Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Character is destiny, and yet everything is chance" -- Philip Roth

An absolutely fascinating, revealing, brilliant interview was given by Philip Roth to a Swedish journalist, Svenska Dagbladet, for publication there on the occasion of his novel, Sabbath’s Theater being translated into Swedish. The interview appeared in the March 18 New York Times Book Review as well.  It is almost unsuitable to quote any part of it without the whole, but I do so with the hope that by quoting the most salient points (to me), any reader of this will be motivated to read the full unexpurgated version on the NYT's web site.

Roth like Updike are in the pantheon of the authors I've followed most closely, having read nearly everything they've written.  Updike was silenced by his death a few years ago, a great loss and now Roth has decided not to write fiction any more.  I've felt his last few novels presaged that decision, being very-end-of-life focused.  Hopefully, Roth will long be a commentator on the literary scene and on the state of our nation for years to come, as evidenced by this interview.

About the main character in the novel, Sabbath, Roth says  Mickey Sabbath doesn’t live with his back turned to death the way normal people like us do.  No one could have concurred more heartily with the judgment of Franz Kafka than would Sabbath, when Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

When asked about his decision to stop writing, he said When I decided to stop writing about five years ago I did, as you say, sit down to reread the 31 books I’d published between 1959 and 2010. I wanted to see whether I’d wasted my time. You never can be sure, you know.....My conclusion, after I’d finished, echoes the words spoken by an American boxing hero of mine, Joe Louis. ..... So when he was asked upon his retirement about his long career, Joe sweetly summed it up in just 10 words. “I did the best I could with what I had.”

About the often heard accusation that misogyny runs deeply in his works, he replies:  Misogyny, a hatred of women, provides my work with neither a structure, a meaning, a motive, a message, a conviction, a perspective, or a guiding principle....My traducers propound my alleged malefaction as though I have spewed venom on women for half a century. But only a madman would go to the trouble of writing 31 books in order to affirm his hatred.....It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not. They practice a rather commonplace form of social control: You are not what you think you are. You are what we think you are. You are what we choose for you to be. Well, welcome to the subjective human race. .... Yet every writer learns over a lifetime to be tolerant of the stupid inferences that are drawn from literature and the fantasies implausibly imposed upon it. As for the kind of writer I am? I am who I don’t pretend to be.

On the subject of the men in his books, As I see it, my focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired. I have hardly been singing a paean to male superiority but rather representing manhood stumbling, constricted, humbled, devastated and brought down. I am not a utopian moralist. My intention is to present my fictional men not as they should be but vexed as men are.

The interviewer then asks “'The struggle with writing is over'” is a recent quote. Could you describe that struggle, and also, tell us something about your life now when you are not writing?"
Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace....Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.

Asked about his generation of writers and the state of contemporary American fiction, he morphs from fiction to his feelings about the world we now inhabit.  His observations on today's world are particularly profound:  Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever....You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture of races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.

His comments on American popular culture are priceless: The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy....Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.

His final thoughts in the interview are about the nature of writing itself and what it may or may not reveal about the writer.  Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist....The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.

May we hear again and again from Philip Roth, perhaps not in imaginary literature, but in interviews such as this and essays.  To me he is still the reigning dean of American literature and intellectual thought.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Stately Yacht Visits

It's not often that we have "royalty" cruising by our home on the North Palm Beach Waterway.  First hearing the engines I knew it was a motor yacht. When I saw it I sprung for my camera. We've had some fairly large yachts go by, more than 100' feet in length at times, but this morning a "Trumpy" came to visit, one of the classic wooden boats built by John Trumpy & Sons.  These finely built ships were distinguished by their beautiful varnished mahogany superstructures and lustrous white painted hulls. Their interiors are stunning. Trumpy is best known as the builder of the U.S.S. Sequoia, which was the presidential yacht from Hoover to Carter and as such has hosted countless dignitaries during its long career (which still continues as a yacht charter).  

I think I've correctly identified this morning's surprise, a 68' Trumpy built in 1954, the M/V Liberty.  Ownership transferred fairly recently and therefore the listing is still on the web, well worth visiting to take in the fine woodwork craftsmanship of the interior. 

So, with my little digital I recorded Liberty's transit on the Waterway, with full appreciation of the rich history and the fine work of its builder, John Trumpy & Sons.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Jeremy -- A Smart(er) Cancer Survivor

A dear friend of mine, Jeremy Geelan, a colleague from my working days, the son of another colleague, Peter, who sold our books in Europe, celebrated a significant milestone this month, the three year anniversary of his radical surgery to deal with pancreatic cancer.  From all signs it was a complete success and Jeremy is now in full bloom as Chief Marketing Officer & Conference Chair at KAAZING Corporation.  He morphed into all things Internet from his humble beginnings as an analog publisher, but true to his nature even then he was looking to the future being founder and publisher of the "21st Century Studies" series (back in the good ole' 20th century) and some of those I co-published in US (Jeremy at the time was in the UK).

