Two Notes from My Desk

Obama and Robinson
In a conversation with Maryilynne Robinson (New York Review of Books, 11/5/15) President Obama surprised me when he said, “When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.”

He also noted that the media places a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict somewhere. That’s what gets all the attention. He believes this creates a pessimism about the country because "all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about are not heard.”

He then went on to say: “It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.”

Wouldn’t it be remarkable if instead of the nightly news reports of murders, scandals, and gossip, we might instead be offered the Nightly Cultural News? Surely poems are written every day, music is composed, novels and non-fiction works are published and films are made.

Why don’t we ever hear about them? Surely there are enough people who want to know about these things to support such a half hour of television programming. Surely there are organizations, charities, corporations, and men and women of wealth would be willing to add their support. Then we might then learn about: a forthcoming film, a poetry reading, musical performance, a new book, an old book, a theater production, an author interview, etc.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis came to town, that is to New York, Washington and Philadelphia in September of 2015. He was driven about in a black Fiat 500L, a small four-door gem. That said it all. No black Ford SUVs, trailing about one after the other.

He spoke of preserving the planet, living simply, avoiding excessive consumption, corporate profit-seeking, economic inequality, and the poor.

It was a display of wisdom not seen in this country in ages. And it was a joy to see the degree of coverage the media gave to him. Of course, all that ended the moment he left.

Nothing will or has changed as a result of his visit. People will continue to consume recklessly, corporations will continue to maximize their profits at the expense of consumers, the poor will continue to struggle and the great divide will increase further.


Last Hope Island

Lynne Olson’s Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War is a 500+ page epic of World War 2. Rather than focus on a single subject, say a battle, person or group, she ranges over all of them and more.

Throughout her emphasis is on human stories, the individuals who played an important role in the War. She begins with the leaders of the Nazi occupied countries who took refugee in London and the difficult decision they had to make in leaving their homeland.

They include the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, King Haakon of Norway, King Leopold of Belgium, the imperious Charles De Gaulle, the self-proclaimed leader of the French Republic, and the resistance leaders, code-breakers and fighter pilots of Poland. Together they formed a group in London that was instrumental in guiding the resistance groups in their countries and contributing to the the defense of Great Britain.

At some length Olson describes these groups, their leaders and fates especially those in France and The Netherlands. We learn about the disaster that over took the Dutch resistance, as the Nazis captured their leader, who was forced to reveal their codes and his communications with London.

But on the whole the resistance played a crucial role in the Allied defeat of Germany. She quotes Eisenhower who wrote in his memoirs that the resistance was of “inestimable value to the [French] campaign. Without there great assistance, the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer and and meant greater losses to ourselves.”

She depicts several of the groups in France and their efforts to return captured Allied airmen to England. She writes: “In all, some 7000 American servicemen, most of them air crew were spirited out of occupied Europe during the was…At a time when trained bomber crews were in desperately short supply, it was vital for the Allied war effort to retrieve as many airmen as possible and bring them back to England to continue the fight.”

The transfer worked like an assembly line. The down airmen were taken to the nearest safe house, from there they were transported hundreds of miles over many days by resistance members to a chain of safe houses to the foothills of the Pyrenees. From that point Spanish guides escorted them over the mountains to neutral Spain, whereupon they were flown back to England.

Almost uniformly the downed airmen formed a close bond with the hundreds of ordinary French citizens—men, women, and children—who sheltered, clothed, and fed them during their months in the country. They traveled from one family to another, putting each airmen’s life in their hands while risking theirs. There were hundreds of thousands of these caregivers all over France—people who never carried a gun or threw a grenade but whose willingness to provide safe houses for those who did made them invaluable members of the resistance.

Such people were the heart of the resistance. Most of them won no medals or honors after the war, nor were books written about them, unlike the top resistance leaders and various SOE (Special Operation Executive) agents.

One British airman wrote: “What has continuously irritated me has been the talk about the resistance as if it was created by a few heroes and heroines and they’ve tried to make me a hero, whereas the most important thing was the heroism of the people we were living with….They were sacrificing everything—children, partners, elderly relations, their land.”

Once again, I ask myself, as I did in discussing Nathan Englander’s The Anne Frank Game, would I be willing to offer my home as a safe house, at enormous risk to myself and my family. I’d like to think I would, but I’m fully aware of how difficult it is to predict future behavior or how I would act when confronted with the actual situation.

Throughout her book, Olson depicts the fraught relationship between Roosevelt, (who held off as long as possible before committing the United States to the War), Churchill, Stalin and de Gaulle. But in the end, they put their disputes aside and joined their forces together to defeat the army of the Third Reich.

For me, Last Hope Island recaptured once again the courage of so many individuals who fought in one way or another in World War 2. While it treats the countless traumas of the War and although it is a very lengthy tome (I’ve only touched on a few of the subjects Olson treats), it was, quite simply, a fascinating book to read.


The Measure of Love

St. Augustine wrote in his confessions, What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain him who asks, I know not.

Seven years ago in the month of June, I wrote a brief blog about Christopher Wilken’s The Measure of Love, that was primarily concerned with the concept of time. However, there was another strand in the book that I completely ignored.

Robert is a student of mathematics at Cambridge; the much older, divorced Elizabeth works at the cosmetic counter in a department store. The two strike up a friendship that develops into a deep romance, leading to their marriage. But when Robert’s father dies, he abandons his studies and takes over the family business of watchmaking.

In my earlier blog I said nothing about the disease that afflicted Elizabeth. In fact, when I reread the book recently, I didn’t recall anything about Wilken’s moving description of the course of her Alzheimer’s Disease.

The chapters in The Measure of Love alternate between a discussion of the measurement of time and the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I confess they don’t blend well together. You read a chapter on Elizabeth’s disease, followed by a chapter on the evolution of watches, or how they are constructed or the history of the fine timepieces. It’s quite disjointed, each could easily stand alone as a separate volume.

The tragic tale of Elizabeth’s decline begins with small memory lapses, she begins to lose things, then forgets to eat and sometimes finds herself in places she had no reason to be. Robert notices she starts to make lists, so she won’t forget. They visit a doctor who suspects she has dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. He says:

I can’t offer much hope, I’m afraid. In fact, to be blunt, I can’t offer you any. Her dementia is is degenerative and unrelenting. …really there is no curative treatment and we are so far from understanding even the cause of the condition that no cure is foreseeable.

Later he reports, One group of researchers thinks it’s connected with some protein in the brain, another group seems to believe that the problem is the synapses. Some of them are convinced it’s a genetic thing. Nobody really knows.

Elizabeth would sometimes leave their bed at night and wonder off outside, regardless of how cold or wet it was. Periods of verbal confusion came and went, Robert begins to feel uncertain if she recognizes him anymore.

The downward spiral continues as she becomes obliviously incontinent, forgets how to chew food, or makes any attempt to communicate. Eventually she was moved to a hospice home that Robert first visits every day, then less and less often, as her degeneration worsens. Finally, she dies of an apparent infection.

Wilkens writes vividly about Alzheimer’s, one of the most emotional accounts I’ve read. And I assume his descriptions of watchmaking and its history are equally informed.

After Elizabeth dies, Robert sets about to create the perfect timepiece. Strangely, it seems the only way he can sustain the memory of his deep love for her and the early days of their romance. And when he finishes, he confesses:

During those days I found myself increasingly at a loose end After five years and seven months of continuous work on the watch, it’s completion had removed the core of my life, and I found myself wishing, perversely that the instrument would reveal some imperfection which would require me to resume my labours. But it was not to be.


Friday Surprise

The other day a friend forwarded to me these very short stories that were sent to him by his cousin in Lithuania. While not exactly the sort that Lydia Davis writes, they are, nevertheless, fun to read. If I had to choose a favorite, I'd say number 6

1 Once all villagers decided to pray for rain. On the day of prayer all the people gathered, but only one boy came with an umbrella.
That's FAITH.

