Into the Ark

“We have a hundred-year flood every two years now.” Governor Andrew Cuomo

Hurricane Sandy reminds me of two natural calamities that occurred in Portland, Oregon where I have lived for many years. One was the eruption of Mount St Helens on May 18, 1980. A dense cloud of volcanic ash drifted over the city, covering everything with a thick blanket of dark gray ash that virtually shut down the city for days. We were told not to go out and, if it was necessary, to wear a mask.

Not so many years ago, ice storms descended on Portland each winter, making the roads so treacherous it was impossible to drive anywhere. The ice broke limbs on trees throughout the city and led to power outages that lasted for days. The windows in our home, not yet weatherized with double-paned glass, were covered with ice. We used a Coleman stove to heat our food, flashlights to read, and slept in sleeping bags by the fire.

But we haven’t had an ice storm for years which some say is yet another sign of the world heating up. Can global warming clarify our understanding of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive force? Perhaps so, although, as with any weather related event of this magnitude, it is impossible to attribute it to any single factor.

However, we do know that oceans throughout the world are gradually rising as the ice melts away in the northern ice fields. The effects of this are most noticeable in the low-lying areas as we saw in New Orleans and now New York and New Jersey, as well as along some coastal areas of India and Bangladesh during the monsoon seasons.

When these tragedies strike this country or one of its cities, people come together as a community. They begin taking to one another again. At least, there is something to talk about, something we have in common, and a way to help our neighbor. Why it takes these calamities to engender this spirit is yet another tragedy. In such times, we often turn to the poet:

Into the Ark
An endless rain is just beginning.
Into the ark, for where else can you go,
you poems for a single voice,
private exultations,
unnecessary talents,
surplus curiosity,
short-range sorrows and fears,
eagerness to see things from all six sides.

Rivers are swelling and bursting their banks.
Into the ark, all you chiaroscuros and half-tones,
you details, ornaments, and whims,
silly exceptions,
forgotten signs,
countless shades of the color gray,
play for play’s sake,
and tears of mirth.

As far as the eye can see, there’s water and hazy horizon.
Into the ark, plans for the distant future,
joy in difference,
admiration for the better man,
choice not narrowed down to one of two,
outworn scruples,
time to think it over,
and belief that all this
will come in handy someday.

For the sake of the children
that we still are,
fairy tales have happy endings.
That’s the only finale that will do here, too.
The rain will stop,
the waves will subside,
the clouds will part
in the cleared up sky,
and they’ll be once more
what clouds ought to be:
lofty and rather lighthearted
in their likeness to things
drying in the sun—
isles of bliss,

Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Note: I am grateful to Sasha Weiss on the New Yorker’s online blog, Page Turner, for reminding me of Szymborska’s poem.


All is Song

And philosophy was the pure song, the purest of songs, heard only with training, and hanging at a pitch outside of the common range. Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey invites a reader to consider several issues throughout her philosophical novel, All is Song—the power of brotherly love, the choice between questioning and conforming, and the pervasiveness of anti-intellectualism in society.

Not everyone likes this kind of novel. One reviewer found the writing “labored.” Another commented on the “overwhelming beauty of the prose.” So much for critical reviews.

Leonard Deppling returns to London after the end of his marriage and caring for his dying father. He has come to join his brother, William, a former lecturer and activist. Leonard seeks to understand why William never visited his ailing father or attended his funeral. He moves in with William’s wife and three children.

William is a thoroughly unconventional man, unworldly, and forever questioning. What? How? Why? He is a modern version of Socrates, walking about the neighborhoods of London, talking informally with young people, and gathering quite a dedicated group of followers. He says,

…to my mind, far from being arrogant, asking questions is the most humble thing a person can do. And my freedom isn’t a reward if it’s at the expense of reason and honesty.

Imagine being with such a person, a person who never ceases to question what you say never assuming he understands what you said, or that you understood it either. He takes the simplest thing you say and breaks it down into little linguistic puzzles. What do you mean by this? The word has several meanings. I am not sure what you meant by this. William says,

“The problem is that you’ve used a lot of ideas in that sentence I can’t even begin to understand. The just, the good, the natural.” Leonard gathers himself together and says, “Allow me a sentence free of charge sometimes; allow me that, yes? William replies, “I won’t do anything without proper thought.”

