Saturday, June 30, 2012

An Impersonal World

Every time I visit a medical specialist--not my family doctor or dentist, who give me good personal attention--I encounter the impersonal syndrome, which consists of never hearing my name, first or last, mentioned by the celebrated specialist for whose ten minutes of time I have had to wait for two months.

This happened again yesterday when my appointment was finally scheduled. After waiting for 45 minutes in a sterile room, with nothing to look at but dull walls, the man himself appears, seems to shake my hand and reassure me my case is of no great importance; therefore he evinces little interest in me because he can't do surgery and therefore won't make any money from me. At no point did he refer to me as "Mr. Schiffhorst." Or even "Gerald," widely used by the assistants who are total strangers to me. Or "sir." Their only interest is in seeing my insurance cards. They seem pleased when I leave, wishing me a good day: one less patient to deal with.

Escaping from the specialist's office, my wife and I headed for a favorite restaurant, where the server, having seen my credit card at the end of the meal, called me by name, even pronounced correctly. As a result, he got a generous tip.

It happens so rarely that I am given such personal attention that it comes as a shock. I guess the decline in civility has to do with the speed of our culture and the population growth, or with the fact that most people are doing work they don't really want to do. One would think that, with the decline in the economy, clerks and servers would go out of their way to say "thank you, Mr. Schiffhorst" or whatever.

But the most common response I get in stores is: "There you go" or "Have a nice day." What happened to thanking the customer? And in the intimacy of a medical office, the use of the patient's name would seem to be taken for granted.

The junior medical staff are not trained in civility; the physician's assistant who examined me with rapid-fire questions that repeated the information I had provided in the 10 pages of forms I filled out was equally impersonal. But she smiled as she left the room.

My cat gets much more personal attention at the vet than I usually get in the medical offices I visit. The staff there reassure the frightened puss with soothing sounds ("Oh, Lizzie, you're going to be OK") that she cannot comprehend. The apprehension bordering on terror that I, as a human patient, might be feeling is never considered by a medical staff that, by and large, is on automatic pilot.

I hope that the newer medical schools, such as our own at the University of Central Florida, are doing something to train doctors to pay attention to the person in the room, to listen to what he or she has to say, and to look at the patient, not just the chart, and treat each person with respect and try at least to provide the reassurance they need.

Is this asking too much?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Read to Write

I don't often read brand-new novels, but when I saw several glowing reviews of Peter Cameron's "Coral Glynn," and when I found it by accident in the public library where I am teaching my annual writing workshop, I decided to give it a try.

Somehow, I was hooked; maybe the length of the novel (about 200 pp.) suggested that I could read it in an hour or two; maybe the clarity and intelligence of the style appealed to me, along with the fact that the story was set in England in 1950.

The remarkable thing about this is that the author is an American and is one of those insightful and brave male writers who is able to create a credible female heroine in the tradition of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. Or the Brontes, since the title character, a nurse, is rather like Jane Eyre--alone in the world, nervously reacting to the complexities of a society she knows little of.

So we have a novel of manners, a social novel whose tone is made possible--and this is the main point I want to make--by his years of reading novels of this type and listening to English people talk in print, in movies, and in real life, too. The result is a singular achievement for an American: an authentic-sounding English novel that captures the nuances of class, the awkward nervousness of an employee in an upper-class family sixty years ago.

It is not, of course, a novel in which much happens in the sense of action; yet a great deal happens in the inner lives of the characters, which is why I read fiction to begin with. How did Cameron learn to create such a fictional world? How did he develop such a fine ear for style?

It is said that all writers borrow, consciously or (more often) unconsciously. We absorb the language and idioms of a place and people and an awareness of our debt to all the writers that have preceded us. This point has been made by T. S. Eliot years ago and later by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence. In saying that Cameron has a pitch-perfect ear for language, for example, I am borrowing a term, perhaps trite already from overuse by reviewers, that I have read somewhere.