2 When you throw babies in the air, they laugh because they know you will catch them.
That's TRUST

3 Every night we go to bed without any assurance of being alive the next morning, but still we set the alarms to wake up.
That's HOPE.

4 We plan big things for tomorrow in spite of zero knowledge of the future.

5 We see the world suffering, but still we get married and have children.
That's LOVE.

6 On an old man's shirt was written a sentence 'I am not 80 years old; I am sweet 16 with 64 years of experience.'


Power Outage

If there is a core insight in the podcast boomlet, it may be that, as much as we enjoy tweeting, texting, watching, writing, reading, and snapping, no Internet-born form has supplanted the potency of conversation.

The other day there was a power outage in my neighborhood. While we had electricity, there was no internet and no television. I was beside myself. It was impossible to get online or watch Wolf Blitzer’s latest “Breaking News” report.

Once again I was reminded how much we, or at least, I have come to depend on our technology rich world. I don’t mind being alone with my thoughts or sitting quietly staring into space. But now and then I do like to check into the world.

I began thinking of what I used to do before the arrival of the internet or television. Well, I read a book, magazine or newspaper. And I still do that. So I opened my iPad and began reading what I had already downloaded and then I turned to the printed book I was reading then.

The power outage reminded me of what Haruki Murakami wrote about life before and after the development of the electronic revolution in his story “Town of Cats,” published in The New Yorker.

By setting the story in 1984, before cell phones and e-mail and the Internet had become common, I made it impossible for my characters to use such tools. This in turn was frustrating for me. I felt their absence slowing down the speed of the novel. When I thought about it, though, not having such devices at the time—both in daily life and in the story—ceased to be an inconvenience. If you wanted to make a phone call, you just found a public telephone; if you had to look something up, you went to the library; if you wanted to contact somebody, you put a stamp on a letter and mailed it. Those were the normal ways to do those things. While writing the novel (and experiencing a kind of time slip), I had a strong feeling of what the intervening twenty-seven years had meant. Sorry to state the obvious, but maybe there’s not much connection between the convenience of people’s surroundings and the degree of happiness they feel.

I would have enjoyed talking to someone, but no one was around for most of the day. Indeed it would have been an unusual day to have a real conversation without the interminable distractions that occupy so much of our life now.

On his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp describes how he once spent a day in conversation. “For the first time in a long time I spent most of my waking hours on Saturday in conversation.” This was not your ordinary hello-goodbye talk, but rather a serious exchange of ideas about literature.

It was a give and take of “memories, thoughts and stories” as he describes it. It wasn’t a monologue or the least bit strident. In the morning he spent two hours with a teacher he had 46 years ago. He says she was as sharp as she was when he took an English class with her in high school. They talked about “books, old friends and the ongoing decline of Western Civilization.”

In the afternoon he spent more than seven hours talking with a couple, both artists, who have been his friends for 41 years. “The talk was effortless and never stopped.”

After describing the day he turns to Boswell who reports “the great man" [Samuel Johnson] saying, “The happiest conversation is that of which nothing is distinctly remembered but a general effect of pleasing impression.”

When was the last time you spent a day like this? When was the last time you had conversations like this?


Known and Strange Things

You write not after you’ve thought things though; you write to think things through. Andre Aciman

It took me a while to finish Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, reading the sixty or so essays from time to time, over the course of several weeks.

Cole divided his essays into three sections: Reading Things, Seeing Things and Being There. Many of the essays deal with Cole’s love of photography, the pictures he takes, what is important to him in doing so and the works of other photographers he admires.

The essay I remember best is one he wrote while being in a somewhat remote Swiss town, Leukerbad, one that James Baldwin wrote about when he was in the same village (“Stranger in the Village”). Cole, also African-American, retraces Baldwin’s steps and what being a black person in an otherwise all white community felt like.

You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys…The remote village gave him [James Baldwin] a sharper view of what things looked like back home.”

Another of Cole’s essays explores the peculiar way Andre Aciman sometimes writes, a way that appeals to me greatly. Quoting Aciman:

What was missed was not just Egypt. What was missed was dreaming Europe in Egypt—what we missed was Egypt where we’d dreamed of Europe.

Monet “realized that he liked painting this town [Bordighera] more than he loved the town itself, because what he loved was more in him than in the town itself.

In writing about why he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, Cole says he voted not because my doing so would change the outcome, but because it would change himself.

Now voting for Obama, in spite of my strong objections both to some of his ideas and to much of the system in which he functioned, was a declaration, mostly to myself, that we participate in things not because they are ideal but because they are not.

Cole wonders how the “reader in chief” could now be embroiled in wars in all but name in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in a word and in deed, so radically different from the president he became?

And in one of the last essays Cole writes about the rarely acknowledged freedom the military gives to us. I am not naïve about the incessant and unseen (by most of us) military activity that undergirds our ability to read, go to concerts, earn a living, and criticize the government in relative safety.

Comments like this appear throughout Cole’s essays and make Known and Strange Things such a pleasure to read.


The Weather Rules

“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” Samuel Johnson

I was walking outside recently in an unexpectedly warm 80 degrees. It was impossible not to smile. A woman, about my age, was passing by me. “So” she said, also smiling. “ You like it when it’s warm outside.” “Around here, how could I not?” I replied.

I know it’s trite to talk about the weather and what we might say about it is little more than a cliché. And I know there are far more important matters to write and talk about than the weather.

But let’s face it: We all experience the weather in one way or another. And where I live in the Pacific Northwest, the weather is on everyone’s mind, everyday of the year, including this Memorial Day weekend, which, unlike previous years, promises to be rain-free.

“Cold enough for you today?” “When are we going to see the sun again?” Even though it may be boring to talk about it the weather, doing so is often a stepping stone to more significant matters.

Then there are the generalities that are often made about the weather.

• It is said we may be more helpful when it is warm.
• Or that we spend more money when it’s sunny.
• It is also claimed that warm weather elevates our mood and makes us more productive.
• The cold and cloudy days of winter are also believed to be one of the sources of depression.

Yet it is equally clear that some people are more affected by the weather than others. I am one who is and so over the years of my reading, I have added passages about the weather to my commonplace book. Here are a few representative examples:

Life is weather. Life is meals.
James Salter LightYears

Spring. The weather is warm, the chestnut trees are in flower, brilliant tulips bloom in the Luxembourg Garden.
Lily Tuck I Married You for Happiness

Weather forecasting is one of the success stories in this book, a case of man and machine joining forces to understand and sometimes anticipate the complexities of nature. The more fundamental issue is that we can only observe our surroundings with a certain degree of precision.
Nate Silver The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don’t

The weather. A variety of weather doom. The weather made me her feel as if there was no point to life: whether you worked hard didn’t matter, whether you found someone to love didn’t matter, because even if you worked hard and found someone to love, a day like this would come, when a strange damp coolness seeped in through the windowpanes and seeped in through you, making you see that everything was meaningless.
Brian Morton The Dylanist

Summer afternoon—summer afternoon: to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
Henry James

And yet the image of the south, the image that all northerners have, was irresistible. All the clichés came into play: markets, cafes, a more relaxed and indulgent way of life. And the sun, the sun!
Anita Brookner The Rules of Engagement

Anything can happen on a summer afternoon
On a lazy dazy golden hazy summer afternoon
Lily Tuck I Married You for Happiness

But I do so enjoy the feel of the sun on me…
Janice Y. K. Lee The Piano Teacher

Today, in this place [Auschwitz] our only purpose is to reach the spring. At the moment we care about nothing else…In the morning while we wait endlessly lined up in the roll-call square for the time to leave for work, while every breath of wind penetrates our clothes and runs in violent shivers over our defenceless bodies, and everything is grey around us, and we are grey; in the morning, when it is still dark, we all look at the sky in the eat to spot the first signs of a milder season, and the rising of the sun is commented on every day: today a little earlier that yesterday, today a little warmer than yesterday, in two months, in a month, the cold will call a truce and we will have on enemy less.