He confronted the lethal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer head on and entrusted his Doctors in Denmark to perform Whipple surgery, not an option for all forms of pancreatic cancer but, in his case (and probably Steve Jobs had he not pursued naturopathic options), a hopeful means of addressing this dreaded disease.  My father died of pancreatic cancer and I can attest, it is among the most terrible ways to pass into nothingness. 

This radical surgery is a nightmare and it is hard to imagine what Jeremy had to endure, during, after (I recall he was on his back for a very long period of time, trying to type in compromised positions to get on with his work) and then the dreaded follow-up chemotherapy.  As he describes the surgery: "The Whipple procedure cost me the lion's share of my pancreas, all of my gall bladder, a goodly portion of my stomach, and a portion too of my duodenum (small intestine)."  Yes, it is that radical, but Jeremy has his life back.

Soon after his Dad died -- of cancer as well (he was a mentor to me as I would like to think I've been to Jeremy), Jeremy presented me with a bound edition of the 1979 edition of Logophile, The Cambridge University Journal of Words and Language of which (naturally) Jeremy was the editor.  It is inscribed "To Bob from Jeremy 18 iii 1993.  Like books "words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts upon the unthinking" (John Maynard Keynes).  This day in loving memory of Dad, I'd like to present you with a volume of wildness.  It's where it all (for me) began -- in a garret undergraduate room at Cambridge belonging to an Open Exhibitioner in English called Jeremy Geelan."

From there Jeremy threw the gauntlet down and never looked back -- in spite of such health adversity.

I commend any reader to visit Jeremy's blog.  He doesn't post there very often, although he Twitters regularly.  But in response to his latest post, I responded,

Dear Jeremy,

I don't know what led me to your blog today. Call it an instinct. You don't post here very often, but I felt I ought to visit, and there it was, your fairly recent post. Brilliant. True. Very Jeremy. But ever since I've known you -- how many years, at least thirty? -- you've always been "smart." But you were "bucking bronco smart" -- undisciplined, your mind wondering everywhere. I would say your terrible, but successful bout with pancreatic cancer has made you more focused. You are now more smart in a focused way, about your career, and about the things that matter in life. I feel privileged to have known you so long, and to say congratulations on passing the third year landmark of your successful surgery. You did it bravely, trusting your doctors, and embracing your loved ones and your friends and colleagues. On to the future! Yours, Bob

I am copying his complete post below:

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Smarter
In ten days' time it will be three years to the day since I was successfully operated on for pancreatic cancer.  Some of you reading this may be unaware of the prior story; worry not, this is not a post about cancer. It is, though, a post about survival.

There's a saying about how 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' that many undergoing chemo- and/or radiation therapy often hear, or even use themselves, to make light of the unpleasantness of the process and to remind themselves that there is a flip side to the nastiness of the "planned poisoning" that they are enduring: it may extend their lives and is therefore “better than the alternative” (as in, death).

My purpled Twitter avatar, to mark World Cancer Day last month (Feb 4)

But recently a colleague of mine in the world of the Internet, Guy Kawasaki, hit upon a headline - I have yet to check whether it was Guy's own or whether he was passing on something from elsewhere - that, for me, is much more pregnant with meaning and possibility, in terms of viewing cancer in the first place, and chemotherapy/radiation treatment in the second, as a potential inflexion point for anyone who survives one or both:

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Smarter

This, for me, is the much more honest and uplifting statement. Do I feel stronger, having dodged the bullet - thanks to radical Whipple surgery - of the deadliest of all the cancers? Not really. If I could restore my strength to pre-diagnosis levels or above I'd be happy as a clam; realistically speaking, it is not especially likely, as there remain one or two challenges associated with Whipple surgery which tend to linger no matter how hard one tries - a surgically rearranged digestive system is plain not as effective as one that's been left intact.

On the other hand, do I feel smarter? Most emphatically, yes. The things that addressing and overcoming adversity teaches you - about yourself, about those who love you and are loved by you, about your professional colleagues both direct and indirect, about total strangers and/or long-lost friends; about nutrition, about the Internet, about the healing power of music and above all of love, about cognitive mysteries such as "chemo brain" and the reassurances increasingly offered by brain science; about physical capacity, about mental agility, about emotion, about faith…

In truth there isn't a single aspect of the human condition about which you do not, on being confronted with an early departure from the game of life, end up a tad smarter if on the contrary you have the good fortune to survive.

"Survival" and "survivor" remain the metaphors of choice when dealing with people like me but, speaking here only for myself, I am not sure how useful those words are. We are *all* survivors, after all; we all survive, daily, onslaughts of inconsiderateness or even plain cruelty, of injustice either direct or indirect, of disappointment and/or even despair. We all survive week in, week out the challenges of work and play, of life and love, of learning and of teaching, and of the eternal search for meaning in which we are all, to greater or lesser extents of awareness, engaged.

