Saturday, December 3, 2011


December 3, 2011:

Why has it taken me to age 75 to figure out that I should not let my tea steep so long? It took a suggestion from my wife, who will no doubt trumpet her triumph mercilessly (triumph and trumpet--same root for these two words?), to let me see the error of my ways. Previously I let it steep for six minutes, and suffered for it--acid reflux; trembling hands. Now, not so much. Three minutes is enough. I offer this as a small item in the how-to-live department. In self defense, let me add that I have remembered throughout my life a remark my father made about the tea served in the house of my mother's parents, up the street from us; it was an old farmhouse, they had a coal stove in the kitchen, and they left tea in a open pot on top of the stove, which, since it was a coal stove and the embers were always, so to speak, on, was permanently brewing. By the end of the day, my father said admiringly, that tea would put hair on your chest. So I thought strong tea was a family tradition, and it would only be right to follow it.

The fewer remarks fathers make, I find, the more authority they seem to gain.

But this is only a passing thought. It was a remark of Auden's that really got me going today. He said that he liked America, where he spent the latter half of his life, because it was "devoid of history," and therefore much less class-bound and tradition-bound and more open to him and his work than his native England. Since I know some American history it gave me pause that he would think such a thing about a country that fought a revolution and a civil war, had had, at the time he made this remark, more than thirty presidents, had occupied an entire continent, built innumerable cities and countless towns, had no more free land to give away and had become a world power. And he lived in New York City, which dated from the 17th century.

Still, you know what he meant. Auden went to Oxford, which was already a university when Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade Ferdinand and Isabella to sponsor his fantasies and let him sail west to reach the East. London dated to the Romans; Stonehenge had been around forever. Compare that to, say, Omaha, or Denver. I was in Albuquerque not too long ago and it was so temporary in feel that it seemed like a strong wind could have uprooted the whole place and turned it into tumbleweed. As Gertrude Stein so notoriously said about Oakland, there's no there there. The layout of the roads, the style of building, the scattered downtown, a shopping center here, another there, the old Spanish mission architecture scant on the ground: what was it all doing there? In no way did it explain itself. I remember drving into Visby, a small Swedish city on the island of Gotland in the Baltic. To get in you had to drive through the city gates. You could walk the perimeter of Visby on its ancient wall. You instantly knew you were in a very particular place, a place with a definite identity. It was a Viking city, a medieval city, it was once a power in the Hanseatic League, and it was rich in roses. For all its northern latitude, the Baltic is friendly to roses, and they were growing everywhere.

History is attached to places, it is to a large degree about what happened in a particular spot, and in America, not a whole lot has happened in a whole lot of spots. There's not much to look back to in those spots, not much tradition, very few families identified with the place. This is one reason American politics is so stupid, and so ideological. As in all politics, it is usually about competing economic interests, all of them vying for space at the public trough; but beyond that, because we have so little history, because our places are so flat, so devoid of texture, with so few handles to grab onto--do people who only moved there five years ago walk around and call themselves Albuquerqueans? how do you identify with a suburb?--our representatives have no place to represent, only political philosophies. And so our politics is full of screaming about abortion rights and "freedom" and economic theories on both the right and the left built not out of facts but out of ideology. And there is nothing worse than ideology for making sensible workable policies. Ideology leads to passing phenomena like Herman Cain calling themselves "leaders," or, since I brought the subject up, the Tea Party, doing--laughably, stupidly--the same.

We used to think of ourselves as a practical people, alive to what works regardless of the theory behind it. Lacking historical anchors, anchors to particular places, an identity we can identify with, so to speak, we become Republicans and Democrats and very little useful gets done. I suppose we have to wait for a very long time for this to change, for Americans to become not members of a party, but citizens. We all need to read more history, and to make more, in order to become who we actually are. We need not just to settle in a place, but to settle down and make some place our own.

That, I think, is what we need. What we'll get is something else again.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


November 30, 2011:

The Times reported this morning that Herman Cain is losing support--too much sex, Herman!--and thinking of getting out of the race. He won't be the last. One by one the clowns will drop out as their prospects dim, the money dries up, and they keep on making dumb mistakes when they debate each other. But I'll miss them. They've given American politics an entertainment value it seldom has and Gail Collins wonderful ammunition for her columns, and they've also made it possible, if anything has, for Barack Obama to be re-elected. If this circus goes on long enough Obama will look more and more like a savior, the only sane, practical one in the bunch, the only one with enough intelligence to be President.

Truly I have never seen such a pathetic collection of political wanna-bes in my long life. What are Republicans eating these days? I come from a Republican family, I grew up among people for whom the business of America was business, just as Calvin Coolidge said it was, but I'm pretty sure even my grandfather would have gagged on Rick Perry or Herman Cain, neither of whom seems to know anything about the world outside the borders of the United States, about history, about the intricacies of foreign affairs or the balance of powers, who devalue science and would gut Federal expenditures on education and who get economic theory wrong on a regular basis, and who seem to think that all it takes to become President is a high-school level course in civics and tax cuts for the rich. Bizarre. Michelle Bachman is even worse, a joke, Ron Paul wants to live in the eighteenth century, Rick Santorum is one of those moralistic jerks you're pretty sure will be exposed sooner or later as having concealed some scandal of his own, and that leaves Mitt Romney, whom we all know to have no center at all, besides being a member of a church with one of the weirdest belief systems ever dreamt up, founded, appropriately enough, by a man who appears to have been insane. Oh, and there's Newt Gingrich, rich lobbyist. That's just what we all want, a lobbyist as President. The man who brought us the Contract with America, and shut down the United States Government for a few days out of pique. You can look it up; it's all true.

How did American politics get to such a pass? It's a complicated story, worthy of a Gibbon, but it will probably be a few hundred years before it finds him. Before somebody can write the Decline and Fall of the United States of America, it has to happen; right now we're only on the brink. My own view is that the Founders were right about republics--to survive, they have to be small, with relatively homogenous populations; and they require an educated elite to run them, men like the Founders themselves. I return to Jefferson so often in this blog because he's the one I know the best, having edited an anthology of his writings from France when he was the U. S. minister to the French court; but they were all like him to varying degrees, men with a deep grounding in history, the classics, and the theory of government. Jefferson read everything--Hume; Gibbon; Pufendorf; Montesquieu; Cicero and Caesar; Thucydides; Locke; you name it--and he sent books to Madison, and the Constitution of the United States came out of this reading. He prepared, they all did, for the leadership roles they felt obliged to assume, or wanted out of ambition to assume. John Adams wrote treatises on government and constitutions; Madison wrote the Constitution itself, and much of the Federalist papers to defend it. And we know this about them, but we have too little sense of the level of intellectual dedication it took; and we have trouble imagining what it meant. What it meant was that they knew how things worked and how they might work better, even while they understood how difficult it was to maintain liberty under any form of government and how much dedication it would take from the public to keep their own small republic from drowning in greed, ambition, and corruption, which are a few of the things that Gibbon thought brought down Rome.

Drowning in greed, ambition, and corruption is what the U. S. is doing now, except that it's not small, it's huge, it encompasses multitudes, both Texas and New York, Kansas and California, and these places truly don't speak the same language. I have thought for a long time that it should be mandatory that every citizen of the United States should spend a year in New York City or L. A. or San Francisco or the like, and vice versa--every East or West Coast liberal should spend a year in the heartland. Think of it as a kind of national service, or as walking a mile in the other guy's shoes. Get to know the locals, find out where their hearts are, why they think and believe what they think and believe. We only get cartoon views of these things from TV; we get fantasies, not reality. I remember my landlord in Oklahoma, when I was in the Army, telling me that they've got everything in the city of Lawton that we had in New York City. Oh, really? I wanted to drag him by the neck to Times Square, or the New York Public Library down the street, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and abandon him there for a week.

It is fantasy we get from our politicians, too, and not reality. They pander shamelessly to the myths Americans live by, and you wonder if they believe any of them and you wind up hoping they don't--better hypocrisy than stupidity. We have come a long, long way down from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Obama is smart, but he can't match either of them for depth. And he can't manage the country; he's not enough of a leader. But the Republicans are far far worse. They're not smart, and of the ones who are, Romney and Huntsman, only Romney has a chance and no one knows, including perhaps the man himself, whether he would govern with his brains, or merely pander as he does now to what he sees his constituency as wanting. But the folly, the clownishness, the indifference to substance of what passes for political leadership on the right is both sad and frightening. I am a skeptic by nature, I don't hold a high opinion of humanity in the mass, and this bias no doubt infects my judgment. But I despair for my country. How are we all going to feel when we have a clown in the Oval Office?

Saturday, October 29, 2011


October 29, 2011:

It's cold, it's windy, and it's raining. I'm going to spend the whole day reading, catching up on some of the magazines and newspapers sitting in piles waiting for such a day. Do you ever feel that all those words are impossibly demanding, that there's too damned much information out there ever to assimilate any but a small fraction thereof, that modern life is just too complex? Politics, the arts, history, the economic mess the country is in, new scientific discoveries, new books, online magazines, op ed pages, weather reports: why do I feel the need, the itch, to add to it all with this little blog of mine? I don't know. Can't help communicating. I should have stuck to poetry. It takes a long time to write a decent poem and it might consist of a hundred words, or even fewer, and that might have satisfied the itch and at the same time not placed such an additional burden on the world as another book, or ten more magazine pieces, or whatever form the 100,000 words a year I once figured out I wrote on average takes.

