The family: mine that is, on one side. If this doesn’t say “Russia” to you, before it says anything else, you are invited to a serious discussion at our mutual convenience.
It’s taken all this time (and, as trigger, after reading a Louis Menand book review cum essay about Franz Boas and his followers) to understand that in saying I am an ethnic Jew, it means not that my ethnicity is Jewish. My first pass at understanding this in broad terms is that religion has not much at all to do with ethnography or ethnology (Jews, in short or in long, are not the same the world over).
Rather I am of a certain ethnic group, probably with some specificity, the first generation of Eastern European immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in the last wave of migration from that region to the United States that was admitted more or less without negotiable impediment.
My parents both were from Ukraine/Belarus, dating from a time that these distinctions were not made geopolitically. These nations, as they are recognized now, were all part of Russia. And being right on the border, or as near, with Poland, there is some dispute as to the exact way in which such derivation should be characterized precisely. Saying the “Pale of Settlement” covers a lot of inexactitude.
In any event, they both came from families that lived in small towns, definitely not shtetls (though my father did a good job of describing life during his boyhood in remarkably similar ways to the descriptions embedded in classic shtetl literature – Sholem Aleichem, and the like). And so, though there was some resonance, life was not exactly Anetevka and there were no fiddlers perched precariously on thatched roofs. There were resonances for sure, but my father and his entire family were used to many what I would call bourgeois amenities.
He spoke with equal fervor of the “emporium” (I’m sure he used that word at least once) owned by my grandmother’s relatives. It was a capacious store with many departments and sold a wide variety of goods, from the pickles in barrels and caviar (packed in similar fashion, though displayed and dispensed and sold in ways he never specified) to all manner of household goods, clothing, and the like.
My father told me of forebears (though from how many generations back he did not say) who were “magistrates,” a term he meant to be understood as interchangeable with judge—which in many jurisdictions, including current ones, is not an unfair definition. The reason this came up at all, aside from a current of motifs in his stories about his childhood that were evidentiary of the somehow higher or greater status accorded to holders of our family name, was to make a reasonable case for the etymological roots of that last name. He said one theory (apparently held by the clan’s wise men; though he never singled out these individuals as to identity) was that, the Hebrew word for law being “din”… as in “beth din” (house of the law) and these being Jewish judges, the intimation was that the laws used by them to adjudicate matters before them were talmudic derived from Torah, and there you have it. Though the intermediary steps of how these magistrates came to acquire the family name Dinin, as if they themselves embodied these laws, was also never spelled out.
I have potentially valid blood relations with other Russian emigré descendants who settled not only in this country, but even more favorably (given the coincidence of localities from which we can trace our family roots, plus the still relative singularity of the last name) in Israel. These latter, though the choice was voluntary as to the appropriate orthography of the surname, call themselves Dinim, which, in fact, is more consistent with the orthography of Hebrew plural spellings and pronunciation.
With a contemporaneity that extends back at least as far as my paternal grandparents’ births, which occurred in the waning decades of the nineteenth century—which makes it now at least 140 years—the name was spelled Dinin.
I’ve had reason to advert in this space to the blog of my friend Dom Capossela. He’s one of my oldest friends, as in one of the most long-lived friendships I’ve come to treasure. We go back to the late 60s, when I met him and his former wife, on the cusp of beginning a new phase of their lives, opening a new restaurant.
Of late, that is, as of about nine months in a serious way, he has discovered the wonders of the internet and plunged in with all limbs. It’s something of a high wire act, given that he has persisted with a daily posting on his blog, every day since. He’s now up to over 233 days and counting. He has quite a following – a testament to his persistence and tenacity. He has admittedly very few skills, especially in a practical way, in the area of computer science and despite the challenge hangs in there, taking assistance where he can find it. I’ve been known to volunteer.
In any event, aside from providing an alternative outlet for my own writing – there have been a number of entries on this blog, and in other places where I publish, when I have cross-posted as well to Dom’s blog. He expresses great, heart-felt, and sincere appreciation for these contributions, many of which start out as spontaneous email messages from me to him privately, most often in response to some trigger in the content of his blog. I read it first because he’s my friend, and I find I have an unquestioning interest (that is, I don’t doubt my own interests, and therefore I don’t question them; I question him plenty, as in, “do you know what you did there…?”). I continue to read because out of some kind of synergy, or perhaps it’s some kind of geriatric symbiosis (he’s older than me by about four years, and, as I like to joke, he keeps gaining on me) much of what he chooses to write about is stimulating of thoughts about my own life and experiences, and somehow, equally spontaneously, they pour out of me. That’s how Dom puts it, and I’ll paraphrase, “it’s amazing; it just pours out of you, just like that.” I do clean it up a bit before I post it, but it’s pretty much true, that what you see here is what came out of me.
I always accept the proposition that maybe that’s evident enough and I shouldn’t be so proud of myself.
I don’t know about pride. But I do know that my next urge is always to share it, And so here it is.
