Life & Living VI (Gotham)
Kathleen says that she doesn’t remember a thing about it, except the studying — which may explain why she is the successful Wall Street attorney. I remember almost everything else. I don’t remember studying, although I know that I did spend some time in my bare Brooklyn apartment going over my notes and the other materials that one accumulated in the course of preparing for the New York State Bar Examination. I certainly remember going to Bar Bri class everyday. Instead of a lecture hall, the class was held in the “penthouse ballroom” of the old Pennsylvania Hotel, across the street from Madison Square Garden. We were the lucky ones; we could afford to spend the summer days in morning sessions and afternoon sessions, cramming. Bar hopefuls who had regular jobs had to sit through much more concentrated review sessions during the evening. More than ever, it felt wrong to be doing anything other than studying law.
I did pass the exam, and I passed it that summer, the first and only time. It would be wrong to suggest that I didn’t study a lot. It would be very wrong to suggest that, thanks to native intelligence, I didn’t have to study as hard as other people. As I’ve tried several times to make clear, it was precisely because of my native intelligence that I had to study. Not only did I have to know things, objective facts about the law, but I had to think like the examiners, particularly with respect to multiple-choice questions, which, according to my native intelligence, were often so sloppily devised that none of the answers was correct. Nevertheless, my mind has done what it usually does with routine dreariness, and forgotten all about it. What I remember is living in New York City for the first time, while at the same time having come home.
Just to make it simpler, I lived in Brooklyn. Brooklyn really was new. Or nearly.
In 1957, retired, and two years a widower, my mother’s father married his secretary. It was all perfectly respectable. My mother might have been a little put out — she had always been a daddy’s girl — but Grace, the secretary, couldn’t have been less disagreeable. She was younger than my grandfather, yes, but she was older than my mother. Grace and my grandfather seemed to be very happy together, but it did not last for long, because within two years my grandfather was felled by a cerebral haemorrhage — a stroke.
Grace came from an Irish-American family in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood to the east-southeast of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Before marrying my grandfather, Grace lived in her father’s house, as did an unmarried sister whom I got to know well later, when she moved up to Bronxville to share an apartment with Grace after my grandfather died. There were brothers, and there were nieces and nephews. Someone might have been killed in the War.
We paid a visit to the house in Windsor Terrace. I thought it was gruesome; the idea of living there was so oppressive that I could not wait to leave. I have since realized that it was simply a respectable Irish Catholic house. It was austere, but it was not humble. Everywhere you looked, there was the gleam of highly-polished dark wood, on door frames, mirror frames, chiffoniers, and upholstered sofas and chairs. I have a strong recollection of colorlessness, but that may be an interpolation of other memories. There was also a great deal of glass, of old-fashioned Victorian plate glass. The effect was not to brighten the house so much as to remind me that light was somewhere else.
Grace’s father was still alive, a slim, compact man with a wry handsome face and white hair. Despite everyone’s best intentions, the visit entailed a clash of cultures, or rather the evasion of one. I could put it in socioeconomic terms, and wind up suggesting, without saying a word, that Grace’s father was determined not to be condescended to by relative grandees from Westchester who were Catholic in name only. I should rather talk about comfort. There was little thought of comfort in Windsor Terrace. I’m talking about physical comfort.
The house was ready for a bishop’s visit. Had a bishop ever visited our house, he would probably have relaxed into acting like an executive, like my father. The talk would have been of golf, and Scotch would have been the refreshment. A bishop in Windsor Terrace could behave as though such modern depravities didn’t exist. He could have shown up in vestments, surrounded by acolytes. (Grace’s sister, who was one of those quick-witted Irishwomen whom you don’t mess with, would have giggled, but only later.) Even in street clothes, he would have been treated like the ecclesiastical aristocrat that he was. And Windsor Terrace would have declared that it was worthy to receive him. Tea, biscuits, a glass of sherry at the most, all served with expensive Irish crystal and china and immaculate linen. A stiff and formal exchange of words would have afforded immense ritual pleasures to all. The visit of a bishop would have been an event second only to the birth of a child. Much more than a wedding! You never now how marriages are going to turn out. You never know how children are going to turn out, either, but there’s a big difference between little babies and full-grown in-laws.
Twenty-plus years later, I found myself looking for an apartment in Brooklyn because I knew that it would be cheaper than an apartment in Manhattan, and because my new stepmother still had an apartment in Park Slope. This somehow made it possible to imagine living there. A realtor took me to several very unattractive places, all much worse than anything that I had ever considered in Houston. I settled on the least bad. It was on the ground floor of a building on Eighth Avenue near Ninth Street, and the landlady was a sweet old thing whom I never met but who sounded as though she wanted to adopt me. It was odd to be the idea tenant for a change. Living on the ground floor meant that I didn’t have to pass anyone on the stairs, a small mercy. There were three rooms, more or less, a bathroom and a kitchen. The place was a dump, but the bones were elegant, and I fancied staying on, even though the plan was to move in with Kathleen as soon as she found her own place. She was sleeping on the couch in the apartment of a woman whom she had known when she was a paralegal in Washington. Kathleen had no intention of living in Brooklyn, ever, but I had yet to learn that, when it came to “non-negotiable” issues, it was best to yield to Kathleen. I wanted her more than I wanted anything else.
So it was a great folly to try to improve the Brooklyn apartment, and in fact I never progressed beyond the first step. The parquet floor in the living room was handsome but unpolished, so I had the bright idea of renting a machine to sand it down. I almost fainted when the sander came into contact with what must have been a deep deposit of cat urine in one corner. Taking another look at the bathroom and the kitchen, and reconsidering the utterly depressing view of the bottom of an airshaft from the bedroom in the back, I realized that Kathleen could never live here.
We had driven the U-Haul trailer to New Jersey, where Kathleen’s father had found a likely storehouse for my stuff. Everything but my clothes went into storage, and stayed there for over a year. I was left with a suitcase or two, and some books. I had never had so few immediate possessions. I bought a lamp or two and some folding tables, and I ordered an Adirondack chair from LL Bean. I spent most of the summer in the apartment. When I wasn’t studying, I explored Prospect Park, which was only a block away. Prospect Park, I soon learned, was the better of Olmstead and Vaux’s two parks in the city. The smaller space called for a more clever design — there was also no need for reservoirs — and the site was on a hilltop, with miniature mountains. A ridge divided the park in half, with a long meadow on the northwest side, and a lake, a zoo, and a “Vale of Cashmere” on the southeast. I see that 1979 saw the then-neglected park’s attendance drop to the lowest figure ever; not knowing any better, I took it for a romantic ruin a year later. No one whom I knew knew anything about it. I hoped that it would appeal to Kathleen, but it did not. She already had a favorite park, unknown to far more people than Prospect Park. We have lived three blocks away from it for more than thirty-five years.
