Friday, January 29, 2016

Unlikely bliss

If there is a meaning in life, there must be a meaning in suffering.
—Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl’s book, which I first read in my early thirties, made even a stronger impression when I read it again last week. I was reminded that this slender work was far more than a document of profound suffering. It was a work of philosophy—and an optimistic one. During his three years at Auschwitz and other death camps, Frankl had no way of knowing whether any of his family members had survived. He especially pined for his wife. But this did not lead to despair. Hoping fervently that she lived, he had long imaginary discussions with her.
As Frankl, a psychiatrist, recalled in his book published about fifteen years later, “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may feel bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his suffering in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.
“In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him,” Frankl continued. “The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return and I answered.”
Frankl was certainly aware that his words might be interpreted as a delusion. But if so, it was a therapeutic delusion, one that may have saved his life. Suicide in the death camps was common.
As Frankl wrote, “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not the person is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”
Frankl and other prisoners were eventually transferred by train to a work camp in Bavaria, where the conditions were not as brutal as in Auschwitz – one of many fortunate incidents that made possible his survival. Another, more subtle factor, according to Frankl, was an appreciation for beauty, both in the form of recollected poetry and the view afforded of the snow-capped Austrian Alps through their prison car.
Frankl wrote, “If someone had seen our faces ... as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.”
But a glimpse of natural beauty, however lovely, is fleeting, and for Frankl and his fellow prisoners, the key question in the Bavarian prison camp was whether, or when, to plot an escape. By this time, in the early spring of 1945, the war was winding down, but the prisoners had no idea how long it would go on. Frankl ultimately chose not to join in the uprising. It turned out to be the right decision. Within days, International Red Cross vehicles arrived with food and medicine for the emaciated prisoners.
Frankl, who died in 1997 at age ninety-two, went on to pioneer a variant of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, defined as “less retrospective and less introspective than conventional psychoanalysis.” The Greek word logos means “meaning.” In his book, Frankl commented, “Man’s search for meaning is a primary factor and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ [as Freudians might assume] of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy his own will to meaning.”

Friday, January 22, 2016

A more cruel killer

Is there any more poignant moment in the history of American sports than Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939? As the Yankees’ first baseman, Gehrig had seemed indestructible, playing in 2,130 consecutive games over twelve seasons, earning him the moniker “The Iron Horse.” To the tens of thousands of people on hand that day, the scene must have been exceedingly incongruous. This man, the closest thing in Depression-era America to a Greek god, was announcing that he, too, was mortal. “Fans,” Gehrig began, amid the echoing P.A. system, “for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” Two years later he died at thirty-eight of the disease that, informally, still bears his name.
The medical term is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS for short. According to the ALS Association, the term roughly translates to “no muscle nourishment.” As the disease advances, “Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their demise. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost.”
Like Alzheimer’s, ALS is a disease without a cure. But there is a critical distinction. While Alzheimer’s often takes a decade or more to run its course, ALS does its dirty work, on average, in three years—though a small minority will live significantly longer. And, unlike with Alzheimer’s, people with ALS are more likely to be diagnosed in middle age or younger. Approximately 6,400 people are diagnosed each year—roughly two people, on average, out of every 100,000. Veterans are said to be at twice the risk of the disease, particularly veterans of the 1991 Gulf War.
In the last couple years, two people we were acquainted with in Somerville died of the disease: one a writer of fantasy novels and science books for young readers, the other an acclaimed painter.
The writer, Ann Downer, died just shy of her fifty-fifth birthday, but it appears that she packed much into those years. Her obituary reads like an adventure story itself:
“Ann was born in Falls Church, Virginia, and grew up living in the Philippines and Thailand, traveling in Asia and Europe, before returning to Virginia. A typhoon in the Pacific, a conical volcano in the Philippines, Buddhist temples and crocodile farms in Thailand, geckos and snakes in the gardens, and the classic children’s fantasies by Madeleine L’Engle and Ursula Le Guin: all fed Ann’s rich and voracious imagination.”
Ann’s friend Sarah Fishman noted that in Ann’s case, the disease ran a quick course.
“It took slightly more than a year for doctors to reach the ALS diagnosis, and she lived another year and a bit after that. Apparently the disease moves faster if it starts with losing your voice, which was the case with her. It was hard for her, I think, to be a woman of words, though usually written ones, and not be able to speak. As her emotions and thoughts got further boxed into her body, she felt great frustration. She didn't feel (much) physical pain but experienced the agony of not being able to communicate, except for with her eyes. She couldn't talk but could still understand almost everything, including what was happening to her.”
Jon Imber, who spent his summers painting in Maine, died in April 2014 at sixty-three. Over the last two years of his life, he was often filmed while painting, and, as the disease advanced, he could no longer paint with his right hand. As the documentary film Jon Imber’s Left Hand makes clear, the artist’s final paintings pack a visceral punch. A reviewer for the Post-Press Herald in Portland noted, “For Imber, the diagnosis is an urgent challenge: It motivates him to spend every last moment living.”
To view Imber painting, do a search for “Imber’s Left Hand.”