This summer, in exactly three months of frantic writing, another book, a memoir: 46,000 words this time. I'm calling it Thoughts of Home, and it should start circulating very soon now, out to publishers, to a few friends, to the appropriate family members. Then somehow, I hope, to the public. In the book I talk a little about when I first realized I wanted to be a writer and how the wish to become one arose seemingly out of nothing. I could not explain it even to myself, much less to those who found it so alarming--i.e., my parents. But there it was, and to label it a wish is wrong; it was a need, what some people describe as a calling. Where do these feelings come from? I was sixteen. You know very little at sixteen. Yet it seems you can be called even so.

But writing a memoir, I have to add, is salutary, a reminder to yourself of how little you still know at seventy +, how complex everything is and how far you are from understanding how the world works. The weather, for example: one of the people in my book is Capt. Brown, the harbormaster at Brant Beach where we had our summer cottage. He lived next door to us and my brother and I worked for him, my brother especially, and one of the things we had to do was go out just before thunderstorms hit and tow in the sailboats from their moorings so the storm wouldn't capsize them, which thunderstorms could sometimes do, even when the sails were down, thanks to the sudden violence of the winds. Because the sky was fully visible, there being no trees on the island, you could see the storms build up over the mainland for hours, all afternoon long, and Capt. Brown would tell us when they would move across the bay toward us and where they would hit. "That'll go out the inlet with the tide," he'd say, or "We'll get hit with that one around five-thirty," and he'd always be right. Years and years of experience had taught him the ways of thunderstorms, how to read clouds, wind patterns, temperatures, all of which he integrated into his predictions. Years and years and years. And that's just thunderstorms. Now put that into the interactions of ecological systems, political systems, religious systems, you name it, and figure out how long it would take to understand them. Then remind yourself that they're all connected to each other, and it just gets too daunting to think about. The world is this huge system in constant change and all we can do is struggle to maintain our balance.

What saves us from collapsing under the strain, I think, is our ability to forget. I came to see that while writing this summer. So much of my life, my past, was lost to memory. I could only write about what I did remember, and that kept the book short. A blessing. The hunger to know, to understand, was there, but I could only feed it scraps. Maybe that's why we invented gods, figures who could understand it all and maybe even exert some control over it--past, future, weather, the vast unimaginable complexity of everything. The endless interactions. I still think the Greek gods were the best of them all, so human, so entertaining. Maybe that's why I wanted to write: to exert some control, to make sense of a few things of my own. It's a plausible guess. Anyway here I am, writing again, and it's time to read now, feed the appetite for news of the world, news of us, past and present, the arts, history, politics, geography, everything. It's still raining, still windy, still cold.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


October 12, 2011:

I write occasionally for a magazine called Military History and for some time I've wanted to do a piece on dueling. The subject interests me because all lost traditions interest me; I've been fascinated for years by lost character types, too, like the Seducer, or the Spinster, or the elderly Bachelor, people who, thanks to the sexual revolution, it is no longer possible to be. The last movies made about Seducers were probably the Doris Day/Rock Hudson films of the early 1960s. I rather miss them. I once wrote a piece about the art of seduction (a subject I actually know only by report, I should add) for GQ; it was openly nostalgic, the art having been lost when the Pill appeared and puritanical values lost their grip on American life. We can all be grateful for that, but at the same time there was something elegant about a seduction carried out with style and respect; and we can only mourn the loss of style and respect when it comes to relations between men and women.

And then the duel. Duels died when the sense of honor became debased, and that happened when modernization and industrialization loosened the grip of aristocrats on both culture and society. A slow process, to be sure; Andrew Jackson fought a duel (and killed his man) as late as the 1820s, and in England duels were fought as late as the 1850s, even though they had been illegal for a long time before. Is it possible to be nostalgic about dueling? It seems silly to be so, but who could not love the drama of them? They were fought, evidently, mostly at dawn, in the morning mist, the outcome could be fatal, although it generally wasn't, and it was always one's honor at stake. Someone had accused you of lying, or had called you a coward, or had tried to seduce your wife or had actually seduced your daughter, and this was insupportable. Your reputation as a man of honor, someone who would stand up for himself and his own, had to be defended. So you issued a challenge, slapped him in the face, say, with a glove, or sent him a note, whatever suited you, and arranged for seconds and a meeting, and staked your life. Who wouldn't have liked to be in attendance, and watch? Duels had a tragic grandeur about them. Good people could die. John Scott, editor of the London Magazine in the 1820s, got caught up in a literary controversy with an anonymous writer for Blackwood's and The Quarterly named, as I remember, John Gibson Lockhart (that Gibson may be wrong), who had savagely attacked John Keats and the other so-called Cockney poets--i.e., lower-class poets--in those journals and had then lied about his authorship of the critiques, and the result was a duel in which Scott was killed, leaving his wife and children destitute. The interesting part of it was that Lockhart didn't show up for the duel. He sent a friend, who was a better shot than himself. Later Lockhart married the daughter of Sir Walter Scott and subsequent to that wrote Scott's biography. But for me he is always the coward who cheated at a duel, and it gives me an odd pleasure to make his name known in this way, so that the dishonor always lies at his feet.

Honor is about self-respect, and it is in political life that we most feel its loss. How often do politicians resign rather than do something dishonorable, like lie to the public, or put into force a policy they know to be disastrous or dishonest or immoral, or disguise their own beliefs? Look at Mitt Romney, professing not to believe in a health care plan modeled on the very plan he helped make law in Massachusetts when he was its governor. That he is pandering to a conservative base he has to have behind him in order to get elected is obvious. How can he do this, and respect himself? I can hear voices among my readers: can he be serious? Don't all politicians do this? Yes, that's precisely the point. Hypocrisy rules. Lies rule. It is endemic, and it makes all politics seem cynical and debased. This is what I liked about Eisenhower; a military man through and through, he had enough of a sense of honor that when he came to realize that the country was overly militarized, he made a speech about it, talked about the military-industrial complex, and became, in that act, one of our greater presidents.

Honor is about self-respect, about courage, about honesty; it is behind the fact that women and children are rescued first, something you could see on the Titanic when rich men chose to die rather than scramble for a place in the lifeboats. It is the foundation of what we call manners, the customary treatment of others with respect, opening doors for women or men, too, for that matter, being kind to people and animals, giving up seats to pregnant women or old women in the subway, showing deference to age. And it is, or should be, the principle on which the wealthy build their relationship with society. The honorable rich acknowledge their debt to society, their luck, which they didn't earn, and they give back. The Rockefellers are the prime example of this sense of noblesse oblige; for all their faults, and who does not have faults? they understood that they were stewards of their wealth, that it was not theirs alone. Bill Gates seems to be following the same path. This is the honorable path. People like Warren Buffett understand this. People like the Kochs do not.

We mistake the past if we think it was better than the present; generally, it was not. In the 1830s, when Tocqueville was writing about the egalitarian society the United States supposedly was, one percent of the population owned nearly half the country's wealth. A similar situation prevailed in the 1770s, and in the 1920s. There has never been a garden of Eden and the meaning of the Greek word "utopia" is "no place." Still, I sometimes think that if the old aristocratic virtues had not died out we might live now in a marginally more honest society, one more respectful of others and more sensitive to their needs. I am sick of living in a political swamp, with crocodiles and snakes on all sides. The very air stinks of them.

Monday, October 3, 2011


October 3, 2011:

We went for a little walk on the beach yesterday, after what seems like weeks of rain, and walked back to the parking lot along an overgrown track next to Sagg Pond that we've walked many times before with Jack, our late dog. And Lorraine said, "Was this here before? I don't remember it."

Yes, it was there, and we walked it, I replied. And my thought was, how could someone not remember a place she has been so many times? My next thought was, how could that very same someone be able to remember what we served at a dinner party five years before, or what she wore to another party fifteen years before? While I can remember places quite well, but would be totally unable to remember not only what I wore to that very same party, but also the party itself.

Is that what individualizes us, what we remember and what we don't? The question has special significance for me right now because I've just finished a short memoir mostly about my childhood that is almost totally fashioned from memory. I wrote it over a period of three months and it's short, just 45,000 words; you could read it in an afternoon. But as I look at it, I can't help but wonder what I got wrong. One incident I don't mention in this little book, whose title, by the way, is Thoughts of Home, is my very first memory, of being in my crib, which was pushed up against the wall of my bedroom, and using crayons left in the crib to scribble on the wall. Many years ago I mentioned this memory to my mother and she looked at me queerly and said, "That never happened."

Uh-oh. Does that mean that a whole bunch of other things I remember also didn't happen? When, if ever, does memory become reliable? Some of the people in jail are there because a victim or witness picked their face out of a line-up and identified them as the criminals, and increasingly DNA evidence is finding that these identifications are mistaken. Yet once I've driven the route I can usually remember how to get someplace even years later.

Memory, in short, is highly selective, and it has been well demonstrated that the selections it makes are based on emotional factors that can render them untrustworthy. Maybe I imagined I had scribbled on the wall, and translated the imaginary into the real because some emotional factor--knowing, for example, that I was being naughty--made it unusually vivid to me at the time. I've always been afraid of spiders, and my mother told me once that that was because another boy older than me had described to me how awful spiders were. That's a memory I repressed. I don't even remember the boy in question.

I have to face it, then: some pieces of my memoir will be mistaken. Other pieces will have been repressed. Yet our memories are all we have with which to compose an identity, for who are we if not the narrative we compose from the debris left behind by our lives, who are we if not that explanation, that structure we build out of the rough downed timber of our past? Identity, I am trying to say, is a shaggy simulacrum of the truth. Narratives have to be consistent to make sense to others but how often do we behave consistently? Fairly often, I would guess, but not all the time. If I worked hard enough at it, searched my memory harder and deeper, maybe I could construct a person not at all like the one I seem to want myself to have been. A less attractive person, maybe, less modest, more self-involved. You have to be pretty self-involved to write a memoir in the first place.

