Monthly Archives: February 2014

Jack Nicholson with cigar

It is one of the mysteries of the universe that the cigar that smells so delightful to me when I’m smoking it, smells so rank to me when the other guy lights up.

The author

The author

There are few adult pleasures that can match the nerve-settling effects of a draft on a good, a really good cigar. And few adults who can bear the stench of someone else smoking one.

So I sympathize when someone complains that cigars are unbearably nasty. They are, hands down, the most fumigatious pestilence this side of old tires burning in a city dump — except, that is, for the one I’m smoking.

Of course, I would never ignite one in a restaurant. It is the height of brutishness to fire up a stogie in a closed and inhabited space. Maybe even worse than smoking a cigarette.

And I would never smoke in someone else’s home. The stale odor penetrates the furniture and hangs in the air for days.

But that doesn’t change the truth of the matter, that a good cigar is one of the greatest joys this planet affords.

How can I explain it to someone who has never tried or has only managed a few acrid puffs of a grocery-store panatela? I’d rather suck the exhaust fumes of a city bus with a bad turbocharger. groucho

Cigars are often compared with wines. There is a difference between a screw-top muscatel drunk from a brown paper poke and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If one makes you gag, it’s no reflection on the nobility of the other.

The appeal of a good cigar is strong. On the evening before he signed the Cuban Trade Embargo in 1961, which made Cuban cigars illegal in the United States, John Kennedy sent his aide Pierre Salinger out to scour the streets of Washington to buy 1,000 Havana cigars for him.

Cuban cigars are still contraband, but other fancy cigars have taken up the slack. churchill

Although the cigar business has declined overall since 1964, when 9 billion were sold — current annual sales run just more than 2 billion — the figures for “premium” cigars, those that currently sell for more than $1.25 each, have gone just the other way. In 1974, some 50 million were sold, while today, that number is 100 million.

That speaks of a rise in taste among cigar smokers. No longer must the cigar be the skag-end of a butt chewed to a gooey wad in a mouth full of uneven brown teeth. It has become upscale in the polished smile of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a David Letterman.

But I also fear that could be the death of the cigar experience. Yuppies know how to trivialize anything: The point seems to be who can pay more for a hand-wrapped Dominican robusto. Is a $23 cigar really that much better than a $2 cigar?smug smoker

The pricey glossy magazines that feature photographs of movie stars, metrosexuals or smug investment bankers and their single-malt scotches and tailored suits make me want to give up my cigar. That is not what I mean. Like prayer, let me smoke privately, not to show off my income level. cigar girls

Yet, a good cigar, like a good wine, is complex. It has tastes and aftertastes, aromas and essences. And one should not forget the visual aspects of a good smoke: The twining strands of rising smoke and the exhaled clouds that spin and curl in the air.

American Indians knew this part of smoking. The so-called peace pipe was really a religious ritual. The smoke, swirling about in the lightest breeze, revealed the existence of Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. The smoke made the invisible visible.

It is easy, almost unavoidable, to wax philosophical under the influence of a good cigar appreciated slowly with the time and attention you give to a fine brandy. cigar ladies

It takes a good half-hour to go through the ritual, from clipping the end, to lighting it while holding the match flame just off the surface of the tobacco, to rolling the tube between your fingers while exhaling, to tapping the ash off the tip, to the final decision to extinguish the cigar butt after one last lingering puff.

The ritual is like entering a cathedral: You enter a different time frame, one where the pulse slackens, blood pressure relaxes, and the buzz of everyday concerns stands off for that space of time and leaves you be.

I feel that way when my friend Alexander and I climb out his second-story window onto the roof and light up at night, watching the stars and the smoke, and talking about the things that friends talk about.

We don’t smoke inside; Alexander’s wife would kill us.

snow on peaks 2

Some people say the best thing about traveling is coming home.

I say, you never do come home.

That is, if you have gotten from your travels what they best offer, you can never return to the life you had been living. You are changed.

Of course, the return to normal life, after weeks of living out of suitcases and eating out of McDonald’s bags, is a relief. Vacationing is hard work. You use all the hours of the day like each day is the last.

But an engine is not meant to run full throttle 24 hours a day.

At home, you can finally take your shoes off, sit back and watch Seinfeld reruns, knowing that you are going back to the office in the morning. It is like the rerailing of a derailed locomotive; you are back on track, you know where you are going and when. The schedule is published and you can consult your timetable.

