3.27.2013

A Break


After blogging for over five years, it is time to take an extended break. I’m not sure when I’ll return. In the meantime, thank you for reading and for responding.

Blogging continues to be an unusual experience for me, sometimes surprising, sometimes illuminating. I hope you’ve learned a little something along the way; I certainly have.


3.26.2013

Unbroken


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.25.2013

Shouting Won't Help


We hear as we breathe—effortlessly—until we can’t” Katherine Bouton

In her memoir, Shouting Won’t Help, Katherine Bouton writes that forty eight million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. You don’t have to be entirely deaf to have trouble hearing, especially in crowded, noisy situations.

Hearing speech is usually the most difficult problem for those with hearing loss. Bouton claims one in five people, across all age groups, has trouble understanding speech and many cannot hear certain sounds at all.

Hearing difficulties are known to outnumber vision problems by a sizable percentage. And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that hearing aids don’t work as well as glasses. In fact, by amplifying certain sounds, they sometimes make hearing worse.

Helen Keller considered her deafness to be a much more serious limitation than blindness. “…it means the loss of the most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”

Bouton first became aware of her problem when she was only thirty while working as the editor for the Times Book Review and then later, at other departments at the Times. She couldn’t catch everything being said at the group meetings she attended and even in speaking one-on-one with a person in her office. She heard voices, was aware who was speaking, but didn’t hear the words they were saying.

As she got older, she heard less and less, “I had trouble at teacher’s conferences. One of the kids or my husband would fill me in. I missed most of what was said in school assemblies. I never heard a single graduation speech. There were times when my hearing loss was wrenching. I missed confidences, murmured fears, muttered anger. I never heard the backseat chatter and gossip between my children and their friends.”

Eventually she became bilaterally deaf, all the while hesitant to begin wearing hearing aids. They are expensive, for some unattractive, easy to misplace, and sometimes not particularly helpful. Eventually she began using them, but they didn’t improve her hearing a great deal.

To my delight she said email is the” best thing that’s ever happened” to those who have trouble hearing. She has received emails using voice-activated software that she might otherwise not have been able to hear on the phone.

She finally accepted a cochlear implant, in fact two of them, and they came with their own limitations, like trouble transmitting music very well. She took a lip reading course, studied body language, met with researchers, and then other audiologists. But she never did recover her hearing.

Despite my sophisticated devices, I still can’t hear well enough to follow a conversation except under optimum circumstances—one-on-one, facing each other, in a quiet place. I hear speech, but I often don’t understand it.”

Hearing loss affects friendships, family and professional lives. If you know anyone who has trouble hearing, you might want to tell them about Katherine Bouton’s book. It might help them to recognize a hearing problem that they have been denying or simply unaware of.


3.23.2013

Happy Birthday Philip Roth


Last week Philip Roth celebrated his 80th birthday. A party was held, there was much writing about Roth and he spoke, quite memorably apparently, at the gala party held in his honor.

Here are some of my favorite links about Roth and the celebration.

Adam Gopnik suggests the occasion “doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer’s occupation itself.”

At the Times Charles McGrath and Tammy La Gorce write about Roth’s hometown, Newark, and the events held during the week long celebration.

David Remnick describes the events surrounding the week-long even, the several speakers at the party and says that Roth’s talk was “the most astonishing literary performance I’ve ever witnessed.”

The literary critic James Wood calls Roth his “literary hero.”

Here is a preview of the forthcoming PBS American Masters video Philip Roth: Unmasked

Watch Philip Roth: Unmasked on PBS. See more from American Masters.

3.22.2013

The End of Your Life Bookclub


In 1970 Mary Ann Schwalbe learned she had a fatal form of pancreatic cancer with only a few months left to live. She carried on her life for more two active years, as if nothing much had changed, years of chemotherapy and fully engaged on projects that often meant traveling abroad.

She was a person of remarkable courage, a life long reader, and an advocate of refugees in Asia and Africa. Her son, Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club, describes her final years, the books they read together, often while she was undergoing long hours of chemo, and the organizations she either founded or supported.

That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”

He recounts her early work as a casting agent, then director of admissions at both Radcliffe and Harvard and, after moving to New York, her role in directing the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children that took her to Afghanistan, Liberia and Sudan. And in her final months she devoted all her dwindling energy to raising money for a traveling library in Kabul.

“It’s been eighteen months of chemo: of mouth sores, swollen feet, nausea, headaches, weight loss, lack of energy, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and fevers, and hours in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and hospitals. And it’s been thousands of dollars of her own money and tens of thousands of dollars of Medicare.”

Through it all they kept reading and discussing the issues the books raised—Marjorie Morning Star, The Lizard Cage, Suite Francaise, The Last Lecture, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, etc.

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog is, in many ways, a book about books (and films): what they can teach us, and how they can open up worlds. But it’s really, like most great books, about people—and the connections they make, how they save one another and themselves.”

As the book club draws to a close, Schwalbe writes, “Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe that we can all do better. She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose—electronic (even though it wasn’t for her) or print, or audio—is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation.”

Their times together and the books they discussed forged a new relationship between them. It was not unlike the relationship I had with my mother in her final years. While she wasn’t seriously ill, we also formed a book group of two then. Every Sunday we’d talk on the phone about the books we had been reading and what they meant to each of us.

The End of Your Life Book Club is written with heartache and affection. “Even though nearly two years have passed since her death, I’m occasionally struck by the desire to call Mom and tell her something—usually about a book I’m reading that I know she’d love.”


3.20.2013

Like Someone in Love


In Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film, Like Someone in Love, much of what happens, and it isn’t a great deal, is seen through mirrors and glass. The film opens with a long scene in a Tokyo bar where we often view a character through a faded reflection in a door window.

The scene shifts to a taxi where a young college student, Akiko, is being driven to an aging scholar who is her client. She is a call girl trying to earn money to pay for her college education. At least, that is what we are told.

We view her through the car window, the small rear window inside the car, and then the one outside on the door. She is sitting quietly and then tearfully in the back seat listening to the voice mail messages from her grandmother who has come to Tokyo to see her. She tells Akiko that she will be waiting for her next to a statue outside the train station.

The taxi circles the station once, but a small truck blocks the view from the rear-door window. She asks the driver to circle again. This time we glimpse her grandmother, or what we assume to be her grandmother, again through the rear-door window

Akiko arrives at the book-lined apartment of the elderly scholar who says his name is Takashi. She begins looking over the photos, covered in glass frames, of Takashi’s family. They talk for a short while. It is the only time in the film that Akiko becomes the least bit animated.

She claims to be tired and I imagine she has had many sleepless nights arguing with her boyfriend, who claims she is his fiancĂ©. She says she isn’t hungry, doesn’t care for the shrimp soup Takashi has prepared for their meal, and repairs to the bedroom. She throws off her clothes and gets into bed. The ensuing conversation between Takashi and Akiko is viewed through a clouded mirror.

