The Necessary Writer

Stop worrying if your vision is new

Let others make that decision

They usually do

You keep moving on

“Move On”–Stephen Sondheim

You already know how to do it.

If you wait for inspiration, the right moment, the formulated phrase, then all you will do is wait.

Writing is like getting on the boat. No matter what the weather is when you leave the marina, you don’t know what you will encounter in three or four days.  And so you get on the boat and sail. Something will happen, maybe something similar to what happened yesterday, or five years ago—an ocean rolled out flat as plate glass that reflects no clouds, only the hot yellow eye of the sun. You will sweat and pray for anything, any change. If you were lucky, you brought a book onboard, and you charge through half of The Pickwick Papers in an afternoon. You will read fast to make up for the blazingly windless day. Or, you will not—you don’t know. You will find out as you go.

You are on the boat, so you dream of dry land and a woman who writes you love letters. The scopolamine patch behind your left ear gives you visions that will haunt you into your sixties: a black-bearded fat man pretending to have a heart attack, but you have discovered his lie, and he winks at you, knowing, somehow, that you will keep his secret, and in doing so, will enter a world of lies. Of course, you didn’t ask for this vision; you didn’t know what was coming. You thought you were sailing to Bermuda—the island of The Tempest—and would find stories of Sycorax and Caliban (you will: she serves breakfast at a restaurant in Hamilton, and he rents mopeds that break down on the winding North Shore Road).

There are no visions if you do not get on the boat. There is no hard, stupid sea, no Bermuda, no gingerbread at a restaurant in Flatts. Your father does not tell you to take the helm and hold it until the mountainous sea subsides. “I can’t do it anymore,” he tells you. “I will send your brother up, but you have to hold the helm. He can’t sail in this.” So you become the necessary sailor.

Writing is not like getting on the boat. Writing is getting on the boat. As much as you prepared, you discover, adapt, and grow. You don’t become a better sailor by reading about sailing—although, of course, reading can help. But remember Antonio Machado’s advice: “Mankind owns for things that are no good at sea: rudder, anchor, oars, and the fear of going down.” What you read is the rudder—an idea of where you should (or could) go. The rest is sailing.

I spend my Sundays wandering through the galleries of Washington DC and writing while I wander. That’s not true. I spend my Sundays writing in the galleries of Washington DC, and when I pause, I wander. I spend 8-10 hours resetting my writing brain for the week and return each week to reset again. The shadows on the walls of the Calder room remind me that there is the thing—the made thing (art, literature, as you will)—and then the accident of the moment—the way the mobile turns above my head and the light casts its silhouette against the wall. I watch as people stand in front of his Birdsong, and the one photographs the sculpture and shadow while his companion kisses him on the cheek. A 10-year-old girl asks the docent, “Are we allowed to take pictures of the sculptures?” She walks around the room with a small camera, recording everything she wants to remember.

Birdsong—Alexander Calder above Black, Yellow, Red—José de Rivera

I sit beneath a wire armature horse and write.

I write in galleries because I am surrounded by finished work. The artists painted or sculpted every day. Monet? There are ten paintings by Monet in Gallery 80. 2500 works have been attributed to Monet. Alongside the Calder sculptures, there is a photograph of his studio. It is work to create works. They were all, always, on the boat.

I love to write surrounded by people in the galleries because of their response to the art. Yes, there are people on their phones. Some walk through the National Gallery and do not see that in Gallery 81, on the wall opposite Constant’s The Favorite of the Emir, the three Renoir paintings (Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar, Odalisque, and Bather Arranging her Hair) reflect the figures in the Constant: musician, dark-haired woman, red-haired woman. Accidents and intentions abound. Unless you go and pay attention, you do not see. Write and pay attention.

But write. Write every day. Find a space that energizes your writing. Annie Dillard claims that she needs a blank wall and no distractions. Who can argue? Know what works for you. But write. Write for hours every day.

When you sail, unless you are in one of the science fiction yachts of the America’s Cup, you cross the ocean at an absurd 5-7 knots. Except you proceed, like the tortoise, every hour of every day. You may read 400 pages of Dickens in an afternoon, but you cannot write 400 pages in an afternoon. Well, maybe Dickens could. Get used to the steady, inexorable pace of the work, knowing that the words and pages will pile up as you write. Don’t be afraid to count the miles, the hours, the days, or the words. If you set out each day, they will accumulate. Get on the boat and go.

You need to become the necessary writer. Do not wait for inspiration or rely on that inner voice that weaves stories and does not write (I know I have a novel in me if only I had time to write). You have the helm—on dreary, monotonous days when the Iron Genoa churns out diesel fumes and artificial speed and for the hours when your mastery balances your life on the crest of swells. You are the only one who can fulfill the wishes you make walking past fountains, rubbing strange lamps. You are the djinn, the captain, the writer. So get on the boat, and don’t look back.

The Reader

A woman reads in the lower left-hand corner of the painting. She reads at the side of the bend in the brook under the shadow of a tree growing on the opposite bank. In the center, a patch of light bursts from the sky off in the distance, and two figures—are they fauns?—sit in the shadows underneath trees. She is smaller than the trees in the Forest of Fontainebleau, smaller even than the stone that juts out over the stream. Because she is human, she draws our attention. She is not nude. Her gaze does not capture ours; she is reading. 

The Forest of Fontainbleau, 1834
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
National Gallery of Art

She is reading, and perhaps we would scold her for not paying attention to nature. “Look at the trees!” we might exhort, much in the same way that we scold friends on cellphones. “Look up!” How little things change in 200 years.

And yet, that rock that the stream has not worn away is like a fulcrum; it balances the reading woman and the rest of the world. Literature vs. Nature. Or maybe a portrayal of nature balanced against nature itself.  Much like me, today, at the museum. I could be walking on a trail, along a beach, or on a sidewalk that borders the Thames. I am not. I am in the National Gallery, looking at paintings and writing about what I see. 

