About Joan Didion: “On Keeping a Notebook”

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Book jacket of re-issued essay collection, first published in 1969.

Having myself always been an inveterate notebook keeper, but with no substantive knowledge of the habits of other notebook keepers, whom I’ve known in a meaningful way since I was in college, I have no idea why others do so. Or, consequently, what they take notes of, how they take them, of what they consist rhetorically, or why they think they keep a notebook in the first place. This is not true of Joan Didion.

There’s this essay (which I am sure I read back when it was published in the late 1960s, but of which I have no recollection) from the redoubtable Ms. Didion. What’s clear are two things, one not very important, because it’s personal, and the other which seems to point to maybe a significant insight.

The unimportant thing is, it’s clear that Joan Didion and I have different feelings on the subject, and different motivations. It’s not as clear that she is solid on recognizing that maybe her natural note-taking instincts are not universal ones.

The more important thing is what seems to emerge, from her generalized thoughts about the specific kinds of notes Joan Didion takes and why she thinks she takes them (because there’s not much here demonstrating the content of specific notes; and what there is, as she indicates is true even for her, is that sometimes notes can be so vague as to require massive reconstruction as to the factual underpinnings, the actual event that may have inspired taking a note, and the probative value in other contexts, like a deposition, of the documentation). What seems to emerge, specifically for me, is that maybe there is the foundation of some kind of taxonomy here.

Maybe, I’m thinking, there are those of us more subconsciously led by an urge eventually (and only speculatively and provisionally) to be writers of what has come to be called creative nonfiction. And there are those equally internally disposed, but with different objectives in mind, if only vaguely and possibly wholly inchoate, to write what is called fiction. I’ll only interject here, as some are coming to believe (and why would we expect otherwise in this age of things becoming indeterminate and not so distinct, or, if you prefer the term, queer – presumably as opposed to definitive, precise, replicable, evidentiary, and “normal”): as if there really is a difference ultimately (and that qualification is _so_ important) between creative nonfiction and fiction.

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. …

 

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. …

 

So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.

I would tell you what I do, but I am not Joan Didion, who had ample reason I surmise in retrospect even then to believe that there were people who cared to know, separate and apart from what issued from those notes she kept.

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About the reMarkable “paper” tablet and the end of civilization as I know it

Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes

https://remarkable.com

It’s very attractive. Right up my gadget alley, and just barely, at 600 bucks, within the scope of my nearly impulsive acquisitiveness. In other words, I’m surprised I haven’t sprung, having only learned of this device as long as an hour ago, because of an ad, God help me, on Facebook. The only rueful feelings I have are connected with wondering why I wasn’t contacted by any means with some notice as to the usual crowd-source spiel and pre-order ritual. This would apparently have saved about 40%.

I like paper and ink. The attestation simply enough is that I keep collecting writing instruments, including fountain pens and artisanal pencils (often in dozens at a time). I now own them in quantities that likely—with consultation of actuarial tables and an analysis of my actual usage needed to confirm—will never be depleted. I have myriad paper tablets mainly in a size I will readily, and do, carry around with me, usually in the left rear pocket of my trousers. I have smaller ones, for occasional notes and for when I am, for some reason, not carrying my current usual go-to notebook in that pocket. I have larger ones, of the octavo size that most people think of when they think of personal notebooks (approximately the template for the iPad mini).

Frankly the latter are preferable, even if I write in the same size characters, usually in pen and ink, which I do in the smaller index card sized notebooks that fit in my jeans unobtrusively. I can fit that much more in a line of writing, and that much more on a page. It’s easier to make the larger notebook lie flat, and easier to draw on the page for that rare occasion that I’m inspired to sketch something rather than try to capture the thought in words.

I have just spent about 20 minutes taking in the promotional copy from the vendor that developed and produced this new product, and I’ve read some of the review literature in the gadget press. It all sounds quite propitious, except for the usual and expected delays in manufacture and fulfillment that I have experienced first-hand with all the crowd-sourced products that I have bought, a long list of which I am still waiting for; products that were a lot simpler technologically than this tablet.

I gather that had I been alerted somehow when they began their campaign for funding and had elected to be an early adopter (and it’s quite likely, given my history and the price discount, that I would have), I would be very very frustrated by now. I infer that their first orders from supporters were collected in November 2016. Which means they are now a full year into the first release product cycle. According to the vendor’s online blog, they still haven’t shipped to all of their early adopters.

This makes me wary, more than anything else, about ordering the device now, this early in the product life. It seems to do what is promised. There are no words of disparagement or about shortcomings in performance in the reviews of the product’s actual performance. It seems to hit all the right marks in terms of design in all senses, from their graphic design of marketing materials, to the industrial design of the product, to the technology (insofar as I am versed in it well enough to understand it) under the hood.

However, there may be real world performance failure, and it will be another gadget cluttering up my office and studio that simply stopped being useful through literal lack of support from the vendor (a small startup in this case, which means if they stop supporting the product it would probably have been because of a failure in the marketplace altogether for the company). I have a small helter-skelter museum of such ultimate product failures – at least one of them, the Apple Newton, having gone through billions in development and marketing, through several iterations. A number of them have quite viable companies’ brands on them, like Apple, or Amazon, or Logitech, and some of companies now defunct or absorbed into some larger entity only to disappear like a single microbe in a biome in some conglomerate corporate gut, like Palm. Many of these obsolete devices still work, at least a few with only the least encouragement, like a new battery or a recharge. Some are dead in the water. All equally useless, and each of them out-of-fate, their functionality displaced by more reliable, better designed, functioning up-to-date replacements.

There is also the resistance I feel, knowing myself as a consumer, both with my idiosyncratic quirks and my behaviors as a typical consumer with a routine honed through years, if not decades, of employing technological tools (caveat: I consider a graphite pencil on paper a technology) to get done what I have to get done. Some products I’ve acquired with a great sense of potentiality and promise at the start, only to be disappointed after a fair game try at introducing this new “tool” into the mix of things I use in the course of a day. And I am a gadget freak so there are a good number of them. Some products have become an integral part of some routine. I have now gone through four generations of the Apple iPad, and two generations of the Apple iPad Mini. I have owned six successive generations of the Apple iPhone, starting with the first one ten years ago this past summer. And I don’t regret (not very much) the thousands I’ve spent on simply these associated “mobile” gadegts. For one, almost none of these devices, when replaced with the latest spiffy version, brimming with technological advances, has gone into disuse, or even into my involuntary museum of such devices. They have been passed along to eager and grateful users not so particular about deploying only the latest, lowest latency gizmos.

