Baby Steps…

After sixteen months of Covid isolation, we were ready to hit the road. I never imagined it would be a difficult or complicated decision but times change. In January of 2020 Marilynn arranged a summer house trade in France. By March we were in lockdown. All travel plans on hold. By May it was canceled. 

For years we hopped on airplanes and traveled as far as we could. Before the pandemic, we combined our overseas trips with leisurely explorations of America. We drove across Texas (El Paso to Austin), the Southwest (Tucson, Four Corners, Mesa Verde, Moab), the South (Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah, St. Simons Island), the Northeast (Rhode Island and the Berkshires, including Tanglewood). But, there are still great expanses of America for us to cover.

Now, with America opening up and us fully vaccinated there are new considerations. We’re immunized but the rest of the world isn’t. We’re protected, but the experts don’t know how long the protection lasts. Caution is the byword. Baby steps… We decided a driving trip to visit friends in the Bay Area would be our shake down cruise.

Only one problem—we’re out of practice.

Here’s what happened: with the car fully packed, bikes on the roof rack, motor running, Marilynn suggests we check the mail one last time before hitting the road. Not a bad idea – except that it was. In fact it turned out to be a not-so-good-very-bad idea.

Down the driveway to the underground garage where our mailbox is located. Then… the C-R-U-N-C-H!!! Low clearance. Aluminum and steel are no match for concrete. Exploding rear window and gut wrench. Bike rack ripped off its mounts. The bikes back were pushed and shattered the sloping rear window. The bikes were fine, but the car was a mess. A million splintery shards everywhere. Three days later, $10 worth of shard vacuuming at the carwash, $100 deductible, a temporary car rental, some fast talking, and we were back on the road. This time without the bikes (roof damage to the rack mounts). 

The rest of the trip was uneventful, all things considered. Luscious rural scenery along streams and wooded glades as we wound our way through the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains. Our first night was in Eugene, home to Sweet Life Patisserie our favorite French bakery. 

Here we began to notice a difference. Except for a dedicated Phoenix Suns fan doing construction work in Eugene, we were alone at Trev’s Brew Pub. The Suns fan was waiting to watch his team play the Lakers on Trev’s big screen. We had a burger and beer and left–25% occupancy strictly enforced. Washington is opening up. Oregon is still locked down. The next morning, it was one customer at a time at Sweet Life. Our leisurely coffee and pastry a distant memory. The nearby park full of blue tarp tents.

And so it went down through Oregon – Roseburg, Medford, Ashland – all locked down. Lots of cars and too many big trucks on the road but no serious inside dining. More blue tarp encampments. Small town restaurants closed or nearly empty. Long lines at McDonald’s drive-thru.

California was better, but an empty Lake Shasta and triple digit temperatures told us it’s going to be another year of drought and fire. On the Covid side, the Golden State is not as open as Washington but not as depressingly shutdown as Oregon. The world is creeping back toward normal, but people are wary and rules are confusing. Yes to masks inside, not so many outside. No leisurely coffee at Peet’s or Starbuck’s but socially distanced dining OK at most restaurants. Hotels far from full.

We felt almost normal having dinner with a law school friend and his wife on the deck at Sam’s Café in Tiburon but blanched when we paid $4.49 a gallon for regular gas the next morning. Over the next three days we had lunch or dinner with three other law school classmates – two at their homes in San Francisco and Berkeley and one at a restaurant in Oakland. It was a treat to be with friends we’ve known for so many years. All of us relieved to feel the shackles loosen.

In Berkeley, where some of my best days were spent and best friends made, we saw more of the pandemic effect. It’s always a mixed bag. I love it but found the changes upsetting. Homeless in doorways, encroaching blue tarps, trash in the streets, and plywood covered store windows. Signs of the time.

