Le Temps Perdu

IMG_0483People talk about how much of life is lost to sleep, one third of it, or something like that. One rarely hears, however, about how much of life can be lost to pain. I ran across a reference recently in a novel by Miklós Bánffy, to a character, Countess Miloth, who was described as “prone to migraine and nervous headaches.” “[W]hile her sister was always busy with household tasks,” writes Bánffy, Countess Miloth “would remain idle for days, resting in a darkened room.”

“Idle.” That’s a strange way of describing being incapacitated by pain. And yet it’s technically correct. I could not even begin to calculate how much of my life has been lost to this enforced “idleness.” I woke up this morning, that is, I woke up in the morning, with a headache. The pain is what woke me up, as it often does. I could not at first tell how bad it was, and I had forgotten to bring my medicine up to my bedroom, so I came downstairs. I took some medicine and made some coffee, hoping that the coffee would help, as it sometimes does. Migraines are believed to be caused by dilation of blood vessels in the brainstem. Coffee, or more correctly, caffeine, is a vasoconstrictor, thus it works, at least in part, in the same way that the migraine medicine works.

But the pain seemed to get worse as I moved around, so I made myself an icepack and secured it to my forehead with a headband. I poured myself a cup of coffee, but before I was able even to taste it, I was stricken suddenly with pain so intense I dropped to the floor and prayed.

The pain isn’t always, or even usually, that bad. But sometimes, like this morning, it is so bad it is indescribable. Imagine the searing pain of a hammer blow to the skull. Now imagine it lasting not merely for that brief moment, but indefinitely, for hours, or even days. I feared, as I have several times before, that my head could not possibly contain all the pain, that it was literally going to split apart, that I was going to be obliterated by it. I lay there this morning for I don’t know how long whispering “please God, please God, help. Please God, please God, make it go away,” until, finally, I was able to struggle upstairs again to my bed.

I could not sleep, though. I lay writhing in agony like a wounded animal, unable to find a comfortable position, praying I would not throw up because I had had neither the strength nor the presence of mind to bring a bucket up with me. Vomiting when one has a migraine almost never brings the relief that it does when the nausea has some other source. It’s only an additional misery.

At least I was no longer lying on the floor. At least I had been able to struggle up again to my bed, unlike the time at Heathrow when I had missed a connecting flight because of a migraine, and British Airways, thinking that my vomiting had been because I was drunk, had simply deposited me on a cold linoleum floor somewhere in the bowels of the airport to “sleep it off.”

“Do you think you will be able to make the next flight to Berlin in 45 minutes?” a voice had asked. And then sometime later the question came again from someone I could not see.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” I mumbled over and over again, until, finally, the pain passed as a storm does and I was able to sit up again and to talk and laugh as if I had not wanted to die only an hour ago.

Once, years ago, before I had medicine that would help, I lay in bed, writhing in pain, repeating over and over again to myself: “It will go away. It will go away” because the pain of a migraine, when it is really bad, is so bad that you can’t think a complex thought through to the end. It will be interrupted and made incoherent by the pain before you can finish it. But still something races through the brain, if not complex thoughts, bits and pieces of thoughts, disconnected bits and pieces. That confusion seems actually to make the pain worse, so I learned to focus on that one saving thought.

“It will go away. It will go away,” I lay repeating to myself, in between the rapid shallow breaths women use to control the pain of childbirth. (It appears to be instinctive to breathe like that when one is in really extreme pain.) And then for an instant, for a brief instant when I was actually able to think a complex thought, I asked myself: What if you knew the pain wouldn’t go away? Would you want to die? And the answer came just as quickly as the question: Yes, I would want to die.

There is nothing redeeming about being sentient when all one can experience is pain–nothing. No, it is worse than that. It is not simply that there is nothing redeeming about such an existence. There is something terribly, terribly wrong with it.

Fortunately, I am seldom overcome by that kind of pain these days. Usually, the medicine works. It doesn’t work so well as it used to, though. It used to be miraculous how it would take the pain away completely in just an hour or two. In the old days, these headaches were something that would wake me up, usually in the wee hours of the morning, and I would realize, as I was waking, that the day would be lost to me, that I would not be able to get up until it was dark again and then only if I were lucky, because sometimes the pain would last for a couple of days. I would awaken on what I was dimly aware was a Monday morning, but then, when I was finally healthy again and able to get up, it would be Wednesday.

I don’t know how many days I lost like that, how much of my life I have lost to an oblivion more malevolent than sleep. I know I’ve lost a lot because there was a period of many years when hardly a week went by that I didn’t lose at least a couple of days this way. There was a period of many years when my awareness leapt over great chunks of time, like a person leaping from one stone to another to cross a stream. Monday–Wednesday-Thursday-Saturday, on and on and on, so that my life was made up of strange asymmetrical weeks.

I used to live in fear of these attacks. Even when I was happy and healthy there was always the specter of this pain lurking at the edges of my consciousness, like black clouds gathering for a storm, a tiny pin-prick size awareness that this vigorous health would not last. The fear was not so very different, I think, from that of a thief that he will be caught. I lived every day, every day with the fear that the pain I knew was stalking me would find me again.

When I lived in Copenhagen, I used to have a little philosophy discussion group. I missed a meeting once because of a headache. I tried to explain to the other members when I saw them again, that it had not been an ordinary headache that had kept me away, but a very, very bad one.

One of the members of this group was a physician. He listened intently as I described my headaches.

“That sounds like a migraine,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I responded. “I don’t get any of those visual auras. No tunnel vision, or anything like that. And also,” I continued, “I’ve been able to connect them with stress and stress headaches, I know, are not the same as migraines.”

“Yes,” he answered, “but still, your headaches sound like migraines. I am going to write you a prescription for some new medicine that works very well for migraines. If they are not migraines, then the medicine won’t work, because it is not a pain killer. It works specifically on what causes migraines.