Even with lesser, or at least less glamorous, products, like the variety of cell phones I owned before adopting the iPhone as my standard, I passed along the obsolescent products so they could be used productively by needier consumers with some want for the technology. Several phones were donated to organizations, including the local police, who gave such phones in working condition to, for example, women at risk. The graduation from flip- to iPhone was made a great deal easier by the generosity of a friend who bought my first iPhone for me as a gift, allegedly to signify his appreciation of my “coolness” with what was then the coolest gadget out there. He had done the same with the iPod, the first one, six years earlier, which I used for a couple of years, and retired for a more sleek, smaller, higher capacity model, though it still worked perfectly; as it did when I traded it in at the Apple Store several years after that to defray the cost of what ultimately proved to be the last version of this product with a mechanical hard drive before Apple concluded that the technology had to be declared extinct.

It has only been in rare instances that I have taken a product out of use that was still working as required. I am loathe to dispose into the waste stream any product with hard technology (plastics, rare elements, electronic circuitry, toxic chemicals) whether it is working or not. If it does still work, I try to find a new home. But there are few. Using services like Craig’s List and eBay, which I’ve tried, is only asking for more trouble and aggravation – or at least a much higher chance of it, and the monetary return would be negligible and not worth the effort. And most of the devices, gadgets, and gizmos that I have hung onto do work, or did when taken out of service. This phenomenon, of functional obsolescence, is one of the huge deficits of life in a first world country, especially the United States.

The fact is, however, that the entire planet is awash in the detritus of last year’s tech. Spanking new and shiny and enviable only months ago, a product that has been superceded in the marketplace, either with a competitive brand’s product, or a newer model from the same parent company, or an altogether new technology, quickly loses its luster and seeming usefulness. It hasn’t, of course, but we are many of us hostage to having bought into the mythology of the ways in which progress manifests itself. Or the reflexive, and I think self-protective, systems of establishing a sense of credible self-worth.

I don’t bother myself with the vagaries of philosophical inquiry about the ways in which so many of us are equally prey to having our values skewed, or possibly even utterly subverted, so that we end up in the habit of spending more time fulfilling the need created within us by innumerable cultural forces – being materialistic, being acquisitive, being in terrible need of signifying our sense of worth to ourselves with a constant stream of gifts, and those largely items that have been rooted in the apparent esteem, deservedly or not being no matter, of our peers. And we concomitantly spend that much less time being mindful of what comes with existence in this life in this world on this planet largely for free. Until that turning away becomes not just quotidian habit, but a disposition of mind.

I don’t bother myself overmuch about these things, not because I think I have vanquished that grasping, acquisitive, covetous urge within me characteristic of this stage of the Anthropocene – that is, not to make something grandiose out of this. Rather, I am sufficiently mindful (and if I have to, I force myself to be, consciously; silently it’s true, but this is not the kind of thing to make any noise about—if I did with any regularity, and poked you in the ribs before I did so, it would be a giveaway that in fact my objectives were somewhere other than in the sphere of ethics; I am humbled by my own sense of humility and, uh, self-abnegation) that I can keep myself in check, and not run away with any facet of my personality that derives from genes that determine one’s role as a Master of the Universe. This means I will, among other things, and I am trying hard not to trivialize this, but these are real signifiers that real people actually do, never own a brand-new (or even a “pre-owned” – god, I love that phrase) Patek Philippe watch. Their clever ad people assure us, anyway, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” I will never own a fleet of cars, or even a two-stall stable of a Tesla (for town) and a hybrid Range Rover (for those forays to the north country). I could arguably do so, without putting a significant dent in my ability to ensure a diet of healthful, good-tasting foods for myself and my little family, or necessitating a move from our spacious and airy, but hardly grandiose, home to a more efficient condo downtown, along with an annual travel pass on public transportation vehicles. And I wouldn’t do the latter, not because I feel I live a fretful encumbered existence as the epicenter of an object-cluttered way of life. Much of the detritus with which the house is burdened (in its less accessible storage areas), especially as I described the abandoned technological flotsam in the foregoing narrative of my life with tech-y gadgets, is there because the world does not care to make it easy to dispose of such artifacts of our quest to escape the insuperable inevitability of our mortality. Climate change, after all—if we are to believe the thrust of belief of a third of the U.S. electorate—is definitely not in large part the result of human behavior.

Yes, it can all be left in barrels for the Lower Merion Township Refuse and Recycling trucks to carry away, as they do, virtually without fail, every week of the year. But then it becomes the burden – and no less poisonous or detrimental to succeeding generations – of a much wider expanse of my fellow citizenry, silently and with only their tacit permission, given that I am bound only by my conscience. Curiously, I have no confidence that my neighbors, equally, that is, no better or worse, are bound equally by theirs.

So, in the end, I’ll take a pass on this latest toy, reMarkable™ as it alleges to be. It may be like paper, but it isn’t paper. eInk® is a brilliant achievement, but it’s not ink. Life-like is not a choice I care to make yet.

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Childhood: Harbinger of Character

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

from notes for my memoir, Curmudgeon: A Grudging Look Backward

My attitudes toward certain significant aspects of human development were predictable from the start. If people had been prescient enough to ask the child me how I felt about certain tasks, they could have paved my path to adulthood so it was not the rocky road I experienced.I was just reading, for example, of Calvin Trillin’s sentiments regarding what I know to be a source of great pleasure for a majority of people graced with offspring. He writes:

There can’t be many summertime activities more satisfying than foraging for wild blueberries with your grandchildren in the same place you foraged for wild blueberries with your children.

I know for a fact that this is a pleasure of which I would have had no appreciation whatsoever—in fact, in my mind, even now, I am already forming thoughts as preposterous as feeling unease at the mere fantastical prospect of having grandchildren left in my care when I have, clearly, so many other, better things to do at the moment. When I was a child, who could have, should have, screamed with delight at the idea of foraging for wild blueberries, or even taxed with the lesser task of visiting a pick-your-own farm in the wilds of New Hampshire armed with a little plastic bucket, I would have bristled, as an indubitable fact, at the mere prospect. My usual reaction to the suggestion that anything that, to my still nascent sensibility, smacked of labor was to grimace, and begin scheming to formulate reasonable objections that would disoblige me from participation. No squeals of joy at the prospect, no screams of delight as I galloped through the shrubs, or among the vines, or snaking through the orchards. Whether gentle exertion or hard punitive taxing labor, to me then, as it has always been since, work is work, and I’ll have none of it, if I can get away with that little.

