Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog
0. A Note at the Beginning:
I’ve been inspired by José Saramago’s extraordinary blogs, which he posted when he was 85 and 86 years old. They were published this year in English as The Notebook. I read them with amazement and delight.
I never wanted to blog before. I’ve never liked the word blog — I suppose it is meant to stand for bio-log or something like that, but it sounds like a sodden tree-trunk in a bog, or maybe an obstruction in the nasal passage (oh, she talks that way because she has such terrible blogs in her nose). I was also put off by the idea that a blog ought to be “interactive,” that the blogger is expected to read people’s comments in order to reply to them and carry on a limitless conversation with strangers. I am much too introverted to want to do that at all. I am happy with strangers only if I can write a story or a poem and hide from them behind it, letting it speak for me.
So, though I have contributed a few blog-like objects to Book View Café, I never enjoyed them. After all, despite the new name, they were just opinion pieces or essays, and writing essays has always been tough work for me and only occasionally rewarding.
But seeing what Saramago did with the form was a revelation.
Oh! I get it! I see! Can I try too?
My trials/attempts/efforts (that’s what “essays” means) so far have very much less political and moral weight than Saramago’s and are more trivially personal. Maybe that will change as I practice the form, maybe not. Maybe I’ll soon find it isn’t for me after all, and stop. That’s to be seen. What I like at the moment is the sense of freedom.
Saramago didn’t interact directly with his readers (except once.) That freedom, also, I’m borrowing from him.
1. In Your Spare Time
I got a questionnaire from Harvard for the sixtieth reunion of the Harvard graduating class of 1951. Of course my college was Radcliffe, which at that time was affiliated with but wasn’t considered to be Harvard, due to a difference in gender; but Harvard often overlooks such details from the lofty eminence where it can consider all sorts of things beneath its notice. Anyhow, the questionnaire is anonymous, therefore presumably gender-free; and it is interesting.
The people who are expected to fill it out are, or would be, almost all in their eighties; and sixty years is time enough for all kinds of things to have happened to a bright-eyed young graduate. So there’s a polite invitation to widows or widowers to answer for the deceased. And Question 1c, “If divorced,” gives an interesting set of little boxes to check: Once, Twice, Three times, Four or more times, Currently remarried, Currently living with a partner, None of the above. This last option is a poser. I’m trying to think how you could be divorced and still none of the above. In any case, it seems unlikely that any of those boxes would have been on a reunion questionnaire in 1951. You’ve come a long way, baby! as the cigarette ad with the bimbo on it used to say.
Question 12: “In general, given your expectations, how have your grandchildren done in life?” The youngest of my grandchildren just turned four. How has he done in life? Well, very well, on the whole. I wonder what kind of expectations you should have for a four-year-old. That he’ll go on being a nice little boy, and learn pretty soon to read and write, is all that comes to my mind. I suppose I’m supposed to expect him to go to Harvard, or at least to Columbia like his father and grandfather. But being nice and learning to read and write seems quite enough for now.
Actually, I don’t exactly have expectations. I have hopes, and fears. Mostly the fears predominate, these days. When my kids were young I could still hope we might not totally screw up the environment for them, but now that we’ve done so, and are more deeply sold out than ever to profiteering industrialism with its future-horizon of a few months, any hope I have that coming generations may have ease and peace in life has become very tenuous, and has to reach far, far forward into the dark.
Question 13: “What will improve the quality of life for the future generations of your family?” — with boxes to rank importance from 1 to 10. The first choice is “Improved educational opportunities,” — fair enough, Harvard being in the education business. I gave it a 10. The second is “Economic stability and growth for the US.” That stymied me totally. What a marvelous example of capitalist thinking, or nonthinking: to consider growth and stability as the same thing! I finally wrote in the margin, “You can’t have both,” and didn’t check a box.
The rest of the choices are: Reduction of the US debt, Reduced dependence on foreign energy, Improved health care quality and cost, Elimination of terrorism, Implementation of an effective immigration policy, Improved bipartisanship in US politics, Export democracy.
Since we’re supposed to be considering the life of future generations, it seems a strange list, limited to quite immediate concerns and filtered through such current rightwing obsessions as “terrorism,” “effective” immigration policy, and the “exportation” of “democracy” (which I assume is a euphemism for our policy of invading countries we don’t like and trying to destroy their society, culture, and religion.) Nine choices, but nothing about climate destabilization, nothing about international politics, nothing about population growth, nothing about industrial pollution, nothing about the control of government by corporations, nothing about human rights or injustice or poverty...
Question 14: “Are you living your secret desires?” Floored again. I finally didn’t check Yes, Somewhat, or No, but wrote in “I have none, my desires are flagrant.”
But it was Question 18 that really got me down. “In your spare time, what do you do? (check all that apply) And the list begins: “Golf...”
Seventh in the list of 27 occupations, after “Racquet sports” but before “Shopping,” “TV,” and “Bridge,” comes “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.)”
Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.
The key words are “spare time.” What do they mean?
To a working person, supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress, spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.
But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?
I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “Creative Activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category; but I rather doubt it.
The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?
And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?
Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh, lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings. . . . I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.
The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.
An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Vergil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one tomorrow. I have no time to spare.