The next day he drives her to school. Once again there is a long scene in a car. After she is dropped off, we view an argument between Akiko and her so so-called boyfriend, Noriaki, from the car.

Akiko breaks away, heads into the building, whereupon the jealous Noriaki comes down to the car to confront Takashi. He is invited into the car and the two begin a friendly conversation, as Takashi lets the young man think he is Akiko’s grandfather.

There is another long drive as Takashi drives Noriaki to work, followed by another, when Takashi returns to rescue Akiko who has fought again with Noriaki. They return to his apartment and the film abruptly ends with yet another scene in which a glass object plays a critical role.

It was only later that I began to understand what Kiarostami is suggesting or might be suggesting, by viewing these individuals and presumably their inner life, from the reflections in the various glass objects that appear so often in the film.

We stand before ourselves in mirrors, we glimpse others through the mirrors they choose to reflect. But rarely do we see beyond the appearances. I am reminded of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in The Republic.

Socrates describes a group of prisoners in a cave who can only observe the shadows cast by the objects passing by outside. Socrates means to suggest that the shadows do not constitute reality, but that is all we are able to glimpse, never the “true form of reality” itself.

There is much deception and evasiveness in Like Someone in Love. Nothing is what we are told or what we are able to see. It is the same theme depicted in Kiarostami’s previous film, Certified Copy, which also spends a fair amount of time in a car, this time driving around Tuscany.

We’re all standing at the windows of our selves and others, glimpsing what we can, and only speculating about the rest, a highly risky endeavor that often ends disagreeably and with considerable misunderstanding.

3.18.2013

Small Courtesies


Every once in a while I send an email to one of my children or grandchildren. I rarely get a reply. Sometimes it is in response to a question they ask me. I try to answer it in an email and I wait in vain for a thank you.

On special occasions, we send a gift. With increasing frequency, we never receive a thank you note, email, phone call, or text message

I am disappointed when this happens. I ask myself is this reasonable? I am bothered by it. Is there anything more unsettling than being ignored, especially by someone you love?

Now I learn that I am out of fashion, that current email etiquette does not require a thank you or acknowledgement.

In the Times Nick Bilton writes, “Of course, some people might think me the rude one for not appreciating life’s little courtesies. But many social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication.” I utter a profanity.

If I was speaking in person to someone and they didn’t reply to a question I asked or a remark in our ongoing conversation, it would feel rather strange, to say the least. Yet the rudeness of such silence would be unmistakable.

I am sure I’d get a reply if we were texting each other or speaking on the phone. But not necessarily in an email.

Bilton quotes Baratunde Thurston, a co-founder of something called a “comedic creative company.” “It’s almost too easy to not think before we express ourselves because expression is so cheap, yet it often costs the receiver more.” Again, I utter a profanity.

I know I am older than these people and that I come from a tradition that both expects and appreciates a thank you note, regardless of how it is delivered. I do not understand or welcome the new era of digital silence.

I see people on the street, in restaurants, and elevators staring at the screen on their cell phone, usually hitting the keys with their thumbs. Sometimes, their thumbs are moving as fast as the speed of light. It almost seems that this gadget has become attached to their body.

A teacher describes a short seminar she will be teaching. She plans to give the students a few pre-assignments: one is to take a walk, observe what they see around them, but without taking their cell phones. To that I say, “fantastic.”

What an experience that will be, the trauma of a few minutes of solitude without that part of their body, as if they were leaving one of their feet at home before heading out for a walk.

The teacher says, “I am very sure—that asking them to spend half an hour without a cell phone is like asking them to take their clothes off. No cell phones, no cup of coffee—just take a solitary walk.”

I think this teacher deserves the Teacher of the Year award. And I wonder how the students will get by. Will they begin suffering from a new form of traumatic stress disorder? Or need to repair to their psychiatrist before the half hour walk ends?

However, I doubt this exercise will teach them the lost art of saying thank you when they receive a gift or a thoughtful email. I have no idea what it will take to do that?

3.13.2013

An MRI


It begins with flashing lights. Always on the left side of my field of vision. I can’t read. I can’t see clearly. I rub close my eyes. If I can get to the Tylenol, I take a couple. And if possible, I lie down. The lights flash across my forehead, so to speak, from left to right. In a half hour they are gone. And I can see again. Afterwards, I have a headache, sometimes mild, sometimes a little stronger.

The episodes were increasing, from maybe once or twice at most a year, to a recent series of four of them. One night I had such a pain in my head, I woke up, turned over and then it went away. Lately I have a low-grade headache that comes and goes during the day, never strong enough to require Tylenol, however.

What is going on? I go to the doctor to find out. He tells me we better have a look. I go to the MRI lab. I read about the procedure. “Our unique Philips Gemini GXL PET/CT system has both PET and multi-slice CT components….” “…multi-slice…?” Good grief, did I bargain for this?

What is PET? I read on. “PET (Positron Emission Tomography) is a powerful diagnostic tool…” I’m sure. What is CT? “CT stands for Computed Tomography.”  I am convinced. “CT is non-invasive, painless and relatively fast.” I remain hopeful.

I am laid out flat, inserted into a cylinder and then the music begins—bam, bam, bam; boom, boom, boom, drilling and more drilling, beep, beep, beep, drum rolls, squeaks, rat-ta-tat tats—again and again in progressive waves for forty five minutes.

Before it begins I am asked if I want to watch TV. Sure I say. So there I lay watching CNN and they are blasting my head with this Schoenberg. How am I expected to hear Wolf Blitzer when they are pounding my head with Arnold Schoenberg?

I am told it is over. They hand me a CD of the results. I say, what is this for? So you can see the images. What will I be able to make of them? Well, you can take it to another physician one day if you need to. I know that is something I am going to have to do for the rest of my life anyway.

I go to the doctor. The report has arrived. There is no evidence of any “cerebellopontine angle lesion, although “mastoid disease is present and possible medial temporal lobe atrophy.” There is also a “mild vertebrobasilar dolichoectasia with slight chronic indentation of the ventral margin of the pons in the right paramedian location by the basilar artery.”

I am thrilled by the news, although can’t make heads or tails of it. It is suggested that I take some Tylenol. No more flashing lights, no more headaches. The wonders of placebos.



3.11.2013

Henri Cole's Paris Diary

I’ve been reading Henri Cole’s “Street of the Iron Po(e)t” installments on the New Yorker Website. To date there have been five and I imagine they will form the basis of his Paris Diary, whenever he completes it.

When I began reading them, I had no idea who Henri Cole was. I’ve subsequently learned he is a poet, one time executive director of the American Society of Poets who has held many teaching positions, published several collections of poetry, and received a good many awards and honors.

In his first installment he explains that his little apartment is Paris is located on the Street of the Iron Pot (rue Pot de Fer) which he renamed the Street of the Iron Poet—the title of his daily experiences in the city.


The matters he treats range from ordinary chores of going out and about, the parks he visits and the literary luminaries he spends time with.