Most recently, that is, in the last few days, maybe three, maybe four, Dom had occasion to comment on several subjects that were inadvertent prompts for me.
Somehow the subject of games and puzzles came up and he had occasion to opine, as he characteristically does, so enthusiastically, “who doesn’t like puzzles and games?” So, first you’ll see my answer.
Second, and in a continuing suite of reminiscences about his childhood which seems to vary in tone from recollections of the “mean streets” of the North End of Boston in the 50s, to quite touching, almost, but not quite sentimental memories about that same boyhood and his bumptious family life. It’s with a significant pride that he recalls running and playing on the streets of that ghetto (not meant as anything but descriptive; read no negative connotations in the usage, as the word still has a perfectly good denotation), and in the most recent portrayal he speaks of ceding the streets to no one. Generally bereft of automobiles, which were a luxury in that neighborhood, those streets and alleys constituted the perpetual playground for any number of games and sports (there’s that theme again) and the only interruption which was unquestioned was for the unchallenged passage of certain vehicles, usually a “Cadillac with Rhode Island plates,” to which obeisance was given silently and observantly.
And that’s the second subject I’ll address in my own terms as it called up details of my own life at about the same time.
Puzzles and Games
There’s not much inherently interesting, I don’t think, in imparting the knowledge, regarding “puzzles and games,” that I hate puzzles and games, and always did. Even as a kid. Smacked too much of competition for no other reason than to compete. I somehow knew prematurely that life was a rat race and, as Fran Lebowitz long since pointed out (I think it was she, it may have been Lily Tomlin – certain authorities, according to the internet, aver the origin of the statement was actually William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain of Yale University), even if you win, you’re still a rat. Why look for ways to get anxious about existential proxies for survival.
Whatever my predilections, I do remember playing Scrabble with my two grown cousins, daughters of my Cousin Fannie, who lived near us in the Bronx and the relative we were most likely to visit when that cyclic urge to break bread with blood ties came over us. Anyway, both Beverly and Harriet were school teachers. I had a crush on both of them, but especially Harriet, the darker one. She was maybe 22 or 23 back then. Beverly was a couple of years older. I think Beverly had already gotten married. I was, at best, nine. I was also the current really precocious one in the family. At least to the extent that we all need an identity, and that was mine. The little saturnine genius.
Anyway, somehow or other, we seemed always to end up playing Scrabble. I think my animus about games went into suspension with these games as, miraculously, I always seemed to win. They were very convincing. And maybe I did beat them, and at worst they simply didn’t try very hard. It honestly never occurred to me until I was in my late 20s or maybe even my 30s, and had had some harrowing experiences already with women. Two failed marriages by the time I was 35 will do that to you, and each of my errant wives were young – you guessed it – maybe about 22 or 23, as the critical age. One of them was that age when she decided to have an affair. The other was barely that age when I met her. Anyway, it wasn’t until I was only a bit older, and as for wiser, I’ll be generous and call it a bit, that it occurred to me that the fabulous Menn sisters (that was the family name; Fannie was a widow, and my cousin’s late husband – Fannie was a Dinin, like me – was named Hyman Menn) had allowed me to win, because they were teachers of young children, and they knew, preternaturally, that’s what you do. Now I think, who knows? We moved to Providence soon after that, and Harriet got married to Herb, and that was the end of the occasional Scrabble games.
“Cadillac with Rhode Island plates”
Cadillac with Massachusetts plates (photo credit: Fotolia/Hemmings 1949 Cadillac Club Coupe)
The address we moved to in Providence, on the East Side, essentially a Jewish enclave that covered about one and-a-half square miles, was 44 Sargent Avenue. A very modest one-family dwelling that sat on a very odd-shaped, tiny lot that itself was situated at the point where the street took an odd jog, very slightly, to the right as you proceeded uphill, which meant it was nearly impossible to park straight and parallel with the curb right in front of our house. It made other aspects of living there – because we were on the serious part of the rise of the hill all the houses sat on, the elevation of the left side of our house was probably about two feet higher than the right side. The house was built square and level, of course, but it made our basement and the single car garage on the right-hand side of the house truly subterranean. They could only exist as a result of being on that rise, as the lot wasn’t wide enough, and if they scooped out a driveway on an incline, which they did, and built the house into the hillside, which they did, they could tuck a garage in, barely wider than a car and which a nervous, not too skilled driver, like my father, always found a challenge – a challenge he would lose about twice a year – to avoid scraping one side, usually the right side, of our automobile on the frame of the overhead door. It also meant having to back out of the driveway blind almost directly into the street. Being situated on that jog in the street, there usually wasn’t anyone else interested in trying to park there. This meant that the free and clear part of what was otherwise a fairly narrow street to begin with suddenly seemed to widen, so that cars proceeding up the hill would speed up just a tiny bit, and this meant having to be that much extra cautious tentatively backing out of our blind driveway. My father did it for nearly 30 years, into his 80s, until he suddenly got sage and gave up driving altogether.
