Sunday, November 14, 2010

Just Enough Death on the Serengeti

“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

-- Arthur Schopenhauer

We decided it was time to expand our fields of vision, Elodia and I. So we went to Africa. To Tanzania. To witness a few moments of the Great Migration and to stand on the same ground where the human race was born.

Each year nearly two million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle migrate through Kenya and Tanzania in a clockwise roundtrip that covers close to two thousand miles. Along the way, hundreds of thousands die from exhaustion and disease, and more are lost to predators: lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and crocodiles.

As we view the Serengeti from the back of the Land Rover, I am struck by the number of skulls that sit on the ground. They are all gleaming white, picked clean by jackals, vultures, and then insects. We see no rotting carcasses. Nothing on the Serengeti is wasted.

It is hot, dry, and dusty, and the roads are an endless series of bumps and ruts. Our guide, Harrison, is driving one of Thomson Safari’s customized Land Rovers, which allows us to stand up and view the scenery and the wildlife, through the open roof.

I like to stand up while we are moving. Maybe I will be the first to spot a cheetah. But I have to tightly grip a crossbar or part of the open hatch to avoid being thrown into a fellow passenger, and after while, it’s like holding on to a runaway jackhammer, and I have to sit back down.

Elodia and I are seated in the back and three others on our safari are seated in front of us, looking through binoculars and taking picture after picture. Harrison is on his radio, speaking Swahili to Robert and Kumbi, our two other guides, who are driving the other nine members of our group. The three guides are constantly trading information on clues and sightings that may lead us to a big cat or to a herd of elephants.

We approach a river. It is the Banagi River, and we will cross it where it is narrow and where there is a bridge. Harrison pulls up onto the bridge, which is little more than a platform, and is just slightly wider and longer than the Land Rover, then stops and turns off the ignition.

We are parked just above the river. The sight and sound of the water rushing over and around the rocks is both calming and cooling. We feel enveloped by it. We welcome this break from the heat, the dust, the occasional diesel fumes blown in from our exhaust pipe, and the constant bouncing.

I have come to use the phrase Harrison’s hunches, and I will tell you why.

One morning, while driving the Serengeti, he spots a vehicle from another safari company, parked next to a massive formation of rocks, called a kopje (pronounced: ko-pee).

He pulls up next to them and kills the engine. The guide and passengers, in the other vehicle, have their binoculars and cameras trained on a crevice between the large rocks. And in that crevice, shielded from the sun by a curtain of small trees and bushes, is the grand prize -- a large male leopard.

Harrison radios Robert and Kumbi, who quickly arrive in their Land Rovers. The leopard is fast asleep, with his head curled into his body. We watch and hope that he will get up so that we can see him move. But, when he does, he moves back into the rocks, and completely out of our sight.

Each of the vehicles start up and race to the other side of the rocks, hoping that he has moved in that direction. We wait, with binoculars and cameras, but he has settled on a spot where we cannot see him. We wait and watch, and then reluctantly, we move on.

We see a lot that day. There are giraffes so close to the road that if they choose to bend their long necks in our direction, we would almost be able to touch their heads. We see enormous herds of wildebeest, mixed with zebra, impala, and gazelle - especially the variety known as Thomson’s gazelle.

Tommies, as they are called, are small, elegant, and wear a distinctive black stripe that runs from shoulder to flank, and serves as more than just decoration. They rely on visual awareness of each other, and the stripes help them do that. They also have highly keen senses of hearing and smell that helps protect them from predators.

After a full day, we begin heading back to camp. Harrison is driving fast on our Serengeti road, when suddenly he veers off and heads toward a large kopje. It turns out to be the same kopje where that morning we watched the leopard.

He drives up and in between rocks, until the spaces become too narrow for the Land Rover to fit through, then he backs down, and turns into another passage until that one also becomes too narrow. The Land Rover pitches upward, downward, and from side to side. He is in hot pursuit of this morning’s leopard. He is a man possessed.

Suddenly, high up in the rocks, there he is. I rarely use the word magnificent. It is one of those wonderful words that has become sadly cheapened from overuse. But this leopard is just plain magnificent, and he seems to know it.

These rocks are home to other animals, including Agama lizards (dominant males can turn their bodies blue and their heads red or yellow, just to show off), rock hyraxes, which look like cute guinea pigs, and klipspringers, which are tiny antelopes that stand watching us from the very top of the rocks. But these rocks are ruled by a single prince, and we have met him.

