Archive for September, 2011

The End of August
7 September 2011

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Although far from pleasant — perhaps because it was so far from pleasant — yesterday’s horrible weather offered the most gracious way of ending a summer vacation. Gedouddaheah!

Did we mention the Vital Transportation driver who sped us from the Bay Shore ferry terminal to our own front door in one hour and ten minutes? Terrifying as it was, that early-August drive came fondly to mind yesterday as we occasionally inched our way along the Southern State Parkway. Conditions on the Cross Island were smoother, and traffic on the Grand Central Parkway was surprisingly fleet, given the tropical-storm grade downpour. Miraculously, the FDR wasn’t flooded. But it was a terrible day to be on the road, even if we weren’t doing the driving. 

The first thing I did when we got home was to make a pot of tea. The second thing was to order Chinese. Perfect weather for steaming bowls of pork lo mein.

We camped out in the living room. The dining table has been serving as a distribution hub all summer, piled high will all manner of printed and stamped information, but, thanks to the agreeable balcony setup, we haven’t been inconvenienced. No sitting on the balcony last night, though! I read Anthony Flint’s Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City. That would be a better title, I think, if it wound up with “…and Put an End to Urban Renewal.” Fifty years later, American cities remain largely untransformed (if you ask me), and that has made it possible for some of them to become charming. “Urban renewal,” in any case, was a euphemism to rank right up there with “ethnic cleansing,” which it substantially resembled. Flint’s second chapter, “The Master Builder,” necessarily retraces ground so ardently mapped by Robert Caro, in The Power Broker, and I haven’t seen anything that I didn’t encounter in the bigger book, echoes of which still haunt me weeks after I read it. But Flint is certainly more temperate about Robert Moses — so far, at least. In case you just tuned in, let me remind you that the three parkways that I mentioned earlier were all early works of the “commissioner for life,” as Moses came to be known. 

At some point before eleven, I decided to turn in. I took my pill and climbed into bed with my book, put on my reading glasses, and got comfortable. Then, without reading a word, I took off my reading glasses, put the book down, and turned out the light. That was it for me.

At some demented moment yesterday morning, I ventured to suggest to Kathleen that we didn’t need to ship any boxes of stuff home; there wasn’t so much that we couldn’t ferry it across the Great South Bay and into the trunk of a commodious Town Car. Happily, she paid no attention to this — pretended that she hadn’t heard it. We packed our four boxes of stuff and mailed them off and we still had four groaning tote bags — the ones that are so big that Kathleen has to put them on her shoulder, because otherwise she can’t lift them off the ground — and Will’s Maclaren (taking which out to Fire Island was the dumbest thing I did all summer, by far) to haul. As I lugged these through sodden lanes and sandy stretches toward our final ferry ride, I could only bless Kathleen’s providence.

7 September 2011

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Like Klingsor’s flower garden at the end of Parsifal‘s second act, Ocean Beach and environs were drained of all summery pleasures in an instant. For me, the instant fell when Will and his parents left, yesterday; what had been an iffy but not unpleasant day became a maelstrom of loss. This morning, something like an actual maelstrom showed up, sending curtains flying and drumming rooftop rain. A more miserable hour for lugging boxes to the post office — we sent four, stuffed with clothes and books and whatnot — cannot have been imagined, without making the weather actually exciting.

I am eager to leave; I’m dying for a cup of tea. The propane ran out (again!) on Saturday, and a boatload of food went to waste because we couldn’t cook it. It seems that the propane tank was unmoored somewhat by the storm surge; by the time it was reattached, it had leaked considerably. (It had been a fresh tank as of the previous Friday, as I should know only too well.) Saturday was the first day of the holiday weekend, of course, and although I was assured that someone would stop by (I knew whom to call), no one ever showed up, and no one has even yet.

I did read Emma, all in a great gulp; never have I gone through one of Jane Austen’s novels so briskly. I was right to think that speed would cause changes in tone to register more clearly, and the novel presented a four-part structure as if in a satellite photograph. More about that when I can enjoy a cup of tea! Now it’s time to put the computer away, along with everything else that we are carrying back to the city, and prepare to vamoose.

2 September 2011

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

For some time, I’ve been hankering to re-read a favorite classic, and I suppose that my simply putting it that way assured that Emma would be my choice. I love no book more. And, familiar as it is, the novel still bristles with complicating mysteries. It seems to be more shapeless than Austen’s other novels, but the appearance must be deceptive, because comedy of such civilized intensity cannot possibly emerge from haphazard construction. Rather, it is my taste that is at fault, too gross to discern the pattern. On this reading, my seventh or eighth, I sense Austen’s slyness. She begins with an ending, the end of Emma’s happy enjoyment of Miss Taylor’s company. The entire first chapter is a novel in its own right. Where can the story go from there? The novel gets going in earnest — not that you’d sense this if you hadn’t read the novel several times — at the end of the third chapter, with the introduction of Harriet Smith. Chapter 5 shifts the point of view away from Emma, as Mr Knightley tells Mrs Weston (as Miss Taylor has become) that he doesn’t think that Emma’s association with Harriet will do either girl any good. For the first time, Emma’s defects are stated rather than implied. “I am much mistaken if Emma’s doctrines give any strength of mind, or tend at all to make a girl adapt herself rationally to the varieties of her situation in life. They only give a little polish.” This is not a declaration of war — that comes three chapters later, with Mr Knightley’s thundering tirade, “‘Not Harriet’s equal!'” — but it more than hints at hostilities to come. Knowing that the enemies (the heroine and her brother-in-law) will ultimately negotiate a peace that flourishes in true love only (and oddly) increases the suspense.