2. Miners and I-Pods
In Roger Cohen’s New York Times column on October 18, I read that a set of I-pods had been donated to entertain the thirty-three Chilean miners in their underground ordeal, but the devices were not given to the men, whose awareness of their situation and consciousness of one another might be crucial to their survival as a group. As Cohen put it, “The donated iPods were not sent down to the miners for fear they would prove isolating and break the life-saving camaraderie of ‘Los 33.’ Salvation can still depend on seeing those around you.”
This was interesting, this practical application of the idea that people absorbed in their electronic devices may be profoundly insulated from reality. Most of us admit that people talking on cell phones are thus insulated or isolated: They’re unaware, conscious only to a limited degree of people around them, cars on the street, etc. But denial is strong; the gross discourtesy of so many cell-phone users is condoned, there’s endless resistance to banning the use of cell phones by drivers. Have the Chileans a different view of all this? Are they a bit less complacent about what happens to us when we’re plugged in? I wanted to learn more — who sent the I-pods, but more importantly who decided that the miners were better off without them.
When I googled Chilean miners I-pods, I learned at once that it was Steve Jobs who sent the I-pods. But from the information I could find on the Net, it appears the gift arrived only after the men had been brought up into the light. All the stories are dated October 14, and each simply repeats the others. None of them is factually specific or adds any details, except for a couple that mention that PSPs, toys on which you play electronic games, were sent down to the men while they were still in the mine.
So I am left frustrated, as one so often is by the strange fragmentedness of news these days, and by a sense that the whole picture is out there somewhere but you don’t know where to go to get it. I’m reluctant to believe that a Times op-ed writer swallowed a hokey story whole, but I’d sure like to know where he got it; and whether the I-pods did in fact arrive while the miners were still underground but were withheld from them until they got out; and if so, who made the decision, and how they explained it.
3. The Absent Silence
A year or two ago I was asked to review a novel by José Saramago, and in looking up facts about him on Google I found over and over the same quotation from him —
God is the silence of the universe, and man is the cry that gives meaning to that silence.
It’s from his Lanzarote journals, which aren’t available in English. He quoted it himself last year in one of his own blogs (translated as The Notebook). I wanted it again just a couple of weeks ago for my introduction to the electronic edition of his novels being prepared (hurrah!) by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I wasn’t sure I remembered it exactly, and The Notebook was up in the attic with Charles, and so I went confidently to google it. I thought I knew how it started, so I tried “God is silence.” That got me some hits, but nothing from Saramago. I tried “God is the silence.” That got me the same page as before. So I tried “Saramago quotations” and variants on that. They all took me to a page with lots and lots of quotations from Saramago — singly, in sets of 20, in sets of 43 — but in hurriedly looking through them, I didn’t find the one I was looking for, certainly the most famous single thing Saramago ever wrote. At this point, paranoia raised its stupid little yellow-green head.
Saramago was an atheist, not of the professional Dawkinsian type, but a man to whom the whole God business made no sense, though it interested him. His antipathy was reserved for the profiteers and power-mongers of religion, such as the mufti who authorised marriage for girls of ten, the imam who approved stoning women accused of adultery, the pope who has found it so hard to condemn pederasty among his priests. His speaking out on such matters made him enemies, of course. I mean, the man was a godless commie foreigner. Really. He was.
So I sat there entertaining paranoid thoughts: Had some zealous crusader gone through Google’s material on Saramago and removed the offensive quotation? I knew this kind of thing happens on Wikipedia, but in a wiki people look out for censoring and tampering and can make it unhappen just as promptly. How Google works, I didn’t know, but I knew it’s not a wiki. I didn’t suspect Google of initiating censorship, but wondered if it was vulnerable to sneak-in censorship. A worrisome thought to think about an information service so many of us rely on. So, instead of going on looking for the quotation as I should have done, I wrote a little blog about the mysterious absence of the quotation.
My First Reader read it and said, “But you didn’t try ‘God is the silence of the universe.’”
So I asked Google for “God is the silence of the universe“ (and put it in quotes) and there it was, about a ten thousand times, pages and pages of God is the silence of the universe.
So much for paranoia. No crusaders. Just my own (lazy) incompetence at googling.
But the mistake sometimes leads the mind to the place it really wanted to go...
By embarrassing myself (and thanks to my First Reader) I began to consider something I’d only very vaguely known and hadn’t given much thought to: the fact that how Google gets and handles its information is an industrial secret.
Understandably. If how Thomas’s get the nooks and crannies into their English muffins is an industrial secret, how Google comes to know everything that is known certainly deserves to be one too.
And yet it is disturbing. (Paranoia?)
I know that people far better equipped to discuss this whole matter have discussed it at length. Undoubtedly I could look up such discussions through Google. At this point I’m not ready to read them. I need to think about it in my own terms first.
Putting it into language familiar to me: it’s as if a great library, say the Library of Congress, refused to tell where they got their books and how they got their books and who chose the books and whether all the books they had were in the catalogue and available or some were held back, kept secret.
Of course there’s no point in libraries doing that. A public library has no industrial secrets, not being in business for the money. A public library is a public trust. And the “trust” in that old-fashioned phrase is, has to be, mutual, reciprocal. The public trusts the library not to censor, change, or withhold valuable books or information, as the library trusts the public won’t force them to censor, change, withhold, or destroy books or information. And if the library, at the request of the public, does withhold some material from some people (as in finding ways to keep exploitive pornography from children using the library) this is done (if it’s rightly done) openly, with knowledge and consent on both sides.