I don't know--an iffy business, this. I'm tempted to write another memoir covering the later years, and it could be that this totally different person would emerge. But I won't do it. Too many people whose lives I've affected in diverse ways are still drawing breath, and how could I talk about them? I don't want to hurt anybody. There's something to be said for that old WASP thing about appearing in the newspaper on only three occasions in your life: birth, marriage, and death. I'm a public enough figure that you can pick up the basics online. I should leave it at that.

Still, Thoughts of Home is pretty good. Most everybody in it but me is dead. Obviously I like writing about myself; I've certainly done it often enough. I sometimes think it's the only subject I know really well. But I have to wonder--would I get it right? My friend Arthur Prager, who once had a contract from a publisher to write his memoirs, wanted to leave three pages of it for his ex-wife to write. The contract was canceled when his editor was fired, but I would have loved to have seen that: a rebuttal, right in the book. Maybe that's the answer, if I ever write another one of these things. Leave space for argument. Because how well do I know myself after all? We remember selectively, and we get it wrong. How well do any of us know ourselves?

Friday, September 16, 2011


September 16, 2011:

I woke up early this morning, as I increasingly do, got out of bed, discovered my left leg had done something to itself in the night that was painful, had to sit down on the bed as a result to put on my pants, and staggered about doing the rest of the chores--feeding the birds, getting the cup I take to Starbucks out of the cupboard, etc.--while limping. It was my left leg so I could drive well enough, and I had my tea and bagel at Starbucks without obvious suffering, and some ibuprofen back home took care of the pain. But I injured myself in my sleep? Just how delicate are my legs? Wednesday I finished mowing the lawn, and all was fine. Now it's Friday and I'm not.

It's moments like these that remind me of my age, and when I think about my age, I think about all the stuff I have, so much of it, and what to do with it. Lately I've been thinking I should do an inventory, make a list and put a value on everything, because who among my heirs is going to know? Right now, sitting here staring at this screen, I can see on my left the remains of an envelope dated 24 June 1828 addressed to Adam Gordon in the Colonial Department and signed by John Franklin Captain R.N. (for Royal Navy). It was given to me by a close friend while I was working on my book on Franklin and the Northwest Passage. This friend believes that it helps while writing a book to have an emblem of the subject beside you, so I've pinned this item up in its glassine envelope on the wall next to me, and while the book is long since published, the gesture is still there, reminding me of the value of a thoughtful generous friend, and I'll never sell it. But my heirs will, and what is it worth? I can't ask my friend. My heirs will have to ask the market. More to the point, will they recognize it for what it is without me making an inventory and telling them what it is? And do I have a responsibility to do this? Because there's so much stuff, it would take months and months to do a proper inventory. The books alone: five, six, seven thousand? I don't really know. Much of it is not worth all that much, but picking out the ones that are worth something would require me to go through them all, look up prices, assess condition, and do everything else book dealers do to determine the value of a book.

Or, still looking around me, there's the rusty sheet metal mask I bought at a yard sale for a dollar that stares out over my left shoulder. He's clearly a god, and the mask falls in the class of anonymous art, or tourist art, or--well, I don't know, but he's clearly a god. Or the broadside printing of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, "Why the Classics," given me by my friend Marvin Bell, or the photo of a school of koy given me by my friend the photographer Ken Robbins, or the little basket I bought from the 93-year-old woman at the Makah Reservation in the state of Washington, or the neat little Natico clock, also from a yard sale, stolen from the Stanhope in New York. Or the sketch of a dog's rear end torn from a notebook, and above it that old reminder, "If you ain't the lead dog, the view never changes." It was given to me by the same friend who gave me the Franklin signature. And inside the Makah basket there's an eagle feather. What's that worth?

So many things, so many problems. I have a wall of prints I bought in my first marriage that I know have value, and Lorraine and I have more that we bought together, and because old prints are like books, if you know enough you can make out well at sales and in antique stores buying them, but exactly what they're worth is not an easy question to answer, or even guess at. I should probably find the names of reliable dealers for my heirs to take the prints to. Reliable book dealers, too. But the file cabinets are full of contracts, still in force, and manuscripts and clips and notebooks, and what about them? Intimidating. Exhausting. Maybe a bonfire.

Stuff, in short. It can be oppressive, even when you love it. Especially when you love it. I admire people who can keep it under control, but I can't. I have African masks, but no record of what I paid for them or even where they came from, and that was certainly shortsighted. It pays to be organized. Jefferson was supremely organized; when he sold his books to the fledgling Library of Congress he inventoried all 6,000 plus volumes himself--who else was going to do it?--and kept records of his gardens and his purchases and his farm, copies of all his correspondence and letter books describing each letter, sent and received, in brief. Now that's methodical. I just can't be that methodical. My handwriting is a mystery even to myself sometimes. Definitely a bonfire.

Then there are the family photographs, and my grandfather's naturalization papers and his discharge papers from the Swedish army, and the plastic ID media tag on a braided nylon string that let me walk around the U. S. Olympics Complex in Colorado Springs. And I have to ask myself, at what point do I let myself go? Preempt the process facing my heirs and just toss it all in the town dump? Because it is a process of letting yourself go. You're identified with your stuff; it's you in pieces, these are the things you carried through your life, and you care about them, but no one else will; and the monetary value you place on them is going to be much more than anybody else will place on them, because these things are yours; they're your memories, your doings, your satisfactions. What you might call your diplomas. We pass away and the things stay behind, so they're all that's left of you.

Or so you feel. But the truth is, they're only things, and you--well, you are something else. If only we knew what that was.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


September 4, 2011:

Surrounded by six or seven thousand books--I must count them some day--it becomes hard sometimes to know which one to read, on those rare occasions, that is, when I'm not reading for a purpose, i.e. for research on a book or a magazine piece. Sometimes I think I should read systematically, finish off the classics, say, start with Hesiod and run through to Tacitus, or maybe read the Odyssey and then James Joyce's Ulysses, which I've never been able to finish. Or read Milton as a project. But then I had a friend once who told me Milton invariably put him to sleep. It's hard work to read a long poem. Or I could read Herodotus and then Thucydides and decide for myself which one of them is the greater historian. Professional historians almost always prefer Thucydides and call Herodotus "the father of lies" for his credulity. I have them both, Herodotus in several translations, Thucydides in one from the nineteenth century. This is what having a large library is for, to be able to make these choices on the spot. One thing it's for, anyway. It has other uses as well, which I'll go into some other time.

But sometimes I just pick up the nearest book, and that happened yesterday when my wife took her niece, visiting for the weekend, to the beach, I was alone in the house, taking it easy, and I found sitting on a chair near my desk chair a book called What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes, and started to read that. Marlantes made a name for himself last year with a novel called Matterhorn, about the war in Vietnam, which he attended; the novel was well received, but I didn't read it. With this book, however, it was one of those serendipitous things, you pick something up not knowing what to expect, and pow! it's terrific. Because an awful lot of us don't know what it's like to go to war, and this book delivers the news. It tells you in the most vivid ways what it's like to shoot people whose eyes you're looking into, what it's like to have to make horrible moral choices on the battlefield that you know will haunt you the rest of your life, what it's like to fight down fear and get lost in rage, to run amok, to keep a buddy with a hole through his chest alive, to get wounded and keep on fighting. And all the while Marlantes keeps his eye on the essential thing, the spiritual price soldiers pay; he knows what battle does to the soul and has the courage to talk about it. So I'm loving this book, and it's totally unexpected.

And it begins with a quote from, of all people, Thucydides, who is himself quoting a Spartan general. It reads, "The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools." I sent this to a friend of mine who's a part-time warrior and thought he would appreciate it. Most of my friends have no experience with war, nor do I, but I did spend time in the military as an artillery officer and have written about that experience, and my sense that I would have liked combat, especially artillery combat, which is less messy, more elegant than infantry fighting, came out of that experience. It behooves all of us to know who we are, to know what we're capable of. The more a people have close contact with war the wiser they become about the geopolitical realities that create war, and the human passions behind it. That's why I've always believed that there should be a draft, even in peacetime, so that we all know what it's like to serve in the war machine, and what it means. If we had a draft, we would have been out of Afghanistan a long time ago, and would never have gone into Iraq. That was all done by politicians who avoided service: Cheney, Bush and the like. They dodged every bullet that might have come their way. The thinking in that case, in other words, was done by cowards.

But there won't be a draft, so let me recommend to anybody listening that they buy and read this book. War is always going to be with us and we need to be realistic about that, and about what war entails. We need to be responsible about it, and to sand off that layer of moral superiority we all too often adopt toward warriors. Marlantes, who won two Purple Hearts, the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals for valor, among other medals and honors, was once spit on on a train by a woman who paused at his seat to do that. These are the people you most hope Marlantes will reach, those who take easy, simple-minded moral attitudes toward things they have no real conception of. Walk a mile in his shoes, lady: through jungle, picking leeches off your legs, hoping not to have your legs blown off by a mine, trying to keep yourself alive, your buddies, walk that mile on no sleep in two days, walk it when your best friend just had his head blown apart. The writer Jim Harrison told me once that he hears all the time from people who want to have a "wilderness experience," and he tells them, go out into the woods, kill and animal, then cook and eat it. That's a wilderness experience. We can't do the same thing with war, but we can read this book by Karl Marlantes and come close to it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


August 27, 2011:

It's one p.m., and all's quiet. It's been nonstop Irene on the airwaves, but where is she? We had all our supplies in here on High Street by yesterday afternoon. This morning we put the outdoor furniture in the shed, turned the teak table upside down, pushed the Weber against the back wall. The wind will come from the east, then the southeast, then the southwest, working its way around the compass. The back of the house faces south, so that broad expanse will take the brunt of it. I do wonder where the birds go--maybe into the hedges. We'll bring the bird feeders into the shed, too, late this afternoon. Our wind chimes are already in the house. We're ready. But where is she?

