Safety in the Time of Covid-19

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

[written May 23, 2020, barely two months into lockdown for social distancing]

The convention is to tell children they are safe, meaning to convey to them that you are protecting them from harm of any kind, and that nothing can come and hurt them (in the words of the Sondheim song, “not while I’m around”).

For ourselves of course, it’s long since that “safe” has taken on an increasingly notional application of meaning. Now, even cautious political leaders, I mean mainly our mayors and governors (determining the highly localized constraints on movement and behavior, mainly socially, to be applied to the citizens in their jurisdiction), are speaking of safety with a largely elastic and relative set of connotations applied.

The degree of safety effectiveness of proposed loosened measures are purely a function of assumptions about data regarding the virus and its impacts, none of which has been accepted by anyone as unquestionably accurate, including the most credible and esteemed of scientists and scientific bodies.

When we now talk about safety in the context of loosening constraints, of “re-opening” society (which mainly means opening again to the public previous temporarily shuttered commercial and public-access venues for any number of socially compelling functions), we are not talking about safety in children’s terms. We are talking about a manageable and acceptable level of increased risk of exposure and infection unless the protocols for engagement by individuals with other individuals – never mind crowds – are followed more or less immaculately and conscientiously at all times in all circumstances.

Let’s face it. To be sure, there is no safety for anyone who will not accept a level of risk that in practical terms means that any participation in a return to what, for the rhetorical convenience of the term that we all somehow still understand, I’ll call “normal,” will mean there is still a chance of contracting the illness, and all that may befall themself thereby afterward. Let’s say the risk is much less than when we were still circulating, with the virus already being transmitted communally, and we were taking no precautions whatsoever. But there will never be perfect safety, or anything close to it, with no risk of infection and its potential complications, until the disease is effectively eradicated, or there is a cure that is at an even greater level of efficacy than the most minimal risk defines, or there is a vaccine that works successfully in a similarly high number of participants who submit to its application.

We’ve already been told (Dr. Fauci can’t seem to keep himself from saying it repeatedly – for what it’s worth, I believe him) the disease will never go away. At best we can hope for a kind of virtual dormancy for a very, an unpredictably, long time.

In the meantime, I think it’s best that what we’ve already been told are the best practices – which have defined the baseline definition of protocols for sheltering in place – for reducing the risk of infection remain the best practices. Especially so, as some significant portion (which will no doubt grow, contemporary human nature, and the American character, being what it is) of the populace increasingly goes out and about.

I know what I intend to do, and I count myself, and recognize and admit freely, that I am privileged and fortunate that for the time being I am in a position to do so. Moreover, and I admit this too, I am less bothered by the prospect of a prolonged, much more prolonged than heretofore to this moment so far this winter and spring, period of, let’s face it, isolation and limited or circumscribed social engagement, than apparently a lot of people (most?) are.

I can’t help thinking of the tales of privation and unnervingly great risk to life and health that were imposed by the conditions in certain places in the world for a significant number of people during the last world war. That was years. We face no such somewhat indeterminate prolongation of the burdens of real existential threats, beyond our individual capacity to mitigate or control them. And of course, if one has been paying attention for the last period of history (take as large a slice, up to the 75 years since that second world war ended, as you like) there have been places in the world that at any given time, people have had their very lives under siege one way or another – utterly beyond their control – for unpredictably long periods of horror and anguish.

I can take an admittedly hard to predict number of months, while people in far better position to something ameliorative struggle to produce a working solution, while I sequester myself, with no lack of immediate and adequate comfort and nourishment. I’d rather be free. But my life, in this case, under this threat, so much a determinant of the behavior of millions of people I was suspect of – not for stupidity and lack of caring on their part, but for their lack of attention and discipline and, yes, sometimes, forgetfulness, if not simple childish crankiness – I can, quite literally, live with staying away from them.

