Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Full of wonders

Martin Gardner
Martin Gardner (1914-2010) was something of a Renaissance writer. He seemed able to write about anything, from Alice in Wonderland to string theory, like an authority. He wrote books by the dozens, including a passable novel called The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (made into a passable 1975 move), and articles by the hundreds.

Forty-seven of his essays, mostly magazine articles, book reviews and chapters from his books, were collected more than 20 years ago in The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995. That's nearly 60 years worth of material, which alone is amazing, never mind that these essays cover physical science, social science, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy (the field he studied in college) and religion. The title given to this collection is suggestive of its range. It comes from lines by Lord Dunsany:

     Man is a small thing,
     and the night is very large
     and full of wonders

The last essay in the book, "Surprise," returns to this idea, that the universe is very large and full of wonders. However much science discovers about the universe, there will always be one more surprise waiting around the next corner. This essay falls in the category of religion and speaks eloquently of his own religious beliefs. Elsewhere he calls himself a "philosophical theist." He pooh-poohs most religious belief as irrational and has no use for Christianity. Yet he quotes G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and other Christian writers as favorably as he quotes such atheists as Bertrand Russell. In the end it seems to be the wonders of the universe that convinces him there is a God. In another essay he writes, "I believe because it consoles me."

Most readers, lacking Gardner's broad interests and knowledge, will find some essays more interesting, not to say understandable, than others. Being the sort of person I am, I found more of interest in his essays about Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll and William Shakespeare
of more interest than those about Robert Maynard Hutchins and Isaiah Berlin. Others will read it differently, but most intelligent readers will find something here to stimulate them, anger them, delight them or simply give them that sense of wonder.

Monday, February 20, 2017

When literature was king

It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously (Dorothy) Day and others took it -- reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books. Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.
David Brooks, The Road to Character

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a Catholic activist and writer who is one of those people David Brooks uses as as a model for character formation in The Road to Character. The period he writes about above would be her teens and 20s, which would make it the years just before and after 1920. Among the writers who influenced Day at that time were Upton Sinclair and Jack London, as well as the Russian novelists Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Brooks reminds as that at that time in history, and for many years before that and a few years afterward, literature was taken much more seriously than it is today. Even ordinary people with relatively little formal education knew their Shakespeare, knew their Scott and Dickens and knew their Wordsworth and Milton. They also knew their Bibles.

Such reverence for literature still had a glimmer of life in my own youth. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck were still alive and were household names. So we're such poets as Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. How many living poets can you name? Many poets continue to write, and I meet one occasionally, but none has reached the prominence of a Frost or Sandburg since then, which may help explain why Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As for novelists, most people think first of people like John Grisham and Danielle Steel, not more literary types. we still have good writers, but fewer people read them.

Today the great film directors, the likes of Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson, are the artists most widely known and discussed. You don't need a college degree to intelligently discuss The Grand Budapest Hotel, just as you once didn't need a college degree to intelligently discuss Hamlet.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A dying woman's dilemma

The future you understands that I was your sainted mother but not always such a saint.
Lauren Grodstein, Our Short History

If Karen Neulander weren't dying, she would be a hard character to like. The narrator of Lauren Grodstein's new novel, Our Short History, is a political consultant whose specialties are playing dirty tricks on other candidates and whitewashing the scandals in which her own candidates are caught. She once disclosed that a candidate's 16-year-old daughter had had an abortion, although the candidate himself was pro-life. Meanwhile, she admits that her current candidate is "one of the least trustworthy people I'd ever met." But his politics are right.

Now Karen has terminal cancer and is given maybe just a couple of years to live. She is the single mother of Jake, a six-year-old boy, and this novel takes the form of her statement of love, advice and family history to be read by Jake when he turns 18.

The complication for Karen, as if her life hadn't become complicated enough, is that Jake wants to meet his father. Dave, the love of Karen's life, had disappeared after she had become pregnant. Now he is a New York lawyer and married. When she contacts him, she is shocked by how much Jake likes him and by how much Dave's attitude toward children has changed. Now he wants to become involved in Jake's life, and this frightens Karen, who had already made plans for Jake to be cared for by her sister in the state of Washington. Will Dave, a lawyer after all, try to gain custody of his son? Can she, a dying woman, do anything to prevent that? And, considering the growing relationship between father and son, should she even try?

Karen's many imperfections add depth to Grodstein's novel that wouldn't exist if the protagonist were a goody-goody woman. Even Jake is not a perfect little boy. He is clearly spoiled, demanding and given to tantrums to get his way. As for Dave, he buys Jake too many presents and allows him to watch the wrong king of movie, yet he still comes across as too good to be true -- handsome, wealthy, well-meaning and totally reformed in his attitudes toward family. His near-perfection makes Karen's dilemma all the more difficult. She let this guy get away, now she can't keep him away.

