One Fall Day

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Last week at this time, I was at the American Heart Association 2017 Scientific Sessions meeting in Anaheim, CA. I’m not going to risk a libel suit for telling you what I think about Anaheim.

I’m sure that anyone who has read my previous posts knows that events of only a week ago have not aged sufficiently to write about anyway. But being at the AHA brings back memories. I attended the 1977 AHA meeting that was held in Dallas, and I have never entirely gotten past it.

If you remember, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November, 1963. The 1977 meeting was my first visit to Dallas, and the United States had just traded Gerald Ford for Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office. The loss of JFK was still fresh.

On a sunny but chilly day in early November, I walked the several blocks from my downtown hotel to the Texas School Book Depository building. At the time, the building was in a sort of renovation limbo, and it looked haunted. It was impossible to keep from looking at the sixth floor and wondering which window Lee Harvey Oswald shot from.

I’ve never felt good about Dallas, or the American Heart meeting since.

President Kennedy gave his last public address at Amherst on October 26th, 1963. I was lucky enough to be in audience. I have joined a group of classmates (some of whom are shown here) working on a documentary that looks at the content and impact of that speech, and offers some commentary on its relevance today. As part of the effort, our group met at Amherst College on October 28th   for a Saturday event called “Poetry and Politics, A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of JFK.”

The day was not unlike the October day in 1963 when the President spoke: a crisp, sunny fall day in New England, enough leaves on the ground to rustle as you walk, and enough still on the trees to stand out in color against the blue sky and high, thin clouds. After three outstanding presentations by current students and a panel discussion, the 150 or so of us who were “celebrating” gathered on the grassy quadrangle in front of the Frost Library, the building JFK had come to dedicate.

The keynote speaker looked familiar as he stepped vigorously up to the podium. Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III is unquestionably one of “the” Kennedys. He looks more like his grandfather, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, than his great-uncle the President, but the resemblance is strong.

After the speech, I took a little private walk around the campus. I looked at the second floor of James dorm where I lived, at the Chapel where I had listened to Robert Frost say his poems, and the playing field at the foot of Memorial Hill where I had watched JFK’s helicopter land.

The young Congressman gave a good speech. Not perfect, but perfectly adequate. He’s just 37; there’s time, and there’s hope.

Yankee Ingenuity

In previous posts on The Weekly Packet, I have offered the idea that fifty years is a good amount of time to gain perspective on issues.  As often happens, a recent trip has changed my thinking somewhat. Travel, of course, is a good thing.  That sounds straight out of Martha Stewart, so let’s turn to Mark Twain, who said, ““Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

So we (Katherine and I) took a short trip to get together with some of my Amherst fraternity brothers. The whole story of the Amherst fraternity experience (very benign in our era) will prompt another story.

Our travel took us to Old Saybrook, CT. where the 406 mile-long Connecticut River flows into Long Island Sound. Our host has a lovely old home on Ayers Point, and this is how we stumbled onto a bit of 246 year-old news to share with you. In Revolutionary War days, Ayers Point was the site for the fabrication of the Turtle, the first military submarine to attempt an attack on an enemy vessel. The standard information says only that Sgt. Ezra Lee, of the Continental Army was the operator of the one-man vessel, and that he unsuccessfully attempted to drill a hole in the hull of a British ship.

Actually, the story is considerably more interesting. David Bushnell, who had attended Yale, designed the Turtle and, enlisting a number of skilled craftsmen in the area, he solved a myriad of technical problems, not only constructing the boat, but also designing a timing mechanism to allow the boat to escape after attaching an explosive mine to the enemy vessel. But he needed someone with brawn to operate the boat. The operator had to move the boat forward and backward with a front propeller driven by a treadle and a hand crank and also supply the muscle required for a vertical propeller on the top of the boat that assisted with ascent.

Enter David’s brother, Ezra Bushnell. Younger and considerably stronger, Ezra must also have been either somewhat less bright or much more courageous. Perhaps he combined both attributes. Nonetheless, Ezra provided the crew and the power for the Turtle’s initial trials that took place just off Ayer’s Point. By all reports, Ezra became quite proficient at maneuvering the vessel.

