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.