That this leopard would still be there, hours after we first discovered him was one of Harrison’s best hunches.

But today, at this moment, we are parked on that little bridge, just above the rushing water of the Banagi River, enjoying the sight, and the sound, and the serenity.

On our right, a herd of Thomson gazelles suddenly arrives. They begin gathering at the river’s edge. We have passed so many dry watering holes and river beds. The gazelles must be here to drink. Watching them will be the crowning touch, before we continue on our way.

But, no. They have not come to drink. They have come to cross the river, here, where it’s narrowness and shallowness make it too good an opportunity to pass up. They begin crossing in single file.

Then Harrison, looking through binoculars, says in a soft, matter-of-fact voice, “a crocodile.” One of us asks, “where?” Then, I see it. Close to the river’s edge, moving toward us, and toward the line of gazelles.

Harrison, again in that soft, matter-of-fact voice, says, “He may get a gazelle.” He makes it seem only possible, not probable, not certain. And then, we see how fast and how torpedo-like the croc is honing in.

In seconds the hind leg of a gazelle is clamped between his huge jaws and thrust up and at us so that we cannot miss seeing the helplessness in the gazelle’s eyes, before it is taken under to be drowned and eaten.

No one in our group gets the picture. All of us are frozen in our moment of absolute awe.

We fix our eyes on the water, looking for one last glimpse of the two principal characters. But that spectacle is over. There are four more gazelles that were next in line, in the process of crossing. They are now panicked. They break formation. They are stomping their feet. And they are making desperate attempts to finish crossing the river, trying to choose a path. After a minute or two, they give up and dart back to where they had entered.

They will not be joining their herd. At least, not right now.

We sit rather quietly. The scene has returned to its original state. The sound of the rushing water has been turned back on. Harrison starts the engine and we leave the river exactly as it was, with the knowledge that we will not be exactly as we were.

We have seen enough for one day, but the day has something else in store for us. As we pass by some zebras walking through the high yellow grass, Harrison stops the Land Rover. They are three adults and one foal. We wonder why he has stopped. We have seen plenty of zebra and they were a lot closer to us than these four.

While peering through his binoculars, Harrison utters the word, “lion.” We look, but we see no lion. We tell him so. “Yes,” he says. “He is lying in the grass.“ We continue to scan the high grass. “Where?” we ask. “Straight ahead.” he says. “You can see the tips of his ears.”

And yes. There is the slightest bit of movement, as the lion’s head begins to rise out of the grass, with his eyes trained on the zebras, which are now walking in single file, with the foal at the end. The lion is between us and them. We watch as the line comes to a halt.

Do they sense the lion?

We think they might turn around and go back. But they do not.

The lead zebra continues, while the others wait. We watch him get closer and closer until he crosses the lion’s path. The lion does not strike. Then come the other three, in close formation. We think the lion will wait until they are closer and then strike the foal. We watch this drama play out, one heart beat at a time, until they all are safely out of range.

Then, we see our lion’s head drop back down into the tall grass. He has chosen to sleep rather than hunt.

We head back to camp, with a lot to process, to replay in our heads, and to describe to the others.

But I am sure of one thing -- that this day, in its Serengeti way, held a kind of perfection that we do not see in our normal field of vision.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Like A Burglar


Yes, I know. It has been a while.

What can I say? Life sometimes gets in the way. You know how it is.

I am not going to bother telling you that I have been busy. We are all busy with something, and no, I have not lost my desire to write. Nor am I tired of this blogging thing. Not at all.

What I want to tell you is that my absence has given me some perspective. I have thought about what writing is and what blogging is. I suspect you’ve done this yourself. You’ve examined the thinking behind your prose, your poetry, your reporting on the events that shed light on your existence.

Here is something I have learned. Actually, I learned this early in my relatively brief blogging career, but I have recently confirmed it as personal gospel. I have learned that it was foolish to think that I could pick my audience.

I started out with the notion that because I was born and grew up during a certain eventful and often tumultuous time, and witnessed society-changing events as part of an enormous generation, that this generation of mine was obviously my audience-in-waiting.

My first post, in April 2009, carried this rather long title:

Wondering How It Happened That Your Future is Suddenly Going Up In Smoke? In The Words of The Poet, The Answer is Blowin’ in The Wind.

