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People hate speaking in public; it is often listed as the No. 1 fear — a nightmare of anxiety. It is a fear I never felt. I love speaking to an audience. Whether it is giving a lecture, sitting on a panel discussion or moderating an after-movie discussion, I am in my element. Over the years, I’ve spoken in public hundreds of times. It is exhilarating and leaves me pumped with energy. 

Yet, that comfort does not extend to acting. I cannot act my way out of a second-grade pageant (when I had my first onstage experience as a daisy in an Easter program.) The problem is two-fold. First, I have difficulty learning lines. I can’t memorize them. I can paraphrase them, extemporize them, but not repeat them word-for-word. In most plays, that is a problem.

Second, I am so firmly constructed of my own idiosyncratic personality — that ego is so well defined — that I can never leave it behind to assume the mask or persona of a distinct separate character. I am stuck with myself. 

Yet, there were two times over the years that I have trodden the boards. There is a theme to the twain. 

In high school, I took a speech and drama elective. As part of the class, the final was an assembly program in which we put on a series of one-act plays or skits. We were each required either to act in them or to write the scenes. I did not want to play-act on stage, so, I opted to write a play.

Three of us did that. One student was a natural for the stage, and he wrote a gripping dramatic scene built on the Kitty Genovese story. The second was an incredibly dumb James Bond parody. And mine was unbearably pretentious and literary. I had just read John Updike’s The Centaur and thought I might update, in like fashion, the Seven Against Thebes myth and set it in a modern high school. 

We were well into rehearsals when our principal, having been made aware that my play featured a suicide (Oh! The teenage angst!), outright banned the performance, which I was both miffed at and also puffed with pride over — I was banned! Just like Henry Miller or James Joyce. A point of pride. 

As a result of my cancellation, I was then coopted into acting in the James Bond parody. I was made an English bobby, shot in the first moments by the lead character, James Bomb. I was to remain motionless on the stage, an inert corpse, for the rest of the play. I had one line and then — bang-bang and then falls bobbie. 

The moment I died, James Bomb was supposed to realize his mistake (he shot me thinking I was the villain), and he walked cross-stage to me, grabbed a glass of water from a handy nearby table and splash it in my face to try to revive me. Well, I was wearing this heavy woolen bobby costume and in rehearsal, the wet wool stunk and irritated my skin horribly. I had to lie there for the rest of the play, stewing in the wet clothes. 

So, on performance day, just before the curtain rose, as we were all standing on our marks, I reached for the glass and drank the water. I was so clever. And as the scene played on and James Bomb came over to splash me, and finding no water in the glass, he improvised. I had failed to take account of the full pitcher sitting next to the empty glass on the table. Our hero then ignored the glass and poured the entire pitcher of water on me. 

As if that were not humiliation enough, imagine me splayed out in my soup on the stage floor, my bladder slowly filling to the uncomfortable water-balloon phase, having to hold it all in till the curtain finally came down, went up again for the curtain call, down again and I could finally run down the hall to the boys’ room and pee “for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only seven minutes.” 

(I can’t take credit for that line: It was written my my friend, Doug Nufer of Seattle.)

 My next appearance, not an Equity production, came in 2005 in Phoenix, Ariz., as a bit of stunt casting in a play about a notorious local restaurateur. 

If you are not from that city, you may not have heard about Jack Durant, who opened the smoky eatery, Durant’s, in 1950. Decorated in whore-house chic, it became the meeting place of politicians, lawyers, and visiting Hollywood celebrities. Everyone who was anyone met at Durant’s. There was an in-the-know air about the place. No one who was a regular ever came in the front door. If you had your wits about you, you came in through the kitchen. Many customers had regular tables. Many a legislative deal was cut in the dark corners of the place.

Durant’s

Durant, himself, was more of a personality than any of his celebrity guests. A former colleague of Bugsy Siegel, reputed to have once bumped off a mob rival, married three or five times — the stories varied — Durant was ringmaster at his restaurant. 

Such a colorful character made for many stories, some of them true. Durant died in 1987, leaving his house and an annual allowance of $50,000 to his dog, Humble. The restaurant is still there, running on the ghost of its founder. It is still dark; people still enter through the kitchen, and deals are still negotiated over a great big porterhouse steak. 

In 2005, playwright Terry Earp did the inevitable, and created a play about Durant, called In My Humble Opinion, ironically because Durant was never humble — only his dog was. 

 The play was set in the restaurant after closing, a year after Durant’s death. The man’s ghost sits at a table, recounting his life to a passed-out drunk at the bar. The drunk was played by a different local “celebrity” each night. I was one of them — the local art critic, and rather low down on the celebrity list, but of course, the play went on for a month, so they had to scrape the barrel-bottom at times. Others who played the role included former Phoenix Suns center Alvin Adams, local TV star Bill Thompson and rocker Alice Cooper. 

My part had no lines. It also had no motion. I was to sit there, head in my arms flat on the bar for the full hour of the play. Not twitching a muscle.

I don’t know if you have ever had to do that — like you are playing dead during a bear attack — but it is not easy. Muscles begin to scream at you: “Twitch. Twitch, damn you. Shake a leg. stretch your fingers.” But, no, you have to pretend you are carved from marble.

I managed it, but then came the curtain call. I had to unlimber my limbs and stand up from the barstool to acknowledge the acclaim of the audience. My joints had become riveted in their static positions and to stand up required a full course of physical therapy. I wobbled. I nearly fell over. I was half asleep from meditating quietly for the hour. I tried to smile for the crowd, but I’m pretty sure I could only manage a silly grin. I must have looked like the drunk I played. 

And thus, my life as a thespian came to its rightful conclusion. Two motionless parts, lying still for the duration. And I never got my Equity card. 

I didn’t do it on purpose. 

In my previous post, I wrote about the effect on me of an exhibit of the photographs of Eugene Atget I saw nearly 50 years ago. Looking at those images at the Museum of Modern Art in New York all those years ago eventually led me to loosen up my own approach to making pictures. 

Where I had been a disciple of Modernism in photography, from Stieglitz to Strand to Weston to Adams, I realized, looking at the Frenchman’s photos, that a looser, more direct approach to the art might be more productive. 

And, in fact, I gave up attempting to make precious jewel-like prints matted in perfect ivory mattes and framed in black aluminum section frames. 

But I had no intention of mimicking Atget’s pictures. Please believe me, I didn’t do this on purpose. 

As I look through the many images I have taken in Paris and in France, I find that there are so many parallels to the pictures of Atget. 

I found myself making records of so many curious and interesting corners of the city, so many details, so many textures and lines, so many storefronts and alleyways, that I could hardly help myself. 

Because I have come to find more interest in reacting to the world around me than in creating what receives the imprimatur of art. 

Being awake and aware of my milieu is what drives me, makes me happy, gives me esthetic fulfillment. 

So, here I have taken some of my photos and edited them, making them black and white and toning them sepia. 

I do not mean for you to believe I am trying to make art here, merely to play a little game, matching up images. 

Many others have taken their cameras around the city of light and consciously mimicked Atget’s work in an exercise of “rephotography,” a Postmodern trope. I am intending no such thing. 

I merely enjoy the little joke of finding in my work these unconscious rhymes with the work of a photographer I have loved for all these years, but haven’t given a whole lot of thought to in decades. 

Such is influence, I guess. You don’t always know it’s there. And you don’t consciously attempt to counterfeit your model. 

But somehow, it has worked its way into your bones, into the way you approach the world, the way you understand it. 

So, here are a group of parallel images. Those on the left are by Eugène Atget, those on the right are mine, albeit gussied up to amplify their similarity to my progenitor. 

I hope you find a twinkle of pleasure in this game. And it is just a game. 

Click to enlarge any image 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIN

 

This is a cautionary tale about the importance of clarity in language.

Ordinary conversation is often ambiguous. We speak to our friends in sentence fragments punctuated with “uhs,” “likes” and “ya knows.” But the meaning comes through by context. A good deal of what we communicate comes via gesture, tone of voice, and the fact that our conversant shares our experience. But when instructions are given, it is important that there be no room for misinterpretation.


As Chinese war philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

And so, I have no one to blame but myself.

