Sunday, December 30, 2018

Not the Best of the Best, but....

At the end of a calendar year, many writers make their predictable lists of the top ten whatever that impressed them in the past twelve months.  What follows is not such a list, not the best of the best; it is instead a sampling of a few articles that struck me as important and worth remembering amid all the stuff I've read during the year.

I read a lot--articles on everything from Trump's lies to the Catholic Church's failings along with fiction and film reviews--and by recording the following pieces I save them from being lost to myself, and maybe to you. Isn't writing chiefly an act of remembering?

1.  This brings me, first, to an article by Lizette Borreli on the Medical Daily website. The topic involves handwriting and memory, specifically the use of notetaking by students vs. the common practice of laptop notetaking. I have commented before on the sad neglect in our schools of cursive writing in favor of printing and computers.

I was pleased to learn from this source and several others that typing is less advantageous for learning and retention.   W. R. Klemm wrote in Psychology Today that cursive writing produces activity in various areas of the brain because writers have to pay attention to what and how they are recording. The fact that writing cursively takes longer is itself beneficial to learning; it involves thinking and summarizing skills that keyboard work does not.  Typing can be done without understanding, these psychologists report.  I am fascinated by memory and cognition as related to the writing process and maybe one day I'll understand this mysterious connection better.

2. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece in June, Frank Bruni weighed in on an issue in higher education: the abolition of major fields of study (English, philosophy, etc.) in favor of vocational subjects.   This raises many familiar questions about the purpose of a college question, which he is able to avoid by stating simply that majoring in something--focusing in depth on one subject--is a valuable corrective to the short attention spans, distractions, and overall speed of the smartphone era. "Perhaps now, more than ever," he says, "young people need to be shown the rewards of sustained attention and taught how to hold a thought."  Amen to that, I say.

3. More recently, Maria Popova in her Brainpickings newsletter, commented on a recent book by Jason Farman on waiting, a topic I had never considered.  The book is Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting, a reflection on the positive aspects of waiting.

Popova quotes Farman as contending that waiting isn't an in-between time, a hurdle that keeps us from intimacy. "Instead, waiting is essential to how we connect as humans through the messages we send."  He sees it as essential to learning and being: "In waiting, we become who we are" because the hope that occurs while waiting is essential to the meaning of life.

It's not clear from these excerpts whether Farman discusses patience or mindfulness, but it seems he goes beyond those predictable topics into new areas. I want to know more.

I hope the year about to begin gives us access to more lively ideas and above all inner peace amid the noise around us.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Prize-Winning Poem for Halloween

In the spirit of Halloween--which should, ideally, take a light-hearted look at dark and scary things--ide, I'm happy and proud to include here the poem by my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, which won First Place in the humor category recently at the Florida State Poets Association.

Lynn Schiffhorst                                                                       


When rain is falling in chilly wet sheets

And no one’s around in the town,

I pedal my bike to the churchyard and yell,

“All of you – out of the ground!”

As the bones in the clay start to whistle and hum,

They twitch and they stretch and they spring

From the flat horizontal in which they were laid

To a sitting and strutting and leaping parade.


As dancers they’re stiff, and they trample my toes,

But their smiles have a useful white glow

That light up like lanterns the dark sodden grave

Where they drop me as hopelessly slow.

How they caper and curtsey and blow the man down,

Dashing and flashing around and around,

Till I have to bellow, “Enough!  Underground!”

They go, but they go with a sneer and a frown!    


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Twin Scandals: the Kavanaugh case

As the summer ended, I was obsessed with and concerned about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, wondering if I would ever live to see significant change and reform in the clerical culture of power and entitlement that enables such abuse.

Then I was rudely interrupted by the hearing on Judge Kavanaugh and again I was reminded of the often unspoken power of the all-male closed society ("What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep," Brett Kavanaugh said three years ago) in which I too, the product of a Jesuit prep school, was educated.  And I saw that the two crises have some disturbing parallels.

