Monday, March 31, 2014

The Middle Place

The Middle Place
Kelly Corrigan (2008, Voice)

    I’m of two minds about The Middle Place, perhaps because it’s too easy to like. It’s a sweet memoir about motherhood, daughterhood, and breast cancer, and part of me thinks, ‘that’s cheating!’ – because what’s not to like, or at least admire? Kelly Corrigan was a thirty-something mother of two when, in 2004, she discovered a lump in her breast, treatment for which left her bald and weak.

    “Still needing a boost, I send out an e-mail, tinkering with every sentence. It has to be upbeat so people won’t worry too much and funny so they won’t be scared to write back. It’s a big job, being the first person your age to get cancer.” This performative spirit of spunk comes directly from Corrigan’s father, George, a preternaturally optimistic advertising salesman, with a sideline in lacrosse coaching.

    When George is diagnosed with bladder cancer (having already survived prostate cancer), Kelly feels stretched and terrified. “This is impossible–me in California slicing bananas for Georgia and Claire, my brothers at work, my parents in Philadelphia tracking down second opinions and insurance authorizations.” But this is the essence of the middle place: taking care of the generations before and after without going to pieces yourself.

    The Middle Place is a warts-and-all picture of the Corrigans. I find George’s booming positivity rather wearing; not everybody wants a nickname and a pep talk. But most people like him, his daughter says, “...because his default setting is open delight. He’s prepared to be wowed–by your humor, your smarts, your white smile, even your handshake–guaranteed, something you do is going to thrill him.”

    I also feel for Kelly’s incredibly patient husband, Edward. It’s really rather preposterous for her to resent Edward’s phone calls to his own parents, considering how much of a Daddy’s girl she is. She also seems just a bit greedy when she protests vociferously about not being able to have another baby; it’s the hardest part for her about having cancer, but these things are not guaranteed to anybody.

    On the whole, though, I like The Middle Place, and appreciate its honesty. Having cancer didn’t make Kelly Corrigan a saint or a savant, just a witness. “I feel like a newly discharged soldier, a kid who was drafted suddenly and shown things she can’t forget and then paraded around town on the back of shiny convertible waving to the crowd of admirers who don’t know the half of it.” We need witnesses like that.

Email edition, April 1, 2014

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Lost Carving

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making
David Esterly (2012, Penguin)

    David Esterly carves in limewood, like his hero of three centuries ago, Grinling Gibbons. Esterly taught himself, which seems a remarkable feat, but, at the time, he didn’t know any other living people who did it. The Lost Carving is the story of a year he spent apprenticed to Gibbons, replacing some decorative work that had been lost in a 1986 fire at London’s Hampton Court.

    Gibbons’s carvings are a riot of leaves, flowers, and fruit in deep relief, made possible by the unique qualities of his material, which is “[c]risp and firm, soft enough to be carved quickly but strong enough to be radically undercut, with a remarkable grain structure that can (with a little effort) be worked in any direction.” What it permits, it also demands, according to Esterly. The round fruits, curling leaves, and weaving stems are shaped to the full depth of the wood, even in places that would have been invisible to the viewer after the pieces were in place.

    The Lost Carving comes in layers, too. The year of the carving work was 1989-90; Esterly kept a journal, and based the main part of the story on them, writing twenty years later. He has also to carve in some of the peaks and valleys of Grinling Gibbons’s career, and of his own, both before and since that time. Both in 1671 and 1989, working in a royal environment means dealing with political functionaries, with all the attendant frustrations.

    For instance, the royal apartments at Hampton Court comprised a series of four rooms, each of which had symmetrical sets of carvings over the doors. Esterly discovered that some of the panels had, at some point, been hung out of place, or even upside down, but it was quite a challenge to get them rehung in the right places. He won that one, but his strong desire to show the limewood in its original pale color was too much of a stretch.

    There was deep satisfaction, though, in discovering a piece of lost botanical technology. Grinling Gibbons worked many decades before sandpaper was invented, yet the finished work bore signs of having been smoothed, and nobody knew by what. Except – the Natural History Museum came up with a cousin to the horsetail fern known as Dutch rush, or scouring grass, which picks up silica from the sandy soil it grows in. When the plant is dried, its surface can be used to roughen or smooth the limewood surface at the very end of the modeling process.

    All this arcana is delightful in its own right, but there are some deeper lessons. Not surprisingly, Esterly says that carving is a metaphor for everything. Most obviously, writing: “In front of you the same smooth vacant surface waits, and within you the same nervous mustering of resolve, the same sense that the first stroke is important and a bad start might be ruinous.” With its fine details set in the deep sweep of history, The Lost Carving is as intricate and multi-layered as the Hampton Court carvings.

