McPherson's Lament

"McPherson's Lament" is a song written by a collateral ancestor, Jamie McPherson, the night before he was hanged. He played it on his way to the gallows tree in November 1700. The song is also known as "McPherson's Rant" or "McPherson's Farewell." Jamie's laments, rants, or farewells are not meant to indicate the tone of this blog.

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The Hutchins and a lot of other people were there the night of the Fourth of July when everyone gathered on the Sedgwicks’ shrinking but still spacious front lawn and waved sparklers and watched the fireworks that the Indians set off. It was his mother’s birthday party, too. She was…

Posted at 12:37am.

In the spring of 1981, when I was on the staff of The Washington Post, I had several long conversations in New York and Connecticut with Maurice Sendak, who died Tuesday at eighty-three, forty-five amazingly productive years after the heart attack that nearly killed him at 39. I liked him very much. I wanted to write about Maurice on this blog but as with the profile that follows, it was a struggle. Maurice was a delightful and complex man, funny as well as dark (and darkly funny). Like an elusive butterfly, he was not easily pinned for display.  I realized I had nothing to add to what I had already written, so I am posting the profile that appeared in slightly different form on the cover of The Washington Post’s Book World section on May 10, 1981. (Margalit Fox wrote an excellent obituary for the New York Times on Tuesday.)

§ § § § §

REALLY ROSIE

AN HOUR before curtain time at the American Place Theater in New York, the children in the cast of Really Rosie are playing a vigorous game of freeze tag around the fountain in the adjacent plaza. Four of us approach but they see only one, and they begin shouting at once. “Maurice! Maurice! Maurice is here! Are you coming to the show tonight, Maurice? Oh, please come to the show tonight.”

They are gleeful: Maurice is coming to the show tonight. Immediately the 52-year-old man they call Maurice is surrounded by eight or ten laughing, clamoring kids, tugging at his hands, his coat, each vying for the attention of their friend Maurice Sendak, who also designed the production and wrote the book and lyrics (Carole King wrote the music) of the show they are appearing in. The musical is itself an expanded version of his 1975 animated television special, which originated in his book The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960) and in the four miniature volumes of the hugely successful Nutshell Library (1962): Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre, the boy whose invariable response is “I don’t care,” even when a lion fancies him for dinner.

Countless children and their parents committed these books to memory—learned by heart, as it were—through repeated, demanded readings. One of them is my daughter, now seventeen, who still remembers and who is among us this evening in mid-March as we head toward a nearby reataruant for a drink before the seven o’clock curtain. (The curtain is early to make it easier for children to attend.)

It is to her, the youngest of the group that Sendak directs his attention. He wants to know, among other things, what books she likes best. When she says Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life (1967), he says that is his favorite, too, and that the dog Jennie, its insouciant heroine, was modelled after his own beloved Sealyham terrier who has gone on, as he puts it in the book, “to Castle Yonder.” My daughter tells him that she used to read it in a special tree, and one afternoon left it in a private place there, intending to return to it in the morning. It rained during the night and the book got soaked. But it dried out, and it now resides rainmarked but intact on her shelf.

"You read it in a tree," Sendak murmurs. "That means you really liked it." Unlike Pierre of his cautionary tale, Maurice Sendak does care. He cares very much, in fact. He cares about the people he meets, the books he writes and illustrates, the unseen and unknown readers who treasure them, the drawings and paintings he makes, the Mozart he loves, the operas he designs (including a version of his classic Caldecott Medal book Where the Wild Things Are that the Brussels Opera staged last November), the dogs he adores and fusses over, the friends who love him, and the show he is seeing for yet another time tonight, catching a lighting flaw here, crediting a good new piece of business there.

In the show Rosie is an artist, surviving and beginning to flourish in the Brooklyn of Sendak’s own childhood. A born actress, a budding Barbara Streisand, as she has been described, the power of her vivid imagination enthralls the Nutshell kids of her neighborhood and releases them to their own fantasies, which Rosie dominates but does not entirely control, other people and the rougher realities of the world being less malleable to our wishes than are our dreams: the correspondence of life to art is proximate at best. Rosie’s dream—the childlike dream that in a sense is also the artist’s—is to hew the world to  what it ought to be but only momentarily is. She sings:

In dreams, it seems, 

I always see

Avenue P as it ought to be—

a terrific place for people like me.

"But the line from the show that always moves me," Sendak says later over dinner, "the line that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it, is ‘on an ordinary day like today.’ When you realize that all days are ordinary and then things happen, arbitrarily, precipitously … .that the most amazing things happen on just any ordinary day, the most calamitous things.

"When I had my coronary in 1967 I remember thinking, ‘It’s only Tuesday … that this event that was terrifying to me could occur on just an ordinary day like Tuesday … When Kathy sings that line in the show it makes her conscious of time, of time as something more than just what’s happening minute by minute. It makes her conscious of this minute.” The power of art, like catastrophe, can appear to make time stand still. The raw experience of an ordinary day is heightened, illumined and transmuted, and our unique experience joined to the common flow.

When Really Rosie first appeared on television, Sendak wrote, “I loved Rosie. She knew how to get through a day … Rosie [is] the living thread, the connecting link, between me in my window and the outside over there. I did, finally, get outside over there. In 1956, after illustrating some 20 books by various writers, I did a Rosie and wrote my own.” His own, the first he both wrote and illustrated, was Kenny’s Window. The eleventh and most recent, completing the trilogy begun with Wild Things and continued with In the Night Kitchen (1970), is Outside Over There, which started with a few lines that came unbidden in 1974. “Even then,” he says when reminded of the words he wrote about Rosie in 1975 that bemuse him now, “even then the title was heavy in my head.”

