Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Brimfield’s Great Flea Market, and China’s Great Cultural Revolution

September 18, 2021

Brimfield MA’s antiques flea market, several times yearly, is gigantic. My wife and I hadn’t gone in years, but decided to visit on September 10. About two hours from Albany.

Every kind of collectable imaginable is on offer, and many you wouldn’t imagine. Like one dealer’s display of old band-aid boxes. We were entranced by the varieties of early typewriters. The whole show is a visual feast, full of bon-bons to tickle the eye and mind. You register an object in a nanosecond, then move on to the next. But quite often you stop and think “WTF?” Struck by sheer strangeness. What were they thinking when producing this item? When buying it originally? And who would buy it now?

What a vast human effort to create all these millions of things, every one conceived to somehow be a boon or a source of pleasure. And it is startling to see what people today will buy. At one point, passing a display of what looked like, well, junk, I remarked to my wife, “Don’t people have a concept of throwing away?” While we keep producing new stuff, much old stuff sticks around; so our ratio of stuff to people rises. Imagine how glutted flea markets will be in a century or two.

Ones like this are always windows to my childhood, objects from which are now certifiably antique (as I am). So many things we played with. Lincoln logs, army men, Monopoly, Etch-a-sketch. I noticed a “Colorforms” set. That rang a bell, but I didn’t stop to remind myself what Colorforms were, exactly. I did thumb through a copy of Fun With Dick and Jane, the very book that larned me readin’.

We’re not normally buyers, just lookers — except for my coins. And my wife did acquire several choice jewelry items. A discerning connoisseur; they were all carefully selected from $1 pick trays.

Most coins you see are overpriced junk. From a guy’s binder full, I took out one unpriced item and asked. He said $10. I said $5, and he agreed. An 1852 Canada Penny token, not the common horseman type; quite high grade; once badly cleaned but I can fix that. Another gal had many pages of coins. I pulled out an Italian 1926 Two Lire marked $7. She was tough, wouldn’t budge below $6. But it’s a rare date and EF, very unusual thus (worth more than ten times the price). Then from a tray of miscellany, I held up a lovely EF 1855-B French Ten Centimes. The dealer said a buck. Thank you! Another guy’s tray had a small bronze pinback medal with busts of LaFollette and Wheeler — the 1924 Progressive Party national ticket. After much negotiation, three bucks. I enjoyed this because I have a nice personal letter from Wheeler, who survived into my youth.

My wife was terrific in helping to scout out coins. When she uttered the word at one dealer’s stall, he pointed to huge stacks of modern U.S. coins in “slabs” (plastic encapsulations certifying authenticity and grade). Ordinarily of zero interest to me. Then he said, “$100 for the whole deal.”

Seriously?

I whipped out my wallet. The 519 slabs filled a carton I could just barely lift.

Meantime: during lunch, my wife (typically) asked me the most memorable thing I’d seen. “The Chinese statuette,” I said, having pointed it out to her. “I actually thought of buying it.” The tag price of $65 had seemed awfully reasonable. “Would it be completely crazy?” She encouraged me; we searched and managed to relocate it. My $45 offer was accepted. The guy mentioned it was apparently dated 1966 in Chinese.

So this was no antiquity. However, 1966 was actually perfect, as this was clearly an artifact of Mao’s “Great Cultural Revolution” launched that year. A trio of harsh-faced figures, one brandishing Mao’s “little red book,” abusing a bent-over fourth, with a denunciation placard hanging from his neck. The makers evidently deemed this thing heroic and inspirational. In fact it’s bone-chilling. Many thousands were killed this way.

Multihued porcelain, over a foot high, it’s in perfect condition, and a truly remarkable piece of history. A graphic caution about the dangers of political extremism, and how madness can engulf multitudes. Especially relevant to today’s America. Some googling reveals that such Cultural Revolution propaganda porcelains were a genre, but I couldn’t find a match for mine. I’m thrilled to have gotten it.

Topping off the day, we went looking for a dinner venue and found a Chinese buffet — our first such in at least 18 months. For a while there, I’d feared buffets would be a permanent casualty of Covid. Civilization is a great thing. While eating, I couldn’t help being mindful of the dangers to it, so vividly illustrated by what I’d just bought.

