CHAPTER 1THE GOOD AND THE GREAT
MARCEL, MY BROTHERPLACE: Los Angeles area emergency room.TIME: Various times over the last 18 years.SCENE: White male, around 50, brought in by ambulance, pale,short of breath, in distress.Intern: You’re going to be alright, sir. I’m replacing your uids,and your blood studies and electrolytes should be back from thelab in just a few minutes.Patient: Son, you wait for my electrolytes to come back and I’llbe dead in 10 minutes. I ran the ICU here for 10 years. I’mpan-hypopit and in (circulatory) shock. I need 300 mg ofhydrocortisone right now. In a bolus. RIGHT NOW. After that,I’ll tell you what to run into my IV, and what lab tests to run.Got it?Intern: Yes sir.This scene played itself at least half a dozen times. The patientwas my brother Marcel. He’d later call to regale me with thewhole play-by-play, punctuated with innumerable, incredulouscan-you-believe-its. We laughed. I loved hearing that mixture ofpride and deance in his voice as he told me how he had yetagain thought and talked his way past death.Amazingly, he always got it right. True, he was a brilliantdoctor, a UCLA professor of medicine and a pulmonologist ofunusual skill. But these diagnostic feats were performed lyingat on his back, near delirious and on the edge of circulatorycollapse. Marcel instantly knew why. It was his cancer
returning—the rare tumor he’d been carrying since 1988—suddenly popping up in some new life-threatening anatomicallocation. By the time he got to the ER and was looking up at theraw young intern, he’d figured out where it was and what to do.I loved hearing these tales, in part because it brought out theold bravado in him—the same courage that, in the 1980s, whenAIDS was largely unknown and invariably fatal, led Marcel tobronchoscope patients with active disease. At the time, notevery doctor was willing to risk being on the receiving end ofthe coughing and spitting up. “Be careful, Marce,” I would tellhim. He’d laugh.Friends and colleagues knew this part of Marcel—theheadstrong cowboy—far better than I did. We hadn’t lived inthe same city since he went o to medical school when I was17. What I knew that they didn’t, however, was the Marcel ofbefore, the golden youth of our childhood together.He was four years older and a magnicent athlete: goodballplayer, great sailor and the most elegant skier I’d ever seen.But he was generous with his gifts. He taught me mosteverything I ever learned about every sport I ever played. Hetaught me how to throw a football, hit a backhand, grip a nine-iron, field a grounder, dock a sailboat in a tailwind.He was even more generous still. Whenever I think back tomy childhood friends—Morgie, Fiedler, Klipper, the Beller boys—I realize they were not my contemporaries but his. And whenyou’re young, four years is a chasm. But everyone knewMarcel’s rule: “Charlie plays.” The corollary was understood: IfCharlie doesn’t play, Marcel doesn’t play.I played. From the youngest age he taught me to go one-on-one with the big boys, a rare and priceless gift.
And how we played. Spring came late where we grew up inCanada, but every year our father would take us out of schoolearly to have a full three months of summer at our little cottagein the seaside town of Long Beach, New York. For those threemonths of endless summer, Marcel and I were inseparable—vagabond brothers shuttling endlessly on our Schwinns frombeach to beach, ballgame to ballgame. Day and night we playedevery sport ever invented, and some games, like three-stepstoopball and sidewalk Spaldeen, we just made up ourselves.For a couple of summers we even wangled ourselves jobsteaching sailing at Treasure Island, the aptly named day campnearby. It was paradise.There is a black-and-white photograph of us, two boys alone.He’s maybe 11, I’m 7. We’re sitting on a jetty, those juttingpiles of rock that little beach towns throw down at half-mileintervals to hold back the sea. In the photo, nothing but sand,sea and sky, the pure elements of our summers together. Weare both thin as rails, tanned to blackness and dressed in oursummer nest: bathing suits and buzz cuts. Marcel’s left arm isdraped around my neck with that eortless natural easefulness—and touch of protectiveness—that only older brothers know.Whenever I look at that picture, I know what we werethinking at the moment it was taken: It will forever be thus.Ever brothers. Ever young. Ever summer.My brother Marcel died on Tuesday, January 17. It waswinter. He was 59.The Washington Post, January 27, 2006
WINSTON CHURCHILL:THE INDISPENSABLE MANIt is just a parlor game, but since it only plays once everyhundred years, it is hard to resist. Person of the Century? Timemagazine oered Albert Einstein, an interesting and solidchoice. Unfortunately, it is wrong. The only possible answer isWinston Churchill.Why? Because only Churchill carries that absolutely requiredcriterion: indispensability. Without Churchill the world todaywould be unrecognizable—dark, impoverished, tortured.Without Einstein? Einstein was certainly the best mind of thecentury. His 1905 trifecta—a total unknown publishing threepapers (on Brownian motion, the photoelectric eect and thespecial theory of relativity), each of which revolutionized itseld—is probably the single most concentrated display ofgenius since the invention of the axle. (The wheel was easy, theaxle hard.)Einstein also had a deeply humane and philosophical soul. Iwould nominate him as most admirable man of the century. Butmost important? If Einstein hadn’t lived, the ideas he producedmight have been delayed. But they would certainly have arisenwithout him.Indeed, by the time he’d published his paper on specialrelativity, Lorentz and Fitzgerald had already described how, atvelocities approaching the speed of light, time dilates, lengthcontracts and mass increases.True, they misunderstood why. It took Einstein to draw thegrand implications that constitute the special theory ofrelativity. But the groundwork was there.
And true, his general theory of relativity in 1916 isprodigiously original. But considering the concentration ofgenius in the physics community of the rst half of the 20thcentury, it is hard to believe that the general theory would nothave come in due course too.Take away Churchill in 1940, on the other hand, and Britainwould have settled with Hitler—or worse. Nazism would haveprevailed. Hitler would have achieved what no other tyrant, noteven Napoleon, had ever achieved: mastery of Europe.Civilization would have descended into a darkness the likes ofwhich it had never known.The great movements that underlie history—the developmentof science, industry, culture, social and political structures—areundeniably powerful, almost determinant. Yet every once in awhile, a single person arises without whom everything wouldbe different. Such a man was Churchill.After having single-handedly saved Western civilization fromNazi barbarism—Churchill was, of course, not sucient inbringing victory, but he was uniquely necessary—he thenimmediately rose to warn prophetically against its sisterbarbarism, Soviet communism.Churchill is now disparaged for not sharing our multiculturallate 20th-century sensibilities. His disrespect for the suragemovement, his disdain for Gandhi, his resistance todecolonization are undeniable. But that kind of criticism is akinto dethroning Lincoln as the greatest of 19th-century Americansbecause he shared many of his era’s appalling prejudices aboutblack people.In essence, the rap on Churchill is that he was a 19th-centuryman parachuted into the 20th.
