Break to Continue

Marks in the Margin’s summer break will continue for an indefinite period. There are several other projects I’m working on now that prevent me from giving the blog the attention it deserves. Meanwhile, here are some briefly noted comments I wrote during the past three months:

The End of Reflection
In the Times (6/11/16) Teddy Wayne writes about the end of reflection. He says we no longer spend time alone with our thoughts. Instead, whenever we are walking or waiting somewhere or riding the subway or bus, we have a look at our mobile phone to see what’s up.

The days of ruminating or contemplating are over. The devices we carry around are simply too distracting. We read, text, email or listen to tunes. No more simply having a look at our surroundings or pondering a verity.

Well, I spend a good part of every day brooding about something or other. Yes, I check my emails and the sites I go to on the web. But I don’t spend a great deal of time doing that. I rarely text, don’t get many emails and the number of phone calls I receive or make each week are not many more than none.

The thing is, I don’t carry around my cell phone. If I go anywhere it remains in the dock on my desk. I suppose I should take it for emergencies and I may start doing that, but if I do, I’m not going to browse the web or use one of the few apps I have. Very simple. Leave your phone at home.

Wayne spends some time discussing the effects of using the phone on cognitive and introspective abilities. But as in most research on such questions, the results are relatively uninformative. In my judgment, they fail to adequately capture the nature of reflection. Moreover, there are not many studies on the topic and those that have been conducted usually don’t agree with one another.

Third Place
People often make fun of McDonald’s. Their food is greasy, full of calories and fats, and they are everywhere. But in fact, McDonald’s has become a place where friends can gather, spend time talking and bringing a sense of community to their life.

In this sense they have become a Third Place, namely a place as central to a person’s life as their home and workplace. To be sure, those who gather there are largely lower income Americans who feel isolated from the privileged and cannot escape the emptiness of their jobs.

Instead, they drop by McDonald’s to visit with their friends, share an inexpensive meal, and discuss the news of the day. Who can sneer at that? As Chris Arnade writes in the Guardian (6/8/16), in many places it has become “the glue that holds communities together.”

A Hero of France: A Novel
France, the spring of 1941. The war in Europe intensifies. The British are bombing the hell out of Germany. Some of their aircraft are shot down.

The pilots manage to parachute into a German occupied area of France. They hide until they somehow manage to make contact with someone in the French Resistance, who have organized escape lines to Spain, where they are able to return to England.

Alan Furst’s A Hero of France tells the story of one such Resistance group and their leader. He describes the other members of the cell—a nightclub owner, a 17 year-old high school student who is a bicycle courier, a professor of ethnology at the Sorbonne, a chic socialite, and a young Jew. They all want to find ways to find ways to sabotage the Germans and send them packing

Yes, the story has been told many times. But it is still exciting.

Members of the Resistance are always on the alert, sleep is hard to come by, so is warmth and food, the pressure of clandestine work ages them. Somehow they avoid the Germans, transport the British flyers to safe houses on the routes to Spain.

Once again I ask myself what would I have done in occupied France? Would have I silently tried to get by? Would I have saved Jews seeking a hiding place? Would have I lent a hand to the Resistance at great risk to myself and family?

I hope I would take the risk like the members of cell Furst describes. I hope I wouldn’t keep my head down when a German soldier passed me by. I hope I might have done everything I could to harass the Germans.

Courage. That is what attracts me to these stories.

“When we lost the war, the heart went out of the people here. It was as though the city had died. This reached me, and soon enough I began to do things, small things, but they made me feel better. And the more I watched these arrogant bastards strutting around the city, my city, the more I did.”

Alice and Oliver
“I have to remember that we all have our own times and journeys.”

Charles Bock’s Alice and Oliver describes a two-and-a-half year battle with leukemia, not his, but his wife’s, Alice. She undergoes grueling chemotherapy, spends most of her time in hospital beds and can’t decide whether to accept her fate or fighting it.

“You have acute myeloid leukemia, or AML,” began Eisenstatt. “What this means: inside your bones there is marrow, a spongy red tissue responsible for producing your blood cells. AML is a mutation, or disruption, inside that marrow. Instead of producing a normal blood cell, your marrow produces purplish cells called myeloblasts.”

It was almost as grueling to read the long tale of her suffering and Oliver’s endless negotiations with insurance companies, the difficulties in starting his software company, and caring for their baby.

The story is based on the journals Alice kept throughout her ordeal. In an interview he said, “They became a baseline, I would write over them or take moments, and I would change them, but I felt, I get to keep her spirit in the word.”

