Showing posts with label Asheville. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Asheville. Show all posts

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Jonathan Tropper

We are hunkered down in a hotel awaiting Hurricane Irene, our boat secured to the best of our ability. So we wait, with our flashlights (as power will inevitably be lost) and enough bread, and peanut butter and jelly to outlast the storm. The storm surge will be the key to our boat’s survival, a sickening feeling having to wait out the next two days and hoping we can return to find minimal damage when the storm finally passes. Meanwhile, it is time to complete an entry concerning Jonathan Tropper which I had started to write before Irene dictated the turmoil of preparing for the storm.

I’m becoming a Jonathan Tropper admirer, a clever and talented writer, with a unique voice, who may deserve to join the company of some of my favorite contemporary American novelists, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Pat Conroy, and Jonathan Franzen, Ever since John Updike died and as Philip Roth ages, I worry about their understudies, who might fill the shoes of authors dedicated to the craft of writing and the chronicling of American life and The Dream.

I had just finished Russell Bank’s The Reserve, a beautifully written novel but humorless and needed a “pick me up” so I returned to Tropper, having liked his Everything Changes, and was curious whether one of his earlier ones would measure up. I chose The Book of Joe with some hesitancy as it seemed to have all its cultural references to the 1980s, where part of the novel is set, the main characters being in high school and juxtaposed to the same ones today. This is my younger son’s generation, not mine. I’m closer to Updike and Roth’s age, no doubt one of the reasons their writing so resonates with me.

But Tropper deals with such universal truths they transcend generational provincialism, certainly the mark of a good writer. My high school years of the 1950s had the same raw pulsating teenage angst, sexual urgency, and social vulnerability, the very ones portrayed by Tropper at Bush Falls High, their Cougar basketball players revered, and everyone else in a subordinate role. Teenagers can be the most sadistic humans on the face of the earth, something Tropper well understands.

Events concerning my 50th high school reunion brought home the fact that the caste system had hardly changed. It was amazing to me that the long bridge of 50 years hardly mattered. It was back to the clickish high school years as if no time had passed at all.

And Tropper poignantly captures this feeling in The Book of Joe, using Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel experience as a very loose outline. Wolfe’s novel outraged the residents of Asheville and had Wolfe returned (actually, there is a fictionalized version of his return written by Asheville native and playwright Sandra Mason which we saw several years ago in Asheville), he, too, would have been vilified as is Tropper’s Joe Goffman who leaves the small fictional town of Bush Falls, CT, somewhere north of New Haven. He writes a novel about the town and it becomes a sensational best-seller, thanks in part to his agent. He tells all in thinly veiled fiction, even his most private sexual fantasies concerning his best friend’s mother. He finally returns 17 years later as his father has had a stroke and he now has to confront his family and former friends and high school hell raisers, the love of his life, and even the mother about whom he had fantasized.

Tropper writes terrifically believable dialogue and it is not surprising that he is also a screenwriter and a couple of his novels are in the process of being adapted for the screen. The Book of Joe is a fast read, poignantly tragicomic. Sometimes his writing reminds me of Joseph Heller’s special gift for ironic humor.

I was surprised by how engaged I was in the world of this thirty-something protagonist, a world more inhabited by my sons, but universal truths never change.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Conroy's Reading Life

Our good friend Edie gave me My Reading Life by Pat Conroy when I recently entered the hospital, which was supposed to be for a more routine visit than it turned out to be. She knows I love good writing, and she thinks of me as a writer as well. It was a very thoughtful gift. Yes, I write, and I enjoy it, but to be a real writer means to forsake just about everything and dedicate yourself to the craft. It also helps to have an abundance of talent, an omniscient eye and an encyclopedic memory.

I cannot think of any great writer who is not obsessive compulsive about writing. In many ways, I wish I could roll back time and make that choice, but it would have been to the detriment of a publishing career I loved and other avocations such as the piano, studying the machinations of economic markets, politics, and a bunch of other things. Although I started Conroy's work in the hospital, I had difficulty concentrating on it or anything else after undergoing such major surgery. My recovery left me unable to do much but change channels watching awful TV which I can only describe as crap, and if that is emblematic of where American "culture" has migrated, there is no hope for our society.

