12.30.2015

Gratitude

As the year draws to a close, I know of no better way to end it than to reproduce the sentiments of Oliver Sacks in his posthumous volume, Gratitude. It was written toward the end of his life, as he was in considerable pain.

Marks in the Margin was originally conceived in 2008 as a way to post passages from the books I’ve read. As it turned out, I never really did that. Today marks the exception, as I present the passages I copied from Gratitude.

In this instance, it is better to let the author speak, rather than provide a secondary account. It is also a reminder of how much there is to be grateful for.


Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be eighty myself.

Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers. At eleven, I could say “I am sodium” (element 11), and now at seventy-nine, I am gold.

Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.

At nearly eighty, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive—“I’m glad I’m not dead!”

I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever “completing a life” means.

Some of my patients in their nineties or hundreds say nunc dimittis--“I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.”

hope that some of my books may still “speak” to people after my death.

At eighty, the specter of dementia or stroke looms.

Love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life

“Whatever has a beginning must have an ending.”

One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’ too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.

I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying.

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.

There is no time for anything inessential.

I rejoice when I meet gifted young people—even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.

the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories—stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues.

Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct.

It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years.

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.



12.23.2015

Where I Live

I live in a six story condominium in the shape of a U with approximately ten apartments on each of the three wings. There is a lovely garden on the first level, in the center of the three wings. Each morning I walk the hallway on my floor from one end to the other and, if I am not too tired, at night too.

I never see another person, the hall is as quiet as the middle of the Sahara. The door of each apartment is shut tight, in most cases locked. The inhabitants are as imprisoned as in any San Quentin cell. Were it not for my sociable wife, I’d never know who lives across the hall or down the way either. In the elevator I nod to those I don’t know and try to strike up a conversation with those I do.

Everything that happens happens inside the apartment. That is perfectly fine with me, as I am an introvert, hard of hearing, and try to deal with the pain in my back. So I sit in the chair at my desk and search for something to write about.

The Portland Streetcar stops across the street from the building’s main entrance. That is one of the attractive features of living in the neighborhood known at the Pearl District in NW Portland. The Streetcar runs on a round-trip route to the downtown area, Portland State University and what is known as the South Waterfront District.

In former times, the Pearl District consisted of vast warehouses, some of which were inhabited by local artists and a few stray mice. More recently the buildings have been renovated or torn down to make way for upscale condominiums.

The park across the main entrance of the building I live in has a community wading pool that in the summer is filled with toddlers and young children splashing around for hours on end. At the Streetcar stop there is an ice cream parlor known as Cool Moon. It is one of the most popular shops in all of the great state of Oregon. If you don’t mind waiting a few minutes, you can treat yourself to one or more of about 30 different flavors.

I first moved to this neighborhood about 15 years ago. I felt somewhat of an urban pioneer. There were only a couple of apartment houses then. Soon thereafter a building spree began; now there are numerous high rise condominiums for the countless individuals who are moving to Portland. Nearby are a wide variety of boutique shops, galleries and upscale restaurants.

Powell’s Bookstore is a short walk away and in the days when I was more mobile than I am now, I’d go there every day. Some consider Powell’s the best bookstore in this country. It is surely one of the largest. Reading a good book during the long, wet, and cold winters in this town is one of the reasons it’s so popular.

People usually visit Portland during the few months of summer there are here. This is a terrible mistake for everything appears so inviting then. So they sell their homes, pack up their furniture and head this way. Then the rains begin, the cloudy days stay around for weeks on end and it is often cold enough to snow. I wonder if they begin to have second thoughts about their decision and if a sense of buyer’s remorse takes hold of them.

Nevertheless, they remain here, contribute their share to the city’s air pollution, traffic congestion, and rising housing costs. Meanwhile, I yearn for warm climes and sunny days. Unfortunately, my life-long partner cannot imagine living anywhere else, so I am stuck with this city in the far Northwest of this land and her warm countenance.

Happy holidays to all.

12.17.2015

Time Out of Mind

On any given night, about 4,000 people sleep on the streets or in shelters in Portland, Oregon, a city with a population of 625,000 people.

