Monday, December 27, 2010

Judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman

I like Livy's approach to history. Provided with materials about early Rome that he knows are shot through with myth and borrowings from the history of Greece, he admits that no one can know these things for certain and simply presents them leavened with his best judgment. I like also that, without denigrating religion in general, he doesn't mind telling us that Romulus was said to have been taken up to heaven in a cloud (but may in fact have been torn apart by jealous senators) or that a prominent Roman pretended to have a vision of the dead Romulus to reassure the people.

For Livy, history is the study of events driven by human character, and his portraits are striking. Numa Pompilius, an early Roman king, is noted for his piety and his emphasis on building Rome's moral fibre through attention to religious rites (though Livy notes that Numa constantly pretended to commune in private with the goddess Egeria to support his program). Tullus Hostilius, his successor, respects religion but lives for the glory of conquest in war. Discovering the treachery of Mettius, a confederate king, Tullus has him tied to two chariots that are driven in opposite directions, tearing the traitor apart before the eyes of the horrified crowd. Tullus later comes to grief over religion: attempting a complicated rite in a temple of Jupiter, Tullus gets the formula wrong, whereupon the angry god destroys the building with fire, consuming Tullus in the conflagration.

His successor, Ancus Marcius, is called by Livy one of the greatest Roman kings who ever lived, equally respectful of religion and alert to the need for a powerful stance toward Rome's dissatisfied and sometimes marauding neighbors. Refusing to hold the entire warmaking power in his own hands, he inaugurates a principle that war is to be formally declared by envoys acting on behalf of the entire Roman city state—a lesson that American Presidents of the last 50 years would have done well to heed.

I was reminded of character when reading of George Monck, first Duke of Albemarle, who variously served both the Royalists and later the Parliamentary cause in the English Civil War and finally, alarmed and exasperated by Britain's near-anarchy, contrived the Restoration of the Monarchy in the person of Charles II. So balanced in his perceptions of the merits of each side and calm in his temper that he was regularly suspected of disaffection by extremists in whichever side he fought for, Monck was above the rancor of party wrangling, firm in his convictions, prudent in command, blessed with the confidence of the men who served under him, and firm to the point of severity when required. His own brother, a clergyman, was sent by the Royalists to sound Monck out on his plans to restore the Monarchy, and as Hume relates:
"When [Monck's brother] arrived, he found that [General Monck] was then holding a council of officers, and was not to be seen for some hours. In the mean time, he was received and entertained by Price, the general's chaplain, a man of probity, as well as a partisan of the king's. The [brother], having an entire confidence in the chaplain, talked very freely to him about the object of his journey, and engaged him, if there should be occasion, to second his applications. At last, the general arrives; the brothers embrace; and after some preliminary conversation, the doctor opens his business. Monck interrupted him, to know whether he had ever before to any body mentioned the subject. 'To nobody,' replied his brother, 'but to Price, whom I know to be entirely in your confidence.' The general, altering his countenance, turned the discourse; and would enter into no further confidence with him, but sent him away with the first opportunity. He would not trust his own brother the moment he knew that he had disclosed the secret, though to a man whom he himself could have trusted.

"His conduct in all other particulars was full of the same reserve and prudence; and no less was requisite for effecting the difficult work which he had undertaken."

As Franklin observed, "Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead."

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Damn'd be him that first cries 'Hold! Enough!'"

Lev Grossman's cover story on Mark Zuckerberg as Time's person of the year for 2010 pays due regard to Zuckerberg's intelligence and drive, both of which are considerable (though I wouldn't be too thrilled, if I were he, to have to admit that I had never heard of E.M. Forster) and even extends the wunderkind the benefit of a doubt: he's not opposed to privacy, you see; he simply doesn't get it, similarly, one supposes, to his reported colorblindness to red and green. Well perhaps, but if that be true, no matter how big his achievement and his personal fortune, it's a flaw in his makeup.

Grossman is sharp and perceptive. I think this paragraph nailed it:
"[Facebook] herds everybody — friends, co-workers, romantic partners, that guy who lived on your block but moved away after fifth grade — into the same big room. It smooshes together your work self and your home self, your past self and your present self, into a single generic extruded product. It suspends the natural process by which old friends fall away over time, allowing them to build up endlessly, producing the social equivalent of liver failure."

"Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius," as Gibbon wrote. I'll never claim to have achieved the latter state but greatly enjoy the solitude of a lengthy walk along the Shelby Farms Greenline, something I have done for some weeks now, to the benefit of both my health and peace of mind. In fact, I do occasionally meet people I know, including, at various times, fellow trivia buffs Jennifer Larkin and Saravan Chaturvedi, and if I happened to have company and good conversation on a walk, I would welcome it, but I also like the way the setting erects a corridor so apart from the rest of life that it seems almost strange when you happen to cross a street traveled by cars. The interstate, with its frequent whooshing noise of cars, is literally only yards away for much of the route and sometimes visible, but often, the trees mask the sight and to some extent, the sound.

It would hardly have satisfied C.S. Lewis, who wrote, describing his ideal day:
" two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one (such as I found, during the holidays, in Arthur) who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared."

I thought today that whereas I welcome the very proximity to the interstate because the foliage defiantly filters it, as the foliage and the rushing fountain do in the lovely Meditation Garden on the grounds of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the whole experience would have been destroyed for poor Lewis, who would have found the constant noise of traffic, even filtered, pretty well intolerable. How much our experiences and expectations change in just a few generations.

Once you've made yourself feel virtuous with a 10-mile walk on a winter day, you don't mind treating yourself to the perfect winter evening: a bowl of hot soup with a glass of wine, then a fire in the fireplace, a good book, and cognac. I'm finishing Peter Biskind's Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (and no, it's not only about one thing!) and starting Livy's Early History of Rome, and I suppose two more different books could hardly be imagined, except that Beatty, like the legendary Romulus, is relentless in his purposes.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 16, 2010

No one believed. They listened at his heart...

My stepfather has been dead 8 hours now. This was not supposed to happen. He was vigorous, a daily walker, still carrying on a busy consulting schedule at age 78. His Outlook inbox was full of e-mails that said "See you in Washington on the 16th." He flew there and was met by a colleague, who began to drive him to a conference he never made; his remains will be flown back the day after tomorrow.

He had quit smoking decades ago to relieve the strain on his heart, from the nicotine, overwork, and general stress. About 7 years ago, his heart raced for hours one night at sickening speeds that would have killed many; the doctor said there was permanent damage, but we couldn't feel the reality of it. In our eyes, he was supposed to live to 85, 90, or beyond.

For Karst to die was like Warren Buffet suddenly finding that his credit card would not cover lunch at Bennigan's. Karst was competent, organized, and effective, all contingencies covered. Where is the restore disk, the reset button, the error message that says this was an invalid transaction? They're not working.

His oldest brother is still living, at 88. His mother was ambulatory and lucid until two months before her death at age 100. His father died at 89, an age that seemed a little premature to everyone. Some people work themselves to death; Karst's clan tended to make careers that lasted as long as other people's entire life spans.