Once I returned home, I picked up the book again. Conroy achingly cries out in poetic terms for an understanding as to why he writes, why he found refuge as a child in literature, first as a means of connecting with his mother (no, worshiping her) and as a means of escaping his father. I have a particular empathy for literature as a means to understand family, as I wrote in an earlier piece: "What draws me to these writers is families, or more specifically, dysfunctional families. Strong mothers or weak fathers or weak mothers and strong fathers with borderline “crazy” behavior, dark humor and the unpredictable maturation of children from those families. Of course if art mirrors life, it may be that “dysfunctional” is merely normalcy in today’s world."

It was heartbreaking, though, to read Conroy's dedication page. My Reading Life begins with: "This book is dedicated to my lost daughter, Susannah Ansley Conroy. Know this: I love you with my heart and always will. Your return to my life would be one of the happiest moments I could imagine."

So, as in my family, succeeding generations are affected by the tribulations fostered by previous generations. I naturally tried to discover more, and found his comments about the dedication page in an NPR review: Apparently he has been estranged from his daughter since divorcing her mother in 1995: "She has a perfect right not to see me. She's 28 now. But I thought this [dedication] was going to be a last cry of the heart. I would at least try to get her attention and see if I could get her to come back. It has been one of the most soul-killing things to ever happen to me." [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Maybe his daughter will reconnect with her father if she has the opportunity to read this book and understand the undertow of Conroy's maturation as a man and as a writer. He covers a wide range of influences on his writing, first and foremost his mother, who became immersed in Gone With the Wind, continuously reading passages from the novel to her son, beginning when he was five years old. "I owe a personal debt to this novel that I find almost beyond reckoning. I became a novelist because of Gone with the Wind, or more precisely, my mother raised me up to be a "Southern" novelist, with a strong emphasis on the word "Southern," because Gone with the Wind set my mother's imagination ablaze when she was a young girl in Atlanta, and it was the one fire of her bruised, fragmented youth that never went out....It was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world."

Then there were the teachers, in particular Gene Norris's English class, and the "anti-teachers" in particular his father, Donald Conroy, the Marine who beat his family. Conroy bore much of this. "From an early age, I knew I didn't want to be anything like the man he was....I was on a lifelong search for the different kind of man. I wanted to attach my own moon of solitude to the strong attraction of a good man's gravitational pull." Gene Norris was that man and he became a lifelong friend and mentor to Conroy and introduced Conroy to a wide range of classic literature.

Then there were people in his life who could have been negative influences, the librarian, Miss Hunter, at Beaufort High School, Cliff Grabart, the proprietor of the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, and the cantankerous, but lover of literature, a book representative, Norman Berg, who I met on several occasions at book conventions. Conroy even went out on sales calls with Berg. That was the foundation of the publishing business then.

From each of these people Conroy took away something and bonded with them in his own way. In fact, Conroy was sponge-like in his dealings with people and the literature he read, recording everything, the eyes and ears of a writer on duty at all times. This is what separates mediocre writers from great ones.

He did the ex-pat "thing" in Paris in the late 1970s. "Parisians... relish the xenophobic sport of stereotyping and love to offer an infinite variety of theories on the nature of Americans. To them, we as a people are shallow, criminally naive, reactionary, decadent, over-the-hill, uncultured, uneducable, and friendly to a fault....Whenever Parisians heard my execrable attempts at French, they would cover their ears with their hands and moan over the violation and butchery of their sweet tongue." My own visits to France taught me a similar lesson, my high school French had to be left behind and I sometimes pretended to be Canadian. But maybe the French are on to something, given my captivity by the mindless TV programming during my hospital stay.

Conroy was finishing The Lords of Discipline in Paris, staying at a hotel where he encountered a wide range of travelers, including other artists. As my son is an inveterate traveler, I was fascinated by Conroy's exquisite explanation as to what it is to be an ex-pat, meeting other people on similar journeys: "Because we were strangers who would know one another on this planet for a very short time, we could trade those essential secrets of our lives that defined us in absolute terms. Voyagers can remove the masks and those sinuous, intricate disguises we wear at home in the dangerous equilibrium of our common lives. The men and women I met at the Grand Hotel des Balcons traveled to change themselves, to trust their bright impulse with the hope they would receive the gift of the sublime, life-changing encounter somewhere on the road. There is no voyage without a spiritual, even religious impulse. Each of us had met by accident, our lives touched briefly, fragilely -- then we continued on our own private journeys, and those intense encounters left a fragrant pollen on the sills and eaves of memory."