Studying for the Bar exam in New York, with its dirty subways and my creaky memories, with the pedestrian crowds and the roar of a bazaar, I was farther from Houston than I had thought possible. At any moment, it was possible to step into a motion picture, the movie that might have been made here five minutes ago, the movie that I’d seen when I was a kid. Perhaps because of its financial troubles, the city was still the same place that I’d tiptoed into for Broadway matinées and Mostly Mozart concerts. Not all that much time had passed. Things were about to change. New York was about to embark on an era of prosperity that has never really abated since. It would start with the stock market and the surge in employment round about 1982, and just keep going.
It is time to introduce Kathleen’s family, which I shall do as discreetly as possible. This is really Kathleen’s own story, and she has not asked me to tell it. A brief summary will have to suffice.
Kathleen’s parents grew up and met in Chicago. They settled in Evanston and had two children. Kathleen’s mother fell into a depression after Kathleen’s brother was born, and shortly thereafter died of it. At the same time, Kathleen’s father found a better job in New York. While he relocated, the children were shuffled back and forth between their grandparents. In New York, Kathleen’s father met a woman whom he found very congenial, and she agreed to help him raise the children. Kathleen and her brother were re-settled in an apartment on East 96th Street, between Fifth and Madison.
It was quite a change from Evanston, and the children were made to feel it more keenly by their stepmother’s determination to raise them properly. Kathleen remembers a purge of her vocabulary, with new words for almost everything. Anyone who has read Nancy Mitford on polite usage will have a very good idea of what was involved. Kathleen was sent to Marymount and then to Sacred Heart, where her classmates tended to come from much wealthier families. Kathleen’s father made a very good living as a project engineer, working on power plants and such throughout the Middle East and in Asia as well. But he was no millionaire. He had schooled himself up from a working-class background. His second wife was a few generations further up the ladder, but her father, a successful attorney, had succumbed to alcoholism and died prematurely; his widow had had to take in borders, a disgrace that haunted Kathleen’s mother.
When the children were small, Kathleen’s stepmother — by now her adoptive mother — had a career in publishing. She was a fashion editor at Parents Magazine when she retired. Kathleen does not know why her mother retired. But she found a new occupation in plotting a good marriage for Kathleen. She managed to join the board of a socially prominent charity, and used her white-gloved elbows to open doors that were supposed to be barred to the likes of her. It was all in the interest of turning Kathleen into a lady. I’ve always thought that this was a rather naïve undertaking. Kathleen did become a lady, no doubt about it, but the accompanying portfolio of negotiable assets, without which no prominent family would release its sons, did not materialize. Was Kathleen’s mother hoping for a love match? Surely she was too mondaine for that. But she did put Kathleen in a liminal place. Did Kathleen, or did she not, belong in the Social Register?
It was for this reason that Kathleen had thought about returning to Washington after law school. Between Smith and Notre Dame, she had spent two years doing paralegal work at a law firm that specialized in anti-trust law. She did not want to return to that firm, but she did rather want to escape the uncertainty of her place in New York. By now, her parents lived in Montclair, New Jersey, close to Kathleen’s father’s office. Kathleen was free to be whom she pleased in New York. But the effort required for her coming alive as Galatea had deformed her consciousness forever. There were friends in New York whose lives were rather grand. Would she go back to being their poor country cousin? Quite aside from the social confusion there was the fact that she was setting out to have a serious career in the law, at a time when that was still somewhat unusual. She did not intend to work for a while and then drop out to raise a family. She was not only ambitious but curious, and indeed she has made a name for herself doing things that haven’t been done before. She would have been bored to death by women who chatted about nannies and vacations, decorators and after-school programs.
Kathleen’s mother overlooked all of this for a very long time. It was not until the onset of her final illness, about ten years ago, that she acknowledged, in the form of smiles, that Kathleen’s success had approximated what she had had in mind. There had been no rich marriage, but there was her daughter, seated on a dais at the Metropolitan Club, the only woman among five eminent men, talking about the S & P 500, which was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.
Coming to New York instead was my idea.
I had gone to dancing school, but that was the limit of my preparation for New York society, which, like society everywhere, is set very early by schooling. With respect to Americans generally, I had received an élite education from beginning to end; from the standpoint of New York society, my education might as well have taken place in one-room schoolhouses and a junior college. Did I know this in 1980? I hadn’t thought about it, and I never should have thought about it if it had not been for Kathleen’s handful of New York friends, all of whom had gone to the right schools. Most were classmates from Brearley. Academically, Brearley is almost too severely demanding to be a society school; famously, Diana Vreeland was thrown out. But Kathleen’s oldest male friend in the world had gone to Buckley, Choate, and Penn.
I am not certain that I have come to terms with this glamour even now. It is a very secluded glamour, about which most people haven’t the slightest clue. By plutocratic standards, it is extremely unostentatious; New York society seems to be very sure of itself, but scratch it in the wrong way and you will see that it has never recovered from Andrew Jackson. It endeavors to stay out of the pages of Vanity Fair; the only publicity is bad publicity. The people in New York society are like people anywhere, except that they are not particularly curious about people anywhere else. There is probably a good reason why they don’t know the people they don’t know, and even if there isn’t, nobody wants to make a lot of introductions.
In order to make society interesting, you have to tweak it. Edith Wharton discovered this, and it cramped her style, making Ethan Frome her best-known book. Society tries so hard not to be interesting. Many people in society are indeed indistinguishable from the brain-dead, or from rather primitive automata. These people tend to be the steady workers who serve as guarantors against change. They don’t run anything much, but they show up often enough to pay the light bills. There is no reason for you to envy them. They enjoy many highly specialized minor pleasures the anthropological interest of which wears off after a few repetitions. But, like the moon, they exercise a magnetic pull on all who know them. Having been to a few clubs, a few wedding receptions, a cocktail party or two, and perhaps even a small dinner party, you cannot pretend that these are people of no importance. The nature of their importance may be ineffable, but the importance itself is incontestable. And there is nothing quite so soothing as the rustling of a room full of good manners.
Preston Sturges alone knew how to present society on screen, and even then it was not New York society strictly, and even then he was making jokes. Absolutely no other film-maker comes anywhere close to capturing a faithful representation.
Looking back on the social ambitions that Kathleen and I nursed in the early Eighties, I would feel more ridiculous than I do if more than one of them had approached realization. As it was, we gave the matter a lot of thought and talked about it a great deal. It was a waste of energy for the most part. Interested as we might be, we could not make the effort to be interesting in the right sort of way; nor could we feign interest. I think that we were both simply too vivid. Kathleen’s career was an enormous challenge to the ladies who lunched. And my lack of accomplishment, unaccompanied as it was by money and breeding, was hard to reconcile with the fact that I could talk for hours without sounding stupid. It would have been difficult enough to remain in society if we had been born to it. Getting in would always have meant admittance without acceptance. We might have been entertainers at best. Kathleen understood this much better than I did. It took me three or four years to realize that I’d have to be out of my mind to want to join a club.
