Showing posts with label Richard Russo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Russo. Show all posts

Monday, September 18, 2017


Good riddance and farewell Irma, especially in the destructive wake of Harvey.

Now as I write this Jose is threatening our boat in Connecticut with Maria on its heels likely to impact the same islands devastated by Irma (adding Puerto Rico as a direct Category 4 hit).

We’ll pay for a “Wall” to alienate good neighbors such as Mexico but refuse to take global warming seriously.  Why not treat THAT as an urgent matter, especially for future generations?  No, global warming didn’t “cause” Harvey or Irma, but the severity of storms will only increase in the future without shrinking the carbon footprint of our seriously overpopulated planet.  There is more than three times the number of people on this planet than when I was born!  Malthus was right about the geometric growth of population, but food shortage will not be the only offset.  There are solutions, if only we had the wisdom to listen to our scientists.  But I digress.  Back to the storm itself.

The day before the hurricane would begin to affect Florida we were due to fly out of the White Plains airport via Jet Blue, returning to home after spending a month on our boat in Connecticut.  Man makes plans and fate laughs.

As the storm was ramping up, with more and more dire warnings of a potentially Category 5 storm threatening Florida, we, too, became obsessed with the Weather Channel, watching every twist and turn of the spaghetti models.  Ka-ching, ka-ching for the Weather Channel, with, ultimately, their reporters waist-deep in water, leaning into the wind with their microphones for the enjoyment of their audience.  This is what reporting has become in the age of reality TV.

Early on it seemed to have a path that Floyd followed in 1999 and Mathew last year.  If so, it would track close off shore up the east coast of Florida and we thought to ourselves best be home before as that Saturday flight would be cancelled and flights would be more difficult to obtain later.  I had a monthly car rental from Avis to return to the White Plains airport, one of those special monthly deals for which they wanted to charge me a fortune on a per diem basis if I kept it more than the appointed time.  Funny the things you consider in the light of an impending weather event that could change your life.  Avis is truly Ka-ching oriented with subpar customer service and dirty automobiles.  Never again, Avis. 

So on the day after we changed our reservations to return on Thursday, the models shifted to a direct track over the east coast of Florida.  Looking at the maps it appeared to have a bulls-eye on our house!  Did we want to be in the house during a Category 4 or 5 storm?  If we were younger, perhaps I would have said, bring it on.  Not so anymore.  This is especially the case given the images of Houston’s bout with Hurricane Harvey.  Such devastation and heartbreaking scenes.

As we were making a donation to the Red Cross for Harvey, we contacted Jet Blue again (knowing it was hurricane season, I had presciently bought their Jet Blue Flex tickets, which enabled me to change without penalty).  As we were to fly out of a small airport (HPN) to PBI, there were a limited number of seats available for their Tues., Weds. or Thurs. flights.  I figured the hurricane would be gone by Tues, but thinking of the logistics of rearranging planes and flight crews, selected Weds. which, as it turned out, was the first day they did indeed resume flights to PBI.  Just dumb luck.

Now we just had to wait it out on our boat, hoping still the storm would pass out to sea, not wishing it on the west coast of Florida, but with every update, that’s where it seemed to be moving.  When we decided to move to Florida 18 years ago, we of course knew of the hurricane dangers (but most of the damage I witnessed during my life was from storms that visited Connecticut or Long Island, such as Carol, Gloria, and Sandy).  We had been in our house in Florida for Hurricanes Jean and Wilma, the latter being the worse although damage was limited.

Most of the really life threatening effects of hurricanes is from storm surge and not wind, and yet we live on the water.  But the water has never gone over our seawall.  We purposely bought on the east coast of Florida because the continental shelf drops off into deep water near the shore and storm surge is less of a threat than on the west coast as the Gulf of Mexico is shallow. 

Several years ago, with our mortgage paid off, we had the option of dropping the otherwise mandatory portion of our insurance covering windstorm damage from a hurricane.  By then, there was only one state sponsored insurance company that would cover homes near the water, Citizens, and their rates became usurious, with enormous deductibles.  We could pay all those premiums for years and years and probably not need it so instead we set aside those premiums for retrofitting our home for “the really big one. “

Irma seemed to be it.  The first significant investment after banking those premiums was a new roof using top of the line underlayment in combination with the 3M Polyset roofing tile attachment system which is guaranteed for 20 years.  Roofs which were peeled off during Hurricane Charlie using conventional nails, screws, and mortar (as was our previous roof), were unscathed using the 3M system, so we went for the best.  At the same time we replaced the east facing corrugated steel window panels with clear Lexan panels so there could be some light during a hurricane if we should be in the house (we were in the complete dark during Wilma).  

Next year we replaced all north and south facing windows with heavy duty hurricane impact windows and installed a generator to run the essentials (not a whole house gen as we rarely lose power and not for a long time).  This has its own circuit breaker box and I just plug in a 30 amp line, exactly the same kind as we use on the boat in Connecticut.

Then the next year, the big expense, installing electric roll down shutters across the length of our water-facing porch and therefore not needing those heavy panels on the four sliding glass doors that open to the porch.  That also tied down the roof to the cement foundation with the supports for the roll downs.

Last year we completed the retrofit by replacing the two sets of French double doors that open out to our pool patio with the heaviest impact doors made.  Each of the four doors must weigh hundreds of pounds each.  It took four men to carry one and all day to install.