And there is also something comfortable about being surrounded by all your things. They are familiar. Your books, your TV, your sofa — and most of all, your bed.

Home is where your family and friends are, too — or so it used to be before America decided to move every few years.

It’s like putting on an old pair of sneakers after wearing rented shoes for a week.

Yet back home, there is something you miss from the traveling. A kind of rush from not knowing what comes next, from having to pay attention. Travel can be exhausting, but it is also enlivening.

For the workaday life is a life that is not fully awake. Routine dulls the luster of the stones under your feet, turns the music of the blackbirds in your back yard to an irritating squabble.



Travel provides many other benefits. It makes you less provincial, for one thing. You can no longer believe that your local way of doing things is the only way. You may have been brought up on meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but only the most stubborn of us is not seduced by Brazil’s feijoada or London’s aloo matar. We learn that other nations may be more civilized than our own. Certainly there are many that are safer.

Travel also entertains. The scenery shifts, the menus shift, the languages shift. There is always something new to tickle our attention.

And travel can separate us from our problems, like a two-week bender. We forget office politics, forget project deadlines, forget our debts and trespasses. It is like halftime in the game of life.

But none of these things is as important as the power travel has to reawaken us to our own lives.



What travel gives us that our regular lives cannot is newness. Everything seems brand new; you can’t get enough of it. We may have mountains at home, but we don’t really see mountains until we drive through the Rockies or the Drakensbergs in South Africa. We have desert at home, or a river, but we don’t see them until we cross Death Valley in July, or see the moon glowing on the fast midnight current of the Rhine near Dusseldorf.

Our work lives are formed of clay and mud. Our travel lives burn with flame.

But if we have done our travel properly, we bring that flame home with us. And we are reawakened to our own lives; we can see it again for the first time.

It can be even more true if the travel has lasted too long. Twenty-five years too long.  A lifetime of travel, and a later return to what was once familiar. The Ithaka you left is never the Ithaka you return to.

As I write this, snow has just left the lower heights of the Blue Ridge and hangs over the tops of the bowl-rim of peaks that form the zig-zag horizon just outside Asheville in North Carolina. Up on the ridges, the white remaining on the ground provides a visual relief allowing us to see the leafless trees as distant hashmarks inked onto the hills like pen-strokes, in a way we can never see it in summer, when the foliage softens the view and makes ever mountain furry instead of hairy. snow on forest floor 2

Seeing that again this year is refreshed in a way it never was when winter was the ordinary slush of melting snow, greyed with soot and piled by snowplows into tiny cordilleras parallel to the curbs of the wet, slick streets. Coming back to the East after a quarter-century in the Arizona desert has allowed me to see the snow all over again as something miraculous, a world-state of the intensely beautiful.

And the ordinary light of day is rendered what it always is, extraordinary.

phone pole forest bw

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

“They have names,” I said.

“Animals have names, too,” Stuart said.

I could see that there would be no stopping the next Stuart verbal avalanche.

“So, what does separate us from the beasts?” I bit.

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


“Yeah, Homo habilis. 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.”

“Yum.”streetlights at night

“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.”

I 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 poles

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

“Sticks?”north dakota snow fence

“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.TV and radio towers on Mt Wilsonmultiples

“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…moonflag

“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.”

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

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

But I had my own theory.

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

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

adam and eve poster 1958

Stuart is a friend of mine and he always has an opinion. They aren’t always completely thought out, but then, that’s the way it often is with our opinions; we form them out of instinct and then seek factual support.

Stuart has always had definite opinions about men and women. The fact that he has had two official and two unofficial marriages, and continues to forge his way through one failed relationship after another has not blunted his faith in his grasp of the matter.

I recently wrote a blog about the difficulty most men have in multi-tasking (, and Stuart brought it up when he came to visit on another one of his cross-country trips, unsure of where he would settle this time.

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.”adam and eve woodcut

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

“But it’s true,” he continued. “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.

“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.adam and eve comic

“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.”adam and eve etching

I 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,” I said.

“It isn’t. And I always make room for the standard disclaimer: Individual variation trumps gender variation. You can find exceptions to every so-called rule, but in aggregate, women and men have their ways. There are women who could beat me to a pulp, and I wouldn’t want to tangle with one of them, but on the whole, men have greater upper-body strength.