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Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Harvard University tells us that its esteemed main library alone, in its system of dozens of libraries—Widener Memorial Library—has stacks of books accessible to those with appropriate ID that measure 57 miles of shelves. They house three million volumes, they say, and occupy ten levels on the five floors, plus subterranean spaces, that comprise the main building.

I have appropriate ID, as an alumnus of the graduate school, and when I lived a mere seven-minute walk from the porticoed main entrance in the fabled Harvard Yard, I would pay the statutory fees of $200 a year to obtain a precious special borrower’s pass. This afforded me entry at the designated portals to the book storage areas, with guards checking my credentials, like passport control.

Indeed, it was the accessibility of the campus, not to mention, at the time, in the mid-1980s, the 35, plus-or-minus, bookstores within a 1⁄2 mile radius of Harvard Square in Cambridge, that induced me to choose the somewhat pricey dwelling I proceeded to occupy for the better part of the next 25 years.

It was a lot of money, let’s say, to invest in ensuring I would have constant and virtually contiguous proximity to my many suppliers, if not all day and all night, then a significant percentage of both, in case I needed a fix. I never regretted it, nor the spending of many thousands more year after year, to feed my wanton appetite.

I have to face up to it. My name is Howard. I am a book addict.

It started out when I was a sprout, barely a year or two from a toddler. I demanded being read to, and in time came to claim I too could read on my own. My sister, my usual storyteller, had eight years advantage in how to be a schemer and saw through my ploy before I even began to “prove it.”

“Here,” she said, “start reading,” opening the book to a random page and putting it in my little boy lap. “No!” I protested. “I have to start from the beginning.” For many, a resonant kind of familial memory, repeated countless times. My memory hasn’t improved, but a year after the incident in question, I could indeed read unassisted, and the question of whether I was clever as well as being very cute was moot.

I already had my preferences, usually identified by the publisher. Even as a five-year-old, I thought Little Golden Books were a joke. Most of them for sissies (I wasn’t sophisticated enough yet to differentiate a lack of imagination from sissyhood). Though I was partial to certain volumes. “The Little Engine That Could” can still manage to evoke some stress as the story chugs toward its climactic resolution.

After that, I was truly on my own. I had, as I know only in retrospect, definite but unpredictable preferences. I adored The Wind in the Willows. Still do. Black Beauty, not so much. Could never get past the first page, and still haven’t read it, 70 years later.

Along with the behaviors of an iconoclastic personality type, my reading career pretty much follows in the same fashion. Especially after I started hitting the hard stuff. You know. What we now call “creative nonfiction.” When I read, at age 15, all 1,249 pages of William L. Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in the year of its publication, there was no looking back. You know I was headed for deeper mind-altering texts. That’s right, I became an English major, and it was F.R. Leavis and Northrop Frye all the way to graduate school. Where I wrestled with the psychical effects of what they keep locked away and only refer to by its initials. I mean Ph.D. materials. Don’t be shocked, but I devoured The Cantos of Ezra Pound, Ulysses, of course, but also the frightening consciousness distorting run-on sentences of Finnegans Wake.

And it continues even to the present. I do very little of the really addictive texts— but I still can’t break my obsessive need for more and more books, of even the mildest sort. And I keep buying, and the shelves get full, and horizontal surfaces get covered with literal stacks of books (very much shorter than those miles and miles of the Widener, but tall enough to lean and tumble over on a tabletop). But not quite three million. Not even close.

But plenty of books to fill many linear feet of shelves, enough that virtually every room in the house, save the kitchen and the five bathrooms, has its complement of shelves filled with books. Maybe not measured in miles, because we’re still working on our first-mile marker, having accumulated a total of about 3000 books, which is a good 300 feet. A football field.