I find it hard to get any real work done, waiting for Irene. Lorraine is in her office, her door closed, chipping away at her book, a sculptress with her chisel. Me, I've only done the Saturday crossword puzzle, and I blanked on the southwest corner. Very bad. Then I inexplicably jumped to the conclusion that my nephew Ted was a new father, when he was only holding somebody else's baby (this on Facebook), and I saw Ted and his nonpregnant wife in person only a few weeks ago. My mind seems to be on Irene even when it isn't. But Irene doesn't come. Irene may be more of a media event than a weather event, people are panicking all over the East, but I'm not panicking. I just can't concentrate on anything. The calm before this storm is just too damned long.

While Hurricane Bob raged outside friends of ours were staying with us, shelter from the storm, and we drank martinis. But I don't want to do that now. I want Irene, I want to watch her wave her mighty hands at us and try to knock us over; I want to go for a walk downtown in the midst of it and see what's happening to the boats. I know I'm going to spend the night listening to her, listening for the sound of limbs falling and roof shingles blowing away and dripping somewhere in the house. But I'd like it to happen sooner rather than later. You are a tease, Irene. Shame on you.

OK, maybe I shouldn't scold such a wicked witch. Let's be nice to Mother Nature. Cross my fingers, knock on wood. But the air outside is clammy, heavy; it's like breathing through a wet sock. Forty-eight hours from now, it's going to be sunny, dry, and cool. So let's get on with it. "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/ Till you have drenched our steeples!" That's King Lear. He knows the feeling. We can endure most things, but waiting is hard.

Monday, August 22, 2011


August 23, 2011:

The latest tomes came in the mail the other day, two volumes weighing in at just under seven pounds, each one a little over 870 pages long. What are they? THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT, Vols. 1 and 2, the first covering his life from 1898 to 1922, the second from 1922 to 1925. Each volume contains 1,400 letters. Because they're so thick and heavy they present a problem to read beside the tedium of reading through somebody else's mail at such length, a problem that's sheerly physical: how do you hold them? would a reading stand be more comfortable than holding them in your lap? won't they be tiring to read? Small exercise weights come in this weight but not this size; the weights have handles, they're designed to be easily gripped. Books like this, not so much. You can manage them, but having big hands is a real help and even then it isn't easy, unless you read them at a table; and then it becomes a matter of finding a comfortable chair and figuring out how not to have to bend over the table, which is fatiguing. Books this size can be daunting, in short, in more ways than one.

But I am delighted to have them nevertheless. I'm not an Eliot scholar and will never read the entire text, but for dipping into in a relaxed frame of mind, other people's correspondence is as good as it gets. And Eliot: at Princeton in the 1950s he was our guru, chief critic, maker and breaker of reputations (Milton was never the same after Eliot had finished with him), not to mention the Modernist poet who led us all out of the wilderness of Edwardian sentimentalism with the kinds of imagery nobody had ever seen in poetry before--no American student, I should say, raised on Victorian gentility and "The Chambered Nautilus." Was it Eliot, or was it my late professor Russell Fraser, who pointed out the difference between Milton's line, "Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds," and Shakespeare's "silver snarling trumpets"? I first read John Donne under the tutelage, as it were, of Eliot's influence. And then to read Eliot himself: Prufrock's "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Or to see the evening laid out against the sky "like a patient etherized upon a table," or the great procession of the dead over London Bridge; or another line I love, "The salt is on the briar rose, the fog is in the fir trees," as good an evocation of the infiltration of the sea into the coast of northern Massachusetts, at Eastern Point, as it happens, a place I'm familiar with, as we'll ever get. It was Eliot, too, who gave us OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS, and thereby the musical CATS, which was great fun.

And now here is my first find, a letter Eliot wrote to his cousin Eleanor Hinkley when he was living in France for a year, and it's all about fun, and amusing her; he has just spent two weeks in London and he describes his appetite for visiting places off the tourist route, ordinary city churches, for instance, as opposed to St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey, and he mentions a visit to Cricklewood, too. "'Where is Cricklewood?' said an austere Englishman at the hotel. I produced a map and pointed to the silent evidence that Cricklewood exists. He pondered. 'But why go to Cricklewood?' he flashed out at length. Here I was triumphant. 'There is no reason!' I said. He had no more to say. But he was relieved (I am sure) when he found that I was American. He felt no longer responsible. But Cricklewood is mine. I discovered it. No one will go there again. It is like the sunken town in the fairy story, that rose just every May-day eve, and lived for an hour, and only one man saw it." Later in this same letter he mentions that he "gave the apterix a bun," draws a picture of himself tossing a bun to what looks like a rabbit, and then comes this remark: "Perhaps it was not an apterix." When we refer to the annotations, which are at the bottom of the page, thank god, we find that Eliot wrote three book reviews for The Egoist in 1918 under the name "Apteryx" or "T. S. Apteryx." An apteryx is not at all like a rabbit, in fact; it is a New Zealand bird, a kind of flightless goose. But it's the word that's delightful more than the bird.

So who wouldn't want to have been T. S. Eliot's cousin, and get such letters?

I'm sure more such treasures will appear from this vast treasure house to lighten my burdens. But there's an elegiac note that comes with it, because how many more such collections will come our way? Few write letters any more, we write emails, we twitter, we make remarks on Facebook, we communicate instantly all over the world and it all vanishes as soon as it's read. Modern means of communication have made it more, not less difficult to keep track of other people's minds. I bridge this transition in my own life, having gone from writing letters, all too many of them, some better never sent, and writing emails that slip away into space somewhere, presumably never to be seen again. So I'm grateful for this splendid, overdone collection, which comes from Yale University Press, the best of the university presses. Having his correspondence will lead to other books about Eliot, numerous reevaluations, and the game will go on. The game ought to go on. Intellectual life has to be sustained on a great many levels, and continuously, for a culture to survive. Eliot's letters are like what he once called poetry itself: the highest form of entertainment.

Friday, August 12, 2011


August 12, 2011:

When my brother died I acquired various family papers, including a number of photographs. I already had a box of photographs that I had retrieved from my mother's house years ago when she was developing Alzheimer's. Before she got really bad we had gone over them together, and she had told me as well as she remembered who all the people were and how they were related to us. And now I'm going over them again. There are hundreds of them, strewn all over my little office, piled on the floor, on chairs, balanced on the corners of the plastic tub I keep most of them in, all those that will fit, anyway, and it's overwhelming. So many people, so long gone. Tintypes so dark I can barely make them out. Studio portraits. Infants. Snapshots. My mother and father when they were young. Wedding pictures. Relatives so distant even my mother didn't know who they were. Pictures of my brother taken at regular intervals when he was a child and carefully dated on the back by my father. On and on. Who is going to want these pictures when I die? My children? They haven't said they want them, and I doubt that they do. I am the lone survivor of a tribe, it would seem, the last elder, maintaining the tribal icons.

Something has happened to me, and I don't know quite what it is. While my agent has been trying to sell my proposal on the history of the American dream, even while I continued to work on it, preparing to write more of the book itself, I suddenly stopped everything and began to pour out this memoir, this tribute to my family and to the lost childhoods my brother and I lived in the mid-20th century, to a forgotten past, pour it out, I say, at the rate of a chapter a week. Some dam let go. Some door burst open. This is the sixth attempt at this book. And now, finally, it's working. Why now? I just don't know. But this happens to writers sometimes. Keats wrote most of the works he is remembered by in the course of a single year. Rilke wrote The Duino Elegies, or maybe it was the Sonnets to Orpheus, in a month. I'm not of that caliber but I'm a writer, too, and eruptions like this do sometimes occur. So here I sit, surrounded by the detritus of all those pasts, by the poses, the shyness, the beauty of aunts and great aunts long dead, uncles in their military uniforms, my grandfather looking very corporate, except for the moustache, my father grinning happily about something, maybe about having won the heart of my mother--I don't know. There's so much of it I can barely wade through it to my computer. The only reason I'm writing this blog is because I deliberately took a day off, to slow down, to give what I have to do here time to simmer.

So: the writers' life. It flows beneath the surface sometimes, like meaning itself. It can be ecstatic. It can be very emotional. More than once in the last weeks I've sat here with tears streaming down my face. It is loss, always loss, that we celebrate. Language itself is elegiac, it clutches at things that are already gone. Indeed, I look at pictures of myself in this collection, myself as an infant, as a boy, a teenager, a groom, a father holding his own children, and I barely recognize him. I too am one of these sad lost people. I was so thin once, my hair so black. It is as if I were already dead.

Monday, July 25, 2011


July 25, 2011:

Walked around the yard the other day and saw the work ahead: weeding. If you have a yard you have weeds. I rather like weeding, and don't know why. Thomas Carlyle used to sit on his patio at his house in London and pull weeds and grass out from between the bricks. My father, at the shore house, would spend part of every weekend he was there pulling weeds, mostly crabgrass, out of the sand and yellow gravel that passed for soil. Maybe it rests the mind. The usual thing at the shore was to go to the beach, and he would do that, go up in the late afternoon, take a dip, cool off, wash the dust off his hands. But he seemed to prefer to weed. I was at the old shore house last week, visiting one of my nephews whom I rarely see, who was in occupancy for a week, and didn't see a single weed; but then things have been much improved there since my father was alive: new shingles, paint job, the old rusted glider gone from the front porch, the deck over the car port rebuilt. I used to sit on that rusty glider and read Dickens during my two weeks of summer vacation. That was when I actually had a job. Then I, too, might go up in the late afternoon to take a dip, cool off.

