Learning to relax: Yes, I’ve had to give it a try. In the past, I’ve come out to Fire Island with a simplified schedule, or what I thought would be one, But I couldn’t afford a schedule this year. I could follow the schedules of others, where necessary — if you want to get the Times, you have to get to Whitney’s Pantry before eleven — but I couldn’t plan for myself. As at home, I fell into a diet of reading, while writing less than half as much as I should have done in New York. I haven’t made dinner once, not for myself and not for guests. As long as I have to go the Pantry on weekdays, I have them make me a sandwich, something that they do almost to deli standards. By former standards, I’d just myself to be very lazy. Now I’ve learned the difference between lazy and relaxed. Lazy is putting off, or avoiding, responsibilities and obligations. Relaxed is making the most of having little in the way of either.
I’ve had to forget about Brahms and Mahler. I’m sure that they weren’t the only ones, but Brahms and Mahler developed a pattern of working out and bringing to completion their larger works (well, in Brahms’s case; all of Mahler’s were larger) at mountain-lake resorts, in the summer. This is a very attractive model, but for me this would require a printer and at least one more monitor — a lot of equipment to lug across the Great South Bay and along the narrow lanes of Ocean Beach — pulling it all in a wagon. Having all that stuff, and printing and cutting and pasting, is the last thing I want to do out here. I need to work, not only my work, but on my blood pressure, which has been significantly elevated in the past year by a meteor shower of stressors, with a couple of asteroids thrown in. I need to try not to worry.
Kathleen and her brother were out for the weekend, and they left after an early dinner. Kathleen said that she would call me when she got home. I know what this means — it means that she is not going to look at her phone, or even set it loud enough to hear the ring, until she gets home — but that knowledge wasn’t very helpful when, even two hours after her van was to have left Bay Shore, I hadn’t heard from her. I called both of her mobile phones, and after only two rings each call went to voicemail. My heart didn’t actually go cold, but that seems to be the best word for the low-frequency shock wave that swept through my rib cage as I put the phone down. There was nothing to do, no one to call. I knew — from experience, you betcha — that calling friends in town to ask if they’d heard of any road disasters would be an utterly pointless annoyance; on the very remote chance that they might know of one, they would immediately call me. So I tried to read. The book that I was reading did as good a job of distracting me, or most of me, from the crisis at hand. When the bells that announce a call from Kathleen chimed from the spires of what I think of as Te Deum Cathedral, I was not actually listening for them, and I hardly knew where to find the phone in my excitement.
Kathleen might have prevented my anxiety attack by texting at any number of points. When, still at the boarding stage, a passenger in the van declared that she needed a seatbelt, and for some reason this required everyone else to change seats. When, at the Triboro Bridge, it turned out that the van driver didn’t have his EZ Pass card. When, while waiting in one cash line, the was further delayed by vehicles cutting in from the other cash lane, where some sort of altercation was in progress. When, having reached Manhattan at last, another passenger asked to be left off at 125th Street, entailing a long drive afterward down Second Avenue instead of zip down the Drive. But, as I said, this never occurred to Kathleen. She might be running late, but she was okay. I don’t think that she makes conscious decisions not to text; it simply doesn’t occur to her. My habit of being hurled into the pit of despair by thirty-or forty-minute delays doesn’t register with Kathleen when she is okay and in transit.
But let’s look on the bright side: I was reading when she called. I was not staring at the phone or wondering “what to do.” My agitation remained fairly superficial. I even imagined taking a pill and going to sleep without hearing from her! There’s a resilience in this that I didn’t have as recently as two weeks ago.
The book that successfully pulled my mind away from worrying about Kathleen’s whereabouts was Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. I said a few things about this book in the previous entry, but mostly as a point of departure for talking about myself and about some recent thinking at this Web log. I wasn’t quite sure that I would be reading the entire book.
By Friday, I had come to believe that everyone who can must read this book right now. It is a book for right now, an extraordinarily lengthy news report that takes days, if not weeks, to digest, and that certainly requires conversations with other readers to grasp. Far From the Tree is a book about how to deal with the vexed notion of “identity” in contemporary America. Its way is to go out of its way to examine the complicated and often contradictory arguments with which all of us weigh and consider questions few of which were being asked as recently as forty years ago. Which is another way of saying that it invites all mature people to reconsider what they learned about the world when they were young.
