Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: How to hold it all together / Celebrating Spanish women writers / Improving one’s life during the pandemic / Einstein proven right again / The return of art deco

This week: How to hold it all together / Celebrating Spanish women writers / Improving one’s life during the pandemic / Einstein proven right again / The return of art deco

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism. Learn more about my academic background here.

1. Holding it Together, Falling Apart
By Matthew Salesses | LitHub | September 2020
“Holding it together (as apt a phrase as any for this moment of self-isolation, anxiety, and political failure) implies that there is something coming apart. But what?”

2. Remembering the Forgotten Women Writers of 17th-Century Spain
By Theresa Machemer | SmartNews :: Smithsonian Magazine | September 2020
“A show in Madrid highlights female authors who penned histories, biographies, poetry, novels, scripts and more”

3. The Age of Innocence is a masterclass in sexual tension
By Sam Jordison | Reading Group :: The Guardian | September 2020
“In Edith Wharton’s wonderful novel about New York high society, a simple tap of a fan or glance across a crowded room can feel intensely charged”

4. 11 Ways Smart People Are Using This Crisis to Improve Their Lives
By Andrew Snavely | Primer | September 2020
“In this strange, unprecedented time, we have been given a unique opportunity with social distancing: More space and more time.”

5. Is it safe to open mail and packages during the pandemic?
Viral Questions :: Associated Press | April 2020
“There is no evidence that COVID-19 is spreading through mail or parcels, according to the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

6. A star orbiting the Milky Way’s giant black hole confirms Einstein was right
By Emily Conover | Science News | April 2020
“Decades of observations revealed the rotation of the star’s elliptical orbit”

7. A century after art deco’s birth, designers say we’re due for a revival
By Michelle Brunner | The Washington Post | April 2020
“A hundred years after the 1920s came roaring in, the era’s signature aesthetic continues to inspire design snobs and regular folks alike. Art deco — that familiar style of art, architecture and design with a sometimes-wacky blend of historic and futuristic influences — is still beloved. And if trend forecasters are to be believed, we are ripe for a full-scale art deco revival.”

8. I Dream of COVID
By Grace Gravley | Spring 2020
“I was curious to know how the anxieties of the moment would translate to our dreams.”

9. Can You Tell If Someone Is Smiling Just by Their Eyes?
By Katie Heaney | The Cut :: New York Magazine | April 2020
“Though Tyra Banks taught us to smize, I personally have gotten the sense that people I’ve smiled at from behind my mask haven’t really understood that I’m smiling at them.”

10. The charm of elderberries
By Niki Segnit | 1843 :: The Economist | December / January 2020
“A cooked elderberry tastes somewhere between a ripe red plum and a prune. Just don’t eat them raw”

Dec. 31, 1999: The last day of the past

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On Dec. 31, 1999, I was a junior news editor at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the newest member of a team of about a dozen editors and page designers. Reporters mostly worked during the day writing the stories. Editors like me worked at night editing the stories and assembling and designing the newspaper. So I was shocked and elated when my supervisor told me in late December that I wouldn’t have to work on New Year’s Eve. I was smart enough not to ask why. My then-girlfriend was coming to Corpus Christi to celebrate with me, and I was looking forward to a long, romantic night in a downtown hotel.

But on the morning of the 31st, my supervisor called and apologetically asked me to come in for a few hours that night to help edit the extra-big pile of stories for the first edition of the new year. He assured me that I could leave by 7 or 8 p.m. I agreed, trying to sound gracious and appreciative of his promise of an early release. The promise of extra overtime pay further softened the news. I informed my girlfriend of the minor change in plans, which wouldn’t drastically affect our evening.

I dutifully returned to my desk in the newsroom, and I explained to my puzzled (and relieved) colleagues why I was there. As I settled in, I gradually realized there was nowhere else I wanted to be that night (if only for a few hours).

There were great advantages to sitting in a newsroom that night, if only because of the tremendous access I had to countless news services from around the world. Every news service offers special packages every year that examine, analyze, celebrate, or condemn developments in politics, technology, science, sports, film, and music over the past twelve months, but this year was different. The millennial angle brought rich historical and cultural flavors to the coverage. That year, there were fascinating and thoughtful reflections on the evolution of democracy throughout human history, the torments and treasures technology brought to human civilization, and the great and terrible conflicts and comforts religion brought to every society.

