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.