Saturday, June 18, 2016
Maxwell had a tick on his rump which had been there for three or four days and had inflated to the size of an M&M. Really disgusting. This one was salmon-colored, maybe from the blood it was engorged with, turning the tiny brown horror huge and pink. This is a bad tick season. Katherine, my wife, had one on the back of her neck and actually went to two doctors for it. The place where it was still hurts, as if the tick had left some subdermal irritant there. Maybe its name was Kilroy. (I read somewhere once that the name “Kilroy” is a sort of Fawkesian anarchist pun combinng “kill” with “*roi*,” French for “king.” There are competing etymology theories. Freudians consider Kilroy’s drooping nose and two fists a symbolic depiction of the male genitalia, and thus a kind of testimony of sexual mischief.)
Speaking of sexual mischief and rumps, last night at a party I met a very smart young spanking fetishist/author named Jillian Keenan who told me that when a child who will go on to have this fetish, or who nascently has it at a young age, is spanked, it is similar to or actually a version of sexual abuse, despite the fact that the parent doesn’t know it.
What a party that was! Also met a guy who the next night was serving guests chocolate ice cream that required seven separate steps for its creation. No–it was NINE. Nine steps and seven days. And before that there was a book party for Peter Kramer and his new book about anti-depressants. He made an, um, well-developed, thank-you speech–to a room brimming with his fellow-shrinks–which featured a sort of hankering paean to New York and its culture of conversation. (I think Dr. Kramer lives in Boston.) At that party, a therapist told the old joke How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Well, first the light bulb has to WANT to change. Along these same mental-health lines, I told the first and only joke I’ve ever made up:
At that same party, Katherine reunited with David Hellerstein, who, when Katherine was a lowly story editor at theTimes Magazine, wrote a piece that K put on the magazine’s cover. That was a pleasurable re-crossing of paths.
Meanwhile, I am trying and largely failing to figure out how to bring this back around to the tick on Maxwell’s rump. Maybe it’s just all about afflictions. Except for the chocolate ice cream. Or maybe it’s all about love. Of the city, of Katherine, of people and their strangenesses. And of Maxwell. But not of the tick.
Tuesday, June 07, 2016
Originally posted on Facebook:
Maxwell takes two walks a day in the country. One in the morning–“the loop” as my wife, Katherine, and I call it–and often somewhere else in the late afternoon. Back down Peter Menaker Road but this time not the loop but off the loop, to the shore of Lake Buel, where he fetches sticks from the water, jumps over a low wire fence on command, as graceful as a sine curve, and subsequently, dripping wet, goes temporarily nuts, tearing around lakefront properties as if in frantic search of the Golden Bone.
But sometimes for those afternoon walks, in the skiing off- season (there was no real on-season this year) we put him in the car and drive a couple of miles around to the Butternut ski area, park outside the gate, and turn him loose.
First, the geese. A flock of them are (is?) often floating and paddling pointlessly, as far as I can tell on a small and painterly pond near the entrance, and Maxwell dashes down to the pond’s edge, creating havoc among them. They honk and start running on and churning up the water before they achieve their flapping liftoffs. Maxwell pulls up short at the edge of the pond and watches them fly honkingly away, and to my eye he looks mightily pleased with himself.
Then we walk up the slopes and under the chairlifts and down the slopes and in front of the lodge, dreaming of the snows d’antan and in my case, d’when I used to ski. (The first time I tried, I was wearing new bluejeans, and I kept falling, and kept leaving literal blue streaks on the snow. People would point to them from the lifts with some amusement. Jerks. )
Today there was a wrinkle. On our way back to where I had parked, Maxwell went down a little hill to a stream and stepped into it and lapped up some water. I motioned him to go a little farther up the stream, so as to see him wallow a little, and, amazingly, he did, and it was great, because it still wasn’t deep enough for him to go all the way in, but he deliberately listed from one side to the other so as to get as much of himself wet as possible. It’s wonderful to see such pure and simple pleasure so directly conveyed. When he got out, we walked a ways further and I dug into my pockets and gave him a treat. Fifty yards more, and the car. Where are my keys? They’re not in my pockets. They’re not anywhere in sight. S__t. (Mr. F. B. “Al” Gorithm won’t let me boost this post if I spell that word out. Isn’t that kind of f_____g ridiculous, given what we can hear on TV every night and the vitriol spilled out all over this medium every second of the day?) We retrace our steps, which is fine with Maxwell–he would walk or run to the moon if he could. Can’t find them. No extras at the Farmhouse–I have an extra in NYC and my son has one. No immediate help there.
