6.23.2017

Two Notes from My Desk

Obama and Robinson
In a conversation with Maryilynne Robinson (New York Review of Books, 11/5/15) President Obama surprised me when he said, “When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.”

He also noted that the media places a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict somewhere. That’s what gets all the attention. He believes this creates a pessimism about the country because "all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about are not heard.”

He then went on to say: “It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.”

Wouldn’t it be remarkable if instead of the nightly news reports of murders, scandals, and gossip, we might instead be offered the Nightly Cultural News? Surely poems are written every day, music is composed, novels and non-fiction works are published and films are made.

Why don’t we ever hear about them? Surely there are enough people who want to know about these things to support such a half hour of television programming. Surely there are organizations, charities, corporations, and men and women of wealth would be willing to add their support. Then we might then learn about: a forthcoming film, a poetry reading, musical performance, a new book, an old book, a theater production, an author interview, etc.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis came to town, that is to New York, Washington and Philadelphia in September of 2015. He was driven about in a black Fiat 500L, a small four-door gem. That said it all. No black Ford SUVs, trailing about one after the other.

He spoke of preserving the planet, living simply, avoiding excessive consumption, corporate profit-seeking, economic inequality, and the poor.

It was a display of wisdom not seen in this country in ages. And it was a joy to see the degree of coverage the media gave to him. Of course, all that ended the moment he left.

Nothing will or has changed as a result of his visit. People will continue to consume recklessly, corporations will continue to maximize their profits at the expense of consumers, the poor will continue to struggle and the great divide will increase further.


6.17.2017

Last Hope Island

Lynne Olson’s Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War is a 500+ page epic of World War 2. Rather than focus on a single subject, say a battle, person or group, she ranges over all of them and more.

Throughout her emphasis is on human stories, the individuals who played an important role in the War. She begins with the leaders of the Nazi occupied countries who took refugee in London and the difficult decision they had to make in leaving their homeland.

They include the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, King Haakon of Norway, King Leopold of Belgium, the imperious Charles De Gaulle, the self-proclaimed leader of the French Republic, and the resistance leaders, code-breakers and fighter pilots of Poland. Together they formed a group in London that was instrumental in guiding the resistance groups in their countries and contributing to the the defense of Great Britain.

At some length Olson describes these groups, their leaders and fates especially those in France and The Netherlands. We learn about the disaster that over took the Dutch resistance, as the Nazis captured their leader, who was forced to reveal their codes and his communications with London.

But on the whole the resistance played a crucial role in the Allied defeat of Germany. She quotes Eisenhower who wrote in his memoirs that the resistance was of “inestimable value to the [French] campaign. Without there great assistance, the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer and and meant greater losses to ourselves.”

She depicts several of the groups in France and their efforts to return captured Allied airmen to England. She writes: “In all, some 7000 American servicemen, most of them air crew were spirited out of occupied Europe during the was…At a time when trained bomber crews were in desperately short supply, it was vital for the Allied war effort to retrieve as many airmen as possible and bring them back to England to continue the fight.”

The transfer worked like an assembly line. The down airmen were taken to the nearest safe house, from there they were transported hundreds of miles over many days by resistance members to a chain of safe houses to the foothills of the Pyrenees. From that point Spanish guides escorted them over the mountains to neutral Spain, whereupon they were flown back to England.

Almost uniformly the downed airmen formed a close bond with the hundreds of ordinary French citizens—men, women, and children—who sheltered, clothed, and fed them during their months in the country. They traveled from one family to another, putting each airmen’s life in their hands while risking theirs. There were hundreds of thousands of these caregivers all over France—people who never carried a gun or threw a grenade but whose willingness to provide safe houses for those who did made them invaluable members of the resistance.

Such people were the heart of the resistance. Most of them won no medals or honors after the war, nor were books written about them, unlike the top resistance leaders and various SOE (Special Operation Executive) agents.

One British airman wrote: “What has continuously irritated me has been the talk about the resistance as if it was created by a few heroes and heroines and they’ve tried to make me a hero, whereas the most important thing was the heroism of the people we were living with….They were sacrificing everything—children, partners, elderly relations, their land.”

Once again, I ask myself, as I did in discussing Nathan Englander’s The Anne Frank Game, would I be willing to offer my home as a safe house, at enormous risk to myself and my family. I’d like to think I would, but I’m fully aware of how difficult it is to predict future behavior or how I would act when confronted with the actual situation.

Throughout her book, Olson depicts the fraught relationship between Roosevelt, (who held off as long as possible before committing the United States to the War), Churchill, Stalin and de Gaulle. But in the end, they put their disputes aside and joined their forces together to defeat the army of the Third Reich.

For me, Last Hope Island recaptured once again the courage of so many individuals who fought in one way or another in World War 2. While it treats the countless traumas of the War and although it is a very lengthy tome (I’ve only touched on a few of the subjects Olson treats), it was, quite simply, a fascinating book to read.



6.11.2017

The Measure of Love

St. Augustine wrote in his confessions, What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain him who asks, I know not.

Seven years ago in the month of June, I wrote a brief blog about Christopher Wilken’s The Measure of Love, that was primarily concerned with the concept of time. However, there was another strand in the book that I completely ignored.

Robert is a student of mathematics at Cambridge; the much older, divorced Elizabeth works at the cosmetic counter in a department store. The two strike up a friendship that develops into a deep romance, leading to their marriage. But when Robert’s father dies, he abandons his studies and takes over the family business of watchmaking.

In my earlier blog I said nothing about the disease that afflicted Elizabeth. In fact, when I reread the book recently, I didn’t recall anything about Wilken’s moving description of the course of her Alzheimer’s Disease.

