Sunday, October 16, 2016

A solitary day syncs up with thoughts on solitude from two distinguished writers -- plus a brilliantly funny take on the Billion-Dollar Loser


Donald Hall with, uh, some other guy

"Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns."
-- the poet Donald Hall, writing at age 87
The New Yorker, in "Double Solitude"

by Ken

Donald Hall's piece is one of two literary plugs I absorbed this afternoon from Jonathan Schwartz's radio show. As readers familiar with both Jonathan's and my musical predilections will realize, they're not exactly the same. Nevertheless, for decades now one or another of his radio shows has come on after shows I listened to by choice on public radio that I've had lots of exposure to his agreeably quirky way of looking at the world that I don't race to shut the radio off when he comes on.

Jonathan's first hearty endorsement was for Mark Singer's Trump and Me, a slender (112-page) book -- which comes complete with a ringing promotional denunciation of the author by the subject -- that I have no difficulty believing is not only the funniest but the most telling piece of writing there has been on the subject of our beloved Billion-Dollar Loser, whom he was first more or less commanded to write about in 1996 by then-New Yorker editor Tina Brown. I do recall reading a magazine version of what was presumably subsequently expanded to book form, and being delighted -- as I always am by Mark Singer's writing. He must surely be the funniest of all writers on dead-serious subjects. (For most of us he first came to attention with his spectacular and spectacularly hilarious book Funny Money, this native Oklahoman's account of the staggering 1982 collapse of Oklahoma's Penn Square Bank, the shopping-mall bank that skyrocketed and crashed on funny business in the crazed oil-and-gas and banking industries.

From what I could tell, we've been enjoying a humdinger of a day here in the Big Apple, with blue skies and temp reaching into the upper 60s. I've had to glean this from sources like radio and TV weather reports and the limited view out my apartment windows, because I've wound up basically checking out of the outside world for the day while continuing to nurse a condition for which I believe the correct medical term is "a really nasty cold," in combination with some accumulated fatigue.

This has meant checking out of Day 2 of Open House New York, which had the advantage of sparing my having to sort through my assorted scribblings of possible destinations to see which among the extensive offerings that don't require reservations might be doable in what kind of combination. It would have had to be non-reservation sites, because the only reservation I secured on that nightmarish morning when online reservation-making opened was for yesterday: a tour of the construction site for the New York Wheel, the giant Ferris wheel under construction on the north shore of Staten Island. OHNY itself had organized a presentation on the project awhile back, as part of its valuable "Projects in Planning" series, and that made me curious to visit the actual site. Among the "by reservation only" events it was apparently enough off the beaten path to enable me to book it, and by lucky chance I went for the last tour of the day.

I think my thinking was that maybe the last tour would be the last to fill up, so I went straight for that, after being shut out of the only other even I tried to book, a tour of the backstage workings of the Metropolitan Opera. As I expected, those tours were booked solidly by the time I succeeded in getting onto the Web page for them. Beyond that, having endured my mandatory OHNY Weekend opening-gun failure and humiliation, but also a success, I declined to immerse myself further, and yesterday I had a fine time visiting first the National LIghthouse Museum, to the east of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and then the New York Wheel site to the west of it.

The decision to give Day 2 of OHNY Weekend a pass probably began overnight when I allowed myself to more or less abandon the idea of going to bed in favor of immersing myself in a book (Garrard Conley's Boy Erased) and some TV binge-watching, which continued through the day, and also allowed time for one of my happiest musical experiences in many a moon, thanks to a curious audio system I've cobbled together from old equipment to suit my particular auditory circumstances, though perhaps we ought to go into it one of these weeks.

It has been, all in all, a day of solitary pleasures, which brings us back to Donald Hall's New Yorker piece, which struck an immediate nerve because it picks right up on a point that came up in connection with the book-club meeting I mentioned I was attending last week, focused on May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, the poet-novelist-essayist's journal of the year from September 1970 to September 1971, during which he turned 58, living alone in her house in small-town New Hampshire. One of the group members brought up the significant distinction, between solitude, a state that is, at least for many people, at least some of the time, much desired, and loneliness, a state that is a lot less desirable.

Which brings us to Jonathan Schwartz's other reading recommendation, Donald Hall's piece "Double Solitude," which begins with the declaration: "At eighty-seven, I am solitary. I live by myself on one floor or the 1803 farmhouse where my family has lived since the Civil War," then looks back on his life with specific attention to this distinction between solitude and loneliness. He writes, for example, of his time at Exeter, that "solitude was scarce, and I labored to find it," and that in his first marriage, which lasted 16 years: "We lived together and we grew apart. For the only time in my life, I cherished social gatherings."

After his divorce, he writes, "I was alone again, but without the comfort of solitude. I exchanged the miseries of a bad marriage for the miseries of bourbon" -- dating heavily, to put it mildly ("three or four women a week, occasionally three in a day"), and seeing his poetic output "slacken and stop."He describes his subsequent quarter-century relationship, in which he and Jane carefully maintained separate spaces, both physical and psychological, for writing, as a "remarkable marriage, living and writing together in double solitude" -- until her untimely death from leukemia at 47, in 1995.

At present, more than two decades after Jane's death, he writes, as noted above: "Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns."


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