At the same time I fabricated and had installed a brace for our garage door, although the door itself is hurricane rated.  The brace was to be used only for the most extreme storm as it is tied into the cement floor with anchors and attaches to the rafters of the attic which provides additional strength to both the roof and garage door.  Given the dire forecasts, we asked our house minder to put up that brace.

And, so, we waited out the storm, fairly confident about our house, but we worried about our community and friends who had sheltered in place.

Meanwhile, life goes on.  I had to return that monthly rental car to Avis, and picked up a less expensive weekly rental, which by the time we were half way back to the boat from the airport I finally noticed a light flashing “check tire pressure.”  Cars have gone electronic and usually this means the pressure is a little off so I made a mental note to get air at a filling station.  By the time we got back to the marina, I looked at the tires.  All seemed to be fully inflated, until we saw the mother of all nails in the right rear.  It was situated in such a way that it looked like it was there for a long time, a perfect plug, but did I want to take a chance it would hold?  No.  So I called Avis and tried to do a local swap at one of their nearby offices, but no, I had to drive all the way back to the airport.  “Ka-ching!” Avis cried out again.

So all the way back to the airport and then had to deal with a surly, clearly unmotivated check in person in the lot before having to go back to the desk.  They gave me another car which was low on windshield fluid and was just unclean, but by that time I was in the lot, and needed the car for only a few days, so we drove back to the marina, not happy campers.

I had had it with driving, the anxiety of the encroaching hurricane, the uncertainty of whether it would be a direct hit, and that night we were to celebrate our son’s birthday with he and his fiancée, Tracie. They kindly offered to drive us to the restaurant which was not exactly around the corner, in Cannondale, CT, a special place called “The Schoolhouse” – actually an old school house.  But the best part is Jonathan drove and used all the back roads of verdant Connecticut, winding hills up and down, past places I hadn’t seen in years and years, arriving at the restaurant as if there was not a care in the world.  We were all together, Jon, Tracie, Ann, and myself, as the requisite selfie shows. 

The menu was even printed just for us, welcoming the “Hales” which is our restaurant reservation name, much easier to give the name “Hale” than my real surname.

The Schoolhouse is a “farm to table” restaurant and a relaxing, enjoyable experience.  What a break from all the anxiety.

Back to the boat for the next few days, to prepare for our trip home, wondering whether the storm will leave the community intact.  With every hour, its track moved further and further west, seemingly to put the west coast of Florida in the cross hairs of a potential massive tidal surge, which would have been the worst of all possible outcomes.

Meanwhile, knowing there was nothing more I could do for our own house, I tried to read Richard Russo’s short story / novella collection, Trajectory.  Hard to give it the attention it so richly deserves, while tracking a storm on my phone on and off, and wondering whether there would be a flight on Weds. as we had scheduled.  Russo, along with Anne Tyler, are our best mature storytellers, sharing so much in common, our very own modern day Jane Austens, their idiosyncratic characters crying out for love, fearing their social awkwardness, dealing with money and health problems, but mostly with their fractured relationships.

In fact the story “Voice,” concerns a retired Jane Austen scholar, Nate, who is inveigled by his older brother, Julian, to go on a group tour to Italy.  Their relationship reverts to one of their childhood, meanwhile competing for the same woman.  In general, the collection is infused with Russo’s gift of humor.  Perhaps the funniest novel I ever read is his Straight Man.  The latter is laugh out loud, but one can get a sense of his more subtle gift of humor and characterization from this paragraph from “Voice.”  A modern day Jane Austen would be proud of him:

At any rate, as the two women approach, weaving through the crowd, Nate knows he's on his own. The plain one arrives first, thrusting her hand out, much as a man would, and announcing that her name is Evelyn, or, if he prefers, Eve. Nate, wondering why on earth he should have a preference, takes the proffered and pretends delight to be met. Eve's hair is cut sensibly short for a woman her age – early 60s, Nate figures, though he's never been much good I guessing women's ages – and she's wearing something like a tracksuit, except nicer and maybe even expensive. The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how much she presented herself to men but woke up one morning, said fuck it and was immediately happier. She is also, Nate fears, one of those women who is confident she knows what's in the best interest of others. Seeing someone who obviously prefers to be left alone, she's all the more determined to include him in whatever awful group activities she's contemplating. The word she probably uses to describe whatever she has in mind is fun. It won't be, of that Nate's certain.

Russo deals with my own concern with Group travel:   Nate studies the daily travel schedule, trying to square it with the people he met.  A few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen. Both humpbacked Bernard and the orange-haired, chain-smoking women who stop to catch her breath…are genuine heart-attack candidates. Then there’s the extremely elderly couple who, when at rest, lean into each other should to shoulder, forming the letter A; if either were to move quickly, a broken hip would be the likely result for the other.

Russo’s humor camouflages the flip side, aging, illness, death and even his own writing skills.  In the story “Intervention” Ray, a middle aged real estate agent is facing a crisis, having a cancerous tumor.  He thinks about his father’s death:  But he must also have been proud of his father, or why would he be emulating him now it hadn't been a conscious decision – I'll do this the way my father did it – when he was informed about his own tumor. He simply concluded, as his father must've done, that he wasn't special, that there was no reason such a thing shouldn't happen to him. Like his father, he hadn't protested that he was too young, or that he had been cheated, or that life is unfair, or that he deserved an exemption.

