5.30.2009

Weekend Links

Uncertainty Takes Its Toll
http://happydays.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/20/what-you-dont-know-makes-you-nervous/?scp=1&sq=DANIEL%20GILBERT&st=cse

Late Spring Bookspotting
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/05/bookspotting-washington-square.html

Piano Lit

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/books/review/Queenan-t.html?_r=2&scp=4&sq=Joe%20Queenan&st=cse

Practically Perfect
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/27/alice-munro-man-booker-international-prize

Refusing Orders
http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2009/05/26-8

Your Own Magazine
http://www.slate.com/id/2219063/

5.29.2009

Minor Miracle

Paul Sturgis, the main character in Anita Brookner’s Strangers, longs for a serious conversation, an exchange with another person, almost anyone will do. Who has not longed for a genuine conversation? Who has not regretted how infrequently they occur? Here is how it happens in Leaving Las Vegas, both the novel by John O’Brien and the film directed by Mike Figgis,

“...Ben pulls back out into traffic for the short drive ahead. Instantly there is between them, however slight, that elusive chemistry which occurs only occasionally when two people meet. Always a welcome surprise, it is a sort of quick familiarity, implied permission to conduct relations at a level which is a bit deeper than the superficiality of introduction. Ben senses this and is beaming.”

Again the experience is captured perfectly in a work of fiction, this time by Haruki Murakami in a short story, Man-Eating Cats, first published in The New Yorker.

“Izumi was ten years younger than I was. We met at a business meeting. Something clicked between us the first time we laid eyes on each other. Not the kind of thing that happens all that often...We went to a small bar and had a few drinks. I can't recall exactly what we talked about but we found a million topics and could have talked forever. With a laser-like clarity, I could grasp everything she wanted to say. And things I couldn't explain well to anyone else came across to her with an exactness that took me by surprise. We were both married, with no major complaints about our married lives. We loved our spouses and respected them. Still, this was on the order of a minor miracle--running across someone to whom you can express your feelings so clearly, so completely. Most people go their entire lives without meeting a person like that. It would have been a mistake to label this "love." It was more like total empathy.”


Is it any wonder “minor miracles” like this are so rare? Instead, what I notice everywhere I look now are how utterly silent most relationships are. I notice it most vividly in some recent films. The married couple in Lantana, a film that moved me a greatly, have stopped talking to one another. They have drifted into a silent stupor, a lifeless inertia that goes on day after day. Only after they come face to face with a heartbreaking series of tragedies do they begin talking once again. I recognize that it sometimes takes such a jolt to bring two people back together.

Then there is the remarkable silence depicted in the film Talk To Me. A young woman lies motionless in a hospital bed. Her skin glistens, there is not a blemish anywhere, her chestnut hair has a lustrous sheen. She is asleep, in a permanent sleep, in a coma after being hit by a car. Benigno is by her side, he is telling her a story and then about his day, what he has been thinking and how they will decorate their apartment. She never says a word. She can’t. It doesn’t matter. Benigno continues talking. His talk is sweet, quietly animated. He is a nurse caring for Alicia in a hospital in Madrid. He has been doing this for years.

Can you talk with someone who is forever silent? How long can you continue to do that? What does it take to go on, day after day, talking to someone who is unresponsive? What else could it be but love? Benigno is in love with Alicia, although he hardly knows her. He is obsessed with Alicia. People began to wonder about him. But it never seems to bother Benigno for whom a response is not necessary.

Do we need to communicate to have a conversation? Is a silent conversation possible? Conversing isn’t necessary in Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto. There a Japanese businessman and an Italian opera singer fall in love without being able to speak to one another. The music and the experience of being together are sufficient.

I recall a question Lawrence Durrell posed in Justine, “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”

5.28.2009

Fragments on Conversation



When was the last time you had a real conversation, one where you felt engaged and where the person you were talking to felt the same and together you developed each other’s ideas so that you ended some distance from where you began? David Hare puts the question more succinctly, “Have you ever been present at a panel on which one person’s perceptions built on another’s?”

Two recent books have considered the waning art of conversation. Stephen Miller writes in Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, “This is the age of the screed, the rant, the tirade, the jeremiad, the diatribe, the venom-fueled, white-hot harangue.” Well, it’s not that bad, of course, but at times it seems close.

Miller quotes Rebecca West who remarked, “There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.” Miller’s book is largely a historical account of the nature of conversation over the centuries and the way in which we are rapidly evolving into a culture of non-conversation. He cites Cicero’s desire that it “be gentle and without a trace of intransigence; it should also be witty” and Montaigne who found the pleasure of good conversation, “… the most delightful activity in our lives.”

Theodore Zeldin continues in this vein in his book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives. For him, “Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards….That’s where I find the excitement. It’s like a spark that two minds create.”

It’s the meeting of two minds that creates conversation at it’s best. It happens so rarely but when it does, you know it in a flash. In Approaching Eye Level, Vivian Gornick writes , “Nothing makes me feel more alive, and in the world, than the sound of my own mind working in the presence of one that’s responsive.” Have you had such an experience lately?

Gornick continues, “Good conversation is dependent on a simple but mysterious fit of mind and spirit that cannot be achieved, it just occurs. It’s not a matter of mutual interests or class concerns or commonly held ideals, it’s a matter of temperament; the thing that makes someone respond instinctively...In the presence of shared temperament conversation almost never loses its free, unguarded flow. In its absence one is always walking on eggshells. Shared temperament is analogous to the way a set of gears works. The idea is not complicated but the mesh must be perfect.

The process is also not unlike the one described by Lyn Schwartz in Rough Strife: “She thought about Michelangelo’s statues that they had seen years ago in Florence in the first excitement of their love, figures hidden in the block of stone, uncovered only by the artist’s chipping away the excess, the superficial blur, till smooth and spare, the idea shape was revealed. She and Ivan were hammer and chisel to each other.”

Scott Renfrow, a social psychologist, has wondered: “What is the source of the ineffable “chemistry” that some couples enjoy? The question is both fascinating and frustrating: fascinating because of its richness and complexity; frustrating because it has defied simple answers. Indeed, precisely why members of some couples get along better than do others has, for the most part, remained cloaked in mystery.”

For years, I have been mulling over this issue. What conditions are necessary to bring it about? It can’t be planned. It can’t be looked for. It is not well understood. We do not know if certain individuals are more likely than others to have this experience, or if certain types of personalities are more disposed than others to match up this way, and we have no clue about the kind of situations where it is most likely to occur. But if, as Gornick says, the experience is "analogous to the way a set of gears works," perhaps we will eventually come to understand it. However, whatever we might one day come to learn about this "minor miracle" will in no way affect the thrill that is to be had when it occurs.

5.27.2009

Cycles of Creativity

In describing her episodes of profound depression Daphne Merken comments on their cyclic nature. They seem to come and go in an entirely unpredictable, unexpected manner. She notes how scary that is.

And in her study of manic-depressive psychosis, Kay Redfield writes about the seasonal nature of the illness. She says,

“Two broad peaks are evidence in the seasonal incidence of major depressive episodes: spring (March, April, May) and autumn (September, October, and November. The data on mania are somewhat more scarce, but the peak incidences clearly occur in the summer months, as well as the early fall.” She attributes these variations to changes in light-dark cycle.

