Monday, December 21, 2009

David Levine

(Note: I first write and posted this at the beginning of this year, but removed the post, since I felt it violated the artist's privacy. David Levine died on Tuesday. He was 83.)

I met him at the Museum of the City of New York. We sat next to each other in the small theater, where we had come to listen to Oliver in conversation with Jonathan Miller, a fundraising event for Glimmerglass Opera, where Jonathan has directed productions of La Traviata and Janácek's Jenufa. The man's daughter-in-law, Nancy, whom I'd spoken with at the cocktail reception, introduced us.

"And this is my father-in-law, David Levine."

"Not David Levine the caricaturist?" I said.

Indeed, the man whose pen and ink likenesses of famous authors and political figures have graced the pages of the New York Review of Books for the past thirty-five years. But the word "likeness" hardly does justice to Mr. Levine's work, since his caricatures (another word which, applied to his work, seems too limiting) do more than capture their subjects' looks; they snare them in a spider's web of crosshatchings, pin them to paper with crow quills, lash them to the white page like Ahab battened to his pale whale.

I was still in high school when I first came upon Levine's drawings. Aware of my own bent for caricature, a friend of my parents' gave me a book of his literary caricatures titled "Pens and Needles." For the next week I carried the book around with me, and copied Levine's portraits of Beckett, Joyce, Hemingway, and Poe. I tried all different kinds of pens, paper and ink; still, for the life of me, I couldn't duplicate his line, those cunning crosshatchings. They looked easy enough; scratch, scratch, scratch . . . ah, but they weren't so simple! Levine used his pen like a sculpture uses his chisel, an ink-stained Michaelangelo carving away at the stone to release not just the face or even the expression, but the personality entombed inside it.

Now here was the man, eighty-two years old. He looked, I thought, like one of his subjects; the hook nose, the chin melting seamlessly into what might have been a neck, the small worried mouth tucked into the shadow of the nose, the eyes small, wet and sad. I explained that I'd been a longtime fan of his work; that I had seen not just his caricatures, but his watercolors of Coney Island. "Such beautiful watercolors," I said. This, I could see, made him glad. Afterwards, when the event was over, I asked if I could send him something, an essay I'd written about my days as a caricaturist. He gave me his address. As he wrote it on the back of a card, his hand trembled; the writing was barely legible. I had to confirm it, later, through his stepdaughter.

* * *

A week later I got a call from Oliver. "David Levine has invited us to lunch at his place on New Years' Eve. Would you like to go?"

David lives in Brooklyn Heights. He's been living there for thirty-five years.A freezing day;the forecast called for snow. When we arrived in Oliver's hybrid the snow had already started. It took a half hour to find a parking space. We plunged into the icy headwind that greeted us on Montague Street. It was only a four block walk, but with the wind it felt like fifteen.

David lives in a grand, sprawling pre-war buildings, with his apartment every bit as grand and sprawling. We walked from room to room, with every parcel of wall space taken up by David's paintings—mostly small watercolors and oils in antique frames. "I'm a small-scale painter," he said while giving us the tour. His second wife, Kathy, took us aside one by one to give her own little tour. She showed me the paintings in their bedroom, portraits, mostly, and a painting of David's father in the tailor shop where he worked—a study in dusty browns and umbers raw and burnt. David's paintings, I noted, have an antique, anachronistic quality that makes them more than a match for the old frames he hangs them in. Someone unfamiliar with him and his work would have been hard pressed to guess that the works had been done in the late twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first.

David's apartment holds three studios, one for painting, one for watercolors, and one for the pen-and-ink caricatures for which he is famous. The painting studio is largest, with windows to the north and west. A large in-progress canvas—the biggest I would see that day—sat on an easel, a seascape with heroically posed figures jumbled together among breaking waves: a sort of Raft of the Medusa without the raft. Jittery black lines filigreed the paintings otherwise pale, ghostly surface. The lines—in charcoal—seemed to have been added lately, as an afterthought, by someone whose touch was far less sure than that of the man who had done the underlying brushwork. There was something desperate, something last-gasp like, about those black lines.

Leaning against one wall were dozens of old canvases—old enough so that the linen had been stretched using nails, not staples. These were traditional portraits in the style of the Robert Henri or the Barbizon school, with muddy backgrounds. I didn't think much of them; but as David himself explained they were apprentice works. Against another wall we found stacked portfolios filled with watercolors on paper, and these were much more exciting, more beach and Coney Island scenes, symmetrical compositions holding more amalgamated bathers in bright swimsuits, with striped umbrellas and chairs poking through here and there, paintings both somber and cheerful, filled with raucous life but also strangely static, the static quality reinforced by a low-key palette that imparted to a wide range of hues the dull yellow sheen of old varnish. All of David's paintings and watercolors have this aged look; as if the classicism of their subject matter and style weren't enough to render them anachronistic. I couldn't help thinking, "This man wants nothing to do with his time."

And yet David wants very much to be remembered as an artist of his time. As we passed into his caricature studio, where we perused one of several thick document boxes holding hundreds of numbered ink drawings, he posed the question. Without thinking I invoked Daumier, who like Levine was both a great caricaturist and a great painter, with one art form informing the other. This did not seem to please David, whose already drooping face dropped even further. "What's wrong with Daumier?" I said.

"You shouldn't wish me so well," said Levine.

At last we finished our tour. We spent an hour—I could have spent much longer, but unlike me Oliver's interest in two-dimensional art is limited; whereas I could have gone on forever asking David about pen nibs and kid-finish bristol vellum . . . By now the snow had laid a sheer white blanket over the rooftops of Brooklyn Heights, and Oliver was worried about getting home. We put on our coats and made our way against the icy wind to Montague Street, where, at a place called Teresa's, everyone ordered bowls of chicken soup.

While waiting for the soups I asked David to sign a small facsimile of one of his sketchbooks that he'd given me, which he did using one of Oliver's magic markers—a purple one. David's hand trembled as he signed, his face inches away from the notebook.

David has macular degeneration and is going blind. The man who drew a thousand caricatures for The New York Review of Books won't draw much longer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Train

I remember one locomotive, in black and white, smashing into another.At seven years old not something you forget. The moving image of those two trains colliding, the accelerated chuffings of one locomotive bearing down on another splayed across the tracks, a collision inevitable, imminent, and yet impossible: they're not really going to crash into each other, those two trains. And they do.

The first time I saw John Frankenheimer's "The Train" I must have been around seven years old. The screen I saw it on was that of a wooden, boxy Magnavox in the living room. Back then you saw movies in one of two places, in the theater when first released, or on television when and if one of the three or four networks broadcast them. If memory serves me, I saw it on Channel 9, WPIX, on The Million Dollar Movie (please don't check facts).

The title alone would have drawn me. What boy of seven (or six or eight...) isn't drawn to trains? By then I already had a Lionel train, the one my parents got me for Christmas, set up in the playroom downstairs: one locomotive and a circle of track set up on a table made from a large sheet of thick plywood laid across two saw horses. No houses, trees, buildings, nothing but the bare tracks and a transformer than hummed, grew warm, and gave off a dull, metallic odor when in use. It was enough. Down there, with my Lionel set, I could do with my train what I liked. I could make it go backwards. I could make it jump the tracks (all too easy to do); I could put things on the track for my train to crash into: a wooden box, a shoe, a Matchbox car.

The movie, starring Burt Lancaster, has a simple but stirring plot: at the close of World War II, an obsessed Nazi general, played to perfection by Paul Schofield, contrives to deliver a trainload of so-called "degenerate art"--contemporary masterpieces by Braque, Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir, ransacked from the Jeu de Paume--into Germany before the Allies close in. To achieve his goal Colonel von Waldheim commandeers a train and the services of LaBiche (Burt Lancaster), a railroad man who happens also to be a member of the French resistance with his own orders: to see to it that the train never arrives in Germany while also protecting it from allied bombers.

Adding great dimension to this simple premise is von Waldheim's passion for the paintings he has plundered. However "degenerate," he realizes their value not only in Reichmarks, but as art. He is in love with the paintings--so much so that he is willing to sacrifice many lives, including his own, to "own" them however vicariously and briefly. This equation pitting the value of art against that of humanity runs as deeply and thoroughly through the film as the chuffing refrain of locomotive engines, the staccato Maurice Jarré score, and the deep, depth-of-field black and white photography that gives each frame the quality of a Cartier-Bresson photograph.

"The Train" may be the first noir-action-war picture, one whose starkness is complemented by a plot of nearly pure action (man must stop train) such that the very minimal dialogue--much of it dubbed over the voices of French actors--is scarcely necessary. One thinks of Buster Keaton's "The General," with its similar plot and theme. "The Train" is the direct descendant of that 1927 silent comedy classic, harbinger of countless "chase scenes" and "action movies" to follow.

But when it was made in 1964, "The Train" did something that practically all action films made since have failed to do: it took its time. Instead of a lot of jump-shots and quick-cuts, we watch sensible action sequences played out in real-time. When Burt Lancaster rigs an explosion, we watch him prepare the detonation fuse, stripping the wires, twirling them into each other, and sinking them into the plastique, covering the fuse and explosive with ballast, then unspooling the wires to where he attaches them to the plunger contacts. The sequence takes minutes. The whole movie is filled with such painstaking processes. Blowing things up takes time (from today's films you wouldn't think so). There are no special effects. A rail yard is blown to bits--for real (in fact it was due to be demolished; Frankenheimer and his crew obliged.) A single short sequence where the train is strafed by a fighter plane cost as much to film in itself as the rest of the movie.

