7.24.2014

Economic Inequality Silence

Where is the outrage, the indignation, the protesting over the enormous gap between the rich, especially the very rich and the rest of us? What ever happened to the spirit of Occupy Wall Street? Why is the country at large so serenely quiet about the rising economic inequality in this country, the outrageous annual pay of some CEOs and Hedge Fund managers? Other than a very few economic scholars and media commentators, there is scarcely any effort to confront the problem head on.

In a review of Pierre Rosanvallon’s new book The Society of Equals, Paul Starr writes (5/22/14): The passive consent to inequality is the point of departure for the French historian and political theorist Pierre Rosanvallon in his new book, The Society of Equals. As Rosanvallon writes, there is a generalized sense that inequalities have grown too large or even become scandalous, but that sense coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.

Even the President, who professes to find it the defining issue of our time, doesn’t do much about it. Of course, he is constrained, cannot apply the major remedies without the consent of Congress. And that isn’t going to be possible for the unknowable future.

Perhaps Americans don’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the enormous gap between the rich, including the very rich, and the poor. If they did, there might be less silence and more outrage. To find out Michael Norton and Dan Ariely undertook a study (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 2011) of popular beliefs and the distribution of wealth in this country.

They asked a nationally representative sample of 5,222 individuals, equally divided between males and females, to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the US and then their ideal level of inequality. Before beginning the survey they asked each person to read the following definition of wealth:

“Wealth, also known as net worth, is defined as the total value of everything someone owns minus any debt that he or she owes. A person’s net worth includes his or her bank account savings plus the value of other things such as property, stocks, bonds, art, collections, etc., minus the value of things like loans and mortgages.”

The individuals in the study vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth believing that the wealthiest “quintile” held 59 percent of the wealth when the actual percentage is close to 84 percent. Perhaps this divergent perception from reality accounts for the lack of widespread public outcry to the enormous and growing economic inequalities in this country?

Norton and Ariey also asked their subjects to state their ideal distribution of wealth in the US. They found a slight preference for some inequality, rather than perfect equality, but by no means close the degree currently present in this country

When given examples of the distributions in other countries, they expressed a preference for the distribution that most closely resembled Sweden’s, where the top wealth quintile holds 36 percent of that countries wealth and the lowest 11 percent.

Finally, Norton and Ariely noted there was a considerable, and, to them, surprising consensus among different demographic groups in this country--gender, income level, voting history, etc. in both their estimates of actual and ideal wealth distribution in this country.

Thomas Piketty, the now well-known, highly-praised author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, claims, in light of his data, that the great gap between the rich and poor will continue unless major policy changes are made in taxing wealth, income, and inheritance.

He admits, the future looks bleak, yet it often can surprise us. Picketty is a scholar, not an advocate and while we need both, I think it is well beyond time for widespread advocacy to take hold in this land.

Note: Results from a recent survey in France are consistent with the public’s perception of economic inequality in the United States. Nearly 90 percent of the French respondents said income disparities ought to be reduced, yet 85 percent said the differences are acceptable to reward individual achievement.


7.21.2014

1954 Nobel Prize in Literature

Ernest Hemingway was born on this day, 115 years ago. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. However, following two plane crashes in Africa, his injuries prevented him from traveling to Stockholm. John C. Cabot, United States Ambassador to Sweden delivered his address. And here is what Hemingway wrote:

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

Prior to Ambassador Cabot’s reading, H.S. Nyberg, Member of the Swedish Academy, made the following comment:

“Another deep regret is that the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, Mr. Ernest Hemingway, on account of ill health has to be absent from our celebration.

We wish to express our admiration for the eagle eye with which he has observed, and for the accuracy with which he has interpreted the human existence of our turbulent times; also for the admirable restraint with which he has described their naked struggle.

The human problems which he has treated are relevant to all of us, living as we do in the confused conditions of modern life; and few authors have exercised such a wide influence on contemporary literature in all countries. It is our sincere hope that he will soon recover health and strength in pursuit of his life-work.”

7.17.2014

Briefly Noted: Two James Salter Novels



“But knowledge does not protect one. Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside. Passion, energy, lies: these are what life admires.”


I’m on a Salter binge that began after reading his new novel All That Is, a summing up, I imagine.

The sentences are short, the mood is clear, and the scenes shift unpredictably. Salter is 87. Perhaps he is looking back as it seems most people do when they reach old age.

Philip Bowman remembers his life as a pilot during World War II, then as an editor of a publishing house, his first marriage that was wrong from the beginning, and the various loves of his life, some who betray him, some who were already married. All the disappointments that followed the pleasures. The times in France, the days in the sun, and hours in bed.

Bowman liked people, liked talking with them, eating with them. And he liked reading, an inexhaustible pleasure, he said.

“There was all that happened in the world during one’s life.” And that is what we learn about the life of Philip Bowman from James Salter in his easy to enjoy novel, All That Is.

Then I read Solo Faces and I wrote about it earlier this year. I followed that by rereading Light Years. Recently I’ve been reading Dusk, a collection of his short stories.

I don’t remember when I first read Light Years. About 40 passages are recorded in my commonplace book. This time I recorded 137 passages. Why so many more?

“I don’t believe in marriage, and I have no time for it. It’s a concept from another age, another way of living. If you do what you really should do, you will have what you want.”

Light Years describes the gradual erosion of a marriage, a marriage like most that began with passion, continued with increasing routine, and ended with disappointment. I first read the book relatively early in my long marriage and read it again, some 25 years later. The book I read 25 years ago is not the same one I read most recently, as my marriage approaches its 56th anniversary.

The first time I read the book it was in a printed version; this time I read it on an e-book. The ease of highlighting and then saving passages in Kindle books no doubt played a role in contributing to the greater number of saved passages.

Regardless, Light Years is written with all the style and vigor, the compelling short, sentences and quick cutting between scenes of Salter’s novels. Its moods darken gradually as Viri and Nedra’s grow further apart. There are infidelities, never voiced, desire for independence, rituals barely sustained, parties where everything is concealed.

“Things had somehow changed between them. She would always have affection for him, but the summer had passed.”

Eventually there is the break up, wanderings, failures, aimless relationships. They remain devoted to one another and to their children. Nedra succumbs to an early death, Viri to a marriage with a clinging woman in Rome.

“It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we sand on the shore. Yes, he thought, I am ready, I have always been ready, I am ready at last.”

7.14.2014

Fazit (Account Rendered)


I first read about the German book, Fazit, by Melita Maschmann, a former Nazi, in an article on the New Yorker’s online blog (5/29/13). The blog, “I was a Nazi, and Here’s Why,” described the book as Maschmann’s explanation of why she joined the Hitler Youth and continued her allegiance to the principles of the Third Reich throughout the war, extending even four weeks after the ceasefire, when she was captured by American troops.

What led so many Germans to become followers of National Socialism? Maschmann’s account is a first-hand attempt to answer this question.

