Private Clavel: My Private Marathon

One of the things that kept me going through the dark days of following Trump’s election was translating an entire French novel, as I wrote about here. I started my translation at the end of November, 2016, and finished it in December of 2017, so it took slightly more than a year of work. Yet I never knew quite what to do with my translation. I made a few half-hearted attempts to publish it, submitting a chapter to several reviews, but nothing took, and so I put it high up on my shelf and tried to forget about it.

However, last summer I discovered that a translation of the book had been published, back in 2019. I greeted this news with mixed feelings, as can well be imagined. I had long determined that no one else was interested in Leon Werth’s Clavel Soldat, that it was too dated or obscure for publication. I also knew that I was a novice translator, and that my chances of publication were very slim. But seeing that someone else had managed to get their version into print still evoked a spasm of writerly envy–short-lived, true, but envy nonetheless–and made me, for the about a day or so, sullen and bitter.

Then, however, I did what any honest writer/translator would do: I ordered the book from its publisher, Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd. Then, in the brightest days of summer, I crushed my sour, envious attitude, and when the book arrived, I placed it on my desk, determined that when winter came and I wasn’t busy with gardening, hiking, mushrooming, and visitors, I would read Michael Copp’s translation (which he calls Private Clavel’s War on War) and compare it to mine, word for word. I was convinced that there would be much to learn from this exercise, and I felt that Mr. Copp, as well as Leon Werth, deserved this much attention from me.

For the last two months, I’ve been engaged in this activity, and I have indeed learned a great deal. True, there are times when I thought it seemed a pointless exercise, but then I realized that many people engage in pointless activities for fun and for health. As an example, consider running. Lots of people run several times a week, working to increase their endurance. What was I doing, if not working to increase my mental endurance, my ability to use every atom of intelligence and memory and reasoning I had in my poor, beleaguered brain in order to make it stronger? So I compared what I was doing to training for a marathon. After all, most runners never expect to win the marathon races they enter–merely finishing is the point. For me, finishing my translation of Clavel Soldat had to be the point, not publishing it, and reading Copp’s translation in conjunction with mine would prove that I had, indeed, completed my own private marathon.

I have indeed learned a great deal from this exercise. First of all, on a purely practical level, I learned to use the Immersive Reader / Read Aloud tab on MS Word. This function allowed me to listen to my version of the translation at the same time that I read Copp’s book, speeding up the whole process. I can see how the Read Aloud function would be a real benefit to anyone proofreading their own work and I’m sure I’ll use it again.

As far as the actual translation goes, here are a few things that I’ve learned. Most important, translation is an art, not a science. This is a truism, but it bears repeating here. I will just post two versions of the same passage from Chapter VII (page 182 of the original) to illustrate:

The next day, Clavel receives a package of newspaper clippings. He knows. Those who write far from the front lines fight in their logical citadels, everyone for his or her own lie. He knows now that there is nothing but an immense vertigo within a great cataclysm. He is in the midst of this cataclysm that the people look at from a distance, like a tourist watching the eruption of a volcano from several kilometers away.

The next day Clavel received a packet of newspaper cuttings. He knows. Those who write in the rear carry on their fight in their citadel of logic, each one supplying his own lie. He now knows that there is only a great frenzy in a great catastrophe. He is in the middle of the catastrophe that the people in the rear contemplate, as a tourist contemplates the eruption of a volcano from a distance.

And another, longer, passage, this one from the last page of Chapter XV (page 300) of the original:

The division headquarters, with its gleaming officers and its clerical workers. A field near the cemetery is chosen for the execution of Private P., from the colonial infantry.
“What did he do?...”
“He didn’t want to go into the trenches…”
It is dawn. Six hundred men are lined up: his company and parts of other units.
An ambulance wagon has been prepared in case Private P.  faints or resists.
The wagon is not needed. Private P. walks to his spot. Twenty men, bayonets at the ready, escort him. He has just as much the look of a soldier as the other men. The only difference is that he doesn’t have a rifle. He looks straight ahead. He has the face of a sick man being taken out of the trenches. 
Private P. and his escort come to the field where the troops are waiting at attention. 
Private P. is there with the other twenty men. No one has come yet to take him. 
A warrant officer orders: “Left side, line up…”
Then, “Right side, line up…”
And Private P., who is going to die, seems bothered only by not knowing how to stand. He turns his head to the right, puts his left fist on his hip. Private P. follows the order “Right side, line up” with the other soldiers.
Twelve soldiers have fired. Private P. is dead.
It's the division with its gleaming officers and its pen-pushers. A field near the cemetery has been chosen for the execution ceremony of soldier P.... of the colonial infantry.
'What did he do?'...
'He didn't want to go to the trenches'...
It is dawn. Six hundred men are drawn up; his company and parts of other troops.
An ambulance has been prepared in case soldier P.... should faint or resist.
The vehicle is not needed. Soldier P....marches to his rank. Twenty men, with fixed bayonets, escort him. He looks a soldier, just like the others. He has no rifle, that's all. He looks straight ahead. A sick man, coming back from the trenches, has this look. 
Soldier P...is there with the other twenty. They haven't yet come to take him. 
An adjutant gives the order: 'Left turn'...
Then: 'Right turn'...
And soldier P...., who is going to die, seems bothered by not knowing where to stand. He turns his head to the right, puts his left fist on his hip. Soldier P...., along with the others, carries out the order: "Right turn."
Two soldiers fired. Soldier P... is dead.

The differences are minimal, but they are there. The only major difference is a bona fide mistake in the second selection, where the French “douze” is translated as “two.” This is something I noticed by comparing translations: mistakes do happen. Sometimes words are mistranslated, and not only when there is debate or obscurity about what the word means. Even more unsettling, sometimes whole lines or short paragraphs are left out: both Copp and I are guilty of this error. Translating an entire novel is a laborious task, so it makes sense that such mistakes happen.

But this led me to another discovery, one that unsettled me more, if possible, than finding that someone else had beat me to the punch and had published an English translation of Clavel Soldat. Mistakes such as the ones I noted above are inevitable in a long scholarly work, but editors should be able to find and eliminate them; after all, that’s what they’re payed to do. Why had this not happened in Copp’s translation? The answer is simple: I believe Copp had no editors, because it turns out that Grosvenor House Publishing Limited is what was once called a “vanity press”: it is essentially the same as self publishing on Amazon (which I have done myself and, to a certain extent, now regret), and there appears to be little quality control. This discovery floored me, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But regarding the errors in the text, I’d still argue that Copp did an excellent job on his translation. The fact that it differs from mine attests to the finesse and subtlety required in translation itself. Like so much in life, there are no right or wrong answers, and it is important to remember that diversity is a gift, not a curse. What this does mean, however, is that any time we read works that have been translated, the translator has made choices, most of them unconscious, that reflect how he or she sees the world, and this inevitably skews the purity, so to speak, of the original words. Again, that is not necessarily a problem; it’s just important to be aware of it when reading literature in translation. When a translator creates a translation, it’s as if all his or her past reading, thinking, even life experiences, work to color the words he or she chooses, and so it makes sense that each translation would be as individual as the person who produced it.

What more have I learned from this grand, marathon-like exercise of mine? I still think Clavel Soldat is a good book, and an important one. Leon Werth created a character who despised war and dared to write about it during the war. His depiction of life at the Front in 1914 is ruthless in its clarity and in the sense of betrayal Clavel feels as he witnesses both the horrors of war and the hypocrisy of those participating in it. I understood the First World War much better after reading the novel, and so I am despondent and, to be honest, disgusted about the fact that its translation appears to be unpublishable today and that self publishing is the only recourse for a novel of this type. Consequently, few English speakers will ever read it. My conclusion — which I hope is not the result of a sour-grapes attitude — is that publishing, like so many things today, is a grand game of popularity and attention-grabbing. In times past, there was room for less popular works, if they were deemed important. Now, however, we live in an attention economy, and important works are bypassed for those works that get a bigger, louder splash.

We lose so much by this. History fades away, covered up by the clamor of contemporary voices, all competing for the biggest slice of an economic pie that really doesn’t matter in the long run. What we lose by this is access to history, is the abililty to understand, so to speak, what the long run is and how it affects us. We become more provincial in our thinking and less capable of forming big ideas because we are only able to access those works deemed most liable to get the biggest bang for publishers’ bucks. It’s a tragic situation, and I’m not sure what we can do to fix it.