But this, in retrospect, was only a metaphorical representation, real enough for sure, but only a metaphor, for what I experienced as a displaced child of the Bronx as the precariousness of my otherwise mild-seeming, innocuous ‘hood. It turned out, we learned quickly as we acquainted ourselves with our community, our new neighbors immediately across our narrow street were the Gotz family. They were a couple who lived on the ground floor dwelling of their duplex. On the second floor, with its own entrance and street address, lived Mrs. Gotz’s mother, hardly ever seen as she was a semi-invalid. The other part of her bifurcated life appeared from her behavior when she did present herself in public to be that of a demented person. Or maybe her half-chronic condition was dementia, and she and her dear ones were merely spending their time waiting for the other shoe, or whatever article it was, to drop. She would occasionally appear on the second-floor porch of her apartment and yell at whoever was in the street. If you were a child you learned what the sensation associated with the word “chilling” was, as she would suddenly, breaking the diurnal calm that usually prevailed on Sargent Avenue, start shrieking and yelling. At other times, she was docile and sweet and even attentive, seemingly focused. She took a genuine interest in our lives as little kids, and we, or at least I, enjoyed these peaceful hiatuses into sanity.
The Gotzes somehow persevered with this generational impediment. Usually we saw them if we saw them at all – aside from appearances, not a little like a kind of modest royalty making an audience with their public, on patriotic occasions when everyone was home from work and school and they would stand around idly, in clement weather, on their front porch – on bundling themselves and their son, Manny, into the family sedan in their driveway (a long straight shot, nice and wide, and on level ground, into a spacious two car garage that sat at the rear of their sizable lot, with a generous view of the street and oncoming traffic). And they would putter off to god knows what destinations. They kept to themselves.
Manny was adopted. This was one of those bits of common knowledge that you seemed to assimilate out of the very atmosphere bounded by the street. I don’t remember anyone telling me, or making a big deal of it.
It was a fortuitous match, parents to child, as Manny had the same dark, one might call it swarthy, complexion as his compactly built brooding father – and later in his development it grew to incorporate the quality of being unusually hirsute, with very dark hair growing thickly on his head and his face, and, as was revealed in summer, on his trunk-like arms and legs. Manny was short. Perhaps squat was a better descriptor, as he was always fairly powerfully built. This was one factor in my sense of precariousness, also part of that atmosphere. I was, it almost goes without saying, of a more ectomorphic configuration, tall and skinny. One could say slight. I thought of myself as slight. Except I was so tall for my age, until adolescence when, seemingly, all of my friends caught up with me. Except Manny.
Not that Manny was exactly a friend, or a playmate. He was about three years older than me. I don’t know who he “played” with. He was, as I suggested, quiet, and kept to himself. I can remember thinking quite clearly that I was ill disposed to invite him, however I might have done that, to join the wholly imaginary exercises, a kind of precursor to cosplay, as we did it in our street clothes with only a few props, though the scenarios in our minds were clear enough, of combat (essentially re-enactments of the Korean War, rumbling rapidly into the past, though it had ended only three years prior to our move to Providence). Or they might be the stock tableaux, part of our repertoire, fed by a diet of Hollywood features that were prominent through the 40s and 50s, of belligerent cowboy and Indian encounters. Most of these games involved toy pistols and make-shift bows without arrows. They mainly consisted of a lot of running around, hiding poorly behind physical obstacles, and making gun fire noises with our mouths. Manny simply wasn’t the type. You developed your own style of dying: arrow to the neck, gut shot… usually very dramatically and drawn out.
A transformative incident occurred, after not too many years had passed. I was barely into my scholarly career in junior high school, a couple of years or three into our New England sojourn, that somehow or other, again through that peculiar osmotic acquisition of certain everyday facts about the existence of other residents, even as you assiduously avoided having much contact with them, that Manny had a fairly constant companion. Were they not well into their adolescence, I might be tempted to describe them as playmates, though there was only the most sinister quality, one way or another – yet another, a different form of intuition – about their hanging out. Their most noticeable singular feature, say if a policeman making routine inquiries were to ask if you noticed any distinguishing physical characteristics, was a propensity to present themselves in public with heavy, and unusually well-advanced for their ages, five o’clock shadow. Manny’s buddy, who was a little older, and already had a driver’s license – because Manny had by then stopped traveling with his parents in the sedan, and was now in the company of his constant friend; they would go off together, Manny exiting his house with a furtive air, sometimes bull-like, sometimes with a gentle if gruff grunt of farewell that he projected back through the open glass-windowed wood frame door into the perpetual darkness within. His friend was called, as transmitted by the local wireless telegraph, Ray.
Well, one day, the news came back to us, and seemed to have spread fairly quickly, and not surprisingly, as it constituted notoriety of such magnitude that it was worth reporting in the city’s newspaper of record, the Providence Journal-Bulletin. It seemed that Ray and Manny were “playing” (that was the word that sticks in my mind; I will swear it was reported to me deploying such a word choice). Ray had a weapon, a handgun, apparently a revolver, that he had borrowed from his father. He was proudly showing it to his friend when somehow or other it discharged, firing a bullet, which entered and then exited the fleshy part of Manny’s already ample mid-section. A flesh wound. As the crime shows of the 90s, about 35 years later, would teach us, a “through-and-through.” Manny was patched up and recovered quickly and life went back to the strange normal we had learned, previous to this incident, not to think too much about.