She wrote Fazit (titled Account Rendered in the English translation) in the form of a letter to a friend, a Jew, trying to explain why she fell under the sway of Nazism, joined the Hitler Youth movement, and sustained her conviction, in spite of all that she came to know. She also hoped the book would lead her colleagues and other Germans, to reflect on their own actions

She is very clear and often repeats the several reasons that explain what she did:

• To escape from her narrow, authoritarian upbringing by attaching herself to something that offered a more promising life.

• In the belief that National Socialism would bring people of all classes together and live together like brothers and sisters.

• That the program of the Third Reich would go a long way toward overcoming the German defeat in World War I, the onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, and reduce the toll of unemployment in Germany, where six million people had no jobs and were living in virtual poverty.

• She never imagined that the leaders of Nazi Germany would launch a war, one that spread throughout Europe and then eventually easterly into Russia. Yet even then, she clung to her allegiance to the Hitler regime and service in the Hitler Youth.

“But I bowed to the tragic and, as I thought, inevitable law governing this country that ran: He who will not suffer wrong must commit wrong. Only he who possesses the power and exercises it can be master of this world.”

She claims she wasn’t trying to justify her actions that included supervising the eviction of Polish farmers and resettlement of Germans on their farms and working for the press and propaganda divisions of Nazi youth organizations. I confess I’m not entirely persuaded by her claim

At the same time, she recognizes the various ways she was deluded. Throughout Fazit, Maschman admits to her naivety, uncritical thinking and ready acceptance of “idealistic fantasies and illusions” about what National Socialism could accomplish.

She seems almost blind to the consequences of Hitler’s rule, claims to be unaware of the Holocaust until the War was over and admits that Germans had become “accomplices of a policy of hatred and banditry.”

Maschmann draws her account to an end with one lesson: “It is from such experiences that one can recognize the terrible power which so called ideologies can exercise over young people. Once they have surrendered to them, they see without seeing and hear without hearing.”

Need I add, that the power of ideologies is not restricted to the young?

7.10.2014

Every Day is for the Thief

“This should be a time of joy. You Know? Going home should be a thing of joy.”

The home you left long ago is never the home you come back to. It’s always a disappointment and your memories are always better anyway. Yes, a cliché, but that doesn't stop anyone from writing about the experience. It is the subject of Teju Cole’s recently published novel, Every Day is for the Thief.

Cole was born in this country, raised in Nigeria and author of the widely praised Open City. Every Day is For the Thief was written before Open City but only recently published in this country. It recounts the tale of an American psychiatrist-in-training who returns to Lagos for a short visit.

At once he is struck by the rampant corruption, thievery and bribery that even begins in New York as he applies to have his passport renewed at the Nigerian consulate. After arriving, it continues. Cole notes that the assumptions of life in America—obeying the law, moral constraints, due process—seem entirely absent from the city in which he was raised

On the streets in Lagos lawlessness is everywhere. “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms—the categories are fluid are not thought of in moral terms.”


He never sees anyone reading, until one day, as he is traveling on a mini-bus he observes a woman holding a book. He strains his neck to find out what it is. “What I see makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket." Michael Ondaatje”

The rarity of an adult reading a stimulating work of literary fiction on public transportation or most anywhere else astounds him. He wonders where could she have bought it or how could she afford it as it looked new. He is eager to talk to her and carries on a silent conversation. “What lady, do you make of Ondaatje’s labyrinthine sentences, his sensuous prose? How does his intense visuality strike you?” Where could she have bought it?"

And he hopes they will both get off at the same stop. Of course they don’t, as she gets off and disappears into the bookless crowd, long before Cole’s destination. It is the one of the few encounters in Lagos that brings him any pleasure, any intellectual pleasure. Cole confesses that Nigeria is “a hostile environment for the life of the mind.”

Before returning to Lagos, he had given some thought to staying permanently. But his week or so there convinced him, that was no longer possible. He isn’t the person he was when he left. Neither is Lagos, the city it was when he left. He knows that he loves the life he had created in the U.S. and had no desire to deal with what life is like in the country of his youth.

7.07.2014

Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Part III

Two young law students walk into a lawyer’s office to interview for a position. You see one has tattoos on her left arm, stretching from her shoulder to her wrist. The other has no tattoos. Who do you think will be working at the firm?

There is little doubt about the answer. The bias that appearance plays on our judgments is among the most powerful sources of discrimination. We rely too heavily on a single feature of a person and then to anchor our judgment thereafter, on that characteristic or trait.

Inferences about a person based on their physical appearance are risky. Consider the same two examples when men are interviewing. They may have the same tattoos as the women, but because they are wearing a suit, shirt, and tie, they are unobservable.

Other cues must then be drawn upon to predict their future performance. Regardless, something about their appearance can often be decisive—are they clean-shaven, with well-combed hair, shoes shined, etc

Rachel Cusk gives examples of this bias in the third segment of her serialized novel, Outline, published in the Summer 2014 issue of the "Paris Review," #209. For example she writes,

It was quite common, the man to her left presently observed, for young people now to use their appearance as a means of shocking or disturbing others: he himself…had seen … tattoos and piercings of sometimes an apparently violent nature, which all the same said nothing whatever about their owners, who were often people of the greatest sweetness and docility. It had taken him a long time to accept this fact, for he was predisposed to be judgmental and to find the meaning of a thing commensurate with its appearance... and though he didn’t strictly speaking, comprehend why people might choose to mutilate themselves, he had learned not to read too much into it.

Cusk also dwells at length on how individuals react to the same experience quite differently. Each person views the experience in the light of their own history and because each person’s history is usually quite different than anyone else’s, they are bound to attach a different meaning to the same experience. She describes the reactions of a woman, who had hoped to become a professional musician, as she was passing by an open window and recognized a piece of music she had always loved.

And instead of appreciating the beauty of the Bach piece, she felt an extraordinary sense of loss. The music she once loved no longer belonged and instead was possessed by someone else or so she felt. Cusk writes:

Certainly another person, she said, passing that window and hearing the D minor fugue, would have felt something entirely different. In itself the music coming out of the window means nothing at all, … And even a person observing these events, she said, from across the road, could not have guessed, simply by seeing and hearing what the story really was. What they would have seen was a girl walking past, at the same time as hearing some music being played inside a building.

How little we know of another person, how easily we are deceived or mislead by what we can observe. How superficial that is and how easily we succumb to its influence with results that are often unfortunate. Of course, none of this is new—“Appearance is only skin deep.” “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”

Cusk gives these generalities a life, she takes them out of the lab, and puts them in concrete situations, situations that we may find ourselves experiencing. By doing this, I think she makes them far more memorable, with much greater impact than reading about a research study of the same phenomena.

Knowing about the pitfalls of this bias does not prevent us from succumbing to it. But perhaps Cusk’s descriptions will keep us from falling prey to it as often as we usually do. It isn’t easy, except perhaps by learning to pause for a moment or two before you judge another person on the basis of some physical characteristic.

We also might spend far less time than we ordinarily do in judging other people in the first place.