OUTSIDE OVER THERE

IN THE FIRST book, Maurice Sendak poses seven riddles. The sixth is “What looks inside and what looks outside?” The answer is Kenny’s window.

Sendak has many windows, shaded and clear, looking in on himself, looking out on vistas both urban and rural; in each direction the views are both fantastic and true, the inward glimpses as varied and complex as the outward landscapes. The largest, most masterful, and most mysterious of these views is contained in the trilogy now completed, a trilogy in which life’s very raw material is clothed in the rich and splendid fabrications of art.

In Wild Things, the angry young hero Max embarks on a fantasy sea voyage to a land of ferocious beasts. In this feral lair he stares down and tames the wild things, which are, of course, creatures of his own imaginings, avatars of Max’s fractious, disturbing feelings. In the second book, the cheerful, bumptious Mickey, awakened by noises in the night, embarks on a strange and wonderful journey through the air, first falling and then flying in a bread-dough plane of his own making that suggests Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. The subtext of In the Night Kitchen could be read as a paradigm of awakening sexuality—another forbidden feeling—and the nourishment of love, of the making and the uses of art in which the forbidden is transmuted, incorporated, and in part transcended. And in Outside Over There, the wistful and beautiful Ida—the only truly beautiful Sendak heroine—discovers that the baby sister she had momentarily ignored while playing on her wonder horn has been replaced by a changeling made of ice. The goblins—at first faceless and shrouded, later revealed as babies themselves—have snatched her for their goblin bride, a fate from which Ida, braving death, must rescue her.

All Sendak’s protagonists are plucky to one degree or another, though frightened by the trials they must endure to survive. The demons they find on their voyages of discovery  are frightfully fearful but finally manageable. A friend asks, “You mean all your books have to do with terror and resolution?” Sendak, never reductive, as any analysis of his work must be, does not hesitate. “There is no resolution to terror,” he says. “There may be reassurance.”

The words that Maurice Sendak “got” in 1974 became the first few lines of Outside Over There: “When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still—and never watched.” They welled up one day and during the next two years—Sendak is a very careful writer, grateful for every word that comes—those mysteriously resonant, foreboding lines unfolded in the silence of his studio into the 351 words of the book. In the beginning is always the word. “I don’t think in terms of pictures at all,” he once told Virginia Haviland, head of the Children’s Literature Division at the Library of Congress. “I find it’s much more interesting and difficult to write and … as far as I’m aware, I think strictly in terms of words.”

When the text is finally there, Sendak the writer removes his earplugs, turns on the Mozart (or the television; he is devoted to the soap opera All My Children, perhaps because of the title), enjoys the occasional company of friends, and becomes Sendak the artist. His goal, he told Selma Lanes for her full-length study (The Art of Maurice Sendak, Abrams, 1980), is finally to achieve something so simple and so put together—so seamless—that it looks as if you’d knocked it off in no time. One stitch showing and you’ve lost the game.” He finished the paintings for Outside Over There on May 13, 1979, five years after the words first began to haunt him, three years after he had finished the text. They were years of dogged work, of depression, despair and elation, and for weeks afterward he had a recurring dream of having a baby which is taken from him. And, as he says, “I happen to love babies.”

The words came in silence; they have their own tune. His brush, however, moves to music, particularly, in the late 18th-century setting of Outside Over There, to the music of Mozart, his inspiration, his guiding spirit, his deep rhythmic source. “I draw all the time to Mozart,” he says, alluding to the fantasy sketches he begins and completes in time to shorter Mozart works. “Mozart dancing with Haydn, Mozart fighting with Constanze, Mozart doing whatever.”

In an essay on Degas, Paul Valéry says that Degas’ genius lay in his ability to follow the line, to continue the classical line without repeating or merely imitating it. Sendak freely acknowledges his debt to a multitude of painters: William Blake who was also, of course, a writer, George Stubbs, Winslow Homer, George Cruikshank, Daumier, Heinrich Hoffman, Randolph Caldecott, Ludwig Grimm, Chagall, Corot, Matisse, Boutet de Monvel; to the popular culture of his childhood: Walt Disney, King Kong, Laurel and Hardy, Busby Berkeley, Winsor McCay; to writers: Henry James and Herman Melville, whose works he owns in first editions, Heinrich von Kleist, author of The Marquise of O, whose portrait appears on the wall of Ida’s room, Rousseau; and to many composers besides Mozart: Haydn, Gluck, Britten, Janacek for whose opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, he designed the sets and costumes. (It opened at the New York City Opera last month.) The complete list of sources would be very long indeed. The homage is deliberate; the assimilation complete; the result distinctive, highly personal—unique, in a word: a picture book like no other.

"Like an extravagant piece of poetry," Sendak writes in an introduction to a 50th-anniversary edition of Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books that Random House will publish later this year, "the interplay between few words and many pictures … is a difficult, exquisite and most easily collapsible form that few have mastered … Barbar is at the very heart of my conception of what turns a picture book into a work of art. The graphics are tightly linked to the deceptively loose [literary] style that is astounishing in its ease of expression. The pictures, rather than merely echoing the text, enrich and expand Babar’s world … [and] the balanced emotional climate … is never allowed to go out of control."

Despite these cerebral influences, Sendak does not consider himself a thinker when he approaches his own work. About that, he thinks very little, “if I think at all, and perhaps that’s the best and safest thing that could have happened to me. I’m more stomach-directed than head-directed. The work comes out of these tempestuous fantasies that I don’t think of as being in my head but somewhere in the direct middle of me, these urgent, all-consuming, thrilling feelings that have to be expressed.”