The one note to this story that was at once macabre and highly humorous, especially to the precocious posse of bar mitzvah boys of which I was one, was that, on seeing what he had done, and using what knowledge he had somehow only thus far poorly assimilated from his tutors in these matters, Ray decided that he’d better ditch the evidence, and he threw away the pistol he had “borrowed” from his father. He dropped it into “the sewer,” which is to say, he dropped it into a convenient storm drain cut into the gutter of the street. I have always imagined this bizarre and clownish scenario had come to pass in the dark recesses of 43/45 Sargent Avenue, which did have a storm drain cut into the gutter in front of it, and which I never looked at in the same way every again; but it’s not clear to me, after all this time, where the incident did, in fact, occur… it would have been just as stupid whatever the setting.
The most chilling aspect of this anecdote was what was also general knowledge, kind of part of the legend of that crazy town, belying its vaguely Wild West ancestry, Providence RI. Bluntly stated, Ray was, to give his full name, Raymond Patriarca Jr., son of the mob boss of Federal Hill, the Italian-American enclave in downtown Providence. I have never to my knowledge laid eyes on Mr. Patriarca, though his power and influence always preceded him. My tenure in Providence was brief, only seven years, taking me from childhood to my teen years, when I abruptly left to take up my precocious academic career in Boston, the Athens of America. I say all this with a somewhat sardonic tone, because neither city had yet abandoned, not in 1963, its still decrepit conditions of municipal decay and metropolitan inanition. It took ethnic politicians, Italians and Irishmen, to revive them and bring them to a true state of renaissance.
In the meantime, certainly in the early 60s and into the 70s, it seemed to me, as little as I paid attention to these matters, that what real power there was, was in Boston, which seemed to be ascendant in terms of mob rule of any other part of New England. It wasn’t until the time I lived briefly in the North End, the Federal Hill of the larger city, in the 80s that I learned that it may have been a fact that the local mob boss in that part of town (as opposed to the Irish syndicate that ruled Southie) was a man named Jerry Angiulo, but even he, back in the day, reported to the big boss of New England, Raymond Patriarca, who would appear from time to time, on expeditions, probably something like a papal visit, to the teeming streets of the North End, so the locals could pay their respects.
It made me think of my childhood, of course, and in my feverish and anxiety-laden imagination, my childhood near-misses.
[Disclosure: Some facts and proper names have been changed for purposes of fictionalization]
The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.
Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.
One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.
Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for schmoozing.
After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, prestigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.
For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.
Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.
That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.
In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.
Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.
When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.
Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening.
Seeing my friend enter, restaurant staff faces brightened. They said his name and greeted him hands outstretched. There is little that compares to being known as one in the party of greatness, however parochially it may be defined. And there is nothing strictly parochial about the most fundamental of affinities: true friendship. Not only were we glad to be in a literally world-famous restaurant, about to be seated to dine. We were glad to be in the select company of those recognized as “one of us.” Moreover, I was glad, petty as it was at bottom, that all this greatness was not for a single centavo to be at my expense. We were invited as Phil’s guests.
He was paid semi-handsomely for his exertions on the part of the turkey growers, as well as other clients. A significant part of his emolument was a personal expense account, on the one hand potentially taxable as income, on the other, amounting to such a munificent sum annually that strategically his bosses put him in the position of using it up, according to that poetic bit of doggerel philosophy, “use it or lose it.” So that night, he was showing an important IBM executive and her husband his appreciation in the form of a very nice dinner. And he simply refused my participation.
There was another remarkable occurrence, long before food began appearing systematically and with a certain arcane periodicity at the table; clearly not as a dish was ready, and clearly not some rigid mechanical interval. Linda had ordered the vegetarian “Degustation,” which is what fancy places such as this called what has become the prosaic “tasting menu” (and more on that phrase later), while I had the default omnivore’s portions. Not at all alike, each course was, nevertheless, perfectly in sync with all components. But that memorable presence I alluded to was not substantive and plated, so much as maternal. No other than Charlie Trotter’s mother appeared at our table, warm, congenial, welcoming, with an aura that softened the somewhat austere ambiance of the decor.
Not tall. Not short. Not thin. Not heavy. Neither overtly stylish, and by no means haute couture, but appealing and modest, understated while at the same time very present. Her smile was genuine. Her hair, grey, was genuine. Her loving praise of her son’s cooking was genuine.
She seemed genuinely pleased we were there to partake of her son’s handiwork – more than that, of course, it was universally accorded to be overall the artisanship of food as attained by genius, with or without a mother’s validation. We were promised an evening of superlative wining and dining, but what became memorable in larger part, at least for me, was this note of grace and warmth. And all afforded by the simple gesture of having the chef’s mother glide around the room putting every guest at ease and in a positive frame of mind. It was singular, and in my experience, it has remained as much. Nothing speaks of being welcoming than to make people sincerely welcome.
