Friday, December 30, 2011

On the Road

I'm blogging from afar this week, but I wanted to write something--anything--before the end of the year, and something tells me my New Year's Eve isn't going to be the time to do it.

I'm visiting my best friend and her family this week and having a wonderful time, as always. But missing Ezra, of course--as I know we all are. It's impossible not to wonder what he would have said and thought about all of the things we're saying and thinking and doing and to feel like, at any given moment, something very important is missing from our lives.

It still makes no sense to me. I know there's no reason why all of that had to happen to him--or to anyone, for that matter--but not a day goes by that I don't think about it and wonder, "Why?"

I know there will never be an answer, but to me, it seems better to wonder than to simply accept it. Something so wrong and so sad should never be acceptable.

But we're having fun, in spite of ourselves. We went bowling the other day, and ice skating today.

As we were about to step onto the ice, my best friend's mom announced, "I haven't been on skates since 1974."

I told her, "That makes two of us."

But it was wonderful and fun, and one of my New Year's resolutions is to go ice skating more often. And perhaps even bowling, although there's no question I kind of suck at it. But still, it was fun.

The highlight of my trip, though, was the look on Sam's face when I fixed the nose on his favorite stuffed animal. He had taken it on a sleep-over, and the family dog at his host's house had gotten ahold of it... I'm sure you can imagine the rest.

I'm surprised he was able to rescue it before more severe damage was done.

So we made a trek to the craft and fabric store, and I did my best, with frequent consultations with his mom to make sure that the facial reconstruction was accurate.

The operation was a success. Sam gave a huge smile and said, "YOU FIXED IT!!!"

That was my Christmas and New Year's present, all rolled into one.

Happy New Year, everyone. May 2012 bring us all peace and happiness.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Rose By Another Name

I've been thinking a lot over the past few weeks and months about forgiveness and its role in friendship. My thoughts are still a bit muddied and in-process, but I decided I'd like to try to articulate them as they are forming, instead of waiting until they settle into shape.

Sometimes the process is more important than the product.

My thinking started the other day when I heard "Sympathy" by The Goo Goo Dolls. I had always felt a strange sympathy for someone who was only in my life for a very short time and who hadn't really ever earned either my sympathy or my friendship. (Quite the contrary, actually.)

This song always makes me think of him.

In the end, it was my own strange sympathy for him that became the source of my sense of forgiveness and the clarity that accompanied it.
"And I wasn't all the things
I tried to make believe I was...
And all the talk and all the lies
Were all the empty things disguised as me.
Stranger than your sympathy..."
Mahatma Ghandi once said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong."

The other day, I realized that the benefit of forgiveness is the clarity that accompanies the action.

The strength inherent in the act of forgiveness stems, I think, from a willingness to see things as they are and as they have been, and yet to agree to let go of the feelings of anger and resentment, no matter how well-deserved they might be.

I agree with Ghandi: the weak cling. They have to, perhaps, because they need a full sense of the ways in which they were wronged if they want to assert that they are--and presumably always were, in fact--right.

Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has said, "Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence." There's more to life than being right all the time, and in some ways, it takes a certain courage to realize that and to be willing to speak and act accordingly.

So I think that my current attitude is that forgiveness is a gesture--and an important one, obviously.

But I also think that linking forgiveness and friendship, as if one automatically entails the other, is like saying that a wave of one's hand is the same as the hand itself.

It's a disservice to friendship.

Szasz (rather cynically) claims, "The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget."

Despite the cynicism of Szasz's claim, I think he has a point. We can wipe the slate clean and forget what was once written on it, but should we simply forget that it was ever written upon at all?

I don't think so. I think there's a difference between the friends you've forgiven and the friends you've never had to forgive at all. To treat the former as if they are simply and seamlessly included among the latter is to devalue the latter.

They don't deserve that. And recognizing that distinction is essential to proving oneself to be a good friend in turn.

Almost every language in the world has some variation on the following proverb: "A friend to all is a friend to none."

Friendship is a choice and a fabric. We choose what it will consist of, we establish the warp and the weft, and then we mutually weave the result. It is textured and dyed by the nature and color of our experiences.

A friend of mine once told me about how it took her years to forgive her ex-husband. She said she remembered the relief she felt at finally being able to see him and listen to him and not feel anger--to be able to genuinely wish him well in the world.

She then immediately commented, "That doesn't mean I'd give him the chance to do it all again."

I was thinking of this the other day, as I was noticing that, for some people, friendship is all about tone and attitude and style, and not at all about content.

Friends talk with a sense of the content of the exchange. If I chat cheerfully with someone about things that don't matter to me at all, that's fine, but I'd never call us "friends." If I talk with someone for an hour and they never once ask, "So how are you? How have you been? What's been going on with you?" and wait for an answer, that's also fine, but I walk away knowing that this isn't really a friend.

That's why it's called "small talk." Because it's small.

Friendships are large, beautiful, cumbersome and occasionally inconvenient things.

Friends make distinctions, they know the nuances, they show up even when it isn't convenient. They do the work, day in and day out. When there's a problem, they pitch in and try to fix it.

They don't retreat to a safe distance and wait for the storm to pass: they weather the storm with you, and they try to make you laugh when there isn't much to laugh about. They don't show up when it's over and try to claim credit for thoughts and feelings and intentions that their actions never made manifest--for the work they just simply weren't ever really willing to do.

What I've realized this year, among other things, is that not everyone gets it. And that's okay. I have what I have and I know what I value and what I offer to others on a daily basis, and I know that not everyone will see it or know how to appreciate that in a way that works for me.

Forgiveness gave me the clarity to see that, and I'm grateful that I have that perspective and that I know how to implement it in my life on a daily basis. After months of spinning my wheels, I was suddenly able to move forward with a jolt and a rush and now I can look back and marvel at the distance I've come.

The 19th-century British novelist George Eliot once wrote, "It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses."

Monday, December 19, 2011


Between grading and the holidays, my blog has been sadly neglected for the past two weeks.  I'm hoping that will change in the next couple of weeks, when I have a little more time to think and a lot more time to write.

I've been busy getting the Christmas presents ready for the people, although I still have yet to get a tree.  And I have been cooking.  I found what looks like a wonderful recipe for pork loin wrapped in prosciutto, which I'm going to try to make tonight.

It's only "wonderful," of course, if you don't object to the idea of a slab of meat wrapped in meat and then stuffed with ... meat.  But it does use apples and kale, too.

I confess, I have a thing for prosciutto.  Whenever I see a recipe that uses it, I have to try it, come what may.

In terms of reading, it's mostly been student papers.  I'm actually taking a brief break from student papers right this very second, but I will return to them momentarily, I promise.

I did read an essay by Richard Preston about Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, and I really wish I hadn't.

If you don't know what Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome is, don't Google it.  I'll tell you and then you'll know why I'm telling you not to Google it.

Children who suffer from Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome have a rare genetic disorder that causes them to be developmentally disabled and to exhibit bizarre and truly horrifying behaviors.

They mutilate their own faces.  Children with Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome used to have their upper teeth removed to keep them from biting off their own lower lip.

They are often afraid of their own hands.  They are occasionally missing fingers or joints of their fingers because they have bitten them off.

It is as if their hands have a mind of their own and attack their face, inflicting horrific injuries.  They will remove their own eyes.  They will remove their noses.  They bite their fingers off, trying to protect themselves from ... themselves.

Because they experience pain exactly the way the rest of us do, they will often scream for help while doing this to themselves.

There was a picture included with the essay.

I didn't sleep all night.  It took me two days to recover from reading about this.  I kept waking up and thinking about the children's parents, to say nothing of the children themselves and the individuals they grow up to be.

They often die in adolescence, although there are a couple of individuals with Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome who are in their 30's and 40's.

There is no cure for Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, and no one is certain what causes the genetic disorder.  It is a recessive trait on the X-chromosome, so it only affects boys, although girls can be carriers of the mutation.

It apparently took Preston seven years to write the essay, because he was so disturbed by the subject.  He wanted to find a way to make something so bizarre and so horrifying human and understandable to the rest of us. 

