Coffee and Cake

“The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
–L. P. Hartley

When I was a kid I can remember clearly that whenever we had someone stop by our house (we always called it “company” in those days) my mother would serve coffee and some kind of cake or sweet, but never candy, unless it was the holidays and we had an abundance of those long, striped ribbons of confectionery goodness. She learned this type of hospitality from my paternal grandmother who always had cake or cookies, always homemade and always fresh. Whenever we had company over, whether it was announced or not, coffee and cake became a ritual of hospitality that seems to have been forgotten today. There was something more formal about the coffee and cake service, a service that has been replaced now by a much less formal, and one could argue, less caloric intake.

The first thing I remember when we had company is that the coffee pot would come out. My family called it the percolator on account of its way of brewing coffee and never the coffee pot or coffee machine. It seemed to take a long time from start to finish to make a pot of coffee in those days. Our CorningWare percolator was of medium size and light green or pea green in color. I used to love to watch my mother make coffee (I do not recall ever seeing my father do this until much later when I was an adult and we switched to a more modern drip-coffee machine or the fast and efficient Keurig they have now). The best part was when she plugged the machine in and I would sit and watch the small clear plastic or glass capsule-like tube at the top begin to bubble with the hot water. The sound of percolating coffee is still one of those sounds that I associate most closely with my childhood. It’s strange, but I have no memory of the smell of coffee brewing from these machines; all of my memories of the coffee percolator are visual. The coffee was always served in china cups complete with a saucer to place one’s spoon on after sugar or milk (but more likely a cold bottle of Half and Half) after stirring those additives into the coffee. If I remember correctly, no one in my family drank their coffee black like I have always done. Moreover, in those days my mother always drank hot tea, never coffee. She became a coffee-addict much later in life.

When we had cake, it was always a sheet cake and more often than not a chocolate cake with Cool Whip for icing that we placed in the refrigerator before and after serving. This type of cake is ubiquitous in my childhood memories, and when I make it for my own family today it seems to stay in the refrigerator a little longer than it did when I was a kid. When I eat it now I do not experience a flood of memories rushing back to me. It’s not like Proust’s madeleine, but it’s more of a sad reminder that the person I used to be has passed on, or has vanished into the person I am now. The other type of dessert served was a particular favorite in my family: my grandmother’s custard pie. This was also in a “sheet” version, rather than a typical round pie. I, myself, never cared for this, but it was a hit with my parents, as well as my aunts and uncles.

Now that I am an adult and have my own family and home, whenever we have company I do not offer coffee and cake, but a beer, a glass of wine, or something stronger. My sense of hospitality revolves around alcohol, and has for some time. This does not mean that I do not offer my guests coffee, I always do, but as an afterthought, or if the visitor is a non-drinker, or after we have had dinner. I also own my own percolator now, but it’s different from the one we had in my childhood home. My percolator is the Italian-made mocha express by Bialetti. It works the same way as the percolators from my childhood, but this one is steel and serves espresso rather than Maxwell House or Folgers. The coffee I prefer now is also more sophisticated. No more Maxwell House for me. Instead, I drink LavAzza or pods from my Nespresso at home. When I’m out, I always try to stop by the independent coffee houses. In Salisbury, Maryland, where I currently live, that means Rise Up, an excellent café and coffee roaster.

I wonder if society is somehow less sophisticated without a coffee and cake service. A few years ago, I was in Budapest, and while there I tried to visit as many coffee houses as I could. Each time I would also order a pastry to go with my coffee. It’s only now that I think this might have had something to do with my childhood, and being so far from home (although Budapest is in Europe, it has a very different feel for me from the other countries I’ve visited in the western part of that continent, especially its café society) I was attempting to reach for something familiar, something safe, despite its existence far down the corridors of my memory. Nevertheless, it’s always coffee that seems to bring me home.

