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.