A Moveable Feast

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast

Parisians have turned to a book in droves following the terrorist attacks. Hemingway’s Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, has become a best seller, the most popular book in France at this time.

According to the Guardian (11/20/15) the book is No 1 on Amazon’s French site, booksellers are running out of copies and, to meet the demand, the publisher continues to print thousands of new copies.

Hemingway takes you right into the mood of being in Paris, a Paris that Parisians hope to recapture in reading the book. He goes to the cafes--sometimes to write, or to talk, at other times to hide, and then to eat or drink.

Hemingway writes about the craft of writing and how he did it and how to do it better. “Up in that room I decided I would write one story about each thing I knew about.”

Currently there is an exhibition of Hemingway’s letters, photographs, films, and corrected proofs of his books at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York—Ernest Hemingway—Between Two Wars.

In a letter to his father he tries to explain what he was trying to do. “You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do that without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful.”

A Moveable Feast was written toward the end of his life and published posthumously in 1964, long after his youthful days in Paris. In it he traces the writers he knew there, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, each of whom took an interest in his work and responded with encouragement and appraisal.

Alison Flood, the author of the Guardian article notes that the book is published in French as Paris est une fete (Paris is a Celebration.)
She says it has struck a “chord with the mood of defiance in the wake of the attacks. This has seen Parisians drinking and eating in restaurants, cafes and bars…and posting about it under the slogan “Je suis en terrasse: on social media.”

"There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it."


Small Miracles

Many years ago I watched a man punching buttons on a storefront machine in a residential area of Florence. It was an automatic video-cassettes (VHS tapes) vender that operates like a cash machine. He inserted his credit card, read the menu of available videos, requested a brief review of those he was interested in, selected the one he wanted, and hit the button. Bingo it came rolling out the slot. All the videos were visible behind the window of this unattended mini-store. No human intervention. No exchange of cash. No talk or banter about the films. Just the person, the card, and those buttons.

Similar DVD dispensers are now placed in markets, libraries, pharmacies, malls, really almost anywhere. They operate with the same routine—the DVD titles are displayed, with a brief description, and information about the rental costs. You don’t have to download a film on your computer or smartphone, don’t have to wait for one from Netflix or pay a monthly fee for the few films you might like to see. No, all you have to do is head down the block and pick one up at your neighborhood kiosk.

Then there’s vending machines that sell print books. Actually these ingenious devices have been around for a long time. According to John Geohegen (Huffington Post 5/25/13) the first book dispensing vending machine was built by Richard Carlile in England in 1822. He writes, Carlile was a bookseller who wanted to sell seditious works like Paine’s Age of Reason without being thrown into jail. His answer was a self service machine that allowed customers to buy questionable books without ever coming into contact with Carlile. The customer turned a dial on the device to the publication he wanted, deposited his money, and the material dropped down in front of him.

Since then the technology of book vending machines has been modernized so that now there are Book-O-Mats, Readomatics and Biblio-Mats that can be found in libraries, airports, subway stations, etc. Most of the books available on these ingenious gadgets are mass market bestsellers. You don’t find The Dialogues of Plato or The Consolations of Philosophy. For them you have to trek to the library or the ever-popular Amazon website.

An article in The Guardian (11/13/15) on short story vending machines put me in mind of all their forerunners. The article describes the free, short story story from machines in Grenoble, France that can currently be found in its town hall, library, and commuter stations. The co-founder reports that more than 10,000 stories have already been printed.

“The French publisher hopes the stories will be used to fill the dead time of a commute, in a society where daily lives are moving quicker and quicker and where time is becoming precious. In the bus, the tram or the metro, everyone can make the most of these moments to read short stories, poems or short comics. And they can be sure to enjoy the ending.”

All this is well and good, especially the fact that the stories are free. But I wonder how popular they will be for individuals who are already reading on their iPad, Kindle, smartphone or even the fast-disappearing printed book. The same holds for individuals who like to enjoy a quiet moment of reflection or conversation with their friend as they are traveling to their destination.


The Spirt of Coffee Houses

It was good to learn this morning that the French are returning to their cafes and coffee houses as a show of defiance. In sympathy with the French, I am reposting this blog I wrote some time ago.

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt had on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. Hemingway

Over thirty years ago I bought a book titled Coffee Houses of Europe. I don't know how I managed to save it all this time, since it is a large, heavy book, filled with beautiful color photographs of some of the most famous coffee houses in Europe. Really, it’s a coffee table book and apparently it has become quite a treasure.

I’ve also had a life-long interest in the coffee house culture and the spirit that it is said to engender. No doubt that’s because most of the cities I’ve lived in have not been blessed with coffee houses or its culture. But in those that I have visited in France and Italy, I’ve felt their warmth and congeniality.

In his Introduction to the photographic plates, the Hungarian-born writer George Mikes distinguishes between the classic coffee houses of Central Europe--Vienna, Budapest, Prague—from those of Lisbon, Paris and London. He calls the latter “places,” while those in Central Europe are “a way of life…a way of looking at the world by those who do not want to look at the world at all.”

While the distinction is untrue, the classic coffee house often becomes a habitual part of a “regular’s” daily life and for some, a place where most of the day is spent. “There were coffee houses for writers, journalists and artists, and these were the most famous, because their members were…”

Mikes must have a thing against the French because he asserts, The French simply use the cafes; they don’t live there.” He claims they actually go there to have a cup of coffee or meet a friend. That is contradicted by my brief experiences at the cafes around the Sorbonne. There I have observed lively conversations between students and their professors that have surely lasted more than the hour or so of my visit.

In The Great Good Place Ray Oldenburg writes, “The coffee house, however, was fundamentally a form of human association, a gratifying one, and the need for such a society can hardly be said to have disappeared.” This has been the case from their beginning in Istanbul, where the first coffeehouses were established during the sixteenth century.

A French observer described these early coffeehouses as settings where “…news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government.” Games—chess, backgammon, checkers—were also played and writers of the days read their poems and stories. This tradition spread to England and the countries of Western and Central Europe during the following century. Again their central features were sociability marked by congeniality, conversation, and social equality.

The spirit of the classic European coffeehouse has all but vanished in this country. Instead, they have been transformed into solitary, monastery-like places of keyboards and screens. Where there was once a lively conversation, now there is silence. Where there was once a group of friends and colleagues gathered around a table, now there are solitary individuals. Where there was once writing notebooks, now there are laptop computers.

Malcolm Gladwell put this as well as anyone: “I like people around me; but I don’t want to talk to them.



I find it impossible to say anything appropriate after the attacks in Paris.

Marks in the Margin will remain silent for awhile in the hope that a period of quiet will somehow provide some distance from this brutal tragedy.


The Vanished World

“The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print -- the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly." John Williams

I first read Stoner long after I left the academic world. Each time I read it, it’s truth rings true to my experience, as William Stoner’s life in some respects mirrors mine.

Like Stoner I was a tenured teacher at a college I had always dreamed of going to. Like Stoner I loved teaching and always thought of it as my occupation. And like Stoner I doubt if few students remember me now or the research I did then.

But that is where our similarities end. As Maggie Doherty writes in her article, “The Vanished World of Stoner” (New Republic 11/3/15) in Stoner’s day, as well as mine, most full-time faculty members were in a tenure-track position.

Doherty writes that is no longer the case, which makes an academic life increasingly precarious. In the interests of cost-cutting, administrators rely on adjunct or part-time faculty members. “In the 1970s roughly two-thirds of university faculty were tenured or tenure track. Today, only 24 percent of faculty on on the tenure track.”

