On Rediscovering, in Troubling Times, an Excellent Writer

E.B. White

The book Randy chose to take along with him on our recent three-week trip to Spain was a paperback copy of one of E.B. White’s book of essays, One Man’s Meat (1942).

Several evenings during our trip, I borrowed the book and dipped into it at random. What I found there was a series of flawlessly written essays on all manner of subjects, each of them in the wry, understated voice White was so famous (and beloved) for, both before and after his stints as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and before and after he published the immensely popular children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and before and after his and his co-author’s guide for writers, the perennial bestseller Elements of Style. 

When Randy finished his copy of One Man’s Meat, he gave it to me so I could begin reading it cover to cover, which I promptly resolved to do after discovering that some of the essays it contains were not included in the volume of White’s collected essays that (along with a copy of his collected letters) I’ve owned and chereished since the late 1970s.

In addition to re-living White’s humbly-told (and often hilarious) tales of White’s adventures as an amateur farmer who, with his wife and son, had de-camped from Manhattan to Maine, I came upon (in the form of a discursive book review) some unexpected and amazingly prescient comments of White’s about fascism.

Here’s what, seventy-eight years ago – and seventy-six years before Mr. Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency –  White had to say:

“…I think I shall go on resisting any change I disapprove of, for I do not think that change, per se, is anything much, nor that change is necessarily good….Fascism sins against Nature more grievously than anything I ever saw, because it proposes to remove (and does remove) so much of what is natural in people’s lives….[We should] resist the forces which are pledged to destroy parliaments and senates and congresses and newspapers and courts and universities.

The future…seems to be no unified dream but a mince pie, long in the baking, never quite done. The push of eager, dispossessed, frustrated people, united zealously under a bad leader, is one ingredient; the resistance of those whom this push hurts or offends or threatens is another….

…[Fascism] is just the backwash of the past and has muddied the world for centuries.…

…[Name] one new social or economic force that has been discovered by dictators. I can’t think of any that aren’t as old as the hills. The force which Hitler [employed] is the force generated by people who have stood all the hardship they intend to, and are exploding through the nearest valve and it is an ancient force, and so is the use of it by opportunists in bullet-proof vests….[I]t is a common fallacy to say that because a movement springs from deep human distress it must hold thereby the seed of a better order. The fascist ideal, however great the misery which released it and however impressive the self-denial and the burning courage which promote it, does not hold the seed of a better order but a worse one, and it always has a foul smell and a bad effect on the soil. It stank at the time or Christ and it stinks today, wherever you find it and in whatever form, big or little – even here in American, the little fascists always at their tricks, stirring up a lynching mob or flagellating the devil…. The forces are always the same – on the people’s side frustration, disaffection, on the leader’s side control of hysteria, perversion of information, abandonment of principle. There is nothing new in it and nothing good in it, and today when it is developed to a political nicety and supported by a formidable military machine the best thing to do is to defeat it as promptly as possible and in all humility….

…It is of course anybody’s privilege to believe that a good conception of humanity may be coming to birth through the horrid forms of Nazism, but it seems to me far more likely that a good conception of humanity is being promoted by the stubborn resistance to Nazism on the part of millions of people whose belief in democratic notions has been strengthened. Is my own intellectual resistance, based on a passionate belief that the ‘new order’ is basically destructive of universal health and happiness, any less promising than the force of nazism itself, merely because mine does not spring from human misery but merely from human sympathy?I don’t see why. And I do not regard it as a sin to hang fast to principles of a past which I approve of and believe are still applicable and sensible merely because they are, so to speak, ‘past’ and not ‘future.’ I think they are future too, and I think democracy…is the most futuristic thing I ever heard of, and that it holds everything hopeful there is, because ‘demos’ means people and that’s what I am for, and whatever Nazi means it doesn’t mean people, it means ‘the pure-bred people,’ which is a contemptible idea to build a new order on. …I still think [‘democracy’] a good word and a beautiful word…and I find the wave which it sets up a more agreeable wave than any other, and more promising and more buoyant and prettier to look at….I know a lot of things can start with human misery and not bring anything except more human misery….”

 – Excerpted from E.B. White’s December 1940 essay “The Wave of the Future,” reprinted in One Man’s Meat (1942).

I decided to re-read White’s essays to temper the often-horrifying news I glean daily (and numbly “Share”) from the politically-oriented posts on Facebook. I might’ve expected to find something prescient about fascism in a collection of, say, George Orwell’s essays. But E.B. White? Now I respect him – both as a writer and as a thinker –  more than ever!

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Decatur Book Festival 2018!

