Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Stranger in the Woods

Doesn’t everyone dream of going off for a year or two or thirty to a cabin in the woods?

I guess, then, it’s just me and the Unabomber and good, old Henry David Thoreau.  But when I am tired of the Sturm und Drang and of course, the freeway traffic, the solitary time in the woods seems very inviting.

Journalist Michael Finkel in his book, The Stranger in the Woods:  The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), profiles a modern hermit, Christopher Knight, who disappeared into the Maine woods for almost thirty years until his recent capture while burglarizing a nearby camp.  It is an extraordinary tale that is riveting and unbelievable.  The area where Knight had his camp near North Pond is not completely isolated; many people have vacation cabins there and during the summer, the place teems with campers and tourists.  Yet, over the course of his time there, Knight had exactly one occasion where he came face to face with another human being.  They greeted each other and went their separate ways.  The hiker out for a day time stroll had no idea he had just encountered a living myth.  People in the area often reported burglaries at their properties, but nothing of much value was ever taken.  Knight would break in to steal food, clothing, batteries, and books.  He would not damage the property, and when he needed to pry open a door or window, he brought tools with him in his kit to make the necessary repairs when he left.  The Pine Tree Camp where Knight was ultimately arrested had been burglarized several times by the hermit who gained entrance using a key he swiped on an earlier visit.

Knight left home for the woods when the meltdown at Chernobyl was in the news.  That is how he determined the span of years he had lived in the forest after he was arrested.  His camp was not far from other cabins, but it was surrounded by large boulders and scrub leaving a clearing in the center where Knight set up his tarp and tent.  Finkel makes several excursions to the place, and the first time he goes, he actually has a lot of trouble finding the site.  It is the perfect place to hide, nearly in plain sight.  From there, Knight would cautiously venture out into the darkness, careful to leave no tracks or traces of his encroachment.  He combines a sort of obsessive compulsive need to come and go like a ghost leaving nothing to betray his camp or person behind to tip off investigators.  Some people, after being burglarized several times, started leaving out food and clothing for him, but he never touched those items.

In the Maine woods, temperatures in winter plummet to sub-zero depths, but Knight survived by staying awake and active during the most frigid parts of the early mornings.  He had no training in survival but existed on luck and the bounty left behind by the summer campers.  It is an incredible story.  Knight was caught only when one particularly resourceful ranger set up an elaborate system of alarms and traps.  Most of the time, Knight was able to frustrate law enforcement and defeat special motion-activated alarms and cameras.  Terry Hughes, the ranger, just got lucky one night.

Of course, Knight never hurt anyone nor did he ever threaten others.  The land he squatted on in his camp was owned by someone, but it was not being used.  He cleaned up any mess and avoided people.  So what, exactly, was his crime?  He was arrested by Hughes and sentenced to prison, but his life after seems sad and confining when Finkel visits him.  It takes the reporter many, many tries to gain the confidence of Knight, who comes off as possibly on the autism spectrum or at the very least, anti-social.  The book is both a story of a modern hermit’s life as well as a profile of an odd man out from society.

Along the way, Finkel discusses the roots of the hermit life and the roles hermits have played in human history.  This is also an interesting facet of the book.  While in the wilds, Knight’s chief form of entertainment was reading.  Finkel writes that “The life inside a book always felt welcoming to Knight.”  Interestingly, this hermit had no empathy for Thoreau, and in fact, Finkel says that Knight had disdain for the 19th century writer.  He also never kept a journal.  The one thing that provoked a strong reaction in Knight was an issue of National Geographic containing a photograph of a young shepherd from Peru.  The boy was standing by the side of a highway crying with the bodies of many of his sheep strewn behind him having just been struck by a car.  “They published a photo of the boy’s humiliation,” says Knight.  “He had failed his family, who had entrusted him with the herd.  It’s disgusting that everybody can see a little boy’s failure.”  There are a few of the moments of illumination of the mind of Christopher Knight.