After the performance of Really Rosie, after dinner had long since been consumed and the wine was low in the bottle, Sendak said that night in March in a sentence resonant with the tones of his admired Henry James, “How cleverly I have clothed the inner thing—whatever that is.”

THE INNER THING

IT IS THE MIDDLE of April in southern Connecticut. The dogwood is not yet in bloom. The leaves of autumn and the winter’s debris are just now being raked up. The first palest green of spring mists the lovely land. On a country lane hard by the New York border, a man is heading home from his daily walk with his three dogs, a walk that begins at 11:30 each morning and ends an hour or more later. There is no traffic on the road; there is not another person or another house in view. On this lane, across from a deep woods and behind a line of trees and shrubs, low stonewalls and rail fencing, stands the private domain of Maurice Sendak, who is just now ending his ritual walk.

"The world is so you have something to stand on," it says in A Hole Is to Dig (1952), Ruth Krauss’ book of children’s definitions that Sendak helped select and illustrate. This particular piece of the world seems indeed a solid place to stand, as if it had been inhabited—as it has—for generations, and will endure, providing and nurturing, for generations more. There is a hill topped by a grove of red pines and named Mt. Ida because the publisher’s advance for Outside Over There paid for the transplanting of the big trees after the original white pines had been killed by the blight now threatening the countryside. Near the house—a 1790 saltbox with two fieldstone wings from the 1920s—there is an herb garden. Inside, the impression is all light and air, color and music and art: harmony. One thinks wistfully of the Age of Reason. Rousseau (whose Confessions Sendak is now reading), Jefferson, and, yes, Mozart, come to mind. The state of nature is tamed here, subdued; the scale is human. One feels at home, or at least one would feel at home if home were like this.

The effort to maintain a pastoral idyll against the encroaching wild is considerable, but at least money is not a problem. (Sendak’s books sell spectacularly well. Wild Things alone has sold more than 700,000 hardcover copies, and a paperback version for the school market almost two million. He has written and illustrated eleven books, and illustrated seventy-eight others.) The landscape seems vaguely familiar, as if this hill, these dogs—this spirit—had been encountered before as, in literature if not in life, it has. It is Ida’s, idealized to a degree in Outside Over There.

But then, as Sendak says, “She is me.” And she is also his sister, Natalie, nine years his senior and very beautiful. She is both of the above, and none, transmuted from whatever her original clay into Ida by the artist-alchemist for whom “flesh is so much mud redeemed by the gold of light,” as Valéry said of Rembrandt.

"I had such a consoling vision as a child—an approach to an island," Sendak says. "It shows up in Wild Things but it’s more appropriately represented in Outside Over There where, curiously, Ida ignores it.” Not so curious, Ida though only ten or eleven, is a very wise child. “She starts out looking like a child but as she goes through her travail the experience registers on her face. She comes out about 112.” She has no need to look with longing on an idyllic child island, the ideal safe harbor, even if Mozart is playing there. “It’s not really an island—it’s like a hill, a mountain,” Sendak says. He gestures toward Mt. Ida. “There it is, that hill in back of the house. The ideal hill.”

Such a landscape, such safe harbors, such wistful visions may seem far from the three-room flat in Brooklyn where Sendak spent his early years, the third and last, the frail child, the favored child—or so he was told—of Jewish immigrant parents. Although his father, whom he loved, used to say, “We are not put here to enjoy ourselves,” Sendak’s childhood was not desperately unhappy, nor especially happy, either—the sort of middling-to-miserable childhood with which many of us are familiar.

Maurice was born in 1928 to comfortably middle-class parents, his father a partner in a thriving dressmaking business in Manhattan. The Crash came the following year, his father lost everything, “and by the time I was conscious of living, we were poor.” Maurice shared a bedroom with his sister and his adored brother Jack, five years older and “without any question my best friend and a devoted brother, an endless source of patience, of understanding. One of the happiest memories I have is of my brother sitting on my bed cutting something out for me—shirt cardboard, paper—making it move and amusing me, or drawing pictures on the window in winter, and I would be so delighted. I can see it now. My mother was different, more distant and shy with children. I didn’t automatically run to her, I ran to my brother or my sister—or my father, he was that kind of person. We were an intensely close family—or at least we had the look of it—even though endless volcanic tremors came out much later. And there was something else—I don’t know how to describe it—the sense that we were a ‘royal’ family, like a family that had been dumped out of their original country. I don’t know why I felt that. It must have come from my mother and father who had a great sense of specialness, which we of course picked up. Maybe all Jewish immigrants had that sense, a defense against their loneliness in a foreign land.”

And then here was the terrible sense of doom that pervaded all Jewish families in the late 1930s, when their European relatives were disappearing one by one in Hitler’s vast pogrom. Sendak remembers going to the Center Theater in Manhattan to see Pinocchio, “knowing somewhere inside me that I shouldn’t be happy because something like a war was going on and my mother was crying, consumed with worry over relatives who were dying. My mother’s whole job was to get her family out, and she did. My father dutifully helped her, and they all came to live in our three-room flat. But when it came time to get my father’s family over, that was it, there was no way of getting out by then, so they were all killed… .

"I didn’t want to think about it. I just wanted to get uptown to the Center Theater. I remember even the sky. It was gray, and I knew something very bad was happening and I should be ashamed of myself for so looking forward to a movie by Walt Disney. I remember these feelings so acutely, especially when they were related to movies or books," those twin objects of his pleasure, his desire, and his guilt.

Guilt is a mighty engine, and childhood, as Sendak says, “the most mysterious land that ever was.” Without memory, it is forever lost; without that past, there is no future.