I am forced to recall the case of Robert E. Lee and Richard Ewell at Gettysburg in 1863. Lee, being a Southern gentleman, had always had a hard time issuing direct orders, choosing instead to make polite suggestions, which he fully expected his officers to understand as commands. When Ewell didn’t do so in front of Culp’s Hill on July 2, the Confederate army lost the advantage, and ultimately, the battle.

Would clearer orders have changed the course of battle and war? Maybe not, but it certainly meant that the battle would continue for days, and it is clear that Gettysburg marked the turning point in the war.

What does this mean for me and my beard?

I have had a beard for 50 years. It has been my constant chin companion. In that time, it has been kept long, sometimes short and often unkempt. It was a rich hue when I was young, has progressively become gray, and finally, so light a shade of gray as to be indistinguishable from white.

I began the shaggy thing in college, not so much as a fashion choice, and not to brag of my manfulness, but rather because I was too lazy to shave. In fact, I hated shaving. Let the damn thing propagate, I thought. After a few years, the beard became so much a part of me, that I never even fancied the thought of seeing what might lie beneath. My chin was obscured by the duck blind of whisker.


The hair on the bottom of my head has grown lush even as the hair on the top has become sparse. Younger men whose hairlines have begun to draw back sometimes shave it all off, preferring the billiard-ball look to the billboard admission of creeping baldness. In recent years, the sheen of scalp has become something of a fashion statement. I have never chosen this route, but have had something of a similar reaction to tonsorial care as I once had on the issue of shaving.

For years now, I have gone to the barber and asked to have my hair trimmed down to an eighth of an inch. This strategy began in Arizona when the summer threatened and an ultra buzzcut promised to be marginally cooler than anything else. I would get the scalp mowed about every six months, after that point where it was necessary to take a comb to it. I didn’t like combing my hair much more than I ever liked shaving my beard. The close crop solved that problem.

“Would you like me to trim the beard, too,” the barber would say. “No, I trim that myself.” And I did, for 50 years, periodically taking a scissors to it to curb its profusion.

Recently, however, I have asked my current barber to tackle the beard also. She is so much more refined a topiarist than I am, and she has been training my shaggy beard into something more delightfully Hemingwayesque.

Well, last week, it was time for my semi-annual. I went to my usual barber shop and waited my turn.

Unfortunately, my regular barber was not there, and I was invited to recline on the chair of an alternate. He was a very kindly old Southern fellow, with hair as snowy as my own. With my regular barber, I never had to explain what I wanted, since she knew very well. “Here for your six-month?” she would say, laughing at my hair-cutting habits.

Alas, she was not there, and my bullpen needed instruction. This is where I should have been more specific. This is where the lessons of General Lee and Sun Tzu should have instructed me.

“What do you want?” the old barber asked.

“Cut it down to about an eighth of an inch,” I said.

“And do you want me to trim your beard, too?”

“Yes,” I said, and the die was cast.
At first, I had no clue of disaster. He took the electric buzzer to my dome and started mowing the hair down. But before I noticed, and before I could say anything, he dragged the mower down my cheek and the glorious chin-garden was deflowered.

Because I am now living in the South, I couldn’t get all Yankee and scream imprecations at the poor barber. “You damn beard murderer! Why, I’ll get my cousin Tony to come down here and burn your house down and see how you like that!”

No, we don’t do things like that in North Carolina, so instead, I said, “Well, it’s a new look, I guess. I’ll see if I can come to like it. But it does mean I won’t be able to dress up as Santa this Christmas.”

But I would be able to impersonate Harvey Weinstein or Steve Bannon. This is not a situation devoutly to be wished. He held a mirror up for me to look at and Harvey and Steve both looked back at me. This was more suited to Halloween than Christmas. I cringed. I weeped inside. I looked facially naked. And the three-day-growth look that seems so sexy with buff young studs looks on me more like grandpa forgot to shave again. And believe me, I don’t wish to be mistaken for either Weinstein or Bannon.

Or, nearly as bad, the sagging skin-sack, stubble-bound and watery-eyed, of Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil. Gives me the creeps.

The best I can hope for is that others my age will remember Red Connors from the Hopalong Cassidy TV series of the early 1950s. Red was played by the venerable Edgar Buchanan, veteran of hundreds of movies and latterly of dozens of TV shows. His chin stubble defined him for me, through the Hoppy series and the Judge Roy Bean TV show after that, and, although I was too old to watch it regularly by the time it came on, through his stint as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

So, I wait patiently to age into my beard once again, learning the ancient sage lesson of the slow progress of life, and, of course, to be more careful in my language.

313 DeGraw Ave. 1927

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble getting to sleep, I take six decades of my living and slide them aside, like a Japanese door, to open on the landscape of my childhood. I remember the house I lived in when I was five or six years old, trace its floorplan, walk out its door and wander the streets. What is most surprising is how much there is stored in the neurons, untouched for half a century, that can be re-animated. Each door I open opens into a room with new doors to open, that open on other rooms with other doors.

Mom, Sue and Stan as kidsAnd so, I remember the front room of the house where we lived with my grandmother, Nana, in New Jersey just after the war. It sat directly on the town boundary between Teaneck and Bogota at the point Degraw Avenue began its long westerly descent to the Hackensack River. It was the house where my mother grew up, where her father died when she was seven, where she then had to raise her younger brother and sister while her mother worked in Manhattan. It meant that my mother never really had a free childhood, and perhaps as a result, adulthood always seemed to feel like a burden.

313 degraw ave 1927 in snowThat two-family house divided at the front door. To the right was the front room of our apartment. Straight behind the front door were the stairs to the second floor, where Nana’s sister and her husband lived. Tante Esther and Uncle Gerry. That front room led through a wide arch to the dining room, at the far end of which were two spring-mounted swinging doors — one on either end of the wall — which led to the kitchen. Off the dining room to the left, underneath the staircase to Tante Esther’s, were the bedrooms and the hard-tiled bathroom with its claw-footed bathtub. At the back of the house, tucked behind the kitchen, was an addition my father had built where Nana’s mother came briefly to live and finally to die. She was a formidable woman, born Anne Gurina Kristiansen in Norway, but so old by the time I knew her she seemed almost like death already. The fact she died in what became my bedroom hardly registered on me. I was too young to understand.

Usually, I get drowsy by this time, and I descend into a nether world.
The basement, reached by the dark stairs behind the kitchen, was a dungeon in which a large beast of many white asbestos tentacles resided, sitting in the middle of the cavern roofed with rafters and ducts. A coal chute gave some light beyond the golem, and what was once a window to the backyard near the top of the wall was now dark, covered with the addition where the old lady died. A cat once gave birth to kittens in the crawlspace accessed by that window. My father hated cats. I don’t know what happened to the kittens, but it is unlikely he harmed them. More likely he called the dogcatcher to come and get them. At any rate, they disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

That golem, the furnace, played in the cast of the adventures I devised in the cellar, turning used Reddi-Wip cans into space ships, which I shot through outer space with noises I generated in my throat, shooting each other into oblivion. Some days later, my mother wondered what the bad smell was and discovered the remaining cream in the cans had soured, stinking up my cosmos. Reddi-Wip was invented the same year I was born.

captain video

Captain Video

That interest in outer space came from a mahogany box in a corner of the dining room, which had a tiny curved glass window in it on which I religiously watched Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, to say nothing of Captain Midnight. Television was new, quality was dubious, reception iffy, and programming spotty. We all knew the familiar “test pattern” that burned into the cathode ray tube before the day’s schedule began.

My father aided and abetted my fascination with space travel by fabricating for me and for my younger brothers what we called “space boards,” which were masonite panels we could hold on our laps, filled with various buttons and switches we could flip and push, in imitation of the control panels of our space heroes. It is amazing how easy it is to amuse a young boy with an active imagination.

But it wasn’t only space that captured my imagination, it was also cowboys. Because there was so little programming available for the early TV stations, they recycled endless movie re-releases to fill up the time. Many of these, at least on morning TV, were Westerns from the 1930s. I came to know and love Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele — the “Three Mesquiteers,” and above all, Hopalong Cassidy. William Boyd had struck a coup by buying up the rights to his old movies and now refitted them for television, and later making a whole new series of TV adventures. Boyd was my favorite.

