Bowdoin College

Major: English

Fraternity: Alpha Delta Phi

Influential Bowdoin Faculty/Staff: Doug McGee, Larry Hall, Franklin Burroughs, Chuck Huntington, John Donovan, Charlie Butt


Everything I enjoy in life today can be traced back to my four years at Bowdoin. Some come from straight line connections; some from life’s left turns that eventually bring us back to where we started.

In the fall of 1969, I had my heart set on going to Dartmouth until one day Dick Moll showed up at my small private school in Pittsburgh and changed my life forever. I went home that afternoon and told my parents, “I’m going to Bowdoin.” It was the only school to which I applied, and I have never regretted that decision.

Had I not gone to Bowdoin and fatefully elected to take Chuck Huntington’s ornithology course during my first semester I would never have become life-long friends with Sam and Sally Butcher, John and Cynthia Howland, and their families.

Had I not gone to Bowdoin I would never have taken Doug McGee’s course Literature as Philosophy which redirected my life and saved me from my parent’s divorce.

Had I not gone to Bowdoin I would never have had Louis Coxe as my thesis advisor who encouraged me to attend Trinity College, Dublin for graduate school. Had I not gone to Bowdoin and Trinity the publisher of Aperture would have never hired me as managing editor for my first job.

Had I not gone to Bowdoin and worked at Aperture I would never have met the mentors and friends, some now gone, who have remained in my life to this day.

Had I not gone to Bowdoin I would not have met the woman who became my wife and together have the three wonderful sons we have today, David, Sam, and Adam—two of whom chose to go to Bowdoin, too.

Then a few left turns: an MBA at New York University, a career in global advertising management, life in New York with sojourns in Barcelona, Singapore, and Melbourne, Australia where our youngest son Adam was born.

Divorce. A move to San Francisco where, having always been a competitive pool swimmer, I took up open water swimming every day in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay—and swam  solo the eleven-mile width of Lake Tahoe for my 65th birthday.

In San Francisco I had the lucky break to lose a job and gain a new career. Finding myself with time and a salary I met a career counselor who asked, “What have you always wanted to do but have never done?” I replied, “Teach.” I had set out from Bowdoin to be a college English professor, but then those left turns intervened. Now I had the opportunity—not English, but graduate level business school. Through the kind help of a stranger (The career counselor had told me to tell everyone I met what my goal was, and someone would help me. Someone did.) I began teaching at Stanford in 2010 and the rest is history.

In January 2020 I moved back East to Boston, just in time for the city and world to shut down, completing the full circle return to New England. Today I teach business at Northeastern University, Hult International Business School, and am responsible for marketing at The Fletcher School at Tufts. Life (work!) is full.

I swim at Walden Pond and in Boston Harbor, spend weekends with friends in Germantown, New York on the Hudson River, and son Sam and family in the Berkshires. I visit Maine and Bowdoin often. Retirement is a concept I don’t understand and am lucky to have found this new career–and life—fulfillment, truly the fulfillment of The Offer of the College.

I am forever grateful to Bowdoin College.


Happiness is a shallow boat in a very rough ocean.

Happiness is something that descends upon you; it comes upon you suddenly. And then you should be grateful for it because there’s plenty of suffering and if you happen to be happy, well wonderful. Enjoy it.  Be grateful for it and maybe try to meditate on the reasons that it manifested itself. It can come as a mystery.

You don’t necessarily know when you’re going to be happy. Something surprising happens, and delights you. And you can analyze that. You can think I’m doing something right; I’m in the right place, right now. Maybe I can hang on to that.  Maybe I can learn from that.

You should be pursuing who you could be.

I’m thinking about these words, not mine but Jordan Peterson’s, early this morning, the first morning the clocks rolled back to end daylight savings time. Light brightened the sky an hour earlier only foretelling the earlier darkness too soon to come.

Happiness. Where to find it in a world descending into moral failure, climate failure, political failure? Or better to use the past tense—we’re there already. The news on NPR is unrelentingly depressing: Russia’s war in Ukraine, with unspeakable atrocities; Trump and his great lie—and all those Republicans who carry his torch of conspiracy, racism, mendacity; the abuses of both the far right and far left; the planet heating, melting, disappearing; guns everywhere, killing at random. This listing could fill a dictionary.

Driving to work I switch the station to Cape and Islands NPR and listen to the bird report from Martha’s Vineyard: a rare sighting of an infrequent visitor no doubt lost, too, in this confusing world.