In New York, a city of 8.5 million people, more than 56,000 homeless men, women and children sleep in homeless shelters and at least 3,300 more sleep on the streets and subways in the dead of winter. This means that one in every 143 New Yorkers is currently homeless.

The homeless problem confronts every metropolitan area of this country. In most, solutions have been hard to come by. It was against this background that I watched Time Out of Mind, a film in which Richard Gere portrays George Hammond, a homeless man on the streets, alleys, and in condemned buildings and shelters in New York.

Night after night he looks for a place to sleep, something to eat and, yes, drink. Hammond is an alcoholic and mentally-ill. His sentences are mumbled, incomplete, he has a vague look. cloudy eyes and aimless expression. He has been unable to find a job, has no identification and can’t recall his social security number.

As a result, he doesn’t qualify for the financial assistance offered by City’s social services. He is alone, even when listening to a chatty sort-of-friend, and unsuccessfully tries to connect with his adult daughter, now working in a bar. Hammond is simply down and out, drifting from one day to the next.

I watched this film hoping to find a solution to the homeless problem. None are offered, none are even suggested. What I found was a powerful depiction by Gere of what its like to be homeless on the streets in America today.

The state of Utah has developed a promising approach for homeless individuals. The state had almost 2,000 homeless individuals, many with drug or mental health problems. The approach, called Housing First, starts by giving the homeless a home, a genuine private residence rather than a shelter or halfway house.

In the Utah’s initial pilot program, 17 homeless individuals were placed in homes in Salt Lake City. According to James Surowiecki (New Yorker, 9/22/14) after 22 months, not one of them was back on the streets. Surowiecki reports that, “In the years since, the number of Utah’s chronically homeless has fallen by 74 percent.”

Utah’s program is also more cost effective than the traditional approach of first dealing with drug and mental health issues, as well as maintaining shelters. Such programs generally cost about $20,000 a year for each chronically homeless person. In contrast, placing a homeless individual into permanent house costs the state just $8,000.

Let’s assume George Hammond had a little luck and obtained an identification and social security card. Would his life be any different if he first had a home to call his own? Could he even manage its care and maintenance? Even if he lived in Utah, without a job and some kind of treatment program, I don’t imagine his life would be much different.

The approach to the homeless in Utah offers some kind of hope for what has otherwise been viewed an unfixable problem. Homes first, then a job and treatment, rather than the reverse.

You can watch a preview of the film here











12.10.2015

The Laws of Medicine

I had never expected medicine to be such a lawless, uncertain world. Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee

You are ill, you have a pain here, another one there, you make an appointment to see your doctor. You try to describe why you are there, what ails you. You expect the doctor will tell you what the problem is and a treatment.

It is unlikely you will question his diagnosis or treatment. Yet, everything we know about medicine suggest that is precisely what you should do. Medicine like most every science is imperfect, it is based on probabilities, it is an uncertain science. The diagnosis could be wrong, the same holds for treatments.

There are always exceptions to the usual diagnosis of a medical problem. This is the central message of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from an Uncertain Science.

He writes: “It is easy to make perfect decisions with perfect information. Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information.” Mukherjee invokes three laws to explain why medicine is such an uncertain world.

His first law states that “A strong intuition is much more powerful than a weak test.” Here Mukherjee acknowledges the limitations of medical research. When faced with such uncertainty, hunches can often lead to an effective treatment.

He illustrates this law by describing a patient suffering from fatigue and weight loss. A comprehensive battery of tests turned up nothing. He could do nothing for the patient until he saw him conversing with a former patient who he had treated for the effects of drug use. Soon after, he realized the mystery patient was a heroin user and had contacted Aids.

Mukherjee’s second law states “Normals teach us rules; outliers teach us laws.” We usually don’t pay much attention to the exceptions to a research finding. Yet, as he acknowledges, they are the very individuals who provide an opportunity to refine our understanding of an illness.

Mukherjee illustrates this law by describing the widely held belief at one time that autism was caused by parents who were emotionally cold to their children, the “refrigerator mom” hypothesis. By paying attention to the exceptions to this notion, geneticists began examining the risk of autism between identical twins. They found a striking rate of concordance, suggesting a genetic cause of the illness.

