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Walk into any used bookstore — or if you can find it, a new bookstore — and you will find an entire aisle devoted to cookbooks. Perhaps there may be more romance novels, if it’s a used paperback store, but in most, cookbooks take up more space than anything else. Of the making of cookbooks, there is no end. 

Reading a good cookbook is a pleasure and collecting them is a vice. When I got married, 40 years ago, two collections joined as one. Over the years, many have gone to feed the shelves of used bookstores and now I’m whittled down to the most essential ones. But I still love them all; many I have let go I have since rebought. 

But not all cookbooks are of the same ilk. There are four distinct classes of cookbooks and they offer differing rewards. 

ONE

The first group are the recipe books, and they make up by far the largest class, maybe even 80 percent of the total. Their purpose is to give homemakers directions to the preparation of the standard day-to-day fare of the family table, or to instruct how to make more exotic dishes from exotic cultures. There may be intercalary text, a few stories or some background information, but the heart of such a book is the individual recipe, divided into an ingredients list and a procedure directive. 

We can divide these up into actual bound books and the plethora of booklets and pamphlets, many of them promotional items.

Among the books we run from the big comprehensive volumes  covering everything from soup to roasts and desserts, to the specialty book, such as have Christmas recipes, or baking secrets, or how-to for Chinese food. 

And each cook has one of these compendiums as her primary source: either Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the Gold Cookbook, or the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book: America’s #1 Cookbook Since 1930. 

And most have a collection, too, of smaller books — a McCall’s paperback on pastries or a Southern Living collection of casseroles. Such books, often mere pamphlets, have been produced at least since the end of the 19th century. 

I have lived in the South for a good portion of my life, and have come to love, even need, Southern cooking, from barbecue to Brunswick stew, from fried okra to hushpuppies. There have been Southern cookbooks from way back, when it was still OK to use an African-American mammy on the cover. Edna Lewis is a great step upwards. I have owned three editions of Mrs. Dull’s book.

As American food culture expanded, beginning in the 1970s, the range of cookbooks of exotic cuisine expanded. Julia Child taught us French; Joyce Chen taught us Chinese; Madhur Jaffrey brought us India and Diana Kennedy made us long for varieties of chile pepper we had never heard of and never even imagined. 

Before then, most cookbooks were good ol’ American family fare, and  magazines gave out monthly ideas for how to turn loaf bread, Jell-O packets, a can of soup, and some Shake ’n Bake chicken into a meal fit for a junior assistant vice president in charge of sales. 

And from the 1920s through the 1960s, various corporations put out pamphlet-size promotional books with recipes for their products. A Jell-O cookbook; a Diamond Walnut cookbook; a Gold Medal Flour cookbook; a Sunbeam Mixmaster cookbook — hundreds, maybe thousands of them. 

For anyone interested in graphic design and typography, these promotional cookbooks are a treasure trove of historical fashion. They popped up first in the years before World War I, became popular again in the 1920s, served the war effort with helpful kitchen shortcuts in the 1940s, and became hip and cartoonish in the 1960s. Each era has its look and seasoned eyes can date one from its cover alone, to an accuracy of less than five years. 

A subgenre of the recipe book is the celebrity cookbook. Many of these have a short shelf life, as movie and TV stars come and go. 

And television series and movies with sequels spawn similar entries. Want a Star Wars cookbook? There are at least six of them. 

A Harry Potter Cookbook? Game of Thrones? Walking Dead? Outlander? 

A kind of gender spread from boy-aimed Star Trek to girl-aimed Gilmore Girls, with Doctor Who in the middle, pitched to both. 

For Downton Abbey, there are official and unofficial versions. 

Every church has, at some point, published a spiral-bound book of the favorite recipes of its parishioners, usually with much use of crushed corn flakes and cream of mushroom soup. 

But I’m getting sidetracked. I love my collection of these ephemera, not for their recipes, which I never use, but for their design and typography. They are an unnoticed art gallery. Others find the same in classic cars or vintage clothing, but for me, it’s the changing trends in publishing, and the cheapest source of old book design comes on the cookbook shelves of your favorite used bookstore. 

TWO 

The second class of cookbook is the instructional — those books whose purpose to to show how to bone a chicken or julienne a carrot. The most famous is probably Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Methode, with their photographic step-by-step. 

Of course, the boundaries of these classes is blurry. Most procedurals also contain recipes, and even the big recipe collections give some help in the basic techniques. But it is a question of emphasis. You can look at Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a roster of gourmet recipes, but its greatest virtue is its explication of technique. (And no, I am not forgetting Louisette Bertholle or Simone Beck). 

And it is easy to think of the perennial Joy of Cooking as a recipe book, but while I would never consider being without my own copy — which is the single volume I would keep if required to disinvest in all but one cookbook — I never cook from its recipes, but depend on it to consult on how long to cook a pork roast or how to poach a trout. For me, it is my go-to technique book. It has never let me down. 

The importance of technique is that once you have learned all the basics, you can abandon all your recipes and begin cooking on your own, with full confidence that you know how. 

THREE

The third type of cookbook I might call the travel book, the book that explains culture and geography through cuisine. Television has largely taken over this genre. One of the best at this was Anthony Bourdain, although his work was in TV rather than in books (although he wrote his share of them, too). 

Amber Hoffman wrote The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to Taste the History and Tradition of Italy. David Lebovitz wrote The Sweet Life in Paris. Yemisi Aribisala wrote Longthroat Memories: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds. Fuchsia Dunlop gave us Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. 

There are also historical books that take us through the history of a single ingredient, such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World and his Salt: A World History. Or Beans: A History by Ken Albala. 

Kurlansky also translated Emile Zola’s novel about the food markets of 19th Century Paris: The Belly of Paris. 

Finally, there are a series of books about the kitchens of famous artists — three Monet alone. Others cover Van Gogh and Matisse.

 

FOUR

The fourth class is similar to the third, so that even the line between them is blurred, which is the food memoir and the food essay. 

Bourdain had a best seller with his jaundiced look at the backstage antics of restaurants in his Kitchen Confidential. Jacques Pepin is a bit more nostalgic about the hardships of his long culinary training in The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. 

Three food writers wander back and forth between memoir and essay: M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Ruth Reichl. Fisher wrote The Art of Eating, David wrote An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and Reichl published Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. 

I feel I have to mention one of my favorite food writers, Calvin Trillin. Where others are rhapsodic, he is ironic and quirky. His essays were usually published in The New Yorker, and some were collected in three of his books on food — American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater; Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater; and Third Helpings. The three were later published in a single volume titled The Tummy Trilogy. 

The genre was born in 1825 with the publication by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin of his Physiologie du Goût, or to give it its full title (translated): The Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcendent Gastronomy; a Theoretical, Historical and Topical Work, Dedicated to the Gastronomes of Paris by a Professor, Member of Several Literary and Scholarly Societies. Brillat-Savarin was a man who liked to eat and what is more to write about what he ate. 

He is perhaps most famous for having said: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” 

All of these books are a pleasure to leaf through, to look at the pictures, to read the introductions, to read the recipes and imagine their tastes — the way a musician can look at a score and hear the music in her head. 

Of the enjoyment of cookbooks, there is no end.