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Pavese at the Trident

I saw a man at the Trident Bookstore on Newbury Street yesterday who looked a lot like Cesare Pavese, but without the glasses. He was wearing a dark colored suit, open at the colIar with no tie. I attempted to get a closer look, but the bookstore was packed, and people kept bumping into me, knocking me about. I stopped and picked up a book at random to browse through, while trying not to look as if I were staring at what I thought was an hallucination. He was sitting at the counter, hunched over an open laptop computer. He was clearly intent on whatever it was he was reading. He looked serious and forlorn.

Those of us who read are often, I suspect, are haunted by those authors who have come to occupy a special place in our lives, like those lost loves of youth. In fact, this type of haunting happens to me quite often. I will be standing in a particular place at a particular time and will feel a pull from somewhere. My eyes will glance around and come to rest on the apparition. For me, those apparitions are almost always authors. Sometimes they linger, other times their presence is more ephemeral. What is certain to me is that the apparition always results in the fecundity that comes from reading, and reading fiction in particular.

So I stood there, gazing at who I thought was Pavese sitting at the lunch counter in the Trident Bookstore. After a few minutes I left, but the thought of Pavese, sitting there, looking so forlorn, has stayed with me. Perhaps this is also what it means to be haunted.

The Routine of Daily Life

I’ve spent the last few months reading Claudio Magris. Most recently, I’ve immersed myself in his latest collection of travel writing, Journeying, skillfully translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel. Magris is an author of some renown in Europe, but, like countless other authors who do not write in English, is still relatively unknown in the United States. He is a writer whose name always seems to come up when the betting on the next Nobel for Literature begins, even if the odds are largely against him. Still, he is a heavyweight in European letters who deserves a larger audience in the United States. I’ll come back to Magris.

Because of a change in employment, I am moving my family from New Hampshire to Maryland. In the space of a week we sold our townhouse and purchased a new house in Maryland. Needless to say, it was one hell of a week. We placed our New Hampshire house on the market late Friday evening, and by the end of the day on the following Monday we accepted an offer. Over the weekend we had to keep the house in pristine condition while strangers came in and out. It’s a strange thing to know that someone you do not know is moving through your home, looking in your closets and cabinets, inspecting all of the things that physically make up a home. It has been more than a little disconcerting for me in that I value my privacy to the extreme. Nevertheless, if one wants to sell one’s home, one must make certain sacrifices that are, at the very least, uncomfortable and intrusive.

We sold our home before we could get down to Maryland to look at new places. However, we all (my children were especially keen on searching for homes on the internet) spent much of our time looking at houses online. It’s both strange and wonderful to have so much information at our fingertips. I looked at dozens of houses and each one brought with it something special. With each house I viewed I tried to picture what it would look like with us in it. Would we be comfortable? Would we be able to transfer our lives as seamlessly as possible into a new dwelling? Of course, there would be a period of adjustment, but I wanted to make as smooth a transition as possible. But I also wanted something different. I had grown bored with my surroundings in New Hampshire, especially professionally, and needed a change.

I suspect that most people would not equate change with the concept of home. In fact, home would seem to connote the very opposite: a regulated, comfortable and secure (secure in the sense of unchanging) environment. But for me, home has always been a fluid concept.

All of which brings me back to Magris. Somewhere early in his book he mentions that our concepts of home are entangled in routine. It’s the practice of routine that defines and sets the parameters of what it means to be at home in the world. As I thought about this, combined with the experience of moving for the first time in over a decade, I found myself agreeing with him. We lose ourselves in the routines of daily life, and through those routines we begin to stake out a claim. Home and its connotations are different for most people, yet we continue to force our dominate conception (in the case of the United States its wrapped up in the idea of home ownership, of property, but this also goes back to the political ideology of John Locke) on others, just as we force our way of life on others. Home, in other words, is conformity. Well, I’ve never been a conformist, and I not only balk at, but am repelled by the dominant concepts of what it means to be at home in the world, and I’ve been exploring this topic for the last twenty years.

As my family continues to pack up our “stuff,” we feel more and more unhomed. I tell myself that this is one of the richest experiences I can give my children, and so far, they seem to be taking it all in stride. When we finally come to settle in our new home, it may take a few years before that familiar feeling of being at home sets in. But until then, I plan to revel in the fecundity of movement, of being anything but at rest.

