5.02.2016

A Good Life

What does a good life mean to you? Have you been able to live such a life?

Before I went to college, these questions meant nothing. After entering, they meant everything. As a freshman, I was fortunate to take a full year course in the history of western civilization. Early on we were introduced to culture of ancient Greece.

It was there, largely through the ideas of Socrates as described in the Dialogues of Plato, that I began to understand what the good life meant. Socrates claimed an unexamined life is not worth living, that a good life is one of relentless questioning and searching for the truth.

That is what a good life has always meant to me—teaching, doing research, writing. Of course, not everyone thinks that’s what a good life means.

When I asked a good friend what a good life meant to her, she replied working in an important job. Another said, it was being happy. A recent survey of millennials found that 80 percent said that their major life goal was to get rich. Another 50 percent of the same young adults said another major life goal was to become famous.

Robert Waldinger, who is now the fourth director of the 75-year-old Harvard study on adult development, reports (Tedx Lecture November, 2015) that a good life is built on good relationships.

This remarkable study began in 1938 with a group of Harvard sophomores. A comparison group consisted of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s.

Throughout the course of the study, the men were interviewed at various intervals in their homes. Their medical conditions were tracked, their blood was drawn, more recently their brains were scanned, and the investigators talked with their children.

Waldinger says there were three three lessons learned from the study. First, social connections are “really good for us” and loneliness is toxic. Second, it’s not just the number of friends we have, but the quality of our close relationships that matters. Third, good relationships not only benefit our health, they also “protect our brains.”

In a way, these lessons have been known for ages. What I find striking in the study, however, is that nowhere is the importance of a “life of the mind” mentioned. Whatever every happened to the role of the examined life?

Can a life of reflections be built in the absence of good relationships? In so far as I know, this question is never discussed. I wouldn’t expect such a life to play much of a role for the comparison group of boys from poor Boston neighborhoods. But I surely would have expected it to be mentioned by some of the Harvard graduates, even though most are in their 90s now.

Maybe I overemphasize the importance of “a life of the mind.” Maybe I’m simply out of touch with contemporary culture. (That is definitely the case.) Maybe I am fortunate to have a close relationship to support the life I lead.

So I know that one can live an examined life, while at the same time having at least one good relationship. And I imagine that those who don’t have a close relationship can still carve out the same kind of life. In a word, perhaps close relationships are neither necessary or sufficient for a good life.

4.27.2016

The Ineffability of Pain

For the sufferer, pain is the prototype of certainty – there’s no way to doubt that you have pain. But it is the exact opposite for those who observe a person in pain. David Biro

“Ineffable: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.” Many individuals are in pain much of the day. Their back hurts, they have an awful sciatic pain, a stabbing migraine that never goes away. They may try to describe their pain to another person. But there are no words for what the person is experiencing.

All they can do is groan, shout, screech or swear. And all the other person can do is listen and observe the behavior of the person in pain, a far cry from the person they used to be. They are bent over, in a slouch, rubbing their leg or forehead, trying their best to get from one place to another or reduce the pain in their leg.

“English,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache. . . . The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”

Consider a person who suffers from a spinal cord tumor, a tumor that puts pressure on nerve fibers and damages them. Or one who has had a compression fracture of the spinal cord, usually caused by osteoporosis or lifting something heavy, too heavy for their weak spinal cord.

Both can lead to severe back pain that is very difficult to treat. When a person with such a tumor or compression fracture tries to describe the pain they are feeling, once again all the observer can say is that they understand. But their pain cannot be felt.

Elaine Scarry writes about this difficulty in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. “When one hears about another person’s physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person’s body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact.”

She says physical pain has no referential content. “It is not of or for anything. It is precisely because it takes no object that it, more than any other phenomenon, resists objectification in language.

Your doctor asks you to rate your pain on a scale from one to ten. You say it’s a ten, the most extreme point on the scale. But what does that number mean? Yes, it hurts a lot, but are there more specific words, instead of a numeral to describe your experience?

In an essay on medicine and literature, Andrew Solomon writes in the Guardian (4/22/16), “The language gap frustrates your visit to your doctor. He seems not to understand the problem because you can’t describe it lucidly enough. You don’t understand the proposed treatment because he can’t explain it. I’ve sometimes forsworn medical help because the complexity of voicing what is wrong has felt heavier than the sickness itself.”

In short, there are few words, if any for extreme pain, it resists the language available to a person and any attempt to describe it reverts to the “pre-language of cries and groans.”

Elsewhere, Ian Frazier wrote “Talking about hunger and being hungry are two different things; talk can wait for a convenient moment, but when you’re hungry you’re hungry right now.”

Frazier’s remark captures precisely the very general issue I am writing about, the discrepancy between words and feelings, between words and experiences.



4.25.2016

Poetry












This April marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. While I don’t read a great deal of poetry, there are some poets that I turn to from time to time. C. P. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote (in Greek) only 154 poems some of which were published in local newspapers and magazines. In celebration of National Poetry Month, here are two of his poems that I have always liked.

An Old Man
At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone,
a newspaper in front of him.
 
And in the miserable banality of old age
he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.
 
He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
So brief an interval, so very brief.
 
And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,
how he always believed—what madness—
that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”
 
He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his senseless caution.
 
But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Morning Sea
Here let me stop.  Let me too look at Nature for a while.
The morning sea and cloudless sky
a brilliant blue, the yellow shore; all
beautiful and grand in the light.
 
Here let me stop.  Let me fool myself: that these are what I see
(I really saw them for a moment when I first stopped)
instead of seeing, even here, my fantasies,
my recollections, the ikons of pleasure.

Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn


4.21.2016

Public Squares

Michael Kimmelman writes about the importance (he calls it a craving) of public squares in the New York Review of Books (4/20/16). He says, with increasing frequency people are moving downtown “for the pleasures and benefits of cultural exchange, walking streets, parks, and public squares.”

Kimmelman, the architecture critic for the Times, points out that “The art of architecture requires not just making attractive buildings but providing citizens with generous, creative, open, inviting public spaces.”

I was born in Los Angeles and lived in a neighborhood, not far from a few shops but there was no public square nearby. When I moved to Portland, Oregon to begin teaching, once again I began living in neighborhoods that didn’t have a community gathering place.

It was only recently that I moved to an area in town where there are two public squares: one with a rock-water fountain that becomes a crowded wading pool in the summer; the other a natural garden with native plants. Both are occupied only during late spring and summer months and neither is the kind of public gathering place like the agora of ancient Greece or the piazzas in every town in Italy.

I have friends who live in the suburbs, about two miles from the nearest town in a cluster of homes set back about a mile from an eight lane freeway. Each time I visit, I am struck by the vast differences between their neighborhood and mine. The homogeneity of theirs is conspicuous, with every building a home and every home a garage, garden and shake roof.

There are no buses, apartment houses, or coffee-houses nearby. Most of the homes scattered about the hillside in their suburban setting face away from the street. There are no sidewalks and it is rare to see anything like the sort of social life there that is everywhere along the sidewalks of my urban neighborhood.

Each time I visit Italy, I am struck by the lively public socializing on the streets in the neighborhood in Florence that has almost become my second home. The people there greet each other with great warmth. The owners stand outside their shops in order to better converse with those who own the shops across the way.

