Our love affair with life

cu of horse

The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

—Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

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Give me a break with the perfect pianists already!

piano handsNot too many months ago I watched as Mark Twain played the lovely middle movement from Beethoven’s Sonate Pathetique while his wife died in the upstairs bedroom. It was a heart breaking scene.

Sadly, what I can’t get out of my mind is how perfectly the actor portraying Twain played the piece. It’s not a difficult work, but I manage to make mistakes no matter the degree of difficulty. Twain didn’t make a single mistake despite the fact that he wasn’t a professional musician, and despite his deep despair in the face of his wife’s death.

Mark Twain is not alone. In nearly every movie or television drama I’ve ever seen, amateur pianists play perfectly, especially when the piano player is one of those sweet-faced Victorian women who did nothing but practice all day—or at least until tea time. The only exception was Jane Austin’s Elizabeth. She had no talent for the instrument. What a relief it was to hear her struggle from note to note, chord to chord.

Typically, I would try to draw wisdom from this factoid, but there isn’t any. Not really. I just wish the media would give me a break and give me less formidable models.

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Asking for the ridiculous


“What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that — make mystics out of cheeses.”

Flannery O’Connor prayed that in “A Prayer Journal,” a private book never intended for publication. She was in her early twenties. I might less certainly believe that a mystic is preferable to a really good cheese, but her faith in God’s power in her life was wonderful.

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Living in a Parallel Universe


California quail live in a parallel universe to mine in California. We’re aware of each other, but mostly we’re content to ignore each other. I’m sure the quail find us a bit of a nuisance. They have to dodge our automobiles and be alert when we walk through their gardens. They feast on some of the seeds we inadvertently scatter. They take sand baths in our, or are they their?, sunlit corners.

We, on the other hand, when we notice them, are entirely charmed. They’re handsome birds with their military bearing and their teardrop topknots. The head of the family and sometimes an uncle or aunt sit atop our trellises and at the edges of our roofs and keep guard over the rest of the family as it goes about foraging food. “Be careful, be careful,” they yell in their high strung voices when anyone intrudes on their space.

Lately, there don’t seem to be as many offspring as there once were, and breeding season was past when I stopped the car to wait for an adult bird to cross the street with a tiny fluffy bit of brown feathers at his heels. I was surprised there were still infants around who were that small.

But life is stranger even than that. This morning I spied an adult bird on the trellis. Nothing strange about that and no reason to think he might or might not be the same bird as the one I’d encountered with the chick those several weeks ago. What was surprising was the small brown bird sitting next to him. Quail don’t fraternize with other kinds of birds, and baby quail don’t fly to the tops of anything. When I finally found my binoculars, I could see that the small creature was a quail who had been dwarfed and modified in some kind of genetic accident. The adult was apparently his caretaker.

Parallel universes. What dramas go on in their avian lives that I have no inkling of? Why are there two orange butterflies fluttering about in my yard very afternoon? And those purple finches? They seem to know each other, but do they?

For that matter, what are my Spanish-speaking neighbors saying to each other?

I’m not looking for scientific answers to any of these questions. I’m simply amazed that life is such an interlaced affair, that we’re all here, or there, and connected, and so unaware of it most of the time.

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According to the Chinese fortune cookie….


I recently opened a Chinese fortune cookie and read: “You will succeed some day.”

Everyone at the table chuckled. What were they thinking?

“After all, she’s almost 75 years old. If she hasn’t made it by now….”
“Well, that’s a nebulous promise, isn’t it? When? And at what?”

I kind of liked the message myself. After all, how many Chinese fortune cookies today contain more than vague platitudes?

Besides, there are more and more people of an advanced age succeeding at an advanced age. What about the 105 year old woman who recently threw out the first pitch at a Marlins baseball game? What about Harry Bernstein, the fellow I mentioned in a recent post who wrote and published four books after the age of 96? Or composer Elliott Carter who was still composing and conducting until his death at the age of 103?

Before I go on, I guess I should try to define success. For a writer, it seems obvious that it has to mean at least some positive criticism, some significant impact. In other words, it is made up at least partly by being known. By fame.

At least in its aspect as fame, success today has become more and more desirable. Ironically, it has also become more and more common. I mean, Wikipedia alone must contain hundreds of thousands of entries. People kill for fame and die for it. More often, they reveal all for it. To be famous today is to be one of a mob.

And then, when you consider the universe Neil de Grasse Tyson has been talking about – the Cosmos seen only vaguely by science, and almost not at all by the rest of us – well, does it matter at all?