“I’m not saying you should make laws based on this. Should you outlaw women from operating bulldozers or backhoes? Of course not. Individual variation is greater than any difference between men and women as a whole.

“But, what’s most interesting to me about this thesis about men and their fetish-oriented sexuality is this: In the long run, the whole thing reverses.”vigeland old age

“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,” I 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.”

Hiking to the lake in Nwadeni Provincial Park

Hiking to the lake in Nwanedi Provincial Park

In America, when you see a Land Rover, it’s likely to be in Beverly Hills. Here it is a shiny status symbol for those whose ”other car” really is a BMW.

But in the veld country of southern Africa, the Land Rover is a necessity. Usually beat up and painted with an inch or two of dried mud, it is a life support system in a region, like the Venda region of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, that has only seven miles of paved road.

Venda is stuck in the northeast corner of South Africa and is slightly larger than Delaware. It has only one city, Thohoyandou, where most of the pavement can be found. Outside the city, you depend on gravel roads and dirt. rondavals

It is a land where most people farm and raise cattle. Almost everyone lives in a round mud hut called a rondavel that is at most 15 feet in diameter. Small villages are scattered through the hills. You can tell who has status, or at least who has money. While most rondavels have thatched roofs, some of them show off by having tin roofs.

Even more ostentatious are those with double-hung windows cut into the mud walls and at least one rondavel in the capital is two stories tall. giraffe

And in the north, about 30 miles south of the Limpopo River that divides South Africa from Zimbabwe, there is a primitive provincial park called Nwanedi. Covered with low hills and scrub vegetation, it is a place where your Land Rover may very well have to stop to allow a herd of giraffes in front of you to cross what passes for a road.

The grassland passed by and we headed up into the hills. We passed the defining baobab and acacia trees of the region. The baobab is built like a gargantuan broccoli, with a massive trunk and only the wisp of foliage floating around its top. The Venda people say that God planted the baobab tree upside down, with its roots in the air.



The acacia is the tree you see in every photograph of Africa, where the top of the tree seems spread out like the anvil on an aging thunderhead. It is a spiky tree and sometimes called the ”umbrella thorn.”

But two other trees were more interesting to our guide. One is the marula tree, which is related to the mango, and bears a sweet, tasty fruit that ripens just as it falls from the tree. Tasting a little like a persimmon, the fruit quickly ferments on the ground where it is sometimes eaten by animals. Elephants have been known to go on a bender when the marula fruit ripens.

And the mopane tree, with large leaf pairs that look like the twin prints of a deer hoof. A type of caterpillar feasts on the tree and in turn the Venda people feast on the mopane worm.

Marula fruit

Marula fruit

Unfortunately, the worms were out of season when we were there.

It’s a dusty trip, and in January on the other side of the equator, quite hot.

So our guide — who would make Crocodile Dundee look like a sissy — suggested we drive up to a little place he knew for a swim under a waterfall.

The Land Rover left anything that could even be mistaken for a road and went into the bush. When we crossed a dry stream bed, the Land Rover climbed over boulders the size of Holsteins and dipped and lifted its wheels individually as the engine pulled us along at the speed of a snail. lake vertical

When we could drive no more, we got out and walked. At the end of the path was a waterfall and a pool cut into the rocks underneath a 50-foot yellow sandstone cliff.

Sunlight angled in from one side and the blue sky and yellow rock were fragmented and reflected in the pool.

And the most extraordinary thing happened. A troop of baboons peeked over the top of the cliff at us. There were eight or a dozen of them — it was hard to count them as their heads tentatively bobbed up and down among the rocks — and they were led by one aggressive alpha male who picked me out to negotiate with, probably because I was the only one out of the water at the time, sunning myself on the rocks.

While the rest of the baboons would poke their heads up and squawk and then disappear, the leader stared at me and bared his teeth. He sat on a promontory and rocked slowly back and forth, holding himself up with his arching front legs.

Watching the baboons

Watching the baboons

I didn’t know what the body language meant exactly, but I thought I’d reciprocate. So, I faced him, bared my teeth and bobbed back and forth. It drove him nuts. He screeched and ran behind a rock. When he reappeared, he went through the process again. So did I. He screeched and ran behind a rock. baboon teeth

We did this four or five times before he seemed to give up. I don’t know if he accepted me as his new boss, or whether he just thought the water hole wasn’t important enough to defend at that moment, but it felt to me as if I were communicating with an alien. He might as well have been from another planet, and we made halting and fretful attempts to figure each other out.

