Friday, November 26, 2021

dormancy


“You get to where you used to be,
whoever you claim, it's open to interpretation.
Just remember your number and abandon your name,
and hold on to your name
and hold on to your imagination,
oh no no.
Set me free, sleep come free me.”


~ James Taylor, Sleep Come Free Me


It often happens that an acquaintance made from outside this region will say to me, “you get a lot of winter up there; it gets so cold!” That really hasn’t been my experience. My replies tend to be a playful “We get all four seasons, and in full strength.” Indeed, autumn in New England blazes and flames out in a few weeks. When those full-strength seasons transition, changes in light and color are striking enough to draw attention. And observation. From this vantage point, there is as much written as there is photographic witness. The common expression about “falling back” to Standard Time is portrayed as “giving us back” an hour. Fair enough. Who wouldn’t want a 49-hour weekend? But the hours notwithstanding, daylight is briefly sharp and nights are extended. Lately, I hear myself say Good Evening though my watch reads 4 in the afternoon.


Built into my observances and documentation is a persistent insomnia of many years. At least the dark of 9pm and 4am are identical enough for me to imagine additional sleep possibilities. Also persistent are my efforts to redeem the time I have. When I worked full-time as a photographer, I would ordinarily maximize the seasons of extended daylight and warmth for creating imagery, and the more confining months for printing in the darkroom. Occasionally, my wakeful night hours inspired me to explore photographing under very low ambient light.


Remaining in autumn territory, November still has days above the freezing point. The outdoors can certainly be savoured at any time and under any conditions. Admittedly, I do notice myself perching outside as much as possible now, as though having some sort of deadline. Of late, I’ve caught the year’s final days of access to the terraces at the Boston Athenaeum, enjoying the double immersion of inspiring study and fresh air. Appropriating the broadcast ads of retailers: “While supplies last!” The blustery chill is no disturbance at all; outdoor perches do not require masks. There is no overestimating the respite of unplugging. In mid-October, I added an extra meeting for my Philosophy class. We all sat outside amidst the bracing Maine evening air, but fully enjoyed the setting, knowing the next chance to be outdoors won’t be until spring. Now we’re back to Zoom teleconferencing, yet at least with the experience of having gathered in-person in our recent memories. We were like underwater swimmers reveling in the exhilaration of suddenly breathing above the waterline, enjoying full-faced three-dimensional presence. In our commendable group spirit we imagined the outdoor floodlights might have magically become heat lamps. Let the goodness of the tentative present be a sign of greater hope.


Coinciding with the seasonal transition is the prospect of the second pandemic winter. For countless souls, equally countless lives and plans must remain dormant under the burdens of survival. Learning from the joyfully chilled philosophy students, the simplest satisfactions from breathing fresh air and seeing unmuzzled faces provide cause to take stock. Striking, yet humbling. In my own current studies of early-Renaissance thinkers, I make notes of how these scholarly writers always continued their own pursuits of knowledge and self-improvement- often leading to enhanced ways of teaching others. Some of their innovations live on to this day. While reading about the plagues and unrest of the 14th and 15th centuries, it is easy for me to see similarities with this present age. At the same time, the spirit of perseverance is providing a trail for my own sense of direction.



The dormancy of these times comprises the suppression of thwarted launches. It is as dismaying as it is frustrating. Too many things must wait. But dormant life forms outdoors are modeling by demonstration how the ferment of spirit cannot take place without carefully disciplined patience. A short (or long) two years ago, it was far-fetched to give much thought to unfiltered fresh air, not to mention immunization or sustaining employment. Humble matters are exalted, when focal points become those of continuity and survival. During the severest stretches of quarantining, the ability to experience different places- and even see horizons- suddenly became privileges. My background in visual art ever informs me to vary my perspectives. Try to perceive with as much variety as possible. This is often why I’ll vary my writing and photographic tools, for the purpose of syntactical change. Doing this becomes all the more pronounced now, as physical limits during the pandemic have been so prohibitive. Agility in season and out of season is an ancient and colorful biblical phrasing that refers to a person’s conscious readiness to continue pursuing ways to bring goodness to others in all circumstances. Present circumstances, informed by the dormant trees, require both the health of the exterior environment as well as nurture for the roots and inner being, in order to fruitfully grow.



Sunday, October 31, 2021

beginning with coffee

“As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion.
Ideas begin to move…similes arise, the paper is covered.
Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.”


