It's the Water, Stupid

This is the season for graduation at most high schools, colleges and universities in this country. By and large, the commencement addresses on these occasions are fairly similar, forward-looking, optimistic, and some counsel. I am familiar with exceptions, for example, Ann Patchett’s address to the seniors of Sarah Lawrence.

It has been published as What Now? Her remarks are charming, wise, and funny, just like most everything Patchett has written. In it she suggests that your life is always going to be a work in progress and in finding a balance between “going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way.”

At the same time she advises graduates to, “Make up some plans and change them. Identify your heart's truest desire and don't change that for anything.” That’s pretty good advance for anyone, at any age.

But it is the remarks of David Foster Wallace that, in my view, remains the classic, all-time-commencement address of the ages. It was delivered to the graduates of Kenyon College in May of 2005 and was recently published as This Is Water.

Wallace begins with a parable: Two young fish happen to meet an older fish that says to them “How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a bit until one says to the other “What the hell’s the water?”

Wallace writes: “The point of the story is that the most important, obvious realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

To the graduating students he says that the significant education they have received isn’t “really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” This means: “…being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

He says that in his experience the most dangerous consequence of an academic education is the tendency to “over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right of front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.” It’s the water parable again.

Much of the talk is a warning to the students about what adult life is really like. “Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.”

Wallace then proceeds to unpack what that means. You get up, you go to work, you are there eight or ten hours, you are tired and exhausted and now you are stuck in traffic on the drive home, and then you have supper if you are lucky enough to have someone prepare it, otherwise you stop at the market and try to find something to eat and wait a while longer in the check out line, and get back on the freeway, where the traffic is as bad as it was when you got off, and then you try to unwind a bit after your lean cuisine, whereupon you hit the sack early because you have to get up early again the next day and go through it all again.

“Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates actual life routine, day after week after month after year….The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in.”

For Wallace being educated is being able to recognize the importance of attention and awareness and discipline and he adds “being able to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty unsexy ways every day.” These are not our default settings. They have to be learned and the learning isn’t easy and it is readily forgotten in the midst of all the distractions that usually take control of our lives.

Wallace concludes that his remarks (“stuff”) aren't your normal inspirational, optimistic, commencement speech. He reminds the students again that the real value of their education has little to do with knowledge “and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water.”

Even if his remarks are far from cheerful, they are pretty inspirational in my book. Even more, they are true. A transcript of his address can be read here.


As Time Goes By: Jessie and Celine

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

Jessie and Celine, there they are again, nine years since we last saw them in Before Sunset. Then they were in Paris, at a reading Jessie was giving of one of his books. He said he wrote it so they would find each other again.

Perhaps you recall seeing them in Before Sunrise, when they met for the first time on a train heading for Vienna. Upon arriving, they get off, and spend a long night talking and wandering about the streets of the city. Then they depart, as they must in all their encounters. It is difficult for them and difficult for us too. We don’t imagine they will ever see each other again.

But they do and now, in Before Midnight they are in Greece for the summer at a friend’s villa on the Peloponnesus with their two daughters and some friends. They are older, many years after first meeting and we are just as many years older too.

Like us, they are a little bit worn, weary and for the first time we see them arguing about both the serious and the trivial. Is their relationship about to end? Will we not see them grow into old age? We seem to care. Will we still be alive to join with them again in nine years? Will Richard Linklater, the film’s director and co-writer, as he was in the first two, even bring us together again?

Before Midnight seems very real, far more so the time they met on the train and at the Parisian bookstore. One night they gather together for dinner with their host, his companion, and the two other couples who have been with them. Their meal is lively, full of warmth, intelligence. It was a pleasure to watch, nothing I have ever known, however.

But I have observed many such meals, lively gatherings of smart and attractive people, full of shrewd observations and clever humor. Mostly they have been in Europe, at Italian trattorias where the wine is flowing freely and the food is bountiful, fresh and beautifully prepared. I know that’s all I can ever do, for I am not sufficiently smart and attractive or well-placed.