At the age of three or four — at any rate, before I began school — I remember my grandmother getting on my imaginary horse, Whitey, with me and riding her from the kitchen to the front door to see her off to work in the morning. Cap guns and cowboy hats were always the preferred Christmas presents.

Richard Newburgh 1949 copyThis isn’t about nostalgia, however, but about how a small boy experiences life. As an adult, one has a well of experience to draw on, a series of related moments forming a net, so that each new occurrence has some resonance with its past. But as a child, each thing is new and as yet unconnected to the rest. There are things taken as given: family, the house, the yard; later, the school, the way to the grandparents house. All these things ultimately mesh together, but those early memories are discrete; it is only as I pull them together while trying to doze off, that they begin cohere.

In those first years, the world was largely circumscribed by the house and yard, with the rooms, the mystery of the understair closet, with its odor of dust and uncovered lathe, the cavern of the cellar, the apple tree in the back yard from which Nana made a yearly batch of applesauce, and the vacant lot next door, which was our cow prairie or our moonscape, depending on what we were playing that day. Or, for that matter, our jungle when we took our shirts off and “went native.”

Beginning with kindergarten, the world opened up. I walked the mile to school each day and the mile back, and the streets became tentacles of geography on which I built my picture of the world. Each street was a different reality. To give a summary picture of that geography: Degraw Avenue ran basically east-west; the few blocks on which our house sat was a plateau; down the west side, into Bogota and Hackensack, the road went downhill; and in the east, from Queen Anne Road on, it went downhill the other way toward the Meadowlands, Overpeck Creek and Fort Lee. That was the spine of my earth. Crossing it, almost like shoulders and hips, were Queen Anne Road and Palisade Avenue.

Home territory map

Our house was on the corner of Degraw Avenue and Farrant Terrace, which was the street that ran along the side of our house, took a 90-degree turn and continued down to Queen Anne Road as a kind of anastomosis, leading the same place as Degraw Avenue. My best friend, Tommy, lived in a house where Farrant Terrace bent. The Clems lived in the house next door to us; they were an older couple who treated us like an aunt and uncle. Their back porch had jalousie windows, a fact that much fascinated both me and my little brother.

The other arteries in this circulation all came off this main armature. It is difficult to express just how central this picture of the world was to one in the process of piecing together a whole self. At that age, I knew nothing of Nebraska or Timbuktu; it was the spine of my streets that were the core, the seed on which the crystal grew. From those first certain streets grew an internal sense of how the entire globe might be pulled together in a single flash of connectedness.

Ricky 20 mos copyOut the front door of our house and across the street was Crestview Place, which ran uphill steeply to Fourth Place in Bogota, where Nana’s mother-in-law, Aase, lived, upstairs in a house where her sister lived downstairs — Tante Marie. The two were very old, very wrinkled and very powdered. When I was still pre-school, Aase lived with her ancient husband Thorvald, who wore thick black wool suits with a vest and a pocket watch, had wire-brush whiskers and the distinctive smell of old man. He died early on in my life and Aase — whom we called “Bestemor (Norwegian for “grandma”) — lived on into her nineties. I spent many a day at Bestemor’s house, climbing into the attic to play with the toys she still had from the childhood of my mother’s brother, painted lead cars and airplanes.

Down the hill to Palisade Avenue is where my father had his hair cut by a barber named Dick, who wore a white coat and had one of those pencil mustaches one knows from Hollywood movies of the 1930s. It also led to Olsen Flooring Company, where my father worked as office manager and accountant.

Down the other way, to Queen Anne Road, led to the A&P, the delicatessen where we bought potato salad, and across the street from the deli, the bakery where we bought “mudballs” — a round, chocolate covered cupcake that we loved as kids.

At the point Farrant Terrace ended at Queen Anne Road was a tiny private grocery store whose floor was covered in sawdust — a common occurrence back then, now frowned upon by health codes — and a stationery we called the “candy store,” where I spent my nickels on Three Musketeers bars, Necco Wafers, and a particular favorite, a packet of five sweet jellies called Chuckles, whose flavors were cherry, orange, lime, lemon and licorice.

Chuckles Candies

By the time my mind wandered around to the candy, I would probably be asleep. But if not, if I still couldn’t drop off, I will wander around that circumscribed world as I did when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I walked to school every day and home afterwards, doubling that inner map of the world. A friendly policeman stopped traffic on Queen Anne Road to let me cross the street. I recall Mrs. Winters and my kindergarten class, the naps we took, the milk containers we drank from, the rhythm bands, the finger painting. I remember the playground around Longfellow School (now closed and turned into a church) and my Aunt Sally who was the school nurse, and little Willie Shydecker, whose fifth birthday party I went to in a house just two away from where Aunt Sally and Uncle Bernie lived. I sometimes wonder what ever happened to Willie.

former longfellow school streetview 1

Longfellow School today

But it was walking home from school that left its biggest mark on my being. I wandered. I didn’t always take the same route. I took what I called “short cuts.” These led me miles out of my way, exploring where other streets might lead. If I have traveled much as an adult, it was only a habit set in motion when I wandered down Fort Lee Road, past Amman Park with its small fountain, and up the hill and back down to Bogota and the broad mainline railroad tracks — at that time six tracks wide; now most of the tracks are ripped up and gone — which I would stand over on the bridge and watch the trains pass, shaking the ground. The boy is father to the man.

My wanderings amazed my parents, who thought it odd that I would walk so far out of my way, but they never seemed to think it might be dangerous for me to do so. I think they were quietly proud of their boy for being able to find his way around so easily. They also showed me off to the adult world for my prodigy ability to name all the cars on the street by make from the time I was two or three. One Fourth of July at a fireworks display over the Hackensack River I was carried around by my father on his shoulders who showed me off to uncles and grandfathers by pointing at cars parked in the lot and having me name them: “Pontiac, Studebaker, Packard, Rambler, De Soto, Kaiser, Crosley …”

1949 Frazer sedan

1949 Frazer

Other times, he would test me, sitting on the front porch of the house and I named the cars as they passed on Degraw Avenue. From that time on, tests at school were never frightening; rather, they were a chance to show off again.

The odd thing remains that these memories of Teaneck seem to have a different reality from later memories, almost as if they were of a different person. I can draw a straight line from me at 68 back to me in fourth grade, me in college, me during my first marriage, me when I became a writer. But there is a kind of memory lacuna between that me and the me of these earliest thoughts. It is as if I have to dig down into the layers of soil separating me now from me then, like an archeologist, to discover this fragment or that, and then piecing together the shards into a full pot.

313 De Graw now

313 Degraw Avenue today

We all have a story-line in our memories, that continuous ego, that who-ness that we are. It is a novel told straight through. But these earliest memories are more of a collage, the bits and pieces reassembled in no particular order, the scents, the memory of being picked up and held, the doors swinging open to the kitchen, the golem in the basement. They are a preface to the story, oddly unconnected, yet, still of a piece. Tributaries to the river.

The box still has many pieces unrecollected here. I can take them out and play with them again next time a churning brain keeps me awake.

 

mackerel sky   PART FIVE: THEORY OF RELATIVITY

1.

It was Thanksgiving and Stuart and Genevieve were fixing a big dinner.

Outside, it was a Maine November, dry and crisp but not yet cold. The fallen maple leaves textured the ground at the base of the trees. There was a mackerel sky.

Bernard was there with his wife. Stuart’s younger brother was there, too. Mitch came in from New Jersey with his new lady friend. Bernard’s two children had come, also. Both now grown and Liz had her own children. She came with her best friend, Dell. Jason came with his girlfriend. They all drove in from Allentown. Stuart’s father sat in the corner; he barely moved all day, taking in the scene — probably. It’s hard to know. Bernard and Ellen had picked him up on the way.

It was full house. Mia hadn’t shown up yet.

Bernard: “So, little brother, how’s life treating you?”

Mitch: “Just fine.”

In Stuart’s family, this counted as an extended conversation.

Liz: “Dell, can you take the brussels sprouts off the burner? I have to mix the Jell-O.”

Dell: “Which are the brussels sprouts? I’ve never had brussels sprouts.”

Pots were steaming, with rutabagas, potatoes, brussels sprouts and green beans. In the oven were the turkey and two pans of oyster stuffing. The gravy was yet to be made. That was Stuart’s job. He was the gravy man.

