Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review--Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

This is an excellent book.  The author is Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote the very popular Eat, Pray, and Love.  I enjoyed that as well, but this book I found to be even better.

It is a sequel of sorts.  If you have not read Eat, Pray, and Love or seen the movie by the same title--Liz Gilbert falls in love in the "love" part of that true story.  Committed is about the couple's subsequent journey toward marriage something that they were not considering when they fell in love, but were compelled to consider because of legal issues. (Gilbert and her sweetheart had each been divorced previously and were adamantly opposed to marriage).

Eat, Pray, and Love is a love story.  It is also very well written.  We, or at least many of us, can identify with heartbreak, healing, and the joy of reconnecting.  The familiarity of the story, the engaging writing, and the happy ending  made the book as popular as it was. (I will throw in, that despite the lukewarm reviews of the movie, I thought the movie with Julia Roberts was excellent and loyal to the book).

Committed is not a story in the same way as Eat Pray and Love. Committed is not difficult but not a page turner either. It could sit on my coffee table all weekend and I would not feel like I needed to read it. With most books I like, I can't not pick them up when I am into them. I shlep them everywhere in case I have a few minutes to read.  Committed was not this way for me.

Still, the book is wonderful.  Gilbert is so gifted as a writer, and so humble and straight shooting throughout.    I learned quite a bit about marriage and was especially informed by the history portion.  But what I liked the most were her honest and often self-deprecating reflections describing how the two of them, in very difficult circumstances, maintained and strengthened their union.  On the inside cover of the book, I kept writing page numbers down of sections that I found to be meaningful. After a while I ran out of space.

Sometimes when I like a book of non fiction that reveals the author's philosophies, I wonder if I like the book because the author thinks like I do.  My personality is not like Liz Gilbert's, but my sensibilities, I believe, are.  If you are looking for some escape reading, this is not for you, but if you are interested in relationships and the  inherent obstacles to loving, I think you will find this book as good as I did. Gilbert writes of couples that all they want is a "little bit of privacy in which to practice love."  The question to me is when the privacy is there, do the couples practice effectively.  I am curious to know how Liz and her husband are doing these days. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Aint No Way

Earlier this week on my way to work, I heard that Senator Daniel Inouye had passed away.  Of course I never knew the man, but he was a politician I respected so was saddened to hear the news.

In the late spring and early summer of 1973, much of America had their heads around the ongoing Watergate hearings in Washington.  Senator Inouye was on the committee that was examining what the "president knew and when did he know it."  These are the hearings, you may recall, during which John Dean spent three days revealing the inner workings of the executive office and how a coverup had infected the president's office after the 1972 break-in at the Watergate complex.

I spent a good deal of time watching those hearings in May and early June. In mid June I was visiting a buddy who did not have a tv but the two of us listened, 1940 style, to the radio and I recall hearing Dean's first day of testimony during which he made a very long statement about the Nixon White House. Dean's account was disputed by other members of the White House, yet these challenges were undermined when Alexander Butterfield, another witness to the committee, revealed that all conversations in the oval office had been taped--thus ensuring that disputed renditions of events could or could not be substantiated.

Daniel Inouye stood out during this time as a person of integrity who would not be bullied and was riveted firmly on an ethical foundation.  Even the Nixon White House grudgingly agreed with this depiction.  When they were reviewing the committee members and attempting to assess who would or would not be a loyalist, John Ehrlichman referred to Senator Inouye as "Aint no way" as in there aint no way this guy would be loyal to anything other than his sense of right and wrong. Inouye was also a co-chairman of the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 and here again, established himself as a person of ethical conviction.

So,  I was sad to hear that he was gone as were, according to reports, many even conservative colleagues in the senate.

Contrast this with the news that Judge Robert Bork passed away today.  Judge Bork is known to those who followed the Watergate case as the Solicitor General who fired Archibald Cox on the night called The Saturday Night Massacre.  President Nixon feeling as if the special prosecutor Cox was investigating too industriously, ordered Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, to fire Cox.

