I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
1. Poets love the metaphoric possibilities of flowing water. In his book Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems, John Felstiner writes of a keen attention to water’s “motion and stillness,” its “changing constancy” in the work of poets like Coleridge, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, A.R. Ammons. And in Robert Frost, who in the poem “West-Running Brook” writes of how the brook of the title is “Flung backward on itself in one white wave,” a wave that “runs counter to itself,” resisting its own forward motion. “It is from that in water we were from,” Frost continues, “Long, long before we were from any creature.” The earliest river I recall is a muddy branch of the East Fork of the White River, winding through the rural southern Indiana county where I grew up. My friends and I would bike to a rusted iron grate bridge over that branch, the Honeytown Bridge, which rose like some ancient beast from a sea of lowland cornfields. I recall the thrill of aligning my bike tires in the narrow grooves between wider, splintery planks that were there for the tires of cars — flashes of brown water below, a quivering railing on either side. I drove to find that bridge recently and was sorry to see it replaced by a bland, bleached concrete thing with a flimsy metal guardrail — like one on any roadway, over any river, anywhere. All around it, still those same cornfields. Nothing but corn anywhere you looked. Barely begun sprouts of it on that first day of June — there’d been lots of rain, and farmers were late getting it planted, my father said. These are the fields that I learned, growing up, to call the bottoms. Bottom of the sloping hills, bottom of the agricultural ladder, land that always floods. Fertile land, but volatile, as likely to be underwater as not, less accessible to the big machinery of big farming. Even a forgotten little river like the White River has its potency. Yet I don’t recall the quiet farmers I knew as a child reaching for ways to describe the river’s power, ascribing human qualities to this sometime foe, this routine flooder of their bottom land. That I’ve found, instead, in the work of poets, like the farmer-poet Robert Frost. In an early poem called “A Brook in the City” (about an urban stream he calls “an immortal force/ No longer needed”), Frost describes this brook as “Staunch[ed] . . . at its source/ With cinder loads dumped down . . . And all for nothing it had ever done/ Except forget to go in fear.” I love Frost, but I don’t know what to do with another poem of his, a troublesome one, “The Gift Outright.” I’m not sure anyone does, now. And maybe we could ignore it, if it weren’t for the story—trotted out every four years, at the time of every American presidential inauguration — of his choosing to recite it from memory at John Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, rather than read the new poem he’d composed for the occasion. The wind was ruffling the pages; the sun was in his eyes — so instead of reading his new poem, with his white hair blowing, he intoned this poem that I am unable to interpret as anything but a praise-song for the American notion of manifest destiny: The land was ours before we were the land’s. She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people. . . . And in lines near the poem’s end: Such as we were we gave ourselves outright (The deed of gift was many deeds of war) To the land vaguely realizing westward. Maybe I could forget about “The Gift Outright” — if it weren’t for that regularly retold story of Kennedy’s inauguration, and if it weren’t for the fact that it’s such a powerful poem, such a clear and potent statement of our longed-for, tormented, permanently ingrained notion of ourselves as Americans, our sense of ourselves as rugged and trailblazing, bursting free from Europe, always edging vaguely westward. Never mind who, or what, else was already here. The poem was first published in 1942; Frost recited it, in his old age, in tribute to a “next Augustan age” — youth, revival, exploration, expansion — ushered in by the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. It’s interesting to watch other poets and critics — all admirers of Frost — struggling to make their admiration fit with this poem’s obvious themes (we possessed it before we even got here somehow) and obvious oversights (it belonged to no one else but us). In his chapter in Homage to Robert Frost, Derek Walcott dispenses with “The Gift Outright” early (“No slavery, no colonization of Native Americans, a process of dispossession and then possession, but nothing about the dispossession of others that this destiny demanded”) before devoting his attention to other poems. Similarly, after acknowledging the poem’s connection with the troubling notion of manifest destiny in the introduction to Can Poetry Save the Earth?, John Felstiner never mentions “The Gift Outright” again. Responding to this poem, a student of mine, a big fan of Frost, insists the poet must have been making heavy use of irony in the poem. It’s hard, I think, for anyone under 30 (maybe even under 40), to imagine the decidedly un-ironic earnestness of the early 1960s. Yet even now, in our more ironic, more knowing, more environmentally conscious twenty-first century, how willing are we to question our right to claim ownership of a piece of land (along a river maybe) — and to do with it what we will? 2. Why would anyone choose to live on a flood plain anyway? The first time I recall hearing someone ask this question I was living in New York and working for a textbook publisher. The woman who asked it, a coworker of mine, was trying to express her bewilderment — and irritation — over the fate of residents of the Midwest who’d lost their homes to flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the early 1990s. This woman was not, as they say, an unintelligent woman. And this was not the first, nor the last, time I would hear someone express the view that where we live is simply a matter of choice. I’ve heard similar questions many times in the last twenty years. Why would anyone choose to live in the path of hurricanes? Or tornadoes? Alongside an earthquake-inducing fault line? Near a bunch of inadequate levees? Why wouldn’t they just leave? I did leave the Midwest, in my early twenties. I was someone with the freedom to do so — educated, employable at a time when there was more employment to be had, with help from my parents toward the deposit on my first apartment, in Queens. Looking back, I can see the story that drove me eastward: New York, I thought, was where any Midwesterner who dreamed of being a writer had to go. Maybe all lovers of poetry let myths and stories drive their life choices. Ten years later I left New York in search of a patch of green, the open air, a house: another deeply etched American myth. That time, vaguely realizing westward, I landed