Note: With the start of the summer, Marks in the Margin will take a break. Postings should resume sometime in the autumn.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to read reading Shirley Hazzard’s “We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays.” Toward the end I notice an essay titled “The Tuscan in Each of Us.” I turn to it at once. She writes,

“The anthem of praise raised by foreign writers…to Italy, to Tuscany, to Florence, has consistently sounded a note of relief. Its theme is that of a heaven-sent rescue, the rescue of the self from incompleteness. …We celebrate an environment that is both a revelation and a repose to us, a consolation and a home.”

Her essay reminds me of my days in Tuscany last summer, where I spent a few weeks in a small hill town—Radda in Chianti—mid-way between Florence and Siena in the heart of the rolling Chianti hills.

I stayed at a villa-like hotel surrounded by gardens, with roomy lounges, a pool, and a comfortable room with a view out to the gardens and fields below.

I looked out at the villas scattered about the hills of Chianti and it all seemed so desirable. But I was there in the summer when it is warm and know nothing of the long winters that are cold and damp. And I wondered how comfortable it is inside those charming villas after all. I don’t see all the labor that goes into maintaining the olive and grape groves, or the many days of keeping them neat and trim. What I see is very superficial, nothing of the reality.

I was at peace in Tuscany, the countryside seemed so familiar, there’s something about it that keeps me returning to Italy. After roughly nine months of winter, rain, clouds, cold, utterly dreary days in Portland, I head to Italy for summer, sun, blue skies, warmth and parks.

The countryside reminds me of my childhood, the land around the town where I lived until I went to college. All that is gone now. But it remains in Tuscany. I think the landscape of my youth keeps me coming back.

It was always difficult, she said, to come home. She adored Italy. Apart from everything else, it was one of the few places where one’s hopes for the future could be restored. Beautiful, unspoiled fields and hills. Great houses that families had lived in for five hundred years. It was deeply consoling. Also the general sweetness of the people.
James Salter All That Is


Taking Your Life

I want to open up a space for thinking about suicide as a free act that should not be morally reproached or quietly condemned. Simon Critchley

The Ethicist is column published in the Times Magazine every Sunday. Each week the author responds to a question that revolves around a moral quandary.

This year, on January 20th, a 50-year-old woman asked the Ethicist if she should help her sister end her life. She says her sister has a range of serious medical problems including “uncontrolled epilepsy, a stroke that left her physically and mentally impaired, paranoid schizophrenia, to name a few.”

The Ethicist responded that no one has the right to help end another person’s life, sister or not, even if it’s clear it’s not a life worth living. Only her sister has the right to commit suicide, on her own, without the aid of anyone else.

If she was in the Netherlands or Belgium, her plight would be much different. In discussing the life-long struggles of a woman in Belgium, Rachel Aviv (New Yorker, 6/22/15) describes the work of Wim Distelmans, an oncologist and professor at the Free University of Brussels. Distelmans is one of the leading proponents of a “law in Belgium that permits euthanasia for patients who have an incurable illness that causes them unbearable physical or mental suffering.”

It was the phrase “mental suffering” that caught my attention. I had never heard of a nation or state that permits euthanasia for that reason. It isn’t a reason I haven’t thought of before or found as compelling as incurable disease. But I had never imagined a law permitting it.

According to Aviv, Distelmans has euthanized more than a hundred patients who claimed they were simply tired of living or unable to find a reason to continue.

Her article dwells on the controversy over the law, the case of one woman and her son, in particular, and the situation in other countries, as well as the United States.

The Belgian Council of Ministers appointed Distelmans to serve as the chairman of the Federal Control and Evaluation Commission which reviews euthanasia deaths to insure that doctors have complied with the law.

In terminal cases, two doctors need to confirm that the patient’s suffering stems from an incurable illness. For non-terminal cases, three doctors must agree. But doctors have adopted increasingly loose interpretations of disease.

Last year, thirteen per cent of the Belgians who were euthanized did not have a terminal condition, and roughly three per cent suffered from psychiatric disorders.

