Tuesday, December 18, 2012


December 18, 2012:

          When I enrolled at Princeton my brother, four years older and at Cornell, advised me to join ROTC in order to avoid the draft and fulfill my military obligations as an officer rather than an enlisted man. I did. Princeton happened to have an artillery unit and I trained for four years, once a week, to become an artillery forward observer. We used to fire steel balls out of miniature howitzers in the Princeton Armory, and I got good at it. I found out how good when we spent six weeks between junior and senior years at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, in field conditions, firing practice missions with 105 howitzers, using old tank and truck bodies as the targets. I fired six perfect missions over the six weeks, then a seventh as a demonstration before 700 fellow cadets from all over the country. Six other cadets also fired demonstration missions. They all messed up. Not me.

          I was also good handling the guns. A 105mm. howitzer was the Army's standard artillery weapon then and we trained on them, learning to get rounds off within ten seconds of receiving the fire order. That meant aiming the weapon, putting the right number of powder bags into the cartridges, loading the weapon and pulling the lanyard. We were between wars then. I never had to fire a shot in combat, go to Vietnam, put myself in danger. But we wound up in the Reserves and you never knew whether or when you might be called to active duty. I spent my active duty training cannoneers at Ft. Sill, teaching them to do what I did so well.

          And loved doing. You can stand directly behind a howitzer and watch the shell climb into the heavens until it reaches the top of its arc and starts to descend. It's a beautiful sight. I used to wonder when I was directing fire on tank bodies whether I could direct fire on living human beings. I never had to, but I was honest enough with myself to know that if you love doing something and are very good at it, you will love doing it no matter what.  Besides, those people you're killing are trying to kill you first.

          I've never owned a gun, but I have hunters in my family and I have no objection to hunting; I once shot six skunks that were living under my house in a crawl space, killed them one by one at night over the course of a summer with a neighbor's borrowed .22. They used to wake us up at night trapping mice. The smell got into your clothes, your sheets. I had no trouble killing them. It's in me. It may not be in everybody, but it's in me.

          It's also in the culture. American culture is saturated with killing, and we watch it all the time: in video games, in movies, on TV. The military even kills children, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they become part of the collateral damage. One of our best euphemisms, "collateral damage." Little kids getting their arms and legs blown off is what it actually is. But there's nothing new about that. We've all heard of Wounded Knee, right? The Sand Creek Massacre? Indian women, Indian children, and old men like me, killed by United States Armed Forces.

          For some Americans the killing in our culture is a principal form of entertainment, especially for the teenage boys so much of American cultural production is aimed at.  It has been this way since we started killing Indians in the seventeenth century. Is Billy the Kid a hero, or a villain? In our hearts, do we root for him, or against him? A talent for killing is very cool. James Bond has a license to kill, and he does it with  panache, in between those martinis. We the audience have a real life, and a fantasy life. Gary Cooper, going out to face down death in High Noon, and the dozens and dozens of others like him. It hardly matters which side of the law they're on. D. H. Lawrence said that the typical American hero is silent, a loner, and a killer. Deep in our minds, for a great many of us, this is who we are. We want to be that cool, want to maintain our courage under extreme pressure. And too many of us see gunfire as the solution to all our problems. Here's a story about that. True story. I had lunch many years ago in New York with the retired commander of all U. S. forces in the Pacific, who served in that capacity in the 1950s. He told me that during the battle for Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, which the French were about to lose, the French had asked Washington to use tactical nuclear weapons on the Vietnamese forces surrounding the French base there. Washington radioed my general and gave him verbal permission to do so "at his discretion." My general, no fool, radioed back that he would require written orders to so something so drastic. Written orders never came, and the event never happened. Nuclear weapons, of course, are the ultimate in gunfire. A whole lot of American diplomacy has been based on American weaponry, and the willingness--no, quite often the eagerness--to use it.

          So a young man goes mad and shoots twenty little children and six adults with his mother's--his mother's--guns. Are we surprised? Outraged? Saddened? Yeah, sure we are. But only because we refuse to know ourselves. Much will be said in the next few weeks about this young man's madness, but it will all be speculative. Nobody really knows what goes on in other people's minds. I spent eleven days in a mental hospital as a patient--they didn't know I wasn't a nut case; I faked my way in--in order to write my first book, a muckraking book about the mental health system. I got to know the patients on my ward pretty well, and I discovered what I already knew from research was true. Mental patients are not as a rule more violent than the rest of the population. They're too screwed up to be effective at anything, in fact, and that's their main problem. But there will always be crazy people as there will always be war. That, too, is in us--craziness, insanity. Breaking points.

          Stricter gun control laws would help. There's no doubt about that, and only the soulless flacks of the NRA and the Senators and Congressmen they've bought will stand in the way. Guns should be licensed, regulated, and controlled the same way cars are, and for the same reasons: to increase public safety. We'll see what gives with that. But don't, in the meantime, stand next to me at a party and tell me you just don't understand how this could happen, or we should do something about the mentally ill, or we should ban guns entirely. Because more than likely it's in you as much as it's in me. There's a reason that in the United States more than 10,000 people a year die by gunfire, while the figures in other civilized industrial countries run to 100 a year or less. Gunslinger Nation, one historian called us years ago. Until that changes--and what are  your suggestions about that?--this sort of thing will happen again and again and again, with the same horrified reaction and the same cowardly refusal to face ourselves, to know who and what we really are.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


November 20, 2012:

          My birthday tomorrow. Since it's also the day before Thanksgiving, it will be a busy day. Every day is busy, in a way, because my mind is the classic Buddhist monkey mind, flitting from subject to subject, seldom quiet, never empty enough for what Buddhists regard as enlightenment to find room. Crossword puzzles, reading, writing, more reading, errands, an occasional walk, meals in and the cooking thereof, meals out and the time they take, seeing friends, avoiding enemies, garden work, connecting with people on FB and via email, worrying about money, driving hither and yon, the movies, TV: thus my days get frittered away. Right now I'm writing a long contemplated book about Rome, started more than a decade ago, now returned to, with no prospect of publication but necessary to that feeling we all need that one's life has not been entirely wasted.

          And then, once in a while, I take the time away from all this bother and to-do to write something that's purely for fun. Poetry is one such pastime. And recently, inspired by a contest in a local paper, I've started to write short stories of 25 words or less. Here's my second try, in its entirety:

"Oh, hi" [that's the title]

She was very pretty before the accident.

He dated her twice more, to be kind.

Now he has trouble recalling her name.

The first such mini-tale went to the newspaper, where it will appear soon, I'm told. 

          It's a real discipline, to get something that, a, makes sense, and b, has some bite, into such a short frame. Hemingway did it with six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never used." That's a classic. I'm going to keep on doing it, because it's such a pleasure to work with the language just for its own sake. Poetry is that way for me, too. I decided after publishing some poems many years ago to forsake it as a career and write it strictly for myself. I couldn't make a living at it; to do that you have to teach, and I didn't want to teach, didn't think I would be good at it. That same impatient mind, mentioned above. I did teach for a year. Felt like a failure. Couldn't suffer the discipline of the hour, would let my students go when I was done, not when the hour was done. Very sloppy of me. No, not just sloppy: arrogant. I was arrogant when I was young.

          And then the poems. Here's one, published in TLS as long ago as 1968:

The French Revolution

At night in my garret room a crowd gathers
and you speak to them and sway them
until what they know and what they don't know
are the same thing, if it is you.
speak: to them it is falling in love.
What is it to you? You are walking
on the surface, on the backs of crocodiles;
you are air, or airy; you are a Queen.

One way they hold their heads up is on pikes.

          Here's another, published in the old, not the new, New York Quarterly:

Airplanes at Dusk

The jets take off from Newark,
Boeings more beautiful than mathematics,
and turn west.
                       Angels could not seem
more single-minded, climbing the heavens.

Beneath them, turning east, and blue,
vast stretches of the imagination
lie quiet, mooning, unoccupied.

And there you go. Because they've been published they have an air of authority about them, the cachet of some editor's approval, but in both the first and the last analysis it is you yourself you have to satisfy, and I have about thirty of them that make that grade, maybe six or seven of which have been published, the rest not. (Anybody out there want to print a chapbook?) And sometimes I think, not much for a life's work. But I know poets who survive on the strength of a single poem. The anonymous poet who wrote this, for example:

O westron wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down doth rain.
Christ if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

It dates from about the 14th century, "small" in this case means "thin," nobody knows who the author was, and the first time I heard it was in R. P. Blackmur's poetry class at Princeton. Blackmur was a great critic and he read it with such feeling that I have never forgotten the moment. Who would not give a life to have written so great a poem? I spent years, off and on, in my spare time, translating just four lines of Rilke that I thought were as perfect as poetry gets. Here they are, from a poem of his called "Liebeslied," which means "Love Song":

A stroke of the bow
draws one voice from the two strings.
Whose violin are we stretched out upon?
What virtuoso has us in his hands?

This is my final version, and I'm satisfied with it.