That year’s year-end gaze focused as far on the future as it did on the past, predicting peace for most of the world, except for the inevitable tensions between a resurgent China and the post-Cold War United States. Analysts predicted that an economically healthy world would strengthen even the weakest societies in Africa and the Middle East. Terrorism was mentioned, but only in passing as one of a series of minor dangers the U.S. of the future might have to confront and snuff out. Foreign affairs experts predicted the imminent liberation of (and possible civil war in) Cuba once the Castro brothers died. Some political analysts wondered what an Al Gore presidency would look like.

That night I watched live news coverage of the (symbolic) new millennium dawning on the other side of the world. I cheerily chatted with my new co-workers. I munched on the growing buffet of sandwiches, fruits, and vegetables the newspaper ordered for the staff. I noticed a strange new sensation growing in my body, a warm happiness enveloping my heart and mind. Later I realized that warmth I felt was a deepening love for my new job, specifically for the particular intellectual role I played in the newsroom. There was an energy in the air that night, something I never felt before, and something I would feel for the next ten years, every time the newsroom mobilized to absorb and understand a big news event. I was part of something noble, challenging, and fulfilling. I was part of something that mattered.

There was another important reason why I wanted to be in the newsroom on that night, another important explanation for that tense excitement in the air. For months, the news wires were filled with stories about Y2K, the looming technological disaster everyone feared might take place at midnight. Technology experts, military officials, and others fretted about what might happen when the calendars in software programs and defense systems turned from 12-31-99 to 01-01-00, or some other variation of a date dominated by so many zeroes. Would there be power failures? Would computers everywhere melt down? Would planes fall out of the sky, hospital life-support machines shut down, or satellites spin out of control? Would defense systems accidentally launch missiles at Russia or at the U.S.? Would the symbolic end of the millennium inaugurate an actual Armageddon?

Despite these concerns, no one in the general populace seemed to be seriously concerned about Y2K. Government officials, scientists, and engineers were well aware of the potential problems, and the general consensus was that most of the spots in software, where there might be glitches over those zeros, were fixed. Russian and American military officials teamed up to monitor defense systems in an admirable display of transparency and professionalism. No one really knew what might happen. One of my favorite podcasts, “Witness” from the BBC World Service, recently examined the worries over the “Millennium Bug.”

Nevertheless, Times Square in New York City filled up with its usual crowds of bundled-up revelers with their strange eyeglasses, hats, and signs. Peter Jennings anchored ABC News coverage from New York, smiling to himself as he tried to speak to increasingly inebriated correspondents from Asian and European capitals, where the skies exploded with fireworks, church bells pealed, and the streets filled with millions of people, all dancing, kissing, and cheering. I imagined myself in Paris with my girlfriend, holding hands on the riverbank, sharing a deep kiss, the Eiffel Tower’s searchlight sweeping across the cloudy sky above us, the twinkle of distant fireworks sparkling in her dark eyes. Someday, I told myself, I’ll take her there.

Eventually, the newsroom’s clock struck 8 p.m., and my supervisor thanked me for helping edit the extra-big pile of stories for tomorrow’s edition. I smiled, shook his hand, and wished him and and my envious co-workers a happy New Year. I strolled out of the newsroom, glancing one last time at the TV. Peter Jennings smiled as he reviewed the growing crowd in Times Square. It was a smile I never forgot. I spent the rest of the night as I hoped I would. My girlfriend and I had a romantic and relaxing evening — the perfect end to the year, the century, and the millennium.

In the morning, we learned the world did not end. Instead, the first day of the new millennium was bright, breezy, and warm. We had breakfast and then drove to Padre Island. Amazingly, the beach was empty. She and I walked together through the frothy waves hissing across the yellow sand. I stared out across the water, shielding my tired eyes from the sunshine. A new year, I thought to myself. I felt a greater sense of hope, determination, and ambition at that moment than ever before. I felt fortunate, safe, and content. I asked myself, would I ever feel like this again?