As a child, I preferred to read, quietly somewhere, conserving what I already suspected was a restricted amount of energy meant to last my entire existence. And as for that, my lack of any otherwise natural enthusiasm for the pleasures of youth, was reinforced by a precocious dread of some unknown threat to the normal course of my life, which I had already come to expect, even at the age of eight (sentient enough for the biblical phrase to be correctly construed and to stick in my conscious mind), to last a measured ration of “three score years and ten” and not a day more.

Running around, mindlessly (to me), in the throes of some abandon and utter obliviousness, seemed not only degrading, with some premonitory understanding of the concept of dignity being compromised, but would draw down on the precious allotment of time I had. To me it was already dwindling at a pace that caused me great disquiet, which I could yet not express.When my parents called on me to prepare for bed, their gentle reminders, which in time grew less tranquil and increasingly martial, were only a signal for me to cavort, suddenly filled with the energy that, presumably, I should have expended on some theoretical berry patch, and shrilly declare that I wasn’t tired, “see?!” Even then, in some vague way, every moment surrendered to sleep was a moment stolen from consciousness—the one thing I knew was assurance I was, in fact, still alive.

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Digging Around Where I Come From

Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes
Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.

Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.


I’m not gardening in the backyard of my old condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Been there. Done that. Howard has left the venue.

I don’t know how you spend your time when not temporizing on Facebook. There’s work, of course. And all the things we do to stay alive. Then there’s everything else. I spend a certain amount of my time on an ongoing basis looking into my roots. I mean in the Kinta Kunte sense; my own little channel of Alex Haley, but of a different skin color and a different continent.

My forebears were from Russia. In my father’s case, more specifically what is now called Ukraine—current hotbed of nationalism 21st century style opposed by Russian recidivists, mainly ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, thinking maybe they should never have left. In fact, my father’s people (and my father and his family) lived in that part of Ukraine often, in our day, violently in dispute, a region still very much riven.

I have no idea where my father, who died in 1999, would fall out on the question. I was raised to understand that he thought of himself and all of his relatives as Russians—though Ukraine has existed, that is, inhabited, for over 30 thousand years. But in modern political history, Ukraine has rarely been independent, free of the Russian yoke.

It was part of Russia when my father was born, 110 years ago. Inevitably the Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement that was constituted in part of parts of Ukraine would think of themselves as Russian.

I grew up on stories from my father about his childhood, about which he had vivid memories, and the ultimate turmoil that transfigured his life and that of his small family: his parents, his brother—my uncle, and his mother’s brother, my Great Uncle Sol. It was Sol (or Zalman) who instigated the move out of Russia to better parts. They settled briefly in Argentina, waiting almost three years to be able to enter the United States under the quota of immigrants allowed from that country. Among the stories my father told was the adventure of escaping by train, past Russian and then Polish guards at the borders—all of it planned and engineered by my Great Uncle, who, my father had also told me was a troublemaker from way back.

I remember my father’s stories, fragmentary as they were, with some continuing immediacy, as he repeated them over and over, and I never tired of hearing them. To punctuate the stories were albums of photos, mainly of his immediate family: those I’ve already mentioned, as well as five (or was it six?) brothers, of whom Zalman was but one. The others were, like their father, my great grandfather in addition to his brother, my great grand uncle, enterpreneurs and business owners. One by one, they were cut down, early in their lives, by Cossacks, by bandits, by the “white army” of the czar, harassed by all of them, and from all sides, with no respite from the mayhem at the hands of the revolutionaries, including the “red army.” It was to escape the conditions, none of them “good for the Jews” that resulted from the upheaval of the Revolution, the overthrow of the czar, and so forth.

Prior to any thought of escape, my Uncle Sol had done his part by aiding the partisan efforts of his more daring and rebellious friends. Sol was protected by the status of his father, a close friend of town officials, including the mayor, from whose offices Sol would steal official blank forms to be forged into documents that allowed free passage from one part of Russia to another, necessary credentials for those bent on fomenting change.

What I am left with, though, is my patchwork of memories of the stories my father told so many times. I regularly would encourage him to write down what he recalled, and especially the exploits of my older relatives. He was only a youth when he left Russia (at the age of thirteen) and my Uncle Alex, his brother, even younger. There would not have been that many stories concerning their behavior and actions, though my father’s memory was comprehensive and incisive enough to form a virtual novella about what life in general was like for a young boy at the turn of the century in Czarist Russia in provincial Russian towns, each with its complement of a Jewish community.

There is something else of a record of that era and my family’s private history, appropriate to the present age of a disconnected if wholly continuous flow of visual imagery, especially with the eruption of personal photographic records, designed to have a half-life almost as brief as particles in a collider, and numbering into staggering orders of magnitude: billions of images every week dissolving into the ether. Ironically, the visual record that I now possess consists not of countless pictures, but more than enough, a surfeit, of photographic prints for the most part. Many of the faces when I uncovered the first cache of photos were immediately recognizable, at least insofar as my father had identified individuals unknown to me (all but my Uncle Sol and my grandfather, Josef Dinin, were dead and gone by the time I was born, and they didn’t last long enough to be recorded in my still undeveloped cortex)—almost all of them existed seemingly mainly to put faces to the cavalcade of names he would rattle off.

After my father’s death, I retrieved boxes of material that turned out to be poorly stored further records. There were some documents, like my Uncle Sol’s papers from Argentina, his passport, the naturalization certificate in the U.S. of my grandfather. But mainly there were more photos, cascades of photos in some instances as pasteboard boxes long neglected disintegrated under my fingers. I removed everything I could gingerly and procured the lot into archival storage containers, designed specifically for photographic materials, or anything on paper really and particularly susceptible to the acids used in most paper and board fabrication.

Now I continue to be faced with figuring out what to do with this trove. Most of the photographs were captured by commercial photographers with studios in the cities and towns of Ukraine, or taken by itinerant traveling photographers, more of the quality of snapshots, but still encased in their presentation covers, of a thin, opaque, and usually black pasteboard. The commercial studio portraits are mounted on thick cardboard, usually with ornate borders and title text, often of a generic nature, suggesting that the photographer bought stock mounting board, with embossed decorations and non-specific renditions of their business, like “Cabinet – Portrait” (French seemed to be a prominent lingua franca indeed, for the commercial and educated classes of Russia, like a bourgeois transfiguration of the habits of the court and of diplomatic circles).

