All Over America the Lamps are Going Out

Agee photo finalThese are bad times. I thought of James Agee’s beautiful and heartrending work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I heard the verdict in the Zimmerman case. There’s an account, very near the beginning of the book, of Agee’s and Walker Evans’s encounter with a young black couple that made me think, when I first read it, how far we had come from those dark days. Agee and Evans had found a church they wanted to photograph. The church was in a relatively deserted wooded area and was locked. As the two men were wondering whether to force their way in, a young black couple came walking by. The couple, Agee writes,

[w]ithout appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, … made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. (p. 36.)

Agee decides to go after the couple to ask them if they know where to find a minister or someone else who could let them into the church. Agee, being Agee trails behind them at first simply observing them “taking pleasure… in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, … and in the beauty in the sunlight on their clothes.” They are obviously courting, both dressed in their Sunday best. He in “dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow soft straw hat,” she in “a flowered pink cotton dress” and “freshly whited pumps.

“I was walking more rapidly than they,” explains Agee, “but quietly.” Still, before he had gone far, the couple, as if they could sense his presence, turned back and looked at him “briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field.” Agee waved at them, but they’d already turned away again. He began to walk faster, but was impatient to catch up to them, so he “broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel,” writes Agee

the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, … [said] ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. …. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn’t scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking. … I …  asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and … again, … I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back. (pp. 37-39.)

I remember when I read this passage the horror that came over me to think that anyone would ever have to live with such constant fear. That couple had been frightened, even if only briefly, for their lives.

I knew what it was like to be pursued. I was one of the very few white children at my school for most of my childhood and though the black children who knew me were almost always kind to me, the ones who didn’t know me, the ones I might encounter at recess or walking to or from school, were not. I’d been chased before and been called names and had things thrown at me. I once had a glass bottle thrown at me. It shattered just in front of me so that I could feel the force of the tiny fragments against my shins. I’d learned very early to keep walking, no matter what what was going on behind or in front of me, I’d learned somehow by instinct, I think, not to display fear. Of course I couldn’t ignore people either. I had to acknowledge them, but I couldn’t appear to be afraid. I don’t know why, exactly, that worked, but it did and I knew somehow, even as a child, that it would.

So I identified with that couple. I knew what it was like to affect nonchalance when you are really very afraid. I knew the intricacies of the subtle etiquette of self defense and how it kicks in automatically at such times. I identified with this couple. But still, I had never been afraid for my life.

There are not words to describe what it must be like to live that way, to live with an ever-present fear for one’s very life. I remember when I read that passage I thought to myself, thank God, thank God black people do not have to live like that anymore.

These are bad times.

(This piece was originally published in Counterpunch, 24 July 2013.)

On Death and Dying

Otis elementary school 2One of the most frightening things, I think, about dying is that we do it alone. Of all the natural evils for which one would like to blame the creator, this seems one of the worst. It would have been so much better, wouldn’t it, if we left this life in groups, left perhaps with the people we came in with, with the children we remember from our earliest days in school, and perhaps also with the people we have come to love, if they are suitably close to us in age. If we could go in groups, as if on a field trip, it would be easier.

But we go alone, even those unfortunates who die in accidents that take many lives die effectively alone because they don’t have time, really to appreciate their fates as shared. They say the people who remained on the Titanic sang as the ship went down. That’s what I’m talking about. It would be so much better, so much easier to bear if we were assigned a time along with many others. We could begin to gather a little before that time, all of us who were assigned to leave together, we could begin to gather and prepare ourselves and share with one another the joys and sorrows of our lives. If we did that, I think we would realize that our lives had really all been variations on the same theme, that we were not so different from one another as we had thought.

I’m not certain if I believe in life after death, even though I am very religious. I’m not certain what it would be for. I doubt I will be ready to leave this life when my time comes. I think I’d like to live much longer than I know I will, say three or four hundred years. I think I’d eventually get tired of living though, so the prospect of living forever is not all that appealing.

It seems to me, however, that if there is life after death, that that place where we will all go (and I believe we will all go to the same place because I am a universalist), wherever it is, that we will all actually arrive there together. Even though each of us will die individually, alone, if we go anywhere, it is to eternity and since there is no temporal change in eternity, there cannot be any arriving earlier or later. Where we will go will be where everyone will go at the same time, or where everyone, in a sense, already is. There will be no waiting for the loved ones who die after us. They will be there waiting for us, so to speak, when we arrive, even if they are in the bloom of youth when we leave.

When I think about death, which I do more and more as I get older, I wonder if perhaps part of the point of it, of the horrible specter of that trip one must take alone, is precisely to make us understand that we never really are alone. And by that I don’t mean simply that God is always with us, although I do mean that also. I mean that we are all part of the whole of humanity, that we are connected to everyone and, indeed, to every living thing.

There is a poem I love by Molly Holden that conveys this sense of connectedness very well. It’s called “Photograph of Haymaker, 1890.” It goes like this:

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,

That’s not the whole of the poem. I left out the last couple of lines for fear of violating copyright. You can read the whole of it though if you go to Poetry magazine. Of course the poem is about the haymaker in that it’s about mortality which is inseparable, I think from temporality. Time passes, people pass, as they say. The haymaker will pass, just as the grasses he’s cutting down in the vigor of his manhood. And he is gone now of course the man who was young and vigorous in that photo taken so long ago.

I love to read philosophy and learn that others who lived and died long before me had precisely the same thoughts that I have had. I feel suddenly linked to those people in a mystical way. I feel as if they are with me in a strange sense, that we are together on this journey we call life, even though they completed it long ago.

Kierkegaard speaks often about the idea of death and how one must keep it ever present in his thoughts. I did not understand this when I first read it, but I believe I do now. To think about death, really to think about it, to think it through, will bring you right back around again to life and what a miracle it is, and by that I don’t mean your own small individual life, but all of it, life as a whole, and you will be filled with reverence for it. You will be kinder to every creature.

And you will feel less alone.

This piece is for Otis Anderson, February 6, 1959 – July 14, 2013.