7.04.2014

Unbroken

Note: Louis Zamperini died yesterday after a remarkable life that I wrote about in reviewing Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, reposted below. A film of his survival and triumphs will be released this December.

“If I knew I had to go through these experiences again, I’d kill myself.” Louis Zamperini

In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand unfolds the astonishing life of Louis Zamperini. You may not believe what I say about her account, but I have not distorted or imagined anything. Still my summary is nothing like the experiences Zamperini endured.

Louis Zamperni was a rambunctious kid who grew up in Torrance, California, where he broke into homes, robbed merchants, and had a great knack at getting into trouble. But he was never jailed, was usually successful, and must have learned then that he could do just about anything.

It was his older brother who finally found a way to channel his energy by means of long distance running, a mile and beyond. Apparently Zamperini took to the sport at once, he had a long stride, and a tremendous kick at the end of a race.

He qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, finished 8th in the 5,000 meter race and caught the eye of Hitler who came up to congratulate him after his record-breaking time in the last lap. Hillenbrand suggests he did not do better because he overate to the extreme on the long ship ride over the Atlantic and was terribly out of shape by the time he arrived in Berlin.

When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii. In May of 1943, the B-24 that he was flying went down on a search mission over the Pacific. Eight of his crew were killed, he and 2 others survived, one of whom eventually died on the raft they were drifting in.

They floated over 2,000 miles for 47 days. That’s 47 long days and nights without much in the way of food or water. They managed to survive by catching rainwater and an occasional fish they were able to snatch from the sea. This itself was an unbelievable ordeal. But there is more.

The raft eventually drifted on to one of the Marshall Islands held by the Japanese, to the dismay of the two survivors. They were captured, subjected to the most brutal treatment imaginable, especially Zamperini who was well known to the camp commander through his running feats.

He endured over two years of daily, intense assaults, starvation, slave labor, dysentery, beriberi, respiratory diseases, and physical injuries delivered by a succession of sadistic guards.

According to Hillenbrand, “…of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died.”

Not surprisingly, after the Japanese surrendered and Zamperini was discharged from the Air Force, nothing was ever the same. He tried running again, but the injuries he sustained in the camps made it clear that was impossible. He had nightmares, terrible flashbacks, anxieties, and bouts of alcoholism.

He married, was separated from his wife several times, and finally, at her instigation, attended a crusade led by Billy Graham. Hillenbrand ends her account with an upbeat tale of his new career as a born again Christian and inspirational speaker.

I simply cannot comprehend how Louis Zamperini survived the ordeals he experienced during World War II, first the month and a half on the raft floating in the Pacific and then the years of torture in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Hillenbrand attributes his endurance to those early years in Torrance. Zamperini is currently 93 and lives in Hollywood. He has received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and made television appearances in this country, Europe, and Japan.

As she brings her account to a close, Hillenbrand writes: “When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird [the most brutal of the guards] had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away."

7.02.2014

Three Italian Parks

We change, we age, we stay or move away, and in time we end. The park, however, endures. John Banville

Zadie Smith visits Italy. She writes about the Boboli Gardens in City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, by Catie Marron.


Smith considers the Boboli too formal, few people, nothing like an English garden. I feel the same, although I never expressed it before. That is what good writing often does. It put words to the unarticulated feelings and thoughts we have.

Then she goes to Rome and writes about her visits to the Borghese Gardens. Unlike the Boboli, the Borghese is alive. There are children, couples, old and young, solitary strollers, and dogs and more dogs. There is a zoo, fountains small ponds, a museum, cafes and ice cream vendors.


Benches along each side of the paths, once in a while you see a reader, and in the spring and summer a great many readers. Everything is old, mossy statues, algae-filled ponds, ancient pines. Nothing formal about the Borghese Gardens, you are never quite sure where you’re headed. All you know is you don’t want to leave, don’t want to head down to the crowded, noisy, city below.

I first heard of the Borghese Gardens in reading Mark Helprin’s The Soldier of the Great War. Before he goes to war, the young man rides his horses under the pines in the Borghese. Each time I’ve been in Rome, sometimes alone, at other times with my wife and then once with our children, I’ve wandered through that very open and very public park. It never changes.

In Mary Gordon’s The Love of Our Youth two former lovers chance upon one another in Rome. They spend most of the time catching up as they stroll along the paths of the Borghese Gardens.

“In a public Italian garden a Briton has all the things she loves about Italy—the sun, the food, the sky, the art, the sound of the language—without any of the inconvenient rules that attend their proper enjoyment.” Zadie Smith

The Parco Delle Cascine is an enormous park on the western edge of Florence that stretches along the Arno for miles. Over the years I have gone there often, first as a runner, then as a walker, and now as a sunbather. I marvel at how few people I usually see in the Cascine. It is surely because the park is so vast and so heavily treed that the people are simply hidden in between the bushes and shrubs and down the long pathways that traverse the park from one end to the other.


A few miles into the park there is a public swimming pool, the Publico Piscina where I used to swim. It is far from luxurious; I was reluctant to shower there. But it is the sun and surrounded by lovely tall trees and open fields. On day I realize that the sun that shines on the sunbathers at the Publico Piscina is the very same one that shines on the beautiful people by the pool at the Splendido in Portofino.


As I prepare to return home, I am once again reminded that we are what our situations hand us. In Florence it is warm; at home it is cold. In Florence it is quiet; at home it is “noisy.” I am a different person in Florence. I am turned upside down mostly by the warmth that seems in some strange way to be remarkably therapeutic. Each time I go there I realize how much difference the temperature and light can make, how much they seem to matter to me, how noticeable they are. I feel more at home here than anywhere else.







6.29.2014

A Room With a View

All we knew was that we helplessly loved the place, and did not pause to ask why. C. Lewis The City of Florence

The apartment I’ve rented this year in Florence is located on the Lungarno Grazie, not far from the historical center of Florence. From its tall windows, I look out at the Arno, the hills across the way, dotted with trees and villas.


Higher up, I see the Piazza Michelangelo with is panoramic view of the entire city of Florence, the Brunelleschi’s Dumo and Giotto’s bell tower.


Even further up the hill is the Basilica of San Minato al Monte at one of the highest points in the city and is among the most beautiful churches in Italy.


On the other side of the Arno, down a few blocks, is a beautiful park, where I take a picnic lunch to each day.


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

6.25.2014

Two Italian Tales

The ending of Marco Vichi’s, Death in Florence was such a letdown. I was hoping for a happy one. Fifty-six year old Inspector Bordelli did not capture the culprits of the crime he was investigating.

The young boy who had been missing for days was killed. Two of those involved committed suicide. Two others began their own vendetta. His young lover leaves him after an excruciating experience, for which he had not taken steps to prevent. He turns in his badge and Beretta and retires to the countryside. He has failed, failed his lover, himself and colleagues.

The novel takes place in 1966, the year of the massive floods that ruined parts of the city of Florence and its historic treasures. The streets were filled with mud and the litter of the rampaging Arno. The rain never stopped. Food was scare, so was water, there was no electricity, heat or telephone communication.