    Consider, too, that the carving tools are driven with one hand, but guided and controlled by the other. “The propulsive hand always wins, or there is no carving. The chisel moves forward to do its work. But not before its primal energy has been reined in by the constraining hand, chastened and given a tincture of purposeful intelligence.” Dynamic tension as the meaning of life – you could do worse.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Michael Pollan (2013, The Penguin Press)

    In Cooked, Michael Pollan once again displays his great range as a writer. He’s interested in life on all scales, from the large – how long it takes to cook a whole hog – to the minuscule – how many generations of yeast give their lives for a loaf of bread. His view of time is wonderfully deep, as well: our hominid ancestors started roasting meat perhaps two million years ago, but cooking in pots arose much more recently, along with agriculture. And modern life, especially the last fifty or sixty years, is bringing changes to our relationship with food that merit contemplation.

    From a certain point of view, cooking is what makes us human. Pollan cites the anthropologists who hold that this is literally true. “Taken as a whole, cooking opened up vast new horizons of edibility for our ancestors, giving them an important competitive edge over other species and, not insignificantly, leaving us more time to do things besides looking for food and chewing it.” Evolution being what it is, this was a one-way ticket. We are no longer physically capable of thriving without cooking food to make its energy more available to our outsized brains.

    Pollan is interesting in connecting our modern experiences and methods with their ancient roots, so he structures his exploration on the ancient elements of fire, water, air, and earth. This conceit finds its firmest ground in the Fire section, in which he  apprentices himself to some men who cook whole hog barbecue in North Carolina. Their art involves plenty of standing around, so Pollan picks up some good stories, and enough of their craft to roast a pig in his front yard fire pit, as a heroic and celebratory feast.

    The ‘Water’ section, on the other hand, is humble and contemplative. The subject is ‘pot food’, meat or poultry braised in liquid (including wine or stock). “More often than not, onions constitute the foundation of these dishes, usually in combination with a small handful of other aromatic but equally unprepossessing vegetables, including carrots, celery, peppers, or garlic.” This is where Pollan, having found that he can produce meals on a Sunday afternoon that he’ll be glad to see again as evening meals during the work week, proposes a counter-revolution to the middle aisles of the grocery store, where the Food Industrial Complex holds sway.

    Pollan goes into baking bread with the same hands-on spirit, becoming fascinated by the capturing of Air in rising dough. The search for the perfect crumb and crust leads him into apprenticeship with bakers, and into the study of enzymes, bacteria, and yeast; there’s a lot going on in the humble loaf of bread. “To compare a loaf of bread with a bowl of porridge is to realize how much of bread’s power, sensory as well as symbolic, resides precisely in those empty cells of spaces. Some 80 percent of a loaf of bread consists of nothing more than air. But air is not nothing.”

    And so to Earth, and further into the microbial world of beer, cheese, and sauerkraut. The small miracle of fermentation is that when we first feed the micro-organisms, they become capable of feeding us. (There are moments in the process that I think I’d rather read about than see, or smell, but Pollan is always ready to go there.) “Fermentation, like all the other transformations we call cooking, is a way of inflecting nature, of bringing forth from it, above and beyond our sustenance, some precious increment of meaning.”

    As he reminds us over and over, it’s the meaning of the table, where nature meets civilization, where we sustain ourselves with both food and fellowship. The ‘slow food’ movement does not need to be the province only of restaurants; we can have it right at home. Pollan says, “Eating and drinking especially implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget.” Brewing beer and baking bread help us remember what the world, and we, are really made of. Reading ‘Cooked’ will make you want to do more of it.

Any Good Books
January 2014

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

God’s Hotel

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine
Victoria Sweet (2012, Riverhead Books)

    When Victoria Sweet was hired at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, she planned to stay two months; she wound up working there for twenty years. God’s Hotel is, in part, the story of how she changed, as her understanding of the practice of medicine deepened and ripened. She also made time to study the history of medicine, as it was practiced by medieval monastics who ran hospices and infirmaries; she wrote a PhD thesis on Hildegard of Bingen, and walked an ancient pilgrim road.

    Laguna Honda was the right home for Sweet because it was possible there for her to be a scholar at the same time she was a doctor, with periods of half-time work and leaves of absence. In this, she replicated some of the pre-modern medicine she was studying, from the time when “medicine had not been a full-time profession but a craft, transmitted through families and learned as an apprentice. Most practitioners, therefore, were not only doctors, but doctors and something else.” That something else might be a scholar, like Sweet, or perhaps an herbalist, a farmer, or a barber. “For the patient, it meant that doctors had more than one point of reference; for the doctor, he or she had time to think about other things in other ways.”

    Sweet’s study of pre-modern medicine was particularly fitting because Laguna Hospital was one of the last places in the US delivering medical care on the ancient model of the monastic almshouse, from which European hospitals developed in the Middle Ages. Combining infirmary, hospice, and shelter, the almshouse served as God’s Hotel, the place of last resort for people who were sick or dying, and poor. Nowadays that includes homeless people, drug addicts, and the former inhabitants of mental institutions. San Francisco had, and has, plenty of such people: even though Laguna Honda operated at a capacity of 1178 patients, there was always a waiting list.

