The weather made her feel as if there was no point to life: whether you worked hard didn’t matter, whether you found someone to love didn’t matter, because even if you worked hard and found someone to love, a day like this would come, when a strange damp coolness seeped in through the windowpanes and seeped in through you, make you see that everything was meaningless. Brian Morton The Dylanist

Winter, the bane of my life. The dreaded season. A time to escape, to go underground. And yet for Adam Gopnik it is a season to love, one of serenity and of all things “warmth.” In his new book, Winter: Five Windows on the Season, he writes about this season in an imaginative way.

“My subject is the new feelings winter has provoked in men and women of those modern times: fear, joy exhilaration, magnetic appeal and mysterious attraction. Since to be modern is to let imagination and invention do a lot of the work once done by tradition and ritual.”

The book was originally presented in a series of informal evening talks with a group of Gopnik’s friends and then as the more formal Massey Lecture Series, a Canadian Broadcasting Company radio forum to address important contemporary issues or as a reviewer put it, “a Stanley Cup final for the mind.”

The published version of Gopnik’s broadcasts consists of five chapters, each devoted to a different aspect of winter

• Romantic Winter--musical, literary, and artistic depictions

• Radical Winter--places of extreme winter, the polar expeditions (North and South)

• Recuperative Winter--the winter holidays, Christmas, the carols, Dickens

• Recreational Winter--winter sports, hockey (The Montreal Canadians and ice-skating

• Remembering Winter—personal recollections of snowstorms, school closings, and days by the fire with a good book

“Joy,” “appeal,” “attraction.” I am thinking to myself how can anyone feel like this about winter. My feelings are precisely the opposite. But I was raised in Los Angeles, where winter can be as warm as summer. That may be one possible reason for our differences.

What struck me most about Winter was how happy Gopnik says he is then. “Gray skies and December lights are my idea of secret joy.”“…a season long seen as a sign of nature’s withdrawal from grace, has become for us a time of human warmth.”

And “by us” Gopnik refers to those who live and have been raised, as he was, in Canada (Montreal) and to his family that, like most families are drawn together inside their homes when the weather outside is bitterly cold and icy.

Gopnik writes: "I love winter, I love snow, I love blizzards. I love the way it transforms an ordinary scene." How fortunate, I think to myself as I sit at my desk shivering.

I am done in by the winter. It virtually immobilizes me. I see men and women outside walking without a cap, bald men, men who have shaved their head. How can they do that? Do they eat more, have different genes, or are they simply braver? My ambition is to delete winter from my life.

After I read the book, I thought why not do the same for summer, the season I love, the joy of my life, a time to embrace not flee. How writers and artists depict summer, the place to be (Italy), the sports (baseball), the holidays (fireworks), swimming at Zuma Beach. Summer—Five Windows on the Season. Look for it soon at your favorite bookstore.


The Agony of Watching Roger Federer

Ever since I began watching Roger Federer play tennis, I have been startled by the grace and beauty of his performance. I have seen him make shots that no one believed were possible and swing his racket with the elegance of a ballet dancer. David Foster Wallace said that watching Federer play tennis was a “religious experience:”

“The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

And yet, I have also been overwhelmed with anxiety that he will lose every time he steps out on the court. There are times I simply cannot watch him for fear that he will be beaten. Apparently I am not alone. A couple of years ago when Federer was about to play at Wimbledon, Calvin Tomkins wrote in the New Yorker:

“Some people are so enthralled by the way Roger Federer plays tennis that they can hardly bear to see him lose...Then I found out that others had similar reactions. “I can’t watch when he’s losing,” a friend of mine confessed the other day and then added, touchingly, “I go and clean the kitchen.”

What is going on here? What is the source of this particular anxiety? I am more than well versed in the fine art of losing, as only a Red Sox fan can know. What is this particular fear I experience each time I see Federer step out on the court, but not when the Red Sox begin playing another game?

Federer is no longer quite so young, although he is only thirty years old, five years older than his current nemeses Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. He is said by some to be past his prime. And yet he continues to play with perfection, with the same grace and elegance as he always has.