All in all it was good to get out of town, to see how the world looked post-Covid, and visit old friends, but hotels and restaurants were suffering from staff shortages. In Ashland the “hostess” turned us away from an almost empty “open” restaurant because the kitchen was backed up and she was alone. A bartender in Portland told us he couldn’t find anyone to cocktail, and two different hotels told us staff shortages limited services. Another sign of the times.

But, despite these things, the drive back was pleasant – George Saunders’ latest book on Audible, great lattes at Hot Stuff Espresso (a real old-fashioned, no drive-thru, espresso stand in Ashland), an alfresco lunch at McMenamin’s in Eugene, nice accommodations (especially Marriott’s trendy, efficient, slimmed down, super modern, small-is-better Moxy Hotel in Portland), and shrimp tacos waterside at Katie Downs in Tacoma on our last day.

Before the pandemic stopped us, we spent a month or two every year in a different European city – Paris, Rome, Berlin, Palma de Mallorca – where we had time to get the flavor of daily life in a foreign place. We’re anxious to resume the practice but not quite ready to cross the ocean in an airplane. Maybe next year. London? Barcelona? Lisbon? Stockholm? Or will we go back to places we’ve already enjoyed? As Rachel says, “Watch this space.”

It was an eye opening trip. Great to see old friends but the “new normal” is not normal. As our younger friends say, “No worries.” Baby steps…

Toss the Word Salad…

I got up this morning wondering if I was “woke” without knowing exactly what that means. Earlier in the week two Fox News contributors criticized Joe Biden for worrying more about “wokeness” in the military than winning wars. One of them then added:

“The problem with Republicans is that we surrender the frame. We allow ourselves to be lulled into this concept that what we really need to be talking about is whether or not there are people who liked the wrong meme, or might be members of the wrong listserv, or get their news in the wrong places. Look in China right now, Tucker, they’re not doing gender sensitivity training. They’re not wondering whether or not their military is woke enough.” 

I like to think I’m adept at languages, but recently I’ve been struggling with my own mother tongue. Maybe with some gender sensitivity training I’ll grasp what it means to be woke and figure out which memes to like or when I’m being gaslighted. I was an English major and love all aspects of the language as you can see by looking at my bookcase, but it seems to me we’re in uncharted territory now.

We’ve seen political correctness called out as the enemy of right-thinking people and remember when he and she were the non-binary pronouns of choice. Cultures were studied not canceled. Lamplighters did the gaslighting. Mimes were silent actors. No one knew a trope from tripe, and revenge porn was somewhere in a future far away. Is it any wonder word-salad found its way into Wikipedia?

“A word salad, or schizophasia, is a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases. Word salad may describe a symptom of neurological or psychiatric conditions in which a person attempts to communicate an idea, but words and phrases that may appear to be random and unrelated come out in an incoherent sequence instead. Often, the person is unaware that he or she did not make sense. It appears in people with dementia and schizophrenia as well as anoxic brain injury.”

My favorite English teacher taught me years ago that logocide is the practice of destroying or eliminating a word’s conventional usage. Earlier generations would have been shocked to know that gay refers to homosexuality, because until 1960 its primary definition was “carefree and cheerful” “bright and showy.” Today that’s the rarely used secondary meaning I bring up only to show how fast usage changes. 

Those of us who yearn for precision in language are driven crazy by Trumpish Republicans who conflate socialist and socialism with the inflammatory communist and communism of the Joe McCarthy era while wrapping themselves in Donald Trump flags and labeling insurrectionists patriots. Hashtag is not a breakfast potato order and Pizzagate has nothing to do with the Italian food. QAnon, Proud Boys, and Oathkeepers are the new Boy Scouts of America, and sextingand revenge porn are the pitfalls of young love. Is it any wonder we’re upset and confused?