Time Travel

Hobart Arena 1959

Hobart Arena 1959

The philosopher Richard Taylor asserts, in his book Metaphysics, that the idea of time travel is incoherent. The incoherence, he claims, “is exposed in saying that . . . at a later time—someone finds himself living at an earlier time. To imagine,” he continues, “‘returning’ to an earlier time is merely to imagine the recurrence of events of that time.

“More precisely, it is to imagine everything, except oneself just as it was then” (73).

I believe he’s wrong. I believe time travel is possible, not in the sense, however, of imagining the recurrence of past events just as they were, while remaining oneself unchanged. That, after all, is nothing but reminiscence, perhaps extraordinarily vivid, but reminiscence nonetheless. Time travel, real time travel, I believe, is the reverse of Taylor’s description. It is to have everything around one just as it is now, while returning oneself to the way one was at an earlier time. In this sense, it is to be not what one is, as the philosophers say, but what one was.

To the extent that most of us go through some kind of moral development as we mature, this may not seem like a desirable project. Moral development is not the only thing we undergo, however, we tend, as we become older, to lose something of the joy and optimism of youth. It ebbs away with the passage of the years, more or less quickly depending on the events of our lives. I lost much of my own joy and optimism, I think, with my parents divorce when I was seventeen. But there were other events, both before and after, that gradually eroded my innocent faith in the benevolence of fate.

One such event was when I gave up my dream of becoming a figure skater. I was forced to confront the fact that my family simply did not have the money to allow me to pursue that dream. I don’t remember ever dreaming of being in the Olympics or anything like that. I did dream, though, of becoming good, really good.

I always loved skating. My sisters and I used to pretend to skate on our driveway in the winter. The driveway was behind and slightly lower than the house and when it was covered with snow it looked a lot like a little pond. We would pack the snow down very hard and then slide around on it in shoes with slick soles pretending we were skating. Sometimes we would dress up. My mother used to take us to the Goodwill store and allow us to pick out cast-off party dresses, or “formals” as we called them, to dress up in. I had a black velvet one with a heavy rolled hem that made it puff out and flare beautifully when I turned. I would wear it and carry a little rabbit fur muff that must also have come from the Goodwill. I felt like a princess as I glided across the packed snow. We often “skated” in the evening when the light over the garage would illuminate the falling snow and if I looked up toward the night sky, it would seem as if the stars were actually falling softly on me or as if the sky were opening up and I were being carried away into it.

We would “skate” like this until our feet were so cold we had lost all feeling in them and then we would ascend the stairs at the edge of our “pond” that led into the kitchen where my father would be waiting with hot chocolate. My feet used to hurt excruciatingly as they warmed up again, but that never kept me from “skating” if there were sufficient snow.

I think I was ten or eleven years old the first time I went skating for real. I went with my Camp Fire Girl troupe. I don’t remember much about that first time except that I greatly admired the skates of one of the other girls. Most of us had to rent skates, but she had her own and they were not brown like the rental skates, but blue with fur at the top.

I must have liked skating though because I went back. My sisters and I began to go skating fairly regularly and soon we each had our own pair of beautiful white skates. None of us had had lessons, but we would wear little skating skirts and watch the other better skaters and imitate what they did.

My parents could not really afford to give us lessons, but I pestered them anyway until they finally gave in. My lessons were during the public skating sessions at the local rink on a little portion of the ice that had been sectioned off for that purpose by orange traffic cones. I had one fifteen-minute lesson each week with a second-rate instructor.  Eventually, my lessons went to half an hour, not because we could afford it but because, in my mother’s words, I had a talent for getting what I wanted, and I wanted to skate.

I was in a Barnes and Noble a few years ago when I ran across something that brought this all back to me. I wandered aimlessly through the magazine section. My eyes fell on a copy of something called International Figure Skating. I was curious to see what skating was like these days, so I picked it up and began to leaf thought it. There was a section at the beginning of photos from some gala or other. I flipped quickly past it, but then went back. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps there will be a photo of someone I used to skate with. Some of the people in the photos weren’t all that young. I’d assumed I’d have to pore carefully over the several pages of photos before I would find anyone, if I did find anyone, I’d known. But there, in the very first frame was Lee Anne Miller. And I wondered whether I’d actually registered the picture unconsciously and that that had been why I’d flipped back to look at the photos again. Or perhaps it had been the name I’d registered and that had called me back to the page.

There she was, staring out at me from the glossy pages of a magazine, the little girl I’d so envied. I recognized her. She seemed barely changed. The same delicate features, the same pale brown hair. I can still see that hair pulled into a small dancer’s bun, held in place with barrettes that matched the color of her leotards and little wrap-around dancer’s skirts. Pink leotard, pink barrettes; blue leotard, blue barrettes. She was like a doll, Lee Anne. Perfectly proportioned, tiny delicate features, dressed like a little ballerina. She looked like one of those dolls that dances in a jewelry box when one opens the lid, but prettier than that really. Lee Anne was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Her every movement was like a dancer’s, slow and deliberate and graceful. I used to love to watch her skate. There was something swanlike about her.

I was not part of that crowd, the elite skaters, not the first year anyway. I came to skate in Troy, Ohio, in the huge cavernous old Hobart Arena, simply because it was the only rink that was open in the summer. I loved the place. Most skating rinks look like barns, or warehouses, from the outside, but there was something noble about Hobart Arena. It was built of brick and stone in the grand style of the late 1940s. It had been given to the town by the Hobart Electric Manufacturing Co. in 1950 and had clearly been intended to be a showpiece. It was not only the rink, however, that was beautiful. It was in the middle of a park and just behind it was the municipal swimming pool that had a snack bar the skaters used to frequent between skating sessions. There was something almost magical to me about that grand cathedral of winter sport situated in the middle of a verdant summer paradise.