Many players, past and present, consider Federer the greatest player of all time. Have a look at this magic:

As I write, he is now playing in the Australian Open, the first of the four grand-slam tennis tournaments each year and, is about to play a semi-final match with Nadal. I am not sure I’ll be able to watch, as Nadal has beaten him too many times, especially on clay courts like they have now at Melbourne.

What is it called when you fear another person’s misfortune, especially when the other person is admired and has excelled in some way? I am not sure there is such a word or phrase that describes this feeling.

Maybe fear or anxiety isn’t the right word, dread is better: “anticipate with great apprehension.” Yes that is it.

Regardless of the correct word or phrase, all I know is that I turn away when Federer is losing. Let us simply say that I don’t like it when beauty and grace lose. Maybe everyone feels this way. A thing of beauty should last forever. We are diminished when it disappears.

When a lovely old building is torn down to be replaced by mini-mart, when an inviting bookstore goes out of business and a yoghurt bar takes its place, the neighborhood is a lesser place. It is the same when an old winding road out in the country disappears to make room for a six-lane freeway or when a beautiful grove of olive trees is cut down so that a parking garage can be built.

Similarly it is disappointing when beauty and grace on the tennis court are defeated by the grunts and groans of a slugger. You don’t want beauty and grace to be defeated. You want them to last forever.

And so in anticipation of that kind of fear or apprehension, I often turn away when Roger Federer is off his best, especially when he falls behind his opponent. Better to leave the questions of why I feel that way and what is lost to mystery, just like the mystery of Federer’s genius.

Postscript: Nadal defeated Federer a four set match in which Federer made at least 50 unforced errors.


"If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical"

Memories of Chekhov is a biography of Anton Chekhov drawn from letters, diaries, essays and memories of Chekhov’s family, friends, and fellow writers. The recollections were edited and translated by Peter Sekirn who collected them from Chekhov archives in Yalta and Moscow and various American and Russian libraries. I was introduced to this new book by a New York Review Blog.

The accounts were made by people who knew Chekhov, visited him, met with him on a regular basis or lived with him. They are not secondary accounts by biographers who did not have such personal relationship or by historians who lived long after he did. In this sense it much like a film made at various times of his life. Here are a few of the accounts:

From Peter Gnedich A Russian writer, historian and playwright
Chekhov told me once, “You know, I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra. He was bedridden due to illness. Among other things, he spoke about me and my works. Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and said, ‘Kiss me goodbye.’ While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man’s voice, ‘You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.’”

From Ivan Bunin A well-known Russian Writer and Nobel Prize winner (1933)
“Do you write? Do you write a lot?” he asked me one day.
I told him, “Actually, I don’t write all that much.”
“That’s a pity,” he told me in a rather gloomy, sad voice which was not typical of him. “You should not have idle hands, you should always be working. All your life.”

From Nikolai Panov A Russian Painter who was painting Chekhov then
His maid called him from outside. He left for some time. Finally, he returned, and when we asked him why he was delayed, he reluctantly replied, “I had a medical patient waiting for me.”
I was surprised, “So late? Was it a friend?”
Chekhov replied, “Not at all. I saw her for the first time in my life. She needed a prescription for a medicine that can be poisonous. They can only dispense it from a pharmacy with a prescription.”
“You did not write it, did you?”
Anton Pavlovich did not answer anything. He sat at the fire-place, and threw in some more fire-wood. Then, after a long silence, he said quietly, “Maybe this is better for her. I looked into her eyes, and understood that she had made a decision. There is a big river not far from here, and the Stone Bridge. If she jumps, she would be in great pain before she died. With the poison, she would be better off.”
He was silent. We grew silent as well. Then, to change the subject, we began a conversation about literature.

In reading these accounts I was reminded of Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey that describes her wanderings about the places in Russia where Chekhov wrote and lived. She says Chekhov’s writings heighten her sense of what is important in life. All the while, she questions the enterprise of writing a biography of another person saying that it is impossible to ever truly know another person.

In a Paris Review interview, Malcolm commented, “…there is so such thing as a dispassionate observer, that every narrative is inflected by the narrator’s bias.”

And in her book on Chekhov, she wrote that biography “will always be “inescapably trivial” [as] “something lovely and precious has been defiled by the vulgar gaze of the outer world.”