(This is a good place to explain that pain killers, anything short of morphine, anyway, don’t work on migraines. The pain of a migraine is so intense that it defeats all traditional pain killers. For years I thought aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc., were a huge pharmacological hoax, because I had never experienced even a shadow of relief from any of them.)

So I took the prescription, which was for six 100mg pills of sumatriptan succinate, and had it filled. The next time I had a headache I dutifully took one of these new pills, put some ice on my head, and tried to go back to sleep. And, miraculously, I was able to go back to sleep. I slept for something like an hour, or an hour and a half, and then, suddenly, while it was still morning, I sat bolt upright. The pain was gone. Like a dark cloud that had been blown away by a strong wind, it was gone, completely gone. I was myself again, laughing, happy, astonished at my sudden and miraculous rescue.

That medicine was a miracle. It changed my life. It wasn’t just that it gave me back days that would otherwise have been lost. It took away the specter of fear I had lived with every day for most of my adult life. I felt like the thief who had been pardoned. I felt liberated. I felt free.

Gradually, however, the medicine has ceased to work as well as it did in the beginning. I have cycled through several different formulations of the new migraine medicines. They still help, most of the time anyway, though not so dramatically as at first. Occasionally, they are no help at all. I think it helped this morning, though, finally. My guess is that, had I not taken the medicine, I would still be in bed now, even though it is evening.

It seems wrong that something so apparently innocuous as dilated blood vessels can cause such excruciating pain. Oliver Sacks mentions this phenomenon in one of his last essays “A General Feeling of Disorder” (New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015). “Nothing is more crucial to the survival and independence of organisms,” he writes, “than the maintenance of a constant internal environment.” This “constant internal balance” is homeostasis. It is maintained by the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that, as the name indicates, we cannot consciously control, but which controls itself. Usually, it does this well, but occasionally, something disturbs is. The balance is lost, with the result that one feels ill. Migraine, he explains, “is a sort of prototype [of this] illness, often very unpleasant but transient, and self limiting; benign in the sense that it does not cause death or serious injury and that it is not associated with any tissue damage or trauma or infection.”

“Benign” seems a strange word, as does “unpleasant,” to describe pain so intense it deprives existence of all meaning. It is also incredible that it apparently does no physical damage because when I am suffering from a particularly painful migraine and am repeating to myself that the pain will eventually go away, I am often gripped by a fear that it must be the expression of some profound disorder and that it will leave my brain so damaged that I will never be the same again.

“The worst affected patients,” Sacks continues, “ may be reduced to lying in a leaden haze, feeling half-dead, or even that death would be preferable.” In my case “leaden haze” is an improvement on the worst part of an attack. The “leaden haze” stage is achieved when I am finally able to lie in one place without moving, without writhing in agony emitting the kinds of frightening groans and whimpers of a wounded animal. At that stage, I fear any movement will catapult me back to the earlier more intense pain, so I lie still, play dead, in effect, to fool the pain.

At no stage do I feel half dead, though I know I probably appear half dead. At every stage I am only too aware that I am not dead.

I have wanted for years to write an essay about pain, about how horrific it can be, about the violence it can wreak on the personality. About how dehumanizing it is. About how anyone who has ever experienced really extreme pain could not possibly support torture, no matter to whom or for what reason it was done. About how anyone who has ever experienced really extreme pain could not possibly be opposed to euthanasia for those for whom such pain is chronic.

But I fear a real description of that kind of pain defeats me. The best I can do is to explain how it can shorten one’s life, take great, unrecoverable chunks of it. My head is better now, but I was unable to get up until after 2:00pm, and even now when it is almost 7:00pm, I’m too weak and tired to do any work. That’s why I’m writing this. It’s by way of apology and explanation. There is so much work I should have done today that I will not be able to do until tomorrow. Today is lost now, like so many other days before.

On Greatness

Pelikan 100For the first time in 37 years, we have a Triple-Crown winner. American Pharaoh didn’t win by a nose. He won by five and a half lengths! It was thrilling to watch him pull away from a group comprised of the fastest horses on the planet, to see him establish a lead that it was increasingly clear would be impossible for any of the other horses to overcome. It was an elevating spectacle. Joe Draper, wrote in The New York Times that “[t]he fans in a capacity crowd strained on their tiptoes and let our a roar from deep in their souls. It was going to end, finally – this 37-year search for a great racehorse.”

That’s right, he said the fans let out a roar “from deep in their souls.” Many cried. Toward the end of that same story he refers to American Pharaoh’s run as “ethereal.” The spectacle of greatness is always edifying because there is something sublime about it. We know this, all of us. We know it innately. We are always on the lookout for greatness, just as all mammals, as social creatures, are always on the lookout for individuals to follow, individuals who can lead them, even when they have no idea of where they might be going. This is the source of the cult of personality that seems to hold sway, to some extent anyway, in even the most egalitarian of societies.

It’s easier for us to admit that some animals are superior to others than to admit that some people are. American Pharaoh is superior to all other race horses. Seabiscuit, though not a Triple-Crown winner, was superior in his time as well, not just in speed, but in endurance and intelligence.

The rhetoric of democracy leaves little room, however, for the idea that some people might be superior to other people. Even the suggestion is frightening, conjuring up as it does, thoughts of the bad old days of slavery, of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and of other genocidal movements around the world.

“We hold these truths to be self evident,” reads Declaration of Independence, which then goes on to describe the purported inherent equality of all human beings (or at least all “men”) as chief among these self-evident truths. And yet all human beings are not equal, not even at the moment, so to speak, of their creation. It isn’t just nurture that accounts for differences among human beings, though my suspicion is that it accounts for most of them. Nature has her say as well. Some people are more beautiful than other people, some faster, some smarter or more talented in one way or another, some people are even kinder or more tolerant by nature than others. Parents who are honest will admit that many of these differences appear to be present from birth.