          Rilke survives in a whole body of work, prose as well as poetry, but there are other poets whose work survives in a single poem. Tichborne, for example, who wrote a poem in the Tower of London the night before he was beheaded, or was it hanged? for some political crime. It's unforgettable; I keep my anthology of Elizabethan literature specifically to have access to that poem. Or there's Thomas Nashe, whose collected work fills four volumes but who is remembered mostly for a song he wrote in one of his plays whose refrain runs, "Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair / I am sick, I must die / Lord, have mercy upon me."

          Can you feel it? The language takes flight in such words. What we write about, Roland Barthes once said, boils down to just a few emotions--love, hatred, despair, sorrow, guilt, fear; and what great writing aspires to is to evoke them in such a way as to say something meaningful about life and death. What I love about poetry is that it aspires to do this in the most condensed, intense way, so that the words explode in your mind, like a sip of great wine on your tongue. To make that happen is the most challenging task a writer will ever face. All writers want to be famous, very few achieve it, but for me, I would be satisfied if just one poem, written in my spare time, endures somehow. Maybe this one, which has never been published:

The Fast

In the evening the light flattens
against the walls, but it is empty
of meaning or expression. The darkness
that follows is empty in itself,
like a long absence. If you have
a soul it grows thin waiting.

Friday, November 9, 2012


November 9, 2012:

          I occasionally write a piece for MILITARY HISTORY in a series they call "What We Learned," which describes major battles and then talks briefly about what we learned from them. The last one was on Gallipoli, a remarkable example of incompetence, ignorance, arrogance, and other "--ences" and "---ances" in World War I in which British and French forces attacked the Dardanelles in an attempt to seize Istanbul and drive the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and were very badly beaten. I've been thinking of it while reading the many analyses of the election this Tuesday in which the Republicans were badly beaten trying to attack deeply entrenched forces in the electorate, about which they were poorly informed, to which they took superior attitudes, and against which they demonstrated remarkable levels of incompetence. The parallels seem striking. Even more striking is the fact that the British and French learned very little from their defeat; and from what I can tell so far, neither have the Republicans.

          This is not good news. I come from a Republican family, but none of my forebears would recognize the party now. It was run then by wealthy people who had a social conscience and a sense of noblesse oblige, who were deeply interested in foreign policy, wrote about it intelligently, and did not start wars irresponsibly, or at all. I left the party after college, largely thanks to what I learned in college about what the two major parties stood for. My parents never said anything but I'm sure they weren't pleased. But in any case I understood Republicans; I knew my parents, my grandparents, my uncles and what they stood for and it wasn't what the current party stands for. These were decent people, decent inside as well as polite and well-behaved outside. They did not harbor undisguised antipathies for immigrants, for women, for the poor, for minorities. They themselves had been poor once; they were the sons and daughters of immigrants; they had worked their way up. They were still close to their roots. They were not college graduates; but that doesn't mean they were unintelligent. And I could see where they were coming from.

          I no longer understand Republicans. I have been trying for some time now to figure out how they can possibly take the stands they take, what has led them into the impenetrable plastic bubble they have made their home, what makes them impervious to argument, unwilling to engage in any sort of dialogue, what has happened to their social conscience. The more hysterical types, exemplified by the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, the Coulters, have managed to demonize anything and everything outside their bubble, delivering diatribes about "parasites," who seem to make up 47 percent of the population, about "socialism," and so on. We have all seen it. It seems more than a little crazy. And it's sad.

          It's more than that, it's dangerous. Their only political strategy now seems to be to obstruct whatever Democrats propose in the way of legislation. That is no longer a two-party system; that is war--and to the death. But it won't work; it will, on the contrary, do enormous damage to the country, and they will lose, for the simple reason that they have refused to recognize, to accommodate to, or even to understand what is happening right under their noses. The United State is no longer a country in which rich white men control everything. In the Federal government, state governments, everywhere, more and more women, blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans are taking part and taking office. Did you look at the make-up of the crowd in Chicago last Tuesday night celebrating Obama's victory? You saw everybody: white men, white women, blacks, Latinos, all the minorities, waving American flags, dancing, clapping, singing. And at Romney headquarters in Boston? With very few exceptions it was all white, and it was mostly male.

          I'm not saying anything that original here, but the more voices that are raised the better. We need a two-party system, we need dialogue, not war. Modern day conservatism at its best dates from Edmund Burke, and if you read Burke, he makes a lot of sense. Institutions are indeed important, and it is important that they keep faith with the people, and that people in return keep faith with them. I am not a religious person but I would hate to see churches disappear. Tradition, too, is important. I never bought entirely into the 1960s; I could see that it was going to destroy things that were valuable, as well as reform things that were not. I also understood that most Americans want the same things, whatever their politics: a decent job, a chance to advance, family life with all its pleasures and pains, a nice house in a good community, or a nice apartment in a lively city. The left tends toward the utopian. I don't believe in utopias, or the perfectibility of man.

          But I recognize hardly a trace of traditional conservatism in the current Republican Party. I recognize only a worship of wealth, and an absolute determination to keep it to themselves. The Party is living in the past, in a bubble of its own making. Their astonishment at their losses on Tuesday is revealing. Reality has destroyed their myths, and it is very difficult to detach yourselves from your myths. But they must, if they are to survive. Otherwise they will go the way of the Whigs, once a dominant party in American politics, now a memory. Facts cannot be wished away. Reality inevitably sneaks up on you. To continue to believe that we are the most enlightened, the best educated people in the world, that we offer the most opportunity in the world, when none of this is true, when it has been demonstrated clearly and convincingly not to be true, is inevitably to lose your way.

          "Know thyself," it read on the entrance to the cave of the Delphic Oracle in Greece. Until you do, until you face the reality of who you are--in this case, a minority--and how ill your attitudes and beliefs accord with the world at large, there is not much hope for you.


Monday, October 29, 2012


October 29, 2012:

          The wind howls outside, Hurricane Sandy, and who can work? Or even read? The wind creates an internal tension. You know you'll lose power soon and not get it back for quite a while, and the President has just been on the news, having come back to Washington to take over and do his job, and has told us, in effect, not to travel, not to do anything but hunker down, and it's all very tense. And then when the wind won't stop it gets to you. You're always listening for the tree falling on your car, or your roof, or picking up a piece of lawn furniture you missed, or forcing the door on your shed, even though it's well fastened. It's nerve wracking.

          On top of that we're just days away from an election as important as any since 2000, when a thoroughly politicized Supreme Court put George Bush in office, and a similar kind of chaos prevails now, twelve years later, and the effects threaten to be as dire. From my point of view a Romney victory would constitute a major threat to our well-being and our liberties. He is, what's the joke? a man born on third base who thinks he hit a triple; he has no knowledge or emotional insight into the way most of us live, he's like most people of his level of income, they live in bubbles, in gated communities, they think government is wasteful and overly bureaucratic, they have little or no respect for or understanding of public service and if they do go into government, they go to strip it. They live under the illusion, furthermore, that their good fortune is of their own making, thus failing to acknowledge the interconnections among business and government, the government created infrastructure that makes all business success in this country possible, the governmental programs that fostered industrial growth in so many fields in the first place

          Wow! This wind has really picked up. Blowing now at about 50 knots, with higher gusts. I won't be doing this for long. But while I have time--somebody who's a FB friend of my son's asked the other day why anybody would vote for Barack Obama, and I wanted to answer. Here's why: first, because he understands that the huge and growing income gap between the rich and everybody else in this country is very bad for the country, and that it has to change or we'll slide rapidly downhill into a total oligarchy, instead of the partial oligarchy we have now, and people like the Kochs and Grover Norquist will be writing our laws. Second, because he's done an excellent job, although little advertised, in the face of a Republican party that announced that its only goal in Congress was to make sure he did not get a second term; despite that, he saved the auto industry, has begun to reform the educational system, got regulatory reform on Wall Street, which sorely needed it, killed Osama bin Laden and decimated Al Qaeda's leadership, ended the war in Iraq which the embarrassing George Bush got us into to on the basis of a whole lot of lying, and brought intelligence back to the White House. Third, because he's actually lived in Third World countries and knows their problems and is familiar with their style, and it is from there, in some such country, that the future will emerge. Fourth, because he's interracial and demonstrates pretty clearly that interracial marriage is a viable option for people; my own feeling is that only interracial marriage will ever fully change the racists attitudes so many Americans--the majority, according to the latest polls--live by. Fifth, because he believes that no government has the right to interfere with women's natural right to control their own bodies. Which is another way of saying that he has no intention of forcing his own religious beliefs onto the nation; he believes, in other words, in the First Amendment, and Mitt Romney and most of the Republican Party, determined to end abortion even in the cases of rape and incest, obviously do not.

