Steppe“Don’t make me shoot,” he said. “There’s too much paperwork afterwards.”

The guard, Bamki, was only half joking. I call him a guard, but he was more like an administrator. He was the only one left on this hill, surrounded by chain link. He got to live in the quonset hut. There was a coal stove there. We were surrounded by the fence, not so much to keep us in as to mark the edge of the compound; after all, the gate had fallen to ruin long ago, so there really was nothing to keep us in.

From the open front of the garage at the top of the hill, you could see for miles. Nothing out there but grass and scrub, except for the four birch trees under which the quonset hut was pitched. You could drive for hours from here and not find any mark of human activity other than the road, if you can call it that. More like a tractor path.

The five of us were there to fix things. Once a week or so, a truck would arrive. We would drag the load into the garage — more like a barn with a corrugated tin roof — and see what was on offer. A transmission, a desk, an entire load of crowd-control barriers, smashed by some uncontrolled crowd, maybe a sofa or coffeemaker. We never knew, but it was our job to repair and send it out with the next truck.

It was cold. It was always cold. Except in July, when it was hot. Now, it was November and ice glazed the water buckets in the morning. At least we had a brazier in the corner of the garage, although, with one whole wall open to the weather, the only heat was within a few inches of the fire. The tips of the fingers poked through the worn, frayed cloth of our gloves.

“How far do you think it is to Omsk?” Dentril said.

“I don’t know. Maybe 250 miles.”

We didn’t really have a clue. We didn’t really know exactly where we were. No one thought it important to tell us when they dragged us here. What was it. Seven years ago. Maybe eight.

“I think I found a cabbage leaf in my soup,” Dentril said. “No, wait, it is only the cellophane that wrapped the cabbage.” The soup steamed in the corner of the garage on a little propane stove. It was a joke he repeated every day.

Around us were the bones of old tractors, trucks, automobiles and bicycles. A wheel here, a frame there, gathering rust like moss. A crow sits on the fence outside the garage. Now two of them.

Dentril tossed the remains of his soup out the door at them. They didn’t move.

“How far did you say?”

“I don’t really know. Two hundred, three hundred miles. Maybe more.”

“Maybe less?”

“Could be.”

“Which direction?”

“Take your pick.”

“Toward the sunrise, or away from it?”

“What sun?”

The sky was always gray, although it seldom actually rained, or snowed. Winter saw a shadow of snow clumped around the roots of the grasses, where the wind couldn’t sweep it away.

“I mean, are we east or west of Omsk?”

“Or south. And why do you want to know? What difference does it make?”

“I was thinking of going there.”

On the wall, a rack of wrenches lined up, with more empty places than wrenches. Usually, if we couldn’t fix it with a hammer, it just added to the pile of spare parts and wrecks.

Dentril sucked some cold snot back into his nose and wiped the rest on his sleeve.

“I’m thinking Omsk must be nicer than this.”

“I’ve been there,” I said. “It’s OK.”

It was Tuesday, I think. A new truck was coming in. We waited.

“If we go on the truck, we could leave,” he said. “Who’s going to stop us? Bamki? He’s just as stuck here as we are.

“He’s got a gun,” I said.

“So?”

“It’s his job to stop us.”

“And it’s our job to escape.”

He said this as if it reflected some sort of incontrovertible logic. Like the next move in a game of chess, or the changing of tides.

The truck came. It was loaded with boots. Hundreds of them. No laces. They weren’t paired, either. Just a pile of boots. Some had holes in their soles; most looked almost new. They were dumped in the center of the floor. Dentril looked to see if any were his size. He found one, threw out his old shoe and put the newish boot on his left foot, keeping the other shoe on his right.

“What do you think?” he said. “Should we get in the back?”

It was an old army truck, with a canvas cover over its back half and a drop at the back end and a large red star on each cab door. We loaded three re-upholstered sofas on in exchange for the boots. The driver never left the cab. He smoked one cigarette after another without so much as rolling down his window. He didn’t look at us, and seemed mildly annoyed when the loading of sofas made the truck bump.

“I’m going,” Dentril said. “You coming?”

He jumped into the back and ducked behind one of the sofas.

“What you going to eat?” I asked him. “What you going to drink?”

Who knew how long the ride would be. Or where it was actually going, for that matter.

“I’ll eat in Omsk,” he said. That kind of optimism was bred by years of having none at all.

“Come on, don’t be silly,” I said. “Get off.”

“Make me.”

“I would but I don’t want to fill out the paperwork.”

We only had three jokes among us, so we reused them frequently. They were just another set of spare parts.

The driver started up the engine and made a grinding noise with the clutch. I jumped on to pull Dentril back. He crawled deeper into the cargo hold. I went for him just as the truck pulled forward. Dentril grabbed my ankle and held me.

“We’re going. We’re going to Omsk.”

Bamki watched the truck leave through what used to be the gate. He waved at us. He didn’t want to fill out the paperwork.

Two hours later, we were still on the dirt road, going somewhere. I  pulled the flaps shut in the back, to try to keep a little warmer.

Three hours later, the same. Six hours the same. Dentril was bored. He reclined on one of the sofas and went to sleep. It began to get dark, and with the flaps closed, we could not see outside. But I could hear that the sound had changed: We were in a town. There were other people. The grinding of the truck echoed off the building faces and made a wholly new soundscape in the darkness.

“Wait till we get to the river,” Dentril said. “Then we’ll jump off.”

We waited, but the soundscape reverted to its former lonesome emptiness. If there had been a river, we missed it.

“Wait till the next town,” Dentril said.

We slept in a jostle of bad truck suspension and bad road.

In the morning, we both peed off the back of the truck.

“Where do you think we are?” Dentril said.

All we could see out the back was more grass. The road was better, paved, even, though full of potholes. By the angle of the sun, I could see we were headed west.

“That’s good,” Dentril said. “That’s toward Omsk, isn’t it?”

“It would be if we knew where we started from.”

He took comfort in that answer, although I don’t know why.

About noon the truck pulled to a stop. We could hear other people outside. They said “sir,” and “yessir,” and it sounded military. This was not good.

After an hour or so, the truck started up again. Dentril said he was hungry.

“I told you,” I said.

“What?”

“That you wouldn’t have any food.”

“Oh, yeah. But I’m hungry.”

We drove another six hours, and entered another populated space. The sound bounced off walls. We slowed. I heard a train pass.

“We should get off now,” I said.

Dentril looked at me, then bolted. He jumped off the back of the truck into what remained of the November sunlight.

“Halt!”

That was the familiar bark of authority. It repeated, more urgently. Then a gunshot and the sound of someone — Dentril — sighing like the air had been squeezed out of him, and a flop on the ground.

The truck took off again. I was alone in the back.

Another night was spent sleeping fitfully on a sofa. Another morning lit up the canvas top of the truck. Another pee out the back. When I looked, the landscape was flat. There was a lake in the distance. A big one. There were geese. The road rounded the shores; nothing else in sight. I was thirsty.

I was hungry, too, but it was the thirst that spoke louder. I damned Dentril for making me take this trip; I prayed for him, too.

As the second night descended, and I was faint from dehydration, the truck came to a stop once more. It was quiet. I peeked out. There was a chain link fence and a gate swung shut.

“Hoy,” said a voice. “Help me get these things out of here.”

He was looking at me. Blank face. No surprise. Like I was supposed to be there.

“Let’s unload,” he said, and turned his back. Another climbed in the back and grabbed one end of the first sofa.

“Let’s go,” he said, looking at me impatiently.

I grabbed my end and we carried the sofa off, into a large warehouse with a tin roof. Went back got the next and then the last, and lined them all up against the inner wall of the building. There were at least 20 other sofas there, all lined up. Beside them were bicycles; on the other wall were transmissions and truck doors. A brazier burned in the corner.