Why is it hard for us to admit that some people are superior to other people? Is it because we’re afraid to awaken the sleeping monster of exploitation that so often lives parasitically on this truth? That’s part of it, I believe. Religion can prevent such exploitation, however, even while acknowledging inherent differences among human beings, on the grounds that we are all God’s creatures and hence have, despite our differences, equal claim to dignity as such.

Even secular humanism can protect people from the exploitation that can come with the recognition that some people are superior to other people on the grounds that no rational, or even merely sentient, creature should ever be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

The real source, I believe, of our failure to openly acknowledge that all human beings are not, in fact, equal comes not from fear of the evil consequences of such an acknowledgement, but from fear of the good ones. Kierkegaard talks about that, about the fear of what Plato called “the Good.” We all have it to some extent or other.

There is a relentlessly leveling dynamic in contemporary Western culture, a desire to tear down, to discredit anyone who dares to rise above the fray. Danes call this Janteloven, or the law of Jante, which can be summed up as: No one should have the temerity to think he is any better than anyone else.

This leveling tendency masquerades as a progressive force, yet it is anything but. The spectacle of greatness is sublime. It elevates us above our petty egoisms, confronts us with the fact that there is something larger and more important than our paltry, individual selves. And this, my friends, is a dangerous, dangerous truth that what I will unfashionably call “the forces of darkness” would rather keep hidden from us.

To glimpse this truth is life changing. Those whose lives are illuminated by it are not compulsive consumers. They are not petty, envious of neighbors, neurotically fearful of perceived enemies. They support the development of human potential, not retributive systems of justice and endless war.

Egalitarianism can be a force for positive social change, but all too often it is a lie designed to keep us down. We need heroes. Martin Luther King may have had his faults, but he was still better than the rest of us, and so, I submit, is Noam Chomsky. There are lots of these superior people. They have always been with us and, thankfully, they always will be. Our lives, and society as a whole, would be made better if we were allowed to openly acknowledge them as such, to celebrate them, to let out a roar at the spectacle of them – from deep within our souls.

(This article originally appeared in the 9 June 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

On Collective Guilt

Ruth_Andreas-TitelWe can’t leave the Holocaust alone. That might be a good thing if we had the courage to view it honestly. We don’t though. We insist that it’s a puzzle we continue to try to solve, ostensibly so that we will know where to place blame, and in that way also know how to ensure that it will never happen again. We refuse, however, to place blame where it really belongs and so we keep turning it over and over, searching for something we will never find.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews? are questions that Götz Aly takes up in a new book the title of which begins with these questions (Metropolitan Books, 2014). Aly’s theory, not particularly novel, is that the social and economic advances made possible for Jews in Germany as a result of a series of legal reforms in the various German states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made them objects of envy. “Not all Nazi voters,” acknowledges Christopher R. Browning in a review of Aly’s book, “were anti-Semitic, but they at least tolerated Nazi anti-Semitism” (“How Envy of Jews Lay Behind It,” The New York Review of Books, January 8, 2015).

“But how to explain,” Browning continues, “this ‘moral insensibility’ and ‘moral torpor’ of 1933-1944, which underpinned the ‘criminal collaboration’ between the German people and the Nazi regime?” The answer Aly offered first in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (Metropolitan Books, 2005), was material gain. Aly’s new work supplements the motive of material gain with a “new morality” involving race theory that would justify such collaboration.

Many Germans remained unconvinced, however, by the new race theory. Many Germans were, in fact, untroubled by the legal reforms that had made possible the flowering of the Jewish middle class. Many Germans had even championed these reforms.

What happened to those people?

The journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who lived in Berlin during the war, gives us some insight into what happened to them in the diary she kept from 1938-1945. Initially, at least, they were not helping the Nazis. Her entry for Nov 10, 1938, the day after the infamous Kristallnacht,“ gives moving testament to that fact. At half past nine in the morning Andreas-Friedrich took a bus to her office. “The bus conductor looks at me,” she writes,

as if he had something important to say, but then just shakes his head, and looks away guiltily. My fellow passengers don’t look up at all. Everyone’s expression seems somehow to be asking forgiveness. The Kurfürstendamm is a sea of broken glass. At the corner of Fasanenstraße people are gathering–a mute mass looking in dismay at the synagogue, whose dome is hidden in a cloud of smoke.

            ‘A damn shame!’ a man beside me whispers … [W]e all feel that we are brothers as we sit here in the bus ready to die of shame. Brothers in shame; comrades in humiliation” (Berlin Underground 1938-1945 [Paragon House, 1989).

When she gets to the office, her editor, whom she observes, was “rumored to have a tinge of Nazism, ” says “one doesn’t dare look people in the eye anymore” (21).

“They’ve dragged all them all away–all the Jewish men they could get hold of,” begins her entry for the next day.

Only those who were warned in time have escaped the raid. Thank Heavens, a good many were warned. Hundreds managed to disappear at the houses of friends; hundreds sought shelter with strangers and found it. One little seamstress took in two Jewish fugitives; she didn’t even know their names or where they came from. Workingmen in the Frankfurter Allee brought back to the Jewish shop-owners the merchandise that was scattered over the street. They didn’t say a word, just tugged sheepishly at their caps. The chief surgeon of a hospital is hiding a wounded rabbi in the back room from the bloodhounds of the Gestapo.

            While the SS was raging, innumerable fellow Germans were ready to die of pity and shame” (p. 25).

The next line of the translation reads “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” If one goes to the original German edition of the diaries, however, the text continues

Women are dashing about the city today with mysterious bundles under their arms, meeting one another on street corners: Shaving articles for Doctor Weißmann. A clean shirt for Fritz Levy, night things for Jochen Cohn. One tries, as much as possible, to look after those in hiding. It isn’t advisable for them to come out of hiding yet. What happened yesterday could continue today (Der Schattenmann [The Shadow Man], Suhrkamp, 2nd ed. 2012, p. 38).