Mitch: “Hey, you’ve got Coltrane here.”coltrane

He was flipping through the CD collection.

Mitch: “A Love Supreme. Geez, what music.”

Stuart: “Put it on if you want.”

Thanksgiving was the only holiday Stuart enjoyed. The others seemed like obligations, but Thanksgiving seemed like a warm, humid, cozy indoors played against a cold, dry outdoors: You could feel it when you touched the window.

There was a brief discussion, as Bernie wanted to watch the game, but Mitch wanted to play Coltrane. They compromised and watched silent football with a jazz soundtrack.

Stuart: “Now that’s what I love about Thanksgiving.”

Meanwhile the grandkids were pinging and buzzing their Gameboys. The women gravitated to the kitchen. Mitch’s girl, Jerri, came in to help.

Jerri: “Pie!”

Liz: “Pumpkin”

Dell: “Cherry.”

In the living room, Mitch and Jason had taken to comparing political theory. Uncle Mitch was a Democrat; Jason was a Republican. It is one of the anomalies of history that as the millennium winds down, it should be the younger generation who turn conservative. It is as if time were out of joint.

Mitch: “Yeah? What do you know? You’re just a kid.”

Jason: “Well, I know Bush is going to trounce Gore.”reagan-bonzo-in-bed-time-for-bonzo

Mitch: “God help us. We’ll have gone from Reagan to Bonzo.”

Politics brings out the analytic elegance in people.

The doorbell rang and Stuart opened the door. Mia came from the bright blue sunny outdoors to the dark, warm inside, thick with the scent of turkey, dressing and nutmeg and cloves. With her came Michael. Yes, they were still together, 10 years later.

Mia: “Everyone, this is Michael.” Mia went around the room introducing everyone and they all shook hands.

Dinner was a feast; everyone ate till their bellies hurt. Conversation was warm, funny, by turns nostalgic.

To Mia, this was family, even if she wasn’t related by blood to any of them. She knew many of them well — Stuart and Genevieve might as well have been family; Bernie and Ellen; even Mitch, although she had never met Jerri. Others were more peripheral, but Mia knew which was which, for the most part. It was hard, though, to tell the twins apart at that age.

With the meal packed solidly in their collective guts, like sausages stuffed into their casings, the evening wore on. The women put up the leftovers. Stuart told them to leave the pots and dishes; he would get them in the morning. The men sat on the sofa; Mitch’s head was cocked back and a slow stertorous snore echoed in his gullet. Stuart began to talk about ancient Egypt.

“Not now,” Genevieve said, heading him off. It was not bossy, but teasing. He stopped.

After dessert and coffee, when the evening wore down, Bernie and family, along with dear old dad, left for the motel. A pile of others found a place in the guest room or on the sofa, wrapped in a down comforter.

2

Mia and Stuart stayed up late.

“Gen is great,” she said. “But you realize, don’t you, that you have been with her for more than a decade. You are breaking precedent.”

“Well, yes. But I have gotten old. It isn’t as easy to wander aimlessly. And we get to travel a lot, as she gets gigs all over. Spent most of the summer up in Hancock for the Monteux Festival. She got to play the Shostakovich sonata. It was great.”

“She’s a steady presence,” Mia said. “I can’t tell whether Michael is a steady presence for me, or if I’m the steady presence for him.”

“Does it matter?”

“Maybe not.”Dirty dishes

They stood over the kitchen sink, piled with dishes. Stuart had his arms up to the elbows in suds.

“Let me tell you about my first official marriage. Before I married your mother.

“I was unfaithful to my first ex-wife before we were married. I loved Ruth, although she drove me nuts. She was always worried about things like window curtains and insurance. She wanted kids; I wanted to continue being able to sleep late for the next 18 years and I knew that her plan would have made that impossible.

“But Ruth was really a great woman. She was beautiful. Had great eyes. And she was smart as hell. Maybe a little skinny. But there was this conventional side to her. In my lovesickness for Ruth, I pretended I didn’t see that, or at least pretended that it didn’t matter. She insisted we wait till marriage. I was so smitten, I didn’t even question that.

“Oh, but there was Helen. This was a different Helen. She wrote poetry. It wasn’t bad poetry, considering we were all just sophomores in college. Helen was not a beginner at love. In fact, she was the ‘college widow,’ as Groucho Marx might call it. A completely free spirit. I fell hard; Helen admitted me to the inner circle — so’s to speak — inner circle: I’ve never heard it called that before —  as one of many admirers.

“You should have seen me. I panted like a puppydog, waiting to be patted on the head. Helen and I hitchhiked one week to the coast and spent the nights sleeping in the sand. We made love in the dunes, in full sight of anyone. A fisherman in a passing boat waved to us.

“We left love stains all over campus. Our favorite was a practice room in the music building, and boy, we got lots of practice.”

“Yes, I remember you told me about the Organ Room on campus.”

“At night, it was unlocked for some reason, and we snuck in.

“Oh, but there was Ruth. And I loved Ruth, too. I didn’t know what I wanted. Sensible Ruth or crazy, passionate Helen? Should I go with the sensible choice or should I go with my gonads? Thrill or stability?

“I knew I was not terribly stable, that I was not really a fully mature human being, that I was flamboyant in my irresponsibility, and so I finally decided that I needed Ruth for balance. I did the sensible thing; we got married. I learned my lesson: Never do the sensible thing again.

“I made life miserable for her and without trying, she made it miserable for me. Years later, friends told me they knew it wouldn’t last and I wanted to slap them — Why didn’t you say anything then? But I also knew it wouldn’t have made any difference if they did.”

Mia looked confused.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “Isn’t this what you’re doing right now, with Gen? Aren’t you making the ‘sensible’ choice all over again?”

“Of course,” Stuart admitted. “Of course, I’m doing the same thing all over again. I’m a lot older now, so it’s different.”

“Different?”

“Well, maybe it’s not different. As you get older it isn’t so much you get wiser in the sense that you make better choices, but that you get wiser in that you recognize the fact that you’re never going to get any smarter and you’ll always do the same stupid thing.”

“That’s wisdom?”

“I dunno. Maybe.”

“That’s depressing.”

“No, not really. It’s liberating. That’s the thing about getting older. All the stuff that used to drive you nuts, you let go of. It no longer matters.”

“So, it’s OK to be comfortable in a relationship? Without fireworks?”

“Violas seldom break out in fireworks,” he said. “But I’m happy.”

“But you said it was a mistake.”

“Did I?”

3.

I’m coming out of my duck blind for the last time. I just turned 40; I got tenure. I published a book last year — a new translation — or retelling, really — of Ovid for children. I’ve been living with Michael for about as long as Stuart has lived with Genevieve. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to compare my life with his, but there is no one I’ve known as long or as closely as I’ve known Stuart. He is the only touchstone I have.

This has been a strangely skewed memoir — I have left out so much: my career at the university, several relationships that went nowhere, the whole world of Greek and Roman letters that are so central to my life — because I wanted to focus on this single aspect of my life that has been so muddled. Family. What is it, why is it, does it need to be?

When my dad died, it hit me in a way I didn’t foresee. I always thought of Stuart as my father; he’s the one who was there when I was a little girl, and he has remained there through my life in a way Dan never did. Yet, I felt so odd when I went to visit Dan in the hospital. I saw something in him — gesture, voice — that caught me unawares: They were mine, too. Dan had tried to tell me about it, but I didn’t have ears to hear, or to pay attention. He was dying, after all. Other things seemed more important.

It was the day after that Thanksgiving, when I talked with Stuart’s brother, Bernie, that he brought it all together for me. Stuart and Ellen went to the kitchen to finish cleaning up what we hadn’t washed the night before, and Gen was in her study practicing. The dulcet tones of the viola filled the house like dinner had the night before. Bernie and I sat in the front room and talked.

4.

“What do you think about family? Why is it important? Stuart always says his friends are his family — except for you, he says. You are more friend than family, he says.”

Bernie had bad knees, and sat on the sofa. His hair was mostly gone and his mouth had settled, the way they do as you get older: Younger mouths show off the upper teeth; aged mouths show the lowers.

