People ask me all the time, ‘Is your dog friendly?’
My dog is a lot of things — old, lazy, mostly blind and deaf, senile.
Sure, if you lie down next to him and pet him for 45 minutes.
What people really mean is, ‘Will your dog try to bite mine?’
Sometimes I think people might be less offended if Boomer did try to bite their dog, as opposed to what he usually does, which is to walk right past and show zero interest. Some people are put off by this, I can tell.
In the old days I would make Boomer go through the motions of being polite. I’d stop and give attention to the stranger’s dog, thereby bringing Boomer himself back to the site of proposed friendliness. But now he’s old, and I’m getting on myself. There’s less concern over niceties.
He was always more interested in humans than other dogs, at least as long as I’ve known him. He arrived in our home at six months old, a stunningly beautiful gift from our friend June, who rescued him from a shelter. He grew larger than expected and wound up an enormous shaggy wheat-colored goldendoodle weighing more than 100 lbs.
When he was young, I would walk him to the stores near our house. The public reception was not unlike what I imagine the Beatles encountered in 1964 – frenzy, crowds, amazement, a fair amount of swooning. He was a show stopper.
He had idiosyncrasies. He destroyed nearly every football my family ever purchased. The way he tried to sit on your lap suggested that he understood himself to be a 10-lb. Yorkie, not a dead ringer for a polar bear.
He had so much energy and pulled so hard on his leash that I eventually hooked him up to the front of my son’s little yellow electric Jeep. With Boomer pulling, the car went twice as fast. My son was in heaven.
As Boomer got older, he underwent surgery twice for cancer, the second operation costing him his right eye. For the last few years he has had a lung issue which causes him to wheeze a few times in quick succession and then make the most alarming, human-sounding gagging noise. If we are on a walk, this noise keeps others from asking whether he’s friendly.
The newest challenge is senile barking. Apparently this is a thing in older dogs. Barking can be caused by disorientation, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, physical pain. With Boomer, deterioration of his senses and brain function seem the culprit. He still wants to defend the perimeter (in our placid, totally not-scary neighborhood). But he no longer has sufficient sight or hearing to feel he is carrying out the job correctly.
Sometimes I find him in the middle of the backyard in the posture of sentinel, crouching slightly, sending off a volley of crisp warning barks. Never mind that only butterflies and bees are nearby, and that it’s only five minutes since our last 45-minute petting session, or five minutes till our next walk together. He is on guard. Against the butterflies.
Maybe he is seeing ghosts, I don’t know. Maybe as he gets closer to the end, he has access to the spirit world. Sometimes I talk to him about the other side. I tell him that his mother and siblings will be waiting to greet him and play with him. And I ask him to make sure that he’s waiting for me, when my own time comes. I always thank him for being my dog these last 14 years. He was the only dog I ever had who wouldn’t beg for food or dash out the front door if you gave him half a chance.
One time we accidentally left him out front and when we finally noticed his absence a couple hours later, we opened the door and found him curled up on the welcome mat, sleeping soundly. Right from the start he knew he had a good thing going in our house.
Nowadays he can no longer go up or down stairs. And with the senile barking in the middle of the night, I finally just hauled a mattress to the living room downstairs. Now I spend most nights down there. He won’t bark if I sleep next to him. It’s kind of like having a newborn baby again.
Is he friendly?
He was friendly enough a few years ago when a prowler hopped our fence in the middle of the night and walked a stolen bike across our backyard.
Our security footage showed Boomer amble up to the guy, wag his tail a bit, and then wait for the thief to pet him.
When the man showed no inclination to stop and pet a massive dog, Boomer shuffled back to the porch and was asleep again in 90 seconds. His perimeter-protection instinct was less acute back then.
I will be devastated one day when he finally shoves off. It’s the only bad thing about dogs — having to say goodbye to them.
Until then, I take each day as a gift. I appreciate him more now than when the kids were young, when I was always scrambling to meet their needs.
In especially chaotic moments, Boomer would pop up right in front of me, tennis ball in mouth, tail wagging, as if to say, ‘Would this be a good time?’
It was always the exact worst time. But in hindsight, I think I misunderstood him. He didn’t want anything from me, he wanted to help me. He was saying, ‘Forget the kids, forget the wife. They’ll be fine. You don’t have to fix everything, do everything, be on time for everything. Just … pet me. Hang out for a second.’
He knew that my petting and talking to him would calm me down, and this in turn would make everyone else happier, including my wife and kids.
So now, years later, it’s the least I can do to sleep on a mattress or spend 45 minutes petting him. It’s my turn to calm him.
One silver lining of lockdown was that I started reading books again. Below are short reviews of a somewhat random collection, in case you’re looking for something to pick up.
THE OVERSTORY This 2018 novel by Richard Powers follows a handful of people whose lives are brought together and shaped by trees. Gimmicky premise, but beautifully executed and after a while, an actual page turner. If you liked Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, you might like this one.
CONFESSIONS OF A YAKUZA Memoir of a Japanese gangster. Book gained notice when Bob Dylan lifted about a dozen lines from it and sprinkled them (without attribution) through his 2001 album Love and Theft. The gangster’s narration is straightforward and self-effacing. His world is populated by riverboat gamblers, pickpockets, prostitutes, smugglers, coal miners, and corrupt police officers. Story includes a memorably harrowing account of the young narrator’s treatment for syphilis. On the positive side, great book title, and I want the snow-clogs the guy is wearing in the cover photo.
PERSEPOLIS When I was growing up in the late 1970s, all I knew about Iran was that 50 Americans were being held hostage there. The graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi sheds light on daily life in Tehran before and after the Islamic revolution. Events are seen through the eyes of an adolescent girl from a wealthy, well-educated family. Quick, easy read, full of unexpected details and humor (well, and basic facts about Persian culture which I didn’t know). This book, in turn, got me interested in the Israeli TV shows Tehran and Fauda, set in contemporary Iran and the occupied territories of Israel, respectively. Since I couldn’t travel during lockdown, watching TV and reading books were the next best thing. Not that I was headed to Tehran or Gaza; there are limits to my curiosity. But now I know what it was like to be a 13-year-old Iranian girl after the imams took over in 1979.
EATING ANIMALS Part memoir, part journalism, this book tells you what you probably already knew — factory farming of animals in the 21st century results in horrible lives for the animals, massive environmental problems for the rest of us. But the book conveys the info in a smart, dispassionate way. I guess my meat-eating habits were already hanging by a thread, but even just the first 30 pages of this book finished the job. Author is Jonathan Safran Foer.
THE FIRST AND LAST FREEDOM Just when I was feeling all virtuous and self-satisfied about going vegan, the late Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti took the wind out of my sails. Not that he endorses meat eating, just that he deftly points out how we each build a sense of self through attachment to certain beliefs, ideas, or identification with a particular nation, school, family, religion, sports team, whatever. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a natural impulse. But Krishnamurti reveals the extent to which misery and conflict result from these well-intentioned attachments and identifications. As an alternative, he prescribes a lifelong program of careful, alert, nonjudgmental observation of self, with the ultimate goal of laying the self aside. The ideas overlap somewhat with jnana yoga, which is sometimes described as the ‘way of the intellect,’ as opposed to karma yoga (path of action) or bhakti yoga (path of devotion). Krishnamurti says even if visionaries like Christ and the Buddha achieved personal enlightenment and transcendence, their ideas don’t seem to have put a noticeable dent in human conflict since then.