The intrepid submariners loaded the Turtle onto a boat, and headed for New York Harbor, where the British fleet with its flagship, HMS Eagle, were anchored. Before they could mount an attack, Ezra Bushnell became seriously ill. This brought Sgt. Lee into the picture, as a volunteer to step into Ezra Bushnell’s spot. The Connecticut History website details Lee’s courageous but unsuccessful efforts against the Eagle.

The “news” from almost 250 years ago?

Invention, ingenuity, creativity, and craftsmanship combined to make the impossible happen; a submerged vessel with a single man aboard attacked the flagship of the British fleet.

The success of the venture depended on the skills of one man, who was laid low by illness, and a second, who made a gallant effort on short notice.

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Today, we may have more powerful technology, but we would be hard-pressed to match the mind and spirit of the Connecticut Yankees.

 

Note: see also Manston R.R., Frese F.J.,  Turtle: David Bushnell’s Revolutionary Vessel. Westholme Publishing

Goldilocks.

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The Coast Range, British Columbia

 

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The Bulkley River, British Columbia

 

This has been a busy summer! I spent a week in Brooklyn with my son as he underwent and initially recuperated from a total hip replacement. During my stay, I had the opportunity to read Goldilocks and the Three Bears not just once, but several times. Probably about 11 times.

My grandson, Walker, (think Walker Percy, the writer or Walker Evans, the photographer) obviously thinks highly of the story and so do I.

Actually, my interest in Goldilocks began some years ago when I was managing immunosuppressive medications. The trick with immunosuppression is, of course, not too little and not too much! Abstracted a bit more, the story tells us that in many of our activities, the relationship between a given parameter (temperature of soup) and a desired outcome (good taste of soup) is not linear. These relationships often take a U-shape or a J-shape, depending on how one draws the graph.

Walker lost interest when I tried to explain how to graph his story (increasing soup temperature on the X-axis, increasing tastes good on the Y-axis = upside down U.) You shouldn’t. This is how a lot of things work in life. Now we’re going to talk about one of them.

The August 22 issue of JACC (the Journal of the American College of Cardiology) has now completed preliminary seasoning. It has rested quietly in a stack of printed material on the breakfast counter, slowly making its way to the surface.

In it are some interesting data, along with a thoughtful editorial. (data, Xi et al, J Am Col Cardiol 2017; 70:913-922 and editorial Gaetano and Costanzo, pgs 923-925.)  The data are a re-confirmation of the J-shaped relationship between alcohol consumption (gm/day) and the relative risk of total mortality.

If one sets the baseline relative risk of dying at 1.0 for “never consumed alcohol” abstainers (this excludes problem drinkers who are abstaining for health reasons), the relative risk of dying from any cause actually decreases to about 0.85 for those who take a drink or two a day. Then it heads right on up, so that when you get to a half-dozen or more pops a day, your risk is well above 1.0.

What does this mean? However the Goldilocks story began, it means that the concept of getting something “just right,” whether it’s the dose of cyclosporine or the temperature of the soup, is something that humans have been working on for a long, long time. Probably almost as long as they have been fermenting stuff…

Note: 20170827-DSC02182.JPGThe two landscape photos are panoramas of multiple shots with my Nikon D7100, put together in Adobe Lightroom. Enjoy!

Summer Reading. (Not required, but worthwhile)

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What did you think about over the past two major holidays, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July?

As I often do, I spent a lot of time wondering how we got to this strange point in our national history, and a smaller time hoping that the federal bureaucracy, in its nautical role as our national ballast, has sufficient inertia to hold the course in foul weather.

I’ve just finished reading two books that I want to recommend; both are appropriate for the packet. They are not new, but ripe for reading now.

The first is Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Embers of War, a history of Viet Nam that focuses on the period from the end of WWII to 1959, at the beginning of the second Viet Nam war, the one the US fought.