“I take your point,” he said. “Families can be quite a burden. We have to take care of dear old dad, for instance. He’s barely there anymore. But I have the example of my wife.

“You’ve been with her a long time.”

“Thirty years …”

“Can’t fathom that. Mind you, Ellen’s great. You hit the lottery, as it were.”

“Ellen has a take on family I’d never really considered,” he said. “Family is something different for her. For her, it is where she came from.”

“You mean, like genealogy?”

“Sort of, but she isn’t so much into the family tree as such, or into whether or not she has a coat-of-arms, but rather, that she is made up of the hand-me-downs, genetically, of the ancestors, the piling up of character — of meaning — that has concentrated in her. Her family is her roots, deep in the ground, and she is connected to them as literally as the tree is to the root ball, all of a piece.Great grandmother

“She sees her hair in her grandmother’s hair, her jawline in her father’s, her love of nature — and, I might add, her stubbornness — in her grandfather. She grew up with her great-grandmother in the house, who was a Civil-War widow, and sees history not in paragraphs on a page in a book, but in her wrinkly skin. She wants to know how her great grandfather came to live in North Carolina, whether he is Scots-Irish, why they eat collards or sing certain hymns as opposed to others. Obviously, this is not all genetic. A good deal is cultural, but I don’t think Ellen makes that much distinction: It is all roots, all the long line of ancestors, which, for her, go back — and I’m not kidding — to Adam and Eve, or whoever you want to pick as the ur-progenitors. Her interest in cave men is part of the same thing. She calls it ‘the long man,’ the person drawn from one generation to the next the same way a plant goes to flower, a flower to seed, a seed to seedling, to plant, to flower, to seed and so on in a continuous recreation of the same life — the same DNA shuffled around — of which she is merely the latest flowering. Or the antepenultimate: She has now sprouted a daughter, and that daughter twin granddaughters. So now Ellen  can see she isn’t the end of a long line of ancestry, but only one link in a continuity.

“Thus, family for her isn’t simply the people who she shares Thanksgiving dinner with, as if they were all discrete entities, but rather as if they were the acorns hanging on the same oak tree, in a sense, a single person with multiple incarnations. At Thanksgiving, even if she is alone, she is having dinner with all of them.”

“Well, that is Ellen, through and through, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and it has made me think differently about family. I share your sense of relatives as something you’d rather not have to spend time with. I have chosen my own ‘family’ of friends, who mean a great deal to me. But I also have come to see the ‘mystic bonds’ of family — again, not as a question of whether I want to spend time with them. I don’t, really. But rather as a continuation of a process.

“Looked at another way, I am a bit of my parents planted in the future to grow, and to plant my children there in the future that extends beyond my harvesting.

“I had the oddest experience a few years ago. Did I ever tell you about it? You know, before Ellen, I was married and divorced. We had a son. When we split up, she took our son and I didn’t see him for something like 30 years.”

“I didn’t know.”

Mia was surprised. Bernie always seemed so rock solid. How could he have not seen his son for so long?

“I was young and a prat,” he explained. “So I moved on without much thought of it. Most men are prats when they are young; I was no exception.

“But a few years ago, I got a phone call and on the other end a voice said, “Are you my father?” It was my son. I had not seen or had any contact with him for 30 years.

“Well, Ellen and I went to Austin, Texas, where he was living and we met him and the shock was palpable: He looked exactly like I did when I was his age. Not just in physiognomy, but he wore the same kind of thick-rimmed glasses, the same plaid shirts, the same long hair I had back then. It was uncanny. He was living with a woman who came from the same county in North Carolina that Ellen came from. His house was a mess of books and CDs and DVDs. He worked, at the time, in a used bookstore and was in charge of the classics section and the poetry section. His favorite literature was the classics. The resemblance was uncanny.

“I had always assumed that in the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ controversy, that nurture was by far the more important. We were raised at a time when we thought, ‘It’s all cultural.’ But here was evidence in front of me that perhaps it wasn’t all cultural. Perhaps DNA ruled not only the shape of our noses, but the preference we might have for Manhattan or New England clam chowder.globe

“The real clincher came when we walked through his office at the back of his house and there, on the top of a bookshelf, he had a world globe with the ball taken off, turned upside down with Antarctica now at the top, and replaced. I laughed. Back home, on top of my bookshelf in my office was a world globe that I had reversed to put Antarctica on the top. It was almost scary. How many people have done that with their globes? What are the chances that father and son, with no interaction for three decades, would each do the same peculiar thing?”

“So, you’re saying then, that as opposed to the question of whether you choose family or friends, that the question is basically irrelevant: That family is who you are, that ancestry defines your nature and you have family to thank or blame for it.”

“I remember having this discussion many years ago with a colleague. We had both grown up in New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s. We shared a good deal of nurture and could understand many of the same cultural references. But he was from an Italian family and I was from a Norwegian family. Despite how much we shared, he had a preference for Fellini films and I had a preference for Bergman.

“Not that I couldn’t appreciate Fellini — I do — but that deep in my bones, I knew the Bergman world; it was my interior world. While the Fellini was tremendous, but exterior to me. There is something in my genes that responds in a family way to the world of Bergman that Fellini doesn’t hit. But it was the reverse for my colleague. Italian genes felt at home in Fellini.

“In the old days, I would have chalked it all up to culture: He grew up in an Italian family and so the folk ways would have felt familiar. But now, I think — it’s only tentative, of course — but I think perhaps it may be something genetic. This may be the collective unconscious that Jung wrote about. The pile of chromosomal tendencies, tastes, judgments, behaviors, that have been reinforced over the generations by the distillation and concentration of DNA.

“I’m sure that upbringing and culture plays a part, no doubt, but I now think that there may be something inherent, that if I had been adopted by an Italian family, I would still feel more at home in Bergman. Not provable in my case, perhaps, but I think plausible.”

“So, I think you are saying, that you are inevitable in terms of family as you are in terms of history, that you may not like the times in which you are born, but you simply have no choice in the matter, and that all those relatives who bore you on holidays are just the titrations of chromosomes and you are thus embedded in your family like raisins in a muffin. No choice. Just is.”

“Yes.”

“Still don’t want them over for dinner.”

ceiling 2

PART FOUR: JE NE C’EST QUOI

1

Two people sat in the front room; they obviously had never met before. He was about 60 years old, with a full head of gray hair, brushed back neatly. She was several years younger, but with a shock of white in her forelock, giving her a kind of Susan Sontag look. Their respective others were in the next room talking seriously. Their respective others used to be married to each other. It was late afternoon and no one had turned on the lights. All color in the room was grayed out.

“Portland,” said gray hair to forelock.

“Me, too,” she said in an accent that implied “Moi, aussi.”

“Oregon,” he said.

“Maine,” she said.

It was awkward. They had all flown in from their respective corners of the map to see Mia for the holidays. And now Esther and Stuart were in the bedroom with Mia. She had something important to tell them.

“I heard from Dan,” Mia said. “He’s dying. Lung cancer.”

“He never smoked,” Esther said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“I know,” Mia said. “But it’s far gone. He’s asked me to come.”

“Back to Poughkeepsie?”

“Yeah.”

Esther now lived in Oregon with gray-haired Roger. They had been married for a decade and it seemed to have taken. She didn’t expect to find any more Waynes or Bobs or Eds — or Stuarts. He was a good man, and he suffered patiently while Esther discussed her first husband with her second husband in the next room. Current husbands must face the closed door of their wive’s previous lives. But not a closed door, one left just enough ajar to let him know there will always be a portion of his mate’s life that will be strange to him, even as it remains vital to her. He hears the stories, but they are like fictions read in books. Esther’s life with Dan, her later marriage to Stuart and her briefer liaisons have formed the woman he inherited, and he was grown up enough to know he must not be jealous of those earlier men, but grateful to them for creating the woman he now loved. But still. It can be hard to live with all those shadows on the bedroom wall.

Mia didn’t see her mother all that much anymore, now that Esther had moved to Oregon. But the holidays gave them an excuse to travel back east to Morgantown, where Mia now had her Ph.D. and was a novice instructor teaching classical literature in translation, first-year Latin and the mythology course that was her great pleasure.

Stuart also lived in Portland, but Maine, not Oregon.