THOUSAND CRANES This is a Japanese novel from 1952 by Yasunari Kawabata, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I found this book on a sidewalk ledge one day while walking my dog. Book was just sitting there — a tiny, well-worn paperback. I picked it up, took it home, read it. Book is basically one long mood, in the same way that the French novel Bonjour Tristesse is a mood, or The Stranger by Camus. You learn a lot about Japanese tea ceremonies, their cultural importance, and different types of ancient tea ware. This sounds boring, but the author throws in some sex and a malignant, meddlesome old woman, and the whole thing moves along fine.
I NO LONGER STEAL FROM NATURE This is a poem, not a novel. It was written about a thousand years ago by a blind Arab poet known as Al Ma’arri, who lived in what is now Syria. Sometimes I forget that people thousands of years ago weren’t always concerned 24/7 with staying alive or finding the next meal, or surviving childbirth. I was impressed a blind man in the the desert in the year 1020 wasn’t just vegetarian, but full-on vegan. It’s one thing to swear off meat, dairy, and honey in present-day L.A., quite another in 11th-century Syria. I don’t know who brought this blind guy his meals, but I imagine it could get pretty annoying. I liked the part of the poem about milk. It was basically the same thing which actor Joaquin Phoenix said in his speech at the Oscars last year. (At the time I thought, ‘What in the world is this guy talking about?’)
Here’s the poem: You are diseased in understanding and religion. Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth. Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up, And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals, Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught for their young, not noble ladies. And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs; for injustice is the worst of crimes. And spare the honey which the bees get industriously from the flowers of fragrant plants; For they did not store it that it might belong to others, Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts. I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I Perceived my way before my hair went gray!
Me too, Al Ma’arri! I feel the same way.
THE GIVER Short science-fiction novel by Lois Lowry. I think it is read mostly by middle-school students, but on the heels of Thousand Cranes, I was looking for another tiny paperback I could stash in my back pocket. This one describes a community in which seasons, personal differences, even visual perception of color have been smoothed away and eradicated, in the interest of more predictable, less painful lives. It takes a while for the dystopic aspects to reveal themselves. At the beginning you’re thinking, ‘Okay, well there are actually some nice innovations here.’ And then, soon enough, you are not thinking that.
THE IMMORTALITY KEY This work examines whether ancient Greek rites and early Christian eucharistic ceremonies included the use of psychedelic substances. That is, was the wine in those ceremonies more potion than wine, with various additives introduced to heighten effects? On the one hand, the subject is fascinating, and the evidence persuasive; on the other, the author makes the book too much about himself and keeps going back to buttress points he already proved. The book follows in the footsteps of the 1978 work The Road to Eleusis, which made the same argument but before scientific testing of ancient drinking vessels had confirmed traces of psychedelic compounds.
VACATIONLAND: TRUE STORIES FROM PAINFUL BEACHES Sharp observational humor from writer/comedian/actor John Hodgman. It’s especially funny if you have ever lived or vacationed in Maine.
Much has been written about The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, and with good reason. It’s an excellent show.
For me, one notable feature was the stories it chose not to tell.
I’m so accustomed to certain plot lines. Each time I realized Queen’s Gambit was sailing right past those, without taking an easy off-ramp, I became more intrigued.
The boozy, pill-popping mother trapped in her own misery, adopting a child? There are so many obvious ways it could go wrong; when the show patiently refused to explore any of them, I realized, This show has a better story to tell.
I thought the same thing about the various boys and men who interacted with the troubled chess genius Beth Harmon on her unlikely ascent to greatness. I kept expecting standard types of conflict — sexual assault; unrequited love which turns into bitterness or revenge; the jealous urge to control or even stymie her greatness because it may eclipse his. When Queen’s Gambit failed to choose any of those paths, my curiosity mounted.
How refreshing to realize a new story is being told, or perhaps an ancient one, being re-told at just the right moment, in just the right way.
What then is the story which Queen’s Gambit waits so patiently to tell?
[SPOILER ALERT: plot outcomes are discussed below.]
The answer is different, of course, for each watcher. But for me, the show is about the difficulty of being both a genius and a girl. Yes, layers of further difficulty are added on top of that; Beth is an orphan and a drug addict, and she is growing up in the United States, which in the 1950s and ’60s was a chess backwater. But when I boil it down — when I try to pinpoint why I was so moved and entranced — it’s the struggle of a girl whose gifts set her apart, sometimes painfully so. The girl feels this greatness inside her. She is by turns scared of it, amazed by it, fascinated by it, angry at it, and so on. The show is the evolution of her relationship to that gift. It’s a love story not between her and a boy, but between her and the game of chess, between her and her own genius. There are early, unsatisfactory experiences kissing boys or sleeping with them. But the true passion is reserved for trance-like visions of a chess board on the ceiling of her bedroom, the pieces moving themselves, the game revealing itself to her at warp speed.
Along the way, while watching this show, I kept thinking, It’s not easy for this kid. I didn’t always like her, I was occasionally frustrated by her decisions. But I was rooting for her.
In the show’s final episode, I was crying from the bulletin-board scene onward. The gradual reappearance of all the boys and men she’d encountered along the way — the fact that they were supporting her, cheering for her, praying for her — well, I was moved. I appreciated very much this model of masculinity, a model perhaps more aspirational than realistic, but nonetheless stirring.
Two characters, in particular, illustrated for me what true strength, kindness, and masculinity look like — the shaggy, gray-haired Russian champion whose eyes sparkle and whose heart opens when he sees that Beth has recovered her footing and will beat him; and the daunting, handsome, ultra-disciplined Russian world champion who faces Beth in her final match.
How these two men behave in defeat contrasts beautifully with the way a certain high-profile American is dealing with his own very public loss right now. In my view, these fictional Russians behave exactly as we should teach boys in real life to behave, whether playing chess or ice hockey, sitting in a classroom, dating someone, or whatever else.
In defeat, the Russian masters lay down their pride and self-regard, open their hearts, and smile at the supernova exploding in front of them. They step back and give the full measure of their recognition and respect. They are moved by the beauty and power of her game. They understand it not only eclipses their own, but that it illustrates, for a moment at least, the mysteries of the universe. They are honored to be part of her story.
There are other things to like about the show. Wardrobe and art direction are superb. And the storytelling reminds us, in vivid, realistic fashion, that the difficulty of the struggle — the extent to which the deck appears stacked against the hero — is precisely what builds the strength necessary for her final push. Beth’s route to success isn’t one which anybody would draw up ahead of time. There are crucial mistakes, moments of heartbreaking self-sabotage. But she gradually develops the strength and discipline to stay in the pocket and stare down the final opponent.
