The proprietor apologizes for Inkwerk's sudden unavailability. Reading, writing and arithmetic all took an unanticipated sabbatical due to a late-night clicking of the wrong button, followed by the dubious choice of "Yes" in answer to the prompt  Drop table. Are you sure?.

In fact, we were not sure.

We shall be rustling among the back shelves for a time in search of some dusty backup or still-readable palimpsest. Forgive the interruption. Make yourself comfortable. Ring bell for assistance.

Notice of new inventory: As the task of rescuing past installments proves ever more daunting, we have been obliged to install a fresh item below.

Announcement from the Office of Reclamations: Diligent spelunking has uncovered several items purported to have been harbored here over the years; refurbished, they appear yet further below.

On the occasion of an upcoming birthday

Let's face it, the zodiac is out of date and out of step with the times. And yet it serves a fine end: to pin the arbitrary years onto something both visible and mystical – the stars – and to provide an anchor for birthdays in a way that projects a unique character onto them by virtue of their date.

But the bulls, virgins, fish and centaurs have worn down their wonder over time, and are now the province of the mere charlatan (if taken seriously) or the bored dilettante hunting for the crossword puzzle in section F (if not).

A substitute is needed. A modern one, less mythical and more concrete, but just as capable of abstractions that engage the imagination. And it must be at least a little dignified, if we are to mark our days and ages by it.

The solution, I say, is at hand in the shape of the Periodic Table of the Elements. It has the merit of sober science cojoined with the mystic atmosphere that only exotic nomenclature can provide. And it makes sense: like our ages, it counts upward from one, and like them each step in the count is unique, much as we might hope ourselves to be. And it has a rewarding humanity about it, for the natural elements extend as far as Uranium (92), to be followed by the shorter-lived and transient radioactive ones, making element 100 (Fermium) as appropriately rare as centenarians. Thus the Table provides us with a worthy goal – 92 years – and the comfort that something remains beyond, though the territory may be little explored. 108 (Hassium) beckons, though it has only been produced briefly in high-energy accelerators, and even 116, so fleeting that it has no name but Unumhexium, lies further out, like a minuscule but accessible island.

And there are worthy landmarks along the way. We vote at 18 (Argon, a noble gas), and thrive at 21 (Scandium), the first of the metals. Life begins at Zirconium (40), retirement at Terbium (65), and in between are years of Silver, Tellurium, and the riches of the rare earth metals. Platinum and Gold lie over the horizon at 78 and 79, and if we persist, we arrive after 80 years at Mercury. Thus, should we endure, a quicksilver year is our reward.

And 50? 50 brings us to Tin, a decline from the exotic (49, Indium) to the mundane, it may seem, but a sturdy and essential element nonetheless, happy to lend its luster to pewter (Tin and Lead) and its strength to bronze (Tin and Copper). We all have our Tin years, our years of dusty Carbon or commonplace Sulfur, lively or staid according to the compounds they keep. These are years of respite in the familiar from the excesses of the foreign; growing rarer and rarer as the elements mount, and to be appreciated all the more for that. How gratefully we will settle into twelve months of honest Tungsten (74) after the evocative years of Praseodymium, Dysprosium, and daunting Ytterbium (59, 66, 70). If impatience with Tin eventually sets in, if the tug of that distant Mercury is felt, then Scandium, with one more electron, is waiting just ahead. Thus are our anniversaries mapped not to a cycle, but to the promise of ever-changing novelty. Once a Virgo, always a Virgo, but the elements march variously on.

On Dining: disquisition from a café

A coffee cup my wineglass; a laptop my table-setting; distant my companions; and yet I dine. For dining is that convivial occupation in which time is suspended by common understanding, and meat and drink and bread are but the signifiers of this happy condition, the concourse of minds. It is the habitat of minor miracles. Philosophers may strive, and engineers combat to harness time and tame space, but within the quiet orbit of the dinner table and the lamp, diners accomplish what they do not, with plate and glass and the immortal ingenuity of recipes. What good dinner, but that the problems of the world are not to some measure solved between one course and another? What good wine, but that the mortal division of souls is for a time overcome? Dinner is my science and dinner my theology, accomplishing what those two separately cannot, and where I dine, there is my whole world.

Shall I envy the angels, whose mouths are closed to food and dine only on atmospheres and aromas? I shall not. Mine are the rewards of the solid earth brought heavy to the table.

Shall I imitate the glutton, who embraces all that is set before him, the plain and the splendid engulfed alike? I shall not. Austerity and excess I will mingle, and they shall be my fire and wood.

