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.

Certainty, News, and the Way Ahead

I grew up reading the news. We did not watch it in my house; my mother felt that the news, which included reporting from Vietnam, was too ugly (her word) for her sons. Keep in mind, this was the same mother who read Edgar Allan Poe to us at bedtime. However, my father brought home the Philadelphia Bulletin every night—back when the Bulletin was Philadelphia’s evening newspaper. He also had Time magazine delivered weekly, and my brothers’ names were often on the subscription. Whether my father was honoring us or getting a new subscriber’s bonus, who knows? I read both.

Later in life, I listened to Philadelphia’s all-news radio station KYW-1060 and grew inured to the rhythm of repeated stories. If they were updated over the course of hours, I noticed. Even later, when I was a night owl, I would slot in my 35 cents for a freshly delivered morning paper. A newspaper and breakfast before bed was near to heaven.

Cable news in its early iteration varied little from the repeated scroll of radio news. That was no matter in Philadelphia, which delayed the spread of cable TV until I was on my way to grad school and other obsessions. Nowadays, whatever used to be journalism has faded out of reportage to be replaced by a carnival barker’s promotion of something like the news. Reporting is more about the changing opinions than the changing facts. The internet does better, providing repeated updates of the day’s events: everything from the stock market to an ambassador arriving in Bahgdad to a 3-2 count on a hitter in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Seattle. Information pours out. At first, it came through the box on my desk, but then it glimmered miraculously from my phone. I pay attention.

I get obsessive. I chase the news with the same intensity that I once chased down sources in the library. And worse. I sit as rapt as I had when I churned through drafts of stories until 7 o’clock in the morning—if I slept at all.

I recognize that I had fallen into the trap that Henry David Thoreau noted back in 1854 when he claimed that “[h]ardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.” I felt that if I knew, then I could be one of life’s sentinels. On guard, on the post, always. There was no radio, no television, and no internet, and still, he bemoaned the obsession with “news.” Go figure, our national illness.

I tried to know everything. When my family gathered, we were all expected to hold forth on any topic of the day: popular music, politics, foreign affairs, movies, the weather. Our knowledge was expected to be sweeping and insightful. I could not understand people who did not consume—and comment on—news as we did. My father spent hours wringing information from the Wall Street Journal and passed that fervor onto his sons. My mother, despite herself, had some news station, finally settling on NPR, blaring in the background.

It was too much. This past year’s perpetual blast of breaking news—the fires, the politics, the case numbers—drove me to distraction. And I realized that I had been distracted for years. I don’t believe that “ [a]s for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions…  it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain.” While there are recognizable patterns to history—and history’s first draft—the distinguishable differences are meaningful and worth noticing. And yet, the news can pile up.

Thoreau was on to something, if only that our drive to know masks another deficit: a feeling that life is out of our control. Information is the salve to uncertainty, but it’s snake oil, especially when opinion is disguised as fact.

Writing, for all my appreciation of the uncertainty, is about control. At the very least, and perhaps the very most, I control when I write and that I write. As for the what, well, I take a gentle hand, relying on surprise and a fair amount of chance. Yet, I am aware that no writer, short of a few Dadaists, Postmodernists, or Pornographers, slaps words on the page and waves, “Voila!” I avoid Prufrock’s “hundred visions and revisions”; I don’t have time for such nonsense. The work needs to be done.

During the first draft, I write to discover—just as I listen to the news to find out what is happening in the world. I research my subject the same way I study how the new vaccines work. I have learned (painfully and too slowly) that I must write to the point where I do not know what will happen next; there must be surprises. I go back, organize the words, and develop the surprises, letting them, and not all my preplanned ideas, serve as guides. The writing must be out of control for me to find control. Otherwise, it all falls flat. That was not an easy lesson. No one can stand that—not the reader and not the writer. Not this writer.

This past year, while everything felt out of control: the fires in Australia, the pandemic, my mother, the election, and its aftermath, I charged back into the news. Did knowing all about it help me? Maybe. But knowing got in the way of the creative uncertainty that I needed to engage. I have spent years wielding some kind of authority, and like it or not, that has been the death of my creative life. I do not know how other writers do it. So, for now, I am backing away from the news, cutting the cable, and heading back into the unknown.