He wanted us to see past the illness to the children themselves and the individuals that they become.

He did a good job.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Shut Up and Kiss Me"

Another one of my all-time favorite country songs.  Mary-Chapin's always so clever.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Intention, Paradox, Process

I'm finishing a semester of teaching Dostoevsky and getting ready to teach him again next semester, so I've been thinking a lot this week about an article I read by Gary Saul Morson, "Paradoxical Dostoevsky" (The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 43, No. 3 [Autumn, 1999], pp. 471-494).

Dostoevsky was consumed with the idea of intentionality and guilt and, as Morson argues, he often used paradoxes as a way of thinking through the idiosyncrasies of human psychology.

Drawing on the comments of the (generally repulsive) character of Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov, Morson notes that "we often hate people not because they have harmed us, as one might think, but because we have harmed them" (471).

They have become "the occasion of our guilt" and, paradoxically, we may prefer to see them take revenge on us (472). Their forgiveness may not actually make us feel any better, in fact--quite the contrary.

We feel this way, Morson suggests, even though we know that they aren't deliberately forgiving us as an elaborate act of revenge: they genuinely want to heal the breach and move on. The problem is, "those people have become the occasion for our feeling guilty or demeaned in our own eyes" (471).

What Morson identifies as "gratuitous ascriptions of agency" (472) or, to put it more simply, the tendency to hold people responsible for things they have no control over, is a paradox of human behavior.

We willfully ascribe will to "what cannot be willed" and react accordingly (472).

I have a slightly humorous example of this: a good friend of mine was once extremely angry at a woman who had treated me badly. Although my friend has since "gotten over it," so to speak, she still continues to privately vent her annoyance at this woman to me.

It takes the form of constantly commenting on... the size of her nose. When I once remarked that the woman was "kinda pretty, after all," my friend announced, "Oh, she looks like Jim Nabors."

Any time she sees anything involving this woman, she makes a derogatory comment about her nose: "I can't get over it, you can't even see her lips." "Look at the size of that thing." "God help us if she gets a head-cold."

Finally, I pointed out that, while the woman could definitely and reasonably be held accountable for her words and her actions, it wasn't really fair to hold her responsible for the size of her nose.

In my friend's case, it's a manifestation of (sincere) friendship and the demonstration of an emotional connection. I've done similar things myself. Everyone has.

As Morson suggests, "we typically invent deliberate insults the victim has inflicted in order to justify the otherwise unjustifiable feeling we have" (472).

We just don't want to like them. It may be unreasonable, it may be unfair, but on some level, we're just not willing to get over it and it's their fault if we don't.

As Morson recognizes, Dostoevsky thoroughly understands this irrational and paradoxical aspect of human behavior:
Law, poetics, and psychology typically imagine human intention as in principle locatable at a moment. Though it may take time for an intention to form, though it may be revised over and over again, at some point, if we are to act on it, it takes shape. We first intend and then we act, the common sense idea goes. (476-477)
By contrast, Morson argues, Dostoevsky's novels repeatedly suggest that "such a view of intention is naive. It applies only some of the time" (477).

Dostoevsky realizes that in some cases, we may really mean it when we say we really didn't mean it, because, on some level, we really didn't.

At some point in your past, your mom or some other authority-figure probably told you in no uncertain terms, in those heady minutes before you were totally grounded, "You knew what you were doing was wrong, and yet you went ahead and did it anyway."

Well, yes and no, actually. If you were caught forging checks or toilet-papering the trees in your neighbor's yard (to take two very different examples), then there is a good chance you knew that you shouldn't be doing what you were doing and yes, you went ahead and did it anyway.

But what if, like Dmitri Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, you pick up a heavy, blunt object while on your way to yet another sordid episode in the ongoing, angry shouting matches you continually have with your emotionally abusive, alcoholic, spiteful, neglectful dad?

You know, the drunken father who's openly trying to use his money to steal your girlfriend? The one who won't give you your inheritance because he claims you spent it all already and that actually, you owe him?

When investigators ask Dmitri why, before heading off to visit dear old dad (after finding out that his girlfriend had snuck out of her house in the dead of night), he picked up a potential weapon, Dmitri insists, "What does one pick things up for at such moments? I don't know what for. I snatched it up and ran--that's all" (444).

As Morson points out, Dostoevsky was fascinated with such cases: in his journal, he commented extensively on a case involving a woman who bought a knife and went to her lover's house after finding out that he had gone back to his wife. She began stabbing the wife, but the couple awoke and stopped her.

Did she intend to kill the wife?

Oddly enough, Dostoevsky will argue that, as in the case of his character Dmitri, the answer is "No." As Morson argues, according to Dostoevsky, "She was fully aware of what she was doing at each moment, but she could not tell it advance what she would do at the next moment" (478).

Although not feasible as a legal standard, the idea of intentionality as a process rather than a fixed, motivating idea leads to an interesting conception of human responsibility. As Morson points out, Dostoevsky's work frequently suggests that, in any given moment, there are an infinite number of unrealized possibilities that stand an equal chance of being actualized.

Moral accountability, in Dostoevsky's conception, lies not only in acknowledging what we meant to do, what we did, and what occurred as a result, but also in contemplating what we might have done, but didn't. As Morson notes, "Dostoevsky even suggests that unactualized possibilities have their own kind of being, perhaps capable of affecting future generations of events" (482).

It is in this spirit that Dmitri Karamazov ultimately accepts responsibility for his father's murder, even though he didn't actually kill him. He wanted to kill him and he could have killed him and, were the same circumstances repeated, he might very well have killed him: for all of these things, he takes full responsibility.

He is willing to go to prison, in the end, not for what he did, but for what he didn't do--for the commission of a crime that was always within the realm of possibility.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Now in November

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Annie Dillard writes, "This year I want to stick a net into time and say 'now,' as men plant flags on the ice and snow and say, 'here'(75).

If only it were that easy.

Dillard spends much of her time describing and analyzing the natural world in prose that is beautiful, fluid, poetic. Thoreau was nature's philosopher; Dillard is her prose-poet.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is thus as much about seeing as it is about writing and feeling.
So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world's turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.(34)
I went to the beach yesterday, because I always find the best shells during low-tide in winter. And there's almost never anyone there.

I like shells with color and whorls, pinks and purples and blues. I like the precision of the little ones.

People think you can't find any interesting ones on the beaches in RI, but I think maybe the people who can't find them are the ones who aren't interesting, because they aren't seeing them.

I brought one home last night that is one of my favorite types, and when I looked at it this morning and dug the sand out, there was another tiny shell just like it hidden inside.

It's the same with the light and the sound: you never know what the light at the beach will be like, or how the water will sound when you stop and listen to it.

Sometimes you go to the beach in November and expect it to be gray and sad, the end of a season, but it's more beautiful in winter's light than it has been all summer long.

The beach in the summer is a feeling and a smell, but the beach in November is a sight and a sound.

Dillard tells of how the Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, once said,
My father gave me a canary and a revolving globe ... I used to open the cage and let the canary go free. It developed the habit of sitting at the very top of the globe and singing for hours. For years, as I wandered insatiably over the earth, greeting and taking leave of everything, I felt that the top of my head was the globe and a canary sat perched on the top of my mind, singing.
Dillard concludes,
Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. (9)
What would the world sound like if we let our mind-canaries sing?

What would the world look like if we see ourselves as flesh-flake, feather, bone, born at random down a rolling scroll of time?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Smallpox, Then and Now

As one of the requirements for my eighteenth-century literature course, students have to give presentations on various historical and cultural topics. One such topic is Edward Jenner and smallpox.

If you don't know the story of smallpox and its eradication, it's both pretty amazing and downright horrifying. In The Demon in the Freezer (2002), Richard Preston describes the symptoms:
The pustules began to touch one another, and finally they merged into confluent sheets that covered his body, like a cobblestone street. The skin was torn away from its underlayers across much of his body, and the pustules on his face combined into a bubbled mass filled with fluid, until the layers of skin of his face essentially detached from its underlayers and became a bag surrounding the tissues of his head. His tongue, gums and hard palate were studded with pustules, yet his mouth was dry, and he could barely swallow. The virus had stripped the skin off his body, both inside and out, and the pain would have seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure. (35)
Eventually, the virus affects the messenger molecules of the victim's immune system by triggering unknown proteins that cause what's known as a "cytokine storm." Instead of attacking the invader, the person's immune system backfires on itself and cannot combat the massive viral infection.