Perhaps you could read the painting as a dream: the forest is what the woman reads about. Everything above the thin sward of grass where she reads is the thought ignited by the words in her book. Or perhaps Corot wants to tell us that a book has the same weight as everything else in the painting. That may be a warning as well—literature (what kind of literature? genre fiction? epic poetry? something Pynchon hasn’t written yet?) is going to replace nature.

I think of it as a challenge. Write something that can match nature. I love the made thing, the work of hands, whether it is an almond croissant or a cathedral. When we make beautiful things, we transcend the ingredients of our craft. And this: write something that keeps her reading. Yes, writing is about me—my words! my vision!—but what else matters more than that woman by the brook? I write for you.

Writing and the Plague Year

The year came and went. After having change imposed on me, all I could think of was, what could I change? What would match the upheavals of the past fifteen months? The pandemic, my mother’s death, the next round of the pandemic, my school’s response to the pandemic, the election, the pandemic, the insurrection. It felt as all I did amounted to little more than defensive maneuvers: wearing a mask, cleaning my mother’s house, writing words for her service, eating outside, voting, reading the news, and charting the waves, eating outside in cold weather, wearing two masks. All I could do was persist.

            I hate “persist.” Fuck resilience.

            And yet, I love to persist—to take the helm in a storm. But to go! To have a destination and a challenge in mind, and then to pursue it heroically. Listening to The Iliad (because what else does one do when one needs to be reminded of heroic persistence?), I am struck by the grinding effort of warfare, even heroic warfare. In among the shining moments of triumph, Ajax sweats. Idomeneus is wounded and then returns to battle. Achilles waits. Before we witness his mastery of battle, he is a master of brooding. A friend said, “But he’s a god.” He is the son of a god, but many sons of gods perish at Troy. War does not distinguish—or it did not.

            Over the past two years, I have learned the value of persisting at my work. This does not mean learning to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or the stupid requirements of the day—of all the other things I must do. This year, everything that took away from that work became anathema. Returning to the slog and joy of persistent daily writing has reminded me that anything else is not enough. While I am willing to work and commit to the project, I also need to throw overboard everything—and everyone—who does not contribute to my journey.

            After all, writing is work. It isn’t something I do to make me feel better. I listened to a young man who said that his writing “picked up during the pandemic” that it helped bond him to his friends. These posts try to reveal some of the bones and muscles and nerves of the writing animal. And while I may feel connected to some of you when I write them, I am still at work. I may not sweat as much as Ajax, nonetheless I aspire.

            One of the clichés about writing is that it comes from inspiration. We focus on art and the ineffable merits of vision. Yes, some writers are more talented than others and have a scope and art that exceeds all others. If you don’t have a list of 10, or 100, then you haven’t really thought about the problem and challenge of excellence. It’s a worthwhile list to make, so long as you don’t turn that list into a wall or a fortress. Walled cities do fall, but the casualties are as numerous as specks of dust in the air. You would die counting them.

The Vision and Inspiration (Joan of Arc series: I)
Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel

What sets most writers apart isn’t vision. Writers write. Yes, Harper Lee goes silent after her one great book, and after a flurry, so does Salinger. Dickens, Woolf, Rushdie, Mahfouz, Kawabata, Austen, Eliot, Morrison. Or consider Rowling, King, Grisham, Steel, Gabaldon—writers whose books edge others off the shelves in bookstores. If there is inspiration, then it is the inspiration to sit down (or stand up) and write. Success—often determined in monetary terms—helps fan that inspiration (You like me! You really like me!), but chances are that those writers already established a habit, a ritual, or, more likely, a regimen. They worked, and the work was their inspiration.

The Turmoil of Conflict (Joan of Arc series: IV)

Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel

            I have the natural bent to slog but have lacked the discrimination to choose the slog that best suited me. It is so easy to fall into work that offers something like a reasonable remuneration. Except no amount—neither how little nor large—is enough to satisfy. I am reminded of the psychology experiment in which a rat is rewarded for performing a task—pressing a lever. The rat that received a reward each time it completed the task stopped; fat and happy rats will not work. The rat that received no reward gave up quickly. No shock there. However, the rat that received rare and random rewards pressed the lever feverishly. I have been that rat. Give me a task—any task—and watch me work for unpredictable and unsustainable reward.

            When I began writing in earnest three years ago, after a hiatus driven by all manner of tasks (worthy, meaningful tasks, I should add)—I knew that I was fighting against the idiot rat. Or that I was in the wrong experiment. Because I do not expect the rewards to be anything other than rare and random: someone from Senegal read my blog post; an agent sent a complimentary rejection; the audience at a reading sat enraptured and gasped in unison at the right place. There are moments when, after putting words on the page that I raise my arms in triumph. I delight myself, which is, fortunately, neither a rare or random occurrence.

            And I am not a rat. Neither am I an ape nor a proto-human. While those instincts and drives may be part of the first draft of my evolving consciousness, evolution has provided me with a brain that can reflect. My brain (and yours) produces an inner voice that can guide me out of danger or deep-seated dissatisfaction. So, back to resilience—while I can persist or, even better, thrive in less than ideal circumstances, I can see that if those circumstances can be changed, I can change them. I can rewrite the early draft of my life.

The challenge for the late writer is that unlike Dickens or Woolf or take your pick, I do not have habits so ingrained that an explosive event—or a persistent eroding series of nonproductive events—will not affect them. And so, I must make a way forward that limits time spent elsewhere. I have lessons—the Sailing Lessons included—for how to plot my course. I have completed my practice sails. It is time to go, leave this year behind, and count the words as they tumble down.