Dinner is a peace and a strength combined, the redoubt of the soldier, and the adventure of the civilian. Dinner goes even into war, and generals armed with briskets and whiskey and hot cigars march ever to success over those who fail to muster their force upon the table as well as on the battlefield. And dinner is a shield against the storms of the commonplace and the deadly gravity of complacency. Many a meal has been my Finisterre and my Amazon, my Congo and Ultima Thule, and borne up with unforgettable meals that defy retelling, I have traveled far in spirit and wide in thought by the matchless power of companions and cognac and candlelight.

Therefore I dine. I shall light my mind with wine, waken my body with the sorcery of the kitchen, grace my life with company. For the sum of these is a vehicle of the imagination that is ruled neither by clock or mile, carrying me where I will; and where there is conversation, and a waiting plate, and a promising bottle, and a small table made great by guests, there am I.

A nod to the master »


Ode to the Smell of Firewood: translation from Neruda

Oda al Olor de la Leña

Late, when the stars
opened into the cold
I opened the door.

The sea
in the night.

Like a hand
from the darkened house
comes strong
the scent
of firewood.

Visible is that scent
as if
the tree itself
were living.
As if still fragrant.

like a cloak.

as a broken branch.

I went
back within
the house
in that balsamic

the sky
and its glittering stars
like stones, magnetic.
But the smell of the wood
drew me
by the heart
like fingers
like vines
like certain memories.

It was not the sharp smell
of pines,
it was not the scored bark
of eucalyptus;
was it
the green perfume
of the vineyard
something more subtle
that with such a fragrance
but once,
one time
only exists,
and there, among all the visible things of the world,
in my own
house, at night, beside the sea in winter
there awaited me
the smell
of the deepest rose,
the heart cut from the earth,
that entered me like a wave
from time
and lost itself within me
when I opened the door
of the night.


Maslow in the Checkout Line

The checkout line at the grocery store has evolved over time from its earliest role as a mere supplier of last-minute candy. It still serves that original purpose, but it now does double duty as a magazine rack and miniature library, perhaps on the theory that standing in line is the only place where customers linger long enough to read. For the most part the titles here are candy, too, of the literary sort, and the psychological tone of the checkout line has held steady at the level of quick thrills.

But over the last few years something entirely new has quietly elbowed its way into this traditional space and claimed the prime territory closest to the register, and hence uppermost in our minds. It's three and a half square feet devoted not to pleasures, but to needs. Its contents are remarkably consistent from store to store, as if an optimum has been found and settled on. Look next time you go, and this is what you'll see:

And one thing more, reliably but most unexpectedly:

These are exemplars of three fundamental categories: heat, light and — what?

Cameras used to stand for memory; they preserved an image and went into a book, a individual record like personal memory, but permanent. Now prints are multiple, cameras are digital, and the camera has become chiefly a device to share images and not to keep them. They are at home in telephones, where they reach people, but like the voice rarely linger past the end of the conversation. Photographs are becoming, like sound, instant and ephemeral rather than gradual and permanent. They are the new and useful substitute for words, relieving us of the need for written description. They arrive like instant and personalized postcards with nothing more scribbled on the back than "Having fun", and "Wish you were here". Photos from the disposable camera dangling from the rack are not as swift to send, but they are almost certainly destined to be sent as well as saved. Pictures are now communication, and the camera part of the social event and no longer an objective observer of it.

Heat, light, communication. This is the new pyramid of needs that has been refined from the experience of tens of millions of shoppers, which is to say, all of humanity where shopping exists. It recalls Maslow's pyramid, but has surprising gaps at the bottom and this unexpected leap toward the top. Nothing on the rack here suggests shelter or security. You'll rarely find a rain poncho, and never a first-aid kit. The evidence of the checkout line is that, stripped to the essentials, the self wants food (maybe), then heat and light; and given these and no more wants to leap straight to the requital of the spiritual need for the richest possible communication.

I think that the checkout line reveals a wisdom deeper than Maslow's. It has examined more subjects, considered the problem longer, and has had to make a living on being right. It does agree with him; communication is a means that cuts across the whole range of spiritual ends, from social acceptance and self-esteem right up to the realization of the self if you are any kind of artist. But the fact that the camera can sit side by side with such utter basics as fire, warmth and light betrays the artificiality of the orderly pyramid. We do not want to climb higher by steps, but gain the top and leave out anything we can to get straight there. We want to live in a world of inward rewards.