Then comes the line “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” There is no ellipsis to indicate material was omitted. One could argue it doesn’t matter because what makes it into the translation makes clear that the general reaction of Berliners to Kristallnacht was one of horror. Still, the omitted material makes even clearer how widespread among gentiles was sympathy for the plight of the Jews.

Interesting, eh? People running about the city collecting the necessary articles for friends, and in some cases even strangers, they’re protecting. Jews being given shelter by countless German gentiles. Workmen returning to Jewish shop-owners merchandise that had been scattered on the street. What happened to those countless Germans who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, to those countless “brothers in shame”?

What do you think happened to them? What happens to people who try to help others as it becomes increasingly clear what such assistance might eventually cost them? Some continue, despite the danger, some go into resistance groups such as “Uncle Emil,“ the one with which Andreas-Friedrich became associated, but most do not.

Andreas-Friedrich “looks lovingly” at the man who whispers “A damn shame!” at the sight of the burning synagogue.

“It occurs to me,” she writes, “that this is ”really the time to call your neighbor ‘brother.’ But I don’t do it. One never does; one just thinks it. And if you really do pluck up the courage for a running start, in the end you just ask, ‘Pardon me, could you tell me the time?’ And then you are instantly ashamed of being such a coward” (p. 19).

Why couldn’t she do it? Why couldn’t she acknowledge to the man that she also condemned what had happened the night before? Why couldn’t any of the people on the bus who were hanging their heads in shame, in silent shame? Why doesn’t one do it?

Years ago I saw a nature program that focused on a litter of wolf cubs. There were three cubs in the den. One emerged, however, days before the other two. He was bold, he was courageous. He was eager to explore the outside world. Ah, I thought to myself, he will be the alpha wolf. He will grow up to be the leader.

One day, though, the brave little cub came home from his explorations with an injured foot. He left again the next day, undaunted by his grisly experience of the day before, but that evening, he did not return. He never returned again. Who knows what had gotten him, but something clearly had.

Several more days passed after the disappearance of the first little cub before the two remaining ones peeked out, trembling, bodies pressed together, from the mouth of the little den. Another day still passed before they had the courage actually to emerge fully from the shelter of their home.

And suddenly I understood why human beings are such a miserable craven lot. Natural selection has ensured that cowardly individuals have a higher survival rate than courageous ones. They live longer, produce more offspring. So it isn’t our fault, really, that we’re such a miserable, craven lot. It’s in our genes.

And yet it is our fault because cowardice isn’t the only thing that’s in our genes. We have somehow also evolved a conscience. We know, as Aristotle expressed it in the Nicomachean Ethics, that there are things we ought rather to “face death” than do (Book III 1). And yet few of us have the courage to face death to do the right thing. Few of us even have the courage to say “brother” to another who affirms the values we purport to hold dear.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker that the Germans “failed miserably” to draw a line between the innocent and the guilty after the war. She writes, in fact, that to say they “failed miserably” would be “generous” (“The Last Trial”). That’s true, of course, though in a different sense, I think, than the one Kolbert meant, because the line, drawn properly, would encircle us all, all except for the few whose willingness to martyr themselves to do the right thing places them not outside the group, but above it.

We are all guilty of the cravenness that paved the way for the Holocaust, the glass through which we keep seeing darkly, which we keep turning over and over in a vain attempt to escape our own reflection. If we had the courage to recognize ourselves in it, then perhaps we could learn from it. But courage, sadly, is precisely what we lack.

(This piece is dedicated to my dear friend and German tutor of many years, Ebba Mørkeberg 1924-2014.  It originally appeared in the of Feb 17, 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

Material Culture

I like things. I’ve always been like that. I’m acquisitive. I have so much stuff that I routinely have to go through it get rid of some of it. I used to feel guilty about my acquisitive tendency, but I’ve become reconciled to it in the last few years.

My desk

I’m fascinated by things. I don’t remember when I first started haunting thrift stores, junk shops, salvage places, but I know that I was very young. There was something compelling to me about things that were old, things that had been so well made that they’d survived when shoddier things would have to have been thrown away, something fascinating about what time, and much handling, does to things. I liked the sheer variety of utilitarian things because they seemed to me to be a concrete expression of the ephemera of human experience, of the daily grind of, for example, working in an office. I like old office supplies, the heavy old Royal typewriters like the one my father used when I was a child, old staplers, hole punches, mechanical pencils. I wonder, always, whether the offices where these things were once so useful still exist, if people are still working there, or if perhaps they’ve been torn down.

I especially like old fountain pens. This is partly, I think, because I write so much and partly because I come from a family of writers. I’ve used a fountain pen for as long as I can remember and have been collecting them for at least twenty years. When I say “collecting,” I don’t mean that I’m stockpiling rare and expensive pens. Firstly, I don’t have the money to do that. Secondly, I buy pens to write with, not to look at.

I’ll go through long periods where I won’t buy any pens, but then I’ll start buying them again. Not many, just one or two. I couldn’t afford to buy more than that because they’re not cheap. In the beginning, I told myself that I was searching for the perfect pen and that when I found it, I’d stop buying pens. But I could never content myself with a single pen for long, no matter how nice it was. You might think that perhaps my standards are too high. It isn’t that, though. I love all my pens (the ones I have kept, anyway; the others I sell). It’s not that I become disappointed with the pens I have. It’s that I want more. I crave variety.

I’ve bought and sold many pens online. I’d never been to a pen show, though, until last weekend when there was one in Philadelphia, where I live. I didn’t need any new pens, of course, but I did need work done on a couple of pens I already had, and I needed someone to show me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic. The Vacumatic has a unique filling system that is not used anymore and is difficult to figure out. I knew there would be someone at the show who could explain it to me, so I packed up my Parker and headed for the Sheraton on 17th Street where the show was being held.