In “Milton and Marcus,” Ryan, a writer in desperate need of a job is invited to try screen writing again.  He has his doubts about rejoining the Hollywood game and even more so about his skills:
Over the years we kind of stayed in touch, and when I had a new book out, Wendy always called to congratulate me. I think he must've known that my work had lost a good deal of its vitality by then. Each book sold fewer copies than the one before, and while the critics remained mostly respectful many reviews seem to agree that my earlier works had felt far more urgent than the later ones. The sad truth is that some writers have less fuel in the tank then others, and when the vehicle begins to shudder, you do well to pull over to the side of the road and look for alternative transportation which is what I did.

But if I had to pick but one phrase as central to this collection, it is:
The thing about confidences – the unsolicited opening of the heart – is that they invite reciprocity, even when it’s not a good idea….Russo offers “the unsolicited opening of the heart” in Trajectory.  

And so with the completion of the novel came the passing of Irma, the devastation on the west coast of Florida, but thankfully less than they thought it would be, although the Florida Keys was not so spared. So, upon our scheduled return to our home, we wondered what we would find.  Except for some minor landscaping damage, one could hardly tell our home had been hit by the storm.  We were among the lucky ones.

But we also returned to the sad news that Ann’s cousin Saul had died.  He had had a massive stroke two weeks before the storm, and his three “kids” were determined to form a vigil by his bedside with his wife of 55 years, Lynda.  They moved him to hospice when he was declared brain dead.  And there they sat through the storm, Saul fighting death for days and days without food or water.  The family was finally able to hold his funeral in Boca which naturally we attended.  This is a very close family, children and grandchildren, and they stood with their mother at the Mausoleum where the service was held and then the interment.

The Mausoleum itself is on two floors with multiple crypt levels for bodies.  Ann and I have never been to one.  It is a massive marble structure which we have never seen, as well as the procession, the casket being raised on an elevated platform after being wrapped in a clear plastic tarp, and then inserted in a cubicle for two, an instrument being used to push the casket all the way in the back of the cubicle, leaving room for his wife when she ultimately passes.  We all sadly watched this.

It is otherworldly and I could not help but think of homeless victims of Harvey and Irma, or people who lost their lives, who could have been protected in shelters such as this fortress.  And believe me; this building will outlast any structure in Florida.  It is not my place to pass judgment on the need for placing our remains in such edifices.  If it gives families comfort, so be it, but when one thinks of the resources being used to protect the dead while the living need so much, it gives me pause.  For us there will be cremation and the scattering of our ashes to the rising waters.
Shorefront Park, Norwalk CT

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Home at Last!

It’s been a whirlwind past month.  This is a place card -- an idiosyncratic summary -- to be elaborated on in the future, when I finally download the majority of my photographs.  The tale of people and sights seen are best told by them.

Ann and I just returned from an overseas trip, a long overdue stay in one of our favorite cities, London, for a full week and then our fifth (and probably last) transatlantic crossing on a cruise ship, with numerous stops along the way.

Towards the end of last month, we packed for two distinct trips, belongings we needed to return to Florida, and two large suitcases plus carry-ons for our flight to London and our nearly three week cruise across the Atlantic.  The former was left on the boat for our son, Jonathan, to deliver to us with our car upon our arrival at the Brooklyn Cruise Pier on Sept 22, and then we’d immediately begin our drive back home in Florida.  That was the plan.

We left JFK on Aug 28, an AA flight around 6.00 pm which was constantly delayed because they couldn’t cool the plane down (it was as hot that day in the Northeast as most of the summer – why leave Florida anymore?).  What was the hang-up cooling the plane?  Images of a number of nubile Amazonians with large peacock feather fans danced in our heads.  Finally they allowed us to board, a full 777, and still the temperature was at least 90 degrees inside the plane.  After taking off, the air conditioning kicked in, and as if they had no control over it, it just got colder and colder.  Ann took my blanket as well as her own, leaving me in a thin windbreaker. Brrrr!

But we made it unscathed and practically on time and emerged at Heathrow to be met by a driver thoughtfully provided by Michael Geelan who runs Eurospan, the company that sold and distributed our books in Europe for nearly 40 years.  We were deeply grateful, particularly anticipating that Monday morning traffic into London would be challenging.  But it was a bank holiday, and we breezed in to begin our week in London.

The objectives in London were to see old friends, theatre, and museums, not to mention sampling some of London’s fine restaurants.  I was also looking forward to getting around on the underground.  Having grown up in New York City, I know a thing or two about traveling subways, but London’s underground is incomparable: it’s clean, well organized, orderly (just cue up, no cutting in), and London’s Visitor Oyster card makes it a pleasure.  That’s how we travelled around London most of the time, although we also engaged a few Uber cars and traditional London cabs as well.

Theatre is always special there.  We were able to see In The Heights, an early very successful musical experimentation by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the immigrant experience, his precursor to Hamilton
with moving pastiches reminiscent of West Side Story and Sondheimian lyrics.  We had seats on the stage, the theatre being set in traverse with seating banks on either side.  Like Hamilton, the production is intoxicating high energy.