Granted, my screed recalls the “back to basics” movement, but rather than look back let’s look forward and update the curriculum. We should add civics and history to reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, because there’s something missing in American education when the President of the United States thinks Frederick Douglass is a Black Lives Matter troublemaker and Andrew Jackson, architect of the Trail of Tears, “has a very big heart.” So, yes, let’s get back to basics and drop cancel culture, tropes, memes, gaslighting, wokenesshashtags and all the other weird wordplay that distracts us. Let’s let the editors at the Dictionary of American Slang toss that word-salad while the rest of us engage in some straight talk.

The City as a Character…

Most of us have a favorite city. New York, London, and Paris are high on most lists, but it could be any city. It becomes a favorite because we associate it with a visit, a person, or maybe even its skyline.

As a writer I’m interested in story telling but especially fond of those in which the city is not just a setting but a character. For example, it’s hard to think of anything by Charles Dickens’ – Bleak House, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, even A Christmas Carol – where the city in not omnipresent and interactive. Fred Schwarzbach, author of Dickens and the City says, “He teaches us to read the city like a book.”

While Dickens is a good example, he isn’t the only writer whose city serves as a prominent character. It would be impossible, for instance, to separate James Joyce from Dublin. In Ulysses he takes the reader on a 24-hour romp through its bars and brothels, and in Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the city is as central to the narrative as the personalities of Stephen Daedalus and Molly Bloom.

Mr. James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious. He lived in an old sombre house and from his windows he could look into the disused distillery or upwards along the shallow river on which Dublin is built. (Dubliners, A Painful Case)

Joyce and Dickens involve the reader in their plain and gritty cities, but my favorite city-as-character fiction is Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, the heart of his masterwork The Alexandria Quartet. Each of the four volumes – Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea – has a different narrator who takes us through his or her version of the same story of love and betrayal against the exotic backdrop of the decadent old city.

So, the city claimed me once more—the same city made now somehow less poignant and less terrifying than it had been in the past by new displacements in time. Some parts of the old fabric had worn away, others had been restored… For my part I had come to see it as it must always have been—a shabby little seaport built upon a sand-reef, a moribund and spiritless backwater. True this unknown factor, ”war” had given it a specious sort of modern value, but this belonged to the invisible world of strategies and armies, not to ourselves, the inhabitants; it had swollen its population by many thousands of refugees in uniform and attracted those long nights of dull torment which were only relatively dangerous, for as yet the enemy was confining his operations strictly to the harbour area. Only a small area of the Arab quarter came under direct fire; the upper town remained relatively untouched, except perhaps for an occasional error of judgment. No, it was only the harbour at which the enemy scratched and scratched, like a dog at an inflamed scab. A mile away from it the bankers conducted their affairs by day as if from the immunity of New York. (Clea, Book II)

I always admire the way travel writers develop a sense of place as they describe a city, but city-as-character writers use them in a different way–as a cloth to wrap their stories in. Good writing is good writing regardless of its setting, but creating complex literary fiction using the city-as-character technique sets these authors apart.

Maybe the best example of a writer incorporating the city-as-character technique is Woody Allen and New York City. Between 1966 and 2005 he wrote 35 screen and stage plays located there and set them to quintessentially American music by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Best known is Manhattan (1979) where every frame from every angle in every season reveals its character – all in black and white.

From his early films like Play It Again Sam and Annie Hall to Manhattan and Bullets Over Broadway Woody was writing this extended love letter to Manhattan – its people, its idiosyncrasies, its diversity, and its architecture – because, above all, Woody Allen is in love with New York City.

In 2005 he began setting his stories in other cities, Match Point in London, Maria Christina Barcelona in Barcelona, Shadows and Fog in Berlin, and my favorite, Midnight in Paris. One critic suggested he started using foreign locations after he had filmed every street corner in Manhattan.

Don’t be misled when I discuss Allen as a writer just because you know he began as a standup comic or heard he’s involved in a messy family story. He’s a literary genius. What Joyce was to Dublin and Victor Hugo was to Paris, Woody Allen is to New York. 