Doherty is a part-time lecturer in literature at Harvard. She says she was hired on a multi-year contract and is well compensated for her work. Apparently, this makes it unnecessary for her to teach at other nearby universities. Other part-time teachers are not so fortunate.

She says the median adjunct salary for teaching a semester-long course is $2,700. How can anyone get by on that kind of salary? As a result, many adjunct professors teach courses at one or more other colleges, are not eligible for benefits and spend hours in traffic traveling from one to the other.

“…a study…found that roughly one quarter of the nation’s one million part-time college faculty receives some form of government aid.”

In my day there were a plethora of full-time tenure track jobs. Quite the opposite in true now. Doherty says this will be the third year she is applying for a tenure track position. She says there are 67 job openings in this country for scholars of American literature.

“I am qualified to apply to fewer than ten of these jobs. To say these are highly competitive positions is an understatement. I’ve heard of openings that receive upwards of 700 applications.”

This month The New York Review of Books will publish The 50th Anniversary Edition of John Williams’ Stoner. Ian McEwan said, “It’s a marvelous discovery for everyone who loves literature.” If you’ve not yet read it, I encourage you to do so.

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

Note: After I wrote this blog, the New Yorker published a short piece on commuter teachers. It's a sad tale confirming everything Doherty wrote. If you are a New Yorker subscriber you can read it in the "Here to There Department" in the November 16th issue. Unfortunately the magazine will not allow me to post a link to it.


Free Speech

In his commencement speech at Dickinson University this year, Ian McEwan delivered an impassioned defense of free speech. He said without it, democracy is a sham.

He pointed to the First Amendment as the foundation of this country, the bedrock of all the other freedoms we have, including the liberal education the students just received. Elsewhere freedom of speech is under attack.

“Across almost the entire Middle East, free thought can bring punishment or death…the same is true in Bangladesh, Pakistan, across great swathes of Africa. These past years the public space for free thought in Russia has been shrinking. In China state …[there is] a level of thought repression unprecedented in human history.”

This week (11/2/15) the director of a Ukrainian language library in Moscow was placed under house arrest for allowing access to banned Ukrainian books. In Iran two poets were sentenced to long prison terms and flogging for their poetic writings that were said to offend anti-Western factions.

In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Badawi is a writer and blogger who has been jailed, fined, and flogged. He has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and is serving a 10-year prison sentence for insulting Islam on his website.

The authorities also jailed Badawi’s lawyer who was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “undermining the government, inciting public opinion, and insulting the judiciary.”

In China over 30 individuals (doctors, lawyers, students, teachers, writers, etc,) have been detained, jailed or exiled for defending free speech or their pro-democracy views.

McEwan spoke of the brutal attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the puzzling objections of some of the writers attending the recent American PEN gathering to defend free speech throughout the world.

At times free expression has been threatened in this country. One need only remember the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his reckless, unsubstantiated accusations. Even during the administration of George Bush, I felt that free speech was limited in some areas. And the same was true during the Vietnam-era protests.

McEwan called on the students to remember the words of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

He concluded his address by quoting George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.”

We live in a privileged time in this country with unlimited freedoms that we usually take for granted. We never can be reminded too often of the liberties we enjoy. At the same time, there are always potential threats to these freedoms.

I am reminded of what Thomas Jefferson was said to have remarked, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”


Night Train to Lisbon Again

The best education comes from knowing only one book. James Salter All That Is

It’s been five years since I read Night Train to Lisbon. I thought it was one of the best books I ever read. It’s time to read it again.

As I start, it is every bit as good as I remember it. The initial appeal of reading some books sometimes vanishes when you reread them. But not this one, its brilliance hasn’t faded.

Gregorious was a teacher. I was as well. Although I eventually grew disenchanted with the discipline I had been studying and teaching for years, Gregorious could never abandon his devotion to linguistics, languages and the beauty of words.

He loved the Latin sentences because they bore the calm of everything past. Because they didn’t make you say something. Because they were speech beyond talk. And because they were beautiful in their immutability. 

Recently I have felt the need to break out into something different. That is what Gregorious does, following a chance encounter with a woman about to take her life by jumping off a bridge. But it is a book written by a scholar in new foreign language that draws him away from the school he had been going to all his life, first as a student and then a much-admired teacher.

That was the moment that decided everything, he thought when he recalled the event hours later. That is, all of a sudden, he realized that he really didn’t want to wipe away the trace of his encounter with the enigmatic woman. 

I’ve forgotten so much, starting with Gregorious’s recounting of his youth. I remember that it was the questions scattered throughout the novel that appealed to me. Never before had a read a book with so many questions, none of which were answered. That only led me to think about them, mull them over for a while. It’s a good technique. I remembered only a few specific questions. Rather it was their number that stood out.

How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments?

While, I’d not forgotten his ruminations on the long train trip to Lisbon from Bern, I did forget the businessman he met on the train who helped him a great deal upon arriving in Portugal and thereafter, as well. After a few weeks in Lisbon, he was invited to stay in his home.

…train travel as a riverbed of imagination, a movement where fantasy liquefied and passed you images from closed chambers of the soul. 

The man was Jose Antonio da Silveria who gives him the name of an ophthalmologist to fix the glasses he accidently broke on the train. He goes to her office. Doutora Mariana Conceicao Eca greets him, who we learn was a woman with big dark eyes. She is thorough, retests him several times, he admires her professionalism and it is obvious he feels more than that. Gregorious had been divorced from his wife for several years and is clearly rather lonely.

I had forgotten about the first person he visited who might have known Prado. Vitor Coutinho turned to be a bit of an eccentric old man who had seen him a couple of times in the hospital where Prado worked. They spoke for a while in an uneasy conversation and Gregorious learned the location where the house Prado and his sister, Adriana, lived. Perhaps she was still alive.

“I know that this man, a doctor, lived and worked here,” he went on in French. “I . . . I wanted to see where he lived and to talk with somebody who knew him. They’re such impressive sentences that he wrote. Wise sentences. Wonderful sentences. I’d like to know what the man was like who could write such sentences. 

As I read further, so much seems fresh, as if I was reading the book for the first time. Sometimes I come across a book that I had no idea I had read before. At least, I can’t recall anything about the story, the characters, how it ends and why I liked it. This experience is not unlike the one Sven Birkerts writes about in his American Scholar essay “Reading in the Digital Age.”

“You can shine the interrogation lamp in my face and ask me to describe Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and I will fail miserably, even though I have listed it as one of the novels I most admire. But I know that traces of its intelligence are in me, that I can, depending on the prompt, call up scenes from that novel in bright, unexpected flashes: it has not vanished completely."

And then later he writes: “What—I ask again—what has been the point of my reading? One way for me to try to answer is to ask what I do retain. Honest answer? A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche. Certainly I believe I have gained something important, though to hold that conviction I have to argue that memory access cannot be the sole criterion of impact: that there are other ways that we might possess information, impressions, and even understanding. For I will insist that my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it.”

What is the point of reading? I like the question. And think of answers other than what we recall. Pleasure. Learning. Escape. Companionship. Truths.

We forgot so much of our life that reading is really no different than anything else. And the subtle influences of the books we read surely operates in the same way as any other factor that shapes our life.

I read more. Gregorious slowly tracks down the people who might have known Prado. And I think why? He’s not going to write a biography. He’s surely not going to remain in Lisbon. Or maybe he will.