By this point in my life I have eaten in thousands of establishments in North America and Europe. And surely the mother of more than one restaurateur or cook was somewhere in the vicinity, though not, to my perception, in strong evidence. None, other than Mrs. Trotter, ever introduced herself or otherwise made her presence known. I remember the meal that night most generally as overall a classic display of haute cuisine, brilliantly prepared and plated and presented with a level of service to match. But no one dish was so singular as to distinguish itself or the evening – to make it memorable as only a unique detail can render one’s clear recollection – as much as the presence of that pleasant woman of, shall I say, advanced middle age, gracefully introducing herself, announcing her preparedness to answer any question about the menu, or her son, and offering her assistance with meeting any reasonable need.
In case you haven’t picked up my gist, and an appalling lack of testimony about the menu, or the food it proffered, or the wine, or any of the no doubt fine details of smoothly functioning service, let me be clear. I frankly remember almost none of it.
I know we had, as I mentioned, the two menus on offer, one for omnivores and an alternative for vegetarians. I know there were eight courses – or was it ten – including the desserts, which I remember least of all. Not to suggest that the food we were given was not superb. I’ll stake my unsupported belief in it to say that it was. I just remember none of it.
The fault is no doubt mine. It takes quite a bit for me to remember specific dishes I’ve had, especially in venues I’d never been to before and to which I have never returned. And returning by now, for sure, would be impossible, because Chef Charlie died in 2013, of somewhat indeterminate causes given the vagueness of the reporting about the autopsy performed on him, aside from drugs or alcohol or foul play being ruled out, as well as the dismissal of any chance of a notorious rumored burst aneurysm on his brain.
His brilliance lives after him by lingering reputation, and more substantially in the form of several enduring cookery books. The one I prefer is the one he wrote about cooking at home, called straightforwardly enough, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Though the more defensible landmarks of his are a series of genre cookery books: one devoted to Seafood, one to Vegetables, one to Meat and Game, and, of course, one to Desserts. The more compendious general subject of his innovative way with classic dishes and the freshest ingredients, and titled simple, like the restaurant was, Charlie Trotter’s is still in print, in hardcover, after 24 years on the market, and five years after his death.
They all are enlivened with a quiet authority and assuredness about the food. Trotter was, as I have noted, known to be a perfectionist. He had a sure hand with the cooking, and a sure hand about how things should look on the plate, and how to taste once they arrived at ground zero, the diner’s palate. But getting there, for him, required the utmost care and preparedness.
Nowhere was this more evident at his restaurant than in the place that became the tableau and focus of what clear memories I had of that memorable dining experience. Not, as I have confessed, for the food, an evanescent collection of evidence in any event. And not even for that, I’ll admit, second-most memorable aspect of that evening, the engaging and warm presence of his mom – another deft touch on his part, accepting and also requiring her presence. A softening perhaps of the hard edge of his perfectionism and precisionism.
No, the most memorable part of the night came about with an invitation to tour the scene of the sorcery practiced every night in the fulfillment of ten measured courses of food. We were asked if we’d like to see the kitchen, and before anyone could say anything, I responded with an emphatic yes.
Entering was what I would have imagined it to have been like to enter the control room of a submarine in silent running, or given the amount of light and the sleekness of the overall design, it brought another kind of ship to mind. Something from the future, a starship’s bridge, with fewer seats and fewer dials and many hands on deck in immaculate whites.
What was most striking though was the silent operation. Sotto voce conversations; brief ones at that. No shouting. No scurrying. No wasted motion, though with all deliberate speed.
There was spotless stainless steel everywhere. Every station was well-lit. Every station was immaculate, even as they prepared meals for a dining room still full of patrons. Overall, the room was so quiet, I could hear the small printer that spit out short snippets quickly shorn from the lip of the machine and perused by a man, also in white, standing alone at the center of all the activity at the stations surrounding his post. The chef de cuisine.
He occasionally issued terse low-voiced commands to one cook here, or the garde manger there. It was more like he was coordinating a precise intensive operation, meant to save lives and not merely plate courses for some very indulged guests.
The air of calm and the steady intense intuitive sense I had of complete control under severe pressure never broke. As studiously as we observed the staff, no one changed stride, looked up or appeared interrupted. Discipline and order ruled, and as I say, proved far more impressive than the food. The fare had been exemplary, but the production of it – in a sense even more evanescent, because it existed only in time, possessed no mass or volume, but simply happened and was done. Altogether it was as much an unintended performance as a display of ingrained professionalism – yet repeated reliably and flawlessly six days a week.
I’ve had many great meals, and yet so few stand out. Usually the memorable dishes were individual; over a lifetime a scattered constellation of a great main course here, an unforgettable starter there. But only one kitchen operation stands out, akin to a great concert performance by a renowned orchestra start to finish, every movement perfection.