In the future, as you read a novel or view a film maybe you’ll notice settings in a different way. Do they inform the reader as a character would? Do they place the other characters in context? What part do they play in the unfolding of the story? Do they or impose themselves on the characters or just provide a backdrop? You decide but you may read differently if you do.

The Importance of Being Ernest…

My last post drew a number of interesting comments, especially Marilynn’s belief that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita could only have been written by someone who experienced or fantasized about what is described – a middle-aged professor’s sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl. Jon Maksik, a very good writer friend, pointed out such a belief could only come from an inability to separate the art from the artist. And now we have Ken Burns’ three-part documentary on Hemingway. 

I don’t find it hard to separate the art from the artist in Nabokov’s case. I’m convinced Lolita sprang solely from the literary imagination of a creative genius. It’s much harder to separate art and artist when it comes to a writer like Hemingway whose protean interests, appetites and geography are important in his work. Add in the self-mythologizing, quantity of literary output, and 100 years of critical attention. Then it’s even more difficult. I’m sure he would have enjoyed the attention but hated the documentary with its heavy emphasis on the darker aspects of his character. 

Tastes and tastemakers change over time. Books and writers move in and out of favor. Catcher in the Rye and J.D. Salinger held America’s attention for a generation. The Great Gatsby wasn’t a big seller but the Fitzgeralds were celebrity favorites though few literary critics regarded Gatsby as special. Many now believe it’s the great American novel. Hemingway’s own widely quoted opinion, was “All American literature comes from one book from Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” There are cycles. Now, we’re having another look at Papa. 

He won two Pulitzers and the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Committee noting his “mastery of the art of narrative, most recently in The Old Man and the Sea.” My guess is he’ll be remembered more for the way his prose changed modern writing than for any one book. Like Fitzgerald and Salinger, critics and biographers have focused as much on his life and lifestyle as on his art. In this documentary Burns and Novick show all his warts – meanness, insecurity, narcissism, womanizing, misogyny, alcoholism, androgyny and mental illness – while hoping the writer’s work will speak for itself. I wish it had been more balanced.

My interest in Hemingway is a mixture of personal and literary. For 25 years I lived just down a two-lane Idaho road from where he committed suicide. His son Jack (Bumby in A Moveable Feast) and I were good friends and Jack’s daughter, Mariel, told me she had a giant crush on my son, Brent, before she became a movie star. The town doctor, Doc Saviers, was my doctor as well as Ernest’s. Years later, Marilynn and I had drinks in Hemingway’s 4th floor walk-up apartment at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine on the Left Bank in Paris when our friends Jon and Leslie Maksik were living there. In 2015 we visited the Hemingway home and museum in Key West and on the way stopped at Marathon Key where we climbed aboard a replica of Pilar, the fishing boat he designed for Cuba and Key West. That’s most of the personal stuff.

Lately, we’ve been watching the Burns/Novick documentary and reading a slew of articles adding to and feeding off the series. Of course, interest in Papa Hemingway never faded but the focus on his work has.

In his 50’s he was regarded as washed up. After For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) there was a 10-year dry spell and a bout of deep depression. He lamented that “the gift was gone.” But he persisted, began to write again and published Across the River and Into the Trees in 1950. A year later he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, the book that caused Mark Shorer America’s premier scholar to say “He is undoubtedly the greatest craftsman in the American novel of this century.” In 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and seven years later put a shotgun to his head. Dead at 61. 

I read A Clean Well-Lighted Place, his short story about two old men in a Spanish café when I was a college freshman. It was in a lit class and followed a reading of War and Peace. The contrast was astonishing. In the Hemingway story nothing really happens – which is the point. Nada, nothing, is the key word throughout the story. The prose is spare to the point of boredom. This was the new American writing, a style suggested by Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, his mentors.

In his 40 years, he was prolific – seven novels, six short story collections, and two works of non-fiction published while he was alive, as well as four short story collections, A Moveable Feast and two more non-fiction works published by his executors posthumously. All this on top of his work as a war correspondent in WWI, the Spanish Civil War, and WWII.