We like our heat, and love our light. But we will give up food, do without shelter, and surrender all manner of material comfort to secure our spirits. We will skip eating to talk all night, lose sleep to watch the stars, endure the desert for the sake of visions, and fast to pray. We leave safe homes, put on parachutes, step into thin air and sometimes die. We kiss in the rain.

The human condition is romantic, not pragmatic: not to be as physically satisfied as possible but to be as dissatisfied as tolerable: to steal from the body to give to the spirit. Testimonies abound wherever men are determined to be happy or right. A monk's possessions are a robe, a bowl and a Bible. A soldier in the field carries socks, bullets and letters from home. For the rest of us, it is matches, batteries, and a camera.


Hans Bethe

Hans Bethe passed away last month, last of the living legends of modern physics. He was 98, professor emeritus at Cornell, and still publishing new work. He was born into the greatest age of physics since Newton, just as it began, in 1906, a year after Einstein's paper on special relativity was published. He lived through the three great theoretical upheavals of the 20th century — relativity, atomic physics, and quantum mechanics — not as a spectator, but as an instrumental force. It is not only his accomplishments that bear remembering, but the phenomenon that he represented: he was a personal link between the great physicists who laid the modern foundations of this science, the memorable figures who developed it in the middle of the century, and the theoreticians carrying it forward today. It was all there, housed in one mind, both inventing physics and conveying it across three generations. He was both bridge and steersman of the science that defines our day.

He was one with the great names of science. He headed the theoretical division for the Manhattan Project, working with Fermi, von Neumann, Oppenheimer, and Teller. He taught Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg, Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman. The only major figure I can think of who lay outside his sphere of influence and collaboration was Niels Bohr, who lived and worked in Denmark all his life, even as the war shifted the center of physics from Europe to America.

He did not just span the age and its great ideas. His signal recognition was the Nobel Prize in 1967, but his discoveries comprehended two of the great theoretical achievements of astrophysics, forty years apart They are the two pillars of stellar physics. In 1938 he discovered how stars live by nuclear fusion, and in the late 70s helped formulate how they die in supernovae. He was one of those rare few for whom genius strikes twice in the same place.

When we think of great double discoverers, it is Einstein who usually comes to mind, with the special and general theories of relativity. If that isn't qualification enough, relativity and the photoelectric effect are candidates just as strong, and it was the photoelectric effect, delineating the unsuspected intimacy between light and electricity, that gained him the Nobel in 1921. Before Einstein, only Newton, two hundred years before, comes to mind, who first revolutionized optics and then physics, pausing between the two mostly for the sake of polishing his manuscript.

But rarely is it given to one man to shake the same field twice. Einstein did so, redefining first motion, mass and energy, then space and gravity ten years later. Bethe joins his company. There remains a third, Kurt Gödel.

When Gödel is remembered, accurately or inaccurately, it is for just one thing. But like Einstein, his was a two-fisted accomplishment in logic. In 1929 he submitted as his doctoral thesis the Completeness Theorem for first-order logic. It was something on the order of saying that we do, in fact, live in a perfect world. First-order logic was the dominant language of sets, representations, and proof; it was the language of truth that had been refined from Aristotle up through Boole and Tarski. It had elegance, simplicity and power, and was on its way to becoming the language of thought for logicians and mathematicians alike. It is a beautiful thing, and true. It posits only that there are items that may be true or false, and sets of these items; the ideas of "and", "or", and "not" as truth-modifying operations; and three rules of deducing true statements from other true statements. From this flowed a system capable of expressing and organizing thought on almost anything, and promising the iron rule of truth in doing so.

Gödel proved this: that what is true is also beautiful. That is, not only are the elegant operations of first-order logic guaranteed to derive true statements, but that all true statements expressible in it can also be proved by it. As a system, it was complete and flawless. Proof of completeness was like the demonstration of the sphericity of the earth: that everything we saw was also everything there was, and reachable. In universal gravitation Newton saw the manifestation of God inhabiting all things. In completeness, logicians might now justly claim to see the same.

First-order logic is not yet mathematics, though. We need add but little to make it so: symbols called "numbers", an ordering function on these that lets us move from lesser to greater; and crucially, another rule of deduction to permit proofs over the whole set of numbers. That is all; from this emerges the whole body of mathematics and mathematical theorems. Mathematicians had every hope that this system, too, was as complete as it was logically consistent.

It was not. Only two years after his proof of the completeness theorem, Gödel gave a lecture culminating in proof that any first-order mathematics was incomplete: either it must fail to prove all true theorems, or some of the things it could prove must not be true. Truth and provability could not form a whole and harmonious system. The perfect world that logicians inherited was forever closed to mathematicians.

