Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It’s a Wrap

Hard to believe our summer on the boat is drawing to a close.  Next week we’ll be on our way to Budapest to begin a river cruise that will take us on the Danube, the Main, and the Rhine, through five countries and many medieval towns and villages.  I’m particularly looking forward to Cologne, the city from which my great grandparents emigrated.  As a boater, a highlight will be the leisurely navigation of the three rivers, through a total of 47 locks.

Our clearing off and packing up signals the end of our boating season here, leaving old friends, the Boat Club we’re active in, and neighborhoods that are ingrained in our sub-consciousness.  Compounding a sense of sadness was our attendance at two funerals this summer to say farewell to old boating friends, both our age.  We also had a rather sad dinner with a boating friend who had a severe stroke over the winter, a once vigorous man who is now disabled.

I’ve mentioned Shorefront Park before, where I usually do my morning power walk.  I love that little neighborhood here in S. Norwalk, so evocative of the neighborhood I grew up in Queens, but with the added luxury dimension of being on the water.  However, this lovely neighborhood suffered the wrath of Super Storm Sandy, and the devastation can still be seen, homes totally ruined, others in stages of reconstruction, even raising one house a full story to elude possible future flooding.  The storm left its mark on this area.  I usually walk early in the morning and already there is a certain late summer stillness the last few mornings foreshadowing the oncoming fall.  Indeed, time to leave once again.

I did not read as much as I would have liked during our relatively brief stay here.   But in addition to The Orphan Master which I described in the previous entry, I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.  It reads like a suspense novel and Wolfe makes you feel as if you are right there.  It mostly covers the original Mercury 7 Astronauts’ training and launches, but against the background of the Cold War of the late 50s and 1960s, a period I remember so well, but never fully realizing the extent to which it drove the space program.  The book begins though with Chuck Yeager’s breaking the sound barrier and fittingly ends with Chuck Yeager’s last test flight, the point being that unlike the Mercury 7, Yeager flew a rocket as a pilot. Wolfe’s description of Yeager’s last test flight is unforgettable, and provides a strong incentive for reading the book.
Nonetheless, there are several other selections which resonate with me and therefore I include them below.  The first is his description of where the astronauts stayed while at the Cape: Cocoa Beach.  I’ve been there and I can attest that while it has obviously been more developed, Wolfe still captures its essence and the meaning of the place to the Mercury 7:

….Cape Canaveral was not Miami Beach or Palm Beach or even Key West.  Cape Canaveral was Cocoa Beach.  That was the resort town at the Cape.  Cocoa Beach was the resort town for all the Low Rent folk who couldn’t afford the beach towns father south….Even the beach at Cocoa Beach was Low Rent.  It was about three hundred feet wide at high tide and hard as a brick.  It was so hard that the youth of postwar Florida used to go to the stock car races at Daytona Beach, and then, their brains inflamed with dreams of racing glory, they would head for Cocoa Beach and drive their cars right out on that hardtack strand and race their gourds off, while the poor sods who were vacationing there gathered up their children and their Scotch-plaid picnic coolers, and ran for cover.  At night some sort of prehistoric chiggers or fire ants – it was hard to say, since you could never see them – rose up from out of the sand and the palmetto grass and went for the ankles with a bite more vicious than a mink’s  There was no such thing as “first class accommodations” or “red-carpet treatment” in Cocoa Beach.  The red carpet, had anyone ever tried to lay one down, would have been devoured in midair by the No See’um bugs, as they were called, before it ever touched the implacable hardcraker ground.  And that was one reason the boys loved it!

And then onto Wolfe’s definition of the intangible, “the right stuff” as he so poignantly describes it: ….Next to Gagarin’s orbital flight, Shepard’s little mortar lob to Bermuda, with its mere five minutes of weightlessness, was no great accomplishment.  But that didn’t matter.  The flight had unfolded like a drama, the first drama of single combat in American History.  Shepard had been the tiny underdog, sitting on top of an American rocket – and our rockets always blow up – challenging the omnipotent Soviet Integral.  The fact that the entire thing had been televised, starting a good two hours before the lift-off, had generated the most feverish suspense.  And then he had gone through with it.  He let them light the fuse.  He hadn’t resigned.  He hadn’t even panicked.  He handled himself perfectly.  He was as great a daredevil as Lindbergh, and he was purer: he did it all for his country.  Here was a man..…with the right stuff.  No one spoke the phrase – but every man could feel the rays from that righteous aura and that primal force, the power of physical courage and manly honor.

