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“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.” 

“The older I get, the more the complexities of life narrow down to simpler components,” said Stuart. “The interactions become more complex, but the basics seem fewer.”

“Yes,” I prodded.

“I’ve been thinking about emotions, or more precisely, about how emotions are manifested by our bodies in terms of muscle reactions, hormonal dumps, brain chemistry — emotions as a physical reaction to external or internal stimuli.”

“Sounds clinical.”

“Well, I’m no scientist and I can’t claim any justification for this, but I’ve spent nearly 70 years examining my self — my inner self — and trying to understand just how I’ve reacted to the many events in my life, both the good and the bad.”

Stuart and I have both been around for a long time, been through many things, some of them together. Marriages, divorces, trips, jobs, houses, friends, pets, births, and more recently, deaths. 

“And I’ve come to believe that there are really only six emotions.”

“Surely, there are an infinite number of emotions,” I said. “At least an uncounted number. ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ ”

“Yes, it sometimes seems that way, but I think it is more like the taste  buds on your tongue. Only a few, but the combinations of them allow us to identify a huge range of flavors.

“The six emotions I have winnowed it all down to are: sadness, anger, fear, contentment, joy, and finally, desire — erotic desire. Each of these manifests itself in a distinct part of the body, or combination of corporeal locations.”

“I know where desire is felt.”

“Well, yes, but I don’t mean this as a joke. Let’s take them one by one and examine them.

“I start with sadness, because that’s the one most proximate, at least for you.”

“You’ve got that right.”

“Sadness — and I mean sadness, I don’t mean depression, which is a lack of affect and therefore, the opposite of emotion — sadness wells up in the eyes, in the higher portions of the chest, in a pursing of lips graduating into a pulling apart of the corners of the mouth and stretching of the neck ligaments. 

“Each of these emotions is a range, not a single thing. Sadness can run from a kind of wistfulness into a full blown gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.”

“Been there.” 

“Fear hits the pit of the stomach and the back of the neck; it widens the eyes and tightens the throat. Anger tenses the whole face and focuses the eyes, tightening their orbits; it also stiffens the back of the throat and may also clench the fists. 

“Contentment is a warm feeling throughout the body, a relaxation of tightnesses. It is what we most often call happiness. And it is very different from joy, which is an inhalation, or alternately, a holding of breath, along with a swelling of chest and perhaps a throwing back of arms. You almost escape your skin. 

“And desire — and I mean specifically sexual desire, not just the inclination to acquire what one doesn’t have — desire swells the loins.”

“And what about love? Isn’t that one of the big emotions?”

“In my way of thinking about it, love is a cause of emotions, not an emotion itself.

“Think about it. When you are young, at first flush, love is a combination of joy and desire; as you age, it may become contentment and desire, then, perhaps contentment alone. Certainly it can also cause anger in one, or fear, and ultimately, love can be expressed through sadness. You know about that all too directly. These are all the pipes attached to the keys of the organs, from flute to diapason.”

“And hate?”

“Likewise, it triggers a range of notes: anger and fear mostly.”

I can never tell just how seriously to take Stuart. His enthusiasms are certainly genuine, but they are not often long lived. He gets on a topic, drives it to its logical or illogical end and than, like an infant tempted by some new shiny object, moves on to something else. Still, there is often something to be learned by looking at the world from an angle outside even the periphery. 

“I imagine some sort of sliders on a sound studio mixing panel, pull up the fear and anger, deaden the joy and contentment. Fingers constantly pushing the controls up and down.

“Again, my disclaimer: I am no scientist, this is all just self-examination, but science does seem to have correlated certain hormones and neurotransmitters with emotional reactions. Fear and adrenaline, contentment and serotonin. Endorphins and joy. Cocktails mixing them make for some astonishing complexity. We all know it’s possible to love and hate at the same time. Shaken, not stirred.”

“You have me remembering a girlfriend I had many years ago, in Seattle,” I said. “I was crazy in love at the time, but her reaction was that ‘Love is just pheromones.’ Rather knocked me down a bit.” 

“I remember her,” Stuart said. “Nothing blonder than her hair but the sun.”

“Yes, that’s her.”

“Well, it started me thinking. We almost always pit emotion against  rational thought, as if they were opposites. Bones and Spock. What if thought was the same as emotion — a physical and chemical reaction that the body washes over us? Are there peptides and purines that channel or produce reason? Is it all ‘just pheromones?’ We privilege reason over emotion in our culture, but let’s face it, reason does not always provide better outcomes than emotion. Remember Halberstam’s book with the ironic title?”

The Best and the Brightest.”

“Yes. Logic, I’ve always said, is a provincialism of our culture. I blame Plato.”

“You usually do.”

“Or maybe Zeno. His paradox only works in language, not in reality. The tortoise will always be passed by Achilles in just a couple of bounds. Yet, the logic proves that Achilles cannot possibly ever catch up. I have doubted reason ever since I thought that one through. 

“So, I’m imagining a gushing brain chemistry that makes us divide each question into ones and zeros, yes or no, black or white, salt or pepper, chocolate or vanilla. Is there a bestiary of thought as there seems to be one of emotion?  You love Beethoven’s late quartets, right?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“And what have you always said about the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ or the cavatina? ‘At its highest levels,’ you said, ‘thought and emotion cannot be told apart.’ Isn’t that right?”

“To quote a First Century prophet from the Levant: ‘You have said it.’ ”

“So, I’m trying to work out another mixing board, one for thought. Or, is it the same mixing board, but turned sideways? Does thinking create facial expressions or muscle contractions the way emotions do? When I’m lost in thought, I can feel me face go all flabby as I’m lost in thought — or sometimes the reverse, I screw up my lips and nose as I work through a knotty problem.

“At the very least, I’m convinced that the body and the mind are not separate entities, but rather a single thing looked at from different ends. We get all flummoxed when we divide ourselves up between thinking and feeling, between body and soul, between heaven and earth, between realism and idealism. I imagine it all as Medieval humors, only with modern, scientific names like urocortin and oxytocin. They didn’t have microscopes and magnetic resonance machines, but those Medieval people were not simple-minded idiots. Their brains were just as good as ours. It’s just their research facilities were underfunded. And they didn’t have as many giants on whose shoulders to stand.”

