Index Unsolicited Comments 2001
- Anti-Inauguration Demo in DC: Why we went
- Attack on New York, Day 1 (9/11)
- Attack on New York, Day 2 (9/12)
- Attack on New York, Day 3 (9/13)
- Attack on New York, Day 4 (9/14)
- Attack on New York, Day 5 (9/15)
- At the Socialist Scholars Conference
- Belles lettres
- Bravo, Scrittore!
- Bush in Europe
- Charisma v. democracy
- Counter-attack (10/07)
- Drug peace possible?
- It’s not Black & White Anymore (If It Ever Was)
- Menacing men
- My brain and yours: Memory
- The Saddest Song in the World
- Sex and the city: two good ideas
- Son of Lion
- Sweet Honey vs. dumb policy
- A temporary victory (Afghanistan)
- “Under God”?
- We’ve won! NWU & writers’ rights
The Saddest Song in the World — 2001 December 29 Saturday, 8:49 AM — The winter light flashed silver from the black and gray roofs as the F train rattled out of the tunnel and into the daylight above 9th Street in Brooklyn. The thick-bodied man seated across from me began rummaging through the duffel bags stacked on his luggage cart. His tweed cap had the cut and jaunty angle of working men of another era, the 1920s or ’30s maybe, and an Ace bandage was wrapped around his right hand and wrist. Thick, stiff brown fingers jabbed, slowly and stubbornly, into the top bag. His tense frown relaxed and he rocked back on the subway car bench, and he held up and examined a copper tube. It was about as long as his forearm one cubit and about an inch across from rim to rim. Then back into the bag until he pulled out a black mouthpiece with reed, and then a second metal tube, as long as the first but maybe as much as four inches in diameter. It was covered with thick coats of paint, the latest being green. Six finger holes, one above the other, were neatly drilled in the part he held closest to the floor. Slowly and deliberately, he fitted the three pieces together and began to play The Saddest Song in the World.
You know the song. If you’ve lived long enough and traveled far enough from home so you can no longer say for sure where home is, you’ve probably sung it yourself. It doesn’t always have the same notes in the same sequence, and the distances between them may also vary, but whatever the scale, it is always in a minor key. I’ve heard it in a dust-choked slum in Lima, played on quena and charango, and coming from the shadows of a ruined temple in Angkor, that time in low murmurs from a human throat. When I was a teenager, I loved to listen to snatches of it on blues and Elektra round-the-world folk music records, and I even tried to play imitations on guitar, inspired by adolescent Angst. The first time I heard it authentic and live, or maybe only the first time I knew enough to recognize it when I heard it, was in a steamy warren of cardboard and mud-and-wattle huts in the hills south of Caracas, more than thirty years ago. When the woman singing it saw me come around the corner of her shanty, she stopped.
The Saddest Song doesn’t seek an audience. It is most often heard in some corner of a public space, never in its authentic form on center stage. It is not a performance, but an expression. The sad memory of a yearning long abandoned.
The sounds the man seated across from me on the F train was drawing from his instrument were smooth and sweet, like a saxophone. He didn’t look up, he didn’t pass a hat, he didn’t place a cup on the floor in front of him for coins and bills. He just renewed his acquaintance with his song, and after they had saluted each other, man and song, he leaned back again and gently, carefully disassembled his instrument and placed its pieces back in his bag. At the next stop, just before the train was to leave the daylight and plunge back into the tunnel, he unhooked his wooden cane from the upright bar of the luggage cart, lifted himself and, with the cart-handle guided by his bandaged hand, walked off the train with solemn dignity.
A temporary victory — 01/11/23 7:52:41 PM — Well, I was wrong. I was against the bombing of Afghanistan because I thought it wouldn’t work (to bring down the Taliban and bin Laden), and would increase in tensions in Islamic countries unbearably. However, it seems that the bombing did work, at least to dislodge the Taliban, and did so too quickly for mass rage in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries to topple their corrupt autocrats and monarchs. Meanwhile, most of Afghanistan has been returned to its pre-Taliban chaos and mayhem, which is pretty awful but better than the Taliban’s orderly repression. The armed politics of local chieftains provides its own crude checks and balances of the Kalashnikov, generally ignoring issues of beard-length, women’s exposed ankles, kite flying and the sounds of music. Everybody’s still desperately poor, but now destitution can be enjoyed with a smile. And maybe that was all to the good, and maybe we’ve set back the plans of some terrorists. But now what? Has the US adopted that country? Will we encourage the democrats, rebuild the health and education systems, and so on, or walk away again? Unless we can find some way to help such countries become more open and provide more opportunities, the terrorists will be back. I still think what I thought a couple of weeks ago: our bombs may kill a few terrorists, but they can’t kill terrorism. That requires a different, more sophisticated policy. (For an earlier opinion, see my Oct. 16 Letter to a friend.)
Charisma v. democracy — A colleague in the National Writers Union recently wrote me that what we needed to bring peace to the world was “a popular charismatic leader (young and full of energy) who offers an alternative view.” I told him I’m suspicious of charismatic leaders. The problem for democracy is make sure things are working well enough that we can get along without them. Even the ones I mostly admire — Fidel, Alexander of Macedon, Napoleon & Bolivar in at least the early parts of their careers — committed horrible acts. Jenghiz Khan and Adolf Hitler also come to mind — they had lots of energy, youth (when they started out, of course) and an intensity and self-confidence that inspired the masses.
Young, bright, energetic guys with lots of testosterone are great to have on your side, but if there are no checks on them (as there were on M. L. King), we’re going to be in big trouble. Rather than an individual, I’d put my trust in a small determined group, including at least a few women and some people, men or women, with more experience. And I’d want to be part of that little group, hashing out ideas and trying to persuade others. It’ll work best if we have several intense, energetic young guys (and gals), each checking the others’ wildest fancies. Sort of like the way the United States of America was created. It was a messy and ragged process, but it gave us some pretty sturdy institutions. 9/11 made me appreciate them more. 2001-11-19
Sweet Honey vs. dumb policy — Last Friday (Nov. 2) we heard Sweet Honey in the Rock at Carnegie Hall. Those five women’s beautiful voices and wise and generous thoughts have been giving us a lift for more than two decades, and last night, all of us in the packed hall needed it more than ever. Bernice Reagon Johnson, founder and queen bee, interrupted the mix of spirituals, blues, African bird chatter and other wondrous noises to bring together our sorrow over September 11 and make something useful and strong out of it. Making this difficult, she noted, was the lack of leadership from Washington it’s clear that nobody in the Administration has a clue about what should be done. W. says it’s “a totally new kind of war,” and lets Donald Rumsfeld try to solve world problems by gleefully throwing bombs at them. This makes our side no better, just more inept, than the guys who attacked the Twin Towers. They at least hit their target.
