On My Mother’s Last Days

The last five months of Mom’s life were spent in an assisted living apartment just about two miles away from my house. I was able to visit her every day, despite the pandemic, because she was listed as a hospice patient—for which I was very grateful. Some days I would stay for an hour and a half, some days longer. A few times we would get caught up in an old movie and I would stay to watch it to the end, and three hours would go by before I’d get home. It didn’t matter to me, as I had nothing special to do, anyway. I knew the time with Mom would be short, and I was glad to spend what time I could with her, which is why I didn’t dare miss a single daily visit.

I’m not sure how much she was aware of, but I don’t think it was much. There were good days and better days, and a few bad ones. She was, however, always happy to see me when I came into her apartment, and I think she always remembered who I was. When I came to see her last Wednesday (I think), she was at lunch, and I went up to her small table to say hello in the dining room on my way to her apartment. She looked at me with recognition in her eyes, and said, “Oh, I was wondering where you were! I’ve been waiting for you!” It was a good day, and we were able to take a few minutes later that afternoon to call my sister. It was a short call, and at the end of it, my sister said, “Bye, I love you, Mom.” Mom replied, in a surprised voice, “You do?” It was quite funny, and we all laughed, Mom especially. It was always good to hear her laugh.

There were some wonderful people at her building who helped her. She was very popular with the aides, because by this point in her life, she was easy-going and pleasant, and completely gracious. She seemed to really connect with Peter, a handsome Jamaican man who somehow ended up in the Frozen North. Peter was caring and gentle. He’d come into her room and say, “How you doing today, Mama? Let’s go get some lunch!” Yesterday, in Mom’s last hours, he’d stroke her hair and say, “What you doing now, Mama?” I have the feeling that Mom, always flirtatious, reacted to his guileless charm. I know I did, and I don’t consider myself flirtatious at all. But Peter was extremely kind to me, bringing me food the last day from the kitchen, showing me how to wet Mom’s mouth with small sponges to alleviate her thirst, and just chatting with me about all sorts of things.

Alicia helped in the last days, too, despite being eight months pregnant. She broke into tears when we called her into the room to report that Mom had died. Michelle was amazing with Mom’s showers, and when I happened to be there during them, I would wait on the loveseat for Mom to get done, and Michelle would bring her out of the bathroom, a little shaky on her pegs, with her hair wet and clean, and dressed in her ridiculous flannel pajamas—at three in the afternoon. Michelle and I would get Mom settled into her chair, recline it, and cover her with a blanket. Then I’d bring her a cup of instant flavored coffee—I would always make her some when I came in to visit, just as I’d always feed her cat Prissy some canned catfood—and we’d watch a show about animals, which she loved (she once told me she liked it when they fought, which I found quite odd, but, oh well), or a classic movie (I had no idea she loved Spencer Tracy so much—she was absolutely bonkers about him), or Gunsmoke. She loved to point to Matt Dillon when he appeared on the screen and say, “There he is!” Again, I had no idea she even knew who Matt Dillon was, much less that she liked that show.

Theresa did Mom’s wash, and she was extremely kind and patient, especially during the last days, when there was a lot of wash to do. Tracy, another aide, also helped those last few days. She was new to the facility, but she learned the routines quickly, and she was very caring, not only to Mom, but to me as well. We had several conversations about children, and families, and aging parents.

The nurses were more than capable: Natalie, the Hospice nurse, had a matter-of-fact attitude that made dying seem normal, which I suppose it is, until it happens to someone you love. But she was also really sweet during her last visits, and I took comfort from them. Wendy was the nurse on the desk at American House; a slightly built young woman, she was capable and tough—and, surprisingly, ambidextrous, which I noticed soon after I first met her, when she was signing me in per the Covid protocols. She had a preference for her left hand, she told me, but used whichever one was more convenient.

All in all, while I wish Mom hadn’t been so far gone in her dementia when we moved her to be closer to me from her previous living situation, I really don’t think things could have ended up better, given the circumstances. Mom was happy, as far as I could tell. She had Prissy with her, who came out from under the bed when no one was there but Mom. Soon after Mom got settled into her apartment, I stopped knocking before I came in because I didn’t want to scare Prissy under the bed. My tactic worked, and I got to see her little smushed face for longer and longer intervals, until by now she is completely used to me and comes to me for petting and purring sessions. She seems even to have forgiven me for my part in shaving her to free her of the matting in her long fur. It’s true that my husband did the shaving, but I was the one who held her. We did an abysmal job, and she ended up looking like someone had tried to butcher her but changed their mind midway through, her fur was so uneven. But she was much more comfortable afterwards, and Mom didn’t mind our wretched handiwork.

Taking care of my mother in her last few months wasn’t really such a heroic task. It was, in fact, quite easy to go over there and sit with her and knit silly projects while we watched television. To be honest, I found it challenging to sustain a conversation with her, so I just sat and occasionally pointed out something that was happening on screen. To my surprise, I found that Mom loved watching slapstick movies, guffawing at Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers’ antics. She loved watching Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and she hated seeing monkeys, except for baby monkeys. Actually, she loved seeing any babies, whether they were baby animals in a program about the zoo, or human babies on a silly commercial. Perhaps this delight was displaced from her love for her great-grand-babies Henry and Daphne, whom she always loved to see on the Grandpad.

The last day wasn’t so easy, but it was just one day, and I was glad to be there for it, even though it was hard to witness. All in all, I feel like it was a privilege to have had my mother under my care for these last few months. I realized that my siblings were entrusting me, the youngest one, with an important task. I was determined to do it as well as I could, not only for Mom’s sake, but for them, since they were prevented from doing it by circumstances beyond all our control.

My mother died at the ripe old age of 90, something no one would have predicted in her wild and wooly youth. She left behind a passel of grown grandchildren, all of whom loved her in their own ways, and two great-grand children, as well as her own three children and their spouses. She also left behind a legacy of flamboyant hats, watered-down martinis with ice in them, and some really wonderful stories that will live long after her death.

How We Got Here: A Theory

The United States is a mess right now. Beset by a corrupt president and his corporate cronies, plagued by a — um — plague, Americans are experiencing an attack on democracy from within. So just how did we get to this point in history?

I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I’ve come up with a theory. Like many theories, it’s built on a certain amount of critical observation and a large degree of personal experience. Marry those things to each other, and you can often explain even the most puzzling enigmas. Here, then, is my stab at explaining how American society became so divisive that agreement on any political topic has become virtually impossible, leaving a vaccuum so large and so empty that corruption and the will to power can ensure political victory.

I maintain that this ideological binarism in the United States is caused by two things: prejudice (racism has, in many ways, always determined our political reality), and lack of critical thinking skills (how else could so many people fail to see Trump for what he really is and what he really represents?) Both of these problems result from poor education. For example, prejudice certainly exists in all societies, but the job of a proper education in a free society is to eradicate, or at least to combat, prejudice and flawed beliefs. Similarly, critical thinking skills, while amorphous and hard to define, can be acquired through years of education, whether by conducting experiements in chemistry lab or by explicating Shakespeare’s sonnets. It follows, then, that something must be radically wrong with our educational system for close to half of the population of the United States to be fooled into thinking that Donald Trump can actually be good for this country, much less for the world at large.

In short, there has always been a possibility that a monster like Trump would appear on the political scene. Education should have saved us from having to watch him for the last four years, and the last month in particular, as he tried to dismantle our democracy. Yet it didn’t. So the question we have to ask is this: Where does the failure in education lie?

The trendy answer would be that this failure is a feature, not a bug, in American education, which was always designed to mis-educate the population in order to make it more pliable, more willing to follow demogogues such as Trump. But I’m not satisfied with this answer. It’s too easy, and more important, it doesn’t help us get back on track by addressing the failure (if that’s even possible at this point). So I kept searching for an explanation.