This is what smallpox looks like, in its most common form.

I apologize if you find the picture upsetting, obviously, but you should know that this isn't actually the worst form of it, it's actually the "ordinary" form of variola.

It has a mortality rate of approximately 30% and, as you may imagine, it often leaves disfiguring scars on the victim's face. It can also cause blindness.

The more severe form, hemorrhagic smallpox, was often known as the "black pox." The victim's skin doesn't blister; instead, bleeding occurs under the skin, eventually causing the person to appear blackened.

One of the early signs of hemorrhagic smallpox is bleeding in the whites of the eyes: the victims' eyes often turn a deep red color and, if they survive long enough, they too turn black.

They bleed from the nose, mouth, rectum, urinary tract and vagina.

The mortality rate for hemorrhagic smallpox is nearly 100%. In all cases of smallpox, victims remain conscious and cognizant of what is happening to them throughout the duration of the illness, in "a peculiar state of apprehension and mental alertness that were said to be unlike the manifestations of any other disease." (Smallpox and Its Eradication)

There is no cure for smallpox, in any form. The only hope of prevention and eradication lies in vaccination.

In 1796, Edward Jenner developed the vaccine for smallpox, using methods that make Michael Jackson's personal physician look like a candy-striper. He noticed that women who worked on dairy farms often contracted what is known as "cowpox" (similar to smallpox, but it infects cows, obviously).

Jenner noticed that, when the women contracted cowpox, it was not as severe and they typically didn't die (unlike the cows). He also noticed that, having survived cowpox, the women usually didn't subsequently contract smallpox.

So one fine day, like any good eighteenth-century doctor, he scraped the pus from the pustules of his patient, Sarah Nelmes, who had contracted cowpox from her cow, Blossom, and he injected it into the arms of his gardener's eight-year-old son, James Phipps.

What are servants and their children for, after all, if not to conduct highly dangerous and unethical experiments on them? (And if you think it doesn't happen in our more civilized era, look into the practices of Jonas Salk in the 1940s.)

A few months later, Jenner injected James Phipps with a controlled amount of smallpox, a practice known as "variolation." In 1796, this was the only proven method of inducing immunity and, as you can imagine, it was highly risky.

But James Phipps, having been injected with cowpox, never contracted smallpox, even when he was subsequently injected with it (repeatedly).

And thus, vaccination was born.

Since simply mentioning the word "vaccination" will often trigger cries of "autism," I should point out that people who allege a connection between vaccines and autism are misunderstanding several things about the way the human body and its immune system works.

More importantly, they are overlooking the fact that the connection between the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease, and autism was merely suggested by the British physician Andrew Wakefield and thirteen colleagues, in a study published in the Lancet in 1998.

Even Wakefield acknowledged that the connection was never actually, scientifically proven.

Moreover, subsequent studies were never able to replicate Wakefield's claims. In science, this is the acid test for fraudulent research.

In 2004, British journalist Brian Deer discovered that Wakefield and his colleagues had received undisclosed funds prior to the publication of the 1998 study. 10 of the 13 scientists involved in the study subsequently acknowledged the conflict of interest and retracted their claims.

Their research had in fact been funded by a lawyer representing the parents of the children with autism who had, in turn, been the subjects of the study: they were contemplating a lawsuit against the makers of the MMR vaccine, but they required evidence of a possible connection between the vaccine and autism, since none existed.

It was also revealed that Wakefield had previously applied for a patent for a single-jab measles vaccine that would also treat inflammatory bowel disease and autism.

Not only was this proposed vaccine in competition with the MMR combination vaccine, it alleges a connection between measles, inflammatory bowel disease and autism in June of 1997 and indicates that Wakefield had applied for a patent as early as March 1996, in which he also alleges a connection between the three.

Ultimately, it was also discovered that, in pursuing his study, Wakefield had performed unnecessary and invasive medical procedures on the children without proper authorization by an IRB (Institutional Review Board).

As a result of his actions, Wakefield is no longer licensed to practice medicine in the UK, and he has never held a license to practice in the US. But yes, he has a celebrity following in the US, including Jenny McCarthy.

The claims that vaccines containing thimerosal (a preservative used in cosmetics beginning in the 1930's) are linked to the rise in autism have been equally unsupported.

On the heels of public concern sparked in 1999, thimerosal was removed from vaccines in 2001. Nevertheless, the incidence of autism has not declined since 2001.

Wakefield claims it's all a huge conspiracy by Big Pharm (no surprise there). But although I'm not the "oh-just-stick-out-your-arm-and-trust-the-government" type, I can't say I'll ever put much faith in anything that guy has to say, given the findings.

And smallpox has been back in the news this week. According to a November 13th article in The Los Angeles Times, the Obama administration recently awarded a $443 million no-bid contract for a smallpox drug that is, by many accounts, untestable and potentially ineffective.

As reported in the LA Times this week, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is questioning the awarding of the contract to Siga Technologies, Inc..

As the article indicates, the controlling shareholder of Siga Technologies is Ronald O. Perelman, a major donor to the Democratic Party.

ST-246, as the drug is known, is not actually a vaccine for smallpox, per se. It is an antiviral medication designed to be administered along with the smallpox vaccine, for individuals who have compromised immune systems or who are at risk of developing "adverse reactions" as a result of receiving the smallpox vaccine. For individuals who may already have been exposed to smallpox, it may inhibit the growth of the virus, if it is administered within four days of exposure, and it may serve as a form of treatment for individuals who have become symptomatic.

If you're wondering why we can't simply cure smallpox, consider this fact: the AIDS virus has approximately 10 genes.

Smallpox has approximately 200.

Whatever they come up with, it had better damn well work or we'll all be wanting more than our money back.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Different Kind of Thankfulness

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. ... "Seem like we're just set down here," a woman said to me recently, "and don't nobody know why."
--Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I've been thinking a lot today about how last Thanksgiving--and last Christmas--were the last holidays I spent with my little friend and godson Ezra. 

I think we all knew it at the time, but it just isn't something you can allow yourself to think about, that the person you're sitting with will die before another year is over.

Actually, it isn't something you can think about, because it just seems so inconceivable, when it's someone you love, and when it's a child, the incomprehensible is compounded.

I remember when I went to visit last Thanksgiving, Ezra wanted to show me his rock collection and his coin collection. We sat and looked over them all, and he talked about where he had gotten each one and why he liked it.

One day, he hadn't been feeling very well all day, so he was lying down most of the time. Everyone else went to a Cub Scout meeting, but I stayed at the house so Ezra didn't have to go.

All of a sudden, he popped out of his bedroom wrapped in a blanket and said, "Missy, I'm going to make you my famous cheese tacos. They're the best. Sam and Circe always want me to make them. You're gonna love them."

When he didn't feel well, he'd say, "Missy, what's the funniest thing your kitty has ever done? Tell me stories about your kitty." And I could always make him laugh.

I read The Chronicles of Narnia to him over and over: that had been my present to him one year, the complete set of all of the books.

When he was sick, he'd say in a quiet little voice, "Missy, can you read Narnia?" I read myself hoarse more than once last year.

The day before he died, I went to the hospital to see him, and I tried to read to him from Narnia again, the way I always had, but I just couldn't do it.

That was, quite simply, the worst day of my life. It just didn't seem fair... well, really, it wasn't fair, actually, that a little boy would have to suffer like that and that he would know he was dying and all of us, so much older, would grow still older without him.

I think about thankfulness very differently now than I did five years ago. I'm thankful for all of the little moments that I had with all of the people I care about, and that I didn't ever squander them.

I'm thankful that I've loved the people I've loved, and that I've always let them know it, and that if it seemed like a petty problem or quarrel would come between us, I always tried to work things out so that it wouldn't.