In the end, I have to be selfish and say that I’m glad I spent a year plowing through Clavel Soldat, as well as the six additional weeks comparing my translation to Michael Copp’s. True, it may be time that I’ll never get back, but it was time well spent, because it has enriched my knowledge of history, literature, and not least of all, the art of translation. All of these things are valuable, and because of that, I’m satisfied.

Zero and God

Warning: this is a philosophical, and deeply weird, post. If I’m lucky, it will go unnoticed in the holiday rush and I won’t have to answer any difficult questions; if not, I can just say that the end of the year has always been the time when I am most prone to consider deep and philosophical thoughts. (Of course, that is patently untrue; deep thoughts, ones about the meaning of life or the passage of time or the inexorable approach of death, come to me at the most inopportune times, such as when I’m watching repeats of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or when I’m ironing a shirt.) At any rate, the thought I’m about to articulate in this post is a doozy, even for me, so you might want to put on some heavy waders, because we’re about to plunge into some fairly deep shit.

First, a little background. Some months ago, I listened to an episode of the BBC’s fantastic radio show In Our Time that focused on zero. Full disclosure here: I have not really considered mathematics seriously in any capacity since, well, since ever. It has always been a tool for me, something that I have to do in order to cut a recipe in half, average students’ grades, or create a grading system with weighted assignments. So why I listened to this podcast, other than simple curiosity, is a bit of a mystery. But listen to it I did, and I have to admit it fascinated me. I learned all sorts of things about zero: when it was invented and who invented it and when it came into general use in the Western World. I mean, to start with, I didn’t realize zero actually had to be discovered; I always thought it just appeared, like the rest of the numbers, with all of its properties neatly attached to it. But apparently zero was invented, or discovered, by the ancient Babylonians, who needed it to keep track of tax records, as a place-keeper along with numbers that were set out in rows for easy and quick addition and subtraction.

You can listen to the podcast to find out more about the number zero, or you can read a book I just finished, Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife, which provides a thoroughly understandable overview of the subject. I find it all interesting, intriguing even, but what got me really thinking was how useful zero is without actually being anything. Calculus and physics, for example (not that I know anything about them) are apparently impossible without a concept of zero. The ancient Greeks and early Christians were averse to considering zero, being terrified of the idea of nothingness; Babylonian and Indian culture had no problem dealing with the idea of a void, so they ran with the idea of zero. It would take the Western world until the middle of the Renaissance to really begin to experiment with the concept of zero, and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions simply couldn’t begin until zero became accepted as a legitimate number.

For the first time in my life, I could see that zero is really, really important. And here’s the interesting thing about zero: it means nothing–literally. It is nothing. But without the idea of it, things just don’t work right. We can’t achieve a level of mathematical knowledge that allows us to have computers, space travel, medical breakthroughs–almost anything we associate with the kind of lives we live today. Zero, while being nothing, is a critical idea around which the entire universe as we encounter it seems to hang.

So I began to think about this, and how intriguing it is that the our concept of the universe depends on something that isn’t there. Maybe my age is showing–I went to graduate school during the heydey of deconstructive criticism, after all–but I find this to be a really satisfying conundrum. Zero is nothing. Yet it is in fact incredibly important, and without a concept of it, we can’t really understand anything beyond elementary mathematics; without it, we can only make fairly simple and elementary natural observations. In short, the nature of zero is a puzzle, and it’s so contradictory that I find it pleasant and satisfying to consider it.

But thinking can be dangerous, especially if you have a lot of time on your hands and allow your mind to wander. Thinking about zero in this way led me to another idea, one that is heretical but at the same really intriguing, namely, what if the concept of God is analagous to the concept of zero? In other words, what if having God as a kind of moral placekeeper is more important than having God as a real entity? God, in this scenario, would be nothing–an evanescent, empty idea–but the concept of God would be all-important. Without this concept of God as simple place-holder, nothing works as it should. The idea of empathy, of ethics, of morals, of duty, or of simply “doing the right thing for the right reason,” these things are easily jettisoned without a belief in or a sense of a higher being. The concept of God as a placekeeper, though–that could be just as useful, and perhaps less prone to corruption and deviance, as the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful divinity.