After the Bar exam, Kathleen and her mother found a studio apartment in Yorkville. It would be wrong to say that I moved in at once, because there was nothing to move; the stuff in storage was certainly not going to Kathleen’s apartment. It was understood by Kathleen’s parents that we would live apart until we were married. Initially, we hoped to be married in the fall, after the exam, but then Kathleen’s father was transferred to San Francisco, and so it would take another year for Kathleen’s mother to plan the wedding. We assented to this, but I lived with Kathleen. I don’t remember spending the night in Brooklyn again. We arranged the phones so that when I answered Kathleen’s and her mother said, “RJ?” I would reply that Kathleen had forwarded her phone to Brooklyn. This was not disputed. There was only one close shave.
It was a Saturday morning. The phone rang; Kathleen answered. It was her brother, calling from a payphone. He and his parents were in the city, a few blocks from the apartment, and would be dropping in momentarily. In no time at all, we swept all of my clothes and other belongs out of the closet and under the bed. By the time Kathleen’s family arrived, we had disguised all signs of my presence. Kathleen’s mother made a beeline for the closet and pushed the sliding door with everything she had. “What a lot of closet space you have,” she said, as if she had not picked out the apartment with Kathleen. She knew (it would later come out) that we were living together, but she was pleased that we took pains to try to deceive her. That was the principle of the thing.
The only other incursion of our peaceful love-life by Kathleen’s mother occurred in connection with the embossing of stationery to be used by Kathleen to thank people for their wedding presents. It had been understood from the first that Kathleen was not going to become Mrs Robert John Keefe, or adopt my name professionally. She was going to go right on being who she was, and this was fine with me, and with my father as well, which surprised me slightly. It wasn’t fine with her mother, though, and the contention came to a head over stationery. Kathleen planned to order paper with her actual monogram; her mother insisted that if she thanked a single family member or friend with paper that wasn’t stamped KMK at the top, she would just die. This argument, the only one that the two women had about the wedding, got quite acrimonious, and it came to an end only when I pushed a little note under Kathleen’s nose, suggesting that she simply buy both. She went ahead and thanked everyone under her own monogram; we still have the box of KMK. I don’t think that my mother-in-law ever condescended to notice that her wishes had been flouted.
Kathleen’s mother was something of a dragon. Of the three mothers closest to me, my own and my two mothers-in-law, she was the most overtly forbidding. There was no charm to lure one into false comfort. She had succeeded in realizing an aspirational life, of that there could be no doubt. She had taken an Eliza Doolittle of a stepdaughter and transformed her into a debutante. It had not been fun, but fun was a triviality in my mother-in-law’s books, as it is for dragons generally. She was in such complete command of comme il faut that she did not find it worth mentioning.
Our wedding observed all the proper standards. We were married in a very nice church. The reception was held at the Junior League, a pleasant walk from the church on what turned out to be a beautiful afternoon in early October. At the reception, there was a receiving line and a band that played songs chosen by me — this was one society job that I could have nailed. There was a bar and there were hors d’oeuvres and there was champagne and cake. It lasted about two hours, and then it was over. There was a photographer. There was no dinner. Kathleen and I changed into our going-away clothes and went to the Plaza, where, after checking in for the night, we went to the Palm Court for a drink. I went round to the newsstand to see if our wedding had been announced in the next day’s Times. (Kathleen’s engagement had been announced, complete with photograph!) It was, so I bought a few papers. Later, we went to a party at a friend’s apartment. When we finally went to bed, we were cross and overtired. The next morning, we flew to Manchester, New Hampshire, from which we drove to an inn in the Monadnocks. We had a very nice time there.
As we settled in, however, the asymmetry of our lives became more pronounced. Kathleen’s career was unbelievably demanding. She was often late for dinner parties at which she was nominally the hostess. Sometimes, she had to cancel at the last minute; I would go alone. My life, in contrast, was almost completely unfocused. I had managed to get myself to New York, and I was married to the woman I loved. Now what? I had no idea what to do with my mind. My legal career became truly interesting only in the year and a half before it ended, for reasons largely out of my control. I had no friends who shared my speculative curiosity; everyone was exhausted by the day’s work and capable of little more than taking in the daily news. I kept myself in reserve for something, but I didn’t know what it was, and I was both aimless and restless. I went out at night to neighborhood places and drank too much, although nothing like to too much that almost killed me as I turned sixty. I had no sense of learning anything. I read a lot as always, but I was adrift.
Rescue was long to take shape, but it first glimmered in 1985, when my father gave me the money (which I had to ask for, as usual) to buy a PCjunior.
When I was an undergraduate at Notre Dame, a smallish but still sizeable white building stood near the edge of campus. We called it the Computer Building. Without even entering it, you could see the computer. It lined the far wall of a wide room on the ground floor, separated from the lobby by an equally wide wall of glass. I couldn’t begin to describe it now, after the decades of morphological transformation that computers have undergone since then, but I do recall the reels of tape, and how erratically they behaved, turning slowly in one direction for a moment, then stopping, then rewinding at speed, and so on. They obviously weren’t playing anything. Now, of course, I realize that the tapes contained data that was to be retrieved, sometimes in little bits, sometimes in larger ones. In those days, it was all very mysterious. Nobody really knew what computers were for, beyond the blandest of labels, “Science.” (“Rocket launches” would not have been unlikely.) I don’t suppose there’s any need to write that the computer on which I am writing this is a million times more powerful than the contents of that assemblage of metal cabinetry — or perhaps a billion.
More interesting that the sporadic tapes were the stacks of punch cards that, as the computer processed them — slap slap slap slap — grew shorter and shorter, and another stack of cards grew somewhere else near the reader. These cards were punched in the basement of the Computer Building. I knew that because, when I assumed responsibility for the classical radio programming — “programming” in a very different sense — I inherited a system invented by my predecessor, a computer major. He had had the bright idea of simplifying things by writing a bit of code that took the sort of information that I gave an example of in Chapter 2 and condensed it, so that when the information was typed in, it was punched onto the top of the piece of thick cardstock the most young people can’t even have imagined, much less seen, unless they have been to a computer museum. The punch cards were just like the cards that I would use at the radio station in Houston, except that they were much easier for the computer to read than they were for me. There also had to be a card for every piece of music. The entire point of this bit of automation was to expedite the production of the program guide.
I paid a few visits to the punchcard room in the basement of the Computer Building, but only a few. It was the most dismal brightly-lighted space I have ever been in. Merely dull when empty, it became monstrous as the desks filled up with computer nerds. I’m here to testify that I have never doubted the complaints made by women about sexism in computer land. One associates aggressive masculine sexuality with large athletes, such as football players, but even the dimmest linebacker is aware that some sort of rudimentary charm helps to lubricate the prospects of romance. This had never occurred to the computer nerds, clearly. They were unaware of the mediation of manners. They observed such conventions as would prevent fisticuffs, but not with much grace. Although, this being Notre Dame, they were usually clean and pressed, they were both sprawling and mechanical in their movements. Of course I am misrepresenting the freaks as exemplary. It would never have occurred to me then to call them materialist mystics, but that, I think, is what they were. Not sharing the dreams aroused beneath their shiny pocket protectors by the approaching horizons of cybernetics, I began to fear that I might be metamorphosed into a pocket protector myself. I decided that the punchcard option wasn’t worth the trouble. I proudly, humanistically, junked it.
