The Issue Is Freedom, Not Privacy

Louis Menand conducts a searching examination of why so many of us are concerned these days about privacy.  The really smart among you will figure out about halfway through the essay that Menand’s true topic is not privacy at all, but freedom.  The “right to privacy,” in whatever form it takes, is more than “the right to be let alone.”  It is also (and mostly) the right to do–or not do–as we wish.

The backdrop of all this for Menand and the rest of us is the enormous and rapid development of surveillance devices both hard (CCTV cameras along our city streets) and soft (Alexa’s potential to record every conversation in our homes), and the packages of data being collected on every one of us every day by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and sold to the highest bidder.

Menand, by the by, mentions a news item you might have forgotten about:  a mass shooting in California a couple of years ago.  The FBI asked Apple’s help to unlock the shooter’s phone.  Apple refused, saying that privacy was at issue for everyone and that people would refuse to buy smartphones if they knew those phones could be hacked by third parties.  The FBI sued Apple, but whilst the two parties were preparing to joust, the FBI found a third party willing to sell it a tool to unlock the phone.  No one but the FBI knows who that third party was.  If memory serves, the bureau got nothing from the suspect’s phone after all the wrangling, but the episode is a creepy reminder of the often terrifying balancing act this consumerist, capitalist society of ours has to play every day between the right we have to exercise various freedoms and our justifiable need for security.


Anthony Bourdain

I just read the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death.  By suicide, in a hotel in France, I believe.  Very sad that lovers of food and good writing should be deprived of such a passionate, forthright voice at so young an age.  He was sixty-one.  Tributes are flowing in from everywhere.  Twitter has a good sampling of them.

For a man who spoke so often and so eloquently about the necessity to live well, to travel, to broaden one’s experiences, to enjoy life to the full, I find Bourdain’s suicide puzzling.  Many suicides I understand.  After struggling for months to get my head around Robin Williams’s suicide, I finally grasped the future as he saw it, and the circumstances that drove him to the act.  I understood Lucy Grealy’s suicide.  The author of Autobiography of a Face and friend to novelist Ann Patchett had a face deeply scarred by cancer and repaired by surgery.  The difference between the life she wanted to live and the life she had to live was too great to bear.  And I have always understood the philosophical attractions of suicide as a topic for contemplation.  If, as a human being, you haven’t thought about suicide at least once, either for yourself or as a part of our common life on this planet, you haven’t lived enough.

Only the suicide knows what goes on in his head in the final moments.  Most people imagine that Bourdain was in distress, and he may well have been.  It’s also possible that he decided he’d simply gone as far as he could go and that now, in this time and in that place, was the time to end things.  There are suicides who pick such moments–sometimes planned, sometimes spur-of-the-moment–to end their lives; Bourdain strikes me as a fellow who would pick such a moment.  But, again, I do not know.

The only thing of which I am certain is that Bourdain, given good health mentally and physically, had ten to fifteen good years of writing and observing and living left in him.  To live as he did, though, traveling and adventuring, thinking hard and thinking well about food and people, is a taxing experience.  It takes its toll. And all who dare to live that way will pay the toll, sooner or later, one way or another.


Should Writers Have Children?

At first blush, one wouldn’t think that the question, “Should writers have children?” would generate passionate responses, but it does.  Michael Chabon recently weighed in on the issue and, now, fourteen more writers have been solicited for a response by Lit Hub‘s Emily Temple.  The answer to the question posed is “Yes.”  It’s also “Yes, but. . . .”  It’s also “No.”  And it’s also “Maybe.”