I glanced at my girlfriend, radiant in the morning light, slowly dancing her way down the beach, watching the water flow around her legs, her gleaming black hair streaming down her shoulders, her arms outstretched to catch the breeze. She smiled at me. I took her hand in mine. It was time to move on. The future awaited.

Loreta’s Civil War: Neither starved nor beaten

Under the shadow of tragedy, Velazquez prepares to re-enter the Civil War with grim determination to fulfill her original dream of glory.

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Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart will share edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Part 32: Under the shadow of tragedy, Velazquez prepares to re-enter the Civil War with grim determination to fulfill her original dream of glory.

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Our honeymoon was a very brief one. In about a week [my husband Capt. De Caulp] thought himself well enough to report for duty, and he insisted upon going, notwithstanding my entreaties for him to remain until his health was more robust. Had he been really fit to endure the exposure and toil of campaigning, I would never have offered to stay him by a word, for my patriotism, although perhaps not of so fiery a nature, was as intense now as it was when I besought my first husband to permit me to accompany him to the field, and I considered it the duty of every man, who was at all able to take a hand in the great work of resisting the advance of the enemy, to do so. But Capt. De Caulp, I knew, was far from being the strongman he once was, and I feared the consequences should he persist in carrying out his resolve.

Ho did persist, however, in spite of all I could say, and so, when I found that further argument would be useless, I prepared his baggage and bade him a sorrowful adieu. … Before reaching his command, Capt. De Caulp was taken sick again, and before I obtained any information of his condition, he had died in a Federal hospital in Chattanooga. This was a terrible blow to me, for I tenderly loved my husband, and was greatly beloved by him. Our short married life was a very happy one, and its sudden ending brought to nought all the pleasant plans I had formed for the future and left me nothing to do but to launch once more on a life of adventure and to devote my energies to the advancement of the Confederate cause.

Capt. De Caulp was a native of Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was of French descent, and his mother was a Der- byshire woman. He was very highly educated, having studied in England and France with the intention of becoming a physician. His fondness for roaming, however, induced him to abandon his design, and in 1857 he and his brother came to this country and traveled over the greater part of it until 1859. In the last-named year he joined the United States Army, but on the breaking out of the war he came South and offered his services to the Confederacy. From first to last he fought nobly for the cause which he espoused, and he died in the firm belief that the Southern states would ultimately gain their independence.

Few more honorable or truer or braver men than Capt. De Caulp have ever lived. He was tall in stature, with a very imposing presence. His hair was auburn, and he had a large, full, dark, hazel eye. He was a very powerful man but as gentle as a child and exceedingly affable in his disposition and remarkably prepossessing in his manners. At the time of his death he was about twenty-nine years of age. I made an endeavor to procure his body for the purpose of sending it to his relatives in Scotland, in accordance with his last request, but, owing to the exigencies of the military situation — the Federals being in possession of Chattanooga — I was unable to do so.

Capt. De Caulp’s brother was also in the Southern army and also held the rank of captain. He died in Nashville just after the close of the war, leaving a wife, who died in New York.

When under the influence of the grief caused by the sudden death of my second husband, within so brief a period after our marriage, I felt impelled to devote myself anew to the task of advancing the cause of the Confederacy by all the means in my power, the circumstances were all materially different from what they were when, the first time I was made a widow, I started for Virginia, full of the idea of taking part in whatever fighting was to be done. It was no longer possible for me to figure as successfully in the character of a soldier as I had done. My secret was now known to a great many persons, and its discovery had already caused me such annoyance that I hesitated about assuming my uniform again, especially as I believed that, as a woman, I could perform very efficient service if I were only afforded proper opportunity. …

On reviewing the whole subject in my mind, I became more than ever convinced that the secret service rather than the army would afford me the best field for the exercise of my talent, although I almost more than half made up my mind to enter the army again and try my luck, as I had originally done, disguised as an officer. …

I finally concluded that the best thing for me to do was to go to Richmond, and if nothing else availed, to make a personal appeal to [Confederate President Jefferson] Davis, feeling assured that when he heard my story he would appreciate the motives which animated me and would use his influence to have me assigned to such duty as I was best qualified to perform in a satisfactory manner. This resolve having once been made, I prepared, without more delay, to visit the capital of the Confederacy, leaving behind me Atlanta, with its mingled memories of pleasure and pain.