At any rate, they left us alone and went back to gleaning through the grass at the top of the rocks.

And I wondered if I were now an adopted baboon.

fishing hallingdal bw

There are two things Norwegians love beyond all measure. One is coffee, which is drunk all day long; the other is what they call ”the Nature.”

The Nature is what Norway is about. Less than 10 percent of the land is usable for farming or industry, and the rest is craggy mountains, deep, dark forests and steep-sided fjords cut hundreds of miles inland from the sea.

For the Norwegian, to be out in the Nature is to be where it is healthy, both physically and mentally, and it is the only place where it is possible to be ekte Norsk, or truly Norwegian.

Collection of hytte, Hallingdal, Norway

Collection of hytte, Hallingdal, Norway

So any self-respecting urbanite owns a small hytte, or cabin, out in the wilderness where he repairs on holiday. In the summer, it is for relaxation and hiking. In winter, it is for skiing.

It was the summer when I visited Hallingdal, a long valley in the middle of the ”spoon” bowl of the country. I had been staying with relatives in Oslo, and they wanted to get away one week to the hytte and introduce me to the Nature.

Our first full day in Hallingdal, Astrid, who was 69, and her brother Einar, a year younger, got me out of bed early for a hike. Einar wore shorts, hiking boots and knee socks accessorized by an enthusiastic grin. He slung an old canvas haversack over his back. His brother-in-law, Lars, carried a woodsman’s bag full of kindling on his back. Astrid wore a wide-brim straw hat with a scarf to hold it down.

We walked a short ways down the hill, across the middle of the valley and then started climbing the Hallingskarvet, which is a 30-mile-long mountain range that runs like an inverted crescent moon along the south side of the valley. Hallingskarvet stream bw

The air was crisp, the hillsides green with spongy moss and curling grass, and the trail followed many small meltwater streams.

Most Americans have little idea just how far north Norway is on our globe. Just remember that Paris is as far north as Newfoundland. Hallingdal is as far north as Greenland. It is only 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle. That puts the tree line very low on the hillsides; it also puts a July dawn at about 2 a.m. and sunset near midnight. That low light makes the green all the more intense.

We climbed up granite cliffs and over plateaus marshy with meltwater. When we reached the highest point on the hike, we stopped for lunch. Lars unloaded the wood he’d been carrying, scrunched a few rocks together and built a fire on which he balanced his coffeepot.

While the coffee water came to a boil, Einar sliced gjetost, or sweet, brown goat cheese, and loaded up the knekkebrod, which is the Norwegian version of Rye-Krisp. The view was stunning. On one side, below us, was the 10-mile-long lake, Strandevatn, and on the other side, the highest point in the Hallingskarvet, a 6,342-foot-high peak named Folarskardnuten, crisscrossed with snow and standing over its own valley like a blue eagle over its nest.



After the sandwiches and coffee, Einar pulled a few bottles of beer from his sack, and we finished off the lunch with a toast to the Nature.

On the way down the mountain, we passed many seter, tiny summer farms that families use when they pasture their goat- and cowherds up on the mountains. The typical seter is made of logs or roughly sawn lumber, with a grass roof and a split-rail fence around the ”estate.” It couldn’t be more rustic.



In one was a newlywed bride whom Astrid knew. We stopped, knocked on the front door and were invited to enter. She was making romme, a Norwegian version of creme fraiche, and she gave us all some. In Norway, you never visit someone without making selskap, or company. And that always includes food. If there is no smorgasbord, there is always at least a bowl of fresh romme from a rosy-cheeked bride in a grass-thatched one-room farmhouse on a steep grassy mountainside with a view of the valley.

There must be something to this Nature. For every Norwegian I met was maniacally healthy.

Even senior-citizen Astrid, who hiked and climbed mountains like a Marine, put me to shame. On reaching the hytte, she glowed and said she couldn’t wait to begin skiing again next winter.

Father and Son

This is not news to America’s wives, but: Men hate change.

I don’t mean only a pocketful of pennies and dimes — fishing weights in the trousers — I mean that a man feels uncomfortable if his favorite easy chair has been moved for vacuuming and put back no more than an inch from its original spot. He will feel compelled to nudge it that last inch.

