Friday, February 27, 2009

The Blind Side

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
Michael Lewis (2007, W. W.Norton)

Michael Lewis is an economist whose reportorial bailiwick is the market forces in business (Liar’s Poker, 1989), and sports (Moneyball, 2004.) In The Blind Side, he has turned his attention to the question, ‘why is the left tackle worth more than other offensive linemen?’ (In the NFL, he may be paid more than running backs and receivers, occasionally more than the quarterback.)
The question is interesting because linemen used to consider themselves interchangeable; but all that changed with the beginning of Lawrence Taylor’s professional career. “In Taylor’s first season in the NFL, no official records were kept of quarterback sacks. In 1982, after Taylor had transformed the quarterback sack into the turning point of a football game, a new official NFL statistic was born.” Because Taylor and his successors want to attack the (righthanded) quarterback from his blind side, they come from the right side of the defensive set, and a special breed of left tackle has evolved to stop them. They are tall, wide, and quicker than people their size have any right to be.
The other side of Lewis’s book is the story of how all this helped Michael Oher get a pass out of Hurt Village, one of the poorest sections of Memphis, Tennessee. At fifteen, ‘Big Mike’ stood six feet five and weighed three hundred and forty-four pounds when he was fifteen. (It took a cattle scale to determine this: “On the light side, for a cow, delightfully beefy for a high school sophomore football player.”) That’s why, at twenty-one, he stands to make millions in the NFL after one more season of college. Oher plays left tackle for the University of Mississippi, which means he guards his quarterback’s back, and knocks down everybody who tries to get near it.
Oher’s childhood was about as neglected as you can possibly imagine; his mother spent whatever money she got on drugs, and the school and foster care systems pretty much forgot about him from ages eight to fifteen, time he spent drifting from household to household, and playing a lot of basketball.
Through a combination of luck and error, he was enrolled at Briarcrest Christian School, in rich, white Memphis. The school didn’t really see a way of overcoming his educational deficits so he could play football, but then a classmate’s parents took an interest. Sean Tuohy quietly made sure he had money to eat lunch, and his wife Leigh Anne took him shopping for clothes. “It struck others as perhaps a bit aggressively philanthropic; for Leigh Anne, clothing a child was just what you did if you had the resources.” One thing led to another, and the Tuohys brought Michael home to live with them and their two children; they found a tutor to help get him through school, and wound up making him part of their family.
By then, the coaches at Briarcrest had taken notice of Michael as a potential shot-putter, basketball player, and offensive lineman. His skills were raw but enormous. The more adept he got at flattening oncoming defenders, the more college coaches wanted to get to know him. “The wooing of Michael Oher was pure southern ritual: everyone knew, or thought they knew, everyone else’s darker motives, and what didn’t get said was far more important than what did.” Sean and Leigh Anne’s alma mater, Ole Miss, had the inside track, but Michael did not object to being courted, especially if private airplanes were involved.
Lewis is quietly scathing about the NCAA, which sent an investigator to see what all this signified. “They didn’t care how things were, only how they could be made to seem. A poor black football star inside the home of this rich white booster could be made to seem scandalous, and so here they were, bothering Michael.” He points out something Michael also spotted, that by way of protecting needy high school kids from exploitation, NCAA rules serve to keep them needy--as Sean Tuohy knew well from his own years at Ole Miss, though he survived to become a rich man.
Such ironies abound in Lewis’s story. In the first place, if Michael Oher had been six feet tall, you’d never have heard his name. His size was his good fortune, but his speed and agility were built in those middle school years when he was ditching school, working on his private plan to be the next Michael Jordan. The story is heartening and appalling at the same time: the good news is that a completely unlettered fifteen-year-old can go on to get a college education; the bad news is that this required the concentrated energies of one wealthy and generous man and two extremely determined women, and that there are tens of thousands more where he came from. “The inner city of Memphis alone teemed with kids whose athletic ability had market value. Very few ever reached their market. ...(Pity the kid inside Hurt Village who was born to play the piano, or manage people, or trade bonds.)” That one breaks my heart.