Unlike Nabokov and Lolita, it’s difficult to separate art from artist in his case. He identified with many of his characters – Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and Into the Trees, Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Macomber in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Harry Street in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. All of them sad but noble characters.

Hemingway was also a sad character, progressively so, but less noble except in the self-mythologizing he was so good at. Not that there weren’t admirable things about him but alcoholism and nine major head traumas (concussions) help explain much of what happened to him later in life.

A recent book, Hemingway’s Brain, by Andrew Farah a professor of psychiatry at the University of South Carolina Medical School argues that “Hemingway suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as the result of numerous severe concussions during his life, and his ultimate dementia was complicated by alcoholism as well as untreated diabetes and hypertension, possibly contributing a vascular component. This condition not only informed Hemingway’s day-to-day life, interactions, and relationships, but the later literary works as well.”

The Burns/Novick documentary covers most of the concussions – a WWI ambulance crash, a London car crash during the Blitz, a Jeep accident in Germany following D-Day, a fall on the Pilar, and two plane crashes in Africa (in two days). In his last year he was treated with multiple electro-shock treatments administered at the Mayo Clinic in an effort to deal with his depression. In the end they had the effect of erasing his once photographic memory. This photograph shows a large lump on the left side of his head, evidence of one of the head traumas.

My first taste of serious literature was reading Steinbeck and Hemingway. Last year I paid a $1900 library fine to Roosevelt High School for the copy of The Old Man and the Sea I never returned and still have in my bookcase. If my taste has matured it is due in large part to the Hemingway influence.

I admire his art, and there was a time when I might have defended the man, but evidence of his character flaws is overwhelming. #MeToo is having a field day feeding on the carcass, and I’ve separated my appreciation for the art from the artist who made it. I know my own writing wouldn’t be the same without his and I wouldn’t have had all those pleasurable hours where I felt his presence with Bumby under fall skies in Idaho.

Postscript: Do you wonder why Mary “forgot” and left the keys to the gun locker out on top of the freezer when he had tried to commit suicide that way before?

Lolita is Back…

Marilynn and I have been battling for years over the derivation and significance of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous 1955 novel. To refresh your memory, the first-person narrator is a middle-aged literature professor obsessed with a 12-year-old girl whom he nicknames Lolita and with whom he becomes sexually involved after marrying her mother. The premise is creepy, but the book is an acknowledged masterpiece of world literature often cited as one of the best books of the 20th century.

Our disagreement centers on her belief that the book could only have been written by someone who experienced or fantasized about what is described in its pages, while I think it’s a work of pure literary imagination. The Annotated Lolita unpacks my side of the story. The Nabokov text in The Annotated Lolita is 309 pages, but the book is itself is 455 pages, including Editor Alfred Appel Jr.’s 67-page introduction, 6 pages of bibliography, 6 pages of Nabokov notes, and 138 pages of annotations. Serious scholarship.

Now…why am I talking about Lolita? It’s because the same creepy, icky subject matter is swarming around us again – but this time it’s not a work of literary imagination. Real people are involved.

The flood gates opened a couple of years ago: for months in 2018-2019 we were treated to salacious tales of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual obsession with teenaged masseuses and questionable friendships with Prince Andrew, Alan Dershowitz, Bill Clinton and others, until it ended last year with his suicide in a rat infested New York jail.

Now, it’s Representative Matt Gaetz, the Trump whisperer, who’s under investigation, suspected of sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl and other possible crimes. And, while that saga plays out, HBO’s four-part series Allen v. Farrow reminds us that Woody Allen and Mia Farrow have been fighting since 1992 over her accusation that he sexually violated their 7-year-old adopted daughter Dylan, now 35.