I’ve come up with the following premises. First, the divisions in the country are caused by a lack of shared values–this much is clear. For nearly half the American people, Trump is the apotheosis of greedy egotism, a malignant narcissist who is willing to betray, even to destroy, his country in order to get what he wants, so that he can “win” at the system. For the other half, Trump is a breath of fresh air, a non-politician who was willing to stride into the morass of Washington in order to clean it up and set American business back on its feet. These two factions will never be able to agree–not on the subject of Trump, and very likely, not on any other subject of importance to Americans.

It follows that these two views are irreconcilable precisely because they reflect a dichotomy in values. Values are the intrinsic beliefs that an individual holds about what’s right and wrong; when those beliefs are shared by a large enough group, they become an ethical system. Ethics, the shared sense of right and wrong, seems to be important in a society; as we watch ours disintegrate, we can see that without a sense of ethics, society splinters into factions. Other countries teach ethics as a required subject in high school classes; in the United States, however, only philosophy majors in universities ever take classes on ethics. Most Americans, we might once have said, don’t need such classes, since they experience their ethics every day. If that ever was true, it certainly isn’t so any more.

Yet I would argue that Americans used to have an ethical belief system. We certainly didn’t live up to it, and it was flawed in many ways, but it did exist, and that’s very different from having no ethical system at all. It makes sense to postulate that some time back around the turn of the 21st century, ethics began to disappear from society. I’m not saying that people became unethical, but rather that ethics ceased to matter, and as it faded away, it ceased to exist as a kind of social glue that could hold Americans together.

I think I know how this happened, but be warned: my view is pretty far-fetched. Here goes. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, literary theory poached upon the realm of philosophy, resulting in a collection of theories that insisted a literary text could be read in any number of ways, and that no single reading of a text was the authoritative one. This kind of reading and interpretation amounted to an attack on the authority of the writer and the dominant ideology that produced him or her, as it destabilized the way texts were written, read, and understood. I now see that just as the text became destabilized with this new way of reading, so did everything else. In other words, if an English professor could argue that Shakespeare didn’t belong in the literary canon any longer, that all texts are equally valid and valuable (I’ve argued this myself at times), the result is an attack not only on authority (which was the intention), but also on communality, by which I mean society’s shared sense of what it values, whether it’s Hamlet or Gilligan’s Island. This splintering of values was exacerbated by the advent of cable television and internet music sources; no one was watching or listening to the same things any more, and it became increasingly harder to find any shared ideological place to begin discussions. In other words, the flip side of diversity and multiplicity–noble goals in and of themselves–is a dark one, and now, forty years on, we are witnessing the social danger inherent in dismantling not only the canon, but any system of judgment to assess its contents as well.

Here’s a personal illustration. A couple of years ago, I taught a college Shakespeare class, and on a whim I asked my students to help me define characters from Coriolanus using Dungeons and Dragons character alignment patterns. It was the kind of exercise that would have been a smashing success in my earlier teaching career, the very thing that garnered me three teaching awards within five years. But this time it didn’t work. No one was watching the same television shows, reading the same books, or remembering the same historical events, and so there was no way to come up with good examples that worked for the entire class to illustrate character types. I began to see then that a splintered society might be freeing, but at what cost if we had ceased to be able to communicate effectively?

It’s not a huge leap to get from that Shakespeare class to the fragmentation of a political ideology that leaves, in the wreckage it’s produced, the door wide open to oligarchy, kleptocracy, and fascism. There are doubtless many things to blame, but surely one of them is the kind of socially irresponsible literary theory that we played around with back in the 1980s. I distinctly remember one theorist saying something to the effect that no one has ever been shot for being a deconstructionist, and while that may be true, it is not to say that deconstructionist theory, or any kind of theory that regards its work as mere play, is safe for the society it inhabits. Indeed, we may well be witnessing how very dangerous unprincipled theoretical play can turn out to be, even decades after it has held sway.

Convent-ional Trends in Film and Television

Lately I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with the Aged Parent , and one thing we do together–something we’ve rarely done before–is watch television shows. My mother, deep in the throes of dementia, perks up when she sees Matt Dillon and Festus ride over the Kansas (it is Kansas, isn’t it?) plains to catch bad guys and rescue the disempowered from their clutches. Daytime cable television is filled with Westerns, and I find this fascinating, although I’ve never been a fan of them in the past. Part of my new-found fascination is undoubtedly inspired by Professor Heather Cox Richardson’s theory–presented in her online lectures as well as her Substack newsletter–that the United States’s fascination with the Western genre has a lot to do with the libertarian, every-man-for-himself ideal most Westerns present. I think she’s got a point, but I don’t think that this alone explains our fascination with Westerns. This, however, is an argument I’ll have to return to at a later date, because in this blog post, what I want to talk about is nuns.

Yes–that’s right–Catholic nuns. What was going on in the 1950s and ’60s that made the figure of the young, attractive nun so prevalent in films and television? Here, for example, is a short list of the movies that feature nuns from the 1960s:

  1. The Nun’s Story (1959) with Audrey Hepburn
  2. The Nun and the Sergeant (1962), itself a remake of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
  3. Lilies of the Field (1963) with Sidney Poitier
  4. The Sound of Music (1965), no comment needed
  5. The Singing Nun (1966) starring Debbie Reynolds
  6. The Trouble with Angels (1966) with Rosalind Russsell and Hayley Mills
  7. Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968), the sequel to #6
  8. Change of Habit (1969), starring the strangely matched Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley (!)

The fascination with nuns even bled over into television, with the series The Flying Nun (1967-1970), starring a post-Gidget Sally Field. This show, with its ridiculous premise of a nun who can fly, seems to have ended the fascination with nuns, or perhaps its bald stupidity simply killed it outright. From 1970 until 1992, when Sister Act appeared, there seemed to be a lull in American movies featuring nuns. Incidentally, the films I’ve mentioned here all feature saccharine-sweet characters and simple plots; in a typically American fashion, many of the difficult questions and problems involved in choosing a cloistered life are elided or simply ignored. There are, however, other movies featuring nuns that are not so wholesome; Wikipedia actually has a page devoted to what it terms “Nunsploitation.” These films, mostly foreign, seem more troubling and edgier. I leave an analysis of such films to another blogger, however, because what I really want to investigate is this: why was American culture so enamored, for the space of a decade, with nuns and convent life? I’ve argued previously that popular culture performs the critical task of reflecting and representing dominant ideologies, so my question goes deeper than just asking, “Hey, what’s with all these nuns?” Rather, it seeks to examine what conditions caused this repetitive obsession about nuns in a country that prided itself on the distance between religion and politics and, at least superfiically, religion’s exclusion from American ideology.

I have some ideas, but nothing that could be hammered together neatly enough to call a theory to explain this obsession, and so I will be looking to my readers to provide additional explanations. Surely the box-office success of films starring Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Reynolds, Sidney Poitier, and Julie Andrews count for something: Hollywood has always been a fan of the old “if it worked once, it should work again” creative strategy. But I think this might be too simple an explanation. I’ll have another go: perhaps in an era when women were beginning to explore avenues to power, self-expression, and sexual freedom, the image of a contained and circumscribed nun was a comfort to the conservative forces in American society. It’s just possible that these nuns’ stories were a representation of the desire to keep women locked up, contained, and submissive. On the other hand, the image of the nun could be just the opposite, one in which women’s struggle for independence and self-actualization was most starkly rendered by showing religious women asserting their will despite all the odds against them.

