Freeman Dyson, a visionary physicist and technophile who helped crack the secrets of the subatomic world, tried to build a spaceship that could carry humans across the solar system, worked to dismantle nuclear arsenals and wrote elegantly about science and human destiny, died Feb. 28 at a hospital near his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 96.
The cause was complications from a fall, said a son, George Dyson.
Mr. Dyson, born in England between the world wars, spent most of his professional life as a kind of genius-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, overlapping in his early years with Albert Einstein.
In a career spent traversing fields as diverse as physics, biology, astronomy, nuclear energy, arms control, space travel and science ethics, Mr. Dyson was always obliging when a journalist called him for a grabby quote about the trajectory of humanity. His ideas were reliably unorthodox; the Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer Paul Moravec once called him “the world’s most civil heretic.”
Of all his notions, his most famous was that alien civilizations, seeking to maximize their supply of energy, would build elaborate megastructures around their parent stars to capture much of the solar radiation. Astronomers periodically see something they speculate might be one of these “spheres” — although Mr. Dyson freely admitted he lifted the idea from science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon.
Long before he became an oracle, he labored in the trenches of mathematics and physics. He succeeded in the late 1940s in developing an early landmark synthesis of the latest thinking in the theory known as quantum electrodynamics. His resulting paper, “The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger and Feynman,” was regarded as an instant classic and gave Mr. Dyson lifelong credibility in the sciences even as he went on to tackle more speculative interests.
That included the interplanetary spaceship. Project Orion, initiated in the late 1950s, was an effort to design a spacecraft powered by nuclear explosions, rather than traditional fuels, and capable of carrying people throughout the solar system.
A one-meter tall model seemed to work fine, and the Orion team decided they could send humans to Mars by 1968 and to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn two years later. But the government was not keen on nuclear bombs as a form of propulsion and the project, taken over by the Air Force, was eventually terminated.
He contributed to the design of what became known as neutron bombs, work he later regretted bitterly, to the point of describing an article he had written on tactical nuclear warfare as “a desperate attempt to salvage an untenable position with spurious emotional claptrap.” He became an advocate for arms control and served as outside counsel to decision-makers in Washington.
At age 45, Mr. Dyson told The Washington Post in 2014, he had a midlife crisis because he was surrounded by “all these bright kids down the hall who are writing papers faster than you can read them.” He decided to do science as a hobby and become more of a sage, writing books and magazine articles on science, technology and the future. He often contributed to the New Yorker and, later, the New York Review of Books.
His primary job, it seemed, was to think big thoughts — such as this one, from his 1988 book “Infinite in All Directions”:
“As a working hypothesis to explain the riddle of our existence, I propose that our universe is the most interesting of all possible universes, and our fate as human beings is to make it so.”
Depression, war, brainstorm
Freeman John Dyson was born in Crowthorne, England, on Dec. 15, 1923, the son of George Dyson, a composer who was later knighted, and the former Mildred Atkey, a lawyer.
The England of his childhood and teenage years was bleak, ravaged by war and pessimistic about its future.
“Things were really black at that time,” he told The Post in 2014. “We had Hitler coming along. We had horrible memories of World War I. My childhood was so dominated by this disaster of World War I and we saw World War II coming, and it was almost certainly going to be worse. And of course there was this economic depression and England was tremendously polluted. Every evening, my shirt collar was black.”
Small of stature, almost elfin, he endured bullying at his English boarding school but found escape in science fiction, including the works of Stapledon, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Poring over an Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, he taught himself calculus by the time he was 15, knowledge that served him well in World War II when he became an analyst for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command.
To his dismay, he calculated that experienced bomber crews had no better chance of surviving a mission over Germany than inexperienced ones, and he saw the futility of loading bomber crews with tail gunners who rarely had anything to shoot at and merely increased the number of British casualties. But in his 1979 memoir, “Disturbing the Universe,” he rued his youthful timidity and conformism and consequent failure to take action to change policies.
Mr. Dyson witnessed how technology had “made evil anonymous,” as the bombers dropped incendiary explosives that ignited firestorms, destroying whole cities. He wondered later “how it happened that I let myself become involved in this crazy game of murder.”
“I sat in my office until the end,” he wrote, “carefully calculating how to murder another hundred thousand people most economically. After the war ended, I read reports of the trials of men who had been high up in the Eichmann organization. They had sat in their offices writing memoranda and calculating how to murder people efficiently, just like me. The main difference was that they were sent to jail or hanged as war criminals and I went free.” (Adolf Eichmann was a key architect of the Nazi Holocaust.)
In 1947, Mr. Dyson journeyed to the United States to study as a graduate student at Cornell University, doing research under the physicist and future Nobel laureate Hans Bethe. He took a cross-country trip by car with a young, brilliant scientist named Richard Feynman. During this period, he spoke to, collaborated with or attended lectures by many other leading scientists, including Edward Teller, Julian Schwinger and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
These were people who had built atomic bombs while simultaneously probing the secrets of the atom. Mr. Dyson had a knack for engaging them in long conversations, sometimes over weeks or months. One day in September 1948, while riding on a Greyhound bus across the plains of Nebraska and spending his vacation deep in thought about the various theories he had been busily absorbing, he had a revelation about how he could combine some of the ideas.