So the human being who "survives" cancer, of whatever variety, is no different from one who survives any other of life's curve-balls: bereavement, for example, or financial ruin. There is a commonality, and it is that of the bounceback or comeback. We humans are resilient. We have mastered endurance. We are *all* survivors. Of something. Of life itself, perhaps.

But the Kawasaki headline offers a more nuanced perspective.

Just as travel broadens the mind, or university, so pancreatic cancer it turns out is a hugely enriching life-phase that does, no doubt about it, leave you smarter. That it might just as easily have left you dead is not I think the point; many things kill us, from traffic accidents to natural disasters. But how many things actually make us smarter? We learn about humility - that is a given when quite literally your life (in the form of your innards) is for multiple hours in the hands of a surgeon. We learn about the irrefutable power of positivity. We learn about the boundaries of medicine and the central role of self-healing. We learn about the perils of certainty, and the corresponding importance of flexibility and agile modification of behavior and/or treatment. We learn about the often neglected importance of hydration. We learn about what truly makes us, and those around us, tick.

Now don't get me wrong. There are other ways to become wiser in this world, all of them less painful, less intrusive, and less detrimental and disruptive to the routine of yourself and your family. But that does not detract from this one, enduring truth, and I can vouch for it first-hand: What Doesn't Kill You - really, truly madly, deeply...take it from me - Leaves You Smarter.

Indeed, very Jeremy.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Winter "Down Here"

While the winter has worn on and on "up there" (where we used to live), it is no wonder the visitors and the traffic in Palm Beach County has grown this year.  I still miss aspects of our former Connecticut winters.  Being younger helped and I found much of it to be a pleasant challenge, splitting wood for our wood burning stove, even shoveling the snow, and getting to work on the ice-slicked roads.  The one thing I do not miss is getting up on a ladder to pour boiling water into our gutters and downspouts to keep them clear of ice as snow was melting on the roof during the day and refreezing at night. I remember one very bad winter storm in the 1970's when Connecticut closed all roads and threatened to arrest any driver other than essential health and official personnel.  The only problem is I heard the announcement while I was sitting at my desk listening to a portable radio; I had already decided to close the office but I had to find my way home without getting arrested!  (I wasn't.)

But that seems like another lifetime ago.  Now, instead, friends and family come here to visit.  No wonder.  And when they do, our boat and the waters of Lake Worth and Peanut Island at the Palm Beach inlet are inviting.  A couple of days ago Jon and Anna were visiting.  Here's a photo of Ann (wearing my cowboy hat) and Anna as we departed for the Tiki Waterfront Sea Grille at The Riviera Beach Marina. While we having lunch there, a fishing boat was tossing unused chum into the water attracting some powerful, predatory fish known as "jacks" and pelicans as well.  I thought this very brief video of a pelican balancing itself on the power cord of the fishing boat, the jacks menacingly swimming beneath, to be worthy of a YouTube posting.  Pelicans are among my favorite birds, funny to look at, but graceful when they glide only inches above the water.  They don't have an easy time coexisting with commercial fisherman (competition) or with recreational fisherman as pelicans sometimes get snagged by their hooks.  But this pelican doesn't look like it has a care in the world.

It was nice to have Jon run the boat as it freed me to film a little of the trip home, running north in the ICW part of Lake Worth with Singer Island and some of Munyon Island on our starboard side.  Having spent most of my life in the northeast gives me a special appreciation of these moments. Here's hoping for some warmer weather for our friends and family back where we used to call home!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Play Ball, Again

To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim.  It's an impossible situation."  So begins John Cheever's short story, The National Pastime.

Fortunately for me, baseball is part of who I am.  Like multitudes before me, I played the game as a kid.  I am an American.

More than any other sport, to know baseball is to "know the heart and mind of America," as Jacques Barzun commented.  It changes with the times, but fundamentally stays the same.  Professional baseball was an all "white boys" game but once the color barrier was crossed it morphed into a multicultural field of boys from Cuba, South and Central America, Japan. Taiwan, not to mention all races from every state in the nation.  It has been tarnished by steroid use and by the all mighty dollar, making it big business, even a show business.  In effect, it reflects our society and the values of our culture. Yet, it not only survives, as does our nation, it thrives.

Baseball is more than a sport. It is a ritual, like a religion, binding all those who walk through the tunnels on their way to their seats, emerging to view the majesty of the field itself.  It is the altar where the unique ancestral rituals of the game are played out.  There is a symbolism in the game's subtle moments that connect us with a sense of mysticism.  It remains special, sacred and spiritual.

How fitting that the season begins in the spring, a rebirth of sorts, and ends in the fall, going into hibernation until the next spring.  And so, we begin the cycle again, and again, from one generation to the next.  Let the games begin!