I think it’s quite possible that both these explanations, contradictory as they seem, might be correct. Certainly the depiction of women who submit to being controlled and defined by religion presents a comforting image of a hierarchical past to an audience that fears not only the future but the present as well (we should remember that the world was experiencing profoundly threatening social and political upheaval in the late 1960s). Yet at the same time, the struggle many of these nun-characters undergo in these films might well be representative of non-religious women’s search for meaning, independence, and agency in their own lives.

As I said, I have more questions than answers, and I will end this post with an obvious one: what effect did these films have on the general public? We’ve briefly explored the idea of where such movies came from and what they represent in the American ideology that produced them, but what did they do to their audiences? Was there any increase in teenage girls joining convents in the 1970s, after these films played in theatres and later, on television? What did the religious orders themselves have to say about such films? I’d be interested in learning the answers to these questions, so readers, if you have any ideas, or if you just want to compare notes and share your impressions, please feel free to comment!

P is for Parakeet

George and Martha, my current parakeets

I do a lot of reading in my spare time, and I have tons of spare time right now, so it follows that I have been reading a great deal. As I indicated in my last post, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone (Victorian and early 19th century novels and poems) to learn a bit about environmentalism and the natural sciences. One book I recently started to listen to is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a memoir of her attempt to train a hawk as a therapeutic attempt to cope with her father’s death. I have to be honest: there’s a part of me–a part I’m not proud of–that is just a bit critical, perhaps more than a little impatient, with Macdonald’s musings. I began to talk back to the book in that way we do when we’re feeling a little bit snarky. (I assume we all do this–at least, I hope I’m not the only one in the world who talks back to books.) In short, I wondered what my foray into avian behavioral training would like if I deigned to tell my story.

This is my long-winded way of saying that for Helen Macdonald, H may be for Hawk, but in my world P is for Parakeet.

I must have been about six years old when I acquired my first parakeet, a blue-breasted beauty that sat in his cage all morning long, patiently awaiting my return home from school, only to burst into song when I charged through the door of our Brooklyn duplex. His name was Fluffy, short for Fluffernutter Ike, a compilation of the two things I loved most in the world at that age: fluffernutter sandwiches (a noxious peanut butter and marshamallow combination that was guaranteed to make anyone over ten years old gag) and Dwight D.Eisenhower. I liked Ike because he was a war hero and a fine president, but most of all, because his birthday was the day before mine.

At any rate, I had had Fluffy for perhaps a year when he succumbed to a draft in the house, dying on Christmas day. Aside from the all-too-real grief this inspired in a small child, Fluffy’s untimely death presented another problem: what to do with the body. I’m sure my parents suggested disposing of it in the trash can outside, but I was adamant that he deserved a proper burial. I’m not sure who came up with a plan so brilliant it was doomed to fail, but this is how we solved the problem of what to do with the dead parakeet. Amid the Christmas debris of opened presents, strewn wrapping paper, and red-and-green ribbons was a gaily striped gift box, perfectly sized for Fluffy’s small, inert corpse, and into that he went. Even I realized that it was too gross to keep the box in the house, so we agreed that it seemed best to put the box with Fluffy inside it into the metal milkbox that sat outside, just below the kitchen window. Into that milkbox went Fluffy’s casket to await a proper burial, hopefully within the next few days, when the Brooklyn ground thawed.

It’s pretty obvious by now where this story is going, so I’ll be brief. Our milkman must have been of English descent, because he took Fluffy off with him, undoubtedly thinking that since it was Boxing Day, we had provided him with a nice little gift. It was a gift redolent of the meal that Bette Davis serves Joan Crawford in the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? When I came inside that afternoon, after playing outside with my new Christmas toys, with the news that Fluffy’s casket had mysteriously disappeared, my parents were aghast. I’m not sure what they did in response: perhaps they actually went out and got the milkman a proper present. I’d like to think that they did. All I know is that by the following afternoon, the box–with Fluffy still nestled peacefully within it–had been discreetly returned to the milkbox.

Perhaps I was inconsolable at the loss of Fluffy, because I got another parakeet fairly quickly after his demise. This parakeet was named Dinky, and he was present at the break-up of my family, a spectacular and somewhat tragic event in which my parents had one last dramatic and prolonged argument that ended with my mother taking the three of us children and our beagle Honeybee to Texas with her. In the chaos preceding our departure, my mother forgot about Dinky, but I must have protested loudly, because she supplied me with a shoebox and a Schrafft’s bag and told me to put Dinky in there for the duration of the airplane flight. This was, of course, long before security checks and TSA, and it was relatively easy to sneak things onto a flight, and Dinky, secure in his well-ventilated cardboard box at the bottom of the paper shopping bag, got on board without a hitch. I sat, somewhat shellshocked by the knowledge that things would never go back to normal for my family, clutching the Schrafft’s bag on my lap as the plane taxied onto the runway and took off. Once we leveled off, however, the stewardess (it was a stewardess in those days, not a flight attendant), came by, glanced at the bag that I was clenching, and took it from me, saying, “You don’t have to carry this on your lap for the whole flight, dearie. I’ll put it up above you.” I watched, tongue-tied with horror, as she took my bag, turned it upside down, and jammed it into the overhead bin. Fearing that I would get in trouble for sneaking my beloved bird aboard, I said nothing even though I was convinced that the jolting had killed him. I simply sat there in my aisle seat, blinking back my tears, the picture of nine-year-old stoicism.

But something surprising happened about midway through the three-hour flight. Dinky, far from being dead, perked up and started chirping–quite loudly. In fact, his song got louder and and louder until everyone on that plane, it seemed, heard it. It was an insistent chirp–thankfully not a screech–and it crescendoed until it was the only sound I could hear. I’m not sure what my mother was thinking, as she was in the row behind me; goodness knows she had enough to deal with. “Do something,” said my sister, who was next to me; however, I had no idea what to do. It turned out that I didn’t need to do anything, because just then the stewardess walked up to my seat. I squeezed my eyes shut, certain that I was about to get in big trouble. There was a pause, and then, leaning over me, she patted me on my shoulder and handed me the Schrafft’s bag, with Dinky still singing inside. “Here,” she said. “I think you need to keep this with you, after all.” I hope that stewardess understood what a difference she made to a young girl who had a lot on her plate that day.

Fluffy and Dinky have been followed by several other parakeets. Most recently, I’ve fallen into the trap of multiple bird ownership. Having found out that parakeets do well in pairs–at least mine do–I keep two together, thinking they provide companionship for each other, and always intending that this pair is the last pair I’ll own. But somehow I can never extricate myself from parakeet ownership. People have actually given me parakeets that they no longer want, and, like a sap, I accept them and take care of them. I suppose, in a way, taking care of parakeets is one of my functions in life.

And while I like parakeets a lot, I can’t say that I feel anything like the veneration and awe for them that Macdonald feels for hawks. But there’s a bright side to that–my peroration on parakeets is a hell of a lot shorter than hers on hawks is and, I hope, a bit less pretentious as well.

The Autodidact: Nature/Ecology/Conservation

Like many other people my age, I received a fairly narrow education in high school. I compounded the damage done by willingly narrowing down my fields of interest even further once I got to college, and by necessity, still more when I was in graduate school. It follows that now, as a retired professor of English entering my seventh decade on this planet, I can discourse endlessly about William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and the fact that the former gave the latter a gift of a Border Terrier dog named Pepper (honest!), but until recently, I couldn’t tell you a thing about how trees grow and what happens in a forest.

Had I become aware of this lacuna in my education earlier in my life, it probably would not have bothered me. Many people, perhaps most people, live with their own ignorance staring them in the face. I was no different; if I was ignorant in one topic, I had other areas of knowledge to compensate for it, right? Perhaps what is remarkable isn’t so much my ignorance, but rather my decision to remedy it, although this scenario must be repeated endlessly among human beings, in adults and children alike. One day, seemingly out of the blue, we decide we want to know more about something, and so we take it up, read about it, perhaps compulsively, until we educate ourselves out of our own ignorance.