“So, she was right? It’s all just pheromones?”

“Perhaps. Remember, I’m no scientist, and even if it is all just pheromones, it doesn’t feel as if it is.”

“Well, I think it’s dinner time and I’m feeling hungry. Let’s go see what we can cook up. I’ve got a new pasta recipe that I think Genevieve will like.”

“Do you know where you come from?”

“New Jersey,” I said.

“No, I mean where your people come from.”

“Yeah, New Jersey.”

But that’s not what Stuart meant.

“I mean originally,” he said.

“Then, I guess, the Rift Valley in Africa.”

“But after that. What ethnicity do you identify as.”

“Well, everyone in my family is Norwegian. But the Nordic people migrated there from elsewhere before that.”

“And how far back does your family tree go?”

“I’ve never really thought about it much,” I said. “My grandmother’s old family Bible — in Norwegian — has people listed back as far as my great-great-grandparents. Or at least some of them. Not all 16 of them.”

“And none of the 32 who gave birth to them, or the 64 who gave birth to the 32,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about this.”

Stuart thinks about a lot of things. And when he starts off, there’s usually no stopping him. We turned a corner onto his street. The air was turning into winter.

“It began because Genevieve has been watching these genealogy programs on TV. They seem to be enormously popular. They take a celebrity guest and trace their family history to answer questions that the guest has about his or her past — things that perhaps their parents never talked about. Where did Grandma get that tattoo? Why did our family leave Serbia? They sometimes find out that their great-great-great-great-great grandfather was thrown in debtors’ prison during the Glorious Revolution, or some such thing that amazes them.”

“Yes, I’ve seen those. Henry Louis Gates does one on PBS and I’ve seen a British one on YouTube. They can be fascinating.”

“But I’ve noticed a problem that is never addressed, although, maybe it can’t be. Genevieve accidentally pointed it out once. The family trees they come up with are always piecemeal, and they tend to follow the family name, which means the father’s father’s father, on and on. Sometimes they do the mother, too. But then if it continues, it’s the mother’s father and his father. They get hung up in the family name.

“It makes it seem as if a family tree has a certain neatness to it,” Stuart said. “And if they find something notable in the past, it seems as if there is a direct line, say, from Charlemagne to them. As if a family line were a simple thing.”

Stuart had worked a good deal of this out, he said, and when we got to his house, Genevieve had dinner ready.

“She sure can cook, for a violist,” he said. Genevieve did not seem amused.

Later, he brought out his paperwork. He laid it on the cleaned off table. There was a good deal of scribbling on it, and a lot of numbers.

“You have to do the math,” he said. “You start of with 1 — that’s you. You have two parents. They each have two parents, making four grandparents. The numbers pile up. You have eight great-grandparents. Keep doubling the number for each generation. By the time you get to five ‘greats’ you have 128 people dumping their DNA into your birth cauldron.”

That makes doing a full family tree rather busy with names — even if you could track the names down. You don’t really know the names, Stuart said, but the math remains certain.

“One thinks in terms of great old Pop-Pop, or Nana, and maybe you have in mind their parents or grandparents, but it is always a manageable number of people. A number you might know — they are people you can know the names of.

“I thought of how many years this might encompass,” he said. “And as an average — and average only, because, of course, there’s a lot of variation, but as an average, I think this works. You take a generation to be 25 years — it makes the math easier and we’re only doing this for illustration. But if your parents were 25 when you were born, and your grandparents were 50, that makes your great-grandparents 75 at your birth. Again, this is only for illustration. My great-grandmother was actually 82 when I was born.

“That means there is 100 years to your great-great-grandparents.”

“OK, I’m buying it so far. But,” I said, looking down at the papers he had spread out, “that leaves us with 16 people to keep track of. Sixteen in a century seems doable.”

“The problem is that the numbers keep doubling. By the time you go back 200 years, you have 256 ancestors. By 300 years, you have 4,096 ‘9-G’ grandparents. That’s great-great-great-great-great —“ he held up his fingers and started on the next hand — “great-great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a lot of DNA dumping into your cells. If you go back 500 years — and this doesn’t yet get you anywhere near Charlemagne — you now have to send greeting cards to one-million forty-eight-thousand five-hundred and seventy-six geezers.

“Let’s go back to the 1260s, when Chartres Cathedral was dedicated and Kublai Khan was emperor of China. That’s when you now count a billion people as your ancestors. With a ‘B’ — actually, 1,073,741,824 people, all of whom were necessary for the production of the zygote that became you, sitting here, eating Genevieve’s lasagne.”

Stuart was starting to get a little excited. His eyes were taking on that glow I recognized all to well.

“You only have to go back 33 generations to a point that you have more grandparents than there are currently people on earth. Here it is, 400 years after Charlemagne and you have 8,589,934,592 ancestors. Seven more generations — that takes us only to about the turn of the first millennium and you have already needed a trillion ancestors. It starts to get really ridiculous.”

He pointed to his calculations on the paper again.

“This means that it is mathematically certain that you share an ancestor within the past thousand years with everybody now living on the planet. There’s no escaping that fact. So, you may not be a direct descendant of Charlemagne, but you are related. Since there needs to be more people than are available in order to sire you — more people required than exist or have existed on earth — it necessarily means there has to be a great deal of cross-breeding, making everyone cousins of a sort. Alle Menschen werden Brüder, as Beethoven said.”

“Maybe we should say, ‘alle Menschen sind Brüder.’ Make it present tense,” I said. “But when you mentioned ‘cross-breeding,’ it brings to mind what happened when Carole wanted to track the origins of her family.”

My late wife adored her father and loved everything about the Steele family. To discover the origin of the family, her brother, Mel, took one of those Y-chromosome tests. The Y-chromosome is passed down from father to son across the generations. When the results came back in the mail, there was at least one anomaly.

“We learned that surname and DNA are only tangentially related,” I said. “The DNA descends from father to son, but maybe not the surname. The Steele family always said it was originally Irish. But it is an English name, possibly Scottish, and everyone was Protestant. In the U.S., they lived in the Appalachians and so we assumed they were Scots-Irish. Along with the complicated information about haplogroup, there was a list of other men who had taken the test who matched up with the Steele DNA. The most recent names were indeed Steele. But going back in history, the Steele name disappears and is replaced with the name Driscoll. The oldest Driscolls on the list came from County Cork, in southern Ireland.