After a while, reading about Alice’s suffering and Oliver’s grief and pain became too much for me. I skimmed the final third, rather than abandoning the book.

“The First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering: “You are born. You live. You suffer and get sick. You die.” But of course nothing is so simple.”

I’d like to go to Italy, she would prefer to explore Oregon. I’d like to see the latest French film, she wants to see the latest comedy. I like philosophical novels, she craves the mysteries. And so it goes. In these and other areas, we have different tastes.

In "What It Is Like to Like", Louis Menand reviews (New Yorker, 6/20/16) Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like, a book about taste and whatever it is that shapes our preferences. According to Menand, we can’t account for our tastes. We don’t know why we prefer one thing over another.

“But where tastes do come from is extremely difficult to pin down. Taste is not congenital: we don’t inherit it. And it’s not consistent. We come to like things we thought we hated (or actually did hate), and we are very poor predictors of what we are likely to like in the future.”

From time to time I try to account for the taste differences between my wife and my tastes. Yes, we come from different backgrounds, have had widely different life experiences, social needs and economic concerns. But I am a loss when I try to nail down the factors that account for the variability between us.

Italy is very special to me, so are philosophical novels and foreign films. But she doesn’t share these tastes. And that’s about all I can say.

It’s also impossible for me to try to alter her tastes. Even when I point out inconsistencies in them. Can a marriage be built on such differences? Can it last? All I can say is that we’ve been married for almost 58 years and going strong. That’s pretty well answers my question.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano
So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born..

Dora Bruder is the story of a quest, a quest into the past. The narrator happens to read a note in a 1941 Paris paper: “Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15…Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”

He had long been familiar with that area, waiting in cafes in the morning when it was still dark and early in the evening as night fell. This sets him off on a search for Dora Bruder, what he can find out about her and her fate during Nazi occupied Paris.

The search takes him into administrative offices, libraries, research centers as he tries to hunt down photos, information about Jewish individuals in Paris and anything he can learn about Dora Bruder.

He traces down her parents, where they lived and the work they did. In time, he learns that Dora ran away from home once, was sent to a Catholic school from which she ran away again. He wonders how she got by, where she hid, as she was Jewish.

Finally, he discovers: “Father and daughter departed Drancy on 18 September, in company with thousands of other men and women, on a convoy of trains bound for Auschwitz.”

Everything falls into place, the quest is over, a deep sadness overcomes the narrator, as well as the reader. Memories of those times begin to haunt the narrator, one year merging into another, that of 1965 when he writes the book and those of wartime Paris.

“I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorizes, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History time—everything that defiles and destroys you—have been able to take away from her.”

35 Years
“Who are you? Who have I been married to all this time?” David Mason News from the Village: Aegean Friends

Do I know everything about my wife? How much has she concealed from me and, indeed, how much have I concealed from her? And what happens when the truth of either one of us is revealed?

Much depends, of course, on how long we have been married. Perhaps in the early days, we didn’t know everything about each other. And as the years went by, there are more and more experiences that we might have concealed or revealed to one another.

In the film 35 Years Cate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are about to celebrate their 35th Wedding Anniversary. They seem a very happy couple, both retired, living in a rural area in English countryside. They read, walk their dog, visit friends, have tea in the afternoon.

Then one day a letter for Geoff arrives from Switzerland. The body of Katya, a former girlfriend who had died in a mountain climbing accident has been discovered. Geoff has been named as the next of kin.

Cate knew nothing about Katya, about her death in Switzerland, or Geoff’s desire then to marry her. What has been concealed all these years is suddenly revealed.

The film depicts Cate and Geoff’s reaction to this long-ago, now-revealed romance. Their anniversary party is on the verge of disarray. Their marriage doesn’t seem quite so contented after all.

Secrets. Sometimes we keep them, sometimes they unexpectedly make their appearance. We don’t always know everything about one another, even after 35 years of marriage.

Shadow Doctors

Ben Taub’s article, “The Shadow Doctors” in The New Yorker (6/27/16) was utterly depressing and, at the same time, remarkable. Depressing as it depicted the death of so many Syrians and the total destruction of so many towns. But remarkable in Taub’s descriptions of the techniques doctors are using to transmit medical techniques and advice to the remaining doctors there.

Taub meets David Nott in London at a dinner with other doctors in a upscale Chelsea restaurant. As Taub sat down for dinner he noticed Nott reading a series of text messages from a young medical worker in Aleppo. He told Nott how he had removed several bullets from a patient, “slowly dying on the operating table.” But he didn’t know what to do next.