Sendak remembers. Sometimes he thinks he remembers everything. At other times he says his memory of childhood events is no better than average. Both statements may be true. When he remembers and is able to summon and to render are the feelings of childhood. The facts—the events he or any of us remember—may be and usually are distorted, mistaken, or simply false. Feelings are always true, but it takes a particular kind of genius, a very special spirit to craft from those feelings, sensations, colors and dreams of childhood the forms that give them life. Sendak has that genius, and genius is a mystery, “an absolute mystery,” says Ursula Nordstrom, the Harper & Row editor who first discovered him in F.A.O. Schwarz and who continues to work with him, though semi-retired. “It has been the greatest experience of my professional life to see him going deeper and deeper, getting better and better. And I’ve never stopped loving him, his openness, his generosity, and his great, great talent.”

Yes, he is talented, and he knows it. He has a great gift “but a gift is not salvation,” as he puts it. “Look,” he said one day after he’d finished a year’s work on two operas and had no immediate project to dive into, though several possibilities, “I’m just an unemployed Jew from Brooklyn.”

I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But Maurice, who was a plucky kid, is a very brave and very funny man—a regular mensch, as they say where he comes from.

Posted at 11:47pm and tagged with: Maurice Sendak, New York Times, Washington Post, Book World, Margalit Fox, Ursula Nordstrom,.

Cogito ergo blogito? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes I blog not simply because I think—I mean, we all think, right?—but because I want to develop and clarify my thinking, as in my last post, “Pipe dreams.“ Sometimes I blog because I want to express my particular point of view, as in “Windows on the world,“ or to explain why I don’t go out to lunch, as in “Mr. Otis regrets.“ Sometimes I just want to make what’s on my mind a little clearer in my mind.

I am, after all, a writer. Words are what I deal with.  Putting them together makes me think. Basically I blog because I want to express what I’m thinking about. It’s the perfect activity for the solipsistically inclined. And as a kind of bonus, however remote the possibility, there is the hope that someone might read it and even think about it. That’s a form of vanity that writers are particularly susceptible to. Columnists and bloggers—perhaps especially columnists and bloggers—are not immune to the gratifyingly smug feeling that they have something to say even when they don’t. Most often they don’t.

Today I’m mad, mad as in angry and disgusted. I have not the slightest hope that what I write here will influence anyone. Those who believe will continue to believe and those who don’t, won’t.  I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said over and over again—in newspapers, in op-ed columns like those I used to write for The Washington Post, in radio and television chatter shows, in articles and books, at the water cooler and on the street. So why am I bothering to repeat it? Because I’m mad. Here’s why: this headline in Slate this morning:

Pastor Who Called Mormonism a “Cult” Backs Romney

Rev. Robert Jeffress said he’d rather have a Mormon like Romney than a Christian like Obama in the White House.

So Rev. Jeffress has changed his mind, not about Obama but about Mormons. A few months ago he believed them to be the devil’s spawn. But they do, after all, oppose abortion and gay marriage, the great evils of our time. (I didn’t see anything about wars or famine or the crimes committed in the name of one God or another.)

I ask you, when did adherence not only to a particular religion but to the tenets of one subset of one sect of that religion become a prerequisite to the presidency of the United States or other public office, high or low? We’re not electing a pope. (When it comes to the Church of Rome, Jeffress is closer to the whore-of-Babylon school.)  What, I wonder, if Romney were an Orthodox Jew or—Heaven forfend!—a Muslim? Would Rev. Jeffress prefer a Muslim who echoes his own firm beliefs about the evils of abortion and “the gay agenda”? (Maybe he doesn’t know that fundamentalist Muslims and Orthodox Jews, too, are generally with him there.)

Probably not a Muslim. When Jeffress denounced the Koran and its adherents as evil—promoting pedophilia, etc.—the congregation in the First Baptist Church in Dallas gave him a standing ovation. The church has ten thousand members.

The extreme fundamentalists in this country act as if the country were or ought to be a theocracy, founded on the Puritan principles of the Pilgrims, God-fearing Calvinists obsessed with sin and witchcraft, practitioners of which were hanged. Instead, our  country was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment, a European import admired by Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and the signers of our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights embody these principles, not the principles of that other European import, Calvinism. All of us, including the extreme religious right, ought to be grateful for that.

Anybody who is still with me most likely agrees with me. If they don’t agree, well, less power to them. I didn’t expect to change anyone’s mind. I just wanted to get it off my chest.

Posted at 12:26am and tagged with: Blogging, Slate, Rev. Robert Jeffress, Mitt Romney, President Obama, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Christian fundamentalists, Muslims, Baptist Church, Puritans, Calvinists, the Enlightenment, Founding Fathers, Dallas,.

Marx may well have been right when he said that religion is the opiate of the people. In fact, I think he was. But he didn’t finish the equation. Marxism, too, is the opiate of the people. They just aren’t the same people. As Gertrude Stein said of money, “Money is money is money but the pockets change.“ (Google tells me she actually said, “Money is always there but the pockets change.“ I like it better as I misremember it.) So it is with opium. Choose your poison, as they say. There are a lot of potions on the shelf.

What Marx didn’t seem to realize is that all people—no matter how rational they may pride themselves on being, how lofty their intellects and clear their thinking, how far they soar above the common fray, even someone as elevated as Marx—all people need a little opium from time to time: opium as anesthesia against the world’s harsh realities, as a release from the humdrum into the marvelous, as a means to a dream, or just the simple pleasure of getting high. Drugs make us feel good; that’s why we take them. (I am using opium in a largely but not entirely metaphorical sense; I’m not advocating that anyone head to the nearest opium den, crack house, or street-corner drug market.)

