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Saturday, July 31, 2010


My rediscovery of Susie started with a trip to Dubrovnik, and throughout our marriage, we have traveled as often as we could arrange for me to be away from the university. I was eager to make up for the long stretch of years during which I had stayed close to home because of Cindy's phobias, and Susie loves to travel, for all that it takes her a week to pack for an overnight jaunt. I was making trips to South Africa at least once and often twice a year, and on several of them, Susie flew out to meet me after my USSAS business was done so that we could go on safari. Although my first attempt at a safari had been a comic disaster, I still longed to see the wild animals and birds of the African plains. The easiest and least expensive way to do that in South Africa is to make a driving visit to the Kruger National Park, located in the northeast corner of the country. Kruger is enormous -- two hundred fifty miles from north to south, roughly the distance from Boston to Philadelphia. The park is crisscrossed with roads, and the rules are that you stay on the roads and in your car. Even so, in several days driving slowly this way and that, you can see lions prowling, elephants tearing the tops off trees, hyenas fighting over the remain of a kill, eagles, vultures, Lilac Breasted Rollers, herds of impala and zebra, giraffe, even on occasion an elusive rhinoceros. During one of our several visits, I was driving slowly along a road in the northern part of the park when I came upon a large elephant walking parallel to the road in the brush with her baby beside her. I followed along for a while, but she grew irritated by my presence and suddenly wheeled into the road in front of me, flaring her ears and making it very clear that she did not want me around. As carefully as I could, I backed up until she lost interest in me and disappeared into the brush. One of our other trips occurred in the early Spring [which is to say, October or November, it being the Southern Hemisphere.] The mothers had recently given birth, and everywhere we looked, we saw baby animals -- elephants, giraffe, impala, wildebeest, even a hyena nursing her young by the side of the road. I am not much for tourist attractions, but safaris actually live up to the travel company hype.

Far and away our best safari -- and, taking all in all, our best trip of any sort -- was ten days in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. This was a real safari -- private camps, crashing through the brush in open Land Rovers, sundowner cocktails by the boot of the truck on the open veldt, lavish dinners at night in our elegantly tented camp. One day, as we were driving across the open plain, we came upon a pride of seven or eight female lions lying lazily on a mound. As we paused, they got up, one after the other, and padded off. We followed, and after a bit they flopped down on another mound maybe half a mile away. Then they were off again, and this time with a serious purpose in mind. In the distance we saw several warthogs grazing -- not much of a meal for seven lions, but apparently they were hungry. As we trailed after the pride, they approached the warthogs slowly from downwind, and very carefully, clearly communicating with one another, began to position themselves in a net around their prey. The lions were low to the ground, using the tall grass to hide them. We sat very still, actually inside the circumference of the net they had created, watching. Suddenly, by a signal we could not hear or see, three of the lions charged simultaneously -- and missed! The warthogs skittered away as fast as their little legs could carry them. The lions gathered together, rubbed noses and heads, and plopped down to rest.

Susie and I returned to Dubrovnik twice more, and spent a lovely time touring northern Italy in a rented car, but somehow we found ourselves coming back again and again to Paris. Our very first Paris trip was in 1987, even before we were married, to visit Patrick and his Isabel. Very quickly, we fixed upon the île St. Louis as a lovely and centrally located quartier in which to stay. The first two or three times we went, we stayed at first one and then another little hotel on the main street of the île, but then I stumbled on an advertisement in the back pages of the New York Review of Books. A Washington, D. C. psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Frank, was offering an apartment on a side street of the île St. Louis for short term rentals, and we began going for a week at a time.

Those were happy visits, made memorable by lovely walks, exquisite meals, and even the occasional trip to a museum. On one occasion, we met Marx Wartofsky and Carol Gould, who were spending time in a rented apartment with their new baby son. The four of us had dinner at La Miraville, a one-star restaurant that is unfortunately no longer on the right bank quai. Susie and I returned there for a Christmas Eve dinner several years later and I ordered a beignet de foie gras that virtually floated off plate. I can taste it still.