“Cabbage soup again for supper,” he said.

I took the bowl gratefully and slurped down the salty liquid.

“I think I found a cabbage leaf,” I said. “No, it’s only cellophane.”

“Comedian,” he said.

Mrs Semendinger's second grade 2
I recently came across a photograph of my second grade class and something odd happened.

I hadn’t thought of these young faces in more than 50 years. Yet, as I looked into their faces, their names popped into my brain. Where those names and faces had been stored, I have no idea: some forgotten warehouse in my mind, like the scene at the end of “Lost Raiders.” These were faces from nearly 60 years ago, and in their fresh-faced innocence, they barely show the traces that would line them even in their eighth grade graduation photo. 8th grade class 1961

I left behind my life in New Jersey four years after that second photo, going off to college and what seemed to me to be “real life.” I wanted to forget New Jersey — more exactly the banality I saw in the suburban stultification of my home state — and dive into the deep end of art, music and poetry.

But now, a half-century later, I saw the faces in that picture and names I have not uttered in 50 years reappeared magically, jogged out of the synapses of my brain like dust between the floorboards.

What connects, ourobouros-like, our lives now with our lives then? The disconnect seems immense: There is so little of then that survives into my now; yet, the person — the sensibility I am — is a continuous existence, a line drawn without the pencil once being lifted off the page.

There is a danger, when looking back, to fall into the miasma of nostalgia. You see it all over the internet: “Share if you remember when the milkman delivered milk to your door?” and “Remember when cars had running boards?” Rotary phones? Party lines? As the American population has aged, PBS stations ask for money to a soundtrack no longer of septuagenarians playing Glenn Miller standards, but now to septuagenarians singing doo-wop music and recalling, with a wistful gaze on their faces “the music of our times,” as if this shared experience created an us-vs.-them world in which we remain the good guys, who really knew the score, and they are the johnny-come-latelies who have ruined it all. Patti Page

So, it is easy to make fun of the elderly, watching reruns of Lawrence Welk and wishing music still had melody, like the tunes of Patti Page and Perry Como. Or the Beatles and Barry Manilow. Or, sometime in the future, of Nirvana and Coldplay.

Nostalgia is a trap we should avoid. The past was not better than the present; it was different. I, for one, would not wish to retreat to a time when segregation was enforced by police, when women had to wear girdles, and when everyone, everywhere, at every hour of the day, sucked cigarettes.

What interests me in that second-grade photograph is not a warm, fuzzy nostalgia, but a hard, difficult and confusing problem: How much of that is me, is still me? How complete is the link between that little boy and this old, bearded senex? What is the mechanism of selfhood? How come a flash glance at an old picture can fire off a neuron after a half century and cough up the name of a Linda Muth or a Lenny D’Angelo. Why do those names persist in the neurobiology of a 67-year-old writer, who has left them all behind? And what else is buried under a lifetime of experience, ready to be excavated by a chance trigger?

A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting her hometown in North Carolina. We stopped at a gas station to refill the car and she got out to go into the quickie-mart. Inside, while standing at the cash register, a voice called out behind her, “Carole Steele, do you remember me?” She turned around and saw an old man, cue-ball hairless, nearly toothless, with a vast beer belly and dressed in denim overalls — clearly an old farmer. “Thomas Bullins,” she said, in instant recognition. “What happened to your red hair and your freckles? And how did you recognize me?” Carole was now 70 years old. “Your hair,” he said. When they were in the first grade, little Tommy Bullins used to steal the ribbons from Carole’s pigtails.

He smiled that toothless smile, and Carole reached up and kissed him on the mouth. Some vast and unnamed chasm had been spanned in an instant.

What traces of the six-year-old Tommy Bullins remained on the wrinkled, pudgy, puffy, weathered face that Carole could see so immediately? “There is an X on the faces of all the Bullinses,” she says, “that I saw in the gas station.” Not an actual X, but a lineup of features that suggested an X there, that signaled that this was Tom Bullins.

I don’t know the mechanism for memory. I’m not sure anyone does. But I know its persistence, and I know that somehow that persistence is necessary for the development of a self — that sense that the boy is truly father to the man, that the me in New Jersey 60 years ago is the same me in the mountains of North Carolina now, despite all the midden of experience that has piled on in the intervening years. Would my mother recognize the little boy in me now? I know that Carole recognizes the little girl in her 50-year-old daughter; in fact, she hardly recognizes that Susie is all grown up.

We push through time like snow plows, leaving a cleared path behind us. That wake is our selfhood. Longfellow School Teaneck back

Through Facebook, I recently reconnected with a boy (now man) I first met in kindergarten at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School in Teaneck, N.J. He now lives on the other side of the continent. When my family moved from Teaneck to Old Tappan and I began the second grade at Charles De Wolf Elementary School in Old Tappan, he was there, too, his family having also moved. This makes him the person outside of family that I have known the longest.

The contact brought up a welter of memory, of playing in a rhythm band in kindergarten, of taking those daily naps on the classroom floor, of seeing him and other classmates singing “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,” and of walking every day — at five years old — the half mile from home to school, and later, walking back. The entire geography of my tiny life was back before me: the A&P I passed on the way, the firehouse on Morningside Drive, the ballfield outside Longfellow school, the deli, the stationery store, the old grocery with its sawdust floor, the Italian pushcart merchant that wandered up Farrant Terrace calling out his wares, the two collies that lived down the street that scared my younger brother, who thought they were lions — the inside of the closet in my home, with its lathe-and-plaster walls. A whole world wells up. Where has it been sitting? Why is it all buried in there?

A few years ago, I began an autobiography, not for publication, but to share with my brothers in a group project: They would write theirs, too, and we would get to know each other better — what they had done after leaving home for college, and we lost daily contact.

The thing that most astonished me about the writing was that every memory I retrieved was a room with three other doors, and behind each of those doors was another room with three more doors, on and on, like some Borges story. I was dumbfounded at the amount of information that was still there to be recovered. Many were not anecdotal stories, but rather, sense memories, bits of things and locations that fell back into place when recalled.

It must be the same for everyone. I know that when I ask my wife to tell me about her childhood, she can go on for an hour and we have to stop, but the next day, we can start again and there is an endless stream, an bottomless well of material. In her case, it sounds all like a Faulkner novel and I have tried to write it all down. A fool’s errand: There can be no “all,” because it never seems to end. I write it into my laptop as fast as she can speak it, but I’ll never have the time to go back and edit the notes, because the next time, there are all-new stories, and another cast of characters.

I want to save as much as possible, not for publication, but for the sake of our grandchildren, so they can have some sense of their grandmother. If her stories can become part of their memories, then their interior lives can retreat five generations, back to Carole’s grandparents, who were so central to her life.

In the end, this has given me a powerful sense of the onflow of life, of the piling on of detail, of the continuity, not merely of selfhood, but of family, of history: a line that Carole calls “the long man,” which reaches back past Eve and Adam, past Homo habilis, back to our reptilian life, back to our eukaryotid beginnings, all a wholeness. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The author, age 20 months

I see the scrubbed face of my old picture, holding my favorite ball, and I see myself now, aged and worn, and there is an odd reversal: The baby photograph is now six decades old and the ancient me is brand new. And in some inexplicable way, they are the same.

 
 
 
 

BW01
Call me Wordsworth.

When I was in my 20s, strapping and idealistic — i.e., an idiot — I lusted after this landscape. I knew it only in the photos in the Sierra Club coffeetable books, thinking how grand it would be to live in an alpine meadow in the Cascades, Sierras or in Alaska, with distant lightning-zag waterfalls dropping in a pencil-line a thousand feet down the face of a granite escarpment. I could feel the bracing air in my imagination. nuggetfallsb&w copy

The attraction was part a Longinian yearning for the sublime, for the vastness of the landscape; part of the attraction was its isolation, away from the ordinariness of daily life with all its people, some of whom might well be my boss. There was no TV in this idealized world; only bear and moose.

