LOT 46, LATE OCTOBER

I am living in a pink place. It’s made of tin and vinyl. The palms out front have nasty little needles under the graceful tropical postcard billow of drooping fronds. There are minuscule ants in the bathroom. Could larger ones, perhaps enormous ones, be far away?

I am startled when I see that Nikolai Gogol, a ghost, and a thin man have wandered in through the Florida room to console me, knowing I am disoriented by the 94-degree October heat and feeling lost.  Last time I met Gogol, I was reading “The Overcoat.” Too bad I never finished it. (Hell, it’s short! What’s my problem? )For a moment I’m thinking I’m having a dream, or that Gogol is  a pop-up and I need to delete him. I laugh when I tell him that and I apologize. He just laughs, too, one of those Russian laughs.  His ghost has an enormous moustache but doesn’t have much to say.

“Come away with us,” Gogol say to me in Russian and I find out the thin man is his interpreter. He translates for me. He has a nice voice. “We’re heading towards the Obukhov Bridge,” Gogol says through the thin man.

“Stay a while, please,” I say. “You and the ghost and you, too,” I say, pointing to the interpreter. (He is so very thin, and so pale. I’m hope he’s using sunscreen.  I’m thinking to myself: I don’t like it here and maybe I should go away with these folks. But it’s almost Halloween, I’m new in this mobile home park and there will be kids coming Trick-or-Treating and I don’t want to disappoint them. I could have the ghost hand them their little Snickers bars. (I don’t know if the ghost speaks English. The interpreter could handle that, in case the kids want to chat. I mean, how often to they get to see a real ghost with a huge moustache?  The moms and dads would be impressed, too. They’d say, ‘there’s a really neat guy in Lot 46 who’s got a Russian ghost staying with him. With a big moustache, no less.’)

While I’m thinking all this, there’s a knock at the back door to the little back yard. I open it and it’s Scott Fitzgerald, looking very hot in a very nice gaberdine jacket.  He’s loosened his tie a bit. I’m wondering, did he jump the fence? Is he pulling some kind of Gatsby on me? If so, that’s fine, that’s totally okay and very amusing. He sits down in the parlor next to Gogol and the ghost. I get the sense they’ve met before, somewhere. Maybe in some library, I’m thinking. Gogol introduces Scott to the ghost.  Scott extends his hand, then everybody laughs, including me. Ever shake hands with a ghost? (This may be that day for me.)

Scott is fanning himself, though I’ve turned the overhead fan on. “So we beat on,” he says with a sigh, sort of out of nowhere, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I appreciate him saying that. What a nice thought! The day is hot. A torrid, sultry fall day that in another colder clime tilting toward winter would be called Indian Summer. That’s where I want to be — sort of like where these folks are from, or where Scott is from — Minnesota. Or New England, where I’m from. Cold country, though not as cold as Russia. Here, it’s just another day in Paradise Island or Island in the Sun or whatever they call this place. And it’s a hot one, too. I like the idea of going to Obukov Bridge, or of being in a boat with Scott,  both of us just deciding not to  row against the current; just letting ourselves go backwards — into the past. And I’m thinking I’m going to like the past much better than the present.

So, I’m happy with this little assemblage that’s come to see me and cheer me up after my terrible afternoon in traffic, searching for a Publix Supermarket and wheeling up and down the aisles looking for bread crumbs and grated cheese.

“I hope you’ll all stay for dinner,” I say. “I’m having fried chicken. Then, if you like, we can go down to the pool. The women are playing pinochle later on. Any of you play pinochle?”  (I hope they can’t tell I’m losing my mind. It may already be gone. )

With that, they all politely declined, and say they’ve got to be going. I shake every hand, including the ghost’s and the four of them depart through the Florida room, past the palms and out to the rows of tin houses, probably headed for Obukhov Bridge. I want to be polite and shout out if any of them needs the bathroom — until I remember the ants. I think I saw a roach in there, too.