Consider: God is zero. It seems like nothing, but without this zero, the entire trajectory of human existence simply doesn’t work right. Belief in God would then represent not a belief in a traditional deity with superhuman powers, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of God, which in turn grounds human experience in a meaningful way. I think Seife comes close to saying something like this early in his book when he writes: “Yet through all its history, despite the rejection and the exile, zero has always defeated those who opposed it. Humanity could never force zero to fit its philosophies. Instead, zero shaped humanity’s view of the universe–and of God” (p 3). My theory is similar but not exactly identical to Seife’s, however. Rather than suggest that our concept of God was shaped by our view of zero, I’m arguing that zero and God could, with a little bit of imagination, occupy the same location in their respective theoretical frameworks.

Ultimately this theory is important only to those people who, like me, struggle with a belief in God. It’s easier for me to think of God as a function or a place than as an omnipotent Being. But I think my theory might be fun for anyone to think about , even those with a strong traditional faith. It turns traditional religious ideas upside down, which, after all, is always fun.

At any rate, I’ve thought about this idea long enough to cause me to change my behavior in a real, and hopfully, a positive way. I’ve actually signed up for a college algebra class at the local community college this coming semester. That in itself is nothing short of a veritable Act of God, which I owe to a belief in the power of zero.

Thanks, Meredith, for encouraging me!

Forest Bathing Can Save Your Soul

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to transform myself from a retired academic to a smallholder. (A “Smallholder” refers to someone who owns or manages an agricultural plot that is smaller than a traditional farm. It is the term the British use; I prefer it to the American term, “hobby farmer,” which has a hollow ring to my ears.) The problem is, I’m essentially a city girl who was born in Brooklyn at the tail end of the Baby Boom, back when it was definitely not cool to be from Brooklyn. My knowledge of rural life is meager, and although I’ve been working on expanding it for the past twenty years, I have more to learn than I have time left to learn it in.

Why should I be invested in this self-transformation? That, in fact, is what I’d like to try to examine in this post. I have always been attracted to the outdoors; one of my earliest memories is of trying to make a fishing pole out of a paper clip and some string and tossing it into the shallow waters of a lake–perhaps it was just a fountain–in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Twenty years ago I opted out of urban living by moving from Houston, Texas, to rural Northern Michigan, a move towards my present state of mind. But several things have compelled me to reinvent myself during the last five years, a curious blend of events that left me forging a new path, and perhaps a new identity as well.

The first step towards my present state of mind occurred six years ago, when I retired from my job as a community college professor. It was an early retirement, but definitely a good time for me to go. Because of falling enrollment, I was able to teach fewer of the courses I really enjoyed, and I knew there were other people who wanted–and needed–the job more than I did. It seemed only right for me to move out of the way and let them have a go. So I did, and fairly quickly I found myself foundering. What was I, if not an English professor? My purpose in life seemed inextricably bound up with my identity as a teacher. With that identity receding quickly into the rear view mirror of life, I felt destabilized and adrift.

The next thing that happened was the election of 2016. Without going into details (you can find many posts on this blog from that period that reveal my state of mind), I’ll just say that I felt as if the entire world was falling to pieces. In the midst of political unrest and sorrow at the state of my country, I struggled to find something solid to hold onto. The world, I told myself at one point, had become a caricature of itself, something like the world of Voltaire’s Candide, a work I’ve never really felt comfortable with. But then I remembered the end of the story. Disappointed with life after all his adventures, dealing with his own sense of loss and languishing in what I’ve begun to call the “Peggy Lee Stage of Life,” Candide asks his teacher what he should do with the time remaining to him. The answer was simple: “Cultivate your garden,” says Master Pangloss. I decided then that this could be good advice, and I too, like Candide, began to work at gardening.

And there was yet another force at work as well. At this time, I was working on a novel that was set in southern England. I was trying hard to make the landscape a large part of the novel, as its effect on the protagonist worked its way into her psyche. To get myself into a frame of mind in which I could describe the trees and fields around my character, I tried to immerse myself in the forests close at hand, here near my home. It worked, to a degree, but gradually something unexpected happened. In the course of trying to drink in the feel and look of the forest in order to write about it and weave it into my story, I found that I had accidentally fallen in love with forests myself.