We all are products of what we hear and experience, and this is especially true of writers. So it should surprise no one when I tell my students that, along with daily writing, there must be wide reading, especially in the genre they aim to write, whether it's non-fiction or fiction.

I am not suggesting they become derivative and avoid originality; rather, that they develop an ear for language that comes after a long immersion in well-crafted prose in which they pay attention to the word choice and sentence style of skillful authors. Then they can move from being writers to being authors themselves.

Robert Louis Stevenson spent three years reading the masters before trying to get published; it was time well spent.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Are we cheapening our language?

Is the use of texting, tweeting, e-mailing, and blogging ruining the English language? The question is a recurring one in the media, and just recently I saw an editorial in the magazine N+1 posing the question: does writing on the internet and other electronic media cheapen our language?

The answer is yes, but in two senses: the good sense (writing is more available to all, with publication more democratic) and the bad (ease leads to carelessness and confusion). Bloggers, says the editorial, write off the top of their head and in the conversational rush produce sloppy prose. There is no time for revision.

If all online writing takes on the quality of blogs, it is said, to write well--indeed, to write anything--will seem "pretentious, elitist, and old-fashioned."

Well, there's nothing like hyperbole to catch the reader's attention. The blogs I read do not seem especially careless, rushed, unedited nor do I see a connection between blogging and texting, tweeting, etc., though my exposure to these last two has been purposely minimal.

I confess that my posts on this blog are done under a self-imposed deadline and are less carefully revised than other writing I do for publication, but I naturally revise and edit everything, keeping in mind my admiration for interesting, original sentences, not to mention the demands I place on my writing students.

The 40-character limit of tweets limits itself to the trite and superfluous, at times, as when people chat about what they had for lunch (one respondent asking, why eat anything if you don't write about it?). Yet maybe the next Oscar Wilde, the next Dorothy Parker, masters of epigrammatic wit, are waiting to be born on Twitter. Who knows.

What concerns me is that young people reading and writing only condensed, abbreviated slangy chit-chat will assume that other forms of writing, including business e-mails and blogs, should be equally informal and so all their writing will take on the style approximating that of the late David Foster Wallace, which I would describe as controlled verbal chaos.

Writers often overlook the central role of reading as they shape sentences and choose words. And they forget that there is no writing without rewriting. My advice: read good stuff to counterbalance the tweets and always produce carefully revised prose when you write, no matter who your audience is, especially if your work is "out there" for the world to see.

Good writing will never be pretentious, elitist, or old-fashioned.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Wanted: Patience

Patience, that elusive and difficult virtue, is always in short supply. As I dealt recently with several friends in turmoil, I asked myself, can patience be taught?

How can I help a student of mine whose family, like him, acts impulsively, often with anger and criticism? When I hear myself saying, "Be patient," I realize how useless and absurd it is.

We are all impatient in our daily lives--with stupid politics, advertising, telephone solicitation, traffic problems--and sometimes with good reason. It takes heroic saintliness to rise above these irritations and smile with patient understanding.

Earlier in my career, I investigated the history of patience in philosophy and the arts, with special focus on the Stoic and Christian meanings this word accrued over the centuries. I was fascinated to learn how much had been written about patience as spiritual fortitude, and how this is found in Shakespeare, Milton, and other writers of the English Renaissance, which I taught. The result was my first boook, The Triumph of Patience.

Although I learned a great deal about the virtues of resistance and endurance as they were once understood, I was no better off dealing with my own impatience over trivial mistakes or dealing with others. I sometimes see patience as a result of fear, leading to anger: fear that we are not being heard, not being respected, not getting what we deserve, or simply running out of time as we sit stupidly in front of a non-functioning light or clerk or computer.

We seem hard-wired to be impatient and angry, like the protagonist in Russell Banks's fine novel Affliction, which I am reading. It is a study in male violence, among other things, and has good insights into postmodern masculinity. The full meaning of its title will become clear as I read further.

