Archive

Monthly Archives: January 2019

I read the Iliad once a year, and every time I do, Hector dies at the end and Achilles in an act of compassion gives the Trojan hero’s body to his grieving father. 

And every time I read Moby Dick, Ahab dies tangled in rope to the whale, and the beast sinks the Pequod. Likewise, the Maltese Falcon always turns out to be lead, and Dorothy always returns to Kansas.

These are stories and they have beginnings, middles and ends. We may know that Achilles is destined for an early death, even though it is not in the Iliad, and we may wonder if Ishmael ever gets on another boat or Brigid O’Shaughnessy hangs by that pretty neck of hers or spends 20 years in Tehachapi, or if Dorothy ever gets a Ph.D. or lives to bear children to a dunce. But all this is outside the knowledge of these stories. 

There is self-containment in a story, even one with sequels, in which each sequel is its own story, with its own beginning, middle and end. There is a front cover to the book, and a back cover, and when we close it over, we put the book back on the shelf. 

This seems to work for books about history, too. We know that Cornwallis will surrender at Yorktown and that Lee will surrender at Appomattox. When we read about Abraham Lincoln, we know his story ends at Ford’s Theater. 

Napoleon ends in Moscow, at Waterloo, or St. Helena, depending on the focus of the history book. Hitler will lose the war and the Berlin Wall will come down. No matter how many times we turn the pages, the end is always the same. We know it even before we start. 

So history seems to be constructed of discrete bits, sewn together. Each with a beginning, middle and end. Alexander will die in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar and the Middle Ages will come to an end in the Renaissance. 

So, when we read about Neville Chamberlain, we know he was a failure because we know what happened after Munich. We know in advance that Communism fails and that computers didn’t go all cattywampus after Jan. 1, 2000. 

It is seldom we acknowledge, even if it is obvious, that Washington didn’t know that he would win the battle, that Lincoln didn’t know he wouldn’t return from Our American Cousin, or that anyone living in AD 800 didn’t know they were living in the Middle Ages. Middle of what? They were modern at the time.

We get a false sense of the world when we look at history as a story. One thing follows another in consequence and bingo, Napoleon comes to the end we always knew he would come to. 

History as it happens isn’t history. It is simply the now of back then. Its participants are just as ignorant of the outcome as we are of what will happen in Syria or North Korea. Or the legacy of Trumpism. Eisenhower didn’t know that D-Day would work; Oppenheimer didn’t know if the plutonium bomb would actually explode; Neil Armstrong didn’t know if he would ever get back from the moon. It is all contingent. 

History is not a story. It is a flowing chaos, a million-billion strands floating out into the ether and gathering in unanticipated knots. You might as well stand at the banks of a river and ask, “Where did that water start, where does it end.” 

So, we don’t know where our future is going, where those knots will form. Only afterwards do we go back, pick out the bits that make sense to us at the moment and weave a story out of them, creating coherence where there never was any. Doughboys never called their fight World War I. They had no idea that their suffering was only prelude to a sequel. World War II was the “Good War.” World War I was “the War to End All Wars.” These are tales we tell to ourselves as if we were our own children. 

A story is a pattern. We may call it plot, or timeline, but in essence, a story is designed to fulfill our innate desire for pattern. In fiction, that pattern is engineered from the episodes the author invents. In history, it is created by simplifying the complexity so that we can impose the same sort of pattern we are used to in a story. 

Different eras find different patterns in the evidence, and so history is constantly rewritten to the specifications of a certain time and place. The old guard cries foul and calls this re-organization of data “revisionism,” but history will always be pushed and pulled like clay, into whatever form is needed for the day. 

So, Napoleon was a great man, a monster, an exemplum, or, like Tolstoy claims, an irrelevance. Which was the real Bonaparte? They are each a story fabricated from bits, like a Frankenstein reanimation. 

Reality offers an infinity of possibility and for mere comprehension, we cut and prune to make the whole digestible. To make it a story. 

For years I was a journalist, and I cringed at the idea that what I was writing were newspaper “stories.” Reporters are trained to make the news comprehensible by making them stories: beginning, middle, end. The truth is always muddier, always messier. 

There seems to be a biological need for stories, or why would we keep writing them, writing fictions we know are not literally true, but reinforce the patterns we know. A story is a theater of shadow puppets. 

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Panta Horein:” Everything changes, or everything flows, depending on your translation. A story petrifies that flow into a single unmoving image, which always distorts the cascading reality. 

Some people have a bucket list — of extraordinary experiences they would like to have before the final extraordinary experience. My bucket, however is already full, in fact, it runneth over. 

It is probably much the same for most people. By the time you reach the age of 70, you can look back on a lifetime of extraordinary and satisfying adventures. Perhaps you have not swum the Hellespont like Leander or Lord Byron, nor circled the globe in 72 days, like Nelly Bly, but there are no doubt things you have done that brought your own life to its full. 