“I may be an old hippie, but I’ve aged out of Portlandia,” he told me. “I’m more Whole Earth Catalog than I am fair-trade coffee.”

He was now living with a viola player who teaches and plays part-time with the Portland Symphony. “I’m learning to listen to the middle of the music,” he said. “I’m ignoring the tunes and the bass and hearing the filler. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to listen to a viola part in a symphony? It takes great ears.”

She was the other sitting in the front room with Roger. Her name was Genevieve.

“It’s Je-Ne-Vee-Ev, not Jeneveev,” said Stuart. “Je ne vieve pas,” he punned. “Je ne c’est quoi.” She was born in Belgium and took the same offense as Hercule Poirot for being assumed French.

This was the undercurrent as Mia explained to Esther and Stuart about the cancer that had appeared out of their shared past. Stuart stood in the corner He was never good at real stuff. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“So, should I go?” she asked. “I think I should.”

Esther took Mia’s hand; Mia sat on the bed next to her. They hugged.
To fill in: Dan was alone in the world. He had no living relatives other than his daughter, and had been something of a hermit for many years, moving back and forth from the job to the house and back. It was believed there were cats. Mia had not seen him in years, and what contact they had was awkward.

“Can you take me?” she asked Stuart.

“Me?”

“I need support.”

2.

In the front room, Roger waited for the confab to conclude.

“Mia’s rather quiet,” he said. “Isn’t she?”

“Well, she keeps her own council.”

“I’ve tried to talk to her, but it’s like pulling teeth,” he said.

“She is maybe a little withdrawn,” said the French accent. I mean, Belgian.

“Not like Stuart,” he said. “He talks a lot.” He tried to be neutral about it.

“It is true,” she said. “He won’t shut up. But that is why I like him. He is … inextinguishable.” She said the word slowly, with no syllable accented. Was she thinking of the Nielsen symphony?

“How long have you been together?”

“A long time, I think. Maybe eight, nine months.”

“Can you take it?” Roger was letting his tact slip.

“We shall see.”

December 01
3.

Sometime here, we will have to admit that Mia was not a normal woman, had not been a normal girl. Her mother was voluble, friendly, chatty, even. Moved easily from man to man in her earlier days. There was a brightness to her that lit a room and attracted many a keen suitor. But Mia inherited none of that; rather, she had her father’s melancholy — at least that’s the old word for it. It probably didn’t rise to the diagnosis of depression, but it edged the border. Mia took few chances in life, let it flow around her, accepted what came her way, but seldom took the initiative. She kept to herself, found building relationships difficult, but in return, felt a kind of quiet satisfaction in those little things that floated her way. She would never have called herself unhappy, but there was not a great deal of effusive joy in her bearing, either.

In a way, Stuart provided that effusion for her, and she enjoyed his silliness. He had enough for both of them.

And so, they drove from Morgantown to Poughkeepsie, a December thaw left clods of melting snow hung on the trees higher up on the hills. The roads were all clear, but often still wet, even in the sunshine.

“What do we believe?”

Stuart said that with an emphasis on the “we.” His arm crossed the steering wheel with his left hand at the 2 o’clock position, he leaned in to Mia riding shotgun.

“Yes, I don’t mean ‘What do we believe?’ the way so many people question what our nation or society stands for, or if we anymore stand for anything. I’m not asking what we as a culture believe in, or if we have a common spine of belief to stiffen our civic polity. I leave that to the punditocracy.

“No, what I’m wondering about these days is what do we take so for granted we never even think about it, the way ancient people believed the earth was flat, or that the daytime sun moved in procession across the sky and ducked under it at night. What we believe to be true without question, indeed, we don’t even recognize it as a question, or a possible question. What is the water we swim in?”

Mia watched Pennsylvania out the window pass by, hoping to stop soon for lunch.

“You mean,” she said, “like the Medievals believed in a Christian god, or the 18th century believed in a rational order to the universe?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. I’ve been wondering because it is such a tough question. It is asking to see the invisible, to step out of the zeitgeist and look at it from above, like we were watching rats in a psychology lab wander in a maze. Can we even begin to see what we don’t recognize as the ether of our universe?”

“Maybe what we’re talking about is a slow dawning,” she said. “I mean like slavery. At one point in history — actually, in most points in history — slavery was seen as right and proper, the order of the universe, even sanctioned by God. In Greece and Rome, slavery was as much a part of everyday life as bread and wine. In America when they made the Constitution, slavery was accepted by a large segment of the population as being the natural order. But there were those who saw it differently. Slowly, the majority began to see slavery as an evil and nowadays, we unquestioningly assume slavery to be indefensible.”

“Of course,” he said, “that hasn’t stopped slavery, but only changed its face: Slavery is still accepted in parts of Muslim Africa and the sex trade is hardly anything but slavery.”

“Yes, but the issue you have raised is whether slavery was at one time the water we swam in — that for most people, there was no issue at all. The sky was above, the earth below, kings ruled the domain and slaves had their eternal link in the Great Chain of Being. It was only the exceptional person who asked if the scheme were moral or just.”

“This is true, but it is also such a hot-button item that we may fail to grasp what I’m really asking. In the case of slavery, we can now feel superior and look back on our forefathers and judge them for their failure to see the obvious. But I’m certain we are no less blind today than they were, but in other areas. What are we going to be judged for a hundred years from now?”

“Animal rights, perhaps?”

“Maybe. Certainly, there will be those who wonder why we didn’t do anything about the ozone or overfishing or nuclear proliferation. But in part, these are political failings rather than what I’m asking about.

“I’m asking rather, what do we not even question. The issue came up when I started rereading Plato. God, I hate that man. But it was the Greeks in general I’m talking about.”

Stuart had no humility about bringing up the Greeks to the classical scholar sitting next to him.

“They had a peculiar relation to their language,” he went on. “They had what we now take as a naive belief that language and existence were one: If there was something in creation, there was a word for it, and likewise, if there was a word, it described something real in the world. There was no disjunction, no sense that language had its own structure and limits, and they were different from the structure and limits of existence. No sense that if there were a word, it might describe something false, something that doesn’t really exist, or really happen. The fact that there was a word was proof that the thing existed. They could not see outside their language. This led to some kinds of absurdities, like Zeno’s paradox. The language describes a problem: Achilles and a tortoise are in a race, but with the latter given a head start, Achilles can never catch up to it, and hence can never win the race.”

Before Achilles can catch up to the tortoise, he has to go halfway to catching up with the tortoise, and then before he can close the gap, he has to cover half the remaining gap, and then half that, and half that, onto infinity, and therefore, never catch up.

“An obvious absurdity if you set the experiment up and see what happens. The problem is only in the language, not in the reality. ‘Half’ and ‘half,’ and ‘half’ are merely concepts, not observable, not physical.

“There are many versions of this problem: It is the essential problem of Plato, who sees his ideals in terms of language, in terms, more specifically, of nouns. His ideal forms are ideal verbal, linguistic forms. Being Greek, he cannot transcend that constraint. Language is reality, reality language. That is all they know and all they needed to know.”

“Sometimes, I think we’re not much better,” Mia said. “We still seem to believe words more than experience. Politics is full of such things: Welfare mothers, for instance, or tickle-down economics. Make the verbal classification and you have proved that such a thing actually exists. Maybe you can’t really find any out there, but you’ve set up the idea with the word.”

Stuart: “My favorite has always been the international conspiracy of Communist Jewish bankers. Communist bankers — have they thought this one through?”

He went on. “Of course, philosophy these days — especially in America — is practically nothing but philology, a study of in how many ways language obscures reality or is at least in serious disjunction with it.”

“So, what is our equivalent of Greek language blindness?” she said.

“I can think of a few things that might count, but I despair of being able to escape my own swimming water,” he said. “This language-reality dilemma is never gone.

“Take a sentence like ‘Whales are mammals, not fish.’ It seems to most of us that this says something about cetaceans, but in fact it is a statement about language, not biology. It says ‘We have created a language class — a noun — that we apply to some sea creatures and not others. ‘Whales are mammals not fish,’ is a statement about language.”

He was thinking about his copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1825, which divides fish up into ‘spinous fishes,’ ‘cartilaginous fishes,’ ‘testacious fishes’ — that is, shellfish — ‘crustaceous fishes’ and ‘cetaceous fishes.’

