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”).

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.

Into the Dark: What I watched about evil

Two years ago, I rekindled this blog with reflections about what I learned about love from movies I watched in my youth. Love—in all its tangled brilliant forms—is the flame for this moth. Contemplating that light allows me to see through the darkness. Over 40 years ago, my cinema professor, Kaori Kitao, asked us what cinema was—the big question—to which she supplied the final answer after we had all tried our hands. “Cinema,” she said, “is light.”

Of course. What we saw on the screen was light obscured at 24 frames per second—light shaded and shaped into colors (or not) and accompanied by sound (or not). In our Wednesday afternoon classes, we sat and watched—over and over, for 3-6 hours—film projected onto a small white screen. Professor Kitao would speedily rewind reels of film so she could point out—over and over—the traces of light on the screen. There were secrets to be found.

I found love—or at very least, desire. The opening scenes of Bergman’s Persona spelled out what the light could do. I was too shy at 20 to comment on the erect penis that flashed oh so briefly (not that briefly!) on the screen in the opening montage. Love and sex. Desire and death. The devil that dances in that opening sequence reminded me of a childhood dream I had of a green-skinned devil who hopped about in our living room. Cinema is a dream—all dreams—distilled by light. And dreams take place in the dark.

If love is my light, there is also darkness. I struggle with darkness—with seeing it too much. In Peter Chelsom’s underrated Funny Bones, one of the characters remarks that Jack Parker—the comic genius of the film—sees the dark side of comedy too clearly. I saw that movie on my 35th birthday, and it crystallized my thoughts about comedy and tragedy. There are things that some of us see too clearly, that most of us just laugh or cry away. We turn our faces to what suits us best and call what does not please us “the other” in one of its many names.

However, the dark is not merely the absence of light or its easily demonized opposite. It is a vital source of energy. How long did it take me to accept that? I’m still working on it.

I saw the movies that taught me those first lessons about love when I was a teenager—or younger. With a few exceptions, the films that helped me grapple with the dark were part of my twenties—the lost years after I graduated from college and before I began graduate school. With few exceptions, I saw all these in movie theaters (or I have seen them all in theaters). I was fortunate that there was a revival house in Philadelphia (the TLA) that showed old movies. And, while Philadelphia had no cable TV, one of the UHF stations played classic films late at night. I watched. And dreamed.

Unlike the movies that taught me love lessons, these are uniformly great films. There are no April Fools or Hotel here. Maybe that’s because after taking Kaori’s class, I had learned to turn my eyes to more serious work, or maybe that’s because darkness instigates a different kind of art—more obviously profound, more apparent attempts at art. The distinction matters and does not matter. What we see in the dark is a dream. Great or not, these are no more real—or just as real—than the films I wrote about two years ago, the same way that my dreams are neither better nor worse than when I was a boy. Out of the light and into the dark.

Evil. What is evil in these films? Inhumanity. Failure. Fatal inevitability. Some incredible compunction on the part of the characters to launch headfirst into harm, and to take large swaths of their world with them. I saw these at a time when I became more starkly aware of the evil that was at once accepted and codified in the world around me. Sure, I had warnings along the way, and sure, these films are not life—any more than the movies that taught me about love ever substituted for the harder lessons that life delivered. Still, they offer up the contradiction: darkness painted with light. And each one provided a lesson that stuck, even if I disagreed with its premise.

I’ve been wrong before. I will be wrong again.

The Films

Out of the Past

The Draughtsman’s Contract

Brazil

Ran

House of Games

Lawrence of Arabia

Dr. Strangelove

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.

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.

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—“struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out—with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. He insisted on driving, even when 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. Cargo containers, my father’s persistent concern, floated like metal icebergs 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.

He was prepared too. He confessed that his trips on the ocean might have to 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.

And then 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 them 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.

Brokeworld

In 2016 HBO aired a radical revisioning of Michael Crichton’s clunky trash science fiction thriller, Westworld. The old movie issued a direct threat and moral: technology combined with profit motives is bad. Nothing new here, just a variation on the muck-racking novels of late 19th century America or a schlockier version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The series that launched in 2016 delved into deeper issues: consciousness formation, the nature of humanity, and, yes, the moral bankruptcy of late capitalist culture.  There was more if you wanted to find it, all wrapped up in a glossy, sexy, and violent package. Quintessential HBO.