Here are some of the questions that Rumsfeld or somebody in Washington should have been asking:
(1) What really ties Taliban to Osama bin Laden? And what would it take to loosen that tie? The Wahabi-sect Saudis are from another planet than the Pushtun-speaking Koranic scholars of the Taliban. The latter are serious (deadly serious) theologians, and Osama, pretty plainly, is not — though he has aides who can find the right passages in the Koran when he needs them. More important, Osama & his friends are rich and spoiled and wear flashy turbans and hippy urban camouflage. Mullah Omar and his comrades are poor, strictly simple “Puritanical,” we might say — in their habits & garb. There must be considerable tension between the two groups — vastly different attitudes and experiences, different views of the Koran, a smug self-confidence vs. deep suspicion. What would it take to make the Taliban disinvite their “guests”? They seemed ready to do so, in the days just before the US bombing, but Bush’s handlers wouldn’t even talk about it.
(2) How do you deal with uneducated, unworldly, extremely proud people like Taliban? Doesn’t anybody in the White House know? Or have they forgotten? We still have people like that in the US, and we used to have a lot more. Some of them defended the Confederacy long after it was a lost cause, to take just the biggest example in our history. Such people are more afraid of being mocked than of being killed. Our foreign policymakers should have realized that when the Talibs blew up the Buddhas in the face of international outcry. I’m sure the real reason the Talibs did that was because they desperately wanted to make people take them seriously. The worst way to get such guys to do what you want is to threaten them. Once the US started threatening them if they didn’t give up bin Laden, had no choice but to refuse no matter what the cost.
(3) What two or three things might the US Government do to reduce the tensions that lead to terror attacks against our people & installations? The dangers can’t be eliminated by any US actions, because we’re such an attractive target to anybody with any kind of grievance, and any time we intervene on one side anywhere in the world, the other side is angry. So what we need to do is identify the two or three issues where both the grievances and the capacity to do damage are strongest, and see if there is something we can do to reduce the grievances.
– Pressuring Israel to stop the settlements on the West Bank would probably be one helpful step.
– Pressuring the Saudis to legalize democracy, and the Egyptians to make theirs real, might also leak some of the zeal out the extremists from those two countries where the guys flying the planes on Sept. 11 came from.
– Economic reforms in Egypt, and some well thought-out controls on the massive economic aid we give that country, could create jobs for all those unemployed intellectuals.
I don’t know whether these are the best proposals, but something on this order would be a lot more effective than our present policy. We would get less bang for the buck, which is what a “war on terrorism” should be about.
At the concert we bought Sweet Honey’s 25th anniversary CD (issued in 1998), then at home we hauled out our old vinyl record “Good News” from 1980. They sang then of “Biko” (remember him?) and “Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto,” and — they were much younger then — two songs about the meaning of death (“Breaths” and “Oh Death”) — but also some wonderfully passionate, progressively erotic verses by June Jordan. On the later CD, the song we most need these days is “We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For” — also with words by June Jordan. Bless her, and bless them all. (2001-11-4)
“Under God”? — Renew the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and to the country and the principles for which it stands? Certainly! Especially if students also discuss and come to understand those principles. But add “under God”? Now?! After the 11th of September has demonstrated dramatically how murderously destructive is that delusion? Outrageous!
Had those 19 fanatics not believed in a Heavenly Father and a life Hereafter, could they have committed such a horror? I don’t think so. Americans seem to think that belief in God is a good thing, even when they themselves don’t hold to such a belief. At worse, they think it is harmless. Maybe that’s because the American form of this disease has evolved, along with its host, the collective American imagination, into a generally milder form. Few American God-believers would crash a plane full of strangers into a tall building, to kill themselves and thousands of others. But as long as the disease is present, more virulent outbreaks are possible. They might, for example, blow up a building in Oklahoma City if they themselves didn’t expect to get killed, or they might ambush and murder doctors carrying out legal procedures. The 11th of September is another spooky reminder of why we should all be God-fearing atheists. (October ? 2001)
Counter-attack (2001.10.07) I learned that the bombing of Afghanistan had started when Conchita Penilla of the Spanish-language service of Radio France Internationale in Paris called to ask what I thought about it. She has called me several times in the past, to comment on the Colombian drug war, reactions to the WTC destruction, etc. I guess I’ve become her “Voice of America,” for a show that’s broadcast to Latin America. Heavy responsibility. I had to tell her to wait a bit, I needed first to find out what was going on. She gave me an hour and a half (till 4 p.m. our time, for their 10 p.m. newscast from Paris). I’m not cut out to be a pundit — I don’t trust my own instant opinions. But I had to say something. I think what I said was that the aggression of Sept. 11 had been so extreme, that it called for an extreme response, and I was not prepared to condemn the attacks without knowing a lot more about them. What I had in mind — but probably didn’t manage to convey — was knowing what the attacks’ real targets were, and how effective they were at limiting damage to civilians and civil institutions, such as there are in Afghanistan today.
I probe with my feet through the murky waters, for some firm principles on which to stand. What I find are the principles expressed in the US Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They have to do with emancipation from all forms of oppression, including ignorance. The Taliban government is the most extreme example of anti-emancipatory rule I know of. If the US can, by military action, dislodge it, that’s a good thing. Osama bin Laden is an extremely dangerous criminal, whose elimination would also be a very good thing.
Then, after confronting these immediate dangers, we have to face up to the action of our government and of economic interests protected by our government that have provoked such anger against the US. Many of bin Laden’s accusations (in his latest video appearance) are well founded; the government of the US has been complicit in, or the author of, many crimes against Muslim and other peoples. Bin Laden’s people, with their box-cutters, did strike at the US Government in their attack on the Pentagon. However, their much more numerous victims were ordinary American people — meaning people from over 80 countries who died in the WTC catastrophe, because we are an international people — who are innocent surrogates for the US government. Therefore, out of self-defense, the people of the US must try to critique and control what the USG does in our name. 2001-10-8
2001.08.29 — If at first you don’t succeed, maybe you should re-evaluate your strategy. Instead, governments’ usual response to a failed policy is to pursue it with increased vigor — from Palestine, to Chechnya, to Sri Lanka, to Vietnam, etc. But sometimes somebody gets the bright idea of trying something different.