She may not be the hero we were expecting — an odd, brusque girl who sees chess games unfolding on her bedroom ceiling — but she feels like the hero we need. She is single-minded, proud, fearless, and so much stronger, way down deep in her soul, than her slender frame may initially suggest.
Finally, as exceptional as Beth’s chess skills are, it’s worth considering, too, that all of us havea sliver of genius inside us. Indeed, part of the life journey is to discover what one is good at, to work at it, and then to offer it to others.
If this is true, then it also stands to reason that, like the Russian chess masters — with their impeccable manners, their deep respect for the game, their unexpected kindness to the young American — we should try, when interacting with anyone at all, to discern and focus on the person’s sliver of genius, not their flaws, weakness, or illness. In this way a girl is nudged toward the greatness which is her birthright.
Genius wants so desperately to be born. We should do whatever we can to protect and nourish it. And when it does burst forth, we should stop dead in our tracks, bear collective witness, and applaud. We should give sincere thanks. That is the proper response, even if we ourselves may sit on the losing side of the table.
Has there ever been a presidential nominee simultaneously so unimpressive and so desperately needed?
I think of you as the Caretaker President, both because our country needs a caretaker and because sometimes it seems like you do, too.
I was going to compare you to a beat-up old tow-truck which arrives to pull back the car from the edge of the cliff. But even that suggests a level of energy and performance which I’m not sure is apt.
Perhaps you are instead the traffic cone which keeps oncoming traffic from hitting the wreckage and sending the suspended car into the rocky gorge below.
In this scenario, with you as traffic cone, I guess Kamala is the tow-truck? Or Pelosi?
I’m not sure.
I’m not even sure there is a tow-truck. Our country feels 50-50 right now for rescue.
I already love you, Joe, for your gaffes. I love you for blithely declaring that ‘200 million’ died of Covid and for always telling us, like a cranky middle-school P.E. teacher 10 years past retirement, “Look, here’s the deal …”
I love you for the huge shiny white dentures, for the ghostly, age-appropriate, liver-spotted pallor. I love you too for calling a student questioner at a campaign event ‘a lying, dog-faced pony soldier.’ What in the hell, Joe.
I love you for stating the obvious, that you will be a one-term president and then, like a chastened schoolboy, having to walk it back the next day and pretend, ‘Hell yes I’ll serve two terms!’ It’s not on you that this country can’t handle the truth like grown-ups, Joe. After all, our republic is only 240 years old.
Speaking of which, how is it possible that you’ll be the first president named Joe?
How did we go through Millard, Barack, Zachary, Rutherford, Ulysses, Grover, Lyndon, Franklin, Dwight, Calvin, Marvin, and Chester without landing even once on the most American of nicknames?
That seems odd, Joe, borderline deep-state odd.
You’ll be the 46th president, and sure, the ‘first Joe president’ doesn’t have the same pop as first female president or first Asian-American president, or first transgender president.
But you know what? It’s not nothing, either.
Honestly, we are overdue for a Joe.
And, seeing as we are desperate and we have no other, non-fatal choice, you’ll do fine.
More than anything else, politically, your candidacy stands for the proposition that if one lives long enough and if one slides into a situation in which one is compared with extreme greed, narcissism, cruelty, and corruption, then one looks, well, good enough!
You are good enough, Joe.
Caretaker, stopgap, placeholder, traffic cone, crossing guard … whatever we call it, you got this, Joseph. With one hand tied behind your back, you got this.
I love that you’re from Scranton, home of Dunder Mifflin, and from Delaware, too. No one is from Delaware, Joe! Corporations and credit cards are from Delaware.
You know what else I love? That bemused expression on your face, like you’re just as surprised as we are that you’re about to be president, that you were the best we could do. I feel the same way! Among those ten sharp, energetic, articulate Democratic challengers, we chose … you?
Apparently we did!
It’s a shame your campaign never leaned into the Sleepy Joe tag which Trump tried to hang on you. Felt like a missed opportunity. What’s wrong with sleepy? I’ll take sleepy every damn day over hanging off a cliff. Our nation is overdue for a nap, or a timeout.
And the good news is, if you ever need steroids, you are starting out from a very steady, non-insane benchmark. Steroids will bump you up to ‘aggressive,’ not ‘catastrophically deranged.’ That too is a plus.
It’s gonna be just one term (and even that might be optimistic). But you’re gonna be fine. Sleepy is just what the doctor ordered. Less chaos, fewer plots to kidnap governors.
Others would have called it quits long ago. Not you. Thank you for sticking around! We need you!
Students of American literature are well aware of novelist Walker Percy, who wrote The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, among other books.
Less well known is his cousin, William Alexander Percy, a lawyer who wrote a remarkable memoir about growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s.
At its best, Lanterns on the Levee is reminiscent of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the acknowledged masterpiece of hyper-detailed childhood recollection. And yet the Percy book remains largely forgotten.
The setting is the South after the Civil War. The topic is the uneasy rearrangement of people, politics, and power after slaves were emancipated.
Which may make the book sound ponderous and boring. It’s not.
Here’s how Percy describes a family friend:
He was incontestably the ugliest man in the world — tall, shambling, with tiny pale eyes, extravagant sandy eyebrows gone to seed, and a masterpiece of a nose that Ghirlandajo would have given his life to paint. He always suggested things vehemently, was always overruled, always accepted the adverse decision, and always concluded with: “Well, LeRoy, what do you say? I’m an old fool.”
Here’s how a local newspaper editor is described:
He read Gibbon and Carlyle and Thucydides and Voltaire till all hours of the night, and his pen was dipped in gall. But he read also the New Testament and the ‘Sentimental Journey,’ and when his heart was moved he could break yours …. He loathed corruption and hated public iniquity. The intelligent few worshipped him, the unintelligent many scuttled for cover at the first hiss of his lash. We loved him for his weaknesses as much as for his strength, for his inability to manage his own affairs, for his poor marksmanship when he was constantly being threatened with duels and assassinations, for his failure to appreciate beauty except in women, nature, food, and drink. Father was elated when, showing him a sizable copy of Canova’s ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ his sour and single comment was “Kind of raw.”
I am sorry to quote so many passages, at such length; I want to give a sense of the voice and tone.
Here is Percy’s account of climbing trees as a boy in summer storms:
Aspens grow together in little woods of their own, straight, slender, and white. Even in weather they twinkle and murmur, but in a high wind you must run out and plunge among them, spattered with sunlight, to the very center. Then select your tree and climb it high enough for it to begin to wobble with your weight. Rest your foot-weight lightly on the frail branches and do most of your clinging with your arms. Now let it lunge, and gulp the wind. It will be all over you, slapping your hair in your eyes, stinging your face with bits of bark and stick, tugging to break your hold, roaring in your open mouth like a monster sea-shell …. You will be beaten and bent and buffeted about and the din will be so terrific your throat will invent a song to add to the welter, pretty barbaric, full of yells and long calls. You will feel what it is to be the Lord God and ride a hurricane.
