Plenty of gloom and doom but also gratitude, reasons to believe, and occasions to ponder the strange and wondrous vagaries of human nature
In the Review section of this past Sunday’s New York Times, there was a goodly helping of admonition and dire prediction, chiefly prompted by the destruction recently visited on the New York metropolitan area by Hurricane Sandy.
First, James Atlas warns of the coming submersion of New York City in Is This the End? An appropriately scary title, especially for those of us who know and love the place. (Venerating the city’s cultural riches, my mother could never understand why a person would want to live anywhere else.)
In Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines, Benjamin Strauss and Robert Kopp paint a disturbing picture of the effect that rising sea levels will have on this country’s coastal regions. To begin with, the authors offer up this astonishing statistic: “More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide.” Even granted that Strauss and Kopp are describing eventualities that may be several centuries down the road, their projections are extremely disturbing. Click on What Could Disappear for maps. I did, and it just about broke my heart. Among the places slated to become a latter day Atlantis is Miami Beach, Florida, where I attended junior high and high school. Alas, farewell to the land of bougainvillea, hibiscus, cocoanut palms, and rampant overdevelopment…. (For additional searchable maps, go to Surgingeas.org.)
Finally, Erwann Michel-Kerjan and and Howard Kunreuther tackle the subject of Paying for Future Catastrophes. They begin with this statement: “Hurricane Sandy could cost the nation a staggering $50 billion, about a third of the cost of Hurricane Katrina — to date the most costly disaster in United States history.”
In the November 26/ December 3 issue of Newsweek, David Cay Johnston tallies the dangers inherent in our aging and inadequate infrastructure. Johnston goes on to suggest “12 ways to Stop the Next Sandy;” however, his ambitious manifesto will require a colossal act of will on the part of the citizens of this country, not to mention an equally colossal outlay of funds. Can it be done? Will it be done? (As Newsweek prepares to go digital, I’d like to express a personal sense of loss. I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s.)
All of this would seem to portray a nation in a heap of trouble. In his book Too Much Magic, published in June of this year, James Howard Kunstler writes the following:
The British Petroleum company’s 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico tempered the public’s zest for risky deepwater drilling projects. Oil is back in the $100 range. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in the following year sobered up many nations about the prospects for the only well-developed alternative energy method capable of powering whole cities. Whether you believe in climate change or not, or contest that it’s man-made or is not, the weather is looking a little strange. In 2011 tornados of colossal scale tore through the American South, hurricane-induced five-hundred-year floods shredded Vermont, and Texas was so drought-stricken that Texans wondered if ranching there would even be possible in the years ahead. People have begun to notice a number of signals that reality is beaming out.
All this is enough to send a person running for the nearest bunker. But wait – there is hope, and it has been proffered by people with vigorous minds and open hearts. I’ve already written about the solace and encouragement to be derived from the works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rev. Timothy Keller. And now I’m cheered by the prospect of reading Anne Lamott’s new book: In a recent interview in the Washington Post, she explains its rather piquant title:
I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re doing is a form of prayer. “Help” is the main prayer. “Help” is the prayer of surrender and having a real shot at things beginning to change because you’ve finally run out of good ideas. “Help” is the hardest prayer, and it’s the most poignant. It’s a person being humbled. People say “Thanks” all the time in so many ways. Even people who don’t believe in God or in any kind of higher power notice when their family catches a break: The diagnosis was much better than it could have been; it really isn’t a transmission, it’s a timing belt; it’s something manageable instead of huge and awful. “Wow” is the praise prayer. I think every time you see a night sky full of stars, you say, “Wow.” It was so cold here today, I had to get up really early, and I stepped outside, and I was like, “Whooooa!” which is a cousin of “Wow.” It was so crisp, so beautiful. It’s like getting spritzed with a plant mister. It kind of wakes you back up.
I love The Once Born and the Twice Born, an essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb that appeared in the September 28 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reading her cogent and graceful explication of William James The Will To Believe, I felt as though I’d been given a very special gift. (This sense was amplified by the fact of my recent immersion in the life William’s brother Henry, courtesy of Michael Gorra’s magisterial work of criticism and biography, Portrait of a Novel.)
His 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe” was prompted, James said, by the “freethinking and indifference” he encountered at Harvard. He warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion, ritual or dogma. His “justification of faith” derived instead entirely from the “will” or the “right” to believe, to “adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James knew this would not go down well with the students and philosophers in the eminent universities. To the obvious objection that the denial of the “logical intellect” is to give up any claim to truth, he replied that it is in defense of truth that faith is justified—the truth provided not by logic or science but by experience and reflection. Moral questions, he pointed out, cannot be resolved with the certitude that comes from objective logic or science. And so with religious faith….
Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, an intellectual among intellectuals, turned ninety in August.
I never ceased to be moved by the trouble to which people will go to render aid to animals in distress. A particularly impressive instance of this compassionate response is recounted in a recent Washington Post article entitled Injured Owl Is Rescued in Mount Vernon.
I deeply appreciate the sentiments voiced with wit and warmth on the occasion of Thanksgiving by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. In Family, Friends, Health and Freedom, she asked a number of friends and family members what they were thankful for. At one point, she pressed a friend to be more specific; she received this response:
“Buddy the cat. He literally came out of nowhere one night, and has never left since. He sleeps in the window most of the time, and looks in as if to say: ‘I’m home.’ He always lets the others in the pack eat first. ‘Slow down,’ I say to myself. The world on my screen may be spinning and sizzling, but Buddy’s ends up being the preferred reality.”
Speaking of matters of a feline nature, there was recent post-election news in the Metro section of the Post concerning an illustrious member of that community:
Finally, from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker, the recent travails of General David Petraus and others elicited this wry observation from Adam Gopnik:
Petraeus, and his defenders and attackers alike, referred to his “poor judgment,” but if the affair had had anything to do with judgment it never would have happened. Desire is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As [Philip] Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.
Toward the end of this post, I mentioned Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains. In it, he describes the efforts made by the remarkable Dr. Paul Farmer to deliver quality health care to some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people. Dr. Farmer’s organization Partners in Health maintains a clinic in Haiti; the staff there are currently engaged in helping the victims of the earthquake that has devastated that island nation. To assist them, you can make a donation here.
Kidder’s book takes its name from the Haitian proverb, “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” As you solve one problem, another one presents itself and must also be dealt with. At present, Haitians are dealing are dealing with a catastrophe almost beyond imagining. One hopes that the compassion and outreach of fellow citizens of the world will provide help and consolation.
Let me tell you about this book: during the entire second half of it, I was in a state of utter disbelief and rage! I’ve since calmed down, but if reading about the nightmare scenario described by Dave Eggers got me that angry, I hate to think of how the people forced to endure the experience actually felt. People like Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun.
Like most Americans, I was saturated with news of New Orleans and Katrina around this time four years ago. I read about the convention center and the Superdome, the pollution and the destruction, the deaths and the displacements. I also heard tales of lawlessness, but I assumed that this was more or less par for the course in the chaos that followed the hurricane. Often, in the wake of a catastrophe like Katrina, there is a period of civil disorder. I assumed that this period would be short lived. I didn’t consider crime to be a major part of the story.
I know now that I was wrong.
Crime is a huge component in the story what happened to the Zeitouns, not because they committed it but because of what was done to them. Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun ran (and still run) Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC, an extremely successful home repair and renovation business. Their work was known and respected throughout New Orleans. They were upright and compassionate in their dealings with their employees and their clients. Abdulrahman, a Syrian by birth and a Muslim, came from a large and loving family; Kathy, whose brief first marriage had ended in divorce, was a convert to Islam. At the time Katrina struck, they had four children; the oldest, Zachary, was Kathy’s son by her first husband.
I was not far into this book when I began to care deeply for these people; and to feel an anxiety on their behalf which, in the event, proved more than justified.
When Katrina began bearing down on New Orleans, Kathy and Zeitoun – he was called that by friends and clients who had trouble pronouncing his first name – faced an agonizing choice. They knew they should leave, but they felt responsible for their various rental properties and jobs in progress. There was the office to look after, and even more important, their home on Dart Street. With some reluctance, they decide that Kathy and the children would go to Baton Rouge and stay with family there, while Zeitoun remained behind in New Orleans. Then, they reasoned, either Kathy would return or Zeitoun would join the family in Baton Rouge. They were counting on the separation lasting no more than a couple of days.
As we crime fiction aficionados are wont to say, Had they but known…
Several years prior, Zeitoun had bought secondhand canoe, a standard aluminum model that a client no longer wanted. When he arrived home with his purchase tied to the top of his van, Kathy took one look and exclaimed: “You’re crazy.” But in the first few days after Katrina struck, the canoe proved to be a Godsend. Zeitoun rescued, or arranged for the rescue of, several elderly persons stranded by high water on the upper floors of their houses. He also rowed to homes where dogs had been abandoned in order to feed and water the animals.