It’s possible, I suppose, for a particular dish to be so good it defies capture in the mind of anyone but the most practiced and refined connoisseur. I would never claim to be that, and I am prepared to be judged as one not capable of appreciating what appeared on the plates of a Charlie Trotter meal. And that’s the reason I suffer the anomaly of remembering a great meal, but being incapable of describing none of it from “amuse bouche” to the final sweet nothing of a mignardise.
But I have also seen many kitchens in full array during a meal, and there is still only the one I will never forget.
Well I’m tryin’ to get some sleep but these motel walls are cheap
Lincoln Duncan is my name
and here’s my song
here’s my song.
My father was a fisherman,
My mama was a fisherman’s friend,
And I was born in the boredom and the chowder;
So when I reached my prime
I left my home in the Maritimes
And headed down the turnpike for New England,
Sweet New England. —Paul Simon
Some children are prodigies. I like to think every child has some prodigious talent. Some parents think their children are prodigies in every way. Those parents should look a little closer.
My father always looked closely at me, and he wasn’t shy about suggesting there were ways in his eyes that I came up short. But from early on, there was one way he made clear that to him I had a precocity he admired. It made him laugh, which was a rare thing.
It concerned food. And even if not a demonstration of some gift, my obvious obsession with what I considered, at the age of seven, great food presaged my later life. I mean the one long after I left hearth and home.
How I developed a taste for beef, medium rare at that, I have no recollection, but some inner radar always alerted me to the opportunity to chow down. In retrospect it was probably not all that deep an intuition, so I don’t credit myself for that particular perspicacity. We mainly would go out to eat on weekends, because my father worked, of course, and excursions during the week were out of the question. In any event, weekends in and of themselves were only in the best sense triggering for little me. Saturday arrived and my taste buds tingled.
Portrait of the artist as a young restaurant critic
Probably our first, or at most our second, excursion on a brief road trip were primer enough for me to be alert to the potentiality for having meat. I know we went out often enough, and to a variety of destinations, that I quickly learned to indulge what has proven in the fullness of time to be a natural penchant for criticism. I thought I knew the difference between good and bad. Further, I was not shy to declare a particular meal to be prime or to have been a disappointing sub-par performance. As the case might be. The first time I declared my share of a bloody bit of steak to be “excellent,” I know my father burst out laughing, and not because I was being funny.
He immediately dubbed me “Duncan Howard.” It’s probably a designation that, as a review of a biography of my putative moniker states, needs explaining for most people under the age of 55. I’d make it even older, but that’s neither here nor there. With the age of the short memory of almost everyone, it’s best to explain it altogether.
Duncan Hines, Road Warrior and Cake Mixer
Duncan Hines was the name of a real person. A traveling salesman in his young manhood, and later. Hines loved driving the open road, and open it was in the 1920s and 1930s, when he did his major drumming (as the profession was called). In those days, not only were there no Interstates, there were few maps for the roadways that did exist. What he came to realize was there simply were no guides for travelers—whether itinerant and regular like him and all his sales brotherhood (I assume it was largely mostly a male profession), or occasional, for leisure weekends or the odd vacation excursion.
There simply was none of the apparatus for guidance we take for granted. Especially now in the age of the internet, when all we need do is reach in our pockets, and pull out a hand-sized device and instantaneously have access to, say, 4500 recommendations as to the best places to eat from here to Rangoon. There was no Tripadvisor.com. And to reach further back, to the ancient days of print, already nearly totally forgotten, there was no Fodor’s, not MobilGuides, and in this country there was certainly no Michelin guide (which has its own distinguished history, it’s true, and it dates back to 1900, but it helped *French* motorists, all 3000 of them back then, but only with information about the location of mechanics, gas stations, tire repair outlets, and the like; they didn’t begin listing restaurants until 1922, and ratings didn’t appear until four years after that).
Duncan Hines eventually took it into his head to let his fellow road warriors know, after his myriad experiences in hundreds of establishments had informed him, which were the best places for lodging or dining, and with the rarest of luck for both in a single venue. He turned it into a business, with the help of his wife. He was, at that point, it should be noted, 55 years old.
Duncan Hines, in an unattributed photo, designated Fair Use image in Wikipedia, the source.
In 1935 they prepared a book of listings for the benefit of friends, for a start, of hundreds of good restaurants – mainly local establishments, as there were but very few chains in those days. Hines was middle-aged, well into it, when he began his great work, and he had been on the road since at least the ’20s, plying his trade selling press time for a Chicago printer. That book about where to eat sold so well, he added another volume that recommended lodging. By the late 1940s he had a national newspaper column that appeared three times a week on a syndicated basis, called “Adventures in Good Eating at Home.” He had spread out his franchise by then, associating his name with the growing institution of home cooking. The column mainly featured recipes that the home cook could replicate from the restaurants he had come to know and recommend.
By 1953, which was the year my own burgeoning career as a junior version of the irrepressible Hines began, he had sold the use of his name to a partner who created a company to package products under that name to be sold in supermarkets and groceries. The “Duncan Hines” brand, which made its mark in particular with cake mixes, is still a familiar one. If anyone recognizes it, it’s as a cardboard box filled with flour, baking powder, and not much else.
