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.