Greed run amok had robbed individuals, families, businesses and entire nations of their financial well being. That robbery was a crime story without an ending, which continues to this day to steal jobs, homes, businesses, and futures. Had all our youthful 60s idealism slowly evaporated, to the point where we lost our capacity for moral outrage? Where were we? I asked. Where were we who once preached or followed a different sort of gospel?

I intended to use this blog to speak to that once famous idealism, using the language we collectively invented, and of course they would hear me. But, as I said, I now know that one does not get to pick one’s audience.

You think I should have known that, and you are right. And I hope you do not think that I am simply rationalizing when I tell you that I am happy with my miscalculation. I am thrilled with the motley nature of those who bother to read what I write.

I discovered that, through no conscious effort of my own, I had acquired my own unique little community, and that almost every member of it has his or her own unique community. So, what I have is an audience of writers, which is exactly what I should have wished for in the first place.

I thought back on the first of those other communities that I decided to join. His writing was a little dark. But he was on a brave journey, and he invited others to join him on it. I was intrigued enough to walk along with him. His always honest writing grew darker -- too dark, I think, for some of his tour group, who jumped on the next tram to more colorful amusements. I chose to continue walking along with him. Fresh faces are now joining the tour.

But enough about him.

Some of us have become friends. Believe me, I don’t use that word loosely. You know someone differently when you know them through their writing. You know how they think and feel in a way that even family and friends, who do not read them, might not.

You know how that is.

Some of my friends have had a difficult year. One lost her father, another lost her mother. When they told us (members of their communities), they were looking for neither attention, nor sympathy. They were writing it to us, through their pain, because they had to.

Others whom I often visit, over coffee or a glass of wine, have suffered through illnesses, marriage break-ups, and job loss. In some cases, it stopped them from writing. I left them comments, urging them to continue putting pen to paper, because they are writers, and that’s what they should do, no matter how difficult. I was trying, in my own way, to be a friend.

There was one who I wasn’t going to like, but he revealed himself in a life-defining story about a near death experience -- a story that is now lodged in my brain forever. He seems to have left his blog for other platforms. I never thought I would miss him, but I do.

Well, enough about them.

I began to hear that I was a storyteller. I did not immediately welcome this designation. Maybe I did not want to be so pigeonholed. Maybe I did not want to be defined by others.

But I came to accept the label. I decided it wasn’t so bad to be a storyteller, and I decided that I would make the best out of being a storyteller, at least until my writing took me somewhere else.

I learned that I had a problem in telling stories. A simple, straight ahead telling of the story did not scratch my writer’s itch. Each time I would begin stringing together the information about Jack Johnson, La Mama’s Ellen Stewart, Aaron Feuerstein of Malden Mills, Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, my friend, Gus, or bullying victim, Phoebe Prince, I would find the story stuck in the mud, unable to push it forward.

The story would remain stuck, because I hadn’t found the key. I hadn’t found my way into the story.

For me, getting into the thought process became like entering a house. Walking in the front door, and looking into the rooms would show me a story, but it wouldn’t show me my story. I found that I preferred to enter the house like a burglar, in the dark, through a basement window, shining a flashlight on this or that wall and on this or that object.

In September of 2009, I began writing a post on racial hatred, which I sensed was unmistakably in the air. I focused on two towering black figures: Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson. I had a very good story to tell, but it was anybody’s story. Not truly mine.

Then, I ran across a quote from Charlie Chaplin: “Man as an individual is a genius. But men in the mass form a headless monster, a great brutish idiot that goes where prodded.”

Instantly I had my title, The Brutish Idiot, and I had my very own thematic image: a headless monster.

The story had become mine, but it still wasn’t complete.

So, I returned to the house, entered again through that basement window, and while rummaging around, I noticed a large, curious object standing in a corner, covered by a sheet. I lifted the sheet and found a treasure.

There was a famously ugly, but largely forgotten, incident before a baseball game in Cincinnati. The ugly incident amazingly ended with one man’s elegant gesture toward another. I had no idea that there existed a statue commemorating that gesture. That statue gave me my ending.

Before starting my blog, I read two books and several articles on blogging. I came away with three cardinal rules for having a successful blog: Publish often, keep posts brief, and always respond to comments.

I learned that I am incapable of adhering to the first two. As for the third, I love the comments for what they are. In many cases they have added to, or to my mind, even completed the post. And after writing my brains out, there was nothing I could add by responding to the comments. They were better left standing on their own.

But, I really did want to thank the commenters. So, I am doing that now.