Today the sun rose bright and clear for the first time from the horizon of mud. It is a Polish sun, cold, white and distant, and only warms the skin, but when it dissolved the last mists a murmur ran through our colourless numbers, and when even I felt its lukewarmth through my clothes I understood how men can worship the sun.

We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain. Yesterday evening the sun went down irrevocably behind a confusion of dirty clouds, chimney stacks and wires, and today it is winter.
Primo Levi If This is a Man


The Light Between the Oceans

It’s the 1920s on a fictitious island in South-Western Australia, at the confluence of two oceans. A dinghy washes up on the shore with a dead man and infant child. Tom a WW 1 veteran and his young wife, Isabel, grapple with what to do.

Tom is meticulous, a rule-governed lighthouse keeper; Isabel has suffered two miscarriages and a still birth. She views the child as a “gift from God.” Against his better judgement, Tom agrees to raise it on their own.

This is the moral issue that drives M. L. Stedman’s, The Light Between the Oceans, and one that was uppermost in my mind as I read the novel. The issue comes into focus when we learn that the infant’s true mother lives in the nearest town to the island and the dead man was her husband.

Tom and Isabel battle back on forth, as the child, who they name Lucy becomes deeply attached to Isabel, while both Tom and Isabel, in turn, become equally attached to Lucy.

Isabel says, "How can you be so hard-hearted? All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.”

On leave from the island, they return to the small town of Partageuse for Lucy’s Baptism. While there, they discover that Lucy’s grieving mother, Hannah, lives in the town, having lost her husband and daughter Grace. At this point the conflict between Tom and Isabel escalates.

“For better or worse, Tom, we did what we did. What about her loving mother? Her living bloody mother! How can this be fair, Izz?” “Of course it’s not fair, Tom, not fair at all! We just have to take what life dishes up!”

Unbeknownst to Isabel, Tom sends a message to Hannah that her daughter is alive, eventually leading to his arrest and the traumatic return of Lucy to Hannah. As Tom’s trial is about to begin with the prospect of a long-term imprisonment or hanging, Isabel finally realizes she cannot betray Tom any longer and tells the truth to the police:

“…none of it’s true!” cried Isabel. “Frank Roennfeldt was dead when the boat washed up. It was my idea to keep Lucy. I stopped him reporting the boat. It’s my fault.”

Tom is sent to prison for six months and Isabel is given a suspended sentence. The novel ends twenty years after Grace is returned to Hannah. They have moved to a small town 400 miles away, Isabel dies after a long battle with cancer and Lucy-Grace visits Tom to express her condolences. She has forgiven the couple and hopes to come back to visit Tom again.

A beautiful novel in the old tradition, well written, a pleasure to read with a moral quandary whose resolution captured my interest.


A Sense of Community

In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger proposes that lacking a sense of community is the source of the alienation so many individuals feel today. He argues that while all our technological miracles have delivered many benefits, they have only deepened the individualistic trends in modern society and isolated us from the wider community.

“First agriculture and then industry changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group.”

Junger supports his claim from a range of sources. He points to the way individuals come together in disasters—earthquakes, civilians in wartime, troops on the battlefield.

“What catastrophes seem to do—sometimes in the span of a few minutes—is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss."

Junger also discusses at some length the experience of soldiers returning from recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is nothing close to civilian life that can match the deep social bonds formed on the battlefield. He suggests that Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) may reflect the estrangement soldiers feel when they return home, rather than a serious psychological breakdown

“A modern soldier returning from combat—or a survivor of Sarajevo—goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”

It’s important to note that Junger’s claims are speculative, based on historical examples and anecdotal evidence, with few statistical measures. At the same time Tribe is an important call for a stronger collective society, one based less on individualism and more on group solidarity.


By A Running Brook

On this Mother’s Day, I would like to quote from as essay I wrote about my mother several years ago. It has been edited and shortened quite a bit:

My mother was a reader. I can see her clearly: I am returning home from school, walking in the living room, and there she is lying on the couch munching an apple with a book in hand. I sit down and we talk about my day at school. That was our practice every day when I returned home from school. It never occurred to me to ask her how her day had been or to inquire about what she was reading. I wish I had known enough then to have asked her.

I wonder now if it could have been the same serious literature it was by the time I left for college? Now that I have succumbed to the power of literature, I have thought more and more about her reading, when she started, what it meant to her, who she spoke with about it.

Eventually she developed a keen interest in D.H. Lawrence. He became her obsession. She read everything that he wrote, everything that had been written about him. She loved talking with me about his life and work and why I should read him more often. And then she started collecting his works, all his works, the first editions of everything.

From time to time she would part with one and send it to us for a gift on a special occasion. A carefully composed letter always accompanied these gifts, as well as the countless other books that came from the “Librarian” as she came to call herself. To my daughter on her 16th birthday, she wrote:

George Bernard Shaw said after reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “All young women should be given this book on their sixteenth birthday.” I want you to read this book very slowly and carefully word by word and page by page…. contrary to what many critics have said it is not pornography. It is rather a serious social document with several layers of meaning. It portrays the contrast between the privileged landowning nobility and the poorly educated laboring miners. It portrays the contrast between the natural world of the Forest (Eden) surrounded and encroached on all sides by the ugliness of the industrial city. Mellors, the games keeper is the natural man, or if you wish, the man who is happy only in an environment of nature, who is symbolic of Osiris born and re-born in the yearly cycle of the seasons. Connie the heroine is the symbol of Woman, or Isis, constantly seeking her mate who will provide her with the seed of her re-birth. Sir Clifford is the symbol of Death in Life Dis or Pluto—consuming, demanding but sterile—unable to pro-create and therefore a destroyer. As you can see this is a book that needs to be read more than once and I hope that over the years as you grow and become more experienced you will turn to this book and find more and more rewarding insights.

Each time I read her note I have to admit to a certain astonishment. My mother was not a Lawrence scholar. She may have taken a university course on Lawrence, but to the best of my knowledge she had never written an extended commentary or paper about his work. Yet here, in this note, is an expression of considerable erudition, understanding, and deep appreciation of the novel. No advanced degree. No graduate dissertation. Not even an undergraduate degree. And yet who would not conclude from such a note that she was a Lawrence scholar who had all three?

In 1973 she decided to put her love of books into practice by opening a bookstore of her own. It must have been a life-long dream of hers, as it is for many devoted readers. She called the store, The Running Brook:

Find tongues in trees,
Books in the running brook,
Sermons in stones and
Good in everything
From As You Like It

She created a warm and inviting store that was much too lavish for the community of nearby students. The bookshelves were made of handsome wood finishing, the walls were adorned with attractive paintings, and comfortable armchairs were placed throughout the store. She was really far more interested in poetry readings, book discussions, and chess matches than selling books.

In a newspaper article on the store it was reported that she graced the store with her two kittens who delighted in climbing over prospective buyers. And in discussing her plans for recycling books she is quoted as saying, “When the person is finished with the book and no longer has a use for it, he should bring it in so that others might also derive enjoyment from it.”

In time The Running Brook became too much for her and I am sure it was with relief, rather than regret that she closed the store. She had done it, done something she had dreamed about for years, and she had done it well and beautifully and with love.

One of her favorite literary passages, one that my grandmother placed in center of one her most beautiful needlepoints read: To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. This passage from Tennyson’s Odysseus is framed and has always hung above the hearth of our family home. In a few years, I will pass it on to my son and his family and hope that they will come to appreciate and be guided by it, as I have been.


