The morning after the wedding in the shop.
The morning after the wedding in the shop.
William Safire was a hell of a writer. He was the Nixon-era speechwriter who gave Vice President Spiro Agnew the wonderful line “nattering nabobs of negativity,” won the Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times columns covering the misdeeds of Bert Lance, and then ended his career with a wonderful weekly column in the Times: On Language
I miss that column, where he would chronicle with great affection and little judgment the vicissitudes of the English language from street slang to bitter battles over the Oxford comma or whether or not to spell judgment or judgement. On the cusp of language in the news, he doubtlessly would have been in his element with “covfefe” last week, but he also could play the part of grammar cop without coming off as too much of a priss or traditionalist locked in the past.
“I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways,” he once wrote. “provided the result is more precision, added color or great expressiveness.”
In these days of fake news, crushing corporate bullshit, politically tempered speech and constant assaults on the First Amendment from both the right and the left, it’s frightening to think we lack a modern day Safire to call bullshit when the powers that be prevaricate, obfuscate, and spackle over the cracks of truth with their verbal wormings. Safire was a language maven — to use his preferred term — in the tradition of Mencken, Orwell and Bierce. Today we get “content marketers” and “brand message consultants” instead.
Safire’s career as a public relations man and presidential speech writer put him in the unenviable job of having to anticipate Murphy’s Law and prepare for the worst case scenario as any crisis communications pro is trained to do. In 1969, as the Apollo 11 mission sent the first men to the moon, it was Safire who took it upon himself to draft a statement for President Nixon to deliver to the nation via TV in the event the astronauts were stranded on the moon with no hope of rescue.
It’s been called one of the most beautiful speeches never delivered. Here’s the full text:
|July 18, 1969.|
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.
One of the classic books on the Cape Cod shelf of my over-stuffed bookshelf is a gorgeous collection by Joel Meyerowitz: Cape Light
“…an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in over 350 exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world. He was born in New York in 1938. He began photographing in 1962. He is a “street photographer” in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, although he now works exclusively in color. As an early advocate of color photography (mid-60’s), Meyerowitz was instrumental in changing the attitude toward the use of color photography from one of resistance to nearly universal acceptance. His first book, Cape Light, is considered a classic work of color photography and has sold more than 150,000 copies during its 30-year life.”
Cape Light is still in print and can be found on Amazon. If you are into gorgeous photography, I recommend it.
The photographs were shot with a large-format camera – using 8″x10″ film — and I recall from the preface that the camera was a gorgeous work of art in and of itself.
What is special about the book, especially while writing this on a grey day in mid-March when snow flurries are scudding across a bleak yard littered with broken sticks and honey locust pods, is that Meyerowitz managed to catch one of the most ineffable things about life on Cape Cod, that rosy, pink glow that tinges summer clouds in the evening with a lambent poetry I have never seen anywhere else in my travels. Cape Cod is an east-facing land — the Wampanoags were known to their fellow Algonquin tribes as the “People of the Dawn” and the peninsula is, as one of the easternmost promontories in America, a place to celebrate sunrises, not sunsets.
But Provincetown and Truro, the upraised “fist” of the Cape where Meyerowitz set up his camera in the early 70s, is one of the few and only places where a decent sunset can be observed over a watery horizon in all of the eastern United States.
The pink that permeates so many of his shots — who knows why it occurs here especially. The reflection of the sea around the land? Some cloud chemistry having to do with summer humidity and the polluted air that washes over the Cape from New York City and New Jersey on the summer’s southwesterly prevailing winds?
Whatever the cause, it comes in the spring and ends in the fall — the sunsets of November turning ominous like the eye of Sauron over Mordor as if to warn the Pilgrims to start gathering their corn and make ready for the harsh winter that follows. I haven’t seen that tell-tale glow yet this year, March continues to come in as a lion and I need to plant my St. Patrick’s Day peas today in the barren garden for my 4th of July salmon and peas supper, but it’s coming. The boats are ready. The crocuses and hyacinths are blooming and any day now the peep-peep cries of the ospreys will begin and the tinklepinks will sing in the bogs.
I have a strange affinity for photographs that show the horizon between sky and water. Andreas Gursky’s Rhien II was on display at Christie’s in New York City a few years ago, prior to its setting the auction record for a photograph, and I remember being captured by it and lusting for it for reasons I couldn’t explain. Enough so that it’s been the desktop background of my PC ever since.