Recently, my wife, Elodia asked me, “When you die, do you want me to throw a party for those who want to come and celebrate your life?” “No,” I said. “I would like you to write my final post, and say goodbye.”

“That’s what I thought,” she said.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Stop Doing That!

Should you ever get that uncontrollable urge to commit a senseless act of vandalism, and if you would prefer not getting caught in the act, you might want to select a crime-safe neighborhood -- not one that’s safe from crime, but safe for crime.

Suppose, for example, you would like to throw a rock through a window, for no other reason than to enjoy the sound of the breaking glass. Here’s a helpful tip: Find a building that already has a few broken windows. The chances are pretty good that nobody cares very much about that building, because if someone did, the windows would have been fixed.

You probably have a good idea where to find that building -- that perfect target. You drive or walk through the neighborhood, passing by littered sidewalks and graffiti covered buildings, until you get to your building. You scan the remaining intact windows, until you settle on your window. You nervously pick up a rock, aim it, and smash! You’ve done it.

You have the urge to run as fast as you can and flee the scene of the crime, but something tells you to relax. It’s as though the neighborhood is trying to speak to you, trying to send you a signal. Go ahead and break another window. Take your time. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees you.

Relax. Nobody cares.

Nobody will chase you away. Nobody will call the cops. This is a safe neighborhood. As you get to know it better, you realize that this is a good place for fulfilling other desires. Would you like to buy drugs or a stolen gun, or find a prostitute? Or, perhaps you would like to do something much worse.

The Broken Windows theory was first presented in a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly, written by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, and it was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, in his best seller, The Tipping Point, subtitled: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Gladwell’s The Tipping Point tells us that trends in crime, like trends in business, politics, and fashion happen because “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” Bad behavior can be contagious. One broken window, left unrepaired, will invite another. A broken neighborhood beckons those who thrive on disorder.

By 1992, crime in New York City had become an “epidemic.” There were 2,154 murders and 626,182 violent crimes. There were neighborhoods where residents dared not go out after dark.

But contained within this Broken Windows theory, there is ample room for optimism. With the right medicines, an epidemic can be fought and stopped in its tracks, and that’s what happened in New York City. By 1997, murders dropped 64 percent and crimes were cut in half. Life after dark returned to some of the sickest neighborhoods.

What caused this rather amazing turn about? Well for one thing, Broken Windows criminologist, George Kelling went to New York, where he was allowed to test his theory. And so began a story of how stopping small bad things made a very big difference.

He was first hired as a consultant to the New York City Transit Authority, where the subways of New York became his laboratory. He would have no trouble finding bad guys to use as lab rats. The mammoth, decaying subway system was infested with them. David Gunn, the new Transit Authority director was a fan of Kelling’s theory.

With so many serious crimes being committed, where would Kelling and Gunn begin? Would they logically start by targeting the system’s most dangerous predators -- murderers, rapists, and armed robbers? No, they would not.

They would begin by cleaning up the “neighborhood.” Mission number one: graffiti. In the 1970s and 1980s, graffiti-covered subway cars were part of the scenery for millions of daily riders.

Graffiti never killed, injured or robbed anyone, but it did send an ugly and intimidating message: We own these cars and you are powerless to stop us.

Since transit cops could not even begin to guard the fleet of over 6,000 cars, graffiti vandals knew when and where to strike. Some would spend days spray painting their elaborate coded messages on the side of a car. One prominent “artist” was known for covering entire trains.

Finding a prevention for the graffiti virus seemed unlikely, so instead Kelling and Gunn came up with a possible cure -- taking the reward out of the art making. They ordered the cleaning up or painting over of all the graffiti-covered cars. They instituted a strict policy that any car stained with graffiti would be taken off line and not returned to service until it had been cleaned.

It worked.

Deprived of the enjoyment of seeing their work, as well as the enjoyment of seeing its effect on their enormous captive audience of subway riders, the spray paint artists began moving on to other hobbies and careers.

Mission number two: fare-beaters. The Transit Authority hired William Bratton to be its new chief of police. Like Gunn, Bratton was a disciple of George Kelling and a true believer of his Broken Windows theory.

Upon entering the subway, riders were required to insert a token in order to move through a turnstile.

Bratton observed an alarming number of scofflaws who simply jumped over the turnstiles or forced their way through them. It didn’t make sense for cops to arrest them. Arrests resulted in too many lost hours transporting the offenders to the police station, and too much time processing their paperwork -- all for a $1.25 crime.