in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, where two rivers, the Delaware and the Lehigh, converge. The Lehigh and the Delaware are big boys in the world of rivers — old-time, big-time players, power sources for industry. Or they were. Bethlehem Steel is gone now; near one of its still-standing stacks along the Lehigh River, there is a new casino. According to the Emmaus, Pennsylvania-based Wildlands Conservancy, the 100 mile-long Lehigh River and many of its tributaries are included on the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s list of Impaired Waters. The two biggest threats to these waters are abandoned mine drainage to the north and run-off of sediment, fertilizer, pesticides, trash, and other materials in the Lehigh Valley itself. The Delaware River is one of the only free-flowing rivers in the eastern United States. It runs for nearly 390 miles, beginning in upstate New York, dividing the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and emptying into the Delaware Bay between Cape May, New Jersey and Cape Henlopen, Delaware. According to the environmental advocacy group Delaware Riverkeepers, the river’s watershed makes up only four-tenths of one percent of the continental U.S. land area, but supplies water to five percent of the nation's population. In 1978 nearly 73 miles of the Upper Delaware were designated as one of the original National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Thirty-seven miles of the Upper Delaware are now part of the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Driving east or west along Interstate 80, you’re likely to be stunned by the scenic views from the bridge over the Delaware, wondering if you’re dreaming (how can something this dramatic suddenly appear along an interstate connecting New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania?). This is the Delaware Water Gap — better seen from the Point of Gap Overlook on Route 611 in Pennsylvania — where erosion and glacial uplift formed the Pocono Plateau to the west and the Kittatiny Ridge to the east, with the Delaware River carving a perfect, sinuous S-curve between the two. According to the National Park Service, nearly five million people visit the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area each year. They come to camp, swim, boat, hike, fish, and hunt, or just to admire the landscape from River Road on the Pennsylvania side or Old Mine Road on the New Jersey side. With the aid of a lovely little book called Exploring Delaware Water Gap History, compiled by Susan A. Kopczynski and edited by William G. Dohe, you can take a self-guided driving tour, stopping to gaze on the sites of old resorts, colonial villages, waterfalls, an old copper mine shaft, and abundant — though not always immediately visible — old farmhouses, some of which date back to the eighteenth-century Dutch settlement of the area. Dutch, and then English, Scots-Irish, and German, settlers forced out native peoples, the Lenape and the Minsi, who had dwelled in the area since the retreat of the glaciers. Most of the old farmhouses are unoccupied now; some provide storage or offices for the National Park Service. Many of them, along with their fertile fields along the river, were seized in the years following the establishment of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in 1965, ten years after a devastating flood. Original plans for the national recreation area called for construction of a dam and a 250 billion-gallon reservoir on the Delaware River at Tocks Island, six miles upstream from the Delaware Water Gap. By the late 1960s, resistance to the dam’s construction would draw broader regional, and even national, attention. “Nix on Tocks” read popular signs and bumper stickers distributed by groups opposing the dam — clearly and deliberately linking the plans for Tocks Island with the federal government. Many people assume it was the August 1955 flood, which had killed nearly 100 people within the Delaware River Basin, that prompted the Army Corps of Engineers plan to build the Tocks Island dam. But according to Richard C. Albert, author of Damming the Delaware: The Rise and Fall of the Tocks Island Dam, by the time of that flood, a dam on the Delaware was already “largely unfinished business.” Though Pennsylvania and New Jersey had signed an anti-dam treaty nearly 200 years before (to keep the river open for lumber rafts), by the first half of the twentieth century, according to Albert, more than a dozen studies had examined the possibility of dams on the Delaware River for either hydropower or water supply. What the flood did precipitate was the involvement of the federal government, and an Army Corps of Engineers comprehensive planning effort that began in 1956 and, by 1961, had called for eleven dams in the Delaware River Basin. The formation of the Delaware River Basin Commission, with representatives from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, followed in 1961, the establishment of the Delaware Water Gap Recreational Area in 1965. Resistance to the dam, and its ultimate defeat, are considered pivotal moments in the nascent American environmental movement. Opponents to the dam could point to many problems — issues with the bearing capacity of the site, for one — but the biggest problem, ultimately, was the ever-growing (and grossly underestimated) cost, at a time when the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam was draining federal resources. Environmental legislation passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s created further barriers, and in 1975 the Delaware River Basin Commission voted 3 to 1 against immediate construction of the dam (only my home state, Pennsylvania, voted in favor of construction; the federal government abstained). In 1978 the portion of the river where the reservoir would have been became part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system, and finally, in 1992, the project was deauthorized by Congress. That’s a story you can find on the National Park Service web site, though it takes a bit of searching. It’s a story that has not endeared the Park Service — the remaining public face of federal plans, more than forty years ago, to dam the Delaware River and create a giant reservoir — to residents of the Upper Delaware region, on either the Pennsylvania or New Jersey side. Of the reported five million annual visits to the park, most are made by people from farther away, many from New York and Philadelphia and their suburbs. Locals, in general, seem less interested. One man, whose family were among those who lost their homes in the run-up to the building of the dam and reservoir that were never actually built, voiced lingering resentment in a 2001 article in The Pocono Record. Thirty years after he and his family were evicted from their home north of Shawnee-on-the-Delaware, in Pennsylvania, he reported that he still got “hot under the collar” when he saw a Park Service uniform. He’d