ceiling 2



Two people sat in the front room; they obviously had never met before. He was about 60 years old, with a full head of gray hair, brushed back neatly. She was several years younger, but with a shock of white in her forelock, giving her a kind of Susan Sontag look. Their respective others were in the next room talking seriously. Their respective others used to be married to each other. It was late afternoon and no one had turned on the lights. All color in the room was grayed out.

“Portland,” said gray hair to forelock.

“Me, too,” she said in an accent that implied “Moi, aussi.”

“Oregon,” he said.

“Maine,” she said.

It was awkward. They had all flown in from their respective corners of the map to see Mia for the holidays. And now Esther and Stuart were in the bedroom with Mia. She had something important to tell them.

“I heard from Dan,” Mia said. “He’s dying. Lung cancer.”

“He never smoked,” Esther said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“I know,” Mia said. “But it’s far gone. He’s asked me to come.”

“Back to Poughkeepsie?”


Esther now lived in Oregon with gray-haired Roger. They had been married for a decade and it seemed to have taken. She didn’t expect to find any more Waynes or Bobs or Eds — or Stuarts. He was a good man, and he suffered patiently while Esther discussed her first husband with her second husband in the next room. Current husbands must face the closed door of their wive’s previous lives. But not a closed door, one left just enough ajar to let him know there will always be a portion of his mate’s life that will be strange to him, even as it remains vital to her. He hears the stories, but they are like fictions read in books. Esther’s life with Dan, her later marriage to Stuart and her briefer liaisons have formed the woman he inherited, and he was grown up enough to know he must not be jealous of those earlier men, but grateful to them for creating the woman he now loved. But still. It can be hard to live with all those shadows on the bedroom wall.

Mia didn’t see her mother all that much anymore, now that Esther had moved to Oregon. But the holidays gave them an excuse to travel back east to Morgantown, where Mia now had her Ph.D. and was a novice instructor teaching classical literature in translation, first-year Latin and the mythology course that was her great pleasure.

Stuart also lived in Portland, but Maine, not Oregon.

“I may be an old hippie, but I’ve aged out of Portlandia,” he told me. “I’m more Whole Earth Catalog than I am fair-trade coffee.”

He was now living with a viola player who teaches and plays part-time with the Portland Symphony. “I’m learning to listen to the middle of the music,” he said. “I’m ignoring the tunes and the bass and hearing the filler. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to listen to a viola part in a symphony? It takes great ears.”

She was the other sitting in the front room with Roger. Her name was Genevieve.

“It’s Je-Ne-Vee-Ev, not Jeneveev,” said Stuart. “Je ne vieve pas,” he punned. “Je ne c’est quoi.” She was born in Belgium and took the same offense as Hercule Poirot for being assumed French.

This was the undercurrent as Mia explained to Esther and Stuart about the cancer that had appeared out of their shared past. Stuart stood in the corner He was never good at real stuff. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“So, should I go?” she asked. “I think I should.”

Esther took Mia’s hand; Mia sat on the bed next to her. They hugged.
To fill in: Dan was alone in the world. He had no living relatives other than his daughter, and had been something of a hermit for many years, moving back and forth from the job to the house and back. It was believed there were cats. Mia had not seen him in years, and what contact they had was awkward.

“Can you take me?” she asked Stuart.


“I need support.”


In the front room, Roger waited for the confab to conclude.

“Mia’s rather quiet,” he said. “Isn’t she?”

“Well, she keeps her own council.”

“I’ve tried to talk to her, but it’s like pulling teeth,” he said.

“She is maybe a little withdrawn,” said the French accent. I mean, Belgian.

“Not like Stuart,” he said. “He talks a lot.” He tried to be neutral about it.

“It is true,” she said. “He won’t shut up. But that is why I like him. He is … inextinguishable.” She said the word slowly, with no syllable accented. Was she thinking of the Nielsen symphony?

“How long have you been together?”

“A long time, I think. Maybe eight, nine months.”

“Can you take it?” Roger was letting his tact slip.

“We shall see.”

December 01

Sometime here, we will have to admit that Mia was not a normal woman, had not been a normal girl. Her mother was voluble, friendly, chatty, even. Moved easily from man to man in her earlier days. There was a brightness to her that lit a room and attracted many a keen suitor. But Mia inherited none of that; rather, she had her father’s melancholy — at least that’s the old word for it. It probably didn’t rise to the diagnosis of depression, but it edged the border. Mia took few chances in life, let it flow around her, accepted what came her way, but seldom took the initiative. She kept to herself, found building relationships difficult, but in return, felt a kind of quiet satisfaction in those little things that floated her way. She would never have called herself unhappy, but there was not a great deal of effusive joy in her bearing, either.

In a way, Stuart provided that effusion for her, and she enjoyed his silliness. He had enough for both of them.

And so, they drove from Morgantown to Poughkeepsie, a December thaw left clods of melting snow hung on the trees higher up on the hills. The roads were all clear, but often still wet, even in the sunshine.

“What do we believe?”

Stuart said that with an emphasis on the “we.” His arm crossed the steering wheel with his left hand at the 2 o’clock position, he leaned in to Mia riding shotgun.

“Yes, I don’t mean ‘What do we believe?’ the way so many people question what our nation or society stands for, or if we anymore stand for anything. I’m not asking what we as a culture believe in, or if we have a common spine of belief to stiffen our civic polity. I leave that to the punditocracy.

“No, what I’m wondering about these days is what do we take so for granted we never even think about it, the way ancient people believed the earth was flat, or that the daytime sun moved in procession across the sky and ducked under it at night. What we believe to be true without question, indeed, we don’t even recognize it as a question, or a possible question. What is the water we swim in?”

Mia watched Pennsylvania out the window pass by, hoping to stop soon for lunch.

“You mean,” she said, “like the Medievals believed in a Christian god, or the 18th century believed in a rational order to the universe?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. I’ve been wondering because it is such a tough question. It is asking to see the invisible, to step out of the zeitgeist and look at it from above, like we were watching rats in a psychology lab wander in a maze. Can we even begin to see what we don’t recognize as the ether of our universe?”

“Maybe what we’re talking about is a slow dawning,” she said. “I mean like slavery. At one point in history — actually, in most points in history — slavery was seen as right and proper, the order of the universe, even sanctioned by God. In Greece and Rome, slavery was as much a part of everyday life as bread and wine. In America when they made the Constitution, slavery was accepted by a large segment of the population as being the natural order. But there were those who saw it differently. Slowly, the majority began to see slavery as an evil and nowadays, we unquestioningly assume slavery to be indefensible.”

“Of course,” he said, “that hasn’t stopped slavery, but only changed its face: Slavery is still accepted in parts of Muslim Africa and the sex trade is hardly anything but slavery.”

“Yes, but the issue you have raised is whether slavery was at one time the water we swam in — that for most people, there was no issue at all. The sky was above, the earth below, kings ruled the domain and slaves had their eternal link in the Great Chain of Being. It was only the exceptional person who asked if the scheme were moral or just.”

“This is true, but it is also such a hot-button item that we may fail to grasp what I’m really asking. In the case of slavery, we can now feel superior and look back on our forefathers and judge them for their failure to see the obvious. But I’m certain we are no less blind today than they were, but in other areas. What are we going to be judged for a hundred years from now?”

“Animal rights, perhaps?”

“Maybe. Certainly, there will be those who wonder why we didn’t do anything about the ozone or overfishing or nuclear proliferation. But in part, these are political failings rather than what I’m asking about.

“I’m asking rather, what do we not even question. The issue came up when I started rereading Plato. God, I hate that man. But it was the Greeks in general I’m talking about.”

Stuart had no humility about bringing up the Greeks to the classical scholar sitting next to him.

“They had a peculiar relation to their language,” he went on. “They had what we now take as a naive belief that language and existence were one: If there was something in creation, there was a word for it, and likewise, if there was a word, it described something real in the world. There was no disjunction, no sense that language had its own structure and limits, and they were different from the structure and limits of existence. No sense that if there were a word, it might describe something false, something that doesn’t really exist, or really happen. The fact that there was a word was proof that the thing existed. They could not see outside their language. This led to some kinds of absurdities, like Zeno’s paradox. The language describes a problem: Achilles and a tortoise are in a race, but with the latter given a head start, Achilles can never catch up to it, and hence can never win the race.”

Before Achilles can catch up to the tortoise, he has to go halfway to catching up with the tortoise, and then before he can close the gap, he has to cover half the remaining gap, and then half that, and half that, onto infinity, and therefore, never catch up.

“An obvious absurdity if you set the experiment up and see what happens. The problem is only in the language, not in the reality. ‘Half’ and ‘half,’ and ‘half’ are merely concepts, not observable, not physical.

“There are many versions of this problem: It is the essential problem of Plato, who sees his ideals in terms of language, in terms, more specifically, of nouns. His ideal forms are ideal verbal, linguistic forms. Being Greek, he cannot transcend that constraint. Language is reality, reality language. That is all they know and all they needed to know.”

“Sometimes, I think we’re not much better,” Mia said. “We still seem to believe words more than experience. Politics is full of such things: Welfare mothers, for instance, or tickle-down economics. Make the verbal classification and you have proved that such a thing actually exists. Maybe you can’t really find any out there, but you’ve set up the idea with the word.”

Stuart: “My favorite has always been the international conspiracy of Communist Jewish bankers. Communist bankers — have they thought this one through?”

He went on. “Of course, philosophy these days — especially in America — is practically nothing but philology, a study of in how many ways language obscures reality or is at least in serious disjunction with it.”

“So, what is our equivalent of Greek language blindness?” she said.

“I can think of a few things that might count, but I despair of being able to escape my own swimming water,” he said. “This language-reality dilemma is never gone.

“Take a sentence like ‘Whales are mammals, not fish.’ It seems to most of us that this says something about cetaceans, but in fact it is a statement about language, not biology. It says ‘We have created a language class — a noun — that we apply to some sea creatures and not others. ‘Whales are mammals not fish,’ is a statement about language.”

He was thinking about his copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1825, which divides fish up into ‘spinous fishes,’ ‘cartilaginous fishes,’ ‘testacious fishes’ — that is, shellfish — ‘crustaceous fishes’ and ‘cetaceous fishes.’

“A whale, after all, is shaped like a fish, swims like a fish, has fins like a fish and lives in the ocean. Like the old saying, ‘If is looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ But nowadays, we accept the Linnean classification system as describing reality, while in fact, it is merely one way — one very useful way in a scientific and technological society, I might add — but only one way or organizing reality. The Bible doesn’t say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a ‘great fish.’ We naturally make the leap, because a whale is, in some manner, a big fish. Just one that breathes air and gives birth to live young. There are many ways of organizing experience, but we assume the primacy of only one.

“Genius is being able to shift from one to the other seamlessly.”

“I have another good example,” she said. “Anti-abortionists say that abortion is murder. But murder isn’t a fact, it is a legal class. And we change laws all the time. Taking of life comes in many forms, some which we justify and others we criminalize, and different people draw the line at different points. Would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1933 to prevent the millions of deaths in World War II? Would it have been justifiable to suffocate the infant Hitler in his crib? There is homicide, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, and, of course, war. Eichmann maintained that the Holocaust was merely the justifiable death of war, but we have chosen to draw the line differently. And what now of those now being ethnically cleansed in Bosnia? So, is abortion murder? It is killing, but for some it is justifiable, even necessary. Many on the anti-abortion side nevertheless justify executions for some crimes, but for that, they don’t use the word, ‘murder.’ For some it isn’t. But ‘murder’ is a verbal classification, not a fact.”

“Bingo,” he said. “It is hard to recognize what is mere language and what is genuinely out there, existent in the world, divorced from the language we use to describe things.

“Perhaps one thing — and this is related to the Greek problem — is our belief, unexamined, in the permanence of certain things.” Stuart went on.  “We have a tendency, not only to believe, but to actually create wars to defend the idea that national borders are something other than temporary lines drawn by powers that be. Just look at Poland: It moves around the map like a ball of mercury in a dish. First it’s here, then it’s there. It grows, shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s an idea that national borders depend on ethnicity, but that clearly isn’t the case. Poland, when it has existed, included Polish speakers, German speakers, Ukranian speakers, Lithuanian speakers, Yiddish speakers and Czechs, among others. Yes, most French speakers live in France, but some live in Quebec, and others in Belgium, where half the population doesn’t speak French at all, but Flemish …”

“‘In France they speak French; in Belgium, they speak Belch.’”

She was talking about Genevieve.