She quotes Chekhov in a letter to his friend Ivan Sheheglov:

“A psychologist should not pretend to understand what he does not understand. Moreover, a psychologist should not convey the impression that he understands what no one understands. We shall not play the charlatan and we will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.”


The Barbarian Nurseries

Araceli saw her standing in the world with a new startling clarity. She lived with English-speaking strangers, high on a hill with the huge windows and the smell of solvents, and lacked the will to escape what she had become. Hector Tobar

I was born in Los Angeles, lived there throughout my youth, and left in 1954 to begin college. The town was not much more than a large pueblo then, although it grew rapidly in both numbers and prosperity during the war.

Since then, I’ve returned for brief visits, but after the early eighties I’ve never been back. Hector Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries brings me up to date on what the city is like these days. It bears only a passing resemblance to city that I knew.

Today it is a city of about four million individuals, largely composed of immigrants in which people of Hispanic or Latino origin constitute almost 50% of the population. Its population in my day was a little over one million, predominately Caucasian; today they constitute 25% of the cities’ population.

As the various ethnic groups who live there try to arrive at a common understanding of one another, more often then not, they fail. This becomes the focus of Tobar’s new novel primarily shaped around the life of Araceli Ramirez, the Mexican housekeeper of Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson and their three children.

They live in the posh gated community of the not entirely fictional Laguna Rancho Estates. “…this house on a hill high above the ocean, on a cul-de-sac absent of pedestrians or playing children, absent of traffic, absent of the banter of vendors and policemen. It was a street of long silences.”

Scott’s millions made with a software company that folded during the stock market bust are rapidly disappearing. One by one, they cut back on the staff maintaining their estate until Araceli is the only one left.

Araceli is from Mexico City where she studied art, but economic hardship forced her to abandon her studies and come to America as so many others have. “All was well in her universe and then suddenly, and often without any discernible reason, she felt this vague but penetrating sense of impending darkness and loss.”

It arrives after a violent altercation between Scott and Maureen over the cost of a new desert garden Maureen had ordered that led them, independently, to leave home--Maureen with her baby Samantha to a spa, Scott to the home of an admiring co-worker--each expecting the other will stay to care for their two boys. Days follow in which neither one returns, leaving Araceli to wonder how much longer it will be before they do.

After four days of caring for the boys, with food running low and out of oncern for the boys, she realizes she has to do something. All she knows is that the boys’ grandfather lives somewhere in Los Angles. She takes his photo, with an address on the back, the two boys, and sets off on a search for him. They take a bus, train, and begin walking all over the distant, dangerous, unknown neighborhoods of the city. At this point, the novel begins to come alive.

They go from place to place without finding him, staying overnight at the homes of sympathetic strangers, eating strange food, worried about confrontations, all the while Araceli aware of what’s in store for her. The parents arrive back home, call the police believing the boys have been abducted, a media frenzy begins, social and racial conflict erupts, as she is accused of child abuse, endangerment or kidnapping, and hauled in and out of court, in a generalized institutional overreaction.

Eventually, she is able to communicate the facts of the matter to a sympathetic and colorful woman in Child Protective Services and a smart pro bono attorney. She is absolved of any crime, the judge berates the ambitious assistant district attorney and Araceli heads off toward an unknown destination. She has no choice as an illegal immigrant.

“…the absences and inequalities that were the core injustice of her existence. It is a big world, divided between rich and poor, just like those humorless lefties at the university said. What would I have become with a mother like Maureen…?”


The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

“I stood and looked, I was always looking.” Don DeLillo

A bleak, threatening, sometimes menacing mood hangs over each of the short stories in Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmeralda. There is no joy in any of them, even in “Creation,” a romantic tale of three tourists in a remote Caribbean village who are trying to find a flight back home.

In looking at a painting, we are often invited to make up a story. Several of the characters in DeLillo’s collection do this during their daily comings and goings. Perhaps everyone does. “…we walked across the overpass. I wondered again, who these people were, the drivers and passengers, so many cars, the pressing nature of their passage, the lives inside.”

In “The Starveling” DeLillo depicts a lonely, middle-aged man who spends his time going to movies throughout the day--one in the morning, another after lunch, sometimes two, and then one more in the evening. He notices a woman in the theater who also appears to be an ardent moviegoer.