It seemed everyone in the pen world was there. There were lots of dealers selling both new and vintage pens, along with other writing equipment and arcane sorts of office supplies and pen ephemera. I was in heaven! I caught just a snippet of a conversation as I was wandering from one table to another. One of the dealers was talking to a customer:

“You have to have passion for something,” he said. “Passion is what makes life worth living!”

I suspect everyone there would have agreed. Most of the interest was in the old pens, the ones that had seen lots of use but which had been so magnificently conceived and constructed that they now, almost a century later in some cases, could still be used.

The biggest attractions at most pen shows, though, are not the pens. Anything can be bought online now, even the oldest eyedropper pens from the nineteenth century. No, the biggest attractions are the nibmeisters, the guys who repair old pens and, in particular, custom grind nibs. They can take a medium point and grind it down to a fine, put an angle on it for what is called an “oblique” nib, turn it into a “stub” or an “italic.” You don’t have to go to a show to get a custom-ground nib. You can mail a pen off to be reground. That takes a while, though (sometimes months), and, more importantly, you might not be entirely happy with the results. The nib might be too fine, or it might be scratchy. You won’t know, though, until the pen comes back, and if you aren’t entirely happy with the regrind, you’ll either have to settle for less than what you wanted or pop it back in the mail again and endure another long wait. If you get a nib ground at a show, on the other hand, you can sit there while the work is being done. You can try it out and give it back immediately to the nibmeister for an adjustment if you aren’t entirely happy with it.

I had a nib I wanted worked on. I’d started collecting Pelikan pens. I love Pelikans for several reasons. First, they hold more ink than most other pens, and second, they feel very good in the hand. Third, they have what are called “responsive nibs,” meaning nibs that give somewhat if pressure is applied to them so they feel just a little like how old quill pens must have felt. Their nibs tend to be a slightly broader, however, than the nibs on the pens I was used to, so I had brought my latest Pelikan to see if something could be done to it to give it a crisper line. I asked James Baer, of Monomoy Vintage Pen in Newton, MA. He’d shown me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic, so I thought he might also be able to help me with my nib. Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing any grinding at the show. He directed me instead to a young man named Tim Girdler sitting just a few tables away.

I had to put my name on a waiting list and then wander around the show until my turn came.

“What do you want?” he asked like a cook at a lunch counter. I had a Pelikan, I explained.  It had a “fine” point, but I’d started with Japanese pens and their “fines” were much finer so the Pelikan seemed a little “blobby” to me. I told him that I’d like him to put a slight slant on the nib, to make it into an “oblique” because I knew that would give me a crisper line.

He asked me to write something so he could see how I wrote, the angle at which I held the pen. After I did a little writing sample for him, he said he didn’t think that an oblique was really what I wanted.

“Let me try something,” he said. He took the pen and began to rub the nib on a little piece of emery paper.

“Now try it,” he said as he handed it back to me.

It was better, but still not what I wanted, so I gave it back to him and he got out his little motorized grinding stone so that he could work more aggressively on it than the emery paper would allow.

“How’s this?” he said eventually, and then added “you’re going to hate it.” I knew why he’d added that. He’d flattened out the nib like a stub, but he hadn’t bothered to smooth it yet. He wanted to see if I liked the line quality of the new grind before he put in all the effort to make it write smoothly.

He was right, I did hate it. And yet, and yet, it had just the line quality I’d been looking for. The only problem was that it was scratchy, but I knew that was fixable.

“I like it!” I exclaimed, a smile spreading across my face, “except, of course, for the fact that it is very scratchy.” I gave it back to him and he went to work on it again with the emery paper.

When he finally gave it back to me it was perfect. I mean it was really perfect! It had exactly the line quality I wanted, and it wrote very smoothly. He cautioned me that it would never write quite so smoothly as a regular nib. That’s the thing about italic nibs, he explained, they aren’t scratchy if they’re ground properly, but they aren’t so smooth as a standard nib either. There’s a sweet spot on them, he explained. You have to hold the pen at exactly the right angle or you’ll get a little drag. A standard nib is more forgiving, but it’s also less distinctive.

He said I had sixty days, or something like that, during which I could still have adjustments made, so I took his card, just in case. I’d heard him say to the person before me that he’d been a seminary student. I was surprised, though, when I looked at his card, to read “Tim Girdler Pens: Ministering Through the Perfect Pen.” He had made my life better, I realized, through the work he’d done on my pen, through the concern he’d shown for what I wanted.

I’m so happy with with my “new” pen, I’m just writing and writing, so happy now to have my pen just the way I want it. Passion is indeed what makes life worth living. Tim Girdler has it. It must have taken him years to become so skilled as he is now, skilled at something that he must always have known would never be in great demand. Tim Girdler has passion and he uses it to make people’s lives better. He isn’t the only pen person who cares for more than his own material wellbeing. Rick Propas, of “The PENguin Fountain Pens,” once offered to send me a whole tray of pens to practice repairing–for nothing, just because he could tell I shared his passion. I’d never met him either, but only corresponded with him via email.

Passion is part of what attracts me to things. You can see it in the design of things, in how they’re finished, in the attention to detail. You can see, in things, the shape of human aspirations. There’s a humanity that pervades things made by human beings for human purposes. This is even more evident, I think, in things that have been used. That’s why I like the patina of use. It shows the humanity of the thing, or the humanity that clings to it. I can’t get enough of that, or enough of the things that speak in that way of other peoples lives.

So I keep buying things, especially old pens. There’s a line I love in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy, who has just learned he’s dying of cancer, is talking to his son about mortality. “The human animal,” he explains, “is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!”

I wonder if it isn’t life everlasting that I’m looking for. I feel sometimes, when I’m trawling through other people’s discarded possessions, or sitting at my desk surrounded by things I know once belonged to people now long dead, that life everlasting is what I have in my things. It’s as if I’ve taken the lives of these other people up into my own, as if, in that way, I’ve created a timeless connection between us, a timelessness that is a little eternity of its own.

