Ed Whitlock, a quiet gentleman of wry British wit, an iron will and a body seemingly purpose-built to run marathons, held 36 age-group world records. He was the oldest person ever to run a marathon in under four hours, and the only person aged 70 or over ever to run a marathon in under three hours. “Ed was really my hero,” said Earl Fee, two days after attending Ed’s funeral in Milton, Ont., just west of Toronto. On March 13, Ed succumbed to a cancer only his close friends and family knew he was battling. He was 86.
Earl, who turned 88 in March, is similarly decorated in his own, shorter-distance events. He holds 15 World Masters Athletics world records. At age 66, in Buffalo, he ran 800 metres in 2:14, so demolishing the world record that officials drug-tested him twice. He is one of so few runners his age who still does hurdles that at the world championships in Costa Rica three years ago, there was no one for him to run against. So race organizers ended up pitting him against world-champion sprinter Christa Bortignon from West Vancouver, then 77. (Earl led for the entire 200-metre race, but Christa pipped him at the post. She leaned in.)
Ed and Earl, Earl and Ed. Two white guys of similar vintage and background – both loners; coincidentally, both engineers – who ran their way into sports history at an age when most of us are comparison-shopping for walkers, if we’re lucky . The two friends present a kind of natural experiment. For beyond these base traits that throw them in the same sample hopper, they are a study in contrasts – and the differences may be telling.
Earl is a devotee of HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training. He hardly ever works out for more than 20 minutes at a time, but he makes those 20 minutes count. He goes for it, typically in a series of sprint bursts – between short breaks – that leave him gasping for air. He is fastidious in his training habits – timing his intervals, salting in weight-lifting and cross-training, tweaking his regimen according to the evolving sports science. What’s more, he gets fairly frequent medical consults, eats half a pound of steamed vegetables with dinner, and takes six supplements.
Ed had long followed a program of LSD – Long Slow Distance running. He tallied endless training laps under Evergreen Cemetery’s tree canopy, patiently building a “race base” – “drudgery,” he called it, but all that mileage was money in the bank which he could draw on round about mile 22, when other guys were crashing. In 2004, in the run-up to the Toronto marathon, Ed put in three-hour training runs, more days than not, for months. Then he duly turned in what was arguably the greatest marathon ever run – 2:54:48, in Toronto, at age 73. Decidedly unfastidious in his training habits, he sometimes stretched on race day, and had seen his family doctor for a check-up exactly once since Trudeau came to office – Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His diet? Ed ate “whatever they’re serving,” he once told me. At meets, he sometimes seemed to subsist on coffee and grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Ed and Earl, Earl and Ed. They were, in a sense, the hare and the tortoise. And their approach to fitness may hold lessons for the rest of us mere mortals – who aren’t aiming to topple world records, just trying to stay young – whether our working definition of that is hanging on to our muscles or our marbles or our sex drive, or even, potentially, keeping cancer at bay.
Youthfulness, Part 1: In their only laboratory matchup, Ed takes the lead
Certainly Ed looked older than Earl – at least off the track. But when the starting gun cracked and he broke into a run, he became almost supernaturally youthful, gliding so gracefully, so gossamer-lightly, he looked as if he could run through freshly poured cement without leaving a mark. Earl is all power on the track, but no less “youthful” for that. On appearances alone, you could call it a wash.
But was Ed younger on the inside? Or was Earl? To get a bead on that, it won’t do to look from the outside in. You have to look from the inside out.
In 2012, Tanja Taivassalo and Russell Hepple, then kinesiology professors at McGill (both are now at the University of Florida) did just that. As part of what has become known as the McGill Masters Study, involving more than two dozen participants, aged 75 to 93, they invited Ed and Earl separately into their lab. This allowed for a rare head-to-head comparison of the two athletes, who along with their fellow subjects were submitted to a battery of tests that assessed everything from cardiovascular health to muscle composition, flexibility to brain density.
Unsurprisingly, both men crushed it. More surprising, given the differences in the way they lived and trained, was that their “numbers” were often pretty similar. Both had roughly twice the mitochondria in their muscle cells as did the sedentary controls. That means twice the ability to suck in fuels such as glucose and fat, to make energy – and twice the anti-inflammatory protection against chronic disease in the bargain.
Both men also had NASCAR engines in their chests. Ed’s heart showed no signs of the hypertrophy (dangerously enlarged left ventricle) or arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that ultra-distance runners are often heir to. His blood pressure was a little high, but that was no surprise to him. “My own theory is that my heart is a bit too strong,” Ed once told me – the pushing power maybe exceeded the width of the plumbing in there, he ventured. “Or it could just be all the salt in my diet.” (Indeed, it is Earl, not Ed, who has inexplicably developed a heart hiccup in latter years. He has tachycardia, a scary condition that can cause the heart to rev for no apparent reason. The times that happens, he says, are the only times he feels his age.)
At one point in the McGill testing, Ed and Earl were ushered into a hospital room, and a scientist brandished a gleaming instrument that looked a bit like a wine corker. He extracted a little plug of muscle from each man’s thigh. (Earl, particularly, had some trouble recovering from that procedure. Back in Toronto, he visited the storied sports-medicine doctor Anthony Galea, who fashioned a little artificial divot out of Earl’s own blood plasma, and plugged the hole with it, to speed healing.) Earl, it turned out, had somewhat more “fast-twitch” fibres in his leg – which provide explosive power, but fatigue faster – than Ed. That’s understandable, since he’s a sprinter and Ed was a distance man. Fast-twitch muscle ratio could be considered a metric of youthfulness: We are young, one might argue, to the degree that we can really bring it on when we need to – even if that just means sprinting for the bus. Then again, endurance may also signal “fitness,” at least in the Darwinian sense: Back on the veldt, it may have been the most important attribute of all.
The biggest difference was their VO2 max scores. That’s a measure of the highest rate that the body can take up and use oxygen. Earl’s score was high. But Ed’s score was literally off the charts – the highest ever recorded for someone his age. VO2 max scores correlate not just with longevity but with basic health – youthfulness, if you like. So much so that a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month suggested that one’s VO2 max score should be considered a vital sign, as basic as blood pressure or pulse.
Score a point for Ed.
Youthfulness, Part 2: Earl catches up
Not so fast, says HIIT devotee Earl: “I believe that to stay young, intensity of exercise is more important than volume.”
Until recently, evidence for that has been circumstantial at best. But last month, data emerged to give Earl’s assertion some real teeth. In a study published in the journal Cell Biology, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., looked at how different kinds of exercise affect aging muscles at the cellular level. In one trial, three groups of older test subjects – 65 years and up – were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups.
The first group trained like Ed – long, lower-intensity sessions with no breaks. The second trained like Earl – pulses of shorter, harder effort. (The third group did weight training alone.) Biopsies revealed that both kinds of running changed those aging muscle cells – rejuvenating them, in effect – by producing more (and better quality) mitochondria while dialling up the activity levels in certain genes.
But the interval training rejuvenated those cells more than the long, slow aerobics did. The intensity seemed to be a tonic that undid some of the cellular damage that naturally occurs when we age.
Score a point for Earl.
The brain: Ed surges ahead
One hallmark of how well we’re aging is what’s happening to us between the ears. How well are we managing practical things, such as recalling names at parties and remembering that we just put a full cup of coffee on the roof of the car? In our brain, that’s largely the job of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped region in the centre that helps us make and consolidate memories.
We know that exercise beefs up the hippocampus. But recently, researchers from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland wondered whether any particular kind of exercise is better at building this part of the brain. In a study on rats published last February in The Journal of Physiology, they tested the effect of long, steady-state running (the Ed protocol) vs. interval training (the Earl protocol) vs. resistance training: weight-lifting. (The rats, if you’re wondering, pulled a weight up a ramp.)
The result? Both kinds of running grew new neurons in the rats’ hippocampus. But the Ed workout grew a lot more of them. The joggers’ hippocampus positively teemed with new neurons. The greater the distance the marathon rats travelled, the more neurons they grew. (Weight training alone, by the way, didn’t spark any neurogenesis at all.)
One point for Ed.
Wear and tear: Earl pulls up to the side
What about plain old wear and tear on the body, surely another sign of how well we’re staving off the ravages of time? Turns out, intense interval training – the Earl Protocol – does create greater “impact forces”: sudden compression that puts strain on joints and tendons.
But there’s a coda. “If you’re working out for less time in total, maybe the cumulative loading on the joints is reduced,” says Martin Gibala, head of the kinesiology department at McMaster University in Hamilton, and author of The One Minute Workout. In other words, when you work out like Earl, your moving parts get a rest and your joints are spared the sort of relentless pummelling that keeps orthopedic surgeons in Caribbean vacations.
The data are not unanimous on this, but they tip Earl’s way. Ed, says the science, was an outlier. He could do what he did because he was Ed: a 107-pound package of awesome mechanics. (He dropped to 105 in November, but generally hovered around 110.) And even Ed felt the strain – he had chronic arthritis in his knees. And the main reason he ran his training runs (relatively) slowly, he once told me, was that “my Achilles hurts if I go faster.”
Point for Earl.
Life expectancy: It’s a tie
Running is good. On average, every hour you run lengthens your life by around seven hours, a recent meta-analysis found. Aerobic exercise stresses the body, mostly in a good way. True, it does goose the production of “free radicals” – highly reactive molecules that damage our DNA (and whose accumulation is, according to one theory , the most potent driver of human aging.) But exercise is both the snakebite and the antidote: Exercise itself is an anti-oxidant, mopping up the free radicals it creates, and then some. Almost always, the medicine trumps the venom.
Almost always. Could it be that there’s some tipping point at which aerobic exercise becomes so exhaustive that it stops being protective, and hastens aging more than it slows it? Could it be that all the “oxidative stress” that Ed was subjecting himself to, with all that mileage, was aging him faster than Earl’s 20-minutes-and-done workouts are aging him?
Again, the data are murky. “The idea that oxidative stress is bad, that’s a very challenging thing to sort out,” says Dr Hepple, of the McGill Masters Study. Some studies say it is. But when McGill biologist Siegfried Hekimi increased oxidative stress in his lab mice by letting them run and run and run on a wheel, he found the opposite: They aged more slowly. “If there is a tipping point” where exercise stops rejuvenating us and starts aging us, says Dr. Hepple, “we don’t know where it is.”
Ed and Earl each score a point.
The cancer factor: No clear winner
Ed’s cancer diagnosis didn’t just surprise the grieving running community; it surprised Ed.
It wasn’t until last fall, around the time he was casually smashing the 15-kilometre world record for his age at a race in upstate New York, that Ed suspected something might be up. He was having trouble keeping weight on. Then, his shoulder hurt so much that he finally saw a doctor. The diagnosis: prostate cancer that, an MRI revealed, had moved into his spine and bones. “After that, things moved very quickly,” says his son Neil.
In a man with longevity in his family (his Uncle Arthur was actually Britain’s oldest man when he died at 108 in 2000), Ed’s death raises questions about the way he lived his life. Could there possibly be a link between the cancer and the training?
David Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of California, and a noted cancer specialist, is doubtful. “We know that there’s an association between some cancers and inflammation, but there’s no association we know of between strenuous exercise and prostate cancer,” he says. “Mutations happen. About half of the DNA changes in cancer just happen.”
In a 2008 study on potential links between exercise and cancer, scientists at Duke University in North Carolina found that prostate cancer grew twice as fast in mice that ran to their heart’s content as it did in sedentary mice. Exercise seemed to feed their tumours, perhaps by supplying more blood to them.
But that study comes with a very important caveat. “Those were human tumours that we planted in the mice,” notes Lee Jones, the clinical-exercise physiologist who headed that study. “The only way you can get a human tumour to grow in a mouse is if the mouse doesn’t have an immune system.” Exercise boosts the immune system, but it can’t work its magic if there’s no immune system to boost.
In a subsequent study, in which Dr. Jones’s team planted mouse breast-cancer tumours in mice – thus allowing the mice to keep their immune systems – the running rats showed the opposite result: Their tumours grew more slowly.
“If you life long enough as a man, you’re going to get prostate cancer,” Dr. Jones says. “Eighty per cent of men who are age 80 have prostate cancer. Seventy per cent of 70-year-old men have prostate cancer. The fact that Ed was 86, he probably had prostate cancer for years. But because he was in such a trained state, his body was very likely able to keep that cancer from spreading as long as it did.”
Quality of later life: Once again, a draw
We make a fetish of longer and longer life. But “lifespan” is not the most meaningful metric, argues Stephen Harridge, a respected physiologist at King’s College London. “Healthspan” is.
Actual time above ground means little if much of your Third Act takes place in the ICU. Something happens to our bodies around the eighth decade of life. Most of us tend to just start coming apart like a clock; afflictions compound, slowly choking off quality of life.
But for masters athletes, their slow, linear performance suddenly takes a discouragingly exponential plunge. Ed didn’t have “co-morbidity” issues. One single thing crept up on him right at the end. Like track-and-field legend Olga Kotelko, who died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage in the summer of 2015, just weeks after setting a passel of new world records at age 95, Ed was world-beatingly fit and feted – and then suddenly gone.
“Both of these folks” – Ed and Olga – “compressed their morbidity into a tiny, tiny fraction of their time on Earth,” says Dr. Hepple. And that might be the best definition of successful aging that we have. “Ever since Ed died,” adds Earl, “I’ve been thinking, it’s kind of a gift, what we do.”