Insistence of Memory

I got chickenpox, mumps, and measles. I had my tonsils out—an operation that required an overnight stay –when I was in 3rd grade because they had been the source of repeated infections. I bounced through cases of flu and other passing illnesses. Years later, I had mononucleosis during the first semester of college. Nothing keeps us from bumping into some microscopic problem. And forget about the web of mysteriously genetic and environmental causes that lead to Parkinson’s Disease or Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—the two illnesses that plagued my parents—but that was on the distant horizon.

I read Alistair MacLean’s novel The Satan Bug—in which a mutant virus threatens to wipe out humanity—in the 7th grade. In a world that lived under the menace of nuclear war, a biological threat was quieter and almost less tangible, and therefore more insidious. I traced these threats through films and books like The Andromeda Strain, Pursuit, and Rage. Even Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the possibility of a gas or disease outbreak to move the plot along. The insidious unseen nature of these gaseous or microscopic adversaries held my interest.

In my 20s, the HIV-AIDS epidemic galvanized my attention. How could it not? The emergence of a disease that would kill you after sexual intimacy staggered all of us who enjoyed the freedom afforded by birth control and an unshackled moral climate. We felt screwed (and not).

Whether fear or mordant curiosity drove me, I began to study viruses and epidemics with fury. The sudden spread of hemorrhagic fevers that Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) and Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) wrote about exacerbated my concern. It was impossible to moralize about what was coming—this wasn’t about sex. Deadly diseases lurked. Diseases have always been half a hair away. In Norfolk, a small park memorializes those who died during an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1855. I lived a block away.

Still, in my 30s, I read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  And then, almost by accident, stumbled on reports of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. I read Alfred W. Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic at some point in the late ’90s and then John Barry’s The Great Influenza when it came out in 2004. How could it be that we all knew about the Great War, but not the pandemic that occurred at the same time? We know about this now; Barry’s book made it to the bestseller list in 2020, but the memory of the pandemic faded in popular culture. I was surprised this past year when I realized that Mr. Gower’s son dies of influenza in It’s a Wonderful Life; it was the Spanish Flu. Where else was the pandemic?

So when COVID emerged in the winter of 2020, I was not surprised. After all, SARS and MERS had already flourished in their own specific ways. When it became clear that this would be more serious, I bought masks as soon as possible, kept my distance, washed my hands even more assiduously than usual, and settled in for the count. History provided stern warnings; I knew that a count—of cases and deaths—was coming.

We like to predict what will happen, and strangely enough, we tend to think that the future is unwritten. It is, and yet, for a good indication, look to the past. This is true whether you want to know what the weather will be like on May 14th or if there will be traffic on I-95 tomorrow morning. Yes, there are exceptions and random occurrences that will skew the numbers, but the past is all too reliable a guide. Fifty Million people have not died from COVID as died in the last great pandemic, nor have half a billion people contracted the disease. But our imagination does not need to stretch far to encompass those numbers. 675,000 United States citizens died in the influenza pandemic; that number is all too close to where we are headed this year. Yes, the population was smaller in 1918-19, but did anyone expect this to happen?

Over the past year, I gobbled down the numbers. I felt a strange intoxication with having a sense of where things were headed and seeing them move, painfully, sadly in that direction. Anthony Fauci, and most of the medical community, played Cassandra to a population that wished for another outcome. As if wishing could make it so. But what good did it do to know? What effect did my knowing have on anyone other than me? The numbers were a despairing gruel that neither nourished nor encouraged me. I had to wait them out. Eventually, I stopped reloading the numbers every hour and settled on the grim results that appeared each morning in the New York Times.

So what’s the point? Partly this: when you see it coming, get ready: hurricane, pandemic, or whatever is on the horizon of time and place. Get ready before you see it. You have been sick before; people have been sick around you. We should have known better, and our ignorance cost lives. The obvious is always right there. Yes, while knowledge can be overwhelming, there must be a sweet spot: enough information to teach us and lead us into productive discomfort without flooding us into anxious inaction The only way we learn is by exposure.

But there’s something more.

There must be a reason that the pandemic of 1918-19 disappeared from memory. Why and what do we forget? We forget, or remember selectively, and not just about events like pandemics. I’m not aiming at what we don’t retain. As a teacher, I am too aware that students do not retain everything. I wonder why do we forget some things and not others? This is not a reflection just on this pandemic or the last or the run of diseases.  What else have I forgotten? I scramble to instill new habits and new awarenesses or avoid falling down the well of past practices. To borrow from Robert Creely, “[w]hat am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often”? But more, what have I failed to remember and insist upon?

We resume the remembered rhythms of our lives and return to our old habits and anxieties as if they were never interrupted. Repetition has essential gravity and draws us back. Except sometimes some things should interrupt us. The persistent nudge of discomfort—that we do have something new to learn and some new way to behave—should goad us onto a new course. Except, we stay the course and return to the known, even if it is a life half-lived.

I can (and I suspect that I will) point to the world and shout, “J’accuse! You forgot!” I shout at myself. I must insist that I remember—or that I remember to insist. I write in the face of forgetting, in the face, to borrow once more from Creely, of “the tiredness, the fatuousness, [and] the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I must return to the hard work of insistence.

The pandemic passes, the lessons must not.

Uncertainty

“You are in transition,” she said.

I had changed my life, leaving a world in which I was relatively secure and not writing. I had made walls for myself to hang paintings and prints, in which friends could visit, and my daughter could stay three nights a week. Like the song says, this was not my beautiful house, this was not my beautiful life. There are a thousand, no a million people who would have doggedly pursued the life they made, the life I created. I was a principal, a teacher, a program director at my church. And I felt profoundly unsatisfied.

Just recently, I finished teaching Joyce’s “The Dead.” Again. I pointed out to my students that the whole point of literature is to learn about life. In “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy is an English teacher; he has, for all his life, read and learned about life. And yet, when life comes at him, he fails. He is stuck—beautifully stuck if we believe that the story’s closing coda is his thought. Yet stuck he is, like the “never-to-be-forgotten Johnny” going round and round the monument of King Billy. And if the beloved Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, the deliverer of the good news, is stuck, what hope have we?

