On The Weather

When I read Kathryn Schulz’s two pieces on the weather and literature, in the November 23rd issue of the New Yorker and then another on the magazine’s website (11/20/15), I was looking for literary works where the weather played a critical role in the plot or on one of its characters.

Schulz cites a number of works where the weather plays a symbolic role. For example, she mentions the snow in James Joyce’s The Dead, the cyclone in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the mud in Dickens’ Bleak House and the storm in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and six other novels.

It seems to me that none of these weather events played a critical role in the novel’s outcome. However, it certainly did in Albert Camus’s The Stranger.

“It is a hot day when Mersault, Camus’s disaffected emotionally detached French-Algerian protagonist, learns that his mother has died; a hot day when she is buried; a hot day when he shoots a man five times and kills him; a hot day when the murder trial begins that will culminate in a death sentence. To the judges’ question about his motives, Mersault tried to explain it was because of the sun”

The subject of Schulz’s discussion is the weather as it is treated in fiction. But beyond these imaginary creations, there is the unmistakable force of the weather in our daily life.

To be sure some people are more affected by the weather than others. I am one who is. Of course, major weather disasters--hurricanes, torrential floods, typhoons, blizzards, ocean tsunamis, major wind and rain storms—influence thousands of individuals, destroy their homes, flood their cities, knock out their power, and often cause the death of many individuals.

The weather has no memory. How I wish it did. On a cold day in January, it is impossible to warm up by recalling those warm days in August. The weather is not like a painful experience that makes you shudder every time you remember it. Or a treasured one that you can recapture vicariously whenever you want.

But that isn’t the way the weather works. Amadeau Prado, the physician-author in Night Train to Lisbon expresses a widely held view of this issue:

It is extraordinary, but the answer changes in me with the light that falls on the city and the Tagus. If it is the enchanting light of a shimmering August day that produces clear, sharp-edged shadows, the thought of a hidden human depth seems bizarre and like a curious, even slightly touching fantasy, like a mirage, that arises when I look too long at the waves flashing in that light.

On the other hand, if city and river are clouded over on a dreary January day by a dome of shadowless light and boring gray, I know no greater certainty than this: that all human action is only an extremely imperfect, ridiculously helpless expression of a hidden internal life of unimagined depths that presses to the surface without ever being able to reach it even remotely.

However, the research offers little support for this view. For example, in a study of the effects of weather on 2,000 Germans, Jaap Denissen of Humbolt University in Berlin found that individuals fell into one of four groups: those who are unaffected by the weather or seasons, people who love summer, others who hate summer, and people who love rain.

In 2008 Denissen and his colleagues conducted what is perhaps the most systematic analysis I have read on how individuals are affected by the weather. They examined the effects of six weather-related factors (temperature, wind, sunlight, precipitation, air pressure and photoperiod--daily length of light) on three measures of mood--positive affect, negative affect and fatigue. They concluded:

…the average effect of weather on mood was only small, though significant random variation was found across individuals, especially regarding the effects of photoperiod.

I think this confirms how most people view the weather. Some individuals are unaffected by it, others are affected periodically, and an unknown number are highly sensitive to it. Neither Denissen nor anyone else to my knowledge has offered a credible explanation for these differences. But it is important that they be recognized in evaluating media or even literary accounts of effects of weather-related variables on personality and behavior.


Affairs of State

I find myself appalled by the current political scene in this country. No sooner did Supreme Court Justice Scalia die than the Republicans began battling over the President’s right to nominate a successor, a right clearly specified in the Constitution.

I do not hold to the views of Justice Scalia, the longest serving member of the Court, but I respect his intelligence and wit in holding forth on many of them. However, I find it thoroughly disrespectful the way so many have responded to his death. Disrespectful, rude, insensitive—to his wife, to his children and to the spirit in which one might feel about the death of anyone.

And then there are the so-called debates, debates that are not debates at all but little else but shouting matches. The way we hold elections in this country is utter madness, they last forever, become repetitious, tedious, boring.

