His Delicious, Mansard-Roofed World

I found the words on a yellow Post-It I’d stuck on the side of the bookcase in my office about a year ago. It had gotten covered up by phone numbers and pictures and doctor’s appointment cards, and yesterday, looking for a number, I found it—a piece of yellow paper with the words “His delicious mansard-roofed world.” It took me aback. And I remembered what it was.

That night I had been out with friends—it was last fall—and it was fun, and I got home thinking, simply, of something we all should think of more and I don’t think of enough: how wonderful it is to be alive, the joy of it, the beauty. And as I thought it—this is the part I remember most sharply—a scene came into my mind of a little French town with cobblestone streets and sharply slanting roofs on 18th-century buildings. Which made me think, in turn, in a blink, of New York, and its older architecture uptown and off the park, the old mansions off Fifth Avenue with sloping mansard roofs, and how this is the world we live in.

And I thought at that moment, with those pictures in my head: “His delicious, mansard-roofed world.” He being God. I wrote down the words on a Post-It and put it on the bookcase, thinking some day I’d use them in writing about . . . something. Maybe joy. Maybe: us. Or maybe I’d just see them and think: That was a nice moment.

Anyway, the words captured for me a moment of thought.

And last night I found them and thought: Oh—they speak of a moment in time.

*   *   *

Yesterday afternoon, I was with a teenage friend, taking a cab down Park Avenue. It was a brilliant day, clear and sparkling, and as the cab turned left at 86th Street the sun hit the windows in one of those flashes of bright gold-yellow that can, on certain days or at certain times, pierce your heart. We had been quiet, not talking, on the way to see a friend, when I said, “Do you . . . find yourself thinking at all of the ways in which you might be feeling differently about the future if September 11th had never happened?”

“Oh yes,” she said, softly. “Every day.”

And she meant it. And neither of us said any more and neither of us had to.

*   *   *

There are a lot of quiet moments going on. Have you noticed? A lot of quiet transformations, a lot of quiet action and quiet conversations. People are realigning themselves. I know people who are undergoing religious conversions, and changes of faith. And people who are holding on in a new way, with a harder grip, to what they already have and believe in.

Some people have quietly come to terms with the most soul-chilling thoughts. A young man I know said to me last week, as we chatted in passing on the street, “I have been thinking about the end of the American empire.” And I thought: Oh my boy, do you know the import, the weight, of the words you are saying? And then I thought Yes, he does. He’s been thinking, quietly.

Some people are quietly defining and redefining things. I am one of them. We are trying to define or paint or explain what the old world was, and what the new world is, and how the break between them—the exact spot where the stick broke, cracked, splintered—could possibly have been an hour in early September.

*   *   *

One thing that passes through our minds is what to call the Old World—“The Lost World,” or “The Golden Age,” or “Then.” We don’t have to know yet what to call the New World, and cannot anyway because it hasn’t fully revealed itself, and so cannot be named.

But if we can name the Old World, we’ll at least know exactly what it is we think we’ve lost. And this is a funny little problem, because if you go out onto your street right now, if you live anyplace but downtown Manhattan or Arlington, Va., the world outside looks exactly—exactly—like the one that existed a year ago. The pumpkins in the stores, the merry kids, the guy who owns the butcher shop outside smoking in his apron. Everything looks the same. Same people, same stores, same houses.

And yet we all feel everything has changed. And we’re right.

People say things like, “We have lost a sense of certainty,” and I nod, for it is true. But on the other hand, I didn’t feel so certain about the future last year. Did you?

People say we have lost the assumption that what we had would continue. Or, this being America, get better.

Certainly people who were carefree have lost their carefreeness. And with no irony I think: That’s a shame. Carefreeness is good.

*   *   *

Lately when I think of the Old World I think of an insult that I mean as a tribute. It is the phrase the narcissism of small differences. In the world that has just passed, careless people—not carefree, careless—spent their time deconstructing the reality of the text, as opposed to reading the book. You could do that then. The world seemed so peaceful that you could actively look for new things to argue about just to keep things lively. You could be on a faculty and argue over where Jane Austen meant to put the comma, or how her landholding father’s contextually objective assumptions regarding colonialism impacted her work. You could have real arguments about stupid things. Those were the days! It’s great when life is so nice you have to invent arguments.

But the big thing I remember as we approached the end of the Old World, the thing I had been thinking for years and marveled over and also felt mildly anxious about, was this: You could go out and order and eat anything in a restaurant. And I had a sense that this wouldn’t last forever, and some day we’d look back on these days fondly.

I would actually think that. It actually seemed to me marvelous that we could order anything we wanted. Raspberries in February! Bookstores, shoe stores, computer stores, food stores. We could order anything. Www-dot-gimme-dot-com.

