And a little more red…
Blue blue blue blue
Blue blue blue blue
Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Color and light
There’s only color and light
Yellow and white
Just blue and yellow and white
Look at the air, miss
See what I mean?
No, look over there, miss
That’s done with green…
Conjoined with orange…
—Stephen Sondheim, “Color and Light”
In that great mythology of the self with which we burden our subconscious, we are like the heroes of an ancient Greek epic. Adorning ourselves with self-appointed epithets of valor, during the course of our lives we accrue certain attributes like the swift-footed Achilles, or the brave Ulysses of Homeric tales. Not to suggest that these qualities dog us top-of-mind – or in any way consciously – during the flow of our quotidian.
In moments of stress, perhaps in moments, now so rare, of quiet contemplation, we may comfort ourselves with thoughts of the more sterling of our virtues. Or, depending on the nature of the moment, we may suddenly find ourselves confronting our baser degraded nature: the less noble of what we shamefully confess as our faults to ourselves, if no one else: those things we insist we shall correct before we die. For sure we all mean to reconfigure our selves in the course of time into better and better creatures.
In the meantime, as best we can, we joust with our enemies, and wrestle our demons. And maybe we, in those moments of the secret contortions of doubt and that rare sense of worthlessness that threatens to topple our sense of balance we falter. When the equilibrium that permits us always to move forward on the currents of existence wobbles, we feel that somehow our fate has been mysteriously, but above all incomprehensibly, cast into the depths.
In now ancient habits of perception we speak of fortune “not smiling upon us” at those times. And the chief challenge is somehow to find the way, a method, or a strategy, a tactic, some deft set of moves, that will resurrect our spirits and set us once again confidently on our usual path forward. If not, strictly speaking, upward as well. Of course it is.
To the ancients in fact, as part of the cosmology, fortune was not an abstraction, formless and indistinct. They imagined a god or, often in the case of Fortune, as a goddess – and not some inchoate force or tendency of the universe, but a being purely existential, and embodied, like many other incomprehensible forces with no corporeality or substance in our world of solids and flesh, of reality. Perhaps it was because of the very fickle nature of the ways and acts of Fortune, raising some up even as she cast down others, that ascribed this indubitably unfair gendered identity on this capricious deity. But whatever the reason, and however unreasonable its ascription, there was no doubting the actions she imposed on humans.
The trope was powerful and basic and universal. Fortune puts us on a great wheel, and turns it. The ferris of Fortune. So, with each revolution, some were raised up, to view the landscapes of life, if not of the firmament as well, from the highest vantage, even as others were lowered, down and down, perhaps to tumble off the wheel on the hard surface of a too too solid earth. With such a view of human prospects at the hands of such a mercurial deity, philosophy evolved with a predictable tone or cast.
How often do we believe we will not merely tempt the fates, but overcome or outsmart them – if not, more humbly, somehow merely even out the odds? Some regimen, or regular habits of being, any actions other than the unwavering and unresisting submission to the vagaries of existence seemed likelier to be redemptive. And, indeed, it seemed to work for some. Except when it didn’t.
An old saying, in one form or another, has persisted since those days of antiquity. The Greeks and Romans embraced the notion of defiance. “Fortune favors the bold,” is how it goes, or the “brave” or the “strong.” You get the gist. Words to that effect are what Pliny the Elder is recorded to have said to his nephew, also Pliny – Pliny the Younger – as the older gent set sail in his fleet to inquire into this Vesuvius business; eruptions, destruction. He was helping a friend. He lost his life in the undertaking.
We call that irony. However even if we do not call it that, there is an inescapable fact, not ineluctable for each of us with regard to ups and downs, except that we are all doomed eventually to prove our mortality. The fact is, irrespective of how we choose to conduct ourselves, fortune will reign as it will. And the virtues of boldness or resolution, or strength or courage may have value, but not by way of altering the unpredictability of the specific course of our lives.
In 2002 my wife Linda and I managed to realize a dream we shared over the course of the first ten years of the life we had agreed to have together. We bought a medieval maison de village in a tiny hilltop hamlet deep in rural Provence. In February of that year we accepted title in the office of a French official, a special kind of lawyer, called a notaire. We proceeded from the legalities immediately to begin to furnish our new second abode. We visited again in the warmer months, for a longer stay, and commissioned some needed repairs and remodeling to be done, and returned home to spend an uneventful fall and a chilly winter in Boston.
In January of the new year, she was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of breast cancer, hard to identify and almost indistinguishable from other common ailments that are eminently treatable. It can only be diagnosed by biopsy, and by the time taking such measures seems prudent it is usually well advanced, and requires radical treatment. Inflammatory Breast Cancer, so-called because it masquerades as an infection, it turns out is one of the most aggressive forms of the disease, and is indiscriminate as to age of the victim.
Nine months later, after chemotherapy, radical surgery, a recuperative holiday in our beloved French village, and then a course of radiation, Linda was well enough to return to work, which she did. Then, in October, during a routine colonoscopy another cancer was discovered, completely unrelated and requiring the initiation of a separate course of treatment. Because the cancer had already metastasized to her liver, she was scheduled for two more major surgeries – the first, highly successful, prior to the start of chemotherapy, and the second, seemingly successful at first. Its complications persisted through the remainder of her life. Why did she get two cancers, unrelated? According to her oncologist (well, one of them, and he a world-famous clinician and researcher of breast cancer), “bad luck.” No more. No less.
We endured together, for five and a half years. I cooked our meals. I cleaned her constantly draining wound from the liver surgery (which cost her ⅔ of that organ, but prolonged her life). I injected. I swabbed. I bandaged. I took voluminous notes of every consultation. I kept the world of her numerous friends and relatives abreast of her condition. I arranged our travel. And did all the driving, across town, or across Provence, as we made numerous trips. And, to our surprise only once, the first time we asked, her doctors always assented to the idea of another visit to our serene paradise.
Linda worked until she couldn’t. Her employers, IBM, were magnanimous and accommodating. Money was never a problem. Insurance was never a problem. There was never a problem, except for what stared us in the face every morning when we woke up, and it was the same world with the same prospects. And there was no sense there was anything bold, or brave, or strong, or noble, least of all, about how we conducted our lives.
Early on, she had said, I am still me (and she was, minus some parts in time, and a couple of times, minus her luxuriant hair, which always grew back, though greyer each time, and curly or straight as the whims of the hair gods willed it). I am not going to be defined by a disease. And she wasn’t. Two weeks before she died, she was out until one in the morning, because a friend, the widow of a colleague, a subordinate of hers who had died of cancer a year before, had scored tickets to the playoffs for the Celtics. And would she like to go? Are you kidding? She tried not to wake me up when she got home. Almost made it.
We went to France right afterward. And yes, these latter trips required the hire of a wheel chair (fauteuil roulant) on the other side, but she eschewed its use unless absolutely necessary. Usually walking up the stubborn hills on which the whole province is built.
On the day we were packing to leave for Nice, to take the first leg of our usual route back to Boston, her legs wouldn’t support her, and she collapsed to the floor, very slowly. Twice. “That’s funny,” she said, “that’s never happened before.” I helped her into our bed, freshly made, in anticipation of some future return, and I called the EMTs.
In France, ambulances under such circumstances arrive with a doctor on the team, and they made short work of determining she had to be transported to the local hospital. I followed them in our rental car. She was admitted. And I drove on to Nice to drop off a friend who had been visiting with us, to assist somehow, though never clearly how, and who was nervous about making her connection to Italy. I drove back to Draguignan, and saw Linda, now admitted to a private room in the ICU connected to the emergency service. She was sitting up and eating apple sauce, and very tired. I said I’d go home and change and eat something, and return to spend some more time with her. But she demurred and said there wasn’t much point, as she was going to crash for sure, and she’d see me in the morning. I kissed her and said good night, and that was the last time I saw her conscious.
The hospital woke me the next morning at 6am and informed me her organs were failing and to come back to the hospital as soon as it was convenient. I spent that day, contending with my halting French, trying to help resolve the question as to whether she was sufficiently stable to be medivaced back to Boston. Suffice it to say she wasn’t. The physicians speaking for the insurance company wouldn’t have it.
I slept in her room that night, trying fitfully actually to sleep in two chairs pulled together seat cushion to seat cushion, with my ears stoppered with ear pods and the Beatles faintly playing, mainly drowned out by her struggle to breathe. She died with me alone in the room with her at 5:45 the next morning.
