Tag Archives: New Jersey

“A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind

388 pages plus epilogue, notes, bibliography and index. Published 1998

This book is subtitled “The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash”

One of the reviews quoted on this book’s cover says “Reads like a fine novel”. No way. I disagree. No novelist would come up with so much detail, and provide such extensive historical context. This is an exceptionally fine biography. It deserves the awards it won.

Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness that brings on delusions (often voices) and erratic, antisocial behavior. The old-fashioned term “madness” seems appropriate. Despite advances in psychiatry, it is still (in 2019) hard to diagnose, hard to treat and almost impossible to cure. One of Nash’s two sons also suffered from schizophrenia.

Nash was born in 1928 and diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1959. He was hospitalized several times, and it’s hard to tell if his treatment, which included insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy, saved his life or made him worse. Because Nasar delves into Nash’s mental state in great detail, this book is a valuable contribution to ongoing efforts to understand and destigmatize mental illness, as well as being a sad reminder of how much about the human mind remains frighteningly mysterious.

Another valuable aspect of this book is its discussion of America in the 1950s, a time of political paranoia, technological hubris and rapid changes in American social patterns. The “Red Scare” and nuclear arms race impacted Nash along with other academics.

What else? Nash was a mathematical genius, but received the Nobel Prize (1994) in Economic Sciences, for his work on game theory. Is economics a science? (And what is game theory, anyway?) The Nobel Prize in economics (a late addition to the categories of the Swedish Academy) was never looked upon with favor by the Nobel Foundation and most of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Nasar provides a detailed look at the controversy over giving the Prize to a man whose work had been done decades earlier, and who was presumed dead by many who admired his publications.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of this book, the role of Princeton University. What happened to John Nash after his academic life fell apart? The University, his wife Alicia and the Princeton community of mathematicians “supported’ him. His illness was so severe and his behavior so extreme that he might well have been institutionalized or ended up on the street. Alicia divorced him, then kept him in her house as a “boarder”. Princeton University allowed him to wander freely. He roamed the mathematics department, mostly at night, avoiding human contact and frightening staff members occasionally. Students referred to him as “the phantom”. He left strange long messages on blackboards. The University and the town of Princeton tolerated and protected him.

Then John Nash received the Nobel Prize and made as astonishing comeback. In mental health terms, it was either remission or cure. He was able to travel for the ceremonial acceptance of the Nobel Prize. Having learned some computer programming during the long hiatus in his career, he was able to resume work, though not as a creative mathematician. John and Alicia Nash remarried, and Nash made heroic effort to reconnect and reconcile with family and friends who had been driven away by his prior craziness and insensitivity.

Tragically, John and Alicia Nash died in car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2015.

Much of this book is based on interviews. Nasar talked to more than 100 people, including Nash himself and family members. It’s a documentary tour de force. Nasar dedicated the book to Alicia Nash, showing her profound respect and admiration.

I was curious about Sylvia Nasar. She published one other book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (2011). Born in 1947, she earned a BA in Literature from Antioch College and an MA in Economics from NYU. On her web page, she says

“…economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material fate in its own hands rather than in Fate.”

This is more positive than anything else I’ve read about economics! I want to learn more.

East coast climate change and sea level rise – Motts Creek NJ, Ocracoke NC and Chincoteague VA

I live 18 miles from the beach in NJ. I’ve kept an eye on sea level rise for a long time, having rented a home on Brigantine Island for two years (1976 to 1978) and lived here in the Pinelands coastal plain for forty years, since 1978. I would have evacuated once from Brigantine, but the storm came through when I was out of town. What I remember in the aftermath was the salt hay all over the streets and lawns, and a population explosion of crickets. My current residence is more than 40 feet above sea level.

What do I think is going to happen along the East Coast as sea level rises?