I have no idea what happened next. Subsequent memories dating from the radio station in Houston have erased most of the particulars of WSND; I remember only what was unusual, and very little of the nitty gritty was that. What I do remember is wondering how to teach a computer to “program classical music.” By this I meant, “compile classical playlists.” To do what I did, in short. An opera overture, a piano sonata, a suite of ballet music, a string quartet, a symphony — a sequence that differed in three dimensions: kind of music, number of musicians, and date of composition. The last criterion was easy, basically equivalent to the periods of music appreciation. The number of musicians could be reduced to three: solo, ensemble, and orchestra. It was the “kind of music” that was the tough nut. This dimension had two dimensions of its own: form and feeling. The forms of music are relatively few in number (I’ve just given a partial list), but the feeling is almost indescribable. And yet some pieces “go” with others. The idea is (a) to vary the mood slightly from one piece to the next or (b) to produce an interesting contrast. How would you tell a computer what to do? How would I tell you what to do? That is, assuming that you knew little or nothing about classical music, how could I teach you to compile playlists by reading the codes that I would have to devise and then inscribe on the card for each piece of music?
But I couldn’t have put it that way then. I didn’t know the first thing about AI, which is to say that I didn’t know it existed. Or, to put it another way, how AI might be a specialty within computer work, and not the whole business. What I wondered about most can be represented by the codes that I’ve just mentioned. How would I break down the affect of a piece of music? Let’s take a Bach fugue. How would I describe one? Dark? Mysterious? Intense? Concentrated? Recursive? Elaborate? Consistent?
We’ll stop there: the point is that I didn’t know how to analyze music in this utilitarian way. I don’t now. Some part of my brain knows how to recognize an infinity of distinctions, but they are unmediated responses to music that I could never reduce to words. Let’s consider what I regard as one of the best concert programs I’ve ever heard. It was given during the second season of Mostly Mozart, in 1967 — my last summer in New York as a youth. I don’t remember the order in which the two works were presented, but I should venture that the G-minor Quintet, K 515, came first, and then, after the interval, Mozart’s Requiem in d. The quintet calls for five musicians: two violinists, two violists, and a cellist. The Requiem calls for an orchestra, four solo singers, and a chorus. The orchestra must include several odd instruments, such as bassett horns (a kind of oboe) and a trombone (in German, the last trumpet is a trombone, thanks to a different translation of the Latin tuba). The keys, however, are related; G and D minor share an affinity similar to that between C and A minor. They are moody keys, whereas C and A are more reserved and tragic. To be perfectly vulgar, the keys of the music performed that night often foreshadow the Romantic music that would be written in the decades after Mozart’s death. The quintet and the mass go together very well, but no one but an impresario with a very free hand would think of putting both on the same bill. If a computer suggested it, it would be regarded as a mistake.
For me, the compilation of playlists has always been my version of the Turing Test. I write at an interesting moment in time when passing the Turing Test seems no longer to represent the objective of artificial intelligence. We don’t look to computers to fool us into thinking that they’re human by doing things that we do as well as we do. We’re beginning to ask them to do things that we don’t know how to ask them to do. My adult life has encompassed the span of an idea of what computers are for. For many years, I thought it ironic that I, who had come to depend on computers for my everyday business, began by rejecting them, when I boxed up the punch cards and put them away for good. Now it seems prophetic. For I have learned, slowly and painfully, that computers are almost useless at doing things that I can do.
For me, the computer is a word processor that is attached to the Internet. I write things and then publish them. I send and receive email. Sometimes, the texts involve pictures; Facebook is nothing but an elaboration of that theme, and so is the Web site of the New York Times. Via the Internet, I exchange good old Mother English with other readers and writers. It is a kind of postal system. One thing that my computer is not is “personal.”
When I got the PCjunior, I had highly naïve hopes for the role that a computer might play in my life. Somehow, I imagined, I would mold the computer to suit me. It would balance my checkbook, and categorize my transactions. It would keep track of the books in my library, and my CDs and videotapes, too. It might suggest movies that I’d like to watch, if I told it what sort of mood I was in. It would create shopping lists from recipes. It would be a regular Jeeves.
I would learn that computers can do many of these things, but they can do them in a few ways only. To customize their operations, you have to know how to write code, and I’m not sure that coders think it’s worth their time to develop truly personal software. The computer is “personal” in that it’s yours. If you think that “personal” means “uniquely you,” you are up a creek.
One example will suffice. I have one reason for keeping a database of the books in my library, and one reason only: I want to know where the book is. This is the one thing that the leading library-management applications are not designed to tell me. The designers of library-management software correctly imagine that most software users will be professional librarians, or at least the curators of large collections of books. If you have a large collection of books, you use one of the standard classification systems. The good old Dewey Decimal System broke books down into categories and subcategories and, if you’re old enough to recall, the result would be a number, written or stamped on the spine of the book, often with a letter of the alphabet that was usually the first letter of the author’s last name. This combination of numbers and letters told you not only what the book was about but where it could be found. Nothing could be simpler. More complex systems have taken the Dewey Decimal’s place, but their ways of sorting also provide information about the location of any given book. Bear in mind that, in a professional library, books are stored on shelves of roughly uniform height, capable of accommodating books of any normal height.
The personal libary differs from the professional in two ways. First, forget shelves of uniform height. No one has the room for that. There have to be a few shelves for tall books, a lot of shelves for books of average height, and a few shelves for the short books — mostly old paperbacks or European imprints nowadays. And classifications are personal. Most categories in a professional system are probably not represented in a personal library. The vast bulk of my books fall into categories of fiction, criticism, and history, with a lot of books about classical music and quite a few about movies. There is a small shelf of business-related books: most of these titles are really histories, but some, such as Charles Wheelan’s Naked Economics, are treatises (albeit very readable ones). So I keep them together in a bookcase that is largely devoted to history. I used to have books about sciences and even mathematics that I now realize I’m unlikely to consult, but I do have histories of science and mathematics that I shall never part with. The more I think of it, the more clearly my library is divided between books of fiction and histories of something or other. I tend to see almost all nonfiction as history. Which means that there are basically two categories of book in my library. Not very helpful for locating anything.
ReaderWare, a popular home-library tool, has a nifty feature that allows you to enter information about books into the database by means of a barcode reader. This is very, very handy. There’s only one hitch. It only recognizes new books. Let’s say that I want to lend a book to you, and keep track of the loan. How nice it would be to pass the book under the barcode reader — pop! But the software would not pull up the data for that book, so that I could type in a little note about your name and today’s date. It would just tell me that the book is already in the library. Similarly, if I copy a book’s ISBN onto the software, it will not bring up the data to tell me where the book is. So extraordinarily useless is ReaderWare at providing me with the one kind of information that I desire that, after a dozen years of trying to live with it, I simply gave up. I understood that there just aren’t enough personal librarians to make the kind of library-management software that I need worth developing, and there probably never will be. I now keep track of books by creating tables in Evernote and typing in authors and titles. Even such truncated data entry is time-consuming, but the system works very well. There is no automation, beyond the basic text-retrieval that is part of any word-processing application.