Nott asked a couple of questions, immediately received the answers, and then told the medical worker how to proceed. Taub then describes other such distant communications between physicians and doctors in Syria.

There were once thousands of physicians there, as well as several hospitals and treatment centers. But they have all but destroyed by the Syrian government. And now the very few medical personnel who remain there must work underground or move their facilities from one place to another.

Taub says Assad’s government has killed almost seven hundred medial personnel. How can this be, how can this continue in the 21st Century? What has come over those individuals who commit such atrocities, destroying hospitals, doctors, indeed, their entire country?

Its Life Went On: Weddings, Births, Deaths
Greece itself was not the cure. No country is a Cure

Who has not dreamed of chucking it all and heading to a place in the sun? The poet David Mason and his wife Joanna did just that when they headed to a friend’s house in Greece. Mason describes their times in Greece in News from the Village: Aegean Friends.

…this was merely an opportunity to get away from our families, to see our homeland from a distance, to slough off accumulated anxieties and inhabit dreams remembered from the long, long nights.

The settled in a small village by the sea in the Peloponnese. They “regressed” to a simpler, lazy life of swimming, eating the best food, bread and oil, much less meat, more fish and plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Mason says he now had the time and freedom to read widely and with “total immersion.” When the weather was warm, which it was most of the year, they slept under the stars, “the cicadas having finally silenced when the breeze soughed down from the mountains.”

They made long lasting friendship among the villagers, as well as the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and his wife, Joan, who had a home there. Mason says meeting Fermor was one of the great gifts of his life. Together they talked literature, took long walks together, swam in the warm Mediterranean.

“Over the years, Paddy and Joan have meant more to me than I could ever convey to them—as models of graciousness, always curious about the world.”

It was a life you dream about, not a life you can live for very long. And when it was time to return to America, nothing was ever the same.

“For Joanna and me, it would take great suffering, divorce and marriage to others to begin to place ourselves in the real world, and when I returned to Greece sixteen years later it would be almost as another man, hopefully better equipped to love the place for what it is, to accept its many changes not to desire it only for my own gratification.”

News from Greece was a delight to read, Mason writes well and clearly reproduced what it was like to live in Mani, as well as what it meant to return to a place where he was happy in the past, to see it after many years and in different circumstances. I read the book as quickly as I ever do, always eager to soak up that sun, bread and olive oil.

“Here was a country of worldly people who were far less puritanical than many Americans, who worked hard and took their relaxation when they could, who valued friends and family above all else, who respected education and eloquence, who were skeptical of government but aware of their precious freedoms, who knew about corruption but weren’t entirely soured by it, who were polite about my Greek and didn’t expect me to stand in for all American policies.”

Nuclear Warning
Jerry Brown, the governor of California has written a brilliant review (New York Review of Books, (7/14/16) of William Perry’s My Journal at the Nuclear Brink. Normally I wouldn’t read about this topic, but Jerry Brown, yes THE Jerry Brown drew me to the article and once I got into it, I was impressed by how well it was done.

Brown describes Perry’s six-decades of nuclear studies and research. Perry makes it clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is great at the present time. He says it was by sheer luck that we avoided a nuclear holocaust in the Cuban crisis and the several accidents that have also avoided a nuclear explosion.

There is a central point to Brown’s review, namely that the “the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater that it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

Perry argues that rather that provide security, nuclear weapons, “they now endanger it.”

Brown concludes his review by noting that many complain about the various problems and dysfunctions in our country, “few see the incomparably greater danger of nuclear doom.”

A brilliant review of a very unsettling book.

The Kindergarten Teacher

The premise of The Kindergarten Teacher, a provocative film from Israel, there’s little room for poetry in the modern world.

Of course, this ignores the fact that poets are still writing poems and readers are still enjoying them.

No matter, the film is about the relationship between a kindergarten teacher, Nira, and one of her 4 year-old pupils, Yoav. I have a poem, he says, proceeds to walk back and forth, reciting the poem. A modern day Mozart of the word.

Nira deeply appreciates poetry and writes poems of her own. As Yoav continues to recite his poems, she worries that his gift will be smothered as he grows older. “Being a poet in our world is going against the nature of the world,” she says.

Then things become a little weird. Presumably in an effort to keep Yoav’s poetry talent alive, she kidnaps him and together they drive to a remote hotel in the Sinai. They settle in to their room, Yoav locks the teacher in the shower room, calls 911, and the police arrive to bring the film to an end.

