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New Year's Letter

In 1940, W. H. Auden wrote a "New Year Letter" that toasts the end of "a scrambling decade," which cannot guess "in what direction lies / The overhanging precipice." In Vietnam, where I am about to spend four months as a visiting fellow, the New Year begins on February 1, as it does in China, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, and Tibet. So let this be my New Year Letter for the end of a decade of heartbreak and medication, for the renunciation of everything that went wrong in 2012. Those of you who don't know me very well will have no idea what I am talking about. My children have only the vaguest notion. But at some point between February 1, 2012 and the present day, a chair of English accepted a resignation letter from a full professor. The chair's words were as follows:

Thus is tenure abrogated at a major research university. Since then, I've made my way in the world without university assistance, and I have to say it's been terrifying and liberating at the same time.

The New Year is always a time for reflection and anticipation, of regret and trepidation. It is also a hinge moment in the calendar. At the age of 60, I am now able to look back on a strangely unpredictable life and see that there were three hinge moments in it. One was that bloody e-mail. One was my father's decision to quit the Dyson Perrins Laboratory at Oxford and leave for Harvard, taking his family with him. And one was meeting Janette. In the spirit of annual reflection, I offer some thoughts on all three. They take the form of an actual letter written to my two children.

January 13, 2022

Dear Sophie and Teddy,

This was a letter I was going to write over Christmas, and then over New Year’s, and now that I’m in quarantine for COVID I’ve run out of excuses not to write it. I think in retrospect you will see the period of 2021-2022 as turning points in both of your lives. I know something about turning points, or hinge moments, and wanted to share what I’ve learned with you.


I’ve had three crisis points in my life, all of which have taught me something important about life, and about myself. They’re spread out over a wide span: one was in 1974, one in 1990, and one in 2013. All three of them involve objects: in 1974 it was a pencil case, in 1990 it was a kitchen scrubber, and in 2013 it was a pile of debris on the road. Each object isn’t really a metaphor, just a way of remembering a time when I had to face who I was and make changes. The first object was a pink fluffy pencil case called Freddy which had two fake eyeballs and a white beard. For some reason this was the place I put all my stuff when I was 13 and had just come to America. It was the Autumn of 1974. Freddy had pens, pencils, an eraser, a compass, marbles – an 8th grade junk drawer. People teased me relentlessly about it at school, but I sort of rolled with it on the grounds that they had no idea where I was coming from anyway. We had just landed in Boston and everything and everyone was so strange. I had a mug from my old school (Magdalen) which had just celebrated its quincentenary (established in 1458 by the Bishop of Waynflete) and everyone in Boston was going on about something called a Bicentennial, which I realized referred to their 200-year-old country. “I have a mug that’s older than your country” I was fond of saying. When someone mentioned the American Revolution, which I had genuinely never heard of (they didn’t teach it in British schools), I would scoff and say “we let you win.” This kind of thing went down really well with other 8th graders. So one day in Science class I discovered that three people had set Freddy on fire by putting it on a slide over a Bunsen burner. I don’t remember being upset, just surprised that people would think to do that. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the experience of being a first-generation immigrant, and how it forces you to create a kind of second skin, a protective shell. Nothing really makes perfect sense, and everyone expects you to understand them. And you don’t. The same is true when immigrants return to their home country. All you remember is the cost of sweets in pre-decimal currency. This puts you in a border space, neither one thing nor another. I hope you don’t have this rootless feeling: if you do, then just know that it’s both inherited and perfectly normal. Every culture writes about it.

The second hinge moment was in the Spring of 1990, after I taught a class on Modernism at OSU. You know the story: the class was full of strange and wonderful people, like the 3rd best Scrabble player in the State of Ohio, the lead singer for the New Bomb Turks, the man who privatized Poland’s chemical industry after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and an expert fiddle player who wrote a Ph.D. on Gertrude Stein. Also in that group of 12 students was your mother. We were very wary of each other during the class, because she was a super sharp graduate student in Art History, and I was a new assistant professor who had taken exactly one course in Art History and was basically bluffing the art stuff. I let her call me out initially when I got the facts or the theories about Cubism wrong, but realized I was going to have to bring my “A” game and actually studied the art movements that paralleled the literature for the rest of the term. The class went so well that everyone in it asked to continue the class afterwards, and we rotated from house to house every week during the Spring, each meeting covering the film, music, art, literature, food, and drink of a particular country during the early 1900s. So for France, we saw a film by Cocteau, listened to Debussy, looked at Monet, read something by Proust, ate quiche and drank Chablis. Very pretentious, but in 1990 the internet hadn’t been invented yet so we were all looking for something to do. Janette’s turn was Russia, so I brought vodka (I was always responsible for the alcohol), we saw a film by Eisenstein, listened to Stravinsky, looked at Russian Formalism, and read Chekhov. Or something – it really didn’t matter, as long as we got together and had a good time. And I went to do the washing up. As I was doing the washing up I stopped short and looked down at the thing I was washing the dishes with. It was a scrubby, I think we called it then, with just the right abrasiveness to clean a dish without leaving a mark. Not too soft, not too hard: just right. It was red and white and fit in the hand perfectly. I had never seen such a scrubby before, nor had I ever thought about them much. But suddenly I realized I was holding the perfect object for the purpose at hand, the ideal object. And I realized, too, looking around the kitchen, that everything in it was just as perfect. And I went into the living room where my class (now no longer taking the course for credit) was talking about one thing or another and I saw that everything on the walls was in its perfect place, and that the colors all matched and that a presiding genius had taken an enormous amount of care to make everything so perfect, and at the same time making it look as though it had taken no effort at all. That was when I resolved to ask Janette if she wanted to play a game of racquetball with me.