But to this point, My Reading Life is merely a warm up for what is the main event and influence on Conroy's writing and he appropriately entitles the chapter "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe."
It was Gene Norris who gave him Wolfe's classic Look Homeward, Angel in 1961 as a Christmas present. "The book's impact on me was visceral that I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life....The beauty of the language, shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, brought me to my knees with pleasure....I was under the illusion that Thomas Wolfe had written his book solely because he knew that I would one day read it, that a boy in South Carolina would enter his house of art with his arms wide open, ready and waiting for everything that Thomas Wolfe could throw at him."

I felt the same awe when I read the novel in college, probably at about the same time as Conroy. Never before had I felt that way when reading fiction. The only way to describe his writing is as being concurrently prodigious and poetic, an uncommon combination. And the novel was even larger before publication and luckily for Wolfe his editor was none other than the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's who also was Ernest Hemingway's and F. Scott Fitzgerald's. Wolfe was in good company.

The publication of Look Homeward, Angel, had, at its heart, detailed autobiographical elements, the same sort of autobiographical elements in which Conroy's own The Great Santini is grounded. Wolfe's work caused an uproar in his hometown, beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. For a while he was banished from the town, but he did return later to write You Can't Go Home Again.

Conroy has made the pilgrimage to Asheville, first with his teacher, Gene Morris, to visit Wolfe's "Old Kentucky Home," the boarding house maintained by Wolfe's mother. Conroy rocked on the chairs where the boarders gathered on the porch. He toured the home which has been so lovingly restored. I wonder whether Conroy has seen the wonderful play about Wolfe's return to Asheville, Return of an Angel which we were lucky enough to experience during one of our visits to Asheville. It brought Wolfe's return to Asheville alive.

We have been to the Wolfe home in Asheville twice and came away with the same feeling of time having been stopped during those years, before Wolfe's untimely death at the age of only 37. Imagine the great works he would have written if he had lived. As Conroy says, "I think the novels of his fifties and sixties would have been masterpieces. Time itself is a shaping, transfiguring force in any writer's life. Wolfe's best novels sleep in secret on a hillside in Asheville -- beside him forever, or at least, this is what I believe." I agree, Pat, and thank you for reminding me of Wolfe's passion, an invitation to reread his work.

Conroy's concluding chapter, "Why I Write" is probably one of the best I've ever read on the subject, setting the serious writer apart from the potboilers that weigh down today's best seller lists. "Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself...Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear."

Also in that chapter, he returns to the overarching theme of literature and family, the role of literature explaining who we are and where we came from: "I've always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable. but I soon discovered that I've been writing voluptuous hymns to that boy my whole life, because somewhere along the line -- in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that's a home place for the beaten child -- I fell in love with that kid." And I too fell in love, as much with Conroy's nonfiction as his novels, particularly with My Reading Life, as well as My Losing Season. Such truthfulness and beautiful writing. One can only hope his honesty will lead to a reconciliation with his daughter. It would be just.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Homer & Langley

Ever since I first dealt with Amazon.com as a Publisher, sometime in the mid 1990’s, I also became their customer. Back then we were receiving regular faxed orders, usually for a few copies (with a photocopy of Jeff Bezos’ personal credit card!). I might have spoken to Bezos at the time, or one of his colleagues. Customer service, they explained, is their credo and they will build their business on that. We began to ship on open credit. The rest is history.

I buy most of my books from Amazon, frequently from their partners which costs nearly nothing, except shipping. It is sort of ironic as this can undermine prices on their Kindle, but given my interest in the physical book itself, the Kindle is not for me. I’m not a Luddite, but there is nothing like handling a printed book.

When we were recently in Asheville, we made our regular visit to Malaprop’s, one of the great remaining independent bookstores. They usually have a good selection of autographed copies and a couple of years ago I bought Russo’s Bridge of Sighs there. I was looking for Russo’s new novel That Old Cape Magic. Disappointed they didn’t have one this time, I sought out the next on my list, E.L Doctorow’s Homer & Langley. It is the best Doctorow novel I’ve read since Ragtime and the World’s Fair.