And why had he never had a friend as Jorge O’Kelly had been for Prado? A friend with whom he could have talked about things like loyalty and love, and about death? 

And then I remember the question Prado poses: Can you understand yourself any better by trying to understand the life of another person? Does Gregorious want to do that? He never explores the matter or write about how understanding Prado by talking to those who knew him, clarified his own life.

Gregorious goes to visit Prado’s favorite teacher, Father Bartolomeu, now living in a retirement home for the elderly. He has not lost his wits and recounts what a marvelous student Prado was--energetic, forceful, argumentative, passionate, informed well beyond his years. And then he recounts for Gregorious the speech he gave at graduation, one that astonished his listeners and lambasted them for their religious views. I had forgotten all this too, including Gregorius’ return to the school to read Prado’s speech. Mercier describes the close, almost intimate relationship the two had, yet I did not remember it.

Years later, he had written these lines to Father Bartolomeu: There are things that are too big for us humans: pain, loneliness and death, but also beauty, sublimity and happiness. For them we created religion. 

I had completely forgotten that Gregorious returned to Bern after being in Lisbon for a while. He wanted to be back home, to hear the language he knew, to walk through the old familiar streets. He collected his mail, snuck around his school, and in a day or so returned to Lisbon. It’s the details that have disappeared. Rather I remember only the general outline of the story and a few of the questions, the endless unanswered questions in The Goldsmith of Words.

How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments? Without joy in thinking? 

Then there was the serious incident when some food caught in Adrianna’s windpipe. She couldn’t breathe, Amadeau, who was studying for his medical exams then, tried the Heimlich maneuver. It didn’t work. He had studied tracheotomies, took a knife, cut a hole in Adriana’s windpipe, grabbed a pen to block the flow of blood and saved her life. I recalled none of that dramatic scene. It took her two weeks to recover in the hospital.

I am reading the book more slowly now. And I’m reading it in the Kindle e-book version on my iPad. I am surprised by how little difference it makes.

Of course, I’m seeing things I never noticed before. Prado’s real love was never Fatima, his wife. It was a girl who he had loved since his school days. She went to the girl’s section of the one he had studied in. He told her everything. And then toward the end it was the beautiful Estifania, a resistance fighter who he drove over the border to escape from Salazar’s assassins. He fell in love with her, but their time together was not long.

“You’re too hungry for me. It’s wonderful with you. But you’re too hungry for me. I can’t want this trip. You see, it would be your trip, yours alone. It couldn’t be ours.” And she was right: you mustn’t make others into the building blocks of your own life, into water bearers in the race for your own bliss. 

There was a party at the family villa of the man he met on the train. They were aristocrats. Silveira invited him, he went, behaved like a clown and everyone fell into the mood. Why had he never done anything like that before? I remembered none of it. It was a refreshing chapter in an otherwise very formal novel.

I have finished. There is sadness in coming to the end. If someone had asked me how it ended, I would not have been able to say. I had forgotten the bouts of dizziness that had overcome Gregorious, the stopover at Salamanca to hear the lecture of Estefania Espinhosa, to visit with her. Nor did I remember the conversations they had.

He says goodbye to everyone he had met in Lisbon, revisits the places he had gone, and eventually returns to Bern. There he arranges with his friend and doctor, Dioxides, to visit a clinic where they will perform some tests to learn what might be the source of his dizziness.

What do they reveal? Does he return to the Gymnasium and resume teaching classes or to Lisbon where he settles to start a new life? The answers remain unknown, best left for readers who wonder about these things.

Can we better understand ourselves by studying the life of someone else is one of the central questions Prado ask in The Goldsmith of Words. The question leads Gregorious to abandon his post at the Gymnasium in a quest to learn as much as he can about Prado, his family, friends and life he led in Lisbon. But like the other questions in Night Train to Lisbon, it is never answered or ever considered by Gregorious.

All we know is how difficult it is to know one another or ourselves. We remain in the dark about our wishes and intentions and the sources of our actions. And indeed, we do not know if the stories we tell about our self are any truer than what others tell about us. Above all, as Prado wrote: Life is not what we live; it is what we imagine living.

These issues interests me and at the end, I knew no more about them than I did before I read the book the first time. Neither does Greorgious, I imagine. Perhaps a biographer might have view? Or Peter Beiri, the pen name of Pascal Mercier, as his novel is essentially the biography of Amadeau Prado, a fictional creation but one who is given a complete life on the page.


Max Planck: The Tragic Choices

How do you decide to act when confronted by a morally objectionable situation? Do you remain silent, escape or resist? This general question is sympathetically depicted by Freeman Dyson in describing (New York Review of Books, 10/22/15) a recent biography of the German physicist Max Planck (Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War).

To provide a framework for his discussion, Dyson invokes the work of the economist Albert Hirschman in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. According to Hirschman, when faced with a gross failure, say the war in Vietnam, individuals, especially those in positions of responsibility, have to chose between three alternative responses.

“Exit meant to quite the enterprise. Voice meant to stay on the job but speak out for a change of direction. Loyalty meant to stay on the job and give support to the continuation of failing policies.”

Consider the situation of the two German physicists, Max Planck and Albert Einstein after Hitler had come to power. Both had made significant contributions to physics and were close friends, yet they responded differently when Einstein had seen the disaster coming, he moved to America and never returned to Germany again.

Einstein chose Exit, while Planck chose Loyalty, choosing to remain in Germany throughout the war and lend support to Hitler’s policies, including the racial laws. Like most Germans, Planck never chose Voice, to speak out against Hitler. To do so meant suicide.

It was his allegiance to Germany, to German society and its history, even when it fell under the spell of a mad despot, that made Planck’s life such a tragedy. I am reminded of something Virginia Woolf once wrote about foolish loyalties.

You must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them.

I also find Hirschman’s tripartite classification of wide generality. Those who choose exit in response to a gross failure, say a bankrupt business or unjust situation, can have only a small effect. Those who choose loyalty act to maintain the situation. Only those who choose voice can have any impact on correcting mistakes and injustices. But they must be fearless and persistent in speaking out against them, even if there is considerable risk in doing so.

When each of us look at our life and the responses we have made to failed and unjust policies, we can have a better idea of whether we have or have not behaved in accordance with our beliefs and fundamental values. Have we acted in accordance or inconsistently with them? And what does this reveal about our character?

The words of Stephane Hessel in his powerful manifesto Indignez-Vous are a reminder of what is possible.

The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage. We, the veterans of the Resistance movements and fighting forces of Free France, call on the younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas. We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry! Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy....

It is up to us, all of us together, to ensure that our society remains one to be proud of: not this society of undocumented workers and deportations…not the society where our retirement and other gains of social security are being called into question; not this society where the media are in the hands of the rich.

The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, “I can’t do anything about it: I’ll just get by.”


The Hunters

He was moving in a current of destiny quite alone, as alone as a man dying.”

The Hunters is James Salter’s first novel. It’s a moody novel, the mood is dark. Cleve Connell is one of a squadron of fighter pilots stationed at Kimpo Air Base during the Korean War. Their mission is to take on the North Korean MIGs.

There are endless days of rain, the missions are grounded, tedious days of boredom.

They watched the sky through dismal days. It was never blue. It was like a layer of grief. Almost unnoticed because it brought no change…The weather remained sullen. The rain fell drearily from swollen skies. It seemed as everlasting as the surf.