Next: A history of cookbooks

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I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region. 

But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak? 

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.

After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb. 

It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.

The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section. 

Fort Bragg, Calif.

The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own. 

The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape. 

But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” 

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”

The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains. 

And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region; 

the mountain West; 

there is the desert West; 

and the Pacific West. 

Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each. 

Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.

The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung. 

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.

As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea. 

Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands. 

Republican River, Kansas

The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.  We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta. 

My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove. 

Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other. 

The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense. 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.

The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes. 

To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.

Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate. 

I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us. 

South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.” 

Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.

The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool. 

Miami, Ariz.

In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match. 

As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been. 

Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.

This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river, 

the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,

the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture. 

I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains. 

Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole. 

Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.

We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban. 

Yosemite Falls

And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing. 

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I was born in 1948 and shared my infancy with television. Me and Uncle Miltie saw the light of day in the same instant of time, just a few clicks after the end of the war that killed 60 million people. Uncle Miltie was fun. 

My father still fit into his Eisenhower jacket and automobiles were just being remarketed, having been turned back from the Sherman Tank pumpkins they had been for the duration. I, of course, knew nothing of this: I was eating pureed prunes and slapping my sippy cup on the tray of my high chair and gurgling with ignorant happiness. 

I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have a television in the house. Some of my earliest memories were of watching that ovoid 12-inch screen in our house in Teaneck, N.J. and being told that I entered the world in the same hospital where Ozzie and Harriet’s son, Rickey, was born. 

Those early broadcast years were sparse. There was a test pattern on the screen until about six in the morning, and by midnight the National Anthem played over a picture of a waving flag, followed by a high-pitched sine-wave note and that familiar test pattern. 

In between, broadcasters scrambled for what today we call “content.” They found old movies, silent slapstick comedies, talk shows and, ever the staple, variety shows. What original material they had wasn’t really original, but was translated from radio. Many of the old familiars were now filmed (or performed live) and given new life. The Life of Riley, The Goldbergs, The Aldrich Family, My Friend Irma, Jack Benny, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. William Boyd repackaged his old Hopalong Cassidy westerns from the Thirties and such cowboy shows as The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger filled Saturdays for the wee bairns. 

Before I was sent off to kindergarten, I watched daytime TV with my mother as she ironed or cooked. Art Linkletter, Arthur Godfrey, Herb Shriner, and Dave Garroway, always Dave Garroway, with his meaty palm held toward the screen as he signed off the Today Show each morning: “Peace.” 

For the evening, a host of second-string movie actors stepped up as top bananas in sitcoms: Eve Arden, Stu Erwin, Joan Davis, Gale Storm, Ann Sothern, Robert Cummings, Leon Ames, Wendy Barrie, Harriet Hilliard and Ozzie Nelson, and the greatest leap up from B-films: Lucille Ball. 

And the kiddie shows. Howdy Doody was the royalty, but the rest of the aristocracy included Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Romper Room, Ding-Dong School, Captain Video, Beany and Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, Crusader Rabbit and Mr. Wizard. 

Three genres ate up a great part of the clock: game shows (Beat the Clock, Truth of Consequences, What’s My Line, Name That Tune),  Westerns (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Sky King, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock, Hopalong Cassidy), and space operas (Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Captain Video, Space Patrol, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, Captain Midnight). At least, on our TV. 

And to fill up the empty programming hours, there were endless old Western movies. The cream were from the 1930s, with Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoppy, Bob Steele, Bob Livingston, John Wayne (in his B-movie phase). The quality plateaued in the ’40s with Johnny Mack Brown, Rogers, Autry, Wild Bill Elliott, and Buster Crabbe, and then dropped significantly after that with some truly awful films with Lash LaRue, Whip Wilson and Tim Holt. The ’50s were bad for movies in general, but disastrous for Westerns — the best of them were now made for TV directly.

I haven’t forgotten the variety shows. Way too much singing for my childish tastes. My parents loved Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Kate Smith and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Me, not so much. But the parental units had the power over us powerless kids and so we watched. 

Toast of the Town, later called The Ed Sullivan Show, dominated our Sunday evenings. Nothing like plate spinners for the imaginations of 5-year-olds. Jugglers, ventriloquists, comics, animal acts, and Broadway tunes. The dying gasp of vaudeville.

But, I’m just naming names here, and gorging on nostalgia. What I really meant to do was point out the changing tenor of early television. I see three major periods from 1948, when I was born, to 1970, when I graduated college and pretty much ceased watching the tube on any regular basis. I’m afraid I lost touch with pop culture at that time. 

The first period was the one I call “Spaghetti on the Wall.” Audiences were familiar with radio, and television was radio with pictures. To fill the time-void, broadcasters tried pretty much everything trying to figure out just what this new beast was. Talk was cheap, so many of the programs, like Arthur Godfrey, Garry Moore or Art Linkletter’s House Party went on for hours filling the airwaves with chatter. Radio had half-hour sitcoms and hour-long dramas, and so TV did the same. Music was big on radio, more the same on the tube. 

There was an innocence in these first 10 years. A certain “Let’s put on a show” attitude. There were hits, such as Sullivan and I Love Lucy, but a lot of dead ends, too. Some old performers just didn’t have the TV magic and Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Fred Waring, Ted Steele, Paul Whiteman, and Red Buttons simply didn’t translate well. (Loretta Young, who started out in silent films, attempted to remain 20 years old well into her 60s).

In the second period, beginning in 1957 or 1958, TV develops a confidence of its own, a kind of throaty adolescence. Radio was no longer something most audiences remembered, except as the source for rock and roll music, and some studios, such as Desilu and Warner Brothers began making TV-appropriate series. It was also the first time TV began remaking, not radio shows, but previous TV shows. There were a new Dinah Shore Show, a new Tonight Show with Jack Paar, new vehicles for Ann Sothern, George Burns, Ernie Kovacs, Gale Storm, Bob Denver, Jim Nabors and even Beany and Cecil. 

It was also the era of the explosion of cheap animation. Joseph Hanna and William Barbera pumped out assembly-line cartoons, beginning with The Ruff and Reddy Show in 1957, followed by Huckleberry Hound (with Yogi the Bear), Deputy Dawg, and The Flintstones. Similar animation came from Jay Ward et al. in the various Rocky and Bullwinkle shows. 

But the real prize came with popular filmed series, many from Warner Brothers, including Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside 6.  There were other stalwarts, such as Have Gun-Will Travel, Perry Mason, Naked City, Sea Hunt, One Step Beyond, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Untouchables, Route 66, and East Side/West Side. 

And The Twilight Zone (and its poor relation, The Outer Limits). 

This is the era that brought us a normalized suburban vision of the U.S. and its country cousin. Dick Van Dyke and The Beverly Hillbillies. Leave It to Beaver and The Real McCoys. The Donna Reed Show and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis vs. The Andy Griffith Show and Petticoat Junction. These were the Eisenhower Years reflected in My Three Sons and The Bob Newhart Show. 

This was TV in its stride, its first full flowering as the universal entertainment medium for the vast majority of Americans. 

After, comes a period of decadence, of imitation and slipshod production. Instead of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., we get The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. There’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, and Voyage to the Center of the Earth. 