“I had to clean [his apartment] for many days before I felt comfortable, but now it is home.” “Today I received a flu shot.” “Today I visited the cenotaph to Baudelaire.”

He visits the bookstores of his Latin Quarter neighborhood, the bars and the cinemas that he says have the feel of a village. His words read like prose poems and he intersperses them with photographs he took along the way. He writes about his parents, his mother a first generation French woman whose parents emigrated from Armenia. She met his father in Marseille, who was an American soldier. He includes a photo of the family of three.


He recalls a poem, “Quai d’Orleans” by Elizabeth Bishop, that is set on the Seine, quotes the poem, and includes a photograph, (or is it a painting?) of the bridge. Another day he encounters fifteen horses marching down the avenue.

“I heard the horses’ hooves striking the pavement long before they were visible, and when they stopped at an intersection, those of us on the sidewalk, and in cars and on motorcycles, couldn’t help but pause and admire them, smiling as the wind played with their brushed tails.”

One night he has dinner with a friend who is the biographer of Picasso and Giacometti. The next day he meets with his translator. He visits the Jardin des Plantes and I recall an afternoon I spent there not long ago.


“Walking along the Seine today, I found a monument to Thomas Jefferson, who first sailed to Paris in 1784, to negotiate with European powers. Later, taking a carriage drawn by horses, he traveled south, to Aix-en-Provence, as a private citizen without servants, because he believed that when one travelled alone one reflected more.”

What a pleasure it is to read Cole’s account of his activities from one day to the next. He writes beautifully and gives me a chance to recall those times I too have lived in the same neighborhood of Paris, walked down those same streets, and strolled about the same parks.

I wait for the next installment. Perhaps you’d also like to read those he has published so far? Visit this page for first five.

3.07.2013

Proof


…you don't need to have had known or reported concussions to develop this brain disease. [chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)]. It really shows us that those multiple, repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head that are experienced by so many athletes in many different sports can bring on the beginnings of this disease."
Dr Robert Stern

A while ago, Malcolm Gladwell gave a public lecture at the University of Pennsylvania on the subject of “proof.” He asked: What do we need to know about the harmfulness of college and professional football before we take action? That may range from complete banning of the game to somehow taking steps to reduce the likelihood of injury, especially to the brain.

Gladwell began by discussing the very lengthy time it took for society to do something about the seriousness of black-lung disease among miners. Then he moved on to the matter of recent deaths that have occurred among football players

Not surprisingly what counts as proof for Gladwell are examples of players who have died as a result of brain injuries incurred during their playing days. It doesn’t take more than a very small number, perhaps only one, for Gladwell to “prove” the harmfulness of the game.

And then, in the light of that evidence, to take action, not waiting for more evidence, more deaths and if so how many. Rather doing something now to insure it will not happen again.

He pointed to the hazards of this hard-hitting game by citing several examples of players who had committed suicide and where autopsies of their brain discovered a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

They included Junior Seau who had played in the NFL for 20 years, Dave Duerson, Terry Long and Andre Waters who shot themselves to death, and the linebacker Jovan Belcher who killed his girl friend and then himself.

According to Liz Neporent, “Of the 34 former NFL players who have died and donated their brains to research, the percentage of them who have pathologically confirmed CTE is staggering – over 90 percent, a 2009 University of Michigan report found.”

And before an audience of Penn students, Gladwell brought up the case of 21-year-old Penn college football player Owen Thomas who committed suicide and whose autopsy indicated he had mild stages of the same type of brain damage seen in athletics who have played much longer.

These occurred in spite of continuing improvements in the design of helmets and modifications in the rules of the game to reduce these risks. But players today are bigger, stronger and faster than they used to be.

Gladwell confined his remarks to football. But what about all those other rough and tumble sports—hockey, rugby, wrestling and boxing, where the likelihood of major brain injury is just as likely?

In his lecture he argued forcefully for the complete elimination of the “brutal” game of football. “Brutal” because of the cumulative effects of blows to the head that almost all football players experience.

He argued that football has no place in colleges or university settings where something called an education is supposed to be occurring. (At Reed College, where I taught for many years, there was no football team. But “Ultimate Frisbee” was wildly popular.) In Gladwell’s view, the enormous financial benefit to the institution from all those well-healed alumni is no justification for continuing to maintain a football team.

Gladwell is a cool and effective speaker. If you’re interested in this subject have a look:


3.05.2013

Weekend Reading



You could say that the book club became our life, but it would be more accurate to say that our life became a book club.
Will Schwalbe

Over the weekend I began reading Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. Schwalbe and his mother, who had advanced pancreatic cancer, that is almost always fatal, discuss the books they are reading. They exchange books, sometimes read together and share their hopes and concerns by means of literature. In a way they have created a book group for two, a group that I’ve been hoping to join for years.

Early on in the book Schwalbe recalls a poem by Auden called “Musee des Beaux Arts.”

Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Schwalbe says Auden wrote the poem in December 1938, just after Kristallnacht. Brueghel’s painting depicts Icarus falling into the sea while everyone else carries on with their daily affairs without the slightest concern for the drowning Icarus.

Kristallnacht was a series of attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and portions of Austria on the night of November 9, 1938. It is estimated 91 Jews were killed, thousands were arrested and Jewish homes, stores, buildings, synagogues and schools were attacked. Some were completely destroyed, others were partially burned, and windows were shattered in all of them. German authorities, police officers, and citizens in the communities where the attacks took place did nothing to stop the destruction or come to the aid of the Jewish citizens.

Some years later (1960) William Carlos Williams also wrote a poem in response to Brueghel’s “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus.” Quite different in structure and with greater concision, it also recognizes the world’s indifference to the tragedy of Icarus.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry
of the year was
awake tingling
with itself
sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax
unsignificantly
off the coast
there was
a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning




3.01.2013

Stephane Hessel


“TO CREATE IS TO RESIST.
TO RESIST IS TO CREATE”

Stephane Hessel died early this week. He was 95. I admired him greatly. Yet it was only two years ago that I first heard of him. This was true for most of the readers of his 2010 impassioned pamphlet Indignez Vous, later published in English as Time for Outrage. I wrote about Hessel soon after I read the book.

In an instant he captured a feeling, a belief that I had been harboring for years: Beliefs are not enough unless they are translated into action. Hessel wrote:

“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.”

Hessel clearly believed that historical progress is made by successive challenges to injustices and that each individual is responsible for contributing to this task. The great challenges he feels most outraged against are the immense gap between the very poor and the very rich, “which never ceases to expand,” the gradual eroding of human rights and “the state of the planet.”

He felt passionately that “The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, “I can’t do anything about it: I’ll jut get by.” And throughout it seems that he is primarily addressing the young. “To the young, I say: look around you, you will find things that make you justifiably angry—the treatment of immigrants, illegal aliens and Roma. You will see concrete situations that provoke you to act as a real citizen. Seek and you shall find!”