I am older now, still an idiot, and I can no longer feel that fervid longing, at least not directly, but I remembered it keenly visiting the mountains and glaciers of Alaska. They are vast, the air is ice on the skin and the vistas are the kind John Martin might paint.peaks2 copy

The pianist Glenn Gould once made a radio show for Canadian listeners called “The Idea of North.”

For those of us south of his border, the idea of north is Alaska. Endless forests, grizzly bears, rock-cobbled rivers, salmon, snow and rime.

Alaska is an inaccessible place, where no interstates lead, and even its state capital cannot be reached except by air or sea. For most of us, Alaska is important precisely because we cannot get there; it is proof that there is still a moment on the planet that is not yet filled with highways, billboards, Nike ads and grinning tourists. For most of Alaska, to be seen is to be explored; it takes dedication, muscle and energy, just as it did for the Gold Rush prospectors who hiked over the Chilkoot Trail.snow and trees copy

We think of Robert Service poetry or Jack London novels. Perhaps our idea of the frozen north comes from Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” In any case, it is a north that is still dangerous. A landscape that carries with it the final sense of the sublime: beauty that can kill us. And even if we survive, it is beauty on such a scale that our human minuteness shrivels our ambitions and makes us harbor cosmic thoughts.creek copy

Two hundred years ago, European art and literature was chockablock with the frozen Arctic. From paintings by Caspar David Friedrich to “Frankenstein,” it was icebergs and glaciers that told of the vastness and sublimity of nature. Make that Nature, with a Capital N.

The dark, stormy North was inaccessible and remote; humans were pismires in its vastness; danger lurked everywhere. Ice froze on the ship’s rigging and mariners had to chop it away with axes. margerieboat copy

“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed by their conflict.” — “Frankenstein”

Or, from “The Ricome of the Ancient Mariner”:

“And now there came both mist and snow,/ And it grew wondrous cold:/ And ice, mast-high, came floating by,/As green as emerald. … / It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,/ Like noises in a swound!”gullclose copy

As green as emerald? Rather, as blue as sapphire.

In College Fjord, the glacial ice is blackened at the margins with sooty dirt and rocks, but the central part — the “filet,” as you might call it — is pure and clean. It is there, in places where deep fissures in the ice let you see into the glacier, that the ice shows bright, clear blue. The color is brighter when the sun briefly shines on it. It is Tarheel blue, as bright as a new paint block in a watercolor set. Blue ice

One of the vertical slices of the glacier has been worn through, leaving an icy natural bridge. In its donut hole, the blue is intense. Ice, it turns out is blue. It is not the mere reflection of the sky that makes it so — if proof be needed, there is no blue sky most of this day — but rather that the ice is not clear. Turns out, water is not clear, either. octopus fingers mask copyIt really is blue, although so thinly colored that a glass of it looks transparent. Put enough of it together and the blue is apparent enough. And the ice made in this giant Frigidaire is also blue where it is pure enough, although much of the surface is roughed up with layers of snow, to make them white and glistening.

Crack and boom, and some more ice falls off the front of the glacial wall. Most of the calving involves an avalanche of small ice cubes and snow balls rather than the giant heaving chunks we see on the nature TV shows. The center of the glacier’s face is where most of the action is happening; a certain section is concave and its upper surface, overhanging its lower, keeps dropping bits like plaster falling off a wet ceiling. It crashes into the water in big ice slides and sends up waves that circle off toward the boat. They peter out into wide ripples before they reach us, so we can hardly notice them as they pass.BW09

When a bigger chunk falls off, it drops below the surface and immediately pops back up, like a whale breeching. Sometimes, as it reappears, it also turns over on its back, like a restless sleeper, before settling back down into the water. Seabirds rush to the spot to seek food.ketchikan totem 2 copy

It was the north that attracted Amundsen, Nansen, Peary. Parkas of animal fur made their heads three times normal size and they walked about in a stiff-leg shuffle in the ice and snow. The sky was always gray and the air always frigid. Snow blew sideways.

It was the ice and isolation that drew Byron’s Manfred, Jack London’s White Fang, Robert Service’s Dan McGrew. In Finland, it is the snow and ice of Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” the thin, remote trombones of his Seventh Symphony.

The problem is, that for most Americans who venture to Alaska now, they do so on a cruise ship, eating rib roasts and sherry triffle, looking off the taffrail for the spout of a friendly whale, or the antics of a sea otter. The cruise industry has turned the sublime into Disney ride. Whee!

It can take some concentrated effort, but for anyone who wants to invest the psychic and emotional energy to do so, the Alaska of vast spaces and endless emptiness is still there. But unlike the days when leathery men packed mules to go across the passes, we have to make that journey more in our heads than on our feet. It is an act of imaginative will to see the skull beneath the skin, the rocky sublimity under the coating of easy tourism.cruise ship in the fjord juneau copy

I went to Alaska to find the wilderness I fantasized about when I was 20. It was the allure of the Sierra Club coffeetable books, with their glossy photos of deep glacial valleys and snow-capped sierras. I imagined living on some Cascadian mountainside with mountain goats and bear grass.

Which brings us all back to Wordsworth and the “Intimations Ode.”peaksb&w copy

We gain a good deal as we accumulate experience like barnacles. We are stronger, less easily angered or driven to political excesses, and we certainly have learned something about love that we could never have guessed when our hearts merely wanted. But, we have lost a good deal, too.

“I know, where’er I go,/ That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.”lowsun copy

Now that I am past 60, it is no longer a life I want, but one can never cease wishing to be 20 and longing for the heart’s desire.

dear carol 2
There was a moment in my life I was unemployed. I received unemployment checks for some weeks before I was handed a job interview with The Carolina Peacemaker, the black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, N.C. The fact that I was white seemed to make no difference. Neither did the fact I had no journalism experience at all.

Initially, the paper was looking for a photojournalist — actually, they just needed someone who could process film. When they hired me, they asked if I could write, too, and within a few months, I was “news director,” a title that sounds a whole lot more impressive than the reality. Reality was a staff of me and one other writer, a secretary, a typist, an ad salesman and Mike Feeney, a cynical Irishman and washed-out New York Times reporter who came in once a week to lay the paper out. He spent his spare time in his office drinking bad coffee and filling out the Times crossword puzzle in ink, without ever needing to use any of the “down” clues. It was like filling in an application blank. His desk was piled with ancient moldy paper coffee cups, with dehydrated grounds in the bottom, along with crushed out cigarettes. There must have been a hundred of them. I don’t know why he chose not to throw them out.

When Feeney quit, I became “managing editor,” although all that meant was that I had more work. I edited all the copy, wrote all the headlines, laid out the paper each week, developed all the photographs, sized them and sent the works out to the printer.

I also wrote many of the stories, and all of the editorials. It may seem strange that a white guy should be writing editorials telling the black population of Greensboro who to vote for, but I have to say that I never felt the slightest sense of resentment or mistrust. The paper never hid the fact that I was not African-American, and I had excellent relations with everyone I met in the black community.

But it wasn’t only editorials and news stories. A few years after I got there, the woman who wrote the advice to the lovelorn column retired, and I inherited the “Dear Carol” spot. I also became the “Kitchen Magician,” and wrote a weekly cooking column.

I have to say I had fun with Dear Carol. I created a distinct personality for her: She was a militant black feminist. I knew her entire biography, where she was born, who her father and mother were, where she went to school — the whole nine yards. I didn’t need to invent her: She was there, inside me waiting to get out.