I wasn’t able to return until a week later, her cremated remains installed in a place of honor in our little house, and utter uncertainty about anything leaving my mind blank, and my path forward equally uncertain. All I knew about Linda, after speaking long distance to her oncologist at Dana-Farber was that it was amazing she kept going on her own steam for all but the last two days of her life. “Her body was totally full of cancer for the last two years,” he said. All they could do, which they did, was keep it at bay, and keep her out of pain. For those last few weeks, she walked around with a crack in her pelvis, because the bones had been so weakened by radiation they couldn’t stand up to the cancer in them.
When I got back home, my life and attention were completely filled with the administrative demands of tending to her affairs and her estate, and my own meager business matters.
Tending to myself was easy enough. I had long since learned, during her long decline, that unless she was at home, I never saw the need to prepare and cook meals for myself. And I lost the habit of doing so. It was simply less demanding either not to eat, or to satisfy the rare pangs of hunger by going out. I was a ten minute walk from some superb places to eat in our neighborhood of Harvard Square. And there were bars, which sometimes held a greater allure for the usual reasons.
When even the presence of other people – because after all, I was not particularly disposed to be much of a social animal – I simply stayed home and slowly enough depleted our well-provisioned stock of liquor. Not wanting to neglect my needs altogether, I would make a quick run to that paradise of hipster victuals – a super-size Whole Foods. The greatest treasure among its indulgences for those who they were more than happy literally to cater to? The sushi bar, manned, it seemed, from the moment the store opened to the time they shut off the lights, by diminutive chefs always bowed over their bamboo mats. Roll after roll.
I preferred sushi, or, even better, sashimi. It was light. It was minimal. It was the most direct intake of the food I preferred, and seemed to need. Protein. In a form that provided one step or two away from live flesh. From life itself, or so it seemed in my philosophical purview, stripped away as it was to the barest existential facts.
But more than anything else, what appealed to me, what was compelling, was the Tao of it. What was stripped away more than anything else, as in so much of the Japanese esthetic entailing food, its preparation, and its presentation, were all nonessentials. The food was raw and edible with the fingers. Utensils? None, though if you wanted to be that fastidious, nothing is more fundamental than chopsticks. And the food appeared before you, declaring some innate order, and yet bespeaking the most sophisticated if minimalistic of intentionality by way of the design of it. Everything squared up. Everything on a single plane. Spatial relations all orthogonal.
It forces order on the patterns of your mind as it scrambles to think, and escape the sheer desire to emote. All animal, you are reminded you are also human. Brutish, you are reminded that social custom and basic austere order are the the foundation of an organizing principle. That where death imposes decay and chaos, life will prevail if only through the imposition of order and balance, of symmetry, of design, and composition.
And in all of these reside the only hope for an ultimate and prevailing sense of peace.
And I discovered, that indeed, with all of that, and a shot of 90 proof whiskey, and a Tsing Tao beer to wash down the fish, I had the first inkling of a sense that rebirth is possible. And though I wasn’t quite up, I no longer despaired of being down.
Jerusalem – The Mosaic Of Our Lady Of Guadalupe In Dormition Abbey Stock Image
What I always checked on arrival was my money. I had left Providence that morning, after the briefest of overnights. It was my parents after all, and I had burned any number of those bridges. I simply didn’t spend any more time under their roof than I had to.
I was 23, a newly minted Master (of the Arts of English Language and Literature, after all), and my own man. I didn’t spend a summer hoarding every penny I could from my earnings as a waiter in the hottest dive on the newest trendy neighborhood on Boston’s waterfront, sleeping nights on the sofa in my buddy’s seedy living room in Allston, to lose it all to a moment of lapsed vigilance.
I stood there in the baggage area of the Austin airport with the cluster of four bags that held all my pathetic possessions worth shlepping. Two hard and two soft, the bags that is. I had cajoled the use of two ancient Samsonites, long out of service, from my father’s museum of such things that he kept in the garage—relics of his sales career. And the two soft bags were of that indeterminate provenance of most households even in the late 60s, households that could boast at least one, never mind two, veterans of the war of diminishing and fading glory and honor, the big one, the just one, W.W. Two. My uncle had served in Europe, and my father kept the home fires in the National Guard, so we had an ample inventory of duffels.
The soft bags were for my clothes, mainly jeans, or “dungarees” in the lingering argot of my childhood, and a lot of tee shirts, and socks, and undergarments of the Jockey briefs variety, and a sweater or two, dubiously included by me, ruefully expecting the worst in the kind of weather I particularly abominated. I long since came to understand it wasn’t the eyes of Texas that were upon you all the live-long day. It was the oppressive heat, which, the cows and the oil rigs aside, was the cultural markers that impressed themselves with a kind of minimalist authority as being emblematic of that enigma known as our second-biggest state. I was old enough to remember the admission of Alaska into the Union, and I still bore the smug superiority only a ten-year old resident of Rhode Island could instill within himself towards the now hapless citizens of what was now an also-ran. What would I need sweaters for?
The capacious unyielding scuffed armor of the hard cases I had reserved for the other, to my mind more precious personal cargo, essentials of far greater utility than scratchy woolen pullovers I would never wear. In one, a cache of books, ponderous tomes that I came to think of as the foundation of any civilized student of literature’s personal library – portable or permanent. There was the monumental History of the English Language of Albert C. Baugh, of course, a cornerstone, if the slimmest of the volumes at a little fewer than 500 pages. There were also multi-volume sets ofanthologies of the literature of England and America, probably published by Norton, which regularly turns them out like economy-sized doorstops for mansions from a brick factory.
Whatever may have been my rationale for packing your fundamental 20 pounds of books in four or five volumes has disappeared in the residue of a haze of pot smoke and alcohol fumes. Likely I wanted to be prepared in case the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas Library happened to burn down, or was lost in a takeover by rebel forces from, I don’t know, somewhere in Central America. All I know is, the damn bag was heavy.
The other suitcase, arguably, was more precious. I had given up my lovingly gathered matched components of a stereo system, and had packed away my sizable collection, begun at the age of 12 of LP records, all for the sake of portability. After weeks of agonizing research and soul-searching, I bought a very compact Sony mini-stereo system, with cassette deck and electronics in one unit, and two matching speakers, all covered in an adamantine faux wood-patterned synthetic with prodigious shock-absorbent qualities, and inspired allegedly by the grain of some exotic rare African species of timber. I regretted giving up the purity of vinyl, especially with the hit of compromise in fidelity of tape cassettes. Which, it’s true, took up perhaps one-tenth the storage space for the equivalent amount of music, but which, to be honest and let’s admit it, sounded like shit. The selection of the recorded material available from any label’s vaults was also quite limited, from the perspective of an emerging connoisseur like myself, but what’s a man to do?
I could have spent more, but I needed my hoarded funds for grim necessities: travel, lodging, tuition. And I did figure on eating occasionally. Though it was hard to tell from looking at me that I paid much attention to such a requirement. I was just shy of six feet (though close enough that that was what I claimed) and I weighed, on a well-fed day, and probably while wet, about 128 pounds. Don’t ask how I managed those four bags through the corridors of the Theodore Francis Green Airport in Warwick, because I don’t recall, but I made it. And so there I stood, pondering how to get to the Holiday Inn, the cheapest temporary quarters I could find on a map, yet still near enough to the campus that I could walk – my preferred mode of conveyance. It was either the luxury of a cab, or the vagaries of overcoming my medieval ignorance of Austin public transportation.
Still flush with my savings, even after shelling out the one-way fare on American Airlines to take me to the loathsome Love Field (perversely named with that infernal brand forever to easterners with ever-fresh memories of the tragedy that occurred in Dallas just six years before my mad dash to get my connecting flight to Austin) and on to my final destination. I had no idea what the coming year would bring, or how or when I would desire retracing my steps, so I figured why piss away the dough?
The cab ride was mercifully brief. I tipped the driver, and waved off the bellhop eager to help me tackle my bags to the front desk. Tips? A working man and a student should tip one of the proletariat when he can barely put a decent copy of Baugh in his suitcase, or flesh on his bones?
The room was thirteen dollars a night, plus miscellaneous charges, and what was I to do? I silently gave myself five nights maximum at this embodiment of chain luxury dens, Kemmons Wilson’s brainchild of accommodations for the common man (already with over 500 locations across the country) to find permanent digs for at least my first semester, and scope out the best places to eat decently and cheap. Not to mention laying out my first semester’s tuition.