In a talk to students at Columbia Hessel urged them to find their own personal outrage and then do something about it. “You will find something, and when you find it you must commit.” It is entirely too easy to do nothing. Hessel argues this is not a time for apathy, rather this is a time for outrage. “Never give up, never be indifferent.”

I write again about Hessel because of my own failures to act at various times in my life. It isn’t that I’ve been indifferent. Rather it’s that my beliefs, my convictions even when they were strong, were never followed by actions.

Hessel was of German Jewish ancestry and with his family moved to France in 1924. While serving in the French army in 1940, he was captured, sent to a POW camp, eventually escaped and joined de Gaulle’s band of Free French resistants.

The Gestapo captured him while serving in one of the resistance networks, sent him the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps. He escaped from both. After the war he was a key figure in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

His short manifesto became a rallying cry to the Occupy Wall Street movement that has all but been forgotten about now. But surely this is just as much a time for outrage and active resistance as it was two years ago.

Hessel’s death reminds me, perhaps reminds everyone of the truths he so clearly enunciated.



2.28.2013

Car Sharing

I’d rather have a cleaner environment, but I can’t imagine me without my car.
Steph Willen

Many years ago I read a newspaper article about something called car sharing. It described a group in Switzerland whose members joined together to share the use of a few cars. I thought the notion made perfect sense. Not everyone needs to own their own car; how much better it would be, to say nothing of the cost savings, to have convenient access to a car only when you needed one.

At the time I was doing research on environmental issues, so I filed the article in one I called Transportation. Several years later as I was preparing a lecture on transportation solutions to the then energy crisis, I came across the article again. I began to think further about the idea and started talking about it with some colleagues.

Not long after, we formed a small group to plan a car sharing organization in Portland, Oregon. After many discussions and meetings with local officials, we obtained some start-up funds to initiate what turned out to be the first car sharing organization in this country. That was 1988. A few years later, a group (Flexcar) in Seattle began operating and within a few months Zipcar was formed in the greater Boston area.

Car Sharing Portland was never profitable and in time the owner sold it to Flexcar. A few years later, Zipcar purchased Flexcar and became the largest car sharing group in this country with branches in Canada and England. As the popularity of car sharing grew, the major car rental agencies that rent cars by the day, not hourly as in car sharing, became interested. And a few weeks ago Avis purchased Zipcar to add an hourly rental service at some of its locations.

This is how an innovation that begins on a local level, in a limited way, can expand and eventually be gobbled up by a large, world-wide organization. In a way, I am pleased to see this development, although the eventual benefit to individuals remains uncertain.

It is possible that Avis, as well as other rental car agencies that have added hourly rentals to their service may find it unprofitable and bring it to an end. Or they will raise the hourly rental rate to a point that it will be unaffordable for most users. That would leave the car sharing concept to those groups, who have remained independent and those recent variations--Car2Go, RelayRides, and one-way car sharing systems—that operate largely in this country and Europe.

In the beginning, many of us thought that car sharing would enable a person to drive less, reduce the number of cars they had and, in the long term, lead to less traffic congestion. To date, over twenty years after the start of car sharing in this country, these questions remain unanswered. At least much of the evidence is equivocal, although there is some reason to believe that it does reduce the number of cars a family has when they own more than one.

As car sharing grows and the number of users expands significantly, perhaps we’ll get a better reading on these questions. But for now, many of the environmental benefits of this transportation concept have yet to be realized.

As Scott La Vine wrote in a recent comment on the Avis-Zipcar merger, “Reductions in emissions, traffic levels and parking needs are possible – but planners will need to bear in mind these are not the only goals worth achieving, and that impacts are likely to change over time. It will take many years to fully understand the impa

2.26.2013

Six Footnotes


Commentaries on issues that I’ve previously discussed on Marks in the Margin often appear on the Web. Here are a half dozen that might interest you.

Relationship between gun ownership and party affiliation: On his blog, 538, Nate Silver, author of The Signal and the Noise, presents evidence on the political party affiliation of households that do and do not possess a gun.

How to shorten waiting times: A clever way to shorten the perceived time spent in waiting for the bus or any similar transportation service.

On Letter Writing: Sometimes a letter writing correspondence has a profound effect on an individual. Daniel Mendelsohn describes the way it did for him.

Cognitive biases: It is good to be reminded of the several potential errors and biases that cloud our thinking. George Dvorsky has compiled a brief description of the twelve most common ones.

Civilizing effects of literature: Teju Cole reaffirms the importance of fiction and what can happen when we don’t.

What book changed your life? Hilary Mantel writes that one of Oliver Sacks’ book changed her life, as probably did for many others, as well.

2.25.2013

Betrayal


Without love there can be no betrayal—love of a country, a brother, a wife, a platoon mate, a family. Granta #122

Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal depicts the course of an affair. But it does so with a twist. The play begins at the end of the affair and moves backwards, scene by scene, to the point where it began, as the lovers become younger and desire becomes more erotically charged.

In this way, Pinter poses an important question: If you knew the outcome of your act of betrayal, would you still make it? In the recent issue of “Granta” (#122), 12 writers approach this question from different perspectives. They include:

Janine Di Giovanni in “Seven Days in Syria,” in which she describes how the government is betraying its people. In “Abington Square” Andre Aciman lingers long and mournfully about his cafe encounters with a cryptic, flirting woman. Jennifer Vanderbes’ story, “A Brief History of Fire,” depicts the several affairs of a woman who lived deep in the forest at a fire lookout station.

Granta, also asked the contributors to to briefly define the word “betrayal” and its implications. The most common understanding of the term refers to a liaison outside of a marriage or close relationship. But the term has a much broader application, as illustrated in the issue and the author’s definitions.

Mohsin Hamid views betrayal very generally as pain and also as education. A person you love shows you life isn’t the way you expected it to be. Yet he says, “Sometimes it is a blessing.”

Karen Russell points out that the powerful effects of an act of betrayal are often just as much a surprise to the traitor as to the victim. Several of the writers look back on their personal experiences in giving meaning to the term. The war correspondent Janie di Giovanni describes some of the people who let her down during the war in Iraq. One of the worst was an man she had befriended, who she later found out was an informant for Saddam Hussein.

John Burnside writes, “Banks, politicians, the legal system, corporations, broadcasters, advertisers, the police, any government-supported watchdog or ‘standard agency’ and even NGOs—the list of traitors seems endless…”

Finally I think Samantha Harvey offers up the most widespread understanding of the term. “We think of betrayal as the point at which one, who is loved and respected, fails the other, who loves and respects. I wonder if it is really only the point at which we realize that we have been asking for something that the other could never give? In other words, that we see we have been believing in false gods.”

There are also those far less serious acts of betrayals that occur in the world of sports and widely reported in the press: Lance Armstrong confessing he doped in his Tour de France races, baseball players admitting they took steroids during their playing days.

