QUESTIONS IN THE MARGIN

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When I was in college, I once blurted out in a literature seminar class about a Shakespeare tragedy  (Lear, I think):  “But what does it mean for me?”  The professor smiled gently, which meant it was all right for everyone else to laugh, and I never again asked that sort of question.  At least not so nakedly, and certainly not aloud.

Of course, this took place long ago.  Before the beginning of adult life, so to speak. These days, much nearer its ending, I seem to have begun again to make similar queries about my reading. Perhaps the self-centeredness of youth, so long suppressed in the interests of family well-being and societal give-and-take, arises again as obligations and companions become fewer and one finds oneself more and more alone with reading matter and thoughts.  Now I find myself underlining. Occasionally, I even write nearly undecipherable comments in the margin; they are baldly about me in my declining years, irrespective of the thrust of the argument or narrative I am reading, which may be going somewhere else entirely.

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One:  In a book for the general reader called Stumbling on Happiness, the author — Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard — explains, amusingly, that few people realize psychologists all take a vow that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book or chapter or article that contains the sentence: “The human being is the only animal that…”  They can finish The Sentence any way they like but also understand that whatever else they may have accomplished professionally, they will be remembered (if at all) for that sentence. He then goes on:

I have never before written The Sentence, but I’d like to do so now, with you as my witness. The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.  Now let me say up front that I’ve had cats, I’ve had dogs, I’ve had gerbils, mice, goldfish, and crabs (no not that kind), and I do recognize that nonhuman animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future. But ….[u]ntil a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or smiles as it contemplates its summer vacation, or turns down a Fudgsicle because it already looks too fat in shorts, I will stand by my version of The Sentence. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act, is a defining feature of our humanity.

My question in the margin disregarded the humor.  I demanded of Gilbert: “And what of the human being who can identify no remaining future worth living for? Is weeping all there is?”

***

Two: When Breath Becomes Air is a touching fragment of a book by Paul Kalanithi, a highly promising young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer just as he was finishing his training and died at the age of 37 while writing his story.  (His wife completed it in an epilogue to the book.)  He describes what confirmed him in his choice of neurosurgery as his specialty in the following passage:

While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability — or your mother’s — to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? … Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?

Without having to confront the trauma of brain surgery, Kalanithi’s question nevertheless resonates with me.  As one begins to experience the admittedly much slower but inexorable decline in one’s capacities that accompanies (the trauma of?) aging, it’s difficult sometimes to avoid asking: “What does make life meaningful enough to make one want to get out of bed in the morning if one still can, or at least sit up, and get on with whatever life is left?

***

Three: Somewhat more positive are the views expressed by the late Henning Mankell in a compilation of essays, written while he was dying of cancer, called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being. (Mankell is best known for his Inspector Wallander mysteries, which have been filmed both in Sweden and by Kenneth Branagh in England; both sets are available on Netflix.)  I haven’t yet read Quicksand, but did read a review of it by Sheena Joughin in The Times Literary Supplement for March 4, 2016. Thinking of life as quicksand is unsettling, but as one grows older seems more and more apt.  The following is from the review:

Quicksand is preoccupied with those who are in life yet set apart from it, as Mankell feels himself to be following his diagnosis.  He visits a church in the town of Slap to gaze at an eighteenth-century family portrait with fifteen children in it.
“What is striking and remarkable about the picture, and perhaps also frightening, is that the artist…painted the children who were already dead.” This is a consolation to Mankell….

He admits that illness has made it hard to read new books, so he returns to those he already loves, most crucially Robinson Crusoe–a story he rewrote as a child and now so important to him because Robinson, despite his isolation, is never really alone: “The reader is always with him, invisible but by his side.”….Writing his way through cancer, Mankell knows he is in an ambiguous place — between life and death, like everyone always — yet still “the same person I had been before….It was possible to live in two worlds at the same time.” Quicksand gives us that rare opportunity too.

I find heartening these observations about the power of the pictures we paint and the literature we write to keep us, in a way, not alone while we live — and still alive afterward. Should we not make pictures or write on then, till the end, leaving some aspect of ourselves still here for those who come after?