Here he recounts a phone call one day from a nun who used to teach him music:
[She] telephoned me and announced that I was a godless, ungrateful, heartless monster (she always telephoned that way, never giving her name and knowing I would recognize her voice and style), that Sister Evangelist was on her deathbed in Vicksburg, that she loved me more than any of her thousand pupils, that in my baseness I ignored her and would not even take the trouble to visit her, dying, in fact barely this side of rigor mortis. As usual I took Sister Scholastica’s hint and dashed to Vicksburg. At the convent door a scared little rabbit of a nun asked my name and mission, suspiciously admitted me to the cool bare sitting-room, and left me there. There was a long pause during which I assumed they were propping up Sister Evangelist so that she could reach out feebly and blindly to give me her last blessing. It was pretty staggering, therefore, when Sister Evangelist came tripping in, unbent by her hundred years and vivacious as a cricket. She immediately loosed a diatribe of piety and invective, contrasting the promise of my past with the worm-eaten fruit of my present, and all with no more pause, punctuation, or capitalization than the last forty-six pages of ‘Ulysses.’ At the first drop of a comma I got a word in edgewise: “Heavens, Sister! You talk as if God didn’t have any sense of humor.” She burst into gales of laughter, exclaiming, “Everybody forgets it; even I do sometimes,” and the next two hours were chuckling gossip, singularly naive and gay.
Here is a local congressman who used to visit the Percy family:
He had a cold analytical mind of the first [order], plus an arrogant integrity. His political weakness was that he could not kiss babies and considered it indecent to rhapsodize over the purity of Southern womanhood. So he was always about not to be elected. His English was all sinew and no color, his rare adjectives were like bullets, and he had some strange expressions of his own. He would say to Father: “It is bitter as gar-broth, LeRoy,” and I would lose the rest of the discussion wondering what gar-broth might be.
Here is Percy’s summary of how turtle soup was prepared in his home:
To the grown-ups turtle soup was simply the predestined last act of a soft-shell turtle’s career and one worth waiting years for. But Willis and I knew the terrific drama preceding it. Someone would bring one of the great monsters to our back steps and leave it there as a gracious and esteemed gift. To Willis fell the hard lot of converting it from an unlikely reptile into a delicacy …. The turtle gave no co-operation. It resented the situation and withdrew from it by tucking head and flippers into its shell and refusing to emerge. Willis would then give him a jab in the armpit and out the obscene head would dart, the slit eyes pale with hatred, and the horny, beaked mouth snapping dangerously at all of us. Nain would scream and snatch me up and scuttle to safety on top of the cistern, while the cook would emit Fo’-Gods, interspersed with strictures on the cannibalism of white folks. Finally that dreadful head would come out long enough for Willis to whack it off with the ax, at which the rest of the turtle would walk off hurriedly, as if the incident were closed. Even this was not the climax of the gory horror — Willis still had to break off the top shell. When this was accomplished, before your startled eyes lay the turtle’s insides, unharmed, neatly in place, and still ticking! They did not seem to miss the head, but acted like the works of a watch when you open the back. It was the nakedest thing I ever laid eyes on, and usually while you were watching, fascinated, the whole thing walked off, just that way, and the cook would almost faint.
Here is Percy’s recollection of being sung to sleep by his African-American nanny. He can remember neither the words nor the melody, only the powerful effect of the low, wistful tune.
I would try not to cry, but it made me feel so lost and lonely that tears would seep between my lids and at last I would sob until I shook against her breast. “Whut’s de madder, Peeps?” she would say. “Whut you cryin’ fur?” …. I was learning not so much how lonely I could be as how lonely everybody could be, and I could not explain.
Percy had a religious bent as a child. His eager embrace of theology at Catholic school alarmed his mother, so she transferred his education from nuns to a retired judge living across the street. With embarrassment, Percy recalls objecting to a scene in Othello as immoral. He asked the surprised judge if they could switch to a different play.
I must have been an unbearable little prig. I do hope I’ve outgrown it. If not, it wasn’t Mother’s fault.
His mother kept moving him from teacher to teacher, trying to find the right fit for the gifted, but odd child.
I was a sickly youngster who never had illnesses, who hated sports partly because they didn’t seem important and mostly because I was poor at them, who knew better what I didn’t want than what I did, who was sensitive but hard-headed, docile but given to the balks, day-dreamy but uncommunicative, friendly but not intimate — a frail problem-child, a pain in the neck.
The writing is excellent throughout the book, whether about the Mississippi River, the horrendous flood of 1927, or the various rungs of Delta society during the earliest periods of Jim Crow repression. However, to call the work politically incorrect would be a significant understatement. And that helps explain the book’s continuing low profile in American letters. Not only does Percy regularly use the terms “Negro” and “darkies” to refer to African-Americans, he seems unable to resist any opportunity to generalize about a class or group, whether Jews, blacks, poor whites, or faded aristocrats.
Below is his sketch of “river rats,” a sub-set of poor whites who lived near the Mississippi River and who, according to Percy, resisted the niceties of polite society, or even its most basic legal obligations.
[The river-rat] is white, Anglo-Saxon, with twists of speech and grammatical forms current in Queen Anne’s day or earlier, and a harsh “r” strange to all Southerners except mountaineers. Where he comes from no one knows or cares. Some find in him the descendant of those pirates who used to infest the river as far up as Memphis. It seems more likely his forefathers were out-of-door, ne’er-do-well nomads of the pioneer days. His shanty boats, like Huck Finn’s father’s, may be seen moored in the willows or against the sandbars as far up and down the river as I have ever traveled. He squats on bars and bits of mainland subject to overflow, raises a garden and a patch of corn, steals timber, rafts it, and sells it to the mills, and relies the year round on fishing for a living. He seems to regard [the river] as the Navajos regard Canyon de Chelly — as a sort of sanctuary and homeland, and it supplies the clam shells from which he makes buttons. Illiterate, suspicious, intensely clannish, blond, and usually ugly, river-rats make ideal bootleggers. The brand of corn or white mule they make has received nation-wide acclaim. They lead a life apart, uncouth, unclean, lawless, vaguely alluring. Their contact with the land world around them consists largely in being haled into court, generally for murder.
Percy’s affection for African-Americans is obvious, if dated and patronizing. He describes black people as “the only Southerners worth talking about.” Here he recalls crawfishing with a boy named Skillet:
He was the best crawfisher in the world and I was next. Instead of closed sewers our town had open ditches, which after an overflow swarmed with crawfish, small clear ones, quite shrimp-like, whose unexpected backward agility saved them from any except the most skillful hands, and large red ones, surly and whiskered, with a startling resemblance to the red-nosed old reprobates you saw around the saloons when you were looking for tobacco tags in the sawdust. When these rared back and held their claws wide apart, Skillet said they were saying, “Swear to God, white folks, I ain’t got no tail.” Theoretically it was for their tails that we hunted them, because when boiled and seasoned and prayed over they made that thick miraculous pink soup you never experience unless you have French blood in the family or unless you dine at Prunier’s. Of course anyone could catch crawfish with a string and a lump of bacon, and anyone knows their family life is passed in holes, like snake-holes, from which they must be lured; but who except Skillet had ever observed that a hollow bone lying on the bottom of a ditch is bound to be occupied by one?