rather not hunt along the Delaware anymore, he said. That Pocono Record article was part of a series by Dave Pierce, who is also at work on a book about the Tocks Island Dam story. Albert’s Damming the Delaware, published in an updated second edition in 2005, is a definitive, and scrupulously detailed, account. But Pierce wants to recount the stories of the people who were evicted, as well as those of some of the strange bedfellows who successfully fought construction of the dam. Among these were local farmers and “housewives” (in the language of the time), but also “hippie squatters” from New York City and elsewhere who moved into abandoned properties on both sides of the river. These squatters arrived after the Army Corps of Engineers, in need of income to support the faltering project, sought renters for the properties in publications like New York’s Village Voice. Even Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas joined a much-publicized 1967 hike to Sunfish Pond in New Jersey — a hike designed to draw attention to the forty-acre glacial pond atop the Kittatiny Mountain that would have been destroyed by the original plans for the dam. Meanwhile, there’s another regional story Pierce has been working on since around 2003. His investigations into real estate fraud and rampant foreclosures in Monroe County, Pennsylvania — particularly in newly developed communities along Interstates 80 and 380, around twenty miles west and north of the Delaware Water Gap — led to an award-winning series of articles, published in The Pocono Record in 2003 and 2004. Pierce reports that between the mid-1970s and today, the population of Monroe County, Pennsylvania, home of the Pocono Mountains, grew from 40,000 to 165,000. In April 2004, well before the mortgage crisis became an item of national interest in the U.S., New York Times writers Michael Moss and Andrew Jacobs reported that in the preceding decade, foreclosure proceedings were brought against 5,700 homes in Monroe County. That was one in five of all mortgaged homes. Pierce, Moss, Jacobs, Matt Birkbeck of the Lehigh Valley, PA Morning Call, and other reporters have all recounted the tales of unscrupulous developers and financiers who lured first-time home buyers — particularly middle-income minority buyers from New York City — to Monroe County with promises of green lawns, stunning views, and gated communities in the beautiful Pocono Mountains. All for less than half the price of a home in nearer suburbs in New York or New Jersey. Never mind that that unbelievably low price was probably inflated a good twenty-five percent over the home’s actual market value. And that its buyer was, often, rushed into a decision on a one-day visit from New York, and also, possibly, pressured to “bump up” his or her income or conceal a bad credit record. These stories don’t really end — sagas of miserable commutes (I-80 runs directly from New York City to Monroe County, but the Poconos are 100 miles away, and the long-promised rail system shows no sign of materializing); of higher than promised property taxes and hidden fees; of shoddily constructed houses and improperly documented lots; of overcrowded schools and children who are home alone for hours while their parents are at work in New York; of racial tensions in a county that has undergone a demographic sea change in the last twenty years; and ultimately, in many cases, of painful losses of homes, foreclosures, evictions. One Pocono-area builder, Gene Percudani, launched an advertising campaign in New York that rings with hollow irony now. “Why Rent?” asked his billboards and television ads, which counterposed a gang- and gun-infested New York City with bucolic green lawns and sparkling new homes in the Poconos. “Our goal is homeownership for you and your family. Every American wants it; every American deserves it.” One of several problems with Percudani’s promises: He was both the builder and the loan broker for his homes. He also hired the appraiser who assessed his homes’ values. These were things that the mortgage unit of Chase Manhattan — the bank Percudani worked with — somehow overlooked. 3. The land was ours before we were the land’s . . . . We can try to keep realizing westward, but unfortunately, some things are simply finite. Would that the ownership of property — of land, of moving water — were as simple as what Gene Percudani’s “Why Rent?” ads or political rhetoric about home ownership imply. But, as legal scholar Eric Freyfogle writes in The Land We Share: Private Property and the Common Good, private land is understood differently in the realms of law and culture than it is in the “real world of nature”: “Nature is an interconnected whole, one parcel fully linked with the next. Even a seemingly slight action on one tract of land can trigger far-spreading ecological ripples.” One land owner’s use of land — agricultural, industrial, recreational — inevitably affects another land owner’s comfort, pleasure, possibility of profit. A new struggle over land and water in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area emerged in 2010, when Pennsylvania Power and Light Electric Utilities and New Jersey Public Service Electric both received state approval (pending environmental permits) to begin building a 500-kilovolt power line through the park. The 100-mile, two-state line would span the river and would require the erection of 200-foot-high towers in the middle of the park. Besides marring the landscape, opponents contend that construction of the line could contaminate groundwater. To the south, at the other end of the river, a coalition of environmental organizations battled Army Corps of Engineers plans to deepen the Delaware River’s main navigation channel from a depth of 40 feet to 45 feet — a plan that the Delaware Riverkeepers contend threatens the drinking water of residents of Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, as well as marsh and wetland habitats of many fish and birds. And in June 2010, the Upper Delaware River was #1 on the list of "America’s Most Endangered Rivers," compiled each year by American Rivers, a conservation organization founded in 1973. The greatest threat to the Upper Delaware, according to the American Rivers web site, was the location of both the river and its watershed over the geological formation known as the Marcellus Shale. Writer Sandra Steingraber (author of Living Downstream), filmmaker Josh Fox (maker of Gasland), and others have argued that the process of extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale (hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”) poses immeasurable environmental threats to groundwater. Multinational energy corporations have already acquired drilling rights to tracts of land atop the extensive Marcellus Shale, which covers large portions of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. According to American Rivers, two companies alone, Chesapeake Appalachia and Statoil, plan to develop 13,500 to 17,000 gas wells in the Upper Delaware River region in the next twenty years. On this year’s list of Most Endangered Rivers, the Upper Delaware was replaced by the Susquehanna, which runs through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The greatest threat to the Susquehanna, according to the American Rivers web site, is natural gas extraction. At risk is clean drinking water. 