I found the book fascinating.  It is natural for human beings to crave solitude as well as the company of others.  For some reason, Knight lacked the latter.  When life in civilization became unbearable, he went off into the woods to live the life he imagined.  He simplified his existence, as Thoreau advocated, and for 27 years he lived life on his terms, in his head space.  His parallel universe existed in the Maine woods right alongside the campers and vacationers.  Then, on one fateful night, the hermit’s life ended and he was back in the harsh glare of civilization, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In the Heart of the Sea

Two things I want to share here up front:  one, I don’t want to write a negative review ever again.  I want to write about books that thrill me in some way.  If there are negatives or areas where the work falls short, I’ll mention them, but I want to thoroughly enjoy the books I read and write about, and I want to be able to recommend them, even if they have a few shortcomings.

Two, I buy more books than I can possibly read.  I am like a cat chasing a feather.  I read about a certain book or see it reviewed somewhere, and I want to read it.  I make my purchase, add it to the growing stacks around my work area, but before I can read it, I see other books that I want to read and go after them.  So what happens is, when I go looking for something because I think I have it already, or I take the time to dust and reorganize my shelves and stacks, I find books I wanted to read months or even years ago and I realize I forgot I had them.  I place them in a stack near my desk but they are again buried by new acquisitions.

So the books I write about maybe new or maybe old, and in some cases, very old.  I can only guarantee that I enjoyed them enough to write about them, and that if you can find a copy, you might enjoy them too.  If you find them not enjoyable, feel free to comment and share your opinion because I like the discussion.

Seventeen years ago, I bought a book I could not wait to read, only I did wait.  I waited a long time, and I am embarrassed to say, I was flipping around on the television one evening when I happened upon the theatrical movie version of the book directed by Ron Howard and realized I had a copy somewhere in my apartment and began the search for it.  The book is called In the Heart of the Sea:  The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Penguin, 2000).  At the time of purchase, I was teaching Melville to high school students and this book purported to be about the true story that inspired Melville to write his greatest novel, Moby Dick.

I have to say I love sea stories from Horatio Hornblower to The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (Norton, 2009) to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  In fact, although I am not much more than an armchair adventurer, I love the human being against nature tale.  Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (Anchor Books, 1997) comes to mind as well as the writing of Jack London and also Gary Paulson.

In the Heart of the Sea is a more detailed and developed story as a book over the movie version, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I could not leave it alone and bombs could have been falling on my couch and I would not have moved.  Philbrick’s writing is solid and serviceable, not artistic, but his story is well researched and accompanied by an extensive bibliography for further reading.  What was most interesting is how the world was such a wild and unexplored place to these early 19th century whalers.  They would set off from Nantucket on the East coast of America and travel down around Cape Horn and up the coast of South America to their hunting grounds.  The journey could take three to five years or more before they could return with a full cargo of whale oil.  But that oil was a valuable commodity until fossil fuels were discovered on land, so the material was critical to civilization at the expense of these beautiful animals.  And of course, one of them, the celebrated white whale, took issue with the ship and crew and exacted a painful and deadly revenge.

The story of how those sailors survived after their good ship was smashed to splinters is gripping and powerful.  They resorted to cannibalism to survive and were in extreme jeopardy when rescued.  Ultimately, eight of the twenty crew members made it back in rigged up battered whaleboats after 95 days stranded at sea.  Two members of the crew, Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson wrote accounts of the deadly voyage and both Philbrick and Melville used these accounts extensively to fuel their stories.

There is also the matter of environmental destruction.  During the course of their desperate voyage, the sailors burned up an entire island leading to the destruction of several species of birds and tortoises.  In addition, they were hunting an endangered species.  Part of the reason the crew had to journey so far was that the whale population had been depleted by extreme hunting.

The book puts the reader on that fateful voyage and is a great summer read.  It is the kind of adventure story to dive into on those hot nights when sleep is impossible.  Guaranteed, the lost crew of the Essex and their white whale nemesis will haunt your dreams long after you have closed the covers of the book.

Sketch of the whale ship Essex by Thomas Nickerson

Thursday, June 8, 2017

And We're Back...

Something has happened.