Let’s start with a very small community. You won’t find Motts Creek listed as a municipality in New Jersey. It’s a neighborhood Galloway Township. I’m sure most Galloway residents never heard of it. Two friends of mine lived there in the past, both in rentals. A single road juts out into the salt marsh, and leads to Motts Creek Inn. The Inn thrives on being accessible by boat. On my recent visit, in November, the Inn was open but very quiet. A septic pumping truck sat in the parking lot. We passed about two dozen homes on the way in. Some have been elevated on pilings, and others appear to have been abandoned after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I estimate the year round population to be less than 100. I believe new construction along Motts Creek Road stopped around 30 years ago, when NJ wetlands were protected. Motts Creek properties are desirable for their boat docks, fine view and bird watching potential and undesirable for mosquitos, flies and flooding. I believe the area is unsewered and served by septic tanks. What does the future hold? I assume federal flood insurance still protects property owners. It’s hard to imagine Galloway Township and New Jersey going to great lengths to protect Motts Creek. I expect it will be lost to sea level rise before too many decades pass.

Ocracoke is on my mind because I just returned from spending Thanksgiving week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the town of Nags Head in a rented beachfront property. Ocracoke is a barrier island south of Nags Head. It’s reachable only by (car) ferry. I found population figures of 948 in 2010 and 591 in 2014 (both from Wikipedia). Ocracoke is unincorporated, but the federal government grants it the status of a “census-designated place”. (I have no idea what this means.) It does suggest Ocracoke has a little more “official” status than Motts Creek. Ocracoke was first permanently settled in 1750, has had a varied economy (shipping, fishing, tourism) and was home to a distinct dialect (accent?) sometimes referred to as High Tider. My point? Ocracoke has a culture. Something substantive will be lost if it is abandoned. (This can be said of many places, up to and including New Orleans.)

On September 6 of this year, Ocracoke was savaged by Hurricane Dorian. The storm surge was 2.5 feet higher than any previous storm, and the water rose fast. Some residents had evacuated, and all those who remained managed to survive. I picked up a copy of the Ocracoke Observer when I was in Nags Head, wanting to see what the community had to say about itself, since I couldn’t go and visit it.

Ocracoke was CLOSED. That’s an advantage of recovery on an island! Officials can shut the door. The island reopened to the public on December 5. Some observations:

  • The concept of post-storm planning has been around for years, but it really hasn’t been implemented anywhere. So Ocracoke is making its recovery up as it goes along.
  • Ocracoke is re-building. This is a point of pride and determination. But how much of whose money should be invested in restoring a place that’s in the crosshairs? Should a house be rebuilt more than once?
  • How different can a place be before it’s a new place? How do we value a “community” with little or no year-round population? Is a house on Ocracoke a “home” or an “investment”?
  • Some people and businesses are doing better (8 weeks out) than they initially expected. Others are finding that the damage was far worse than they thought.
  • Why, in a community with low population, where everyone knows each other, was it necessary to impose a curfew and alcohol sales ban? Hmmm…
  • Ocracoke got lots of help from various efficient and hard working non-profit volunteers, and the community is grateful.
  • If Ocracoke had to depend on its “own” resources, I don’t think it would survive. With state and federal help, I expect it will.

Regardless of how Ocracoke moves ahead, the whole Outer Banks (and New Jersey’s barrier islands) need some rethinking. How long will we continue to build and rebuild upon sand? Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are CRAMMED with businesses and rental properties. To me, evacuation looks like a major challenge. Nice place to visit. I wouldn’t want to own there.

On to Chincoteague. Of the three areas discussed here, this is the one to which I feel most emotionally attached. Yes, I read Misty of Chincoteague as a child. I first visited in the 1970s, going back almost every year since, always in the off season, usually October or November.

We went, initially, to enjoy nature at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the fall bird migration. What a wonderful place! I’ve walked the beach and bicycled around the ponds and hiked the trails. Sometimes butterflies are abundant. We see turtles and the rare Delmarva fox squirrel.

Chincoteague is a “real place”, a municipality in Accomack County, Virginia. The population peaked at 4317 in 2000 and dropped to 2941 in 2010. The US Census thinks it dropped a little more as of 2018. Many residents leave in winter. Oddly, the name Chincoteague wasn’t attached to the community until 1943 (Wikipedia).