But the fare-beating was contagious. Some people who witnessed it began doing it themselves. And, it sent another one of those bad messages about who had their way with the system, and who was powerless to stop them.

So Bratton ordered the arrest of all fare-beaters. Once over the turnstile, they’d be grabbed, brought to a holding area, in full public view, where they would be handcuffed to each other, in a “daisy chain,” and held there until the cops had a full catch.

Soon, the experiment began yielding breakthrough findings. Some of the lab rats carried concealed weapons. What exactly would they be used for? Some of the lab rats had outstanding warrants, and/or lengthy criminal records. What might they be planning on the day of their arrest?

You can guess the end result of this experiment. Incidents of fare-beating sharply declined, and so did the subway crime rate.

The new mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani appointed William Bratton police commissioner of New York City, and Bratton immediately began applying Broken Windows remedies to the city’s crime epidemic.

Broken windows were repaired. Littered sidewalks, streets, and vacant lots were cleaned up. Perpetrators of small crimes, like public drunkenness, urinating in public, and aggressive panhandling were arrested. A new signal was being sent. If you break a window here, someone who sees you will call the cops, and the cops will respond.

When the epidemic ended, Rudolph Giuliani graciously accepted the credit and easily won re-election as mayor.

The Broken Windows theory is not universally accepted. There are those who say that we can’t be certain that New York’s crime epidemic would not have ended on its own, as a natural result of an aging population (fewer trouble-making teenagers), and a sharp decline in the use of crack cocaine.

There are some very big theories for which truth is in the eye of the beholder. You will never convince a hardcore Creationist that Darwinism is provable, and you will never convince certain criminologists that Broken Windowism is gospel. But to those of us who draw upon our own observations and experiences, within our own neighborhoods, as well as the many neighborhoods we have passed through, there is not the slightest doubt. Gospel it is.

So when I hear about a specific crime -- one so disturbing that it gets under my skin -- I first look at the neighborhood where that crime took place. A neighborhood can be as big as the New York subway system, or as small as a small town high school.

South Hadley, Massachusetts is less than two hours from where I live. I don’t need to go there, nor do I need to see the building. I’m sure it looks like any other high school. I assume the grounds are well maintained, the hallway and classroom floors are kept polished, and the windows sparkle.

And I know that as neighborhoods go, this one was rotten. How else would you describe a neighborhood that allowed so many little, but nasty crimes to be committed against one of its most defenseless residents?

The new girl in town was attractive, vivacious, and from another country. She got involved with the captain of the football team. His old girlfriend took offense. She got involved with another one of the “popular” boys. His old girlfriend took offense. These girls ran in a pack and the pack decided to teach the new girl about the hierarchy.

Their initial lessons were rather mild. She was warned to “stay away from people’s men.” By then, her brief relationships with “those men” were over and those boys obediently took their places in the pack. The she-wolves dominated and the gang took on a personality of its own.

The attacks on the younger outsider took place over a period of several months.

One of girls entered a classroom and called her a slut for all to hear, including a teacher. On a day when she sought refuge in the school library, one of them scribbled vicious graffiti next to her name on the sign-in sheet. She was accosted in the hallways, and sometimes hid in the girls bathroom toilet stalls. She was threatened with being beaten up after school, and in vain pleaded with a teacher to be allowed to go home early.

The gang seemed to be able to attack at will. January 14th -- the final day -- was worse than all the others, and the closing bell brought no relief. One of them drove by her as she walked home from school, and hurled a drink can at her. By this time, the gang had to have thought: We can do anything and they are powerless to stop us. How intoxicating that realization must have been!

And when it was learned that on that final day, that she had gone into her home and hanged herself, we can only imagine the high-five celebration of a job well done. One of them said it perfectly on the dead girl’s Facebook page, with one simple word: “Accomplished.”

Maybe that word, more than any other scrap of evidence prompted the district attorney to bring charges against the individuals who so successfully tormented the girl to death. The names of the tormenters -- at least the most prominent -- are now known to all of us. They presumably have numerous court dates ahead of them. Their futures are, thankfully, not rosy.

But while most of the mean-teens have, in essence, been handcuffed together in a daisy chain, and displayed on a very public stage, other players are conspicuously absent.

Where are the adults?

Schoolmates described the organized attacks on the new girl as being “common knowledge,” yet when the crime first caught the attention of investigating reporters, no members of the school administration or faculty were aware of what had been blatantly going on, under their noses. Really?