By contrast, in some European countries, elections are called when the ruling party loses a vote of confidence. An election is held to form a new parliament or assembly about a month or so before a vote is held. The candidates for the legislature campaign during that relatively short time, the election is held and the ruling party or coalition elects a leader. How terribly sensible.

in a less polemical comment on the current political scene, Scott and Ami Dodson, report a study of the literary citations nine Supreme Court justices. Who among them has made the most literary citations in their opinions? They frame the question in terms of the purported effects of reading literary fiction—“develops deeper thinking, greater empathy, and better decision making.”

Leaving that matter aside, the Dodson’s searched all the opinions written by the current justices for what they call “high” literature references, excluding the Bible and popular fiction (e.g. J. K. Rowling). The most cited fiction authors were William Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, each mentioned sixteen times by the same five justices (Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg and Breyer).

Eight other authors were cited at least two times—Orwell, Dickens, Huxley, Aesop, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Melville, Salinger. Such authors as Tolstoy, Dante, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, etc. were cited once. And then there were a group of authors not cited at all—Toni Morrison, Murakami, Nabokov, Camus, etc.

In terms of simply counting literary citations, Justice Scalia was by far the most prolific. However, he had also served on the court the longest and therefore has had an opportunity to write far more opinions. Nevertheless, correcting for this factor, still leaves Scalia as the most frequent citer (39) of literature. Breyer (15), Thomas (11), Ginsburg (7), and Kennedy (8), with the remaining four justices trailing far behind.

I’ve been led to wonder by all this is any of the current political candidates have cited a work of literature in the many speeches they have given. My hunch is not a one has done so. Has any candidate for public office or elected official in this country every cited a work of literature? These questions are not raised in jest. After all, isn’t a country’s literary culture one way to measure its quality of life?


When Breath Becomes Air

Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death. Paul Kalanithi

What makes life meaningful? Paul Kalanithi asks this question over and over in his memoir When Breath Becomes Air.

“As soon as the CT scan was done, I began reviewing the images. The diagnosis was immediate: Masses matting the lungs and deforming the spite. Cancer. In my neurosurgical training, I had reviewed hundreds of scan for fellow doctors to see if surgery offered any hope. I’d scribble in the chart “Widely metastatic disease—no role of surgery.” And move on. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

Kalanithi died March 9, 2015 at the age of thirty-seven, twenty-two months after he saw that CT scan. It was coming face to face with his own mortality that led him to try to understand what constitutes a meaningful life.

And it was before operating on his patients that he realized he must first understand the patient’s mind, their values, what makes their life worth living, and what makes it reasonable to let their life end.

Kalinithi was raised in Kingman, Arizona and had no interest in becoming a doctor, although both his parents were physicians. His mother, concerned about the dismal state of education in Kingman, gave Kalinithi and his brothers book after book to read, instead. Determined to be a writer, he received a BA and MA in English literature at Stanford, in addition to majoring in biology.

“I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.”

After a year in Cambridge studying the history and philosophy of science, he decided to enter medical school at Yale and choose a career in neurosurgery. When Breath Becomes Air describes the rigorous and lengthy training required in medical school. He returned to Stanford for an even more grueling residency in neurological surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience.

His eleven years of training were almost finished when the effects of lung cancer—weight loss, fevers, chest pain, night sweats, unremitting back pain, cough and the effects of chemotherapy-- made it impossible for him to continue.

Through it all he never stopped reading literature or hoping he would be able to write one day. He wrote, “Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection.” His tremendous ambition compelled his to begin work on his memoir which he almost finished before he died. His wife, Lucy, completed the manuscript in an Epilogue.

Moral reflection infuses the book. It challenged him to examine the meaning of life before operating on his patients, to confront his own mortality, and to ask the readers to do the same.

What makes your life meaningful?

“Everyone succumbs to finiitude… Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.”

Kalanithi also frequently reflects on time. How much time do I have left? Am I spending too much time on this operation? How long has the patient been under anesthesia? What time am I getting out of the hospital tonight? When Breath Becomes Air “carries the urgency of racing against time.”