March 2008

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cheer!; The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats

Cheer! Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading’s Ultimate Prize
Kate Torgovnick (Touchstone, 2008)

The Backwash Squeeze & Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer’s Journey into the World of Bridge
Edward McPherson (HarperCollins, 2007)

It’s not that I’m so fascinated by bridge, or cheerleading, exactly-- indeed, as these books amply point out, these are among the most gloriously pointless enterprises our species undertakes--but obsession on a grand scale can be fascinating in its own right.
in Cheer!. Kate Torgovnick follows the championship-hunting fortunes of three college cheerleading squads by embedding herself, and credibly reporting on a year in their lives. The Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas represents the dominant powerhouse program, where hopefuls go to tryouts for the squad before they even decide whether to enroll at the school. (Anybody who can’t reliably do a back somersault from a standing start might as well head down the road to Kilgore Junior College.) She hangs out with the All-Girl squad from the University of Memphis; they are, in a sense, the leftovers from the school’s Co-Ed squad, but they stand a better chance of ruling their own division. And she gets inside the Southern University Jaguars, from a historically black college in Baton Rouge. They can’t quite afford what they’re trying to do, especially with Hurricane Katrina’s costs still piling up, but the tradition and spirit are undeniable.
Torgovnick’s style of narrative nonfiction comes from the fly-on-the-wall school, for the most part, but I enjoyed a few glimpses of her own reflection. She doesn’t come from a cheerleader culture, having skipped every pep rally in high school, so it’s nice to find her holding her breath, and crying, when her friends and subjects get up to perform. They feed her her first crawfish (“shrimp’s uglier cousin”,) and make her pray with them before they compete.
While by no means intended as an expose, Cheer! takes a look at some of the madness associated with cheer culture: steroids for the men, eating disorders for the women, and the risk of serious injury. Torgovnick suggests that catastrophic injuries are less frequent than recent media reports have claimed, but she also shows how Marine-tough these athletes are--bruises and sprains barely count as injuries. Whether cheering for football games or as a purely competitive squad (which is the crazier occupation, in the end?) it’s an extremely time-consuming business, compromising the college education that is meant to be going on alongside.
Cheer! has a few weaknesses. The writing could be tighter in places. People who haven’t tried to do stunts like this will find the descriptions of routines a bit eye-glazing. (It helps to look them up on YouTube.) I’d have liked a deeper exploration of some of the students’ backgrounds, and their goals in life after their college days, but there’s room to suspect that Torgovnick is not interested in these things because the kids aren’t, either. They are cheerleaders, now and forever.

In The Backwash Squeeze, Edward McPherson enters the world of bridge enthusiasts as a beginning student. It’s a world glittering with eccentrics and characters, and it’s so small that he can get to know some of the finest players in the world. Probably it’s bad news that the learning curve for the game is so steep: McPherson has no more chance of playing tournament-quality bridge than Kate Torgovnick has of pulling off a standing back flip, but he’s a brilliant travelling companion, interested in decor, food, and the costumes of the locals. 
He takes us places we’d like to go, like cozy London clubs. He takes us places we never have to go: ”Many before me have detailed the gonzo lunacy that is Las Vegas--see Hunter S. Thompson, et al.--but let’s just say that few things inspire fear and loathing like midweek mornings at the Tropicana.” He takes us places that we can scarcely imagine, like the Smoky Mountain Mid-Atlantic Bridge Conference Regional Bridge Tournament, where bridge nuts play from nine a.m. to the wee hours for a solid week, oblivious to the bizarrely tacky surroundings of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
McPherson leavens his lessons with the history of the game, including a San Quentin foursome that was broken up when the Freeway Killer was excuted. There’s some question where the next generation of players will come from, because both the time and the concentration required to play skillful bridge seem harder to come by all the time. The internet is part of the answer, since the student can observe the play of masters, with commentary, but the current poker craze looms as a distraction there too.
I don’t think bridge can be killed. It comes down to the comforts of obsession. McPherson says, toward the end of the book, “Bridge is a battle between fate and chance mediated by skill. To play is to try to rationalize the irrational, to outwit chaos.” Who could resist?

Email, spring 2008

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Faith Between Us

The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God

Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb (2007, Bloomsbury)