Friday, January 15, 2016

Membership has its privileges

If I were living in the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the first book I would seek to protect from the flames would be War and Peace, Tolstoy’s doorstop-sized epic set during the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century—and I do mean epic. My paperback edition of the 2007 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is over 1,200 pages, with 48 lines per page. So imagine my delight, tempered by some skepticism, when I learned that the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge was staging a musical based on a seventy-page slice of the novel, in a techno-pop fashion, no less. I can only imagine that Tolstoy, who late in his life ditched all things bourgeois for the lifestyle of a very wise (and very famous) peasant, would have regarded the play’s pulsing lights and blaring music as abominations.
Paula and I loved it, as did, apparently, the vast majority of the audience. There were a number of postmodern touches—one notable song began, “In nineteenth-century Russia/people wrote letters/they put down their thoughts/in words.” And for all the high energy and commotion, the play was reasonably faithful to the section of the novel it was based on: a soirée at which the young Natasha Rostova, a central figure in the book, is seduced by the rakish Anatole Vassilievich Kuragin.
Because we have to watch our spending, there was no chance that we would have paid the $190 cost for our pair of tickets for the musical, whose title is Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. But thanks to the Alzheimer’s Association, we paid nothing at all for seats that put us so close to the action that we were advised not to stretch out our legs, lest we risk tripping up the singers who occasionally passed in front of us. (The stage was circular, with some audience members inserted shoulder-to-shoulder with performers. We were glad that we were not among them.)
This kind of Alzheimer’s Association-sponsored event is a regular part of the organization’s “Power and Purpose” program. This past fall, there were two outings: a tour of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, and a nature walk in the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary. And a forthcoming A.R.T. production is based on George Orwell’s 1984—the only book I read in high school that left an impression on me. A maple sugaring activity is scheduled in early March.
These events aren’t just diversions. They are designed to help keep people engaged, socially and mentally, for many years to come. And since my diagnosis, I have often reflected on Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The final stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Misplaced emotion?

Concussion, the film about the NFL’s efforts to suppress research indicating that professional football players were at risk of severe dementia, breaks no new news. But what this sturdily-built dramatization might accomplish is to give a wide audience second thoughts about encouraging their kids to play the sport. The most inspired scene in this film is what I regard as football porn: helmet hit, after helmet hit, after helmet hit, accompanied by the rapturous, almost orgasmic, shouts of announcers.
Unlike with baseball, the sport I most love, my relationship with football is complicated. It seems plausible that subtle head trauma during seven years of organized football is to blame for my current condition. And, long before I experienced the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, I’d become jaded about America’s most popular sport. For a couple of seasons around the turn of the millennium, I watched no football at all—not even the Super Bowl. That changed during the 2001 season, when the Patriots came out of nowhere to win their first of four championships.
Concussion is a somber movie, befitting a film whose pivotal scene is a brain autopsy. The brain belonged to Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center I remember watching on TV in the seventies. To most fans, interior linemen are noticed only when they get called for a penalty. Webster, though, was deeply esteemed. At a time when the U.S. steel industry was in turmoil, the Steelers were not just a football team. They were an emblem of hope, however spurious, that Pittsburgh could once again be a dynamic city.
And I, who as a child lived 2500 miles from Pittsburgh, shared in that experience. I became a Steelers fan in 1972, two days before Christmas. For decades, the Steelers had been losers. But in less than fifteen seconds, everything changed. I was in my brother’s bedroom, watching on a black-and-white TV while I strung popcorn on thread that would adorn our Christmas tree. The Steelers were playing the Oakland Raiders, the bad boys of the NFL, in the first round of the playoffs. Terry Bradshaw did not yet look like a Hall of Fame quarterback. I happened to be recording the audio of the broadcast (which was “expressly forbidden,” as the NFL always made clear), when the miracle occurred. My girlish shrieks of glee blotted out the voice of the great Curt Gowdy, calling the game for NBC.
The Steelers were down by one point, they were 60 yards from the Raiders’ end zone, time was winding down, it was fourth down, and Bradshaw, escaping a furious pass rush, rifled a pass toward  John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who was converging with the Raiders’ notorious Jack Tatam. In the ensuing deflection off Tatum’s shoulder pad, the football was driven in the opposite direction. Once gravity did its work, the game would be over. One Raider defender already had his arms thrust in celebration.
But wait! Everyone was stampeding toward the Raiders’ end zone. The Steelers’ rookie running back, Franco Harris, had made a shoestring catch of the deflected ball, managed to maintain his balance, veered to his left, and raced nearly untouched into the end zone. Fans flooded the field.
 Through the rest of the decade—my teenage years—the Steelers dominated the NFL, making the playoffs every year and winning four Super Bowls.
But that, of course, is not what Concussion is about. The movie focuses on Dr. Bennett Omalu (played by Will Smith), who detected abnormal tissue in Webster’s brain during an autopsy in 2002.
As Omalu himself commented on a PBS Frontline segment in 2013, “I was expecting to see a brain with Alzheimer’s disease features, so a shriveled, ugly-looking brain. But upon opening his skull, Mike’s brain looked normal….When I saw his brain I was actually disappointed, and I’m like, ‘No, this is a joke.’”
Omalu concluded that “this was something…Give it a name, present it as a disease. Develop a pathogenetic concept for it.
“So there I was. I thought the football industry would be happy with our new discovery.”
Quite the contrary, of course. As the PBS interviewer commented, “It seems like this threatens the very heart of American football.”
Omalu: “Yes, some of them actually said that I was attacking the American way of life. How dare you, a foreigner from Nigeria.”
Did the scenes dissecting the NFL’s stonewalling make me indignant? Yes. Particularly noteworthy was the depiction of the suicide of the former All-Pro safety Dave Duerson, who’d made a point of shooting himself in the chest, so that his brain could be donated to research.
But what really struck me wasn’t the movie’s message, which I already understood. My emotional take-away had little to do with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease that Dr. Omalu named. The floodgates opened near the start of the movie, when clips of the Steelers’ glory days flitted across the scratchy screen of my childhood.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A resolution