But the real beauty of "The Train" goes deeper than explosions and crashes. Through watching it, I got my first dose of culture. Art was no longer an abstraction. Something of great value was packed inside those wooden crates. All those locomotives chuffing and crashing, they served a high moral purpose. Spoiler alert: When it's all over, amid a sea of crated paintings and human carnage, the defeated General confronts his nemesis, LaBiche/Lancaster, who faces him with a loaded machine gun. "The paintings are mine," he claims. "They always will be; beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it! They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did." Lancaster looks at the paintings, then at the bodies, and then at the General. His machine gun answers for him. To my knowledge, the first act of verbal suicide on film.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wild, Wild West

Like most if not all boys I wanted to be a hero, and tuned in to the TV to see what latest models were available. There was one program, black and white at first, called The Wild, Wild West. Maybe you remember it?

Onto a western format, the series grafted a James Bond spy motif with science-fiction plots straight out of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, with a dash of rococo thrown in for good measure. The James Bond secret service hero, named—appropriately—James West, answered directly to President Grant while touring the nation in a glammed-up private railroad train with his sidekick, Artemus Gordon, man of a thousand disguises.

But James West—or Jim, as Arty and others called him—got the fights and the girls. With a combination of martial arts that included lots of kicking, double-hammers, and karate-chops, he could dispatch ten bad-guys at once, flinging them over balconies and out of windows like so many sacks of potatoes. As for the girls, he no sooner flashed them his devastating dimples than they swooned into his arms—often with a dagger or a derringer behind their backs, but that they never got to use: with nothing more than kiss Jim disarmed them.

How I wanted to be that guy. He wore tight gold vests that emphasized the V-shape of his fighter physique, and an equally tight bolero-style jacket and pants that looked painted on (and must have split dozens of times during those fight sequences). I wanted to wear tight clothes like that, and vests made of gold brocade with exploding buttons and knives concealed in secret pockets. I wanted a pair of black boots with triangular heels that opened up to hide exploding balls. I wanted a spring-loaded derringer up my sleeve and ten bad guys to beat up at once, starting with Bobby Mullin, the Catholic school bully who used to beat me up regularly at the bus stop for not believing in God.

But mostly I wanted girls to swoon into my arms, to be rendered paralytic by my dashing good looks—though I had no dimples, devastating or otherwise, and my hair was too curly, and my Italian eyes were too big and too brown, when they should have been squinted and blue. One makes allowances. I bought a pair of black cowboy boots, and had my mom sew me a chest-constricting brocade vest, and wore the tightest jeans I could squeeze into.

Jim West was played by actor Robert Conrad, a short, cocky, chisel-jawed jock, five-foot-eight if that. And that was one of his great appeals to us boys: he was like us, short; we could measure up to him. If he could stand up to a dozen bullies, we could stand a chance with the two or three assholes we had to contend with. He gave us all hope, Conrad/West did. When the series ended after four short years, Conrad went on to do a series of increasingly poor shows; his looks faded and with them his appeal: he was no great actor, never was. But the role of Jim West was his and none could have done it better. He countered Ross Martin (Artemus)'s hammy caricatures with a deadpan delivery that made him salt to Martin's pepper. Conrad did his own stunts, too.

Forty years later, Jim West still represents for me the definition of masculine beauty, strength, and style—an obsolete standard, to be sure, better suited to the black and white world, the world of Playboy clubs and cold wars, than to that of fundamentalist zealots and hardcore: a world that still believed, however ludicrously, in heroes, villains, and damsels in distress. And that by rights I (along with everyone else) should have long ago outgrown.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Spider's Web

Sometimes the mind goes as blank as the white page, as an empty glass, as a cloudless sky, as a spider's empty web.

I get up from my desk. I would pace, but there’s no room for pacing up here in my loft. So I walk down the stairs to the living room and wear out the strip of carpet behind the sofa. Since the house is small the kitchen is only a few steps from the sofa. I pace to the refrigerator, where I search inside for—what? Milk? Juice? Yesterday’s sauteed fillet of flounder? Salvation?

I take the orange juice out, pour and drink a splash, put it back. I don’t feel saved.

I linger awhile in the cold breath of the opened refrigerator, then close the door.

I turn to the windows, look at the lake. When in doubt there's always the lake. I put on my sandals (to keep the pinecones and needles from stabbing my feet) and head out the door. On second thought I should get my Speedo and towel. No, just go to the dock, I tell myself. Go stand there and think how lucky you are to be so completely empty in such a lovely place.

I walk down the sloping lawn over the pine needles. My sandals thump down the gray wooden boards. I check to see what latest webs my spider neighbors have spun. There’s a fresh one on the ladder. I tried to save the last one, but in climbing out of the water after a swim I forgot and ruined it, and felt terrible, until I reminded myself that spiders have nothing else to do but make webs. By ruining one I was keeping a spider employed. Is it the same spider, I wonder, that week after week keeps on building the same web across my dock ladder, the one I destroy each time I go for a swim?

It’s that guy again, the spider must say to himself, surveying the damage each time. That writer who lives in the A-frame. He can't write so and so he comes down here and destroys my work. His mind is blank, and he takes it out on my webs. Those who can’t create destroy, the spider thinks, and goes on weaving his latest web.

Today I won’t destroy your web, spider friend. Jealous though I am of your talent, of the perfection you achieve time and again in your designs, and also of your industry, your tenacity, your perseverance … you who never run out of webs to weave, who spin the most delicate and intricate yarns … while I sit at my desk spinning nothing but loose thoughts, weaving an empty web of words … You have nothing to fear from me. I won't ruin your creation. I’ll climb around the ladder and take some comfort in knowing that, though I made nothing today, I didn’t destroy anything, either.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The First Sip of Coffee

There are little things one lives for, and for me the first sip of coffee in the morning is one of them. Without my morning coffee to look forward to, I would still live, but it would be a muted, sorry, flavorless life.

I say "coffee" but to most people what I drink is espresso. In fact espresso is coffee, but in a form so vastly superior to what commonly goes by that name here and in the United Kingdom and in certain other deprived corners of the world, these places don't dare use that other name.

I once met a coffee expert, a man who traveled the globe sampling coffee in different countries, who did tastings and rated coffee for several coffee trade magazines, an interesting and articulate man. He kindly brewed me a cup of what he claimed was the world's finest coffee—no milk, no sugar—and had me taste it. It tasted good, but it didn't taste like coffee, not to me. And it was frankly less satisfying than the very simple espresso I brew in my cheap little aluminum Bialetti moka pot (by the way, aluminum does not cause brain damage; that's a tired old myth). When, as politely as possible, I said so to the coffee expert, the coffee expert replied, "Well, espresso is something else altogether." I agreed.

As for what they serve in Starbucks, don't get me started. Somehow—as difficult as it is to do so—they manage to make a bad espresso. Their American coffee is even worse. Just the smell is enough to depress me. Back in New York, if when walking down the sidewalk I came across a Starbucks, I'd cross the street just to get away from the smell.

I get up between six and seven. I'm a morning person. I dislike and even resent the hours between ten and dawn; they don't like me much, either. As far as I'm concerned those hours are good for insomnia and sleep. Usually, I get some of both.

Even when I sleep, I don't like it that much. In a movie, "Journey to the Center of the Earth," I think it was, once I heard a character describe sleep as "those little slices of death." What might be worse than death, though, is insomnia, which I suspect is more like being buried alive. It's enough to make you hate going to bed. When I do sleep I don't dream; anyway I don't remember my dreams. A few times a year sleep presents me with a dream fragment, which by the powers of my imagination I convert into a whole and satisfying dream. Otherwise sleep gives me nothing but oblivion, and not enough of that.

The only thing I get from sleep is my love of and gratitude for morning. Unlike most people, when morning comes I don't feel perturbed, resentful, annoyed, half-dead, or even groggy. I feel relief, like I've been rescued from an unpleasant chore or a form of passive torture.

I celebrate with a bowl of espresso and hot milk.

The moka pot comes in two parts. I unscrew them and fill the lower section with water up to its little nipple. Then I fill (but don't pack: loosely) the aluminum filter with fine-ground espresso coffee— it makes very little difference which brand, as far as I'm concerned. Then screw the halves together, put the pot on the stove with the heat high, and wait about five minutes—first it will gurgle, and then it will gurgle and hiss and splutter. Then it's done. So simple.

Add to piping hot milk, drink.

The Italians, who guzzle the stuff, call it by one word: caffelatte.

Translation: Good Morning!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Town of My Dreams

Sometimes at night, as I drift off to sleep, or when I can't sleep, I play a game with myself. I imagine that I'm in Bethel, Connecticut, my home town, circa 1965, when I was seven years old. I imagine myself walking down Greenwood Avenue, the town's main street, and into its stores as they were back then.

The object of the game is simple and it is this: to recall, as vividly as possible, the town I grew up in, as it exists in my earliest memories.

Bit by bit, store by store, I put together the town of my childhood, now of my dreams. I start with Tony's food market, at the north end of town where the main street climbs up a hill. I see the meat section there, and the mounds of ground beef that looked, to me as a child, like spaghetti. Tony Junior stands in his bloody white smock behind the meat counter, while his father, Tony Senior, works one of three cash registers, the one nearest the door. Tony Senior's hair has gone gray, but he's younger than Tony Junior today; younger than the man dreaming this now (Tony Senior has passed away).

From the meat department I go down the aisles one by one, seeing the cereal and oatmeal boxes, the stacked cans of soup, vegetables, and fruits, the frozen peas and lima beans and ice cream boxes in their freezers, the racks of spices and baby food, the bins holding oranges and peaches and other fresh produce, the pyramid-like stacks of tomatoes.

And it all makes me happy. Why?