The various responses are all based on contemporary experience, although Zadie Smith in particular draws in some notable writers from the past who had children.  She cites Tolstoy and Dickens.  I could cite Shakespeare and Milton.  In the cases of Dickens and Shakespeare, however, other people cared for those children while the authors in question went off somewhere else to be creative.  Milton compelled his children to read to him in Latin, a language they didn’t understand, and they resented him for it.  One near-contemporary writer not mentioned by anyone so far is John Irving, who’s been married twice, had children with both wives, and, in The World According to Garp, constructed the fiction of a writer with a family.  In the 1940s, Elizabeth Gilbreath Carey wrote Cheaper By the Dozen, a more-or-less true account of life with her large brood.  The Brits later followed suit with the Durrell family (featuring writers Lawrence and Gerald) hightailing it out of England over to Corfu to care for their mentally-challenged mother.  Although the Durrells’ accomplishments don’t specifically fit the pattern of parents trying to write while contributing to family life, both brothers are excellent writers (try Gerald’s My Family and Other Animals and The Corfu Trilogy, and Lawrence’s The Alexandra Quartet), and both demonstrate that it is possible to write with a crowd around.

Personally, I think the writers who insist that other writers must be childless are full of it.  Those writers who do have children have to manage their working time a little differently, perhaps, from the rest of us (fifteen minutes here; an hour there, at the desk), and they have to have a partner willing to share childraising duties in equitable and creative ways.  These same conditions, by the way, apply to relationships that don’t involve writers.  Every parent has a creative side, and wants to express it quite apart from the time she gives her children.

Having children grants parents access to the most important manifestation of creativity that the human experience can offer.  To gaze into the eyes of one’s newborn is to look at the blending of the past and the present in an instant, and that newly-arrived child is a reminder that, whether we like to admit this or not, we are all part of something which is bigger and more complex than our individual selves.  Writers need not tap their parenting skills in their writing but, if the opportunity to do so is there, why not do it?  We’re constantly reminded that writers need to observe life.  Why not observe the behavior of those closest to us for clues and inspiration whenever we can?  Everything that makes us us is in our kids anyway, and they can sometimes show us something about our behavior we would not otherwise have seen–their kindness to strangers, their occasional meanness, their boundless energy, their sense of peacefulness, their imaginations at play.  Writers deal so often with those–fictional or real–who are jaded by life, it’s helpful to be reminded that millions of us live by hope, even when we know that no help is coming.  Children are those reminders.  When they are born, they turn all of us instantly into conservatives, but the acts of caring for them and loving them also turn us into the best kind–maybe the only kind–of liberals, as they compel us to grow along with them and become the generous people we thought we would never be.


Dining Alone

In my response to Pam Kirst’s comment on “The Stormy Seas Of Life,” I mentioned that I have eaten many, many meals alone.  Although I have wished for company on such occasions a multitude of times, it is just as honest to say that a large majority of those meals have been part of the best days and best nights I have ever spent in my life. For, as Stephanie Rosenbloom points out in a long, evocative essay, “On Eating Alone in Paris,”

“When you’re not sitting across from someone, you’re sitting across from the world.”

Dining can certainly feel that way at the Palace Cafe in New Orleans.  During a vacation in the Crescent City about five years ago, I walked there from my hotel on a soft October evening and had dinner al fresco at one of the restaurant’s sidewalk tables.  I’ve eaten at the Palace Cafe dozens of times, almost all of them inside the restaurant but, on this occasion, it was a delightful change to watch people pass by:  couples, singles, children, street vendors calling it a day as they pushed their carts down the wide Canal St.  I could see a full moon rise up over the buildings of the CBD as I ate my grilled fish, and I thought again–for at least the hundredth time–how lucky I’ve been to have lived and eaten so many meals in a place that values the pleasure of eating good food as much as New Orleans does.

I could have had nearly the same experience that night had I chosen to dine indoors, but the Palace Cafe has a noisy interior, one not quite offset by the prettiness of its green and gold decor or the spiral staircase that leads to the second floor.  Most of the tables are four-tops, but the booths can seat one or two most comfortably.  From such a booth, a diner can watch the kitchen in action, or he or she can do as I sometimes do and watch my fellow diners.  They are laughing, sipping wine, taking bites of crabmeat cheesecake, or ordering dessert.  Very seldom do they appear to be arguing, or even to be in a foul mood.  To eat a meal in such a place is often to call a truce with the people and things that vex us in life.  We check our tempers at the door along with our coats.