(Yes, we were sporty back then. Where did you think you guys got it from?)

The third hinge moment I haven’t really talked to you about much. But in many ways it’s as important as the move to America when I was 13, and the time I met Janette when I was 29. From then on life happened just as I had imagined it: we got married in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, bought a house, had a girl, then a boy: it was just like the game of Life, with a pink peg and a blue peg in the back. I had chosen the “Academic” career in the board game, which meant I had to stop to get tenure, and then write books, and take sabbaticals like the one we had in Belgium. We moved to a bigger house, Janette got tenure too, and I made a little corner of the academic world my own. A few more bridges, I thought, and I would be on my way to Millionaire Acres. And then on a very snowy day coming back from Vermont I decided to drive my new Volvo over a pile of metal in the highway instead of swerving around it. I’m not sure why I did this (I think I was trying to drive so that the debris went between the tires - I’m never very good at judging that), but it meant that we had a flat and had to pull over to the side of the road. It was -20 degrees and there was a blizzard. Nobody could see us and every ten minutes or so a snowplow would come down and plow the emergency lane. Every time it did I was sure it would plow into the back of the car, killing all of us. I have never been so frightened on the road, except maybe two other times which I’ll tell you about later. Anyway, Janette had a puffy pink down jacket (this was the Winter of 2013) which we traded every 5 minutes because it was really too cold to be outside in the New York Thruway looking for snowplows. I called the police and the highway patrol and AAA and screamed at everyone to get here immediately and finally somebody did and put on the spare and we drove around for a day looking for a place that would have our kind of tire, which was new on the market and nobody had in stock yet. We finally found a garage and waited six hours for the tire to be changed during which time I took you both to a diner to have lunch. I think for the most part you guys just stayed glued to some game that the two of you were able to play against one another with your phones, and didn’t pick up on the near-death vibe. We ended up that night in an Extended Stay Hotel in Rochester, and got to swim in the kidney-shaped indoor pool. So that was all right.

What made all of that so particularly tense is that the next day I was supposed to meet my boss to find out if charges had been filed against me for making two people uncomfortable at work. I thought the charges were ridiculous and never took them seriously. So the debris in the road is a metaphor, I guess: everything just got completely derailed. As with the metal on the highway, I decided to drive over it, and complained loudly to everyone that I was being badly treated. Three months later the investigation concluded that since I had been such a jerk during the investigation that I must have been guilty of whatever it was I had been charged with. And when I found out what that was, I hit the roof. Two people said that I had sexually harassed them at the same time. Which you have to admit would be a pretty strange thing for a new chair to do. But because they used the words they did in their accusations, and because I had made a bad joke to one of them and swore at the other, the charges stuck. I had the opportunity to refute them but resigned instead. I’m telling you all this so that you can know what happened (nothing – I said the wrong thing twice), and so you that you can learn from my reaction. Here's what I learned:

  1. If you are ever in a hole, stop digging. It only makes it worse.

  2. It doesn’t matter what other people think.

  3. There is no such thing as a perfect life.

I did think, up until 2013, that life couldn’t have been more perfect. Sure, I was probably going to die of a heart attack from all the work I was doing, and I was beginning to take things for granted at home. Janette said later that she would have divorced me if I’d stayed being chair, because it was turning me into a satisfied prig (she's always saying stuff like that). But I have learned so much since 2013. I wrote a 100,000 word book on why the university was wrong to make the decision it did and called it At Fault. I learned how to build a treehouse. How to write a spy novel. How to grow a piano studio. How to make a Manhattan. How to play in an orchestra. I climbed Yosemite three times in three days, slept on a bed of ice above the Arctic Circle, and repaired a canoe. I made recordings of Bach, Shostakovich, and Debussy. Somehow I became, for however briefly, one of the top 40 Scrabble players in the world. All those are just the accomplishments. Inside, in my head and in my heart, I’m a different person. Now, whenever anyone makes a mistake, my immediate impulse is to forgive. When I become impatient with someone or something, I just get in my mental hammock on the top of the treehouse and wait for the feeling to go away. Yes, I’m the same ill-tempered mean man that you grew up with, but the rage is on a dimmer switch, which I can turn down low.

This is what I want you to learn, from your father at 60 years old. Life has unexpected hinge moments, which you can never see coming. Only in retrospect do they explain who you are, and what you’ve become. Hinge moments can happen at any time, but each one represents an opportunity for profound change. If you see one, take it. That’s the only thing that matters.



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