DBF logo

Another Labor Day Weekend, another DBF for Calvin.

After examining this year’s festival schedule, I headed into the fray without being excited by any particular event on offer this year, other than the opportunity to see and hear one of my living literary (and political) heroes, Armistead Maupin.

Fortunately, I was delighted by every single one of the talks I decided to attend. Without exception, the authors and their interviewers were intelligent, informed, witty, and engaging – a lot to expect of any speaker!

Only one of the presentations (and one of the most unexpectedly enthralling) was not connected to a new or newish book: “Volumes: An Artist in the Stacks” featured, along with archivist Tamara Livingston, photographer Sara Hobbs, who described her project of examining (of all things) the marginal notes in some of the many items in the rare book collection at Kennesaw State University’s library.

Each of the other presentations featured interviews with the authors of various recently-published books. The panels I chose to attend were about books about as different from each other as one could imagine:

Frankenstein cover

Charleston book cover

Grave Landscapes cover

Lost Colony cover

Apostles of the Revolution cover

One of the panels, “Clever Resistance,” featured the authors of two different books on a related subject:

Shw Caused a Riot covere   Sings of REsistance

 

As much as I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, the interview with Armistead Maupin was the highlight of this year’s festival. It was conducted to a huge and enthusiastic audience that filled the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Decatur. The kindheartedness, perspicacity, humility, sense of humor, and generosity of this endearing man were so wonderful to be reminded of. The book festival also featured a showing of the 2017 documentary about Maupin, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (which Randy and I had recently seen at home via Netflix), but the interview the following day focused on Maupin’s recently-published memoir:

Armistead Maupin book cover

I can’t find the words to describe how stimulating (and hilarious) each of these presenters was – and how heartening it was to mingle with so many thousands of other book lovers – and  I came away Sunday afternoon completely convinced that I should continue to make time each year to attend the Decatur Book Festival.

Meanwhile, I can set aside more time in my life to reading books (and to posting mini-reviews of those books to “The Constant Reader” sidebar section of this blog), and to posting more frequently to my other blog, devoted to the celebration of all things bookish.

 

 

Cirque du Soleil!

Cirquedusoleil_Corteo_Chandelier_2
Last night Randy and I and our friend Pat, plunked down some big bucks ($67 each) and drove all the way to Duluth, Georgia to see the latest incarnation of Cirque du Soleil.

Totally worth the expense and the journey!

Having seen two previous Cirque shows (each of which friends had treated me to), I had high expectations of what I would behold, and this version proved to be just as enthralling as the earlier shows.

The imagination that spawns these Cirque spectacles is beyond impressive, and the atmospherics (including the excellent-as-always music) did not disappoint.

Here are a few photos (from the Internet) of a few of the marvels on offer in the production entitled Corteo (Italian for cortege):

proscenium

proscenium scrim

chandelier with flyer         Cirquedusoleil_Corteo_BouncingBeds_2ring lady

best balloon photo

helium balloons

Perry Treadwell, 1932-2018

Perry-Treadwell-pic-360x480Perry Treadwell was an extraordinary man who I met in the late 1970s as part of a men’s consciousness-raising group he had founded. Perry was a member of the local Quaker congregation whose weekly silent meditations I attend. He died his home in Decatur on June 25th.

Perry was one of several local Quakers who I considered a local hero for the social change projects he devoted his life to. In recent years, Perry’s wife Judith Greenburg had volunteered many hours at the Meetinghouse library, whose operation I have coordinated for several decades.

At Perry’s memorial service last month, those of us who had gathered at the Meetinghouse to share our memories of Perry heard two poems that Perry had written.

Here’s an excerpt of one of them:

Friendship takes energy,

And the courage to reach out.

If your life is too busy to reach out,

Simplify.

Remember that, in the end,

The only things to hold onto

And will hold onto you

Are friends.

Here’s the entirety of the second poem of Perry’s that we heard:

Center down to the depths of unthinking.

Find your inner calm.

See how the world moves

in its rhythms.

 

Feel the rhythm of the universe

To which all things belong

And to which they return.

 

If you don’t feel the rhythm

You remain confused in darkness.

Coming from and returning to the light,

You accept, trust.

Distance brings closeness.

Calm brings laughter.

Open your heart.

Be a Friend.

Being a Friend to your Self,

You can float through the

Ups and downs of life,

And prepare for death.

I will miss this thoughtful, sometimes cantankerous, and always generous man.