In one trove I found two of literally hundreds of images, two that I thought I recognized readily enough.

If I am correct, and I can’t be sure because the fellow I am fairly certain is the refractory young man known as Zalman, the daredevil and stalwart friend of revolutionaries, is much younger in this portrait (perhaps this is from the office blank stealing phase of his nascent career as a troublemaker) than other positively identified portraits I have. He is the one, the particularly handsome one, sans spectacles, unlike his companions, on the right staring dead on into the camera. These three intense dudes, it seems to me, are clearly close, enough so to be entirely casual in their pose—a departure from the typically stiff and formal portraiture in so many other of the prints I have. I have no idea who the other two are, and I am fairly certain there is no one left alive who I might possibly have a chance of meeting with even the most tenuous of connections with the obscure history of the Dinin family in Ukraine, so as to be able to inform me of, at the very least, their names. I love this photo for all the portents in it, and the stories that demand being told, even out of whole cloth, so alive and direct and frank and commanding are the gazes of these young stalwarts.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

The other photo is really quite small, smaller even than the prototypical snapshot size of 2×3 inches that was the popular format for photographs processed and returned by the drugstores where one brought their rolls of film for processing by labs off-site, when my parents were young and in love, in the 1930s, and of the sort, the snaps and other photos, that is, that comprise another whole portfolio of vexation for me, pondering the challenge of identifying who, and what, and where, and why these images were captured in the first place. But this photo, of a stern-faced woman and a somewhat, but not much, milder looking boy, clearly with a deep and abiding relation to the woman by blood is significantly older than that.

At first, having recognized the woman as a much younger incarnation of my grandmother than in more recent photos I had seen, my father’s mother, Ida, who never knew me, before she died of causes unknown to me, when she was barely in her 60s—at first I took the young fellow as my father, and, indeed, when I scanned the photo, I named the file using his and her name. However, on re-examination and a closer look at that characteristic curled lip, somewhere between sullen and a sneer only one-quarter formed, and after comparing the shape of his left ear and the shape of the same appendage in a much later portrait, taken by me, a teen-aged me, in fact, of my Uncle Alex (his name in Russia, at the time of the portrait of him and his mother, would have been Ilya) persuaded me of my mistake. The portrait, given his apparent stage of development and the indeterminacy of his age, except within a range of three or four years, had to have been taken around the time of the family’s escape from Russia in 1918, when he would have been eight or nine years old. The photo, an oval shape, obviously, was cut out somewhat clumsily from a larger photo and pasted to a nondesript piece of board, with no marks or printing on it of any kind—another attestation to the haste and changed circumstances that surrounded its taking and mounting and preservation. But again, there is no one to tell me any more than what my memory serves and my eyes and imagination manage to tell me.

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Famous for a Moment

Approximate Reading Time: 34 minutes
Pressed Flowers from Summer 2009

Pressed Flowers from Summer 2009

“What seems paradoxical about everything that is justly called beautiful is the fact that it appears” —Walter Benjamin

“Make no mistake: this is not about more intellectual sophistication… What I am looking for… is an introduction to living, a guide to life (ethical project): I want to live according to nuance. Now there is a teacher of nuance, literature; try to live according to the nuances that literature teaches me.”—Roland Barthes, The Neutral

I’ve been shooting photos for a great many years. Let’s just say, decades. Those who know my work, not as many as I’d like, though more than I’m actually aware of, recognize a certain style. As for subjects, when not shooting landscapes or what the French call nature morte, I prefer maybe most of all to shoot portraits, even of people I don’t know.

It’s not exactly street photography, though a great deal of it is shot in the street. Friends who are aficionados of that genre, that is, street photography, tend to say my shots have a distant quality, do not connect with the subject. Maybe it’s all that landscape photography, or shooting still, that is, unmoving objects, a lot of them formerly alive, like flowers or fruit. One friend, who perhaps knows more about me personally, has said several times it’s quite evident I am unwilling to get too close to the subject. It’s not an entirely prescient remark as I had admitted long since that I am not crazy about doing it. When he says it, or I think about it, it always makes me think of the great photographer from the first half of the 20th century, Robert Capa, who is mainly renowned for his shots taken on battlefields, from the Spanish Civil War to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and is also often quoted as saying “if your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough.” Maybe, but he died because he stepped on a mine during combat in what was then called French Indochina. For my taste, that’s a little too close. However, I’ve strayed from the issue of the specific quality of my “street” images. It may be a matter of distance, and I think it is. However other people than my friend usually are referring to physical proximity, as if intimacy is esthetically explosive and distance is dull. I am talking about a different dimension.

Fact is, I’m not very interested in getting up close and personal—what else do you call sticking a camera and lens in someone’s face?—to someone I don’t know. I have my share of portraits in my portfolio, taken at appropriate distances, of dear friends and loved ones, but a certain kind of portrait, revelatory and intimate, requires knowing the subject, or at least having a chance to allow one’s empathy and intuition to work up a sense of who they are. Distance in inches or meters is not a gauge of one’s ability to do so. I also have a number of what I think are quite successful portraits, to the extent that the designation applies as it has throughout the history of art: as studies of individual human character. In these there is some element or concatenation of elements, a cast of the eye, or an expression involving some or all of the myriad muscles of the face, including the deeper ones, a certain regard, that seem to betray something evident if inchoate about the subject. It may not, in fact, be an insight to the specific and doubtless unique individual portrayed. However, it may be, very well, expressive of some aspect, a quality, of what I’ll call human nature, or the human spirit (at the risk of being jumped on by my friends for certain wholly other reasons) in a more universal or generalized way. The image speaks to us, somehow, regardless of the situational circumstances by which it was captured.

Two women I don't know from two holes in the wall

Two women I don’t know from two holes in the wall

When people have a problem with an image of mine involving a human subject, and usually one with whom I don’t have even a nodding acquaintance, I think there’s something else going on than what the physical evidence of the photograph as record or datum seems to indicate. I think those friends of mine are expecting something that I will never successfully deliver every time. I am not trying to capture what most of the successful and renowned street photographers are trying to catch.