(This essay originally appeared in Counterpunch under the title “Living in a Material World.”

Sport and the Sublime

Greg LouganisThe following piece originally appeared in the 25-27 January 2013 edition of Counterpuch. I am posting it here in honor of the 2014 Winter Olympics that have just gotten underway in Sochi, Russia.

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. That was before cable, so finding something interesting could be challenging. I was channel surfing one day when I happened on some diving. I didn’t know anything about diving. but even people who don’t know anything about it can appreciate the beauty of it. There was nothing better on, so I decided to watch for a bit.

One diver after another came on the screen and executed what seemed to be perfect dives. But then, suddenly, there was Greg Louganis. There’s a video of Louganis on YouTube that begins: “There are two categories of divers, those who perform with magnificent skill, grace, beauty, and courage–” there’s a pause and the narrator’s voice drops an octave, “then there is Greg Louganis.”

That pretty much sums it up. I was watching all these divers who seemed perfect, and then suddenly there was Greg Louganis. He wasn’t just perfect–he was sublime. I didn’t know anything about diving and yet watching Louganis gave me the feeling Emily Dickinson reportedly said one gets from good poetry–it made me cold to the bone. It gave me that shiver of the numinous that Rudolf Otto talks about in The Idea of the Holy.

That was a defining moment in my life. It was, I believe, when I first realized that there was more to reality than what appears on the surface of experience. Louganis executed the same beautiful movements as all the other divers, and yet there was something more in his movements than in everyone else’s. Something ineffable and yet so powerful; it hit the spectator with the force of a blow, like the shock of electricity. It seemed as if there were more energy in every fiber of his being, more vital life force. It was as if he were more real than the other divers, as if the other divers had been only moving images, whereas Louganis was a man in the flesh. Except that the other divers had been real. So Louganis seemed somehow to have more reality than the others.

*

I saw the same thing a few years ago in person. I’d just started taking figure skating lessons and used to go to competitions to cheer on a little boy whom my teacher was coaching. I stayed, once, to watch the next competition for slightly more advanced boys. One of the skaters caught my eye during the warmup. He was doing a very simple move, one I was trying, in fact, to learn myself at that time. It’s called “edges with three turns” and involves the skater making large arcs across the ice on alternating feet with a turn in the middle from forward to backward so that the tracings left on the ice look like a series of elongated number threes facing in opposite directions. It’s a simple looking move, yet it’s very difficult to perform well because, after the turn, the skater’s shoulders have a tendency to continue to pull him in the direction of the turn. If this motion is not checked, then it will be almost impossible for him to step forward again into the next arc. The shoulders and hips have to turn independently of each other, and the skater has to have a considerable degree of control over his upper body to keep the motion of the shoulders in check.

This boy, the one I was watching, can’t have been more than 14 years old, but he had the serene self possession of a dancer at the barre. His movements were slow, deliberate, and exquisite. I’d never seen anything like it. Not only did he have perfect form, he had perfect concentration. Other skaters raced past him, but he was so absorbed in what he was doing he seemed not to notice them. It was almost as if he were out there alone, as if the other skaters had been reduced to shadows. I could not take my eyes off him.

*

The idea that there are degrees of reality will seem strange to most people nowadays. It was a familiar one, however, to medieval and early-modern philosophers. For the medievals, things that were dependent on other things for their existence had less reality than did the things on which they were dependent. People, for example, had less reality than God. God had created people, hence people were dependent for their existence on God, whereas God’s existence was absolutely independent of anything else. God was the ultimately real thing, the thing with the greatest degree of reality, the thing that was more real than any other thing.

Kierkegaard also appears to have appropriated this idea of degrees of reality. Human beings, according to Kierkegaard, begin as ideas in the mind of God. The telos of an individual human life is therefore to bring the substance of that life into conformity with the form God conceived it should have. That’s what Kierkegaard means, I would argue, when he asserts that we must become who we are. We must become concretely who we are for God abstractly.

Most people, and that includes most athletes, don’t do that. Rather than striving to instantiate the ideal of their uniqueness, they constantly compare themselves to other people and try, in effect, to be better at being those people than those people are themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with competition. Competition can push athletes to higher levels of performance than they might otherwise achieve. What has not been adequately articulated, however, is precisely how this works. Competition improves performances, I would argue, only when athletes strive to instantiate a transcendent ideal that no particular performance can ever adequately instantiate. An athlete who strives in this way to instantiate an ideal provides a glimpse into the essence of that ideal that can spur on others in their own pursuit of it.

That’s a very different sort of phenomenon, however, from that of one athlete effectively copying another in the belief that he can do what the other has done better than the other did it himself. That kind of competition is inherently frustrating for the athlete in that he is trying to be something he’s not, and boring for the spectator in that he’s being subjected to what are effectively a bunch of imitations. When athletes strive only to win, rather than to be the best that they can be in their chosen sport, the reality of all the participants in a competition is diminished. Each becomes merely a copy of the others, and the ideal, which in a sense is more real than is any particular attempt to instantiate it, is lost sight of.

 

The idea that there are degrees of reality provides us a way to explain something that is otherwise inexplicable–greatness. Philosophers distinguish between quantitative and qualitative differences. A thing can be more or less blue, for example, in a quantitative sense. To be red, on the other hand, is to be something else entirely. Red is qualitatively different from blue.

A performance that is great is not distinguished from other performances in a merely quantitative sense. There’s something more to it that sets it apart. Greatness is qualitatively different from skill, even the most highly refined skill. It’s possible to execute a movement in a manner that many would judge to be technically perfect, and yet to be uninspiring. Conversely, it’s possible to deviate from universally accepted standards of performance and yet move an audience more profoundly than someone who is merely a consummate technician.

