the Face of Death" full article
New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2003
Trenchcoat Robbers" full article
New Yorker, July 8, 2002
is Everyone Going?" full article
Chicago Tribune Magazine, March 10, 2002
the Sheriff" Download
New Yorker, Sept. 25, 2000
the Clouds" full article
Washington Post Mag., June 12, 2000
Execution of Youth" Download
New Yorker, Jan. 17, 2000
New Yorker, Feb. 8, 1999
High School at the End of the Road" full article
New York Times Magazine, July 5, 1998
Cox " full article
Rolling Stone, June 8, 1998
New York Times Magazine, January 11, 1998
to Know One Another, Again and Again" full
New York Times Magazine, March 9, 1997
Getting to Know One Another, Again
New York Times Magazine,
January 10, 2097
By Robert and Alex Kotlowitz
Jan. 10, 1997
I woke up this morning wondering whether you and your brother,
Dan, ever think about me as being 72. Do you? Does Dan?
Because I do and sometimes a lot -- when the future suddenly
shrinks as a possibility in an especially constricted way,
when the average age in the daily obituaries suddenly plunges
(often, it seems), when energy goes slack and there are
clearly no second breaths or reserves for the moment, when
I calculate how old I will be (80!) when your daughter is
merely 10, when . . . as you can see there is always an
occasion. And the number itself, 72, has a real heft to
it; so does the concept, as everyone knows, whatever they
Well, I repeat the question, in slightly different form.
(Maybe I'm asking for trouble.) What do you, at 41, and
Dan, at 39, think of me, at 72? The question may well be
just another fatuous aspect of self-absorption, a hardy
weed that seems to grow even hardier with age, but we'll
let that pass. (Some days, almost all I think about is myself.)
I mean, we never used to talk this way, did we?
. . . . . . . .
Jan. 13, 1997
When I shared your letter with Dan, he responded with his
usual dry, straight-faced wit -- ''72? I thought he was
There's some truth in his joking. (Mom, ever the therapist,
always liked to remind us of that.) My idea of old age --
if I dare call it that -- seems, well, so old-fashioned.
I grew up with one image of getting older: Grandpa. I remember
poking through his bedroom closet to inspect the Playboy
magazines he kept stashed there. I remember with some embarrassment
his flirtations with younger women -- which, given his age,
excluded few. I can still envision the marks left in the
carpet as he skied through his apartment in house slippers.
And I recall the excursions to the bathroom for his daily
insulin injection, cringing (but never complaining) at the
thought of pushing a needle into his own flesh. Old age
seemed so discomfiting -- both for Grandpa and for those
of us around him. For me, though, the saddest part of it
is that I never heard Grandpa, the cantor, do what he loved
the most -- lead his congregation in song.
You ask me whether Dan and I think of you as 72. Yes, but
not in the same way we thought of Grandpa's 72.
It's not that I don't worry about your mortality and ours.
How can I not? Mom's death nearly three years ago jolted
me in so many ways, but most specifically and most powerfully
it made me ever alert, too alert sometimes, to the fragility
of life. So Dan and I nervously fret when you drive the
winding, exhausting Taconic from the city to your country
place. Maybe, Dan suggests, Dad should take the train and
park his car up there permanently. I nod in agreement. Do
you think Dad's putting on a little weight? I ask Dan. We
assure each other that come summer you'll start swimming
your daily laps. We talk about cleaning out your refrigerator,
removing bottles of olives and salad dressing so grizzled
they give old age a bad name. So sure, Dan and I, on occasion,
perhaps more frequently than we like to admit, ponder the
brittleness of aging. But, Dad, we're a family of worriers,
as you well know.
Truth be known, I view your life with some envy. Maria and
I, anchored by a 2-year-old, can only dream about sailing
the Caribbean on a sloop as you recently did. We talk longingly
of owning a place in the country while you spend summers
there. And we marvel at your scores of friends, the fruits
of a fully harvested life. Barely an evening passes for
you without an invitation to dinner. Barely a week passes
without an invitation to join someone somewhere in their
travels. (If I exaggerate, it's only a little.)