A great deal of my life since 1985 has involved coming to terms with dashed hopes. In compensation, there has been the Internet, but I have decided to end this story with my first meaningful encounter on the Internet; this book itself is an implicit account of what happened thereafter. Whether discovering the inadequacies of the “personal” computer or the unexpected pleasures of the Internet, however, it soon became clear that the PCjunior would be the first of many computers, and that the computer would be the lens through which I managed my world.
Later in 1985, my father died. This time, I managed to be there. He was in the hospital by the time I got to Houston. He may have been conscious, but all I remember is the dreadful Cheyne-Stokes breathing, which I misunderstood the doctor to say “chainsaw breathing,” which is what it sounded like. I remember being summoned down the corridor to his room; I had been on the telephone, or talking to somewhere. I got there just in time, whatever that means.
He had not been feeling well for a long time. Visits to Houston were not pleasant, because, at least in my view, my father was feeling sorry for himself and complaining about things that couldn’t be fixed. He was bored, but he wouldn’t be taken on drives. I did not see the point of interfering. He had his wife, who was clearly exhausted by taking care of him, and he had his doctors. I thought a lot more of his wife than I did of the doctors, and I was not at all surprised when his internist told me, after Dad died, that they’d found cancer all over him — in just about those words. I didn’t ask why there had been an autopsy or a post-mortem exam; I didn’t think to. I didn’t ask why he was going to a dressed-up clinic instead of one of the serious hospitals in the Medical Center, because there was no one to ask.
In the early summer, he made it to his fiftieth reunion at Notre Dame. He wasn’t in great shape, but he had a good time, or so I heard. The plan was to drive from South Bend to Davenport, where cousins on his maternal side still lived. Within ambulance distance of Davenport, he collapsed in a restaurant or a men’s room. He was taken to the hospital, St Luke’s I think it is, where Cary Grant had died about ten years earlier. It was a very cheery hospital, and his room in intensive care had a wall of windows. I flew out to see him, staying with the cousins. The immediate problem was an abscess. He had had surgery for hemorrhoids, and the wound had abscessed. So they had to bring him back from sepsis. When he was moved to a regular room, and seemed on the road to recovery, I returned to New York. I don’t remember how many visits I paid to him in Houston after he got home, but I suspect it was just once. Then for the last time, which wasn’t a visit at all.
In the ten years that they had together in Houston, my parents invented their own groove. Leaving Bronxville liberated them from a lot of childhood baggage. They had fit in well enough in Bronxville, but I don’t think that it really suited either of them; it was the place their parents had chosen. They inherited a social world and made their place in it. Only when they got to Houston did they set their own terms, and that appalling but very comfortable house was a sign that things were going to be different. They were now free to make their own friends, and through an old Notre Dame connection they swiftly entered a group that called itself the Catholic Mafia. The title was a badge of honor in the land of Baptists. And also in a land of Latinos. I remember a few faces, and even a few names, very well, but I never knew much about most of them. My parents had a lot of fun with them; they even went on a cruise or two together. But there was always the flavor of a retirement community about the Mafia, if only because all the children were grown up and out of the house, even me soon enough.
But starting fresh with personal friends was only half of their new social life. There had been very little socializing among the Panhandle executives in New York, for the simple reason that there weren’t that many of them, and no two men seemed to be anything like equals. Houston was just the opposite. There was a much larger cadre of executives in the Trunkline Building on Bissonnet Street, and most of the men had roughly similar backgrounds — backgrounds closer, in fact, to that of my father, who had been a college student, after all, when his parents moved East. Iowa wasn’t all that different from Kansas or Oklahoma or even Missouri. He spoke this language like a native. (My mother had lived long enough in Chicago to understand it like a native.) He was never entirely at ease with slap-happy Texans, but they were outnumbered by men like himself: decent, quick, personable, and diligent. Even through my dislike of Houston, I could see that it was a much better place for Dad. That helped.
A lot of what I have to say about my father’s business career in Houston is pure speculation. I know that the top jobs were highly competitive; I know that his rivals were not the men he was close to. This isn’t to say that there was any enmity. It probably made competing easier. Eventually, he got the top top job, at least on paper. His principal rival was the real ruler. And I am convinced that any dissatisfaction that my father felt about his climb up the highest rungs of the corporate ladder was fanned by my mother. In Houston, she found her calling: she became the corporate wife.
This meant knowing everything there was to know about her husband’s career: what everyone did, what everyone’s wife’s name was. This meant giving marginally stupendous parties, always a little more elaborate, a little more surprising, than anybody else’s. (It called for a lot of “flair.) This meant draping her figure with haute couture, which she learned to do herself. It meant a lot of business travel. She had always been good at the industry’s big annual convention, which, for natural gas, was a glittery affair. In my mind, I always thought that it meant playing Lady Macbeth, and that was not just me being mean. She never plotted anything malignant, but she did plot, and her satisfaction was not vicarious.
Whether my parents realized that this was what they ought to have been doing from the day they got married, and that they would have been much happier without children, I can’t say, although my mother did say the second thing, or something like it. My sister and I had not turned out as planned, but, more than that, we had — let me speak for myself, I had never occupied the position of the child in a normal parent-child relationship. Instead of a son, she had a critic. I did not worship or adore her, ever. I knew that a mistake had been made. I expect that she did, too. But I was grown up and no longer her responsibility. If I still got handouts from her husband, that was his decision. She stopped worrying about me; she may have stopped thinking about me at all, at least for stretches of time. She certainly liked what she had to think about instead.
Without her, my father lost his bearings. The Mafia produced some likely successors, but he rejected them all. He drank too much. He was warned; he still drank too much. He sold the house and moved into a rather swank apartment nearby. When I was home for the summer job, we both drank too much, and to tell the truth we laughed a lot. He told me a few interesting things but not much. Eventually, he was ordered to go into rehab. He insisted on driving himself to the hospital, even though he was medically intoxicated. There was nothing for it but to follow in another car. He drove perfectly, which I realized oughtn’t to have been a surprise, as how had Ra-Ra and Nelsy been taken home all those nights? He was the kind of drunk who can drive. He was the kind of drunk who had been able to hold his liquor. With age, that was slipping away, and he was slipping up. But he was always a genial drunk, unlike me.
On a trip to New York, he was introduced to a woman who had never been married. She was part-Irish, part-Syrian, and all Catholic. She had a strong if somewhat refained Brooklyn accent. She made him feel good about everything. She did not challenge him, as my mother had done. Those days — the days when challenge was useful — had died with her. He was ready to enjoy life. Unfortunately, it was rather late in the day for that, especially since he had to make do without whiskey. He was only sixty-six when he married the lady from Brooklyn, and at first the marriage put wind in his sails. I think that what happened was what often happens to very successful businessmen: he didn’t know what else to do with himself. His one hobby, if you can call it that, had been golf; I’d say that it had always been more of a pastime. He liked to nap. He was not much of a reader, and even today the kind of solid business journalism that he liked doesn’t produce bumper crops of books. He liked to travel: he liked the motion of it. But he was not interested in sightseeing. If he had seen one building, he’d seen ‘em all.