Chincoteague has numerous assets – the federal Wildlife Refuge, a small fishing fleet, extensive ecotourism, and the famous (and controversial) wild ponies. Yes, a place to value and, perhaps, preserve. But it’s isolated, with a single long causeway. And it is excruciatingly LOW. It has no “high ground”. Wikipedia lists its elevation at 3 feet. Yes, just one meter.

Chincoteague already rebuilt once, after the 1962 northeaster called the Ash Wednesday Storm by which it was completely submerged. I believe that every house from before 1962 was elevated by several courses of cinderblock. A smaller community on Assateague Island, to the east, was abandoned, with a few houses being floated across to Chincoteague on barges.

I’ve studied Chincoteague carefully on my many bike rides up and down the narrow island. Most interesting to me is the fact the very highest land in Chincoteague is occupied, not by housing, but by graveyards. Old graveyards, perched on the long sand dunes that run north/south along the island.

In Chincoteague, plans for the future are being laid. Most conspicuous (and occasionally contentious) are plans for the federal land. The Refuge visitor center has been rebuilt. The bridge on the main access road to the island has been rebuilt, much higher. My last visit was in 2017. I was impressed by a new farmers market and a cultural society. The City has a Mayor and a website. Chincoteague may struggle, but I think it’s here to stay. Keeping my fingers crossed!

My point? It won’t be possible to save every house and every community as the sea level rises. We need to think and talk about future decisions NOW, and the conversational net should be cast as widely as possible.

Medical Aid in Dying – Sad Victory

Another trip to Trenton. (See my posts of  February 12 and 21 of 2019.) On March 25, both the New Jersey Senate and Assembly voted on a bill to allow a doctor to prescribe lethal medication for self administration by a mentally competent adult having (in the opinion of two doctors) less than six months to live. Polls show that 60% of New Jersey residents want this change in our law.

How did I spend my day? I was one of perhaps 25 supporters working under the banner of a national organization called Compassion and Choices. We made our presence obvious by wearing the organization’s distinctive yellow t-shirts. Some of us carried signs.

Opponents to the legislation wore recognizable lapel badges. Who are they? (I can’t answer this in detail.) I think they are people who believe that medical science can control pain. Some are doctors. Some seem to be religiously/morally motivated – Catholics and (orthodox?) Jews. Most poignant, some are citizens with handicaps who fear that Aid in Dying will lead to involuntary euthanasia of people judged to be “defective”. It seems to me that this “slippery slope” argument requires very careful analysis, and the concerns of the handicapped must be scrupulously protected. In this territory, the public policy making is far from complete.

Initially we lurked in the crowded basement of the New Jersey State House Annex, wanting our support to be visible to the legislators. The noise and crowding were extreme. Sometimes the two sides of the Aid in Dying issue came face to face. I was walking up a ramp, supporting a lady much older and more frail than I am, both of us moving carefully. We came face to face with an opponent to our position, a huge man dressed in black whose argument consisted of “how can you possibly?…” and “every soul is sacred”. I slowed him slightly with “what about my right to make the decision to end my own pain?” or something like that. Then I handed him my one page statement (see previous post) and asked that he read it. The crowd pushed us apart.

Much was under consideration in Trenton on March 25…

  • medical marijuana
  • recreational marijuana
  • teachers’ benefits and salaries
  • high school football
  • driving rights?
  • dozens of obscure-to-me bills

We waited – in the corridor, the cafeteria, the two legislative chambers…

Compassion and Choices warned us that, in the legislative chambers, we would hear distressing statements, exaggerations, untruths… We were asked to stay calm and refrain from calling out (which violates the rules), although opponents might do so. Yes, all of that happened. It was hard. Procedural issues came up – we thought the Bill was tabled, which would have been bad, but suddenly it was back. Only one assembly person spoke with what I would call the “voice of reason”. I think almost all legislators were committed beforehand. And a few were waging a passionate battle in opposition.