The point is, so powerful was the brand that its other manifestation: recommendations to dine at a particular restaurant, were a guarantee to the consumer of a pleasing experience. And so people came to look for theelegantly lettered signs in black and white, as I remember them, hanging outside the door of a restaurant (or hotel), as near the main signage as possible. They declared simply that this establishment was “recommended by Duncan Hines.” And it became enough said.
In our family, my father insisted that we could not declare a meal dining out a success unless it received the imprimatur of myself. And he dubbed me, “Duncan Howard.” He’d ask as we finished, and around the time the check arrived, if this restaurant was “approved by Duncan Howard?” My sole criterion was the experience of eating that bloody bit of steer, and I was not generous in offering a recommendation. I have no memory, I’m sorry to say, as to whether I took into account the ambiance, what has come to be called in the Millennial shorthand, the “vibe” of the place.
My predilection for beef hasn’t subsided, though it’s sporadic, and I am not all that indulgent. Somewhere along the line from the seven year-old me to the present I learned about other cuts than sirloin, which was about the only one I knew back then, and it was I always ordered – again a source of mirth for my dad, who I think got a kick out of being able to afford to indulge his junior league restaurant critic of a son. These days, I order hanger steak when I see it on the bill of fare. This is a rare occurrence, so I don’t worry about compromising my smug self-assurance that I am not unduly endangering my health by consuming too much animal flesh.
Much more recently, I had occasion one spring about seven years ago to make regular visits to Philadelphia – what turned out to be prelude to my moving here permanently. Part of the routine that quickly ensued, and again, as a kind of reverberation of my youthful triggering associations, these excursions (at most a couple of hours portal to portal, from Boston to Philly) occurred on weekends. And I looked forward to them with an anticipation far transcendent of my childish fondness for red meat. We’ll just leave it at noting that these latter-day satisfactions had a much more powerful component of emotional fondness than they did any atavistic hunger for blood.
Downtown Philadelphia, showing City Hall, at 6am April 2011 from my room in Loews Hotel. (photo: Howard Dinin)
Nevertheless, not every moment was stocked to the brim with the fulfillments of deep amatory bliss – largely because the object of my hebdominal visits was not always free to get away. Yet, a man has to eat. And not knowing the city after a forty year absence – my last extended sojourn in Philly was as a graduate student – I was ignorant of its culinary riches, if any. And, ironically enough, given the theme of my writing today, I placed little stock in the recommendations of any self-appointed Anacharsis Cloots* on the internet, “citizens of humanity,” who seek to universalize and broaden the culinary interests of all by removing false criteria of old values and any mention of “the full dining experience.” I simply trusted no critic I could find readily who could point me to a decent meal.
What I needed was a revival of the Hines ethos. But what I gave myself was a slow tour, weekend by weekend, of the usual suspects to be found in any large cosmopolitan city. That’s right, one after another I knocked off the local installations of the finest chain steak houses in America: Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Capital Grille, and so forth. No place really stood out, but I can’t say either that I was ever disappointed. Not a bad piece of meat among them, though no hanger steak alas. All in all, for a few brief weeks of spring, Duncan Howard rose again.
*Anarcharsis Cloots was the pseudonymous identity of a Prussian nobleman who emerged as a singularly important figure of the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, baron de Cloots, argued strenulously (and donated a small fortune for fighters to do battle against tyranny) for the cause of world rule according to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” He preferred the title, by which he was known, as the orator of the human race.
When l was first married, for the first time, what is now more than half a lifetime ago, it was a freakish kind of autumn, especially in Philadelphia, the city nearest to our first brand-new apartment. Snow had already fallen three times in October, and by the middle of November, the streets were thick with sullied, mealy brown slush, renewed and augmented every other day by another deposit of wet flakes that fell, when it fell, seemingly ceaselessly, slowly, from the perpetually grey sky.
The weather did nothing to dampen our moods of bright expectancy mixed with apprehensions of great promise. We had just moved to our airy “railroad” flat a month before Thanksgiving, lugging my books and Ann’s clothes time after time after time up the long narrow staircase that led to the second floor of our building. Our only furniture, the pieces decided upon only after lengthy debate, and assiduous searching, were a double bed and a kitchen table with two ladder back chairs. Although married for a few months, we knew, if not consciously, where our priorities lay.
We had little thought of guests; an elegant service was a remote dream. We entertained ourselves. Our chief entertainment was ourselves. Not entirely blind to the opportunities provided by formal occasions, Ann and I had decided to make such an “occasion” out of Thanksgiving, our first opportunity to eat luxuriously at home, with no thought of the expense, or having to get up the next day for graduate school, in my case, or the telephone company, in Ann’s.
Out of a quirky, whimsical, habit of mind I was cultivating I had decided that instead of turkey we would dine on duck. There was no demur from Ann. Neither of us knew anything about duck. This somewhat precipitous change, for us in the throes of secretly longing for Thanksgiving dinners of many times past at home, lent an even more finely energized air to the days preceding the holiday.