Finally, one of William’s young followers, Stephen, commits a crime that for any serious reader is one of the worst imaginable. Stephen flees the country and because of the close association of the two men, William is implicated in the crime.

Recall what happened to Socrates when he was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens. William acts similarly during his trial as an accessory to the crime. He says, “I’d rather share below room in a prison cells than give away a millimeter of space in my mind.”

Harvey’s novel is a philosophical work of fiction par excellence. If you like reading novels of ideas that probe relentlessly into debate about morality, religion, existence, friendship and obligations to the persons you love, you’ll enjoy All is Song.

In spite of William’s questioning and the spiraling inquiry this usually led to, nothing he could say or do had slightest effect on the deep bond between the two brothers. The kindness and love between them remained in tact.

I see kindness at times among all the bullshit, and I see love.


On Silence

Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?
Lawrence Durrell

Much of my day is spent alone, surrounded by a silent world. I’m no longer a member of the academic world, the world of almost constant conversation. I rarely attend a lecture, watch television, or speak with colleagues.

Is this world of quietude affecting me? Sometimes I catch myself using a word or unusual phrase and recognize it was something I often heard X use. Listening to these words will begin to diminish now. Will I come up with those of my own? Will I eventually forget how to speak at all, let alone engage in a decent conversation?

No, I don’t think that will happen. Once you begin to speak and then to speak in genuine sentences that become more complex, you’ll never forget. Talking is like riding a bicycle; once you learn, you’re set for life.

Over time, what you say becomes more distinctive and more your own way of speaking. But what happens when so much of your world grows silent? The poet writes:

In the silence
The silence of my days
Deepens, the wind is still:
Unbroken cloud or haze
Wraps up the world until
The minds which once seemed full
Seem empty, dark and dull.

I speak, and no one hears:
I listen, no one speaks.
There is no sound of tears,
No laughter. No one seeks
The future in the past
Where it must come at last.

And is the future new?
They say so, who ignore
Adam and Eve show through
Today as heretofore.
The murder done by Cain
Is daily done again.

Celebrate if you will
The triumph of your genes:
The past is working still
—That is all that it means.
In every spoken word,
Always, the past is heard.

Perhaps silence is best,
But if there must be speech,
Then watch it closely, lest
It stretches out of reach.
The future is too far:
The past is all we are.

C. H. Sisson


Conversations With My Gardener

I remember once…I met this woman…She was an Indian woman. Older than I was. And it was there…we knew each other at once. You have to trust this kind of thing. …It has nothing to do with age, or sex, or color, or anything of that sort. Doris Lessing

When was the last time you had a genuine conversation with someone, rather like a dialogue where one person poses a question or makes a statement and the other replies in kind and it continues on this way until you run out of steam?

A few days ago I had a chance to see Conversations with My Gardener once again. How could I resist? The beauty of the French countryside, in this case the area around Rhone Alps, close to the Swiss border in southern France, drew me to the film the first time. I also went to see the no less special nature of the friendship between the Parisian painter and the gardener he hires to bring back to life the vegetable garden at his country estate.

This time I saw something different, namely the character of the conversations between the two men, each from a different class, educational experience, and life’s work. What was the source of the deep rapport between these two dissimilar men? How were they able to find so much to talk about, from the mundane to the reflective, with such pleasure? Was there any distinctive feature of what they said or how they it that created such a perfect blending?

As I viewed the film once again and thought further about it, I realized it was their total honesty in disclosing themselves, in bringing their own experiences to each other. Each of them in turn followed with something about their own life. They listened to one another. They heard one another. And they responded to what was said.

How rare is that, how often does it occur to you? You have to let down your guard and hope that it will be appreciated and reciprocated. You never know if that will happen. But it’s a good way to start, if that kind of exchange means anything to you.

It isn’t associated with men or women; it can occur with the young and the old. There is nothing sexual about it. That would only ruin it, although there is an element of intimacy connected with it. It happens immediately and is thoroughly exhilarating.