“… and just look at the shifting borders of the United States through the 19th century,” she said. “Nationhood is always a momentary thing. Yet we think of it as heaven-ordained.”

“Exactamente. We swim in an ocean of conceptual habits that we seldom give any thought to. Like our expectation of a beginning, middle and end. We want that in a play we watch or a song we sing. But there is no beginning, middle and end in our existence: It is all just flow. ‘Panta horein,’ Heraclitus has. ‘Everything flows.’ But the idea of beginning, middle and end is how we think of our own lives, not just that we are born and die and have a few years in between, but that each step in our life is a story that follows, episode on episode, in a coherent pattern that we recognize as our ‘self.’ We tell stories about our lives as though we were writing novels or short stories. The connection we make — the through-line — is something we cast over events, not something inherent in them.

“Experience, like the stars in the heavens, is a welter, a chaos of instances, but we make constellations out of them to be able to make sense, but if we take the constellations as something ‘real’ — like astrology does — then we mistake the pattern for the substance.”

Mia had her own example, thinking of life in academia and faculty meetings.

“The other example I can think of is hierarchy. This is perhaps beginning to be exploded, but we reflexively think of things in hierarchy. The real world of experience doesn’t provide immutable hierarchies, but in our thoughts, we make them line up in marching order and pretend there is this rank and file. Where once we had kings, knights, yeomen, vassals and serfs, now we have department chairmen, academic deans, provosts. We still have this idea that some organisms are “higher” on the evolutionary scale than others. The vestigial concept of the ‘great chain of being’ remains in our culture, even when the full-blown version has disintegrated into a confetti of vestiges.

“We decry the ‘patriarchy,’ or at least some of us do, while a good part of the population unthinkingly assumes as the default that the husband is head of the household. Real families are no longer like that.”

“Don’t get me started,” Stuart said, but the horse was out of that barn.

“The number of things we accept without thought is probably infinitely more than those things we do think about. Seven day weeks? Any real reason for that? Weekends are such a part of our experience, yet, I doubt cavemen ever thought about constantly recycling work weeks. And the decimal system. A duodecimal system would work just as well, or even a system based on 8 or 15. The 10 is just a convention.”

“Well, we have 10 fingers…”

“And 10 toes, so why not base it all on 20? In fact, I’ve seen this — in some cultures the counting is based on 12 because if we use our thumb as a counter, we can reel off a fast dozen, by first counting the fingertips of the remaining four fingers, then the second joint and then the third, adding up to 12. And with the other hand, we can keep track of the groupings of 12, and count quite efficiently on our fingers up to 144. You can see the foremen doing this on South American rivers as they load bales onto the boats. Inventory is kept on the knuckles.

“I’m sure there are so many more things we accept without thought. But my original point is that it is so hard — nearly impossible to discover what you don’t know to be mere convention.”

When they reached the Tappan Zee Bridge, it was hard to know if their exhaustion was from the long drive or the conversation.

poughkeepsie 3

When they got there, it was worse than she had thought. Dan was in bed with tubes in his nose and an IV plugged into his forearm. His eyes were dark, as if he had on eyeshadow, and his cheeks were scoured out; his skin was sallow. He barely spoke above a wheeze.

Stuart waited at the hotel while Mia went to visit.

“I’m going to die,” Dan said. Slowly, very slowly, one word squeezed out at a time before gathering wind to say the next. “You are the only person …” He waited to finish his thought while sucking air. “…” He didn’t finish his thought, hoping Mia would finish it for him.

Dan had spent the three months in hospice, but a turn for the worse had landed him back in the hospital. Mia held his hand; she didn’t know what else to do. Dan closed his eyes and slept. Mia sat there for a half hour, watching the sunlight on the bare trees out the window. Then she got up to leave the room. A nurse came to her with a clipboard.

“There are some forms to sign,” she said.

Mia growled her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

She hadn’t expected anything official; she was just there to see her father.

“You are next of kin,” the nurse said.

“What about …’ Mia realized that an ex-wife didn’t count. All of Dan’s blood family was gone. She was all there was. She signed whatever she needed to and went back to the hotel.

“It’s bad,” she said to Stuart. “He’s barely able to speak.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“I signed a bunch of papers.”

“I mean, anything to help?”

The air was crisp, the sun was sharp, the day seemed at odds with Mia’s mood. They went to the hotel cafe for dinner.

Motel 1


The next morning, when they went back to the hospital, a different nurse, this one much taller and older, met them with the news that Dan had sunk into a coma and was not expected to come out of it.

“We need to know your wishes,” she said.

“My wishes?” Mia frowned. She didn’t think her wishes were important. “What can we do for him?” she asked.

“I mean, at this stage, we are only keeping him alive with feeding tubes and a respirator. We need to know if it is your wish to continue life support or should we let him go.”

This is not a decision anyone should have to make. Mia certainly didn’t think she should have to make it. She barely knew the man; it was only an accident of DNA that she was being asked to make this choice. For the first time, she started crying. She found a chair in the hall and lowered her head and let the hot salt water drain. Her brain was seized up; the tenuous connection between her birth father and the grown daughter was made sensibly, palpably real. She reached for Stuart’s hand; she held it in both of hers.

“I don’t see that I have a choice,” she said. She told the nurse to let him die. It felt so cold; it felt so unfair to be made to choose.

“He’s going to die anyway,” Stuart said, trying to comfort her. “You are only helping him get there.”

The trip back to Morgantown was much quieter than the trip to New York.


There was a lot to manage after Dan died. What to do with his remains, what to do with his apartment and all his stuff. It was all strange to Mia; she hadn’t known Dan in any real sense, so the books on his shelf were a surprise, the clothes in his dresser, the foods in his pantry. They all spoke of someone who had had an actual existence, but no longer did. Where did he go? Vanished, except for the cans of tomatoes and the box of Cheerios, the bottle of soured milk leftover in the fridge. Throw it all out, she thought.

An estate sale was arranged, the body was cremated, the gas and electric turned off, the deposits promised to be returned, the key given back to the landlord. Mia felt a deep sadness, but it wasn’t grief. She barely knew the man, so that wasn’t why she was feeling this profound emptiness. She had now a personal connection, a bodily connection with death, with non-existence. It didn’t matter whether she ever spent time with Dan; there was a cause-and-effect connection with a dead man: He had caused her to exist in the world, and his world was now over. The flower had give way to seed. Was this, perhaps, what it meant to be grown up?

Mia is grown up, living alone in West Virginia; Stuart has found another woman. She asks his advice. I’m not sure why.

1955 Dodgers



“Tell me about men.”


She repeated the demand. Stuart didn’t know what she meant.

“I don’t know anything about men,” he said.

“You are one,” she said.

“You think that gives me some special insight? I don’t know anything about myself, and that includes being a man. Why are you so interested?”

“I’m new at this game,” she said, with the same expression she might use to say, “it’s still raining.”

“I’ve never done it.”

Stuart did a double-take inside his head, although he showed nothing on his outside. Why are you telling me this, he wanted to know, but was afraid to ask out loud.

“I consider virginity to be a form of ignorance,” she said.

“A minor form at best,” Stuart said. “Compared to bigotry, patriotism or not being able to name the starting lineup of the ’55 Brooklyn Dodgers, it’s hardly anything.”

“But it is a kind of ignorance, and I think I’m too old now to maintain that ignorance.”

“You have someone in mind?”


“So this is theoretical?”

“Not exactly. I intend to lose my ignorance, and I need to know the other camp. You are my spy.”

“I’m not sure I qualify. I haven’t had a successful relationship, or rather never had one that lasted more than a few years.”

“But I can’t talk to anyone else. You’re it. So, tell me about men.”

Stuart did, in fact, have a theory. Like all his theories, it was more about spouting off than about solid sociological, theological or scientific research.

“OK, here goes.

“Men are all fetishists. This is the primary distinction between men and women,” he said.

“I don’t mean all men are into leather or vinyl, but that men localize their interests. It all comes down to a focus on a single issue, and all others can fend for themselves.”

“You mean men can’t multi-task?”

“That’s a good way of putting it.

“Think of porn. Why do women not respond? Why do men? People say it’s because women are not visual and men are, but that’s not the main problem. After all, women don’t respond to verbal porn either. It’s because men localize their sexual interest in one spot on their bodies. And, believe me, it’s always the same spot.

“By the way, if you attend to that spot, it doesn’t matter what else you do, they’ll be happy. It’s really rather simple. Everything about men is really rather simple. I know that’s hard for women to understand, because women are wired for complexity.”

“That seems like a stereotype,” she said. “As in: Women can multitask.”

lady chat 3
“But it’s true. Look at D.H. Lawrence. He adds a religious layer to the whole thing, and makes a god of that spot on his body, and believes that both men and women worship that dangling deity. But it’s really only a man’s religion.

“It colors everything in a man’s life. But it especially colors his attraction to women. Not only does he believe that women care about his equipment, he actually believes women go around talking about it in hushed, worshipful tones. Is it big enough? Am I man enough? Very little thought goes into anything else that might be thought manly.”

Mia knitted her eyebrows and shifted in her seat. This wasn’t what she was asking about really, but Stuart was always interesting, so she let him go on.

“So now, when a man looks upon a woman, that same single-mindedness makes him pick out a single attribute of the woman for worship. It is seldom her equipment. Why? I don’t know. Ask Freud. Wait. No, don’t ask Freud.

“So, for a man, it is her boobies he fixates on, or her hair, or her legs. Her big booty or the light down of hair on her arms. It becomes the trigger for his attraction.

“You see it all the time. A man loves a woman because her hair is blond, or because she has a turned-up nose, or pouty lips. She can weigh 200 pounds, but because her hair is curly, he sighs and pines.

“It can be something less tangible, like a sense of humor, but it seldom is. Mostly it is a physical endowment. Some like saggy boobs, some like a high arch on the instep. Some like just the hint of a mustache on her upper lip.”


“But it’s true.

“When in the act of love, it is usually this one particular that the man is obsessing on. He is wildly in love with her hair, or the mole on her cheek, or the way she cuts her fingernails short.

“It can be perfume. It can be the fact she wears short pants. It can be the one button left undone on her blouse. But it is one thing.

“Women, on the other hand, tend to see the whole man, to see him as a person. When women complain about the objectification of themselves by men, they are right to do so, but they also miss a central truth of existence and the propagation of the species.

“Men simply don’t see the counter-indications: If that blonde in fact does weigh 200 pounds, or is a shrieking harpy, it doesn’t figure into his erotic calculations.

“The woman, however, always takes all the conflicting data into account and makes a profit-loss calculation. Is there enough there to work with? Does the good outweigh the bad.”

Mia objected, the way you do when presented with something you know is true but don’t wish to acknowledge, hoping that denying it will make it go away, at least for the moment.

“It can’t be that simple,” she said.

“It isn’t. Actually, it’s really quite complicated. What’s most interesting is to see it play out in the long run. Then the whole thing reverses.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that after living with a woman for 20 years, a man finally learns to see the whole woman, to access all the other parts of her personality and personhood that he was blind to in the first rush of ‘let’s-make-babies.’ She grows in his estimation. What he should have seen from the beginning, he now understands. The fire has spread into a circle, leaving the grass in the middle burnt, but a wider horizon of concern and interest expanding.

“By the way, learning more about the woman isn’t always a good thing. It also may lead to divorce.

“But the reverse is true for the woman. After living with the man for years, she is likely to latch onto the one thing, the one attribute, the one saving grace he has that makes up for all the failings.

“So, his appreciation for his wife grows, her appreciation for him narrows, but deepens.”

“At some point, though, it would seem there should be a crossing of the lines on the graph,” Mia said. “There should be a point when her narrowing and his expanding meet at one perfect moment of mutual understanding.”

“Well thought. I don’t know,” Stuart said. “That’s what you will have to find out. I never got there.”


It was a few days later. Mia sat in her room with no lights on. It was getting dark. She just sat. It was the time of day when nothing has any shadows.


It’s me again, come out from behind my mask.

You can see I’m not very forthcoming. I’m more than shy; I really don’t like getting personal, but you can see that already, I’m sure. But why write this story if I don’t want to let on?

So, I should tell you that a few weeks after talking to Stuart, I ended my ignorance. The gentleman was very pleasant. We spent a nice evening talking, and when it came down to it, he was more attentive than I expected, caressing me and talking softly. I could have no complaints.bike messenger 2

In fact, he spent rather more time on me than on himself, which surprised me. He didn’t know I was a novice and I didn’t tell him. He seemed interested in me, and my body, and he spent most of his time, even after I had taken off my clothes, looking me in the eye as he talked. At least, up to a point, after which he seemed to be more like a bicycle delivery boy with a deadline, pedaling faster and faster to deliver his parcel, well wrapped and waterproofed, I should add — I said he was a gentleman. Job completed, he began once more to pay attention to me.