Despite his double accomplishments, it is for this shattering of mathematical perfection that Gödel is remembered. Einstein gave us the physics that reshaped space, but he is remembered for showing that matter can be energy, and hence that atomic bombs are possible. Bethe showed how stars destroy themselves, but also that the destructive forces behind thermonuclear weapons work to build up stars. When discoverers span both creation and destruction, perfection and imperfection, it is the violent half that seems to become their single legacy. For Bethe, let us have it otherwise, if only as an antidote to the rest of 20th century physics. Like Newton, forgotten for his optics, but remembered for his law of universal gravitation that holds the world together, mark down Hans Bethe as the builder of physicists and the discoverer of how the stars shine.


Musical instruments old and new

On the top floor of the Metropolitan Museum, between Chinese Arts and Near Eastern Antiquities, is a small side entrance that takes you two steps down to a quiet, narrow room. This is the Musical Instruments collection, where a handful of old and famous instruments sit in dim light and plush-carpet silence, waiting to be discovered by the passerby. A Chopin-era Erard piano is the first thing you notice, looking at once grand and a little worse for wear; not far away is one of the first pianos ever made, a spindly Christofori from 1720. Past them, past a wall of ornate Middle Eastern woodwind instruments and a perfect, unplayed Stradivari violin, is a plexiglass case where they keep Segovia's Hauser.

The first thing that strikes you is how small it is. All the instruments here, separated from their players, have a strange, out-of-scale look to them, as if they've shrunk waiting for their owners to return. But the Hauser really is a bit smaller than the usual Spanish guitar, if only by a little. Hauser's workshop was in Munich, and he turned out instruments, as his father did, based on the German tradition. The curve of the bouts is slightly exaggerated, almost elliptical; there seems to be more neck than body. Hauser saw his first great Spanish guitar in 1925 when Segovia played a concert in Munich, and took down its dimensions when Segovia visited his shop later. A dozen years after that he finally created an instrument he thought was better. Segovia agreed, put aside the Ramirez given to him in 1912, and played the Hauser exclusively in concert and on recordings for the next twenty years.

Those who heard it never forgot it. Sharon Isbin called it "the guitar of the century", and in Segovia's hands, it was. It was a punchy guitar, strung with gut and full of power and color; it wanted to be played by big hands. It not only put its maker on the map, it fixed him among the constellations, and more orders were placed for his guitars than he could fill in a lifetime. That instrument became only a little less famous than its player, referred to in hushed tones and known the world over simply as The Hauser.

For all this, it's now unplayed, under glass. Like the Erard, it looks rather worse for the wear. The face at the sound hole has the varnish worn away from decades of daily playing. This isn't the rapid wear of a hard-strumming guitarist; the classical player's right hand never touches the wood. It's an accumulation of chance brushes of the little finger and the occasional pass of the fingertips when the thumb plays the top strings for effect. It's the same wear that river water makes on rock over centuries, and took about as long. The guitar looks tired, too, and played out, as if it's not just on display, but out to pasture. It needs a good restoration, and like the other untenanted instruments here, it wants a player. It won't be getting one. Its fame has locked it in a museum, but even with a less celebrated background, we can be sure of one thing: it won't be coveted by the guitar superstars of today; it won't pack an auction house with expectant buyers; it won't set any sales records. No guitar from 1937 would.

Stringed instruments age; guitars just get old. There's scarcely any difference between the two in terms of quality of materials or construction; there are as many reasons for the old to be at least as desirable as the new. But drop by the site of Chicago's Bein and Fushi, or Tarisio, and you'll find a 1713 Stradivari violin, a 1717 Tecchler cello; both look like they've been dragged behind an oxcart and given up for dead. Christie's home page proudly displays a Strad that recently sold for $1.3 million -- alongside a 1947 Hauser that commanded less than $50,000. The violin is destined for the concert hall; the guitar is not. Concert guitarists want new guitars.

Perhaps the mystique of age takes longer to acquire than fifty years, or seventy-five. Maybe those old guitars will come out of attics and museums in 2137, if there are any left. But meanwhile a unique sound world is disappearing behind protective glass in dim rooms, and the only way you'll hear any guitar made in the thirties or forties is to pick the right Segovia recording and listen to The Hauser, or stage a daring raid on the Met and play it yourself.