I Will Write No More Forever: On Philip Roth

This is a post I first published a few years ago, but I’ve just added a postscript on Roth’s passing.

The big news on Twitter last Friday, at least on the Twitter feeds that I subscribe to, was the announcement that Philip Roth admitted to not having written anything in three years and announced that he was retiring from writing. This came as a shock, since Roth is a prolific writer with 37 books to his name, and a career that spans over 50 years. Roth, who is 78, could still have a great deal of material to mine as he ascends into old age. I can still see the picture of Samuel Beckett at 80 looking serious, if more than a bit worn out, with the fire still burning him. One does not think of old age as a barrier to the writer’s craft. I am troubled by Roth’s announcement of his retirement, at least in part because I never thought of writing as a “job” one retires from.

“To tell you the truth, I’m done,” Roth said in an interview with French magazine Les Inrocks (www.lesinrocks.com) last month. More shocking still is the fact that it has taken so long for the word of Roth’s retirement to leak. This is further proof that the United States does not view its writers with the same respect and honor that Europe does. Roth has won nearly every major literary prize imaginable, with the exception of the one that really matters: the Nobel Prize for Literature. Roth has long been considered the favorite to win that prize and return it to the American experience, but now this looks even more unlikely. He is the last among only a handful of mid to late twentieth century writers who emerged from the shadows of Hemingway’s lost generation. He is one of only a few of the American “giants” left on the literary scene.

Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933 and his work has primarily examined the Jewish-American experience. Much of his work describes and explores the sexual and sensual unrest of his characters as they navigate their way through the labyrinths of modern life in the United States. His first book, Goodbye, Columbus is a collection of short stories that won the National Book Award in 1960. However, his breakthrough book came in 1969 (the year I was born) with Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel I’ve never been able to get through.

This news begs the question: do we really need another Philip Roth novel? In the Les Inrocks piece Roth himself asks this questions and concludes that we do not. The last several novels Roth has published have been okay at best, often reading like they were written in haste. Yet, when Roth publishes a new novel it becomes an event and I run out to purchase it with the expectation that this one will be a return to form. Nevertheless, I am more than a little saddened by the fact that he may never again publish another novel. But it only occurs to me as I write this that I might not be as sorry to see Roth cease to publish as I am mourning an imminent end to a stage or movement in American literature. With Roth’s exit from the stage there are only a few giants left: Pynchon, McCarthy, Oates, Morrison, perhaps a few more.

Most of what I know of the Jewish-American experience comes from writers like Philip Roth. Even though I’m not Jewish, I did grow up in a Catholic Italian-American household, and there are a lot of similarities, staring with the crushing guilt placed upon us by our parents. In my limited experience I cannot help but think that a Catholic male’s relationship with is mother is a lot like that of a Jewish male’s. Roth opened a world for me that might have been otherwise closed, and for that I’m thankful.

I suspect that after this announcement Roth’s back catalogue will see a bump in sales, and that is a good thing, because when he’s good, he’s really good.

Postscript: May 22, 2018

The news came late last night that Philip Roth died in a Manhattan hospital of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. There are no words to describe the hole this puts in the world of letters, especially American literature. Roth is now ineligible to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a prize he should have won, but then so should have a lot of writers. Without having won Roth joins a perhaps more prestigious company of writers that includes James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino, Elsa Morante, and Isak Dinesen, to name only a few. Roth won nearly every other literary prize, and his reputation as a giant of American letters is firmly established. Still, awarding the Nobel to someone like Bob Dylan over Roth is disappointing to say the least.

Roth’s writing was intense and sexually charged. He mapped out a twentieth century Jewishness that was a unique blend of old and new world, yet still regionally (New Jersey and New York) situated. Of all Roth’s books I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them, my favorite is The Ghost Writer, first published by FSG in 1979. It’s the first novel to feature Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. It’s a short novel and can be consumed in the course of an afternoon, but all of Roth’s themes are there.