I want to say to this character, as to my impatient student, "Slow down. Breathe. Listen. To listen well is a great skill that means putting your own ego on hold for a while so you can give full attention to another. And when you speak, think of what you are going to say so that you don't blurt out something harmful to others or embarrassing to yourself or both."

Yet no one can undo the schooling in impatience that is acquired from one's upbringing and one's culture, which moves a ever-more increasing speed. So perhaps the best I can do is try to slow down myself, listen patiently, and try to be a model of what patience might be.

Obama seems to be a patient man, rarely unruffled, or so it seems. Yet as a leader, he recently advocated action on various social and economic issues that cannot wait: like civil rights, he said, we cannot afford to be patient in the midst of crises that we are responsible for solving.

But on the personal and family level, waiting patiently is often just what is needed when conflicts arise. If impatience is like anger, patience is like love: hence the Bible says, "Love is patient." This is not romantic love, of course, but love in the fullest sense, the love that leads us to see others as worthy of caring, respect, and selflessness. It is the love that endures all things.

We all need a daily dose of patience; its source is within each of us.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What is Good Fiction?

Although I know the question I posed is impossible to answer in a single word or sentence, since it would take a full-length book to address some of its implications--and even that would likely end up being largely subjective--I am, having just read the latest novel by Julian Barnes, tempted to respond with one word: intelligent.

The Sense of an Ending, which at 163 pages can be completed in one sitting, is an amazing achievement. The few main characters come alive with sprightly dialogue, an equally lively narrator-protagonist, and deft description. For example, Barnes describes the first sight of the "Fruitcake" who haunts his protagonist's life as follows: "About five foot two with rounded, muscular calves, mid-brown hair to her shoulders, blue-grey eyes behind blue-framed spectacles, and a quick yet withholding smile." That tells us a lot in one sentence.

The narrative, which is filled with reflections of regret, nostalgia, and desire, moves along quickly, with a surprise at the end, and manages to deal with some important ideas, chiefly time and memory but also love, death, suicide, sex, jealousy, and aging, among others. It is a clever book, as the Brits would say, and it is very English in many ways.

When I pick up such a novel, I look, of course, at the opening to see if it is original or engaging enough to interest me. I look at the style, and here I find sentences that unfold with effortless ease, conveying an intelligent male narrator who makes every word, every sentence count. It is all done with what the Italians call "sprezzatura."

The tone with its questions is elegiac, reflecting on the vagaries of memory. On the first page: "What you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed." This becomes a running theme, elegantly stated yet conversational, as if we are overhearing a man look back forty years to the friends of his youth and wonder if he ever knew them; and we the readers are flattered to be included in his ruminations, which are by turns witty, bawdy, colorful, and always analytical as we think, too, about the slippery nature of time.

Tony, the novel's narrator, asks, "If we can't understand time, can't grasp its mysteries and pace and progress, what chance do we have with history--even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?"

It is rare to find a novel of ideas that has real feeling conveyed so concisely, but then this is Barnes' 14th novel and 17th book: he knows what he is doing. His style is enjoyable, varied, a model for writers, yet we hardly notice it as we move swiftly to the conclusion of the book, where we find no easy answers to the many questions the narrator has raised. "Time grounds us, then confounds us," we are told.

I can easily imagine a film (for viewers of a certain age) based on this novel starring Bill Nighy, with his clipped, detached, bemused manner, and directed by Steven Poliakoff, who has done a lot of films involving time and memory. He would enjoy the question posed so well here: How far can we go re-imagining our younger selves?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Is racism waning?

I have asked readers to respond to my question about whether we are becoming more color-blind as a society. Is the younger generation less acutely aware of "difference" when it comes to race? My friend Ned sent me a lengthy, thoughtful response I will refer to in the hope that others may join in the conversation.

Based on watching his granddaughter play basketball at their central Florida high school, and noting the fans, Ned notices less color blindness than he might have expected in the past, with black and white students hanging out together, playing as equals, and never (around him) mentioning the issue of race.