And how did the geopolitical events influence the space program?  Probably there would have been no program, at least not in the 1960s, without those events:  ….Kennedy was convinced that the entire world was judging the United States and his leadership in terms of the space race with the Soviets.  He was muttering, “If somebody can just tell me how to catch up.  Let’s find somebody – anybody…There’s nothing more important”…Catching up became an obsession.  … Finally Dryden told him that it looked hopeless to try to catch up with the mighty Integral in anything that involved flights in earth orbit.  The one possibility was to start a program to put a man on the moon within the next ten years.  It would require a crash effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project of the Second Work War…..Less than a week later…the Bay of Pigs debacle had occurred, and now his “new frontier” looked more like a retreat on all fronts….And the tremendous public response to Shepard as the patriotic daredevil, challenging the Soviets in the heavens, gave Kennedy an inspiration…They were all absolutely startled when Kennedy said: “I want you to start on the moon program. I’m going to ask Congress for the money.  I’m going to tell them you’re going to put a man on the moon by 1970.”

The program and the book culminate with John Glenn’s first orbital flight.  The adoration of the man knew no bounds and his parade with the other Mercury 7 down Broadway brought even the city of steel and concrete to its knees: ….And what was it that had moved them all so deeply?  It was not a subject you could discuss, but the seven of them knew what it was, and so did most of their wives.  Or they knew about part of it.  They knew it had to do with presence, the aura, the radiation of the right stuff, the same vital force of manhood that had made millions vibrate and resonate thirty five years before to Lindbergh – except that in this case it was heightened by Cold War patriotism, the greatest surge of patriotism since the Second World War….But what the multitudes showed John Glenn and the rest of them on that day was something else.  They anointed them with the primordial tears that the right stuff commanded….Somehow, extraordinary as it was, it was…right! The way it should be!  The unutterable aura of the right stuff had been brought onto the terrain where things were happening! Perhaps that was what New York existed for, to celebrate those who had it, whatever it was, and there was nothing like the right stuff, for all responded to it, and all wanted to be near it and to feel the sizzle and to blink in the light…Oh, it was a primitive and profound thing!  Only pilots truly had it, but the entire world responded, and no one knew its name!
I also reread Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (merely 50 years since the last time).  It was a very different experience reading the book as a septuagenarian.  I see Roth as a young colt writing this novella, exploring themes that would develop over the next fifty plus years, with clear signs of the literary thoroughbred he would become.  Certainly the work foreshadows my favorite Roth work, American Pastoral.  Nonetheless, it was somewhat painful reading his youthful work, bringing up issues of my own formative years that were submerged long ago, ones I was hardly conscious of when I first read the book, crazy families’ impact on their children, the first real romantic love, and youth’s obliviousness that old age would one day arrive.  And true to Roth, is a very funny work as well.

The title symbolizes the soon-to-be-lost youth of Brenda's brother, as he is about to be married (like me, at an early age), but still a boy, dreaming of his basketball days at Ohio State, listening to an old radio broadcast of the big game which begins: "The place, the banks of the Oentangy."  My friend Bruce and I spent part of the summer at Ohio State University in Columbus as representatives to the National Student Association from our university.  It was a different world from New York, indeed, but we, like the youth of Roth’s first major work, were ready to be swept along into the stream of life as if it were endless.

The 1984 Paris Review carried a remarkable interview with Roth (hat tip, my son, Jonathan). The interview is a treatise on his process of writing, and I was fascinated by how “fake biography” enters his art, using the analogy of the art of the ventriloquist.  As such, Roth himself is omnipresent in his works: ….Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade. Think of the ventriloquist. He speaks so that his voice appears to proceed from someone at a distance from himself. But if he weren’t in your line of vision you’d get no pleasure from his art at all. His art consists of being present and absent; he’s most himself by simultaneously being someone else, neither of whom he “is” once the curtain is down. You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it—all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life. Millions of people do this all the time, of course, and not with the justification of making literature. They mean it. It’s amazing what lies people can sustain behind the mask of their real faces. Think of the art of the adulterer: under tremendous pressure and against enormous odds, ordinary husbands and wives, who would freeze with self-consciousness up on a stage, yet in the theater of the home, alone before the audience of the betrayed spouse, they act out roles of innocence and fidelity with flawless dramatic skill. Great, great performances, conceived with genius down to the smallest particulars, impeccably meticulous naturalistic acting, and all done by rank amateurs. People beautifully pretending to be “themselves.” Make-believe can take the subtlest forms, you know. Why should a novelist, a pretender by profession, be any less deft or more reliable than a stolid, unimaginative suburban accountant cheating on his wife?

