Archive

Tag Archives: learning

“Do you remember when you first bumped up against the real world?” Stuart was looking philosophical. “I mean, when you first came to the realization that all was not what it seemed?”

I thought about it for a moment, but then, of course, I realized that Stuart wasn’t so much asking a question about my life, as stating a prologue to his next monologue. 

“It was in high school,” he said. “It was in the 1960s and I was notoriously bored in school. The worst was study hall — really, a holding cell between classes where no one actually studied. I hated it. Where was Temple Grandin when you needed her? We were cattle in a pen. 

Vincent ‘the Chin’

“Mr. Taylor, the Latin teacher, took a liking to me. Not that many kids wanted to learn the ablative. And so, he managed to give me an entire pad of preprinted library passes, so I could spend my time among books, instead of among juvenile delinquents. Did I mention this was northern New Jersey and a large contingent of kids in class were the offspring of made men? Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante had a house not more than 200 yards from where I grew up — he was the famous ‘Oddfather,’ who feigned insanity to avoid criminal prosecution. (One day, years later, when I was in college, I heard on the radio that the entire police department from my town had been arrested for taking bribes.)

“Well, one day, for some reason, I had run out of library passes and was forced to go to study hall. I arrived early and the only other student was Artie Mangano. You have to remember that there is a pecking order in high school. I was a dyed-in-the-wool nerd. I liked books. Artie was the biggest thug around, both physically and in terms of where he ranked. I was his natural target. We had long established that fact.

“We sat near each other saying nothing. Artie may have been reading a comic book. When in walked Mrs. Fisk, the French teacher who was going to be prison guard for the next hour. Mrs. Fisk had a thick accent and no sense of humor.”

“I know the type,” I said. “They are the second lieutenants of the world, right out of OCS.”

“And on the blackboard — and in those days, the board was still slate and was still black — Mr. Taylor had drawn a map of the Roman Empire. There was Illyrium, there was Gallia Cisalpina. Of course, Mr. Taylor’s writing was nearly illegible. He was a scribbler and the map was rather squirrelly. When Mrs. Fisk looked at it, she turned and looked at Artie and me and asked angrily, ‘Who wrote this on the blackboard?’ 

“We didn’t know what she was talking about.

“She clapped her hands to keep our attention. ‘Who wrote this filth? These obscene things? I must have been one of you two.’

“We had no idea what she meant. It was a map of the Mediterranean, albeit, it looked a little like an unraveled ball of yarn. She glared at us, getting louder and more incensed. 

“You two — go down to the vice principal’s office. Now! And tell him what you have done!”

“Our school had the ultimate good cop-bad cop. The principal was the soft-spoken — and unfortunately named — Donald Duff. He took a lot of mocking for that name. The vice principal was the enforcer, the meter-outer of punishment, Mr. Garbaccio, a hard-hearted disciplinarian who resembled nothing so much as Luca Brasi. 

“We walked down the hall, down the stairs and into the office. Artie was used to this routine; I was not. I was both mortified and outraged and at the same time unseemly meek and cowed. We sat in the outer office waiting for Mr. Garbaccio to finish with the miscreants ahead of us in line.

“When it came our turn, I tried to explain to him what was the reality: Mr. Taylor’s map of the Roman world offended Mrs. Fisk, who mistook it for an obscene graffito. 

“ ‘She wouldn’t have sent you down here for nothing,’ he said. Yes, she would, I thought. She was always kind of goofy. I remonstrated and re-explained. Artie said nothing. Since I was a reputed ‘good kid’ and had never been in his office before, and because Mr. Taylor’s handwriting was so well known, Mr. Garbaccio let up the pressure, but that didn’t help and so he said, ‘I understand. But, I’m going to have to give you two points anyway.’

“Discipline for misdemeanors was given out in the form of points. Collect enough and you were suspended. Artie knew the process well. I was a novice. My sense of injustice was boiling. I knew I had done nothing wrong. There is nothing so pure in this world as the flame of outrage in a kid who knows he has been unfairly blamed. 

“Two things of note resulted from this episode. First was that somehow I had acquired an unearned respect from Artie. He no longer bullied me, and in fact, his presence meant that none of his fellow mouth-breathers molested me anymore, either. It was a kind of privileged existence, a pet-nerd. We had shared a visit to Mr. Garbaccio. 