But is that not precisely to the point? It took a 19th-centuryman—traditional in habit, rational in thought, conservative intemper——to save the 20th century from itself. The story of the20th century is a story of revolution wrought by thoroughlymodern men: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and above all Lenin, whoinvented totalitarianism out of Marx’s cryptic and inchoatecommunism (and thus earns his place as runner-up to Churchillfor Person of the Century).And it is the story of the modern intellectual, from EzraPound to Jean-Paul Sartre, seduced by these modern men ofpolitics and, grotesquely, serving them.The uniqueness of the 20th century lies not in its science butin its politics. The 20th century was no more scienticallygifted than the 19th, with its Gauss, Darwin, Pasteur, Maxwelland Mendel—all plowing, by the way, less-broken scienticground than the 20th.No. The originality of the 20th surely lay in its politics. Itinvented the police state and the command economy, massmobilization and mass propaganda, mechanized murder androutinized terror—a breathtaking catalog of political creativity.And the 20th is a single story because history saw t to lodgethe entire episode in a single century. Totalitarianism turnedout to be a cul-de-sac. It came and went. It has a beginning andan end, 1917 and 1991, a run of 75 years neatly nestled intothis century. That is our story.And who is the hero of that story? Who slew the dragon? Yes,it was the ordinary man, the taxpayer, the grunt who foughtand won the wars. Yes, it was America and its allies. Yes, it wasthe great leaders: FDR, de Gaulle, Adenauer, Truman, John PaulII, Thatcher, Reagan. But above all, victory required one man
without whom the ght would have been lost at the beginning.It required Winston Churchill.The Washington Post, December 31, 1999
PAUL ERDOS: SWEET GENIUSOne of the most extraordinary minds of our time has “left.” Leftis the word Paul Erdos, a prodigiously gifted and productivemathematician, used for “died.” Died is the word he used tosignify “stopped doing math.” Erdos never “died.” He continueddoing math, notoriously a young person’s eld, right until theday he died last Friday. He was 83.It wasn’t just his vocabulary that was eccentric. Erdos’ wholelife was so improbable no novelist could have invented him. Aschronicled by Paul Homan a decade ago in The AtlanticMonthly, Erdos had no home, no family, no possessions, noaddress. He went from math conference to math conference,from university to university, knocking on the doors ofmathematicians throughout the world, declaring, “My brain isopen” and moving in. His colleagues, grateful for a few days’collaboration with Erdos—his mathematical breadth was asimpressive as his depth—took him in.Erdos traveled with two suitcases, each half-full. One had afew clothes, the other mathematical papers. He owned nothingelse. Nothing. His friends took care of the aairs of everydaylife for him—checkbook, tax returns, food. He did numbers.He seemed sentenced to a life of solitariness from birth, onthe day of which his two sisters, ages three and ve, died ofscarlet fever, leaving him an only child, doted upon and kept athome by a fretful mother. Hitler disposed of nearly all the restof his Hungarian Jewish family. And Erdos never married. HisWashington Post obituary ends with this abrupt and ratherpainful line: “He leaves no immediate survivors.”But in reality he did: hundreds of scientic collaborators and
1,500 mathematical papers produced with them. An astonishinglegacy in a eld where a lifetime product of 50 papers isconsidered quite extraordinary.Mathematicians tend to bloom early and die early. The greatIndian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan died at 32. The great Frenchmathematician Evariste Galois died at 21. (In a duel. The nightbefore, it is said, he stayed up all night writing down everythinghe knew. Premonition?) And those who don’t literally dieyoung, die young in Erdos’ sense. By 30, they’ve lost it.Erdos didn’t. He began his work early. At 20 he discovered aproof for a classic theorem of number theory (that between anynumber and its double must lie a prime—i.e., indivisible,number). He remained fecund till his death. Indeed, his friendand benefactor, Dr. (of math, of course) Ron Graham, estimatesthat perhaps 50 new Erdos papers are still to appear, reectingwork he and collaborators were doing at the time of his death.Erdos was unusual in yet one other respect. The notion of theitinerant, eccentric genius, totally absorbed in his own world ofthought, is a cliché that almost always attaches to the adjectiveantisocial. From Bobby Fischer to Howard Hughes, obsessionand misanthropy seem to go together.Not so Erdos. He was gentle, open and generous with others.He believed in making mathematics a social activity. Indeed, hewas the most prolically collaborative mathematician inhistory. Hundreds of colleagues who have published with himor been advised by him can trace some breakthrough or insightto an evening with Erdos, brain open.That sociability sets him apart from other mathematicalgeniuses. Andrew Wiles, for example, recently achieved famefor having solved math’s Holy Grail, Fermat’s Last Theorem—
after having worked on it for seven years in his attic! He thensprang the proof on the world as a surprise.Erdos didn’t just share his genius. He shared his money. Itseems comical to say so because he had so little. But, in fact, itis rather touching. He had so little because he gave awayeverything he earned. He was a soft touch for whatevercharitable or hard-luck cause came his way. In India, he oncegave away the proceeds from a few lectures he had deliveredthere to Ramanujan’s impoverished widow.A few years ago, Graham tells me, Erdos heard of a promisingyoung mathematician who wanted to go to Harvard but wasshort the money needed. Erdos arranged to see him and lenthim $1,000. (The sum total of the money Erdos carried aroundat any one time was about $30.) He told the young man hecould pay it back when he was able to. Recently, the youngman called Graham to say that he had gone through Harvardand now was teaching at Michigan and could nally pay themoney back. What should he do?Graham consulted Erdos. Erdos said, “Tell him to do with the$1,000 what I did.”No survivors, indeed.The Washington Post, September 27, 1996