The easiest piece of business was enrolling as a doctoral student, the only severe challenge being to prove I was who I said, since at that tender period of my life, I had no driver’s license. As I said, I preferred to walk. But as I recall, my draft card and my birth certificate sufficed. They didn’t even seem particularly interested in my having a local address, since I had a permanent address in Rhode Island, even though it was 48 positions less in the cavalcade of states by size. This stipulation merely meant I was to pay the out-of-state resident’s graduate school tuition, which was a munificent $270 for the semester – an even 200 bucks more than the airfare had been to fly halfway across the country.
It took an additional day to find digs. First I sniffed out the hangout of the graduate students, and given the size of the English department, there was a separate such gathering place, a lounge, just for us. I figured there would be postings pinned up somewhere with all manner of resources. Sure enough, I found what sounded ideal. Just three blocks from where I stood on the campus, on a secondary neighborhood street, was a converted courtyard-style motel. On the second floor overlooking the interior of the court – away from the traffic and street noise – was what was described as a suite, though the complement of furniture listed only one bed. There were two rooms and a separate bathroom.
The rooms stand as a shrine within the galleries of my mind. Basically it was a nice enough layout. The entry gave way to a spacious room that could serve as an area for entertainment and for study, complete with a narrow desk and an even more narrow bookcase. With a partition of the minimal magnitude to qualify as a wall separating two areas of a very large space altogether – it was maybe 300 square feet. Impressive, but I admit, in and of itself the dimensions are hardly the stuff of deep memory. Rather it was the decor that set this domicile apart. My suite remains an everlasting altar of bizarre interior design and decor, never since duplicated or displaced for its negative capability for the invidious. Let me just say, before I describe it, that I loved it in an instant, and immediately decided to take it and seek no possible alternative selections.
The living quarters, from baseboards to ceilings, including the ceilings in fact, were covered, as in over every visible surface except for wall outlets and switches, and the very small number of windows, all on one wall of each room, and all facing the inside court, itself adorned with a dry fountain, clearly long out of service. The covering was foot-square tiles of a thick open-pored cork, dyed a very dark brown, not quite the color of ebony, but darker than walnut. All in all, a den or cave, and clearly always suffused with a kind of sombre Stygian aura, a permanent dusk. The floor, to complete the vision, was covered uniformly with, of course, shag carpeting in an appropriate unobtrusive, essentially unnecessary to clean, shade of a color I will call dun.
In marked, almost blinding, contrast, was the bathroom, of a complementary vastness of space, perhaps ⅔ the volume of the main suite of rooms. Notable was the lack of a door, though the portal was an indented doorway, so not even an oblique view from the bedroom allowed one to see very deeply into what must be designated the bathing and toilet chamber. In here too all surfaces flowed together, every square inch, with no differentiation of surfaces, except for the juncture of orthogonal planes, which is to say, you could detect the corners and seams where floor met walls and, looking higher, walls met ceilings. And every square inch was covered in white ceramic tile, square, of about a two-inch dimension. A waterproof fixture in the ceiling provided all the light needed, as when it was switched on as you entered the effect was instantaneously dazzling. A perfect enclosure for clinical examinations to whatever purpose: dermatologic in nature, lesions, one’s hairline or scalp condition. In one corner was a toilet, with appropriate appurtenances set into the wall. In the other corner along the same wall, a huge industrial shower fixture jutted out with controls beneath it on the wall. Along one perpendicular wall, a sink, with a mirror above it. There was also a ceramic shelf set into the tiles.
Further examination showed a slight incline of the floor from every wall to a significant drain, perhaps six-inches in diameter set into the exact center of the floor. Clearly the room had been designed for optimal modes of efficient cleaning, if not regular sterilization, of all surfaces. More or less at once, and with the mere expedient of a high-pressure hose.
And this temple to my rapidly emerging sense of the pure monastic life I would assume as a scholar, somewhere short of ascetic – there was no facility at all for cooking, though I was told that purchase and installation of an electric cooker of some sort, which is to say, a hot plate, was entirely permissible – would cost me the ascetic sum of 94 dollars a month, payable in advance, with an additional month’s rent as security, though refundable on a satisfactory inspection at departure. I had to sign a six-month agreement to stay, not a lease, and on the terms of the apparently equally bizarre statutes regarding transient lodgings, revokable by either party with sufficient notice.
Short of knowing absolutely no one, though I had the phone number of a friend’s cousin, a resident of Austin and whose name, I swear, was Billy Bob, and who was, to boot, a lawyer, pretty much assuring that I would wait until later in this, my first week, to contact him. In the meantime, I had to pull up stakes, though it was too late to check out that night, my second in Austin, from the Holiday Inn, and somehow transport what were effectively all my worldly goods to my new cell-qua-grotto.
However, before I did, I decided I had done so well in such a short time, far more quickly than my profound state of ignorance on my arrival had allowed me to anticipate, I deserved to treat myself to a celebration. I returned to the grad student lounge to see who I might seek as counsel with such an objective. The lounge, spacious and comfortably furnished, was not exactly bustling, but there were two people conferring in a corner, disposed in such a way, and showing other signs of a kind of familiarity that I inferred at least close friendship. It was man and a woman, neither of them, it seemed, very much older in appearance than I. Both were comely specimens, and as I approached they looked up from their confab, and spontaneously smiled. Which I took for a good sign.
She was Alma, and her sharp, precise features, accented but not overtaken with expertly applied makeup, mainly around her eyes, seemed to accentuate what I took to be a Latina heritage, and in fact, she was an Austin native, the third generation born in the United States, of Mexican immigrants who had arrived around the turn of the century and become citizens. Alma was studying 20th century literature, and was a burgeoning Woolf scholar, as in Virginia Woolf. And she gave every appearance, reinforced by an easy sunny demeanor, that there was little she was afraid of, and least of all Mrs. Woolf. Her friend, and that was all he turned out to be, another second year doctoral candidate, was Peter, who had arrived at UT in part because of the holdings of the Ransom Center at the library, where he had begun to dig into the extensive manuscript collection, mining for a worthy topic for his dissertation. He was leaning to Faulkner, but he wasn’t sure.
They were eager to know what I was doing there – though my east coast roots and ways had somehow announced themselves before I even declared them by speaking. I suggested we discuss it over drinks somewhere. It was about two in the afternoon, and they suggested perhaps re-grouping in the early evening would be more prudent, if not propitious. It was early September and still very hot in the daylight, and by six, the weather would have noticeably begun to moderate. “Have you been to the beer gardens?”
“No Alma. I’ve been almost nowhere. If a beer garden here is what I think it is… sounds perfect.” One of them said, “tell you what, why don’t we meet downstairs at the door to the building and then we’ll walk over to Guadalupe to see what looks good?” And that’s what we agreed to do.
At this juncture it would help I’m sure to point out that for some time in Austin, Guadalupe had been the main thoroughfare of the city, running up and down starting from its northern precincts, and ending to the south, very near the historic old city. Guadalupe is Austin’s Champs Élysées. Its Broadway. Its Market or Broad or High Street. All geographic orientation of any merit starts with Guadalupe.
For a healthy stretch of its length it is bounded by the main campus of the University of Texas, which, it must be pointed out, was (and remains) a very very big school. When I arrived it had upwards of 40,000 students, and its endowment, though it never has rivaled Harvard’s, was the largest of a public institution. Appropriate enough for a state with as much wealth among its constituents as Texas has. And on the side of Guadalupe facing the campus, was every establishment imaginable for all that wealth to be spent in any conceivable indulgence. Whatever you might conjure up as a personal need, it seemed like there was some store that would have it.
The street bustled with activity, and was the constant expression of incredible abundance and easy wealth. A marked contrast to my own condition, mindful of preparing myself to begin squeezing every dollar before relinquishing it. But time enough for that, and cockeyed optimist that I was, I was already in a sense banking on all the funds I had spared myself expending by being so efficient taking care of my needs. I had a roof over my head, cork-lined at that. I had my tuition all paid up, and I hadn’t even entered a classroom. The bubble of a sense of prosperity I could almost swear was, in fact palpable, would expand a bit, as it turned out after I met my new found friends, my colleagues, once I returned from refreshing myself at the Holiday Inn before going out for what Texans considered a hot night out.
At six o’clock Guadalupe turned out to be even more of a mad rush of humanity, on foot, in cars, on bicycles than it had been earlier in the day. The sidewalks on the commercial side were packed with crowds, still in the throes of shopping, and beginning to gather at each of a succession of different places to eat or drink.