“But the second thing was that I figured out something about the real world: that sometimes form required a knowing injustice for the purpose of maintaining order, that I would have to accept my two points so that Mrs. Fisk wouldn’t be publicly outed as the flibbertigibbet that we all knew she was. The world worked by its own gears and pulleys, and sometimes the innocent get ground up in the machine. 

“You know, when you are in high school and you are given required reading, it usually sails right over your head. You don’t have enough life experience to understand what is going on with Mr. Darcy or with Fagin. They are just cardboard cutouts moving through a plot that you know you will be quizzed on come Tuesday. Really, high school kids are so much unformed clay, unlicked whelps, thinking they are so wise; but they are really just pimply-faced dorks with breaking voices and enough social anxiety to fuel a nuclear sub. 

“I mention this because when we were assigned to read Melville’s Billy Budd, I was hit upside the head with recognition — alone in the class, I knew for the first time what was really going on. I knew why the ‘handsome sailor’ had to die. I had understood the lesson of Mr. Garbaccio’s office and I felt a deep surging of sympathy for Captain Vere. He was not the villain, after all. He was understanding the bigger picture. The lesson was sobering but has been reinforced many times through the years.

“I memorized a lot of facts and dates in high school, was introduced to Shakespeare and Spanish pronouns, but all that is just information — confetti. It didn’t actually mean anything. True, I have drawn on that information a lot, but it is just the boards and nails I can use to construct a sense of the world. What I got from my two points was the only thing I can claim to have genuinely learned in high school.” 

Our education is judged as much by the books we haven’t read as those we have. It’s a sad fact that no matter how well-read we try to be, we simply cannot read everything. Not even close. 

My reading includes many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I have read Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis of the Deified Claudius (Alternately, the Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius, antedating the apocolocyntosis of Donald Trump by two millennia), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  

That tendency to seek out so many obscure books has meant that I read Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile long before I ever finished Moby Dick. In fact, I have read almost all of Melville, from Typee to The Confidence Man to John Marr and Other Sailors, and his poetry, in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The problem with Moby Dick was not the book, but me. I love the style of Melville so much, that every time I picked up Moby Dick, I started again from the beginning. Over and over. I must have read “Loomings” 50 times. I have since gotten through the whole thing, and I love the book dearly. Reading Melville is like eating a meal as rich as foie gras. 

I mention all this because, while I have read Xenophon’s Anabasis, and enjoyed the hell out of it, I have to confess, I have never quite been able to finish Thucydides. Herodotus charms the heck out of me; I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to his Histories, but old Thucydides always feels a bit turgid, dense and humorless. I feel I gain as much from reading a summary of his Peloponnesian Wars as from trudging through the full-length. I may be mistaken in that belief, I grant. But the fact is, I have limited time on this planet, and of the making of books there is no end. 

The number of books I know I should have read is immense. Yes, I have read Tristram Shandy (the funniest book I have ever read), but I have never read Jane Austen. I hope to get around to it some day. I have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I have not yet read Proust. (I have a similar problem with Swann’s Way that I had with Moby Dick: I have read the first 50 pages several times, and each time, I start anew.) 

I only got around to Tolstoy’s War and Peace last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It may be the greatest book I’ve ever read. I still haven’t tackled Anna Karenina, although many years ago I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata. 

The holes in my erudition are wide enough to sail an icebreaker through. Yet, I count in this world, as a fairly well-read man. 

Sometimes we feel guilty for things we should not. The guilt hangs over us like a dark cloud, and we live our lives believing that everyone knows. I am confessing my guilt here, and the obvious fact that I am a fraud. 

Among the books I haven’t read are: The Aeneid (it bores me every time I pick it up); Don Quixote (I’ve tried, believe me, but it just goes on and on and never seems to get anywhere); Les Miserables; Sons and Lovers; The Tin Drum; Lord Jim; Rabbit, Run; Orlando; The Handmaid’s Tale; Dr. Zhivago; Jude the Obscure. I could go on. 