RICK ANKIEL: RETURN OF THE NATURALIn the fable, the farm boy phenom makes his way to the big cityto amaze the world with his arm. At a stop at a fair on the trainride to Chicago, he strikes out the Babe Ruth of his time onthree blazing pitches. Enter the Dark Lady. Before he can reachthe stadium for his tryout, she shoots him and leaves him fordead.It is 16 years later and Roy Hobbs returns, but now as a hitterand outelder. (He can never pitch again because of thewound.) He leads his team to improbable glory, ending the talewith a titanic home run that, in the now-iconic movie image,explodes the stadium lights in a dazzling cascade of white.In real life, the kid doesn’t look like Robert Redford, but hethrows like Roy Hobbs: unhittable, unstoppable. In his rookieyear, appropriately the millennial year 2000, he throws it byeveryone. He pitches the St. Louis Cardinals to a division title,playing so well that his manager anoints him starter for theopening game of the playos, a position of honor and—for 21-year-old Rick Ankiel—fatal exposure.His collapse is epic. He can’t find the plate. In the third inninghe walks four batters and throws ve wild pitches (somethingnot seen since 1890) before Manager Tony La Russa mercifullytakes him out of the game.The kid is never the same. He never recovers his control. Fivemiserable years in the minors trying to come back. Injuries.Operations. In 2005, he gives up pitching forever.Then, last week, on Aug. 9, 2007, he is called up from Triple-A. Same team. Same manager. Rick Ankiel is introduced to aroaring Busch Stadium crowd as the Cardinals’ starting right
fielder.In the seventh inning, with two outs, he hits a three-run homerun to seal the game for the Cardinals. Two days later, he hitstwo home runs and makes one of the great catches of the year—over the shoulder, back to the plate, full speed.But the play is more than spectacular. It is poignant. It was anamateur’s catch. Ankiel ran a slightly incorrect route to the ball.A veteran outelder would have seen the ball tailing to theright. But pitchers aren’t trained to track down screaming linedrives over their heads. Ankiel was running away from homeplate but slightly to his left. Realizing at the last second that hehad run up the wrong prong of a Y, he veered sharply to theright, falling and sliding into the wall as he reached for the ballover the wrong shoulder.He made the catch. The crowd, already delirious over the twohome runs, came to its feet. If this had been a fable, Ankielwould have picked himself up and walked out of the stadiuminto the waiting arms of the lady in white—Glenn Close in ahalo of light—never to return.But this is real life. Ankiel is only 28 and will continue toplay. The magic cannot continue. If he is lucky, he’ll have thecareer of an average right elder. But it doesn’t matter. Hisreturn after seven years—if only three days long—is the stu oflegend. Made even more perfect by the timing: Just two daysafter Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in SanFrancisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis.Right after that rst game, La Russa called Ankiel’s return theCardinals’ greatest joy in baseball “short of winning the WorldSeries.” This, from a manager not given to happy talk. La Russais the ultimate baseball logician, driven by numbers and stats.
He may be more machine than man, but he confessed at thepostgame news conference: “I’m ghting my butt o to keep ittogether.”Translation: I’m trying like hell to keep from bursting intotears at the resurrection of a young man who seven years agodissolved in front of my eyes. La Russa was required to “keep ittogether” because, as codied most succinctly by Tom Hanks inA League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball.”But there can be redemption. And a touch of glory.Ronald Reagan, I was once told, said he liked The Naturalexcept that he didn’t understand why the Dark Lady shoots RoyHobbs. Reagan, the preternatural optimist, may have haddiculty fathoming tragedy, but no one knows why Hobbs isshot. It is fate, destiny, nemesis. Perhaps the dawning ofknowledge, the coming of sin. Or more prosaically, thecatastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move,wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment.What distinguishes us is whether—and how—we ever comeback.The Washington Post, August 17, 2007
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS😃EAD WHITE MALEThe 500th anniversary of 1492 is approaching. Remember1492?“In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two / Columbus sailed theocean blue.” Discovery and exploration. Bolívar and Jeerson.Liberty and democracy. The last best hope for man.The left is not amused.In Madrid, the Association of Indian Cultures announces thatit will mark the occasion with acts of “sabotage.” In the U.S.,the Columbus in Context Coalition declares that the comingevent provides “progressives” with their best political opening“since the Vietnam War.” The National Council of Churches(NCC) condemns the “discovery” as “an invasion andcolonization with legalized occupation, genocide, economicexploitation and a deep level of institutional racism and moraldecadence.” One of its leaders calls for “a year of repentanceand reflection rather than a year of celebration.”For the left, the year comes just in time. The revolutions of1989 having put a dent in the case for the degeneracy of theWest, 1992 oers a welcome new point of attack. The point isthe Origin. The villain is Columbus. The crime is the discovery—the rape—of America.The attack does, however, present the left with some ratherexquisite problems of political correctness. After all, Columbuswas an agent of Spain, and his most direct legacy is HispanicAmerica. The denunciation of the Spanish legacy as one ofcruelty and greed has moved one Hispanic leader to call theNCC’s resolution “a racist depreciation of the heritages of most
of today’s American peoples, especially Hispanics.”That same resolution opened an even more ancient debatebetween Protestants and Catholics over the colonization of theAmericas. For Catholics like historian James Muldoon, the(Protestant) attack on Columbus and on the subsequentmissionary work of the (Catholic) church in the Americas islittle more than a resurrection, a few centuries late, of the BlackLegend that was a staple of anti-Catholic propaganda during theReformation.The crusade continues nonetheless. Kirkpatrick Sale kickedo the anti-celebration with his anti-Columbus tome, TheConquest of Paradise. The group Encounter plans to celebrate1992 by sailing three ships full of Indians to “discover” Spain.Similar merriment is to be expected wherever a quorum gathersto honor 1492.The attack on 1492 has two parts. First, establishing thevillainy of Columbus and his progeny (i.e., us). Columbus is“the deadest whitest male now oered for our detestation,”writes Garry Wills. “If any historical gure can appropriately beloaded up with all the heresies of our time—Eurocentrism,phallocentrism, imperialism, elitism and all-bad-things-generally-ism—Columbus is the man.”Therefore, good-bye Columbus? Balzac once suggested thatall great fortunes are founded on a crime. So too all greatcivilizations. The European conquest of the Americas, like theconquest of other civilizations, was indeed accompanied bygreat cruelty. But that is to say nothing more than that theEuropean conquest of America was, in this way, much like therise of Islam, the Norman conquest of Britain and thewidespread American Indian tradition of raiding, depopulating