Such was the case on a rainy fall night in 1996.  I was on my way home with a backpack full of papers to grade and not looking forward to the task.  I stopped in to Mr. B’s Bistro, a dark-paneled restaurant of the Brennan family on Royal St., cleared my eyeglasses of the raindrops and humidity that had collected on them and ordered a strip steak and a glass of iced tea before I leaned back in the chair to rest.  The steak came, but even in the low light I could see that the chef had burned it.  I was startled, for in all the times I had come to Mr. B’s (nearly as many times as to the Palace Cafe), the restaurant had never messed up an order for me.  This one, although clearly not right, was not terrible, and I was too tired and dispirited to complain about it.  Within about two minutes, however, one of the hostesses I had gotten to know well there came over and took a look at my plate.  “That’s not right,” she said.  “Let me give it back and have them fix you a better one.”  I did, and the moment I gave it up, my whole body relaxed, and I knew the evening had taken a crucial turn for the better.  Those sorts of things can and do happen when one dines out often enough to establish a rapport with the people who run a restaurant.  They’ll do a lot to make things right.

A little while later, I came back to Mr. B’s for dinner, again dining alone, this time on a seared pork chop and some collard greens that were so good the meal took me back to my childhood, to some place in my memory I cannot quite identify, where I’d had a meal of similar quality.  I understood–for the first time, really–why some diners make such a fuss over collard greens and why artists and writers like Marcel Proust find food to be such a profoundly effective trigger to release memories and emotions we did not know we possessed.  Had I been dining with someone else that night, it’s likely the meal would not have made such an impression on me.  Dining alone allows the diner to focus, if he wishes, on the textures, the aromas, and the tastes of the food without distraction.  Often, the memorable meals we have with someone else are not memorable because of the food, but because of the other person.

Yet, other people can crowd in upon us even as we sit singly at a table.  Sometimes, it’s a pleasure, as when I engaged a small family in conversation during a holiday meal at Bayona, Susan Spicer’s Euro-Orlean restaurant in the French Quarter.  We exchanged pleasantries, then the young son of the couple I was talking to suddenly announced, “I’m going to kiss you.”  And he did.  He walked right over to my table and planted a kiss on my right cheek.  All of us laughed at the affectionate humanness of that moment.  Then, too, a stranger might have been tempted to laugh at the waiter who sang “America the Beautiful” to me just before my breakfast at Brennan’s one Fourth of July morning, but the waiter’s tenor voice was so beautiful, his talent would have hushed any wisecracks.  Other appearances of people at a single diner’s table, however, are stealthier and the emotions they stir are more akin to grief.  During a Thanksgiving meal at the Palace Cafe one year, I was taken back to a Thanksgiving my fellow graduate students and I shared at Illinois in the fall of 1985–Ed Jacobs’s sweet potatoes, Ellen Brown’s turkey, Janet Eldred’s green bean casserole–and in those moments, I was so present in that prior time, and I missed all of my friends so terribly, that I was overcome, and could not continue eating my actual meal.  I wonder if our common insistence on having company at the table is rooted in part in a fear of calling up such powerfully nostalgic memories if we dine alone?

If that is the case, those groups seated comfortably at a four-top or a six-top need not be concerned when they see a single woman or a single man pull back a chair or slide into a booth for lunch or dinner.  We bring the world with us, both present and past, whenever we dine, wherever we go, just as surely as that world is before us as we eat.  Dining alone is an opportunity to unpack our daily experiences in ways that don’t impinge on the lives of our lovers or our coworkers.  The conversations we have with ourselves during such meals, risky though they may be and perilous to our psyches, can also be the best conversations we’ll have all day, and refreshing to our lives.

[NOTE:  An hour or so after posting this entry, I read of the passing of Ella Brennan, aged 92, who ran Brennan’s and, later, Commander’s Palace, making Commander’s Palace into the single best place to have a meal in New Orleans and one of the greatest restaurants in the world.  She was a legend, and she will be missed.]


The Stormy Seas Of Life

Here’s a substantial excerpt from Fiona Sampson’s forthcoming biography of Mary Shelley.  It’ll make you want to buy and read Sampson’s whole book.

The jumping-off point of the excerpt is the usually-calm passage from Dover to Calais but, here, apropos Percy Shelley’s wild elopement with Mary Godwin, the English Channel suddenly turns treacherous.