“What we figured out is that at some point — maybe in Ireland, maybe after they emigrated to America — a Steele woman either had a baby out of wedlock to a Driscoll, or a Steele wife had an adulterous affair with a Driscoll. So, the Driscoll DNA settled, cuckoo-egg style in the Steele family line.

“It taught us not to be too cocky about the nominal lineage you work out through genealogy. Just because someone is married, doesn’t mean the husband is father to the child. There must be a lot of this kind of misdirection over the centuries.”

“And also,” said Stuart, “You should be as aware of the many other contributors to your genetic make-up, and not so focused on the genes stumbling down through your father’s line. It’s only one of two parts, or of four parts, or of eight, or, well, you get the picture.”

 

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?

Mia is grown up, living alone in West Virginia; Stuart has found another woman. She asks his advice. I’m not sure why.

1955 Dodgers

PART THREE: AD HOMINEM

1

“Tell me about men.”

“What?”

She repeated the demand. Stuart didn’t know what she meant.

“I don’t know anything about men,” he said.

“You are one,” she said.

“You think that gives me some special insight? I don’t know anything about myself, and that includes being a man. Why are you so interested?”

“I’m new at this game,” she said, with the same expression she might use to say, “it’s still raining.”

“I’ve never done it.”

Stuart did a double-take inside his head, although he showed nothing on his outside. Why are you telling me this, he wanted to know, but was afraid to ask out loud.

“I consider virginity to be a form of ignorance,” she said.

“A minor form at best,” Stuart said. “Compared to bigotry, patriotism or not being able to name the starting lineup of the ’55 Brooklyn Dodgers, it’s hardly anything.”

“But it is a kind of ignorance, and I think I’m too old now to maintain that ignorance.”

“You have someone in mind?”

“No.”

“So this is theoretical?”

“Not exactly. I intend to lose my ignorance, and I need to know the other camp. You are my spy.”

“I’m not sure I qualify. I haven’t had a successful relationship, or rather never had one that lasted more than a few years.”

“But I can’t talk to anyone else. You’re it. So, tell me about men.”

Stuart did, in fact, have a theory. Like all his theories, it was more about spouting off than about solid sociological, theological or scientific research.

“OK, here goes.

“Men are all fetishists. This is the primary distinction between men and women,” he said.

“I don’t mean all men are into leather or vinyl, but that men localize their interests. It all comes down to a focus on a single issue, and all others can fend for themselves.”

“You mean men can’t multi-task?”

“That’s a good way of putting it.

“Think of porn. Why do women not respond? Why do men? People say it’s because women are not visual and men are, but that’s not the main problem. After all, women don’t respond to verbal porn either. It’s because men localize their sexual interest in one spot on their bodies. And, believe me, it’s always the same spot.

“By the way, if you attend to that spot, it doesn’t matter what else you do, they’ll be happy. It’s really rather simple. Everything about men is really rather simple. I know that’s hard for women to understand, because women are wired for complexity.”

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

lady chat 3
“But it’s true. Look at D.H. Lawrence. He adds a religious layer to the whole thing, and makes a god of that spot on his body, and believes that both men and women worship that dangling deity. But it’s really only a man’s religion.

“It colors everything in a man’s life. But it especially colors his attraction to women. Not only does he believe that women care about his equipment, he actually believes women go around talking about it in hushed, worshipful tones. Is it big enough? Am I man enough? Very little thought goes into anything else that might be thought manly.”

Mia knitted her eyebrows and shifted in her seat. This wasn’t what she was asking about really, but Stuart was always interesting, so she let him go on.

“So now, when a man looks upon a woman, that same single-mindedness makes him pick out a single attribute of the woman for worship. It is seldom her equipment. Why? I don’t know. Ask Freud. Wait. No, don’t ask Freud.

“So, for a man, it is her boobies he fixates on, or her hair, or her legs. Her big booty or the light down of hair on her arms. It becomes the trigger for his attraction.

“You see it all the time. A man loves a woman because her hair is blond, or because she has a turned-up nose, or pouty lips. She can weigh 200 pounds, but because her hair is curly, he sighs and pines.

“It can be something less tangible, like a sense of humor, but it seldom is. Mostly it is a physical endowment. Some like saggy boobs, some like a high arch on the instep. Some like just the hint of a mustache on her upper lip.”

“Gross!”

“But it’s true.

“When in the act of love, it is usually this one particular that the man is obsessing on. He is wildly in love with her hair, or the mole on her cheek, or the way she cuts her fingernails short.

“It can be perfume. It can be the fact she wears short pants. It can be the one button left undone on her blouse. But it is one thing.

“Women, on the other hand, tend to see the whole man, to see him as a person. When women complain about the objectification of themselves by men, they are right to do so, but they also miss a central truth of existence and the propagation of the species.

“Men simply don’t see the counter-indications: If that blonde in fact does weigh 200 pounds, or is a shrieking harpy, it doesn’t figure into his erotic calculations.

“The woman, however, always takes all the conflicting data into account and makes a profit-loss calculation. Is there enough there to work with? Does the good outweigh the bad.”

Mia objected, the way you do when presented with something you know is true but don’t wish to acknowledge, hoping that denying it will make it go away, at least for the moment.

“It can’t be that simple,” she said.

“It isn’t. Actually, it’s really quite complicated. What’s most interesting is to see it play out in the long run. Then the whole thing reverses.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that after living with a woman for 20 years, a man finally learns to see the whole woman, to access all the other parts of her personality and personhood that he was blind to in the first rush of ‘let’s-make-babies.’ She grows in his estimation. What he should have seen from the beginning, he now understands. The fire has spread into a circle, leaving the grass in the middle burnt, but a wider horizon of concern and interest expanding.

“By the way, learning more about the woman isn’t always a good thing. It also may lead to divorce.

“But the reverse is true for the woman. After living with the man for years, she is likely to latch onto the one thing, the one attribute, the one saving grace he has that makes up for all the failings.