It was also the time of America’s cultural paroxysm and it shows on the screen. Black actors and entertainers showed up beyond Beulah and Amos ’n’ Andy: Julia, The Leslie Uggams Show, I Spy, Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek, The Bill Cosby Show and Flip Wilson. The counter culture ruled The Mod Squad and Laugh-In. It was clear the world was changing …

…and TV’s response was to go for the cheese. The second half of this third era of television history is really dominated by the shows remembered fondly by Generation X and those who saw these things in later syndication. This is The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Adam-12, Love, American Style, The Flying Nun, Ironside, My Mother, the Car, Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman. There was a full reliance on gimmicks. And what didn’t depend on a gimmick still felt like a bad parody — even a deconstruction — of what bad TV is all about. Some young people, grown up in a world of media rather than one of sky, sea and soil, enjoy such programs in cable reruns precisely because of how bad they are. 

Television itself has become so much more self-aware as television. Postmodernism hit the medium with a wallop. You can’t have a David Letterman without the irony of his take on the very medium that brings him bread. 

This has all been a very broad overview. Certainly, there have been good shows in each era. Even in the ruins of decadence we have Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Soap, and Taxi. There are always creative people in the field: No era is complete dross. 

 I have very fond recollections of the TV I watched as a child and no doubt rank such shows higher in my estimation than they deserve and no doubt each generation feels something of the same for the fare they ingested in their formative years. We should all be forgiven the folly of our youths.

I rather lost track of the toob after going to college and since graduating. I have caught bits and pieces and I’m afraid I am rather disgusted with the current 24-hour news channels. This has been called a new “Golden Age” of TV, and no doubt it is: The quality levels of much is quite high, at least on cable and on streaming services. The networks seemed largely mired in repetition of the same cafeteria food. I find myself turning primarily to Turner Classic Movies, PBS, and British television. Or perhaps, cracking open a book. 

But then, I am a crotchety old geezer.


Like most everyone else, I have been bunker hunkering, like some 1920’s gangster, holed up in a house, fearful of each approaching human. And like most everyone else, a bit of cabin fever intrudes. I peek out the window and see a yard across the street with a Bradford pear tree like a snowstorm of white, and the lawn is beginning to get unkempt. The temperature has moderated and the sky is filled with crisp, dry air. And so, I have to get out. 

For me, the best solution is to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its entrance is only a few hundred yards from my house. I can stay sealed up in the car but find a place where the horizon is still marked by the distance where the curvature of the earth bends the rest down and away from my sight. When you are stuck at home, it is easy to think of the planet as consisting of four walls; things are cubicular and static. But get out into the mountains, up high where you see for such a length, and you are again standing on the apex of a globe. Everything falls away from you, both geographically and emotionally. Anxiety thins. 

This century has redefined nature. In the 19th century of Thoreau and Emerson, nature was green and pleasant. To Emerson, nature was the outer manifestation of deity. Earlier, to Wordsworth, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light.”

To Byron nature was so vast not even humankind could mar it. Our century has proven him wrong. For us, nature can no longer be the birds and beasties, the green leaves and burbling streams, the sky above and the soil below. We have filled the oceans — where Byron said man’s control “stopped with the shore” — with tangles of plastic waste the size of islands. In our cities, we have turned the transparent air into murk. We have left our rivers thick with the runoff of pigpens. 

The television nature programs I grew up with, that showed us the wildebeest swarming on the veldt and the flying squirrel gliding from tree to tree, have turned into chronicles of rapine and threatened extinction. Those documentaries are now alarums to wake the public to what it is losing. 

The Antarctic ice is thinning, the oceans are swelling, the bees are coughing and the once myriad cod have turned into shriveling shoals. It is hard to think of nature the way I did when I was young. 

“There hath past away a glory from the earth.” 

When I was in my 20s (which was 50 years ago), I was a bird watcher, a hiker, a camper, an amateur astronomer and a gardener. I knew the name of every tree and wildflower or weed. I had an almost mythic connection to the earth: It glowed every day, like a van Gogh painting, buzzing and whirling. Every bush was the burning bush. A surge of brain chemicals blasted my emotions. I was giddy. Now, half a century later, it is not now as it hath been of yore. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” “At length the Man perceives it die away,/ And fade into the light of common day.”

Career and responsibilities, the vicissitudes of living, the betrayals of love and the deaths of those we loved, have all risen to take too much space in our journals. And so, in my senescence I have drawn away from what we used to call nature, and that selfsame nature has itself decayed and left me. 

But not completely. I drive up the road into the hills, through the tunnels, into the high country where the sun shines and the wind blows the shadows of clouds across the flanks of the peaks. It is April and the dogwoods become galaxies of stars against the darker, still-leafless trees behind them. When I look down at the valleys, I see in the lower elevations the bright young leaves swelling from the buds. It is certainly beautiful, but it isn’t just beauty that makes this important. 

We are facing a new virus and most of us, and especially those of us on the shorter end of life’s measuring stick, feel an immediate threat. We may die. We always knew that, but now we can almost touch it and taste it on our fingertips. It is not theoretical. 

And so, I get out of my car in a roadside pullout and look down from the mountain into the woods beside the road and see the fresh buds and the tree branches that sway and the shoots springing tip first through the forest litter and I know that it is another spring, my seventy-second, and one more of millions that make a wake behind the present going back before there was any consciousness to know it. On the uphill side of the road there are stony outcroppings and those folded strata tell me of eons of continuity. 

I have heard, as you have, poets and essayists talk about the importance of nature, and I have at times winced at what seemed to me the perfervid sentimentality of such bromides. After all, everyone knows, or else, should know, that if nothing drastic is done, we’re all going to hell and taking the world with us. The news is 24 hours a day bad, or at least the talking heads tell us so. Over and over. 

But when I go to the woods, it is quiet except for the “small fowls that make melody and sleep all night with open eye.” And the hurly-burly slows and I am forced to know that there is a rhythm that is not that of CNN, that whether it is plague or influenza or corona virus, we have inhaled and exhaled this pestilence before, that the world endures, with me or without me. My frame of reference, like my horizon, expands.

So, it isn’t the simple beauty of the natural world that does me needed good. Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and they include such titles as “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” and ends with “What Love Tells Me.” And what they all join to say is a harmony and a flow. And so, as I drive along the Parkway, I listen to that music on the CD player and the outside and inside, the world and my thoughts and feelings, all twine together into a singularity, mind as mirror to the world, and world as mirror to mind. Pan awakes, Summer marches in. 

Click any image to enlarge

At various times in my career as someone who got paid for writing, I have been asked to speak to groups of students or the curious about my craft. It hasn’t always gone well. 

I remember one time I managed to annoy a community college teacher no end by telling her students to ignore everything she had been hammering into their heads. I didn’t know I was doing that; I was just talking about what I knew through experience. But she had been filling their minds with ugly formulae and what to my mind are tired old saws: Make an outline; use a topic sentence; the rule of threes. As if you could interest readers by rote. 

Part of the problem is that I believe that writers are born, not made. Of course, you can improve anyone’s ability to put down comprehensible sentences, but good spelling and decent grammar do not make a writer. Just as anyone can be taught to draw and sketch, but that won’t make them an artist, anyone can be instructed how to fashion a paragraph or two without embarrassing themselves, but that don’t make’em into Roger Angell. 

