The Best American Essays 2000
Alan Lightman, Guest Editor; Robert Atwan, Series Editor
It’s time to close out the last millennium.
For many people, the arrival of the year 2000 began with celebrating. I spent it on a couch, exhausted from driving hundred-mile circles, redistributing, in safe spaces leant me by kind souls, randomly selected bits and pieces of a life I was about to leave behind, a life I’d worked hard building, with one final trip left to make.
I spent that night hugging my dog.
This book has been following me around ever since. And for almost as long, I have been unable to get past Allan Lightman‘s introductory essay. He begins by relating his 1999 New Year’s celebration, friends and family gathered in rented adjoining apartments in Florida. For quite a while I thought what stopped me was the eminent physicist reporting this was how he celebrated the new millennium, though surely he had to know that such a statement is factually incorrect. Now I’m not so sure that explains it.
Were I the type to think such things benefitted from score-keeping, I might be asking the judges to rule a breakthrough. That seems inappropriate so instead let me celebrate another installment in this series that’s been an ongoing part of my adult life.
This volume offers familiar names writing on familiar themes. In some cases, I associate those names and themes only with this series. At such times, I realize there’s an entire world out there that, despite my strenuous efforts to keep up, is just too big to wrap my arms around and wrestle to the ground. It’s humbling.
So, themes. How about cities? I may live in the suburbs but my heart lies in strolling aimlessly through urban areas. I’ve done that on three continents and have always been rewarded, as I was in reading André Aciman‘s essay on Paris and Mary Gordon‘s stories of less than perfect travels to the eternal city, Rome.
New York is here, too, in a rumination penned by Cynthia Ozick. In a way, Ms. Ozick introduced me to Aciman since I first read him in the 1998 volume of this series, which she edited. This piece, unlike the reminiscence of her life growing up in the Pelham Bay section of The Bronx I’d previously read, didn’t grab me. I honestly think editors believe they’re asking for something new when they ask for 2500 words on Gotham. Yet all too often, as here, I come away thinking, “DIdn’t E.B. White cover this once and for all back in 1949?”
How about moral issues? Peter Singer, the utilitarian philosopher, takes on the case of the indulgences that make an upper-middle-class life, well, upper-middle-class. The professor would have you think twice before splurging on that fancy restaurant meal, the one where the experience is as important as the food (which is priced accordingly). After all, the amount you’ll spend on that deserved reward could relieve a quantifiable amount of misery. I wonder how many readers of The New York Times Magazine, where this proposal first appeared, reached for the phone to cancel dinner at 71 Clinton Fresh Food.
What about victimhood? I’m doing my best to avoid the utter daftness of today’s intersectional cancel culture which can count among its trophies (or victims, if you’re inclined to borrow a term) Ian Buruma. Here he bravely, and early, sets out to answer a relevant question, “Why do so many people wish to identify themselves as vicarious victims.” He even provides a corrective: “We can make a start…by drawing distinctions where few are made now.” The whole piece could almost be published today, though I’d remove the adjective from the question. And of course, no one would publish it. Buruma’s defenestration is the price of pushing the limits of open inquiry in an age of increasing intolerance.
Also in the plus ça change department, a then-younger Andrew Sullivan offers his thoughts on the then relatively new category of hate crimes. There are a number of reasonable arguments to offer against this approach, which has now achieved its maturity. Sullivan does a thorough job of drawing the sorts of distinctions that, again, are imperiled in the current moment. Recently leaving his perch at New York magazine, Sully said
“They [the magazine’s staff and management] seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media.”
Same as it ever was. Unless your mind turns easily to conspiracies.
The personal is here as well. Cheryl Strayed (as I typed that I asked myself, “Is that a real name, a sentence or a pseudonym?”) tells an interwoven tale of her mother’s death, her descent into heroin addiction and her emergence from it. I don’t seek out such stories but, in the decades since I spent that night on the couch planning to flee the destructive wake of that evil tar, they’ve often found me. This telling struck me as especially powerful.
Fellow Long Islander Floyd Skloot, writes eloquently on how his consciousness has reconstructed itself in the wake of a viral infection that left portions of his brain perforated beyond usefulness. In an essay that doesn’t skimp on the science–it’s hard to believe that PET scans and fMRI were new technologies just a few years ago–Skloot goes right for the sweet spot. If, as Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am’ is true, who are you when the manner in which you think is forever transformed? It’s a heady question, one well-suited to distract me from an ever-present fear of a vegetative state.
I’ll end (though there’s more) by mentioning Mark Slouka‘s entry, “Listening for Silence.” It’s a quiet piece that wonders even before smartphones existed if we were pushing silence out of our lives. It’s a provocative question. My children seem to be non-stop noise generators, as though the mere existence of silence posed a threat.
Me? More and more these days I find myself, the self-labeled music obsessive, reaching for the off switch and listening closely for the ambient organic sounds that are not meant to distract but just are.