Reading an autographed copy has its drawbacks. No turning back corners to be able to find favorite passages. No reading on the beach. Handle with care. After reading, it belongs under glass like a museum piece.

The book itself is beautiful, printed on antique eggshell paper with a deckle edge, set in the Caslon type face, an old style face in the same family as Garamond, the classic crispness of which almost cries out to the reader to savor every word. And Doctorow’s writing is of museum quality too in its stark clarity and beauty. There are four main characters in the book, the brothers Homer and Langley Collyer, New York City, and Time (or the passage of the same).

Homer is blind but he is the one who can see truths as the book’s narrator and in various parts of the book is the one who leads the sighted. “People my age are supposed to remember times long past though they can’t recall what happened yesterday. My memories of our long-dead parents are considerably dimmed, as if having fallen further and further back in time has made them smaller, with less visible detail as if time has become space, become distance, and figures from the past, even your father and mother, are too far away to be recognized. They are fixed in their own time, which has rolled down behind the planetary horizon. They and their times and all its concerns have gone down together.”

A “Theory of Replacements” obsesses Langley, his older brother. “Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation. All these herds of bison they are slaughtering out west, you would think that was the end of them, but they won’t all be slaughtered and the herds will fill back in with replacements that will be indistinguishable from the ones slaughtered.” Consequently, Langley lives his life collecting newspapers, categorizing stories, preparing what would be a “perpetual newspaper.” “He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need. For five cents, Langley said, the reader will have a portrait in newsprint of our life on earth. The stories will not have overly particular details as you find in ordinary daily rags, because the real news here is of the Universal Forms of which any particular detail would only be an example. The reader will always be up to date, and au courant with what is going on. He will be assured that he reads of indisputable truths of the day including that of his own impending death, which will be dutifully recorded as a number in the blank box of the last page under the heading Obituaries.” Langley devolves into an antisocial eccentric, hoarding everything he finds, including his newspapers.

Doctorow’s story is somewhat based on the real life of the Collyer brothers who lived in New York City but it only serves as a loose sketch for the canvas of this tour de force. An odyssey of people, representative of time’s passing, drift in and out of their home, inherited from their parents, people from the depression, to WW II, to the Vietnam era, and the flower generation. While the brothers wage war with New York, the utility companies, and their neighbors, their home slowly degrades as time has its way and they withdraw from life itself.

Homer is a gifted pianist, the artist in the work, clearly Doctorow’s voice and sensibility. Homer has had one true love in his life, Mary Elizabeth Riordan, who, like everyone else in the novel, transits through the Collyer home never to return. She was his “prompter” in a silent movie theatre, whispering the changing scenes on the screen in his ear so he could play the appropriate music, his only job when he was younger. Then, she becomes his piano student and finally she leaves, becoming a Sister and a missionary in far away places, Homer occasionally receiving a letter. She is apparently murdered in Central America. Homer laments, “I am not a religious person. I prayed to be forgiven for having been jealous of her calling, for having longed for her, for having despoiled her in my dreams. But in truth I have to admit that I was numbed enough by this awful fate of the sister to be not quite able to connect it with my piano student Mary Elizabeth Riorden. Even now, I have the clean scent of her as we sit together on the piano bench. I can summon that up at will. She speaks softly in my ear as, night after night, the moving pictures roll by: Here it’s a funny chase with people hanging out of cars…here the hero is riding a horse at a gallop…here firemen are sliding down a pole…and here (I feel her hand on my shoulder) the lovers embrace, they’re looking into each other’s eyes, and now the card says…’I love you.’ ”

And as at the end of a silent movie the lens slowly closes and Homer cannot “see to see.”
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Nice to be Home?

On our way back to Florida, we spent a few days in Asheville, NC, one of our favorite places, the mountains being such a contrast to the horizontal topography of our home. While taking a walk in that area we met someone who lived her entire adult life in Florida but had moved to Asheville to be closer to her grandchildren. When she heard we lived in Florida she commented that the reason she misses her old home is she can no longer see the moonrise until it is high in the sky, the mountains dominating everything. That is what she missed the most.