How Much is a Life Worth? A 9/11 movie

September 10, 2021

It seemed an odd subject for a film: the story of the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund. But Worth explores the issue of how we value a life.

Keaton as Feinberg

I’ve written about that before, in the context of Covid-19, and how much economic pain we should accept per life saved.* In the case of 9/11, the government feared an avalanche of economically ruinous lawsuits, so set up the fund to give survivors taxpayer money if they’d agree not to sue. Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (played by Michael Keaton) was named “Special Master” to run the fund. It would become operative only if 80% of eligibles bought in (within a two-year window).

Feinberg constructed a payment formula, with a floor and a cap, heavily based on lost earnings — a commonly used measure in “wrongful death” lawsuits. The cap immediately incurred pushback from lawyer Lee Quinn, representing families of high earners demanding bigger payments. Feinberg’s other nemesis was Charles Wolf (played by an understated Stanley Tucci), who organized a legion of more plebeian folks.

Feinberg as Feinberg

Wolf insisted Feinberg’s approach was all wrong. But in their interactions, Feinberg never simply asked him, “What do you propose?” Which didn’t seem at all clear. During my own career as an administrative law judge (proceedings often in the World Trade Center), contending parties would always offer different explicit plans for resolving issues. Evaluating those competing plans, I’d reach an answer.

Tucci as Wolf

Nevertheless Feinberg, after a rocky start, in which he seemed pretty clueless toward the complex human feelings at play, gets his consciousness raised, and winds up more or less satisfying Wolf by (my interpretation) junking his formulas and deciding payouts based on impressionistic evaluations of individual circumstances. Also, Feinberg tells Quinn to get lost. And while fund buy-ins lagged ominously until near the deadline, they finally did flood in, blowing past the 80% requirement.

I understood why a formulaic approach was inadequate, with some flexibility imperative. A human individual’s “value” is only tenuously connected to their earnings; indeed, the value of one’s life is mainly to oneself, which counters basing it on income. Which of course leaves the conundrum of how to price that self-value in dollars. Unfortunately the film was fuzzy about how Feinberg’s revised method actually worked, giving no concrete examples. I’m dubious that an impressionistic approach based on someone’s unfettered judgment would produce results fairer than some thoughtfully crafted formula. As Feinberg himself suggested near the film’s beginning, fairness in a situation like this is probably an impossible chimera.

Michael Keaton did a pretty accurate Ken Feinberg, based on my own recollection of my law school classmate. (A reason I wanted to see the film; I can’t recall another portraying someone I personally knew.) Even back then Feinberg was a compelling personage. I particularly recall his announcing to me, in his standard stentorian voice, “I gave you a bullet vote.” It was a Faculty-Student Committee election, at the height of 1960s “student power” agitation. With two seats up for ballot, I ran against a pair of activist types, and my candidate statement said I didn’t believe in student power; that students didn’t know enough to run the university. I surely didn’t. And never imagined winning (especially given my introverted lonerism). Yet oddly enough I was elected — thanks in part to that Feinberg bullet vote.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/03/22/covid-19-how-much-is-a-life-worth/

“The Stranger” — does anything matter?

September 2, 2021

“Mother died today.”

That’s the opening line of Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger. When I started reading it, my own mother had died a few days before.

His mother’s death doesn’t matter, is Meursault’s basic stance. Nothing does. This narrator in the novel is seemingly a quite ordinary person, but hollow, resembling a zombie. Yet not exactly; he does have feelings. But only, almost literally, mere bodily sensations. His feelings about his mother’s funeral concern only the heat, his discomfort, his fatigue, food, etc.

His girlfriend suggests marriage, and he casually agrees to it, but when she says it’s an important decision, he answers, “No.” He really does feel that nothing matters.

I was reminded of a repeated refrain in my own novel, Children of the Dragon — “Everything is nothing.” An expression of nihilism. It was faux profundity, a throwaway line, not a deeply considered philosophic stance when I wrote it in my callow twenties.

Nor is it a deep philosophy for Meursault. It’s just the way he is. Not even his nihilistic perspective matters.

Raymond is not really a friend; just a fellow who drags him into his own drama, Meursault merely along for the ride. A moment comes when Raymond may shoot a man, or not. It doesn’t matter, thinks Meursault. Raymond doesn’t shoot. But later on, Meursault himself does — five times, killing the man. Why? No reason. It doesn’t matter.