Yesterday — according to a report on Univisión’s nightly news –a senator in Colombia proposed legalizing the sale of drugs, as a state monopoloy. She wants to end the disastrous policy of violence, herbicide and prisons to suppress drug use — which for over 30 years has benefited nobody but the drug-war industry and the drug barons themselves,. So far I haven’t found any more discussion of this proposal, not even on the Univisión web site or on CNN en español. But when I do I’ll let you know. It may not be the solution, but the idea can’t be any worse than present policy. 01/8/29
Attack on New York
Notes written September 11-15, from our home in Lower Manhattan.
Day 1 – The first impact
2001/9/11 12:26:48 PM – Susana and I were on our morning run around Washington Square Park when we heard the first impact. We were out a little later than usual because we had first gone to vote in the Democratic primary for mayor and city council.
“What was that?”
“Algo se tumbó.” Something demolished, I said, and we continued jogging. Loud, sudden noises are frequent in New York, but this was louder than usual.
As we passed the twin statues of Washington at the base of his arch on the north side of the park, I heard a woman talking excitedly about a big jet that was flying too low. But it wasn’t until we had jogged around to the south side of the park that we heard someone shouting that a jet had rammed into the World Trade Center.
My God! Looking downtown along Thompson Street, we had a clear view of the disaster. A great angular hole gaped across almost the whole width of the north tower, the shape that might be made by a plane that had dipped its left wing lower than its right. Bright orange flames danced where the right wing had gashed. Billowing smoke was beginning to obscure the wound on the left. A bizarre accident? How many people might have been in those offices? I checked my watch about 10 to 9. Maybe some people hadn’t got to the office yet? We hoped. We stared, with everybody else, then hurried home to get binoculars.
The concierge in our building had the TV on, channel 7. We heard that a second explosion had just ripped into the south tower. By the time we got up to our apartment, there was no channel 7, but I could get channel 41, the Univision affiliate, because their transmitting antenna is on top of the Empire State Building most of the others had been on the twin towers, and were off the air. We had always cursed the poor reception on 41, but now we were grateful their transmitter was where it was.
Up on the roof of our building — it’s a little taller than its neighbors, — on 4th Street between Lafayette and Broadway we could see clearly the fires and holes in both buildings. Large chunks of debris kept sailing off the shattered façades, smaller bits paper, perhaps, floated in the air. It was awful. My Walkman radio said that the Pentagon had also been hit.
After a few minutes, we thought we’d seen all that could be seen, and went back downstairs where we saw on the TV that just as we’d left our observation post, the south tower had collapsed!This was horrible, unimaginable. We rushed up to the roof again, using the freight elevator to get us as far as the stairs to the highest point on the building. We looked at the mass of billowing smoke in what otherwise was a cloudless sky, and tried to comprehend the sudden absence of one of the two towers that had come to be symbols of home for us. Susana and I took turns, one with the binoculars looking through the smoke at the remaining tower, its flames now spread to another floor, while the other listened to the newscasters, excited and overwhelmed as we were, but with more access to information flames in the Pentagon, fire out of control in the north tower, reports of other hijacked airplanes, still no news on the numbers of casualties, which had to be immense.Susana suddenly grabbed my arm.
We stared, mouths wide open, as the north tower fell. As the walls collapsed, a black lattice-like frame sprang upwards for an instant before plunging. And now there was nothing but dense, billowing smoke, black in places, and gray, and white. Right before our eyes. How many people charred beyond salvation?
We’re still shaking.
Day 2 – The city stilled
2001/9/12 12:10 PM – There was no New York Times home delivery this morning, nor delivery of anything else below 14th Street in Manhattan. Like yesterday, the sky is absolutely clear except, today, for the huge white cloud of ash and dust, hovering like a ragged pointer to where the twin towers stood yesterday. Sirens are screaming again outside they must have found more survivors clinging to life. The sirens are always of ambulances heading uptown, to the city’s hospitals.
At my insistence, Susana and I jogged around Washington Square Park again, just as we had been doing 24 hours earlier when we heard that first crash — in part because we needed the physical activity to break out of stunned paralysis, and in part because we didn’t want to surrender our routine to the assailants. As we jogged, we tried to make sense of the horror. This is what, together, we came up with.
For us and for almost all New Yorkers, the most appalling thing is the thousands of deaths, and that so many died in such terrifying ways trapped in a doomed airline, consumed by flames in their offices, hurtling out of high windows to escape the flames, buried under rubble. The second most appalling thing is the huge economic loss, including the loss of livelihoods for tens of thousands of people who worked in the twin towers and in the surrounding buildings, now evacuated, plus the temporary or permanent loss of their homes by people living in the surrounding blocks, the loss of business for that whole section of the city, and so on. Finally, we will notice the absence of the towers as landmarks. I never liked them, and I’m old enough to remember New York City without them, but I’d come to count on them as part of the landscape, identifiers of a city I love.
For the authors of the attack, though, the meanings must be entirely different. They cannot have cared about lives lost. They themselves those who took over the four planes were deliberately sacrificing their lives, and must have regarded that act as noble and meritorious. If they were at all like the suicide bombers in Israel, they were believers in a God, and imagined themselves to have immortal souls that would be rewarded for their glorious acts. As for the others who died, well, their souls, whether good or bad, must be immortal too, and that same God would sort them out. The deaths, I’m sure, were just collateral damage as far as the attackers were concerned.
What did matter to them, then? Humiliation, according to some premodern code barely accessible to most of us in this city today. They cut off the two great phalluses of America’s financial power, and penetrated the vagina of its military power.
If their aim had been to kill as many people as possible, or if it had been to disable this whole city, I can think of other things they might have done. No need to specify you can imagine, too, and I don’t want to suggest anything to other crazies. Instead, they attacked those two great symbolic structures of American power.
I was able to get the New York Post, and we saw a lot more TV than we normally watch, and we’ve seen scenes of Palestinian kids celebrating. They cannot understand what this disaster means to us, nor how many perfectly ordinary civilian lives have been ended or horribly disrupted. Just as we cannot understand, and too few of us have made the effort to understand, their enormous frustration as their homes have been bulldozed and their schoolmates shot and their leaders assassinated by air-borne missiles supplied by the US.
