Monthly Archives: November 2014

“Living at the End of Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.

Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)

At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.

All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.

Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.

The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.

The public hearing from hell – a rant

Trigger warning – grouchiness ahead!

Last week I saw a notice about a public hearing on the development of a “plan” to manage a particularly serious disease in my state. Without worrying about which disease or even which state I’m talking about, I want to describe what was wrong with today’s public hearing.

A ninety-minute meeting to garner 18 minutes of public input is BAD.

The schedule of the event was completely backwards. If you want to hear from the public, then members of the public need to be treated like honored guests, and above all, their time must not be wasted. Repeat – the public’s time must not be wasted. So… don’t talk at me!

The citizen willing to speak at a public hearing is rare. Rare and fragile. I know this from personal experience on both sides of the podium. Most people would rather go to the dentist, say, than testify in public, even before a group that works hard to solicit their input. As a public health official, I once recruited a man with a contaminated well to go with me to the state capital (two hours away) to discuss water pollution. We drove together. But he could not, would not, did not, speak into a microphone in front of a room full of strangers.

I couldn’t blame him. A “hearing” sounds judicial. The physical setup was unintentionally confrontational – experts in business attire peering down at the speaker. “Insiders” tolerating the humble offerings of “outsiders”.

This afternoon, “the public” was sternly warned that each of us would be limited to three minutes, and only one person from an organization might speak, though all were encouraged to submit comments in writing.

The hearing was announced for 2:30 pm, and that is when I arrived. I signed in and was told I was the fourth person to register to speak. Fine.

Then I was told the hearing would start at three, to allow for latecomers. What?! This is not a notoriously unpunctual part of the world. This is a college. We do things more or less on time. The +/- is about five minutes. (Okay, nothing actually starts early, but neither is anything very late.) So there went half an hour of my precious time. I could have stayed where I was, at my desk.

Then the hearing convened. We were welcomed. A brief video was shown. Then we heard from an expert. She told us about the disease in question. She gave statistics and introduced some vocabulary. She said she wanted us to be in the “right frame of mind”. Why did she assume anything AT ALL about my “frame of mind”, much less that it needed correction?

Then we heard from six members of the state commission on said disease. They were mercifully brief, but there went another fifteen minutes.

The amount of background provided seemed to imply that the commission figured we were relatively ignorant.

By the time the first member of the public spoke, 75 minutes had elapsed from the announced starting time. The panel chose to respond to EACH SPEAKER. A judgement call. I don’t think it was a good decision in this case. A little clarification does no harm, but “response” can easily drift into “correction”, telling the speaker he or she didn’t get it right. That’s not the point. The commission said they had come to LISTEN, and that’s what they should have done. If an error or misperception was really important, they would easily be able to contact the speaker about it later on.

Around 4 pm, I rose and spoke. I was asked one quick question. Wanting to leave but also wanting to show respect for the other speakers, I sat back down.

There were only two more speakers for a total of six. SIX! The hearing need not have lasted more than half an hour. Each guest could have been allowed five minutes! Presentations by experts and commission members could have been offered afterwards for those who wished to stay. Or, better yet, the most interested and motivated participants (on both sides of the process) could have sat down together for a REAL CONVERSATION. We could have gone to the coffee shop together.

This well intended commission will be holding more meetings at other locations. I hope they change their format. Getting public input is difficult, but worthwhile.

“Peace, They Say – A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World” by Jay Nordlinger, in honor of Veteran’s Day

Initially, this book seemed weak, as the author cited other people’s writings so extensively. Gradually, I realized the book was more about peace that about “the Peace Prize”.

What is peace? What is a “good” or “necessary” war? How is peace related to pacifism, and militarism, which Alfred Nobel disliked? What did Nobel mean by “militarism”? Why are pacifists so skeptical about defensive weapons? Is all peace good? Is there such a thing as a “bad peace”?

Nordlinger quotes (whom?): “There is no dispute so small it can’t be used as an excuse to go to war. There is no dispute so large it cannot be mediated if that is what the parties want.” Nordlinger doesn’t explicitly discuss the situation when one party wants war and the other doesn’t.

Consider the end of apartheid. It could have been a bloodbath… Privilege is never surrendered without struggle, but South Africa made the transition to majority rule without warfare. See my review of Playing the Enemy (October 16, 2013) for one view of this amazing transition and the role played by 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Did FW de Klerk, co-winner in 1993, also deserve the prize? Mandela did not think so.

What is the role of the nation/state? Nordlinger criticizes the United Nations, which Nobel considered the world’s greatest hope for peace.

What is the role of the NGO (nongovernmental organization)? (Should Haiti, the “republic of NGOs” be considered a nation at war, or something else? Some call it a “failed state”, not a clearly defined category.)

Published in 2012, this book missed the most appealing Peace Prize winner of all, seventeen year old Malala Yousafzai who was shot in 2012 by Islamic extremists. She is the only citizen of Pakistan to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

This book is so good that I feel I should read it right through again, and take time to investigate and ponder the history that runs through it. It would serve as the backbone for an excellent college course.

(I originally read this book in 2012, just after its publication, and offer my comments here in honor of Veteran’s Day.)

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

Full disclosure: I read about a quarter of this book. If you read my last post (also dated November 11) about “trigger warnings”, this will make sense.

What about “triggers” embedded in fiction? One criterion of good fiction is that we react to it “as if” if was real. I had trouble with this currently popular book. The second chapter recounts a bombing in a museum, followed by pages of agonizing description as the young protagonist awakens in a daze, watches a stranger die horribly, and wanders alone through the unstable building, terrified that he will find his mother among the dead.