The event which sparked my self-education is simple to identify: my husband and I bought a forest. Describing it in this way, however, makes me cringe with distaste. I hate using the term “bought,” which denotes a mere cash transaction. It’s better, I think, to say that I acquired a forest, becoming its guardian and its careful observer. By acquiring it and walking in it hundreds of times, I fell in love with it. And like any new lover, I wanted to know everything about it I could; so, when I wasn’t in the forest, or doing the endless quotidian tasks that make up the greater part of a person’s life, I set out on my journey to learn as much as I could absorb at this late date about trees, ecology, and conservation.

One of the first books I read was Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, which is pretty much the Lyrical Ballads (for you Wordsworth lovers) of ecology writing. The idea of a Land Ethic was new to me, but I could see that it was as important, in its way, as the idea of negative capability was to Keats. I took two full pages of handwritten notes from Leopold’s book, which I won’t go into here, as it deserves its own blog post. For now, I’ll just say that several generations of conservationists and ecologists have been influenced by Leopold’s book; I was late to the party, as usual, and had never even heard of it–evidence of my flimsy natural science/ecology education.

Leopold’s book is important, but I have also been touched by a book I picked, at random, from the shelf of my local library: The Biography of a Tree, by James P. Jackson. It is just what it says it is: the life story of a white oak tree, from acorn to seedling, then on to forest giant and finally as a dead trunk rotting on the forest floor. This may not sound interesting, but Jackson pulls it off beautifully. The writing is careful and precise, while at the same time evocative. Jackson’s work, however, seems to be virtually unknown. (To prove this, I’ll just point out that his Amazon best-seller rating is even lower than that of my own two novels, and that’s saying something.) He seems never to have written anything else. In this age of instant contact, I found myself wanting to email him, or to follow him on Twitter to thank him for his painstaking work–but there’s no digital trace of him at all.

Alas, it is a sad and lonely business being a writer–as many of my readers know from first-hand experience. Pouring one’s heart and soul into a labor that will go unacknowledged is a risky business, and a thankless one, but at the same time it is a vitally important one. Can we take some slight solace in the fact that once published, a work may go unread for decades (The Biography of a Tree was published in 1979), only to spring to life, on cue, in a new reader’s hands, inspiring new thoughts, emotions, and passions decades after it was forgotten by an inhospitable public? Reading Jackson’s work, I realized that a writer’s life resembles that of the seventeen-year cicada, a recurring character in his book, a forest denizen that burrows itself below the soil for almost two decades, only to emerge into the sun for a mere month or two of life in the sunshine. The majority of its life is invisible, almost dormant–but it can accomplish so much during those short days it spends above the ground. Jackson’s book is the same: it may be inert and ineffective while it sits on the shelf of libraries, but once in the hands of an interested reader, what power it has! What influence! And though my appreciation of James P. Jackson comes too late to do him any good, at least it has done me worlds of good to have read, and appreciated, his work.

Covid-19 and The Iliad

I’ll be honest: for a moment I thought about entitling this post “Reflections on Re-reading the Iliad,” but aside from sounding very dull, I will admit that I’m not sure I ever did read that pillar of Western Literature in college. Of course, like most other people, I’d heard of it. I’m old enough to have gotten my first and greatest dose of mythology–Greek, Roman, and a small bit of Norse myths–from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology almost fifty years ago, back when I was in high school.

To be honest, I’ve always wondered why American schools even bother to teach mythology. For a long time, I thought it was just to provide an introduction to the basis of Western culture, but then I realized, with a shock, that mythology in high-school English curricula actually had no point; rather, it was an oversight, a leftover from previous educational imperatives. Our insistence on teaching mythology to bored high school students, in other words, is something like having an appendix in our guts: there is no real purpose for it. While it once did have a function, it now simply dangles there with any reason for existing.

Here’s my version of why we have mythology in high school. It certainly isn’t for them to become acquainted with stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. After all, these stories are brimming with violence and sex, and are totally unsuitable for young learners. How do you explain the rape of Leda by Zeus–in the shape of a swan, no less–to high school students? Yet this is where the Trojan War, and the Iliad, really begins, as William Butler Yeats reminds us in his masterful poem “Leda and the Swan.” No, the reason we teach such things is because they were once vehicles for learning Latin and Greek. All language learners know that it’s no fun simply to do exercise after exercise when you’re trying to acquire a second language; you want to get to stories and dialogues, no matter how puerile or simplistic. (Incidentally, the language-learning computer platform Duolingo has figured this out and now provides an entire block of lessons with short stories to keep its learners interested. It’s worked for me.) Since a truly educated person, from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, needed to know at least some Latin and less Greek (as the poet Ben Jonson rated Shakespeare’s knowledge), schools were obsessed with drumming classical languages into recalcitrant students’ heads. What better way to get them to learn than to present them with violent, prurient tales of heroes and heroines? For generations, apparently, the scheme worked. But gradually the need and desire to showcase one’s Latin and Greek knowledge wore off, and these languages ceased to be taught in schools.

But the mythology remained. And thank goodness it did.

A few years ago, a friend of mine and I decided to read the then newly published translation of the The Iliad by Caroline Alexander. We never got past the first few books then, but Covidtimes provided us a new opportunity, and we started over. I began by being less than impressed with the story, but I have to admit that now I am pretty much hooked. The world that it presents is violent and nasty, but there are some moments of real beauty, too.

Yet what has really caught my attention is that the world of the Iliad is totally random. Things happen for no reason, or for reasons well beyond the control of the humans involved. You may think you’re winning a battle, but then a god shows up, sometimes disguised as a human, sometimes in a fog, and things go to hell in a handbasket quickly, and suddenly you’re terrified and hiding by your ships wondering if you should push off for home. Events kaleidoscope by and you can’t do anything about them, because even if you do take action, often it has the opposite effect you intend.

In other words, life as represented in The Iliad is something like life in a pandemic. Covid seems to hit randomly, and to hurt randomly. We don’t know why some people are barely affected by the virus while others are struck down, killed or incapacitated by it. We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. We don’t know what steps the government will take to protect us from it. We are like the characters in the Iliad, taking action in good faith but knowing in our bones that anything can happen.

Nowhere is this brought out more poignantly than in a relatively insignificant scene in Book 8, which takes place in the middle of a raging battle. The Trojan Paris shoots an arrow at the Greek Nestor, which hits the seasoned warrior’s horse in the head, “where a horse’s forelock / grows on the skull, and where is most fatal” (lines 84-85). Then something truly odd happens; the narrative perspective changes and instead of watching sweeping actions–men swinging swords and throwing spears, horses stamping over bodies, chariots careening and crashing about–suddenly we are watching a single arrow as it plunges into a horse’s head. We watch, transfixed, as the arrow skewers the poor horse, who in his death agony “flung the horses with him into panic as he writhed around the arrow point” (line 87). We go from big action (battle), to smaller actions (arrow shooting), to an even smaller action (the arrow penetrating the horse’s brain). The center of focus has contracted to the tiny tip of an arrow, and we, like the horse itself, are flung around this arrow, orbiting it just as the earth orbits the sun. We have changed our perspective, from large heroic actions taken by men, to a single arrow around which a horse rotates. It’s as if we’re inhabiting a kaleidoscope, living on the inside of it, subject to its twists and turns at any moment. The effect on the reader is disorienting, just as it is meant to be, because it reinforces the sense that events in the story are random, uncontrollable, and largely unpredictable, while at the same time suggesting that mere perspective determines our allegiance and our ideology.

