Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lazy Hazy Days

It’s our usual time for what I call the vacation (being on our boat in Connecticut) from the vacation (being retired and living in Florida).  Our life here is very different from that of being in our home, living in a couple hundred of square feet on the water, and in the locale of my working days.  Everything must have its own place and must be secure when we run the boat, which with each passing year is less and less.  When a boat is a home (even for a few months) it becomes more of a challenge to secure for running and to deal with the umbilical cords to the dock, the power lines, the water line, the lines that hold us secure enough so our fixed satellite dish does not stray from its southwest target.  And then what we did as a younger couple on the water takes energy and sometimes daring, wares in precious short supply as we age.  And finally, we’ve been to most ports worthwhile visiting on the Long Island, Block Island, Vineyard, and Nantucket Sounds, and we are happily content at our dock or at our mooring off the Norwalk Islands.

Missing from our boating life here, though has been a small boat, one to take us on a cocktail cruise in (diet coke for me, the Captain), together or with friends, on placid twilight evenings. Recently we were able to buy such a boat – a fairly new one, so it’s likely that we’ll be out on the water more often now.  That is how it should be.  Naturally, we are happy to share it with our son, Jonathan, who has practically grown up on boats.  He’ll help keep it standing tall.

But, aside from our usual routines, the shopping and provisioning, meeting friends for lunch or dinner, my early morning walk in Shorefront Park which adjoins our marina (marveling at the rebuilding going on there and the raising of homes still in the aftermath of super storm, Sandy), there is the endless working on the boat and, for me, some writing (working on some short stories).  I also have my “summer reading” list.  Along with reading short stories by John Updike and Alice Munro, I squeeze in a novel here and there and my most recent read, Solar, by Ian McEwan, certainly classifies as “summer reading,” not literature at the level of what I read before by McEwan,  Saturday, but, still an engrossingly, compulsively readable novel.

I was curious about how the author would handle, in fiction, a subject that has interested me ever since I was exposed to it in high school: solar energy.  At a high school science fair, GE put on a demonstration of solar energy using a small model car on stage, shining spotlights on its roof and miraculously the small car moved across the stage.  I was hooked.  If I had more of a scientific bent, perhaps I would have gone into the field.  Mind you, this was the late 1950s.

So while the technology has been around, we’ve been slow to use it to partially solve our energy needs.  The State of Connecticut sponsored a rebate program in the early 1980s in the wake of the gas crisis, for installing solar powered hot water and we were one of the first houses to line up for it.  It was the most basic of systems, direct heat transfer, a pump circulating a liquid that quickly absorbed heat and then transferred it through a number of coils in a special hot water heater which had an electrical back up heater when the sun didn’t shine.  There was no battery storage of energy.  But it worked!  And by timing our hot water usage we squeezed everything we could out of the sun before reverting to electrical back up.

It’s disheartening we haven’t more rapidly developed this technology to make much more widespread use of solar energy, especially now with battery storage of energy becoming much more efficient.  It’s one of the reasons I admire Elon Musk’s vision, huge garages with solar panels on top, powering his Tesla tethered automobiles.  Even the rooftops of Manhattan could be outfitted, but instead the luxury buildings there have pools and cabanas.  Where are our priorities?

Ian McEwan’s Solar deals with the weighty subject of global warming and the solar solution through one of the most despicable protagonists I have ever encountered, a Noble Prize winner who is a compulsive liar, over eater, sexaholic, and criminal.  One can hardly cheer for his success but McEwan’s novel  makes interesting reading as a satire of everything Michael Beard – our prodigiously plump, reprehensible physicist who can’t save himself but sees himself saving the world -- comes in contact with.  No sense going into the plot in detail as it is readily available on line.  But if you are up to some beach reading, and like McEwan as I do, it’s worth the time.  Some of the novel is very funny, so it is a change of pace for McEwan, as Straight Man was for Richard Russo, although the latter overshadows McEwan’s work for sheer hilarity. 

But Solar is about a serious subject, and one can only wonder why as a nation we haven’t made it a greater priority for solving our energy needs.

Low Tide Shorefront Park

High Tide Shorefront Park

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Life Well Lived

Before leaving for Connecticut I felt inclined to read Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened Of, a strange potpourri of philosophy, memoir and literary commentary, along with some ghoulish humor, on death.  I had read Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel The Sense of an Ending and found him to be a talented writer. 

