The continuing story of a chess novice...
[This is simply a bump of a blog I wrote in the summer of 2009...have I been a member that long already?]
I'm about to doze off in the hammock that some unknown soul thoughtfully strung between our two lodgepole pines. The insects are speaking in soft thrums of nonsense, and the whole world has stopped. I feel nothing (as if nicely numbed) except a warm wash of air over my face, a movement that seems not come from the sky but exhaled out of the earth itself.
"That's a chump play," somebody shouts.
Nick has been playing chess all morning at a table in the stand of blue oaks on the other side of the creek. Now, apparently, he's matched against our new undergrad, a guy out on his first summer dig. I'd know his voice anywhere.
"Oh, come on," that same voice says. "That's not a knight move. That's your mother's knight move."
Our undergrad showed up two days ago in an unbuttoned khaki shirt and a hairy chest matted with sun oil. He looks as much at home on an excavation as Gatsby did at West Egg when he arrived on his quest to recover Daisy.
True, I had read two of his junior-year papers--one on Schliemann at Mycenae and the other on Carter in the Valley of the Kings. Pretty standard fare, really, but they were well reasoned and properly footnoted. So I was a little shocked when he appeared on site dressed more like a tomb raider than Lara Croft herself.
As it turns out, I am partially at fault, for I am easily misled by words. For example, I had been reading Annie Dillard for years when I finally got to see her. I was expecting, I guess, a zen master, Moses coming down from the mountain, or John Muir ascending one. But what I got was a harried woman with a brassy voice, who reminded me of nothing so much as a hard-bitten executive editor from a posh New York publishing house, who, on her way to a meet-up with a couple of martinis, decided to tell her admiring believers about a tedious stint once in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia. Some people are born wordwrights, as some are wheelwrights and wainwrights. These are all noble professions. Yet when I read now in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "I live in tranquility and trembling," I can only look askance and wonder at what has been unmade.
Let me put it another way. When Schliemann arrived in Asia Minor he wore a jacket and a bow tie. Surely his Turkish diggers looked askance too, and muttered. Yet it is a truism in archaeology that Schliemann accomplished what Achilles could not: He destroyed Troy. You need not fear Greeks bearing gifts, but beware the men in the strange clothes, speaking in strange tongues, who point vaguely at the horizon. There is no telling what they might undo.
As my father used to say, "If it's not one thing, it's the Elgin Marbles."
Not too many years before Schliemann's assault on Troy, Anderssen and Kieseritzky played what has come down to us as "The Immortal Game". I don't want to make too big a point about this, but Anderssen, the winner, is remembered by chessplayers everywhere. When he died, he was honored with a nineteen-page obituary in the Deutsche Schachzeitung. The loser (what was his name again?) died penniless, forgotten and unmourned, buried in a pauper's grave. That's not because of the game, and not because he lost it. Anderssen was, at one time, the best chess player in the world; he was almost universally admired for his probity and sense of honor. Kieseritzky, although one of the better players of the age, was generally disliked for his over-inflated ego and acerbic tongue. Yet Kieseritzky printed the game in his own chess publication. His concluding note had the grace to say:
Cette partie a été conduite par M. Anderssen avec un remarquable talent.
Ironically, this famous loss became Kieseritzky's chief claim to immortality. I like to think that what goes around comes around.
Look, each act of archaeology or each game of chess is probably both a moment of creation and a moment of destruction. Maybe all our moments are. We arrive on this planet with our own set of needs and an urgent demand for mother's milk. Who am I to judge Annie Dillard, Schliemann, Kieseritzky, or for that matter, the guy with the hairy chest? We are all, all of us, gazing fondly at Daisy's green light on the further shore.
A little later the chess games are over, the pawns and men stowed quietly away. We yawn and recommence some desultory digging.
"Throw me the trowel; I'll throw you the whip," I say to the undergrad.
He winks and says, "You better believe it, baby."