But drugs are addictive. Like ideas, they are mind-altering. Sooner or later, and often sooner, the drugs we took to make us feel good, become necessary to sustain us. Eventually, instead of our having power over drugs, drugs hold power over us. What began benignly enough ends up as something quite different.

Communism is not Marx but something else entirely. Communism is to Marx as Christianity is to Christ, as Islam to Mohammed, Judaism to Moses.  There’s a connection, all right. Those men got things going. But the link between the idea and the institutions that invoke their names and claim to carry out their will in the world we live in is perhaps not so direct as the leaders of those institutions like to claim. T.S. Eliot wrote,

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow …

It’s a very long shadow, Indeed

History is the God on Communism’s altar, with the shadow of the Dialectic moving ineluctably through it until the Worker’s Paradise is at last achieved, even in Detroit. The dialectic has done its duty and that’s the end of it, the final synthesis. Destiny has been fulfilled. Capitalism is dead, crushed by the Dialectic, and along with it the decadence of the West—prostitution, drugs, homosexuality, the heresies of Freud, etc. Terrestrial harmony rules. Folk dances, peasants in their colorful garb singing as they thresh the people’s grain, happy muscled workers of both sexes industriously turning out carburetors or whatever, joyfully exceeding their quotas month by month. It’s a beautiful day in the morning.

That theme has been sounded in the West as well, most particularly in the United States. Remember Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History? It started out in 1989 as an essay and evolved (no pun intended) into a book in 1992. “What we may be witnessing,” he wrote, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.“ I’ll bet writing that sentence put a big satisfied smile on his face.

What could Fukuyama have been smoking? Talk about Western triumphalism! He was serious, too, if delusional. But he’s a respected academic, an adviser to presidents, and, at the time, beloved of the neocons. His essay, a flight of Panglossian fancy, sparked a grave intellectual debate with much nodding of heads and hemming and hawing and pulling of chins. (Fukuyama has since modified his position and has come to see that History, instead of ending in New England town hall meetings happily scattered across the planet, has continued to bobble along in the same old messy way.)

Fukuyama had simply stood Marx on his head. Instead of the Dialectic leading to the collapse of capitalism and a Proletarian Paradise at the end of History, Fukuyama’s Dialectic led to the collapse of authoritarianism and the victory of Liberal Democracy and the Free Market. Each was worshipping at the same altar but one couldn’t see that the God of the other was the same God as his own. Both were cockeyed optimists, as the song goes.

Communism is simply one more way of wielding power, of manipulating the masses—the lumpen as the enlightened intellectuals refer to the great unwashed—of determining their choices and controlling their lives. In practice it has turned out to be a very harsh method, and immensely costly in human suffering and human lives.

Democracy is another way of accomplishing the same thing but less painfully. In democracy more people are involved in making decisions about how they want the Power to act on their behalf. The Power is that whole nexus of wealth and the manufacture of wealth and who controls it and how its benefits are doled out and to whom and in what proportions, but however it’s defined, any governmental system must keep things going, just as the first task of living things is to keep the species going. As our own system amply demonstrates, the level of chaos is higher in a democracy and a mass of people acting together (or fighting together) do not necessarily make the best choices, or even very good ones. But Democracy does not strive for perfection; it only hopes for a little improvement from time to time.

This began, at least in my mind, as a piece about one particular Easter in Romania, loveliest of holidays, and how the church in Romania survived because its opium was ultimately more powerful than the opium of the state. The church gave them something to do. Lighting a candle or blessing themselves when they passed a church turned out to be more rewarding than a day in the cement factory where “We pretend to work,” as the saying went, “and they pretend to pay us.”

Posted at 1:39am and tagged with: Karl Marx, Gertrude Stein, Francis Fukuyama, Communism, History, Dialectical Materialism, Easter, Romania, T.S. Eliot, Religion, Neocons, Liberal Democracy, Gods,.

Writing long-form journalism or long-form anything—which could mean a few thousand words or a few hundred thousand or the million and a half that Proust poured into Remembrance of Things Past—doesn’t leave much time for lunch. That less than noteworthy thought comes to mind because this morning I tried to explain to a friend why I couldn’t accept his invitation to lunch at one of Washington’s finer restaurants. (He didn’t name the restaurant but since he is not known for dining on the cheap, I assumed it was one of our classier eateries.)

I’ve been in this writing place before and the struggle to get there is exceeded only by the fear, once having reached it, of falling out of it. Falling out of the zone could last for a few days (unlikely), a few weeks (more likely), or months or years (in my case, most likely). Getting there is, for me, at least, a bit like training for the Olympics or any other sport, except swimming does a lot more for the muscles. You don’t sustain a long project in bursts; you do it by routine. I’ve quoted Flannery O’Connor before but no one I know said it better: “If you do the same thing every day at the same time for the same length of time, you’ll save yourself from many a sink. Routine is a condition of survival.”

Lunch isn’t part of the routine. I regret it, but like Miss Otis, I’m unable to lunch today. I’m in training. (It shows in my muscles.) That means I’m sitting at my desk, writing. At the moment, it’s this little piece, which may be a distraction but only a minor one. It’s more like warming up, a few stretches before getting down to the work at hand. The point, however, remains the work at hand.