Thereafter he sees her at each of the performances he attends and begins following her. He creates a story: “…she was a person who lived within herself, remote, elusive, whatever else…lives alone, in one room, as he did.”

In “Midnight in Dostoyevsky” two students spend their time walking about the wintery northern town where their college is located. They engage in verbal battles over whatever they see. It is the core of their friendship. “Even in matters of pure physical reality, we depended on a friction between our basic faculties of sensation, his and mine…”

They begin noticing a man who seems to be walking nearby at the same time as they are. He is wearing a heavy coat. Is it a parka or an anorak? Or something else? They debate the matter, never coming to an agreement. Who is the man in the parka or the anorak? Elaborate stories are constructed. Their disagreement does not end peaceably.

There is a rhythm, a momentum to the nine stories that is hurried, as if you, or the writer, or character or someone else are on an underground subway heading somewhere rapidly.

A passage from “Human Movements in World War III” where two astronauts are circling the earth, drifting about in space observing various wars and other catastrophes:

People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves. They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city—but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellow feeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. The war would ennoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared.

Great fun, these stories. Large truths. Colorless. Grim realities. Their mood is both hypnotic and infectious.


A Jew in the Northwest

I came to see what else I might become, and like every traveler, what I’ve really discovered is who I am. William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz is a widely published, often controversial literary critic and author of the much talked about A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Before leaving the academic world he was professor of English at Yale.

Not long ago he spent a sabbatical in Portland, Oregon, “just for the hell of it, and by the time it was over, I never wanted to leave.” He says he fell in love with the place. “Everyone was so nice! They looked you in the eye! They smiled at you. They asked you how your day was going, and they really wanted to know.”

These are the first of many stereotypical characterizations of Portland and those who live there in his American Scholar (Winter 2012) essay, “A Jew in the Northwest.” He describes a typical 40ish Portlander as one with a full beard, big sweater and innocent face. I think of most of the others who bear no relationship to this person. He says the people are like the climate: mild and lacking in extremes, often with a positively bovine imperturbability. I suppose he doesn’t pay much attention to the local news or the daily weather report.

And so it goes. But his essay is fun and, as a Jew who has lived in the Northwest for all too many years, I was intrigued to read what living here means to him. It is nothing like I have ever experienced, perhaps because I arrived from entirely different world. And I trust by now that Deresiewicz has learned that there are a great many Jewish groups and individuals in the Northwest, often artists, writers and film-makers, not much different than those he knows in the East.

He begins with a discussion of Bernard Malamud and Leslie Fiedler, Jews who came to the Northwest as academic exiles. Malamud taught at what is now Oregon State University, a land grant college in Corvallis, a sleepy, rural town in the middle of farmland that Deresiewicz says must have seemed like the other side of the moon to Malamud. It still seems that way to me. A student described him as “a very unhappy man…a lonely man.” And yet he wrote three highly regarded novels while he was there.

Fiedler landed at the University of Montana in Missoula that Deresiewicz says was no Corvallis. “Montana was cowboys: wild, raunchy, libertarian.” But he felt trapped there, as his “Jewish identity remained acute, not to say aggrieved, his sense of being a misfit also.”

Deresiewicz feels he came as an immigrant. He found irresistible “the nature, and the alternative spirit, and the youthful optimism, and yes, damn it, the food…I wanted to chain myself to a parking meter, so they couldn’t take me away.”

I remember my first visit to Portland one summer when I was a graduate student. It was clear to me then and even clearer now that Portland isn’t a place where I want to live. Yet I have lived in Portland for almost 45 years and am more than ready to have them take me away.

Deresiewicz says what he misses in Portland isn’t culture--the New York museums, theater, a decent cannoli or pastrami sandwich. “It’s edge. It’s energy. It’s irony. It’s curiosity. It’s everything ethnicity and eastern speed impose on you.” I miss the sun, the blue sky, the warm days. I dread the months of rain, gray skies, the gloom that hangs over this city a fair amount of each year.

Tuesday 1/17/12: “Windy...cloudy with rain and snow. Temps nearly steady in the mid to upper 30s. Winds SSW at 20 to 30 mph.”

