Monday, January 19, 2015

Another Holiday Ritual

There’s a corollary to sending out Holiday Cards: receiving cards and then coming to the point of having to throw them out.  We keep a list of names and addresses so we have a checklist of the people we’ve sent and received cards from.  Over the years, that list has declined from hundreds, and then leveled off to about a hundred, and now to less than a hundred.  Death, and the attrition of friends with whom we now have only a superficial relationship are the main reasons for the decline, and some have gone the Email route to express their holiday greetings.  We still like to send a card and put a stamp on an envelope but probably that too will fall by the wayside one of these days.

I feel a sense of sadness when old friends or former colleagues suddenly disappear from our checklist.  Of course circumstances change and old relationships not actively maintained are the main culprits.  As much our fault as theirs.  On the other hand there are people with whom we exchange cards, year after year, although our contact with them from decades ago was strictly accidental and passing.  

One such exchange is with Bianca, the woman Ann shared a hospital room with when our son Jonathan was born.  I think we visited one another a few times after the respective births of our sons more than three decades ago, but outside of that, the only contact we’ve had has been those holiday card exchanges, she commenting on her son’s progress in life and we doing the same.  It is a touching tradition and we look forward to those holiday updates as our sons navigate their lives, born on the same day and at almost the same moment.

Another holiday card exchange is truly remarkable.  As the New Year was turning from 1989 to 1990, I had a business trip to Japan and decided to take Ann and Jonathan (his first such trip, being only 12 years old at the time).   

While I was meeting with our host, a Japanese bookseller in Tokyo one day (this photo is of us, he and his wife in front of our hotel), Ann and Jonathan decided to take the underground to the Ginza area to shop and have lunch.  As they were finishing their meal, Ann remarked to Jonathan that she thought a fellow diner appeared to have been listening very attentively to their conversation.  Ann smiled at her and shortly afterward a very demure looking older Japanese woman came over to their table and in very correct English apologized for appearing to be overhearing their conversation.  She went on to say “I hope you will pardon me, I do not mean to interrupt, but may I ask where you are from?”  Ann was a little surprised as it was quite unusual to hear a Japanese person speaking English so well.  

So Ann replied and the woman asked whether she could move next to them and talk to them a little as she had so few opportunities to speak to native English speakers.  She explained that she was a language teacher in her nearby home town of Yokohama.

By all means Ann said and so throughout the rest their meal, the three of them talked.  They hit it off!  She introduced herself as Mrs. Murakami, and invited Ann and Jonathan to be her guests at a specialty dessert shop down the street.  They continued to talk and then Mrs. Murakami did something very uncharacteristic of the Japanese, she invited us all for tea and lunch and to see her ancestral home in Yokohama where she and her husband lived.  Ann accepted knowing we were free that following Saturday.   

So off to Yokohama we went where she met us at the train station to help us find the house, situated in the prime spot at the top of a hill.  Although not a house the size of most average American homes, it was very large by Japanese standards.  But it had been handed down from generation to generation in her family and was highly treasured.  We were cordially welcomed by other members of her family and led into the living room and seated in places of honor.  This room also serves as a bedroom where tatami mats are placed on the floor for sleeping. After a small meal concluded with tea, we were given a short tour of the rest of the house, in particular one room devoted to the worship of her ancestors, where a shrine was adorned with candles.

The following year, we decided to send her a holiday card and she sent us one as well, the two crossing in the mail.  Since then, we have not missed a Christmas holiday without sending a card and note to her as well as she to us. 

As it turns out, Ann and Mrs. Murakami had a chance to renew their acquaintance ten years later, in 1998, when we flew to Japan to visit Jonathan, then spending his junior year at Doshisha University in Kyoto.  Mrs. Murakami treated Ann to an extraordinary luncheon where no menus were presented, exquisite small dishes just kept arriving at their table for almost 2 hours.  Ann remembers thinking that that was the most gastronomically incredible meal she has ever had!

However, this year we didn’t receive a card and we were worried, knowing Mrs. Murakami is about ten years our senior.  We were about to put our list away and suddenly there appeared an envelope from Japan and we could tell by the handwriting that it was from her.  We were elated.

Inside the card was a very neatly handwritten note as follows:

Dear Ann,
   Thank you very much for your 26th Christmas card.  It gives me courage for life.  The picture of you two is so wonderful and you are as young as you are when I saw you for the first time in Tokyo.  I am not so fine.  I was in a hospital ten days this summer and next year I will have an operation on my eye.  But fortunately I can attend the class of Reading Shakespeare two times a month.  We have spent twenty years now.  Still we have seven plays ahead of us.  Every member is around eighty years old.
   Please tell my best regard to your dear son Jonathan.  I wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
With love, Toshiko

Indeed, Toshiko, your note too gives us “courage of life.”