Few things took him by surprise, as this did. He was once dragged into testifying on behalf of his federal agency to a hostile Congressional committee on a few minutes' notice when his boss chickened out; he handled it with aplomb, which surprised no one. Had he suspected that the terminal event was upon him, he would have taken steps to plan things better. Is there a protocol for calling a total stranger, a woman of 77 a thousand miles away and informing her that as of five minutes ago, she is a widow? I have no doubt that the ER doctor in Maryland was as polite as he could be when he called Mom this afternoon. How does one prepare to make or receive such a call?

Last night, Karst was opening a bottle of Bordeaux to enjoy with Mom. This morning, she kissed him goodbye and perhaps stroked his head, which he shaved completely bald, while sporting a sea captain's bushy beard.

This evening, the Transplant Council of Washington called Mom asking to harvest skin from Karst's remains for transplants for burn victims. The three Memphis brothers, Mom's kids, agreed; everyone's cell phone or Blackberry then came out to track down our stepsister in Connecticut and her brother in Maryland to get their OK. My stepbrother, not one to mince words, said "Vampires" but agreed. Karst would have thought it worthwhile.

As Frost's poem says, "And they, since they were not the one dead, went about their affairs."

Business will not wait. Donor tissue must be harvested within 24 hours. Karst would have understood. His own father, Jacob Besteman, whose parents had emigrated here at the turn of the last century from Friesland, saw his first business fail on a Friday and started another the following Monday morning. He had to; he was supporting his elderly parents in the days before Social Security and helping keep ruined neighbors afloat in the depths of the Depression. There was no time to mope.

Jacob was of stern Dutch Calvinist stock. His own father had stopped attending one Dutch church when they changed from singing metrical Psalms to hymns composed by men; he found it "worldly." When my mother, in her late 40s, visited the Besteman clan in Grand Rapids for the first time and casually got up from the table after supper, Karst's hand quietly but firmly pulled her back down to her seat. You did not leave the table until Jacob had read aloud a chapter from the Bible and said a prayer. His children, by now in their 50s, sat quietly for this daily ritual.

For his youngest child, Karst, born March 26, 1932, Jacob envisioned a ministerial calling and sent him to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, for pre-seminary studies. Earlier, with his older brothers, Karst had worked in the family produce business and helped with their other business of raising and showing quarter horses. At age 15, he drove trailers of horses over 200 miles to Indianapolis to show in the Indiana State Fair. In an elevator in Indianapolis's grand hotel, he met actor Charles Laughton who was there to show the trotting horses he and his wife, Elsa Lanchester, raised for a hobby.

Karst, whose name is the Dutch word for "Christian," went to Calvin College and paid close attention to his religious studies, as to an interesting problem requiring serious attention. He had a strong and abiding faith, but his heart was not in pastoral work. Eventually, he went home and confessed as much to his father, who said "Then you might as well put on work boots and dig ditches."

Karst knew he was better than that. He earned a Master's in social work and entered the Public Health Service. In his 30s, he traveled to the backwoods and interviewed characters out of Deliverance to find the whereabouts of their friends who had been treated for addiction in a government program years before; the government wanted to do a followup study. The backwoodsmen were suspicious and hostile; they did not want to tell him where their friends were, but they hadn't reckoned on Karst's tenacity. He persisted and learned from them what he needed to know.

He was always absorbed in his work. Leaving his office at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky one evening when he had achieved the rank of Admiral, his mind was so much on his work that he drove right past the lowering of the flag, breaking a cardinal rule of military etiquette. An indignant MP chased him down and sputtered, "Sir, I'll have you know that at Ft. Campbell, we respect the colors!" Karst thanked him and apologized. For the rank and recognition he achieved, he had less ego than anyone I've ever known.

He had married a childhood friend, Esther, and they raised two kids, Karst David and Elizabeth. Esther often had to be both parents because of the demands of Karst's own work. His growing expertise in drug treatment and his efficiency at work earned him recognition and brought him to the attention of powerful and influential people. The names he knew were the people you read about in Newsweek. Karst himself was never on the cover of Time and didn't care. He cared that the Reagan Administration, in his view, was pursuing a shortsighted policy with regard to the spread of cocaine in our society and told them so, in the Oval Office itself. It was a long time before he was invited back.

But he was too valuable for his services to be dispensed with, and he had the confidence of people like C. Everett Koop and the ear of people who could make a difference. His opinions were sought and valued. One of his brothers, camping with his family in the Canadian wilderness to "get away from it all," turned on a battery-operated TV in his tent one night. The first thing he saw was Karst being interviewed on TV about drug policy!

Esther was stricken with cancer in her early 40s and was cruelly taken from her family, leaving a husband who wished he could have spent more time at home and two teenaged kids. Karst tried to mend fences at home and also threw himself even more vigorously into his work.

Around 1981, he was named the Director of the New York Regional Office of Health and Human Services. Getting to his desk very early each morning as his work ethic demanded, he was intrigued at the 48-year-old woman who was invariably at her own desk at 6 a.m. He learned that she too had been widowed, two years before. My mother did not care for Karst at first but then saw the worth of his character. She bought two tickets to a Broadway show and asked him out. He said, "I am breaking two of my own rules--first, never to date someone from the office, and second, never to date a woman who asks me out." Against his earlier instincts, he continued to see her and always found her fascinating. They were married March 17, 1984, at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, in their early 50s, still only just young enough that both sets of elderly parents were present at the wedding. Karst stood up to make a speech: "It's not often that people in our circumstances find anotber chance at love. We've left our youth behind..."

Mom interjected, "Speak for yourself!"

That kind of humorous badinage was typical of them. Mom would get agitated about something, and Karst would interrupt with something witty or just a hearty laugh. His laugh, his friendly smile, and a firm handshake were always among his trademarks.

To blend in with our family, one had to accept the sometimes rather pointed humor. Waiting outside a Broadway theatre showing Annie to meet Karst for the first time and not knowing what he looked like, my brothers and their wives said to each other, "Well, how bad can he be? At least he won't be fat and bald." Minutes later, when Karst, at a portly period in his life and with a head bald as a cueball, walked up with Mom, all of them were almost falling down laughing.

We kidded him but always respected him. His reading and knowledge were formidable. Some people have everything; Karst seemed to know everything. There were very few topics you could bring up to which he could not add an intelligent comment.

At 50, he decided that government service had grown stale and looked for new challenges. He worked for non-profit foundations that promoted drug abuse education and maintained his contacts with National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse. He applied for the directorship of one foundation and they wouldn't give it to him because he had no M.D. next to his name. They then hired an M.D. with little organizational sense and then had to hire Karst to actually run the place! Still later, Karst ran two drug rehab clinics in downtown Washington, D.C., the only ones of their type I have ever heard of, in which the addicts were expected to pay a small fee for each treatment session. It sounded crazy and I'm sure didn't even cover costs, but that wasn't the point; by asking something of the addicts themselves, it helped give them back their self respect.