Miraculously, I do have my cell phone and consider calling a cab from Great Barrington to come get me and Max. But there’s a guy in a utilities truck just across from my car and he’s just idling, talking on his phone. I take a deep breath and knock on his window and ask him if he can take us back to the house. Really, unless there’s some urgency he has to attend to, how can he say no? He doesn’t. Maxwell seems to know that as beggars, we cant be choosers, so he sits quietly in the well in front of the front seat instead of trying to share it with me.
A genial, round-faced guy with a short gray beard, our indentured uberized driver tells us his opinions about climate change as he drives us home. He says, “They will say something like, ‘This is the warmest it’s been on this day since 1932’ or something like that and so what I’m thinking is, ‘Well, how does that fit into climate change, exactly?'”
“Well, maybe if you put all the numbers together,” I say.
“Oh, I’m not saying we aren’t having climate change,” he says. “And I’m not saying we are. I’m just saying .” He pulls into our driveway. “Hey–I hope you have an extra set of keys here.”
“Uh, somewhere,” I mutter. In fact, I don’t. I will call my son, Will, and ask him to overnight his keys to me, and I will live on eggs and orange juice and bread and leftover lamb and actually, it’s not so bad, food-wise, now that I think about it. There’s even one of those cellophane envelopes, unopened, of smoked salmon, 120 miles upstream from its original home, Zabar’s. Then, when the keys arrive, I’ll see if I can guilt a neighbor into taking me back around to Butternut. Or maybe someone will drive me and Maxwell back down there tomorrow and I will find the keys.
Since I couldn’t turn on the ignition, I had to leave the windows open. Thunderstorms are coming. Great.
Sunday, June 05, 2016
“By popular demand” indicates that more than one people have demanded whatever it is. Gary Krist asked that I tell about the other person to whom I will not speak. I need one more people to demand it, to make the demand popular. Hmm. Let’s see. OK–*I* demand it.
The other person is Sean Wilsey, whose memoir, “Oh the Glory of It All,” I acquired going on many years ago now. I liked the book a lot–it told a good story about growing up rich and dysfunctional in San Francisco, with one of the best early paeans to skateboarding I know of and what I recall as a hilariously terrifying account of his mother at one point suggesting to him that they both commit suicide. I made an offer for the book, got it. I was Editor in Chief then and was utterly flooded with work, and I didn’t get around to reading and working on the manuscript for four or five weeks, though I think I officially accepted it pretty quickly.
Sean let me know of his impatience. He was going to move the book. I asked him for more time, read it and edited it as quickly as I could–I knew it was going to be successful.
He told me that he had decided to move the book, to Ann Godoff, at Penguin Press, my good former boss at Random House who was fired in a horribly public, shaming way. Just so you know, this means that Sean was breaking a signed contract, presided over by Ann herself, before she was run out of town. But signed contracts in book publishing often hold as much weight as a cotton candy would. (Later on, a writer who had a first-reading agreement with RH sold his book to another publisher without giving us that first or any other look. I called the agent and said, “Hey, we had an option on____’s next book. What’s going on?” She said, “I forgot.”)
I asked Sean to come into my office and he came in bravely, and I will say he took my tirade well. I think it was the only professional tirade I ever delivered. At one point, Sean wiped his brow in an almost cartoon-like way. Four weeks is not a long time to turn a manuscript around. The book whose cover is this blog’s image–“The African Svelte”? Eight weeks. And the editing, by Jenna Johnson, who has since left Houghton Mifflin, was superb. Anyway at one point, I asked Sean if Ann had actively tried to lure him away, and he said, “No–when I talked to her about how long it was taking, she just said, ‘I’m here for you if you need me.'”
It was humiliating for me to have to tell my new boss, Gina Centrello, about this failure on my part and malfeasance on the author’s. She was incredibly nice about it. I was just boiling with anger at Sean, and Gina was pretty philosophical about the whole thing.