Richardson refused. Richardson had promised Cox a free rein in the investigation and therefore claimed that he could not fire Cox for conducting the investigation in the manner Cox felt was appropriate.  Richardson's associate, William Ruckelshaus, also would not fire Cox.  Next in line was Robert Bork.  Bork did fire Cox.  To some that seemed inappropriate.  If a special prosecutor is investigating the president, and the president fires the special prosecutor, it erodes the credibility of the investigation.  Many people felt that the attorney general's office could not do what it purports to be doing--uphold the law--, if it was complicit or even seemed to be complicit in an obstruction of an investigation.  So, Bork's willingness to do what the president asked him to do, fire the special prosecutor--especially since Bork's bosses refused to comply--made Bork seem like a toady and someone willing to compromise the judicial process.  Fourteen years later when Bork was nominated by then President Reagan to be a supreme court justice, the senate voted NOT to confirm the pick from the very popular president.

Regardless of political orientation, people respect those who stand on an ethical foundation.  According to some friends of Bork, his rejection by the senate made him increasingly more conservative. Inouye, on the other hand, was able to endear those on both sides of the political spectrum because he supported something that Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, and Liberals all respect--the combination of honesty, courage, and loyalty to the principles on which the country was founded.  It always seems to me that when we look back on those we knew in politics, in our family, in our organizations, and in our relationships--those who stand out are those who stood for doing the right thing.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Can't get through it

I wrote a blog on Friday in the aftermath of the killings in Connecticut. I argued then that it was our responsibility to continue to enjoy life despite the horror.

Can't quite get to this. I am looking forward to a football Sunday today, but the day's potential joy is under siege as I read about the event and think about what occurred. The list of 6 and 7 year olds who were lost is unthinkable and when you think that it is real, how to enjoy the moment? I was thinking a moment ago about the kids who survived and how forever scarred they are likely to be. I recall that tennis great Andy Murray is a survivor of a similar massacre when he was in elementary school in Scotland. He has, by appearances at least, survived without debilitating psychological impediments. But how can you put this behind you.

The magnitude of this event has become greater to me. The challenge to enjoy time is not a simple one.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Keys to the Kingdom

I received an e-mail last night from a friend who, among other things, relayed that some neighbors had asked her to join them in a quilting session. She declined thinking that the real goal of the invitation was to proselytize. She knew that she already had, as we all have, the keys to the kingdom.

This morning I was scheduled to meet my buddy Ken for a breakfast chat at 8. Donna and I were buzzing about getting ready for the day and my departure. Her car was blocking mine so she would have to move it for me to back out and make my breakfast date. As I was finishing the morning dance, finding my wallet, keys, and shoes--ready to dart out into the cold, the phone rang. I figured it was Ken telling me he would be a few minutes late. Donna went to the phone and saw that the call was from another friend of mine who lives on the Cape. I had not spoken to him in a while and had only two minutes or so to get in my car, so I let the voice mail pick up.

A little strange to get a call from him at 740 in the am after not hearing from him a while. Then my cell phone buzzed. Saw the number was my Cape friend's. Stranger still for him to call me a second time as if there was some urgency.

I've known Don, my Cape friend, since 85. I rented his house for a couple of summers and have visited him now and again for now nearly thirty years. In the 90s, he, his neighbor James, and I would rendezvous annually in Providence to watch a Providence basketball game. James was also a professor so he and I shared war stories while shmoozing at the games. We had not met in Providence for a few years but for a stretch there the three of us looked forward to our annual Providence rendezvous for the friendship more than the basketball game. On the way to my breakfast meeting I returned Don's call.

Tonight the Mount Union Purple Raiders will play the St. Thomas Tommies for the championship of Divison 3 football. I love watching this game. Mount Union is going to the championship game for the 8th consecutive year and 16th time in the last twenty years. Division 3 is an afterthought to most sports fans if it is thought of at all. Yet, for the fans and players of Mount Union and St. Thomas the game tonight is the most important sporting event in the world. I love the energy of the players and I admire the coaching of a team that gets almost no exposure but plays its collective hearts out year after year to get to a championship.