Even when things didn't work out, I'm thankful that I was strong enough to be able to do what I did and try what I tried. I'm thankful that when it was possible, I've erred on the side of kindness, and when it wasn't possible, that I never resorted to cruelty to save my own ego.

I'm thankful that, at 43, I have no regrets, and that I can be who I am and how I am and find a way to be comfortable in the space that I'm in, even when that (mental, physical, emotional) space isn't what I would have ever wanted or chosen for myself.

When I face a problem in my life now, I ask my dad and my mom and Ezra what they think I should do, and no sooner are the words out of my mouth than I know exactly what I need to do. When people insult me or are unkind, it doesn't really matter anymore, not the way it did a year ago. Those things simply don't hurt anymore, because I've experienced far more complicated forms of pain.

I'm thankful I know what's important in my life and in the way that I live it.

There's a passage from The Chronicles of Narnia that I read to Ezra more than once. It's from The Horse and His Boy. After escaping to what he thinks will be safety, the boy Shasta learns that he needs to ride on and warn the others that an army is coming.

I thought about these sentences a lot this year.
“Shasta’s heart fainted at these words for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Extinction Rider Roll Call (Dicks Amendment)

Extinction Rider Roll Call (Dicks Amendment)

Ordinary Instants & Everyday Accidents

My conference paper proposal was accepted, so I'll be presenting at Brown in the spring. (Yay!)

I thought I'd blog about my (still very rough) ideas a bit, since my proposal basically builds on and merges ideas from previous posts.

In The Year of Magical Thinking (2006), Joan Didion begins her memoir of a difficult and devastating year of her life by recording the cryptic comments that she typed in the days after her husband's sudden death from a heart attack:
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity. (3, italics in original)
In composing this sentence, Didion acknowledges that she decided to leave out the phrase "the ordinary instant" to describe this life-changing moment, opting instead for "the instant," plain and simple.

There would be no forgetting it, she realizes, since
[i]t was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it... confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred. (4)
Similarly, in his memoir, Moving Violations (1995), as he reflects on the car accident that, at age 19, left him paralyzed from the chest down, journalist John Hockenberry notes that
[u]ntil the car accident that day in 1976 I understood the world only as an evolving landscape of clockwork challenges and gradual change... The upheavals of radical change and quantum unpredictability were taught to me as aberrations, deviations from the essential orderliness of the system, failures. (24)
"Sudden disaster," "the unthinkable" and "radical change" are supposed to be "aberrations," events out of the ordinary. In effect, the events of their lives leave both Didion and Hockenberry to wonder, how could the accidental be so unexpected? How could something so life-changing not herald its own arrival?

Why weren't they warned, somehow?

For his part, Hockenberry will assert that ultimately, "[i]t is a gift to learn the fabric of unpredictability" (24). In the years following his accident, Hockenberry comes to adopt what he identifies as a "quantum view of disability":
The quantum theory of disability allows you to dare to think that you can have lived two lives, two bodies occupying two places at once. Suddenly, in an instant, radical change: I was different, yet I was still the same person. I knew that was possible then. It would take a lifetime to be sure (25)
For Hockenberry, this quantum perspective assumes that "[t]he capacity to wonder is the gift itself," and that it is out of this gift of wonder that meaning can be both imagined and lived (25).

In fact, Hockenberry will assert, "[i]t is all we really had, even during all of those moments of human history when we thought we knew everything" (25).

What I want to do is examine Hockenberry's notion of the quantum view of disability as a way of making sense of the relationship between the accidental ("the upheavals of radical change," "sudden disaster" and unpredictability) and human identity.

What is the relationship between the "ordinary instants" that radically and unpredictably change our lives and our sense of ourselves as meaningfully embodied individuals?

In particular, I want to tease out this question by contrasting Hockenberry and Didion's perspectives on the ordinariness of the accidental with its representation in a very different text of narrative trauma, Shalamov's Kolyma Tales.

Written in the 1950's, Shalamov's short stories and sketches detail the more than 15 years that he spent in various Soviet labor camps in and around Kolyma and Magadan. Not exclusively autobiographical, the Kolyma tales blend fiction and non-fiction in order to bear witness to one man's experience of gruesome historical facts.

In so doing, Shalamov's narratives question the role that the accidental plays in the making of meaning--both human and narrative.

In many of the Kolyma stories, otherwise neutral accounts of seemingly trivial details of prison life (many of which are themselves inherently shocking), are typically related with an offhanded indifference and nonchalance, only to be suddenly and brutally interrupted by an incident of senseless violence--or unforeseen luck.

And then the indifference, the nonchalance and the neutrality resume, as if nothing has happened. Or else the story simply ends.

In the world of the camps, there is no predicting how or whether one will survive from one day (or hour) to the next. Plans for survival can be constructed and, in an instant--an "ordinary" instant of camp life--they can be just as abruptly destroyed.

Sometimes, this is a good thing. In Kolyma, the accidental can lead to life-threatening injury and death, or it can guarantee another day's survival.

I'm interested in what happens to "the gift of wonder" and the "quantum theory of disability" that Hockenberry posits as a component of human identity.

Does it survive in the "ordinary instants" of Shalamov's Kolyma? Does it mean something very different in the unpredictability that his sketches detail?

What are the implications of "the ordinary" and "the accidental" for narrative representation? How do we tell the story of what such accidents "mean" in the construction of human identity?

Monday, November 21, 2011


بنی آدم اعضای یک پیکرند
که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند
چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار
دگر عضو ها را نماند قرار
تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی
نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی

This weekend was a perfect one: I accomplished more than I could have imagined doing, including all kinds of wonderful autumn activities like apple-picking (very wonderful), stacking firewood (somewhat less wonderful), planting close to 100 tulip bulbs (wonderful, but deferred until spring) and cooking, cooking, cooking (very, very, very wonderful).

All this, and still time for love and laughter with people I care about. What more can you ask of life, really?

So needless to say, I planned to blog in a state of relative bliss last night, but wouldn't you know it, I knocked my wine glass clear across the living room floor (luckily, I don't have carpet), so that required a major cleanup.

It actually spilled into my knitting basket prior to hitting the floor. Not good.

But I was still determined to blog, so I logged in and began an extended battle with html that I eventually won (of course), but by that point, I had a headache (of course) and no longer felt like blogging or even remembered what I had originally wanted to blog about.

Imagine my surprise when my html-induced headache wasn't gone this morning. I spent the day in a bit of a muddy head-fog, but I think I'm better now.

Still, I feel I should alert my gentle readers that, if my prose seems less crisp and clean than it usually does, it is, and that's why.

Anyway, when I wasn't being Miss Autumn-in-New-England, I was reading the Persian poet Sa'di, in preparation for the course on Central Eurasian literature that I'll be teaching in the spring.

Sa'di was a 13th century poet and writer who is best known for The Gulistan (The Rose Garden), written in 1258.

Sa'di traveled extensively for approximately thirty years of his life, a time that included many widespread changes in the Middle East and Central Eurasia, including the Mongols' sacking of the city of Baghdad in 1258 (the same year in which he wrote The Gulistan).

The Gulistan is a collection of short tales and pieces of advice--it's kind of like Machiavelli's The Prince, but with a soul. Although much of the advice involves rulers and leadership, there are also sections devoted to general life lessons, guidelines for interpersonal relationships, and exhortations of spirituality.

For example, Maxim #54 in the section, "Rules for Conduct in Life" notes,
The Imam Murshid Muhammad Ghazali, upon whom be the mercy of God, having been asked in what manner he had attained such a degree of knowledge, replied, "By not being ashamed to ask about things I did not know."
The conclusion Sa'di draws: "Ask what you know not; for the trouble of asking/ Will indicate to you the way to the dignity of knowledge."

My favorite piece of advice: "Either make no friends with elephant-keepers/ Or build a house suitable for elephants."

I mean, really. If you think about it, that pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

The quotation at the start of my entry tonight is Sa'di's most famous poem, "Bani Adam." It is inscribed on the entrance to the United Nations and, roughly translated, it reads,

The children of Adam are each others' limbs,
Created from one essence.
When the calamity of time affects one limb,
The others cannot rest.
If you have no sympathy for others' troubles,
You do not deserve to be called human.