I doubt that the rarity of such encounters in America is because Italians are more outgoing than we are. Rather I think it has more to do with almost haphazard way their cities have evolved over the centuries and the resulting relationship of the buildings to the street. The frequent socializing of the Italians occurs because their cities naturally invite fortuitous meetings between individuals as they stroll along the sidewalks or meet their friends in their neighborhood piazza. Richard Goodwin writes:

Now in Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day's work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, arts, doctors, technicians, poets, scholars. A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity; the changeable temper of a thousand spirits by whom every object of discussion is broken into an infinity of sense and significantions--all these spring into being, and then are spent. And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.

In his book, Intimate Anonymity, Hillel Schocken defines a city as: "a fixed place where people can form relations with others at various levels of intimacy, while remaining entirely anonymous." Schocken argues that a city should make it possible for individuals to have contact with a variety of people from whom they can choose their intimates. He concludes his essay by noting: "The future of urbanism lies in the understanding that the city is a human event, not a sculpture."

I am sure this is the secret to the design of all good cities and the neighborhoods within them. It is surely the secret of my neighborhood in Portland and why, through the relationships that I form here, some of which are personal, others entirely anonymous, I have become rather attached to it.

Oh, that the winter in the far north of this land was a little shorter and the days were a little sunnier, warmer and not so rainy.


4.17.2016

Warfare at a Distance

The United States is currently at war in four countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. It’s not ground warfare, it’s not air warfare, both of which risk the lives of those who take part in them. Rather, its something entirely different, warfare at a great distance that in no way risks the lives of Americans. It is known as drone warfare.

In drone warfare, a man or woman sits in front of a screen in a cramped, stuffy trailer in the Las Vegas desert and presses a switch that delivers a horribly destructive Hellfire missile in a country a thousand of miles away. It’s not unlike a video game, except that individuals viewed on the screen are in fact killed, sometimes several of them, sometimes those for whom the rocket was not intended

Recently, I saw two films that dealt with this form of warfare—“Good Kill” and “Eye in the Sky.” In my mind, both films confront the morality of drone warfare. Both also reminded me of the well-known experiments of Stanley Milgram on obedience and disobedience.

These experiments illustrate the power of proximity on delivering “shock” to a “learner” in a distant room. The percentage of subjects who deliver the full “450” volts increases the further away they are from the “learner.”

Similarly drone warfare illustrates how easy it is to fire a rocket intended for a person or group in a far off country. The killing is real, yet it occurs half a world away and is obscured by the very technology that enables it.

Milgram’s experiments also illustrate the power of authority on compliance. If an authority figure tells you to press that button, you will be more likely to do it, even if it brings tears to your eyes.

Ethan Hawke plays the role of the drone operator in “Good Kill.” He knows there is always the likelihood of “collateral damage,” namely, the deaths of innocent individuals. His guilt and boredom lead him to drink, a crisis in his marriage and he too becomes a causality of modern technology.

The estimates of collateral damage play a critical role in “Eye in the Sky.” The governing overseers want to know if the attacks will lead to a diplomatic crisis or worse. The military wants to discharge its responsibilities as effectively as possible.

The military officer (the authority) in charge of the attack in “Eye in the Sky,” played by Helen Mirren, brings considerable pressure on her assistant to make an accurate estimate of innocent deaths, too much pressure in my opinion, so that the assistant ends up making an estimate well below what he actually believes--with disastrous consequences.

Both films raise a host of questions about drone warfare--some legal, some moral, some about its consequences. Among them are the following:

1. How are we to regard drone attacks in countries that are not at war with the United States?

2. How serious is the radicalizing force of drone operations among some Muslim individuals?

3. What are we to make of the inevitable collateral damage of drones, that is unintentionally killing of innocent individuals, including families, children and foreign aid workers?

4. How accurate are the official reports of the collateral deaths of innocents?

5. Does the targeted killing of presumed terrorists reduce the risk of terrorists attacks on foreign countries, including the United States?

6. What consideration should be given to the serious psychological damage some drone operators experience or to the equally serious effects of the constant hovering of armed drones overhead on civilians in a potential attack area?

7. Does the use of drones violate international law and if so, in what respect?

None of these questions lend themselves to a clear-cut answer. They call for a careful analysis, drawing on factual evidence where possible and the kind of methodical reasoning that is relatively uncommon.

4.11.2016

How to Avoid Paying Taxes

It’s tax season once again and the recent Panama Papers “scandal” has highlighted the various ways individuals and corporations are scheming to avoid paying them.

The Prime Minister of Iceland and his wife were the first to receive notoriety when it was revealed they had transferred a goodly sum of their assets to the Virgin Islands. The Prime Minister announced his resignation, then backtracked, saying he only stepped aside for a short period. Now it appears he will be replaced by the agriculture and fisheries minister, after all. So it goes.

According to Cass Sunstein (New York Review of Books (1/14/16) many individuals in the United States and elsewhere have been transferring their money to foreign countries—Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Virgin Islands. In this way they have been able to avoid paying taxes in their home country.

Drawing on the work of Gabriel Zucman in his The Hidden Wealth of Nations, Sunstein says the magnitude of these transfers is considerable.

• About 8 percent of the word’s wealth, $7.6 trillion is held in tax havens.

• As a result, governments lose about $200 billion in tax revenue each year.

• In the United States, the annual tax loss is $35 billion; it Europe it is $78 billion.

While awareness of these figures is growing and the issue has been much discussed, to date no major “crackdown” has occurred.

James Surowiecki describes (New Yorker, 1/11/16) a somewhat similar tax avoidance strategy of large, multinational corporations. It is not (currently) illegal for American corporations to locate their operations outside this country and more and more of them are doing this to avoid paying US taxes.

He also discussed Pfizer’s recently announced merger with the Irish drug company Allergan. Pfizer was planning to reconstitute itself as an Irish company, thereby lowering its overall United States taxes. However, the plan was recently called off after the Treasury Department removed many of the tax benefits of such a merger.

In January of this year, before the new Treasury Department rules were in place, Johnson Controls announced its merger with Tyco International also based in Ireland. By doing this, the Times editorial page (1/29/16) claims they will avoid taxes in the United States “by at least 150 million a year.”

In commenting on tax inversions, Sunstein suggests that regardless of political party, it is unlikely you would approve of illegal corporate tax havens. Here is an area he believes “in which significant reforms might appeal to people who otherwise disagree on a great deal.”

Why am I writing about this? I am not an economist and I know little of the ins and outs of tax law. Yet it seems to me just another form corporate and individual irresponsibility.

I am dismayed when I think about the billions of dollars that are not paid to the government and, if they were, the potential benefits that might accrue. At the very least, it is clear that this is yet another reason why the United States tax system is long overdue for changes.

I am but one among millions, my words are scarcely heard, they count for nothing, but I cannot avoid expressing them.

4.05.2016

A Doubter's Almanac

If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things. Renee Descartes

There are two sections in Ethan Canin’s latest novel, The Doubter’s Almanac. I found the first engrossing, the second redundant. The plot focuses on Milo Andret who grew up in a remote part of Michigan. Milo was a loner who spent his time wandering deep in the forests surrounding his home. His parents rarely spoke to him, he was reluctant to form friendships and realized early on that he was “entirely alone in the world.”

In the summer of his 13th year, Milo found a tree blown down in the forest and began carving its stump into a 25-foot-long wooden chain that looped back upon itself. It was a remarkable creation that he hid in a concealed underground hollow. His ability to find his way in the forest and ease in visualizing shapes anticipated his work in typology, a field of mathematics that studies geometric properties and spatial relations among objects.

Milo enrolled in the mathematics department at Berkeley where he began work on the fictional Malosz conjecture. His advisor, Hans Borland, told him, Topology is God’s rules, Andret. That’s what I’m telling you. And you’ve been called upon to translate them.