By the way, I lied. I didn’t really edit the book after four weeks. I couldn’t. I didn’t really ever edit it thoroughly, even though in an effort to keep it, I gave Sean an edited manuscript. I was too overwhelmed with administrative responsibilities and other proposals and manuscripts. I asked my assistant, Stephanie Higgs, to read and make editorial suggestions about the manuscript, and, reader, I redid some of them in my my own handwriting and added occasional comments and commas of my own. Cringeifying!
To some extent, what Sean did was a fair comeuppance for me. Maybe he intuited that in addition to the four-week delay, I had, largely unconsciously, been taking him and his work a little for granted. He was much younger, callow, spoiled, in my opinion, a kind of literary peon, however accomplished, in comparison to me, master of at least some of what I surveyed. He could wait for my attentions.
That last paragraph: probably the sequellae of too much analysis. However patronizing I may have been–and it wasn’t very–this guy broke an agreement, undertaken by Random House with admiration and enthusiasm, and with a a pretty high $offer. Afterward, I ran into Sean a few times at this or that book party. He came up to me to try to talk. No thanks.
By the way, I once posted about ordering from a Chinese restaurant and hearing the woman on the other end ask, “Do you want utensirs?” Gary Krist, one of the two online begetters of this post, chided me a little for this touch of P.Un-C, suggesting that I had been drinking. There was a little back and forth about “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and so on, an eventually I malbecianly unfriended him. He messaged me, to the effect of what?! Had I really unfriended him? I friended him again and now considel Galy Klist a good fb fliend.
Saturday, June 04, 2016
Will Menaker would have been in high school, I think. He had idolized Muhammad Ali ever since we had seen one of the movies about him–was it Will Smith’s biopic, or “The Greatest”? In any case there was an event in New York, in some hotel high-floor event room, to which I had, inexplicably, been invited, and which Mr. Ali was also attending. I knew he would be there and and I think I told Will I would try to get Ali’s autograph for him. More inexplicably still, Lillian Ross, The New Yorker writer and William Shawn’s mistress, also attended this event, whatever it was. Lillian Ross and Muhammad Ali. What function could have put them together in the same room? She was no longer writing for The Talk of the Town very much, as I recall.
Lillian Ross is one of the two people in the world to whom I will not speak, not that she cares, of course. I won’t speak to her because having included me and Chip McGrath, a friend, in an anthology of Talk of the Town pieces at Random House, she dropped us out of the final product. I asked the book’s editor, David Ebershoff, why, and he was politely evasive, saying that Miss Ross thought that McGrath and I hadn’t really been regular Talk writers–which was true. I pressed him, pointing out that there were a few other “irregulars” included in the collection, and he finally told me that at some point as the book progressed, Lillian began to vilify me and McGrath for (I believe) not having supported Shawn during the contentious time when Robert Gottlieb was soon to arrive to take his place as the magazine’s Editor. Something like that. Ebershoff made it clear that Miss Ross had ended up being vituperative about us. Little did she or does she (unless she reads this) know, and, as I’ve said, little would she care, that I thenceforth determined never to speak to her.
Enough about Lillian Ross. Ali. He was there. He was looking good, if a little tremulous. Admirers surrounded him like iron shavings around a big magnet. I couldn’t just bust through and get his autograph. I hung around on the periphery, feeling like a fool and almost hoping that I wouldn’t even get the chance to approach him.
But I did. He was leaving. The crowd around him opened and he started walking in the direction of the elevators, and, miraculously, he was alone, except for a few bodyguards. No one approached him as he made his way. Except me. I figured out how to sort of flank him through this door and then back through that one, and we ended up face-to-face at the elevator bank.
Muhammad? No, Mr. Ali. “Mr. Ali, I’m sorry to bother you on your way out, but I wonder if I could get your autograph. For my son, for my son–you know, for him.”
“Yes, hold on.”
“You got paper?”
“Uh, no. Wait.” I somehow foraged some scrap of paper and handed it to Ali.
“You got pen?”
His coterie did not seem to have a pen, either. They did seem impatient.
“Wait, wait,” I said. I dashed away a few feet and copped a pen from someone else nearby. I went back to Ali. “Here.”
Ali looked at me, sort of scrutinized me. “Hey,” he said. “You know what?”
He said, “You not as dumb as you look. What’s your boy’s name?”