A perusal of the library in its present state will permit one true observation. It’s eclectic. As long as it’s in book form, I’m interested. But clearly, I have my favorites. And clearly, there is much work to do by way of sorting and organizing. A mere glance at just four shelves on an atypically narrow set of shelve is revealing. These shelves sit on a landing between two of our three stories above ground. Like Widener, we have a basement (storage for books, among other things), but only one level to their four. However, the living space above is filled with books, as I first pointed out.

These four shelves are but some of a total of nine in this unit, being seven feet tall. You’ll see I read not only several authors but many works of each of them. There’s Ellen Gilchrist, there’s Nick Hornby, there’s Sedaris, and, inevitably, there’s Philip Roth, who wrote for over 60 years, and this collection of 13, is only a third of the total he did write. And yet, only a fraction of what I do own, the others tucked away randomly on other shelves, in other rooms. To be gathered and rearranged and managed via no other system of rhyme or reason but my memory of where I think I remember seeing the others, languishing perhaps next to a book of poetry or a foundational text of 20th-century critical literary theory (exempla of which you’ll see in this photo). Numbers would help, if I had more books, perhaps, making the LOC cataloging system a possible choice.

However, even with all these books, and plenty more waiting to be shelved, once there are shelves acquired to receive them, the effort at categorization, though logical, would be onerous and probably, knowing myself and my predilections, a thoroughly unpleasant effort, even after achieving the satisfaction of completion. There are two titles in this photo, I noticed after examining the evidence more closely, that bespeak the conundrum and the trials of my obsession. One is a classic in our time, spelling out (starting with the title). The narrative relates the joys and uncertainties of a French literary movement based on the philosophy and practices of the pataphysician. Pataphysics, in case you don’t know, is understood as the philosophy of the absurd, and by extension, since it was first invented (or invoked) by the French surrealist writer and humorist, Alfred Jarry (c. 1873-1907), through usage—especially as transmitted through the works of mainly French writers and linguistic experimentation in that language—it consists of pseudoscientific or pseudo-metaphysical nonsense. I’ll put it this way, it makes me think of the sweet and silly hijinks of the film Amélie. And, it should go without saying, sparse as the pataphysical canon may be, it is a keystone to my lifelong interest in life as reflected in books.

This may account for the insane manifestations of my affliction, shared as it is by, doubtless, thousands, if not some higher order of magnitude than that, of book maniacs, whose history is recorded for further study in that other volume I alluded to on my shelves (and a bestseller itself when published not that long ago), A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.

Guilty. Commit me.

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Resetting the Normalcy Index

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutesbattered clock

It’s close to, but not quite, the time to press the start-button of the internal clock we’re all blessed with. It’s a memory timer, a special one. It doesn’t make it harder or easier to remember things. It’s a device that measures the time it takes for us to lose our sensory experience at the moment of an occurrence – be it a thought, a visceral reaction, or a conditioned response to some action or turn of events. I mean the time it takes for it to be more and more difficult to recall, never mind feel with the same spontaneous immediacy, just how bad it was.

There’s a general wisdom afoot, a not surprising one given the hegemony of domestic media in attracting and shaping our attention, that this is a particularly American phenomenon. It might not be; but merely the result of our great self-absorption… that and the media learned we aren’t very much interested in news about the rest of the world, real news.

The de facto result, if it’s not actually verifiably, as John Oliver likes to say, “objectively” true that, for us in the U.S., what else matters? It’s as if Europeans, say, for whatever reason, or the Koreans, or the Armenians, are much better at keeping alive in all their sharp intensity, their affective spikiness, the outrages visited upon them. But especially to remember the perpetrators and the depths of their perfidy and cruelty.

Even in very recent history, the effects of this peculiar kind of mnemonic anesthesia become manifest – more precisely, to becoming touchstones of how effectively and swiftly the anodyne development of the process occurs. There’s Nixon, of course, and in the course of his historical reconstruction how, merely 20 years after he left office in disgrace and within a whisker of becoming our first president to be criminally indicted, he would be eulogized by another President, Bill Clinton. In 1994, at Nixon’s funeral, Clinton said, and this was only halfway through the largely laudatory remarks, “He gave of himself with intelligence and energy and devotion to duty, and his entire country owes him a debt of gratitude for that service.”

