Tuesday, December 17, 2013


December 17, 2013:

          My readers will instantly recognize that I've stolen a line from Willie Nelson, or whoever wrote the song about not letting your kids grow up to be cowboys. Yeah, well, it's a good song, but riding herd on cattle isn't the only chancy profession.

          Take the question of "my readers"--who are they? My first cousin once removed, Chris, says this blog is required reading in his house, and I'm kind of amazed. And thrilled. I'm pretty sure some of my best friends have never seen it, either because they don't know about it or don't want to take the trouble, or the time, to look it up. So it's very gratifying to know that I have at least some readers, even if they are family. Nothing is more gratifying to a writer than readers. My last book sold in the low five figures, that's copies not dollars, but how many of those people actually read it? All the way through? I'll never know, and very few people wrote me letters about it. One, I remember, from England, wrote to correct an error I had made about a relative of Queen Victoria's. The book got very good reviews in England, which pleased me no end, and in the U. S., too, although the review in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review was rather disappointing. But at least I got a review, and a full page at that. Turned out the reviewer was writing her own book on more or less the same subject.

          But what got me started down this road was reading this morning Christopher Logue's introduction to War Music, his very loose translation of portions of Homer's Iliad. He said that after publishing portions of the book in magazines he heard from readers who were not poets, not professional scholars, just ordinary people hiding out there in the great seething mass of the public who could, and did, read Homer in the original Greek. And who wrote to tell him they liked his version of the poetry very much. Now those are Readers. There isn't a writer in the world who wouldn't pay good money to have readers like that.

          Mostly we write in a vacuum. I must have written four or five hundred magazine and newspaper pieces in my career and still don't know whether anybody recognizes my name when they see it in print. Recognition, such as it is, has been local for me. When I wrote columns for the local paper, people would sometimes stop me on the street to say something about it, usually positive, and that was a nice feeling. I have gotten praise from some of the magazine editors I've written for, and a few of my pieces have been anthologized, mostly in writing textbooks aimed at high school kids. Once one of my nephews told me he had read an essay in one such textbook where the story I was telling, a family story, seemed weirdly familiar. Then he noticed the name of the author. He said he told his teacher, hey, that's my uncle who wrote that. The teacher didn't believe him. But what do teachers know? And would my nephew have noticed the name of the author if I hadn't been writing about our family?

          Like everybody else, teachers take writers for granted. It's content to them; it appears magically in books, magazines, newspapers, and it's only your fellow professionals who pay attention to bylines and know who you are. But otherwise the world is largely silent, responses to what you write are extremely scarce, and you don't know where you stand. There's no system for measuring reputation, no way of knowing how you're doing. Rates of pay are one measure, but I'm an historian for the most part, and history just doesn't pay very well. As a general feature writer I used to get good money, but never the top rates. I tell my friends about things I've written sometimes, and they occasionally ask to see it. So I send it to them, and do I hear back? You know the answer already.

          Why, then, don't I allow comments on this blog? Good question. My wife, Lorraine Dusky, has a widely read blog and she does allow comments, but from what I've seen the comments are often contentious, sometimes just plain nasty, and who wants that? Not me. To be sure, she's writing about a controversial subject, adoption, and she's got a lot to say about it. But I write about a considerable variety of subjects in this blog, I do it mostly to test out ideas, to amuse myself and maybe my readers, to touch nerves and hearts and to say things that I believe need to be said. It's like Johnny Appleseed, who planted the trees and then walked away. Plus I'm scared. What if I hear from the asshole ranks who just want to start a quarrel? What if a close friend finds my writing jejune, or stupid, or perverse? I'd rather not know. Courage fails me. And I've noticed that responding to all those people takes a whole lot of my wife's time.

          I don't want to spend time that way. I just want to write. There's no money in a blog. I doubt anyone will ever see an ad in this space, for which I would get some small percentage. But I love to write. No, I have to. It's a compulsion. An astrologer once told me that I was compensating for having burned down a library in a previous life, no doubt a barbarous life, because nothing is so barbaric as to destroy knowledge. So I have to replace all the writing that I destroyed. It's a fanciful tale, but I have no other explanation.

          Whatever the reason, I babble on. My apologies. Soon I'm going to write about something more interesting, more substantial. About loss, I think. Old friends are dying, really interesting friends whose lives remain unrecorded, unwritten about. They're joining the voiceless dead. I wrote a whole memoir--it remains unpublished--mostly to give the dead back their voices, to let them be heard. My daughter, who says she loves my work, tells me, keep on writing. It's all that will remain when you're gone. Maybe that's what's behind it all, that sense of coming to an end not having said all the things in my fertile mind that absolutely have to be said. Absolutely have to. Before it's too late.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


December 4, 2013:

          My kids--kids; they're 53 and 49 respectively--and their respective spouses and offspring were here for Thanksgiving this past weekend, and we had a wonderful time. It's hard to describe the kind of wit we share. It's home-grown, let's put it that way, coming out of shared experiences in the past, a love of word play, and a willingness to be silly that has always been a presence in our lives. The silliness comes from my parents, who could be divinely silly, even in public. The gold standard event came when I was about ten and my brother fourteen, we were in Schade's, the local soda parlor, after the movies on a Saturday night, having chocolate floats, and my parents started blowing straw paper wrappers at each other, until my mother threw a glass of water in my father's face (on a dare) and we collapsed in laughter. My poor brother was mortified and ran out of the place; he had friends there and, being fourteen, hated the embarrassment. But in other contexts he was just as capable of being silly, and I've never doubted that it was in our blood, along with my physical resemblance to our father, our voices--you could not distinguish my brother's voice and mine on a recording--and our tendency to collect things, in my case books, in my brother's case tools, antiques, and a basement full of broken furniture he was someday going to fix. He couldn't let go of anything. I have learned to let go, but it hasn't been easy.

          Yesterday afternoon Lorraine and I saw Philomena, the movie about an elderly Irish woman whose 4-year-old child was taken from her and sold by nuns to an American couple who adopted him. For $1,000. You have to see it. Judi Dench plays the elderly woman, and she's masterful as always, and all I could think about throughout was blood. DNA, if you will; but it's really blood. One of the things that holds my family so tightly together is knowing who we are. My two children knew their grandparents, knew them well, saw them pretty often, and an aunt had a genealogy done and we also know that on my mother's mother's side we are descended from early American settlers, that one of our forbears, Rebecca Nourse, was hanged at Salem for witchcraft in 1692, and on my mother's father's side, and on my own father's side, we are thoroughly Scandinavian. Swedish and Danish. My father longed all his life to go to Sweden and find his relatives there. He was born in the U. S. but he spoke a little Swedish, read it fluently, and wanted to see the graves, and meet the cousins and second cousins. He could never afford to go, but he, too, knew who he was, the son of Swedish immigrants, raised in a tightly knit Swedish community in Plainfield, N. J. Someone whose mother made the best Swedish meatballs in the world.

          But Philomena's son knew none of these things. He only knew he was adopted out of a nunnery in Ireland. He didn't know who his forebears were, his mother, his father, the circumstances of his birth, anything at all but the name of the nunnery. When he was dying of AIDS he went back to Ireland and the nuns lied to him, told him his mother had abandoned him, all the records had been destroyed in a fire (the nuns themselves set the fire), sorry. When he died his lover buried him at that nunnery, at his request, so that his mother might at least someday find his grave. She does. She had been searching all her life for him.