What interests me most in her analysis is the relationship between the incidence data and artistic creativity. She suggests that while little work has been done on this relationship, there is a “tendency for artistic productivity to increase during spring and autumn, but there is clearly wide variability across artists and writers.”

Extrapolating from the data Jamison presents suggests some consistency in the patterns of artistic productivity. She has partitioned these data in terms of whether or not the artist sought treatment during the period of their illness.

In British writers and artists with a history of treatment for depression on manic-depression, the most productive periods are in the spring and autumn. This corresponds to the incidence data above. For those who did not seek treatment for either form of the illness, the periods of increased productivity are similarly greatest during the spring and autumn months.

The reason I am dwelling on these trends is my interest in the role of weather on creative achievement. Do writers and painters do their best work when it is warm or are they most productive when it is colder or more moderate in temperature? There is virtually no data on this question, but there are some hints in the data presented by Jamison.

Hot weather, for example, is generally not conducive to creative work. Neither are the extremely cold periods of the late fall and early winter. Instead, creative work seems to be more closely associated periods of moderate temperature that occur in the spring and early autumn.

And yet Jamison produces contradictory data in analyzing the paintings and drawings of Vincent van Gogh. It is clear that his most creative periods occurred during the hot summer months of June and July in the south of France, with a lesser number during the spring and autumn months and the least during the winter months (November through February).

“The summer peak of productivity is consistent with what we know about his own description of his frenzied moods and energy during those months of the year, as well as with a perhaps natural tendency to paint more in the longer, warmer, drier days of summer. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is his pattern of productivity during the winter and late fall. From his letters it appears than van Gough had relatively more “pure” depressive episodes during November and February, and more “mixed” depressive episodes during December and January.”

It is understandable that there are wide variations in the effects of temperature on creativity. The most sensitive analysis of this issue will be revealed in a case-by-case study of individual writers and artists. I recall a comment by the psychiatrist Robert Coles:

“I’m constantly impressed with mystery, and maybe even feel that there are certain things that cannot be understood or clarified through generalizations, that resolve themselves into matters of individuality, and again, are part of the mystery of the world that one celebrates as a writer, rather than tries to solve and undo as a social scientist. …to do research and more research, and yet miss the essential point of things.”

5.26.2009

Longing for Company

Anita Brookner has published a new novel, Strangers. It is her first in several years and she says it’s her last. For a while she was publishing a novel with regularity every year. They were all pretty much the same and I enjoyed each one, even though at times I grew weary of their repetitiousness.

They uniformly tell the story of middle age to older, middle class, white, well-educated and well off English men and women who live alone. Solitude is their dilemma. Solitude is the subject Brookner confronts head on in each of her books. To avoid it all, her characters uniformly flee to France or Italy where they do little else but continue to ruminate about solitude. They return to their silent flat unchanged and no less unsettled.

Brookner's latest novel tells the same story, this time about a man, Paul Sturgis, 73 years of age, a retired banker trying to find a way to get through the day in his dark and dreary Kensington flat that we learn all too often he dislikes immensely.

“He lived alone in a flat which had one represented the pinnacle of attainment but which now depressed him beyond measure.”


He has no wife, was never married, is without family, friends, faith, hobbies, or as far as I can tell, any pleasures other than reading and walking. His only encounters occur during his walks and visits to local shops and restaurants. The strangers that he finds during these daily activities are his only companions.

“Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers.”

He does have three very different relationships that sputter on and off throughout the tale. He perfunctorily visits his sister in law once each week until she dies and leaves him her flat and her money. On a flight to Venice he starts talking to a woman who, after returning to London, pesters him with her restless needs and demands. And one day he chances upon a former lover who has aged drastically, is in ill health, and who continues to humiliate him.

All he yearns for is for a little company, a like-minded companion, or at the very least someone to talk to.

“…he longed for conversation, for some sort of exchange, for the sort of questioning he was able to lavish on others, not out of need but out of sheer curiosity.”

In an interview Brookner said, “I wanted to describe a life without work, which is a great problem, as a lot of people are finding out now.” It is also clear that she wants to describe a life lived alone, a condition which is increasing common today. The statistics are revealing. In 1998, 26.2 million individuals lived alone in the United States. This represented 25.6 percent of US households, up sharply from 13 percent in 1960.

The statistics take on even greater significance when broken down by age and gender. In 1998, 48 percent of adult women and 21 percent of adult men 65 years old and older lived alone. Taken together they comprised almost 10 million individuals. It appears that at least for elderly women, living alone is becoming the norm.

Brookner is one of the few contemporary novelists to tackle this problem directly. She writes about an almost taboo topic and other than Vivian Gornick (see her essay On Living Alone in Approaching Eye Level) she describes the state of solitude as honestly and as deeply as anyone I know. In Strangers, Brookner writes about Sturgis:

“Reality was very different, reality was solitude, a consciousness of being left out, of being uncared for.”

“Reality for him was absence, colleagues with whom he had been on good terms…friends who had moved away…”

“Fortunately there was no shortage of strangers; in fact everyone was a stranger.”

One day a young woman at the checkout counter smiles at him. That hasn’t happened in ages. He muses, “That a young person could smile in the face of such dereliction struck him as miraculous. He gazed at her retreating back, thanking her silently for this evidence of a life still being lived.”

5.25.2009

A War Time Experience


On this day when we pause to reflect on the victims of the wars this country has fought, I have chosen to post a recently translated letter that I received in the mail the other day. It was written to my father-in-law from his mother shortly after World War II. It is the only letter of hers known to have been preserved. She writes of her war-time experiences in the town of Mistek-Frydek on the Eastern border of what was then occupied Nazi Czechoslovakia.

…we have a baker across the street and so we did not suffer from hunger like others. Fat, soap and meat were the most scarce. There are many potatoes grown here and people mostly ate bramborachku (potato soup). But you can’t make a rue for soup without fat. And if you do have fat and use it for rue, there is not left to put on the potatoes. Everything was purchased with ratio coupons. For three weeks we received 20 dkg (ten grams) of meat and in the fourth week only 15 dkg. Soap was rationed at 3 centimeters for one month. This was like a toy size for a doll.

Those who had pigs were required to give 4 kilo of fat. Those who had hens had to give 65 eggs. If anyone killed a hen for the black market, they would be shot immediately.

We did not think of the food much because there was no certainty that we would live to another day. Five workers walking home down from Paskov from the iron mills were hung in the railroad station as a warning example to others.

After Heydrich [Gestapo head assassinated by Czech partisans in 1942) was shot, it was a nightmare. In the newspaper they report each day how many people were killed in retaliation for that killing. Sometimes it was 50 people at once. Most of them were intellectuals. People walk around sad and tearful. During another year they punished the Jews. That was also a horror, how they treated them. They chased them out of there homes, the Jews had to leave everything behind and could take only that which they could carry, even those who were 80 years old. Then they killed them all in the gas chambers, and day and night burned their bodies in Auschwitz. Those who were taken to Auschwitz never returned. It was plagued with typhoid fever. …We did not have the will to live. We were emotionally destroyed by this.