The film is a parable of the decline of culture. I have trouble with this view. Yes, the world seems to have no place for poetry, for writing and the culture of reading. But hasn’t that always been the case?

There have always been a few who have valued the arts, who have fought to preserve the intellect by their actions. Just look at the web today, the current periodicals, and the research in countless disciplines to confirm this view.

Is the Dream Over?

What is it like for a foreigner to come to America now with hopes of starting a new life? Consider the experience of Sayed Kashua (New Yorker 7/9/16) who came to this country from Israel with her family to become a writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign-Urbana.

They arrive eager to begin living in this country. At once, they are confronted with reality. They were not prepared for the heat and humidity of the summer. The mosquitos were “brutal.” The cicadas were maddening.

They had difficulty getting electricity, water and cable TV without a Social Security number, couldn’t buy a car without credit, couldn’t get a credit card at their bank without a credit history.

They ruined the garbage disposal because they didn’t know to turn on the water. A letter arrived from the neighborhood association that they would be fined if they didn’t mow the lawn. Their children didn’t speak English and they had no friends or relatives here.

And so on and on. Until one day things begin to look up.

They went out to dinner one night. When their son finished his Fanta, he asked for another one. Ms. Kashua went to the counter to order another. She was told refills are free, as many as you want. “Refill was the first word my toddler son spoke in English, and when I heard him say it, I felt some small new hope about our prospects in America.”

Pianos Everywhere
I was walking along the street in downtown Portland, when I was startled to see a piano placed in a park. There it was, a piano in a park. How strange, I thought.

Then a couple of days later my wife and I drove out to a park at the junction of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. And once again, there was a piano sitting all by itself in the park.

On further investigation I discovered a program, “Piano! Push. Play”. that rescues old pianos and puts them on the street or park for everyone to enjoy. They’ve been doing this for the past four summers.

Megan McGeorge the founder of “Piano. Push. Play” said, “I want people to have access to pianos all the time, especially for pianists who can’t afford one in their homes.”

Currently the program has eleven pianos in parks around Portland. It has also developed an app that displays where the pianos are located and “pings” users when they are close to one.

This year the program is placing the pianos in 30 different parks, with some pianos spending two weeks at each location. The pianos are donated by Portland Piano Co and sponsored by various organizations throughout the city. After the summer months, the refurbished pianos are given to schools and community centers.

Apparently, Portland is not the only place where you might hear someone playing a piano in a public setting. In an article in the Times (8/20/16) Aurelien Breeden reports that the French national railroad company has installed pianos in nearly 100 stations. The company rents the instruments from Yamaha which maintains and tunes them.

“The pianos have proved to be very popular, and the music, blending with the sounds of shouting passengers, screeching trains and rolling suitcase, can give French stations a peculiar soundscape.” I’d say a pretty terrific soundscape.”

The Next Big Thing
We are now very old and only one thing can happen to people our age.

Anita Brookner’s, The Next Big Thing, is like all her other novels—slow going, a bit repetitious and, yet, I read them until the predictable ending. It is clear why I continue to read her novels; they capture much of my life.

Julius Herz is 73 years old, he lives alone, no longer married, stuck in a London flat. He is without visitors, friends, anyone who can talk to other than a cashier or salesperson. His only companions are the anonymous people he observes on the streets, mostly young people drinking and laughing outside pubs.

He lived like a recluse, for that was how he thought he must, as if his destiny had reclaimed him. As time wore on the future seemed less accommodating, continuity not to be taken for granted. He revised his expectations, resigned himself to living in an uneasy present.

Julius great battle is with solitude, how to get through the days without succumbing to loneliness, isolation unsupported by family, friends or the pleasures of art and science. Like so many other individuals today, he is also without work or substitute other than the routines that fill upon his long days and sleepless nights.

Julius is also haunted by an unfulfilled love for his willful cousin. Her life has worked out much like his and they exchange long and tedious letters that try to arrange a reunion. But Julius recognizes he can manage much better on his own rather than in the company of others.

The fundamental subject in The Next Big Thing is old age and how to face its consequences. “As he eased himself out of bed, he reflected that survival was a mixed blessing. It involved surrendering that once young self to time and time taught harsh lessons.”

Julius’ solitary life had bred an endurance of life’s vicissitudes. Brookner writes, “better a stoical pessimism, a hard look at life’s realities, and most of all a determination to enjoy that life, certainly to value it.” And so he clung to his routine, although it bored him and was without pleasure but at least preserved his dignity.