Before Midnight ends at a café by the sea where Celine has gone, after walking out on Jessie. She no longer wants anything to do with him, wants to assert her independence. In time, Jessie appears, does a little time traveling routine, and we linger on them, as the film pulls away from their continuing romance and we say goodbye to them once again.

It has been almost twenty years since the first time we saw them, as it were. Their fictional relationship is perhaps the longest of any I have ever seen or read. I confess it seems as if they are as alive as anyone else I have known.

Over the years they have aged, as we have. We were young when they were and each time they meet, we are also the same age. The progression of time, of years gone by, marks the central feature of the series. And, as in all things alive, we know it cannot last forever. Soon they will have to say their final goodbyes, as we will.

In the Times (12/12/13), Stephen Holden ranked Before Midnight as the number one film of 2013. He wrote, “Theirs [Jessie and Celine’s] is as real and complex an observation of a relationship as the movies ever have produced.”

And in commenting on the film, Ethan Hawke, who played Jessie writes (New Yorker 5/13/13) that in their third film together Jesse and Celine’s (Julie Delpy) attraction rests on a fault line of contention. The bitterness of their dispute was difficult to watch, to be a part of, albeit as an observer.

“One of the difficulties of romantic love,” Hawke said, “is that the fantasy of how the other person will complement you and be the balm you always hoped for…that evaporates over time. Everybody’s charm fades.”… “The inevitably of decay. You can’t keep having first love forever.”


Living Apart Together (LAT)

In our twenty-seventh year of marriage, we have finally discovered our key to wedded bliss: living separately. Lise Stryker Stoessel

I have been doing some reading about couples who live apart, perhaps a dozen or so examples. An increasing number of married couples in this country (9%-10%) and abroad (9%) England live this way. Sociologists have labeled them LATs (Living Apart Together)

Most of the couples are young, a few are middle age and some older. Most live in the same town, visit frequently, if not daily, often spend the night or weekend together. Only a few that I’ve read about so far live in distant towns, largely commuter couples who have jobs in different cities. Not one of those I’ve read about expressed real concern about the financial limits of maintaining two separate homes or any degree of serious discontent.

In Living Happy Ever After Separately Lise Stryker Stoessel describes the reasons she and her husband decided to live in separate homes. Soon after they were married, they became aware of their opposing needs, competing desires and the bitterness that came from a cascade of disputes. She wrote:

…our differences and disharmonies would engulf us: He tends to be a hermit; I am outgoing. He is a worrier; I am optimistic; He is a Spartan; I am a decorator. He is self-contained; I need and offer affection. He guards his territory; I invite people in. He likes his routine; I crave new experiences. He is practical; I am aesthetic…His cup is half empty; my cup is half full.

Her therapist asked if her marriage was so miserable, why didn’t she get divorced like everyone else. Her answers were clear. They loved one another, she needed financial support, and they wanted to raise their children as a family.

They decided to try to preserve their marriage by living in separate homes, he in the one where his construction equipment was scattered everywhere (to her annoyance), and she to a nearby townhouse that she decorated to suit her taste. The friction and bickering didn’t end, but it was far less frequent.

In her recent (3/17/14) interview on NPR the English, Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively describes the reasons why she and her husband lived in separate homes:

“Jack, my husband, and I had both led busy, professional lives rather separately. He was an academic and I was a writer, so I was often on my own. We lived in two places. We lived partly in London and partly in the country, in Oxfordshire, and quite often we'd be in different houses, so I was used to being in a house on my own. That didn't worry me too much. Of course, then I always knew there'd be an end to it — we'd be together again — so that's rather different...”

The concluding section of Living Happy Ever After Separately raises an important question: Why is it so hard to stay married these days? Stoessel’s answers point the way to potential remedies: We aren’t taught about how to be married and we have unrealistic expectations about what married life is like. Well, maybe. But I doubt that would do much, if anything, to reduce the divorce rate or bickering among married couples or quite frankly most couples, married or not.