I saw this bumper sticker on my way home yesterday: “Spiritual people inspire me. Religious people frighten me.” That remark speaks for many of my friends and neighbors, and I know what they mean: the religious people who get the most airtime are a scary lot. Consequently, thoughtful believers are sometimes tempted to keep faith a private matter, or mention it only amid a cluster of defensive qualifiers. Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal know those qualifiers well: “Yes, we believe, but we’re not like those fundamentalists and the Bible-thumpers. Yes, we believe, but we’re not on the front lines arguing against gay marriage or stem-cell research. Yes, we believe, but we’re not praying to usher in the end of the world.” But how tiresome it is always to describe our faith negatively, and it’s no wonder we duck the chance.
In The Faith Between Us, their shared spiritual memoir, Korb and Bebergal come out of the closet about their religious lives. It is no coincidence that they do it together: “Faith is not, we’ve learned, a private matter at all. We’re tired of faith coming between us. God’s will is that it may live between us. Faith is nothing if not shared.”
Bebergal grew up in a secular, suburban Jewish home; he is a recovering hedonist, groping toward a theistic Judaism. Korb was a pious Catholic child; he is a recovering ascetic, gradually letting go of the church’s certainties. They are both writers; each has a divinity degree (Bebergal, Harvard; Korb, Union Seminary;) and they’ve been friends and correspondents since 2001. These ten interconnected essays are the story of the friendship, the faith, and the conversations they share.
Here’s Bebergal on the first toe he dipped in these dangerous waters: “Scott knew when I asked if he believed that I was asking if he had doubt also. I was not asking if he was in perfect communion with a higher power, not asking if he was ‘born again,’ not even asking if he believed God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai. I was asking if he looked for the sacred in his life, if he had encountered holiness.”
Both writers are sensitive to the slippery nature of language about holiness. Bebergal says, “A pure encounter with the holy, with the divine, is beyond language. Religion is the phenomenon of putting the encounter into identifiable terms through myth, symbol, ritual.“ Korb talks about responding to what feels like a divine tug, and having to name it: “love, faith, hope, even Jesus. None of these names may be accurate. They all may simply be figures of speech. But with faith, what else is there?”
What there is, in the end, is a faithful response. “The [Hebrew] word for faith (or belief) is a derivation of the word amen, which is a declaration of an oath, a promise. In this sense, faith is not about believing that God exists, but rather believing that in some way we can be in relation with God, that we can each trust the other to fulfill the terms of this oath--in much the same way that we must relate to a loved one or a friend.”
Let us give thanks for such friendships, and such wisdom. Hallelujah, Amen!

Voices, May 2008

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Steering by Starlight

Steering by Starlight: Find your Right Life, No Matter What
Martha Beck, Ph.D. (2008, Rodale)

Martha Beck has been reinventing her life for years. She started out an academic, striving by Harvard standards toward two degrees in Psychology. Her first memoir, Expecting Adam, (1999) tells how she was thrown off that career track by the birth of her son, who is severely affected by Down syndrome. Now she's so far from where she was headed then that she imagines the Harvard Psychology Department plotting to repossess her degrees, and she couldn't be happier. A successful author and Life Coach, she still sounds as cheerfully neurotic as Anne Lamott, which is a nice foil to the mysticism inherent in what she's trying to teach. Addressing this directly: "I don't technically believe in magic or miracles; I think everything has a rational explanation. It's just that I've seen many, many events that lie outside the bounds scientific knowledge can explain at the present time."
Amen and hallelujah to that--

July 2008, by email

My Stroke of Insight

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey
Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (2008, Viking)

In 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor had a catastrophic hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain. A neuroanatomist at McLean Hospital, she was in a unique position to savor the experience; and it's mildly miraculous that she has recovered enough to report what it was like. From waking up with a headache, to a couple of deeply bewildered hours struggling to figure out how to dial a phone, to the rigors of rehabilitation aided by her mother, Dr. Taylor reports both what the brain is doing (and not doing) and what she is thinking and feeling. Because of the location of the stroke, her language skills and executive functions had to be rebuilt, but she gained access to some parts of her mind that work without those functions. The description of this experience sounds much more mystical than scientific; we are really not used to hearing scientists talk this way, but she's very passionate about it, and persuasive.

July 2008, by email

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Three books on medicine

How Doctors Think
Jerome Groopman, M.D. (Mariner Books, 2007-8)

Treatment Kind and Fair: letters to a young doctor
Perri Klass, M.D. (Basic Books, 2007)

Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance
Atul Gawande (Picador, 2007)