A bunch of us came up from Dayton that first summer. We were out of our league and that was kind of humiliating, but there was also something incredibly exhilarating about being around all that talent and dedication. I was fascinated by the discipline of it and all the esoteric trappings like the harness that hung from the ceiling and that was fastened around the waist of the female when pair skaters practiced overhead lifts. I loved the almost meditative hush of the sessions devoted to school figures a hush broken only by the soft whir of the scribes, the large aluminum ice compasses, scratching circles on the ice for the skaters to follow, or the occasional muscular, ripping sound of the push of skaters working on backward eights.

We had stroking class for an hour every Thursday evening and that first summer, at least, I spent the entire session in abject fear of being mowed down by the hoards of more powerful skaters. The second year was better though. I switched teachers. I got a better teacher, Dick Rimmer’s wife, Lynn. They ran that place, Dick and Lynn Rimmer. Dick had been the official coach to the 1972 Olympic team (at least I think that is what it said on the brochure I showed to my parents in an effort to convince them that the program would be worth the expense). I was determined not to remain the worst skater there, so I spent almost a year convincing my parents to secure Lynn Rimmer for me as a teacher. I liked her, she was kind. She told me once, when I was working on a split jump, that I was a “smart skater.” That made me happy, though I was never really sure what she had meant.

I did better that second summer. Not only was I not mowed down, I actually kept up, sort of. I got better skates, passed my preliminary figure test and was accepted, finally, into the periphery of the elite group. But then I had to quit skating. I needed a scribe in order to be able to progress to the first figure test. But a scribe cost fifty dollars. That was a lot of money back then and my parents couldn’t afford it.

Few middle class families can afford the cost of training a serious competitive skater. Figure skating, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago, is one of the most expensive sports there is. Skating parents must either have so much money that almost any sum can be spent on their children’s hobbies, or they must be willing to sacrifice everything, even their children’s education, for art or in the hope that they will “win the lottery.”

My parents had neither so much money that they could afford the cost of training a competitive skater, nor the values that would have led them to sacrifice everything else to get the money. I didn’t really understand that. All I knew, or thought I knew, at the time was that what I loved most was not important to them.

I didn’t even follow skating after that. “Never look back!” It was not just my motto, but my entire personality. I began to dream though, when I was in graduate school and when I first began teaching, about taking up skating again. I had a bad time in graduate school and that dream, distant as it seemed, was one of the things that sustained me through that difficult period.

I bought the magazine with the picture of Lee Anne Miller and decided that I should begin taking skating lessons

I had intended to take freestyle lessons but my first teacher steered me gradually toward dance, divining, I suspect, that I would be a much better dancer than I would ever be a freestyle skater. Dance is probably better for most adult skaters anyway because there is less chance of serious injury and a much greater chance of gaining something approaching genuine mastery of the sport. There are quite a few adult skaters who are expert dancers. They have become my role models.

I’m never happier these days than when I am skating. Skating is the only thing I do now for no other reason than the joy of it. It will not make me wiser. It will not help my career. Indeed, for an adult to take up figure skating is viewed by many people, including my husband (who, to his credit, has taken it up himself in order to be able to spend more time with me), as somewhat bizarre. Skating is popularly believed to be an activity for children not for older people, people with brittle bones.

When I’m done skating my session, the “adult session,” and the ice has been freshly resurfaced, I will sometimes stay to watch the beginning of the next session when the competitive skaters, one by one, take to the ice like so many seagulls gathering gradually about an invisible school of fish. They glide easily onto the frozen surface. Flying past me, they swoop, they dip, they dive, each listening to his own inner compulsion. There’s no effort at coordination, and yet they’re a kind of visual symphony, as beautiful as a flock of birds, if not more beautiful, because after all, what birds do is natural to them, whereas what skaters do is natural only to the spirit, not to the body, so to see bodies do it with such effortless grace–well, there’s something miraculous in it.

I am filled sometimes, as I watch them, with a terrible aching melancholy at the realization that I will never be one of them. There’s a tiny window of time in everyone’s life through which he can reach to grasp that sort of dream and mine was closed and locked long ago. Sometimes I can’t bear the ache that accompanies the realization that what I once wanted more than anything, I will never have, that I will have lived and died without ever having realized that dream.

Most of the time though, I am not unhappy. Most of the time I count myself very lucky. Many competitive skaters give up skating entirely after they stop competing, or after they stop performing (if they are so fortunate as to have had a professional career). Some say they simply don’t enjoy skating when they can no longer perform at what was once their peak, others have had all desire to skate extinguished by too many years of too rigorous a training schedule. They accept the diminished vitality that comes with aging as a matter of course. They age, they grow old, they die.

But I am growing younger. I’m a better skater now than I was when I was a child and I have every reason to believe that my skills will continue to improve for many years to come. Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov, the 1964 and ’68 Olympic pair skating champions, still perform and they are in their eighties. Richard Dwyer still performs and so is he.

I don’t know that I’ll ever don a little skating skirt again and my dreams, whatever they are, no longer include becoming a competitive skater. When I skate now, though, I feel like a time traveler. Something of the beauty of the slow and paradoxical summers I spent on the ice as a child comes back to me. I sense again the sweet strangeness of crossing the green expanse of park to get ice cream and then returning to the frosty unreality of the rink. When I skate now all the struggles, stresses and disappointments of the years fade away and I am once again the little girl gazing up at the stars falling from the sky.

The Circular Swing

Marie Schaefer (no caption)We think time moves along gradually, its changes so subtle they’re barely noticeable, until at some point one realizes the world one inhabits is no longer the world of one’s childhood, but only distantly related to that earlier world. Sometimes, for some people, this realization is itself gradual and subtle, but at other times, for other people, it comes with a start. Some people come to consciousness on the cusp of a new age and grow and take shape even as it does. Other people, are born at what it is clear only later was the waning of an earlier age. They thus straddle two worlds, these people, the world into which they were born and the one into which they grow up. They mature almost as artifacts of an earlier period. They learn the fashions and the vernacular of those who are only a few years younger than themselves, or perhaps even the same age but from a more progressive place. They’re always strangers in their own time, though, walking almost like ghosts through lives they feel on some level do not belong to them.