          This is a true story, in case you're wondering. And if you have a heart at all it will make you angry, not just because of the nuns and their incredible cruelty, but because this is the common experience of adopted people all over America, who in the vast majority of states are denied the knowledge of who they are, where they came from, the circumstances of their birth, the experience of their actual grandparents, all the stuff the rest of us take for granted as normal and natural, which we never think of as a right because it's just the way life works.

          Fighting this injustice has been, as most of my readers probably already know, Lorraine's life work, and I ought to be used to it by now. But I never can get used to it. I saw what giving up a baby--two, in fact--did to my cousin Joan's life, I know what my heritage, my ancestry, my blood relatives, mean to me, and it just drives me crazy that this natural right, this thing we all take for granted, should be denied to anyone. Or that a mother or father should be denied knowledge of what happened to their child, or children. Unfathomable. It is our very identities we're talking about, the most fundamental knowledge of all. Who we are. Where we came from. How we came by our traits, our predilections, our blond hair or deep-set eyes or body type. What could be more fundamental than knowing the family has a history of mental illness, or tends to die young of heart disease? And this is denied adoptees? Routinely. It is one of the great injustices of our time. The right to our identities takes precedence over all other considerations; it is that fundamental. It's in the blood.

          I won't get into the laws in the various states, or the history of why we have these laws. Lorraine does all that far better than I could. But I will urge you to see this movie. What happened in Ireland is all too similar to what happens here. A natural right--and all law is built upon natural rights--is routinely denied to adoptees in the United States, the only people this denial serves is adoptive parents, and it's totally unjust. And it makes me angry every time I think about it.

Monday, November 18, 2013


November 18, 2013:

          My father died in 1975, having turned 75 on this day in 1974. That Christmas I drove home to New Jersey for the holiday, as my first wife and I usually did, and he took me into the basement to show me the antique chairs he was recaning but really to tell me that this was his last Christmas. How he knew must remain a mystery, because I didn't ask; I was too stunned; I didn't know how to react. But he was right. He died a month later, in the hospital, after a heart attack. I wish I had said good-bye. My mother did. "It's been a good marriage, Ax," she said, leaning over him to kiss him on the temple. His full name was Axel Hjalmar Brandt, a fine old Swedish name, but he had changed the middle name to Elmer, which I always thought was a mistake. We visited with him in the hospital, then drove back to our home in Shrub Oak, N. Y., a little village in northern Westchester County. On the way home we were listening to the radio and a Beatles song came on, the one with the verse "Get back, get back, get back to where you first belonged," and I knew I should turn the car around and go back to New Jersey. I didn't. That evening my brother called. It was over. A second heart attack had killed him.

          My brother put his fist through the wall. I just lay down on my bed and cried for a while.

          Only when they're gone do we begin to understand how little we knew our fathers. My own was a quiet man to begin with, and he was not a modern, participatory father, he didn't want to be our friend, he seldom did anything with us, and most summers, which we spent at the shore, we saw him only on weekends. Twice he took my brother and me to baseball games on a Saturday afternoon, first to Ebbetts Field and the Dodgers, then to the Polo Grounds and the Giants. The latter was rained out, but I still remember descending a long flight of stairs to the stadium. Going to the Dodgers game made me a Dodgers fan, until they absconded to Los Angeles. Those were the days of Peewee Reese and Preacher Roe and Jackie Robinson, all legends, and the age-old rivalry with the Yankees. In those days people worked five and a half days a week, Mon-Fri and Sat. morning, and occasionally my brother and I would go into the city with him on Saturdays and hang out waiting for him. He showed us how the IBM punched card tabulating machine worked, and that was amazing. And we saw how sociable he was in the office, where he was the assistant manager. It was a railroad insurance company he worked for, and he joked around with everybody, told stories, laughed a lot. We rode the train to Jersey City, where we took a ferry to lower Manhattan. It was a wonderful ride, the train cutting through the industrial heart of the state, by the backs of factories and rail yards full of abandoned, rusting equipment, then over the long bridge that crossed Newark Bay and into the yards at Jersey City, where the ferries were waiting. It was all very beautiful, in a masculine kind of way, and then there was the New York skyline before you.

          I didn't particularly want to be like him, though, didn't want his life, which was circumscribed by his job,and our little family, to which he was deeply devoted, and his daily routine. What he was at the office he wasn't at home, i.e. sociable; he arrived at six every evening from the city, our mother would have dinner almost ready, then in the evening he would help her with the dishes and read the World-Telegram and Sun, having read the Herald Tribune in the morning. I didn't want that, didn't want the emphasis on job security, the limited scope of his life, the frugality with which they lived. But here I am, about to turn 77 myself, and I am like him. I have the same body structure, the same head shape. Set photographs of us next to each other and it's obvious I'm his son. I'm quiet like him, too, but sociable in a group, just as he was; I like to read just as he did; I can crack jokes like he did; I do crossword puzzles as he did, and take pride in not having to look anything up. As he did. He could draw extremely well, and I can't do that. But he had a marvelous singing voice, too, and so do I, only in a deeper register. He was very kind to people. I am still working on that, but getting there.

          He had grown up without the advantages he was able to give us. He graduated from high school around 1918 and immediately went to work. His father was a skilled carpenter, a tool-and-die maker; my father started out as a secretary, at a time when male secretaries were the norm; my brother and I became professionals. As a family, we were climbing the ladder, and that was the way it was supposed to be in America. My brother and I both went to college, he to Cornell, and I to Princeton, then to grad school at Columbia, and there was never any question about it. We were going to college whether we wanted to or not. It turned out not to be all that easy to be fully educated when my parents weren't. I found that we had, in a way, less to talk about. My politics diverged from theirs. I traveled a great deal, mostly for my work, while my parents never had the chance to do that. I wanted to be a man of the world. They never had a chance to pursue such a goal.

          Yet I think of him every day. Expressing love was not natural for him. Neither of my parents put much store in hugs and visible affection. But it was clear early on they would do anything to protect us; they were fiercely devoted to our welfare, our future, and the development of our character. They would tell us repeatedly that we could do anything we set our minds to. They insisted that we were as good as anybody else in this country. I took it to heart. I've never been particularly impressed by rank and privilege, and the confidence they instilled in me has served me well. They gave that to us. I think of him every day, and am grateful to have been his son. He had an inner dignity, a beautiful soul. I have regretted since the day he died that I never told him when I had that chance, in the hospital, how much I loved and respected him. In his quiet way he showed me how to be strong, how to endure, and how love is not just what you feel, but what you act upon. I think of him every day, and I miss him enormously.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


OCTOBER 26, 2013:

          I'm writing quite a bit lately for a set of magazines owned by the Weider History Group, which is in turn owned by a wealthy individual who loves history and publishes the magazines from afar as a sort of sideline to his main business (I don't know what that business is). I've done pieces for Military History, am doing one now for MHQ, i.e. Military History Quarterly, and have written as well for American History and Aviation History, all Weider magazines. This coming issue I have two pieces in Military History, one of them an installment in a one-page series that appears every issue that they call What We Learned, and the other a feature on the Russians in Afghanistan during their own bloody, disastrous war there. Both relate to learning from history.

          And they offer an instructive contrast. Briefly, the little piece in the series specifically about learning from history tells the story of the Nazi raid on Fort Eban Emael on the Belgian border that came at the start of the Nazi invasion of France, and whose success enabled the Germans to run around the end of the Maginot Line and roll up French resistance from its flank. They did this in an innovative manner. The Fort was thought to be impregnable, it bristled with artillery, was deeply dug in, the concrete fortifications were extremely thick, it backed on a canal and covered all the bridges over the canal. It did look impregnable. But it was vulnerable from above, from gliders. No one had ever thought of using gliders in warfare before. It turns out Adolf Hitler, of all people, had thought of it. The gliders, which are silent, of course, flew into the interior of the fort, took the Belgian defenders completely by surprise, and captured it, losing only a few men in the process.