Luckily, before leaving , just this past weekend, all the stars fell into place for us, schedules, weather, etc. and we enjoyed a weekend visit with Jonathan and Chris, yes, both sons!, and Jonathan’s lovely girlfriend, Anna, a really special person, wise beyond her years and with a patient disposition.  We took the boat out to our mooring of some thirty years, between Chimmons and Copps Islands, early in the morning, and had a leisurely breakfast there, Ann, Jonathan, and Anna later playing Scrabble, while Chris and I read.  The day was a “10,” the islands sparkling in the sun and the boat in peak form.  We wish we had had more time with them and better weather in July, but it was not to be.  Nonetheless, we saved the best for last.  And on that note, farewell once again Norwalk, until – hopefully -- next year!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Orphan Master’s Son

North Korea is an enigma (to me at least).  Only a few months ago the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was saber rattling nuclear missiles, threatening not only South Korea, but American bases in the Pacific as well.  Bizarrely, at about the same time, basketball celebrity Dennis Rodman visited the country and the new leader (apparently Kim Jong-un likes basketball).  Rodman thinks he played peacemaker.   How weird to see the heavily tattooed Rodman sitting side by side with the young chubby cheeked dictator. 

Did I really want to know more about the circus-like-train-wreck of North Korea?  However, the accolades for Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son were overwhelming, calling to me. So, I’ve read it and can understand why it deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature last year.

This is a compelling novel, such a good story, and so well written.  But can life in North Korea really be as Johnson writes?  While no one can say whether his depiction is accurate, it is fiction, and it succeeds as an allegory of universal themes. 

At times episodic, with shifts in time and voice, mixing the 3rd person narrative of Jun Du AKA Commander Ga, and the 1st person narrative of an interrogator who is dedicated to extracting the “truth” from his interrogees by writing their biographies (vs. the brute torture inflicted by the “Pubyok”). Interspersed are propaganda broadcasts which surreally move the story further along.  The entire narrative ultimately revolves around the caprice of “The Dear Leader,” Kim Jong II, (Kim Jong-il, the father of the present leader) who is the ultimate Orphan Master of an entire nation. 

One can only describe the action as an extended nightmare, following the narrative down a rabbit hole into a totalitarian state whose underpinning is brainwashing; its people expecting no more than a life that would seem like Dante’s Inferno to any westerner. The book makes normalcy of brutality and propaganda, portraying a society where insanity is sanity.  In fact, I was constantly thinking of my college psychology professor, Gustave Gilbert, who wrote The Nuremberg Diary, had interviewed all the major Nazi figures who were put on trial there, and came to the conclusion that as they were raised in a culture where deference to authority took precedence over all, their actions would not be considered “insane” in such a society.  I also couldn’t help but think of another WWII allusion, a work of fiction though, Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird, chronicling the horror witnessed by a young boy, who was considered a Jewish stray, during the War.

And similarly, this is a coming-of-age story of Jun Du (or, as some have aptly noted, a “John Doe”) who, although the son of a man who ran the “Long Tomorrows” orphanage, is raised as an orphan himself, as his beautiful mother, an opera singer, had been shipped off to Pyongyang for the amusement of the New Class, as is so often the fate of beautiful women in that State.  From helping to run the orphanage (his father was frequently drunk), he “graduates” to “tunneler” – working in the dark in tunnels under the DMZ to kidnap South Koreans and then Japanese by boat.  He further graduates to study English and becomes a radio surveillance 3rd mate on a North Korean fishing ship, reporting English conversations for reasons unknown.  One of those conversations is of two American women rowing across the ocean, one of which figures later in the novel.