The chapters in The Measure of Love alternate between a discussion of the measurement of time and the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I confess they don’t blend well together. You read a chapter on Elizabeth’s disease, followed by a chapter on the evolution of watches, or how they are constructed or the history of the fine timepieces. It’s quite disjointed, each could easily stand alone as a separate volume.

The tragic tale of Elizabeth’s decline begins with small memory lapses, she begins to lose things, then forgets to eat and sometimes finds herself in places she had no reason to be. Robert notices she starts to make lists, so she won’t forget. They visit a doctor who suspects she has dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. He says:

I can’t offer much hope, I’m afraid. In fact, to be blunt, I can’t offer you any. Her dementia is is degenerative and unrelenting. …really there is no curative treatment and we are so far from understanding even the cause of the condition that no cure is foreseeable.

Later he reports, One group of researchers thinks it’s connected with some protein in the brain, another group seems to believe that the problem is the synapses. Some of them are convinced it’s a genetic thing. Nobody really knows.

Elizabeth would sometimes leave their bed at night and wonder off outside, regardless of how cold or wet it was. Periods of verbal confusion came and went, Robert begins to feel uncertain if she recognizes him anymore.

The downward spiral continues as she becomes obliviously incontinent, forgets how to chew food, or makes any attempt to communicate. Eventually she was moved to a hospice home that Robert first visits every day, then less and less often, as her degeneration worsens. Finally, she dies of an apparent infection.

Wilkens writes vividly about Alzheimer’s, one of the most emotional accounts I’ve read. And I assume his descriptions of watchmaking and its history are equally informed.

After Elizabeth dies, Robert sets about to create the perfect timepiece. Strangely, it seems the only way he can sustain the memory of his deep love for her and the early days of their romance. And when he finishes, he confesses:

During those days I found myself increasingly at a loose end After five years and seven months of continuous work on the watch, it’s completion had removed the core of my life, and I found myself wishing, perversely that the instrument would reveal some imperfection which would require me to resume my labours. But it was not to be.

6.09.2017

Friday Surprise


The other day a friend forwarded to me these very short stories that were sent to him by his cousin in Lithuania. While not exactly the sort that Lydia Davis writes, they are, nevertheless, fun to read. If I had to choose a favorite, I'd say number 6

1 Once all villagers decided to pray for rain. On the day of prayer all the people gathered, but only one boy came with an umbrella.
That's FAITH.

2 When you throw babies in the air, they laugh because they know you will catch them.
That's TRUST

3 Every night we go to bed without any assurance of being alive the next morning, but still we set the alarms to wake up.
That's HOPE.

4 We plan big things for tomorrow in spite of zero knowledge of the future.
That's CONFIDENCE.

5 We see the world suffering, but still we get married and have children.
That's LOVE.

6 On an old man's shirt was written a sentence 'I am not 80 years old; I am sweet 16 with 64 years of experience.'
That's ATTITUDE.



6.04.2017

Power Outage

If there is a core insight in the podcast boomlet, it may be that, as much as we enjoy tweeting, texting, watching, writing, reading, and snapping, no Internet-born form has supplanted the potency of conversation.

The other day there was a power outage in my neighborhood. While we had electricity, there was no internet and no television. I was beside myself. It was impossible to get online or watch Wolf Blitzer’s latest “Breaking News” report.

Once again I was reminded how much we, or at least, I have come to depend on our technology rich world. I don’t mind being alone with my thoughts or sitting quietly staring into space. But now and then I do like to check into the world.

I began thinking of what I used to do before the arrival of the internet or television. Well, I read a book, magazine or newspaper. And I still do that. So I opened my iPad and began reading what I had already downloaded and then I turned to the printed book I was reading then.

The power outage reminded me of what Haruki Murakami wrote about life before and after the development of the electronic revolution in his story “Town of Cats,” published in The New Yorker.

By setting the story in 1984, before cell phones and e-mail and the Internet had become common, I made it impossible for my characters to use such tools. This in turn was frustrating for me. I felt their absence slowing down the speed of the novel. When I thought about it, though, not having such devices at the time—both in daily life and in the story—ceased to be an inconvenience. If you wanted to make a phone call, you just found a public telephone; if you had to look something up, you went to the library; if you wanted to contact somebody, you put a stamp on a letter and mailed it. Those were the normal ways to do those things. While writing the novel (and experiencing a kind of time slip), I had a strong feeling of what the intervening twenty-seven years had meant. Sorry to state the obvious, but maybe there’s not much connection between the convenience of people’s surroundings and the degree of happiness they feel.

I would have enjoyed talking to someone, but no one was around for most of the day. Indeed it would have been an unusual day to have a real conversation without the interminable distractions that occupy so much of our life now.

On his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp describes how he once spent a day in conversation. “For the first time in a long time I spent most of my waking hours on Saturday in conversation.” This was not your ordinary hello-goodbye talk, but rather a serious exchange of ideas about literature.

It was a give and take of “memories, thoughts and stories” as he describes it. It wasn’t a monologue or the least bit strident. In the morning he spent two hours with a teacher he had 46 years ago. He says she was as sharp as she was when he took an English class with her in high school. They talked about “books, old friends and the ongoing decline of Western Civilization.”

In the afternoon he spent more than seven hours talking with a couple, both artists, who have been his friends for 41 years. “The talk was effortless and never stopped.”

After describing the day he turns to Boswell who reports “the great man" [Samuel Johnson] saying, “The happiest conversation is that of which nothing is distinctly remembered but a general effect of pleasing impression.”

When was the last time you spent a day like this? When was the last time you had conversations like this?