Emily Dickinson writes about the “Route of Evanescence”—the road of fleeting possibility. Take her advice. This way can be daunting, especially for someone who likes—no, loves to know. You too write to be in control, except, finally, we are not. But the route Dickinson so briefly and beautifully delineates is one way to uncover the mysteries that wait: “Some mail from Tunis, soon.” So must it be. The unknown and fleeting. Get there.

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.

Macho (Masked) Man

“In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States I found very few men who displayed any of that manly candor and that masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters, wheresoever they may be found.” from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville.

At some point, the whole point of “being a man” was to live a life that was, in de Tocqueville’s words, full of “candor” and “independence of opinion.” Sadly, even when he was surveying our country in the first half of the 19th century, de Tocqueville noticed that such characteristics had waned. People were more likely to follow popular opinions and desired little else than to be part of the herd. “The Tyranny of the Majority” was worse than the tyranny of a monarch, in part because it was a refutation of those manly virtues.

I’m inspired to take up this theme again, because Daniel Victor published an article on masculinity and masks in today’s New York Times. Men have made masks a political issue—or rather, they let masks become a marker of their masculinity and let the jeering hoard determine their idea of what it means to be manly.

Set aside the absurdity of going to the mattresses over masks. One might as well complain about wearing shoes (A real man would walk about with bloody mangled feet). But some tide has turned, and real men need to take another stand. No purses. No speed limits. No two-drink minimum. No masks.

What stands out is that men need to gather together in groups to assert this.

I understand that fraternité—brotherhood—has in ineffable and intoxicating power. I delight in the time I spend among my brothers—both of birth and choice.

fraternité

However, part of “being a man”—and whether this is a good or a bad thing I will engage at a later time—is being alone. I relished nights on the ocean when I was at the helm, and my crewmates were either in their bunks or asleep with their backs to the cabin. The years of study and writing I did and do, while they may have their end in a classroom or manuscript, were valuable in and of themselves. I built a kitchen on my own. I pulled the clutch from my VW alone. I made Bastille Day dinner alone. Sure, I looked up the directions, but the bloodied knuckles, thick callouses, and genuine pride belonged to me.

I actually have a more challenging time in company because of the lack of candor that others show—men especially so. Candor: not just honesty, but straightforwardness and a thoroughgoing willingness to shine a light. How many times have I heard someone couch what they were going to say in “This is my opinion…” and then blather on in seriously unexamined directions? How many times each day?

Even this writing results from my natural predilection to push my opinions—and not just about masculinity—and see where they are rooted, and explore their limits and my own. I demand the same from any.

One night on the Chesapeake Bay, my father had charted a course for us to follow. It was the first night of our sail, the ocean and a gale were ahead of us, and my brother Peter and I had the late watch. First, we ran through a set of nets set out just off the channel. They were hoisted between temporary thin posts driven deep enough to hold them and catch fish. But then I noticed that our course, such as it was, would also take us across the land.

My father did not always explain where we were going or share course details. For most of us, that was fine; my father was “the captain,” and we were on his boat—that was enough. This drove me crazy. I wanted to know, to break out a chart, and to mark our progress. I wanted to associate what my eyes told me in the bay—at night with a sky partly lit by stars—with some larger picture.

That night I woke my father—not a dauntless act: besides his distemper at being awakened, he was on medication for Parkinson’s Disease that made his sleep thicker. He groggily looked at the waypoints he had mapped out, looked at the horizon, then handed me a chart zipped into a waterproof plastic jacket. “Get us here,” he grumbled and pointed at a point well to our South and East. Then he returned to his bunk.

The job of a man is to wake his father and tell him when he is wrong. And then get back on course. If you don’t know how to read a chart, learn. If you don’t know how to sail, learn, or stay home.