He began to feel quite literally that the canoe had been sent by God and that it was God’s will that he stay behind in order to assist stranded individuals and animals in distress. And that is the work that he and some of his friends were engaged in when something happened that he could never have anticipated, never have thought possible, not in the adopted country that he loved…
If you have already read about Zeitoun, you’ll know what transpires at this point in the narrative. I did not know, so for me, the impact of the story was that much more profound.
I will say no more, except for this: Dave Eggers is directing all the proceeds from the sale of this book to the Zeitoun Foundation, which he and the Zeitoun family set up this year. This gesture on the part of the author is, I think, admirable and generous. (It reminds me of one made by Jon Krakauer in similar circumstances.) So by all means read Zeitoun – and consider purchasing the book as well!
I have never been to New Orleans. This chronicle of devastation and rebirth has made me want to go there.
The funeral Mass for Ted Kennedy featured one of my favorite pieces of sacred music: Panis Angelicus by Cesar Franck. At the bottom of this article from the Examiner, you will find a video of the performance by Placido Domingo, accompanied on the cello by Yo-Yo Ma.
Here is the same piece sung by two members of the St. Philips Boys’ Choir, Norbury, UK:
I’ve been looking for the performance by Luciano Pavarotti from the 1980 Christmas Special he did at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal. I believe this is it. Not a live performance, but sublime singing nonetheless:
This version of the Panis is found on one of the most cherished possessions: a 2 CD set of “Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits.” They are hits, all right, one after the other, including the aria Pavarotti is so closely identified with: Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot. Here, he sings it on a “Live from Lincoln Center” thirtieth anniversary special broadcast. Zubin Mehta conducts the New York Philharmonic:
Finally, here is “the king of the high C’s” in a duet with his father Fernando. They sing in the gallery above, while below the faithful take communion in the Cathedral of Modena:
Among my reasons for admiring the Catholic faith is that it comes with such a great soundtrack!
Nevertheless, the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing came as a jolt.
For some of us who came of age in the 60′s, it feels like the end of an era.
As I was watching history unfold today, I couldn’t help thinking: He’s the man with the million dollar smile…
Congratulations to our new president!
In a letter to today’s Washington Post, James Symington fills us in on the fascinating story of Washington’s Hay Adams Hotel, where the Obamas stayed before moving to Blair House this past Thursday. Symington’s own family played a part in the hotel’s history – or rather, its pre-history.
In his letter, Symington mentions Patricia O’Toole’s The Five of Hearts, a history of the Adams and Hay families during America’s Gilded Age. I note with dismay that our local library no longer owns this title, which, until recently, was out of print. The good news is that it was re-issued by Simon and Schuster in 2006. (Here is the library’s request to purchase form.) Since its original publication in 1990, The Five of Hearts has been one of the many books I’ve always meant to read; Mr. Symington’s letter has jumped it up to a spot near the top of an admittedly absurdly long list!
In addition to the list of must-reads, there’s a list of things I must see. One of them is the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Park Cemetery. This sculpture by Augustus Saint Gaudens was commissioned by Henry Adams for his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams.
Let’s start with this hopeful item in today’s Washington Post: “Unexpected Twist: Fiction Reading Is Up,” by Bob Thompson. Well, yay – but with reservations, naturally. The article concerns a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts entitled “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy.” The report contains the inevitable mix of good and not-so-good news. As for the article itself, I found this hasty reassurance somewhat irritating: “…it’s important to know that ‘literary’ isn’t meant to imply ‘highbrow.’” Gosh, what a relief; I would hate to think that I had to read The Great Gatsby or a Willa Cather novel in order to be counted among the literate – sigh… On the other hand, works from genre fiction are figured into the survey and furthermore, it is observed that “Mysteries emerged this year as the most popular genre.” No comment, it being rude to gloat! Unfortunately, nonfiction reading does not count, and that really is a shame, as that’s where some of the best writing is, IMHO.
Dana Gioia, outgoing chairman of the NEA, has been a wonderful advocate for literature. The Big Read, whose stated purpose is “to restore reading to the center of American culture,” is among the initiatives he promoted. I like the variety and quality of the works focused on by this program. Audio guides on CD that accompany these selections are available at the Howard County Library. I listened to the guides for The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Age of Innocence and found the experience to be an enjoyable, if abbreviated, way of revisiting some of my favorite classics. (Search for these CD’s under “Big Read” as a series title.)
Sarah Weinman recently authored a four part feature on historical mysteries for the Barnes & Noble Review. In Part One, Weinman credits the works of Ellis Peters as having been the springboard for the the current popularity of this subgenre. If you haven’t read the Brother Cadfael novels, give yourself a treat and pick one up. Then watch the DVD’s in which Sir Derek Jacobi brings the sleuthing monk (monkish sleuth?) memorably to life.*
Still in Part One, Weinman proceeds to discuss mysteries set in ancient times. The first author she singles out for praise is one of my favorites, Steven Saylor, author of the Roma sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder. In Part Two, she covers medieval times; in Part Three, the 19th century; and in Part Four, the first half of the 20th century.