One night several years ago, I had dinner with a librarian. She was about to head out of town to play poker in Las Vegas. Yes a poker playing librarian; they seem to come in all varieties now. Naturally, the juxtaposition of librarian and poker player fascinated me. (The Secret Lives of Librarians, a Times Notable Book of the Year.)

Anyway, we talked as one does when having dinner with a librarian, especially, a poker playing one. I tried to find out what it is about poker than meant so much to her. She replied, “I am most myself when I am playing poker.”

It is a phrase I sometimes use about myself in some situations, but not while playing poker which is not among my current activities, although now that I know a local librarian, it might become one. After our rendezvous, I began to think further about when individuals are most themselves.

I began by looking more closely at the concept. What does it mean to say you are most yourself? The phrase implies that each person has a central core, one that is in some way set apart from the other self or selves that we usually display. The oracle admonished us to “Know thyself.” What is this self that the oracle is referring to?

I think the Graham [Greene] was not simply “made up of two persons.” Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence. Shirley Hazzard Greene on Capri

The conversation between the painter and gardener was something like that, two persons who realized when they met that they had been childhood friends, each expressing the way they felt at this time in their life--the painter struggling with a separation from his wife, the gardener enjoying his time in the garden, as he was succumbing to an illness.

Both men becoming increasing attached to one another, the pleasure of their friendship and the opportunity to display it and help one another. They were different people at other times and situations, the painter a sophisticated art critic, the gardener a railway company laborer. Don’t we all carry around another self or several, rather than one?


The Forgetting River

One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore.
William Zisseer

I know nothing about why my grandparents fled their homes in Europe, how they viewed this country when they finally arrived, and the reasons they settled where they did. Now there is no one left to answer the many questions I have.

In The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity and the Inquisition, Doreen Carvajal writes about this dilemma and her effort to unravel the mystery of her unknown past. All she knew was that her ancestors had left Spain centuries ago during the Inquisition, that her family had been raised as Catholics, and lived in Costa Rica and California.

But she always had doubts about her religion and, in time, began to think that her family was, in fact, Sephardic Jews, Christian converts known as conversos. The puzzle of her identity “so nagged at me that I tried to resolve it by collecting masses of evidence.”

She conducted interviews, read documents, analyzed records, had several DNA tests, none of which were conclusive, and finally moved to Arcos de la Frontera, a small village in southern Spain where she knew her ancestors had lived before the Inquisition.

There she began to discover hidden clues and cryptic messages that hinted at her past. Carvajal writes, “Persecution forces secret communication. It provokes a unique form of creativity, truth delivered between the lines to careful observers.” But none of these clues gave her the kind of evidence that provided conclusive proof of her historical identity.

As a writer and journalist, all she wanted was a scrap of paper with some words, perhaps a paragraph or two. Finally she found it in an old wooden desk hidden away a small drawer, where small cards were kept. On the back of one, she writes:

“…was a prayer, Psalm. The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, They will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the temple of our God They will still bear fruit in old age. I clasped my hand over my mouth in disbelief. Luz Carvajal, who had told others in the family that we were sefarditas, had gone to the grave with a traditional Sabbath prayer, the shir shel yom, “a psalm, a song for the day of Sabbath.”

It had taken Carvajal 13 years to find the little funeral card stashed in the drawer of the old desk. Taken together with other clues she had discovered in her search, her doubts about her religious upbringing were finally over. She knew her family was actually of Sephardic Jewish ancestry whose identity was hidden, had to be hidden to survive, and silenced for centuries.

Elsewhere she speculates on why the mystery of her history had always haunted her. She wonders if the history of our ancestors is somehow conveyed in unexplained ways from one generation to the next. Investigators of this process tell her that the only way this can happen, other than the normal sources of verification, is through genetic transmission.

At the heart of the field known as epigenetics is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents…can directly affect us decades later.” So this is where the trail has led her, questions of genetic influence, mode of transmission, difficult questions that are no less puzzling than her initial ones.

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started... and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot


Resistance in Nazi Germany

We learned too late that it is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern write about "The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi" in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. Like other individuals I have written about, I was attracted to their essay by the moral courage displayed by both men in Nazi Germany.