It’s probably partly temperament. Some people are simply uncomfortable with change. They’re the Parmenideans. Parmenides was the Presocratic philosopher who said that everything that changed was unreal, that only the eternal and unchanging was real. Then on the other side was Heraclitus, also a Presocratic. He’s the guy who said that you can’t step into the same river twice, that everything is constantly in a state of flux. All of humanity divides up that way, I think, into the Parmenideans and the Heracliteans. The latter can embrace a new age when the former can’t. The former live in a perpetual state of nostalgia.

I’m like that. I’m a Parmenidean. That’s why, I think, I’m so fascinated by the German television series Heimat. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. I watch it over and over again. I’m like Maria, the matriarch of the family that is the focus of the series. She was born around the turn of the last century. She was still young at the end of World War I, but she belonged to the world before the war. She kept everything together. She accepted change, as we all must, be she didn’t embrace it. Poul, her husband who left her and her two young children to go to America, was different. He was born around the same time, but was of a different temperament. He was one of the Heracliteans.

A person’s relationship to change is, again, not entirely a matter of temperament, it’s also timing. It’s possible to be born just as an age is coming to a close and in that way, to be old even when one is young. I’m like that, partly by temperament and partly by timing.  The temperament part I’ve always known about. It’s the timing part that has come to preoccupy me recently. I’ve become obsessed with the school I attended as a child, my fist school, Marie Schaefer Elementary School in O’Fallon, IL. There were several buildings that made up the school, the large central building, by far the oldest part of the school and then several smaller, newer satellite buildings of only one story. My kindergarten was in one of those buildings, and I believe my first grade class may have been as well. I don’t remember when I moved to the main building, but it’s that building which preoccupies me now. It was so great, so looming, so old. Everything in it was wood: the frames around the blackboards, the window frames, the desks. Everything was solid and utilitarian. The colors were somber greens or beiges, dark, worn. Each classroom had a cloakroom with thick wood moldings and countless hooks for our winter coats and hats and when it rained or snowed, that tiny, narrow room packed as it was with children’s wet overthings, would become as humid as a sauna.

The building itself was very warm. It was heated with old steam radiators. There were no protective covers on them. I remember this, because I burned myself on one once. That was one of the first injuries I remember. It was a strange experience. I’d never touched anything so hot. I didn’t do it deliberately, I only brushed against it, but felt immediately a sharp searing pain of an intensity hitherto unknown to me. I looked down at my arm and watched, with the sort of scientific curiosity children always have when they discover something new, the small patch of skin that had contacted the radiator contract and turn a dark reddish gray.

That great school building fascinated me even as a child because it seemed so old. It seemed to me from an earlier age, and yet it was my school building. The building down which halls I fled one day during a fire drill because I was too afraid to go down the fire-escape chute that was said to take the skin off the arms of children who did not remember to keep their arms held tightly to their sides. I hadn’t had to go down the chute. We’d been offered the choice of lining up and marching outside with the other children who didn’t want to brave the chute, but I’d been curious about it. At the last minute though, I chickened out and fled with a few similarly cowardly comrades down the halls that we feared were by that time engulfed in flames. They weren’t, of course, it was only a fire drill, not a fire. I didn’t understand that though, or at least I wasn’t entirely confident of it. I remember, in any case, being very frightened as our little group raced frantically through the hall to the great staircase in the center of the building that ran down toward the door.

Those are among my earliest memories, being burned on the radiator, and fleeing from what I feared was the burning building. I still remember the slant of the light through the many large windows as we ran down the hall. I can still hear the echo of our footsteps and the frightened cries of the other children.

I have a third memory of that school that is equally strong. It’s of the strange, bell-like swing on the playground. It was sort of like the hoop portion of an ante-bellum hoop skirt. There was a large central pole embedded in the asphalt and then a number of smaller, more slender poles that extended outward and downward from it. Three quarters of the way down was a great metal ring affixed to these slender poles. This was the first hoop. It served as a handrail. Below that was a second great circular wooden hoop that formed a bench on which we children sat. Beneath this bench was a third hoop of smaller circumference. Some children, I think they must have been older children, ones who understood how the swing worked and were not afraid of it, some children put their feet on this smaller hoop. Most of us though sat with our feet toward the outside of the contraption where there was no danger of their being crushed when the metal ring on the inside crashed against the central pole.

That’s how it worked, that swing. It swung back and forth from its axis on the central pole as a bell does when it is rung, so that the children sitting on the wooden benches around the circumference dipped first low and close to the pole and then soared high and away with such force that one had to cling to the little metal hand rail with all one’s might to keep from being tossed off.

It has to have been dangerous that swing. Even then it was clear that it would be easy for a child to be injured on it. One had to be in the second grade to be allowed on it. There were even monitors there at recess to make sure none of the very small children got on. I was so thrilled the day I entered the second grade, the day I was allowed on it. I don’t remember talking about it before hand. I must have though because it was an event, you see, to be allowed on that swing.

I’ve never seen another swing like it. I’ve always been nostalgic, but have become more so recently. Nostalgia comes naturally, I believe, to people when they hit middle age. So I began to think a lot about that school, about the old building that so fascinated me and about that swing. I tried to see if I could find any pictures of it online, but when I typed in the name of the school, what came up was unrecognizable to me. I emailed the principle, to see if the building had been torn down and if so whether there were any pictures of it and, in particular, pictures of the swing. She wrote back that the building had been torn down, many years ago, but that she had some photos she could send me. She had no photos of the swing though. She had never heard of the swing.

Never heard of the swing. That gave me a chill, a chill like the kind they say you get when someone walks on your grave. How could it be, I thought, that she had never heard of the swing. That swing was famous. It was impossible to think of the school without thinking of the swing. The swing had been right next to the old building, like a great bell ringing the children in to their classes. It did ring too, when the foot railing crashed against the central pole it made a ringing sound almost like that of a blacksmith pounding hot metal on an anvil.