He arrived in Princeton and took up a position, working under Oppenheimer, at the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein had been spending his years in exile in vain pursuit of a grand unified theory. The first thing Mr. Dyson did was write down the conclusions he had reached on his cross-country bus ride, and those concepts evolved into his paper on quantum electrodynamics.
A raging intellectual battle took place amid Oppenheimer’s seminars regarding Mr. Dyson’s brainstorm. Until one day, he wrote, “I found in my mailbox Oppenheimer’s formal note of surrender, a small piece of paper with the words ‘Nolo contendere. R.O.’ scrawled on it in his handwriting.”
Peacenik and fringe thinker
In the 1960s, Mr. Dyson changed his mind about atomic bombs. He had been opposed to a ban on atomic testing and had earned a reputation as a military hard-liner — a status that gave him credibility with conservatives in Congress when he later became a peacenik. His conversion came in part from a simple exercise in calculation: He looked at all the atomic explosions starting in 1945 and, to his horror, saw them increasing in number exponentially.
In 1960, he was elected to the council of the Federation of American Scientists, a leading voice for disarmament; he became chairman in 1962 and wrote often for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In 1962, he also went to work for a new government department called the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; he later testified in Senate hearings that led to the ratification of a treaty banning atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. His book on the subject of nuclear war, “Weapons and Hope,” won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984.
The same innovations that made atomic bombs and long-range missiles could potentially open space to human exploration, and Mr. Dyson believed humans would find their destiny in the stars. He believed genetic engineering would make it easier.
“Probably we’ll be a million species before long,” he said in a 1998 interview. “For example, if you want to run around naked on Mars, you’d need a thick skin. I can imagine our descendants on Mars will be more like polar bears.”
He was a full-throated humanist without being fully secular. In “Infinite in All Directions,” he sought to reconcile science and religion, or at least create space for them to work congenially in their own orbits. That attitude propelled him to the 2000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
Mr. Dyson said he was raised in a conventional Christian environment and did not reject that, although as a scientist he could not embrace dogma. Scientists insist all propositions remain open to doubt and refinement.
“I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension,” he wrote.
His technophilia may explain his apostasy on global warming. In the early 2000s, he drew furious criticism from other scientists and environmentalists for his views on climate change. Although he did not deny the Earth was warming — he was not a global warming denier in the strictest sense — he thought the environmental movement had overstated the threats to the planet.
“I just don’t see any evidence that global warming is particularly dangerous,” he said.
That view is not shared by the overwhelming majority of scientists. Mr. Dyson’s fringe position reflected a deeper philosophy: that change is coming, inevitably, and we should embrace it and not fear it. His scenarios for the future always involved a completely different sort of human existence.
In Mr. Dyson’s expansive cosmos, our destiny is to spread intelligence everywhere.
“The universe is like a fertile soil spread out all around us, ready for the seeds of mind to sprout and grow,” he wrote. “Ultimately, late or soon, mind will come into its heritage.”
Mr. Dyson’s first marriage, to mathematician Verena Huber, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1958, the former Imme Jung of Princeton; two children from his first marriage, George Dyson of Bellingham, Wash., and Esther Dyson of Manhattan; four daughters from his second marriage, Dorothy Dyson of Redding, Calif., Emily Dyson-Scott of La Jolla, Calif., Miriam “Mia” Dyson of Freeport, Maine, and Rebecca Dyson of Ashland, Ore.; and 16 grandchildren.
“In some ways, my lifetime has been amazingly quiet and stable. My mother lived through much bigger changes,” Mr. Dyson told The Post. “She started her life riding around in a pony cart and finished up flying in jet planes. I haven’t had any changes as big as that.”
Whether the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) disproportionately helped the rich may be 2020’s biggest political issue. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin claimsthat it benefited most Americans. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) calls it a massive giveaway to the rich.
Unfortunately, no one can tell from the TCJA studies done to date. Those studies, produced by government agencies and D.C. think tanks, do conventional fiscal analysis, which, truth be told, has four fatal flaws.
First, it’s static. It considers only taxes paid in the current year. But TCJA impacts, and differentially so, every household’s future taxes.
Second, conventional TCJA analysis classifies households as rich or poor based on current-year income. This means a billionaire investor who realizes no capital gains can be classified as poor even though she’s rich.
Third, it lumps together the old and the young. But the young have higher incomes not because they’re richer but because they’re working.
Fourth, conventional analysis takes current-year, after-tax income as the measure of welfare. But consumption (spending), both current and future, is what economics, as well as the public, ultimately care about.
Why are the outstanding economists working in Washington doing highly misleading tax analysis? The answers I get are, first, members of congress are their clients and are used to seeing the wrong numbers presented in the wrong way. Second, members of congress aren’t smart enough to process the right numbers.
This “good enough for government work” approach isn’t good enough for voters. Nor is it economists’ role to teach or talk down to members of congress, who, by the way, seem plenty smart to me.