There are many lessons from this disaster. Some of them will be the wrong ones. For example, Steve Dunleavy in the Post this morning urges GWB to rescind Executive Order 12333 (1976), the ban on assassinations, so we can send people out to go kill the bastards. Dunleavy hasn’t thought through the consequences of his proposal, or probably in the heat of the moment he doesn’t care. Other lessons are more complicated and nuanced, and will be more useful to guide us in the future.
One thing we’ve all learned is how quickly and nobly the people of a great and diverse city can come together to help each other in time of crisis. There have been many such scenes. We have all discovered that we care about each other, even total strangers. That’s comforting to know. Then, maybe in weeks or months, when we revert to our cantankerous, pushy New York manners, maybe we’ll still be able to recognize our common humanity and how much we depend on one another. Another thing that we need to learn is that the glaring disparity of wealth and power between us and other peoples of the world does not make us invulnerable, but turns us and our symbols into targets. We Americans need to do everything we can to reduce these disparities, so that next time, if somebody does something awful to us, kids around the world will grieve with us instead of celebrating.
Day 3 – An acrid cloud and some quiet pleas
2001/9/13 11:45 AM – No jogging today. The wind has shifted, and the vaporized ghost cloud of cement walls, steel girders, documents and incinerated human beings burns our eyes and noses and throats.
Yesterday afternoon we did finally get the New York Times. We had to go to the Times offices at 43rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, and get in a line on the sidewalk behind about 300 other people. Those at the head of the line had been waiting two hours, but we were lucky. After only 20 minutes, a fully loaded truck pulled up. By then there must have been another 100 or so behind us. We all needed the comfort of our usually reliable source, its familiar typeface, its clear hierarchical ordering of information. We were allowed to buy five copies, and have kept two one for us and another for a friend who, stubbornly, has so far refused to move out of her apartment below Canal.
In the Times, the engineer’s description of how the buildings were brought down was at last clear and crucial to understanding the diabolical cleverness of the operation. Other than that, we didn’t learn much we didn’t already know. There was one odd note, though. Clyde Haberman and others insisted that now, finally, we Americans should be able to understand how the Israelis feel in the face of suicide bombers. That seemed to me like quite a stretch. Israelis have not been hit by aircraft, as we were, and have not had any of their central administrative or communications structures crippled, nor have they suffered proportionate casualties — though of course any civilian deaths are too many. It seemed to me that a closer analogy was to the Serbs, bombarded by NATO. Or the Palestinians, when under air attack by the Israelis. Or maybe the Cambodians and Vietnamese, bombarded by the US.
Speaking of which, a friend forwarded a note by William Mandel, long-time Pacifica radio commentator. It was the “chickens come home to roost” argument, reminding us of all the bombardments and other havoc that the US has wreaked on civilian populations from Nagasaki to Iraq. I have always protested such actions by our government as vigorously as I could. But Mandel seemed to be saying that the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon serves us right, and I just lost it.
“No people deserves to be massacred,” I answered my friend. “And that includes Americans…. People’s lives are not more or less valuable because of their nation’s history or the actions of their governments. Scores of thousands of lives of my neighbors have been either ended or very seriously disrupted.” If it was evil to punish the population of Iraq for the crimes of Sadam Hussein, it is just as evil for anyone to punish my neighbors for the crimes of our government.
Last night Susana and I went out again, bandannas across our mouths against the foul smoke, to join the vigil in Union Square. This meant crossing police lines at 14th Street. Susana had left the apartment without her wallet, and a female NY State trooper told us we could leave but couldn’t get back in without ID. Susana approached a big black New York cop and asked if she could be allowed back in if she was with me. He grinned and said, “Sure, as long as he’s got ID and you’re still married to him when you come back.”
At the vigil, little knots of people argued loudly, but mostly the two hundred or so people were silent or talking quietly in pairs, several of them scrunched down among the candles to write on strips of heavy paper laid out on the pavement. Poems, quotations, names of missing friends or family, slogans. One couple had laid out candles to spell “New York,” but were having trouble getting them all to stay lit. Mostly the sentiments agreed with the bigger signs taped to a statue and a post: “No revenge, no war,” though on one of these somebody had crossed out “No” and written in “An eye 4 an eye,” etc. Someone had written out the entire, beautiful prayer of St. Francis, in Spanish la oración de San Franciso. It goes something like, I ask God not to comprehend me but to enable me to comprehend, not to be succored but to give succor. Generous, loving sentiments. And “Susi/Germany” had written, “Nichts kann es ungeschehen aber unvergessen machen Leider!” — Nothing can be undone, but only unforgotten. Unfortunately. — We didn’t add anything. Susi from Germany and St. Francis of Assisi had said what I wanted to say.
We walked back to Lafayette and found the same cop.
“Still married?” Through his eyes we could watch him remembering the encounter. “Carry on, then,” he said, without even asking for my ID. We were grateful for his smile.
By now we’ve tracked down everyone we can think of who we know and who might have been down there when the towers toppled, and so far all are physically safe though one friend, whose apartment was just behind the South Tower, is nearly hysterical, and all of us are tense and tired. Friends and relatives have called from as far as Massachusetts, Arizona, Argentina, Florida, California. We’re grateful for their concern. So far, our immediate neighborhood and the building are functioning with quasi-normality. We still have water and electricity and even concierges, in the midst of an eerie quiet.
Attack on New York, Day 4 – Back to work
01/9/14 5:46 PM – The rain this morning made the rescue workers’ labors much more difficult, while it cleansed the air for the rest of us.
I want to make this my last entry under the heading “Attack on New York.” Like most people in this city, I know it’s time to get back to work. Our routine tasks may seem banal and unimportant after this horrendous interruption, but they are the routines of life. We pick them up again with greater awareness of how precious they are, and how fragile.
This will be posted late, because I’ve lost access to the Internet for now. The technician at Earthlink said a building had collapsed on one of their routers in Manhattan. I’m confident it will be repaired soon. I’m confident that many things will be repaired, and that we will continue to be a vigorous, welcoming, energetic and diverse nation, sadder and, I hope, a little wiser.
Day 5 – A final word
01/9/15 5:29 PM Last night in Washington Square Park, we held our candles and moved silently, sadly, gently. We sang. Someone would start, some familiar song, and others would join in. “America the Beautiful,” “Lean On Me,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and even the George M. Cohan songs, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” Someone started out in another song from World War I, “Over There,” but a young woman shouted out a plea to stop. She was right. It’s much too aggressive, perfectly appropriate when “the Yanks were coming” to save France from the Kaiser, but right now, we’re not sure even where “over there” is.