~ Honoré de Balzac

Physical space and creativity are inextricably related. My present reminder of this emerged as the disruptive tavern next to my apartment dismantled their covid-era drinking and smoking tent for the winter. As soon as I heard their fussing and chiseling this recent Saturday morning, I immediately began repatriating my writing desk and related materials from my kitchen (as far away from them as possible, short of being out on the sidewalk), and back to my usual spot which is between two windows. Concurrent with the disassembly a few yards away outside, I was gently migrating and reassembling inside. Having had my study and writing perch in the kitchen since May, I had to remember where everything was supposed to go, while rebuilding. When I moved into this apartment, the first piece of furniture I situated was my desk. My desk since age 17, having a surface only 20x30", is just right for my location of choice- with room for an adjoining set of shelves. With everything resettled, tidied, and polished- in the novel absence of the bar people- I brewed a pot of coffee. Indeed, savouring, reacquainting, and writing beckon.

cross-apartment relocation day


These times humble the ambitious. Pondering and writing about the regaining of lost ground seems a poor use of time and ink. My preference, albeit against the grain, is to look ahead as much as possible. It is enough to acknowledge the arrival of yet another pandemic season. This recent year has been my first without a retreat in more than two decades. My earned-time accrued equals upwards of two months, yet various logistics make traveling and significant respite impossible for the calculable time being. Work and survival stand on equal footing. Covid-era “extravagances” are very humble versions of the old pre-2020 fluidity. My journal entries have many notes amounting to descriptions of “covid-era values,” describing the strange life of isolating and distancing. And fatigue. There is no overestimating the worth of keeping one’s wits sharpened.


Thinking about how basics have become luxuries, I remembered the title of an oft-quoted little book of Depression-era reminiscences called First We Have Coffee. Written by Margaret Jensen, whose parents had immigrated from Norway, the family recollections are as warm as they are austere. A kind of gentle severity, attesting to its time and culture. The underlying aspect of beginning conversations by brewing coffee represents a metaphor about how problems can be reduced and managed by sitting and chatting over the familial (and vital) hot beverage. Coffee can power individuals into their workdays, but it can also have social aspects. As with journaling at my little desk, sips and words rotate with reckoning. Jensen’s preserved gems from her hospitable mother include how “when you have heart-room, you have house-room,” along with how miraculously there was always enough food to go around. Her traditions bring to mind the film I Remember Mama, which was about a struggling Norwegian immigrant family in early-20th century San Francisco. The film was a favorite of my father’s, and remembering him continues to happen for me quite effortlessly. Remembering goes with writing and plenty of contemplative coffee.

29 February 2020 was the last time
I wrote and visited with friends in a café.



This ongoing pandemic has eliminated conviviality from the lives of most of us. I am surely among those who miss the eclectic and animated company of sharing meals and ideas. Social distancing has also meant coffee without the sounds and society of cafés. In my estimation, over the past nineteen months, I haven’t purchased more than ten cups of coffee that were not made by me. Moreover, all of these were consumed either outdoors or in my car. As with a great many social venues, cafés and restaurants have been more like vendors than places for congregating and savoring. It has taken time to get used to that- more for some people than others. For me, the shock was immediate; solitude has its place, but quarantining continues to feel unnatural. It will for the duration, unknown as that is. As I moved my desk, radio, lamps, and writing accoutrements- followed by cleaning and organizing the room- I set up my coffeemaker. The latter provided a consoling aroma, enough for me to reach for pen and books. The sum-total is surely modest, perhaps austere to many others, but for me and for now this is humbly civilized.




Tuesday, September 28, 2021

regrouping


“Philosophy, inevitably, is the human quest for beatitude,
and includes not only a person’s faith and its expansion into the fullness of understanding,
but a person’s will and understanding as well.”


~ A.H. Armstrong & R.A. Markus, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy.


I’ll bet most of you hear in your workplaces about how close an upcoming Friday is. “It’s almost Friday,” is something I’ve always heard in my midst wherever I’ve worked and gone to school. And I surely feel that headlong lunge toward weekends and days off. “The shore is in sight,” as I hear myself say to the neighborhood postmaster. A colleague of mine likes to say, “we’re almost at forty-eight hours to regroup,” referring to the weekend. As positive as it is to have strong appetites for unstructured and untethered time, there is muted anguish embedded in that stretch for an oasis. Still, it remains vital to keep looking forward to things that are favorable, and no less in these times.


Just as with last year, participating in the recent Oxford Philosophical Society’s seminars was via teleconferencing. But also like last year, I looked forward to our discussions and greatly enjoyed the experience. Indeed, all of us hope next year’s events will happen in person. The pandemic has yet to subside. Fortunately, the desire to teach and learn motivates our technological creativity. The time difference between Maine and the U.K. meant beginning the days at 3am local time, but it was undoubtedly worthwhile. I’ve derived more to share with students, as well as to fuel my own studies in the coming months. Coincidentally, I’ve begun my 7th year of teaching topics in philosophy. For the second year, all of this has to happen online. As with the group at Oxford, the enjoyment of in-person presence is missed, but the benefit of meeting online has removed the limitations of physical location. It’s a strange trade-off, but an undertone of the covid era is to make the best possible out of bad situations.


Surviving intact during a pandemic requires more than those weekly forty-eight hours to regroup, or even the buildup to those two days. In my experience, the regrouping needs to happen daily and obviously in much smaller portions. And those small portions tend to be humbly bland; nowhere as savoury as in pre-covid times. At best, most of us are living compromised lives; often, the regrouping of wits and priorities has to be constant. During the summer, I’ve resumed my monthly travels to the Boston Athenaeum- though complying with all the required health protocols. There’s no telling when things will return to pre-March 2020 life. Thanks to my self-directed studies and my teaching responsibilities, there is encouragement to continually renew, learn, and redeem the time. My working conditions and ambitions continue to ignite my search for a better situation, despite closed doors, rejections, and recession. At least I’m working, producing, surviving, and helping others as much as possible. My studies in philosophy often become sources of wise advice and thought-provoking perspectives.