I think the general feeling was a lovely optimism, which was captured in a great ‘80s phrase: “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

This was the thing: abundance. Not only of food but of potential, of hope, of the kid from the project’s dream of being the next J. Lo, or West Point cadet, or millionaire. Every middle-class kid in the suburbs thought it absolutely within his grasp to be the next Steven Spielberg or Russell Crowe, or to play Martin Sheen’s assistant on “The West Wing,” or run the record industry or direct commercials.

Abundant dreams. There was peace—crime down for the first time in a generation, the world relatively quiet, and in the suburbs they were starting to sleep with the windows open again! And material goods, things from the factory and the farm. As Kevin Spacey says in the commercial for his new movie, “Your produce alone has been worth the trip!”

God, it was the age of abundance.

Or maybe just: The Abundance.

*   *   *

I know people who are feeling a sense of betrayal at the big change, as if they thought history were a waiter in a crisp white jacket, and though they ordered two more of the same, instead—instead!—he brought them, on a pretty silver platter, something quite dreadful.

They feel betrayed because they thought what we have been living through the past four decades or so was “life.” But it wasn’t, it was “Superlife.”

In the long ribbon of history life has been one long stained and tangled mess, full of famine, horror, war and disease. We must have thought we had it better because man had improved. But man doesn’t really “improve,” does he? Man is man. Human nature is human nature; the impulse to destroy coexists with the desire to build and create and make better. They’ve both been with us since the beginning. Man hasn’t improved, the weapons have improved.

In the early 20th century the future was so bright they had to invent shades. They had everything—peace, prosperity, medical and scientific breakthroughs, political progress, fashion, glamour, harmless tasty scandals. The Gilded Age. And then all of a sudden they were hit by the most terrible war in all of European history, the most terrible plague in all of modern history (the Spanish flu) and on top of it all the most terrible political revolution in the history of man. And that was just the first 18 years.

*   *   *

People always think good news will continue. I guess it’s in our nature to think that whatever is around us while we’re here is what will continue until we’re not.

And then things change, and you’re surprised. I guess surprise is in our nature too. And then after the surprise we burrow down into ourselves and pull out what we need to survive, and go on, and endure.

But there’s something else, and I am thinking of it.

I knew for many years a handsome and intelligent woman of middle years who had everything anyone could dream of—home, children, good marriage, career, wealth. She was secure. And she and her husband had actually gotten these good things steadily, over 25 years of effort, and in that time they had suffered no serious reverses or illnesses, no tragedies or bankruptcies or dark stars. Each year was better than the previous.

It was wonderful to see. But as I came to know her I realized that she didn’t think she had what she had because she was lucky, or blessed. She thought she had them because she was better. She had lived a responsible, effortful life; of course it had come together. She had what she had because she was good, and prudent.

She deserved it. She was better than the messy people down the block.

She forgot she was lucky and blessed!

You forget you’re lucky when your luck is so consistent that it confounds the very idea of luck. You begin to think your good fortune couldn’t be luck, it must have been . . . talent. Or effort. Or superiority.

The consistency of America’s luck may have fooled many of us into forgetting we were all lucky to be born here, lucky to be living now, lucky to have hospitals and operas and a film industry and a good electrical system. We were born into it. We were lucky. We were blessed.

We thought we were the heirs of John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, Mr. Levitt of Levittown. And we are. But still, every generation ya gotta earn it. It doesn’t mean you’re better; it means you’re lucky, and ya gotta earn it.

*   *   *

How did our luck turn bad, our blessings thin out?

Great books will be written about that. But maybe from this point on we should acknowledge what we quietly know inside: It was a catastrophic systems failure, a catastrophic top-to-bottom failure of the systems on which we rely for safety and peace.

Another way to say it: The people of the West were, the past 10 years or so, on an extended pleasure cruise, sailing blithely on smooth waters—but through an iceberg field. We thought those in charge of the ship, commanding it and steering it and seeing to its supplies, would—could—handle any problems. We paid our fare (that is, our taxes) and assumed the crew would keep us safe.

We thought our luck would hold, too.

The people—us, you and me, the sensuous man on the deck—spent a lot of time strolling along wondering, What shall I pursue today, gold or romance? Romance or gold? I shall ponder this over a good merlot. We were not serious. We were not morally serious. We were not dark. We banished darkness.

The American people knew, or at least those paying attention knew, that something terrible might happen. But they knew the government had probably done what governments do to protect us. The people did not demand this; the government did not do it. Bad men were allowed in; bad men flourished here, fit right in, planned their deeds. They brought more bad men in after them. They are here among us now; they send anthrax through the mail and watch our reaction, predicating their next move perhaps upon our response.

Our intelligence system failed—but then for a quarter century we had been denying it resources, destroying its authority, dismantling its mystique. Our immigration system failed—but then in many ways it had been encouraged to fail. Our legal system failed.