In any case, to rectify this situation, I, together with Berkeley economist Alan Auerbach and Darryl Koehler, an engineer in my financial planning software company, have spent the last five years fixing tax analysis.
Our just-released study, “U.S. Inequality and Fiscal Progressivity,” which includes an appraisal of TCJA, addresses all four aforementioned mistakes.
First, we consider remaining lifetime net taxes (taxes paid net of benefits received), not just taxes paid in the current year. Second, we classify households as rich or poor based on their remaining lifetime resources (net wealth plus the present value of projected future labor earnings), not their current income.
Third, we analyze inequality and fiscal progressivity within birth cohorts.
Fourth, we measure household welfare based on remaining lifetime spending, including bequests.
Where do we get the data? We run the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances through a tool — The Fiscal Analyzer (TFA) — which we developed using my company’s software.
TFA incorporates all federal and state fiscal policies, including the federal personal and corporate income taxes, state income taxes, state-specific Medicaid benefits, welfare (TANF) benefits, Social Security benefits, Medicare benefits and premiums, payroll tax, food stamps and ObamaCare’s subsidies.
Our study has important findings for inequality and fiscal progressivity. Inequality in remaining lifetime spending is dramatically lower than inequality in wealth.
For example, the richest 1 percent of 40-year-olds own 34 percent of their cohort’s wealth, but account for only 15 percent of its spending. This cohort’s poorest 20 percent own less than 1 percent of cohort wealth but do 7 percent of its spending.
This reflects two things: Labor income is far more equally distributed than is net wealth and the U.S. fiscal system is highly progressive. Indeed, the richest 1 percent of 40-year-olds pay 35 percent of their remaining lifetime resources in remaining lifetime net taxes.
Those in the third, second and first resource quintiles (20-percent groupings) face 13 percent, 4 percent, and negative 47 percent average remaining lifetime net tax rates, respectively.
The study also shows that large shares of households who are in the second, third and fourth quintiles of the remaining lifetime resource distributions are conventionally classified as richer or poorer than is actually the case due to ranking based on current income.
What about TCJA? Was it a giveaway to the rich? No and yes, depending on your fairness criterion. Let’s again consider 40-year-olds. Results for other cohorts are similar.
TCJA’s generally small percentage-point cuts in remaining lifetime net tax rates are largest for the middle class. The cut is 1.7 percentage points for the middle fifth (third quintile) compared with 1.1 for the poorest fifth (bottom quintile) and 0.8 for the richest 1 percent.
The corresponding percentage increases in lifetime spending are 1.9 percent for the third quintile, 0.8 percent for the bottom quintile, and 1.1 percent for the top 1 percent. Only 3 percent of 40-years-olds saw their lifetime net taxes rise and their lifetime spending fall.
What share of the tax cuts went to the rich and the poor? The richest 1 percent received 9.3 percent of the total tax cuts, the top 5 percent got 26.5 percent, the top quintile received 52.2 percent and the bottom quintile got 3.3 percent.
So, the rich received the lion’s share of the tax cut. But they also pay the lion’s share of taxes. The top 1 percent pay 30.2 percent, the top 5 percent pay 51.1 percent, the top quintile pays 80.1 percent and the bottom quintile pays negative 9.0 percent.
Hence, TCJA was progressive as conventionally defined. The rich received less than a proportionate share of TCJA’s total tax cut. The very poor benefited even though they pay negative net taxes.
These figures may well understate the progressivity of TCJA. Our analysis assumes that the share owners of U.S. companies (most rich Americans) bear the burden of the U.S. corporate income tax.
Others, ourselves included, think the burden of the corporate tax actually falls in full or in large part on U.S. workers (mostly middle-class and poor Americans). Why? Because it limits investment in the U.S., which limits worker productivity. Were we to assume that the corporate tax falls on labor, not capital, the TCJA would be even more progressive.
Doing the analysis correctly matters. When we use our data to do conventional tax analysis (rank households by current income, consider only current-year taxes and toss the young and old in the same pot), we find that TCJA is regressive, i.e., those with the highest incomes experience the highest percentage-point reduction in current-year tax rates.
Indeed, the correlation coefficient between our current-year tax rates and those of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) based on the JCT’s income intervals is 96 percent. Hence, it’s not our data, but economics’ clearly prescribed methodology that produces the exactly opposite result for the TCJA’s progressivity as conventional and conventionally inappropriate fiscal “analysis.”
For Secretary Mnuchin, these findings will be heartening. But Senator Sanders will surely focus on the absolute size of average lifetime tax cuts. On average, the richest 1 percent received a $278,540 lifetime tax cut (lifetime spending increase) under TCJA — miles higher than the $21,704 going, on average, to those in the middle and the $4,975 going, on average, to those at the bottom.
Did the top 1 percent of 40-year-olds who pay, on average and to be fair, over $13 million in lifetime net taxes deserve a tax break equal to the annual pay of 18 McDonald’s workers? Did anyone deserve a tax break given the massive official federal debt and gargantuan off-the-books liabilities we’re dumping in our children’s laps?