What does mattering mean? In the great scheme of things — a cosmos of billions of years, trillions of stars — Meursault is right — nothing about our little lives can matter. If the cosmos were conscious, we wouldn’t even register with that monumental consciousness. But that’s not the case. The only sentience is our own. Individually. At every moment of existence we have feelings either positive or negative. And that matters to each of us. Meursault’s sweltering or shivering does matter to him. He says so. And it seems such sensations are all that matter to him.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus, argues that all human feelings do resolve down to just physical bodily sensations. That physical pain and mental pain are not ultimately different because the latter is only “felt” in the form of bodily sensations. Thus Meursault is a very Hararian character. But I think Harari actually had it backwards. Indeed, all physical sensations are mediated by the mind; it tells you how to feel about them. Even pain is only painful because the mind deems it so.

I recall one episode (with a girlfriend) when mental anguish did entail literal physical pain. That was an extreme case. But even there it was the mental part — my conceptualization of the situation — that was the most unpleasant part of the experience. The physical sensations paled in significance. This reflects our having minds that think, producing a sense of self — one indeed so powerful that it’s upon that platform, of the immaterial sense of self, that we truly experience our joys and sorrows.

As the book concludes, Meursault is facing execution, and his indifference to everything actually finds its rationale: in the end, we all die, and everything is wiped away. I too am profoundly cognizant of that reality. But to me it makes everything we do, before dying, supremely meaningful. There is nothing else.

If civilization goes out

August 26, 2021

I’m not one of those pessimists believing humanity is riding for a fall. We’ve proven remarkably good at overcoming challenges and improving our condition. Climate change is a very big deal, but I believe we are capable of coping with its gradual unfolding. However, more sudden calamities, out of the blue, are possible. A recent PBS drama, “COBRA,” depicted a solar flare event knocking out Britain’s power supply. (Cyber-hacking could do likewise.) In COBRA, the problem wasn’t quickly fixable. Things got ugly.

Apparently such solar flares do happen periodically. An 1859 occurrence wasn’t catastrophic only because there was no power grid then; it did damage the telegraph system.

Imagine waking up one morning and everything is out. Electricity. Phones. TV and radio. No internet or newspapers, no access to news. No water. What is going on? No way for you to know! You might assume a quick return to normal. But nothing happens.

So: what do you do? Since watching “COBRA,” I’ve been pondering this.

I’ve felt I have enough money to protect against adversity. But it’s practically all in one electronic form or another. In this scenario I couldn’t access it. It may even be just gone. And what would “money” mean now anyway? As a coin dealer, I do have a lot of those metal disks on hand, but will someone trade food for them?

I would go through the neighborhood and put up notices calling a community meeting. First, to find out if anyone has any information. Is this a localized situation? If so, presumably government would eventually show up. But with no sign of that yet, it could be a national problem, even global. We’d better assume the worst, that we’re on our own, and act accordingly.

Are we in “Mad Max” territory now? Returned to a Hobbesian state of nature? Where everyone is vulnerable to predation by others. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined people getting together to resolve such a predicament by agreeing to give up their freedom to prey upon others in exchange for mutual protection from predation. That’s the social contract; a system of laws, enforced by a government. Of course that story wasn’t intended as literal; instead Hobbes saw it as embodying the logic underlying our submission to laws and government.

But my neighborhood meeting should do something just like Hobbes hypothesized. I haven’t previously had much interaction with neighbors. However, now we’d want to set up a system to look after and take care of one another, cooperating to protect against possible bad actors who would privilege their self-interest over the common good.

We’d want to stockpile some gasoline as cars (still working!) could come in very handy. But the pumps in gas stations probably won’t work. Does someone know how to access their tanks? Food and water are of course critical concerns. Local stores will presumably be shut. We’d have to break in. Likewise at the mall for other necessities. Our social compact should encompass organized commandeering of necessities. Organized, not violent free-for-alls.

Normally such thefts would of course be wrong. But all ethics are situational; and this is not a normal situation. Store owners have a right not to be robbed, but that is trumped by people’s right to self-preservation. The owners are probably unavailable for consent. Perhaps we could leave IOUs.