The following night we saw The Go Between.  This is a memory musical, a vehicle for Michael Crawford, beloved British star of the musical theatre.  But when we arrived, the theatre was abuzz – and refunds were being offered, or exchange tickets, as Crawford could not perform and his understudy Julian Forsyth was filling in.  Ironically this was the second time we had tickets to see a Michael Crawford musical in London when he couldn’t sing.  The first time some 25 or more years ago he stepped out onto the stage for a performance of Barnum, and announced he had bad news and good news.  He said he had laryngitis and therefore could not sing, but, happily, his understudy would sing off stage and he would perform, Crawford mouthing the songs in sync, which he did successfully.  His voice was never a strong one, so this worked well and his understudy in The Go Between had a very fine voice and was an excellent actor and therefore I felt sorry for those who turned in their tickets.  This is a haunting, albeit dark musical, strangely (to me) a little reminiscent of A Little Night Music (Sondheim again!)  Doubtful it would ever come to Broadway, but well worth seeing. 

Another night we saw The Truth by Florian Zeller.  This is very much in the style of Alan Ayckbourn in its conceit, a hoot with verity. One of the leads was played by a very sultry Frances O’Conner who also played Mrs. Selfridge in the British TV drama, Mr. Selfridge.  With a little tweaking for a US audience, The Truth could be successfully brought here.

The following day we spent the late morning and afternoon at the Victoria and Albert Museum being enthralled as ever by the massive collections and wonderful art as well as enjoying a typical English Scones and Tea break.  Some of my photos will tell that tale better than narrating it here. 

That night we had tickets (which I booked well before leaving) to see The Entertainer produced by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, starring none other than Kenneth Branagh, who plays the iconic, self-loathing, Archie Rice, a Brit comedian, singer, dancer, raconteur in the dying tradition of the old Music Hall, a metaphor for the post imperial British Empire. Among the other actors were John Hurt who had been absent from the London stage for a decade playing the legendary patriarch Billy Rice and Sophie McShera as Jean Rice – McShera played Daisy in our all time favorite Downton Abbey.  This is a powerful almost absurdist drama by John Osborne, well known for Look Back in Anger.  

I was intrigued by this play and its premise, my only problem being the very difficult British accents, so difficult for an American that I found myself trying to piece together what was being said.  Consequently, I bought the play on my way out of the theatre and read it.  Now I understand and can say unequivocally that this is great theatre.  Would love to see it produced here with a more moderate accent and a guide to British Popular culture.

Friday night was special.  Probably the main reason we were visiting London.  More important than theatre are the friends we’ve made over our lifetimes.  The Geelans and the Mahers are two families in the UK who are connected to us by Michael Geelan and Danny Maher being principals in Eurospan, Michael still running the operation.  Friday night Michael had booked a restaurant for all of us to meet up, with a stop first at 3 Henrietta Street in Covent Garden, their office and my second overseas home for decades.  It was moving and memorable and I’m glad I took a photo of the group with my iPhone so I can include it here (missing is Mhara, Michael’s daughter, who took the photo and Danny’s wife Pat who was just recovering from surgery).

Saturday we decided to go to Oxford Street, visit one of Ann’s long time favorite stores for nighties, Marks and Spencer, and walk through Selfridges, the latter being very impressive: Harry would be proud.  That Saturday night we had tickets for the BIG theatre event, one very much anticipated by us both, the Open Air Theatre’s production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the famous Regent’s Park.  This is outdoors and preceded by dinner on the grounds at candlelight.  The web site made it so inviting.
The one big variable for an outdoor dinner and show in London is weather of course.  Well after a week of downright hot weather in London, and sunny each day, the forecast for that evening was threatening – a chilly drizzle and wind.  After emerging from the underground, thinking the theatre was right nearby, we couldn’t find the Regents Park entrance for the theatre and there was no indication where that might be.  Well a few English ladies emerged from the underground and one had been to the theatre so we followed them.  It began to rain and we walked and walked.  Miles!!! We finally arrived and the rain abated (they do not cancel shows in advance no matter what the weather). 

We had our dinner with the occasional pitter patter of rain on the tin roof covering our table.  Ann had multiple layers and a genuine raincoat on.  I had my windbreaker and a light jacket, nothing to cover my legs so I bought a thin plastic poncho just in case.  The performance began in light mist and about midway it began to rain.  Hard.  The stage manager finally emerged with the news that they were taking a break to see whether the rain would stop.  What a disappointment.  While most locals were content to hang around in the bar, waiting, we looked at each other, happy that we at least saw a portion of the play, all the principals, and of course we knew where the story was going, so we left and got an Uber back to the hotel without having to fight crowds.  As it was, Uber was doing surge pricing because of the rain.  Thus our fifth and final theatre performance ended with a whimper.

Sunday was a big day.  Normally, we would be going to Danny and Pat’s for a typical English afternoon dinner, but Pat had just had an operation and Danny as well for a very severe torn rotator cuff and thus their daughters Lisa and Claire were preparing the meal at Lisa’s home.  In spite of their surgeries, both Pat and Danny looked well.  Danny thoughtfully provided the transportation to and from our hotel via a driver as Lisa lives half way to Oxford.  It was remarkable to see Lisa, meet her husband (Matt) and see their two adorable sons, (Daniel and Harry) and Claire, the “girls” now all grown up, quite a contrast to our being with them in 1979, pictured here,

and another in 1982 when we brought Lisa and Claire some of the first Cabbage Patch Dolls which were the rage at the time (and they still have them!).