These questions of intra- and intergenerational fairness are something voters will intensely debate over the coming 16 months. Economists can’t tell them what’s fair. But we can, at long last, provide them with tax analysis they can trust.
This column originally appeared in The Hill.
Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, a company that markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner. Both tools maximize lifetime Social Security benefits. MaxiFi also finds retirement account withdrawal strategies and other ways to lower your lifetime taxes and raise your lifetime spending. Most important, it suggests how much to spend and save each year to enjoy a stable living standard through time.
Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.
Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.
I’m ninety-three, and I’m feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I’ve forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours, in which case I’ve begun to feel some jagged little pains shooting down my left forearm and into the base of the thumb. Shingles, in 1996, with resultant nerve damage.
Like many men and women my age, I get around with a couple of arterial stents that keep my heart chunking. I also sport a minute plastic seashell that clamps shut a congenital hole in my heart, discovered in my early eighties. The surgeon at Mass General who fixed up this PFO (a patent foramen ovale—I love to say it) was a Mexican-born character actor in beads and clogs, and a fervent admirer of Derek Jeter. Counting this procedure and the stents, plus a passing balloon angioplasty and two or three false alarms, I’ve become sort of a table potato, unalarmed by the X-ray cameras swooping eerily about just above my naked body in a darkened and icy operating room; there’s also a little TV screen up there that presents my heart as a pendant ragbag attached to tacky ribbons of veins and arteries. But never mind. Nowadays, I pop a pink beta-blocker and a white statin at breakfast, along with several lesser pills, and head off to my human-wreckage gym, and it’s been a couple of years since the last showing.
My left knee is thicker but shakier than my right. I messed it up playing football, eons ago, but can’t remember what went wrong there more recently. I had a date to have the joint replaced by a famous knee man (he’s listed in the Metropolitan Opera program as a major supporter) but changed course at the last moment, opting elsewhere for injections of synthetic frog hair or rooster combs or something, which magically took away the pain. I walk around with a cane now when outdoors—“Stop brandishing!” I hear my wife, Carol, admonishing—which gives me a nice little edge when hailing cabs.
The lower-middle sector of my spine twists and jogs like a Connecticut county road, thanks to a herniated disk seven or eight years ago. This has cost me two or three inches of height, transforming me from Gary Cooper to Geppetto. After days spent groaning on the floor, I received a blessed epidural, ending the ordeal. “You can sit up now,” the doctor said, whisking off his shower cap. “Listen, do you know who Dominic Chianese is?”
“Isn’t that Uncle Junior?” I said, confused. “You know—from ‘The Sopranos’?”
“Yes,” he said. “He and I play in a mandolin quartet every Wednesday night at the Hotel Edison. Do you think you could help us get a listing in the front of The New Yorker?”
I’ve endured a few knocks but missed worse. I know how lucky I am, and secretly tap wood, greet the day, and grab a sneaky pleasure from my survival at long odds. The pains and insults are bearable. My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind.
On the other hand, I’ve not yet forgotten Keats or Dick Cheney or what’s waiting for me at the dry cleaner’s today. As of right now, I’m not Christopher Hitchens or Tony Judt or Nora Ephron; I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility. Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”
Let’s move on. A smooth fox terrier of ours named Harry was full of surprises. Wildly sociable, like others of his breed, he grew a fraction more reserved in maturity, and learned to cultivate a separate wagging acquaintance with each fresh visitor or old pal he came upon in the living room. If friends had come for dinner, he’d arise from an evening nap and leisurely tour the table in imitation of a three-star headwaiter: Everything O.K. here? Is there anything we could bring you? How was the crème brûlée? Terriers aren’t water dogs, but Harry enjoyed kayaking in Maine, sitting like a figurehead between my knees for an hour or more and scoping out the passing cormorant or yachtsman. Back in the city, he established his personality and dashing good looks on the neighborhood to the extent that a local artist executed a striking head-on portrait in pointillist oils, based on a snapshot of him she’d sneaked in Central Park. Harry took his leave (another surprise) on a June afternoon three years ago, a few days after his eighth birthday. Alone in our fifth-floor apartment, as was usual during working hours, he became unhinged by a noisy thunderstorm and went out a front window left a quarter open on a muggy day. I knew him well and could summon up his feelings during the brief moments of that leap: the welcome coolness of rain on his muzzle and shoulders, the excitement of air and space around his outstretched body.
Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already. When Harry died, Carol and I couldn’t stop weeping; we sat in the bathroom with his retrieved body on a mat between us, the light-brown patches on his back and the near-black of his ears still darkened by the rain, and passed a Kleenex box back and forth between us. Not all the tears were for him. Two months earlier, a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life, and the oceanic force and mystery of that event had not left full space for tears. Now we could cry without reserve, weep together for Harry and Callie and ourselves. Harry cut us loose.
A few notes about age is my aim here, but a little more about loss is inevitable. “Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up” was the way Casey Stengel put it. He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.
Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France (the idea is swiped from “Outward Bound”). Here’s my father, still handsome in his tuxedo, lighting a Lucky Strike. There’s Ted Smith, about to name-drop his Gloucester home town again. Here comes Slim Aarons. Here’s Esther Mae Counts, from fourth grade: hi, Esther Mae. There’s Gardner—with Cecille Shawn, for some reason. Here’s Ted Yates. Anna Hamburger. Colba F. Gucker, better known as Chief. Bob Ascheim. Victor Pritchett—and Dorothy. Henry Allen. Bart Giamatti. My elder old-maid cousin Jean Webster and her unexpected, late-arriving Brit husband, Capel Hanbury. Kitty Stableford. Dan Quisenberry. Nancy Field. Freddy Alexandre. I look around for others and at times can almost produce someone at will. Callie returns, via a phone call. “Dad?” It’s her, all right, her voice affectionately rising at the end—“Da-ad?”—but sounding a bit impatient this time. She’s in a hurry. And now Harold Eads. Toni Robin. Dick Salmon, his face bright red with laughter. Edith Oliver. Sue Dawson. Herb Mitgang. Coop. Tudie. Elwood Carter.
These names are best kept in mind rather than boxed and put away somewhere. Old letters are engrossing but feel historic in numbers, photo albums delightful but with a glum after-kick like a chocolate caramel. Home movies are killers: Zeke, a long-gone Lab, alive again, rushing from right to left with a tennis ball in his mouth; my sister Nancy, stunning at seventeen, smoking a lipstick-stained cigarette aboard Astrid, with the breeze stirring her tied-up brown hair; my mother laughing and ducking out of the picture again, waving her hands in front of her face in embarrassment—she’s about thirty-five. Me sitting cross-legged under a Ping-Pong table, at eleven. Take us away.
My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my list is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?
What I’ve come to count on is the white-coated attendant of memory, silently here again to deliver dabs from the laboratory dish of me. In the days before Carol died, twenty months ago, she lay semiconscious in bed at home, alternating periods of faint or imperceptible breathing with deep, shuddering catch-up breaths. Then, in a delicate gesture, she would run the pointed tip of her tongue lightly around the upper curve of her teeth. She repeated this pattern again and again. I’ve forgotten, perhaps mercifully, much of what happened in that last week and the weeks after, but this recurs.
Carol is around still, but less reliably. For almost a year, I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.
People my age and younger friends as well seem able to recall entire tapestries of childhood, and swatches from their children’s early lives as well: conversations, exact meals, birthday parties, illnesses, picnics, vacation B. and B.s, trips to the ballet, the time when . . . I can’t do this and it eats at me, but then, without announcement or connection, something turns up. I am walking on Ludlow Lane, in Snedens, with my two young daughters, years ago on a summer morning. I’m in my late thirties; they’re about nine and six, and I’m complaining about the steep little stretch of road between us and our house, just up the hill. Maybe I’m getting old, I offer. Then I say that one day I’ll be really old and they’ll have to hold me up. I imitate an old man mumbling nonsense and start to walk with wobbly legs. Callie and Alice scream with laughter and hold me up, one on each side. When I stop, they ask for more, and we do this over and over.
I’m leaving out a lot, I see. My work— I’m still working, or sort of. Reading. The collapsing, grossly insistent world. Stuff I get excited about or depressed about all the time. Dailiness—but how can I explain this one? Perhaps with a blog recently posted on Facebook by a woman I know who lives in Australia. “Good Lord, we’ve run out of nutmeg!” it began. “How in the world did that ever happen?” Dozens of days are like that with me lately.
Intimates and my family—mine not very near me now but always on call, always with me. My children Alice and John Henry and my daughter-in-law Alice—yes, another one—and my granddaughters Laura and Lily and Clara, who together and separately were as steely and resplendent as a company of Marines on the day we buried Carol. And on other days and in other ways as well. Laura, for example, who will appear almost overnight, on demand, to drive me and my dog and my stuff five hundred miles Down East, then does it again, backward, later in the summer. Hours of talk and sleep (mine, not hers) and renewal—the abandoned mills at Lawrence, Mass., Cat Mousam Road, the Narramissic River still there—plus a couple of nights together, with the summer candles again.
Friends in great numbers now, taking me to dinner or cooking in for me. (One afternoon, I found a freshly roasted chicken sitting outside my front door; two hours later, another one appeared in the same spot.) Friends inviting me to the opera, or to Fairway on Sunday morning, or to dine with their kids at the East Side Deli, or to a wedding at the Rockbound Chapel, or bringing in ice cream to share at my place while we catch another Yankees game. They saved my life. In the first summer after Carol had gone, a man I’d known slightly and pleasantly for decades listened while I talked about my changed routines and my doctors and dog walkers and the magazine. I paused for a moment, and he said, “Plus you have us.”
Another message—also brief, also breathtaking—came on an earlier afternoon at my longtime therapist’s, at a time when I felt I’d lost almost everything. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” I said at last.
A silence, then: “Neither do I. But you will.”
