Round About

“I tried to compare my state with that of old circumnavigators, who sailed exactly over the route I took from Cape Verde Islands or farther back to this point and beyond, but there was no comparison so far as I had got. Their hardships and romantic escapes – those of them who avoided death and worse sufferings – did not enter into my experience, sailing all alone around the world. For me is left only to tell of pleasant experiences, till finally my adventures are prosy and tame.”

Joshua Slocum made the first-ever solo circumnavigation of the globe in the sloop Spray between 1895 and 1898. His own words to the contrary, his adventures were not really so prosy and tame. His book, first published in 1899, has the fresh enthusiasm of a Robert Louis Stevenson travelogue and the humor, almost, of Jerome K. Jerome.

Along his course, Slocum is haunted by a ghost from Columbus’s Pinta who lends a hand in an Atlantic storm. He is pursued by pirates off the coast of Morocco. He gets stuck in a sort of vortex and makes two difficult passages through the Straits of Magellan, where he is attacked by Patagonian “savages.” To his own surprise he becomes a minor celebrity in Australia. His arrival on Rodriguez Island in the Indian Ocean is hilariously mistaken for the coming of the Anti-Christ. He engages in fierce debate with Flat-Earth disciples of Kruger in South Africa who sneer at the mere suggestion of a circumnavigation.

I envied Slocum his skill and ability, his stoic resolve, his ease in company and his comfort in extended periods of the most perfect solitude. I also envied his opportunity to read through a large library of books on his travels, thanks to the self-steering mechanism he invented for the Spray. It may not, in the end, be the most adventurous book ever written or the most philosophical (though it’s not at all unreflective), but I found Slocum’s Sailing Alone around the World  a joy to read.


Means of Conveyance

I returned Tuesday night from a business trip to San Francisco. My employer believes I was there to take part in two brief meetings on two separate days, which I did; but I personally believe that, sub specie aeternitatis, I was there to have a conversation with a taxi driver.

There are only two things I like about business travel. The first is the chance to read undisturbed. I begin thinking about what book to bring a week before. I read on the airplane and return each day to my hotel at the earliest possible hour so that I can read. This time I brought along Chekhov’s Later Short Stories 1888-1903, the Modern Library edition.

The second thing I like is to walk in new places. For a business dinner on Monday evening, I walked from my hotel in South Beach to Café Zoetrope, owned by Francis Ford Coppola, which occupies the ground floor of the wedge-shaped Sentinel Building, one of the few structures to survive the 1906 earthquake.

Walking through downtown San Francisco you find what you might in any big city: crowds and cars, sirens and lights, glass-clad skyscrapers and alleys that stink of urine. But Monday evening added: the jargon-laced banter of tech workers at happy hour, a plaque commemorating the site of Jack London’s birthplace, the odors of fish sauce and herbal medicine shops in Chinatown, children singing Christmas carols on Columbus Avenue.

Tuesday afternoon I hired a taxi to take me to the airport. I prefer taxis to Uber or Lyft cars, which make me feel like I’m sitting in a stranger’s living room. My driver was a young man from east Africa, maybe thirty years old, with closely trimmed hair and beard. His radio was tuned to the local classical music station (Schubert was playing) and I asked whether he enjoyed it or simply listened to it for his riders.

He himself was not a musician, he said apologetically. But he had listened to classical music in his cab for seven years. “At first,” he said, “I did not understand it.” But he discovered that when listening to it he drove less aggressively and was happier. It helped him to notice things, “like clouds, and colors and birds,” and to think about his life. “Now, he said, “I understand.”

I can’t very well describe the feeling I had at this reply. I want to say that it opened a door in the sky above my head – a door I didn’t know was there and didn’t know had been closed. It was something like the feeling I get when reading, and re-reading, “The Beauties.”

Miracle on the St Lawrence

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather ~

Willa Cather was a lifelong Protestant (a Baptist and later an Episcopalian) and yet she wrote two of the best Catholic novels in American literature, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. The latter is less often read today but is as perfect a novel as the first.

Set in 1697, in the Quebec of elderly Count Frontenac and retired Archbishop Laval, Shadows on the Rock describes a year in the life of apothecary Euclide Auclaire and his daughter Cecile. The portraiture is careful – not a wasted brushstroke – and the pacing almost liturgical in its sober intentionality. Do not expect fireworks and thrills. Look instead to the details, to (in Cather’s phrase) “all the little shades of feeling which make the common life fine.”