Surely this is true of Diane Arbus, and in much of his work, especially the later work, of Garry Winogrand. They and others were trying, I think, to catch people expressing unaware their anguish or desperation or other extreme emotional states—or possibly some untoward quality of which the subject is either mercifully oblivious, or so beset they cannot help themselves. If I see it, and have a chance to capture it, I will. I either succeed, or not, or I simply don’t get the opportunity.

"Life is not easy." —S. Freud

Sigmund Freud: “Life is not easy”

I’m far more interested in far more ordinary matters, saying this not to try to diminish the significance of anguish and desperation. God knows there’s plenty of these in the world. If anguish and despair are not ordinary, they are surely legion; Freud said, universal, and the hallmark of the human condition. But there are enough photos of anguish and despair, of people in extremis. Especially in the news, where it’s stock in trade, too often photos are a record of death, or the threat of it or of its impact, or where it occurred, or might and on a probabilistic basis, if it’s anywhere more than a handful of people have settled, it will. You can’t get a job as a photojournalist unless you have served your time taking photos of people in some kind of war zone—foreign or domestic. And your subjects are being shot at, hunted down, chased, plundered, dispossessed. What have you. It is a nasty and brutish place, the world, or it can be.

But these are the kinds of photographs that go into many exhibitions, many books. And those that do not conform to this particular formulation are, as a theme and variation, usually of people who are famous, or trying to be famous. Often, they show the subject’s face wreathed in that most utterly anti-evocative of conditions, the toothy smile engaging only superficial muscles, the eyes usually devoid of genuine feeling. Many famous people in photographs that attain to publication are merely famous for being famous. We all know them. The faces that launch a thousand magazine covers at the supermarket check-out counters. The faces that appear on so-called reality television.

But let me stop at that word. Not television, but the other. As the now late, great Robin Williams said early in his brilliant career, “Reality, what a concept!” I think he meant something else than what we see and have seen these several decades on the boob tube. I think he meant, more or less, what a largely forgotten nineteenth century novelist said. The writer also was editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” still going strong, still trying to grab its share of the attention that heightened awareness brings to subjects accorded the status of icon, or meme, or merely worthy of their fifteen minutes (now shaved, cost-effectively, to 15 seconds) of fame.

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Dean Howells was that man. He was, as well, a friend to Mark Twain who had his fair share of fame and of having his photograph taken, largely because he was Mark Twain, not to mention being a great subject visually, regardless of his stature—but mainly because he was recognizable; alas for his portraitists, they are forgotten, or their names anyway, and just as well, because in many cases except for the fame of the subject, there’s not too much interest in the photo. What Howells said was, “Ah! poor Real Life, which I love, can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?”

In other words, Howells, long before Robert Redford won his first Academy Award for directing, found his subjects—and he wrote a great many novels—among essentially “ordinary people.” In all of this, of course, resides the subtlest kind of irony. For my part, in my much smaller way, I have always had greatest interest, if not all of it, in the quotidian, in seemingly ordinary lives. What others call dull or plain, or cynics might say is banal, I find rich in possibility. When I lived in the North End of Boston, some years ago, near that other tourist Mecca, Quincy Market at Faneuil Hall, I would stand mid-day, engrossed, as crowds swarmed around me, a sea of bodies, watching people’s faces. Do it only once and there is only one thing to conclude. There is no ordinary. There is a common thread in humanity. It is the discernment that is not so ordinary. The extraordinary qualities inherent in a person’s everyday face reside in its being a map of their lives, including of course those extreme existential conditions no one human can avoid.

What I’ve learned, or persuaded myself, is that because of, not despite, their qualities of the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday, the quotidian and the people who are its inhabitants can be transcended, and, caught at just the right moment, and what is photography really (and famously) but the art of the moment—that is, in the taxonomy of those arts measured by the dimension of time? I’ve long since become inured to the observation about some of my work, “I don’t see why you took this picture; there’s nothing happening. How is this different from a snapshot?”

What is different is that element I (and others) call nuance, which has been the objective in a way of all my endeavors, studies, efforts, and exertions, the entire course of my life. I’ve sought it, I find in retrospect, even as a child, when I could not know or conceive of a quality, never mind the concept of it, that I am calling nuance. It is hard to define, except in context, and there are an infinite number of contexts, as the clock ticks, and eyes wander, and the head changes angle. It is in the infinite variety of man (in that archaic undifferentiated sense of human, not of the gender-sequestrated member of the race), spoken of poetically by my perpetual betters. It is in the “pied beauty” of nature. Nuance is of consequence, however small.

Much art consists in, first, the isolation, and then the rendition with the requisite skills of mastery of materials, of the nuances to be found in nature, that is in poor real life. But nuance, I’ll remind one and all, is to be found in the peculiar and likely unduplicated isolation of the subject as well as its juxtaposition, intentional or accidental, in the setting, that is, the “environment” in which the subject is discovered, perhaps, in some manner that escapes the need for any probity even of the most exacting sort, that makes forensic analysis superfluous, because it is revelatory of some deeper, if of utterly “ordinary,” truth, which begins to challenge in a multitude of ways, as I am trying to suggest here, the very meaning of ordinary.

To make myself clear, let’s take a look at the works of art that have nourished us for the last 150 years or so, give or take. Prior to that time, much art had what I’ll call a hieratic function. Artists were akin to priests, who performed the sacrament of creating art. The choice of subjects was constrained. Go far enough back in time and the constraints were very narrowly defined. Subjects were confined to religious and regal personages and, in the case of deceased personages, saints or entities of even more holy otherness. However, with the wholesale deposition of monarchs, and the evacuation of places of worship of practitioners of the faith, artists were free to seek and depict more worldly matter, that is, of this world.

I put it to you that almost randomly you may choose from among your favorite Western artists, let us say, more strictly for a moment, painters (I am not, after all, trying to make this a treatise on the comprehensive history of art, and for convenience sake, not to mention restricting my remarks, limited by the extent to which I am well informed, which is, in the end, not very well at all, I will also speak only of the culture to which I think of myself as a contributor), and you will be hard put to find subjects that are not, in some fashion, of the quotidian with which the painter was familiar. The subjects, say of the continuum of artists in France, are ordinary subjects to their time, starting in the middle of the nineteenth century and proceeding through the first decades of the following one, recently ended, that is, until other modes and styles than the representational (or, as its called, figurative) came to a superior position of ascendancy. Harvesters of flax, and the postman. Fields of flowers, and women sitting at tea. Workers sanding floorboards, and housewives hanging the wash. The artist’s humble bedroom, or her sister reading the newspaper.