Deadly Viruses

In 1918 a deadly influenza virus swept over the globe. It infected 500,000,000 people and was responsible for the death of an estimated 50 to 100 million –3 to 5 percent of the world’s population. It was no doubt one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. From time to time a severe virus infects a significant number of people in this country and elsewhere, but not anywhere like the 1918 Flu Pandemic, as it has become known.

Just yesterday there was a report of the arrival in this country of a new virus that spreads from person to person and is often fatal. It is known as the MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, that has so far infected three people in the US and many more in sixteen other countries. In Saudi Arabia alone, 157 have died from this virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the virus is from the same family as the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS).

Early last month there was an outbreak of Ebola virus in Guinea. As of April 17th, over 200 cases had been reported, including 137 deaths. Liberia and Sierra Leone, both neighboring countries, have also reported Ebola cases. Research on its origin and treatment has just begun.

The outbreak of such a deadly disease is the subject of two films I saw recently—Contagion and Outbreak. Contagion deals with a killer virus that originated in Hong Kong, spread rapidly to Chicago and elsewhere in this country. A team of researchers was recruited (all played by well known actors) from the World Health Organization, the CDC and a professor in San Francisco. People were advised to wash their hands, avoid shaking hands, be mindful when you open doors in public places, or press elevator buttons, etc. The toll the virus takes upon an infected body is horrible to behold.

Outbreak opens deep in an African rain forest where a monkey has infected a small village, killing everyone who lived there. Again a team of researchers (played by an equally well-known cast of actors) descends upon the village in an effort to understand the source of the virus and contain it, insofar as possible. They are unsuccessful, as one of the disease carrying monkeys is imported to this country and escapes into a forested area close to a small town. Eventually most of residents who lived there are infected with the virus, whereupon the military is ordered to quarantine the town so that no one can leave.

Outbreak is the more significant of the two. It explores a complicated issue after the President, at the request of a sinister general in cahoots with a drug company, orders the military to bomb the town with a weapon that will destroy all its inhabitants. The issue that emerges from this order is the moral legitimacy of such an action, one that will kill a relatively small number of people to save millions of other individuals throughout the country.

In philosophy this is known as the trolley problem. In one variation of this hypothetical, you are standing by the side of a railway track as a train whose brakes have failed, approaches. You note that 5 people are tied to the tracks that will be killed unless you pull the switch you are standing by, sending the train to a sidetrack. Then you observe one person is tied to the sidetrack where you could send the train.

What do you do? Do stand by helpless as the train kills five people or divert it so that it only kills one?

The answer to this question is by no means simple and has been the subject of considerable philosophical debate. It is also the question set before the commander of the plane about to be sent to kill all the inhabitants of the quarantined town. Meanwhile, you are aware that researchers are working feverishly to find a vaccine that will destroy the virus.


Weekend Video

Following his article the diffusion of innovations in the July 29, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Charlie Rose interviewed Atul Gawande about his research.

According to Gawande, some innovations spread rapidly, others far more slowly, even though they just as important. What accounts for this difference?

Have a look:


La Foce

In the Times last Sunday there was an detailed article about La Foce, a vast estate at the southern edge of Tuscany, where my wife and I headed last summer. I had always wanted to visit the area, after reading Iris Origo’s The War in Val d'Orcia. There she describes her arrival with the Italian Count who owned the land, and together they developed the area, introducing new farming techniques to the peasant farmers who lived there, establishing a school for their children, and a health center.

We lived on a large farm in southern Tuscany—twelve miles from the station and five from the nearest village. The country is wild and lonely; the climate is harsh. Our house stands on a hillside, looking down over a wide and beautiful valley, beyond which rises Monte Amiata, wooded with chestnuts and beeches.”

During the Second World War, a great depression settled over all of Italy. Eventually the fighting reached La Foce, the German’s took over their home and other properties, it was difficult to find food for everyone, as refuges, children and the homeless began arriving. “And so, day after day, it goes on—an unending stream of human suffering. And it will yet be worse.”