Only six years after that, we voted into office the man whose tenure and whose conduct as the chief executive did, indeed, seem to eclipse the level of Nixonian transgression – in tenor, in inhumanity, in criminality. Then, we were barely more than a single administration away from seeing the back of George W. Bush, to the collective relief of a great many people, including not a few of those naturally disposed to look favorably on his politics and his policies before a new standard emerged. Trump was barely in office when what we saw with a rapidly diminishing view through the rear view mirror began to look like a poignant recollection of a better time in the context of what was suddenly a monstrous and – a new quality – inescapable present; for the first time, an omnipresent and pervasive presidency.

And once again, our standards for imagining the bottom of what had seemed in earlier, now nostalgic times, almost with that romantic quality of the long ago, that time we reserved for a sense of yesteryear, a fairy tale quality never to be recaptured, were transformed. There was that jocular meme, “Miss me yet?” and only one of the many artifacts that seemed to sprout spontaneously, like plants in a desert that hadn’t seen rain in century. Suddenly, it seemed sudden anyway, George W. Bush wasn’t so bad after all. How many of us have heard that, and how many times? And all it took was eight years.

While we’re resetting the clock, and calibrating our sensibilities – assured we’re on the verge of a new era of normalcy – while we’re waiting for the moment to start the timer going again, how long do you think it will be before we’ve reached that interior state of sensibilities that have settled in, content, like old sleeping dogs, and prodded to recall just how it was during the time of you know…? That terrible time… and we think, hmmm, maybe it wasn’t so terrible.rssrssby feather



Approximate Reading Time: < 1 minuteAnother playlist, particularly affecting. The first seven cuts are especially languid, without sentimentality. Supposedly a list chosen for me by Spotify algorithms, based on my favorites and saved choices. Read into that what you will based on what you hear.

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Eight Years of Obama vs. Who knows?

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutesThere are a number of people, I’m sure, who like me wondered for eight years how Republicans (and many others not disposed to being identified politically) could muster the energy continually to hate President Obama as much as they did. There was a surfeit of hate, sufficient to spill over even to the present, and it inspired the constant drumbeat of obstruction through his entire tenure, and beyond.

Perhaps now, with, if anything, a more definitive and, if anything, in a strange way a more substantive and self-evident provocation to such dire feelings and the need to resist and hinder in all manner of ways the agenda—malign in our view—we can have a better sense of where such sentiments and the fuel to sustain them derive.

All I’m saying is, if you find yourself wondering, as an increasingly transient and mountingly irrelevant thought – almost a quick dip into an all too brief salutary nostalgia for the bad acts of others, and how superior it makes you feel – how, and where, on earth people found a store of such powerful feelings with an attendant need to express them, ponder no further. Look only to your own human nature. We all have that store. We can debate all we want the rationality of what we will doggedly argue is the sound basis for triggering such malign feelings towards a leader (never mind that it is indeed an almost autonomic response to any politician who doesn’t hew to our individual sense of right and justice). The fact is, there is nothing to agonize over in terms of “understanding” another person’s feelings—too often seemingly the absolute obverse of our own on the same issues.

The problem we are suffering in our divisiveness – and we all play a part; if there’s a division, it’s nearly impossible to stand one’s ground in a space that isn’t defined by the line of discord – is that we spend all too much time straining to resolve our thoughts with those of the opposition, and always failing. The fault is in not recognizing, consciously and mindfully, I would suggest also heroically, that the place of commonality is in our feelings.

You might think that rancor, antagonism, derision, and dismissal are a poor atmosphere for seeking congress, congruence, and eventually compromise. But these are one true commonality we’ve got. On the one side we’ve got Obama, who is no longer in a position to effect the mayhem he was always accused of foisting on an innocent and hoodwinked electorate. On the other Trump, who has long since been declared terminally incompetent to discharge his duties as President, and who is about to push us that one extra measure of distance between us and the abyss.