Monday, November 14, 2011


I first read Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit (2003) several years ago, and it's a book I like to return to every few years, to help me think about what creativity is, what it means, and how to sustain it.

Tharp is a firm believer in the fact that inspiration--and creativity--are "habits," a conception that runs counter to the idea that artists are always transcendental geniuses whose ideas arise (spontaneously, miraculously) out of nowhere, fully formed and ready to astound us all.

On the contrary, Tharp argues. Artists work. They do so daily and consistently, and often without inspiration. But always they do so with a sense of purpose and always with a sense that, when they are working, they are doing precisely what they should be doing--in effect, what they feel they were "meant" to do.

I have always liked Tharp's book, because so many people conceive of art as something breezy and inspirational--picked up, put down, automatically executed with brilliance and ultimately reducible to its final products. Her argument is a healthy reminder that art is equally about process, and processes are often, if not inevitably, messy and riddled with mis-starts and mistakes.

And the results of those messy processes are not always even "good," let alone brilliant. It's not always an inspired undertaking. You have to produce all kinds of potentially bad creations if you want to increase your chances of creating something potentially passable.

I think of the creative process as a merger of the ephemeral (that which is fleeting) with the tangible (that which is time-bound and concrete). Tharp offers the contrast between zoe and bios --between indiscriminate life and life in its lived details. Different artists are drawn to different perspectives and the great artists are the rare few who can capture both.

But I wonder whether artistic creation, when viewed from the perspective of the artist her- or himself, is always a constant adjustment of focus, a tweaking of the details and the indiscriminate--zooming in on bios only to then pan back on zoe --in an ongoing effort to communicate what would otherwise exist only in the artist's soul and psyche.

Artists work constantly and ceaselessly to give us the gift that they envision.

I think it's easy to declare oneself an artist, a gift-giver. It's much more difficult to live as one. I'm not referring simply to the lack of an income or the need to take an unrelated job and carve out time for one's work, to "suffer" for one's creation.

I'm thinking of the discipline required in coming up with an idea when you simply don't have one--or any, really. Or the discipline required to acknowledge that the project you've worked on so lovingly and laboriously is...well, crap.

And conversely, the willingness to realize that there is no perfection and that the repeated decision to declare everything one produces "crap" and refuse to offer it to the world's gaze is not a sign of artistic discipline, it's the symptom of a lack of resolve and a failure of courage.

The French intellectual and polymath Henri Poincare used his innate curiosity about--and eventual expertise in--a wide range of fields and interests to generate a vast body of scientific work without frittering away his time on dead-ends or distractions.

In his journals, Poincare would describe arriving at an impasse in a particular project or mathematical problem. Instead of doing what most of us would do, however, and continuing to beat his head against the wall and demand a solution, Poincare would move on to another project, often something completely unrelated or occasionally a project that had reached a similar impasse at an earlier point in time.

Poincare describes how, having set the problematic project aside, he would suddenly arrive at--perhaps not a "solution," per se, but an idea that would advance his thinking. Often, he claims, this would happen while getting into a carriage or engaging in some otherwise mundane activity unrelated to his intellectual endeavors.

He possessed the ability to live with his stumbling blocks and stopping points, instead of becoming consumed by them or prematurely branding them as "failures." In effect, Poincare's analysis of his own thinking process suggests that, while he was focused on something else, his brain was slowly but steadily continuing to work on the problem, somewhere just below the threshold of conscious activity.

The shift in perspective would eventually offer the insight he needed to rethink the dilemma. This ability to shift focus, frame and attitude is the hallmark of a productive and agile mind. I remember reading about how the teen tennis phenom Martina Hingis used to love to play sports other than tennis and how, contrary to the advice of most tennis pros, she refused to spend vast amounts of time simply playing tennis.

Instead, she felt that her time spent playing soccer taught her new things about her footwork on the tennis court. Likewise, her love of horseback riding taught her different ways of thinking about the landscape in front of her and adjusting to changes in perspective and momentum.

It was a kind of self-imposed regimen of neuroplasticity. I think this is the essence of any kind of mastery--whether physical or intellectual: an ongoing and innate willingness to render one's perspective simutaneously supple and attentive.

To see the bios in zoe , and then ... to look again, both elsewhere and otherwise.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Troubling Confessions"

I'm teaching Dostoevsky this semester (and next semester as well), and as anyone familiar with his novels knows, confessions play a huge role in shaping characters and their plots--particularly when the characters in question are murderers, pedophiles and other unsavory types.

One of the most interesting books that I've read about confession as a legal and spiritual phenomenon is Peter Brooks' Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature (2001).  Brooks melds an analysis of Supreme Court cases and their social and political implications with his own specialty--literary analysis--to offer a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of what "confession" is, how we understand it, what we expect from those who confess, and why we consider it "good for the soul" and essential for the moral and social rehabilitation of guilt.

In particular, Brooks argues that "our social and cultural attitudes toward confession suffer from uncertainties and ambivalences" and that as a result, "confession is a difficult and slippery notion to deal with" (3). 

In short, he argues, "We want confessions, yet we are suspicious of them" (3).

And, as he points out, we should be.  Perhaps one of Brooks' most interesting points of discussion revolves around people who confess to things that, as it turns out, they didn't actually do.  While most of us think, "Who on earth would be so stupid?", the fact is, most of us are entirely unaware of how easy it is to pressure another person into accepting an admission of guilt.

This pressure is exacerbated in contemporary American culture where, as Brooks points out, we "appear ... to live in a generalized demand for transparency that entails a kind of tyranny of the requirement to confess" (4).

We want to hear people "say the words."  Until they do, no amount of proof will satisfy us emotionally--only the confession can seal the psychological deal.

Except that legal history is rife with cases of false confessions or coerced confessions or "insincere" confessions.  So what does that say about this phenomenon upon which we rely so heavily?

Brooks cites several interesting examples.  Consider, for instance, the case of the Boorn brothers, accused of murdering their neighbor in Manchester, VT in 1819.  Although they asserted their innocence throughout their subsequent trial, while awaiting execution, they ultimately confessed to the crime (8).

Turns out, the neighbor wasn't even dead.  He'd simply moved to Schenectady.

Brooks also discusses the Supreme Court case Brewer v. Williams.  At issue was the extent to which police can use questioning and/or psychological "coercion" to obtain a confession.

In this case, the police were escorting a suspect to Des Moines, Iowa.  Williams is an escaped mental patient who is believed to have murdered a nine-year-old girl.  The girl's body has not been found.

The detective on the case has agreed to the stipulation of Williams' lawyer in Des Moines: Williams is not to be questioned on the drive from Davenport to Des Moines. 

What the detective does, however, challenges the definition of police "questioning": instead of interrogating Williams, he offers him food for thought, in the form of the "Christian Burial Speech."  Addressing Williams as a man of faith, he "proceeds to evoke the weather conditions, the forecast of several inches of snow, the likelihood that the young girl's body will be buried and unlocatable" (26).

He urges Williams to consider the fact that he alone can ensure that the girl's parents can give her "a Christian burial."  Williams ultimately leads police to various pieces of evidence, and finally to the girl's body itself.

Is this a legally obtained confession?  Williams committed the murder, so that is not at issue: the question is, whether his confession is invalid because the detective used improper means to obtain it.  Did he conduct what is, ostensibly, a kind of "interrogation," even though he never employed a single interrogative statement?

In the case of Brewer v. Williams, the Supreme Court decides, in a 5-4 split decision, that the confession is invalid (27).  The Court's decision asserts that the detective "deliberately and designedly set out to elicit information from Williams just as surely as--and perhaps more effectively than--if he had formally interrogated him" (27).

The effectiveness of the detective's line of (non-)questioning stems from the fact that, as Brooks acknowledges, confession plays an equally ambiguous role in its relationship to the person who does the confessing itself.  At times, the compulsion to confess one's guilt can become overwhelming--so overwhelming, the case of the Boorn brothers suggest, that it can override (or overwrite) the confessed act itself.

