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.