To resist the Nazis was to invite imprisonment, torture and more likely death to yourself and immediate members of your family. As a result, the number of Germans engaged in resistance activities was very small with nothing like the somewhat more coordinated French, Polish and Italian groups.

Both Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were fully aware of the consequences of their activities. Yet they opposed the regime both overtly and covertly for several years. What can we learn about resisting injustice from their example?

Diestrich Bonhoeffer was a well-known pastor. Once the Nazis proclaimed that race, not religion, determined one’s identity, Bonhoeffer joined 2,000 other religious leaders in challenging the Nazi view. In 1935 he left Berlin to assume a teaching position in a remote “preachers’ seminary” where he made clear his opposition to the ideology of the Nazi party.

Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was a virtually unknown lawyer. In 1934 he became aware of various Nazi illegal acts and began keeping a record of them in a secure safe to be used in any subsequent prosecution of Nazi criminals once the regime was overthrown. He also joined together with other German officers opposed to Hitler and his planned takeover of Czechoslovakia.

After Krisallnacht and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Nazis began watching both men closely. During a short sojourn in America to study with his mentor Reinhold Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer realized he had to return to Germany. He wrote:

I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany…Christians in Germany are going to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose.

Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi, separately and together, began more active forms of resistance once the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and escalated their program of exterminating Jewish men, women and children.

• Both men were able to arrange the “deportation” of Jewish individuals to Switzerland.

• Dohnanyi somehow managed to plant a British-made bomb in a plane carrying Hitler back from Russia, but the mechanism didn’t work.

• A few days later they participated in another failed attempt to assassinate Hitler because of last minute changes in his plans.

• Both men were arrested the following month and were taken to different prisons in Berlin. While there, they stayed in touch with coded or smuggled messages. In this way they were able to inform others of what they knew of the Nazi atrocities and encourage them to continue with whatever resistance work was possible.

Eventually the Nazis discovered some of the documents revealing their conspiracy against Hitler. In April, after sham trials, Dohnanyi and Bonheffer were executed by hanging.

Sifton and Stern conclude, “One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohanyi and Dietrich Boinhoeffer. …Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said they were “on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.” So few traveled that path—anywhere."


A Day in the Life of a Blog

I've always felt sort of nourished by the New Yorker, finishing an issue feeling ...enlightened, learning something about a subject that was written by a master of his craft.... Anonymous

The best thing about the New Yorker today is their online blogs,

I regard them as the new New Yorker, as the old New Yorker is long gone, a fading memory of the golden era of the literary arts.

Every weekday there are several posts, not one as is the common practice. In fact, there is a group of New Yorker bloggers, whose blogs are listed in the top headline of the blog page. The link I use is their Cultural Desk that is their centralized hub for commentaries on literature, music, film and art.

On Thursday, September 27th, a fairly representative day in the life of this blog, I counted
eight separate postings, as follows.

The New York Art Book Fair

Writing Negative Reviews on Amazon

Contemporary Films

The Songs of Iris Dement

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

The Daily Book News

Prime Minister Netanyahu Caption Contest

Classical Musician and Orchestral Rapper, Chilly Gonzales

This is quite a rich and varied collection and they represent but a small portion of what also is available on the magazine’s Website. You can check the weekly issue to learn the table of contents and which of the articles are not blocked. The fact that the new New Yorker doesn’t make them all available is a bit annoying, largely a matter, I imagine, of Conde-Nast’s corporate interests and we all know what they are.

However, if you are a subscriber, you can also sign in to read them all. The magazine now has a number of digital editions, iPad, iPhone and some but not all Android tablets, free to subscribers, but not to non-subscribers.

Who needs a print edition of the magazine anymore? If you are interested in politics, celebrities, entertainment, food, fashion, etc, then it remains your cup of tea.

P.S. The next day there was another set of eight posts about: the Moby Dick Read, The New York Film Festival, a rehearsal for a new play, the Pale King Archive, long forgotten food recipes, a humorous post on punctuation marks, Japanese photo books at the New York Art Book Fair, and the regular book news.

And just yesterday, that was a long and amusing post about Haruki Murakami and his readers, the Harukists, who were disappointed that he didn’t win the Nobel Prize.