Still, the Chinese fortune cookie promised me success. And that’s kind of cool.

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International relations. Or – a troglodyte lost in the internet

Internet map 1024. This image was selected as picture of the day on the English Wikipedia for March 31, 2007.

Internet map 1024. This image was selected as picture of the day on the English Wikipedia for March 31, 2007.

There are times—so many times—when I feel at a loss, not firmly fastened, just bewildered. I’m sure I’m not alone. As for example, the other day I discovered I had been hacked, and badly. I thought it was just me or that the internet had finally run amok: everything was popping up, in and out, and making dire threats about my ability to ever do anything on the web again unless I bought the latest in updates.

When I was no longer able to access the internet on my desktop, I telephoned the authoritative party, in my case—Comcast. First, I discovered, I had to pay my late bill. I always seem to have one of those hanging around. Then, I found a genuine person, someone in Delaware, who showed me the horrors affecting my laptop. (Unlike my desktop, it was hanging onto internet access by the skin of its teeth). It wasn’t just that I’d been hacked; my home and everything digital in it was in jeopardy. I could read it on the graph she put on the screen. I had only two choices. I could find a local Microsoft licensed technician and spend $500 to $600. Or I could apply to a long distance technician she’d put me in touch with, and spend $300. A no brainer.

“Am I being scammed?” I asked. “Oh, no, no,” said the woman in Delaware. “You saw for yourself how truly critical your situation is.”

I could pay by check later. Angie in Delaware wrote down the check number: a credit card might fall prey to one of the many viruses infecting me and my house.

In no time at all I was on the phone with India. Andrew, whose accent became an incomprehensible mutter on my AT&T cell phone, would take care of everything. I sat there helplessly, as he took over my computer and applied serious digital analysis to it, one app at a time. I recognized some of them — I’d tried them — others were mysterious. I waited, limply, as the minutes went by and my money drained into a vast choppy digital sea, when suddenly, without warning, Andrew lost touch with my computer. For nearly an hour he and his supervisor tried to find a way to reconnect. Andrew was in a panic. The modem had died. There was no hope.

I won’t try to explain everything that happened next. Suffice it to say, it went on for several days. The modem was secured; it wasn’t gone after all. I yelled at the guys in India who warned me that without them, my situation was calamitous. I decided to pay $500, or whatever it cost, to the computer guy down the street. And he did whatever magic those guys do – probably pretty much the same stuff the friends of Comcast in India had been doing to cleanse my diseased machine.

$180 later, I exclaimed to the guy in the computer shop, ‘I thought my computer was much further gone than that.”
“They try to scare you,” he said.

I hope Andrew didn’t get fired. He was probably a pretty decent fellow.

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Death stops time

In the June issue of Harper’s magazine, Geoff Dyer writes about the pictures photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews has taken of places where people died in World War I. Some are battlefields marked by graves or monuments. But they’re also of places where soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion. There are no bodies. In fact, writes Dyer, “… it seems as if the thing that gives each spot its meaning-a dead body-has been painstakingly removed.”

That made me think about the places where murder takes place (in murder mysteries, of course), something I hadn’t given much thought to before, although I remember that Ms. Mulholland in “The Body in the Butter Churn” wonders whether the museum director will simply put the churn back in the kitchen when the police return it.

There’s something about the place where someone dies, especially in a violent way, that changes it forever – or for at least as long as anyone knows about it. A spiritual revelation, a declaration of love, a marriage proposal – I’m trying to think of other places that are changed because of important events – none of them have the visceral connection with the event that a violent death has.

It’s as if the death has contaminated the place. As if it’s been physically changed. Or, perhaps, it’s as if what happened isn’t past, but present in some terrible and forever way.

Death stops time.

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In the sunset of dissolution …

Marie Antoinette's execution in 1793 at the Place de la Revolution

Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793 at the Place de la Revolution

In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

I don’t know why but a year or two ago, I copied this sentence in a notebook. It comes from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera.

I remember the book but not too well. I may have written the sentence down because of its beauty. I love words like dissolution, illumination and aura. And I very much like nostalgia, the word and what it means. Which is, to be as precise as the dictionary, “a bittersweet longing for the past.”

This was nostalgia in an unfamiliar context: Czechoslovakia, 1968. But clearly, the sentence is meant to have a broader reference than that. My life. Anybody’s. So I began to examine it to see understand what it means in my life and in any murders I may construct.