He began by assuming the result and working backward. If this was true, then so must this be true and so on. In this fashion and after many hours of difficult, exhausting analysis he was able to prove it.

… within hours of showing the proof to Borland, rumors of the achievement had begun to spread. Soon after, the paper had been accepted by the Annals….At thirty-two years old, he’d found a solution to one of the great problems in the history of mathematics. The article would arrive next month in libraries around the world: the Malosz conjecture, thanks to Milo Andret, had become the Malosz theorem.

Milo won the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics and obtained an appointment in the mathematics department at Princeton. At this point his life took a precipitous turn. It started when he began insulting members of the department, sleeping with women, and turned to drinking and drugs. It’s was if his mathematical genius was a curse that justified his noxious behavior, displayed without shame or apology.

Milo’s behavior became so objectionable that he was fired from the Princeton faculty, whereupon he moved an isolated cabin by a muddy lake, not unlike his childhood home in Michigan. So began the second part of A Doubter’s Almanac, narrated by Milo’s son, Hans.

We learn that Milo began teaching at one unknown college after another and that he married his former secretary at Princeton. Hans, like his sister, inherited Milo’s mathematical gifts and the curse that goes with it. He also took to drugs and alcohol in an effort to flee the curse. Meanwhile, Milo struggled to solve another mathematical problem, the Abendroth conjecture.

The central puzzle of the Abendroth conjecture concerned a subset of Whitehead’s CW-complexes that were infinite yet finite-dimensional. Clear enough. Though it was considered part of algebraic topology, Andret had a feeling that its solution—if it was going to be solved at all—would come not through equation but through the ability to visualize strange and unearthly shapes. At this he was quite adept.

He started working on it in the belief that he had “one thing left” In him. But he got nowhere and spent most of his time drinking. It is said that a mathematicians’ work was generally over before the age of forty. Perhaps so.

The book ends as Milo falls ill, his family, including his former wife, who had earlier left him, and his first love at Berkeley return to care for him. Hans writes that people like his father are always chasing after something. Each question leads to the next one in a never ending effort to comprehend something. Such a quest has a powerful appeal to me.

The second part of the novel had none of the momentum that the first had. I wanted to know if Milo solved the Malosz conjecture. Or if he had given up. If not, I wanted to know how he solved it and if anyone had solved it before he did. It was one of those fictional tales that I found hard to put down, until the next day, when I turned to it as soon as I could.

The world, if you let yourself consider it, was a puzzle in every plane of focus. Why was he so afraid of it? Then the corollary: Why did he want to live? He wanted to live so that he could solve a great problem.




4.02.2016

Apple Inc.

Yesterday, was the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Apple Corporation. Apple products have made an enormous difference in my life, as well as millions of others. About five years ago, I wrote a blog on Steve Jobs and how he benefited the college where I taught for many years. Apple’s anniversary gives me an occasion to repost it.

At the same time, I want to reinforce the doubts I expressed then about some of its products, especially the iPhone. Nothing depresses me more than to see people staring at their iPhone screens throughout the day—in restaurants, on the street, around the dinner table, while they are driving—anywhere it seems.

I believe the iPhone has become an addiction for all too many people. The constant preoccupation with the device has become a substitute for plain thinking, plain observing, plain reflection, conversation, rumination, or dreaming.

Here is what I wrote in October 2011:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Apple’s 1977 “Think Different” Advertising Campaign.

Steve Jobs went to Reed College where I taught psychology throughout my academic life and was a student while I was there before he dropped out after his first semester. For a while after, he continued to hang around the department, primarily in the heavily electronic physiological lab and audited several of our classes.

And it is true, as he noted in a graduation speech he delivered at Stanford several years ago that he was troubled by the fact that it cost his parents so much to send him there. I doubt, however, that was the only reason he dropped out.

I write about Steve Jobs not only out of respect but also because he and his original team at Apple brought the computer world to me. Throughout his life he remained extremely generous to Reed. After the first computers were produced at Apple, he gave each faculty member one and he continued the practice with each succeeding version of their personal computer.

I never would have learned to use one were it not for the simplicity, its user friendliness as it is called. That feature is characteristic of all Apple products, They are designed to be models of simplicity.

It was simple matter to learn how to use them, something I had previously found impossible with other computer operating systems around then and still do with complicated Windows-based computers. In a way, the early Mac with its graphic interface opened up a new life for me, gave me a better and clearer way to express myself, and eventually with the development of the Web and the Internet expanded the sources of information and the ease of obtaining them regardless of where I am.

You have to remember when this was, otherwise it makes no sense given the electronic world we live in today. It was in 1984, twenty-seven years ago [at the time of this writing], that the first Macintosh computer was produced. The picture above is what it looked like and something like it sat on my desk at Reed soon after it was manufactured.

I wrote my first book on it, a book on promoting energy conservation, with a word-processor known as MacWrite. Since my handwriting is atrocious, completely unreadable even to me, I never could have written such a heavily documented book without it.

Everyone once it a while I stop to think about the larger implications of the new products that Jobs and his group at Apple developed—the iPhone, iPod, the iPad. I’m not entirely certain they represent the positive contribution the personal computer does.

Haruki Murakami wrote about life before and after the development of the electronic revolution recently. I was reminded of what he said about this issue in thinking about the death of Steve Jobs and his enormous influence on society.

By setting the story [“Town of Cats,” published in the New Yorker] 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.

3.28.2016

Merchants of Doubt

Climate change. Cancer and cigarette smoking. Vaccinations. What do we know?

Whatever knowledge we have is grounded in probabilities. What is the likelihood that carbon emissions lead to climate change? Does cigarette smoking causes lung cancer? Do immunizations prevent disease?

The merchants of doubt say we don’t know, we can’t be sure, we could be wrong, the evidence is suspect, we need more research.

Merchants of Doubt, a film made from the book of the same title, depicts the efforts to sow confusion and skepticism about the scientific research on these questions. Most of these efforts are corporate financed public relations campaigns designed to confuse the public.

Lies are spread, so is dishonesty and deception. The men and women who engage in these efforts couldn’t care less. They have a job, the untruths they spread are part of the deal.

Of course, there is always the question of who does and does not succumb to their playbook, the effects of their deceptions. Not everyone, that is for sure, but enough to block widespread acceptance of the research.

The same sort of doubts about research evidence has also characterized recent proposals of certain Presidential candidates. James Surowiecki calls them instances of “magical thinking.” (New Yorker 3/21/16). In particular, he discusses Donald Trump’s proposals to “slash taxes.”

He says Trump’s plan would reduce revenues by more than nine trillion dollars (can you can imagine such a number?) over the next decade. At the same time, he has promised to balance the budget and not cut services such as Social Security and Medicare.

How does he imagine he can do that? Surowiecki says he will get rid of government “waste and fraud and abuse…abolish the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency” and that the tax cuts would stimulate the economy so that government revenues will increase.

This claim is contrary to all the current evidence. Surowiecki writes: “The message has been fact-checked and refuted over and over again, but once something becomes an article of political faith, it’s difficult to dislodge.”

This is the same sort of misperception that characterizes the beliefs discussed in the film Merchants of Doubt. All you have to do is make the claim, spread doubt and once they are in the public domain, they’re very difficult to overcome, in spite of all the contrary evidence, most of which is discounted or more likely ignored and unknown.

3.24.2016

When Paris Went Dark

Parisians seemed to be going thought the motions of life without living at all.

Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, is a rich, detailed, account of the German Occupation of Paris during World War II.

Rosbottom drew upon an extensive collection of materials-- diaries, memoirs, essays, newspaper articles, histories, letters, films, archives interviews, photographs, maps, etc.—all of which helped him to understand Paris during the Occupation.

Much of this is well known. However, like so many other readers, my appetite for reading about World War II seems inexhaustible. Some say it was the greatest event in human history, a saga about the collision between good and evil and the remarkable courage so many displayed.

During those days in Paris, food was scarce, heat was rare, gas for automobiles was unavailable, long lines were pervasive, air raid drills were common and the presence of the Germans created a quiet, almost eerie city that was dangerous and often frightening to those who remained.





“The silence caught you by the throat, made sadness press into your thoughts."



In time, it became extremely dangerous for Jews, many of whom left the city if they could, others tried to find a place to hide, but thousands were rounded up, virtually imprisoned for days and then shipped to concentration camps where most did not survive.


In spite of the risks, the French Resistance was a constant threat to the Germans. Rosbottom writes that the German troops “were more and more demoralized as they watched safe Paris become a site for both discriminate and indiscriminate attacks against the Occupier.”

Rosbottom marvels at the fact that Paris managed to survive the War almost unscathed. Hitler had ordered its destruction when the advancing allied armies forced the Germans to leave. How this was avoided is another remarkable tale. In contrast, most of the other large cities in Europe were virtually destroyed by the destructive power of seemingly constant allied bombing.

That is what was seen. But Rosbottom notes, “What the world did not see was the economic, social, and psychological damage wrought by the Occupation, which would take years to repair.”

Eventually this would be clearly seen as the surviving Jews, political prisoners, captured soldiers and others who had hidden in the country began returning to Paris. Rosbottom says, they were unrecognizable as the trauma they had endured lasted so very long.

He concludes, “There are, in the life of a nation, moments that wound its memory as well as the idea that one has of one’s country. This was one of those moments for France and from all accounts still is, more than 70 years after the Occupation ended."


3.21.2016

Water News

Water, water everywhere, And all the boards did shrink: Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. Coleridge

There is a drought in the west, floods in North Carolina, the reservoirs in Brazil are drying up, and 663 million people are said to be living without access to water. Meanwhile, cities are experimenting with recycled waste water and in some countries desalinization of sea water. Water has become one of the crises of our times.

Tomorrow, March 22nd, is World Water Day. To acknowledge the day, I begin with a report of a study, the kind I love. It’s an article by Arron Carroll in the Times (8/24/15) that deals primarily with the recommendation to drink 8 glasses of water a day. According to Carroll, there’s no evidence to support this.

Although I have not read the original study, Carroll reports a paper he co-authored in 2007 on medical myths. The first was that people should drink at least 8 8-ounce glasses of water a day. He says people continue hold that belief, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

The same finding was reported in a book on medical myths that once again “debunked” the idea that we need 8 glasses of water a day. Carroll says water is present in fruits and vegetables. I drink coffee twice a day and tea once, both are said to dehydrate you. Carroll claims the research shows that’s not true either.

How did the water recommendation get started? It may have been a 1945 Food and Nutrition Board report recommending that people need that much water per day. You’d think by now, 70 years later, the myth would have been dispelled, that the weight of the evidence would have called it into question.

But no. The belief spread, remains unexamined, and has assumed a kind of cultural truth that is virtually impossible to alter.

At the same time, the water news from Israel presents a more optimistic picture. Faced with year after year of drought, the government took drastic steps to curb water consumption and increase water resources. Isabel Kershner reports in the Times (5/29/15) the following measures were instituted:

1. A heavy tax was placed on excessive household water consumption.

2. Individuals were told to cut their shower time by two minutes, washing cars was prohibited and watering lawns was heavily taxed and only permitted in the evenings.

3. A major national effort was made to desalinate Mediterranean seawater, with five plants now in operation.

4. At the same time, programs were developed to recycle wastewater.

5. Large cuts were made in the annual water quotas for farmers.

6. Water Authority representatives went door-to-door offering free low-flow showerheads and advice on how to conserve household water consumption.

Kershner observes that taken together these measures have provided Israel with more than enough water for all its needs, even during periods of severe drought, and even enough now to export.

The lesson here is abundantly clear. This is what is required to overcome the periods of extreme drought currently faced by California, other western states and elsewhere throughout the world.

3.16.2016

Anita Brookner

Anitia Brookner died the other day. Brookner was an English art historian and novelist. I think I’ve read almost all of her many novels.

At times they grow tedious, but she wrote well and her themes captured my interest. In 1984 she won the Booker Prize for her novel, Hotel du Lac--a tale of a lonely woman coming to terms with her solitary life during a visit to a hotel by a Swiss lake.

At the Hairdressers was her last novel and the first to be published as an e-book. It is the only one I wrote about on this blog. Her others were written before I started blogging. The following post was written four years ago.


…we are all alone, that no reciprocity is to be sought between people formed by different outlooks, and not only outlooks but different environments, both mental and physical. Anita Brookner

There are several firsts in Anita Brookner’s latest novel, At the Hairdressers. It is her first e-book; in fact, it is only available as Penguin Short e-book. It is her first novel after a lapse of several years. For a while, she was publishing a new novel each year like clockwork, most of which I read. Now they appear intermittently and since she is almost 84, I don’t imagine there will be many more.

It is also the first Kindle e-book I have read from start to finish. After many tedious criticisms of e-books in general, I have finally mastered the fine art of highlighting passages and then copying them into my commonplace book. As readers of this blog have been reminded all too often, these steps are essential to my way of reading.

At the Hairdressers is similar to her other novels. There is a lonely woman (occasionally a lonely man), usually educated and reasonably well off, emotionally reserved, and finished with their professional life. They long for friendship or perhaps a lover, a happiness that is never fulfilled, without hope or expectation that anything will happen to them other than yet another blank day.

Solitude is the familiar burden for Elizabeth Warner in At the Hairdressers. She lives in a basement flat in London and leaves the house only to go shopping and have her hair done. Her only “friends” are the people she sees on the streets, the market, or the women at her salon. Mostly, what the 80 year-old Elizabeth longs for is youth.

…a brooding and no doubt disagreeable old woman to whom memories of youth come unbidden, and unwelcome, now that youth is out of reach.

Sometimes the young do nothing for one’s dignity.


At the Hairdressers opens on this theme as Elizabeth recounts a dream. In it she recalls the small group of friends she had as a student in college, imagines what course their lives have taken, and how much she would enjoy seeing them again. Of course it was youth that was being celebrated.

When she chances upon one of these friends, she is immediately disappointed by the wide social gap between them and the comparative inadequacy and failures of her own life. She concludes that the dream only brought back feelings that are gone forever now.

Again, like most of the other books Brookner has written, this short novel is infused with inwardness, continual reflection by the protagonist of their life, their life unlived, and the only life that one can expect now.

I rather hope I shall die at the hairdresser's, for they are bound to know what to do. At least that is what I tell myself.

You have to like this kind of internal dialogue to enjoy Anita Brookner’s novels. And yet it spite of their repetitiveness, self-centeredness and absence of any action, I find it hard to put one down once I start. I may not read it all at once, but I do eventually finish, knowing full well that the next one, if there is to be one, will not be any different.