    That was partly, of course, because there wasn’t a particularly speedy turnover of patients. People with dementia, AIDS, cancer, or liver disease could stay until they either got better or died, which might take a long time. Sweet appreciated the chance to practice Slow Medicine, learning to get out of the way of the patients’ own healing processes. Sometimes she is diagnosing, and figuring out an intervention she can make with modern tools; other times, she is reducing medications, or doing her own lab work, or simply sitting with a patient, listening to the silence for a course of action, or non-action, as Hildegard might have done.

    These are mostly hopeful stories, but they are happening in the context of the slow-motion death of the almshouse, which has no place in the imagination of the modern health-care system. With its extravagant use of space, its greenhouse and farmyard from the days when work was part of the patients’ therapy, and its open wards, Laguna Honda was a relic of a by-gone era. Standards have changed, for good and ill.

    Toward the end of the book, these changing standards are physically realized in the erection of a shiny new building right next door, but the old, slow ways have been under siege for a while, at the hands of consultants, city politicians, and medical administrators. The dissolution of Laguna Honda sheds light on how it had worked for so long. Though Sweet treads fairly lightly on the personalities of those who dismantled it, ‘ham-handed’ is not too strong a word.

    The consultants, for example, had a hard time with the sight of head nurses keeping watch over their wards, not apparently doing anything. It looked inefficient, but they were missing the long view. “After the head nurses were cut in half, there were more illnesses and sick days among the staff; there were more injuries, more disabilities, and earlier retirements. Among the patients, there were more falls, more bedsores, more fights, and more tears. And this, in the broader scheme of things–even of economics–is not efficient.”

    Though bean-counting high-tech medicine may seem to have won, God’s Hotel is evidence that these things are cyclical. In addition to a masterful work of medical history and civic anthropology, Sweet has written a manifesto for a return to human-centered medicine, based on a relationship of care as well as knowledge.

    May the day come soon!

1 January 2014

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Following Ezra

Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extraordinary Son
Tom Fields-Meyer (2011, New American Library)

    Tom Fields-Meyer is a professional writer whose best story landed in his lap. He has written a wonderful memoir about the childhood of his middle son, Ezra, who is autistic. Beginning in 1998, when Ezra was two, Fields-Meyer and his wife, Shawn, have faced the challenge of raising a child who turned away from the social world in favor of various coping mechanisms, enthusiasms, and compulsive habits. Both as a journalist and as a loving father, Fields-Meyer pays close attention to what Ezra does and says; the day-to-day details are more telling than an abstract psychological or neurological theory would be.

    Having had a mostly secure and successful life, Fields-Meyer is inclined to trust the powers of research and expertise, even in such a theoretically natural realm as parenting. For Amiel, the family’s oldest boy, the books had answers that made pretty good sense; but, Field-Meyer realizes, “Ezra has a different kind of mind.... The wisdom we have drawn on to raise our first child so far isn’t going to be effective with this one. All bets are off. We’re on our own.”

    One of the unexpected things about Ezra is the pattern of his fears. He loves swings and merry-go-rounds, and he likes to climb in places that an ordinary child would quail from. At the same time, he finds noisy circumstances very stressful; he is alarmed by the motor of a water fountain; and he refuses to enter his pre-school classroom for the first week because he’s afraid of a drawing on the wall.

    He gains control of himself through extremes of organization. One of the first quirks his parents noticed was his drive to line up toy animals in precise patterns. The same drive extended his habit, a little later, of visiting animals at the zoo in a prescribed order, and later still, to learning everything there is to know about breeds of dogs. This last has the advantage of being something that he can converse about with dog owners, who recognize their shared enthusiasm along with his peculiarities.

    Ezra also makes an extensive mental catalog of various animated characters, starting with Thomas the Tank Engine, and the Sesame Street characters, moving on to the Simpsons and the complete catalogs of Disney and Warner Brothers. Fields-Meyer says, “Each obsession arrives mysteriously and unannounced, like a phantom that sneaks into our home in the night and seizes my son, snatching his focus. Nor can I ever imagine what might catch his attention next.”

    But whatever it is, he will try to use it to engage Ezra, to grab moments of attention and conversation, and to provide him with moments of restful order, some relief from the jangle of his senses. “Over time, though, I come to realize a reward: Ezra understands that another human cares about what he cares about.” With such connection comes a way for his parents to reach Ezra, to guide him, and help him learn to control himself.

    All this goes on in the context of a vibrant family life. Shawn is a rabbi, and Ezra’s brothers Ami and Noam have their own rounds of karate and violin lessons, Hebrew school, and visits with cousins. What do his brothers make of Ezra? They have never not  known him; they know he’s different, and they know he’s their brother. This is not saintliness, but it is compassion and fellow-feeling.

    A small spoiler: Following Ezra ends with his Bar Mitzvah, which is a signal triumph, celebrated by the village of family, friends, and teachers that has helped raise this special young man. It’s a fitting wrap-up to this lovely book, a worthy entrant in the growing literature of autism parenting stories. Beginning by discarding all expectations, and all hope of ready-made answers, Fields-Meyer has found a path for fatherhood in his son’s footsteps. “It wasn’t about finding the right expert for my child; it was about learning to be the right parent.”

Email edition,
December 2013