This is why I find reading The Iliad right now so very meaningful. This is a poem that was written ages before the Enlightenment values of logic, continuity, causality–in short, Reason–had been adopted in Western culture. These values are being tested right now in our daily lives, and reading this ancient epic reinforces the sense that values come and go, that worldviews shift and change, and that our sense of primacy is, and should be, rather fragile. If there is anything that Covid-19 has taught us, it is that, at least in the short run, we are all at the mercy of the gods, whoever and whatever those gods may be, and we must, like Odysseus, Agamemnon, Hector, and Achilles, simply get along as best we can in the face of a world we cannot control, even if we desperately want to believe we can.

As it happens, recent research suggests that the appendix does, in fact, have a function: to protect and nurture healthy bacteria until they are needed in the gut. Perhaps teaching mythology serves a similar purpose; perhaps, appendix-like, it preserves and protects various ideas, attitudes, and perspectives that, while outmoded and seemingly unnecessary in modern life, can provide us some kind of insight in difficult times. At any rate, reading The Iliad has certainly given me food for thought these past few weeks.

On the Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I have something to say about the death of RBG.

There is an old Jewish tale that says the fate of the world rests on 30 just and honest human beings. Without these people, everything that we know and love will collapse. And here’s the kicker: No one knows who these people are–not even the 30 just and honest people themselves. And consequently, we must all act as if we ourselves are one of those 30 just people, whose very existence makes it possible to repair the world (“tikkun olam”) — just in case we turn out to be one of those very necessary people.

Clearly we lost one of the 30 on Friday afternoon, when RBG died. Now we must all step up to the plate, because it may be that we ourselves are called on to replace her and be one of the 30 just men and women in the world whose very existence holds evil at bay.

It’s time to get to work, everyone. Live your ideals and your beliefs every day. Be like RBG.

Something Different

I am very close to finishing up Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a novel which too few people today have ever read or even care about, and I will have something to say about that soon. But for now, I thought I’d post a short story I’ve written, whose title is…

The Decay of Memory

I

 The first and only time Terri Goodkind went to Vienna, she fell ill with a harrowing fever that kept her a prisoner in her boutique hotel room, shivering and sweating on a bed that was much too big for her aching body, and getting to know each crack in the salmon-colored walls far too well.

“If I’d known I was going to get this sick,” she would tell her children when she got home, wearied and depressed, “I’d have picked a nicer hotel.”

The trip had been a crazy idea, the kind of thing a middle-aged woman does when she realizes she’s getting older and may be running out of time to do the things she’s always dreamt of doing. The things that are commonly relegated to one’s “bucket list,” although Terri had always hated that term, saying, “Why put everything together into a bucket just to reach in and pull something out at random? If it’s important to you, you should do it intentionally, purposefully, as if it really means something.”

With Rob gone after years of illness and her 30-year marriage a piece of personal history, Terri found herself ready to travel but unwilling to visit either of her two children—both of whom would welcome her, certainly, but would do so out of a sense of obligation, perhaps even pity. Instead, she bought a ticket to Vienna one Saturday evening in January after watching a travel program about the city’s delights.

Vienna was one of the cities she’d missed when she had traveled through Europe after college with her cousin and Rob, back in the early 1980s. They had done the American equivalent of the Grand Tour but had somehow managed to leave out Vienna. When she asked her cousin why they’d skipped it, he couldn’t quite remember, but told her it was probably because they just didn’t want to leave Italy. They’d been having so much fun there, he said.

“We had a good time in Italy?” she had asked him over the phone, surprised. She remembered very little about their time there.

“Sure,” Alex replied. “Don’t you remember the beaches, the parties—the grappa?”

“Oh, right,” said Terri, and laughed. But after she’d hung up the phone, she wondered whether she had enjoyed her Italian experience as much as Alex had, or rather, as much as Alex thought he had. Had they really danced their way through Bacchanalian parties in Vomero with other college students? She wished she could ask Rob, but even if he were still alive, it had been a very long time since he’d had any grasp of any memories from their early years together.

During the flight across the Atlantic, Terri had congratulated herself on her resilience, her new-found independence, and her ability to get on with the business of living. She sustained her energetic optimism through two connecting flights—the last one delayed—a struggle with an awkward carry-on bag, and the silent and tense Uber ride to her tiny hotel, which was nestled in a non-descript part of Vienna. She could have believed she was anywhere, she thought, as she entered the lobby. While it didn’t look quite like New York City or even San Francisco, it bore no resemblance to the Vienna of her imagination.

She was tired by the time she reached her room, which was one of a half-dozen units that opened onto a central courtyard. Across the courtyard, she could see the hotel’s kitchen, as well as a few workers struggling to carry large pans from which steam floated in lazy, curling wisps. She would eat dinner there, Terri decided, rolling her suitcase into the alcove by the bathroom and sitting on the corner of the bed.

She looked at her surroundings. Four walls painted a shade of reddish-yellow, meant to be trendy but achieving only a sickly ambience. A rickety side table with a large, wine-red chair next to it. Wall sconce lighting above the bed. A spare but clean bathroom, with the shower, toilet, and sink tightly compressed into an efficient use of space never found in the United States. Threadbare but freshly vacuumed rugs, with foot traffic patterns clearly visible across the lavender and lime pile.

Terri resisted the urge to curl up on the bed. She was tired, but she knew the rule: to avoid jet lag, don’t succumb to the desire to sleep upon arrival. Push yourself to get out, walk, tour a museum or two, just keep moving as long as possible. Go to bed at 6 pm if necessary, but do all you can to reset your internal clock. And so, instead of lying down, she splashed cold water over her face and brushed her hair, even though she yearned for a long, hot shower.  She forced herself to put on her coat and walked back through the courtyard, where the tantalizing scent of fried onions, garlic, and something else—was it coriander?—floated through the wintry air. It wasn’t lunchtime yet, but the restaurant must have been preparing dishes ahead of time.

Terri made her way to the lobby, where she hesitated only a few seconds in warmth before pulling open the entry door and stepping outside onto the sidewalk. Her hotel looked like a normal apartment entrance; there was no real indication, except for the three stars on a plaque by the doorway, that it was indeed a hotel. It was colder than she thought it would be, and she fumbled with her zipper, pulling it all the way up to her neck.

Walking through streets she shared with businessmen and businesswomen, Terri admitted to herself that catching up on sleep was not the only reason she longed, despite her best judgment, to return to her room. Now that she was in Vienna, she realized what a crazy idea it had been for her to come here like this. Why hadn’t anyone stopped her?

It was more than crazy, she decided, the chill of the air seeping through her jacket and making her irritable. It was nothing short of cockamamie. She smiled, despite her growing sense of dismay. “Cockamamie”—that was a term her Brooklyn grandmother had used in the early 1960s, before Brooklyn had become a haven for millennials in search of success. During Terri’s childhood, Brooklyn had been an ethnic neighborhood, inhabited by Jewish and Italian families, by young men and women who would say, when asked where they were from, “New York,” ashamed of being a product of a lower-class neighborhood composed of people whose one unifying characteristic was the desire to escape to Manhattan as soon as possible. That Brooklyn, Terri knew and understood. It was the Brooklyn of six generations of Goodkinds like herself—although the name had originally been Gutkennt, Americanized, like so many other surnames, into a pair of syllables that denoted two unarguably benevolent adjectives—“good” and “kind.” Though she never told anyone this, fearful as she was of being ridiculed for sentimentality, Terri had tried throughout her life be both good and kind, but it had become increasingly difficult these last few years as she jostled her way through her fifties, burdened with Rob’s illness. The earlier decades, she thought, stepping around an older couple who were holding each other’s gloved hands as they shuffled down the sidewalk, had been easy enough, but now she was running out of her reserve of both goodness and kindness, and, most of all, out of patience. Perhaps she had been born with a certain supply of patience, just as all women were allotted, even before birth, a certain number of eggs, and when that stock was used up, she would be neither good nor kind any longer; she would enter a kind of ethical menopause, bereft not only of fertility, but of her rationed amount of shits to give as well.