Thinking ahead to winter, we’d want some axes, to lay in lots of wood (in my area trees abound); also plenty of matches, and candles. Also, I’d raid the library.

Maybe it would all be kind of fun. No, actually; maybe we could manage to just survive for a few wretched years. But I believe that no matter the nature and extent of the catastrophe, there will be enough people with the capabilities, ingenuity, and will, to restore what was lost. I do not believe civilization would collapse into permanent Mad Maxness.

We have lately experienced a different kind of global catastrophe, that disrupted our lives, in many cases dramatically. Most of us are coping. And in my rather more grim scenario here, one day the lights will come back on. What a triumphant day that will be.

Meeting the Second Gentleman

August 12, 2021

Doug Emhoff is America’s first second gentleman — spouse of our first female vice president. I recently attended a reception with him in New York.

I walked the couple of miles to and from the bus station — I love soaking up New York’s vibrant ambience. Hadn’t been there in 18 months. This time the soaking was literal, in the rain, but I enjoyed it.

Before, one of the organizers phoned me, requesting removal of a somewhat risque photo in a past blog post. I complied; but at the reception told her I was flabbergasted to have been vetted with such thoroughness. She said it was the Secret Service. (Their presence at the event was low-key.)

I’m the short one

Emhoff is a lawyer, who married Kamala Harris in 2014. He seems to be a lovely human being, sweet, warm, funny, with no grandiosity. Somewhat flabbergasted himself at the role suddenly thrust upon him. Going around the country, to events like this, and many others. He said he’d led an insular sort of life before, and his eyes have been opened to an American panorama he’d never known.

I asked a question in the Q&A. “That’s a great question,” Emhoff said. (I’d recently heard a radio commentary about how ubiquitous that’s become in answering questions; since then I’ve noticed it myself.) I asked how, in his travels, as a non-politician, he communicates with Republicans, not political people either, but everyday folks. He answered that listening is very important — to understand where people are coming from — meeting them where they are at.

I knew nobody at the event, said little to anyone, enjoyed the food, and mostly felt like Oliver Sacks’s Anthropologist on Mars. All attendees (except for one gentleman of Indian heritage) were white. And upper echelon white* (big donors). I was treated very graciously.

On the bus trip (in contrast, the lone white passenger), I’d been reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, relating how in her early life, she experienced the other side of that coin. Such disparities in how people are seen and treated persist. But Michelle Obama did wind up living in the White House, and Doug Emhoff’s non-white wife is vice president. Social progress is too slow and fitful for many of us, but it’s happening.

*One other seeming exception was a scruffy looking long-bearded fellow in shorts and sneakers. He asked an interesting question. Just shows you can’t judge people by appearances.

God’s Holy Apostolic Church of sex criminals

August 9, 2021

As an atheist I have little use for clergy. But I recall a positive vibe when Howard Hubbard, then just 38, became Albany’s Bishop in 1977. A “street priest,” he seemed a good guy, with his head on straight (for a priest). When, after he retired in 2014, allegations of sexual abuse of youngsters began dribbling out, I was actually skeptical. Howard Hubbard? Even Hubbard too? Then the drips became a flood. (He denies abuse.)

It’s hard to be shocked any longer at how pervasive sexual criminality is among Catholic clergy — and how reprehensibly the Church’s highest echelons have handled it. Recently the Albany Times-Union reported that Hubbard acknowledges that (its words) the “Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany engaged in a decades-long cover-up of chronic child sexual abuse committed by its priests.” Via the now familiar paradigm of handling such cases not as crimes for law enforcement but, rather, as personal peccadillos, sending priests for counseling and treatment, and often transferring them to other parishes with fresh victims to abuse. The harm to those innocents engendered scant concern.

The paper reports that one teenaged boy molested by a priest, Gerald Miller, was so traumatized he killed himself. His aunt phoned Bishop Hubbard, who said he knew about the situation. She was so shaken by his next words that she recalled them exactly: “Father Gerry is being sent to New Mexico [a treatment site] where they have more respect for priests.”

Religion is a suspension of rationality. Were such beliefs not widespread, anyone espousing them would be diagnosed as insane.