In fact, Cather’s passage below, on the role of miracles in the lives of the faithful, seems almost to describe her book. Living in a literate culture, reading habitually, we sometimes forget or become insensitive to the power that stories like Cather’s may have:

“The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another.”

Think of that the next time you loan a favorite book to a friend.

All praise aside, I believe I discovered a couple anachronisms in Shadows on the Rock. First, Euclide is too familiar with the migratory behavior of the swallows that nest on the cliff behind his home. He describes their southward/northward journey to his daughter as if it were a matter of common knowledge. And yet, a hundred years after the novel’s setting, people in Europe still speculated that swallows may hibernate in hidden caves or even underwater during the winter (see Gilbert White).

More egregious, perhaps, Euclide stocks among his pharmacopeia balls of eucalyptus wax which he burns to ward off mosquitoes at an outdoor party. A fine idea. However, the eucalyptus tree was not introduced from the southern hemisphere to Europe (let alone Quebec) until the late 1700s or early 1800s at earliest.

But I make note of these complaints only because I am a pedant.

Madness among the Woodwinds

Not long ago my teenage son and I sat in on a violin master class given by Charles Castleman at Portland State University. We were introduced to him afterwards. He’s one of those rare birds in the classical music world, a child prodigy that didn’t burn out or commit suicide by age twenty-five. At six years old he performed as a soloist with the Boston Pops. At ten he appeared with Jack Benny on The Frank Sinatra Show. In his late seventies now, Castleman is gray-haired and clean-shaven, compact but lithe. When we met him he wore dark purple loafers and was dressed in what looked like fancy silk pajamas.

If you’ve never been to a master class, here’s how it works. Students, who are specially invited to participate beforehand, step one at a time on stage and play a solo piece of some difficulty. The master teacher then steps up to offer criticism and make suggestions. Try this, try that. While listening to students act on his instructions, Castleman moves his bow hand in quick sympathetic arcs at his side, as if he were the one playing.

I am no musician myself. I thought I might like to play the oboe, but my son tells me that oboists are all crazy. That’s their reputation. The oboe is an especially difficult instrument. The player needs to marshal a lot of controlled wind and, the theory goes, this increases pressure in the cranium, leading inevitably to madness. My son once played with a temperamental oboist. His attendance at rehearsals was poor and he upset the others with sudden fits of temper and the open romancing of the quintet’s blonde cellist.

H.L. Mencken was a lover of classical music and knew all about oboists. In Heathen Days, the third volume of his autobiography, he mentions an oboist who doubled with the English horn and “was naturally insane, for mental aberration is almost normal among oboists.” Later he describes other members of the orchestra:

“The bull-fiddle players were solid men who played the notes set before them, however difficult, in a dogged and uncomplaining manner, and seldom gave a conductor any trouble, whether by alcoholism or Bolshevism. The cellists were also pretty reliable fellows, but in the viola section one began to encounter boozers, communists and even spiritualists, and when one came to the fiddlers it was reasonable to expect anything, including even a lust to maim and kill.”

Here I pause to wonder if my son, who has played violin since age seven, boils with unguessed violence beneath his placid demeanor. But Mencken continues:

“So, also, in the brass and woodwind. No one ever heard of a bassoon or a tuba player saying or doing anything subversive, but the trumpeters were vain and quarrelsome, the flautists and clarinetists were often heavy drinkers, and the oboists, as I have noted, were predominantly meshuggah.”

Therefore avoid oboe master classes.

A few weeks after our encounter with Charles Castleman, my son and I attended a performance of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The Schnitz, as it’s called, is a large Italianate theater originally built to host vaudeville shows, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The conductor, a native of Costa Rica, came dashing out of the wings in a long tailcoat, while the players stomped in applause. He talked awhile in sanguine tones about the organization, the evening’s selections, and youth symphony’s planned trip to Italy this coming summer. He conducted with enthusiasm.

Mencken said of conductors that their lives are “full of misery” and I had to admit that this young conductor, despite his energy, had a face for sadness. He never ceased to smile, but he seemed born for Spanish tears. “When I became well acquainted with a number of them,” says Mencken of orchestra conductors, “it seemed only natural to learn that they were steady readers of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and heavy consumers of aspirin, mineral oil and bicarbonate of soda.”