One of the things that caused the teacher no end of bother was my insistence that the single most important and defining part of writing was “having something to say.” Without it, no rhetorical device, no repetition of authoritative quotations, no using active rather than passive voice, would suffice. And the truth is, few people have anything to say. 

Of course, everyone thinks they do, but what passes for thought is most often merely the forms of thought, the words that have previously been used to frame the ideas, and hence, someone else’s thoughts. Having something to say is genuinely a rare gift. 

This hardly serves to help the composition-class student or the teacher hoping to form them into perfect little Ciceros. Having something to say requires having had a living experience to draw upon, something original to the writer — a back yard with skunk cabbage, or a two-month deployment with a platoon, or the betrayal of a spouse — and an idiosyncratic reaction to it, something personal and distinct. Instead, most people are just not used to finding words to describe such things and fall back on words they have heard before. Easily understood words and phrases and therefore the mere ghosts of real expression. 

When you use someone else’s words, to that extent you don’t know what you are talking about. 

Being born a writer means being consciously or unconsciously unwilling to accept approximation, to be unsatisfied with the easily understood, to search for the word that more exactly matches the experience. 

One of the consequences is that to be a writer means to re-write. As you read back over what you have just put on paper — or on the computer screen — you slap your forehead over this bit or that. How could I have let that through? And you find something more exact, more telling, more memorable. It is only the third or fourth go-round that feels acceptable. (Each time I come back to a piece I’m working on, I begin again from the beginning and work my way through what I’ve already finished and change things as I go to make myself clearer or my expression more vivid. This means that the top of any piece is usually better written than the end. Sorry.) 

Having something to say and sweating over saying it in a way that doesn’t falsify it — this is what writing is all about. 

But is there anything I can say to those who just want to be a little bit better when turning in a school paper, or writing a letter to the editor, or publishing a novel about your life so far? Here are a few suggestions.

First and most important: Read. Read, read, read. Not so much to imitate what you have found, but to absorb what it is to use language. Just as one doesn’t “learn” English as a youngster, but rather you absorb it. When you are grown, you may have to learn a second language, but as an infant, you simply soak up what you hear and gradually figure it out. And likewise, reading lots of good writing isn’t to give you tricks to follow, but to immerse you in the medium so that it becomes your mother tongue. 

Second: Write. Write, write, write. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously made the claim that it took 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. He later explained he only meant that as an average, but the issue remains: You can’t become a writer without writing. Over and over, until it becomes second nature and all the amateur’s kinks are driven out. Write letters, journals, blogs — it doesn’t matter what, but writing and doing it constantly makes you a better writer. 

Third: Fill the well you draw from. Nothing will come of nothing. Everything you see, feel and do is who you are and is the substance of your writing. If you know nothing, feel nothing deeply, do nothing interesting, then you have nothing to bring to the sentences you write. Good writing is not about writing, despite all the reflexive gibberish of Postmodern philosophers. 

Even when you want to write about abstract ideas, you had better do it through touch, feeling, color, smell, sound. Nothing is worse than reading academic prose, because it is upholstered with “isms” and “ologies.” 

“The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol.”

Thank you. I no longer need to count sheep. 

Through the Middle Ages, all educated people communicated in Latin. In a strange way, that doesn’t seem to have changed. Words of Latin origin predominate in academic prose. Sometimes reading a peer-reviewed paper is like translating Virgil. 

Language and experience are parallel universes. We try to get language closer to the life we live, but it is always at least slightly apart. When we speak or write in abstractions, we are manipulating language without reference to the world of things we live in. Language about language. Good writing is the attempt to bring these two streams closer to each other, so that one may refresh the other. We do that primarily through image and metaphor. An idea is clearer if we can see it or feel it. Flushing it through Latin only obscures it. 

“Show, don’t tell” works best even when you are “telling,” i.e., writing. 

For those who don’t have to think about such things, a word is a fixed rock in the moving stream, set there by the dictionary. But for a writer, each idea and each word is a cloud of meaning, a network of inter-reference. To narrow down those possibilities, a picture helps — a metaphor. Not added on at the end, but born with the idea, co-nascent. 

Take almost any line of Shakespeare and you find image piled on image. “Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” says Prospero. Donalbain fears “the daggers in men’s smiles.” “If music be the food of love, play on.” “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” Shakespeare is nothing if not a cataract of sense imagery. 

How different if Prospero had simply said, “Life is short and then you die.” 

There are a whole host of injunctions and directives that are given to wanna-be writers, and all of them are worthy. Don’t use passive voice; always have antecedents to your pronouns; avoid pleonasm; edit and revise; dump adverbs and, damn it, learn how to use a semicolon. 

But none of them is as important as the primary directive: Have something to say. 

Oh, and yes, it’s always fun to annoy community college teachers. 

I have cooked for most of my life. Even as a small boy, my mother made sure her kids could be self-sufficient in the kitchen; In grade school, I  made sandwiches, Chef Boyardee ravioli, and baked my own brownies. All through my life, I have been happy with the pots and pans. But I’m a cook, not a chef. Nor am I one of those suburban dads who takes credit for culinary skill by charcoaling a chunk of beast over a grill on a weekend. 

No, I’m a day-to-day sort of cook; a plan a menu for the week kind of cook; the sort to check the pantry to see what we’ve got. Through two marriages and two unofficial marriages, and during those years I slogged it alone, I always kept my hand in. Several times, I was the primary cook; my second unofficial wife had no interest in the kitchen and I cooked daily for those seven years, and I spent a year an a half cooking for the family that took me in when I was on the verge of being homeless. The kitchen has become the room in the house I am most intimate with. 

Through it all, I’ve never had a really great kitchen, the kind you see on TV or in glossy magazines, with kitchen islands in the middle and a butcher block and maybe a $200 food processor with a hundred horsepower. But I’ve had perfectly usable kitchens, mostly rather small, in all the houses I’ve lived in. Never enough counter space, but one learns to make do with a tiny patch of clear space to slice and dice. 

The first I remember was when I got married to my first official wife and we lived on the top floor of a duplex. The stairs were on the outside of the house and rather treacherous in the snow. The kitchen had metal cabinets and a small electric stove. Our pots were cheap and nearly thin as tinfoil. Our dishes were Melamine and our flatware bent if the steak was too tough. She did most of the cooking, but I did the baking. For some reason, even if we did exactly the same things, my bread turned out steamy and crusty and delicious and her bread came out of the oven ready to be used as a deadweight anchor or doorstop. I’ve always been mystified by the juju of baking. Some people seem born with it, others not. 

We were poor and planned our meals from a book called Dinner for Two for $1 a Day (Dorothy Neiswender Kent, 1967). We’d buy a chuck steak and split it into three parts, the two bony parts cut for stew beef, the middle filet for a kind of steak. 

One winter, when the refrigerator went out, we left our perishables outside on the windowsill. When you are that young, poverty can actually be quite romantic. 