I was pleased to note that at the end of this last installment, Weinman mentions Eric Ambler, whose Coffin for Dimitrios, written in 1938, is still one of the best novels of suspense that I have ever read.
Taken together, these four articles are rich with reading suggestions. Sarah Weinman writes beautifully. If you’re a book lover, and especially if those books tend to be mysteries, you should be regularly checking her blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Just yesterday I found there a link to an article from the Wall Street Journal about books of note to be published in the coming year. Admirers of the fiction of Anne Tyler – and I certainly count myself among their number – will be delighted by the news of her upcoming novel.
I’m having a great time working my way through this collection, which is compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by the Columbia University Press. Several of the articles I’ve particularly enjoyed are available online, so here goes:
“China’s Instant Cities,” written by Peter Hessler and published by National Geographic. This piece won in the reporting category.
“The Black Sites,” written by Jane Mayer and published by The New Yorker. This article, a finalist in the reporting category, is a powerful and very disturbing look at the interrogation methods employed by the CIA since the 9/11 attacks.
“Specialist Town Takes His Case to Washington,” by Joshua Kors for The Nation. This piece, the winner in the public interest category, had me thoroughly vexed and spluttering with outrage.
“‘You Have Thousands of Angels Around You,’” by Paige Williams for Atlanta Magazine. One of the good things about this anthology is that brings to your attention worthy articles from publications you wouldn’t ordinarily read – like the various city magazines. This article, winner in the feature writing category, contains both the best and the worst of humanity. I was tremendously moved by this story of a teen-aged immigrant from war torn Burundi.
In my youth, I was a fan of Rolling Stone. I haven’t looked at an issue in some time, so I forgot what it’s like to read a periodical that most decidedly does not style itself as a “family newspaper.” Thus I approached Matt Taibbi’s “Obama’s Moment,” the winner in Columns and Commentary, with some trepidation. Just how vulgar would the vocabulary be – how snarky the attitude? None of it mattered – with its pull-no-punches, utterly irreverent salvos, I loved Taibbi’s piece! Here’s a sample sentence: “In person, Obama is a dynamic, handsome, virile presence, a stark contrast to the bloated hairy s–tbags we usually elect to positions of power in this country.” Okay, a bit over the top – but exhilarating and entertaining nonetheless. (And please pardon the dashes; I guess I’d like to think of this as a “family-friendly” blog!) I was surprised that “Obama’s Moment” was posted in late December of 2007, as it contains some very prescient observations. Taibbi mentions the “whiff of destiny” that seemed to swirl around Obama. And how.
There are two articles in the December 2008 issue of The New Republic that I liked a great deal. One is “Why Mantegna Matters,” by Keith Christiansen. Christiansen is currently curator of European Paintings at one of my favorite places on the planet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I particularly appreciated Christiansen’s comments on this astonishing image:
The second piece I commend to you with reservations because it’s a heartbreaker: “Going Under,” by Jason Zengerle. As I read this story of a gifted young doctor’s downward spiral, I thought once again of the lines from Julius Caesar: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
Finally, we haven’t been to a movie theater in ages, but “A One-Man Movement” by Sarah Kaufman in Sunday’s Washington Post made me want to go. Focusing on the great Cary Grant, Kaufman offers insightful commentary on his acting in particular, then on film acting in general. Over the years, many fine writers have tackled film as their subject. For my money, though, this is one of the most astutely observed, concisely written pieces of film commentary you’re likely to encounter for quite some time.
Here is Kaufman on one of the opening scenes in North by Northwest:
“There’s a relaxed, easy give in Grant’s body as he moves, and as he leans toward his secretary while he speaks to her–he’s so very pleased with his own labors, and yet so exquisitely courteous to his assistant. A nice guy, and smooth as whiskey, too. He’s getting further under our skin with every move.
*See Kerrie’s lively commentary on A Morbid Taste for Bones (first in the Cadfael series) on her blog Mysteries in Paradise.
This is Sheru, aka Lion Heart, with his caregivers:
This is his story.
First, you see humans doing their worst. Then you see them doing and being their best.
Our hearts are full – what a proud moment for this wonderful country, a place that offered a welcome sanctuary to my own grandparents a hundred years ago. Nations, like individuals, can aspire to greatness – and sometimes even attain it.
This video clip says it all.