There are whole authors I have managed to avoid: Aside from Austen, there are: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, J.R.R. Tolkien. All of them worthy and important. Among the writers I have avoided because of being forced to read them in high school, and therefore destroying my ability to even bear them are Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Forcing kids to read books well beyond their ability to understand them can only ruin those books for life. 

From the list of the so-called greatest books on the website thegreatestbooks.org, I have read 19 of the top 25 volumes on the list and 31 of the first 50. That seems decent, but it leaves off too many books that I should have read. 

Prominent among them are more recent writings. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching and Beowulf many times in different translations, I have somehow managed to miss Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Annie Proulx, and Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Shakespeare & Co., Paris

I swear, I know this is a horrible confession. I am one ignorant S.O.B. Yes to Suetonius, no to Dio Cassius; Yes to Longinus and Lucretius, not so much for Josephus or Livy. 

What I blame is not so much my waywardness, but the fact that it is impossible to read everything. The last person to do that, according to his biography, was John Milton, who took several years off after university to read everything ever written in a language he could read, and that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and, of course, English. But much has been published since then, and even a specialist cannot read everything just in his or her own field. So, we pick and choose.

And if, like me, you choose not to be a specialist, and not get a post-doctoral degree in the subspecies of Malagasy dung beetle, so as to become the world expert in such, the purpose of reading is not to master a particular field, but to take as wide a view of everything as possible. 

One could certainly find a list — such as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf — of those books deemed by consent of the educated to be the most important and slog your way through them one by one so as to round out your erudition. But I have chosen a more desultory strategy, picking those books that appealed to me. After all, I read primarily for pleasure, not by obligation.

And let’s face it, the five-foot shelf of a hundred years ago is now rather dated and fails to include much that would now be considered mandatory. Things change. 

So, I make my own list, and if it includes H.L. Mencken and doesn’t include Fenimore Cooper, so be it. Although I did get huge pleasure from reading Mark Twain’s exploration of Cooper’s “literary offenses.” I recommend it. 

I make no claim of wisdom. In fact, the older I get, the less wise I feel. But I can claim, at the age of 70, to have amassed a life of experience. I have been through a lot, from the turmoil of the 1960s, divorce, near homelessness, the death both of a brother and of my late espoused saint. I have been both unemployed and had a successful career and traveled three continents. Finally, I have grandchildren and see with trepidation into the 21st century, beyond my time here. 

And it is that last that gives me pause. If there is one regret that haunts my senescence, it is that all the experience I have lived through can never be transmitted to the twin granddaughters that I love. Sure, I can tell them things, and perhaps some of what I tell them helps. More is surely ignored — I know I ignored the importunings of my elders when I was their age. It cannot be otherwise. When I was young, I knew so much; now that I am old, I know so little. They certainly see that in me, now that they are 18, headed off to college and know so very much. 

But it isn’t advice I am talking about. I am talking about the impossibility of transferring experience. From my brain, from my heart, to theirs, of for that matter, to anyone. A whole life of accrued sensation and false step, of battering and acceptance, of the shiftings of love and the devastation of failure, the afflatus of joy and the satisfaction of doing good work, remains bottled up inside me — and inside everyone. 

I am reminded in this of the soldier back from the war, with the thousand-yard stare, who can say in words what he has been through, but can never actually share the reality of it. The horror, the horror. So many, like my own father, a veteran of World War II in Europe, never talked about it. When he was old, I tried to tease it out of him. I asked questions about his war experience, but he always deflected. I know at one point near the end of the war, that 11 German soldiers walked out of the woods to surrender to him. But as far as he was concerned, he had no part in that. It was just something that happened while he was there. He avoided ever talking about the war and when pressed, made light of it, in a way that made it clear there was little lightness about it at all. 

Things of the magnitude of war and destruction cannot be adequately talked about. You had to be there. And having been there, you never wanted to be there again, even in recollection. 

I had a similar experience when my wife died. There is no way to express the enormity of the loss, or the singularity of the experience. There were many who expressed sympathy, and I greatly appreciated those words intended to comfort. But they cannot know what it was like. Is like. In no way. The only people I could truly commune with were those who had also lost a mate. They had been through it, too. They understood. It is a kind of brotherhood. 