It being such a college town, of such immense proportions of an institution, and further the UT Longhorns (“Hook ‘em Horns!”) always a formidable contender in the Big 12 for football supremacy, the natural lubricant of choice was, of course, beer. And the preferred venue for consumption the, as it turns out, but how would I know, being a city boy from Bean-town, was the beer garden. There seemed to be one or two to every block on the long stretch of Guadalupe. Like Munich, only with a drawl.
Each of them, as it turned out, pretty much was laid out according to the same design: a largely nondescript room, capacious enough, but hardly of any significance, just off the street, with a conventional bar along its length, which led one naturally to the multiple doors at the rear of the hall to an extensive, elongated back yard. The first time I entered the beer garden Alma and Peter had chosen I was sure it must be the length of a football field, an illusion propagated by its dimensions, which were much longer than they were wide. There was room for two rows of communal tables that ran parallel the whole length of the garden. There were seats on both sides of all tables, and it appeared at first that all of them were filled, and every other hand held a beer, or a pitcher pouring a glass.
The servers, unremittingly female, carried tray of heroic proportions with a number of pitchers of even more beer, and some number of empty glasses. As it turned out there were menus, but the food, which was edible and abundant, was the least of the attractions, the top two even a fool could quickly conclude were the suds and the gemütlichkeit – the camaraderie, which seemed spontaneous and natural enough, but then heightened and fueled by the endless flow of brewed hops and malt and spring water.
I had a good time, and a lot of beer, but I also learned some things as Alma and Peter and I conversed, sometimes, but not always – as waves of noise seemed to ebb and flow, like the rivers of beer – being forced to bellow in one another’s ear. I learned that after a semester in residence, I would be considered, legally, a state resident, and my tuition would drop to the very meager sum of $75. Not that it mattered, because I was sure to be awarded an assistance-ship once I entered my second year, and this meant not only a stipend for my duties, either teaching composition or a lit survey, but full tuition remission. Life promised to be good.
We ended our evening on a convivial note and promised to look one another up in the next day or two. I decided to walk back to the hotel through the dark night, following the route of the limited access Interstate 35, Austin’s main expressway, eight lanes wide. I learned almost on arriving, that the hotel I had chosen from afar, was only a block from the highway, and therefore easy to find. In many ways, aside from the unforgettable appearance of my temporary home in that gruesome motel, my main recollection is of the vantage I had of the superhighway, just several hundred feet away from me, when I looked out the window of my room at the Holiday Inn.
Starting the next day, in what was left of that seemingly momentous first week, I concentrated on tying things up administratively, and shopping for what few basics I had somehow forgotten to pack, and also to amuse myself by beginning to learn my new home, doing so the best way, on foot. I also expected to have another beer or two before classes started in a week and a half.
With the weekend approaching, I called my former roommate Andy, who was serving his first year of residency as a newly minted doctor at a huge hospital in Houston – not his first choice, but in that lottery you do win, you just don’t always get to choose which prize. He did have the consolation of having gotten newly married, and he and his new bride had easily been able to move to Houston, because she was a nurse specializing in a highly desirable category and had landed a job immediately at Houston General, an even bigger hospital than his.
I was merely touching base, but he was eager to see me, if possible, and I got the impression he was even more lost than I was, absent any immediate friends here in alien territory. He asked if I was free that weekend – which I took as being asked with no irony whatsoever, and we quickly arranged for me to arrive on Friday evening by bus, to spend two nights with them, while I found some way to amuse myself all day Saturday as it turned out that each of them was on a rotation that required a shift during that day.
The ride was uneventful, almost transcending boredom to some new subterranean level of insensibility. The bus was a bus. Houston, I had the impression was a hellhole, but a damp one. I had never been in a place so unrelentingly hot and so unrelentingly humid all at once. I understood, as he had told me over the phone, that everything, but every place that a human could enter for shelter in any form, was air conditioned. This included their high rise apartment, which, I concluded, once they showed me their well-stocked refrigerator, offered every reason for me not to step a foot outside while I waited for them to return from work so we could cook our dinner together and relax.
The question was, what to do with myself. And the answer lay in a fact I have not as yet mentioned.
When I left Providence, I also left behind a girlfriend. A very serious girlfriend. I don’t mean the girl. I mean the friendship, So sick was she at the prospect of my leaving with our future unresolved and indeterminate had made her sick all night, and my father had to minister to her discomfort with various nostrums to settler her stomach while she lay in bed in the den of my parents’ house the night before our departure. It was a tearful parting, and indeed, she told me much later that she was sure as she watched me board my plane that she would never see me again.
She was leaving for her own educational sojourn. Diane was a painter, and her grandmother had given her a commencement present of the cost of a year in Paris, sailing on the SS France from New York, studying with a painter who had a studio and was renowned for his tutorship.
What I remembered while I lay around on the furniture in Andy’s living room not sweating was that she was to leave on the France-America line and she would leave from their dock on such and such a date, and that her whole family, her parents and her brothers and sister, were staying together with her in New York that weekend of departure at the Roosevelt Hotel – and what a fine thing it was, I thought, how suitable, that a hotel named for those with such a redoubtable progressive reputation in the grand liberal tradition of American politics would be accommodating the scion, and his progeny, of a dyed-in-the-wool blue blood family of stubbornly conservative Republicans.
And I needed no recollection at all that that weekend was this weekend, and the inescapable vastness of the distance between me on Guadalupe in Austin TX and the Steamship France at the West Side piers of New York City, not to mention the unremitting vastness of the difference in size between my skinny wallet growing thinner by the day and the bulky billfold of Diane’s dad, always flush as I came to know him.
Suddenly a sense of mission overcame my indolence and burgeoning self-pity. We had had our tearful goodbyes at the Rhode Island airport, it’s true, but I was no overcome by the need to speak to her one more time. Though I didn’t or couldn’t think beyond the urgency of the need to speak in order to formulate whatever it was, precisely or vaguely, I intended to say.
It was early enough in the day on Saturday – she was not scheduled to depart until late in the afternoon – that I figured I could call the Roosevelt and leave a message with my number at Andy’s, and she could call me back if I didn’t reach her directly. I called the operator, as in those daysbefore wireless links to information banks around the world, the phone company still afforded one of the first lines of contact to virtually anyone, as long as you had a name and an address. I got the number of the Roosevelt and called them. Yes, they had a party booked by that name, but the gentlemen had cancelled the reservation on their arrival, and taken his family by taxi to some other indeterminate destination. Sorry, no forwarding address or contact. Casting imprecations on what I already knew to be the capricious habit of indulging his change of whims that initiated what was sometimes a chain of variations in what had been rock solid intentions, I knew the futility of giving in to my anguish. Instead, as cooly as I could, listening to the compressors churning away with a quiet rumble at the base of each window in their sub-let, I plotted my next tactics.
I checked my address book and there amid a jumble of erasures, blots, scratch-outs and random blebs of dried ink, I found my college friend Sheldon’s number, rather his mother’s number, in Brooklyn, and chancing that he would be awake this early, that is 11am on a Saturday, I dialled and he answered. “Shel,” I said, “I’ve gotta’ ask a big favor, but no big deal all in all, and pretty easy.” I explained what I needed him to do, which, essentially, was to travel downtown, after finding out the exact berth at which the France was docked, and find the purser and have Diane paged, and ask her to call me at the number I gave him.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said, his voice husky from the chain smoking he did, affecting the habits of a British don, to match the bizarre accent he had long since adopted, largely, as the rest of us imagined, to mask his native Brooklynese, which nevertheless seeped through in the form of an odd diphthong or a broadly accented vowel. Indeed he smoked a brand, hard to come by, and about three times as expensive as American cigarettes, as much as a buck and a quarter a pack, called English Ovals, because they were indeed, fabricated to form an oval shape in cross-section ofvery tightly packed Virginia tobacco. I had been reduced to putting faith in his air of indolent world-weariness and sham Anglican stony indifference. As Gus, our guru of a year ahead of us at school and who had magically and marvelously talked himself into a fellowship to study poetics for his doctorate at Columbia, as well poetry with one of our avant garde gods, Kenneth Koch, once said about Ron: “Not to worry. Behind that mask of cold insouciance and imperturbability, beats the heart of a man who basically doesn’t give a shit about anybody but himself.”
I would have called Gus, but I already knew he was out of town.
I had nothing to do but wait.
