“Words alone are certain good.”

—William Butler Yeats

It would be an exaggeration to report that it didn’t matter what you said to my father (Short story writer and novelist) or to my mother (Poet, and wife of short story writer and novelist) as long as you said it well. But then it wouldn’t be all that much of an exaggeration. If my father was the king, then language was the faith. I was a good little boy, but for most of my life my mother made me feel deeply ashamed of the many books I hadn’t read. My father wasn’t an alpha in the way that Cesar Millan means alpha. Nevertheless, he was the patriarch. He was often funny, and sometimes even inspiring, but he could also be ruthless. He never struck me. He didn’t have to. Disney’s Davy Crockett only needed to catch a bear’s eye in order to stare the beast to death. Within earshot, I’m convinced that my old man could have convinced the bear to commit suicide. I learned the language as the horse learns the bit.

My father liked the histories written by Francis Parkman. In particular he liked volume II of Montcalm and Wolfe. Parkman tells how the English General, James Wolfe had his army rowed secretly—and at night—around the French fortifications at Quebec.

“For full two hours the procession of boats, borne on the current, steered silently down the St. Lawrence,” Parkman writes. “The stars were visible, but the night was moonless and sufficiently dark. The General was in one of the foremost boats, and near him was a young midshipman, John Robison, afterwards professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He used to tell in his later life how Wolfe, with a low voice, repeated “Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to the officers about him. . . Among the rest was the verse which his own fate was soon to illustrate: The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, as his recital ended, ‘I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec.’”

Wolfe did take Quebec, of course, although both he and Montcalm died. It wasn’t Wolfe’s military genius that my father admired. What he appreciated was the man’s willingness to honor a poet above all else.

So the above line from Yeats’s “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” stopped me dead.

Yeats was baldly stating something I had only dared to suspect. Here’s the passage from which the line is drawn.

“Word alone are certain good.
Where are now the warring kings,
Word be-mockers? —By the Rood,
Where are now the warring Kings?
An idle word is now their glory,
By the stammering schoolboy said,
Reading some entangled story:
The kings of the old time are dead;
The wandering earth herself may be
Only a sudden flaming word,
In clanging space a moment heard,
Troubling the endless reverie.

“Let us assume that all men are created equal.”

—Thomas Jefferson

This is an example of language gone terribly wrong. What Thomas Jefferson meant—I think—was that all men are equal under the law. But that’s not exactly what he wrote, and his words have floated off into the public consciousness. It seems now that we—as a people—share the expectation that all men (and women) are created equal. Not equal under the law. Not equal in God’s eyes. Equal, equal.

We all expect to run the four-minute mile. Earn a billion dollars. We should all be beautiful or handsome. Unless we have a better idea, we all expect to be blond, tall and with piercing blue eyes? If not, then somebody else has cheated. Or else I, personally, have fucked up. This blanket expectation of equality generates a good deal of self loathing. It generates a great deal of loathing loathing. Maybe we should all relax, enjoy our differing strengths and expectations. I like to run. I like to run faster than my friends, but when my friends run faster than I do, I shouldn’t let this ruin my day. Maybe they’ve trained more assiduously than I have. Maybe not.

Nor should we expect the underdog to win every fight. Take this position, open your eyes and you’ll be in a nearly constant state of outrage.<

Damon Runyon said it well: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

“There’s no worse thief than a bad book.”

—Italian Saying

I picked up this Italian saying in a novel I didn’t much admire. And yet I love the thought. People get misty eyed about books these days, all books. I think this is mostly because there’s a lot less reading going on. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. They forget that many books need to be put on a diet. Others are poison at any length.

“We are all patchwork. And so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.”

— Michel de Montaigne

Sure looks that way to me, and yet we all go on and on about ourselves. Self-improvement. Self esteem. As if the self were crucial. “I,” I say, “I, I, I, I.” As if “I” were were the center of the universe. As if “I” were a constant.

And here I’ll beg your indulgence and print one of my own quotations. My file runs 300 pages, and only three or four of the passages are my own. They’re probably only there because I know the author.

But this one is pertinent to what Montaigne had to say: “I feel quite strongly that the pain of life grows out of the concept of a fixed personality and the tendency to then set the rest of experience around that identity like the planets around Ptolmey’s earth.”

“Enjoying one moment at a time; / Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; / Taking, as He did, this sinful world / As it is, not as I would have it.”

—The Serenity Prayer

This section is commonly left out of the Serenity Prayer.

Growing up in a wash of humanism, I was annoyed by the two Commandments as Jesus presented them. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul and with all thy heart and with all thy mind and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.

I completely got it about loving thy neighbor as thyself. This seemed a worthy chore, although it was tacked on at the end, almost as an afterthought. As for the first rule, this sounded, well it sounded parochial. I imagined an old coot in a beard, and he was insisting that before making the coffee, before anything else—I must love Him, join the club, tithe and be counted. It sounded like He was thinking of Himself first.

Now I think it wasn’t about Him, but about the world as we find it. And that we were being enjoined to love life, and to love it with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The older I get the more that seems a good idea.

Which is why I so like these lines often left out of the Serenity Prayer.

The Serenity Prayer is commonly published and recited in the short form. There are variations, but it often goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Certainly it’s profound. It’s important to be courageous and dispassionate and wise. But then the wrong decision I make most, is to look away. Correction: I don’t just look away from life, I snub it. As if I were a snob, and life should known better than to have wars, and disease and ambiguity.