On other days the MIGs do not appear, they fly back to base, a wasted mission. Cleve is alone, trapped with a group of pilots who view him as a has-been. His vision is not what it used to be, his confidence is eroded and he is unlucky.

Open eyed on his cot, he suffered through the darkness. Then, more than at any other time, there was the constant feeling that he was being consumed, drained: and he did not know the extent of his reserves.

As his tour draws to a close, he and his wing-man Hunter fly well beyond the Yalu River, they remain in the area too long, and start back low on fuel. Cleve spots 4 MIGs, one of which is the dangerous “Casey Jones.” They follow him, Casey tries an impossible diving maneuver, Cleve somehow follows, shoots him down with a burst of his cannons.

…he had met and conquered a legend…victorious at last and feeling as little a desire to live as he had ever known.

He and Hunter run out of fuel, they try to glide back to base, Cleve makes it, but Hunter doesn’t, dies in crashing.

But Cleve’s camera failed to function, there is no way to confirm the kill. Cleve responds in a way he never imagined.

I can confirm it. Hunter got him…the sweeping magnanimity that accompanies triumph, but, as soon as he said the words, he realized there were no other that would have made it right.

Two missions later, a new wing-man loses sight of Cleve who does not return to base.

Death could be slighted or even ignored close by; but when the time came to meet it unexpectedly, no man could find it in himself not to cry silently or aloud for just one more reprieve to keep the world from ending.

The Hunters is exciting, tense, clouded by distress at Cleve’s plight. It also anticipates the many novels and short stories Salter would later write. The notes for the novel were written while he was serving as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. After it was published, he resigned from the Air Force to become a writer.


The Nearest Thing To Life

Art is the nearest thing to life: it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. George Eliot

I marvel at the depth and erudition of James Wood’s literary reviews in the New Yorker. His new book, The Nearest Thing to Life impresses me in the same way. The book is a blend of analysis and memoir drawn from some of his previous commentaries.

Wood retraces his youth in an intellectual and religious household in Durham, England. He describes how his discovery of literature liberated him from the hold of his churchgoing upbringing.

Literature, specifically fiction, allowed an escape from these habits of concealment… I still remember that adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and the short story as an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered.”

Throughout the book, Wood illustrates the way great literary writers are skilled in the art of noticing. What he calls the “life surplus of a story” consists in its details. The details are the instances that illustrate the more general form. He writes of Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss:”

Chekhov appears to notice everything. He sees that the story we tell in our heads is the most important one…for Ryabovich, his story has grown bigger and bigger and joined in real time the rhythm of life.”

For Wood, fiction allows us to see a life in all its “performance and pretense.” By noticing individuals carefully, we can begin to understand them. A reader would be wise to follow this practice in general.

In the last two chapters Wood recalls some of the books that meant most to him during his childhood. He also writes about the significance of leaving England for this country. He says he has made a home in this country, but not quite a Home. And he writes movingly about Edward Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile:”

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

It is clear Wood also feels displaced and disconnected between two places, at home in neither, and now finds it difficult to return to the land of his youth. Many years ago he made a large choice,

… that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life—is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, “afterwardness,” which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it form a very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of “afterwardness:: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.”

Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life is a beautiful book, filled with eloquent noticing, abundant literary references, a book to keep nearby, to turn to now and then.


Oliver Sacks

You mustn’t confuse the poem with the poet. Thom Gunn

Early this year I learned that Oliver Sacks had terminal cancer (Times, 1/19/15). On Sunday (8/30/15) Sacks died. He was 82 and had lived a remarkably varied life throughout those many years.

At once the news saddened me. In On the Move, his recently published memoir, he describes his early life in England during the War when he was sent away to a cruel private school in the country, his studies at Oxford, where he obtained his medical degree, his mother (surgeon) and father (general practitioner) and his Jewish Orthodox upbringing, his brothers, one of whom was schizophrenic and then his migration to this country where he wrote most of his memorable articles and books.

Sacks used to swim a mile every, broke weight lifting records on Santa Monica beach and for a period experimented with drugs, including LSD and amphetamines, which he became addicted to for a while. He used to drive his motorcycle for miles every day, sometimes all day to Las Vegas, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and back again at night.

There is a direct union with oneself with a motorcycle, for it is so geared to one’s proprioception, one’s movements and postures, that it responds almost like part of one’s own body. Bike and rider become a single indivisible entity…

Sacks was a deeply empathetic clinician who emphasized the importance of case studies. He argued this was essential to understanding individual lives, finding it useful in treating and explaining the disorders he sought to explain--migraines, Tourette’s syndrome, color blindness, autism, sleeping sickness and Parkinson’s.

Sacks devoted his life and writing to narrative medicine on these problems, relevant to both lay readers and medical professionals. In On the Move he wrote, “All sorts of generalizations are made possible by dealing with populations, but one needs the concrete, the particular, the personal too.”

Sacks learned much from his literary friendships with Auden, Thom Gunn and Jonathan Miller and in several respects his essays and journal articles are stories that read like fictional explorations. He attributes his great desire to write directly to his parents:

My mother was a natural storyteller. She would tell medical stories to her colleagues, her students, her patients, her friends. And she had told us—my three brothers and me—medical stories from our earliest days, stories sometimes grim and terrifying but always evocative of the personal qualities, the special value and valor, of the patient. My father, too, was a grand medical storyteller, and my parents’ sense of wonder at the vagaries of life, their combination of a clinical and a narrative cast of mind, was transmitted with great force to all of us.

When he learned he had terminal cancer he said he wanted to live in the months remaining to him “in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” There is little doubt he was able to do that, writing every day, continuing to publish articles, and books visiting his friends, and loved ones.

The act of writing, when it goes well, give me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place—irrespective of my subject—where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations or indeed the passage of time.

In a review of On the Move in the New York Review of Books (5/21/15), Jerome Groopman concluded “Oliver Sacks inspired my efforts as a physician-writer, as he has for so many others. I am, in a sense, one of his students. Now, in settings like my seminar, his work inspires the next generation to think and create. I will add On the Move to our reading list. His writing, like the light from a distant star, will continue to illuminate the lives of his readers, long after its source is extinguished.”

I was struck by Sacks predominant feelings when he learned that he had terminal cancer. It was “one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”

I must remember that sentiment for in every respect I share them--gratitude for long life, a life of learning and advantage for as long as I can remember.


Darkness Visible

“I’d feel the horror, like some poisonous fogbank, roll in upon my mind.” William Styron

For years I have pondered the mystery of my father’s alternating cycles of depression and elation that governed his life. I wondered what was at work to give rise to this strange and sad mix of horrible and wonderful days. I have read countless accounts of the various explanations for what is known now as bipolar disorder and the equally numerous treatments that attempt to alleviate it.

One of them was William Styron’s account in Darkness Visible of his battle with the storms of depression. The other day I noticed it on my bookshelf and decided to read it again. Styron describes his depression as “a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description”

He begins with an account of a trip to Paris in the winter of 1985 when he realized that the melancholy that had dogged him for months was descending into a “siege” that rendered him practically speechless and socially inept.

After he returned to his home in Connecticut he became bedridden, unable to write, with suicidal thoughts and a degree of suffering that was indescribable. In time he was hospitalized where its seclusion and the support of his family and friends enabled him to recover.

In my father’s case, neither psychoanalytic therapy, the drugs available at that time, electroshock treatment, or the best private "rest homes" gave him any lasting relief. Would the newer drugs and treatments available today have made a difference? Perhaps they might have made it easier for him to manage the furies more effectively or put them at a greater distance.