I was glad to hear Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark state: "We have to smash the structures and culture that make abuse in the church possible."  But how? And who will change the political culture in which hatred, corruption,  and self-interest impede the common good?

Any real church reform, such as including women in the hierarchy, would so alienate the conservative wing that schism might occur. Maybe that would be a good thing: the Old Catholic Church could go on as an unchanging relic of the Tridentine era, with or without a pope, while the rest of the more progressive, Vatican II church would reform the all-male, celibate culture in which sexual predators lurk.  The papacy of Francis is in peril over this issue and may fail.

There are no apparent answers in either the current church or government scandal. Both require patience, cooperation and respect for one another, especially women. Twenty-seven years after the Anita Hill controversy, not much has changed in Washington, it seems: women are still viewed as objects of pleasure, and drinking dims men's consciences.   Sixteen years after what seemed like the worst revelations of clerical abuse and cover-up in the American church, more bishops are being exposed.  Words of contrition are abundant rather than any meaningful action.

In the embarrassing Senate testimony of Kavanaugh on Sept. 27, everything about his wild, raging speech and demeanor had the hallmarks of an angry drinker who is used to covering up his problems and denying anything that might sully his resume.  He came across as a man who has always been interested in only one thing: his own career.  He is the product of privilege who has not learned much about serving others from his Jesuit education.  Like so many men in the church, he has apparently fallen into a pattern of behavior in which lies, secrecy, and sexual misdeeds are part of what is expected in an all-male world.

Is there no escaping hypocrisy?  Americans, and Catholics, deserve better.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Michael Harrington's America

My high school in St. Louis had humble beginnings 200 years ago but has produced many remarkable graduates, other than myself!

The "St. Louis Academy for Young Gentlemen" was founded in 1818 and soon became St. Louis College, then in 1832, St. Louis University, the first university west of the Mississippi, with the first medical school and law school in the area.  I spent eight years at the university in various capacities as well as four years at the affiliated Jesuit preparatory school.  What I learned there has been the foundation of my personal and professional life.

I was reminded of the outstanding record of achievement at St. Louis U. High this week in a New Yorker article by David Remnick, "Left Wing of the Possible," a quote from Michael Harrington, class of '44.  Harrington, who became a leading socialist, author, professor and public intellectual, wrote "The Other America."  Remnick shows how this best-selling study of poverty in America caught the attention of President Kennedy in 1963 and led him to begin what would be completed by his successor: the war on poverty, including Medicare, Medicaid, and expanded social security benefits. As a result of this action by the Democratic leadership, poverty declined from 22% in 1959 to 11% in 1973.

Although Harrington, who moved on from St. Louis to the University of Chicago and the Yale Law School, drifted from his Catholic faith, he remained, like many others, a Catholic in spirit.  He was inspired by his Jesuit schooling to be concerned with the common good, with social justice--in marked contrast to the prevailing political climate of recent years, where even most liberal-moderates are indebted to corporations, big money, and self-interest.

Despite his radical allegiances, Harrington was valued by the Kennedys and deserves to be remembered for having had an impact on liberal public policy. I can easily imagine what he might say about today's polarized political arena, which marginalizes the poor and needy, ignores the common good,  and seems determined to undo all of the social progress made prior to January, 2017.

I am proud to be a graduate of the same distinguished school that produced Michael Harrington

Friday, July 6, 2018

Roth, Tolstoi, and the Meaning of Life

The recent death of Philip Roth has led me to read more of his fiction in an attempt to see why many have called him America's greatest writer.   Indignation and the short novel Everyman show him to be a masterful storyteller who is able to combine humor with pathos; the latter work has an amazing narrative economy, giving us a life story of its nameless protagonist in 180 pages.

But this late fiction is grim, not merely because it shows that "old age is a massacre," a depressing battle zone of pain, medication, and suffering. But because of its bleak view of life as essentially pointless.