I want to go with them, actually. I’m just not a Florida person after all.  It’s blindingly sunny out there from a bright sub-tropical sun and there are mountainous Florida clouds overhead. But I watch as the Gogol/Fitzgerald party is abruptly swallowed up in a sudden darkness when they’re barely twenty yards down Caribbean Way. Poof!

So, I say to myself, I guess I’ll shore this fragment against my ruins. That’s a little something I learned to do reading “The Waste Land.” Shore little bits and pieces — old fragments — against my broken up old ruins. And I’m realizing why April IS the cruelest month — and here I am where it’s always April, except when it’s July, like today.

Then, feeling pretty alone without Gogol and Scott and the gang, I just decide to be grateful and recite a little Shakespeare to myself and pretend it came  from my just-departed guests:

Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts. 

That’s from All’s Well That Ends Well. Yet another fragment to shore against my ruins.

Shantith. Shantith. Shantith

How’s that for ending well?

Exeunt omnes

FINIS

ON BEING OURSELVES

Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true. — Robert Browning.

Really? Robert Browning, whom I admire, would likely have rued the day he helped spawn the current age of the Imperial Self.

Leaving aside the poet for the moment, I stand at this hour on the conjoined shoulders of two delightful contemporary writers, Heather Wilhelm and Derek Thompson, neither of whom are particularly well-known. Heather, in this case, was writing recently in The National Review, Derek in The Atlantic. Each in their turn set out to skewer the “Be Yourself” culture being propagated on coffee mugs, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Let me, at the outset, ask this question: would any of us have encouraged Jeffrey Epstein to “be himself”? It appears, in the end, even Jeffrey was glad to take leave of himself.  Or, touching lightly on theology here, it seems Jeffrey, alone in his jail cell, feared the consequences of actions committed by the “Jeffrey” he had become which, I submit, was very different from the Jeffrey God intended him to be. And my Baltimore Catechism tells me there’s ultimately no escaping the consequence of bad deeds freely done by ourselves, be it our good self or our bad self. Of course, divine mercy may work differently than the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in the sweet by-and-by, I suspect no lawyer can help the perversely self-ish.

You might be a determinist or some rigid iteration of Calvinist and believe we are doomed by a capricious deity to be either wretched or blessed “selves”. I can see the Army drill sergeant standing over the recalcitrant basic training trainee he – or she — is about to send to the stockade for conduct unbecoming a soldier. “Our slogan, trainee, is ‘be all that you can be”, whereupon the trainee answers, “this is all I can be, sergeant, take it or leave it.”

Heather Wilhelm was moved to her meditation on the culture of “self” (that’s the name of a magazine, too, right?) by the “dictum-spouting screen” at her New Age dentist’s office, “relentlessly instructing me to be myself, no matter what.” Why? Well, as best Heather can figure out, because “everyone else is doing it, too.” Who’d have thought Emerson’s 19th Century celebration of self-reliance would devolve into the modern plague of Groupthink?

Derek Thompson, meanwhile, writing on The Atlantic’s website, was examining the cultural implications of online dating in which “anybody who feels obligated to select the ingredients of a perfect life from an infinite menu of options may feel lost in the infinitude.” (I’d be tempted to begin my online dating appeal by quoting that Emily Dickenson poem: “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too?”)

“Gone are the days,” writes Thompson, “when young generations inherited religions and occupations and life paths from their parents as if they were unalterable strands of DNA.”

Well, I hope they’re not gone, even though, in our relativistic culture, we are apparently all free to invent our own “truths”  and our own “selves.” Herein, of course, lies the big problem. Was Jeff Epstein following his own truth? Just being himself? DNA: Do Not Ask.

Ms. Wilhelm, meanwhile, has helpfully catalogued some “be yourself” exhortations from the lips, blogs and tweets of our pop culture favorites. Lady Gaga, for instance, tells us, “don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.”  Or Taylor Swift: “If they don’t like you being yourself, be yourself even more.” (As they used to say of the mechanical rabbit at the Wonderland dog track, “there goes Swiftie…”)

Oscar Wilde’s dictum is Heather’s favorite. Mine, too: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” She also likes the t-shirt that says, “Always be yourself. Unless you’re a jerk. Then, be someone else.”