This Is London Calling

In the early days of the 1940’s, everyone listened to the radio. This was long before the age of television, the Internet and the Web. After dinner, we used to gather round the big, clunky radio and listen to the news and whatever else was on that night. On Sundays it was the comedies, Fred Allen, Jack Benny and Fibber McGee & Molly.

But it was also news of how the war in Europe was going. I was reminded of this while reading Lynne Olson’s Last Home Island: Britain, Occupied Europe and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War. She speaks of the important role the BBC played then.

For as long as the war lasted, Europeans engaged in a precious nightly ritual: they retrieved their radio sets, which had been outlawed by the Germans, from a variety of hiding places—beneath the floorboards, behind canned goods in the kitchen cupboard, secreted in the chimney. Then, in whatever the setting, the owners of the sets switched them on and tuned to the BBC in time to hear the chiming of Big Ben and the magical words “This is London calling.”…

During and after the war, Europeans described those furtive moments listening to BBC news programs as their lifeline to freedom. A Frenchman who escaped to London late in the war recalled, “It’s impossible to explain how much we depended on the BBC. In the beginning, it was everything.”

We didn’t receive the BBC in America, but we did get the CBS news broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid. Both reported from London and other locations in Europe during World Was II. I remember Murrow used to sign off his evening broadcasts, “Good night, and good luck.”

I suspect the most likely situation in which people listen to the radio today is in their automobile, where tinkering with their iPhone is dangerous and in some states illegal.

The radio continues to find its way to offices and homes in England, where the BBC is still a major presence. National Public Radio in this country has equally popular radio programs. And then there are the conservative talk radio shows.

It is said that Rush Limbaugh’s program is number one with 14.25 million listeners, that’s 14.25 million listeners, during an average week. But surprisingly NPR is not far behind.

In an essay on the radio Bill McKibben claims that: “National Public Radio’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, featuring news and commentary alongside in-depth reports and stories that can stretch over twenty minutes—are the second- and third-most-popular radio programs in the country, each drawing about 13 million unique listeners in the course of the week.”

That’s a bit of good news, isn’t it?


The Other Side of You

...how little of another person’s reality is visible to us. We see their form, their features, their shifts of expression, but all that constitutes their sense of self remains unseen. And yet this invisible self is what to the individual constitutes their real identity. Salley Vickers

In The Other Side of You, Salley Vickers tackles the big, vital themes—love, art, communication, desire, suicide, death, self-knowledge, etc. She writes about these issues with considerable erudition and sensitivity. Her background in art history and psychotherapy make a major contribution to her novel.

The story--Elizabeth Cruickshank tries to end her life after the death of her lover, an art historian. Her failed attempt brings her to the analyst Dr. David McBride, who has also known the loss of a loved one-- the accidental death of his brother. Over the course of the novel, patient and therapist slowly begin to know one another, while sharing their respective grief.

…we had the kind of good-natured intimacy which is only possible between a man and a woman where sex will never be a factor.

In a single session, lasting the better part of seven hours, the two uncover the depths of their personal tragedies.

We all long for someone with whom we are able to share our peculiar burdens of being alive.

Along the way, Cruickshank introduces McBride to the paintings of Caravaggio. In them, they see their own world of pain and passion.

The Other Side of You is an engrossing novel, one that considers the variations of love-- between friends, siblings, doctors and patients. It plays a fundamental role in each person’s life, not only by its presence, but by its absence, as well.

Love is letting be. Letting the other one be as they are….Wanting to help them be that, not by doing anything—you can’t do anything for anyone anyway—but simply by want them to be nothing other than they are…

The Other Side of You is a deeply reflective meditation on psychotherapy at its best and the wisdom to be found in art. It is a philosophical novel of the first order.


Rogue Heroes

The year is 1941, the place is North Africa where British troops are under pressure from Edwin Rommel’s German forces. The ground war in the desert is going nowhere. Two young British soldiers conceive the idea of attacking behind the lines with a small force of rigorously trained commandos

Their mission is to blow up German and Italian planes, war material and supply lines. At first their attempts are utter failures. Eventually they become more skillful and while each mission is perilous, over time they begin to play a major role in defeating Rommel’s forces, as well as subsequent victories of allied forces in Crete, Italy, northern France and Germany.

Ben Macintyre’s Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War is an exciting account of their mixed fortunes during the war. Many of their men were killed, captured or murdered by the Nazis and successful missions were often followed by the destruction of entire villages in retaliation by the Germans.

The concept of such a group of commandos influenced the creation of the US Delta Force, the Navy Seal Teams and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal, a special forces unit of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Macintyre writes: The SAS has become a legend, but the true story contains darkness as well as light, tragedy and evil alongside heroism: it is tale of unparalleled bravery and ingenuity, interspersed with moments of rank incompetence, raw brutality, and touching human frailty.


Break to Continue

Marks in the Margin’s summer break will continue for an indefinite period. There are several other projects I’m working on now that prevent me from giving the blog the attention it deserves. Meanwhile, here are some briefly noted comments I wrote during the past three months:

The End of Reflection
In the Times (6/11/16) Teddy Wayne writes about the end of reflection. He says we no longer spend time alone with our thoughts. Instead, whenever we are walking or waiting somewhere or riding the subway or bus, we have a look at our mobile phone to see what’s up.

The days of ruminating or contemplating are over. The devices we carry around are simply too distracting. We read, text, email or listen to tunes. No more simply having a look at our surroundings or pondering a verity.

Well, I spend a good part of every day brooding about something or other. Yes, I check my emails and the sites I go to on the web. But I don’t spend a great deal of time doing that. I rarely text, don’t get many emails and the number of phone calls I receive or make each week are not many more than none.

The thing is, I don’t carry around my cell phone. If I go anywhere it remains in the dock on my desk. I suppose I should take it for emergencies and I may start doing that, but if I do, I’m not going to browse the web or use one of the few apps I have. Very simple. Leave your phone at home.

Wayne spends some time discussing the effects of using the phone on cognitive and introspective abilities. But as in most research on such questions, the results are relatively uninformative. In my judgment, they fail to adequately capture the nature of reflection. Moreover, there are not many studies on the topic and those that have been conducted usually don’t agree with one another.

Third Place
People often make fun of McDonald’s. Their food is greasy, full of calories and fats, and they are everywhere. But in fact, McDonald’s has become a place where friends can gather, spend time talking and bringing a sense of community to their life.

In this sense they have become a Third Place, namely a place as central to a person’s life as their home and workplace. To be sure, those who gather there are largely lower income Americans who feel isolated from the privileged and cannot escape the emptiness of their jobs.

Instead, they drop by McDonald’s to visit with their friends, share an inexpensive meal, and discuss the news of the day. Who can sneer at that? As Chris Arnade writes in the Guardian (6/8/16), in many places it has become “the glue that holds communities together.”

A Hero of France: A Novel
France, the spring of 1941. The war in Europe intensifies. The British are bombing the hell out of Germany. Some of their aircraft are shot down.

The pilots manage to parachute into a German occupied area of France. They hide until they somehow manage to make contact with someone in the French Resistance, who have organized escape lines to Spain, where they are able to return to England.

Alan Furst’s A Hero of France tells the story of one such Resistance group and their leader. He describes the other members of the cell—a nightclub owner, a 17 year-old high school student who is a bicycle courier, a professor of ethnology at the Sorbonne, a chic socialite, and a young Jew. They all want to find ways to find ways to sabotage the Germans and send them packing

Yes, the story has been told many times. But it is still exciting.

Members of the Resistance are always on the alert, sleep is hard to come by, so is warmth and food, the pressure of clandestine work ages them. Somehow they avoid the Germans, transport the British flyers to safe houses on the routes to Spain.