However, I am not at all sure about this and I remain a skeptic about the current views of the brain mechanisms that may be responsible for bipolar disorder. Yes, he may have had some kind of chemical imbalance, but I saw the world in which he grew up, the way his mother and father treated him, and how he had to spend his working days in the family business. It was never a placid situation. There was no escaping the world he brought with him but neither could he escape the one he had to live through during each and every day of his relatively brief life.

Styron also attributes the source of his depression to his early years where his father battled “the gorgon for much of his lifetime, and was hospitalized …after a spiraling downward that in retrospect I saw perfectly resembled mine.”

After reading Darkness Visible, I asked myself if Styron’s account of his descent into madness helped me to better understand my father’s torments. I confess it didn’t, although many readers wrote to him to say how grateful they were for describing so clearly their own battles with depression.

The only thing that ever helped me was an experience I had as a young man, after having my wisdom teeth removed. He was with me when I was recovering from Sodium Pentothal (so-called truth serum), the anesthetic used then.

Its aftereffects led to a period of uncontrollable crying that I was fully aware of but could do nothing to stop. I said to him then that I finally understood why he couldn’t do anything about the demons that descended upon him.

But that was an atypical experience as Sodium Pentothal is rarely used today. And yet it taught me why it is so difficult to grasp the essence of this illness that plagues so many people today. As Styron notes, “To most of those who have experienced it, the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression.“


The Attack

We are only the children of a ravaged, despised people, fighting with whatever means we can to recover our homeland and out dignity. Nothing more, nothing less.

In Yasmina Khadra's novel, The Attack, there is a suicide bombing at a child’s birthday party in Tel Aviv. Nineteen people are killed, including many of the children. Sihem, the wife of a highly respected Arab surgeon (Amin Jaafari) is identified as the bomber.

Amin cannot believe his much-loved wife was the culprit. He spends days and sleepless nights trying to find out why and how she did it. His life turns into a nightmare of drink and struggle.

Eventually he comes to accept it but that calls into question every assumption he had about his wife and the work he is doing as an Israeli citizen.

And once you’re flat on your back, you realize that your life, your whole life—with its ups and downs, its pains and pleasures, its promises and failures—hangs and has always hung by a thread as flimsy and imperceptible as the threads in a spider’s web.

We are frequently reminded of what Israel has done to his homeland, their brutality, inhumane violence, total destructiveness.

We’re in a world where people tear one another to pieces every day that God sends. We spend our evenings gathering our dead and our mornings burying them. Our homeland is violated right and left, our children can’t remember that the word school means…Our cities are being buried by machines on caterpillar tracks.

Possessing nothing more to hope for Amin returns to the hospital with his convictions as his only allies.

We could spend months and years striving for mutual understanding, and neither of us would ever be willing to listen to the other.…the only battle I believe in, the only one that really deserves bleeding for, is the battle the surgeon fights which consists in re-creating life in the place where death has chosen to conduct its maneuvers.


Black Dogs

Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth. Ian McEwan

On their honeymoon is the south of France June and Bernard Tremaine set out on a walk in the countryside. Both are devout Communists, agree on most everything and much in love. While Bernard stops to look closely at some caterpillars, June continues on her way.

Soon thereafter, two large, black dogs confront her. We learn later that the Germans left them to terrorize the villagers. June managed to ward off the dogs, but the encounter changed her life.

It became a mystical experience, turned her away from Communism and acquired a somewhat religious epiphany. In spite of their love for one another, June and Bernard never lived together again. June settled in a bergerie in the south of France; Bernard returned to England and ran successfully for Parliament.

McEwan’s tale is narrated by their adoptive son, Jeremy, who spoke frequently with both of them. The novel recounts their now-differing views on science, religion, and politics.

I believe McEwan intended June’s encounter with the black dogs as a metaphor for a fundamental feature of the human condition. He sums it up at the end:

I came face to face with evil. I didn’t quite know it at the time, but I sensed it in my fear—these animals were the creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for. The evil I’m talking about lives in all of us. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it’s children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself. Then it sinks back and waits. It’s something in our hearts.


The Nightingale

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are

Once I started Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those books you chance upon once in a while. The book surprised me. I had no idea who Kristin Hannah was, although she has apparently written over a dozen books. A friend picked it up at the bookstore, I started reading it, and at once decided to download it.

The book is about two sisters and their father in France during World War II. Those horrible years in France--how the French survived, the resistance some of them displayed and the role of collaborators--has always fascinated me, as have the inescapable moral issues.

Vianne, the oldest of the two sisters, lives with her husband, Antoine, and daughter in a village south of Paris. She is quiet, reserved, hard-working. Isabelle is impetuous, short tempered, a rebel. When their shell-shocked father returns from World War 1, everything changes. He is no longer the kind, serious scholar. Now he is angry, prone to drink, and harsh.

After his wife dies, he kicks his two daughters out of their apartment and sends them away to a Catholic school. Isabelle escapes from one school after another. Antoine is drafted into the Army and in time is captured, sent to a camp. Vianne struggles to get by in their country home.

Her clothing was as worn and ragged as that of most Parisians, and the clatter of wooden soles rang out. No one had leather anymore. She bypassed long queues of housewives and hollow-faced children standing outside of boulangeries and boucheries. Rations had been cut again and again and again….

Food is scarce, there is no heat, a German solider comes to occupy their home, then another after Vianne accidentally kills the first one. The second soldier is mean, lusts for her. Meanwhile, Isabelle joins the Resistance and becomes a hero after escorting downed English and American pilots across the Pyrenees numerous times.

On this cool October morning, her life would change. From the morning she boarded this train…she would no longer be the girl in the bookshop…From now on she was Juliette Gervaise, code name the Nightingale.

Later Vianne gains the cooperation of a Catholic nun to save children in the Sister’s school. The War goes on, the hardships increase, finally the Americans arrive, the Nazis are driven back, Antoine escapes from the camp, Isabelle is captured, somehow manages to survive and both Antoine and Isabelle return to their home when the War is over.

Those are the major occurrences in an otherwise rich and beautifully written novel. Hannah has that rare story telling gift.

In reading The Nightingale, I came to realize that fictional depictions of World War II are far more revealing than the non-fiction books I’ve read. The experiences, dangers, thoughts and emotions of the people seem to me much truer to what the experience must have been like.

I am reminded of a statement George Eliot wrote, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow man beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”


Gravity Payments

Perhaps the most striking illustration of economic inequality in this country is the pay gap between C.E.O.s and workers at their company. Gretchen Morgenson writes (Times 4/10/15) that despite federal regulations most companies fail to report this measure.

She cites an academic study that reported the C.E.O pay as a multiple of the average worker ‘s pay increased “from an average of 20 times in 1965 to 295.9 in 2013!”

Acknowledging that their estimates are imprecise, two labor economists, Dean Baker and Nicholas Buffie, have nevertheless calculated pay gaps in specific companies. They found that the Walt Disney had the widest pay gap in 2014. Their CEO received $43.7 million last year, while the median worker received $19,530, a C.E.O. worker ratio of 2,238!

Microsoft was next on the list. Their C.E.O. pay package last year was $84.3 million, 2,012 times the estimated median employee earnings of $41,900 at Microsoft.

And so it goes, down the list of enormous compensation for C.E.O.s and comparatively modest salaries for their employees. Is it any wonder public companies fail to report the C.E.O. pay ratio comparison with their workers. While efforts have been made to require them to do so, not surprisingly the rule met an avalanche of opposition.