I am going to try to avoid the appearance of summarizing Solomon’s book. To read it is to do a lot of heavy lifting — to understand that the book might well be much more comprehensive, and therefor physically heavier than it is. I’m also going to try to relate Solomon’s report to my own ideas about society and the world, “the world,” as regular readers will know, being practically a term of art for me, replete with specific denotations and by no means a synonym for “the earth.” (The world is an exclusively human construction, or, to put it even better, the construction of society.) I’m not going to do much of anything now, either. I have read seven of the twelve chapters, just over half.
Why does everybody have to read this book? Because, as a society, we need a lot of help replacing our binary presumptions. The extent to which binary presumptions are a natural human bias as well as a founding tic of Western thought is hard to say, and perhaps unnecessary, but we can agree that our American ideas of rationality rest on the syntactic construction of either/or but not both. You are either black or white, male or female, honest or dishonest. Rational as these statements might be, they are so unreasonable in the face of complex reality that their simplifcation is not only ludicrous but harmful. Rather than offer an example, I’ll simply point to Solomon’s chapter entitled “Deaf.” You may not be very interested in the problems of the hearing-impaired, but the ways in which those problems are being dealt with even denied (to be regarded as advantages instead) show human ingenuity at its most profuse, and also at its most conflicted; it would not be more than mildly tiresome to transpose the entire chapter into the key of nuclear capability. As on so many American fronts, organizations refuse to engage in dialogue with their opponents, and demonize them instead; while individuals make thoughtful and often painful compromises. The beauty of Solomon’s ear is his wonderful ear for the fine discriminations that underlie those compromises. Nothing is simple, but Solomon makes it all readable.
As I said last week, a better time for me to read this book cannot be imagined. What a lucky break to find it loitering among the beach towels!
This morning, when it was grey and humid and the air hovered on the warm side of the frontier of comfort, I read Andrew Solomon’s chapter on Down Syndrome. It was depressing for me, more depressing even than the first chapter, on deafness. I draw so much pleasure from most of what I hear, even in the city, that a world without sound would be a very dull one. Music (everything but rock — which proves my point), Kathleen’s voice, birds at twilight… even the honking of horns when 87th Street backs up, not a pleasant sound to be sure but a comic one that makes me run to the window to see how far back to First Avenue the congestion stretches. The sound of the surf, which varies in many ways with the weather. I like to think that my prose is suffused by my ear for music (and not just rhythm); when I edit my work, aside from catching typos and suboptimal usage, I’m trying to hear the music in the flow of words. I don’t mean to say that I feel sorry for people who can’t enjoy these things. There are plenty of people with perfect hearing who don’t enjoy them. And, as I get older, I live a quieter life; there is not always music playing. But a world without You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion? Impoverished.
But my hearing opens me to pleasures outside myself. Down Syndrome would limit the quality of pleasures that I could enjoy. It is difficult to read Far From the Tree without comparing and contrasting: which disability would be the worst? Which, of any two, the worse? I don’t entertain these idle distractions, but they pop up just the same, because it’s so conventional to give thanks for having been spared such afflictions. It’s what people do. Solomon, moreover, provokes two versions of the question: which impairment would be worse to endure, and, more emphatically, which would be worse to see inflicted on your child? (Solomon provides one answer to the second question, at the top of page 124.) I remind myself that, although, relative to the children in Far From the Tree, I’m normal, my daughter is normal, and (so far) my grandson is nrmal, this means little more than we find the world around us to be as convenient as it is for most of the people we know. Notwithstanding this normality, we get sick, endure sorrows, and will eventually die. Feeling pity for a disabled person is an ugly folly.
I walked to town to buy the Times and to have a sandwich made, walked back, and finished the chapter. It wasn’t time for lunch, so I picked up Ulysses and chugged through the seventh episode, which, according to the Wikepedia page that I’ve been consulting, is informally (and invisibly) entitled, “Aeolus.” Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus pass each other in the offices of a newspaper, but do not meet. Leopold is trying to made a publicity deal for an advertiser; Stephen is dropping off a letter written by the principal of the school where he teaches. The short sections are introduced by tabloid headlines. I remember a vogue for that sort of thing in the late Sixties; I associate it particularly with Donald Barthelme.
