QUESTIONS IN THE MARGIN

Standard

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.

***

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?

 

Advertisements

WRITING SHORT: 36/50

Standard
[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

An idea I first encountered in a senior college course called “The Individual in History” has remained with me as useful for considering many questions:  Throughout recorded time human beings haven’t been able to survive as individuals, and have always required the support of some kind of community. But as soon as there are such communities, whether familial, tribal, municipal, or national, they have needed rules, regulations, ordinances, laws – to keep the competing interests of the various individuals within them in balance.  That means an individual’s own needs or desires may sometimes (often?) conflict with what the community decides it needs.

What is the individual to do in such an instance? Under what circumstances is it permissible to disregard what the community has determined is right?

If you’re late for an important meeting, is it okay to park by a hydrant now because you can pay the ticket later?

If you’re in a hurry to get home at two a.m., is it okay to run a red light on a deserted street because no cop is likely to catch you?

If you’re under-withheld on your taxes, is it okay to fudge deductions because the Internal Revenue Service may not spot it?

If you meet an attractive new person, is it okay to cheat on your husband/wife/lover/partner because you may not be discovered?

Is it okay to stop paying child support for your first set of children because there isn’t enough left over from supporting your second set and if you can’t be found, the state will support them instead?

If you’re a genial, generous boss with terrible cash flow problems (as in my last piece), is it okay to violate federal securities law governing employee tax-deferred retirement accounts to make payroll, because it’s just for a while and you fully intend to make good later?

Is it okay for pharmaceutical, insurance and other major corporations (considered artificial “persons” under the law) to curry legislative favor with secret, impermissible gifts and cash because if the gifts and cash are discovered, it will be the legislators and not the corporate artificial “persons” who’ll suffer?

There’s no end of places your mind can go with a good college education. You’ll never be bored.

WRITING SHORT: 33/50

Standard
[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

An only child, I wanted an older brother. Someone who would show me the ropes, protect me if necessary, later on have friends who might date me.  Now I’m gender-neutral in my preference, with a slight inclination towards a sister, older or younger. Someone who’d remember our parents with me, remember our growing up together, the places we came from and the people we knew. Someone connected with my past.

So why would anyone discard what I wanted and never had? Why haven’t Bill’s second wife and her only brother talked for over thirty years? (She does stay in touch with one of his sons.) The two of them know; no one else does.  Bill’s first wife didn’t speak to her sister, ten years her senior, for decades. When the sister died at 89, only Bill’s son by that wife and his grandson went to the funeral.

Two of Bill’s three nieces don’t talk to their sister. The brother-in-law of Bill’s sister’s husband cut off all contact with his own brother, who later died still unspoken to. One of Bill’s first cousins won’t talk to his sister.

Bill says it’s not just his relatives, and not just siblings. That must be true. My second husband’s two nieces fell out over their mother’s care when she was dying fifteen years ago.  Since then they haven’t spoken. The only sister of one of my daughters-in-law not only refuses to speak with their father but to be in the same room with him.  That’s not between siblings, I admit. But she wouldn’t attend her own sister’s wedding because her father — also the bride’s father — would be there.  Neither bride nor father have any idea why.

How common is this? Among Bill’s former patients, a distinguished professor rejects his brother; a prominent cardiologist won’t speak to his. “Let me give you more examples,” says Bill.  “No, no,” I reply. “I’m writing a short piece.”

Perhaps bitter differences over the care of a dying parent  are understandable. But what are the other reasons? She’s too outspoken? He doesn’t carve the turkey right? I’d take that sibling in a heartbeat. Maybe someone with siblings of their own could enlighten me.

WRITING SHORT: 32/50

Standard
[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

What if I’d been less timid in days gone by? Such as when teaching Freshman English at USC.  Aged twenty-two, I would sit cross-legged on the front desk in pencil skirt and white linen blouse, imparting my view of life to a group of sorority and fraternity pledges, a few Korean War vets, and several members of the Freshman football team who sat slouched against the back wall, exchanging sotto voce opinions about my ankles and other anatomical parts.

The weekly writing assignments generally resulted in compositions mediocre to bad. (I was not an easy grader.) However, one stood out. The writer had a strong sense of what was wrong with the world and no hesitation about putting it on paper. Despite his technical mistakes, I gave him an A minus and a “See me.”

He was eighteen, and not frat material. Not a jock either. Strongly built, tall and suspicious, he was racking up D’s and F’s in all his other courses. They were basically crap, he said. He’d pretty much stopped going. How come the A minus? I told him how come. I encouraged him. He wrote more. He never missed a class. He hung around afterwards, wanting to talk. Intrigued, I listened.

His father had thrown him out a year before, for unacceptable behaviors he didn’t itemize. He was living on his own and paying for college by running drugs into California from Mexico on a boat belonging to his uncle. (Whether the uncle knew was not made clear.) He’d had girls, but never a keeper. Soon he was wishing for someone like me.

I had a steady boyfriend. Tony was my student, and four years younger. But I’d never before met a strong, angry drug runner  who wanted someone like me. I let him buy me a beer.

We had the beer at an out-of-the-way bar where no one would see. Then his eyes asked the question. I chickened out. The next semester, he left school. He’d knocked up a girl and was marrying her. He said It was the right thing to do.

All the same, I sometimes wonder. Suppose I’d gone down the road less traveled. Would my life have been different? Would his?