The city seemed ruined. Bodcelli was ruined. And the pleasure I had in reading the novel left me somewhat ruined too. It will pass for me. But not for Inspector Bordelli. “He didn’t feel like asking himself any more pointless questions. It made no sense. He should let whatever happened happen.” He was alone again.

“…the nobility and greatness that are at times hidden within mental illness.”

Giuseppe Pardo was an Italian Pardo, a leader of Jewish individuals in the community of Pisa. He lived there at the time of Nazi Germany’s occupation of the country during World War II.

Silvano Arieti, now an American psychiatrist, also lived in Pisa then and was a member of the Pardo’s synagogue and a close friend. Arieti describes Pardo’s life in The Parnas, A Scene from the Holocaust.

It’s a short book, primarily focused on Pardo’s great fear of animals, especially dogs whenever he went outside. The origin of his serious phobia is unknown and, while Arieti attempts to give a psychoanalytic interpretation, it isn’t very persuasive.

“I am constantly in a state of expectation that animals will come after me, jump on me, bite me, torture me, or even kill me.”

Arieti makes clear that Pardo was at his best, quite normal, with the group of individuals who gathered in his home. “No trace of his illness remained in him when he was with them. He was no longer the afflicted man, but a much respected person…” This was particularly true of the young people who were part of his group and with whom he engaged in debates both as leader and peer.

What’s important in Arieti’s account is that Pardo refused to leave his home for a safer place as the Nazis retreated from the advancing American troops and began to wreck havoc on the towns in Italy they left. Eventually they discovered Pardo and remaining friends, all of whom were killed during a Nazi raid.

“Am I more afraid of my illness than of the Nazis? Is that all there is in this matter and no more? Had I not been ill, probably I would had left.”


6.22.2014

Recycling in Florence





Not so long ago in Florence, you took your trash to big containers somewhere near your home or apartment. If neither of these were nearby, you simply tied the trash bag as tightly as you could and left it outside the door, where the collectors who routinely drove through the neighborhood would pick it up.

There isn’t anything like the big trucks that drive through the major metropolitan areas of this country to collect the trash and now some recyclables. In Florence the streets were never designed for trucks or for cars either.

It depresses me every time I realize what the cities of America were designed for.






However, throughout Florence now you begin to see these nifty recycling/trash collection containers. There are three types--one for organic materials, one for non-recyclables and one for recyclables.


A set of these containers is located just across the Arno from my apartment. A short walk across the Ponte Alle Grazie and I am there.

Florence is said to have the highest rate of recycling of any Italian city.

According to former mayor, now Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi: In Florence the cost of waste disposal is among the lowest in Italy; separate trash collection and separation has reached 47%, which becomes 65% with the new underground containers around the city and a massive 78% with the new San Jacopino ecological stations.

6.18.2014

Florence Parking Lot

Do you remember two lines of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”?

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.


Mitchell says she wrote the song during her first visit to Hawaii.

I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart... this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song.

There is nothing like that, nothing close to that in Florence. Instead, gradually, street-by-street, the Centro is being closed to automobiles. Instead, this is what you are likely to see:


I took the photo as I was walking along the Arno one sunny morning. Off in the distance to the far left, is a section of the Ponte Vecchio, while closer to the left, behind the row of scooters, is the Museo Galileo.

6.15.2014

Summertime



I am going to take a summer break from blogging for awhile. I’ll be traveling, so any reports will be intermittent, if that. Meanwhile, I hope to be reading more than usual, including as many of the following books as possible:

Ayelet Waldman Love and Treasure

Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Aharon Appelfeld Suddenly, Love: A Novel

Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson The Spirit Level

George Packer The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Bernard Ingram Unfinished Symphony

Laura Morelli The Gondola Maker


6.12.2014

Is it OK to Write?

In an article I first read in "Aeon Magazine" (March 2014) Rhys Southan raises a subject that is hard for me to ignore. He wants to know if writing makes the world a better place. He puts the question more generally: “Is it OK to make art?”

And in the next breath, he answers his question: “If you express your creativity while other people go hungry, you probably don’t make the world a better place.”

How can I possibly answer this question? The obvious answer would leave me up the creek. Down the drain goes the past 20 years of my life.

But really what can I do now at the age I am to improve the world? I taught for many years and I thought I was doing something worthwhile. I did laboratory research all those years whose results I thought might clarify an idea or two and later, field research I thought might in some small measure conserve energy resources.

As I think back on this work, I have to admit none of this research made the world a better place. It is rarely cited in the journals and even it is, it might be read by a half dozen students, at most.

The question, (“Is it OK to make art?”) was posed by Southan as he was about to finish a screenplay he was working on. He decides to travel to a retreat in East Devon with a few other friends who happen to be members of a growing activism movement called Effective Altruism (EA). They tell him its goal is doing as much good as you possible can.

So like Southan, I begin to wonder if anything I’ve written has done any good and by “good” I mean reduce hunger, eradicate disease, improve the world, that sort of thing. Of course it hasn’t. Southan begins to think the same, as he realizes Effective Altruism’s goal threatened to undermine the very purpose of his trip.

“As EAs see it, writing scripts and making movies demands resources that, in the right hands, could have saved lives…From this point of view, the importance of most individual works of art would have to be negligible compared with, say, deworming 1,000 children.”

As I become more and more unsettled in reading this article, I recall something Henry Perowe said about reading great novels in Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday.

“Henry had read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.”

I wonder what Tolstoy or Flaubert would say when asked if their novels made the world a better place or if literature, in general, benefits humanity in any way. Yes, novels may be a pleasure to write and an equal pleasure to read and once in a while enhance the coffer of authors.

Perhaps a few readers were able to make a major change in their life after reading a novel and some may have no doubt learned something or chanced upon a truth that led to a fruitful line of inquiry. But beyond these few individuals, how might literature make the world a better place, as the Effective Altruists ask?

When I was a young man, I learned about an oath that every Athenian male swore to as they graduated from the Ephetic College that was required to become a full citizen of classical Athens. Among other things, mostly military matters, you pledged, “to transmit this city, not only no less, but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

I’ve never forgotten that oath, believe it applies widely, and now, in the context of this article, feel that at least in terms of all I’ve written, none of it leaves the city or any other part of the world, any better than I found it.

Once in a while a novel will be written that really does make the world a better place for a wide segment of the population. Upon Sinclair’s The Jungle is the one I recall most vividly. I led to a radical change in the meatpacking industry in this country and subsequently to the Meat Inspection and Food and Drug Regulation Acts.

And Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited with promoting the abolitionist cause and all that ensued from that. Upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln is said to have declared: "So this is the little lady who started this great war." (I also think of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, which isn’t a novel, but none-the-less played an enormous and continuing role in promoting the environmental movement.”)

And while John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, may have wrestled with the life of impoverished families in the Great Depression, nothing much changed in the life of the poor as a result of it. I don’t know of any novelists today who are writing about the plight of the poor.