I might even argue that it was the emergence of photography as a medium of artistic expression, never mind the far more numerous specimens (however artful or artless) taken by laymen on a daily basis, with a frequency that multiplies to this day—literally billions of images are uploaded daily to the Internet—that facilitated the migration of painterly exertions into other styles, genres and modes than the purely representational. What has been lost, I am afraid—for any number of associated reasons, that is, they have a lot to do with Western civilization having allowed certain modalities to migrate to computer-based technologies for implementation—is nuance.

The chief benefit of computers being to expedite a process, almost any process that can be converted to digital representation of its operative factors or constituent parts, the rapidity with which we can create (if I may use that word, loathe as I am to do so) and produce whatever it is we feel compelled to exchange with one another: be they images, packets of verbal content (notice how careful I am being with the language…), or even bundles of numbers arranged in a grid, or the ubiquitous and everlasting whatever… grows ever greater. That is, we can do things faster and faster, producing more and more of whatever it is we produce, that the artifacts of production, the images, the verbal packets, grow ever more compact and brief in time as well as their very virtual existence, even as they as grow more numerous. How to contend with this flow? Necessarily, as the number of words and images has multiplied, the substance, that is, the value, or, to use a word long since deracinated, the meaning any one image or packet carries as payload diminishes. Among the first victims, long since, indeed was nuance. More recently, one of the children of nuance, irony, has also, I will tell you quietly and discretely here (in case the disastrous news has not reached you as you pore over your text messages and Facebook news feed), has died. Rest in peace.

Given the amount and duration of the attention that anyone receives for their efforts, it is a marvel that books and recordings still get produced, that is, by anyone other than the actual fabricator. Whatever the outcome of the current struggle between Amazon and Hachette over pricing hegemony, it is clear that the future belongs to the distributors and purveyors of what is now a commodity, except in the rarest of instances—what used to be objects of art and letters are now stock keeping units. Given the numbers, billions of people writing and capturing images with cameras and drawing apps—and that’s just in the so-called developing world—I feel safe speaking in what amount to such apocalyptic terms. The only wrath I face is the indignation of romantics, there’s no other way to designate them, who have not as yet succumbed to assuming the only defense for preserving one’s sanity in the long term, and that is pure cynicism.

We cannot speak of art, not in a world where the likes of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons command millions of whatever currency you choose for the output of their factories, suborned by equally rich, if not richer, agents and impresarios, auctioneers and curators, who form the bishoprics of art, defining it and preserving its sacramental value, facilitating its enshrinement. We cannot speak of literature, not in a world where the preponderance of books, printed in bulk for national distribution, are brought to market by an educational-industrial complex, which churns out product the preponderance of which in markets measured in millions of people will sell in the hundreds of copies, or at best the thousands (50,000 is a staggering “best-seller”) with the gratitude of the practitioners anointed with a pedigree, regaled in a cap and gown, and handed parchment with the only suitable credentials for gaining entry to the publishing world, the holy certification of the MFA. Not that this is a money-making encounter for all but a happy few (that is, the Hirsts and Koonses of the literary world, the Dan Browns and the Danielle Steeles), though an MFA is a ticket not only through the manifold doors of a Hachette or Bertelsmann to the first sanctioned treads on the stairway to modest fame, but it is the visa to the land of higher education where the possessor may teach others, acolytes who dream of taking communion with the rest of the anointed ones. We won’t talk about the fact that a teaching job that our anointed scribes, many admittedly with talent that would stand in any age, most with, well, enough graduate credits for the degree that got them to where they are, is barely sufficient to make what is called, without a hint of irony whatsoever, a living.

It is a parody of a process that used to be called paying one’s dues, affordable, with no expense of spirit in a waste of shame, because the stakes were not of fame, which calls, indeed, for a kind of lust—a sterile kind, and certainly not of money in astronomical quantities, but of proving one’s mettle in the mastery of nuance. Not lust in action, but skill, on a foundation of talent. I’ve looked through the CVs of some of the blue chip names in American fiction-writing of a generation or two ago, the women still active, the men, but one, all dead, and the one who’s alive is, he says, “retired:” Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, John Updike, William Styron, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Tyler, Ann Beattie, Margaret Drabble. Not an MFA among them. A writer friend has justly pointed out to me that likely that was because the degree didn’t exist “in them days.” And I respond, rightly so. They didn’t need it is the point. You don’t need a license to know how to drive.

The same may be said of an equal roster of shining lights, if not stars altogether, in the realm of photography (the nominal subject of what has become a tirade), of an even longer generational hierarchy, though the names are still invoked as the progenitors and models of this newest of the plastic arts, even as they are practiced to this day: Paul Strand, Eduard Steichen, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Tina Modotti, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Helen Levitt and I’ve already mentioned Diane Arbus.

I shouldn’t mention my own name even in moderate proximity to these greats, heroes and heroines of mine, all of them. Indeed their work is the school to which I went to learn what I hope I humbly and tentatively call my craft. Not only will you not find my name in their company, but unless you actually know me, you couldn’t associate my name with a specific image, so unknown are these artifacts. And yet, and yet… As virtually any figure in any canon of work deemed art, most who labor to produce also harbor the hope of becoming known and understood, if not appreciated. The ways in which the world at large, through history, has acknowledged exceptional efforts have varied. Inevitably, the humblest practitioners have at least enjoyed the commissions of close friends and the circles of individuals surrounding them (rapidly dissipating in inverse proportion to the level of recognition of the artisan). Go far enough back, and the identity of the human being who produced work that embodies those qualities of timelessness and enduring beauty, of the kinds and levels of nuance (if I may be permitted to re-introduce the term at this late point) that separate art from mere craft, of the reach of art to the grace beyond mere technical flawlessness. Indeed, art is often permitted imperfections (the Navajo, for entirely other, ulterior, reasons, having more to do with theology and their sense of the place of man in the universe, deliberately introduced errors, however imperceptible, into their artifacts) that we do not tolerate in mere manufactured objects of desire.