Belgium was the second country in the world, after the Netherlands, to decriminalize euthanasia; it was followed by Luxembourg, Switzerland and Columbia this year.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that citizens have legitimate concerns about prolonged deaths in institutional settings, but in 1997 it ruled that death is not a constitutionally protected right, leaving questions about assisted suicide to be resolved by each state.

Within months of the ruling, Oregon passed a law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for patients who have less than six months to live. In 2008, Washington adopted a similar law; Montana decriminalized assisted suicide the year after; and Vermont legalized it in 2013.

In Oregon and Switzerland, studies have shown that people who request death are less motivated by physical pain than by the desire to remain autonomous. This pattern of reasoning was exemplified by Brittany Maynard, a twenty-nine-year-old newlywed who moved to Oregon last year so that she could die on her own terms rather than allowing her brain cancer to take its course.

While several states in this country currently permit doctor-assisted suicide for terminal illnesses, none do so for mental suffering. To my knowledge, no one has ever proposed such a law and I cannot imagine one will ever be enacted in the near future. That does not mean the issue is not worth considering. Perhaps it is time to begin a public dialogue on the matter in this country.


On Scientific Replication

Within the course of a few days, a series of articles appeared on the Web that addressed the issue of replicating scientific findings. Most of the articles dealt with psychological investigations, but not exclusively. For example, the journal Science withdrew a political science study because of concerns about faked data.

And in a short note in The Lancet (4/23/15) Richard Horton claims that much of science is untrue. He puts it this way:

“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted with studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analysis, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn toward darkness.

Later Horton levels a broadside against tests of statistical significance. “Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairly tale.”

Questionable research findings that are eventually retracted are more prevalent than you might imagine. Bourree Lam reports (Atlantic September 2015) a study by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus of 2,047 retractions in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They found that only 21.3 percent stemmed from error, while 67.4 percent resulted from “misconduct” that included fabrication, faked data and interpretive bias.

Benedict Carey reports in the Times (8/27/15) a major study by Brian Nosek and his team of researchers at the Center for Open Science. Carey writes:

… a painstaking years-long effort to reproduce 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals has found that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested.

The importance of replicating scientific research cannot be over emphasized. To confirm a finding strengthens our confidence in it. Yet journals are reluctant to publish replication studies, thus investigators have little if any desire to conduct them. As a result, the problem is simply ignored, until someone like Nosek realizes its importance.

He commented about his findings, “We see this is a call to action, both to the research community to do more replication, and to funders and journals to address the dysfunctional incentives.”

The same seems to be true for medical and biological research. In Don’t Swallow Your Gum, a book about medical myths, Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman note that much of what a doctor diagnoses and prescribes for a particular ailment has not been proven. And by that they mean on the basis of a randomized, controlled experiment, ideally one that has been replicated. But these studies require a great of time and money and so are rarely conducted.

Several other factors are at work. Proper control conditions may have been omitted from the original experiments, the samples may not have been randomly selected or consist of a highly uniform, unrepresentative group of individuals, usually college sophomores.

Or the results may have occurred because of experimenter biases that led to evidence supporting their hypothesis. Few experimenters really design studies to disprove, rather than confirm their hypothesis. This is a point Karl Popper emphasized many years ago.

Then there is the publication biases characteristic of most scientific journals. Researchers who do not report positive outcomes cannot get their findings published. According to one study, ninety-seven percent of psychology studies proved their hypothesis. We know this can’t be the case.

As one investigator (Richard Palmer, a biologist) noted, “Once I realized that selective reporting is everywhere in science, I got quite depressed.”

These were some of the reasons I stopped doing research in psychology and instead, turned to literature where the emphasis is on the particularities of human experience, rather than its generalities.


This is Water

Last weekend my grandson graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. While I didn’t attend any of the events, and there were a great many, I watched most of them on the commencement webcasts.

Here I was in Portland, Oregon, sitting comfortably in my warm apartment watching the goings-on, while everyone in Philadelphia was sitting outside, in a vast stadium, on a cold and windy day. Once again, the miracle of the Internet was at its best.

Lin Manuel Miranda was the invited commencement speaker. He spoke briefly, to my relief, emphasizing the importance of stories in one’s life. But his talk was by no means especially memorable.