          The Germans used gliders only one more time in WW II, in Crete, and that was disastrous for them. But the British and Americans had taken a long look at the battle of Fort Eban Emael, and they had learned from it. On D-Day British and American gliders swarmed into the fields of Normandy, they were used in the invasion of southern France, and by the end of the war something like 10,000 of them were in use. Helicopters soon displaced them, but the lesson of the Belgian fort had been learned.

          Now the Russians in Afghanistan. That deadly country has a long history of being invaded. It straddled the ancient Silk Road from Asia to the Middle East, it bordered India, always a target for invasion, and over the centuries various Asian and Middle Eastern empires had incorporated it into their realms. But seldom for long. Eighty percent of it is mountainous, the tribes living in those mountains have never felt warm and friendly to outsiders, and they have become over the dozens of generations they have been there a warlike people. During the so-called Great Game of the nineteenth century, the struggle for power between Russia and Great Britain for hegemony in Central Asia, Afghanistan was always an issue. In the late 1830s the then ruler made overtures to the Russians. and the British, alarmed, invaded the place. They conquered it soon enough. But then they learned that while you can conquer Afghanistan, you cannot subdue it. The country is wild, the Afghan tribes can always take to the heights, and to pursue them there is suicidal. In 1840 the British, having made no progress, their forces much weakened by attrition, decided to leave. They left with guarantees of safe passage from the Afghans. One British officer and a few Indian sepoys made it out of the gorge they were ambushed in alive. Twice more after that the British became involved in Afghan affairs, never with much success.

          When the Russians went in in 1979, intervening in a civil war to protect their southern flank from Western influence, the British ambassador to Russia went to see a contact in the Russian military and brought him some of the historical records of the British failure in Afghanistan. The Russian officer thanked him for his efforts, and said those classic words: "This time it will be different."

          It wasn't. It was an unmitigated disaster, and the civil war continued after the Russians left. They had accomplished, at the cost of what some think was 75,000 Russian and perhaps a million Afghan lives, absolutely nothing.

          And of course the Americans went in in 2001/2 with the same expectations of an easy victory, and easy control of the country, ignoring all of the country's previous history. We all know the results. You cannot subdue Afghanistan.

          I have written a lot of history and read a great deal more. I never get tired of it. My book about the British attempt to find the Northwest Passage over the top of North America in the nineteen century is full of examples like this, brave men challenging an extremely hostile, unforgiving environment again and again and again, never making much progress, starving, dying of scurvy, freezing to death--and never seeming to learn anything from their experience. And what I find most amazing, most fascinating, is how we seem absolutely to refuse to learn from the past. I wrote about Napoleon invading Russia in 1812, losing hundreds of thousands of men, and then the Nazis doing the same in 1941 to the same end--death and destruction. Supply lines are too long; the Russian winters are brutal; Russia has too many people; and it's their land. Don't go there. But the Nazis went anyway, and millions died. Human beings are stupid. No other conclusion seems possible.

          I saw a talk given once by the great American historian Gordon Wood, and someone in the audience asked him about what we can learn from history. He said you can't learn specific things, specific strategies to follow (although the British and Americans did learn to use gliders). What you can learn, or should, he went on, is prudence. Caution. You can learn to pause, to reflect, to think about the consequences of what you're doing. Americans, it seems to me, are particularly bad at this. I read one book about the Middle East before we went into Iraq in 2003: T. E.Lawrence's SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM, his account of the war he fought with his Arab guerrilla forces against the Turks during World War I. It was, and is, a beautiful, poetic introduction to the reality of life on the ground in the Middle Eastern deserts. I knew, from reading just that one book, that invading Iraq was a fool's game, that it was an utterly different culture from our own, that these desert tribes had no interest, and probably never would, in democracy, in voting, in choosing their own leaders. Iraq on the surface is modernized; but underneath that it remains tribal, traditional, religious, and in a deep sense, medieval. They're still busy blowing each other up over there, Sunni vs. Shiite, tribe against tribe, clan against clan. Did American leaders even understand this? Had they read a book, or anything, before they stumbled in their unfathomable ignorance and arrogance into this deadly maze?

          Evidently not.

          People are not the same everywhere. They do not all want the same things. And who are we to tell them what to want? And will we ever learn?

          Evidently not.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


SEPTEMBER 15, 2013:

          All the uproar--perfectly justified, by the way--about the NSA spying domestically on our emails, phone calls, and anything else they can get their hands on makes me think that for those of us who want to keep our private lives private, it might behoove us to go back to writing letters and sending them via surface mail. Quaint and slow, to be sure, but I still get an occasional letter, usually from a reader who doesn't know how to find my email address, and it's still a thrill, small but sure. A letter in the mail is always more compelling somehow than an email. And what are the scholars of the future, trying to write the biographies of famous writers, artists, politicians, etc. going to do about the fact that most famous people don't write letters any more? Ninety percent of what Thomas Jefferson wrote was correspondence: 22,000 + letters, still being edited. I have seventeen volumes of them, and find them endlessly interesting. What a loss if he had had email.

          But I digress, even before I've started. This blog is not about letters, it's about the phone tap. I used to write something called the Ethics Column for ESQUIRE magazine, had it for a year and a half in the 1980s, and it got a lot of attention (and a lot of mail). In one of my last columns I wrote about drug use, the history of it in this country, its spread through the culture, and the many different kinds of drugs we've come to rely on, from Afrin Nasal Spray to cocaine, marijuana to tobacco, and most of all, alcohol. What would we do without them? It's an open question, never going to be answered because we're never going to be without them. But since we are so dependent on them as a society, why do we legalize some and not all? The biggest hypocrisy, without question, is alcohol, perfectly legal countrywide (except in certain dry counties in America's more primitive areas) yet a highly dangerous drug, the trigger for vast numbers of deadly traffic accidents, killings, beatings, the abuse of women and children, and so on. Who doesn't know someone whom alcohol hasn't nearly destroyed, or completely destroyed, one way or another? A drunk driver came within an ace of killing me a few years ago--totaled the car, missed hitting me straight on by six inches. Yet alcohol use remains legal, while marijuana use is still a Federal crime. Does this make sense? of course it doesn't. It's one of our many national hypocrisies. What I argued for in the column was for the legalization, regulation and taxation of the illicit drug market,which would eliminate at one stroke the power of the international drug cartels, the violence of the inner city drug trade, and the emergence of a new service industry for the treatment of addiction. It would also eliminate the DEA and its numerous abuses of the law. I had lots of facts and figures to back me up, and it was a good column.

          Nor was I alone. A whole lot of people agreed with this position, including the stalwart conservative  William F. Buckley, Jr., among others on the right, and people from the other side, too, liberals; I remember here in Sag Harbor a man running out of his furniture store to accost me on the street. Did I write that column about drugs in ESQUIRE? he wanted to know. Yes, I said, I did. He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. Man, that was the best column ever, he said. He was an old hippie, reborn as a furniture importer for the carriage trade. I also got a lot of mail attacking me for betraying my position as an ethics columnist. For those people there could be no compromise.