But a great corporation, even one sworn to do no evil, makes no such bargain with the public. There is no reciprocity. Trust is not mutual. It’s understood that the public interest, if considered at all, comes second to the interests of the corporation — profit, growth, and power. So the corporation can and will keep its secrets, even though what it is dealing in is information, even when its business is making knowledge accessible, open, free — the very opposite of keeping secrets.
What a strange, paradoxical situation! It is quite beyond me. I can’t help but wonder if it might also be beyond even the intelligent and competent people who run Google. Do they really know what they are doing? And if they don’t, do they know they don’t — or is that too a secret, kept even from themselves?
4. Someone Named Delores
A sentence in a story has been troubling me. The story, by Zadie Smith, was in The New Yorker recently (October 11, 2010). It’s in the first person, but I don’t know whether it’s fiction or memoir. Many people don’t even make the distinction, now that memoir takes the liberties of fiction without taking the imaginative risks, and fiction claims the authority of history without assuming the factual responsibilities. To my mind the I of a memoir or “personal essay” is a very different matter from the I of a story or novel, but I don’t know if Zadie Smith sees it that way. And so I don’t know whether she’s speaking as a character in fiction or as herself when towards the end of her tale of a seemingly unrepaid loan to a friend she says, “The first check came quickly but sat in a pile of unopened mail because these days I hire someone to do that.”
The implacable editor in my hindbrain promptly inquired You hire someone not to open the mail? I silenced the meddling reptile, but the sentence continued to bother me.
“These days I hire someone to do that.” What’s wrong with that? Well, I guess it’s the “someone.” Someone is no one. The nameless nobody hired to answer the mail of a somebody with a name.
So, at this point I’m beginning to hope that the story is fiction and thus that the narrator is not Zadie Smith, because this doesn’t sound like the voice of a writer highly sensitive to class and color prejudices. It reminded me, in fact, of the dean’s wife, when I was a lowly assistant professor’s wife, who couldn’t leave “my housekeeper” out of her conversation for five minutes, she was in such a state of admiration of herself for having the grand house that required keeping and the housekeeper to keep it. But that was silly, naive, like Mr Collins continually mentioning “my patron Lady Catherine de Bourgh.” The statement “these days I hire someone to do that” has a harsher ring to it.
And so what? Why shouldn’t a highly successful writer hire help and say so? And what skin is it off my nose?
Envy, of course, in the first place. I am envious of people who hire a servant with perfect assurance of righteousness. I envy self-confidence even as I dislike it. Envy co-exists only too easily with righteous disapproval. Indeed perhaps the two nasty creatures live off each other.
And then, annoyance. There’s an “of course” implied in “I hire someone to do that,” and there’s no of course about it. But people think there is, and this kind of talk encourages them to think so — which annoys me.
It’s a widespread illusion: a writer (a successful writer, a real writer) doesn’t do her own mail. She has a secretary to do it, as well as helpers, amanuenses, researchers, handlers — lord knows what — maybe an Editor’s Hole in the east wing, like the Priest’s Hole in old British houses.
I imagine writers commonly had secretaries, a century ago. Henry James did, sure enough. But Henry James was not exactly your average writer, right?
Virginia Woolf didn’t.
Among writers I know personally, only one has a secretary to do mail. To me it seems a perquisite of the extremely successful, and of a magnitude of success that daunts me. Privacy to be with my family and do my work was of the first importance to me. So, when I began to need help answering my letters, I found it extremely difficult to convince myself that I needed it badly enough to justify my hiring “someone,” bringing a stranger into my study, setting myself up as a boss.
I always had trouble calling Delores my secretary, it sounded so pompous (echoes of “my housekeeper...”) If I had to speak of her to strangers I said her name, or “my friend who does mail for me.” But I knew that this latter phrase was one of the mildly devious devices by which we handle guilt, the ways we try to re-introduce humanity into the relationship of hirer and hired, which inevitably, to whatever slight a degree, involves inequality, the raising up of one and degradation of the other. Democracy by strenuously denying the fact of inequality does enable us, to a surprising extent, to act as if it didn’t exist; but it does exist, and we know it. So our job is to keep the inequity of power as small as possible, and refuse to let our common humanity be reduced, however slightly, even by a careless word, by an assertion of unequal worth.
My envy of writers who hire a person to handle their mail and annoyance at people who assume that I have such help are really quite mild, but they are painful now, because I did have “someone,” but I have lost her.
Delores Rooney, later Delores Pander, was my helper and dear friend.
Thirty years ago or so, I finally got up my courage and asked around for recommendations of a professionally competent and discreet person to give me a hand with my letters, which were getting beyond me. Our mutual friend Martha West, who had worked with Delores as a secretary in an office, recommended her. She was then working as manager-agent for a dance company. We rather nervously gave it a try.
I had never dictated anything to anybody (outside Beginning French courses where you very slowly and clearly read a dictée in French to the students who very slowly and inaccurately write it down.) Delores had taught herself shorthand and was a whiz at it — a skill now, I suppose, almost entirely lost? — and she’d taken lots of dictation from lots of dictators. She coached me in composing a letter orally, and encouraged me with praise; she was an excellent teacher. And also she’d worked and lived with artists, painters, dancers, and was used to artistic temperamental peculiarities, having a few of her own.