I can’t say it wasn’t a pleasurable experience. I’m sure I didn’t know what to expect. And one instance is not a large enough sample from which to make any generalizations. As to whether I felt “release,” I really cannot say. Certainly I had a warm feeling that flowed through my body and ended the experience relaxed in a way that I could not altogether call familiar.

I did not see him again.

As to the question of ignorance and enlightenment, I can only say that the older I get, the more I realize that the end of one ignorance is only the beginning of another. I’m going back to my shell now.


“What was your fetish?”

“What do you mean?” asked Stuart. For once, she was visiting him.

He was putting together a model airplane and concentrating on gluing a wing strut without leaving a bead of glue on the fuselage.

“I mean,” said Mia, “what gets your oomph in gear?”

Stuart stopped, cocked his head and tried to figure out what Mia meant.
“Don’t you remember,” she said, “last year you told me that men focus on one thing only?”

“Oh, that,” he said. “I’d forgotten. Well, let me see. I’d say I am very lucky.gatsby eyes 2

“Why is that?”

“Because my thing is eyes. I always notice eyes first. I get turned on by eyes with a slight puffiness in the lower lids. I think it gives a woman’s eyes a slight squint that I take for implied skepticism, and I find skepticism highly attractive. I always notice a woman’s eyes first.”

“Why do you say lucky?”

“Because a woman never has to say to me, ‘I’m up here.’ My particular fetish means that any woman I’m with thinks I’m looking deep into her soul. It gives the illusion I’m interested in her. And that illusion is like the lure an anglerfish dangles in front of his prey. It gets’em every time.

“I don’t mean that I consciously use it as a technique — it comes natural. I really do love eyes and usually, I really am interested in them. But it has made me very lucky, in both of the word’s common senses.”

Then Stuart said something he truly believed, although you don’t have to: “I have never had sex with a woman I wasn’t in love with.”


As you have guessed, Mia is rather introverted. She has a hard time making friends and meeting potential mates. When you spend your life parsing the aorist tense in Aeolian Greek, that sort of thing can happen.

Mia now had her masters degree and was obviously headed on for a piled-higher-and-deeper in Greek and Latin, and when she wasn’t dug in with a Loeb Library volume, she was trying to figure out how to keep her apartment from turning into a midden. Everyday life was not her strong suit.

But she had met someone. His name was Michael and they did four things: They went to the movies; they ate dinner in restaurants; they had sex; and they talked about the meaning of life. But, they were both 23, so what did they know?

As for movies, they both loved subtitled films, although he favored the German films and she favored the French ones. The German films always seemed to be about someone having power over someone else, or over some group. The French ones were always about how loves flutters like a flake of soot on a fire grate, not ever knowing quite when to let go.

As for restaurants, in this they agreed. They both loved finding new and more unusual ethnic restaurants. Ethiopian food, or Dravidian food, or some new restaurant featuring food from the Maldive Islands. Not that they weren’t happy with Greek or Thai. But they both loved to spend long hours over that final cup of coffee discussing the meaning of life, and how the latest German/French film meshed with the latest Peruvian/Estonian food in their gut.

You might expect them, therefore, to be adventurous in bed, as well. But there you would be wrong. Neither Michael nor Mia required anything other than an intimacy that reinforced their ties to each other, and gave them each the momentary limbic whoopie.

Mia was happy with her life.


“OK, kiddo, tell me about it.”

Stuart had wandered through town. He was writing a book about traveling with no itinerary. It seemed to be a way of turning his natural talents toward monetary good. He actually had a book contract and a deadline. He also had an editor with a whip. Literally. It wasn’t his thing, but he didn’t mind. Yes, they were living together, and no, she didn’t mind when Stuart left for weeks on end.



“It’s nice,” Mia said.

“Nice is for turnips,” he said. Mia didn’t know what that meant, and Stuart probably didn’t either.


“Tell me about Liz,” Mia said.

“She keeps me in line. After Helen left me, I knew I needed someone who would provide more structure. Liz is an editor; sometimes, I am a writer. It seemed like a match made in, well, maybe not heaven. Maybe a corporate lawyer’s office.”

He shuddered. The image gave him the willies.

“We have fun,” he said, although it sounded maybe a touch insincere when he said it, and also, beside the point.

“It’s interesting you should say that,” Mia said. “Because, I have a problem.”


“My Dear Mia,” the letter began. She was rereading it.

“I’m sorry about having come to see you. I feel I couldn’t say what I wanted to.

“Perhaps it is because when I see you it is like looking into a mirror.”

It was a letter from Dan. The first letter she had received in something like 20 years.

“I have trouble saying what I need to say, and it seems as if you do, too. It must be genetic. It is a trait no doubt handed down from your great grandmother, who everyone remembers said nothing at all when her house in Cincinnati burned down. I was just a kid then, but I remember her face never changed. Grandad fell apart; he was never the same. They lost everything. But Nannie stood there, in front of the fire and pulled her shawl around her shoulders and said nothing.

“What I wanted to say is that as I’ve gotten to be an old man, I’ve come to understand something about family that I never would have guessed. It is why I wanted so much to see you, even if we have almost no shared experience. It is that family matters.

“I don’t mean in the simple way, like your granny and pops used to tell me, when I was a kid, and the aunts and uncles would come back to the house after church on Sundays. I mean something with deeper roots. I mean your German and English forebears, the ‘long man’ of history, the single strand of DNA that has been forwarded from the past and you will pass on to the future.

“If you want to understand yourself, you need to know where that braid of amino acids came from, and why it is stuck in you. I couldn’t say these things to you; it would have sounded silly. But I can write them. Writing is a way of saying things you cannot speak.

“Since your grandmother’s family came from Germany, their past is lost, at least to me. I don’t even know what boat they came over on. But my dad’s family, your grandfather, came from England. I have traced their genealogies back. I have them back to 1621. Pop’s family goes from London back to York, so there’s probably some Scandinavian blood in there, too.Nana "Sam" Gerry Esther

“If you remember seeing the photographs of Granny when she was young, dressed like a flapper in the 1920s, you can see yourself, or at least, your nose and eyes. Your mouth rather favors my father’s side of the family. But there they are, showing up in your face. That gesture you use to express disdain — you used it to me when I visited — that is the same gesture my mother used to use when she was scolding me. It was a shock to see it reflected in your hands and arms.

“This is why I felt I had to see you. I know I haven’t been a father to you, but what I’ve come to realize is you cannot deny family. It is what I wanted to tell you; it’s what I’m trying to tell you now. And now, except for you, I have no family left. I am alone.

“I may have screwed up as a dad, but I have an interest in you. You are, after all, my way of projecting myself into the future, when I will no longer be there. You are also projecting Granny and Nannie, and everyone back to 1621. Each of us, while we are alive, is a pivot, a fulcrum, on which the past and future see-saw. Each of us is a root, growing from the dark past into the dark to come. A seed that becomes a plant that flowers and grows fruit that produce seeds again, over and over, one flower growing out of another, out of another and out of another. You are my flower.”


She woke up in the morning. The sheets were all crumpled. Bill was on his side with one arm up over his head, snoring. This is the time to look closely at your partner, to see if you really want him, with a bit of spittle drooling out of a corner of his mouth, the underarm hair bristling in the pit of the distended arm, the little grits of sleepsand in the angle of his eye. If he can stand this test, he might be worth keeping.

But Mia wasn’t sure. It wasn’t the drool she minded, or the stertorous breathing. Perhaps it was the sense she had that Bill made the assumption that he could stay the night without asking. That he presumed on their bed.
She got up, leaving him there, like a beached porpoise, and went to the kitchen, turned on the light, squinted her eyes still used to the dark of early morning, and turned on the kettle and reached for the instant coffee.

In two more days, she would turn 30.

To be continued

Last week on “Backstory”: We learned of Mia and her mother, Esther, and her now-ex-husband, Stuart. Mia was 9 at the beginning of that installment; she is now in college. Esther has gone through a number of live-in boyfriends, and Stuart wanders aimlessly, like a spinning, wobbling top.

Victorian house


Mia tossed off layers of comforters from her bed. She was surrounded by laundry on the floor. It was late in the afternoon, and she had missed all her classes.

It was grad school and she rented an old house with three other women. It was on a steep hill in Morgantown.

She hadn’t gone to class the day before, either. Or the day before that.

It had been three days since she’d eaten breakfast, and she’d had only one lunch in that time. There were a half-dozen empty bags of Fritos on the floor with the laundry and six half-empty Coke cans on the nighttable, looking like organ pipes at the varied heights they sat on varied piles of books.

Mia went down the hall to the bathroom, peed, flushed, brushed her hair back from her eyes and walked back to her room.


Esther now lived in Oregon with a chemical engineer. They were engaged and living in a house on the outskirts of Portland, up the hill from the river.

As far as Dan goes, no one had heard from him in at least seven years. Not that Esther ever gave him any thought.

So she was nonplussed when he called her one afternoon.

“It wasn’t easy finding you. I asked Bob and he didn’t know where you were, but he knew where Wayne was, and Wayne told me you were in Portland.”

“What do you want, Dan?” Esther wasn’t feeling like old home week.

“Where’s Mia?”

“Why do you want to know?”

Dan was embarrassed to say why. He had reached the age when he began feeling regrets over his life, over the things he had done or left undone, over the sense he had of himself as having been an idiot when he was young. This is not an uncommon feeling among men of a certain age.

It is an unfortunate side effect of this exaggerated self awareness, that such men often want to reconnect with the fragments they have left behind. They want to apologize to former wives, to put estranged children in their wills, to find old college roommates and ask, “How are you  doing? How did your life turn out?”

Dan wanted to find Mia and make her a part of his life, so he wouldn’t feel so guilty — although, the sense of guilt is not a response to a single act, but a recognition of the whole of our lives. We are all guilty.

He wouldn’t have put it that way. He just said, “I want to make amends.”

Esther, having created a new life in Portland — yet another new life in a biography that was all first chapters — didn’t feel like being a participant in the play Dan was writing — or rewriting.

It is odd that we who feel like we are the heroes in our own stories should feel so insulted to discover we are also supporting players in some other person’s drama. It is an unflattering demotion when we imagine our name on top of the bill, before the title.

“I don’t know if she wants to talk to you, you know.”

“It’s important.”

She reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a notepad.

“Give me your number and I’ll ask her to call you if she wants.”

“Is that the best you can do?”

“What do you want from me?” she asked.

“That was a long time ago.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in Poughkeepsie at the old house.”


Dan arrived the following week. He drove from New York to West Virginia without stopping and he had just begun hallucinating behind the wheel when he pulled into Morgantown.

Morgantown streetHe spent the night at the motel before calling on Mia in the morning.

He showed up in a brown suit. It didn’t fit especially well and was baggy around the shoulders. His tie wasn’t straight and his shoes had no shine.

“Hello,” he said. His voice had no shine, either.

“Come on in,” Mia said. She had cleaned up the apartment, at least a little.

She didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.

For the longest time, neither did he.

“How are you doing?” It sounded like ordinary conversation, but under it there was a desperate need to be asked the same question in return.

“I’m doing fine,” Mia answered.  She didn’t ask the question.

“How’s your life? Are you finished school? Do you have a boyfriend?”

Help me out here, he was thinking.

“Is your life happy?” He wanted, in some way, to be let off the hook.

“What do you want?,” Mia asked bluntly.

“I don’t want anything. I want to know how you are. I need to know you are OK. I need you to … I don’t know what I want,” he said.

She could see his eyes were coated with fluid, not enough to break the dam of the lower lids, but enough to make them thick. She began to sense that something was wrong. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know what.

“What’s wrong?,” she asked anyway.

He started, his head jerked up and he looked at her.


“Why are you here?,” she repeated. This was difficult for her.  She wasn’t sure how she felt about him, whether she should ignore him because he had ignored her, or if she should hate him, or if she should forgive him, or if she should feel sorry for him.

“I’m divorced again,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” she said, pro forma.

“No, that was a while ago. Two years ago. I’m alone now. It’s OK.

“No, it’s not OK,” he continued. “Or maybe it is. I don’t know.”

Mia sat silent.

“I just wanted to see if you were OK,” he said.

It went on like this: Dan hoping Mia would understand without him having to spell it out; Mia seeing that Dan was seriously depressed, but not wanting to have to do anything about it. Not knowing what she could do about it, even if she had wanted to.

