Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The next-t0-last of American literature's giants has died, too young. Philip Roth now stands alone at the top of Olympus. Somebody's going to have to excel or succeed him, but it's hard (for me) to see who.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


(This, despite the title, is the first chapter of my memoir. It does get happier after this.)

“I’m alone,” I said. Silvano shook my hand with his customary genial mutter of what I took to be welcome, and led me to a small table in the second-nicest part of the place. When I used to come with my wife, Louise, he would put us right up front; she was nearly always considered an asset to the visual appeal of a restaurant. It was not unusual for me to be eating alone here—most of the waiters knew to bring me an extra fork to keep my book open. When Louise was out of town, which she had been more and more over the last ten years, and I was going to dine alone, I would do so at one of a handful of restaurants in Greenwich Village in which I felt welcome and comfortable. Nowhere did I feel more thoroughly at home than at Da Silvano.

Louise and I had been eating there since the place opened, in 1975. We knew Silvano Marchetto even before that, when he was a waiter at another of our favored local joints, the Derby Steak House. The early Da Silvano was tiny—four tables—but the pure Tuscan food and the creative variations Silvano played on it were stunningly good. I suppose you could say that Silvano was the chef, in that he did conceive of and refine all the dishes—somewhere offstage, for you rarely saw him in the kitchen and never wearing chef’s whites. The man at the stove, who seemed to cook everything, was a diminutive, never-named Central American with a lot of Indian blood in his looks and absolute precision and grace in his cooking. There was frequent turnover in the restaurant’s other personnel, but that guy was always there. I wondered if he could understand Silvano, who was considered unintelligible in both English and Italian. Maybe they communicated by sign language. In any case, they hardly ever spoke.

Louise and I had lived through much change at Silvano’s. Our favorite waiter, who could neglect his other customers for ten minutes on end to regale us with his weekend tanning on Tar Beach (his roof), died of AIDS. Silvano’s parents showed up one evening, and didn’t leave for years. They always sat at the same table against the wall in the front room, the mom scowling at the guests, the dad seemingly of milder temperament. They seldom spoke to each other, and never to the guests. They saw us hundreds of times but never showed the faintest sign of recognition. Occasionally la mamma would buttonhole Silvano and give him a large piece of her mind in loud, rapid-fire, strongly Tuscan-accented Italian. One night, after the restaurant had expanded into the former laundromat next door, Silvano came in to what was now a second front room, rolled the steel fire door shut with a thundrous boom, and screamed at the top of his lungs, “My mother is driving me crrrazy!"

There was for years a “manager” in a chic though somewhat ill-kept Italian suit who who seemed never to do anything but sway wanly back and forth in front of the antipasti display, wrapped in gloom. Occasionally, despondently, he would extend to me a weak, damp hand of good evening or good night. He was quite obviously drunk all the time. Why did Silvano keep him on? Who knew? And there was the Egyptian waiter Ali, very fat and very tall and very young, who quit to go home and get married. Silvano, who loved him, flew to Cairo, but Ali was not, as he had promised to be, at the airport to meet him. Silvano did not have a phone number for Ali. Try as he might, Silvano could not find him. Back in New York, one night Silvano got a scratchy international call from Ali: He was so sad, he said, the wedding had been called off.

“I came to Cairo! You didn’t even show up at the airport! I turned around and flew home!”

“I know,” said Ali, sadly.

We learned Italian wine there. We learned that for all the complicated and laborious Julia Child cooking we had taught ourselves, lobster Thermidor wasn’t necessarily better than grilled sardines with olive oil and lemon juice. We talked through the years. One night near Christmas in 1989, it was to Silvano’s that we were supposed to go when Louise simply did not come home. Hours passed. She did not call. I was wild with worry. When at last she appeared, she explained that she had gone out for a quick drink with one of her clients, but he was in despair over his deteriorating marriage and couldn’t stop talking about it, and she just couldn’t pull herself away to call me. Ten months later I would learn that Louise had fallen in love with him and wanted to leave me.

Tonight, therefore, I was deeply alone. After two and a half years of my struggling to keep our marriage together and Louise’s struggling to escape it, after the judge had twice thrown out Louise’s suit for divorce—because she had alleged bad behavior on my part that was apparently the fruit of her and her lawyer’s overheated imaginations, and I had simply held fast, at first in hope of reconciliation and then later in quest of an equitable financial settlement—we had at last come to an agreement. It was still sinking in; I was only now learning fully the disparity between solitude and loneliness. I had always loved my solitude, whether backpacking alone in the Beartooths or eavesdropping on my fellow-diners as their own marriages were taking shape or falling apart. Solitude was an act of will; loneliness was affliction, injury, chronic pain.

Before walking the three blocks down Sixth Avenue to Silvano’s that night, I had had two stiff Dewar’s Scotches at home—a newish thing for me, since I’d been for years almost exclusively a wine guy—and a couple of cigarettes too, tobacco being another instrument of self-destruction I had recently re-employed. With my pinzimonio I had a glass of Silvano’s house white, which was never very good. Then I ordered a half-portion of one of my favorite dishes, taglierini alla contadina, sauced with sausages, peas, onions, tomatoes, and cream, with which I drank the house red, an excellent, leathery, dusty-dry Chianti.

One of Silvano’s more doubtful innovations had been, years back, the introduction of an endless recitation of off-menu “specials” by the waiter, sometimes a dozen and a half of them, with no prices given and in fact no hope whatever for the non-savant civilian of remembering more than a few of them. And so the poor waiter, often a recently arrived, good-looking, confused young Florentine with no more than a rudimentary command of English, would have to repeat the list, often twice—and always word for word (“de duck vertically roasted and steamed in dry vermoot”), for Silvano drilled his crew mercilessly and would tolerate no variation in the descriptions he crafted. The prices of the specials tended to be rather higher than those of the items on the small printed menu, which were already higher than those of other Italian restaurants of the level of luxury (modest) of Da Silvano. But we always tolerated these idiosyncrasies, because the food was sensationally good, widely unrecognized as such—Tuscan food being so plain and modest in a city so neither—and because we loved Silvano in all his weirdness. By this point, however, after some years of complaint from me and other regulars, he had begun to attach to a corner of the menu a photocopied list of the specials, and finally, still more recently, under further pressure, he had deigned to include the prices. The steak Robespierre, a recurring special, just a few rare slices over raw, undressed arugula, with a few sprigs of fried rosemary scattered around, was as fine a steak as could be found in New York, and I’m including the Palm and Peter Luger’s. I ordered that next, with another generous glass of red wine. With my tiramisu—a dish which I believe Silvano introduced to New York—I had a glass of golden vin santo, and then another. I was, of course, stuffed, and drunk.

