In Event of Moon Disaster

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

GWB and LB.  Ceremony for 2006 Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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:

To : H. R. Haldeman
From : Bill Safire
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.

Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

Over the holidays I read Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, having been tipped off to the novels by my summer’s reading of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill and the strong endorsement of the previously unknown literary gem as one of the most beloved and high-impact pieces published between the two world wars. I’ve known about Sassoon since college when I read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory as well as Robert Grave’s autobiography, Goodbye to all That.

Siegfried Sassoon was one of a select group of young English poets who  went to war spouting the florid language of Kipling and Tennyson and returned (if they survived) utterly gutted by the horror of mechanized war. Sassoon survived. So did Graves. But others, such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen did not.

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In these centennial anniversary years of the Great War, I realize how deficient the literature I’ve found has served the experience compared to the masterpieces that came out of World War II such as James Jones’ The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Sure, there is All Quiet on the Western Front and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun but until I read Sassoon’s trilogy I hadn’t fully grasped the hellishness of France and the trenches. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August are an excellent historical introduction to the causa belli but in sum I guess the best literature about the First World War was indeed the war poetry.

Sassoon was raised by a spinster aunt in Kent’s Weald, the iconic southeastern rolling landscape that personifies the English cliche. Fussell, in his introduction to Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man rightfully points out Sassoon’s intense love affair with the landscape of Kent and his almost erotic evocation of a pre-war life spent playing cricket on village greens and learning how to ride with the fox hunt through coverts and over the fences of the local farms. Sassoon, who dropped out of Cambridge without completing a degree, had just enough of an inheritance to be idle and spend his days riding horses and getting fitted with new boots and pink hunting coats. The three books are a barely fictionalized autobiography.

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Sassoon ends the first volume — Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man — when he volunteers for the infantry as a junior officer. The second volume, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is set in the trenches of northern France and tells the story of his acts of reckless heroism, where he decided that rather than give into the fear and horror he would affect an insouciance that led his soldiers to nickname him “Mad Jack” and regard him as a good luck officer willing to take chances rather than cower in a trench.

Sassoon was wounding and returned to England, was decorated as a hero, returned, was wounded again, and during his convalescence decided to publish a protest against the war with the support of the pacifist mathematician Bertrand Russell.

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

“On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.”

Sassoon sent that declaration to his commanding officer, threw his Military Cross medal into the Mersey River, and waited for a reaction. The reaction from the army was more genteel embarrassment for Sassoon than outrage. Before he could be tried for treason a friend intervened and declared Siegfried was unhinged and needed to be committed to an asylum. Sassoon was packed off to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland where he was treated by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, the pioneering genius in the treatment of shell shock as PTSD was known at the time. Through his work with Rivers, Sassoon came to the conclusion that the only rational decision he could make was to ask for a return to the front lines of the war, and so he was returned to the front for a third time, an experience covered in the final volume of the trilogy: Sherston’s Progress which was published in 1936, completed the series that began in 1928.

These books were beloved at the time of their publication and it surprises me they aren’t still read or better known in the U.S.. In my estimation the first volume is my favorite because of its amazing affection for the culture that existed before the war. I’ve read that Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is a similar expression of deep love for “the shire,” that bucolic country life of England that looms so large in my American mind as the “British Cliche” but which evidently did exist and lives on in the writings of Sassoon and others.

 

Digressive Discursions

It riles me up to no end to hear some bright-eyed know-it-all declare “what we really need is some engaging story telling to ignite our flaccid content marketing strategy.” There are an abundance of douche marketing “storytellers” ready to sell us a breathless how-to book, or charge us a hefty consulting fee before they tuck us all in, sit on the end of our beds, and crack open the white-paper edition of Go Dog Go! and put us to sleep with some nighttime fable of how to create lovable marketing content that will engage and connect us to the thought leaders that will flip our funnels and turn us from faceless users to loyal brand advocates.

But I digress.