In his third law Mukherjee holds that “For ever medical experiment, there is a perfect human bias.” Every scientific experiment is prone to any number of human biases, but he believes this problem is especially serious in medicine. Medical researchers hope their medicines will work, their treatments will work. This bias enters into the design, conduct, and analysis of the study.

…when you enroll a patient in a study, you inevitably alter the nature of the patient’s psyche and, therefore, alter the study. The device used to measure the subject transforms the nature of the subject.

Mukherjee claims many medical treatmentss thought to be deeply beneficial to patients based on considerable anecdotal evidence and decades of nonrandomized studies were ultimately shown to be harmful when they were investigated with randomized, double blind studies.

Weak tests, outliers and biases, Mukherjee’s three laws of medicine point to limits and constraints on medical knowledge. That is the state of medicine that doctors confront. It is also the problem you will confront when you have need to visit your doctor.

Is he making the correct diagnosis of your illness? Will the drug she prescribes work for you? Is the suggested treatment approach based on carefully control studies?

While medical technologies are increasingly sophisticated, uncertainties remain endemic to medicine. Once you recognize this, it is wise to keep posing questions, inquiring about alternatives, and being confident you’ve been given the right advice.


12.03.2015

Tightrope

And then she made her move. It felt like walking a tightrope, feeling the balance, knowing that a slight shift to either side might be fatal.

Marian Sutro returns to the page. The last time we saw her was in Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky. This time it is in his Tightrope. A spy story, a thriller for a change. Nothing special. A time out, so to speak.

We begin with Marian’s work for the Britain’s Special Operations Forces in World War II. She is parachuted into France, joins the resistance, her task to make contact with Clement Pelletier, a nuclear physicist and help smuggle him out of the country. She succeeds, but soon thereafter is betrayed, captured by the Nazis, after killing two SS officers.

She is tortured and sent to a German concentration camp—Ravensbruck—assumes the name of recently deceased prisoner, escapes and eventually finds her way back to England.

“You cannot tell anyone what it [Ravensbruck] was like. It wasn’t the stuff of words.”

She returns to the home of her parents where she is overly pampered, fed, treated like a child. All the while, she longs for the excitement of her life as an agent and heroine of the resistance. When her former handler temps her back into the Cold War world of espionage, she accepts at once.

At this point Marian Sutro begins a new life. We are introduced to her brother and his work as a nuclear scientist, and others who believed the West should share their knowledge with the Russians.

Once again she is drawn back in to the world of deception, double-crossing, struggle to protect her gay brother. Along the way there are various affairs, close escapes, and clandestine acts. An all pervading atmosphere of mistrust, uncertainty. And Mawer writes elegant prose, as if he knew exactly what the world of espionage was like.

“It is so very difficult to unpick the spider’s web of intrigue and betrayal, isn’t it? Some threads are irrevocably knotted together, others snap at the merest breath of inquiry.”

What makes Tightrope such a pleasure is the character of Marion Sutro, her response to the morally complex world in which she found herself, damaged in World War II, yet resilient, clever, calm, subject to great physical passions, able to hold her own at the slightest danger.

To live happily, live hidden. She’d heard the proverb years ago during her training but she’d only recently found the source…Florian’s fables…It comes in the Fable of the Cricket who survives intact while the pretty butterfly dies at the hands of children. She was like the cricket—cryptic, camouflaged, concealed. A survivor.”

In the end Marion never knew if what she had done made the slightest difference. I suppose that is the way with the clandestine world, probably the world in general.




11.27.2015

A Moveable Feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11.24.2015

Small Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11.18.2015

The Spirt of Coffee Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11.15.2015

Paris


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

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

11.09.2015

The Vanished World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11.05.2015

Free Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.29.2015

Night Train to Lisbon Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


10.23.2015

Max Planck: The Tragic Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.18.2015

The Hunters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.12.2015

The Nearest Thing To Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.05.2015

Oliver Sacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



9.28.2015

Darkness Visible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






9.24.2015

The Attack


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



9.19.2015

Black Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.13.2015

The Nightingale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

9.05.2015

Gravity Payments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8.26.2015

Skylight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.20.2015

James Salter

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

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

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