          I could go on, but these are some principle points; and of course the final point is quite simple. He's not Mitt Romney. He's not the empty, soulless, clueless human being who is his opponent, who will say anything to any audience to get elected, who thinks nothing of buying companies, selling off their assets and then bankrupting them for his own and his partners' profit, thereby depriving thousands of people of their jobs; Romney, who has never had to scramble for a job, who supported the war in Vietnam but made sure, like so many Republican big-shots before him, that he never had to serve; Romney, who makes promises he knows he can't keep, that no one could keep--12 million new jobs! 5 trillion off the debt! or is that 5 trillion in tax cuts!--and then refuses to explain how he's going to do this (because he hasn't a clue); Romney, who claims to know how to create jobs when his entire business experience has been spent outsourcing jobs to other countries, who has, in fact, never started a business or been a businessman in that traditional sense; and Romney, who won't release his tax returns because he knows they will reveal how thoroughly he has exploited the tax code to reduce his own taxes--offshore accounts; a huge deduction, more than most people make in income in a year, for his wife's show horse--while ordinary people pay at double or triple the rate. I once worked for a very wealthy businessman who had a whole team to figure out his taxes. Some years he paid less taxes than I did, or no taxes at all, and this was when I was on his payroll making about $10,000 a year. Everything the rich say about taxes is pretty much lies. It's well known that the money doesn't trickle down. The rich are not job creators; the economists know that, too. When they make more money, they don't necessarily start businesses. My late cousin's daughter is the kind of person who starts a business; she's got a therapeutic massage business in Florida, she opened a shop, she has employees, she works hard. I can see it growing, expanding, and I hope, for her sake, that it does. She's very proud of it, as she should be. Romney? He has $250 million picked off the backs of people like her. Let us not be fooled. He and his party do not have the interests of the common man at heart--not even close.

          I have too few readers to change any votes, and Hurricane Sandy, the experts say, will wipe the election off the map all this week, which is probably a good thing; we're all sick of it. But if you do spread this around to other readers, maybe one person will take heed. That would be a good thing, too. In the meantime, stay safe and out of the wind. The trees are dancing wildly outside, and wind is roaring. Global warming, folks. Storms get bigger and badder with global warming, now we're here, enjoying the benefits. Well, as long as it doesn't tear down my black tupelo, I'll be content.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


OCTOBER 24, 2012

          We normally have breakfast at Starbuck's in Bridgehampton, not every morning, but often. This morning around 9:30 two women came in with a little girl, who proceeded to pop around the room making noise. Can't describe the noises, but they were the kind that children make when they're very young, say around two, and they were relentless. The two women did nothing to quiet her; they behaved as if it were just fine that their child or grandchild or whoever she was was destroying the peace that had hitherto prevailed in the room.

          Why do people think it's OK to bring very young children into a place like a restaurant or even a coffee shop and run around like the little maniacs they are and bother everybody else?

          We have acquaintances we are reluctant to dine out with because of the way they behave toward the waiters and waitresses. Arrogant, demanding, impatient are words that fit.

          On the road, especially in the summer here in the Hamptons, drivers cut you off, tailgate, ignore stop signs, and talk on their cell phones while they're driving. I used to ride a bike for exercise. No longer. I've driven behind too many people who, holding a cell phone to their ear, weave and wander out of their lanes, drive onto the shoulders, unaware of where they are or what they're doing. They are no better in the stores. I once saw an architect who had just put up a hideous modern house clad entirely in sheet metal walk into the Sagaponack General Store and push his way to the head of the line. People stared in disbelief. Wherever they are, people talk on their cell phones. I once listened to a man on a bus to the city talk loudly about his sex life on his cell phone to some woman he had been dating. There were about five people on the bus. We could all hear what he said. It took him some twenty minutes to realize that he was making a fool of himself in public.

          Why do people think it's OK to hold private conversations in public, conversations nobody else wants to listen to? It's as if everyone had been given a megaphone to carry on their private lives.

          Once I was on a train from New York to Washington and some idiot sat down next to me and proceeded to call somebody and talk to him for fifteen or twenty minutes, and that somebody else was on the same train. Then he did the same with yet another person, also on the train. Think about it. For that person, nobody else exists; nobody else counts but himself and his immediate business. Now I take the quiet car, where the conductor strictly enforces a code of silence; and it's blissful by comparison. But you still find people even on the quiet car who just have to make that call. It's as if their concept of their own personal space extended way beyond everybody else's.

          Age has its privileges, and at my age I often don't get up and give a woman on the subway a seat. It depends on the woman and the circumstances. But I always think I should and sometimes do. I hold doors for women and men alike, especially when they're carrying packages, stop for pedestrians crossing the road, don't think of driving as a blood sport. It's training. It was watching my father and other men and how they behaved, both publicly and privately.  I don't believe either of my parents would ever have held a public conversation on a cell phone if there had been cell phones then. To them it would have been unthinkable. Social life evolves, I understand that, but people my age look with dismay at the way it has evolved since the 1960s. I blame the 1960s, in fact, for much of this, and the so-called "me decade" that followed. Manners are the visible manifestation of inner attitudes. Good manners indicate respect for other people and their rights, which are the same as yours, and respect for the standards of behavior that prevail in any given society. As respect for public institutions began to decline during the Vietnam War, which was a particularly stupid, evil war, so did respect for other people and their rights; so, indeed, did the kind of empathy that keeps social life endurable. Empathy is now in much shorter supply, and it is the lack of it, in my opinion, that has driven the extremism of the Republican right, with their indifference to the difficulties of the poor and their inability to walk that imaginative mile in other peoples' shoes. Hard-line attitudes, so-called "realism," a turning away from the social responsibility that we all share for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves--this is bad manners on a massive scale, and the two are connected, the large and the small, the social and the individual, each a mirror of the other.

          There's a scene in Henry James's novel PORTRAIT OF A LADY where the heroine, Isabel Archer, walks into a room to find her husband, Gilbert Osmond, sitting in a chair while her friend, whose name I forget but who is a woman, stands next to him; and she understands instantly that they know each other in a way that is far more intimate than she had ever been told. In a well-mannered world, no man would sit while a woman stood unless their relationship was unusually intimate, almost like husband and wife. It's a brief moment in a big book, but it's decisive: manners display who we are. We need not be quite so formal now, but without some formality, some set of rules that encode respect for others, what does social life become if not a tangle of each against all, a Hobbesian world, savage at its core, unjust, and without compassion? Such a world is inherently, as it were by definition, fascist.

Friday, September 21, 2012


September 21, 2012:

          Readers of this blog may remember that I wrote some time ago about how long it took to write a poem, and gave an example of one of my own called The Inventory that I was still working on after thirty years. Well, since then I've continued working on it, if you can call it work, trying to get the last line or lines right, and I think I may have done it, although you never know with these things. So I bring it before you again, asking your forbearance.


Sunlight folded into the window curtains.
The four doors out of the house, the seventeen inside.
A cherry side table we both wanted once.
Your translation of Proust, and mine.
The wedding photograph in its Tiffany frame.
Lamplight and solitude in the evening,
and the shadows under the chairs.
At night, train whistles at the crossings,
darkness pressing its face against the glass.

          Now for a little history, an explanation of how these things have worked for me. I started writing poems in college when I became friends with a couple of poets, one who wound up being the Class Poet at graduation, the other who was the only student at Princeton who was ever allowed to write a group of poems for his senior thesis. The Class Poet got a poem into Ladies Home Journal, of all places, while we were still in school, while the other published in the Kenyon Review, an enormously prestigious venue at the time. Talented, no question about it. I wanted to join that little club and they let one of my poems into the campus literary magazine, a fact that has embarrassed me ever since, the poem in question being just plain awful. After college I continued writing poems, partly because it was hard to write a good poem, really hard, and partly because it was all I had time for. I was working full time, supporting a wife, then children--let me add my wife was working, too--and that left little time for writing. But a poem is a little thing, so for years that's what I wrote, and since they were little things I could finish one in a reasonable amount of time. Say a month, when the poem was especially difficult, less when it wasn't.

          I think it took about nine years to get the first one published; it went to Prairie Schooner. Then another there, then one in TLS, through that same friend who had first published in the Kenyon Review. At the time he was in England, a Rhodes scholar, and knew Ian Hamilton, who had started the Review and who was also poetry editor at TLS. Contacts mean a lot in the poetry business, as in every business. But by this time I was working full-time writing a business history for a wealthy businessman, I had come to realize I wasn't going to be a major poet, and I wasn't writing that much poetry any more; two writing careers at the same time are pretty much impossible to sustain. And then something about the business put me off. Partly it was the fact that I would have to teach to make a living, and I was not a good teacher. And the poetry world is very small, the rewards are very slim, and the politics were, and are, consequently quite nasty. I didn't want to get involved in it, just in order to make my name.

          So I stopped for long periods, but never entirely gave it up. It was the difficulty--good poems are hard to write. It is a great challenge to bend the language, which is intractable, to your will, to say something new or different, to put together images in a suggestive way, and at the same time to leave the poem open, say what you want to say without closing off possibilities so that it can go in unexpected directions, multiply the layers of response. In just a few lines. I have done that about twenty-five or thirty times and now have a collection I'd like to publish as a chapbook. Call it a life's work.