I change the station again to WCRB, Boston’s classical music station and listen to a Handel organ concerto. Not knowing doesn’t make the knowledge go away but at least it’s kept at bay for the remainder of my twenty-minute drive to the Fenway to teach my 8:00am class at Northeastern.

Happiness.  Am I happy?

In the scheme of things, setting the world aside, I have many reasons to be happy. That’s the key: setting the world aside. Perhaps that’s selfish, and in truth impossible most of the time. To live on the court and not in the stands means the world is always with us. We can only steal moments—intimate moments—from the ever-present realities.

My boys give me the greatest happiness: the men they have become, their families, the lives they’re pursuing, their bonds with me and with each other.

My students if not a source of happiness are a wellspring of human connection, and contribution, that bring tremendous satisfaction.

I think about the relationships I’ve had and with the distance of time and blurred perspective find more gratitude than anguish. One gave me the sons I cherish; one gave me the deepest passion I ever experienced; one gave me the self-knowledge to know that complacency doesn’t work.

These women in my life have been enough.

‘Aren’t I enough for you?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You are enough for me, as far as woman is concerned. You are all women to me. But I wanted a man friend, as eternal as you and I are eternal.’

‘Why aren’t I enough?’ she said. ‘You are enough for me. I don’t want anybody else but you. Why isn’t it the same with you?’

‘Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man, too: another kind of love,’ he said.

‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity.’

‘Well—‘ he said.

‘You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!’

‘It seems as if I can’t,’ he said. ‘Yet I wanted it.’

‘You can’t have it, because it’s wrong, impossible,’ she said.

‘I don’t believe that,’ he answered.

I forever associate these last lines of Women in Love with the final scene in Ken Russell’s over-the-top film version with Alan Bates portraying Birkin—Bates so unlike Lawrence’s depiction—and so close to the visionary friend I’ve always longed for.

‘It seems as if I can’t,’ he said. ‘Yet I wanted it.’

The early daylight morning is turning into an unseasonably warm, even hot, November day. We blame it on climate change. Outside beckons but I have grading to do. I’m late and my students need their progress reports. If I’m quick and industrious I might be able to fit a last of the season swim in Walden Pond into the afternoon’s waning sunlight.

It’s a goal worth pursuing. Another kind of happiness.

Choices There and Back

Driving south down snow-banked Rt. 41 last Saturday from South Egremont (Massachusetts) to Salisbury and Lakeville (Connecticut), and further down the road to Millerton (New York)—three States so close together geographically yet so immediately, identifiably different—was a journey into my past, a past lived in these exact places more than forty years ago, with my entire adult lifetime lived since then.

I was a young man then, naïve, and fresh from graduate school at Trinity College, Dublin, working at my first job, as managing editor of the nonprofit photographic publishing firm Aperture. That I had been hired with no experience other than my education was a small miracle. I remember the day I first met Michael Hoffman, Aperture’s publisher, at his brownstone on East 36th Street in Manhattan. From the moment I walked in the door he assumed I would be taking the role. Michael loved that I had this graduate degree in Anglo-Irish literature, that I had gone to Bowdoin, that I was this WASPY guy so different from himself. Michael was a difficult, complex man yet throughout the time we worked together he was invariably kind and generous to me. I remember, too, spending my first night at Michael’s historic and beautiful house in Shekomeko, when I was greeted at the door by his very young son and daughter who asked me if I was the new boss. Less than a year before Michael’s wife had been killed in a car accident on the Taconic Parkway, leaving the children motherless. Since that night Michael had alienated more than five housekeepers; hence the children’s question. Was I there to care for them?

He opened a world to me that I could only have dreamed possible. Those four years opened so many doors—and so many that I chose to close.

How could I possibly have seen my future life from my house on Hammertown Road in Salisbury? That of the choices I had then the ones I chose led me to marriage and three sons, one of whom just closed on the house in South Egremont, coming full circle from my past to this present. And that despite the many trials in my life since that time of youthful confusion and exploration I can look back and be content with the outcome, the outcome that has been my life.

What of the choices I rejected: the might-have-beens had I not been so fearful of the consequences, fearful of leaping into a different kind of freedom? Those touchpoints of memory, with people long gone… and long gone from my life but for what they gave me, making me the man I am. I cannot drive down those country roads without these ghosts speaking to me still—as strong today as ever. One friend from those days is still there; we haven’t spoken for more than thirty-five years. He had greatly objected to my marriage and that objection proved too deep to overcome with any kind of continued friendship. It was a choice I made, one of many I made that cut one lifetime from another. Now that these years have passed is there a new opportunity? Or let the nighttime of the past remain sleeping.