The military situation at this time — the autumn of 1863 — was of painful interest, and the fate of the Confederacy seemed to hang trembling in the balance. In Virginia, [Confederate Gen. Robert E.] Lee was defending Richmond with all his old success and was holding one immense army in check so effectively that the prospect of ever entering the Confederate capital as conquerors must have seemed to the enemy more remote than ever. In the West and South, however, the Confederates had lost much, and the question now with them was whether they would be able to hold what they had until the Federals were tired out and exhausted, or until England and France, wearied of the prolonged contest, consented to aid in terminating it by recognizing the Confederacy and perhaps by armed intervention.

It was known that there were [dissentions in] the North, and that there was a strong anti-war party, which it was expected would, ere long, make its power felt as it had never done before, and if the South could hold out for a season longer, would insist upon a peace being concluded upon almost any terms. Great expectations were also built upon foreign intervention, which every one felt had been delayed longer than there was any just reason for, but which it was thought could not but take place shortly. Every little while exciting rumors were set afloat, no one knew how or by whom, that either France or England had recognized the Confederacy, and many bitter disappointments were caused when their falsity was proved. The people, however, hoped on, getting poorer and poorer every day, and eagerly watching the progress of the campaign around Chattanooga.

The Mississippi River was now entirely in the hands of the Federals, and not only were the Trans-Mississippi states … lost to the Confederacy. … [Confederate Gen. Braxton] Bragg had been compelled to fall back with most of his forces to Chattanooga and had been expelled from that place, which was now in the hands of the Federals. All efforts on the part of the Federals to advance beyond Chattanooga, however, had utterly failed, and the opinion … was gaining ground that they had been caught in a trap and would in a short time be incapable of either advancing or retreating.

While I was in the hospital, Bragg gained his great victory at Chickamauga, and great hopes were excited that he would be able to follow it up with effect, and succeed in destroying the army of [Union Maj. Gen. William S.] Rosecrans. Had he succeeded in doing this, the war would have had a different ending, and the independence of the South would have been secured. It was felt by everybody that the pinch of the fight was approaching, and that in the neighborhood of Chattanooga, rather than in that of Richmond, would the decisive battle of the war be fought, and, it was hoped, won for the Confederacy. …

Much as we had lost, the situation was not an altogether discouraging one for the Confederacy. Richmond was apparently more secure than it had been two years and a half before, and nearly all the honors of the war in that vicinity had been carried off by the Confederates. Lee was making himself a name as one of the greatest generals of the age, while the Federals, although they changed the commanders of their army continually, were making no headway against him and were in constant fear of an invasion of their own territory. In the South, Bragg had just achieved a great victory over Rosecrans and had him now penned up in Chattanooga, from which it was next to impossible for him to escape in either direction. …

Well, matters did not turn out as it was expected they would. Bragg’s victory at Chickamauga was a fruitless one … and the army of Rosecrans was neither starved nor beaten into subjection. On the contrary, Rosecrans was superseded, and [Union Maj. Gen. U.S.] Grant was put in his place to follow up the victories he had won at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg, and the army was so greatly reinforced that it was enabled to press forward and menace Atlanta and finally to capture it. …

With only the most indefinite plans for the future, and little suspecting what exciting and perilous adventures fate yet had in store for me, I proceeded, on my arrival in Richmond, to call on [Confederate Gen. John H.] Winder, and took measures to procure an interview with President Davis. From Gen. Winder I did not obtain much satisfaction, and Mr. Davis, while he was very kind to me, did not give me a great deal of encouragement. I represented to President Davis that I had been working hard for the Confederacy, both as a soldier and a spy, and that I had braved death on more than one desperately fought battlefield while acting as an independent, and that now I thought I was deserving of some official recognition. Moreover, I had lost my husband through his devotion to the cause, and, both for his sake and for my own, I desired that the government would give me such a position in the secret service corps or elsewhere as would enable me to carry on with the best effect the work that he and I had begun.