In Asheville, we visited with our friends, Irene and Pete, who also relocated there from Florida a few years ago. They now have second thoughts about having made the move while sometimes I have had second thoughts about moving to Florida from Connecticut. Perhaps one’s preference boils down to a whimsical perspective on the moonrise.

Returning to Florida, we were greeted by a few unwelcome notices, thanks to the economy and new county and local “budgets.”

Unlike the federal government, which can run deficits ad infinitum, state and municipal governments can’t print money and must have a balanced budget. So far so good. During this Great Recession, with declining receipts from sales and property taxes, they must either cut budgets or increase revenue. After years of bloated budgets, thanks to the chimerical prosperity since the last downturn, any cutback would have to be drastic to align itself with reality. The path of least resistance is to find ways of separating the taxpayer from his money in a stealth-like fashion.

Case in point, we returned to multiple notices of a speeding ticket (made out to me, although my wife was driving) from our neighboring community, Juno Beach. This ticket was issued by an automated camera in the back of a van operated by LaserCraft, a company in Georgia. One is instructed to send the $125 fine to Georgia; probably LaserCraft getting the majority and Juno Beach the smaller share, but a small percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.

This is the most nefarious kind of revenue raising tactic, with the taxpayer being forced to pay a fine without being able to face the accuser (there is a $50 fee to file an appeal, one you are warned you are sure to lose). Non-payment results in being turned over to a collection agency, with all the attendant credit history ramifications. The “evidence” is two photographs of our car clearly showing it in front of and behind other cars in a lane so presumably every car received a ticket. Desperate economic times dictate desperate tactics for municipalities, and this is one of the worst. Lest one thinks that this is typical FloriDUH and it can’t happen here (wherever that might be), if Juno Beach gets away with this (there is a suit in court to overturn this), other cities will surely follow and why not automated cameras on Interstates as well?

Then, as our Florida home is our primary residence, it is “protected” under the Save our Homes act, the property tax increase one year over the next being capped at 3% or to the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. Read the fine print – that is during good times only. Palm Beach County property market value has decreased so much that it has simply frozen or reduced the “appraised value” of homes (thereby staying within the 3% cap), and increased the tax rate to take up the slack. (From the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser: A property's assessment could stay the same or go down but property taxes could go up any given year because of millage increases levied by your local taxing authorities). Why bring a budget in line with the economic times when it is easy to pick the pocket of the taxpayer? PBC tax rate will increase 15% over last year.

We are told there is no inflation, that this is a deflationary economy. It is true that there is no investment return to be found on our woefully declining US dollar, and no doubt there is asset deflation (e.g. homes), but consumer inflation is alive and well, the manipulated CPI not reflecting the real rise in the cost of living. Unemployment continues to grow (albeit at a declining rate) and until there is sustained employment growth – real growth – the recovery forecasted by the market is suspect (it’s time to “party” as the Dow passes 10,0000, Leo Kolivakis writes in his Pension Pulse blog)

Bottom line: if you want job security, retirement and health insurance benefits, work for your local government.

Welcome Home Taxpayer!.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Aegean Adventure

We were overseas in September and are now home after a detour stay in Asheville, NC. Our trip took us to Turkey, Greece, and Croatia, a panorama of the rise and demise of civilizations and flow of religions: the early Minoan civilization, Roman and Hellenic cultures, the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the confluence of Christianity and Muslim, an overview of the cradle of Western civilization.

It was mid morning when we walked into the lobby of the Sultanhan Hotel in Istanbul after a 10 hour overnight flight, the beginning of a land/ship tour of the region. Another couple, obviously American and about our age, were checking in as well. We smiled at them; they smiled back. My wife said, “Are you in Istanbul for the Greek Island cruise?” “Oh, sure” I said to myself, what are the odds? “Yes,” they replied and before I knew it we had arranged dinner plans for later that evening.

Although we hadn’t slept much during the flight, after unpacking and getting organized, we took a typical tourist double-decker bus tour of this complicated, energetic city, the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque predominately perched in its center, and the Bosporus River isolating the western part of the city in Europe and the Eastern part in Asia. We were looking forward to the following two days when we would return to see those major sites in detail and even take a boat tour on the Bosporus to the point where Europe and Asia almost touch.

That night we had dinner with Stuart and Gloria, a little younger than we, but retired as well. Stuart said that he was looking for a word that might describe a vacation by a retired person (who is already on a permanent vacation). I suggested “recation” so if you see that word used, you now know its derivation!