Crabgrass, it's worth knowing, is not native to North America. It came over mixed with the wheat grain that the early colonists brought here to plant. They also brought dandelions, as a salad green, and plaintain weed, which the Indians called "Englishman's foot" because it seemed to follow them wherever they went. And did you know that honeybees followed settlers west? Or led them, actually. By about fifty miles. And certain cultivated plants act like weeds. We have mint in our garden, and every year in the fall I pull it up by the roots, only to see it reappear, and spread, in the spring. You can't get rid of it. We also planted a trumpet vine years ago to climb our shed and pulled it down, and out, reluctantly when we replaced the shed this spring. But it's back, and all over the place. The roots run like hoses underground for two, three, five, ten feet, and then the plant springs up in these new places. It grows very fast. I mow the lawn about every ten days, and I'm always mowing down trumpet vines that I've mowed down before and that regrow about half an inch a day.

Grass itself, too, might be thought of as a kind of weed. Lawn greass is not native to North America. Bunch grass is, but not lawn grass, which also spreads by underground roots. It was brought over to mimic the appearance in American yards of English manor houses with their magnificent lawns, and once there were suburbs everybody had to have lawns. Lawn grass thrives in the English climate, with its cool nights and abundant rain. Here? Not so much. Here it takes a lot of work, a lot of water, and a lot of money to make grass grow well and keep it weed free. My longterm hope is to replace the worst of our grass with groundcovers. I've already done that in part of the front yard, where the worst grass was. That patch is now occupied mostly by a creeping form of juniper, which, strangely enough, Meriwether Lewis was the first to discover, growing out west, and the first to see how good a groundcover it would make. What's left on that particular patch I intend to cover with Pennsylvania field stone.

It is relaxing. I do so much mental work, and to spend a morning or an afternoon pulling weeds seems to melt the stress of being a writer and trying to produce at the top of your form every time. Weeding, like writing, has to be revisited and redone, but that's all right; I actually seem to need the weeds. They represent the undefeated part of life on earth. Despite everything we do to them, they survive; it is evolution in action. So tomorrow I will go see my agent in the morning and talk about the book that won't sell and the crisis in publishing generally, and then come home and weed in the afternoon. Don't think it odd that it gives me pleasure. Emerson, in a letter to a friend, once lamented that he didn't do the work of maintaining his own garden, and thus couldn't fully enjoy the pleasure of calling it his own. We are, after all, dust, and we return to it. There's something remarkably satisfying about putting your hands in it once in a while.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


July 3:

I spent the last three days largely in the garden, largely on my knees, putting in plants, taking out the plants we know as weeds, laying down mulch to keep more weeds from germinating, and the results, while mainly very satisfying, included leg muscles that cramped off and on all night long and woke me up at least four times. Then there's the scar on the back of my hand I no longer remember the cause of, the occasion of. A scar on my arm I know very well; that's where Dr. Berger caught the melanoma before it became something that could have killed me. My white beard covers another scar where he caught another melanoma that could have killed me. Thank you, Dr. Berger. Then about three years ago I hyperextended my left knee and can no longer walk more than about two miles without it becoming painful. At my age things like that don't heal very well. Then last night at the party somebody made a joke about my age and I had to remind him that he's only a few years behind me; and what I should have asked him is, well, my friend, which of us is having knee replacement surgery and which of us isn't? But I didn't think of it in time. I'm not the one having knee replacement surgery. For my age, I'm in pretty good shape.

But it creeps up on you. It begins to call attention to itself. My mind is sharp, I write well, I think as clearly as I always have, I have acquired, some people think, a certain wisdom. But it creeps up on you. You begin to imagine scenarios of life in a wheelchair, say, or requiring metal parts to replace bone and cartilage, or being off balance and falling down the cellar stairs, which would not be fun. You feel more and more for friends who face crippling problems. A good friend is about to have quadruple bypass surgery. Another friend has just had part of her spine fused, after enduring a great deal of pain. Yet another has had a pacemaker installed in his chest, and a fourth is struggling to keep his sight. I keep track of the skill with which I do the Thursday thru Saturday crossword puzzles in the NYTimes, the hard ones; after my grandmother's senile dementia, my mother's Alzheimer's, you look for signs, for forgetfulness, loss of words, anything that might be indicative of that kind of decline, a kind that also creeps up on you, so that by the time you would want to check out of this life you are no longer capable of doing the deed.

So you wind up asking yourself: am I ready? Am I tough enough, physically and mentally, to face the inevitable, the decline and fall of faculties, abilities, of me myself? I have been so lucky: never spent a night in a hospital; never had a major operation, have broken no bones but my nose, have no arthritis I know of, seem to have a sound heart, certainly have a sweet life, and the garden is close to beautiful. More goldfinches would be nice, but maybe they'll come back. Can my luck hold, can I face the inevitable with the grace without which one cannot be said to have lived well?

You have to earn your soul, John Keats said in one of his letters. John Donne had his portrait painted in a shroud, and when the Earl of Essex walked to the scaffold where he was to be beheaded, all London in attendance to watch him die, he wore a black cloak; when he let it fall from his shoulders he was seen to be wearing beneath it a brilliant red doublet, and the crowd gasped. Dying, like living, is a test of mettle. You might think of life as an art form which requires, like all art, a sense of an ending. We won't know until it's over, therefore, whether we have performed well, and then, because we'll be dead, we still won't know. But we must do it well regardless. Otherwise what would life be for?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


June 22, 2011:

I have just spent the better part of two days going through the files I keep of magazine and newspaper pieces I've written over the years since I began writing them in 1976, and it's been kind of mind-blowing. Wow! So many! Stuff in men's magazines on manly subjects, in women's magazines on relationships, reviews of books I've long since forgotten, long reporting pieces on the art world, pieces on American history, sports stories, pieces on child abuse and education, on human psychology, travel stories, war stories, profiles galore, and essays--personal essays--on everything from cooking to the humor pieces Lorraine and I wrote for Glamour to the death of my father. And not everything is here. Pieces are missing. For American Heritage I wrote a long piece on literacy in America, and it's not here. There are art world pieces I don't have. So there's more. And then the ethics columns I wrote for Esquire. They're not all here, either. So where are they? In this house, they could be anywhere.

I'm doing all this not out of some sort of narcissistic impulse to celebrate myself but because I would like to collect the best of the personal essays into a book, and that has become conceivable now thanks to the ebook technology that is turning the hairs on the heads of publishers gray. All I have to do is key the chosen material into my computer, send the file to Amazon, and for a few hundred bucks, much of which goes to a book designer, they'll make it available to the world. I'll then have to publicize it myself, but for that I only need a website, and some help from my friends. and a considerable amount of luck. Or so I tell myself. But whatever happens, I will have gotten it out there, made a move to preserve it, because a certain amount of it is worth preserving. I say that without any false modesty whatsoever. I was good. That's the most amazing thing that has come out of this experience, to see just how good I was, and sometimes still am. And how can you not feel happy about doing something really well?

But it all came to nothing. Magazine careers are peculiar that way. Nobody pays much attention to the bylines in magazines unless you're writing for Vanity Fair or the New Yorker or a place like that, and I never did. It has been the most miscellaneous career, a career scrambling from magazine to magazine as one would fold and another launch, or the editors who were my friends would leave or be fired, or I would get bored writing about stuff in which I didn't have a whole lot of interest in the first place. I was a fox, not a hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing, and it is the hedgehog, with his monomania, who generally makes a lasting name for himself. But the regret is minor. I loved researching and writing about the art world, for example; I was writing for the late Thomas Hoving at Connoisseur and he taught me where to look to find the bodies, the innumberable scandals, large and small, the fakes and forgeries, how to smuggle statuary out of Italy (which he personally did), who were the good guys and who the bad, and it was non-stop fun. But then Connoisseur folded, thanks partly to Hoving's extravagant ways with his own expenses, so I wound up at Men's Journal writing profiles and their book review column, followed that editor to National Geographic Adventure, and so on and so forth until the book column shrank to half a page and the magazine itself died.

So it had been with American Heritage; so it had been with Psychology Today; so with half a dozen others. Versatile--you had to be really, really versatile in this business to survive. So I got to be versatile, and it became difficult to write books, which requires the skills of a hedgehog, which, as I say, get you remembered.

Well, versatility is going to put me in ebooks. I'll still write the normal kind, paper and ink, but no print publisher in his right mind would reprint my personal essays. I don't have that kind of name. Very few writers do any more. The whole business of writing has changed as the market has morphed and realigned and shrunk, and fewer and fewer people read outside the bestseller list, and publishers run scared. But it is a business and you gotta keep up with it. So here I am writing a blog, which I began well over a year ago strictly for my own pleasure and because if I'm not writing I might as well swim over the horizon, and blogs were unthinkable ten years ago; and then I took it public so anybody could read it. Now ebooks are rapidly taking a larger and larger share of the market, and the only thing to do is to go there, too. As my daughter says, you have to keep writing, Dad. It's the only part of you that has any chance of surviving.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


June 15, 2011:

Today's New York Times reports that "American students are less proficient in their nation's history than in any other subject." Proficiency declines, furthermore, as students reach high school; in fourth grade 20 percent are proficient, in middle school 17 percent are, while only 12 percent of high school seniors are. And Sarah Palin thinks that Paul Revere rode to warn the British that the Americans were coming, while her followers tried to change the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere to support her ignorance of what actually happened.

OK, I'm a historian. It's predictable that I would find this, of all the items in today's news, by far the most alarming. But I just finished writing a piece for a history magazine about the two wars the United States fought in the early 1800s against the Barbary regencies in North Africa, which had been engaging in systematic, wholesale piracy against European shipping in the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic since the sixteenth century. The United States, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, who hated the system of legalized bribery by which the European powers paid these regencies not to attack their shipping, was the first commercial nation to decide to wage war against them instead of paying tribute to them, thereby setting a precedent for American foreign policy that remains in force to this day.