I’ve read a handful of books, this month, about the art and science of medicine: it turns out that the art is the neglected side of the equation. That’s not to say that all the scientific questions are tidily resolved, but that accounting for that reality is itself an art.
What’s the relationship between the orderly, comprehensive knowledge of the classroom, and the shoot-from-the-hip shortcuts of the practicing doctor? How do we know when intuition leads to good treatment, and when it leads to error? For that matter, is the books-and-laboratory knowledge as comprehensive as it seems?
Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think gives doctors plenty of credit for their purely scientific expertise, but as he painstakingly documents, they are subject to errors of thinking that are not errors of knowledge. Even a very smart doctor may get attached to a single diagnostic idea, and become blind to evidence that he is treating only part of the problem, or the wrong illness altogether. It also may happen that he forms a judgment of his patient as a chronic complainer, and becomes deaf to the substance of the complaint. Groopman’s examples are harrowing, but he does present some heroes, doctors who kept working on troubling information till they sorted out the real story.
Groopman’s own training was of the old school, from a time when doctors were taught to treat diseases rather than patients. Though he trained at some of the finest hospitals, he says, “I cannot recall a single instance when an attending physician taught us to think about social context.” In How Doctors Think, he’s trying valiantly to expand that point of view, but it will always be harder for him than for those with more recent schooling.
Perri Klass’s 1987 book about her own medical training has one of my all-time favorite titles, A Not Entirely Benign Procedure; she’s no less wry in this book, but the years have, naturally, deepened her perspective. Treatment Kind and Fair is addressed to her son, who was born when she was in medical school. He is now old enough to consider applying to medical school. She’s close enough to her years of training to be empathetic, but far enough removed to have some useful advice; she’s also learning as a teacher, since she’s involved in a training program for first-year medical students on how to converse with patients. It’s a big advance over Groopman’s day.
Her book is better, too, because she trusts her reader more. Groopman writes with a naiveté that can verge on the annoying: “Lock explained that for lower middle-class people, becoming a doctor was the way to get out.” Did he need that explained? Do we?
Klass’s voice is much more direct: "As a medical student on the hospital wards, you will go in terror of making a mistake and hurting a patient--at least, you will go in terror if you have any sense.” She’s cheerfully grapples with contradictions: her tutorial group is decked out in their new white coats; but Klass is a pediatrician, so she often dispenses with hers, “because many small children, who have had a few go-rounds with immunization, will simply start screaming at the sight of a white coat. Then you can just say goodbye to any chance of observing the child’s development or listening to the heart or the lungs.” Her perspective includes the patient’s, in a practical and humane way.
Atul Gawande’s Better takes a still wider perspective. Like Groopman and Klass, Gawande assumes that doctors generally have the technical know-how they need, and some idea of how to assemble the facts to make a diagnosis. But because the stakes are so high, he commends some other cardinal virtues: diligence, ingenuity, and the desire to do the right thing.
Better is about the usually-overlooked benefits of doing well what we already know how to do. Gawande says, “We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right--one after another, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in.” He applies this insight broadly, from the modern obstetrical suite, where the search for safety and reliability has progressed by leaps and bounds, to the poorest villages in India, where the World Health Organization hopes to stop the transmission of polio for good. He follows a team trying to eliminate hospital-borne, drug-resistant bacteria by making hand-washing easier, and visits the most effective cystic fibrosis clinic in the country. The science in these places is not abstract or theoretical; it consists of the close observation, and relentless pursuit, of whatever works best.
All three of these books advocate for improvements in health care that are more subtle, and far more important, than the gee-whiz science of laboratory breakthroughs or multi-million-dollar machines. Though Groopman seems to feel somewhat heretical for suggesting it, How Doctors Think could make the reader more able and willing to question a doctor’s diagnostic thinking, and possibly correct it.
Treatment Kind and Fair is a backstage tour of medical training, full of insights about what makes doctors different from the rest of us. Klass wrestles with the new difficulties imposed by the work-week limits on physicians in training. It is no longer permissable to work an intern or resident on thirty-six hour shifts, or more than eighty hours a week, but the problem of sleep deprivation has been replaced by the difficulty of a young doctor trying to cover dozens of patients she doesn’t really know anything about, because the person who does know had to sign out and go home to sleep. The laws that limit the errors of fatigue did not magically legislate a reduction in patient load; the problems caused by the solution have not yet been addressed.
I particularly enjoyed Better, which describes the kind of fresh thinking that good medicine really needs. Gawande is well aware of the overwhelming magnitude of some of the world’s medical problems; he knows that treating patients one by one, as doctors must, can feel like emptying the sea with a teaspoon. He makes some parting recommendations that both Groopman and Klass would surely subscribe to.
On the science front, he says to doctors, find something to measure, to make some sense of the flow of data whooshing by every day. “It doesn’t really matter what you count. You don’t need a research grant.” Then, if you attempt a change for the better, you can tell how well it works.
On the human front, Gawande charges them to “ask an unscripted question. Ours is a job of talking to strangers. Why not learn something about them?” (He credits this idea to a Paul Auster essay.) Putting a human face to patients (and those who work around the hospital, as well) gives shape and meaning to the doctor’s day.
And--a suggestion we can be grateful all three of these doctors have taken--”Write something. ... What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.” Writing builds in time for thinking, which can only be a good thing, and it makes a community of its audience. “The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.”

So may it be, friends and neighbors, and I thank you for being my community.