          If it happens this poem will be among them. It was always meant to be a gentle, sad poem. You take an inventory after something is over, a life, a marriage, and the passion has washed out of the relationship, leaving only regrets, sadness, and loneliness. Like most mature poems it is both personal and impersonal. I have never owned, for example, a translation of Proust, or a Tiffany frame. My mother, however, did have a cherry side table that my brother and I both wanted; but he got it. It was in her house, when she was beginning to die, that I used to look at the windows and the sunlight in the sheer curtains that had hung there all my life. But none of that matters. It's how it works when you put it all together that matters. That's what we learned in college: poems were made objects, artifacts, not expressions of how we "felt" or of "ourselves" or a record of experience, but works, things constructed out of words. Formed things. Writing poems, I learned how to do endings, how to bring works to a close. Writing poems, I learned what a piece of writing is, and how to make it good.

          This poem is about endings, in fact, about sitting alone in an otherwise empty house, counting up your losses. I have never done that in a literal sense. But I have in other ways, and haven't we all? It's an honest poem, despite the artifice. I've been there, imagined the scene. And I have definitely, many times, seen the darkness pressing its face against the glass.

Friday, September 14, 2012


September 14, 2012:

          I have written about a lot of different things in my career, everything from the art world to ROTC to ethics to sports to adventure, among many others subjects, and for many different magazines. But few of my friends know that for a while I was a contributing editor at Parenting Magazine and wrote about issues affecting children--their education, their upbringing, their moral training, whatever I was asked to do. Usually I was asked to write about the more serious subjects the magazine covered, and in 1990 they asked me to do a two-part series on child abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual. As part of my research I flew out to a center in California that treated the adult victims of child sexual abuse and interviewed a number of those victims at the offices of the center. They brought them in to me one by one, maybe five of them, and I sat with them for at least half an hour in each case, more in some.

          It's hard to describe the impact these interviews had on me. These were adults, people in their thirties and forties, yet they were still suffering the effects of what had happened to them. One man in particular, whose own father had introduced him to sex, abusing him from the age of twelve to the age of sixteen, just broke my heart. They all broke my heart. After each interview I had to leave, walk outside for ten or fifteen minutes with a staff member, try to come down from the rage and sorrow these people's experiences left me with. This man, whom I called Phil, said that his father abused all his children, but only him sexually. When I talked to him he was in his thirties. He complied with it, he said, because he didn't know that all fathers didn't do that with their sons. He didn't begin to understand the impact it had on him until he went into therapy and discovered why he had been doing drugs for sixteen years, why he was so desperately unhappy, why his life was an absolute mess. "I've spent over $100,000 on drugs," he told me. "I don't trust people. It's cost me a few jobs because anybody in authority, I fear.... There's part of me that says I can't be attached to one person. I have a hard time understanding what love is, too." And here's the most ironic twist of all. His father, a military man, subsequently left the military and went back to school and became a therapist. Among his patients were people who had themselves been sexually abused as children. You can imagine how effective he was.

          You don't forget stories like these, and I never have, and when the scandals about the Catholic Church and its attitude toward child sexual abusers among its priests broke, I took a particular interest in them. I had never been abused as a child, although my mother would spank my brother and me with a yardstick if we had done something unusually bad; but the yardstick almost invariably broke on our backsides, it stung more than it hurt, and neither of us ever thought we were being abused. We thought we were being punished, and we were. Pretty much always justifiably. But sexual abuse is something else entirely. All child abuse is bad and seriously damaging to the child, but sexual abuse is the worst. Children are not ready for sex. They don't understand it, it frightens them, it breaks boundaries they know instinctively exist but can't explain, and the shame associated with them is unbearable. It leads, as Phil explained, to fear, distrust, an inability to love, to a profoundly disturbed life. Priests are supposed to be, and are presented as, exemplars of trust, and trust is absolutely basic to the health of children. If they cannot trust they cannot thrive. The damage a priest could do to a child, I now knew, could be enormous and lifelong. And the response of the Church to these crimes was more than appalling. It was itself profoundly criminal.

          And then the business at Penn State, in which a beloved coach, and the University authorities, did nothing to stop a sexual abuser in their midst.

          None of this is news, of course, and that's not why I'm writing, to tell you something you don't know. Anyone with any depth of experience in the world knows that institutions will defend and protect their own at all costs, no matter what the price others must pay for their crimes. I saw it in the mental health system when I wrote my first book, saw how a profession rallied around one of its own even though the person in question was incompetent, to the point of monstrosity. But he was one of them. So with the priests. Priests, even a bishop, are beginning to be convicted for these crimes, which the Church treated as if they were minor sins. A few are in jail. But while they may be sins in the eyes of the Church, in the eyes of the world they are crimes, horrible crimes, as life-destroying as murder. And unforgiveable.

          Why, then, am I writing? For Phil, and others like him. I got a firsthand glimpse of what child sexual abuse entails from him and those other people I talked to, and that's what's so often forgotten in the news surrounding scandals like these: the effects on the victims. Instead of protecting its priests, what the Catholic Church should be doing is trying to repair the damage, not just paying the victims off with money but repairing the damage, making the major reforms that are necessary to keep abusers out of the reach of children and taking the kind of look at themselves and what they stand for that they are still reluctant to take. There are many ways to destroy a life besides killing it. This is one of the worst, and this, these killing effects, is what should be the first consideration when we deal with an institution like the Church, or a university, or any organization that cares more for itself than the people it professes to serve. No institution should be allowed to be the judge of its own behavior.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


August 26, 2012:

          The New York Times Magazine has a piece today about evangelical, or is it pentecostal, pastors backing away from their religious beliefs and becoming atheists. Organizations are springing up as support groups for these people, who are now worshiping Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other saints of this movement, instead of the usual saints, Peter, Paul, Mark, Mathew and the like.

          I feel some compassion for these people. Jesus told his disciples at one point that they had to give up their family and friends to follow him. These apostates are doing precisely that not to follow him. The main focus of the piece, a man named Jerry DeWitt, has seen his wife walk out on him, has lost most of his friends, and has been shunned by his community in Louisiana since he went public with his loss of belief; and that seems unChristian to me. But the community no doubt feels betrayed. Jerry DeWitt once preached the Word to them. He gave fiery sermons that prompted his listeners to writhe on the floor and speak in tongues. One thing that makes a community is a common belief system, and here's this man, not only a believer but a leader, saying, not any more. I've been thinkin'. God doesn't make sense to me after all.

          Here in the East we don't have a whole lot of pentecostal preachers, so all this seems quite bizarre. Speaking in tongues? I'd be happy to be fluent in French, but that's not what they mean. Most of my friends are atheists, or else religionless. They don't give God much thought, they don't go to church. Some are culturally Jewish, some, like me, culturally Protestant, still others lapsed Catholics like my wife, Lorraine. A few of them make a point of being Atheists with a capital A, but most don't. Those who do I find myself smiling at more often than not, primarily because their atheistic fervor is so close to the religious fervor they condemn.

          I smile, too--no, smile is not the right word. I am bemused by them, puzzled, and by belief systems in general, for what they miss. Both sides. To be a fervent Christian in the fundamentalist mode is to miss the historicity of the Bible, which is a fascinating book precisely because it is such a human product, a bundle of legendary tales, contradictory advice, long, doubtful chronologies, weird Jewish laws, moving stories, and absurd miracles. It is to miss the astonishing growth of science, which is one of the glories of the human mind and the principal reason we now commonly live into our seventies and beyond instead of our forties. It is to miss the great pleasure of thinking for yourself--which, if there is a God, he surely had in mind as one of the tasks human beings were made for.

          But the other side misses a great deal, too. They miss the feeling of community that comes with shared beliefs, they miss the help such communities can offer, and they miss the hope of some sort of life after death. But the greatest thing they miss is the mystery. The things we cannot explain, that make no scientific sense. Take psi phenomena. I studied this in high school, for what was called my "senior essay." Way back then J. B. Rhine was publishing books about his experiments with ESP, using cards with symbols which subjects guessed, and those with talent--it seems to be a talent--guessed correctly at odds that were astronomically improbable, while the results as a whole, from people evidently without any great talent, also showed very high levels of improbability. These tests have been repeated again and again and again, always with improved techniques and more controls, with results about the same. I once ran such a test of my own with my first wife, who always seemed to be saying what I was thinking, at the same time I was thinking it. I put her in another room with a piece of paper and asked her to draw whatever came into her head. I then went to another part of the house and drew a diagram on my own piece of paper. When we compared them, they were identical. We did it again. Same result.

          The evidence for psi phenomena is quite strong, and there's a lot of it. And no explanation for it. How could it be that an image, a diagram, could travel through the space between my first wife and me with no carrier, no phone line, no energy transfer we know about? What gives with that? Or the evidence for reincarnation. There are a great many cases, all carefully investigated, the evidence run down, all possibilities for fraud checked out and discarded, for which reincarnation is the only available explanation. What are we to make of it? The CIA used remote viewers, people who can see things at a vast distance, to spy on Soviet military facilities; the information they provided turned out to be very useful, and largely accurate. That is another talent. But how does it work? Is consciousness not in fact confined to our brains? Could it be a field, like the magnetic field? We don't know. There is a great deal more we don't know. Why do subatomic particles not obey the laws of physics, except on a statistical basis? The writer Upton Sinclair was married to a woman who once described with extraordinary accuracy the picture on a postcard that a psychology professor from Harvard was carrying in his pocket. She could do this consistently, at large distances. No one has a clue how this works.