Road Trip to Virginia

Randy's image of Virginia valley

Randy and I made recently returned from our third out-of-state road trip this year,

Randy wanted to show me his dad’s ancestral haunts near Hot Springs, Virginia, where Randy spent several summers as a child. In addition to visiting a cousin there, Randy also wanted to donate some stuff to the town’s historical society. I wanted Randy to tour Monticello, and to visit my Mercer-era friend Reed Banks who lives nearby, in Charlottesville.

Our visits to Hot Springs included a visit to the Homestead Hotel:

Homestead Hotel

Homestead Hotel interior

/; we stayed overnight nearby, at the Warm Springs Inn. We spent our two nights in Charlottesville at Reed’s house.

The landscapes of the valleys along our route between Hot Springs and Charlottesville are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen . . .

Hot Springs Inn view

Monterey Valley scene by Randy

Barn behind public library in Hot Springs

The reunion with my friend Reed in Charlotteville was fantastic. We had memorable conversations on a wide variety of topics as Reed squired us around the university town where Reed and his wife Renita raised their two children (now grown up and living far from Charlottesville).

Charlottesville pedestrian mall

Charolottesville with Randy Cal and Reed

Charlottesville Randy and Cal photo by Reed

In addition to spending a morning taking two of the remarkably informative tours being conducted these days at Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, just outside Charlottesville, the three of us spent a lovely afternoon inspecting the gorgeous buildings and numerous gardens at the Charleston campus of the University of Virginia, designed by Jefferson:

Charlottesville U of VA Rotunda

UofVA Rotunda interior

Another colonnade at UVA

UofVA dorm colonnade by Randy

UVA garden shot 1

UVA garden short with Reed

An Unexpected Garden Treat

On our way to Hot Springs and Charlottesville, we visited numerous antique shops and malls, stopping for our first night in a town in southwest Virginia called Wytheville (pronounced with-vill).

Wytheville Pencil Bldg

We spent the night in a suitably funky-but-comfortable 1950s-era motel there . . .

Wytheville Motel

. . . and ate dinner at a fancy restaurant across the street:

Wytheville Garden 0

The restaurant is housed in a ramshackle series of restored log cabins with tons o’ atmosphere and excellent food.

Wytheville Restaurant 1

Wytheville Restaurant 2 atmosphere with Cal

But the most startling thing about the restaurant is its large cottage garden, chock full of wonderful plants and garden sculptures and other whimsical structures. Since we managed to get only a late-evening glimpse of the garden while waiting for our dinner (ditto quick inspections of the restaurant’s two amazingly interesting gift shops!), we decided to come back the following morning to take some photos. Here are some of them (about half of them taken by me, the others by Randy):

Wytheville Garden 1

Wytheville Garden 2

Wytheville Garden 3

Wytheville Garden 4

Wytheville Garden 5 with Randy

Wytheville Garden 6

Wytheville Garden 7

Wytheville Garden 8

Wytheville Garden 9

Wytheville Garden 10

Wytheville Garden Detail 1

Wytheville Garden Detail 2

Wytheville Garden Detail 3 with Randy

Wytheville Garden Sculpture 1

Wytheville Garden Sculpture 2

Wytheville Garden Sculpture 3

Wytheville Garden with Randy 2

Wytheville Garden Sculpture 4

Wytheville Garden Sculpture 5

Wytheville Garden Sculpture 6

Wytheville Garden Sculpture 7

Wytheville Garden with Cal and Randy

Our road trip to Virginia, like our previous trips this year to Florida (in May) and to Kentucky (at the end of June), was full of delightful surprises along the way, including some great conversations in the car and plenty of pit-stops at local antique malls. And I’m delighted that our trips to various destinations around the southeast U.S. have been as thoroughly enjoyable as our trip with some friends around Italy last September, when Randy and I got re-acquainted after having first met so many decades ago.

Next up for us before our next overseas trip (this time to Spain): a road trip to Asheville, which may or may not – because of the hefty $60 admission fee – include a visit to the Chihuly exhibit at Biltmore House.

 

 

 

OK, Then: 70!

Birthday Cards 2018

“If I had known when I was twenty-one, that I should be as happy as I am now, I should have been sincerely shocked.”

Christopher Isherwood (Letter to Edward Upward, August 1974)

This year on July 4th, I turned 70.

Someone who’s lived that long should be able to be more articulate about what turning 70 feels like than I seem to be able to manage.

Like most of my recent birthdays, deciding to acknowledge another trip around the sun with a formal ritual involving other people seemed somewhat . . . optional. In terms, I mean, of trying to experience my birthday as personally significant, and this year’s in particular as some sort of watershed moment.

The main thing I can report about what it felt like to turn 70 is that it felt a lot like turning 60, or, for that matter, 50 or even 40. This is hardly something to complain about, but I still find it surprising, given the hoopla surrounding these decade-marking birthdays.  but I still find it surprising.