There is no changing the nature of the agent of our scorn. Let’s put those personalities aside. Before finding a leader, some future Fortinbras, we must first make peace with those with whom we share feelings of malice for the target of our hatred. Then, and only then, maybe we can begin to discuss quietly, if however passionately, our grievances, our personal reasons for disquiet, the antagonists for our malaise at our own condition. Then and only then maybe we will be able to begin to see some other common ground.rssrssby feather


I’m Not Walter Benjamin, but Neither is He.

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

still looking for permission to write after all these years

Walter Benjamin passport photo

Passport photo [courtesy Walter Benjamin Archiv, Berlin.]

I’m too long in the tooth, which ones I have left, to be coming to these realizations, but I do have to keep reminding myself of certain things. Whenever I feel doubts and uncertainty, which is not a fugitive condition, but a constant presence it seems, it’s always in comparison to the known existence, that is, known to me, of any number of figures in history and the present time—figures I have no particular reason to which to compare myself, suffering as they do so much greater familiarity, if not fame, among a so much greater number of people.

However, what I have always *not* borne in mind, and more recently, having realized for the first time previously and not that long ago, but long enough, that it was so, I remember that in most instances (Mozart is a standout, except possibly in those difficult years when he labored in utter obscurity before he turned six) neither were any of them, I hope, at least not to themselves. When Walter Benjamin wrote or spoke I have no doubt he did so because of the particular ferment of his feelings about having something to say. It’s a condition, variously and infinitely variably experienced no doubt, that any creator, whether thinker, writer, artist, composer, to name just a few, has to be referring to in answering the question, “Why do you create?” The answer virtually invariably is, “because I have to.”

Nothing else has to be said by the likes of me to validate the common wisdom that there’s plenty of stuff that gets done “because it has to” that will never see much of the light of day. A glimpse here and there kindly given by dear ones and friends. The accidental glance by roving interested parties. The demi-perusal by the flaneurs of our culture, always looking for what’s new and engaging—not to mention the hordes who are looking, always looking, merely for something to stave off the lurking beasts of boredom and ennui.

Let’s say Walter Benjamin sat down to write, well, name your pick of what he wrote, and I’ll pick, almost arbitrarily (I just spent a whole four minutes looking it up) an essay, considered one of his more seminal, entitled, tellingly, “The Author as Producer.” However, let me say, I am more interested in his mere writing of it, not, at this time, precisely in what he wrote. It was originally a lecture to a body in Paris, typical of the 30s, called The Institute for the Study of Fascism. He gave it in 1934 when, admittedly, he had already gained some notice and attention for his efforts at assiduous and repeated and frequent publication. That he was interested in gaining a permanent position on the faculty of any institution in Europe, but none was to be given for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the unhappy coincidence in time of his roots producing him when the tide of European anti-Semitism was at increasing flow. However, his prolific outpouring and industrious inquiries were into all manner of what we now call cultural studies, when it was not merely pure philosophy dressed in some vernacular raiment. Neither here nor there in the end. He had to look, to inquire, to think, and finally to write and to speak.

He may have had intimations of the greatness of mind with which he was blessed, and then, as far as I know, he may not. Only Benjamin scholars and biographers would know, or maybe someday will know if they don’t. But if I had to guess, I would guess he suffered in his own way the same doubts and suspicions of self that many of us—I’ll speak, however, only for myself. What I’m driving at, to arrive, finally, at what I’m talking about here, is the matter of allowing himself the permission to continue, to plug, to, in that expression with great currency that to me has grown from being mildly humorous to being loathesome, “power through.”