Is it useful to know this? I would argue that for American diplomats and American leaders, the people who have to deal with the wider world on a daily basis, it is essential. The context of events is what gives them their meaning, what saves them from seeming random and chaotic and beyond our grasp. History IS context. To handle a negotiation with Libya, say--the first of these two wars was fought with Tripoli, now the capital of Libya--and not to know the context, the background, the continuity of U. S. relations with the country, would be stupid in the extreme. I'm confident that Obama knows that history and that context pretty well, and so does the State Department. But does Sarah Palin?

You cannot become a citizen of the United States without knowing its history. You have to pass a test in it. I would guess that most newly minted citizens know far more of it than most high school graduates. If you know history, so much that seems irrational about American atitudes begins, if not to make sense, at least to have context. You would know, for example, that the American opposition to, indeed hatred for, taxes is as old as the American Revolution, that Thomas Jefferson shared that antipathy, and that he had to go against his own ideological disposition to build the navy that defeated the Barbary pirates. He had to change his mind. Jefferson made a point of knowing history. When he was serving as American minister to France in the 1780s he built the largest collection in the country of rare books relating to America and its history. He had a copy of the Koran in his library as well, and read it. He read the classical historians in their original languages, Greek and Latin.

George Bush couldn't locate Afghanistan on a map when he took office. Sarah Palin knew all about Russia because she could see it from her kitchen window.

If you don't know history, the world that surrounds you is largely a mystery, and you will wind up believing all sorts of things about it that simply aren't true. You will live in the myth/world inside your head: that everybody in the world wants what we want. That we are an essentially peace-loving people. That our enterprise is "free." That the playing field is level. That we are not racists. That America provides more opportunity than anywhere else.

All of these statements are demonstrably false, and have been from the beginning of American history. It's not that America is a bad country; it's that America is like most of the rest of the world, the product of a highly contentious, complicated, contradictory past, full of strife, laced here and there by brief periods of relative calm. Once you understand this, you can shed your illusions and begin to deal with America as it really is. The study of American history is obviously essential to this process. History is one source of prudence, forethought, tolerance and wisdom. Without it we doom ourselves to ignorance, to ever more strident ideological conflict, and to cultural and economic decline, all of it fed by myths about who we really are.

A little more than one-tenth of American high school seniors have enough knowledge of American history to qualify as whatever the National Assessment of Educational Progress defines as proficient.

No wonder Sarah Palin feels so much at home here. She knows nobody is going to care that she knows so little about Paul Revere.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


May 31, 2011:

We walked downtown yesterday to watch the Memorial Day parade, as we always do, and as always it was sweet and a little sad. The parade pauses outside the old firehouse and somebody using a weak sound system who's clearly not comfortable with public speaking says something very rapidly that nobody can hear. Then the guards equipped with rifles fire off three blanks in honor of the fallen, and somebody else blows taps. As soon as the weapons are fired, little boys scramble for the ejected shell casings. Years later they'll find them in their bureau drawers as they're packing for college and wonder what to do with them. The antique firetrucks come first in the parade, then antique cars with old, infirm veterans sitting in them, then this year a jeep. The high school band provides the music. We once saw Matt Lauer there with his little children, sitting on the curb, exposing them to this old tradition.

I could march in this parade, I suppose, if I still had my Army uniform, but I don't; and it wouldn't fit anyway. I was in the Reserves, an artillery second lieutenant, product of ROTC. We were trained as forward observers, the men who go into the front lines with the infantry and direct fire on enemy targets. I turned out to be extraordinarily good at this, for reasons I can only speculate about, but I never had to do it in combat. I was lucky, served between two wars, Korea and Vietnam, too young for the first and too old, besides being married and a father, for the second. Plus the Army had the proper line on me. I was a lousy officer, very good at the thing I loved to do, direct artillery fire, but totally impatient with rules and regulations, and mostly contemptuous of the brass. I am not a fan of rank but do respect competence; and for all too many of the officers I met, from major on up, they seldom went together. I spent my time at Ft. Sill on active duty as part of a training battalion, training cannoneers to fire 105 howitzers. I loved those deadly little monsters. You could stand behind them when they fired and watch the shells climb into the sky. Very pretty sight. Many of the cannoneers were afraid of them, however. Every ten years or so one or two of them will die from a muzzle blast: the shell explodes as soon as it leaves the muzzle of the weapon. They knew this: the company sergeants made sure they knew it, because they liked stoking fear; and I once saw a kid pull the lanyard that fires the weapon and take off in a dead run for the woods.

So am I a war lover? To a degree, yes. It surprises me, but, much as I hated military life, I did love the weapons, and firing them. I was talking last Saturday night at a party with a new friend of mine, a pilot who works for one of the major airlines and also flies C-130s in the Air National Guard and recently spent five months in Afghanistan dodging enemy fire while dropping supplies by parachute to units scattered over the country, and did the same thing in Iraq. We must have spent close to an hour talking about flying these surprisingly agile airborne trucks, and the big jets he flies as well. I'm drawn to these people. Another friend, this one my age, served in the military about the same time I did, and he, too, is fascinated by military history and military affairs. Right now I'm writing a piece for Military History about Thomas Jefferson's war against the Barbary pirates in the early 1800s. I wrote a piece years ago about my time in the military for the Atlantic.

Most of my friends have no experience with the military at all and tend to deplore the need for it. I don't. I think war is pretty much eternal, built into human nature. Has there ever been a completely pacifistic society? How would such a society survive in today's world, in anybody's world? I was a little boy during World War II, two of my uncles had gone into the service, and one of them served in New Guinea, where he was made Captain and rebuilt airfields the Japs had bombed. He brought back a Japanese rifle as a souvenir. It was in our basement for years. I still remember him coming home, walking in the front door in full uniform, service bars pinned to his chest. I thought he was some kind of living god. As time went on he became a functioning alcoholic, but he already had tendencies in that direction; I don't think it had anything to do with the war. And my brother and I grew up on war news, mostly in Life magazine, and we went to the movies with our parents and watched war movies and newsreels of the war, and war came to seem perfectly natural. If the twentieth century was about anything, it was about war. My guess is the twenty-first century will be the same.

So there it is, the paradox of ourselves. I'm basically a gentle person, polite, thoughtful, loving to those I love, and generous when I can be. But when my son was young and a woman charged into our yard and threatened him (he and a friend had been exchanging stones, so to speak, with her son and one or two of his friends) I happened to be in the garden and picked up the shovel on the ground beside me and peremptorily ordered her off my property, shovel in hand, ready to use it. We may be the kindest people in the world, but it pays to have that edge, that capacity for violence. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, throw stones just like little boys do; they approach the borders of their territory and throw them across those borders. They kill other chimpanzees as well, gang up on them and kill them.

This is what we are, we apes: capable of altruism, capable of murder. War, then? If war is inevitable, we might as well be good at it. I would have been good at it, the actual fighting part, that is. Artillery was perfect for me--you fight at a distance. It's all about superior skill.

At the same time I'm very grateful that I never had to prove it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


May 19, 2011:

I came across this remark from the Earl of Shaftesbury the other day while reading a review in TLS: "The most ingenious way of becoming foolish is by a system." And was reminded of a trip I took many years ago for Conde Nast Traveler for a story on what some editor had decided was the North American "cultural crescent," which ran, in his mind, from Toronto to Montreal to Boston to New York to Washington, D. C. And you ought to be able to trace this crescent by train, he told me, and that's what I want you to do. Well, you can't, but I took the assignment anyway and, living on the East End of Long Island, I decided to start in Boston and took the ferry from Orient Point on Long Island to New London, to catch the train to Boston there. And it was a cold wintry day in January, and starting to snow. I stood on deck for a while and watched the snow fall on the water and the water itself, which showed flashes of aluminum as it reflected the gray light, and a deep green, and black, all in a kind of wild disarray, with no pattern, no fix to it, if you know what I mean, nothing you could retain in your mind.

So, to Boston, where they don't plow the roads or shovel the sidewalks. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a play, or was it two plays, maybe a concert--I can't remember it all. And then the train to New York, where they do shovel the sidewalks. And a visit to the Museum of Modern Art. And here I came upon "Full Fathom Five," Jackson Pollock's great painting, and it was the same surface, the dark water, the flashes of aluminum, the green, the black, that I had seen from the deck of the ferry on my way to New London. Pollock did not paint representational pictures, but there it was. He had caught something I didn't think could be caught. Something with no pattern, a wild disarray, he had fixed it in paint. I was amazed. I stood there for five minutes, staring at it.

Years later I was talking about this experience with my friend Jeffrey Potter, who knew Pollock and had written a book about him, at a party at Jeffrey's house, or maybe somebody else's house: does it matter? We were standing in a kitchen, I remember that. And I told him how Pollock had caught something that couldn't be caught and had uncharacteristically painted something that looked like the thing it was called, for "Full Fathom Five" refers, of course, to the sea, and the line in Shakespeare, "Full fathom five thy father lies," from the song Ariel sings in the first act of The Tempest, which--by the by-- follows the line, "This music crept by me upon the waters," a line that breaks your heart. And how could this be? I wanted to know. How could a purely abstract painting with no representational ambitions represent so well the thing it was named after?

And he said, without any preamble, "Truth is liquid."

Oh, Jeffrey. He's in his nineties now, and deaf, so you can't talk to him any more; and he's frail. But I will treasure him forever for that line.

"The most ingeniuous way of becoming foolish is by a system."