At the end of his article, Southan admits he, along with everyone else, could do more than they currently are. “For now that will have to be my justification. I’m not ready to give up writing. I’m not ready to take up some high-paid job that I’d hate in order to reduce the world’s suffering. Maybe that will change.”

My immediate response is: I doubt it will. I suspect every writer will continue to write, as they always have, regardless of the compelling goals of Effective Altruism. Novelists don’t write books to change the world. Why they do is another matter.

6.09.2014

The Other Language

Everything was the same but nothing was the same anymore.

The characters in each of the nine stories of Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language, are displaced or unmoored in one way or another. They are in a different city, country, or time in their life.

Time takes its toll, you are a different person, nothing is the same, you can’t go back. “It’s always a disappointment.”

In “Big Island, Small Island” a woman flies to a tiny island off the coast of Africa to see an old boyfriend. But he is not the boy he once was, has grown a long beard, lives in a hut with a native woman, the rapport they once had is over, as are the daring views he used to express

He is a different person in this new incarnation—that cool aloofness, that lightness of touch he had when I knew him, seems gone.

In “The Presence of Men” a divorced woman moves to a small Italian village where she restores an old building. After several years there she grows restless and returns to Rome. But now she feels out of place, an exile. She couldn’t resume her previous life in Rome, “she couldn’t find her center any more.”

In the title story an Italian teenager and sister travel with their father to a Greek village by the sea. There they meet some young boys from England. The older sister wants to speak to one of them, but knows no English. Many years later she moves to New York, where she starts a new life. But even though she now speaks English fluently, she feels out of place, an outcast in a land where she has no past, no roots.

In “An Indian Soiree” a couple travels to a luxury resort to try to restore their marriage. In a dream one night, the woman recaptures the passion she once felt for a former lover. During an exotic dance performance the man becomes enchanted with the lead dancer.

At breakfast the next morning, they realize their marriage has come to an end. The woman flies to Paris to meet her lover; the man arranges to have dinner with the dancer. But both their romantic fantasies were disappointing. The damage had been done, they were now adrift, unable to “take shelter” anywhere.

It took a surprisingly short time for sixteen years of marriage to come undone.

There is a deep longing and loneliness in each of these nine stories. They are beautifully written, a pleasure to read, and be surprised by the chance encounters creating the dilemmas in each of them. The struggles of her characters have a generality that captures the reader, captured me anyway. They also focus on the places where her characters find themselves and the effect it has on their lives.

"Yet a foreigner always remains a foreigner, no matter how long he’s been away from his native place."

6.05.2014

All the Light We Cannot See

The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. At times it is almost lyrical, both in language and storytelling. The sentences are short, so are the chapters, the central characters, a young French girl and equally young German boy, are appealing, intriguing, memorable. …there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together.

They are caught in the horror of World War II. Marie-Laure Le Blanc is the daughter of a skilled locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Werner Pfennig lives with his sister in an orphanage in a German coal-mining town.

When she is six, Marie-Laure becomes blind, her father builds her a scale model of their Parisian neighborhood so she can learn how to navigate its streets. The young Werner, a technology prodigy, builds a short-wave radio and together with his sister they listen to the science tales of a mysterious Frenchman.

When the Nazi’s invade France, the war takes control of their lives. Nothing is the same as before.

Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. …The smoking, ruined villages, the broken pieces of brick in the street, the frozen corpses, the shattered walls, the upturned cars, the barking dogs, the scurrying rats and lice…

Marie-Laure and her father flee to Sant-Malo, where they live in the home of her great uncle, the reclusive Entienne, who turns out to be the Frenchman broadcasting the science tales, as well as coded messages to the French Resistance. Her father builds her another model of the streets of Sant-Malo, but soon thereafter is captured by the Nazis.

Meanwhile once Werner’s scientific skills are recognized, he is sent to a rigorous but cruel, elite Nazi training school. Because he is adept at finding illegal radio transmissions, he is assigned to a team that searches for them throughout Germany and Poland and, eventually, in Sant-Malo.

However, Werner is not at ease at being a Nazi soldier and is sickened by their treatment of his best friend. His doubts express themselves by the acts he doesn’t perform and in the words Doerr gives him on the page.

Werner is succeeding. He is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.

Do you see where this is headed?

And looming in the background throughout this tale is a priceless, diamond stone, The Sea of Flames, hidden in a series of locked cabinets deep inside the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted with the stone’s safety, only he and the Museum Director have the set of keys required to unlock the cabinets.

When the Nazis invade Paris, copies of the original stone are made, each one given to Museum staff member, including Marie-Laure’s father. Who has the original? Where is it? A Nazi officer has been searching everywhere for the treasure, including the very house in Sant-Malo where Marie-Laure lives. The stone is said to carry a curse that allows the keeper to live forever but also brings misfortune to those close to the person who has it.

Reading All the Light We Cannot See is an adventure, a long one as it is a 500+ page novel, but from start to finish I found it a genuine pleasure. It will surely be among the best of the year.

…his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.

6.02.2014

Late Bloomers

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.

Robert Browning

Why is a person’s most creative work done when they are young? The French poet Arthur Rimbaud was published at 15 and then disappeared into Africa. Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 9 at the age of 21. Herman Melville completed Moby-Dick when he was 32. And in 1905, when Einstein was 26, he laid the groundwork for the Special Theory of Relativity that he completed ten years later.

In contrast, a great many artists and writers took much longer to do their best work. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe when he was 58. Joseph Conrad published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, when he was 54. Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness followed a few years later.

In Late Bloomers Brendan Gill, long-time New Yorker writer, briefly describes the work of 75 artists who did their best work relatively late in life. He says, “I never dreamed I’d write a book that would be regarded as inspirational…But the geriatric set is going full tilt…”

The late boomers in his book are artists, writers, musicians, dancers, fashion designers, motion picture actors and directors, etc. Of the 75, I have made note of writers who Gill reports wrote their most well-known or first book when they were well past their youth. They include the following ten:

Isak Dinisen: First novel at 49, Out of Africa at 52

Michel de Montaigne: First essay at 38

Jean Jacques Rosseau: Confessions at 70

Edith Hamilton: First book, The Greek Way, at 62

Harriet Doerr: First book, The Stones of Ibarra, at 74

Miguel de Cervantes: First volume of Don Quixote at 58, second volume at 68

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels at 59

Ian Fleming: First book, Casino Royale at 44

O. Henry: First collection of short stories at 47

Lawrence Sterne: First volume of Tristran Shandy at 47

Perhaps you can think of others? According to Gill, the qualities that late bloomers share are “energy, high intelligence and discipline.”

It is clear that some truly creative individuals do their best work early in their careers, others, many years later. Consider two painters: Picasso was an early prodigy, while the opposite was true for Cezanne.

Cezanne was a late bloomer. Malcolm Gladwell claims that the paintings he finished in his mid-60s are valued fifteen times more highly than those he painted as a young man. On the other hand, he says a mid 20s painting by Picasso is worth an average of four times as much as one done in his 60s.