I’ve spent the last year researching and writing about how story helps us deal with grief and loss.  It was a subject I’d thought about for a long time, and as I read deeper and deeper into theology, philosophy, history, and story, I found myself adrift on a broad and very deep sea.  What came out of it was a book made up of memoir, narrative theory, God and life—not necessarily in that order, or in any order.  I realized that there was a lot I have not worked through about mid-life, and that if I did not find a path through the dark wood, as Dante did with his Divine Comedy, I would lose myself and be frozen in the mire of middle age.  I’m happy to say I think the darkness has abated and it is summer again.

Some people get hair plugs, a new significant other, a sports car, whatever, to get through the realization that there are more days behind than ahead.  That’s not me.  I want to do meaningful work and I want to make peace with the person I am now, after all the trials and tribulations, the joys and sorrows of my lived experience.

So I have been away for a while, but now I am back.

The way storytelling is a theological response to grief and loss has become a book.  I am finishing my revisions now; all I have to do is find a publisher, which is a big item on the to-do list, but even if it never sees the light of publication, I have worked something out in my mind.  I have learned to grieve for those I’ve lost while not letting the grief stop me in my tracks.  Joan Didion wrote once that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  She also told us that “I write to find out what I am thinking,” and actually, I have heard that said by more than one writer I have admired.  I know what I am thinking:  this life is all too brief and yet, we cannot cling to it.  Life is impermanence, pain, challenge, but it is also exhilarating and powerful and inspiring and joyful.

Most of what I’ve learned about this life has come as a result of reading.  I read everything.  I carry books and magazines everywhere with me, often at the expense of nearly walking into traffic or falling into an open manhole.  I have always loved to read, as I have expressed in so many ways on this blog.  It has been my saving grace over the years.  This blog will continue to be a record of my reading life along with the experiences and insights I discover.  I hope to become more insightful by reading wise men and women and then writing about them and their stories as a way to cement the wisdom in my memory.

This blog is about “literature, culture, and the life of the mind.”  I have changed that tagline a few times in the last ten years, once to “questions, comments, true stories of adventure,” which is something I ask my students at the end of a class:  In truth, the words I post here will be all of the above.  Sometimes, study only reveals more questions, but I love the questions.  The world of information we have at our fingertips gives us the answers, but without the questions, we would not know what to look for.  The quest, the search goes on, and when we are gone, others will take our place.  It is all a seamless garment of us, of history, of story, of life.

So I hope you have missed me over the last four months, because I want you to come back and tell me what you have been up to.  If you like something you see here, I’d like to know, and if you disagree, even better.  Let’s dialogue.  The life of the mind is a communal life; our country is going through some difficult times and we need to be thinking and discussing and working toward solutions to the problems that plague us.  We need to listen to each other’s stories; they are imperative to the communal life of which we dream where people can disagree and discuss, but remain respectful and considerate and loving of others.

I have often toyed with the idea of renaming this blog, The Student’s View.  As I reach the milestone of thirty years in the classroom as a teacher, I still, still feel more like a student than a teacher.  I think the best classes over the years have been ones where we are all learning together.  I’ll keep it The Teacher’s View for now; after ten years and 447 posts, it would be weird to change the name.  But know that those who enter into a dialogue often teach me far more than I teach them.  I have had some wonderful student-teachers over the years, and I thoroughly enjoy hearing from them here or on other social media sites.

So sound your barbaric yawp to the sky, as Uncle Walt instructed us, and let us live and live well so that when we are gone, everyone will miss us and only the trees will remember.  I know that we will turn to dust, but our stories will remain.  Let us live forward into the future.  Onward!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Perfect Narcissist for the Selfie Age

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The other night on my way home from the office, I stopped at the mall to do a little shopping.  As I got out of my car in the parking lot, I noticed a woman moving quickly through the parked cars with her arm outstretched in front of her.  She was holding her cell phone and videotaping herself walking to her car.  Periodically, she would run her fingers through her long hair to let the breeze catch the strands to give her that special wind-blown look.

At work, I have started reversing into the parking space so that when I leave for the day, I simply drive forward out of the space.  Why?  I have had too many close calls when backing out with people walking behind me or in my blind spot while texting or looking at their phone screens thereby failing to see me.  It’s scary and I don’t want to run over someone.