A key passage in the novel comes when Karen goes to meet her candidate's political foe, a woman who has herself struggled with cancer. She discovers that the person she is trying to destroy is a wonderful woman, much more decent than her own candidate or, for that matter, Karen herself. This meeting, more than anything, changes Karen and guides her in the choices she must make.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Testing truth

PolitiFact was created by the Tampa Bay Times to determine the truthfulness of public statements, mainly those made by politicians, but anything said by anyone, including the media, can be subject to judgment. There is a PolitiFact website, and a detailed analysis of some statements are printed in the Times several times a week. PolitiFact strives to be objective, and certainly members of both political parties and groups of all kinds have been rated both true and false. But just how objective is it really?

A journalist for more than 40 years, I strove for objectivity every day (or at least those days when I was not writing editorials or columns) and I know how difficult that can be to achieve. Bias can sneak through in a million ways without our even being aware of it.

With PolitiFact, though the goal may be objectivity, a number of subjective decisions have to be made along the way. For example, which statements, among the thousands made each day, are going to be selected for testing? Certainly there must be a temptation to check those statements one disagrees with more than those one agrees with.

Which, of all the statements checked on the website, will be printed in the newspaper? And where in the paper will they be placed? Those appearing on the front page or on section covers will be seen by more people than those buried on inside pages. Sometimes statements are checked individually, other times as part of a group of related statements. Those judged by themselves, whether determined to be true or false, will presumably get more attention.

Then there is the very subjective matter of how a statement is judged and by what standard. On Sunday the Times rated a comment made by House Speaker Paul Ryan, abbreviated by the Times to, "We tax our exports and don't tax our exports." To rate the accuracy of that statement, PolitiFact turned to Joel Trachtman, professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. (This raises the obvious questions of how objective Professor Trachtman is and how truthful his own statements were.)

What the professor said is that Ryan's comment was "in principle true, but there's a lot of important exceptions." Among these exceptions are tariffs, which if not taxes have very much the same impact as taxes. Ryan's office "acknowledged to us that tariffs are another form of tax, but pointed out that he had been asked about the tax code, which is administered by the Internal Revenue Service rather than the U.S. Customs and Border Protection," the article said.

Ryan's statement was rated "half true," although it might just as easily have been judged "mostly true." Yet the headline on the article, "House speaker stumbles on issue of U.S. tariffs," suggests his comment was "mostly untrue."

Anytime one attempts to generalize or to speak of something complex in just a few words, the statement will almost always be something less than perfectly true. Take the statement, "Americans are free," for example. We hear this all the time, especially around the Fourth of July. But someone could point out that educators, doctors, businesses and others in America face mountains of regulations, good or bad, restricting their freedom and limiting their efficiency. And the IRS confiscates a significant portion of workers' income before they even see it. So are Americans free, or is that statement, like Ryan's, just half true?

As another example, take the simple statement, "PolitiFact is objective." The best we could say is that it is mostly true. Were I to let my own bias slip in, I would have to call it no better than half true.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The disease of adolescence

I was quite a number of pages into Through Darkest Adolescence, Richard Armour's comical lament about raising teenagers, before I realized that, since the book was published in 1963, I myself was one of those teenagers in question. From then on the book became a little more personal, even a little more amusing.

Armour is at his best in the opening chapter where he discusses adolescence as a disease, a disease that is not contagious and that you get only once, although it can hang on for several years. For a few people, he warns, it can last much longer, as among those people who act like teenagers well into middle age. After writing about some of the more serious symptoms of this disease, he concludes, "Some day a Dr. Salk will probably come along with a vaccine for adolescence. If so, the only question will be which Nobel Prize he should get -- the one for medicine or the one for peace."

From there, he moves on to such topics as getting a chance at the bathroom when there are teens in the house, teen parties, what to do when your kids are old enough to drive and problems related to cutting hair and straightening teeth. He uses his own son and daughter as examples, which must have embarrassed them terribly. However, since he was born in 1906, his kids may have been well into adulthood by 1963.

Armour wrote light verse to rival that of his contemporary, Ogden Nash. Unfortunately some of his poems are often wrongly attributed to Nash. We get a nice sampling of his verse scattered throughout this book. Here is one example:

     We've only a teen-age daughter,
     A two-legged creature indeed,
     And yet from the shoes
     She incessantly strews,
     You'd think we've a centipede.

Armour's wit seems to fail him late in his book when he addresses the subjects of smoking and drinking. His strategy for discouraging these behaviors is to encourage his kids to smoke cigars and consume large quantities of alcohol on the theory that after this they will not want to smoke or drink at all. Of course, this strategy fails. None of this misbehavior, and I'm referring to that of the parent, seems funny now, and I doubt that it was funny even in 1963.