I was stuck.

I had set out on a course years before and had finally begun my way back. I had started writing—nonfiction, but words are words—and I began to reapportion my responsibilities. I left my jobs and my home.

“You are in transition,” she said; it was not a compliment.

When I think about literature, which I often do, most of the lessons are about managing change or how to change well. The ponderous chain that Scrooge girded on with his own two hands represents one form of paralysis: bondage of the heart and soul. Odysseus stuck on Calypso’s Island is a variation; the prison of our hopes and dreams can be ecstatically pleasant. In her book of poems Dream Work, Mary Oliver acknowledges the pain and weight of abuse and her need to live on despite that weight. Either we recognize “What good does it do to lie all day in the sun loving what is easy?” or we simply resort to the easy. Sometimes the weight is what is easy. Habit is like that.

Writers must have habits. In the end, no matter what we write, we must write—every day. But we must also write outside the narrow band of habit, beyond the immediate limit of what we already know. This—pushing the limits—is not true of all writers. Some work the known to great effect and profit. While I recognize the value of profit (Mr. Dickens tilled his well-worn field to fame, as have most successful authors), I come to writing as a way of discovering

I have discovered this: I must mine uncertainty. I have friends who claim that when they begin a novel, they know the last line and write toward that goal. I tried that, and it did not work for me. I tried and tried and mapped and mapped and was stymied. I lost faith and put my efforts into other work, into another life. The work was good and meaningful, as was the life. Still, I felt unfulfilled; a promise went unmet. Maybe I needed to suffer that loss (maybe) to find the spring. What good would regret do now?

Gabriel regrets. Marley regrets. Peter Walsh regrets. I had tried that too easy suit as well. I took it off.

I began without even so much as a first line. I charged in and kept going. I churned through a hundred thousand words. Not a day passed when I knew where I was going. I trusted the process. “I learned,” as Roethke wrote, “by going where I had to go.” And that’s the point—I had to go.  While I fill my life with routines, as long as I conserve enough energy and joy for the project at hand, the writing surprises me. That is how I must proceed. Surprise is met on uncertain ground, and there it is I must go.

“You are in transition,” she said, and yes, I am. I must make peace with that—that my method needs me to be ever in the air, landing where I need to be for a year or a minute, long enough to write for a day and a month and the rest of my life, and then, always, casting my lot with chance and discovery. The old song commends “to turn, turn will be our delight/‘Till by turning, turning we come round right,” and, yes, this is the simple lesson I have learned—and which I have fought against too often in the past.

There are risks to this: to be always turning. But holding tightly to the chains also presents a risk—and a certain one. Back into the maelstrom I must go. Time to turn.

Will this work for you? Will change and uncertainty produce a sudden outpouring of words? I do not know. I do know that surprise is what brought me to literature in the first place. Writing that made the world bigger than it was before I started reading kept me reading. Is that true for you as well? Perhaps you seek confirmation and affirmation. I understand the gravity of both, and that may well be what you need. Or, you may already know what makes the world larger. Maybe you are sure about that. Then perhaps we are different kinds of writers and this advice is lost on you.

If not, in spite of yourself, in spite of your routines, charge into the unknown. Embrace uncertainty. And write.

What I Watched About Evil: Out of the Past

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey (Markham)
Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
Virginia Huston as Ann Miller

“Think we ought to go home?

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

Out of the Past begins with a montage of shots of the Sierras. It looks like a series of Anselm Adams’ photographs: stark snow-peaked mountains and high skies cast in rich, sharp grays. The music is sweeping; it befits the landscape. The camera pans down to a small town, Bridgeport, in the shadow of the mountains, and follows a black car as it drives in among the white buildings. The good world, the one we wish for, may be severe in its beauty, but it is beautiful—and natural. Evil, when it comes, comes in human form, wearing a black coat and black gloves.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. It’s almost too easy and too obvious. Out of the Past is a movie that continually works between the obvious and the hidden. The main character, Jeff Bailey, is hiding in Bridgeport, a sleepy little California town with a diner owner who knows everyone’s business. Jeff is the wild card, which draws the attention of the town’s beautiful Ann Miller. She is straight out of a fairy tale. We first meet her fishing in secret with Jeff, he declares, “You see that cove over there? Well, I’d like to build a house right there, marry you, live in it, and never go anywhere else.” She answers, “I wish you would.” Ann comes from a world where wishes come true. Jeff does not.

Jeff Bailey is a marked man—his actual name is “Markham,” and we learn the details of his past promptly as the story progresses. The black-gloved driver has come with a summons for Jeff from a gangster named Whit Sterling. The gangster and Jeff share a past: Whit hired Jeff to find a woman, Kathie Moffat, who stole forty thousand dollars and his heart (although the gangster never admits this); Jeff found the woman and fell in love with her. In simplest terms, Whit is evil.

In simpler terms than that, so is Kathie. Essays about film noir identify Kathie Moffat as the femme fatale par excellence. She is bad. After hearing her story, Ann states, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff responds, “Well, she comes the closest.” Before the story of the movie begins, Kathie shot Whit—three times with his own gun. She shoots and kills Jeff’s partner (after Jeff pummels him in a fistfight). She finishes off Whit. And finally, she shoots Jeff. She is bad; she is a killer. But so are most of the male characters in the film—even the “innocent” deaf-mute boy who works for Jeff causes the death of Whit’s black-coated muscleman. Kathie acts out of self-interest, and unlike Jeff, who naively believes that his roughed-up partner will not cause further trouble, Kathie understands what men will do. Jeff barely understands himself.