Email, August 2008

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Year of Living Biblically

My year of living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

As we know from his earlier book, The Know-It-All, in which he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, A.J. Jacobs is a seriously compulsive fellow; when he decided to devote a year to following the Bible's laws as literally as possible, he applied the same sort of witty intensity to the project.
One of his goals, beyond producing a book, is to test the limits of literalism. "My suspicion was that almost everyone's literalism consisted of picking and choosing." Jacobs attempts not to do that, though he does find that he still has to decide what's figurative and what's literal, and what's been added by convention in the intervening centuries. Times have changed, quite a lot, after all: where is Jacobs going to find a slave in twenty-first century Manhattan? Actually, that one solves itself: a young man offers to serve an unpaid internship.
And so it goes. Jacobs meets a lot of people with peculiar ideas, both from his family's Jewish tradition, like the hyper-religious ex-uncle-by-marriage who inspired the project; and from the farther reaches of evangelical Christianity, including a snake-handler, and the people who are trying to breed a pure red heifer to bring about the Apocalypse. His stable of advisors encompasses those who are the world's experts on Deuteronomy 22:6, and those who keep pulling back, back, back for the long view, about the goodness and mercy of God.
Of course, many of the oddest-sounding ideas are right there in the large print. The Second Commandment, against the making of images, bars Jacobs from making Play-Doh animals for his toddler. "I feel ridiculous for refusing to make him a fish, but I also know that I have to do this experiment full bore, or else I'll risk missing out on key spiritual discoveries. No cutting corners."
Amid this goofy diligence, Jacobs comes to some helpful conclusions. "The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It's not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can't heap everything on their plate." That's not only inevitable, it may not be a bad thing. "Now," he adds, "this does bring up the problem of authority. Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn't that destroy its credibility?"
Jacobs put this question to his panel of advisors. From the liberal side, a retired Lutheran minister named Elton Richards offered this: the Bible is an aid to our visualization of divinity. "Beauty is a general thing. It's abstract. I need to see a rose. When I see that Jesus embraced lepers, that's a reason for me to embrace those with AIDS."
One of his rabbis, Robbie Harris, says "we can't insist that the Bible marks the end of our relationship with God. Who are we to say that the Bible contained all the wisdom?" Amen, amen--that would be idolatry, and it's all around us.
Having begun this project as a devout secularist, Jacobs knew that he was entering perilous territory; his friends worried that he might come out the other end as an unrecognizable religious nut--such are the risks of immersion journalism. Where he actually emerges is perfectly lovely:
"I'm still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance."
Hallelujah, Amen.

September 2008

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
Steven Pinker (2007, Viking)

One of the big Philosophical (as in, 'unanswerable') questions is this: what is thought before it is clothed in language? I'm not learned enough to give you all the references, but it is a question of some standing, a great Western koan. In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker uses language itself to probe the question: the author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works combines his two great interests, and the result is as rich and tasty as strawberries with chocolate.
Pinker is not only a brilliant thinker, but a lovely writer, and a clear guide to his staggeringly complex subject. He doesn't especially concentrate on artificial intelligence language experiments; or studies about what other primates understand, or the responses of pre-verbal human babies or speakers of obscure Amazonian languages, but they are all at hand when his arguments need them. Who doesn't love a twenty-three page bibliography?!
In some chapters, the linguistics geekery comes thick and fast, but it does serve to prove the points Pinker is making. I was particularly dazzled when he tried five different operations on a set of four verbs, showing how their grammatical variations point to different essential mental operations. By the same token, the distinction between singular ('pebble'), plural ('pebbles') and aggregate ('gravel'), interesting in itself, also gives us insight into the primitive mental arithmetic system which precedes formal mathematics both in individuals and in human history.
There's also a smattering of neuroanatomy. Did you know that the words we don't allow ourselves to say, either because they are either too sacred or too profane, are stored in a particular part of the brain, just so that we can stop ourselves saying them--which leaves them, in the case of certain brain mishaps, as the only language the sufferer has left?
On the anthropology front, there's a chapter about indirect speech, whose uses range from deferential politeness to threats and blackmail. "Politeness in lingustics does not refer to social etiquette, like eating your peas without using your knife, but to the countless adjustments that speakers make to avoid the equally countless ways that their listeners might be put off. People are very, very touchy, and speakers go to great lengths not to step on their toes." Whom do you call 'mister', and whom do you first-name? Whom do you sweet-talk, and whom do you strong-arm? When is perfect mutual knowledge not the ideal state of affairs? These concerns are universal to humans, but they take radically different forms across different cultures; Pinker is interested in how, and why.
And he's a great fan, and student, of metaphor. "Language, by its very design, would seem to be a tool with a well-defined and limited functionality....And yet metaphor provides us with a way to eff the ineffable. Perhaps the greatest pleasure that language affords is the act of surrendering to the metaphors of a skilled writer and thereby inhabiting the consciousness of another person." To read The Stuff of Thought is to partake of that great pleasure--Bon Appetit!