I can’t divide my workday into segments because my work is one segment that begins now, when I get to my desk, and pauses some time in the afternoon when the well runs low but not dry. If I go to lunch, that flow is disrupted. Maybe it’s attention deficit disorder, but In the morning I keep thinking about when I should begin to get ready for lunch, and in the afternoon … well, after lunch there is no afternoon, no afternoon for work, anyway, so I have sworn off lunch “for the duration,” as we used to say during World War II when civilians were caught up in the “war effort.” (We never hear of “the duration” today because duration implies the end of something and our wars seem endless; as to “war effort,“ there is none, except for the men and women, along with their families, who are fighting it.) So no lunches for the duration. Once, when I was writing a long piece in London, I turned down an invitation to Wimbledon, and here invitations to sail on Chesapeake Bay. Like lunch today, they were hard to resist, but not nearly as hard as  getting into this mode. It’s a fragile zone and disruptions are dangerous.

We’re all running against time, though some of us don’t realize it yet, but in the last few years I’ve become acutely aware of it. The stark impossibility of avoiding the consequences of time tends to clarify the mind. I want to finish my work before I die. Whether I do or not will make no difference. For that matter, it makes no real difference that I ever started it, but it makes a difference to me and it matters to me that I try to finish what I started with my first novel, Testing the Current, and continued into my second, To the Sargasso Sea. I’m revising Sargasso because I’ve never been satisfied with it. That project, especially, seems a little silly to the few people I’ve mentioned it to. True, probably no one will ever see it. But I will, and I want it to be the way I want it. And then there is the matter of continuing on my third, and so it goes.

I feel a little nervous about publishing this. In the first place, why should you, the reader (assuming there is a reader) care about how I keep the incubator humming while the egg is hatching, and why I have to do it the way I do?  I have no answer to that. It’s altogether likely that I’m talking to myself, reminding myself. Second, I feel uneasy talking about my work. Talking is easier than working, and some writers have found that after talking too much about what they’re writing, they’ve talked it all out and there’s no need to write it.

The important thing is, there’s no going out to lunch for me today. I’m working.

Posted at 12:43pm and tagged with: writing, routine, long-form, lunch, Olympics training, time, novels, Testing the Current, To the Sargasso Sea, Romania,.

Sunday, in excavating my desk in search of a lost object, I found, not the lost object (that came later) but an unopened envelope that had been buried under the detritus for more than a week, maybe two. In the envelope were notes written by hand, in ink, with a pen on the kind of paper you want to rub softly between your thumb and forefinger, even sniff. It is not the kind of paper that your printer or copying machine spits out.

It’s a small band, those of us who care about paper and fountain pens, but it is large enough to have kept Fahrney’s, which sells both, in business in Washington, DC, for more than eighty years. Of course, eighty years ago there were no ballpoint, felt-tip, roller-ball or any other such pens that I know of. If you needed to use a pen, and most everyone did, it was either a metal-nibbed version of the quill or a fountain pen. The alternative was a pencil, and that was used for arithmetic.

In college I and many others took notes with an Esterbrook, a good, cheap pen that disappeared in an avalanche of Bics some years back. But Fahrney’s didn’t. It adapted to changing times and now is nationally known for its fine pens (at fine prices, one might add) and for its pen doctor, who repairs the precious objects they sell. If you ever visit the shop, you’ll understand what I mean by “precious objects.” It looks a lot more like Tiffany’s than Office Depot and gives off that high-end hush usually reserved for old churches and the salons of purveyors of rare gems.

Many years ago I bought a Mont Blanc there, when it was a small shop and before George Will appeared in Newsweek with one in his pocket, for a small fraction of the price they sell for today. If I remember correctly, it cost me less than forty dollars. I still have it. When I read the note uncovered in my dig, its luxuriously leisurely quality—the pen, the paper, the ink, the hand, and the words, of course—told me that a reply in kind would be only fitting and proper.

So I searched for an appropriate note paper. I found something I’d picked up in Italy when I could afford to go to Italy and buy their papers, which cost an arm and a leg, by the way. The box had never been opened. I must have been operating under the same principle as those women (they were always women; it was not a man’s business) who never used the “good” china because it was too good to use. It’s comparable to keeping the cellophane on the lampshades but a notch or two above on the social ladder.

Boldly I broke the seal, picked up my pen, redolent of the wealth and power I so sorely lack, and responded in kind. I hadn’t written a note like that in years, partly to spare the recipient the pain of my handwriting but also because e-mail and the computer have replaced notes and tangible letters-in-the-hand in my life. I use a pen for condolence notes, of which there have been blessedly few lately, and for writing in my notebooks, nothing else. (I used to use it for signing books but there hasn’t been one of those in a long time. Soon though.)

I call them notebooks because “journal” sounds too grand, too important (and when used as a verb sets my teeth on edge) and they’re more than a “diary.” I associate “diary” with high school girls writing “Dear Diary” in one of those little books that locked. They probably don’t do that any more, texting and tweeting having taken over their world and the concept of privacy a quaint and distant memory.

I got started with my notebooks when the lilting Irish writer and the New Yorker’s “Long-Winded Lady” Maeve Brennan sent me an Eye-Ease National 53-210 notebook the day after lunch with her and Howard Moss, poetry editor at the magazine, in the Algonquin one hot summer day in 1968. “Use it,” she said. The tone was imperative. I took it home, put it on a shelf.

The notebook stared at me, unopened, for a year until at the end of another hot day the following summer I did finally open it and write, with a ball-point pen, I might add. And I’ve been doing it ever since, not every day—there’ve been lapses, some long, some short—but enough days to fill thirty-two of them. (I’ll write about that another time.) I tried but failed to find another Eye-Ease National 53-210. I moved on to other notebooks, and other pens until I found the Mont Blanc, an anachronism, perhaps, but I like it.

I remain grateful to Maeve Brennan for starting me on the notebook thing and to Howard Moss for bringing us together. I’m grateful to Fahrney’s, too, for putting the pen in my hand. 