However, it was of recognition that I was speaking, recognition of the quality of the work, and ultimately, of course, recognition of the producer of the work. There are formulae, as I’ve pointed out vitriolically, to attaining a kind of fame, neither entirely reliable in any sense, least of all in the assessment of the actual attainment of capturing the elusive quality of “art,” in the sense of enduring, or (dare I say) aspiring to aspects of eternal, connection with some incomprehensible component of the human spirit. That is, speaking of art, to speak of matters that are largely inchoate, and after tens of thousands of years of being pondered, not only little understood, but, if truth be dared to say, still utterly incomprehensible.

For my part, I cannot explain my stubborn anonymity and lack of a more generalized attention (except of course from loved ones and friends, in many ways most important, and for which I never falter in my gratitude). I cannot explain it whether I assign the cause to the tortuous workings of fate in the context of the particular, and idiosyncratic, choices made in the course of my life, or explain it all as merely due to an insufficiently aggressive or sustained effort to gain attention from the right people in the right circles. I speak only of the “fame”, or, more importantly, the recognition of the stature of my own work, which I have no doubt myself has merit, and not at all of the pecuniary rewards which seem to have become the chief gauge of the magnitude of the greatness of the art in question.

I cannot assign my not so unusual lack of status to the kinds of accidents that befall each of us, if we are to call ourselves human—in short, we all suffer from Miniver Cheevy Syndrome—because there really is no such thing as being born too late or too early. Status, recognition, and the quality of art, transcend such random chronological accidents as the birth of this one or that at this time or that, rather than some other.

How to achieve it at this late point in my career, never mind the actuarial realities of my life? Going back to school is out of the question. Indeed, in a perverse distortion of the hackneyed cliché, I not only do, but I have taught. I am simply not prepared to sit again at a desk facing the blackboard.

I can—and indeed, in a very tentative way, I have done so—buy my way to some attention. But this requires not only money, but a kind of dedication, and it is far easier, I say with mixed emotions, to procure the former than to sustain the latter, until the gears of recognition from the establishment mesh. However I have come up with what I think is a far more innovative, if no less arduous, stratagem. I have decided that the fault, my dear readers, is not in myself, but in the lack of stars in the viewing screen of my camera. So slowly, carefully, and with some reliance on chance—yes, sheer luck—I have been even more mindful of discovering subjects that are not only brimming with nuance, but full of the presence of the elusive sister to Dame Fortune: fame.

Happily, and I will very soon end this treatise with this first bit of evidence, I came upon one such subject, quietly and most modestly sitting in the afternoon sun at a café in the sunny capital city of the great little state of Vermont (and why I should not have expected to stumble on such an august personage in a venue of what is likely the state of the greatest level of self-imposed humility—though well short of squeamish Uriah Heep proportions—is only a measure of the poverty of my own poor attainments in the discipline of mindfulness). It was an entirely lucky accident, as it was only because of my sudden and rare, for a mid-afternoon, desire for a cup of coffee that I stopped at the café. I had taken little notice of the man sitting unassumingly at one of a number of tables on the terrace, otherwise unoccupied. I went in, ordered my mug of whatever exotic potion from African beans was being featured, and repaired outside myself, again uncharacteristically as I am not ordinarily a fan of exposing myself to full sunlight in nearly idle repose.

Having taken note, I guess unconsciously, of which vantage provided for the most likely composition should a photograph somehow emerge from what was the otherwise unremarkable and pedestrian milieu, I sat at a table facing the façade, with a full view of the likeliest subject. It was while scrutinizing the scene, lining up the shot, so to speak, calculating the best focal length of the zoom lens, that I realized just exactly who my subject, of whom absolutely no one else took any note whatsoever, was. Without ready access to Wikipedia I could not be sure, but even approximate chronological vectors are sufficient. So at first, I was sure I was letting my imagination fly away with me, to very distant shores (Vienna is, as it turns out, just a tad more than four thousand miles from Montpelier). If it was who I thought it was, he’d have to be some 150 years old (to be more precise, as I discovered in some tiny bit of research subsequent to our meeting, he would be 158; we did engage in conversation, as you will learn, but it was not within the bounds, especially given the exertion required merely to contain the gross expression of my astonishment, of etiquette to ask my subject his age… and as it turned out, he did not volunteer the information).

As you may have gathered from the foregoing narrative, it’s not my practice too often, if at all, to engage my subjects in any way. Therefore it was extremely tentatively, once I assured myself I had captured the image as it had first presented itself to me in the way I wished to frame it, that I approached his table, and said, just loud enough, I figured, for him to hear, “Doktor Freud?” He immediately, if very slowly and gracefully, put his mug of coffee, which I noticed was nearly light beige presumably from a significant quantity of lightener in it, along with the magazine he had been perusing, on the mesh tabletop. He turned to me, and looking directly at me with a magnificently sympathetic gaze, and said “Ja?”

Considering that even as I can view, from time to time, my decrepitude waiting patiently for me on the horizon, I figured I was at worst barely more than a third his age, I had approached the great man with somewhat the awe of a child for a truly venerable personage. I asked him with a slight tremor in my voice how this could be (there was a faint flicker in my mind, though for some reason so weak as clearly ready to extinguish itself at any moment, that crazy as the moment might be, I was, in fact, dealing with a person not entirely in touch with his own reality; consider the irony of that, if this proved to be fantasy more than actual fact—I refrain from using the word truth, at least this early in the encounter). He told me, in almost so many words that, “like our old friend, Mark Twain said [speak of the devil], the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” and he chuckled, showing a brilliant set of dentures. I figured cosmetic surgery had made significant advances since the radical and dangerous treatment Herr Doktor Freud had had to endure for his oral cancer.

He noticed me looking at his mouth and touched my hand, and told me not to worry, that he was, almost miraculously, healed and not in any great discomfort. He said he did have to watch what he ate, but that his diet was accountable more for the sake of preserving his longevity than any further problems he might have with that particular disease. In fact, as it turned out, well, as several things turned out, he was now living in Vermont and had been since just before, as he put it, “the war broke out in Europe” largely for his health. He said he thought it was well-known that the life in that state, not to mention the typical diet of Vermonters, especially if they were strict locavores, was so salubrious as to be life-sustaining well beyond the normal span of years we are afforded.

Indeed, and as is well-evidenced in my photograph, he was not particularly frail or orthopedically challenged, shall I say, though his stature seemed quite diminished from what I expected. As if reading my mind, he told me that, in fact, he was pretty much the height and weight he had always been, and he assumed that many people were surprised on first meeting him, as in the old days, at his diminutive stature. He attributed this misconception to his appearance in photographs and the added bulk of the usually very layered attire he invariably wore.