an e-mail-only edition, October 2008

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Comeback Season

The Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love
Cathy Day (2008, Free Press)

Cathy Day’s report of her life as a single woman in search of an eligible man is almost too gripping. The deck is well and truly stacked against her: she is (1) a college teacher (2) in her late thirties who (3) lives in Pittsburgh; but Day is so spunky, you have to cheer her on. She confronts the big question of love (and football): “What ultimately determines the outcome of these games? Is it about intangibles like fate and chemistry or is it about tangibles like preparation and control? Or is it both?” The lesson she takes from her beloved Indianapolis Colts is that you have to keep trying.
So she does. She networks like mad, and signs up for dating services. She invites friends and their friends to watch football. She accepts a date with her carpenter’s assistant, who was in kindergarten when she got out of high school. She gets advice from other women--but their news is all bad. All the desirable single men have left town, and they aren’t coming back. By way of saving grace, Day conjures a sideline reporter who is covering her season. “Reporter: Reporting live from the sidelines of this battle taking place inside Cathy Day’s head, this is Suzy Hightop. Back to you, Bob.” As in Bull Durham, clichés to the rescue!
Day’s trials and tribulations are amusing, but also pretty painful to read. I couldn’t help imagining other treatments of the material that would have been easier to digest. She could have concentrated on the sociology of people’s choices about their careers and romantic lives. She certainly self-aware enough about the choices she’s made, and how they have brought her to the life she has. Or she could have have played the unsuccessful matchups for laughs, since she’s already had to blur the men’s identities; but Day is probably too decent and innocent for the requisite bitter wit.
I generally prefer memoir to fiction, so I surprise myself by saying this, but this is material that would have worked better as a novel, something in the Nick Hornby vein. As Steven Pinker says in last month’s book, The Stuff of Thought, “At the comfortable distance of fiction, we can be riveted by characters who are forced to think the unthinkable about their intimate relationships, as in Sophie’s Choice and Indecent Proposal.”
Using commercial means to meet romantic partners falls into that taboo category for me. I’d be more willing to contemplate all the little insults and embarrassments Day suffers if I didn’t have to realize that they actually happened to somebody I like. In a novel, too, certain episodes could be shaped to some happier conclusions; if our heroine had to be thwarted, I would rather think it had been by the novelist’s art, not by the real-life brain-lock or bad luck of the memoirist. And who knows, the character might have had the freedom to invent a solution that eluded the memoirist.
I don’t know, that might be cheating, but it’s also what fiction is for. Or so it seems to me.

Email edition,
November 2008

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Courtier and the Heretic

In which, once again, we bite off more ideas than we could conceivably chew, somewhat in the manner of a ‘Summarize Proust’ competition.

The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World
Matthew Stuart (W. W. Norton, 2006)