Mr. Davis was opposed to permitting me to serve in the army as an officer, attired in male costume, while he had no duties to which he could properly assign me as a woman. I left his presence, not ungratified by the kindness of his manner towards me and the sympathy which he expressed for my bereavement, but nonetheless much disappointed at the non-success of my interview with him.

Failing to obtain any satisfaction from Mr. Davis, I returned to Gen. Winder but got comparatively little encouragement from him. He finally, however, consented to give me a letter of recommendation to the commanding officer of the forces in the South and West, and transportation. This was not exactly what I wanted, but it was better than nothing. … Having obtained this important document I started off, and, for the last time, made a grand tour of the entire Southern Confederacy. Stopping from point to point, I gathered all the information I could, and thoroughly posted myself with regard to the situation — military, civil, and political — and endeavored to find a place where I could commence active operations with the best chance of achieving something of importance. …

On arriving at Mobile, I took up my quarters at the Battle House with the intention of taking a good rest … of arranging some definite plan of action for the future. I was resolved now to make a bold stroke of some kind … trusting that my usual good luck would accompany me in any enterprise I might undertake. …

In Mobile I met quite a number of officers whom I had met on the various battlefields where I had figured and received the kindest and best attentions from them all. This was most gratifying to me, and the flattering commendations that were bestowed upon me served to mitigate in a great degree the disappointment I felt on account of the non-recognition of the value of my services in other quarters.

I may as well say here, that in mentioning the disappointments I have felt at different times at not being able to obtain exactly the kind of official recognition I desired, I do not wish to appear as complaining. That I did feel disappointed is true, but reflection told me that if any one was to blame, it was myself. By entering the army as an independent, I secured a freedom of action and opportunities for participating in a great variety of adventures that I otherwise would not have had, but I also cut myself off from opportunities of regular promotion. When I resolved to start out as an independent, I was animated by a variety of motives, not the least of which was that I believed I would be able to maintain my disguise to better advantage and would have better opportunities for escaping any unpleasant consequences in case of detection than if I attached myself regularly to a command. I was right in this, and am now convinced that, on the whole, the course I pursued was the wisest one.

Not having been attached to a regular command, at least for any great length of time, it was impossible for me, however, to secure that standing with those who were best able to reward my services that was necessary, while the full value of my services could only be made known by my taking a number of people into my confidence, and this I had great objections to doing. As matters turned out, the peculiar experiences through which I passed, during the first two years of the war, were of the utmost value to me in a great many ways in the prosecution of the very important work in which I subsequently engaged. …

Kate Stone’s Civil War: A man-flirt is detestable

Stone, riding her horse with a pistol in her belt, decides that the antebellum age of young love, innocent flirting, and romantic dreams is over.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone, riding her horse with a pistol in her belt, decides that the antebellum age of young love, innocent flirting, and romantic dreams is over.

July 18, 1865

Tyler, Texas

Only the quiet routine of home duties. Nothing from the outside world. Oh, for letters from [those] who have bidden us adieu to know what is going on and how they arc faring in their new life.

Mrs. St. Clair and Neta Irvine came in and I tried to be unusually polite and non-committal to Mrs. St-Olair. She is such a dangerous woman that, I am afraid of her. She will start any report, and now she is most intimate with the Yankees. … Mr. Moore dined with us. Mr. Moore is the most belligerent minister I ever saw and the hottest Southerner. He cannot reconcile himself to defeat. There are two Yankee cotton-buyers in town. They are very conciliating in manner, we hear, and dumb as to the war.

Mollie Moore and I took a lovely ride this afternoon entirely alone but with pistols gleaming at our side. I fancy the good people of Tyler, the conservative, will be horrified if they saw them, but we will hope for the best and trust they did not spy our weapons. We took them more for a frolic than anything else, but the roads are said not to be entirely safe with so many hard cases roving around. Mollie and I were longing for a ride and good long gossip together, and all our cavaliers have left us. Mollie told me all about “Adonis” and confesses to a partial engagement, but she evidently does not expect to keep it. We decided that the girls would all have to change their war customs, stop flirting, and only engage themselves when they really meant something. The days of lightly-won and lightly-held hearts should be over.