Sunday, May 22, 2016
If you go near the birdhouse on a pole in the back yard of the farmhouse here in New Marlborough, MA, a house that you inherited from your uncle, the resident bluebirds will dive-bomb you, swooping down right over your head, making these little clicking sounds, which sound a little like a windup kitchen timer–the best they can do in terms of scare tactics against your hulking, primate, earthbound self. They must have bluechicks in there right now. The birdhouse is near the back garden, and you feel guilty for going out to tend it, because it agitates the bluebirds so much.
Who would have predicted that you would be noticing and caring about such things, to say nothing of consulting bird books to help you distinguish between flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers, to say less than nothing of tending a garden, when you were twenty-five and looking for girls in bars and buying scalped tickets to Knicks games and dancing all night and playing pickup basketball in Riverside Park and writing cynical poetry and going to DC to protest the war and sharing summer houses on Fire Island and body surfing out there and idolizing Hunter Thompson and George Jones?
When gorgeous birds right in front of your nose or in back of your uncle’s house earned, from you, a brief appreciative nod at best, after your mother, in her sixties, pointed them out to you?
When you knew you would grow old but never believed it until now, when you have begun to find some kind of world of meaning in a bluebird’s brave and faintly ridiculous aerial assaults and a patch of lettuce and the kale that you don’t even like but grow anyway?
When you never would have guessed that you would be writing something like this, to say nothing of writing at all?
Saturday, May 21, 2016
Breaking news: Going out to walk the dog right now.
Do you not dislike it when NBC’s Lester Holt (who, by the way, has a very slight lisp; check it out; he has prevailed against more than just the one challenge, of being black) says at the beginning of every “Nightly News,” “Nightly News begins right now”? Wouldn’t you prefer just “begins now”? Or, for a laff, “begins more or less now.” Even “begins now” seems a little melodramatic. I mean, what else is he doing there if he’s not about to begin the news? Why doesn’t he say, at the end, “Nightly News ends right now”? And another melodramatic thing: the newscasters are always saying that “millions of people” lie in the path of this or that tornado or flood or other meteorological threat. Well, of course it’s millions of people. Hardly anything meteorologically or even otherwise newsworthy can happen in this country of 330 million without affecting millions of people. “Millions of people” would have been impressive in 1950, maybe. I wonder how many millions of people are annoyed by this trope. Probably not as many as are annoyed by those who use the word “trope.”
This trope ends right now.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
In getting ready to move from one apartment to another, smaller but fahncier [sic] one in the same building, we are winnowing books. Hundreds of them. At first the rule was take out the ones you don’t want. Foolish. Take out the ones you do want makes much more sense. So that’s what I’ve been up to, in preparation for going up to the, yes, now I’ll say it, penthouse. My wife likes to say 14E, but that strikes me as paradoxically more ostentatious than just coming out and saying it: PENTHOUSE. PENTHOUSPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSE
Oh, the books. It’s troubling and exhilarating to find out what you want to take with you and what you don’t. First of all, there’s the astonishment of how DEAD so many books are. This came to me first when I was cleaning up and clearing out my parents’ house in Rockland County, many years ago. Most of the books there were not, as the proverbs would have it, alive, but dead. There is nothing deader than a dead book. And most books are. Dead. Some of these books were books that almost surely no one in the world would ever read again. (In a terrifying, funny book of his own, “Nothing To Be Frightened Of,” about the acute thanatophobia he suffers, Julian Barnes writes about the eventual fate of every book: to have a “last reader.” But he takes only despondency from this fact–no Zen comfort.)
All those writers’ hours forced between covers, enjoying their brief lives, if they had any lives at all, and then evaporating into nothingness. It’s sad but also reassuring, about the levelling justice that time will sooner or later serve to books, and us. It’s always nice to believe you’re special, especially if you are. It’s also good to know you’re no different from everyone else.
But I had forgotten that first book-mortality experience until I started the weeding process here, a few days ago. “Vanity of vanities–all is vanity” came to embarrassing life with the establishment of my first criterion for what I would keep: Books and authors I have been lucky enough to work with, as an editor. (“Lucky enough” is like saying “14E” instead of “penthouse.”) So, for example, off to the Strand: Barbara Pym, Jonathan Coe, Angela Carter, Shirley Ann Grau, and Harrison Salisbury; up to the penthouse: Matthew Klam, Amy Bloom, Richard Dooling, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster,” Antonya Nelson.