The district attorney found this to be a lie, but concluded that nothing the adults-in-charge did rose to the level of criminal behavior, and that no case against them would hold water. The girl’s mother had gone to the school and appealed for help. It’s there on the record. More is being added to that record. Teachers and administrators are being called out.

The community now asks the famous twin questions:

What did they know?


When did they know it?

I don’t need to ask Mr. Kelling, Mr. Gladwell, Mr. Gunn, and Mr. Bratton what they think about this. Windows broke. People, responsible for fixing them, allowed them to stay broken. Message to the gang: Relax. Go ahead and do it again. Nobody will stop you.

Here, you are safe.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Fire And The Freshness

“I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in the ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.”

-- Ernest Hemingway

One day in April of 1925, Ernest Hemingway, living in Paris, was sitting in the Dingo Bar on rue Delambre in the Montparnasse Quarter. He was a 25-years old journalist, and he had published a few small pieces of fiction in some minor publications. Outside of a small though prominent circle, he was largely unknown.

What happened that day in 1925 would change his life, though he would be the last to admit it. He would have told you that he was already Ernest Hemingway and would go on to be Ernest Hemingway no matter what.

He would have told you, I think, that meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Dingo Bar that day in April may have somewhat hastened the elevation of his career, but it was certainly not responsible for it. Exercising control of one's destiny was at the core of his personal religion.

Fitzgerald himself was only 28-years old but was far from a budding writer. He had written This Side of Paradise, which made him famous at the age of twenty-four, followed by The Beautiful and The Damned, and two months before walking into the Dingo, had published his signature work -- The Great Gatsby.

Even before they met, Fitzgerald was greatly impressed by Hemingway, glimpsing in his prose, what perhaps only a writer of equal talent could recognize. And, even after they met, Hemingway was, or claimed to be, unimpressed by Fitzgerald…that is, until he read Gatsby.

It became Fitzgerald’s self-chosen mission to ensure the younger writer’s success. So, on the strength of his recommendation, and his persistent reminders, the prestigious publishing house, Scribners and their dynamic young editor, Maxwell Perkins wooed a writer they knew almost nothing about.

Hemingway based his religion on simple principles. A man controlled his life and when he couldn’t, he handled it stoically. And, a man always controlled his women. Scott Fitzgerald was not such a man. He was frequently drunk and out of control. In spite of his success, he usually saw himself as a failure. And his wife, Zelda, who would be in and out of mental hospitals for most of her adult life was usually out of control -- especially her husband‘s.

But after reading The Great Gatsby, Hemingway gave Scott a pass. A man who could write something that wonderful deserved his friendship. And that friendship is undeniable, because we can see it for ourselves in their letters.

Each wrote dozens of letters to the other. I read them years ago in Matthew J. Bruccoli’s Fitzgerald and Hemingway, subtitled, A Dangerous Friendship, and I just read them all again. Scott’s letters were a bit formal. Hemingway’s were more stream of conscious. He scribbled all over the page. Neither man could spell. It is not the mutual admiration, but the mutual affection in those letters that gets to you.

Their friendship was still brand new when Scott did a very dangerous thing. Hemingway had finished his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, and would not let Scott view the typed draft, but finally did allow him to read the galley proof. So Scott read it and sent him a very detailed ten-page critique.

I bet there were many fine writers at that time who would have welcomed, even cherished, a thoughtful and detailed critique from F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t think Ernest Hemingway was one of them. One can only guess his initial reaction to the bold recommendation that he completely eliminate the first two chapters.

Hemingway did not take kindly to those who questioned his creative decisions, but he came to the conclusion that Scott was right. The first two chapters, and all of the fine writing they surely contained, were unnecessary. So he wrote to his editor, Max Perkins that he had decided to cut them, and that Scott agreed with his decision.

I first read The Sun Also Rises in high school. Truthfully, I liked the movie better. Then, in my twenties, I found a copy on my bookshelf, began skimming through it, and ended up rereading it.

I came to the part, where Jake Barnes, the narrator and central character, introduces us to Brett Ashley. It is this relationship that is at the heart of the story. Their relationship is complicated and it is heartbreaking.

Another writer might have felt compelled to provide us with several paragraphs of background and explanation. Another writer might have found a near perfect simile or metaphor, and several wonderful adjectives to describe what went through the mind and heart of Jake Barnes.