Jeff is repeatedly called “smart” in this film. It reminds me of how often Iago is called “honest” in Othello. Mitchum plays Jeff with languid rakish charm, and it’s an act so good that it convinces nearly everyone, even himself. Jeff is tough enough to claim, “I’m afraid of half the things I ever did,” but toughness and charm simply ease his way into disaster. His actions lead to the deaths of six characters, including his own. He kills none of them. Joe Stefanos, Whit’s muscle, kills a man to frame Jeff. “The Kid”—who works for Jeff—hooks Joe with a well-placed cast and pulls him from a precipice and to his death. Kathie kills three. And the police kill Kathie. But all six deaths begin with Jeff’s admission, “I saw her—coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” “I saw her.”

Some critics will let Jeff off the hook—an appropriate metaphor in this film because we are introduced to Ann and Jeff while they are fishing—and claim that the film frames Kathie. After all, Jeff acts nobly at the end of the movie, when the Kid tells Ann, in unspoken accordance with Jeff, that Jeff was leaving with Kathie. This clears the way for Ann to return to her old reliable beau. And Kathie did kill three men.

Still, Jeff’s naïveté—the kind of naïveté fostered by an over-sentimental macho ethos—never takes into account the consequences of his actions. He’s halfway smart and gets the lion’s share of great lines, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying. The lines just sound good. When he chides Whit, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere,” he doesn’t really believe it, no matter what he tells Ann or anyone else.

“You’re no good, and neither am I,” Kathie insists to Jeff. We may have been charmed by Jeff. She may have found him charming, she may even love him, but most of all, she knows him and knows that the good act that he puts on is his weakness. He is evil—as bad as her, worse because he can neither admit it nor make it work to his advantage. It’s a crushing realization.

The realization that the hero—even the louche antihero played so well by Mitchum—is, in fact, the villain, is not easy to accept. We like the cool character, the slow-eyed machismo wins us over, even while he threatens the fairy tale princess at the heart of the story. Maybe we like him for the same reason that we like the stark gray landscape: the Sierras are neither moral nor immoral. The landscape is beyond good and evil. If the mountain stream can be sublime even though it may be dangerous, then why can’t a person be beautiful even if she—or he—is villainous?

Iago claims that “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-2), he points out how we may be fooled by evil. There’s something else though, a willingness to set aside our judgment when the “Divinity of Hell” wanders into our midst. We want to understand, to analyze, and to rationalize, thus casting evil into a knowable and, therefore, acceptable quality. We value our ability to sympathize, no matter what. Do we sympathize with Whit? Or his blunt right hand, Joe Stefanos? Or even the femme fatale, Kathie? I suspect that we do not. But Jeff elicits sympathy. Because he is cool, and maybe, because we want a little of that coolness to rub off on us. No matter the cost.

It’s what we wish for.

“Think we ought to go home?” Ann asks Jeff when we meet them. He answers with a question, “Do you want to?” She says, “No.” Home, this country founded on a beautiful idea that there is no evil—or if there is, it is outside whatever we define as home: the four walls, the property lined with a stone wall, the land we call our own. We wish for home and cousin up to the idea that evil exists outside, that it is a black-gloved interloper, that it doesn’t know how to fish, that it doesn’t hire the innocent deaf-mute boy to pump gas and repair tires. And that if evil does exist at home, it comes in the form of nosiness, petty jealousies and provincial attitudes. It doesn’t look or sound like Jeff Bailey.

Contradiction and Awe

In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler hangs in a room on the second floor. The room features paintings of men and women from the Gilded Age—the last great flourishing of robber baron capitalism in the United States. Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler is a descendant of Peter Stuyvestant, a member of the Astor family,and became part of “the 400”—the unofficial roster of New York’s finest families.

Sargent painted her while she was in London for her brother’s wedding. She is 26, the eldest daughter, self-possessed—as she needed to be since both of her parents died by the time she was 11. The description on the museum website points to the juxtaposition between her controlled gaze and the turmoil of “[h]er arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows [as they] seem to wrestle with one another.” That’s fair enough. Her gaze, direct and at the viewer, is strident, almost an affront, “You think you see me?” she asks.

Museums are fabulous places, in no small part because of the juxtapositions of things. Across the mall this is made clear by the exhibit of Charles Lang Freer’s ideas about exhibiting like objects that were made hundreds if not thousands of years apart. Here at SAAM, the exhibitors have put the portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler in a place where her gaze extends out into and across the hall. Standing across the hall, one can still sense her stridency.

What’s in the room across the hall? Undine, Illusions, Spring Dance, An Eclogue, The White Parasol, and Woman with Red Hair.

None of the women depicted in these works stares fiercely at the viewer. They either stare off to the right or left, or are engaged in a closed unit—with other women, or in the case of “Illusions,” a child or putto. Several are naked, or draped to reveal their sensual forms. Or, as the titles suggest, are to be known for the attributes (hair, parasol). The women her are used as subject matter (“The White Parasol”) or at the service of allegory (“Illusions,” “The Eclogue”).

Spring Dance. Across the hall.

I cannot be certain what Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler felt about art and female representations. That she was part of a world that valued culture (her brother, Robert Wilson Chanler was a painter) is fairly certain. By 1893, sitting for a portrait by Sargent would not have been an inconsiderable achievement. But in this museum—in every museum—are countless works that transform the sitter into something at the service of the artist (who is often working at the service of another). She must have known that.

Sargent captures her singular defiance. She may be beautiful. She may be 26 (and years yet from marriage). She may be wealthy—or wealthy enough, say her rings and her brooch. She is not too young, not too self-aware as to hold our gaze with hers. Sargent said she had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child,” but his painting reveals a fire that exceeds anything childish. She is determined.

“Match me,” she tells us. “I will not go quietly.”

I return to the SAAM—or the hall National Gallery, or the Freer and Sackler Galleries—because getting caught in the web of juxtapositions helps untangle me from whatever I am stuck in from the rest of the week. The juxtapositions reinvigorate me. Roethke writes in “The Waking,” “This shaking keeps me steady.” Do they contradict themselves? I hope so. I count on it.