After the vote, most of “the opposition” drifted away from us, but a young man took out his cell phone and announced that he wanted “pictures of the Nazis”. That’s what he called us. We tried to ignore him and shelter the woman he approached most closely, a fragile cancer patient. Somehow we all got out of there.

Looking at the smiles and high fives exchanged after the legislation passed first the Assembly and then the Senate, and at the pictures posted on social media, an observer think the pro-Aid in Dying group was happy about its victory. But underneath this was very profound sadness. Most of the supporters of Aid in Dying (based on my experience) are women who are or have been caregivers. In formal testimony, there were repeated references to “my husband”, “my mother”, “my sister”, “my best friend”. Most (but not all) of these loved ones suffered from cancer and experienced terrible pain. A few people were advocating on their own behalf, in anticipation of uncontrollable pain. Four (possibly more) members of our group are plainly seriously ill – three using oxygen, one in a wheel chair. They were among the more emotional of the participants. I talked with a composed and apparently healthy woman suffering from a rare genetic liver disorder. There is no treatment available. She is fortunate to even have a diagnosis. Her quality of life may deteriorate at any time. If that happens, she wants to choose the time of her own death.

I was relieved when the Governor signed the Bill into law. A few months will be required to set up regulations for implementation. How soon will this be an issue which is about ME? Or some dear friend? God grant me wisdom…

Why I Support Medical Aid in Dying

I went to Trenton on February 7, 2019, to support legislation that would, under certain conditions, permit a doctor to prescribe lethal medication for self administration by a mentally competent adult. Knowing testimony would be limited to two minutes, I wrote the following:

I am testifying in support of this legislation because of my experience at the bedsides of two dear friends, Carol Slocum who died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 and Mary Hunt who died of lung cancer in 2014. I regret to say that each of them suffered from severe pain.

What I saw led me to conclude that pain control is not an exact science and that the promise offered by hospice of a calm and painless death is an illusion. Medications and supportive services help some people, some of the time. High dose morphine controls pain at the expense of meaningful awareness. Drugged oblivion would not be my choice.

Mary Hunt wanted medical aid in dying and repeatedly expressed to me her anger and frustration that the laws of the State of New Jersey prevented her from having meaningful control over her impending, inevitable death.

I am currently blessed with good health, but I know how quickly that can be swept away. If I am ever as sick as my two friends were, I want the right to end my suffering. I would want to have a legally prescribed, lethal drug in my possession. I consider Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill to be a compassionate and humane policy.

Alone in my car on the way to Trenton, the memory of other deaths intruded into my consciousness. FOUR MORE cancer deaths in the past decade, among my closest friends. Cancer of the lung, breast, uterus, ovaries. (Dozens, of course, if I draw a wider circle.)

It’s a wonder I even got to Trenton. I wanted to pull off the road and cry.

Among these six personally devastating deaths, what did I see? ONE case that I would characterize as a “good death”, the kind hospice hopes to provide – safety, comfort and loving company. Another was about 50% “good”. The others? All kinds of problems.

  • Isolation.
  • Hasty, inappropriate medical interventions.
  • Lack of support for both patient and family.
  • Pain.
  • Uncertainty.

MY SIX FRIENDS WERE MIDDLE/UPPER CLASS PEOPLE WITH GOOD HEALTH INSURANCE. Their families were reasonably sophisticated about hospitals and medical specialists.

I simply can’t imagine what it’s like for people with no insurance. Or no money. Or few friends. Or poor English.

I’m concerned about the emphasis on PAIN as a criterion for aid in dying. How much do I have to suffer for YOU (who oppose this legislation, and/or the State of New Jersey) to be comfortable with my decision to die?

What about my right to make the important decisions about my life? At what point should it be taken from me? Medically, our ability to keep people alive far outstrips our ability (and willingness) to support QUALITY of life.

“Having Our Say: Women of Color in the 2018 Election”, a lecture by NJ Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver

Personal note! Living near a college (in my case, Stockton University) is an advantage. Something is always happening. In the past few weeks, I’ve attended three lectures. Unrelated to the University, I stepped out for one speaking engagement. I will blog about all of this. Stay tuned!