We got to doing letters quickly and easily, and I soon began to draw on her as a collaborator in composing the letters — what to say and how to say it. Does that sound all right? What if you said this instead of that? What on earth am I going to write to the man who sent me the 600-page manuscript about fairies on Venus? This one’s a whiner, you don’t have to answer him... — Delores was always better than me at kind answers to kooks, but she was tough-minded, too, and encouraged me not to answer a letter that was troublingly weird or made unreasonable demands. She got to be so good at replying to the eternally repeated questions that I could hand her a letter and just say “Idea for Catwings” and the tale of how I happened to think of cats with wings was all ready in in her computer — though she varied it according to her mood and the age of the inquirer. She had a gracious, graceful tone in discouraging problematic requests by explaining why I couldn’t personally reply just now. She covered for me beautifully. She loved to answer children’s letters, even when they were the mechanical kind some teachers make kids write. The open kindness and generosity of her spirit lent all my correspondence a quality it would never have had without her collaboration.
She never came more than once a week, usually only once every three or four weeks. I’d do the most urgent business correspondence and let the rest and the fan mail pile up. She got a computer before I did, and it eased her work a great deal. When I got one, it didn’t make much difference at first. But when e-mail really got going I began to be able to deal with all the real business myself. Still Delores and I together handled non-urgent business, the fan letters from readers, and what we called The Gimmies: the letters everybody who becomes visible to the public gets, asking you to do this, give to that, endorse this book, speak at that good cause, etc. Even if you can’t possibly say yes to them, most such letters are well-intentioned and deserve a civil no. Delores said no thank you in every possible way, always politely. It was a great burden off me. She said that the Gimmies were boring but just various enough to be entertaining too.
As for fan mail, letters from readers have always come to me on paper only, my crude but effective way of keeping the volume down. The letters people write me — often with pen and ink, or in pencil, crayon, glitter, and other media if they’re children — are ever-amazing, giving me immense pleasure and reward, but they are also never-ending. I knew there was no way I could handle the load if I tried to read and answer them on my website or on email. But I have always felt that such letters deserve a reply, however brief, and for years Delores was my invaluable aide in answering them.
We loved each other as friends, but didn’t have extensive contact outside our work sessions. She was a busy woman: she soon became Jean Auel’s secretary four days a week, and was agent and manager for her husband the painter Henk Pander; when her parents grew old and sick she looked after them, and late in life she adopted and brought up her granddaughter. Our friendship was expressed mostly during and in our working relationship. I always looked forward to Delores coming, and we always spent half the time talking, catching up. Once, when I was scared by a stalker, she and Henk gave me wonderful immediate support.
As the years went on she seemed to grow shyer and more withdrawn from her friends than she had been, I do not know why. She told me once that she liked coming to work with me because we laughed together.
Her computer began to get out of date, and her life was complicated by various issues; her energy was being overtried. She couldn’t or didn’t want to figure out how to help me with e-correspondence the way she did with paper mail, which she took home along with dictated answers or suggested notes from me. So I came to do all the email and most of the letters, leaving her only some Gimmies and no-thank-yous and those fan letters that needed only acknowledgment.
Delores’s joy in life had been visibly flagging for a long time when she was diagnosed, last year, with cancer. At first it seemed local and curable, but proved to be metastasizing. It killed her in a few months. There was a brief and lovely respite or remission for a few weeks late in her illness, when we were able to visit with her quite often, and laughed together as we had used to laugh. Then the cruel disease closed in again. She died a few months ago, attended with great tenderness by her husband.
I find it extremely hard to talk about people I loved who have died. I can’t now make a proper tribute to that complex and beautiful woman, or say more than that I miss her friendship in every way.
Without her, I’ve had to give up the effort to answer fan mail, at least temporarily. As for the Gimmies, some of them get answered, some of them don’t. I suppose I could hire someone to do that.
But I doubt that I will. I can’t put my heart into it.
The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States are holding a conference on exorcism in Baltimore today and tomorrow. Many bishops and sixty priests are there to learn the symptoms of demonic possession — you may be possessed if you exhibit unusual strength, talk in a language you don’t know, or react violently to anything holy — and the rites of exorcism, which include sprinkling holy water on you, laying hands on you, recitations, invocations, and blowing in your face.
The church updated the rite in 1999, advising that “all must be done to avoid the perception that exorcism is magic or superstition.” This seems rather like issuing directions for driving a car while cautioning that all must be done to avoid the perception that a moving vehicle is being guided.
I’d advise weightlifters and people learning a foreign language to avoid Baltimore this weekend. I don’t know how to advise people who react violently to anything holy. I don’t know who they are, because I don’t know what kind of violent reaction is meant, and because “what is holy” depends entirely on your perception of sacredness. If I am shaken by unutterably strong emotion when I watch a pair of eagles dance with each other on the wind, or when I hear the first notes of the theme of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, am I possessed by a demon? I don’t know, but I’m staying away from Baltimore.
I think the people who should hurry there are the four male Catholic judges of the United State Supreme Court, all of whom are adherents of the policies of Pope Ratzinger and members of the ultra-reactionary Catholic group Opus Dei. Exorcism lessons should enrich their repertory no end. The fifth Roman Catholic in the Supreme Court is a woman, and thereby excluded from doing the “work of God.”