[The most important event of the resistance was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (SS leader Heinrich Himmler's deputy and the protector of Bohemia and Moravia) during the Operation Anthropoid. Infuriated, Hitler ordered the arrest and execution of 10,000 randomly selected Czechs, but, after consultations, he reduced his response.[4] Over 10,000 were arrested and at least 1,300 executed. The assassination resulted in one of the most well-known reprisals of the war. The village of Lidice and Ležáky was completely destroyed by the Nazis; all men over 16 years of age from the village were murdered and the rest of the population was sent to Nazi concentration camps where many women and nearly all the children were killed. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhard_Heydrich]

Novosad [son-in-law] is at home, but you never see him smile. Ne he feels like he cannot eat enough to feel full. When he was locked up in Breslow he was not that hungry because he worked in printing shop and received extra rations. But Karel Hutak [son-in-law] became sick from the hunger….

The year in January when the Russians were very close, the Germans tried to transfer them all to Germany. This was a 50 kilometer walk, again with heavy labor and extreme hunger. They received 16dkg of bread each day, and only water. They said that if it had lasted one more month, they would have all died from hunger.

…We were afraid of the army coming. We took everything from up in the house into the cellar, because we were afraid of fires. We boarded up our windows from the outside. On Wednesday morning Mara [daughter] opened the door, and a German soldier immediately aimed at her. So we stayed hidden until Friday afternoon…and then for three days we sat is the cellar. Mara said she heard screaming outside and that certainty someone had been killed. But when she looked outside, she saw flags waiving and all the people were hugging and celebrating the end of the war.

5.23.2009

Weekend Links

Where It All Began
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1181418/As-Walkman-returns-30-years-wed-happier-wed-heard-GADGET-THAT-HELPED-BREAK-BRITAIN.html

Sell Your Writing
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/18/technology/start-ups/18download.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Brad%20Stone%20Site%20Lets%20Writers&st=cse

Consolations of Pessimism
http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_2_pessimism.html

Come to a Literary Party
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/05/dave-eggers-will-prove-you-wrong.html

Where’s My Muse?
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124242927020125473.html

What Is 826 National?
http://www.826national.org/about/

5.22.2009

The Ax For The Frozen Sea Within

When I began this blog in January of 2008, my plan was quite simply to post some of the notable passages from the books and periodicals I had read over the years. The passages were to be drawn from my Commonplace Book where they were kept throughout this time. I recall my first post was a sample of the forty-five passages I had saved from Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

My model was the “Commonplace Section” from each issue of the American Scholar. They consist of extracts from various authors who have written about a particular topic, listed on two pages of this publication without commentary or analysis. For example, recent topics have included Loafing, Change, Failure, Marriage, and in the most recent issue the timely theme of Debt.

Instead, I have found so much to write about in the books I’ve been reading lately and the abundant material on the Web, that I’ve not really had a chance to post very many passages from my Commonplace Book. I will do so today. They have been selected from the most frequently mentioned topic in the collection—Literature. I invite you to consider some of them.


No days, perhaps, of all our childhood are ever so fully lived as those that we had regarded as not being lived at all: days spent wholly with a favorite book. Proust

On Ernest Hemingway’s centennial, Gordimer concluded, “too much will be speculated about him, too much spoken about him, too much written about him…let us leave his life alone. It belongs to him, as he lived it. Let us read his books.”

Most literature is about screwing up one’s life in one way or another. Richard Posner

…but what I looked forward to most in reading Proust were revelations about myself. The best moments had been those in which I descended most deeply into myself, as though the text were an elevator shooting me down to the lowest levels of a mine, or, to reverse the image, shot me up into the light, so I achieved a sudden clarity of vision…Proust understood that every reader, in reading, reads himself. Far from minding this, he saw it as the writer’s task to facilitate it. “Thus the writer’s word is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.” Phyllis Rose

If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat. Azar Nafisi

My grandfather always says that’s what books are for…To travel without moving an inch. Jhumpa Lahiri

I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity. Tobias Wolff

Proust once compared friendship to reading, because both activities involved communion with others, but added that reading had a key advantage: “In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.” Alain de Botton

Kafka was right. “A book should be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” Stuart Brent

…readers usually identify with one or other of the characters in a story so that they can the better escape from the problems and boredom of their own lives. That is why most of them read fiction in the first place. Elliot Perlman

Fiction, at least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise never have encountered. It can provide us with insights we would never have gained elsewhere. Elliot Perlman

The reason why we like a book is because we say, Yes, because life is like that, and the reason why we stop reading certain kinds of childish books is because we say, Good story but life’s not like that. The whole question of recognition is terribly important and that’s why as you get older your reading experience inevitably gets richer because you have more of your own experience to bring to it. Tim Parks

What am I looking for here? Nothing much and yet everything: amusement, an expanded knowledge of how other people live--and lived--and, chiefly, those truths of the heart that, for complicated reasons, are otherwise hidden from us and unavailable anywhere else but in literature. Joseph Epstein

Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. Anita Brookner

5.21.2009

Touched With Fire



We’re never going to survive, unless
We get a little crazy.
Seal

Earlier this month David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Times on the modern view, as he put it, of genius. It has little to do with intelligence, he says, and far more with hard work. It is hours and hours of deliberate practice that separates geniuses from the rest of us. In this respect he agrees with Malcolm Gladwell’s claim in his recent book, Outliers. Brooks writes, “Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 of practice in early and then he built from there.

A few days later Roger Dobson took a contrary view on creative minds in The Independent.
He claims creative people in all areas from poetry, and mathematics to humor, have traits associated in mental illness. He cities evidence that compared to the population at large “the incidence of mood disorder, suicide and institutionalization to be 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets in the 200 years up to 1800.” Dobson reminds us that it was over 2000 years ago that the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “There is no great genius without a tincture of madness.”

Well before then in fourth century Athens, Aristotle asked, “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry, or the arts are melancholic?” Kay Redfield Jamison, a physician and brilliant writer, examines this issue as thoroughly and as systematically as I’ve ever seen in her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. She goes further in bringing together the biographical and scientific evidence for a “compelling association, not to say actual overlap, between two temperaments—the artistic and the manic–depressive.”

Jamison reviews study after study indicating, “among distinguished artists, the rates of manic depression and major depression are 10 to 30 times as prevalent as in the population at large.” William Styron, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, the poet Robert Lowell, and Vincent Van Gough come to mind. Going further, she cites a study by Dr. Arnold Ludwig that looked at the frequency of psychiatric illness among 1,004 eminent men and women in the creative arts and “ten other professions—of the stature of Aldous Huxley, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein and Henri Matisse.”

According to Ludwig, psychiatric illnesses are far more common among the artists s than among the other professions with the rate of alcoholism 60% among actors and 41% among novelists, but only 3 % among those in the physical sciences and 10% among military officers. “In the case of manic depression, 17 % of the actors and 13 percent of the poets were thought to have had the disorder, while those in the sciences were believed to have suffered from it at the rate of less than 1%, comparable to the incidence in the general population.”