Turnpikes and Sand Roads

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee ~

The New Jersey Turnpike is not a highway. It’s a sleight of hand, a confidence trick. I drove it for the first time this past summer on a family vacation. In our rented car we entered the Turnpike at the Delaware River near Wilmington and followed it up the length of the state until we passed under the Hudson, by way of the Lincoln Tunnel, into Manhattan.

The swindle of the Turnpike is that it leads you through the middle of New Jersey while denying you any evidence that New Jersey exists. You do not see it: no towns, no countryside. Trees and shrubs hem you in completely. When you want to stop for gas or lunch, you are channeled into service centers immediately alongside the highway. There are, I think, fewer than a dozen exits in more than one hundred miles of road. The point is to move you as efficiently as possible out of the state.

Forbidden any real acquaintance with the place, I drove through the New Jersey of my imagination, humming Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper.” Somewhere to the left, in the direction of Philadelphia, one of my ancestors had settled, a yeoman farmer of the colonial period. Somewhere ahead was Princeton, where my brother had attended graduate school twenty years ago. Off to the right, for mile after mile, vast and dim in my reverie, were the Pine Barrens.

The name sounds like a doom, a place of exile. The Pine Barrens are a broad elevated tract of sparsely settled land, poor in soil, thick with woods, drained by slow molasses-colored rivers with strange names like Batsto and Mullica. In John McPhee’s telling it is a place of social isolation, ghost towns swallowed in undergrowth, dead industries, real-estate bubbles, anomalies of flora and geology, mafia murders, moonshiners, cranberry bogs, and mythological creatures like the Jersey Devil.

When McPhee published his book in 1967, a new round of development was planned in the Pine Barrens, including an international air hub and a modern city of a quarter million people. A spur of the Turnpike was proposed that would have cut through the Pine Barrens from approximately Trenton to Atlantic City. Like the grandiose ambitions of planning committees in earlier generations, none of these has materialized, which I find gratifying.

Himself a native of New Jersey, John McPhee found perfect subject matter in the Pine Barrens: a bit of wilderness, with a history and culture all its own, in the middle of the country’s most densely populated state. He does it justice. How much better it is to ride along with McPhee and his companions through the labyrinthine sand roads of the Pine Barrens than to find oneself dozing off, in need of coffee, on the featureless Turnpike of the mind.

A Frilly Senchman

Maxims by Francois de La Rochefoucauld ~

La Rochefoucauld writes in the Maxims that “age makes men both sillier and wiser.” He does not say that progress in one entails progress in the other but it would be convenient to believe so because, as my children will agree, I am sillier now than I used to be. I indulge in bad puns and gratuitous spoonerisms. I make, and enjoy making, “dad jokes.” In my middle age I find that most of the old vices and temptations loosen their grip (La Rochefoucauld: “When the vices give us up we flatter ourselves that we are giving them up”). The exception is this vice of silliness, which perpetually expands its dominion in me. It would be nice to know I’m growing wiser too.

La Rochefoucauld is to the modern aphorism what Montaigne is to the modern essay, a sort of godfather. Neither, of course, invented the forms with which they are associated. Montaigne, however, brought to the world of letters a fresh… Well, I was going to say a fresh “disillusionment,” but that’s not quite right. Whatever it was that Montaigne brought, La Rochefoucauld borrowed it, and likely from Montaigne himself. Some passages in the Maxims read like crib notes from the Essays. For example: “At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others” and “It is easier to know man in general than to understand one man in particular.”

Perhaps the most famous of La Rochefoucauld’s aphorisms states that “neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” This isn’t quite true, of course. One can stare wide-eyed at the sun for a week, but there will be consequences. The Maxims train a fairly unblinking gaze not at death but at the moral squalor and weakness to which we are all susceptible. According to La Rochefoucauld we are gorged on self-regard (“Whatever good we are told about ourselves, we learn nothing knew”). We are base hypocrites (“If we had no faults we should not find so much enjoyment in seeing faults in others”). Most of our virtues are pretended (“Self-love is the greatest flatterer of all”). We are lacking in compassion (“We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others”). We have no spiritual fortitude (“Philosophy always triumphs over past ills and ills to come, but present ills triumph over philosophy”).

You might say that the frilly Senchman really takes it to the maximum. [Sorry.]

But if all of this is too democratically demoralizing, you’ll appreciate the disclaimer La Rochefoucauld once offered, inviting the reader “to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities. After that I guarantee that he will be the first to endorse them and he will believe that they do credit to the human spirit.”