Clang, clang, the swing would ring out loudly throughout recess. That’s how you could tell it was recess, because you could hear the anvil-like ringing of the swing.

Never heard of the swing? That was too strange to me. How was that possible? It was such a huge and heavy thing, so solidly implanted in the asphalt that it was hard to imagine anyone trying to remove it. Even if you could dismantle the swing itself, that central pole would have been almost impossible to extract from the ground. I’d envisioned it remaining there pretty much forever, that pole, just sticking straight up out of the ground, refusing to leave. And yet it must have been gone, because if it had still been there, someone would have remembered something about why it was there. There would have been a legend, like an urban legend–i.e., a schoolyard legend–about the dangerous swing that had had to be dismantled.

But she had never even heard of the swing. So it was gone, all gone. The imposing old school building and the amazing swing the riding of which was a rite of passage for the little children I grew up with.

I tried to find a photo of such a swing online. First I typed in “bell-like” swing, but all kinds of strange things came up that had nothing to do with playground equipment. Then I tried typing in “circular swing.” And there it was. There were two photos of the swing, not the very swing, but of ones like it. The first was from around the turn of the last century and the second looked to be from sometime in the 1930s or perhaps ‘40s. The swing in the first photo didn’t have a handrail. The one in the latter photo though was identical to the swing I remembered except that it seemed smaller. But perhaps I remember it as larger than it was since I was so small then myself.

That’s all, those two photos. I couldn’t find any information on the swing. I did hear, finally, though from a librarian at the O’Fallon historical society. She sent me some pictures of the buildings from my school that had been torn down. One was from 1901 and the other was from 1912. I can’t tell which was the building in which I had my classes because they looked very similar. They were next to each other, so perhaps I even thought they were one building.

I’ll bet the swing was as old as those buildings. Strange that something that was so important in my life has virtually vanished, is so obscure that even other people my age have never heard of anything like it. Ours must have been one of the last ones judging from the ages of the two photos I found. Perhaps it was the very last. Strange to grow up with something that had already all but disappeared into the annals of history. Strange to grow up thinking that such an antique was an ordinary amusement for a child of the period, when if it had ever been an ordinary amusement for children, it was for children of a much, much earlier period.

Bob Slate

Portrait caricature The financial crisis is changing the landscape in ways that I have yet to hear anyone talk about. Yes, Borders is gone, and God knows how many other mega chains have been hard hit. There are plenty of those left though. The real toll is on the small, independent merchants.

I took art classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education the year my husband was a visiting professor at Boston University’s law school and I was on sabbatical. I loved hanging out in Cambridge, not only because it’s an attractive little town with, as one would expect, several excellent bookstores, but also because of Bob Slate Stationers.

I’ve always loved office supply stores. I shop for office supplies like some women shop for clothes. I love to look at all the different fashions in legal pads and the more esoteric sorts of notepapers. I love files and pocket folders and binders, stamp pads and inks, the little rubber things you put on the end of your fingers to make it easier to turn pages. I love pencils, especially the red marking type that I use for highlighting text, so I can erase the highlighting later if I change my mind. I have a wonderful Faber-Castell pencil with a built in sharpener (not the expensive silver one, but a cheaper, more utilitarian green plastic one of the same design).

Fountain pens are my special passion though. I have a Montblanc, several Namikis and Pelikans, both new and vintage, a couple of Sailors and a no-name vintage pen that I got for $12 from an antique dealer and which had a real, honest to goodness 14K Bock nib. I have a rocker blotter and blotting paper. One would think that I already had every conceivable bit of paraphernalia related to writing, or to office work more generally. Yet I still love spending hours in office supply stores just to make sure that some new item hasn’t surfaced that I would want to add to my collection.

Bob Slate was a real, old-fashioned stationer. It had been a family owned and run business for more than 75 years. Not only did they have all kinds of beautiful laid paper and card stock, they had every type of pad paper in every color and ruling (as in “wide-ruled” and “narrow ruled”), including my favorite, that I could find nowhere else, a white, narrow-ruled legal pad sans the red vertical line that most legal pads have toward the edge of the left side. Bob Slate didn’t merely have Hemingway notebooks, they had every type of notebook and journal and a complete line of Rhodia paper products. They even had refill staples for my miniscule stapler that is about half the size of a Tot stapler and thus very handy to carry with me to class for those occasions when I give in-class essays. Best of all though, they had fountain pens and a staff who understood them. It was the only shop I had ever been in that stocked Pelikan nibs.

I remember thinking, after I discovered Bob Slate, how nice it must be to teach at Harvard, to be able to walk out of one’s office and over to Bob Slate in a matter of minutes! I’d never harbored any ambitions to teach at Harvard. Not that I’d turn down an appointment there, of course. It’s just that I’m a philosopher and jobs for us are so scarce that we tend to be happy to have any kind of teaching position at all. After I discovered Bob Slate though, I began to fantasize about getting a job at Harvard. I’d even take something in theology. That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. I’m a Kierkegaard scholar, after all. The thought of working in such close proximity to Bob Slate was intoxicating!

I made my usual trek to Bob Slate a couple of years ago when I happened to be in Cambridge. I didn’t go to the main store, but to the one on Church Street, one of the two smaller satellite stores, just for a change. After satisfying myself that there was nothing new I needed, I bought some tiny staples and several of my favorite legal pads. I was surprised, however, when the woman at the register stamped “No Returns” on my receipt.

“Why no returns?” I asked.

“We’re closing,” she explained.

“Closing?” I said still dangling my little paper bag of purchases in midair. “Is it only this store that’s closing?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” she said, “they’re all closing.”

So that’s it. Bob Slate is gone. And now, suddenly, the idea of teaching at Harvard seems less attractive. I still wouldn’t turn down a position there. I’m not a blithering idiot or anything. But the idea of teaching there no longer has the romantic associations it had for me when I could imagine myself doing my weekly shopping for office supplies at Bob Slate, treating myself occasionally to Rhodia’s luxuriant version of the Hemingway notebook, chatting with the person behind the pen counter about the relative merits of rigid versus flexible nibs.