More recent research is turning to the neurobiological basis of this relationship, including the emerging field of neuroimaging. This should be no surprise to readers of this blog.

What is one to make of this compelling relationship? Are we to nurture our bouts of depression, assuming we will then be able to craft the great American novel? Should we take to the bottle to turn ourselves into the Picasso of the 21st Century? Or should we, as Brooks and Gladwell argue, get with it, and practice, practice, practice? Of course, that will take the magic out of creative genius, but with a little help from our wiring who knows what we might be able to achieve if we practiced for 10,000 hours?

“Emily Dickinson was not an alcoholic, she was not abusive, she was not neurotic, she did not commit suicide. Neurotic people or alcoholics who go through life make better copy, and people talk about them, tell anecdotes about them. The quiet people just do their work.” Joyce Carol Oates.

5.20.2009

Unreal Loyalties

Loyalty was not one of the central themes of my Commonplace Book. In the informal study of the collected passages I had assembled through July of 2005, the most common topics were Literature, Romance, Change, Writing and Age. In contrast, I mentioned the concept Loyalty only nine times, all of which were from one document. The End of Loyalty by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The New Yorker, March 9, 1998.

In his essay Gates considers the concept of loyalty in the context of the Clinton Administration political scandals and his relationship with a White House intern. But Gates’ essay goes far beyond those matters. It is a moral analysis of the general principle of loyalty, especially when it is pitted against an equally valued principle, such as honesty. For example, what is an individual to do when telling the truth conflicts with one’s loyalty to another person?

Gates argues we have forgotten about the simple virtue of loyalty, the “endangered trait of loyalty” as he put it. It is considered old fashioned now, a fairly primitive moral concept. Gates quotes commentators who refer to it as a “character flaw,” “phony,” “pre-modern virtue,” “anachronistic,” etc. He writes:

“Like all values the value of loyalty has its limits…Often loyalty must give way to “principle”—this we know—but aren’t there times, too, when principle must give way to loyalty?”

Like so many others these were some of my thoughts throughout the long, catastrophic period between 2001-2009. I began asking myself questions about the boundaries of loyalty, especially loyalty one has for the country of their birth. At times, I thought I would flee this country. What had happened to it? How could its people, my people, have voted for the leader of our country then? How could they allow him to take our nation down the path he was leading it to?

I remembered Virginia Woolf’s response in 1939 when asked what kind of freedom would advance the fight against fascism. She replied:

Freedom from unreal loyalties. You must rid yourself of pride and those unreal 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.”

What are the limits to loyalty? Is there a limit, for example, to the bond of loyalty we have toward family? Diana Athill has argued that loyalty to family “…can become foolishness if betrayed by its object. If your brother turns out to be a murderer…standing by him through thick and thin seems to me mindless.”

In July of 2007 Howard Zinn wrote “On this July 4th, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledge of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed…..We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history….We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.”

At about the same time, in an essay, Rethinking Patriotism, Lucinda Marshall wrote: “As July 4th approaches, it may well be time to consider whether patriotism and the defense of national borders is in fact and outmoded concept. Instead of Independence Day, perhaps it is time to declare an Interdependence Day and to pledge allegiance as global citizens to build our strength by nurturing our resources rather than plundering them, by nurturing all the world’s citizens, especially the young. Most of all, it is time to pledge to end the wanton destruction of the planet and the politics of hatred and greed that divide us.”

Is this a time now when we can begin to examine more closely the nature of loyalty? The national mood has flipped flopped. A person who clearly loves his country leads us. He is also a person who has not lost his sense of proportion and can readily acknowledge we are no different than or superior to any other country.

5.19.2009

Now Or Later

Imagine the following situation. You agree to participate in an experiment. You arrive at the laboratory and the experimenter presents you with a choice. You may have $50 now or, if you wait a week and return, you will be able to receive $75. What do you do? The $50 is yours for the asking now. But if you delay for a week, you’ll get a good deal more. The paradigm is not entirely fanciful; in fact, it mirrors an actual experiment on young children that has been repeated countless times.

In the original experiment a young child is offered one marshmallow or if she is willing to wait while the experimenter steps out of the office for a few minutes, two marshmallows can be taken when he returns. The experimenter says that if she rings a bell on the desk while he is away, he will come quickly back and she can eat one marshmallow but will forfeit the second. Then he leaves the room.

This experiment was first conducted by Walter Michel, a personality/social psychologist, in order to identify the factors that allow some individuals to delay gratification. The results of some of his studies are discussed by Jonah Lehrer in the May 18th New Yorker. Lehrer reports:

“About thirty per cent of the children…successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.”

The other 70% of the children were unable to resist the taking the marshmallows, cookies or toys among the various other temptations that have been used to explore the phenomena of delayed gratification. Further research has suggested an interesting link between children’s academic performance as teen-agers and their ability to delay. For example,

“…low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavior problems, both in school and at home. They got lower SAT scores (on average two hundred and ten points lower than the kid who could wait)…. …low delaying adults have a significantly higher body-mass index and are more likely to have had problems with drugs.”

Mischel seems to have tapped a fundamental dimension of personality, one capable of predicting a wide range of significant behaviors. The dimension is one of self-control, the ability to control oneself, in particular one's emotions and desires and to bring the long-term consequences of behavior to bear on the choices made in the present.

It is clear that people vary enormously in their ability to control their own behavior. It is also one of the dimensions of a person’s character that seems to be fairly consistent over the long term. But like most other behaviors, it is one that can be learned. Mischel notes that “…as I watched my own kids, I marveled at how they gradually learned how to delay and how that made so many other things possible.”

Mischel reports that a substantial number of individuals who were unable to delay gratification as four-year olds in time became high-delaying adults. He comments, “this is the group I’m most interested in. They have substantially improved their lives….self-control skills can be taught.” Since the ability to delay gratification is also a far better predictor of academic performance than IQ, this suggests a promising technique for boasting the intellectual skills of individuals of all ages.

Current work has turned to new self-control tasks that are more appropriate for testing adults. Following current trends in psychology, other research has focused on the neural correlates of the ability to postpone gratification, a trend that for this observer is of questionable merit. As Mischel notes, “The real question is what can we do with this fMRI data that we couldn’t do before?” This is a question I ask every time I read a study of the neural correlate(s) of some aspect of personality or behavior. Regrettably, they constitute a sizable number of the studies reported in the major journals these days.

5.18.2009

An Italian Summer

Like so many English writers (Keats, Lawrence, Byron, etc) who longed for warmer climes, Rachel Cusk took flight from England recently for a three-month sojourn in Italy. She writes about her experience in The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy. She left with her two daughters, age five and six, and photographer husband from Bristol where she had grown increasingly dissatisfied with its noise, grime, malls, traffic and general ugliness.

“I wonder what became of the human instinct for beauty, why it vanished so abruptly and so utterly, why our race should have fallen so totally out of sympathy with the earth.”