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rules of Civility and A Dog’s Purpose

This is a continuation of the previous entry, two other books I enjoyed reading on the cruise.  Rules of Civility is the debut novel of Amor Towles who in “real life” is a “principal at an investment firm in Manhattan.”  In this regard he reminds me of a much younger version of Louis Begley, another professional (although a lawyer), who also stepped across the line into fiction writing.  Towles does so successfully as well, managing to capture a time, place, and social strata with a keen eye, one that makes the novel compelling reading. Think of the times of F. Scott Fitzgerald, combined with the insights of Edith Wharton into privileged society, along with some punchy sentences reminiscent of Mickey Spillane. (E.G.: “The driver put the cab in gear and Broadway began slipping by the windows like a string of lights being pulled off a Christmas tree.”  Or “The looked like they wouldn’t know skinny if it was wrapped in cellophane and sold at the five-and-dime.”)

Unusual, it’s a first person female narration although the novel is written by a man.  Our likeable protagonist, Katey Kontent, with grit and some fortuitous luck, finds herself navigating from her start in a secretarial pool into the somewhat shark infested waters of New York City’s upper class in 1938.  The art deco style scene is infested with some very rich people, and she and her friend Eve – actually roommates at the time – both set their sights on Tinker, an ostensibly very rich, attractive man.  Eve is the Machiavellian predator while Katey actually loves him.  But like much of life, things are not the way they seem.  Tinker has a dark secret as he follows his guide, the “110 rules” originally penned by the young George Washington, from which the novel derives its title, Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.

And there is a central theme that ties everything together in the novel when Katey realizes….

It is a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time-by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York' Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?  

In that sense, life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions-we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.

In that regard, Wallace Stegner (see previous entry) would completely agree!

Rules of Civility is a noteworthy first novel and I am looking forward to Towles’ next work.

On to a touching work, very original as it is written from a “first dog’s” point of view.  Yes, dogs can think and write!  We just have to suspend belief and sit back and enjoy. I have my son, Jonathan, to thank for bringing this book to my attention, sort of a children’s book for adults, a simple and moving parable.  I think you have to love dogs to read A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron.  Dogs have been a good part of my life, but, alas, not for the last ten years.

I was about eight years old when my parents picked up my first puppy, a pedigree Boxer which for some reason, one that I do not recall, we named Jo-Jo.  He was a great watch dog and but was raised slightly to be slightly neurotic so he acted out some bad behavior.  With my sister and myself he was like another sibling and we could do anything to him, ride him, dress him up nonsensically (here we had a sailor’s hat on him and a cigarette dangling from his mouth), roughhouse with him (he always being gentle with us).  But leave him alone and he’d practically wreck the house.  It got so bad that our family once reluctantly left him in the basement.  What could he hurt there?  Well, we had an old coal furnace which was converted to an oil burner and when we returned home he had charged, battered, and wrecked the furnace.   Thereafter, he had to be left tied up when we were gone.

But I loved Jo-Jo and was always with him, remembering taking him to the Veterinarian with my parents when he was only eight or nine as he was ill, watching him be put in a cage, he looking back at me with sad eyes. The Vet said he should be fine, pick him up in the morning.  But he wasn’t and he had died before we returned the next morning of nephritis, apparently quite common in boxers. I was devastated and it took a long time to get over it.   My parents eventually got another boxer, named Sock (his white paws looked like socks).  But by that time I was off at college and never really bonded with him.

When Ann and I moved to Westport from New York, it seemed like everyone had dogs, so we found ourselves doggie window shopping and suddenly we had a Miniature Schnauzer pup, who we named Lilly.  She lived 16 years and was really like our first child.  We spoiled her rotten and loved her madly.  She was the smartest of the dogs I’ve known (maybe she’s really the author of A Dog’s Purpose :-).  She lived in our first two homes and even was part of our early boating life. When Jonathan was born, she reluctantly put up with his toddler taunting. 

We were putting an addition on the house and noticed she was losing her bodily functions on the unfinished floor.  She was also going blind and deaf so we took her on that long ride to the Vet.  I don’t think Ann and I cried so much in our lives.  We resolved, never again could we go through that.