How are the juxtapositions I find here, in these places and spaces, different from those in the world? There are a web of contradictions waiting around every corner—cocksure hypocrisies and beguiling changes of mind. Why do I need more? What’s the point of contradiction contained in or by art?

There is a difference. I am drawn to a world of things and ideas that acknowledge the diversity, that are not afraid to make contradiction and juxtaposition a large part of the message. Yes, just as there are people who insist on “I know the truth”—and then brook no contradiction—there are works that proclaim their own monolithic messages—“Look on ye mighty and despair.”

And yet like a cathedral, or like a mountain, a canyon, or an act of genuine kindness, they can awaken a sense of awe, and, if you are open to the experience, that sense of awe blasts away preconceptions. And unlike things found in nature—as awe-inspiring as those are—works of art made by human hands, perhaps because they were made by human hands, despite the petty hypocrisies and even the pointed cruelties awaken a human sized sense of awe. I can stand before the human sublime and feel the full terror (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich—Every angel is terrible, Rilke), but the terror is a tearing away of everything else, everything I thought I knew, and an opening to what is suddenly possible. I stand and proclaim, “I do not know!”

I feel rather a bit like Scrooge when he declares: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!… I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby…” Imagine that, being 18, 25, 38, or 60 and being like a baby, ready to learn everything as if for the first time. To be wise and to be willing to be surprised.

So, I return, and step between Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler and whatever it was she held in her gaze, and I let myself be cast into the room across the hall, and all the rooms across all the halls, and find, once again, some awe and uncertainty. I can match that.

Losing & Learning—poker and writing

You are going to lose.

At some point, you are going down the tubes, over the edge, off the rails. You may have something to do with the inexorable demolition of your temporary hopes and dreams, or a house may fall on you from out of the sky, while you are in mid-sentence about to say the most profound thing anyone has ever heard. Or not. You may be doing nothing more than mowing the lawn and wondering why it has gotten so dark so suddenly.

What prepared me? Nothing. I led a life of easy glory. Success came without consequence, well other than the third grade geography teacher who told me that my coloring was atrocious, or awful, and I wondered how the other kids filled in the map without the striations of crayons. So what, I won the class spelling bee. I sang in the chorus and joined the math club. Years passed, achievements accumulated.

I sat in my car after the first night I played in our local poker game in Pittsburgh. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, and my hands shook too much to take the wheel. I had lost sixty dollars, which was, at the time, the most I had ever lost at cards. I had played in a casual game in graduate school, and rarely lost, and when I did, it was the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at the local diner. And my winnings were rarely more than a few plates of hotcakes. Sixty dollars hurt. When I returned the next week—it was an amiable bunch of guys, and I sought their company as much as the play of the game—I played to watch and learn. I did.

Over time, I earned back my initial loss, and rarely lost in that group of players. When I sat down to play, I sat down with a plan, and with the hard-honed anger that allowed me to focus on the task. One player’s wife remarked that I had more testosterone than anyone else at the table. It was a back-handed compliment. She was—still is—a feminist, and masculinity, even back in the nineties, was out of favor, especially among academics.  Which we were. The game was made up of Ph.D. candidates and recently minted Doctors, along with a few locals (a movie reviewer for a local paper, a former Priest turned pharmacist, a former UPS worker, a purveyor of goods imported from South America and Southeast Asia). We played the gamut of Friday night neighborhood poker games—all sorts of strange and changing wildcards. Maybe that was why I lost the first time I played. Probably not. Later, when Texas Hold ‘Em became de rigueur, the table talk abated. Most games are quieter now. I miss the conversation—it took the edge of the testosterone. But I never forgot that first night.

We don’t learn from losses unless they hurt. A short sharp shock teaches better than a slow accumulation of pain.  Maria Konnikova includes an early chapter on loss in her book about poker, The Biggest Bluff.  She writes, “After all, losing is what brought me to the table in the first place. It makes sense that learning to lose in a game, to lose constructively and productively, would help me lose at life. Lose and come back. Lose and not see it as a personal failure… When it comes to learning, triumph is the real foe. It’s disaster that’s your teacher. It’s disaster that brings objectivity. It’s disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions: overconfidence.”

Later in the book, when she begins to recount the disaster that ended one particular tournament to her mentor, Eric Seidel, he tells her, “Stop… Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player. Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them.” This may seem contradictory. Learn that losing is part of the game, but don’t talk about them. As long as you made good decisions, the outcome does not matter. Win or lose.

But, you say, don’t we play for an outcome? No. We play because we love the thrill of sustained focus. Making precise, intricate, and meaningful decisions allows us to shine. Define “shine” as you will. I recall Baudelaire’s poem, “Get Drunk”—“With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you choose!” Choose where you will shine, and focus furiously. I stopped playing poker, saving my focus for what brings me back to the world. I write.

In my classroom, there are a series of posters proclaiming, “Think like a poet,” “Read like a poet,” “Write like a poet.” They were there when I arrived, and I left them up. The joy of writing (and yes, here’s where this comes back to writing), is the simplest of pleasures—making decisions, and learning as you go. You learn the process when you learn to read. (Or not.) You approach the text as a series of branches. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Why the tripled “tomorrow’s”? Why the “and’s”? What comes next? (Creeps…). If you learned to read like THAT, then you have practiced how to write.

And losing? What is the bad beat in writing? Rejection? Better writers than I save rejection letters; there are even books full of them. A book of bad beats. Why? Writer’s block caused by what? A lack of simply sitting and scratching out a few words on unproductive days? Hardly. Turn on the music and write about that. Watch the news and write about that. Talk to your friends and write about them. Walk and write about what you saw. Just write.