I was alone in our house, which was soon to be sold. One twenty-one Washington Place was unique, an early twentieth-century Georgian Revival built at grade level on an old stone basement, all that remained of the 1820s Federal that had preceded it and burned down. The house was not large, twenty feet wide and four stories high, the topmost one rented out, illegally, as a separate apartment. At the back of the lot, across a formally symmetrical flagstone terrace, was a one-room cottage in which a doctor had dwelled, paying the same controlled wartime rent of $160 a month, since 1944. The poet Edward Arlington Robinson, famous for his bleak poem “Richard Cory,” had once lived in the cottage. The ceilings in the main house featured ornate plaster cornices, corbels, and medallions. Each room had a beautifully carved marble fireplace, eight in all, each different from the others. The dining room still had its original, exquisitely block-printed wallpaper, the famous “El Dorado” made in 1849 by Zuber et Cie of Rixheim, France, described by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum as “a gorgeously hued panorama representing the four major continents…a flower-covered terrace, including a peacock, overlooking a lake, representing Europe; architectural ruins, minarets, and a pagoda symbolizing Asia; the Nile River, desert plants, and Egyptian ruins, recalling Africa; and, lushest of all, a small city near Vera Cruz, Mexico, with exotic flora and fauna, representing the Americas.” The library was paneled in mahogany. The floors were as solid as steel, the wiring and heating up-to-date—rarities in a New York house. The original, loudly groaning elevator was still in place, though its gigantic, grease-covered transformer, motor, and switching mechanism in the basement frequently failed. The ground-floor front room had a floor of black-and-white marble squares and was separated from the dining room by double glass-paned doors affording a long view through the dining room’s French windows into what soon would be a splendid garden. This was the original owner’s law office, and would be my office now. The kitchen was small but ergonomically flawless, and included a six-burner restaurant range. When we moved to Washington Place in 1986, I knew that this was where we would live for the rest of our lives.

I poured another Scotch, and took a Polaroid photograph of myself in the mirror, weeping.

Novelist, poet, critic, naturalist, nature writer, conservationist; Scholar of the House at Yale, Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, winner of both the top fiction and the top poetry prizes. Protégé of Robert Penn Warren and Leonard Bernstein. World traveler, art connoisseur, gourmet, oenophile, accomplished cook, charming host. Snappy dresser, good driver, good citizen. Sound investor and planner; esthete; excellent master of cats. A guy with wonderful friends (the best of whom had buoyed me through torrents of torment for the last three years), some rich, some distinguished, some even geniuses, some dating to childhood, some recent, most funny, all trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and kind. Author of the definitive book on the grizzly bear; of a manifesto precisely defining nature and conservation; of a historical novel that didn’t sell so much but was decidedly a succès d’estime. Freshly under contract for a book about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, a cause to which I had devoted years. Allergic, depressive, tortured by dermatitis, frequently laid low for weeks by respiratory infections, attention-deficit-disordered. In the middle (at least going by the scale my father would eventually establish) of the journey of my life, forty-five years old, with one year to go until the twenty-fifth reunion of the Yale College class of 1969—the big one, the reunion a hardback book is published for (and which I would be the editor of, setting down for the record our own iterations of our achievements), the reunion when they expect big contributions because surely by now we are at the peak of our achievements.

My achievements in fact seemed paltry, and certainly had never been remunerative enough for me even to think of a big contribution. Year after year, I had been a financial failure; Louise made all the money, and supported me. I was a failure as a husband. Mr. Big Shot. Look at you, sobbing in self-pity.


It was time to move to Montana. There was no Da Silvano there, no Lutèce, no Four Seasons, no Le Bernardin, nor a decent deli, nor a real bagel. What good meals I would eat, I would cook myself. I had become pretty adept at Indian food, which with the proper dried spices and Basmati rice and whatnot from lower Lexington Avenue would allow me to turn thrice-frozen factory chicken into a decent biriani. I planned to get back to New York several times a year, and I had several close albeit far-flung friends in Montana—who would generously bestow on me all sorts of game—but mainly I would be living and eating alone.

In 1988, flush with merger-magic cash, Louise and I had joined with two much richer partners to buy the West Boulder Ranch, a magnificent four-thousand-odd acres of some of the most glorious landscape in the world. A river ran through it—pristine, little fished, full of large and gullible trout—pouring down from headwaters deep in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, whose northern boundary lay only a few miles away. The land, though overgrazed and in places badly weed-infested, retained an intricate mosaic of natural habitats—grasslands, shrublands, wetlands, beaver ponds, aspen groves, Douglas-fir forest, lodegpole pine, gallery forests of tall cottonwood and spruce along the river, a big pond, willow-shrouded springs—and so it remained a superb place for wildlife of all (I think) the species known to inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including grizzly bears, the subject of my first book.

Later, as president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, I had learned that all that was lacking from a complete complement of the region’s post-Pleistocene fauna were gray wolves; they had been wiped out by a government extermination campaign in the nineteen-twenties. It would not be many years, however, before we would hear them howling in the distance, and it was to work for and then to document their restoration that I needed to be in Montana full-time.