I have been plagued with muscle spasms in my lower back.  When the muscles seize, I have little control over my upper body.  I cannot change direction quickly, nor can I avoid objects that pass too close to me.  In short, I need personal space to navigate my world without colliding with others.  Yet time and again, I find myself trying to swerve way from people who simply are not paying attention and come right at me on a crowded sidewalk.  It is excruciating and frustrating at the same time.  I am embarrassed to admit I look like a doddering old man or a drunk, but it is my aching back.  I want to scream, “Look up from your phone!”  Instead, I grimace and try to move away.

Because of all of this, I believe that Donald Trump is the perfect narcissistic leader for this age of distraction and the selfie.  Follow my logic for a moment.

It would seem he has much in common with the people he now governs:  they have taken American exceptionalism to heart.  There are no more beautiful people than our dear leader and his pouting wife, at least in the Trumpian view, but average Americans are attractive people, too, even while walking through a dark mall parking lot with the wind gently blowing their collective hair back.  “So beautiful; so very, very beautiful,” in the Trumpian vocabulary.

Me?  “I want to barf,” said the wobbly man with the bad back and the grouchy grimace.  I try to avoid cameras and have never taken a selfie.

A wise teacher of mine once said that wars and disasters sober us up.  They descend upon us and upset everything we thought we knew and force us to look out rather than in.  In times of great upheaval, we find God and recognize our fragile place in the universe.  I think another revival is on the horizon.  Maybe we won’t flock to church, necessarily, but we may become more spiritual and wise, maybe even a bit more human, meaning we will stop thinking how beautiful we look and start using our brains.  As we come out of the season of excess, better known as the Christmas holidays, maybe we will put all the toys away and spend the remaining dark days of winter cultivating the life of the mind or at least hunkering down to defend ourselves and others against the coming apocalypse.

There is a comedian whose name escapes me, but I heard his stand-up routine one morning while driving to work.  He talks about the miracle of smart phones, how we have so much at our fingertips in that tiny machine of circuit boards and microchips.  He especially likes texting.  So he finds himself walking down a busy street while texting a friend to meet him later for a bite to eat.  They go back and forth trying to choose a restaurant, arguing about one place over another.  And of course, with his fat American fingers, he must back up and erase one typo after another to the point of frustration.  “If only there was a device where I could just talk to my friend,” he mutters to himself.  Then the irony hits him like a brick to the head.

I do like texting for the convenience of not talking.  When I call in sick at work, I would rather text.  I always hang up the phone thinking, “Did I sound sick enough?”  No one can tell how sick, or not sick, you are from a text.  I like that I can text someone in silence; no one can overhear the conversation.

However, texts can be misconstrued.  Auto correct features can alter what we type, sometimes with comic results.  We can also text accidentally to the wrong person.  A friend of mine was texting back and forth with his mother who was telling him in painful detail, the latest gossip in her apartment building full of senior citizens.  “Ok, see u later,” he kept texting, but she would keep texting back with more stories.  Another friend texted him to ask if he wanted to see a movie later.  “I would if I could get my psycho mother to stop texting me her real life soap opera.”  (Actually, I cleaned up the language; what he really said was a bit more, shall we say, pointed, but it did accurately reflect his frustration.)  He sent the text to his mother instead of the friend.  “Many people would love to hear from their mothers, even if they are psychos,” she texted back.  “Bet you’ll miss me when I’m dead.  There’s no texting from heaven.”  I marveled at the way she assumed she’d be in heaven.

After years of narcissism and self-absorption, Americans have finally elected a president who mirrors their own rampant, exaggerated self-importance.  Here’s a guy who won the election and still is not happy.  He would have won the popular vote as well if three million or so people had not voted illegally.  Evidence, shmevidence!  His hands are not small, he tells us.  His crowds are huge, he is so popular, he is so successful.  He is, simply, the bigly best, big time!  He is omnipotent when most men his age are much less than that.

But wait, there’s more.