But Deresiewicz came to Portland to “discover a new America.” He says while New York is the city of his past, Portland—“green, self-limiting, communitarian—is the city of our future.” And yet, like Andre Aciman often says in his recent volume Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, Deresiewicz notes that while he left New York for the promise of a new life in Portland, once there, he began to miss the place he left.

Deresiewicz has lived in Portland for a fraction of the time I have. I am wondering if he too will grow tired of the endless days of rain and cloudy skies, if he will come to see that not everyone in Portland is bovine in spirit or wears thick sweaters, and that it isn’t the planner’s dream that everyone seems to think it is.

He concludes: “I understand why people used to go back to be buried in Calabria or County Cork. Put it this way: I want to live here, but I don’t want to die here.”


The Placebo Effect

In any investigation of the effects of psychotherapy or a new drug, it is important to include control conditions, including at minimum a no-treatment control and at least one placebo condition.

The no-treatment condition measures change over time, while the placebo condition assesses the effect an inert substance or “phony” treatment. Individuals do get better with the passage of time and their belief that they have been given a particular treatment by a physician, who they like and in whom they have confidence.

In his article “The Power of Nothing” in the New Yorker (12/12/11), Michael Specter describes some recent experiments and current thinking on the effects of placebos. The work of Ted Kaptchuk, director of a Harvard institute dedicated to the study of placebos, constitutes a major portion of the article. Kaptchuk had previously practiced acupuncture in China

Soon after returning to this country he treated a woman for chronic bronchitis who was about to have an operation on her ovaries. A few weeks later the woman returned to his office and reported the pain in her ovaries had disappeared. Kaptchuk comments to Specter, “There was no fucking way needles or herbs did anything for that woman’s ovaries. It had to be some kind of placebo…”

Yet it is well known that a patient’s expectations can have a profound effect on the healing process and probably plays a role in any medical intervention, sometimes more so than others. And a good deal of the variability can probably be attributed to the patient, as some respond more to placebos than others, as well as the physician or therapist as some are better than others. They engender more confidence and probably have a good deal more “charisma.”

Kaptchuk considers himself one of the better ones. “I am a damn good healer. That is the difficult truth. If you needed help and you came to me, you would get better. Thousands of people have. Because, in the end, it isn’t really about the needles. It’s about the man.” Perhaps that sort of confidence is all it takes.

Specter describes several recent studies of the placebo effect. In one, “Patients [post-operative] who were told that they would receive a painkiller, whether they actually received it or not had the same experience in the trial as those who secretly received between six and eight milligrams of morphine—a significant amount.”

In a study of irritable bowel syndrome, one group received a placebo pill twice a day while those in the second received nothing. Before the study both groups were informed that placebos are inert sugar pills that are not effective. They were also informed that previous studies had demonstrated that placebos have significant healing effects. The results showed that the patients who were fully informed about placebos scored much better on standard measures of their condition than those who received nothing.

Other studies have shown that the larger the pill, the stronger the placebo effect. “Two pills are better than one, and brand name pills trump generics. Capsules are generally more effective than pills, and injections produce a more pronounced effect than either. There is even evidence to suggest that the color of medicine influences the way one responds to it…”

Taken together these studies provide fairly compelling evidence of the power of placebos.

Kaptchuk believes that even it’s all in your head, there must be some biological mechanism driving these reactions. Trying to unravel what that mechanism might be is the direction of his current research.

Kaptchuk admits, however, “I am sure I do not understand the placebo effect. I ask questions, hopefully valuable questions and we will see where the research lands.”


We Are The 1%

We are the 1%, the 1% who keep reading notebooks. And here is what we believe.

The key word for the commonplace book is “annotated.” It is not just an anthology; the compiler reacts to the passages he has chosen or tells what the passages have led him to think about. A piece of prose, a poem, an aphorism can trigger the mind to consider a parallel, to dredge something from the memory, or perhaps to speculate with further range and depth on the same them. William Coe

There follows a few recent annotations of passages in my commonplace book.

On Biases
Near the end of his review of Daniel Kahneman’s widely praised Thinking, Fast and Slow Freeman Dyson asks, as Kahneman finally does, ‘What practical benefit can we derive from an understanding of our irrational mental processes?” In my mind, this is the critical point of all the research on our inferential shortcomings, our biases and illusions.