The War in Val d’Orcia concludes as the American troops arrive along with a sense of hope as plans are made to restore the farmhouses and gardens that have been destroyed and begin replacing much of what had been looted by the Nazis.

Had you not read Origo’s book, none of this history would be sensed today. We lived in one of its beautifully furnished villas, where we had a view over the countryside in all directions. The villa consisted of several apartments on two levels around an open garden courtyard. The walls were covered with ivy, plants were everywhere. We were the only occupants of at least a dozen other apartments. It was quiet, peaceful, rather bucolic, once you got into the mood.

We visited the hill towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, San Quirico D’Orcia, Chuisi, and nearby Chianciano Terme, such melodious names. Also, Bagno Vignoni, where there is a thermal water spa in the heart of the village.

At night we drove somewhere for dinner. The driving was slow, curvy narrow roads, sometimes dirt or gravel. One must concentrate. What must it have been like when it rained? What must it have been like in the days of carriages and horse drawn wagons?

Often I thought about the history of the place, what it was like when Origo and the Count first came here, the remarkable step-by-step rebuilding of the vast acreage, educating the people who lived there, then, building the dams and reforesting the land. And then there was the War and I imagined what life was like then and what the Germans did to the place.

I asked my wife what did she like about being at La Foce. She replied: “First, the history that lets you imagine (a little) what life was like in the 30s and 40s. I kept thinking about the Origos building the estate, helping the peasants, putting in the water system with its reservoirs and wells. What an engineer Antonio Origo must have been. And then imagining the war, where the partisans might have been, up in the woods behind our Charentana [villa] And the Germans living there.

Our apartment was so spacious, and furnished with antiques. We had everything we needed. I especially loved looking out of the windows at the countryside, seeing the shadow of the ivy on the shutters, hearing the birds chirping away. The birds were nesting in the ivy! I liked the kitchen and being able to put meals together with fresh Italian ingredients. I had never peeled a salami before, always bought it sliced thin, but surprisingly, the thick slices from the one that Benedetta [our host] had left for us were quite delicious.

I loved having nothing to do during the day, being able to go and sit outside, draw the walls of Charentana. Their adobe colors glowed in the sunlight, complemented by the tile roof and the ivy and/or rose vines clinging to the walls. Everywhere I looked, I saw a picture.

And I splashed around in the pool, looking at Mount Amiata and the valley on one side, and a lovely wisteria arbor where, one day, we had eaten our picnic lunch. Then lying by the pool and feeling the warmth of the Tuscan sun and the fragrance of the yellow broom, blooming nearby. So often, throughout the time we spent in the valley, we came across areas where banks of flowers, sometimes jasmine, sometimes the broom, filled the air with the most marvelous sweetness.

Walking in the morning was also pleasant, seeing the red poppies in the fields and other wild flowers by the roadside. The early morning sunlight filtered through the poppy petals, creating shadows of design. I took many pictures!

Driving was a bit of a challenge, even for the passenger, since the roads were very curvy and narrow; approaching cars often speeded past with only inches to spare. But each curve brought a new visual delight from the round hay bales in the fields to banks of blooming wildflowers, pink ones that I initially thought were clover, but upon examination, turned out to be something else. There were so many wonderful sights in the Val d’Orcia, castles here and there, broad expanses of hilly farms, with rows of cypress marching up to lead to a house on the hilltop.

I also loved exploring the narrow streets of the hill towns and finding, occasionally, a puss preening itself in the sun in a window or on a door stoop. The little shops were fun to explore too, to see the Tuscan souvenirs, most hand-made or at least, I liked to think so. Locally made, anyway, not from China, although who knows.”


Love Story

Earlier this month David Brooks published a beautiful column in the Times (5/1/14) about Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin. He titled his column “Love Story.” I don’t usually read Brooks’ column, but its title led me to give this one a try.