In his heroically researched, 664-page book 100 Years Young the Natural Way he presents a kind of template for people to hit the century mark, following a protocol of exercise, stress reduction and strategic eating. Since the book came out in 2011, Earl has tweaked his diet a bit. He has almost entirely cut out fish and chicken, convinced by the data that vegetarians probably live longer. He avoids processed foods that create inflammation. He tends to his gut flora with foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt (although, he acknowledges, “some of that fermented food is not too tasty.”)
Will he justify his book’s title? He hopes so. “I’m still aiming for 100,” he says. “But life can be more fragile than you think.”
There’s an old African saying: When the water hole shrinks, the animals start looking at each other funny.
As a metaphor it certainly describes my own profession of journalism. The water hole is shrinking fast. The animals are uneasy.
See, nobody wants to pay for stories anymore. Because everything’s free on the Internet. So newspapers and magazine are folding in droves. It’s desperate times for people who make their living from the written word.
I was at a party recently and a lot of my old writer pals were there, people I hadn’t seen in many years. There was a lot of commiserating about how things have changed, and how a lot of us are hanging on by our fingernails. But not all of us. A couple of us have scored. One signed a million-dollar deal for his first novel, the other has become a sought-after keynote speaker after his book nonfiction plucked the strings of the zeitgeist; he couldn’t be here tonight because he was in Florida at a lucrative gig. These two gentlemen weren’t here at the water hole because they’re not thirsty anymore. They’re set for life.
So, as these two success stories made the rounds, an emotion sort of crept up on everybody. No one needed to name it but everybody felt it. It was complicated, because these are very good guys – talented, hard-working, standup humans; nobody would say they hadn’t earned their good fortune. But still, the fact was, they had made it and the rest of us were still struggling. And the emotion we all felt was … envy.
Envy is toxic. It’s toxic but it’s understandable. Our culture offgasses it.
We say we want other people to succeed, but do we really mean it? Because when they do, it makes us feel crappy about ourselves. The lovable loser in our life stops being so lovable when he succeeds. Now we’re the loser, right? Somebody has to be. He just handed us that script.
But I’m here to tell you, there is an antidote to envy. And this antidote has a name:
It’s a Sanskrit word that has no direct English translation. People sometimes define it by what it isn’t. Mudita is the opposite of envy.
If envy means, “When you win, I lose,” and schadenfreude means, When you lose, I win,”
mudita means, “When you win, I win.”
Buddhists sometimes define mudita as “sympathetic joy.” It’s one of the highest emotional states anyone can aspire to. It says: We’re all in this together. When you rise, I rise. Your happiness is my happiness.
Anyone who’s a parent has experienced mudita. The small triumphs of your children spark sympathetic joy inside your own heart. (Although it’s also not unheard of for parents to be jealous of their own kids.)
But a Buddhist might say, that’s kindergarten class. It’s easy to feel mudita for your own flesh and blood. The real test is, can you cultivate mudita for everybody else? Can you enlarge the circle of mudita until not a single living person is omitted? That’s the endgame for a truly enlightened human.
I’ve never met anybody like that; surely she exists somewhere. The question is, is this a skill that the rest of us, in our warty imperfection, can get a little better at? I believe so. Here’s a very practical way I just learned about. A simple exercise. It works like this:
Start by thinking of some thing that is really flourishing. Not some person, some thing. Say, a bush in your yard that’s in flower. Or the healthy pine tree next to it. You can’t be envious of a pine tree — it’s just … a pine tree. But it makes us feel good, right? The pine tree in my yard is alive, all’s right with the world. So feel that feeling, sympathetic joy for the pine tree.
Now, very gently, take that feeling and transfer it on to a friend. Someone you like but don’t love. Except now you kind of do love them, because you’ve ginned up a little mudita. Their win is your win. Their success if your joy.
Here comes the bigger leap. The Ropes Course. Take that mudita and, very carefully, transfer it to someone you don’t like very much at all.
This could take awhile. To feel mudita for, say, Donald Trump might be a life’s work.
But one way to approach the task — and this was suggested recently by the great Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg — is to think about this person not in terms of their recent success but rather their ongoing vulnerability. They are fragile and fighting a great battle, just as you are. Their days are numbered, just as yours are.
There you go. Feel it. In their world, and in your world now, the stump of misery just put out a radiant sprig.
Colette anderson and her five-year-old son were approaching the checkout line at a Save-On-Foods in North Vancouver when she realized they’d left her shopping list at the sushi place in the mall. A hundred metres away, just out of sight. “Would you mind going and grabbing it while I pay for these groceries?” she asked the tow-headed boy. Off he went.
Two minutes later, she spotted her son coming toward her. A middle-aged man was escorting him, his hand on the child’s shoulder. The boy disengaged himself and trotted over to his mother.
“I found him alone in the mall,” the man said.
“Uh-huh,” Anderson said.
“I can’t understand how you could just let him run off.”
“He didn’t ‘run off,’” Colette replied. “I sent him on an errand.”
“How old is he?”
“Anything could have happened to your child—anything,” he said. “That’s bad parenting.”
The man was talking loudly. Other shoppers had stopped what they were doing to tune in. Anderson could feel anger rising in her but made an effort to contain it.
“Thank you, but my son didn’t need you to rescue him,” she said. “He’s quite capable of running an errand on his own. That’s how kids grow up.”
The man stalked off. Anderson reassured the rattled boy that all was fine now. But a couple of minutes later, the stranger appeared again. “I just can’t let this go,” he said. “I can’t believe you’d be that irresponsible.”
One aspect of the interaction with her confronter stays with Anderson the most: his rage. In 2010, Anthony Daniels, a former Birmingham prison physician who writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, described the kind of snap judgment that causes a stranger to publicly dress down a parent as part of a “toxic cult of sentimentality.” The phenomenon has become so widespread that a whole category of viral videos has emerged featuring mothers who return to their cars after running short errands and find themselves furiously upbraided by strangers for having left their children unattended. According to Daniels’s argument, such bystanders love kids so much their feelings curdle into a “sentimental wrath”—or a self-righteous hatred—turning them from protectors into vigilantes. In such cases, scolding an offender produces a moral high.
A study published in August seems to bear out this analysis. Researchers at the University of California presented 1,328 participants—split roughly evenly between men and women, between those with children and those without—with vignettes involving kids who had been left alone by their parents for less than an hour. The explanations for this act ranged from the selfless (parent volunteering for charity) to the selfish (parent popping out to meet a lover). The study found that the perceived peril faced by each child escalated according to the moral transgression the parents were judged to have committed. The result was a “feedback loop”: the bigger the affront, the greater the threat; the greater the threat, the louder the outrage. In other words, talk of risk was used to rationalize moral disapproval.
Humans are terrible at assessing risk. Social scientists describe an “availability” heuristic that causes us to inflate the likelihood of events that can be easily brought to mind—the dramatic, the sensationalistic, the recently seen on the news. But how likely is it that children will become victims of the kinds of snatchings that put photos on milk cartons? Of the 41,342 kids reported missing in Canada in 2013, twenty-nine were “abducted by strangers.” But “stranger” in this case just means “not a parent.” In a 2003 study, investigators looked at ninety cases of stranger abductions collected from the previous two years. After eliminating the cases in which the abductor had been known to the family, they arrived at a new number: two. Two kids. Indeed, if you left your child on the corner in hopes of having him abducted, you’d have to wait—by one calculation—200,000 years for it to happen.
This climate of fearmongering changes parental risk-calculus—it’s now driven by fear, not logic. Two years ago, Chad Brown, a Vancouver software developer, entered a hackathon sponsored by the City of Vancouver. He used government crash data, geolocated by intersection, to develop an app to help kids walking to school pick a route that avoided dangerous intersections. After Brown’s team won the competition, he learned why: they had stumbled on one of the city council’s top priorities at the time—to encourage parents to walk with their kids, or to let them walk by themselves. Since the 1970s, the percentage of Canadian children allowed to walk to school has fallen from around 50 percent to about 15. One of the reasons: fear of abduction. Studies routinely show, however, that kids are at a higher risk of getting hurt when they’re driven to school. Indeed, car crashes are among the leading causes of child death in Canada. But the spectre of an abduction—which is highly improbable—is more psychologically “available” than the more likely, if mundane, possibility of an accident.
Anderson allows that her day could have gone more sideways had the man opted to call the police. In April, officers were summoned to a Squamish, British Columbia, house after a neighbour reported that the family’s two children—a four-year-old boy and his six-year-old brother—were playing by themselves in the driveway. One year later, another complaint sent a Child and Family Services investigator to the door of a Winnipeg mom whose three children were playing alone in the fenced-in yard. (She was in the house.)
Many jurisdictions in the United States have experienced an increase in 911 calls because concerned citizens are phoning in reports of children walking, playing, or sitting somewhere alone. “I’ve had investigators testify in hearings that you can’t leave a child in a car for even sixty seconds,” says Diane Redleaf, legal director of the Family Defense Center, a Chicago-based non-profit that advocates on behalf of families in danger of losing their children to foster care. Over the past decade, the number of families who’ve turned to the fdc for help after being charged with inadequate supervision has tripled—“This is now the largest category of cases we see,” she notes. (In the US, parents who have merely been investigated for inadequate supervision can end up on a registry that can be accessed by potential employers. Canadian provinces maintain similar registries, but if you haven’t been convicted, no one can see your file.)
John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family at the University of Calgary. He sees parents as being stuck in a social moment where they can’t win. “As a society, we give parents a really large degree of discretion while we hover in the background, waiting for them to lapse and demonstrate parenting standards that fail the norms we’ve established.”
If these norms had been in place when we were kids, almost all our parents would have been targets of suspicion. (Remember “Don’t come home till sundown”? That wasn’t a suggestion; it was a directive.) “We spend so much time looking at sensationalistic news about children who are at risk,” says Boyd. “Maybe we need to reset our comfort level.”
There’s a famous American clown named Moshe Cohen, who goes by the stage name Mr. YooHoo. In his heyday he travelled widely, plying his shtick before children and adults alike. One time Mr. YooHoo was performing before a big crowd in Chiapas, Mexico. The show seemed to be going well. At the end of it, he announced. “And now for my last trick, I’m going to make you all disappear.” And with that, he took off his glasses.
The gag had always got a laugh. But not this time. Crickets. What was going on?
Mr. YooHoo put his glasses back on and looked out at the audience. And then he understood. No one was wearing glasses. Not a single person. They were too poor to wear glasses. So they didn’t get the joke.
The acting teacher Bernie Glassman tells that story in his book The Dude and the Zen Master (Glassman had himself been a clown, and Mr. YooHoo was his mentor), and when I read it I thought: teachable moment. The lesson is, I guess, know your audience. Make sure you’re not working blue for a Christian crowd, not leaning on pop-culture references for a group of seniors, and so on.
But it occurs to me there’s a deeper way to think about the moral of this story – not as “market research,” but as an exercise in empathy. Think of the people sitting out there. Better yet, actually go out there and sit where they’re sitting. Who are they? What private battles are they fighting? Answering that will help you answer this: What can you give them?
I recently exchanged emails with Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur and writer who now earns his beans on the speaking circuit. He often tells the story of how he overcame his stage fright with one simple intervention.
Derek had worked for a dozen years as a circus emcee (that’s him in the picture). In the beginning, he’d wanted to put his own stamp on the role. He tried to be all hip and ironic and Letterman-esque. It never quite clicked. He amused himself, but he never really connected with the audience. This wasn’t the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow — this was a traditional circus in the Midwest.
So one day he tried something different. He decided to be the very thing he was hired to be, a circus barker — nothing less and a little bit more. He played that role and dialed it up. People loved it.
When he returned backstage the owner of the circus took him by the shoulders. “There you go!” she said. “You’ve figured it out. That’s why people go to the circus. You gave them what they wanted.”
And that’s when it clicked for Derek. He thought, ‘It’s not about me.’ What the audience wants is to receive something of value that they can take away and maybe share with their family over dinner tonight. They want their pain salved, just for a few moments, with a pleasant distraction. Memo to self, Derek thought: Just give them what they were hoping to get when they showed up here today. But to do that means at least trying to grok, at a fairly deep level, who these people are.
That’s the step that Mr. YooHoo missed. For all his experience, he failed to understand that he couldn’t just deploy a joke that worked somewhere else and have it work here, in front of these people whose needs and whose circumstances he hadn’t really considered.
Derek’s stage fright vanished the moment he realized what his actual job was: “My role is to just be kind of invisible and deliver, like a great butler.”
Mr. YooHoo had it backwards. The trick isn’t to make your audience disappear. It’s to make yourself disappear.
Americans knew they were in for a hell of a speech that November day in 1863.
The place: a cemetery in Virginia. The occasion: twenty-five thousand soldiers, killed in a single day in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, buried right there beneath the ground where the podium had been set up. So horrible was the event that people had no words to make sense of it. They needed a great speaker to give them those words.
And up stepped Edward Everett, a popular statesman, to ease their pain, to deliver the speech of his life. He’d prepared mightily and memorized the whole thing. He spoke for two hours.
What did he say? Nobody remembers. Because the guy who came up after him on that day stole the show.
The guy who came up after him spoke for two minutes. He did in two minutes what Edward Everett couldn’t do in two hours: he captured that historic moment and put it under glass forever. The second guy’s speech didn’t blow the first guy’s speech away in spite of its brevity. It blew the first guy’s speech away because of its brevity.
The second guy was Abraham Lincoln. And his two-minute speech was the Gettysburg Address.
Historians have made a lot of this juxtaposition of speakers, the crazy vaudeville act of these two gentlemen who couldn’t have been more different. Their speeches, too, couldn’t have been more different.