She says her friends were sorry to see her depart but that they did not believe we would find a place in Italy that we liked better, for it seemed to them “that we were afflicted with restlessness and with a love of the unknown that in their eyes was a kind of curse, like the curses in mythology that are forever sending people from their homes to seek what perhaps can never be found…”

The Last Supper
is as dazzling and absorbing as everything else I’ve read by Cusk. The casa colonia in the province of Arezzo, where she settles for the longest period, is captured with all the beauty and sadness of Italian life. She befriends a Scottish emigrant who in turn introduces her to local residents and arranges activities for her family in and around the local villages. She proceeds to learn Italian and study in depth the paintings of its artists, as well as the “art in daily things.” She writes most provocatively about this aspect of Italian culture.

“Reading Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, one begins to notice a minor consistency of an unexpected sort. The artists of the Renaissance, almost without exception, profited early in life from their fathers’ help in the recognition and exercise of their talents.”

And she reminds those of us who find it difficult to fully appreciate the art of that period that, “There must be an offering of the self before the painting will open.”

For Cusk the art of the Renaissance reminds her how physically ugly the world has become. She looks at a Perugino, “in order to digest the supermarkets and shopping malls, the litter and landfill sites, the pylons and traffic jams and motorway service stations that otherwise fill the eye.”

One wonders how she was able to get her daughters to visit all those Italian museums and churches to say nothing of making any sense of it. Throughout her account, however, we scarcely hear a word about them or, indeed, her husband other than the fact that he joins her in tennis matches in the hot, blazing mid-day sun. How she manages to play tennis at that time of day also puzzles me.

She concludes her observation of art by saying its real glory is the art of survival. "That which is human decays and disappears: only in art does the quality of humanity favor survival. Only in art is a record kept of an instant that the next instant doesn’t erase."

I believe it was its art that she loved most about her three months in Italy. Not the beauty of the countryside or the joyful Italian personality, or their lifestyle, or its literature and surely not its tennis games, but rather the beauty of its art. She realizes that living there would really involve the same things as living anywhere.

“There would be all the ripples of effect that are sent out when people establish themselves among other people….To live in another country requires a fundamental acceptance of things that are true in all countries.”

She remarks that Lawrence lived everywhere until he grew to hate the place whereupon he moved on, never finding peace anywhere. I recall a passage from Horace: “We change our skies but not our souls.”

5.16.2009

Weekend Links

You Must Read This
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104013333&sc=nl&cc=bn-20090514

East Room Poetry Slam
http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/jammin-in-the-east-room/?hp

Holden Caulfield Returns

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/14/catcher-in-the-rye-sequel

Model of Carless City

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/science/earth/12suburb.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

Too Much Stuff
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/education/11stuff.html?scp=2&sq=Leslie%20Kaufman%20&st=cse

Celebrating “Netherland”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/10/AR2009051002145.html?wprss=rss_print/style

5.15.2009

A Night Out

A final café memory: The place is Portland. The time is last year. The story is true.

She entered the bistro alone. After being seated, she asked that the second set of utensils be moved closer to her seat. That seemed odd. Who knows what she had in mind?

She was attractive, not young, but slim and stylish with a low slung gown and a good tan. It was still late winter, so it was clear she had made the rounds. She looked smart, maybe an attorney, perhaps a book editor. Women dining alone draw my attention, probably most everyone’s too. She read the menu, glanced down occasionally to insure her gown was properly placed. I began to sense what she was up to.

Eventually he arrived and she introduced him to the host. He was also well put together, about the same age, nicely but simply dressed with coat and tie. I thought he might be Italian or maybe French, looked a little like Yves Montand. Pulling back the chair, he began to seat himself on the opposite side of the table. She motioned him over her way. He obliged and they embraced as he sat down beside her.

I doubt either of them were married. They chatted, reviewed the menu, then ordered a drink. They talked, she kissed him once or twice, he smiled, although slightly hesitant in the crowded cafe. They ordered, she became more demonstrative, kissing him more often now.

She seemed happy to see him, to be with him, to be able to touch and embrace him at will. Their meal arrived. The kissing continued, became even longer. The pauses between them shorter and she became more animated. So did he. Still, he seemed reserved although clearly enjoying her affection.

I began to wonder is this really happening? Here in this fancy restaurant and this woman is all over this man. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised anymore by such displays. But still.

They drank a good deal of wine, ate generously from the menu, and by the time I was ready to leave, she looked rather undone, not at all like the smart, stylish woman she was when she arrived. They would have a lovely evening together. It would be greatly relished, mutually so, I imagined.

Yes, for a while I did enjoy her display of affection, did recognize its appeal. But after a while it became disconcerting, a bit oppressive. It was a rather sedate place after all. And I began to wonder what’s up with this couple, after all. Was he visiting town for the weekend? A long-past lover? Her man in Rome or Paris?

But it was time to go, time to also wonder what it would be like to the recipient of such devotion. Would it be welcomed? There? In this swanky café? I recalled a passage from Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening, “Meeting up again with him like this, they had the best of both worlds: the comfort of an old love and the intensity of a new one.”

5.14.2009

Thought & Action

When you ask people if they would deliberately inflict pain on another person, almost none say they would ever do such a thing. In fact, in Milgram’s classic experiments on obedience to authority at least sixty percent (60%) of them were willing to inflict extremely painful shock on another person to gain a scientific understanding of the effects of punishment. Like so many others, I remember being stunned the first time I read these experiments. Since then there have been many experimental replications and even far worse, all too many real-world examples of the very same process.

These studies brought clearly into focus for me the gap between thinking and doing. Individuals tend to overestimate the degree to which they will act morally and they underestimate the degree to which they will succumb to situational pressures to act otherwise. We may intend to act help other people, but when confronted with a distressed person clearly in need of aid, a surprising number fail to render assistance.

I recall a classic example of this discrepancy in a far less serious, everyday setting. As students on a university campus were walking to the library, they were asked to respond to a short survey about environmental issues. The interview dealt with littering and the key question asked was “Should it be everyone’s responsibility to pick up litter when they see it or should it be left for the people whose job it is to pick up?” Ninety-four percent (94%) of the students answered that it was everyone’s responsibility.

Apparently there existed a uniformly positive attitude on the part of the students concerning what one should do about litter. The experimenter then observed 409 students as they passed the litter (crumpled newspaper) that had been placed on the pathway to the library next to a trashcan. Of this number, only eight (1.4%) picked up the litter.

In an article, Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness, in the Times last week Benedict Carey discusses this discrepancy between intentions and actions. He describes an interesting experiment on what he labels the “holier-than-thou effect." This refers to the tendency of individuals to be overly optimistic about their own abilities compared to others—to overestimate their standing in class, their self-control, their sincerity, etc. He says the “self-inflating bias” is even more pronounced on matters of moral judgment and behavior citing the following example:

251 students were asked to predict the likelihood they would buy a daffodil during a campus drive to benefit the American Cancer Society. 83 percent predicted that they would buy at least one flower and that only 56 percent of their peers would. Five weeks later, the researchers found that only about half 43% of these students actually bought a daffodil during the drive. Carey also reports “in other experiments, researchers have found that people similarly overestimate their willingness to do what’s morally right, whether to give to charity, vote or cooperate with a stranger.”