The actual complexity and depth, the horror and devastation of it cannot be conveyed in mere words. The experience of it is different from language. It is the biggest event in my life, and remains so a year and half later. 

In the same way, all the years that have been poured into and out of my body and my psyche can not be expressed in words that begin to touch the heart of it. Language is a parallel universe, a train out of whose windows you may watch the world pass without having the need to experience it. The real thing is bigger, inexplicable, devastating, body-filling, rich, dense, multifarious and always connected, piece to piece in a larger and larger construction, which is me. Or you. 

It is the final frustration of life that all that history buried in my mind is stuck there, doomed to die when I do. In a way, all that learning I have amassed is ultimately pointless; poof, gone. 

I am aware of the irony: I made my living as a writer, and words are my only useful tools. But no matter, I have always felt the inadequacy of those ink squiggles on the paper. 

I am reminded again of those lines in Andrew Marvell’s poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…” 

The idea being that inside us is a world actually bigger than the outer one. It takes it all in and creates even further, making connections not obvious, building from imagination “far other worlds and other seas.”

“Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

And it’s the “annihilating” part that digs at me. I have no fear of death — after all, I was not afraid before I was born; non-existence is a neutral state (of course, like Woody Allen, I don’t want to be there when it happens). Like Herman Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have pretty well made up my mind to be annihilated.” But all that life, all that experience of which my cup overfloweth, will ultimately count for nil. That is the part that vexes me. 

I want to make the twins’ lives easier, happier, with less of the pain and frustration that comes to all of us. I want to impart to them the equanimity that age confers, but I cannot. No one can. All that experience is ultimately wasted in me, moiling about inside with no escape. No purpose, no benefit. It is life’s greatest frustration. And I feel it intensely.

Mathematics. We all have our personal sums and divisions. I was once 20; I am now 70. The years have added up, and what is left is now a fraction. 

When I entered college in 1966, I was just over half the age of the professor who had the most influence on me. He is now 85 and have become exactly 14/17ths his age. I am catching up. The ratio has narrowed. 

(If we both live long enough, I calculate by my birthday in 2025, I will be older than him by seven months.) 

There was once a great difference in our ages and in our wisdom; now we are roughly equal. The piling of years does that; the gathering of experience. 

I have spent my life learning. It is the basic drive, like women for Don Giovanni, or gathering corporate acquisitions for Warren Buffett. But more math: Every time I increase what I know by 2 percent, I double what I don’t know. I learn arithmetically, I become ignorant exponentially. It is as if I am splashing in an inflatable wading pool on the beach next to the ocean.

When I was young, I was a complete idiot, and my ambition in life was to know everything. Seriously: everything. I suppose underneath the surface, I understood that was impossible. But you have to have some kind of aspiration. 

But back then, being an idiot, I still thought being intelligent meant knowing a lot of stuff. And I knew a lot of stuff. Piles of facts and factoids. I could explain the Defenestration of Prague in 1618: the shifting taxonomy of lions from Felis leo to Panthera leo to Leo leo; the use of the Neopolitan sixth chord as the subdominant in a minor key. And perhaps I showed off a bit too much. But now I understand that knowing stuff is mere accumulation. Nothing to take credit for: These things stuck in my mind because my brain is gummy. 

Besides, the more you learn, the more you discover that what you once took to be fact has either been superseded by later research, or been misunderstood, or turned out to be canard and cant. I.e., Cliff Clavinism. 

I have a pile of books and music scores that keep me going, and I add to that all the things of the real, the physical world, that I observe — the seasons changing on the trees, the birds chirping, the clouds ranging over the skies.

I am hungry to take it all in. 

But there is another delusion: that being intelligent somehow means being rapid of apprehension. Quick. Sharp. Fast on the uptake. While it is true that a fast comprehension comes with intelligence, it is, as they say, necessary but not sufficient. 

People who know they are smart tend to sort things very quickly into their silos, eager like tennis pros, to volley the next shot back. C’mon, you can bring’em faster than that! But sorting isn’t intelligence. Quickness of wit is fine; it is fun, it is exhilarating, but it doesn’t get us to the core of things. 