I kept waiting for the next paragraph to say “And then I passed out and woke up in a hospital” or “Then a fireman led me to an ambulance” but the nightmare just went on and on. I started skipping from paragraph to paragraph, looking for relief. When my stomach started to hurt, I stopped reading. I was “triggered” by this description of waiting for help that did not come. Did Ms. Tartt owe me a warning? No… Maybe I should have read the Amazon reviews more carefully. Did she intend or expect me to close the book and walk away?

What next? I skipped a chapter and tried again. I still couldn’t deal with the book. Jumping to near the end, I read a chapter that gave a very, very detailed account of a suicide attempt. This author does not let the reader “off the hook” about anything. Her point seems to be that life is suffering. I may, in the future, decide to read The Goldfinch in full. Would Ms. Tartt be surprised to find herself in the company of Stephen King? I won’t read some of his books either.

I could add a list of fiction that caused me too much anxiety to read. Probably half a dozen books over many years. If you feel like sharing about a book that pushed your buttons, please leave a comment below.

“Trigger warning” – what does this mean?

A few months ago, I encountered a new expression, “trigger warning”. It came up in an academic setting (which is where I spend I good deal of my time) and pertained to a course or possibly to a lecture, discussion or textbook in a course. A “trigger warning” tells the student that a planned activity will include “sensitive” material, material that may be upsetting. It’s like the messages on web sites or TV programs – “contains graphic material, viewer discretion advised”.

If memory serves me correctly, I think the “trigger” in question was pregnancy loss, miscarriage. Yes, there could be, in any classroom, a woman who has suffered this misfortune and finds discussion of it to be very painful.

So what does this mean in the classroom? Is the student at liberty to skip the lecture or reading? Should the student warn the teacher? “Hey, I may fall apart if we discuss this topic.” Certainly communication between the student and teacher would be a good idea. To what extent must the teacher accommodate?

An obvious example of a trigger would be war scenarios. There are veterans in our classrooms, some undoubtedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. War related topics are likely to cause them great anxiety. Worst case, a student might suffer a flash back or uncontrollable physical symptoms like hyperventilation. A teacher planning a course on, say, the American Civil War, needs to think ahead about this.

I encountered a trigger situation in college many years ago, going to see the play “Sargeant Musgrave’s Dance” with a man recently returned from combat in Vietnam. In the course of the drama, an actor pointed a Gatling gun at the audience. Afterwards, my friend offered the opinion that it had been incredibly stupid to do that, because someone might have flipped out, lost it or even pulled out a weapon.

But colleges offer many courses that can be distressing – courses on genocide, the holocaust, cancer, death and dying, slavery… Can a teacher determine in advance who is going to be “sensitive” to what? Should books be labeled for possible “trigger” content?

Education can’t be conducted in a way that makes NO ONE uncomfortable. Students need to discuss disquieting topics like race and violence. This proves to me that what we ask of classroom teachers is a great deal more complicated that appears at first glance.

What about triggers embedded in fiction? Stay tuned for my next post. And please post a comment to let me know what you think about “triggers” and “trigger warnings”!

“The Flight of Gemma Hardy – A Novel” by Margot Livesey

This book is a recasting of Jane Eyre to Post World War II Scotland, with a digression to Iceland.

“Fan fiction”, I suppose, but done with respect. And energy! One reviewer called it a “captivating homage”.

I liked the characters even more than the setting. The “romance” was vaguely unsatisfying, as if the author couldn’t decide where to “light”, in the past with Jane Eyre or in the present… The 50s and 60s aren’t so easy to handle.

To some extent, shades of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Great beach reading!

(I originally wrote this when I read the book, in October of 2012. I am posting it because a friend recently encountered the author at a book signing.)

“The Summer House – a Trilogy” by Alice Thomas Ellis

I used to hang out with a group of radical feminists. For years, one of them read only books by and about women. In fact, she only talked about women. If the conversation drifted to a man/men/men’s actions, she remained silent. ALL her energy and attention was directed towards women.

The Summerhouse would have been just the book for my friend. It’s labeled “a trilogy”, but it does not consist of three stories in sequence. It’s the same story told three times, from the viewpoint of three different women of three different ages. Maiden, mother and crone, if you want to get psychological about it.

The Summer House was originally published in 1987, and the setting is a suburb of London, where nineteen year old Margaret is sleepwalking towards her wedding. Her betrothed is the son of a neighbor, and he is more than twice Margaret’s age. Something is seriously wrong with Margaret. (Something is wrong with everyone in this book – goodness, they are human…) At the climax of the book, on the appointed day, the wedding is cancelled. To me, the end of the first book was a very satisfying surprise. This first tale could stand nicely on its own, a short novel.

The next two versions of the story provide two additional perspectives and lots of juicy details.

Okay, it’s about a wedding, right? SO there had to be some men around? Yes, but they are very lightly sketched. Most visible was the intended bridegroom, who is not, apparently, disturbed by the fact that he barely knows Margaret. He assumes that under her very quiet exterior, she burns with passion (for him).

The other two women whose voices we hear are the bridegroom’s aged and unhappy mother (Mrs. Monro), and a friend of Margaret’s mother (Lili) who shows up for the wedding, having lived overseas most of her life. Lili is disruptive, unconventional and opportunistic, sort of a modern Sally Bowles. She recognizes that the impending marriage is wrong (doomed, damaging…) and throws a wrench into the works.

I can imagine this book being avidly discussed by book discussion groups (a mostly female activity by my observation)! For starters, who identifies with which narrator? Many moral issues are raised, sometimes by the behavior of men. Who was guilty, and of what? Who felt guilty?

I’m profoundly glad the publisher did not add “discussion questions” to the book! This is an unwelcome, recent intrusion (that I have encountered several times recently) and I hope it does not catch on.