Fiction, it is often said, reveals the truth in profound, human terms beyond the ability of philosophers. And what truth, what insight comes to Roth's alter-ego, his aging protagonist as he reviews his troubled life and looks toward death? Gazing at the ocean he has always loved, the narrator is depressed, thinking that life "has been given to him, as to all, randomly, fortuitously, and but once, and for no known or knowable reason."

He is unable to feel gratitude for this unique, random gift of life--and for all the good things in the present moment. Beyond the ongoing, ceaseless misery of life, he is unable to see any value and beauty in each day or in the people in his life.

As I completed Everyman, I thought of another similar but much greater novella: "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoi, in which the dying main character moves from a self-directed darkness of despair to the light of gratitude.  He sees in loving, in being loved and cared for, enough reason for his existence.   As Ivan's body dies, his soul comes alive in a mysterious way, and he is no longer tormented by the nihilism that dominates Roth's character.

Human life, Tolstoi suggests, is not pointless after all, even amid the bitterness of isolation and the pain and suffering because Ivan has at last found a "knowable reason" for having lived. The tragedy is that this insight comes so late; but for Tolstoi, and the reader, the point is that the redemptive insight has come. Ivan does not go grimly, hopelessly into the oblivion of death.  He has known love.

You might think that Tolstoi has written a religious story with Christian overtones. Perhaps.  The author's intentions here are not that simple. But there is a depth--call it spirituality if you wish--and a mystery to his dying character that Roth's strictly materialistic character lacks. To me, at least, his story remains ordinary, rooted in postmodern pessimism, whereas Tolstoi's "everyman" story remains profound and profoundly moving.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Heavenly Community

"No one can possibly go to heaven alone--or it would not be heaven."

So concludes a paragraph from one of the Daily Meditations by Richard Rohr, Franciscan author and speaker. He does not explain. And he sounds very certain.

Of course he expects the reader to figure it out by considering the overall reflection:  that the spiritual journey is from isolation to connectedness. Every relationship with people, animals, other cultures, and God is a manifestation of love.

But what about heaven?  We may die alone, I think Rohr is saying, but to enter heaven is to be part of a community of souls who experience a fullness of joy because they are unconditionally loved.  Those who have read beyond the Inferno of Dante know that the poet shows the souls in Purgatory working and singing together on their way to Paradise--in marked contrast to the isolated souls in Hell--and that once there, they are "seated" in a vast, circular  amphitheater, united in their relation to God, whose love they reflect.

So however we imagine heaven to be, it is not a place of loneliness and isolation. Sartre in "No Exit" famously suggested that Hell is other people. In fact, Hell means being cut off from others, from love; and it seems to me that quite often such a hell is experienced on earth. We imagine heaven as something totally different.

To paraphrase St. John of the Cross: I don't know what it will be like there; I only know a great love awaits me.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Being a Magpie, Proudly

Writers are invariably magpies, it seems to me, or at least the ones I admire are: they collect things--quotes, facts, ideas--and put them to new uses in their writing. Without feeling guilty.

I don't feel guilty about saving articles and ideas and borrowing them, as I did today when I found a valuable statement by the late poet J. D. McClatchey on "desire" that I used in completing the preface to a little forthcoming collection of my stories, called "Departures and Desires."  If I had not come upon the McClatchey piece, I would not have thought of the many implications of desire and their relevance to my stories. I am grateful to him just as he would be glad to know his readers are influenced by his words.

Writers must take whatever bits of inspiration they can find. Often, the results are worth publishing.  When I began a comic story called "Losing It" five years ago, I was conscious of following a plot device used by James Thurber--and I hoped readers would see my indebtedness and not accuse me of plagiarism or, more likely, weak imitation.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I gather ideas from others and comment on them, trying always to give credit, building something new from the scraps: this is the kind of literary magpie made famous by T. S. Eliot in his "The Waste Land."  I  believe Eliot said something like,  "All writers borrow; good writers steal."