Sex in particular turns inside out the brains of the religious. Nothing is more fundamental and natural to a human being than sexual feelings. Simply because that’s how nature ensures reproduction. Which is literally all that nature “cares” about; otherwise there is no nature. Thus powerful sexuality was built into us by evolution.

To be human is to go with the flow of that. To fight it is a denial of our essential humanity. Yet that’s exactly what Catholicism in particular seeks to do, making sexual feelings seem dirty and wicked, piling guilt and shame on believers, with terrorizing threats of eternal torture.

Wrestling with their messed up take on sexuality has long plagued Christians. Exemplified by Saint Augustine begging God to make him chaste — but not yet. And it’s also exemplified by Catholicism’s priestly celibacy rule. Surely a very misguided solution to the “problem” of the human sex drive. Asking priests to suppress it completely is asking for trouble. Especially when that’s bound to attract to the priesthood men whose relationship with their sexuality is already troubled.

And they’re guilty not only of crimes harming innocent victims. They are also frauds. Preaching what they cannot possibly believe. How could anyone actually believe sinners burn in hell while committing monstrous sins like raping children? But maybe that’s too harsh. They may be so morally mixed up that they’re blind to the cognitive dissonance, or else somehow convince themselves God condones their crimes. Religion does tend to scramble ethical instincts in that way, as evidenced by the parade of faith-inspired horrors throughout history.

Memory: Early morning, August 4, 1987

August 4, 2021

Moonlight,
Turn your face to the moonlight.
Let your memory lead you;
Open up, enter in.
If you find there the meaning of what happiness is,
Then a new life will begin.

Memory! All alone in the moonlight;
I can smile at the old days,
I was beautiful then.
I remember the time I knew what happiness was.
Let the memory live again.

Burnt out ends of smoky days,
The stale, cold smell of morning.
The street lamp dies, another night is over;
Another day is dawning.

Daylight, I must wait for the sunrise!
I must think of a new life,
And I mustn’t give in.
When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too.
And a new day will begin.

Touch me! it’s so easy to leave me!
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun.
If you touch me,

you’ll understand what happiness is.

Look — a new day has begun!

Leave me she did.

I did not give in.

And a new life did begin.

Snobs

August 1, 2021

Someone was leaving books in the post office with cheery stick-on notes saying “Free Book!” They’d often languish forlornly. I’d give them a glance, but I’m not inclined for random novels. However, Julian Fellowes sounded like a sophisticated British writer (creator of Downton Abbey). The title, Snobs, fit with that. So I took it.

Edith is an upper middle class working girl, at 27, in the mid-’90s, beginning to foresee a potentially dreary future. Then, a fluke: accidentally encountering Charles, from one of those moneyed, landed, noble houses. An Earl. She’s got enough native assets, mainly looks, that he marries her.

I expected their sexual relations would be only circumspectly described. But Fellowes mans up and gives us the wedding night in quite graphic detail. Neither disaster nor triumph; and important for what’s to come.

Charles is not a bad human being. Nor is his aristocratic mother, despite being sort of the villain. Initially, Edith revels in her status elevation; servants calling her “milady” and all. But there’s soon a growing sense of “is that all there is?”

The book is less about plot than about the kind of people in its cast of characters. And the title, Snobs, says it all. It’s not heavy-handed, but it is merciless.

One gets the picture very quickly. I asked myself, can I take 250 more pages of this? And, indeed, the rest is filled with embellishments upon the theme. Yet Fellowes is a good enough writer that it’s never a bore. (I often felt I could be reading Henry James.) You wouldn’t think there are so many ways of portraying a subspecies of people whose principal characteristic is how limited they are.

They form a web whose principal characteristic is its being a web. Fellowes calls it the “Name Game,” social interactions centered largely upon reaffirming one’s place in the web. “We don’t know them” is the ultimate and irreversible judgment. Someone outside the web cannot be “known” — not in the way that counts. Edith’s breaking through was, again, a definite fluke.

We read novels to understand people, and society; and ourselves. This book’s characters were about as alien from me as possible. Their lives being utterly defined in relation to other people, I was struck by how untrue that is for me.