He never stopped. That is, he didn’t, until he famously did stop, literally, killing himself at the frontier with Spain, in 1940, mid-route on what would likely have been a successful escape from Nazi Europe to the United States. We don’t know why, as far as I know. He had somehow bridged that murky body of water between the living if unconscious need to go forward and the dark shores of hopeless despair. However, I prefer to concentrate on his legacy, and take account of what he wrote in the simple facet of not having stopped himself from writing it because of any other sort of misgivings—if anything they validate the idea there is value in life, and repudiate, or at least turn away from the notion of existential futility and lack of meaning. What we will almost certainly never know if he had in mind specifically the prospect of not being allowed to do what he so clearly was compelled to do.

So, I try to inspire myself by bearing in mind, more and more consciously (until, I hope, it become an unconscious part of me, some species of belief), that I am as free to say what I think and to imagine it has worth of some kind, for me for a start, or why bother, and for others, because there is no sense in imagining that there is no value in anything unshared.

Whatever is done with, and finally thought of, whatever I create, especially whatever I write, is not for me to say, even with the vagaries of testamentary dictates on my part. It’s not within my power, even with the collective acceptance of the constraints of the law and the wishes of the departed, to control whether anything that I assume regularly, day to day, if not minute to minute, to be mine and to be disposed of or preserved as I see fit, will continue in a similar or better state of preservation after I’m gone. Writers have dictated that their work summarily be destroyed on their death (in many instances, already knowing in their lives they have gone unsung and unpublished) and have had these last wishes defied—to our benefit and pleasure. And writers have struggled for recognition, or let recognition and the necessary effort to attain it (as a general rule) go unattended in their lives, only to have their deaths herald an era of widespread if not universal exposure of their work, accompanied with great acclaim and even broader dissemination.

My thoughts are not about longevity or perpetuation, but about the legitimacy of my efforts now, today, and tomorrow, especially if I am inclined to make invidious comparisons—accurate or not is immaterial—with the work of others I admire who I know quite well did, at the time, expect or foresee exposure to a wider audience and studied appreciation. They may have wished for it, hoped for it, despaired over the lack of it, but it never kept them from carrying on, writing and continuing to write.rssrssby feather


On Charm—Are You Charming?

Approximate Reading Time: < 1 minute

Referencing a link on “Book of Life” website…

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Measuring My Life in Mustard Jars

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutesI was returning cleaned glassware and silver, as well as plates and cups, from the dishwasher to their appointed places. Somewhere short of the proverbial shock of recognition, certainly less than “revelation,” and even somewhat more homely and less self-congratulatory than an intellectual’s aperçu, what occurred to me was an insight that had never before registered. Enough time has passed in these dozen years that, in the course of a routine that I have followed almost unfailingly since acquiring my small maison de village in the south of France, I have bought a great quantity of one particular object as part of a fundamental list of staples. These are items so necessary they require a brief stop of our rental car even before arrival in the village for the first time in months, since the last sojourn, at a local supermarket. It is a very short list, and includes bottled water, milk (for milady’s coffee, as I drink it black), perhaps a 250 gram block of sweet butter (not wholly necessary, because never needed immediately), and finally, a jar of Dijon mustard, always the same brand, the prince of such condiments, Maille, and always in the original, undoctored, and very strong version. It is this jar, or I should say its many empty pristine brethren, that I found myself reshelving this morning.

The preferred size of mustard jar (preferred because I have never run out, with visits lasting as long as nearly three months) is the smallest sold in the local groceries. Packed in the same container it has been for years, a heavy glass cylinder, with thick walls, they can withstand a drop to the floor as long as it’s not tiled. They are incised deeply with a not too bad simulacrum of cut crystal design in a semi-scallop. In short, it is, once empty, a rather short vessel, fitting nicely in the hand, the perfectly old fashioned old-fashioned glass, 9 oz. capacity, for the manly drinker. It’s best not only for the eponymous cocktail of a rare venerability, but as well for the bracing shot of a 1½ ounce splash of good bourbon, or rye, or Scotch, with a cube or two that may, modestly, predispose the palate before dining. I say this despite what the French say about strong spirits before a meal. With galling illogic they think nothing of sucking down 3-4 cl of Pastis, a decoction of the same potency as the average grain spirits, no to mention reeking of herbs, prevalent among them being anise, and usually consumed in nearly the same volume, just before tucking in to the very same meal they say is spoiled by the typical modest American pick-me-up. Yet a pastis is still considered “the national drink of France.”