After a lovely Turkish dinner on the rooftop of our hotel, with a view of the Blue Mosque glowing in the distance, we returned to our rooms exhausted, hopefully to sleep, getting ready for a demanding day of touring. Following a restless night, we awoke to rain (we were told it never rains in Istanbul!). Naturally we hadn’t packed an umbrella so we were left to “caveat emptor” on the rainy streets of Istanbul.

Soon after buying our knock off ‘Burberry’ umbrella and underway again, we noticed a young Turkish man was walking alongside us on the street. “Hold onto your pocketbook” I telegraphed to my wife, but he said, in polite, broken English “Hello, where are you from?” Maybe it was our sleepy fog, but we replied honestly and added that we were trying to find the Hagia Sophia, as the windswept rain made it difficult to get our bearings. He respectfully suggested that we visit the Blue Mosque first – which we admitted was our second destination – further explaining since it was the period of Ramadan that by noon we would not have access to the Mosque due to the frequent calls to prayer. He said he would take us there, to a “special entrance” but he would “appreciate it” if we would briefly visit his shop nearby after we see the Mosque. So there’s the catch I thought. If it were not for the rain, we would have gone on our way, but we said sure and true to his word, we avoided the main entrance which was mobbed with rain soaked tourists, and instead escorted to a rear stairway –still crowded but at least moving briskly up and into this back entrance, whereupon we were required to remove our shoes.

And so we entered the Blue Mosque, which is the national Mosque of Turkey, built in the early 1600’s, combining Islamic architecture as well as Byzantine elements. The interior is striking with its ceramic tiles, stained glass windows, chandeliers, crafted marble, and of course the amazing sweep of the carpeting on which hundreds of worshipers turn toward Mecca in Muslim prayer. The crowds were maddening though, so we soon made our way out through the exit, putting our shoes back on, and sure enough our “guide” was waiting for us.

We dutifully followed him (a deal is a deal) to his rug store nearby, which turned out to be a pleasant experience and we learned a little about the making of beautiful Turkish rugs, and were served some of Turkey’s famous hot apple tea…. a welcome drink on such a wet day. Although we made it clear that we were not in the market to buy a rug, they were respectful, and hoped we would “recommend” their store and so after a 15-minute detour, we amicably parted.

By then, the rain had cleared and we were on our way to the Hagia Sophia which was built as a basilica in the sixth century, survived fires and earthquakes, but after Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in the 15th century was rebuilt as a Mosque. It is now a museum and a testimony to the civilizations that built and rebuilt the structure.

From there we had a typical Turkish luncheon at a sidewalk cafĂ© and began our walk to the Grand Bazaar where you negotiate your own price in the oldest covered market in the world – built before Columbus discovered America. The shops go on as far as the eye can see. And in spite of the shop owners clearly wanting to part you from your money, we left with the feeling that the people were friendly. In fact, everyone we met in Istanbul was wonderful.

That night we had a date with Stuart and Gloria for dinner again, this time at a very popular fish restaurant, mostly frequented by locals – which we were told offered the freshest seafood, “Easy to get to” our hotel receptionist assured us, marking it on a map that was not very detailed, “in walking distance.”

So the four of us started off, arm in arm, umbrellas overhead as the rain had returned once again. Most of our search was along ancient cobblestone streets and it was getting to the point, in the rainy darkening night that we were thinking we were entirely lost and perhaps getting into a section of town tourists should avoid. We began to ask people on the street where this restaurant might be but they generally shrugged their shoulders, until one gentleman -- more or less in sign language indicated he was going that way and he will take us. After silently following him through a labyrinth of back and twisting roads we began to wonder, even be concerned. Ten minutes later, with the restaurant not in sight, we were thinking of breaking off from him, but he kept waving his arm as we followed behind. And sure enough he led us to our destination; where we tried to offer him a thank you tip but he resolutely refused our gesture of gratitude. He was simply being a Good Samaritan.

It was an atmospheric outdoor restaurant, with an overhead awning. The rain had stopped but later during our dinner the rain became intense and waiters had to hold up the awning with broomsticks to keep everyone dry. It was an experience. No way did we want to venture back to the hotel on foot so they called a cab. With Ramadan services finished for that day, the streets were now crowded with worshipers who could finally break their day long fast to eat and drink.