I didn't do "it," perhaps, but I did something, I must have done something, so...

This is the slippery slope of confession.  It is particularly interesting and complicated in the story of the visual artist Alan Bridge, better known, perhaps, as "Mr. Apology."  As Brooks outlines, in 1980, Bridge posted the following flyers around Manhattan:

Bridge's goal was an exhibit at the New Museum in 1981.  The result of the apology hotline, however, was more than simply a conceptual art project.  Bridge amassed over 1000 hours of confessions on his answering machine and continued to maintain the phone line even after the project was completed because people seemed to "need" it.

In the end, this question of who "needs" to confess--not to mention the questions of how, to what and why, exactly--has implications for all of us guilty innocents out there.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom

A good week and a productive one: I finished the two paper proposals and sent them on their way, which meant that I finally had a chance to read Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom--something I've been meaning to do since July, actually.

I'm not an economist, obviously, so my observations are just that: my observations.  I think Friedman's ideas are interesting, actually, but I also have some issues with them, so I'm going to be true to my moniker and write my impressions as a thinker who is still thinking about Friedman's philosophies and arguments.

I was not happy with the first chapter of Capitalism and Freedom.  Actually, I came dangerously close to having a conniption, but luckily, things settled down in the second and following chapters. 

I was left wondering whether a lot of people simply read the first chapter of Capitalism and Freedom, actually, because I'm pretty sure I've heard some of that chapter one mularky out there and I think it isn't really representative of Friedman's overall ideas and argument. 

I think this speaks to both the appeal and the danger of Friedman's style.  On the one hand, his ideas are very accessible and he expresses them clearly and forcefully.  I like that.  He clearly agrees with Einstein's adage, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

On the other hand, there's a danger in Friedman's style and approach.  It seems to me that, at times, he simplifies complex issues, not to make them understandable, but in order to create a very specific rhetorical effect and promote a very specific political agenda. 

He has clear biases (as we all do), but I think that his style makes it easy to miss the inconsistencies in his more propagandistic (if that's a real word?) statements.

An example.  He claims that "intellectuals" tend to be biased against economic freedom.  He states, "They tend to express contempt for what they regard as material aspects of life, and to regard their own pursuit of allegedly higher values as on a different plane of significance and as deserving of special attention" (8).

Come again?  I'll admit, this kind of statement is always going to tick me off, because I think that historically, Americans have often been anti-intellectual (and unfortunately, a lot of intellectuals have earned this negative reputation, obviously) to an extent that isn't present in a lot of other nations and cultures. 

I don't think tapping into that negative preconception serves any real purpose, though, and I object to it being used by someone who was a PROFESSOR at The University of Chicago... for 30 years.  After he studied at Rutgers and Columbia.  And he won the Nobel Prize in Economics too, for heaven's sake.

Friedman is an intellectual (and an academic), in my book.  Big time.  So he has no cause to be invoking derogatory labels about "intellectuals" and acting like he's not part of the academic system that clearly rewarded him.

In general, this was my primary complaint with the first chapter of Capitalism and Freedom: it made sweeping proclamations that paid no attention to historical nuance and at times, I felt it played fast-and-loose with facts in service of a larger political rhetoric. 

At times, I felt that, in order to make his political arguments, Friedman banked (sorry, can't resist the pun) on the fact that most people won't know he's broadly overstating or oversimplifying historical realities.

For example, I know of no Classics scholar out there who would blithely suggest that Ancient Greece was a capitalist society and that this explains the extensive political freedoms that Greek citizens enjoyed.  Such an assertion overlooks the fact that Ancient Greece was comprised of a variety of very different city-states (think "Athens" vs. "Sparta"), all of which were organized around very different political frameworks. 

It also overlooks the fact that the question of whether or not these different Ancient Greek civilizations participated in a market economy (as we understand the concept), has been extensively debated for years-- by Classical historians and economists alike.

So this is my main gripe with Friedman's overall approach.  I don't think it's acceptable to oversimplify a complex historical situation simply to make the rhetorical argument that you want to make for a general audience. 

It seems to me that this is using your intellectual knowledge to take advantage of your audience.  They won't know what they don't know, but you do, and you're using their potential lack of information for your own benefit.

All that said, I find the rest of Capitalism and Freedom interesting.  Friedman seems a bit idealistic about market economies in my opinion: he repeatedly identifies the market as a system of "voluntary cooperation" between the parties to an exchange. 

This would be nice, but I'm just not sure it's ever been the reality.  Friedman does address one of the main objections to his argument--namely, the formation of monopolies--but I think he tends to downplay the effects of monopolies on consumers. 

As I've said, I'm no economist, but my sense is that the goal of capitalism is to "corner the market"--to generate demand and engage in business practices that ultimately ensure that you are the primary (if not the sole) supplier of goods and services so that you can make a honking big profit at the end of the day.

As I read Friedman's philosohy, I kept trying to think of a single time when I've heard a competitive capitalist say, "Gosh, I'm just so glad I have so many darn competitors in my line of business.  It means that there is just that much more chance for all kinds of voluntary cooperation among buyers and sellers.  That's really what it's all about, after all."

Friedman also seems to believe that ultimately, a capitalist market can and will stabilize itself, if left to its own devices.  Although he's often caught in the philosophical dragnet of people who want to abolish the Fed and return to the gold standard, in fact, Friedman advocates neither of these courses of action in Capitalism and Freedom.

He's not a fan of the Federal Reserve, but his concerns primarily center around the ways in which, in the first half of the 20th century, the Federal Reserve made what were, in his opinion, bad decisions or failed to act when they should have, in order to avert financial crises.   They either did nothing or, when they did do something, they did the wrong thing. 

He doesn't suggest abolishing the Fed, though, just that it needs to be managed more effectively and that we should perhaps reconceptualize its role in the economy (a role that, in his opinion, should be minimal).

His chapter on fiscal policy in particular is quite interesting.  He objects to the use of the federal budget as a kind of "balance wheel" designed to offset a decline in private expenditures, and insists that, "[f]ar from being a balance wheel offsetting other forces making for fluctuations, the federal budget has if anything been itself a major source of disturbance and instability" (77).

So I find that, although I don't always like his tactics, many of Friedman's claims offer substantial food for thought.  For instance, he points out that, "In fiscal policy as in monetary policy, all political considerations aside, we simply do not know enough to be able to use deliberate changes in taxation or expenditures as a sensitive stabilizing mechanism" (78).

Seems to me like somebody ought to put that on a big old posterboard and wave it in front of everyone currently in power in Washington.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Narrative & Catastrophe

In the life of a professor, there's always a new project waiting in the wings.  So, I no sooner finish the grant proposal than I have to start thinking about the conference papers I'll be proposing.

There's an upcoming conference on "Catastrophe and Change" and my thinking is that, given the past several years of my life, this oughta be right up my alley.

I actually have ideas for two separate proposals, so it'll merely be a question of whether I can pull them together in time.  I think I can, I think I can...

So I'm going to muse a bit about one of them here, in the hopes that this will speed the proposal along a bit.

I've always wanted to write about John Hersey's Hiroshima.  I blogged about it a bit last year, in my post about the fact that Rhode Island still celebrates VJ day (Victories, Pyrrhic or Not).

There's an excellent article by Steven Rothman detailing the history and circumstances behind the publication of Hersey's essay in The New Yorker in 1946.  The story of its publication alone is an interesting fact of American culture and its response to the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust.

The intensity of the subject matter Hersey writes about goes without saying.  In spite of its brevity and the accessibility of its style, Hiroshima is not an easy book to read.

Henrik Hertzberg phrased it best, I think, in Hersey's obituary in The New Yorker in 1993:
"If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima; yet Hersey's reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm, and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly."
The self-described "flat style" that Hersey adopted to convey the accounts of six of the survivors of the atomic blast is an interesting study in narrative perspective.  The details are horrific, but the style is always calm: one survivor describes being stopped by a soldier who realizes that something is wrong because he can't see.

He doesn't realize that he can't see because his eyeballs have melted and are running down the front of his face.