If there's hope for old guitars becoming the next new thing, it will come from exceptional places like The Guitar Salon in New York, not all that far away from the Metropolitan Museum itself. They have mint-new guitars like the Bernabe Especial that put a gleam in my eye; but they also have a 1929 instrument by Santos Hernandez, and an 1875 Torres. In their west coast store you'll find another 1937 Hauser. Like the one in the Met, it's waiting for a player, too.


Lady Iris and the Jazzman

Indulge me in a bit of British royal genealogy for a moment, a brief stroll through a hall of 19th-century portraits that takes us from the throne of England by way of three generations to a surprise of geography and a mystery of personalities.

In 1840 Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert — Prince Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel, known thereafter as the Prince Consort. Both were 21, and in the course of the next 17 years produced no fewer than nine sons and daughters.

The last to be born, in 1857, was Beatrice: Her Royal Highness Beatrice Mary Victoria Feodora, Princess of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Princess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duchess of Saxony. In 1885, England's connection to Germany being strong as of old, she married His Serene Highness Heinrich Moritz, Prince von Battenberg.

Their son, Alexander Albert von Battenberg, married Lady Irene Frances Adza Denison in 1917. It was a new century, pulling itself up from the wreck of World War I, so Prince Alexander may be forgiven for not marrying a princess as his forebears did. Lady Irene's blood was quite blue, however: she was the daughter of the second Earl of Londesborough, and (jumping ahead a century) an ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer.

The Prince and the Lady had a daughter, Iris, on whom our attention falls. She was born January 13th, 1920 in Kensington Palace. At 21 — now Lady Iris — she married into the military, to Captain Hamilton Joseph Keyes-O'Malley, but the modern age, it seems, took its toll; they were divorced five years later. We might assume she lived a quiet and comfortable life thereafter. She did not. It was not a kind time for princesses:

After the divorce, she went to America in search of work and had a string of short-lived jobs, including selling brassieres and posing for a bubble-gum advertisement. In 1947 she was arrested for passing a worthless check in a Washington D.C. store. Lady Iris was cleared of the charge, but a check by immigration officials revealed that her visitor's permit had expired and was also working in the United States illegally. After a visit to Canada, she was permitted to return to the U.S. on a permanent visa. (

Ten years passed after that, with no word of Lady Iris that I can find. Then she reappears, and the noble line from Queen Victoria, on hard times certainly, but undimmed, makes a sudden, strange turn.

In May 1957, Lady Iris Victoria Beatrice Grace Mountbatten of Great Britain and New York married Michael Neely Bryan of Byhalia, Mississippi.

It is as if, walking down an oak-panelled hall lined with portraits of the aristocracy, one comes across B. B. King on the wall.

This remarkable fact is recorded without comment in the records of British royal peerage, but it ushers in a mystery. What traced an arc between northwest Mississippi and Kensington Palace, centered on New York? The place and the time, certainly, had something to do with it; it was Spring, it was rural upstate New York. Still, we are left wondering.

It seems that Michael Neely Bryan was a jazz guitarist; how he got that way, and out of Byhalia, I have no idea. Something got him out, and something worked its spell on a descendent of the British royal line — man, guitar, or both. Byhalia, 1956 population unknown, but no more than 700 a few years ago, is not so far from Memphis. Memphis blues and jazz might pick a young guitarist up and propel him further north and east, if he were good. But even the most successful musician would find it hard to attract a destitute princess, and impossible to lure a wealthy one. It was not a match made by the pocketbook.

Passion, then, and perhaps music. The marriage was not in New York City, but in Pound Ridge, fifty miles upstate. Starting in the '40s, Pound Ridge underwent something of a Renaissance. It gained a reputation as a home for artists, writers, and musicians; the population was probably over 1,000 by the 1950s. Benny Goodman was one of the first to purchase a historic home there. It is exactly the kind of place that would draw a Mississippi musician: close to the City, but comfortably rural.

If the union was passionate, it was accordingly swift. Divorce took less than a year, immediately after the birth of their son. The record is quiet on Bryan after that. One imagine he stayed on in Pound Ridge, playing from time to time in New York, nodding to Benny Goodman as they crossed on the train home. At some point fortune or hope took him to California; he died in Glendale in 1972. Lady Iris wandered, too, to Toronto and another brief marriage. If matrimony could not hold her, Toronto did. She never left the city, passing away in 1982. Their son still lives in Toronto. He may or may not be a jazz guitarist. We can only wonder if he ever made the long trip to Byhalia to visit his grandparents, or whether Mississippi figures in his mind at all. He may have forgotten Byhalia, and it him. But he remains, with Michael Neely Bryan, part of the roll of British peerage, where strange circumstances may yet make him King.