Last month I discussed Russell Shorto’s Descartes’ Bones, which averred that the writings of René Descartes set in motion a philosophical revolution that became the modern age. As it happens, Matthew Stuart’s The Courtier and the Heretic picks up that story with two of Descartes’ most important immediate successors: Stuart frames h is book around a visit paid by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to Baruch Spinoza, which took place in 1676, twenty-six years after Descartes’ death.
Spinoza had been a prize student among the Jews of Amsterdam, but was, as a young man, excommunicated for heresy by the rabbis; he never looked back, and retired to a quiet life as a lens-grinder by day, and a philosopher by night. By the time of Leibniz’s visit, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) had made him the most notorious atheist in Europe. In it, he reads the Bible with a cool modern eye, pointing out contradictions and absurdities, and he advocates for a form of democratic government free of theocratic intolerance and oppression.
In contrast to the retiring Spinoza, Leibniz was very much a man of affairs. In addition to groundbreaking work in mathematics, “(h)e had begun to fill out the long list of his contributions to the fields of chemistry, chronometry, geology, historiography, jurisprudence, linguistics, optics, philosophy, physics, poetry, and political theory,” says Stuart, though he also points out that Leibniz’s ceaseless activity could render him highly distractible. When he went to Holland to see Spinoza, for instance, he was overdue in Hanover for a job in the Duke’s library which he had accepted ten months before.
By temperament and profession, Leibniz was a defender of the status quo, so why was he intent on visiting this apostate Jew, the outcast of outcasts? They had several interests in common, but metaphysics must have been chief among them. The only record of what they actually discussed is a single sheet of paper, on which Leibniz recorded a proof “That a Most Perfect Being Exists,” which he wrote down in the midst of their conversation and read aloud to his host.
Leibniz proceeded to Hanover and took up his duties (along with his perennial complaint that he was underpaid for them.) Spinoza was overcome, just three months later, by the lung ailment he had long labored under, which may have been partly a side effect of breathing glass dust while polishing lenses. His desk was packed up and delivered to his publisher in Amsterdam, and a year later, his posthumous works emerged. Chief among those, the Ethics started the brouhaha about his dangerous atheism all over again.
In the end, Spinoza is not actually against God; but he posits a God who is reasonable, who is not inconsistent and capricious, who does not break his own rules, but acts only according to his own Nature--of which everything that is, is an expression. “Spinoza’s God does not intervene in the course of events--for that would be to countermand itself--nor does it produce miracles--for that would be to contradict itself. Above all, God does not judge individuals and send them to heaven or hell.” A God, in short, who will be right at home in the twenty-first century (in certain circles), but who is a grave offense to the seventeenth.
Leibniz would live another forty years, stuck in the Hanoverian backwater but relentlessly busy. His work in philosophy can be read as an extended response to the dangerous heresies of Spinoza, though there are also notes in which he seems to understand him sympathetically, and to manfully resist the temptation of believing him correct. Where Spinoza disposes of the Cartesian conundrum by demonstrating that mind is not, after all, separate from body, Leibniz ends up with a baroque, not to say bizarre, system of many minds, called monads, which are created by God, and eternal.
We must give that round to Spinoza, though the cognitive-science implications of brain-based minds are still being worked out; but Stuart demonstrates that Leibniz’s struggle to rescue something transcendent from modernity’s cold rationality has continued in many forms ever since. We humans get lonely when we contemplate an eternal time and space that doesn’t have a plan for us.
The Courtier and the Heretic is a marvel of a book: it makes abstruse philosophical ideas approachable, and embeds them in sparkling drama. Matthew Stuart has done a noble job of setting aside what the intervening generations have made of these two men, touching on it only in the final chapter, and looking freshly at what they actually said. The two principals are great characters, especially set off against one another, the one always striving to make the world better, the other content to establish, and embody, his own sense of how things truly are. “Without doubt, there is a little piece of each in everybody; equally certain is the fact that, at times, a choice must be made.”
A bracing thought for the new year! May it bring you many blessings.

Any Good Books
January 2009

Descartes’ Bones

Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason
Russell Shorto (2008, Doubleday)

The kernel of Descartes’ Bones is the strange history of the skeletal remains of René Descartes, who died in Stockholm in 1650. It sounds like an arcane topic, but in this appealing, eccentric book, Russell Shorto uses the history of the skull and bones to trace a journey through the history of Descartes’ influence on the modern world.
With the 1637 publication of his “Discourse on the method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences,” Descartes shoved aside everything he knew--everything anybody knew--in search of what could not be doubted. The result,
"Je pense, donc je suis" has resounded ever since. Shorto says, “With the ‘cogito,’ as philosophers abbreviate it, and with the theory of knowledge that arises from it, ... human reason supplanted received wisdom. Once Descartes had established the base, he and others could rebuild the edifice of knowledge. But it would be different from what it had been. Everything would be different.”
Almost immediately, defenders of the old, Aristotelian order of knowledge began charging that Descartes’ ideas would lead to atheism and anarchy. Descartes himself, who remained a devout Catholic, had built God into his philosophy, but the authorities of both church and state felt threatened by the placement of the individual’s reason at the center of the search for knowledge, and rightly so.
Back to the bones: Descartes died in Sweden because he had been invited to join the court of Queen Christina, but sixteen years later, some of his French devotees decided that their hero was their own national treasure, and caused his bones to be disinterred and shipped to Paris, as if he were a medieval saint. One of the officials involved went so far as to request his right index finger as a personal relic. (Someone else made off with the skull, which carried on a separate history in various people’s curio cabinets before eventually returning to a French museum.)
During the French revolution, a high water mark of secular atheism in Europe, there remained a fascination with the material remains of the great man. It was proposed to remove them from the decrepit Church of St. Genevieve to a building that Louis XV had had built nearby to replace it, which the revolutionaries stripped of religious associations, and called the Pantheon, a monument to fame itself. “In redesigning it so, architecturally replacing faith with reason as a source of worship, the revolutionaries created a unique monument, and visiting it today gives a feel not only for their motivation but for its naiveté and hollowness.”
Shorto’s own motivation owes a lot to simple personal curiosity; but he is also making an argument for the value of modern thought. He says, “Modern society as we normally define it--a secular culture built around tolerance, reason, and democratic values--occupies a rather small portion of the world, and there are signs that it is shrinking.” Modernity is threatened not only by fundamentalist religion, which seeks authority in a realm beyond reason, but by those to whom “modernity has come to be synonymous with colonialism, the exploitation of non-Western peoples, the use of science and technology for inhuman purposes, environmental catastrophe.” Both types of criticism have their merits: rationalism does not have all the answers, and it has at times led to unspeakable cruelty.
So is the modern project worth saving? Will Cartesian dualism, “the mind-body problem,” admit a solution in which we can be both rational and religious? Shorto says that that’s the world most of us actually live in: “We are all philosophers because our condition demands it. We live every moment in a universe of seemingly eternal thoughts and ideas, yet simultaneously in the constantly churning and decaying world of our bodies and their humble situations. We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death.”
We are both angels and animals, and it must be some kind of blessing to be aware of it, as it will not cease to be true.