From Tony's I head down to Noe's clothes store, where for years my mother outfitted my twin brother and me. As I step in the door I smell the blue jeans piled up on shelves, a deep, rich, cottony smell. I see Mr. Noe with his yellow tape measure behind the counter, and next to him a white-haired woman, I forget her name—but she's always there, with red lipstick and pinched face.

In the dream I see and even recognize some of these people, but they can't see me; I'm invisible. It makes me wonder. The ghosts whose presences we feel every so often, are they people like me lying in bed and dreaming in some future that I will never live to see? Will somebody somewhere someday dream up me?

I could name all the stores going all the way down the street: the hobby shop, with its glass cases and golden trains, Jerome's Five-and-Ten-Cent store, with its candy racks of Life Savers and Pez (and Mr. Jerome on crutches with white shirt), Nelson's hardware, Norton Jewelers, Elsa-Edna, the Booklet: the little white house where books were sold, and where I first fell in love with a book (called The Ship, packed with beautiful, full-color illustrations)....

When I dream my town this way, I always feel a sense of wonder and warmth: for the boy I was back then, and for the town that was so much a part of me it seems to have been one with my substance, and vice-versa.

Later, as I grew older and sophisticated, I would find things to complain about, how my town was boring, how small its minds were, how little it had to do with the world, how small, how drab, how provincial, how dreary—how the only hope it offered was that of escape.

Later still, my attitude would soften. As life in the big city dealt me blow after blow after blow, I would think back on my small-town past with a nostalgia as sweet and brown as honey, but that my occasional visits back home failed to support. In this alone I may have something in common with Samuel Johnson, who, in middle age, found the experience of returning to his childhood Litchfield less than satisfactory:
I found the streets much narrower and shorter than I thought I had left them, inhabited by a new race of people, to whom I was very little known. My play-fellows were grown old, and forced me to suspect that I was no longer young. My only remaining friend had changed his principles, and was become the tool of the predominant faction . . . I wandered about for five days, and took the first convenient opportunity of returning to a place, where, if there is not much happiness, there is at least such a diversity of good and evil, that slight vexations do not fix upon the heart.
If I were to return bodily to Bethel now, I too would find the town that I knew as a child gone, replaced by one vastly less charming. Now the only way back there is through my dreams.

Tonight, I'll go there again.

I never get tired of going.

Friday, September 4, 2009

And Baby Makes Me

Congratulate me.

In less than five months and for the first time I will be a father.

What does it mean? I don’t know, really. My sense is one of impending delight and doom. Before it was more doom, now it is mostly delight.

I did not plan to be a father; in fact for the first half-century of my life I successfully avoided it. My papa had me when he was forty-seven, and there were many times growing up when I felt he was too old, much too old. Papa was a lovely man, and even a great papa, but Papa was old. He wouldn't throw a baseball. He wouldn't throw a football. He wouldn't throw any kind of ball. He wouldn't jump in the water like all the other fathers. "Jump, Papa, jump!" I'd scream at him, to no avail. "I can't; I'm too old," he'd say as he entered slowly, wincingly, massaging palmfuls of water over his pale, sagging chest. Too old: those two words rang in my young boy's head like the tolling of a doomed, cracked bell. I would never inflict my old age on a child. Never.

I am fifty-two, five years older than my papa when he had me.

I have passed through all the initial stages: shock, horror, denial, anger, grief, resignation. I am somewhere now (I believe) between acceptance and joy, much closer to happiness than to its opposite, but having yet to arrive there—not quite. I am told that, until the moment comes, it’s impossible to second-guess or even to imagine how I'll feel. That's the thing that frightens and worries me most: what if I don’t feel what I should? What if I’m not overwhelmed with paternal joy? What if I don't fall in love with being a father?

Yesterday Jung, the mother of our child-to-be, sent me by email two sonogram images from her most recent visit to the Shawnee Women’s Health Center in Carbondale, Illinois, where she has gone to obtain her master’s degree in poetry. Two small, grainy, blurry, black and white images, one showing a pair of tiny arms with even tinier hands, the other a very round head with distinct features—a nose, mouth, eyes, ear, the works (we both concur that these features are patently Italian, and that pasta dishes will be the order for the day for years to come).

My daughter, I say to myself, looking at it. This is my daughter. Audrey (the name we’ve chosen). This is my daughter Audrey. My daughter, my daughter, my daughter. No matter how many times I say them to myself, the words don’t seem any more real to me than the picture. It must be a mistake; it must be someone else’s fetus I’m looking at. For me to be a father is impossible.

That last thought, of course, is a carryover from the last few decades. For all those years it really was impossible for me to be a father, otherwise I would probably have become one. It was impossible because I was too immature, too selfish, too frightened, and too hungry and even desperate to establish my own presence in the world—through words, through song, through novels and stories, by any means available to me (and some not so available), to even consider being responsible for a presence other than my own. Instead I gave birth to works on paper, I scattered my seed in the forms of words and sentences, I spread it over surfaces in acrylics and oils and watercolors. I did my best in my own way to procreate. And I was prolific.

Where are the fruits of all those scattered seeds? Filing file cabinet drawers and flat files, mostly. No, that isn’t fair; my works have been read and appreciated. But still, something was missing, or I was missing something.

I remember, back when I had just graduated from Bethel High School, a classmate of mine also named Peter, Peter Smith, a very bright, very athletic guy, and the first of any of my friends to marry and have a child, which he did that year ... I remember him saying to me, apropos my art and his fresh fatherhood, “Pete,” he said, “I know you’ve written lots of stories and made lots of great pictures, but I gotta tell you, man, until you’ve held your own child in your hands and felt its heart beat and heard it breathing, you’ll never know the meaning of creation.”

For that remark I would resent Peter Smith for many years to come, thinking: who was he to say what I would or would never know? But even then I had the sneaky suspicion that he was right.

Come January I’ll know for sure.

At least it's a girl. I won't have to throw too many balls.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Stained Waters

“…the waters stained yellow by sunscreen and human flesh.”

Who’d have guessed that such a line would ignite a debate?

For more than half an hour we debated the merits and drawbacks of that one phrase, the eight students of my Advanced Fiction Workshop and I.

It started as such debates always start, with a student singling out a phrase or sentence for praise or damnation. This time the student was Sheila, and the first volley consisted of praise. I asked her to specify.

“I like the rhythms of the sentence, and the vivid image it summons of a crowded public beach.”

Others, though not everyone, agreed.

Now my turn to play devil’s advocate. “But do you really see YELLOW water? Do you WANT to see yellow water? What sort of a public beach are we talking about here, one along the Ganges? Does sunscreen really stain water? Does it stain it yellow? If so, how much sunscreen is required to stain a whole beach?”

Sheila objected. “We’re writing fiction here!”

“So?”

“As a reader I know exactly what the author means,” Richard, another of my students, said.

“What does the author mean?”

“He means that the water seemed to be stained yellow with sunscreen.”

“If that’s what he meant, why didn’t he say so?”

“But that IS what he said?”

“No, he said the waters are stained yellow, not that they seem that way.”

“What’s the difference?”

“The difference is that one statement is true, and the other is false.”

“So,” said Sheila, “if TJ had written, ‘...the waters seemed to be stained yellow by sunscreen and human flesh’ that would be okay?”

“That would be a solution, though not a great one.”

“Why not?” asked Warren.

“Because ‘seemed to’ is a wishy-washy cop-out. Why say what something seems like when you can say what it really is?”

Heads shaken.

“But how do you know the original statement is false?” Sheila again. “How do you know the waters weren’t stained yellow?”

“You’re right,” I said. “I don’t know. But I’m not convinced. In fact I have serious doubts. I have never seen a public beach stained yellow by sunscreen, or by anything else, for that matter. Nor have I ever seen water stained by human flesh.”

“But I think he’s talking about the water being ‘stained’ by the reflections of human flesh,” said Gwen, who usually stays out of these things.

“Then maybe he should have said so, in that case.”

“But it’s implied," Warren said with a gotcha look on his face. "You’re always saying, ‘Don’t state what you can imply.’ Aren’t you always saying that?”

“On the contrary, he’s not implying that the waters are figuratively stained with reflections of flesh. He’s stating that they are stained with flesh.”

“The implication is implied!”

“A fact was stated—an inaccurate and unconvincing fact, in my opinion—and yours, apparently, since you feel the need to convert it into a figurative statement. But it shouldn’t be the reader's job to make such conversions.”

“Why not?” asked Sheila.

“Because in the moment in which such conversions are made, the action of the story, however briefly, is frozen, stopped; as readers we are no longer having the experience described; instead, we are pressed into service as editors, doing damage control, however subliminal.”

“You’re crazy,” Warren concluded not for the first time.

“Maybe so.”

At this point TJ, the author, spoke up. “I was at that beach. The water had a yellow tinge. I asked a lifeguard about it. The lifeguard said the yellow tinge was from sunscreen washed off of people’s bodies.”

Warren smirked. Sheila smiled. Looks of satisfaction spread around the conference table, as they usually do when I am made to eat my pedantic words.

“So, Professor,” said Sheila, “now what do you think of the line?” (Note: if and when my students elect to call me "Professor" it's usually with a touch of sarcasm, to indicate that I'm being an ass.)

“If the description is factually true, then the author is completely right to insist on such a phrase, since, though it may raise doubts like mine, it's nevertheless accurate.”

Warren: “Are you saying that it’s okay to write something no one will believe, as long as it’s true?”

“I’m saying the author is within his rights in doing so. That doesn’t necessarily make it a wise decision, but it makes it a justifiable one. And one could argue, too, that in describing water stained yellow by sunscreen the author is telling us something about the world that we—or at least I—didn’t know. That’s worth something.”