There were, obviously, other reasons. I needed the encompassing beauty of that place to heal my broken heart, perhaps also to inspire my exhausted mind. After far too much calculation of how it might just be possible for me to keep both the house on Washington Place and a one-third share in the ranch, it had become obvious that one or the other had to go; the choice was both agonizing and inevitable. And then there was my lovely, loving girlfriend, who wanted to marry me but whom I felt more and more strongly I needed to get away from. I was still too freshly and painfully wounded even to think of marrying. We kidded ourselves that we would still somehow be “together” while twenty-two hundred miles apart. Yet she was smart enough and sweet enough to give me a dinner at Montrachet, with all my closest friends, that could have no other character than that of farewell. I remember in particular the first course, at each place a miniature pumpkin whose stem you lifted to release a gust of spicy soup-steam. With it we drank a semi-sweet Vouvray.


I was in the library, on the second floor, packing up my books for the move. At the edge of my vision I saw something move. I looked out into the hall, and there, on the rug, was a squirrel, up on its hind legs, hands primly on belly, bright-eyed, fluffy-furred a really quite beautiful salt-and-pepper fur that shaded into buffy rose on the muzzle. I knew the back door downstairs was open to the garden, so I yelled at the squirrel to go back where it had come from, but it only stared at me and twitched its tail. I opened a back window and chased the squirrel out through it and closed the sash.

Two minutes later, there was the squirrel in the hall again, just looking at me, perfectly calm. This time I was going to harry it downstairs and close the back door, but the squirrel elected to go upstairs.

It went to the apartment on the fourth floor, which had been vacant for a year and which I rarely entered. The squirrel, on the other hand, had evidently been there quite a lot. While my unwelcome guest scrabbled frantically at the skylight, I, in a daze of astonishment, surveyed the evidence of its previous visits. A foot-wide hole had been clawed out of the plaster, down to the brick. The window mullions had been chewed to splinters. The white bedspread, the floors, the kitchen counter, and the toilet bowl (the squirrel's drinking pond) were covered with hundreds of little black footprints and little black turds. I opened the window and again chased the squirrel into the ivy outside.

I closed the house up tight, and for some days things were quiet. Then one night I had dinner with a couple of recently married friends—they were full of joy: she had just found out she was pregnant—and I told them about the squirrel, and I took them upstairs to show them the damage, and there, in the middle of the night, in a supposedly completely sealed apartment, was the squirrel, digging frantically at the closed window.

I hollered bloody murder, and the squirrel shot up the chimney. Aha.

This was curious, though. Why, if the squirrel knew the way up the chimney, had it been so intent on getting out some other way?

My friend found an inconclusive clue. The fireplace was piled high with firewood, and tucked into the midst of it was a loose wad of straw, leaves, twigs, scraps of paper, strips of plastic. Your squirrel is building a nest, he said. We flattened the fire screen against the opening and barricaded it with logs.

Late that night—quite drunk, again, and full of grief and rage—I went back to check, and there was the squirrel in the fireplace, digging at the screen. Soon enough, I figured, it was going to dig a hole through that just as it had in the plaster wall.

I hollered the squirrel up the chimney, pulled out the firewood, threw all the nest material back in, checked that the flue was open, and tossed in a match.

The stuff went up like the tinder it was, but instead of up and out, the smoke—dense, white, and foul—was boiling into the room. Choking, I crawled along the floor to the fireplace and stuck the poker up the chimney, where it met what could only have been more nest material. I prodded and poked, and with a whumpf! it all, a good bushel, came down, and smothered the flames.

It smoldered, and smoked, and then in a burst of gases it caught. Flame streamed up the flue, roaring like a jet engine. I ran downstairs and out back, and sparks were swirling out of the chimney, but there seemed for the moment no danger of torching the neighborhood, so I charged back upstairs to tend my bonfire.

With primeval fixity I stared into it, sweat stinging my eyes, and now I saw something moving. And then I heard the noise: a high, soft, hoarse chee chee chee chee, over and over; unquestionably an animal cry. At the edge of the still-roaring flames now I saw a baby squirrel, only recently born, its eyes yet unopened, its tail burned bare, a black-edged scarlet wound in its back. It writhed toward the screen, and air. Another appeared on the other side of the fire, also squirming and mewing and burned and beyond doubt doomed.

What could I do? Was I going to find a vet in the middle of the night and have them euthanized after who knows how long of unspeakable suffering? (I had heard it said that the pain of severe burns is the worst pain of all.)

No. It was terrible, but the most humane choice: I took the poker and flipped the two baby squirrels into the heart of the fire. A third appeared, and it too I lifted and dropped to its incineration.

At last the mother squirrel came down the chimney. I recognized her, of course. She was able to reach one of the babies, and it wrapped its toes and fingers weakly in her fur and held on. She reached the screen, and climbed slowly up it and now was clinging to it spreadeagled, looking at me.

A squirrel's face does not show horror or pain. Where one might have thought to see a grimace, a gape, something, there was only dull, flat nothingness, at least insofar as this other species could tell.

Her tail too was burned bare, the backs of her thighs, all four feet. She tried once to return for another baby, but she lost consciousness and fell on her side beside the fire, which had begun to wane. The baby on her back shrieked on; the others were silent now.

Somehow she came to, and climbed back up the fire screen, much more badly burned now, and still she stared.

She was going to die, either slowly if I did nothing or less so if I did what I did: I kicked her and her mewing baby back into the fire.

I piled on paper and kindling and logs, then more paper, more logs. Flame entirely filled the fireplace, and still I piled wood on, and still I could not look away.

By morning not even a bone could be found in the ashes.


Oh, time!

Silvano tubby, round-cheeked, a blue-eyed boy; Silvano thin, chic, presbyopic, gold-braceleted; Silvano graying, thickening, married at last (to a New Yorker cartoonist), a celebrities’ darling.

Nine twenty-seven on the humid night of July 13, 1977: Janice Scott and I at a table outside, she facing downtown and gasping, “Oh, my God,” as that whole half of the city went dark, I facing the other way to see the Empire State Building and all the rest go black; as yet unknown by us, Louise at that very instant touching down at LaGuardia, the whole airport also suddenly lightless; Silvano driving his Volkswagen Bug up onto the sidewalk so that the headlights illumined the restaurant and dinner could go on. The streets full of flashlights, self-appointed traffic cops at every corner. On West Ninety-fifth Street, where Louise and I had lived until two years before, rioting, looting, and fire; in Greenwich Village, laughter and singing and candles.