and appropriating neighboring lands.The real question is, What eventually grew on this bloodiedsoil? The answer is, The great modern civilizations of theAmericas—a new world of individual rights, an ever-expandingcircle of liberty and, twice in this century, a savior of the worldfrom totalitarian barbarism.If we are to judge civilizations like individuals, they shouldall be hanged, because with individuals it takes but one murderto merit a hanging. But if one judges civilizations by what theyhave taken from and what they have given the world, a non-jaundiced observer—say, one of the millions in Central Europeand Asia whose eyes are turned with hope toward America—would surely bless the day Columbus set sail.Thus Part I of the anti-’92 crusade is calumny for Columbusand his legacy. Part II is hagiography, singing of the saintednessof the Indians in their pre-Columbian Eden, a land of virtue,empathy and ecological harmony. With Columbus, writes Sale,Europe “implanted its diseased and dangerous seeds in the soilsof the continents that represented the last best hope forhumankind—and destroyed them.”Last best hope? No doubt, some Indian tribes—the Hopis, forexample—were tree-hugging pacists. But the notion that pre-Columbian America was a hemisphere of noble savages is anadolescent fantasy (rather lushly, if ludicrously, animated inDances with Wolves).Take the Incas. Inca civilization, writes Peruvian novelistMario Vargas Llosa, was a “pyramidal and theocratic society” of“totalitarian structure” in which “the individual had noimportance and virtually no existence.” Its foundation? “A statereligion that took away the individual’s free will and crowned
the authority’s decision with the aura of a divine mandateturned the Tawantinsuyu [Incan empire] into a beehive.”True, the beehive was wantonly destroyed by “semiliterate,implacable and greedy swordsmen.” But they in turnrepresented a culture in which “a social space of humanactivities had evolved that was neither legislated nor controlledby those in power.” In other words, a culture of liberty thatendowed the individual human being with dignity andsovereignty.Is it Eurocentric to believe the life of liberty is superior to thelife of the beehive? That belief does not justify the cruelty ofthe conquest. But it does allow us to say that after 500 yearsthe Columbian legacy has created a civilization that we oughtnot, in all humble piety and cultural relativism, declare to be nobetter or worse than that of the Incas. It turned out better.And mankind is the better for it. Innitely better. Reasonenough to honor Columbus and bless 1492.Time, May 27, 1991
HERMANN LISCO: MAN FOR ALL SEASONSHermann Lisco, a gifted scientist and legendary teacher, diedlast week. He was a quiet man from an unquiet place.Germanborn, he received his medical degree from theUniversity of Berlin in 1936, came to the United States to teachpathology at Johns Hopkins University and was recruited to theManhattan Project. In secret, he worked with a team ofscientists at the University of Chicago studying the biologicaleffects of a strange new human creation: plutonium.Later, he was own to Los Alamos to study the rst person tobe killed by acute radiation poisoning. Lisco performed theautopsy and, later, those of eight other victims of accidents atLos Alamos. His ndings were a scientic milestone, the rstpublished account of the eects of acute radiation exposure onthe human organism.A decade later, he was instrumental in producing a landmarkUnited Nations report on the eects of radiation on humans andon the environment. But Dr. Lisco was more than a scientist. AtHarvard Medical School, where he subsequently became aprofessor, he was the most beloved and inuential mentor of anentire generation of students.His home was always alive with the sound of students. Heand his wife, Lisa (a formidable intellect in her own right anddaughter of James Franck, winner of the 1926 Nobel Prize inphysics), ran a combination halfway house and salon.Medical school is not hard, but it is all-consuming. As ourworld got narrower, Hermann’s goal was to keep us human, intouch with a larger world and larger possibilities.He did so, in part, by example. He was a rare specimen of
what used to be called a humanist: His mastery of science wascomplemented by deep knowledge of the humanities. With hissupple and sophisticated mind, he discoursed easily on art,literature, politics, history.His belief in broad horizons was more than theoretical. Hewas instrumental in setting up a traveling scholarship forstudents to take a year o and see the world. He arranged forMichael Crichton to be given the freedom as a fourth-yearmedical student to research and write books.As for me, well, he made my career possible. Toward the endof my freshman year, I was paralyzed in a serious accident.Hermann, then associate dean of students, came to see me inintensive care. He asked what he could do for me. I told himthat, to keep disaster from turning into ruin, I had decided tostay in school and with my class.If Hermann had doubts—I would not have blamed him: Noone with my injury had ever gone through medical school—henever showed it. He told me he would do everything possible tomake it happen.He did. Within a few days, a hematology professor, freshfrom lecturing to my classmates on campus, showed up at mybedside and proceeded to give me the lecture, while projectinghis slides on the ceiling above me. (I was at on my back intraction, but I’m sure Hermann had instructed everybody tocarry on as if such teaching techniques were entirely normal.)He then went to work behind the scenes: persuadingprofessors to let me take their tests orally with a recordingsecretary (I did not learn to handwrite for another three years);getting me transferred for my 12 months of inpatient rehab to aHarvard teaching hospital so that I could catch up at night with