 

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FORTY-TWO THINGS TO DO IF YOU WANT TO LIVE AS LONG AS POSSIBLE

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There are many joys in living with Bill. However, one of the more dubious ones is having to deal with the ravenous hunger he’s developed since turning 80 for books about the meaning of life and other people’s thoughts on death. As he’ll be 87 at the end of January, by now we’ve got entirely too many books like that around the house, just about everywhere except next to my side of the bed.

As you know, I’m deep into an unpaid career as an ostrich about what lies ahead. So I tend to look the other way when Bill urgently presses some new reading matter of this kind on me with an endearing “You just gotta see this!”  Well, why wouldn’t I? They generally have titles like The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.  In fact, that’s the very book Bill has just thrust into my hands, allegedly for livening up the blog. (He likes to be helpful that way.)

One Day You’ll Be Dead  is by David Shields, who’s a professor in the English Department at the University of Washington and appears in his author photo on the back flap to be relatively young but bald. The front flap explains, “Mesmerized — at times unnerved — by his ninety-seven-year-old father’s nearly superhuman vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an investigation of the human physical condition. The result is this exhilarating book: both a personal meditation on mortality and an exploration of flesh-and-blood existence from crib to oblivion — an exploration that paradoxically prompts a renewed and profound appreciation of life.”

Well, I certainly appreciate life. It’s the oblivion business I have trouble with.  I’m with Woody Allen, who’s quoted in the book as having said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I would rather live on in my apartment.”

Mind you, that’s not the part Bill marked for me to read.  (I found it on my own.)  The section he feels good about is on page 186, in a chapter entitled “How to Live Forever (i)”.  I do understand that most of us, remarkably even including me, would not want to live on in excruciating pain, or as a vegetable without cognition or bodily control, thanks to the devastations of Alzheimer’s.  This is for the other kinds of living as long as possible.

Therefore, just in case any of you, even those youngsters under boomer age, might have some proactive interest in hearing the results of Shields’s research on the goal of living as long as possible, I am typing it out here.  That will make Bill happy and get the book out of my office and back onto one of his many shelves. Which will make me happy. I’ve put in the numbers, to make reading easier. Here goes:

If you want to live longer, you should — in addition to the obvious: (1) eating less and (2) losing weight — (3) move to the country, (4) not take work home, (5) do what you enjoy, (6) feel good about yourself, (7) get a pet, (8) learn to relax, (9) live in the moment, (10) laugh, (11) listen to music, (12) sleep 6 to 7 hours a night [that’s all?] (13) be blessed with long-lived parents and (14) grandparents (35% of your longevity is due to genetic factors), (15) be married, (16) hug, (17) hold hands, (18) have sex regularly, (19) have a lot of children, (20) get along with your mother, (21) accept your children, (22) nurture your grandchildren, (23) be well-educated, (24) stimulate your brain [does blogging count?],(25) learn new things, (26) be optimistic, (27) channel your anger in a positive way, (28) not always have to be right, (29) not smoke, (30) use less salt, (31) have chocolate occasionally, (32) eat a Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish and poultry, (33) drink green tea and moderate amounts of red wine, (34) exercise, (35) have goals, (36) take risks, (37) confide in a friend, (38) not be afraid to seek psychological counseling, (39) be a volunteer, (40) have a role in the community, (41) attend church, (42) find God.

Father Shields’s scorecard was 38 out of 42. (Son Shields admits his dad has lost his sense of humor as he’s grown older, so I’m not sure how he scores number 10. Maybe that’s one of the four his father didn’t get.)

I don’t do nearly as well as Shields the elder.  I can’t get along with my mother because she’s gone, and was very difficult to be with before that. Church has never been in my life, and I’m not so sure about God, either. It’s hard to nurture my grandchildren, although I’d like to, because they live quite far away and are very busy with their own pursuits. I do like being right, although I no longer fight on the beaches and refuse to surrender. I sleep more than 6 or 7 hours and don’t know whether that’s extra brownie points or points taken away. I used to smoke, but stopped on June 6, 1969, so how do we score that? And the parents/grandparents: how do we define “long-lived?”

But Bill says we’re doing everything right, despite the occasional hamburger, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.  I say it’s not quite a crock of you-know-what because it does point us in the right direction, but take it with a grain of salt.  (Not too many grains, though.)

And now we’re done and can go back to what we were doing before I began.  I hope Bill is pleased.