Another amazing artist of sky and horizons and the sea is Australian photographer Murray Fredericks. His video essay of his expedition to the salt lake of Australia’s Lake Eyre is hauntingly evocative of something vast and empty that gets me right here.
I don’t know if it comes from sailing offshore out of the sight of land that makes seascapes and horizons such a big thing for me. My inept attempts at celestial navigation during my yacht delivery days gave me a technical appreciation of the horizon, of how it changes depending on the eye’s height from the water, how the sextant brings down the celestial body to kiss it in a swing of the split mirror, rocking it from side to side to find a good angle then calling out “mark!” to note the precise time. But it’s also the point of interface for the eye, the not knowing what lies over it in the distance, the inability to see the curve of the earth, the way a rising or setting sun or moon can be seen to move so subtly when they are close to the line.
I figured I’d list the tools, plug-ins, and apps I use to keep my act together. Here’s a list of the more important ones.
It’s worth noting I like some of these things so much I will actually pay for premium levels from Dropbox, Evernote, Any.do., TripIt, and other stuff. I also keep a subscription to the Microsoft Office suite — there are times when I need to really get detailed and nothing but the real thing — Word, Powerpoint, Excel — will do.
There’s a lot of stuff I’ve tried and rejected. Example: Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking paired with a little Sony IC voice recorder never worked as hoped and I’ve never seen a more obnoxious spammy company like Nuance.
I love Gmail because of the Exclamation Point button. This is an icon that I push a few times every day when some email marketer hounds me to “please point me to the person in your company who handles Account Based Marketing” or wants to find some time to talk about my “content management attribution challenges in the coming year.”
I know these emails have code embedded in them that tells the sender when I’ve opened them. I know that I will never respond to them. Never take their phone call. Have no guilt over ignoring them.
But the Exclamation Point — well it’s basically the email marketing equivalent of dumping the Alien Monster out of the airlock into the vacuum of space where no one can hear them scream. Not only does a quick click of the button block the sender from ever landing in my inbox again, it reports them to some unseen power as a spammer.
Aww.Poor email marketers with their “lovable marketing content.” Try it. It’s fun.
He died on Saturday. He wrote my favorite novel: the Mister Watson trilogy that culminated in Shadow Country. He lived a remarkable life. The first striped bass of 2014 will go back with a kiss and an ave atque vale for Peter, who thankfully has one more novel at the publisher, his final words.
Here is the remarkable New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, published the day before he died.
I’ve blogged here about Shadow Country and I am very proud that my Amazon review of the novel is ranked #1 by other readers. I have pressed more copies of Killing Mister Watson into more friends’ hands than any other book with the possible exception of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex.
Here’s what I wrote on Amazon:
“For nearly twenty years I’ve been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as “Bloody Watson” and “Emperor Watson” for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.
Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen’s masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity’s Rainbow, White Noise ….
Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson’s death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing — and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.
The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson’s sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius’ quest is a reminder to the reader — this is a true story. Matthiessen’s research and attention to detail would shame a historian.
And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson’s lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.
Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.”
If you want hours of fascinating, informative fun, buy a copy of Kevin Kelly’s massive tome, Cool Tools.
Most everyone over 50 remembers the Whole Earth Catalogue of the late 60s and early 70s. A big bible on counter-cultural tools that covered everything from yurt construction to VW engine repair,the Whole Earth Catalogue was the book to have hanging around for hours of stoned obsessing. I can remember hanging out at my hippie cousin’s shack in Cotuit and spending hours going through that book (I was 12 and was not stoned!).
Kelly, one of the original editors of the WEC along with Stewart Brand, went on to co-found Wired and has been a leader of the DIY – Maker movement. His passion for the best in tools and gadgets has come together brilliantly in this lavishly illustrated, well designed, brilliant compendium of the best stuff in the world. Best vest? Filson Mackinaw (I own one). Best tweezers, best chainsaw, best book on chickens, best productivity applications ….
There’s this bird called the cormorant, also known as the “shag”, which has been a part of the local wildlife for the last decade or more, arriving from the south and taking up residence along with the gulls, terns and ospreys. They are big black birds with long necks and cape-like wings they hold open to let the breeze dry them off. They feed on the bottom on mussels and crabs, popping to the surface to shake their heads and paddle along until spooked, at which point they windmill and run over the surface until they achieve escape velocity and can get airborne.