“So, his appreciation for his wife grows, her appreciation for him narrows, but deepens.”

“At some point, though, it would seem there should be a crossing of the lines on the graph,” Mia said. “There should be a point when her narrowing and his expanding meet at one perfect moment of mutual understanding.”

“Well thought. I don’t know,” Stuart said. “That’s what you will have to find out. I never got there.”

2

It was a few days later. Mia sat in her room with no lights on. It was getting dark. She just sat. It was the time of day when nothing has any shadows.

3

It’s me again, come out from behind my mask.

You can see I’m not very forthcoming. I’m more than shy; I really don’t like getting personal, but you can see that already, I’m sure. But why write this story if I don’t want to let on?

So, I should tell you that a few weeks after talking to Stuart, I ended my ignorance. The gentleman was very pleasant. We spent a nice evening talking, and when it came down to it, he was more attentive than I expected, caressing me and talking softly. I could have no complaints.bike messenger 2

In fact, he spent rather more time on me than on himself, which surprised me. He didn’t know I was a novice and I didn’t tell him. He seemed interested in me, and my body, and he spent most of his time, even after I had taken off my clothes, looking me in the eye as he talked. At least, up to a point, after which he seemed to be more like a bicycle delivery boy with a deadline, pedaling faster and faster to deliver his parcel, well wrapped and waterproofed, I should add — I said he was a gentleman. Job completed, he began once more to pay attention to me.

I can’t say it wasn’t a pleasurable experience. I’m sure I didn’t know what to expect. And one instance is not a large enough sample from which to make any generalizations. As to whether I felt “release,” I really cannot say. Certainly I had a warm feeling that flowed through my body and ended the experience relaxed in a way that I could not altogether call familiar.

I did not see him again.

As to the question of ignorance and enlightenment, I can only say that the older I get, the more I realize that the end of one ignorance is only the beginning of another. I’m going back to my shell now.

4

“What was your fetish?”

“What do you mean?” asked Stuart. For once, she was visiting him.

He was putting together a model airplane and concentrating on gluing a wing strut without leaving a bead of glue on the fuselage.

“I mean,” said Mia, “what gets your oomph in gear?”

Stuart stopped, cocked his head and tried to figure out what Mia meant.
“Don’t you remember,” she said, “last year you told me that men focus on one thing only?”

“Oh, that,” he said. “I’d forgotten. Well, let me see. I’d say I am very lucky.gatsby eyes 2

“Why is that?”

“Because my thing is eyes. I always notice eyes first. I get turned on by eyes with a slight puffiness in the lower lids. I think it gives a woman’s eyes a slight squint that I take for implied skepticism, and I find skepticism highly attractive. I always notice a woman’s eyes first.”

“Why do you say lucky?”

“Because a woman never has to say to me, ‘I’m up here.’ My particular fetish means that any woman I’m with thinks I’m looking deep into her soul. It gives the illusion I’m interested in her. And that illusion is like the lure an anglerfish dangles in front of his prey. It gets’em every time.

“I don’t mean that I consciously use it as a technique — it comes natural. I really do love eyes and usually, I really am interested in them. But it has made me very lucky, in both of the word’s common senses.”

Then Stuart said something he truly believed, although you don’t have to: “I have never had sex with a woman I wasn’t in love with.”

5

As you have guessed, Mia is rather introverted. She has a hard time making friends and meeting potential mates. When you spend your life parsing the aorist tense in Aeolian Greek, that sort of thing can happen.

Mia now had her masters degree and was obviously headed on for a piled-higher-and-deeper in Greek and Latin, and when she wasn’t dug in with a Loeb Library volume, she was trying to figure out how to keep her apartment from turning into a midden. Everyday life was not her strong suit.

But she had met someone. His name was Michael and they did four things: They went to the movies; they ate dinner in restaurants; they had sex; and they talked about the meaning of life. But, they were both 23, so what did they know?

As for movies, they both loved subtitled films, although he favored the German films and she favored the French ones. The German films always seemed to be about someone having power over someone else, or over some group. The French ones were always about how loves flutters like a flake of soot on a fire grate, not ever knowing quite when to let go.

As for restaurants, in this they agreed. They both loved finding new and more unusual ethnic restaurants. Ethiopian food, or Dravidian food, or some new restaurant featuring food from the Maldive Islands. Not that they weren’t happy with Greek or Thai. But they both loved to spend long hours over that final cup of coffee discussing the meaning of life, and how the latest German/French film meshed with the latest Peruvian/Estonian food in their gut.

You might expect them, therefore, to be adventurous in bed, as well. But there you would be wrong. Neither Michael nor Mia required anything other than an intimacy that reinforced their ties to each other, and gave them each the momentary limbic whoopie.

Mia was happy with her life.

6

“OK, kiddo, tell me about it.”

Stuart had wandered through town. He was writing a book about traveling with no itinerary. It seemed to be a way of turning his natural talents toward monetary good. He actually had a book contract and a deadline. He also had an editor with a whip. Literally. It wasn’t his thing, but he didn’t mind. Yes, they were living together, and no, she didn’t mind when Stuart left for weeks on end.

“What?”

“Michael.”

“It’s nice,” Mia said.

“Nice is for turnips,” he said. Mia didn’t know what that meant, and Stuart probably didn’t either.

7

“Tell me about Liz,” Mia said.

“She keeps me in line. After Helen left me, I knew I needed someone who would provide more structure. Liz is an editor; sometimes, I am a writer. It seemed like a match made in, well, maybe not heaven. Maybe a corporate lawyer’s office.”

He shuddered. The image gave him the willies.

“We have fun,” he said, although it sounded maybe a touch insincere when he said it, and also, beside the point.

“It’s interesting you should say that,” Mia said. “Because, I have a problem.”

8

“My Dear Mia,” the letter began. She was rereading it.

“I’m sorry about having come to see you. I feel I couldn’t say what I wanted to.

“Perhaps it is because when I see you it is like looking into a mirror.”

It was a letter from Dan. The first letter she had received in something like 20 years.

“I have trouble saying what I need to say, and it seems as if you do, too. It must be genetic. It is a trait no doubt handed down from your great grandmother, who everyone remembers said nothing at all when her house in Cincinnati burned down. I was just a kid then, but I remember her face never changed. Grandad fell apart; he was never the same. They lost everything. But Nannie stood there, in front of the fire and pulled her shawl around her shoulders and said nothing.