Within a couple of years, my husband and I found a piece of land for sale relatively close by our house and bought it. We had no plans to farm–we just wanted a change from our life in a small town. We were attracted by the hilltop house overlooking eight cleared acres abutting the winding front road; the hidden treasure, however, was the rich forest that stretched behind it. Old logging trails wound through a tangle of beeches, maples, hemlocks, and ironwood trees. In the first few years, it was quite possible for me to get lost back there. But during the last couple of years I’ve spent many days walking the paths, working on making new ones, and learning the smells, sounds, and general feel of the woods, and I don’t think I could get lost there now.

I have made a discovery. Owning a forest is like owning a cat. You don’t own it at all; rather, it owns you. You’re there merely to take care of it and appreciate it. You develop protective, nurturing feelings for it, while respecting its wildness and independence. Sometimes you watch from a distance, awed by its power and majesty; other times you simply want to gather it in your arms and hold it tight, protecting it from all harm. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have learned to love the trees and the wildlife they shelter with a devotion that I’d once saved for the works of literature I studied from my early adult years. And the things I’ve learned in this time! For example, I know now that the forest can look completely different from one day to the next, much less from one season to the next. In the last few years, I’ve thrown myself into reading books about ecology, about natural science, about biology–things I’ve not studied since I was a high school student. And I’ve learned to appreciate what the forest gives me: wicker baskets full of delicious mushrooms, colorful trillium and Dutchmen’s britches covering the hillsides in spring time, a rare glimpse of a deer’s back as it passes by, and chipmunks growing bolder in my presence.

My transformation is not yet complete. It may never be complete. I still have difficult days when I wonder what my purpose is. Often I feel useless. And, like Candide, I still have those Peggy Lee days, when I wonder if that’s really all there is. But the forest is always there, ready to pull me into its ageless world when I walk through it, no matter the weather, the season, or the time of day. And in the final analysis, while I can trace how I came to love the forest so deeply, I know that this rational exploration doesn’t stop me from counting myself lucky to have discovered such a sweet and pervasive passion so late in life.

University Days–Redux

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

When I was teaching college English courses, my best students, the ones who really paid attention and were hungry for knowledge and ideas, would often come up to me after a class and say something like, “You brought up the French Revolution today while we were talking about William Wordsworth. This morning, in my history class, Professor X also talked about it. And yesterday, in Sociology, Professor Y mentioned it, too. Did you guys get together and coordinate your lectures for this week?”

Of course, the answer was always “no.” Most professors I know barely have time to prepare their own lectures, much less coordinate them along the lines of a master plan for illustrating Western Civilization. It was hard, however, to get the students to believe this; they really thought that since we all brought up the same themes in our classes, often in the same week, we must have done it on purpose. But the truth was simple, and it wasn’t magic or even serendipity. The students were just more aware than they had been before, and allusions that had passed by them unnoticed in earlier days were now noteworthy.

I’ve experienced something of this phenomenon myself in recent days, while reading Colin Tudge’s book The Tree and listening to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies–two books, one on natural science and the other on philosophy, that would seem to have few if any common themes. In this case, the subject both authors touched on was nomenclature and definitions. Previously, I would have never noticed this coincidence, but now I find myself in the same position as my former students, hyper-aware of the fact that even seemingly unrelated subjects can have common themes.

There’s a good reason why I am experiencing what my students did; I am now myself a student, so it makes sense that I’d see things through their eyes. All of which leads me to my main idea for this post: University Redux, or returning to college in later life. It’s an idea that I believe might just improve the lives of many people at this very strange point in our lives.

I happened upon the concept in this way: after five or so years of retirement, I realized that I had lost the sense of my ikigai–my purpose in life. I am not exactly sure how that happened. When I took early retirement at the end of the school year in 2015, I had grand ideas of throwing myself into writing and research projects. But somehow I lost the thread of what I was doing, and even more frightening, why I was doing it. The political climate during the past few years certainly didn’t help matters, either. And so I began to question what it was that I actually had to offer the wide world. I began to realize that the answer was very little indeed.