3.14.2016

Operation Thunderbolt

June 1976, almost 40 years ago. An Air France flight takes off from Israel, where security is tight, with 228 passengers heading to Paris, with a stopover in Athens, where security is lax. Four hijackers board the plane there, with heavy bags that were never checked and said by the hijackers to be loaded with guns and explosives. They order the pilot to fly to the Entebee airport in Nairobi, Uganda.

So begins Saul David’s Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History. The story of the hijacking, the days at the terminal in Entebbe, the debate within Israel about how to respond to the terrorist demands and the eventual planning and rescue of the Jewish hostages is told in an hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute, account by David in a “you are there” fashion.

The four hijackers, later joined by two others at the airport in Entebbe, demanded the release within 48 hours of 53 militants mostly imprisoned in Israel, in exchange for the release of the hostages.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin believed the government had to give in to the terrorists to avoid the slaughter of the Jewish hostages; Defense Minister Shimon Peres argued for an attempt to rescue them with a raid at the Entebbe airport in distant Uganda. The squabbling between Rabin and Peres was at times bitter.

However, the plans for a surprise raid were yet to be formulated, with various impractical ideas on how to return the hostages to Israel. Were it not for the extension of the deadline three days, so that Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, (who knew about the hijacking in advance and supported the terrorists) could attend a conference of African leaders, the hostages would have been killed or released, if Israel acceded to the demands of the terrorists.

The additional time gave the Israel Defense Force (IDF) time to work out a “realistic” rescue plan that finally gained the support of Prime Minister Rabin and his cabinet. Meanwhile, 48 non-Jewish hostages were released by Amin and flown to Paris. Although the final airlift-rescue plan was never rehearsed and entailed a number of unknown risks, it was nevertheless launched on the night of July 3rd.

After a refueling stop at Nairobi, Kenya, four Hercules transports landed undetected at the Entebbe airport, 2,500 miles from Israel. Two Boeing 707 jets followed, the first contained medical facilities and landed in Nairobi, the second circled over the Entebbe Airport to monitor the raid. A black Mercedes that looked like President Idi Amin's vehicle and his supporting Land Rovers were driven out of one of the Hercules and headed for the old terminal where the hostages were located. The Israelis hoped they could use them to bypass security checkpoints.

The other Hercules transports held Israeli assault teams that drove their vehicles directly to the terminal building The Israelis sprang from their vehicles and raced toward the terminal. The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. Entering the terminal, the commandos shouted through a megaphone, "Stay down! Stay down!”

They identified the four hijackers, shot them, along with numerous Ugandans who were guarding the building and began moving the hostages to the Hercules transports. The commandos then destroyed the Ugandan MIG fighter planes to prevent them from pursuing the returning Israelis. Five commandos were wounded and one, the team’s commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of the Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed. Out of the 106 hostages, three were killed, 10 were wounded and one woman who was left in a Ugandan hospital was killed by Amin.

The raid and the liberation of the hostages last only 51 minutes.

The Israeli raid was a daring operation, attracted world-wide acclaim, and served as a model for other rescue missions. It also enhanced Israel’s morale and stature in the world. But how important was it? David makes no attempt to address this question and place it in a wider context.

However, his detailed account of the raid, its planning and ultimate execution was riveting to read. Still, the leader of the commandos was killed along with 4 of the hostages. Unavoidable? Worth the risk? In spite of the elation of the surviving hostages and the crowd that met them when they returned to Israel, you might be left with these questions at the end.

3.07.2016

Where to Invade Next

I saw Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” this weekend. Like his other films, it is a critical indictment of American society. It is also highly selective, as the programs discussed in the countries he visits are “cherry picked.” All the countries have major problems, but Moore ignores them, picking “the flowers, not the weeds,” as he says.

In the film Moore compares the social policies in several countries, mostly European, with those in America. He begins by visiting Italy, where the sun always shines and the people have beautiful tans. He learns from a middle age couple that the companies where they work provide them with four weeks of paid vacation. National and local holidays add even more paid vacation days.

While still in Italy, he visits a Ducati motorcycle factory and a clothing manufacturer that bestows five months paid maternity leave and two-hour lunches. We see workers returning home to a three-course lunch, wine included, with family and friends. How they ever get any work done in the afternoon is a mystery to me, but the CEOs of both firms assure us that the two-hour lunches lead to more contented and productive employees.

Moore moves on to France, where once again we are told that long and healthy lunch breaks are good for school children. In Finland, where everyone seems to speak beautiful English, we are informed that Finnish schools have virtually eliminated homework and standardized testing, as well as providing more free time. In a recent comparison of math, reading and science skills among 15-year olds, Finland ranks number one among developed countries, while the United States ranks among the lowest.

On to Slovenia, a country that is rarely heard from, where college education is virtually free. Moore speaks with several American students who have enrolled in colleges there to avoid the prohibitive costs of tuition, room and board of colleges and universities in this country. However, we don’t find out about the courses offered or their outcome, including graduation rates and subsequent employment of the students who attend college there.

Moore moves on to Germany where there is free health care, as is true elsewhere in most European countries. He spends a fair amount of time in school classes where the study of the Holocaust is required. Moore then laments that there is no requirement in schools of this country for studying the way we have treated Native Americans or the long history of slavery either.

In Norway Moore is startled to learn that prisons are organized around rehabilitation rather than retribution. Prisoners are housed in studio apartments equipped with a bathroom, television, and cookware including knives. No one is locked up in solitary confinement and the maximum sentence is 21 years. Prisoners have considerable mobility within the grounds; you get the impression that Norwegian prisons are not that much different from a small society.

In Iceland, a country of about 320,000 people, where the financial crisis crippled the economy, the country has largely recovered with the help of tourism. Moore comments that the one bank that didn’t fail was run by women. This leads to a lengthy treatment of the many virtues of female leadership.

Moore intends the film to be an exercise in finding solutions to the many problems facing this country. In this sense the film has a positive message, although it deals in obvious generalities about the merits of European countries. (The film was made before the current migration crisis there.)

The film also ignores the many efforts to solve our problems, as well as the difficulties we have in adopting new, large-scale programs in one as big and diverse as ours. Small, relatively homogeneous societies have several advantages compared to large, multi-state countries in introducing and experimenting with new programs.

After seeing a preview of the “Where to Invade Next” a friend of mine announced rather boldly, that she will never see the film. That is a problem with films like this. The audience, like the subjects in Moore’s film, is also going to be highly selective.

After the showing I attended, the assembled crowd burst out with wild applause. That surprised me, although I guess it shouldn’t have.

3.02.2016

In Other Words

As I went through the show [of Matisse cut-outs], I recognized an artist who at a certain point felt the need to charge course, to express himself differently. Who had the mad impulse to abandon one type of vision for another. Jhumpa Lahiri

The blank page. The blank canvas. Day after day they remain blank. I suppose every writer or artist reaches a point in their life when they stare at a blank page or canvas hopelessly paralyzed.

This might have been what happened to Jhumpa Lahiri when she stopped writing in English and sought a new direction to her work. During her first visit to Florence as a 20-year-old student, she fell in love with the Italian language. I recall a similar experience after one of my early visits to Florence. In an essay describing Italian, I wrote:

It is not surprising that Italians are so musical. It comes with the language. When Italians speak to one another, they virtually sing, with a rhythm and lyric that is slightly operatic. Soon the words echo in your mind, although you don't have the vaguest idea what they mean. …It was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase that from all I could tell must have been appropriate. When most Italians talk, they also gesture vigorously with their hands, as if they were conducting an orchestra. I suspect that if you tied a rope around their hands, they would not be able to utter a single word.