So there was no dog in our life for a few years, no intent to get a dog, but one day I saw a little classified ad in the Westport News, “Miniature Schnauzer puppy available to a loving family.”  What harm we asked ourselves to at least see the dog?  “Please, please, please” our 12 year old Jonathan begged, “I’ll take care of her.”  OK, so we called the number and the woman on the line explained it was her recently deceased father’s dog, actually one of two fully house broken Schnauzer puppies he had had, brother and sister, named after Morse Code pulses, “Dot” and “Dash.”  The male pup had already been adopted but we wanted the female anyhow, so she agreed to a “test run,” we taking the dog overnight and we’ll see how it goes.  Well, Dot (who we called “Dotty”) came to visit and never left. 

Jonathan’s promise to feed and walk the dog lasted for a few weeks and then Dotty was our responsibility.  And once he went off to college, it was like it used to be, just our dog and Ann and me. She was game for anything and spent many nights and weeks with us on our boat, my rowing her to an island nearby our mooring to do her business.  She went with us on our most adventuresome trips, finally moving to Florida with us and finding a new sport, catching geckoes.  When Ann was out, she would always be by my side or on my lap if I was reading or watching TV.

By the time she turned 14, her health was declining and we could tell the time was coming for that dreaded ride to the Vet.  We couldn’t face it and about that time my mother died.  The day of my mother’s funeral, poor Dotty looked up at us from her bed, from which she couldn’t rise, and we knew that when we returned we’d have to make that trip.  We checked with the Vet.  He’d be there.  So when we returned from my mother’s funeral, we tremulously approached her bed.  She didn’t stir.  She had obviously just died, sparing us on the one hand but, given the day we had just gone through, adding so much to our grief.  I don’t know how we got her body to the Vet as the tears poured from me as I drove those ten minutes.  I needed windshield wipers for my eyes.  We agreed to cremation and a few weeks later received a Plaster of Paris imprint of her paws.  We still have that, but I can’t bear to look at it.

We are now resolved, we could never go through that again.

So there you have it, full disclosure for my reading of A Dog’s Purpose, which as I said, is written from a dog’s perspective.  This particular narrator is not only one dog, but is reincarnated to truly discover “a dog’s purpose.”   He/she segues from Bailey to Ellie to Buddy in the novel, three separate but related lives, learning in the first life the meaning of love, “the boy” as Bailey refers to Ethan, “this was, I decided, my purpose as a dog, to comfort the boy whenever he needed me.”  But dogs (see my own story) do not live long, and eventually Bailey must “leave,” being reassured by “the boy” as he departs this life, that “you were a good dog.” 

He is reincarnated as a new-born pup, eventually named Ellie, and trains as a search and rescue dog and during her career makes a number of rescues, including the emotional rescue of his masters, first Jakob, and then Maya, “I had a clear purpose – to Find, Show, and save people.  I was a good dog.  Both Maya and Jakob were focused on work, and that meant neither one of them could ever love me with the utter abandon of Ethan.”

Ellie is then reborn as Buddy, but it is a rocky start for him (first named Bear-Bear by uncaring owners).  He is abandoned in the woods by them, and by the time he finds himself back to civilization – eating garbage along the way, he is distraught.  “I was a dog who had learned to live among and serve humans as my sole purpose in life.  Now, cut off from them, I was adrift.  I had no purpose, no destiny, no hope.”   However, he finally finds a new owner, is renamed “Buddy,” and to go into much more detail is to get into spoilers although I sort of guessed where it was going. 

This novel would devour a full tissue box if Ann had read it.  It was touching and one must credit the author, W. Bruce Cameron, for his imaginative tale.  It is a gentle reminder that we all need to find our purpose in life and then find a way to fulfill it.  Buddy nee Ellie nee Bailey certainly did.

As Bailey exclaims:  “dogs have important jobs, like barking when the doorbell rings, but cats have no function in a house whatsoever.”

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cruising and Reading Redux

We are inveterate boaters so perhaps it was only natural that we would become seasoned cruisers as well.  Life on the sea is incomparable to other forms of leisure activity, not that other activity is of lesser value.  We do what we like to do.  Some people would find life on the high seas confining, even unbearable.   Traveling on our own boats became a natural transition to ocean cruising, although our very first ocean crossing on the QE2 in 1977 predates when we actually began boating.  So we have seen the development of the cruise industry over decades. 