First kitchen; second; Phoenix kitchen watercolor by Jo Leeds

After that, my second unofficial wife — the one who didn’t cook — and I had a side-by-side duplex with a long thin kitchen and a window over the sink. Outside was a patch of garden and some woods that told of the season. We had splurged for Dansk dinnerware and felt quite sophisticated. But our frypans and pots were all dented and crappy and I longed for some quality cookware. One evening, we hosted a kind of Tupperware party for All-Clad cookware and I drooled over the saucepans. Unfortunately, they were way out of our price range — might as well have been a Maserati — and I could only gawk. 

At one point, I got a job working for the Black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., and among other things, I wrote a cooking column. I was the “Kitchen Magician,” and used my home cooking as the source for my material. (I also wrote stories, laid the paper out, wrote the headlines, wrote the editorials and managed an advice column: “Dear Carol.” I was factotum.)

World’s Most Obscene Man

When Second Unofficial moved on, I relocated to Seattle to share a house with two lesbian doctors and The Worlds’ Most Obscene Man™️. We shared cooking duties, but almost everything we made was tongue-crippling spicy. I remember making our weekly cauldron of hot sauce. It was an easy recipe: one-third onion; one-third jalapeño peppers; one-third garlic; and one-third tomatoes. It simmered all day on the stove. When TWMOM came home from work one day, he saw the pot and grabbed a spoon to taste the brew. “Great soup!” he yelled to the house. His motto: “If you ain’t sweatin’, you ain’t eatin’.” 

The year after Seattle was the low point of my life. I came home to North Carolina with no money and no job and a big, swollen and bruised case of depression. But my two saviors were my college best friend and his wife, who took me in and gave me a room in exchange for my cooking and housekeeping. It was an old multi-cat farmhouse with a woodstove in the kitchen, which was the only heated room in the house. In the winter, when I woke up, sometimes the glass of water next to the bed was frozen. Those months, we spent almost all our waking hours in the kitchen, stoking the fire, breathing the smoke and watching Masterpiece Theatre or Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette.

It was 1980 and I kept notes that included our daily menus. For the week of Jan. 20, we had spaghetti on Sunday; sukiyaki on Monday, chicken and broccoli on Tuesday; souvlaki and eggplant with lemon soup on Wednesday; papas con chorizos on Thursday; hamburgers on Friday (evidently I was slacking off); and braised pork chops to end the week. We had several regular recipes to save money, including something we called “sausage and rice mess,” and there was always tuna casserole. 

Because I always cook without recipes, there was the occasional complaint: “This was really good; how are you going to make it again if it isn’t written down?” Except for a few reflexive dishes, such as spaghetti or that tuna casserole, I never cared to make repeat meals. But a few did get stuck with names, like “Chicken Motocross” and “Linguine Nilsenesca.” (My brother, who also cooks, is famous for his “Mock Hawaiian Chile.”) A few had rude names that I won’t repeat here. 

To my host’s horror, I even baked without recipe. “You can’t make a cake without measuring ingredients,” she said. But I did. A bit of this and of that and voila: cake. (In retrospect, I think there may have been some luck involved that time, but boy, I loved the look on her face when it came out of the oven looking perfect.)

Carole

I got married again a couple of years later, to the woman I spent the next 35 years with, until her death three years ago. Although Carole could walk through walls, and took no guff from anyone — she once stopped a knife fight in Norfolk, Va., by jumping out of her car and scolding the belligerents in her best schoolmarm voice — she had a surprisingly retrograde view of gender roles. “Cooking is the woman’s job,” she said, and kept me out of the kitchen for years. I couldn’t argue with her; she’d beat me up. Changing burnt out light bulbs and unclogging the toilet — those were “the man’s job.” But when she began to get sick, I took back the kitchen and I’ve held it ever since. 

Carole was crazy for red, and so we have a red Kitchen-Aid mixer and a dozen red bowls, casseroles and a dutch oven. Open pretty much any cabinet and you will find a burst of red, like roses in a garden. 

When I retired and we moved to Asheville, N.C., I got the current kitchen, which is still small, but nice enough. And with my buy-out money and pension I have been able to supplement the kitchen arsenal with some of the nicer tools I have long coveted. Over the next several years, I acquired heavy-duty triple-layer professional-grade saucepans, each weighing enough to clobber a bear. 

I have used T-Fal Pro fry pans recommended by America’s Test Kitchen. I’ve had to replace them every 18 months or so. 

But now, I got my perfect non-stick pan from Ikea

and I have kept it bright and shiny for more than a year. It is for me, the perfect 12-inch pan. I use it almost every day. 

I found a series of Ikea knives that have taken over from all the others I have owned. They are one-piece with stainless steel handles and I love them. 

I’ve owned many a knife. Before the current set, I used some really cheap ceramic knives I bought for about $4 each from Target. They each held their edge for about six months before I needed to replace them. But Target doesn’t seem to have them anymore. I miss them. 

And I have added some specialty knives I always wished I had, like a blunt-ended carving knife, a flexible boning knife, and an Asian-style cleaver. 

There is a kind of fetish I have for pots and knives. When I was young, I threw anything in the dishwasher or left them soaking in the sink. Now, I cringe when I see anyone doing that. I wash everything carefully and dry it immediately. I keep a polished gleam on the bottoms of pots. I have always loved dishwashing almost as much as cooking, and almost as much as eating. 

I have settled on a cutting board and I have a drawer full of the implements I use regularly, including a spider and tongs. Almost an antique, I have the shallow-bowl ladle that my grandmother used when I was a wee bairn. It’s one of the few heirlooms in my kit. 

The bane of my existence is storage. I have not enough cabinet space and I really don’t know what to do with all the pot lids: They seem to multiply like gerbils. 

But the cupboards are upholstered to overflow with the ingredients I need: flour, cornmeal, olive oil, baking powder, panko crumbs, canned tomatoes, dried beans and lentils, rice — the cast of thousands. 

And over the years, I’ve collected many sets of dishes, changing them out every few years for variety, which had left me with a pile of back-catalog plates and bowls that I used to have to find a place to store. Finally, I gave most of them away. But I have found a couple of old Dansk dinner plates that are my current standard, along with a nice set of elegantly simple blue-rimmed white-ware. 

So now, to the left of my flat-top electric stove I keep the pots I use regularly

and to the right is my work area, with the salt and oilcan, cutting board and garlic bowl. 

The kitchen is the place you can be creative every day; you build a chemistry experiment out of things you love to put in your mouth. It is an utter delight to have the implements of construction in your toolbox and the means in your larder. 

I love my kitchen, especially now that none of us dare venture out of the house. The kitchen has always been the beating heart where I make my offering to those I love. 

I recently wrote a piece about grammar and vocabulary peeves. And I mean “peeves.” It’s too common to take such language infractions as if federal law had been broken. For me, such things are merely irritants. Others may take such examples as I gave as bad grammar, or mistaken grammar, but I meant to show the personal reaction some of us get when the way we were trained to use language gets trampled on by those not similarly trained. 

Sometimes, there is truly a misuse of language and creates misunderstanding or even gobbledegook, but at other times, it is merely a failure to recognize how language changes and grows through time, or a refusal to understand idiom or regionalism. 

The war between descriptionists and prescriptionists is never-ending. As for me, I have matured from being a mild prescriptionist to a rather forgiving descriptionist, with some few hard rules added. I feel that to be either all one way or all the other is a kind of blind stupidity. 