“Yes,” said Tom, who'd made a valiant effort to shut up until now. “But you didn’t believe it!”

“Now I do," I said.

Sheila looked exasperated. So did everyone. Eight pairs of eyes rolling. Since throwing marbles as a kid I'd never seen so many bright shiny objects revolving.

“Let me explain. First, if I were reading this story, say, as published in the pages of the New Yorker, or a literary journal, with that phrase in it, certain things would be true that are not true here, now. First, the story would, presumably, be working well as a whole (it isn't now). By the mere fact of its being published my confidence in the author would be preordained, so to speak, and would only grow as confirmed by my reading. By the time I reached that phrase in the story, assuming all has gone well up till then, my confidence in the author’s authority being by then well-established, I would surrender any and probably all doubt and immerse myself—if not luxuriate in—those yellow-stained waters.

"That isn’t the situation we find ourselves in here. No such authority has been earned. By telling us that the description in question is indeed based on fact, the author has won the right to stick by his guns: here, now, in this room, among us, his peers. However, he still faces the problem of authenticity—or of the appearance of authenticity—with readers not privileged by his immediate presence and attendant charm, good-looks, etc., and to whom he can present his case and make his explanations apart from the text in question. In other words, once the rest of his story works, when it is convincing as a whole, then his earned authority will buy him yellow-stained beaches and whatever else it can afford. Until then, TJ can’t get away with it—or he can, but in a limited way, with a few readers, and that's not good enough."

"So what should TJ do?" asked Tom.

"If this were my story, and that were my phrase to tinker with, the solution, for now, for me, would be to cut the word ‘yellow’ and add the word ‘reflected’ and write:

‘...the waters stained by sunscreen and reflected human flesh.’ ”

There were those in the room who didn't agree. But no one said a word. But then they'd had enough of me and my pompous sophistry, and you have, too.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Path of Words

The other day a student of mine stopped by my office. She was disturbed. She had been trying to write, she said, and failing. “I just can’t seem to find the right words,” she said. This student, an undergraduate, can’t be more than nineteen or twenty years old. She said every morning she sits down with her coffee and notebook, only to end up gazing off into space for an hour, and maybe scribbling a few lines that she crosses out. It’s been going on that way now for at least three weeks, she confessed to me.

At some point in her or his career almost every writer goes through something like this. We call it “writers block” and there have been all kinds of articles and books written about it. But my student’s plight was more specific. She is, after all, just beginning her journey as a writer; she has no “career” yet, to speak of. She is still in her apprenticeship, and just beginning that.

So we talked for a bit, and this is what I had to say:

Think of your writing life as a journey, I said. You’re on a road or a path—a long and (we know) an often bumpy or otherwise difficult road toward the goal of becoming an accomplished and maybe even a wonderful writer. But that long path or road isn’t paved with asphalt or dirt. It’s made of words. The goal is there in the distance—none of us know how far, exactly. But to get to it you know this: that you must traverse so many words.

Let us say that to reach your goal you have to “walk” a million words. Does it matter, really, what words they are, or even what order they are arranged in—any more than it matters what any road we take to get anywhere is made of, knowing that’s the only road? When we have a journey to take, and when the path is known and clear, however rocky, do we stop and question the quality of the passageway? Do we let the fact that there are bumps or potholes or fallen trees blocking the way stop us, or throw us off the path?

No: we walk around or over the obstacle. If necessary we beat a detour through the woods. But we keep going. Because the point is not to repave the road, but to walk down it to get where we must go, to get over the first million words.

This is why, especially when starting out to write, it’s probably not such a good idea to think in terms of expectations or standards or results, or to even think about, for instance, the quality of the sentences that we write, of how “good we are” or how well we are writing. The thing to do is to write, to see ourselves as voyagers on a path made up of words, and to proceed—not without effort, shamelessly or thoughtlessly, but again without putting too much emphasis on the quality of the road. To proceed not beautifully, or swiftly: but sincerely, with determination, keeping in mind your goal. And the only way to that goal is by way of so many sincere but imperfect words.

After you’ve journeyed across a million words, what if you still haven’t arrived, what if your goal still hasn’t been met?

Then you keep walking. Across the next million words. And the next. All the while knowing that each word brings you closer to your goal, and that you are willing to walk forever, to cross as many words, good and bad, as necessary, as long as it gets you where you are going.

The path through life may be everything; the end nothing. But with writing the opposite may be true. The path is nothing—nothing but a bunch of words to be gotten over. And no, the end isn't all.

But at least it's a start.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dissonant Music

Music—the literal music of singers and instruments—but also the music of words as conveyed through Joyce’s writing itself, plays a key role in his long story, “The Dead.” Music is referenced throughout the story, beginning in the first paragraph where the “wheezy doorbell” clangs, a harsh and already dissonant note foreshadowing dissonance to come. A page and a paragraph later we learn that Mary Jane had “had an organ in Hadington Road” and that she gives concerts every year. Aunt Julia is a soprano, and her older and more feeble sister, Kate, gives music lessons “to beginners on the old square piano in the back room.” The event in preparation is billed as an annual dance, but clearly music lies at its core.

Metaphorically, on page two, Joyce sounds two more dissonant notes (if one counts the clanging doorbell as the first). These are expressed by the aunts’ distress over the tardiness of two of their guests, Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta, and over the possibility that another guest, Freddy Malins, will turn up “screwed.” The first fear is quickly put to rest as the Conroy’s arrive, with Gabriel “scraping snow from his galoshes.” The first mention of snow arrives with its own special dissonance. That, like music, snow is to play a key metaphorical role in the story is made clear by Lily’s stating portentously, “I think we’re in for a night of it”—words that could be applied with equal accuracy to the snow, to music, or to other, darker things. No sooner does Lily speak these words than Gabriel, fresh out of his overcoat, looks up at the ceiling shaking with the stampings and shuffles of other guests’ feet, and hears the muted piano notes drifting down (like the snowflakes later), and casts the first of many glances at his wife, who already seems distanced from him—a glance that sounds it own dissonant note here, however muted like the piano notes from above.

In describing Gabriel, Joyce notes that his eyeglass lenses and frames “scintillated” restlessly on his hairless face: another musical reference. Having rather condescendingly tipped Lily, and been subtly rebuked by him, he makes his way to the threshold of the drawing room, where while waiting for the waltz to end he listens to the music of the dancers’ swishing skirts. As he waits, he muddles over a quote for his speech, concerned (again condescendingly) that he may choose something over his listeners’ heads, that he “would fail with them just as he had with the girl in the pantry.” Now the dissonance is borne of the clash of classes. Gabriel feels superior, but his superiority renders him insecure. Presently the two aunts arrive, with Aunt Julia, the elder, drawn and gray and her younger sister “all pucker and creases,” a “shriveling red apple.” It’s hard not to see the sisters as variations on a theme of living death, with Gabriel “their favorite nephew.”

On the next page, discussing his wife, Gabriel says, “she’ll walk home in the snow if she were let.” The foreshadowing here is clear when we reach the story’s end, by which time the falling snow and Greta’s dead and buried lover have been thoroughly linked—and she does indeed “walk home” with him—in fact she will go to bed with him, at least in Gabriel mind. But for now Greta lets out a “peal” of laughter, and all join her, and the talk turns to galoshes.

The story’s next movement sees Freddy Malin’s arrival, delivering its promised comical dissonance. A break follows in the wake of his “bronchitic” laughter, and then we have Gabriel unable to listen to Mary Jane’s academic playing which has “no melody for him.” Mr. Conroy has little tolerance for dissonance, whether in music or in his own marriage. As he listens, or tries not to, his eyes wander to a picture of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, with the perfect harmony of their death-united love contrasting sharply and ironically with events to follow later in the story.

The next note of dissonance is struck on page 188 (Penguin edition) when Gabriel is taken to task by Miss Ivors for having written a book review for The Daily Express, “a rag,” as she calls it. Gabriel, unwilling to risk a highbrow or haughty response, tries to smile and murmur his way out of it. But he is clearly caught off guard and disarmed and made to feel ill at ease. Miss Ivors then takes his hand and changes the subject, inviting him and his wife on an excursion of the Aran Isles, which offer he fends off, betraying his lack of patriotism—in fact, he is above such sentiments, and even admits to being “sick of my own country”—a confession that sounds a dissonant note indeed, and leaves its speaker hot with emotion. To sublimate his agitation, Gabriel joins a dance in progress, avoiding Miss Ivor’s eyes and the sour look on her face. But he can’t escape her when she boldly calls him a “West Briton.” If this hasn’t spoiled the party for him, what could?

The dissonance is this confrontation with Miss Ivors is born again in the scene between Gabriel and his wife later, when Gretta urges him to take the trip, and he responds, coldly, “You can go, if you like,” adding yet more distance between himself and the person supposedly closest to him. Things are getting very cold around Gabriel. Now begins his steady withdrawal, which will deepen and darken. He retires to the window to prepare for his speech, thinking “how cool it must be outside,” and wishing, in a paragraph that will be recalled almost verbatim at the story’s close, that he were “out there” alone in the falling snow and not at the dance party: he will be.

He is called out of his musings when Aunt Julia takes her place at the piano to play Arrayed for the Bridal, another set-up toward the story’s climax. In the wake of her singing Gabriel applauds loudly, but only to achieve the excitement and escape of “swift and secure flight.” He doesn’t want to be there. By now his very presence sounds a harsh, dissonant note within himself and in the story as a whole. Meanwhile others—including the drunken Freddy Malins—agree that Aunt Julia’s voice has improved greatly as memories of her youthful promise are rekindled, and the refrain of distant or lost music (grace) is heard not for the first time, or the last: the refrain will haunt the rest of the story.