          Science is full of similar mysteries. String theory? Get your mind around that if you can. The universe appeared out of nothing? According to some astrophysicists, yes.

          The point is, we don't know. We have our little minds, our limited perspectives, and it is always dangerous to jump to conclusions. No God? Maybe not. Or maybe. Withhold judgment. Look up at the stars, imagine if you can the billion or two of them in our own galaxy, then multiply that by the billion or so other galaxies in the known universe--that's the visible galaxies--and you begin to realize, it's not about us. It puts a whole different spin on the God business. It encourages modesty on our part, true modesty, an understanding of how deeply insignificant we are. It should fill us with wonder. There is clearly more going on than we can understand at this preliminary stage in our evolution. We don't have all the answers; neither side does. The thing to do, then, is to keep an open mind. Live with what John Keats called "negative capability," the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time and not surrender to the need to choose between them. And while you wait for resolution, which is unlikely to come, live like a child. Let yourself be amazed whenever the chickadees come to feed out of your hand. 

Friday, July 20, 2012


July 20, 2012:

     I was in Washington in late June at the Library of Congress for a magazine piece I'm writing and was shown a few of Jefferson's books. Shown--I mean they were brought to a table in the reading room of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division and set before me. Jefferson's books as a whole are housed in a special exhibition room in the Library, and they constitute its core and its origin (more than a million people visit that room every year). In 1814 the British burned the Capitol, where the previous Library of Congress was housed, and destroyed it, every single volume. The following year Jefferson offered his own library for sale to the government as the beginning of a new Library of Congress and, after some dispute in Congress, the government bought his books, all 6400 of them. It was the largest library of its time in this country, public or private, and the most comprehensive. And there I was, looking at a small stack of them. The curator handed me first Jefferson's own copy of the parliamentary manual he had written in 1801 for the use of the U. S. Senate, whose presiding officer he had been as John Adams's Vice-President. Then he gave me Jefferson's copy of the Koran; it was the first English translation from the original. It caused a bit of a flap in 2007 when a new Congressman, the first Muslim ever elected to the U. S. Congress, asked if he could be sworn in on it. Some Congressional Neanderthal screamed about the Bible, but as it turned out Congressmen aren't sworn in on a book; they simply take an oath of office, collectively. But the fellow did get to carry the book with him when this was done.

     The little pile also contained Jefferson's copy of the Federalist Papers. That was a thrill. It had been given to him by Elizabeth Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton's wife, and had her signature in spidery handwriting above the title. Alexander Hamilton was one of Jefferson's enemies, and I wondered what the story was behind the gift.

     But most of all I just wondered. I spent perhaps an hour in the exhibition room looking at the books, and they were, collectively, simply amazing. Books on agriculture, on politics, on history; the classics in their original languages; the Enlightenment philosophers, in French, in Italian, in German; a little book on card games; magnificent books on architecture, which he practised, and extremely well; books on dozens of subjects. He read Latin and Greek, spoke French, Italian, German, and Spanish, could work his way through a Dutch book if he had to. On his way to France in 1784 to serve as minister to the French court he read Cervantes in the original, to brush up on his Spanish.

     Six years ago I put together an anthology of Jefferson's writing from France for the National Geographic Society (it's called Thomas Jefferson Travels), and some of the letters I included were written to his nephews, and others seeking his advice, about what to read, how to educate oneself, especially to prepare for a life of public service. He advised his nephew Peter Carr to begin with ancient history, always in the original language, "reading the following books in the following order. Herodotus. Thucydides. Xenophontis helenica. Xenophontis Anabasis. Quintus Curtius. Justin." He moves on to Roman history, then modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, he recommends Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer. "In morality read Epictetus, Xenophonsis memorabilia, Plato's Socratic dialogues, Cicero's philosophies." Then he ordered the books sent to him from London. And this was just the beginning. In later letters he expands on the list, sends him to modern political philosophy. He sent James Madison dozens of books, among them Hume's Essays, which had a major influence on Madison's thoughts on the U. S. Constitution. He sent books to Monroe, too. To Jefferson, clearly, it was unimaginable that one would consider a leadership role in a political setting without being familiar with ancient and modern history, without being steeped in political philosophy, without being learned in other arts and sciences. When some Congressmen objected to the range of subjects contained in his library, he responded that there was no subject a U. S. legislator might not need to know about in the course of serving his country.

     We just don't make them like this any more, and it is a huge loss to all of us. What language besides English does John Boehner speak, or even read? Do you suppose Mitt Romney has learned anything significant from ancient Greek and Roman history? Jefferson was the first to figure out what the currency of the United States should be. He wrote a comprehensive, well-informed account of the American whaling industry for the benefit of European governments. His parliamentary manual is no longer in use, but until the 1980s parts of it were used in the House of Representatives. At the risk of prison he smuggled Italian rice seeds out of Italy in order to jump start the rice industry in South Carolina with a better variety of rice.

     But most important, he believed in and actively preached about the importance of education for the survival of a republic. Without an educated public, without an understanding of what it means not just for our political life but for our character, the tone of public discourse, and for the culture as a whole, we get what we have now: intransigence and extremism in political life; a pop culture of appalling violence; and a level of discourse so low, so barren, as to sicken the heart.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


June 30, 2012:

     We were in Budapest, the last stop on our trip down the Danube, and we went to a small museum there devoted to the art of Southeast Asia. The collection had been put together by a Hungarian diplomat who had spent a large part of his life representing his country in Asia and had slowly accumulated pieces of mostly Buddhist and Hindu art, extraordinary pieces, many of them solid gold or silver, beautifully wrought, very powerful, and, with the Buddhist art, very serene. He had then given them to his country, to the world, by establishing this small museum, the size of a house, putting his name on it--Istvan Zelnick--and opening it seven days a week. It brought to mind many questions, but one prevailed: what is it like to look calmly on the wrack of the world, its tragedies, its messiness, its beauty, and not be touched by desire? Because that is the Buddhist ideal.

     I wish I knew the answer; but wishing is useless. Truth is, I don't want much any more. Things, even books, don't interest me as much as they used to. All I really want is time--time to finish my work, or what I see as my work; time to write, to garden, to publish a few more poems, one or two more books of my own. Time, of course, is running out. But I am not even close to the Buddhist version of enlightenment.

     We were almost alone in the museum; only one other couple was there. They were, I thought, a German couple. I overheard the man, who was elderly, speaking German to his wife. After we had finished looking at the exhibits we went outside to the tea garden in the back, ordered some iced tea--it turned out to be bottled, and made in America--Arizona tea--and sat by a waterfall. We took some pitcures. Then the husband of the other couple approached us and asked in English if we would like him to take our picture together. We would, he took it, and we got to talking. He was not German at all, but his wife was German--thus the overheard conversation. He was in fact Hungarian, they were in Hungary visiting relatives, but he was otherwise an American citizen and lived in Boston. Here is his story.

     His name is Ivan and in 1956 he was a college student, three months away from getting his degree in engineering. Then came the Hungarian uprising, brutally crushed by the Soviets, but not before 160,000 people managed to escape the country. He was one of them. People fled to the Austrian border, bribed the Austrian border guards, and at night the Austrians lit bonfires in the woods so that the Hungarian refugees would run in the right direction, and not mistake it and wind up back in Hungary. Once in Austria he spent time in one of the refugee camps and from there applied to various countries to be taken in as an engineering student. Only Germany, he said, guaranteed him a scholarship; so he went to school again there, learned German (that took two years), married his German wife, and finally got his degree. By this time it was 1962.

     Fateful year. That was the year of the Cuban missile crisis, brinksmanship taken to the extreme, when all the world trembled on the verge of nuclear holocaust. In Europe, so used to warfare, to being fought over, it looked worse perhaps than it did in the United States, where we thought we were invulnerable. But to Ivan, who had lived under fascism, then under communism, whose life had been dominated by the Cold War, the prospect of yet more warfare was too much. He could not bear the idea of living under communist rule again. "And if I was going to die," he told us, "I wanted to die in America." He had a cousin in America willing to sponsor him and he told his wife, we'll give it a year. If we don't like it I promise you we'll come back.

     Once again, then, he had to start over--learn English, particularly the technical English that engineers speak; find a job; try to make a new life for himself and his wife. His first job was as a draughtsman, inking in the drawings of other designers. After that he moved to Pitney-Bowes, designing postage meters. He had never heard of postage meters, he said, but he learned how, he became good at it, and he moved up and on to other, better jobs--in Connecticut, in Ohio, wherever fortune took him. Finally he wound up in Boston, working for himself, as a design consultant, and that's where he lives now. He's 80 years old.