He describes an incident in Ignatieff’s book about the visit Isaiah Berlin made to the apartment of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She was 20 years older than he was, “still beautiful and powerful, but wounded by tyranny and the war,” quoting Brooks. Berlin didn’t know a great deal about her and at the outset, their conversation was said to be reserved.

But they continued and Brooks reports: “By midnight, they were alone, sitting on opposite ends of her room. She told him about her girlhood and marriage and her husband’s execution. She began to recite Byron’s “Don Juan” with such passion that Berlin turned his face to the window to hide his emotions. She began reciting some of her own poems, breaking down as she described how they had led the Soviets to execute one of her colleagues.”

And so it continued. At 4 in the morning they were talking about Pushkin and Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. They spoke more and more about their life, their literary pleasures, art, history, the rich cultural life they could not live without. Finally, Berlin returned to his hotel and was said to exclaim, “I am in love; I am in love.”

I thought how wonderful this was, how rare it is today or seems to be, how a life of wide reading, reflection and writing seems to have lost whatever luster it had. When have you ever had a conversation like that? Or a bond with another person like that?

It was a friendship and a love, built around ideas, great books, writing. Several times Brooks refers to it as an intellectual communion. How often I have dreamed of such a relationship.

A friend and I have exchanged a few words about the Brooks column. She wrote:

It's a kind of life that seems to be passing. I see so much today in the history of the past, the rise and then decline of various civilizations. We do seem to be on a decline today…I don't see much positive in the future for my grandchildren.

In reply, I wrote: Who can be sure of what the future holds? It has a way of surprising us. It is already a different world than the one into which we were born. But there are still quite a few poets and writers and Isaiah Berlins who love books, and learning, literature and the humanities in general. And there are still a few places, like Reed and the two St. John’s College campuses, where that kind of life is taught and respected. Some gravitate to it naturally and I hope that will always be the case. There have never been very many, anyway.

Brooks worries that not many schools prepares students for this kind of life. Or parents either, I might add. But Berlin and Akhmatova were prepared, had done the reading, knew what it meant to grapple with large ideas, how important it was, and so they were able to have that kind of conversation.

‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.


The Paris Architect

As a rule, I don’t read mysteries. But Charles Belfoure’s The Paris Architect, became one. Lucien Bernard is the architect of the title during the Nazi occupation of Paris, a difficult time for anyone designing buildings, as well as most of the French who remained in Paris then.

The mystery, or I should say the mysteries, begin when Bernard is asked by a wealthy Frenchman to design hiding places in apartments for Jewish individuals. Bernard, who was raised by parents who hated Jews, feels rather indifferent about them, but likes the idea of outwitting the Nazis. He is fully aware of the risks he is taking and the constant fear that will accompany him once he becomes involved in the projects.

The first mystery begins: Is he going to survive or get caught and endure the torture the Nazis will inflict on him?

The projects also come with a considerable amount of cash and the chance to design a factory for the Germans outside of Paris. The second mystery unfolds: Will Bernard become an accomplice of the German Reich, a collaborator?

One of the hiding places is behind the brick wall of a fireplace. When the Nazi’s storm the apartment without finding the Jewish couple they are looking for, they burn the apartment down. The couple is smothered to death as Bernard did not anticipate such a situation and has failed to build an air pipe for them. His failure initiates the third mystery: After this tragic error, will Bernard begin reevaluating the choices he has made?

The novel slowly creates these moral dilemmas: Does designing factories for the Germans conflict with creating safe places for Jews? And how can a person who is devoted to France and has fought for its survival, collaborate with the enemy who is occupying his country?

With the death of the Jewish couple, Bernard begins to see things differently, he realizes the occupation brought out the very worst in human beings, the hardships had set one person against another, one group against another, neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. What he was doing for the Germans was simply wrong.

Lucien knew he couldn’t be that way and just stand by; he had to continue what he’d been doing. When he asked himself why he was risking his life, the answer wasn’t the cash, the factories, or the sheer thrill of the challenge. He was risking his life because it was the right thing to do. He had to go beyond himself and help these people.