My discussions and inquiries about the Renaissance-era Oxford reformist philosophers led to a rare 155-year-old book being mailed to me from England. It was more like the gatherings of pages of the book than anything else, as I had to completely rebind the volume’s contents to be able to study the work. The binding was broken, but the textblock was complete and in good condition. The book is The Oxford Reformers of 1498, by Frederic Seebohm. Eager to study a thick tome about Erasmus, Colet, and Thomas More- written by a Quaker social historian, I gathered my best bookbinding ingredients to do justice to the fragments and rebuild them to last. Using conservation-grade cloth, adhesives, endpaper material, and chipboard, I restored the book into something strong enough to inhabit. Restorative projects during tentative times are gestures of hope.


My restorative rebinding of Seebohm's Oxford Reformers of 1498.


Indeed, the book is a treasure filled with treasure. A great read from which I took many notes. The three featured philosophers were kindred spirits and friends who worked together during a time period of wars and plagues. Despite their adversities, they created educational systems and vernacular texts whose influences reached across subsequent centuries and continents. When I find philosophical works that really speak to me, I also seek out biographies about the authors themselves. Seebohm’s volume gave me numerous fine details about the Oxford reformers’ lives. I had never read so much about Colet before. His career in teaching and writing was inspired by having learned from Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, in Florence. After the travels, while still an Oxford student, he began teaching free and public courses which became very popular. He clearly loved doing this, as the preserved letter correspondence attests. The classes, unofficial as they were, continued for more than eight years- until Colet had been appointed Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. There is surely something for me to enjoy in Seebohm’s poignant observation:

“The leaven, silently but surely, was leavening the surrounding mass. But Colet probably did not see much of the secret results of his work. That it was his duty to do it was reason enough for his doing it. That it bore at least some visible fruit was sufficient encouragement to work on with good heart. So the years went by; and as often as each term came round, Colet was ready with his gratuitous course of lectures...”



Was the early 16th century any more or less hostile and restrictive than the early 21st century? Was inspiring education and benevolence any more or less scarce than compared to now? In any time, diligence and perseverance are needed in order to excel. It also appears as though an individual’s passion for their work and a willingness to give of their resources were as detectable then as now in the isolating present. Hope and consolation have never lost their value.



Sunday, August 29, 2021

disciple

“Learn of me.”

~ Matthew 11:29


Be teachable, and you will make great strides,” wrote Desiderius Erasmus, the exemplary and indefatigable Renaissance author in his Paraclesis. The directive is reminiscent to me of my father who has now been gone fifteen weeks from this life. He also admired Erasmus. When I arrived at Oxford, I was sure to send my Dad an e-mail message about walking the same paths and halls as Erasmus did, as a C. S. Lewis Scholar-in-Residence. Dad remarked about The Praise of Folly, as well as Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The wisest people we know are those who want us to be teachable. My pilgrimage of learning continues on, but without my father- without adding to our running commentaries. Of his best friend of many years, four years his senior, Dad said, “Jack introduced me to so many things,” particularly in their work as pioneer computer programmers and connoisseurs of classical music. When Jack passed away, Dad wrote me about how one day many years back, while they were working at IBM on Madison Avenue at 57th Street, “a security alarm sent everybody into the street. We had no idea how long we would have to remain outside the building. So we just walked over to nearby Carnegie Hall and, on seeing that the Cleveland Orchestra was in town and giving a matinée performance that very day, we decided we would take our surprise break as an occasion to enjoy Beethoven's Ninth as performed by George Szell. It was a spontaneous thing and an afternoon that we always cherished.” A wonderful story of two New Yorkers making the best of things.



taking stock

In his reflection about his departed best friend, my father immediately remarked about how much he had learned. For my part, throughout these recent months, I’ve been taking stock of how much I learned from my father. Taking stock is the opposite of taking for granted, meaning a conscious cherishing of something valuable that is immediately at hand. It is a form of gratitude. Things of which I take stock are palpable consolations to me. To this day, it astonishes me to recognize how much I learned from my father. Last night during a lonesome road trip on the Maine Turnpike, I started imitating his voice, surprising myself as to how accurate I sounded.