     But there was something about him that went beyond this man's successes. Another kind of serenity besides the Buddhist, and the most impressive thing about him. He had achieved that level of simplicity that marks people who know what the important things really are, people who have had to make terrible, fearful choices, who have risked their lives for those things, and struggled to achieve them. People like we Americans used to be, but no longer are.

     At the end of his story he looked at us and named the thing he had given up so much to acquire. "I came to America," he said, "for one word: liberty."

     We are celebrating July 4 here in Sag Harbor with fireworks tonight, celebrating life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I'll be thinking about Ivan, and what he sacrificed to achieve these things. He didn't come here for money. He came for liberty, to be a free man. I would suggest that he knows better than most what that means, and what it costs.


Monday, May 28, 2012


     May 28, 2012: I've just come from Sag Harbor's annual Memorial Day parade, with its veterans, a few still remaining from World War II, its firemen, the high school band, an honor guard firing blanks (don't bring your dog, folks), and even its celebrity observer, Matt Lauer, who has a weekend home nearby. It's nice to see him there, but it's also nice that Sag Harbor is in New York, and in New York people leave celebrities alone. I generally tear up when taps is played, but I didn't this year. At the end the parade gathers at Marine Park and people give speeches. I don't stay for the speeches, either, or the playing of patriotic songs.

     But I am a patriot, and I was thinking about patriotism as I walked home. Saturday night Lorraine and I went to a dinner party where a friend of ours told us that his 26-year-old daughter just couldn't work up any enthusiasm about the election this year. She had been among the millions of young people whose enthusiasm for Barack Obama in 2008 put him in office, but now--well, she wasn't going to volunteer, she might not even vote. The man was such a disappointment. What happened to all the promise, the hope, the return to democratic principles and Democratic policies? Why were the rich still getting off tax free; why didn't the wars come to an end right away, how could he allow off-shore oil drilling, and now, drilling in the Arctic Ocean?! Where was the Obama of the speeches, of his two books? 2008 had been so exciting, such heady stuff. But his actual Presidency was more than a bit of a bust. So why get involved?

     It is times like these that one despairs of one's country. When one remembers all the republics that have gone the way of the ancient Roman Republic: Florence, Venice, the Weimar Republic, the Republic of Czechoslovakia, numerous South American republics. The list is long and tragic.

     There's nothing about a republic that is immortal. The Founders knew that very well indeed; they understood how fragile they were, that the very idea of a republic required the active participation of educated citizens who understood the issues, because issues are immortal, who debated, campaigned, and who voted. In a republic active participation is not only a right, it is a duty. You have an obligation to get involved. It's not something you do only when a candidate gets you excited and enthusiastic. Citizenship is not a feeling, a high you get out of participating in a great event like the election of the first African-American President. It's the work you do, that you absolutely have to do, if you take your patriotism seriously, if you actually do care about the United States of America and what it stands for. What it stands for in fact is precisely the most basic of the immortal issues that underlie American politics, a fact that is peculiarly germane to American history because it was the first self-made country, the inspiration for so much of the revolution in rights that subsequently transformed the world. For the first time a country announced, at its very formation, that its whole reason for being was to guarantee these rights. Human rights. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and more. If you don't actually fight for your idea of what it stands for you have only yourself--ONLY YOURSELF--to blame if other peoples' views prevail and it turns out to stand for something else entirely.

     Many years ago, just a few years after we settled into Sag Harbor, the man who owned the house we were renting was trying to decide whether to run for Mayor, and he came to us to ask our advice, and would we help. The issue on that occasion was a bridge over the culvert that connects Otter Pond, at the entrance to the village, to the open bays beyond. The man who was mayor then wanted to rebuild it, and he wanted NYState money to do it with, which meant that it would have to be rebuilt to state standards, and thereby be widened and straightened. It would have made the entrance to the village look like an Interstate ramp. The village was upset over this idea. Sag Harbor is quite beautiful. The entrance to the village sets the tone for the whole place. The election turned out to hinge on the issue of that culvert. Lorraine and I went to strategy meetings, helped form a slate, wrote publicity, started letter-writing campaigns. I did all the radio announcements. And our man won; he took two-thirds of the vote. The  culvert was rebuilt in a much more modest way, the road wasn't straightened, the entrance to the village wasn't changed. It's still beautiful.

     Subsequently we formed a Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, I was its first Chairman, and I served for four years. Lorraine went on the Zoning Board and ultimately became its Chairwoman. I went up against the Mayor when he wanted to sell the Municipal Building, and build a new one on the outskirts of the village next to the new firehouse. We formed a second committe, an ad hoc committee to look into the feasibility of this. We met for six months, every other week. We called in some of the best historic preservation people in the country. I had a lot of help from architects who had homes in the village. They were also good citizens. Turns out the old Municipal Building, built in the 1840s, was a really interesting example of period construction and was basically fine, but it did need some work so we floated a bond issue to get the work done. I wrote copy for that, too, and we won again.

     I'm not bragging. You don't brag about doing your duty. But I am proud of that work. It was citizenship; it was a moral obligation. It was also thankless. People questioned our motives, attacked us in print. These were not paid positions. But that's politics. There's always opposition; it's always messy and often dirty. It's even more so on the national level. A president gets elected on the strength of his rhetorical skills and then his enthusiasts, who have drunk the Kool-Aid, are disappointed when the realities of American politics and the viciousness of the fight over what the country stands for sinks in, and he turns out not to be what they thought he was, but a centrist who, bless his level of intelligence, understands that the country is far more complicated than the Left wants to believe and has far more constituencies and interest groups than one can easily imagine. He has not had an easy time. It is not an easy job, and he may not be the perfect man for it.

     But he's infinitely preferable to the alternative.

     So use your brains, children (because children you are). Twelve years ago a similar attitude--oh who cares? both parties are corrupt, both have sold out to big business--put, what was it, thirty, forty thousand votes, in Florida in the Ralph Nader camp and gave the nation George W. Bush, two wars, one of them built completely of lies, both unfunded, a tripling of the national debt, and 6,000 more soldiers to mourn on Memorial Day. Not to mention the national embarrassment of having an idiot in the White House.

     Or don't use your brains, don't get involved, don't campaign, don't care, don't even vote. And what happens next will be YOUR FAULT, and the historians of the future will place the blame on YOU, the shallow generation, for abandoning YOUR republic to its ignoble fate.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


May 16, 2012:

     "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"

     So said the 1st Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon when presented with another volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And now here is Robert Caro with the fourth volume of his life and times of Lyndon Johnson, and it runs to 714 pages. It will take weeks to read-- no, months; I have a busy life of my own to live, lots of work to do, which requires its own reading, and once in a while I like to go to the movies. Then there's the thinking. I am one of those people who sits down with a notebook and thinks, taking notes as things occur to me. Occasionally I have a genuine insight. A book like Caro's leaves no time for idle thought.

     I read Gibbon's Autobiography some years ago, but I never tackled the Decline and Fall. It seemed so much like a life's work, that once you had read it you would have to read about it, read Tacitus and Livy and Polybius, in other words, for background, read other books about the late Empire for the sake of comparison, then read J. G. A. Pocock's current three-volume project (so far) on the significance of Gibbon's book for Enlightenment studies, become a classics scholar, in short--well, definitely not in short--in order to appreciate it fully. I hesitate generally to read really long books. It may come as a shock to those who consider me well-read, but I have not read War and Peace, nor Paradise Lost, nor Joyce's Ulysses all the way through, nor Gravity's Rainbow, nor David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I did once read Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James, but that was when I was studying Henry James in grad school. Generally I find really long books off-putting. Who has the time? How interested am I in the subject? And Caro's is more than a really long book. It is, or promises to be, five really long books, all featuring a history I lived through, and about a President I followed in the press at the time. How much more do I need to know?

     When Caro's third volume on Johnson came out ten years ago I was a judge of the non-fiction panel of the National Book Awards and I remember when it came in the house, along with the 400 other books that publishers had nominated that year for the non-fiction award, and I blanched. Four hundred books, and the most prestigious, the most watched, was Caro's, and it was 800? 900? pages long. To be a judge is a mostly honorary position; you do get paid, but very little, for going through 400 books. It's obvious you can't read them all. We didn't. You become expert at making decisions about books within a page or two. But you couldn't toss Caro aside that way. Caro was clearly writing an American epic, he was important, he was a genuine candidate for the award. One of the judges, I remember, complained that the book was too heavy to read in bed and wanted to reject it for that reason. I suspect that judge had other reasons as well, but there it was: too big, too clumsy; another damned, thick, square book.