I’m afraid I may be coming across as flippant. I’m not. I’m devastated. Bob Slate is gone and I fear it may have been the last shop of its kind in existence, or at least the last on this side of the Atlantic. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of such shops. They’ve been gradually disappearing for many years, those little stationer’s shops I remember from when I was a child. It was hugely important to me that they weren’t all gone yet, that there was a least one that looked as if it stood a good chance of surviving into the indeterminate future, surviving perhaps as long as I would. It was hugely important to me that there would be at least something left of the world of my childhood, something that could still have meaning for me as an adult.


This post appeared originally on the blog on my old website on April 16, 2011. I learned today, however, that Bob Slate was purchased by Laura Donohue, a longtime customer of store in the summer of 2011. The store has a new location. It’s now at 30 Brattle Street. Judging from the write-ups it received on its reopening, it appears to be doing well. Still, I figured a little PR wouldn’t hurt, so I decided to repost this piece.

Two Archetypes

Portrait caricatureI’m a transvestite–I think. I like to wear pants. When I was in grad school I even used to wear ties. No one else did, not even the professors, let alone the male grad students. Just me. I liked them. They seemed like me. I like spare, streamlined clothing. I like utilitarian things: pants and shirts and serviceable shoes. I’m not entirely lacking style. I’ve been told, actually, that I have good taste. It’s rather masculine taste though. I don’t like ruffles, don’t like frills, don’t like high heels, don’t paint my nails. I don’t “do” my hair. I can’t be bothered. I just wash it, you know, and let it dry naturally.

My, shall we say “masculine” aesthetic is not something I’d given much thought to until the last couple of years. Several times, in my adult life, I’ve caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a store window and been shocked by the image that confronted me. Why that’s me, I’ve thought to myself, that small woman is me. This will sound strange, but I was surprised to see that I was a small woman. I realized then that I actually had some kind of mental image of myself as a medium-sized man. I’m not seriously mentally ill or anything. I know I’m a woman. I’m not shocked when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning. I do sometimes wear dresses and I always wear makeup, though not very much because, like my hair, I can’t be bothered to spend too much time on it. Still, I rise in the morning and perform the ablutions appropriate to a person of my sex. But then I forget. I get caught up in the things that must be done in the day, and in thought. I forget what I look like. It’s then, I think, that I must unconsciously slip into the masculine image that I have of myself. It fits my job, I guess. There aren’t too many women in philosophy and there are few female academics in any discipline who have what my dean once described as my “pit bull” quality.

It’s how I was brought up, I think. My father is actually a terrible sexist. The thing is, he didn’t have any sons. If he’d had even one son, he’d have raised his daughters differently. He didn’t have any sons though, so he raised us, at least to some extent, the way he’d have raised sons if he’d had them and me more even than my two sisters because I am more similar in temperament to my father than they are. Yes, I was sort of the de facto son. My husband is always remarking that I am “the man” and he is “the woman” in our relationship, not in the sense of the Nicolsons, but in the sense of character traits that are usually thought of as gender specific, things such as my not liking to ask for directions or being generally uncommunicative as opposed to his insisting on asking for directions and talking often about his feelings. He has more friends than I do too. It’s not that I don’t have friends. I’m fortunate to have many good friends. I don’t feel any compulsion to see them all the time though unlike my husband who begins to muse audibly about whether he might have offended a particular friend if a week goes by without his hearing from him or her. That’s another thing, he has more female friends, good friends, than I do. I have some of course, but according to one, not enough. “You need more women friends,” she said. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but most of my friends are actually men.

As I explained, however, I’m no Vita Sackville-West. I’ve never been sexually attracted to women. I’ve always liked men. Still, I realized recently that from the time I was very young, if I were attracted to a boy, and then later a man, I would fantasize about impressing him with how strong and tough I was. Many of my romantic fantasies involved rescue, which, I suppose, is not that unusual for a woman, except that I was always the one doing the rescuing. Yes, I was always rescuing the man I loved from some deadly peril through my extraordinary courage and cunning. I know that sounds strange, but there it is. I’ve been fortunate too, despite my bizarrely masculine character traits, to have had several deeply satisfying romantic relationship with fairly typically masculine men (in which company I would include my former-football-captain husband, despite his frequent protestations that he is “the woman” in our relationship).

I’m small and delicate looking. I’m sure it never occurred to any of the men I’ve been involved with that I had such a masculine self-conception. Though my husband thinks I frighten people whom I argue with and will issue subtle cues if he senses the dinner conversation going in the direction of a confrontation.

I’m not telling you all these things about myself out of some sort of confessional impulse. I’ve something larger in mind. Ever since I figured out why I was always so shocked to be unexpectedly confronted with the fact that I was a woman, which is to say, ever since realized that I actually had somewhere in the depths of my psyche, an image of myself as a man, I’ve been intrigued by this fact about myself. I’ve tried to figure out how it came about, whether it was nature or nurture, marveled that it clearly had no relation whatever to my sexuality. I identify with what Jung called “the animus” the masculine half of human nature that everyone has. Everyone, according to Jung, has a masculine side and a feminine side (though I doubt he would like the term “side”) that he refers to as “the animus” and “anima” respectively.

I smoked a pipe briefly in college and my male friends thought that was cool. I had a masculine nickname too. “Max,” they called me. One of my friends had decided the name “Marilyn” didn’t fit me and that I therefore needed a nickname. She hit on “Max” because my last name was “Piety” and Max Carter, the college chaplain, was the most pious man anyone knew. So there I was, a pipe-smoking girl named Max who went about in what was generally androgynous attire. And yet I was popular with the young men at my college.

I doubt very much though that a purse-carrying lipstick-wearing young man with a moniker of, say, Debbie, would have enjoyed a similar degree of popularity with the opposite sex. I suppose I’ve been aware of this sort of inequity for a long time without really having very strong feelings about it. I guess it seemed natural to me, somehow, that women were allowed a wider berth in terms of what was considered an appropriate expression of their gender than were men. It’s only recently that I have begun to feel this disparity is tragically unfair.

