Two thousand six wasn’t kind to me. My wife left me after 27 years, tired of waiting for literary fame to descend upon my head. If nothing else, we proved the axiom — when your spouse makes three times as much money as you, all the sharing of housework in the world won’t make up the difference.
So I’m back to living in a house we shared for 18 years, trying to maintain some sense of continuity for our youngest son who goes off to college next year, and wondering if there’s anything left worth doing in life. He just got early acceptance at Washington University, St, Louis and the bills are starting to come in. My wife paid the first half of our three sons’ education, now it’s my turn. There’s motivation for you.
I also have a book coming out this year on nuclear power and global warming that everybody says may catch a wave, but I’ve been through this before. Mounting public opinion is like lassoing an eel. You have to be the only person there at the right time. While we shopped the book last summer, the word around New York was there’s already another book on the theme. That supposedly precluded my book. Fortunately, my agent threaded the needle and found a maverick editor at Farrar Straus who was willing to take the chance. But things in publishing move agonizingly slow and the book won’t be out until a year from now. Who knows what will happen by then?
So whereas we usually head for my wife’s farm in Nebraska at Christmas, this year I’m off to see an old college roommate in Cincinnati. He’s a brilliant guy, the smartest I ever met, who worked for Henry Kissinger in the last 1960s, negotiating with barefoot Hmong chiefs in the jungles of Cambodia, and moving an entire division out of Korea with Al Haig’s approval and President Nixon’s faked signature, and generally participated in history. (The Korea episode became the source of “Koreagate.”) Later he went into banking, bought a company in Cincinnati and became a pillar of the community.
In the late 1990s, however, he lost his company to some New York raiders who cut costs by moving plants out of Cincinnati. Three years later he had a horrible stroke that left him half-crippled. He walks with a cane, slurs his words, and falls into twenty minute coughing fits. (He’s had to relearn to swallow.) His wife and 18-year-old son have been through hell, but he’s still good company and there are flashes of the old brilliance.
My friend starts me off in Cincinnati with a visit to “coffee shop,” which doesn’t sound too exciting until we arrive and find more than a dozen 50- and 60-somethings hanging around the tables as if this were a college dining hall and everyone was deciding whether to go to class that day.
The first person I meet is a fellow writer. “You want to hear my story,” he starts in. “I used to write a financial column for a magazine for $1500 a week. Now I’d be lucky to get $200 for the same thing. The Internet has driven down the marginal utility of the printed word practically down to zero.
“One time I was a week away from signing a book contract with Time Warner,” he continues. “They closed the whole division. The editor was fired. That was my big chance. So I went to Italy and decided to write a potboiler. Fawcett was going to buy it. I went to New York to sign the papers and my editor meets me on the street with my manuscript under his arm. He’s just been fired. He told me he could sell it to another publisher but it never worked out. So I ended self-publishing.” He now does a Cincinnati radio show where he works for free in exchange for using his airtime to promote his book. “It’s a scrappy business,” he says. “Nothing ever seems to work out.”
Listening to the laments of other writers, I am starting to feel a little better. We go home to have dinner with Dr. Henry Heimlich, the inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver and another fixture of Cincinnati society. Heimlich spent twenty years battling with the Red Cross before it accepted his maneuver as a first aid for choking. They insisted on back slaps, which is a waste of time and often drives the food down further. Now he is promoting the Heimlich Maneuver for drowning — once again to the opposition of the Red Cross. I’m helping him write his memoirs and trying to sell them through my agent. (I have always done better writing other people’s books than my own.)
Dr. Heimlich’s wife Jane is the daughter of Arthur and Kathryn Murray, the couple that taught America ballroom dancing. We spend a pleasant evening together. They profess a sincere interest in nuclear power and we talk of resurrecting old tapes of the Arthur Murray Show for MTV.
Next day I am ready for more of Cincinnati so my friend drives me over to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. We arrive at 2 and are met by a sad-eyed middle-aged black woman who is just closing up. “I was leaving early,” she says. “I’ve been here since 10 a.m. and haven’t had a single guest.” The 19th century structure is now in the middle of a large black neighborhood that doesn’t show much support. She agrees to give us the tour.
“Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn’t much of an abolitionist until she visited Kentucky and saw a slave auction,” she tells us. “There she saw young black girls stripped naked and appraised as how they would be at bearing children and young black men forced to show their privates to see how they would do as breeders.”
We take it all in without too much embarrassment — two aging white men listening to a sincere black woman defend the legacy of a 19th century woman reformer. I think of how much contemporary life consists of these moments — airing old grievances and trying to find a way forward past historical injuries — and how much we shape the future with each moment we partake of them.
I am inspired to buy Stowe’s biography — not the half-ton academic volume that includes every letter she ever wrote but a slim one by Jane Fritz written essentially for schoolchildren. Settling down to read that night I find Fritz has done a nice job of chronicling that strange, talented family — her father Lyman, who convinced all his sons to join the ministry; her brother Henry Ward (“The Most Famous Man in America,” according to his recent biography), who hypnotized his Brooklyn congregation before becoming embroiled in a sex scandal.
They were not unlike us. Calvin, her preacher husband, had his “hypos,” once retreating to bed for a month when the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati was on the verge of financial collapse. Both Calvin and Harriet took the “water cure” for depression, visiting spas where they were wrapped in cold, wet towels and made so miserable that ordinary life soon looked inviting. The couple spent months, even years, living apart on various pretexts. Harriet only began writing seriously when the seminary closed and they faced penury. All the while, though, she kept the vision of slavery and its evils uppermost in her mind.
And so among these struggles of writers and inventors, I am becoming inspired again. I have a play about Nikolai Tesla, the genius inventor of alternating current, that I have been intending to write for years. I’m going to make it my New Year’s resolution. Perhaps Tesla’s struggles against Edison’s attempts to stoke public fears over his rival system will inspire Americans to temper their fear of nuclear power. Or perhaps it will end up in the pile with all the other unpublished scripts, plays, and books on my desk.
Either way, as 2007 approaches, I think I have summoned the will for another go-round. Happy New Year!
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