          Nor for the DEA, apparently. We first noticed the phone taps about two weeks after the column appeared. They came as clicks on the line, regular little clicks, hardly noticeable, and they were not selective; i.e., they cropped up on every call into or out of the house. I figured it out soon enough. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the organization with the most to lose if marijuana and other illegal drugs were legalized and regulated, was tapping our phone. They wanted to know if I was dealing, or if there was some other reason they could find to have me prosecuted, thereby blunting the force of my argument. I was not, of course, dealing. I was at the time an occasional user of marijuana, most of it given to us as gifts from friends, but had never used cocaine or any of its derivatives, opium or its derivatives, and my only excursion into psychedelics had been one time with LSD, which I took while doing research for my book on the mental health system because I had read that LSD could mimic a psychotic break, and I wanted to see what that was like. (I was much braver, or more foolhardy, in those days.) It didn't, for me, mimic a psychotic break. It mimicked spiritual enlightenment. I never felt the need to take it again.

          So I was essentially clean, and we treated the phone tapping as a joke, telling all our friends when they called that the phone was tapped, don't reveal our sources, laughing at the idiots listening to us gossip about this and that while they hoped for a break in their case and the chance to drive up SWAT-team like and raid the house. But it went on for months and it was irritating to be subjected to it, SIMPLY FOR EXPRESSING AN OPINION. It came to an end shortly after I did the research for a profile on a U. S. Customs agent, the only one in the United States who dealt with art crime. That was for the late great magazine CONNOISSEUR. He called me one day and immediately said, is this line being tapped? I said I thought so, and explained to him why. Let me call you back on a secure line, he said, and did, and that was it for the phone taps. He knows a U. S. Customs agent? They finally got it. I was not dealing drugs; I was dealing ideas.

          Dangerous ideas, like the right to privacy, the right to be left alone with our vices, the idea of reason in government. States are always going to engage in surveillance; the bigger the state the more of it there will be. To an extent I don't mind. We have cops who regulate our driving, and I'm definitely in favor of that; when our car was totaled the cops were there in three minutes and hauled this fool away to jail. His blood alcohol level was 0.23, three times over the limit. I think gun owners should have licenses the way drivers do, and be required to pass tests to get them, as drivers are. Including, maybe, psychological tests. Having nothing to hide, I'm not totally against NSA surveillance, but that, too, should be regulated, closely, with warrants and every other protection. You can't fly a plane without a license, and extensive training. Thank god for that. And you can't blow up a city at all, for any reason (unless you're the U. S. and at war), and I'm willing to give up a good deal of my own privacy to make sure that doesn't happen.

          It's in the world of ideas that surveillance is scary, and doesn't belong; it's in the inability of the regulators to distinguish between ideas and behavior, ideas and action. In this respect they're simple-minded. They don't think they should be subject to criticism, or any kind of overview. The drug laws are bad laws, and it's time to remake this system. Slowly, very slowly, the marijuana laws at least are being revamped, and with luck thousands of people who broke no other law but the marijuana laws will be let out of prison. I, personally, don't like marijuana and never use it, but I know a great many people for whom it's their principal relaxant, and who are forced to take risks in order to have it. My drug of choice is vodka, which simplifies things. But at least with marijuana progress is being made. If only we could say this of so many other of the irrational and harmful things that go on in this country.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


July 23, 2013:

     Every January 1, when I start writing checks dated in the new year, I can't help but remember that I used to wonder whether I would live to see the new millenium. My maternal grandfather died at 63, uncles on both sides of the family had died in their 60s, my father, although he lived to 75, had to retire at 64 due to a "cerebral accident," i.e. one of those little strokes that have no lasting effect but act as a warning signal. I'm now the longest living male in my immediate family. My brother died at 70. I'm well beyond that, and all my ills--I'm knocking on my wood desk here--are minor. As far as I know.

     So here I am, looking back over my extraordinary life, and I am amazed. When I was born the population of the United States stood at 150 million; now it's well over 300 million. Our principal form of entertainment was radio. There were no Interstates, and most roads were two-lane roads, with some exceptions right around the cities. It took us two-and-a-half hours to drive the 60 miles to the Jersey Shore. My mother's aunt and uncle at their shore house still got ice delivered to their icebox once a week. The people next door in Westfield shoveled coal into their furnace to have heat. An ice cream cone was a dime: for two scoops. Nobody in my family, except for one uncle, had gone to college. Children's lives were far less organized; we played touch football, baseball, and the like in our back yards, roamed woods that have now disappeared, and were seldom supervised. Most people my age had never heard of "gay" people; most of us kept our virginity into our very late teens or early twenties; we got married in order to have sex regularly. I tasted my first artichoke at 22, had no idea what Caesar salad was, and balsamic vinegar? Forget it. My parents traveled by plane for the first time in their lives in their 60s, and never went abroad. An electric toaster was their most advanced kitchen appliance, and my father and mother did the dishes by hand every day of their lives. Credit cards didn't exist, and people didn't borrow money if they could possibly avoid it. Telephones were often on party lines, and when you picked up a phone you heard an operator's voice. My own first car, a hand-me-down, had running boards. I walked to school; there were no school buses then. No child seats in the car. No seat belts, for that matter. Nobody had walked on the moon. Nobody had thought that it might be possible to walk on the moon.

     For hundreds of years, for centuries, before my time, hardly anything changed at all. Clothing styles, yes; food, no; mores, no. Finally trains appeared, and that was a major change; then came the telegraph, then electricity and phones, although very few had them for a long time, and they required a lot of infrastructure to spread across the country. Then radio. But change when it did come was slow to come, and developed slowly, and the country I was born into was recognizably the same country, with the same architectural styles, the same pace, the same attitudes, as fifty years earlier. Something like the Internet and the relentless communication it has brought were unimaginable when I was born. How many people use a typewriter any more?

     It's all just extraordinary.  And yet...

     And yet racism persists in the hearts of men and women everywhere, and blind prejudices of all sorts, and we still torture people, and warfare is just as cruel as it has always been, and it is conducted with ever deadlier weapons, and men still rape women at the usual rate, theft, exploitation, and greed are still endemic in the business world, the rich still get richer and the poor poorer and millions of children grow up below the poverty line; genocide flourishes as it always has, the strong still walk all over the weak. Bullying remains common, priests abuse children sexually, and human beings remain a blight upon the earth itself, which nears, if it has not already reached, a point of no return. I had an argument with my brother once, who thought that America was the greatest country ever and that we were living in the absolute best of times; and I said no, America was not the greatest country ever, that that was probably classical Greece, in the time of Socrates, Plato, the great Greek dramatists, the first historians, the first scientific thinkers, and that it was not material comforts that made a country great, it was the quality of life, the quality of thought, the quality of attention paid to life. He failed to see it, but my brother knew very little history and was therefore not able to make valid comparisons between one age, or one country, and another. And I made this argument even though I knew quite well that the Greeks had ordered the death of Socrates because he was teaching Greek young people to think for themselves. Teaching young people to think for themselves is the opposite, by the way, of teaching them to pass tests.

     So yes, it has been an amazing time, and I'm grateful to have lived long enough to see it all happen, and to enjoy some of its benefits. But human beings themselves have not changed, and I'm not sure they can. Yes, we have same-sex marriage at last, we accept homosexuality, or some of us do, and that's positive. But has racism declined? I believe racism will only decline when more and more intermarriage among the races produces more and more light brown people, until they're in the majority; and I believe justice will increase in the land only when the rich and powerful are brought to justice, and I don't see that happening at all; and American politics gets stupider and more polarized every day; and the country only grows more and more unmanageable.