This is something I have come to understand over many years. Two people, more than any others, more than any book or class, taught me what to value in whatever mote of intelligence I possessed. 

The first was my wife. She was the most intelligent person I ever knew, although, on first hearing her, you might be confused over that issue. She could say the most surprising things: “Andrew Wyeth is more abstract than Jackson Pollock” or “You can fall into blue.” (We once argued over that last one for three full days and nights, before I capitulated. I always gave in. She was always right, although you had to think sideways or give up long-held unreflected prejudices. Wyeth is abstract in the sense that he abstracts a visual essence from the world and flattens it into an image made of blurts and squiggles, while a Pollock painting is no abstraction: It is palpably and solely a painting; it is what it is and nothing else. As for blue, I have been drowning in it since that fight.)

What she had was complete and utter openness to input. A failure to plop input into those silos. She didn’t so much think outside the box, but was unaware there was a box. I marveled at her insight, which she was basically oblivious to. It just was. 

It led me to my doctrine of volitional ignorance. That is, to approach any subject from the point of view of complete innocence. Forget what you think you know and just take in the new experience. 

The second person, and earlier lesson came from that professor, now frail and failing, who forced me to engage with the material. 

When I first got to college, I knew I was bright, and I responded to classes by doing what I had always done: giving the teacher what he or she wanted. I was good at that. But in my class of English Romantic Poetry, I handed in my first paper, saying exactly what I knew my professor wanted me to say and he gave me back my paper with a big, red “D” on it. (Technically, it was a D-plus). I was dumbfounded. There was nothing in the paper that didn’t repeat what he had said in his lectures. It couldn’t have been that far wrong.

But what he wanted from me was not what I thought he wanted. He wanted me to engage with the material. To know something, not to know about something. There is a difference, not just in magnitude, but in kind between knowing about and knowing. 

That is where engagement comes in. Paying attention. Not sorting to be done with, but holding something between your thumb and fingers, twirling it around, seeing it from all sides, squeezing it to see how hard it is, cutting it open to see what’s inside. 

You must start from the simplest things. Looking at a painting, do not decide what the subject is or means, but first look. Long and hard. Describe everything you see, however slight. Don’t forget the corners, what is hidden in the shadows, describe the exact color of the blank parts of the background, what the fingers of the subjects left hand is doing. Get all the bits in first. Take time. I once spent seven hours in front of a single painting. It takes time and commitment. It takes engagement.

Only when you have spent all the time you need should you then essay to understand what the art might be about. Ingest it first, digest it second. 

Fifty years ago, my professor forced me to engage with the material. I wasn’t there to learn facts about Shelley, but to engage with the work and see what it might teach me. I have been attempting that ever since. It is a hard practice to keep up: so much easier to categorize and dispense and move on to the next. More efficient. Gets things done. 

But if you really want to partake in this life, be embedded in the world into which you have been dropped, it is essential to pay attention, to know in your bones how little you truly understand.  

 For the world is infinitely complex and can obey no schema you toss over it. Engage with it on any level and extract whatever you can. Savor it.  

RW ca 1975When I was young and just out of college, my ambition was simple: to know everything. I mean, to read and study, and do, and finally to be able to put together all the pieces into a single grand scheme: My own unified field theory. I was not daft, I knew at the time this was an impossibility, but I thought as a goal, it was at least a starting place.

peterson guideOthers in my graduating class had more specific goals — to become a doctor or lawyer or research scientist. Such goals required focus and specialization. They would have to learn all they could about law or medicine or pigeon behavior, but I would be purposely unfocused. I wanted to take in the whole horizon. I collected Peterson guides to learn the names and calls of all the birds, the names of trees and wildflowers. I read all the poetry I could find and all the history, too. Ancient, modern and otherwise. I had books on physics and astronomy, and I listened to all kinds of music and learned to read scores. I was in pig heaven.

encyclopedia brownDo not laugh. Of course this was all silly. But when you are young, you are an idiot. I was no exception, in fact, I was probably the the very model of youthful and ignorant assurance. It helped that I had a retentive memory. Or as I now put it: Facts stick because my brain is gummy. I developed something of a reputation, both as a know-it-all, and as “Encyclopedia Brown.” One girlfriend used to make spare cash by betting her coworkers that when I came to pick her up after work, that I would be able to answer a question they thought they could stump me with. “Who was the first secretary-general of the U.N?” “Trygve Lie,” I would say, and money would change hands.