The passing of Philip Roth should send us back to his oeuvre, in search of the meanings we found during our first readings, but also new meanings, new memories, especially in light of the #metoo movement. I suspect that many of Roth’s characters would come under fire for their bad behavior. Still, on the other side of life, which is where fiction resides, we can walk with these characters for a while, safe in knowing that they can only harm us in our waking dreams. I’m proud to have lived in the same period as Philip Roth, and although I never met him, I feel as if I’ve walked with him for miles.

Sinner

“Bless me father, for I have sinned.”

This phrase is one that has haunted me most of my life. As a child, I went through a long phase where I thought that I had to constantly ask for God’s forgiveness and beg for his love. This is one of the tenets of the Catholic faith in which I was brought up: we are born in sin and must seek, for the rest of our lives, to free ourselves from its chains. Of course, failure to do so would result in an eternity of suffering in that most frightening of places known as Hell. What I realized from a very early age, and what was instilled in me by the Catholic faith, is that despite the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we drag our sins around with us, like Marley’s ghost drags around his own might chain in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But our own chain of sin does not carry with it the romantic notions that Marley’s does. Indeed, what is most frightening about sin as conceptualized by the Catholic faith is that we are all in free-fall toward Hell with only prayers to help stop that fall. The concept of Purgatory as a waiting station on the way to Heaven does little to add to comfort to the sinners seeking absolution. Yet, as Dante so persuasively conceptualized, the triad of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell is a strong motivator for keeping people in line. Our conceptions of the triad come to us mostly, I suspect, through Dante, but even Dante seems to suggest that these conceptions are fictional instruments of coercion. For Dante, Hell might have been his exile from Florence, or perhaps more accurately, his “exile” from his beloved Beatrice. Nevertheless, our concepts of the triad have literary origins just as our concepts of Satan via Milton:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden
(Paradise Lost, Book I, lines 1-4)

The reader sympathizes with Milton’s Satan, and he is certainly more interesting that Milton’s egotistical God. Nevertheless, Milton and Dante have done a great deal to modernize our conceptions of good and evil, God and Satan, and sin.

I was proud to make my first communion, that rite of passage so essential to the psychology of a Catholic youth. It was one station on the way to adulthood. But let me pause over this for a moment: that rite of passage is bound to sin. Before we can take communion, we must enter the confessional, get on our knees, and ask for God’s forgiveness. If we are all sinners seeking forgiveness from a largely absent God, then what about those who commit real sins, like murder? Are all sins equal in the eyes of God? Does murder in war somehow excuse the murderer? And what about the murderee? Does he or she obtain absolution on account of the way mortal life ended? I recall vividly memories of stepping into the confessional booth and giving the priest the litany of my sins for that week. This caused a great deal of anxiety in me from an early age. For almost the entire week I would try to think up something worthy of sin. I thought that the greater the sin the greater the forgiveness, thus highlighting my plight in the eyes of God. I would make up sins that I claimed to have committed, mostly because I had nothing to say. I never believed I had sinned until I started to pay attention to what the priests and nuns would tell us. The basic message to my childhood mind was that I was a born sinner and in sin I existed. It is not hyperbolic to say that I was traumatized. I thought that I would never reach Heaven and see my relatives again. Most important, I believed that once I died I would be forever plunged into a terrible and frightening abyss.

When decades later I had my own children, my wife and I decided to opt out of having our children go through the trauma of first confession and first communion. I reject the concept that we are all born sinners and should seek the forgiveness of God. In fact, I now believe, as I stand on the precipice of fifty years of age, that if there is a God it is He that should be asking for our forgiveness. I think we’ve had it wrong for two thousand years: Jesus Christ was not the son of God, but some charismatic teacher who preached a lifestyle that today’s “Christians” largely ignore. Moreover, I find it reprehensible that a God would sacrifice His son for others. I would never sacrifice my children for anyone or anything. But as a myth? Well, it makes a pretty good story, but the New Testament (which to my mind is not as good as the Old Testament) is not nearly as good a story as the ones created by Dante and Milton.