Although Sampson keeps her focus on the trip to the Continent and on Mary and Percy’s developing love, the excerpt gives clear indications of the much broader background of the bold, admirable, reckless lives writers and other adventurers led in the nineteenth century.  Byron’s life and career always fascinated me; Keats’s all-too-brief existence was immortalized by Walter Jackson Bate’s great biography; now, Sampson bids me take a closer look at the relations of the one Romantic poet I paid less attention to in my education than any other.

It is both fitting and instructive that so much of the excerpt discusses the storm, complete with images of lightning, rough seas, ship fragments, and seasickness.  All of these elements worked their way deep into the imaginations of the early nineteenth century British writers.  Their appearance there–and their subsequent working-out in novels like Frankenstein–were not affectations or accidents, but the deliberate, calculated expression of those writers’ awareness of how hard life is, how fragile it could be, and how painfully short it always was.  Mary throwing up onboard the ship wouldn’t have distressed Keats in the least.  He was a surgeon’s assistant, whose job it was to scoop up the gore from the operating room’s floor.  Nor would have the Shelleys’ elopement have surprised him, particularly.  Despite the distressing double standard of male behavior that Sampson reveals, she also reveals the truth that every young person of that era was aware of, that death could and would come at any moment, and happiness needed to be seized wherever and whenever it could be found.  As slippery as this moral logic is, it is rooted in human experience even more solidly than the rather grumpily-expressed Ten Commandments, and it has produced more well-rounded, more creative, and more interesting people than the Commandments have.

Because of this belief, I cannot condemn the Romantics for anything they did or said.  Scandalous as their behavior often was, it was grounded in a code of its own, and it often rose to great heights of bravery.  We who have lived in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with all of the terrors and transformations these years have brought about, are the descendants of the Romantics even more than we realize.  We live and think in our private hearts much as they did. Our clipped and truncated messages on social media are just as fragmentary as any statuary the Romantics valued, and just as coded with meaning.  We, too, are in the process of creating biological and technological monsters that will either be an enormous boon to us or will turn on us in ways that no one can predict.  And we, too, live in a period of calm, strange seas that can turn violent at any moment based on conditions we are aware of but do not fully understand.


I Want To, I Don’t Want To

Writer Tea Obreht, via Literary Hub, has a wide-ranging interview with an underrated prose master of the American West, Thomas McGuane.

McGuane is 78 now, but he’s still working.  From the time I first encountered him in Nobody’s Angel (1981) to his short story collection Cloudbursts (2018), his work has been preoccupied with what we might call “the simmering male,” the fellow whose emotions bubble on the hot stove of daily life but never quite spill over unless somebody else willfully turns up the burner.

McGuane has read everybody worth reading, and it’s a delight to hear him and Obreht bounce names back and forth, from Hemingway to Carver to one of my secret favorites, Gretel Ehrlich.  The two of them do more than drop names, though.  They offer advice and encouragement, of a very relaxed kind, to all of their peers.  McGuane quotes with approval Hemingway’s remark, “Start with something you know and go elsewhere”–wisdom which is so sharp and so far removed from the cliched advice “Write what you know” that it’s not even funny; and he’s honest enough to remember Ehrlich’s comment to him after he complained that he might not feel like writing another novel after completing this one.  She looked at him and said, “Then don’t.”

Yes–then don’tI’ve said it several times on this blog (now going on four years):  none of us has to write.  There is no moral imperative for any man or woman to set words down on paper or to type them on a screen.  We’re not obligated to do any of the work we do.  Thus, when our work does appear, and wherever it appears, readers can assume at least one thing about the spirit with  which that work is offered:  it is offered in a spirit of love on the shrine of creativity itself–not religious love, certainly; that’s going too far and in the wrong direction; but a sense of warmth and gratitude for the ability to create, and gratitude, too, for the audience willing and eager to read what we have to say.  The gratitude for the gift of writing skill holds true regardless of the purposes we have for any individual piece and regardless of the tone in which that piece may have to be written.  We are, in the end, humbled by our own talents.

By all means, read the whole interview.