Miss Ivor’s exits laughing—a laugh that Gabriel can’t help feeling is somehow at his expense. To break free of its implications, he applies himself boldly to the task of carving the goose, plunging the carving knife firmly into its fatty flesh (need we guess where the laughing Miss Ivor’s has gone?). With Miss Ivors symbolically slices to pieces Gabriel’s mood improves considerably, to where he is even fit to make jokes about stuffing. Gabriel resists both literal sweets and those of small talk; he sits at the head of the table literally and figuratively, placing himself above others. The divide reasserts itself as the theme of death rises to the fore, with the monks sleeping in coffins so as to remind themselves “of their last end.” The association between bedrooms and death will, too, have its pay-off in the final episode. Death has sounded its first dithering, dissonant chord. With it still resonating Gabriel, his fingers trembling on the tablecloth, looks up to the chandelier, hearing a waltz played again on the piano, drifting once again mentally outdoors to where the air is “pure” and the snow continues to fall. Here, too, the final paragraph is telegraphed (at the top of page 202), with a mention of the park and the trees “weighted with snow.” The music Gabriel hears is no longer simply that of the waltz, but the haunting music of the falling snow, the waltz of death.

It’s time for Gabriel’s speech. It’s a haughty, reactionary speech, one that harks back to the old days and summonses the memories of the dead, the “gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die,” words that will certainly ring true for him later, if they don’t as he speaks them. Joyce pays careful attention to the cadences and intonation of the speaker, whose voice is described as “falling into a softer inflection”—using the words “falling” and “softer” that will echo in the final paragraph. Gabriel promises not to “linger in the past”—a promise soon to be broken. The speech concludes with a volley of stentorian acclamations and requisite toastmaster puffery, with Freddy Malins the fool with fork. His speech—however unctuous— has served its purpose, gluing Gabriel back to “his people.” He tells the story of the mill owner, Johnny, and his horse, arousing laughter, ending the evening, as far as the dance party goes, in good form. Now all he needs to do is get his wife back to their room. Before leaving he catches a glimpse of Gretta listening to Mr. D’Arcy sing The Lass of Aughrim, and a “sudden tide of joy” leaps out of his heart, a joy to be crushed later when he learns about the boy whom she first heard sing that same song, and a pleasing melody turns again to dissonance. From there everyone knows where the story goes, falling faintly and faintly falling, toward its final, deadly glissando.

Truth & Delight

Among the least pleasant chores of a writing teacher: dissuading his students of the notion that what sounds good in a piece of writing is, necessarily, good. It's the part of my job that I most dread and dislike, the part where I'm forced to play bad cop opposite a dozen good cops who reply, "but I liked it!" Yes, yes, I say. I know you liked it. But it doesn't mean anything, and it's not true (which is why it means nothing).

Inexperienced writers, especially young ones, sacrifice meaning for effect. Sound and sense are divided—or anyway not faithfully joined. And so for them it's possible for something to "sound good" even when what is being said lacks rigor, precision, or truth.

Having once been a young writer myself, I was no exception to this rule. I fell in love with words not for their meanings but for their shapes and their sounds. Like all healthy young people, I was a sensualist, a glutton for whatever tickled and otherwise amused or delighted my senses, for things sharp, bold, bright, dazzling, smooth, saucy, bitter, sweet, for colors and smells and surfaces. I cared little about what lay hidden and invisible under the words, for their precise meanings and implications. The depths would come later; meaning could wait. Life offered too many sensual delights and pleasures on its surfaces to bother about hidden things.

This was how I felt, and I think it's not unusual for young people to feel this way. The words "truth" and "meaning" weigh too onerously on young hearts and minds. They imply drudgery, duty and grimness, and other things antithetical to youth, to pleasure and delight: i.e. no fun at all. What's the meaning of a song or a dance? What is rigorous or "true" about shapes, or colors? Life is all about experience, sensation. Those are the things that matter. Meaning is something ugly, dry, and dusty, a chalk board eraser thrown at you by the likewise dusty schoolmarm as you daydream, her smile pinched, her hair pulled into a severe bun.

I still remember the poems I wrote when I was in my early twenties, when I'd just started writing, verses aggressively void of meaning, but that tickled my senses with their word play and fancy rhythms. Sat upon the way vast upon deep beyond the tree wide and wind . . . That sort of stuff. I wrote oodles of it, tickled by the sound of my own voice (or what I then thought was my own voice; in fact a distorted echo of Hopkins and other poets). I remember at Bard College showing a sheaf of these poems to poet Robert Kelly, who back then weighed a good three-hundred and fifty pounds, so enormous he couldn't walk without a cane. He gave them a quick perusal and then pronounced, with a sigh, "I find your poems arbitrary in every way." He didn't give a damn what my poems sounded like. He didn't recognize anything in them apart from what they meant—or what they failed to mean. Back then I considered his verdict harsh, cruel, even. Now, thirty years later, I consider it just, and most generous. (I feel similarly toward Frank Conroy, who in a summer workshop threw a story of mine over his shoulder for using the word "preponderance.")

And now I find myself in the role of the "veteran" author insisting upon the very qualities that I myself resisted at your age, on "rigor" and "meaning" and "truth" and "authenticity." And I ask myself: do you really want to do this, Peter? Do you really want to devote your days to dampening the still-fresh-as-wet-paint enthusiasms of these talented young people with your fogey values? What good will come of it? Why not shut up and leave them to their fun?

Then I remind myself: these are not ordinary young people dabbling in their diaries. These are young people who want to learn to be good writers, young people serious about the craft of writing.

Let me put myself in their shoes. Let me ask myself, at their age, would I have preferred to wait, say, ten or fifteen years to discover the things that it would indeed take me ten or fifteen years to discover—namely that, though the immediate thrill of a sentence may be found in its texture, its shape, its sounds, still, that pleasure is transitory, lasting only as long as the sentence tickles us, as it takes to taste and swallow a bite of food, whereas the pleasure of meaning and significance and of the sentence's crucial contribution to the whole, to the singular effect of the entire work of art, will (hopefully) resonate—not just for a moment, but for hours or days, or, if the work is truly inspired, will lodge itself in the readers' mind for the rest of his or her life.

When we swallow food, we notice taste and texture first. But what stays with us is the substance, provided there is any substance. The poems I wrote in my youth were cotton candy; no sooner did you taste them than they disappeared. Like eating sweet air. Bob Kelly was right: they had no value. To be good for us, to have value and permanence, words need not be tasteless; words can both delight and mean at the same time. To be any good they must.
The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild, warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets. The streets shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily colored crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging, unceasing murmur.
Meaning and sensual delight go hand in hand. But they won’t go hand in hand unless we exercise rigor, and resist mere seduction by surface effects.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Lake Loves Me

Sometimes the lake is white, sometimes gray, sometimes blue. Sometimes it mixes those colors. Today the lake is blue-gray. I sit there now, on the dock, with my striped drawstring pants rolled and my feet in the water. (If I could sit on the water I would.) As I sit, a heron—the same gray as the water—soars by, skimming the lake's wrinkled skin. It lands on a neighbor's dock.

When I cannot write, when I have nothing to say, when all of the books on the shelves have been read and often twice, when there is nothing to snack on in the refrigerator, when I've already had my quota of coffee, when it's too early or I don't feel like having a drink, when I have reached my saturation point with NPR and cannot take another note of Bach or Glenn Gould, then the thing to do, the only thing to do, is to walk down to the lake.

That's what I do here, mostly, in my new home: I go to the lake. First thing in the morning, when the day is barely lit, I put on my bathing suit, my dinky rotting Speedo, grab the gray-blue towel (the same color usually as the lake and as the blue heron that soared to my neighbor's dock) and make my way in bare feet down the sharp pine-needle covered lawn that slopes down past an overturned aluminum canoe and dilapidated picnic table to the dock.

The morning and the evening, dawn and dusk: those are my two favorite times to visit the lake. But also in the afternoon, when it's terribly hot. When I'm sad, lonely, depressed, worried, eager, anxious, confused, frightened, happy, or simply and totally at a loss: those are all good times for a visit with my watery friend.

This morning the lake wears a mantle of gray clouds. On the far shore somewhere a dog barks. Sounds: waves lapping, water slurping, bubbles breaking. A motorboat in the distance. Trees rustle. The wind sings into my ears while rubbing my shoulders.

Usually I get in the water. I swim. To the opposite point of land and back. Or around the point where I live, to the right or to the left—either way is fine. I count the neighbors' boathouses and docks that I pass. Six docks makes for a decent swim. I never see my neighbors. Their houses look abandoned. Their boats hang unused from gantries. Their lawns are manicured and their docks are sturdy, but cobwebs droop from ladder to post, from rudder to propeller.

The ghosts wave to me as I swim past.

In three weeks here I have seen only one neighbor. She was out watering some plants. I walked to and introduced myself. We made small talk. About the weather. About the water in the lake. It's such beautiful water, I said. Very clean, I said. Supposed to be the cleanest lake in Georgia.

Is it? said the woman.

That's what I read on the Internet.

Oh, the woman said. Really? I didn't know that.

That's what I read.

Oh.

One day I heard the rasp of lawnmowers in my yard and went out to inspect. An elderly man sat on a rumbling lawn tractor. He introduced himself as "Old Man Howard." We chatted for a bit. When our chat was over Howard said, "Why you're just the nicest person I've met in a long time. I meet a lot of folks, and you're one of the nicest. I'm so glad you're living here."