Having a difficult time focusing my thoughts, I took Dad’s portable Royal typewriter (I now have all three of his) with me to write in view of Casco Bay. About sixteen years ago, he gave me his two portables- a customized Olivetti Lettera 32, and a small Royal Signet- which he’d often lend to me. Now I have the heavier Royal DeLuxe he used in school. With a sunny Saturday, I took the Signet with me to the park at the Portland Breakwater. Dad told me he had bought that typewriter in 1965 for $35 during a workday. At the time, company employees’ handwritten reports and letters were typed by a secretarial pool according to priorities assigned to the secretaries. Apparently, these were standard procedures. Dad didn’t see a point in having to wait to get something typed up for him, when he could very well do this himself. He descended to West 23rd Street, a very busy Manhattan thoroughfare- near the Flatiron Building, and walked to a typewriter shop to buy the Signet. From then on, he typed his own documents. Dad also explained to me that he favored ribbons that had both black and red inks, so that he could flip the lever to get red ink when he wanted to emphasize something to his recipients. With such spirit and ambition, success followed success.

The Royal Signet belongs to me, and I’ve proudly left the ‘60s embossed label with Dad’s name on the machine. As with many other gifts from him, this is a living treasure, because it gets used. Like the pocket watches Dad gave me, they work best as long as they are used. He taught me plenty about using and maintaining these mechanical marvels. Neither of us could type in the “proper” office ten-fingered way, but we both found ways to type quickly and effectively. In more recent years, he sent me a set of beautiful pens and I keep the letter which he put in the gift box which refers to our common passions that include fountain pens, opera, trains, and a good portable typewriter. And that was just the beginning of interests we shared and talked about. We did not agree about everything, to be sure, but we had enough in common to provide plenty of subject matter.


equipping for the rest of the way



In my father’s absence, a wise friend suggested that I write my gratitude for the ways I’ve been equipped to go the rest of the way. Typing in the park, using the Signet, I began writing about some of the essential things I’ve learned from Dad. Indeed there are many and detailed practical skills, beyond the tools of writing and the precise ways of play-by-play scoring of baseball games. To this day, whenever I begin a new notebook that does not have a pocket in the inside back-cover, I use a trick Dad taught me a long time ago: folding an envelope flap backwards so that the adhesive adheres to the back cover, creating an instant document sleeve. He taught me how to read and interpret maps when I was very young, showing me how to create a “trip ruler” out of a piece of paper, scribing the scale of miles on it and moving the paper along the lines that represented the roads. Dad taught me to drive, shifting the gears smoothly so that passengers would not sense the jolt of transition. And the deft art of feeding a toll booth coin bucket while still in second gear- and then rocketing out of the gantry at the “paid” signal. Knowing which portion of a subway train to enter, in order to alight at the stairs that will take you to the best street exit for your purpose. Dad taught me that in New York, and I translated that savvy much later in Boston. Numerous nuanced abilities, most of which had to do with making forward progress. He had lots of travel stories about having to combine air and surface transportation, in order to connect locations during weather-related cancellations. The important thing, he’d say, was to keep going in the needed direction. Logic took the forms of navigating, analyzing a baseball strategy, and DOS shortcuts. Always destinations to be reached, puzzles to be solved. As Dad used to like to say, “That keeps things interesting.”

Always a mileage log, and always a tire-pressure gauge:
I will always be my father's son.



As my recollections surface of practical skills learned, I’m writing about them in my journals. Transcending all of these things are the subtler abilities, more like traits, and they have occupied more of my thoughts when I consider what has been left to me for the long haul. The more I navigate the roads of this life, the more I see the extreme rarity of my father’s character: that consistent sense of understated dignity, genuineness, and humor. The torch extended to me, in his physical absence, is his gift of intellectual inquiry. By their examples, both my parents gave me the running start to be able to think on my feet. Question what does not look or sound right- not just ethically, but also aesthetically; this foundation is also owed to both my parents. Dad’s high standards, ever beyond my reach, are somehow also my high standards and expectations. But no two souls are alike, and I must keep in mind that our contexts are as different as our generations, pursuits, and paths. These things notwithstanding, I’ll always admire that practical style of integrity and quick-wittedness amounting to being nobody’s fool. If there’s any downside, it’s how the wit is understood by fewer and fewer by the day.


Dad once quipped that my keeping his typewriters working represents his legacy. Of course it was said in jest, in the midst of our usual multi-faceted discourse. His real legacy as I see it, is his consistent sense of decency. That’s the most important way that I want to be like my father. To be civil, classy, unclichéd and genuine; and to keep making people laugh- not at any person’s expense, but about the amusing and ironic things in life, along with that lighthearted way of pointing out such attributes. Dad’s jovial sense of decency. What a great way to be; the world is missing this trait. Amidst learning about high standards- higher than “just good enough”- was my growing to understand my father’s dislike of mediocrity and half-hearted efforts he called “slap-dash.” In this comprehension were his directives to be ambitious. As I got a bit older, more responsible and aware, I grew to also avoid the “slap-dash” in things- and occasionally in people, as well. Such awareness is not uppity, and sensibly unpretentious. It’s much more a judgment of oneself- to unceasingly seek learning, improvement, and continuity.