He left that position a few years ago, when he and Mom moved to Memphis from Washington, D.C. but still continued to telecommute via computer, while making occasional trips back to Washington for conferences. He also read avidly, went on daily walks with Mom, became active in their neighborhood association, swam in their pool, and even discovered one quieter, more contemplative hobby: standing in their livingroom overlooking the Mississippi River, he would look out through his field glasses at the barges and tugboats; he had bought a registry that listed every tugboat and marked them as they passed. Whether spending a quiet evening at home with Mom, listening to music or watching the sunset, or entertaining family in their livingroom that is the size of an office building lobby, he was content.

His roots were in Grand Rapids, but he will be buried in Memphis's historic Elmwood Cemetery, founded in 1852, the resting place of governors and generals, the sort of people who valued Karst and whose exercise of power he understood, though he was never overawed by it. Unyielding as the granite monuments at Elmwood, he had a quiet strength that could not be daunted or broken. His final appointment came much earlier than we wanted or expected and like the slow and powerful barges that he liked to watch, left us gazing after the trailing wake.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 12, 2010

It's 3 a.m. Do you know where your roofer is?

It's 18 minutes after 3 Monday morning. Forty minutes ago, I felt a single drop of water hit my shoulder when I stood up in my bedroom to investigate the tap...tap...tap coming from just above the ceiling while a thunderstorm sounded outside.

Thunderstorms generally don't bother me, even though I believe they will get worse and more frequent with climate change. I like living on the third floor of my well-constructed building that is probably no more than 40 years old, because no one is walking over my head, my heating bill is probably less in winter, there is a vaulted ceiling in my livingroom, and it feels like living in a treehouse. The main view of the world from my apartment is a large sliding glass door just off my livingroom which looks out past my balcony to the upper branches of large pine trees. If the wind ever reaches my balcony enough to make the wind chimes sound or the rain fiercely enough to splash it, I know it is worse beyond the stand of pines. A flowering tree, standing between my balcony and the parking lot, is left untrimmed to the point where its blossom-laden branches hang down very nearly to the roof of my parked car.

I've always liked "living up under the eaves" and have done so when I could. In 1967, my family bought an old Dutch Colonial house with an absurdly large 3rd-floor attic, which my dad and I finished into an apartment for me. In graduate school, the professor I worked for occupied a large corner office on the top floor of the University of Memphis's Patterson Hall, and when I entered the office each morning, I looked out the windows directly into leafy tree branches. When I was 10, I remember being awake at 3 one morning with one of my brothers, and we sat at the attic windows of my paternal grandparents' house, listening to the pigeons cooing just outside, in the nest they had built under the eaves.

This morning, alas, the outside world is no longer merely a show and the fourth wall has been breached. The tap...tap I heard some time ago was like a small, sinister footstep in the dark, though fortunately it didn't end with a visit from Samara Morgan. After I noticed water stains in a corner of my bedroom ceiling a few weeks ago following heavy rains, the property manager asked me to wait a week or two until we had had no rain, after which he would have the roof repaired above my ceiling. This was supposed to have been done a couple of weeks ago, and a man came to the apartment Friday and put a new piece of sheetrock in the damaged corner of my ceiling.

Well it looks like he'll probably have to do so again. I can't see any fresh stains, but there must be water in the attic space between the ceiling and the roof.

The last time anything like this happened to me was nearly 40 years ago, when I occupied the upper floor of a house that had probably been built before the First World War. I had just moved in a few days before and was awakened by the sound of water spilling outside my bedroom door but inside the house. Rushing out into the hall, I saw a stream pouring down from the attic, splashing water and plaster flakes all over a box of books. I thought I remembered it hitting my copy of the Greek New Testament, but I found it just now and couldn't see any water stains.

I say that was the last time, but a variation happened about 9 years ago in the building where I lived before moving here, a place a little older and not so well maintained. A fire broke out in a nearby apartment, and smoke came pouring through the air vents into mine. No fire came to my apartment, but a fireman had to enter and punch a hole in my dining room ceiling with his fire axe, to make sure there was no fire in the attic. After he left, I taped a garbage bag over the hole until it could be repaired. To this day, some of my books and papers remain a dingy gray, left that way by the smoke.

Those episodes were unpleasant but not completely unexpected, but this is not "supposed" to happen. A friend lives in the African nation of Chad and looks out through her screen door to find herself being observed by a curious goat who has wandered by, but in the richest country in the world, we are supposed to be sealed, sanitized, waterproofed, and warrantied. With a thunderstorm raging outside, I have a computer desk, too large and heavy to move, laden with snaking wires and cables, and I don't expect the least danger or inconvenience from the elements to my HP color printer-copier-scanner, my Dell computer, my Acer monitor, my DSL modem, or my Logitech web cam. My expected mode of life is 90 years and a world away from the expectation of my paternal grandfather when a boy, waking up on a winter morning just 85 miles east of here and brushing the snow off his blanket that had come through the roof in the night, or of my paternal grandmother, unable to sleep because of the hideous din of rain and hail on the tin roof of the farmhouse she and her family occupied in a field in St. Francis County, Arkansas.

Actually, something like this still does happen to my mother and stepfather, who live in a very large and attractive house downtown overlooking the river, for which they were willing to pay a handsome price a few years ago, thinking it had been well built. It seems now that that wasn't strictly true, and if they experience leaks, the water may drip on polished hardwood and tasteful antiques and works of art, which is certainly worse than anything happening here!

What can the roofers have thought they were doing a couple of weeks ago? I assume they actually did climb to the top of my building and didn't somehow place fresh shingles above the wrong apartment by mistake, so why is a tenant reduced to listening watchfully in the dark at 3:30 a.m., wondering if a corner of his ceiling is about to give way and pour a muddy mixture from the storm outside into his room, ruining the fragile tangle of wires that connects him to e-mail, news updates from The New York Times and The Washington Post, FaceBook,, Netflix, and his online banking?

And that, really, is the thing that causes the most worry in 2010. My maternal grandparents were related by marriage to a family in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, who, 80 years ago, left their house on purpose every year in anticipation of the spring flooding of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers and later returned to clean out the mud and snakes from their house's lower storey. Within the last 10 years, when the neighbor of a former colleague of mine died in rural Tennessee, the hearse could not get to the home of the deceased to pick up the remains because of flooding, and the neighbors had to improvise their own way to get the body to where it needed to be. Two months ago, one of my colleagues at work had neighbors camping out in her house in Nashville and her entire neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the city by flooding. She could not reach her office, but she remained connected to the outside world because her cellphone service included a data plan.

And when I get right down to it, that's why I keep listening for the dripping sound to resume: the risk that a breach of the fragile fabric that keeps out the elements may throw me back to a time when I didn't have the choices that now make me feel deprived if they are closed off. On one of the eight bookcases in my apartment is a two-volume life of St. Paul published in 1858 that I have owned since 1977 but not read, as well as a four-volume edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson that my parents bought for me in a garage sale in 1967; I actually have read through that one, but, like Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible, it bears rereading throughout one's life. My entire dining room table and my coffee table are piled high with books and magazines, and if the Internet went the way of the Hummer, I would still have plenty to do.