And yesterday morning the postman knocked on my door. I'd forgotten to put a return address on a parcel I left for pickup in the box. We spoke for a few minutes. Robert, his name. Said he's pushing sixty and thinking of retirement. Doesn't really want to retire. Said that the average life expectancy of men after they retire is twenty-four months. Imagine that? he said. Said his father has just been diagnosed with colon cancer. "He's eighty five," Robert said.

I asked if he'd pull through.

"Oh, yeah. They'll cut out a piece 'bout this big." Robert showed me. "But you know, eighty-five, it's not one thing it's another."

I am glad for these encounters, but more glad for being alone with my lake. It's a good thing I didn't take a place in town. I'd feel landlocked; I'd feel lost. For all the people who'd surround me, I'd feel more, not less, lonesome. Oh, yes, I do still feel lonely at times. I miss my girl, my friends, the people I've known who've been good to me for years. And I have regrets that just won't leave me alone, too many to even list here. In fifty-two years I've made some terrible mistakes, with more to come. Like Mr. Wright on his hammock, I, too, have wasted my life.

But when I am with my lake I feel none of those things. I sit on the dock and look at the water, and I am comforted. My lake loves me. It forgives me. Better still, it will not desert or abandon me. It understands me. I sit there with my feet touching the water, waiting for the heron to take off from my neighbor's dock, thinking that moments like these have an important lesson to teach: namely that of doing nothing.

I think the problem with life, one of the problems (if I may generalize boldly) is that too many things happen. If we could prevent things from happening, or anyway, if we would all, each of us, try from time to time to do our best to make nothing happen, then I say on the whole things would improve. What the world needs—what we all need—is a place in which to do nothing, a place where doing nothing is not only allowed, but is the only thing that makes sense.

I have found such a place here, with my lake. I can't meditate. At all enlightened acts I am an abysmal failure. But I know how to sit with my lake doing nothing, or maybe just swimming (which is doing nothing in motion). For all my ambitions and hopes and failures and deeds worthy or noble, this sitting by the lake feels as worthy and noble as anything. It's my way of paying tribute, I guess: to love, to life—to god, if you like.

It is the only form of worship that I know and trust.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How to Love Yourself

To love yourself it is not necessary to be tall, beautiful, buxom (or muscular), to have strong features or good hair. All of these things, however recommended, are not necessary. Although on the whole to love yourself it is better to be a woman, on occasion men have been known to do it; I have seen them. (That said, sightings of men who loves themselves realistically, despite or even against their egos, are increasingly rare).

To love your self it helps to have a good diet. Eating frozen foods or peanut butter out of the jar is not recommended, nor is sweeping food crumbs off the counter into your hand and then tossing them into your mouth. I suggest a moratorium on cheese Doritos and buffalo wings.

If you are serious about loving yourself—and many people are—then it helps very much to commune with nature now and then. If you live in the country, this is easy. You simply walk out the door and keep walking, beyond the mailbox, a half-mile will usually do.

For city dwellers the situation is less simple. Typically, you can resort to parks. If, for example, you know of an area of a park where there is a shady grove or the equivalent, I suggest you spend some time there, preferably with your back against a tree. Otherwise a pond inhabited by large swans or white geese will do. For some reason other kinds of animals always make us feel better about ourselves. I don’t know why.

Avoid going to the movies alone. Too much TV, too, is a bad idea. If you must surf the Internet, then surf away, by all means, but avoid pornography as it will bring you nothing but self-loathing and the attendant grief. The point is to love yourself, yes? How can you love yourself and fill your eyes with filth? Answer: you can’t.

To love oneself, one does not need to be a monk. In fact though good at loving God monks are not especially disposed to love themselves, so let’s drop that whole notion, okay?

An extra-firm mattress does not for self-love make. It may not hurt, but don’t think of it as THE answer.

Finally, if you really want to love yourself, I suggest that you engage in one or more of the following activities:
1. make a cup of tea
2. sautée vegetables
3. wear carpet slippers
4. call and joke with your mother

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In the Soup

“Alain makes zee best soups,” Rolande had told me. “Oh, wait until you taste one of Alain’s soups. Zey are zee best soups in ze world.”

I’d been invited to live as an artist-in-residence in the village of Bozouls, in the southwestern corner of France. Hugging both the base and the rim of a deep river gorge, the tiny village featured two medieval stone sentry towers, attached to one of which was an efficiency apartment equipped with a small pool and a Jacuzzi that would be my home and my studio for three weeks. As things happened, I never saw my hostess. An international attorney, Rolande was tied up with a complicated case back in New York. Aside from Alain, the caretaker, and Mama Maguy, Rol-and’s eighty-nine year-old mother, who lived in the tower proper, I was completely on my own. Which suited me fine. I had my own door, and my own key. After having driven me to Bozouls from the station, Alain seemed to disappear. As for Mama Maguy, though I knocked more than once on her door, it never opened. A dog barked inside. That was all. I wondered: would I ever get to taste Alain’s famous soup?

Finally, one afternoon, I ran into Alain at one of the town’s two cafes. “Ah, Pee-taire! You must come for soup this evening!”

Soup--the magic word! After days of surviving on croque monsieur (grilled cheese) at the town’s only cafe I was starved for some authentic and homemade French cooking!

Having barely finished a painting outdoors I was late for my 7 p.m. dinner invitation. I arrived to find Mama Maguy and a young girl sitting at a big oak table. The young girl was Magalie, her housekeeper--one of her many housekeepers, it turned out. Mama Maguy looked her age, with large blue eyes rendered even larger by thick lenses. She wore a red and white striped blouse that accentuated the pale whiteness of her skin and her parchment-colored hair. She sat at one end of the table and Magalie sat at the other, both with napkins tucked, waiting. On the oak table candles burned and the famous pot of soup sat waiting next to a bowl of grated cheese and a cutting board with some bronze, crusty bread sliced into cubes. And there, at the center of the scene, stood Alain--Alain with his long stringy dark hair and pointy goatee, looking like one of the three Musketeers as he stirred his famous soup.

“Ah, Pee-taire, Pee-taire,” he wagged a bony, warty, castigating finger at me.

“Excusez-mois,” I said.

As Alain ladled the soup, pouring over the grated cheese and croutons, I smelled its rich, mushroomy smell. Wineglasses were filled and Alain said grace. My hand reached for my spoon when suddenly Alaine stood and announced that he had to make a phone call. Taking a cell phone from his pocket, he dialed. For the next forty-five minutes or so he paced back and forth along the table’s length talking in a rapid, non-stop voice. My French being adequate at best I could barely make out a word, though I understood him to be talking about the global economy, then about the Algerian dilemma, and then about Protestantism and the Catholic tyranny and why wood finally replaced coal as the fuel of choice in French villages. To whomever he’d phoned he explained why Amsterdam was a terrible, evil place and why drugs generally were evil, and how depression was not genetic and he could prove it, because three--three!--of his cousins had attempted suicide, one successfully, while he had never, ever in his life been depressed--not the slightest bit! Also, he refused on principle to drink Eau de Vie or Aquavite. And did you know, he told whoever was listening, that during the Second World War the corpses of over a dozen fetuses were found by soldiers in a barrel in the woods behind the local abbey?. . .I looked at my watch. I’d been sitting there for over twenty minutes. Another twenty minutes passed and Alaine was still on the phone, with the soup congealing in our bowls. He went on and on and on, endlessly, oblivious of our soups getting cold. Every so often he would throw us a nod with his D’Artagnan chin, indicating that we should start without him. But Magalie refused to touch her soup or even sip her Bordeaux until we were all seated. As for Mama Maguy, she seemed used to this scenario, as if it were part of the dinner ritual. Alaine went on to discuss fluoridation, global warming, the expanding/contracting universe debate. I wondered: who on earth is he talking to? Who would listen to all this? Eventually I broke down and took a sip of from my wine glass. I hadn’t eaten all afternoon and was parched from painting under the hot sun. Alain sucked his teeth, shook his head and nodded saying, “Bien sur, bien sur; peut etre, peut etre. . .”

I was sure we’d never eat our soups.

Just as I gave up all hope, he put away the phone. “Alors,” he said, and had just tucked in his chair when a voice rang up from outside. “Ah--moment,” he untucked himself, went to the window and leaned his head out to start another conversation as we sat there with our soups turning to mush. With whoever was outside the window Alaine launched into yet another monologue. To escape the sight of my congealing soup I excused myself and went to the bathroom. There, where the odor of cooling soup hadn’t permeated, I smelled the old smell of invalid people, the redolence of cat box and leaky catheter, the scent of old Europe. Still, I was glad to be in the bathroom, glad to be momentarily free of Alain’s moulin a paroles and of the terrible sound Mama Maguy made with her supposedly real teeth--a grinding, scraping sound like marbles being rubbed together--a sound that made me squeeze my eyes shut and try to think of places far, far away. When I couldn’t justify staying in the bathroom any longer I returned, only to find Alain still deep into his flux de bouche, with no end in sight, and Mama Maguy grinding her teeth louder than ever, and the intrusive guest outside the window still invisible but listening.

Finally, with an “A demain! A demain!” the invisible window guest apparently shoved off, and Alain bustled back to the table in high spirits.