But the most amazing part of the “Dear Carol” column was that I didn’t only have to write the answers to the letters, I had to write the letters, also.

Week after week, I concocted letters with some of the oddest and most peculiar personal problems I could think of. I had a ball.

Here are a few of them:

LOUD TIES

Dear Carol,

There is this really cute guy in the office where I work. He is a salesman and I am a secretary. But though he is friendly, and I think we could really get together, I worry about him because he wears the most disgustingly loud ties. And his socks never match. In fact, I don’t see how he can be the successful salesman he is when he shows such miserable taste in his clothes.

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but a book doesn’t choose its cover. This guy chooses his gold lame neckties.

Should I try to become used to his clothes, or should I forget about him and look for someone else?

— My Clothes Match

Dear My,

Why aren’t you a saleswoman? You have more class than this dodo that’s pulling in the loot, but you type his ungrammatical letters.

There are three ways to be about clothes. One is to be oblivious. Many people just don’t care what they look like. Clothes just aren’t important. If they keep one from being arrested or from catching pneumonia, that’s enough.

Another whole group of people love clothes and they love the way they look in the latest fashions. They know how to dress and they do it. You can see them not only on the neon disco floor, but even in church on Sunday mornings. These people just look classy.

Then there is our salesman. He apparently wants to dress well, but doesn’t know the first thing about style. He should just relapse to the first phase and not care about his clothes. When he tries to look good, he becomes a joke. Plainness is better than gaud.

The choice is yours. Do you want a turkey who looks like a Reynolds Wrap mummy, or do you want some other turkey?

If I were you, I would just bide my time and not worry about men. When you find the right kind of man, it will be soon enough. In the meantime, you just don’t need one.

ON THE MAKE

Dear Carol,

I am a salesman for a small business and my boss is a woman. I can get along with a woman boss just fine, that doesn’t bother me. In fact, she’s real good at what she does. But she has made advances to me that are more than suggestive. They are downright rough. If she had her way, the janitor’s closet in our building would be a mighty busy place.

But she is not my type, and besides, I’m married. My wife is a quiet sort who hasn’t been around much.

My boss has been a round a lot. Especially around my desk, chasing me. Will I have to quit my job?

–Chased, so far

Dear Chased,

Don’t quit  good job merely for personality problems. If you enjoy your career and you are making a good living, don’t blow it just because of one lecherous boss. If she is really good at her job, she will be promoted or will change companies as she rises in management. Then your problems will be gone. Until then, realize that her attentions are only a nuisance. Let her know that you are satisfied in your marriage and tell her she is bothering you.

And when you make it into a management position, remember your lesson and don’t bother the women you supervise. It’s a two-way street. I know.

NOT SINCE HIGH SCHOOL?

Dear Carol,

Boy, do I ever have a problem.

I am getting married next month to the man I’ve been engaged to for two years. We have a good relationship and I love him a whole lot.

We have always had a good sex life and we enjoy each other a lot. But I am pregnant. (That’s no problem since we both want a lot of kids).

But the problem is that several months ago, I decided that if I was going to be married, I should get out and have a last fling. Things got a little out of hand and I made it with 16 different guys in a week period. It was during that time I got pregnant. Now, I don’t know if the baby will be my fiance’s or not.

So far, the notorious week has been a secret, though I don’t know how. I haven’t done anything like that since high school. But should I tell my man or not?

I just don’t know what got into me.

— Monogamous

Dear Monog,

First of all, don’t ever say a thing about it. You will only cause pain for the one you love. It is spilt milk, so forget it.

Second, don’t ever let it happen again. If you’ve been with this guy for two years and having “a good sex life,” you are as good as living together and in my book, that is the same as marriage. And marriage requires trust. If you aim to make it safely through the many years you have left, you will have to give some reason for your hubby to trust you.

Of course, the same thing goes for him. I don’t want to leave the men off the hook.

They probably need to listen to this advice more than most women.

With a child on the way and a marriage upcoming, you will need a whole lot more maturity than you showed several months ago. You will have to be more circumspect as a mother.

But what in the world did you do in high school?

THE RAT COMES HOME

Dear Carol,

I am in a rage. The man I have been seeing for five years is seeing another woman. My man is married and his wife never knew about us. We kept a good secret, but now I find my man has been keeping a secret from me, too.

I got so mad that I told his wife about his affair with the third woman, but I still haven’t told her about us. His wife threw him out of the house for playing around with the other woman and the rat has come to me asking for a place to stay. The whole thing is a mess.

Well, I just want to say that for the first time ever, I understand the wife’s point of view. It hurts. But should I keep the rat, or let him drown?

— Tables Turned

Dear Turned,

You should have learned your lesson by now. The rat won’t drown, he’ll just ask a fourth or fifth girlfriend for a place to stay. He may have already. Did it ever occur to you that he may have been turned out by other girlfriends before he even asked you? Forget him. And clean up your own act.

A STINKER

Dear Carol,

My wife embarrasses me every time we go out. She has a nasty habit of smoking cigars. She likes those imported Italian cigars that are triple-dipped in asphalt and she smokes one with a cup of coffee after dinner. That is not so bad at home, but she does it when we are visiting friends and relatives.

My mother never liked my wife, and now this only seems to confirm, for my mother, the nasty things she has thought all along. But aside from the cigars, my wife is wonderful. I love her very much and don’t want to lose her. What can I do?

— Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Dear Smokey,

Cigar smoking is unusual in a woman. I dislike all smoking and try to convince everybody to stop. I’d try to convince your wife to stop, too, but I doubt it would work. Best thing is for you to do is talk it over with her. Compromise and let her smoke among certain friends that are used to her, and ask her to forego the stinkers when you visit relatives, especially the worried mother. I know how that can be.

Just remember that several great women smoked cigars, though I doubt George Sand smoked those Italian jobs.

PAINT PAINS

Dear Carol,

My son is in college now, studying art. For Christmas last year, he gave us a huge painting to put over the couch. This canvas in the frame is at least six feet long. But Carol, the painting is terrible! It is six feet of modern abstraction, all bright blue, red and green. It looks like a wreck between a paint truck and a ketchup factory. It has been hanging up there since Christmas and I can’t take it anymore.

I thought that after a few months I could get used to it, but I don’t think several decades would help. I don’t want to hurt my son’s feelings, but I can’t stand the pain in my eyeballs anymore.

What can I do?

–No Whistler’s Mother

Dear No,

I sympathize with you. I once received a hall clock that was a statue of a naked lady with a clock in her belly. It was too big to put in my hall and so I finally put it in a large dumpster.

But your problem is that it is your son who gave you the painting and the only way to handle the problem tactfully is to ask him to paint you a new one. If you flatter him into painting a new one, then it can take the place of the old one. Give yourself several months to get used to whatever he paints. Give the old one to his father and let him worry about where it might fit in his workshop.

HER MAN IS A PICKY EATER

Dear Carol,

My boyfriend is such a picky eater. He won’t touch most anything that normal people eat.

He eats peanutbutter and marshmallow sandwiches and mashed potatoes stirred up with mustard, but practically nothing else.

His mother always let him get away with being picky when he grew up, and now I think he’ll never change.

One the other hand, I enjoy good foods. I go crazy in a Japanese restaurant or around a food processor. I love nice cookware and I own a beautiful set of carbon steel chef knives.

Well, my boyfriend and I are thinking about getting married, and I wonder if our eating habits will cause any trouble. Do you think I have something to worry about?

–Gourmet

Dear Gourmet,

It might cause a problem at first, but as the years go on and on and you fall into a common marriage pattern, you won’t be eating together anyway, so it will make no difference.

You will wind up eating salads or soup alone and hubby will come home late and fix a P-butter and Marshmallow sandwich and sit down in front of the tube.