Terrified at some level, I clutched at the things that made me happy: gardening, pets, reading. But there was no unifying thread between these various pursuits, and I began to feel that I was just a dilettante, perhaps even a hedonist, chasing after little pleasures in life. Hedonism is fine for some people, but I’m more of a stoic myself, and so the cognitive dissonance arising from this lifestyle was difficult for me to handle. And then, after drifting around for three or four years, I discovered a solution.

A little background information first: I have a Ph.D. in English, and my dissertation was on the representation of female insanity in Victorian novels. I’ve published a small number of articles, but as a community college professor, I did not have the kind of academic career that rewarded research. (I should say I tried to throw myself into academic research as a means of finding my ikigai, to no avail. I wrote about that experience here.) As a professor, I taught freshman English, as well as survey courses, at a small, rural community college. Most of my adult life revolved around the academic calendar, which as a retiree ususally left me feeling aimless, even bereft, when my old colleagues returned to campus in the fall, while I stayed at home or headed off on a trip.

A year and a half ago, however, I found my solution, and although I’ve had a few bumps in the road, I am generally satisfied with it. Armed with the knowledge that I was, intellectually at least, most fulfilled when I was a college student, I have simply sent myself back to college. Now, I don’t mean by this that I actually enrolled in a course of study at a university. I did, in fact, think about doing so, but it really made little sense. I don’t need another degree, certainly; besides, I live in an area that is too remote to attend classes. Yet I realized that if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was how to create a course. I also knew how to research. So, I convinced myself that living in the world of ideas, that cultivating the life of the mind, was a worthy pursuit in and of itself, and I gave myself permission to undertake my own course of study. I sent myself back to college without worrying how practical it was. I relied on my own knowledge and ability (Emerson would be proud!), as well as a certain degree of nosiness (“intellectual curiosity” is a nicer term), and I began to use my time in the pursuit of knowledge–knowing, of course, that any knowledge gained would have no value in the “real” world. It wouldn’t pay my rent, or gain me prestige, or produce anything remotely valuable in practical terms.

This last bit was the hardest part. I was raised to believe, as are most people in American society, that one must have practical skills, the proof of which is whether one can gain money by exercising them. If you study literature, you must be a teacher of some kind. If you play music, you must get paying gigs. If you like numbers, then you should consider engineering, accounting, or business. The rise of social media, where everyone is constantly sharing their successes (and academics are often the worst in this respect), makes it even more difficult to slip the bonds of materialism, to escape the all-consuming attention economy. My brainwashing by the economic and social order was very nearly complete: it was, in other words, quite hard for me to give myself permission to do something for the sake of the thing itself, with no ulterior motives. I had to give myself many stern lectures in an effort to recreate the mindset of my twenty-year-old naive self, saying for example that just reading Paradise Lost to know and understand it was enough; I didn’t have to parlay my reading and understanding into an article, a blog, or a work of fiction. (Full disclosure: having just written that, I will point out that I did indeed write a blog about Paradise Lost. You can’t win them all.) One additional but unplanned benefit of this odd program of study is that it fit in quite well with the year of Covid lockdown we’ve all experienced. Since I was already engaged in a purposeless aim, the enforced break in social life really didn’t affect me that much.

What does my course of study look like? Reading, mainly, although I know YouTube has many fine lectures to access. I read books on natural science (trying to fill a large gap produced during my first time at college), as well as history; this year, the topic has been the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. I study foreign languages on Duolingo (German, French, a bit of Spanish) while occasionally trying to read books in those languages. I have participated in a highly enjoyable two-person online reading group of The Iliad and The Odyssey (thanks, Anne!) Thanks to my recent discovery of Karl Popper, I foresee myself studying philosophy, perhaps beginning with Plato and Aristotle. I’ve taken FutureLearn classes on Ancient Rome, Coursera classes on The United States through Foreign Eyes, and several others. I’ve listened and re-listened to various In Our Time podcasts. I have taxed the local library with my requests for books from other network libraries, and I swear some of those books haven’t been checked out in a decade or more. To be honest, I don’t understand a good part of what I read, but this doesn’t bother me as it used to do the first time around. If I’ve learned one thing from serving on the local city council, it’s that you don’t have to understand everything you read, but you do have to read everything you’re given. Sometimes understanding comes much later, long after the book is returned–and that’s okay.