“The sunset of dissolution,” the end of a culture or country, isn’t something I’ve experienced. I’ve never lived through a revolution or a genocide, not even the devastation of an earthquake or tornado. Of course, all of us will experience the ultimate dissolution when we die. Out world will fall apart and fragment. The light will diminish and then go out. The sun will set.

But it will be illuminated, says Kundera (or his translator), by the aura of nostalgia. “Sunset” identified the time of day. Nostalgia does more that.  It makes things clearer and more comprehensible. Even something like the guillotine. Even dying itself.

When someone dies in a murder mystery, we usually see the dying from the outside. It’s not so much a dissolution as a simple erasure. But seen from the victim’s point of view, it’s illuminated by bittersweet memories of the past.

It’s kind of like “your whole life flashing before your eyes,” but something more.

And how interesting is that?




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Is deceit worse than murder?

death mask

Last Saturday I was watching the HD version of the Met’s Cosi Fan Tutti (“So do they all”), a lovely opera for those who like Mozart’s music. The opera is a farce, full of the confusion of disguise and lost and found identity that forms the plot of so many musical stories of the period. If there isn’t a book about the subject, there should be.

At any rate, the two sisters at the heart of the story, are being tempted to stray by their absent lovers in disguise. It’s all charming, light-hearted fun, until one of them, Fiordiligi, realizing that she is weakening to the romantic entreaties of the stranger who is actually her sister’s lover in disguise, sings a wonderfully poignant aria, “Per pieta” (“Have pity”). I’d never heard Susanna Phillips sing before, but she was extraordinary. The plot was no longer a game but a deceit that was undermining her identity. She’d lost her moorings. The pain was overwhelming.

It’s odd how things that seem to have nothing to do with each other suddenly come together. Like Mozart and John Le Carre.  I’d never read Le Carre, not for any particular reason. I’d just never gotten around to it. (He is, by the way, a fine and complex writer.) I first read “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and then “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” Both books are thick with deceit. British spies, it seems, were continually role-playing. Perhaps that’s true of all kinds of spies. By definition.

 In “Tinker, Tailor….” the characters had spent years working with a man they loved and trusted, and who turned out to be Russia’s mole in their operation. His influence had been so profound, they couldn’t stop loving him, even trusting him after that. In “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” the main character finds out at the end that everything he’s been doing has been scripted so that the outcome will be the opposite of what he’d intended. Almost no one is who they seemed to be.  Since the consequences, intended and otherwise, have to do with life and death, that’s no small thing.

Worst of all from my point of view, he’s never been who he thought he was.

Deceit, it seems to me, may be worse than murder.

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OUTloud. An archive of LGBTQ histories

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A few years ago, when I first began writing this blog, I wrote about Steven Dansky, a friend, an LGBTQ activist, writer, photographer and now––more than ever––an historian. Steve and his friend, John Knoebel, are working on an oral history project, OUTLoud:Oral History from LGBTQ Pioneers collecting oral histories and photographs of the people who fought the battle for gay rights when it was the most painful, frightening and still––on occasion––the most joyful struggle imaginable. These are people who are in their late sixties, seventies and eighties now. They were young then, many of them just kids, and they lived in a frightening world where they were not only beaten by tough guys and persecuted by the legal system, but despised and ridiculed by the same people who claimed to be defending justice and building a world animated by love.

That’s what many people forget. Our friends didn’t like us—or at least they didn’t if they knew who we were.

I remember reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography years ago. I’m talking about the Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker, whose faith was so profound, she took a vow of poverty and devoted her life to the poor. The woman many people have called a saint. She and a friend were walking to Day’s flat in New York City.  I can’t remember anything about the friend now, except that, when they reached Day’s stoop, she kissed Dorothy Day. On the lips. I can imagine doing that. Day was disgusted. Deeply, heartily, morally disgusted. She left abruptly; she never spoke to her friend again.

Still, in the face of all that—despite feminists who were afraid lesbians would despoil their cause and social activists who thought an “out” gay person could undermine their’s, despite the righteous millions who pitied them for their moral sickness and the people who found them repugnant and still do in countries like Uganda and Russia—they fought for their rights. These were some of the bravest freedom fighters the world has known.

I like looking at their faces—the very beautiful faces of elderly people of great character. Steve’s photos are extraordinarily fine.

I like listening to their stories. Their stories are amazing.

I’m grateful, as I’m sure many people are, for Steve’s work. This is a history that must be preserved; these are people who must  be remembered. You can find them at

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