The second criterion has been endurance, at least as I reckon it: Shakespeare, Yeats, Gatsby, Eliot, Eudora Welty, Munro (whom I was also, er, lucky enough to work with), Keats, Homer, etc. Books to which I might return and have returned, for many different reasons. Especially Yeats, again and again. “Turning and turning in a widening gyre,/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer” seems so timely, always. Right now puts me in mind of drones.
The third criterion has been–well, caprice. A book of funny names, dirty limericks, Freud. (I wasn’t sure if he belonged up there with the second criterion. He knows.)
Finally, my own books. What a surprise.
Hundreds of books will be gone. I have been pretty ruthless in general. Good memories, admiration, gratitude accompanied much of this jettisoning, but also a kind of executioner’s glee. Once you get into the rhythm of book-shedding, you want to keep up the dance. “Who am I kidding?” you say to yourself, if you hesitate. “I will never, ever read or even look at this book again.” A kind of mania sets in. It’s a purge of sorts. Flickers of sentiment and nostalgia begin to flare up; you enjoy extinguishing them as a child loves to blow the candles out.
From our penthouse, we can see the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Riverside Drive at 89th Street. Those men never had the chance to refine and distill their lives near the end. They remind you about how lucky you are. They remind you that no one stays lucky.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Just now, Katherine and I had this conversation:
D. [wearing a New Yorker T-shirt; takes some pills, taps his chest] I am so lucky.
D. [taps his chest]
K. What–The New Yorker?
D. [taps his chest] No.
K. Your heart?
D. No. [taps his chest]
K. Your lungs–oh, cancer.
D. Yes. Even if it all goes wrong now, I have been so lucky.
K. You were lucky that you have diabetes.
K. Because that’s why you went to Dr. Bloomgarden [an endocrinologist], and he gave you a chest X-ray and found the [lung] tumor.
D. That’s not the only reason I’m lucky I have diabetes.
D. Metformin [a drug that sensitizes you to whatever insulin your pancreas does produce].
K. Oh, right.
D. They’ve shown that it also retards the growth of tumors.
K. Oh, right.
D. He doesn’t do regular chest X-rays anymore.
K. Even though he saved your life?
D. For now…jinx! No–it’s something about data and false positives. But just try asking me about whether chest X-rays are a good thing.
K. It’s the same with breast cancer. All these statistics.
D. Yeah, they say overall some of these tests end up doing more harm than good.
K. I got my doctor to prescribe a chest X-ray for me after you and my father and Aunt Freddie and Carol all got lung cancer.
I could just feel my JNK/p38 MAPK pathway getting activated as we had this talk, since I had just taken my morning pills–not only Metformin but Nateglinide, which stimulates insulin production. “Metformin” is a fairly handsome word but Nateglinide not so much–it’s the generic name for Starlix, which is sort of pretty.
Here are the other morning doses–Ramipril and (get ready) hydrochlorothiazide, for blood pressure, and Atorvastatin, for cholesterol.. They say that there’s a new cholesterol drug that makes that villainous LDL amost disappear.
When my daughter, Lizi, was about a year and a half, she woke up one morning in this Great Barrington house of ours looking as though she had a bad cold. Eyes watering, one eye sort of swollen-looking, and nose running. She was perfectly cheerful, as she is to this day. We left it alone for a day or two, but then Katherine, with that mother’s instinct for trouble which resembles a cop’s instinct for trouble on the street, became concerned. She took Lizi to a pediatrician in town, who diagnosed her with periorbital cellulitis– an infection which, because a baby’s head has much smaller infection-accommodating open spaces–sinuses– than an adult’s, can threaten her eyesight.
Ordinarily, the doctor would have admitted her to the hospital for IV antibiotic treatment, but someone had just then come up with an injectable. The doctor not only knew about it, he had it, and he injected it. Lizi got better. Dr. Murphy, our pediatrician in New York, who was famous in the way that only pediatricians in New York can be, was amazed that the GB doctor was so on top of things. He said that if it had happened in New York, he would probably have sent her to the hospital.