The QE2 was built for transportation – a fast crossing of the ocean, less than five days at almost 30 knots.  She was not built for the leisurely port intensive cruising of today and she was a holdover from earlier transatlantic ships where there was a clearly-defined class system, each with their own separate dining rooms.  One dressed the part, as one would have dressed to board an airliner in earlier days, suit and tie, or if in first class aboard the QE2, formal wear every night for dinner.

Fast forward to today’s ships, bigger, beamier, many more passengers, with, now, some of the larger ships boasting bumper cars, rock climbing, water sliding, grass and tree-filled parks, and I could go on and on about the changes.  The cruise industry has definitely singled out “everyman” as its marketing target.  One might as well go to a mall where they have multiple restaurants and lots of shopping, with an amusement park next door.  And dress in a state of undress if you want!

Ann and I still like the older, smaller ships, and some are still made that way by liners such as Oceania.  Nonetheless, there are some larger ships that we’ve been on (never more than 3,000 passengers though) and I suppose Celebrity’s Solstice class is among the best of those, trying to maintain some of the more traditional values, fine food, less honky-tonk, and accommodating their manifest with some elbow room (if you avoid the main pool area).  We’ve taken many Caribbean cruises, perhaps because it’s so simple from where we live, no flights or hotels involved, drive to Port Everglades and park.  When there isn’t a school holiday, such cruises are relatively inexpensive and tranquil.
We made an exception this year – going on a cruise over the Christmas holidays as that was the only time we could be joined by our son, Jonathan, and his lovely girlfriend, Anna.  It was fun being with them, sharing nearly every meal. Port time was limited to St. Maarten and St. Kitts on this particular cruise as the M/S Silhouette has had propulsion problems and had to eliminate San Juan PR from its itinerary (fine with me, been there, done that).  Instead we enjoyed a 2,300 nautical mile trip to just one little cluster of islands, only 45 miles from each other.

But even these new mid-size ships have to make compromises for “modern life” so there are some 12 specialty restaurants (not worth the additional expense), high volume, sometimes bombastic shows (although their concluding “circus” night was enjoyable), the frivolous casino, the needless shops, the omnipresent “music” in hallways.  But we went about our business, some swimming in the spa pool (tranquil, no children allowed), going to the main dining room (really impressed by the quality of the food), and then, in the afternoon, we’d split up, Ann, Jon, and Anna going to play competitive Mah Jongg, and my retiring to some out of the way spot (usually on our balcony) to read, one of my favorite things to do on sea days. 

This particular cruise had very tranquil seas so sitting on the balcony while everyone was otherwise engaged in the ship’s activities was the ideal place, listening to slight undulations lapping against the moving ship.

While Jon and Anna went snorkeling in St. Maarten, Ann and I tried to go to the famous pristine Orient Bay Beach, but alas, winds had brought the Sargasso Sea to the shores of the beach and although there is no harm swimming in this form of seaweed, we understood the shores and shallow water was covered with it.  So we hightailed it back to the ship which we had practically to ourselves and alternated between the hot tub and reading. 

Ironically, Jon and Anna’s snorkeling adventure was off of a catamaran named ‘Swept Away’ the same name as we’ve christened our last five boats, including the one we currently live on in the summer, albeit ours have always been power boats.

St. Kitts is a depressing port to me.  Right outside the docks are those “elegant” “ship approved” stores, just like a mall, Diamonds International, etc. So, that’s bad enough.  At the further reaches are a few stalls that are rented by natives, selling merchandise but mostly made in China.  

Once you go into town, you are in a rundown area, but this is where the people live and I find it more interesting than the other “approved” venues.  It was Christmas Day when we were there and we briefly attended a church service and heard Christmas carols with a native flair.

Back to the ship then and our “regular routine.”  And, as I said, for me it was reading, and I managed to read “nearly” three books on the cruise (finishing the last one when we returned), all compulsively readable, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, and W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose. So I went from a very serious work of literature, to a serious one, to sort of a parable, but serious in its own way.  If I were to discuss all three in this blog entry, along with the trip, it probably would be too long for one entry, so I will cover the last two in another entry.

I had raved about Stegner’s Angle of Repose, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, written earlier in his career. I had hoped to read more by him, but which one of his many works?  I was led to this one by Julie Schumacher’s article in the Wall Street Journal “On Writing about Writers.”

It was strange to segue from what I recently read, Stoner, to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, the first one a very dark view of academic life and the other an uplifting one although academic politics and anxiety still lurk in the novel, but it was a minor theme.  .   Crossing to Safety is Stegner’s last novel, the work of a mature writer, with its philosophical underpinnings and its beautiful effortless flow. 