Although there is a black "sub-culture" of sorts in language and in more subtle things, he finds that, among the teenage girls on the sports teams, there is a lot more color blindness: "they tend to bond, as girls, and are ready to overlook differences in order to get along." Being friends and teammates is more important to them than race.

But (and there is always a "but" in such matters, it seems) outside of sports, there is less color blindness as fans tend to sit with others of their color. And, among the fans, Ned says, racial lines seem more clearly drawn than among the players.
He suggests that on the surface, things seem to have improved (certainly over the past 40 years or so), based on this selective study; yet deep inside, everyone knows there are differences.

Often this awareness of difference, I suspect, is unconscious among the young. And only sometimes will full acceptance of the "other" as "non-other" transfer into adult friendships between the races. Changes in this area seem to move with glacial slowness, even though the overt signs of greater acceptance of blacks in white America have dramatically shifted in the past fifty years.

The age of Obama, I think, has made every public issue racially sensitive; there is scarcely anything related to the federal government that does not have some subtle racial overlay, some awareness on the part of white people that we have our first African-American president. The fact that his mother was white, that he is bi-racial, is hardly ever thought of.

And yet, like the students and fans Ned observed, awarness of difference does not add up to racism, a form of hatred and bigotry, based on the belief that one group is inherently superior to everyone else. Racism will more and more become marginalized to the extremes of the supremacists, but it will not vanish. Yet racism has indeed waned, even if total acceptance of one racial group by the other has not taken place.

At issue is a problem of assimilation that is occurring throughout the first world, not just in the U.S. Immigration, often advocated as essential for economic reasons, is opposed by many Europeans and others who resent the stranger, the outsider as some unconscious threat to the establishment or to the safety of the society. So America is not alone in this difficult terrain of learning tolerance.

Will the U.S. grow more tolerant, having had a bi-racial president, having had more and more non-whites make their contribution to our multicultural society? We can only hope so, with time and patience, with education and openness of mind and heart.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pain, Suffering, and JFK

Reading Chris Matthews' recent book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, reveals (at least to me) some new facets of this president's complex character. Along with the glamor and charisma, the womanizing and idealism, and all the rest, there is the skinny, lonely kid who learned early on that he was not likely to live long. He also had to endure amazing coldness on the part of his ambitious family.

His favorite poem: "I Have a Rendzvous with Death." His family and friends are unanimous in saying, "he never complained"--even after multiple hospitalizations for pneumonia, stomach pain, severe back pain and surgeries, injections, Addison's disease, etc.

Instead of suffering, he chose humor, looking for people with whom he could share a laugh. And he turned to reading, creating an inner life based on the old heroic model of what Hemingway called grace under pressure. He was determined to live every minute as if it were his last, no matter what the doctors said, no matter how great the pain.

I suggested earlier that pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. The two terms are often used interchangeably, yet suffering, for me, is the mental anguish and worry that we tend to fall back on when faced with pain. There are times, and JFK is an example, of how we can choose not to suffer.

As I was reading this book, my wife, in another instance of the synchronicity that often occurs in my life, handed me a 2006 article by Margaret Roche Macey, who was then dealing with terminal cancer.

She begins with a reflection on watching late into the night for the moment when darkness comes and overtakes the light: to her surprise, it never actually came. Instead, "the darkness actually grew [since] had always been there just waiting for the light to leave..."

She then asks, Do we likewise always carry our death within us rather than wait to meet it in a hospital bed? From this question comes an insight that God (light) is within (inside the darkness), "at the center of all that you most fear."

JFK developed a strong will; Macey developed a deep sense of prayer leading to an insight that death, like darkness, is not an "other" experience--separate from us--but an inseparable part of life and thus not something to be feared.

Both Kennedy and Macey seemed to transcend pain and avoid suffering by turning inward to the Spirit. As I deal with my own (minor) back pain now, these experiences of courage and faith are of inestimable importance, as I know they are to many others.