However I do recall that when I was a little boy my father offered me a sip of his beer. I cried loudly at the taste, and my mother came running from the kitchen, giving Dad a firm lecture when she found out what had happened. But I have never wanted a beer since. So maybe Armour's strange strategy might have worked if he had only tried it a decade earlier.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Building character

Building character, like life itself, is a journey, and we get that point with the title of the David Brooks book The Road to Character. We may be born with a certain personality, but not with character. That's something that takes a lifetime to develop, assuming we even bother to try.

Brooks studies character building by studying the lives of a variety of men and women who made more effort to develop character than most of us do. They never became perfect people, but all were better later in their lives than earlier. Dorothy Day and Augustine were sexual libertines in their youth. Both later became devoted to Christian service. Dwight Eisenhower struggled with a terrible temper. Thanks to the influence of his mother and his military training, he learned to control it to become both the supreme Allied commander in World War II and the president of the United States. Frances Perkins fought to subdue her own wants and needs to better serve others.

Character building has become an old-fashioned concept, which is why younger readers may not be drawn to this book. With all the emphasis on self-esteem today, children are inclined to believe they already have it made. Why work to improve when you are already perfect? Brooks says that 53 percent of all students now get A's. Some graduating classes have a half dozen valedictorians or more. If high school is easy, why not the rest of life? And if virtue is relative and what's right for you is not necessarily right for me, then why work to become more virtuous?

Brooks contrasts Johnny Unitas with Joe Namath. Both were great NFL quarterbacks from the same region of Pennsylvania, yet their concepts of character were radically different. Unitas believed in working hard and keeping a low profile. Namath believed in having fun and showing off. Brooks sees them as symbols of their respective generations, Even though both men played in Super Bowl III, we tend to associate Unitas with the 1950s and Namath with the 1960s, when because of Vietnam and a lot of other factors, social change was rampant. Yet Brooks suggests it was actually the postwar Unitas generation, sometimes called the Greatest Generation, that actually brought about the change in how people view character. After years of Depression and war, this generation focused on material success, building big homes in the suburbs and acquiring nice things. Developing character became a minor issue, then no issue at all in many homes and schools.

Brooks says there are "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." The first includes the kinds of things we brag about and use to get jobs and impress others. The second kind of virtue includes what might be said about us at our funerals, at the end of our life journeys. And this second kind of virtue is what makes character.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Situation comedy

The Beverly Hillbillies
Most of the comedy in today's TV sitcoms seems to come not from situations but from put-downs, one-liners, sexual innuendos and parents behaving badly. In earlier days of television, sitcom comedy flowed from situations, and many of these situations resulted from misunderstandings. Gracie Allen would hear George Burns, her neighbor Blanche or one of the Harrys (can you think of any other TV series in which two of the main characters had the same name?) say something, and what she understood was always entirely different than what was meant. The results of that misunderstanding kept things interesting for the rest of the 30 minutes. A decade or so later, The Beverly Hillbillies also made the most of misunderstandings. Someone would be speaking of one thing, and the Clampetts would assume something else entirely.

In real life, such misunderstandings happen all the time, but they are rarely this amusing. In fact, the results can be disastrous. What one person says is misunderstood by another, who then fires back with a sharp comment that cannot be misunderstood, and the fight is on. Such misunderstandings can result in feuds that last for decades.

Sometimes, however, a simple misunderstanding can be amusing, at least to a third party. This happened to me twice in the past few weeks, both times involving conversations involving my wife, Linda.

On a recent Sunday morning a woman entered the worship service with two children, but she arrived 30 minutes late. After the service and after most of the people had left, another woman showed up with four small children, asking for money to feed her family and pay an overdue electric bill. A few days later I overheard Linda in conversation with another woman, Joy, about "the woman who arrived late to church." I soon realized each was talking about a different woman because Linda hadn't been in the sanctuary when the first woman arrived, and Joy had already left when the second woman arrived. Joy's and Linda's statements must have each confused the other, especially when they were speaking of the number of children, yet the conversation went on for some time before, as an act of mercy, I finally broke in to point out they were each talking about a different woman.

A few days later Linda conversed with Ted about a group going out to eat. As it happened, two groups involving some of the same people had gone out to eat twice, on Thursday to a seafood restaurant and on Saturday to a pizza restaurant. Ted, who hadn't gone out for pizza, was talking about the Thursday gathering, while Linda was speaking about Saturday's meal. For a brief while, only I realized they were not both talking about the same thing, so only I saw the comedy.

A few years ago I was the Gracie Allen or one of the Clampetts. One of the my sisters was visiting from out-of-state and wondered if Linda and I could meet with her, her husband and another sister for a meal. Would Friday work? I agreed. I even suggested a restaurant. Not until Thursday did I learn by some miracle that the Friday she was talking about was not the next day but the following Friday. My sisters had started the conversation earlier and knew which weekend was meant, but I had come in late and made the wrong assumption. The misunderstanding would not have been very funny if Linda and I had waited at the restaurant for a couple of hours on Friday, although I imagine it would have made a funny story at family reunions years later.