Anyone who studies Shakespeare knows how he borrowed lines and ideas from the books he found and, with his lively imagination, turned these borrowings into his memorable verse plays, which are utterly original even in their indebtedness to other works.  This was the traditional way of doing things and still is for many authors.  Yet some writers of fiction assume that creativity means starting from scratch and inventing everything, as if divorced from literary tradition. No wonder they experience writer's block.

Harold Bloom addressed this issue in his book "The Anxiety of Influence."

When we consider our debt to our language and to all we have read, such a notion of total originality is na├»ve. Every fiction writer, no matter how many rules and structures he changes or invents, is making use of what I call creative borrowing, the appropriation and transformation of what we have absorbed in reading. 

I, for one, owe a great debt to the community of writers, living and dead, who continue to feed us.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Black and white fear in America

Brennan Walker, 14, was luckier than many black teenagers in white neighborhoods.  He escaped unhurt when a homeowner, full of the old white fear of the black male, shot at him.

The story is told in today's New York Times and elsewhere:  Walker missed his bus and so decided to walk to high school this week but got lost in a Detroit suburb.  When he knocked on a door to ask directions, the woman who answered the door yelled in panic, assuming the kid was breaking into her house.  (Do burglars knock, usually?)

Her husband picked up immediately on the hysteria and without thinking, grabbed his shotgun and fired at the fleeing youth. Luckily the police did the right thing and arrested the man with the gun.

Much will be written about this story in relation to guns, police, and the law. What hits me is the same type of racist terror that elected Donald Trump--if you accept the plausible theory that white Americans, angry at our two-term black president who was supposed to be followed in office by an equally progressive woman, took out their rage in the election, putting into office a corrupt, incompetent demagogue who appealed to their primitive (anti-immigrant, anti-minority) attitudes.

So it was fear that struck me as the lesson in this case: white fear of black power; and of course, the black fear of the ruling majority.

If only our racism could be eradicated, but that would mean the impossible task of wiping clean the sad history of racial hatred in America and, with it, fear of the "other."

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The scientist as mystic

The novelist David Foster Wallace is quoted as saying, in everyday life, "there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships."  Most of the things we worship, he continues, eat us alive.

He means our ego, our power, our possessions or beauty or intellect; if we put these at the center of our lives, we feel ultimately unsatisfied. We are not the center of the universe, after all, if we look at the Big Picture. People have often thought over the centuries that the natural world belonged to us; we are now beginning to see that we belong to it.

This insight is part of a revealing excerpt from Alan Lightman's book about the scientist as mystic: "Searching for Stars on the Island in Maine."
I am indebted to Maria Popova's recent Brain Pickings newsletter for the excerpt.

The supposed wall of separation between science and religion or spirituality has long been crumbling as more and more scientists embrace mystery and the infinite and actually say, as Lightman does, that "the infinite is not just a lot more of the finite."  He would agree with Carl Sagan, who long ago stated, "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."

Lightman, without espousing religion and while remaining an experimental scientist, goes further by saying that nature "tempts us to believe in the supernatural," that we have a natural human longing for absolutes in a world of relative, changeable things.  For this MIT scientist, humanist and writer, the link between science and religion is embedded deep in human nature itself.

In a world of impermanence and imperfection, Lightman, while remaining committed to his work in natural science, also sees the power of the unchangeable, the eternal, the sacred.  He sees these Absolutes--immortality, the soul, even God--as enduring concepts that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives. He writes lyrically of his transcendent experience one night on the ocean.

Lightman is one of many thinkers who can be at home in both worlds: that of reason and experimentation and that of the unprovable, but nevertheless real, realm of the spirit. I think of the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is remembered today more as a mystic than as a paleontologist. And reading his dense (translated) prose is a challenge in a way that reading Lightman is not.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Supporting a Corrupt Charlatan

A friend recently asked me, "Why is it that so many people still support Donald Trump, knowing what they know?"