He told her about his job, about Poughkeepsie, he recalled what it was like when Esther was pregnant.

Mia said very little. It was altogether an unsatisfactory visit, from both standpoints.

Dan left the house bit by bit, clumsily, turning around every few steps to look back and finally stepping out the door. He got in his Datsun and drove off. Mia felt relieved and ashamed.


“Mom, hi, I just had a visit from dad.” The word caught in her throat. Was it the right word?




“I don’t know,” Mia said. “I’m not sure what he wanted. He was certainly depressed. He looked kind of shabby.”

“I think he wanted to be forgiven,” Esther said. “I think he needs to know you don’t hold anything against him.”

“Well, he didn’t earn any forgiveness,” she said. “But I don’t feel angry at him, either. In fact, I hardly feel anything about him. He left me 20 years ago; I can’t work up either love or hate. And I feel guilty for my indifference.”

“No matter what else,” Esther told her, “he’s still family.”

“Big deal.”


I suppose it’s time to drop the pretense. Because I’m writing this to try to understand, to work it out to see how it can possibly make sense.

I was happiest when my mom was married to Stuart, but I don’t think she was. In fact, I’m not sure when she was ever happy.

Not that she ever seemed miserable. Neutral more than that.

By the time I left for college, Stuart and mom hardly saw each other anymore. Mom didn’t have a steady then, although she still met men now and then. They just didn’t move in.

I saw Stuart whenever I could, or he could. He continued to move around. He wasn’t always easy to keep track of. But then, he’d send a letter, or a postcard, and I could write him again. Sometimes, he took his vacations to spend with me. He did that spring.

The college was small. Cozy. It didn’t offer much in the way of challenge or ambition. I went there because I liked its name. That’s my mother in me.

“You’re taking Greek?”

“Yeah, you got a problem with that?”

“No, I think that’s great. But it won’t get you a job at the U.N.”

“You worried about my getting a job? Besides, you took Greek.”

“And I’m not working at the U.N.”

“What are you doing?”

“How’s your mom?”

“She’s fine. She sends me money.”

“Got a significant?”


“Why not?”

“I’m not sure I see the percentage.”

“There is no percentage. That’s the beauty of it.”

“Besides, all great love dies, remember.”

Stuart bounced a bit, had a few beers, told me dirty, funny stories about his latest lady friends. Told me about Montana, about the Florida panhandle, about the Lincoln Tunnel.

Let’s put the pretense back in place.


No one believes how much chromosomes matter. No one understands how they can look at their parents and see as if they were a telescope into time, magnifying exactly what we will become. It was fall and the lawn was a carpet of dead leaves.

“I need to talk to you,” Mia said.

“Talk,” said Stuart with the phone in one ear. He turned down the TV.

“No, in person.”

“Where are you?” Stuart asked.

“I’m still in Morgantown.”

Stuart didn’t have much cash. That was his normal situation. He phoned his brother, Bernie, and borrowed yet another  hundred bucks. He owed his brother several thousand by now.trailways

He bought his ticket and got on the Trailways bus with about 25 others, leaving the cruiser only a little more than half full. He got a window seat and rested his knapsack on the floor in front of the seat next to him.

Babies cried, old men snored. The smell was tight: years of bodies resting in tired upholstery, mixed with the petroleum odor of bus exhaust. By nightfall, they were in West Virginia heading north, stopping every few hours at a roadside gas station serving as a bus depot. Someone would get on. A soldier in uniform with his duffel stowed under the bus, or a young black woman with two children and no luggage at all.

The lights passed the window. It rained briefly, leaving beads of prisms on the window. The grind of bus gears and the hiss of tires blended with the roar of a semi passing them. It lulled Stuart to sleep.

Just after dawn, they pulled into Morgantown. Stuart stopped at a Denny’s and had some breakfast, then called a cab.

“It’s too early for white folks to be up,” he said when Mia opened the door.

“Stuart.” That’s all she said, in a low voice, then just stood there.

“This place is a mess,” Stuart said in his best imitation parental voice.

Mia laughed, then stopped.

“Come in,” she said.

The laundry still piled on the floor. KFC buckets and pizza boxes stacked on the mantel over the empty, sooty fireplace.

“I talked to Dan. He came down from New York. I don’t know why.”

“He’s your father.”

“He was my father.”

She had always thought of him rather as her spawner. A salmon spraying milt and then skedaddling. Yet, she felt woozy in her conscience. Dan might well be a stranger off the street, for all she felt connected to him. But he was her father. It was an odd  pull in her insides, yanked two ways.

We all, at one time or another in our lives face the realization that the model we have created of the world is insufficient, that there are aspects of life that simply fail to operate according to our schema. We can live for years without ever confronting this disjunction, and then, one day, we are dumped into the thick of it. Pacifists learn that war cannot be outlawed. Animal rights activists learn that lions have to eat lambs. Rugged individualists learn they need help dealing with divorce. Right-wing talk radio talk show hosts learn addiction is not a matter of moral character.

And Mia was learning that she was attached through some psychic airwaves to this stranger that had once married her mother. It nearly split her brain apart.

“You’re in a tough spot,” Stuart said. “You need a drink.” He knew Mia never touched the stuff.

“I don’t need a drink,” she said. “I need moral support. That’s why I called you.”


Stuart ate a hamburger.

Sitting at a dreary old A&W in West Virginia, he drank the root beer and chewed on the burger. It was gray in the sky, like it usually was in October, and he wondered where Mia was.

They had agreed to meet for lunch, but it was now half-past two and she hadn’t shown up.

A homeless man walked down the hill in front of the burger stand, calling out, “Goddamn sons of bitches. Goddamn sons of bitches. Goddamn sons of bitches. Goddamn sons of bitches.”

His grimy tweed overcoat was worn through at the elbows, his trousers barely reached the tops of his ankles and he wore no socks.

“Goddamn sons of bitches. Goddamn sons of bitches.”

It was a chant, a litany. He barely stopped to breathe in; the accents punched in “GODdamn SONS of BITches.”

Over and over. The rhythm was just a little off, like he was singing music, rather than expressing a thought.

When he passed another pedestrian, he doffed his oily fedora with one hand and held out his other palm up. No money was forthcoming, and he didn’t waste time waiting. The hat went back on, the palm came back down.

“Goddamn sons of bitches.”

The sun was going down. He could see the Kanawha River at the bottom of the hill, the black ribs of a steel girder bridge going over it, filled with traffic. Hardly anything drove by on the street in front of him.

“Goddamn sons of bitches,” he could hear faintly from down the street at the corner. “Goddamn sons of bitches…” He could barely hear it anymore.

Stuart put down the last bites of his cold burger and walked after the bum, though he couldn’t even see him anymore down the street between the houses where it was now dark enough and gray enough to obscure any detail.


We should consider here what Stuart’s feelings were to Mia. After all, they were not blood relations. Stuart was a one-time stepfather who hadn’t lived with Mia’s mother for more than 15 years, although it is hard to measure the time, since there was no pointable moment when Stuart finally left: He just kept coming back less frequently until he didn’t come back.

Mia felt closer to him than to any of her mother’s mates. She grew up with Stuart in the house. And Stuart paid her more attention than any of the others.

And Stuart felt closer to Mia than to anyone else, at least felt it more consistently and with less mutability than he maintained even for the grown women in his life.

But, the question is raised: Why this was so.

These things are never as simple as they are in books and short stories: Stuart liked Mia because she thought he was funny. Not everyone did.

And Mia was Esther’s daughter, and although Esther’s affections had turned elsewhere, like a top spinning, it seemed for Stuart that Esther had been “the one.”

He didn’t, of course, believe in such things as “the one.”

“It’s all just hormones,” he said. “A certain integration of the pheromones and one male, standard issue, discovers he needs to rub skin with one female, standard issue. There is no mystery. It is nature’s way of making sure human beings live long enough to provide the springboard for the next step of evolution.”

Then, he was usually off on some tangent about how dumb it was for humans to think they were the final achievement of DNA. How we were just one more line-stop on the great commuter train headed to the eventual cooling down of the universe, when it would all just seize up, like a rusty engine.

Yet, when he was married to Esther, he assumed this was the final dock for his pheromonal freighter. He would have been content to stay with Esther — well if not forever, at least indefinitely.

And when she careered off in another direction, Mia was a souvenir, a “scented remembrancer” of his time with Esther.

But it was more than that.

Let’s face it, Stuart was not the most stable of men. He lived by writing, when he could sell a piece, sometimes got Manpower jobs, and sometimes took work in factories or offices for a while and often didn’t even have a home he could call a mailing address.

This was not some strategy of his. It was not a plan to be unattached. It was simply that he was unable to live any other way. He didn’t know how.

And although it looked to some as if Stuart were playing at being a bohemian, Stuart would just as soon have a wife and kids, and a steady job with a retirement plan. It wasn’t in the stars.

Mia was the icon of his unattainable normality.

Not that he would have put it that way. He didn’t fully grasp this fact himself. He only drifted.

Mia was the only secure anchor in his life. She was the vestige of his time with Esther. She was his audience.

And, perhaps now the strongest thing: Mia depended on Stuart.

Past the idealism of youth, and once the belief in erotic destiny has evaporated, and after the second or third divorce, what is left is the bond of dependence: When someone needs you, if you are a true mensch, you respond.

This is not the pop psychology “co-dependence,” but a recognition that as individuals, we are mere narcissists. When someone needs us, we break that prison: Compassion is liberating.

And, if he didn’t recognize the fact consciously, Stuart nevertheless felt its effects. To be needed is to be truly human. There is a hidden gratitude in compassion.

There were other things. Irrational as it was, Stuart felt proud of Mia and felt like showing her off as if he had something to do with it. As if he really were her father.

He liked it when his friends recognized her intelligence and wit. He liked it when they asked after her some time later: “And how’s Mia doing?”

On top of it all, he simply liked who Mia had become. If they hadn’t had any history together, and he had just met her, he would still have enjoyed her company.


“I’m not sure I know why we have families,” Mia said. “Can you find any excuse in existence for them?”

“I don’t know,” Stuart said. His own experience with family was not illuminating.

“What I do know,” he said, “is that for me — and I think this is true for my generation — family seemed kind of irrelevant. I know when I was a kid, I never wanted to spend time with relatives. They were boring.

“What I had instead were friends. You don’t choose your family, so you’re stuck with the luck of the draw. You do choose your friends. So, when Thanksgiving comes around, I want to spend it with those near and dear to me, in other words, my friends, and not my family.”

“But aren’t you close to your brothers?”

“Well, I’m close to Bernie, but I chose him as a friend, I didn’t merely inherit him as a relative.”

“So,” she said, “friends are a substitute for family?”

“I don’t really think of it that way. Not a substitute; friends are my family. And I’ve talked to many of my friends about this, and they feel the same way. It isn’t that we don’t like our parents, but rather that our parents did what they were supposed to do: They didn’t choose us, either. Oh, they chose to have us…”

He thought for a moment. “I guess,” he said.

“But whether they chose to have children or we came by accident, they didn’t choose to have the particular kids they did have. We came as strangers to their house, and pretty much, when we grew up, we left as strangers.”

Mia thought about this. It bothered her.

“Then, how come everyone seems to think family is so damn important?” she asked. She was thinking of political speeches, lauding family; Biblical injunctions; she was thinking of all the literature she had read, family epics, family tragedies, family comedies. Homeric or Faulknerian. It was as if she were missing something.

“I’m not sure, but I think that in the past, and I mean centuries ago, maybe eons, people didn’t travel as much, didn’t meet as many people, and in more tribal times, clan and family gave you something you felt you could trust — despite the evidence of all those family epics you mention, whether Homeric or Faulknerian. Nowadays, we go off to university, meet many more people and community is formed around shared interests rather than shared blood.”

Mia thought, but she was not satisfied with this theory.

“You create a family when you marry.”

“Well, I’ve had …” and here he stopped to count, his eyes turned upward and this tongue between his lips … “lemme see, seven wives, official and unofficial, no, eight, if you count Helen, although she never actually moved in, and either I left them or they left me. Mostly, they left me.

“But the family you create is akin to the friends you make: It’s voluntary. At least in our culture, you get to choose your wife. If you do it right, your wife is your friend. Further, and this is an important point: Your wife or your husband is the only family member you actually want to have sex with, or at least that you are allowed by custom or law to have sex with. That makes a spouse an anomaly in family relations.

“This voluntary relationship — the ‘elective affinity’ — is essentially different from what you have with your cousins or your older brother. Any relationship there is purely accident. The lottery numbers pop up one by one, but you cannot predict any of them.”