“A whale, after all, is shaped like a fish, swims like a fish, has fins like a fish and lives in the ocean. Like the old saying, ‘If is looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ But nowadays, we accept the Linnean classification system as describing reality, while in fact, it is merely one way — one very useful way in a scientific and technological society, I might add — but only one way or organizing reality. The Bible doesn’t say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a ‘great fish.’ We naturally make the leap, because a whale is, in some manner, a big fish. Just one that breathes air and gives birth to live young. There are many ways of organizing experience, but we assume the primacy of only one.

“Genius is being able to shift from one to the other seamlessly.”

“I have another good example,” she said. “Anti-abortionists say that abortion is murder. But murder isn’t a fact, it is a legal class. And we change laws all the time. Taking of life comes in many forms, some which we justify and others we criminalize, and different people draw the line at different points. Would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1933 to prevent the millions of deaths in World War II? Would it have been justifiable to suffocate the infant Hitler in his crib? There is homicide, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, and, of course, war. Eichmann maintained that the Holocaust was merely the justifiable death of war, but we have chosen to draw the line differently. And what now of those now being ethnically cleansed in Bosnia? So, is abortion murder? It is killing, but for some it is justifiable, even necessary. Many on the anti-abortion side nevertheless justify executions for some crimes, but for that, they don’t use the word, ‘murder.’ For some it isn’t. But ‘murder’ is a verbal classification, not a fact.”

“Bingo,” he said. “It is hard to recognize what is mere language and what is genuinely out there, existent in the world, divorced from the language we use to describe things.

“Perhaps one thing — and this is related to the Greek problem — is our belief, unexamined, in the permanence of certain things.” Stuart went on.  “We have a tendency, not only to believe, but to actually create wars to defend the idea that national borders are something other than temporary lines drawn by powers that be. Just look at Poland: It moves around the map like a ball of mercury in a dish. First it’s here, then it’s there. It grows, shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s an idea that national borders depend on ethnicity, but that clearly isn’t the case. Poland, when it has existed, included Polish speakers, German speakers, Ukranian speakers, Lithuanian speakers, Yiddish speakers and Czechs, among others. Yes, most French speakers live in France, but some live in Quebec, and others in Belgium, where half the population doesn’t speak French at all, but Flemish …”

“‘In France they speak French; in Belgium, they speak Belch.’”

She was talking about Genevieve.

“… and just look at the shifting borders of the United States through the 19th century,” she said. “Nationhood is always a momentary thing. Yet we think of it as heaven-ordained.”

“Exactamente. We swim in an ocean of conceptual habits that we seldom give any thought to. Like our expectation of a beginning, middle and end. We want that in a play we watch or a song we sing. But there is no beginning, middle and end in our existence: It is all just flow. ‘Panta horein,’ Heraclitus has. ‘Everything flows.’ But the idea of beginning, middle and end is how we think of our own lives, not just that we are born and die and have a few years in between, but that each step in our life is a story that follows, episode on episode, in a coherent pattern that we recognize as our ‘self.’ We tell stories about our lives as though we were writing novels or short stories. The connection we make — the through-line — is something we cast over events, not something inherent in them.

“Experience, like the stars in the heavens, is a welter, a chaos of instances, but we make constellations out of them to be able to make sense, but if we take the constellations as something ‘real’ — like astrology does — then we mistake the pattern for the substance.”

Mia had her own example, thinking of life in academia and faculty meetings.

“The other example I can think of is hierarchy. This is perhaps beginning to be exploded, but we reflexively think of things in hierarchy. The real world of experience doesn’t provide immutable hierarchies, but in our thoughts, we make them line up in marching order and pretend there is this rank and file. Where once we had kings, knights, yeomen, vassals and serfs, now we have department chairmen, academic deans, provosts. We still have this idea that some organisms are “higher” on the evolutionary scale than others. The vestigial concept of the ‘great chain of being’ remains in our culture, even when the full-blown version has disintegrated into a confetti of vestiges.

“We decry the ‘patriarchy,’ or at least some of us do, while a good part of the population unthinkingly assumes as the default that the husband is head of the household. Real families are no longer like that.”

“Don’t get me started,” Stuart said, but the horse was out of that barn.

“The number of things we accept without thought is probably infinitely more than those things we do think about. Seven day weeks? Any real reason for that? Weekends are such a part of our experience, yet, I doubt cavemen ever thought about constantly recycling work weeks. And the decimal system. A duodecimal system would work just as well, or even a system based on 8 or 15. The 10 is just a convention.”

“Well, we have 10 fingers…”

“And 10 toes, so why not base it all on 20? In fact, I’ve seen this — in some cultures the counting is based on 12 because if we use our thumb as a counter, we can reel off a fast dozen, by first counting the fingertips of the remaining four fingers, then the second joint and then the third, adding up to 12. And with the other hand, we can keep track of the groupings of 12, and count quite efficiently on our fingers up to 144. You can see the foremen doing this on South American rivers as they load bales onto the boats. Inventory is kept on the knuckles.

“I’m sure there are so many more things we accept without thought. But my original point is that it is so hard — nearly impossible to discover what you don’t know to be mere convention.”

When they reached the Tappan Zee Bridge, it was hard to know if their exhaustion was from the long drive or the conversation.

poughkeepsie 3
4.

When they got there, it was worse than she had thought. Dan was in bed with tubes in his nose and an IV plugged into his forearm. His eyes were dark, as if he had on eyeshadow, and his cheeks were scoured out; his skin was sallow. He barely spoke above a wheeze.

Stuart waited at the hotel while Mia went to visit.

“I’m going to die,” Dan said. Slowly, very slowly, one word squeezed out at a time before gathering wind to say the next. “You are the only person …” He waited to finish his thought while sucking air. “…” He didn’t finish his thought, hoping Mia would finish it for him.

Dan had spent the three months in hospice, but a turn for the worse had landed him back in the hospital. Mia held his hand; she didn’t know what else to do. Dan closed his eyes and slept. Mia sat there for a half hour, watching the sunlight on the bare trees out the window. Then she got up to leave the room. A nurse came to her with a clipboard.

“There are some forms to sign,” she said.

Mia growled her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

She hadn’t expected anything official; she was just there to see her father.

“You are next of kin,” the nurse said.

“What about …’ Mia realized that an ex-wife didn’t count. All of Dan’s blood family was gone. She was all there was. She signed whatever she needed to and went back to the hotel.

“It’s bad,” she said to Stuart. “He’s barely able to speak.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“I signed a bunch of papers.”

“I mean, anything to help?”

The air was crisp, the sun was sharp, the day seemed at odds with Mia’s mood. They went to the hotel cafe for dinner.

Motel 1

5.

The next morning, when they went back to the hospital, a different nurse, this one much taller and older, met them with the news that Dan had sunk into a coma and was not expected to come out of it.

“We need to know your wishes,” she said.

“My wishes?” Mia frowned. She didn’t think her wishes were important. “What can we do for him?” she asked.

“I mean, at this stage, we are only keeping him alive with feeding tubes and a respirator. We need to know if it is your wish to continue life support or should we let him go.”

This is not a decision anyone should have to make. Mia certainly didn’t think she should have to make it. She barely knew the man; it was only an accident of DNA that she was being asked to make this choice. For the first time, she started crying. She found a chair in the hall and lowered her head and let the hot salt water drain. Her brain was seized up; the tenuous connection between her birth father and the grown daughter was made sensibly, palpably real. She reached for Stuart’s hand; she held it in both of hers.

“I don’t see that I have a choice,” she said. She told the nurse to let him die. It felt so cold; it felt so unfair to be made to choose.

“He’s going to die anyway,” Stuart said, trying to comfort her. “You are only helping him get there.”

The trip back to Morgantown was much quieter than the trip to New York.

6.

There was a lot to manage after Dan died. What to do with his remains, what to do with his apartment and all his stuff. It was all strange to Mia; she hadn’t known Dan in any real sense, so the books on his shelf were a surprise, the clothes in his dresser, the foods in his pantry. They all spoke of someone who had had an actual existence, but no longer did. Where did he go? Vanished, except for the cans of tomatoes and the box of Cheerios, the bottle of soured milk leftover in the fridge. Throw it all out, she thought.