For instance, I would never use the word “irregardless.” It is unnecessary. But neither will I claim it is not a word. Maybe it didn’t used to be, but it is now, even if it is an ugly word. If someone wants to sound coarse and unlettered, he or she is free to use “irregardless,” regardless of its gaucheness. 

There was a notepad full of examples that I did not fit into the previous blog post, and some newer ones sent me by friends or readers. So, I thought a followup might be due. Some of these are clearly mistakes and misusage, but others are just rules I or we learned at an early age and now flinch at whenever we hear or read them flouted (the confusion of “flouted” and “flaunted” being one of the mistakes that make us flinch). 

I am at a particular disadvantage because I was horsewhipped into shape by the Associated Press Stylebook. I never use an abbreviation for “road” when writing an address, while I have no problem with “St.” for “street.” Why the AP chose this path, I have no clue, but they did and now I am stuck with it. It was driven into me by a rap on the knuckles during my first week working on the copy desk. I am also stuck with “baby sitter” as two words, while “babysitting” is one. 

(Sometimes the stylebook is brutally ignorant. When I began as a copy editor, it told us to spell the little hot pepper as a “chili” and the dinner made with it and meat and/or beans as “chilli,” but we were in Arizona, where Spanish and Spanglish are common, and would have looked like idiots to our readers if we had followed that rule, so we were allowed to transgress and spell the word for both as “chile.” I believe that the Associated Press has finally caught up. I am retired now, and no longer have the most recent copy of the book.)

Of course, the AP Stylebook wasn’t designed to decide once and for all what is correct usage, but rather only to standardize usage in the newspaper, so different reporters didn’t spell “gray” in one story and “grey” in another. But the result of this standardization is the implication that what’s in that book is “right and true.” As a result, I almost always avoid saying “last year,” or “the last time so-and-so did this,” but rather contort the sentence so I can use “past” instead of “last,” the logic of which is that last year wasn’t the last one — at least not yet. Yes, I know that is stupid and that everyone says “last year” and no one is confused, but the AP has rewired my neurons through constant brainwashing. 

It also has me aware of distinguishing jail from prison. People are held in jail awaiting trial; after conviction, they serve their sentence in prison (yes, some convicts serve their time in jails, but that doesn’t change things. Jails tend to be run by counties; prisons by state or federal governments.)

And so, here is my list of additional words and phrases that get under my skin when used or misused. 

For me, the worst, is the common use of “enormity” to describe anything large. I twitch each time it sails past me. An enormity is a moral evil of immense proportions. The Shoah was an enormity; the vastness of the ocean is not. 

Then, there is the confusion between “imply” and “infer.” To imply is to slip a clue into the flow; to infer is to pick up on the clue. 

One hears constantly “literally” used instead of “figuratively.” Ouch. It debases the strength of the literal. 

There are rhetorical figures that are misapplied over and over. Something isn’t ironic simply by being coincidental, nor is oxymoron the same as paradox — the latter is possible through reinterpretation, the former must be linguistically impossible. To be uninterested is not the same as being disinterested. It causes me minor physical pain each time I hear some bored SOB called “disinterested.” 

I have other peeves, lesser ones. “My oldest brother,” when there are only one other brother. “Between” three people rather than “among.” Using “that” instead of “who” when referring to a person: “He was the person that sent me the letter.” Pfui. 

There is a particular personal proscription list for anyone who uses “which” instead of “that” in a sentence with a defining adjectival phrase, as in: “It was the dog on the left which bit me.” It’s OK in: “It was the dog on the left, which bit me, that I came to despise.” 

Some of us still make a distinction between “anxious” and “eager.” The virus makes me anxious. I am eager to get past the threat. There are other pairs that get confused. I try to ensure that I never use “insure” when I’m not talking about an insurance policy; the wrong use of “effect” can affect the meaning of a sentence; further, I never confuse “farther” with something other than physical distance. “Floundered” and “foundered” mean different things, please. 

From other people and from comments to the blog, I have heard complaint of “bringing something with me when I go” or “taking something home with me.” “Bring” comes home; “Take” goes away. 

Another hates seeing “a lot” as one word, unless, of course, it has two “Ls” and means to portion something out. Yet another yells at the TV screen every time someone says “nucular” for “nuclear.” I share that complaint, although I remember many decades ago, Walter Cronkite making a reasoned case for pronouncing “February” without the first “R.” “It is an acceptable pronunciation,” he said, “It is listed as a secondary pronunciation in the Webster’s Dictionary.” I’m afraid “nucular” has become so widespread that it is in the process of becoming, like “Febuary” an accepted alternate. But it hurts my ear. 

Trump give “free rein” to his son-in-law, but perhaps it really is “free reign.” Confusion abounds. 

All this can reek of pedantry. I’m sorry; I don’t mean it to. There are many times you might very well subvert any of these grammatical conventions. I have heard complaints about sentences that start off as “I and Matilda took a vacation” as ugly and wrong, (really, the grammatically worse “Me and Matilda” is idiomatically better, like “Me and Bobby McGee”) but I remember with literary fondness the opening of Herman Melville’s “I and My Chimney:”

I and my chimney, two gray-headed old smokers, reside in the country. … Though I always say, I and my chimney, as Cardinal Wolsey used to say, I and my King, yet this egotistic way of speaking, wherein I take precedence of my chimney, is hardly borne out by the facts; in everything, except the above phrase, my chimney taking precedence of me.

And there are presidential precedents. “Normalcy” wasn’t a word until Warren G. Harding used it to describe a vision of life after World War I (there are examples from earlier, but he popularized its use and was ridiculed for it — “normality” being the normal word). 

I would hate to have to do without George W. Bush’s word: “misunderestimate.” If that hasn’t made it into Webster’s, it should. I think it’s a perfectly good word. Language sometimes goes awry. We don’t always hear right and sometimes new words and phrases emerge. I knew someone who planned to cook dinner for a friend. “Is there anything I should know about your diet? Anything you don’t eat?” “I don’t eat sentient beans,” she said. He had never heard of that sort of bean. It was only much later that he smiled at his own misunderstanding. Since then, I have always kept a bin of dried sentient beans to make “chilli” with. At least, that’s how I label the tub. 

Language shifts like tides. Words come and words go; rules pop up and dissipate; ugly constructions are normalized and no longer noticed, even by grammarians. I have listed here some of the formulations that still rankle me, but I am old and wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. I’m curious, though, what bothers you? Let me know in the comments. 

I began life as a copy editor, which means, I had to know my commas and em-dashes. My spelling had to be impeccable and I memorized the Associated Press Style Book, which taught me that the color was spelled g-r-a-y, not g-r-e-y. Except in “greyhound,” that is. 

It is a line of work I fell into quite naturally, because from the second grade on, I have had a talent for words. I diagrammed sentences on the blackboard that had the visual complexity of the physics formulae written on his whiteboard by Sheldon Cooper. I managed to use my 10 weekly vocabulary words, tasked with writing sentences for each, by writing one sentence using all ten. I did OK with math, but it was never anything that much interested me, but words were another thing. I ate them up like chocolate cake. 