“For age is opportunity, no less than youth itself, though in another dress.
And as the evening twilight faces away, the sky is filled with stars, invisible by the day.”
Henry W. Longfellow

5.29.2014

It's the Water, Stupid

This is the season for graduation at most high schools, colleges and universities in this country. By and large, the commencement addresses on these occasions are fairly similar, forward-looking, optimistic, and some counsel. I am familiar with exceptions, for example, Ann Patchett’s address to the seniors of Sarah Lawrence.

It has been published as What Now? Her remarks are charming, wise, and funny, just like most everything Patchett has written. In it she suggests that your life is always going to be a work in progress and in finding a balance between “going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way.”

At the same time she advises graduates to, “Make up some plans and change them. Identify your heart's truest desire and don't change that for anything.” That’s pretty good advance for anyone, at any age.

But it is the remarks of David Foster Wallace that, in my view, remains the classic, all-time-commencement address of the ages. It was delivered to the graduates of Kenyon College in May of 2005 and was recently published as This Is Water.

Wallace begins with a 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 significant education they have received isn’t “really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” 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 proceeds 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.”

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”) aren'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. A transcript of his address can be read here.


5.26.2014

As Time Goes By: Jessie and Celine

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

Jessie and Celine, there they are again, nine years since we last saw them in Before Sunset. Then they were in Paris, at a reading Jessie was giving of one of his books. He said he wrote it so they would find each other again.


Perhaps you recall seeing them in Before Sunrise, when they met for the first time on a train heading for Vienna. Upon arriving, they get off, and spend a long night talking and wandering about the streets of the city. Then they depart, as they must in all their encounters. It is difficult for them and difficult for us too. We don’t imagine they will ever see each other again.



But they do and now, in Before Midnight they are in Greece for the summer at a friend’s villa on the Peloponnesus with their two daughters and some friends. They are older, many years after first meeting and we are just as many years older too.


Like us, they are a little bit worn, weary and for the first time we see them arguing about both the serious and the trivial. Is their relationship about to end? Will we not see them grow into old age? We seem to care. Will we still be alive to join with them again in nine years? Will Richard Linklater, the film’s director and co-writer, as he was in the first two, even bring us together again?

Before Midnight seems very real, far more so the time they met on the train and at the Parisian bookstore. One night they gather together for dinner with their host, his companion, and the two other couples who have been with them. Their meal is lively, full of warmth, intelligence. It was a pleasure to watch, nothing I have ever known, however.

But I have observed many such meals, lively gatherings of smart and attractive people, full of shrewd observations and clever humor. Mostly they have been in Europe, at Italian trattorias where the wine is flowing freely and the food is bountiful, fresh and beautifully prepared. I know that’s all I can ever do, for I am not sufficiently smart and attractive or well-placed.

Before Midnight ends at a café by the sea where Celine has gone, after walking out on Jessie. She no longer wants anything to do with him, wants to assert her independence. In time, Jessie appears, does a little time traveling routine, and we linger on them, as the film pulls away from their continuing romance and we say goodbye to them once again.

It has been almost twenty years since the first time we saw them, as it were. Their fictional relationship is perhaps the longest of any I have ever seen or read. I confess it seems as if they are as alive as anyone else I have known.

Over the years they have aged, as we have. We were young when they were and each time they meet, we are also the same age. The progression of time, of years gone by, marks the central feature of the series. And, as in all things alive, we know it cannot last forever. Soon they will have to say their final goodbyes, as we will.

In the Times (12/12/13), Stephen Holden ranked Before Midnight as the number one film of 2013. He wrote, “Theirs [Jessie and Celine’s] is as real and complex an observation of a relationship as the movies ever have produced.”

And in commenting on the film, Ethan Hawke, who played Jessie writes (New Yorker 5/13/13) that in their third film together Jesse and Celine’s (Julie Delpy) attraction rests on a fault line of contention. The bitterness of their dispute was difficult to watch, to be a part of, albeit as an observer.

“One of the difficulties of romantic love,” Hawke said, “is that the fantasy of how the other person will complement you and be the balm you always hoped for…that evaporates over time. Everybody’s charm fades.”… “The inevitably of decay. You can’t keep having first love forever.”

5.22.2014

Living Apart Together (LAT)

In our twenty-seventh year of marriage, we have finally discovered our key to wedded bliss: living separately. Lise Stryker Stoessel

I have been doing some reading about couples who live apart, perhaps a dozen or so examples. An increasing number of married couples in this country (9%-10%) and abroad (9%) England live this way. Sociologists have labeled them LATs (Living Apart Together)

Most of the couples are young, a few are middle age and some older. Most live in the same town, visit frequently, if not daily, often spend the night or weekend together. Only a few that I’ve read about so far live in distant towns, largely commuter couples who have jobs in different cities. Not one of those I’ve read about expressed real concern about the financial limits of maintaining two separate homes or any degree of serious discontent.

In Living Happy Ever After Separately Lise Stryker Stoessel describes the reasons she and her husband decided to live in separate homes. Soon after they were married, they became aware of their opposing needs, competing desires and the bitterness that came from a cascade of disputes. She wrote:

…our differences and disharmonies would engulf us: He tends to be a hermit; I am outgoing. He is a worrier; I am optimistic; He is a Spartan; I am a decorator. He is self-contained; I need and offer affection. He guards his territory; I invite people in. He likes his routine; I crave new experiences. He is practical; I am aesthetic…His cup is half empty; my cup is half full.

Her therapist asked if her marriage was so miserable, why didn’t she get divorced like everyone else. Her answers were clear. They loved one another, she needed financial support, and they wanted to raise their children as a family.

They decided to try to preserve their marriage by living in separate homes, he in the one where his construction equipment was scattered everywhere (to her annoyance), and she to a nearby townhouse that she decorated to suit her taste. The friction and bickering didn’t end, but it was far less frequent.

In her recent (3/17/14) interview on NPR the English, Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively describes the reasons why she and her husband lived in separate homes:

“Jack, my husband, and I had both led busy, professional lives rather separately. He was an academic and I was a writer, so I was often on my own. We lived in two places. We lived partly in London and partly in the country, in Oxfordshire, and quite often we'd be in different houses, so I was used to being in a house on my own. That didn't worry me too much. Of course, then I always knew there'd be an end to it — we'd be together again — so that's rather different...”

The concluding section of Living Happy Ever After Separately raises an important question: Why is it so hard to stay married these days? Stoessel’s answers point the way to potential remedies: We aren’t taught about how to be married and we have unrealistic expectations about what married life is like. Well, maybe. But I doubt that would do much, if anything, to reduce the divorce rate or bickering among married couples or quite frankly most couples, married or not.

5.19.2014

Deadly Viruses

In 1918 a deadly influenza virus swept over the globe. It infected 500,000,000 people and was responsible for the death of an estimated 50 to 100 million –3 to 5 percent of the world’s population. It was no doubt one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. From time to time a severe virus infects a significant number of people in this country and elsewhere, but not anywhere like the 1918 Flu Pandemic, as it has become known.