One of our greatest institutions, American journalism, failed. When the editors and publishers of our great magazines and networks want you to worry about something—child safety seats, the impact of air bags, drunken driving, insecticides on apples—they know how to make you worry. They know exactly how to capture your attention. Mathew Shepard and hate crimes, Rodney King and racism: The networks and great newspapers know how to hit Drive and go from zero to the American Consciousness in 60 seconds. And the networks can do it on free airwaves, a gift from our government.

Did the networks and great newspapers make us worry about what we know we should have worried about? No. Did they bang the drums? No. Did they hit this story like they know how to hit a story? No.

In January 2001 the Homeland Security report, which declared flatly that international terrorism would inevitably draw blood on American soil, was unveiled. They called a news conference in a huge Senate office building. Congressmen came, and a senator, Pat Roberts of Kansas. Only a half dozen reporters showed up, and one, from the greatest newspaper in the nation, walked out halfway through. It was boring.

Every magazine and newspaper had, over the past 10 years, a front-page story and a cover on the madmen in the world and the weapons they could seize and get and fashion. But they never beat the drum, never insisted that this become a cause.

Why? In part I think for the same reason our political figures didn’t do anything. It would have been bad for ratings. The people don’t want serious things at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night, they want Sela Ward falling in love. I will never, ever forget the important Democrat who told me over lunch why Bill Clinton (president of the United States, January 1993 through January 2001) had never moved and would never move in a serious way to deal with the potential of nuclear and biological terrorism. Because it doesn’t show up in the polls, he said. Because it doesn’t show up in the focus groups.

*   *   *

It was a catastrophic systems failure, top to bottom. And we all share in it, some more than others.


Except those who did the remarkable things that day, Sept. 11, 2001—the firemen who charged like the Light Brigade, the businessmen who said, “Let’s roll.” Which is, in part, why we keep talking about them. To remind ourselves who we are in the midst of the systems failure. They did the right thing just by being what they were, which gave us inspiration just when we needed it most.

And now we have to turn it all around.

Great books, as I said, will be written about these days, and the war on which we are embarked, on how it began and why America slept, and what America did when it awoke. Much awaits to be learned and told.

And what we must do now, in our anger and defensiveness, is support, assist and constructively criticize the systems that so catastrophically failed. For those systems still reign and we still need them. And they are trying to function now, and trying to protect us, with the same sense of loss we all share and the added burden of a mind-bending sense of remorse, frustration, anger and pain.

*   *   *

Where are we right now? We have reached the point in the story where the original trauma is wearing off (except in our dreams, where it’s newly inflicted), where expressions of solidarity and patriotism are true but tired, and questions about exactly how well our institutions are handling this—not in the past but right now—are rising.

It all began 45 days ago. We know who did the bombings because they were on the planes, and they left receipts.

But we do not know who their confederates here were, do not know who is spreading the anthrax that has hit Florida, New York and Washington, do not know the dimensions of the threat at home.

Authority figures are doubted. The letter carriers don’t trust their superiors to take care of them, and how they feel is legitimate and understandable. The workers in the newsrooms, reassured by the boss that if they were going to get anthrax they would have had it by now, do not trust what they’re being told, or the tellers. And that is legitimate and understandable.

We are reading anxious reports. Yesterday I read that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had admitted it kept nuclear plant vulnerability studies out and about and available for any citizen to see in their libraries. (Q: What were they thinking? A: They weren’t thinking; they were feeling, and what they were feeling was lucky.)

More and more one senses we’re going to have to be taking as much responsibility for ourselves—and on ourselves—as we can. Doing our own research, taking our own actions, making our own decisions, and acting on our own guts.

A week after Sept. 11 I was on a TV show where I said I’d been thinking about “Mrs. Miniver,” the 1942 movie with Greer Garson as the doughty British matron who saw her family—and thus her country—through the Blitz. I said that we were all going to have to be Mrs. Minivers now; we’re going to have to keep the home front going.

I keep waiting for some talk show or news show to do the Mrs. Miniver segment, telling us what to do in case of real and terrible trouble.

And no one is doing it.

So we must all be doing it ourselves. I am researching and talking to experts. Next week I will talk about “How to Be Mr. and Mrs. Miniver”—from how much water to buy to where to put it and how to get everyone in your ambit together. I will share everything I’m told and hear. And let me tell you why I think, in all this mess, we must gather together and talk about how to get through it together, as citizens. Because our systems are not fully working yet.

It’s a murky time. We’re all feeling a little bit lonely, and all of us at one moment or another have the existential willies. Those who have 13 kids and 34 grandchildren are feeling as alone as those who are actually all alone.

We’d all best handle as much as we can ourselves, in and with our own little units.

It may become a terrifically tough time. But we are not alone, as you well know. God loves faith and effort, and he loves love. He will help us get through this, and to enjoy Paris and New York again, and to breathe deep of his delicious, mansard-roofed world.