Digression is what I’m here to write about today. Digression is a maddening art and a truly guilty pleasure that squanders time. Taken too far it can be worse than oral surgery. Done right it can delight and leave us begging for more. Who among us hasn’t sat stupefied in the presence of some absolutely horribly pedantic story teller who just. can’t. seem. to. get. to. the. goddamn. point? Yet, who can argue with Lord Byron’s brilliant epigram, about his lover, Caroline:

“Caro Lamb, Goddamn”

Or the shortest, sad story ever told, attributed to Hemingway:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

While brevity is the soul of wit, and short words always win out over longer synonyms, our Ritalin society can be tagged with the depressing acronym: TL;DR“Too Long; Didn’t Read.” The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tall-tale, being a true raconteur (a person who can tell an anecdote in a skillful and amusing way) just doesn’t seem to fit when declaiming on a four-part framework for calculating the ROI of website personalization.

After all: story telling is the original entertainment medium. Think of Homer sitting around the fire and telling the story of brave Ulysses to a crowd of illiterate Greek kids.  The heart of the story-tellers is the spoken word — not the written  — and it would do us all well to remember that stories were invented around the campfire, delivered from memory by a story teller, and is the origin of the theater, the novel, film and ultimately the place from which the music of language was tested and perfected. Digression in a story is a way to build suspense, foreshadow events, explain and provide background, and show off one’s erudition. How to weave a footnote into a narrative is a delicate balancing act that few can pull off.

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In this era of TED talks and the Moth Radio Hour, Podcasts, personal reminiscences, and self-indulgent blogs such as this one, this is no surfeit of stories to consume.  Headlines beg for our limited attention, we get seduced by clickbait and listicles, A/B tested by algorithms to see what reptilian part of our hippocampus will cause our right index finger to flex and click.  So in our quick-twitch, Adderal-amped lives, let’s consider the luxury of digression; of stretching out and letting a story teller take their time, hook our attention like an angler sets the barb in a fish’s lip, and hold us for 1,000 pages from one sentence to the next, always wanting more.  Let’s follow the footnotes, spend sometime looking up a word, chasing more information, and realize we live in an age of amazing possibilities when it comes to digressing and falling down the rabbit hole of digression where incredible discoveries might be found.

My late friend Jimmy Guterman was fascinated with the impact of hypertext —  links embedded in text — which could be followed by the reader down different paths. He would have laughed at the concept of corporate storytelling and punctured the conceit with some droll bon mot. He quoted, in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company founder Alan Webber, opening a conference about content and context by saying “…Webber began the two-day event by arguing that storytelling is overrated….

Before HTML came on the scene in 1994, Jimmy and I experimented with a hypertext project using the engine behind Microsoft’s help engine — the name escapes me — to digitize the rules governing yacht racing. Jimmy took it further into fiction, but I can’t find any examples on his blog. Experimental fiction has played with alternative plot tracks — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch has two different possible chapter sequences.  Video games — the most lucrative entertainment medium extant today — represent one of the best manifestations of interactive story-telling, the hype that was touted around “interactive television” in the 1990s, when viewers could pick different plot lines or camera angles.

Two writers embody the beauty of digression for me me. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace in nearly all of his books, but especially his masterpiece Infinite Jest. In 2005, Wallace wrote a profile of a right-wing talk radio host for the Atlantic Monthly.  The print edition, which I read on an Acela to NYC, was a masterpiece in taking the principles of digital hypertext and linking onto the printed page. The editors at the Atlantic reformatted the digital edition, using color cues on words to designate footnoted material.

“Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.”

Here’s a link to their explanation of how they edited and formatted the piece. It presages some amazing examples of interactive journalism and storytelling such as the iconic New York Times piece on an avalanche tragedy, Snowfall.

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Here’s the text as it is formatted online:

dfw1

And here is what the reader sees when they click on the colored words with the [+] prompt:

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For me the revelation has been reading William Manchester’s three-volume epic biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion on a Kindle. While e-books are a bit of a tragedy in terms of substantial additions to one’s physical bookshelf, the developers at Amazon have introduced some amazing things in the decade they’ve been perfecting the Kindle interface. For example, any Kindle user is familiar with the ability to look an unfamiliar word up in a sentence simply by highlighting the word and seeing a pop-up definition appear. That in itself is an amazing service to readers like me who are guilty of skipping past some obscure word and missing the opportunity to add something new and amazing to our vocabularies. But it’s the addition of Wikipedia that takes things to a whole new level. Consider when Maechatfieldnchester talks about Churchill’s relationship to the Royal Navy in the years between the two world wars and introduces “Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet.” Well, my middle name is Chatfield, I have a personal stake in finding out who the hell Lord Chatfield is, and thanks to the Kindle I get right to his entry on Wikipedia, share it with my brother Henry (who also has the Chatfield middle name), and we both get a good laugh and begin referring to each other as “Admiral of the Fleet” whenever we pull our skiffs out of the harbor.