But Hemingway handled it differently. Jake, finding himself in a dance club, describes a group of people entering the room, then tells us: “And with them was Brett.”

In high school, that line meant very little to me. I would have been fine with something more elaborate and more descriptive. “And with them was Brett” was so simple, hell, I could have written it. But of course I would not have. I would have written “And Brett was with them.”

Rereading it in my twenties, when I had read more and lived more, I saw that sentence for what it was -- poetry. How else could the purposeful arrangement (or rearrangement) of five small words say so much?

There are times, still, when I will pick up a copy of the book and read until I reach that line. Never do I not hear those perfect notes. Never do they fail to move me. “And with them was Brett” forever changed the way I looked at the art of writing.

In college, I had a French Lit professor, who was truly a brilliant man. One day, it became apparent that he was deep into his mid-life crisis. He was wildly in love. Not with a woman. He had recklessly found his way into Hemingway’s novels and then took a spill into the Hemingway legend.

One day he walked into class and asked if any of us wished to box with him. Boxing with my professor did not seem like a wise strategy to me, so I respectfully declined. I’m pretty sure he thought less of me for it. Real men boxed. Hemingway boxed.

Oscar Wilde famously said, “I have put all my genius into my life; I have only put my talent into my works.” I have little doubt that Hemingway intended for his life to be his masterpiece.

Boxing was a big part of his life. You could have asked anyone who knew him. They all had heard stories of him sparring with professionals, jumping into the ring on a moments notice to knock out a fighter. My French Lit teacher knew most of those stories, and was eager to share them. Unfortunately, many of those stories appear to be fiction.

But then, Hemingway never believed that a good story should be held hostage by the facts, though there was one Hemingway boxing story that he desperately wished had been held hostage to those pesky little facts, that is, if had to be told at all.

In June of 1929, the Canadian novelist and short story writer, Morley Callaghan was living in Paris. He and Hemingway had once both worked for The Toronto Star. They were friends and they got together periodically to go a few friendly rounds, as a way to stay in shape.

On one of those days, Fitzgerald came along to watch. On the way over to the gym, Hemingway suggested that he be the timekeeper, and showed him how to use his stop watch to call the end of each round after three minutes. The sparring began, and for a few rounds it all went well, then Callaghan caught Hemingway with a punch that bloodied his mouth. Callaghan believed that it would not have been a big deal had Fitzgerald not been there to witness it.

The angry and embarrassed Hemingway grew wild, throwing big punches at the smaller man. The quicker Callaghan, now fighting to protect himself against being knocked out, hit Hemingway with a well-timed punch that landed him on his back.

Fitzgerald, transfixed by what he had just witnessed, stood silently, until he realized that he had forgotten to call time at the end of the three minute round. Hemingway got nailed when the round should have been over. When he blurted out his error, Hemingway shot back: “Christ! All right Scott, if you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake!”

Since there seem to have been no other witnesses to the event, we don’t know how the rumors started to spread about Callaghan knocking Hemingway out cold, in front of a large audience. But spread they did, until they found their way into newspaper gossip columns in Europe and the U.S. For Hemingway, the true story was quite un-legend like, and the false stories were so much worse.

Letters, cables, and telegrams were fired back and forth between Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Callaghan, and Max Perkins. Hemingway furiously demanded that Callaghan set the record straight. Callaghan sent letters to the offending publications, explaining the facts and demanding a correction. He did not want to be on Hemingway’s bad side.

No matter how hard he tried to appeal to reason, he ended up alienating both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who both blamed him for the outbreak of false stories, which quickly took on lives their own, and continued for years.

It was Scott’s infatuation with the Hemingway legend-in-progress that brought him to the gym in the first place, and it was astonishment at seeing the legend lying on the canvas that distracted him from his timekeeping responsibilities. He had become Hemingway’s number one fan, and now he had witnessed what he should not have.

In a letter, Hemingway tells Scott that all is forgiven. But I don’t think that Scott believed him, anymore than I did.

It’s too bad, because Scott needed a friend more than ever. Life after Gatsby became a sad saga of his constant drunkenness, Zelda’s insanity, his struggle to support an extravagant lifestyle by churning out stories for The Saturday Evening Post, and later by being a well paid but unproductive Hollywood scriptwriter.

He struggled for years to muster the discipline to write and finish Tender Is The Night, while constantly assuring Hemingway that the novel really was being written and really would be finished. He needed his “friend” to know that he was still a serious writer, even as others were regarding him as pitifully unserious.