Let us imagine, then, that truth is liquid, like the sea, and vast like the sea, and what would a system constitute in relation to it? How about a plastic bottle, or a bathtub, maybe, or somethng so small as a shotglass, which takes a little portion of it and contains it. And we come to think as believers in this system that it is enough. That it says it all. Thereby we miss the great waves, the tides, the depths, the Gulf Stream, storms both large and small, the way the light plays upon the water: those flashes of aluminum. We miss most of all the music that creeps over it. Truth cannot be fixed, cannot be pinned down; no system, no religion, no philosophy can encompass it. No science even.

We sense this, too. Robert Frost caught it in his great poem "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep," where "The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day."
Because that is where it may emerge, as John Keats put it, like "the whale's back in a sea of prose," that glimpse of the way things are, that insight rising from the deep, and we sit there and stare out at the waves and the horizon beyond, not really knowing what we're looking for but waiting for it to appear nevertheless.

The Traveler story proved to be hopeless. It depended on following this imaginary cultural crescent by rail,--I should add that the editor was British, and you can do this sort of thing in Europe, where the railroads are really good--but to get from Montreal to Boston requires a 24-hour stopover in Albany to make a connection, and who on earth would want to spend 24 hours in Albany? I took the train from Boston to New York to Washington, then flew to Toronto and took a nice Canadian train from Toronto to Montreal, where the temperature was in the sub-zero range. In Montreal I caught the flu and walked out of a badly sung opera. The train ride from Montreal to New York City is notorious for delays, and the heating apparatus broke. When I peed in the toilet on that train my pee froze when it hit the bowl.

But I did get to stay in the Willard Hotel in Washington, and that's a great one. There are always compensations. And there's always the beach. Whenever I'm tempted to believe in a system I take a walk there. Usually I catch a glimpse of a ship hull down on the horizon, and once, on the Long Beach Peninsula in the state of Washington, at ten in the evening in the late, dim light, I was half drunk and walking north when a seal suddenly raised its head out of the surf and stared at me, and a rush of joy swept me up. Think what I might have felt if it had been a whale.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


May 15, 2011:

My brother would be 78 today. He's in an urn now, in one of those facilities at a cemetery where the urns are stored in lockers that aren't a whole lot different from the storage lockers in railroad stations, but much nicer looking. My choice is to forget the locker, toss the ashes in the ocean. I've written a poem about it, which one of my poet friends says is pretty damned good, but I'm sure I'll rewrite it before I die.

As for the weather, it refuses to rain. We get that a lot out here. Rain to the west, flood watches, even, but here it doesn't rain. Sometimes just fifty miles west. I once took the bus from NYC out here in a snowstorm, started to snow when we hit Queens, snowed all the way to the Hamptons, then stopped. Here it had been sprinkling a little. The trip took four hours, but the Hamptons were essentially dry. I guess you'd call that a microclimate. I check the weather forecast every day and the thing I like best is the radar images of rain. Sometimes it will show rain right over your head, but your head is dry, because the rain doesn't reach the ground. And the big thunderstorms are all yellow and orange and then red, when they're especially wild. Nothing like watching a thunderstorm come through. It was best at the Jersey Shore, where you could see them come across the water straight at Long Beach Island. Our house had a kind of deck over the garage space, and we'd sit out there and the rain would come in a line, still water in front of the line and behind it, the turmoil of the rain and wind, and the wind would hit all of a sudden, a wall of wind. It was thrilling. Boats would go over on the beach. Then it would blow out to sea.

Mostly the wind blew out of the southwest and kept the beach cool all summer. That was a gift. Winds out of the northwest would die away in a day at the most; you'd go sailing in this brisk NW wind in the morning, by late afternoon you'd be becalmed. It was frustrating in a way, but it also settled you down. When you're sailing and the wind dies there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. You don't have a motor, don't have oars. You just have to kind of drift home. But it's good for you. You learn something about the conditions of life, and how limited your control is. A tornado, I'm sure, does the same thing. You're in the way, you can't just pick up your house and move it a mile down the road. You wait it out, hope to survive. It's out of your hands. That can be liberating.

Sailing, you had to be able to read the weather; you had to know what the patterns were. My brother learned how to do this; so did I. Some of it came from Capt. Brown, the harbormaster who lived next door to us. He could look at cumulus clouds building up over the mainland and tell you when the storm would hit and where it would go. He'd call us out of bed at two in the morning to row out into the harbor and tow sailboats into shore, so they wouldn't capsize. The gusts from a thunderstorm would flip those boats on their sides like dominoes. It was sweet, no other word for it.

We had a wooden plaque on the wall of the shore house that my brother had carved when he was maybe twelve, of an E sloop with its spinnaker set. He had real talent, never used. I had not much talent in making art but a lot in my voice, and I was told in college that I should get training and go into opera or concert singing. My brother had the same voice I did but couldn't carry a tune. So strange. Same womb, same gene sources, but one can sing, the other can't.

My father had a wonderful voice, too.

We do miss the dead, don't we. OK, not all of them; but the ones we loved and who loved us back, it's like knots have fallen out of the wood of your soul. Charles died eight years ago. We were never close friends but your brother knows you like nobody else does, and vice versa. The shore killed him: too much sun; melanoma; he never went to doctors. Didn't believe in them, he said. How stupid is that? I get the point, they can be wrong, but they're certainly better than magical thinking.

Charles, Charles, Charles. I miss you, brother of mine. If I'm given the time and the venue I'll tell the whole story some day. Time and venues: out of my control. Tolstoy was wrong; all happy families are not alike, they're happy in a particular way. If I don't get to write it, well, I apologize. But do you remember the day I wouldn't race, too much wind, and you got in my sneakbox and took it out yourself and promptly stepped on the bailing can and cut your foot so bad you had to turn around and come back and be rushed to the doctor? A rash, foolish act, but I admired you for it, even while I thought you were nuts. Do you remember, if your soul still breathes? Do you?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


May 10, 2011:

To keep health care costs down Obama has proposed a rationing system where doctors, as I understand it, would consult with patients and their families toward the end of life as to the advisability of continuing expensive care that isn't going anywhere, just to preserve life a little longer. And the Republicans have called these death panels. Well, can I raise my hand here? Give me a death panel any time over what people go through now. By most standards I'm an old man, 74; my father died at 75, my brother at 70, but so far I've dodged the bullets and my health is pretty good, so far as I know. An elaborate series of heart tests a couple of years ago revealed that the chest pain I was feeling climbing hills was probably acid reflux disease, as I passed the tests with no blockages revealed. But I do have a heart murmur. Probably a valve problem. I've had the heart murmur, however, since my first physical revealed it at the age of four or five, so I think I can live with it.

Maybe, then, I could live another decade. Or I could die tomorrow. Or tonight, which would be a pity because we're going out to a friends' house for dinner. Who knows? We all live under the constant threat of losing our lives and we learn to live with it. But at 74 you can't help but think about these things, and I've done a lot of that, and I hope I'm as ready as a man can reasonably be to say, ta ta. The only thing I really dread about the process is precisely the kind of care that the elderly all too often receive: my mother, seven and a half years in a nursing home, babbling, losing her teeth, strapped down in a wheelchair all day long, pointing to the floor where she saw things that weren't there. My wife's mother, in constant pain from arthritis, with a bad heart, at 84 telling her daughter over and over again, please, don't do anything to sustain my life, even signing a document to that effect. But her daughter is here with me and her mother was in Detroit, that's where her two sons were, too, and they wouldn't hear of it. Thus at 84, at the suggestion of the doctors and the insistence of the sons, even with my wife trying to explain to them that mother doesn't want it, they did open heart surgery. She told us afterwards she prayed to the god she believed in, the Catholic god, to die on the operating table. Instead she died three weeks later.

What did that cost? A hundred thousand? And for what? My mother's care over those seven plus years cost a quarter of a million dollars. This system is crazy. If I ever start losing my mind the way my mother did, or my grandmother, I hope I have the courage to swim out in the ocean farther than I can swim back from and give myself to the crabs. I've eaten plenty of them in my life; I'd just be returning the favor. One of my friends, when I asked him if he had long-term care insurance, said yeah, it's a Colt .45.

I've just seen too much misery, too many people kept alive so the survivors don't have to face facts, to think I want to go through that. Did you ever hear what the Irish poet W. B. Yeats had put on his gravestone? "Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by."
That stays with me. In the Middle Ages people kept memento moris on their desks, their tables, their shelves, to remind them they were mortal. As a culture, we need to get used to it; we need to plan for it, with much firmer legal documents providing real penalties if they're ignored, as my wife's mother's was. And we need to rethink the medical profession's commitment to saving people at all costs. Death panels? No, but if you're dying, and it's coming soon, you should have a choice about how to handle it, and the medical profession needs to be trained to provide the counseling that would make those choices plain. I love life, and it will be sad to say goodbye to what the Chinese call the 10,000 things, life's abundance, the extraordinary late light on the water, for example, that I'm going to see tonight at our friends' house, with a great blue heron maybe to pass by to give this scene its exclamation point. But there are values larger than life. One of them is dignity. I hope I have the courage, if I have the opportunity to make such a choice, to choose dignity over life at the end.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


May 8, 2011:

It's been hard recently not to think about education. The Wisconsin business started it all, laws being passed in that state having eliminated the collective bargaining rights of the state's teachers, with the uproar that followed, and the same thing going on in other states as well. Here in New York the legislature is apparently going to cap property tax increases at two percent a year, and since it is property taxes that pay for education, i.e. for teachers' salaries mostly, our local teachers are unhappy. To be sure, our local teachers tend to be unhappy in general, which is odd considering their situation. The local parents are quite fierce about getting the best possible education for their kids, and they invariably approve the school budgets, however large, driving up the tax rate, and they can do that because in Sag Harbor more than half the houses are second homes, occupied only in the summers, the people who own them vote elsewhere, mostly in New York City, and they thus have no say in what they pay in property taxes. You get the picture. It's like a blank check for the locals with kids, and the result is a cost-per-student per year of about $28,000. The national average is a little over $8,000.