Here Barnes turns to essay format, dealing with what awaits all of us, something we intellectually accept, but in the gut?  Barnes approaches the topic as an agnostic, although he was a declared atheist earlier in life – the difference between the two terms as he expresses his philosophy seem threadbare to me.  Here’s but one example of a fine writer at work on such a topic:  It is not just pit-gazing that is hard work, but life-grazing.  It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us.  This is what growing up means.  And it is a frightening prospect for a race which has for so long relied upon its own invented gods for explanation and consolation.”

I must confess I share the universality of the “fear” of death, not so much of the mystery of a so-called afterlife, but of the process itself.  I don’t feel like Barnes’ often quoted 19th century French writer Jules Renard who once said: “Don’t let me die too quickly.”  It’s one of life’s experiences, so why miss it?  I say, why revel in the experience of it (especially today’s medically prolonged version) when you’ll not remember it?  To me life is about memory.

And the operative word of the last sentence is “me,” the persona that remains in others’ memory for a while, especially family and close friends, but in another generation or at most two that disappears as well. And against the backdrop of the limited life span of the sun and therefore the earth itself (limited when comparing it to “eternity), we all make a forgotten appearance.  Perhaps that in itself is the most frightening aspect of our “appointment in Samarra."

So the lesson is to live well and cherish the few in our lives to whom we are close and in a sense validate our own existence.  As we age, this is a diminishing circle.  I’ve written about the death of friends and family before in this blog.  Yesterday, Ann and I lost another friend who died in his sleep after a long illness, Michael Parkin (pictured on the left at Ann's 40th surprise birthday party).

They had 57 wonderful years together.  Michael will always be remembered by Ann and me for his zest for life and erudition.  There are few aspects of history that escaped his purview and few places in the world where he and Fred had not traveled.

In fact, France was one such place, and as his health declined he said to Fred that he wanted to live until Bastille Day, and that is the day he died, a symbol of his release and a celebration of a life well lived, a person we will always remember.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

First Novels

I’m always on the lookout for the emergence of new American literary talent.  My contemporary literary “companions” such as John Updike (who passed away five years ago now) and Philip Roth (who has chosen to retire from creative writing) have been silenced, although I still manage to find novels or short stories to reread or even read for the first time by them, ones I’ve missed in the past. 

A couple years ago I came across two first novels by promising young writers,:ones I will follow with interest.  I said the following about Eric Puchner’s Even if the Dream Isn’t Real The Dreamers Are: Here is a serious contemporary writer who knows how to tell a tale, paint a picture of American life through his characters, make us feel moved, walking the line through the comic-tragic, drawing us into something important about family relationships.  Only two months later I read another first The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall saying,   It took a younger generation, Jonathan [my son] to be precise, to introduce me to some fresh, intelligent and extremely moving literature, not only Eric Puchner's Model Home which I thought was a fabulous first novel, and now his second recommendation, another first novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall which was published in 2001 (Puchner’s novel is more recent, 2010).   

These are extraordinary first novels, major literary talent.  Udall has published his follow up, widely praised as well, The Lonely Polygamist which I have yet to read.  Interestingly, both the Puchner and Udall novels are set in the west and southwest ….perhaps the new home of the American dream or the American nightmare.  However, the two novels differ greatly in their perspectives and voice, Puchner reminding me somewhat of Updike, Cheever, and Yates, while Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is a little Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Rule of the Bone and The Book of Mormon –  oh, and throw in the Paul Newman film, Hombre, about a half breed Apache….He is an orphan but like Oliver Twist has to go through a horrific childhood before emerging into the sunshine of a loving caretaker.

In that same entry I reviewed Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn whose main character Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome, and is impaired as is King’s protagonist.

So behind the times as usual, I just read another worthy first novel, an extraordinarily sensitive work, Dave King’s The Ha-Ha, published almost ten years ago, this one recommended to me by my friend, Mary, who lives in Minnesota, and found me on my blog last year after a mere interval of some 44 years from when I had hired her fresh out of school for the publishing company I then worked for.  Towards the bottom of this entry is the email she sent, telling me that I was her first mentor and perhaps changed her life.  Pretty heady stuff for both of us and since then we have struck up an email relationship of some substance, recommending books to one another and generally keeping in touch. 

She revealed that soon after I hired her I had recommended that she read Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, ironically, his first novel (written in English) and also bearing a small resemblance to The Ha-Ha.  How this novel went under my radar screen, I shall never know, but I am indebted to Mary for bringing it to my attention, so the teacher becomes the student.