4. Meanwhile, most of those evacuated farmhouses on both sides of the Upper Delaware River, the ones you can see on your driving tour through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, are languishing. The Parks Service does sponsor a leasing program, whereby farm fields in the Upper Delaware Valley are rented by farmers. This part of the program has been “very successful,” according to a Parks Service spokesperson; the leasing of historic structures on the park property has been less so. Though long-term leases of twenty to thirty years were once available, in recent years the program has shifted to competitive, three- to five-year leases. To inquire about a property, you have to first contact the Parks Service in writing. Once you’ve seen a property, if you’re interested in going further, you must submit a detailed proposal outlining your resources and your plans for the property. But as the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area General Information on Park Leasing Program guidelines specify, “None of the buildings are ready for immediate occupancy. Most will require extensive rehabilitation and high investments of time and money on your part — several hundred thousand dollars at the very least. Grants and government funds are not available.” Not surprisingly, few people get to the proposal-writing stage. “It’s sad,” a Parks Service employee I spoke with told me. “But we maintain the land, and preserve the land for future generations. . . . We do what we can with the funds and the personnel that we have.” The Parks Service has no funds for preserving historic buildings, she says. Their inheritance of these historic structures was, essentially, an accident. Twenty miles to the northwest, other, newer homes — foreclosed ones — also stand vacant, and beleaguered mortgage holders continue their endless battles with developers (like the giant Toll Brothers Developers, recently known, in the Poconos, as Toll and Big Ridge Developers), who simply form new companies or change their names and move on. In 1999, Al Wilson, a one-time deputy sheriff in Green County, Alabama and then an employee of the New York City Mayor’s Office and the Board of Education, bought a home in Tunkhannock Township, Pennsylvania, for $195,000. After reading a series of articles by Matt Birkbeck, then at the Pocono Record, reporting on allegations of inflated appraisals and other questionable real estate practices, he sought an independent appraisal and learned that his home was actually worth $145,000 to $150,000. Two years later, embroiled in his own tangled legal struggles, Wilson helped found the Pocono Homeowners Defense Association. The group organized rallies in front of the Monroe County Courthouse in Stroudsburg, the Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg, and F.B.I. headquarters in Washington. Quoted in Moss and Jacobs’ April 2004 New York Times article, Wilson summed up the situation neatly: “It’s like the Wild West out here.” Not, presumably, the wide-open west Frost envisioned in “The Gift Outright.” 5. “Cut the bank for the fill,” begins William Carlos Williams’ “The Defective Record,” a poem from the 1930s. “Dump sand / pumped out of the river / into the old swale.” “Level it down,” the poem continues at its end, . . . to build a house on to build a house on to build a house on to build a house on to build a house on to . . . I’ve tried to track down the origin of “homeownership” as a single word. I believe it must be as recent as 1994, when President Bill Clinton directed HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros to launch a National Homeownership Strategy, with the goal of finding creative measures to increase the national homeownership rate. Clinton went on to declare June 5, 1995 as National Homeownership Day. Not to be outdone, President George W. Bush declared June 2002 National Homeownership Month. Later that year, addressing the White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership at George Washington University, Bush said, “All of us here in America should believe, and I think we do, that we should be, as I mentioned, a nation of owners. Owning something is freedom, as far as I'm concerned. It's part of a free society.” He could have lifted that directly from a Gene Percudani “Why Rent?” ad. According to historian Thomas Sugrue, until the early twentieth century, holding a mortgage was a source of stigma: “You were a debtor, and chronic indebtedness was a problem to be avoided like too much drinking or gambling.” But in response to the Depression, federal housing programs — beginning with Herbert Hoover’s Federal Home Loan Bank in 1932 and continuing through Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) in 1938, and beyond — established a pattern of easy credit to boost rates of home ownership. With these programs rose what Sugrue calls “an army of banking, real-estate and construction lobbyists,” determined to protect their industries’ gains. By the latter half of the twentieth century, then, the idea of “homeownership” as a measure of American success and stability had become entrenched. Never mind that what most Americans owned were mortgages, made possible by federal programs. Still, Sugrue notes, tens of millions of American homeowners “had no reason to doubt that their home ownership was a result of their own virtue and hard work, their own grit and determination — not because they were the beneficiaries of one of the grandest government programs ever.” Every American wants it; every American deserves it. Do we really know what every American wants? What every American deserves? Some green space? Some safety? Abundant — and drinkable — water? Easy access to the places we want, or need, to be? And a gate around it all to keep out latecomers? Thomas Sugrue has pointed to another disturbing statistic from recent years: In 2006, the last “boom year” for American real estate, more than half of the tainted subprime loans went to African Americans — who make up only 13 percent of the population. 