The infinite subtle variations of sangiovese: Chianti Rúfina, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Carmignano. The birth of the Super Tuscans—ah, Flaccianello! Le Pergole Torte! Sammarco!—even then, in keeping with Silvano’s tradition, a little too pricey, but still affordable, rich, deep, powerful. Discovery upon discovery: fried zucchini flowers, arugula, white truffles, bagna caôda, puntarelle, raw artichoke salad, panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, spaghetti puttanesca, taglierini with sea urchins and avocado, calf’s liver with fried sage leaves, carpaccio, calamari in zimino, stinco d’agnello, tripe, roasted goat, panna cotta, tiramisu, vin santo with cantucci to dip in it. Every one of these, we tasted for the first time at Da Silvano.

Time. Louise, always braless, bold-nippled in the tight thin shirts from Stone Free, the hippie store on West Seventy-second; Louise in the forties-vamp dresses I found for her in Soho; Louise in the very short very tight skirts that all official advice would deny to the rising young advertising executive; Louise’s hair evolving from auburn to strawberry-blond to straw-blond; Louise in ever-heavier gold I brought to her from Tiffany’s in tribute to her rising; Louise in the high high heels in which she would walk to work, never lowering herself to the secretarial practice of walking in sneakers with your heels in a bag; Louise in the post-op clown shoes which her high heels had earned her; Louise in the mink coat which she’d dreamed of for so long and which a raging humaniac, one day, on Hudson Street, spat on; Louise in presidential Armani, fresh from the Concorde. Promotions; mergers; equity. Awards; magazine features—youngest vice president in the business, youngest president of a major agency. The iron-fist-in-velvet-glove feminist with the house-husband who wrote and failed to write and cooked every dinner and planned every vacation—each more splendid than the last—and spent much money and made nearly none. I see her coming through the door of Da Silvano, over and over, over the years, always beautiful, always perfectly dressed and perfectly groomed and perfectly composed, always a perfect figure, never more than a hundred pounds, growing stronger and stronger and farther and farther away.


In Montana I was to find most of the solace I sought. I would meet my future wife there, and take her to New York, and take her to Da Silvano, to detoxify my nostalgia—regret was still acting on me as a sort of psychic poison. At the least, being back home, as I still thought of New York, with Elizabeth, and returning again and again would serve to add layers of fresh associations. We would have our rehearsal dinner at Silvano’s, the night before our wedding. But that’s a story for another time.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fortuitous alignment of days and eras.

Obama's concert yesterday, Martin Luther King's birthday today, Obama's inauguration tomorrow. The human instinct for patterns would tempt nearly any of us, I think, to see a shape in that constellation; of course the concert and the inauguration had to be where they are, but the place of the King holiday between them is pure serendipity. Any statistician would say so, and could prove it. But there's good reason, in this case, to indulge our instinctive "recognition" of that false pattern--one of the frequent cases in which belief in a fiction confers greater advantage (in this case, moral integrity) than the mere facts could do.

The great psychologist Martin Seligman has been finding the benefits of certain self-deceptions for decades. To anybody who hasn't read his Learned Optimism, I can't commend it passionately enough. One of his findings is that depressed people have more accurate perceptions, but the Pollyannas not only are happier but also get more done.

Given a congenitally depressive nature, when I hear King's speech my mind goes immediately to the tragedies that followed, especially the assassinations of JFK and of King himself, and in them I read a pattern of tragedy extending through all the years from 1963 in Dallas to this morning in Iraq; but then, reminding myself of Seligman, I can say, Okay, maybe so, but maybe, also, that long chapter ends today, and tomorrow in Washington Barack Obama turns the page to open a new one.

When King gave that speech, I had just turned sixteen, and was about to begin my sophomore year in high school--in Memphis, the city where less than five years later he would be murdered. Looking back, I see another pattern. I would find my moral philosophy first, crudely, in the Sunday school and church to which I was chained from infancy till my escape to the North; I would find it more fully realized in "I Have a Dream" and in the death of its creator; and years later I would see that the unearthly faith of King and the cruel tragedy of his death rhyme well with the pattern I have come to love most in Italian renaissance paintings: the serene stillness of the Madonna coexisting, and coincident in time, with the irreduceable, incomprehensible evil of the Crucifixion. Are those real patterns, or just more self-helpfully illusory ones? Does it matter?

Now at last I can thank my father for so relentlessly hounding me to Sunday school and church, where my instinct for recognizing the pattern of coextensive good and evil took root. Or I could if he were alive. He has been dead for not quite four months. If he had made it to ninety-five (on November 26, 2008) I would still be crowing shamelessly to him about Obama, whom he didn't have much use for. (He was not precisely a bigot, but he was a white man from the Mississippi Delta, and only two generations of descent from slave owners.) I like to think that as so many other conservatives seem to have done lately, he might have come around a little toward believing in the dreams of Obama--which, Obama says, came from his father. That would have put me in a mood sufficiently grateful at last to thank my own father for helping me to be here in this moment of grace.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Monday, January 19, 2009 at 11:59pm will be the final day of one of the worst political eras America has faced. Exactly twelve hours later, the new, 44th President of the USA, Barack Obama will take over from what was one of the worst presidencies this nation has gone through.

Feel free to invite anyone you know for this massive, world wide celebration as we all wait for a new presidency that will hopefully end this error which was of having George W. Bush "elected" not just once, but twice.

For more information on the revelries and a way to invite more revelers: click here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Generosity: A Winner's Advice

I'm veering away from the memoir excerpts this week, because I thought that the following piece, from Nature magazine, is so profound, and so cheering in what so many of us hope is a time of renewal.

Nature 456, 579 (4 December 2008) | doi:10.1038/456579a; Published online 3 December 2008

Generosity: A winner's advice

Martin A. Nowak1

  1. Martin A. Nowak is professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard University and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, 1 Brattle Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA. He is the author of Evolutionary Dynamics.