However, whatever our usual contrived cultural deviations from the habits of our French cousins compared to ourselves, I was speaking of the complement of glassware in my kitchen buffet/vaisselier. The glasses number about a dozen, and I wonder how this can be. It’s true I’ve owned the house, first with my late wife, and now with my new one, and there have been years of visits solo, whatever my marital status, for nearly 13 years. It’s a matter to give me pause, however old and original the realization, the passage of time noticed less in my consciousness of the actual passing, but in the accumulated evidence of the life occupied by the act of living during that interval. However, on average, there have been more than two trips a year on average during that period, and so, for one thing, there should be many more cocktail glasses clogging the shelves.

There are many glasses long gone to the recycling plant for sure, because as often as not, instead of emptying the jar and cleaning it in one last cycle of the dishwasher before pulling closed our great oaken front door for the last time that particular visit and turning the great skeletal key in its ancient lock, I have packed up the remaining condiment along with all the rest of the salvageable items from our larder, both sitting on counters, ripening, or keeping in hopes of consumption in the recesses of our small but serviceable refrigerator. These left-overs (or “remains” as the French call them) plus raw produce, butt-ends of cheeses, and a frozen steak or fish filet go to our friends, usually the innkeeper and his wife, Rudolf and Nicole, just across the way. If not for this particular token of largesse, the collection of glasses would overflow the capacity of the pine cupboard in which they are stored. I know this because we are clearly perpetually to be overrun by yogurt containers—the French seem to have a way of creating packaging that is as attractive as its contents, and as reusable as if intended for sale in their own right to begin with; we simply can’t bring ourselves to dispose of them, even as we despair of finding a suitable use consonant with our habits. If we were, say, more the herbal cultivators than we are, they would be ideal, for example, as pots for meal size portions of tarragon or parsley or thyme. I might add, for the edification of Americans who are used to buying their yoghurt in disposable or recyclable thin-walled polystyrene cups, French yoghurt worth bothering with is sold in glass jars or, even more enticingly and pleasurably, in actual enameled terra cotta pots—of a quality and heft that would command a reasonable price in an artists’ cooperative.

The point remains, returning to those mustard jars that have accumulated as the months and years have passed. Thoughts of time, time spent, time passing, and time to come are all somehow embedded in all these common, otherwise ordinary objects. The accrual of them, the easy unconscious charm of collecting is what it is. Whether labelled with some term of disparagement, like “pack rat,” or even with the seemingly neutral “collector” the fact to be addressed is the same. We are all collectors.

What is memory but a collection? And who are we if not our memory?

Whatever I may be, the thought strikes home looking at those mustard glasses that, conscious of it or not, my life has passed before me and it does, unconsciously every time I stand at the rustic buffet that holds my complement of housewares, silverware, everything but plates and cups, and draw spring water from a mammoth reservoir sitting on its countertop to fill the espresso maker every morning. However, this morning, as I pivot, glasses in hand, four of them, one to each of as many fingers, to the buffet from the small utility closet that houses staple items, groceries, booze, the hot water heater—all of what the French consider the cave, by which they mean what we would most likely call the pantry—plus our two major appliances in the kitchen, the fridge and the dishwasher, I am suddenly, as I started out saying, aware, almost tingling with the reflexive consciousness we call thinking. The next thought is if I am to imagine my life amounts to more than consumption of what the world has offered me, I’d best be mindful of what is no longer visible. Quite unmistakably, those mustard glasses are tokens, however ordinary and mundane, of the great negative capability of which Keats spoke.