Institutional note! FIFTEEN years ago Stockton University initiated the Fannie Lou Hamer Human and Civil Rights Symposium. What a great program! Every Fall, a distinguished guest speaks about RIGHTS. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was an amazing example of a person who acted to expand human rights in our country.

Now to discuss the event and the featured speaker. Sheila Oliver was preceded by about 45 minutes of music, dance, welcome and introduction. It was interesting to note which earlier civil rights leaders were mentioned in either the introductions or Ms. Oliver’s presentation:

  • Shirley Chisholm
  • Coretta Scott King
  • Angela Davis
  • Mary McLeod Bethune
  • Eleanor Roosevelt

The auditorium was dark, so my note taking was limited. Ms. Oliver pointed out that in this election cycle, many women are choosing to run outside of the two major parties. The importance of state legislatures (when the US House and Senate are polarized and paralyzed) was emphasized.

I’m always curious how a leader is shaped by her education. Ms. Oliver mentioned A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens) and The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) as foundational for her, and also recommended Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, by S and E Delany.

Ms. Oliver was not long winded, but many students left before the Q/A period. Maybe shorter preliminaries would reduce this attrition?

The panel assembled for feedback and discussion was distinguished. I won’t try to cover everything said. The standout was Christabel Cruz of the Rutgers Center for American Woman and Politics. Emerging leader! She was the youngest panelist and the first (only?) speaker to address discrimination against the LGBTQ community. She is energetic and articulate and exactly the right person to reach out to millenials. After all, this event was intended to engage STUDENTS. I hope Ms. Cruz stays in New Jersey.

SOJOURN – A journal devoted to the history, culture, and geography of South Jersey

South Jersey Culture & History Center Logo

In my last entry (which was rather a rant), I commented that my part of New Jersey has been slow to develop an identity, slow to achieve recognition, possibly lacking in self/civic awareness. I’m pleased to announce that this is changing! We are now blessed with a fine academic journal, produced by the South Jersey Heritage and Culture Center at Stockton University.

Sojourn describes itself as a collaborative effort. The presiding genius is Dr. Thomas Kinsella, Professor of British Literature at Stockton University, who supervises an editing internship program for Literature and History majors. Papers are solicited from local historians and other authors. (Academic credentials are not required.) Students edit and format the work. The result is impressively professional. A wealth of maps, portrait reproductions and photographs (both historic and contemporary) make for a high level of visual appeal.

The most recent issue is themed around the American Revolution. Fourteen articles cover aspects of that conflict. I was particularly interested in “When Mad Anthony Came to South Jersey: Civilian Experience during the American Revolution” by retired Stockton University Professor Claude Epstein. He discusses how the military actions in South Jersey stressed and distressed a population that was relatively poor and dispersed. He describes the Revolution in New Jersey as “more of a local civil war with multiple sides.” Not the simple narrative of valiant patriots battling evil Tories that some of us were taught in school!

I checked Sojourn’s “Call for Articles” to consider if I might want to contribute. I’ve lived here 40+ years, which makes me an old timer. Unfortunately, there’s no humor category! I plan to offer my article “Sex clubs, convenience stores and ‘The Wawa Way’” (see blog post dated July 9, 2014). Think I can talk them into it?? I could probably manage to add a few footnotes, if necessary.

Copies of Sojourn are available in the bookstore at Stockton University’s Campus Center, on Amazon.com and at a few local outlets. It would make a nice gift for anyone interested in local history, or having some connection to Stockton University.

Cover image of SoJourn 3.1

“Hardcore Twenty-Four (A Stephanie Plum Novel)” by Janet Evanovitch

Product Details

Another romp through Trenton, NJ, and the wacky life of Stephanie Plum, bail bond enforcer and woman on the loose. Stephanie and her sidekick Lula are always tracking down miscreants, some of whom are dangerously antisocial. She’s helped by her three “boyfriends”, a police officer, a private security expert and a psychic superhero from another dimension. Everything goes wrong, as usual, but our heroine survives. Don’t stop writing, Janet. New Jersey loves you!