6. The Lynx
Last week my friend Roger and I went out to Bend, the Eastern Oregon city where a lot of retired people in search of sunlight and a dry climate have been settling since the 90’s. From Portland the shortest road is over Mount Hood and through the vast Warm Springs Reservation. It was a bright late October day, with the big broadleaf maples making masses of pure gold in the evergreen forests. The blue of the sky got more intense as we went down from the summit into the clear air and open landscapes of Oregon’s Dry Side.
Bend is named, I guess, for the bend of its lively river in which it sits. The Three Sisters and other snow-cones of the Cascades tower up over it in the west, and the vast expanses of the high desert sweep on out eastward. In recent years the city grew and thrived with the influx of settlers, but it hit hard times with the recession. Too much of its prosperity depended on the construction trades. Downtown is still pleasant, but there are gaps, with several fine restaurants gone, and it looks as if some new resorts out toward Mt Bachelor are paralysed at the platting stage.
We stayed at a motel there on the west side of the river, which is built up at intervals, with bits of juniper forest and sagebrush plain in between. The long, wide boulevards go winding around in curves, crisscrossing each other at three- and four-exit roundabouts. It appears that the people who laid out the roads wanted to imitate what happens when you drop noodles on the floor. Though Tina at Camalli Books had given us careful instructions with all the road names and all the roundabout exits on the way to and from our motel — and though a western skyline of six- to ten-thousand-foot mountain peaks would seem to provide adequate orientation — we never once left the motel without getting lost.
I learned to dread the Old Mill District. As soon as I saw the sign saying Old Mill District I knew we were lost again. If Bend were a big city instead of just a far-flung one we might still be there trying to escape from the Old Mill District.
Roger and I were there to do a reading and signing of our book Out Here at the bookstore Friday evening and at the High Desert Museum Saturday afternoon. The Museum is on Highway 97 a few miles south of town. A bit farther on is Sunriver, one of the earliest and biggest resort developments. Roger suggested we have lunch there. Given the money that flows through those residential resorts, I was expecting something on the gourmet side; but the bar and grill served the same huge piles of heavy food that you get at a bar and grill anywhere in America, where the idea of a light lunch is a pound or two of nachos.
I haven’t stayed at Sunriver, but have spent a few nights at other high-end resorts in the area. They are laid out artfully to blend into the austere and beautiful landscape. Built of wood and painted or stained in a repetitive range of muted colors, the houses are unobtrusive, with plenty of space around them and trees left standing between them. All the streets curve. Straight streets are anathema to the resort mind. Right angles say City, and resorts are busy saying Country, and that’s why all the boulevards west of the river loop and swoop about so gracefully like noodles. The trouble is, since the juniper trees and the sage bushes and the buildings and the streets and the boulevards all look pretty much alike, if you don’t remember just where Colorado Drive connects with Century Drive before the roundabout exit to Cascade Drive, if you don’t have a good inner or external GPS system, you get lost.
Staying a couple of years ago at one of these resorts in a granny flat in somebody’s condo, I could get lost within a hundred yards of the house. All the curvy streets and roads were lined with groups of houses in tasteful muted earth tones that exactly resembled the other groups of houses in tasteful muted earth tones, and there were no landmarks, and it all went on, over and over, sprawling out, without sidewalks — because of course the existence of such a place is predicated entirely on driving, on getting to it, from it, and around it by car. I don’t drive.
Bend is, I believe, the largest city in America with no public transportation system. They were fixing to do something about that when the bottom fell out of the building trade.
So, after getting lost a couple of times walking, because I couldn’t tell which tastefully muted house on which curving road was my house, I was uneasy about going out again. But if granny didn’t go for a walk she was trapped in the granny flat. And that was pretty bad. When you first walked in, you thought, oh! very nice! — because the whole inner wall was a mirror, which reflected the room and the big window, making it look large and light. In fact, the room was so small it was almost entirely filled with bed.
The bed was piled with ornamental pillows. I counted them, but have forgotten how many there were — say twenty or twenty-five ornamental pillows, and four or five enormous teddy bears. When you took the bears and pillows off the bed so you could use the bed, there was no place to put them but on the floor around the bed, which meant there was no floor space, only pillows and bears. There was a tiny kitchen on the other side of a divider. No desk, no chair, though there was a blessed window seat to sit in, with a big view of trees and sky. I lived in the window seat, making my way through the bears and pillows when it was time for bed.
A door, which could not be locked, led down a corridor to the owners’ apartment, which was occupied. I put my suitcase and eight or ten of the pillows and the hugest, most obese teddy bear against the door as a barrier against absent-minded intrusion by my unknown hosts. But I didn’t have any real faith in that bear.
Roger and I kept passing that very resort on our noodly way to re-finding our motel, and I winced every time I saw it, afraid we might somehow get into it and get lost in it again.
I feel vaguely guilty about preferring a mere motel to a carefully planned, upscale residential resort. But the guilt is vague while the preference is clear and categorical. I like motels. Exclusivity isn’t my bag. “Gated communities” are not communities in any sense of the word I understand. I know that a great many of the people who own or timeshare or rent places in these Dry Side resorts go there not for the exclusive company of other middle-class white people, but for the marvelous air and light of the high desert, the forests, the ski-slopes, the spaciousness and silence. I know. That’s fine. Just don’t make me stay in one. Especially not one equipped with giant teddy bears.
But all this is merely preparation for getting to the lynx.