I have always believed that the many studies documenting this gap are only half the story. The other half concerns how to overcome it. Under what conditions do individuals resist the demands or authority, or behave more altruistically, or are they able to translate their moral beliefs into moral action? On these questions we remain pretty much in the dark, although Carey proposes the effect might diminish quickly if people have previous experience(s) in the situation that calls for action.

This suggests that practice or training might narrow the gap between belief and behavior. Currently, there are very few experimental tests of this hypothesis and those that have been undertaken have not been entirely confirming.

In The Call of Stories Robert Coles described this dilemma clearly in discussing the poem Paterson by his friend William Carlos Williams. Patterson, Coles says, “poses one of the oldest dilemmas: the sad commonplace that ideas or ideals, however, erudite and valuable, are by no means synonymous with behavior, that high-sounding abstractions do not necessarily translate into decent or commendable conduct. People can, as he puts it, "talk a big line" and "come out badly wanting in their actions."

5.13.2009

Cafe Days

I am reading Rachel Cusk’s latest book, The Last Supper, about the three-month sojourn she and her family spent in Italy a while ago. It is one of those books that I do not want to end. She visits a café outside Rome. It is crowded and the people are engaged in lively conversation. I stop to recall the memorable café times in my life.

During lunch one day at the Bar Pasticceria Curatone in Florence, I observed a riotous display of friendship and camaraderie. A middle-aged man, sitting by my table on the terrace, was engaged in an animated conversation with the Bar's owner. Soon some old friends happened by and when they saw him, each one, in turn, seemed to explode with shouts of joy and delight, followed by spirited conversation. In time, others passed by who also recognized one or more of the assembled group. Jump for joy, long embraces, happy smiles, long tales of Where have you been? What have you been up to? How wonderful you look. Oh, let me show you the pictures of my baby. As if that wasn't enough, soon after that, I sat astonished as I observed a similar scene unfold at another table.

And then not so long ago I went to a café in Paris for afternoon tea. I went upstairs to have a drink. The café, near the Sorbonne, was filled with students and their professors conversing intensely about the latest intellectual crisis. The memory of that scene lingers.

I imagine a café, a literary café, where I can go at the end of each day. There are writers and readers. We talk about our work, the books we’ve read, the issues we are struggling with. We leave with a “See you tomorrow.” It is a Third Place, the concept discussed in Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day. He discusses the German beer gardens, the English pubs, French cafes and the American tavern.

The Third Place comes after the place you live and the place where you work. Oldenberg says it is a neutral ground, where the main activity is discussion. It is accessible and welcoming. There are “regulars” there, unassuming in appearance, offering the freedom to be yourself. It is a home away from home and being there is restorative.

He says that urban life increasingly fails to provide is a convenient and open-ended setting for socializing—where individuals can go without aim or arrangement and be greeted by people who know them and know how to enjoy a little time off. Oldenberg attributes much of the alienation, boredom, and stress of American life to the absence of such a Third Place to repair to when we wish. He says:

“The French, of course, have solved the problem of place. The Frenchman’s daily life sits firmly on a tripod consisting of home, place of work and another setting, where friends are engaged during the midday and evening apertif hours, if not earlier and later.”

I am sure there are such places in this country but I have never found one. I will keep looking, that is for sure.

I remember a blazing hot Sunday in a remote Tuscan village of Italy. No one is on the street. All of the stores are closed. The shutters of the surrounding apartment buildings are shut tight. I park my car in the single open square, get out, and am enveloped by the heat. It is startling. It is wonderful. I look for a place where I can get a drink. The local bar, which in Italy is also a place to get an expresso, a Panini, and cold drink is the only place that is open. The TV is on and a few old men are staring at it mutely. On the screen is a soccer game somewhere in Italy and the crowd is roaring. Otherwise, it is utterly silent in the café and on the street. And it is hot. It is perfect.

5.12.2009

Darkness Visible

For the thing which I had greatly feared is come upon me,
And that which I was afraid of is come unto me.
I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet;
Yet trouble came.
Job

For years admired I have admired the essays and articles of Daphne Merkin. Never once did I sense she was engaged in a life-long battle with chronic depression. As she notes in her frank and brutally candid account of her experience in the Sunday Times Magazine, she was good at “adopting the mask of all-rightness that every depressed person learns to wear in order to navigate the world.”

She reports that as early as 5 or 6 she “had begun to be apprehensive about what lay in wait” and by 10 had been hospitalized for frequent bouts of crying. At times she has felt suicidal and at others times simply unable to escape from the darkness and despair that permeated every cell in her body, lying in bed for days at a time, unable to read, eat, or do anything but sleep. Merken confesses she had quite literally ground to a halt.

For over four decades she has been going to psychotherapists and has tried every medication and combinations of medications that have been prescribed since her early 20s. None of the therapists or drugs had done much for her. “What’s more, after a lifetime of talk therapy and medication that never seemed to do more than patch over the holes in myself, I wasn’t sure that I still believed in the concept of professional intervention.”

“In some ways, the quiet terror of severe depression never entirely passes once you’ve experienced it. It hovers behind the scenes, placated temporarily by medication and renewed energy, waiting to slither back in, unnoticed by others. It sits in the space behind your eyes, making its presence felt even in those moments when other, lighter matters are at the forefront of you mind. It tugs at you, keeping you from ever being fully at ease.”

The precipitating events are never clear to her. As she puts it, they include “everything and nothing, as is just about always the case—some combination of vulnerable genetics and several less-than-optimal pieces of fate.” About her most recent return to a psychiatric hospital, she writes, “I wanted to die, but at the same time, I didn’t want to, not completely. Suicide could wait my sister said.”

She says the first night was the hardest, but then later says they never got any better. The lack of a reading lamp added to her panic. She writes, “the absence of a light source by which to read after dark represented the end of civilization as I had know it.”

Throughout this time (3 weeks) the major issue for Merken was whether she would undergo ECT, a treatment with a checkered history that currently finds some favor and was recommended by her psychiatrist to pull her out of her “neurovegetative” condition. Merkin resists. And then one day she says, “something shifted ever so slightly in my mind.” She had replaced one of her medications with a new one but really had no idea what led to the change. She speculates, “Maybe it was the fear of ECT, or perhaps the tweaked medication had kicked in, or maybe the depression had finally taken its course and was beginning to lift…”

Merken began to feel a little better, better at least to leave the hospital and try to reenter her life. “I had things I wanted to say” and new books to read and films to see. Still she said everything felt fragile and while her depression had taken a time out, she knew full well it could return at any time without warning. This is the underlying terror of chronic depression.

I have known people who have journeyed through life with this affliction, people who I have lived with and loved. And what I have observed is that there is no escaping the internal “dungeon” through which they must travel. Nothing they try works. Not the drugs, the new and the old, and their limitless combinations. Not the year after year of therapeutic treatments or the hospitalizations, regardless of how long or short or where they are located. And not the ECT no matter how often it is administered or how it is tweaked.

Chronic depression appears to come and go on its own. Merken writes, “Worst of all it honors no season and respects no calendar; it arrives precisely when it feels like it.”