I mean that when a favorite shirt finally blows through at the elbows, he won’t throw it out, but will wear it on Saturdays, to the dismay of his wife and daughter; and when it is finally no more than strings of tattered fabric hanging from a collar, he will use it to polish the car.

And what is more, when he needs to replace a work shirt, he will find a carbon copy, preferably bought from the same store, even the same rack, as the first.

I mean that when an old TV goes on the fritz, a man will stand there holding the aerial in his hand, watching the Cubs through the snow, rather than go out and buy a new tube.

Guys who buy Fords trade them in on new Fords, guys who buy Chevys later buy more Chevys.

How many men do you know who try different hairstyles?

Most men I know settled on a hairdo in high school and have kept it until there was no hair left to do.

I’ve seen 50-year-old bald men who have gathered what fringe remains and greased it into a ducktail.

Sometimes this aversion to change is misread by wives as being laziness. And sometimes it may be, but by and large, a man doesn’t fix that creaky door because for him the creak has become a familiar part of the home, and he simply doesn’t want to change it.

The great example of this principle in literature is the story by Herman Melville, “I and my Chimney.” It is comic and depressing at the same time.

Its narrator stands guard against the constant plans for improvement his wife devises.

“Old myself, I take to oldness in things; for that cause mainly loving old Montague, and old cheese, and old wine; and eschewing young people, hot rolls, new books, and early potatoes and very fond of my old claw-footed chair … But she, out of the infatuate juvenility of hers, takes to nothing but newness; for that cause mainly, loving new cider in autumn, and in spring, as if she were own daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, fairly raving after all sorts of salads and spinages, and more particularly green cucumbers (though all the time nature rebukes such unsuitable young hankerings in so elderly a person, by never permitting such things to agree with her).”

The narrator’s fallback position, always, like the hero of Melville’s other story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” remains, “I would prefer not to.”

The basic instinct men have for what can be seen as monotony is a part of the way life is compartmentalized for them. For women, I often feel, life is all of a piece. Each part flows into the next, and women seem quite happy to think about or do several things at once.

Men are not that talented, and part of what has become an aversion to change is really just a man’s way of putting certain things on automatic pilot so he doesn’t have to think and act on them, so he can focus his attention on whatever he believes is important.

If one attacks life freshly and alertly each day, there are millions of decisions that will have to be made. A man feels overwhelmed by them. busy mom

So whatever can be decided by rote — the shirt, the socks, the route to work — is preset and unaltered, so that he can expend his energy creatively at the office.

So it is a matter of priorities. For mothers, what must be attended to is whatever minor emergencies present themselves, in whatever order they occur. The baby needs changing, the third-grader has skinned his knee, the teen-ager needs the car keys.

She cannot do as the man does and make a list of things in their order of importance, and address them in that order. Some men spend their whole lives on that list, rearranging it as new problems present themselves and never getting to the actual problems themselves.

Like many people, I used to think that gender differences are merely learned behaviors, but the older I get, the more I realize that the different wiring of men and women is more fundamental. If women are unhappy about the way men act, they shouldn’t immediately ask that men be different; you might as well ask that they have three arms instead of two.

It is more to the point to ask why they are as they are, whether tens of thousands of years ago on the veldt such behavior made a kind of genetic sense that in a 20th-century city is now obsolete.

Perhaps women as nurturers must keep their attention as widely spread as possible, so as not to miss the one kid headed for the pool while attending to the other’s bruised arm.

Men as protectors needed to focus their attention very narrowly, ignoring lesser commotions for the larger one of a preying lion or wolf.

At which point matching socks are kind of silly.


Jack Foley has ruined nature. Or at least, he’s ruined Naturejack foley

Foley, who died in 1967 at the age of 76, was a film editor at Universal Studios, where he developed the process of adding sound effects to movies in the editing stage.

You can see his name, turned eponymous, in the credits of any movie: The Foley artist is the one who matches the sounds to the action.

When you hear a dying thug breathe his last wheezy gasp, or a potential victim step on a squeaky floorboard or snap a twig underfoot, it is the Foley artist who put that sound there in post-production.