One day while I was still at Oxford, Bob May gave me some advice: "You never lose for being too generous". I was impressed because Bob is a winner. To him winning a game is everything. He has thought more deeply about winning and losing than anyone else I know. As his wife once said, "When he plays with the dog, he plays to win." At the time, Bob was not only my adviser but also one to the British government. A few years later he would become president of the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford and the recipient of many prestigious awards.

A mathematical analysis of human behaviour suggests that Bob was right. Generosity is an essential feature of winning strategies in games that explore human interactions. These strategies underpin many of the choices people make in everyday life, and shed light on how our unusually cooperative ways have evolved.

Biologists recognize two fundamental forces of evolution: mutation and selection. I want to add a third: cooperation. Cooperation occurs when one individual pays a cost so that another receives a benefit. Here, cost and benefit are measured in terms of reproductive success. Reproduction can be genetic or cultural, the latter involving the spread of knowledge and ideas.

Only if certain mechanisms are involved can natural selection favour individuals who reduce their own fitness to increase that of a competitor. One such mechanism is direct reciprocity: my strategy depends on what you have done to me. Another is indirect reciprocity: my strategy depends on what you have done to me and on what you have done to others.

In both, mathematical analysis shows that winning strategies tend to be generous, hopeful and forgiving. Generous here means not seeking to get more than one's opponent; hopeful means cooperating in the first move or in the absence of information; and forgiving means attempting to re-establish cooperation after an accidental defection. These three traits are related. If I am generous, it is easier for me to forgive, and also to be hopeful and take the risk of cooperating with newcomers. (Italics added by Tom.)

In the Wimbledon championship, you must defeat your opponent to move to the next round. But everyday life is not like a tennis tournament. Instead, most of our interactions occur in a population of players, and pay-off accumulates over encounters with many different people. Because overall success is proportional to that pay-off sum, the other person in any one encounter is more a partner than an opponent. If I am willing to let others have a slightly bigger share of the pie, then people will want to share pies with me. Generosity bakes successful deals.

Experiments have confirmed the success of generosity. A typical set-up involves students and computer screens. The computer pairs random individuals. One person, the donor, is asked if she wishes to transfer some money to the recipient. She is informed about the recipient's decisions in previous rounds with other players. The experiment shows that people base their decision on what the recipient has done before. Generous people are more likely to receive donations.

Similar reputation-based systems operate in e-commerce. When buying a camera online, you might consider both the price and the seller's reputation. Consumers are willing to pay higher prices if the seller is thought to be reliable. Successful websites are those with good reputations.

So why aren't humans always 'generous, hopeful and forgiving'? Part of the explanation may be that cooperation is never a stable state. Mathematical studies show that it is constantly challenged by defection. In a society of defectors where no-one helps, a cluster of cooperating individuals can emerge if, by chance, a few people start playing a direct reciprocity strategy called tit-for-tat: I do whatever you have done to me. Tit-for-tat can't persist for long because its appetite for revenge is self-destructive. It is soon replaced by 'generous tit-for-tat'. Here, I cooperate whenever you have cooperated, but sometimes even when you have defected. In other words, I am forgiving. For a while, cooperation thrives. But in a generous tit-for-tat population, the emergence of unconditional cooperators eventually invites the invasion of defectors. This leads to cycles of cooperation and defection — which could account, at least in part, for the mix of cooperators and defectors that persists in human societies.

Mathematical models allow a precise investigation of fundamental aspects of human behaviour. The games described here occur in every society. Ancestral humans spent most of their time in small groups where interactions were repeated. The same is true for most dealings in modern life: repeat encounters are always possible and reputation is typically at stake. The evolution of prosocial behaviour cannot be understood outside the framework of direct or indirect reciprocity. Indeed, I believe that games of indirect reciprocity have provided the crucial selection pressures for social intelligence and language.

In such games, social intelligence is needed to monitor and interpret the interactions of others. We follow with great interest what our fellow creatures do to us and to others. When deciding how to act, we take into account — often subconsciously — the possible consequences for our own reputation. Moreover, our own observations are often not enough; we want to learn from the experiences of others. Spreading the rumours of indirect reciprocity requires language. As my colleague David Haig once remarked "for direct reciprocity you need a face, for indirect reciprocity you need a name".

Friday, January 2, 2009


[This is another bit from my memoir. I'm posting them out of order to see how they work on their own. Part of the text, by the way, has appeared in previous work of mine. I call this recycling. All feedback most welcome.]

It took me till I was thirty years old to remember nursing at my mother’s breast. I was under deep hypnosis, with the aim of quitting smoking, and the psychiatrist was taking me back and back by stages, prompting me to recall tastes and smells, any sensation that arrived through the nose or the mouth, and the events and emotions associated with them. I didn’t just remember them; I was there. I smelled hickory smoke and tasted barbecue, which took me to post-barbecue necking with a girl in my mother’s sky-blue Chevy convertible under the moon, our skin peeling stickily away from the naugahyde seats, on my right forefinger my first whiff of pussy-nectar. I smelled griddle-grease and tasted the greatest hamburgers of all time, handed through the foot-square screen door in the little cook shack at the country club pool. I smelled the burnt-insulation stink of the subway in summer—here I would have been somewhere between three and six years old, after we had moved to New York from Memphis and before we moved back—and my mother’s minty breath when she had bought chewing gum from the slot-and-button machine mounted on a peeling-painted steel column. I smelled my first pizza on East Fourteenth Street, “pizza puoy,” the guy all in white called it who brought it, and I burned my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I remembered sitting punished in the hallway on the rug where I was put when bad—this was earlier yet, I must have been no more than two or three years old—and the maid sweeping me into her arms in secret defiance of my mother, and the scent of her starched cotton uniform and sweet breath. I smelled honeysuckle, magnolias, roses, my orange-blossom-perfumed aunt and grandmother, the Mississippi Delta’s flower-scented pesticides, the cotton compresses smelling like potato chips, the dusty dank of my grandmother’s carpet. I scraped my knees on it; I must have been still crawling. I smelled fresh diapers and the acidic stench of dirty ones in the hamper. I ate applesauce, spinach purée, sweet potatoes from a loop-handled silver spoon in a grownup’s hand, “airplane” (food) sailing into “hangar” (mouth). I reached up and touched my father’s rough late-afternoon beard. It was summer forever, hot all day, hot all night, the hum-pulse of the oscillating fan, the breeze on my belly. And finally I lay crooked in my mother’s arm, sucking down her hot sweet milk, smacking my lips, feeling and tasting the sweat on her breast.