But for me, somewhat selfishly I suppose, and as if the
rest weren't enough, what I treasure most is that I've had
the chance to hear you sing. Here you are at 72 publishing
a memoir that kept me so rapt that I finished it in two
sittings. It left me in tears. And even before it's published,
you've begun yet another book. You're still singing. And
with more vigor than I can muster three decades younger.
Now, Dad, if that's growing old, bring it on.
. . . . . . . .
Your letter was full of good cheer, and I liked that. It
was one thing your mother certainly had, even in life's
direst moments -- good cheer and the ability to express
it. A natural gift; no amount of working at it or wishing
can produce it.
But why write about bringing on old age, even facetiously?
You know that age arrives under its own full steam, often
at a too-fast pace, with terrific sudden bumps here and
there that turn life upside down and sound out urgent warnings.
Slow down. Pull back. Watch out. Watch out for pretty much
everything: health, personal safety, diet, wastefulness.
I pay attention to all that, probably too much. I try to
protect myself against trouble, sometimes ruthlessly. (And
I'm haranguing you; apologies.)
Am I really less for all this? I must think about it. Despite
the warnings, I do care about the world, but not always
passionately. I care a lot, but not always with love. I
like to live more quietly than I used to -- who doesn't?
-- and pretend to think, as still at moments as a still
life. I read and listen to music, but never at the same
time. I also seem to be less prepared to make mistakes;
there seems so little time to correct them.
Another question: Can I still love someone else -- one other
-- in the old, endearing romantic sense? Maybe six months
or so after your mother died, I told myself that all I wanted
was to be able to love someone and to have someone love
me. That seemed right to me at the moment, on the mark,
but it seems that I hesitate, at 72. Now I wonder whether
I wasn't kidding myself. I hope not.
I began this letter feeling the good cheer of yours, enjoying
Dan's joke about my being 62, not 72, and all the rest,
but I seem to have turned grouchy in the writing. That's
one thing that doesn't diminish with the years, I'm sorry
to say. Irritability and wrath. Nevertheless, your letter
made me feel like a million bucks. Or close enough. (And
I was touched by your words about my book.)
P.S. I am not getting fat. I am four pounds lighter than
I was this time last year. And I drive the Taconic pretty
well, no matter how much I may complain about it, just as
long as it's daylight and I don't have to make the return
trip the next day.
Also, before I forget: Near the heart of things, I'm afraid,
vanity remains the slug, the worm of emotions. How well
I know it and how strong it still is, the inner preening,
the ongoing self-congratulations, the continuing sidelong
love affair with the mirror, men maybe more intense about
it than women. Along with flattery, it still brings me a
lot of pleasure. Too much.
. . . . . . . .
As always (well, almost always), you're right. I shouldn't
be too flippant or impatient about time. Otherwise, it will
turn on me, pitching me forward faster than I'd like. I
should hold on to the fact that I still relish an afternoon
of pickup basketball -- and that I'll be able to take my
daughter, Madeleine, canoeing, though the river trips make
Maria nervous. But I wonder: Why do you think of yourself
You used to be at times, but how did I know you were having
money or job problems? And how could you know the turbulence
I rode as an adolescent? (Talk about crabby.) Now, you seem
. . . well, mellower.
Now I can keep you on the phone for as much as 10 minutes
-- and often two or three times a week. Dan and I used to
laughingly compete for how long we could engage you: 30
seconds, a minute, maybe two if we had a new girlfriend
to describe. Now you embrace the entourage of friends and
family who inevitably accompany Dan and me to the farm each
July 4th weekend. Now you're thinking about buying a fax
machine so you can correspond quickly and regularly with
Dan and me. (At least I think that's why you want one.)
And yet you still use a typewriter (thankfully, no longer
a manual), intimidated by these newfangled computers. Whatever
happened to curmudgeonly?
During my canoe trips, I realize such grandiose pleasure
in the most mundane of things: an evening bath in the river,
a stroll deep into the woods, getting caught in a downpour.
I sometimes think to myself that that's what growing older
is like: learning to appreciate, even the unexpected. Is
P.S. You're asking the wrong person for advice on romance.