5.11.2009

Full Court Press

In Outliers: The Story of Success Malcolm Gladwell suggests that talent and hard work are two of the factors responsible for outstanding achievement in any field. Neither one alone is sufficient to guarantee success but in combination with three other factors—opportunity, luck and timing—they account for the notable achievements of the likes of Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer and The Beatles.

However, Gladwell “switches gears” a bit in his latest essay, How David Beats Goliath, in the May 11th issue of The New Yorker. Here he asks why is it that the underdog so often defeats a superior opponent. He cites statistics that this occurs in over 25% of the wars fought in the past two hundred years, where weak combatants defeated more powerful opponents. And when the weaker army chose an unconventional strategy, their winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63%

To account for this “remarkable fact” Gladwell turns to the Biblical story of David and Goliath. He says that David defeated Goliath because he didn’t play according to Goliath’s rules. Goliath was clearly the stronger of the two and David didn’t stand a chance in hand-to-hand combat. Instead, he did the unexpected, “reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.” Gladwell says this broke the “rhythm of the encounter” which in turn “must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target.”

He discusses the surprising victory of the Arabs, led by the Englishman T. E. Lawrence, over the Turks near the end of the First World War. Gladwell explains how Lawrence led the Bedouin warriors in an unheard of march across six hundred miles of blazing hot desert to the port town of Aqaba. The Turks were expecting an attack from the British fleet patrolling off the water off the Gulf. Instead, Lawrence’s masterstroke was to attack from the rear following their audacious march across the desert. Here again Gladwell concludes, “substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life.”

The life of T.E. Lawrence, his relationship with the Bedouins, and the desert march he led them is vividly depicted in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (with Peter O’Toole as Lawrence) and Lawrence’s own The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence, by profession an archeologist (“a dreamy poet" according to Gladwell) was never accepted by British Army officers; “The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider.”

Much of Gladwell’s article illustrates this point by way of yet another example of defensive strategies for overcoming superior opponents—in this case, applying a full court press in women’s basketball. He writes about Vivek Ranadive, founder of a computer software company, who decided to coach his daughter’s Junior League basketball team. Ranadive knew nothing about the game and couldn’t understand why teams retreated to the opposite end of the court each time they scored a basket.

Instead, he wondered why didn’t they defend the players who were inbounding the ball at the other end of the court. He reasoned that a full court press, applied consistently throughout the game would give weak basketball teams a chance against far stronger ones. This required considerable endurance and constant pressure on the part of the weaker players, like those on his daughter’s team.

Gladwell concludes his discussion of successful applications of this technique by Ranadive and other coaches with this generalization: “We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability…because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.”

He also suggests that underdogs not only work harder than the Goliath’s, “But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought. All the things that distinguish the ideal basketball player are acts of skill and coordination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable…”

You might wonder why the full-count press is not more widely employed in college and professional basketball games. Perhaps it is too exhausting. Perhaps it only works against players who are poor ball handlers. Or perhaps a team that knows how to pass quickly and thereby move the ball rapidly up the court can easily counter it. No doubt that is true for most first-rate college and professional basketball teams today.

5.09.2009

Weekend Links

Go Where They Are
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/09/nyregion/09principal.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

A Single Grain of Sand

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/28/books/28kaku.html?scp=1&sq=Age%20of%20Unthinkable&st=cse

Slumbering Minds, Awake!
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124079001063757515.html

Fifty Years Ago
http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/04/jersey-boy/

Expatriate Tales
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/06/best-books-expatriate-top-10

Suburban Enthusiast

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/nyregion/connecticut/03cheeverCT.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

5.08.2009

Enough

Enough is the title of one of the short stories in the latest issue of the Paris Review. The story is by Philip Gourevitch. At first, I am puzzled by its appearance. Gourevitch is the editor of the periodical after all. Is it above board for him to publish one of his own stories?

At first the tale seems fairly inconsequential and to be perfectly honest like something I might have written or have tried to write. So I am even more puzzled. But I continue reading and the story gets better, so I forget about the fact that Gourevitch is the editor.

Besides the story reminds me a little bit about myself, at least how I feel on some days. Perhaps everyone has such days. Jerry is a photographer. He photographs wars. He says in the beginning he went to photograph the wars out of curiosity. He was awarded prizes for this for but they never made any difference. The wars were never ending; there was always a new one for him to photograph.

But his work brought him no pleasure. “He saw that his work was futile, and his work was his life. Why write about things that nobody should ever have to know? He despised war and he could not live without it, and for this reason, when he lost perspective—or was it when he gained it?—he despised himself.”

And when he felt this way Jerry withdrew into himself. “He did not want to talk to anyone. He spoke only when he felt he had to, and the speech came in bitter outbursts that surprised him and gave him no relief.”

Whenever he felt this way he found himself starting to write and like so many others overcome with despair he found that writing helped him, although for both Jerry and others, the relief never lasts for long. “It came in small fragments at first, half-formed thoughts that gradually fit together into a coherent mood--that is, a mood he could inhabit.”

One day he wrote: "Narcissists should be shot and it occurred to him that if he were to shoot himself that would make a very funny suicide note. It felt good to laugh. He asked his wife “Should I be shot?” She said, “Whatever makes you happy.”


During one of the wars he covered a photographer friend gave him a key to a house on an island in the Hebrides saying, “Giving you those keys made me feel free to die.” It made little sense to Jerry and then again, maybe it did.

In the next war, the photographer was killed. Jerry goes to the island where there are virtually no inhabitants without a soul anywhere near his house. I have also come to an island, a warmer one to be sure and there are all too many souls living here.

He wrote to his wife every day. He wrote about the things he saw and his experiences living by “the sky, sea grass, peat.” One day he wrote in the notebook that he was keeping, “The entire vast view is socked in fog, a fine drizzling mist, the sky a solid blanket the bright blue-gray of skim milk.” That was it.” But he never sent her anything he had written.

After being on the island a month, he left to return to the latest war. His wife found the notebook with his writings the next year when she came to see the house he had left here. Grourevitch writes, “The last thing he’d written was, “Enough.”

And so in the end I thought it was a good story and I’m glad I forgot about the author-editor issue. I recognized a little bit of myself in Jerry and wonder how many other readers did as well or whether that even matters. And then I recalled something Patrick Kurp wrote a while ago: “Even as adults we’re looking for correlatives to our lives in everything we read. How else could it be?”

5.07.2009

The Wall

In the New York Review of Books (April 30, 2009) David Hare, the English dramatist, writes a monologue about the Wall. The Wall stretches for 486 miles, the length of Israel’s eastern border. Hare reports 84 percent of the Israelis are in favor of the Wall. He asks: “Have you ever known anything of which 84 percent of people were in favor?”
I think the figure is even more astonishing given the legendary disputatiousness of Jews.

The Wall does not run along the so-called Green Line, the border that was established in 1949 between Israel and Jordan. According to Hare “…85 percent of its intended route is inside the West Bank [and in places] goes far inland to collect up and protect Israeli settlements established far inside the occupied territory. Sometimes it takes in fertile Palestinian agricultural land and water wells, leaving Palestinian farmers without access to their own fields.”

It is also a huge inconvenience for the Palestinians who wish to travel within their own lands, as well as those who are employed in Israel. The Arabs view the Wall as a land grab; most Israelis view it as a security measure. One of Hare’s Arab friends says: “the wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.”