6. Drawing on the writings of Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry, Eric Freyfogle tries to frame a new way of understanding property, one no longer rooted in notions of boundless resources and manifest destiny. “The core of their message,” he writes, “is simple and direct: the time has come for America to put the pioneer urge behind, to craft ways of living that allow life to flourish in every neighborhood, consistent with the health of the whole.” Maybe even renters could share in such a vision. Another poet had a similar vision, back in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England, at the time of the Enclosure Act, with its passing of commonly held lands into the hands of private owners. In his poem “The Moors,” John Clare harkens back to his childhood days — before enclosure — in lines like these: Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene Nor fence of ownership crept in between To hide the prospect of the following eye— Its only bondage was the circling sky. What do we want? What do we deserve? When we mindlessly absorb more land “to build a house / on to build a / house on to build a house on/ to build a house / on,” in the language of Williams’ broken record; when we repeatedly fail to make comfortable, and safe, housing available to poor and working Americans, despite our National Homeownership Strategies and Societies and Days and Months; when we continue to put our water supplies at risk in our endless search for cheap and readily available fuels — what memories of “unbounded freedom,” of the “circling sky,” are we suppressing? Frost wondered as much, in “A Brook in the City,” which closes with these lines: No one would know except for ancient maps That such a brook ran water. But I wonder If from its being kept forever under, The thoughts may not have risen that so keep This new-built city from both work and sleep. Delaware Water Gap images credit: Jim Hauser
1. I grew up in a house with a framed picture of Che Guevara on the wall and occasional talk of Marx at the dinner table, so it took me longer than most to realize that I had spent all but two years of my life in a world where, for the most part, those names had lost their credibility if not significance. I spent my high school years, the time when romantic ideals flourish unencumbered, thinking I was a Marxist, a fact which certainly lends credence to the idea that mine is a generation with a good sense of all that is wrong with the world but few to no new ideas of what to do about it. The late Tony Judt certainly believed such a problem was widespread, not only in my generation but the world in general, and his Ill Fares the Land is a reflective account of how we got to our present state from a time when the problem was not how the world was going to change, but when. Judt’s book focuses on where we went wrong as much as what to do about it because the answers to the two reflect each other: when we forgot the benefits of social democracy, we turned toward a politics that emphasizes our worst traits as individuals precisely by accentuating our individuality; to get back on track, we must remember everything we gained from social democracy (an effective social safety net; remarkable drops in inequality) and return to its ideals. Judt outlines how many of the social policies that we take for granted today come from the early and mid 20th century’s great era of social democracy, and furthermore the ways that, once these policies became ingrained, the next generation began to focus on the costs rather than the benefits and so allowed them to be dismantled. Yet the public policy aspect of Judt’s book is wrapped around a broader theme: the exploration of how our individual desires can dominate and undermine our politics. One of Judt’s sharpest insights is how the increased privatization of industry that started occurring in the 1980’s coincided with people’s privatization: their retreat away from the public sphere into sequestered individuality. Our preoccupation with material well-being and financial growth and the flock of youth eschewing careers in public service in favor of business school are both indicative of an unrestrained individualism that Judt equates more than once with Hobbes’ nasty and brutish state of nature. Judt’s main concern, then, is with how we can establish community again, how we can bind together under a common concern, how we can learn to trust each other again. A final vestige of the greatness of community, a case study of what we can achieve collectively but not individually, is represented for Judt by railroads. Providing effective railroad service, or public transportation in general, requires that one serve the unprofitable small markets along with the profitable major commuter routes. Railroads, it seems, are the final test for modern society: If we cannot see the case for expending our collective resources on trains, it will not just be because we have all joined gated communities and no longer need anything but private cars to move around between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who do not know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the decline or demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life itself. 2. Alain de Botton, though, sees our society better reflected in our other prominent form of mass transportation. In fact, many of the societal ills that Judt comments on in his book come out explicitly in De Botton’s A Week at the Airport, written during the latter’s one week stint as writer in residence at Heathrow International Airport. The fear instilled in us every time we go through the metal detector, eyed suspiciously by airport security, puts into practice the fear-based politics that Judt derides; the luxurious lounges for first-class passengers imitate the gated communities into which the affluent retreat to ignore the morally dubious side effects of their status; the immense mall that greets passengers on the other side of security gratifies our excessive material desires; finally, all the machinery in the airport are magnificent examples of our technological prowess, if not our hubristic over-aspiration. So while Judt wants to see our society reflected in romantic train stations, de Botton actually finds it in the airport. He also is interested in individuality, or perhaps it is best to say that he is interested in individuals and all their prickly details (it is eerie to think that Alain de Botton may be looking through your discarded room service bin in the hotel hallway, or intently watching you bid farewell to your significant other at the airport). The individual stories that de Botton recounts, though, display deep human problems for which the airport is too often idealized as a means of escape. In one of the many somewhat discomforting portraits that de Botton provides, he tells us of traveler David’s carefully planned vacation to Greece: As David lifted a suitcase on to the conveyor belt, he came to an unexpected and troubling realization: that he was bringing himself with him on his holiday. Whatever the qualities of the Dimitra Residence, they were going to be critically undermined by the fact that he would be there in the villa as well. He had booked the trip in expectation of being able to enjoy his children, his wife, the Mediterranean, some spanakopita and the Attic skies, but it was evident that he would be forced to apprehend all of these