my class’ second-year studies and rejoin it in third year;persuading (ordering?) skeptical attending physicians to allowtheir patients to be cared for by the student in the wheelchairwith the exotic medical instruments (the extra-long stethoscopeHermann had made for me was a thing of beauty).Hermann did all this quietly, without fanfare. At graduation,he took not only pride but a kind of mischievous delight in ourunspoken conspiracy. We broke no rules, but we bent a few,especially the stupid ones. I’m sure he liked that.That was Hermann’s great gift: He was a man of orderlyhabits and orderly mind, but he never inched from challengingthe orderly. In Germany, he had seen order turned intomalevolence. Mild mannered as he was—I never once heardhim raise his voice—he was good at deance. In Nazi Germany,Hermann married a Jew, the daughter of an early, veryprominent anti-Nazi. Deance ran in the family. Hermann’sfather was red as head of Göttingen’s elite high school for hisopposition to the regime.Hermann did not much respect nature’s strictures, either. Atage 70, he was still climbing mountains in his belovedAdirondacks. At 80, he was still taking miles-long walks in thewoods.And now, just short of 90, he is gone. Those who weretouched by this man, so wise and gracious and goodly, mournhim. I mourn a man who saved my life.The Washington Post, August 25, 2000
NO DANCING IN THE END ZONEROUNDS: The ritual whereby a senior doctor goes from bed tobed seeing patients, trailed by a gaggle of students.ROUNDSMANSHIP: The art of distinguishing oneself from thegaggle with relentless displays of erudition.The roundsman is the guy who, with the class huddled at thebed of a patient who has developed a rash after takingpenicillin, raises his hand to ask the professor—obnoxiousingratiation is best expressed in the form of a question—whether this might not instead be a case of Schmendrick’sSyndrome reported in the latest issue of the Journal ofRidiculously Obscure Tropical Diseases.None of the rest of us gathered around the bed has ever heardof Schmendrick’s. But that’s the point. The point is for the profto remember this hyper-motivated sti who stays up nightsreading journals in preparation for rounds. That’s the upside.The downside, which the roundsman—let’s call him Oswald—ignores at his peril, is that this apple polishing does not endearhim to his colleagues, a slovenly lot mostly hung over from aterrific night at the Blue Parrot.The general feeling among the rest of us is that we shouldhave Oswald killed. A physiology major suggests a simplepotassium injection that would stop his heart and leave notrace. We agree this is a splendid idea and entirely just. But itwould not solve the problem. Kill him, and another Oswald willarise in his place.There’s always an Oswald. There’s always the husband whotakes his wife to Paris for Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day? The
rest of us schlubs can barely remember to come home with asingle long-stemmed rose. What does he think he’s doing? Andlove is no defense. We don’t care how much you love her—youdon’t do Paris. It’s bad for the team.Baseball has its own way of taking care of those who committhe capital oense of showing up another player. Drop your batto admire the trajectory of your home run and, chances are, thenext time up the unappreciative pitcher tries to take your headoff with high cheese that whistles behind your skull.Now, you might take this the wrong way and think that I ammaking the case for mediocrity—what Australians call “the tallpoppy syndrome” of unspoken bias against achievement, lestone presume to be elevated above one’s mates. No. There is adistinction between show and substance. It is the ostentationthat rankles, not the achievement. I’m talking about dancing inthe end zone. Find a cure for cancer and you deserve whateverhonors and riches come your way. But the check-writer whowears blinding bling to the Cancer Ball is quite another matter.Americans abroad have long been accused of such blingingarrogance and display. I nd the charge generally unfair.Arrogance is incorrectly ascribed to what is really the culturalclumsiness of an insular (if continental) people less exposed toforeign ways and languages than most other people on Earth.True, America as a nation is not very good at humility. But itwould be completely unnatural for the dominant military,cultural and technological power on the planet to adopt thedemeanor of, say, Liechtenstein. The ensuing criticism isparticularly grating when it comes from the likes of the French,British, Spanish, Dutch (there are many others) who justyesterday claimed dominion over every land and people their
Captain Cooks ever stumbled upon.My beef with American arrogance is not that we act like atraditional great power, occasionally knocking o foreign badguys who richly deserve it. My problem is that we don’t knowwhere to stop—the trivial victories we insist on having inarenas that are quite superuous. Like that women’s hockeygame in the 2002 Winter Olympics. Did the U.S. team reallyhave to beat China 12–1? Can’t we get the coaches—there’sgotta be some provision in the Patriot Act authorizing the CIAto engineer this—to throw a game or two, or at least make itclose? We’re trying to contain China. Why, then, gratuitouslycrush them in something Americans don’t even care about? Whynot throw them a bone?I say we keep the big ones for ourselves—laser-guidedmunitions, Google, Warren Buett—and let the rest of theworld have ice hockey, ballroom dancing and every NobelPeace Prize. And throw in the Ryder Cup. I always root for theEuropeans in that one. They lost entire empires, for God’s sake;let them have golf supremacy for one weekend. No one likes anOswald.The Washington Post, December 22, 2006
“WOMEN AND CHILDREN.” STILL?You’re on the Titanic II. It has just hit an iceberg and is sinking.And, as last time, there are not enough lifeboats. The captainshouts, “Women and children first!” But this time, another voiceis heard: “Why women?”Why, indeed? Part of the charm of the cosmically successfulmovie Titanic is the period costume, period extravagance,period class prejudice. An audience can enjoy these at adistance. Oddly, however, of all the period mores in the lm,the old maritime tradition of “women and children rst” enjoystotal acceptance by modern audiences. Listen to the booing andhissing at the on-screen heavies who try to sneak on with—orahead of—the ladies.But is not grouping women with children a raginganachronism? Should not any self-respecting modern person, letalone feminist, object to it as patronizing and demeaning towomen? Yet its usage is as common today as it was in 1912.Consider these examples taken almost at random from recentnewspapers😃ateline Mexico: “Members of a paramilitary group gunneddown the Indians, most of them women and children.”Dateline Burundi: “As many as 200 civilians, most of themwomen and children, were killed.”Dateline Croatia: “Kupreskic was named in an openindictment … for the massacre in Ahmici in which 103 Muslims,including 33 women and children, were killed.”At a time when women y combat aircraft, how can one notwince when adult women are routinely classed with children?In Ahmici, it seems, 70 adult men were killed. Adult women?