Occasionally you read about a company that significantly increases the salary of the people who work there. The most recent example is the decision of Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, a credit-card processing firm, to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk to a minimum of $70,000.

A company spokesman said the salary of 30 of the 70 employees will double. The average salary at the company is $48,000 a year. So with one exception, the salaries of all the employees will increase. The exception is the salary of Dan Price who will pay for the wage increases by reducing his own salary from nearly one million to $70,000.

How many other C.E.O.s would be willing to follow suit? Clearly there aren’t many, a sad commentary on the state of capitalism in this country.

So who would have believed that Dan Price’s policy of guaranteeing each of his employees a minimum salary of $70,000 would cause the backlash it has? At least, I never imagined the controversy it has produced as described in Patricia Cohen’s article in the Times (7/31/15).

First, several long time clients withdrew their business because they didn’t agree with Price’s new policy. Others left because they anticipated a fee increase, in spite of assurances there wouldn’t be one. In addition, other companies in the Seattle area complained it made them look stingy.

Then employees started to leave because long serving staff members only received small or no raise. A few others left because of burnout, they simply didn’t much like Price or because it shackled high performers at the expense of less motivated staff.

Worst of all, Price’s older brother and Gravity co-founder filed a legal suit that threatened the company’s existence. Price simply didn’t have the money to pay the eventual legal fees. So he would had to scramble or consider borrowing heavily.

Even though the new minimum $70,000 salary plan generated many new clients, a great deal of publicity, and thousands of job applications, the effort to deal with all this was exhausting and distracting.

Price’s original goal had simply been to take a stand against income inequality in the only way he could. He had no idea of the brouhaha it would give rise to or that it would affect his personal life and financial condition so greatly.

Note: Dan Bertolini is the only other C.E.O. that I know about who has taken a somewhat similar action. I quote his example from an essay I wrote on economic inequality.

“It was a breath of fresh air to read that Mark Bertolini, Aetna’s C.E.O, announced (New Yorker, 2/2/15) that his lowest paid workers would receive a substantial raise, as well as improved medical coverage.

Even more remarkable was the reason he gave for the decision. He framed it in terms of the growing economic inequality in this country, mentioning Thomas Piketty’s influential Capital in the Twenty-First Century and that he had given a copy to each of his top executives.

Bertolini also said it wasn’t “fair” for a company as successful as Aetna for its employees to be struggling to get by, while his senior personnel were paid lavishly.

Companies are not just moneymaking machines. For the good of the social order, these are the kinds of investments we should be willing to make.

I suspect that an employee who is paid more will work harder, remain in the company longer, be absent from work less often, and, in turn, that the company’s productivity and profits will increase. Bertolini’s decision is an investment with an immediate and highly beneficial outcome for his company, as well as its many workers.



Many years ago I saw David Hare’s Skylight on the stage and more recently read the script. The play brings together two former lovers, Tom, now a relatively wealthy restaurateur and Kyra, a teacher of children in a lower class London school.

They had been lovers for several years until Tom’s wife learned about their affair, whereupon Kyra ended the liaison. Tom’s wife has recently died of cancer and he finds that he wants to see Kyra again. One night he unexpectedly arrives at her apartment.

Tom: You think I haven’t wanted to? My God, you think I haven’t wanted to call? To pick up the telephone? You think I haven’t wanted to jump in the car and bust my way through that bloody door?

Kyra I wish you’d take off your fucking coat. Her directness suddenly speaks of a whole past between them.

Tom Well, I would. Of course. If you’d get central heating. Then of course I’d take off my coat. But since you’ve made a style choice to live in Outer Siberia, I think for the moment I’ll keep my coat on.

There’s a genuine familiarity in their dialogue, they are glad to see one another, they battle like any lovers do. Tom wants Kyra to give up teaching, move to a nicer apartment, resume their relationship.

Krya: You started to lecture me. “Don’t waste you time on higher education, it’s only a way of postponing real life.”
However, Kyra is devoted to teaching, finds the business world repellent and Tom’s display of his wealth unattractive.

Kyra: I spend my time among very different people. People who often have nothing at all. And I find in them one great virtue at least: unlike the rich, they have no illusions that they must once have done something right! Nor do they suffer from delicate feelings.

At the end of the first act, they embrace, Kyra begins to cry, they take each other in their arms and Tom says, Kyra, I’m back.

In the second act their disagreements continue, nothing is resolved, and the play ends as Tom quietly leaves.

Tom and Kyra are bound together by a shared memory of love, but divided by income and belief. Theirs is an impossible love, a tragic one. In the present era of gross economic inequalities and class differences, I find the play even more compelling than when I first saw in it in the 90s.

Equally important is the personal resonance the play has for me in light of my own brief relationship with a young woman as different from me in income and status as Kyra and Tom.

Every now and then I wonder about what happened to her or if I would ever see her again. At times I have thought about e-mailing her. But why? What is the point? There isn’t any.


James Salter

James Salter died yesterday; he was 90 years old. Salter was and continues to be one of my favorite writers. I’ve written about him often. Have a look: http://marksinthemargin.blogspot.it/search/label/James%20Salter

Many other have as well. Here is a profile from the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/the-last-book . And an interview in the Paris Review: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1930/the-art-of-fiction-no-133-james-salter .

While I will miss another of his novels or short stores, there’s always the great pleasure of rereading them again.


Best Book of The Year

It’s the time of the year when readers write about their favorite book(s) of the year. All told it’s been a good year for both fiction and non-fiction books. Anyone who doubts this need only have a look at the large group mentioned on two Guardian pages here and here, as well as two in the Times here and here.

My favorite book of the year, In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman, an impressive philosophical novel was mentioned a couple of times. I wrote about it here and will read it again once the paperback version becomes available.

Joyce Carol Oates also gave the novel high marks recently in her review in The New York Review of Books (10/24/14).

What struck me about Oates’ two-page review was that none of the topics she dealt with were discussed in my review. For example, Rahman’s novel often reminded her of others. She felt the mordant tone of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness throughout the novel.

It also reminded her of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novels of dislocation and inquiry of Graham Greene and W. G Sebald and in the “suspense of its espionage-driven conclusion, the spy novels of John le Carre.”

I read the novel without such a literary background, a background that I never acquired in the first place. My reading was that of a naïve individual drawn to such a novel by its truths based on my study of epistemology as an undergraduate major in philosophy.

My only reference to another novel was to Pascal Mercier’s discussion in Night Train to Lisbon of how it might be possible to better understanding yourself by studying the life of another person, as the narrator of Rahman’s novel studies the life of his friend Zafar.

Oates continues in this view by noting the many ideas cited in the novel, reminded her of Mann’s Magic Mountain. Yet she doesn’t mention which of the ideas had this effect.

She does unfold the story of Zafar’s life, from his birth in Bangladesh to his arrival in Oxford, study of mathematics, work as a derivatives trader, doomed love affair with the temptress Emily Hampton-Wyvern and work with an NGO in Afghanistan. Oates’ emphasis in her account dwells on the class differences that continue to rule much of English life. She writes:

“In vain we wait for Zafar to consider that his infatuation with a member of the English aristocracy is a narcissistic projection of his own: a willful attempt to appropriate a person, and a family of a social class perceived as higher than his own, thus more desirable.”

While I was aware of the importance of this difference and the way it contributed to Zafar’s deep anger and scorn of the English aristocracy, ruling class, and the international aid programs in Afghanistan, it was not a subject I wrote about in my review.