Unlike Edward Everett, Lincoln didn’t drop a lot of allusions to the ancient Greeks. He didn’t broadcast his knowledge of every detail of the battle. He didn’t name-drop every historic figure from Adam who might have had a hand in bringing the United States to that moment in time.
He just … exhaled. Two hundred seventy words. Everett’s first sentence was fifty-three words.
Historians credit Lincoln, in that speech, with summing up not just the meaning of the war but the meaning of the country. But he did more than that. He changed the way people talk. (1)
Lincoln used simple language (short words with Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots), and in so doing, he gave people who have deliver a speech even today permission to speak … like themselves.
Since that day in Gettysburg, the way we communicate has increasingly been about hacking away the ornament that Edward Everett trowelled on so liberally. Getting rid of pretention. Finding the cleanest line between your heart and the heart you’re trying to reach.
We gas on because we think we have to. The bigger the occasion, the more we think we need to say.
But speaking isn’t about telling people all you know. It’s about telling people all they need to know. And these days, most folks don’t need to know much — at least not from you or me. They can’t manage a big stemwinder. They’re busy. They don’t have the attention. They don’t have the RAM. They can handle one big idea, a little sketch portrait done while they wait. That’s it.
To me that’s the genius of the five-to-seven minute speech format of Toastmasters — a club I think everyone who has to talk in public could benefit from. At Toastmasters, the clock starts the moment you open your mouth. A traffic-light gizmo sitting on the table lights up green, then orange, then red as you approach your time limit.
At five minutes, you’d better be putting the landing gear down. At six minutes you’re preparing your close. Beyond seven minutes you’ve gone on too long, and even a polite club will “clap you down.”
Even if you fancy yourself an aspiring keynote speaker – Hey, I need to learn how to give a long speech without notes, just as Edward Everett did — the real skill is in shaving your message to its nut. A fifty-minute keynote speech is really just a bunch of five-to-seven minutes speeches strung together.
Edward Everett would have been clapped down at Gettysburg before he’d even finished clearing his throat.
1) Ted Widmer, “The Other Gettysburg Address,” New York Times, Nov. 19, 2013
The other day I was on a stationary bike at the gym — part of the noontime spin crowd, all of us sweating it out. The guy next to me was really bearing down. He inspired me to give the tension knob another half-turn. By the end I was knackered.
I got off the bike, patted down with a towel, put on my glasses and took a few steps.
Whoa. This did not feel right.
The room was pitching and heaving. I had trouble getting my bearings. I thought: something’s seriously wrong. A stroke? If you can put your arms overhead — all I could remember from the checklist of red flags — you can rule out a stroke, and I could put my arms overhead. My perception was wonky, so maybe a brain injury. Possibly a tumour on the visual cortex. If that’s what it was, it occurred to me, then at my age the prognosis is not that good.
Then I realized:
I had put on the glasses of the guy on the next bike.
We got it straightened out before he put on mine. (Although it would have been interesting to see if he lapsed into the same desperate Woody Allen routine.)
Two takeaways from this:
Number one: Don’t reach for a complicated explanation when there might be a simpler one.
Number two: Don’t catastrophize. It only creates anxiety and there’s absolutely no upside, because if turns out you’re wrong, you’ve been tormenting yourself needlessly, and if it turns out you’re right, you’ve been extending the suffering unnecessarily.
Feels good to be back from the brink. Near-sighted, absent-minded, but still among the quick.
As the Mazda eases through the highway curves near Cassidy, B.C. — not ten minutes into the trip — a curdly tang fills the air.
“Oh gross – Penny just barfed!” Madeline hollers from the back seat. “Lila’s cleaning it up! She’s the one who fed her cheese!”
Penny is our one-year-old golden retriever, and the reason we’re on this kind of family holiday — rural, car-based, close to home, — rather than the more exotic kind involving air travel, big cities, high culture and people dressed in expensive black slacks.
Dogs are of course awesome, as I don’t need to tell you dog people. But a puppy can disrupt a little family in the following way: you can’t leave her alone — not in the car, not on the ferry, not outside a store. She barks, you see. So, just when you thought the ‘hot-bunking sailors’ stage of married life was over, here it is again.
“Kind of like having a toddler,” a friend suggests.
“Except toddlers grow up.”
Now, you can leave your dog at a kennel come vacation time (don’t try this with a toddler). But the cheapest option, in some ways the easiest option, and certainly the only no-tears option, is to just bring her along.
We’d planned a circle route around lower Vancouver Island — down the east coast, around the horn, back up the west coast and across the interior — but forest fires had closed that final cut-through. So our journey would more closely resemble a smile that we traced and traced again.
Front-loading the indulgence, we booked the first night at the exquisite Sooke Harbour House — a destination more befitting honeymooners, foodies, and mindfulness-meditators than a roustabout family with a big sheddy mutt. You’d normally have to sneak a dog into such a place. But they love dogs at SHH. “We often prefer dogs to kids, actually,” one of the chambermaids told me, sotto voce, as we brought our bags from the car.
Penny must have missed the Cesar Milan episode where the dog waits in the hallway while the owners spread their scent throughout the hotel room: she trots right in. Waiting for her is her own little doggie bed, plus a welcome basket with towels and treats. Outside the French doors, the grounds beckon. The two-and-a-half acres of lovingly tended gardens are locovore heaven. “Eat what you can see” is the mantra here. Penny seems to understand this a little too well; we keep a close eye on her, lest she take a chomp out of one of the driftwood sculptures.
2. The best damn swimming hole in Canada
The Sooke Potholes are a series of pools carved into the rock by the cascading waters of the Sooke River. They’re one of the great swimming holes in B.C. But to a dog, they must seem even more magical: like a great big toilet you can drink out of.
A bike trail called the Galloping Goose takes you right there from the city, following the gentle grade of the freight-rail line it used to be. All in all a perfect way for a family with a dog to spend a summer day. Once you get on the Goose, you’re golden. It’s finding the Goose in the first place that’s the trick.
On rented bicycles, we white-knuckle it along the skinny shoulder of the highway as five-axle traffic blasts past. I’m trying to steer with one hand and wrangle Penny on a leash with the other. You see people gaily do this in TV commercials for life insurance, but running shotgun is actually a skill the dog has to learn. Penny either wants to pull me into cars, or she wants to stop and sniff. Whenever we leave the highway and try to thread our way through the suburbs, we keep hitting dead ends. It’s not clear where the heck we are.
“Did you know that commercial jets are off-course ninety percent of the time?” I offer, buoyantly. “The whole trip is about making corrections!” Silence. The girls are wondering about the chain of command on this vacation. Even the dog is getting fed up.
But the Potholes, when we find them, are as lovely as promised — the water bracing and ferric — and the Mad and Lila wade in to their chests. Penny decides the water’s too cold and stays on shore.
It’s trendy to talk about domestic dogs as if they were wolves – wired to hunt and roam and jockey for position in the pack. There isn’t a lot of wolf in Penny. Evolutionarily, she’s probably closer to a kitchen appliance. She knows where her dinner’s coming from: a big bag, not her own predatory instincts. This makes things easier in wilderness areas. We don’t really have to worry about her hare-ing off somewhere. Eventually she grows bored, picks up one of Lila’s shoes and drops it in the river.
3. The Big Wild
Luxury digs receding in the rear-view mirror, we complete the lazy drive north, through the Sooke Hills, arriving at dusk to pitch our tent at China Beach.
Dogs are welcome here in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park — as they are, albeit leashed, in all BC parks. This makes camping a pretty good way to go if you’re travelling with the hund. (Camping, when you think about it, is actually more suitable for dogs than for humans: sleeping on the ground in close quarters in a portable den.) The girls take turns blowing into the air mattress while Penny cases the joint. Her nose twitches. A curious expression comes over her face — a cross between approval and admiration. You guys must be more important than I thought, it says. They gave you the best site in the campground – right next to the outhouse.
The big attraction in these parts lies a short drive north of here, near Port Renfrew. And Botanical Beach is indeed high-grade West Coast wild. We hike the loop trail, an easy 4km. We didn’t get the tides right, so much of the big, rich canvas of intertidal life is underwater. But the trees are amazing — not because they’re so big, but because, weirdly, they aren’t. The ancient Sitka spruce are bonsai-tiny. “In a protected area,” an interpretative sign explains, “many of these trees would be fifty metres high.” But because they’re so exposed to the punishing weather, they don’t grow. The hardship stunts them. I half-expect the girls to pick up on this. We too are a bit undersized for their age, they will claim, because of the hardship you and mom inflict on us. Lift the restrictions on screen time and candy and watch us bloom.
4. The Big Smoke
Penny is starting to smell. In that smell are traces of the trip thus far — top notes of beach goo, the Rottie she wrestled at Whiffen Spit, whatever she rolled in on that farm in Metchosin. The car, meanwhile, is starting to smell like Penny.
But there’s a place in Sooke called Suds ‘n Pups that solves both issues in one go. We first take care of the Mazda with a pressure hose, and then usher a dubious Penny around the corner and give her the business. I can’t say she’s happy about it, but she does take a certain satisfaction from shaking herself dry on us. She has to be presentable, we tell her, for the next stop on the itinerary: a trip to the city.
Not long ago, a team of researchers produced “smellscapes” of a number of European capitals. You can use them to plot walking tours tailored to your olfactory wishes — like Lonely Planet guides, if they were written and published by dogs. Nobody has mapped Victoria yet, but I’ll bet it’ll turn out to smell like salt, tea bags, fish-and-chips and marine diesel. Whatever’s going down here, Penny seems to be thinking as we find a parking spot and disgorge into the tourist hordes on Government Street, she’s all-in.
A sax-playing busker stops her in her tracks. Some sort of mating call, is this? (Actually, yes: it’s John Coltrane.) The lunch-hour crowd eddies around us.
Which raises another issue. We can’t bring Penny into a restaurant: it’s against the Canadian health code. (Even a restaurant in Duncan called The Dog House does not actually welcome dogs, we discovered, after they marched us all right back outside again.) But we can’t leave her in the hot car. At Pagliacci’s, the sympathetic staff pushes two patio tables together on the sidewalk and the waiters serve us out there, in the midday sun. Penny takes refuge underneath while we eat.
And then, for her, the day takes a really great turn. In Chinatown, she follows her nose down Dragon Alley and pulls us right into a tiny shop. The owner, Clayton Ealey, shakes his head. “No, no” he says.
In a display case up front sit rows of jewel-like treats, many of them at nose height. There’s no glass. Penny stares at them from six inches away. It’s a cosmic test of character. “Usually, they won’t shoplift till your back is turned,” Clayton says. There are blueberry and salmon cookies wrapped in beef jerky, “meaty muffins” with cheddar and honey and apple. “That’s peanut butter and honey with yoghurt icing,” Clayton says of the cupcake I’m appraising. “More people than dogs eat that one.” I scarf it down when his back is turned. He swings around. “Oh you actually ate it!?” he says, looking horrified. “Just kidding.”
Penny is starting to get used to sauntering right in to stores, Parisienne-style. Could be a rude shock for her to wake from this dream and return home to North Van, where dogs are expected to know their place.
5. Wally World
Penny prefers to rise around 5am, like Donald Trump. This becomes an issue in a campground — such as this quiet one at Englishman River Falls, near Parksville, where we’ve spent our final night.
She climbs over four sleeping bags and whines to go out. She then sits sentry in front of the tent in the pre-dawn. I can’t leave her out there alone. But it’s too early to start breakfast – we’d wake the other campers. There’s nothing to be done but curl up in a blanket beside her. A light rain falls on the both of us for a couple of hours.
“So this is our last day, girls,” I put it to Madeline and Lila at the picnic table as they chow down on camp cereal. “Now you’re in a position to know: Which is better – holidaying with the dog or without her?”
Madeline ponders this. “Well, you can go more places without a dog,” she says, marshaling eleven-year-old logic. “But a dog makes it all more … enthusiastic.”
There remains one last piece of business. Penny can smell, through the cracked back window, the tidal musk of the best beach on the whole east coast of Vancouver Island. But as we pile out of the car at Rathtrevor, and make a beeline for the surf, a sign catches us up. No pets allowed. Seriously?
There is a saying within the canine resistance: ‘A good dog must not obey the law too well.’
Soon Penny is out there rolling on her back. The kids are doing that game where you strand yourself on little islands created by the incoming tide. Bliss.
Then Madeline points. Two uniformed figures in the distance, screeching to a stop in their Club Car. And now the park rangers walking briskly toward us over the sand-flats.
You know what? It was so worth it, whatever it is we’re in for.
After my dad died, and we were sorting through his things, I found in his office a small filing cabinet. It was jammed full of index cards. And on each index card was a story — or at least an anecdote or an extended joke. He must have been collecting them for many years. Some were good, some corny, and some seemed designed to be deployed in very specific circumstances.
Dad, apparently, was developing an arsenal of stories for all occasions. He wanted, ideally, to be able to answer a question, any question, with a story. This strikes me now as pure parenting genius. It’s a surefire way to dispense wisdom lightly. You can impart a lesson without being preachy, be directive without inviting pushback. Because, hey, you’re just telling a story.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember my dad being particularly good at this skill of dialing up a story on demand. He was a surpassingly great guy, but not exactly a spellbinding raconteur. I think it was something he aspired to get good at after he retired and had more time to commit to the effort. Turned out he didn’t live long enough to see the plan through.
But I applaud the idea. I think he was absolutely on to something. The best answer to any question is a story.
Now, some people are super-adept at this.