I figured out what was going on without referring to the crib at Wikipedia, but I couldn’t really follow what the characters were talking about. Nor was I trying very hard to do so. I am not so much reading the book as exposing myself to it. The story of the “vestals” who spit plum pits from their picnic atop the Nelson Column was droll, or at least drolly told, but I had no idea what it was doing there. I tried to figure out what “onehandled adulterer” meant until just a moment ago, when I realized that I’d somehow put Parnell atop the Nelson Column. Having lived for more than a few decades, and immersed myself in fancy-pants literature for most of that time, I catch most of the allusions without trying, but I can’t think why they’re there in the first place.
Plus, a lot of the subject matter is Ew! Bloom in the outhouse, for example. Worse, Bloom buys a bar of soap, and visits a bathhouse. The bath is elided, but the soap won’t go away: Bloom keeps pulling it out of one pocket and slipping it into another. There is an extravagant uncleanliness about Ulysses that strikes me as childishly antisocial.
If there’s one word that makes me wish I hadn’t picked up a book, it is “sweat.” I have a lot of trouble with sweat. I read somewhere that, if you’re very lucky, the microbes that reside on your skin will consume the entirety of the sebum that you excrete. Most of us play host to more finicky diners. What some microbes don’t consume causes body odor. If I don’t have that problem, it might well be that I don’t give it time to ripen. My microbes leave behind a film that both seals and burns. I feel wrapped in foil, and no abundance of balmy breezes will cool me off. Only a quick shower will save me. In all but the coldest weather, simply reading about sweat is unsettling enough to start me sweating.
I am also crawling through The Tale of Genji, which doesn’t at all begin the way I’ve been saying it would. It is, in fact, far more erotic than I took care to notice forty-odd years ago. Forty-odd years ago, I still needed things to be spelled out. Arthur Waley is understated about sex, but never the least bit mysterious. I was quite shocked, however, by the suggestion that, in one instance, Genji makes do with the sweet little brother of the woman whom he’s really after.
I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that Meredith McKinney’s lucid translation of The Pillow Book is the perfect introduction to Waley’s beautiful translation of Genji. McKinney, like her predecessor, Ivan Morris, explains all the odd customs — women lurking behind screens when their lovers come calling, for example. Waley spends as little time on these details as possible. He remarks in a footnote that Heian houses were “arranged somewhat differently than ours,” and leaves it at that. If you read The Pillow Book first, the world of Genji will be much more familiar, and there will be less lumber to get in the way of the story, which is, after all, neither anthropological research nor shelter-magazine copy.
The weather was somewhat stifling yesterday, and only slightly worse than Sunday. While I was finishing the chapter on Down Syndrome, the sky cleared up and the air grew cooler. It’s warm in the sun, but almost chilly in the shade. That’s how I like it; that’s what I’m here to enjoy.
PS: I haven’t, on this vacation, been editing this pair of August entries. I’ll do that when I get home. Bear with, svp.
The owner of the house we are renting is on her way over, to fetch some bottles of wine. Neither Kathleen nor I have met her, although I should recognize her from photographs mounted on the refrigerator. I was just about to say how glad I was that the house was presentable, when I realized that I hadn’t made the bed. And, to switch times, she walked in while I was pulling the sheet over the top of the duvet. She was surprised to find me all alone — quite reasonably, as houses here are either empty or lively.
The owner’s daughter and the daughter’s mother-in-law appeared presently, and all agreed that it was MUCH cooler here than where they’d been. That’s no surprise, either. The house is elevated, about six feet off the ground, and nothing stands between it and the bay breezes. I was invited to turn on the air-conditioning, an offer that I was happy to decline.
As it happened, I met the daughter yesterday. She stopped by to pick up a bicycle for her younger son. It was very nice to meet her, and to see her again today; but I’m glad that I met the owner, who was also very nice. The owner and her husband (who is also the owner, I expect, but Kathleen has had no dealings with him) will be celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary tomorrow — unless it’s today. I’m never any good with temporal details when I’m in pass-the-hors-d’oeuvre mode.