The upshot is that I am a prime candidate for the position as “Grammar Cop,” bugging those around me for making mistakes in spelling, punctuation and usage. And, admittedly, in the past, I have been guilty. But as age softens me, I have largely given up correcting the mistaken world. And I have a different, more complex relationship with language, less strict and more forgiving. 

The cause for this growing laxness are multiple. Certainly age and exhaustion are part of it. But there is also the awareness that language is a living, growing, changing thing and that any attempt to capture it in amber is a futile endeavor. 

But although I have come to accept many changes in speech that I once cringed at — I can now take “their” in the singular (“Everyone should wash their hands”) and have long given up on “hopefully” — there are still a handful of tics that I cannot get over. I try, but when I hear them uttered by a news anchor or starlet on a talk show, I jump a little, as if a sharp electric shock were applied to my ear. 

The first is “I” used in the objective case. It gives me the shivers. “He gave the award to Joan and I.” It gets caught in my throat like a cat’s fur ball. 

The second is using “few” for “less.” I know that the usage has largely changed, but it still assaults my ear when I hear, “There will be less pumpkins this Halloween, due to the drought.” Ugh. 

A third is the qualified “unique,” as in, “His hairstyle is very unique.” It’s either unique or it isn’t. 

Then there are common mispronunciations. “Ek-setera” is just awful. Although, I did once know someone who always gave it its original Latin sounding: “Et Caetera” or “Et Kye-ter-a.” Yes, that was annoying, too. 

The last I’ll mention here is the locution, “centered around.” Gets my goat every time. Something may be “centered on” a focus point, or “situated around” something, but “centered around” is geometrically obtuse unless you’re discussing Nicholas of Cusa’s definition of the deity, whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. 

Others have their own bugaboos. One friend cannot get past the confusion between “lay” and “lie.” She also jumps every time someone uses “begging the question,” which is misused 100 times for every once it is understood. 

Of course, she may be more strict than I am. “There have been errors so egregious that I’ve stopped reading a book,” she says. “I just stomp my foot and throw the book away.” 

Her excuse: “I was an English major.” 

There are many other issues that bother me, but not quite so instantly. I notice when the subjunctive is misused, or rather, not used when it should be. If I were still an editor, I would have fixed that every time. 

I am not sure I will ever get used to “like” used for “said.” And I’m like, whoever started that linguistic monstrosity? I also notice split infinitives as they sail past, but I recognize that the prohibition against them is a relic of Victorian grammarians. It is too easy to lazily give in to those ancient strictures. 

So far, I’ve only been talking about catches in speech, although they show up in print just as often (you can actually come across “ect.” for “etc.”) But reading a book, or a newspaper or a road sign and seeing the common errors there can be even more annoying. There is probably nothing worse, or more common, than the apostrophe plural. You don’t make something plural by adding an apostrophe and an “S.” “Nail’s” is not the plural for “nails.” This is encountered endlessly on shop signs. 

And digital communication is fraught with homophone confusion. “They’re,” “there,” and “their,” for instance, or “you’re,” and “your.” I admit that occasionally this is just a mental hiccup as you are typing. We all make mistakes. I have sometimes put a double “O” after a “T” when I mean a preposition. That’s just a typo. But there are genuinely people who don’t seem to notice the difference with “to,” “too,” and “two.” (I have great tolerance, however, for the ideogrammatic usage of “2” for “to” in electronic messaging. I find it kind of amusing to see the innovation in space-saving for Twitter and e-mail. I may even have been guilty myself of such things. Indeed, there is a long history of this sort in handwritten letters in the 15th to 18th centuries, when “William” was often “Wm,” and “through” was often “thro.” Paper was expensive and abbreviations saved space.)

Some frequent typological absurdities make me twitch each time. I really hate seeing a single open-quote used instead of an apostrophe when a word is abbreviated from the front end. You almost never see “rock ’n’ roll” done correctly. 

There are lesser offenses, too, that I usually let pass. “Impact” as a verb, for instance. It bothers me, but the only people who use it tend to write such boring text that I couldn’t wade through it anyway. (I wrote about the management class mangling of the language in what I call “Manglish.”) “Different than” has become so normalized for “different from” that I’m afraid it has become standard English. Of course, the English themselves tend to say “different to.” So there. 

There are distinctions that have been mostly lost in usage. “Can I” now means the same as “May I” in most circumstances, and almost no one still makes a distinction between “shall” and “will.” 

Many of us have idiosyncratic complaints. I knew someone who complained that “laundermat” was not a word. We saw such a one on Vancouver Island when visiting. “It should be ‘laundromat,’” she said, arguing the parallel with “automat.” 

Another cringes at “would of,” “should of,” and “could of” in place of “would have,” “should have,” and “could have.” But this is merely a mishearing of the contractions “would’ve,” “should’ve,” and “could’ve” and turning them into print. Yes, it should be corrected, but it doesn’t get under my skin when I hear it. 

And there are regionalisms that bother some, although I glory in the variety of language. One person I know complains about such phrases as “had went,” but that is a long-standing Southernism and gets a pass, as far as I’m concerned. 

And much else is merely idiom. If you get too exercised about “I could care less,” please relax. It means the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” Merely idiomatic. Lots of grammatical nonsense is now just idiomatic English. Like when the doorbell rings and you ask “Who’s there?” and the answer comes back, “It’s me.” If you hear “It is I,” you probably don’t want to open the door. No one talks like that. It could be a spy whose first language is not English. Better ask if they know who plays second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers (old movie reference). 

And the Associated Press hammered into me the habit of writing “past week” instead of “last week,” on the principle that the previous seven days had not, indeed, been terminal. You can take these things too far — but I am so far brainwashed not to have given in. “Past week,” it will always be. 

I may have become lax on certain spelling and grammar guidelines, but one should still try one’s best to be clear, make sense, include antecedents for one’s pronouns and be clear about certain common mistakes. “Discreet” and “discrete” are discrete words. And someone I know who used to transcribe her boss’s dictated letters once corrected him when he said a client should be “appraised” of the situation and typed instead, “apprised.” He brought her the letter back and complained that she had misspelled “appraised.” Being a man and being in management, he could not be persuaded he was wrong. She had to retype the letter with the wrong word. There’s just nothing you can do with some people. 

Language is just usage at the moment. It shifts like the sands at the beach, what was “eke” to Chaucer is “also” to us. What was “conscience” to Shakespeare is “consciousness” to us. Thus does conscience make grammar cops of us all. We don’t learn our mother tongue, we acquire it and what we hear as babes becomes normal usage. Ain’t it the truth?

A lot has changed since the beginning of the past century. My grandmother was always amused by the fact that she was born before the Wright Brothers flew and lived to see men walking on the moon. 

She might also have said she was born before the Russian Revolution and lived to see Communism punk out and die. 

But there are smaller, less monumental changes, too. Men used to habitually take their hats off upon entering public buildings. For that matter, men used to wear fedoras and trilbies, but now, if they wear hats at all, they tend to wear them with their peaks turned backwards, perhaps to protect their necks from the sun, like a havelock. Elbows used to be banned from tables and doors used to be held. 

Some of these changes have been all to the good. We wear seatbelts in cars now. Antibiotics have meant that a cut on the finger doesn’t lead to death. Women have the vote. Harvey Weinstein is in jail. All to the good. 