Part of this has to do with passion, but it is not reducible to passion. Passion is necessary for greatness, but it’s not sufficient. Passion is a natural attribute. Some people have more, others have less, just as some people have more or less patience than other people. Greatness, on the other hand, is not a natural attribute. A great artist, as every great athlete is, has to be passionate, and yet he also has to be more than that. He has to have a gift. That’s why greatness is edifying. It bursts the confines of the temporal-phenomenal world, provides us with a glimpse of something that is transcendent. There’s a spark of divinity to it.

That’s why the sport/art dichotomy is false. All great athletes are artists. They give us glimpses of the sublime by bringing into their performances something more in a qualitative rather than a quantitative sense. That’s why it’s wrong for athletes to strive merely to win. It’s not simply that striving to win, as Aristotle pointed out, is misguided in that winning is something over which one has no direct control. To strive to win is to aim for the quantitative rather than the qualitative, and that is inherently limiting. Athletes who strive to be the best they can be at their chosen sport rather than simply to win this or that contest are pursuing something transcendent. That’s ennobling, both for the athlete and the spectator.

Why then is winning so important? Because it is more obviously valued than is being sublime. It takes less energy, less effort, less engagement on the part of the spectator to be caught up in a contest than to be caught up in a performance. We can follow a contest with only half, or even less, of our attention. To follow a performance, on the other hand, is energy intensive. Human beings, like every other living creature, like to conserve energy. Contests are a way of doing that. We are told who the winner is rather than having to determine that for ourselves. To follow a performance, in contrast, requires us to be fully present in the moment, to bring all our capacities of attention and discrimination to the fore.

When we do that, when we truly follow the performances of athletes, we sometimes find that the superb performance is not always the one that wins. There are a variety of reasons for that. Sometimes reputations of athletes unduly influence scores. Other times the scoring systems themselves are simply too arbitrary and opaque to ensure that the best performance wins. Finally, scores are sometimes manipulated to ensure that particular athletes win, independently of how well they perform.

All of these reasons are traceable back, however, to a suspicion of the ineffable. It’s ultimately impossible to articulate what makes a performance great, and not everyone is an equally good judge of greatness. So in the service of fairness, we attempt to construct a set of objective criteria for evaluating performances, and the performance that best satisfies these criteria is the one we call “the winner.”

 

*

The name of the skater I saw a few years ago is Alexander Aiken. I tried to follow his career for a while. If there were a competition in the area I would go in the hope of seeing him, and I would look for news of his results in Skating magazine, the official publication of U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body of the sport. I eventually lost track of him, however, as my interest in the sport waned. The new judging system has imposed a level of conformity that is increasingly making skating boring to watch, and the perennial problem of inequities in the judging too often make the results of competitions an offense to the fair minded.

I quit following competitive skating. I continued to skate myself, though,  because it is the only real exercise I get. When I arrived in Jacksonville, where my husband teaches and where I spend half the year when I am not teaching in Philadelphia, I was surprised to find that a very advanced skater had recently begun to train there. I noticed him as I entered the rink and stopped to watch him for a few minutes. Something about him looked familiar. And then I realized who it was; it was Alexander Aiken. He was older, of course, than he had been the last time I’d seen him, but his looks had otherwise not changed much. I think it was less his face, though, than his skating that caused the shock of recognition to run through me. His skating is distinctively beautiful.

I could hardly believe the coincidence of his showing up to train in Jacksonville. I’d first seen him in Philadelphia and had learned then that he was from Atlanta. What, I wondered, was he doing in Jacksonville? I went over and introduced myself when he finally got off the ice. I told him how I’d seen him years ago and had been impressed with his skating. He smiled and thanked me politely and continued unlacing his skates. I learned later, from his girlfriend Michelle Pennington, who is a former competitive ice dancer and one of the instructors at the rink, that he’d moved to Jacksonville to live with a sister whose husband was in the military and was stationed there.

We skated together, Aiken and I, the sublime and the ridiculous, through the end of the summer and into the early fall. It was wonderful. Most of the time, we were the only two people on the ice. I was concerned that my presence might interfere with his training, but it was wonderful to be able to observe a great athlete so closely, and he went out of his way to make me feel welcome. Aiken brought a better face to the sport than the one I had seen of late and that helped bring back the joy I had earlier taken in it.

I was excited to have someone to cheer on again in competitions. Aiken was going places. He’s not just supremely graceful; he has enormous athletic ability. He’s able to land triple axels solidly and consistently, the jump widely considered to be the most difficult in the whole sport.  He won the bronze medal at the 2011 national figure skating championships in the Junior Men’s division and had competed at the Senior level for the first time last year. He hadn’t placed terribly well, but that’s how the sport works. Skaters are rarely allowed to place well their first year in “seniors.”

 

The nationals are this week in Omaha. The senior men compete on Friday and Saturday. You won’t see Aiken there though. He’s been plagued over the last few years, as so many skaters are, by the astronomically high costs of training. The stress of that has taken its toll on him. He narrowly missed qualifying for nationals and decided he’d had enough. He’s quit skating, or at least quit competing. He said he can no longer afford the $50,000 he’d had to pay every year to train. He’d gotten some help, of course––most skaters at his level do––just not enough.

It’s hard for me to say, finally, which spectacle is more ennobling: the sublime performance that wins the contest, hence reinforcing our faith in providence, or the one that doesn’t. I think sometimes that it’s the latter. The celebrity of the winner makes him a kind of public figure, someone who belongs, in a sense, to the masses, whereas the triumph of the athlete who achieved greatness but did not win is a more private thing, something that belongs only to himself and that select group of spectators whose intensity of attention has initiated them into the realm of the transcendent.

No skater I’ve ever seen in person has made such a strong impression on me as Alexander Aiken has. He’s a sublime skater, a great athlete, a great man. This piece is for him.

(This article has been excerpted from Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport. I’m indebted to Michelle Pennington for her help with it.)