He said that since his “retirement” (this is the word he used, with a flicking gesture of his hand, beautifully manicured I might note, as if to say, “goodbye to all that”) he had become immediately very comfortable with the very much more informal garb of the typical Vermonter. He does wear a lot of flannel and wool in the winter, because of the cold, but this is only consistent with local custom.

He kept eyeing his magazine, and I realized I had somehow, in addition to distracting him, possibly was on the verge of becoming an annoyance. I looked at him, and down at my camera, which has a wrist loop, that I had unconsciously laid on the tabletop when I sat down. He quietly asked if I might want to take his photograph, but I demurred. I don’t know why, but I also did not openly admit to having already taken the photo I wanted. Something about the very slight wry smile that crossed his features very quickly and disappeared told me that he already knew. I stood up and he moved as if to raise himself from his seat as well, but I gestured to him to stay put, and excused myself for having bothered him. No bother at all, according to him, but I quickly retreated and when I looked back he had already settled himself as I had first discovered him and was deeply engrossed in the magazine. I had been dying to get a closer look at what he was reading, but he kept the magazine under his arm on the table through the entirety of our conversation. It was a news magazine of some sort, but which I cannot say.

Later, once I returned home and processed the image, assuring myself it was, in fact, as good as I had hoped when I checked it on the tiny viewing screen of the camera, I realized with a start that I had taken no particular note of his reference to Twain, and so I did some research on-line, as is my wont in any event, and found this reference, to a letter that Freud had written to his famous colleague Wilhelm Fleiss, who had noted Freud’s absence from the lecture of another physician, personal doctor to Otto von Bismarck. What Freud wrote was: “Schweninger’s performance, there at the talking circus, was a real disgrace! I did not attend, of course; instead I treated myself to listening to our old friend Mark Twain in person, which was a sheer delight.” In his account of Twain and relationship to psychology, a Dr. Zehr, who is the source of this quotation, notes that there is no evidence Twain and Freud actually met, but that their paths must have crossed many times during an extended stay in Vienna of Twain and his entire family. I have my own thoughts.

However, more pertinent to my thesis (and the aforementioned stratagem) one thought, not an original one for sure, was that it was no coincidence, though it always seemed that connections one can discover in innumerable places when researching the lives of renowned persons are full of nuance, that well-regarded cultural figures very often knew (or know) one another, in some way. I realized that this was the key, absent enrollment in, and subsequent successful completion of, a graduate degree program in the fine arts, to my attainment to the kind of stature and recognition I will now willingly admit to wishing for myself, for the sake of my work being better known.

Therefore, I have dedicated myself to being that much more attentive to the presence of those subjects whose image is an instant entree to that kind of notice and its rewards. I hasten to add that I have no intention of joining the ranks of paparazzi, whose exertions in this regard I would not even deign to call a genre of the art of photography. And of course I have no intention of staking out people’s homes and well-traveled paths, because this is uncivilized.

Rather, let this be the notification that you should pay stricter attention to my posts, as you will see more and more of the kinds of subjects that are of interest for themselves. Consider that however artfully I may render this new category of portraits that the rendition itself is a bonus. And of course, there will be no lack of nuance.

Freud has a mug of joe, reads a magazine at local café in Montpelier.

Freud has a mug of joe, reads a magazine at local hip café in Montpelier, Vermont.

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too few begats, too many kidneys

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My personal legend

Gray1123

I don’t recall when I was told or by whom, but among the several facts about my father’s family are two that I never forget, if for different reasons. Aside from what are to me the obvious jokes to be made about at least one of these (and with some imagination, about both, as related), but quickly to be discarded, I am and never have been sure what to make of these. They seem at once resonant with meaning, and I imagine these are the kinds of nuggets on which whole stories are built, if not legends, and at the same time, they simply point to the kind of anomalous facts we all have in our backgrounds. Accountable for, but never accounted in terms of the audit we make of our lives from time to time.

Perhaps it’s time this late in the course of my life to make something of them myself. So I will present the facts here, and see where I go with them in future installments. Of course, if they are true and there is no one left I know of or am in contact with to verify these tidbits of information, I like to think that somehow, however haphazardly, they obviously have already made something of themselves in me, without my help, or anyone else’s.

They are these.

For one, my paternal grandparents were related. It was always supposed in my family they were cousins. How or through what lines I have no idea at this point, and I am not sure how successful any research might be into records about shtetl Jews from the turn of the last century in the Pale of Settlement. I only know, actually, that what I was told for certain was that they, grandfather Joseph and grandmother Chaia (or Ida, as she was called in English) had the same surname, now mine, of Dinin. That’s what it was in Ukraine. That’s what it still is.

Second, and I wish I could remember the context for my learning this fact, but my father was alleged to have, on one side of his body, a “double kidney.” In fact, this is a common anomaly, the literature says, usually that manifests itself as problematic only in children, and adults with it live normally. It is called, to be accurate, duplex kidney. In effect, he had three kidneys. The normal allotment on one side, and on the other side twice the complement of organ (with twice the number of ureters). It was not enlarged or of mega proportions as I understood it. Rather he had twin kidneys, in effect, on that side. Apparently both worked, or only one, or they alternated. However I was never told outright that he had anything other than normal kidney function.

Aside from the emergent theme in these two otherwise unrelated family traits and acts of the mystery of twinship, of the other, of the nature of the self and where the question of redundancy fits in mystery, the latter fact has proven to be the one of more than passing interest to me. I, who have two ordinary kidneys (and nothing else supernumerary I hasten to add, for the sake of those still stuck on my kissing cousin granny and grandpa), have also been cursed—though maybe I shouldn’t use that word, even for the color it adds—with one, possibly two, related afflictions.

One is kidney stones, with which I have been struck at two times, actually three, in my adult life. I also have gout, a metabolic disorder involving the body’s ability to filter out excessive purines, found naturally in many kinds of food—good, tasty, savory, and nutritious foods, otherwise part of many very healthy diets—both animal and vegetable. It is, of course, the job of the kidneys to filter the blood many things no longer of use to the running of the machine of our physical being, including purines.

Simple facts have a way of leading us to unsuspected places. Nothing at this stage of my life is unexpected, but still, it feels like an adventure to explore the first of these facts I have been keeping alive in my memory for so long. More reports to come.

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