Mothers — When your children are young, make them eat at least a bit of everything that you serve. If a kid hates mashed rutabaga, make her eat one spoonful every time you make it. In a few years, rutabaga will be among her favorite vegetables.

A kid can’t complain about one spoonful, and almost any food problem can eventually be overcome this way. Start early with your children and they will lead fuller, happier lives.

I know. My mom made me eat rutabaga.Dear Carol 1

I CHEATED, BUT NOW MY WIFE WANTS A TRIAD!

Dear Carol:

I’ve been married for ten years and have no children (by choice) and I have always gotten along with my wife. In those ten years we have never had a fight.

But as I hit my 35th birthday, I began to wonder where my life was going and I began to be afraid that I would be caught in a dull life. So when the opportunity arose to cheat on my wife, I took it.

The other woman was a waitress with huge beautiful brown eyes and a pair of legs that belongs in the Guinness Book of Records. But she was only 19 years old.

Now I knew that a lot of men go through what I did and I know a lot of wives find out about it, like mine did. But most wives either ask for a divorce, or make the big effort to forgive. My wife has a different idea. She wants all three of us to live together.

She went to the restaurant to talk to the other woman and they liked each other. My wife told her that even though she was jealous, she would control it and that she would like to find out what I would do if we all lived together.

What I’m doing is panicking.

Now a lot of guys would get real excited about living with two women and I agree it has its points, but what most men don’t consider is what it would be like to have two women telling him to take out the garbage; two women telling him to mow the lawn; two mothers-in-law.

If I had my choice, I would just go back to my wife and things would like they always were. My life is no longer dull, but I don’t think I can manage this a trois.

–Off The Pace

Dear Off,

Now you know what life is like in the fast lane and you are coughing exhaust fumes.

I think your wife is trying to teach you a lesson and it sounds like it’s a lesson you’ll never forget. Now you know the grass on the other side of the fence will only get you in trouble.

Pardon me while I gloat.

I’m sure that if you explain to your wife how you feel and if you promise to be a good boy and not do it again, she will let you off the hook. Personally, I marvel at the ingenuity of your wife. She must know just how to make you suffer.

Dear Carol,

I lost a part of my thumb in a mill accident several years ago. That is not a problem by itself, but I love bowling and my bowling ball has only two holes drilled into it.

Many years ago, a lot of people had ball with only two holes, but most of the buys in my league don’t remember that and they make fun of my bowling ball.

I know I’m being touchy about it, but they make the same jokes all the time and it gets on my nerves. “Hey, thumbs up, Bill,” they yell at me across the lanes. Last Christmas the guys on my team took up a collection and bought me another hole for my ball.

Am I being too sensitive?

–Spare me

Dear Spare,

Repetitious jokes can get on anyone’s nerves. What you need to do is talk to your team next time you bowl and tell them how you feel.

Don’t make a big thing of it, just say quietly, “I know you fellows mean well, but I’m sensitive about this matter and I wish you wouldn’t make jokes any more about my ball or my thumb.” That’s all there is to it. Most people are mean only for thoughtlessness. If they know the score, they will go ten frames for you.

stone.tif

stone.tif

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about the Declaration of Independence is that the portion of it that seemed commonplace when it was written now seems revolutionary, and the part that seemed to its framers as most central, to us seems trivial, even whiny.

As a piece of rhetoric, it begins in generalities, narrows to specifics, and ends in a course of action. It couldn’t be more concisely structured. The committee charged with drafting it in the summer of 1776 chose wisely when it asked Thomas Jefferson to write the first version. Jefferson’s prose is a model of late 18th-century style: precise, lucid and syllogistic. declaration 3

It states baldly and without argument or support, that all men are born equal, have certain rights by virtue solely of being born, and that when a government fails egregiously to effect the safety and happiness of the people, it is their right to replace it.

But Jefferson didn’t invent its ideas whole cloth. In fact, as Jefferson wrote years later, the purpose of his stirring words was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

Much of the remainder of the Declaration is given over to a litany of complaints the colonies had about British governance. Some of these complaints still seem legitimate; many seem trivial, even trumped up. “The King did this” and “The King did that.”

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people,” it says. Pure hyperbole.

These complaints were the part of the Declaration that was “news” in 1776. They constituted what made the document inflammatory.

Few can read through the whole of the Declaration of Independence now without a sense of fatigue: Those complaints were the issues of 1776, not of today.

It is the second paragraph that seems told to all people at all times, and remains news to us in the 21st century.

Bridge between ages

But to follow those ideas from the century before the Declaration into the ink on its page shows just how important its year of birth was. It was born in the cusp between two great ages, two overriding sensibilities, and partakes of both.

The period from about 1775 to about 1825 is one of the richest in humankind’s history, fertile, even febrile. It is in many ways, the hinge between the past and the modern, between the classically minded 18th century and the Romantic 19th. From an age of Reason to one of Sentiment — as it was called at the time. In Europe, it was the age of Goethe and Rousseau.

And no figure in the American experiment better demonstrates that shift of sensibilities than Jefferson.

On one hand, he epitomized the faith in science and logic of the Enlightenment; on the other, he shared with the revolutionary Rousseau the belief in the nobility of humanity and its drive to social improvement.

You can hardly fail to notice this point when you visit Jefferson’s home in Virginia.

Monticello is a mirror of its maker. Jefferson built a model of Palladian proportion and filled it with moose antlers. The outside lines of the house are clean and mathematically rational. The inside is a warren of peculiar and unnerving spaces.

Jefferson never fully reconciled these two aspects of his personality. He was a slave owner who sings of the dignity of the free man. How much more conflicted than that can you be?

The Declaration of Independence speaks to us now, in large part, because of this clash of sensibilities in Jefferson.

On the one hand, you have the ideas of the Enlightenment, that brilliant flame of philosophy and science that sprang up in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On the other hand, you have the growth of the individual as a thinking and feeling person.

The Enlightenment preached rationality and temperance, tolerance and universal principals.

One of its most influential writers was John Locke, who, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, from 1690, wrote that all human beings have natural rights and that these included “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

It was an idea that took hold and flourished.

By the time of the American Revolution, the idea was commonplace. It shows up in George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights in June 1776, in slightly altered form:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

When you compare that with what Jefferson first wrote, you can see how much better a writer Jefferson was. He only needed 31 words to say what Mason required 57 for, and say it more forcefully and memorably. Two dollar bill

An economy of words

Jefferson’s first take on this was considerably more sonorous, but still not quite there:

“We hold these truths to be sacred, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

It was a committee of five, delegated by the Second Continental Congress, that were given the responsibility to draw up the Declaration. Jefferson wrote that first draft, but Benjamin Franklin, also on the committee, struck out “sacred” and replaced it with “self-evident.”

By 18th-century reasoning, self-evidence was universal, while sacredness could be construed as sectarian. Franklin wanted to emphasize the universal truth of the proposition.

And Jefferson himself changed “property” to “happiness,” and with that stroke made the Declaration jump from the past into the future.

The past was Thomas Hobbes, with his sense of the nastiness, brutishness and shortness of life, and a belief that the natural order of mankind was greed, rapine and thievery. Only strong central government, he wrote, could possibly control the natural impulses of humankind.

The future was Rousseau’s perfectibility of man, his belief in the nobility of those uncorrupted by society and government, the “natural man.”

The middle was Jefferson, perfectly if perilously balanced between.

The right of life remained pretty much the same looking forward and back, but the other two rights changed meaning over the cusp of 1800.

Locke believed that all humans coveted was property; Jefferson realized that there were many routes besides ownership to humanity’s true goal, individual happiness. Hence, the change in language.