It was almost a religious experience, a feeling of community. That is the one good thing that religion can give us, the feeling of community. When it is cut loose from those moorings, or when it defines its community so narrowly that excludes those who think differently, religious belief is very dangerous. It is impossible imagining the suicide pilots of Tuesday doing what they did if they had not believed in a God who would reward them. And now I see that one of our own compatriots, another religious man, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, has taken exactly the same line as Osama Bin Laden: That the destruction of the twin towers and the Pentagon, and all the attendant loss of life, were God’s punishments for our sins.
Some people find comfort in believing that there is an all-seeing, all-understanding Father. I don’t want to deny anybody whatever source of comfort they can imagine, but to me, such a belief seems to be just a way to avoid responsibility. I’m proud to be a human, not a puppet; a responsible adult, not a child depending on someone else’s greater wisdom. But once you abandon the fantasy of an all-powerful Father, humanity is a terrible responsibility. Making the world better, or worse, is entirely up to us.
The men who hijacked the jetliners on Tuesday have not gone to Paradise. They have not gone to Hell. They have just ceased to be. And so have all the people whose lives they ended. What survive are the impacts they all made, in their very different ways, on the continuing process of our human race. It is up to us, the living, to see that this world does not become a hell.
Here is a poem from Susana Torre, the person who was at my side as we watched Tower 2 explode and implode.
WTC 010911 9:15 AM
We clasped hands
In another life
I would love him
Would transform the heat of this hand
Into words of assurance
Into deeds of commitment
How cloudless is the sky
How cold it is
As we fall
My brain and yours: Memory (notes for a future essay)
2001/7/23 10:36 AM — My father in his last years was tentatively diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. I never believed it. Now, new research on the human genome and, among other things, how canaries learn new songs brings us a little closer to understanding how memory works, and why it doesn’t.
The only way to tell for sure if Alzheimer’s is present is to cut out and examine a section of the brain, which — unless you’re Hannibal Lecter — you don’t want to do until the patient is dead. When my father died at age 90, he was cremated without a biopsy, so we’ll never know. What we do know is that, beginning maybe about 15 years before his death, he had trouble remembering recent events, such as where he had put something he wanted to use, or what it was he had meant to say when he began his latest sentence, or what we had been talking about, or why it was that he found himself in this particular room — had he come in looking for something? This inability to hold on to short-term memories was terribly embarrassing to him, and totally undermined his lifelong image of himself as the man who took care of things, such as household accounts, repairs, and any other problem. But it was not getting dramatically worse, and —this is important — he was aware of the problem. Then there were moments when he seemed entirely lucid and could follow and contribute to the conversation seemingly quite normally. Alzheimer’s can only get worse. This is why I always suspected that something other than Alzheimer’s was interfering with his memory.
“Memory” in a human brain is not like the memory of a computer, nor like a book or film library or a museum. All these artificial storage systems hold information without changing it, and hold complex systems of information in a stable form (that is, except for deterioration of film, etc.) Your copy of “Gone With the Wind” may fade, but what Rhett says to Scarlett, and what each is wearing and where they are standing when that happens, will ever be the same.
Living human memory is entirely different. It does not hold a memory, it creates it anew each time you “remember” something. Memory is an event, an act of imagination that may occur quite differently and with different elements on each occasion.
Bits of information about scent, sound, color, shape and so on are, the specialists tell us, encoded in “neurons”– just how, they haven’t yet been able to explain. To “remember” somebody or something you have to assemble enough relevant neurons to give you a coherent picture. In the process you might give Aunt Jane your cousin Martha’s hair color, or (like Ronald Reagan) latch onto dialogue you heard in a movie and put it into your own experiences, but the amazing thing is that most of the time, you get most of it right. Somehow the summoning of one neuron suggests which other ones you need. The process is truly amazing, and wonderful. And mostly, it remains unexplained.
In Alzheimer’s, something causes the formation of deposits of brain tissue (called neuritic plaques) and tangled bundles of nerve fibers in the brain, and once they start, they just get worse. Apparently what happens is that these plaques and tangles interrupt the flow of neurons through the brain. Thus, if you accept that memories are assembled or constructed the way I’ve described, this means that a neuron carrying some fragment of a memory cannot connect to the other neurons carrying other fragments needed to construct a usable memory, such as, “this object is called a ‘fork,’ it is used in such-and-such a way. (More to come.)
Sex and the city: two good ideas
2001.7.17 Tuesday — Last week the sidewalk across from our building was lined with huge circular lamps that flooded our bedroom with yellow-orange light, easily penetrating our semi-opaque window shades. It was we found out next morning the filming of an episode of “Sex and the City” that forced my bedmate and me to dig out our airline masks, like the one the Lone Ranger used to use but without the slits. The concierge in our building told me that they had scores of extras lined up that night, and the main action was occurring around a nearby rooftop pool where I frequently see, from my home office window, models being posed for photo or film shoots. It seemed like a lot of expense for a single TV episode, but hey, what’s money for, anyway?
I’ve never seen the show, and wouldn’t know the actresses if I ran into them in the elevator which I probably have, given the popularity of our building with such types (we’re two blocks from Washington Square, from which New York University and its film school have spread out to engulf most of the territory where East Village meets West). Nevertheless, the incident got me to thinking about sex and the city.
I think they are both good ideas. In fact, I think they are the two best, most civilized and most liberating principles for forming community, especially when they occur together. Sex is pretty good, or can be, anywhere, of course, but in a city well, it can become part of the project to remake yourself as the kind of person you want to be, which is what cities are all about.
There are other principles for forming community, of course, but they are the opposite of liberating. The worst is tribe, or “race,” or ethnicity, or any other label for an inherited status. Creed is another, not quite so bad because it is possible, at least theoretically, to change your creed but hardly anyone ever does unless s/he lives in a city. For obvious reasons. Back in the village, they never give you a chance to experiment, and the only way you learn about other options is from the tourists. And the reason there are tourists is because cities are constantly sending out people who want to explore other ways of being and new experiences. Including sex.
2001 July 8 Sunday, 11:35 AM- In the rainy evening of July 3 in East Quogue, we watched “Cape Fear” for the 1st time. I’ve been bewitched by the Robert Mitchum character ever since.