And what about all those Boston Red Sox players who betrayed their devoted followers by signing with other teams after their 2004 World Series victory—Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, etc? And then there are all the treacherous acts of the Red Sox management who consistently trade away of their legendary stars, often to their “arch-enemy” the Yankees beginning as early as Babe Ruth. That single trade led only to the Curse of the Bambino that for 86 years, from 1918 to 2004, prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series.

From the green playing field of Fenway Park to the bedrooms of Tribeca, all the way to the alleyways of Damascus, the world of betrayal is immense.

2.21.2013

Midnight Disaster


Late one night well before the turn of the century, I lost a book. It wasn’t just an ordinary book, one you can easily replace at the bookstore or find at the library. Instead, it was a book I had written. It was the only copy I had.

I recall a well-known tale. Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, lost a suitcase she was bringing him while he was on assignment for the Toronto Star in Switzerland. The suitcase was full of Hemingway’s writing that he wanted to show Lincoln Steffens.

She had also packed all the carbon copies. Apparently the suitcase was lost at the train station while Hadley left it unattended when she went to get a bottle of water. When she came back, the suitcase was gone.

The book I lost was a bit different, as it was written on a computer. As a faculty member of the college where Steve Jobs had attended for a few years, I was a beneficiary of one of the early Macintosh computers. At that time we were also using Apple’s word processor known as MacWrite.

I had not learned the fine art of backing up computer files, had not printed a single copy, and in a single idiotic mistake, the complete version of the book was gone. I couldn’t find it and became a bit frantic. The night wore on, the ravings became more frequent and I was growing desperate. And for the life of me, I had no idea what mistake I had made.

Off in a distant room, my wife eventually heard me. In her distinctive way of ambling about, she wandered in and probably asked me in her sweet and soft way, “What in heaven’s name is going on?”

I explained the situation as coherently as I could, all the while pounding my fists on the floor. She sat down at my desk, fiddled around a bit, the book reappeared on the screen, and she ambled back to bed without a single word.

That was the night I learned some of us have it and the rest of us don’t.

Apparently long before the birth of Steve Jobs, there have been others whose work has been lost, not necessarily by any dumb computer mistake, but by the nature of writing then and the stupidity of those entrusted with the disposition of the writer’s work.

It is said that roughly two-thirds of Aristotle’s work has never been recovered, while only a small fragment remains of Jane Austen’s novel, Sanditon. The man entrusted to publish Byron’s memoirs burned them and the same was true of a novel and many of the journals Sylvia Plath had written.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.

2.18.2013

Memory Distortions

“Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” Giorgos Seferis

Do you every doubt the reliability of your memories? Did that experience really happen to you or did you dream it? Or was it something someone told you? Or an event you read about it a book? In a beautiful and comprehensive essay on memorial errors in the latest New York Review of Books, Oliver Sacks describes four general limitations on the accuracy of memories.

Unreliable memories are those we think we recall correctly but in fact never happened to us. In one of his books Sacks described how upset he was by two bombings near his home in London during World War II. While the area was in fact bombed, his brother reminded him he wasn’t in London then. Perhaps he read about it somewhere or someone told him about it and over time these cumulative reminders led him to believe he actually experienced it.

Constructive memories are those we make up from, say a photograph or story someone told us. We think our memory is real and we convince ourselves it is every time we repeat it or recall it. But in fact, the recollection is fictional, constructed out of other events or situations that did take place, but were never those you experienced.

Sacks illustrates this error with a tale Ronald Reagan often told about a wartime experience that never took place. Rather it was drawn from a scene in a 1944 film. Sacks says, “Reagan had apparently retained the facts, but forgotten their source.”

False memories are erroneous recollections that are the subject of much research in psychology and relevant to many legal cases where eyewitness testimony is called into question. Reports of childhood abuse and other traumatic events are often said to be pseudo-events.

Unconscious plagiarism is the most interesting of the four types of erroneous memories that Sacks describes. Variously called autoplagiarism, cryptomnesia, or unintentional plagiarism, occurs when a phrase, sentence or entire passage is experienced as an original idea. In fact, it is derived from an existing source, say one you read a long time ago or heard someone say or sing. Sacks gives several examples:

George Harrison was found guilty of plagiarizing a song by another composer for his own song, “My Sweet Lord.”

Helen Keller was accused of plagiarizing “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby in her own story “The Frost King” that she wrote when she was twelve.

The play, Molly Sweeney, by Brian Friel, contains entire phrases and sentences from Sacks own case history of a woman who was born blind. Her sight was much later restored after an operation, but she found her new visual world so confusing that she ends up returning to her original condition of blindness. When Sacks called this to the attention of Friel, he acknowledged that he had read the piece and subsequently agreed to add a note of his debt to Sacks for Molly Sweeney’s source.

Sacks suggests “literary borrowing” (“revisionist narrative”) was a common practice in the 17th Century, citing Coleridge, Shakespeare and the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

Now I wonder how much of what I write is an unconscious revision of something another person wrote or that I recall correctly? I remember an experience that I had as a young boy. Was X actually there with me, or do I imagine she was? Did I actually say that, or have I made it up? In the end, there’s no way to be sure. You can live with false memories and they can affect you profoundly, even though they never happened.

2.14.2013

A Story of Rage

 
Walter Benjamin had wanted to write a book woven entirely out of quotations.
Jonathan Rosen

One afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.

I was too good he said.

He wanted me at all costs to see him as he said he was: a good for nothing, incapable of true feelings, mediocre, adrift even in his profession.

He also had the manners of a gentleman who cultivates his melancholy soul while the old world collapses around him.

“I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me? What words should I use for what you’re doing with that woman! Let’s talk about it! Do you lick her cunt? Do you stick it in her ass? Do you do all the things you never did with me? Tell me! Because I see you! With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed!”

I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully, I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.

[I] watched TV. But there was no program that could make me forget myself.

Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have? Time passes, one goes, another arrives.

But in the end he had shown himself to be a contemptible man, incapable of keeping faith with the commitments he had made. We don’t know anything about people, even those with whom we share everything.

He desired the past, the girlhood that I had already given him and that he now felt nostalgia for.

I spent the night and the following days in reflection. [One day I noticed the solitary man who lives downstairs out in the garden.]

So I stood silently watching him from the fifth floor, thin but broad in the shoulders, his hair gray and thick. I felt an increasing hostility toward him that became more tenacious the more unreasonable I felt it to be. What were his secrets of a man alone, a male obsession with sex, perhaps, the late-life cult of the cock. Certainly he, too, saw no farther than his ever-weaker squirt of sperm, was content only when he could verify that he could still get it up, like the dying leaves of a dried-up plant that’s given water. Rough with the women’s bodies he happened to encounter, hurried, dirty, certainly his only objective was to score points, as in a rifle range, to sink into a red pussy as into a fixed thought surrounded by concentric circles. Better if the patch of hair is young and shiny, ah the virtue of a firm ass. So he thought, such were the thoughts I attributed to him, I was shaken by vivid electric shocks of rage.