Another vivid passage recounts Mrs. Percy’s method of preparing the famous Southern cocktail known as a mint julep:
Certainly her juleps had nothing in common with those hybrid concoctions one buys in bars the world over under that name. It would have been sacrilege to add lemon, or a slice of orange or of pineapple, or one of those wretched maraschino cherries. First you needed excellent bourbon whisky; rye or Scotch would not do at all. Then you put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampened it with water. Next, very quickly — and here was the trick in the procedure — you crushed your ice, actually powdered it, preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remained dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, you crammed the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Last you filled the glass, which apparently had no room left for anything else, with bourbon, the older the better, and grated a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass immediately frosted and you settled back in your chair for half an hour of sedate cumulative bliss. Although you stirred the sugar at the bottom, it never all melted, therefore at the end of the half hour there was left a delicious mess of ice and mint and whisky which a small boy was allowed to consume with calm rapture. Probably the anticipation of this phase of a julep was what held me on the outskirts of these [family gatherings] rather than the excitement of the discussion, which often I did not understand.
Throughout the memoir runs a current of sadness over disappearing customs and culture, as well as rueful pessimism about race relations.
[The] Delta problem is how all these folks — aristocrats gone to seed, poor whites on the make, Negroes convinced mere living is good, aliens of all sorts that blend or curdle — can dwell together in peace if not brotherhood and live where, first and last, the soil is the only means of livelihood. Most of our American towns, all of our cities, have their unsolved problems of assimilation. But the South’s is infinitely more difficult of solution. The attempt to work out any sort of one, much less a just one, as a daily living problem, diverts the energies and abilities of our best citizenship ….
Percy describes a visit in 1922 from a Ku Klux Klan organizer hoping to start a group in Percy’s hometown of Greenville, Miss.
Percy is amazed and appalled by the effect of the KKK speaker on listeners.
[He] made an artful speech to a tense crowd that packed every cranny of the room; and every man was armed. Who killed Garfield? A Catholic. Who assassinated President McKinley? A Catholic. Who had recently bought a huge tract of land opposite West Point and another overlooking Washington? The pope. Convents were brothels, the confessional a place of seduction, the basement of every Catholic church an arsenal. The Pope was about to seize the government. To the rescue, Klansmen! These were statements which any trained mind recognized as lies, but which no man without weeks of ridiculous research could disprove. It was an example of Nazi propaganda before there were Nazis. The very enormity and insolence of the lie carried conviction to the simple and the credulous.
But Lanterns on the Levee is more than social and political history. It is a meditation on aging, on falling short in life. In his later years Percy strolls through the town cemetery and reflects on the occupants.
While people are alive we judge them good or bad, condemn them as failures or praise them as successes, love them or despise them. Only when they are dead do we see them, not with charity, but with understanding. Alive they are remote, even hostile; dead, they join our circle and you see the family likeness. As I loiter among our graves reading the names on the headstones, names that when they identified living men I sometimes hated or scorned as enemies of me and mine and all that we held good, I find myself smiling. How unreal and accidental seem their defects! I know their stories; this one was a whore and this a thief, here lies the town hypocrite and there one who should have died before he was born. I know their stories, but not their hearts. With a little shifting of qualities, with a setting more to their needs, with merely more luck, this woman could have borne children who would have been proud of her, and this thief might have become the father of the poor. Now death has made them only home-folks and I like sound of their familiar names. They lie there under the grass in the evening light so helplessly, my townsmen, a tiny outpost of the lost tribe of our star. Understanding breaks over my heart and I know that the wickedness and the failures of men are nothing and their valor and pathos and effort everything.
In turn, he examines his own life, which would end soon enough. He died in 1942 at age 57, the year after the memoir was published.
Among these handfuls of misguided dust I am proud to be a man and assuaged for my own defects. I muse on this one small life that it is all I have to show for, the sum of it, the wrong turnings, the weakness of will, the feebleness of spirit, one tiny life with darkness before and after, and it at best a riddle and a wonder. One by one I count the failures — at law undistinguished, at teaching unprepared, at soldiering average, at citizenship unimportant, at love second-best, at poetry forgotten before remembered — and I acknowledge the deficit. I am not proud, but I am not ashamed. What have defeats and failures to do with the good life? But … more troubling doubts assail me. Of all the people I have loved, wisely and unwisely, deeply and passingly, I have loved no one so much as myself. Of all the hours of happiness granted me, none has been so keen and holy as a few unpredictable moments alone. I have never walked with God …. I have seen the goodness of men and the beauty of things. I have no regrets. I am not contrite. I am grateful.
As beautiful and vivid as the memoir is, the defects are obvious. It is, in today’s parlance, riddled with unexamined privilege. The chapter about his college, Sewanee, is nostalgic and sentimental to the point of maudlin (though he gives an impressive tour of the native wildflowers of Tennessee). His reflections on “our race problem” are not merely paternalistic, but based on patently racist assumptions about the inferiority of African-Americans as a group. The tone of these passages is aggrieved and defensive. These parts of the book have aged poorly.
Nor does the book address the writer’s sexuality or love relationships, a significant gap in a memoir. Percy, like Marcel Proust, was likely gay, according to scholars. But readers are left in the dark whether significant romantic relationships occurred, let alone shaped his life.
The memoir tends toward impressionism and sometimes fails to convey the actual breadth of the author’s life and family. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School, a World War I veteran, the son of a U.S. senator, and the adoptive father of three young cousins whose parents appear to have died by suicide. (One of the three children was Walker Percy.) Suicide ran in the Percy family, and it is easy to pick up the scent of depression all through the memoir, from the infant crying over a nanny’s lullaby to the unexpected appearance at a dinner party of an ancient, senile Civil War hero still obsessing about financial errors which brought ruin and disgrace after the war.
Percy conveys the youth and energy of the party, the incongruous arrival of the trembling relic from long ago, the quiet kindness shown by Percy’s parents.
[He] came into the light still wide-eyed like a ghost, a ghost that is not afraid, but only uncertain, a ghost that can’t remember. He sat down with those youngsters in their party clothes just as Banquo’s ghost did, but mercifully they knew nothing and rattled on, though I could see Mother wanted to cry. He hardly touched his food and sat quietly, looking but not seeing, trying to remember something. Once he leaned to Father and said softly: “I have come back to go through those records. It was all a mistake. They will show everything was in order.” Father said: “Of course, General.”
The anecdote shows the memoirist at his best — a sharp observer of others, capable of deep feeling, convinced of the illuminating value of even small, domestic moments.
The influence of Gandhi on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is well known.
But Gandhi himself owed a debt to the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who had written on the same topic of nonviolence.
And Tolstoy, in turn, learned from others before him, including the French political philosopher Étienne de la Boétie in the 1500s, the Czech dissenter Jan Hus in the 1400s, and most crucially for Tolstoy — Jesus Christ.