Once again I ask myself what would I have done in occupied France? Would have I silently tried to get by? Would I have saved Jews seeking a hiding place? Would have I lent a hand to the Resistance at great risk to myself and family?

I hope I would take the risk like the members of cell Furst describes. I hope I wouldn’t keep my head down when a German soldier passed me by. I hope I might have done everything I could to harass the Germans.

Courage. That is what attracts me to these stories.

“When we lost the war, the heart went out of the people here. It was as though the city had died. This reached me, and soon enough I began to do things, small things, but they made me feel better. And the more I watched these arrogant bastards strutting around the city, my city, the more I did.”

Alice and Oliver
“I have to remember that we all have our own times and journeys.”

Charles Bock’s Alice and Oliver describes a two-and-a-half year battle with leukemia, not his, but his wife’s, Alice. She undergoes grueling chemotherapy, spends most of her time in hospital beds and can’t decide whether to accept her fate or fighting it.

“You have acute myeloid leukemia, or AML,” began Eisenstatt. “What this means: inside your bones there is marrow, a spongy red tissue responsible for producing your blood cells. AML is a mutation, or disruption, inside that marrow. Instead of producing a normal blood cell, your marrow produces purplish cells called myeloblasts.”

It was almost as grueling to read the long tale of her suffering and Oliver’s endless negotiations with insurance companies, the difficulties in starting his software company, and caring for their baby.

The story is based on the journals Alice kept throughout her ordeal. In an interview he said, “They became a baseline, I would write over them or take moments, and I would change them, but I felt, I get to keep her spirit in the word.”

After a while, reading about Alice’s suffering and Oliver’s grief and pain became too much for me. I skimmed the final third, rather than abandoning the book.

“The First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering: “You are born. You live. You suffer and get sick. You die.” But of course nothing is so simple.”

I’d like to go to Italy, she would prefer to explore Oregon. I’d like to see the latest French film, she wants to see the latest comedy. I like philosophical novels, she craves the mysteries. And so it goes. In these and other areas, we have different tastes.

In "What It Is Like to Like", Louis Menand reviews (New Yorker, 6/20/16) Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like, a book about taste and whatever it is that shapes our preferences. According to Menand, we can’t account for our tastes. We don’t know why we prefer one thing over another.

“But where tastes do come from is extremely difficult to pin down. Taste is not congenital: we don’t inherit it. And it’s not consistent. We come to like things we thought we hated (or actually did hate), and we are very poor predictors of what we are likely to like in the future.”

From time to time I try to account for the taste differences between my wife and my tastes. Yes, we come from different backgrounds, have had widely different life experiences, social needs and economic concerns. But I am a loss when I try to nail down the factors that account for the variability between us.

Italy is very special to me, so are philosophical novels and foreign films. But she doesn’t share these tastes. And that’s about all I can say.

It’s also impossible for me to try to alter her tastes. Even when I point out inconsistencies in them. Can a marriage be built on such differences? Can it last? All I can say is that we’ve been married for almost 58 years and going strong. That’s pretty well answers my question.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano
So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born..

Dora Bruder is the story of a quest, a quest into the past. The narrator happens to read a note in a 1941 Paris paper: “Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15…Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”

He had long been familiar with that area, waiting in cafes in the morning when it was still dark and early in the evening as night fell. This sets him off on a search for Dora Bruder, what he can find out about her and her fate during Nazi occupied Paris.

The search takes him into administrative offices, libraries, research centers as he tries to hunt down photos, information about Jewish individuals in Paris and anything he can learn about Dora Bruder.

He traces down her parents, where they lived and the work they did. In time, he learns that Dora ran away from home once, was sent to a Catholic school from which she ran away again. He wonders how she got by, where she hid, as she was Jewish.

Finally, he discovers: “Father and daughter departed Drancy on 18 September, in company with thousands of other men and women, on a convoy of trains bound for Auschwitz.”

Everything falls into place, the quest is over, a deep sadness overcomes the narrator, as well as the reader. Memories of those times begin to haunt the narrator, one year merging into another, that of 1965 when he writes the book and those of wartime Paris.

“I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorizes, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History time—everything that defiles and destroys you—have been able to take away from her.”

35 Years
“Who are you? Who have I been married to all this time?” David Mason News from the Village: Aegean Friends

Do I know everything about my wife? How much has she concealed from me and, indeed, how much have I concealed from her? And what happens when the truth of either one of us is revealed?

Much depends, of course, on how long we have been married. Perhaps in the early days, we didn’t know everything about each other. And as the years went by, there are more and more experiences that we might have concealed or revealed to one another.

In the film 35 Years Cate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are about to celebrate their 35th Wedding Anniversary. They seem a very happy couple, both retired, living in a rural area in English countryside. They read, walk their dog, visit friends, have tea in the afternoon.

Then one day a letter for Geoff arrives from Switzerland. The body of Katya, a former girlfriend who had died in a mountain climbing accident has been discovered. Geoff has been named as the next of kin.

Cate knew nothing about Katya, about her death in Switzerland, or Geoff’s desire then to marry her. What has been concealed all these years is suddenly revealed.

The film depicts Cate and Geoff’s reaction to this long-ago, now-revealed romance. Their anniversary party is on the verge of disarray. Their marriage doesn’t seem quite so contented after all.

Secrets. Sometimes we keep them, sometimes they unexpectedly make their appearance. We don’t always know everything about one another, even after 35 years of marriage.

Shadow Doctors

Ben Taub’s article, “The Shadow Doctors” in The New Yorker (6/27/16) was utterly depressing and, at the same time, remarkable. Depressing as it depicted the death of so many Syrians and the total destruction of so many towns. But remarkable in Taub’s descriptions of the techniques doctors are using to transmit medical techniques and advice to the remaining doctors there.

Taub meets David Nott in London at a dinner with other doctors in a upscale Chelsea restaurant. As Taub sat down for dinner he noticed Nott reading a series of text messages from a young medical worker in Aleppo. He told Nott how he had removed several bullets from a patient, “slowly dying on the operating table.” But he didn’t know what to do next.

Nott asked a couple of questions, immediately received the answers, and then told the medical worker how to proceed. Taub then describes other such distant communications between physicians and doctors in Syria.

There were once thousands of physicians there, as well as several hospitals and treatment centers. But they have all but destroyed by the Syrian government. And now the very few medical personnel who remain there must work underground or move their facilities from one place to another.

Taub says Assad’s government has killed almost seven hundred medial personnel. How can this be, how can this continue in the 21st Century? What has come over those individuals who commit such atrocities, destroying hospitals, doctors, indeed, their entire country?

Its Life Went On: Weddings, Births, Deaths
Greece itself was not the cure. No country is a Cure

Who has not dreamed of chucking it all and heading to a place in the sun? The poet David Mason and his wife Joanna did just that when they headed to a friend’s house in Greece. Mason describes their times in Greece in News from the Village: Aegean Friends.

…this was merely an opportunity to get away from our families, to see our homeland from a distance, to slough off accumulated anxieties and inhabit dreams remembered from the long, long nights.

The settled in a small village by the sea in the Peloponnese. They “regressed” to a simpler, lazy life of swimming, eating the best food, bread and oil, much less meat, more fish and plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Mason says he now had the time and freedom to read widely and with “total immersion.” When the weather was warm, which it was most of the year, they slept under the stars, “the cicadas having finally silenced when the breeze soughed down from the mountains.”

They made long lasting friendship among the villagers, as well as the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and his wife, Joan, who had a home there. Mason says meeting Fermor was one of the great gifts of his life. Together they talked literature, took long walks together, swam in the warm Mediterranean.

“Over the years, Paddy and Joan have meant more to me than I could ever convey to them—as models of graciousness, always curious about the world.”