I’ll buy that.

REFLECTIONS ON 8/6/45

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Gembaku Dome, Hiroshima. Photo Credit: File:HiroshimaGembakuDome6747.jpg

 

It happened — according to internet calculations — 74 years, sixteen hours, four minutes and seventeen seconds ago. The seconds and minutes will mount as I write this.

But time seemed to stop when it happened. The world hasn’t been the same since.

There is a park and memorial museum at the heart of Hiroshima, Japan. I visited it in September, 1970 during a break from Army duty in Korea. Somewhere in the archives I assume they’ve saved the generations of guest books left out for museum visitors to leave their comments. My comment, prosaic and probably identical to thousands of others, reads, simply, NEVER AGAIN.

Did we have to drop that thing? The debate never ends.

It seems almost coldly inappropriate to factor out, retrospectively, the pre-Hiroshima and Nagasaki options facing allied military planners who found themselves at the end of a long, bloody and calamitous world war with no endgame in sight. One is almost tempted to say – there was no “magic bullet”. Alas, it seems there was, and we discovered it and fired it, twice.

Among the many exhibits in glass cases at the Hiroshima Peace Museum – and you have to embrace that name — are objects gleaned from the city’s radioactive ruins after August 6, 1945. Most disturbingly memorable to me were the manikins depicting adults and children survivors as they appeared after the fiery detonation. The manikins display the victim’s terrible burns and their burned and tattered clothing. It’s almost like looking into a macabre department store front window in the course of a terrible nightmare. You see the dark uniforms of female school children; you see how their white blouses repelled the nuclear flash while their dark jumpers absorbed it with terrible consequences for the wearer. Also memorable in a ghastly way, among the scattering of smaller preserved objects, is a jagged metallic lump the shape of large chunk of coal. This had been some male victim’s pocket change – all melted together.

So what was the alternative to this horror, coming at the end of five years of horrors, including fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, Germany, grinding island-to-island Pacific warfare and deaths and casualties mounting into the millions?

It was called Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was a two-pronged assault: Operation Olympic was scheduled for November, 1945, aimed at Kyushu, followed by Operation Coronet in March, 1946, which called for landing troops on Hokkaido, targeting Tokyo and the Emperor. The Eleventh Air Force, including our B-25s, would move to Okinawa and would have abundant targets. The Japanese were fierce defensive fighters (ask any of the few surviving American veterans of the Pacific theater). They would surely defend their home islands savagely, foot by blood-soaked foot.

The Pentagon estimated the invasion would result in half a million American casualties, a million and a half Japanese. Those estimates may have been low. Many of us Americans would not be here: our fathers would have died in the prolonged fighting.

An estimated 125,000 died in minutes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   Knowledge that we had the bomb probably kept the Soviets at bay until their empire could collapse generations later. But of course, they built their own bombs. Then you have Pakistan, North Korea – and the wobbly balance of terror lingering into the 21st Century.

Everybody should visit that Peace Museum. And that, sad to say, is the only “bottom line” I can come up with here.

A Continental Summer

I. The Attic Window

GregPassport2Op

One day, an early summer’s day, I set out across the sea — on a Norwegian freighter, no less, bound for Europe. This fulfilled a youthful yearning born of a view out an attic window.

It was a small window in our small house, gray and modest, sitting on a small fenced-off rise above our neighbors below on Salina Road. The view was of the sea — though just a small blue wedge, barely visible over the McIntyre’s green two-story house and the three-decker that, over time, had been home to people like Mrs. Baylion and Jimmy Kinally and Freddie Ferguson. It was mostly a harbor view and bay view: Boston Harbor and Dorchester Bay. Small waters in the grand scheme of things. But that was sea water out there, no less enticing to the embryonic imagination of a would-be Balboa; the blue threshold to the deep ocean of legend — of vast ships and fabulous creatures. A boy of eight or nine would see it that way. I was that boy. Continue reading “A Continental Summer”