Over the years that followed Lahiri took Italian lessons but she never really mastered the language that way. So in 2012, she took the leap and moved to Rome with her husband and two children.

Lahiri says she was never comfortable in the language of her family (Bengali) or the language in which she had been educated (English). She said: “In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach. I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for many years in America would, finally, give me the direction.”

In her memoir, In Other Words, Lahiri describes her efforts to learn the language well enough to speak easily with Italians and write in their language. She stopped reading English and wrote exclusively in Italian, both in her diary and the pieces that compose the book. In Other Words is printed in a dual-language format with the English translation by Ann Goldstein on one page and Lahiri’s Italian on the other. (I found reading both pages of the book a good way to learn a little more Italian.)

There is a simplicity to Lahiri’s short Italian sentences that is beguiling, but after awhile rather limited, especially when she’s writing about complicated issues. They also become somewhat repetitious, as she tries to explain the difficulties she’s experiencing in writing Italian.

When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest. A traveler…When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner.

Yet, In Other Words is a pleasure to read as Lahiri struggles to express herself in Italian and strike out in a new direction. Throughout the book I kept wondering why she tried to distance herself from English, her dominant language, the one in which she was so successful.

I can appreciate her desire to try a new direction to her work. But why in a foreign language, one she scarcely knew before she moved to Rome? In Other Words was a best seller in Italy and at the time of this writing has moved into the top fifteen on the New York Times Hardcover best seller list.

Last September Lahiri returned to this country as a professor of creative writing at Princeton. She was reluctant to leave Rome and worries now that she won’t be able to maintain her fluency in Italian and newfound identity. One wonders if In Other Words is the first or the last of her work in Italian? While in Italy she wrote,

“I’ve uprooted myself not only from a physical place but also from a linguistic place. This double uprooting is artistic freedom, and it’s dizzying. Once you taste that you can’t give it up.”










2.25.2016

On The Weather

When I read Kathryn Schulz’s two pieces on the weather and literature, in the November 23rd issue of the New Yorker and then another on the magazine’s website (11/20/15), I was looking for literary works where the weather played a critical role in the plot or on one of its characters.

Schulz cites a number of works where the weather plays a symbolic role. For example, she mentions the snow in James Joyce’s The Dead, the cyclone in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the mud in Dickens’ Bleak House and the storm in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and six other novels.

It seems to me that none of these weather events played a critical role in the novel’s outcome. However, it certainly did in Albert Camus’s The Stranger.

“It is a hot day when Mersault, Camus’s disaffected emotionally detached French-Algerian protagonist, learns that his mother has died; a hot day when she is buried; a hot day when he shoots a man five times and kills him; a hot day when the murder trial begins that will culminate in a death sentence. To the judges’ question about his motives, Mersault tried to explain it was because of the sun”

The subject of Schulz’s discussion is the weather as it is treated in fiction. But beyond these imaginary creations, there is the unmistakable force of the weather in our daily life.

To be sure some people are more affected by the weather than others. I am one who is. Of course, major weather disasters--hurricanes, torrential floods, typhoons, blizzards, ocean tsunamis, major wind and rain storms—influence thousands of individuals, destroy their homes, flood their cities, knock out their power, and often cause the death of many individuals.

The weather has no memory. How I wish it did. On a cold day in January, it is impossible to warm up by recalling those warm days in August. The weather is not like a painful experience that makes you shudder every time you remember it. Or a treasured one that you can recapture vicariously whenever you want.

But that isn’t the way the weather works. Amadeau Prado, the physician-author in Night Train to Lisbon expresses a widely held view of this issue:

It is extraordinary, but the answer changes in me with the light that falls on the city and the Tagus. If it is the enchanting light of a shimmering August day that produces clear, sharp-edged shadows, the thought of a hidden human depth seems bizarre and like a curious, even slightly touching fantasy, like a mirage, that arises when I look too long at the waves flashing in that light.

On the other hand, if city and river are clouded over on a dreary January day by a dome of shadowless light and boring gray, I know no greater certainty than this: that all human action is only an extremely imperfect, ridiculously helpless expression of a hidden internal life of unimagined depths that presses to the surface without ever being able to reach it even remotely.


However, the research offers little support for this view. For example, in a study of the effects of weather on 2,000 Germans, Jaap Denissen of Humbolt University in Berlin found that individuals fell into one of four groups: those who are unaffected by the weather or seasons, people who love summer, others who hate summer, and people who love rain.

In 2008 Denissen and his colleagues conducted what is perhaps the most systematic analysis I have read on how individuals are affected by the weather. They examined the effects of six weather-related factors (temperature, wind, sunlight, precipitation, air pressure and photoperiod--daily length of light) on three measures of mood--positive affect, negative affect and fatigue. They concluded:

…the average effect of weather on mood was only small, though significant random variation was found across individuals, especially regarding the effects of photoperiod.

I think this confirms how most people view the weather. Some individuals are unaffected by it, others are affected periodically, and an unknown number are highly sensitive to it. Neither Denissen nor anyone else to my knowledge has offered a credible explanation for these differences. But it is important that they be recognized in evaluating media or even literary accounts of effects of weather-related variables on personality and behavior.





2.22.2016

Affairs of State

I find myself appalled by the current political scene in this country. No sooner did Supreme Court Justice Scalia die than the Republicans began battling over the President’s right to nominate a successor, a right clearly specified in the Constitution.

I do not hold to the views of Justice Scalia, the longest serving member of the Court, but I respect his intelligence and wit in holding forth on many of them. However, I find it thoroughly disrespectful the way so many have responded to his death. Disrespectful, rude, insensitive—to his wife, to his children and to the spirit in which one might feel about the death of anyone.

And then there are the so-called debates, debates that are not debates at all but little else but shouting matches. The way we hold elections in this country is utter madness, they last forever, become repetitious, tedious, boring.

By contrast, in some European countries, elections are called when the ruling party loses a vote of confidence. An election is held to form a new parliament or assembly about a month or so before a vote is held. The candidates for the legislature campaign during that relatively short time, the election is held and the ruling party or coalition elects a leader. How terribly sensible.

in a less polemical comment on the current political scene, Scott and Ami Dodson, report a study of the literary citations nine Supreme Court justices. Who among them has made the most literary citations in their opinions? They frame the question in terms of the purported effects of reading literary fiction—“develops deeper thinking, greater empathy, and better decision making.”

Leaving that matter aside, the Dodson’s searched all the opinions written by the current justices for what they call “high” literature references, excluding the Bible and popular fiction (e.g. J. K. Rowling). The most cited fiction authors were William Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, each mentioned sixteen times by the same five justices (Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg and Breyer).

Eight other authors were cited at least two times—Orwell, Dickens, Huxley, Aesop, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Melville, Salinger. Such authors as Tolstoy, Dante, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, etc. were cited once. And then there were a group of authors not cited at all—Toni Morrison, Murakami, Nabokov, Camus, etc.

In terms of simply counting literary citations, Justice Scalia was by far the most prolific. However, he had also served on the court the longest and therefore has had an opportunity to write far more opinions. Nevertheless, correcting for this factor, still leaves Scalia as the most frequent citer (39) of literature. Breyer (15), Thomas (11), Ginsburg (7), and Kennedy (8), with the remaining four justices trailing far behind.

I’ve been led to wonder by all this is any of the current political candidates have cited a work of literature in the many speeches they have given. My hunch is not a one has done so. Has any candidate for public office or elected official in this country every cited a work of literature? These questions are not raised in jest. After all, isn’t a country’s literary culture one way to measure its quality of life?