     Call what we have lived through progress if you want. But don't congratulate yourselves. In the end only one kind of progress counts, and that's internal and moral. It has to do with levels of kindness and compassion and a willingness to imagine what it's like to be some other person entirely, someone not like yourself  at all. And that kind of progress remains far too rare.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


July 9, 2013:

     Three months since I've posted a blog. Shameful. I've been busy writing magazine assignments and I've felt the loss; this blog is my comfort and myself, and magazine assignments, while they're fine and often very interesting, do not leave you free to be yourself. But I finished the last one this morning, I've heard from my editor, who's pleased, not to mention prompt, and now I'm at loose ends for a little while. And when that happens, I often turn to TLS.

     Aka the Times Literary Supplement, for those who are not as bookish as I am. It is the best of the big three of book reviews, the others being the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. They constitute my university in a way, certainly my continuing education. They cover all kinds of subjects I'm never going to know much about otherwise and give me enough background information to make my way around them, and they give me ideas, expand my mind, all the hard candy an odd brain like mine thrives on. For instance, in the latest TLS, just arrived, I learned, in the order in which the information came, that Joseph Duveen, the great art dealer, connoisseur, and creator of collections who flourished in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, sold to Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Franklin Jones of Pittsburgh, for a considerable sum, a very poor copy of a Gainsborough as the real thing. Which means that Duveen was a crook, much suspected over the years but here confirmed.

     And then that Maurice Girodias, publisher of the Olympia Press, the famous French house that first published Lolita and much of Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, as well as a great deal of elegant pornography, lost his fortune investing in a restaurant in Paris, La Grande Severine, housed in a basement next to what had been a cemetery, and when they tried to expand they found themselves inconvenienced by having to remove skulls at night, which they dumped in remote sections of the Seine. When they ran out of remote sections of the river, they dumped them in the garbage cans of nearby restaurants.

     Then there's this, in the same review, a story that "Becket's use of deracinated heads in his work may have been inspired by a grisly experiment in which the heads of guillotined criminals were allegedly questioned for several minutes, responding to questions by blinking their eyelids." This couldn't happen, of course, as the reviewer pointed out, although--there's often an although--Camus pointed out in his essay on the guillotine that guillotined heads have been seen trying to speak.

     If you don't find this amusing and refreshing, as well as horrid, you need to look more deeply into the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or those of the aptly named Edward Gorey.

     But the best for me came a couple of weeks ago, when I discovered via TLS that Bloomsbury has just published Vol. 99 of The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, a project that has been ongoing for the last twenty-five years. It just pleased me no end. Scholarship! It's indefatigable. This series translates these ancient commentators into English, most for the first time. The volume in question contains the work of Aeneas of Gaza, his Theophrastus, along with the Ammonius of Zacharias of Mytilene. Hardly names to conjure with, and at first sight it's easy to think, my, what a waste of paper the whole project is. But think about it: what if hidden in this bulk lurk gems of forgotten wisdom, or better yet revealing comments on Aristotle's best-known lost book, the book on comedy that was the twin of his book on tragedy, which I've read and is still read; it's a standard text on Greek tragedy, it's where we get the idea of hubris. The lost book on comedy was the hinge, furthermore, around which the story in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose turned, and I've read that, too, and they made a movie of it starring Sean Connery (whom I'm said to resemble). All knowledge is not equal but it all has value. At first I thought it was a joke that they have begun to publish all the letters of Henry James, which will run to a similar frightful length; it will include notes accepting dinner invitations, or refusing them; perhaps laundry lists; in short, everything left. I have the four volumes of his letters previously collected and think it sufficient. But forty-four volumes? A hundred and forty-four? Well, I suppose so. You never know, if you're a scholar, where you'll find the facts you need to back up an idea or a theory, or guide you down the road you're taking into some arcane subject matter that, although arcane, is also fascinating, and may matter in ways you never suspected.

     TLS, then. It gives me hope. It also gave me the first money I ever made writing, when they published a poem of mine, many years ago. Now they won't publish my poems at all; the poetry editor has told me not to bother, he will never publish my poems. But the late Ian Hamilton, revered on both sides of the Atlantic, was the poetry editor then and he bought my poem, which was called "The French Revolution." Pretty good poem. And to be frank about it, the poems they publish now are generally pisspoor. The fee was one English pound; the check came in U. S. dollars, about three of them. Sweet. And it published a fine full-page review of my last book. How could I not love it? It reveres learning. We fail to revere learning at our great peril.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


April 2, 2013:

          You do some crazy things when you're young. I once tried to climb up a scree slope on a steep mountainside, made about one foot of elevation for every two feet I slid backward, and that was not a winning tactic. But I did make it to the trail somehow without falling to my death. Another time I boot-skied down Mt. Rainier. I've never skied in my life, but I was in a hurry, I was with somebody who taught me how to do it, and voila! I got down that mountain much faster than made any sense. Then there was the time two girls in a convertible cut me off on Rte. 101, driving north toward San Francisco from Big Sur. The road was crowded, they were weaving in and out of traffic, and they pissed me off. So I resolved to do the same thing to them, drove like a maniac, caught up to them, and then raced them up the highway. Stupid. It took me about ten minutes to figure out I could die doing this, and for what? a minor irritation? I slowed down. I'm still alive.

          And then the jobs. One of my summer jobs when I was young and in college was working in a small factory that made molded industrial rubber parts. I worked the "evening" shift, which started at three p.m. and ended at two a.m. The rubber came roughly shaped to the size of what you were molding and you had to put it in a press and pull a lever. It was sort of like working a slot machine. But in a furnace. When I walked in at three every day it was usually about 120 degrees in the place, tapering off to about 95 as the night wore on. We molded rubber to cafeteria trays, made automobile parts out of rubber, and God knows what else. A country music station went all the time. That's where I learned the words to a song about taters: "Taters never did taste good with chicken on the plate, But I had to eat 'em just the same. That's why I always look so poor and have these puny ways. 'Cause taters never did taste good with chicken on the plate." I can still sing it, and with just the right twang to it, too.

          I went from that job to a Johnson & Johnson factory where my job was to test the foam content of baby shampoo. You did that by pulling bottles at random off the line, pouring them into a glass container, and measuring the level of foam they produced. I wanted to go on the TV show "What's My Line?" for that one, but they weren't interested. The next summer I went to a DuPont factory in Linden, N. J., where I worked rotating shifts in a plant that produced an industrial cleanser called sulfamic acid in powder form out of crystallized urea and sulfuric acid. It wasn't exactly an ecological paradise. The powder would get into your pants pockets and eat through them. I still have scars on my thighs from that. It ate up shoes in a month, or less. I made a lot of money, half of which I used to buy my girlfriend at the time, later my wife, a diamond engagement ring. And that was worth it. Two children who are wonderful human beings. Two grandchildren, the same. Anyway, the night shift was the hardest. I would go to the roof of the factory and watch the sun come up over Staten Island, then have to drive home, totally exhausted, staying awake only by sticking my head out the window as I drove. A learning experience, no doubt about it. How many people, after all, know what sulfamic acid is, or what it cleans? Or that it comes in 400-lb. barrels? I also learned how to operate a forklift truck, which was great fun. I believe I could still do it.