Not clear. When things get serious, when blood starts to ow orships start to sink, you’ll find them with the children.Now, children are entitled to special consideration for tworeasons: helplessness and innocence. They have not yet acquiredeither the faculty of reason or the wisdom of experience.Consequently, they are defenseless (incapable of fending forthemselves) and blameless (incapable of real sin).That is why we grant them special protection. In anemergency, it is our duty to save them rst because they,helpless, have put their lives in our hands. And in wartime, theyare supposed to enjoy special immunity because they,blameless, can have threatened or offended no one.“Women and children” attributes to women the same pitiabledependence and moral simplicity we nd in ve-year-olds. Suchan attitude made sense perhaps in an era of male surage and“Help Wanted: Female” classieds. Given the disabilitiesattached to womanhood in 1912, it was only fair and right thata new standard of gender equality not suddenly be proclaimedjust as lifeboat seats were being handed out. That deference—asomewhat more urgent variant of giving up your seat on the busto a woman—complemented and perhaps compensated for thelegal and social constraints placed on women at the time.But in this day of the most extensive societal restructuring togrant women equality in education, in employment, ingovernment, in athletics, in citizenship writ large, what entitleswomen to the privileges—and reduces them to the status—ofchildren?The evolutionary psychologists might say that ladies-to-the-lifeboats is an instinct that developed to perpetuate the species:Women are indispensable child bearers. You can repopulate a
village if the women survive and only a few of the men, butyou cannot repopulate a village if the men survive and only afew of the women. Women being more precious, biologicallyspeaking, than men, evolution has conditioned us to give themthe kind of life-protecting deference we give to that other seedof the future, kids.The problem with this kind of logic, however, is itsdepressing reductionism. It recapitulates in all seriousness thegeneticist’s old witticism that a chicken is just an egg’s way ofmaking another egg.But humans are more than just egg layers. And chivalroustraditions are more than just disguised survival strategies. Sowhy do we say “women and children”? Perhaps it’s really“women for children.” The most basic parental bond ismaternal. Equal parenting is great—it has forced men to get otheir dus—but women, from breast to cradle to cuddle, cannurture in ways that men cannot. And thus, because we valuechildren—who would deny them rst crack at the lifeboats?—women should go second. The children need them.But kiddie-centrism gets you only so far. What if there are nochildren on board? You are on the Titanic III, a singles cruise.No kids, no moms, no dads. Now: Iceberg! Lifeboats! Action!Here’s my scenario. The men, out of sheer irrationalgallantry, should let the women go rst. And the women, out ofsheer feminist self-respect, should refuse.Result? Stalemate. How does this movie end? How should itend? Hurry, the ship’s going down.Time, March 30, 1998
DON’T TOUCH MY JUNKAh, the airport, where modern folk heroes are made. Theairport, where that inspired ight attendant did what everyonewho’s ever been in the spam–in–a–can crush of a yingaluminum tube—where we collectively pretend that a clutch ofpeanuts is a meal and a seat cushion is a “otation device”—hasalways dreamed of doing: Pull the lever, blow the door,explode the chute, grab a beer, slide to the tarmac and walkthrough the gates to the sanity that lies beyond. Not since Rickand Louis disappeared into the Casablanca fog headed for theFree French garrison in Brazzaville has a stroll on the tarmacthrilled so many.Who cares that the crazed steward got arrested, pleadedguilty to sundry charges and probably was a rude, unpleasantSOB to begin with? Bonnie and Clyde were psychopaths, yetwhat child of the ’60s did not fall in love with Faye Dunawayand Warren Beatty?And now three months later, the newest airport hero arrives.His genius was not innovation in getting out, but indeconstructing the entire process of getting in. John Tyner,cleverly armed with an iPhone to give YouTube immortality tothe encounter, took exception to the TSA guard about to givehim the benet of Homeland Security’s newest brainstorm—theupgraded, full-palm, up the groin, all-body pat-down. In astroke, the young man ascended to myth, or at least the nextedition of Bartlett’s, warning the agent not to “touch my junk.”Not quite the 18th-century elegance of “Don’t Tread on Me,”but the age of Twitter has a dierent cadence from the age ofthe musket. What the modern battle cry lacks in archaic charm
it makes up for in full-body syllabic punch.Don’t touch my junk is the anthem of the modern man, theTea Party patriot, the late-life libertarian, the midterm electionvoter. Don’t touch my junk, Obamacare—get out of my doctor’sexamining room, I’m wearing a paper-thin gown slit down theback. Don’t touch my junk, Google—Street View is cool, but geto my street. Don’t touch my junk, you airport security goon—my package belongs to no one but me, and do you really thinkI’m a Nigerian nut job preparing for my 72-virgin orgy byblowing my johnson to kingdom come?In Up in the Air, that ironic take on the cramped freneticismof airport life, George Clooney explains why he always followsAsians in the security line:“They pack light, travel eciently and they got a thing forslip-on shoes, God love ’em.”“That’s racist!”“I’m like my mother. I stereotype. It’s faster.”That ri is a crowd-pleaser because everyone knows that theentire apparatus of the security line is a national homage topolitical correctness. Nowhere do more people meeklyacquiesce to more useless inconvenience and needless indignityfor less purpose. Wizened seniors strain to untie their shoes.Beltless salesmen struggle comically to hold up their pants.Three-year-olds scream while being searched insanely forexplosives—when everyone, everyone, knows that none ofthese people is a threat to anyone.The ultimate idiocy is the full-body screening of the pilot. Thepilot doesn’t need a bomb or box cutter to bring down a plane.All he has to do is drive it into the water, like the EgyptAir pilotwho crashed his plane o Nantucket while intoning “I rely on
God,” killing all on board.But we must not bring that up. We pretend that we gothrough this nonsense as a small price paid to ensure the safetyof air travel. Rubbish. This has nothing to do with safety—95%of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs areridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to dothis is that people are too cowed to even question the absurdtaboo against proling—when the prole of the airline attackeris narrow, concrete, uniquely denable and universally known.So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel instroller pouches.The junk man’s revolt marks the point at which a docilepublic declares that it will tolerate only so much idiocy. Metaldetector? Back-of-the-hand pat? Okay. We will swallow hardand pretend airline attackers are randomly distributed in thepopulation.But now you insist on a full-body scan, a fairly accuraterepresentation of my naked image to be viewed by a totalstranger? Or alternatively, the full-body pat-down, which, asthe junk man correctly noted, would be sexual assault ifperformed by anyone else?This time you have gone too far, Big Bro’. The sleeping giantawakes. Take my shoes, remove my belt, waste my time andtry my patience. But don’t touch my junk.The Washington Post, November 19, 2010