---

The preceding very short story was drawn from the passages I had saved and two that I found on the Web in Elena Ferrante’s novel Days of Abandonment. It isn’t a book, of course, as Walter Benjamin imagined, but it does make some degree of sense. Rather it’s more like a cento, a poem constructed from the poems that others have written.

It was for me nothing more than an exercise to see if I could do it. It is also one of the virtues of saving memorable passages from the books you read in a commonplace book. I read Ferrante’s novel seven years ago and had no trouble remembering it, unlike most of the books I’ve read that long ago. It is not a book anyone who has read ever forgets

It is also representative of all of the books Ferrante writes, as James Wood illustrates in his essay in discussing her fiction. He begins by noting she “is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers.”

As if in reply, Ferrante comments in Fragments, a short Kindle book, on her reading and writing: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” And further on, “Who really cares about the person who wrote it? What’s essential is the finished work.”

2.11.2013

A Possible Life


Sebastian Faulks’ A Possible Life consists of five separate stories. The publisher calls it a novel. So does Faulks on the grounds that “it’s a novel basically because I say so.” He compares it with a piece of music. When you hear a symphony, you don’t think of it as four separate movements, each of which differs from the others. Rather you think of it as a single piece of music.

Faulks begins with the story of Geoffrey, a modest student and excellent athletic. He becomes a teacher, then a British agent in Occupied France. He is captured and sent to a concentration camp. He survives, “But some subtle rearrangement of particles had taken place within him.”

Billy is the subject of the next tale, an orphan sent to a Victorian workhouse where he also struggles to survive. In time, he makes a good life for himself, but his wife dies at an early age. “Once he thought he could win, but life had beaten him, like it beats everyone.”

Jeanne is an illiterate French peasant in 1822 France, who cares for two young children and the farm in which they live. She doesn’t know the point of trying to understand anything and makes no judgment on what she has seen in her life. “Death made her an orphan; life had made her poor; and she had made herself go through each day with no regard or trust for others.”

Anya King is a singer/songwriter in the 20th century. Her life is told in the reminiscences of Freddy, a musician who became her manager and one-time lover. She tells him “It’s life honey. It’s a bummer from start to finish. A total fuckup. Then you die.”

Freddy concludes his narrative, “I was almost sixty years old, but I didn’t understand anything. It all in the end seemed to have been a matter of the purest chance.”

Elena is the subject of the longest story in A Possible Life, set in near future (2029) in Italy. As a child she was a loner, a shy outsider who found other children “irritating.” As an adult she becomes a distinguished neuroscientist and, together with her colleague, discovers an important synaptic process that has significant implications for the nature of the self and consciousness.

She also develops a close bond with Bruno, another orphan, who was able to invent stories and people that “made her ache from laughing.” She felt her thoughts were never validated until she told them to him. But their relationship was difficult as they were separated by distance and in the end Bruno turns away from their mutual love for one another.

“Knowing one was comprised of recycled matter only and that selfhood was a delusion did not take away the aching of the heart.” Elena concludes that after a lifetime of her scientific research she understood nothing at all.

What can a reader conclude from these five tales? Is there something binding them together that justifies calling A Possible Life a novel? That when it’s all over, we know little or nothing? That life is all a matter of chance? That why bother to understand anything when nothing remains of our life?

Faulks is often asked what is the unifying theme of the stories? He doesn’t know what to say, as if to imply if he had one, it wouldn’t be necessary to write the book. Yet he answers,

“But I suppose it’s to do with individuality and to what extent our idea of ourselves as being a unique “self” is really valuable, or whether it’s actually, as neuroscience believes a complete delusion—what they call a “necessary fiction.”



2.07.2013

On Deciding

Whoever has the choice has the torment.
Adam Gopnik writes about some advice given to him by a former professor, Albert Bregman, at McGill University who he much respected. In trying to decide whether to major in psychology or art history, Bregman “squinted and lowered his head.”

“Is this a hard choice for you?” he demanded. Yes! I cried. “Oh, he said, springing back up cheerfully. “In that case, it doesn’t matter. If it’s a hard decision, then there’s always lots to be said on both sides, so either choice is likely to be good in its way. Hard choices are always unimportant.”

The advice immediately raised a red flag for me. Is that a sound decision making strategy?

To begin, it really didn’t help Gopnik to decide, did it? He had to choose one at the expense of the other, even though he liked them both. Gopnik is still left in a quandary. Which of the two?

More importantly, Bregman’s strategy focuses on the positive outcomes of each discipline. Is that what really counts? Or do the potential disadvantages, the negative outcomes of each field, matter more?

In the end, that is going to be what really counts once you begin the pursuit of either one. Sure you might enjoy the study of art history. But what about all those hours in a dark lecture hall looking at those slides the professor is displaying on the screen? What about all those periods in history where the work of the artists leaves you cold? How long is this guy going to take to get to the Impressionists?

Let us say, you opt for psychology, you are impressed with what you’ve read about it and from what your friends tell you about its potential. So you start your study, hoping to get a better understanding of human behavior, including your own.

What you find is that the work of psychologists today is so varied that to meet the requirements you’ll end up taking a course in psychophysics, one in conditioning theory studying animals, sometimes rats at other times pigeons, and along the way you’ll be asked to take a course in neuro-anatomy.

What happen to behavior, who among those members of the department are studying what people do? Perhaps it is social psychology, the study of social interaction? What you’ll find today is that most social psychologists are currently studying social cognition or the neuroscience of interaction. Where happened to the behavior in social behavior?

In short, it isn’t the positive features of the field that are going to matter, say the smart group of students and professors, the absence of course exams, and the pleasure of small group discussions. What is going to matter are all the things that grate on you.

Perhaps a better decision strategy is to try to predict all the positive features of the field, as well as the negative ones. Try to rate them, say, from 1 to 10 with 10 the most positive or most negative. Add up the pluses and the minuses and see what the results are.

The field of study with the least negative total is probably the field for you. Of course, any estimates of this sort are inevitably going to be imperfect. But there’s no alternative but to accept that. Simply focusing on your estimate of the desirable features of any field is going to ignore those that aren’t. And in the end, those will weigh more heavily.

It’s the pains that outweigh the pleasures. You try to shake them off, but they don’t go away.

2.04.2013

A Dance With Religion


For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime! Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5

Deborah Green is a young, charming, rabbi. Her congregants and the patients she visits in hospitals draw strength from her and see something in her, even when she does not see it herself. In Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen, she is facing a crisis, one that has been brewing for some time.

Deborah has increasing doubts about her faith. She ministers to the ill, delivers her remarks eloquently, sings beautifully, and says her morning prayers with apparent passion. But all the while she senses it’s an act.

Faker! a voice inside Deborah cried. There’s nothing! But she kept talking, kept formulating words and thoughts. Tears ran down her face, not because, as sometimes happened she felt how near God was, but because she felt God was not there at all and that she was speaking aloud in a cold white room, for the benefit of an old lady.