According to Dyson, Kahneman answers by saying that “he hopes to change our behavior by changing our vocabulary.” I suppose this translates into saying to yourself: Wait a moment. Am I falling prey to a bias or error in reasoning about my judgment? Is it (a tentative judgment now as I am stopping for a moment to think about it) an example of the availability bias or the confirmation bias, or some other cognitive error?

Holding back like this is not difficult to learn. Do we not admire the person who takes a while to respond to a question? Isn’t it a pleasure to see someone turning inward like that before firing off an answer?

Dyson concludes by hoping that our children and grandchildren will come to use this approach, the new vocabulary as he puts it, and will automatically correct their errors and biases when making decisions. He says we will owe a big debt to Kahneman if this “miracle” happens.

On Questioning
In a symposium on creativity, Gerald Schroeder, a physicist, claims that asking questions is the major source of creative behavior. He urges readers to take nothing on faith, keep wondering how things work, and never stop doubting.

The same point is made by Ezekiel Emanuel, Diane and Robert Levy who write that challenging conventional wisdom and “pushing the boundaries is exceedingly important to creativity—not taking what you or the world has as a given and trying to imagine it in a new way.”

I imagine that most creative thinkers use an approach not unlike that of a Socratic dialogue where research becomes a progression of questions designed to arrive at a conclusion quite different than the original one.

Some people feel very comfortable with this kind of approach. For them it becomes an endeavor to correct errors and sharpen beliefs and perhaps in the process arrive at something not recognized before.

I sense those of a more accepting frame of mind do not fall naturally into this mode of reasoning and are perhaps less likely to think of creative solutions than those of a more questioning frame of mind.

On The New Yorker
Patrick Kurp on his blog Anecdotal Evidence writes that, “The New Yorker in its most recent incarnation reflects the nation around it – self-absorbed, politically strident, smitten by celebrity, ultimately trivial. Worse, most of it is badly written.”

While I disagree with Kurp on the quality of its writing, I am aware that the character of the magazines has changed significantly from what it was, say ten or twenty years ago. Most notably it is far less devoted to the literary arts than it was in the good old days.

The days of two or three short stores are over. So too are those special issues devoted to one long essay on a major topic—Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring,” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” or a those remarkable Salinger short stories. And those who have been reading the “New Yorker” forever surely miss the lengthy film reviews by Pauline Kael or the equally extensive Mavis Gallant commentaries from Paris.

To catch any of this old spirit you have to head for the magazine’s blogs, most notably the Book Bench and Culture Desk. But even here the material is short and less analytic.

Today I find myself scanning many issues, not reading much of anything, something that used to be inconceivably when it sometimes took a week or more to read everything before the next weekly gem arrived in the mail.



Life in a Fishbowl

With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life. Muriel Barbery.

I usually enjoy film adaptations of novels. But the casting needs to fit whatever image I have of the characters and, in most respects, the story should match the one depicted in the book. Variations here and there are fine, of course, but I am generally displeased when they depart too greatly from my sense of the novel and its characters.

The best film adaptations also bring alive the characters on the page and clarify uncertainties I might have had about the story. That was certainty true of the film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient that I must have seen three or more times, unlike the novel which I read once.

I read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog almost three years ago; I saw the film adaption, "The Hedgehog," the other day. Barbery’s novel was widely read and appreciated in France; the film version was unknown to me, has never been shown in the multiplexes (not surprising these days), and only came to my attention during a brief showing at a nearby art house.

The novel is about a concierge, Renee, in a posh Parisian townhouse. The normally grumpy Rene is a closet intellectual with a room full of fine novels whose secret life is eventually found out by the sweet and precocious eleven year old Paloma and a newly arrived Japanese millionaire, Kakuro, both of whom befriend her and discover her reading life.

The film begins by focusing on Paloma’s adolescent complaints: Her mother is a tiresome antidepressant pill-popper, her sister is a toe-varnishing snot, and her father is a politician who barely has the time of day for any of them. Paloma compares her life to the family’s pet goldfish, locked away in a family fishbowl. She plans to take her life on her twelfth birthday, spending her days before then recording the absurdity of her life with her video camera.