In terms of my physical health, which remains astoundingly good for an American my age, I have noticed that at 70 I don’t have the stamina I used to have. Mere two-hour stints of gardening (vs. the all-day marathons of yesteryear) now seem ideal, as do fewer consecutive hours of, say, shopping in the most fascinating of antique malls. And the prospect of any dawn-to-dusk traipsing around even the quaintest neighborhoods of overseas capital cities is decidedly a thing of the distant past.

The main way I cope with this slight diminishment in stamina is by taking daily naps – a luxury that even after five years of being retired I still enjoy.  Like my daily doses of hot tea every morning, my naps seem to help a lot with keeping me content and operating contentedly within the limits of my current energy level. I realize that this is mainly because I am not yet coping with any chronic illnesses or with the result of any debilitating accidents that beset many a retiree my age – and, for that matter, many Americans younger than me.

Still, I suppose I assumed, when I was younger (especially much younger) that I would feel at least wiser at 70 than I felt at 50 or 60. But no, that’s not the case, unless you count being especially vigilant about guarding the limits of my stamina counts as wisdom. I do feel that I’ve learned to take myself a little less seriously the older I’ve gotten, and have taught myself to be at least occasionally more flexible and a bit less judgmental than in previous decades.

One of the reasons for this noticeable if somewhat incremental and belated transformation has been educating myself over the past two years (along with another ten friends of mine) about the Enneagram. I’m still a novice at understanding the Enneagram’s implications and potential for me personally, but the little I have gleaned about that particular typology of personality styles has been helpful in guiding me to occasionally break the pattern of certain ingrained habits that for too long dictated some of my mental habits and reflexes.

Another powerful influence that’s been helpful in a few habits of thinking and behaving has been a more recent one: my almost ten-month-old significant relationship with Randy Taylor that began during the middle of a trip last year with several friends to Italy. Randy’s way of doing things (and of thinking about things) is often noticeably – and helpfully – different than mine. The fact that Randy and I have been spending so much time together in the runup to the 70th birthday, and the fact that I’ve been learning so much from him while I enjoying our time together, will likely make my 7th decade feel quite a bit different from my previous decades.

In any case, whatever subtle and/or gradual transformations may be happening with the way I habitually move through the world and try to frame – or re-frame – what happens in my world and what my options are for all manner of things – habits, relationships, hobbies, projects, householdery routines, travel-related plans – I haven’t turned 70 feeling significantly diminished in either my general well-being or in my level of curiosity and enthusiasm about whatever my post-70 years will bring me, or what I hope to bring to them.

Be that as it may, I did want to conjure up a way to celebrate this 70th birthday a bit differently than I’d celebrated most of the previous ones. Ever since I co-purchased with some friends a cabin in the north Georgia mountains almost 20 years ago, I’d spent most of my birthdays there. This year, I decided to invite several friends to join me here in Atlanta for a potluck picnic and the obligatory fireworks-watching. . As it happens, Randy and some of his friends had been celebrating July 4th at the pond in Avondale Estates, and our inviting some of our respective friends to meet each other there on my birthday seemed like a sufficiently convenient and low-key way to celebrate my 70th.

Cal and Randy July 4 2018Except for the blazing heat (we had to get there before sundown to nab a sufficiently spacious spot with a decent view), the humidity – and the ants –  the pond-side picnic in Avondale Estates was perfect.

In retrospect, I suspect that next year I will probably designate an air-conditioned environment for celebrating my birthday. I also need to refine my preference for people bringing only edible presents to asking that they bring only non-sweet edible presents! The wonderful cake, pie, and fudge that friends or siblings made for the 4th I am still serving all these weeks later! (Thank goodness I was born in an era after refrigeration was invented!) I certainly gained some extra poundage from that picnic and its aftermath that I wasn’t burdened with on July 3rd, and am planning to hoping to take care of that by eventually resuming more frequent and longer walks in the appealingly walkable neighborhood I am lucky enough to be living in.

During which walks I should have plenty of time to contemplate how my 70s resemble – and differ from – my 60s, not to mention frequent thoughts on how the astonishing fact that I’m alive still, and that, among other delights, I have such interesting and loyal friends, some of whom were able to join me in marking my 70th birthday, some of whom could not for various reasons, including the melancholy fact that some of my dear ones are no longer alive themselves.

I have a lot to be thankful for, having known all these people, and I continue to learn from all of them – the ones still living and the ones not living – about how to make my remaining years – as few or as many as they will be – as rich and interesting as we can make them.