WRITING SHORT: 14/50

Standard
[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Three summers ago I stopped to inspect a vegetable display at a large supermarket where I don’t usually shop. It was mid-afternoon; the produce section was nearly deserted. Lying on top of the cucumbers was a worn black wallet.

Before bringing it to the customer desk, I looked to see who it belonged to. Nothing inside but paper money. No driver’s license, credit or insurance cards, identification of any kind. No way of knowing who had left it there. Finders keepers, losers weepers?

Without further thought, I thrust the wallet deep into my shoulder bag and pushed my shopping cart casually down the aisle while my heart pounded. Only after I had passed checkout with a few purchases, driven home and locked the door behind me did I open it again. It held $143 in fives, tens, twenties and singles. I was a thief!

But was I? Surely the money would eventually be missed. Yet would its absent-minded owner remember where she left it? If I’d turned it in, how could she claim it as hers? By identifying the exact amount of money inside? Would she remember that? After a day or so, wouldn’t one of the teenage summer staff develop itchy fingers?  I put the money away and dipped into it only for household cash. Then it was gone, and I could forget about it. Except I couldn’t.

A strict ethicist would tell me not to keep what isn’t mine. Another person might say it’s not my job to pick up after unknown careless people. When is stealing stealing? I still don’t know.

THE THINGS WE TRY NOT TO THINK ABOUT

Standard

A member of a book group of which I am a desultory member circulated by email yesterday a paragraph for group members to consider discussing when next they meet.  It’s from Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Mary Ann Cross).  In case you are unfamiliar with the novel, Middlemarch is a town in mid-nineteenth century England and Dorothea, mentioned at the beginning of the quoted paragraph, is an idealistic young woman who wants more than a conventional married woman’s life and has therefore married Causaubon, a dry scholar many years her senior, thinking she will find intellectual and personal fulfillment in helping him write a great book.  Mind you, marriage was permanent in that place at that time.  No “Oops! I made a mistake! I want out!”

A truly bad marriage today may not be, for most people,  as irreparable as it was for Dorothea.  But almost all of us have confronted a “new real future” which replaces “the imaginary.” What do you think of the paragraph, especially the part I’ve put in bold?

Not that this inward amazement of Dorothea’s was anything very exceptional; many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to ‘find their feet’ among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs. Causaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic.  Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual.  That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

Having been blogging and reading blogs for a year and a half now, I am more and more aware that under the torrents of words on the screen, some apparently quite personal (and often beautifully written), there are great silences. That’s certainly true of my own.  And even in the non-digital space of private life, much remains unsaid.  What’s more, do any of us let ourselves hear that roar on the other side of the silence? Don’t we wad our inner ears against it?  Could we bear it if we didn’t?

Or is that too serious a question for a blog?

IN PRAISE OF “WHY”

Standard

When I was small, my mother often called me “Miss Why.”   Mine were not the sort of repeated “Why?”s to which an exasperated mother could snap back, “Because I said so!”  I really wanted to understand why things were the way they were.

Why was it all right to go to the bathroom with other little girls, but not with little boys?  Why did I have to stop being a leftie in kindergarten and start using my right hand? (Even if it made me stammer.) Why didn’t I have cousins and aunts and uncles and grandpas and grandmas like everyone else? Why didn’t Daddy like it when the unmarried lady upstairs brought a Christmas tree down to our living-room and decorated it with a Star of Bethlehem at the top — just for me?

My poor mother had wanted a sweet little girl with Shirley Temple curls, not a pint-sized inquisitor.  As soon as I could read, my parents bought me the Book of Knowledge — a sixteen-volume encyclopedia for children popular in the 1930’s, with enough pictures and stories on every page to keep me quiet for a long while.

I did eventually learn to be quiet when necessary. (See next paragraph.) But I still need to understand why things are the way they are — with the people I know or have known, or loved and married, or raised and sent out into the world, or cannot forgive.  And then there’s the world itself — the smaller one I live in now, the larger one I used to work in, and the much larger one we all inhabit.  Why are things the way they are there?

I just don’t often ask aloud anymore. After you grow up, you soon learn it may often/usually/always be wiser — or even mandatory — not to probe in front of other people. Besides, I’m a big girl now and probably can figure out most of whatever it is for myself, as much as anyone can.  I can spot superficial explanations, smell shitty ones, turn away from the politic ones, the expedient ones, the ones designed to deflect further “Why?”s.  I don’t let myself get away with much anymore, either.  (Why did I do/say that?  Why was I so needy, boastful, negligent, unkind?)

Of course, I also now know there’s no full and comprehensive answer to any “Why.”  But without the question, the world is not only mysterious but oppressive. Especially where there’s so much suffering and pain — how can one not ask “Why?”

Other people seem less bothered at not knowing the “Why” of things.  Some trust in God, believing there are divine reasons which will be made manifest hereafter. Others are more interested in the answers to easier questions — “What?” and “When?” and “Where?” and “How?” — and with being first to pass them on. (The reportorial approach.)

And then there are the therapists, in their professional capacities less concerned with the ontology of it all than with “How does that make you feel?”  (Alone with themselves in the night, though, don’t they too cry out “Why?”)

In the end, all we may have are provisional answers to small questions. A disciple asked Socrates, condemned to drink poison in thirty minutes, why he was still practicing his flute.  “So that I may learn this song,” he replied.

But we wouldn’t have known that if someone hadn’t asked “Why?”