The lynx lives at the High Desert Museum. You can see a picture of him and read his story at Wild Cats of the West.
Briefly, when he was a kitten somebody pulled out his claws (“declawing” a cat is the same as pulling out a human being’s fingernails and toenails or cutting off the last joint of each toe and finger.) Then they pulled out his four great cat-fangs. Then they pretended he was their itty bitty kitty. Then they got tired of him, or got scared of him, and dumped him. He was found starving.
Like all the birds and animals at the High Desert Museum, he is a wild creature who can’t survive in the wild.
His cage is inside the main building. It is a long enclosure with three solid walls and one glass wall. It has trees and some hiding places, and is roofless, open to the weather and the sky.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a lynx, when I first met him. He is a beautiful animal, chunkier and more compact than a mountain lion. His very thick dense fur of a honey-buff color has a flowing scatter of dark spots on legs and flanks and goes pure white on belly, throat, and beard. Big paws, ever so soft-looking, but you wouldn’t want to be at the receiving end of one of those paws, even if its fierce, hooked weaponry has been torn out. Short tail, almost a stub — when it comes to tail, the mountain lion has it all over the lynx and bobcat. Lynx ears are rather queer and charming, with a long tip; his right ear is a bit squashed or bent. A big squarish head, with the calm, enigmatic cat smile, and great gold eyes.
The glass wall doesn’t look like oneway glass. I’ve never asked about it. If he is aware of the people on the other side of the glass, he doesn’t let them know it. He gazes out sometimes, but I have not seen his eyes catch on anything or follow anyone on the other side of the glass. His gaze goes right through you. You are not there. He is there.
I found and fell in love with the lynx during the last evening of a literary conference a couple of years ago. The writers at the meeting had been invited to a banquet at the Museum to meet and mix with people who supported the conference with donations. This kind of thing is a perfectly reasonable attempt to reward generosity, though, knowing what writers are like, it must often be terribly disappointing to the donors. It is also an ordeal for many of the writers. People like me who work alone tend to be introverts and, indeed, uncouth. If piano is the opposite of forte, graceful chitchat with strangers is definitely my piano.
During the hour of wine and cheese before dinner, all the donors and writers milled about the main hall of the Museum talking. Being no good at milling and talking, and noticing a corridor off the main hall with no people in it, I sneaked off to explore it. First I found the bobcat (who must wake up now and then, though so far I have only seen him asleep). Then, getting farther away from the chatter of my species, going farther into dimness and silence, I came on the lynx.
He was sitting gazing out into the dimness and silence with his golden eyes. The pure gaze of the animal, Rilke called it. The gaze that is purely gaze: that sees through.
For me, at that moment of feeling inadequate and out of place, the unexpected, splendid animal presence, his beauty, his perfect self-containment, was refreshment, consolation, peace.
I hung out with the lynx until I had to go back to the Bandar-Log. At the end of the party I sneaked back for a moment to see him again. He was sleeping majestically in his little tree-house, great soft paws crossed in front of his chest. I had lost my heart for good.
I saw him again last year when my daughter Elisabeth drove me around Eastern Oregon for four days (a grand trip, of which I hope to put a record in words and pictures on my site, if Elisabeth and I can goad each other into getting it together.) She and I saw the displays and the otters and the owls and the porcupine and everything else at the Museum, and ended in a long contemplation of the lynx.
And last week, before the reading, while Roger was doing all the hard work getting the books to sign into the Museum, I could spend another half hour with him. When I came, he was pacing about, very handsome and restless. If he had a tail that was worth lashing he would certainly have been lashing it. After a few minutes he vanished through a big metal cat-flap into some kind of back room not on view to the public. Fair enough, I thought, he wants some privacy. I went on to look at the live butterfly exhibit, which of course was lovely. The Oregon High Desert Museum is one of the most perfectly satisfying places I know.
When I came back down the corridor the lynx was sitting quite close to the glass eating a largish bird. A grouse, was my guess. At any rate a wild bird, not a chicken. He had a tail-feather hanging down from his chin for a while, which might have reduced his dignity in the eyes of beholders, but he does not acknowledge beholders.
He worked at his bird with diligence and care. He discussed his bird, as they used to say of people eating lamb chops. He was quite absorbed in discussing it. Lacking all four fangs, he was pretty much in the position of a human lacking incisors: he had to go at it sideways, with his molars. He did this neatly. It slowed him down, I am sure, but he never grew impatient, even when all he got was a mouthful of feathers. He just put a big soft honey-colored paw on his lunch and went at it again. When he got seriously inside the bird, some children who came by squealed, “Eeeyew! he’s eating the insides!” and other children who came by murmured with satisfaction, “Oh look, he’s eating the guts.”
I had to go away then and do the reading and signing, so I could not see him finish lunch.
When I came back after an hour or so for a goodbye glimpse, the lynx was curled up comfortably asleep in his tree-house bedroom. One wing and a beak lay on the dirt near the glass wall. On three tree-stumps, the servants of the lynx had laid out three dead mice — an elegant dessert presentation, as the fancy restaurants say. I imagined that later, when the Museum closed, when all the primates had finally gone away, the big cat might wake up and yawn, and stretch himself lithely down from his treehouse, and eat his desserts one by one, slowly, in silence, all by himself in the darkness.