Meanwhile the gruff, disheveled 54-year old Renne sweeps the floors, runs errands for the townhouse residents and generally keeps her distance from everyone but her room full of books and her cat, Leo for guess who. We are to think of her as a hedgehog, all bristly and sharp on the outside, but warm and gentle on the inside.

We learn that this is precisely the way she is with the arrival of Kakuro, who discovers very quickly her love of literature, whereupon the two begin a chaste, formal romance that transformations Renee—she has a stylish haircut, finds somewhat fashionable clothes to wear when Kakuro invites her to dinner at his apartment and for the first time she begins to smile.

Paloma finds herself drawn to these two peculiar individuals, secretly filming them and eventually spending time visiting each of them. She becomes aware of Renee’s gentle soul, her love of literature, and the quiet intelligence of Kakuro. Through her growing connection with each of them and her observations of the sources of Renee’s transformation, she realizes there is much more to life than her family fishbowl.

“With the exception of love, friendship, and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life.”



Since my earliest days, I have been fascinated by maps, the road maps I’d peruse as we were driving around California, the maps of the Paris arrondissments and Metro routes, any map in an Atlas. There was an enormous National Geographic map of the world that wallpapered one wall in the bedroom of my youth. In addition to numerous atlases, I recently acquired a Globe that looks somewhat like this.

Ken Jennings describes a real craziness about maps in his recent book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. In reading the book, I was hoping to find pages and pages of colorful, informative maps of places unknown, unvisited, and rich with mystery. However, there weren’t many. Instead, Jennings recounts his lifelong obsession with maps, geographical trivia, and map sub-cultures.

Apparently he has good company. “Now when I [Joseph Conrad] was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth and when I was one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there.”

Maphead consists of a dozen chapters concerning some aspect of matters geographical—the Library of Congress map collection that is the world’s largest, the world of rare map collectors, National Geographic Bee, development of spatial awareness and mapheads who invent imaginary countries.

“Islandia is a tiny kingdom at the southern tip of the Karain sub-continent, isolated from the rest of the world by the impassable Sobo Steppes and hundreds of miles of trackless ocean….Islandia through intricate and fully realized, is an entirely fictional country.”

Jennings also includes a chapter comparing the geographical knowledge of individuals in various countries. He describes a National Geographic survey of college-aged people in nine different countries, testing place-name knowledge, recent geographical changes, and map reading skills.

Do you know where Burkina Fasso is? How about its capital and the six countries that it borders?

The top scorers were Sweden, Germany and Italy where about 70% of the questions were answered correct. U.S. students averaged a “dreary” 40%--next to last (“Thank you, Mexico!”). The study was not the most rigorous but its results are similar to what investigators find in comparing American students with those in other countries in subjects like math and science.

Maphead also charts the increasing importance of GPS systems that many individuals use frequently on their cell phones and cars, as well as the extraordinary development of virtual maps by Google Earth with its rapidly growing library of aerial photographs.

“…much of the aerial imagery that Google posts, old and new, has never been seen by human eye-balls before…and sometimes there are things there at the bottom that were never know before.”

In discussing Google Earth Jennings finally gets a little bit serious in contrast to most of the other chapters that are little more than light and breezy discussions of geographical details. He suggests that unlike previous maps based on a mapmaker’s version of reality, those from Google’s virtual globe are reality. “Because its globe looks like the real place, it blurs the distinction between map and territory.”


Reed College

I taught at Reed College in Portland Oregon for over 25 years. You may know something about the place—the bright and kooky students, its dedication to serious study, and reputation for graduating students who go on to receive advanced degrees.

I was always grateful to be a part of the Reed Community and think often about the important ways in which it shaped my life. It was a privileged to be there and, lo and behold, be paid to teach and do research on matters that were important to me at the time with the talented individuals who came to study there.

Last year Reed celebrated its one-hundredth birthday with a “gargantuan party, complete with dancers, drummers, jugglers, mad scientists, and a massive chorus reciting lines from the Iliad in Greek.”

The December 2011 issue of the “Reed Magazine” marked the centennial with a series of articles on student and faculty views and an alphabetically organized list of the people, traditions and ideas that have characterized Reed during its first 100 years.

A biology student said: “Reed taught me that the root of genius is passion. I was lucky to meet so many passionate geniuses at Reed.”