The game's excitement and all games' importance, however, has been punctured today because of the incomprehensible tragedy in Connecticut. Madmen have killed 27 kids and teachers in an elementary school this morning. What kind of sick person kills children. What kind of sick society do we live in where sick people are manufactured who bloody schoolyards and think, somehow, that there is a rationale for the act? How to overcome such a tragedy and enjoy anything? Does it really matter that Mount Union is playing in its 8th consecutive championship game and 16th championship game in 20 years?

When I called Don on my way to breakfast with Ken he told me that he was sorry to have to give me some sad news so early in the morning. He had just been told that our friend James had succumbed to cancer. When I got to work I pulled up an obituary and saw that he had been sick for a year. There's a photo of him with a big smile next to the notice and it is all I can do to not feel sick when I glance at that picture.

Twenty seven kids are dead in Connecticut. James is gone having been eaten up by stomach cancer.

Yet despite this--maybe even because of it--we have the opportunity, if not obligation, to live and enjoy time. It was good to breakfast with my friend Ken this morning. We talked about this and that and he is coming over on Sunday night so we can root hard for the Patriots.

I will think of James and the twenty seven murdered kids tonight. And I will watch 22 excited athletes give everything they can to win a championship.

We do have the keys to the kingdom. The kingdom is right here. My friend who wrote last night is so right. We dont need the keys identified by proselytizers who feel they have a secret route to a locksmith. We have the keys. We have the Kingdom. Our choice is to open the doors that will bring happiness to all those around us, and ourselves.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Wild Turkeys

The commute this morning was a bear.  It took over an hour for a drive of about 14 miles--almost entirely on superhighway.  The congestion was such that I had multiple opportunities to listen to the traffic report on the all news all the time station so that I could be informed "on the threes" that I was in a traffic jam.  I think the expression the helicopter reporter used--every ten minutes--was that the pike was "a mess."   The journey made me think wishfully about living in rural America and the joys of watching cows as I comfortably took country roads to work.  When I entered the office, I mentioned the congestion and my thoughts about the desirability of country life. My office neighbor wailed. "Don't do it.  I been there. There are rednecks."

As I drove, in addition to the radio reporter reminding me that I was and would continue to be aggravated, I heard the news stories that recur on the newswheel.  One story was about a meeting that is to be held in Brookline tonight on the subject of wild turkeys.  Brookline is a well heeled suburb of Boston which, peculiarly, is actually within the city.  You can drive out of Boston going west, go into Brookline, and then continue west and find yourself in Boston again for several miles before you reach the suburbs that are beyond the city limits.  Brookline has sections that are drop dead stunning and others that look like any old place but enjoy an excellent school system and very high real estate values.

Apparently, Brookline,  has a problem with wild turkeys.  Brookline is not the only area around here who has seen these birds. A few years ago, I looked out my window in Waltham--miles west of Brookline--and saw a parade of wild turkeys walking along the front yard. Since then, it has become not uncommon to see such a flock often strutting in a family line with the momma up front and the brood obediently one by one behind her.  The march reminds me of the cover of Make Way for Ducklings, except they are not ducks, but turkeys.  The turkeys have not bothered anyone, they just go about their business such as it may be, walking in the backyard and then I guess to the woods and park which is behind our dwelling.

The news story about the turkeys that I heard at least four times this morning was that the people in Brookline were gathering to deal with the "problem." It seems as if the wild turkeys are attacking the Brookline-ites and something has to be done about it.

If this is so, then the Brookline turkeys are substantively different than their Waltham cousins who are docile and mind their own business.  My hunch is that the Brookline turkeys are just like the Waltham turkeys.

I'm thinking that at the same time that the good citizens of Brookline are meeting to discuss the turkey problem, the turkeys are meeting to discuss the problem with the citizens of Brookline.   My sense is that the issue of who are the turkeys might be one to contemplate.

In the country you might have rednecks. In the city, you might have wild turkeys.

platitudes and latitudes

This morning I was looking through Facebook postings. I read a note from an old fraternity brother who said he was on his way to the Albany airport journeying to Florida to visit with his grandchildren.  He commented that he was looking forward to seeing the kin and "catching some rays"--a phrase that dates all of us who remember the Kennedy administration.