“What I wanted to say is that as I’ve gotten to be an old man, I’ve come to understand something about family that I never would have guessed. It is why I wanted so much to see you, even if we have almost no shared experience. It is that family matters.

“I don’t mean in the simple way, like your granny and pops used to tell me, when I was a kid, and the aunts and uncles would come back to the house after church on Sundays. I mean something with deeper roots. I mean your German and English forebears, the ‘long man’ of history, the single strand of DNA that has been forwarded from the past and you will pass on to the future.

“If you want to understand yourself, you need to know where that braid of amino acids came from, and why it is stuck in you. I couldn’t say these things to you; it would have sounded silly. But I can write them. Writing is a way of saying things you cannot speak.

“Since your grandmother’s family came from Germany, their past is lost, at least to me. I don’t even know what boat they came over on. But my dad’s family, your grandfather, came from England. I have traced their genealogies back. I have them back to 1621. Pop’s family goes from London back to York, so there’s probably some Scandinavian blood in there, too.Nana "Sam" Gerry Esther

“If you remember seeing the photographs of Granny when she was young, dressed like a flapper in the 1920s, you can see yourself, or at least, your nose and eyes. Your mouth rather favors my father’s side of the family. But there they are, showing up in your face. That gesture you use to express disdain — you used it to me when I visited — that is the same gesture my mother used to use when she was scolding me. It was a shock to see it reflected in your hands and arms.

“This is why I felt I had to see you. I know I haven’t been a father to you, but what I’ve come to realize is you cannot deny family. It is what I wanted to tell you; it’s what I’m trying to tell you now. And now, except for you, I have no family left. I am alone.

“I may have screwed up as a dad, but I have an interest in you. You are, after all, my way of projecting myself into the future, when I will no longer be there. You are also projecting Granny and Nannie, and everyone back to 1621. Each of us, while we are alive, is a pivot, a fulcrum, on which the past and future see-saw. Each of us is a root, growing from the dark past into the dark to come. A seed that becomes a plant that flowers and grows fruit that produce seeds again, over and over, one flower growing out of another, out of another and out of another. You are my flower.”

9

She woke up in the morning. The sheets were all crumpled. Bill was on his side with one arm up over his head, snoring. This is the time to look closely at your partner, to see if you really want him, with a bit of spittle drooling out of a corner of his mouth, the underarm hair bristling in the pit of the distended arm, the little grits of sleepsand in the angle of his eye. If he can stand this test, he might be worth keeping.

But Mia wasn’t sure. It wasn’t the drool she minded, or the stertorous breathing. Perhaps it was the sense she had that Bill made the assumption that he could stay the night without asking. That he presumed on their bed.
She got up, leaving him there, like a beached porpoise, and went to the kitchen, turned on the light, squinted her eyes still used to the dark of early morning, and turned on the kettle and reached for the instant coffee.

In two more days, she would turn 30.

To be continued

In the old days, novels were often serialized in magazines. This is a long short story, serialized in a blog. I don’t know how long it will go on. Like many of those earlier authors, the first parts were published before the conclusions were even written. Wish me luck.

Rumpled bed

PART ONE: EXTENDED FAMILY

1

He reached over her shoulder to the other side of the bed and turned the light back on.

She said, “What the hell was that?”

“Beats me,” he answered, with an edge to his nonchalance, “I’ll go check.”

She pulled her blouse back around her and began rebuttoning and he stood up slowly so as not to surprise any organs.

They heard it again. A sound like a slamming door downstairs. He had just gotten to the point he could pretend that they hadn’t really heard anything at all when the second noise came.

He moved slowly to the hall and tried to tiptoe while not letting his thighs get too close together. Another door slammed; this time it was a refrigerator followed by the pfft of a beer can being opened.

“Stuart? Is that you?” He tried to shake his aching scrotum into a looser part of his pants.

“Hey, Bob. You still up?” The downstairs light clicked on, drowning the scene. Stuart stood squinting in the kitchen door with a can of beer in one hand and a large stuffed animal in the other. He held up the bear, a parody female stuffed bear with furry boobs and blond rayon hair, and said, a little too loudly, “I brought this home for Mia. She can mate it with T-Boar …” T-Boar was Mia’s teddy bear and as obviously male, in Mia’s eyes, as this bear was female in Stuart’s. Mia was nine then. Her mother, buttoned up and walking down the stairs, was 32 and her relationship with Stuart was ambiguous. They were married.

Bob looked at Stuart and then at Esther and tried to figure out where he now stood. “I thought you were going to be gone for a week. What happened to the interview?”

He was about to blurt out, “It’s not what you think,” but it was.

“He died before I ever got there. It was in the papers.”

Stuart took another slug of his Bud. Bob waited for him to say something but he never did.

“Where’s Mia?” Stuart addressed Esther.

“She’s with Dan for the weekend.” Dan was Mia’s father.

Seemingly satisfied with the answer, but a bit disappointed, he dropped the bear on the table and asked, “Is there anything left to eat?”

“Some chili in the fridge. I’ll heat it up if you want.”

“Thanks, Muffin. I’ll do it myself.” Bob still said nothing. He thought it best not to press the matter.

A month later, he still hadn’t pressed the matter, but he had moved in. At first, Esther slept most nights with Stuart, but increasingly, she went to Bob’s room. It got to be something of a game, or rather a cross between a game and a social custom. Esther always went to bed first. Some nights, she walked toward the front of the house — good news for Bob — some nights, she walked toward the back bedroom and Bob would make a little grimace. Stuart never showed anything one way or the other, and that’s what finally decided the matter for Esther.

2

Stuart walked out of his bedroom early on Saturday, stretching his arms wildly, like he needed to yank himself from sleep. The clock said 5. He could hear Bob snoring in his room with Esther, but that made no impression on him. It was two months now since Esther had spent a full night with him, and he seemed to be getting used to it.