To name the names of friends who made my life then, and what it became: Michael Hoffman, Arthur Bullowa, Anne Kennedy, Steve Baron–all at Aperture; Anne’s Millbrook boyfriend Christopher Kent; Jay and Steve from whom I rented Willow Tree House; Jonathan Williams, Tom Meyer and the universe of Jargon: Paul and Nancy Metcalf, Philip Hanes, Doug and Bingle Lewis, Guy Davenport; Leslie Katz and The Eakins Press (and Leslie taking me to lunch with Monroe Wheeler); Lincoln Kirsten; Dale McConathy; Christopher Hewat, still in Salisbury.

Someone else, last seen one snow-filled night at the Red Lion Inn in nearby Stockbridge. I believe she lives in Amherst. Another choice.

Someone else, memories of the Interlaken Inn, and years afterward, gone, died while we lived in Australia. Another choice.

Others that came with my work and turned into friendships, gone. Jonathan and the Jargon Society. More choices.

How could I possibly have seen any of this future, a future that led to Manhattan and Spain and Singapore and Australia and Westchester and San Francisco and now Boston—a lifetime lived with choice after choice after choice. With love lost and found and lost again. Love hinted at but never realized.

Now that we’re almost settled in our house
I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us
Beside a fire of turf in th’ ancient tower,
And having talked to some late hour
Climb up the narrow winding stair to bed:
Discoverers of forgotten truth
Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead.

The compensation, the grand reward for all the choices I’ve made—and for those I chose not to make—are my three sons, who would never have become had those other choices been made.

So, for all the choices I chose not to make I’m immensely grateful.

And grateful for all the new choices in life ahead…that I may or may not choose to choose.

The God Who Loves You
It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you’d be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week—
Three fine houses sold to deserving families—
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you’re living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you’re used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.

Carl Dennis, “The God Who Loves You” from Practical Gods. Copyright © 2001 by Carl Dennis.

Farewell 2021

December 30, 2021

I’m thinking of my final Christmas in San Francisco, Christmas 2019, now a week away from two years ago. December that year had been a month of farewells. Josh and Peggy’s poignant dinner party, my close friends Ray and Michael, Greg and Ross, Zina and Al, there to say goodbye, Ray not well that night, barely hanging on. Christmas was with Adam and Rachel and Rachel’s family, Adam still enduring chemotherapy. 2019 had been a bad year by so many measures: Brenda’s abrupt decision to end our marriage, Adam’s lymphoma, Ray’s cancer. The world had not yet succumbed to a global pandemic—who would have guessed that fate was only a few months away, maybe even percolating as we sat around Josh’s dinner table in Mill Valley. I wore a beaded bracelet that evening that said Love.

Two years.

Ray is gone; he died in April 2020 as the pandemic was just beginning to grip the city. He was so fearful of contracting the virus but died alone in his apartment in still what’s unknown circumstances.  It wasn’t Covid-19.

Adam recovered, graduated from medical school, and began his residency at Highland Hospital. In May 2021 he and Rachel had a baby boy, Oliver Elliott Schwemberger Mortimer. They are prospering.

Josh and Peggy sold their house in Strawberry, organizing their exit while I visited last August, and moved to a rental in Corte Madera.

And I have been in Boston, two years on January 7th, two years—and counting—of living under the cloud of a virus that still keeps us masked and out of casual circulation.

All of us have moved on. For me, Boston has been a godsend. Close to Sam and family, work blossoming at Hult and Northeastern and for a year at Fletcher, an apartment I like across from an East Boston swimming beach, Walden Pond, a few new friends. My close friends in San Francisco have remained close. Josh, Josh and Peggy, Fran, Mark, Don, Robin, Travis. My hopes of being bi-coastal with frequent cross-country trips spoiled by Covid. I miss swimming in the Bay.

I think about those twelve years in San Francisco, the significance of those years in my life, what they gave me, what I lost. What I found as a result of loss. The unexpected passion of love, for the first—and perhaps only—time. The shattering disappointment of that love gone. The tranquility and eventual sadness of a kind of love regained. And lost again. I realize now I was the lucky one, the one who could leave, to start again. I should be, and am, grateful.

Do I want any of those old relationships again? Not with those same women—three strikes, over so many years, and I’m more than out. The times have changed, too. Not with any women. I don’t want any of that possible drama. I’m willing to be surprised, and willing to be open to something different, too. And willing to be free of any relationship. It’s a good place to stand.