His wife took devoted care of him, and knowing that was what muffled my dislike of her and her dislike of me. This dislike, also mutual with my sister, was the natural result of a new beginning, and perhaps my father’s way of acknowledging that parenthood had been pretty much all burden and no benefit. There were times when I thought that he had married just to spite us, my sister and me. She and I were not on the kind of terms that encouraged discussion of such things, but there may have been the stray word. The rupture would occur after he died. My stepmother got half of what there was, and she looked into disinheriting us altogether, something that she might have done had the lawyers not discouraged her from doing something unseemly. Technically, my father’s will had an enormous loophole in it, something that had not been corrected after his estate lawyer shifted careers to become an episcopal priest. It was a colleague at Hutton who first alerted me to the possibility that my sister and I might get nothing. I made an inquiry and was informed that, as I say, it had been looked into.
Our final conversation was a three-way phone call, and it was acrimonious. My sister and I blamed her for not doing the right thing about the maid, who had worked for my parents almost from the start of their lives in Houston. Looking back, I see that the justice was on her side; it was my sister and I who ought to have done the right thing. It’s one of the handful of things that I really wish I’d done right. My stepmother came back to Brooklyn, but we never saw her again. Kathleen and I did go to her funeral though, because she had been very good to my father.
So there was some money. We bought a car. I had sold the car I’d had in law school within weeks of settling in Brooklyn; I’d driven down Ocean Parkway and taken the subway home. Since then, we hadn’t really needed a car, except at the holidays. There are many ways in which New York is unlike other American cities, and car-rental business is one of them. In most places, the demand for car rentals on weekends is minimal. In New York, it is maximal. Nobody rents a car on a business trip to Manhattan. Everybody in Manhattan wants to get away for the weekend — and, on holidays. Sometimes — at least this was true in the Eightiees — there are no cars to rent, even if you’ve made a reservation. Renters don’t return them on time. You’re stuck.
Holidays almost always took place at T-Bone’s. T-Bone was Kathleen’s uncle, her adoptive mother’s younger brother. He had four children, three girls and a boy. The oldest cousin was just a bit younger than Kathleen. T-Bone’s family inhabited a large old house in a northern suburb of New Jersey. You could get there by bus, but it wasn’t pleasant. It certainly wasn’t festive. And then T-Bone bought a house in the country, in Connecticut not far from the Massachusetts border.
We ordered a Mercury Sable. We wanted one in red. We were told that it would take a while. Sables were hot when they were new: theirs was the shape of cars to come. The dealer called to tell us that he had one in black. We took it.
If it hadn’t been for T-Bone’s big house in the suburbs, none of this would have happened. But it did happen. Reading the Junior League newsletter, Kathleen came across an ad for a house not far from T-Bone’s place in Connecticut. The last thing we needed, I thought, was a second house, and I was right, because, as I would discover, I am incapable of having a second house. But Kathleen deserved to be indulged. We went to look at the house. Kathleen was drawn by the house’s location on Candlewood Lake. Candlewood is a large man-made lake that is used to generate electricity. At the high end, near what had been the hamlet of Jerusalem, a power station emptied water into the Connecticut River by day, when power usage was high, and pumped it back up into the lake at night, when demand was low. The lake was very scenic, with steepish hills rising out of the water as in a fjord. The very extensive shoreline, which ran through five towns and two counties, was dotted with recreational developments. The house that we looked at was in one of the oldest.
Kathleen thought that she would like to paddle a canoe on the lake; it would remind her of happy days at summer camp in Maine. This was just about as bad an idea as buying the car. First of all, summer camp was over, permanently, for Kathleen; there was no going back. The lake house would never take its place. Second, the house was near the power station. Whether draining water into the Connecticut River or pumping it back, the power station generated more than electric current. It took all my strength to paddle the canoe back from the little beach near the power station where Kathleen finally gave up trying to paddle against the undertow.
That was later, of course; first, we had to buy the house. The house, like all the houses in that neighborhood, was on a hillside. I looked up at the house and saw a dump. But I also saw that the dump could be improved. The somewhat derelict screened-in porch that projected from the front of the house could certainly be walled in and provided with tall casement windows. The wood siding was the rustic kind that showed the bark, as well as the irregular outline, of the tree from which it had been sawed. I was enchanted by the idea of a cottage in the forest that looked like a cottage in the forest. I could see welcoming lights in the winter dusk, with smoke curling form the chimney and paths cut through the snow. I saw it all, and I went on to spend way too much money and time making it happen.
And of course I worried about the house. It had not occurred to Kathleen that we might use the house in winter, but that, as you can see, was the very season of my dreams. This meant that the house had to be kept warm, so that the pipes didn’t freeze. We bought the house shortly before E F Hutton fell apart. When I wasn’t looking for another job (not often), I was worrying about the house. I was driving to the house. I was staying at the house. Kathleen would take the train to Brewster, not at all convenient, and I would pick her up there. She was now indulging me.
I can turn up the nightmare effect. The well from which we drew our water ran dry. It was a standard hundred-foot well. The water table was dropping. At enormous cost, we drilled a new well up the hill behind the house, on what was probably not even our own land, and the depth of this new well was 660 feet. Drilling-per-foot charges escalated at 500 feet. I estimated that the well was below sea level, although that was probably not the case. Then, the other end broke down: the sceptic system. We put in a new tank, and an attempt was made to lay out draining pipes on the hillside below it. But these pipes were not deep, and there were spots in the pachysandra with which I covered the slop where small streams rose to the surface.
No sooner was the old front porched transformed into a lovely sunroom than the kitchen floor was discovered to be rotten. I didn’t mind this at all, because it meant that I got to design my own kitchen, and if I do say so myself I did a very good job. The room, which was not small, because in fact it had been the entire original structure on the property, was gutted, and a new floor, topped with sophisticated cork tile from Scandinavia, laid down. There were no cabinets. There was open shelving on one long wall: everything was out in the open. There was a peninsula that stuck out from the opposite wall, with the stove on one side and a cutting counter on the other. I installed a small bar sink next to the stove, perhaps the best of my ideas. In addition to the propane-fueled stove, there was an electric wall oven. I sigh just thinking about it. I remember a meal that I prepared with the help (perhaps I was the help) of a friend who happened to be professional chef. It was grand.
Then there was the second floor. I designed a bedroom suite with a big Palladian window that looked into the woods uphill. We had a second bathroom with a dressing room. The walls were covered with birch plywood stained a light blue. It wasn’t fancy, but it was very comfortable. It was there that I began the custom of serving Kathleen breakfast in bed on weekends.