Just yesterday there was a report of the arrival in this country of a new virus that spreads from person to person and is often fatal. It is known as the MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, that has so far infected three people in the US and many more in sixteen other countries. In Saudi Arabia alone, 157 have died from this virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the virus is from the same family as the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS).

Early last month there was an outbreak of Ebola virus in Guinea. As of April 17th, over 200 cases had been reported, including 137 deaths. Liberia and Sierra Leone, both neighboring countries, have also reported Ebola cases. Research on its origin and treatment has just begun.


The outbreak of such a deadly disease is the subject of two films I saw recently—Contagion and Outbreak. Contagion deals with a killer virus that originated in Hong Kong, spread rapidly to Chicago and elsewhere in this country. A team of researchers was recruited (all played by well known actors) from the World Health Organization, the CDC and a professor in San Francisco. People were advised to wash their hands, avoid shaking hands, be mindful when you open doors in public places, or press elevator buttons, etc. The toll the virus takes upon an infected body is horrible to behold.

Outbreak opens deep in an African rain forest where a monkey has infected a small village, killing everyone who lived there. Again a team of researchers (played by an equally well-known cast of actors) descends upon the village in an effort to understand the source of the virus and contain it, insofar as possible. They are unsuccessful, as one of the disease carrying monkeys is imported to this country and escapes into a forested area close to a small town. Eventually most of residents who lived there are infected with the virus, whereupon the military is ordered to quarantine the town so that no one can leave.

Outbreak is the more significant of the two. It explores a complicated issue after the President, at the request of a sinister general in cahoots with a drug company, orders the military to bomb the town with a weapon that will destroy all its inhabitants. The issue that emerges from this order is the moral legitimacy of such an action, one that will kill a relatively small number of people to save millions of other individuals throughout the country.

In philosophy this is known as the trolley problem. In one variation of this hypothetical, you are standing by the side of a railway track as a train whose brakes have failed, approaches. You note that 5 people are tied to the tracks that will be killed unless you pull the switch you are standing by, sending the train to a sidetrack. Then you observe one person is tied to the sidetrack where you could send the train.

What do you do? Do stand by helpless as the train kills five people or divert it so that it only kills one?

The answer to this question is by no means simple and has been the subject of considerable philosophical debate. It is also the question set before the commander of the plane about to be sent to kill all the inhabitants of the quarantined town. Meanwhile, you are aware that researchers are working feverishly to find a vaccine that will destroy the virus.


5.17.2014

Weekend Video

Following his article the diffusion of innovations in the July 29, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Charlie Rose interviewed Atul Gawande about his research.

According to Gawande, some innovations spread rapidly, others far more slowly, even though they just as important. What accounts for this difference?

Have a look:

5.15.2014

La Foce

In the Times last Sunday there was an detailed article about La Foce, a vast estate at the southern edge of Tuscany, where my wife and I headed last summer. I had always wanted to visit the area, after reading Iris Origo’s The War in Val d'Orcia. There she describes her arrival with the Italian Count who owned the land, and together they developed the area, introducing new farming techniques to the peasant farmers who lived there, establishing a school for their children, and a health center.

We lived on a large farm in southern Tuscany—twelve miles from the station and five from the nearest village. The country is wild and lonely; the climate is harsh. Our house stands on a hillside, looking down over a wide and beautiful valley, beyond which rises Monte Amiata, wooded with chestnuts and beeches.”

During the Second World War, a great depression settled over all of Italy. Eventually the fighting reached La Foce, the German’s took over their home and other properties, it was difficult to find food for everyone, as refuges, children and the homeless began arriving. “And so, day after day, it goes on—an unending stream of human suffering. And it will yet be worse.”

The War in Val d’Orcia concludes as the American troops arrive along with a sense of hope as plans are made to restore the farmhouses and gardens that have been destroyed and begin replacing much of what had been looted by the Nazis.

Had you not read Origo’s book, none of this history would be sensed today. We lived in one of its beautifully furnished villas, where we had a view over the countryside in all directions. The villa consisted of several apartments on two levels around an open garden courtyard. The walls were covered with ivy, plants were everywhere. We were the only occupants of at least a dozen other apartments. It was quiet, peaceful, rather bucolic, once you got into the mood.

We visited the hill towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, San Quirico D’Orcia, Chuisi, and nearby Chianciano Terme, such melodious names. Also, Bagno Vignoni, where there is a thermal water spa in the heart of the village.

At night we drove somewhere for dinner. The driving was slow, curvy narrow roads, sometimes dirt or gravel. One must concentrate. What must it have been like when it rained? What must it have been like in the days of carriages and horse drawn wagons?

Often I thought about the history of the place, what it was like when Origo and the Count first came here, the remarkable step-by-step rebuilding of the vast acreage, educating the people who lived there, then, building the dams and reforesting the land. And then there was the War and I imagined what life was like then and what the Germans did to the place.

I asked my wife what did she like about being at La Foce. She replied: “First, the history that lets you imagine (a little) what life was like in the 30s and 40s. I kept thinking about the Origos building the estate, helping the peasants, putting in the water system with its reservoirs and wells. What an engineer Antonio Origo must have been. And then imagining the war, where the partisans might have been, up in the woods behind our Charentana [villa] And the Germans living there.

Our apartment was so spacious, and furnished with antiques. We had everything we needed. I especially loved looking out of the windows at the countryside, seeing the shadow of the ivy on the shutters, hearing the birds chirping away. The birds were nesting in the ivy! I liked the kitchen and being able to put meals together with fresh Italian ingredients. I had never peeled a salami before, always bought it sliced thin, but surprisingly, the thick slices from the one that Benedetta [our host] had left for us were quite delicious.

I loved having nothing to do during the day, being able to go and sit outside, draw the walls of Charentana. Their adobe colors glowed in the sunlight, complemented by the tile roof and the ivy and/or rose vines clinging to the walls. Everywhere I looked, I saw a picture.

And I splashed around in the pool, looking at Mount Amiata and the valley on one side, and a lovely wisteria arbor where, one day, we had eaten our picnic lunch. Then lying by the pool and feeling the warmth of the Tuscan sun and the fragrance of the yellow broom, blooming nearby. So often, throughout the time we spent in the valley, we came across areas where banks of flowers, sometimes jasmine, sometimes the broom, filled the air with the most marvelous sweetness.

Walking in the morning was also pleasant, seeing the red poppies in the fields and other wild flowers by the roadside. The early morning sunlight filtered through the poppy petals, creating shadows of design. I took many pictures!

Driving was a bit of a challenge, even for the passenger, since the roads were very curvy and narrow; approaching cars often speeded past with only inches to spare. But each curve brought a new visual delight from the round hay bales in the fields to banks of blooming wildflowers, pink ones that I initially thought were clover, but upon examination, turned out to be something else. There were so many wonderful sights in the Val d’Orcia, castles here and there, broad expanses of hilly farms, with rows of cypress marching up to lead to a house on the hilltop.