I’m not an antisocial hermit. Have numerous acquaintances. But intimate friends? If honest, I must say none — apart from my wife. The difference between me and those populating the book is that I feel pretty much sufficient unto myself. I do my coin business; I read; I write. Mostly I write for my own amusement. My life’s meaning, as I go through the day, is based within me, not other people. Only my wife really exists for me. (And maybe my daughter.)

But let me add this. The older I get the more I value society. In the senses both of the milieu in which we live our lives, and of the great human enterprise. Being part of that is, perhaps contradictorily, a very big aspect of my inner life. The last five years heightened this, forcing us to face fundamental issues about our society. And I understand thoroughly how that society makes it blessedly possible for me to live a rewarding life not centered upon other people.

Fellowes says he tried to convey some aspects of the depicted type that are actually creditable, which is fair enough. He also says Snobs is not really about class but about choice; and that does come to take center stage. Edith’s choice to marry for reasons other than love was for her a largely unexamined one. Then she makes another choice — running off with a ridiculously handsome actor. Sure, people have affairs, but you can try to manage it discreetly. Edith does not. What could she be thinking?

The rest of the book is about her coming to terms with these choices — and whether she can make a further one. I give myself points for anticipating Edith’s wanting to go back, after all, to the husband who’d seemingly so bored her. Just arranging a tete-a-tete with him was a challenge, the rest of the family conspiring to be truly rid of her. I mentally scripted her speech to Charles, all that I felt ought to be said. What I, in her place, would have said. But in the end it all resolved into a single word reply.

Of just two letters.

Memento Mori – Thinking about death

July 1, 2021

Each night at midnight, I close the book I’m reading, go upstairs, piss, enter the bedroom, climb into bed.

Thinking: Here I am, doing this again. Deja vu? Groundhog Day? It feels like I’d only just performed the exact same actions, moments ago. However, unlike in Groundhog Day, it’s not an endless loop, but inexorably consuming a finite supply of days. Now another one is gone.

That feeling intensifies as I age. The hourglass an increasingly apt metaphor. Indeed, more reality than metaphor.

Except that it actually seems to speed up. When you’re ten, a year is a tenth of your life, and feels like forever. At 73, a year is only a tiny sliver, and disappears like quicksilver.

Old European paintings often included a skull. This was called “memento mori,” meaning “remember you will die.” And, in those times, likely soon. But those people all supposedly believed they’d go to Heaven. Yet deep down they must have feared it wasn’t true.

I’m certain it’s not, and have a strong sense of memento mori. My wife and I watch a lot of science shows, often depicting ancient skeletons crumbling to dust. In them, I always see myself someday.

With that “someday” nearing with each passing hour. For most of my life the end seemed so far distant I could almost pretend it was never. Now at 73 it feels more like closing in.

Does that frighten me? My wife and I recently had this conversation. “Fright” is not exactly the right word, implying some doubt about the outcome. Instead it’s mindfulness of impending loss, both certain and total. It’s not dying I fear so much as what comes after. Though I won’t be around to experience it. The ultimate philosophical conundrum. People liken death to the eternity of nonexistence preceding one’s birth. But of course that entailed no loss. Whereas loss is quintessential in death.

It’s the loss of everything one loves. All one’s human connections; possessions; prideful accomplishments. All become as those crumbling skeletons in those documentaries. But most importantly it’s one’s aliveness, having experiences, thoughts, sensations, feelings. I’ve been very fortunate to live a wonderful life, which of course makes the loss all the greater.

My mother died recently (not unexpected, at 100). A key feeling I have is that I’m alive and she’s not. Her death is a loss to me but so much greater a loss to her. A life so deeply lived is now simply over. Making me savor all the more my own aliveness. Which only accentuates its coming loss.

It’s impossible to truly grasp that condition of nonexistence. And I try not to. Ordinarily I avoid it, stopping myself if I start thinking too concretely about it. Even here, I’m writing this as an intellectual exercise, while trying to steer clear of the existential quicksand of actually modeling nonexistence in my mind.

Yet even if I keep it vague it’s still there. Sometimes while going about in the world, I’m conscious that when I’m gone it will all continue merrily along just as before. A few people might miss me. A little. For a while. Seeing a newspaper obituary of someone I knew gives me a brief frisson. And then I turn the page. Projecting myself into that place is a weird feeling.