Portraits of The Portrait of a Lady

It is the business of the artist to make humanity aware of itself. Ezra Pound

Is it reasonable to write about a book I’ve never read? I’ve read a fair amount about the book, but not the thing itself. However, I have read a reverential review by Anthony Lane of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady in the New Yorker last month.

Lane writes about how much the book meant to him and reviews a recent book by Michael Gorra about James’s novel titled, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. Once in a while I dip into a James novel, but I’ve found his formal style and ponderous loquaciousness of little appeal.

And while I don’t usually get much out of the movie reviews Lane writes for the New Yorker, his treatment of Portrait and enthusiasm about it was different. I say to myself, if I can’t write a classic novel or expect to enjoy it, the least I can do is read about it.

At this point then, what I have is second order accounts of the novel—Lane’s, Gorra’s as viewed by Lane, along with some timely quotations from James, Lane and Gorra. Lane begins his account the way James began Portrait.

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

This is hardly the view of anyone I have ever met, although it is one that I still continue to practice. Not the traditional English way with scones, jams and other treats. Simply a cup of tea wherever I am and if it’s in the tropics, no doubt iced tea, and if it’s in Portland, hot tea most days in that town in the far north of this land. In the best of all possible worlds, it would be good to share that time with someone else, but that is largely a dream these days.

Lane quotes a passage early in the novel, “She had been looking all round her again,--at the lawn, the great trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house; and, while engaged in this survey, she had also narrowly scrutinized her companions; a comprehensiveness of observation easily conceivable on the part of a young woman who was evidently both intelligent and excited…”I have never seen anything so beautiful as this,” she declared.

Whereupon Lane remarks, “I have never read anything as beautiful as that.” He says the beauty of this passage isn’t the scene James describes but rather the excitement and quickness of Isabel Archer’s response.

Lane acknowledges, as any reader does who rereads a novel they first read when they were young, that his appreciation of The Portrait of a Lady bears little relationship to how he finds it today.

He turns to Gorra’s book about the novel and commends him for approaching James by treating, in depth, only one of his works. He reminds us there are many books about a single book, including Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, etc.

Lane asks if you love a book so much, should you “leave rough traces of that love, or should scholarship smooth them over?” Reading Lane’s essay leaves little doubt in my mind where he stands. Or, for that matter, Jeffrey Eugenides, author of widely praised The Marriage Plot, who called James’s novel, “the best marriage plot novel ever….It’s much darker than anything Austen did, and it leads straight to the moral ambiguities and complexities of the modern novel.”


Failure to Rescue

Scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery after something goes wrong—whether it is an infection or some bizarre twist of the stomach. They call them a “failure to rescue.” More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more. Atul Gawande

Suppose you are faced with surgery and need to choose between two different hospitals. Both have the same death rate following surgery. But they differ in terms of surgical complications. The first has fewer complications, while the second has more, but is better at rescuing patients from them.

Which hospital would you choose? Normally you’d prefer the first, hoping at all cost to avoid any complication. That’s what Atul Gawande, an eminent surgeon and staff writer at the New Yorker, said he would have chosen during his talk at the New Yorker Festival last weekend.

But he admitted he was wrong. You would have been better off having surgery in the second hospital. He said this was crazy and counter intuitive. He pointed out, however, that problems during surgery depend on many unknown and complex circumstances—chance, how poor the patients are, their health, etc., that you really want the hospital that has a better record of rescuing patients from any unforeseen difficulty.

In his lecture, Gawande cited some of the medical studies supporting this idea and explored their implications. He pointed to the British Petroleum oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago. According to the official investigation, there were many signs that the drill pipe was having problems, but the companies involved did nothing about them before the night of the explosions and the crew testing the well the day after did not take immediate action once they recognized how serious the situation had become.

When something goes wrong or a mistake is made, more often than not, we tend to ignore it or diminish its importance and hope it won’t happen again. Less often do we acknowledge the problem and then plan carefully what to do if and when it happens again. The BP crew did not have such a plan ready to employ once they were aware something was wrong.

The hospitals that had a better rescue rate did have in place a well-prepared set of scenarios about what to do once something went wrong. The surgical teams had practiced it, talked about it, and each member of the team knew what to do in the event of an emergency.