Was it the second or the third time that I read Emma that left me feeling slightly scorched?

She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress, both in drawing and music, than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to. She played and sang, and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of. She was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as an artist or a musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.

Ouch. This passage used to make me feel found out, as it would Emma itself. Now it just makes me sad, because, like Emma, I got used to doing things too surprisingly well without much effort to strive to do anything really well. My piano teacher warned me again and again not to play “by ear,” but it was so much easier for me to do so  than actually to learn to read music that I can follow a score only when I’m listening to the music. In a similar way, I dodged every occasion on which I might have been obliged to study Latin; victorious over Caesar, I never captured Horace. Above all — and out of vanity exactly like Emma’s — the thing that I worked hardest at was avoiding the appearance of working hard.

When did I read Emma for the first time? I don’t recall. The copy of the novel that I have with me, a leatherette-bound Collins edition of 1953 that was part of a boxed set, has a note on the endpapers indicating that I read the novel for the third time in 1970. That seems a little precocious — but I loved Emma from the start. And yet, like any true classic, it is always a different novel. This go-round, what I’m noticing is that Mr Knightley is indeed a bit rough, “knightly” or not depending on your ideas of men in medieval armor. He is no prince. He makes me just as uncomfortable as he does Emma; almost every complaint that he has against her, adjusting for gender, was made to me, many times, by teachers and other grown-ups; like Emma, I wouldn’t listen. It was only Jane Austen herself, the second or third time that I read her masterpiece, who could get my attention. By then, I had gotten in more scrapes and created more havoc than Emma ever dreamed of, but I was not beyond repair. Whatever else might have been better in my life, my marriage to Kathleen cannot have been improved; almost always a source of happiness, it has, as it approaches its thirtieth anniversary, become something more than that, something that I can’t quite (or daren’t quite) name. I can’t think of anyone who deserves more credit for my side of the business than Jane Austen.

1 September 2011

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

The morning is sunny and calm. Raindrops caught in the porch screens tell of a shower in the night, but the sky is clearer at the moment than it was yesterday. (We have had some very bright days since Irene. On Monday, it was as though the sun had just been invented and was being shown off to an admiring public.) Evidence of the storm is not striking, not at first. At first, you’re surprised and relieved that the houses, and the trees around them, look pretty much as they did before. For the most part, they look exactly the same. But when your eye drops to the ground, and you notice that you’re walking in sand, sand which has drifted everywhere, quite as if it were a new kind of snow, you notice the splintered bulkheads and fallen fences. You see that the slabs of pavement at the beach end of Sextant Walk have been heaved from the ground. And when you get to the beach, well, the beach is not the same. High tide reaches much further than it did before. That’s because the storm surge swept away the crest of sand that builds up at the shore in normal conditions. It swept the sand inland, onto the pavement and into drifts that are every bit as annoying as their wintry counterparts.

So now I have proof that the peace and quiet are deceptive. Of course I knew that peace and quiet don’t last forever, but now that I can see it, I’m strangely reassured. I don’t feel any better about getting old and infirm — where was the wave that could knock me down when I was twelve! — and I don’t feel any less anxious about the political and environmental future that threatens my grandson’s future. But I don’t feel like somebody who’s having a bad time at the beach. I’m having the right kind of time.


I chose the photograph above from the ones that I took this morning not because it was the nicest to look at but, on the contrary, because it accorded with the mood that reading Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme put me in. When the book was published in Britain in 1994, Dyer was all but unknown in the United States (although, as he points out, he was living in New Orleans during the Gulf War), and his meditation on the Great War and its R(r)emembrance would have been a hard sell. Now that Dyer is as fashionable as good writers ever get, it’s another story. Here’s a nugget from the closing pages:

There had been military disasters before the Battle of the Somme, but these — the Charge of the Light Brigade, for example — seerved only as indictments of individual strategy, not of the larger purpose of which they were a part. For the first time in history the Great War resulted in a sense of the utter waste and futility of war. If the twentieth century has drifted slowly toward an acute sense of waste as a moral and political issue, then the origins of the ecology of compassion (represented by the peace movement, most obviously) are to be found in the once-devastated landscape of the Somme.

Earlier, Dyer writes about searching, when reading about the War, “for what is not there, for what is missing.” Missing from The Missing of the Somme is an assessment of the purposeless of the Great War. This is taken for granted rather than explained. I found myself thinking about it on every page. How did something as hugely pointless — and as huge — as the Great War ever get going? As Dyer shows, commemoration of the “fallen” began almost at once, while men in all the belligerent countries were still enlisting with enthusiasm. We can explain the “origins” of the Great War in the usual geopolitical terms — the indisuputable first cause is the vacuum created by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire’s dominion of the Balkans — but doing so overlooks what was new about this War: the popular enthusiasm. Far from the “scum of the earth” conscripts that had made up so many armies in the past, it was enfranchised citizens, aflame with nationalist pride, who went to war in 1914. You couldn’t stop them from signing up, donning uniforms and heading for the front lines! Their enthusiasm ought to have given the monarchs pause; if it was jollier than the bloody-minded zeal of the French armies of the 1790s, it was not a whit less populist.

As Chou En-lai said of the French Revolution, it’s still too early to tell what the Great War was all about, but it seems clear that the political objectives that pushed the European powers to war were among the first casualties; that is why the War stopped making sense by the time the trenches were being dug. Had it not been for popular enthusiasm, kings and prime ministers could have called for retreat, but the genie was out of the bottle. The citizens who had gone off to war to crush the enemy for the sake of national honor became what the War was about. N