The business titans Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger — the Berkshire Hathaway founders and two of the greatest investors who ever lived — are textbook. Buffett was approached by a reporter after the financial meltdown of 2008. “So many people suffered terrible losses, Mr. Buffett, but not you two gentlemen so much. Do you care to comment?”
Buffett replied: “Well, you never know who’s swimming naked till the tide goes out.”
(Okay, that’s not really a story, just an aphorism; but I bet you don’t forget it anytime soon.)
For elected officials, it’s an indispensable skill. Because if your story is entertaining enough, you make everything forget that you didn’t really answer the question. (Abraham Lincoln was the master at this—at least if the movie version of his life is to be believed.)
Who else? Religious leaders. Rabbis, especially. Because answering questions with stories is part of the Jewish oral tradition.
It was a rabbi who, for me, pulled the curtain away on how this is done. So the story goes, there was once a wise old rabbi who seemed to have no end of stories that were right on point. One day a student said:
“Rabbi, I have noticed that you always answer a question with a story. How do you know so many stories? And how do you choose the stories to tell that are so perfect for the subject?”
“Your question,” the rabbi said, “reminds me of a story….
Once, long ago, a nobleman sent his son to the military academy in a nearby village to learn to shoot. Five years later, as the young man was returning home, he passed an old barn with chalk circles drawn all over its side. In the centre of every circle was a bullet hole.
He got off his horse. ‘Who is this marksman who can shoot a hundred perfect bullseyes?’ he said. ‘I must meet him!’
A young boy heard the question. ‘Oh, yes, I know that man,” the boy said. ‘He’s the town fool.’ The boy elaborated. ‘See, you think he shoots bullets in circles. But actually, he shoots first, then he draws the circle.’
“And that’s the way it is for me, the rabbi told his student. “I don’t just happen to have these perfect stories that fit the subject we’re discussing. Instead, when I find a story I like, I steer the conversation that way so I can then introduce the story.”
That’s pretty canny. I might just give this a shot.
Not long ago I had lunch with my old pal James. It had been awhile.
“So whatcha been up to?” he said.
“Let’s see,” I replied. “Read a couple of books I enjoyed. Got some good runs in. Made a spaghetti sauce I was pleased with. You?”
“Well, this and that. Oh yeah: I climbed El Cap.”
That would be El Capitan.
For those of you who aren’t climbers, let me put this in perspective. El Capitan is a vertical wall of rock. It is 3,000 feet high.
When you think about climbing El Cap, imagine it as a sequence of steps. You put on a climbing harness. You walk up to the bottom of the thing. You step up onto the rock face. And then, sometime later, you hoist yourself over the top. By sometime, I mean days later.
In James’s case, it was three days. Eighty hours on the cliff face.
I hit him, I’m afraid, with the usual questions:
How do you go to the bathroom? (answer: adult diapers.)
How do you sleep? (answer: you either carry a portable hammock with you that you drive into the rock, or you look for a little ledge, sometimes as small in area as a casket or a toboggan. That’s what James did.
I asked him how hard it was.
He was silent for a moment. “I had prepared myself that it was going to be really, really hard,” he said. “And it was harder. Not so much physically – I’d trained for it. But psychologically. Just spending whole days with nothing underneath you. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard, but it totally gets to you. You feel undermined. I don’t know how you’d train for that except maybe being dangled below an airplane for ten or twelve hours.”
There were many times when he didn’t think he and his climbing partner would make it, he said. They hung in there. They made it.
But that wasn’t even the inspirational part.
They had aimed to finish the morning of the third day, but the climb took longer than expected and they didn’t finish till dusk. The car was parked pretty far away. There was a path. They decided to go for it. Turned out the path didn’t go to the car but snaked over into the next valley. Soon it was dark, and they were lost.
That’s when one turned to the other and said:
“Look at where we are right now. If you just dropped us into these circumstances – lost in the wilderness in a foreign country in the middle of the night, hungry and exhausted, we’d be terrified. But because of what we just accomplished, this is nothing. This is not stressful. The sun’ll be up soon and we’ll get our bearings and we’ll be fine.”
If ever there were a case for making a habit of nosing out of your comfort zone, this is it. The more you do, the more you can do. Whenever you do the more difficult thing instead of the easy thing, you’re making tomorrow more interesting. Make a habit of this and you’re liable to become dangerously impressive, like James.
He and I said goodbye to each other.
And then I went home to make a really dangerous spaghetti sauce
Flashes of insight can be personally transformative, creatively inspiring, or even spiritually transcendent. Is there a way to manufacture an “aha” moment,” or at least improve the odds of having one?
From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY (cover story), March 2015
Simon Lovell was 31 and a professional con man who had spun the gambling tricks he’d learned from his grandfather into a lucrative if bloody-minded business fleecing strangers. Without hesitation or remorse, he left his marks broken in hotels all over the world.
Nothing suggested that this day in 1988 would be any different. Lovell, in Europe, had spotted his victim in a bar, plied him with drinks, and drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of a foolproof get-rich scheme. The con went perfectly. “I took him for an extremely large amount of money,” Lovell said later.
Lovell hustled the drunken man out of the hotel room and left him in the hallway for security to deal with. But then something unexpected happened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell recalled. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing.”
What followed was a moment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light suddenly went on. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for someone.”
Lovell’s next move was hard even for him to believe. He returned the guy his money. Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured a drink, and declared himself done with this dodge. “There was an absolute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it anymore.” The next day he felt different. Lighter. “I had become,” he said, “a real human being again.” He never ran another con. Continue reading →
From READER’S DIGEST, Dec. 2010 – Quinton Gordon photograph
Today was a big day, I’d reminded my daughter. Right after kindergarten we had a date. “Rick’s taking us fishing. He’ll teach us about fish.”
Madeline, who is five, looked unmoved.
“I already know everything about fish,” she said.
“What do you know about fish?”
“They need to eat to stay strong, and they need to be wet to stay alive. They swim with their mouth open so they never get thirsty.”
It wasn’t a bad start.
“Rick” is Rick Hansen, the renowned wheelchair athlete who, outside of his charity work, happens to know everything — or close to everything — about one particular fish. Hansen is director of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. And as he loomed into view through a misty rain, from the deck of his boat bobbing at the public wharf in Steveston, B.C., she recognized him as the “man in motion” guy in one of her kids’ books.
Madeline had never really been fishing. Oh, I’d taken her to the Father’s Day derby at nearby Rice Lake, where about a million little kids lily-dip their lines in hopes of snagging one of the timid little trout in there. But this was something else. White sturgeon are a species so big and old and storied that catching one is almost as much of a life-changing experience as tagging it and putting it back—even for adults. The sturgeon that swim in the Fraser today are evolutionarily unchanged from the ones that swam before the ice age before the last ice age. No joke: we were going fishing for dinosaurs.
His folded wheelchair tucked between the seats, face flush with the pleasure of being out of the office, Hansen throttled up and we nosed out of port. The wind, here in the estuary, carried the tang of sea salt. The working river was doing double-time – seiners schlepping their heavy nets, tugs towing barges of sawdust, a crane lowering a tankerload of cars from Asia onto the dock. None of this interested Madeline much. Look, there were two TVs on board! When it became sadly clear that neither was going to pick up Babar, she tuned in to Rick’s explanation. One screen mapped where we were. The other was a fishfinder. “In the old days you used to be able to say, well the fish just weren’t around,” Rick said. “Now you have to admit, we just weren’t smart enough to catch them.”
Madeline sat on my lap. I could feel the warmth of her right through the yellow rubber rain pants. It was kind of blissful. To busy parents of little kids, life too often seems like a string of teachable moments squandered. By the time we realize what we should have said to help decode their wonder and give it a name, the door has slammed shut. But a day spent fishing for sturgeon is one long master-class in pretty much everything that’s important to know. The teaching goes both ways. Adults make fishing complicated, but a kid’s appreciation of it—as of most things—is big-picture simple. Today we would learn not how different a prehistoric fish is from a five-year-old girl, but how similar.
“What do you think sturgeon like to eat?” I’d queried on the drive south through Vancouver. “Worms,” Madeline said, definitively. Turned out she was right: many a novice fisherman casually dangling an earthwormed hook into the Fraser has had a near heart attack when a sturgeon the size of a dancer’s leg takes that bait. But there are things a sturgeon likes even more. Fred Helmer, a veteran BC fishing guide who was along with us, had prepared four rods—including one for Madeline and one for me. And now as we dropped anchor in Rick’s secret favorite spot near the Alex Fraser Bridge, he cast the hooks in and they sank without bubbles. On the menu today was choice pink-salmon parts and —the special of the day — a syrupy clump of skein roe that Fred called “magic bait.” These are protein-rich eggs harvested from a mama pink salmon just preparing to spawn: superpremium catnip.
Fred held his hands a foot or so apart. “How big is the fish you’re going to catch?” Madeline shook her head. He went wider. “This big?” Madeline knew exactly how big. In her kid logic, a successful fishing outing is one in which you land a fish that would fit your clothes. Madeline’s sturgeon, by that reasoning, was going to be 109 centimetres long– three foot seven. Mine would be 175 centimetres—five foot nine.
What’s cool about sturgeon fishing, though, is that it’s not about size. Every fish has equal merit. Nobody would be taking a sturgeon home for dinner tonight. Earlier this century they were fished almost to extinction—twice—and while their numbers recover, the white sturgeon of the Lower Fraser are protected. But this is more than a catch-and-release enterprise: it’s catch-and-tag-and-release. Sturgeon fisherman are tracking the population: where they’re going, how they’re growing, how many of them are out there — and data on the juveniles is just as valuable as data on the old soldiers. To fish for sturgeon is to be an adjunct scientist. Everyone who catches a sturgeon becomes part of the conservation effort, and in this sense a five-year-old’s contribution is as valuable as any biologist’s.
An hour of fishing under the bridge yielded but one tiny sculpin, which Madeline took great joy in setting free. But now the tide had turned. The rising sea was pushing boats upriver, giving the Fraser the appearance that it was running backwards. We were entering a dreamscape where the normal laws of physics were suspended.
The scent of that gorgeous bait was carrying on the current. For the fish, the wind had just picked up outside a bakery.
Madeline’s rod-tip twitched, subtly. Rick took the rod gently, reefed up hard on it, once, then handed it to me. A fish was on.
It felt big. Or at least mad. I struggled to keep too much line from peeling off the reel. “So, Rick has a couple of rules,” Fred said. “You cannot let go of the rod no matter what. If you do go over the side, hang on to the rod and we will come and get you.”
For some long minutes the tug-of-war continued. Then out of the brackish depths of the Fraser it came, Madeline’s sturgeon, tigerish stripes on its back visible first, then the sharklike head and the flicking tail defining the two ends, establishing its size. I had been trying to stay strong for Madeline—the great stoic hunter little girls expect their dads to be—but my arms were blasted. I was shaking and frankly not too far from tears.
“What’s the most humane thing to do with this fella?” I croaked as we brought him alongside.
“Just keep him in the water, relaxed,” Rick said. “We have to set up.”
The fish was still. “Is he dead?” Madeline asked.
“No, Sweetie. He’s had better days. But he’ll be fine.”
Fred guided Madeline’s sturgeon into a hammock-like sling in the water, which Rick then winched up into the boat. Madeline put on gloves. She came up to her fish. It seemed less like a fish than some kind of farm animal with body armour. Something in a medieval petting zoo. We watched the gills opening and closing, flashes of crimson beneath. Was it suffering?
“Sturgeon aren’t like some other fish, where after five minutes out of the water they’re done,” Rick said. “They are incredibly hardy.”
“Back in the day when you could catch and keep sturgeon, my dad would store them on the lawn, for three or four days, with the sprinkler on them – and then go sell them in Chinatown,” Fred said.
“Here’s the mouth—see how leathery it is? Look how it comes out – like a vacuum hose. And these things on its nose are chemical sensors for detecting prey.”
Rick turned in his chair. “They have the ability to locate food that’s way more sophisticated than ours, using vibrations,” he said. Madeline, who sometimes has trouble locating the snacks in her backpack, stroked her sturgeon, its sandpapery skin, incredibly gently.
I picked her up and held her, lengthwise, over top of her sturgeon. It was her size. A measurement confirmed it – within a centimeter. It was probably a few years older. Fred produced an instrument, like the little retail-store gun that scans the barcode tags, and passed it over the fish. BEEP! A microchip under the fish’s skin sent a signal, and a number popped up in the scanner viewscreen.
The fish had been caught once before – on November 22, 2006. Since that day, we would learn, the fish had grown nine centimeters in length but only one in girth – taller but not much fatter. Like Madeline herself. I had a flashback to St. Paul’s hospital, our daughter emerging grey-pink and slimy and a doctor moving her under a warm light and producing a tape measure. Madeline stuck out beyond the last mark, off the charts. “Our child cannot be measured by science!”)
“You can check on your fish once a year,” Rick told Madeline. Thousands of BC schoolkids, from grade two to grade seven, are monitoring the sturgeon stocks by following the stories of individual fish like this one.
As Madeline’s fish rested in the sling, a second sturgeon was brought aboard. This time the scan was beepless. So: a new capture. This fish had never been above water. Fred loaded a little glass tag the size of a grain of rice into what looked like a hypodermic needle.
“I’ll try not to get this needle in my hand—that has happened before,” Fred said. “Now, Madeline, we put the tag right under the surface of his skin, so when the fish grows the tag can move around in his body.”
We tipped both fish toward the river and they slipped in, headfirst. I thought, romantically, that Madeline’s fish might look back at her before swimming away, but it didn’t. Madeline asked to be picked up. She was dead weight. I had the notion that she was drained of energy in sympathy with her exhausted fish. (Or, less likely, in sympathy with her exhausted dad.) Probably it was just a perfect storm of a couple of late nights, fresh air and a glucose crash from the nut bars.