If we are all sinners, and God has indeed made us in his own image, then the concept of sin must come from him. Perhaps the sin God has committed, and continues to commit, is one of ego: “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Well, to declare that takes one hell of an ego.

Humans do not need God or gods, but God or the gods do indeed need us, as the ancient Greeks has clearly demonstrated. Without believers, a god ceases to exist. Perhaps this is exactly why we have the concept of sin: the priests and the priestesses who served as custodians to the gods needed something to keep their own positions relevant, and what better way to keep the masses in line than creating the concept of sin. I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe that we are all responsible for our actions, be it individually or collectively. Perhaps we should start to grow up by finally doing away with this archaic and misleading concept of sin.

The Other Bolaño

There is another Roberto Bolaño, one that is different from the man I read. The Bolaño I read is vicious in his prose, and relentless in his poetry. He is an artist, but one who seems to have willfully abandoned celebrity for his art. He tried to cheat death by searching for immortality on the page, but try justifying that to his children. Still, his writing is a gift to those who did not know him. For those of us to became aware of Bolaño only after his death in 2003, we have the texts to go by, but little else. Because my reading of Bolaño has become something of an obsession, I lament the fact that I will never get to meet the man who wrote the books that have come to mean so much to me. There can only be a limited number of monumental moments in one’s life, and reading Bolaño has been one of mine. Reading his books has not only changed the way I read fiction, but has changed my outlook on the contemporary world. It’s not a cliché to say that Bolaño sacrificed himself for his art. He knew, after all, that he was dying of liver disease as he feverishly worked to finish his last masterpiece, 2666. So, what was this other Bolaño like? The one who sat at the computer while he was dying? The one who could be difficult and outspoken? The one who was the voracious reader? The one who was still married but lived in a separate apartment in Blanes, Spain? I have read that this Bolaño left a number of letters behind, but those letters have yet to be sorted, collected, and published. There are at least two documentaries on his life, and a handful of books about him by those who supposedly knew him. There are countless interviews with those who knew him, intimately or slightly. There are hundreds of articles about him by those who didn’t know him at all. Then, of course, there are those interviews with Bolaño himself. His voice is as we would expect it to be: scratchy and contemplative, but at times he talks quickly, trying to get the thoughts out. Watching Bolaño being interviewed is like watching a man in the throes of exhaustion. There is one video that can downloaded of Bolaño sitting with another man in a coffee shop in Blanes. He sends his tea back and smokes his ever –present cigarette. He looks utterly exhausted. Perhaps this is how he spent his last months (years?), exhausted by the illness that plagued him, exhausted by the writing that still needed to be done, exhausted by his newfound celebrity, exhausted by life. In any case, that other Bolaño is no longer with us. All we have left is the specter of his persona contained between the covers of his books. But isn’t that the real, the authentic, Bolaño?

The Dentist Chair

There are all kinds of chairs I would not like to find myself occupying: the defendant chair in a trial, a juror chair in someone else’s trial, the chair facing police or governmental interrogators, the doctoral dissertation chair (I’ve already done that once, and although my doctoral defense went well, the anxiety leading up to the day was almost more than I could take), and especially the electric chair, to name a few.

I’m willing to bet that for most people the chair in the dentist office is another chair that sends waves of dread through them. I’ve been lucky enough never to have had a cavity in my nearly 50 years on this planet, but I still become somewhat unnerved when I go to get my teeth cleaned once every six months. My hygienist is always pleasant, but insists on talking to me about the most mundane things in the world. The truth is, with a little less chit-chat I could be in and out of that chair in less than an hour. Yet, I always find myself there for over an hour. Moreover, I always seem to feel nauseated for several hours after visiting the dentist. I do feel like I’m being interrogated about flossing, as if I were a child that needed constant reminding. As the hygienist continues to talk I always find myself receding deeper into my own head.