through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety and wayward desire. David, estranged from his wife and kids due to his job, plans a vacation to reconnect with them. But of course the problem is too personal to be solved merely by a change in location. Later in the book, de Botton writes about the drivers hired to pick up passengers from the airport. For both, their interaction “would be counted a success if the other party proved not to be a murderer or a thief.” These basic human problems that de Botton highlights – the difficulty but necessity of living with or trusting in other humans – are again akin to those that Judt diagnoses in his book. But in de Botton’s portrayal, these are not problems with apparent solutions. Politics might be just another escape like the vacations we spend months planning. Community taken broadly – companionship – is certainly fundamental to human life. Perhaps, however, we use it not only as a way to complete ourselves but as form of respite. We escape into community when we are not satisfied with ourselves, a common enough state for which we maintain a close circle of family and loved ones (or try to at least). It is not as self-serving as it sounds, since we all benefit from it eventually. No one likes to lie in a hospital bed alone (even if it is for a small problem), or to arrive at an airport with no one there to welcome them, as de Botton writes about so eloquently, or even to spend a night at home alone. But all the same we cannot escape from ourselves, no matter how perfect the community. Certainly the common good can often be hijacked by “the fragmented individualism of our concerns,” as Judt writes, but the latter are just as much a part of our human nature as the need for community is. For better or worse, they won’t be eliminated easily. 3. Our self-actualization cannot necessarily be equated to our interaction with others, even if the two are certainly related. Few authors achieve greater insight into this gap between what we wish for our world and what we have, between our personal ideals and shared reality, than Alice Munro. In the title story of The Love of a Good Woman, Enid, a live-in nurse, is faced with the discovery that Rupert, the husband of the woman she is caring for, committed a brutal murder years earlier for which he was never caught. The knowledge eats at her. “If a person does something very bad, do they have to be punished,” she asks Rupert’s children. And if no one knows about it? “Should they tell that they did and be punished?” When we come together as a community there are rules with punishments suited to their transgression. For some thinkers, Hobbes for example, this is simply necessary as a deterrent, to keep us safe from ourselves. But for others it is actually an extension of our individual morality: “If you do something very bad and you are not punished you feel worse, and feel far worse, than if you are,” Enid explains to the children. She comes up with a plan to either force Rupert to confess and repent or to commit another crime in order to keep the secret. “You cannot live in the world with such a burden,” she tells herself. “You will not be able to stand your life.” But as she goes to set the plan in motion she wonders about the repercussions of forcing this man to face up to his crime, about the lives she would be altering, and the potential that lies in letting things slide: It was still before. Mr. Willens had still driven himself into Jutland Pond, on purpose or by accident. Everybody still believed that, and as far as Rupert was concerned Enid believed it, too. And as long as that was so, this room and this house and her life held a different possibility, an entirely different possibility from the one she had been living with (or glorying in – however you wanted to put it) for the last few days. The different possibility was coming closer to her, and all she needed to do was to keep quiet and let it come. Through her silence, what benefits could bloom. For others, and for herself. This was what most people knew. A simple thing that it had taken her so long to understand. This was how to keep the world habitable. Perhaps the gap between our individuality and our need for community is not a problem to be solved but a dilemma to be faced. It is not necessarily a simple matter of finding the proper form of public space to make us flourish. Inserting ourselves into a community always involves sacrifice, letting things slide in order to maintain that community at the expense perhaps of some of our personal desires or ideals. Like these communities, vacations rarely meet the fantasies of idyllic tranquility that we burden them with. But, as de Botton notes at the end of his book, we always forget the places we visited, the feelings we had there, and the books we read. We begin to long for escape again, to identify “happiness with elsewhere.” We inevitably go back and “learn the lessons of the airport all over again.” Although Judt emphasizes the need for dissent and self-criticism, and warns against fantasies of achieving the perfect state, his description of social democracy can still sometimes read like an idyllic answer to our present downturn. Perhaps, were we to act on Judt’s words, as he ends his book asking us to, we would only learn lessons all over again as well. But considering our lopsided position today in the seesaw between individual desires and collective responsibilities, it would certainly be better to at least start learning again.
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"My Best Friend, my doctor, won't even say what it is I've got."-Bob DylanI recently became aware of a trend, the Modern Medicine Lament, in which American writers struggle to make an uneasy peace with a system from which they feel alienated. And it begs the question: has it always been this way?Doctors have enjoyed a colorful depiction in books and letters over the years. Kafka's brilliant short story "A Country Doctor" is still read and taught frequently. Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago was a man of principle in any language, in any time. Chekhov was a trained physician. I should also mention my favorite doctor in literature, Dr. Livesey, from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Stevenson, you'll recall, sketched another doctor, Dr. Jekyll, whose enthusiasm for chemicals took him off the rails (if Jekyll lived in America today he would surely declaim in a basement recovery meeting about the social transgressions committed by his intoxicated self). Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, written almost 200 years ago, offers a remarkable foreshadowing of the moral and ethical challenges inherent to the practice of medicine, which has always had one ultimate goal: triumph over death. It is telling that we will in passing mistake the name of the title character for that of the monster.In 1885 Louis Pasteur, a Frenchman, first administered vaccine to a human, a child bitten by a rabid dog. The treatment was successful. It was not an insignificant moment in human history. Giant scientific leaps forward like Pasteur's continue to inject health and medicine into the lives of everyday people. Vaccines and antibiotics changed the world, though today their administration is practically mundane. In America, where good health has always been considered something of a birthright, we resent doctors. They are a necessary evil, a reminder of the basic infirmity of our bodies and the inevitability of their decline. Sure, Americans love watching fictional doctors treat fictional patients on television, but in reality aren't doctors society's consummate whipping boys? After all, that goal - sticking it to death - has never yet been achieved. Good news from a doctor cannot amount to more than "you will live for maybe a few more years, all things being equal." And anyway, Americans don't want to live forever, they simply want their life on earth to be pain-free, and believe it should be.Pills that govern the chemical workings of the brain are now at the forefront of our ever-advancing medical knowledge. They treat disorders like depression, schizophrenia, autism, addiction, panic, mania, and garden-variety anxiety. Neurochemistry remains the least understood field in medicine, but the sales figures of these drugs have exploded in the past twenty years. Pharmaceutical manufacturers employ direct advertising - and also work more quietly through doctors - to encourage the public to treat a psychological condition far enough from bliss as a disorder. Comparatively little attention is paid to the fresh array of stresses and overload of stimuli that burden the modern brain, and how these factors can capitalize on the ease of modern life, where we are at greater leisure to explore exactly how we feel, as opposed to wasting all of our energy on mere survival. Effexor, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac: ugly mash-ups, yes, but also household words. The drugs have brought relief to millions of people suffering from mental duress.But the rise of Psychotropic Nation has created a cultural preoccupation with pills here in the U.S., one that has in turn given rise to questions about the efficacy of our medical system (actually just one of many aspects of our system that provoke such questions). If you are writing a novel, say, and wish to introduce recreational drug use into the plot (you may want the characters to seem more subversive, irrational, hedonistic, or edgy), you might shy away from the ho-hum world of schedule 1 drugs: your pot, your cocaine and heroin - in favor of those that can be obtained with a doctor's note: pain pills, sedatives, amphetamines. The irony payoff is just too great, and writers love irony. The companies that make these drugs want you to want them, but as soon as you do, you probably should not have them. And maybe you, the writer (or the characters for that matter), don't have health insurance, or went through a period when you weren't covered - that just adds to the irony. Without insurance you're not seeing a doctor, making it a whole lot easier for you to go schedule 1 than to buy a bottle of valium. And, given the cost of such pills, cheaper too.Jonathan Franzen wrote extensively on this aspect of American life (see also Ben Kunkel's Indecision, in which psychopharmacology plays no small roll). In The Corrections the drug is called Aslan, and its effects are somewhere between Prozac and ecstasy. At least two Lamberts use the drug, Chip during an unfortunate weekend sex binge, and Enid, Chip's mother, whose little helper gets her rather strung out over a longer period. Franzen's treatment is made more complete as Gary, eldest of the Lambert kids (and hilariously aware of the ebb and flow of his own serotonin and dopamine levels) invests money in the drug company that makes Aslan. Meanwhile, the pill is pushed by a leonine doctor with a creepy, guru-like aspect. And, of course, the one individual who could really use a pick-me-up, the crushingly depressed father Alfred, gets none. Collective dysphoria has never been so amusing.Life imitates art, but it's no barrel of laughs. That said, the cover story of this month's Harper's, "Manufacturing Depression: A Journey into the Economy of Melancholy", by Gary Greenberg, does deliver the odd ironic chortle. Mr. Greenberg, a psychotherapist, is writing a book about the "misuses of medical diagnoses," and if his magazine piece is any indication, it may be worth reading. The piece opens with Mr. Greenberg cataloging the failures and dissatisfactions of his life to a kindly psychiatrist, Dr. George Papakostas, in order to see if he qualifies for an experimental drug study at the Depression Clinical and Research Program of Massachusetts General Hospital. And, after checking some boxes, the doctor delivers his diagnosis: Mr. Greenberg has Major Depression. Would he like to try Celexa, Lexapro, Mirapex, or omega-3 fish oil?"It was hard to believe that Papakostas really thought I had major depression," writes Mr. Greenberg. Mr. Greenberg does feel bad sometimes, inadequate, feckless, and yes, his hair is thinning. His life is not blissful. But what is made abundantly clear to him is that the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of Depression, codified in the psychiatrist-developed Structured Clinical Interview, are bunk. Your score on this questionnaire, determined by the doctor, is totally subjective, the questions laughably interpretive. Dr. Papakostas, looking for subjects for a drug study driven by new medicines from Forest Laboratories, Inc. and paid for by the federal government, is predisposed towards a diagnosis of Clinical Depression. That's really what someone looking to join such a study wants to hear, right? "'Are you content with the amount of happiness that you get doing things that you like..?'" It is a standardized question asked by the doctor at one of Mr. Greenberg's weekly follow-ups. "'I'm not big on contentment,' I said. Is anyone? I wondered. Is anyone ever convinced that his or her pursuit of happiness has reached its goal? And what would happen to the consumer economy if we began to believe that any amount of happiness is enough?"The uncomfortable intersection of the consumer economy and medicine is at the heart of an article by Bruce Stutz that appeared in the May 6 issue of the NY Times Magazine. Unlike Mr. Greenberg, who never believes that he is clinically depressed even as he dutifully takes his Mass General fish oil, Mr. Stutz begins from a different point of view: he, like millions of Americans, went through a period of debilitating depression for which he sought medical treatment. Talk therapy and a prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, Effexor, worked for him. Three years and a more positive outlook on life later, Mr. Stutz found himself shaking hands with his psychiatrist at the conclusion of his final session. But there