The French, much in the news lately, and for all of the wrong reasons–and as luck would have it, just as I was finishing a terrific biography of Marie Antoinette–have an elegant phrase: L‘esprit de l’escalier, which might be rendered literally as “staircase wit,” either in the pejorative, or merely as an observation of fact, and more broadly as conjuring the perfect retort too late, while walking down the stairs after the cocktail party, when no one can hear it or appreciate the genius. I have suffered from this malady much of my life, as my own standing wit seems driven by a plodding, backfiring, cranky engine, and so have missed the opportunity to fling a few appropriate zingers when it might have mattered, or badly bungled attempts made in-situ. Ten minutes, an hour, sometimes even a week later, I have usually concocted and rehearsed an excellent retort, and alas, am alone to enjoy it. It is comforting to know that I am not alone in this, and watching our Secretary of State, the medal tossing John Kerry, and the spectacularly embarrassing spectacle he put on with James Taylor in Paris, after no American diplomat managed to attend the Charlie Hebdo marches, I was happy enough to realize that while my failures at quick rejoinder are largely private, ding-dongs like Kerry do it in front of millions of people.
But there is a larger point to all of this, which is that we are flying headlong into the heavy flak of a new year, and as I wrestled with the inevitable and various resolutions that surface in this season, I realized that left undone, each of those resolutions is evidence of staircase wit, fully in the pejorative. I have a long history of abandoned resolutions, left along the side of the road like a strafed relief convoy. I have resolved, for instance, to finish my first book every year for the last fifteen years. Nevermind that I am actually on the cusp of that now, because I have already boldly declared that I would be finished by Christmas, 2014, and then again by January 1, 2015. It is now January 27, and I am still circling the drain of the last chapter. So there is a second lesson: announce nothing. Keep all resolutions to yourself. Nobody cares, anyway, and by maintaining radio silence it is possible to spare oneself the humiliation of constant explanation later, when you return to base with a bomb bay still full of bombs.
I have been away from these pages for a while, trying to finish THE BOOK, clearing my fields of fire here in the woods, and reinventing myself for perhaps the 100th time. In many ways my life has resembled a contemporary dramatization of Jack Crabb, from Little Big Man, and that work continues. I have come to accept restlessness and reinvention as the price of my existence. I don’t know where it comes from, I don’t apologize for it, and I can’t control it, but I feel it constantly, and strongly, much as the coyotes who woke us up this morning at 3 am, yipping like jackals in the trees, just outside our bedroom window. They were loud and fiendish and for a moment it was possible to believe some heavily bolted door to hell had blown wide open, allowing a peek inside. They were that loud, and in their proximity, in the dark, coming out of a deep sleep, it was that unsettling. But there was something else in that echoing cacophony too, something raw and honest about yearning and hunger, and the passage of time. It seems likely that coyotes live wholly without regret. Most certainly they don’t have time to spend on it, and so they are spared the problems of staircase wit, and unfulfilled ambitions. There is no conjuring: they either eat, or they don’t eat, and that is all there is to it.
After the bawdy 3 am wildlife concert, there was no sleep possible. I lay awake worrying about the chickens. Glad that Harry Dean Stanton was safe in the house, and reaching over the edge of the bed to pet the dogs, who were levitated off the floor by the coyotes and kept poking me with their noses. I lay awake like that for a long time, listening to the coyotes retreat deeper into the forest, and imagining retorts to cocktail party slights now decades old. I was forced to wonder who else does that, and after a while I determined that the answer is obvious: all of us.
So here’s to your staircase wit, and to those resolutions you carry inside like bombs on a rack, and here’s to your success, as you fly over the target and the bomb bay doors swing open. I am in your squadron, friends, and have my list of targets, but I won’t tell you about them. They belong to me.