After all, it took me until I was 38 to marry. I will tell
you, though, that a few days before Mom died, when her breathing
required such fixed concentration, she beckoned Dan and
me to come close. We kneeled at her side as she yanked at
her oxygen mask. ''I hope your father remarries,'' she whispered
between breaths. ''And I hope she's rich.'' You're right
(yet again). Good humor never deserted Mom, not even in
those last days.
. . . . . . . .
Forget canoe trips. We haven't spoken yet of politics, or
sports, or social issues, or even art. (I mean Art.) Should
we try? Maybe not, is my opinion. Let's leave all that for
other times, when we're all sitting around a living room,
trying to keep our voices low and civilized as we discuss
the really important questions. I mean, who is the greater
artist, Picasso or Matisse? Are you in the minority about
''The English Patient''? Do you think it's just a beautiful
crock, as I do? Will Mr. Steinbrenner manage to destroy
the team we all suddenly came to love last spring, or has
he already succeeded? Questions, questions.
Whether deeply or not, I still seem to care about these
things. (That phrase again -- ''care about.'') The state
of the Yankees. Opinions about movies and books. The lives
of old people -- oh, yes -- and their deaths. About that
I care a lot, even as I watch my own formerly clearheaded,
clear-spoken 92-year-old mother struggle hopelessly with
dementia, within whose blathering boundaries she finds,
I'm sure, an occasional 20- or 30-second moment of merciless
clarity in which she perceives exactly how she appears to
the world now. Those moments are my idea of purgatory.
Did I say I was crabby? Sorry, I probably meant impatient.
As you suggest, I've always been pretty much like that,
although it's nice to hear that I'm mellowing. As for solitude,
I still seem to cherish it, or at least that part of it
that is chosen by me and not enforced by circumstances.
Yes, I want a fax machine in order to stay closer to you
and Dan. I have even come to minimal terms with the telephone.
As you say, I can sometimes stay on the phone these days
for 10 minutes at a stretch, feeling reduced, of course,
to a mere electronic signal the whole time, but at least
As for canoe trips, Maria is absolutely right. You cannot
take a 2-year-old white-watering. In fact, if I had any
authority left in regard to family discipline, I would forbid
it. I do forbid it. Listen to your wife and father.
With much love,
. . . . . . . .
This back-and-forth has made me realize something, or at
least acknowledge it. We -- you, me and Dan -- have entered
an interval in our respective lives in which there's a certain
quality of living in harmony with each other. Our lives
have become braided. Part of it comes from the fact that
the family's center of gravity shifted after Mom's death.
But it also has to do with age. Yours and ours. We share
friends. We share work. We share our everyday worries. What's
more, you're young enough to revel in the simple pleasures
delivered by family and friends. And Dan and I are old enough
to appreciate that.
Think about it. Now we trade manuscripts, proferring and
receiving advice, and without even a smidgeon of payback
for some unrelated, unresolved dispute. There was a time
we couldn't do that. I remember once, nearly 20 years ago,
I was home visiting for a few days and had with me notes
for a magazine piece I was finishing. You lent me your office
and clunky Royal typewriter, and so there I remained all
day and night, until I fell asleep fully clothed on the
carpeted floor. You found me the next morning, and were
you ever testy. You chastened me. You need to take care
of yourself, you told me. It's childish to stay up all night
-- and then to not even make it to your bed. And I remember
feeling angry right back. Who were you to tell me how to
live my life? Who were you to instruct me about writing
habits? I mean, you used to kick Dan and me out of the house
every weekend morning so that you'd have some quiet for
your work. But, of course, it was about a lot more than
just that. It encompassed the inevitably knotty connections
between father and son.
It's not that we're beyond such petty scrapes, but almost.
And that feels pretty darn good.
P.S. Just for the record, I'm not paddling with Madeleine
down some frothy river. Not until she's mastered swimming
-- and her draw stroke.
. . . . . . . .
Living in harmony: as ancient a dream as there is and worth
the effort, always. Harmony comes from tonal values and
is defined by tonal values, in music as in life, whatever
the age. And I believe in tonality.