It is everything a good novel should be, intensely readable, one you can hardly put down, while dealing with huge themes in the lives of ordinary people who simply are trying to survive and connect.  It is also a coming of age novel, with hints of Huckleberry Finn.  Spoiler alert, I discuss aspects of the novel below which reveal things you might want to discover for yourself if you should chose to read it.

It is the story of Howard Kapostash, “Howie” and how his life is changed, not once but twice by seismic events, one a war and the other love. The tidal wave of the Vietnam War continues to ripple throughout our lives and especially through its veterans.  The “ha-ha” of the novel (a boundary wall concealed in a ditch so that it does not intrude upon the view) from which the novel derives its ironic title is a metaphor for the barriers Howie faces and a celebration of the individual will as he navigates them.

Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun floated through my mind while reading the novel, Trumbo’s portrayal of the destruction of an individual by war (WW I) being the most extreme rendering ever written (and filmed). In a sense, Howie bears some resemblance to Trumbo’s Joe Bonham, a soldier who is a quadruple amputee, trapped in his own body with no way to move or to communicate.  Howie, after only 16 days in Vietnam is hurled into the air by a land mine, and emerges brain damaged, but with therapy he is finally able to resume his day to day physical activities (unlike Bonham), able to take care of himself, although permanently unable to speak, read, or write.  He returns to his parents’ house where he grew up, at first descending into drugs and self pity until finally resurrecting himself, inheriting their home after his parents die and some money and taking in borders to help defray the cost of running it. One of these is a young Asian woman, Laura, who makes soups for a living, using the well-supplied kitchen in Howie’s home. Laura becomes his secretary in a sense, taking care of the bills, assisting him to continue to live somewhat independently on his own.  She does this in return for a rent-free residence and because she feels admiration, perhaps even love, for Howie.

Howie makes a life as a mute, working at a nearby convent, mowing the lawn, occasionally playing a game with his John Deere tractor, coming precariously close to the ha-ha.  He stays in touch with his first and only love, Sylvia.  They shared one idyllic, sex-filled weekend before he went to Vietnam but now are only friends.  Sylvia has a drug addiction, as well as a 9-1/2 old son, Ryan, who has a nameless, absent black father, so Sylvia and Ryan are two other characters trying to scratch out a life.

The action at this point is fomented by Sylvia’s sister who performs an intervention, hauling Sylvia off to a rehab center to kick her drug habit. But what to do with Ryan?  Without notice, Howie finds that he will be Ryan’s caretaker for an indeterminate amount of time, two damaged people, one a mute and the other a confused angry young boy who will have to live in this non-traditional household while his mother recovers.  Howie’s covert love for Sylvia makes it impossible for him to refuse.

King beautifully summarizes how Howie has arrived at this point: It’s all the things that I've gone down, everything that didn't happen to me that I always thought would. It's being an exemplar of the admirably rebuilt life, the days spent zigging a holy lawnmower around paradise, the nights with strangers in my home. It's having a child on furlough from another family, from Sylvia's family it's wanting to do the best I can. Pretending I don't still suffer from nightmares that set me bellowing in my sleep, while Laurel and the others pretend they don't hear. It's that maybe I wasn't so much to begin with, but everything that was worth parading has been gone for so long I barely remember it. It's wondering by what queer twist I survived, and why I was given sixteen days and a lifetime of bleak endurance.   It's the futility, always, of being understood.

And so the novel then unfolds, how our mute protagonist who has led a lonely love-starved life for so long, and how the nine and a half-year-old son of a former girlfriend he must suddenly care for change each other.  They warily bond through baseball (another metaphor for bringing them into society) and along with Howie's roommates they cobble out a nontraditional family as they wait Sylvia's emergence from rehab.

Howie’s feelings for Sylvia, if anything, have deepened while she’s in rehab.  He even fantasizes a life with her upon her return when he checks on her house, walking though it imagining how things could be, knowing full well, they will never be like this:  All these photos and keepsakes are so familiar that I rarely give them thought when I come in. In my mind I walk through the door and this is my house and I call out, “Honey I'm home!”—a phrase so familiar it's become a joke. Sylvia doesn't answer but I hear her chuckle. She's in the kitchen making sandwiches. There’s a knife-tap on the mayonnaise jar and the movement of the shadow on wallpaper. I take a breath.  The house smells fresh, it's summer and we keep our windows open. I don't smoke a pipe. I brought our boy back from baseball practice, and I can't wait to tell my wife how he hustled when he hit that double. “You should've seen it,” I’ll say, and give her a peck.  “Beat the throw by a mile!” Then Sylvia will say she'll catch a game soon, and that's enough to look forward to, because really it's father-son time this Saturday morning sports thing and that's how we like it.