The drive for climactic set-pieces led to a gruesome and fairly well-earned massacre at the end of the first season. However, gruesome massacres are not easy to build on. The second season stumbled through the aftermath of all that death—even if many of the dead were robots. The rest of the dead were the rich—or servants of the rich—and, as such, were easy prey. The third season addressed the “real world” (such as it was portrayed in the show) consequences of those deaths and added human characters whose lives were made robotic by, yes, you guessed it, the rich.

I teach creative writing. When I started teaching, I forbade my students from killing characters in their stories. Yes, the presence of death galvanizes fiction, bestowing instant importance on what might otherwise be a mundane series of events. When I think of some of my favorite short pieces, death abounds. Think of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bannafish.” At least the threat of death—real complete annihilation—hovers around the characters. However, when it does, it has weight. Great—and most good—writers acknowledge mortality as a meaningful limit.

The first season of Westworld used cavalier attitudes about murder and violence to make a point—all the while delighting viewers with plenty of simulated death (the show walked on a sneaky edge) The point was that the cavalier attitude about death and violence revealed a moral failing in the characters. Even when the violence was simulated. That edge has become more and more blunted with each new season, finally becoming little more than a heavy and dumbly wielded club.

Halfway through the third season, the main antagonist, Serac, reveals that he and his brother built the monstrous AI, Rehoboam, after witnessing the nuclear bombing of Paris. The bombing is not explained. It exists only to justify Serac’s desire to prevent either another such event or series of such events. Boom! goes Paris. And Boom! Westworld tottered off into the realm of irretrievably bad writing.

I teach my students that anything can happen in their fiction. I try not to put false limits on their work (no fantasy, no science fiction, no romance). I only ask that whatever they do, they must avoid cliché, which is hard for young writers because everything seems so new to them. And this is hard for older writers too, because everything seems to have been done. How many ways can two people arrive at “I love you”?  Or “I hate you” for that matter? And everything in between. Make it your own, and find the surprise.

Also, I advise that they treat their fiction as if it is true, that they should consider themselves magicians of a sort, wielding magic words to create reality.  They must be responsible for the world they create, not just for the beetles that scurry across the floors of the houses they build with words, but for the vision of the world they invent. If someone falls in love in one of their stories, then they are nothing less than Eros, conferring love on the world. If someone dies in one of their stories, then they wear the grim reaper’s long black robes. No, not all writing is made with such high purpose. Plenty of successful prose falls back on sheer entertainment. Love and death are little more than emotional levers that the writer pushes and pulls to keep the reader reading. So does plenty of literary fiction—thank goodness.

Sometimes writers break the compact with the reader. They pull the levers without any concern for what they have made. A friend once asked whether I could just do what I wanted in my work. I can, of course, I can, but I must grapple with the repercussions of what I write. Does what I want to happen fit the world which I have created? Not just, “Does it make sense?” but does that sense bear up to moral, emotional, and intellectual scrutiny? Not only must there be a feeling of necessity in the work, but that necessity must be guided by an inner logic that binds all the images, all the ideas, all the characters, and all the vision. That is no easy objective.

One way to guarantee that a work will miss that mark is to play fast and loose with life, to use death as a plot enhancement. By its own logic—by the claims it made in its first season—Westworld has fallen off the horse. Yes, the show remains pretty (sexy and gruesome) picture, but the writing no longer cares to do anything but sling gore and blow up cities. Nothing matters. Time to move on.

 

Shoulders And Work

Several months ago, my right shoulder started to hurt—not the dull pain of repeated effort, but a sharp bite. The trainer at my club diagnosed it as a rotator cuff injury. I was not surprised. Years ago, I tore at my shoulders when I swam miles and miles every day. Another trainer put a finer point on my struggles, telling me that backstroke (which had been a staple of my midlife training regimen) often drove swimmers out of the pool. And so, I tended my form, keeping my hands and grips in neutral positions while I pushed and pulled weight. Then I gave up the weights for a couple of months and added exercises to strengthen my rotator cuffs. Time has taught me to listen to my body more carefully. And taught me that old wounds can return decades later.

This past month, stuck inside during the pandemic, I started lifting again and welcomed the natural hurts that result from earnest work. It feels good to work and to bear with the pain. The endorphins from extended workouts help carry me through the barrage of news, which, much to my chagrin, I cannot ignore. Lift this. Watch the heart rate settle into the 170s. At least it makes sleep come more easily.