          But the oddest job of all was the last salaried job I've ever had. In grad school, running out of money, with no financial aid available, I took a job as an aviation pioneer's personal historian. I thought at the time it was probably the only job of its kind in the country, but probably not--there must have been one or two others. Anyway, my job was to collect documents out of his past, organize them, create an archive, interview everybody I could find who had been involved in his past, and write a book. His name was Sherman Fairchild, he was known as the father of aerial photography, having invented the first practical aerial camera, he had been involved in all kinds of early developments in aviation, he was a personal friend of Howard Hughes, had known Lindbergh and been at Roosevelt Field when he took off for Paris; he had posed with Gloria Swanson in front of the first airplane his company made; he had been on the cover of Time, been featured in Fortune, and had hired Robert Noyce, who later founded Intel, away from Bell Labs and thereby turned Fairchild Camera & Instrument into the leading maker of transistors in the country.

          What did I know about aerial cameras? About airplanes and how they work? About computer technology, about a hundred other things he was involved in? You guessed it. Zilch. Nada. But I had to learn. And did I care about any of this stuff? No, I was studying sixteenth-century English literature: Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, when I was hired. But I had to care, even though this was definitely not the future I had in mind.

          To my amazement, what I learned was--wow, it was all interesting. Really, really interesting. I was beginning to understand that the world was a deeply fascinating place, that everything about it was interesting if you kept your mind open to it. Even the way a between-the-lens shutter on a camera operates proved interesting, once you understood the serious problems involved in making one that was both very large, three inches across, and very fast. I won't go into it here, but that was the problem Fairchild solved, and that began the process that now allows Google Earth to take pictures from hundreds of miles in space capable of showing you tending your steak on the Weber grill on your back deck.

          Not only that, but Fairchild was chairman of two companies bearing his name on the Fortune 500 list employing a total of 30,000 people, his father had been the principal founder of IBM, he was that company's largest individual stockholder, and because I worked for him individually, not for one of his companies, I got to see how the world works from the top down. I interviewed Bobby Lehman in his office, the walls lined with Italian primitives (now hanging on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), met Robert Kennedy, met engineers, rich businessmen, financiers, socialites. A retired Admiral on one of the Fairchild boards took me to lunch and explained how things looked from his perch. A retired general did the same at the Cosmos Club in Washington. In Sewickley Heights, PA, I sat with a man on his terrace looking over a beautiful valley drinking mint juleps and when I remarked, "Nice view," he told me he owned it. Really, the whole thing was incredible, from beginning to end. When Fairchild died he left all his personal employees, and I was one, various years of salary--I got seven years--depending on how long they had worked for him. The book was canceled when he died, but the archive went into the Library of Congress, where it's the largest aviation archive they have. I used the money to launch my career as a writer.

          Now I sit back in wonder--did all that really happen to me? The weird jobs, the sulfamic acid eating away my shoes, Fairchild and the bonanza of the totally unexpected inheritance? I didn't plan any of it, didn't wish for it, couldn't possibly have imagined it. It was a gift. It opened my mind, all of it, from the dirty laboring jobs to the interviews--I did seventy, eighty of them, traveled all over the country to do them--the work with archives, with technological history, with aviation history--it opened doors everywhere inside my head, let me see the world and the way it works, its incomprehensible complexity, its unfairness; it taught me how power structures function; it showed me what money buys and how it affects people, it revealed the world's richness, its mystery; and it taught me how to write. How did I get to be so lucky?

          That's not a question you can ever answer. But I come away from it with this thought: so much of our life just happens to us; things are not in our control. Good or bad, life comes your way and you have to deal with it. But if you let it--if you don't make premature judgments, don't curse your fate, don't fight fights you have no hope of winning, then--well, quite often things take care of themselves. You may not get what you want, but you get what you need. And you can learn from it, no matter what happens. Because that's what the earth really is. It's a school. And as in any school, to do well in it requires an open mind.


Monday, March 18, 2013


March 18, 2013:

     We were in Miami late in February for a long weekend, staying with friends, and spent a morning at the Rubell Family Museum, which has a large collection of contemporary art. We've been there before but they were showing new acquisitions which we hadn't seen.

     Let me describe a few things: first, a room filled with very large, no, enormous paintings about ten feet high, six wide, covered with blobs of paint of various colors, no attempt to harmonize the colors, the paint applied not with brushes but out of buckets, thrown or shoveled on the canvas, dribbled on, gotten on one way or another, and applied in such thicknesses that it cannot dry. Already gobs of paint were starting to peel off the canvas and would soon wind up on the floor. Each canvas, the labels told us, weighed about 800 pounds. The instability of the paint was intentional, the labels also said. The painter was someone named Murillo, if I remember correctly (no relation to the great Spanish Old Master). These paintings were very ugly, and that also seemed to be intentional. Intentional and impractical. If you wanted to own them you would have to hang them in a room with a cement floor, easily cleaned. They looked like the inside of a septic tank.

     In another room equally large canvases pieced together out of smaller ones, each of the smaller ones covered with dirt, dust, random lines, and some stenciled signs, in smudges and smears, representing nothing identifiable except perhaps the floor of a back alley somewhere. In this room a photographer was at work taking pictures of Mr. Rubell himself, and a woman I took to be his wife. The labels in this room told us that this was the work of a visiting artist who had spent two weeks working feverishly, night and day, to make fifty or so of these giant pieces of dreck. I thought of Rilke, writing the Duino Elegies in a similar fever of work and a similarly short time. How the world has changed!

     Yet another room was occupied by a large collection of Budweiser six-packs, most of them stacked against a wall, a few in free-standing piles. This was evidently meant to make a political statement about commercialization and the shallowness of American culture. I suppose if you were utterly naive and had never thought about such things, this display might strike you as profound. As it stood it was nothing more than a footnote, way out of date, to Andy Warhol, a much wittier artist than this.

     What has happened to contemporary art? It just gets worse and worse. During the dot.com bubble in the late 1990s I had a job, which lasted, alas, only briefly (it paid very well), writing art commentary for the website of the Louis Vuitton company. To see what was happening with contemporary art Lorraine and I spent a day in West Chelsea in NYC touring galleries. We saw a Damien Hirst exhibition at Gagosian, who then had only one gallery in West Chelsea; now he has them all over the world. I think the shark was there, in his giant tank of formaldehyde. Also on display inside a wire cage was a doctor's closet full of medicines and stray medical instruments. None of his dot paintings were there; I was grateful for that. On the same street we wandered into an open door in a building devoted mostly to small art galleries and found there a gallery where only one thing was on display. It was a big thing, a bathtub made out of subway tiles into which red water, meant, presumably, to represent blood, was constantly dripping from pipes in the ceiling. When the show opened there had been a naked woman sitting in this bathtub. She was gone when we wandered in, but you could watch a video loop of her sitting in the bathtub if you wanted. The gallery was empty of other viewers and the artist himself came in while we were there, looking exceedingly morose. Maybe he'd gotten a bad review, or worse, no review at all. In any case we were forced to say something, like "how interesting," because the gallery owner insisted on introducing us. I felt bad for him. He clearly believed, if what he called his art was any evidence, that life sucked big time. Even the sky pees blood on you.

     At the Rubell collection I made a concerted effort to find some common ground with this art, but could not. None of what was on display was meant to be lived with. It was too ugly, too big to fit in most houses (where would you put that bathtub? what would it cost to keep the blood flowing? what would it cost to keep a naked girl in it?), and too scolding. Besides, to actually buy art involves you in the whole capitalist "art system" of galleries, auctions, money the root of all evil, and that's corrupting. This art is meant to be pure in its motives. It wants to rebel against everything, against the wall it hangs on, against the gallery system, against art as an aesthetic object and especially against the standards of beauty that aesthetics implies. It wants to criticize, to abjure all categories of gender, which is of course socially constructed and therefore inauthentic, it wants to escape all the traditional genres, it will not trust any kind of representation. It is often deliberately impermanent, so that permanence, and all pretense to permanence, can also be questioned and challenged and politicized. Thus the globs of paint falling off the canvas.