I have no precise recollection of how I spent the day, though I knew I couldn’t concentrate to read. I was too wide awake to sleep, and television was out of the question, except to provide the noise and visual stimulation of the mock company it amounted to. Hours passed and by four I had heard nothing. Andy and his wife were due to arrive at about six. At five, I called Sheldon again to see how he had fared in his quest. I imagined he might still be working his way back home by subway to his lair. He picked up the phone on the second ring, and began explaining even before I could ask a direct question. In that etiolated tone of defeat of his, he virtually whined his rationale for changing the strategy I had mapped out. Well you know how crazy it is dockside when these liners are getting ready to depart. It’s wall-to-wall people. You can’t really get hold of anyone, let alone the purser or anyone else that high up. So he had decided it would be more efficient to call the dock and leave a message to be forwarded to Diane when she boarded and got to her stateroom. He reeled off these terms, “dockside,” and “purser,” and “stateroom” like the seasoned world traveler I knew he was not.
For all his tweeds and silk ties and pocket squares and bespoke shoes, and Navy Cut cigarettes, he was as phony as a slug shoved into the slot of a New York Subway turnstile. Beside myself, I could barely muster a thank you for his efforts, and that I’d be in touch. It’s at this juncture that I’ll mention that in the fullness of time Diane came to know Shel, and of course some time or other I had regaled her with this story about our fateful weekend. She also referred to him as Sheldon the Paperweight, though more usually just using the epithet, or more economically, “the Weight.” Have you heard from the weight?
Still anticipating the arrival of my hosts, I finally had a brainstorm, and called the long distance operator, and asked about calling the ship, maybe even ship-to-shore. And as if she handled queries like this all the time, she proceeded to inform me quite efficiently, clearly, and precisely that what I needed to do was wait until the ship had cleared the three-mile limit, which might take awhile as with all departing ocean liners, and have the Transatlantic operator connect with the ship’s operator and arrange to have my party paged to the phone once there was a secure connection. If I could hold she would connect me with the Transatlantic operator to begin to arrange the call. Could I hold? I’ll hold it as long as you’d like ma’am.
The upshot was, I gave the Transatlantic operator all the particulars, and she told me I would then have to wait, as much as two hours after the scheduled departure time, and then she would call me so the connection could be completed and I could converse with my party. I’d get a call after we rang off with the charges.
Andy arrived. We made dinner. We sat and ate it up to dessert, and at about 8:15 the phone rang. Sue answered it, and almost immediately handed it to me. Within thirty seconds I was talking to Diane, with no more sense of why I was calling or what I wanted to say. She answered the phone and I heard the operator ask her if she was who she was, and she said yes, and we talked, with Diane alternately shrieking happily and shouting because it was quite evident they were having a party at her end, and there was some audible continuous mayhem. It was a very happy ship having a very happy launch.
She asked why I was calling and I told her first, almost tentatively, that I wasn’t sure, though I knew I had to speak to her, had to hear her voice, and as I spoke more words came to me and I kept talking, for perhaps five minutes. Then six, and then the next thing I knew I was asking her to marry me, and she shrieked some more, and said yes. And then we exchanged what I supposed were some token endearments. I mean, who knows or is prepared to know what to say in such a moment. And there were one or two actual practical questions from her, simple things among the plague of questions that congested my thinking for the next few days thereafter, but simply hadn’t occurred to me before the phone rang, so to speak. What she asked was, what about your school? What about Paris? Where will we go? And all I could do was assure her there was time to work it out.
And then we did, for sure, ring off. I got up and walked into the living room from the bedroom where I had retreated for privacy. Andy and Sue were sitting quietly having an after dinner drink when I came in. Andy remarked that I had the most amazing look on my face, and asked what was up. So I told them, and they insisted on opening a bottle of champagne they happened always to have in the fridge. And we toasted me, and caroused and made some jokes.
Somewhere along in there the Transatlantic operator called with the phone charges. And then there was not much else to say, so we all went to bed.
It was while I was lying there that I finally remembered a conversation I had had with Diane about our upcoming plans and the variations on excitement entailed with such different destinations as Paris and Texas, I had been to neither, and wasn’t sure what to expect. Diane had been to Paris before and was very excited about the prospect of her return. She also allowed as she hated the idea of Texas. I asked if she had ever been, and she said, no. “Why would I ever want to go?”
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.
Dom, my very good friend after what is now more than 50 years, is about to embark voluntarily on an automotive adventure. It will be the second of what he, in what is to me characteristically droll usage, calls an “existential auto trip.” Indeed, so inspired has he been since his first such trek, he has created an entire website, now clearly a personal calling, a vocation, which he also entitled “existential autotrip.” The second word of the title, at least in the Capossela lexicon, is a portmanteau – appropriately enough – that is, a single word.
Our hero – here, closer in age to Lewis & Clark on their Expedition than he is to the age he is now (H. Dinin)
He means these trips, solo flights into the heartland of our great nation, and I mean that in the classic sense of that phrase, “once great nation, still great nation, always great nation,” to be an adventure, an exploration, and a journey into the self as much as it is a bold foray into what William Gass called “the heart of the heart of the country.” In short, Dom is leaving quite soon, that is, two short days from this precise moment of my composition, to drive from Boston, Massachusetts to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and back again. All during the course of a month.
He has been preparing for this escapade for months. As much as he is bound up in the increasingly complex business of posting a daily blog, with the attendant responsibility of being the editor of what he now calls his magazine, he must attend as well to the minutiae of assuming responsibility as what he has styled himself – again, drolly – and that is, “Web Meister.” Quite a bit to juggle, especially as he traverses tens, did I say “tens?” when I meant hundreds of miles of U.S. Interstate, not to mention whatever by-ways and diversions he may discover en route.
Lewis & Clark (public domain)
The occasion for my writing is not to announce this trip, as he has already broadcast it and adverted to it—even beyond the scope of his domain name being eponymous with his periodic peregrinations—for the edification of his followers. In fact, unless I miss my guess, and I also somehow have missed the intent of his asking me to assume some autonomy in posting relevant material to his blog as I see fit (in order to relieve the burden of his providing daily material, even as he logs his diurnal ration of miles), these words will appear sooner than later on said blog. Rather, as is my wont, being a curmudgeonly sort by nature, and a worrywart, I want to provide at the least a cautionary note to the expectant and triumphant melody it is his wont to warble as he speaks, always with a full heart, of his expedition. Speaking of which, part of his strategy is to emulate, if not literally to track portions of the trail, the expedition of two of his personal heroes, Lewis and Clark.
My note concerns coffee. Coffee, not surprisingly, was just one of the provisions that the original Lewis and Clark included in the seven tons of dry goods provisions they packed for their trip (cf: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/what-lewis-and-clark-ate/). But, despite the auroral status in our history as a nation of the Lewis & Clark outing, coffee was already sufficiently American to demand a place of that most American of beverages in the diet of those stalwarts. Imagine trying to map the origins of the great Missouri River without starting the day with a full ration of (presumably) hot java. As Vizzini lisps, “inconceivable.”
It is of at least equal moment to me that, according to the PBS food historian, the daily consumption of animal meat on average for each man traversing the Louisiana Purchase to the shores of the Pacific was nine pounds. Nine pounds of meat a day, my friends… However let me note that this is not the occasion to ponder the characteristic American appetite for protein in mass quantities. Rather, I’d suggest it is of equal significance that such an atavistic impulse — and a need that could not possibly be provisioned in advance in Saint Louis; they expected to hunt and kill their daily meat ration live — was rivaled by the need to make sure they packed coffee. The existential elixir!
But I am here not to laud the heroic virtues of my friend. Suffice it to say that in many dimensions he dares to go where I would prefer not to. Not at our age, not alone, not over such distances, and not in a vehicle with no driver other than myself. Not to mention the vagaries of internet connectivity in the hinterlands of our expansive mainland. And there is the perpetual, the daily, question of what to do when, long about three or four o’clock in the afternoon somehow the cells of my body are utterly aware that it is more or less 12 hours since I lay, suddenly, broad awake, and that it is now time, regardless of what I may be doing, and succumb to their imminent depletion of all energy – a compensatory metabolic state to balance all that bright energy in the middle of the night. In short, it turns nap time long about the same time each day. I’m not saying there are no remedies, even on a lonesome highway, even on the “blue highways” of that famous book of William Least Heat-Moon of 1982.*
*A book that also tells of a journey, if I might digress for a moment, though in fact the substance of this diversion is eminently apt, as you will see. Before you get too far into his book-length journey Heat-Moon shares this trenchant exchange:
… It was cold and drizzling again. “Weather to give a man the weary dismals,” Watts grumbled. “Where you headed from here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Cain’t get lost then.” [Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, Little Brown, New York, p. 35 (1982)]
I hasten to add that I am also not in the least concerned that Dom will encounter the young man’s plight in this encounter (which takes place, charmingly, in a town called Nameless in Tennessee, under the smiling gaze of a poster of Senator Al Gore, Jr.). In addition to planning and organizing down to the last pair of socks his solo expedition’s provisions, with the same fastidious care, down to that last pair of his socks, that the Lewis & Clark escapade required though the one is outfitting himself in the space afforded by the trunk and backseat of a Honda Accord of late vintage and the other is, well, seven tons my friends, and not one ounce of it, we know, was meat. Well, maybe a little beef jerky. But I am getting beside myself, and there is no passing lane here.