I am a world-class complainer but find palpable joy arriving with my evening Dewar’s, from Robinson Cano between pitches, from the first pages once again of “Appointment in Samarra” or the last lines of the Elizabeth Bishop poem called “Poem.” From the briefest strains of Handel or Roy Orbison, or Dennis Brain playing the early bars of his stunning Mozart horn concertos. (This Angel recording may have been one of the first things Carol and I acquired just after our marriage, and I hear it playing on a sunny Saturday morning in our Ninety-fourth Street walkup.) Also the recalled faces and then the names of Jean Dixon or Roscoe Karns or Porter Hall or Brad Dourif in another Netflix rerun. Chloë Sevigny in “Trees Lounge.” Gail Collins on a good day. Family ice-skating up near Harlem in the nineteen-eighties, with the Park employees, high on youth or weed, looping past us backward to show their smiles.
Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.
We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.
I’ve been asking myself why I don’t think about my approaching visitor, death. He was often on my mind thirty or forty years ago, I believe, though more of a stranger. Death terrified me then, because I had so many engagements. The enforced opposite—no dinner dates or coming attractions, no urgent business, no fun, no calls, no errands, no returned words or touches—left a blank that I could not light or furnish: a condition I recognized from childhood bad dreams and sudden awakenings. Well, not yet, not soon, or probably not, I would console myself, and that welcome but then tediously repeated postponement felt in time less like a threat than like a family obligation—tea with Aunt Molly in Montclair, someday soon but not now. Death, meanwhile, was constantly onstage or changing costume for his next engagement—as Bergman’s thick-faced chess player; as the medieval night-rider in a hoodie; as Woody Allen’s awkward visitor half-falling into the room as he enters through the window; as W. C. Fields’s man in the bright nightgown—and in my mind had gone from spectre to a waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show. Or almost. Some people I knew seemed to have lost all fear when dying and awaited the end with a certain impatience. “I’m tired of lying here,” said one. “Why is this taking so long?” asked another. Death will get it on with me eventually, and stay much too long, and though I’m in no hurry about the meeting, I feel I know him almost too well by now.
A weariness about death exists in me and in us all in another way, as well, though we scarcely notice it. We have become tireless voyeurs of death: he is on the morning news and the evening news and on the breaking, middle-of–the-day news as well—not the celebrity death, I mean, but the everyone-else death. A roadside-accident figure, covered with a sheet. A dead family, removed from a ramshackle faraway building pocked and torn by bullets. The transportation dead. The dead in floods and hurricanes and tsunamis, in numbers called “tolls.” The military dead, presented in silence on your home screen, looking youthful and well combed. The enemy war dead or rediscovered war dead, in higher figures. Appalling and dulling totals not just from this year’s war but from the ones before that, and the ones way back that some of us still around may have also attended. All the dead from wars and natural events and school shootings and street crimes and domestic crimes that each of us has once again escaped and felt terrible about and plans to go and leave wreaths or paper flowers at the site of. There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity. At second hand, we have become death’s expert witnesses; we know more about death than morticians, feel as much at home with it as those poor bygone schlunks trying to survive a continent-ravaging, low-digit-century epidemic. Death sucks but, enh—click the channel.
I get along. Now and then it comes to me that I appear to have more energy and hope than some of my coevals, but I take no credit for this. I don’t belong to a book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems—by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more—which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. But shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now—late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier op cits? I’m afraid not. The thoughts of age are short, short thoughts. I don’t read Scripture and cling to no life precepts, except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.
I count on jokes, even jokes about death.
TEACHER: Good morning, class. This is the first day of school and we’re going to introduce ourselves. I’ll call on you, one by one, and you can tell us your name and maybe what your dad or your mom does for a living. You, please, over at this end.
SMALL BOY: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.
TEACHER: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?
SMALL GIRL: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.
TEACHER: How nice for you, Emma! Next?
SECOND SMALL BOY: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.
TEACHER: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we, class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?
LUKE (seizes his throat): He went “_N’gungghhh! _”
Not bad—I’m told that fourth graders really go for this one. Let’s try another.
A man and his wife tried and tried to have a baby, but without success. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. Finally, she got pregnant, was very careful, and gave birth to a beautiful eight-pound-two-ounce baby boy. The couple were beside themselves with happiness. At the hospital that night, she told her husband to stop by the local newspaper and arrange for a birth announcement, to tell all their friends the good news. First thing next morning, she asked if he’d done the errand.
“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I had no idea those little notices in the paper were so expensive.”
“Expensive?” she said. “How much was it?”
“It was eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I have the receipt.”
“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars!” she cried. “But that’s impossible. You must have made some mistake. Tell me exactly what happened.”
“There was a young lady behind a counter at the paper, who gave me the form to fill out,” he said. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends. I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, ‘How many insertions?’ I said twice a week for fourteen years, and she gave me the bill. O.K.?”
I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community. They were in their seventies, at least, and very welcoming, and it was just the four of us. We barely knew them and I was surprised when he turned and asked her to tell us the joke about the couple trying to have a baby. “Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want to hear that.”
“Oh, come on, dear—they’ll love it,” he said, smiling at her. I groaned inwardly and was preparing a forced smile while she started off shyly, but then, of course, the four of us fell over laughing together.
That night, Evelyn said, “Did you see Keith’s face while Edie was telling that story? Did you see hers? Do you think it’s possible that they’re still—you know, still doing it?”