The next day we were scheduled to board our cruise ship at 1.00 pm, although the ship was staying in Istanbul that night, so we devoted the morning to seeing the Topkapi Palace. Our son had been there the previous summer and warned us to get there early, as the crowds by mid morning would be swarming.

This was the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years, that period ending in the mid 19th century. We entered the Imperial Gate and toured the Imperial Treasury and its collection of enormous and breathtaking jewels and then the mosque in the palace where an Imam was chanting from the Koran, it being translated into English on a screen. No doubt the most interesting part was the Harem where the sultans’ families were housed, the Courtyard of the Sultan's Consorts and the Concubines, and the privy chambers.

After a light lunch at the Palace overlooking the Bosporus River, we made our way back to the hotel to pick up our bags and taxi off to the ship to meet our friends, Ray and Sue, who were arriving later that day from Connecticut and joining us on this trip.

We boarded Oceania’s ‘Nautica,’ a relatively small ship of some 650 passengers and looked forward to our friends’ arrival. By the time they finally boarded late in the evening, we heard one of those “thank-God-it-didn’t-happen-to-us” stories, hours on the tarmac, repairs to the plane, missing their connection in London, having to be rerouted. We finally had a late dinner in the main dining room, an elegantly appointed space in the stern of the ship. Since we would be in port until 3.00 pm the following day, allowing for a final day to see Istanbul, Ray and Sue took the city tour and we boarded a small boat for a cruise on the Bosphorus, where we could view the entire city from the shoreline and work our way up to the point where Asia and Europe nearly connect. The tides were running strong. Small fishing fleets were on the river as well. The water had debris as flooding only a few days before we arrived had inundated Turkey. Stuart and Gloria were on the same tour so we were able to reconnect, take some photos of one another and enjoy the scenery together.

We returned to the ship to prepare for our departure, a cruise that ultimately took us 2,272 nautical miles, to Kusadasi, Rhodes, Delos, Mykonos, Santorini, Katakolon, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Crete, and finally Athens. The trip was all the more remarkable as while we learned about the development, conflicts, and ultimate demise of ancient civilizations, I was reading John Updike’s Self Consciousness, the closest he ever came to writing a formal memoir. So, juxtaposed to the colossal sweep of civilizations over millenniums, I listened to the introspective musings of a solitary man, both concerned about a core element of our lives, the ephemerality of existence, and our need to make sense of moving from nothingness to nothingness as we attempt, as individuals, and as civilizations, to mark our place: we were here.

Updike: “Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn’t it terribly, well, selfish, and grotesquely egocentric, to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stock virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gratefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy, would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do?”

Kusadasi, our first port of call, is the gateway to Ephesus, an archaeological site in Turkey that has the remains of an ancient city that can be traced back to 10th century BC. Here we saw the two-story Library of Celsus, remains of temples, the city’s shops, and its theatre, which is considered to be the largest theatre from the ancient world. Ephesus was also the home to Paul and one of the birthplaces of early Christianity.

The Ephesus terrace houses are perched on a hill. Here the wealthy lived during Roman times. These are under cover and archeologists are putting these homes back together as a giant jigsaw puzzle, but they have constructed walkways so one can tour this site without interfering with this continuing work. Mosaics on the floor and frescos on the walls as well as the remnants of the homes’ heating and sanitation systems are a time capsule from the past.

As with many of the archeology sites we saw on this trip, one civilization replaces another, one layer on the other, the inevitable rise and fall, and it makes one wonder about our present “American civilization” – is it in its waning years as a political and economic power?

Updike: “…my first books met the criticism that I wrote all too well but had nothing to say: I, who seemed to myself full of things to say, who had all of Shillington to say, Shillington and Pennsylvania and the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America to say, and who had seen and heard things in my two childhood homes, as my parents’ giant faces revolved and spoke, achieving utterance under some terrible pressure of American disappointment, that would take a lifetime to sort out, particularize, and extol with the proper dark beauty. In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea – this odd and uplifting line from among the many odd lines of ‘the Battle Hymn of the Republic’ seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at the honing of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.”

That night we departed for the Greek Islands, to be covered in a later post.
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