It was a life you dream about, not a life you can live for very long. And when it was time to return to America, nothing was ever the same.

“For Joanna and me, it would take great suffering, divorce and marriage to others to begin to place ourselves in the real world, and when I returned to Greece sixteen years later it would be almost as another man, hopefully better equipped to love the place for what it is, to accept its many changes not to desire it only for my own gratification.”

News from Greece was a delight to read, Mason writes well and clearly reproduced what it was like to live in Mani, as well as what it meant to return to a place where he was happy in the past, to see it after many years and in different circumstances. I read the book as quickly as I ever do, always eager to soak up that sun, bread and olive oil.

“Here was a country of worldly people who were far less puritanical than many Americans, who worked hard and took their relaxation when they could, who valued friends and family above all else, who respected education and eloquence, who were skeptical of government but aware of their precious freedoms, who knew about corruption but weren’t entirely soured by it, who were polite about my Greek and didn’t expect me to stand in for all American policies.”

Nuclear Warning
Jerry Brown, the governor of California has written a brilliant review (New York Review of Books, (7/14/16) of William Perry’s My Journal at the Nuclear Brink. Normally I wouldn’t read about this topic, but Jerry Brown, yes THE Jerry Brown drew me to the article and once I got into it, I was impressed by how well it was done.

Brown describes Perry’s six-decades of nuclear studies and research. Perry makes it clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is great at the present time. He says it was by sheer luck that we avoided a nuclear holocaust in the Cuban crisis and the several accidents that have also avoided a nuclear explosion.

There is a central point to Brown’s review, namely that the “the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater that it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

Perry argues that rather that provide security, nuclear weapons, “they now endanger it.”

Brown concludes his review by noting that many complain about the various problems and dysfunctions in our country, “few see the incomparably greater danger of nuclear doom.”

A brilliant review of a very unsettling book.

The Kindergarten Teacher

The premise of The Kindergarten Teacher, a provocative film from Israel, there’s little room for poetry in the modern world.

Of course, this ignores the fact that poets are still writing poems and readers are still enjoying them.

No matter, the film is about the relationship between a kindergarten teacher, Nira, and one of her 4 year-old pupils, Yoav. I have a poem, he says, proceeds to walk back and forth, reciting the poem. A modern day Mozart of the word.

Nira deeply appreciates poetry and writes poems of her own. As Yoav continues to recite his poems, she worries that his gift will be smothered as he grows older. “Being a poet in our world is going against the nature of the world,” she says.

Then things become a little weird. Presumably in an effort to keep Yoav’s poetry talent alive, she kidnaps him and together they drive to a remote hotel in the Sinai. They settle in to their room, Yoav locks the teacher in the shower room, calls 911, and the police arrive to bring the film to an end.

The film is a parable of the decline of culture. I have trouble with this view. Yes, the world seems to have no place for poetry, for writing and the culture of reading. But hasn’t that always been the case?

There have always been a few who have valued the arts, who have fought to preserve the intellect by their actions. Just look at the web today, the current periodicals, and the research in countless disciplines to confirm this view.

Is the Dream Over?

What is it like for a foreigner to come to America now with hopes of starting a new life? Consider the experience of Sayed Kashua (New Yorker 7/9/16) who came to this country from Israel with her family to become a writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign-Urbana.

They arrive eager to begin living in this country. At once, they are confronted with reality. They were not prepared for the heat and humidity of the summer. The mosquitos were “brutal.” The cicadas were maddening.

They had difficulty getting electricity, water and cable TV without a Social Security number, couldn’t buy a car without credit, couldn’t get a credit card at their bank without a credit history.

They ruined the garbage disposal because they didn’t know to turn on the water. A letter arrived from the neighborhood association that they would be fined if they didn’t mow the lawn. Their children didn’t speak English and they had no friends or relatives here.

And so on and on. Until one day things begin to look up.

They went out to dinner one night. When their son finished his Fanta, he asked for another one. Ms. Kashua went to the counter to order another. She was told refills are free, as many as you want. “Refill was the first word my toddler son spoke in English, and when I heard him say it, I felt some small new hope about our prospects in America.”

Pianos Everywhere
I was walking along the street in downtown Portland, when I was startled to see a piano placed in a park. There it was, a piano in a park. How strange, I thought.

Then a couple of days later my wife and I drove out to a park at the junction of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. And once again, there was a piano sitting all by itself in the park.

On further investigation I discovered a program, “Piano! Push. Play”. that rescues old pianos and puts them on the street or park for everyone to enjoy. They’ve been doing this for the past four summers.

Megan McGeorge the founder of “Piano. Push. Play” said, “I want people to have access to pianos all the time, especially for pianists who can’t afford one in their homes.”

Currently the program has eleven pianos in parks around Portland. It has also developed an app that displays where the pianos are located and “pings” users when they are close to one.

This year the program is placing the pianos in 30 different parks, with some pianos spending two weeks at each location. The pianos are donated by Portland Piano Co and sponsored by various organizations throughout the city. After the summer months, the refurbished pianos are given to schools and community centers.

Apparently, Portland is not the only place where you might hear someone playing a piano in a public setting. In an article in the Times (8/20/16) Aurelien Breeden reports that the French national railroad company has installed pianos in nearly 100 stations. The company rents the instruments from Yamaha which maintains and tunes them.

“The pianos have proved to be very popular, and the music, blending with the sounds of shouting passengers, screeching trains and rolling suitcase, can give French stations a peculiar soundscape.” I’d say a pretty terrific soundscape.”

The Next Big Thing
We are now very old and only one thing can happen to people our age.

Anita Brookner’s, The Next Big Thing, is like all her other novels—slow going, a bit repetitious and, yet, I read them until the predictable ending. It is clear why I continue to read her novels; they capture much of my life.

Julius Herz is 73 years old, he lives alone, no longer married, stuck in a London flat. He is without visitors, friends, anyone who can talk to other than a cashier or salesperson. His only companions are the anonymous people he observes on the streets, mostly young people drinking and laughing outside pubs.

He lived like a recluse, for that was how he thought he must, as if his destiny had reclaimed him. As time wore on the future seemed less accommodating, continuity not to be taken for granted. He revised his expectations, resigned himself to living in an uneasy present.

Julius great battle is with solitude, how to get through the days without succumbing to loneliness, isolation unsupported by family, friends or the pleasures of art and science. Like so many other individuals today, he is also without work or substitute other than the routines that fill upon his long days and sleepless nights.

Julius is also haunted by an unfulfilled love for his willful cousin. Her life has worked out much like his and they exchange long and tedious letters that try to arrange a reunion. But Julius recognizes he can manage much better on his own rather than in the company of others.

The fundamental subject in The Next Big Thing is old age and how to face its consequences. “As he eased himself out of bed, he reflected that survival was a mixed blessing. It involved surrendering that once young self to time and time taught harsh lessons.”

Julius’ solitary life had bred an endurance of life’s vicissitudes. Brookner writes, “better a stoical pessimism, a hard look at life’s realities, and most of all a determination to enjoy that life, certainly to value it.” And so he clung to his routine, although it bored him and was without pleasure but at least preserved his dignity.



Note: With the start of the summer, Marks in the Margin will take a break. Postings should resume sometime in the autumn.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to read reading Shirley Hazzard’s “We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays.” Toward the end I notice an essay titled “The Tuscan in Each of Us.” I turn to it at once. She writes,

“The anthem of praise raised by foreign writers…to Italy, to Tuscany, to Florence, has consistently sounded a note of relief. Its theme is that of a heaven-sent rescue, the rescue of the self from incompleteness. …We celebrate an environment that is both a revelation and a repose to us, a consolation and a home.”

Her essay reminds me of my days in Tuscany last summer, where I spent a few weeks in a small hill town—Radda in Chianti—mid-way between Florence and Siena in the heart of the rolling Chianti hills.