was no mention of going off the drug."Somehow I couldn't believe I had to take this pill for the rest of my life," he writes. How many people taking such medication have had that thought? It's not just the side effects, the occasional bouts of impotence, the weight gain, the dulled sensory perceptions and emotions, and it's not just the monetary cost of the pills. It is also living with a stigmatizing reminder that one is sick and will never be well. But Mr. Stutz was well: he felt better; he was able to go one with his life. The stresses that had predicated his mental slide, the death of a parent, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job, were in the rearview. So he tapered his meds and hunkered down. Fierce withdrawal symptoms followed: mental torpor, physical discomfort, and the frightening "brain zaps," blinding, incapacitating insta-headaches. With the help of some experts in clinical biology, Mr. Stutz does an admirable job of elucidating the chemical processes that were at work in his brain, which was, without the help of the meds, running a serotonin deficit. What Mr. Stutz did not experience during that period was a return of his depression symptoms. And so he wonders, "does our long-term reliance on these drugs become more of a convenience than a cure?"Drug companies and doctors have about as much interest in helping people go off their psych meds as tobacco execs have in helping people quit cigarettes. Still, the medical industry is simply giving us what we want, a quick fix. What happens when the quick fix goes bad? The title of Ann Bauer's May 18 article on Salon.com, "Psych Meds Drove My Son Crazy", is inelegant but to the point. Her story is gripping, horrifying, and ultimately infuriating. Mrs. Bauer's eldest son was born with autism. At the age of 17 this highly functional kid living in Minnesota became depressed, and his mother took him to a psychiatrist who prescribed an anti-depressant, which, she was assured, would not only snap him out of his funk, but also help control some of his autism-related obsessive tendencies. Instead, his condition grew worse. Doctors at a "respected neuropsychology clinic" reevaluated Mrs. Bauer's son, now 30 pounds heavier and sleeping 16 hours a day, and changed the original diagnosis: in addition to his autism, her son was experiencing "'psychomotor slowing' - a form of schizophrenia." And so a different drug was prescribed, Abilify, which was new (and, Mrs. Bauer notes, had been marketed direct-to-consumer in Time and Newsweek). Still her son's condition worsened, "humming, shifting foot to foot, screaming if anyone touched him or tried to move him." He would dialogue with voices that Mrs. Bauer could not hear. She tapered him off the Abilify.Two days later he "got out of bed and stood in one place for a solid hour." When Mrs. Bauer placed a hand on him, he beat her up.Amazingly, the doctors managed to convince Mrs. Bauer to try yet another drug, a powerful anti-psychotic, Geodon. Her son took to living on the street after that. Only by conducting her own research, and getting a lucky referral to the Mayo Clinic from a retired doctor in Stony Brook, N.Y., an expert in a little known condition called autistic catatonia, did Mrs. Bauer find her son proper medical care. It took two years. Five days after checking him into Mayo, Mrs. Bauer read a front-page story in the NY Times "about psychiatrists in Minnesota who were collecting money from drug manufacturers for prescribing atypical antipsychotics, including Abilify and Geodon." The article cited some hefty payout numbers, and also some serious risk factors for the drugs. It did not mention a fact that the doctors at Mayo confirmed: administered to an individual suffering from autistic catatonia, which they determined was the root cause of her son's initial decline, neuroleptics like Abilify and Geodon only amplify the effects of the disorder, and they can cause permanent neurological damage.She doesn't say so, but I really hope Mrs. Bauer sued the pants off some folks. I would be interested to know.There will be more Modern Medicine Laments to come. We will read them, and we will also watch with interest TV shows like "The Sopranos", in which the writers have taken an increasingly critical line on the treatment of depression in America, and films like Michael Moore's upcoming documentary about the ills of the American health care system. We will see more legal settlements against drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharma (OxyContin) and Pfizer (Celebrex) for misrepresenting the effects of their products to the consumer public. And, of course, we will continue to pop pills. We are a nation of armchair doctors. Sometimes it seems like a prescription pad is the only thing separating us from the real thing.Update: The Libra in me desires balance. I do not want this post to seem an ad hoc dismissal of the medical profession as a whole. So I would steer folks to a book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, that had a profound impact on me when I read it. The book is about Dr. Paul Farmer, whose work battling T.B. while bringing basic medical care to corners of the world like Haiti and Peru where none existed before makes him something of a medical superhero. Kidder's profile of Dr. Farmer proves that modern medicine is still changing the world for the better.
At Slate, media critic Jack Shafer cuts through the effusive eulogizing of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (here at The Millions and elsewhere) to point out that it was "widely conceded that Kapuscinski routinely made up things in his books." As a trained journalist, I recognize and respect Shafer's insistence on this point (though the essay's incendiary headline might have been a step too far.) And as such, I'm happy to concede to Shafer's wish that we not use the same yardstick to compare Kapuscinski and contemporary foreign correspondents like Anthony Shadid who put their lives on the line to deliver reports on Iraq and other war-torn places.However, one shouldn't take Shafer's discomfort as a condemnation of Kapuscinski's work. I think it's telling that Shafer mentions Truman Capote and Joseph Mitchell, two masters of so-called narrative non-fiction, as others who "straddle the wall between fiction and nonfiction." And yet I'm glad to have read these writers' work. Even James Frey's now infamous memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was considered by many to be a great read, and had it not been for the Oprah factor and Frey's irritating arrogance, the reaction to the fabrications it contained would likely not have been as severe. To define these books as journalism (or memoir, or "truth") exclusively does a disservice to journalism - offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate - but to suggest that there isn't a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers. (Thanks to Brian for sending the Slate piece my way.)