There is a connection that I am groping for, a connection between the resorts and the lynx. Not the noodly streets that took us from one to the other, but a mental connection that has something to do with community and solitude.
The resorts are neither city nor country; they are semi-communities. Most of their population is occasional or transient. The only day-workers are gardeners, janitors, people doing upkeep. They don’t live in the nice houses. Most of the people that do are there not because their work takes them there but to get away from their work. They’re not there because they have common interests with others there but to get away from other people. Or to pursue sports such as golf and skiing, which pit the individual against himself. Or because they long for the solitude of the wilderness.
But we aren’t a solitary species. Like it or not, we are the Bandar-Log. We are social by nature, and thrive only in community. It is entirely unnatural for a human being to live long completely alone. So, when we get sick of crowds and yearn for space and silence, we build these semi-communities, pseudo-communities, in remote places. And then, sadly, by going to them, swarming into the desert, all too often we find no true community, but only destroy the solitude we sought.
As for cats, most of their species are not social at all. The nearest thing to a cat society is probably a troop of active lionesses providing for the cubs and the indolent male. Farm cats sharing a barn work out a kind of ad hoc social order, though the males tend to be less members of it than a danger to it. Adult male lynxes are loners. They walk by themselves.
The strange fortune of my lynx brought him to live in an artificial environment, a human community utterly foreign to him. His isolation from his natural, complex wilderness habitat is grievous and unnatural. But his aloofness, his aloneness, is the truth of his own nature. He retains that nature, brings it among us unchanged. He brings us the gift of his indestructible solitude.
7. A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters
I have come to see male group solidarity as an immensely powerful force in human affairs, more powerful, perhaps, than the feminism of the late 20th century took into account.
It’s amazing, given their different physiology and complement of hormones, how much alike men and women are in most ways. Still it seems to be the fact that women on the whole have less direct competitive drive and desire to dominate; and therefore, paradoxically, have less need to bond with one another in ranked, exclusive groups.
The power of male group solidarity must come from the control and channeling of male rivalry, the repression and concentration of the hormone-driven will to dominate that so often dominates men themselves. It is a remarkable reversal. The destructive, anarchic energy of individual rivalry and competitive ambition is diverted into loyalty to group and leader and directed to more or less constructive social enterprise.
Such groups are closed, positing “the other” as outsider. They exclude, first, women; then, men of a different age, or kind, or caste, or nation, or level of achievement, etc. — exclusions that reinforce the solidarity and power of the excluders. Perceiving any threat, the “band of brothers” joins together to present an impermeable front.
Male solidarity appears to me to have been the prime shaper of most of the great ancient institutions of society — Government, Army, Priesthood, University, and the new one that may be devouring all the others, Corporation. The existence and dominance of these hierarchic, organized, coherent, durable institutions goes back so far and has been so nearly universal that it’s mostly just called “how things are,” “the world,” “the division of labor,” “history,” “God’s will,” etc.
As for female solidarity, without it human society, I think, would not exist. But it remains all but invisible to men, history, and God
Female solidarity might better be called fluidity — a stream or river rather than a structure. The only institutions I am fairly sure it has played some part in shaping are the tribe and that very amorphous thing, the family. Wherever the male arrangement of society permits the fellowship of women on their own terms, it tends to be casual, unformalised, unhierarchical; to be ad hoc rather than fixed, flexible rather than rigid, and more collaborative than competitive. That it has mostly operated in the private rather than the public sphere is a function of the male control of society, the male definition and separation of “public” and “private.” It’s hard to know if women’s groups would ever gather into great centers, because the relentless pressure from male institutions against such aggregation has prevented it. It might not happen, anyhow. Instead of rising from the rigorous control of aggression in the pursuit of power, the energy of female solidarity comes from the wish and need for mutual aid and, often, the search for freedom from oppression. Elusiveness is the essence of fluidity.
So, when the interdependence of women is perceived as a threat to the dependence of women on men and the child-bearing, child-rearing, family-serving, man-serving role assigned to women, it’s easy to declare that it simply doesn’t exist. Women have no loyalty, do not understand what friendship is, etc. Denial is an effective weapon in the hands of fear. The idea of female independence and interdependence is met with scoffing hatred by both men and women who see themselves as benefiting from male dominance. Misogyny is by no means limited to men. Living in “a man’s world,” plenty of women distrust and fear themselves as much or more than men do.
In so far as the feminism of the nineteen-seventies played on fear, exalting the independence and interdependence of women, it was playing with fire. We cried “Sisterhood is powerful!” — and they believed us. Terrified misogynists of both sexes were howling that the house was burning down before most feminists found out where the matches were.
The nature of sisterhood is so utterly different from the power of brotherhood that it’s hard to predict how it might change society. In any case, we’ve seen only a glimpse of what its effects might be.
The great ancient male institutions have been increasingly infiltrated by women for the last two cenuries, and this is a very great change. But when women manage to join the institutions that excluded them, they mostly end up being co-opted by them, serving male ends, enforcing male values.
Which is why I have a problem with women in combat in the armed services, and why I watch the rise of women in the “great” universities and the corporations — even the government — with an anxious eye.
Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men?
If so, will they change the institution so radically that the men are likely to label it second-class, lower the pay, and abandon it? This has happened to some extent in several fields, such as the practice of teaching and medicine, increasingly in the hands of women. But the management of those fields, the power, and the definition of their aims, still belongs to men. The question remains open.