I stayed at a villa-like hotel surrounded by gardens, with roomy lounges, a pool, and a comfortable room with a view out to the gardens and fields below.

I looked out at the villas scattered about the hills of Chianti and it all seemed so desirable. But I was there in the summer when it is warm and know nothing of the long winters that are cold and damp. And I wondered how comfortable it is inside those charming villas after all. I don’t see all the labor that goes into maintaining the olive and grape groves, or the many days of keeping them neat and trim. What I see is very superficial, nothing of the reality.

I was at peace in Tuscany, the countryside seemed so familiar, there’s something about it that keeps me returning to Italy. After roughly nine months of winter, rain, clouds, cold, utterly dreary days in Portland, I head to Italy for summer, sun, blue skies, warmth and parks.

The countryside reminds me of my childhood, the land around the town where I lived until I went to college. All that is gone now. But it remains in Tuscany. I think the landscape of my youth keeps me coming back.

It was always difficult, she said, to come home. She adored Italy. Apart from everything else, it was one of the few places where one’s hopes for the future could be restored. Beautiful, unspoiled fields and hills. Great houses that families had lived in for five hundred years. It was deeply consoling. Also the general sweetness of the people.
James Salter All That Is


Taking Your Life

I want to open up a space for thinking about suicide as a free act that should not be morally reproached or quietly condemned. Simon Critchley

The Ethicist is column published in the Times Magazine every Sunday. Each week the author responds to a question that revolves around a moral quandary.

This year, on January 20th, a 50-year-old woman asked the Ethicist if she should help her sister end her life. She says her sister has a range of serious medical problems including “uncontrolled epilepsy, a stroke that left her physically and mentally impaired, paranoid schizophrenia, to name a few.”

The Ethicist responded that no one has the right to help end another person’s life, sister or not, even if it’s clear it’s not a life worth living. Only her sister has the right to commit suicide, on her own, without the aid of anyone else.

If she was in the Netherlands or Belgium, her plight would be much different. In discussing the life-long struggles of a woman in Belgium, Rachel Aviv (New Yorker, 6/22/15) describes the work of Wim Distelmans, an oncologist and professor at the Free University of Brussels. Distelmans is one of the leading proponents of a “law in Belgium that permits euthanasia for patients who have an incurable illness that causes them unbearable physical or mental suffering.”

It was the phrase “mental suffering” that caught my attention. I had never heard of a nation or state that permits euthanasia for that reason. It isn’t a reason I haven’t thought of before or found as compelling as incurable disease. But I had never imagined a law permitting it.

According to Aviv, Distelmans has euthanized more than a hundred patients who claimed they were simply tired of living or unable to find a reason to continue.

Her article dwells on the controversy over the law, the case of one woman and her son, in particular, and the situation in other countries, as well as the United States.

The Belgian Council of Ministers appointed Distelmans to serve as the chairman of the Federal Control and Evaluation Commission which reviews euthanasia deaths to insure that doctors have complied with the law.

In terminal cases, two doctors need to confirm that the patient’s suffering stems from an incurable illness. For non-terminal cases, three doctors must agree. But doctors have adopted increasingly loose interpretations of disease.

Last year, thirteen per cent of the Belgians who were euthanized did not have a terminal condition, and roughly three per cent suffered from psychiatric disorders.

Belgium was the second country in the world, after the Netherlands, to decriminalize euthanasia; it was followed by Luxembourg, Switzerland and Columbia this year.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that citizens have legitimate concerns about prolonged deaths in institutional settings, but in 1997 it ruled that death is not a constitutionally protected right, leaving questions about assisted suicide to be resolved by each state.

Within months of the ruling, Oregon passed a law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for patients who have less than six months to live. In 2008, Washington adopted a similar law; Montana decriminalized assisted suicide the year after; and Vermont legalized it in 2013.

In Oregon and Switzerland, studies have shown that people who request death are less motivated by physical pain than by the desire to remain autonomous. This pattern of reasoning was exemplified by Brittany Maynard, a twenty-nine-year-old newlywed who moved to Oregon last year so that she could die on her own terms rather than allowing her brain cancer to take its course.

While several states in this country currently permit doctor-assisted suicide for terminal illnesses, none do so for mental suffering. To my knowledge, no one has ever proposed such a law and I cannot imagine one will ever be enacted in the near future. That does not mean the issue is not worth considering. Perhaps it is time to begin a public dialogue on the matter in this country.


On Scientific Replication

Within the course of a few days, a series of articles appeared on the Web that addressed the issue of replicating scientific findings. Most of the articles dealt with psychological investigations, but not exclusively. For example, the journal Science withdrew a political science study because of concerns about faked data.

And in a short note in The Lancet (4/23/15) Richard Horton claims that much of science is untrue. He puts it this way:

“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted with studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analysis, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn toward darkness.

Later Horton levels a broadside against tests of statistical significance. “Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairly tale.”

Questionable research findings that are eventually retracted are more prevalent than you might imagine. Bourree Lam reports (Atlantic September 2015) a study by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus of 2,047 retractions in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They found that only 21.3 percent stemmed from error, while 67.4 percent resulted from “misconduct” that included fabrication, faked data and interpretive bias.

Benedict Carey reports in the Times (8/27/15) a major study by Brian Nosek and his team of researchers at the Center for Open Science. Carey writes:

… a painstaking years-long effort to reproduce 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals has found that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested.

The importance of replicating scientific research cannot be over emphasized. To confirm a finding strengthens our confidence in it. Yet journals are reluctant to publish replication studies, thus investigators have little if any desire to conduct them. As a result, the problem is simply ignored, until someone like Nosek realizes its importance.

He commented about his findings, “We see this is a call to action, both to the research community to do more replication, and to funders and journals to address the dysfunctional incentives.”

The same seems to be true for medical and biological research. In Don’t Swallow Your Gum, a book about medical myths, Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman note that much of what a doctor diagnoses and prescribes for a particular ailment has not been proven. And by that they mean on the basis of a randomized, controlled experiment, ideally one that has been replicated. But these studies require a great of time and money and so are rarely conducted.

Several other factors are at work. Proper control conditions may have been omitted from the original experiments, the samples may not have been randomly selected or consist of a highly uniform, unrepresentative group of individuals, usually college sophomores.

Or the results may have occurred because of experimenter biases that led to evidence supporting their hypothesis. Few experimenters really design studies to disprove, rather than confirm their hypothesis. This is a point Karl Popper emphasized many years ago.

Then there is the publication biases characteristic of most scientific journals. Researchers who do not report positive outcomes cannot get their findings published. According to one study, ninety-seven percent of psychology studies proved their hypothesis. We know this can’t be the case.

As one investigator (Richard Palmer, a biologist) noted, “Once I realized that selective reporting is everywhere in science, I got quite depressed.”

These were some of the reasons I stopped doing research in psychology and instead, turned to literature where the emphasis is on the particularities of human experience, rather than its generalities.


This is Water

Last weekend my grandson graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. While I didn’t attend any of the events, and there were a great many, I watched most of them on the commencement webcasts.

Here I was in Portland, Oregon, sitting comfortably in my warm apartment watching the goings-on, while everyone in Philadelphia was sitting outside, in a vast stadium, on a cold and windy day. Once again, the miracle of the Internet was at its best.

Lin Manuel Miranda was the invited commencement speaker. He spoke briefly, to my relief, emphasizing the importance of stories in one’s life. But his talk was by no means especially memorable.

The most indelible talk I’ve ever known about was delivered by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. I wrote about it soon thereafter. Here is what I said.

David Foster Wallace began his widely discussed and recently published (This is Water) commencement address at Kenyon College in May 2005 with a parable. In the parable two young fish happen to meet an older fish that says to them “How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a bit until one says to the other “What the hell’s the water?”