Here’s Claire and Lisa with yours truly at the reunion dinner a few weeks ago. 

Just a wonderful afternoon with good friends, we think of them as family, and then the return to our hotel to pack for the next day pick up by a driver again thoughtfully provided by Michael, for our journey to Southampton to catch our ship.

So we began a trip of some 5,700 statute miles to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Bergen and Flam in Norway, a scheduled stop in the Shetland Islands, Lerwick (which we were unable to visit because of rough seas, a great disappointment), and then three stops in Iceland ( one of our favorite destinations), Akureyri, Isafjordur, and finally Reykjavik.  The leg from Akureyri to Isafjordur was rough, a head sea of up to 27 feet, with a 40 MPH head wind.  The ship’s bow would come off of one of the crests and plunge into the trough.  It was so rough forward (we were more aft) that staterooms were in disarray from flying drawers and loose objects and some passengers even put on their life jackets and tried to sleep in lounges near muster stations.  Also, in the bad weather department during the cruise, we were pinned to the dock in Reykjavic by high winds for 18 hours beyond our departure time and therefore the ship had to make up time for the next 2,301 nautical mile leg to Boston.  The seas to Boston were benign.  I could have crossed it in my own boat (had there been enough fuel!). 

That crossing took five days and we settled into a routine, my attending daily enrichment lectures in the morning, one on astronomy and the other on writing historical fiction, both up my alley.  Ann meanwhile had organized a morning AND afternoon Mah Jongg game, we meeting for lunch.  This left me free in the afternoon to first go to the gym and walk off some of the calories and then to settle down to catch up on my reading, perhaps my favorite activity during days at sea.

Luckily I had two books on my Kindle app and I thought I’d go to the ship’s library in case they didn’t last.  I found the library threadbare, empty shelves, the few books disheveled and uninteresting.  It’s one of my biggest criticisms of the Caribbean Princess along with it being too large a ship (3,500 passengers, the largest we’ve ever been on) and the lack of detailed navigation information which, as a boater, appeals to me.  A library on a cross Atlantic crossing should be well stocked and managed.

Thinking that two books would not last, I panicked and went to a store on board where they had a rack of paperbacks for sale.  Mostly potboilers and romance novels, nothing that would appeal to me, but luckily they had one copy of a book recently made into a film (which I haven’t seen), by an author who I admire, Dave Eggers: A Hologram for a King. I snapped it up and was confident I was set.

My first read (and my very first electronic book that I’ve read as I’m from the “old school” and love the printed page – after all, that was my business) was White Noise by Don DeLillo, a dystopian work of post modern fiction., the underlying theme of which I can summarize from a quote in the novel: “That’s what it all comes down to in the end,” he said. “A person spends his life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?” “What if death is nothing but sound?” “Electrical noise.” “You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.” “Uniform, white.”

It’s dark, a chemical cloud consuming the main characters.  Yet there are some funny, laugh out loud passages, such as this quote from the aging father saying goodbye to his daughter, probably for the last time, as he drives off: “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “The little limp means nothing. People my age limp. A limp is a natural thing at a certain age. Forget the cough. It’s healthy to cough. You move the stuff around. The stuff can’t harm you as long as it doesn’t settle in one spot and stay there for years. So the cough’s all right. So is the insomnia. The insomnia’s all right. What do I gain by sleeping? You reach an age when every minute of sleep is one less minute to do useful things. To cough or limp. Never mind the women. The women are all right. We rent a cassette and have some sex. It pumps blood to the heart. Forget the cigarettes. I like to tell myself I’m getting away with something. Let the Mormons quit smoking. They’ll die of something just as bad. The money’s no problem. I’m all set incomewise. Zero pensions, zero savings, zero stocks and bonds. So you don’t have to worry about that. That’s all taken care of. Never mind the teeth. The teeth are all right. The looser they are, the more you can wobble them with your tongue. It gives the tongue something to do. Don’t worry about the shakes. Everybody gets the shakes now and then. It’s only the left hand anyway. The way to enjoy the shakes is pretend it’s somebody else’s hand. Never mind the sudden and unexplained weight loss. There’s no point eating what you can’t see. Don’t worry about the eyes. The eyes can’t get any worse than they are now. Forget the mind completely. The mind goes before the body. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. So don’t worry about the mind. The mind is all right.”  Just a little guilt trip!

It was a striking change to then turn to Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool, his long anticipated sequel to Nobody’s Fool which I read in the early 90s and later saw the movie version with Paul Newman playing the iconic Sully. It is a rollicking multiple plot tragic comedy. It too is dark in some ways and Russo falls a little short of the natural humor of another earlier work of his, Straight Man.   To me, it was sad to witness Sully and friends in their twilight years. But this is a writer who loves his characters and imparts that love to the reader.  Everyone in the novel is a fool one way or another.  I couldn’t help but see Paul Newman in my mind’s eye as I read this sequel. He lived in my former home town, Westport, CT, and I used to see him around from time to time.  But Sully’s story is only one in the novel and Russo uses his story to tie together others, particularly that of Douglas Raymer, the chief of police who was only a minor character in the prior novel, but a major one here. At one point he wonders: Where were fools supposed to go? Was there someplace known for welcoming them, where he might blend in with others of his ilk? A place inhabited by middle-aged men who found it impossible to put their deceased wives’ infidelities behind them? Who fell in love again in the manner of teenage boys, too self-conscious and clueless to figure out whether their affections were returned? Was there such a place anywhere in the world?