Now at last it was time to eat the soup--or so it seemed. Alain said grace again. Again I lifted up my soup spoon. But then--before we could actually eat the cold glop--we had to hear all about how it had been made, how Alain had gone to over a dozen markets in search of the very finest ingredients at their height of freshness: mushrooms, carrots, onions and leeks. . .how he had chopped, diced, sauteed and sliced, creating his own stock from veal and chicken bones, which he simmered, stirring in butter and salt, folding in cream for what sounded like hours, days, weeks. . .But that was only the beginning, for as Alain explained (at great length, of course) the secret to a good soup was not in its original creation, but in its evolution, its accumulating character, so to speak, over time--its journey from meal to meal, with enhancements along the way, for the chopping and dicing of which he spoke had happened ages prior, and the soup that (with any luck) we were at last about to savor now was in fact dozens of soups melded and grafted and simmered into one another over time, a soup of soups, with the original Ur-soup apparently dating back to the beginnings of life on the planet--to the amino-acid soup of creation itself.

“Bon apetite!” said Alain, toasting.

Finally, we ate.Though lukewarm, it was a good, thick, salty soup, gray-brown in color and porridge-like in consistency. Still, I questioned all of Alain’s dicing and slicing. Those tiny bits of vegetable floating in my bowl looked vaguely dehydrated. And there was that unmistakable essence of industrial-strength, MSG-enhanced bouillon cube. Nevermind, at least we were eating.

And then Mama Maguy, who’d been silent as a sphinx all this time, spoke up, and kept speaking, as if she were an internet site than had taken all this time to download. She loved Paris in the Fall, she said, and drank only Bordeaux in Summer, and loved her home, and herself. “Look at my stone walls,” she said. “Look at my thick beams, look at my straight nose and my still blonde hair and my spanking white pigeons. Damned if I’m not the talk of this town! (They say that my daughter, Rolande, is the talk of the town, but it’s not true--I am the talk of the town. I always was the talk of the town.) Look at me, don’t I still look good? Under this eighty-nine year-old flesh there is the body of a raving beauty. Oh, I was beautiful--much more beautiful than Rolande! You know, I almost gave her up, and probably should have, the little wench! But I didn’t; I stuck it out. No orphanage for my daughter. Of course she worships me now--and why shouldn’t she? I saved her life! If not for me God knows--imagine what a different life she would have had--possibly no life at all--had I given her up as I had every right to do! We were so poor, you cannot imagine. Poverty--the worst disease of all! Every three months we had to pack up and move to cheat the landlord, always farther and farther away from the center of the city, my beloved Paris. Once I even made Rolande leave behind her doll collection in order to fool the patron into thinking we were coming back. Oh, she cried tears as salty as this soup (I think, Alaine, that you have put too much salt in it this time)--but it was better than the alter-native, wouldn’t you say? And do you think she was grateful? Of course she was! And then I even found her a father, a respectable man who gave her a last name. Yes, that’s right: gaze upon me in awe and wonder here in my tower with my caretaker, my maidservant, my white pigeons and my squeaky teeth!” Cold soup dribbleed from her chin.

In addition to her occasional sly farts Mama Maguy gave off a faint but pungent odor of fermentation as some old people will, a tangy smell closely related to the smell in the bathroom and which invested itself into every spoonful of soup and sip of Bordeaux, making me gag slightly as I ate, watching her talk with her soupspoon dripping onto the collar of her red striped blouse, her pale globe-like eyes darting back and forth, back and forth under milkbottle lenses. Meanwhile Alain has gotten back on his cell phone again to continue the conversation of before, his whisp-thin lips moving at the speed of sound under his D’Artagnan mustache, his S’s faintly whistling through the gap in his front teeth, his phone-free warty hand stirring the now ice-cold soup. He spoke of Global Commerce, the situation in Nepal, the need for earthquake-proof construction in third-world nations, the threats being posed to the sovereignty of the Euro. . . He held forth on fortified wines and genetic engineering and improved techniques of spinal surgery. . .all the while stirring his prize soup, his Soup of Ages, his Infinite Soup, like an alchemist in his medieval tower-laboratory. And just as Alain’s soup was made 90% of past soups, and men’s bodies are made 90% of water, Alaine’s life, I perceived, consisted 90% of words, his own homemade, sliced, diced, constantly simmering words, flowing endlessly, like a river of soup.

“Bien sur, bien sur,” he said, referring to the Jacuzzi, which after five days of tinkering on his part was still unfunctional. “Sans doute, sans doute! Certainement! Certainement! Peut etre! Peut etre!” (Incidentally, was I aware that it was a Frenchman who had invented the so-called “whirlpool bath”? However--as with so many other French inventions-- the man, being something of a nincompoop, had neglected to apply for his patent on time, and therefore--). . . .

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Barber

Today I’m going to get a haircut. I just decided. There’s no barbershop in sight. I don’t even know of any barbershops in this neighborhood. The urge to get a haircut has come upon me suddenly, like an early afternoon sun shower. I don’t know this part of the city well, yet already I feel a heavy sense of comfort, a balanced feeling scented with Lilac Vegetal and talcum powder as I drift along in search of a barber pole, one of those red, white, and blue cylinders that whirl 'round and 'round, hypnotizing people into having their ears lowered, as if getting a haircut is the most patriotic thing a person can do, up there with voting, giving blood, and joining the Marines.

As a boy I dreaded getting my hair cut. I dreaded the mechanical white chair, the barber’s sneaky, small-toothed smile, the snipping sound his scissors made next to my ears, as bad as the whine of a mosquito, though not as bad as the buzz of dog-clippers, as we used to call them.

I remember the barbershop: there were two in my hometown, Patsy’s and Chris’s. My mother took me to Chris’s, though to me he wasn’t Chris, he was Floyd, the barber on The Andy Griffith Show: a short, slope-shouldered, seedy little man with an Adolph Hitler mustache and salt-and-pepper hair combed straight back in tight little curls. And though I liked The Andy Griffith Show I hated Floyd the barber. His hands were too small; so were his teeth. They were the hands and teeth of a mole. The barber who cut my hair had the same lecherous smile. I imagined him doing nasty things to kids in the mysterious room hidden behind a stained blue curtain (where he kept dirty magazines in a drawer, I guessed).

As with all suspicious persons you couldn’t say where Floyd was from, exactly, somewhere far away, like Bulgaria, or Romania—one of those places ending in 'ia'. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find out he was a taxidermist on the side, or a cannibal, and that the refrigerator he kept in his back room was packed with things floating in jars. He spoke in a thin raspy voice that oozed bad breath and was the equivalent in sound of the sound the files labeled “bastard” made when my father used them to scrape burrs off metal in his laboratory: a voice dripping perversion and espionage.

On the little table of his barbershop Floyd's real life equivalent kept a spread of old comic books for his customers to look at, yellow with age. Most had to do with war: flamethrowers, tanks, and U-boats with commandants gritting their teeth while peering through periscopes. The floor was linoleum tiled, with alternating beige and green squares resembling head cheese and creamed spinach. I’d sit in the chrome and vinyl chair thumbing the same comic I’d thumbed a hundred times before, watching the same tanks blowing up and flamethrowers spouting and U-boats firing torpedoes at allied cargo ships, feeling queasy as though I were in the dentist’s waiting room, kicking the backs of my P.F. Flyers (guaranteed to make me run faster and jump higher) into the chrome chair legs, hearing the snip-snip of Floyd’s scissors, watching the miniature tumbleweed-like tufts of dead hair tumble down to the cheese and spinach tiles from the scalp of the guy getting his hair cut, an old man (whose hair meant nothing to him) whose place I would soon be taking. I’d note the pattern of hair falling on the floor, how much fell on green vs. beige tiles, seeing faces, ships, cars, trains, and States of the Union in the proliferating blobs before Floyd kicked them out of place with his wing-tips.

Click-snip. Snip-snip. Zwick-zwick-zwick.


Most of Floyd’s customers didn’t seem to have enough hair to bother cutting, old men with more hair sprouting from their ears than from their sculls. Fathers brought sons in baseball and Boy Scout caps, as if ashamed to have let their hair grow beyond three-quarters of an inch. I’d always go with my mother, who’d abandon me to Floyd and his sharp little teeth and bad breath, then go across the street to Tony’s Supermarket. How I dreaded the moment when the customer in front of me would stand up from the big white complicated chair, hand Floyd two dollars, and with a zinnng! Floyd would ring it up on the big silver cash register whose drawer always stuck. Then he'd return to the chair (one of three in the shop, but the only one he ever used), pump it all the way down, snap the seat with a flick of his towel, and look at me with a lecherous smile over his half-moon glasses. Please, not yet, I’d say to myself, looking around, hoping by some miracle there would be someone ahead of me, someone who had been hiding there all that time, dreading the barber as much as I did.

I get up and go sit in the chair, and Floyd pumps it back up again. Then he flaps out the striped smock, filling it with air, ridding it of the last customer’s dead hair, and lets it come billowing down on me gentle and soft like a parachute. He tucks it in with tissue behind my neck. I feel his fingers tucking, tickling, giving my neck an inadvertent massage. He glides a skinny black comb through my frizzy brown hair, not saying a word, not asking how I "want it," tugging out the stiff hairs as if to let them know who's boss, seeing how long and reprobate they have grown, sighing and going tut-tut-tut with his tongue against his tiny teeth as if to say, ‘Well now, it should never have come to this.’ He yanks my hair so hard with his comb my head kerks from side to side. It's all I can do not to cry “ouch,” but I don’t; I refused to show him my pain. I stare dead ahead into the cracked mirror, which Floyd has tried to fix with masking tape, past gleaming green and gold bottles and the the tall blue jar of Barbacide with combs floating like pickles there.

My eyes well with tears.