I hint at a kind of transcendence, and I mean it. However, in the most mundane of senses, and I say this hoping I am not causing the bones of Keats to revolve a time or two wherever they might lie, my life has been boundless dollops of mustard. At the risk of being cute, I mean, nevertheless, there is a spice to one’s life, that reverses the polarity of any moment: seen the right way, even the banal—and what is so much of life, despite ourselves, but banal?—can be, if only for ourselves, sublime. And what sublimity is there in mustard? In this instant, as I prepare a typical light lunch of a salad niçoise a blob of the good dijon is the customary enabler of that fragrant emulsion dispersed in wispy spurts across what number, accounting for all the anonymous days in la France profonde, countless salads of the local bounty, purchased hours before at the week’s marché, and plucked from the earth merely a day or two before that. And in that instant, another typical lunch, determined by an increasingly frequent disinclination to cook, the golden sauce, straight from the jar, spread across two uneven slabs of a crusty sourdough loaf—the precise piquant counterpoint to the velvety squares of comté blanketed in random mounds of delicately fragrant aged ham, cut as thin as butterfly wings with a tracery of veins of fat gone translucent with age and smoke and time. Like the banal raised to the heights somehow, all that melting goodness is pierced by the sharp pangs of the spice, so the flavors move from the mouth to occupy every sensible cavity in one’s head.

Lest I be mistaken as another arriviste memoirist, of impoverished imagination, I want to be clear that one thing that does not happen is I am not sent soaring on Proustian flights of verbose recollection. Wordy I may be, but this morning, I am somewhere short, but not by much, of being overcome with floods of feeling. If we are nought but memory, and memory is nothing but collections of the flotsam and jetsam of singular and private ephemera, carriers, like mammoth storage containers, what is contained but feeling, felt and somehow stored, to be recalled each time we ramble in our minds, eyeing the stacks of boxes of remembrance piled higher and higher with the passing years into the impenetrable darkness?


What happened since that morning, when I was briefly jolted out of the stultifying quotidian ritual of keeping house by keeping clean and organized, is I found myself at times simply sitting and staring, as I sat in whatever room in the house I happened to light. One afternoon I sat on the sofa in the salon and surveyed the meager, if yet ample, stock of furniture—it’s a small house, after all—two floor lamps, with plain functional conical shades on bulbs at the ends of articulated arms, two small oriental rugs, and a third hanging like a miniature tapestry on one wall, a small ur-modernist sofa, though designed for Ligne Roset by a well-known contemporary designer and of a size and intended use so as to be called, in French, a canapé (a word whose derivation I have never been sufficiently curious to research in one of my copies of the Petit Larousse), that is, longer than a love seat, but smaller than a couch, then two armchairs, which have grown prematurely dowdy somehow, purchased also from Ligne Roset at the same time as the sofa, and now expropriated by Artemis, our dog, who has taken to both—at first it was the one I usually favored, closest to the single casement window—in a proprietary way.

And as I stare at nothing particular sitting there, I think of the friends who have been entertained in that space, as we enjoyed one another’s company, and not just a few flutes of champagne on festive occasions, some as formal as New Year’s, but most no more than celebrations, spontaneous at that, of camaraderie and the unshakeable solidity of simple close deep bonds of love. I think of all the guests who have passed through this ancient space—and are we not all fleeting guests in this life?—and my thinking reverberates involuntarily in some barely conscious sense of the spirit of the place, almost mythic, with imaginings of all the souls that have passed through here before us. The house is, or parts, at least, are, 600 years old. The core of it, the original humble space, appropriately, is where I sit and muse, and the kitchen, of course, where sit all those unwitting palimpsests of memory, mainly air and transparent glass, sit and wait to be filled.rssrssby feather