A Hologram for a King by Dave Eggers in some respects reminded me of Camus' The Stranger written in a Hemingway style about the modern dilemma and the existential threat of globalism and its effect on jobs. Like The Stranger it has a strong absurdist quality to it as well as being set in the Middle East (in Saudi Arabia vs French Algiers).  It is very carefully constructed with simple prose, with profound meanings running beneath.

Alan Clay is a 54 year old “consultant,” hired by a major telecommunications company to sell an IT system to King Abdullah who is creating a city in the white sands outside Jeddah, the King Abdullah Economic City.  Will it ever happen though?  Will the King ever show up so Alan and his team of three young techies can demonstrate the power of their system, the only one that can create a Hologram of a person speaking from another part of the world?

Alan was a seasoned executive with Schwinn Bicycles before the company slowly imploded from a combination of poor business decisions and globalism.  He’s in debt and is obsessed with trying to explain to his daughter, Kit, why he might not be able to afford her next semester’s college tuition unless this sale goes through.  But every attempt to set up a firm appointment with the King seems impossible.  Days turn into weeks as Alan becomes unglued. 

He wonders where meaningful work has gone.  He once built a stone wall at his home, remembering the satisfaction of working with his hands.  Sure, it was crooked, not very attractive, but he did this.  With his own hands.  Nonetheless his town made him remove it as he did not have a permit and it did not meet code.  But where was work satisfaction today?  -- that was the more important question.

Alan’s team is ensconced in a tent.  It’s hot.  The Wifi doesn’t work.  He supposedly has a contact, a Mr. al-Ahrnad who is to meet him at the main building, the “Black Box,” but his repeated attempt to contact him there is rebuffed by the receptionist, Maha. And there is no getting to the King without settling issues first with Mr. al-Ahrnad.  Eggers dialogue does not employ quotation marks, but it is clear as to what is description and what is dialogue.  This is just a sample of the absurdist loop that Alan finds draining and bewildering, a man from the old school thrust into the modern dilemma:

Alan left the tent and walked up to the Black Box. He was soaked when he arrived, and again he was greeted by Maha.
-Hello Mr. Clay.
-Hello Maha. Any chance of seeing Mr. al-Ahrnad today?
-I wish I could say yes. But he is in Riyadh today.
-Yesterday you said he'd be here all day.
-I know. But his plans changed last night. I'm so sorry.
-Let me ask you something, Maha. Are you absolutely sure that we shouldn't be meeting with anyone else here?
-Anyone else?
-Anyone else who might be able to help us with the wi-fi, and might be able to give us some prognosis about what will happen in terms of the King, our presentation?
-I'm afraid not, Mr. Clay. Mr. al-Ahrnad really is your primary contact. I'm sure he's very anxious to meet you, but has been unavoidably delayed. He will be back tomorrow. He has guaranteed it.

Of course he doesn’t show again.

Meanwhile, Alan has befriended Yousef, a young man who is his driver at times, and who introduces him to a different world, the one below the façade of a city which may never be built.  In so doing, Alan comes to terms with his human frailties, and even love and patience in a world over which he is but a meaningless cog.  Highly recommended and I guess I’ll have to see the film.

A footnote to the foregoing.  I’ve never had an author, and I’ve worked with thousands as a publisher, take the time in the acknowledgements to thank by name the entire staff of the printer of the book as Eggers does here (Thomson-Shore in Dexter, Michigan -- printers of the hardcover edition).  I met with Ned Thomson and Harry Shore when they founded the company in 1972 in Michigan and my company was among their first customers, if not their first.  It’s just a serendipitous tangential connection between this novel and my distant past.

In Boston we saw our son, Chris, who had taken the day off from work to be with us and we had a lovely day, lunch and walked around Boston on another unseasonably warm day.  Wonderful to see him, happy in his job (how many can say that?) and living in the seaport section of Boston, a beautiful urban oasis within a great city. Two days later we landed in Brooklyn where, as planned, we were met by our son, Jonathan, with our car already burdened by other suitcases from the boat, adding the ones from our cruise, and we dropped him off at the subway and began our 1,200 mile drive home.  I had hoped to make it to Florence, SC but heavy rain late in the day forced us off the road in Roanoke Rapids, NC, almost 800 miles from home.  I was hell bent to get home without another overnight so we drove 10 plus hours, averaging 74 miles an hour, including a few brief bathroom and gas stops, and picking up a Subway sandwich which Ann fed to me while I drove.  Home at last at 6.45 PM.

It’s always seems to be a miracle to make it home in one piece, particularly recently as we saw cars weaving, their drivers with their heads partially down towards their laps, obviously texting while driving at 70 plus miles an hour.  When is software going to be developed which prevents this?  It is now the single most dangerous factor other than, perhaps, drunk driving.  Probably drunk drivers have better control over their vehicles than texters.