It started, I think, the evening I told my husband about my strange experience of being surprised when I caught an unexpected glimpse of myself in a window or a mirror and saw that I was small woman rather than a medium-sized man. “I have a friend,” he said slowly, “who is a transvestite.” This friend, he explained, did not actually go out dressed up as a woman. He just went around his apartment sometimes in women’s clothes. They’d been friends for years, my husband continued, before his friend had actually “confessed” his predilection for women’s clothes. He was ashamed of it, fearful that people would condemn him. There were only a few people who knew this fact about him, people he was very close to, people he knew well enough to feel confident they wouldn’t condemn him. I could tell my husband was sad, that he felt bad for his friend, bad that his friend was ashamed of something that was so harmless, so innocent, something that a woman, that his wife, could do with impunity was something that he lived in constant fear might be discovered.

That’s when I started to think how tragic is the disparity in the flexibility, or whatever you want to call it, of gender roles. Women can play at being men all they want, but men are made to feel ashamed if they even fantasize about playing at being women, let alone–God forbid–actually try it.

Where do our archetypes of the masculine and the feminine come from? Who dictates them? There was a time when men wore laces and velvets, gaudy jewelry and even makeup. When did that become shameful and why? I wondered briefly whether we really needed these archetypes. Couldn’t we just speak of “character traits,” I asked myself, without having to assign them a gender? Don’t the categories of “masculine” and “feminine” represent a false dichotomy? Can’t everything just be “human” I mused?

But the longer I tried to entertain such a possibility the harder it became to form any firm conception of it. Maybe we need these two most basic of archetypes. We are a classifying species, after all. Gender it seems is itself an archetype and one that I’m beginning to suspect we can’t do without. I’m okay with that, my concern is that there are many men who are perhaps not okay with it because the archetype of masculinity is so much narrower than that of femininity, so while a woman can wear pants in public, a man cannot do the same with a dress. I think that’s wrong. Not only is it horribly unfair, its destructive.

Susan Faludi explains in her book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, that while there have been steady gains in women’s rights over the years, studies show that most Americans, men and women, still expect men to be the main bread winners. Women’s freedoms are increasing, yet men are apparently still expected by nearly everyone to exceed women’s accomplishments both personally and professionally. Faludi postulates very persuasively that this inequity is one of the main causes of continuing sexism. I mean, how fair is that? Men and women are increasingly placed in competition with one another. Men enter this competition, however, in metaphorical straightjackets and yet are still expected by nearly everyone to win and condemned as “un-masculine,” or as “failures” (which in our culture are roughly synonymous) if they don’t. The mind boggles at the amount of resentment that would naturally be created by that kind of inequity.

Maybe we need gender archetypes, but if we do, then I think we also need to allow everyone an equal degree of experimentation with them and maybe that means the archetypes themselves are due for some adjustments. Maybe its time we brought the laces and velvets back into the masculine archetype. Plato talks in book V of the Republic about how the differences between men and women are really what philosophers refer to as “accidental” rather than “essential.” Some women are more “spirited” than some men. Some men are more “appetitive” than some women. The only thing that is important according to Plato is that individuals are assigned to positions or tasks that are appropriate to their individual personalities. I like that. It seems just.

The Life of the Mind

I wonder sometimes what it means to “live in the present.” This issue came up recently in my epistemology class when we were discussing Robert Audi’s book Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Routledge, 2010). Audi mentions briefly the possibility of knowledge of the future. I know for example, he says, “that I am going to continue thinking about knowledge for a long time.” Does he know that though, I asked my students? I could say the same thing about myself, based on my past and what I know of my character and intellectual predilections. But do I know it? I’ve been told that I live too much in my head, too much in the world of ideas, that I deny too much of my humanity, that I have developed a lopsided life by placing too much emphasis on thought. I’m not sure whether the people who make such charges are correct, I continued, because I enjoy living, so to speak, in my thoughts. I do not see it as a problem in the way some people do. But perhaps, I continued, perhaps one day I’ll change my mind and chuck my life as a professional philosopher, my life of thought, and go off and do art or something and live completely in the present.

But then one of my students asked whether I wasn’t already living in the present, meaning, I take it, to suggest that intellectual pleasures were as much a part of the present as sensual or emotional ones. That question stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never considered that perspective, steeped as I was in the philosophical tradition going back to Plato that sees thought as a kind of flight from concrete reality.

Socrates famously describes philosophy in The Phaedo as preparation for death. The body, he points out, and its needs are a constant distraction, an irritation to the philosopher who would prefer to be rid of them. The senses deceive, and attending to physical needs takes time away from contemplation of the eternal, unchanging truth. Kierkegaard talks about thought as a kind of withdrawal from concrete reality into the realm of abstraction. Concrete reality, after all, is a plethora of particulars, whereas thought, he asserts, deals always with universals.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this perspective. Yet there is also a sense in which reflection is ineluctably part of the present. This, I take it, is what lies behind the debate concerning whether it is actually possible to live as the Pyrrhonist skeptics advocate one should. That is, the debate concerns whether it is possible to live without beliefs, which is the same thing, really, as asking whether it is possible to live without reflecting on experience. Maybe that is possible for animals. It does not appear possible, however, for human beings. We cannot help but reflect on our experience and how we reflect on our experience is an important constituent of that experience. The skeptics were right about that. Thinking, for example, that an experience is bad, while it may not actually make the experience bad, will more than likely make it worse than if one could refrain from such reflections.