An economics senior commented: “This is a place where anything can happen. The Reed community is not just bounded by campus. It stretches across the globe and spans generations.”

In 1991 Steve Jobs was honored with a special award for distinguished accomplishment in science and technology. Although Jobs dropped out after one semester, he dropped back in as he put it for another year and a half to take classes, most notably in calligraphy.

In accepting the award he said that as a freshman “I was forced to go to humanities lectures it seemed like every day… And at the time I thought these were meaningless and even somewhat cruel endeavors to be put through. I can assure you that as the patina of time takes its toll, I thank God that I had these experiences here. It has helped me in everything I’ve ever done, although I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time.”

The poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder, who received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1974 for his book Turtle Island, graduated from Reed in 1951 with a dual degree in anthropology and literature. Snyder was raised in the Pacific Northwest and has often returned to the College for poetry readings. "What I Have Learned" was published in his 1983 collection Axe Handles.

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

The moments
between hard pleasant tasks

To sit silent, drink wine,
and think my own kind
of dry crusty thoughts.

-the first Calochortus flowers
and in all the land,
it's spring.
I point them out:
the yellow petals, the golden hairs
to Gen.

Seeing in silence:
never the same twice,
but when you get it right,

you pass it on.


The Commonplace Book Tradition

As the New Year begins, the commonplace book tradition is alive and well, at least as well as any tradition can be that has lived as long and through as many centuries as it has.

Nancy Kelly writes a beautiful blog on the importance of commonplacing and some of its historical antecedents on her blog, Sage Parnassus.

A friend who introduced me to the commonplace book tradition and I am sure has read every book in the New York Public Library sends me a passage from Willard Randall’s Ethan Allen: His Life and Times. (I guess this is one she hadn’t got around to yet.)

“In my youth I was much disposed to contemplation…I committed to manuscript such sentiments or arguments, as appeared most consonant to reason, lest through the debility of memory my improvement should have been less gradual. This method of scribbling I practiced for many years, from which I experienced great advantages in the progression of learning and knowledge…of grammar and language, as well as the art of reasoning…”

In a 19th Century American Literature class at St. Mary’s College in California, Professor Barry Horwitz requires his students write in their online commonplace book during each class period. They are instructed that each entry should include at least three quotations they found significant from the class readings.

He tells the students to choose passages that offer a powerful statement or one that helps to understand the text or that makes a strong impression, say one you disagree with or one that rings true to your life. As the term progresses, each student’s commonplace book is posted on the class website. An example of those from one class of twenty-eight students is shown here. Have a look--each one is distinctive, annotated thoughtfully, with attractive themes.

Periodically, “The Berkeley Daily Planet” publishes Dorothy Bryant’s annotated diary of the passages she adds to her commonplace book. Here is her latest:

“He who despairs because of the news is a coward, but he who sees hope in the human condition is mad.” Albert Camus, 1943, occupied France. Bryant comments:

“Camus wrote that sentence in his journal as he began dangerous underground work in France against the occupying Nazis. Under these conditions, his terse statement sounds like one of those dark jokes one makes in order to ease tension when engaged in activities that may bring capture, torture, and death at any moment. Today, in more “ordinary” times, this statement seems merely an echo of our passing thoughts as we scan the daily news in print or on TV. Do we ever pat ourselves on the back for maintaining this heroic balancing act? We should. Happy Holidays.

The “American Scholar” continues its practice of including a commonplace book section at the end of each issue. It does so by collecting notable quotations on a single theme in a two-page spread without comment or annotation. Fear was the theme of the Winter 2012 issue.

“Fear is the basic condition…the job that we’re here to do is to learn how to live win a way that we’re not terrified all the time.” David Foster Wallace

“I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discover one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men’s fears shall force them to keep the peace. Wilkie Collins.

Here are a couple on Fear from my commonplace book:

“Is it so that everything we do is done out of fear of loneliness? ….Why else do we hold on to all these broken marriages, false friendships, boring birthday parties? What would happen if we refused all that, put an end to the skulking blackmail and stood on our own?” Pascal Mercier

“…sometimes seeing one’s fears written down, seeing them articulated, can reduce their efficacy. I don’t mean that having them before you on a piece of paper causes them to evaporate, but it can lessen their potency.” Elliot Perlman