Mr. Moore’s accounts of the frolics of Willy and Jimmy Carson on their bachelor ranch worry me considerably. I am afraid they will get into serious trouble carrying on so with those country girls and will carry their flirtations too far, and they are but boys turned loose with no one out there to restrain them. Hope they will soon come in, and I will talk to them. Might do some good. A man-flirt is detestable, and I do not want those boys to degenerate into that.

We are living now on the fat of the land, plenty of milk, cream, butter, and gumbo, vegetables of all kinds, melons, and chickens. I am only sorry Mamma and the boys cannot be with us to enjoy it. The outer world is still a sealed book to us. Few mails.

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Cold War secret unveiled / How not to kiss / Cuba’s historic 2011 / Hard nipples / Your dreams

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism. Read past recommendations from this series here.

1. Decades later, a Cold War secret is revealed
By Helen O’Neill | Associated Press | Dec. 25
“The scale, ambition and sheer ingenuity of Hexagon KH-9 was breathtaking.”

2. The Non-froofy Side of Wine: A Drinking Man’s Intro to Wine
By Jack Busch | The Primer | September 2011
“Red goes with what? Fish? You can’t serve what in what glass? Wine can be damn intimidating. We proudly introduce a new series that will give every beer and whiskey drinker out there an excellent primer to the world of wine.”

3. How NOT To Kiss
By Judy McGuire | The Frisky | Dec. 26
“For your edification, I have rounded up the different varieties of bad kissers and broken them down by the traits they share with members of the animal kingdom.”

4. A woman who teaches men to weld provides other life lessons too
By Matt Stevens | Los Angeles Times | Dec. 26
“An associate professor at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Lisa Legohn relies on candor and toughness to reach her students.”

5. Cuba wraps up dramatic year of economic change
By Paul Haven | Associated Press | Dec. 25
“A year that President Raul Castro described as make or break for the revolution is ending after a dramatic flurry of once-unthinkable reforms that are transforming economic and social life.”

6. 7 Mind-Bending Facts About Dreams
By Jeanna Bryner | LiveScience | December 2011
“Why do some people have nightmares while others really spend their nights in bliss?”

7. Mosquito Menace
By C. Claiborne Ray | Q&A :: The New York Times | September 2009
“This summer I was bitten alive by mosquitoes, but my dog didn’t seem to be. Do dogs get mosquito bites?”

8. Challenging Chavez
By Luis De Valle | Activate :: Al Jazeera | September 2011
“In a country divided between those who see Chavez as a hero and those who see him as a dictator one man is speaking out.”

9. A Tit Bit Nipply
By Forrest Wickman | Explainer :: Slate | Dec. 20
“Why do nipples harden in the cold?”

10. Madrid train bombings
Witness :: BBC News | March 11
“Bombs planted on Spanish commuter trains and detonated at the height of the morning rush hour caused chaos in Madrid.”

Nixon lurking in the shadows

Some people fear death. Others fear failure. My fear is not as dire as those two, but it’s related to both.

Richard Nixon was in my dream last night. The post-presidency Nixon. The bitter, self-pitying, damned Nixon, coiled in the shadows of La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, dark eyes glaring at the world as it spun on without him. In my dream, I was informed that he had selected me to help him with a new book on foreign policy, his biggest work yet, looking a century ahead, in which he would make 20 predictions of what awaited the United States in terms of economics, foreign policy, war, health and technology.

He also quietly admitted to me that he was going to run for president again, “to save America from itself.” Evidently, my dream was set at some point before his death in April 1994 and in a nation governed by a constitution without the Twenty-Second Amendment. I told him that my political and social beliefs mostly leaned toward the Democrats. “That’s fine, fine,” he said. “All the better.” He gruffly insisted that he wanted to be challenged at every point. “That’s the best kind of White House chief of staff,” he growled with a smile. “Gonna need a bastard like that.” At that point, thankfully, I woke up.