My friend, a progressive, widely read white male, was looking for a logical answer, and I struggled to provide a response that might make sense in a crazy world.

I began with the anti-Obama white working-class men, especially, and some in the financial field who overlook Trump's apparent association with Stormy Daniels and his loose association with the truth.  These voters seem to value, I suggested, Trump's spontaneity and lack of political correctness. As for evangelicals who should be turned off by the White House resident (I refuse to call him the President) and his corruption, his foul mouth, etc., I suggested that anyone for these right-wing voters is better than a progressive Democrat because of the right-wing agenda.

In the final analysis, though, I suggested that the reason is more emotional than rational: Trump appeals to those who feel threatened---fearful--of change, of immigration, of minority advances (gays, women, blacks, Hispanics).  This fear leads to anger and hatred, and no number of inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and outright lies, no amount of incompetence can shake their devotion to the GOP leader.

It's hard to explain to explain to my friend and others the various factors involved, especially the deep-seated resentment that built up, first during the Clinton years, then surged during the Obama years, blinding many on the right to the dangerous character who's now in charge,  a man recently called by former CIA director John Brennan "a disgraced demagogue [whose place is] in the dustbin of history."

In several studies by experts in the American presidency, Trump was ranked last, beating even Warren Harding and James Buchanan as the worst inhabitants of the White House.  They now look like saints compared to this crooked, lazy, ill-informed, impulsive, incoherent, inarticulate scum-bag, whose tenure so far has put the U.S. on a dangerous course.

Trump, as several foreign policy experts have said, keeps creating problems in the world rather than solving those we already have.  Why? He says he like conflict and chaos; he really likes attention and will do and say anything, however reckless, to put himself upfront in the media.   He alarms knowledgeable, sensible people like David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary, who says we are now at a "most dangerous moment" in world affairs because of the Trump administration.  Trump has made the U.S. something of a rogue state, as unpredictable and dangerous as Russia,  sowing discord with friends with policies on trade that change as fast as you can tweet. Richard Haass calls it a government in disarray.

As Peter Baker of the NYTimes points out (3-18-18), full-time fact-checkers struggle to keep up with Trump's distorted claims. Polls indicate that most Americans see him as dishonest. "While most presidents lie at times, Mr. Trump’s speeches and Twitter posts are embedded with so many false, distorted, misleading or unsubstantiated claims that he has tested even the normally low standards of American politics."
As the media work overtime trying to keep up with the ongoing catastrophe being daily created by Donald Trump, people like my friend, looking for a rational explanation for what support he has, come up short. The answers, as much psychological as political, are rooted in the recent history of this country and in its worship of the entertainment media as a source of power. Where, after all, would Trump be without Fox News to beat the drum for mendacity and madness at the center of our government?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Making Friends with Death

Today, on a beautiful spring day, when I visited my favorite lakeside park, where snowy egrets were nesting above flowering azalea bushes, where boats with happy passengers glided by on deep blue waters and people were picnicking, why was I thinking of death? 

The reason, as several friends know, is that I have, crazy as it may seem, committed myself to do a talk with discussion at my church in a few weeks in a Lenten program called Making Friends with Death. It is a topic I have long postponed exploring, much less sharing with others.

I begin with the usual fears we have about death even though we know that trees shed their leaves, and animals and people die every day. The people are the only ones who object, calling it an outrage, the ultimate horror and enemy that cancels all we have been.

In a recent article in Commonweal, the Irish literary theorist Terry Eagleton has some suggestive, although incomplete, things to say on the topic of how to think about death.  As soon as one reaches a certain age, it seems inevitable that death and dying should become not merely something that happens to other people but an ever-present reality for each of us.

A friend recently wrote to me: "Now that I am 65, death seems friendlier."
I wish I had that optimism, for I have long had a terror, mainly about the how and the when my life would end, and with it my memories, my voice, my personality, my consciousness, all that is my self.