But not the same choice. Now, if I awake to a noise in the night, I can immediately publish a reflection about it that at least two people are likely to read, both in other states and one of whom I haven't seen in 40 years or, if I wish, I can enter a message board and explain to someone in England or Australia why Hitler was not a Christian, despite their wish to believe it so. I can listen to Orlando Gibbons via Radio at AOL or click on a scene from Citizen Kane posted to YouTube. If I lose all those choices, even for a few days, it's no more than irksome, but I'd still as soon avoid it. Now, turning to my e-mail in-box, I see the daily headlines from the Times, informing me that governors have expressed grave concerns about immigration, as well as another Times notice that assures me that there is a "boatload of water fun" to be had at Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Florida. Meanwhile, the dripping has resumed 4 feet above my shoulder, steadier now and more insistent.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why not the best?

Listening to the rapid patter of a radio announcer the other morning as she rattled off facts that were never worth knowing about movies I’ll never see, reminded me of Charlie.

I met Charlie 40 years ago, when we were both freshmen at Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri. I was standing in the men’s washroom shaving, when Charlie came in on his crutches; as he prepared to shower, he introduced himself. I was struck both by the extraordinarily deep resonance of his voice and the grotesque twisting of his frame. A genetic defect and a difficult birth had left Charlie at about the height of a 9-year old, with twisted legs that hung useless and a spine that would never allow his entire body to face in the same direction at once, surmounted with powerful shoulders and a head that was rather too large for his frame. Raised by his father in a small Missouri town, Charlie relied on a friendly personality and his remarkable voice for any hopes he had of worldly advancement.

My own voice had matured early. My late father had an operatic baritone voice, but when I was growing up, my voice was so deep for my age that adults blinked in amazement when I spoke, and my 8th-grade classmates called me “Lurch.” When we did a Sunday school play, I was always the voice of God. All this stood me in good stead in public speaking and debate, and some were heard to comment on my “radio announcer” voice, but I didn’t have the hunger or need for whatever it might bring me, that Charlie did.

I had also had educational advantages that someone from Charlie’s background probably couldn’t have had. My mother was always an avid reader, and I became one too, at an early age. When I was 11, my parents moved to a rather well-off community in the suburbs of northern New Jersey where we really couldn’t afford to live and found a place there only by virtue of a cheap rental house, but the taxpayers believed in having a school system second to none and paid for it. Our public schools were like private schools, and some of my teachers might have distinguished themselves equally as college professors, had they chosen to. The written word was always easily and rapidly accessible.

I’m not sure I fully realized how little this was true for many others. Of course I understood that when my late paternal grandparents would take my brothers and me during the summer to the small town in Arkansas where they pastored a Pentecostal church, there were what we called “country people” who could barely read a newspaper editorial and stumbled over passages in Scripture. Two of them got into an argument once, when one read the passage from the Gospels that says that one cannot serve God and mammon, and another cried out, “Now hold on! What about manna from above?”

But they were not alone. Years later, attending the Episcopal church with urban professionals, I noted with exasperation that every Pentecost Sunday, when the lectors read (what they must have known for a whole year they would have to read) the passage from Acts chapter 2 that records the astonishment of men from all nations upon seeing the descent of the Holy Spirit—“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and dwellers in Mesopotamia and Cappadocia,” etc.—they would look sheepish and stumble through the passage as though someone had suddenly required them to juggle flaming torches while changing their underclothes. I think a lot of this was just laziness, of the same kind that makes some people unable to distinguish between “mitigate” and “militate” or between “access” and “assess.”

Charlie, in any case, worked hard, not only at his lessons, but as an announcer at the campus radio station. One afternoon, a professor in the Speech and Theatre Department asked Charlie and me to come to his office. He had been contacted by two local businessmen who needed young men with good reading voices to record a radio ad, and he thought of the two of us. One of the businessmen came for us in his car, and we rode downtown to the recording studio, agreeing that we would both simply audition on the spot—may the best man win.

The businessmen handed us a script and asked us to take turns reading. I thought we did about equally well, but the businessmen kept prompting us to “read it with more enthusiasm.” We kept modifying our approach until we had both reached a level of dramatic expression that sounded absurdly overdone, but our prospective clients were still not satisfied. Finally, they offered to play us a tape of another announcer who had the sound they wanted. It turned out that what they had really wanted the whole time (but somehow couldn’t figure out how to say!) was that they wanted us to read more rapidly—again, at a rate that approached the absurd.

This changed everything. Charlie began to attempt rapid reading but began stumbling at once; something quite like this had probably never been expected of him before. He stopped after about 15 seconds, and the men asked me to try. All my early advantages stood me in good stead, and although I felt silly doing so, I picked up the script and began to read loudly and at a ridiculously fast rate, fluently and without stumbling.

As I did so, I happened to catch a glimpse of Charlie. Unnoticed by anyone else, his face was set in mortification, and a large tear rolled down his cheek. This opportunity represented all he really expected from life, and he hadn’t succeeded.

I continued reading, but I would have given anything at that moment, to be anywhere else.

As it happened, neither of us got the assignment. The two men thanked us for our time, drove us back to campus, and I never heard from them again.

Charlie continued his studies and his radio announcing. I returned to school one year and learned that he was no longer there. Whatever he had hoped for at Evangel didn’t happen; his spirits sank,and he began to do things that were not only considered rude but that violated the school’s religious standards. He was asked to leave.

About ten or 12 years later, I learned somehow that Charlie had died in an automobile accident, after returning to the town where he had grown up and lived there for the rest of his brief and frustrated life.

I hadn’t thought of that incident of the recording audition in years until I heard the announcer just the other morning. What happened to Charlie and me took me by surprise, and I couldn’t have pretended to read badly in the hopes they would pick Charlie instead—I doubt it would have fooled anyone, and besides, Charlie simply couldn’t do what they wanted, even had he been their only candidate.

Hopefully, we all believe in striving to be the best we can, and life sorts us out, sometimes ruthlessly. I once applied for a job as a sewing machine operator at a factory, and the two male owners gave me a small board and some pins to insert in slots in a timed test, to measure my manual dexterity. I had the kind that would enable me to play the violin, but not the kind to do justice to those pins, and the two men had to try very hard not to laugh in my face. I’m sure they were grateful that I had provided them with an entertaining break in their busy day.

Life sorts us out, but some overcome, astonishingly so. As a child, I knew a boy named Gary, whose body appeared as twisted as Charlie’s, also from a difficult birth. Gary was a sort of pathetic “Tiny Tim” figure at our church.

Years later, visting the same church for my father’s memorial service, I was startled when a deep, confident voice called my name, but I couldn’t see anyone. “Down here!” the voice said.