The bad beat is the loss of faith, in the belief that your vision is enough. I don’t know what caused it for you, or how to restore your loss. Follow me, let me be the Virgil to your Dante. Imagine that—me, Virgil. You will lose—midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. But there is a way. Follow.

At War with the Virus

Say, you live in Maine, far from the coast, in the softly rolling hills in the part of the state known as “The County.” In Winter, the days are short and bitter with cold. You are not at war with the dark, and the winter wind is not your enemy. You may decide to move someplace warmer, where the sun rises earlier and warms the world even in January, but no matter where you go, The County will be cold in January.

Say, you live in Florida, and for four months each year, you pay special attention to the weather forecast in the morning. You have sheets of plywood stowed away in your garage, just in case. In Winter, the streets fill with license plates from places up North. Hurricanes and snowbirds are the limits of your life, but you aren’t ready to chuck it all and move to Tempe. You aren’t at war with hurricanes—what a futile battle that would be. They pass through, soaking the earth and knocking down trees. At least they aren’t earthquakes—unpredictable and worse than ornery.

My father planned his trips to Bermuda in late May and early June—when the weather was usually warm enough and before hurricane season roared into full flower. Only once did a tropical depression explode into hurricane force. We were still inside the reef, making our way from Hamilton to the customs house in St. George. One of the ferries veered off its routine course to check on us as we were about to depart Hamilton Harbor. My father’s stubbornness was as unrelenting as the weather. It took us a day to power around the island’s northern passage—a trip that usually took scant happy hours. I held the helm as we motored inch by inch into idiot winds. I slept well in an uneasy anchorage that night. By morning, most of the cell had crawled on, slowly dissipating in the pan of the chilly Atlantic.

A sailor, a Floridian, or a Down Easter all understand that weather comes and keeps on coming. Some cycles are reasonably predictable, but day by day, if you are planning a day sail, a picnic, or a ski trip, you better check ahead.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s full of holes. Not everything is like the weather. When we describe people as walking hurricanes or icicles, we make metaphors to explain their character. We know that their behavior did not originate as the result of cold air spinning over warm water, or that they are actually frozen. We alert ourselves to the difficulty of such people because we know that grappling with rain and wind or freezing cold is a fool’s errand.

The coronavirus is more like weather than some “invisible enemy.” We will not “contain it,” or “defeat it,” as much as adapt to it—the way that we put on a heavy coat in the Winter, or attach plywood outside our windows when the storm heads toward us. Yes, the virus can kill us, but it’s not a willful assailant. It did not attack us or declare war on us. It has no strategy learned at war college. The virus just is.

We think of the world in terms of stories. Even the way I began this—weather—is just a story based on my experiences, although I have never sealed a window behind plywood or hunkered out to check fields in the brief sun of Winter. I can imagine such things because I have seen them depicted in the news or heard these stories from people who have done them. Or because my life has brushed close enough to these places and that weather. Besides, these are common enough stories.

But war? A friend reminded me—over and over—how poorly the military was depicted in film and television. The military and war are described to conform to our sense of what they are—to fit the stories we already have. I recall Henry in The Red Badge of Courage, marching off to war with heroic accounts of the Greeks dancing in his mind. And then the battle happens.

There was a singular absence of heroic poses. The men bending and surging in their haste and rage were in every impossible attitude. The steel ramrods clanked and clanged with incessant din as the men pounded them furiously into the hot rifle barrels. The flaps of the cartridge boxes were all unfastened, and bobbed idiotically with each movement. The rifles, once loaded, were jerked to the shoulder and fired without apparent aim into the smoke or at one of the blurred and shifting forms which upon the field before the regiment had been growing larger and larger like puppets under a magician’s hand. (Crane, The Red Badge of Courage)

Of course, this is a little too poetic. Crane gets at the chaos and absence. The overall effect of his novel is the persistent shift from order to chaos and back again. He did not experience war but learned by listening to veterans as he prepared to write. We can learn new stories.

We fall back on stories that we already know. The gravity of the familiar is too powerful for most to escape. We repeat and replicate the stories from our lives with tidal regularity. We do it automatically and insensibly. And that is fine and sensible when what we already know helps guide us back to familiar places. However, when faced with the exceptional, we must learn, quickly, to adapt and revise those familiar stories into something that will suit the present moment. “Must”? Why “must”? We do well enough with the old ways.

Metaphors, which are all that stories are, helpful tools that can open and expand our understanding. In Range, David Epstein writes how Kepler used metaphors to help him discern the motion of the planets. However, metaphors come imbued with values and can ensconce our judgment with moral values that impede clear vision. In Illness of a Metaphor, Susan Sontag points how “[i]llnesses have always been used to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust.”

So, if we are at war with the virus, it must be a foe with corrupt and evil origins. We demonize the virus to create a familiar story of us vs them. We go to war with the virus to stir a sense of urgency; war is the epitome of urgency. The evil enemy must be defeated. Leave out the chaos and unpredictability. The slip of genetic information becomes an “invisible enemy,” the President takes on the mantle of “War President.” Except this enemy does not stand on a field and fight, does not snipe at us from a jungle blind, does not line up or plan or have a General in charge of strategy. There is no Rommel, no Lee, no Hannibal directing the forces. No more than some angry, vengeful force directs the cold wind to gnaw off the fingers of your left hand, or tears trees up by their roots and smashes them down through your roof.

The man who attacks the wind is worse than a fool and doomed to fail. Even if the wind abates, and the serene sun returns like a balm, he did not defeat the wind, and he did not bring the sun.

Still, we feel the need to play the useful if futile part. We must do something. During the pandemic, many will do—and should do— much, as we slowly find out a way to live with this next new virus. There have been other illnesses, and there will be others. We can be sure of that. We will learn this lesson, or forget it and retreat to the familiar old story. The story was there before and will wait for us, as it always has.

Sailing Over the Horizon

I don’t know how long I have been preparing for my mother’s death. It has been for some time. The first inklings came by way of my father.

