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?