Car Sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Six Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Midnight Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Memory Distortions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Story of Rage

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

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

I was too good he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


A Possible Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Deciding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Dance With Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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