“Yes, I did—yes, I do,” I said. “I was thinking exactly the same thing. They’re amazing.”
This was news back then, but probably shouldn’t be by now. I remember a passage I came upon years later, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times, written by a man who’d just lost his wife. “We slept naked in the same bed for forty years,” it went. There was also my splendid colleague Bob Bingham, dying in his late fifties, who was asked by a friend what he’d missed or would do differently if given the chance. He thought for an instant, and said, “More venery.”
More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are. This fervent cry of ours has been certified by Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Munro and Laurence Olivier and any number of remarried or recoupled ancient classmates of ours. Laurence Olivier? I’m thinking of what he says somewhere in an interview: “Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips.”
This is a dodgy subject, coming as it does here from a recent widower, and I will risk a further breach of code and add that this was something that Carol and I now and then idly discussed. We didn’t quite see the point of memorial fidelity. In our view, the departed spouse—we always thought it would be me—wouldn’t be around anymore but knew or had known that he or she was loved forever. Please go ahead, then, sweetheart—don’t miss a moment. Carol said this last: “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.”
Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OkCupid in such numbers—but not just for this, surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Rowing in Eden— / Ah—the sea”) isn’t reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor—you’ve had your turn—is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.
Nothing is easy at this age, and first meetings for old lovers can be a high-risk venture. Reticence and awkwardness slip into the room. Also happiness. A wealthy old widower I knew married a nurse he met while in the hospital, but had trouble remembering her name afterward. He called her “kid.” An eighty-plus, twice-widowed lady I’d once known found still another love, a frail but vibrant Midwest professor, now close to ninety, and the pair got in two or three happy years together before he died as well. When she called his children and arranged to pick up her things at his house, she found every possession of hers lined up outside the front door.
But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week. For us and for anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing, I’d offer John Updike’s “Sex or death: you take your pick”—a line that appears (in a slightly different form) in a late story of his, “Playing with Dynamite.”
This is a great question, an excellent insurance-plan choice, I mean. I think it’s in the Affordable Care Act somewhere. Take it from us, who know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone. ♦
Famous Picasso paintings: 7 works that captured our imagination
Written by Forrest Brown, CNN
It’s hard to imagine a visual record of the 20th century without Pablo Ruiz Picasso. With his bold shapes and characteristic angles, the Spanish artist captured everything from the horrors of war to the boundless possibilities of the human form. Even those unfamiliar with the intricacies of modern art history can likely identify a few of his best-known paintings — particularly those in his signature cubist style. However, during Picasso’s long life — he died in 1973 at age 91 — he is estimated to have completed 13,500 paintings and around 100,000 prints and engravings.
“The Old Guitarist” has to be one of the most sorrowful paintings to ever capture the art world’s imagination. The figure depicted — gaunt and cross-legged — appears exhausted as he slumps over his brown guitar. The oil-on-panel painting is from Picasso’s “blue period,” which saw him restrict himself to shades of blue as he explored themes of poverty and suffering.Did you know? The Art Institute of Chicago became the first American museum to put a Picasso on permanent display after it bought “The Old Guitarist” in 1926.
‘Garçon à la Pipe’
Completed: 1905 Where to see it: Private collection With “Garçon à la Pipe (Boy With a Pipe),” we move from Picasso’s blue period to the more lively rose period.
And while the figure in the oil-on-canvas portrait is clothed in blue, the background features happier shades of ochre and pink.
While hardly bubbling over with joy, theboystrikes a more upbeat image than that of the downtrodden figures from the blue period. He even wears a headpiece of flowers, with more flowers appearing in the background.Picasso painted this not long after he moved to the Montmartre section of Paris, which attracted the likes ofEdgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.Did you know? “Garçon” sold for a stunning $104.1 million back in 2004 — a record for any painting at the time. Art critics were taken aback, with some not considering the painting among Picasso’s best efforts. But the sale helped propel it to notoriety, securing its place as one of Picasso’s most famous works.
Completed: 1905-06 Where to see it: Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)In a portrait that’s as imposing as its subject, “Gertrude Stein” was created near the end of Picasso’s rose period.
Picasso became quick friends with Stein, a writer, after he moved to Paris. Famed for her weekly salons, Stein’s influence extended beyond the literary world. She was also an avid art collector, and joining her inner circle could propel a painter’s career to new heights.
While the portrait is not a cubist work, art experts see the early stirrings of cubism with the use of simple masses for Stein’s body. Did you know? Look closely at the painting — Stein’s face stands out from the rest of the portrait. That’s because Picasso was unhappy with his early efforts. He got so frustrated that he went back to Spain for a break and finished the face upon his return to France. Stein bequeathed the portrait to the Met in 1946.
Contemporary Henri Matisse was particularly vexed and thought it an affront to modern art. But despite the outrage (or maybe because of it), “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” went on to be one of Picasso’s most recognizable paintings.Did you know? You’d be forgiven if you thought the painting’s name referred to the city of Avignon in France. It actually refers to a district in Barcelona, Spain, that was a favorite haunt of prostitutes at the time.