Not everything true for the body is true for the mind. Or the heart.
I also wrapped up a more extensive revision of one book while stewing over the next. The most recent update of Grammarly highlighted the more prolix passages of the old work, so even though images and scenes in the new book pile up, I felt the call to rewrite. Rewriting leads to re-visioning. The question, “How did I leave that out?” occurred more than I liked, and so I added connective tissue. I edited my more complicated impulses into simpler—and more direct?—chunks.

And revision, though inspired by some strange angels, does not require the same fiery vision as the initial draft. Without rooms of art to goad me (the DC museums have been closed since early March), it was easier to return to the old work. “Easier” is hardly the right word. The same way that I had to restart lifting below the peaks I had reached in December, I came back to the book with a diminished sense of it. In that diminishment, I found a new way in. I was no longer in love with the characters, or with myself as their creator. I was able to question my motives and choices in ways that I was unable six months ago when I made my first rattling revision.

Still, as much as I rediscovered and redirected in this recent edit, I felt as if I was betraying my new work. I have begun to dream about those characters. While others around me are infected with fever driven dreams of the pandemic, I have felt pulled to another vision—the anxiety churns a different sea. Just as I lift barbells in an otherwise empty gym—counting my reps out loud while Arthur Morey narrates Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct—this new work pushes me. It is familiar and different.

The ache in my shoulder is familiar and different. I know what to avoid and how to strengthen the weak places. The old wounds and old ways remind me of a past that I have lived, but there are new steps to take. My narrator welcomes me into her thoughts and reflections and challenges me to get out of my own way. A whole world opens ahead of me, dream-laden, and no longer bound to anything I have worked on before. There will be work.

The Writing Virus

At some point, someone will come up with a reasonable theory for how COVID-19 emerged, but like other viruses, its origin barely matters. Viruses have existed alongside all life as long as there has been life. It’s hardly worth qualifying viruses as “life”; they are more like machines. But it’s damnably hard not to personify them, to make them a mirror of ourselves. We can imagine a virus as an enemy—an “invisible enemy.” Or we can go to war against a virus.

Except, a virus has no plan. Neither does it have a will. It does not fight against us, and does not want to infect us. Desire is not part of a virus’s design. It is a piece of genetic detritus that floats through the world without a purpose—or with the universal and mindless purpose of replication. After all, if replication was not part of its machinery, we would not be wrestling with it now. It would have disappeared after a solitary blossoming.

2020-03-26 (4)Viruses are the prototype for the “lilies of the field: … they toil not, neither do they spin.” How they may be arrayed is entirely in the eye of the beholder. The virus of current interest wears a crown—or presents something crown-like on its exterior.  It’s almost too satisfying to try and picture it, or to quibble over which depiction is more accurate.

And this is just one virus. 219 known viruses infect people. This new virus raises that number, and those numbers will rise as new (novel) viruses emerge. This particular virus will most likely be traced back to bats, but exactly how or why (the impossible question) the virus leaped at this moment from its non-human host to humans will be harder to track. Viruses spread. While this explanation is at once too obvious and too unsatisfying, what should amaze us is not that this virus spread now, but that a few dozen (more?) others did not. They will.

Rather than hold a mirror up to ourselves, and try to figure out viruses on our terms (how they are like us; how they “want” to infect us; how they are our enemy), I wonder how we are like viruses. The worst aspect of that comparison is the kind of biological determinism that reduces us and all we do to machine-like processes over which we have little or no control. Our vaunted free becomes nothing more than an expression of an overmastering biological or chemical impulse. The next unfortunate comparison is that we are a mindless and deadly virus—Shiva, the small destroyer.

Of course, if we see the virus as the first miraculous step of life—somehow that strand of proteins banded together to replicate—then maybe we can see ourselves as an extension of several iterations on that miraculous theme. We may be machines, and may not know why we do what we do, but we are, at least, extraordinary machines. And what we replicate isn’t just ourselves, which is done effortlessly enough, but other codes: our thoughts and feelings. Some stick, and some find no purchase. We want our most ephemeral codes to last beyond our spare moment of life. Unlike viruses, we get to shape our invisible messages beneath the words, within the stories.

Writing is not a virus, but there is something within, waiting to emerge.