I conclude with this entry with a sickening feeling regarding the upcoming election.  On board the ship we spoke to a good number of non-Americans, mostly Canadians and Australians all of whom are bewildered as to how a major political party could have nominated a Donald Trump.  All seem to be frightened by the potential crisis of having such a person as the leader of the free world.  Not as much as we, though, I found myself explaining.  The entire drawn out process of pre-election posturing has the feeling of a slow motion train wreck.

Nonetheless, good to be home!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Russo's Elsewhere

Richard Russo's Elsewhere is a painfully honest memoir.  It is lovingly detailed.  It appears that we have some shared family history, his novels focusing on many similar issues particularly his relationship with his mother, the theme of Elsewhere.  He is among the many contemporary American writers I admire most, such as John Updike, Pat Conroy, Anne Tyler, Anita Shrive, John Irving, Richard Yates, Richard Ford, Russell Banks, Philip Roth, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver (among others, I'm sure I've left someone out). They speak directly to me.  And somewhere in this blog, I've connected these writers to many of my own family issues.

But of all of them, Russo's writings seem to come closest to my own family angst (see my entry on his novel, That Old Cape Magic), and Elsewhere hits my funny bone as well and reveals the roots of his fictional world. Russo had almost a symbiotic relationship with his mother, but it was an approach-avoidance issue, a mother who on the one hand he tried to keep at whatever distance he could (without much success), for the sake of his individuality and for the sake of his family, but, on the other, obligingly (and lovingly), took responsibility for, particularly as she aged. 

When Russo was a young child, his mother worked for GE in Schenectady, living with Russo's grandparents in Gloversville and commuting (after divorcing her ne'er-do-well husband - the kind portrayed in Russo's Nobody's Fool and The Risk Pool), asserting her independence by paying her parents rent.  During WW II, when my father was away at the front, my own mother worked for Atlantic Burners (a local heating oil distribution company) in Queens, NY as a secretary/administrative assistant and for years I would hear about how much she missed being a professional woman.  We too lived with her parents at the time, with my primary care being passed onto my grandmother and great-grandmother, who lived with us as well.
Russo details the decline of the leather business, it's impact on his home town, Gloversville, and his family, a story eerily close to Philip Roth's family's leather business, and the decline of Newark, as told in his novel American Pastoral, perhaps one of the best novels of the late 20th century.  These were generations of families in the same business, as mine was in the photography business for more than 100 years, and, that kind of business too changed to such an extent that it eventually just faded away.

I was amused by Russo's statement My mother did love mirrors, often practicing in front of them.  My mother liked to pose and preen in front of mirrors, painstakingly putting on her make-up. In fact, she was very caught up in her appearance and good looks.  She knew she attracted men, something that infuriated my father at times. 
But from there, Russo's relationship with his mother, and me with mine, diverge greatly, mostly because, unlike Russo's parents, my parents stayed married (when they should have been divorced) and I was not an only child.  There was my sister in the mix, and that changed the dynamics.  During my troubled teenage years, I made it a point of being out of the house as much as possible as my parents waged war.  And after college I moved further away and by the time of my second marriage, I was hardly speaking to my mother (or vise versa), not that I'm particularly proud of that period, but I had to protect my wife and kids.  She was a rageaholic, perpetually assigning blame for her unhappiness to others. She also was a borderline alcoholic which only fed the flames. Nonetheless, we had some kind of reconciliation before her death, for which I am grateful. 

In later years, my mother turned to art and she was an accomplished painter of still life, portraits, mostly working in oils.  I'll give her credit for seeking a creative outlet, and she was a good artist but sadly, except for this pencil sketch she did of me (a very idealized version of what I looked like at about 12), I have only one of her oil paintings.

But getting back to Elsewhere, Russo had the devotion of a saint toward his mother, who had declared, basically that it was he and she against the world, making him promise (as a child) to always look out for one another, almost as if he were her spouse, not her son.  Even in later years, after Russo had married (his wife, Barbara, another saint as well) and had daughters of his own, she reminded him of their "pledge" to one another:

One of my mother's most cherished convictions was that back on Helwig Street - she and I had pledged an oath, each to the other. She and I would stand together against whatever configuration the world's opposition took-her parents, my father, Gloversville, monetary setbacks. Now, forty-some years later, I was a grown man with a wife and kids, but this original bond, she believed, was still in force. However fond she was of Barbara, however much she loved her granddaughters, none of that altered our original contract, which to her way of thinking made us indivisible. She'd never really considered us two separate people but rather one entity, oddly cleaved by time and gender, like fraternal twins somehow born twenty-five years apart, destined in some strange way to share a common destiny.

His dissection of her motives, self defense mechanisms, lack of friendships, dependency on him demonstrates that great writers are great psychologists.  Later he learns that his father's offhand foreboding that "she's crazy" had some grounding in that she was OCD
Still, his mother taught him to persevere (although never understanding why he would want to be a writer with his fine academic credentials that would assuredly lead to a tenured, secure position).  He even chose lower paying positions. teaching less, to pursue his writing objectives, not succeeding at first, sort of like when I decided to go into publishing rather than into a more lucrative insurance underwriting position (at the time), as well as choosing not to go into my father's business...