In the books A Confession and The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy describes his midlife crisis, his turn toward faith, and his growing conviction that churches everywhere — across history — disregard the most important part of Christ’s message.
For Tolstoy, true Christianity is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
Nonviolence and unconditional love, even for one’s enemies, are such radical directives, with such major implications; if one takes them seriously, Tolstoy says, then it becomes hard to justify or participate in most of what churches, governments, and societies require of members.
As an example, Tolstoy describes the public whipping of two peasants who were found to have infringed the land rights of a wealthy aristocrat.
Tolstoy lays out, person by person, all the participants in the punishment, from the judge and prosecutors to the soldiers and officers dispatched to carry out the whipping.
Tolstoy himself was on the same train as these soldiers on their way to the village. He observed their behavior, their apparent attitudes about the case, and then their actions during the beating.
He believed that down deep, few of the soldiers felt good about the case.
All these lads, peasants for the most part, know what is the business they have come about; they know that the landowners always oppress their brothers the peasants, and that therefore it is most likely the same thing here.
But the soldiers participated anyway. It was easier to obey. In Tolstoy’s view, they had been gradually ‘hypnotized’ by the daily experience of obeying laws, obeying superiors, training as soldiers.
What other options were available to these men?
Tolstoy lays out various scenarios which basically boil down to civil disobedience — a simple, nonviolent, matter-of-fact refusal to participate, no matter the repercussions.
In the United States, another writer considered similar questions roughly 40 years earlier.
Henry David Thoreau wrote about civil disobedience in relation to slavery and the Mexican-American War.
Getting at the same point as Tolstoy’s soldiers on the train, Thoreau wrote, “Even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”
Thoreau distinguished “respect for laws” from the dictates of individual conscience. Of himself, he wrote, “I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also.”
Long before Thoreau and Tolstoy, the French essayist Étienne de la Boétie worked the same moral territory. He identified consent as the key variable, according to political theorist Murray Rothbard.
To [de la Boétie] the great mystery of politics was obedience to rulers. Why in the world do people agree to be looted and otherwise oppressed by government overlords? It is not just fear … consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn.
Of course, nonviolence is not merely a political strategy, but also a spiritual path.
What Tolstoy traces back to Christ exists still earlier in the teachings of Gautama Buddha; Taoist philosophers in China; and — even further back — Jainist monk-mendicants in India.
Indeed, the Jainist religion seems the oldest, most conceptually consistent practice of nonviolence (ahimsa). Nearly a thousand years before Christ, the Jainist leader Parshvanatha advocated nonviolence as one of the four requirements for right conduct. (The other three were non-possession, non-stealing, and non-lying.)
One of my most vivid memories from college 30 years ago was a World Religions class taught by Prof. Diana Eck. On a sleepy, rainy Friday morning she showed a film which included a clip of Jainist monks sweeping the ground before them as they walked. They were trying to brush away insects and microbes so that none would be stepped on and killed. They were also wearing white cloth masks in order to avoid accidentally inhaling and killing tiny organisms in the air.
I was impressed by the Jainists. Their extreme nonviolence struck me as absurd, but also beautiful and maybe even … logical?
Wasn’t it the logical extension of not just Jainist beliefs, but the core beliefs of other major religions?
The precept ‘First, Do No Harm’ is commonly associated with the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. But the idea pre-dated him and certainly has broad application far beyond medicine. In one form or another, ‘Do No Harm’ lies at the heart of many faiths, even if the rule is not regularly followed (and certainly not at the level of whisking Jainists).
As much as I hate to consider the prospect of President Trump winning re-election in November, I like to be prepared for everything, including the re-birth of fascism.
My natural impulse would be to fight and disobey aggressively, even violently. But more and more, I believe that Parshvanatha, Christ, de la Boétie, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, and MLK were on the right path. This seems especially the case where my disagreement is not just with Trump himself, but with millions who voted for him, and thousands who implement his policies.
In this situation, where I am in effect on the train with Tolstoy’s soldiers, I think radical nonviolence is the only defensible answer.
A famous statement of nonviolence was made by the defeated Nez Perce Chief Joseph in 1877 in what is now Montana.
His surrender capped a brutal campaign by the U.S. Army, which had chased the Nez Perce nearly 1,200 miles through the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. After a five-day siege in freezing weather, the Nez Perce finally surrendered. Chief Joseph said:
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohulhulsote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say no and yes. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are. Perhaps they are freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sad and sick. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
Whatever religion Chief Joseph was practicing in that moment, I would like to be a follower. For me, his words are up there with the Sermon on the Mount, Ecclesiastes, the Tao Te Ching, and the Gettysburg Address, for eloquence and power.
It’s hard to keep up with the changing scare tactics.
Four years ago it was illegal immigrants and Muslims who were threatening our very existence.
Today it’s antifa, BLM protesters, and looters.
Anything to distract from COVID and unemployment, I guess, and from the nonexistent border wall and the various Trump associates behind bars.
The shifting array of bogeymen reminds me of Orwell’s 1984.
Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil.
Trump rhetoric about imposing law and order ignores the fact that he has been in power for four years. It does not speak well of a sitting president, for example, that he cannot guarantee free and fair elections, peaceful streets, or public health.
At least when Richard Nixon ran on “law and order” in 1968, he was doing so as a challenger, not an incumbent. There was logic in arguing, This current situation is disastrous and chaotic, I’ll get it under control.
The argument makes less sense when you’ve been in office for four years, have controlled the Senate for those same four years and the House for two.
The question for voters now is the one posed 40 years ago by Ronald Reagan in his battle against incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Are you better off today than you were four years ago?
Trump’s head-scratching inaugural address four years ago about ‘American carnage’ doesn’t seem like a head-scratcher now. It looks prescient. He seems to have manifested the chaos he envisioned.
Trump stokes division at every opportunity on the theory it improves his re-election chances. The long hot summer of riots has been a godsend. It takes airtime from his COVID failures, and energizes his base.
First, store owner Mendy White re-opened her Melbourne, Fla., crafts shop in May after quarantine lockdown.
Because she was living with an elderly parent who had immunity issues, she posted signs requiring that her customers wear masks.
On the first day of re-opening, while working the register, she was confronted by a man who disagreed with the mask policy. When White asked a second time that he wear a mask, he lifted his shirt to reveal a gun.
So far this is just an everyday news story, unfortunately. In the U.S. we are well aware by now that masks are a political flashpoint.
What set Mendy White apart for me was this quote. She told a reporter: “I’m gonna be honest. I work in a fucking bead shop. Do you think I should have to carry a gun to come to work? It’s art. It’s craft. It’s design. It’s teaching people. I’m not coming to a shooting range. This should be the happiest place.”
Side note: I personally associate craft stores with last-minute trips to buy supplies for my kids to build replicas of 19th-century California missions for school projects. Not a happy place for me, memory wise.