The three main players of the story include war-weakened France, struggling to retain its colonial domination over Viet Nam, a home-grown independence movement desperate for military and economic support, and the suddenly superpower, the cold-war United States, operating on the basis of the “domino theory” and committed to halt the spread of “Communism.”

As Logevall tells the story, the players cannot shed the blinders that limit their vision and condemn them to act out their roles, no matter what the consequences. France poured blood and treasure into Viet Nam that could have helped stabilize her in Europe. Ho Chi Minh made a Faustian bargain with the Chinese, after his efforts to lead his country to independence were rebuffed by the US. Meanwhile, with the US caught up in the madness of McCarthyism and the “loss of China” political finger-pointing, the irrational political pressure to support first the French and then Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese was overwhelming.

Logevall, a history professor, writes clearly and unobtrusively. As events unfolded, as a reader I could only shake my head, wondering, “Why?”

The second recommendation is Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower in War and Peace. Smith focuses much of the book on Eisenhower’s military career, an important approach in order to understand how Ike functioned as President. Eisenhower was extraordinarily fortunate throughout his career in gaining brilliant senior military men as mentors, probably because they recognized his extraordinary capabilities.

Smith emphasizes Ike’s skills at the card table, his perspective in structuring “carrot and stick” decisions for both his peers and his subordinates, and his ability to delegate responsibility.

The two books, taken together, help to clarify the complex path that led to the United States involvement in Viet Nam. The relationship between Eisenhower and DeGaulle, the political pressures within the Republican Party, the pressure to use tactical nuclear weapons, all played a role.

What’s my message here? We live with our successes, and with our mistakes. Americans should celebrate the 4th of July. The essential document of the day, the Declaration of Independence, stands as a remarkable example of our successes. And on Memorial Day, the Civil War and the Viet Nam War stand as stunning examples of the consequences of our mistakes. It takes about a half-century, a reasonable time for the dust to settle, to see how the mistakes were made.

The photos are all from Havana, Cuba. I think they speak to some of the issues. The lady in the rain was photographed on the grounds of the Hotel Nacionale in a sudden downpour. The red Buick was originally, I believe, a 1954 Roadmaster. The missile is an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile of the type that shot down Rudolf Anderson’s Lockheed U-2 aircraft over Cuba on October 27, 1962,during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The wrecked engine of the U-2 is displayed below the missile.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” ― Groucho Marx

About a year ago, two reviews of Annie Proulx’s novel, Barkskins, appeared in the New York Times. Neither was particularly favorable.

I bought an audiobook recording of the novel and have listened to it, all 26 hours of it, while driving up and down I-75 from Ann Arbor to the Upper Peninsula. I finished the last disc a few days ago driving west on M-28.

Two of Proulx’s previous works, The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, have won a Pultizer Prize and a National Book Award. Barkskins probably won’t scale those heights. Nonetheless, the book appealed to me at several levels.

First, Proulx is now over 80, and any octogenarian who has the dedication and energy to write and publish a 717 page novel spanning 300 years is OK in my estimation. Second, the tale is a prolonged, slowly intensifying, protest against the wholesale exploitation of natural resources for corporate profits. It’s a protest that might be more effective at a fraction of the length, but it certainly conveys the intensity of her feeling. At this stage of life, having intense feelings about issues seems to me extraordinarily admirable. And from time to time, she delivers positively lyrical descriptions.

Finally, though, I was drawn to her failure to get the story ended. I’m sure we have all sat through to one or another piece of classical music in which the audience raises its’ collective arms, ready to applaud and get the damn thing over with, only to have the orchestra continue on, repeatedly swelling toward but not achieving a grand finale. In the last chapters of Barkskins, Proulx just can’t stop the music.

Most stories often have natural endings. The detective solves the crime. The traveler returns home. The horse wins the race. But Barkskins won’t end for Annie.

I find that appealing. She doesn’t want to hang it up, to say, “There, that’s all I have to say about that.” Good for her!

I don’t think many Weekly Packet visitors will head to the local bookstore to buy this very long novel. You just won’t have time to read it. So, here’s an offer you can’t refuse. Anyone who is facing a long drive, for instance, New York to Los Angeles by way of New Orleans, can let me know. I’ll send the audiobook to the first reader I hear from. You’ll enjoy it.

Time Travel is REAL!

This time last week, I was in Havana.

This is not a report from last week. It is a report from the late 1950s or early 1960s. If you don’t want to take my word for it, read Carlos Manuel Alvarez in the New York Times. 

Packet-style breaking news from Cuba: we Americans have been involved in armed conflicts twice there, in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. The count so far looks like one and one. After 1898, Cuba shook off Spanish rule to become a unique and vibrant society, and most Cubans seem to view that intervention positively. Plus, San Juan Hill gave Theodore Roosevelt an enormous boost.

By the mid-1930s, Fulgencio Batista, strongman, dictator, and certainly a friend of the mob, consolidated his hold on Cuba. He eventually brought rampant gambling and widespread corruption to Cuba. Although the US government supported Batista, revolution was in the air by the mid-1950s. A young lawyer, Fidel Castro, and his brother Raoul, along with Che Guevara, led the successful overthrow of the Batista government in 1959.

In April of 1961, a Nicaragua-based, CIA-sponsored, 1400-man anti-Castro “brigade” invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a disaster. Over 1100 of the brigade were captured. “14 were put on trial for crimes allegedly committed before the revolution, while the others were returned to the U.S. in exchange for medicine and food valued at U.S. $25 million. Castro’s victory was a powerful symbol across Latin America, but it also increased internal opposition primarily among the middle-class Cubans who had been detained in the run-up to the invasion. Although most were freed within a few days, many fled to the U.S., establishing themselves in Florida.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fidel_Castro

Having seen the terrain around the Bay of Pigs, including the dense Cienaga de Zapata, it’s not hard to understand why the invasion stalled. Most Cubans seem to view the Bay of Pigs for what it was, a fiasco.

After the events of 1961, time stopped. In fact, with the fall of the Soviet Union, from 1990 to about 2000, time went backward. This was Cuba’s “Special Period,” when support from the Soviets ended and the entire country fell into dire straits, short of everything.

Today, what we saw was how Castro’s unrestrained idealism, with the best of intentions, nearly destroyed a country. Cubans have universal education, universal healthcare, and no homelessness. But in this society, the infrastructure has crumbled; housing stock has steadily deteriorated, and the highly educated are vastly under-employed and underpaid.

The current government has reduced restrictions on free enterprise. Independent restaurants, “paladars,” flourish in Havana (see the photos). Some restoration and refurbishing is happening. But the work to be done is daunting!

High points of the trip: the Hemingway museum at Finca Vigia  and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.

If you click on any of the photos in this post, you should get a slide-show view that will have nice size and detail. I have almost 900 photos sitting in Lightroom; more to come.

The smell of the carnival

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Much of human learning about social interactions apparently occurs fairly early in life. In keeping with the concept that what you read in “The Weekly Packet” will be old news, I would like to propose a little time-travel back to northeast Ohio in the early 1950s.

I’m a kid around 11 years old, wearing jeans and plaid shirts. In the summer, I wear Converse hi-tops. (We will deal with footwear at another time, but you just don’t wear sneakers under galoshes. Period.) I’ve recently come to realize that the circus, the carnival, and the county fair are three very different kinds of events, and I’m working on getting them sorted out.

I have pretty firm ideas about the circus because I saw one pull in on a train, set up the “big top,” and perform. In the tent, the circus has rings, and the performers, human and animal, actually put on a show. While you watch one ring, the next act is setting up in a different ring. Basically, you pay money to get into the tent and they entertain you; it’s a value exchange. You get money for working, like delivering papers, and you give some of that money to them for their work. At the end of the show, you file out feeling happy about the spectacle. This goes in the OK category.

Carnivals, as they were in rural Ohio anyway, were not such a good deal. They were set up to provide a one way street where your money left you and went to the carny people. I took a pocketful of my hard-earned newspaper money and handed it over to throw baseballs with off-center weights at wooden milk bottles, or to shoot pellets at ducks immortal as the Furies. Sometimes someone, probably a shill, might win a stuffed toy from China, but not often. Worse yet were the “shows,” where you walked through in the gloom to gaze briefly at the unfortunate folks or critters “on exhibit.” At the end, you headed home feeling vaguely cheated; you spent your money of your own free will and got nothing of value in return except the realization that you were no smarter than the other yokels. Carnivals went in the not-OK category.

County fairs were the Mulligan stew that comes when you mix some circus with a lot of carnival, and add in 4-H Club competitions and harness racing. Among their great virtues is exposing large numbers of farm kids to non-toxic doses of a carnival. My Dad liked them.

Some sixty years later, all three of these great American institutions are fading away, and we are losing something. I’m not going to mourn the demise of the traveling circus, since that’s an economic problem. And there are still state fairs that you can drive to in as little time on the Interstate as we used to spend going east from Alliance through Damascus and Salem, up to the Canfield Fairgrounds. No, I’m missing the carnival. I miss it not because it was fun, but because of what I learned there. The smell of the circus and the fair was the smell of honest manure, the droppings of working animals. The smell of the carnival was the rank, raw scent of snake oil.

The carnival was institutionalized self-deception.

With the loss of the carnival, have we lost our communal nose for snake oil, that magical incense with the smell that makes us believe that we CAN knock down the bottles, decimate the ducks, and go home with the giant panda when we know that it isn’t so?

11/9. Stranger in a Strange Land

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Chaos in Athens
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Istanbul market

The Morning After…

When I decided to call these efforts at writing “The Weekly Packet,” I wanted to capture the idea that a general slowing of communication would be desirable. The name indicated that a piece of writing should have some time to mellow, while it was transported by sail for a few hundred miles from its origin to its readers. I wish this post could have that time.

When the imaginary packet left port on the afternoon tide yesterday, I left a familiar country for the land of Nod after a couple of glasses of a nice California red wine. (I admit to a fondness for Mendocino wines). On Tuesday morning, The New York Times polls had blessed Mrs. Clinton as overwhelmingly likely to become the next chief executive of our country; the stock market was comfortable with the prediction, and all the stars for navigation into the next four years seemed to be aligned.

When rosy-fingered dawn pulled back the curtains of the night this very morning, we had arrived in a different country. This is always the shock of travelling: the earth remains under one’s feet and the sky over one’s head, but the stars by which we find our way have played a game of musical chairs. Despite being in a different country, creatures and things follow their same basic rules. Water runs downhill. A dropped pencil falls to the floor. Trees remain rooted; they do not shake off their roots and walk about. But as a traveler, I can’t understand the clamor, the din of daily life. Is there a fire truck coming, or are we all hurrying to see a parade?

How does one cope? It will take time to learn the language, the values, and the customs of this new land. I may be too old, too inflexible. I remember having similar thoughts when we visited Istanbul. Then, one morning, our guide arranged a very special trip for a limited number of interested individuals. We would go to one of the academic archives in the city to see some very old medical books. As a fellow, I had loved the stacks of the Countway at Harvard, and just the sight of the yellowing texts, in illegible fonts and an unfamiliar language, sounded a common chord that re-oriented me. This city had included people who studied medicine and wrote down their ideas, and they had done it long before Peter Bent Brigham sold fish in Boston, or Benjamin Rush bled the Philadelphia elite.

So this morning, in this strange land where I woke up, I hear the words of the Londoner Thomas Tryon from 1689; “The world has become a great Bedlam, where those who are more mad lock up those who are less.” But Thomas, these are my neighbors. I had an English professor at Amherst, Theodore Baird, who insisted that we memorize at least a few lines of Shakespeare and few lines of Frost, so I say to myself, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

We are not in Istanbul, nor are we in Bedlam. We are all at home, and we need to find some common threads, as fragile as yellowed pages in books we cannot read, and try to meet the strangers who we thought we knew.