We tried cruises, three in all. The first was a standard tourist excursion around the Hawaiian Islands. Next, we signed up for a Mass Audubon bird watching cruise to Baja, California. Finally, we joined a Harvard/Stanford Alumni/ae tour of the Dalmatian Coast that started at Athens and ended at Venice. All of these cruises suffered from the same problem, in my eyes. We were trapped on a boat for a week or more with people we did not know, whose politics we could only guess. Under the circumstances, the only safe thing to do was to eat, and the only safe things to talk about were grandchildren and previous cruises. Two moments stand out in my memory, both on the Athens-to-Venice cruise. In Athens, before we got on the boat, we were strolling downtown, checking out the new subway being built for the Olympics. The traffic was pretty heavy, and I noticed a truck stuck in a driveway waiting to get out onto the street. Now, I do not know any Greek, but as a result of a life spent teaching philosophy, I have learned to read the Greek alphabet, so having nothing better to do, I sounded out the word printed on the side of the truck. It was μεταφοροσ [I hope I have that right], which is to say "metaphoros." In other words, "metaphor." It was a moving van. The scales fell from my eyes, and I realized what the word "metaphor" means. And then it struck me that the word "metaphor" is a metaphor. How cool is that!

The other event was a bit darker. The tour directors had arranged some lectures to amuse us when we tired of eating. One of the speakers was Marvin Kalb, the long-time television news reporter and commentator who was then the director of something called the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. This cruise was in September, 2002, during the run up to America's invasion of Iraq, so Kalb devoted his lecture to a discussion of the pros and cons of the Bush Administration plans. During the question period, I raised my hand and made a comment about America's imperial foreign policy. There was a round of applause when I finished, but Kalb, this literate, educated, sophisticated public intellectual, assured me that America was not an empire, offering as proof the observation that our motives and intentions were always benign and altruistic. I realized that I was in the presence of an idiot, and shut up. Later, on the line at the buffet table at dinner, several people came up to me and very quietly thanked me for speaking up.

On December 31, 2003, Susie and I made our last mortgage payment on our Pelham house and owned it outright. The next April, we rented Dr. Frank's apartment once again and flew to Paris for a one week stay. On the plane, I said to Susie, "This time around, why don't we go into a real estate office and pretend that we are rich Americans looking to buy a pied à terre in Paris. We will get to see the insides of some apartments, and it will be fun." She was game, so the next day, we went around the corner to a little office on the île St. Louis and made our pitch. They were happy to oblige, and in the next few days we got to see four or five apartments. Spotting us as Jewish right off the bat, they started in the Marais, near rue des francs bourgeois, the heart of the old Jewish section, but Susie and I really had our hearts set on the Left Bank. The agent came up with a small rez de chaussėe studio in a seventeenth century building that formed part of a copropriėtė, or co-op, on a little one block long street called rue Maître Albert, which runs between quai de la tournelle and Place Maubert. I was thrilled when I discovered that Maître Albert was actually Albertus Magnus, the great thirteenth century teacher of Thomas Aquinas, but the apartment looked to me to be a disaster -- dark, gloomy, the walls covered with ugly brown grass paper.

We continued looking, but Susie had a vision I lacked, and insisted that we return to the little studio. With her help, I began to see its possibilities, and on Friday, we agreed to buy it. Getting a French mortgage is a complicated undertaking, so we decided to re-mortgage our Pelham house, so recently freed of all encumbrances, and buy the apartment outright. I asked myself, "Which would our four sons prefer to inherit when we die -- a fully paid up house in Pelham that not one of them will ever want to spend the night in, or a house in Pelham mortgaged to the hilt and a fully paid up apartment on the Left Bank in Paris?" The question answered itself.

We found an elegant "interior architect," Victoire de Boissieu, who transformed our gloomy flat into a light, airy, lovely, efficient apartment -- tiny by American standards, but more than adequate for a Parisian couple. To fill the shelves Victoire had designed, I brought over my complete forty volume set of the works of Marx and Engels [in German], all of my books about Immanuel Kant, and one copy of every edition of every book I had written, some sixty or seventy volumes in all. I threw in my small collection of French history from my days at Harvard teaching European history, and we settled in. It was an insane extravagance, and the smartest purchase Susie and I have ever made.