Martin Amis writes about his father, Kingsley Amis: “Perhaps the most revealing thing my father ever said was in response to Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s question ‘You atheist?’ He answered: ‘Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.’”

This, I think, is not a healthy attitude, although hatred is almost certainly preferable to my attempt to remain disengaged.

David Evanier expresses my tragedy, in his book The Great Kisser: “No doubt about it, I’ve missed my life. It wasn’t the one I wanted. And so I waited for the new one to begin.”

I know, I know: We’re all in a hurry. And not all of us are Christians. But just for kicks, why not try out the prayer in its long version.

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage, to change the things I can;
And the wisdom, to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

“When I consider how my light is spent / Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide / And that one talent which is death to hide / Lodged with me useless”

—John Milton

I was 11 years old and hanging around with my older sister and some of her friends, and one of our neighbors, Annie Scoales to be exact, said that somebody we all knew was suffering from “raised expectations.”

This would have been 1960 and Annie used the phrase as if it was already a cliché. And maybe it was, but that was the first time I’d heard the statement and it had the ring of truth.

Even my weak grasp of history indicates strongly that there have been worse times than these, there have been worse troubles than my own. Think famine. Think polio. But when the basement floods, I still feel cheated. As if a dry basement were one of the rights guaranteed to Benjamin Cheever by the U.S. Constitution. No matter how fine life is, I often find that I was expecting more.

On weekends, when the boys were small, my wife often had to work, and I had to take them out in the car. I’d feel victimized. Here I was going out to look for shelving for the garage. I should have been at home and writing a great book.

“That one talent which is death to hide.” I loved that line. That one talent which is death to hide was lodged with me useless. Me and John Milton. Two peas in a pod. No wonder I felt crappy.

Here’s the whole poem by Milton:

On His Blindness 

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?’
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: ‘God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.’

“Art proves its value by still mattering to people who have been deprived of every other freedom.”

—Clive James

Art now is considered an elective, an add-on, a luxury. It’s easy to forget that this has not always been the case. In the U.S.S.R. during the worst of the dictatorship “of the people” it was art that mattered. I forget that people were painting and sculpting and writing sonnets before they had central heating, or anesthesia, or any easy way to kill those fleas. Whereas, in the event of a cataclysm, I fear that our nation might work its way back through the discovery of electricity, the installation of shopping malls, and drive deep into a second obesity epidemic, before anybody paid three-pence for a sonnet.

Entertainment, we value. Entertainment is sometimes art. But we expect entertainment to pay its own way. And I’m not referring here to that tiresome polarizing and repetitive argument about government funding. Government has funded great art and also horrors. There are many ways to pay for art. But you need to pay. For centuries men and women have paid for their artistic choices by living in poverty and shame. Many artists have paid with their lives.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between parties either—but right through the human heart.”

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I came upon this in the Thursday, December 28th, 1995 issue of The New York Times. The context itself presented an ethical mare’s nest. Charles W. Colson (compromised) was quoting Solzhenitsyn (wise but haughty) in his (Colson’s) attack on a movie by Oliver Stone (mixed bag) about Nixon (tragically flawed). Here’s the quotation again: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between parties either —but right through the human heart.”

Kicks like a mule, doesn’t it? Imagine a gathering of union workmen, maybe drinking beer and muttering darkly about how becoming extremely rich is a demonstration of the lack of scruples, a marker for evil. Or consider a rich man (self-made) who thinks poverty a demonstration of weak character, perhaps even a marker for evil.

Picture your own heart for a moment. Aren’t hearts a sort of catchers’-mitt brown now with flashes of crimson arterial blood? See it? Now draw the line. Make it blue. Now watch it move.

“I have always wondered at the passion many people have to meet the celebrated. The prestige you acquire by being able to tell your friends that you know famous men proves only that you are yourself of small account.”

—W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham displays an intelligence so willing to observe the worst that I cannot imagine liking him. Or rather I can’t imagine him liking me. And, yes, I do often create imaginary friendships with writers, friendships in which I thank them for their work, flatter them up a bit, ask for advice or clarification. But despite Maugham’s tough-mindedness, I have read him at length and with pleasure. The position he takes here seems unassailable. Even though I have never been able to keep myself from seeking the company of celebrities. Sometimes I drop their names. Each time I do this, I add another proof to Maugham’s hypothesis.

“I have observed that not the man who hopes, when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

—John Stuart Mill

I found the above in a book I like a lot. But isn’t it true? Advertisements are happy, of course, but we all know the motivation there. If they can’t scare you into a purchase, they have to jolly you along. Earnest messages are often dark and rich with despair. Happy people don’t report the news either, do they? Of course I don’t know who’s happy and who’s not. What do I know? If happy people are reporting the news, they’re careful to keep their good cheer out of the product.

“Expect poison from standing water.”

—William Blake

True, isn’t it? Reading Adam Nicolson’s Seize the Fire, taught me that the English Navy—at the height of its powers—was galvanized by the poetry of William Blake. I suppose I appreciate this in the same way my father appreciated Parkman. Language at the root of every great accomplishment.

“We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”

—William James

This states even more clearly the idea I so cherished when I first came upon it in the closing lines of Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God has gives us to see the right . . .” That’s what Lincoln wrote and said. He hits the sweet spot which is somewhere between ignorant waywardness, and wise paralysis.

James makes a similar point, not unlike that suggested in the short version of The Serenity Prayer. And so I’m contradicting myself. Which I’m apt to do. Making a fool of myself. Which might be okay with Mom and Dad. Just as long as I was artful in the expression of my mortification.