Downstairs in the kitchen, Stuart filled the coffeepot and stretched some lardy bacon rashers into a frypan. Outside, the yellow on the eastern horizon made a band in which the crescent moon was frying, spattering stars like grease across the night. Out of the rattle of refrigerator steerage, he pulled a carton of orange juice and poured a glass and downed it and poured another.

As he turned the bacon and counted out a couple of eggs, Mia walked into the room carrying the morning paper from the front steps.

“I didn’t hear you get up,” he said to Mia.

She didn’t say anything.

“No school today, is there?”

“No.”

“Want some breakfast?”

She sat down and pulled her legs up to her chest and held her knees against her face.

“We got bacon and eggs …”

“Why is Mama doing it?”

“… You like your coffee black?” Stuart tried to avoid the question.

“Doesn’t she like you anymore?”

“Mia, have some juice.”

“Bob is such a nerd.” Stuart wasn’t sure what to say. Bob was a nerd as far as he was concerned, but since Bob was likely to become Mia’s newest live-in father figure, he didn’t want to say anything prejudicial.

The two of them sat there in the kitchen and Stuart thought of how close he felt to Mia, how she always made him smile and how Bob now treated her. Bob had no use for kids. Bob looked forward to those weekends Mia spent with her father; Stuart dreaded them.

“Let me put some vodka in your juice; that’ll make you feel better,” he said. Mia turned her head to him and giggled.

We need to talk a little bit about Bob, because he will soon disappear from this story. He was six feet tall, with sandy hair and slightly wide hips. He walked with a swagger which Stuart thought was unearned. The part he played in Mia’s upbringing was negligible, except as a negative example. He was an accountant. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; many nice people are accountants.

But Bob was a very ordinary man. He paid his taxes and wore a white shirt and tie. This was for Esther the very soul of his attractiveness. But it was also the reason he would be out the door by the end of the year.

3

Stuart lifted up Esther’s arm and threw it over his shoulder.

She knew what he wanted and wrapped her other arm around his other shoulder and pulled his face in to hers and puffed lightly on his beard.

“Do you want a divorce?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I could just leave. Maybe check back in six months.”

“I don’t know.”

“Has Bob said anything?”

“Yeah, he wants me to kick you out.”

“Well?”

“Makes me want to kick him out.”

She started rubbing his back. He reached around her and began rubbing his thumbnail gently up and down the crease along her backbone.

“He thinks I should decide for him and leave you off. But I don’t know if I really want him.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I dunno … You’ve seen how hard he works, and have you ever heard him laugh? I mean, really laugh. Life isn’t all play and bumming around like it is for you. But maybe if he played a little.”

She let go of Stuart.

“You don’t sound very happy with either of us.”

“Maybe not,” she said.

“I still love you,” he said, regretting it instantly.

“What you say?”

“Well, I, uh … I, I still, uh, love mmm uh … you.”

“Why didn’t you say that months ago?” She smiled. Not at him, but just smiled.

“I didn’t want to, well, uh, influence you or …”

“Don’t be a shithead.”

Esther untied her bathrobe and shared with Stuart what he loved.

4

Mia never was too happy with the arrangement. Not that the adults argued: just the opposite. No one said anything and Mia didn’t know what to expect next. Stuart was her only adult friend and she felt in danger of losing him. Esther never talked about it.

Stuart didn’t either, but he was funny.

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

“They have names,” Mia said.

“Animals have names, too,” Stuart said.

“I don’t know,” she said, twisting her head back with a goofy sort of smile.

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

“Tools?”

“But some years later, Jane Goodall ruined that theory when she discovered chimpanzees poked sticks down termite nests to pull out a tasty gob of bugs to eat.”

“Oooo.”

“When I was in college, a stuffed shirt teacher told me that humans were the only animals that used language.

“But now, not only are some gorillas using sign language — and more articulately than many politicians — but scientists are striving to learn the languages of dolphins and whales.”

“Whales can talk?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What do they say?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, ‘Here I am, come get me,’ or ‘Haven’t I seen you here before?’

“And Honeybees dance to talk.”

Mia considered this bit of information while Stuart circled in for a landing at his main point.

“But there is something that humans do that nothing else in the universe, so far as we know, can duplicate.

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

“Sticks?”

“Look around you. There are sticks everywhere. Streetlights. Traffic signs. Mile markers.

“Go to the most godforsaken plain in North Dakota and you will see lines of fence poles stretching out to the horizons.

“We are a species mad about sticks.

“Flags on golf greens. Citronella poles in back yards. Surveyors’ stakes. Bean poles and tomato stakes. Crosses in front of churches. Maypoles.

“We can hardly play a game without plunging a pole into the ground: goal posts, foul poles, supports for basketball hoops and tennis nets. You can’t even play croquet without sticks in the ground.

“And it’s not just now I’m talking about. In the Bible, Aaron’s rod was stuck into the ground and sprouted. Sioux Indians had to place a pole in the ground for their Sun Dance. Hey, and digging sticks. Totem Poles. Prayer sticks…moon flag

“We travel 169,000 miles to the moon and what do we do? Plop down a flagpole and take our photo beside it.

“You can’t walk 30 yards in this town and not see some pole drilled into the dirt: street signs; business signs.

“We have turned our planet into a porcupine.”

Mia laughed. She liked to laugh at Stuart. She didn’t always know what he was talking about, but she knew he was funny.

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

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

Mia had her own theory.

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

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

5

“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“No,” said Mia.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck.

“But it isn’t always love that dies,” he said.

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” Mia asked. Now just in high school, she was reading Shakespeare.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” Mia wanted that possibility, perhaps because in her life, she had seen love die for her mother too many times. It shouldn’t be like that.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other or both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, Mia, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.”

“But Romeo didn’t have to die,” Mia said.

“Yes, he did,” Stuart thought Mia would have caught on. She is very bright. Gets good grades. Gets his jokes.

“Romeo didn’t have to die like he did,” he admitted, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart never saw a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the Bobs of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life. The sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that it is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” Mia made a sour face.

6

Esther now lived with Wayne. Wayne was an actor. Or thought he was. Bob didn’t last out the summer when Mia was nine. Bob was too dull for anyone.

It was a few months later that Esther found Will. Will was in real estate.

After Will, there was Ed, the cabbie, another Ed, the teacher, a second Bob, but he liked to be called Robert, and finally, Wayne.