For Christmas this year Travis sent me a book titled Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. Apart from moving to Okinawa the key is keeping busy, being focused, having purpose. Some people I meet ask if I’m retired. I can’t imagine that. I love teaching and have come to see teaching as the purpose I’ve always wanted.

This fall in my strategy class, as a final assignment I asked the students to write a five-year strategic plan for themselves, focused on career goals, their commitments beyond prestige and monetary gain, and their definition of career happiness. I was unprepared to be as moved as I was reading what they wrote, these strong yet still fragile young men and women. As I read their plans, their worries, their hopes, their dreams, I teared up. I want them all to realize these plans, to achieve their goals. That I could be, in some small way, a catalyst on their journeys is a purpose I couldn’t have conceived when I started my own career adventure in teaching. Now I do.

Professor Niland, this is off topic, but I feel I need to address this. I want to say thank you. Thank
you for being an amazing professor for my last semester at Hult and for continuing to further my
understanding of marketing. I appreciate you and the care and passion you have for teaching. Thank you so much. Professor. I hope to see you again!

In such a serendipitous, even mysterious way, this is the gift Brenda gave me by ending our marriage. From that rupture a new life has evolved.

Welcome 2022.

Fathers and Sons

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. He died a few days after his 90th birthday in 2018. He didn’t suffer—had rarely been ill in his life. The end came fast from the first phone call I received from his wife Sonya informing me he had been admitted to the hospital and the next day call telling me he was gone. She organized a fast memorial at their church and didn’t invite me. She said, “I didn’t think you would want to come.”

I would have gone. Because I grieved for the love we never shared? Because a son, an only child son, ought to attend his father’s memorial? Because my blood bond with him was stronger than theirs, his adoptive children and grandchildren? To prove a point? To be a reminder to all the people I didn’t know, and wouldn’t have wanted to know, that this man their friend had had another life, a life before Alabama, a life that in no way at all resembled the life he lived there in exile from everything that came before? To stand in isolation of all that?

I didn’t grieve his death. As I hadn’t enjoyed his life. Very late in our lives, a few years before he died, I called him and told him I thought he had never loved me. His response was that he believed I had never loved him. A father and son who perhaps had loved one another but never could accept that love and lived in the doubt of being unloved.

I don’t grieve him today on this death anniversary. I have a portrait of him hanging in my bedroom, a tinted photograph of my father when he was perhaps thirteen. He’s a handsome boy. He was a handsome young man. I see myself in that portrait. I see my sons. The bloodlines are evident.

In so many ways I constructed my life to be different from his. I rejected his masculinity, his love of hunting and shooting, of fishing in any kind of water, his pursuit of Pittsburgh capitalism, his flirtatious charm with women, his ready ability to build anything.  I never wanted to be him. I wanted to be the opposite of the man he was. He wanted me to be a lawyer. I majored in English and went to Ireland to pursue a graduate degree in literature. He disapproved—but paid for it all. He never said no even when the distance grew farther and deeper. I don’t think I ever said thank you.

When he divorced my mother, leaving me with the emotional wreckage of her attempted suicide and subsequent dependency, I hated him. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college. He bought me a vintage Austin-Healey in a wordless attempt to say he was sorry. We didn’t speak for three years. He didn’t attend my college graduation or years later my wedding. My life diverged away down pathways he would have found distasteful at best. His disapproval hung like smog over my life, silent but ever-present.

Life repeats itself even when we don’t want it to. I said I would never divorce yet have twice.

Today I ask myself would I have turned out differently, made other decisions, had his influence not been such a heavy weight on my shoulders? Would I have been less fearful of being myself, not some anti-Dad?

I can’t create a life that didn’t happen. The past needs to be placed securely in the past drawer. I don’t need to be the man I wound up being. I’m still trying to figure that out—at this late but not too-late stage.

And I can’t know the effect my life, the deeds of my life, has had on my own sons. They are each remarkable men, making remarkable choices, leading remarkable lives. Having been a burden in the past, perhaps having left unknown scars I can only imagine, I live today knowing that all I can do is not be foolish, not be a burden, build my own future on right decisions, and express my unconditional love in as dependency-free ways as I can.

I will try to think fondly of my father today. Think of him as the man he was and not the father he wasn’t. May he rest in peace.

Touch, remembered

Can we ever really know someone else? We can touch; we listen; we see. That smell that only she owns, precisely hers, that instantly takes you to a place that once had meaning. Was that love? That only touching her caused instant tumescence. Was that lust? Was it knowledge? Did I ever know her?