     It is also angry, and as anger usually is, it feels itself to be righteous. It wants to be subversive on every conceivable level. It wants no part of subtlety, wit, grace. It wants only to make statements, usually political, and almost always they are extremely banal. Sometimes, as in Jeff Koons's case, the statements are about art objects and what they are supposed to "mean," and on a very superficial level this is presumed by those who buy Koons's piece to be witty and profound. Well, guess what? You've just wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars, because this is a one-trick pony and your heirs will curse you for wasting their inheritance. It's just not that interesting. None of it.

     So this is a giant con, and it's sad. At the heart of it is a market that flourishes despite all the supposed disdain for the market, and the fashionable people flock to the art fairs, which are multiplying geometrically, along with the celebrities and the parties and the hangers-on. William Blake was wrong. The road of excess does not lead to the palace of wisdom. It leads to Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and the like, all unspeakably rich now but still wearing no clothes.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


February 28, 2013:

     The last time I wrote about coincidences on this site I was thinking, as I had been for a long time, about writing an essay about them. Now I have, it was published two days ago as a Kindle Single, and I'm waiting anxiously to see what happens. It's my first excursion into straight-to-the-Web electronic publishing, and it's an offbeat subject, so you can understand my anxiety. But what good is it being a writer if you don't  finally take that dirt road into the woods you've passed by so many times? I lived in the country once and used to walk regularly up a nearby country road and there was an actual, not a metaphorical dirt road that did run off it, and when I walked up it at last I found an old abandoned cemetery. Came upon it at dusk, furthermore, with the woods darkening all around, and the crows and grackles flew up in a cloud when I arrived. The bodies must have been buried in cheap wooden boxes because the graves were all caved in. Plastic flowers, badly faded, decorated the flat gray stones. It had clearly never had a caretaker. The place haunts my imagination still.

     And don't coincidences haunt the imagination too? They seem like messages sent from somewhere outside our lives, uncanny events that relate only to us, and yet it's by no means obvious where they come from or what they mean. Here's one out of my wife's life. Her name, as many of my readers will know because they read me through her links to this blog, is Lorraine Dusky and she's very well known, if not famous, in the world of adoption, having campaigned a good part of her life to open adoption records to adoptees so they can find out who they are and where they come from. She herself is a birth mother and found the daughter she gave up for adoption thirty years ago, and then, about six years ago, lost her to suicide. But before any of this happened, when she was a young woman, still in college, she fell in love with a young man named Tom whom she came close to marrying and regarded for years as the first, lost love of her life. As it happened they both went on to other relationships, other marriages. Tom, too, had a daughter, and died of an aneurysm when he was young; his daughter was not yet out of grade school. Lorraine fell in love with a married man, had a child by him, gave her up for adoption, married someone else, divorced that person, and eventually she and I met and married. Within a year of our marriage she had found her child and contacted her, and we have been together for over thirty years.

     About three years ago she founded her blog on adoption rights, First Mother Forum. It's quite popular and she has a lot of followers among birth mothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents. One of her adoptee followers happens to be a man named Daryl Royal, an adoptee from Michigan, who's also a Facebook friend. One day she got a call out of the blue from a woman named Jennifer who had been going through her father's papers and had found the letters Lorraine had written her father, Tom, when they had been in college. Yes, that Tom. In one of them Lorraine had put her full name as a return address on the envelope. Jennifer had then looked Lorraine up and found out who she was, and learned that she had given up a daughter for adoption. Jennifer had the wild idea that her father might have been the father of that child, and she had a sister. Tom had not fathered her child, but here's the kicker. Two kickers, actually. In the middle of their phone conversation, Jennifer's husband wanted to know who she was talking to. It's Lorraine Dusky, she said, my father's girlfriend from college. Lorraine Dusky? he said. I know her. I'm a Facebook friend of hers. Jennifer's husband is Daryl Royal. And then this. Jennifer herself makes a living finding the real birth certificates of adoptees and putting them in touch with their birth parents.

     I would call that spectacularly uncanny. And it reeks of meaning, brims over with the feeling that if ever two people were meant to meet, were meant to know each other, it is these two women. As they like to put it, in the alternate universe that surrounds our own everyday universe they are mother and daughter, the might-have-been mother and daughter, together at last. And Lorraine had lost a daughter, and Jennifer and her own real-life mother have long been estranged.

     So who, or what, arranges these things? How do they come about, and what is their significance as a general, and fairly common, phenomenon in life? These are some of the questions that have long puzzled me, and that I talk about in my essay. Everybody has these kinds of events in his or her life, but what are they about? Is it fate at work, and what does that signify for the way the universe is ordered? If you're interested, you can find the essay at the following address:
Extraordinary Coincidences and the Meaning of Things

Extraordinary Coincidences and the Meaning of Things

     Lorraine, by the way, is writing an account of her amazing life that will include this story. She's about done and hoping to publish within months. I've read it. It's a winner.



Sunday, February 3, 2013


February 3, 2013:

     Strange things, poems. They come out of an image or a phrase that emerges, as John Keats put it in a letter once, "like a whale's back in the sea of prose," unexpectedly, out of depths you cannot imagine, and it demands your attention and you know that it would be morally wrong not to respond, not to write it up, make something of it. You have no idea what yet, and it may take a very long time to develop. But if you're wise you will hold on to that first unformed message from your unknown inner life, because it appears for a reason. Because you're stupid and you don't really know your own heart. Because you're in pain, or in love, and you haven't gotten the message yet. Because something in you needs to speak. Because your body has a mind of its own. Because you're a poet, you have talent, and this is a command.

     Of the twenty-five or thirty poems I would like to preserve I find, looking back at the little pile of them that I keep track of in my incredibly crowded, messy office, that many of them were written during my first marriage, which on the surface was, I thought, reasonably happy, as good as I could hope for given my own difficult personality--moody, dark, bookish, lonely. I expected to be lonely. My first wife and I were very unlike, and I thought that was the way it was always going to be; it was just the way of the world, love bridging unbridgeable gaps as best it could. My first wife had adopted sunny as her disposition but I knew her well, knew it was her own attempt to disguise from herself who she really was. It was the who she really was--passionate, more than a little bitter, struggling to keep her disappointments down--that I loved; it was the woman who, when she discovered you couldn't broil flounder fillets, took a spatula and beat them with it until fish fragments were flying all over the kitchen. But I couldn't abide the sunny surface. It was merely surface, never real, and it came across as a lie.

     Those early poems when they arrived made it clear what that marriage really was. Here is the one I like best:


          Of the place itself I remember most
          clearly the frozen corrugations
          in the snow, their settled patterns
          and what they seemed to reveal about
          the wind; that, and hearing the water
          running deep under our feet near the dam.

          We were always best in winter. On ice
          or snow there's no place to rest
          and the cold keeps talk to a minimum.