To me, perhaps this should have been his prize-winning novel, but perhaps I am biased as he wrote this when he wasn’t much older than I am now, and I closely identify with many of the themes

The story over four decades unfolds mostly between Madison, Wisconsin and Battell Pond, a small Vermont town “out of a Hudson River School painting, uniting the philosophical-contemplative with the pastoral-picturesque.”  Two couples meet at the University in Madison, Sid Lang and his wife Charity, and Larry Morgan and his wife Sally.  The two men are instructors hoping to move up the ladder to tenured professorship.  Sid and Charity are wealthy and “well-bred” while Larry and Sally are church mice, struggling to stay financially afloat.  Sid is a poet and although a competent teacher, Larry is the writer, the one with talent, but one who realizes that teaching might be the only way for he and his wife Sally to survive.  Writing would have to be delegated to part time. One would think the two men are being set up by Stegner as competitive gladiators early in the story, but it is quite the opposite.  The two couples fall head over heels in Platonic love with each other and each couple “serve a purpose” to the other, Sid and Charity sharing their compound at Battell Pond each summer with them (so Larry can write), and their benefactors having (in return) the close companionship of the author and his wife.

The story, naturally, is told by Larry, covering the gamut of the Zeniths and the Nadirs of their relationship but the latter is rare and it is a friendship unlike most friendships today.  The characters are finely drawn by Stegner (aka Larry), and in particular Charity.  If I were filming this book decades ago, Katherine Hepburn would have been my choice to play Charity.

But as Julie Schumacher said, this book has writing as one of its central themes.  It’s always fascinating when great authors actually write about the craft as it is so revealing.  To be a meaningful writer, one must have a philosophical premise, and in the first few pages Stegner reveals his:

In fact, if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe that time is circular and not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don't warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn't differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.

In fact there is a heavy dose of Thomas Hardy in Stegner’s novel, along with the role of chance and fatalism.  Larry even brings up Hardy and then launches into his own interpretation:
Thomas Hardy, whom I had recently been teaching to Wisconsin high school teachers, might have guessed that the President of the Immortals had other sport in mind for us. My own view is less theatrical. Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature. You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.

That last sentence merits reading over and over again.  But in the Hardy universe a “slug” can become a writer, by the same fluke of chance:
Talent lies around in us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just as gifted as others, are less lucky.  Fate never drops a match on them. The times are wrong, or their health is poor, or their energy low, or their obligations too many. 

At one point Larry thinks about writing a novel about the two couples (ironically, Stegner, aka Larry, is doing that very thing):
Human lives seldom conform to the conventions of fiction. Chekhov says that it is in the beginnings and endings of stories that we are most tempted to lie. I know what he means, and I agree. But we are sometimes tempted to lie elsewhere, too. I could probably be tempted to lie just here. This is a crucial place for the dropping of hints and the planting of clues, the crucial moment for hiding behind the piano or in the bookcase the revelations that later, to the reader's gratified satisfaction, I will triumphantly discover, If I am after drama.  Drama demands the reversal of expectation, but in such a way that the first surprise is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability.  And inevitability takes careful pin-setting. Since this story is about a friendship, drama expects friendship to be overturned.  Something, the novelist in me whispers, is going to break up our cozy foursome.

Writing about Sid and Charity not only might have to “break up our cozy foursome” but there is also the problem of the nature of their lives.  Contemporary literature is littered with sex and violence, and the charred remains of unsatisfied lives.  So how does Larry take that into account if he “were” to write a novel about this unique relationship?
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?  Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect?  Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?

The people we are talking about are hangovers from a quieter time. They have been able to buy quiet, and distance themselves from industrial ugliness. They live behind university walls part of the year, and in a green garden the rest of it. Their intelligence and their civilized tradition protect them from most of the temptations, indiscretions, vulgarities, and passionate errors that pester and perturb most of us. They fascinate their children because they are so decent, so gracious, so compassionate and understanding and cultivated and well-meaning. They baffle their children because in spite of all they have and are, in spite of being to most eyes an ideal couple, they are remote, unreliable, even harsh. And they have missed something, and show it.

Why? Because they are who they are. Why are they so helplessly who they are? Unanswered question, perhaps unanswerable.  In nearly forty years, neither has been able to change the other by much as a punctuation mark.

Friendship is the bond of this novel.  But what is friendship, especially such a unique one? 
It is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking.  It is therefore rare. To Sally and me, focused on each other and on the problems of getting on in a rough world, it happened unexpectedly; and in all our lives it has happened so thoroughly only once.