I forget how many houses there were in our little “estate,” but we made friends with a few of the other owners. Especial friends were the neighbors to our immediate south. Our first encounter was inauspicious. It was the day after the great storm of 1987, the freak hurricane that not only ravaged New England but blew right across the Atlantic and downed storied trees at Windsor. The power went out, so the oil burners that heated most homes wouldn’t run. On top of that, we had weekend guests, with a new baby. There was a knock on the door. A pretty woman, bundled up in a furred parka, wanted to know if we had any firewood. We did not. I managed not to sound too unhelpful, because we became good friends the following spring, when the pretty woman was revealed to be very pregnant. Her excellent husband was an airline pilot, and she was a flight attendant. Their two children were born while they lived next door to us — it was their year-round home — and we were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. It was when the pilot took a new job that required him to move to Ohio that the house began to lose its appeal for us.
It had lost its appeal for Kathleen long before that. She hated having to make trains at Grand Central. She hated being out of the city weekend after weekend. She missed me during the week. I never spent a whole month uninterruptedly at the house, but I was there most of the time, worried about the power and the water and the septic system and snowplows and the woodpiles and, in good weather, just about married to my garden.
The house had been built when labor was cheap. When we bought it, the stone foundation of what must have been a greenhouse extended from the side, and beyond it were three terraces, supported by stone walls. There were bits of flagstone path, and a step cut through the highest of the terrace walls. There was no garden at all, just grass and weeds, but it was very easy to imagine elegant plantings. In between closing in the screen porch and building the bedroom suite, I replaced the greenhouse, but not with a greenhouse. There was a regular roof, with three long skylight windows, and then windows in the new rustic-siding walls atop the foundation.
On a shelf inside the basement door, which was right by the greenhouse, I kept copies of the Loeb Classics edition of Virgil’s Georgics and Elizabeth Lawrence’s The Little Bulbs, along with more practical tomes. Gardening, for me, was the marriage of nature and literature. I had learned something about houseplants from Bee, in Houston; I had discovered that I did not kill them. I turned out to have a green thumb outdoors as well. Kathleen’s interest in the garden was less gripping, but she did have a passion for daylilies, and she photographed the blooms with professional care. We started out buying cultivars from White Flower Farm, but we moved on to more esoteric sources, including a nursery quite near by the house. We would buy lilies when we traveled. In the ten years that we occupied the house, the long patch devloted to hemerocallis thrived in profusion. I was not quite so successful with the range of other plants for which I nursed ambitions, because, as you may recall, we were living in a cottage in a forest. What I learned about gardening the hard way was that you do not try to grow roses in the shade.
Originally, before the lake, our bit of hillside had been a pasture; there were a few old trees that might have been around then. In the fifty years since, nature, unhindered by cattle but passively encouraged by tree-worshiping city weekenders, had restored a more primeval look. Without the services of a forester, thousands of trees had shot up in a competition for light that had not yet reached the stage in which trees begin to fail. Few of the trees were really healthy; they were pencils, mostly, with an umbrella sprouting at the top. A few toppled in every storm, especially the ones near power lines. It did not take the storm of 1987 to knock the power out. Thunderstorms usually heralded outages; getting through two months of summer without a power loss simply never happened. In the winter, it wasn’t so bad, but we were still considered a last-priority summertime community, not really connected to the town of New Milford at an edge of which we sprawled. It has been my misfortune to spend my adult life in housing that depended on electricity for its water supply. I can live without electric lighting, but I can’t endure a summer’s day without a bathe. The idea of bathing in the lake, like some well-born Englishman of the past century, did not appeal to me at all. I liked soap and warm water.
This forest that I was living in was not a pretty one. Most of the trees were little more than weeds. I took down several trees on our half-acre; the trouble was, the trees farther uphill blocked the sunlight until the afternoon. I should have had to clear the lot in order to have a flourishing garden. It took a long time for this to strike home. I soon learned that I ought to have left it at daylilies and irises. That’s what one of our neighbors did. I, however, could not shake the words “herbaceous border” from my mind, and Kathleen, for her part, developed an interest in old roses.
The house, as it unfolded, was an expensive bad idea. We got rid of it only after we had improved it as much as it could be improved. Every improvement made me itch for the next. While I was there, it was a delightful place, and I was sure that it would kill me to leave it. When I did leave it, however, I saw that it had been not enchanting but enchanted, by a wicked sorcerer. I had been beguiled into spending the greater part of my modest inheritance on what was simply a folly. I had been hypnotized by the Georgics into believing that I was husbanding my small part of the world, making flowers grow in the place of weeds. This was an enormously satisfying feeling, and I should miss it if I were not convinced that it was an illusion. It was really no more serious in fact than wearing the silly Zardoz kerchiefs had been. It was magical thinking.
Meanwhile, we had a second house in the country. In the pursuit of simulating the summer-camp experience, this second house had the advantage of standing within a few miles of the summer camp on Lake Sebago where Kathleen had spent the happiest days of her youth. It was not on the lake itself but on Thomas Pond, which you would call a lake if you did not come from Maine, where lakes are very large. The house had been built as a summer cottage attached to a hotel. On a visit to camp about two years after we bought the lake house, Kathleen called to tell me that she wanted to buy one of the cottages. The hotel was being restored, and a summer-stock theatre was in the works. I repeated what I had said before about the last thing we needed, but she went ahead anyway, and when I visited it myself, the following summer, I saw what I didn’t want to see: this time, Kathleen had spotted the right second house. The problem was that I no longer regarded the apartment in Yorkshire Towers as our first house.
It is always flattering to think such things, but I am convinced that, had I been the man I am now, I should have realized that the lake house was a mistake there and then, before too much money had been poured into it. The summer cottage in Maine was very simple, and it could not be improved, because Maine law forbade further development on most lakeside properties. There were three bedrooms, a main room with a kitchen to one side, and a bathroom. Not even a porch. The house could not be made habitable in winter. It was a simple getaway. I found out for myself a few years later, when I spent a month there. Kathleen rented the house out whenever she could, but something came up for the August tenants, and I took their place. I had a grand time doing nothing. There were no avenues for ambition. The kitchen was rudimentary; I made pineapple upside-down cake. We were no good at grilling, because we liked to eat too late to see what we were cooking, but we managed, and there was a great cheap restaurant in the town about two miles down the road. Not to mention the Lobster Pound, on Route 302 in the other direction. As a bonus that I ought to have mentioned at the beginning, one of Kathleen’s best friends from summer camp owned a house on the other side of Thomas Pond. Another friend had a house on Lake Sebago. So the cottage came with a very nice social life. It was just what a summer break ought to be.
But I remained ensorceled by the delusion of husbandry. Cottage in a forest — I didn’t know how right I was; all I needed was a witch and an oven. I felt that I was producing something just by living in the house on the hillside, something that could not be produced anywhere else on earth. Like a plant, I was absorbing the daylight and the beautiful views and turning them into something else. If I’d been asked to name that something else, it would have been “memorable weekends.”