We shopped on the Tuesday previous to Thanksgiving. While at the shopping center, and as was our ritual, we looked at the puppies in the pet shop next to the supermarket. This time there was a litter of eight week old kittens as well. In what was to become a rare moment of spontaneity we decided to buy one, then and there, after hurried and feverish consultation with our checkbook. “It’s all right,” I said, “we can do it.” Then came the anguish, welcome as it was, of choosing which Persian (so the sign on the cage said) to adopt. Two of them immediately attached themselves to us, one to each, as we communicated by fingertip through the narrowly spaced bars of their crates. Making a choice became unconscionable. Ann said nothing, yet I knew we either would have both or none.
I looked at her, and doing furious calculations in my head, borrowing mentally against Christmas funds not even earned yet or promised to us, said, “Let’s do it.” And in paroxysms of justification about not splitting up brother and sister, animals keeping each other company in the empty daytime apartment, and because, well, we deserved it from each other, Ann rather painlessly, it seemed, paid for our charges.
We proceeded to the supermarket, kittens in tow in a large cardboard box. Choosing the duck was considerably easier, with every frozen hulk a twin to the next. Despite the minute differences in weight, we chose the lightest, as if the economies of an ounce or two could belie our weltering feelings of ostentation and self-indulgence. At this stage, we were also not too sure that either of us really liked duck all that much, and a lighter bird surely meant less waste, if we discovered we didn’t.
We were thus slaves to my whim, and to a certain vague fear that somehow on this duck hinged a declaration that that we had greater things to look forward to than the stodginess of turkey at home, with the family, year after year, the migration done with the same regularity, out of the same primal urges as those of the beasts, and the birds of the air. In small fits of a kind of anxious intuition we mindfully fought the tyranny of our instincts.
One mishap in the aisles of the Acme Market almost squashed our vain hopes for the day and our general mood of anxious ebullience as surely as the groceries we were buying, piled ever carelessly higher and higher on top of the lid of the box holding our two new family members, suddenly crushed the container. Certainly, we both imagined in the first few fearful moments, it had also pulverized the little bodies inside. We madly threw the cans and boxes, and finally that weighty frozen carcass, out of the carriage. Before we could see anything, we heard the barely perceptible mewing from within.
Until we checked out, Ann kept the kittens in her coat; they were ruffled but unhurt. Chastened, we drove home, mumbling entreaties for forgiveness of the kittens, through yet another snow squall.
On Thanksgiving Day, Julia Child in hand (a book I had studied with far greater fastidiousness and attention that week, than any Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, or Imaginations of William Carlos Williams) we began the great preparation of the duck. It had been thawing solemnly, a monolith of avian flesh, for several days in our tiny refrigerator. I prepared the duck stock, the orange sauce, and the duck.
Ann made soup, and dessert, and the vegetables. We cooked slowly, ritualistically, to the raucously inappropriate music of The Beatles, recently defunct as a group, but the subject of interminable homages on the radio dial – stations desperate for respite from the standard holiday repertoire. We danced as we cooked. We sang. And outside the temperature dropped, as the snow fell silently. Our new kittens mainly slept, on our new bed in the last room of the long train of our flat.
We seemed to cook all day. Finally everything was ready, except for the duck. In the still unfamiliar to me, apparently criminally inefficient, oven the bird sputtered lowly, interminably. It took hours to brown. In my ignorance and inexperience, I didn’t dare raise the temperature. Night fell.
By now we were both fearful that the duck, as good as everything else was, would be as tough as old moose, and our first Thanksgiving would be spoiled. We set the table, cleaned the kitchen to spotlessness. The last traces of our labors were erased. Ann lit candles.
She disappeared into the bedroom, and re-emerged in a dress, a rare, a holiday, treat for me. Finally, as it happened, the duck was done.
We sat and we doled. Ann and I had used every dish that we owned, to serve this sauce or that garnish. As I carved the duck, the radio now silent, the snow having ceased, we realized simultaneously our fatigue. We were nearly too tired to chew, our energies spent, our excitement dissipated. We had a slice or two of duck, a bit of sauce, some peas. It was delicious, better really than we had in the end expected, but we hurriedly surrendered. We went to the bedroom to sleep.
While we lay there, me next to my wife, on our new bed, I knew somehow in my last wakeful moments that I had begun the process leading to some future atonement. Our meal lay on the kitchen table in the darkness, to be cleaned up the next day; very small penance for what felt like a much greater reckoning. With hardly an effort I turned my head to gaze toward the window, bare of shades or blinds or drapes. The sky had cleared completely. Suddenly and unaccountably alert, I watched as the moon, throwing powerful analytic beams into our bedroom, rose beyond the frame of the opening, rose out of my range of vision. A wind rose and blew powdery billows of snow out of the branches of unseen trees. Just as abruptly it fell.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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
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 hip café in Montpelier, Vermont.
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