A tear in my heart, healed over, is only the memory inside of three women. They were the only ones.  The scars aren’t visible. Once painful, no more. Nothing lasts. Not this. People break apart.

Touch, I remember touch
Pictures came with touch
A painter in my mind
Tell me what you see

Snapshots of other days. I take them out of the past drawer and look long and deep into the faded technicolor, looking for a sign, something that hinted at what was missing. Late afternoon in the Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo, light streaming through the ceiling windows, an organist playing: I couldn’t stop crying, spontaneous tears that flowed and flowed in quiet sadness, provoked by god knows what—the light, the music, the mystery of faith no longer held– maybe the knowledge that so early the seeds of an end were growing and that a great mistake had been made. Another year, the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, closed, arriving too late in the rain. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t speak. I stared out of the taxi windows on the way back to the pensione on the Piazza Navona, the rain streaming, Roman streets a blur, my life a blur. My eyes as wet as the rain. Her anger had subsided; she tried to recover the moment. Silent, a great weight lodged deep inside, leaden.

Why is this on my mind, anyway? I was thinking about the frustrations and the disappointments of life, of which there are a very great many. I haven’t been entirely honest with you about that.

A tourist in a dream
A visitor it seems
A half-forgotten song
Where do I belong?

Years later we returned. Redemption? Shelley’s heart.  My heart. That day there was light, yet bittersweet , reconciling what couldn’t be put back together because it had never been of one piece.

Tell me what you see
I need something more

Kiss, suddenly alive
Happiness arrive

Another snapshot: another woman, another time. Walking in the Mission, a man stopped us and said we were a beautiful couple. We were a beautiful couple. Love was the answer, then. The only time in my life. San Francisco was a dream. She was that dream.

Hunger like a storm
How do I begin?

A room within a room
A door behind a door

I remember her touch. I didn’t need more.  Then I needed more. Happiness arrived for the first time, true happiness. Amsterdam in the snow. One time out of all time.

Touch, where do you lead?
I need something more
Tell me what you see
I need something more

Was the more I wanted too much? She thought so, said so.  It’s what she saw and it frightened her. The expectation was too heavy. It was too heavy for me, too, and nearly sunk me. JP said happiness is a small boat on a very rough ocean. The boat made it to safe harbor. That life departed, another began. Short-lived. Unlucky triad.

My own dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, was most of my life, as I have said, and I can’t make any real account of myself without speaking of it.

Hold on
If love is the answer you hold

Touch, sweet touch
You’ve given me too much to feel

If love is the answer, what was the question? I was always asking.

Sweet touch
You’ve almost convinced me I’m real
I need something more

This is an important thing, which I have told many people…When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, what is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person.

Grace: free to be, free to act.  What would that look like in my life? Would I be a different man? Would I take another close to my heart? Would I choose differently? Try another way?

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

Thanks to Daft Punk (Touch) and Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)

The Dreaded 9th

February 9th. The dreaded 9th of February. I wonder if she remembers?  I didn’t.

February 9, 2019. Today’s the second-year anniversary of the afternoon Brenda told me she no longer wanted to be married, didn’t love me anymore, wanted to be on her own. Ironically, we had been to Bobby Roper’s memorial service at the South End—ironic because it was Bobby who named the 9th of February the Dreaded 9th, allegedly the day when the water in the Bay is the coldest.

We got home from the memorial and Brenda said, “we need to talk.”

Cold water on a cold day.

And it didn’t occur to me today until a friend mentioned the cold water reference. Two years past, one in Boston. The days were long at first, the nights painful. Then the days slipped by unmarked by memory.

Regret? No, not much. The times it was good it was lovely. Then it wasn’t. I don’t think she could help it, the outcome was ordained. I chose not to see the signs, the patterns that ought to have been so evident. Only in hindsight.

Love is cancelled. Never again. And it’s okay.

Sunday Night, January 31, 2021.

Another birthday milestone passed. A new year begun with the old catastrophe worsened. Like Odin’s ravens seeking news from an oracle who can only weep at what she sees. This is the world today. I’m glad not to be young.

