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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


April 13: This morning I woke up to heavy rain, but the bird feeder must go out regardless so I put on a coat, filled the feeder (we keep it inside at night to discourage the deer; they would empty it), took it out and hung it on its stand, threw peanuts out for the blue jays, then noticed that the wall of the shed was falling over. This one wall is all that remains of the old shed. We are doing a strange thing, having the shed rebuilt but leaving the one wall still standing. It's the only way we can preserve our climbing hydrangea, which is firmly attached to it. Anyway, there it was, leaning over at a sharp angle. It had been propped, but not, well, properly. I had to nail the prop to the new floor, in the heavy rain. And I noticed, doing it, how rewarding this little task was to do. I didn't care if the knees of my pants got wet, which they did. I got it done. I smiled to myself, at myself. Satisfying.

My wife complains that I'm not much of a fixer of things, and it's true, I'd rather hire somebody to do it, or just live with the problem. I'm very tolerant of problems and circumstances that drive other people over the edge. I was that way about a minor skin cancer I had on my ear many years ago, kept putting off going to the dermatologist to have it taken off until I finally decided to get it over with, he took it off, then he noticed a mole on my arm I hadn't noticed that was not your normal mole, had it biopsied, and saved my life. Lesson learned. Now I go to him once a year for a check-up, and about twelve years ago he found another one that I just thought was a weird brown spot on my face. Result? A plastic surgeon carved off a significant part of my left jowl. So now I wear a beard, to hide the imbalance this caused in my face when you look straight at me. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Well, OK. But the beard looks nice. My barber approved of it immediately. Anyway: satisfaction. A job well done, or a needful thing, however small.

And it's especially satisfying when you fix something you own. My brother knew this, spent twenty years repairing his own roof (left the scaffolding up the whole time). He was a full-time small-town lawyer and had no spare time at all, or precious little, but he insisted he was going to do it, wouldn't hire anybody, and the roof leaked all those years. He was a trip, my brother. This house dated from about 1900, it was huge, and it was a mess. Extension cords ran from the dining room into the kitchen because the wiring in the kitchen was damaged. Only a couple of the burners on his stove, a genuine antique, worked. Raccoons lived under the roof of his porch and used to climb up the scaffolding and stare in his bedroom window at night. The third floor was unspeakable; plaster was falling down in every room. It was like living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, a 6,000 sq. ft. favela with about eighteen rooms. But he did fix his roof before he died (of skin cancer), with the help of his sons. And the porch. And he finally hired help to do it.

I've never been that crazy. But I did build most of the bookcases in this house myself and did a decent job of it, too (although how hard is it to build bookcases?), and fixed the door of the shed years ago when it blew apart in a storm, and built the bed in the upstairs bedroom, which is both extremely sturdy and easy to take apart and move, and helped Percy Chadwick reroof my barn in Shrub Oak during my first marriage, when I, too, lived in a big old house, although that house was built closer to 1800; and I've always taken satisfaction in doing these things. Maybe it was my grandfather on my father's side. He was a tool-and-die maker; he made the wooden forms, that is, that became the patterns for industrial tools. Precision work. After he died his tool chest came to rest in the house my brother and I grew up in. So that particular kind of satisfaction is in our blood. Much more for my brother than for me, but I have at least a trace of it.

But the stronger satisfactions come from writing well, when I manage to do so, and that's the life I chose, just as my brother chose the law. Working with language. It can be enormously satisfying to do it well. I've written pieces and poems where I've wanted to pump my arm when I was finished, just like Tiger Woods pumps his arm when he rolls one in from 30 feet away. Wow, does that feel good! But then you meet these really smart guys who have been to college and could have gone down any number of roads and instead chose to spend their lives farming or in carpentry or mastering the arts of plumbing, like the Irish plumber we know who is both a perfectly fine plumber and a singer of Irish songs who is good friends with Pete Seeger and still performs whenever he can; and I watch our contractor, who knows how to put a building together, step by step, and can do all the jobs himself if he has to, in the right order, and is clearly proud of it. I like to watch Ask This Old House on TV; I take pleasure in the knowledge and skill of the people on that show. And I think sometimes that I might spend some future life doing that sort of thing. I think I would like it. Satisfaction is about mastery, developing and using a skill, and maybe the point of life is to find a skill that makes you want to pump your arm when you master it, and get better and better at it as life unfolds, and maybe it doesn't matter that much what the skill is as long as you give it your all. Maybe. Just a thought.