Picasso was someone who really lived life to the fullest. He did a famous self-portrait when he knew he was nearing death. Confronting it was starkly imprinted on his face. I can see myself in his place. But then I think that maybe when I’m, say, 100, I’ll already be “sans everything,” without much of life’s pleasure; it will have grown harder, frustrating, even painful; or I’ll have simply grown tired of it, difficult though that is to imagine. Meantime, as long as it’s at least years away, it can still feel distant enough that I don’t really have to confront it. Indeed, to avoid that kind of stark Picasso-like confrontation, I think I’d actually prefer to fade away gradually and gently, my selfhood dissolving without my realizing it.

Meantime too, I counterpose all this with another fundamental understanding. Existence is not something I take for granted. Not at all; to the contrary, looking at the cosmos, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that there should exist an entity such as me, with a consciousness, a sense of self — something which indeed our science, far advanced though it is, cannot totally account for. Thus I see my existence as a virtually miraculous gift.

What a churl I’d be to have this gift while griping that it’s not forever. That is the gift’s conditionality. That’s the deal. I accept it because it’s a good deal. And because there is literally no alternative to accepting it.

Between Two Kingdoms

June 19, 2021

Suleika Jaouad’s book is one of those cancer memoirs. But with a difference.

She had it bad. A lot of health red flags that she ignored, and then doctors misdiagnosed, until it was almost too late. At 22, she had a particularly nasty kind of Leukemia. If I weren’t reading her memoir, I’d have bet she died.

The book gives a vivid, unsparing, brutal account of the long ordeal. With treatments failing, she was put on an experimental one. (I’d have liked more info about that.) But her only real chance was a bone marrow transplant, a dicey proposition. Luckily her brother was a tissue match.

Through it all, her relations with other people — many fellow sufferers — were also center stage. Being much more introverted myself, I was impressed at her breadth of connections, mustering the psychic energy for them while dealing with her own really unimaginable shit. It helped that she even got herself a New York Times column chronicling her experiences.

Suleika’s key relationship was with boyfriend Will. It started before her diagnosis, in New York. Then only weeks later she leaves for a job in Paris. And Will follows. And sticks with her as the hospital nightmare soon unfolds. At 27, he hadn’t originally signed up for three years of hell as a practically full time care-giver, but he embraces it, seemingly almost unreservedly. For nearly the whole saga, Will is a saint who gives Suleika 99%.

But oh, that 1% is a killer.

Well, maybe it was 5% or even 10%. As light appears at the end of the tunnel, he starts taking some breaks from the pressure cooker. But Suleika can’t accept a 90/10 deal. She insists on 100%. Not getting it, she finally blows him off.

Perhaps my take on this was colored by my own decade of hell struggling with a woman’s issues, until she left me to marry a pen-pal. Suleika’s behavior might seem crazily unjustifiable and self-sabotaging. Yet maybe it can be understood, sort of. A normal love relationship is give-and-take, but Suleika’s circumstances were not normal — grotesquely skewed by her illness’s extremis. She did need 100%, and in her mind, anything less was a betrayal.

That’s only the book’s first half. The second concerns her journey between the two kingdoms of the title — the realms of the sick and the well (following Susan Sontag). Suleika does recover. But her years of illness were so all-consuming that a return to the other kingdom was difficult to negotiate. She makes it a literal journey, embarking on a cross-country road trip, with her dog, to meet people who’d connected with her about her Times column.

I was reminded of Cheryl Strayed’s big hike in Wild, likewise a personal journey. With both gals not exactly prepared for the rigors of their undertakings.

Toward the end, Suleika finally returns to thoughts of Will. She’s actually been considering him the bad guy in the story, with great resentment at what she saw as his ultimate failure to fulfill her immense need. But then, she says, her anger finally drains away; and “in its place, I am able to feel what anger hasn’t allowed me to feel.” That he was there for her when it counted. Now she wants to ask forgiveness. To tell him how much she misses him.

“If this were a movie,” Suleika writes, “I would call Will from the road right now. Maybe, we’d even find our way back to each other.”

I recalled Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, where near the end I was practically shouting at Patty to just get in her car and go to Walter. And she does.

But Between Two Kingdoms is not a Franzen novel, nor a movie. It’s real life, in all its exasperating humanness. Suleika doesn’t call.