daring eclecticism



The clergyman who officiated the funeral service, a Midwesterner and also a friend of my father’s, reverently remarked that the breadth of Dad’s cultivated mind was “so very New York.” Undoubtedly, we all agreed. But one might say “urban,” to describe a spectrum of pursuits that encompassed worlds of the arts, sciences, sports, and politics. Yet to say, “so very New York” acknowledges more than the variety of pursued topics of interest: it’s the intensity and enthusiasm of the pursuits. Stereotype that it may be, there are still many who exemplify the energy of such a densely vast and extraordinary place. Enough has been said about the pluck of old-school New Yorkers to fill many volumes, so I’ll choose one exemplary comment: "You just learn to cope with whatever you have to cope with,” said the legendary actress Lauren Bacall. “I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you're a New Yorker? The world doesn't owe you a damn thing." Accomplishment must be earned, and the perfunctory is to be exceeded. The mindset is one that tends to be impatient with the mediocre and slipshod, and our quick wits and sharp tongues are often misinterpreted. We don’t think of our critical minds as being “attitudes,” but rather passionate convictions that need to be expressed! Urban common-sense is often vented this way, and notably so among New Yorkers. Dad’s living expression of this was nothing short of lovable. We used to sing Frank Loesser Broadway show tunes to each other on the phone.


Above: The view from Lexington Avenue at 34th Street.
Below: Dad's beloved Caffe Reggio, Greenwich Village.



In the spirit of a legacy that has taught me about ability and perspective, I’ll add what I call inherited instincts. Dad had an admirable knack for reading a situation. This reminds me of how he would say that part of the fascination in baseball is how analysis is built into the game itself as it unfolds. He loved the symmetry of threes and nines- especially in the National League. But reading a situation in real-time is also being a participant. Among the times during which I’m certain of an instinct inherited from my father is when I “break the ice” in a stiff room of inactivity. Another is how I’ve become able to speak with anyone- and getting them to talk. Yet another is having a healthy way of questioning what I perceive: There can be a negatory way of doing this- and I’ve also learned to tell the difference between constructive reflection and simply being a combatant that sets out to confuse things even further. Such traits, practiced at their best, are surely attributed to my father’s example. Finally, “keeping things interesting” is also knowing to have plenty of other things in my life, aside from employment and its related struggles. Learning and being teachable keeps the mind youthful and expanding. Indeed, continuity and improvement, one giving purpose to the other, must always ride together. And thus- like Erasmus of Rotterdam, and like Dad of New York- great strides are made.




Monday, June 28, 2021

o let me ne'er forget

“This is my Father's world:
He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.”


~ Maltbie Babcock, This is my Father’s World

Last month, I had the profoundly sad experience of having to bid farewell to my beloved and brilliant father. He has been quoted many times in these pages, and I expect that to continue, having committed so many of his words and anecdotes to memory. The funeral was last month. It is one thing to travel and visit, and even be at a gravesite, on adrenaline- but quite another to return home. Suddenly re-seated at my desk in my apartment, I became aware of the ocean of reminders of Dad in my midst: the fountain pen and radio on my desk, the typewriter nearby, the operatic recordings on the shelves, as well as numerous mementos and recollections.


Returning home to my place also meant grappling with a culture that does not provide sufficient time and space to mourn. I’ve had to buy time and push as many things back as workably possible. I see how people do not want to acknowledge death. Thankfully, I always know to write in all circumstances. But the grieving has been wavering in its intensity, often as crags and sometimes submerged. My photographer’s mind calls forth decades of vivid memories, especially from childhood. I’ve been particularly conscious of these, and decided to write down as many as possible lest I lose them. People who know me well have long been used to hearing me use the expression, I am my father’s son, after all. That will always be true.


Driving home, I passed plenty of places with references to adventures with my father. He used to give me historic explanations to go with town names, especially in New York. Cooperstown has the Baseball Hall of Fame, of which he would say, “that’s the museum you can’t get me out of.” The Hudson Valley, the Adirondacks, and the Catskills are filled with Native American and Dutch names. Road trips with Dad were the pleasant kinds of learning experiences. Throughout my growing-up years, we would walk and talk together; doing this supplied my visual and verbal stock of memories. He had stories to go with everything, and I was listening. I enjoyed being the sidekick on my father’s errands and weekend workplace chores, navigating the length and breadth of The City That Never Sleeps. I met all his coworkers and ate with them, too- even as a young child. Dad and I used to walk together late on Saturday nights to buy the freshly-printed Sunday New York Times directly from the sidewalk newspaper stand assemblers.

Dad taught me how to precisely score baseball games, play-by-play, according to Brooklyn Dodgers' broadcaster Red Barber. This is the style (above). For example, starting off the bottom of the 1st inning Mookie Wilson tripled to center field (he was very fast), and scored on Wally Backman's infield hit to shortstop.



Dad taught computer sciences at New York University, and I tagged along there, too, noticing how his students loved how encouraging and jovial he was. I recall how he gave out number 1 pencils for coding, because the dark marks reproduced much better for later transcription. This occasioned more adventures for us; sojourning the cobbles of warehouse shops on the Queens side of the East River, we’d visit the Senator Pencils factory so Dad could purchase soft-lead Ones by the gross. As he’d say to me- much more recently- “Each day is a mini-project.” Always an adventure, always puzzles to solve. We’d also buy just-made doughnuts from the Silvercup Bread Company bakery- still warm in the box, causing the acetate window to fog.