Liberty is the word that has changed the most. In the 18th century, it meant being left alone, basically. Your government let you be: Taxes shouldn’t be too onerous and armies shouldn’t be quartered in your home at the whim of the commandant.

But by the 19th century, liberty took on a more revolutionary turn: Romantic writers saw liberty as the antidote to repressive regimes around the world and one read poems to Count Egmont, the Prisoner of Chillon and Nat Turner. It fueled popular movements all across Europe and led to a crisis year in 1848. Liberty meant revolt — a very different thing from what John Locke had in mind.

(And it makes almost comic the confusion of the two versions of liberty conflated by contemporary anti-tax factions and the paranoid fringe looking for the black helicopters that we can get all belligerent and militant about “tyranny” in Washington, when compared to what is happening in Sudan, Russia or North Korea, we remain among the most liberty-ridden people on earth. Admittedly, the Declaration of Independence itself is full of the same sort of inflated rhetoric.)

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This meant that the Declaration could speak, Janus-like, forward and backward. The fulcrum of modern history. The Age of Reason is emerging from its pupa into the language of Romanticism.

 
 

gibbon decline and fall horizAs a now former and once long-time member of the Society of Professional Journalists, I was taught — indeed, had it drummed into me — that the best prose style was invisible, that it disappeared like window glass, letting the matter and substance of what was being written be transmitted from one mind to the other effortlessly, almost telepathically, as if it had no need of linguistic intercessor. One should never notice that there were words — black tadpoles — darting across the white expanse of page.

Yet, that was never how I felt in my deep heart’s core. I came to writing through love of reading, and that which I loved to read were words that gave me pleasure in the reading. Certainly, the stories being told carried their own power, and the ideas expressed fertilized and pruned my own ever-growing and expanding sensibility. But for utter pleasure, it was the words. I enjoyed writers who used those words and fashioned elegant sentences with a joyful abandon. I loved those sentences that could fill out a printed page with dependent clauses, semicolons and parenthetical interpolations. Hemingway made a distinction between those writers who were “taker-outers” and those who were “puter-inners.” My heart always went lost to the puter-inners, the piler-on-ers, the expanders and expatiators. I frequently crack a book not for what it has to tell me but for its way of telling it, for its personality, its sparkle.

Until recently, for instance, the New Yorker magazine had two primary and alternating film critics. One — David Denby, who recently retired from the ring — was a sober and thoughtful critic, whose judgment I valued, and whose taste was undeniably similar to my own. I could trust his opinion when I meant to put down my peso for a ticket. But the other — Anthony Lane — gave me joy in the reading. Each week, when the magazine materialized in my mailbox, I opened to the final pages to see who was writing. If Denby, my heart sank a little, not because he was a bad writer, he wasn’t — he was actually a very clear and intelligent crafter of words — but because Lane’s reviews, even when espousing views antithetical to my own, sparkled with wit and inventive phrases; the page bubbled. I looked to Denby for discernment and taste; what I got from Lane was a kind of naughty tickle to my brain, as if he were sharing some ripe piece of villainous gossip. I learned a lot from my schoolmasters, too, but I loved going to the amusement park.

Or, consider author Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to writers, where he warns them away from what Steinbeck called “hooptedoodle:”

“Rule No. 10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the characters head, and the reader either knows what the guys thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

This is all well and good for Elmore Leonard, who wants to make the reader turn the page, as if the last one were worthless, but maybe there was gold in the next. And that is fine for a certain kind of book. It reminds me of the advice given by film director Sam Fuller, when asked what makes a good movie.

“A story,” he said, with a cigar in his teeth.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story.”

But it isn’t the story that gives me the pleasure I seek, it is the hooptedoodle.

Here are a dozen of the books that satisfy my addiction to hooptedoodle, the books I return to over and over just for the sybaritic enjoyment of chewing over their words, gurgling their wine on my palate as I suck in a bit of air to pick up the notes of wood and chocolate, words I can inhale and breathe out like the curl of smoke from a good cigar. I recommend them to you.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


gibbonThis monumental tome, in six volumes, follows its subject with intense scholarship. Gibbon had read all the sources, so that we don’t have to. After all, how much Procopius or Irenaeus have you actually imbibed? But it isn’t the history itself that propels the work, it is Gibbon’s propulsive prose, a piling on of detail and irony that keeps me buried in the pages. I can pick up a volume and dip into it at any point and come away with a full belly. Such wonderful, rich, cream-filled sentences:

“If a man were called to fix the period in history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”gibbon decline and fall

It is Gibbon’s theme that the empire fell because it embraced Christianity. He reaches for his highest caliber irony when discussing what he calls its “superstition.” And although he lives in an age of an established church in England, when everyone was nominally pious, he uses his irony to express what he felt he could not say outright. About the claim of miracles, and of resurrection:

“But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate or even preternatural kind can no longer occasion any surprise, when we recollect that in the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event: that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterward, amongst them many years. At such a period, when faith could boast of so many wonderful victories over death, it seems difficult to account for the scepticism of those philosophers who still rejected and derided the doctrine of the resurrection. A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy and promised Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, that, if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge.”

As the Duke of Gloucester said when the author presented him with a copy, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

nabokovA wicked and malicious book, all verbal skyrockets and Roman candles, there is no more sustained example of literary pyrotechnics in English in the 20th century (the requirement for English disqualifies Finnegans Wake). It tells the story of the nympholept and child molester Humbert Humbert in his own words, which drip with irony from start to finish, yet with a second layer of irony underneath, provided by Nabokov. Humbert freely admits his crime, with charm and erudition, but Nabokov lets us know that however forthcoming Humbert seems to be, there is an imposture in self-revelation. All in virtuoso prose: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” he says.

There is misogyny and misanthropy in Humbert, which you can read in his description of a dalliance he has with another amour, Rita:nabokov lolita

“She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, an angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a most appealing ensellure to her supple back — I think she had some Spanish or Babylonian blood.”

“She was so kind, was Rita, such a good sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer chumminess and compassion.” 

“When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third husband — and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant — and others, the mutables, were too numerous and mobile to tabulate. Her brother was — and no doubt still is — a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and booster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never enter great little Grainball City.”

A little later:

“Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic; I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her shrieks of laughter.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

joyceJoyce has a reputation for being difficult, but when he wants to be clear, there is no better stylist in the English language. His prose is clear and direct and redolent of the things of this world. If I were to choose a single sentence (or two) that sums up everything I love most in a book, it would be:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

joyce ulyssesBut he can make dire fun of his other protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, and the way the scholar can drown in Aquinian scholasticism. Going down for the third time, Daedalus says:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: At least that if no more, though through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not, a door. Shut your eyes and see.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

melvilleThere is no more perfect example of the “putter-inner” than Melville. He expands; he exfoliates; he swells with words on words. I love his best work like little else in American literature. I can reread I and my Chimney or Bartleby or The Piazza or Benito Cereno over and over again, sucking up the juices. But it is Moby Dick that is the champ. I had trouble reading it at first, not because I found it hard going — quite the opposite — but because I loved its opening chapter so much that each time I picked it up, I found myself not reading where I had left off, but starting anew each time with “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read the first chapter a hundred times before I managed to break through and get to the end.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. melville moby dickThis is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

The pith of the book can be found in Ahab’s description of his hatred of the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq.

sterneThis must be the funniest book in the English language. Sterne manages to make fun of the human condition without ever seeming mean about it. There is a gentleness to it, even when he is close to obscene, as when he opens the book with the very moment of conception for its hero, and the discomfiting dialog between his mother and father at the moment of ejaculation:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; — that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; — and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost; — Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, — I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me. sterne tristram shandy— Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?”