December 2008

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Invention of Air

The Invention of Air: A story of science, faith, revolution, and the birth of America
Steven Johnson (2008, Riverhead)

“Here was a man at the very front lines of scientific achievement who was simultaneously a practicing minister and theologian--and who was, by the end of the 1770’s, well on his way to becoming one of the most politically charged figures of his time. He was an empiricist driven by a deep and abiding belief in God, who was simultaneously a revolutionary of the first order.”
I’m glad to be reminded of Joseph Priestly, whose career was interesting on many fronts, over and above his pioneering work with atmospheric gases. I would not have known, for example, that he was also among the fathers of Unitarianism, or that he counted among his friends not only Benjamin Franklin and James Watt, but John Adams and Thomas Jefferson . Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air deftly weaves together all these strands in its portrayal of one of the last of the great polymaths.
Johnson’s book is not a comprehensive study of Priestly’s work: it’s just over two hundred pages long, which would be only a small fraction of Priestly’s own prodigious output of books, letters, and pamphlets. Rather, it sketches the connections between his scientific, political, and theological activities; “... for Priestly, these three domains were not separate compartments, but rather a kind of continuum, with new developments in each domain reinforcing and intensifying the others.”
In all three domains, he was both radical and principled. One of his principles was that information should flow freely: his discovery of a process to instill bubbles in liquids would make a fortune for his neighbor Johann Schweppes. More significantly, he shared his work on ‘dephlogisticated air’ with Antoine Lavoisier, who would soon turn the discovery the right way around, and name it oxygen. Lavoisier would go on to improve the French manufacture of gunpowder, which helped Priestly’s American friends succeed in their revolt against England. This, in turn, provided Priestly with a safe haven when his political and religious views made him dangerously unpopular at home in England. In 1791, a mob burned him out of his house and laboratory; he sailed for America in 1794, and lived there the rest of his life.
When Johnson digresses from the particulars of Priestly’s life, he has interesting things to say about the nature of scientific inquiry. On why Lavoisier was the one to complete Priestly’s discovery of oxygen: “Discovering that there was an air purer than pure air required the qualitative analytic skills--and improvisational style--that Priestly possessed in abundance. But defining the chemical composition of that air took a different toolkit, both mental and technological.”
He’s also interested in the way discovery takes place on various time scales. We tend to remember dramatic stories of ‘eureka’ moments, like Franklin with his kite--a story Priestly himself popularized in his pioneering history of electrical discoveries--but many hunches take years to play out, and one of Priestly’s most important discoveries had its roots in his boyhood, when he and his brother sealed up spiders in glass jars to see how long they would survive. As an adult, Priestly built more elaborate equipment to continue these studies. When he isolated a mint plant instead of an mouse, and was surprised to find that the air became more breathable rather than less, he took the first steps in a relay that we are still running today, in the continuing study of the interconnectedness of life, and the health or toxicity of the environment.
One result of the explosion of knowledge is that we don’t have thinkers today who are so influential in so many different spheres, but as Johnson points out, “[a]dopting a know-nothing attitude toward scientific understanding--to hide behind the cloak of piety or political dogma--would have been the gravest offense to Priestly and his disciples.” The attitude that all our progress has brought us to the brink of inevitable ruin is also one those great men would have shunned--can we do better? Let us try.

Published by email February 1, 2009
Thanks to Margo Risk for the loan of this book.