Long after she returned to Gloversville from Tucson, I began a decade-long academic nomadship during which I jumped from job to job, trying to teach and be a writer at the same time. For a while, after our daughters came along, we were even poorer than we'd been as graduate students. And I was a bad boy. Caring not a whit about tenure and promotion, thumbed my nose at the advice of department chairs about what I needed to do to succeed in the university. I left jobs for other jobs that paid less but offered more time out of the classroom, In the summer, when many of my colleagues taught extra classes, I wrote stories and spent money we didn't have on postage to submit them to magazines. I wrote manically, obsessively, but also, for a time, not very well. I wrote about crime and cities and women and other things I knew very little about in a language very different from my own natural voice, which explained why the editors weren't much interested.

Later in life Russo finds that voice, and a discipline, and has an epiphany one day as he is looking at the books and periodical articles he had published -- that his writing was the result of an obsessive personality, like his mother's ...

The biggest difference between my mother and me, I now saw clearly, had less to do with either nature or nurture than with blind dumb luck, the third and often lethal rail of human destiny. My next obsession might well have been a woman, or a narcotic, a bottle of tequila. Instead I'd stumbled on storytelling and become infected. Halfway through my doctoral dissertation, I'd nearly quit so I could write full-time. Not because I imagined I was particularly gifted or that one day I'd be able to earn a living. I simply had to. It was the game room and the dog track all over again. An unreasoning fit of must. That, no doubt, was what my mother had recognized and abhorred, what had caused her to remind me about my responsibilities as a husband and father.

It didn't take long for me to learn that novel writing was a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths, such as they were. Because - and don't let anybody tell you different - novel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn't work, trying something else. Welcoming clutter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won't find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out Knowing that when you've finally settled everything that can be, you'll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, without ever intending to, I'd discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness - character traits that had dogged both my parents, causing them no end of difficulty - to my advantage. The same qualities that over a lifetime had contracted my mother's world had somehow expanded mine. How and by what mechanism? Dumb luck? Grace? I honestly have no idea. Call it whatever you want - except virtue.

It's a writer's astute introspective view of what writing is all about.  And how one's upbringing and genes ebb and flow in his fiction.

His mother passed on a love of reading, and as Russo says, you can't be a writer without first being a reader.  My own childhood was spent bereft of books and I can't remember my parents reading other than the occasional potboiler, Time and Life magazines, and my father's subscription to the Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  Essentially, I grew up without books, except, of course, at school, and I think that did damage to me as a writer, in spite of writing this blog, and making half assed attempts at short stories and poetry. I rarely read anything on my own other than Jules Verne.

On the other hand, my father instilled a work ethic in me and my mother taught me typing and encouraged my attempts at music (except for the guitar which she condemned).  I still consider typing 70 WPM (unusual for a young man in the 1960s) to be the basis for a successful career, as silly as that might seem.  That is how I got my job in publishing.  And the piano has blossomed into something central in my retirement, a place where I can go to express myself and be at peace with the world. 

Russo was looking at his mother's book collection during one of her many, many moves, all of which Russo was left the responsibility for engineering, commenting...

She claimed to love anything about Ireland or England or Spain, but in fact she needed books in those settings to be warm and comfy, more like Maeve Binchy than William Trevor. Not surprisingly, given that she'd felt trapped most of her life, she loved books about time travel, but only if the places the characters traveled to were ones she was  interested in. She had exactly no interest in the future or in any past that didn't involve romantic adventure.

Still, illuminating though literary taste can be, the more I thought about it, neither my mother's library nor my own meant quite what I wanted it to. If my books were more serious and literary than hers, that was due more to nurture than nature.  If I didn't read much escapist fiction, it was because I lived a blessed life from which I neither needed nor desired to escape.  I wasn't a superior person, just an educated one, and for that in a large measure I had my mother to thank. Maybe she'd tried to talk me out of becoming a writer, but she was more responsible than
anyone for my being one. Back when we lived on Helwig Street, at the end of her long workdays at GE, after making her scant supper and cleaning up, after doing the laundry (without benefit of a washing machine) and ironing, after making sure I was set for school the next day, she might've collapsed in front of the television, but she didn't. She read. Every night. Her taste, unformed as mine would later be by a score of literature professors, was equally dogmatic; she read her Daphne du Mauriers and Mary Stewarts until their covers fell off and had to be replaced. It was from my mother that I learned reading was not a duty but a reward, and from her that I intuited a vital truth: most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt. You can't make a writer without first making a reader, and that's what my mother made me

I can't help but think of Pat Conroy's My Reading Life which is also a memoir, and in which his mother plays a central role in Conroy's love of reading and then writing.  There are so many similarities, including their mothers' shared love of the same novel, Gone With the Wind.

I had a dream after I had read Elsewhere, during the early morning hours when I can at least remember a snippet of what I dream.  I was sitting with Richard Russo's son (he has only daughters), and I mentioned to him that I would like to meet his father, something I didn't feel daunted about (as I felt the one time I might have had the opportunity to meet John Updike at a PEN conference, but did not have the courage or the opportunity, I can no longer remember).  That little boy I was talking to in the dream was obviously me, and as I talked to him, I gradually woke up with a sense of sadness overcoming me, for the lost opportunity, wanting to ask my mother one last question: Why, Mom?    

But Russo's childhood was far from "ideal" as well (is there such a childhood?), such a burden -- the "pledge" his mother made him take as a child.  And yet, he is one of our finest storytellers today.  Richard Russo, thank you for sharing your story with us, for your honesty, and for being the writer you've become.  You were a good son.