A Man Like Any Other

“He is a man like any other…He will become what he will become, out of the force of his person and the accident of his fate.” *

*Athenodorus, speaking of his pupil, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Augustus Caesar). John Williams, Augustus.

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Are we ever the person we wanted to be?  The dreams of youth fulfilled, even the regret-tinged longings of middle age?  Or have the accidents of fate diverted us from those early ambitions, for better or worse?  Were our original intentions ever feasible, or even appropriate? Looking back with the presumed wisdom of hindsight is always misleading because we can’t know what we never knew. What we know, then or now, is such a thin slice of reality that it can barely be trusted. I waiver between these near extremes—on the one hand believing in the force of my person and on the other feeling diverted by these accidents of fate. Why the choices I made versus any others? Why this friend rather than that one; this marriage rather than another? There are many, many forks in my road, choices that either I make or were made for me.

And those we believe are made for us are also choices we made ourselves.

From the time I was in middle school I wanted to be an English teacher. Literature was my reality and I saw that there were people who made that reality their career. I read and read and excelled—the top English student at my small school in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. I won the English Prize at graduation (having barely passed chemistry that year.)

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In college I majored in English and attained high honors. I wrote my junior thesis on Virginia Woolf and my senior on W.B.Yeats. My favorite course was C. Douglas McGee’s Literature as Philosophy—a profound experience, coming as it did at a traumatic time in my life. It bound me to Doug and his wife Phoebe until both were gone many years later. One of the last letters Doug wrote when dying in Austria was to my son David. I can recall a few of the many books we read in Doug’s course even now: Conrad’s Victory, Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, George Santayana’s The Last Puritan, Eliot’s Four Quartets.

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We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

 

My passion for Yeats and the Irish Revival led me to a graduate degree in Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. I rented the near empty shell of a once grand Georgian house called The Needles on a cliff above Dublin Bay in Howth and my dream was a reality. The Howth Light cast its revolving and spooky beam though all the curtainless windows night after night. A ghost resided in the empty wine cellars beneath the basement, the caretaker claimed. My living space was carved out of the former servants’ hall, beneath the main floor of the house, though opening out to the back tangle of overgrowth leading to the cliffside and the banks of gorse and wild roses concealing the rocky slope down to the water. The house had no functioning central heating, only fireplaces and one electric heater that followed me around during the chilly months like a faithful dog. Next door was the rhododendron filled border of the desmaine of Howth Castle. The Earl of Howth came by once to inspect his young American neighbor. I would see him walking his wolfhounds along the cliffs early in the morning. This reality was indeed like a dream.

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How does one sustain this kind of dream? After graduation I returned home, having been accepted to the PhD program in literature at the University of Chicago. I never went. Instead I moved to my mother’s cousins in Darien, CT and looked for a job in publishing in Manhattan. On a whim I wrote to Michael Hoffman, the publisher of Aperture, the renowned photographic quarterly and book publisher. He responded and asked to meet at his townhouse on East 37nd Street. From the moment I walked in the door he assumed I would come to work with him at Aperture’s editorial offices in Millerton, in Dutchess County. I became the managing editor— an accident of fate that changed the entire course of my life. I can’t call it force of my person beyond the decision to write in the first place. Events unrolled with their own force.

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I moved to Millerton, first renting a room in a Gothic boarding house in Pine Plains called The Pines. It was straight out of Charles Addams. Michael was deeply amused. Later I moved to Salisbury, CT over the New York line, then later yet back to Pine Plains to the Willow Tree House, my tiny cottage shrouded under an immense willow and covered in Dutchman’s Pipe.

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Michael’s vision was to create a commune on his Shekomeko property. Though it never came to pass, I spent many days at his handsome 18th century farmhouse, many dinners, many weekends there with his friend and patron Authur Bulowa, visiting photographers, and itinerant fellow travelers such as Jonathan Williams and his Jargon Society cohorts.

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People come and go in our lives, and all of the friends I had then have all disappeared. Christopher Hewat. Ann Kennedy. Mike McCabe. Mark Goodman. Jay and Steve, gentlemen farmers from whom I rented the Willow Tree House. Some are gone entirely: the complex friendship with Michael Hoffman. Paul and Nancy Metcalf. Dale McConathy, a friend and another fork in the road, life’s pathway.  Now dead nearly two decades. What a long time ago. I wonder about these friends often, those gone and those lost.

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Those days are like yesterday.

Forks abounded with what seemed quick succession: New York, Artists’ Postcards, marriage, business school, advertising, children, Spain, Singapore, Australia, back to New York, Midwood and Joan,  flights everywhere, Paris then Japan, divorce, San Francisco, swimming, remarriage, grandchildren, today. That’s thirty years of life, by force of my person and the accidents of my fate.

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Today’s my second wedding anniversary with Brenda. Was it fate that we met? Was it force of person that we married? A lovely conjunction of both. That’s the way life is lived.

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