I looked down and saw a well-muscled man who radiated confidence and strength, though his misshapen legs would not support him, but he got about by using his arms, instead of sitting in a wheelchair. “It’s Gary,” the man said. “I own a chain of weight-lifting studios.” I was just about speechless with amazement.

In a way, I’m rather glad that I didn’t get that announcer assignment and only wish I had taken the trouble later to offer to help Charlie with rapid reading aloud, though who knows but that such an attempt might have seemed clumsy and patronizing. The moment when fortune takes us by surprise and sometimes forces us to face things in ourselves where we never even suspected a lack, can be a severe test, and some don’t pass. We who see it happen may be equally surprised and can only hope to have the tact and presence of mind to offer what help we can until the other person’s balance is restored. The rest, of course, has to be up to the other and what he makes of his experience.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We which are alive and remain

Edith’s funeral was held today. She died 37 days ago; three more days and, were she Greek Orthodox, they would be chanting the Trisagion (“thrice blessed”) prayers in her memory.

Edith’s epilogue was different; the drama began when she was being taken to the hospital morgue, where she remained another 10 days before anyone would claim her. Edith had been at odds with her only surviving brother, whose daughter, not on the best of terms with Edith herself, thought Edith’s friend, Steve, should bury her out of the proceeds of a small insurance policy on Edith’s life, of which Steve was named as beneficiary. Steve, who is disabled, on oxygen, and the survivor of a serious automobile accident from a few months ago, needed the money to tide him over until the other driver’s insurance settles. And in any case, Edith’s policy has not paid off.

Thus Edith, who in life was a very giving person, remained unclaimed in death, literally frozen until something should happen to resolve the standoff. Her two children were dead years ago, her surviving brother is himself not long for this world, the rest of her family was estranged from her, and her friends lacked funds or legal standing to proceed at all. I’m not sure who blinked first, but she was cremated last week, and I learned two days ago that a brief memorial service would be held today.

It was the first funeral I had ever attended that had to be postponed a half hour because the family was late, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Her long-time friend and neighbor, Tim, who lives across the street and made sure Edith wasn’t bothered by the local drug pushers, sat patiently with his daughter. Tiffany, for whom Edith cared when Tiffany was an infant, sat there alternately attending to her own one-year-old son and weeping disconsolately. Mary, Tiffany’s mother, who had been Edith’s friend until Edith caught Mary helping herself to small sums from Edith’s checking account, was heard to say that “Anyone who cain’t even put Miz Edith’s ashes in the ground and put a marker over her don’t deserve to be here.” Steve stayed away.

Several friends of Edith attended. Carol, a woman in her early 50s, told me she had known Edith since Carol herself was 16; she called her “Mom.” Carol’s own adult daughter is dead of leukemia, and Carol introduced her 9-year-old granddaughter. Two other ladies told me that they had visited Edith in the hospital and helped her find a wrestling match to watch on television the last night of her life; deathbed or not, Edith was not going to miss her favorite lifelong entertainment.

Someone played a recording of Elvis singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” A young Baptist minister got up and gave a standard appeal: “If you know Jesus, you will meet Miss Edith in heaven, and if you don’t know Him, Miss Edith would want you to.” I don’t doubt his sincerity, but he had never met Edith and was young enough to be the son of most of the people there, so I suspect his words were more endured than heeded.

Funerals are always a mixed bag. I was fortunate that the first one I ever attended, when I was just 10 years old, of a 70-year-old great-great aunt whom I had never seen, was presided over by another minister of about 45 whose air of calm authority mixed with humane care, added warmth and reassurance to what could otherwise have been a frightening and unsettling experience for a small boy. He frankly admitted that he had not known the deceased but managed to make his listeners believe that she and her faith mattered to him personally.

The next funeral I attended, the following year, was quite different. The minister, considerably younger, also did not know the deceased, and his tone and manner, as he read the words of St. Paul, were rather cold, as though he were reciting a not altogether agreeable lesson by rote. At age 11, I remember thinking to myself, “He’s as cold as the air-conditioning in here. How different this is from last year!”

Then, there are ministers who believe they are clever and creative and preach something topical, on the order of “He crashed into the gates of heaven, just like the space shuttle” (I’m not kidding!) The same minister said “It’s beautiful to hear this music today, but just think what it will be like in heaven, when we get to hear Elvis all the time!” Ahem…even as some physicists speculate that there may be multiple universes, one is tempted to hope for alternate celestial realms!

Sometimes, the missteps come from the deceased themselves who, anticipating their own deaths, took the trouble to write out “inspiring” services of their own; e.g., “We have the husk with us, though the nut is gone” (again, I’m not making this up!)

A book of etiquette from 1836 describes funereal behavior with cynical realism; it recommends that the mourner compose his features into a semblance of grief while inevitably thinking of last night’s party or the current political primary. And I’ve heard that in at least one African country, perhaps the Côte D’Ivoire, funerals are very well attended for the simple reason that the young mourners find them to be promising venues to find new relationship partners!

Today’s service was meaningful because of the love shown by the several female friends of Edith who attended. One of them got up and read one of those poems you are practically bound to hear at a funeral, that goes something like

“I knew there would come a day
When you must go away
I grieve for you with love
Hoping to see you up above…”

It won’t win a prize, but before she read it, the woman blinked back the tears and said “Y’all bear with me while I try to get through this,” and what she felt for Edith was what we all shared, and that was all that mattered.

I got up afterward and said a few words, to the effect that Edith was rich in friends. The young minister had preached the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, with the rich man crying out afterward from his torment. I said Edith’s story reminded me rather of the instance when Jesus saw rich people contributing to the temple treasury and then an elderly widow putting in a single coin. “These all gave out of their abundance,” he said, “but she has given all she had.”

I slipped out during the closing prayer and drove around the corner to the apartment Steve moved into a week ago after Edith’s niece threatened to evict him from Edith’s house. We chatted in his open doorway; the reek of cigarette smoke coming from the place was at a level I have experienced only once before, years ago. He was philosophical about the whole thing and is still trying to get the insurance company to pay on the small policy. The company wants to see an obituary, which Edith’s family has not supplied.

I knew Edith when she was old and frail; I was surprised, in a way, to see that most of the photographs displayed next to the urn containing her ashes were of a stronger and more robust woman than I had known; one of them had her standing, arms akimbo, in a pose that challenged the onlooker, though with frank good humor. I think that if she could know what happened after her passing, she would snort in amusement and have a good chuckle.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mind not high things

What first struck me when I entered the room and found Edith dead this morning was how out of place it seemed. We are fragile creatures made of mud with expected life spans of fewer than 30,000 days, but because we reason, hope, laugh, and grieve, the cessation of breath seems like an offense that somehow ought to be set right.

Edith was still warm when I kissed her goodbye, not waxy and lukewarm as my father had rapidly become within a half-hour after his passing, in that horrible simulacrum of life that is so revolting precisely because it is so mockingly near the vital condition of living warmth. Her eyes were wide open, focused on something far away, dully indifferent to the trivia of her immediate surroundings, the wires, tubes, pans, and towels that had been part of her last hours. Her mouth was agape as though exclaiming, in awe and amazement, "Is this, then, what it is really like?" It had been her last discovery.