But clearly, this was all almost too much for her to process. She didn’t have the language for it.
I wondered what new fears we had introduced on this trip. The idea of a whole teeming subsurface world: monsters under the bed. Her fish had been brought up gasping into the air. It looked bad, but it really wasn’t, we insisted. Did she buy it? (You could see her searching for the right analogy and later she found it. “How would you like to be holded under water?”) A million mind-blowing factoids swirled: Dinosaurs are real. Dads are weaker than they let on. And the people we read about in books might one day step out of those books and take us fishing.
She had been a motormouth on the car ride over. From the back seat issued strong opinions on how Beethoven lived in China, how things were better in the days when dads like me weren’t underfoot and moms played with kids and gave them treats. (Also: could she have a horse?) But now she was silent. I looked down at her in my arms. She was asleep.
You can guess how the rest of the story goes. Kid logic prevailed. The sun broke through. Soon after my own fishing rod twitched with a bite. After a monumental struggle that ensured I’d be sleeping with a heating pad for days, I brought this last fish in. Madeline was awake now, saucer-eyed, trying to get close without getting in the way. Fred’s hand got raked by the pointy scutes and was trailing blood as he scanned it.
This fish was monstrous. It measured 93 centimetres around, its belly probably full of pink salmon. It was between sixty and eighty years old – the age of grandpas and grandmas. Now it was going back. With great luck it will still be here a generation from now, and maybe Madeline will catch it again with her own five-year-old son or daughter on a fine fall day like this one.
But there was one thing that didn’t square. Madeline’s fish was Madeline-sized. Mine was supposed to be my dad-sized: that was what she’d ordered. We measured it. From its nose to the tip of its tail it was around 215 centimetres. Madeline leaned close.
I don’t just mean a friend from middle-school whom you’re still in touch with. I mean an old friend – a friend who’s thirty, forty, fifty years older than you. And who’s not a blood relative.
Not many. And that’s a shame. Because the old have something incredibly rare, and perishable, and irreplaceable to offer: actual, firsthand knowledge of the world.
There’s a gripping memoir I read recently by a gentleman named Harry Bernstein. It’s his first book. He published it at age 96.
But here’s what’s kind of amazing. When the book became a hit, a New York Times reporter asked Bernstein how it came about. This is what he replied:
“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.”
And then he leaned forward and said:
“God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”
Now that’s a radical idea. That old people could still have potential. That they’re still, in some sense, ripening. Life experience works like compound interest, delivering a rich back-end payoff in wisdom and insight. That ought to make really old people the most sought-after dinner companions in the world.
But it doesn’t. Maybe in Japan in does, but not here.
Here’s what most people under 25 think about most people over 75: nothing. They have no idea what old people have to offer because they don’t know any old people. Outside grandparents and uncles and aunts – who you have to visit at Christmastime – theirs is a seniors-free world. Old folks aren’t much walking the streets; they aren’t represented in the mass media. They’re ghosts. We warehouse them, out of sight, out of mind.
That’s a really worrisome development on a lot of levels. Not just because all that firsthand knowledge is dying on the vine.
What old people do for us, one of the many things, is they remind us of where we’re headed. Without old people in our lives, there can so easily be a disconnect between our present selves and our future selves. And that affects the way we live, the choices we make. It creates the conditions for ruinously short-term thinking.
Some ingenious studies have revealed how this works. Turns out that if we’re shown photos of ourselves digitally aged, it’s a jolting wake-up call. We change our behavior. We save more for retirement, we eat a healthier diet, we behave less recklessly. The same thing happens if we’re asked to sit down and write a letter to our “future self.” Our mortality snaps into focus. It is a Jacob Marley moment. We go, holy crap, that’s going to be me.
If you visit the Aging Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and you put on the leg braces, and the big cumbersome gloves, and the vision-impairing goggles that simulate glaucoma, you get a hint of what frailty feels like. And it changes you. Now the wall between you and the old guy in line at the grocery store crumbles. You see him differently. That is, you see him. His trembling hand putting a can of beans down on the counter. He looks old to you, but the picture he has of himself, from the inside, is quite different. He’s probably astonished to look in the mirror and see that wrinkled face looking back. He’s thinking: how did this happen? Old age came for him like a thief in the night, and it’s coming for us, too.
Now, I was lucky enough to have a staggeringly great old friend. When we met, Olga Kotelko was enjoying this fantastic, unlikely career as a master’s track-and-field star. She was like Harry Bernstein; she was cashing in the potentials lurking inside of her because something had kept her alive into her Nineties. I didn’t have to write a letter to my future self, because I had Olga. She was what the high road looks like.
But one of the differences between us, I noticed, is that she burned hotter. By which I mean, she knew she had less time. And so she lived differently. She was gorging on life. She knew what things are important and what aren’t, and so she didn’t squander even a minute on stuff that’s merely urgent, or worse, trivial. She used the whole day, and dropped off to sleep every night with gratitude. Olga suffered way more sadness and hardship than I have, which sharpened her appreciation for what was right in front of her. She was alive to a degree that put me to shame.
I started out writing a science book about her –what physiologists are learning from her crazy, age-defying ways. It ended up being about what I have learned from her.
Bruce Grierson wrote this week’s cover story about Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who has conducted experiments that involve manipulating environments to turn back subjects’ perceptions of their own age. Grierson’s last article for the magazine was about Olga Kotelko, a 91-year-old track star, which became the basis for his book “What Makes Olga Run?”
How did you first hear about Ellen Langer or grow interested in her research?
Ellen must have been hiding in my blind spot. She’s been doing her thing for almost four decades, but I didn’t stumble across her until I was researching my book, What Makes Olga Run? A chapter of that book deals with human limits and the role of the mind therein. I called Ellen up. She told me the story of her mother’s and grandmother’s afflictions. Then I learned she was contemplating this cancer study. It started to feel like a story.
Did she surprise you in any way?
About 20 seconds into a conversation with her, you know she’s different. She doesn’t sound like a scientist. She speaks in the rhythms of one of those old borscht-belt comics — punch, punch, punch, stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-before. There’s almost a narrative intelligence — if that’s a thing — that’s more obvious than her scientific intelligence. She’s an artist — literally (she paints) and also in sensibility. She’d surely agree with Einstein that not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured. She’s fun to be around, but she kind of wore me out.
One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment, cooked up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.
The subjects were in good health, but aging had left its mark. “This was before 75 was the new 55,” says Langer, who is 67 and the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard. Before arriving, the men were assessed on such measures as dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition — probably the closest things the gerontologists of the time could come to the testable biomarkers of age. Langer predicted the numbers would be quite different after five days, when the subjects emerged from what was to be a fairly intense psychological intervention.
Langer had already undertaken a couple of studies involving elderly patients. In one, she found that nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss were able to do better on memory tests when they were given incentives to remember — showing that in many cases, indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration. In another, now considered a classic of social psychology, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.
To Langer, this was evidence that the biomedical model of the day — that the mind and the body are on separate tracks — was wrongheaded. The belief was that “the only way to get sick is through the introduction of a pathogen, and the only way to get well is to get rid of it,” she said, when we met at her office in Cambridge in December. She came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself. Gathering the older men together in New Hampshire, for what she would later refer to as a counterclockwise study, would be a way to test this premise.
Imagining the movie that Hollywood’s going to make of your book feels a bit karmically dangerous – a “counting your chickens before they’ve hatched” dodge for the modern creative class.
But what the hell. Every writer does it. It’s fun to dream. It’s especially fun to imagine yourself as the casting director, armed with an unlimited budget and access to all the world’s acting talent. Who would play your protagonist? Your villain?
Marshal Zeringue terrific blog My Book, The Movie scratches just this itch. Marshal, an American screenwriter and champion of literary efforts high and low, asks writers to “dreamcast” their book.
You’d think writers would be the best people to consult on this – they cooked up the characters, after all. But for some reason their opinions are not warmly received – or even solicited – by film producers. Elmore Leonard, whose novels are so dialogue-driven and cinematic they routinely make their way to the screen, doesn’t even bother offering candidates anymore. The first few times, “They would ask me what actors I saw in the roles,” Leonard says, in Marshal’s blog. “I would tell them and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’”
It’s a bit of a Walter Mitty exercise, imagining you’d ever have the power to shape a big-budget movie. It’s pleasing to be asked questions that make you feel important. ‘In the movie of your life, who would play you?’ ‘What novel would you assign to the Prime Minister to read?’ Who would you invited to your literary dream dinner party?’ When you dreamcast, no one ever says no to your entreaties, even dead folks. “You might speculate what, say, Cary Grant or Grace Kelly would have done with the role,” says Marshal.
Most of the posts on his site are for works of fiction, but there are some great non-fiction ones, too.
My own stab at dreamcasting What Makes Olga Run? can be found here.
As many of you now know, Olga died suddenly in the early morning of June 24. She got up to use the bathroom and a blood vessel feeding her brain burst. Doctors say she likely went unconscious in about a second – like the flip of a light switch.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about what it means that she died. “I thought she was going to live forever!” people said, only half-joking. A couple of weeks before her death she taped a segment for the Dr. Oz show. The episode was called, “How to Live to 100.” It aired a few days after she died. “I guess it was too late to pull her spot,” a friend said.
Too late to pull her spot. As if her death had shattered the magic, and sort of undermined the example of her life.
I don’t see it that way. On the contrary.
I think Olga dying when she did, the way she did, reframes the conversation around her. Her story’s no longer just about longevity, but also quality of life.
In a lot of ways, crazy as it sounds, she was peaking. She’d just smashed the world records in eight events at the world outdoor championships in Budapest. She came home to be love-bombed by her friends, and congratulated on the new memoir she’d just published. Then for good measure she set seven new outdoor world records. Then she tackled the garden.
If you think of life as a poker game – and figure that the currency isn’t money, it’s health and energy and purpose — then by those terms, over 90 years Olga amassed just about the biggest pile of chips anybody ever has. And then she walked away from the table. On this incredible winning streak she bowed out.
Now it could be she’d have kept on winning, in this poker game, for months or years or a decade or more. But the odds are against it. Beyond a certain point there are trade-offs in length of life vs. quality of life – for everybody. So for Olga, was that tipping point a year away? A day away? All I know is, she thought of her life as a miracle. It was beyond her wildest imagining.
Gerontologists have a term: “squaring the curve.” It just means, if you think of your physical and mental health plotted as a line on a graph, what you want is for that line not to be one slow long decline. You want it to stay high for as long as possible, until it plunges sharply at the very end of your life, as illness or something else takes you out quickly.
Olga squared the curve with a ruler. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example. You blaze for 95 years and then die instantaneously with no pain and no regrets no burden on anybody else. I think this is what we all aspire to – to live right up to that tipping-point moment. Whether it comes at age 75 or 85 or 95. I think that’s a way better goal than living as long as humanly possible. We make a fetish out of this quest for super-longevity; we try to concoct ways to “solve” aging, as if it’s a disease. But squaring the curve: that’s what we should be thinking about.
In some ways our whole culture and economy depends on us embracing that idea – that it’s the “life in your years,” as Olga liked to say, rather than the “years in your life.” Because otherwise the so-called grey tsunami is going to be real, and it’s going to swamp us. Most people cost the health-care system as much in the last six weeks of their life as they do in the entire rest of their life. It’s the decline into decrepitude that does us in. Gotta square the curve. Live well and live long enough and then kick the bucket – boom.
There are two important things to know about meeting Sven Johansson.
The first is, don’t shake his hand. At 90, he still has an iron grip, so my advice is, avoid the pain and offer a fist pump.
The second is, if you ask him how he’s doing, he’ll invariably say in his high-pitched Swedish lilt, “Never had a bad day yet.”
With the glint in his ice-blue eyes and an impish smile, you have to take him at his word, even though he’s known many dark days living in a tent with ice-cracking temperatures in Canada’s far north. And more recently, many days trying to break through the barriers facing a struggling new arts company.
His denial of the downside of life is long-living proof that healthy longevity is as much about attitude as it is about genes and lifestyle.
“If you want to preserve meat you put it in the freezer,” he chuckles. “I lived in the Arctic in 40 below, 50, 60 to 72 below for 25 years–frozen solid. So the meat never went bad.”
Sven is a solidly built, compact man who immigrated to Canada in 1962 and spent much of his life herding reindeer (he won an Order of Canada in 1994 for reviving Canada’s herd) and sailing his ship the North Star in the Beaufort Sea for the Geological Survey of Canada. Then in his 60s, he developed a new form of aerial dance, moved to Victoria and established the Discovery Dance Society, reigniting his life-long interest in the arts.
With proper lighting, Sven’s dancers appear to fly in the air, suspended on a boom, with the performer at one end above the stage and an operator on the floor at the other, the two working as a team to defy gravity and delight the audience.
Sven calls his technique ES (for Excedere Saltatio, or exceeding the limits). He says it releases dancers from the limits of their own bodies as well as the force of gravity and encourages new forms of choreography and performance.
Even disabled people confined to wheelchairs have experienced the thrill of dancing in air, strapped into his crane-like device which he calls a dance instrument.
Sven has presented more than 20 of his own dance productions, including one at the closing ceremonies for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. His work has been featured in six films and is showcased at the summer Shakespeare by the Sea festival in Victoria and at performances in Winnipeg, Vancouver and other centres.
In his tenth decade, he says his ever-active mind is as sharp and agile as it was in his 20s. His hearing has weakened, but he still lives on his own and walks without a cane with occasional rest stops.
In his book-lined bachelor apartment in downtown Victoria, he works on upcoming dance performances and his ever-expanding autobiography. He has no plans to retire for another ten years, but knowing Sven, he’ll probably find the motivation to keep going into his 100s.
There’s a lot to accomplish. Despite some successes and awards, ES Dance hasn’t achieved the recognition he believes it deserves, perennially rejected for funding by the Canada Council and the BC Arts Council and given short shrift by the local news media and “the very archaic dance community.”
He’s not the first outlier to be slighted in his own lifetime. He mentions Emily Carr, considered in her day as “just a funny old lady with a monkey in a baby carriage–not the great Canadian artist she in fact was.”
Looking ahead, Sven is searching for a young person “talented in all the arts” to lead Discovery Dance to new heights in the next 30 years.
“It often takes two generations for innovative artists to be recognized. By 2044, the second generation of ES Dancers may do it.”
The 19th century novelist Ford Madox Ford, beloved of literary types for his perfect gem of a novel The Good Soldier, has lately seen his name appear more widely, attached to this quote:
“Open a book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”
Ford never explained why he picked that particular page at the litmus, but his “Page 99 Test” is quickly becoming better known than Ford himself — thanks partly to an American playwright and screenwriter named Marshal Zeringue, who founded a blog devoted to the idea. Since starting it in 2007, Marshal has run more than a thousand of these mini-reviews, which together serve as both an informal test of Ford’s theory and welcome press for the authors of deserving books that are underexposed because they don’t, you know, involve vampires.
My own stab at the Page 99 Test can be found here.
The Page 99 Test is an idea for our age. Everybody’s falling-down-busy and desperate for cheats and life hacks that will let them do stuff and learn stuff in a fraction of the time, in the cracks and margins. The only thing that scares us more than vampires is wasting time. Having a sneaky way to assess in 90 seconds whether a book is worth the effort? Priceless.
Unless there’s some sort of Masonic significance to the double-9s, it’s probably an arbitrary number. But it makes sense to pick a page around there, in the early middle. For sure it’s better than judging a book by page 1. Every author spends inordinate time shining up those first few paragraphs to lure you in, and often as not there follows a dropoff in quality. (Because, hey, you’ve already bought the book!) By page 99, the scene is set, the characters are established, the narrative engine is starting to rev. The story is going somewhere — or not. Philip Larkin once famously claimed that British novels are generally made up of “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” Most books are. Middles are hard; sustaining momentum is a feat of magic.
Something else page 99 has going for it? It’s a perfect place for the author to step back and reveal the whole landscape. Sometimes you will find the whole book in microcosm on page 99 or thereabouts. Sometimes there exactly. In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, page 99 “takes place at exactly the moment Waverly has started winning chess championships and the community is rallying around her,” one critic found. In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, page 99 is the moment the hero’s dual identity is revealed. I flipped to page 99 of Fifty Shades of Gray the other day while waiting in the grocery line. (I didn’t pull my own dog-eared copy from under the mattress, honest.) It was a bit shocking. That page so perfectly aces the Page 99 test that you almost suspect the author knew that browsers would be kicking the tires there, and so built the page to contain the nut of the story, plus a tantalizing hint of what’s to come. Even the writing wasn’t terrible. I almost jettisoned my avocados to buy the book. At the very least, it made me think of other uses for avocados.
Marshal runs his Page 99 Test blog out of a mothership called the Campaign for the American Reader, “an independent initiative to encourage more people to read more books.” Marshal himself is a bit of a man of mystery. He appears to be among those rare folk who are genuinely here to help. He has created this great vehicle for other writers to advertise themselves, but he is himself “internet-shy.” This of course makes you want to know more about him. He trained to be a political scientist (at Tulane and UVA) but stopped just short of getting his Ph.D. to pursue the creative-writing dodge. You can see the depth/breadth of his tastes in his book selection. There are a lot of smart and worthwhile titles here you’ve never heard of – just as you’ve never heard of Marshal.
“I suppose getting out front and pimping my blog would be good PR,” he said in an email, “but I feel like the work I do on the site already sucks up too much of my reading, writing & movie-viewing time, and have resisted (the relatively few) invitations to promote my sites.”
The other site of Marshal’s worth noting – and I won’t note it at length cause I plan to do another whole blog post on it – is called My Book, The Movie.
I think of Marshal as a kind of literary superhero, moving incognito among us. Maybe someone should write a book, or make a movie, about him.
While working on the Olga book, framing up Olga as a model of someone living the Exemplary Life, I sometimes wondered: why am I privileging physical health over mental health? Don’t get me wrong: she was sharp and funny and wise, a puzzler and a careful reader. But she wasn’t an intellectual. Hers was a life of the body much more than it was a life of the mind.
Surely there are some old souls out there whose lifelong devotion to intellectual pursuits rival Olga’s to devotion to staying fit and in motion; people who remain, even as they approach 100 years old, Olympians of the neocortex?
Look no farther than Eric Koch.
A longtime producer and executive at the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster), Eric also taught social science at York University in Toronto. I learned this from his blog, called “Sketches,” which he began five years ago, at the age of 90.
If you want to read Eric’s archive of posts, prepare to set aside a week. There are close to fifteen hundred of them. (Honestly, I lost count). A daily-newspaper columnist who managed that kind of output would be in a good position to ask for a pay raise. Together, Eric’s posts — or “feuilletons,” as he calls them — display the breadth of his interests, and the acuity of his mind. Some are links to provocative articles found elsewhere, and some are original musings. The canvas is wide: world affairs, history, economics, literature, Hitlerology, soccer, philosophy, politics, music, language, bees. He also has links to short videos he created and posted on YouTube, in which he sits musing in front of a webcam in his home – like John Green, but with less hair and more gravitas. If you read all of his entries and watched all of those films, you’d get a good picture of Eric, and fine snapshot of Canada, and a decent liberal-arts education. This is all the product of a ferocious curiosity indulged with the time and will to roam, for decade upon decade.
The legendary New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell, a fabulous prose stylist still at 93, told a reporter recently that he churns out personal blog entries partly to keep his mind sharp. There’s good evidence that a habit of writing — letters, blogs, diary entries, novels, whatever —is a bulwark against dementia. I’d assumed that writing was actually a better bulwark against dementia than even reading, because writing is for most people a more active process than reading. But there’s no good data to support that. Writing’s good, reading’s good, learning other languages is good, doing puzzles is good.
A new study out of the Mayo Clinic, however, seems to speak directly to the earned cognitive horsepower of people like Eric Koch. As Pacific Standard Magazine summarized the findings: “The best medicine, for brain health, is living a life of the mind.” (I would actually quibble with the word “best,” here, since we now know that nothing, but nothing, promotes overall brain health like vigorous exercise.)
“Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment,” notes the scientist who led the research team. How much? Three to six years, on average. For people born with the APOE4 gene variant, which carries a high risk for dementia, the difference is even bigger. For such unlucky folks, a lifetime habit of ongoing intellectual enrichment delayed cognitive impairment “by more than eight and one-half years, on average.” So there it is. “Lifelong learning,” so often touted as a better alternative than sinking into the barcalounger with a beer for your post-retirement decades, emerges as a prescription for the impending dementia epidemic. You can almost see the wheels turning in the mind of policy-makers. Make university courses free for seniors. Subsidize travel for them. Forgive their library fines.
Here’s the funny part. Eric tells me he doesn’t write his blog to “stay sharp.” (Also: “I leave solving puzzles to my wife.”) “I do it because I want to be loved,” he says. “And to prevent boredom. And to cheer me up.”
The blog entries, he says, are a good “counterbalance” to his real work: writing books. He has authored thirteen books of fiction and five of nonfiction. “The blog posts are quick and easy, which books are not.”
This week, instead of banging out an original piece, Eric linked to an article, from Slate magazine, about the hemlock plant and the poisoning of Socrates. He has bigger fish to fry.
“I am working on a murder mystery and have to find out who did it.”
I’ve been enjoying Harry Bernstein’s memoir, the Invisible Wall, which crackles with details of life, and religious prejudices, in the hardscrabble mill town of his youth in Northern England. In a weird way, almost more impressive to me than the book itself are the circumstances of its existence.
Bernstein finished it when he was 93. He published it when he was 96.
“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book,” the author told a New York Times reporter after the book hit the bestseller lists. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.” And then he added this kicker: “God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”
Now that is a radical idea in this culture: that really old people still have untapped potential. That not only are they not sitting around decaying, they’re still ripening. It’s not a radical an idea to me, though. Because my pal Olga Kotelko has convinced me it’s true.
Olga turned 95 in March. Like Bernstein, she had a rich and tricky upbringing, from weathering the Depression on a Saskatchewan farm to raising two daughters as a single mom to teaching elementary school for three decades in British Columbia. But it was only post-“retirement” that Olga’s life really got cooking. At age 77 she took up track and field. Competing in 11 events, she re-wrote the “masters track” record books. This spring she graduated to a new category – women aged 95 to 99 — and promptly bagged nine new world records at the world indoor championships in Budapest, bringing her total up over 40. She’s currently experimenting with a new high-jump technique.
People like Harry Bernstein and Olga Kotelko serve a valuable function in the lives of the rest of us. They show us what using a whole life looks like. Their stories exist as a kind of counterpoint to the dire warnings of demographers of how the population is aging at an accelerated rate, which means (we’re told) that a train wreck awaits in our lifetimes.
Last month the US Census Bureau announced that by 2050 fully one-fifth of Americans will be 65 or older. That’s double the proportion of seniors in 1970, when the baby boomers were still young and massing under cover in the TV rooms of suburban households, their eventual needs — their burden — still beyond imagining. Longevity is up; birth rates are down. Those two conditions are quickening the pace of the greying of America. (And hey: if you think these numbers are scary, just be glad you’re not Japanese. By only 2030 the proportion of their population aged 65 and older will be one third.)
The oldsters are going into the liability column. We have a hard time thinking of them as individuals, obsessing instead about the collective dent they’re going to make. When we can puncture the denial and imagine becoming old ourselves, it’s very often fear that floods in — fear and a kind of advance mourning. We are saying goodbye to our life well before it’s actually over. Because those are what the statistics suggest too. We’ll likely become fragile and unsteady, as sarcopenia robs us of muscle mass and osteoporosis makes us vulnerable to shattering if we slip up even once. It’s a coin toss whether we’ll lose our marbles.
But that’s the story the average numbers tell. As individuals, there are things we can do – lifestyle changes involving diet and exercise and risk exposure even cognitive strategies (the stories we tell about ourselves influence what we think and do) – that tip the odds in our favor.
We may never pull off a Third Act as brilliant as Harry’s, or Olga’s. They likely have some genetic protection that we don’t yet fully understand — not to mention the rare ferocious desire to realize those potentials lurking within. But for sure we can be more Harry-like, more Olga-like, if the will is there in us. We can “square the curve” of our decline, as the gerontologists say, so that our final years are productive in whatever way we choose to make them so. Thus do old people become assets and not liabilities – which was their customary place of course, most everywhere but in the contemporary West.
I’m almost embarrassed now about how gloomy I was about aging before I met Olga — before she and I began researching a science book on why she is the way she is — five years ago. I felt acutely what the Germans call torschlusspanik – a fear of gates closing, horizons narrowing to a pinpoint. Clearly my best thoughts, feelings and 10k times were so far behind me even the memories of them were hazy. Soon my options would be limited to whatever the care facility was offering that day. I was not yet fifty.
You can choose that outcome, Olga said — but just be honest that it’s a choice.
And then she laughed. It’s fun to be Olga, right now.
It promised to be the best job so far that summer—which wasn’t saying much. I’d been scanning the “casual labour” postings at the local employment office, vowing every visit to take something, anything. Already I had unpacked shipments of underpants, been pulled through an active sewer on a rolling sled with a bucket of caulk and a trowel, to seal cracks, and delivered flower arrangements in a car so small half the buds got crushed when you closed the hatchback. At 18, you take what you can get.
That’s why this particular gig looked so beguiling: “mascot.” To celebrate the grand opening of a new Edmonton location in the Red Rooster convenience store chain, the employer needed to catch the eye of passing motorists and was offering two days’ work to a self-starter who could bust a few dance moves on the corner.
I fit the suit. I got the job.
The outfit had clearly been washed fewer times than it had been worn. The oversize head—more chicken than rooster—was sculpted out of wire and foam and sat heavily on shoulderpads, which had been shined and flattened by sweat and compression. The moony eyes didn’t line up right with mine.
It was mid-July. Even the mosquitos were sluggish. A high-pressure system had settled on the city and forecasters were calling for record-breaking temperatures by Sunday. The suit had no ventilation. There was no relief unless you removed the head, which was only allowed during one of two 10-minute breaks, out of public view—lest any children (delicate creatures) be forever traumatized by the sight of decapitated fake fowl.
It didn’t take long for the welcome party to show up. Kids can smell the stress hormones in adult sweat even upwind, and soon half a dozen pre-teens were orbiting as I staked out a spot on the sidewalk and tried to get into character. “Hey, chicken!” one kid taunted. This was a part of town that might charitably be called “emerging.” These were tougher kids than I was used to. “Hey, chicken legs!”
My best defense was to concentrate on the job. I improvised a dance that involved standing on one leg and helicoptering the other leg and the opposite arm—er, wing—more or less in sync. It wasn’t particularly roosterly and it certainly wasn’t manly. Immediately, I could feel a change in the energy of the kids. They were homing in on a new frequency of vulnerability.