My father had suffered with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. I choose “suffer” and not “struggle” because “struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out. Nonetheless, he insisted on driving, even after the autonomous reflexes that make safe navigation of country roads at high speeds had abandoned him. We—his family—worried that his end (and someone else’s end) would come on the road. It did not.

Before the disease, my father sailed. He began when I was 11, and I took lessons with him. He sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, spending weekends looking for wind. When he retired from full-time work, he began to sail on the ocean.

Everyone who has sailed on the ocean has a story of a near-miss. Some idiots sailed onto a reef, and lost their two million dollar boat. A cargo container (my father’s persistent concern) floated like a metal iceberg and ripped through the fiberglass hull of a ship. There was a boat whose hull breached when it was nudged by a whale—“Once the water got into the cabin, the keel pointed it to the bottom. Like an arrow.” Any number of unforeseen accidents could turn a gentlemanly jaunt across the waves into a disaster. Even without the gales and following seas, sailing, for all its trappings, is a dare.

When I sailed with my father, I was folded into the fraternity of casual, privileged risk. It is a different bargain than that made by those who forswear safety for a higher cause. Only a fool invites disaster, tempts it, for what? A dare? An assertion of meaning and purpose? A sunny destination? All those and more. We may have been foolish, but we prepared for the worst.

My father’s disease added to the risk. He was the captain and an unsteady hand. Often he was the only one on board who could do the little tasks that needed to be done in a storm. He wanted to do them; he liked to do them. When I sailed with him, he ruefully asked me to tie down a loose sail. “I can’t do it,” he admitted. He would not say why he could not. He never admitted to the disease.

When other less sure crew was with him, he pushed himself to do those tasks, and came off the ocean bruised and beat up. He knew his time of risk was drawing to an end. He told me that he was contemplating selling his sailboat and buying a motorboat to “gunkhole” around in the Chesapeake Bay. A signal of its own.

In 2002, cancer—non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—struck my mother. She was not pleased, just as she had not been pleased with my father’s illness. Disruptions were anathema to my mother. However, her illness stunned my father. Whatever else in his life was uncertain, my mother’s tenacity was inflexible. I drove from Baltimore to the Philadelphia area to take her to chemotherapy sessions, sparing him as much as comforting her. After a few months, her doctor thought she had gone into remission, but then a second wave collapsed on her. Her liver swelled to the size of a football, and her blood became the consistency of maple syrup. We girded ourselves for the worst. And then it passed.

Six months later, my father slipped on a wet dock, fell into the water, and drowned.

Because of this, for the past 18 years, death has been a sometime presence in my relationship with my mother. My mother was nearly 72 years old when her husband died. He was diseased and at risk; the reef was hidden under the waves. We knew the odds.

My mother was halfway through her 88th year when she died. Otherwise, she was not a halfway kind of person. She was a pistol—full of energy and ready to go off in an instant.  She was fiercely independent—a characteristic that could make her difficult, but which also fired her painting. She started making art in her forties. Painting was a source of independence, stability, and consistency in the second half of her life.

While others made paintings that were representational and, well, let’s be honest, commercial, she stuck to abstraction. A quick word about abstraction: while some might imagine that abstraction is easy—just smear some paint on canvas—my mother found a challenge in getting a gesture onto the surface, and then a further challenge in adding a color, a second gesture, then another color. She labored over maintaining control of her gestures and palette and took solace in the layering of decisions that created a finished work.

If you had ever seen our house and its spare, precise decor, you could have seen how she battled chaos. Add to your imagination the rambunctiousness of her three sons, and the knowledge that we were forbidden from several rooms of the house until we were older and more settled. Her artistic life stood against the (self-invited, self-created) disorder of the outside world. She did not take to sailing—to the unpredictability of wind. She would retreat to the cabin when the boat heeled on a beat. She poured a glass of scotch, finding ballast and balance where none existed.

When I visited her with my family in 2014, a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit ( a handbook for assisted suicide) was on one of the side tables. She was 82 and fully in remission, but arthritis made walking painful. She was sending up a flare of dissatisfaction. She had watched her mother linger and die in a nursing home. If my mother was a pistol, her mother was a blunderbuss, sour with nostalgia for a time before her marriage—the good old days. My mother did not want the end she had witnessed there. She put the book out to warn us: I am unhappy, and will not fade out of control.

The intervening years have unfolded with a number of slaps—like a cat playing with a mouse. Small strokes and other ignominies took small but noticeable bites out of my mother. When she gave up her studio—located in a community art building about 20 miles from her home—it was a keen signal.

 The past year she has navigated toward an ending, and I have been, as I often was with my father, a helping hand on the helm. It has been a strange duty. I encouraged her to work because I knew and shared the value of daily work with her. But I also listened to her dissatisfaction. “When I go to the studio, all I do is nap,” she told me. She told me more and told others more as well. She did not withhold complaints.

Last year as my mother began to make this final journey, I had started to date a woman. I told her about where my mother was, and what she asked of me. Rightly or wrongly, this woman noted the possibility of “unhealthy” and retreated. I cannot disagree or blame. I took the helm for my mother the same way I did for my father when he—foolishly, dangerously—kept to a schedule despite the weather. If, in telling the story of my mother’s death, I have returned to my father and his end, it is because they are intertwined—bookends spaced twenty years apart.

I ended my brief graveside eulogy for my mother, “She leaves us with this legacy, and with a vision of how to thrive in the garden of challenges that faces us all. Even this challenge. We go on, making our marks, as she taught us.” While many of my posts have been about my father, my mother was also my teacher. The lessons—both fortunate and unfortunate—that I took from my parents shaped me and prepared me. For what? For his death? Hers? My father once asked me if I could bring the boat home without him. He was prepared for disaster. I answered, as I must, as was true, “Yes.” These are the sailing lessons.