Gawande also mentioned the widely discussed case of the US Airways flight that crashed in the icy waters of the Hudson River a few years ago. While most everyone praised the skill of the Pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, even he acknowledged that had little to do with avoiding any casualties. That depended far more on his crew, the plane’s attendants, the proximity of the ferryboats that rushed over to the plane, and above all the well-rehearsed plan they had for responding to emergency situations.

Gawande’s discussion of this issue suggests a general strategy for anyone who wants to deal effectively with unforeseen errors, accidents, and mistakes: Have a plan, practice it, and prepare for as many possible difficulties as possible.

He spoke about this topic in his recent Commencement address to the graduating students at Williams College, concluding:

So you will take risks, and you will have failures. But it’s what happens afterward that is defining. A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it—will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right?—because the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.


Digital Ping-Pong

Several years ago, I read about an air force pilot who deliberately crashed his jet into a remote area of the Rockies. I don’t usually pay much attention to things like that, but for some reason the mystery of this one took hold of me. I was moved to write a poem-of-sorts about it to my wife. A few days later I sent it to her in an email.

It is all over.
Such a disappointment.
They located the plane.
Confirmed it was the pilot.
Soon the bombs will be uncovered
I had been so hoping
It would remain a mystery

Where did the plane go?
What was up with the pilot?
How were the bombs to be used?
What fun to speculate.
Chapter one through six.
A best seller.
Blockbuster film.
Italy each summer.

After I sent her the poem-of-sorts, it didn’t take her long to reply in kind. Her reply itself was unexpected, especially its speed. Her volley was sparkling.

No more mystery?
I disagree.
Why did he do it?
What terrible thing ate at his soul?
Why did he wheel away?
Only to land
In the silent snow
Buried in ice
Fragments scattered

Did he long for the quiet?
Turn off the engine
Give up the struggle
Had he dickered with dying
Had he thought it all through
Was it just an impulse
Or nothing
And everything
A mechanical failure of the soul
Or only a mechanical failure
No more mystery?
Now even more.
Paris in the Fall

I was overwhelmed by her reply. Our exchange was a breathtaking moment in the history of the Internet, to say nothing of our marriage.


Share-It Square

Something is wrong with too many places in America today. Mark Lakeman

Where are the public squares in this country like the piazzas in Italy where people gather to chat with their friends or anyone else who happens by? I recall a suburban square, one like countless others in this country, that was recently built on the main street in a town outside of San Francisco. I have driven by that square many times and not once have I seen anyone there or even anyone approaching the place.

I admire the square, the trees and benches that have been abundantly distributed throughout. I hope that it will eventually become a popular gathering place. But in all honesty, I have no reason to believe it will, as long as you have strap yourself in your three-ton utility vehicle every time you want to go there.

Think of the even more numerous intersections in this country where only automobiles gather to wait for the signal to change. What is an Italian piazza anyway but an intersection where cross streets come together? What might be done to create a more public setting in the lonely intersections of this country?

I first read about how to reinvent the intersection in an interview with Steven Johnson discussing his new book, Future Perfect, in which he discusses once again the importance of peer networks in developing new ideas. He describes a fellow in Portland, Oregon who realized that “throughout human history, cross streets have been places where civic culture happens.”

So he got together with people in his neighborhood to start sprucing up the intersection, now known as Share-It Square after the intersection streets, SE 9th and Sherrett Streets. They built a small lending library, a food stand, 24 hour solar powered tea station, a bulletin board and placed paintings here and there. The idea caught on. Soon there was another one in Portland known as Sunnyside Piazza and then several others, at last count over 20.

After Share-It Square had been developed, the organizers surveyed their individuals in the immediate area and found that an overwhelming majority felt that crime had decreased, traffic had slowed, and communication between neighbors had improved ((85% on each of these measures).

The Sunnyside Piazza intersection is said to attract people throughout the day. Neighbors say they intentionally detour through the intersection to and from the nearby streets, perhaps to visit the kiosk, run into friends, or simply participate in whatever is going on there.