Throughout much of my life, Nixon has fascinated me. Nixon the scarred politician. Nixon the global strategist. Nixon the cold-blooded survivor. Nixon the abused vice president. Nixon the elder statesman. Nixon the social reject. I was born during the last months of the Nixon presidency. My mother recalled cradling her new wrinkly, sleepy baby as she watched the Watergate investigations burn down the Nixon presidency. She thinks that’s why I love political history and political scandal so much.

My bookshelves are filled with books on Nixon. On my office wall I’ve hung framed historic newspapers, including the Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, edition of the New York Times, blaring the fully capitalized words, “Nixon Resigns.” Nixon’s angry, bleary eyes are like scarred volcanic coals staring at me from the yellowed newsprint, as if they’re demanding something from me, something unspoken and unknowable. In Nixon’s case, I think it’s better that it remains unspoken and unknowable.

In recent weeks, Nixon has been on my mind more than usual. Nixon-related news seemed to be everywhere.

Writer Ann Beattie recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about her new book on Pat Nixon, which was later reviewed in the Book Review.

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating story on the release of the transcript of Nixon’s combative and acidly sarcastic grand jury testimony to Watergate prosecutors. The story contained a great quote from historian Stanley Kutler: “If you know the voice of Richard Nixon, it’s a virtuoso performance, from the awkward attempts at humor to the moments of self-pity.”

Timothy Naftali, the historian and Nixon Library director, recently announced that he was leaving the presidential center. Two weeks later, the library unveiled audio recordings of Nixon recalling his bizarre meeting with anti-war protestors at the Lincoln Memorial.

Journalist Tom Wicker, who wrote a beautiful essay about Nixon for the Character Above All series, died several days ago. China recently agreed to stage — on its own terms — the play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” an exploration of the clash between government power and a free press.

And, finally, the website for the PBS series “American Experience” recently redesigned the page devoted to its powerful presidential documentaries, including a brilliant, bitter one devoted to Nixon.

That 20-year-old PBS documentary, which is sorely in need of an update, ended its introductory segment with a quote that has stayed with me since I first saw it 15 years ago. It was from then-Attorney General Eliot Richardson, who said: “It struck me from time to time that Nixon, as a character, would have been so easy to fix, in the sense of removing these rather petty flaws. And yet, I think it’s also true that if you did this, you would probably have removed that very inner core of insecurity that led to his drive. A secure Nixon, almost surely, in my view, would never have been President of the United States at all.”

For years, as I systematically built a life as an editor, writer and historian, Richardson’s grim observation of Nixon somehow intensified the raging fires fueling my own ambitions. It also challenged me as a presidential historian to understand the intricate mechanisms of a genuinely great and terrible president, along with the diplomatic triumphs and political wastelands he left in his wake.

When I considered Richardson’s observation from the perspective of a novelist, his characterization of Nixon stood as a supreme example of how to design and engineer complex, unforgettable, and tragically-doomed characters for my own fictional illustrations of an equally doomed America. With Nixon in mind, I assembled various aspects of brilliant and frightened men and women, each character crippled by contradictions and insecurities, their virtuous ambitions eventually mutating into bitterness and anger, like the coils of an anaconda strangling their moral centers. Each character is stunning in their own unique way, each one an absolute genius at one thing, magnificently talented, each one contributing to the greater story and the greater society. Some are geniuses yet they don’t know it. Some realize their talents all too late as they look back at a wasted existence, lost love and betrayed principles. For others, their genius is too heavy a burden, or too sharp of a weapon, and they use it to destroy the lives all around them. They are the perfect liars, manipulators, and killers, naturally evil or self-centered people whose true darkness is fully appreciated only when they are thrust into terrible tragedies or failures. A few of my characters — too few — are lucky. They are discovered and guided by the right mentors, and they live rich lives of fulfillment and success, not entirely sure why so many others lead aimless lives destitute of happiness and self-worth.