Love died often for Esther. Mia never had time to settle comfortably with any of these unofficial stepfathers. Stuart remained the closest thing she had to a stable male influence in her short life, and that was pathetic, considering how unstable Stuart was.

He would take off for months at a time. Once for a whole year. Stuart tried other jobs, other cities. Nothing took.

He was back in town. He didn’t like Wayne any more than he liked the others. This time, he rented a duplex on the north side of town and got a job at the bookpacking warehouse. All day long, packing books in boxes and labeling them. Schoolbooks mostly. Sent to high schools. Junior College bookstores. Books weigh a lot. Stuart was in the best shape of his life.

Each night, after work, Stuart stopped in the tavern and had a beer. Or two. Some nights, he stopped by to see Mia. Sometimes to see Esther. Sometimes on weekends, he took Mia overnight so Esther could have some privacy with Wayne.

“Wanna beer?” he offered one to Mia when they got to his apartment. She giggled like she always did when offered something illicit. She knew Stuart was joking.

“You know, sometimes love doesn’t die soon enough,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Sometimes it seems to hang around long after it starts stinking.” She was thinking of Wayne. Of Bob, Ed, Ed and Robert. Even of Dan, who she now saw only once a year or so. Her biological father had moved to California, remarried and had two new children to take care of.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I just did.”

7

I suppose it’s time to bring up Mia’s grandmother. Esther’s mom.

One looks for a beginning, a cause.

Before every story, there is a long backstory. And after every story, there is an eternity of sequel.

Esther liked to think of her mom as the cause of her fragmented life. But we could look to her mom’s parents to find the cause of that, and to their parents to find their causes.

One of the lies of our belief that we are the protagonist in our own novel is that our story is just the crest of one wavelet in a very large ocean. It starts before we can find any records. It continues through us. We are only a conduit for something perpetual that flows through us, or through which we flow. One bead on a string. One button on a fly. The sum of all that went before us. And god knows what we cause in those that follow. All racing somewhere. The future? Meaning? Apocalypse? Entropy?

Ether’s mom lived happily with the same man for 57 years. Esther’s father didn’t live happily, but he hung on.garment district

Her name was Naomi. His was Morris. He was in the garment industry. He was a good provider. He was short, bald and wore wool suits. He was a lady’s man, although Naomi never knew about it. And he was a firm believer in the sanctity of marriage. Not, as you can see, in the sanctity of genitals, but in the contractual nature of marriages. It was a deal he made, and he was going to keep his word.

For Naomi, it meant she had a life of security — or felt she had — and it let her live a life so normal in its accessories and appurtenances, that she almost disappeared. For, to be normal is to be invisible. It is a fact of physics.

She disappeared in her lady’s club — always elected recording secretary — she disappeared in her PTA. She disappeared in her temple, in Hadassah.
She could be counted on to bring something to the covered dish supper, but no one could remember which dish was hers.

Morris spent all day on Third Avenue, keeping track of inventory. He took a short lunch, often at the Chinese buffet. And on those nights when he wasn’t “working late” and taking some other woman to a show, he came home, ate his pot roast, patted Esther on the head, asked her how her schoolwork was going, took the pocket watch out of his vest pocket and put it down on the dresser after winding it for the last time of the day, and kissed Naomi goodnight. On the forehead.

The magic of childhood is that we believe everything we encounter is normal. We can never know what life is like for others, and our own is the meter-stick we use to measure by. Esther believed the ritual rhythms of normality were those that beat in her home.

And she hated it. Hated every moment of it. She wanted drama. She wanted excitement. She wanted novelty. It never came.

Routine makes life navigable, but it puts no spice in the soup.

Esther didn’t know about her father’s alternate life, at least not until much later, after her mother was dead. She believed Morris and Naomi were the two most boring people on the skin of the planet.

8

In this tale, we decline to dig deeper into the strata, to find out what defined Naomi: Her parents’ life that was anything but normal, that ended for many of their family behind wire fences in Poland. Her parents had passed as Catholic in Vienna before the war, but got out as soon as they could see history’s great, steel-toed boot waiting to stomp.

We won’t go into that, or into the lives of their parents, who left Russia, or their parents, or the parents before them. We could ride that trolley all the way back to Eve, no doubt, with stops in Egypt and Babylon.

No, we’ll just stay with Naomi and her young Esther, longing for something more than macaroni and cheese.

9

Dan and EstherWhen Esther met Dan in college, she didn’t see macaroni. She saw sex.

It came over her like a caffeine rush.

Away from home, free to thumb her nose at normality, she found Dan and his arms, his eyes, his brains and his penis. Dan found his penis, too. When two young people discover their bodies together, it can be like a freight train. It was for them.

In the morning, in the evening. In the spring time, in between time.

It is another of the universe’s little jokes that the discovery of copulation fools its discoverers into believing they have found the path out of banality, into a world so alive, so exciting, that they alone are the possessors of it. Only they have penetrated the mysteries, only they can save the world from K marts and time cards. If they only recognized that everyone in the world feels and thinks exactly the same thing, they would see the joke in it. They don’t. The cosmos cannot allow it.

So, their two-backed globe spun like a top, spinning magic into their lives. Escaping Naomi, thought Esther — or rather, she didn’t think it so much as embody it.

And so, Esther and Dan got married.

10

We probably want to backtrack here a little to pick up Stuart. He is the other focus of this elliptical story.

Stuart never had a normal moment in his life and even if he did, he wouldn’t have recognized it as it passed. Stuart was the second of four brothers: His elder brother, Bernard, was a doctor. His youngest, Michael, was still in school, getting his third or fourth Ph.D. The fourth, was no longer there; Sam shot himself, holding a shotgun in his mouth and pulling the trigger with a thumb. Sam’s girlfriend had called Stuart first, so he became the one who had to handle it with the police, the funeral home — he had to phone his other brothers.

We don’t have time to get into it here, but Stuart wound up with his dead brother’s girlfriend for a while afterwards. That didn’t help.

Stuart did not share his surviving brothers’ drive for accomplishment. Stuart liked being “unstructured.” Being loose, unstuck. Aimless.