The first rock hit me in the back. I figured they were aiming for the head and I actually re-oriented to give them that bigger, softer target.
No cars slowed. A manager briefly emerged from the store, was hit by a blast of heat that lifted his toupee, then quickly darted back into his air-conditioned cave. During break time I closed the door of the store’s stock room, removed my head and hyperventilated.
That night at the supper table my dad said grace. “Lord, bless this food to our use and us to Thy service” — the same grace he had grown up with as a missionary’s son, said quietly to himself in wartime mess halls and still trotted out for his four kids, who were mostly just glad it was so short. Then he asked: “How’d it go?”
To everyone’s surprise—but mostly mine—I started to cry. I described the heat, the stench, the rocks, the sticky pavement under my chicken feet.
“And the worst part is,” I said, “I have to go out there tomorrow and do it all again.”
My father was quiet for a full 10 seconds. Then:
“No you don’t.”
This was unusual. Dad had always believed we kids should keep our commitments. The store had hired me in good faith to be a chicken (rooster) and it wasn’t cool if the chicken (rooster) didn’t show up.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I mean, you’re not putting on that suit tomorrow,” he said. “I am.”
Dad had wiry black eyebrows and, under them, the kindest eyes. He was 60 years old. “Look, we’re about the same size,” he said. “Who’s to know?”
We’re only lent to each other, the short-story writer Raymond Carver once said. We get to have moments, and all we can do is savour the best ones as they happen: here, now… gone. The part of me that relished imagining my father out there doing the Twist or the Bus Stop, maybe even kind of enjoying himself in the anonymity of the costume, was hard to deny. But there was no way I was letting him be the chicken. The fact that he was willing to be the chicken was enough. The gesture blew new strength into me.
The next day went well. Nothing was different, but everything was. At the end of it I deposited a cheque from Hormel Foods for $86, and felt like a king.
No more than twenty minutes after we first met, I was struck by the Second Mystery of Olga.
The First Mystery of Olga was, Why is she aging more slowly than other people?
The Second Mystery of Olga concerned her temperament. I simply could not reconcile this sweet, grandmotherly woman who was inviting me in and offering me tea with the athlete so ferociously competitive on the track that she gets tunnel vision before meets? How can those two people live in the same body?
Certain personality traits incline us to certain lines of work, and certain levels of success within those lines of work. Turns out, there is a ‘performance personality’ and a ‘longevity personality’ and perhaps also a ‘happiness personality’. And at the junction of all three axes sits Olga. Think of that zone as the place where Performance and Staying Power and Life Satisfaction meet. It’s a rare place to live, but Olga’s not quite alone there. Mariano Rivera is there beside her.
Rivera is the New York Yankees pitcher, the best closer in baseball history, who retired recently at age 43. Rivera is obviously nowhere near Olga’s age bracket, but 43 is paleolithically old for an active professional baseball pitcher, especially one who relied on heat instead of canny knuckleball movement. Rivera not only played into his mid-forties, he dominated. Not long ago, New York Times books columnist Michiko Kakutani was inspired to weigh in on Rivera. She memorably summed up his personality in three words:
“Gentleman, Warrior, Mensch.”
Rivera was every bit as universally loved, off the mound, as he was feared by batters while on it. He was thoughtful and gracious and well-spoken and did heroic work in the community. Some other force seemed to be giving him energy, extending his warranty, stretching his years of high performance and giving him the ability to turn his ferociousness off and on like a light switch.
For Rivera – and for Olga too — that force, I believe, is faith.
Many elite older athletes profess deep faith—the subject came up again and again in my discussions with masters tracksters. Now, this is partly a generational story: most older North Americans were raised in a faith, which means if you’re without belief at Olga’s age you probably had to actively give it up at some point. But there are other ways in which the overlap between belief and high-level sports might not be coincidental.
Athletes get better by pushing themselves to their “ultimate limits.” They emerge stronger than they would have been without that test, just as the repentant sinner is often said to be “closer to God” than the righteous soul who always stared straight ahead, and so never glimpsed the temptation that was shadowing him in his blind spot. Adaptation is a physiological fact, but it’s also a spiritual notion.
Whatever your position on faith, there’s no denying it gets results. The faithful are on to something, in that they live longer and apparently happier lives, moment to moment. There’s evidence that they use their time better and are better long-term planners.
Athletes running with the tailwind of faith have an almost unfair advantage, it seems to me: spiritual doping. “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure, said Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddell, in one of Olga’s favorite lines from the movies. When you believe you’re running for a higher purpose like that, there’s almost a duty to marshall all the competitiveness that is in you.
This explains the ferociousness of the Warrior Mensch — the Warrior part. The “Mensch” part comes from the obligation to help other people similarly tap everything that is in them, not just on the track but in their lives. You don’t have to be religious to have a high degree of menschness – but you do have to have lots of humility, and a healthy appreciation that it’s not all about you.
In the French village of Trosly-Breuil, just north of Paris, 86-year-old Jean Vanier lives a simple life. Each day, he walks from his house to the group home he established 50 years ago, where he eats, laughs and prays with his adopted family. This is the first L’Arche community. Founded on Vanier’s vision, the organization is built around the idea that if adults with mental disabilities were settled in private homes alongside non-disabled people, the result would be a boon to both sides.
The son of former Canadian governor general Georges Vanier, he had once seemed destined for a different kind of life. Having written his PhD dissertation on Aristotle, he briefly taught philosophy at the University of Toronto. But there was a spiritual curiosity in Vanier that academia couldn’t satisfy, and he followed
his mentor, a Dominican priest named Father Thomas Philippe, to France, taking on a life of voluntary poverty and daily challenge. It irks Vanier when people call him, as many are inclined to, a living saint. The sacrifice he made is no sacrifice at all, he insists, since the disabled offer us a great gift: they teach us how to become human. More generally, having to accommodate the wishes and quirks and demands of others tests our patience and, in the bargain, strengthens it. Would he be the person he is now had he remained on that earlier trajectory? “God knows,” Vanier says. “All I know is I’m here now. I have grown. I still have things to grow into—to have fewer barriers, to be more open to people. The story’s not finished. I’m 86, but the story goes on.”
Unlike physical and cognitive aging, there is no identifiable point where people start to break down spiritually—and no reliable prescription if it happens. Studies have found that those who attend religious ceremonies live longer, although who can say if the active ingredient is the spiritual part and not, say, the routine or the power of social networks.
We tend to think of spirituality in terms of meditation or perhaps prayer, a private inward journey. To Vanier, that is only half the story. A second current nudges us in the opposite direction, out of ourselves and into meaningful contact with others. In effect, at a phase of life when many people start closing themselves off, Vanier counsels opening up. Instead of spending our later years cementing our own comfort within tiny tribes, we should be reaching out. In what one could call an adaptation response of the soul, empathy begets empathy.
In his Grant Study, which began in 1938 and followed a group of male undergraduates from Harvard for the rest of their lives, psychiatrist George Vaillant found that the ones who thrived into old age were the ones who, among other things, figured out how to love and be loved.
If there is a reliable prescription for aging well cordially—from the heart—it’s this: keep the company of people you care about and who care about you. “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing,” Vaillant noted.
It’s tempting to prop up BJ McHugh, Ephraim Engleman and Jean Vanier in their respective shop windows as models of brilliant aging of the body, brain and soul. But the ways in which people age brilliantly aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, these three—as with spectacularly robust old men and women of all stripes—have a fair bit in common.
I was having lunch with my friend Michele one day recently when the other shoe dropped. There are stealth Olgas among us, and I was looking at one.
Michele is from the Italian island of Sardinia. If you’re into longevity research, you’ll recognize Sardinia as one of the “Blue Zones” – those incubators of centenarians scattered here and there across the globe.
Actuarially speaking, the perfect profession might be a Sardinian shepherd. It ticks all of the longevity boxes. It’s rugged and serene and exhausting and joyful. You sweat buckets in the fresh air and sunshine, trudging up and down those mountainsides, but there’s about zero stress, and you come home to a healthful meal rich in life-extending nutrients (the tannens in the wine, the anti-inflammatories in the goat’s milk) and the loving embrace of your family. Many if not most Sardinian men enjoy the added benefit of a mutation on the Y-chromosome that offers protection from much chronic disease.
That’s the hothouse Michele grew up in. He is closer to ninety than eighty. He looks sixty. He has a lot in common with Olga. I don’t think I realized just how much until Michele started talking about the life of his body.
As a boy he rode his bicycle 60 or 70 kilometres a day — mostly because there wasn’t much else to do. The exercise became a form of meditation; over the gentle hills to the sea, he let his mind wander. Later, after moving to Canada, in the late-1950s, he found it frustrating to cycle in the city — too many starts and stops.
So he took up running. He ran long distances. Nobody ran long distances at that time. So Michele was ridiculed, which he didn’t mind and actually rather liked. He never timed himself or set goals: he just floated along, that dreamy Sardinian boy again. Then came the jogging craze. When he noticed other people out there in their sweats and their headbands, that’s when he stopped. He lost the heart for doing something that other people seemed to do because they thought it was good for them. “If there is a motive behind something,” he laughs, “I’m immediately suspicious.”
(It’s not that all rules and laws must be prima facie rejected – only the ones that don’t make sense. There’s actually quite a ferocious level of discipline involved in figuring out the difference. At every turn he asks himself, is his position “beneficial”? And he doesn’t mean physically beneficial, he means spiritually beneficial.)
With his aerobic base, and his habits, and his genes, Michele could easily be another Olga, racking up world records, submitting to muscle biopsies, peeing in a cup, and just generally serving as another data point in our quest to understand what it means to age well. But to be in that game you have to join it. And Michele is not a joiner. Which is actually one of the things I like best about him.
“I suppose I am an anarchist in my heart,” he allowed. “But at the same time I’m part of a community.” Michele had arrived late to lunch because he’s on the board at the local Italian cultural centre, and he had some last-minute business he needed to sew up there. “We do the things that are inborn in us to do to benefit someone — our community – not just ourselves.”
Michele had done yeomen translation work for What Makes Olga Run?, and at a certain point, in a café, over bean soup, I passed him an envelope with some small compensation in it. His expression changed. A heaviness came over him. “It has been my great pleasure to help you with this,” he said. “But now you have taken the poetry out of it.”
Olga’s often asked how big a part attitude plays in the story of her crazily youthful vigor. Her answer is always the same: it’s huge. HUGE. Staying relentlessly focused on the positive keeps any doubts or criticisms from pulling her down.
On one hand, her faith in positive thinking is unsurprising. Plenty of research – including Yale psychologist Becca Levy’s work on aging stereotypes —suggests that optimism correlates strongly with health and longevity.
But I have sometimes heard grumbling from skeptics that the Don’t Worry Be Happy rule for living is too pat, too simplistic, and too specifically tailored to the lucky and the blessed.
“I’d be optimistic too if I were in Olga’s shoes!” goes the refrain. It’s easy to look on the bright side when you have no real aches and pains or health issues, you’re not radioactively lonely, not depressed, not burdened by money woes. The luxury of optimism, by this way of thinking, falls to those who have led charmed lives.
But here’s the thing: Olga’s life has been anything but charmed. She grew up on the hardscrabble Saskatchewan prairie and her early years were full of struggle (she fled a terrifying marriage and raised two daughters as a single mom; one of those daughters she lost to cancer.) She earned a teaching degree at night school while working days. She spent a lot of time trudging into a headwind. Clearly, optimism isn’t some default position she arrived at because she realized, like Dr. Pangloss, that “everything is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.” Optimism, for Olga, is a choice.
She chooses it for a lot of reasons. Because it’s how her parents raised her. Because gratitude sits better with her strong faith than grumbling does. Because it’s more fun. And, maybe mostly, because it works. Optimism helps us take a wide perspective and feel connected to others (as the University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has noted.) There’s plenty of evidence now that where our minds go, our bodies tend to follow. And since Olga intends to keep competing at a high level until age 100 or beyond, she figures she might as well run the software that will help, not hinder, her movement along that trajectory.
This week she’s in Budapest competing in the world outdoor championships in a new category: women 95-99. She has already bagged a new world record in the high jump and it would surprise no one if she walked away with eleven new entries in the record books. “Why not?” she says.
TO A CERTAIN kind of sports fan – the sort with a Ph.D in physiology – Olga Kotelko is just about the most interesting athlete in the world. A track and field amateur from Vancouver, Canada, Kotelko has no peer when it comes to the javelin, the long jump, and the 100-meter dash (to name just a few of the 11 events she has competed in avidly for 18 years). And that’s only partly because peers in her age bracket tend overwhelmingly to avoid throwing and jumping events. Kotelko, you see, is 94 years old.
Scientists want to know what’s different about Olga Kotelko. Many people assume she simply won the genetic lottery – end of story. But in some ways that appears not to be true. Some athletes carry genetic variants that make them highly “trainable,” acutely responsive to aerobic exercise. Kotelko doesn’t have many of them. Some people have genes that let them lose weight easily on a workout regime. Kotelko doesn’t.
Olga’s DNA instead may help her out in a subtler way. There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined. It’s an advantage that could help explain the apparently Mars/Venus difference between people for whom exercise is pleasure – the Olga Kotelkos of the world – and the coach potatoes among us for whom it’s torture.
In a spacious cage in a cramped lab in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside, there lives an albino lab mouse who has no name, so I will call him Dean. Dean is small and twitchy, with slender musculature. He may be the world’s fittest mouse.