Especially when I’m on vacation, something that began for me, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, after a walk on the beach last night. It was about six-thirty. I kicked off my beach shoes and washed away the sand, poured a glass of wine, and sat on the deck — for about a minute; the sun was still too high. An hour later (spent fiddling at the keyboard), the sun was near setting, and the sky was brilliant as usual. I was still in beach attire — an English polo shirt, bought years ago in Bermuda, with the ugliest oversized print motif ever devised, but in colors that I like, and denim trunks — and I had no plans. I wasn’t hungry, so dinner didn’t press. For the first time this season, I sat and thozed. Forgive the coinage (if it is one); I’ve run together “think” and “doze.” Dozing, you sleep without being aware of it. Last night, there was always something going through my head, but it was so light that I wasn’t aware of it.
Somehow, I managed to read about a hundred pages of Far From the Tree this morning. This included the long, penultimate chapter, “Transgender.” I had saved it for last, because it is the only one of the ten “conditions” that Solomon writes about that gives me any trouble, and I figured, rightly as it turned out, that I would be able to absorb its complications if I was in synch with Solomon’s analytic protocols.
Why do I have trouble with Transgender? I shouldn’t have been able to say, but now I know that there are many reasons. Changing gender looks optional; it does not cure a disability that is visible to anyone but the sufferer. In this, its an outlier. I now understand that changing gender can be as imperative as receiving an antibiotic. Another reason, and one that persists even after I’ve read the chapter, is disapproval of cosmetic mutilation. Solomon’s coverage of thisa issue is one reason why I spoke of complications a moment ago, and not complexities. The profusion of Solomon’s examples demonstrates the impossibility of generalizing about changing gender. Third, Transgender has also seemed to me to carry a heavy load of fantasy — and I am constitutionally chilly about fantasy. The little boy who wants to grow up to wear dresses is no more interesting to me than the one who wants to be president, or a fireman.
My fundamental reservation about Transgender, however, follows from my conviction that it displaces another problem. Solomon quotes Stephanie Brill:
“A male child who says, ‘I must be a girl because only girls want to do these things,’ is not showing evidence of being transgender; he’s showing evidence of sexism.”
I couldn’t agree more, nor could I more fiercely defend the right of boys and girls to do whatever they please absolutely without regard to what’s gender-appropriate. Interfering with harmless pastimes is just as impertinent as asking a married woman when she plans to have children. We need new conventions that respect dignity, autonomy, and privacy.*
I am not opposed to changing gender, just resistant. If I were convinced that such a change was key to a child’s happiness, I would not stand in the way. I might want to be convinced by a sympathetic therapist (sympathetic to the child, not to me), but this would only to prevent regrets down the road — which, Solomon shows us, do occur. (And of course I’m talking only about surgical interventions here. I was delighted to learn about Lupron, which forestalls puberty and its side-effects, playing for time.) So many of the conditions that Solomon writes about — nearly all of them — have changed complexion in recent decades, thanks to intertwined amplifications of identity activism and medical competence. Who knows how much of Far From the Tree will be dated in ten years?
* By privacy, I mean those instances in which interests and activities pursued in private are for one reason or another divulged in public. They remain private.
Rain again. Before going to bed, I closed most of the doors and windows, but the rain, when it came, was soft and straight; I don’t think that any of it would have blown in. Dozing at daybreak, I wondered if it was peculiar of me to find the racket in the drainpipe, right outside the bedroom, so agreeable. If I had not known what it was, it would have been ugly and annoying.
When I went to bed, I had fifteen pages of The Moonstone yet to read. I had already stayed up very late, just to follow Ezra Jennings’s contribution to the story. Once I could be sure that Godfrey Ablewhite met with the death that he had coming, the tension snapped, and the words began to blur.
I wonder if The Moonstone has ever inspired a reader to become a Robinson Crusoe fan.
