Ann and I celebrated my 70th birthday on a cruise with our two sons, Chris and Jon, the first time we've been together for such an extended period since they were kids. But families find a way of settling into a familiar groove, wondering what the years have really done to us all (as a family) other than just growing older. In this regard I quote Robert Mazzocco's poignant poem about families. In many ways it describes my relationship with my parents more than our sons' relationship with us, but the echoes of the poem reverberate through generations, indeed, "dynasties" in their own way...
Family voices: you still can hear them,
ever so dimly, there in your own voice:
your father’s voice, even your mother’s voice.
The older we get,
the more you’ll hear them,
though no one else does.
Just as you still can see them, all over
your body, though, of course, no one else must:
family scars and family kisses.
Copyright © by Robert Mazzocco
This was brought home even more vividly by my reading during this time, particularly the two literary biographies, Hemingway's Boat, and Cheever, A Life. More on them later.
The trip itself was a Caribbean cruise. Ann and I have been on many before, but not with both our boys. This particular one was on Royal Caribbean's 'Vision of the Seas', an older ship, a little tired, but nicely laid out and with the bonus of a relatively quiet solarium, adults only, where I could alternatively read, and swim in their salt water pool, while Jon and Ann engaged in a battle of Scrabble and Chris worked on his laptop (new job, one he loves). The other bonus was having a balcony from which we could watch port arrivals and departures, and where I could while away more reading time, listening to the seas breaking against the hull. Early mornings I would get up to the fitness center to compete for space on one of the treadmills and stationary bikes, endeavoring to offset some of the food intake. The cuisine happened to be good, better than we expected for such a cruise. The trick was to avoid the bread and minimize the desserts.
But the best feature of the cruise itself was the itinerary, two days at sea and then a new port every five days, St. Croix, St. Maarten, Dominica, Antigua, and St. Kitts. We had been to all before, except Dominica.
So we set out for the Ft. Lauderdale Port Everglades Pier in high spirits co-mingled with a bit of apprehension about celebrating my 70th birthday this way, only to arrive on the ship with the shocking news of the Newtown, CT tragedy that morning. Such heartbreak to begin our 10 day holiday. And it hit so close to our previous home in Weston, a familiar territory as we lived only about a dozen miles from Newtown for 25 years, knew people there, particularly employees of my publishing company. But no matter where this insane act might have taken place, it just underscored the abysmal record we have as a nation, a popular culture that is consumed by violence -- just look at the best-selling video games and some of the compost concocted by Hollywood -- and the Eleventh Commandment (in the form of the 2nd Amendment) -- promoted by the NRA and the like. Hey, I want to carry a Bazooka, it's my right! How many of these disasters do we have to live through before banning military style weaponry? I have no pollyanna notion that this solves the problem, as no doubt the most violent criminal elements will find anything they want, but over time it will make it more difficult for the casual crazy to get his hands on such a weapon. The absurdity of arming guards in schools to ward off those with arms might be a short term deterrent, but not a solution, although the gun makers might be delighted -- let's have a shoot out at the O.K. Corral Public School!
Colorado had reiterated the right to bear arms in public places. That got them the movie theater shooting.
Thus, it was on such a down note that we sailed out of Ft. Lauderdale. Twenty four hours later, on my actual birthday, we were now attempting to move into full cruise mode and try to temporarily leave the world's troubles behind for a few days. After dinner and a celebratory birthday cake, too sinful for words, we decided to attend that evening's entertainment. What an ironic twist that on this night, my actual 70th birthday, the show in the ship's Masquerade Theater, was "Ricky Nelson Remembered"
performed by Ricky's twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson.
How appropriate, one of my boyhood idols, being honored by his two sons, on my birthday with my two sons, pictured here on the ship:
and here when Chris had his 16th birthday:
I asked them whether they had ever heard of the Ozzie and Harriet Show (of course not) and I tried to explain something about that early TV feel-good sitcom -- covering a real family -- and the rise of the youngest son, Ricky, to become the first TV-made rock star. I was a teenager at the time, going through my "Elvis" stage, although the rockabilly songs of Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent appealed to me more. Ricky's songs were cut more from that mold and so he was put on my hit list for some precious 45's which I played in my attic bedroom to drown out my parents. I entitled this blog entry "Garden Party" as it is a song that resonates more for me in retirement than when he sang it for the simple reason that "you see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself," one of the main reasons I write this blog.
After two days at sea, we arrived at our first port, St. Croix, an island we vacationed on 36 years ago when Jonathan was only 3 months old. This is not the kind of island one wants to visit on a cruise ship for one day, and I suppose the same could be said for the other islands on the itinerary other than Dominica, it's capital, Roseau, being right at the dock (which only accommodates one ship, thankfully, and is very walkable.
In Dominica our mission was to get away from the ubiquitous shops that populate the immediate area where the ships dock at every island (in fact, in some places, that's all you can walk to) and as soon as we emerged from that area it was a different world. Although mostly impoverished as are so many of the islands and although we walked through some very rundown areas, the people were extremely friendly.
It is an island I would like to spend some more time on, nicknamed the "Nature Isle of the Caribbean" for its pristine beauty
Our immediate goal was to find the island's Botanical Gardens, which we did and enjoyed the tropical flora and fauna, particularly the Spiny Bamboo House which rises cathedral like. The tenacity of how things grow in the tropics was underscored by an African baobab tree that was felled by Hurricane David in 1979 on top of a school bus and today, crushed bus and tree branch are still there for all to marvel over, and have been left untouched with the tree still stubbornly alive and well.