So why are the teachers unhappy? Because recently the school board has been getting a little less generous, the teachers worked without a new contract for more than two years, and they want more. Everybody wants more, no?

So the question this raises is: just what is a teacher worth?

I ask this question as a highly educated person, with a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and all the course work for a Ph. D. finished, many years ago, just before I ran out of money and had to leave academia behind and get a job. Toward the end of all that education I taught a year myself, freshman composition at Hunter College in New York. I think I made, what, $2000 for the year. But things were different then. Two grand was not the nothing that it is today. It was a fair price, and I discovered in the process that I was, first, a poor teacher, second that you can't teach freshman composition, and third, I am not suited to institutional life. I don't follow rules. If the class was over ten minutes before it was due to be over, I let them go. They went out in the halls and made noise. Very bad. It was 1961; in Korea, for reasons everyone has forgotten, students in the universities were in the streets protesting. Why don't you go out and protest, I asked my own students. There seemed to be a lot to protest about at the time. They just stared at me. Obviously I was from another planet.

OK, I was not a good teacher, but how many good teachers had I had over the years? I can name them. Gregory Vlastos, who in a philosophy seminar asked the six or seven of us probing questions about the nature of reality (the same questions Thales and Parmenides and Socrates and the rest of the Greeks had asked) and taught me that I could think, asking me to contribute more because I had interesting things to say. He was the best. Miss Grimler in high school, who was the music teacher and directed our choir and was tough and demanding and knew teenage kids well enough to turn an unruly bunch of us into a choir that won state championships. She taught us to sing from the gut, in every sense of the word. Mr. Bright in junior high, the aptly named Mr. Bright, who taught American history and knew how to dramatize it and bring it alive; he would act out scenes, he would make the people seem real. And Miss Bush, in sixth grade, who was always threatening to hang us out the window by our thumbs; she taught English and she was good at it, and also demanding, and lived in an apartment on Summit Avenue near town and it must have been a spare and lonely life. And Russell Fraser, who taught a seminar on Christopher Marlowe in college. For him I read all three parts of Henry VI, one of Shakespeare's early efforts, and he told me I was probably one of the fewer than a hundred people in the country who had read all three parts of Henry VI. He was really good. You had to apply to get in his seminars, and you came out of them having written a long essay and knowing something about the complexity of a period and the context in which the main events in that period took place.

Context, in fact, is key. I have an old friend, very bright, very successful, whom I'm very fond of, but he will be the first to admit that he's not that well educated; anyway, he thinks somebody else besides Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays. How is it possible, he wants to know, that a glover's son from the provinces with just a grammar school education could know as much about life, about kings and their courts and Roman history and all the rest that Shakespeare knew so well? But he doesn't know what a grammar school education meant in Shakespeare's time; he doesn't know the context. An Elizabethan grammer school education meant learning Latin, and some Greek, and reading the classics, Plutarch, Cicero, Virgil, Livy, Aristotle, Plato, in the original, and translating as an almost daily exercise from Latin into English and English into Latin. And that's just for starters. There's much more context to the situation than just this, too: the money factor, the fact that Shakespeare collaborated extensively, the fact that to pull off a deception like that, i.e. somebody else writing the plays, would have required the cooperation of hundreds, really hundreds of other people. No serious scholar of the period takes this issue seriously. It is only those who don't know the context.

Which is, I think, part of the point I'm trying to make. We are not a well-educated country. We tend not to think context is important. We barge into the Middle East without bothering to make any enquiries about what kind of context we're barging into, who these people are, what they believe, how their belief systems are structured, their social systems, what they want out of life and what they don't want. We literally can't speak the language. So with my friend. Because he doesn't know the context, he doesn't understand that when Shakespeare was writing his plays nobody thought plays were literature and playwrights were not intent on preserving the plays in print, nor was anybody else. Hundreds of Elizabethan plays have been lost. Literature was not the drama; literature was poetry. Shakespeare took care to see his poem The Rape of Lucrece through the press, but he made no effort at all to get King Lear into print. The plays, which we think are sublime, he wrote for money, and he became relatively prosperous doing it, but the poems he wrote for reputation. That's the context, or part of it; and Iraq and Afghanistan each has its own context, its own history and attitudes and interests, all very different from our own. Human beings are not everywhere the same. Much of what we take for granted as natural are in fact social inventions. Even basic feelings. Romantic love, for example, is an invention of the twelfth and thirteenth century troubadours in the south of France. I can cite you chapter and verse. Nostalgia was once a medical disease, invented in the late sixteenth century. This is what education does, it complicates the world, it gives you the key to the prison of received ideas and mindless prejudice that the mass of mankind inhabits. But most Americans don't care to know these things. They're not interested.

So what is a teacher worth? He or she is worth everything if he or she can awaken your interest in the context, lead you, for example, into history, help you see the history of the West and where we fit into it and how it is that we are who we are. You can do it on your own if such teachers don't exist, but it's hard. And the problem is, such teachers are rare. They're rare because the culture doesn't care. It is content to bounce around inside the prison walls. The culture has very little respect for intellectual things, for depth of knowledge, unless it's obviously useful in some material way. Parents want their kids to go to college because they'll get a better job and make more money, but it would never occur to most Americans that college can change your inner life as well as your outer, that it can actually make you think, pique your curiosity, make you want to read books and rethink your assumptions and understand the world around you in greater depth. How many Americans see learning as a passion, a way of life? How many even go to the dictionary and look up the words they don't know?

If our teachers could do that, really educate us, wake us up from our dream world, I would be glad to see them all millionaires. But they can't do that because they're not well-educated themselves. Most of them are just doing their jobs. And far too many children--it's well-known in the teaching business--lose their curiosity by the time they hit high school. Their educations are essentially over. So all the statistics point one way. Other countries, some developed, some in the third world, score much better than we do on the tests that matter. The end result is a George Bush or a Sarah Palin, both of them pathetically ignorant and proud of it, or all the others like them who live in worlds without context, without the depth of knowledge that is essential to understanding what is actually going on, in both their country and their lives.

Friday, April 29, 2011


April 29, 2011:

This just in: THE QUOTABLE THOREAU, ed. by Jefferey S. Cramer, Princeton University Press, $19.95. Princeton is in the midst of producing one of those scholarly editions of Thoreau's works that take forever and cost a fortune, but here you can get him in small doses. It's the lazy man's Thoreau, don't have to go to the trouble of reading all of Walden or Cape Cod or, for that matter, the Notebooks, which run to about fifteen volumes in the old reprint I have downstairs. I've read the aforementioned Walden and Cape Cod and have dabbled in the Notebooks, but here all the dabbling has been done and we have all the gnomic utterances we could possibly want from the man. He and Emerson together are maybe the most quotable Americans who ever wrote, always throwing off aphorisms. Everybody knows this one, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." But do you remember this one? "The unwritten laws are the most stringent."

Stuff like this comes from being very quiet, and very observant. If you do look into the notebooks you can see him doing this; a good part of them, especially later in his life, are close observations of the natural world. He records what date the lilies of the valley bloom, where the oriole nests, when the salamanders appear in the ponds in the spring. And he does this every year; he's making a kind of almanac of nature. It's not exactly scintillating, but it is impressive. Such persistence! And then you'll run into one of his apercus [great word], and it shines like a jewel. "All genuine goodness is original and as free from cant and tradition as the air." And, a bit of a favorite, "My happiness is a good deal like that of the woodchucks."

It's nice to see a person doing his own thinking, not reading David Brooks or Paul Krugman, not watching either Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow, but seeing, in his own way. You get it in Civil Disobedience in a major work, one of the essential American essays. Here you get it in countless little remarks. I know, Dr. Johnson, who was all remarks, said that "remarks are not literature." OK, this is not literature. You're never going to read it all the way through. But when you're in the garden, and it's quiet and warm, and you have a little time to yourself, this would make a fine companion. It's a handsome little book, not too pricey, easy to hold in your hand. I'm going to keep it.

Book the second: Jim Shepard, YOU THINK THAT'S BAD, Knopf, $24.95. I have an odd connection with Jim Shepard. Earlier this year a book came in that was a collection of small pieces about writers and their relationship with other people's books (don't remember the name) and his piece was the first one in, so I read it, and he talked about finding a copy many years ago of a book by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, at a bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson. I knew that bookstore well; it's where, even earlier, I had sold my copy of that very same book. I tracked him down and wrote him an email suggesting that he had bought my copy, and I was glad it was in good hands, and that I had sold my copy, along with a copy of Pynchon's V, in order to pay my rent. He responded and said, in effect, well, how about that.

Anyway, Shepard writes short stories, and I like them. He's got an unusual mind, and there's one in this collection I found especially appealing. It's called "The Track of the Assassins" and it's told in the voice of Freya Stark, the great English explorer who spoke Arabic fluently,threw herself into the Middle East, traveled the deserts to all manner of archaeological sites, and wrote any number of books about her experiences. Good books, classics of their kind. But this story is not really about the experiences, it's about her relationships with her family and her much more beautiful sister and the betrayals, large and small, that they practiced on each other, the kinds of betrayals that occur between people who love each other. And this is a hard thing to do, to get that deep inside somebody else's mind, where that somebody else is a real person, a person who belongs to history. Novelists do this from time to time, write historical persons into their books, but I seldom find it convincing and in general I think it's more realistic, if you will, to make your characters up. But Shepard gets away with it. In his hands it seems perfectly natural. That's good writing.

But I'd like my copy of Pynchon back.

Just kidding.