All Over America the Lamps are Going Out

Agee photo finalThese are bad times. I thought of James Agee’s beautiful and heartrending work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I heard the verdict in the Zimmerman case. There’s an account, very near the beginning of the book, of Agee’s and Walker Evans’s encounter with a young black couple that made me think, when I first read it, how far we had come from those dark days. Agee and Evans had found a church they wanted to photograph. The church was in a relatively deserted wooded area and was locked. As the two men were wondering whether to force their way in, a young black couple came walking by. The couple, Agee writes,

[w]ithout appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, … made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. (p. 36.)

Agee decides to go after the couple to ask them if they know where to find a minister or someone else who could let them into the church. Agee, being Agee trails behind them at first simply observing them “taking pleasure… in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, … and in the beauty in the sunlight on their clothes.” They are obviously courting, both dressed in their Sunday best. He in “dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow soft straw hat,” she in “a flowered pink cotton dress” and “freshly whited pumps.

“I was walking more rapidly than they,” explains Agee, “but quietly.” Still, before he had gone far, the couple, as if they could sense his presence, turned back and looked at him “briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field.” Agee waved at them, but they’d already turned away again. He began to walk faster, but was impatient to catch up to them, so he “broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel,” writes Agee

the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, … [said] ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. …. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn’t scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking. … I …  asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and … again, … I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back. (pp. 37-39.)

I remember when I read this passage the horror that came over me to think that anyone would ever have to live with such constant fear. That couple had been frightened, even if only briefly, for their lives.

I knew what it was like to be pursued. I was one of the very few white children at my school for most of my childhood and though the black children who knew me were almost always kind to me, the ones who didn’t know me, the ones I might encounter at recess or walking to or from school, were not. I’d been chased before and been called names and had things thrown at me. I once had a glass bottle thrown at me. It shattered just in front of me so that I could feel the force of the tiny fragments against my shins. I’d learned very early to keep walking, no matter what what was going on behind or in front of me, I’d learned somehow by instinct, I think, not to display fear. Of course I couldn’t ignore people either. I had to acknowledge them, but I couldn’t appear to be afraid. I don’t know why, exactly, that worked, but it did and I knew somehow, even as a child, that it would.

So I identified with that couple. I knew what it was like to affect nonchalance when you are really very afraid. I knew the intricacies of the subtle etiquette of self defense and how it kicks in automatically at such times. I identified with this couple. But still, I had never been afraid for my life.

There are not words to describe what it must be like to live that way, to live with an ever-present fear for one’s very life. I remember when I read that passage I thought to myself, thank God, thank God black people do not have to live like that anymore.

These are bad times.

(This piece was originally published in Counterpunch, 24 July 2013.)

On Death and Dying

Otis elementary school 2One of the most frightening things, I think, about dying is that we do it alone. Of all the natural evils for which one would like to blame the creator, this seems one of the worst. It would have been so much better, wouldn’t it, if we left this life in groups, left perhaps with the people we came in with, with the children we remember from our earliest days in school, and perhaps also with the people we have come to love, if they are suitably close to us in age. If we could go in groups, as if on a field trip, it would be easier.

But we go alone, even those unfortunates who die in accidents that take many lives die effectively alone because they don’t have time, really to appreciate their fates as shared. They say the people who remained on the Titanic sang as the ship went down. That’s what I’m talking about. It would be so much better, so much easier to bear if we were assigned a time along with many others. We could begin to gather a little before that time, all of us who were assigned to leave together, we could begin to gather and prepare ourselves and share with one another the joys and sorrows of our lives. If we did that, I think we would realize that our lives had really all been variations on the same theme, that we were not so different from one another as we had thought.

I’m not certain if I believe in life after death, even though I am very religious. I’m not certain what it would be for. I doubt I will be ready to leave this life when my time comes. I think I’d like to live much longer than I know I will, say three or four hundred years. I think I’d eventually get tired of living though, so the prospect of living forever is not all that appealing.

It seems to me, however, that if there is life after death, that that place where we will all go (and I believe we will all go to the same place because I am a universalist), wherever it is, that we will all actually arrive there together. Even though each of us will die individually, alone, if we go anywhere, it is to eternity and since there is no temporal change in eternity, there cannot be any arriving earlier or later. Where we will go will be where everyone will go at the same time, or where everyone, in a sense, already is. There will be no waiting for the loved ones who die after us. They will be there waiting for us, so to speak, when we arrive, even if they are in the bloom of youth when we leave.

When I think about death, which I do more and more as I get older, I wonder if perhaps part of the point of it, of the horrible specter of that trip one must take alone, is precisely to make us understand that we never really are alone. And by that I don’t mean simply that God is always with us, although I do mean that also. I mean that we are all part of the whole of humanity, that we are connected to everyone and, indeed, to every living thing.

There is a poem I love by Molly Holden that conveys this sense of connectedness very well. It’s called “Photograph of Haymaker, 1890.” It goes like this:

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,

That’s not the whole of the poem. I left out the last couple of lines for fear of violating copyright. You can read the whole of it though if you go to Poetry magazine. Of course the poem is about the haymaker in that it’s about mortality which is inseparable, I think from temporality. Time passes, people pass, as they say. The haymaker will pass, just as the grasses he’s cutting down in the vigor of his manhood. And he is gone now of course the man who was young and vigorous in that photo taken so long ago.

I love to read philosophy and learn that others who lived and died long before me had precisely the same thoughts that I have had. I feel suddenly linked to those people in a mystical way. I feel as if they are with me in a strange sense, that we are together on this journey we call life, even though they completed it long ago.

Kierkegaard speaks often about the idea of death and how one must keep it ever present in his thoughts. I did not understand this when I first read it, but I believe I do now. To think about death, really to think about it, to think it through, will bring you right back around again to life and what a miracle it is, and by that I don’t mean your own small individual life, but all of it, life as a whole, and you will be filled with reverence for it. You will be kinder to every creature.

And you will feel less alone.

This piece is for Otis Anderson, February 6, 1959 – July 14, 2013.