This is the challenge that Hersey effectively faced: how to put into human language sights that defy human comprehension.  And to do it in a way that does justice to the events and their witnesses.

When I teach literary journalism, we spend a great deal of time talking about "objectivity"--what it is, who has it, how we can know, why it's beneficial.  We also spend a great deal of time talking about the advantages of subjectivity in writing: how do you balance the benefits of the emotional connection you can forge with your reader through subjective engagement against the necessity of historical accuracy?

We discuss the distinctions between those who witness, and those who write.  The question of narrative voice takes on a very different kind of urgency when you purport to speak for a victim--or a perpetrator.

What I want to look at is the specifics of Hersey's use of narrative voice (what he describes, how and why) in contrast to the information offered in "The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," the document created by The Manhattan Project Investigating Group.

In August of 1945, just days after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American military organized an effort "to secure scientific, technical and medical intelligence in the atomic bomb field from within Japan as soon as possible after the cessation of hostilities."

One group went to Hiroshima, one to Nagasaki, and a third focused on "information concerning general Japanese activities in the field of atomic bombs." 

Their mission served two primary purposes: "[t]o make certain that no unusual hazards were present in the bombed cities" and "[t]o secure all possible information concerning the effects of the bombs, both usual and unusual, and particularly with regard to radioactive effects, if any, on the targets or elsewhere."

I'm interested in comparing and contrasting how the members of these information-gathering groups use language to describe precisely the same phenomena as those described by Hersey.  All of the writers and observers are interested in "intelligence" and "information," broadly defined.  Clearly, something very different and profoundly important, with extensive implications for the future of humanity itself, happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

The approach to communicating that intelligence, however, is obviously very different.  For instance, in Chapter 3: Summary of Damages and Injuries, The Manhattan Investigating Group parenthetically indicates that, for the purposes of its report, "the point directly under the explosion" "will hereafter in this report be referred to as X."

And it is.  As the report indicates in Chapter 17: Flash Burn,

...a characteristic feature of the atomic bomb, which is quite foreign to ordinary explosives, is that a very appreciable fraction of the energy liberated goes into radiant heat and light. For a sufficiently large explosion, the flash burn produced by this radiated energy will become the dominant cause of damage, since the area of burn damage will increase in proportion to the energy released, whereas the area of blast damage increases only with the two-thirds power of the energy.  
In Chapter 19: Burns, "The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" concludes that
[t]he maximum distance from X at which flash burns were observed is of paramount interest. It has been estimated that patients with burns at Hiroshima were all less than 7,500 feet from the center of the explosion at the time of the
bombing. At Nagasaki, patients with burns were observed out to the remarkable distance of 13,800 feet.
When you contrast these official descriptions with Hersey's account of a survivor who has to repeatedly remind himself that "these are human beings" in order to fight off the overwhelming nausea that would otherwise prevent him from helping the injured, I think you can begin to make an interesting argument about the moral and ethical implications of narrative descriptions of global catastrophe.

My goal is to make this argument and to see what conclusions (if any) I can draw about the function and purpose of "objectivity" in narratives of catastrophe.

As I think through these ideas, I'm reminded of the words of the Japanese photographer Yosuke Yamahata who photographed the devastation of Nagasaki less than 24 hours after it occurred. 

In the words of Rupert Jenkins, Yamahata's photographs represent "the only extensive photographic record of the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki" (Nagasaki Journey). 

Despite The Manhattan Project Investigating Group's "[f]ailure to find any clinical evidence of persons harmed by persistent radioactivity," Yamahata himself died of cancer twenty years later, probably as a result of the residual effects of radiation exposure at Nagasaki in the aftermath of the bombings.

In "Photographing the Bomb: A Memo," written seven years later, in 1952, Yamahata notes,
Human memory has a tendency to slip, and critical judgment to fade, with the years and with changes in life-style and circumstance. But the camera, just as it seized the grim realities of that time, brings the stark facts of seven years ago before our eyes without the need for the slightest embellishment. Today, with the remarkable recovery made by both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it may be difficult to recall the past, but these photographs will continue to provide us with an unwavering testimony to the realities of that time.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"A Good Life"

Sometimes there's airplanes I can't jump out
Sometimes there's bullshit that don't work now
We are god of stories but please tell me
What there is to complain about?

When you're happy like a fool
Let it take you over
When everything is out
You gotta take it in...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Temper, Temper

Once again I'm coming off of a week in which I was too busy to think and almost too busy to breathe.  And it's not over yet... but as God is my witness, I WILL get my grading finished by Tuesday.

I have to.  Another batch of papers is coming in on Tuesday night.

But I need a change of pace, so I think I'll blog about the bugs.  It's an all-out war.  As George Costanza's father shouted when he spotted a mouse, "I will not tolerate infestation!!!!"

Actually, I shouted that a few times as I was cleaning out my pantry last weekend.  It was my desperate effort to make myself laugh at the creepy-crawly grossness.

It turns out, the toaster had been compromised.  So I tossed it.  This may sound insane and you're probably thinking, "But just clean it... I'm sure it'll be fine...."

Oh, are you?  Are you really?  Would you keep that cavalier attitude if you knew that there was a possibility that dozens of THESE had been crawling around inside of it?

English muffin, anyone?

Yeah, I didn't think so.  Indian meal moth eggs are microscopic and each moth lays hundreds of them

Don't be naive, soldier.  There is NO margin for error here.

And if it sounds like I've gone off the deep end about this, I'd like to see how zen you are after lying on your back and your stomach with your feet hanging out of a pantry cupboard that just happens to have a lazy susan installed, trying desperately to believe that this is a battle you can actually win with a vacuum cleaner.

I can't even get to the back of the cupboard to clean it: I don't fit.

I read somewhere that they don't like bay leaves, so I put them into my canisters of flour and sugar, hoping for the best.  I never found any in there, ever, so I'm hoping.

Of course this meant that when I sleepily took the lid off of the sugar canister bright and early one morning to fix myself a nice cup of coffee, I almost jumped out of my skin.

"It's only a bay leaf.  That I put there.  Myself.  It'll be okay."

I have no idea whether this will work, but I couldn't resist a completely vindictive gesture: I was making jelly with jalapenos, and I actually put a couple of seeds on the shelf where I had found the worms.

I hope they crawl right into that little capsacin landmine and it blows their disgusting little red heads off.

Really, I'm not a violent person.  Not at all.  But it isn't much fun to live in fear every time you want to cook or eat a whole grain.  Or open the pantry.

I think the stress is taking its toll.  I bought a new trash can (not because of the bugs, but because I wanted a smaller one that fit under the sink) and the latch on it crapped out after a week.  So much for the cheap plastic option from Target.

I got so annoyed that it wouldn't stay shut that I actually pounded the lid repeatedly with my fist and then kicked the trash can.  When I realized what I was doing, I yelled, "Walk it off!" and... walked it off.

Yeah, I have a temper.  I inherited it from my dad.  We're amazingly balanced and easygoing most of the time (we're Libras after all), but every now and then, something sends us right over the edge. 

I got mad at a roll of cheap plastic wrap one time (couldn't find the end and it just kept peeling out in small strips, not a full length), so I pounded it like baseball bat on the kitchen counter and flung it against the wall.

I walked that one off too.

Time to meet your maker, meal moths.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Going Buggy

To my great shame I must admit: I have bugs.

In my pantry.  It started this summer, when I was away a lot.  I discovered, upon my grief-stricken return, that I had what are known as Indian Meal Moths in my rice.  The rice was old, it had been stored for a while, I threw it out and moved on with my life.

I bought two new, five-pound-bags of rice.  I bet you can see where this is headed.

On Sunday, I discovered larvae.  In my new bags of rice.  And my raisins.  And my barley.  And my cocoa.

When I finished shrieking and flinging things in the trash and running them out to the curb, I ran shrieking to my computer and being typing furiously.

Turns out, these bugs can be quite difficult to control or eliminate: in a lot of cases, their eggs are actually on the food that you buy.

Yeah, hey, thanks for that, Uncle Ben.  I didn't think it was possible to feel more skeeved out than I already did, but it is.