His children are beautiful—he would date his own daughter if he could; she’s that beautiful.  His children are his Greek chorus of approval, his permanent entourage of affirmation.  But the cracks are showing:  he’s never done one thing that wasn’t in his best interest, and now, as the dear leader, his orange glow is fading and his weird comb-over is thinning.  The work of governing is hard and relentless and discouraging.  It’s not easy signing all those executive orders to transform himself from elected leader to fascist dictator.  For every step forward, someone is there to say “but the scientific data indicates global warming is real, Mr. President.”  Or, “farmers in central California rely on migrant undocumented workers to bring the fruit and vegetables in from the field to feed the nation.  Please don’t send them all home.”  People who protest make a king simply want to pull out his limited amount of hair, like the great leader’s first wife said he did to her during a dust-up.  Barack Obama surely knew how frustrating extremists can be as he battled his intransigent pals in Congress.  Not to be outflanked, Trump does what every dictator does:  he is trying to ram his new world order down the throats of the people.  He is signing executive orders as fast as they can be typed up:  border walls, health care repeals, muzzles for the EPA and the USDA, immigrants out.  He’s signing so fast, he literally throws the pens at people as he finishes his scrawl at the bottom.  “Donald Trump!  Donald Trump!”

But Trump’s presidential selfies have been photo bombed.  Don’t look now, Donald, but looming there in the gloom and doom behind you are people who are rediscovering that there is something bigger than themselves.  They will challenge your authority, as they did last Saturday around the world.  The limited benefits of a Trump presidency are already in effect:  the rise of journalism, and insistence on truth, the fact-checking of “alternative facts,” or lies as they used to be called in less Orwellian times.  More and more people are joining the resistance—they even hung a banner outside the White House on a crane that said, in huge letters, “RESIST.”  It’s a big world and even in our self-absorption, we are in it and interconnected with it.  The giant is woke.  We need to stop with the selfies, get back to a unified US, all in caps, and we need to do it before we get blindsided while staring at our own, self-proclaimed, exceptional beauty.  Turn the cameras outward and document.  Protest.  And PAY ATTENTION!!!

Photo courtesy of Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Nuclear Winter of Our Discontent

Like Many Americans, I watched Donald Trump’s speech at CIA headquarters on Saturday with fear and trepidation.  Then I went and printed out a transcript and that is when the true horror of his remarks began to sink in.

Mike Pence got things off to a good start by characterizing himself and his family as humbled to be in the office of vice-president.  I am definitely no supporter of Pence’s views on women and reproductive rights as well as a host of other positions, but at least he was gracious and humble in front of the people his boss has been denigrating and insulting for the last several weeks.  Pence used the word humbled again when speaking of himself standing in front of that “hallowed wall” at Langley where those 117 people are commemorated who gave their lives in service to the country.  His remarks seemed scripted, and he remained on script.  He kept the evil under wraps.  Then Trump took over.

He began almost immediately berating the media, although he said “They treated me nicely on that speech yesterday.”  I could not follow this.  Was the press disrespectful up to that point in the ceremonies?  How exactly did they treat him nicely on the speech?  The words simply seemed like a way to give himself a complement:  they treated him nicely, so he must have made a great speech.

Back to the people in front of him, he pulled a classic Julius Caesar note:  he spoke of himself in third person.  Freud would call this an over-abundance of ego.  Non-sequitur again back to the wall of CIA martyrs, which he said was “very, very special.”  His favorite descriptor of anything is “very.”  “Very great, very bad, very sad.”  In the next sentence, he said “We’ve been touring for quite a while, and I’ll tell you what—29?  I can’t believe it.”  At that point, someone in the audience corrected him:  “28.”  What were they talking about?  “We’ve been touring for quite a while…”  Is he part of a rock band?  “Oh, 28.  We got to reduce it.  That’s amazing.  And we really appreciate what you’ve done in terms of showing us something very special.”  What was special?  Who did the showing?

Trump specializes in the sweeping generalization, often inaccurate, exaggerated, or just an outright lie.  He claimed the military and law enforcement gave him “tremendous percentages of votes.”  That may be true, but why is that important now that he is president.  He leaped to the conclusion that everyone in the audience probably voted for him, but he would not ask them to raise their hands.  Of that, I am surprised.

