Indian in origin, left there when our third of an acre was covered with oak forest, or maybe before that, the ubiquitous red cedar, which still wants to reclaim this land for itself; we have several in the yard as it is, two in the front hedge, which I'm letting grow into trees because nothing is more boring than a hedge, and they seed constantly in the lawn. It's easy enough to imagine a band of the local Indians, or just a family, camping here and eating the mollusks they had gathered from the meadows below, now filled in, the same meadows where downtown Sag Harbor stands now.

And at the height of the glaciation this spot was three hundred miles from the coast.

For me, these facts always give me pause; they are lessons in impermanence; and as I move toward old age and death I revel in it, oddly enough, knowing that the beaches will disappear in the not enormously distant future, what was incredibly valuable waterfront property will drown, the earth will shake off this destructive and thoughtless species and only a percentage of mankind will survive. And the question will be: then will we have attained wisdom?

I rather doubt it. Jonathan Swift said that he loved individual human beings but he found mankind itself loathsome. I think of mankind as not so much loathsome as clueless. Yet here I am, approaching old age, growing more cheerful by the day. Oh, I can get irritated, I can snap at people, sometimes I get seriously angry, and I drive with care because the roads are full of idiots on cell phones, driving at high speeds. Clueless. Oblivious. A few years ago we almost killed a woman who pulled out of a side street right in front of us, chattering away on her phone, too interested in her conversation to look both ways. We swerved, honked our horn; she jammed on her brakes. It clearly spooked her. Maybe she learned from it. But I doubt it. Nothing is harder to teach than a human being; usually it takes a death, or something very close to a death.

Still, I am not unhappy at the state of things. As an historian, I know it has been far worse in other times and places. And it isn't my burden any more. I spent five years in local government, doing what I felt to be my civic duty. I do my best to be kind to the people I know and love, and to strangers when they need kindness. I don't lecture anyone. I try to find reasons for those I love who are in pain to feel good about themselves, and about their futures. These things turn out to be satisfying to the soul. I have lived an extraordinarily fortunate life, and have some good stories to tell. What more could a peson want for the end game?

And then yesterday, while the fireworks were going off on two sides of MacArthur Airport in Islip, we picked up Lorraine's "new" granddaughter, a child given away by Lorraine's own daughter at childbirth. We had never met her; only recently had Lorraine established contact. And she's smart and charming and interesting, a poet, 24 years old, and witty to boot. It's like the line in Yeats's late great poem "Lapis Lazuli," about the little piece of sculpture in that soft blue stone where the old men are climbing a trail on a mountain and looking down on the life below, and "their ancient glittering eyes are gay."

Friday, July 2, 2010

July 2:

We have a new deck out back now, fresh wood, a new railing, a couple of steps leading up to it from the side yard, and we sat out there yesterday evening, a beautiful evening, clear skies, cool air, on our old comfortable Adirondack chairs, and hoped for the birds to come and visit our feeder. Not many did. The birds are in short supply this year, possibly because of the neighborhood cats, possibly because they have been staying away from the deck construction. But an oriole did show up to feed on the trumpet vine flowers, and orioles are very colorful birds and fun to watch. And so many moments of ecstasy in my life have come from watching birds. Why that is I have no idea, but it is. Once at Mary's Point in the Bay of Fundy I lay on my back on a great flat stone next to the water and a peregrine falcon came and hovered directly above me for a full thirty seconds or so. It felt like a blessing. At the same place we watched maybe ten thousand semi-palmated sandpipers, down from the Arctic to feed on the mud flats before they left on their non-stop, 2,000-mile-plus flight to South America, forced up on the beach by the rising tide, dance and swirl in unison, all 10,000 of them at once, alarmed by this very same falcon flying low over them. People come from all over the world to see this happen. I tell you, my heart took flight with them. It isn't often you can say something like that without reservation, without embarrassment. They have brown backs and white bellies, and, I say again, in unison, they flew first this way, then that, 10,000 flashes of white, then brown, looping, diving, rising, until they settled back down on the beach. To have lived, and seen things like that! And even there on our deck I have taken such great and quiet pleasure in the birds. It reminds me of one of my favorite poems, Coleridge, "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," in which he is confined by lameness to his bower while his friend Charles Lamb, visiting, walks down to the river with Coleridge's wife, and finds even in the bower a great deal to make him happy.