In the 1962 movie, Gregory Peck is Sam Bowden, a very well connected prosecutor in a southern US city, with a very big house on a huge, lush lawn, an attractive wife — Peggy — and a teenage daughter Nancy. Mitchum, first seen walking into the courthouse, in a narrow-brimmed Panama hat, a sport jacket and no tie, shirt open at the neck, and holding in his teeth a big cigar at a jaunty uptilt, is Max Cady, who has just been released after 8 years of prison and now is seeking out the lawyer — Bowden — who put him there.
Peck is tall, dark and thin, with a deep, rich voice that would be perfect for the old radio dramas. The voice always sounds the same: serious, even ponderous regardless of whether he is asking his buddy the police chief for a favor, or bowling with his family, or warning Cady to stay away from them. His gestures are minimal, or rather, he makes no gestures. He always stands straight, arms and hands quiet by his sides. He expresses changes of emotion exclusively by altering the lift and tilt of his eyebrows; one eyebrow high means that he is feeling something intense, maybe fear, maybe joy, maybe he can’t remember the script, whatever. Alternatively, both eyebrows will be relaxed. That’s it. That’s the entire range, up or down, on or off.
Mitchum’s whole body acts. Eyes, mouth, tilt of head, stretch of chest in the repeated scenes where he bares it (a strip search by the police chief, a fight with three thugs hired by the lawyer, the final and climactic episode where he swims out to the houseboat, murders a sheriff’s deputy with his bare hands and arms, and stalks each family member one by one), sauntering or crouching or ostentatiously lounging. He’s not as tall as Peck, but clearly the bigger, stronger man.
Cady also comes across as very, very cool, and maybe even smarter than his prey, Bowden & family. I think the point that director J. Lee Thompson wanted to make is not that Cady is smarter, but that he is uninhibited by conventional morality, thus able to use his animal shrewdness to fullest extent. Cady must have a back story, which is barely hinted at in his one extended conversation with the “counselor” (as he mockingly calls Bowden), in a bar where Bowden tries to bribe him to leave town and leave his family alone. There, Cady talks about his own family, his wife and daughter, whom he lost by going to prison. His wife, he says, divorced him out of shame, and married a plumber. He then tells wonderfully, in the accents of a southern workingman who has acquired but not mastered a larger vocabulary in the prison library, of what he did to avenge himself on his faithless ex-wife. A tale of calculated sadism with great irony, an immensely cruel practical joke.
Cady was in prison for beating (or maybe raping) a woman, maybe a prostitute, in a seedy section of Baltimore; Bowden was visiting the city at the time, happened to hear the woman’s screams and see Cady in action, and testified against him at the trial. What led Cady to beat that woman is never explored, but given the depths of the character as played by Mitchum, you know there is a story there. He is such an intelligent, audacious, charming (when he chooses), and effective character, you know he could do almost anything that society let him do. There is a hint that he was a farmer: the money in his bankbook (that keeps him from being arrested for vagrancy, as the police chief attempts to do) came from his sale of the family farm. And if his tale of his vengeance on his ex is true, he was a family man (he may possibly be making up that whole story, just to further frighten the lawyer, whom he’s got worked up to a barely controlled panic— just watch those eyebrows).
In the five days since I saw the movie, I haven’t been able, or even wanted, to get the image of Mitchum’s Cady out of my mind. He is the essence of menacing manhood. His obvious physical strength is an important element, but far more important are the sagacity and ruthlessness. Physical strength without these things is impressive but not menacing. I’m thinking, for example, of Johnny Weismuller (his “Tarzan” absolutely lacks ruthlessness; from his morals, you would never imagine that he’d grown up in the jungle), or Sylvester Stallone (who is merely stupidly ruthless, any of us could outsmart him), or Arnold Schwarzenegger (wittier than Weismuller or Stallone, but not ruthless even in his most villainous roles). On the other hand, men who are not especially imposing physically can be very, very menacing if they combine the wit and ruthlessness– Anthony Hopkins in many roles, including of course Hannibal Lecter, and skinny James Woods are terrific screen examples. Or maybe “ruthlessness” is not exactly the right word. What these actors convey is the physical thrill they derive from using their superior intelligence against a worthy opponent. When this ruthlessness, or whatever we should call it, and wit are combined with physical strength, the male force is overwhelming, awesome, surrender-inducing. On the movie screen, we get a Robert Mitchum. On the world stage, we get a Fidel Castro.
For an account of the making of the film, the very different novel on which it was based (John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners), and the 1991 remake by Martin Scorsese (with Al Pacino as Cady and Nick Nolte as Bowden, and Mitchum and Peck in cameo roles), see the excellent article by Francis M. Nevins, CAPE FEAR DEAD AHEAD: TRANSFORMING A THRICE-TOLD TALE OF LAWYERS AND LAW, Legal Studies Forum, Volume 24, Number 3 & 4 (2000).
We’ve won! NWU & writers’ rights
01-6-29. The Supreme Court of the United States (not an institution that inspires great confidence, after the 2000 presidential election, but still the law of the land) has found in favor of the freelance writers in Tasini v. The New York Times.
This means that publishers (including The NYT, Time, etc.) cannot, on their own and without authorization or further payment to the author, resell in electronic form a freelancer’s articles that appeared in their print pages. I was one of the plaintiffs: An article of mine that appeared in the Travel Pages of the New York Times (on Córdoba, Argentina) was one of those available on their database. They had paid me for the print version, and sought my approval (and made an additional payment) for it to appear a second time in the Herald-Tribune. However, when they licensed their back issues to be distributed electronically by Lexis-Nexis, they neither consulted nor offered to pay me. The NYT, meanwhile, was generating fees from my (and everybody’s) writing by licensing the set to the data distributor.
Special congratulations to Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers Union and the lead plaintiff. More more on this case, and what writers should do now, see the NWU “Victory” page.
Bush in Europe
01-6-11, 4:30 p.m. A few minutes ago, while I was happily typing away on a novel about places and times far away, I was interrupted by a call from Paris, Radio Francia Internacional — the Spanish-language service of Radio France. Conchita Penilla, the news anchor, wanted to know what Americans thought of Bush’s visit to Europe. (This is the second time they interview me about some international issue. The last time was about Plan Colombia. I was against it.) I don’t remember everything I said — Kyoto, “missile shield,” death penalty — but the main thing was this: What most of us in the U.S.hope is that Bush learns something from this visit, because he went into office so abysmally ignorant of the world! It’s embarrassing to have that man as president, and infuriating to remember that we didn’t even elect him.