‘Girl Before a Mirror’
Completed: 1932 Where to see it:Museum of Modern Art (New York)If there’s a single painting that screams Picasso, this might be the one. “Girl Before a Mirror” is alive with color, pathos, a hint of eroticism and beguiling shapes that take cubism to its extremes.
It’s a fascinating study that asks: “What do you really see when you look at yourself?” The woman holding the mirror on the left is much lighter and livelier than the darker reflection, which appears to be shedding a tear.Did you know? Picasso said he “preferred this painting to any of the others,” according to MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr.
Its depiction of an aerial bombing raid on the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, was an eerie visual prelude to the coming atrocities of World War II.The muted tones of gray further emphasize the shapes of humans, their arms outstretched in agony, and give the painting the documentary-style impact of a black-and-white photograph. It also contains animal imagery heavily associated with Spain, namely the bull and the horse.Paintings, protest and propaganda: A visual history of warfare
“Guernica” has become one of the most recognizable anti-war paintings in history.Did you know? For decades, “Guernica” was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York while Francisco Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist. In 1974, it was defaced with red paint as an anti-war protest. It was quickly cleaned up and eventually returned to Spain in 1981.
Whereas “Guernica” depicts the fresh and full sweep of destruction, “Weeping Woman” examines the emotional aftermath of war, tightly focused on one woman plucked from the original painting.Picasso actually created a series of weeping women portraits that can be seen in various galleries. The version residing at the Tate — an oil-on-canvas work in Picasso’s angular style, incorporating red, green, white, yellow, blue and mauve — is the culmination of that effort. Dora Maar — meet the woman behind the portraitDid you know? The subject of the portrait is photographer and artist Dora Maar, who documented his progress on “Guernica.” She was also his lover and intellectual companion.
Museums may loan out artworks for special exhibits elsewhere. Always check ahead if you wish to see a specific work to be sure it’s currently on display.
This is an opinion piece by William Jackson who is a Democrat and opponent of President Trump. The part of the article I’m interested in is this quote:
When making the case for the Constitution, in Federalist Papers No. 10 and 51, (James) Madison wrote:“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
As an interesting sidenote, I taught Lamar Alexander’s son in fourth grade. Also, I am a former Presbyterian pastor who is now an Episcopal priest. I’m including the rest of the opinion piece so that you can understand his perspective:
King George III once referred to the American Revolution as a Presbyterian revolt.
After the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump, a member of the Salem Presbytery in North Carolina wrote an epistle entitled “The Church Knew the Dangers of Dictators.”
Specifically, he appealed to Presbyterians to remember the centuries-long connection between the Presbyterian form of church government and the evolution of constitutional democracy in the United States.
After the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Presbyterians in Mecklenburg County — as the story has been told — gathered at the Charlotte courthouse in May to issue the Mecklenburg Declaration, which proclaimed independence from Great Britain.
The ratification of the Constitution occurred 14 years later, in 1789. James Madison, the architect of the checks and balances written into the Constitution, had been a student under John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and the president of Princeton University.
When making the case for the Constitution, in Federalist Papers No. 10 and 51, Madison wrote:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
A government, based upon three separate and equal branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — was created to prevent too much power from being placed in the hands of one person.
At the close of the Senate trial of Donald Trump, nothing less than the freedom of the American people is at stake. That is, if we are to abandon a system of government that provides checks and balances on power that would otherwise go unchecked.
The apparent decision to allow the president to get off the hook, now, without several key witnesses being heard, is to invite presidential mayhem from here on out. No one — not even Trump himself — knows to what extremes he may yet drive us.
Think about the latest (Jan. 29) high-voltage argument of “celebrity” Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz: If the president asserts that he is pursuing what is in the national interest, then it is constitutionally acceptable for him to proclaim any falsehood — and to commit any political or military act!
This heretical notion is the logical product of Attorney General William Barr’s theory of the unitary executive: that neither Congress nor the federal courts can tell the president what to do — or how to do it — in regard to national security matters in particular.
There are more Presbyterians in the U.S. Senate than any other Protestant denomination.
If as few as four of the 11 Republican senators — who are Presbyterian — had supported a full-fledged trial, it would have been a victory for good government.
Alternatively, if retiring three-term Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a Presbyterian, had signaled he would join Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), that combination would have probably ensured witnesses were heard in the Senate. The final vote to not hear witnesses failed 49-51.
I interviewed a former Davidson student who is a lawyer in Nashville and knows Alexander.
He told me: “Lamar will not vote to hear witnesses unless there is an iron-clad agreement that there will be eight to 10 Republicans who have committed to vote that way.”
Yet, Alexander — after coming out against witnesses — made it clear Friday that he thought Trump was guilty of the charges in the House indictment.
It is time to rally members of our church against a man who has, on occasion, described himself as a Presbyterian.
Let the voters of every religious faith take to heart the wise saying from Proverbs 24: 12 — as found in the Berean Study Bible:
“If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know about this,’ will not He who weighs hearts consider it? Does not the one who guards your life know? Will He not repay a man according to his deeds?”
Do not say in 2020 what you may have been able to say in 2016: I did not know what this tyrant was like.