“That may be,” Mia said, “but when you get married, whether your wife is your friend or not, you have kids and you love your kids and want to give them preferential treatment in a hard and harsh world. They may be accidents, in terms of personality and how you interact with them, and even if they are teenagers and don’t want to be seen with you in public, you still love them in a way you cannot love even your best friends.”

“Well,” said Stuart sheepishly, “I haven’t got any kids, so I wouldn’t know.”

He felt sheepish at this answer, for obvious reasons.

“But you have nephews,” Mia said. “Do you love them?”

“I guess so, but that doesn’t mean I want to have them over for Thanksgiving.”


“Pairs,” said Stuart.

“We do everything in pairs: good and evil; black and white; male and female; up and down.”

yinyang ovum“Yin and yang,” said Mia.

“But it’s only a verbal habit.”

“What do you mean?” Mia put down her sandwich. The restaurant was dark, even in midday — as dark as a bar. And you could hear the ding-ding-ding of a pinball machine in the next room.

“Our sense of this is so strong, that we actually think of a number of casual pairs as opposites. At least we did when we were kids. Vanilla and chocolate. Salt and pepper.”

“Mom and dad. Let’s not forget my favorite pair.”

“It is the tenet of many of those Eastern philosophies that the dualities are merely illusion. And some Western philosophers have recognized that most, if not all opposites we commonly accept are merely linguistic tricks.”
“Hot and cold are tricks?” asked Mia.

“One end of the cigar is lit, the other end is where we draw smoke. We call the two ends opposites, but there is only one cigar.”

“OK, I’m with you so far.”

“Pairs, dualities, opposites. They are the natural pathways through the neurons of our brains. the binary system of computers, the underpinnings of our mythologies and our religions.

“But then, there is the ‘third thing.’”

“The ‘third thing?’,” I haven’t heard of that one,” said Mia.

“Yes. As the pairs of opposites arise from the void, they are often accompanied by a third thing, lesser and not thought of as participating in the dualities, but naturally occurring with them nevertheless.

“So that, if we think of General Motors and Ford as being in opposition, Chrysler sits next to them as the ‘third thing.’

“Are you serious?”

“Oh, yes. When we oppose Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as almost all boys did when I was a kid watching them on black and white TV — you never saw black and white TV did you?”

“Yes, I’m not that old, but you and Mama had one in that first house on Mulberry Street. Twelve-inch, I think, and aluminum foil on the rabbit ears.”

“Well, back when I was a kid, you were either a Gene boy or a Roy boy. They were opposites. Autry and Rogers. Except that there was Hopalong Cassidy. The third thing.

“Even with vanilla and chocolate: You cannot make a Neapolitan without the third thing– strawberry.

“Or salt and pepper. There’s the sugar bowl, too. The third thing.

“The pairs must feel like they are complete in themselves, and then the third thing must appear as naturally as a baby nine months after a wedding.

“The third thing must have a ‘bingo!’ feeling when you think of it.

“Like when you oppose Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and then, bingo, you remember Harold Lloyd.”

“Aha!,” said Mia. “Like red wine and white wine, and then, bingo: rose.”

“Yes,” Stuart said. “Of course this is just a game. A word game. Don’t take it too seriously. It is not profound. Just a trick of the mind, or of the language.”

“But there are things that don’t have a third thing,” Mia said. “There are hamburgers and hot dogs, but what is the single third thing? Pizza? Tacos? There are too many contenders.”

“That’s true. The game is to find your own pairs of opposites and then wait for the third thing to pop into your mind.”

“Coke; Pepsi.”

“RC Cola.” Stuart’s favorite.three universals

“Frankenstein; Dracula … and the Wolfman,” suggested Mia.

“Bingo. Freud; Jung…”

“Adler. Now I have one: Marilyn Monroe; Jayne Mansfield …”

“And Mamie van Doren.”


“You’re too young. But take my word for it. Mamie was the third thing.”

“The sun; the moon and the stars.”

“The good, the bad and the ugly.”

“Red meat; white meat; fish.”

“Plato; Aristotle; Heraclitus.”

“Lions, tigers and bears.”

“Hammett, Chandler and Spillane.”

“Esther and Stuart,” Mia said, “… and Dan.”

Or is it the other way around?


It was one in the morning. It was November. It was raining ice cubes. Mia sat in front of the television watching a history show on PBS. She hadn’t really chosen it, but when she turned the set on, she saw Russia. Hitler was invading.

leningrad siegeThe black and white pictures show frozen dead bodies in Leningrad. Nearly a million dead in 900 days. They shoveled snow and ice away and found stiff, twisted bodies their cheeks sucked in, their blank eyes with lids pulled over them like shrouds, their mouths tiny black round lipless “O’s.” Trucks brought supplies in over a frozen lake; in the spring, the trucks sloshed through meltwater on the thinning ice. Bombs fell and buildings splashed like dust. Women with scarves on their heads wept into handkerchiefs. One sat in the street trying to lift up a man in an overcoat; he didn’t bend at the waist: He was frozen. He must have been her husband.

It was Russia, Mia realized. It was the past. She cried like a baby.

To be continued

In the old days, novels were often serialized in magazines. This is a long short story, serialized in a blog. I don’t know how long it will go on. Like many of those earlier authors, the first parts were published before the conclusions were even written. Wish me luck.

Rumpled bed



He reached over her shoulder to the other side of the bed and turned the light back on.

She said, “What the hell was that?”

“Beats me,” he answered, with an edge to his nonchalance, “I’ll go check.”

She pulled her blouse back around her and began rebuttoning and he stood up slowly so as not to surprise any organs.

They heard it again. A sound like a slamming door downstairs. He had just gotten to the point he could pretend that they hadn’t really heard anything at all when the second noise came.

He moved slowly to the hall and tried to tiptoe while not letting his thighs get too close together. Another door slammed; this time it was a refrigerator followed by the pfft of a beer can being opened.

“Stuart? Is that you?” He tried to shake his aching scrotum into a looser part of his pants.

“Hey, Bob. You still up?” The downstairs light clicked on, drowning the scene. Stuart stood squinting in the kitchen door with a can of beer in one hand and a large stuffed animal in the other. He held up the bear, a parody female stuffed bear with furry boobs and blond rayon hair, and said, a little too loudly, “I brought this home for Mia. She can mate it with T-Boar …” T-Boar was Mia’s teddy bear and as obviously male, in Mia’s eyes, as this bear was female in Stuart’s. Mia was nine then. Her mother, buttoned up and walking down the stairs, was 32 and her relationship with Stuart was ambiguous. They were married.

Bob looked at Stuart and then at Esther and tried to figure out where he now stood. “I thought you were going to be gone for a week. What happened to the interview?”

He was about to blurt out, “It’s not what you think,” but it was.

“He died before I ever got there. It was in the papers.”

Stuart took another slug of his Bud. Bob waited for him to say something but he never did.

“Where’s Mia?” Stuart addressed Esther.

“She’s with Dan for the weekend.” Dan was Mia’s father.

Seemingly satisfied with the answer, but a bit disappointed, he dropped the bear on the table and asked, “Is there anything left to eat?”

“Some chili in the fridge. I’ll heat it up if you want.”

“Thanks, Muffin. I’ll do it myself.” Bob still said nothing. He thought it best not to press the matter.

A month later, he still hadn’t pressed the matter, but he had moved in. At first, Esther slept most nights with Stuart, but increasingly, she went to Bob’s room. It got to be something of a game, or rather a cross between a game and a social custom. Esther always went to bed first. Some nights, she walked toward the front of the house — good news for Bob — some nights, she walked toward the back bedroom and Bob would make a little grimace. Stuart never showed anything one way or the other, and that’s what finally decided the matter for Esther.


Stuart walked out of his bedroom early on Saturday, stretching his arms wildly, like he needed to yank himself from sleep. The clock said 5. He could hear Bob snoring in his room with Esther, but that made no impression on him. It was two months now since Esther had spent a full night with him, and he seemed to be getting used to it.

Downstairs in the kitchen, Stuart filled the coffeepot and stretched some lardy bacon rashers into a frypan. Outside, the yellow on the eastern horizon made a band in which the crescent moon was frying, spattering stars like grease across the night. Out of the rattle of refrigerator steerage, he pulled a carton of orange juice and poured a glass and downed it and poured another.

As he turned the bacon and counted out a couple of eggs, Mia walked into the room carrying the morning paper from the front steps.

“I didn’t hear you get up,” he said to Mia.

She didn’t say anything.

“No school today, is there?”


“Want some breakfast?”

She sat down and pulled her legs up to her chest and held her knees against her face.

“We got bacon and eggs …”

“Why is Mama doing it?”

“… You like your coffee black?” Stuart tried to avoid the question.

“Doesn’t she like you anymore?”

“Mia, have some juice.”

“Bob is such a nerd.” Stuart wasn’t sure what to say. Bob was a nerd as far as he was concerned, but since Bob was likely to become Mia’s newest live-in father figure, he didn’t want to say anything prejudicial.

The two of them sat there in the kitchen and Stuart thought of how close he felt to Mia, how she always made him smile and how Bob now treated her. Bob had no use for kids. Bob looked forward to those weekends Mia spent with her father; Stuart dreaded them.

“Let me put some vodka in your juice; that’ll make you feel better,” he said. Mia turned her head to him and giggled.

We need to talk a little bit about Bob, because he will soon disappear from this story. He was six feet tall, with sandy hair and slightly wide hips. He walked with a swagger which Stuart thought was unearned. The part he played in Mia’s upbringing was negligible, except as a negative example. He was an accountant. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; many nice people are accountants.

But Bob was a very ordinary man. He paid his taxes and wore a white shirt and tie. This was for Esther the very soul of his attractiveness. But it was also the reason he would be out the door by the end of the year.


Stuart lifted up Esther’s arm and threw it over his shoulder.

She knew what he wanted and wrapped her other arm around his other shoulder and pulled his face in to hers and puffed lightly on his beard.

“Do you want a divorce?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I could just leave. Maybe check back in six months.”

“I don’t know.”

“Has Bob said anything?”

“Yeah, he wants me to kick you out.”


“Makes me want to kick him out.”

She started rubbing his back. He reached around her and began rubbing his thumbnail gently up and down the crease along her backbone.

“He thinks I should decide for him and leave you off. But I don’t know if I really want him.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I dunno … You’ve seen how hard he works, and have you ever heard him laugh? I mean, really laugh. Life isn’t all play and bumming around like it is for you. But maybe if he played a little.”

She let go of Stuart.

“You don’t sound very happy with either of us.”

“Maybe not,” she said.

“I still love you,” he said, regretting it instantly.

“What you say?”

“Well, I, uh … I, I still, uh, love mmm uh … you.”

“Why didn’t you say that months ago?” She smiled. Not at him, but just smiled.

“I didn’t want to, well, uh, influence you or …”

“Don’t be a shithead.”

Esther untied her bathrobe and shared with Stuart what he loved.


Mia never was too happy with the arrangement. Not that the adults argued: just the opposite. No one said anything and Mia didn’t know what to expect next. Stuart was her only adult friend and she felt in danger of losing him. Esther never talked about it.

Stuart didn’t either, but he was funny.

“What makes human beings different from animals,” he asked.

“They have names,” Mia said.

“Animals have names, too,” Stuart said.

“I don’t know,” she said, twisting her head back with a goofy sort of smile.

“When I was your age, I learned that what separated us from the monkeys was that we made tools.”


“But some years later, Jane Goodall ruined that theory when she discovered chimpanzees poked sticks down termite nests to pull out a tasty gob of bugs to eat.”


“When I was in college, a stuffed shirt teacher told me that humans were the only animals that used language.

“But now, not only are some gorillas using sign language — and more articulately than many politicians — but scientists are striving to learn the languages of dolphins and whales.”

“Whales can talk?”


“What do they say?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, ‘Here I am, come get me,’ or ‘Haven’t I seen you here before?’

“And Honeybees dance to talk.”

Mia considered this bit of information while Stuart circled in for a landing at his main point.

“But there is something that humans do that nothing else in the universe, so far as we know, can duplicate.

“Human beings are crazy to poke sticks into the ground.”


“Look around you. There are sticks everywhere. Streetlights. Traffic signs. Mile markers.

“Go to the most godforsaken plain in North Dakota and you will see lines of fence poles stretching out to the horizons.

“We are a species mad about sticks.

“Flags on golf greens. Citronella poles in back yards. Surveyors’ stakes. Bean poles and tomato stakes. Crosses in front of churches. Maypoles.