Yes, Lolita is back or least the syndrome is. A recent New Yorker article revisited the case of Joyce Maynard, the 18-year-old Harvard freshman who became J.D. Salinger’s lover when he was 53. More about that later.

I have skeletons in my closet too, but none of them are teenagers. Tell me, what’s the lure? Is it their innocence? The sweet smell of youth? The risky “game?” Or is it a sickness? Anthropologists tell us girls are fertile and ready for sex when they begin menstruation. That’s the rule in primitive cultures but ours draws a line. The age differs in various jurisdictions but in America it’s a crime to have sex with an underage girl or “to induce someone cross state lines to engage in sex in exchange for money or anything of value.” This was Jeffrey Epstein’s problem. Now, it’s Matt Gaetz’s problem.

Like Lolita, the whole thing is both creepy and criminal. Epstein and Gaetz, assuming the latter is implicated, were trafficking teenage girls for sex. It’s close to child pornography – another variation on the theme.

These subjects don’t touch most of us. But they can. Several years ago, I discovered that someone I knew had done prison time for possessing a huge cache of compromising photographs of children. He was the father of my son’s friend, a husband and well-respected doctor in the community. So, what’s that about? Is it more deviant than being romantically involved with a teenager? I suppose it depends on whether it was acted upon. In that case, it’s even more deviant. As an aside: while there was no evidence that he acted on his obsession, when he was released from prison one of the straightest smartest women I know began a relationship with him. Go figure…

Nabokov was a provocateur. My friend and classmate, Frederick “Hoddy” Schepman, chose graduate school at Cornell because Nabokov taught there, specifically because he taught a graduate course in which Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the 19th century’s scandalous novel about an unfaithful young wife, was the only text. Nabokov believed it was the greatest novel ever written. But, then again, maybe not. Nabokov was a shape-shifting provocateur.

At the end of Madame Bovary and Lolita the title characters die. Emma Bovary commits suicide with arsenic and Lolita dies in childbirth. These are not happy stories and many of the real-life stories of older men and very young women are even harder to read. What about the women?

Last week, Joyce Maynard discussed the phenomenon in a Vanity Fair article about what J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen have in common. She answers the question by saying, “The world knows them as iconic artists whose work transformed the cultural landscape of America. I see them both as predatory men with a taste for teenagers. Both possess the outlook of aging cynics who idealize and seek out innocence and—having done so—destroy it. Here comes another disturbing similarity in their stories: In the case of each of these celebrated men, when a woman has dared to shine a light on their dark and disturbing behavior—in Allen’s case, possibly criminal behavior, which he continues to deny—their supporters close ranks in the manner of a human shield. Often with stunning success, they deflect allegations made against the object of their devotion and turn on the person responsible for delivering them. That person would be a woman.”

Maynard knows from experience. At 67, she has spent the last 50 years trying to become something or someone other than the predatory tramp who besmirched the reputation of a great novelist. And she has. In those same 50 years she has written 11 novels and 9 works of non-fiction yet her reputation is frozen in relation to Salinger. Women who act as she did are shamed, dismissed, devalued, humiliated and demonized. Older men who prey on young women are often excused with a wink as in “boys will be boys.” Lolita is fiction. Matt Gaetz is a sitting U.S. Representative and the 17-year-old girl he’s accused of trafficking is a real person. It’s time for a reckoning.

Marilynn and I will continue to disagree about Lolita. I recognize it’s controversial but think it’s great art. She focuses on the depravity of the predator and the unforgivable violation of the child. I get it. I feel the way she does about Epstein and Gaetz but I’ve tucked Humbert Humbert and Lolita away in an art-for-art’s-sake silo. If we’re going to forgive, let’s forgive Joyce Maynard, Monica Lewinsky, and all the other women who have been shamed for falling in love with older men who knew better but preyed on teenage girls. 

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palette to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” (The opening lines of Nabokov’s Lolita.)

Photos by Penguin Books, MGM, and New York Pos