The doctor dredged me back through time as though from the bottom of the sea. The clock told me that I had been under for four hours. I walked unsteadily west on East Seventy-second Street, south through the twin rows of yellowing elms along the park, my nerves raw to the glaring chrome and blaring horns of the traffic down Fifth Avenue. New York was too bright and too loud. I walked all the way home to West Ninth Street and went to sleep.

When I woke, I went out on the little back porch and smoked a cigarette: Take that, doc! Then I brushed my teeth and washed my face in the idiotic hope that Louise wouldn’t smell the truth.


My mother and father were not comfortable in Manhattan; they made friends mostly among Metropolitan’s other expatriates. My sister, Jane, was born in 1952, and our mother withdrew further from the world and into motherhood. I went to kindergarten at Christ Church, at Park Avenue and Sixtieth Street, where I met children of real privilege and worldliness, and brought them home to my parents’ delight. Then I went to first grade at a public school near home, from which I brought home Puerto Rican, black, and God-knows-what-they-were friends, to my parents’ dismayWe moved back south in 1954, to an apartment in Memphis, a temporary base while our new house was under construction in the unincorporated suburb of Whitehaven (originally White’s Station on the Southern Rail Road; the name had nothing to do with skin color). I began second grade at Whitehaven Grade School that fall.

It was still a country town, with a cotton gin, one bank, one café, a hardware store, a couple of gas stations, a general store on whose unpainted wood porch old men sat whittling and lying through the afternoons. When we moved in, Whitehaven was home to about five thousand people; by the time I graduated from high school, there would be fifty thousand, beneficiaries of the GI Bill and the postwar boom who had poured in from the country and small towns all across the middle South, where agriculture was rapidly automating and opportunities drying up. Our mothers and fathers were children of the Great Depression, and nearly all of them had known some degree of poverty. The scarcity of money in their childhoods had either stymied any travel or prompted the sort that evoked no lyrical memories—grimy buses, boxcars, shoe leather, all destined for soup lines, unemployment lines, degradation, destitution. Many of our parents were now far from their parents and grandparents, whose agrarian and also isolated lives resembled the life of Whitehaven not at all, with its shopping center, new houses, white-collar commuting, ambition, hope, prosperity, propriety, and ungrateful children.

Only a few of my classmates came from Memphis families. My father , Charles Thomas McNamee, Jr., had been born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and raised in the village of Tutwiler, near Clarksdale, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He had met my mother in her also very small home town of Savanna, Illinois, in the midst of World War II; he was an Army ordnance officer, and there was an arms depot there. She was doubtful about living in the frightening South, and my father’s mother, who featured herself a grande dame (while lacking the money usually considered the requisite excuse for such attitudes), could hardly bring herself to speak to his son’s lipsticked, red-nailed bride.

My mother, née Gladys Mae Runyan, had been a child not of the poor but certainly of the lower orders. Her father had run through a string of jobs, many of them as what Illinois called a tavernkeeper, a man who cussed and spat and got in “scraps.” Her mother was an obese, ill-tempered hypochondriac who never laughed and rarely smiled and had a lot of bad things to say about just about anybody or anything in Savanna. My mother had well and truly escaped, the first in her family to graduate from college, the University of Iowa, and to live in a big city, first teaching in Chicago and later working in the physics department at the University of Chicago.

Despite Whitehaven’s rapid growth and nonnative identity, real Northerners like my mother were very few. She became Southern quickly, addressing him as Charles in four or five syllables. (His mother called him Charles Thomas, to differentiate him from his father; his friends all called him Cholly. I, Charles Thomas McNamee, III, was Tom to my mother, Tommy to all other adults and to girls, McNamee to my pals.) Whitehaven was a sprawling social laboratory in which these thousands of newcomers were reinventing themselves as modern commuters and housewives. Hence the country club, golf, tennis, bridge, a saddle club, a library, book groups, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Cadillacs. Hence the great middle layer of Whitehaven’s social stratigraphy.

Within that layer, especially with the passing of time and the maturation of affinities, there was a good deal of further stratification. College-educated fathers climbing the managerial pyramid, college-educated mothers decreeing piano and dancing lessons and proper ways of speaking, and their heedlessly fortune-favored, whining children formed an upper middle class that managed to be at once bounded and permeable. That is, if you acted “right,” you could get in almost without effort and without any distinction of ancestry; and once you were in, you defended your class’s standards staunchly against impostors. Within that class, there was an additional, sometimes confounding denominational layering: Baptists on the bottom, then Methodists, then Presbyterians, and on top the almighty though few Episcopalians. Below the Baptists you were beyond the middle-class pale, back in ducktails-and-chewing-tobacco land. Which is not to say there weren’t a lot—a lot—of roof-rattling, Bible-hollering, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, raw-floored, tongue-speaking, some said even snake-handling churches in Whitehaven, many of their congregants upwardly ascendant as well but unwilling to let go of that precious link to their heritage. I was taught, by subtly unspoken example, to ignore certain children’s existence.

We went to the Whitehaven Methodist Church every Sunday, Sunday school at nine-thirty, church proper at eleven. We sat near the front, always in the same pew, fourth row right, on the aisle—practically under the preacher’s nose. My mother was always turned out superbly, in suit, hat, pearls, and beautiful shoes, and my father, who insisted that she dress in nothing but the best, himself quietly but just as carefully clad, in dark suit, white shirt, muted tie, black wingtip shoes. Louise and her parents, who lived a short walk from the church, went there, too, less regularly, and I did not yet know any of them.