Son of Lion
01/6/5 2:21 PM Thongs of the gongs dangling from her toes, Jody Oberfelder, upended, dances on her hands. Swiveling sharply from her pelvis, she swings one gong forward, another back, to be struck by the carefully prancing gong-strikers, Daniel Goode composer of the piece and Laura Liben.
It’s another night of the semi-serious musical circus called Gamelan Son of Lion, under the gentle and creative ringmaster, Barbara Benary, daughter of the son of lion (Benary = Ben Ari = [in Hebrew, according to Barbara] “son of lion”). The performance on June 4, in the little theatre of the Greenwich House Music School, in Greenwich Village (Manhattan), was called “Sound the Nipple Gongs,” to celebrate Son of Lion’s recent acquisition of genuine nipple gongs from Java. These are big convex iron disks, each with a prominent protuberance in the middle that vibrates to a single clear note when struck in contrast to nipple-less gongs, which give out a “wash” of sound, as Barbara put it.
But most of the music Barbara’s little troupe creates (eight performers on this occasion) has never been imagined in Java. Besides the traditional gamelan percussion instruments (some more or less like xylophones, clappers and gongs), you get Daniel Goode on clarinet, Marnen Laibow-Koser on violin (mixing fugues with traditional Javanese melodies), and Jody Oberfelder upended. David Demnitz uses the traditional instruments but to play very untraditional compositions in the two scales to which they are tuned. And sometimes as happened last night the audience is gently prodded to participate, this time to dance. It was a good crowd five times as many people in the audience as in the orchestra and our gyrations were probably as authentically Javanese as anything else that went on that night.
So if you want to hear some unusual, often beautiful, always clever and usually humorous sounds, and don’t mind being asked to join in the fun, check out Gamelan Son of Lion. Tell ’em The Fox sent you.
01/6/5 9:38 AM The World Publishing Group in Chicago has invited me to submit two copies of my “book” (they apparently assume I’ve written only one), “your biographical data and your picture,” or if I don’t have a book “two copies of one of your literary works” etc., and if I don’t have even that, then they’ll settle for just “two copies of your biographical data [no picture?] and your address to our inheritors.” Then, for a mere $198 (or down to $118 if I’m not sending a book or poem), they will store it in a time capsule “To be Opened in the Year 3000.”
Sounds like a great bargain. A bunch of people I don’t know and can’t even imagine, who no doubt will have other things on their minds, will find an ancient book on matters that have long been forgotten, written in a language nobody any more knows how to read if anybody knows how to read at all in the year 3000. Maybe they will have archaeologists who will puzzle over this thing, printed on paper (not even an animated gif!), and come up with some theory about its ritual significance. For me, it’ll be a posthumous practical joke. Too bad I won’t be around to laugh. My only question: What use will “my inheritors” a thousand years hence make of my address?
Sir, these are delicate matters; we all desire
To be told that we’ve the true poetic fire.
But once, to one whose name I shall not mention,
I said, regarding some verse of his invention,
That gentlemen should rigorously control
That itch to write which often afflicts the soul;
That one should curb the heady inclination
To publicize one’s little avocation;
And that in showing off one’s works of art
One often plays a very clownish part.
You’re under no necessity to compose;
Why you should wish to publish, heaven knows.
There’s no excuse for printing tedious rot
Unless one writes for bread, as you do not.
Resist temptation, then, I beg of you;
Conceal your pastimes from the public view;
Alceste – The Misanthrope
Translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur. These wonderful verses were sent to me by an e-pal in Paris, Lale Eskicioglu, who has more wonderful things up on her web site, Readliterature.com. (2001 May 24)
At the Socialist Scholars Conference
I’ve been going for years, and I tell you, it’s as much fun as “The Anarchists’ Convention” in John Sayles’ famous short story! One of the events that made it fun this time was a panel with all these political cartoonists. Here’s what they looked like to me.
Matt Wuerker, Tom Tomorrow, Ted Rall and Peter Kuper all have their own sites tht you can find through any search engine. Some of Fly hard-edged, gritty and very noncommercial stuff (I like it, but then I by now am a New Yorker) is up at ABC NO RIO. Seth Tobocman deals with similar themes — tough times in the Lower East Side squates — but with great graphic sophistication. He may have stuff up here. Mac McGill is probably on the web, too — let me know if you find it. His work is all graphic, pure images, very urban; to create stories, he collaborates with writers.
It’s not Black & White Anymore (If It Ever Was) (from Themestream)
Three or four years ago, a black college official at Wayne State U. in Detroit, a mostly black town, startled me by saying, “I know one thing: The world has always been divided into black people and white people, and it always will be.”
I hope that man has looked at the results of the 2000 census to see how wrong he was. Maybe, to him, “the world” meant Detroit, and “always” meant during his lifetime. There and in some other parts of the country, people may cling to the old racial categories even when they know they’re false. But the census shows that in most of the country, more and more people are recognizing and even celebrating the diversity of our bloodlines.
Several things have caused this change, and one of the most important has been the growth of what I’ve called the “Hispanic nation” of the US. More people in the US now call themselves “Hispanic” or “Latino” than call themselves “black.” (A lot of people called themselves both, in this census.) That is, they categorize themselves not in racial terms but as a cultural group. Nothing new about this, even in the US (previous immigrant groups, like Italian-speakers or German-speakers did the same, among themselves), except that now it’s become official. So more and more people feel that they do not need to deny their African heritage in order to reclaim some other ancestry as well– Hispanic, Irish, Choctaw or whatever.
And maybe, like almost all the other societies in our hemisphere, we’ll stop thinking of “black” and “white” as absolute and unbridgeable categories. And anything that gives people more options in presenting and developing themselves has to be a good thing. (Themestream, 2001 April 7 )
Anti-Inauguration Demo in DC: Why we went
The protests against GWB’s inauguration last Saturday were the largest since the anti-Nixon rallies on inauguration day in 1973, the press has informed us. But a lot of newspaper and TV reporters have been pretending not to understand why so many of us were standing in the cold rain in Washington, chanting and waving placards and booing when the dignitaries rolled by Freedom Plaza. The easy journalistic tactic to avoid serious thought is to stick a microphone in front of some tired, shivering demonstrator and — instead of reading her sign, where the complaints are pretty specific — asking her what she’s angry about. Like any of us, she can spool out a whole line of grievances against Bush, the GOP and the whole electoral process, from which the reporter concludes for his audience that there is no one, clear objection, just a “laundry list.” And meanwhile, most of the people who’ve come to Washington are wearing cowboy hats and big grins, so the noisy protestors are just your usual minority contingent, adding color to the event.