There was language throughout this speech, when it was not nonsensical, that was scary.  When speaking of “wars” that have gone on “for longer than any wars we’ve ever fought,” which I took to mean Iraq and Afghanistan, he said “We have not used the real abilities that we have.  We’ve been restrained.”  Putting that together with reports that he asked about the possibility of using nuclear weapons in his security briefings before he was president, I have to wonder what those “real abilities” and restraints are.  Does he plan to use nuclear weapons to attack ISIS?  He then talked about understanding “the other side.”  What “other side?”  “There can be wars…You can understand what happened.”  Was he trying to draw a line between conventional wars with another country, such as Germany in the Second World War as opposed to ISIS now?  I would argue it is still difficult to understand the evil of Hitler and the Nazis.  It is also difficult to comprehend the level of murder and mayhem when it comes to 13 million men, women and children.

Trump swerved away from that topic and discussed his hiring process since the election.  “We had a great transition.”  Evidently, there is a rubric for this?  Reince Priebus put these people in front of Trump and the president argued that “they don’t care about Reince.”  Who is they?  However, Trump immediately went back to his line:  “we had such a tremendous, tremendous success.”  Trump’s vocabulary needs some new words.  He also needs help with grammar.  “So when I’m interviewing all of these candidates that Reince and his whole group is putting in front, it went very, very quickly…”  Simple subject-verb agreement.  I know George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush never met a sentence they couldn’t mangle, but is it too much to ask that the President of the United States be articulate?

Trump finally landed on Mike Pompeo, the guy he’s nominated to head the CIA, who was, of course, another great guy.  But someone, it seems, is playing “political games” with Trump.  Pompeo was supposed to be confirmed already.  Trump singled out the generals as passing muster, but “All my political people, they’re not doing so well.”  What or whom he was specifically speaking of here was not clear.  But the mention of generals got him started on another tangent.

It seems Trump does not get enough credit for being an academic genius even though he had some uncle who was a “great professor” at MIT for 35 years.  “Trust me,” he said, “I’m like a smart person.”  Of course, he is a person “that very strongly believes in academics.”  Zigzagging back to Pompeo, Trump said of him that he was “essentially number one at Harvard Law School.”  One is either number one in the class or not.  What would “essentially” being number one mean?  But Trump, in all his vast experience with the military, something he dodged all his life, claimed that these generals “are wonderful, and the fighting is wonderful.”  The fighting, when directed properly, is “easier.  And, boy, do we lose so fewer lives, and win so quickly.”  I am sure the ease of a well-directed war came as a shock to those military and CIA veterans present in that hallowed space.

Trump segued into feeling young.  He only feels “30, 35, 39.”  He gave speeches in front of tens of thousands of people, he says, so he must be young.  But not only is he young; “I think we’re all sort of young,” he told the audience.  Then we got the tired campaign line about how America never wins anymore.  And this brought us again to more dangerous verbiage.  “The old expression, ‘to the victor belongs the spoils’—you remember,” he asked the crowd.  “I always used to say, keep the oil.”  Trump did not support the war in Iraq, but once we were in, he thought we should keep the oil.  “So we should have kept the oil,” he said.  “Maybe you’ll have another chance…”  Another chance, like another invasion?  Again, is he talking about military action in the Middle East?

Of course, Trump has been building to a final song and dance and it is a familiar one:  the dishonesty of the media.  He complained his crowd size was underestimated.  The press had played down his viewers, his acolytes, his throngs of people waiting for him to take the reins of the country and, wait for it:  “Make America great again!”  But rest assured, before America can be great, the media must be vanquished.  He claimed “we” caught them in a lie, and “they’re going to pay a big price.”  Threatening the press for doing its job?  So much for democracy at its finest.

With North Korea announcing that they are in the “final stage” of perfecting a nuclear weapon that can reach the west coast of America, doesn’t he have more important things to worry about than crowd size?  Seriously, with a weapon of that reach, North Korea could hit all the major cities on the west coast, including San Diego where the Pacific fleet is based and Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country.  He could hit Hawaii and Pearl Harbor, yet again.

As I sat and watched the Inauguration and the marches across the country the day after, I could not help thinking that we need someone with focus and brains to navigate this world right now, not some amateur anti-intellectual misogynist.  God help us.