Terri shook her head, trying to dispel these disconcerting thoughts. Snow flurries flitted through the air. She had not anticipated this kind of weather when she had planned the trip two months ago at her kitchen table in Virginia. Shoving her bare hands deep into her coat pockets, willing herself not to shiver, she walked through the streets, looking for a likely place to have lunch. It was only ten in the morning, however, and she knew it would be at least an hour before any restaurant would be open. A park opened on her left, across the street, and she made her way to it, entering through a set of magnificent gates that looked like they belonged in a palace.

“Cockamamie.” She thought about the strange word, wondered about its origins, and then remembered another word from her youth: “Nincompoop.” As her thoughts flitted from one ridiculous term to the other, Terri thought about how strangely satisfying words could be. In coming to Vienna, she had done something worthy of a nincompoop. Her Vienna trip, meant to heal the wounds left by lingering grief and emotional exhaustion, was nincompoopish. That wasn’t right, though. Nincompoopy? What was the adjectival form of “nincompoop”? Her teacher’s brain whirred but found no answer. Besides, all that  mattered was that she was a nincompoop for following through on this cockamamie idea of taking a vacation after Rob’s death.

But, she thought, as she sat down on a frigid park bench, was that really all that mattered? Like a nagging pain, her thoughts went on, stupidly, because she was too tired to corral them. She remembered that “nincompoop,” that outrageous-sounding word beloved by outspoken Yiddische bubbies and by small children alike, was actually a portmanteau—a word formed from a foreign expression. It derived from the Latin legal term non compos mentis, which translated as “not in control of one’s mind.” In other words, “insane.” Funny how a language takes its shape, Terri mused, then felt her stomach seize up a moment later, when she considered whether she herself was indeed non compos mentis.

After all, this half-planned trip to Vienna did appear to be the brain-child of someone who was slightly unhinged. That was another odd word, making it sound as if the lid of her brain was liable to fly off, unattached, loosing upon the world strange fancies and impressions that had escaped the stern censors of everyday life. Certainly there had been that incident at the doctor’s office last September, just after Rob’s death, when she wouldn’t allow the nurse to take her blood pressure, saying only, “I just don’t feel like it today” with a stiff smile as an explanation. On that day, Terri had learned that when a nurse spends more than five minutes typing notes into her tablet, it could result in the doctor’s earnest offer of a referral to a mental health professional.  She had declined back then, heartily sick of doctors and treatment plans, but now, sitting by herself on a bench in a park on the outskirts of Vienna, Terri wondered whether she should have taken him up on it.

Somewhere a church bell tolled twelve, and she realized it was noon. Where had the time gone? Restaurants should be open for lunch now, Terri realized, and she stood up, dusting a shallow layer of snow from her lap. She left the park, crossing the street again, and found a restaurant on the corner of the wide boulevard she had followed to the park. Once inside, she had to put her hand on the maître d’s podium to steady herself. The dark interior, combined with her growing sense of fatigue, was making her feel more than a little dizzy and disoriented.

She ordered a light meal and indulged in a glass of a local white wine. But after just a few mouthfuls, she set her fork and knife down on the table, no longer hungry. The wine, too, had lost its appeal, but Terri downed the last bit of it with a sense of determination. It was when she was handing her credit card to the obliging but somber-faced waiter that Terri first recognized the symptoms of what would turn out to be a debilitating illness.

II

Later that afternoon, when she woke up with her head pounding and her body damp from sweat, Terri admitted to herself that her malaise was not merely the result of exhaustion nor, indeed, even a normal cold. Her limbs ached terribly, as if she’d just played the most intense game of tug-of-war in her life, and she could not remember showering or putting on her nightgown and getting into bed. Yet her hair was damp, and she could see a bath towel draped over her open suitcase. She settled back beneath the comforter and fell back asleep, unable to make the effort to dig through her toiletry kit for aspirin or any other tablets to soothe her head.

For the next three days, Terri suffered.  

She lay, sometimes asleep, sometimes in a torpid state of semi-consciousness, shivering and sweating in turns, burying herself under the covers and huddling against inadequate pillows, only to fling them away from her, unable to bear even one more second of claustrophobic warmth. And all the while her head throbbed with an insistent and painful reminder that she was, indeed, still alive. Sometime in the early afternoon of her second day in Vienna, Terri got up and filled a large glass of water from the bathroom faucet and downed it quickly, before her stomach could rebel. She could feel the cool liquid make its way down her esophagus and into the very top of her stomach.

By now she was certain she had a fever, and probably a high one. But she never traveled with a thermometer, and indeed, hardly ever used one at home. Why bother? A person knew when she was sick, muttered Terri to herself. What kind of nincompoop doesn’t know when they’ve got a fever? She shuffled back to her bed, hoping that the sheets weren’t too damp with her sweat.

The pain in her head troubled her a great deal. It pounded, a furious and rhythmic sensation that felt like a hammer walloping at her from inside her skull. She had seen definite marks of illness when she’d looked at the bathroom mirror: unruly hair, flushed forehead, bright, watery eyes with no depth to them, like a still pond in winter that was just on the verge of freezing. But what did it matter? She was sick, she knew that well enough. What did anything matter in such a state?

Perhaps nihilism is an inevitable result of illness, especially when one falls ill far from home. Terri gave in completely to a lethargic, almost pleasant emptiness that second day of her trip. Death, a slow winding-down of life, a sweaty dissolution into nothingness, seemed the certain end to this experience, and, rather than fearing it, Terri accepted it. But what she could not feel for herself she did feel for others. She thought of other travelers who had died while abroad. She knew no one personally who had died in this way, but there was, of course, John Keats.

And once he came into her mind, he refused to leave it. She remembered, not bits of Endymion or Hyperion, nor loose-flowing lines of poetry about Grecian urns and unsated desire, words that might have soothed her and lulled her into a healing sleep, but instead her trip to Rome ten years earlier, when she had made Rob go with her to the Spanish Steps to see where the young poet had died. Rob had protested when she had leaned well over Keats’s narrow bed to catch a glimpse of the last thing he had ever seen: a patch of blue sky from the open window.

But now, teasing it over in her wearied mind, Terri doubted whether that had indeed been the last thing Keats had seen. Her own eyes open, staring first at the ceiling and then across the bed to the salmon-colored wall, she noted a network of small cracks in the plaster. “Why salmon?” she thought, listlessly at first, and then with some degree of hostility. It was such a silly color for a hotel room, which called, not for a bold or eccentric fashion statement but rather a bland neutrality that would welcome travelers with non-descript and comfortable banality.

Those cracks, too, bothered her, running as they did in hairline trails that, taken together, suggested objects such as a rabbit or a chair, only to slip off their identities, as a woman might shrug off her coat after changing her mind about going outdoors and deciding that she would, after all, stay inside a bit longer. Terri found the situation annoying and frustrating, not least because she suspected the entire thing was the result of a sick and fevered imagination.

By evening on that second day, Terri had gotten out of her bed only to go to the toilet and to fill her glass with water several times. She had at last found some tablets to take, and, too tired and sick to think about dinner, she had eaten a couple of stale crackers she’d saved from the airline meal the day before. Convinced that she would not sleep that night, Terri lay down again, resigned to tossing and turning throughout the long spring night, but she fell into a deep sleep composed of night sweats, nihilism, and poignant sorrow for Keats.