Both my parents became prominent in the church and in the larger community, as volunteers, as whizzes at bridge, as leaders. My father was elected chairman of the church board. My mother belonged to the fanciest women’s club in Memphis, chaired the Shelby County chapter of the American Cancer Society, and played serious tennis. Both of them spoke perfect English and had impeccable manners. They were paragons of order and respectability. Hence my early attraction to disorder and rebellion.


Those qualities were splendidly embodied in my friend Buzzy. He was fat and mean and funny, and in third grade I worshiped him. I hadn’t yet learned what it was like to behave really badly in school, but Buzzy was an excellent teacher. He also was a person of some privilege within the walls of Whitehaven Grade School—or so, at least, he assumed—because the principal was his uncle.

Although there were black kids living within a five-minute walk, the school was, of course, racially segregated; most of the students were Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a category that had come to include not only the great majority who were of British heritage but also the “Scotch-Irish” and people of German descent. (I was some of each, plus French and Swedish.) There were a few with Italian names. There were a scanter few with names like Cohen and Weinstein, but I don’t think they were actually Jewish, at least not anymore. The Catholics—the other Italians, the non-Ulster Irish, and a few of eastern European ancestry—had their own school. The cooks and janitors were without exception black, and to us they were anonymous bordering on invisible. It was a telling index of the time and place that my classmate Bo Olswanger’s father, Berl Olswanger—the biggest bandleader in Memphis, our Lester Lanin, indispensable at debutante parties and fancy weddings, and a member in good standing of the Whitehaven Presbyterian Church—was denied membership in the not very exclusive Whitehaven Country Club because he was a convert, many years before, from Judaism.

And yet there was a considerable range of diversity in the school’s demography. Across the road from the grade school, Whitehaven High happened to be the home of the machine and woodworking shops for the whole Shelby County school system, and therefore drew young men from all over the county who saw their future as laborers in garages, factories, and construction. Not many of them were going to escape those early-ordained destinies, any more than the janitors and kitchen ladies could have escaped theirs. By the time they were in high school these boys were readily identifiable as a type, by their hair styles (heavily waxed flattops, or grease and ducktails, or a revolting combination of both), their footware (say, black loafers with white lightningbolts down the side), their bad grammar, and their bellicosity. Their distaff counterparts pursued their educations in cosmetology or sometimes “home economics,” and they too, by the age of fourteen or so, were easy to categorize on sight, with their hair “ratted” into giant egg shapes, heavy makeup, open-mouthed gum-chewing, and minimal to zero orthodontic treatment.

When you’re nine years old, however, no kids have ducktails yet, and you don’t give a damn anyway who their parents are or how poor they are or if they say “he don’t.” Nature formed us for an arcadian democracy. But nurture—never more stern than when in hands newly endowed with authority—saw in fine gradations of social class a host of opportunities for the nurtured to rise, even if that meant an increment in social standing so small that only a mother could see it.

There was a top layer above us, thin but apparently impenetrable. There weren’t very many of them, and everybody knew who they were. They were—rich. They traveled abroad. They lived in big houses, often with pillared porticoes, and joined the more important clubs in tony (for Memphis) East Memphis. We knew them—they belonged to our club too—and we played with their kids and those kids went to the public school, but their distinction was never lost on us. It didn’t matter if their fortunes weren’t generations deep; Whitehaven couldn’t afford that Yankee sort of snobbery. One of the great men of the town had been a poor boy from Mississippi who had founded the first television station in Memphis, made a pile of money, built himself a big ol’ white stucco mansion in the California Spanish style, staring down on Highway 51—our equivalent of Main Street, and the artery from Mississippi (two miles to the south) along which his erstwhile peers, driving their trucks and jalopies to town, were obliged to pass in (we believed) disdainful review.

Buzzy was only a cousin of that great man’s family, but he wore a cloak of privilege nevertheless. So when the day came when we passed through the cafeteria line and sat down together and Buzzy lifted a forkful of blackeyed peas to eye level to inspect what was indubitably a caterpillar, he did not hesitate to run full tilt at our august principal shrieking imperiously, “Uncle Benny, Uncle Benny! There’s a worm in my blackeyed peas!”

“Buzzy,” replied Mr. Buford with an affable smile, “where else do you think you can get meat with your black-eyed peas for a nickel?”


Some twenty miles to the south of Whitehaven lay the Mississippi Delta, destination of the early-morning busloads of black children turned out of their schools each spring to chop cotton and each fall to pick it while we white children stayed at our desks. The Delta was my daddy's ancestral home, and his kin all still lived there. When we drove down to see them, Highway 61 would plunge from the wide bright cottonfields into dark bayou bottoms, and the windshield would be so spattered with bugs that we had to stop to scrape them off. Dead deer and snakes and owls and opossums lay sprawled on the bridgesides. Ospreys nested in the cypresstops, and there were alligators in the mud.

To the east rose the scrub‑and‑clay uplands of Fayette County, Tennessee's poorest county, pig country, Klan country, buzzard country. West was the River, too huge and too strong to be quite real to a boy of seven.

What was real was closer to home. A big Hereford bull lived across the road, a chaser of children. Down our side of Oakwood Drive there was a row of seven new houses, and beyond its dead end a deep forest began, with swamps and lakes and mysteries in it. Spring nights, the frog chorus there sang loud. In an abandoned barn pulled half down by honeysuckle vines, mud daubers built their terrible castles, tube on tube of wasp‑brick. Because I was allergic, my mama said, one sting could kill me. I grew to dread all insects--June bugs, yellowjackets, bumblebees, dragonflies alike.

The hedge, the lawn, the big hollow sweetgum in the front yard, the maples and dogwoods and pines, even the scruffy bushes that screened our garbage cans were wildlife habitat. Hundreds of songbirds squabbled at my mother's feeders. A family of rabbits every spring, shuffling quails and burbling doves, and countless reptiles and amphibians all thrived around our house. At lightning-bug time, my friends and I had “toadfrog”-catching contests. You could catch three dozen of those warty, poison-peeing monsters in an hour, some of them fat as a softball. Terrariums, their glass walls slimed with the leavings of mudpuppies, skinks, snails, and prize toads, were my pride. I also tried to keep box tortoises and various snakes, but they always escaped, often inside the house.