I’ve seen the Rhine at night in Dusseldorf; driven the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; spent a snowy Christmas eating hot homemade cookies at the home of a Hopi friend in Walpi on First Mesa in Arizona; twice circumambulated Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.; and been charged by a bear in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

I was an idiot — I took the picture

I see birthday number 71 coming up next week and realize that translates to 852 months, 3702 weeks or nearly  26,000 days. They have gone by very quickly, picking up speed as they progress, like a train leaving the station. They are now barreling along at the speed of an express. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

From the rear of that train, I can look back and say I have seen the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa; the menhirs of Brittany; seen Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle live twice; made love surreptitiously in the North Carolina legislature building. 

Menhirs at Carnac, Brittany

I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific, but also the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Cortez and Hudson Bay — my personal seven seas. I have crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner. They don’t really have those anymore.

Mediterranean Sea

I have done other things that now seem quaint and ancient. I have twice crossed the continent on trains, once from North Carolina to New York on the Southern Crescent, from New York to Chicago on the Twentieth Century Limited, and then from Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder. Amtrak never had the cache of those earlier routes. 

Years later, under the shrunken Amtrak banner, I took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Miami. 

Each of these things is stamped and notarized in my cerebral cortex.

Given the sum of those years, it is hardly surprising that so many things were seen, done, felt, tasted, smelled, heard. You turn the pages of the book one by one, and sooner than you realize, you are on page 852 and something has happened on every page. 

Chartres cathedral

Been to Chartres four times; and to Notre Dame de Paris half a dozen times; to Mont St. Michel; and to Reims, where French kings were crowned; and climbed the bell tower (illegally) at the National Cathedral in Washington; and descended the kivas at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. 

Kiva, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Been to 14 countries, including Norway and Namibia. Been to all 48 contiguous United States and all Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island, and to the Yukon Territory. Alaska made 49 states (still haven’t been to Hawaii).

Omaha Beach, Normandy

Been to Lascaux and to Font de Gaume to see prehistoric cave paintings; been to the Normandy beaches of D-Day; to the shell craters still visible at Verdun; to all the major Civil War battle sites, and across the Old North Bridge. Stood on the piazza that Herman Melville built at Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, Mass. with its view of Mount Greylock (“Charlemagne among his peers”). 

Mt. Greylock, from Melville’s piazza

Three times I have walked Monet’s gardens at Giverny and seen the great waterlily murals at the Orangerie in Paris.

Giverny, France

I have ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and paddled a canoe down the white water of the Mayo River in North Carolina (admittedly, not a scary rapids). 

Once, I stood at the top of the raging Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge and stupidly jumped across the cataract, rock to rock, to get to the other side of the river. I’ve also climbed to the top of Pilot Mountain in the Sauratown Mountains of Surry County, N.C. (a climb that is now illegal). 

Linville Falls, N.C.

Hiked a fair portion of the Appalachian Trail; camped in the Canadian Rockies; and 65 miles from the nearest paved road on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Been to the telescopes at Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and the Kitt Peak observatories southwest of Tucson. 

 When I hear Hank Snow singing “I been everywhere, man,” I count the place names as they tick off and check them on my own list. “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota…” Yes, yes, yes, check, check, check.

And Bobby Troup singing “Don’t forget Winona,” well, yes, been there many times. 

Glacier Bay, Alaska

But it isn’t just geography. There are cultural touchstones I count, experiences that have breathed oxygen into my soul. Not only Wagner, but also I heard Lenny Bernstein conduct La Mer with the NY Phil; heard Emil Gilels live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; heard Maurizio Pollini play all the Chopin Preludes, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata. I heard Jeremy Denk play Ives’ Concord Sonata and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier in the same recital: That is like climbing Everest and Mont Blanc on the same day. Itzhak Perlman play the Strauss violin sonata — and made it seem like one of the most important sonatas ever. That was magic. Heard the Matthew Passion live twice and Haydn’s Creation. And, of course, twice heard Yo-Yo Ma perform all six Bach suites in a single program. 

I’ve seen a dozen Balanchine ballets with live orchestra, including my favorite, Apollo, five times, once by the NY City Ballet at the Palais Garnier in Paris. 

I’ve seen the full Angels in America four times through, including its original Broadway production. 

Remnants of shell craters, Verdun, France

These are all gifts, and made my life ever richer, and informed my growth, emotional and intellectual. I can say, they made me a better human being. 

I can’t count the art shows and museums I’ve visited that gave me rare treasures. The first I can remember was in high school when I went to the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 to see “Turner: Imagination and Reality.” It yanked the rudder of my craft and steered my life in a new direction. 

“Blue Poles,” Jackson Pollock

I also grew up with Picasso’s Guernica. I visited it over and over and never expected it would leave me for a new home in Spain. But in return, I never thought I’d get to see Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which had been sold to Australia; it came to New York in 1998 for the big Pollock retrospective at MoMA. 

I cannot mention everything. The list is already grown tedious and begins to sound like bragging. I don’t mean that: I believe a similar list can be put together for almost everyone, although it will likely be very different from mine. Not everyone has eaten grilled mopane worms or drunk spit-fermented Zulu beer. Or needs to. 

But we can all say, after a long life, full of boons and banes, joys and privations, evils we have done, and those we have suffered, the loves we have failed at and those that stuck and nourished our lives, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”