In the morning, Terri was feeling just well enough to shower. She dressed slowly, still unsteady on her feet, and avoided looking in the mirror. She waited for the hotel restaurant to open, intent on having a cup of sweet, hot tea to fortify her. She had not eaten since her Viennese lunch two days earlier, and though she felt weak enough to collapse into a spectacular and dramatic heap on her bed, she forced herself across the courtyard to the small hotel restaurant.

She was the first person to arrive for breakfast, and she had her choice of the best Kaiser rolls, sliced meats, boiled eggs, and creamy cheeses. Yet Terri could take no more than two bites of her buttered roll before she pushed it away, disgusted. The tea was good, though, and realizing she needed sustenance, she took another cup and loaded it with sugar. Today, she told herself as she left the table and made her way back to her room, she would feel better and get out to see some of Vienna. Walking might be impossible, but she could catch a tour bus that stopped nearby and see the city from the comfort of a double-decker.

She decided to rest a bit before exerting herself, however, and the next thing she knew, it was late afternoon. Terri realized that she would not be seeing Vienna that day, either. Three days into her seven-day trip to the center of the Hapsburg Empire, she had seen nothing but snow-dusted city streets, a dingy café, and her hotel room. At this rate, she thought, her most vivid memory of the trip would be of those cracks on the wall, which almost but not quite coalesced into the figure of a stout woman carrying a basket, only to rebel at the last instant and become an outsized cartoon elephant balanced on an improbably small ball.

And so she resigned herself to another day of rest and recuperation—except that there was no real recuperation. She wasn’t feeling any better. And although she wasn’t really feeling any worse, she didn’t like the fact that she was getting used to feeling badly. That thought scared her a bit. Was this how Rob felt when his memory started failing—thankful for what he had left, and asking for nothing more than a slow, ponderous slide into decay? Wasn’t it a good sign that she was frightened by this evidence that her nihilistic despair was receding far enough for her to begin to care about what happened to her?

That evening, she went back across the courtyard to get a bowl of soup for dinner, and, on her way back to her room, she picked up a trade paperback from the rack in the lobby. Still feeling exhausted but utterly tired of sleeping, Terri propped herself up with her pillows and read the book, a biography of an English actress she had admired. She read deep into the night. Sometimes she would drift off, waking when the book toppled from her hands onto her chin or her chest; at other times, she would stare, perplexed, as the words on the page separated into individual letters and scrambled across the page like a colony of angry and confused ants. Once, startled by this strange diacritical activity, Terri tossed the book aside, as if she had discovered real insects on the page, a linguistic hive skittering through the book.

III

At the Schonbrunn Palace the next afternoon, still feverish but heavily dosed with aspirin and just well enough to force herself into doing some sight-seeing, Terri surveyed the sad remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The rooms were smaller and less opulent than those of Versailles, but they were built and fashioned from identical material: the bodies and souls of men and women who had lived, labored, and suffered under Imperial rule.

Terri shivered against the cool draft blowing through the Grand Ballroom, and wished that the brightly-colored enameled woodstoves had been stoked and lit. They were ingenious contraptions, designed to be loaded from the back side, so that servants could tend to the fires without ever being seen by the people whom they served.

How convenient for Franz Joseph, Empress Sissy, and the rest of the Hapsburgs, thought Terri, as her fever-dried lips broke into a sardonic smile. Never to set eyes on the miserable creatures who wasted their lives in abject service. It was a brilliant idea, a fine concept—an image that should have been included in Yeats’s portrayal of Byzantium, where gilded mechanical birds, so much easier to care for than real ones, sang for the pleasure of withered Emperors. And in many ways, Terri thought, as her steps echoed through the room (for the Schonbrunn Palace was not a popular tourist destination in the middle of March), there was a Byzantine feel to Vienna that she had not expected. She tried to dredge up an interest in the lives and histories of the people and dynasties that had lived here, but she could not draw anything from her fevered brain save an overpowering sensation of revulsion. She was disgusted by late-Empire decadence, by what she was coming to see as the Viennese insistence on excess and its monstrous, insatiable appetite for power, beauty, and ornate, crushing adornment.

It was hypocritical, of course, for an American to feel this way. She realized this as she was drinking her tea in the Palace tearoom. She had no right to call any other culture out on its decadence or corruption—she who hailed from a nation consumed by excess, whose rapacity was pushing it to a level never yet seen in history. She had no right to condemn the Hapsburgs, she told herself.

A man sat down at the end of her table, and Terri peeked at him over the rim of her teacup. He was well dressed, his dark-gray suit perfectly pressed, his shirt a starched and blinding white. The only concession he’d made to creative fashion was his tie, a loosely knotted slash of green silk, complemented by the shock of blond hair that fell across his forehead and bobbed slightly as he worked his fork over and through the slice of apfelstrudel he had ordered. Teri couldn’t see his eyes, didn’t dare to look at him that long, but she guessed they’d be bright blue, or perhaps green.  She continued her internal conversation as she placed her empty cup on the counter and left the store, wondering whether this man might have a Hapsburg ancestor or two in his family tree.

It felt good to leave the Palace and walk outside in the brisk March air. The sun had come out, and, still feverish, Terri welcomed the cool breeze on her aching head. She knew she was being unfair to the man at her table—he might not have been a descendant of Emperor Franz Josef, might not even have been Austrian, for that matter. But she was still very sick and far from the comforts of home, and she was in no mood to be charitable. The smell of decay, the odor from waning civilizations and empires, was strong in her nostrils, as if she had inhaled some unseen smoke from those enormous porcelain stoves that drifted through the Palace rooms for years after they had last been lit and had somehow gotten lodged in her sinuses, the way cigarette smoke remains in your hair long after you’ve left a bar or dance club. Nothing could remove that stale odor, Terri knew, except water and shampoo. What would it take to get rid of the pervasive scent of cultural decadence, that aroma of mingled delight and decay, that encompassed both the best and the worst of human culture?

What a stupid, overdramatic question, Terri decided, once she was back in her hotel room, laying, utterly exhausted, on her bed. She greeted the cracked plaster of the walls and ceiling as if it were an old friend, smiling at it as she allowed her head to sink into the pillow. This feeling of inertia, which comes after intense exertion, was delicious. Was it this sensation that marathon runners felt after the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line had subsided? This glorious sense of virtue rewarded, this muscular exhaustion that came from exerting one’s will over all obstacles–the biggest being the human inclination towards laziness–in order to achieve one’s goal? Terri considered the question for a moment, resolved to ask her triathlete son about it, then shut her weary, aching eyes and fell fast asleep.

Feverish dreams assailed her almost at once, flitting through her embattled consciousness like dragonflies hovering over a pond on a summer’s day. Mostly images of the day: the bus ride to the Palace, the long, wearying walk up the path to get into the museum, the empty halls, the sharp click of her shoes on the marble tiles of the Grand Ballroom, which, dreamlike, turned into the tapping of a conductor’s baton and was still audible even through an orchestra’s rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz.

How she longed to see the beautiful dresses and starched military uniforms of the dancers! Was this dream a cultural memory, a buried recollection of a time when such opulence could exist without guilt? Did beauty—for waltzes and music, yes, and even palaces and intricate woodstoves were indeed beautiful—did beauty always have to come with remorse and shame? In her dream, as the couples whirled by, blissfully unconscious of the difficult question they posed, Terri contemplated it and could not find her way to an answer.

Waking in the darkness of her room, Terri heard waiters talking and the clink of dishes being cleared from across the courtyard. She realized at once that she had missed dinner. No matter—she wasn’t hungry, anyway. She could not really believe that she would ever be hungry again. Some hot tea would have been nice, however, and might have settled the gnawing, uncomfortable feeling in her stomach.

