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Author’s program note. Because I remember that you are, genetically at least, some substantial fraction Hungarian, I have chosen Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2″ (published 1851) to accompany this article. Stirring isn’t it…. and also just a tad bombastic? Your ancestors in Buda or Pest no doubt enjoyed it… and I hope you will, too.
You were right….. again.
You told me I would forget the date… and I did. I could claim “pressure of work”, but we both know better. I could claim that I’m casual, even oblivious, to dates of anniversaries, birthdays, and such like, so unlike you with your mania for such accurate data.
In extremis I could say that my dyslexia (so useful at such times) so manifests itself. But we both know, you who know me so well, that that is so much balderdash… and so, despite a gentle reminder, I did, after all, forget.
Fortunately I am beyond the time in life when I think infallibility not only important but essential. I feel no resentment or even necessity to defend the indefensible, and can own up to inadequacy.
The plain truth is I missed your 70th birthday… and I mean to make up for it here and now.
You probably know, though I think I have never said, I have a particular interest in things Hungarian. I love tokay (you will remember the occasion I forced you to buy a good vintage)… I can quote the details concerning Hungary’s elevation to constitutional equity with Austria, so creating the Dual Monarchy (1867). (You cannot).
And of course I remain committed to a Habsburg restoration and to the renewal of the Kingdom of Hungary. That is why I am so punctilious about gathering the artifacts of the dynasty, including the signed photographs of his last Hungarian majesty, King Karol. I suspect, though I do not pry into a man’s unlikely obsessions, that you harbor such a commitment, too. If so, you have remained admirably and completely discrete, as you are about so many matters.
I went looking this morning at about 5 a.m. for an excellent book I possess on the history of the twin cities which became in due course Budapest. You would like this book, too, which is why I shall never lend it to you, though your acute organizational skills may defeat my objective… for, as usual, when you visit you will (you cannot help yourself) arrange and re-arrange titles I have thrown together helter-skelter. That affronts your abiding need for order, proper arrangement, and perfect clarity. I would like these traits, too, but I fear I cannot rise to them… and so the book I would like to find today… you will certainly find tomorrow. It may well migrate then with you to Connecticut and another fate, for you are tenacious of books.
One of the enduring links we share is the love of books. It has enabled us to spend companionable hours with maximum pleasure and communion but minimum words. Remember, if you will, the places in which we have indulged ourselves in this manner… London (often), New York (not often enough), a bevy of Italian cities, and memorably the isle of Capri, where in the shadow of Tiberius’ palace we enjoyed the many pleasures of words on the printed page especially on those extraordinary beaches where the sybaritic imperator sported and outraged the locals. Since history is so often written by the disapproving, I have long felt Tiberius got a bum rap. Perhaps, so advanced are your opinions on such matters, you agree, though you have gratefully supported the man without emulating his idiosyncrasies.
I feel compelled to touch on a few of the many aspects of foods we have shared. Here, as elsewhere, your habits are admirable, though, as elsewhere, they are strict, immutable, written in stone. I here have a confession to make. Have you wondered at the timing of my telephone calls, so often transpiring at 4 p.m.? This is deliberate, mischievous, designed to probe and challenge your predictable habits and tested regime. Forgetful of dates I may be… but I well remember just when you are preparing your evening meal… and mean to throw you off your schedule. So far, in many attempts, unsuccessfully. I am therefore in a position to aver, affirm, attest to the fact that you are a man of fierce habits, cherished, adhered to, set in cement.
My eating habits are, as you know, quite different… and it is because they are, I can offer a heartfelt thanks and appreciation for your conscientious care and concern. You eat… I forget to eat… you remind me to eat… I eat.
When we first met, so many years ago, I was immersed in writing a book (my first)… neglecting everything else. (Plus ca change.) This may have A) offended your sense of order, or B) roused your humanitarian feelings, or C) both.
I cannot say.
But I can say that your calls to remind me to eat were useful — and touching — and necessary. My kitchen was terra incognita for me, not for you. “You will find such and such a nutrient in such and such a place.” I didn’t know… you did… and if my thanks over the years had not been frequent and fulsome, I would say them all over again, always gratefully.
For decades now, I have been urging you (without noticeable effect) to open your fustian pocketbook and let the moths fly free. The Scots, of whom I am one, have a word for you, “near”, and since it is a word no one but Scots know or use, I can always use it with impunity. It is short, sweet and to the point, a combination of the niggardly, frugal, parsimonious and cheap.
For instance, consider the matter of your clothes. At once humbly and patriotically, I urge you to donate them to the Smithsonian Institution, for they are, at the very least notable, and arguably historic. Do this deed for God and country or for the tax deduction, but do it. Your popularity (as a worthy donor) will soar, and you’ll be helping your flagging candidate by assisting the economy, something he has proven manifestly unable to do. Help him here, while helping yourself.
“I am officially ‘old’ “.
When I called you the other day, you answered with the line above. It was at once a gentle reminder of what I had (again) forgotten… but more importantly it constituted an acknowledgement, a declaration, an admonition and a reality. We booked places on Time’s winged chariot at conception, as everyone does. But now we know what that means.
When you were born the world was mangled… all but glistening America, the only great power on earth. The sciences to which you have devoted your life were at the threshold of unimaginable advances. You have seen every development and, unlike so many of us isolated in the humanities, you have, because of your training, understood them.
That is why I treat your opinions in this matter with the respect they deserve. You have, principally in the classroom you graced so well, helped legions who all recall you with respect, not merely as a learned man, but as an honest man. I am an honest man, too, in part because of the example you have provided for so long.
Thus, I say this to you: stay clear headed and warm hearted to the end, whether that end be nigh or long delayed. Browning was not being merely optimistic when he wrote, “The best is yet to be.” He knew, however, that we must, all of us, take the best as we find it… for it, in some form or another, will always exist. And for me that will always include you.
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