"Like watching a painting." Eastern Promenade : Portland, Maine



When I was about nine years old, while we were walking and talking along Junction Boulevard, I noticed Dad walk over to a beggar and give her all the change he had in his overcoat pockets. The woman was astonished and thanked Dad with a litany of gratitudes and blessings; after several paces, he looked down to me (I was just 9) and said, “Try to do someone a favor before they ask.” I’ve never, ever forgotten this and have quoted it in my essays, too. There is no finer personal ethic. Our father-and-son adventures included baseball games (including road trips to see games in Philadelphia and Boston), operas and concerts, libraries, hockey games (including a New York Islanders Stanley Cup playoff), barbershops (in adjoining chairs, so we could talk with each other looking toward the mirror), department stores, specialty shops, theaters, workplaces, subways, and countless New York City diners and restaurants. Dad knew everything about New York, and I loved all his animated references. From my earliest memories, when he’d say, “Want to go with me?” I always said yes. Errands were actually adventures, but in commonplace settings. We were like this wherever we went- New York, Paris, Chicago, and along Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. Dad loved the Eastern Promenade, in Portland (he said, “it’s like watching a painting”)- pointing out how Casco Bay has an island for every day of the year (The Calendar Islands). His general encyclopedic knowledge was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, even to this day. So very many good stories, I can paraphrase the portion of the Gospel in which John observed that if the many anecdotes could each be recorded, "I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."

Eastern Promenade, May 2021




Among the most painful aspects about witnessing his final days and funeral were not really about the past, but the present and future. This time, I cannot tag along- either as his young son strolling shotgun on 8th Street in Greenwich Village, or as his adult son chatting and comparing our handwritten scorecards at Wrigley Field. There isn’t a now; it’s a not-ever. I must walk the rest of the way- leaning even more upon my memories of our adventures, Dad’s intelligent discourse, and the gentlemanly ethics I tried to absorb. Remembrance is more than respecting the person departed- in this instance my father, it’s recalling the substance and spirit of his character. Remembrance is to continue being taught by his example. I suppose I must go the rest of the way, whatever the duration, without Dad’s storytelling voice. The world has lost some bright colors and is more of a bore than before. We used to sing Frank Loesser songs to each other on the phone. Recently, an elder and wiser person said to me, “You are the continuation of your father,” to which I replied, “If I am, I’m open to the improvement.” Some say I sound like him, but that’s less vital than to be able to apply more of his perceptive savvy and thoughtfulness.

After he retired, my father gave me his prized typewriter which he used for more than forty years. Notice the math symbol keys near the red tab key; he had the machine customized for his computer program coding.




The lyrics I quoted above, by New Yorker Maltbie Babcock, include the line: “‘round me rings the music of the spheres.” Such imagery will also have to be enlisted, for the remaining voyage. When I began publishing my writing with a book, Dad said to me that he admired that I was “contributing to the world of knowledge.” He was an encouraging voice through my employment struggles, but also applauding how my writing and teaching were leading to travels. He liked hearing about the conferences, about Wales, about Boston, and about Oxford. When I taught preservation at Harvard, I called Dad and said, “I’m your eyes and ears here,” describing the wonderful experience. During a residency in 2016 on Beacon Hill and at the Boston Athenaeum, I read a document by Babcock called The Success of Defeat. Reminding me very much of my own father’s words, Babcock wrote: “The only real failure is inside, not outside. It is not being true to the best we know. Inside failure is the only calamity. Outside failure may be the greatest blessing.” Dad seemed to think that I was a success, but I cannot quite agree. At least not yet. Here I will once more invoke Matlbie Babcock:“Success and failure subtly interpenetrate.” For the moment I will consider my inspirations rather than my results.


For the moment I’ll continue to treat the immediate, albeit cast adrift. And the waters are far from calm. My survival instincts cause me to keep rowing. Hopefully there’s still time for things to get better. Through the past seven weeks, I’m noticeably taking nothing for granted. Comfort is difficult to find, and understanding is nearly as scarce. Falling back on my reliable provisions, I reach for the good words I’ve known. Saint Augustine, in the late-4th century, wrote about grieving as a modern mind might express:

There are some who say people should not grieve. Then, let them try, if they can, to ban all loving interchange of thoughts, cut off and outlaw all friendly feelings, callously break the bonds of all human fellowship, or claim that such human relationships must be emptied of all tenderness. And if this is utterly impossible, it is no less impossible for us not to taste as bitter the death of those whose life for us was such a source of sweetness.


These words appear among the essays of Civitate Dei (Book 19). Along with the philosophers who continue to teach me, I add my father with his wise words- many of which came to me when I was too young. I heard myself say to a hospice counselor that I neglected to imagine that I would outlast my father. Perhaps most of us do this. Perhaps, also, none of us can know what that is like until we find ourselves on that regrettably bland and charmless road. If anything, it’s going to take time to navigate out of this fog. It’s going to take a long while before I go to ball games, listen to opera, singing “Bushel and a Peck” again. And I’m not going to hurry it, either. Dad used to tell me to enjoy the day because you live once.