She lay in the dark, trying to remember what it was she had planned to do this evening. Was there a concert? An opera, perhaps? A night-time ride on the Ferris wheel made famous by Orson Welles in The Third Man? It didn’t matter, Terri told herself, shutting her eyes against the dark: she was going nowhere tonight.

But why couldn’t she remember what it was she had originally planned? Was it just the fever, or could it be that she was no longer able to rely on her own memory? Had she used it up, perhaps, serving as Rob’s memory, too, for these past five years? The thought terrified her at first, but after a few minutes, she shrugged. Everyone suffered some memory decline, she realized. In fact, memories themselves decayed, growing less sharp, less precise, over time. What was she wearing when she first met Rob, anyway? What was their first argument about? And, for that matter, what color were Rob’s eyes?

Terri stopped, panicked. She held her breath for one, two, three seconds. What color were Rob’s eyes? She tried to pull up a happy memory of him, a moment from ten years before, when they had been drinking coffee in their backyard. They had laughed at some joke and then looked at each other. But Terri couldn’t get Rob to look at her in her memory of that moment. He was like the man in the Schonbrunn Palace tea shop, looking down at his coffee mug—or was it a slice of cake?—completely absorbed by it, unable or unwilling to lift his head and meet her gaze. Terri felt another wave of panic grip her stomach. She sat up and turned on the light.

Time, and history itself, moved in cycles. She was surely at a low point in her own time cycle, Terri realized. It wasn’t so much that she was sad or depressed; it was just that she had nothing to look forward to, no landmarks to head towards. She was languishing, like a drifting sailboat, in an endless bay of despair.

She had left Virginia for a vacation from that bay, for a chance to re-set her life, to restock it with new memories, but it turned out that decay had not only followed her; it had lain in wait here in Vienna, hidden like a lion ready to pounce on an unwary gazelle. Her illness, which had stripped her of both stamina and will, had left her no blindfolds, no distractions. What started as a tourist outing had turned into a harsh look at European dissipation, at the decadence of a Viennese court that prefigured the opulence, at the self-indulgence of her own country. But even more damaging, it had also anticipated the decay of her memory, of herself, of her very person.

Panicking, Terri grabbed her phone and dialed the airline. She would leave the next day. Her trip to Vienna was over. She would be drinking no Viennese coffee, ordering no sacher torte that she could not stomach, scheduling no visits to ornate buildings that housed priceless books or dancing white horses. She had finished with Vienna, just as she had finished with Rob and the life they had made together. Going home, she decided, was the only honest thing left for her to do.

IV

Was it a delicious sense of irony, or simply the relief of ending this trip, fraught as it was with suffering, that made Terri laugh out loud when, buckled into her seat and awaiting take-off the next afternoon, she heard “The Blue Danube” piped through the jet’s sound system? Terri didn’t allow herself to think about it. She watched, satisfied, as Vienna—the Staatsoper, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Kirche am Steinhof—grew smaller beneath the plane’s wings, fading like old memories as she ascended through the thick white clouds, making her way back home.

Covid-19 Has Revealed the Dual Nature of Schools in the USA

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The debate over whether to open schools is revealing an important question that has lurked just below the surface for a generation–indeed, perhaps for as long as free public education has existed in the United States: what is the purpose of our schools? Is it to teach people crucial skills and allow them to acquire important knowledge, or is it rather to provide a holding tank, a safe and dependable place for a part of the population that cannot yet care for themselves?

Some teachers take umbrage at the thought that K-12 schools are used as childcare centers; they say that they are not babysitters, and that the push to open schools is an attempt to get the economy going again by providing workers with childcare that is not otherwise available to them. There is truth in this assertion. But universities, too, have been used for the last fifty years as childcare centers of a sort, places where a group of people is deposited under the guise of acquiring a higher education until they are ready to enter the workforce, or until the working world is convinced to let them in. Our educational institutions, in other words, have been, at least for the last fifty years, both places of learning and care facilities at the same time.

It’s best if we accept this dual role of educational institutions, rather than rail against it. A K-12 school can be both a place where education occurs as well as a place where parents can send their children for safe care (school shootings and pandemics aside). A university or college can be a place to teach important skill sets, including knowledge that is difficult to acquire on one’s own, as well as a place where young adults are sent while they wait their turn to enter a work force that isn’t quite ready for them yet. This leads to the question of opening the schools: are they essential for our country? In the short-term, the answer is a resounding “yes”: providing such a safe space is essential in order to run the economy we’ve grown used to, one in which financial necessity compels parents to scramble to find childcare, as well as one in which young adults require an expensive university education merely to snag an entry-level job in a field that becomes outmoded within years.

In this sense, teachers and professors are indeed essential workers; they are, in fact, babysitters. (Note that I do not say “mere” babysitters. The term itself is a demeaning one, indicating that a caregiver’s job is completely passive, but anyone who has ever been around young children knows this is far from the truth. I will leave that topic for future post, however. At any rate, babysitting is at least as important a role in our society as being a university professor, perhaps much more so.) But at the same time they are caregivers, teachers are also purveyors of knowledge and skills, and we need to keep both functions in mind as we think about the job they do.

I’ll be honest: I can see no clear solution as to whether schools should be opening up in a few short weeks. Sadly, we have completely squandered the time we bought back in March, when schools were summarily shut down in order to stem the spread of Covid-19. We did not stop the disease from spreading, which is bad, but what is even worse is that we completely failed to create a workable plan for re-opening schools and instead just held our breath, hoping that the pandemic would simply die down or fade away. It didn’t have to be this way; the complete lack of leadership at the federal level is to blame for this awful situation. During this time, other countries’ schools have created solutions  that we can learn from, and we must study them closely to find our own, but here is one simple takeaway: flexibility is the key to fighting this pandemic. As argued in Tomas Pueyo’s important article published the early days of the pandemic, we need to shift between strict containment measures, including lockdowns, and loosened restrictions, again and again until Covid-19 becomes manageable. This demands that we act with flexibility, becoming responsive to the current situation.

And here we find a heartbreaking irony: flexibility is precisely what is lacking in the educational institutions we have come to rely on for childcare. And this in turn is a direct result of the binary role of schools in our society and our unwillingness to recognize it. In other words, what matters in childcare is dependability, after all; we need to know that our children have a safe place to go with someone watching over them whenever we need to be at work. But as far as education goes, flexibility is the most important thing. If one learning method doesn’t work, a good teacher always has a host of other methods to try out. Learning itself has to be flexible, because knowledge is acquired through a series of attempts, failures, and (hopefully) successes; a good education should always provide its student with the ability to be flexible. In other words, critical thinking, simply described, is the ability to see a problem in a variety of ways in order to solve it. Flexibility, elasticity, and adaptability are excellent things in education, however unwelcome they may have become in the working world (or the political world, for that matter). I would even argue that ignoring the role of flexibility in education has actually led to the demise of its effectiveness in our country, as we came to rely on testing and objective-chasing rather than more organic approaches to teaching, but that, too, I will have to leave for another post, or to another blogger.

My point here is simply this: it isn’t necessarily bad for education to serve as child (or young adult) care, but not recognizing and accommodating this dual nature of our educational institutions will lead us to make faulty, even disastrous, choices as we move forward to confront our new future. 

This pandemic, awful as it is, may well have good consequences. One of them, I hope, is the bright light it shines, often harshly, on the institutions and traditions we’ve come to accept so blithely through the years. Though it may be painful in the beginning, we can work to make these institutions work for our society much better than they have in the past. But the first step, as always, is to see things as they are, and in this case, we must accept the idea that schools have been necessary in this country not only because they teach the skills and knowledge that citizens of a democracy must have, but also because they provide childcare to people who need to work and otherwise could not afford to do so. Let us look at the situation clearly, transparently, and earnestly: only then can we hope to meet the challenges that face us in this difficult and unprecedented time.