When de Tocqueville remarked about the flagging “manly candor” and “masculine independence of opinion” in the 1800s, it was because the United States began with strident truth-telling and was born out of a series of acts that took responsibility for the truth. Small groups set out to make a life—a new life—outside the comfortable known world. Those first colonists’ decisions were rooted in hope and vision, and, because they were someplace strange, caution and practicality. To rephrase William Carlos Williams, there were no ideals but in things.  And all those ideals and things needed to be tested and checked for their utility as well as any unnecessary or ornamental value. Think of Puritans and Quakers, both in spare meeting houses—trying, and in some cases failing, to discern the truth. But trying.

What struck de Tocqueville—and strikes me now—is not that truth has become less critical, but the ability to distinguish between the necessity and the ornament of truth has dimmed. This is nothing new. De Tocqueville wrote Democracy In America 150 years ago, and after Thoreau noted that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe its the “quiet desperation” that confounds us and makes us valorize the freedom to breathe and speak without a mask over the responsibility to ensure the safety of those around us. Discomfort outweighs obligation.

And obligation becomes what it has never been before—unmanly. I wonder how that happened, how the more Spartan values of sacrifice and duty have been replaced by a fierce desire to get to the front of the beer line? How did we get so far off course? Yeats wrote, “The best have no conviction. The worst/ are full of passionate intensity.” Why cheer against obligation? This is not why we are here, not what we fought for, not what men do.

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.

Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

Writing, the pandemic, and distraction

Writing during the pandemic has been difficult. Each day I felt the tap-tap-tap of news on my shoulder. The muse grew silent and was replaced by an incessant whisper about infection rates, intubations, and death tolls. Sometimes the whisper roared into a press briefing, and I listened, wanting to know, firsthand, not trusting the arbiters of history to tell me what was what.

To be fair, since AIDS swept over the landscape, I have been virus-obsessed. I read about pandemics in the 80s and 90s. Diseases are one of the secret threads that weave in and out of history. When COVID-19 struck, I felt enmeshed in an account that I already knew, but that did not make me any less interested. I watched and listened as the tale unfolded, aware of the habits that surround such events. None of the rhetoric or the inaction surprised me, which is not to say that I hoped for better or despaired when the all too predictable happened. I take solace in the knowledge that it was not as bad as it might have been.

Still, it was a distraction. Add in the other distractions in my life, and writing has been difficult.

I have written about distraction before here, and about listening to the muse. Until the pandemic, I spent a day each week writing in noisier spaces—surrounded by art and people. Throughout my writing life, I have gotten much when surrounded by others. The presence of human voices and human effort inspires me. When I write, I am conscious of the conversation that surrounds my words, and I add my words to that conversation. Sometimes the conversation is less grand than a response to the announcement of Ashurnarsirpal II of his greatness. It may be a polite transactional response to the sale of a napoleon and coffee—the man at the counter has them waiting for me before I reach the front of the line—at the Courtyard Café in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Words—even these—are little more than transactions. We like to romanticize the expressive characteristics of language—the eternal “I am here!” Yet, even that is meant to turn a head or stop a step. Even the king, especially the king, wants to be noticed. Otherwise, why speak? The transaction here is less quantifiable. A friend once asked, “What do you see your work leading to?” It was a marketing question, and it’s a fair question. As a budding novelist, I am aware that at their hearts, novels are a commercial form—a grand transaction requiring the enduring attention of a reader. The request each word makes is: “Keep reading.”

Each word also requests, “Keep writing.” In this way, words are kind of tricky, and, if you will, like a virus, creating the conditions for their replication and spread. I’m not sure what the words actually spread (more words?)—the ideas and quality of the writing do not seem to matter so much (a terrifying thought to a writer who attempts something more). Of course, lousy writing will fail (mostly), and like a virus that cannot find a host, it disappears. I will not extend the metaphor; I have viruses on my mind.

Perhaps what writing creates is attention: the attention of the writer who creates it and the reader who what? interprets it? Consumes it? Well, let’s settle on: reads it. During the pandemic, other viruses have taken possession of my attention. Enough. It’s time to give into my original illness.