Consequences of actions hang heavily over the novel, how Howie has developed a certain dignity in spite of his travails and then how they unravel as Ryan's mother's impending arrival approaches, finding himself almost in the same condition as when he returned from Vietnam, a victim of a war. He knows any relationship with Sylvia is impossible, but he realizes how achingly he will miss Ryan:  Already my dream life with Sylvia has become a chimera, patently unrealistic and foreign to the world I inhabit, the self I am. I can feel myself packing it up for storage, just as I did several decades ago.  But what I can't stow so easily away is the prospect of waking tomorrow with no Ryan in the house and as I listen to the peepers pulse out their strange, orderly rhythm, I don't know what I’ll do.  I don't remember how I lived before….As for the other stuff -- how happy I've been and how thoroughly I love him; how he's giving me something I never ever have known -- all this I hope he understands already, or will figure out for himself as he grows older.

Ultimately, it is a tale of how people connect, amend adversity, and are held together by love.  One last visit to the ha-ha by Howie in the middle of the night brings everything together:

I wonder if I should say a prayer or if I'm being influenced by the surroundings. I feel a little drunk. Through the silence the echoey whoosh of traffic below the ha ha, a sound like waves. The moon slips behind a cloud, the night is dark again and I decide to pray something that's not a prayer so much as an imagined wish; and I wish the first thing that bubbles into my head. I wish for Ryan to be well loved his entire life. That's the key to happiness I think. I wonder what Sylvia wishes for Ryan; then my mind is pulled from my prayer, and I think that for a few weeks he was well loved by all of us, and we were loved in return. I was loved by Sylvia once –I’ll always believe that -- and I was loved more than I deserved by my mother and dad. And I loved them. I wonder what kind of tally this makes for one life but I have my excuses. I’d loved more people if I hadn’t been injured. I never knew why I survived, but I was glad I made it. I didn't imagine any other way to feel.  There’s the period to be proud of, two years of autonomy, sobriety, and endurance. Why does nothing stand out?

I’ve quoted liberally in parts of this entry to reveal King’s profoundly sensitive writing style.  This is an exceptionally moving, meaningful first novel, an unqualified success.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Independence Day Reverie

I’ve increasingly avoided political topics recently.  To what end I’ve argued with myself.  Here we’re about to celebrate our independence while, as citizens and voters, we are held hostage by an intransigent Congress that can’t even address some of the basic needs of our society.  High on my priority list is our decaying infrastructure, inability to control the widespread distribution of assault weapons, addressing immigration reform with some realism, and an economy that is being held together by artificial means. And those are just the domestic issues.

But I’m not alone in ranting with disappointment.  Barry Ritholtz wrote an insightful article on this subject for Bloomberg View, Is This the Worst Congress Ever?  I can’t wait until he expands on his thoughts as he promises in a future article, particularly on the Federal Reserve’s role in this.  Read his commentary.  It is well worth while.

Meanwhile, we “celebrate” the 4th with the long drive from Florida to Connecticut.  I now dread the drive up I95.  In years gone by we actually enjoyed the trip but now it is mostly drudgery having to share crowded roads and hotels with people who rarely smile at you or might even just shoot you, depending on how the dice rolls nowadays.  Fewer seem to exhibit some simple common courtesy.  It’s become worse over the years, or perhaps I’ve become embittered with age, I can’t tell.

It’s an in-your-face-I’ve-got-mine-so-to-hell-with-you attitude, so incongruous with the spirit of the 4th.  I was reminded of this on a recent drive to the airport to pick up my son. I saw a bumper sticker on a pickup truck – probably from the time of Obama’s 2008 presidential race when he had emphasized it is a time for change.  Easy to remember, cleaver I thought, but a worryingly way of thinking of about half the State it seems:  I’ll keep my God, I’ll keep my guns, I’ll keep my money, YOU can keep the change!

I’m all for freedom of speech.  But this “in-your-face” slogan anecdotally underscores everything that is dysfunctional with our present political system.  Compromise and consideration of the other person’s point of view be damned! The story of our forefathers’ struggle to conceive a new nation out many points of view is what July 4th must be remembered for the next time we, the citizens, go to the polls to vote.  E Pluribus Unum!  Unless we can find common ground so our legislature works, and we can stop the march towards divisiveness and corporatocracy, July 4th will be nothing more than a fireworks show for the general amusement of a non-enlightened population.