Lurking not too far behind my musings on Nixon as a president and as a man are my own fears and uncertainties. Some people fear death. Others fear failure. My fear is not as dire as those two, but it’s related to both. I’m haunted every moment of every day by a fear of mediocrity. To me, death is fine as long as I’ve accomplished something notable, as long as I’m celebrated after I’m gone, as long as I’m remembered and appreciated and emulated. Failure is fine as long as I have faith that there are substantive triumphs to eclipse them. I don’t need my face carved onto a mountain or an aircraft carrier named after me, of course. It’s not about ego. Perhaps it’s more about how much I’ve demanded of myself and about how I’ve met those demands, regardless of how ridiculously unrealistic they may have been.

Isn’t this everyone’s personal struggle? Wasn’t it Nixon’s struggle? Shouldn’t I be comforted by the sense that I’m intelligent and perceptive enough to perceive how inconsequential I still am? Shouldn’t that give me some kind of hope, some kind of fresh drive to push harder, write better, think deeper and dream bigger?

Do I have “rather petty flaws” that are driving me to some kind of Pyrrhic doom? Will my hard work in academics and writing build a body of work that I can look back upon with pride? Or am I simply a serene, comfortable, middle class, 21st century American, slowly and sensibly living out his days, not overly flawed and not admirably ambitious, doomed to accomplish nothing? Am I just someone cruising along the suburbs of American existence, blind to the opportunities all around him, a serene man adrift, watched over by his “patron saint,” a forgettable face lost in a forgettable life?

I can’t believe that. I’m a good man who will someday be a great man. That’s all there is to it. This life will improve every life it touches, and it will leave behind a better world. Those are the ambitions I’m achieving and will continue to achieve. That is the greatness I will be remembered for. Hardly mediocre. Hardly petty.

I’ll mention that to Nixon the next time he offers me a job.

Homo universalis

One of my guiding principles is that we’re all capable of self-improvement at any age, particularly intellectual self-improvement. Sometimes that faith is the only thing that enables me to sleep through the night and get out of bed in the morning.

KS16

That’s Latin for “universal man” or “man of the world,” if Wikipedia can be relied on for a proper translation.

I glide through a small, comfortable life — trying not to bother anyone, trying to be pleasant and polite, non-judgmental and sympathetic, charming and humble, trying to be intellectually honest and self-aware of my limits and flaws, every day edging closer to fulfilling all my ambitions.

One of my guiding principles is that we’re all capable of self-improvement at any age, particularly intellectual self-improvement. Sometimes that faith is the only thing that enables me to sleep through the night and get out of bed in the morning. I’ve always been blessed with a hunger for knowledge, a curiosity that often flares into full-blown passion for new arenas of experience, a curiosity perhaps sparked by a bittersweet frustration that I don’t know as much about literature, science, mathematics, history and culture as I think I should.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always embraced wholeheartedly people like Theodore Roosevelt and Michelangelo, those who lived their lives desperately hungry for more of the world to absorb into their hearts and minds, constantly reaching out to make more of it their own.

A friend once called me a polymath. Other friends have called me a Renaissance man. I politely laughed off both compliments. I’m certainly no genius. I’d hardly consider myself intelligent, compared to the accomplishments and capabilities of the other men and women in my life.

As I understand it, polymaths and Renaissance men and women possess an immensity of talent to complement that fiery passion to achieve great things in multiple fields, professions, etc. As my quiet life sadly illustrates — in which I’ve been not much more than a minor writer, historian, editor, painter and arts critic — I have very much of the latter and very little of the former.

Perhaps later life will prove otherwise, as I’m slowly exploring how to become a proper pianist, an amateur boxer, an effective apiarist and gardener, an expert numismatist and philatelist, a stellar professor of American Civil War and Roman and Spanish imperial history, a sympathetic and effective psychologist, an historical novelist, a decent speaker, writer and translator of Turkish, Spanish and Latin, and a less-than-atrocious golfer, photographer, and salsa dancer. My mandate is to be more than a simple-minded, well-meaning hobbyist.

But if none of that works out, perhaps this particular man of the world will be content being someone who’s fun to spend time with, whose passion for history is inspiring, whose writing makes the heart soar, who’s always interesting, always relaxing, always enriching. Always happy.

I’d settle for that last one, above and beyond all the rest.