Toward the end of the novel the narrator says his friend appears to him now as several Zafars--the Zafar of their college days together, the bedraggled Zafar who reappeared at his front door one day, and the Zafar revealed by the fragmented stories he tells the narrator and those he wrote in the pages of his notebook.

In like fashion, most readers of this novel view it from their own background, mine from a philosophical perspective, while Oates from her literary/writing tradition. Nevertheless, we both agree that In the Light of What We Know is a powerful novel, a rather unusual work of fiction in this day and age, with a great deal of insight about human relationships.

To view a BBC Interview with Rahman go here:


Economic Inequality: What Can Be Done?

The question of what can be done about the enormous economic inequalities in this country will conclude my discussion of this topic.

No sooner had I posted my first blog on the subject than Nicholas Kristof wrote a short note, “An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality,” in the Times. He reminds us that economic inequality has become increasingly worse in this country, impeding economic growth and creating large “fissures” in our society between the very rich and very poor. Moreover, the very wealthy have gained increasing control of the electoral process and reduced job opportunities for countless individuals.

Kristof concludes: “Inequality and lack of opportunity today constitute a national infirmity and vulnerability—and there are policy tools that can make a difference.”

This leaves wide open just what these policy tools are and, even more uncertain, just how they are ever going to be implemented.

The very next day, echoing the theme of my blog, Eduardo Porto wrote a note, “Why Voters Aren’t Angrier About Economic Inequality,” also in Times. He believes there are several reasons for the public’s passivity.

1. The poor vote less than the rich and they don’t necessarily vote on the basis of their economic interests.

2. Like Kristof, he says the rich have far more political power.

3. And he reviews another study (this one in Germany), reporting that individuals don’t grasp the magnitude of inequality. “Evidently, nobody has a clue.” He claims people in the United States not only seem to accept one of the largest gaps in the developed world but our government ranks among the “stingiest” in doing anything about it.

Two days latter the Russell Sage Foundation reported that the average U.S. household experienced a significant decline in net worth in the ten years ending in 2013. Then it was reported that 35% of U.S. individuals have credit card debts and unpaid bills large enough to be reported to collection agencies. As Caroline Radcliffe of the Urban Institute said, "Roughly, every third person you pass on the street is going to have debt in collections.”

But what can be done, what can realistically be done given the equally large political polarization in this country? Why is this question so rarely asked?

Perhaps it’s because all too many people believe the poor deserve to be poor and those who are rich have earned it. Or they believe we are focusing on the wrong problem, with the real problem slow growth, or education, or that “thwarting the people at the top” will have no effect on the people at the bottom, other than worsening their condition with as the economy comes tumbling down.

Meanwhile, in a bold post on the New Yorker Web site (1/28/14) John Cassidy did make ten proposals that Obama should mention in his State of the Union address delivered earlier this year, if he is genuinely serious about reducing economic inequality. Among the ten, five deal with taxes.

1. Abolish the payroll tax
2. Raise the top rate of income tax
3. Introduce a consumption tax
4. Tax wealth properly
5. Introduce a financial-transaction tax

In my view, each of these changes is desirable. Obama didn’t mention any of them and, even if he had, this Congress will never approve a single one, nor can the President issue an executive order to implement them.

Would they narrow the gap between the 1% and the 99%, if he could? Not everyone is convinced they will. The Nobel laureate Robert Solow commented at a seminar on inequality,

“I am very pessimistic about the capacity of the American political system to redistribute income within a reasonable period of time…I simply don’t think that legislation either to support the safety net or to tax high incomes stands a chance in Congress.”

In a word, income disparity between the rich and the poor in this country will continue, perhaps even deepen, until the Democrats or progressives of one ilk or another gain control of both houses of the Congress. But even then, it’s not a sure thing.

The other five of Cassidy’s proposals include:

1. Establish a guaranteed minimum wage
2. Give “ordinary Americans” grants to spend as desired
3. Nationalize the public education system
4. Expand technical education
5. Abolish private schools and legacy admissions to private universities

Like the Cassidy’s tax proposals, these additional five seem rather fanciful given the current political realities in this country. But what I find most remarkable about his post is how rarely we hear about any concrete proposals for narrowing the Great Divide(s) in this country.

Eduardo Porter asks (Times 11/4/2014) “Are we condemned then to largely futile efforts to reduce the widening gap?” He wonders if there are better tools that government redistribution to reduce inequality—education, increasing the minimum wage, reducing tax benefits for corporations and the wealthy. At present we have no data to determine their effectiveness. My hunch is that if we ever do, it will be a long time in coming.

Instead, we hear only one description after another about the growing economic gap between the rich and poor. Some accounts try to explain this, drawing on historical and political trends, as well as social policy comparisons with other nations. But more than anything, we hear the rhetoric.

Tom Perkins is one of the 1%, probably the.01%, one of the founders of a large venture capital firm. When asked recently what should be done to improve the lives of the 99%, he replied:

“I think the solution is less interference, lower taxes, let the rich do what the rich do—which is get richer, and along the way they bring everybody else along with them, when the system is working.”

There you have it, in a single, breathtaking sentence.


Plato at the Googleplex

What makes life worth living? When was the last time you heard this question? When was the last time you thought about it? Perhaps you don’t think it’s a question worth thinking about. Or, that it’s one of those perennial, unanswerable philosophical questions that only philosophers mull over.

Rebecca Goldstein ponders the question a great deal in her new book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.

Like Plato, she says that we really have to exert ourselves to make a life worth living. And the way to do so is to pursue philosophy in the way Plato viewed it. That means considering the questions of morality that we are confronted with almost each day—namely, what makes the specific actions and choices we make right or wrong?

The process of reasoning about these questions is distinctly philosophical. Such a life is exhausting, uncommon, and easily ignored. We don’t learn how to do this as young students or even in college unless you take a course in moral philosophy or read some of the Platonic dialogues. And even if you do, its relevance to ordinary life isn’t always clear. Goldstein writes:

The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers. What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away. His genius for formulating counter-reductive arguments is at one with the genius that allowed him to raise up the field of philosophy as we know it.

Few people think that a life of reasoning in that distinctly philosophical way constitutes a life worth living. Some, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer claim there really isn’t anything that does. Others believe that religion is the only place where they find meaning in life. I suppose the majority believe that finding happiness is the true measure of a life worth living. And there are those who believe being generous and charitable to others is the only kind of life worth living.

I know that a person’s answer to this question is a highly individual matter. In my case, when I think back on my long life, I know that I would never had been satisfied had I not been able to live a life of reasoning in the way Goldstein describes Plato’s life. It was a stroke of luck that I enrolled in a course on Plato as a sophomore in college. More than anything it open my eyes for the very first time to the path I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life.

When I think about all this I am always reminded of some remarks of an English historian, Keith Thomas, that he delivered in 2001 on the occasion of Fifth British Academy Lecture:

Finally, the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things and the same refusal to contemplate any dumbing down? And where else is hard-won knowledge freely imparted, without hope of financial recompense? So long as these qualities remain in evidence, those who follow the life of learning have no reason to be ashamed of their calling.



“As much as we hate to admit it, patients are a commodity.”

Not long ago I had occasion to visit a new doctor, as the one I usually saw was out of town. At the time I was experiencing a rather intense back pain. He stood at his computer taking notes on what I was saying, rarely looked at me, did not examine the location of my pain and quickly ordered an MRI.