2.16.2016

When Breath Becomes Air

Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death. Paul Kalanithi

What makes life meaningful? Paul Kalanithi asks this question over and over in his memoir When Breath Becomes Air.

“As soon as the CT scan was done, I began reviewing the images. The diagnosis was immediate: Masses matting the lungs and deforming the spite. Cancer. In my neurosurgical training, I had reviewed hundreds of scan for fellow doctors to see if surgery offered any hope. I’d scribble in the chart “Widely metastatic disease—no role of surgery.” And move on. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

Kalanithi died March 9, 2015 at the age of thirty-seven, twenty-two months after he saw that CT scan. It was coming face to face with his own mortality that led him to try to understand what constitutes a meaningful life.

And it was before operating on his patients that he realized he must first understand the patient’s mind, their values, what makes their life worth living, and what makes it reasonable to let their life end.

Kalinithi was raised in Kingman, Arizona and had no interest in becoming a doctor, although both his parents were physicians. His mother, concerned about the dismal state of education in Kingman, gave Kalinithi and his brothers book after book to read, instead. Determined to be a writer, he received a BA and MA in English literature at Stanford, in addition to majoring in biology.

“I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.”

After a year in Cambridge studying the history and philosophy of science, he decided to enter medical school at Yale and choose a career in neurosurgery. When Breath Becomes Air describes the rigorous and lengthy training required in medical school. He returned to Stanford for an even more grueling residency in neurological surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience.

His eleven years of training were almost finished when the effects of lung cancer—weight loss, fevers, chest pain, night sweats, unremitting back pain, cough and the effects of chemotherapy-- made it impossible for him to continue.

Through it all he never stopped reading literature or hoping he would be able to write one day. He wrote, “Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection.” His tremendous ambition compelled his to begin work on his memoir which he almost finished before he died. His wife, Lucy, completed the manuscript in an Epilogue.

Moral reflection infuses the book. It challenged him to examine the meaning of life before operating on his patients, to confront his own mortality, and to ask the readers to do the same.

What makes your life meaningful?

“Everyone succumbs to finiitude… Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.”

Kalanithi also frequently reflects on time. How much time do I have left? Am I spending too much time on this operation? How long has the patient been under anesthesia? What time am I getting out of the hospital tonight? When Breath Becomes Air “carries the urgency of racing against time.”

How much time do you have left?

Knowing that he did not have long to live, he and his wife decided to have a child. And in the end he came to understand that his relationships with his wife, large family, close friends, and above all his daughter, Cady, meant most to him.

He doubts that she will remember him, all he has are his words. The message he writes to her is simple.

“When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

In the Epilogue Lucy Kalanithi says that the Paul wrestled with death as a physician and as a patient. “He wanted to help people understand death and face their morality.” When Breath Becomes Air certainly had that effect on me. I think you have to be of a certain age for that to happen and I suppose that is a good thing.


2.12.2016

Super Bowl 50

Professional football isn’t one of my favorite sports and I haven’t watched many Super Bowls, since the first one, 50 long years ago. But the one this year was different, so I did watch most of the game last Sunday.

With the increasing reports of brain disease in former National Football League (N.F.L.) players, I was concerned about where the game was going. C.T.E is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma that has been found in dozens of former N.F.L players.

The game is brutal, violent, fierce, a genuine battle of gladiators. When a player is tackled, there’s a mass of other players piling on one another with as much force as they can muster. The playing field is sometimes hard. Even with newly designed helmets, banging your head on that surface time and time again is jolting. So is every collision between two players that jars their head.

According to Susan Margulies, a concussion researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, “no helmet has been devised that can effectively reduce the rotational acceleration that sloshing within the head that’s happening in the brain itself.”

The data on the frequency of concussions is clear. According to Ben Shipgel (Times, 1/30/16) National Football League players sustained 271 concussions last year, an increase of 31.6 percent from 2014.

Shipgel writes, “Helmet-to-helmet contact accounted for 92 of the 182 regular-season concussions…The second-leading source was the playing surface.” Shoulder and knee contact produced a majority of the balance.

It’s those concussions, game after game, year after year that give rise to degenerative brain disease. As the players age, the signs of the disease become more frequent—forgetfulness, bursts of anger, depression, severe dementia. It is only after they die that an autopsy can reveal the extent of brain disease.

Watching the N.F.L games becomes something of a moral dilemma. Am I complicit, along with all the others who feel as I do, in supporting the game by continuing to watch it? And then there’s the added issue how the game itself might foster a certain tolerance for violence.

Greg Easterbrook writes in his book The Game’s Not over: In Defense of Football, “What does it mean that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in America…features giant muscled men, mostly African-American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage?”

Yes, the players say they know the risks and, in spite of that are willing to keep playing. But do they really know the risks, the possibility that many years down the road, they will fall victim to a brain disease? We are woefully lacking in being able to accurately predicting our future, particularly the likelihood of those events that will befall us as we age.

Is there anything than can be done? Adam Gopnik puts the matter realistically on the New Yorker website:

“But it does not seem beyond the ingenuity of Americans…to find a way for us to play our national sport without condemning its heroes to nightmarish final years of confusion and depression. As with most social problems, a program of reasonable reform on many fronts—new helmets, however silly they may look; a roster of sensible protocols and precautions, above all new rules on tackling, …might yet rescue the game, and assure that there will be a hundredth Super Bowl, somewhere ahead.”



2.08.2016

We Die Alone

March 1943 in Northern England. Four Norwegian commandos set sail for their Nazi occupied homeland. Their mission is to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance. The commandos were betrayed, Germans were informed of their mission, and attacked by one of their ships as they approached the Norwegian coast. Only one of the four commandos survived.

His name is Jan Baalsrud. He managed to swim ashore, then continued swimming from one island to the next until the Germans lost sight of him. The story of the next 68-day ordeal is told by David Howarth in We Die Alone.

Battling bitter cold, frostbite, the loss of one of his boots and partially blinded by ceaseless snow, Jan swims, walks, crawls, climbs from one island to the next until he lay dying of cold and exhaustion on a beach.

After some time, he was found by two young girls who took him to their home, where he was fed, given new clothes and a few days of rest. He was then rowed to another island and began walking across steep mountain ranges in an effort to reach safety in neutral Sweden.

As if this wasn’t enough, the rest of Jan’s excursion was one misfortune after another. He spent most of his time alone, although he was helped from time to time by Norwegian villagers who at great risk to themselves and their family, tried to aid him, minimize his suffering, and move him closer to the border.

At one point he started an avalanche, fell at least 300 feet, suffered a concussion and all but his head was buried in the snow.

What kept him alive is a mystery. It was not hope, because he had none, and it was not any of the physical conditions which are usually supposed to be essential to human life. Perhaps it is nearest to the truth to put his survival down to stubborn distaste for dying in such gruesome circumstances.

Eventually he crawled out and continued on his trek until finally he stumbled into the cottage of Marius Gronvold and his family who took him in for a week to recover.

Gangrene had invaded his toes, Jan drained them and eventually cut off nine of them to save his legs. Since he could no longer walk, Gronvold and his friends built a sled to transport him up a 3,000-foot mountain where another group was supposed to meet him. But a winter storm developed that made it impossible for them to find him.

Gronvold was forced to leave Jan in a hole protected by a boulder. He spent the next 20 days in a sleeping bag immobilized in the snow, periodically supplied by Gronvold and other members of the resistance in the village.

Finally, a group of Laps and their reindeer came to his rescue and dragged his sled across the border into Sweden where he was treated in a village hospital for seven months.