“We can hardly play a game without plunging a pole into the ground: goal posts, foul poles, supports for basketball hoops and tennis nets. You can’t even play croquet without sticks in the ground.

“And it’s not just now I’m talking about. In the Bible, Aaron’s rod was stuck into the ground and sprouted. Sioux Indians had to place a pole in the ground for their Sun Dance. Hey, and digging sticks. Totem Poles. Prayer sticks…moon flag

“We travel 169,000 miles to the moon and what do we do? Plop down a flagpole and take our photo beside it.

“You can’t walk 30 yards in this town and not see some pole drilled into the dirt: street signs; business signs.

“We have turned our planet into a porcupine.”

Mia laughed. She liked to laugh at Stuart. She didn’t always know what he was talking about, but she knew he was funny.

“But didn’t you say chimpanzees stick sticks in the ground for termites?”

“Oh, yeah. I guess I’m wrong, then. Never mind.”

Mia had her own theory.

“Human beings are the only animals who use toilet paper,” she said.

That seemed to make Stuart happy. He would steal that line.


“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“No,” said Mia.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck.

“But it isn’t always love that dies,” he said.

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” Mia asked. Now just in high school, she was reading Shakespeare.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” Mia wanted that possibility, perhaps because in her life, she had seen love die for her mother too many times. It shouldn’t be like that.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other or both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, Mia, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.”

“But Romeo didn’t have to die,” Mia said.

“Yes, he did,” Stuart thought Mia would have caught on. She is very bright. Gets good grades. Gets his jokes.

“Romeo didn’t have to die like he did,” he admitted, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart never saw a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the Bobs of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life. The sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that it is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” Mia made a sour face.


Esther now lived with Wayne. Wayne was an actor. Or thought he was. Bob didn’t last out the summer when Mia was nine. Bob was too dull for anyone.

It was a few months later that Esther found Will. Will was in real estate.

After Will, there was Ed, the cabbie, another Ed, the teacher, a second Bob, but he liked to be called Robert, and finally, Wayne.

Love died often for Esther. Mia never had time to settle comfortably with any of these unofficial stepfathers. Stuart remained the closest thing she had to a stable male influence in her short life, and that was pathetic, considering how unstable Stuart was.

He would take off for months at a time. Once for a whole year. Stuart tried other jobs, other cities. Nothing took.

He was back in town. He didn’t like Wayne any more than he liked the others. This time, he rented a duplex on the north side of town and got a job at the bookpacking warehouse. All day long, packing books in boxes and labeling them. Schoolbooks mostly. Sent to high schools. Junior College bookstores. Books weigh a lot. Stuart was in the best shape of his life.

Each night, after work, Stuart stopped in the tavern and had a beer. Or two. Some nights, he stopped by to see Mia. Sometimes to see Esther. Sometimes on weekends, he took Mia overnight so Esther could have some privacy with Wayne.

“Wanna beer?” he offered one to Mia when they got to his apartment. She giggled like she always did when offered something illicit. She knew Stuart was joking.

“You know, sometimes love doesn’t die soon enough,” she said.


“Sometimes it seems to hang around long after it starts stinking.” She was thinking of Wayne. Of Bob, Ed, Ed and Robert. Even of Dan, who she now saw only once a year or so. Her biological father had moved to California, remarried and had two new children to take care of.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I just did.”


I suppose it’s time to bring up Mia’s grandmother. Esther’s mom.

One looks for a beginning, a cause.

Before every story, there is a long backstory. And after every story, there is an eternity of sequel.

Esther liked to think of her mom as the cause of her fragmented life. But we could look to her mom’s parents to find the cause of that, and to their parents to find their causes.

One of the lies of our belief that we are the protagonist in our own novel is that our story is just the crest of one wavelet in a very large ocean. It starts before we can find any records. It continues through us. We are only a conduit for something perpetual that flows through us, or through which we flow. One bead on a string. One button on a fly. The sum of all that went before us. And god knows what we cause in those that follow. All racing somewhere. The future? Meaning? Apocalypse? Entropy?

Ether’s mom lived happily with the same man for 57 years. Esther’s father didn’t live happily, but he hung on.garment district

Her name was Naomi. His was Morris. He was in the garment industry. He was a good provider. He was short, bald and wore wool suits. He was a lady’s man, although Naomi never knew about it. And he was a firm believer in the sanctity of marriage. Not, as you can see, in the sanctity of genitals, but in the contractual nature of marriages. It was a deal he made, and he was going to keep his word.

For Naomi, it meant she had a life of security — or felt she had — and it let her live a life so normal in its accessories and appurtenances, that she almost disappeared. For, to be normal is to be invisible. It is a fact of physics.

She disappeared in her lady’s club — always elected recording secretary — she disappeared in her PTA. She disappeared in her temple, in Hadassah.
She could be counted on to bring something to the covered dish supper, but no one could remember which dish was hers.

Morris spent all day on Third Avenue, keeping track of inventory. He took a short lunch, often at the Chinese buffet. And on those nights when he wasn’t “working late” and taking some other woman to a show, he came home, ate his pot roast, patted Esther on the head, asked her how her schoolwork was going, took the pocket watch out of his vest pocket and put it down on the dresser after winding it for the last time of the day, and kissed Naomi goodnight. On the forehead.

The magic of childhood is that we believe everything we encounter is normal. We can never know what life is like for others, and our own is the meter-stick we use to measure by. Esther believed the ritual rhythms of normality were those that beat in her home.

And she hated it. Hated every moment of it. She wanted drama. She wanted excitement. She wanted novelty. It never came.

Routine makes life navigable, but it puts no spice in the soup.

Esther didn’t know about her father’s alternate life, at least not until much later, after her mother was dead. She believed Morris and Naomi were the two most boring people on the skin of the planet.


In this tale, we decline to dig deeper into the strata, to find out what defined Naomi: Her parents’ life that was anything but normal, that ended for many of their family behind wire fences in Poland. Her parents had passed as Catholic in Vienna before the war, but got out as soon as they could see history’s great, steel-toed boot waiting to stomp.

We won’t go into that, or into the lives of their parents, who left Russia, or their parents, or the parents before them. We could ride that trolley all the way back to Eve, no doubt, with stops in Egypt and Babylon.

No, we’ll just stay with Naomi and her young Esther, longing for something more than macaroni and cheese.


Dan and EstherWhen Esther met Dan in college, she didn’t see macaroni. She saw sex.

It came over her like a caffeine rush.

Away from home, free to thumb her nose at normality, she found Dan and his arms, his eyes, his brains and his penis. Dan found his penis, too. When two young people discover their bodies together, it can be like a freight train. It was for them.

In the morning, in the evening. In the spring time, in between time.

It is another of the universe’s little jokes that the discovery of copulation fools its discoverers into believing they have found the path out of banality, into a world so alive, so exciting, that they alone are the possessors of it. Only they have penetrated the mysteries, only they can save the world from K marts and time cards. If they only recognized that everyone in the world feels and thinks exactly the same thing, they would see the joke in it. They don’t. The cosmos cannot allow it.

So, their two-backed globe spun like a top, spinning magic into their lives. Escaping Naomi, thought Esther — or rather, she didn’t think it so much as embody it.

And so, Esther and Dan got married.


We probably want to backtrack here a little to pick up Stuart. He is the other focus of this elliptical story.

Stuart never had a normal moment in his life and even if he did, he wouldn’t have recognized it as it passed. Stuart was the second of four brothers: His elder brother, Bernard, was a doctor. His youngest, Michael, was still in school, getting his third or fourth Ph.D. The fourth, was no longer there; Sam shot himself, holding a shotgun in his mouth and pulling the trigger with a thumb. Sam’s girlfriend had called Stuart first, so he became the one who had to handle it with the police, the funeral home — he had to phone his other brothers.

We don’t have time to get into it here, but Stuart wound up with his dead brother’s girlfriend for a while afterwards. That didn’t help.

Stuart did not share his surviving brothers’ drive for accomplishment. Stuart liked being “unstructured.” Being loose, unstuck. Aimless.

It was something of a syndrome with his generation. You could list those he went to college with. It makes dismal reading. There are success stories, but there are many tales of communes, co-ops and always further graduate work. It seems that Stuart’s class had a very hard time slipping into the mainstream of American life.

Raeford Bland on stiltsAnd the tales that don’t even make it to the alumni journal are even hair raising. Puddy Bigsby lived with a man 12 years her junior because she was afraid of getting old. Paula Wayne had two children from different fathers and then took up with a Puerto Rican silversmith near Philadelphia. JB went to England working for Scientology, dunning members for unpaid dues. David Janson nearly didn’t survive several bouts of hepatitis from rusty needles. Cathy Landermann lived with her man and several other couples in a shanty without heat or running water and made what little money she could from selling lemonade at rock concerts during intermissions. After going through eight or nine religions, Steve Winslow became a Roman Catholic and planned to take lay orders in the one remaining Latin-speaking brotherhood. Walter Formen became a Buddhist in Colorado and studied with the Rinpoche and Allen Ginsberg. Cathy Wagstaff drove a delivery truck for a feminist co-op in Seattle and pretended, none too successfully, to be a lesbian. Donald Sparrow drifted through a couple of terms in the Peace Corps, not knowing what to do after graduating. He drifted into a Masters degree and stayed on at Indiana University as an adjunct faculty member, grading correspondence course Spanish papers. Kathy Emerson had as many different jobs as Stuart had and became a part-time librarian, pretending, none too successfully, not to be a lesbian. She never even got her drivers license.

I could go on for pages naming people from a whole generation, and these people were not the dregs, but the best and the brightest of those years. They were all potential straight-A students.

There was Helen of Syracuse, Mary Staram of South Dakota, Judy Castleman of UNC-G. Doug Mason in Seattle riding a bicycle as a delivery boy and later as a part time sales clerk in a wine store, using his diploma from the University of Virginia as shelf paper. Michael Jones in Seattle changing jobs like underwear and lamenting that he could never stay with a woman more than six months. Robin Randleman changed from swing band dancer to floral arranger to half-time zoo keeper, living on a houseboat in the middle of the city, leaving her husband and searching for a replacement. She could never figure out what she was looking for. After a brief tryout, it wasn’t Stuart.

So, he was just one more molecule among many floating in brownian motion through the ’70s and into the ’80s.

When he met Esther, she had been divorced from Dan three years, and had a three-year-old child, Mia, who Esther wasn’t entirely sure what to do about.

Here, we should mention the odd tides in the universe that wash two such people together: She looking for somebody who wasn’t normal and finding her perfect match in Stuart; he, drifting into commitment because he didn’t recognize it as it approached him.

He knew he liked Mia.


“The world is filled with republicans,” Stuart said.

“That is, it is filled with republicans with a lowercase ‘r’ — they are the white-bread people. They make none of the art but buy most of it. They are those who never question socks, meatloaf or the existing world order. This has nothing to do with political parties. By my definition, Ted Kennedy is a republican. For that matter, so is Brezhnev.

“They are the men in the blue suits who turn the world gray.”

Stuart had begun once again. This time, it was for Esther, and Esther was buying.

“Those engaged in party politics cannot understand this. The recent fight between liberals and conservatives is only a parochial fight on a narrow issue between two groups that don’t really disagree much. It is like the vicious infighting between certain communist and socialist parties: They had rather kill their own over which end of the egg to crack.

“Jesse Helms and Jimmy Carter agree on almost everything; they are both the progeny of Plato, Aquinas, Tom Paine, the French Revolution, Horatio Alger and Lucy Ricardo. They both wear suits and ties. To my knowledge, neither has ever worn a fez (with the possible exception of Helms looking for votes at a Shriners’ convention).

“And ‘convention’ may be the operative word here. The horizon of the republican is very narrow, very conventional. Three squares a day, square rooms, square windows, square TV screens. From inside the culture, it can be very hard to see just how similar Carter and Helms are. We all swim in our culture like fish unaware of the water.

“But step outside and look back, and the squabbling becomes risible.

“Or tragic.

“From our position outside, we look at all the factions that turned Beirut into a concrete Swiss cheese and wonder, how could they shoot at each other? Can’t they see how they are all so much the same? We sure can’t tell them all apart, even with the help of McNeil and Lehrer.

“But to a Maldive Islander, Helms in his suit is the twin of Carter in his. They are both republicans.”

Was ever a woman with this humor wooed? Was ever a woman with this humor won?

Even Stuart must have realized that, for most people, this would be strange pillow talk. Esther wrapped her arms around Stuart’s right arm, holding on to it in bed as he held forth.