But friendship is a two way street.  If Larry and Sally were “rescued” by their friendship with Sid and Charity, what do the benefactors get out of it?  Larry wants to “repay” Sid and Charity, but Charity sees it another way:

As for repaying," she said to me in rebuke, "friends don't have to repay anything. Friendship is the most selfish thing there is. Here are Sid and I just licking our chops. We got everything out of you that we wanted." So they did. They also got, though that they would never have permitted to figure in our relations, our lifelong gratitude. There is a revisionist theory, one of those depth-psychology distortions or half-truths that crop up like toadstools whenever the emotions get infected by the mind, that says we hate worst those who have done the most for us. According to this belittling and demeaning theory, gratitude is a festering sore. Maybe it is, if it's insisted on. But instead of insisting on gratitude, the Langs insisted that their generosity was selfish, so how could we dislike them for it?

Another theme driving the novel is ambition.  Sid is a poet (and sometimes chided by Charity for not working harder to write academic treatises instead, the old “publish or perish” route to academic success).  But his ambition is not the high test blend that fuels Larry, who comes from nothing and knows that unless he works and works some more, he and Sally would not make it. In some ways it reminds me of my own salad days, having come from parents who survived the depression and doing nothing more than the barely-expected parental things for me as I grew up, with little encouragement, or expectations to pursue any kind of academic life. 

I nonetheless left their house for college and never looked back, expecting nothing from them (and in the end getting nothing as well).  It was all on my back and I took my responsibility seriously, perhaps too seriously, my work ethic knowing no bounds (post high school; before that I was under my parent’s emotional baggage and rebelled).  I loved my work (publishing) and Ann and I raised our family while I was totally immersed in my work, perhaps too much so, with too much anxiety about the future.  But I am who I am, an overachiever, who tried to make do with what talent I did have. As Larry so aptly puts it, “ambition is a path, not a destination…”

I was your basic overachiever, a workaholic, a pathological beaver of a boy who chewed continually because his teeth kept growing. Nobody could have sustained my schedule for long without a breakdown, and I learned my limitations eventually.  Yet when I hear the contemporary disparagement of ambition and the work ethic, I bristle. I can't help it.

I overdid, I punished us both. But I was anxious about the coming baby and uncertain about my job. I had learned something about deprivation, and I wanted to guarantee the future as much as effort could guarantee it. And I had been given … intimations that I had a gift. Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn't expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else - pathway to the stars, maybe.

I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without drugs or orgies, have more fun

Indeed, I hope I didn’t turn my ambition into a vice, but I did have fun working hard, and it was indeed “without drugs or orgies.”

There were several deaths that touched Stegner’s life at about the time he wrote the novel, all from cancer.  These impacted the novel as well. As I mentioned, he was a few years older than I am now when he wrote Crossing, and indeed in your 70’s one thinks more about “purpose” in life, especially given the inexplicable transitory nature of it all.  As was voiced in Ionesco's Exit the King, "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?"  No, our heaven or hell is right here, right now.  And how does one die, accepting it, experiencing it?   Heavy questions, voiced by Charity:
"There's no decent literature on how to die. There ought to be, but there isn't. Only a lot of religious gobbledygook about being gathered in to God, and a lot of biological talk about returning your elements to the earth. The biological talk is all right, I believe it, but it doesn't say anything about what religion is talking about, the essential you, the conscious part of you, and it doesn't teach you anything about how to make the transition from being to not-being. They say there's a moment, when death is certain and close, when we lose our fear of it. I've read that every death, at the end, is peaceful. Even an antelope that's been caught by a lion or cheetah seems not to struggle at the end. I guess there's a big shot of some sedative chemical, the way there's a big shot of adrenaline to help it leap away when it's scared. Well, a shot will do for quick deaths. The problem is to get that same resignation to last through the weeks or months of a slow one, when everything is just as certain but can't be taken care of with some natural hypo. I’ve talked to my oncologist about it a lot.  He has to deal with death every day…But he can’t tell me how to do it, or give me any reference in medical literature that will help….So I’m having to find out my own way.“

The novel’s title, Crossing to Safety, comes from a Robert Frost poem, “I Could Give All to Time.”  Not surprising, as Stegner and Frost were friends, with Frost becoming his mentor to a degree.  They had met at a writer’s conference in Vermont, not far from the setting of much of this story.  Sense of place is strong in both of their writings, as well as love of nature.  The final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem became Stegner’s prologue to the novel:

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held.  But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.
Robert Frost