These were sparse years: With no specialization, it was hard to find a meaningful job. I didn’t much care, as long as I had enough money to feed myself and rent a garret apartment. Recreational reading included the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. I was a vacuum cleaner.

I do not know where this drive to learn came from, but I have always had it. Others may learn for reasons of usefulness; I never thought about the pragmatic aspects of knowledge: The learning was the end itself. More, more, I wanted more.

You might point out that a vast accumulation of fact is not really erudition, and that merely knowing bits of fact confetti is not the same as understanding or wisdom. For me, back then, that was beside the point. I wasn’t concerned with wisdom, I just wanted to know everything.

I was lucky, I didn’t have to live with me. I’m sure I drove people nuts with my Cliff Clavin act.

Audubon's Mockingbird

Audubon’s Mockingbird

Time passes and it is now 50 years since I first entered college and took up the study of ancient Greek and the poetry of Chaucer. My memory is no longer so acute. I cannot always bring up the name of the Duchesnea indica or the Mimus polyglottos. But in the long course of years, I have absorbed so much minutiae that it has all transmuted into something else. I cannot call it wisdom; I’m still an idiot. But, at 68, I have accumulated so much experience, I have a very different perspective. The simple enthusiasms of youth have given way to the calmer, chastened complexities of a life both illuminated and deflated. I have no wisdom to impart, but I have observations.

RW at 67In the past, people talked about the wisdom of old age, but now that I am there, I know it isn’t wisdom, it is only the result of long years of witnessing human folly, of many, many head-buttings with the harder facts of existence, and having built up a vast treasury of our own personal mistakes, misunderstandings and imbecilities.

Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and each originally came with a short explanation. After the first movement, the remaining ones are: “What the meadow flowers tell me,” “What the forest animals tell me,” “What Man tells me,” “What the angels tell me,” and finally, “What love tells me.” It is clear that no single one of these is sufficient in itself, but the whole presumes all. No single truth suffices.

I hope to present in the next several weeks my humble version of what Gustav loaded into his symphony. The things I have come to understand over nearly seven decades of breathing, seeing, tasting, feeling, dancing, hurting (both transitive and intransitive), and finally coming to some glimpse of loving.

University professors, if they have reached some level of eminence, are occasionally asked to prepare a “last lecture,” which subsumes all the most important lessons they have to give. This is a lecture that cuts through all the burly detail to undiscover the essence of what those details outline.

Me lecturingIt may seem the height of hubris to attempt such a “last lecture,” when I am not a tenured faculty member at an Ivy League academy, and make no claim to exceptional brilliance or wisdom, but the fact is that anyone who lives long enough has a longer view, and sees things differently from when youth fills us with self-righteousness and certainty.

Nor is this one of those inspirational harangues. I am not Mitch Albom and I am not dying immanently, like Randy Pausch. I do not expect to teach you how to be a “better” human being, or to make the world a better place, or disclose the secrets of a happier life. My goal is merely to see a little more clearly and to attempt to make sense of what cannot be made sense of.

In short outline, I have maybe 10 or a dozen themes to fill out, which I hope to do in the next few weeks in this blog spot. It is a challenge I have set myself. Have I learned anything?

giza view from cairo

We were watching a TV show about ancient Egypt and the voiceover told us the pyramids we were visiting were “35 centuries old,” and that phrase suddenly struck me in a new way.

I am now 68 years old, which is a bit more than two-thirds of a century, and I have a body-sense, a memory-sense — a conceptual awareness — of what a century feels like. I wrote for the newspaper for a quarter of a century. Four times that and Bingo! So, a century has a palpable meaning for me. I feel it in my bones. Hearing the TV presenter, then, made me react, “Thirty-five is not a very large number.” I can picture in my mind’s eye what 35 centuries might be, and it really doesn’t seem like all that long. The Viking Age ended only 10 of them ago.