Behind our house was a sharecropper's shack, with a friendly old retired workhorse. Later, when the shack had given way to the grounds of a grandiose white-columned pseudo-mansion, there came a fancier horse, who would eat my father's Chesterfield cigarettes from my hand. At the bottom of the pasture, a little creek had its source.

I cannot remember when I first began to follow that creek downstream. It flowed slowly and opaquely along the bottom of a deep winding gouge cut through layers of the wind‑deposited silt called loess. Loess is a very fine and viscid stuff, and it makes one hell of a mud. Where the water backed up, the muck could be waist­-deep on a boy. My mother always said I was the muddiest boy of all when my pals and I came trudging home at suppertime.

Above a pool where the creek slowed to stillness, we would swing on grapevines and do cannonballs into water the color of coffee with cream, where the bottom was a bottomless ooze. Snakes swam there, including the dread cottonmouth. Kingfishers laughed in the willows and tall tuliptrees. Catfish took hooked bits of hot dog we dangled from cane poles on lines bobbered with porcupine quills. Once, a gang of us blundered on a hobo camp so freshly abandoned that a half can of beans was still warm on the coals.

As we grew older, I often went into the swamp by myself. I was a melancholy boy, sometimes lonely even among my friends. My solitary wanderings began, I think, as flights, from games in which I could not excel, from an uncomprehended restlessness, from the sweat and tumble and perplexity of social boyhood; but before long my long after-school afternoons alone in the woods had grown into pilgrimages, my weekends and summers rhapsodic quests: I felt that I was seeking something, and sometimes, I know, I found it, though I still could not tell you what it was.

Beyond the tangled muscadine and honeysuckle jungles, beyond the canebrakes in which whole chattering flocks of birds could hide, beyond the old overgrown fields snarled with blackberries and cocklebur, there came an even, easy, open floor of dead leaves and low, soft plants, pillared with trees of awesome girth and height. The canopy was far above, punctured only intermittently by the sun. I believe that this forest had never been logged, although, like some of these others, that memory may be colored by desire. I remember the air as very humid, very hot, very still. I remember the buzzing of wasps in that air, and, in response, the beating of my fretful heart.

My little creek (did it have a name? I never wondered) fed a larger one that fed Nonconnah Creek, which in turn fed the Mississippi River. Nonconnah was occasionally so audacious as to flood its own flood plain, and the Army Corps of Engineers dealt severely with such impertinence. Their chosen instrument of correction was the dragline, a great toothed scoop on a crane. It could rip out a ton of root‑riddled earth in one bite. The messy, inefficient eccentricities of Nonconnah Creek‑‑the oxbows, the riffles and pools, the braided channels, the islanded swamps, the tupelo bottoms‑‑were chastened into an orderly, straight‑running ditch. The rate of flow was thus increased, and flooding prevented, and development of previously unusable land made possible. That thousands of such acts of discipline would bring on anarchy downstream was not particularly a worry, for quelling the Mississippi's rebellion farther south would mean more contracts for the contractors, one of whom was the father of one of my neighborhood pals. Racing ever faster, full of the sediment that the old flood bottoms and swamps used to retain, the Mississippi today wants to crash through its banks down near Natchez and pour into the Atchafalaya basin‑‑and leave New Orleans sitting on a mudflat. To prevent this will require one of the most expensive public-works projects in the history of the United States.

The dragline first came when the old one‑lane wooden bridge at Mill Branch Road was to be replaced. Growling and grunting, it chewed out the bridge pool and left on the bank two Alps of mud. They were the only steep hills we ever had, and they made a splendid place for dirt‑clod fights--just the kind of thing my friends loved and I hated. In that deeper water the fishing improved, but where once a boy could sit all day undisturbed but by an occasional truckload of cotton banging over the planks toward the gin, now there was constant traffic: workers and materials for the tract-house subdivisions springing up to the south. I took my cane pole farther now, to the lakes.

My prey was mostly smaller here than the catfish of the creek, but better eating‑‑bream, and crappies, and once in a while a largemouth bass. No matter how early I might come or how late stay, the best fishing spots always seemed to be occupied by an elderly black man or woman with little to say to a white child. I wonder now, did they fear that I might be the landowner's son? And who did own that land? The thought never crossed my mind. They would nod, and keep on fishing, catching ten fish to my one. For them, of course, it was not sport.

There was a place on the creek we called the rapids‑‑it was just a gravelly riffle, really‑‑and there, one day, my best friend, Bobby Towery, and I came upon the most stupendous animal we had ever met outside the zoo. I knew at once, from my avid reading in field guides, that this was the mighty Alligator Snapping Turtle--you could tell by the three mountainous keels on his carapace--the largest species of freshwater turtle in the world, sometimes surpassing two hundred pounds. He was very far from his home, which was supposed to be the Mississippi River.

Snappers are swimmers, not walkers, and this one seemed to have run aground. A gingerly probe with a stick elicited only a slight drawing‑in of his huge plated head. We agreed that there was only one thing to be done: we had to capture the turtle. With my trusty Boy Scout hatchet we cut down a small tree and laid the trunk, about two inches thick, across the gravel shallows to block him from escaping into the opaque pool below. While Towery stood guard, I ran home for my green coaster wagon. When I got back, the turtle had not moved a muscle.

We had the idea that if we could get him to bite the pole he would not let go, and then we might haul him to land. How to get him into the wagon we would worry about later. But even with some pretty rowdy poking at his great hooked beak, the snapper could not be tempted to do more than flinch.

We sat on the bank and considered waiting him out. How hideous, how beautiful, how fierce, how still he was! How primitive, how ancient. What was time to a creature like this? Two boys could never outwait such a turtle.

We decided we would try to flip him onto his back. And then what? We'd see. At least he would be immobilized. Prying and pushing and sweating and slipping‑‑and terrified that one slip would tumble us in on top of him‑‑we got our pole beneath him, and the alligator snapping turtle came to life. He whirled‑‑I know, turtles aren't supposed to whirl, but this one did‑‑and bit our two‑inch pole in half, and clawed his way into deep water and was gone.