P.S. I have absolutely no memory of the episode of you on
the floor overnight. Funny. You must have been really sore
at me, and I must have chosen to instantly forget it.
. . . . . . . .
I guess I'm not all that surprised you wouldn't remember
that episode in your office. It was after all just a moment,
neither momentous or life-changing. I'm not even certain
why I remember that exchange. Our lives together -- yours,
Dan's and mine -- are filled with those moments, many more
good than bad, and it's something I look forward to in the
coming years, sharing those remembrances. Perhaps over dinner
on the porch of your farm. It's our fireless campfire. I
relish those evenings, the laughter and the stories. I'm
thankful we have the place -- and the time.
While I'm at it, I've always wanted to ask you about when
you were 18, on the Front in France. I wanted to know the
details. The image I've held onto over the years is of bodies
sprawled along a ridge, those still alive groaning in pain,
and you, uninjured, lying quietly, terrified, waiting for
death. Now I have your memoir.
But I've also wanted to understand its aftershocks. Were
you a different person before that day? (I know the person
who emerged.) Did it make you fear having children, knowing
that given life's vagaries someday they, too, might have
to endure their own cruel experiences? And more than all
that, how, over half a century, were you able to clutch
that memory so tightly that it was inaccessible to the closest
of friends, as well to Dan and me?
I remember in high school that it was clear, though never
said, that we weren't to ask you of that time. So we didn't.
But whenever your foot would swell -- the lingering effect
of trench foot, you told us -- I would fleetingly wonder
what it must have been like. Sometimes when you seemed particularly
irritable, I'd wonder if it wasn't also a consequence of
that time on the ridge.
Why now, Dad? Why at 72, more than 50 years after the fact,
were you finally able to let go and write what happened?
Does it get easier with age? I hope so.
. . . . . . . .
Was I a different person before I lost my platoon in France?
I hope so, although it's impossible really to tell. I was
probably more naive than I should have been at 18: full
of ideals, full of unfulfillable expectations about life.
So be it. A lot of that, not all, got knocked out of me
during the war. That's a common experience. But afterward?
Well, I got greedy about life. I wanted it all. So no, I
didn't question having children. I was eager for children.
We all were. In any case, by that time -- the late 50's
-- we were worried about being nuked, a horrible new day-by-day
fear that left its mark on everyone, children and adults
alike. You and Dan, I believe, started each school day by
hiding under your desks as a defense exercise. Remember
As for ''clutching'' the memory of what happened in France,
I would say that it clutched me. God knows I bored your
mother half to death when I was trying to get her to marry
me by telling that story over and over again. Part of its
power over me simply drifted off with all those repeated
recitations, I think. Then, finally, I thought it was time
to write about it. It didn't matter that I was then 69.
I was just ready. Maybe some things do get easier with age.
Anyway, I've always lived in a powerful whirlpool of memories.
I think that you and Dan are beginning to discover that
you are going through that, too. Pay attention. Memories
can mean renewal; sometimes they offer a second chance at
. . . . . . . .
Renewal. That's right up there with harmony. It probably
explains my love (some might call it a fixation) for rivers.
They're sources of constant replenishment -- especially
when shared with others. We've got time. Plenty of it. The
strange thing, Dad, is that I don't feel rushed. Not at
all. Hey, I'm getting sentimental, and when we started this
correspondence, it was the one thing we promised each other
Love, as always,
. . . . . . . .
Shouldn't we, at some point, sit down and discuss family
finances? I guess so. But only 10 minutes at a time, please,
and each time infrequently spaced.
And listen to this: After 19 phone calls, lengthy visits
to the local Social Security office and additional calls
to my Congressman's office, I'm still without my September
'96 check. Social Security sent it to a bank in Dayton,
Ohio, without explanation. And there, I fear, it sits. But
the exchanges with the bureaucracy! They turn my bones to
dust. They make me grind my teeth. (If I am having this
problem, I imagine thousands of others must be having it,
As for getting sentimental, for God's sake, if you feel
like getting sentimental, go ahead. Just don't feed on it.
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