I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the first time without taking the time to follow each and every foot note to the end-notes. When I finished the novel — a serious door stop at 1000 plus pages — I started to read those notes and realized what I had missed.

What we have before us, to go back to Guterman’s piece about Alan Webber, is “context within our content”, the ability to stay in the narrative but take a digressive detour out without losing our places.  I think it’s incumbent on any writer to indulge their reader’s with some detours, to walk them down a side-path to some hidden spot. In all our wheel spinning in search for optimization and algorithmic textual perfection, take off your shoes, kick back, and get lost down the rabbit hole of digression. Who knows what surprise you might stub your mind on.

Peter Matthiessen

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.”

Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation

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

The Recent Reading List

William Boyd is one of those English novelists who seems to simmer under the surface of fame and motors along an acquired taste and favorite of readers who love great writing. I was introduced to him by Charles Dubow (who’s first novel, Indiscretion, is to be published next month) in the 1990s when we were colleagues at Forbes.com and ever since I’ve pressed Boyd’s novels onto my friends who appreciate the good stuff.

Boyd sets his books in the past — he seems most comfortable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and his protagonists, generally Englishmen, are wonderfully vivid characters, artists and dreamers beset by the world.

His latest, which I am still reading, is Waiting for Sunrise, set in Vienna before World War One. a story of a young man seeking “the talking cure” for his inability to achieve an orgasm.

The first Boyd novel I read, one that remains one of my favorites, is The New Confessionsthe story of John James Todd, survivor of the trenches of France, cameraman, silent film director and auteur, who sets out to audaciously film Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions”. From WWI to Hollywood, it remains the best novel about cinema I have read.

Current reading list

I’ve been juggling the usual reading list, relying primarily on my Google Nexus 7 tablet as my Kindle delivery device. Good tablet. I highly recommend it.

BurrI’ve never read any Gore Vidal, and on the occasion of his passing away earlier this year bought a paperback edition of Burr, his fictionalization of the life of Aaron Burr. Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in perhaps the most famous duel in history; was Jefferson’s vice-president, a hero of the Revolutionary War and, in Vidal’s portrayal, a licentious, thoughtful, and scheming political survivor whom history has tarred and feathered while deifying Hamilton. I recommend it.

Proud TowerIf I could write history I would want to write like Barbara Tuchman. Her Guns of August, and Distant Mirror are personal favorites. Taken in the same vein of other historical authors who manage to make history sing (e.g. David McCullough and William Manchester), Tuchman is the best. Proud Tower is a look at the decline of aristocratic power structures in the two decades before World War I – with exquisite cameos of the best and the brightest in Parliament, Congress, and even the anarchist bomb throwers that presage our modern terrorism crisis.

DeadheadNick Baumgartner at the New Yorker has written a great personal account of being a Deadhead, a compulsive collector of the band’s trove of user-shared bootleg taps of their shows, the fate of the band’s archive and where it stands today in a warehouse in Burbank California. Which reminds me to do something with the two cases of 90 minute Maxell cassettes sitting in my attic.

Readwrite on Outing Trolls: interesting piece in ReadWrite (where the Fake Steve Jobs, my buddy Dan Lyons is now editor in chief) on the use of social media to “out” trolls and racists.  I confess to being a fan of the troll subculture — finding some of the old USENET trolls to be among the more demented disruptors  and jokesters ever known. The rise of 4Chan, Reddit, etc. has given birth to an entirely weird subculture (my favorite being the SecondLife griefers “W-hat”). The example of the Tumblr blog devoted to outing adolescent racists who used Twitter and Facebook to express their ignorance after the recent election is depressing.