No, Dom will always know where he is, as he has AAA triptychs, a GPS device, an iPhone, maps, and a destination. What’s more as I infer from our conversations, he has a strong sense that there are no detours or blind trails where one loses one’s way, but in life, with the right attitude, there is only opportunity.
However, what he also doesn’t have is a particular article of travel gear – though I am not confident of this, as I have only anecdotal evidence on the strength of his testimony regarding his most recent road trip (hardly existential: it was only from my house just across the city line from Philadelphia to his condo on Boston’s waterfront) and concerning a recalcitrant, not to mention, in his word, “flimsy” coffee cup. Well, actually, there’s no reason to beat around the coffee bush.
What he said was, and I have it on record, “hot coffee in well of car cup too flimsy to pull out w one hand,” and, further along, “must bring solid cup w you.” Which tells us two things. He’s got some last minute shopping (or a last minute scouring of the kitchen) for one of those insulated travel mugs. What I call “adult sippy cups.” Which, let me add, in case you don’t immediately infer this, I hate.
And, two, he intends to drink hot coffee (or something hot, and I think he’s ambivalent about tea) while engaged in the operation of a moving motor vehicle.
Duralex “Gigogne” Mug
To be honest, I don’t hate coffee. It’s one of my favorite beverages, hot or cold. I suspect I don’t love it quite to the extent of my friend Dom, who seems to love the aroma and flavor well enough, but nothing on the passion with which he loves the temperature of it freshly brewed. I have now witnessed him dispense, from an insulated carafe, brewed minutes before (by me; just so you know) into a very hip glass mug (Duralex, very French) and proceed to zap said portion of existential elixir for 30 seconds on high in our prosumer-grade General Electric microwave oven. This man likes his coffee hot. In case you missed that part of his blog, way back at the beginning.
All well and good. I don’t begrudge my old friend his pleasures. His coffee. The temperature of his coffee. His quest. His dreams. It’s his life, not mine. Existential indeed.
What I am not ashamed to set down and admit to, here, after all this verbiage, are my fears concerning hot coffee (he mentioned Starbucks, so I know he has go-to suppliers on the road, and I happen to know that Starbucks serves coffee that is, in the American style, freaking hot). And so even with his sippy cup, Dom is disposed to try to handle his cup o’ morning joe while also engaged in other activities. Could we imagine he will quaff while driving? He did imply a requirement of one-handed stability in the vessel containing his coffee while in his car. I can say no more.
It could be said I have, possibly, too strong an imagination for someone of my delicate sensibilities. And I have my own take on existential questions – which, even at this late stage, still far outnumber the answers. So all I will say is, knowing Dom will barely have time to have these words register, I think he might consider the pace of his journey yet again. Consider the virtues of starting the day with a quiet contemplation, lingering over a light repast, whatever the resources of Nameless, Wherever can offer for one’s roving petit déjeuner out there somewhere on the prairie or in the inspiring vistas prelude to a view of the Grand Tetons themselves. Consider a nice quiet cup, even as the scalding infusion of Coffea arabica burns your lips, even as you feel the tug of the open road, before you can sense the blistering qualities of the decoction cooling all too quickly under your fingertips.
So my final advice my venturesome friend (and to all who would listen). For the road, a nice cold bottle (preferably with a narrow neck and a replaceable cap) of something refreshing; might I suggest water? And for those intervals of contemplation, coffee as hot as you like in a durable container, while seated in a comfortable chair, or chaise, or lounge, a loveseat, maybe, or a sofa. We don’t want that steaming tincture of java to turn (as in overturn) suddenly from being a philosophical lubricant of deep thought to a truly existential rupture providing a gateway to far deeper places in the cosmos.
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.
Most of us believe the United States intelligence apparatus, regardless of precisely however many separate agencies it comprises, manages to identify not only Russian hacking of our public communications networks and our process for swaying public political opinion, but can identify specific individuals, in Russia, as among the perpetrators, with sufficient evidence to justify a formal indictment of twelve suspects. Further, we believe it is already well established, thanks to leaks and whistle-blowers, that the most secretive of our national security apparatus has the means to monitor not some, but all, communications among Americans, not to mention a significant percentage of foreign nationals, both within our borders and within the confines of their own nations; they can monitor phone conversations, text messages, and emails, and record and store all of these data streams for further, more prolonged, and deeper analysis. They can identify the individuals and the roles they play within foreign diplomatic delegations, whatever their formally declared as well as their covert assignments while operating within our borders, and, furthermore, identify them even on foreign soil, including their native countries. We can identify them and, if need be by way of sanctions, deport any number or all of them from our country. We can and do indict them in our own country, as already mentioned.
We have had these capabilities, and performed these and similar actions for years. In many cases the power to do so has been possible and has been deployed in actual practice for decades. If anything, with the passage of time, we have become more proficient and adept and sophisticated in the development of the capabilities of these technologies and their application for purposes of what is generally labeled as something like “national security.”
Further, we apparently have the capability of covertly gathering information in the multifarious forms of analyzable data from deep within the operational apparatus of foreign governments – both among our allies and our more hostile economic and geopolitical rivals (including former and potential future enemies of our state). We are capable of, and have committed acts in the past of, disrupting or in other ways influencing the internal politics as well as the governance by duly appointed, in many instances democratically elected, state officials and functionaries. We have insinuated ourselves into the affairs of sovereign nations, and implicated ourselves in the overthrow of legitimate representational as well as despotic usurping governments.
Admittedly capable of and actually perpetrating all of these actions, our government has done and will undoubtedly continue to do so. That is, they will, short of self-imposed internal political constraints. For example, as we have seen in the past 17 years, the Congress can and will pass enabling legislation permitting the president to take executive action in the pursuit of protecting our national security. As we have seen in the past 19 months, conversely, Congress could but won’t merely constrain a president in order to proscribe undesired acts, like firing his own officials, in the execution of his office. Nevertheless, repeatedly our government has demonstrated the successful implementation of strategies in pursuit of national objectives using such intelligence capabilities paid for by American taxpayers nominally in their interests.
All that is said and done. Now we have as President an individual positioned by dint of his public prominence in the worlds of national and global commerce, as a recognized and readily recognizable public figure in the realm of entertainment, with well-publicized personal views on matters of national and international political significance, of avowed, if not merely self-declared, great financial stature, with personal and corporate ties and obligations – long since documented and well-known through dissemination by national and international news organizations – to banks, governments, and private funding sources throughout the world, with sufficient resources and persistent media attention to declare his candidacy for office who has managed in two years with no prior record as an elected official to catapult himself, in a single national election, to the office of arguably the most powerful governing executive in the world.
Are we to believe that if the American intelligence apparatus has any information about this individual that supports further investigation for evidence of indictable criminal behavior within the scope of the entire aggregate criminal code of the 50 states and the federal government, it was not already known, recognized as such, and being analyzed for the appropriate venue and charges to be prosecuted? And furthermore, if such information exists, even short of constituting evidence suitable for the consideration of a grand jury in any localized or federal jurisdiction, it would not already have been leaked, reported on, and the subject of ongoing and rigorous journalistic inquiry?
High intelligence, let alone Machiavellian skills at deviousness, and the mastery of a brilliant intelligence agent, on the order of a Kim Philby or a Colonel Abel, are not requirements for the office of President of the United States. In any event, there was never a demonstration of such qualities in Donald Trump up to the day of his inauguration in that office. If anything, since that day, all evidence, readily observable in plain sight, whatever your news source, points to the absence of even a scintilla of such qualities.