I wonder how much of our lives are spent staring at the ceiling in a dentist office. If we added up all the hours spent in that chair throughout our lives would it add up to one year, five? How much time do we spend thinking about the possibility of the hygienist accidentally dropping one of those sharp tools down our throats, or slicing our gums open? Must I always be reminded of the Marathon Man every time I enter the office and make my way toward the chair? To be fair, my dentist looks nothing like Laurence Olivier, but still.

2018-01-10 10.57.20

Recently I read The Story of My Teeth by the fabulous Valeria Luiselli (full disclosure: I have something more than an intellectual crush but less than an amorous crush on her), a novel published by Coffee House Press and translated by Christina MacSweeney. The novel is about a down-at-his-heels auctioneer named Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez. Highway comes into possession of the teeth of famous writers, or so he claims, and sells them at auctions. At an auction in Miami Highway successfully bids for the teeth of Marilyn Monroe. Things get stranger from here and at one point Highway goes around wearing Monroe’s teeth in his own mouth. As dreadfully strange as the premise to this story is, it is wonderfully told and reads like a fairytale from the Brothers Grimm.

Of course, there is also Poe’s frightening story “Berenice” (published in 1835) concerning two cousins about to be married. Egaeus, the narrator is a sickly bookish boy and Berenice is his cousin. She too becomes ill and eventually dies, but not before giving Egaeus the fright of his life one night in the library. Egaeus is alone reading when he finds Berenice’s sickly, emaciated form standing before him. She says nothing, but just before she takes her leave she flashes him a smile, revealing the most exquisitely perfect teeth. Egaeus becomes obsessed. The following day Berenice dies and is buried. The story so far reads like a perfectly outlined gothic tale. But Poe being Poe, we know that something sinister is waiting for us. Egaeus blacks out on the night of his cousin’s burial only to be awakened by a servant, who finds his master covered in mud. I’ll let Poe speak for himself:

“He [the servant] pointed to my garments; they were muddy and clotted with gore. I spoke not, and he took me gently by the hand: it was indented with the impress of human nails. He directed my attention to some object against the wall. I looked at it for some minutes: it was a spade. With a shriek I bounded the table, and grasped the box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open; and, in my tremor, it slipped from my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces; and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor.”

What can be missed by a superficial reading is the brilliance of the above paragraph’s punctuation, which slows the pace down just enough to build the suspense; it’s impossible for us to read this too fast, despite a desire to get to the end, thus the revelation. Poe’s genius lies not in his descriptions, or at least not only, but in his ability to pace a tale.

In the “real” world there is the story of Martin Amis’ teeth, which had Britain preoccupied for much of the mid 1990s. The story goes that Amis’ teeth were in such rough shape that he had to have them all extracted and replaced. He had the implants put in at considerable cost and pain. In fact, the cost was so great that he was forced to leave his longtime agent Pat Kavanagh (wife of his then buddy Julian Barnes) for Andrew Wylie, AKA: The Jackal. Amis received an enormous advance for his 1995 novel The Information and fell out with Barnes. Meanwhile, Britain would not let Amis forget about his teeth, which many thought of as the supreme act of vanity on Amis’ part. Pat Kavanagh died in 2008 from a brain tumor and Amis has since moved to Brooklyn. Amis’ move to the Wylie Agency might not have been just about his teeth, but the advance he received for his first novel with Wylie didn’t hurt his pocket any.

In my mid-thirties, I had a recurring nightmare that my teeth were constantly falling out. They would slide from my gums and accumulate in my mouth, like a handful of Chiclets. Most of the time I began to swallow them or spit them out, only to wake up to realize that my teeth were still firmly ensconced in my mouth. I never bothered to look up the meaning of losing one’s teeth in dreams, mostly because I was frightened of what I might discover. Nevertheless, the nightmare has long since stopped, but I can still recall it with almost superhuman vividness. In fact, there are times that I can still feel them coming loose in my mouth and pooling on my tongue.

At this point the hygienist brings me back to myself and the chair I’m sitting in begins to rise. The ceiling falls away to walls and a smile from the hygienist. I take my new toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and get the hell out of there.