I was reminded by his post of something I wrote when I first visited Florida "as an adult"--as opposed to the obligatory drive-through-the-night-during -spring-break college experience.  The "as an adult" visit at the wise age of 27 took place during my first spring break as a college professor.  I was living near Buffalo New York at the time in a small pretty town by Lake Erie called Fredonia.  Very pretty, but winters are cold. What passes for spring is still cold.  Can have snow in May cold.

I flew to Florida during spring break that year for some warmth.  One day during my week stay I found myself sitting by the pool, enjoying the sunshine, and musing happily about the 80 degree contrast between the 85 degree clime and what I had read was the concurrent degree total in Buffalo.  I wrote a note to my buddy Kenny during this reflection in which I included a silly poem remarking on the difference between the north and south, and happiness.  The poem included this verse:  "For mirth don't follow platitudes; just seek some lower latitudes."

Clever.  But inaccurate.  I enjoyed my stay in Florida and there is something special about a northerner getting out of a plane in West Palm Beach in January looking like a geek with a coat and hat, when the airport is buzzing with people who are barely clad.  It brings a smile to your kisser.  Yet mirth does not linger because of latitude.

The first line of what I thought was a very witty couplet, is accurate--"for mirth don't follow platitudes", it is the second line that is off target--unless the reference to seeking lower latitudes means searching for direction not by following your head, but acknowledging the wisdom of your heart.

My now travelling fraternity chum will enjoy the rays when he arrives in Florida, but what will make him kvell is holding onto his grandchildren and enjoying moments with his kin. Such mirth nourishes and lingers.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I read today that the oldest person in the world has died at the age of 116.  I figure that no matter how objectively I do the computations, I am on the other side of the hill.

I received a note today from an actor who is playing a lead character in the play, Betrayal, now being performed at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.  There was a movie decades ago with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge that is based on the play.  I thought the movie was excellent as is the Huntington production.

The play is about an affair.  A woman is the lover of a man who was the best man to her husband at their wedding. There is betrayal on several fronts.  One could say that the best man betrayed the husband and the wife betrayed the husband.  The best man has betrayed his wife--though she never appears in the play. There is the suggestion that informing the husband of the affair would be a betrayal to the two who are trysting.

I received the note from the actor because earlier this month he had written to me when he had discovered that I play squash.  There are references throughout the play to the fact that the best man and husband were regular squash partners but were no longer playing.  There are other squash references as well, but I may have already given away too much of the play--though if you were to watch the film or the play you would see that all that I have written thus far one discovers early on.

The actor had never played squash and wanted to learn something about the game. So we went to Northeastern's squash facility. I brought my racket and we went on the court in our stocking feet. We didn't play but he whacked the ball a few times.  We spoke with some of the squash players on the NU team who coincidentally were gathering for their practice session just as we were leaving. After I saw the show I wrote to the actor congratulating him on a riveting performance.  And it was.  If I had not met him and seen him behave so differently I truly would not have recognized the character in the play.

In squash the only betrayal is legitimized by the rules. You can try to fake your opponent by appearing to hit the ball long, but instead softly banking it off a side wall. Such a shot is called, interestingly, a "boast."  But a boast in squash is completely legitimate. Players in squash are considered good sports, never trying to abuse the rules for advantage.  A very strange rule in squash allows a person to gain a point if she or he feels that an opponent is standing in the way of making a good shot.  Instead of pulverizing the opponent with a ball, the play stops and the player who is blocked simply gains the point.

I have written this before in this blog, but a key factor which accounts for the allure of sport is that the game and rules are indeed transparent.  Sure, some people try to cheat at all games, but squash in particular is a contest which tries to rise above the sordid games played outside the arena.  Professional football is a far more violent game, but even in this sport, we all know that you have four downs to gain ten yards,  and you cant get an extra one if you know someone or if a judge owes you a favor.  When the referees went on strike earlier this year it threatened the appeal of the game itself, because a number of games were decided not on the basis of the rules.  The Green Bay/Seattle game had such a bizarre inappropriate ending that within days, the strike was over as the league could not survive the fans' sense that a contest would be determined by inaccurate or capricious officiating.

Little in the way of betrayal in squash.  Lots when you leave the court.