Posted at 9:36pm and tagged with: pens, ink, handwriting, letters, paper, Fahrney's, Esterbrook, Mont Blanc, notebooks, journal, diary, Maeve Brennan, Howard Moss,.

In third grade we sat at small desks lined up in rows, with lids we could raise to store our schoolbooks and our tablets as we called them, maybe a pencil and an eraser. Behind the hinges when the lid was closed were an inkwell and a groove to hold a pen or pencil. Miss Hollihan filled the inkwells only when she handed out nib pens so we could  practice our penmanship. Learning cursive was what differentiated third grade from second. My most vivid memory of the inkwell is dipping Eleanor Patterson’s pigtail in it, which got me sent to the cloakroom, missing recess, and got my mother a phone call, which got me into further trouble at home. I know I was punished because if I got in trouble at school it was always my fault and I could expect more at home. It couldn’t have been very severe, though, because I don’t remember it.

What else do I remember about third grade? That I wore short trousers, with long stockings in the winter, which I hated, especially the stockings, which necessitated the embarrassment of garters; that on November eleventh we kept a minute of silence at eleven in the morning, the date and hour of the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War, even though we we were in the middle of the Second; that Miss Hollihan inserted the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that we recited every morning; that I counted the days until the school week would end and that lunchtime Wednesday was the half-way point; and I remember something else, the windows.

There were three large windows, maybe six feet by five feet with transoms above that had to be opened with a special tool long enough to reach. The windows faced west although the only view was the top of a tree and the blue sky when the sky was blue. During much of the year it tended to be gray. I spent a lot of time with my chin in my hand looking westwards, through the windows into the great sky beyond. It was not what I saw there, it was what that vast emptiness allowed. The sky beyond the windows was a great gray slate, an empty canvas not so much for my imagination to fill as to fill my imagination, 

When Miss Hollihan noticed that my eyes were not focussed on the blackboard where she was demonstrating that day’s lesson, she would snap me back to attention. “Billy! There will be no woolgathering in my classroom. Come to the blackboard!” I would dutifully march to the blackboard, demonstrate that I understood what she had written there—underline the verbs in the sentence, or add the numbers in the column, for instance, or read aloud a paragraph from the book she was attempting to teach us—before being allowed to return to my seat and, after a few moments of staring intently at the blackboard to prove my seriousness, return my gaze to the window and the world beyond.

Those windows got me through third grade, woolgathering—the word is quaint now—and daydreaming.  Which gets me to the point of all this: dreams; fantasies; imagination. Without fantasy the Bach fugue I am listening to now (his 327th birthday is Wednesday) would not exist. Without imagination would God exist? Or religion. Or art? Or the space program? I don’t think so. The incredible cave paintings of Chauvet, the subject of Werner Herzog’s film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” were painted more than thirty thousand years ago by humans like us, recognizable by what their imaginations projected onto the walls of a cave.

The poet Yeats took a line from what he said was an “Old Play” for an epigraph to one of his books, “In dreams begins responsibility.” I had to think about that line for a while. But yes, Yeats is right. Responsibility begins in dreams, in gazing out the window, for no visible purpose, into that vast emptiness. It is in those blank spaces, those lacunae, that dreams slowly form, coalesce, and, suddenly, begin to breathe. But they are fragile. When we see them, our responsibility, our gift, is to nurture them into life.

So dream on, children. Gather the wool before it vanishes into air—or someone draws the window shade.

Posted at 11:35pm and tagged with: Third grade, Armistice Day, Pledge of Allegiance, windows, daydreams, woolgathering, Bach, Yeats,.

I didn’t expect to open the New York Times this morning and find something so extraordinarily memorable, so beautifully and simply written occupying the top and most of the rest of the front page of the Sunday Review. It is not about the news, which is what I expect to find there. It’s about words, words as words, and their linkage into sentences by means of grammar, and, underlying it, why words and sentences and grammar truly matter.

The essay, “My Life’s Sentences,” was written by Jhumpa Lahiri, a novelist (The Namesake) and author of two collections of short stories (Interpreter of Maladies, Pulitzer Prize, 2000, and Unaccustomed Earth). I may have read one or two of her stories in the New Yorker, but I am not really familiar with her work. I intend to remedy that.

She writes of sentences that struck her as she was reading, that caused her to look up from the page: “For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

Yes. It is, indeed, a magical thing.

One sentence in particular, from James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” she has never forgotten. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” Unremarkable, one may think, but one would be wrong. Another look at the sentence, and an attempt to rework it, reveals how perfectly it achieves its profoundly simple effect. The sentence could be rewritten in a number of ways, all of them getting across the idea of air so cold that it stung but it didn’t prevent the “we” in the story from the excitement of playing in it. Nothing, however, expresses the totality of the experience as plainly and as grippingly as these twelve words and the order in which they appear, ending with the startling word “glowed,” “till our bodies glowed.” That small strike of genius—”strike” like a match—is what makes great literature great.

Later Lahiri writes, “In fiction, plenty [of words] do the job of conveying information, rousing suspense, painting characters, enabling them to speak. But only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in the soil.” For me, the sentence I have italicized is one of them.

Later she writes, “The urge to convert experience into a group of words that are in a grammatical relation to one another is the most basic, ongoing impulse of my life.” Anyone to whom this urge matters should be grateful to Jhumpa Lahiri and the impulse of her life.

This astonishing essay in the Sunday Review appears under the rubric of Opinion. It should be under the rubric of Art. It is the first article in “Draft,” a new series about the art and craft of writing. Don’t miss it.

Posted at 5:29pm and tagged with: Jhumpa Lahiri, words;sentences;essay, New York Times;, James Joyce, fiction;art, Opinionator,.