Such poppycock! We who opposed, and still oppose, Bush and the cabal that put him into office are the majority. By at least a half-million votes, and that’s if you only count the officially tabulated Gore votes! We don’t even need to go into the Nader votes or the no-votes, and we don’t even have to dig up all those Florida votes that Jeb and his buddies have tried to bury. Bush lost ! Even the officially counted votes! That’s the issue. Sure, we have lots of beefs, and we don’t all have the same beefs. But what got so many of us to make a long trip in inclement weather was rage at the violation of democratic process by Bush, his brother, his patrons, and especially those five Supreme Court Justices who elected him.
So my usual accomplice, S., and I got up at 3:30 in the morning on Saturday, showered and made ourselves some very early coffee, grabbed our backpack and headed for Penn Station, where buses were assembling. Ours was chartered by an ad hoc group called Voter March that S. had found on the ‘net, others were for Democracy March, and there was at least one bus for Zen Buddhists (I’m not kidding— a guy with a bull horn called out for the Zen Buddhists). I’d guess there were three or four hundred of us assembling at that spot. And, with less confusion and greater punctuality than you might expect for such a loosely organized action, we were all on our respective buses and on our way not much later than our scheduled 5 a.m. departure time.
I hadn’t done this for years. Back in the ’70s, it seemed we were always trundling off to distant demos, and I’d expected this trip to be similar. But the odd thing was how quiet everybody was on the five-hour trip. Of course, most people were sleeping part of the time. But still, I couldn’t remember a previous demo-bus where nobody tried to get us all to sing, or chant slogans, or debate politics. People, mostly but not all youngish folks 20’s, 30’s, were friendly enough, but mostly just chatted with the people they’d come with, that is, people they already knew. The only collective political activity I saw was a little group in the back, four young women, who had brought cardboard and markers and were willing to share, so we had a little sign-making workshop going. But mostly, people kept to themselves.
I’m not complaining. I was grateful for the quiet. But it did seem odd, to travel for five hours with like-minded people and not get to know any of them. But this time, unlike many of those demos in LBJ and Nixon days, I was neither a parade marshal, nor trying to pick up girls, so I could just sit back, sleep, read, and listen to the Walkman I’d brought along. Scott Simon was interviewing triumphant Republicans on NPR.
When we got to Freedom Plaza, the crowd was too thick for us to see what was happening on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it was fun just to watch the crowd. The most colorful were the Puerto Ricans, with their big “Stop the bombing of Vieques” banners, their music and their flags. One banner showed Uncle Sam as Godzilla rising out of the waters to trample on Vieques — it was a mean, funny Godzilla. And there were the UU’s, the Unitarian Universalists, my favorite non-religion. We got a snapshot of one of their signs. Workers’ World was there, predictably — some causes never die. But the oddest contingent, the one that seemed most to belong to a distant era, were the stern-faced, neatly uniformed Black Panthers, complete with berets and badges (black panther on a white circle) and powerful loudspeaker equipment. One of them, a little guy who looked so fierce and determined that everybody made way for him, muscled his way to the front of the crowd, near curbside, and went off on an amplified rant against white folks and the black fools that trusted them. Maybe he was planted there by Bush people, to dispirit the crowd. But then other Panthers got the speaking system and began song and response: the women were singing out “The revolution has co-ome,” and the men responded “Time to pick up the gun,” over and over. Wow! Was their calendar off! It’s either fifteen years late, or a bit (months? years?) early for that kind of action.
S. and I straggled back to the RFK stadium just in time to catch our bus back to New York it was already pulling out of the lot when we ran up, waving our arms, at about 5:10 p.m. The ride home was as uneventful as the ride down, but we got home before the snowstorm that hit our area Saturday night, and we rested well, feeling we’d performed a civic duty. (2001 January 22)
2001 January 11 – Bravo, Scrittore!
“Scrittore?” said the brown-haired girl at the desk of the pensione in Naples, with a trill of joy in her voice.
“Bravo!” she sang, the first syllable a chord sliding down the scale, the second a note that bounced at the bottom of the run.
“Bravo!” she sang again, beginning the chord on a little higher note. Her large brown eyes looked at me with adoration.
“Romanza?” she asked hopefully, eagerly.
“Si,” I admitted, “anche romanze.”
Yes, novels too, is what I meant to say. Why “too”? As though to say that my fiction was less important than my other writing. Clearly, here, at this moment, with this girl, that wasn’t true. And it wasn’t true for me either. It was just that, living in the States, I had become accustomed to being embarrassed to admit that I did something for art and not for any practical purpose such as earning money. Perhaps in Naples it would be more embarrassing to admit that you did something for any reason other than art, or honor, or amore, which are pretty much the same thing.
I hadn’t yet assembled enough pieces of Italian to explain any of this, but it was hardly necessary. The fact that I was a scrittore in a language foreign to her seemed to make me especially fascinating, as an object to be admired if not as a conversation companion. I did manage to ask her, in something close enough to Italian for her to understand me, if she was a student, and yes, she was. Of literature, of course. I think what she said was that her field was comparative literature, including Italian, French and Spanish.
My wife’s suitcase had burst open, pulling its zipper from the stout canvas, and the girl at the desk was helpfully expressing grief and fluttering her hands. The only other staff person present in the pensione, a young woman in the white uniform of a chambermaid, thought that a shoe repairman might be able to fix it. At that suggestion the comp. lit. co-ed sprang to a little cabinet where she found a business directory, announcing she would find a calzolaio. Humming to herself to keep her concentration, she batted the pages randomly. She seemed unsure where to find “c” in the alphabet.
After a few minutes with no success she looked up and smiled. It didn’t matter, she said cheerfully, because there was no point in calling because stores didn’t open until ten a.m., which was still two hours away. There! Problem solved. Or rather, dissolved, because if there is no solution possible, why, then what we have is not a problem. It is simply an irremediable situation. God’s will. We just live with a broken suitcase.
She didn’t actually say such words, and I wouldn’t have understood them if she had, but something like that is surely what she thought. That things may have no solution and must simply be tolerated is a common point of view in Southern Italy. Irksome to certain foreigners, perhaps, but then I realized that I had been paying a high psychological price for my American pragmatism. It had made me embarrassed to be an artist. No matter. What, after all, is a broken suitcase? She had said “Bravo, scrittore!” That was enough.