How much time do you have left?

Knowing that he did not have long to live, he and his wife decided to have a child. And in the end he came to understand that his relationships with his wife, large family, close friends, and above all his daughter, Cady, meant most to him.

He doubts that she will remember him, all he has are his words. The message he writes to her is simple.

“When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

In the Epilogue Lucy Kalanithi says that the Paul wrestled with death as a physician and as a patient. “He wanted to help people understand death and face their morality.” When Breath Becomes Air certainly had that effect on me. I think you have to be of a certain age for that to happen and I suppose that is a good thing.


Super Bowl 50

Professional football isn’t one of my favorite sports and I haven’t watched many Super Bowls, since the first one, 50 long years ago. But the one this year was different, so I did watch most of the game last Sunday.

With the increasing reports of brain disease in former National Football League (N.F.L.) players, I was concerned about where the game was going. C.T.E is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma that has been found in dozens of former N.F.L players.

The game is brutal, violent, fierce, a genuine battle of gladiators. When a player is tackled, there’s a mass of other players piling on one another with as much force as they can muster. The playing field is sometimes hard. Even with newly designed helmets, banging your head on that surface time and time again is jolting. So is every collision between two players that jars their head.

According to Susan Margulies, a concussion researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, “no helmet has been devised that can effectively reduce the rotational acceleration that sloshing within the head that’s happening in the brain itself.”

The data on the frequency of concussions is clear. According to Ben Shipgel (Times, 1/30/16) National Football League players sustained 271 concussions last year, an increase of 31.6 percent from 2014.

Shipgel writes, “Helmet-to-helmet contact accounted for 92 of the 182 regular-season concussions…The second-leading source was the playing surface.” Shoulder and knee contact produced a majority of the balance.

It’s those concussions, game after game, year after year that give rise to degenerative brain disease. As the players age, the signs of the disease become more frequent—forgetfulness, bursts of anger, depression, severe dementia. It is only after they die that an autopsy can reveal the extent of brain disease.

Watching the N.F.L games becomes something of a moral dilemma. Am I complicit, along with all the others who feel as I do, in supporting the game by continuing to watch it? And then there’s the added issue how the game itself might foster a certain tolerance for violence.

Greg Easterbrook writes in his book The Game’s Not over: In Defense of Football, “What does it mean that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in America…features giant muscled men, mostly African-American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage?”

Yes, the players say they know the risks and, in spite of that are willing to keep playing. But do they really know the risks, the possibility that many years down the road, they will fall victim to a brain disease? We are woefully lacking in being able to accurately predicting our future, particularly the likelihood of those events that will befall us as we age.

Is there anything than can be done? Adam Gopnik puts the matter realistically on the New Yorker website:

“But it does not seem beyond the ingenuity of Americans…to find a way for us to play our national sport without condemning its heroes to nightmarish final years of confusion and depression. As with most social problems, a program of reasonable reform on many fronts—new helmets, however silly they may look; a roster of sensible protocols and precautions, above all new rules on tackling, …might yet rescue the game, and assure that there will be a hundredth Super Bowl, somewhere ahead.”


We Die Alone

March 1943 in Northern England. Four Norwegian commandos set sail for their Nazi occupied homeland. Their mission is to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance. The commandos were betrayed, Germans were informed of their mission, and attacked by one of their ships as they approached the Norwegian coast. Only one of the four commandos survived.

His name is Jan Baalsrud. He managed to swim ashore, then continued swimming from one island to the next until the Germans lost sight of him. The story of the next 68-day ordeal is told by David Howarth in We Die Alone.

Battling bitter cold, frostbite, the loss of one of his boots and partially blinded by ceaseless snow, Jan swims, walks, crawls, climbs from one island to the next until he lay dying of cold and exhaustion on a beach.

After some time, he was found by two young girls who took him to their home, where he was fed, given new clothes and a few days of rest. He was then rowed to another island and began walking across steep mountain ranges in an effort to reach safety in neutral Sweden.