Stay in the moment. Don’t pity yourself. Don’t dwell on the likelihood that otherwise you would be a good bet to live into your eighties. Keep in mind you came reasonably close to dying at thirteen, in a tiny solo sailboat in Bellingham Bay, with scarcely a clue of how to sail. And that six years later, on a December road trip to Bozeman, Montana, you made the mistake of departing on the second morning before dawn, in order to reach Bozeman before nightfall. It was still dark when you hit the patch of black ice, at Fourth of July Pass, high in the Idaho Panhandle. Your friend braced his arms against the dashboard as you tried, and failed, to steer against the skid, before slamming into a snowbank, at the lip of a ravine. Keep in mind how the highway maintenance guy who dragged your Mustang away from the abyss remarked, matter-of-factly, “Last week some guy got his neck broke.”
Take the long view of things. William Shakespeare died at age fifty-two, after compiling a stupendous body of great writing. Did his friends lament a life cut short? In Shakespeare’s time, the average lifespan was forty-two years. Shakespeare died an old man.
Exercise daily. Drive the blood to the brain. Swim at least twice a week. Bicycle regularly (but not when streets are sheathed with ice). Walk vigorously. Jaywalk only when you are confident you will not be cut down. Avoid swiveling around cars like a running back bursting into the secondary.
Write down your thoughts before they evaporate. Keep a notepad and pen nearby at all times.
Maintain a lid on your temper. It’s nice that you no longer need to spend ten hours away from home each weekday, but perhaps spouses were not designed to be around each other constantly? Do not overreact to irritating tendencies—yours and those of loved ones. Above all, practice self-honesty. Meditate regularly. Don’t delude yourself about your decline. Give thanks for experiencing little or no decline in your writing abilities. Maintain the hope that this will remain the case for many years to come.
Read aggressively. Keep in mind this curious passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot: “This man had once been led to a scaffold, along with others, and a sentence of death by firing squad had been read out to him, for a political crime. After about twenty minutes a pardon was read out to him, and he was given a lesser degree of punishment; nevertheless, in the space between those two sentences, or a quarter of an hour at the least, he lived under the certain conviction that in a few minutes he would certainly die.” When the convicted man believed he had only five minutes left, time seemed to slow down in a big way. “He said those five minutes seemed like an endless time to him, an enormous wealth. It seemed to him in those five minutes he would live so many lives that there was no point yet in making arrangements…. He was dying at the age of twenty-seven, healthy and strong; bidding farewell to his comrades, he remembered asking one of them a rather irrelevant question and even being very interested in the answer.”
Attend church regularly, and listen attentively. Value pew time as a refuge from consumer culture. Don’t get hung up on ossified doctrine. Read up on Emerson and the other Transcendentalists. Appreciate the simplicity of Pascal’s wager, the gist of which is that living a moral life can serve as a celestial insurance policy – should God, to my surprise, reveal himself.