     But it was also mesmerizing. I read half the book, which I really didn't have time to do, and learned more about the U. S. Senate and the exercise of power within the Senate than I could have learned in years of reading other histories. Caro is a great storyteller, and that's how he gets away with it. Even when you already know the outcome you go on reading, not quite breathlessly but nearly so. He gets to the heart of American politics in all its messy ingloriousness, and he draws you in, seduces you, makes you forget who you are and what else you have to do. In the end I saw that what he was doing was comparable to what Henry Adams had done in his history of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, which ran to nine volumes when he finished it; it was that grand, that powerful, that good. I cannot forget the first one hundred pages of Adams's book, which is a riveting physical description of the United States in 1800, the roads, or lack of them, the river transportation systems, the communications systems. It sounds dry, doesn't it? But in Adams's hands it's a masterpiece and is sometimes published as a separate book in its own right. So with Caro. His first book on Johnson spends an inordinate amount of time in the Texas hill country, where Johnson grew up, but it's extremely helpful to understanding Johnson. We all come out of a specific context. The hill country was Johnson's context. To understand him you have to understand the context.

     And it is American power politics that Caro is writing about. It's a subject we need to know much more fully. When I listen to my liberal friends, all of them idealists, all of them rather naive about politics and how it works and even more naive about the way the right thinks, and why, I wonder to myself, what would it take to educate them? If this sounds arrogant on my part, I can't help it. The five years I spent in local politics taught me a great deal; six months living in Oklahoma was a revelation. You don't know a swamp until you wade through it. If you want to drain it, you damn well better get your feet wet. It's not enough to sit around in a park near Wall Street and carry a sign. You get involved. Or else, like Caro, you wade into the archives, you read everything, every scribbled note, every memo; you talk to everybody you can find; and you come out of it knowing. If you want to understand American politics in depth, in other words, you have to get into it, or you have to read Caro.

     Caro had enemies on the National Book Award panel that year, but in the end all five of us voted for him. He's doing something truly unusual; he's writing the American epic of our time. Much of the best in America, and much of the worst, flows from Lyndon Johnson and his Presidency. You have to read Caro. He has the power to open eyes.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


April 19, 2012:

Lorraine and I happened to be in Virginia when the business came up about forcing women who wanted abortions to have an ultrasound probe inserted painfully in their vaginas beforehand--and be forced to look at whatever state the foetus was in. While we were there the Governor began to back down, but it was clear that it wasn't because he thought the proposed law was outrageous. It was because he was catching too much flack in the national media. A number of other states already have this or a similar law trying to limit a woman's right to an abortion; and of course there are laws about contraception getting passed, too, and it's becoming clearer and clearer that the Republican party is growing increasingly aggressive toward the right of women to control their own bodies.

I have written about this subject before, objecting on constitutional grounds to the imposition of religious beliefs on American citizens. Abortion is essentially a religious issue; certain religions claim that the foetus is a "person" at conception, because that, supposedly, is when God implants the soul into the foetus, and therefore to destroy the foetus is murder. How human beings are supposed to know what God does when is never explained, because it can't be explained; it's nothing more than a belief, and like all beliefs it is no absolute. It has a history, even in the Catholic church, where one finds it at its most strident. St. Thomas Aquinas had no problem with abortion before the "quickening," which is when the infant starts to move and kick inside the mother's body. It wasn't until much later, the nineteenth century, if I remember correctly, that the church decided to condemn abortion no matter when it was performed. And at all times in history women have found ways to terminate pregnancies despite beliefs or the law. Before I was born in 1936 my own mother tried to abort me, using herbs and hot baths and whatever else she could find in the stock of traditional abortifacients; my parents already had a child, they were struggling to survive, they didn't think they could afford me. Obviously I made it into the open, but I have never blamed her. It wasn't personal. I wasn't who I am yet; I was just tissue. And after I was born they loved me with as much tenderness and care as they loved my brother.

I read an article some years ago written by a philosopher that put this business in what I thought was proper perspective. Suppose, this writer said, that you woke up one morning to find yourself hooked up with tubes and whatever else was required to keep him alive to a famous violinist, and standing over you was a policeman who said, "Here's the story. It's your job to nurture this violinist here for the next nine months, when you'll be unhooked and free of him; but in the meantime you have no choice, he's yours, you're his, and that's that." As this writer correctly pointed out, no court in the land would enforce such a situation. No one is obliged to sacrifice one's freedom for the sake of another, even at the cost of that other person's life. You may choose to do so, but that's entirely up to you. You cannot be forced. Not in law.

So on what grounds can we force women to do precisely this when they're pregnant? Even if they were carrying a famous violinist, manifestly a person, you could not force them. And there's no proof, indeed no evidence, that the foetus is a person. That's merely a belief, specifically a religious belief, and the Constitution separates religious belief from the state definitively.

In life as it is lived women will get abortions no matter what. Including women who don't "believe" in abortion. I read a story recently about a woman who demonstrated every day opposite an abortion clinic against abortions, bringing a stepladder to the demonstration so she could make her voice heard more loudly. Then one day she showed up inside the clinic. She needed an abortion. She got one. Two days later she was back on her stepladder. I heard another story from a friend of a friend about a Mafia wife who was also dead set against abortion, until she found out that her teenage son had gotten his girlfriend pregnant. She herself drove the girl to the abortion clinic. Did she change her opposition to abortion? Guess what: no.

The level of hypocrisy on this issue is, in other words, high. As women are fond of pointing out, if men got pregnant too this would not be an issue at all, and abortions would be routine everywhere in the U. S. Make abortions illegal again, and the same thing will happen as before. People with money will send their daughters abroad for their abortions, or their doctors will hook them up with reliable private abortionists, while the poor will go to the back alleys and get it down with clothes hangers. I know a woman driven to that; it was a botched job; she could never have children after. I know another who had such an abortion and had to submit to a rape first, by the abortionist. And let me tell you my story, or rather my first wife's story. She was two weeks pregnant when she was in an automobile accident, her skull was fractured and bones in her knee were broken. The ambulance rushed her to the hospital where, unconscious, she was x-rayed from head to toe to find out what had happened to her body. She did not know at the time she was pregnant. But she was a nurse, and she did know that x-rays have a 50-50 chance of causing major deformities in a foetus so undeveloped. She was a working mother; I was a working father. Abortion was illegal in this country. It had just been legalized in England, however. We found a group of sympathetic Protestant ministers--religious people, got that?--who were referring people in our situation, or situations like it, to doctors in England; we got in touch with them; a Methodist minister talked to us, gave us a phone number, we put our kids in the care of my parents, and within a week we were in London. The doctor wanted to know why we needed the abortion. We told him why. He scheduled it for the next day.

America is a barbaric country in so many ways, violent, ignorant, full of unreason, but surely the religious absolutism that infects so large a proportion of the population is one of its worst character traits. We constantly talk about freedom, but do not hesitate to impose our belief systems on others. The hardest thing to find on the religious right seems to be compassion. One looks at the sayings and teachings of Jesus and then at vaginal ultrasound and you wonder how they can go to church and pray to that gentle man, or pretend to believe they can be like him. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Oh, really? Well then, if you were poor, would you hope somebody would help you? Or would you be OK with tax laws that grotesquely favor the rich and beat up on the poor? Walk a mile in the shoes of a jobless poor man. Walk a mile in a woman's shoes, get pregnant, give birth to children you can't support, can't educate, can't give a decent life. A rich man has as much chance to get into heaven as a camel has of getting through the eye of a needle. So why do you worship wealth, worship the Almighty Dollar, bend all policy to favor the rich? Morally it is more than grotesque; there's a kind of active evil inside these policies, a crescendo of hypocrisy that leads on the political level to deep disgust, and the terminal cynicism that brings nations down. Count on it: if your daughter needs an abortion, you're going to get it for her no matter what your ideology, or your so-called religous belief, or whatever other authoritarian impulse drives you. The Founders had vivid memories of what governments steeped in religion do to people, and the First Amendment is very clear on the subject. Are you religious? Fine. Believe whatever you want. But keep it to yourself. Don't try to impose it on the rest of us. You have no right.

Monday, April 9, 2012


April 9, 2012:

When I was sixteen or seventeen I used to go over to the golf course on the other side of town and try to get caddying jobs, hoping to make a little money. I didn't play golf, didn't know much about the game, and couldn't recommend a particular club for a particular shot. I was good only for carrying bags. Not a job I was born to, obviously. And I came to dislike golfers, most of whom, in my admittedly limited experience, seemed to be unusually rude, or often in sour moods. Worse than that, they all had money, yet many of them didn't tip. It was my first real experience of the upper middle-class. I didn't like them. After that I was never tempted to play golf, or to watch it on television. And that continued through most of my adult life. Watching golf is like watching grass grow, I was told many times, and I agreed.

But then I chanced across the end of a tournament on TV one Sunday afternoon when I was channel surfing and stopped to watch one of the leading players--I think it was Phil Mickelson--seal up a victory on the last hole, where he needed only two putts to win, and then watched in amazement as he blew up and three-putted the hole, even though his last putt was less than a foot from the hole. And this was a guy who was really good at this game. I was impressed. Here was something I could relate to--blowing it big time when it counted. Who doesn't do that from time to time? I certainly have. I finally realized that this was an interior game, maybe the most interior of all. Your only opponent is yourself, your nerves, the level of your skill. Your opponents are fighting their own demons; you're fighting yours. The fact that so many pros in the game use sports psychologists doesn't surprise me. Huge amounts of prize money are at stake, you're trying to get this little white ball into a cup that's located three or four or five hundred yards away, the fairways are surrounded by trees, deep rough, there are sand traps, water hazards, and thousands of people may be standing around watching your every move, and par must seem like at least one shot too cruel. Not to mention below par.