On a visit to the hospital where Henry Friedman is recovering from his second stroke, she meets his son, Lev. He finds her talking to his father and doesn’t know who she is and asks her to leave. She explains why she’s there, they become friends and in time lovers.

Lev begins studying the Torah with her and discovers a vocabulary for what he has always felt. Paraphrasing an old rabbinic precept, Lev found a teacher in Deborah and got himself a friend.

But there was far more to Deborah than her rabbinical self. She likes stupid movies, was not averse to using profanity, and could be quite frivolous. In spite of her responsibilities, she continues to struggle with what she perceives as the emptiness of her life and decides to flee her synagogue, without telling anyone including Lev, who has no idea where she’s gone.

Outwardly she did her work, observing the social and professional and religious forms, but inwardly she felt that a bottomless darkness had opened up and that she was constantly tiptoeing around the rim.

It is to her sister’s home where she goes. There she spends weeks doing nothing, not thinking much, taking long walks and commiserating with her sister, as well as her sister’s partner who gradually helps her to regain her strength. Eventually she returns to her synagogue and to Lev.

Soon thereafter she is informed her contract will not be renewed. Deborah receives a scholarship to study in Jerusalem, marries Lev, and together they embark for Israel.

Elsewhere Rosen has written, Deborah recognized that the rules she lived by—and the rules she ignored—had been devised by humans, though she saw them as divinely inspired and therefore worth maintaining. As a Reform Jew she was not obliged to see Jewish law as immutable and binding and yet she chose to observe a great deal. Something in the tradition transcended the individual…so that she had a sense of spiritual well-being that lived beyond her traditional life. Lev recognized this in her and admired it intensely.

I first read Joy Comes in the Morning ten years ago and remembered it brought me great pleasure. Ten years later it still did. Doubts and questions and paradoxes speak to me. I latch on to those books that do this and find they continue to inform me and often deliver an important message.

1.31.2013

Writing in Circles


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

An essay about the work of Andre Aciman by Teju Cole reminded me that some authors relish writing in circles.

I love being in Paris because when I am there, I dream about being in New York.

Yes, I love Alexandria but only because when I’m there, I can dream about what it is like in Rome.

When I am in Rome, I yearn only for the times I lived in Alexandria. And when I’m in Europe I miss the Egypt where I could dream of Europe


Those are paraphrases of the way Andre Aciman writes from time to time. His pleasure in meandering, almost contradictory sentences is, as Cole suggests, “intense and catching.”

Here is my favorite one, imaginary or otherwise, from a woman Aciman was hoping to see in Paris:

Since you’re going to Paris, you don’t want to go to Paris. But if you were staying in New York, you’d want to be in Paris. But since you’re not staying, but going, just do me a favor. When you’re in Paris, think of yourself in New York longing for Paris, and everything will be fine.”

Yes, no, I do and I don’t, a way of expressing yourself that conveys the uncertainty and ambiguity of experience. The words circle back to the place you began as soon as you reach the place you were headed.

Once you become aware this writing style, you see it everywhere.

In her short story, “The Lost Order” published in The New Yorker (1/7/13) Rivka Galchen writes:

“I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it.

“Although I don’t feel like I have a lot time, I feel constantly pressed for time, even though when I had a job I felt like I had plenty of time.”


One more example from a book I am rereading now, Joy Comes in the Morning, by Jonathan Rosen:

“I’d say the opposite is true,” said Lev. “Everything’s figured out.”

[Deborah said] “Yes, you’re right, too. The opposite is correct also.”

“You’re talking like the Talmud,” said Lev.

Why does this type of writing amuse me so much? Surely it is because it is the way I often think. Nothing is ever clear, nothing is without its contradictions and imperfections, certainty is largely unreachable and so I keep coming back to where I began. It’s like swimming laps.

Cole suggests the pleasure of reading Aciman “resides in the pleasure of his company. He knows a lot, and often gets carried away, but he also knows how to doubt himself.”


1.28.2013

The Lost Wife

My adult life is cursed with a constant duality. It is as if someone came and took a cleaver to my existence, so that I cannot enjoy one thing without seeing the sadness of the other side. Alyson Richman

They meet at the wedding of his grandson and her granddaughter. They are both in their 80s now. There is something about her that seems familiar to him. He approaches her and asks if she remembers him. She doesn’t. He takes her arm and turns it over. He sees the number stamped above her wrist. His doubts disappear and eventually she recognizes him too.

This is the beginning of Alyson Richman’s A Lost Wife. The tale quickly shifts to Prague as the Nazis are about to invade Czechoslovakia. We are introduced to two Jewish families and their children. Joseph, the son of one and Lenka, the daughter of the other fall deeply in love. They marry and are immediately confronted with a dilemma.

Joseph’s father is only able to obtain exit visas his family and for Lenka, but not the rest of her family. Joseph is torn: should he leave with his family?

Lenka is even more torn: should she escape with Joseph and leave her parents and sister to try to get by in their Nazi occupied country? She considers the choice “terribly unfair.”

Lenka refuses to leave without her family, but Joseph departs on a ship bound for New York. The ship is torpeodoed and only Joseph of his family survives, although Lenka, after reading about the disaster, assumes he too had drowned.

Soon thereafter Lenka and her family were rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Terezin, a special camp the Germans created to fool the world into believing the Jews were treated well in the camps. Not long after, Lenka and her family were shipped east to Auschwitz, hardly a show camp.

There was also severe hunger in Terezin, illness, overcrowding, diseases that spread rapidly, exhaustion from the long days of working at aimless tasks.

Lenka survived as result of her artistic skills. In spite of appalling conditions in the camp, she somehow managed to create art. She was assigned to a group painting postcards sold to the German people or draw expansion plans for the camp. The rest of her family perished.

"But why, I wondered were we working—and working so hard—for an army whose objective was to corral us into a ghetto of disease and starvation. Where was the resistance?"

The Nazis fled the camp as the Russian army approached and Lenka managed to stumble out, starved, frail and barely able to walk. She was discovered in the woods by an American solder and taken to a displaced person’s camp.

They were married a few years latter; Joseph, a successful obstetrician, also married a woman he met in New York. And then, at the turn of the century, both of their second spouses having died, they met by chance again at the marriage of two of their grandchildren, whereupon the novel ends.

The Lost Wife was not a book I intended to read or even considered, but rather one left by someone at the check out counter of a bookstore I often frequent. I looked at the book, read the cover that proclaimed it was the “Sophie’s Choice of this generation,” and added it to my purchases.

Sophie’s Choice of this generation?” I doubt it will be translated to the screen.

1.24.2013

On Hearing

As his hearing grew weaker in the years ahead he felt more and more isolated, trapped in an incompetent body, foolish and pathetic.
Andrew Motion

A few years ago, I noticed I wasn’t hearing as well as I used to. I didn’t always catch the questions my students were asking in large lecture classes, nor was I hearing much of the chatter on television with the same volume setting I always used.

