Friday, May 31, 2019

The Dive from Clausen's Pier

There was a time about half way through this book that I became so angry at the behavior of a character. And I thought, temporarily, that the author was condoning the activity.  Even though I was 160 or so pages invested, I did not want to read any more of it.

I'm glad I continued.  The author was not, I believe, condoning the activity--she was describing it. And describing it well. I am still not certain if there was some degree of acceptance mixed in with the description.

One of my favorite lines from a novel is from Ironweed.  A character is describing a reprehensible activity of another.  The listener says, "He was just doing what he had to do."  The character responds dismissively and says "That's what everyone does."

Everyone does what they have to do. But some people do cruel inconsiderate things in the name of doing what they have to do. And others, do not do cruel things. What they have to do, the responsible ones, is behave within the confines of a conscience that compels one to be considerate of others-even when it is painful to be so considerate.

The Dive from Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer is a very good book. It is disturbing at times but it is well written, and can be read from the perspective of a story as well as something beyond a story.

Not giving away much below since it happens right in the beginning, but if you want to know nothing, then skip the next paragraph.

Carrie is 23 and engaged to Mike who she met when she was 14.  Things are cooling from Carrie's perspective, but they--with their friends--embark on their annual Memorial Day weekend picnic. Mike dives from Clausen's Pier and there is an accident.  Now what.  Even though things were cooling off, there is a deep love and history that they share.   There are several important and well described (but certainly not all well liked) characters. A best friend of Mike, Mike's mother, Carrie's mother, Carrie's best friend, Simon a high school acquaintance who becomes a friend, Kilroy, Lane.

The issue for me in events or novels like this is simple: one does not have the right to behave reprehensibly because the world has given them a bad deal, or there are people in the world who are irresponsible.  You'll have to read the book, but I am not at all suggesting that Carrie is morally and in any way obligated to stay with Mike. I am suggesting that no matter what bad things come your way, you are not entitled to hurl them back. You are entitled to dodge the foul matter, but not at the expense of someone else.  Somebody dumps garbage on your lawn.  Fine with me if you dump the garbage back at the perpetrator. Not fine with me if you dump it on your neighbor's lawn or if you feel the insult of having garbage thrown on your property gives you permission to treat people who did you no harm as if they are, collectively, the garbage dumpers.

I think the author here does such an excellent job of drawing the characters and scenes as they would have likely occurred. I cannot stand people like Kilroy, but they are out there.  I think the way she describes them is just the way Jamie, Rooster, and Mrs. Mayer would have behaved. There are some beautifully written steamy scenes as well. I wondered at times if they were gratuitous, but I did not mind reading them. And if she left them out, she might have left out a key part that explains the fuel of a relationship.

The metaphors and tale beyond the story are special as well. The house in New York where everyone is doing something that they are doing temporarily before they do something else.  Do we all live there? And more than anything, Carrie's sewing skill: the ability to mend and alter and create.  And the sense the reader gets that it is this, that will be her calling.

This book will stay with me for a while. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Not sure what to make of this book, Where the Crawdads Sing.  It had been on the New York Times best seller list forever, so I requested it from the library consortium.  About a month later, it arrived.

It is engaging and well written enough to have me go through it in a couple of days during Memorial Day weekend.  I enjoyed it, but have this caveat.

If the book was intended to be taken literally, as in an event that actually could take place--then it does not cut it.  The book does not pass the ridickalus test for plausibility. Kya could not have survived as she did for as long as she did.  Even if she had been as resourceful, she would have been discovered and unable to continue as she did.  Maybe what happens to momma could have happened, poppa is a caricature but there are such poppas-but not the three other siblings.  Other stuff too. The trial was not real in any way. Even for 1970 which, just for you young-uns, was not a prehistoric peirod. I was not living in rural North Carolina then, but still.

So, if the book was intended to be taken as the telling of an event that could have occurred, then my comment is that it reads as a young adult novel.

But as a novel with meaning beyond the alleged events, it is a good one--fantastic in the literal sense of the word.  Very sweet. An adult fairy tale.

I already have recommended the book and will continue to do so. I think it will stick with me, but not because of the plot which, as I have written, could not have happened. 

A question: Are there times when a wrong can be a right? And if so, who has the right, to commit a wrong when that wrong is right?

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Our Man

Our Man by George Packer is a long book ostensibly about the life of Richard Holbrooke, an American diplomat who served the country in Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. The book is as much a history of these three conflicts as it is about Holbrooke.  However, you get to know that Holbrooke was a pain in the ass, an irresponsible father, an adulterer (in the land of politics where apparently everyone is messing around) and so self absorbed that he did not even know he was being inconsiderate.

Obama could not stand him, and Obama was not alone. At his fiftieth birthday party, he was roasted by the invitees but you could not tell who was joking and who was serious. He sat through it with a pasted smile on his face and later said it was the worst night of his life. What kind of dad was he? His son commented that he would not recognize his grandchildren if they showed up in a lineup. Except for Hillary Clinton, Holbrooke did not have many admirers.

However, the guy was supposedly so knowledgeable and so effective as a diplomat that he managed to work for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and even Obama.  Holbrooke knew the war in Vietnam was  a sham while he was in it, and worked industriously and successfully to end the conflict in Bosnia. Even as he was dying he kept trying to figure out how to end the impasse in Afghanistan. As I was reading the book, on more than one occasion, I asked myself how does this person do so much in a day.  

 My take is that having your heart in the right place, and working industriously, does not absolve you from interpersonal responsibilities. And I think Packer makes the point throughout. The person who comes across as the best character in the book is a long time acquaintance Tony Lake, who worked with Holbrooke in Vietnam and remained cordial with him for years, despite the fact that Holbrooke had an affair with his wife, and in general was rude and inconsiderate.  Holbrooke lived with Diane Sawyer for several years, was married three other times, claimed and behaved as if he was madly in love with his third wife, but had two affairs while so claiming. (His wife was no nun either. A disconcerting part of this book was how much shaking outside of marriage appears to have been going on. And while I am not at all averse to enjoying intimacies I felt very much like a person looking in on a fictional world while reading).

I am glad I read the book, but it was tough sledding and I think far more detailed in terms of the three conflicts than was necessary. I was very interested in the Vietnam part. Very powerful--but the detail was not necessary to get the picture of Holbrooke. Same thing with Bosnia and Afghanistan.  In most long books I think one can knock off many pages, and that was the case here.

The last section when Holbrooke is dying and being rushed to the hospital was done very well and does tell a lot about Holbrooke’s character. There are a number of reasons why I enjoyed the book, but would have been happy to have read it if only because of the last pages describing the trip to the hospital.

It would have been good to know how Packer knows so much about Holbrooke. Also I think this book needs better sourcing. Packer uses the method where a reader has to identify what needs a footnote and then goes to the back. There are no superscripts indicating a footnote is in the back. This has become common, but in general I don't think it is effective.  In Our Man, often where I thought a footnote was essential, there was none.  There is an explanation of why the book is noted as it is, but it does not help the reader, at least it did not help me.

What enticed me to read this was an excellently written and positive review in the New York Times Sunday book review.  I thought the review was special not so much because of how it positively reviewed Our Man, but how it was written and what it itself revealed about Holbrooke’s character.

Hats off to Packer for the detail here.  I think there are essentially two books. One, that describes Holbrooke. Two, a book that describes international politics.  The Vietnam part, like many other books on Vietnam, leaves no doubt that what we did in Southeast Asia was outrageous even relative to other international conflicts.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Don Margotta

So, I am at the Knotty Pine ready to dig into a number 10--three scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, hashbrowns, scali bread and black coffee. What could be wrong with the universe?

I find out.

I open up my smartphone as I wait for the dish to be plated. I read a note from the dean of the college of business.  I read that my colleague Don Margotta died suddenly on Monday.

Don Margotta is my favorite person at Northeastern.  A mensch's mench if there ever was one.  Never boastful despite being such an expert in an area of finance that he was regularly called in as an expert witness for various court cases. The guy never did anything half baked.  If he accepted an assignment you could count on it being done thoroughly.

It was about thirty years ago when we first met. He was by the racquet ball courts in the gym, had a racquet and a clipboard. He asked if I wanted to play. I said sure, and there began a friendship.  We played racquetball for a spell--I'll guess a year-- and then switched to tennis.  He knew just where and when courts would open up at MIT and we would meet to knock the balls around. He then developed some health related problem that shut down tennis and racquetball.

I am thinking it was twenty years ago that I heard he had a heart issue. I visited him in the hospital and he was cautiously optimistic. Always with the smile you see in the photo above.  Unable to play tennis or racquetball he adopted another regimen to remain fit.  He told me what he did every single morning.  That he ate a special omelette and made sure not to wake up his wife by doing something or other than I cannot recall so that his exercising would not disturb her.  He kept a book with him all the time and could tell you, to the calorie, how many he had consumed thus far in a day and how many more he could consume.  Once we went out for a beer and he took out that book and wrote down precisely the number of calories he knew that were in that beer.

We made a pledge to see each other once a semester, but neither of us made sure to make it happen.  One of the last times I saw him he told me he was having trouble walking to school. His place is about a fifteen minute walk to his office. He told me exactly where he knew he would feel pain and would have to stop and rest, before he could resume.

The news of contemporaries leaving us has come in more frequently and will only speed up as I continue to move around the track. This one hit me particularly hard.  It sounds trite, but the world has lost a true gentleman, and a positive force in the universe. 

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Move the Damn Gym

I meet Denny near the Pagoda.  The Pagoda is the spot where the National Guardsmen pivoted and shot into a crowd, killing four students, two of whom were not even protesting.  The two protestors were so far away that they posed no threat, as in none, to the twenty something National Guardsmen who fired for thirteen seconds. Count to thirteen.  They shot for thirteen seconds, helter skelter, into a group of unarmed twenty year olds.

Denny tells me he was there that day and his life was saved twice.  He was a freshman and watching the activity. When the Guard marched up from the practice football field to the Pagoda, he was to the left of the soldiers. When the soldiers wheeled around to shoot he was to the right. Very close to the Guardsmen.

The first time he was saved was a few moments before the soldiers got to the Pagoda. He said to a buddy of his that they should go down to the Prentice Parking lot to get a better vantage point.  His buddy said, "No, let's stay here."  He would not necessarily have died if he had gone to the parking lot. But that is where the four others were slain.  Jeff Miller the closest, 270 feet away, then Allison Krause a little further away and to the right of Miller,  William Schroeder an ROTC student was behind Miller, and Sandy Scheuer was a few steps behind Krause.

I asked Denny about the second time, though I knew something about what had transpired.

As soon as the shots went off, the students including my new friend Denny, hit the ground. They all thought the shots were blanks, but hit the ground automatically anyway. When Denny stood up he saw the fallen Jeff Miller. It is Miller who is the student on the ground in the iconic photo.  Denny and all the rest of the students were outraged.  They began to rush down the hill toward the Common.  They were ready to confront the guardsmen. The guardsmen, empowered, were reloading their weapons.

A professor named Glenn Frank acted as a go between. He begged the guard not to open fire, and he begged the students not to confront the guard. Running back and forth between the soldiers and the students, he screamed at the students words to the effect of, I don't care if you never listened to anyone else in your life, listen to me.  Glenn Frank averted what would have been an uglier event.

The May 4 Memorial Service today was moved indoors. It was not raining, but it threatened rain--and it was chilly.  The inside venue was a comfortable place to view the ceremony.  When I was here last we had to stand on the hillside.  Here the entire ballroom was filled with chairs and attendees.  The most powerful speaker was the woman representing Jeff Miller, but there were other interesting moments.  The sister of one of the students wounded made a few comments regarding her recently widowed mother. Her mother suggested that her daughter convey three things. I can only remember the third: Move the damn gym.

In the late 70s to the fury of those who had been shot at, the administration decided to build an auxiliary gym near where my friend Denny had stood that day.  There were strong objections and demonstrations, but the administration prevailed. It is still a source of irritation to the survivors.

After the sister spoke, the president of the university made a few comments. She apparently has been very supportive of those who want to remember this day. Nevertheless as she got up to the podium, a fellow behind me bellowed, "Move the damn gym." And there was applause.

It was something to see a bunch of we early 70 year olds limping around the area where the shots were fired. I overheard one guy squawking about the nature of the demonstration to anyone who he could get to listen. Others paused at the various markers around the shooting site.

The overall sense I have is that I am so glad that I made this trip.  The national guard and the government has never wholly apologized for this travesty.  Unarmed students were shot at for exercising their first amendment rights or observing others who were exercising their first amendment rights.  Forty nine years later, we still remember.

Oh, I did not see Dean Kahler, this year.  He is alive, but he was paralyzed for life, one day after his birthday, by a stray bullet. He'd just transferred into Kent earlier in 1970.

Move the damn gym.

Friday, May 3, 2019

unnecessary, unwarranted, inexcusable

This is my fourth time in Kent, Ohio.   Today is the second time I came up for the midnight candle vigil.  And twice before I was here to do research in the May 4th Special Collections part of the Kent State library.

It is a few hours before the vigil. I am here in my nondescript motel room waiting for the hours to pass before the vigil starts.  Starting my evening at midnight or thereabouts went out with my sophomore year in college. But I will make it.

When I was here last the vigil began near the May 4th memorial exhibit. My recollection is that they told all to get there at 11, but the candles did not start lighting up for an hour or so.  And then we walked around the campus--maybe two hundred of us carrying candles. We ended up in the Prentice Hall parking lot where Jeff Miller, William Schroeder, Sandy Scheuer, and Allison Krause were killed.  When all arrived at the lot, there were some prayers and a ceremony. Then someone representing each slain student stood in the "graves"--the places in the lot where the students fell--all night long.

I went to the site of the killings earlier today.  As I walked up the hill from where Jeff Miller was shot, to where the Guardsmen opened fire, I got nauseous in a way that I don't get nauseous. It started just about where my belly button is and moved up towards my solar plexus.  It was a strange sensation. I don't know if I felt that way the other times I have been here.  I remember feeling something similar after 9-11, and then after the marathon bombing--but this was more acute.

I noticed some folks about my vintage milling around the area--and a tv reporter had set up for a shot of where the vigil will begin.

I've studied what happened, much more than the average bear.  The national guard opened fire into a crowd.  Jeff Miller was the closest of the four to the shooters. He was 270 feet away.  What kind of threat could he pose from nearly the length of a football field? William Schroeder was shot in the back. Sandy Scheuer was walking to class.

Last time I was here I got to talk with Dean Kahler for a short time. Dean Kahler was paralyzed for life by a gun shot that day.  He had just had a birthday and was a transfer to Kent. Hardly a political agitator, he had come to observe what was going on.  His birthday present was a wheel chair for life. Eight other students were injured that day.

It sounds strange to write that I am looking forward to walking with the candle this evening, and then speaking for a spell with others who are similarly observing this tragedy--but I am.  Tomorrow there will be a service at noon which, when I was here last, featured a niece of Allison Krause.  Each student who was killed has someone make some comments for her or him.  The one I remember most was the niece.   There was a time limit on the talks and when her limit was up she essentially gave the finger to the coordinator, and just kept on. Nobody listening had any objection.

The Scranton Commission that investigated the shootings called them unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable. Yet the shooters were essentially exonerated.

49 years ago tomorrow.