I have always been drawn by the dramatic possibilities of the weekend. The beginning, middle, and end are built in, and the moment when each of them begins and ends is at all times foreseeable. What will happen in the space of three days, between the arrival of weekend guests and their departure? What usually happened was nothing much — which was what everybody had in mind. We sat around, we cooked meals and then ate them, we drank into the night. There was the big breakfast on Saturday and the pinched one (so it always seemed) on Sunday. There was a lot of talk. There wasn’t much to do — a swim in the summer, a look round the garden. It was not ground meant for walking. The road that ran through the estate was only slightly wider than a driveway, and although it undulated, it lacked the charm of a woodland path. New Milford was not terribly inviting, and certainly had nothing to offer New Yorkers. We made frequent pilgrimages to a restaurant-cum-kitchen boutique in Washington — Washington, Connecticut, this would be, the only place named after the General before the Revolution. There was another amusing kitchen shop, near New Milford’s border with Kent. Otherwise, we sat by the fire or on the deck in the garden and talked.
Usually, there was only one guest. Sometimes, married couples visited; rarely did two unattached friends show up at the same time. And yet it was this last configuration that the memorable weekend required. But nobody ever fell in love at our house, and eventually I came to see that I might be very unhappy to get what I was praying for, as a truly memorable weekend might be awfully painful and unpleasant. To compensate, I began at last to write in what is today called long form.
In 1987, not long after we bought the house, Dianne Wiest appeared in a play produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, called Hunting Cockraches. The actress had just appeared in two Woody Allen movies and it is possible that a third, Radio Days, had opened; in any case, the show got great reviews. Such great reviews that, when I called up to order tickets, I was told that the run was sold out. I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening, but the only answer seemed to be to subscribe to MTC, lest future great shows be denied us. For the next twenty-five years, we were subscribers. We were even patrons toward the end. We went to a lot of plays. The casts tended to be much better than the plays. From Allison Janney and J Smith Cameron to Betty Gilpin and Alison Pill, and with a lot of Nathan Lane in between, we saw more than a few great performers sail through plays that might have been better. As a matter of course, over dinner afterward, I would tell Kathleen how certain scenes ought to have been rewritten. Pretty soon, I was convinced that I was a playwright.
I wrote three plays (I gave up on the fourth). They were comedies, and they had their funny moments. But they were too long. I lacked the gift for efficient exposition, and was too proud to learn. (As in, “take a course.”) Two of the plays were given readings by family and friends, and a good time was had by all — but a long time. The third play was never read by anyone. I was never quite sure that the drama of my climaxes was altogether convincing, but that didn’t bother me too much, because, after all, when you’re watching The Palm Beach Story, you’re not laughing because you know that, at the climax, Claudette Colbert is going to fall, altogether convincingly it may be, into Joel McCrea’s arms. I thought the plays were quite good, until I got a response from a producer who had read one. I can turn beet red even now if I think hard enough, not because it was so shaming but because it was so correct, and I ought to have seen, clear as day, the expository problem that he fastened on. I ought to have been able to see it for myself, instead of presumptuously comparing myself to Preston Sturges.
It may be nothing but abominable conceit, but I think that the plays would be worth revisiting, perhaps reconstructing. The problem is that they wouldn’t be worth it to me. I’m no longer at all invested in being the play doctor who goes on to become his own Chekhov. The plays, comb bound, sit in a pandan box somewhere in the apartment, perhaps in this room, along with a copy of the novel that I turned to after the plays. I am sure that the novel is not worth revisiting. It has supernatural elements that I never really understood (or believed in); it was supposed to spooky, like a haunted house, and I worked into it a lot of my everyday anxiety and melancholia. The only successful version of what I had in mind is a novel that I read decades later, Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses, in which two young women are haunted by a mad killer. My story was haunted by the hamlet that had stood at the bottom of what was not the lake that I saw out the window. It was haunted by Deliverance and by Poltergeist. But it is hard to be haunted when you really do not believe in ghosts.
Notwithstanding these failures, I developed the discipline to conceive a project and to stick with it. If I still didn’t know quite what I was writing about, I was at least writing, and the work was coherent. It was not good enough, but it was much better than nothing. I don’t know what might have happened if I had continued; it is impossible now to imagine the trajectory. Because what I needed wasn’t going to come from inside me. All my life, what was interesting about me was the mass of information about the world that was stored in my mind. I mean this quite literally: like a journalist, I could converse on a very wide range of subjects; I had a lot of facts at my fingertips, and I knew how to check them. Unlike a journalist, I was free to assemble a very peculiar mound of learning. Unlike a journalist, I was free to do my learning at home. And it was that aspect of my intellectual life that was cramping. I needed to get out more. I needed the Internet.
On the holiday weekend of July 4th, 1996, I came across a listserv devoted to discussing the novels of Anthony Trollope. As I recall, the book under discussion at that moment was He Knew He Was Right, which I had read some time before and didn’t particularly want to re-read. While I followed the discussion, I entered into correspondence with some other members of the group. Presently there was a ghastly flame war about something. Today, Internet unpleasantness is almost always intentional, but twenty years ago it was possible to start a fight without having the slightest idea of how you’d done it. And that tended to make people angrier — they’d meant no harm!!! It was all very exciting, and for several years I spent great parts of the day reading and talking about Trollope, and writing letters to other fans of the novelist.
In 2000, my daughter set up a Web site for me. Four years later, I starting blogging. But the pivotal day is still 4 July 1996, and that’s why I end this story there. No, I am not going to stop writing just yet. But the first forty-eight years of my life lacked the medium in which my mind could thrive, as it has thrived ever since. It has taken twenty years for me to take another stab at long-form writing; in that time, I think, I have re-educated myself from top to bottom. I have learned everything that I knew all over again, but this time everything has been attached to everything else. What is at the center of this network, if there is a center?
First however, I must close the house by the lake, even though our departure happened in stages after 1996. In the following year, there came a day when Kathleen and I were talking on the flat area behind the house. I had some new improvement in mind. Kathleen said that we couldn’t afford it. Or maybe I already knew that and what she said was that we could not go on living in two places. I had dreaded hearing her say this for some time. The Maine house had already been sold. Kathleen was not hiding her weariness with country weekends. Breakfast in bed in the lovely bedroom was not what I hoped it was cracked up to be. For a moment, there in the back of the house, I thought that we were going to have a fight. The only way forward was to argue — or to capitulate. I was not too proud to capitulate to Kathleen. Within a very short time — astonishingly short, really — we had repurposed the house for rental. We never did rent it, but we sold it in 1999, for just about what we’d paid for it. The added value added up to nothing, not least because it was all very charming and personal, nothing that a sane contractor would have anything to do with. (I had relied on gifted carpenters who were curious to see how things would come out.) We got rid of the car. I settled back into the apartment that we had rented for more than fifteen years. I had my new toy — the Internet — and I heaved no sighs of regret. Not right away. And when those sighs came, they weren’t prompted by regrets about losing the house. They were prompted by regrets about ever having laid eyes on it.
The house had a name, which I have continued to use, and which, for that reason, I cannot disclose.
The Bar Exam
Society – Dinner Parties – Big Parties
Dad’s Death (His Houston career)