An Israeli friend says: “I hate the wall. I regret it. I am ashamed of the wall. I drive for miles so that I don’t have to see. But it works. 80 percent of terrorist attacks against Israel have stopped….Am I not meant to be pleased about that?”

I think if this Israeli drives so far to avoid seeing the Wall, think how far and how long the Palestinians have to drive and wait at the checkpoints to get to where they are going.

Hare gives further information about the Wall. He reports it varies in width between 30 and 150 meters and is a combination of “trenches, electronic fences, ditches, watchtowers, concrete slaps, checkpoints, patrol roads and razor coil…”

Hare meets with an Israeli intellectual who speaks of the defining paradox of Israel: “To the world it seems powerful and aggressive, yet to itself it seems weak and frail.” He says “Israelis have a very fragile sense of the future. It is incredible but the country itself still feels provisional….You might say we have imported from the Diaspora the Jewish disease—a sense of rootlessness, an ability to adapt and make do, but not to settle. After sixty years, Israel is not yet a home.”

Hare quotes Einstein: “If we do not find the path to honest cooperation and honest negotiations with the Arabs, then we have learned nothing from over 2,000 years of suffering and we deserve the fate that will befall us.”

He meets with an Arab friend in Ramallah who comments: “What is so shocking about Israel is that these days it doesn’t even have a protest movement. In the old days, there were peaceniks on the streets and long-haired students. Now they have almost no peace movement at all. What can you say? A country which loses its hippies is in deep trouble.”

On another day Hare talks with David Grossman, the Israel novelist whose son was killed on the last day of the Lebanon war. Hare says that Grossman’s home is “charged with grief.” Grossman speaks eloquently and contrary to his friend in Ramallah, is a vocal representative of the Israeli peace movement.

We squandered our chance to make the state permanent in 1967. Instead of using the conquered territories as leverage in negotiation, instead we became addicted to occupation…Now we have terrible trouble imagining any other reality than the one we live in. You become habituated, you cannot believe there is another possible way of life. And so effectively you become a victim of the situation….we hand our fate over to the security people, we allow the army to run the country, because we lack a political class with a vision beyond the military….I want to begin to live. I want some gates in the wall.”

The Palestinians want to live too. They also want some gates. Here we have two areas of agreement. Let the negotiations begin with living and the gates.

5.06.2009

Detroit of Higher Education

In a New York Times op-ed piece last week, Mark Taylor, Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia, called for a major restructuring of graduate programs in this country. Because graduate education plays such a central role in the intellectual life of our country, his concerns deserve to be considered. Professor Taylor considers graduate education “the Detroit of higher education.

He writes “Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research…publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).”

Taylor does not only criticize. In addition, he proposes a complete overhaul of graduate and, in turn, undergraduate studies tailored for the 21st century.

1. Replace the obsolete departmental structure with an integrated, interdisciplinary network of disciplines. “Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.”

2. Create problem focused programs around a broad range of topics such as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time Media, Money, Life and Water.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. Taylor comments: “With these tools [teleconferencing and the Internet], I have recently team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.”

4. Transform the traditional dissertation modeled on the medieval dissertation, into analytic treatments from hypertext and Web sites to films and other theses formats.

5. Expand the professional options for students since “Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained.”

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure with seven-year renewable contracts. This will avoid the current situation in which there is little turnover among professor with many “impervious to change.

Taylor writes “For many years, I have told students, “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with what I could never imagine doing…” He concludes: “My hope is that colleagues and universities will be shaken out of their complacency and will open academic to a future we cannot conceive.”

For one not far removed the academic fray, I can only affirm the merits of Taylor’s portrait of graduate programs and the need for their radical restructuring. It was only after I began teaching that I learned anything about my discipline and it was only after I began teaching that I realized the great value of interdisciplinary, problem focused, courses. I taught better and the students learned more when I could offer them. And along the way they gave rise to research programs in which both my students and I learned a great deal and even nudged forward a little bit the areas we investigated.

I might add that I turned down the offer of indefinite tenure hoping to replace it with a renewable contract subject to periodic evaluation. I was duly informed that I could not remain at the college under those conditions. Since the college was in my mind a little Utopia, I had to settle for a permanent arrangement. However, in the end I departed from the college long before it was necessary, so in reality it wasn’t very permanent at all.

5.05.2009

It's the Water, Stupid

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Even if his remarks are far from cheerful, they are pretty inspirational in my book. Even more, they are true.

5.04.2009

It Happens All the Time

More on the books that changed people’s lives as described by Canfield and Hendricks in You’ve Got to Read This Book! An overwhelming majority of the changes brought about by books were in a person’s beliefs, commitments, or intentions to act. In addition, each such change was usually preceded by a dilemma in the person’s life that the book dealt with and offered a solution.

Ten readers described relatively specific changes the book motivated them to undertake including being more sociable or goal directed and, in the case of five individuals, emphasizing the importance of controlling the course of one’s life and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

I pulled it [Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz] off the shelf, started reading, and found it was easy to read and made a lot of sense. It took the book home and read it cover to cover, and then started again at the beginning. One message stood out for me: You are in control of your destiny. Your mind is very powerful; what you think is your reality. Rudy Ruettiger

Fifteen readers described a wide range of effects including “lightening up,” “doing what is right,” trusting your instincts or desires, taking risks and being more courageous. The most frequently noted effects were spiritual/cognitive changes that were noted by 17 contributors. Gaining understanding or insight about an event in their life was the most often mentioned (8), followed closely by those who turned toward a more spiritual life (7) with 2 individuals reporting a book that helped them to “find the real me” or gain a greater sense of their own identity.

I had been trying to control things that were fundamental uncontrollable and the cost had been the moment-by-moment disruption of my peace of mind. …But now with the help of Epictetus [The Book of Life] I realized the pointlessness of trying to control my emotions. They have a life of their own, and they will last as long as they last. Applying the wisdom Epictetus conveys in his first sentence, I relaxed my resistance, letting go of my effort to wish my feelings away….That brief moment in time exerted such a powerful positive influence on me that it has affected the way I live my life and practice my profession ever since. Gay Hendricks

In spite of their limited representativeness, these anecdotal accounts leave little doubt that books can be powerful agents of change for a wide range of individuals. It is also abundantly clear that a multiplicity of books can have this effect--from the Sears Catalogue to, Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer, Don Quixote to Homer’s Odyssey and Aristotle’s Ethics. This indicates that whatever influence the experience of reading a book might have, it will be highly idiosyncratic.

The wide range in the age when an influential book is read is also evident from these accounts. Readers recalled books that they read early in their childhood, adolescence and throughout their adult life. In addition, most indicated they were surprised by the book’s impact; it was unexpected, more a matter of happenstance than one intentionally planned. In this respect the experience of reading an influential book is much like the process that occurs when any kind of fortuitous event alters behavior.

You never know when it will happen or what book will have this effect. The only thing you can do is keep reading. Perhaps one day a book will meet you right where you are and point you in a new direction. We don’t often think that a book can change a person’s life but it seems to happen all the time.