There is another side to that coin though. Human beings are thinking creatures. They like thinking. Audi talks about that as well. Yes, knowledge has practical value. But that isn’t the only reason we pursue it. We pursue it, Audi points out, because it is intrinsically valuable. We like knowing things; we like understanding things.  Knowledge and understanding are necessary for a fully satisfying human life, even for the least intellectual among us. That is part of the purpose of education. This point is, I believe, what is missing in Louis Menand’s recent piece about higher education in The New Yorker, “Live and Learn” (June 6, 2011). Menand lists there two different theories of the purpose of higher education. The first is an intellectually elitist one in which the purpose is to sort out the best and the brightest so that they may be funneled into occupations that will further what can be broadly viewed as the progress of society. The second is a democratic one in which the purpose is to solidify social bonds by “producing a society of like-minded grownups.” Neither theory says anything about the potential of a higher education to enhance the quality of a person’s life. Yet this, I would argue, is not only one of the purposes of education recognized by the Enlightenment, but the single most important purpose. Who cares how “advanced” or how “democratic” a society is if the people who make it up are unhappy?

Human beings are thinking creatures. They have an inherent need to reflect on their experiences, to make some kind of sense of them. They can live in the moment, as people say, for only so long without wanting something more lasting, more substantial, something that will connect all the disparate temporal pieces of their lives together into some sort of meaningful whole, something that will give an overarching meaning not merely to an individual life, but to a larger whole of which an individual life is only a part. And, of course, there are better and worse ways of doing this. We don’t want any old overarching account of the meaning of life. We want a coherent one. We want one that makes sense of our experience. We want one that will survive the tests of new experiences; one that will withstand scrutiny and the production of such an account requires a great deal of reflection, rigorous analysis, and even imagination. We may never actually finish the project of producing such an account, but the activity of its production, no matter how large or how small a portion of our waking life it consumes (and it will consume greater or lesser amounts of people’s lives depending on how reflective they are by nature), is crucial to a satisfying human life.

When I was a child and would sometimes complain to my mother that I was bored, she would respond derisively that I must not have much imagination. I don’t remember whether she elaborated on that, but whether she stated it explicitly, or whether I simply inferred it, I was given to understand that imagination was a very desirable thing and that people whose complaints of boredom betrayed that they had less than the ideal quantity of it were to be pitied as pathetic creatures hardly elevated above brutes. Nowadays parents will spare no expense in their efforts to provide their children with stimulating toys. My parents, in contrast, maintained that a child with a respectable degree of imagination could amuse itself with almost anything and, in fact, my sisters and I were very adept at inventing imaginary worlds. I created whole villages of tall grasses with populations of tiny broken sticks in the vacant lot at the end of our street. Knives and spoons and forks were men and women and youths and plates small skating rinks where my ménages à trois played out their sometimes ill-fated scenarios. I could make everything around me grander and more interesting in my imagination than it was in real life, even while I maintained a keen interest in empirical reality.

The problem with empirical, or perhaps it would be more correct to say concrete reality, as I learned very early, is not actually so much that it is tedious as that it is independent of the will. Not only does it very often not behave as we would wish; it also sometimes seems positively malevolent. Things often do not turn out as we hope, so we are forced continually to dig new channels into which to redirect our desires. This work, over time, can be exhausting. How much easier it is, in a way, simply to withdraw one’s hopes from concrete reality and into the realm of thought.

Thought never disappoints. The more faithful you are to it, the more faithful it is to you. The more time you devote to it, the more it rewards you. It is unfailing that way. Thought is not like the capricious lover, happy one day, impossible to please the next. Thought is patient and always responsive to the one who attends to it. It always waits for you and always receives you warmly on your return. And it is full of friends: Plato and Aristotle, Epictetus and Kant, all wait there like Aspasia, ready to engage, to challenge, to stimulate. Nothing brings me more joy than these timeless companions, these companions who stretch back through the centuries, through the millennia, connecting me with the larger whole of humanity. We understand one another, we look at life in the same way–as food for thought.

Some people say I am irresponsible when I encourage my students to consider doing graduate work in philosophy. There are no jobs now for philosophers. There are no jobs now for anyone though. The unemployed philosopher at least has the consolation of philosophy, of thought; what consolation is there for the unemployed accountant or public relations executive? Jobs come and jobs go, and so do relationships. Another of my students lamented recently that his relationship might keep him out of graduate school because of the reluctance of his partner to relocate. I stared at him uncomprehendingly as he attempted to explain this. I left everything and everyone behind, several times, in my pursuit of my profession–and I would do it again.

People say relationships are the most important thing in life. It’s not that I disagree with this, it’s just that I think relationships cannot be pursued directly. They are things, I believe, that happen during the course of the pursuit of one’s vocation. Just as growth happens without one aiming for it to, relationships happen. Sometimes they are wonderful and sometimes they are torturous; always they make life richer and more meaningful. They can and should be cultivated, once they’ve sprouted, but there is only so much one can do for them and the single most important thing one can do for them, as even the most learned in the psychotherapeutic professions will tell you, is to be happy yourself. You cannot have a positive relationship if you are not a happy person. A relationship cannot make you happy if you are not already happy. Though it can greatly enhance or increase the happiness you bring to it, you’ve got to have a foundation of happiness with which to start. It is a “necessary” condition, even if it is not in itself “sufficient” for ensuring a positive relationship.

It seems only natural to assume that if you cannot get your happiness from a relationship, then you must get it from your work. That, after all, is how you will spend most of your time, even if you are so fortunate as to have a mutually supportive, stimulating and fulfilling relationship, you are still going to be at work more than you are at leisure, so if your work is not itself stimulating and fulfilling you will be forced to try to wring most of your happiness from your relationship. This will likely put more of a burden on it than even the best relationship would be able to bear in the long run.

So pursue the life of the mind, I tell my students, because it is inherently rewarding. If you cultivate thought conscientiously, you will never tire of returning to that garden. The pleasures of thought are an important part, I believe, of the pleasures of the present and the life of the mind is an important part of any fully human life. It has sustained me through many hard times and many failed relationships and it will continue to sustain me, I have no doubt, through more hard times. Nothing but brain damage can take it from me and if that happens it seems likely that it would be a loss I would be unable to mourn.

In the meantime: Nolite purturbare circulos meos.*

* “Do not disturb my circles!” These are the purported last words of the Greek mathematician Archimedes who, it is said, sat calmly engrossed in mathematical reflections when he was killed by a Roman soldier as Rome was taking Corinth.