The most indelible talk I’ve ever known about was delivered by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. I wrote about it soon thereafter. Here is what I said.

David Foster Wallace began his widely discussed and recently published (This is Water) commencement address at Kenyon College in May 2005 with a parable. In the 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 really significant education they have received isn’t “about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” Later he added 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 proceeded 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.”

“This I submit is the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

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”) isn’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. The audio version of his talk can be heard here


Greene on Capri

For anyone who values humanistic traditions, reading the works of Shirley Hazzard is intellectually refreshing. As Geordie Williamson wrote (The Australian, 3/25/16) in a review of her essays, (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think), an “antiquated world view comes roaring back into view.”

I have found this to be true in all of Hazzard’s books that I’ve read including most recently Greene on Capri. In this short memoir, she recalls the friendship she and her husband, the Flaubert scholar, Francis Steegmuller had with Greene when they were visiting the island of Capri. Greene owned a house there and together they met frequently for lunch and dinner at a restaurant Greene liked.

For the most part, they talked about literature, the books and authors they liked. These conversational rambles during their long meals and walks constitute the heart of the book and bring alive their mutual joy in reading and writing.

Hazzard writes, “Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a life time to the rational as well as the fantastic.”

Greene on Capri is not meant to be a complete portrait of Greene but from time to time Hazzard does reflect on his personality. In The Man Within, Greene wrote: “Always while one part of him spoke, another part stood on one side and wondered, Is this I who am speaking? Can I really exist like this?” Hazzard comments:

“I think that Graham 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.”

Elsewhere she notes how little Greene valued contentment “…pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.”

Is suffering where writers really belong, what they need to experience in order to write fiction? If we can believe Hazzard, it was for Greene. However, I doubt it is necessary for most writers but perhaps it is why many of them become alcoholics.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Lang explores the reasons why some authors were destroyed by excessive drinking. She writes: [Eugene] O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do. American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.


All The News That's Fit To Print

The New York Times is a marvel. I’ve been reading it every day for years. It was early in August of 1955 when I first discovered the paper. I was in New York on the way back to my home in Los Angeles, after attending summer school in the East.

The paper was lying around a coffee shop, I picked it up and began reading an article about Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that had been decided the previous year. I knew nothing about the Times having been raised on the Los Angeles Times, and latter, when I was at college, the San Francisco Chronicle.

In those days, the Times did not have a West Coast edition and was only available in a few magazine shops the day after it was published in New York. In the summer of 1980 the paper began publishing a national edition that was available the same day it was published, but again, only in a few magazine shops.

I stopped on my way to work to grab a copy that I read in the evening after classes and those never-ending faculty committee meetings. Home delivery in Portland began many years later.

I continued to read the Times in the morning for years, even in Hawaii when it was delivered a day after its publication. In all this discussion I am talking about the print edition. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Times began it’s online, digital edition.

That is how I read the Times now. It is my “home page” that I return to throughout the day and thanks to the miracle of Wi-Fi, wherever I am in this country or abroad. I read the literary news, sports, health, tech, science, business, a couple of blogs, everything in this remarkable newspaper.

Earlier this fall (9/21/15) the Times reported, “We recently passed one million digital-only subscribers, reflecting the remarkable bond that The Times has built with readers on our digital platforms. They join our 1.1 million print-and-digital subscribers.”

I also subscribe to the the Times numerous email alerts—books, writers, morning briefing, business news, the Upshot, the Times Magazine and Sunday Book Review, on and on, a plethora of skillful reporting.

Regardless of one’s view of the Times political stance, the paper is a daily encyclopedia of subjects. The Gray Lady as it is often referred to is regarded as the national “newspaper” of record, even though its print edition is outsold by The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

To a certain extent, the Times has replaced the New Yorker as the place I go to for information, especially cultural commentary and analysis--films, books, theater. If someone asked me what wanted most, while I was stranded in a far off island, I would reply at once: the latest edition of the New York Times.


On Old Age

Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide is the latest addition to the increasing number of books on old age. In reading it, I was expecting a serious discussion of the experience of growing old. But Kinsley’s treatment was nothing like that.