When Jun Do had filled out his daily requisition of military sounds, he roamed the spectrum.  The lepers sent out broadcasts, as did the blind, and the families of inmates imprisoned in Manila who broadcast news into prisons – all day the families would line up to speak of report cards, baby teeth, and new job prospects.  There was Dr. Rendezvous, a Brit who broadcast his erotic “dreams” every day, along with the coordinates of where his sailboat would be anchored next.  There was a station in Okinawa that broadcast portraits of families that US servicemen refused to claim.  Once a day, the Chinese broadcast prisoner confessions, and it didn’t matter that the confessions were forced, false, and in a language he didn’t understand – Jun Do could barely make it through them.  And then came that girl who rowed in the dark.  Each night she paused to relay her coordinates, how her body was performing and the atmospheric conditions.  Often she noted things – the outlines of birds migrating at night, a whale shark seining for krill off her bow.  She had, she said, a growing ability to dream while she rowed.

What was it about English speakers that allowed them to talk into transmitters as if the sky were a diary?  If Koreans spoke this way, maybe they’d make more sense to Jun Do.  Maybe he’d understand why some people accepted their fates while others didn’t  He might know why people sometimes scoured all the orphanages looking for one particular child when any child would do, when there were perfectly good children everywhere.  He’d know why all the fisherman on the Junma had their wives’ portraits tattooed on their chests, while he was a man who wore headphones in the dark of a fish hold on a boat that was twenty-seven days at sea a month.

Not that he envied those who rowed in the daylight.  The light, the sky, the water, they were all things you looked through during the day.  At night, they were things you looked into.  You looked into stars, you looked into dark rollers, and the surprising platinum flash of their caps.  No one ever started at the tip of a cigarette in the daylight hours, and with the sun in the sky, who would ever post a “watch”?  At night on the Junma, there was acuity, quietude, pause.  There was a look in the crew members’ eyes that was both faraway and inward.  Presumably there was another English linguist out there on a similar fishing boat, pointlessly listening to broadcasts from sunrise to sunset.  It was certainly another lowly transcriber such as himself.

Our hero finally metamorphosizes into Commander Ga, a hero of the State (and the reader is more than eager to suspend disbelief of this change) as this page turning novel becomes a thriller of the first order.  He is united with Commander Ga’s wife, Sun Moon who is the State’s movie actress, a favorite of “The Dear Leader.”  From there, all of the main characters in the novel converge, even Sun Moon and the American rower, the propaganda speakers announcing:  Citizens!  Observe the hospitality our Dear Leader shows for all peoples of the world, even a subject of the despotic United States.  Does the Dear Leader not dispatch our nations’ best woman to give solace and support to the wayward American?  And does Sun Moon not find the Girl Rower housed in a beautiful room, fresh and white and brightly lit, with a pretty little window affording a view of a lovely North Korean meadow and the dappled horses that frolic there?  This is not dingy China or soiled little South Korea, so do not picture some sort of a prison cell with lamp-blacked walls and rust-colored puddles on the floor.  Instead, notice the large white tub fitted with golden lion’s feet and filled with the steaming restorative water of the Taedong.

Contrast that Halcyon scene with the reality of our hero’s imprisonment: In Prison 33, little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be.  Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that your head had ever touched a pillow, that you’d once used a spoon or a toilet, that your mouth had once known flavors and your eyes had beheld colors beyond gray and brown and the shade of black that blood took on.  Before you relinquished yourself – Ga had felt it starting, like the numb of cold limbs – you let go of all the others, each person you’d once known.  They became ideas and then notions and then impressions, and then they were as ghostly as projections against a prison infirmary.

It is a love story as well, and it is the cry for individualism in a totalitarian state.  The nameless interrogator’s final dreamlike thoughts express it best:  I was on my own voyage.  Soon I would be in a rural village, green and peaceful, where people swung their scythes in silence.  There would be a widow there, and we would waste no time on courtship.  I would approach her and tell her I was her new husband.  We would enter the bed from opposite sides at first.  For a while, she would have rules. But eventually, our genitals would intercourse in a way that was correct and satisfying.  At night, after I had made my emission, we would lie there, listening to the sounds of our children running in the dark, catching summer frogs.  My wife would have the use of both her eyes, so she would know when I blew out the candle.  In this village, I would have a name, and people would call me by it.  When the candle went out, she would speak to me, telling me to sleep very, very deeply…I listened for her voice, calling a name that would soon be mine.

Adam Johnson has written an epic novel, one that required research and a colossal imagination.  Sign me up for his next work!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

New York and Boston

It is challenging writing while on the boat.  There is limited broadband connection, and it is frequently lost, so frustration is a prevailing theme.  And while we’re here for such a short summer, other activities compete for time. 