Are we to believe he is positioned, and qualified, to be an agent of the Russian government? Are we to believe he even is susceptible to recruitment as a willing and compliant “asset” (a concept about which, apparently, millions of Americans are suddenly expert) of that government – or would be attractive to that government in such a role (I used the descriptors “willing” and “compliant” deliberately)? Are we to believe that the Russian government, keeping in mind the entirety of its prior 27 year history starting with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was in a position to recruit such an asset because of a rational expectation that he was credibly capable of attaining the office he now has at any time prior to three years ago when he declared his candidacy?
I don’t believe any of it. I do believe that in his avaricious, amoral, egomaniacal pursuit of real wealth (instead of the sleight-of-hand appearance of it) and power, and a pathological need for public attention on a grand scale beyond the insulating buffer of an inner circle of enablers and sycophants, he became an ideal dupe – cluelessly and involuntarily collaborating, not only with the true “deep state” of the 1/10 of 1% who own as much of American wealth as the bottom 90% and who wish not only to preserve it, but have it grow, but collaborating as well, equally clueless, with the geopolitical aims of a Russian autocrat, the center of a ring of oligarchs who wish to see the resurrection of their country as an influential, implacable superpower, which has been their ultimate aim at least since Putin first served as Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin in 1999.
In 1999, looking forward to 2000, there was talk of Donald Trump running for President, as a possible candidate of the Reform Party. And his preferred running mate, he said… None other than Oprah Winfrey. But the country wasn’t ready for Trump. Nor did they need him. They had George W. Bush.
How have the people who believe the increasingly ludicrous things they do come to do so? Unrelieved grief and despair will do that. All the more reason not to lose one’s head.
I have, in what feels like a harmless way, been enjoying observing passively my wife’s dauntless efforts to learn French, conversational French, on her own, using various brands of the most popular form of self-education tools that exist. I mean, of course, computer-based apps, for smart devices and computers.
They seem mainly to work on the principle of going blah blah blah at you in the language with which you are challenging yourself, and you go blah blah blah back, repeatedly. There are exercises, with recursive quizzes built-in to assess progress, wherein variously you listen to a native speaker (they all claim native speakers, and eavesdropping, sometimes I wonder; I’m not a native speaker so I keep my mouth shut… usually; let’s just say maybe some of them are, like, natives of the docks in the old port of Marseille) and try to decipher what they’ve said, or you try to repeat it, phoneme for phoneme.
Your mastery is measured in various ways, and there is regular, if not altogether constant feedback. You accumulate points, or other rewards, receive praise, and are gently corrected. This is the fundamental paradigm of most of these apps as far as I can tell, regardless of whether they charge you, and most of them try to get you to “subscribe” at some point one way or another. Surprisingly some very good software for picking up the rudiments are completely free – after which, frankly, I would move on to a more efficacious methodology even if it costs a few coins in the currency of your chosen tongue.
What else strikes me about these exercises is that one of the essential requirements of the seemingly universal pedagogy deployed is to come up with a reliable steady stream of stock phrases that somehow simulate (or are meant to) the kind of everyday palaver used by native speakers. The classic example (from my French tutelage back in the junior high school I attended in Providence RI) is the immortal, “La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle.” We pre-adolescents of the mid-20th century were supposed to believe this is the way genuine French people addressed one another, impossible as it was on the face of it to imagine that our real aunts and uncles would behave in this way such that we ourselves would have occasion to declare, boldly and with confidence, “The pen of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle.” In case, that is, some interlocutor should inquire of one of us, “Hey kid, where’s your auntie’s fountain pen?”
There was for me the added circumstantial impediment of my having only one aunt, a widow, at best semi-literate, who was, except for the marriage of my father to my mother, not related to my only uncle, a life-long bachelor. Further, given the proclivities, life style, and stated preferences, not to mention a highly introverted nature, of my uncle, I knew it was impossible, should he ever have indulged himself by joining the holy state of matrimony with a literate woman, he nevertheless would never have countenanced his soul mate poking around his stuff, never mind violating the sanctity of his personal desk, which presumably, further, would likely have been in a room, which he would have kept locked, dedicated to the purposes to which one puts a personal desk.
And who used fountain pens any more in that day and age anyway?
Similar antinomies still occur even in the most up-to-date software products it seems. Developers clearly are facing the same struggle to come up with not only credible dialog that is not merely authentic and idiomatic, but similar to real quotidian discourse that might actually occur between real people who find themselves in real situations doing, let’s face it, essentially ordinary things. One of the first revelations of learning a language sufficiently to comprehend most of what’s said within earshot when you happen to be, let’s say, sitting in a café in the south of France next to a married couple from the next town over on what happens to be market day is that, not to put too fine an edge on it, they’re not talking about Proust. Or Mallarmé. They’re not discussing the finer points of Sartre’s thoughts on Nothingness. They’re not amusing themselves exchanging bon mots by way of noting the advances that feminism has made in La Belle France since the days of de Beauvoir. They’re saying the same inconsequential, mundane, homely, and sometimes largely inarticulate things we all do in what passes for conversation about our basically contained, safe lives as we comport ourselves in the unremarkable enclaves of our quotidian wherever we happen to live, and whatever we happen to utter when addressing our intimates.
An additional deficit to these language learning software apps, from my perspective, is, as well, that there’s not much effort given to giving a clear sense except by inference and that blasted continuous repetition of phrases in that stilted scripted language they’re teaching you – which within the specifics of my particular observation is not French, but near-French, Simu-French – about what the cultural norms may be of the societies within which real French is unself-consciously the, pardon the expression, lingua franca of everyone, from the elite to the hoi polloi. Which is to say, there are some ways in which it’s polite to speak to others, especially mere acquaintances and strangers. And let’s face it, there’s no reason to learn French intensively and immersively for casual reasons (though I know there are some otherwise temperate and good-natured souls who pick up other languages as a hobby, with no prospect of ever actually putting them to active use). Not unless you own property in France which you hope to enjoy on a regular schedule of visitation, or you’re ex-patriating yourself for reasons about which it would be certainly a rude and presumptuous intrusion for me to inquire, or you are marrying into a family of exclusively native French speakers and who, your intuition alone so far has told you, are OK kind of people, maybe even your kind, and you’d like to converse in something other than an impromptu sign language plus an awkward mutual but inadequate command of the limited vocabulary of Franglais we all seem to share, plus a lot of smiling while engaged in eye contact of the most earnest sort. Because Franglais is good, maybe, and mainly, to find yourself a toilet in an emergency and for getting ketchup for your frites.
You do want to learn the language so as to reveal some finesse and sensitivity for it, even if your motives are purely touristic however, and intended not only to smoothe your sojourn in a foreign country as a visitor, but to enhance the pleasure of actually being there by having an ability, however limited, to engage with natives in some polite conversation where you might compare views about such matters of universal interest as the weather, or the beauty of the countryside, or the tender yet toothsome je ne sais quoi of the volaille forestiére (chicken breast, hunter style) you ordered with such aplomb and confidence. In short, there are few people insensitive enough or so supremely self-possessed as not to care if they come across as a dork or, worse (though sometimes the sadly stereotypically expected behavior of an American in virtually any EU member country), as an exuberant kind of gorilla with a talent for what resembles the power of intelligible speech.
These thoughts occurred to me today, as I happened to be musing on this on my daily commute to the local bakery, in the context of trying to come up with ways to encourage my wife in her thoroughly successful efforts so far in learning a language using such sometimes tragically impaired tools. Her efforts are heroic and deserve not just encouragement but assistance of a kind based more solidly in the real world of the France and its people with which we have become familiar in an affectionate way through our regular visits.
What I thought, as I encountered, among other things, some of the usual sights along the way, and had to deal on the road with some of the usual impediments one encounters on the highways and byways of rural Provence, was how much deeper would be the experience of gaining mastery of conversational French if it addressed some typical sitations with what someone might actually wish to say to the individuals one encounters randomly, if not serendpitously on such rounds.
So, here are some phrases I came up with, just this morning, that I’d like the neophyte speaker of basic French to tackle. And let them decide how much more fulfilling it is to be challenged by these phrases.
Bicyclists (in summer especially there are many many of them on these country roads and the rules of those roads requires, in fact, that motorized vehicles must honor their right of way – I’ll leave it at that, otherwise my language might get unduly colorful):
“Hey, can’t you and your gang of eight manage to ride single file on this road?”
“I’m not sure you realize this, my friend, but you and your buddy there on the side of the road with no shoulder, having a cool drink of water, are practically invisible in the shade in this blinding sun. I came close to sending you flying.”