____________________________________



From my mileage log book I keep in my car. I am forever my father's son.





Tuesday, May 11, 2021

il dolce far niente

“I'm going nowhere
And I'm going to take my time;
All the questions in the world
I can leave in my mind.
I'm waiting on the sunshine;
The sunshine.”


~ Sixpence None the Richer, Waiting on the Sun

1

Writing daily in a journal as I’ve been doing for many years, I’ve come to use my dated entries as an archival chronicle. As with most any manuscript archive, the journal entries are first-person and in real time, bit by bit amounting to something encyclopedic. Surely I’m doing more writing than reviewing with my journals, though milestone anniversaries are what send me back into my own words past. Often, they are very interesting to read. I’ve used journaling to write through events in order to try making sense of what I witness and experience. The more descriptive, the better. The arrival of the spring season reminded me that the pandemic has cycled into its second year. I re-read what I wrote in February 2020 and because the writing was in real-time, I was using terminology used back then, when many thought of this as a passing “flu panic,” along with describing the intense uncertainty of the extent of things to come. My entry on March 13th describes the national state-of-emergency and the frenzied supermarket-ransacking that followed. That was last spring.

11 March 2020 : "It's as though horizons are closing."



Now a year later, I’m comparing then and now, remembering my first weeks of working from home (which has become much smoother, quite normal, and remarkably productive). Throughout these times, I’ve become aware of the accompanying pandemic inertia that has also become part of life. Last year, because I was struggling to describe it, I referred to my sudden, reluctant, and stifling boredom produced by quarantining, curfews, closures, and no-travel regulations. The overpowering boredom was something as unexpected as it was unfamiliar. Obviously during my on-the-clock workplace hours, I’ve never had to scrounge for projects and duties, and I’ve been grateful to have that constructive framework to stay focused. But outside of those hours, the old compulsion to redeem the time combined with contending with uncharacteristic confinement. After the Philosophical Society conference to which I had been invited last year at Oxford University was cancelled, I had to cancel my travel plans along with scores of people like me around the world having to cancel all kinds of plans of their own. The conference seminars were later held via Zoom- and I did “attend” and participate, albeit beginning the days at 3am Eastern Time. Having that connection gave me needed energy to continue my own studies at home, fueling my insistence upon getting through the pandemic with more knowledge and insight to share than before. I have also continued teaching. Studying has been more of a nourishing means than ever, during these times.



All the while, these times have forced self-confrontations of varying degrees with the incidental aspects of doing nothing. It’s easier for some than for others. Descriptions of that state of being which Italian-speakers call “the sweetness of nothing-doing” has found its way (ironically) to more computer newsfeeds lately. I remember how when someone would ask me, “whatcha doin’?” and I’d answer with “Oh, nothing, really,” the connotation was one of embarrassment at the admission of not being constantly constructive in every sphere of life. The covid era has everyone reckoning with the passage and the uses of time. A culture that increasingly celebrated “extreme” sports, raising the bar with every physical fad, has quieted the quarantined to consider simpler pastimes- including baking, sewing, puzzles, writing, absorbing the outdoors safely. And doing nothing- just being. Simplicity, for many, has become as much choice as necessity. I spoke by phone with a colleague and friend about the recognized value of not-doing. Her response included the merits of simply sitting outside, and that “doing nothing is all right.” It’s a reckoning for my friends, too, as another said, “you know, it’s ok to be bored.” This was journal-worthy, as I’ve never heard anything like this before.

One of the last places I’d expect to see a celebration of nothing-doing is the industrially high-minded Wall Street Journal. This recent March 16th the WSJ published an article about the connections between accomplishment and doing nothing. “Giving your brain a rest” means giving yourself unstructured time to regroup, gather thoughts, and rejuvenate. Admitting that too easily we turn everything into some kind of competitive task, the author suggests doing something essentially mindless, such as taking solitary walks and just sitting down. “Absorb the scenery in silence,” wrote the journalist Annemarie Dooling. I am now more aware of this, and have taken to recollecting with my books closed- or in my own combined way, writing slower in my journal. In appreciation, I’ve become less berating and remorseful about puttering at my writing table and taking aimless bicycle rides. The mind and spirit need to do their own versions of breathing, especially amidst stress. The article quoted a neuroscientist who said, “Rest is one of the most important ways to enhance the neurological flexibility to build the kind of conceptual understanding that is related to identity and purpose.”



2

A cursory online search reveals an abundance of new articles endorsing a “practice” of nothing-doing. The benefits of doing nothing, published by the Erlanger Health Institute, advocates unplugging from technology and “sitting alone in silence” for a while. They also cite the Swedish expression, lagom, which is to say “moderate” oneself (sounding like the way I intersperse some “nothing” with writing). The health institute lures readers by saying that integrating nothingness into our days can reduce stress and boost creativity. I agree, though it would be a conflict in terms to say “I’m going to immerse myself in a state of nothing-doing, in order to be productive.” On a practical level, there are also short “time out” periods, though I’ve never found regulated time-outs to offer enough space for mental meandering. One true and leisurely luxury is to not think about what time it is.