ACCENTS AND AFFECTATIONSWhen I was a kid, movie Indians said things like “me no like-um paleface.” No one ever explained the origins of the peculiar“-um” declension, but no matter. Logic was not expected ofIndians, and the same held for other native peoples in othermovies, from Tarzan on up.Things have changed. The dignity of language has beenrestored to movie Indians (well, PBS Indians—there are noneleft in the movies). They speak in their own tongue now, andthe subtitles report them saying lyrical things like, “The cry ofthe night pierces the soul of my darkness.”This process of language decolonization follows the generalpolitical decolonization of the last 30 years. It also followsmodern recognition of the dignity and complexity of nativecultures. That is all to the good. It even makes more ctionalsense for Indians to be speaking something other than a bizarrevariant of Ellis Island English.The trend, however, has not stopped there. It never does.Linguistic emancipation, it seems, is for everyone. Even, say,cavemen. Twenty years ago, the Hollywood Neanderthalcommunicated with a pound on the chest and a wield of theclub. It is hard to see one today for whom some consultantanthropologist has not invented a language as elaborate as it isbogus. And honored, like the highest German, with subtitles.Thankfully, the movement to subtitle dolphins is stalled.I nd these good intentions strained but tolerable. Lesstolerable is the direction of another wing of the languagedecolonization movement, the school of Militant Anti-Colonials—MACs for short. MACs insist that whenever, in conversation,
you cross an international border, you must turn in your Englishand go native. A MAC is the guy (English-speaking) who, in themiddle of a discourse (in English) about Central America, tellsyou that you totally misunderstand the situation in Neeeee-kahh-RAAAHH-gwahhh.Neeeee-kahh-RAAAHH-gwahhh? Pronouncing Nicaragua theSpanish way is perhaps a sign of sophistication, but it is also anadvertisement of one’s raised consciousness. More annoying stillis the ringingly rococo “elll sahl-vahh-DOHRRRRR,” all liquid l’sand rolling r’s, climaxed in the triumphantly accented lastsyllable. All this to signify hopes for a liberated El Salvadorand, some day, a liberated listener.MACs can easily be picked out of a crowd even before theirconversation has wandered south. A MAC is anyone whocarefully and aggressively says “North America” to mean“United States” (as in “North American aggression”) todemonstrate that he has transcended the imperial (North)American tendency to appropriate for one country the name oftwo continents.I can take this oblique swipe at the Monroe Doctrine. What Icannot take is the follow-up reference to, say, the drug problemin “Kohl-LOHHHHM-bia.” My habit now is to respond with theobservation that the problem is seen very dierently in Paa-RRREEEE, is ignored totally in Mohs-KVA, though it hasprovoked street demonstrations in KUE-bin-hah-ven (DAN-mark).Not that such an anti-MAC attack ever satises. But it doesmake the point that what drives English-speaking MACs is not asense of linguistic authenticity but merely a bad colonialconscience. They would never think of assaulting you with
“Mahhh-DRRREEED.” We never sent a Marine there.In my calmer moments I do admit the existence of a realdilemma here. It is a problem: How do you pronounce aforeign-language word when speaking English?My answer: When in Rome, speak Roman; when in America(what some call the United States), speak English. Drop theumlauts, the aigues and graves, and give foreign words theirmost mundane English rendering.About the use of fancy accents in mundane situations, I speakfrom experience. When I was ve, my family moved toMontreal, in part because it was French-speaking (my motherbeing Belgian, my father French). But our French was not thekind spoken in Quebec. Ours was what Montrealers called“Parisian” French, the language of Quebec’s upper class (i.e.,snobs, such as Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who once dismissedRobert Bourassa, the current Quebec premier and of working-class origins, as “a hot dog eater”). This bit of local sociologywas unknown to me the rst time I got on a bus and asked, inmy Parisian French, for directions. The bus driver did not takekindly to being linguistically patronized by a creature four feettall and wearing short pants. I learned my lesson. From then onI used only English in public.But one can’t totally avoid foreign words, even whenspeaking English. I still did not know what to do with Frenchwords that pop up in everyday English. For years, I doggedly,and self-consciously, pronounced déjà vu precisely as my folksinsisted at home, with sharps and ats and lips pursed (“vuh”)as if to whistle.Then came Déjà Vu, the album. It’s been “vooo” ever since.One does not discuss Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in an
Inspector Clouseau accent. The gig was up. Time to learn toembrace English, jettison atulent foreignness and say ciao toall that. So how about it, guys? Ni-cuh-rag-wa.The Washington Post, July 11, 1986
THE APPEAL OF ORDEALWilliam Butler Yeats tells of Icelandic peasants who found askull in a cemetery and suspected it might be that of the poetEgill. “Its great thickness made them feel certain it was,” hewrites, but “to be doubly sure they put it on a wall and hit ithard blows with a hammer.” When it did not break, “they wereconvinced that it was in truth the skull of the poet and worthyof every honor.”The human propensity to test the worthiness of a thing byseeing how well it stands up to abuse—the instinct to kick thetires on a used car—is an ancient and, if Yeats is to be trusted,occasionally charming habit. It can also be painful. Trial byordeal, the venerable and once widespread practice by whichre or poison or some other divining element is used todetermine a person’s guilt or innocence, is the kick-to-testinstinct applied to living subjects. It used to be a popularmethod for deciding whether or not someone was a witch,perhaps because what the practice lacked in fairness—theancient Hindus tied a bag of cayenne pepper around the head ofan accused witch, and suocation was the only proof ofinnocence—it made up for in finality.We have come a long way since those dark days. Or havewe? We no longer pick our witches or our poets this way, butthat is because moderns have little interest in either. When itcomes to things they are interested in—doctors, lawyers,presidents—they have replaced skull-bashing and suocationwith more subtle ordeals. Aspiring doctors must rst survivethe pressure cooker of a sleepless year of internship, aspiringlawyers the cutthroat paper chase of rst-year law school. And