Fireworks image

St. George Island 2018

Sunburst on mantel

Every year for the past five, I’ve spent a week in May with eleven other gay guys who rent a house for a week on Florida’s St. George Island.

This year, Randy Taylor (my partner since a trip to Italy with several friends last October) went with me to the beach – his first time there, although he knows most of the people who joined us there, all of whom, like Randy and myself, are veterans of Gay Spirit Visions conferences.

The other newcomer to the beach this year is also named Randy; he traveled all the way from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The rest of us (with the exception of Greg, who moved about a year ago from Atlanta to St. Petersburg, Florida) live in Atlanta or North Carolina.

Before arriving this year, the Atlanta Randy and I spent two days traveling elsewhere in Florida, driving down to Naples to see some property my mom and dad had purchased there decades ago. We spent the night on the way down with a friend of Randy’s (an antique dealer who lives in one of the most unusual houses I’ve ever been in) who lives near Tampa.

This pre-St. George leg of our trip featured a car breakdown incident in the remote and tiny town of Salem, Florida, midway between Naples (near the edge of the Everglades) and our backroads-using route northward to St. George.

Randy photo - car breakdown in Salem, Florida

Fortunately, our tow-truck driver got us to a motel for the night, and after a temporary repair in Perry, Florida, we managed to get the car as far as St. George so the friends who had joined us there could help us drop off the car at a mechanic’s shop on the mainland, and retrieve it later in the week. (My car repair shop here in Atlanta reimbursed me for the cost of the car repair, as I’d taken in the car for servicing shortly before our trip.)

While we all enjoyed a carefree week surrounded by the various luxuries and conveniences of Abijem, our spacious rental house:

abajem_002

abajem_004

Of course, some of us felt compelled to make a few temporary modifications in the house’s decor. For example, the living room mantel and mirror were quickly festooned with strings of lights, and we decided to festoon the gigantic flatscreen television set with a little festive drapery:

Festooned television

Also, one of the ornamental animal sculptures dotted about the house apparently needed a bit of tweaking:

Festoonery 2

This year’s beach trip featured all of the activities I had so enjoyed during previous trips to Abijem. We meditated together every morning, took trips into the nearby fishing towns of Apalachicola and Carrabelle for restaurant lunches and/or shopping, did a bit of reading, took some delicious naps, and engaged in plenty of catching-up conversations, general lollygagging, teasing, and frequent laughter.

We again prepared a week’s worth of memorable dinners for each other:

Bradford's Tablescape

Greg’s tablescape for the dining room – slightly modified for each of the dinners we took turns preparing for each other throughout the week.

The group strolls along the beach took place mostly in the evening:

Randy photo - group on beach

Although I didn’t get around to joining in on any of the bike rides or the two group massage sessions, I did manage a glorious foray into the waves with Randy one afternoon (ditto the hot tub), and, as in previous years, participated in a series of fiercely competitive rounds of Wizard. Sarong-wearing was popular again this year. Several of us visited (or re-visited) the small but excellent nature center on the mainland near the entrance to the St. George bridge. And Randy and I worked in a short visit with our friends Royce and Martha Hodge, who live on St. George.

The most distinctive difference between this year’s trip and previous ones was the unusual weather we had. Except for the first couple days, it rained at least once a day, although by late afternoon most days, the sun broke through the clouds and you’d never have guessed the island had been besieged by torrents of rainfall.

Some of the cloudscapes Randy took photos of:

Fall in Cal's Garden and SGI 2018 003.JPG

Fall in Cal's Garden and SGI 2018 008

Fall in Cal's Garden and SGI 2018 012

Now for a few photos (most, though not all, taken by me) of my co-conspirators this year:

Chaser's selfie at beach

Chase (Silva, NC), who’s organized these group trips to St. George for the past 17 (!) years.

Bradford and Greg

Bradford (Raleigh, NC)

Craig

Craig (Atlanta, GA)

Greg's selfie at beach

Greg (St. Petersburg, FL)

John

John (Asheville, NC)

Randy photo - Ralph and Chase at restaurant

Ralph (Atlanta, GA)

Randy M 2

Randy M. (Ft. Wayne, IN)

Randy T

Randy T. (Atlanta, GA)

Roger

Roger (Asheville, NC)

Ted

Ted (Atlanta, GA)

Tom

Tom (Atlanta, GA)

Randy and I prepared teas for the group on three of our afternoons together:

Tea 1

The English Tea.

Tea 2

The Asian Tea.

Tea 3

The Herbal Tea.

My last photo is of the sunset on our final evening at St. George:

Final sunset

Photos from previous trips to Abijem are here, here, here, and here.