Nonetheless, I don’t want to find an impossible chore when we return in the fall, so, as a placeholder, this is a relatively brief entry on the last week, for which I have about 150 photographs and I can only offer up a few, covering the huge canvas of, first, our day with our friends, Harry and Susan, at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, and then, two days later, our trip to Boston, to see our son Chris, and our friends Bruce and Bonnie in Sudbury MA.

Several years ago I edited a collection, New York to Boston: Travels in the 1840's, which incorporated parts of Charles Dickens' American Notes (1842) and D. Appleton & Co.'s The American Guide Book (1846).  I’ve been fascinated by the history of the two cities (and the rivalry when it comes to baseball).  Visiting Boston again, but this time as a tourist, really brought home the differences, the influences of the English, vs. the Dutch on NYC.

We ventured into New York for a day with Harry and Susan, lunch and dinner and in between, an exhausting tour of MOMA, not having been there for years and years.  Although it was a weekday, the throngs of people were overwhelming, not to mention the size of the museum as well.  It gave us a new appreciation of our local Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, much more negotiable.  But of course, nothing can compare with MOMA if you have the time and stamina. 

After the New Haven railroad delivered us about ½ hour late, we finally made it to the Fireside Restaurant at The Berkshire Place on E 52 Street (where we had the pleasure of staying when I was in NYC for overnight business meetings).  It was “restaurant week” in NYC so we had a wonderful fixed price three course luncheon.  From there, it was a short walk over to the MOMA.  The photos below are just a few of the highlights (for me).  I hope to have more complete coverage later in the year.

On the way back to Grand Central, we stopped at a fast food Hamburger Heaven for a light dinner.  NYC Hamburgers are the best and the ambiance of an old coffee shop allowed us all to linger and talk until it was time for us to catch our train and our friends to find their ferry back to Ft. Lee.

Two days later we drove to Boston, letting the GPS take us through the labyrinth roads of downtown, so evocative of London, to the venerable Parker House Hotel, which is an historical site onto itself.  Dickens stayed there and John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie in a corner booth in the historic restaurant.  We saw the marble table on which none other than Hô Chí Minh rolled dough in the hotel’s bakery from 1911 – 1913. (Oh, the supreme ironies of life, that JFK had to deal with him some 50 years later as the North Vietnamese nationalist leader.)

One of the main reasons for our visit was to see our son, Chris, who had recently moved to Cambridge and showed us his office in the historic Old City Hall, built in 1865, just one year before his great-great grandfather established his photography business in New York City.  We had two dinners with him and as a fish fanatic, I requested only seafood restaurants.  We had outstanding meals, the first at Dolphin Seafood in Cambridge and the next night at Scollay Square Restaurant which was right near our hotel, both reasonably priced and serving great fish.

Boston is immersed in history, and in such a concentrated area within a short walking distance of our Hotel.  We tried to hit the highlights of the Freedom Trail, such as the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, Paul Revere’s home, and, Faneuil Hall.  We were lucky to have ventured out early on Sunday morning, before the mobs descended, to Quincy Market and then to Faneuil Hall, a public meeting place which is still used to this day, where we had a private tour given by one of the Park Rangers.  (In the men’s room there was a sign which read “As the first President of Boston’s Board of Health, Paul Revere supervised the city’s privy (outhouse) inspectors, who made sure residents properly emptied out their privies and didn’t let them overflow.”)

By Sunday afternoon the Hall became so crowded that we strolled down to the waterfront and sat with Chris, taking in the sights and sounds of Boston before our last dinner together.

Monday morning we drove to Sudbury to see my college friend, Bruce, and his wife, Bonnie.  I had last visited Bruce in his home half my lifetime ago, and was able to dig up a photo of that visit to juxtapose it to the present day.  I had remembered where the photo was taken, but not where we stood, and why that should matter, I have no idea – perhaps it was merely an exercise of Absurdism.  But here we are...

And now….

While we’ve changed physically (merely a little less hair), the years have not changed our outlook on life and the need to laugh at some of the same silly things we did as college students.  We four had a lovely lunch at, where else, Legal Sea Food in Framingham.

From there, it was back to the boat which we took out a couple of days later for a brief cruise on the Long Island Sound.