Wallace writes: “The point of the story is that the most important, obvious realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

To the graduating students he says that the really significant education they have received isn’t “about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” Later he added this means: “…being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

He says that in his experience the most dangerous consequence of an academic education is the tendency to “over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right of front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.” It’s the water parable again.

Much of the talk is a warning to the students about what adult life is really like. “Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.”

Wallace then proceeded to unpack what that means. You get up, you go to work, you are there eight or ten hours, you are tired and exhausted and now you are stuck in traffic on the drive home, and then you have supper if you are lucky enough to have someone prepare it, otherwise you stop at the market and try to find something to eat and wait a while longer in the check out line, and get back on the freeway, where the traffic is as bad as it was when you got off, and then you try to unwind a bit after your lean cuisine, whereupon you hit the sack early because you have to get up early again the next day and go through it all again.

“Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates actual life routine, day after week after month after year….The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in.”

“This I submit is the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

For Wallace being educated is being able to recognize the importance of attention and awareness and discipline and he adds “being able to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty unsexy ways every day.” These are not our default settings. They have to be learned and the learning isn’t easy and it is readily forgotten in the midst of all the distractions that usually take control of our lives.

Wallace concludes that his remarks (“stuff”) isn’t your normal inspirational, optimistic, commencement speech. He reminds the students again that the real value of their education has little to do with knowledge “and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water.”

Even if his remarks are far from cheerful, they are pretty inspirational in my book. Even more, they are true. The audio version of his talk can be heard here


Greene on Capri

For anyone who values humanistic traditions, reading the works of Shirley Hazzard is intellectually refreshing. As Geordie Williamson wrote (The Australian, 3/25/16) in a review of her essays, (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think), an “antiquated world view comes roaring back into view.”

I have found this to be true in all of Hazzard’s books that I’ve read including most recently Greene on Capri. In this short memoir, she recalls the friendship she and her husband, the Flaubert scholar, Francis Steegmuller had with Greene when they were visiting the island of Capri. Greene owned a house there and together they met frequently for lunch and dinner at a restaurant Greene liked.

For the most part, they talked about literature, the books and authors they liked. These conversational rambles during their long meals and walks constitute the heart of the book and bring alive their mutual joy in reading and writing.

Hazzard writes, “Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a life time to the rational as well as the fantastic.”

Greene on Capri is not meant to be a complete portrait of Greene but from time to time Hazzard does reflect on his personality. In The Man Within, Greene wrote: “Always while one part of him spoke, another part stood on one side and wondered, Is this I who am speaking? Can I really exist like this?” Hazzard comments:

“I think that Graham was not simply made up of two persons. Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence.”

Elsewhere she notes how little Greene valued contentment “…pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.”

Is suffering where writers really belong, what they need to experience in order to write fiction? If we can believe Hazzard, it was for Greene. However, I doubt it is necessary for most writers but perhaps it is why many of them become alcoholics.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Lang explores the reasons why some authors were destroyed by excessive drinking. She writes: [Eugene] O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do. American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.


All The News That's Fit To Print

The New York Times is a marvel. I’ve been reading it every day for years. It was early in August of 1955 when I first discovered the paper. I was in New York on the way back to my home in Los Angeles, after attending summer school in the East.

The paper was lying around a coffee shop, I picked it up and began reading an article about Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that had been decided the previous year. I knew nothing about the Times having been raised on the Los Angeles Times, and latter, when I was at college, the San Francisco Chronicle.

In those days, the Times did not have a West Coast edition and was only available in a few magazine shops the day after it was published in New York. In the summer of 1980 the paper began publishing a national edition that was available the same day it was published, but again, only in a few magazine shops.

I stopped on my way to work to grab a copy that I read in the evening after classes and those never-ending faculty committee meetings. Home delivery in Portland began many years later.

I continued to read the Times in the morning for years, even in Hawaii when it was delivered a day after its publication. In all this discussion I am talking about the print edition. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Times began it’s online, digital edition.

That is how I read the Times now. It is my “home page” that I return to throughout the day and thanks to the miracle of Wi-Fi, wherever I am in this country or abroad. I read the literary news, sports, health, tech, science, business, a couple of blogs, everything in this remarkable newspaper.

Earlier this fall (9/21/15) the Times reported, “We recently passed one million digital-only subscribers, reflecting the remarkable bond that The Times has built with readers on our digital platforms. They join our 1.1 million print-and-digital subscribers.”

I also subscribe to the the Times numerous email alerts—books, writers, morning briefing, business news, the Upshot, the Times Magazine and Sunday Book Review, on and on, a plethora of skillful reporting.

Regardless of one’s view of the Times political stance, the paper is a daily encyclopedia of subjects. The Gray Lady as it is often referred to is regarded as the national “newspaper” of record, even though its print edition is outsold by The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

To a certain extent, the Times has replaced the New Yorker as the place I go to for information, especially cultural commentary and analysis--films, books, theater. If someone asked me what wanted most, while I was stranded in a far off island, I would reply at once: the latest edition of the New York Times.


On Old Age

Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide is the latest addition to the increasing number of books on old age. In reading it, I was expecting a serious discussion of the experience of growing old. But Kinsley’s treatment was nothing like that.

Instead, it was a hodgepodge of previously written essays and articles he has written that were not well integrated. Further, it was far too jokey for my taste. There’s nothing funny about growing old, at least my experience of growing old and I suspect that is generally the case.

At the age of 43 Kinsley learned he had Parkinson’s disease. He tried to keep his illness secret until it became obvious whereupon he made it known. He also underwent deep brain stimulation that appears to have slowed the progress of his symptoms. In fact, it is clear that 23 years after his disease was diagnosed, he hasn’t lost his “marbles,” as he frequently reminds the reader.

At the outset Kinsley says his book is supposed to be “about the baby boom generation—those born between 1946 and 1964—as they enter life’s last chapter.” But in spite of its title, the book has very little to say about old age, other than the Parkinson’s Disease. And even then, we learn very little about his particular symptoms and problems in coping with it.

The book also ends with a message to the baby boomers. He argues that the enormous personal and national debt his generation leaves behind has to be redeemed, in the same way the “Greatest Generation” did during World War II.

“What we can do is…pass on to the next generation an American that’s free from debt. Instead of ignoring it, or arguing endlessly about whose fault it is and who should pay for it, boomers as a group should just reach out and grab the check.”

I thought what a strange way to end a book on old age. But then I realized Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide wasn’t really about old age at all. Rather it was about how clever Michael Kinsley is in his early 60s.

I don’t usually comment on a book I don’t like. But in my reading Kinsley’s book seems both pretentious and misleading, both features missing from Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty.

The fourteen essays in former US Poet Laureate Hall’s book are largely about the infirmities and limitations of growing old. Hall is now 86, no longer drives, has difficulty standing, getting up, and remaining balanced.

Yet he is alert and tries to read and write, but not with the same facility he once had. He remains oddly cheerful, in spite of being largely disabled and alone. He gets around in a wheelchair and with little appetite eats frozen dinners, is clumsy and slow with buttons, etc.

The book is more of an old-age lament, rather than a group of essays on the art of poetry, as I was expecting given his life as a much-praised and award-winning poet. Instead, Hall writes about how the mail is delivered, his wives, their travels, his cancers and the one that killed his beloved wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon.

He recounts how each day is much the same now as any other. He no longer travels and friends rarely visit. Most are long gone. So he reminisces about almost-forgotten times He’s also periodically visited by a bookkeeper, trainer, housekeeper and companion, all women in their 50s.

He comments, “When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers.”

Still he says that, while old age is a “ceremony of losses,” it is still preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. He’s fortunate to feel that way. I’m not so sure.