With the new millennium looming, Patrick decided to bring his professional chess career to an end and return to college to finish up his undergraduate degree. In 1995, Viswanathan Anand, the great young Indian Grandmaster, played Gary Kasparov for the world title. Anand hired Patrick as a second, and Patrick spent months training with "Vishy" for the face off, later publishing a book about the match. Patrick told me that seeing the level at which Anand played, and recognizing what it would take for him to rise to that level and become a genuine contender for the world title, he decided not to continue his professional career as a chess player. After completing his degree at Harvard, Patrick got a job with a business consulting firm. A year or so later, he moved to the West Coast and worked for two little dot com start-ups, neither of which was able to get off the ground.

While Patrick was in Silicon Valley, he decided to try his luck at on-line dating. Wonder of wonders, he met a simply marvelous young woman, Diana Schneider, who was working in San Francisco for a non-profit. Patrick had described himself in his little on-line blurb as a "former United States chess champion." I guess absolute accuracy is not all that common in the on-line dating world, and Diana apparently said to herself, "Yeah, right. Let's see who he really is." I met Diana in 2000 at the seventieth birthday party that my sister threw for herself in Washington, D. C. I was totally taken by her, and was beside myself with delight when Patrick announced some time later that he and Diana would be married.

The couple settled on a Napa Valley winery as the location for the affair, and picked July 14th as the date. I very much wanted to believe that Bastille Day had a political meaning to them, but I am afraid it was just a date that turned out to be convenient for everyone. Susie and I had met Diana's parents, Larry and Elizabeth, on an earlier trip to the West Coast. Just as you do not get to choose your relatives, so you do not, at least in our society, get to choose your in-laws. I had been rather unlucky with Cindy's parents, but Larry and Elizabeth turned out to be charming and sympatico. Larry was retired from a career as a college teacher, and I did not have to worry about making political remarks.

Patrick and Diana asked Barbara's son, Josh, to preside. Josh is actually a professor of psychology at Alleghany College in Meadville, PA, but he has also had careers as a baritone sax player, a tour guide in Russia, a story teller, and a lay minister. With great foresight, I had spent the previous summer dieting and working out with a personal trainer, so I actually looked pretty svelte in my tux. I danced at my son's wedding, and toasted him with champagne. When you get to be sixty-eight, as I was then, there is not much more you can ask.

During these same years, Tobias went from being a brilliant law student, an appellate court clerk, an Associate at Paul Weiss, and an Assistant Professor of Law at UC Davis to being the leading young Civil Proceduralist in academic law, a powerful voice for gay legal rights, and an important public intellectual. I watched every step of this transformation, and yet it continues to astonish and delight me. Tobias has played an important part in almost every successful legal effort to win marriage rights for same-sex couples in State courts. In 2004, he advised the Kerry campaign on LGBT issues, and in 2008, he was invited to serve as Chair of the Advisory Committee on LGBT issues to the Obama campaign. When Obama accepted the Democratic Party's nomination in Denver, he and I were in the audience [along with a football stadium of other people, of course.] Now, Tobias is a tenured Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, ending, as I write these words, a year spent visiting at Harvard and NYU Law Schools. He consults regularly with the White House and various branches of the Administration on the Defense of Marriage Act, the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy [on both of which he has written excoriatingly], and many other issues of public importance. I think it is a fair judgment to say that at the age of forty, he has already had a much larger impact on public policy than have I in a lifetime of writing.


John S. Wilkins said...

The final sigma would have to be a terminal sigma: ς

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I figured someone would know! Thank you.

M said...

Unless it was in all caps, which it might have been on a truck. (Cf. the typesetting of the word "ambulance" on the hoods of ambulances.) Then, there's no distinction between final and initial/medial sigma.

Anonymous said...