Which is fine for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, with its explosions and ammunition magazines being snapped into their Uzis with a click so solid even a Chevy ad has to smile with envy. But the Foley art is less helpful when PBS shows us row of ducks swimming in the Okefenokee. comic

Then the ducks always make a sound like a guy wiggling his fingers in a tub of tap water, with a microphone held a few inches away. It has ruined Nature, Wild America and every other filmed nature show on PBS or the Discovery Channel. duckling

The obviousness and artificiality of that wretched tinkle is for me like fingernails on a blackboard.

I know the reason for avoiding the real sounds of the real ducks: The camera, with its close-ups, can effectively edit out anything but the ducks; the microphone can’t edit. Along with the ducks, we will hear the ook-la-roo of the redwing, the overhead jet and perhaps even the whirring of the camera. It is too much aural information and can be confusing.

So standard procedure in nature films is to work with silent filmstock and add the sounds later. Some of these sounds are collected by technicians who tape the ducks when the blackbirds are momentarily quiet and match that sound to the film. But more commonly, sound is created by a group of sound-effects people, who work like they used to in radio days with crushed cellophane for fire and coconut halves for horses’ hooves. sound effects

Well, maybe they’re a little more sophisticated than that, but not by much.

If you want a good contrast, tune in to CBS’ Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood at about five minutes before the end on Sunday morning. Each week, it features a few minutes of nature, videotaped rather than filmed, and with the unedited sound of that moment in the wild.

You will hear not only the ducks, but the wind in the tree branches, the redwing, the grasses, occasional passing cars and airplanes, all balled up into one giant ambience.

It is the way it really sounds out there in the light of day.

After all, what we call nature is less the individual animals and plants than the interaction of the whole thing. Nature is context, if anything.

And that only underlines the basic problem, that for most Americans nature is something you see on a TV screen. Nature is a sideshow and entertainment. Cute little ducklings or sea otters vie for our attention with herds of wildebeest and salmon-fishing grizzlies. Gnu pack

Television nature, even shot in the wild, is just a technological zoo: Each animal is displayed in its own filmed cage. As with most of European culture, it is the fragments of the whole we understand best. The bigger picture eludes us.

But turn the TV off, get out of the city and then out of the car. Almost anyplace will do, it doesn’t have to be dramatic. You will hear and smell, as well as see, the great imbroglio that is nature.

It isn’t just that it is all interconnected, which it is. It isn’t just that the whole is complicated beyond comprehension, which it is.

The difference is that you are in it, a part of it. On TV, nature is something separate. TV is always behind glass.

Carole portrait

It is not unusual for my wife to finish my sentences. I used to find it slightly annoying, but after 30 years of marriage, I hardly notice it. When I do, I now find it comforting.

My wife and I have developed some kind of radio signal between us, and conversation can consist of little more than random adjectives and conjunctions:

”Do you . . .”

”OK, but then . . .”

”Of course, and I’ll . . .”


No one else knows the code.

It has happened that while watching television, she will turn toward me, and without saying anything, I will get up and take out the garbage.

Now, that’s true love.

Another time, the same gesture will empty the cat box. And neither of us will realize that no words were uttered.

I am not a believer in ESP, but this phenomenon has reinforced for me a belief that marriage is a kind of magic. A magic that grows perfect through practice.

For too many young people, marriage is seen as merely an extension of dating, only for a very long time and with only one person. Put that way, it hardly sounds enticing. An endless job interview.

For many others, especially for younger women sensitized to the very real sins of the patriarchy, there is grave suspicion of the whole notion of giving yourself up for the other, which is seen as the effacing of individuality. This suspicion prevents the kind of surrender that makes a good marriage.

It is no wonder the divorce rate is stratospheric.

It is a hard lesson to learn: To lose yourself is to find yourself.

It isn’t for the wife to be subservient to the husband, but for each to surrender to the other: This is the equality of marriage.

The problem is that at some level we are unwilling to admit to ourselves that we are incomplete. Feminism, on one side, has taught that a woman should not be dependent on a man. And men are taught never to be dependent on anyone. We suffer as islands.

And all around me, I see these self-sufficient people looking for love in a mirror. They look for someone who shares their interests, beliefs, personality quirks and housekeeping habits. In short, they look for themselves with different plumbing.

And when they get what they are looking for, they find it is no more than they already possess. Boredom and disappointment are unavoidable.

Magic happens when you find your opposite, not your clone.

It is a plus and minus charge that makes a nuclear family. The yin and yang of opposition.