It’s cold tonight in Boston, low single digit temperatures. A snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow through Tuesday. Winter in New England. I’ve now been here a year, a peculiar year of pandemic lockdown. In so many ways 2020 was a good year despite the virus, a better year than the misfortunes of 2019. Adam recovered in 2020. I recovered in 2020. I settled into my small apartment, overcrowded with books and pictures and my painting easel in the middle of it all. Ray’s CDs added a wall of music. It’s warm and cozy and a bit eccentric, the way I like it and couldn’t live when sharing space with Brenda. The wounds of her memory are healed. If I were a praying man I would pray for her but I am not so I don’t. Her soul is hers to redeem which of course it always was. And since she believes in neither souls nor redemption there’s nothing left to ponder. The Chairman gathers his misguided children in mysterious ways, to the peril of those who may mistakenly fall in love with them.

Here on Bennington Street in Orient Heights I swam in the harbor across the street at Constitution Beach most days of summer and fall. Lucky for me since all the pools are closed, and Walden Pond a drive away. Many mornings Sam would join me, a strong companion as we navigated our course from boat buoy to boat buoy, a zigzag swim between the beach and the western runways of Logan Airport, empty planes from Europe descending like giant swans landing on still water. Other days I would swim alone in late afternoon after work, always the only swimmer at the beach.

It’s hard to imagine the next ten years, maybe twenty. Decline will come, perhaps not harshly. Not yet anyway. Miles to go before I sleep. I’ve been visiting my longtime friend JKD across the state and slightly south in Columbia County, New York, and take inspiration in her 93 years, never a day not working on a project, a plan, a new venture, a new idea. May I have more years with her yet.

Still, for all my creature comfort, I feel the country is at an end of time. Not that it will collapse, as social order has collapsed under Trump, but that the cataclysmic reckonings of the past years will take a toll that cannot be repaid. The divisions are too deep, the wounds too deep to heal without jagged scars.  Some will never heal and will bleed forever until the victims die.

I see this every day in the microcosm of my work at Fletcher. Civil discourse among students and alumni is a quaint memory. That diplomacy is a founding pillar of the school now stands as some kind of antiquated relic.

Meanwhile the winter storm warning is in full effect. Snow hasn’t begun to fall here in East Boston but over west in Worchester it’s coming down hard. Tufts has closed for the day; I’m waiting to hear about Hult.  My classes are late afternoon and likely will go remote. I missed these closed-in snow days in San Francisco. Living in an apartment I have no snow to shovel or cares about the roof—unlike the years in Briarcliff Manor when a snow fall meant hours of snow removal and worries about ice dams in the gutters. Here, I can simply enjoy the silent snow, watching the frenzy of house sparrows at my balcony feeder. They will be grateful for the food today.

That’s the irony of the time we’re in: gratitude within this pervading atmosphere of gloom. Today’s a day not to look too far away into the future. Stay home.  Be warm. Let the snow cover all the ugliness of this decaying world, at least for a day or two.

December 31, 2020

Here we are, finally, at the end of a tumultuous year, the worst year in people’s memory the world over. I imagine a thousand people, many thousands, are writing up their summaries of what this year has wrought, what’s it’s meant to them, how it’s changed the world forever, what the “new normal” will be, how we’ve all been transformed by the global pandemic, by the racial reckonings of this past summer, by the reign of the god-awful Donald Trump. Yes, it’s been a year like no other.

Here at the year’s end I’ll take my own measure, look back on all this year has brought me, what light it cast, or didn’t, on the life I hoped to achieve by moving to Boston. And if I separate the atmospheric gloom of 2020 from the year I experienced as life lived for real, I can only admit, without embarrassment, that the year hasn’t been so bad. In fact, it’s been a fine year, a successful transition from one life that ended in 2019 to a new one that began on January 7th. For me, 2019 was far worse a year than 2020.

By coincidence I’m reading a newly published book titled On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, by Andrew Miller, an English professor at Johns Hopkins.  I read a review in The New Yorker and ordered a copy from Amazon. It came in a day.

The book is a combination of memoir and a literary analysis of writers and their books or quotes that deal with the theme of lives not lived, what might have been…and the world as lived being the only world we really have.

The first chapter opens with an Oscar Wilde quote: “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.”

In a roundabout way I think that’s the harm I’ve done myself: not living my real life. But then, I really don’t know, because I never lived any other life. What would my real life have looked like, if not the one I have lived?

I’m past the age when new life chapters hang tantalizingly available, like low hanging fruit, ripe and full, ready to be picked at random and eaten with delight. Yet in 2020 I did embark on a new life chapter, not entirely randomly picked. I decided early on in the dissolution of my marriage that not only my marriage but my entire West Coast adventure was over. And that it hadn’t been in vain at all—very much the opposite—but it was over.