The quotable business school aggregate IvyExec also published an article about the benefits of doing nothing. A more universal appreciation of the Italian “il dolce far niente,” translated as “the pleasantness of doing nothing,” is portrayed as helping multitasking individuals maintain a sustainable pace in their lives. The pandemic has clearly forced reconsideration of how we’ve been doing things, constantly “being busy” to the extent of avoiding healthful stillness and extraneous “screen time.” “Unplugging is difficult,” the article states. “In many ways, it is easier to stay busy than to do nothing.” We are left to wonder about the qualitative aspects of the “busy” of our pre-pandemic compulsions. Further, the article admits how “this culture exalts workaholism,” and that “people feel guilty when they are idle,’ reminding me that I’m far from alone in suddenly having had to deconstruct my breakneck paces. Allowing oneself to do nothing and not feel embarrassed about it, the mind has opportunities to process experiences, make sense of memories, and derive the learning. By our very nature, our imaginations will find ideas and inspirations that may have been smothered under the busyness that we intentionally interrupted.

Lao Tse famously reflected about how a person can accomplish much by not overdoing. His quote is often loosely paraphrased as: “Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” Having grown up and formed in both European (French) and American (Northeast) cultures, I’ve had my own interior ways of observing the differences and the common points as I found them, amalgamating what I’ve admired along the way. In the U.S., hyperproductivity is the stuff of heroism, and we are identified first by our job titles. Evidently, we are the tasks we do. In western Europe, relaxation is essential- even if it’s simply sitting outside. The articles I’ve found about the merits of stillness point out how the time-honored European custom of “just being idle” is an event in itself that needs nothing else. I’ve always admired how Parisian cafés stay open until late hours, filled with people just sitting with their small coffees (and not in “grab and go” thermal cups) and facing out toward the streets, just being. This is also one of my favorite journaling settings. On this side of the pond, having no utilitarian purpose makes Americans uneasy. Generally speaking, our puritanical selves need to have our dithering tendencies condoned. If constructively doing nothing sounds ironic, so does the idea of not being able to hide from ourselves during our pandemic quarantining. Under the limitations of these times, I’ve been using my paid-time-off to give my musing as much perimeter as I can provide. As weather permits or deters, I’ll choose to perch on a rock along the ocean, the front stoop, or my candlelit desk, and simply be.



3

This time last year, many of us at our jobs and schools heard about a hiatus of a couple of weeks. Then a month. Then more. Then it became realistically impossible to predict a duration. Then the word “hiatus” ceased being used. Much of this world has had to move with moving targets, while we no longer hear about the novel virus and the new normal. Everything has had to change, and it remains to be seen whether there can be any reverting back to “before.” How will our societies be affected in the long term? We are yet to see whether our forced “idling” will permanently become part of how we live our lives, and how the adapting we’ve had to do for our survival will alter us.

Photographic paper processor- with the lights on and doors open.



The other day, I was explaining to a friend that I saw a metaphor in something from my days in the custom photofinishing industry. Handmade color prints were individually imprinted in darkrooms with enlargers, lenses, and easels. The paper had to be carefully carried in a lightproof passthrough box into another completely dark room that included the entry for the paper into a roller-transport developing machine. These machines had two modes: Constant Run, and Automatic Standby. We always used the standby mode, to be energy efficient: when there was no paper in the machine, the rollers would go into an idling standby while the chemicals continued to pump at the regulated temperature. As soon a sheet of photographic paper was fed into the machine, the drives would start roaring at full-tilt, taking the machine out of standby, and running the print all the way through the process- as we used to say- “dry to dry.” This present odyssey has taken many people from constant run to automatic standby, and I’ve been in a state of preparedness to have to return to full perpetual motion as needed.



Stillness also becomes an unlikely way to find solutions and even resolve. “Sitting with one’s fears,” means ceasing the flailing and to visualize better outcomes. It doesn’t have to be quite as rarified as it sounds. I had a neighbor on my block who regularly sat out on the front stoop of her building with a cup of coffee and her everpresent cigarette. Of the latter she would say, “they’re what I’ve got.” This was shorthand for describing how she needed to just think, simply sit with her thoughts, and the cigarettes bought her some time and airspace to be able to ponder. Nowadays it may be easier to find this sort of time, yet the stresses of pandemic life can clutter the sanctified stillness right out of the day. Inhabiting a “holding pattern” is very different from reflective time. And these days demand a distinction between hypervigilance and wise caution. Somewhere, in between rocks and hard places, living and looking forward have to continue reaching up. I’m among very many that have had to acclimate to “bubble” work environments for safety’s sake, stricter physical boundaries, leaning heavily into my creative imagination to positively persist. Off-duty hours have had to comprise healthful idleness, and at best the time spent in solitude becomes an investment toward well-being.