After that when Pace, our neighbor, invited me over to watch Sunday afternoons, I often went. Pace plays golf and she's very good at it, usually winning tournaments in her age group. We're of an age, so the age group is not at all young, but still she bangs through a course in the 90s and sometimes less, knows the professionals both male and female, and it's fun to watch the game with her. And then there's the beauty of the courses. I watched a good part of the Masters this past weekend, saw Bubba Watson win in a playoff and watched the tension pour out of him after he sank his last putt in tears he couldn't control, sobbing in his caddy's arms, and it was quite moving. I know what that feels like. Every time I turn in a story I wait with that kind of tension in me to hear that it's acceptable, that they like it, they're going to publish it and pay me for it. Performance is all. And all this took place in one of the most beautiful settings in America: Augusta National, in Georgia. It just takes your breath away; as an example of landscape design, I think it's nearly unmatched: rolling greensward, majestic old trees, everything beautifully groomed. It reminds me of the eighteenth-century English landscapes designed by Capability Brown. It reminds me of Paradise. It feels like Paradise, too. Golfers have a code of conduct that's unusual in sports: they're polite, they report their own infractions of the rules even when they're inadvertent, even when they're unseen, they step over or around the line between their opponents' balls and the holes when they're on the greens, they wait patiently for others to line up their shots, and they generally speak well of each other. Temper tantrums are frowned upon; indeed, they're fined for them. It's stately, dignified, and yet all this intensity is wrapped up in all that formality. That's what art is, intensity wrapped up in beauty and formality. And this Paradise even has its Adam, its fallen man, in the great Tiger Woods, the best of them all, the ur-golfer, who lost his cool and his mojo when his wife caught him cheating on her, not just with one woman but with many, and apparently came after him with one of his own golf clubs. Tiger has yet to recover from his fall; one wonders if he ever will.

Okay, I'm not an idiot. These are country clubs, after all, not utopias, and the country club mentality is one of the banes of this country's existence; it feeds the elitism, the isolationism, and the arrogance of American wealth. Augusta National still won't admit women to membership. The first time Tiger Woods played there, in a tournament, they wouldn't let him in the gate the first day he came to practice. The sport is international and you see people from all over the world on the course now, including V. J. Singh, who's Polynesian, and any number of Korean pros. More blacks will appear, I imagine, as more reach a point where they can afford the game.

But make no mistake, golf is hardly a sport representative of the racial mix in this country, or the economic mix. Still, it has become one of my favorite sports to watch, and I make no apology for it. All that intensity, that interior passion, masked, managed, contained and put to the service of a golf swing. That's what writing can be like at its best: the passion you bring to a subject, and to the craft, contained, restrained, directed. You will sometimes see a pro make a 35- or 40-foot putt on an impossible curving line across an undulating green and pump his arm when it drops. I have done the same when I've gotten the words right. I do it at my desk, but these guys get to do it in these gorgeous settings. Yes! you exclaim to yourself, and you thank the gods for your luck at being able to do what you do, and for the gift, and the time, to practice your skills.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


March 27, 2012:

A cold day, chilly in the house. It takes a long time to warm this house up. Yesterday was warmer and I spent a good part of the day on the front porch, which is enclosed but still the coldest room, going through books. I'm engaged in a major thinning operation, hoping to get rid of a thousand of them, maybe more, out of the six or seven thousand I own. When you own that many, and the house is too small to put them all on shelves, you wind up not knowing what you have or where to find it, and that's frustrating. I recently wrote a piece for Military History magazine on WW II in Yugoslavia and the editors couldn't find a decent map showing what territories were occupied by what forces during the war. I happened to find what they wanted in a used bookstore a day later, but going through my books yesterday I found at the bottom of a pile an historical atlas of the Balkans I had forgotten I owned. So it's time to bring it all into some kind of order. I can't work anyway. Burned out by the latest magazine piece, on Faberge.

Anyway I've done this before, although not often on this scale, and it requires a certain amount of self examination, because ultimnately it's about who you are, what you know, why you wanted to know it. Take all the books on mind and consciousness that I'm now getting rid of. Acquiring those books started when I did a piece maybe thirty years ago for Psychology Today called "Selves." It went on for pages and pages, that piece; it was the longest piece they ever published; and my wife remembers reading it before she knew me and being very annoyed by it, although she did finish it, because it opened with an experience I had had, namely seeing myself on TV for the first time, and she seemed to think I was bragging. But I wasn't bragging; the piece was really about the slipperiness of the concept of self and the many different ideas about the self that had prevailed over the course of Western history. I was especially interested in the mind/body problem and the fact that philosophers and scientists are still arguing about it, trying to determine how minds, which are non-material, can emerge from material objects like brains. When you write 7,500 words on a subject like that you can't help but think you'd like to know more, write more, contribute in a more substantial way to the argument, and so over the years you tend to accumulate books on consciousness and the philosophy of mind and I have a fair number. But now I know I'll never write that book. It's one of too many subjects that really went nowhere for me. Often it's the lack of a venue in which to pursue the subject that determines your interests. Now I'm getting rid of them.

All my books have stories like that behind them. They represent interests pursued and then abandoned, as in this case, or interests put aside for a time, or interests I still intend to take up, they are the material signs of my intellectual history, and they have two values for me: the personal, and their value in dollars. Most of them won't bring much. But their personal value can be great. I just won't get rid of my editions of John Donne or Edmund Spenser or the like, even though I'm not likely to look at them more than once again in my lifetime, because that's where I started out, in English literature, that's my first love; for a while it's where I wanted to spend my life. Unfortunately I didn't like to teach, hadn't the patience for it, and I could see, too, how petty the politics of university life was. It wasn't for me. (It's interesting how much of my identity is based on refusals; I wonder how much that's true for other people.) Other books you keep for other reasons. I have a little book aimed at women from the mid-nineteenth century called How to Be Pretty Though Plain. I keep it for the title alone, which is charming and sad at the same time. I won't sell my copy of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, which is in Latin--I no longer read Latin--because it's an Aldine Press edition, one of the first pocket-size books, published in 1546. 1546! The oldest object I possess, beautifully printed, immaculate paper. I paid $10 for it at an antique shop. It's imperfect--someone took a colored pencil to it at one point in its past and underlined some pages, and its monetary value is therefore quite modest. But that's all right. It's a reminder of what a well-made book is like, in a world of planned obsolescence. And I have several shelves filled with early Modern Library editions, when they were printing them with leatherette bindings. They're mostly from the 1920s and they're a record of what the 1920s thought would be books of enduring value: Maeterlinck; James Branch Cabell; George Meredith; Gabriele D'Annunzio; Max Stirner. Who? Max Stirner? The first line of J. L. Walker's Introduction to Max Stirner's book, The Ego and His Own, reads, "Fifty years sooner or later can make little difference in the case of a book as revolutionary as this." Really. I can think of few books as unread, as forgotten, as this. How, then, could I get rid of it?

But scholarship that's out of date, history books that have been superceded by newer books that have gone deeper into the archives, they will go. How many histories written in the past can we read with profit? There are the classics, Thucydides, Herodotus, Gibbon, and the like, but how about Polybius? I have a four-volume translation fo Polybius and I'd love to sell it, but I've tried, and it turns out to be a drug on the market, nobody wants it. Then I have a copy of Jacob Burkhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, written in the nineteenth century. It's a handsome copy, a small quarto, full of pictures. I read the book, but not this copy, forty years ago, and I loved it. So dramatic, so powerful. But who accepts his version of the Renaissance any more? Very few. It's yes and no on this one. But yes, I'll keep it. I can't get rid of books I once loved.

So there it is. I have to look at every book, look into it, before I make a decision. This is my life, my mind, I'm dealing with, this is me in a sense, where I've been, where I'm going, and there is so much I still want to know. The books I haven't read yet exert a pressure; it's almost as if they whisper to me from the walls. Jefferson said he couldn't imagine his life without books, and I know what he meant. I'll get rid of this 1,000, but others will come into the house. They come unbidden; I'm still getting books from publishers who think I'm still a reviewer. They send them even when they know I'm not. Publishers of all people respect the lover of books; I might talk about them, I might be a source of the word of mouth they value so much. Because in the end a book is nothing without its readers, nothing but paper, cardboard, and ink. Valueless. There are books, then, that I keep out of sheer respect: for the work, the tremendous effort, and the skill that went into making them. I'll never read all that I have, but that's not the point, really. How often do I look at the art on our walls here? The point is to surround yourself with objects of knowledge, interest, beauty--absorbing objects, objects you can bury your mind in, objects you can talk to. Otherwise life is bleak, lonely in some essential sense. You have less of a connection with the world. Books are the engine of thought; you cannot really go anywhere without them, or know much. Without them your life is inevitably far less than it should be.