I was in his office for not much more than 10 minutes and thought I had been treated almost dismissively.

As documented in Sandeep Jauhar’s Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician, the current pressures upon doctors explain why this is not an uncommon experience. The way managed care operates, insurance companies exert enormous control over medical practices. It is the new reality of medicine in this country today.

Insurance companies don’t reimburse doctors a great deal for spending time with patients. But they do for ordering stress tests, MRIs and CT scans (X-rays from several angles). This often leads to unnecessary testing, spending less time with patients and seeing as many as possible.

Are the tests worth the cost? Consider the evidence. The United States ranks 45th in life expectancy, near the last in infant mortality, and “in last place in terms of health care quality, access, and efficiency among major industrialized countries.”

Jauhar laments: How limited our interactions with patients, I thought. We see them for a few minutes, then pen a quick summary and leave directions for the nurses to follow. To whom are we speaking in these inky chart drizzles? Doctors, patients, a phantom lawyer?

Medical lapses and fear of lawsuits from diagnostic error requires doctors to take out medical malpractice insurance. The cost of these policies is prohibitive. Then there is all the paperwork doctors must complete each day. Jauhar writes:

American doctors spend almost an hour on average each day, and $83,000 per year—four times their Canadian counterparts—dealing with the paperwork of insurance companies); fear of lawsuits; runaway malpractice liability premiums; and finally, the loss of professional autonomy that has led many physicians to view themselves as pawns in a battle between insurers and the government

To compensate for his relatively stagnant income Jauhar begins to take on outside jobs. He speaks in behalf of a pharmaceutical company that makes a heart medication he prescribes and moonlights on weekends and evenings reading medically unnecessary cardiac stress and cardiogram tests for a “shady” physician.

The extra money helps to pay the rent for his apartment, schooling for his son, and needs of his pregnant wife. All this takes a toll on his family, to say nothing of Jauhar himself. He notes he was trained to be a caregiver and not a businessman “The constant intrusion of the marketplace has created serious and deepening anxiety in our profession.”

Burnout is an increasingly frequent response to this situation, with approximately a third of physicians surveyed admitting feeling that way, while others are giving up their practice entirely. Jauhar also comments that only 6% of physicians reported “positive moral” in a 2008 survey. In another study, 30 to 40 percent of practicing physicians said they would not choose to enter the medical profession if they were deciding on a career now.

Jauhar doesn’t offer many solutions to these fee-for-service problems. His one suggestion is to hire doctors as employees as they do at the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics. He believes this will take away the financial incentives to overtest.

After reading Doctored, I don’t think I will ever view the relationship I have with my doctor the same way. Is the test he is ordering necessary? Is the medication he is prescribing going to benefit me? Why has he spent so little time with me?

As I look back on some of the tests and medications he has ordered, I view them in a new light. The tests revealed nothing abnormal, the drugs sometimes did more harm than good. I wonder why he ever ordered them in the first place and I am not sure.

When I was a young boy, my doctor always made a house call when I was sick. Today that is almost unheard of. In 1930 40% of all doctor-patient visits were house calls. Today the proportion has dwindled to less that 1%.

Now the encounters I have with my doctor, often take place online or mediated through his nurse and it often takes weeks and sometimes a month to actually arrange an appointment with him.

Jauhar concludes: Most of us went into medicine to help people, not to follow corporate directives or to maximize income. We want to practice medicine the right way, but too many forces today are propelling us away from the bench or the bedside. No one ever goes into medicine to do unnecessary testing. However, this sort of behavior is rampant.


Let's Go to the Movies

Just a Sigh

They glimpse one another on the train. They are traveling from Calais to Paris. He is a literature teacher from England going to a funeral. She is an actress going to audition for an Ibsen play.

Their eyes frequently meet during the trip. As they leave the station, she overhears him asking directions to the Basilica of Ste. Clotilde.

Emmanuele Devos, 39, plays Alix, Gabriel Byrne, 63, plays Douglas. The chemistry between them is vivid and believable. After her audition, with much uncertainly and without much cash, she finds herself going to the church where the funeral is being held. Douglas is one of the mourners.

After the service, they exchange a few awkward words. Thereafter, they stroll through Paris, spend the rest of the day and night getting to know one another. We learn their history, heartbreaks, and fragilities.

It cannot last, they must depart, neither wants to. He asks her to come to England with him. She would like to. But she is pregnant and has a boyfriend in Paris. We sigh, they sigh, “Just a Sigh,” a beautiful film and touching story.

Queen to Play

I first saw Queen to Play (Joueuse) about five years ago. It is a French film about talent, about discovering your talent and how it often occurs by chance. Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) works as a chambermaid at a posh hotel on the island of Corsica. One day she notices a young couple playing chess on the balcony, flirting with every move. It is a seductive scene that leads Helene to try to revive her marriage by giving her husband a chess set for his birthday.

He has no interest in the game and so Helene begins to teach herself how to play. In the afternoon she also has a part-time job cleaning the home of a Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline), where she notices a chess set is prominently displayed. She volunteers to clean his home, without pay, if he will give her chess lessons.

They start to play and eventually she begins to beat him. Meanwhile, in her obsession with the game she plays constantly—at home in the middle of the night, at the hotel mopping the black and white tile floors, on a chessboard in her mind’s eye.

Dr. Kroger tells her she has a rare gift for the game, a natural talent that can’t be taught, that a few people have and most don’t. He encourages her to enter a local contest. She hesitates, finally enters, and ends up winning the tournament. The film ends as she is taking the boat from Corsica on her way to Paris to enter the French national championship.

Queen to Play is a charming, amusing fairy tale, thoroughly refreshing in a season of utterly tasteless films.

Wendy and Lucy

She is walking by railroad tracks with her dog. She is Wendy (Michelle Williams), the dog is Lucy and together they are the subjects of the film, Wendy and Lucy. They meet a group of vagabonds who appear to be slightly drunk. They ride the trains once in a while.

Other than that, we know nothing about Wendy except that she is heading in her old Honda to Alaska. She doesn’t have much money, goes into a small market in a small Oregon town, stuffs a doughnut in her pocket and is caught by a young clerk. Taken to the manager’s office, Wendy apologizes, then hauled off to jail for a few days.

Lucy had been tied to a post outside the market and when Wendy is released from jail she returns to find her missing. Her car can’t start. Across the street is a mechanic who tells her what it will cost to fix everything wrong with the car. When it’s completed, she can’t afford to pay for it and walks away from the car.

The rest of the film she searches for Lucy, walking everywhere, visits the pound day after day or calling them. A friendly police officer sees her comings and goings, offers her the use his phone. Eventually the pound calls to tell her where Lucy is.

She walks over to the house, sees Lucy in a fenced yard, they greet each other gleefully, tears begin to roll down Wendy’s face, as she realizes what she must do. She leaves, walks away, and hops aboard an open boxcar on the train passing by.

This is the story of Wendy and Lucy. Nothing more, but Wendy’s expressive face, even if it’s rarely expresses much of anything. The tale is heartbreaking, a film I will never forget.

Wendy hasn’t dropped out of life, but life has given her nothing but grief. She doesn’t have a friend, loses the only thing she loved, doesn’t have a job, doesn’t search for one, all she wants to do is get to Alaska where there is money in the salmon canning factories.

We very much want her to, it’s too late to turn back, but we sense her wish is a pipe dream. Luck rarely comes to the Wendys of the world, Wendys who begin with nothing and spend the rest of their life trying to find just a little something.