Eventually the problem grew somewhat worse and I tried using tiny digital hearing aids. I found them disappointing, as I no longer sounded like myself, they amplified too many unpleasant sounds, and they were useless in a social situation with a fair amount of background noise. Hearing aids do not accomplish for the ears what glasses do for the eyes.

In time, I began to appreciate the new auditory world that I lived in. Closed captions on the television made hearing largely unnecessary and that was the same for the subtitles in the films I preferred. And when I went to the theater or to an English language film, I could usually obtain a wireless audio amplifier, if I wanted one.

My world became less noisy, the roar of the traffic didn’t bother me, and the overall quietude appealed to me. So did observing all the non-verbal cues of human behavior that I usually didn’t pay much attention to and yet often conveyed as much meaning, if not more, than spoken words.

My views about this new auditory world, differs from David Lodge’s expressed in Deaf Sentence. He writes: "Deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse." Lodge had to give up teaching and greatly missed “the rhythm of the academic year.” However, I believe his hearing loss was far greater than mine.

As my social world narrowed, I began to wonder about the consequences of the limited number of conversations I have. There are days when I speak to no one, whether in person or on the phone. So I turn to the research to find out and am not surprised by the conflicting results. I look more closely at the studies to try to determine the most rigorous. It is impossible to identify them.

Absent that, I turn to those solitary souls who I most admire and here I see no change in their talent. I think of Beethoven who wrote his 9th Symphony when he was deaf. He said:

"Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, 'Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf…But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.”

I do find it embarrassing when I turn down invitations to social gatherings where it is usually impossible for me to hear the speech of the person I am sitting next to. What can I say when a person talks to me? “Could you speak louder?” “Would you mind repeating that?” No, I say neither of these things. Instead I mumble something back and hope that I will not be thought deranged.

Beethoven was similarly embarrassed:

"Forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you. My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas."

In her Paris Review interview, Marilynne Robinson, who lives a largely solitary life, commented:

"… I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book."


1.21.2013

On Longevity

Last October the Times published a lengthy article on individuals who live to be over 100. The article focused on the Aegean Island of Ikaria that is said to have the highest percentage of 90 year olds in the world—1 out of every 3 individuals live into their 90s. It also has a very high percentage of individuals who become centenarians.

I have no interest in living anywhere near that long. Instead, I was far more interested in the factors responsible for this degree of longevity and the methods used to identify them. The article was written by Dan Buettner, one of several investigators, currently engaged in research on the places where people live longest.

The article began by portraying Stamatis Moraitis who says he is 102. He left Ikaria in 1943 to receive treatment in this country for a combat wound. In 1976, in his mid-60s, he learned that he had lung cancer with a prognosis from 9 doctors that he had less than a year to live. He decided to return to Ikaria to be close by his children and enjoy his final days.

But as the years went by, he began to feel stronger and little by little was able to resume the island routine. That meant walking up and down the hilly landscape, planting and maintaining a vegetable garden, visiting with his friends, eating the regular diet of the island, and drinking the local herbal teas and red wine. Eventually his cancer simply disappeared.


From studying Moraitis and other Ikarians, Buettner identified several factors that he believed were responsible for their longevity, some of which are also true of other places where people live longest.

• Physical exercise
• A diet of vegetables, beans, and olive oil
• A close social community and the company of good friends
• Drinking plant-based teas and red wines high in antioxidants
• Fish twice a week, the absence of sugar and little red meat
• A regular daily nap

Buettner reports, “The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay.”


He also is aware of the limitations of his study and admits he had a very incomplete understanding of why Ikarians live so long. To conduct a rigorous, long-term study of longevity, you need to carefully monitor individuals from several regions where individuals have long life spans and compare them to matched (ideally) control group.

This is an extremely difficult study to conduct, probably requiring more than one generation of researchers and stability in the participant’s life so that they remain in the general area where they live and stay in contact with the investigators.

The best than Buettner could do was comparing Ikarians with those who live on nearby islands. When he did that, he observed that the people who live on Ikaria do outlive those on the surrounding islands.

Twenty-five years after returning to Ikaria Moraitis went back to America to ask his doctors why his cancer disappeared. He told Buettner: “My doctors were all dead.”

1.17.2013

Bergman Island

A writer is dear and necessary for us only in the measure of which he reveals to us the inner workings of his very soul. Tolstoy

I have always been profoundly attracted to the films of Ingmar Bergman. I’ve viewed them over and over again. His films are among the very few DVD’s that I’ve purchased and there are always a few in my Netflix Queue.

Bergman has captured his inner life with as much honesty as any director or writer I know. To a certain extent, it is the inner life of every man. I know it bears a certain similarity to my own. This is especially true of his films Persona, Scenes of a Marriage, Saraband, and Autumn Sonata,

Ingmar Bergman died in 2007 at the age of 89 at his home on Faro an isolated, tiny island in the Baltic with only five hundred year-round residents. Faro has no school, no post office, no doctor’s office, but there is a market and a church. For many years Bergman lived alone by the seashore, sometimes going for days without speaking to anyone. He said, “When I’m on Faro, I’m never alone.”

Bergman Island is a documentary in which for the first time he agreed to be interviewed. During the holidays I watched it once again. The several interviews depicted in the film were culled from hours of footage originally shown in three episodes on Swedish television.

They were conducted after Bergman completed his last film, Saraband, when he finally seemed ready to talk with someone about his life, family (5 wives, 9 children, and various romantic relations), and his varied artistic experiences in the cinema and theater.

These reminiscences are interspersed with scenes from his films to illustrate the way he translated his life to the screen. His films have always been intensely personal. They pose questions about:

• Mortality: Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death.

• Guilt: I had a bad conscience until I discovered that having a bad conscience about something so gravely serious as leaving your children is an affectation, a way of achieving a little suffering that can’t for a moment be equal to the suffering you’ve caused.

• Sex: …the manifestation of sex is very important, and particularly to me, for above all, I don’t want to make merely intellectual films. I want audiences to feel, to sense my films.

• Silence: There’s something quite pleasurable about not talking…silence is wonderful.

The film is an intimate, compelling portrait of a man who many regard among the greats of the cinema. Woody Allen, who at times, has written and directed films modeled on Bergman’s (Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors) referred to him as “… probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera.”

And Krzysztof Kieslowski, who directed the Trois Couleurs (Blue, White, and Red), believes Bergman “…is one of the few directors—perhaps the only one in the world—to have said as much about human nature as Dostoevsky or Camus.”

For me Bergman Island is a beautiful depiction of a deeply reflective man as his life draws to a close and his efforts to understand his past and the daemons that have always haunted him. His music, his film library, and his rich memories are more than enough for him now.

And he seems utterly at peace in talking about them, perhaps even longing to do so. He is also in a place where he continues to find great beauty. It is his home, his “querencia,” as he knew it was the first time he set foot on Faro.

Here is a preview of the film: