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.