Yes, happiness. One thing I like about Jefferson, who enshrined the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence (it is July 2, the day the finished document was presented to the Continental Congress), is that he knew that things like this brought it. Forget slavery for a moment, forget Sally Hemings, and all the other things we can condemn him for. Think of him there at Monticello, on his little hill, in the house he never stopped improving, amidst his gardens. Men of his era made much of the retired life, it was a convention of the time that came out of the classics; Horace did the same, so did Virgil; but it was also quite real for people like Jefferson and Washington and Madison; and I like to think of Jefferson sitting on his terrace watching the sun go down over the Blue Ridge Mountains in the same state of mind I feel on our modest little deck. A little cheese, my nightly vodka, and the birds. This is happiness. And, if your life is good, and mine is pretty good so far, this is all you need.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Just back from Starbucks where I was reading a piece in the NYReview of Books about Deborah Eisenberg, whose complete works are just out from Picador, 980 pages! and the reviewer, Claire Messud, quotes a passage that exactly describes what life is like in the mundane daily sense, that "it wasn't really like anything--it was just whatever it was, and there was never a place in your mind of the right size and shape to put it. But afterwards, the thing fit exactly into your memory as if there had always been a place--just right, just waiting for it." And I was trying to think about what history was like, how the mundaneness, the "worn muzzle of the horse," the "wads of paer in the gutter," cannot get into history because history must necessarily be so much more distant from the sense of how life is lived internally, it is all about external relationships; and then I remembered the scene where his brother Joseph walks in on Napoleon in his bath to protest against the sale of Louisiana to the United States, and Napoleon shocks him by standing up, naked, to make his point, which was that he had made up his mind, and Joseph was not going to change it. And we miss this emphaticness for the most part because we don't know what would have shocked his brother in Napoleon's nakedness, for they were, after all, brothers--although I suppose nakedness is always a bit shocking. Anyway the not knowing is precisely the not knowing much about what life was like on a mundane level in France in 1803, and really cannot know, because you literally had to be there, that is how minute life is, a minute-by-minute thing, and therefore why fiction is so much more intimate and revealing and, ultimately, accurate than history. Lorraine has just finished reading Wolf Hall, the recent novel about
Thomas Cromwell, and even though I know the history, grew up with it in grad school, yet I was jealous that she had the time to read this novel, and I don't. But I could make time. I could read the novel instead of reading the NYReview of Books. Except that it would no doubt take me over, and I truly can't afford that.

But what life is like--that's what both historians and fiction writers are obsessed with, that question, getting it into words so we can communicate it; and it changes over time and from place to place. Life in 16th-century England was so definitely not what life is like for us now. We watched a bit of The Tudors recently and that was the disconnect for me. The actor playing Henry VIII just didn't have a clue what was going on in Henry's mind, not really; nor did the scriptwriter really get it. It is so hard to imagine the past. You can get all the details right--world lit only by fire, the heavy clothes against the winter chill inside the house as well as outside, the constant threat of deadly illness against which there were no remedies, the travel by water along the Thames, the absence of seating--and still never get close to the mental furniture. A friend gave me a CD of the music Henry had written, played on period instruments, and I listened to the delicate complexity of it and remembered the mixture of motives that went into its making, a mixture tinged by the growing awareness in England at the time of the accomplishments that men of Henry's class were supposed to be able to toss off, casually; and the music did not include the lyrics of "Greensleeves," which Henry wrote (the tune was traditional), which are exquisite. Most of this is missing from the character as played in The Tudors; that Henry is too much bluster, and thereby too uncertain. The actor misses the king.

The job for the historian is the job of any writer--getting it right. It's the fascination of what's difficult, and Yeats got that right in his poem of the same name. It's all about craft in the end, and the love of craft. I like to tell people the story of Giotto, approached by the Pope, whoever it was, to submit work for a competition, and, in the presence of the Pope's representative, took a brush, dipped it in red paint, and drew a perfect circle. Note that the Pope is a minor character in this anecdote. The tale comes from Vasari and, who knows? it may be apocryphal, but it makes the point. Popes are merely a means to an end. It is the art that matters. The I Ching makes a similar, but even more profound, point in one of its hexagrams. "Let the credit go to another. It is enough that the work be done." And in this respect, I sometimes think I might have given my soul to have written "O western wind," the little quatrain that stands at the beginning of early modern English poetry, whose author is unknown.