What did it take to change a neighborhood intersection into a public square? One person, who apparently realized on a trip to Italy that cross streets have historically been places where people gather. Initially, the civic officials in Portland resisted his idea, but eventually relented, then neighbors joined together to transform the intersection, and once Share-It-Square became so successful, the concept spread rapidly, as these things do these days.

Imagine what might happen if this idea spread throughout a number of the many empty intersections in this country. Instead of being a boring old cross streets where only cars drive through, they became neighborhood-gathering places. Perhaps, a few might become what they are in Florence and almost any other city in Italy.

“Now at Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day’s work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, artists, doctors technicians, poets, scholars. A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity; the changeable temper of a thousand spirits by whom every object of discussion is broken into an infinity of sense and significations—all of these spring into being, and then are spent. And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.” Richard Goodwin The American Condition


Questions in Fiction

“She communicates largely by asking questions, not personal questions about his life or past history but questions about his opinions on topics ranging from the weather to the state of the world.”
Paul Auster

What is the role of asking questions in fiction, a question that I regard as rather important in itself. Recently I carried out an informal study to look more closely at the role of questions in the passages I recorded from works of fiction in my commonplace book.

To extract questions from electronic digital record of the second volume of my commonplace book, I simply entered a question mark in the Word Find box and recorded the question found. This is one of the simplest ways a commonplace book can become a research tool.

I selected about three quarters of the questions (227) from 151 separate works of literature. Some like Night Train to Lisbon had a great many questions, others like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road had only one, as did John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In most cases I selected questions that had a general application and avoided those that did not raise a larger issue. Those not selected were trivial, uninteresting, or framed rhetorically without seeking information or an answer.

Then I classified each one of the questions in terms of the general topic, issue, or subject that it raised. The first round of this procedure identified 48 categories. Since there was considerable overlap between them, they were combined and reduced in number to 17.

For example, questions initially classified as relating to marriage, friendship, romance, and relationships were combined into the general topic of Relationships. Those concerning memory, thinking, language, and neuroscience, were grouped together as Cognitive, while Life represented a combination of Fate, Luck, Work, and Future

The ten most frequent categories, rank ordered in terms of frequency, along with a few examples are shown below:

Someone to thank you once in a while and tell you you’d done well—everyone needed that, didn’t they? Rachel Cusk Arlington Park

The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which comes closer to the truth? Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon
But how do you stop doing something when you are completely unaware that you are doing it? Geoff Dyer Jeff in Venice

Had they stopped playing by the rules because they got nothing following them? Bernhard Schlink The Weekend

It would be interesting to compare novelists on this dimension. Do some employ questioning more than others and if so, what might be responsible for their practice? Do they come from a particular tradition or are they, like Peter Bieri, the pen name of Pascal Mercier involved in a discipline, philosophy, where questioning is a common practice?

Regardless, it reflects a style of writing that is one of probing and wrestling with ideas. Questioning is not a critical feature of the novels I like most. I may enjoy that style of writing and tend to think that way myself, but it probably plays little if any role in my reading preferences.

However, when questions are posed in a work of fiction, I become more engaged with the text and begin to make all the associations that come with my experience and what I know or want to know about the topic. In a way, I join with the author who, with his questions, invites me to think further about the issues he posses and participate with him exploring the story further.

“I learned because I asked questions. It’s the soul that asks, the heart that demands.
Doreen Carvajal The River of Forgetting


Waiting Games

Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming, and incredibly expensive. Federal Express

Most of us spend a fair amount of our daily life waiting—waiting for the bus, waiting for the letter in the mail, waiting in line at the market, waiting in a traffic jam, waiting for luggage at the baggage carousel, waiting on the phone to talk to someone, anyone other that an automated voice.

Several months ago Alex Stone wrote an article about this topic in the Times, “Why Waiting is Torture” (8/18/12). Sometimes it does feel a little like torture, doesn’t it? He begins by describing a problem at the Houston airport, one that I am sure is true at most airports, namely, waiting for your bag at the baggage claim area.

It takes forever for the bags to begin rolling out onto the carousel, finally they arrive everyone finds their luggage fairly soon—except you. You begin to wonder if it has been lost once again. Eventually, there it is, all by its lonely self, you grab it, and utter a profanity or two.