What will remain?  We don't know. I quote the great mystic and poet John of the Cross: "What will take place on the other side, when everything for me will be changed into eternity, I do not know: I only know that a great love awaits me."

It's impossible to fathom what existing outside of space and time, in a bodiless dimension, might mean. Dante and other poets give us metaphoric interpretations of the afterlife, but it is ultimately a great mystery: believers trust that they will be with God while others see nothing but an endless sleep, a total annihilation of the individual.

So it is a great challenge for a person of faith to look at the New Testament, at Christian tradition, and at his or her own experience and feel confident that when we die we do not end anything, as the Trappist Thomas Keating says, but experience "the final completion of the process of surrender into God." 

Christians, as Eagleton says, believe in the power of the resurrected Christ, which means that death is redeemed; yet at the same time, we see the physical process of death and decay as an abomination, our enemy, since it involves such an irreparable loss.   Death may be natural, but we don't like it or want to be around when it happens to us.

So my presentation will be provocative, daring, and difficult but I hope illuminating, at least for me, as I complete my thoughts on the great mystery that awaits us all.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Food and contemplation

A chilly spring morning finds me trying to pray, to reflect on what Ron Rolheiser has to say about prayer, and finally to try to understand what he means by saying that living contemplatively means that our lives are not trivial, unimportant, or anonymous.

When I think of the ordinary tasks of the day, I turn to my love of food and the way I enjoy Lidia's Italian cooking show on TV because she is so natural and well grounded, just as food (even shopping) keeps us grounded. I think of her as I cook and I value the time I spend in the kitchen, with the ordinary, everyday details that make up a life, from chopping to cleaning up the sink.

To work with food, to read about it (no wonder there are so many cookbooks and magazines devoted to recipes, so many restaurant reviews) is so fundamentally human; somehow doing so connects us with the earth, with creation, and with others around the world who are also chopping, cooking, eating, savoring the flavors that nature so bountifully provides.

I used to think of cooking as a creative thing, and it is; now I see it mainly as a spiritual act that reminds us how earth-bound attention to the present really is.  The life of prayer and contemplation is not vague and abstract and other-worldly; it is rooted in the goodness of everyday, in the creation of which we are a part.

To cook and to eat what we prepare is in a sense to be in communion with Mother Earth and with God's creation. This realization is itself a prayer and a reminder of how the little, ordinary things of daily life are holy, are universal and timeless; and that our humble daily tasks, which may seem tiresome or boring, are important reminders of how important everything we do is and how important every moment is.

So our lives, even if spent doing ordinary things at home, are far from unimportant, trivial, or anonymous--if we see them mindfully.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Learning from suffering

What can I learn about suffering?  That has become the spiritual question for me in recent weeks while recovering from my first hospitalization for a serious, complicated illness.

I have reminded myself daily of the inescapable fact that life involves pain and suffering; that millions are suffering around the world; that many people I know have major health challenges; and yet I remain trapped in my own mental delusion that I am unique.

I forget that  my faith teaches that love redeems the horrors of life, and so I reach out to others and welcome their good wishes and prayers, their phone calls and visits. I feel less isolated, which is one of the key aspects of suffering.

What else have I learned? To take each day at a time, refusing to worry about the future.  To appreciate simplicity: the little things I do in my home each day (cooking, e.g.) are important somehow in the bigger picture of my life.  Every task, however humble, has some meaning. I am being tested in mindfulness: full attention to the present moment.

I value the sun, the trees, the flowering azaleas here in Florida, the light as it streams through the window, the music I can access and all the other entertainments that can distract me from my discomfort.

I try to cultivate humility (a tough one) and acceptance of my human frailty. I tell myself, quoting a line from Rilke, that no feeling is final. The present headache or feeling of panic will pass. I have, after all, the most loving and wonderful of caregivers in the presence of my wife Lynn.  If prayer fails, she is there, smiling, comforting, helping me laugh.