As if this wasn’t enough, the rest of Jan’s excursion was one misfortune after another. He spent most of his time alone, although he was helped from time to time by Norwegian villagers who at great risk to themselves and their family, tried to aid him, minimize his suffering, and move him closer to the border.

At one point he started an avalanche, fell at least 300 feet, suffered a concussion and all but his head was buried in the snow.

What kept him alive is a mystery. It was not hope, because he had none, and it was not any of the physical conditions which are usually supposed to be essential to human life. Perhaps it is nearest to the truth to put his survival down to stubborn distaste for dying in such gruesome circumstances.

Eventually he crawled out and continued on his trek until finally he stumbled into the cottage of Marius Gronvold and his family who took him in for a week to recover.

Gangrene had invaded his toes, Jan drained them and eventually cut off nine of them to save his legs. Since he could no longer walk, Gronvold and his friends built a sled to transport him up a 3,000-foot mountain where another group was supposed to meet him. But a winter storm developed that made it impossible for them to find him.

Gronvold was forced to leave Jan in a hole protected by a boulder. He spent the next 20 days in a sleeping bag immobilized in the snow, periodically supplied by Gronvold and other members of the resistance in the village.

Finally, a group of Laps and their reindeer came to his rescue and dragged his sled across the border into Sweden where he was treated in a village hospital for seven months.

We Die Alone is one of those World War II tales that defies belief. At the start, I knew Jan would survive. But I had to know how? No one could survive under those conditions. Somehow he did. However, he never couldn’t have done it without the help of a great many courageous Norwegians.

There was nobody who could share the pictures which were still so vivid in his own mind: pictures of endless snow, the cold, the glaring nights, the procession of faces of people who had offered their lives for his and whose names he had never known, the sound and smells of the northern wastelands, the solitude and hopelessness and pain.


What If?

Encounters between people, it often seems to me, are like crossings of racing trains at breakneck speed in the deepest night. We cast fleeting, rushed looks at the others sitting behind dull glass in dim light, who disappear from our field of vision as soon as we barely have time to perceive them. Pascal Mercier

A young woman, a young man, reading a book, the same book, passing each other on trains going in opposite directions. From the November 8, 2004 New Yorker cover. What might have been if they were seated next to one another on the same train? A brewing romance? A brief conversation? Will they be getting off at the same station?

I often think about counterfactuals. How might my life had been like if I had gone to law school, rather than graduate school in psychology? Or if I had gone to the school in the east, rather than the one in the west? As for that question, I never would have met my wife, if I had gone to the eastern school.

After I graduated in psychology at Berkeley, I was offered a job at a new university in the east. My wife and I went back to meet the members of the Department and so I could give a seminar. Afterwards, we looked around for a house to buy, the lawns were brown, it was bitterly cold and my wife found it impossible to imagine living there. What might our life have been like, if we had stuck it out and remained in the east and the now-rather-prestigious university?

It was Sunday, in the early afternoon on a warm sunny day in Lucca, Italy. I was casually moseying around the Piazza Napoleone when I came across a woman looking intently at me. And then when I passed by her, she did something women never do to me--she smiled.

A few days later, I saw her again. She saw me. We practically stumbled across one another. Both of us smiled at each other broadly. But we were at the train station. I was on my way back to Florence. It appeared she was returning once again to Lucca. Should I have stopped and forgotten about the train waiting on the tracks? Should I have even smiled at her when we saw each other again? She did. What was I to do? Pretend to be blind?

Twelve years ago, Philip Roth imagined a counterfactual history of this country in his novel The Plot Against America. He wrote that the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh defeated Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.

Lindbergh was an isolationist, as well as a Nazi sympathizer. In The Plot Against America he signed an agreement with Hitler that the United States would not enter the war. At the same time, the agreement had dire consequences for America’s Jewish population.

All I can think of as I recalled Roth’s novel was the current political scene in this country. Like many others, I worry about the apparent popularity of the leading candidate for the Republican nomination.

Are we approaching something similar? Can, as Roth wrote, … the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others? Who knows? The possibility is frightening.