“That means they both tend to look at problems in the old ways, come up with old answers, even when dressing them in new words, and pretty much expect that the world they grew up in is the world they will send their grandchildren into.

“Good luck.

“When you are interested only in answers, as politicians are, you tend not to notice that the questions change.

“So when I hear a politician talking about ‘imaginative answers,’ I break out laughing. He should better search for imaginative questions. The answers usually take care of themselves.”

It was hard to know how much of this Stuart actually believed. He often rode a verbal jag like a surfer on a 12-foot wave, curling this way and that before either he or the wave gives out, or until he loses his balance and falls off.

“Is there any difference at all between blue eye shadow and Sioux war paint? Between pierced ears and pierced nipples? Why does anyone think one form is acceptable and another barbarism? Convention.

“The republicans say there is no virtue in being different just to be different. But I say there is. It is a sign of being alive.”


Mia is the perimeter around the two foci. We should look at her, too.

Born to two very bright parents, she wasn’t the mean of their IQs but the sum of them added together. Tall for her age, whatever age it was through her life, and slim, she learned before school how to read. She walked before she was two and she outgrew the Three Stooges by the time she was three.

Luckily for Mia, she didn’t know she was smart. She just thought — like all kids do — that she was normal.

She was too young to understand why her dad wasn’t there: At three, she just assumed a family had a mother and a child and a series of visiting men. She hadn’t really come to know Dan. Perhaps a psychologist would tell us she had been traumatized by the divorce, but Mia never felt it, if it were true.

And when her mom started bringing home this gangly, hairy man who told jokes all the time, she just assumed that’s how fathers were gathered by mothers.

To Be Continued

World Map 1689Stuart got a job recently. Well, a part-time job — as adjunct faculty teaching a history course. I’m not sure how he got it; he doesn’t have a degree in history. But he said he talked the department head into it by describing his take on world civilizations. He did his Stuart dance for his dinner.

“Well, I said I wanted to teach world history a different way,” he said to me over lunch the other day. “I wanted to look at it through the lens of geography. It explains so much.”

Mostly, he said, he just wanted to try organizing the Big Picture a different way, because looking at something differently opens a subject up for fresh insights. At least, that’s my stuffy way of saying what he was up to.
aegean sea map

“From even prehistoric times,” Stuart explained, “human cultures have organized themselves in two ways — either around a body of water or in the middle of a chunk of land. These two societies tend to approach the rest of the world differently.

“You can see this in the signal conflict of the classical world — the Persian Wars. We may think of Greece as a nation, like France or Argentina, but back then, Greek civilization was a constellation of cities and islands around the Aegean Sea. It was built facing the water, so to speak, and like the ancient Lake People of Switzerland, they looked across the pond and saw trading partners. They built ships and launched out across the water to find their likeness on the far shore.

“Rome was built around the Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League was all about trade.

Persia satellite view“But Persia was a continental power, built on land, surrounded primarily by land, where other people may have been trading partners, but they were primarily a threat. All through the Middle East, you have one conquering nation after another invading their neighbors. Their gods told them to. Persia, like the standard model continental power, wanted to expand, to push its borders out farther, absorb the neighbors to nullify the threat.

“These are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the outer world, and those two ways govern so much of what happens in history.”

“And this is what you told the department head?” I asked. “And he bought it?”

“She did,” he said — which explained a bit more about Stuart’s persuasiveness. If you know anything about Stuart, you know he approached the world, not so much by riparian or continental cultures, but through the interaction of men and women.

“And so, now you’re teaching world history to students at a two-year school.”

“It’s great, although class is rather early for me: It starts at 10 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. But I can get up for it; it’s been really fun so far.”

“It’s always fun until the grading starts,” I said.

“I haven’t got there yet,” he said. “But I’ve assigned the first paper.”

I remembered my time teaching, and the surprising papers that were turned in. I used to read the really bad ones at dinner parties for fun; we all had a good laugh. Bad grammar, misunderstood concepts, lazy ideas. Once, in an art history class, I had 16 students and 16 different spellings of “Coliseum,” and not one of them correct — despite the fact there were two acceptable spellings: “Coliseum” and “Colosseum.” I knew Stuart was in for a disappointing surprise when those papers were turned in. Indus river map

“Think of all the early civilizations,” Stuart went on. “Egypt on the Nile, the Indus River civilization, the Chinese living along the Huang Ho and Yangtze. Later, you have Vikings around the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic. China is interesting, because it starts as a riparian civilization, but as it grew, it turned continental. It gives a distinct flavor to Chinese history.”

“And the continental?” I asked.

“Think of the Mongolian Hordes,” he said. “Or early American tribes conquering each other. Persia, the Ottomans, Moguls.

“If you look at pre-colonial Africa, you see some cultures are riparian, like Ghana, and some are continental, like the Berbers. The distinctions have been blurred over by the pie-slicing of the continent by its colonial powers into supposed nation-states mimicking those of Europe. Quite unnatural. But they were there: riparian and continental ways of looking at the world.

thirteen colonies“I thought, this explains a lot about us,” he said. “About America. When we were founded, we were an outpost on the other side of the pond. We looked across the Atlantic and saw our compadres there. Europe and the New World were built around the ocean, whether it was England and the 13 colonies, France and Quebec, or Spain and Latin America. It may be a distortion to consider the interrelation between the Old and New Worlds as trade, considering we didn’t really give the native peoples a choice in the matter, but from the point of view of the colonizers, who really didn’t take the original inhabitants seriously, they saw themselves as Europeans trading with their parent nations.

“And for the 13 colonies, when they were still colonies, they were Englishmen trading with England, later making alliance with France. We began, like China, as a riparian society. There were even laws passed to prevent settlers from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, to keep it a riparian culture.

“But we expanded anyway and became, over time, a continental power. Expansion was seen as not only good, but necessary, even ordained by God. This change explains the current political landscape.”

“How so,” I said, innocently, while waiting for the punchline.red and blue

“Think about it. Where are the blue states and where are the red? By and large, the blue states are on the edge of the continent, both on the Atlantic and and on the Pacific, or around the Great Lakes. The red ones are in the center, where they remain continental in outlook, fearful of foreigners and the core of isolationism.”

“I thought the difference was between the agrarian states and the urban states,” I said.

xi jinping 2“Certainly. My outlook isn’t the only factor in this. But it is there, not often mentioned, and is in part also the reason the coastal states built their economies on trade and the interior states on farming and ranching. I’m not making the case that this theory explains everything, or that it is the only thing that made us what we are, but I am saying that it helps explain it, and that you can see the same forces acting out elsewhere in the world. Maoism was continental in China, but the coastal cities of China were built on trade. The new China of Xi Jinping has grown as it has seen its place in the larger world — and as a riparian economy, not a continental one. The burgeoning economy is largely a coastal event. The Chinese poor are largely in the interior.

“And so, blue states look outward to the world, the red states are xenophobic.eurasia

“Look at Russia,” Stuart said. “They are a quintessential continental power, hunkering down in the middle of Eurasia. Invaded by Tatars, Verangians, and Teutonic Knights, they came to fear the outside and built a national identity on creating a fortress mentality, and conquered neighboring lands to make redouts to protect the national core from attack. Peter the GreatPeter the Great attempted to turn Russia into a riparian culture by building his capital on the Baltic, hoping to become part of the European world of trade. But since then, the country has retreated to Moscow and glowered out at the rest of the world. It’s how the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics accrued, and after a brief period of glasnost, why PutinVladimir Putin has resumed the essential Russian inwardness, and his need to expand the borders again to build up those protective buffer nations around the national heartland. Lookout, Ukraine.”

I wondered if Stuart taught any of this chronologically, or was the whole course built around this theory. Were there any parts of history unrelated to his bifurcation of world outlooks.

“Oh, I fit all that other stuff in, too,” he said. “But mainly I wanted to explore this idea for myself. Teaching is the best way to learn.”

I couldn’t argue that.

“And your department head thinks this is OK? To use your class for you to explore your ideas?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I moved in with her last week. We’re good.”

BBQIn this week’s New Yorker, Calvin Trillin writes about North Carolina barbecue and the efforts by the only slightly facetious Campaign for Real Barbecue to maintain the traditional standards for the iconic pork product.

He makes allowances for the Great Divide — between Lexington-style and Halifax-style barbecue, that is, between western Carolina barbecue, made with pork shoulder and seasoned with a tomato-based sauce, and eastern ‘cue, made with the whole hog and doused with vinegar and hot pepper. hog snout 2005

At the outset, I should lay my cards on the table: As a Yankee moved to the South, I came late to the game, but because my first official wife came from Scotland Neck, way out east of Raleigh and Tarboro, I first came to love the stuff the eastern way. (Tarboro, by the way, was home to Ed Weeks, famous in the 1970s for growing record-size vegetables, including a 39 lb. canteloupe and a peanut 3 ½ inches long.) When I ate at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro, I was put off by the sweetish tomato sauce. And without the whole pig roasting on the hickory ash and embers, you miss a good deal of the pleasures of barbecue. I should admit that for those adherents of Lexington-style, the product is more uniform. Only the best and most succulent parts of the animal are used. And for many, that is a plus. But for those of us going whole hog, we miss the bits of gristle we must occasionally spit out; we miss the odd globules of pigfat; and most importantly, the crispy burned bits that are the prize in the Cracker Jack box. “Please ma’am, more crispy bits.”

But I am not here to talk about barbecue, but about its sidekick, the hushpuppy.  We all lament the passing of those things we remember most fondly from our childhood, and I’m afraid that hushpuppies just aren’t what they used to be. cornbread 1

I the South, there are several kinds of cornbread. There is the traditional risen cornbread, made from white cornmeal — usually a self-rising mix, like Martha White’s — made with an egg, some oil and buttermilk and poured into a black-iron fry pan heated to 450 degrees and coated with a layer of scorching bacon grease. The batter sizzles in the grease and when it cooks up, in 20 minutes or so, there is a salty brown crust around the cornbread. You cut it into wedges and butter them up for eating.

My late father-in-law’s favorite meal was cornbread crumbled into buttermilk. cornbread cakes

There are also cornbread cakes, in which the batter is fried up on a griddle, like pancakes. Those of us who prize cornbread believe this is the ultimate — more exterior crust, less interior crumb. Butter them up and eat. Great with a mess of pintos.

More humbly, there is pone. This is cornbread without the fancy leavening and seasonings. My first official mother-in-law, from Scotland Neck in Halifax County, used to make the best version, which she called “dog bread.” You have white corn meal, some salt and water to make a thick, doughy batter, dump it into a pan of hot bacon grease and bake it in the oven. I comes out with a great bacon-y crust and an interior texture that can only be compared with a fudge brownie, only savory. You cut it into squares and the luckiest person gets the corner pieces, with extra crispies. You cannot imagine the perfection of dog bread with cooked greens.

Yet, it is the hushpuppy that wins pride of place. You cannot really be said to have eaten barbecue if it isn’t accompanied by hushpuppies. These are deep-fried cornbread tubules, brown and crunchy on the outside, hot and steamy on the inside.

The problem is that tastes change with time and the humble hushpuppy I first knew when I moved to North Carolina in the late 1960s has morphed into some sort of fast food that I hardly recognize.

The original was cornmeal and salt, like dogbread, deep fried. Nowadays, you are hard pressed to find a hushpuppy not sweetened up with sugar and with diced onion added. The old flavor is now closer to a kid’s breakfast cereal.

But this is only part of the problem. Hushpuppies used to be made by gathering up some of the dough on a large cooking spoon and flicking off bits into the boiling fat with the back of a tablespoon. The result was not uniform, but each tapered puppy had ridges along its length that fried up extra crispy. Now, almost every barbecue restaurant has an “extruder” that squeezes out uniform, round-sided football shaped hushpuppies, or worse, has one of those “squirters” like a showerhead that eject a rather loose batter into the fat. You wind up with something more akin to an unformed funnel cake. hushpuppies now

One has to recognize that foods — even so-called traditional foods — evolve, just as language or shoe styles evolve. And it is the Southern taste, defined by customer preference, that has given us the sweetened, oniony, turd-shaped hushpuppy. It seems to be what the people want. But one can nevertheless lament what is lost. And I miss the old, unsweetened, humble, crusty hushpuppy that I first came to love.

It is this way with many of our foods: The barbecue we get in North Carolina — even in eastern North Carolina — is now often made from pork shoulder instead of the whole pig and often it is cooked in an electric or gass oven and not on ashes (although they might throw some soaked hickory chips in for “added flavor.”)