I had walked past her doctor and nurse on the way to her room, neither party recognizing the other, and when I called the nursing station, they rapidly reappeared, and we all spoke to each other in tones of near-apology, though no one had been delinquent and there had been no surprises. Her attending physician had already told her she was at 20% heart function and had fewer than 6 months; I knew she had less than 90 days. When I had left her at 8:30 last night, I had urged her to hang on until Monday.

The doctor and the nurses had been present when she died. At one moment, she was talkative and in good spirits, and then her heart protested for the last time, in a ventricular fibrillation. They applied the pads to her chest to shock her, but her heart was having none of it, and she stopped breathing. I arrived about 15 minutes later.

Edith Main was born in Memphis on November 14, 1930, 9 1/2 months after my father. While my father's family lived in South Memphis, Edith was raised in the Greenlaw neighborhood that, 55 years before, had been Memphis's first subdivision and where late Victorian redbrick townhouses were still inhabited. She was sent to Catholic schools as a girl and got her knuckles duly rapped by nuns. That was the least of what happened to her in life.

Standing outside the Green Beetle, a well-known Memphis bar, at age 15, waiting for the city bus that would take her home from school, Edith was jostled by two drunks propelled out of the front door and literally pushed under the moving bus; the city had to pay her father a large sum for her hospital expenses. Beguiled by a boy three years her senior in high school and seeking to escape a bad home life, she married him at 15 and endured the humiliation of an intimate examination ordered by a judge upon her father's petition to have the marriage annulled; when it was found that marital relations had taken place, her father and her uncle both beat her new husband.

Edith married four times and was unhappy in almost all her choices but loved her two children. Butch was a devil-may-care young man who eventually enlisted in the Marines; Donna Marie was, as her photographs showed, a lovely young woman.

Much as she loved her children, Edith was a spitfire and wouldn't let herself be imposed upon. When Butch and his new wife arrived at Edith's house one night in their new Lincoln to leave a bawling infant with Edith with no supply of diapers or milk, Edith warned them not to leave her like that, and when Butch ignored her and started to drive away, she heaved a brick through the windshield of his car. Her instincts informed her choice of entertainment; throughout her life, one of her greatest pleasures was to watch wrestling matches. Years ago, it was her constant weekly recreation at Memphis's old Ellis Auditorium downtown; when I visited her last night for what turned out to be the last time, she was enjoying a match on TV.

Butch was convicted of murder and sent to prison for life. I have no idea whether he was guilty or not, but the victim's family swore to Edith that the first day of Butch's parole would be his last day of life. Butch's bad-boy charm followed him into prison, and he once made Edith laugh by writing to her that the smitten female prison dentist had gladly rendered more than dental care to him behind the locked door of her clinic.

While Butch was in prison, Edith's daughter, Donna Marie, was murdered, while still in her 20s. The murderer was never caught.

Butch became a model inmate and even earned a law degree in prison. I met Edith in 1999 because I was corresponding with, and visiting, another prisoner, Jerry, who had known Butch since both were young men; both were transferred to the same minimum security prison about 145 miles from Memphis, and Edith was unable to drive there on her own to visit her son.

She began to ride with me, and for payment, would always have us stop at a small barbecue place in Savannah, Tennessee, where she would treat us both to a rib dinner. On the drive back to Memphis, she would tell me about her life and then ask me to sing the old evangelical gospel songs to her.

After 25 years, Butch was about to be paroled. A month before he would have come home, he complained about not feeling well, was ordered out onto a work detail on a hot day by an unsympathetic guard, and was brought back dead on the truck. He was 49.

Because he had been a Marine, Butch was given a military funeral by two crisply uniformed servicemen, who performed the ritual with faultless precision and respectfully presented Edith with the customary American flag. The veteran's cemetery was miles from Edith's part of town, but from time to time, Mary, a friend, would drive her there to visit Butch's grave.

For the next 8 years or so, our friendship mostly consisted of a single yearly contact. At Christmas, she would send me a card, and I would send her one and would order a gift to be delivered to her by mail. Then, about a week before Christmas, I would go to her house and pick her up and we would drive to Barnhill's Country Buffet on Stage Road in Bartlett for lunch or dinner. She would present me with a gift, which was often a large sampler of chocolates, something else she loved, but one year, she gave me a pair of hand-tooled leather cowboy boots that Butch had owned, which meant more to her than any of the rest.

As time went on, I tended to make our yearly appointment at mid-day on a Saturday rather than at night, since I had no idea what might happen to my car while parked in front of her house. Edith lived in the Nutbush section of North Memphis, a place where your neighbor may deal drugs or show a sudden inclination to violence. She and her boarder, Steve, had to have their Shar Pei put down recently when one of the neighborhood kids apparently gave drugs to Stretch as a joke, which drove the poor animal wild and caused him to attack Edith herself.

Still, she was not alone. No one on the street bothered her, and there were always friends who looked after her, though those friendships all tended to go bad, for some reason.

Jerry, the prisoner I had originally been visiting, boarded with Edith after he was paroled. Edith came home and found him smoking pot in her house and then learned that he had become violent with a wheelchair-bound woman down the street and had to throw him out.

Peggy, another friend for whose small business Edith had once worked, took Edith under her wing and seemed to provide her not only with moral support but financial help as well. This continued until Peggy defrauded Edith of $38,000 to cover Peggy's gambling debts at Tunica.

Steve, a scrappy little guy with a head of angry red hair and a face that looks as though it, too, has known the wrong side of a bus, moved into Edith's house and rented a room and is sitting there now. They bantered and sometimes fought, but Steve genuinely cared for her as no one else. Edith intended to revoke a previous will and leave her house to Steve, since he has nowhere else to go but the kind of motel where you rent rooms by the week. She died before a new will could be completed.

Mary had been a friend of Edith's for 20 years, ever since Edith had been the babysitter for Mary's infant daughter, Tiffany, who is now 21. Mary decided she didn't like Steve and pestered Edith to put him out of the house. Edith then discovered that Mary herself was siphoning money in small amounts from Edith's bank account. She ended her friendship with Mary but continued to care about Tiffany, now herself an unwed mother.

Edith was very clear on what had happened to her but never lamented or cried over it, that I could tell. She was furious at Mary's impertinence in trying to force Steve out, but as to the deaths, the faithless friends, the straying husbands, and all the rest, she acted as though those things were simply events like hailstorms or high winds, something she had endured but need not dwell on afterward except as the subject of an interesting story.

We had a standing arrangement that if she were hospitalized, one of her friends would call to notify me. She was always sent to St. Francis, which is literally within sight of where I live. Steve, meanwhile, was unable to visit her, since he is on oxygen and unable to carry one of his portable tanks from the hospital parking lot to a patient room, though he tried once. After that attempt, he confined his contact with her to the phone, while I visited.