Dr. Murphy did his own strong diagnosis once, involving our son, Will. Katherine, again with that mother’s intuition, took Will in so that Dr. Murphy could examine a circular bite mark that Will had on his leg (I think). Dr. Murphy immediately called all his colleagues and nurses in to see this mark, because it had the “target” appearance that characterizes the tick bite that causes Lyme Disease. The thing was, Lyme Disease was just beginning to be recognized, but Dr. Murphy was on top of it, and he took the prudent trouble to make sure everyone in his office would also be on top of it in the future.
Lizi and I were up here in the late spring more than twenty years ago, and the weather was strange. Just weird. It was hot, the sky was the color of chicken stock, the air was still. We were supposed to stay the night, but I didn’t like the way things felt, so we left. Two hours or so later, a tornado ripped through the woods and across our road about half a mile from the house.
On the other hand, we once had a young woman who went to Barnard taking care of our kids in the afternoon. She stole drugs from us, and it turned out that she hadn’t gone to Barnard. A guy came to look at an old Oriental rug we had here and took it away for evaluation and we never heard from him again. And I had symptoms of diabetes–sinus infections, blurred vision, yeast infections– for maybe ten years before it was diagnosed.
“Diagnosis” comes from the Greek “dia”–apart, as in “dialogue”–and “gnosis,” knowledge. So it means to separate out, to tell one thing from another, to say what is different, medically amiss. But the word applies to every choice we make or fail to make in the face of puzzling or troubling circumstances, to be able to know when something is wrong and in what way it is wrong.
When my Uncle Enge died, he left this house and four outbuildings and the land around them to me and my family… He was gay, for many years the lover of Tom Waddell, a well-known Olympic athlete who finished tenth in the Decathlon in Mexico City, in 1968–the Olympics where John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute on the medals podium, the Olympics in which Bob Beamon shattered–and I mean shattered–the world record in the long jump by almost two feet.This is what Wikipedia says about that moment, which I myself witnessed because a lot of Enge’s and Tom’s friends went to Mexico to watch him compete:
“On October 18, Beamon set a world record for the long jump with a first jump of 8.90 m (29 ft. 2 1/2 in.), bettering the existing record by 55 cm (21 3/4 in.). When the announcer called out the distance for the jump, Beamon – unfamiliar with metric measurements – still did not realize what he had done. When his teammate and coach Ralph Boston told him that he had broken the world record by nearly 2 feet, his legs gave way and an astonished and overwhelmed Beamon suffered a brief cataplexy attack brought on by the emotional shock.”
Enge often threatened to leave his property to the Young People’s Socialist League, because, as he also often told me, “You could never keep this place up, boy.” My wife, Katherine, was instrumental, somehow–I’m not sure how–in changing his mind. I think it was because he knew she would take on this reponsibility in many ways more effectively than I would,
“Oh, yeah?,” I say to him now, silently, up there in his Marxist Heaven, where each angel gives according to his ability and receives according to his need. “Take a look around, Engie.” Because, with the help of a home-equity loan, still not paid off more than thirty years later, we have done a good job: had the whole house up on blocks and the foundation repaired, had the house scraped and painted, new roof, new chimney, floors sanded and stained, you name it we did it, feeling grateful and, at least on my part, defiant at the same time. The guy who put the new roof on did it in the heat of summer and would come down from his ladder from time to time and fill a bucket with water and empty it over his head.
I said four outbuildings. Three of them remain. The horsebarn, very near the house, was subsiding pretty vigorously and we had to have it taken down, by whom we don’t remember. Maybe Scott MacKenzie, who has an excavation business and lives down the road. And who employed our son, Will, to pick corn one summer–Will’s own lesson in thermodynamics. Katherine and I also can’t remember how someone over in Columbia County got to hear about the dismantling and came over and looked at the floorboards on the upper level of the barn and declared them valuable–some kind of pine that you just couldn’t get anymore, and BOUGHT them.
Months or maybe even years later, Katherine was looking in some fancy Country Living or Rustic Times magazine, and there was the guy who had bought the floorboards and there was his fancy house and there, on his floor, was our floor. It was like the architectural equivalent of reincarnation, or maybe an organ transplant.