I also loved exploring the narrow streets of the hill towns and finding, occasionally, a puss preening itself in the sun in a window or on a door stoop. The little shops were fun to explore too, to see the Tuscan souvenirs, most hand-made or at least, I liked to think so. Locally made, anyway, not from China, although who knows.”


5.12.2014

Love Story




Earlier this month David Brooks published a beautiful column in the Times (5/1/14) about Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin. He titled his column “Love Story.” I don’t usually read Brooks’ column, but its title led me to give this one a try.

He describes an incident in Ignatieff’s book about the visit Isaiah Berlin made to the apartment of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She was 20 years older than he was, “still beautiful and powerful, but wounded by tyranny and the war,” quoting Brooks. Berlin didn’t know a great deal about her and at the outset, their conversation was said to be reserved.

But they continued and Brooks reports: “By midnight, they were alone, sitting on opposite ends of her room. She told him about her girlhood and marriage and her husband’s execution. She began to recite Byron’s “Don Juan” with such passion that Berlin turned his face to the window to hide his emotions. She began reciting some of her own poems, breaking down as she described how they had led the Soviets to execute one of her colleagues.”

And so it continued. At 4 in the morning they were talking about Pushkin and Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. They spoke more and more about their life, their literary pleasures, art, history, the rich cultural life they could not live without. Finally, Berlin returned to his hotel and was said to exclaim, “I am in love; I am in love.”

I thought how wonderful this was, how rare it is today or seems to be, how a life of wide reading, reflection and writing seems to have lost whatever luster it had. When have you ever had a conversation like that? Or a bond with another person like that?

It was a friendship and a love, built around ideas, great books, writing. Several times Brooks refers to it as an intellectual communion. How often I have dreamed of such a relationship.

A friend and I have exchanged a few words about the Brooks column. She wrote:

It's a kind of life that seems to be passing. I see so much today in the history of the past, the rise and then decline of various civilizations. We do seem to be on a decline today…I don't see much positive in the future for my grandchildren.

In reply, I wrote: Who can be sure of what the future holds? It has a way of surprising us. It is already a different world than the one into which we were born. But there are still quite a few poets and writers and Isaiah Berlins who love books, and learning, literature and the humanities in general. And there are still a few places, like Reed and the two St. John’s College campuses, where that kind of life is taught and respected. Some gravitate to it naturally and I hope that will always be the case. There have never been very many, anyway.

Brooks worries that not many schools prepares students for this kind of life. Or parents either, I might add. But Berlin and Akhmatova were prepared, had done the reading, knew what it meant to grapple with large ideas, how important it was, and so they were able to have that kind of conversation.

‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.

5.08.2014

The Paris Architect

As a rule, I don’t read mysteries. But Charles Belfoure’s The Paris Architect, became one. Lucien Bernard is the architect of the title during the Nazi occupation of Paris, a difficult time for anyone designing buildings, as well as most of the French who remained in Paris then.

The mystery, or I should say the mysteries, begin when Bernard is asked by a wealthy Frenchman to design hiding places in apartments for Jewish individuals. Bernard, who was raised by parents who hated Jews, feels rather indifferent about them, but likes the idea of outwitting the Nazis. He is fully aware of the risks he is taking and the constant fear that will accompany him once he becomes involved in the projects.

The first mystery begins: Is he going to survive or get caught and endure the torture the Nazis will inflict on him?

The projects also come with a considerable amount of cash and the chance to design a factory for the Germans outside of Paris. The second mystery unfolds: Will Bernard become an accomplice of the German Reich, a collaborator?

One of the hiding places is behind the brick wall of a fireplace. When the Nazi’s storm the apartment without finding the Jewish couple they are looking for, they burn the apartment down. The couple is smothered to death as Bernard did not anticipate such a situation and has failed to build an air pipe for them. His failure initiates the third mystery: After this tragic error, will Bernard begin reevaluating the choices he has made?

The novel slowly creates these moral dilemmas: Does designing factories for the Germans conflict with creating safe places for Jews? And how can a person who is devoted to France and has fought for its survival, collaborate with the enemy who is occupying his country?

With the death of the Jewish couple, Bernard begins to see things differently, he realizes the occupation brought out the very worst in human beings, the hardships had set one person against another, one group against another, neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. What he was doing for the Germans was simply wrong.

Lucien knew he couldn’t be that way and just stand by; he had to continue what he’d been doing. When he asked himself why he was risking his life, the answer wasn’t the cash, the factories, or the sheer thrill of the challenge. He was risking his life because it was the right thing to do. He had to go beyond himself and help these people.

He had also fallen in love with a woman who was hiding two young children and had admired his growing moral conscience. Then a young boy, who he had taken in to both his home and his workplace when the Nazi’s killed his parents, saved his life.

The five of them become a “family” that eventually escapes to Switzerland, oddly with the help of a Nazi who had come to admire Bernard’s work and had found pleasure in their mutual appreciation of European art and architecture.

5.05.2014

The Lunchbox

In Mumbai thousands of workers receive their noontime lunch by deliverymen, known as dabbawalas, who shuttle stacked metal cans from a food preparer’s home to an office worker, and back again using an elaborate, color-coded system. The odds of delivering a lunchbox to a person for whom it was not intended are said to be one in a million. It happens in the Lunchbox.

The meal is prepared by a lonely housewife, Ila, who is trying to revive her marriage by preparing exotic recipes for her husband. The meals are inadvertently delivered to an equally lonely office worker, Saajan, whose wife has recently died. Ila’s husband never says a word about the lunches. So she puts a little note in his lunchbox one day to figure out what is happening.

Saajan receives the note and responds in kind. They begin a daily correspondence, not by way of texting, emailing, Skyping but by the fine art of writing letters, albeit short in the beginning, but longer as their notes become increasingly personal. In a sense, they join a long and notable group of letter writing friends.

Gradually Ila and Saajan disclose more of their life, their regrets, hopes, and their struggles to get by. They wanted to meet at a café, where Ila goes, waits for Saajan who is there all the time, but is too shy to introduce himself.

After viewing the film, I wanted to learn more about the Mumbai delivery service. In an age of Fed Ex, UPS, etc, it seems like throwback to the Pony Express system. I learn there are 5,000 or so dabbawalas in the teaming city of Mumbai, said to be the world’s fourth most populous. . They deliver, 130,000 lunchboxes throughout a vast city that entails carrying a large pallet full of lunch packs to and fro a home to an office, 260,000 transactions, six days a week, 52 weeks a year minus holidays.

Mistaken deliveries are virtually unknown. How do the dabbawalas accomplish this feat? An article in the Harvard Business Journal (November 2012) reports an investigation of how the service seems to work almost to perfection. In a word, it appears to be due a beautifully organized system or management, training, adherence to rigorous standards and a strong sense of belonging to the members of their group.

The article concludes: “And that’s a lesson managers of all enterprises should take to heart.”