When she was hospitalized in February, she temporarily lost her memory because of low blood pressure. I had to explain to her all over again who I was, who Steve was, and the fact that she had had two children who had died. It was a very strange experience, but I knew that when she came home, she would see Donna's and Butch's pictures hanging on her livingroom wall and wonder who they were.

In the spring, she began to be concerned about setting her affairs in order. Marc and Wendy Overlock called her from Nashville--both attorneys, they had befriended Butch years earlier while doing prison outreach work and continued to send Edith small checks at Christmas through the years--and supported her wish to draw up a living will, a general power of attorney, and a last will, even though they couldn't assist with any of it.

We began the process, and she gave her power of attorney for health care to Steve and me. Time overtook her before she could do the rest.

She wanted Steve to be her heir, claiming that her suriviving brother had offended her by refusing to help with Butch's funeral expenses. She knew that I not only didn't want but wouldn't accept anything substantial from her, but we managed to settle on two small glass elephant figurines that I spotted on her bureau; they are now on my bookshelf, next to the large folio-sized Bible she gave me for Christmas a few years ago.

A week ago, she had a heart attack and was hospitalized once more. She had removed Mary as beneficiary from two small life insurance policies and named Steve as the beneficiary, with the understanding that she would bequeath her house to him and he would use the insurance to bury her.

Tonight, Edith is in the hospital morgue, unclaimed. Her family, including a niece, are indignant at the prospective expense of burying her and threatening to evict Steve who, of course, has no right to remain in the house beyond whatever the law allows. Today, I have listened to lengthy laments from her niece on the unfairness of it all and sat in Edith's house, as Steve chainsmoked, quaffed Budweiser, and breathed his oxygen, while we watched several episodes of Law and Order and Steve gathered his thoughts. Edith's niece and her boyfriend called and talked of eviction. Mary called, screaming and cursing, when she realized she had been removed from the insurance. Steve retched into his bedside wastebasket between smokes.

In the corridor outside St. Francis's room 915, where Edith died this morning, is an engraving of Venice's famous Bridge of Sighs, connecting the Venetian prison with the interrogation rooms of the Doge's Palace, the passage through which condemned prisoners passed on their way to being put to death. Edith has crossed, and others are left struggling.

I had planned to do four things today. The first was to meet my friend Brett this morning at The Bagel Company on Poplar for a tasty breakfast and good conversation, which in fact we did. We arrived at 9 and lingered until 11; my apartment is 3 minutes down the street, and Edith was dying as I walked into my living room.

I sat down and prepared to carry out my second goal and type a last will for Edith to sign, knowing that her final moment was close, though not how close. Before I could type anything, Steve called and told me to get to the hospital at once.

My third plan had been to visit an antiquarian booksale held, appropriately enough, in Memphis's Parkview Hotel, a landmark from the 1930s that is now a retirement home. Never got there!

My fourth plan had been to go to the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art downtown and see a French-made documentary about Marranos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews forcibly converted to Christianity by the Inquisition but continuing to practice their faith in secret. I'm afraid they had to show it without me. "Life," as the saying goes, "is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

I was asked in 9th grade to write an essay about Willa Cather's wonderful novel My Άntonia, on the question of whether the book's eponymous heroine had been a success in life. I thought she was not. Pregnant out of wedlock in her teens, she was discovered years later by her childhood friend, plowing a field. What had her life amounted to, as such things are usually measured?

Edith Main lived an obscure and unremarkable life of slender means, made some unfortunate choices, never saw grandchildren, found her greatest amusement in wrestling matches, and gravitated, as her indignant niece made sure I understood this afternoon, to "drunks, convicts, and losers." But she was a good friend and a person who met the almost absurd amount of bad fortune she encountered in life with a degree of equanimity I have seldom seen in others less severely afflicted. Last night, on the last time we would ever see each other, she opened the conversation by earnestly assuring me, "I just shit for an hour," but she always thanked me for coming to see her, as if I might have chosen not to. I think that two of the most important things that happened to me today were to kiss her still-warm forehead goodbye and to see the look of amazement on her face.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The view from 58

I turned 58 today. I distinctly remember my fourth birthday party, at my paternal grandmother's house at 1243 Azalia St. in South Memphis.

As I commented to one of my cousins, I am the age my maternal grandfather was when I was 12, in 1964. He always seemed "old" and "dignified" to me; I have to wonder now if he too thought of himself as basically the same person as the boy had had once been, only with gray hair and not-quite-so-good eyesight.

In another month, I plan to drive to New Jersey for my 40th-anniversary high school reunion. I hope to tour Gettysburg where, as I hear, you can hire a private guide for a couple of hours, and I expect to definitely pick his brains!

The same grandfather I mentioned related to me how, though he didn't remember the man's name, he once sat as a child in his one-room rural school house in West Virginia as the children were addressed by the elderly John McCausland Jr., brigadier of the Confederacy, the last Confederate general to die, which he did on his farm near Point Pleasant, in 1927. McCausland had burned the town of Chambersburg, PA in retaliation for Union depredations in the Shenandoah and, so my granfather told me, spent the rest of his life unwilling to have his back to a window, for fear of a revenging gunshot.

Here is one of my favorite quotes, from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, even though I've never really lived up to it:

From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right, rather than of a man who had been improved. I observed, too, that no man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus, or ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.

That is certainly Stoicism at its best, and if anyone ever really lived that way, he was admirable.

Here are some thoughts on life that I posted recently on an online message board:

1. Don't ever "settle" in a relationship. You may lie down by yourself at night, but you can still have your dignity and your peace of mind.

2. Sit down quietly, even for half an hour a day, and read something that has nothing to do with finding a mate, getting your next promotion, or improving your investments.

3. Get in the habit of saving, even if it's only $10 a paycheck to start. If you don't, when you reach 40, you'll wish you had.

4. As you approach the age for which Viagra was invented, remember that the most potent sex organ is the brain.

5. Exercise, even if it's nothing but a brisk, half-hour walk each day.

6. Try not to reach age 50 and have to say, as Samuel Johnson did, that he had known about as much at 18 as he knew when he reached 50.

7. At least once a month, turn off the phone, the computer, the TV, and any other electronic devices and live all day without using any of them.

8. Do the same with your car.

9. Realize that you may think you're hot stuff now, but one day, there will be people who seem to you about 15 years old, who will be sitting in business meetings with you and barely concealing the fact that they think you're an old fart.

10. If you're a parent, no matter what your kids do, you can't stop loving them. Even after they are grown and gone, you will think about them every day.

11. If you are religious, be very clear as to why you believe. Try to be sure it is your belief and not merely a legacy from your parents and grandparents that you kept following from nothing but habit.

12. If you are not religious, be very clear why you don't believe. Don't be a skeptic for no reason than that you are still mad at your Sunday school teacher of 40 years ago or from a secret fear that the Deity wouldn't approve of your private life.