One thing Brenda said to me near the end that hurt, hurt more than most of the hurtful things she said, was that she had lost the five years she had spent with me. Like I had been some kind of down payment on a future life that had to be forfeited, lost, never to be regained, with no accruing benefit while it matured in the bank deposit of life.

Once before in my own life I thought that way at the end of a marriage and it made me suicidal. All those years wasted, the life I wanted not lived.  But the fallacy of that kind of thinking, the death trap, is its negation of experience, its negation of agency, and will, and life lived on life’s terms, unknowable and expansive in its mystery. We only get one life, no matter how much we think about the lives we haven’t led.

In the book I’m reading there’s a lengthy discussion of Frost’s great and mysterious poem The Road Not Taken.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Traveling two roads as one traveler. Is the road we didn’t travel by the harm we do to ourselves? Unexplored pathways, untaken journeys?  The only way we can ever approximate two lives is sequentially, and then the second will always be built in some manner on the foundation of the first.

If life harmed me, can I make amends to myself, and try on a new life? I’m living a new life in Boston. How new do I want to make it?

I’ll end this reckoning with a gratitude list. It seems an appropriate way to end 2020, to set aside the virus, Trump, the deep divisions of the country, and focus on all the good this year has seen in my life.

I’m grateful that Brenda ended our marriage. I know we cared for each other; yet care does not equate to love. She had the courage to end what only would have continued in tranquilized obviousness, safe but soulless. That I fought so hard to save what wasn’t salvageable reflects only on my insecurities, not on any hope for a better future.

Brenda didn’t close a door in my life. She opened one.

In moving out I gained a new lifelong friendship with RD. I experienced a new and vastly different part of the Bay Area. I was able to be close to my son Adam when he needed me most. I connected with other new friends, learned the freedom and joy of painting from one afternoon spent with Dennis P.

I never waivered in my decision to move to Boston. New York was never really an option. Somehow I knew my next road taken was also a return. It has not been a disappointment.

I’m grateful to my son Sam and his wife Saga. They gave me a home for two months while I found my own in a new city. More than shelter what they gave me was an open embrace of welcome and family love.

I’m grateful to have rented the small and unfashionable apartment I chose in Orient Heights. It’s warm and comfortable inside, a marvelous evocation of me, clutter and all. It’s provided access to the beach across the street and the opportunity to swim in the harbor, sheltered by the Logan Airport runways. I’m grateful to Sam for joining me in my passion for open water swimming, a new swim mate for life.

I’m grateful to Hult for transferring my teaching role to their Cambridge campus. I’m grateful to the many new students I’ve taught there this year, and to the new friendships being formed.

I’m grateful for another year with TP, his friendship and faith in what I can offer.

I’m grateful to my friend EM, for recommending me to the interim role as marketing director at Fletcher. Whatever the final outcome is, the experience has been illuminating.

I’m grateful to be living on my own. I’m grateful that I don’t want another woman in my life. I don’t mean that in a sexist or defeatist way. The deepest love and union I’ve ever had was with a woman, the one I didn’t marry. Now, though, the idea doesn’t appeal. I’m open for revision, but for now, no. I’m open, too, to other options. Free to be, free to act.

I’m grateful to have kept the virus at bay. It’s one day at a time, an exercise in careful living. In a weird way, I’m grateful for what the virus has created, a world of Zoom possibility, of connecting and reconnecting with friends old and new that would not be possible in real life. Maybe that’s a piece of the new normal people talk about.

I’m sad to have lost my friend Ray yet grateful to have his music in my life, a daily reminder of friendship and shared experience. I’m grateful for thirteen years of sobriety, the same as Ray. I’m grateful for my many friends in the fellowship, men in my life who share our common destiny.

I’m grateful that my friendship with JS in San Francisco remains as rock solid and lasting as it ever was. Our book club of two is a success! That friendship is another door that Brenda opened, for which I’m forever grateful.

I’m grateful for my friendship with JKD and the life at Midwood into which she so warmly welcomes me. She, and my other friends, prove to me the life affirming value of friendship over transitory love. Another kind of love.

I’m grateful for little things, my love of books and bookstores, unabated even in the face of space limitations.

Most of all, above all else, I’m grateful for my three sons—the sure reproof for any regret for taking that fork in the road when I married Evelyn. My life obviously would not be the same, and obviously it would have been diminished. 2020 has seen Adam recover from 2019’s cancer. It’s forged new bonds with Sam and his family. The virus has curtailed travel to visit Adam in Oakland and David in New York, though it hasn’t lessened our bonds.