 James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

ageeWhile ostensibly, this is a book about white tenant farmers in Alabama in the 1930s, it is almost more about Agee’s guilt over the fact that he is using their misery to make a book, and his empathy for their condition, and his righteous insistence on not falling back on stereotypes and formulae, but to get it absolutely right, to be absolutely accurate, which leads him to vast circumlocutions as he tries to find just the right words.

It is a very hard book to describe, so unlike anything else in the literature, and must be taken in long draughts to get the real flavor of it. Short quotes will not do.

A long section describes him late at night in the Gudger cabin, fretting over his relationship with them. He describes the lamplight and the bare wooden walls, all in minute detail, so we don’t too easily generalize, which, he feels would be a lie. All the while, on the other side of that wall the family sleeps, husband, wife, sister-in-law and four children. agee let us now praise

“.. and there lie sleeping, on two iron beds and on pallets on the floor, a man and his wife and her sister and four children, a girl and three harmed boys. Their lamp is out, their light is done this long while, and not in a long while has any one of them made a sound. Not even straining, can I hear their breathing: rather I have a not quite sensuous knowledge of a sort of suspiration, less breathing than that indiscernible drawing-in of heaven by which plants live, and thus I know they rest and the profundity of their tiredness, as if I were in each one of these seven bodies whose sleeping I can almost touch through this wall, and which in the darkness I so clearly see, with the whole touch and weight of my body: George’s red body, already a little squat with the burden of thirty years, knotted like oakwood, in its clean white cotton summer union suit that it sleeps in; and his wife’s beside him, Annie Mae’s, slender, and sharpened through with bone, that ten years past must have had such a beauty, and now is veined at the breast, and the skin of the breast translucent, delicately shriveled, and blue, and she and her sister Emma are in plain cotton shirts; and the body of Emma, her sister, strong, thick and wide, tall, the breasts set wide and high, shallow and round, not yet those of a full woman, the legs long thick and strong; …”

It goes on. Nothing is easily said in this book; it is all tortured and parsed: allie mae for agee

“The Gudgers’ house, being young, only eight years old, smells a little dryer and cleaner, and more distinctly of its wood, than an average white tenant house, and it has also a certain odor I have never found in other such houses: aside from these sharp yet slight subtleties, it has the odor or odors which are classical in every thoroughly poor white southern country house, and by which such a house could be identified blindfold in any part of the world, among no matter what other odors. It is compacted of many odors and made into one, which is very thin and light on the air, and more subtle that it can seem in analysis, yet very sharply and constantly noticeable. These are its ingredients. The odor of pine lumber, wide thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air. The odor of woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak and cedar. The odors of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odors of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second the odor of cooked corn. The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung, or stored away, not washed. I should further describe the odor of corn: in sweat or on the teeth, and breath, when it is eaten as much as they eat it, it is of a particular sweet stuffy fetor, to which the nearest parallel is the odor of the yellow excrement of a baby. All these odors as I have said are so combined into one that they are all and always present in balance, not at all heavy, yet so searching that all fabrics of bedding and clothes are saturated with them and so clinging that they stand softly out of the fibers of newly laundered clothes. Some of their components are extremely ‘pleasant,’ some are ‘unpleasant’; their sum total has great nostalgic power.”

Mickey Spillane, The Big Kill

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Mickey Spillane said he didn’t have readers, he had customers. “The first page sells the book,” he said, “the last page sells the next book.”spillane the big kill

But there is a vigor in his prose, tinged with kitsch, for sure, but still vivid in the extreme. You could find examples in almost any of the books, but this is from The Big Kill:

“It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world.
The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.

Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot. One of the drunks wanted to dance and she gave him a shove. So he danced with the other drunk.

She saw me sitting there with my stool tipped back against the cigarette machine and change of a fin on the bar, decided I could afford a wet evening for two and walked over with her hips waving hello.”

Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

If there were ever an author who required you to have a dictionary beside your reading table, it was Durrell. He would choose “pegamoid” and “objurgation,” as a dare. In his books, language is the readers’ usufruct, somewhere in the banlieus of usage. durrell justine

The Alexandria Quartet are four novels that tell the same story, each from the point of view of a different actor. We find out that no one really understands what is happening, but it is happening in Alexandria, Egypt, and is populated by espionage, love-sickness, sex and camels. Durrell’s prose is as perfumed as it comes, and the books, as a unit, are perhaps best read when the reader is still young; older, you have less patience for the exoticism and the verbal barnacles crusting the pages. I love it.

I’ll give only a short tasting, from the last volume, Clea:

“The whole quarter lay drowsing in the umbrageous violet of approaching nightfall. A sky of palpitating velours which was cut into the stark flare of a thousand electric light bulbs. It lay over Tatwig Street, that night, like a velvet rind. Only the lighted tips of the minarets rose above it in their slender invisible stalks — appeared hanging suspended in the sky; trembling slightly with the haze as if about to expand their hoods like cobras.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

thoreauThoreau mixed ancient Greek writers with agronomy; no philosopher had so much to say about beans since Pythagoras. What elevates his style is a mixture of close observation with nature and the ability to fly, like Icarus, up to the heavens in vast sweeps of inspired hooha. Metaphors grow like weeds in his paragraphs, and we are all the richer for it. There is something Shakespearean about his means of expression: A rich overflowing of imagery, mixed, we might say, like a salad, and unpruned like a feral apple tree. He simply can’t stop making new metaphors:

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“That’s not writing, that’s typing,” said Truman Capote. But there is power in it. Kerouac set out across the country in the late 1940s, with peanut butter sandwiches and a part-of-the-way bus ticket. He ended up a sorry, alcoholic travesty, ruined by the popular image of the beatnik. kerouacBut his book is better than that. Even if he sometimes forgets Elmore Leonard’s Fifth Rule of Good Writing: “Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“George Shearing, the great jazz pianist, Dean said, was exactly like Rollo Greb. Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o’clock Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socket it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play is chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat. These were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial.”

H.L. Mencken, Prejudices, Series I-VI

menckenMy personal hero, Mencken was a sour old pessimist, a journalist through and through, who never let sentiment cloud his prejudice. Almost anything he wrote is worth reading, not so much for the ideas therein, which are sometimes lamentable, but for the vigor and spark of their saying. I can read his work endlessly, like eating popcorn or Fritos, and never get tired of it.

“Of all forms of the uplift, perhaps the most futile is that which addresses itself to educating the proletariat in music. The theory behind it is that a taste for music is an elevating passion, and that if the great masses of the plain people could be inoculated with it they would cease to herd into the moving-picture theaters, or to listen to Socialists, or to beat their wives and children. The defect in this theory lies in the fact that such a taste, granting it to be elevating, simply cannot be implanted. Either it is born in a man or it is not born in him. If it is, then he will get gratification for it at whatever cost — he will hear music if hell freezes over. But if it isn’t, then no amount of education will ever change him — he will remain stone deaf until the last sad scene on the gallows.”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

burton 2Finally, there is Robert Burton (1577-1640), the great magpie of English literature, who put everything he could stuff into his one big book. It purports to be about melancholy — depression, as we know it — but really, it has no boundaries. Burton cannot say something once, but must, like Walt Whitman in his cataloguing mania, say it three, four, five times over, in slightly varying phraseology, just to make his point, to emphasize it, to make it clear, to ram it home, to buttonhole you and make sure you have got it.

This is a particularly juicy section, in which he discusses sex and the contemptus mundi of the sallow-skinned blue-stockings that in our own day, as much as in his, make our lives less gaudy and fleshy.

“Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a Bachelor myself, and lead a Monastick life in a College. I am truly a very unfit person to talk about these subjects, I confess ‘tis an indecorum and as Pallas, a Virgin, blushed, when Jupiter by chance spake of Love matters in her presence and turned away her face, I will check myself; though my subject necessarily require it, I will say no more.

burton anatomyAnd yet I must and will say something more, add a word or two on behalf of Maids and Widows, in favour of all such distressed parties, in commiseration of their present estate. And as I cannot choose but condole their mishap that labour of this infirmity, and are destitute of help in this case, so must I needs inveigh against them that are in fault, more than manifest causes, and as bitterly tax those tyrannizing pseudo-politicians’ superstitious orders, rash vows, hard-hearted parents, guardians, unnatural friends, allies, (call them how you will), those careless and stupid overseers, that, out of worldly respects, covetousness, supine negligence, their own private ends, (because, meanwhile, it is well for him), can so severely reject stubbornly neglect and impiously contemn, without all remorse and pity the tears, sighs, groans, and grievous miseries, of such poor souls committed to their charge. How odious and abominable are those superstitious and rash vows of Popish Monasteries, so to bind and enforce men and women to vow virginity, to lead a single life against the laws of nature, opposite to religion, policy and humanity, so to starve, to offer violence to, to suppress the vigour of youth! by rigourous statutes, severe laws, vain persuasions, to debar them of that to which by their innate temperature they are so furiously inclined, urgently carried, and sometimes precipitated, even irresistibly led, to the prejudice of their souls’ health, and good estate of body and mind! and all for base and private respects, to maintain their gross superstition, to enrich themselves and their territories, as they falsely suppose, by hindering some marriages, that the world be not full of beggars, and their parishes pestered with orphans! Stupid politicians!

Stupid politicians, indeed!

 

toroweap 6I’ve been to the Grand Canyon enough times that I couldn’t accurately count.

But sometimes familiarity makes us lose the magic. If I’ve been to Mather Point once, I’ve been a dozen times, at all hours of the day. And while it is still beautiful, still breathtaking, there is something missing — that virgin sense of seeing it for the first time.arizona highways magazine cover

This is replaced by the proxy pleasure of watching someone else see it for the first time, but now I’ve had even that vicarious fun often enough that I know what to expect.

But there are other places to see the canyon besides the official viewpoints of the National Park Service.

One of my first images of the Grand Canyon came when I was a child in the Christmas edition of Arizona Highways magazine, which was once a year available on the magazine racks in New Jersey. One of the pictures in it was a stunning photograph of the Canyon from Toroweap Overlook. I never forgot that name, it seemed so odd — although I don’t know why an Indian name should seem exotic to a Jersey boy living between Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus.toroweap 15

Nevertheless, I always wanted to go to Toroweap, to see that vertical panorama, the 3,000-foot drop to the river.

The overlook is reached by 61 miles of dirt road. And those miles start from a point 9 miles west of Fredonia, Arizona, which is already as remote as it is possible to be in the state. On the Arizona Strip between the Canyon and Utah, Fredonia is a little town you pass through on the way to Kanab, which is no Chicago either.

Fredonia is 120 miles from the nearest Arizona town of any significance, Flagstaff, through the Navajo Indian Reservation and across the northern margin of the state skirting the Vermilion Cliffs. It is so remote that when you pass the turn off for the Grand Canyon North Rim, you still have to press on into the wilderness to get to Fredonia.toroweap 9

How remote is it? Well, it is technically considered frontier. Any place with fewer than two people per square mile is officially called frontier, said the ranger at Pipe Spring National Monument, which is also in this neck of the woods.

The Arizona Strip easily qualifies. Arizona, for instance, has a population density of about 50 people per square mile. When you subtract the population center of Fredonia, with its 2100 people, the rest of the Strip checks in with .014 people per square mile. That’s fewer than 3 people per 20 square miles.

That is the official definition of empty.toroweap 7

toroweap 17Well, a little past the sign that reads “Six Mile Village, 3 miles” you find a dirt-road turn off with a sign to Toroweap Overlook. It says, “Toroweap Overlook, 61 miles.”

At first, you feel rather confident. Anyone who regularly drives the dirt and gravel back roads in this state will be lulled into a false sense of security.

The first 20 miles or so are pretty flat, pretty well kept up and surprisingly civilized. You can do a comfortable 50 miles an hour if you don’t mind kicking up a few stones and hearing them clatter against your undercarriage.toroweap 10

But then, after crossing the Antelope Valley, you have to climb the first small plateau and the road begins to wind and narrow. Patches of sand appear in the hollows of the land and you have to slow down or risk losing control of your car.

Yes, I said car. Every guide book I checked out said the trip can be made in a passenger car. And since I am an intrepid risker of my car, I thought that this sounds like a piece of cake. I have driven my car through mountainside cow pastures, through North Carolina woods with no roads, twisting between the trees like a Daniel Boone in a Chevy. I have taken my car on the 30 miles of washboard someone jokingly called a road on the far side of Death Valley from the highway.

I can go anywhere.toroweap 8

But the road to Toroweap became hinkier. About 45 miles in, just after the turn-off for the road to Mt. Trumbull, the road gets questionable. And I mean, like I question that it deserves the name road at all.

Since I was two-thirds of the way to my longed for magic dream, I pushed on.

After all, I am the man who drove my car across Thompson Wash to the north of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. I am the man who keeps an entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax in the trunk at all times in case I need to dig out of the sand and chop down brush to thrust under the tires for some purchase.toroweap 13

There were some sand pans along the way, where your tires no longer go where you point them and your careen through the powder like a raft going downstream. The steering wheel becomes a tiller and you just try to keep pointed forward. But if you get up a head of steam going into the sand, you can more or less bull your way through.toroweap 14

But after the Tuweep Ranger Station, where you enter the national park lands, it started getting tricky. I had had some touchy moments in the sand, but nothing I didn’t think I could handle in my Pontiac Grand Am. But in the final eight miles from there to the overlook, the road gets positively grim. The sand — I call it sand, but it is really a fine, pulverized powder that sits axle-deep in the roadway — had previously been in recognizable pans, small patches of up to 100 feet in extent. But along the Toroweap Valley, there is a stretch of about a quarter mile of unrelieved sand.toroweap 4

As I was driving along — careening, really — I came upon the ranger in a road grader smoothing the roadbed. He should have saved his effort. The grader was smoothing off the top of the sand, but that didn’t make it any easier to plow through. In fact, the ruts provided better traction for the tires, as long as the high sand in between didn’t contain any large rocks waiting to score the bottom metal of the car.

With the sand passed, the road got narrower and rockier. The rocks were bumpy and you had to take them slowly, especially around the tight curves up and down the canyon, but they were negotiable. The final three miles slowed me down to a pace of between 5 and 10 mph, but I didn’t mind so much, since at least I knew the road wouldn’t swallow my tires.

At the end, Toroweap Overlook was a small rocky parking lot with a port-o-let to one side and a giant hole in the ground to the other.toroweap 2

They view was spectacular and the rawness of the experience made the South Rim look positively urban. There are no guard rails, no interpretive signs, no ranger walks, just an edge of rock with a vertical drop down to the river of three-fifths of a mile. The canyon at Toroweap is very narrow — it is about a mile to the southern rim across the gorge, and directly below, you can hear the roar of the rapids.toroweap 11

Two German couples were there looking down the hole and taking pictures of each other on the ledge. One of the men, seeing my once-bright red sedan now a uniform dun of dust — and comparing it with their two high-water SUVs, came over to me and asked me which route I had taken. When I told him, the looked at me like I was crazy, laughed and said, “In that car? How did you do it?”toroweap 3

And, you know, I’m not completely sure myself. But I knew that ahead of my was another 61 miles of the same thing just to get out again.toroweap 1

So, this is a warning to you. Don’t believe everything you read in a guidebook.

Yes, it is possible to get to Toroweap in your car, if you have the gumption.

But don’t expect any yellow brick road.toroweap 16

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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