And this devolution isn’t only Carolina or the South. There are people in New Jersey who can countenance Pizza Hut pizza. I don’t know how or why, but they do. And even in Arizona, one can find a line at the Taco Bell. Some people choose that over the taqueria down the street where you can get a real taco de lengua.  You can find Mexican barbacoa, but most people just want chimichangas and ground beef tacos.  It is a certain uniformity and loss of regional preference that has crept into our cuisine and I lament it.

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

MapI have lived in the four corners of the U.S. I was born in the Northeast, lived in the South, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. And yet it is somehow the vast middle of the nation that most draws me to it.

In the Northeast, there are cities and woods, the Hudson River slicing up New York State, the “bare and bended arm” of Massachusetts jutting out into the cod-waters of the cold Atlantic. There are the great curved ridges of the Alleghenies forcing highways into what look like Golgi bodies on the gas-station maps. This is the land of salt-rust on the undercarriage of family cars; Of hillside cemeteries bordered by brick apartment buildings. Warehouse districts and tract housing; turnpikes and wharves; glacial till and the stone walls the till makes both possible and necessary — and the fallen ruins of those walls making forgotten property boundaries in second- and third-growth forests. Swimming holes from abandoned quarries and the ever-present nose dust of bus fumes.New York 3

I look back on these things and a wave of nostalgia warms me. Manhattan in the winter, with the Con-Ed grates pouring steam into the air; the periodic burst of warm air blowing up from the sidewalk as the subway train rumbles in the Stygian underground. People in vast tides walking with purpose up Fifth Avenue. The smell of coffee and pie at the Horn and Hardart.

But I left the Northeast at just about the same time as the Horn and Hardart began fading away. I moved to the South, where I became accustomed to slower talking, slower walking and human interactions that were not based on efficiency and gain. It was a land of pine trees grown for paper pulp, a coastline of sea oats and dunes on barrier islands, cities of fewer restaurants, and what there were served meatloaf and fried chicken. When I moved there, the single Chinese restaurant in Greensboro, N.C. pretty much restricted its menu to chop suey and egg foo yung with pot roast gravy.red maple

I have lived in the South now longer than I have lived anywhere else, although I have not been faithful, and have moved elsewhere, yet I seem always to return. There are pinxter flowers dripping with rain along the Appalachian Trail; there are bass-filled man-made lakes where small towns used to be; there are old lawyers in worn suits who meet every morning in the coffee shop to talk about the day’s events while sipping hot coffee cooled by pouring it out into its saucer slurp by slurp. When I moved to the South, the Klan was still common — in both senses of the word — and otherwise perfectly decent white folk made a sincere case for not changing things too precipitously. Every town had its black community, usually on the other side of the railroad tracks that had once provided the reason for the town’s existence and formed the terminator as clearly as if there were the lit and dark sides of the moon.

There were cotton warehouses and tobacco barns; men actually used spitoons — and if they didn’t have one, they might have an empty tin can into which to spit the brown excess saliva from their chaw. I know of one old reprobate who actually died when he passed out drunk and rolled off his couch, cutting his throat on the jagged edge of his spit can.

If, in the North, people had little time for each other, always in a rush to get somewhere and do something, in the South, everything revolved around relationships, around talking and with that talk establishing social rank and responsibility and anyone you knew, you also knew who their daddy was. People talked endlessly, about weather, business, politics, gossip, taxes, planting, hunting, dogs and church meetings. Even now, so many decades later, when I made my first visit to the local barber, one of the things he asked, making small talk, was what church did I go to. He wasn’t being nosy nor was he proselytizing, he was merely establishing a relationship.nc church jesus saves

A good deal has changed in the South since I first got there four decades ago. Accents that used to define hierarchy have begun flattening out: You can walk through whole blocks of Atlanta and hear the same language you might hear in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fine dining is now possible if your city or town is now large enough. Your mayor has at least a 50-50 chance of being African-American. When I got there, every white Southerner was a Democrat; now, they are all Republicans.barista

I moved to Seattle in the late ’70s, before half of California swept north, and before every streetcorner had baristas pouring white swirls into the foam of a latte. The railroad switchers shunted cars from dock to dock along Alaskan Way where homeless men in dirty coats and black watchcaps clutched brown paper bags while sleeping in industrial doorways. The ferry moved out of its pier in the morning light to make its way to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Bremerton. Although it rained most days during the three non-summer seasons, it was mostly a drizzle and few people even thought it counted as rain and no one I saw ever carried an umbrella.

From my house on Phinney Ridge, across from the Woodland Park Zoo, you could see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east. To the south was the biggest permanent, unmoving white cloud you ever saw — on those days you could actually see it for the weather — and it was called Mt. Rainier, which was pronounced, unlike the sovereign of Monaco, as if it described the precipitation in the Puget Sound: rainier. Certainly rainier than Arizona, where I moved later.Seattle docks

There was Olympia beer and Rainier beer, and I could hardly believe it to see pedestrians stop at the “don’t walk” lights, even at 2 in the morning when there were no cars on the road. No New Yorker would do that; I had friends who otherwise had a cavalier attitude toward authority who would stop me from jaywalking, as if the Stasi were keeping files.

When I got out of the city, the forests were populated with douglas fir and western redcedar. Nothing else. Endless miles of the stuff, climbing up the sides of mountain ranges and with downed logs greened over with moss, and the path a spongy loam under your feet.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

I think that is what finally drove me to move back to the South: The sense of homesickness for a forest with scores, even hundreds of varieties of tree. The sameness of the Northwestern forest seemed unnatural to me, as if I shouldn’t be there.

There is much I loved in the Northwest. The moist air, the cool summer, the planked salmon and Ivar’s Acres of Clams. I knew a bunch of bicycle messengers, known as “Buckies,” and enjoyed the friendship they provided. There was a political progressiveness that was nearly universal; one could shop at the co-op grocery, the Public Market at Pike Place. Stop off at a bar and have a beer like a real person.Badger Creek Ariz

Finally, there is the American Southwest, as dry as Seattle was moist. One can see for 20 miles at a glance, taking in a meaningful quadrant of the earth circumference. The Southwest mean space. At least outside the city of Phoenix, where we settled — and we got out of the city as often as we could — the desert was intense, sharp and beautiful. Before a rain, the humidity made the creosote bushes smell like spicy cologne. The saguaro cactus stood vertical above the thorny undergrowth. Jack rabbits, roadrunners, the occasional javalina or rattlesnake darted in and out of view. The air was dry; sweat evaporated before you even knew it had escaped your pores. The sun bleached the landscape and radiated heat like an open oven door.

There were three different experiences of Arizona. The most common one was the urban experience of Phoenix.

My wife and I moved there because we had traveled summers across the country and thought it might be pleasant to live in the West for a few short years. I’m sure we were thinking of Flagstaff or Santa Fe. We wound up in Phoenix. We were thinking of having a little adobe house with a white picket fence and perhaps a butte in the background and a few pinto horses grazing in the pasture.  We wound up on Seventh Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, with traffic noise like endless surf crashing outside the house, and exhaust soot collecting in the cooling ducts of the house.

The street grid was punctuated by Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. The right-angle network of streets were broken in places by the eruption of mountains: Camelback, Squaw Peak, South Mountain. Enthusiasts climbed them to get a view of the city below, which spread out like a plaid tablecloth, divided into square patches. You could hardly get lost in this checkerboard of roads; you were either driving north-south or east-west, and the city’s mountains provided easy landmarks. You always knew where you were.camelback mountainSaguaro NP Ariz

Outside the city, the land was split between northern and southern Arizona. To the south, there were greasewood flats, saguaro cactus and stony mountains catching the sun late in the day to demarcate the rosy lit areas from the bluish shadows. Dry lake beds hovered in the distance, white salt pans, and the taller mountains caught snow in the winter.

To the north was the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff, the Navajo and Hopi reservations and the Grand Canyon. The air was noticeably thinner and cleaner — no Phoenix, no Tucson to fill the valleys up with yellow smog. Roads unrolled in long ribbon streams ahead of you heading to the horizon bounded by mesas and buttes. The landscape painted tawny, ruddy, sooty, whitish and blue by streaks, the sky larger than you have seen it anywhere, and most likely uniform blue, only darker toward the zenith.

At First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, you can hardly tell the blocks of stone making up the hillside from the stone houses built atop. You drive endless miles across grassy plains to the next habitation. Streams are marked by slight empty depressions that only fill up in the rare rains that come, mainly in late summer as thunderstorms and mid-winter as constant frontal drizzles. They can become roiling mud rivers almost instantly. Cars will be washed away in the flow. You can always tell the newbies in the desert; they think they can drive through the flooded washes. They fill the nightly news and we see the cars floating downstream, their owners on the roof waiting for rescue.

We spent one Christmas day with friends in Walpi. We brought apples and oranges, coffee and sugar. They gave us cookies they were baking. It snowed on First Mesa; the fire in the stove heated the low stone house.

What you are never quite prepared for is the sense that the canyons are not, like mountains, something that rise from the level, but rather are gigantic holes in the ground you don’t see until you are right on top of them. The stratigraphy is a geological story that is told, part by part, as you move from one part of the state to another. The same layers, in the same order hundred of miles apart, although they might be covered by yet more layers in one place, and rest on the surface elsewhere. You could, like a good geologist, anthologize the landscape to tell a continuous saga.

When we left Arizona, we immediately became homesick for the Plateau and the desert. I cannot say, however, that we missed the city. I used to call it “Cleveland in the desert.” I loved my job there, and my colleagues and friends, and my wife loved her job and her colleagues and friends, but the city itself is rather charmless. The South called us back.

And so, we returned — for me it was my third homecoming. Now we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I am constantly amazed, as a Yankee, at just how open and friendly the people are — so much so, it sometimes creeps me out.

But as I was saying at the head of this periplus, I have lived and absorbed the people and land in the four corners of the country, but somehow, there is a gravitational pull to the middle I have always felt, to the place I have never managed to live, the vast gut of the continent.Chicago, Ill

For me, there are two emotionally resonant attractions to the middle. First, there is the rustbelt city, the factories, the immigrant populations, the train yards and highway junctions that all spoke of the industrious rise of the nation from the late 19th century through the Second World War. It is where so many of our great writers came from. It is the home of pirogis and deep fried ravioli, sausages and red cabbage. I have loved taking the train across the lower shores of the Great Lakes past Cleveland and Toledo to Chicago. There is a Midwest that is populated. What is not industry is farm. And there is corn and wheat, silos and tractors. The land tends to lie flat. You could play billiards on the ground in places in western Indiana.Joes Colo haystacks

But there is the second middle of the country that calls to me even more insistently: It is further west than the prairies; it is the Great Plains. Driving through North Dakota or Nebraska, eastern Colorado or eastern Montana — there you feel more than anyplace else in the 48 states that you live on a planet. On the coasts, it used to be proof of the roundness of the earth that you could see the ships and their masts slowly dip below the horizon; on the plains, you see the next grain elevator rise from the same horizon in front of you as you drive and later drop again behind you. You are always on the high point of a dome; the earth falls away from you in all directions. And on this dome, the grasses curl like whitecaps on the ocean.

It is this sense that Melville captures so well in his late story and poem (or is it poem and prose prologue) John Marr. “Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. ‘It is the bed of a dried-up sea,’ said the companionless sailor — no geologist — to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep.” The landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains  was “hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.”

There is little in this expanse that can count as a city. Much that seems uninhabited. Moving across the Dakotas and into Montana, you find that neighbors count their separation not by fences but by miles. The land rises and falls like sea swell, and from the top of any ridge, you can see the land spread off in grassy waves.

Why this landscape should call to me so seductively is a mystery, even to me. I have wondered if it is some atavistic genetic memory of the Indo-European origins in the Caucasus, the Trans-Oxiana, where the grass continues unabated for a thousand miles, that Scythian homeland of my peoples, or at least of my language.Pawnee Buttes 5

Or perhaps, even further back, it is the imprinted memory of the African savannah where even before the global diaspora, we hairless monkeys were born. Why should I feel a homesickness for the grasslands that I have never actually lived in, unless there be some tick in my chromosomes that was molded there?

Whatever the cause, I feel it strongly. I feel it also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta. The grasses swirl in the breeze, like animated hair whorls on an infant’s head; you can see the breeze moving through the grass in waves, the way a man in a sailboat sees the fretting of the lake surface as the gust approaches.

I am old now, and it is unlikely that I will dot the center of a quincunx of habitations by finally moving to the continental center. I will stay fixed in the North Carolina mountains. The Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest are part of my past. The spindle around which they all turn will remain a psychic locus, not an actual one for me. And the gust that frets the water a hundred yards off is the final one.


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