Yesterday morning, which was a bright as today is dismal, I declared a Total Holiday day. What this meant was that I would devote it to reading The Moonstone. Risking missing the Times, I stayed at the house until time for an early lunch at Maguire’s. There were still three copies of the newspaper when I passed the Pantry, and I bought one, but I did not read it until the middle of the afternoon, right before launching on Franklin Blake’s first narrative. At some point prior to four o’clock, I emptied a box of crushed tomatoes into a saucepan, added most of a stick of butter and an onion that I had cut in half and peeled, and set the pan over moderate heat. When I called Kathleen at four, as I usually do, the air was fragrant with Butter Sauce, as I’ve come to call this concoction (universally attributed to Marcella Hazan), because it is substantial in a way that’s quite different from the run of tomato sauces; it may not sound very appetizing to say so, but the butter contributes a meaty heft. When it came time to eat, I discovered that a Cuisinart pasta ladle is the perfect implement for keeping a Penguin Classic opean at the table. I took a walk on the beach, and did a load of laundry. I ran the dishwasher. Really, though, I did nothing but read The Moonstone.
The story is, of course, very good, an excellent yarn. But what I liked best was that Wilkie Collins was telling it. Collins can make shameless use of convenient coincidences that in lesser hands would be implausibly “melodramatic,” but he knows how to make them so uncanny that we’re compelled, for love of pleasure, to swallow them. Consider the spectacular demise of Sir Percival Glyde, burned to death in the blazing vestry of the church at Welmingham. (In The Woman in White.) It is nothing less than operatic that our hero, Walter Hartridge, is also on the scene, leading the effort to save Sir Percival’s life. But it is also operatically thrilling. When I was young, this was a guilty pleasure. Sensation was not cool. I wonder now, was that because of lingering modernism, or was it simply adolescent resistance to emotional display? I’m fairly sure that a lot of The Moonstone went over my head when I last read it, fifty-odd years ago. (Collins’s high-Victorian prose would have been too exuberant for me to follow with ease.) But I did recognize it as a guilty pleasure; and I began to hope that my life would be rich in guilty pleasures.
The part of The Moonstone that stuck with me was the character of Drusilla Clack — was there ever a better name? Miss Clack is a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances who has devoted her life to sanctimonious interference in the spiritual lives of others, especially those others who haven’t got much in the way of spiritual lives. Her family cannot dismiss her altogether, but they make their endurance plain. There suffering, of course, is grist for Clack’s mill: she is always on the lookout for the reversal of fortune that might soften someone up for the receipt of her evangelism. (She keeps herself supplied with inspirational tracts that bear such titles as “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons.”) Clack is a miracle of irony — she addresses the reader as sympathizer to her cause, as if unaware that sympathizers to her cause would not be reading novels — and the crowning touch is her hypocrisy, which, peeping out only rarely, here and there, has the astonishing effect of humanizing her.
And yet, I found myself pausing over a certain sort of passage, meant to be funny, or at least ridiculous, that I couldn’t help savoring at face value. In the following passage, the first such that I come across when I open the book, Miss Clack has just learned of Lady Verinder’s illness.
Little did my poor aunt imagine what a gush of devout thankfulness thrilled through me as she approached the close of her melancholy story. Here was a career of usefulness opened before me! Here was a beloved relative and perishing fellow-creature, on the eve of the great change, utterly unprepared; and let, providentially, to reveal her situation to Me! How can I describe the joy…
Yes, of course it’s ludicrous, and even inhuman to speak of joy here — but it is also quite essentially Christian, and aimed at transcendence. Imagine that Collins had the blasphemous idea of substituting Jesus for Clack. He would say much the same things; how would we react? It would be the wrecking of the novel, of course, but that such a notion should come to mind is testament to Collins’s gift for the rich ambiguity that holds us in thrall to the page even at moments of superb unlikeliness.
Reading The Moonstone was a bittersweet pleasure, because I knew that, when it came to an end, there would be No More. What would I do then, with nothing in my pile but The Tale of Genji and Ulysses, both of which would be somewhat medicinal after such Total Fun? Not to worry: Kathleen found my copy of The Lady and the Law, and she’ll be bringing out with her this afternoon. I won’t get to it until Sunday night or Monday, because she’s also bringing along Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil.
Bon weekend à tous!