Anton and Laura Nilsen

Anton and Laura Nilsen

After all, my grandfather, who I knew when I was a boy, was born in 1890, which was the year Vincent van Gogh died. It was also the year Sitting Bull died, and the Elephant Man (John Merrick), and Heinrich Schliemann — the man who discovered Troy. My grandfather was seven years old before Johannes Brahms died. These historical figures seem that much less remote when I think of it that way.

Rowan and Nancy Steele

Rowan and Nancy Steele

For my wife, it is even more present. When she was a girl, her great-grandmother lived with her family. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was a Civil War widow. She married Rowan Steele after that war, but Rowan had been a cavalry soldier during the battle at Appomattox. That dumps the War Between the States right in my wife’s lap. History is not some remote collection of facts gathered from a book, it is family.

The word, “century,” has its roots in family. The Latin word was “saeculum,” which was an indistinct time period that measured, basically, the time from your grandfather to the time of your grandchild. Caesar Augustus regularized that time to be 110 years, but in effect it varied from 90 years to about 120 years. It was an “age.”

History, as a subject, is different if you think of it that way. It is not a set of facts for a trivia contest, but a continuity, of which we are each a knot along a string.

For many, these days, that continuity is found in genealogy: How far back can you trace your ancestors? With various DNA tests, you can discover ancestry beyond the civic records of the standard genealogy. A y-DNA test can follow the paternal haplogroup all the way back to Africa, with punctuated stops along the way. A maternal mitochondrial DNA test can do the same for the distaff side.

It means that you are very personally connected to the history you study in school. Somewhere among those pogroms, crusades, wars and massacres, your strands of DNA were either slaughtered or doing the slaughtering, and probably both at different times. Looked at through the small lens, genealogy is your story; looked at through the big lens, all of history is your story. How can one not be interested?

Carol Lily

Carol Lily

My granddaughter is now studying AP world history, and sometimes, she comes to me for help understanding the subject. I wish I could somehow inspire her to see it not as an impersonal school subject she has to be graded on, but the story of how she got here, what happened on the way to her creation, and how she fits into that grand, long picture. She makes good grades, but it would be more important to think of history as something personal, something that informs her life: She is Southern, so the slavery that ended 151 years ago colors her life every day; the arguments held in Philadelphia in 1787 affect what she can and cannot do today; that the battle of Plataea in 479 BC is part of the reason she speaks English today and not some descendant of Farsi.

The horsemen from Mongolia shaped what later became Russia, which became the Soviet Union, which defeated Nazi Germany, became our enemy in the Cold War, and led to Vladimir Putin today. It is not ancient history, it is merely the dangling end of a long cord: The same people who gave us Xanadu and Kublai Khan gave us the Silk Road and the Golden Horde, and is one of the reasons given for why Hungary is named HUN-gary, and, incidentally, gave their name to the tartar sauce you put on fried fish.

Know-Nothing poster

Know-Nothing poster

It is disappointing to see so many Americans with so little sense of history, of where we came from. We hear the resurrected Know-Nothing-ism of Donald Trump and too many of his followers hear no resonance of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment of the earlier wave of xenophobia. The past, for them, is a black hole out of which no wisdom can emerge.

Presentism, as it is sometimes called, is rampant: the belief that what is now is somehow “true,” and the past was all a big mistake; it is the error that what we think and believe now is the “right” and “correct” version of the world, and those benighted people of old were merely beta-versions of humanity. We require more humility; history can provide that humility.

I can remember when the faces of Eisenhower and Stevenson on the tiny black and white television we had in the house when I was yet too young to go to school. I remember the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. I remember when they added the second deck to the George Washington Bridge. ike and adlai 1952These things are now history. They are ink on a page in the history book my granddaughter reads for class. But I was a real person who lived through them. My father lived through the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. My great-uncle wore puttees as a dough boy in the first War to End Wars. My wife’s great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. Somewhere, back before my genealogy became writ into the family bible, I surely had ancestors who went a-viking and worshipped the lord Odin.

I feel those connections, not as dry intellectual answers to history-class homework questions. History is not something merely read, it is red, it runs through our veins. It’s been there for 35 centuries, at least.

snow on peaks 2

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

I say, you never do come home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feijoada

Feijoada

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

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

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

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

Drakensbergs

Drakensbergs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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