Obviously, it won't hurt you if you ingest the eggs or the larvae--or probably the moths, for that matter--although I'm reminded of the insane convict Renfield in Bram Stoker's Dracula.  He liked to eat flies.  Then he progressed to spiders, I think, then birds.

When he subsequently asked for a kitten, they told him, "No."

So anyway, there are discussion boards out there for all of those fellow-sufferers of the Meal Moths.  God, they are gross.  There is nothing that makes you less inclined to eat rice than to see it... moving.

Oh, and if you're sitting there thinking, "Well, but that's her problem: I know I'm good because I have everything stored in airtight containers," then I should let you know that while you sit on your high horse, the little moth larvae are clutching their grain-filled bellies while they laugh and laugh.

"Airtight" is meaningless.  I found one in a tupperware of barley that hadn't been opened in a year.  My new bags of rice were SEALED.

They can get in.  They just can.  If you store your grains in the fridge or the freezer, you'll prevent the eggs from hatching, if they're already in there.  Which they might well be.

One person traced the source of their home-infestation not to grain, but to a box of plastic baggies.  Basically, if it's stored for any length of time in a warehouse, it can have the eggs.

My only hope--and I realize it's a slim one, but believe me, if you saw these things, you'd clutch at any hope you could find--is that, by catching them in the "larva" stage this time around, I may have interrupted their life cycle.

I threw everything out.  I cleaned the entire pantry.  I put new bags of stuff in the fridge.  My hope is, if they're still in there, in egg-form, they can hatch but then they'll starve. 

As I said, a slim hope.  I'm clinging to it nevertheless.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Birthday With Bukowski

Tomorrow is my birthday.  I'll be 43.  And since I'll be on the road most of the day, I thought I'd blog about it today.

It's been an odd and difficult year--two years, actually--if you think about the fact that my mom died in March of 2010.

I learned a lot about life and what it does and what if offers and how you can respond. 

You can always blame someone else.  Nothing new there.

Or you can learn something new, about yourself and other people. 

What was really driven home to me in all of that is, it's just as easy--if not easier--to treat people well.  If you have--as one guy once put it to me (with a chuckle, unfortunately)--"a long history of treating women badly," you'll end up living out that legacy. 

People don't forget.

Women always have fathers and brothers and sons and husbands, as well as sisters and friends and cousins, so even if you think the damage is limited, you're always making a lot of people quite angry, when you treat someone badly. 

And they quietly watch and wait.  Most of the time, people won't openly take a stand against someone that they feel is behaving badly.  They don't like to get involved. 

But when they see a chance, they remember what happened and they speak and they act, quietly.

That was what stood out to me in my own experience this year: how many men will quietly approach and tell their wives to warn a woman they like and respect that a guy isn't all he's pretending to be.

And everyone has a story, it seems.  When it hits the fan, that's what comes out: all of the stories from years ago.  People want you to realize that you're not wrong, that what happened to you has happened to them.

It's how community is forged, through collective support.  In good times, but especially in bad.

I think of my favorite scene in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (a scene I actually wrote about, years ago). For years, Jason Compson has been sneaking around, confiscating money his sister sends him for the care of her daughter and pretending to reject the money outright, to honor his mother's wishes.

He pretends to be a dutiful brother and son, but outside of the home (and inside of it too, as it turns out), he's actually a bully and a loud-mouth. 

And everyone knows it: his family has lived in the same town all of their lives.  Everyone knows everyone.

Jason thinks women are fools.  He thinks he can do what he wants and treat them however he pleases.   He thinks he's entitled, because he's "the man" of the family.  His life didn't work out the way it should have: in his opinion, everyone else took what was supposed to be his.  He was deserving, they were not.  Life isn't fair and he has a right to be angry. 

His narrative is a litany of bitterness and scorn and blame.

Faulkner ultimately sends Jason on a wild goose chase and drags him through the mud--and a huge patch of poison ivy (my favorite moment).  When his teenaged niece meets a man, she steals the money her mother has been sending Jason and runs off.

Jason calls the sheriff, determined to have her found and arrested:  "Jason told him, his sense of injury and impotence feeding upon its own sound, so that after a time he forgot his haste in the violent cumulation of his self justification and his outrage" (378).

But instead, the sheriff simply listens to Jason's rant and then asks a series of questions.  He offers a string of quiet observations: "But you don't know they done it.  You just think so", and "What were you doing with three thousand dollars hid in the house?" and "Did your mother know you had that much on the place?" and "What do you aim to do with that girl, if you catch them?" (378-379).

When Jason angrily insists that "How I conduct my family is no business of yours," the sheriff notes, "You drove her away from home... And I have some suspicions about who that money belongs to that I don't reckon I'll ever know for certain." (379-380).

Although the law is theoretically on Jason's side, the sheriff turns Jason's years of self-vindication and angry insistence on "proof" against him, in the end.  He has treated everyone around him like crap (to put it mildly), and he's done so for years.

Now they won't help him.  When the chips are down, they refuse to back him.  They pretend they don't see.

They remember.  So they help his niece, simply by doing nothing to help him.

When Jason finally realizes, "You're not going to make any effort to catch them for me?", the sheriff comments, "That's not any of my business, Jason. If you had any actual proof.  I'd have to act.  But without that I dont figger its any of my business" (380).

Jason has spent his life taking everyone's inventory but his own and angrily telling the people around him that they should mind their own business. 

So, in the end, they do.

In my own case, out of a drama that might so easily have led to a legacy of serious male-bashing and vindictive and snarky cat-fighting, I can only say that, at the end of the day, I like people. 

They're Faulkner's sheriff, more often than not.

There's always more to someone than meets the eye.  If you use people for your own advantage, you end up forgetting that because eventually you get to the point where you see only what is useful to yourself. 

You forget what's beneath the surface.

It's in that spirit that I found this poem for my birthday.  Somewhat ironically, it's by Charles Bukowski, with whom I'm quite certain I would have had serious issues, were we ever to attempt to speak to one another.  And he certainly wasn't the most upbeat or people-friendly of poets.

Or was he?  Luckily, he wrote poetry, so that we can always think and wonder and admire.

"Poem for My 43rd Birthday"
To end up alone
in a tomb of a room
without cigarettes
or wine--
just a lightbulb
and a potbelly,
and glad to have
the room. the morning
they're out there
making money:
judges, carpenters,
plumbers, doctors,
newsboys, policemen,
barbers, carwashers,
dentists, florists,
waitresses, cooks,
and you turn over
to your left side
to get the sun
on your back
and out
of your eyes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Mean-Eyed Cat"

This is one of my favorite country songs.

It contains two pieces of essential life-advice:

1) Never question what a woman spends to accessorize.
2) Don't disrespect the cat.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tomato Sauce and Aerosmith and Other Random Things

I think I have been busier in the past month than I have been in a long time, if the infrequency of my blog postings is any indication.  There just doesn't seem to be time to write, or if there is, there isn't time to read something interesting and then write about it.

In short, the semester's ON.

I spent the weekend finishing up the last of the summer's canning extravaganza.  I finally made the last batch of tomato sauce from my garden tomatoes.  I ended up with about 10 quarts of it, I think.  It's all a blur.

And, as always, I found that the key to the entire process is finding the right band to listen to.

I'm not sure why the (really rather obscene) lyrics of "Walk This Way" seem to be particularly good to sing along with while processing tomatoes in a food mill, but that has been my own personal experience.  (When it comes time to stir the sauce, though, you need to switch to "Sweet Emotion" or "Dream On," I find.)

"Schoolgirl sweetie with a classy kind of sassy..."

On an odd side note, while I was looking on the web for "Walk This Way," I found someone who actually wanted to know what the lyrics meant, because they didn't know. 

They were told.  So now someone has some serious new knowledge to consider.

I find that looking at the comments on videos on YouTube is often more fun than watching the video itself.  My favorite was an instructional video for the macarena.   

It was truly bizarre: a British woman was demonstrating how to do the macarena and around her were various children in disco-type outfits who repeated the various dance steps with her.

A commenter wrote, "What the fuck am I watching?" 

And really, that pretty much summed up the entire experience.