13. Set some outrageous goal, like climbing Kilimanjaro at 60. Whether you realize the goal or not, the mere fact of trying seriously to make it come about may take you to interesting places.

14. If you have a remarkable ability of some kind, or a notable achievement, accept any recognition for it graciously but always be ready to give as much credit as you can to those who worked with you.

15. Don't engage in idle flattery, but try to make others feel important and appreciated, as much as you honestly can.

16. Don't tell your kids how you walked 2 miles to your violin lesson when you were their age. Even if it's true, they either won't believe you or won't find it relevant to anything they're interested in.

17. Every so often, ask yourself, if you knew you would die this week, what estimate you could make of your own life.

18. Don't give advice that you either haven't followed or wouldn't care to even now.

Another one I thought of was "From time to time, ask yourself, 'If I went missing, where would they look for me?'"

And finally (from the same message board—something I wish I'd said but didn't): "In any compromise between good and bad, bad is always the winner." How true!

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The truth will out

The cancellation of a planned raid by the Israeli Army after a soldier posted the details on FaceBook goes under the headings of "something you couldn't make up" and "why does this not surprise me?" It reminds me of an observation by William F. Buckley, Jr. that I read long ago, about Phil Donahue interviewing Geraldine Ferraro and asking, what was still considered a little tactless even in 1984, what it felt like to be confronted by the revelations of her husband's venality.

Buckley commented that Ferraro regarded Donahue, "Who probably would have asked Christ on the cross what it felt like to be crucified" in dignified silence for a moment and then said "Phil, some things are personal," which, as Buckley observed, "to Donahue, was like the revelation to physicists at Los Alamos in 1945 that E does, indeed, equal MC squared."

The foolish Israeli soldier who betrayed his battalion's plans was removed from combat duty and imprisoned for ten days. Had he been sentenced to serve his time in offices of the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles, he could at least have pondered his folly in silence, after the DMV canceled its subscription to Muzak, following numerous customer complaints. That's a start, certainly, though it's less certain how to cancel boors who sit down near you and start loud cellphone conversations. I'm hoping that Sharper Image will eventually start selling a jamming device that you can activate silently from your pocket in such an event.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bitten by bytes

It appalls but does not completely surprise me that a 3-month-old Korean girl slowly starved to death while her feckless parents haunted a nearby internet café playing computer games; the horrible irony is that the game that addicted them was a simulation in which they raised a virtual child online.

The article from the Guardian Online cited yet other instances of the same social evil:

A 22-year-old Korean man was charged last month with murdering his mother because she nagged him for spending too much time playing games. After killing her the man went to a nearby internet cafe and continued with his game, said officials. In 2005 a young man collapsed in an internet cafe in the city of Taegu after playing the game StarCraft almost continuously for 50 hours. He went into cardiac arrest and died at a local hospital.

Admittedly, distraction from the obligations of the immediate was not born with the Internet. In Gulliver's Travels, Swift satirized absent-minded thinkers who needed minders to follow them around through the day and periodically tap them on the shoulder to remind them where they were. A guilt-ridden Mark Twain confessed in his Autobiography that his oldest son's death was his fault; sunk deep in thought as he took a carriage ride one winter day with the toddler, Clemens did not notice that the blanket had slipped off the boy's bare legs; his son caught a chill and died shortly after.

Perhaps the difference with the Internet is that it is interactive and that there is an immediate payoff; this, plus the distraction from tedium, must be among the reasons that people text while driving. As long as people are obsessed with the world online, they could do worse than to spend their time addressing one of the next great issues in national security: the ease with which unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can be assembled, chillingly detailed last week in Newsweek by P.W. Singer:

At least 40 other countries—from Belarus and Georgia to India, Pakistan, and Russia—have begun to build, buy, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, showcasing their efforts at international weapons expos ranging from the premier Paris Air Show to smaller events in Singapore and Bahrain. In the last six months alone, Iran has begun production on a pair of weapons-ready surveillance drones, while China has debuted the Pterodactyl and Sour Dragon, rivals to America's Predator and Global Hawk. All told, two thirds of worldwide investment in unmanned planes in 2010 will be spent by countries other than the United States.

When we invaded Iraq, I explained to my worried son, then 14, why Saddam couldn't send planes to bomb us as we could bomb Baghdad. Times are changing: Singer's article mentions that a 77-year-old blind man in Canada designed a drone that flew across the Atlantic to Ireland. These home-made gadgets actually gain from being less advanced than the machinery of our current defenses:

Smaller UAVs' cool, battery-powered engines make them difficult to hit with conventional heat-seeking missiles; Patriot missiles can take out UAVs, but at $3 million apiece such protection comes at a very steep price. Even seemingly unsophisticated drones can have a tactical advantage: Hizbullah's primitive planes flew so slowly that Israeli F-16s stalled out trying to decelerate enough to shoot them down.

According to a robotics expert cited in the article, an amateur could build a machine for less than $50,000 that could shut down Manhattan. Actually, our own government nearly achieved that when some nitwit let Air Force One fly over the city for a photo opportunity last year, panicking thousands.

Getting back to UAVs, the "Popular Mechanics" aspect isn't the only problem; even worse, it seems that overlooked and easily exploitable security flaws aren't limited to the Giant of Redmond:

More recently, The Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. ignored a dangerous flaw in its UAV technology that allowed Iraqi insurgents to tap into the planes' video feeds using $30 software purchased over the Internet.

Until this Terminator-like future arrives, one can still take refuge in the quiet pleasures of an art museum (though the guard at the Phillips Collection in Washington nearly assaulted me last year when my flash went off as I photographed Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party), but according to Newsweek staffer Jennie Yabroff, art appreciation can have its own hazards:

Stendhal syndrome isn't included in the draft version of the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, released last month, but with proposed additions including "apathy syndrome" and Internet addiction, it's probably only a matter of time. The affliction takes its name from the 19th-century French writer, who was overcome after visiting Florence's Basilica di Santa Croce. In 1989 an Italian psychiatrist named Graziella Magherini published La Sindrome di Stendhal, describing more than 100 tourists who suffered dizziness and heart palpitations (some requiring hospitalization) after seeing the Florentine sights. According to Magherini, great art can make you sick.

Yabroff cites Stendhal's own account of the experience that caused Magherini's diagnosis:

Stendhal visited Florence in 1817: maybe he was suffering Grand Tour pressure to have a properly edifying travel experience. But what actually happened? He writes, "On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall."

I doubt that any age has ever equalled ours for discovering previously unknown disorders and tagging them with clinical names, but I think there may be something to this. What happens if a work of art really grips you? If it is sufficiently powerful, it may affect the viewer, on a smaller scale, like the feeling described in Sylvia Plath's poem, "Mystic":

Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?
Once one has been seized up

Without a part left over,
Not a toe, not a finger, and used,
Used utterly, in the sun’s conflagrations, the stains
That lengthen from ancient cathedrals
What is the remedy?

How many transformative experiences can one endure in a single day? As my son wisely observed after we had toured the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, "I think I'm all museumed out for now."

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.