He had also fallen in love with a woman who was hiding two young children and had admired his growing moral conscience. Then a young boy, who he had taken in to both his home and his workplace when the Nazi’s killed his parents, saved his life.

The five of them become a “family” that eventually escapes to Switzerland, oddly with the help of a Nazi who had come to admire Bernard’s work and had found pleasure in their mutual appreciation of European art and architecture.


The Lunchbox

In Mumbai thousands of workers receive their noontime lunch by deliverymen, known as dabbawalas, who shuttle stacked metal cans from a food preparer’s home to an office worker, and back again using an elaborate, color-coded system. The odds of delivering a lunchbox to a person for whom it was not intended are said to be one in a million. It happens in the Lunchbox.

The meal is prepared by a lonely housewife, Ila, who is trying to revive her marriage by preparing exotic recipes for her husband. The meals are inadvertently delivered to an equally lonely office worker, Saajan, whose wife has recently died. Ila’s husband never says a word about the lunches. So she puts a little note in his lunchbox one day to figure out what is happening.

Saajan receives the note and responds in kind. They begin a daily correspondence, not by way of texting, emailing, Skyping but by the fine art of writing letters, albeit short in the beginning, but longer as their notes become increasingly personal. In a sense, they join a long and notable group of letter writing friends.

Gradually Ila and Saajan disclose more of their life, their regrets, hopes, and their struggles to get by. They wanted to meet at a café, where Ila goes, waits for Saajan who is there all the time, but is too shy to introduce himself.

After viewing the film, I wanted to learn more about the Mumbai delivery service. In an age of Fed Ex, UPS, etc, it seems like throwback to the Pony Express system. I learn there are 5,000 or so dabbawalas in the teaming city of Mumbai, said to be the world’s fourth most populous. . They deliver, 130,000 lunchboxes throughout a vast city that entails carrying a large pallet full of lunch packs to and fro a home to an office, 260,000 transactions, six days a week, 52 weeks a year minus holidays.

Mistaken deliveries are virtually unknown. How do the dabbawalas accomplish this feat? An article in the Harvard Business Journal (November 2012) reports an investigation of how the service seems to work almost to perfection. In a word, it appears to be due a beautifully organized system or management, training, adherence to rigorous standards and a strong sense of belonging to the members of their group.

The article concludes: “And that’s a lesson managers of all enterprises should take to heart.”


Stories We Tell

I look at Sarah Polley, the Canadian actor and film director, and wonder where did she get her beauty.
She doesn’t look at all like her father.

You look at her brothers and sisters, none of whom look like their father, yet they have the same features, the attractiveness, and all look alike. Finally, I see a photo of their mother, Diane, and at once, I know.

This is what you see in Polley’s new film, Stories We Tell. She is both director and central figure in this part documentary, part mystery. Because I have read a little about the film I know the mystery: Who is Sarah’s father?

Is it Harry the father she lived with ever since she was born? She never gave the question a thought, until her brothers and sisters began teasing Sarah that she didn’t much look like her father.

Gradually, Sarah, the interrogator, leads us to hear the stories that each of her mother’s friends recall about their relationship with Diane. We learn that Diane did some acting and for a brief period moved from her home in Toronto to Montreal where she had a bit part. While there she had several encounters with men and by the time she returned home, she was pregnant again.

We meet each of the individuals who knew her in Montreal, as well as what her brothers and sisters remembers about those days. Each recalls a something a little bit different, their memories are not entirely clear. Perhaps they make up the gaps with and there.

In time we learn who the father was or who claims to be. Sarah meets him, they become close friends and it seems the story is over. But it isn’t. Polley ends the film with a brief exchange with another actor in the Montreal play, a younger man. He admits he slept with Diane once. The film ends.

Is there a truth to be found in these stories and, if so, who is telling it? Whose memory is most reliable or can we count on any of them? Polley and one of the Montreal lovers have a DNA test. The results are clear. The ending isn’t.