But one change I lament and that is the demise of letter writing. 

This comes to mind because I have been reading The Oxford Book of Letters, edited by Frank and Anita Kermode. It is a beautiful volume, in that rich, deep blue fabric binding and gold titling that distinguishes the work of the Oxford University Press. In it are hundreds of missives, beginning with a 1535 letter by Sir Antony Windsor to Lady Lisle and ending with a 1985 letter from Philip Larkin to Kingsley Amis. (About Lady Lisle, the second wife of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, it was said she was “incomparably evil.” Letters are a great source of historical gossip.)  

Lady Lisle also apparently gave Lord Edmund Howard (father of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard) a cure for kidney stones. He wrote to thank her: “So it is I have this night after midnight taken your medicine, for the which I heartily thank you, for it hath done me much good, and hath caused the stone to break, so that now I void much gravel. But for all that, your said medicine hath done me little honesty, for it made me piss my bed this night, for the which my wife hath sore beaten me, and saying it is children’s parts to bepiss their bed. Ye have made me such a pisser that I dare not this day go abroad, wherefore I beseech you to make mine excuse to my Lord and Master Treasurer, for that I shall not be with you this day at dinner.” 

Lord Edmund was luckier than his daughter; he only lost his continence. 

So many of these letters are either entertaining for their anecdotes or impressive for their style. Many are acrimonious. Katherine Mansfield wrote to Princess Bibesco in 1921 about an affair the princess was having with Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry. She wrote: “I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world. … Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and simply hate having to teach them manners.”

Not included in this book, which contains only letters written in English, is one of my favorites, written by German composer Max Reger to the critic Rudolf Louis, after Louis published a bad review of Reger’s Sinfonietta in A. “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review before me; it will soon be behind me.” 

There is often a spontaneity to letters that text written for publication lacks. Their offhandedness lets us see their authors with their hair down and their tunics unbuttoned. And they let us see the thought processes that can underline the finished work that is later published. The letters of Vincent van Gogh, for instance, are treasured for the insight they give, not only to the artist’s work, but into art and esthetics in general. He was an unkempt but profound writer. 

But I am not lamenting the loss of letter writing only because of the professionals. I miss the intimacy that grows between friends when they communicate with each other over distance. A distance that shrinks to nothing with the opening of an envelope and the avid consumption of its contents. 

When my wife died, the letters I received from a friend who had a similar loss were the single most comforting balm I got. There was much sympathy from others and the sentiments were truly appreciated, but the fact that she and I shared this experience gave her letters a truthfulness and understanding that were the only thing that actually helped. I cannot properly put a value on the importance of receiving those letters. 

I’m not sure what has led to the decline of the practice, although the rise of e-mails must take a good share of the blame. E-mails have a cloying impersonal life on the computer screen or worse, the cell phone. And they tend to be short. A good letter can go on for glorious pages; a typical e-mail has the businesslike efficiency of an eviction notice. Worse still, the Twitter tweet. Even blown open to 280 characters, it is not even long enough for a 17th century salutation: “To my esteemed colleague, friend and benefactor, Lord Essington, Earl of Hardwick and champion of the oppressed Irish during this time of travail amongst the peasants, and cousin to her ladyship Princess Analine, and father of my dear wife, who sends her greeting with this note … etc., etc. etc. …” 

I’m afraid I am still at heart a letter writer. Although most of those I produce now are sent via e-mail. My recipients must cringe when they get that beep on their machines and see my name in the heading, knowing that they will be asked to read two or three pages worth of chatter instead of the laconic “Arrived Dec. 10. Things going well.” 

But sending even a long e-mail is cheating. It precludes the pleasure we almost never enjoy anymore and that is being able to slit open an envelope and read an actual letter, on paper, in writing, that we can carry with us and don’t need to boot up to read. 

Before the days of the internet, I used to write letters prolifically. In March of 1979, for instance, I wrote in that single month, 500 pages of typescript that I mailed out, doling the missives to a dozen different friends and acquaintances. A year later, one letter alone, that I wrote to my closest friends was 64 pages long. Part of it was a description of a visit to the Seattle Aquarium:


“Huge scrotal octopods, all valves, siphons and tentacles, are strangely graceful.

“A lime-white seastar rests on the sand and over it a flounder, like some Arabian magic carpet, flies, wavering its Persian body.

“Looking sleepy among the rocks is a wolf eel with its prizefighter’s prognathous face. He is metallic blue with black coindots in bands across his body. He slithers around the floor boulders prehistorically.

“A sculpin stares straight at me from behind the glass with two Japanese fans for fins. A round, flattened seaperch floats slowly past the window. He has neon blue skin showing through rows of brown scales. From a distance he just looks brown, but up close, he is a vision.” 

Those were days when I was seriously lonely, first living in Seattle (the 64-page letter was about my life there), and then when I moved back to North Carolina and felt so alone in the world that I suffered a complete mental disjunction. The letters helped me feel human again. I was making contact; I did have friends, after all.


I was living in Summerfield, N.C., at the time, some rural miles north of Greensboro, and on a sunny day, I would take my aqua-green plastic-framed clatter-keyed portable typewriter out to the tree stump near the woodshed and sit down and pound away on the keyboard for hours, writing letters to everyone I knew. I made carbons as I typed, so I still have many of these letters, though the paper is getting a touch brittle and some of the carbon ink is smudged and fading. 

But these relics are a kind of diary of my time then. Letters often work that way for their authors. It feels a bit solipsistic to keep a journal, but the accumulation of letters does the same thing in a more gregarious way. And by sharing thoughts with friends you feel more connected with the world, part of it, necessary to it. 

It is said the only way to becoming a good writer is to write. And the practice of writing letters is how I became proficient enough to land a job at a newspaper, where over a quarter of a century, I produced two-and-a-half-million words. I look back at my own archive of letters — a fraction of those I wrote — and see in them the growing ability, from awkward to fluent. 

In their introduction to the book, the Kermodes wrote: “The archives of the world are crammed with letters. Even when, around the beginning of the present century, the telegram and then the telephone took over much of the quotidian correspondence, the old epistolary habit persisted; huge numbers of letters continued as usual to be written, most, as usual, dashed off with little premeditation, some, as before, carefully composed, polished perhaps from an original draft; and if the writers were at all famous many scribbles were preserved along with the weightier and more considered effusions. According to Dan H. Laurence, the editor of a four-volume selection, there were ‘tens of thousands’ of G.B Shaw letters extant, and of these his very large book includes only about a couple of thousand. Of a far less busy writer, E. M Forster, about 11,000 letters survive. The correspondence of Virginia Woolf occupies six big volumes, and that of D.H. Lawrence, who died at 44, requires seven. These people were not, so to speak, professional letter writers like Horace Walpole, whose correspondence fills almost fifty volumes in the Yale edition; their letters were incidental to their main business in life, though one could say they had the scribbling habit.”

It would be hard, they say, to imagine an “Oxford Book of E-mails.” 

We are now asked to stay home for our own good and for the good of others, and to maintain a “social isolation.” What a good time to regain the intimacy of the written letter. Certainly better than watching 18 hours of TV a day. 

I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it.