It was something of a syndrome with his generation. You could list those he went to college with. It makes dismal reading. There are success stories, but there are many tales of communes, co-ops and always further graduate work. It seems that Stuart’s class had a very hard time slipping into the mainstream of American life.

Raeford Bland on stiltsAnd the tales that don’t even make it to the alumni journal are even hair raising. Puddy Bigsby lived with a man 12 years her junior because she was afraid of getting old. Paula Wayne had two children from different fathers and then took up with a Puerto Rican silversmith near Philadelphia. JB went to England working for Scientology, dunning members for unpaid dues. David Janson nearly didn’t survive several bouts of hepatitis from rusty needles. Cathy Landermann lived with her man and several other couples in a shanty without heat or running water and made what little money she could from selling lemonade at rock concerts during intermissions. After going through eight or nine religions, Steve Winslow became a Roman Catholic and planned to take lay orders in the one remaining Latin-speaking brotherhood. Walter Formen became a Buddhist in Colorado and studied with the Rinpoche and Allen Ginsberg. Cathy Wagstaff drove a delivery truck for a feminist co-op in Seattle and pretended, none too successfully, to be a lesbian. Donald Sparrow drifted through a couple of terms in the Peace Corps, not knowing what to do after graduating. He drifted into a Masters degree and stayed on at Indiana University as an adjunct faculty member, grading correspondence course Spanish papers. Kathy Emerson had as many different jobs as Stuart had and became a part-time librarian, pretending, none too successfully, not to be a lesbian. She never even got her drivers license.

I could go on for pages naming people from a whole generation, and these people were not the dregs, but the best and the brightest of those years. They were all potential straight-A students.

There was Helen of Syracuse, Mary Staram of South Dakota, Judy Castleman of UNC-G. Doug Mason in Seattle riding a bicycle as a delivery boy and later as a part time sales clerk in a wine store, using his diploma from the University of Virginia as shelf paper. Michael Jones in Seattle changing jobs like underwear and lamenting that he could never stay with a woman more than six months. Robin Randleman changed from swing band dancer to floral arranger to half-time zoo keeper, living on a houseboat in the middle of the city, leaving her husband and searching for a replacement. She could never figure out what she was looking for. After a brief tryout, it wasn’t Stuart.

So, he was just one more molecule among many floating in brownian motion through the ’70s and into the ’80s.

When he met Esther, she had been divorced from Dan three years, and had a three-year-old child, Mia, who Esther wasn’t entirely sure what to do about.

Here, we should mention the odd tides in the universe that wash two such people together: She looking for somebody who wasn’t normal and finding her perfect match in Stuart; he, drifting into commitment because he didn’t recognize it as it approached him.

He knew he liked Mia.

11

“The world is filled with republicans,” Stuart said.

“That is, it is filled with republicans with a lowercase ‘r’ — they are the white-bread people. They make none of the art but buy most of it. They are those who never question socks, meatloaf or the existing world order. This has nothing to do with political parties. By my definition, Ted Kennedy is a republican. For that matter, so is Brezhnev.

“They are the men in the blue suits who turn the world gray.”

Stuart had begun once again. This time, it was for Esther, and Esther was buying.

“Those engaged in party politics cannot understand this. The recent fight between liberals and conservatives is only a parochial fight on a narrow issue between two groups that don’t really disagree much. It is like the vicious infighting between certain communist and socialist parties: They had rather kill their own over which end of the egg to crack.

“Jesse Helms and Jimmy Carter agree on almost everything; they are both the progeny of Plato, Aquinas, Tom Paine, the French Revolution, Horatio Alger and Lucy Ricardo. They both wear suits and ties. To my knowledge, neither has ever worn a fez (with the possible exception of Helms looking for votes at a Shriners’ convention).

“And ‘convention’ may be the operative word here. The horizon of the republican is very narrow, very conventional. Three squares a day, square rooms, square windows, square TV screens. From inside the culture, it can be very hard to see just how similar Carter and Helms are. We all swim in our culture like fish unaware of the water.

“But step outside and look back, and the squabbling becomes risible.

“Or tragic.

“From our position outside, we look at all the factions that turned Beirut into a concrete Swiss cheese and wonder, how could they shoot at each other? Can’t they see how they are all so much the same? We sure can’t tell them all apart, even with the help of McNeil and Lehrer.

“But to a Maldive Islander, Helms in his suit is the twin of Carter in his. They are both republicans.”

Was ever a woman with this humor wooed? Was ever a woman with this humor won?

Even Stuart must have realized that, for most people, this would be strange pillow talk. Esther wrapped her arms around Stuart’s right arm, holding on to it in bed as he held forth.

“That means they both tend to look at problems in the old ways, come up with old answers, even when dressing them in new words, and pretty much expect that the world they grew up in is the world they will send their grandchildren into.

“Good luck.

“When you are interested only in answers, as politicians are, you tend not to notice that the questions change.

“So when I hear a politician talking about ‘imaginative answers,’ I break out laughing. He should better search for imaginative questions. The answers usually take care of themselves.”

It was hard to know how much of this Stuart actually believed. He often rode a verbal jag like a surfer on a 12-foot wave, curling this way and that before either he or the wave gives out, or until he loses his balance and falls off.

“Is there any difference at all between blue eye shadow and Sioux war paint? Between pierced ears and pierced nipples? Why does anyone think one form is acceptable and another barbarism? Convention.

“The republicans say there is no virtue in being different just to be different. But I say there is. It is a sign of being alive.”

12

Mia is the perimeter around the two foci. We should look at her, too.

Born to two very bright parents, she wasn’t the mean of their IQs but the sum of them added together. Tall for her age, whatever age it was through her life, and slim, she learned before school how to read. She walked before she was two and she outgrew the Three Stooges by the time she was three.

Luckily for Mia, she didn’t know she was smart. She just thought — like all kids do — that she was normal.

She was too young to understand why her dad wasn’t there: At three, she just assumed a family had a mother and a child and a series of visiting men. She hadn’t really come to know Dan. Perhaps a psychologist would tell us she had been traumatized by the divorce, but Mia never felt it, if it were true.

And when her mom started bringing home this gangly, hairy man who told jokes all the time, she just assumed that’s how fathers were gathered by mothers.

To Be Continued