those who aspire to the most exalted title of all, president, arerequired to traverse a campaign trail of Homeric peril. Itslength is ludicrous: three years for any serious candidate; itsrequirements absurd: giving up privacy, often family and almostalways a job (“You have to be unemployed to run forpresident,” says Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, wholeaves the Senate in January and is pondering a run for thepresidency in 1988); and its purpose obscure: posing with funnyhats has, on the face of it, little to do with the subject at hand,namely, governing.The ritual seems strange. Things just aren’t done that wayanymore. Not even in Chad, where ten years ago PresidentNgarta Tombalbaye ordered all high government ocials toundergo Yondo, a sometimes fatal initiation ritual combiningphysical abuse (e.g., ogging, mock burial) with ingeniouslygruesome tests of stamina (e.g., crawling naked through a nestof termites). For his pains, Tombalbaye was assassinated withina year, and his people danced in the streets. Americans beartheir burdens with better humor. They show no inclination todeal nearly so decisively with, say, the Hubert Humphrey testof presidential toughness. Humphrey once questioned whetherWalter Mondale had the “re in the belly” to run for president,a charge so serious that to meet it Mr. Mondale had to submitto a three-year diet of rubber chicken and occasional crow.Mondale may have other political liabilities, but the absence ofa burning belly is no longer one of them.There is only one point to these trials: to humble. Theimposed, often improbable ordeal is a form of payment, duesdemanded of people who are about to be rewarded with highposition. It is a form of democratic practice, laying low the
mighty before we bestow upon them prestige and power. It is,as an Icelandic peasant might see it, poetic justice.But what of the ordeal not mandated by others? How tounderstand the current passion for the self-imposed, therecreational ordeal? A marathon, after all, is a voluntary thing,and for 99.9% of the 95,000 Americans who run marathonsevery year, there is nothing awaiting them at the nish lineexcept a blanket and bottled oxygen. Yet the marathon hasbecome so commonplace that a new sport had to be created: thetriathlon, a monstrous composite of three consecutivemarathons (swimming, biking and running a total of often ahundred miles or more). And now the upper classes have takenthe fun indoors. A few years ago the rage was Napoleon, a silentlm 4½ hours long. Then came the stage production of NicholasNickleby, 9½ hours, including snack-and-comfort breaks. Nowwe’re up to 15½ hours with Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz,shown in either ve, two or occasionally one grand sitting of“sheer exhilarating length” (Vincent Canby, New York Times)—and subtitles.To be sure, the self-inicted ordeal was not inventedyesterday. The 1920s had marathon dancing, and the GuinnessBook of World Records is full of champion oyster eaters andHulaHoopers. But such activities used to be recognized asexotic, the province of the down-and-out or the eccentric. The24-hour underwater Parcheesi game was for slightly nuttycollege freshmen. Running 26 miles at a shot was for the mosthardened athlete, preferably a barefoot Ethiopian. Nowadays, a26-mile run is Sunday afternoon recreation, an alternative to aday at the beach or on the lawn mower. As for eveningrecreation, Fassbinder’s epic is so popular that the Wall Street
Journal dubbed it “the Flashdance of the intelligentsia.”What’s new is not the odd individual who rows the Atlanticleft-handed while eating only salted peanuts, nor the collegiansperched atop agpoles for reasons still unknown. It is themidday, mainstream, Main Street marathoner. The modernwonder is to be found on America’s heartbreak hills, where ithas become impossible to drive without running across (andnearly over) at least one bedraggled jogger drenched in sweatand close to collapse, the very picture of agony. Why do theydo it?The participants will tell you that they go to marathonmovies for culture. They run for health. They spend 48consecutive hours locked in a Holiday Inn ballroom in enforcedcommunion with complete strangers and call it therapy. (Sartrehad another word for it: He once wrote a play based on theconvincing premise that hell was being locked in a room foreverwith other people.) But surely there are less trying ways toacquire culture, health or psychological succor.There are, but the ordeal oers as a bonus two very chiccommodities. One is survivorship, the highest achievement ofthe modern self-celebratory ethic, best exemplied by the I-SURVIVED-THE-BLIZZARD-OF-’77 T-shirt. Survivorship, however, iscapriciously doled out. Not everyone can live in Bualo or havea Malibu beach house obliterated by a mud slide. For theaverage Joe, there is no cachet in surviving the 5:22 to WhitePlains. How, then, to earn the badge of honor that issurvivorship? Create an ordeal. Run the Western States 100(miles, that is) over the Sierra Nevada (they say that horseshave died racing the trail), and live to talk about it. Or attendthe rst modern showing of Napoleon, held in the Colorado
Rockies, outdoors, from 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., and feel, inthe words of the man who put the film together, “Like survivorsof the retreat from Moscow.”The other modern good greatly in demand is the learningexperience. Ordeal is a great teacher. A group of adventuresomesouls staged an unbelievable race on New York’s Randall’sIsland last year: a six-day run, the winner being the person whocould traverse the most ground and survive. The race was runaround an oval track, subjecting the runners not only to blisters,dehydration and shin splints, but to the overwhelming ennui ofunchanging scenery. When reporters swarmed around therunners to ask why they did it, many replied that they hadlearned a lot about themselves. They never said exactly what itwas they learned, but they seemed satised that it wasimportant. “Because it is there” has become “Because I amhere.”Like the ancients, moderns believe that one can learn aboutsomething by subjecting it to the ultimate test: beat the skull,and nd the poet. Only today we insist on beating our ownskulls, and not quite for the pleasure of stopping.Why, then? The prestige of survivorship and the hunger forlearning experiences are only partial explanations. Thesomewhat misanthropic economist Thorstein Veblen describedthe larger phenomenon. He hypothesized a new kind of good,demand for which, contrary to economic law and commonsense, increases with price. In the end, the recreational ordeal isjust the latest example of a Veblenesque status good,periodically invented for the amusement and prestige of theleisured classes. Now that everyone can aord status items likedesigner jeans, conspicuous consumption gives way to
conspicuous exertion. Sheer exhilarating length becomes a valuein itself. And the triathlon comes to represent, to quote awinner of the Hawaiian Ironman race (2.4-mile ocean swim,112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile marathon run), “the ultimateexpression of the Southern California life-style.”Which is why, outside a cluster of easeful lands, therecreational ordeal is not wildly popular. In America, peoplerun for fun. In Beirut, they run for their lives. People therelisten not for the starter’s gun, but for the sniper’s. In someparts of the world, when a man runs 26 miles it’s because he’scome from Marathon and he’s strictly on business.Time, May 14, 1984
CHAPTER 3PRIDE AND PREJUDICES