All the while, Hemingway, who had followed The Sun Also Rises, with the publication of A Farewell To Arms, three years later and, in that same time period, two celebrated collections of short stories: In Our Time and Men Without Women, enjoyed a reputation for being the epitome of the serious writer.

In the early 1930s, the Hemingway persona, full of big-game hunting and deep sea fishing began taking center stage. Fitzgerald described this as Hemingway’s “personality shift” when “he came to believe his [own] legends.”

The early 1930s also began a period when Hemingway the writer appeared to be running out of gas. He wrote some things most of us don’t remember. But he was far from ready to retire from the ring. He wrote to Max Perkins about being ten years away from taking on Tolstoy. He advised William Faulkner that it was all about taking on the dead writers.

But I think there was also one live contender that needed to be beaten convincingly. When Esquire Magazine hired Hemingway to be a regular contributor, and then hired Fitzgerald to do the same, I believe, the fight was on.

Between 1934 and 1936, they were featured in the same issues eleven times. Hemingway wrote about his outdoorsman adventures and contributed a couple of stories, including one that landed a very solid punch, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Fitzgerald’s writings reflected his sad physical and mental state. A series called The Crack-Up hung it all out all out there for people to see. They were described as “confessionals.“ Max Perkins advised him to stop it before he ruined his reputation. Hemingway saw it as conclusive proof of Fitzgerald’s shameful “love of failure,” attributing it to his Irish Catholic romanticism.

In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a character refers to “poor Scott Fitzgerald” and his “romantic awe of the rich.” Fitzgerald was deeply offended by this belittling remark and wrote to Hemingway and Perkins, imploring them to remove his name before publishing the story in book form. Hemingway eventually complied, but damage had been done.

Just what on earth did Hemingway have to gain from beating-up a man who so skillfully and eagerly knocked himself to the canvas, every chance he got?

I think it was all about The Great Gatsby.

I think he knew that Gatsby might prove to be a big punch that would one day come out of nowhere to put him on the canvas, and steal the championship he so coveted.

There is a scene in Chapter Five. All you need to know is this:

After going to extraordinary lengths to arrange it, Jay Gatsby is now in the same room with Daisy Buchanan. It has been five years since he has seen her, and his only dream has been of this moment.

The narrator, Nick Carraway tells us: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.”

The next line is one that has remained in my memory since I first read the book over thirty years ago.

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

Then Fitzgerald/Carraway, at his lyrical best, finishes it off:

“As I watched him, he adjusted himself a little, visibly. His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low, in his ear, he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed -- that voice was a deathless song.”

America seems never to have been quite sure what to do with The Great Gatsby. When it was first published, it found some critical acclaim, but it sold a mere 25,000 copies. After his death in 1940, it was discovered by a wider audience, which continued to grow until early in the 1960s, when it became regarded as an American classic and was required reading in college literature courses. Eventually it became a relic -- a museum piece.

Hemingway outlived Fitzgerald by twenty-one years. In his late rounds, he gave us a gem: The Old Man and The Sea, and he won the Nobel Prize. When he began battling debilitating illnesses, and could no longer control his life, he ended his story with a shotgun blast to the head.

My French Lit teacher saw the nobility of this final act, and had he lived to see it, Fitzgerald might have too.

Recently, a play called Gatz (Jay Gatsby’s given name), has been touring European and American cities, playing to packed theaters. In the play, an office worker who cannot boot up his computer, picks up a tattered copy of The Great Gatsby and begins reading aloud. His co-workers begin by ignoring him and then turn into characters in the novel, acting out the scenes.

The main character in the play assumes the role of the narrator, Nick Carraway and reads the entire book, minus the lines of dialogue spoken by the other characters.

Elodia and I saw the play and we were riveted, as were those around us, for the six and a half hours that it took to read the novel aloud. The play itself was at times awkward and a little clumsy, but the lushness of Fitzgerald’s prose came through loud and clear. It’s too soon to know for sure, but it looks to me like The Great Gatsby might truly be a deathless song.

It’s funny, in a way, how a tattered book, from a very different time, found in a drawer, can talk to us about ourselves as though it had been written yesterday, and that we are so freely mesmerized by it.

Hemingway believed that it was the job of living writers to move up in rank by challenging the dead ones. I think he also believed that, in death, the great ones continue to challenge each other.

If so, then it’s not over.

Mr. Hemingway may yet respond.