This poem came out of an actual experience when we found ourselves walking over a frozen pond, probably in Fahnestock State Park in Putnam County, not far from where we lived then. Other poems came from walks in the country. We lived for a while when the children were very young on a winding road with few houses along it that followed a small valley bottom. Hunter Brook Road. I remember a meadow on one side, thick woods on the other, and we used to take long walks up and down this road on warm evenings, to see the light fade on the meadow, listen to the birds shutting down for the night. The following poem sprang from a walk I took by myself on that road, and the way it turned dark, and who I was then. This is one of the poems I have worked on most of my life, to get right. When poems are really short like this you cannot waste even a comma; everything has to be as perfect as your talent and attention can make it. I'm probably still not quite done. But I offer it anyway. It's called

          MOOD INDIGO

          While the puffy clouds slowly sponged away
          the light, while birds sang from their refuges
          in the darkening woods, I lost track of the time;
          and the country road behind me, the old trees
          leaning over it, seems to have burrowed into
          the night.
                         Have you felt this way, friends? Do
          you know how it feels to wander unthinkingly
          into the darkness?
                                       Dawn always seems so far
          away, while what we call headlights plunge
          and careen like the Batmobile through your mood.

Friends, yes. Anyone willing to work through a poem is a friend. The marriage lasted eighteen years but we did not come out of it friends. I see that happen with some couples and I envy them their ability to talk to one another, but it was never going to happen in our case. By leaving her I seem to have awoken the bitterness she had worked so hard to hide. I am sorry for it all, every bit of it. But I couldn't have stayed. Staying would have meant living more and more lies, hers and my own, and I believed at the time, and believe it still, it would have put my soul at risk.

          Or maybe not. Hearts are devious by nature. This is why so many seem to need a god, to watch them, know them, love them despite their duplicity. It must be a great comfort. I find it hard to live without comfort, and sometimes seek it out. Great art is a comfort. Lorraine, my second wife, and I find ourselves crying at the movies of late at sentimental moments, or any moment that depicts kindness, compassion, forgiveness, love, and this is a comfort, too. Looking at Rembrandt's self-portraits, which so profoundly understand what is in a human being, this is a comfort of a higher order. Writing poems is a comfort; the process takes  you out of yourself, into another space, seldom visited. I wish I had written more of them. This last one is fairly recent, written in the last four or five years, sprung from a walk downtown to the water on a summer night in Sag Harbor, where I sat by myself on a bench staring at the boats while a band played in the distance.

          DEATH BY WATER

          Wild music beats against the surface of the harbor
          with an absolute minimum of response. It is the same
          with the moonlight; watch, it is in constant motion,
          like a Pollock painting, yet perfectly still. Look also
          into the shadows of the boats, darkness resting on darkness.
          Near Maracaibo I saw dead dogs adrift among the stilts
          supporting the houses. We think there is a story
          to everything, like Natalie Wood's drowning, or anyone's.
          Yesterday she said she loved him, too. Today he saw her
          cruising. I think it is all background, atmosphere.
          The small waves they allow in here have absolutely
          nothing to say, do not speak of anyone's anguish.
          It is the same thing again and again: moonlight, shadows,
          inappropriate music the impenetrable water drowns out.

Now what is that about? I cannot say. The whale's back emerges from the sea of prose, but whales speak with their strange music only to other whales. "If a lion could talk," Wittgenstein once wrote, "we could not understand him." Poets search for a music, a form of speech that approximates the feelings and the intuitions that hover beyond the edge of language, that call out of the darkness. Sometimes we find it, sometimes not. You must judge for yourself, friends. For me it is all background, atmosphere.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


January 23, 2013:

     Well, how would I know, right? I'm a man; men don't have to bear the burden of childbirth, and they can't have abortions. But I've been close. I read a piece the other day, I think in the NYTimes, about what would happen if women lost the right to a legal abortion. What would happen? They would go back to having illegal abortions, without the protection of medical assistance. The descriptions were graphic: clothes hangars: poisons of various kinds; scalding hot baths; deliberate starvation--anything to shed themselves of an unwanted foetus. And I have indeed been close to this experience. Before I was Anthony Brandt I, too, was a foetus, and my mother did all she could legally do to rid herself of my particular lump of clay. Scalding baths, she told me, were one means. She jumped up and down a lot, hoping, I suppose, to loosen my grip. She ate the foods that were supposed to be abortifacients. I'm hoping my father didn't punch her in the stomach, supposedly another abortifacient; that's too painful to think about, not only for her but for me.

     Actually I've often thought about it. She must have been desperate, and scared. A miscarriage has to involve a lot of blood loss, a lot of psychological trauma, and pain anyway you think about it. The year was 1936, my parents had one child already. My father, like almost everyone else in America, lived in constant fear of losing his job. They didn't think they could afford me, and probably they were right. But apparently I was meant to be. Meant in what sense who can say, but there I came, weighing eleven pounds, an extremely difficult birth at that size, born at 3:05 a.m. on Nov. 21 after an epic struggle. They did not put me up for adoption. They raised me, they were exemplary parents, tough by today's standards but loving and funny and caring, and models of stability and reliability in our none-too-stable extended family. What luck. My mother told me about her efforts to abort me when I was in my late twenties. It felt a bit strange, but I had no complaints about my upbringing, and had she succeeded in aborting me, there would have been no complaints about that, either, because there would have been no one to complain. I loved them both very much. It was all good.

     And then I was married and the father of two, both born by Caesarean section, another lucky accident; my head was too big for my wife's hips, which meant the children were likely to be too big in the head to emerge without doing serious damage to my wife's body, and when her abdomen was opened and the children emerged one of them had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck--must have been my son--and would have choked to death in childbirth. My daughter's cord was twisted; something might have gone wrong there, too. And then came the accident. My wife, a visiting nurse, was driving down a road and a truck, driven by an Italian immigrant who spoke no English, ran a stop sign, made a left turn right in front of her and nearly killed her. As it was the car was totaled and my wife was rushed unconscious to the hospital  for X-rays. She turned out to have a cracked skull and a broken kneecap. They X-rayed her entire body while she lay there. No one, including us, knew she was two weeks pregnant. When she missed her period and got tested, it was a month later. She's a nurse. She knew what it meant to be X-rayed when your foetus is two weeks old. It means that there's a fifty-fifty chance of major developmental problems in both the body and the brain. Neither one of us hesitated. Time for an abortion

     It was 1969, however, in these good United States, and abortion was illegal. We went to her gynecologist, one  of the best in New York City and an advocate of abortion rights. He suggested we go to Puerto Rico and talk to a taxi driver. (She never went back to him.) She asked around among her medical colleagues. Nobody would tell her anything. In the end we had to borrow money from my parents and fly to England for her abortion. My parents, having been through this themselves with me, were understanding. The English doctor was understanding. The whole thing was over in an afternoon.

     How many women have I known who have had abortions? I can't cite figures, but I know a number of them, including a few who had them before abortion was legal. The illegal abortion one of those endured made her sterile; another had to endure being raped by her abortionist before he performed the abortion. Prelegal abortion was a nightmare.

     But women will have abortions, nightmare or not. They have been having abortions for as long as there have been records, and it's not going to stop just because certain Republican lawmakers think they have the right to prevent women from controlling their own bodies. No wonder women are moving away from the Republican party in such numbers. Power is nothing if it does not include power over your own body, and what sensible woman would want to give that up? Maybe we should rewrite the Constitution, as some people have suggested. If so, we should write abortion rights into it. Plain as day, First Amendment plus one. Congress shall make no law abridging the free exercise of the reproductive rights of any person, including the right to an abortion. In other words, get your filthy mind out of my sex life, Paul Ryan. It's my business, not yours. This is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I've lived through the nightmare, not in my own person but in the persons of women I've loved and cared about. I would do anything in my power to prevent us going back to the Dark Ages on this issue.