Craft stores were also at the center of the Supreme Court decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which granted a religious exemption to a company that didn’t want to pay for contraception in employee health care.
That said, whether you are outfitting your child to build a miniature San Juan Capistrano or you are a cashier trying to pay for birth-control pills or you’re a store owner trying to sell some beads, yes, I imagine the unexpected brandishing of firearms does make the store a less happy place.
I work in a fucking bead shop.
For me, the statement of exasperation puts poor Mendy White into a separate category. When she said it, she was wasn’t really speaking for or against masks, she was more commenting on the overall insane state of affairs. She was an observer of the human condition.
Sure, there are businesses where we’ve almost come to expect guns getting waved around. McDonalds, Wendys, Target, and WalMart all come to mind as places where you might possibly want to keep your wits about you.
But the Karen and Friends bead shop?
Let me put it this way. When you hear a crafter dropping an F-bomb, you know we are off track, as a republic.
The two sides of the abortion debate are facing off against each other in a loud, chaotic crowd scene. The focus is Ruth, played by Laura Dern. She’s a glue-huffing pregnant woman who has bounced back and forth between the pro-life and pro-choice sides in a public battle over her pregnancy.
The pro-life side ultimately tracks down Ruth’s mom. The mom’s voice, amplified by speakers, booms across a huge crowd of protesters.
“RUTH! WHAT IF I ABORTED YOU?”
A hush falls as the crowd ponders the existential question.
Not Ruth. Jangled by the protests and the noise of a nearby helicopter — and by weeks of being pursued, lectured, cajoled, wooed, scripted, and paraded around as a symbol — she has had enough. She grabs a bullhorn from the man next to her and screams into the void.
“WELL, AT LEAST I WOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO SUCK YOUR BOYFRIEND’S COCK!”
The crowd is reduced to a stunned, disgusted silence.
Perhaps it doesn’t speak well of me, but I love this moment. If you could hug a moment, I would hug this one. As uncomfortable as Ruth’s shouted response is, as horrendous as sexual abuse is, the outburst reveals exactly who she is — a less-than-ideal mouthpiece for any movement, and an accidental genius of truth telling.
She is no one’s victim, as it turns out. She won’t be manipulated anymore despite her difficult background, her lack of education, her drug addiction. If you keep pushing and pushing on this woman, she will speak out loudly and, uh, plainly.
Her outburst also highlights the enduring irony of people focusing so exclusively on the fetus and sometimes sort of forgetting everything which may follow, including — in Ruth’s case — sexual molestation.
A less profane example of sudden truth comes from the movie Sideways, which like Citizen Ruth was directed by Alexander Payne.
Sideways is about two friends on a wine-tasting trip near Santa Barbara, Calif. One (played by Paul Giamatti) is a wine connoisseur undergoing a midlife crisis. The other is an old college roommate, a laid-back, has-been actor played by Thomas Haden Church (himself a has-been actor when the movie was made).
At one stop on the wine-tasting tour, we see nerdy Giamattai in all his obsessive glory, riffing to Church about all the hidden “notes” he smells in the wine’s aroma, including strawberry, passion fruit, asparagus, cheese.
Church generously listens to the spiel, even as he grows impatient to stop sniffing and just knock back the wine.
Finally, after both men drink the wine and look at each other in satisfaction, Giamatti’s face falls.
“Are you chewing gum?” he asks Church.
The line illustrates perfectly the two different personalities, their different takes on life, their radically different experiences of this particular moment.
Giamatti is buzzing with the energy of a troubled genius. A divorced, unsuccessful writer, he has been making ends meet as a school teacher in San Diego. He has actually stolen money from his own mother — on her birthday, no less — to finance the wine-tasting trip.
When he realizes Church was chomping on Juicy Fruit during the holy moment of tasting, it’s not just frustrated disbelief on Giamatti’s face. It’s deep loneliness. It’s that painful, alienating moment when we realize how specific and intense our experience of the world can be. We question whether our own view can ever really be communicated to, or shared with, a friend, spouse, reader, anyone.
More specifically the gum chewing reveals that Giamatti is in the wrong company. He isn’t with his tribe, he isn’t with a soulmate, a loving spouse, a grown child, or even the defrauded birthday parent who unwittingly paid for the trip.
Instead, the bumbling, dim-witted college buddy — the gum chewer — was the best that the unraveling Giamatti could find for the pilgrimage to wine country.
My final example of sudden truth isn’t funny, but is revealing nonetheless.
A libel lawsuit dragged on for years. Even though Behar and Time ultimately “won” the case, the personal toll on Behar was significant.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, “when you’re sued for libel, and it goes on like that, it affects your career because you become a half-time defendant, so you can only be a half-time journalist. … That’s how you defeat a reporter, in a sense.”
The whole interview is worth listening to, but Behar describes one particular moment roughly 20 days into his deposition by church lawyers.
The lawyers began asking whether he knew L. Ron Hubbard’s theories about the developmental importance of events which take place in the immediate environment of a fetus, newborn, or young child.
Even in his exhaustion, Behar realized where the questions were going.
Church investigators had uncovered painful facts about his childhood which had led many years earlier to Behar being removed from his home and declared a ward of New York State.
“I was tired. Sometimes I had my head on the table, and they’re asking questions — nasty, nasty, nasty stuff sometimes. At a certain point, I just felt, ‘Come on, is that the best you can do? The more you are awful, the more I realize I’m so glad I did that piece. So keep coming. What else ya got?’
“I don’t know if they realized who they were dealing with because, again, going back to my childhood, and going back to who I am, you know, I’m not a snowflake, and if you’re gonna come after me like that … it just shows who you are.”
The courtroom moment reveals to Behar exactly how shitty and cruel his adversary is willing to be, but it also reveals to him — and us — his own strength and his rightness in having taken a hard, critical look at the church.
I’ve traversed disparate topics in this essay — Covid masks, abortion, wine tasting, Scientology. What the moments have in common — for me anyway — is an unexpected blast of realness, a sudden intrusion of startling, inconvenient, possibly crude reality.
Whether the revealed truth is about an individual, a political issue, or just an enduring human problem such as loneliness, violence, or despair, I myself feel more human for having witnessed the revelation.
After years of deteriorating vision, my mother finally reached the point last week where she can no longer read.
I can think of no one else who will miss reading as much.
Whether Scandinavian detective novels or Téa Obreht’s Inland or a large-print version of Moby-Dick, Mom is always reading something, usually several books at the same time.
When I call to see how she and dad are doing, we talk about doctor appointments and Trump Era politics. But inevitably conversation turns back to books.
Mom, now 86, tells me why Melville went into such extraordinary detail about the specifics of whaling, the separating of blubber and bone, the rendering of blubber into oil. Or she asks me to look up a few lines of poetry her mother used to recite.
Alcestis rises from the shades; Verse calls them forth; Tis verse that gives Immortal youth to mortal maids
Mom wants to know who wrote that, so I look it up for her.
It makes sense she’s such an avid reader. Both her parents earned PhDs in English literature from Yale in the 1930s. Her dad worked as a college professor until his untimely death at 37. And then her mother, after moving the young family back to Nebraska, became the one-woman English Department at a Catholic college in Omaha.