When it comes to the social media, I’ve been, well, anti-social. Yes, I’m on Facebook; Twitter, too. I resisted both and was slow to learn. I’m still in the back of the class, waiting for another lesson from my daughter or grandchildren in the hope that I might move to the middle and graduate with what used to be called a “gentleman’s C,” back in the day when that concept meant something.

It’s not that I’m against new media or new technologies. Far from it. I lost my iPad Nano last week and was bereft until my nephew surprised me with a new one that arrived today. It’s almost embarrassing to acknowledge the satisfaction I get from such a small, clever object with earbuds that counts my steps and reads to me while I walk. Moreover, I covet an iPhone. It just looks so cool, and you can actually talk to it and get a response, which takes me back to my early days in Romania when if I picked up the receiver in my hotel room nothing happened, nothing at all, no matter how hard I jiggled the phone. But if I left the receiver on the hook and just talked calmly but firmly to the telephone, the operator quickly responded. Maybe they were working on a beta version of Siri. In any case, the magical qualities of Romanian telephones will be the topic of another post, perhaps, because I’m rambling far from my intended subject. (And I didn’t even get to my lust for the iPad.)

The subject I’ve been circling around is the lesson I got this week in the power, the stupendous power, of the social media, which, like the water quietly building behind a hydroelectric dam, when released, surges forth in an overwhelming, irresistible wave. The lesson was provided by the video "Kony 2012" that went on line last Monday. Tuesday evening, just three days from the time I am writing, the novelist Julianna Baggott posted on Facebook that her 15-year-old son told her there was a video on YouTube that she had to watch. She posted a link. I went to YouTube and watched it. “Kony 2012” is not a ninety-second amateur quickie; it lasts thirty minutes and is very skillfully done, media-wise, as they say. I must be misremembering, to borrow a word from the Bush II lexicon, but I think when I first watched it, “Kony 2012” had had nine thousand views. When I checked Friday night, almost exactly three days later, it was very close to seventy-five million views on Vimeo and YouTube together.

That is a new kind of power and it is awesome in the “shock and awe” sense.  The film has made Joseph Kony and his children’s army known around the world, when only last week few outside of Africa and those who follow human rights issues would have recognized either. It has also become the subject of heated controversy, as the New York Times reported Friday. Kony’s army started in northern Uganda in 1987, and operated there on an increasing scale of terror until the Uganda military, not particularly known for its attention to the niceties of human rights, pushed them out in 2006. Since then, his ragtag, murderous army, mostly children and now reduced to a few hundred, has been operating in extremely remote areas of central Africa—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Since its beginning, however, the Lord’s Resistance Army has terrorized, mutilated, maimed, killed, and kidnapped, forcing thousands of terrified children into his LRA to commit their own atrocities in turn. They are thus both victims and perpetrators, as Mark Kirsten notes in one of the two or three most perceptive critiques of the film that I’ve seen. Kirsten is a doctoral student at the London School of Economics, focusing on Uganda and Libya. 

The depravity is unimaginable. Kony is a truly bad and vicious man, a monster on a years-long rampage. I think everyone agrees on that. There can also be no question that this very sophisticated, professional video, in addition to making Kony virtually a household name, is filling the bank accounts of Invisible Children, the human rights organization that produced the film. (The video asks for a thirty-dollar donation.) In January the group won a million dollars in the Chase Community Giving contest on Facebook, which is another indication of the power of the social media and of this group’s ability to harness it.

Naturally, such large amounts of money give rise to envy, resentment, and controversy, and “Kony 2012” and the Invisible Children organization have given rise to all of that. What started out as a feel-bad weeper film has in the last three days turned into an accusatory free-for-all. The film does present a simplified and not entirely accurate picture of a complex situation, but it certainly is an effective fund-raising vehicle. Would you give thirty dollars to prevent a child’s throat from being slit? There must have been a run on Kleenex this week. And really, how much nuance and complexity can you squeeze into a thirty-minute film while keeping viewers’ eyes and wallets open?

Michael Wilkerson, who has lived in and reported from Uganda and is a guest blogger on Foreign Policy's  ”Passport,” makes the objections clear, as does the disillusioned Edmund Inglis, who was heavily involved with Invisible Children for four years. I myself have a complaint. I resent the time I’ve spent over the last two or three days trying to distinguish the disputable from the indisputable. That’s a lot of searching, reading, and googling, with—I admit it—an occasional aside to make a comment in the fierce arguments raging on Facebook.

It is indisputable that Jason Russell, the man behind the organization and the film, devoted nine years of his life, from the time he graduated university at 24, to exposing the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by Kony and his grossly misnamed Lord’s Resistance Army. That is no small thing. His immediate goal, the message of “Kony 2012,” is to capture Kony this year. It is Lisa Shannon’s goal, too.

Shannon has spent considerable time in the areas devastated by the LRA and has been involved in central Africa for many years. She writes in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog "On the Ground": “While [the debate about the film and the organization] has stirred questions about the role of westerners advocating to end mass atrocities in Africa, as well as useful dialogue on non-profit fiscal management, the debate has obscured the key point. Joseph Kony’s immediate capture and delivery to the International Criminal Court (ICC) would be an unambiguous victory for humanity. It is the solution for which affected Africans have desperately, unanimously pleaded.”

And then? I believe both Russell and Shannon would say, “First things first.” In the absence of a better plan, this seems like the right one to me.

Posted at 4:07pm and tagged with: Invisible Children, Julianna Baggott, Kony 2012, LRA, Lord's Resistance Army, Romania, Uganda, central Africa, human rights, iPad, iPhone, iPod, social media, telephones, terror, Kristof, Lisa Shannon,.