Instead, it was a hodgepodge of previously written essays and articles he has written that were not well integrated. Further, it was far too jokey for my taste. There’s nothing funny about growing old, at least my experience of growing old and I suspect that is generally the case.

At the age of 43 Kinsley learned he had Parkinson’s disease. He tried to keep his illness secret until it became obvious whereupon he made it known. He also underwent deep brain stimulation that appears to have slowed the progress of his symptoms. In fact, it is clear that 23 years after his disease was diagnosed, he hasn’t lost his “marbles,” as he frequently reminds the reader.

At the outset Kinsley says his book is supposed to be “about the baby boom generation—those born between 1946 and 1964—as they enter life’s last chapter.” But in spite of its title, the book has very little to say about old age, other than the Parkinson’s Disease. And even then, we learn very little about his particular symptoms and problems in coping with it.

The book also ends with a message to the baby boomers. He argues that the enormous personal and national debt his generation leaves behind has to be redeemed, in the same way the “Greatest Generation” did during World War II.

“What we can do is…pass on to the next generation an American that’s free from debt. Instead of ignoring it, or arguing endlessly about whose fault it is and who should pay for it, boomers as a group should just reach out and grab the check.”

I thought what a strange way to end a book on old age. But then I realized Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide wasn’t really about old age at all. Rather it was about how clever Michael Kinsley is in his early 60s.

I don’t usually comment on a book I don’t like. But in my reading Kinsley’s book seems both pretentious and misleading, both features missing from Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty.

The fourteen essays in former US Poet Laureate Hall’s book are largely about the infirmities and limitations of growing old. Hall is now 86, no longer drives, has difficulty standing, getting up, and remaining balanced.

Yet he is alert and tries to read and write, but not with the same facility he once had. He remains oddly cheerful, in spite of being largely disabled and alone. He gets around in a wheelchair and with little appetite eats frozen dinners, is clumsy and slow with buttons, etc.

The book is more of an old-age lament, rather than a group of essays on the art of poetry, as I was expecting given his life as a much-praised and award-winning poet. Instead, Hall writes about how the mail is delivered, his wives, their travels, his cancers and the one that killed his beloved wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon.

He recounts how each day is much the same now as any other. He no longer travels and friends rarely visit. Most are long gone. So he reminisces about almost-forgotten times He’s also periodically visited by a bookkeeper, trainer, housekeeper and companion, all women in their 50s.

He comments, “When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers.”

Still he says that, while old age is a “ceremony of losses,” it is still preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. He’s fortunate to feel that way. I’m not so sure.


Open Access

In 1964 I visited Portland Oregon when I was working on a summer research job for an advertising firm. After being there for a couple of days, I vowed never to return. Yet, a few years later, in 1967, I moved to Portland as a new faculty member at Reed College. I’ve lived here ever since; at the time of this writing 52 years. Such are the vows of a young man.

The climate here has changed dramatically in that relatively short period. Most notably, the long winters were much colder in those early days than they are now. It snowed often then; today it hardly ever snows and if it does, it doesn’t last as long as it used to.

There were frequent ice storms then; they are a rarity now. In a word, the winters, though still as lengthy, are much more tolerable, still quite rainy, but a great deal warmer on the whole. This appears to be the case elsewhere too.

Patrick Egan and Megan Mullin write in the Times (4/21/16) that Christmas in New York last year was “lovely.” “It was the city’s warmest ever, with temperatures peaking at 66 degrees.”

They describe a paper published in the journal Nature that claims the weather is becoming more pleasant for the majority of Americans. “Over the past four decades, winter temperatures have risen substantially throughout the United States, but summers have not become markedly more uncomfortable.”

Since I am somewhat of a “weather nut,” as well as a skeptic about secondary accounts of research reports, I wanted to look closely at the article in Nature myself. I went online to the journal and quickly learned that it would cost me $199 if I subscribed for a year or $32 to purchase the full text version of the article.

This is a common dilemma for anyone seeking to read research reports in most peer-reviewed academic journals. And by “anyone” I mean an individual who doesn’t have an academic affiliation that would enable them to read such reports via their online library subscription services.