We admit this when we say, ”Opposites attract,” but deny it when we say, ”Birds of a feather flock together.” Flocking is fine for guys sitting at a bar watching a ballgame and pulling for the same team. But marriage is more than a brew and a point spread.

In Plato’s Symposium, the comic playwright Aristophanes explains that human beings were once round with four arms and four legs, but that an angry Zeus split them in half. Love, he says, is each half’s desire to find its missing opposite.

This is a nice tale but only part of the story. The reality isn’t quite that static. Finding your other half isn’t the conclusion of love, but the beginning of a long process of growth, and it is change and growth that keep the marriage vital.

When we make mates of our opposites, they can prod us on to new things and deeper understandings. It keeps life fresh, challenging and intense.

That ”ripening” is the core of the magic in marriage.

Which is why I always advise people not to look for someone who always agrees with them, but to find a ”worthy opponent.”

Which is what my wife is to me. She has a personality strong enough to withstand mine. When I press, there is resistance.

If I try to get away with something, if I try to do less than my best, she is there as my conscience, prodding me to be better.

If I carelessly do something that might hurt someone’s feelings, she is there to make me less careless.

We have had some great fights, but they were never pointless. They always led somewhere. Neither of us wins these arguments, because we both learn from them.

The perfect coat of arms for marriage is an apple surrounded by the words ”Eros” and ”Eris.” These are the Greek deities of erotic love and discord. The two make a lovely couple.

I am loud, she is soft-spoken.

I tend to think things through analytically. My wife is more intuitive.

While I think straightforward, my wife thinks sideways. Together, we create a waltz.

This is my valentine to her.

2001 Smeslov meeting

It sounded like a great idea. ”We’re having a movie party. Not whole movies, just scenes. Bring a few DVDs over and we’ll fast-forward to your favorite scenes.”

You can learn a lot about people from what they choose. We watched everything from Steve Martin singing about pain and dentistry to Max von Sydow playing chess with death. BERGMAN BOGART

There are a lot of familiar scenes. They are almost the soundtrack to American lives: ”It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Or, ”I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

But two scenes had the profoundest effect on me. Totally opposite in effect and both brilliant. And seeing them together made an important point about movies, art and life. brando back seat

In The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles has been selling tainted penicillin on the black market in postwar Vienna. As a fugitive, he meets his American friend Joseph Cotten in an amusement park. As they ride the huge Ferris wheel above the city, Cotten asks disgustedly, ”Have you ever seen any of your victims?” third man welles

”Victims? You’re being melodramatic,” Welles replies. They look down at the antlike people below them on the ground. ”Tell me, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 Pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend? Free of income tax.”

When they descend to earth, Welles rationalizes, with a con man’s glint in his eyes: ”After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow says: ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ ”

It is a wonderful scene. Visually, it is stunning, with the city turned into a stark black-and-white toy below them. Verbally, it is stark, pithy writing.

But no one speaks that persuasively in real life. Writers do that; they have the time to. All those witty retorts that come to you as you descend the stairs are used by the writer as if they occurred during the conversation.

But in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), there is an odd intrusion of real life, clabbering in its banality. 2001 council room

Government bureaucrat Dr. Heywood Floyd visits the moon to speak to other bureaucrats. He is introduced: ”I know you’ll all want to join with me in welcoming our distinguished friend and colleague from the National Council of Astronautics, Dr. Heywood Floyd. Now, Dr. Floyd has come up specially to Clavius to be with us today, and before the briefing, I know he would like to have a few words with you. Dr Floyd?”

The words are flat and empty.

”Thank you, Dr. Halvorsen. Hi, everybody. Nice to be back with you. Well . . . first of all, I bring a personal message from Dr. Howell. . .” And he continues with this palaver for some minutes, ending with, ”The purpose of my visit here is to gather additional facts and opinions on the situation and to prepare a report to council recommending when and how the news should eventually be announced.”

John Kerry could have said those words. There are a few forced laughs, a lot of awkward silences and polite applause at the end of the speech, as if Floyd had said something worth hearing.

It is a scene that most people snooze through, just as the bureaucrats would in real life. But it and all the ”intense inane” of the first three-quarters of the film set up the splendor of the final psychedelic trip with its light show and surrealism.

It took guts on the part of Kubrick to play up that banality, to insert real life into an art form normally spruced up for its audience with witty rejoinders and double entendres.

And great art to be so artless.