That left: the corn crib, the carriage shed, and the Big Barn. The Big Barn and the corn crib just now cost us our home insurance policy with Vermont Mutual. Which turned out to be not so Mutual–in fact, not at all Mutual–as they took away our insurance. Thank you, Vermont Antimutual. They took away our insurance because the Big Barn’s foundation is cracked and three of its twenty windows are broken, and the back corners of the corn crib rest on concrete blocks. These are very solid concrete blocks, and the corn crib is the Gibraltar of outbuildings, in my opinion. WTF. In not the long but the short run we had to get more expensive insurance, but at least it’s spiffy–Lloyd’s of London, don’t you know. And the outbuildings are insured only for liability. The carriage shed is fine, thanks to a shoring up detailed in “My Mistake,” a memoir I wrote a couple of years ago and that I will NOT urge you to buy, I swear.
The shoring-up was done by Bruce, whom I like to refer to as our “property manager”–two lovely dactyls that I try to deploy accompanied by some embarrassment. Bruce has basically saved our property’s ass.
This all leaves the Big Barn. What to do? It has to come down. Though my kids are dead set against this, for reasons of pride and sentimentality. “So you figure out how to keep it,” I say to them, feeling a little Engesque. They look away. So Katherine went public and put notice and pictures of the barn up here: http://www.thebarnpages.com/oldbarnsforsale.cfm.
She has gotten a lot of responses. Roger from Connecticut, with a thick Russian accent, is interested in the barn. He always calls from his car, and somehow this makes me wonder what he wants with a huge old barn. (Have I mentioned that this barn is the largest in Southern Berkshire County? Like six stories high, forty feet wide, fifty long.) A couple from Kentucky wants to take it down and put it up on their property. A guy in Connecticut who has a business in old barns is interested. The emails and phone calls come in, and we get our hopes up, and the kids begin their pre-mourning.
The couple in Kentucky has to wait until they sell their house and move and do this and do that, so it may be a while, if they can do it at all. Roger the Russ keeps calling on the fly but never makes a definite appointment. Connecticut Man disqualifies the barn because it is nailed, not pegged, and the lumber used is, well, not second but maybe first-and-a-half rate. The earnests of interest dissipate, like steam from a pond, like radio waves sent into the ether for contact with extraterrestrials from whom we continue not to and never will hear.
The barn stands there–it is really a wonderful barn. Won’t someone help? You can have almost everything inside it–two commodes (no joke), a big old wooden-sided motorboat, rivaling, in vintage, me, six hundred of the mortifyingly seven hundred copies of my novel, “The Treatment,” which you also don’t have to buy. Plumbing fixtures. I’ll post some photographs soon.
There are also many family letters in boxes in the Big Barn.
From my brother, who was at U. Va. Law School, in 1962 (he died of a hospital blood infection seven years later): ” …I have been scapping slightly–met a good girl at Sweetbriar–2 good girls, actually–and a lush at Hollins. When I visit Swarthmore, I want you to get me a good date, OK, Dward?”
From my mother, “…Bobby [my father] is taking eight pills a day, which makes him sleepy most of the time, but he thinks the pain in his leg has begun to ease. Worst of all, he has had to stop smoking his pipe. It’s hateful the way life gets more and more circumscribed–but maybe this works to reconcile one with the necessity of losing it.”
There were was this letter in the Times yesterday::
To the Editor:
Re: “The Value of a Mindless Summer Job,” by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Op-Ed, June 6): I, too, worked jobs in high school and college (washing dishes, mopping floors, cooking short order) that bore little resemblance to my later work as a lawyer. But one thing I learned is that all work is noble and worthy of respect.
The men and women I now see running a vacuum in the hallway outside my office late at night while I am preparing legal documents are not engaged in a lesser form of endeavor.
Such work has intrinsic worth beyond instilling personal qualities in those fortunate enough to later pursue supposedly more exalted forms of “intellectual” labor.
ROBERT H. BADNER
So from about 1930 until the mid-60s, my uncle Frederick Engels (“Enge”) Menaker ran this camp for adults right next to my Uncle Peter Lvrov Menaker’s Boys Camp, To-Ho-Ne, near Great Barrington, MA, where he (Enge) also had a farmhouse, in which I am sitting right now. Sitting right now partly as a result Uncle Enge’s gaiety–he never had kids, and I was his closest nephew. I came up here every summer until I was sixteen and wanted to stay in Nyack and make out with Pam as much as possible. For the last four of those summers I worked as a waiter, dishwasher, groundskeeper, first for the kids’ table, then for the grownups out on the porch overlooking Lake Buel.