Our beliefs are heavily influenced by what we read or hear, regardless of source—book, newspaper, television, radio, online, etc. For those who want to go beyond these accounts, that is, “fact-check” and analyze secondary accounts of evidence, it’s important to be able to readily access primary materials. But if it’s going to cost a bundle, scarcely anyone is going to do that.

In the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto Aaron Swartz wrote, “The worlds entire scientific and cultural heritage…is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies of share them with the world.”

To circumvent the corporate paywalls to journal articles, Swartz downloaded 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, an academic database. Following in his footsteps, Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazakhstani researcher, has established Sci-Hub, an online repository of more than 47 million scientific papers.

In the same tradition, but operating on a pay-to-publish model, the Public Library of Science established PLOS ONE in 2006 as a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal database. The site claims to cover primary research from any discipline within science and medicine.

Taken together these efforts to remove the barriers to accessing scientific research suggest the academic world is ever so gradually moving toward reform. In this country much depends on the researcher’s stance toward copyright law. Many journals require authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement that prohibits them from freely sharing their work.

But this is easy to get around. It is a simple matter to email the researcher(s) requesting a copy of the publication and most authors will be happy to comply. When I was an active researcher, I never felt protective of my work. As far as I was concerned, it was public information, freely available, gladly shared and also the most effective way to replicate and advance the area I was studying.

However, in spite of the virtues of the open access movement, I still can’t find the paper in Nature that I am seeking. Neither Sci-Hub, PLOS One or Google Scholar has a free copy of the paper.

As far as Portland, Oregon is concerned, I really don’t need confirmation that the weather is “simply becoming more pleasant.” I know it’s been warmer in the past 50 winters and it’s inconceivable that the summers will ever be uncomfortable in this city not all that far from the Arctic Circle.


A Good Life

What does a good life mean to you? Have you been able to live such a life?

Before I went to college, these questions meant nothing. After entering, they meant everything. As a freshman, I was fortunate to take a full year course in the history of western civilization. Early on we were introduced to culture of ancient Greece.

It was there, largely through the ideas of Socrates as described in the Dialogues of Plato, that I began to understand what the good life meant. Socrates claimed an unexamined life is not worth living, that a good life is one of relentless questioning and searching for the truth.

That is what a good life has always meant to me—teaching, doing research, writing. Of course, not everyone thinks that’s what a good life means.

When I asked a good friend what a good life meant to her, she replied working in an important job. Another said, it was being happy. A recent survey of millennials found that 80 percent said that their major life goal was to get rich. Another 50 percent of the same young adults said another major life goal was to become famous.

Robert Waldinger, who is now the fourth director of the 75-year-old Harvard study on adult development, reports (Tedx Lecture November, 2015) that a good life is built on good relationships.

This remarkable study began in 1938 with a group of Harvard sophomores. A comparison group consisted of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s.

Throughout the course of the study, the men were interviewed at various intervals in their homes. Their medical conditions were tracked, their blood was drawn, more recently their brains were scanned, and the investigators talked with their children.

Waldinger says there were three three lessons learned from the study. First, social connections are “really good for us” and loneliness is toxic. Second, it’s not just the number of friends we have, but the quality of our close relationships that matters. Third, good relationships not only benefit our health, they also “protect our brains.”

In a way, these lessons have been known for ages. What I find striking in the study, however, is that nowhere is the importance of a “life of the mind” mentioned. Whatever every happened to the role of the examined life?

Can a life of reflections be built in the absence of good relationships? In so far as I know, this question is never discussed. I wouldn’t expect such a life to play much of a role for the comparison group of boys from poor Boston neighborhoods. But I surely would have expected it to be mentioned by some of the Harvard graduates, even though most are in their 90s now.

Maybe I overemphasize the importance of “a life of the mind.” Maybe I’m simply out of touch with contemporary culture. (That is definitely the case.) Maybe I am fortunate to have a close relationship to support the life I lead.

So I know that one can live an examined life, while at the same time having at least one good relationship. And I imagine that those who don’t have a close relationship can still carve out the same kind of life. In a word, perhaps close relationships are neither necessary or sufficient for a good life.