Returning to the ship we walked many side roads with various local scenes.
The boys went on while Ann and I lingered on the grounds of the pretty public library finding, eureka!, free Wi-Fi there. Armed with our iPhones we caught up on some email, me in a few minutes, Ann (with many more friends than I) more than a few minutes. Meanwhile, I decided to explore the inside of the library. After all, my publishing company focused on the library market, but mostly the university level, but it's always fun to visit a library in another land, in this case a remote Caribbean island with just a few rooms of books.
Inside, every shelf was populated by well arranged books, but, more importantly, nearly every chair was occupied by a reader. This is a library that still focuses on the printed word, not electronic delivery. I began to peruse the reference shelves curious whether they included any of the books I published. To my delight one of the first titles my eyes fell on was our edition of Tom Inge's 2 Volume, Handbook of American Popular Culture and even more satisfying after examining the copies was to see they've been heavily used over the years. This was sort of the full circle for me as I remember proposing the reference book program that was aimed at public libraries in the mid 1970s and in fact, this Handbook had been on the list of specific titles to be developed and it was published in 1978. There I was on the island of Dominica 34 years later holding in my hand the result of that idea and having the satisfaction that it had been used so many times by the good people of the island.
Ironically, in today's Internet world, such a Handbook would be unpublishable, except electronically, and maybe the search engines would even obviate that.
Back on the ship, we continued over the next couple of days to the remaining ports, Antigua and St. Kitts, which Ann and I had visited before but, for our son, Jonathan, they represented the 100th and 101st country in his itinerant life, intent on seeing all countries in the world by the time he's my age. I believe he'll do it.
As I've written many times before, the best part of cruising (for me) is the time I have to read (why is being home more time consuming than traveling?). And what struck me from my reading as I was traveling with my family? Each family has its unique story. This cruise I devoured Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson, and I'm about 2/3 of the way through Cheever, A Life, by Blake Bailey who I think is emerging as the preeminent literary biographer. He brought Yates to life, and now Cheever.
Amazing to read about Hemingway and Cheever, so different in their writing and how they approached life and, yet again, such dysfunctional family lives (not as bad as Yates who led a depressed life in addition to being a drunk like Cheever) And for me amazing, the crisscrossing of aspects of their lives and mine, not that I'm a literary anything, but places and cultural commonalities galore.
The focus of Hendrikson's biography is indeed Hemingway's boat, a 1934 38 foot Wheeler, made in my old stomping grounds of Brooklyn, NY, named "Pilar' of Key West. It had a 75 HP Chrysler reduction gear engine and a 40 HP Lycoming straight drive for trolling. He could run the boat at 16 knots with both engines (although that was rare). Ironically, the dimensions of his boat are about the same as mine. The 'Swept Away' is also 38 feet, holds about the same amount of fuel (330 gallons vs. 'Pilar's 300 gallons) and the same amount of fresh water, 100 gallons.
But of course "Hem" fished the boat and fished it hard, off of Cuba and Bimini in the Bahamas. The entire biography circles around the boat, the manufacturer, and the mates who ran the boat. It is more about his life and times than his writing.
The Cheever biography is as much about his writing as the man itself. His life was one of self doubt, always seeking approbation, unsure of his sexuality, and like Yates, one that gradually became consumed by alcoholism. During WW II he was in the infantry and was a week from being shipped off to Europe when he landed an assignment with the Signal Corps writing documentary films, ironically the same branch of the service as my father and Cheever's "office" was in Astoria, Queens, the same place my father's business landed before it was forced to close its doors. Most men from Cheever's unit were shipped off a week later and died on Utah beach, the same destiny that would have befallen him. Lucky for him and us or we would not have most of the short stories (and all of the novels) from one of most important writers.
Cheever is closely identified with the New Yorker school of writing as was his younger contemporary (and rival) John Updike, probably the most important American writer of the late 20th century along with Philip Roth. Updike and Cheever while respecting one another, kept an eye out for the other as well, particularly Cheever who felt inferior in many ways to Updike, particularly because of his younger colleague's Harvard education (Cheever went to the school of hard knocks as did Richard Yates). While the careers of Cheever and Updike were constantly crisscrossing, Yates was an outsider, never achieving the distinction of a New Yorker published short story.
Between the two biographies, I read another novel by Louis Begley who is beginning to impress me as the next great American writer, but at the age of 79, he might not have enough time to establish an even greater reputation since switching his profession from the law to creative writing. After the Schmidt trilogy, I wanted to know more about the man, and chose his very autobiographical Matters of Honor in which his persona is occupied by two characters, Henry White, a Polish-Jewish refugee who was hidden as a child during World War II, with his mother and father, and therefore survived, who becomes an international attorney, and Sam Standish, the narrator, who becomes an author. Of course, Begley is both people and it is interesting how he orchestrates many characters in the novel in this coming of age story, from Henry and Sam being Harvard roommates in the 1950s and then their rise to the pinnacle of their careers later in life. Begley's struggle with anti-Semitism and the meaning of friendship constantly surfaces. This is the work of a mature novelist in every way.
So I shared my 70th birthday with my family and some of my favorite authors. My Garden Party was swell.