I’m not sure where this intellectual journey will lead, or if it will in fact lead anywhere. But I’m satisfied with it. I think I’ve chanced upon something important, something which society with its various pressures has very nearly strangled in me for the last thirty years: the unimpeded desire for knowledge, the childlike ability to search for answers just because, and the confidence to look for those answers freely, unattached to any hope of gain or prestige. It takes some getting used to, rather like a new diet or exercise program, but I’m pleased with the results at last, and I am enjoying my second dose of college life.

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.

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.

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.

Elegy for an Aristocratic Lady

There’s something about losing a beloved pet that’s similar to hitting your funny bone, or perhaps more aptly, getting kneecapped. You know the pain isn’t going to kill you, but for a short time it’s excruciating, almost unbearable, and although you know it will get better eventually, for the time being you can’t focus on anything but your loss.

My husband and I got kneecapped pretty good last Friday, when we had to put down our beloved Leonberger dog, Lady. Her registered name was Legacy’s Aristocratic Lady; she was a Grand Champion and the mother of two litters of fine Leonberger pups. In this post, I just want to note her passing, even though the world around me is falling apart as I do so.

Lady was always a big girl. My husband called her “Lady” specifically so that people would realize she was a girl, because with her size and heft, she looked less delicate than a typical female Leonberger, which are large dogs to begin with. Here are a couple of pictures of Lady and her littermates when they were newborns:

If memory serves me correctly, Lady was wearing the red collar. The really important thing about Lady is that she was best friends with her sister Alfie (Legacy’s Alphaba). Alfie was the runt of the litter, so it was kind of sweet that the biggest puppy and the smallest puppy got along so well. Sometimes bitches, even from the same litter, have problems establishing a pecking order, but that was never an issue with Alfie and Lady. They were best friends from the very beginning, and as far as they were concerned, there was no pecking order.

Alfie laying on Lady
The size difference is really apparent here.

Lady grew up to be an AKC Grand Champion, but more importantly, she and her sister completed well over one hundred visits as Therapy Dogs to our local library as Reading Dogs (PAWS to Read), during which they patiently listened to young children read to them.

And throughout their lives, they stayed best friends:

About a month after her first litter of puppies left for their new homes, we acquired a Siamese mix from our local Humane Society, and proceeded to go on a three-week camping trip with all of our pets. Lady, perhaps still mourning the departure of her four puppies, latched on to Leo Tolstoy. From the moment she met him, she decided that Leo was her feline offspring:

Leo and Lady remained closely bonded, as you can see above.

Three years ago, Lady had another litter, and we kept a puppy, whom we called Millie (“Legacy’s Lady Camilla”). Here she is perched in her favorite spot:

And the years passed. We knew Alfie and Lady were approaching old age as we celebrated their eighth birthday at the end of February. (Leonbergers, as giant breed dogs, generally don’t have long lifespans.) And I had worried for years about which dog would live longest and how she would handle the final separation. I’m not surprised that Lady went first; she had many physical issues, most stemming from a knee injury she sustained when she was four years old. But of course we were still devastated when we learned three weeks ago that Lady was dying of osteosarcoma–an all-too-common disease in Leonbergers. So we set out to enjoy the last bit of time she had with us as much as we could, taking her for drives in the countryside so she could enjoy all the smells, spoiling her with treats, and generally just loving her as much as we could.

Lady in the background, Millie near the food bowl (as always!), and Alfie and Leo Tolstoy together

I can say that I never, in eight years, saw Lady curl her lip at another creature. I have heard her growl from time to time, but only in her sleep or when disciplining her puppies, never as a threat. She was unfailingly gentle, always loving, and she thought every smaller creature was her own long-lost puppy. I could say she was the best dog ever, but that wouldn’t be true, because Alfie, too, is the best dog ever, and Millie, though young, is showing great promise of becoming the best dog ever, too.

We all miss Lady terribly. As I said at the beginning of this post, hitting your kneecap on a sharp object certainly won’t kill you, but it sure feels like it will for a while. We’ll survive the loss of Lady, certainly, but the pain hasn’t ebbed away just yet. And we are all, especially Alfie and Leo, doing the best we can to wait for our grief to subside.

Alfie and Leo the night after Lady died