Sometimes I had to wash the dishes, in this sort of Jurassic dishwashing machine made of some strange alloy–maybe of zinc and something else. (Zinc alloys have great names: Calamine brass , Chinese silver, Dutch metal, Gilding metal, Muntz metal, Pinchbeck, Prince’s metal, Tombac.) This would happen when one of the black college kids from the South whom my uncle somehow recruited to work for him in the summer, and about whom more later– got sick or left. Most of us waiters were white, sons and daughters and nephews and nieces and cousins of immediate family or old friends.
You put the dishes on big trays, slid the trays into the megalith, put soap in somewhere, closed the vertical metal doors by pulling down on a handle, and then held a lever down to run the machine. I mean, you couldn’t set it and leave it. You had to hold the activating handle down. Then you raised the metal doors up, like garage doors that open in front and in back, and slid the dishes out the other side.
Sometimes I had to scrub pots and pans. These cooking things were really hard to clean. My uncle was like the Ralph Nader* of pots and pans. Every baked-on ring of cooking residuum had to be scoured away. No molecule of burnt potato could be left behind. He would check out my work and point to a tiny patch of food so scorched on to the surface of whatever pan I was washing that it made a new zinc alloy, Greasium.
“Are you leaving this for the starving Armenians?” he would say. Or, simply, “No leftovers!”
Everything he did in running that camp and the Farmhouse–with his gay partner, Glen Memmen, from the Midwest, who even though he professed Communism sang for the Methodist Church in town every Sunday–was meticulous, granular. You not only had to rake leaves but rake them in a certain pattern. You not only had to pick peonies for vases at just the right time but mash the bottoms of their stems a little and put a ground-up aspirin in the water they were going into, for vascular support. You not only had to clean the inside of the barrel of the 22 rifle you were allowed to use to shoot squirrels with, you had to oil the outside and the stock. When I saw “The Karate Kid,” decades later, and heard the old martial-arts master played by Pat Morita tell Ralph Macchio, with the authority of a shogun, about waxing the car, “Wax on, right hand, wax off, left hand, wax on, wax off,” I thought of Enge–similarly short, similarly weathered, similarly exigent.
Enge was entirely even-handed with the black guys who worked for him in the summer and were no doubt paid pretty well. (The waiters earned like next to nothing.) Their work–heavy maintenance, hauling, repairing cabins, moving furniture–was more than a summer’s pastime between college years. The cook during those years was an older black man named Isaac, who had been and I think still was, occasionally, a professional boxer. We were all on friendly, race-blind terms. I thought. Until Jimmy borrowed some 45 records of mine–Everly Brothers, the Charts, Clyde McPhatter, the Cadillacs. He kept them for a few weeks, until I got kind of tired of not having them and asked for them back. He looked at me with disappointment. He said, “You thought I was going to steal them, didn’t you?”
Not long after that, I was in the kitchen putting away some gleaming no-leftovers pots and pans when Isaac, standing at the stove, asked me, as he often did, to tell him what was on the dinner menu that Enge had written out in pencil and tacked on the wall. Enge was also in the kitchen. I said, cheerfully, because I was about to be released for the afternoon, “Read it yourself–I gotta go.”
Enge followed me out of the kitchen, through the swinging doors between the workspace and the lodge’s big main room.
“Boy,” he said, kindly. “Let me talk to you.”
I turned around. He came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Isaac can’t read,” was all he said.
*Speaking of ultra-careful people:
I’m lucky enough to be invited to teach at the Key West Literary Seminar every January. This last time, I had to change planes in Charlotte, NC, and when I found the gate for the second flight, I sat down across from an attractive woman, about 45, who was sort of staring at me. She looked away. After a while I got up to get some coffee and I noticed that she was looking at me again, and smiling. I smiled back. Got the coffee and wandered back along the boarding area for my flight, and the woman was looking at me and smiling, shyly, again. When I got back to where I was sitting, there she was, all eyes for me. I went over to her and said, “Do we know each other?” She said, “Are you?” And I said, “Probably.” She said, “No, really, are you?” And I said, “Am I what?” And she said, “Are you Ralph Nader?”
Now, I ask you, even though it’s not as bad as a friend of mine who was taken for Janet Reno: Really?