I want them all dead.
Cormorants exist to shit on my boat. I have strung up old CDs on strings like the rearview mirror of a teenager’s first car to scare them away. I have spent a hundred dollars on bird spikes for the spreaders on my mast. I have festooned my boom with old plastic grocery bags until the poor boat looks like a tree on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.
But they shit and they continue to shit. And then they shit some more. They deposit prodigious amounts of fish-imbued filth all over the decks, the wheel, the cleats, lines, seats, dodger, windows, spars, winches and lifelines, coating the boat with a thick coat of white guano mixed with undigested mollusks, pebbles, and some sort of toxic waste that is impossible to remove. Flies love the stuff and the whole affair is just an invitation to salmonella, shigella, giardia, diarrhea, MRSA and whatever other flesh-eating bacteria you care to contract.
Yesterday was pull-the-boat day, so Sunday I put-putted out in the motorboat with my son to get things ready for the pulling of the mast at Town Dock. My buddy Tom K. was standing on the shore and bore the bad news. “Good luck with the guano” he said. Sure, I knew they had found a little gap in the bird spikes on the lower starboard spreader and one had managed to spackle the dodger with a blast of ass vomit, but that was okay, I saw that mess the weekend before as I returned triumphant with a bucket o’tautog, but like an idiot I didn’t clean it up. Leaving it there was tantamount to declaring the Bald Eagle was now a designated cormorant port-a-potti and they took advantage of the invitation. It’s a matter of dwindling opportunities, sort of like musical toilets where as the days go by the music stops and they take away another boat to poop on. Stay in past Columbus Day and the ratio of bird butts to available boat toilets get worse and worse until the last boat standing is a heaping, stinking mess of avian fertilizer.
It reminds me of the islands off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean that were so coated in bird shit that fortunes were made mining the stuff and shipping it back to the world as fertilizer. Guano was big bucks. But not my guano. No, my guano is my cross to bear.
So I get the boat into the town dock and start calling around for a power washer in the belief that I can use the dock’s faucet and some high pressure blasting to tidy things up before the kibbutzers and bored amateur wharfingers of Cotuit can point out the obvious and tell me it looks like birds have taken a massive dump (why are all dumps “massive?) on my yacht. I tie up. Test the faucet. Dry. The powers-that-be in the Town of Barnstable evidently believe the world stops on Columbus Day and have disconnected the pipes for the winter. Another boat arrives, also frosted with a nice layer, the owner asks me “Is the water on?” Nope. The term “shit out of luck” is invoked and I tie the end of a poo-covered jib sheet to the handle of a bucket and start hauling five gallons of sea water aboard every thirty seconds to try to soften it up and sluice it over the side.
The first helpful rocket scientist arrives with a cock-a-poo or a labra-dump on a leash and says, “Hey, someone got hit hard.” Ha ha. Very funny. Really? No fooling? You think? Scrub, scrub, scrub. Flies going up my nose. Backsplash in my mouth. The other boat owner has rubber gloves on. Not me. I just start rolling in the stuff and compose my obituary: he died a coprolagniac.
Six hours later and the sails are off, the turnbuckles on the rigging are loose, the neutral stop-switch in the throttle is fixed and the engine is running but the boat is still smeared with stalagmites of cormorant. I have been told to use lime remover, Comet, warm soapy water, screw-it-let-the-rain-wash-it-off, and to-hell-with-it–just-shrink-wrap the whole mess and pretend it didn’t happen. Being a nice day the dock was busy with spandexed cyclists, panting joggers, shoulder season tourists, local wise guys and friends and neighbors. Every single one of them expressed some rueful condolences over my messy boat.
Only one said anything that made any sense. I salute him.
“Next time put out mousetraps. All it takes is one and they get the word and won’t come back and if you’re lucky, you might see one trying to shake a trap off it’s claw.”
Thank you. I shall have my revenge.
One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden’s autobiography: Wanderer. For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the “real” world, his life’s story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood’s Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in the 60s and 70s as an actor’s actor in Dr. Strangelove and the Godfather was mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.
Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff — beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston — is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.
He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito’s band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.
I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren’t interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.
There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International’s blog. I’ll borrow his quote of Hayden’s because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:
“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”
– Sterling Hayden