Suddenly, with a neat flick of his wrist, from the breast pocket of Floyd’s white jacket the scissors emerge and snippety-snip-snip he starts cutting, sending gouges of frizzy brown hair to the floor like envoys from atop my head, tufts thick as Brillo pads, swick-switcka-swick, rolling down the front of the striped smock onto the tiles: my hair, once: no longer. When a half-dozen clumps have fallen Floyd’s heretofore sealed lips part, and he starts talking, as if to find his tongue he had to snip through so much hair that blocked his way. Then his bad breath oozes all over me. Don’t ask me what he says; I have no idea; I'm not listening. I'm too busy being horror-stricken by what's happening to the top of my head, counting the frizzy gobs that like downed birds shot from the sky, my arms pinned under the striped smock, wanting to catch them, to take them to my lips and kiss them goodbye.

Talk-talk, snip-snip, talk-talk.

After a while I can't bear any more. I close my eyes, squeeze them shut, waited for the torture to end, opening them only when he holds the mirror behind my head. No matter how much I hate what the mirror says, I nod, since there's nothing Floyd can do but cut off more hair, right? He can't put it back, can he, now? Besides, by then I just want to get out of there. The barbershop is a ghoulish place, the place where I go to have my hair amputated by a foul-breathed Romanian spy-pervert.

But Floyd isn’t finished. It's the old fakeroo! He flaps out the parachute smock then puts it back on again with a fresh tissue. It will never end. He will go on cutting my hair forever, for the rest of my life.

But after a few more zwickety-zwicks Floyd takes the smock off again. He sweeps the back of my neck with a big brush dipped in talcum powder (which I have to admit feels good). Then he wets his fingers with fluid from a tall green bottle and drags them wet and cold against the side of my head, leaving it slick and shiny and smelling of lemons, ocean air, pine trees, limes and vinegar—which I confess also feels good. A few more last-minute zwick-zwicks. With a decisive snap of his towel and a squeeze of my shoulder that's it' I'm done. Floyd's finished.

I hand him the two crumpled one-dollar bills my mother gave me and that I’ve been holding the whole time. She meets me at the door. It's all over. I can breathe again. For another month or so.

Ahead of me down the block a barber’s pole swirls, blending red blood, blue skies, and white surrender, drawing me to it like a ship in a stormy sea to a lighthouse. I stand before the plate glass watching the barber at work, a man no older than me, but with hair is gray, and so he’ll do. Maybe it’s nostalgia, or I’m just getting old, but for some some reason today I long to sit in one of those big white complicated chairs with flat filigreed iron plates for the souls of my shoes and with a phalanx of colored bottles lined up before a cracked mirror mended with masking tape.

A tinkle of doorbells announces my entry, the same bells I heard as a kid, only I’m an adult now, motioned by the barber toward his chair. No sooner do I sit than I’m thrown back to a time when the scariest thing in the world was going to the barber. I feel the barber’s firm yet supple fingers adjusting the tissue around my neck, tucking the smock, giving my shoulder a paternal squeeze before getting down to business. The same fingers touch my head lightly here and there, making minuscule adjustments, coaxing me ever so gently, precisely.The barber knows just how much pressure to apply, doesn’t need to ask, doesn’t need to say a word. I can sit and daydream, nod toward sleep without ever actually arriving there, exist for a half hour or so in that blissful state between dreams and reality, the gentle swick-swick of scissors forming a minimalist percussive soundtrack to my reveries.

These days I love the barber. He is my father, my white-frocked priest, my confessor, a pair of scissors his staff: I trust him with my life. In his hands I’m a kid again, an innocent kid wearing P.F. Flyers, whose worst sin is that of having let his hair grow too long.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Half Moon Overlook

Sometimes this life is a meal too big for one.

Today, a perfect Saturday. Sunny, not a drop of moisture in the air (though the forecast said rain). I spent the post-swim morning reading, and most of the afternoon commenting on student essays (subject: Darwin's theories of evolution and survival of the fittest as played out in A Streetcar Named Desire).

By five o'clock I wasn't done, but I was done. All day long I had watched the patch of tantalizing blue sky through the part in my curtains, and heard the birds singing (songs about the weather, no doubt, and how good it was). I saw the light playing off the bricks of the apartment building across the street, and the girders of the blue bridge that reigns over this neighborhood and that is named, like so many things around here, for Henry Hudson. For spending such a magnificent day indoors I felt a combination of foolish, guilty, stupid, and sad. At five o'clock, finally, I closed the lid on my computer, grabbed a random book from a shelf and went out, neglecting to lock the apartment door behind me. Hell, I must have thought. Let whoever steal all of indoors.

Mine is a neighborhood full of parks, but my favorite by far is the one that everyone who lives around here calls the Overlook, short for Half Moon Overlook, Half Moon having been the name of the ship Mr. Hudson (whose statue stands atop a high column in another park) came here on. As parks go it must be one of the smallest, a sixteenth of an acre, if that, shaped (intentionally? ironically? accidentally?) yes, like a half-moon, with room scarcely for one long curved wooden bench—another crescent. The overlook occupies a strategic point overlooking where the two rivers—the Harlem (Spuyten Duyvil Creek, technically) and the Hudson—meet. From it one has a view of the swing bridge connecting Manhattan to parts north, and of the Palisades clear down to the George Washington Bridge, the New Jersey-side tower of which is just visible to the right of the mound of trees that is Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan.

What luck: no one else was there. Usually there's at least one couple. On a sunny day to have the spot all to myself was a luxury. I sat with the sun in my face and opened my book, a collection of stories chosen by editors of literary journals, accompanied by essays wherein the same editors espoused their ideals of great literature. To read is pleasure; to read outdoors on a dry, sunny day with a view of the Palisades and the sun in one's face and no one around touches Heaven. I read a paragraph, looked up at the view, read another paragraph, and so on, neither able nore willing to choose among two beauties: of language and of nature.

Then a couple, a man and a woman, entered through the squeaky, cast-iron gate to break my perfect solitude. They were middle-aged: a term once far removed from my condition, but lately having crept so perilously close I felt it lapping at my doorstep (in fact it has entered and taken up residence).

The man wore an aqua blue sweater and green baseball cap. The woman wore a purple sweater and a thin brown flowing skirt. Though they had already swept passed the point where I could have seen their faces, and now stood facing the view to my right and in front of me, still, even from behind I could see that they were fit, healthy people, their fitness suggesting care, intelligence, responsibility. He had a gray mustache (its ends stood out from the contours of his face); she wore large classes. I felt their intelligence, their loyalty to their children as well as their participation in community events all to the good. I read it in their body language, their goodness, and in the way they stood admiring the view, saying nothing, as intelligent people will when confronted by beauty. They were people such as I might have wished to befriend in some other life, I suppose. I lowered my book and watched them watching the sun as it settled slowly toward the Palisades, which had taken on a bluish-gray cast, while the sun itself still burned hot and white, hot enough to heat my brow so its skin tightened. I wondered where they had come from. They were not locals; I had not seen them around. Maybe they were visiting others, early for dinner, killing time. Were they as aware of me as I was of them, thinking of me, wondering who I was, where I had come from, what I knew, whom I would be eating dinner with (a pair of turkey cutlets thawing on the kitchen counter, each for none but me)?

To be in such close proximity to strangers in a closely defined space creates a special energy, an energy of intimacy, but also a protective, cunning, defensive energy. After all, though the park is public, they had invaded my privacy, and surely they must have known it. Whosoever sits alone on a public park bench commands that bench, however briefly. And in a park so small the same formula extends, multiplies itself by a factor of Y, to include not only bench but gate, fence, view, water and sky. This was my territory, my world to which they had added themselves, and now I looked upon them as a landowner looks upon trespassers, however obviously benign.

These thoughts I entertained or ones like them when the man turned and spoke to me.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" he said.

"Yes," I said. "Beautiful."

"It's a great spot," the woman added.

"It is," I said.

"You come here to read?" said the man.

"Sometimes. And to write."

"Oh. You write?"

"Sometimes," I said, and nodded toward my notebook, which I'd also taken with me, but which sat unused on the bench.

"What do you write?" asked them man.

I shrugged. "Stuff," I said.

In its stinginess that answer was meant to discourage further discussion, at least of that subject, and it did. The couple soon turned back to what was not their view as much as it had been mine, and which shared more with them than I was willing to. They watched the river, with its line of shadowy barges, and the cliffs of the Palisades, which by then had turned a deep gray under the floating sun, itself gone from white to a yellow, like an onion carmelized. I no longer felt its heat on my forehead. The air felt suddenly cool, and the same top three buttons of my shirt that I'd undone before I now buttoned again. Now I felt like leaving. My restlessness had found me: no point arguing with or trying to evade it. I gathered my things.

But just as I was about to rise the man took hold of his companion's hand and said, "C'mon; let's go." And with a nod to me that was simultaneously friendly and a rebuke he and she made their way out through the swinging gate, which squeaked again—this time louder and more plaintively than before. A howl of pain.

I was alone again, back in the solitude that I had craved earlier, but which now looked like the spoils of a meal I had ordered with one appetite, and had failed to finish with another. What had been a feast now sat before me, a pile of leftovers, greasy and coagulated. At once the thought of returning to my vast and empty apartment (and to those bloody essays: why, why had I foisted Williams, let alone Charles Darwin, upon a bunch of sweet but mostly callow undergrads?) repulsed me. My life repulsed me. Moments ago it had been a charmed thing; now it seemed nothing but wretched.

It strikes me now, and with a blow as firm as any delivered by the wooden mallet with which I pounded those turkey breasts so thin you could have read the Times through them, that in not sharing with that couple, with those two strangers, in my blind greed for solitude I had denied not only them my company, but myself theirs.

And I wonder now, too, by extension of that thought, if that same sort of Pyrrhic greed, a greed in direct opposition to itself, has informed my decision not to have children, to have the world and this life all to myself--a meal much, much too big for one.