An estate sale was arranged, the body was cremated, the gas and electric turned off, the deposits promised to be returned, the key given back to the landlord. Mia felt a deep sadness, but it wasn’t grief. She barely knew the man, so that wasn’t why she was feeling this profound emptiness. She had now a personal connection, a bodily connection with death, with non-existence. It didn’t matter whether she ever spent time with Dan; there was a cause-and-effect connection with a dead man: He had caused her to exist in the world, and his world was now over. The flower had give way to seed. Was this, perhaps, what it meant to be grown up?

gabin 1I love French films; I own well over 200 of them on DVD. And not just the New Wave films we all know, but the pre-war films of Julien Duvivier, Jacques Becker, Marcel Carne, Sacha Guitry — and above all, those of Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol.

I am afraid that under the influence of such films as “Le jour se leve,” “La bete humaine,” and “Quai des brumes,” I am guilty of writing a pastiche short story Which I here present to you. Please read it in black and white. 

L’echafaud de mon desir
ou
Mon desir pour l’echafaud

My name is Etienne Duford and I am the chef de cuisine of a small restaurant in the town of _________. It is hardly more than a village, near Orleans, and a stopping place for truck drivers hauling cargo from Bourges to Paris.

And my restaurant cannot be called haute cuisine. It is only irony that causes me to name myself “chef.” Mostly I serve the truckers blanquette and gigot along with vin de table and rather a lot of digestif. I guess there was a lot of digestion needed to process the food I served. Next door is a small six-room auberge called the relais de St. Pierre. The restaurant is part of the St. Pierre, and its owner is my boss.

St. Pierre. It makes me laugh. “On this rock I build my church,” said Jesus. Well, we grow sugar beets in this corner of the world, and they are hard as rocks. Farmer, I joke, do you really need to plant the beets, can’t you just plow up the rocks that are already in the ground?

The beets pile up in the autumn in little pyramids beside the fields and along the roads, waiting to be picked up and brought to the factory. That paysage is the only thing that gives our region anything you might claim to be distinctif. Otherwise, this is flat country, both as geography and as culture.

Yes, I am married, to la belle Helene, as I like to say, a farmer’s daughter. No, she is not really all that belle anymore, although, for 47, she still has a decent figure and I can’t complain. We still sleep together, although I seldom touch her. Not that she doesn’t have her own affairs to keep in order. Affairs. I can’t really call them amours. That would be much too grand a word. I don’t mind them, and it leaves her a little extra spending money.

But it is the other one you want to know about — my Juliette. Daughter of old Ambroise, owner of the St. Pierre. Julie, ma jolie. The perfect ideal of womanhood. Une vierge de 28 ans, and the main reason I have never left this dusty town. I knew her when she was a child and I was in my 20s, just opening my restaurant. I watched her grow up. She is the only pinpoint of grace in this town, or in my existence.

I would see her sweeping the dirt in front of the auberge every morning and see her shake the laundry out back. No, I didn’t pay much attention to  her when she was young. It’s strange, now that I think about it. This isn’t something that happened those many years ago. I really thought of her as a child, at least until she was in her mid 20s. Then, I realized how beautiful she was, how graceful, and how she was a door to un monde plus gentil, more refined. Too refined for me, helas. I watched her, but I could never approach her.

Then, there was Jean. If a movie were to be made, he would be Gabin. He was one of the truckers who stopped regularly at the St. Pierre. He ate at my place, and perhaps drank a bit more of the vin ordinaire than was good for him. I loathed him.

Why? Because of the attention he paid Julie, ma jolie.  She deserved better. He smiled at her. I wanted to paste him one. This was no belle et la bete. There was no prince buried underneath the coarse skin.

Twice a month he came through with his truck, spent the night at the St. Pierre and ate my rillons with mashed potatoes and mustard sauce. He smacked his lips. In others I would have taken that as a compliment.

“What do you think,” he said one evening. “Great piece of meat, no?”

Surely, he wasn’t talking about the cutlet, which should have been turned into a shoe.

“I would love to get me some of that.” And he indicated, by a rude gesture, he was referring to his nether regions in contact with something soft and feminine. “She’s really something.”
Loathing doesn’t accurately describe my feelings; I hated him. He was a pig.

That Thursday, he came to dinner. I remember, he had only oeufs and some vin rouge. There was pomade in his hair and the smell of the barber shop. His suit hadn’t exactly been pressed, but it was cleaner than usual and I assumed that he had steamed it in his room.

“She gave me the high sign.”

“She?”

“The morsel. I’ve been after her for years, and I think she’s finally ready to give in.”

A big grin covered his face like the wrong sauce on a magret de canard. He wiped his mouth with his forearm.

“Another glass, s’il vous plait,” and he slammed the empty glass down on the table.

When he left, I pulled the towel from my belt, put it on the bar, and followed him. I kept a ways behind, and ducked behind the corner of the St. Pierre as he went in. Looking in the window, I saw him laugh his greasy laugh, slap the concierge’s desk and yell out, “Juliette!” I had an instant chunk of ice coagulate in my gut.

I went back to the restaurant, closed up for the day, and went upstairs. Helene was sitting by the door.

“I’m going out tonight,” she said. “Don’t wait up.”

I’m a man with some small education, although I claim no sophistication. I never finished school. But, I have a tolerant nature. I was not going to make a fuss over this habitual betrayal. I haven’t been the best husband to Helene, and she hasn’t been the best wife to me. It’s a little compromise we both make with life. I don’t ask and she doesn’t rub my nose in it.

But that wasn’t a good night to hear it one more time. I put my coat on, went back downstairs and out the door. I walked down the street and out of the village, out into the fields. I could see only black. It was still twilight and I could make out the hills of beets by the roadside, and the windbreak of trees at the far end of the fields. I could see the windows of the village light up behind me. But inside, it was all black. I wasn’t thinking about Helene. My thoughts passed instead to Julie. “How could such a gem exist even in the same dimension as that slug? How could she abide his barbarity?”

By the time I got to the trees just to the west of the village, I sat on the ground, looking back at the houses, silhouettes now against the graying sky. I’m a grown man, but I sobbed, wiped my nose and took a deep breath. I pulled my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around them and sat still, continuing to look back at the cluster of homes.

Homes? What is a home? What is one supposed to expect from life? Is there anything like a good marriage? Is it all accommodation? All a matter of giving up? In those books, there are great love affairs, but how do they all end? They all end in death. Anna and Vronsky, Romeo, Juliet. Juliette?

If they end in marriage, they are Charles and Emma. Helene.

The air was unseasonably warm that night. Thursday. The day of the week with the least character. It is a bland day. An empty day.

I heard something in the woods to my left, a shifting of branches and leaves.

I hoped Helene had found more in existence than I had. I had looked for foie gras and found turnips. No sauce helps the turnips.

What’s that?

I was certainly feeling sorry for myself. The son of man knows not where to lay his head.

Again?

I wiped my nose and took a deep breath. Then there was a giggle. There was no doubting that voice.

I got up and walked quietly down to the noise.

There she was on the ground, with her legs split open and the beast wedged between, grunting and rooting. She giggled again. I yelled out. I picked up a beet, hard as stone and took a whack at the beast’s head. He rolled off his prize and looked up at me with the slack uncomprehension of a farm animal. I lifted my arm for a second sally when he pushed me off, grabbed his trousers from around his ankles, yanked them up, rolled away from me, got up and began running off into the beet field, leaving the astonished Julie on her back, white and naked from the waist down, and her tuft of pubic hair, smoke above the fire, a punctuating point in the whiteness where the two legs met, downhill from her upraised knees. I yelled a second time and brought my arm down on her head. I did it again. And again, and again. Her head split open, it was gummy with blood. Her eyes looked up, but they didn’t see anything anymore. I dropped the beet and yelled a third time.

“Julie, ma jolie!” And I cried. I cried like a baby and collapsed next to the slab of meat that used to be the girl I loved.

Now my only assignation is with la veuve, the “widow.” Its blade will will take my best part — my mind — and slice it from my gross part, and the division will be the end of me. No great loss to the world, I fear, but rather a disappointment to myself.

Signed on this 30th day of November, 1937
Etienne Duford