As I look back on the feminism of the late twentieth century I see it as typical of feminine solidarity — all Indians, no chiefs. It was an attempt to create an unhierarchical, inclusive, flexible, collaborative, unstructured, ad hoc body of people to bring the genders together in a better balance.
Women who want to work toward that end, need, I think, to recognise and respect their own elusive, invaluable, indestructible kind of solidarity — as do men. And they need to recognise both the great value of male solidarity, and the inferiority of gender solidarity to human solidarity — as do men.
I think feminism continues and will continue to exist wherever women work in their own way with one another and with men, and wherever women and men go on questioning male definitions of value, refusing gender exclusivity, affirming interdependence, distrusting aggression, seeking freedom always.
8. The Sissy Strikes Back
I’ve lost faith in the saying, “You’re only as old as you think you are,” ever since I got old.
It is a saying with a fine heritage. It goes right back to the idea of the Power of Positive Thinking that is so strong in America because it fits in so well with the Power of Commercial Advertising and with the Power of Wishful Thinking aka The American Dream. It is the bright side of Puritanism: What you deserve is what you get. (Never mind just now about the dark side.) Good things come to good people and youth will last forever for the young in heart.
There is a whole lot of power in positive thinking. It is the great placebo effect. In many cases, even dire cases, it works. I think most old people know that, and many of us try to keep our thinking on the positive side as a matter of self-preservation, as well as dignity, the wish not to end with a prolonged whimper. It can be very hard to believe that one is actually eighty years old, but, as they say, you’d better believe it. I’ve known clear-headed, clear-hearted people in their nineties. They didn’t think they were young. They knew, with a patient, canny clarity, how old they were. If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub. Even if I’m seventy and think I’m forty, I’m fooling myself to the extent of almost certainly acting like an awful fool.
Actually, I’ve never heard anybody over seventy say that you’re only as old as you think you are. Younger people say it to themselves or each other as an encouragement. When they say it to somebody who actually is old they don’t realise how stupid it is, and how cruel it may be. At least there isn’t a poster of it.
But there is a poster of “Old age is not for sissies” — maybe it’s where the saying came from. A man and a woman in their seventies. As I remember it, they both have what the Air Force used to call The Look of Eagles, and are wearing very tight-fitting minimal clothing, and are altogether very fit. Their pose suggests that they’ve just run a marathon and aren’t breathing hard while they relax by lifting 16-pound barbells. Look at us, they say. Old age is not for sissies.
Look at me, I snarl at them. I can’t run, I can’t lift barbells, and the thought of me in tight-fitting minimal clothing is appalling in all ways. I am a sissy. I always was. Who are you to say old age isn’t for me?
Old age is for anybody who gets there. Warriors get old; sissies get old. In fact it’s likely that more sissies than warriors get old. Old age is for the healthy, the strong, the tough, the intrepid, the sick, the weak, the cowardly, the incompetent. People who run ten miles every morning before breakfast and people who live in a wheelchair. People who work the London Times crossword in ink in ten minutes and people who can’t quite remember who the President is just now. Old age is less a matter of fitness or courage than of luck equals longevity.
If you eat your sardines and leafy greens and wear SPF 150 and develop your abs and blabs and slabs or whatever they are in order to live a long life, that’s good, and maybe it will work. But the longer a life is, the more of it will be old age.
The leafy greens and the workouts may well help that old age to be healthy, but unfair as it may be, nothing guarantees health to the old. Bodies wear out after a certain amount of mileage despite the most careful maintenance. No matter what you eat and how grand your abs and blabs are, still your bones can let you down, your heart can get tired of its incredible nonstop lifelong athletic performance, and there’s all that wiring and stuff inside that can begin to short-circuit. If you did hard physical labor all your life and didn’t really have the chance to spend a lot of time in gyms, if you ate mostly junk food because it’s all you knew about and all you could afford in time and money, if you haven’t got a doctor because you can’t buy the insurance that stands between you and the doctors and the medicines you need, you may arrive at old age in rather bad shape. Or if you just run into some bad luck along the way, accidents, illnesses, it’s the same. You won’t be running marathons and lifting weights. You may have trouble getting up the stairs. You may have trouble just getting out of bed. You may have trouble getting used to hurting all the time. And it isn’t likely to get better as the years go on.
The compensations of getting old, such as they are, aren’t in the field of athletic prowess. I think that’s why the saying and the poster annoy me so much. They’re not only insulting to sissies, they’re beside the point.
I’d like a poster showing two old people with stooped backs and arthritic hands and time-worn faces sitting talking, deep, deep in conversation. And the slogan would be: Old Age is not for the Young.
P.S. (9 December 2010, 3:30 p.m. PST) Only after I wrote this did it occur to me to Google “Old age is not for sissies” to see if there was a provenance other than the poster (which is available from Northern Sun, if you want it.) The quote is ascribed to Bette Davis, with the usual lack of specific location or context. My First Reader looked up a variation on it, which brings us H.L.Mencken (no location, no context) cited as saying “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” A reasonable guess is that Davis had read Mencken, as everybody did, remembered the line, and said it her way. In any case, neither Davis nor Mencken were exactly athletic, bodybuilder types, so it has quite a different ring coming from them.
9. Confidential reports from FBI agents to the Bureau,
intercepted by Wikileeks
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