In Houston, passengers were lodging a sizable number of complaints at this seemingly endless waiting period. The airport executives added baggage handlers. While the wait time decreased, the complaints didn’t. What to do? They solved the problem in a clever way.

They moved the arrival gates further away from the main terminal and routed the bags to the most distant carousel. As a result, arriving passengers had to walk several minutes longer to get to the baggage claim area. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem. The complaints dropped to “near zero.”

The effect of the increasing walk time points to a more general principle: If you can occupy wait time with some other activity, people won’t grumble so much about long waiting periods. This principle builds on the widely reported fact that perceived wait time is generally overestimated from actual wait time, Stone says by about 36%.

This has led some buildings to place a mirror or bulletin board next to elevator doors. Similarly, call centers play music, often loud, aversive music, during the lengthy period while you wait for “representative.”

Consider other applications of this principle: Delivery services often provide consumers with a tracking number so they can follow the progress of their purchase on its usually circuitous route to you. At more and more multiple roadway intersections, an automated sign is posted indicating the remaining number of seconds before the signal changes.

In tall buildings, the wait time for the arrival of one of several elevators is similarly indicated by a central panel showing the number of the floor the elevators are on and their progress or lack thereof toward your floor. Wouldn’t it be nice if a comparable technique could be employed at bus stops, where the wait time for the next bus going your way seems to be an eternity or while you wait to check out at the supermarket, for a taxi, or delivery of your mail?

All these little distractions sometimes help to pass the time, not much to be sure, but they usually lead to fewer complaints. There are many other situations that stand in need of natural distractions or activities to minimize the overestimation of actual wait time. Doing so would also increase the overall satisfaction of consumers who wait and wait in one queue after another for periods that sometimes border on the intolerable.

Stone concludes, “Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, the nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away….when all else fails, bring a book.”


The Life of Objects

…if I had not cherished my girlish dreams, of love and romance, if I had not read and, what is worse, believed all those novels, if I had stayed in Ballycarra…

Susanna Moore’s The Lives of Objects brought me back to the terror, the destruction, and misery of World War II. It begins in 1938 with seventeen year old Beatrice living with her mother and father, local shopkeepers, who show little regard for her or for the novels she reads. She wishes only to leave Ballycara, a small village in west Ireland.

To relieve her boredom, she teaches herself how to make lace and earn a little money. Out of nowhere, a European countess sweeps into her shop one day, is taken by her fine lacework, and invites her to Germany to work for her friends, a wealthy couple, Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg.

But this is no fairy tale. Germany invades westward toward Belgium, Holland and France, then eastward to Poland and Russia. War overtakes the Metzenbergs (Felix is no longer “in” with Hitler) and they leave Berlin for their vast country estate.

There Beatrice must put aside her lacework and begin burying the Metzenburg’s treasure in the surrounding gardens—porcelains, ivories, ornate furniture, paintings, silver and gold, jewels, small and large sculptures, canned goods, etc. Later, one by one these objects are used to barter for food or stolen by thieves and then, toward the end of the war, by invading Russian troops.

The palace is bombed, ruins are everywhere, there is talk of concentration camps, the Metzenburgs, their servants and Beatrice take shelter in one of the smaller homes on their estate. Villagers begin to disappear, so do friends, on a visit to Berlin to sell some paintings, Dorothea finds her home destroyed, her attorney cheats her out of a sizable amount of money, the dealer she had hoped to sell some artwork cannot be found.

The marauding Russians take over her country estate, Felix is arrested and taken to one of the camps, there is filth, disarray, and destruction everywhere, illness and starvation must be endured, Beatrice is brutalized, there is no heat and it is the coldest winter ever recorded.

Enough. You get the picture. While The Life of Objects is said to be a novel, it reads more like a memoir, a historical account of what life was like in Nazi Germany. And while I’ve read many such accounts, Moore’s treatment seems like no other.

Eventually the Germans surrender, but the Russians remain at the estate, the servants either die or leave and Dorothea and Beatrice set out for Berlin where they settle in the American sector. They had survived, but they were not the same.

…we had been left with the inexhaustible presence of evil. That people including myself, could so easily resume their old ways and habits seemed a repudiation of all that had been lost.