I have no predictions or resolutions for 2021. No one could have predicted 2020.

It’s one day at a time, keeping the past in the past drawer, and being open to the possibility, always, of a future that didn’t exist before.

Notes at Year’s End

Christmas Eve, 2020

It’s my first Christmas in Boston, and the first Christmas I’ve ever spent alone. Sam and family are in Finland. Adam is in Oakland, both he and Rachel as residents on hospital call. David and family are in New Hampshire. It’s okay, even better than okay. After the heavy snow of last weekend the weather’s turned warm and wet. It’s to rain tomorrow with high winds and power outages predicted. Home cooked lamb shanks on the menu tonight.

Foregoing expectations is the sure route to a happier life.

Christmas Day, 2020

Warm rain and wind all day, at times torrential. The good news is that the rain washed away the piled and dirty remains of our two feet of snow from a week ago Thursday. It’s the way of city snow: the white and silent beauty lasts only a day or two.

On that snowy Thursday I drove from Boston over to the Hudson Valley to stay with JKD at Midwood. On Friday morning it was -4°, the river steel grey with the snow blanketed Catskills beyond looking as austere and beautiful as I have ever seen them. I can’t recall ever being at Midwood in the snow, when snow filled the landscape and set the great pink house even further apart from the less civilized world, an island of remarkable quiet and joy. Time spent at Midwood is a subtraction from the gloom of the world.

Several trips over to the town of Hudson, now so tony beyond anything it ever was. I remember back in the late ‘70’s when I lived in Pine Plains no one would go to down-and-out Hudson. Nothing but bars and abandoned houses and New York’s last brothels. Then it succumbed to drugs and gunfights before gay New Yorkers discovered its historic architectural bones and slowly began restoring the houses and buildings to their current immaculate state. A year of Covid closures has taken a toll, with many empty storefronts, but for the holidays most of the antique shops and art galleries were open and the upscale housewares stores thriving. I made two trips to my favorite shop, The Red Chair, finding its vintage French treasures too special to pass up, and adding to my collection of 19th century confit pots, perfect for small plants in my small apartment. It’s an indulgence.

On Sunday Joan invited a new friend for dinner, a young and amiable philosophy professor from nearby Bard College, and the table conversation ranged from the merits of different translations of the Iliad to the late writings of Hannah Arendt. Our new brilliant and charming friend turned out to be a poor driver however, skidding his car off the winding driveway in the icy dark. It had to be towed out of the snow bank the next morning.

In the nearby town of Catskill, across the Rip van Winkle Bridge from Hudson—all of Columbia County feeling like it just sprang from a Washington Irving tale, painted by Frederick Church– I found a gem of a used bookstore and filled a bag with must-haves including three first edition Philip Pullman’s I’ll send to Maxwell for his birthday and Nigel Nicolson’s short biography of Virginia Woolf, which I finished this morning (December 28th). As much a memoir as a biography—as Vita Sackville-West’s son he knew VW and the Bloomsbury scene well—it’s much my favorite of the many biographies of VW I’ve read over the years. Nicolson capture’s VW in all her acerbity, brilliance, wit, and compassion.

December is nearing its end, the end of a strange and unhopeful year. The wages of the pandemic, of the BLM reckoning, of Trump’s destructive energy—hardly abating despite his election loss, the loss he refuses to accept—have all colluded to make the year one of continuous stress and anxiety in day-by-day anticipation of the next calamity.

Still, beneath this atmospheric gloom, 2020 has not been personally a bad year. Moving to Boston has been a success. Work has expanded. I have avoided the virus. I swam in the harbor most days of the summer and fall. Adam recovered from cancer and Rachel is expecting a baby boy in June. A Christmas spent without Brenda’s killjoy displeasure.

My bonds with all three boys have deepened despite the inability to travel. I mourn the loss of my friend Ray, though his music fills my apartment with his memory every day. Moreover, inheriting Ray superb collection of CDs has inspired my own renewal of musical passions, building on new discoveries and adding movements of my own.

Sigur Rós’s brooding Icelandic musical saga “Odin’s Raven Magic” has been playing in a nearly continuous loop for the past week, its deeply melancholy sense of doom overlaid with rich waves of harmonics that made me cry the first time I listened to it, somehow suits the year’s ending. The poem from which this musical collaboration springs tells a Norse myth in which the god Odin sends his ravens Huginn and Muginn to an oracle seeking answers to a catastrophic future.

She can only weep when she sees what lies ahead.

Welcome 2021.