And so I remind myself to be grateful for so much, for that fact that I am home healing and not getting (I hope) worse, that I am surrounded by love, that I have faith in God that is being tested and generally found to be solid.

Gratitude--and my sense of being connected to many friends, and to others in pain--are probably the key lessons I am learning.  But the struggle goes on, as it must, day by day.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

peacocks on board: flying pets

The picture of Dexter the peacock pictured in the press recently, lined up at the airport in Newark and being denied admission by the airlines, struck me as incredibly wacky and hilarious--but because of the crazy way some people act.

The article, in the NYTimes (2-4-18) by David Leonhardt, examines the strange policies that have developed allowing patients claiming the need for emotional support animals to board planes.   He says that Delta alone flies about 250,000 animals a year, not counting the ones  in the cargo hold.
People insist that they have a right to their pet pig, snake, bird, dog or cat, irrespective of the wishes (and allergies) of other human passengers.

When United Air said "No" recently to the woman taking Dexter the peacock along, there was much criticism. Few seemed to wonder, as I did, why a large, noisy, dirty bird could possibly provide any emotional support the woman insisted she needed for her flight to L.A.

Isn't there a big element of selfishness involved here, as people know the airlines are looking for extra money and don't bother to verify that the ticket-holder really has a medical need for an animal on board?  That's Leonhardt's point.

My point is, what about getting caring attention from other people? Have we given up on our human connections in turning to animals for support? Some people seem to have forgotten to trust each other or ask for human help.  I am thinking of human charity, sympathy, counseling, etc. rather than the extreme of resorting to a fad like relying on emotional support animals. (Obviously, the truly disabled blind, et al. have legitimate needs for their trained companions.)

I hope Dexter the peacock and his owner will open the door for reform in the airlines' policies of such flying pets.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Reading in a post-fact age

Along with the other disturbing attributes associated with Donald Trump--ignorance, corruption, boorish behavior,and general incompetence--there is his lack of interiority, a point made by Christine Smallwood in an article on the future of serious reading, in a time when the U.S. President does not read, reflect,listen well or care about truth.  He is lazy.

The essay is in the current HARPER's magazine, and asks the key question, "Does reading matter in a post-fact age, when smartphones and social media also distract us from interiority?"

Smallwood quotes near the end a statement of major importance by novelist Don DeLillo:  "If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean what we're talking about when we use the word "identity' has reached an end.  Privacy,  personhood, reading, and thinking are all wrapped up together."

I am applying this insight to my much-delayed reading of a classic English novel from 1953, THE GO-BETWEEN by L. P. Hartley, a beautifully evocative memory piece about an adolescent boy's innocence shattered during a summer in 1980.  In such fiction, we can come closer to another consciousness, and to our own, than in most other ways.

The novel was made into a film in 1973--hard to find but which I located from Korea via Amazon. It stars Alan Bates and Julie Christie, with an imperfect but intelligent screenplay by Harold Pinter, who doesn't make the central (older) narrator clear.  But seeing it lead me quickly back to reading the much more satisfying novel, which I highly recommend--and not merely as an escape from difficult times.   It sums up the essence of DeLillo's excellent point.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The best of times?

It is easy to be a pessimist when we look at this country and the world as we begin a new year: fear of nuclear war, a decline in environmental safeguards, a president who's unstable, incompetent, and worse.

But, as Nicholas Kristof reminds us in today's NYTimes, the year that just ended may have been the best year in the history of humanity.  What??

He takes the big picture and, using the new book by Steven Pinker, cites facts, e.g., a smaller share of the world's people were hungry or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before.  There are more detailed facts about how the number of people living in extreme poverty goes down by 217,000 a day, according to an Oxford economist.

The point is that we need to take a step back from the madness in Washington and the daily news, which focuses on the world's problems, and examine how the quality of life, by and large, seems to be improving, irrespective of politics, nationalism, wars, and refugees in crisis.

So maybe the world is not going to hell after all in 2018--not a bad way to begin the year.