When Mom first met Dad 64 years ago in Ann Arbor, Mich., her big takeaway was, This guy has read as much Dickens as I have!
Unlike her parents, Mom did not teach for a living. Instead she volunteered as an art teacher and served as PTA president during the first year of school integration in our part of Maryland. She and my father raised four kids, and then she returned to school in the early 1980s in order to earn a second four-year degree. Her first was from Smith College, her second from the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington D.C.
She also has a masters degree in history from the University of Michigan.
For 20 years Mom owned and operated a photography gallery in the Dupont Circle area of D.C. She also learned pottery and necklace-making along the way. The homes of her children and grandchildren are full of her creations.
A light sleeper, she picks up whatever’s handy in the middle of the night and reads that till she falls back to sleep. Sometimes she even sleep-reads. Halfway between waking and dreaming, she just keeps reading. The next day it’s sometimes hard to sort out what she read, what she dreamed, what she invented as better plot points for the story.
Mom is always confident in her critical judgment. Indeed, it may be said she comes from the Not Always Right, But Never in Doubt school of criticism. She’ll tell you which actor played Hamlet best, which modern re-telling of Beowulf succeeds, where John O’Hara’s work stands in the American canon, and which George Eliot novels you can skip altogether.
“Oh don’t bother with Daniel Deronda,” she told me. “If you’ve already done Middlemarch, then go to Mill on the Floss next.”
When my siblings and I go back East to visit, we find her in the mornings in her favorite chair, head tilted back, eyes closed, books on both sides of her, one in her lap.
She reads not to be considered smart or well read, but because she is curious. And not just about the books themselves; she wants to know everything about the writers — where they lived, what they thought of contemporaries. She wants to know whether this one got along with that one, whether this other one drank too much. She’ll tell you everything she knows about the relationship between neighbors Melville and Hawthorne. She is not above trading in literary gossip.
Arguably one flaw in her critical reading is a tendency to see sub-textual homoerotic themes in just about any work she comes across. (Don’t get her started on Melville.) But to point this out about her is splitting hairs. Infusing it all — her reading, her analysis, her questions about what you yourself are reading — is joy and enthusiasm. Beautiful old photos of Faulkner, Tennyson, Yeats, Whitman, Joyce, and T.S. Elliot hung on the walls of my childhood home. My own name — both the formal Christopher and the informal Kit — are from the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe.
Even with the loss of vision, Mom will still be able to listen to books. Though she can’t see her iPhone well enough to use it for audiobooks, she can operate the CD player which she and my father have been using lately to listen to country music.
That’s another laudable trait — her openness to all genres and art forms. A book, movie, or song either works or it doesn’t. The pedigree of the creator is beside the point, in her view.
After watching a Ken Burns documentary about country music last year, Mom went down an absolute rabbit hole exploring Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, the Carter Family, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson.
Of the Kristofferson song “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” she told me, “Oh Kit, that is a major song.”
I said “Me and Bobby McGee” was pretty good, too.
Mom wasn’t having it. “You can feel that hangover in ‘Sunday Coming Down,’ you can feel the emptiness and sadness.”
She gives high marks, too, to “Pancho and Lefty,” written by the late Townes Van Zandt.
Livin’ on the road, my friend, Was gonna keep you free and clean. Now you wear your skin like iron And your breath is hard as kerosene.
You weren’t your mamma’s only boy, But her favorite one, it seems. She began to cry when you said goodbye And sank into your dreams.
Pancho was a bandit, boys, His horse as fast as polished steel. He wore his gun outside his pants For all the honest world to feel.
“That’s not a song,” Mom said. “That is poetry.”
I asked a couple days ago what books on CD she wants me to send.
“Oh the usual,” she said. “Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield … any of those. We always love Dickens. Whatever you can find.”
She was admirably cheerful, I thought, given the loss of her first love — reading.
“Oh it’s okay,” she said. “I still have my second love — your father.”
I was listening to the old Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock” the other day.
The mood is somber and hypnotic. Her performance is flawless.
One one level, the song is about the famous Woodstock music festival in 1969, which Mitchell was unable to attend. On another, it’s about the peace movement of the late ’60s and the back-to-nature impulse in hippie culture, a phenomenon Mitchell links lyrically to the biblical garden of Eden.
Her third theme is even loftier.
“We are stardust,” Mitchell sings.
We are “billion-year-old carbon.”
As a scientific matter, this is true. The atoms making up our human bodies include 13-billion-year-old hydrogen created soon after the Big Bang, and other elements which are roughly 4 to 5 billion years old. These latter elements were produced by star deaths, or supernovae, which spewed huge amounts of matter into the universe.
Over time, some of that matter coalesced to form Earth.
Each human today — each life form of any kind on Earth — is composed of that matter.
So we really are stardust. We’re made of incredibly ancient particles which originated in outer space.
Further, the atoms which make up our teeth, our eyes, our skin are always being replaced. Our features and appearance may appear fixed, but the composition at any given moment is relatively new, even in our bones, which seem so hard and unchanging.
According to one estimate, across five years the body does a complete replacement; no single particle is left from before.
And then there’s our status as host organisms. Each of us has an estimated 30 trillion tiny organisms living on or inside us, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes. “Me” is actually “we.”
It’s a weird state of affairs. Knowing I’m made of stardust makes me feel at once miraculous — an unlikely product of interstellar events — and prosaic — a temporary creature shaped from mud.
It also reminds me of a dream I had two years ago.
I was driving a minivan full of kids. I needed to get them back to their respective homes. The minivan broke down. I went for help. I wound up in a sort of cardboard shelter without ceilings.
The night grew colder. Gradually I realized, Fuck. I’m going to die out here, alone.
I sat for a while shivering. Then I lay down and looked up at the stars. I could feel my pulse dropping. Death was near.
I thought some more about the problem of dying alone.
I thought, Well, even if my wife and children were here to hold my hands, I’d still be alone in the actual moment of death. Wherever I’m going, it’s a solo trip.
That realization calmed me.
I thought, Maybe I’m supposed to take a deep breath and just … let go.
I took a big breath and exhaled. Whoosh! I was vaulted into the stars, speeding into space as if on the top of a rocket. I could feel the wind on my face, the G-forces on my body. I was exploding into the universe.
I woke up amazed. It felt like I had actually lived the sequence. I thought, If that’s what happens when we die — if it feels like we’re soaring into the stars — that is extremely cool.
Today I can still tap into that dream. The remembered experience reduces my fear of dying. Instead I feel wonder and curiosity. Is that really what death feels like?
In “Woodstock,” Mitchell describes a dream of her own.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers Riding shotgun in the sky And they were turning into butterflies Above our nation
It’s an arresting image, one of radical transformation.
Not unlike the radical transformation of stars exploding; or of an improbably temperate planet forming in the endless black nothingness; or of creatures coming temporarily to life, being conscious, loving, caring, and then one day returning to the cosmos.