We Die Alone is one of those World War II tales that defies belief. At the start, I knew Jan would survive. But I had to know how? No one could survive under those conditions. Somehow he did. However, he never couldn’t have done it without the help of a great many courageous Norwegians.

There was nobody who could share the pictures which were still so vivid in his own mind: pictures of endless snow, the cold, the glaring nights, the procession of faces of people who had offered their lives for his and whose names he had never known, the sound and smells of the northern wastelands, the solitude and hopelessness and pain.





2.01.2016

What If?

Encounters between people, it often seems to me, are like crossings of racing trains at breakneck speed in the deepest night. We cast fleeting, rushed looks at the others sitting behind dull glass in dim light, who disappear from our field of vision as soon as we barely have time to perceive them. Pascal Mercier

A young woman, a young man, reading a book, the same book, passing each other on trains going in opposite directions. From the November 8, 2004 New Yorker cover. What might have been if they were seated next to one another on the same train? A brewing romance? A brief conversation? Will they be getting off at the same station?

I often think about counterfactuals. How might my life had been like if I had gone to law school, rather than graduate school in psychology? Or if I had gone to the school in the east, rather than the one in the west? As for that question, I never would have met my wife, if I had gone to the eastern school.

After I graduated in psychology at Berkeley, I was offered a job at a new university in the east. My wife and I went back to meet the members of the Department and so I could give a seminar. Afterwards, we looked around for a house to buy, the lawns were brown, it was bitterly cold and my wife found it impossible to imagine living there. What might our life have been like, if we had stuck it out and remained in the east and the now-rather-prestigious university?

It was Sunday, in the early afternoon on a warm sunny day in Lucca, Italy. I was casually moseying around the Piazza Napoleone when I came across a woman looking intently at me. And then when I passed by her, she did something women never do to me--she smiled.

A few days later, I saw her again. She saw me. We practically stumbled across one another. Both of us smiled at each other broadly. But we were at the train station. I was on my way back to Florence. It appeared she was returning once again to Lucca. Should I have stopped and forgotten about the train waiting on the tracks? Should I have even smiled at her when we saw each other again? She did. What was I to do? Pretend to be blind?

Twelve years ago, Philip Roth imagined a counterfactual history of this country in his novel The Plot Against America. He wrote that the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh defeated Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.

Lindbergh was an isolationist, as well as a Nazi sympathizer. In The Plot Against America he signed an agreement with Hitler that the United States would not enter the war. At the same time, the agreement had dire consequences for America’s Jewish population.

All I can think of as I recalled Roth’s novel was the current political scene in this country. Like many others, I worry about the apparent popularity of the leading candidate for the Republican nomination.

Are we approaching something similar? Can, as Roth wrote, … the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others? Who knows? The possibility is frightening.






1.25.2016

What Do Runners Think About When They Run?

I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state because it was such a joy to run. Louisa May Alcott

What do runners think about when they run? Kathryn Schulz asked this question in her article on the New Yorker website. She posed this question as she began reflecting about the more than 50,000 runners who recently ran the New York Marathon, an ordeal of 26.2 miles, from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the finish line in Central Park

Some of the fastest runners completed the distance in a little over 2 hours, others around 6, while others didn't finish at all. She said asking about what runners are thinking during this grueling race is a reasonable question, since running 26.2 miles inevitably involves a great deal of time to think. She writes,

“To run five or ten or twenty-six miles is, as much as anything else, to engage in a sustained way with the deep strangeness that is the human mind.”

Is it really such a reasonable question? I imagine the thoughts of runners of any distance vary as much as the number of runners. I say this in light of the fact that I was once a runner, each day of the week, no matter the weather, hot or cold, sunny or cloudy, humid or dry. My thoughts while running were never the same from one day to the next.

I am also uncertain if it is a reasonable question knowing how difficult it is to measure the thoughts of runners while running or doing anything else for that matter. Schulz cites a study that attempted to do this.

The study, conducted by Ashley Samson and three colleagues, was published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Each of the ten runners were asked to describe what what they were thinking while running. Shultz writes “Afterward, the researchers transcribed those monologues, identified the thoughts they contained, and divided them up into three categories: Pace and Distance, Pain and Discomfort, and Environment.”

What is one to make of this study? The group was rather small (10), only one run was measured, and from Schulz’s description we know nothing about how long they ran, the gender of the runners or the weather conditions the day the study was conducted. With these caveats, the results indicated the runners spent most of their time thinking about their pace and how long the distance was.

The researchers wrote, “pain and discomfort were never far from their thoughts…all told, fully a third of runners’ thoughts concerned the downsides of running. The remaining thoughts pertained to the runners’ immediate environment…terrain and wildlife, and thoughts about weather, traffic, and the other people around them.”

In general, my experience confirms these findings. Some days I fretted about how cold or windy it was, other days I thought about the classes I was to teach, and then some days I worried about the dog racing after me, if he would jump on my back, crashing me to the pavement as he had done once before.

Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running answered Schulz’s question as clearly as anyone when he wrote: “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.” He also added that he would never know what he was thinking while running unless he put his thoughts in writing, as he did in those two sentences.

Regardless of all these weighty particulars, countless research studies have demonstrated that exercise seems to stimulate our neurons and synapses. So throw away those crossword and Sudoku puzzles and go for a swim, walk, bike ride, or run. You’ll be healthier, feel better, loose some weight, and power-up your brain.







1.19.2016

Phishing for Phools

In 1984 Robert Cialdini published Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion in which he described six compliance techniques--Reciprocity, Commitment, Social Proof, Scarcity, Liking and Authority-- that are widely used to influence behavior. Advertisers use them, government agencies use them, corporations use them.

Last year (2015), thirty-one years later, economists and Nobel laureates George Akerlof and Robert Schiller have to a large extent recast and expanded upon Cialdini’s ideas in their book, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception.

While Cialdini’s formulation focused on how individuals respond to “professional compliance” techniques, Akerlof and Shiller offer a more general account of why free markets “make fools of us” by capitalizing on human weaknesses.

According to Cass Sunstein’s review (New York Review of Books, 10/22/15) Akerlof and Shiller distinguish between phish and phools. Phisherman such as banks, drug companies, real estate agents, automobile salesmen, and cigarette companies take advantage of human failings to do something that is in the phisherman’s interest, but not in the phools.

Human failings are any number of human errors such as overconfidence, loss aversion and short term, rather than long term bias. Sunstein writes:

Informational phools are victimized by factual claims that are intentionally designed to deceive them, …psychological phools [are] led astray either by their emotions…or by cognitive biases…

They also believe that phishing for phools “is the leading cause of the financial crises that lead to the deepest recessions.”

In his review Sunstein’s central message is that give and take of free markets are distorted by phisherman. They lead people to smoke by sowing doubt about current research; they lead people to underestimate the harmful effects of alcohol and overeating; they induce individuals to buy a product they don’t need or is unhealthy.

In these respects, the so-called “invisible hand” can readily go wrong. As a result, some kind of regulation is required to curb the phisherman’s power. It remains unclear what form regulatory interventions might take and how they can ever be implemented, let alone legislated given the current mood of this country.

In Akerlof and Shiller’s view “companies exploit human weaknesses not necessarily because they are malicious or venal, but because the market makes them do it.” Corporations seek to maximize their profits and in most cases will exploit every opportunity to do so.

In short, once we understand the extent to which individuals succumb to phisherman techniques, we will have yet another reason to call free market economics into question.