“Say, my ancient friend, I know very well you have the right of way, and I must pass on the left at least five feet away from you, but I think if you meander up the hill in the middle of this two-lane road you may be putting yourself in danger. I do worry. So, move over, if you don’t mind.”
Personal Needs (you will quickly note a theme here):
“I am so sorry to disturb you during your cigarette break, especially as you are the only waiter in this restaurant, but I wanted to bring to your attention that your washroom has no toilet paper, or soap. Oh, and you are out of towels.”
“I am sure it is very rude of me to comment, but might you consider putting a sign on your restroom door warning people that there a few centimeters of water on the floor they might wish to avoid?”
“I did want to tell you how fascinated I am to observe that your chef has figured out how to add some crême fraîche to every dish you have on offer.”
“Would it be terribly inconvenient to indicate in the menu – you can even do it only in French – that all of your salads include pork lardons and chicken gizzards? I appreciate these added bits of savory protein, but your portions are so generous, I would be happy to eat only the vegetables.”
Fellow Bewildered Tourists to the Region
“Well now, my good fellow, I see you are a little lost, as you entered the cramped parking area of the bakery in your large luxury car in the wrong direction, and have managed to make it impossible for me, in my little compact rental, and this other stout fellow, a local resident in his tiny van with his dog, to remove our vehicles, even though we have finished our purchases and wish to go home. But I’ll just sit here as I have plenty of time. I am sure you will figure out how to extricate yourself, and good luck my good man, as you do so.”
Normalization is a problem of the past, not the present
I have said repeatedly, usually, I admit, to no one in particular, from the first time I heard the usage as a warning, usually screamed (figuratively) in my (virtual) face from a (virtual) hysteric in that inevitable nearly impossible place, all too real, for all its virtuality, Facebook: “Don’t talk about normalizing Trump!” There’s no danger there. It too is impossible. It’s not entirely what the word means anyway.
What we have to fear is an adjustment and periodic readjustment in our perception of all that has come before, which was never normal at the time (and the farther back you go, the farther goes one’s sense of the craziness of the errant behavior). As Corey Robin points out in his essay “Forget About It” in the current Harper’s [paywall], though it’s here, if you want to take a shot at getting access (see below), it’s our constant reassessment upwards of the assault on our notion of normal during the administrations of Richard Nixon, and then later George W. Bush – “Hey those guys weren’t so bad, after all, were they?” – that is the real danger. And it’s a danger not because of the infamous reality distortion field identified by Steve Jobs in one of his P.T. Barnum moments. We’re not likely to accept anything that happens today, that is, any time at all during the tenure of the current incumbent of the White House, will register as normal, not to anyone with any vestige of sanity. It’s the extent to which by comparison some future rough beast (to use that particular, but miserably and perpetually apt trope) may make today’s beast look not half bad to our future selves. Or whoever has managed to replace us.
In short, the dangers of normalization are not to the future or even the present. We like to think we are always capable of vigilance, resistance, and clear-headedness. The danger, because we are never sufficiently in possession of those qualities, is to the past, where we think some pastoral and salubrious notion of normal resides. After all, it’s to that instinct that Trump so scurrilously adverts with his now patent cynicism of a slogan about what we can make of America. What we are making of it, because we suffer the distortions of sensibility that alter our notion of what is normal. And as we seek our way back to some semblance of it, we discover, as we have done repeatedly, that we have lost our way. Possibly irrevocably.
‘“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually [Philip] Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.’ — Corey Robin
Having just undergone the relatively unpleasant, but fortunately rare, experience of having a shipped package from a reseller (in short, merchandise paid for by me) go astray, I am particularly sensitive to the matter of imperfect heuristics in the most banal of interactions. My concerns are amplified personally, because at one time in my career my income derived in part from having in my designer repertoire of skills the need to design and, unfortunately, implement user interfaces on computer screens.
In the case of my package gone astray, the Fedex Ground delivery route driver (I did encounter him the same day, because he managed to deliver the second package from the same reseller accurately) seemed harried and confused. It’s not surprising. These folks are required to deliver the day’s assignment of parcels before being able to quit. They have to account for every package, get signatures for those cartons and parcel requiring it, scan every single item delivered as to time and date of leaving it at its destination. And of course, all of this must be done accurately, that is, trying to ensure that the package goes not only to the right address, but the correct recipient.
All of this must be done, moreover, under the unique constraint of the carrier (and all of them are alike in this regard, but especially the major ones, because they carry the bulk of the freight and their logistics are particularly dicey as they have all those individual residential addresses to which they must deliver) being required to deliver within a certain promised window and, if the purchase cost threshold is exceeded according to tariffs and fees that have been negotiated to the fraction of a cent, they must do so at a contracted rate, with razor thin margins. In the case of sales over a stated amount (anywhere from $25 to hundreds of dollars) the reseller is picking up the cost, and the services are very competitive, but especially so these days as the U.S. Postal Service, in its struggle to reach profitable operations (at the mercy of a refractory congress, which otherwise takes up the slack of the cost of operations), is now carrying a lot of the water for the other two major national delivery services, FedEx and UPS. The most costly part of any route is the proverbial “last mile,” which is the figurative representative distance between the last rational distribution point and a recipient’s address.
In the case of my errant delivery, the package did require a signature. And the last mile, like all the preceding miles of transport, was being covered by FedEx Ground. The driver obtained a signature. Unfortunately it was the signature of whoever answered the doorbell or knock of the guy when he brought the package to the door of the wrong address, somewhere in my neighborhood (but now, four days later, I am as much in the dark as to where it went as any other ordinary shmoe just waiting for his purchase). The signature, according to the tracking data I am allowed to see as the addressee, was by someone named, apparently, Sshishaanna. If you know this person, please let them know I’m still waiting for the package they took out of the sweating hands of the FedEx route guy.
You’d think anyone accepting a package would, among other things, first check to see where it was coming from, especially if you weren’t necessarily expecting a delivery, and two, to check to see who in the household it is to whom it’s addressed. But no, we, in our general mindlessness, apparently just sign, scribbling whatever indecipherable nonsense appears on the crude screen of the tracking device the route driver hands you along with the plastic stylus that doesn’t seem to register half the time anyway. It used to be you signed and that ended it, but these days – and let me guess, could it be because more and more packages go astray and more and more efforts to trace the package fail because the signature is indecipherable, for starters? – if the driver can’t make out what you wrote, they ask for the spelling of the name you wrote. I’ll also guess it probably took more time for him to type in “Sshishaanna” than he took to read the label before ringing the bell.
I could suggest some things that, germane to the topic of this essay about how to make interfaces not only more friendly and efficient, but more accurate in the everyday contexts of costly logistics as the last step in the process of getting merchandise into the hands of the paying consumer. And this is true especially in these days of more and more retail trade being conducted on the internet, and with a lag (as small now as two or three hours, given Amazon’s intrepid advance to abbreviate the wait for your precious consumer goods) before what you’ve purchased is in your anxious little mitts. Why doesn’t that tracking gizmo that the driver hands you for your signature show in a conspicuous way the name and address of the recipient in clear and readable text with the caveat that you are about to sign for a package shipped to this individual and to please make sure it’s correct? That’s just for starters.
I don’t know how you train route drivers cost-effectively so that you reduce the kinds of imbecilic errors they perform routinely. And which even mistakes that result in sanctions they feel in their own wallets and purses do not encourage them to behave more mindfully in the performance of their salaried duties. But I do know there is clearly a great deal more to be done with the materials and technology at hand, which is being used anyway, and which would produce more and more accurate results (at greater cost-effectiveness) with the small adjustments that an informed methodology applied to the design of labels, device screens, and the mechanisms, both mechanical and electronic, used to ensure that the participants in a transaction are given the best chance of not screwing up. The untoward consequences in most cases are a small amount of frustration that most adults can shrug off, especially in a day or so. But sometimes the result, as this OUP essay adverts to, can be as disastrous and anxiety provoking on a mass basis as the goof that sent the entire population of Hawaii into a panic because of an alleged nuclear attack. The warning was an error of monstrous proportions in its effects, but tiny in terms of the mechanism deployed to trigger it on the simple assumption that no one who was thinking and paying attention would do absent-mindedly or in error.
The denouement of my package disappearance is that the reseller has to ship me another one, that is, as soon as they get more items in stock, because it’s back-ordered. Popular item you see. Flies off the shelves. Even if the cost is high enough that I get “expedited shipping” for “free.”
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