Dean is the product of a long-running study of voluntary exercise. Twenty years ago, the evolutionary biologist Ted Garland, then at the University of Wisconsin, gave a small group of mice access to a running wheel. The mice who liked using it the most were bred with each other, so that the trait of running fast and far was amplified in each successive generation until, almost 70 generations later, Dean emerged. When Dean wakes up in the evening (mice are nocturnal) he typically goes straight to his wheel – before eating, even – and just runs full out, making the wheel squeal. He has run as much as 31 kilometers in a night.
Garland and his colleagues believe that, genetically and physiologically, Dean is different from other rodents. “Marathon mice” like Dean seem to find exercise uncommonly satisfying – likely because of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry. Exercise stimulates dopamine production, which in turn causes a cascade of other molecular effects – a process known as “dopamine signaling.” Dean’s dopamine signaling is unusual: when he runs, some as-yet-unidentified molecule, downstream from the dopamine receptor, gets altered so that it now provides reinforcement that normal mice don’t get.
Those differences, the scientists believe, may help explain why some of us merely tolerate exercise and why others, like Olga and Dean, love and perhaps even need a whole lot of it. If your genes predispose you to loving your workouts, as Olga’s appear to do, and if your environment offers the opportunity to work out constantly, as Dean’s wheel does for him, a certain chain reaction can start. Physical effort feels fantastic, which prompts even more effort, which delivers even bigger dose effects in mood and energy.
How does any of this matter for the rest of us schlubs, who may not be similarly endowed? File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?
“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population, says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?” An up-and-at-‘em drug might increase our desire for exercise or, conversely, create uncomfortable restlessness if we sit too long.
It’s pretty clear that Dean the mouse experiences something way beyond uncomfortable restlessness if he sits too long. He is a full-on exercise junkie. When researcher Justin Rhodes, an experimental psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who joined the study at generation 20, took away his wheel, depriving him of his fix, Dean was miserable. Rhodes scanned Dean’s brain and found high activation in the area associated with cravings for drugs such as cocaine. Both “drugs” – indeed, all drugs – goose similar reward circuitry. “But I think there’s got to be some differences,” says Rhodes. “Because it’s not as if an animal that’s addicted to running is necessarily going to be addicted to cocaine or gambling.”
And therein lies another weird direction for the research to go. What if addicts could take a pill that exploits those minute differences, redirecting their jones from a harmful one to a positive one – a kind of running-as-methadone plan?
Such a pill is conceivable in principle, says University of Michigan psychologist Kent Berridge, who studies how desire and pleasure operate in humans, but developing it presents an enormous challenge. Without knowing exactly how the brain assigns urges to specific objects of desire, how do we ignite a yen to exercise without also stimulating the yen to do things that will land your customers in rehab? Or blunt the urge for drugs while leaving healthy urges untouched? Scientists within the big pharmaceutical companies are no doubt working on it, nonetheless. “I’m waiting for them to contact me and offer me funding,” Garland says dryly.
It’s the kind of drug that Olga – normally one to Just Say No – might even endorse.
Not long ago, I came across a little list I’d scribbled in a notebook.“Here is what 47 feels like on a bad day”:
• You prepare a little milk, with a dash of vanilla, in a mug, which you go to heat up in the microwave. There is already a mug of milk, with a dash of vanilla, in there.
• You discover in the bathroom drawer a product you remember buying to give hair more “volume and energy.” You have no hair.
• You run into people you know, but can’t remember the level of intimacy you have with them. (Do we hug? You approach fearfully.)
• You worry you have become too unfit to successfully perform CPR on someone like you.
There were more items on the list, including one that started and simply trailed off. I’d either forgotten what it was or grown too depressed to continue.
Aging happens, of course – I just hadn’t expected its sour breath so soon. Isn’t 50 supposed to be the new 30? Apparently not for me. For whatever reason, I’d gotten old the way the way Hemingway said people go broke: slowly and then quickly.
And then came a stroke of amazing fortune. Olga Kotelko dropped into my life.
THE MARGINS of Olga’s Sudoku digests are studded with little notes to herself, in tiny perfect penmanship. “Careless errors!” she might have rebuked herself. Or “Getting better — or are they getting easier?” Very little that Olga does escapes her own immediate and systematic appraisal. In the private moments of her own life she is her own coach, doling out approval or gentle criticism and making immediate tweaks to the process. In her bowling league, “When I get a strike, I take note of where I was standing and how hard did I throw it,” she says, “and then try to duplicate those conditions.”
Call it the Olga recipe for perpetual improvement.
Turns out, Nature has an app for that. On chromosome 11 sits a gene called DRD2 that is linked to the brain’s “reward” circuitry, and partly governs how we learn. Some people have a variant of this gene called RS 1800497, and those people tend to be good at learning from their mistakes. They are highly motivated to turn wrong answers into right ones, faulty lines of thinking into sound ones, lousy habits into good ones. Such self-renovation makes these people happy.
Olga was born with this gene variant. (And I, for what it’s worth, wasn’t.)
So that’s pretty cool, but also a little dangerous – because it not only undersells the work ethic of those who have that polymorphism, but it gets the rest of us off the hook.
The truth is, we can all learn to learn from our mistakes. And we must if we hope to appreciably improve.
Maybe you’ve heard of this fellow from Portland named Dan McLaughlin who’s trying to become a pro golfer starting from absolute zero. Until recently – he’s now in his late twenties – he was a commercial photographer. He’d never picked up a club before April 2010. He’s starting slowly and methodically; he’s only been using a full set up clubs since January of 2012. McLaughlin hopes to enjoy a kind of accelerated development through super-efficient practice — -time feedback and immediate review and adjustment and repetition. He has calculated, based on Anders Ericsson’s rule-of-thumb that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become an expert at something, that he should theoretically be good enough to enter Q school by October of 2016.
Not all practice is created equal. Elite swimmers practice better than merely good ones. Ditto elite backgammon and poker players.
It’s qualitative, not quantitative, practice that matters. “A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it,” noted sociologist Dan Chambliss in an academic paper called “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Elite swimmers don’t necessarily practice more than merely good swimmers, Chambliss noted, but they sure do practice better.
If the golfer Dan McLaughlin is motivated to practice better because he’s getting a late start, that goes triple for Olga.
Thinking about all of this made me remember Bruce Pandolfini, whom I spoke to a few years ago while working on a cover story for Psychology Today about the virtues of failing. Pandolfini is a chess teacher. In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, about a chess prodigy named Josh Waitskin, the kid’s master teacher, played by Ben Kingsley, is based on Pandolfini.
I dug out my transcript of my interview with Bruce. (If you want to really learn from people, tape the conversation and review it!) A revelation! There was in there all kinds of cool stuff I’d forgotten, just about all of it relevant to Olga and her self-correction strategy.
Losing is always more valuable than winning, Pandolfini told me – especially for younger players. Because it’s an opportunity for learning: a weakness was very specifically exposed, and now you can fix it. Whereas winning prompts all sorts of lazy habits. “Often students don’t realize how lucky they were to win. And because they won they didn’t think they had to change anything about their play. Then next time they played a superior opponent, and they played this same way, they’d get crushed.”
Great chess players are like two people in one — the person playing and the person analyzing the person playing. They develop the discipline of asking themselves a series of questions not just after every game but after every move. “Does this threaten me? How many possible ways can I deal with the threat? How well did my opponent deal with my previous move?” This forensic analysis happens at a higher speed than Olga – or most other mortals – can manage, but the principle of systematic review is the same.
All that review helps chess players develop spectacular memories for past moves in past games, good and bad – the better to apply those lessons in future.
Bruce remembered coming up against a strong opponent in a best-of-three series. In the first game he found himself in a tight spot that seemed vaguely familiar. He was, he realized, in the exact position he’d been in twenty years earlier, and back then he had escaped by deploying a trap he’d learned from Russian playbooks from the 1960s.
“And then I realized, as I looked up, I was facing the same player I’d played twenty years earlier.”
I guessed where this was going. Presumably a player of his opponent’s calibre would also have remembered being in this position, and remember the sting of losing, and this time would avoid that ignominy by making adjustments against Pandolfini’s ploy.
SOME PEOPLE, after hearing about Olga for the first time, go to YouTube clips expecting to see her tearing down the track like Flo-Jo. She doesn’t.
Let’s put this in perspective: Olga is one of the fastest 94-year-olds who ever lived. But she is 94 — and there are certain things that happen to the human body that are simply inevitable and non-negotiable. Time is an unforgiving hunter. Beyond age 75 or so, the performance curves crater for everybody, no exceptions. Age steals away fast-twitch muscle, and then it steals away slow-twitch muscle. It changes the way we look when we move. The process usually happens too gradually to see — unless a vivid demonstration like this one is cooked up.
On the last day of the world outdoor masters athletics championships in Lahti in 2010, organizers staged a crowd-pleasing contest called a “unique handicap race.” All of world-record setters in the 100-metre dash gathered on the track. Six women lined up, youngest (35) to oldest (90). The youngest, Czech Stepanka Gottvaldova, began at the starting line and everyone else was given a progressively bigger head start. Olga’s starting block was a good thirty metres downfield.
Here’s what happens:
At the snap of the gun. Olga is off. But she’s soon caught by New Zealander Margaret Peters, 75. Then the rest of the field reels her in. The 50, 70, 60, and then 80-year-old champions overtake her. By the 80-metre mark Olga is dead last. If you keep pushing the pause button on the video, reducing the race to a set of stills, the sense is overwhelmingly of a kind of time-lapse depiction of the aging process. In the older runners the stride length shortens, the posture changes. It looks like those hominid-from-ape evolutionary charts, but in reverse.
To me, a few things jump out from those results. (Apart from the fact that the race wasn’t quite handicapped properly. If it were, all the runners would have finished in roughly the same time.)
The big difference between the runners is not the turnover rate, the actual number of steps each athlete is taking; the difference is power. The dropoff in muscular force isn’t something you necessary notice in the longer distances, but it’s obvious in the sprints. The sheer electric force of the younger runners is just not there in the older ones. It has to do with the rapid loss of muscle mass beyond age 75 or so, and other factors, such as the loss in number and quality of mitochondria in that muscle. Scientists such as Tanja Taivassalo and Russ Hepple are investigating what else might be involved, and why certain people (like Olga) seem naturally better protected from the ravages of time than others.
But to me, that clip evokes something much bigger than sport. It strikes me as a metaphor for what aging must feel like, in those upper registers. The old are getting reeled in by the young. They are simply getting overtaken by the trappings of youth culture – the pace of media, technology, data movement, processing speed; the primacy of sex appeal and immediately gratified appetites. You have to be a pretty strong person, comfortable in your own skin, to stay in the race under those conditions. To keep pressing, without letting up in discouragement, right to the tape.
OLGA WAS SCHEDULED for a battery of cognitive tests at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana. But the flights in and out of there were tricky, so we built in a buffer day in Chicago. Before leaving we had a pow-wow of what she might like to do there.
I encouraged her not to edit herself. It was wide open. A full day in one of the world’s great cities, a place bursting with peak experiences waiting to be had. Her choice, I reckoned, would tell me something about her strategies for squeezing maximum life out of this life. What was begging to be fed inside of her: body? Mind? Soul? Which of the three mortality-beating virtues – empathy, mindfulness, and gratitude – would she bring into play?
I threw a few options on the table.
There was a morning service at St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukranian Catholic Church – one of the most striking churches in the world and right up her street, theologically. She was lukewarm. She felt no need to get her attendance in; she’s in pretty good standing with her God.
The Botanical Garden? Well, there are pretty great gardens in her own town. Thanks.
The Field Museum, with its famous, fabulous T-Rex skeleton? Maybe if we had more time.
Okay, I said. You love your food. What about a transcendent meal at Modo, the experimental restaurant where the fare is like art and you eat the menus? She was intrigued. But she admitted she wouldn’t really be happy eating there. At some level it could never square with the prairie frugalness still in her. Her enjoyment, she said, would always be diluted by the little voice of conscience saying: “Is it really worth it?”
She was keen seeing a Cubs game, but the team was scheduled to be on the road that day.
So we pressed pause, agreeing to scout conditions and make the call on the fly.
And come Monday morning, as the city heated up like a griddle, we ended up at the stone steps of the city’s great cultural jewel, the Art Institute of Chicago.
Olga is a self-taught painter. As a girl she liked to park herself in the corner and quietly draw her family. (She once sketched her maternal grandfather, Michaylo, on a cold winter day with his feet up in the oven to keep them warm.) A number of her landscapes dot the walls of her granny-suite back in Vancouver. But she hadn’t painted in a long time. She hadn’t even set foot in a museum in years.
The big showpiece exhibit was a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective: walls and walls of those one-panel cartoons, which left her cool. We skipped contemporary art altogether, moving briskly through ancient Eastern art, and modern sculpture. Even the art I felt sure would appeal to her — heroic religious paintings, folk art, the Renaissance masters – didn’t, particularly.
Then we hit the Impressionists. And here, in the Monet room, Olga came alive.
Monet invented “series” landscape art – the same subject captured over and over, on different days, in different seasons. In his river scenes, and in the famous water lilies in his backyard pond in Giverny, you can sense the furious intensity with which Monet tried to bag this moment, and then the next, and then the next. The master trying to catch time even as it slips through his paint-stained fingers.
On the back wall were several of Monet’s wheatstacks. Olga stood transfixed before them. What was so arresting her? The glorious pastel colours of the changing sky?
Partly. The part of her brain beyond words was soaking this up; and her eyes actually flashed a bit of annoyance when I kept yakking, breaking the spell. But at the same time she was working something out. It was the … architecture of that pile of wheat.
She herself had stacked wheat, back in the day, on the Saskatchewan farm. And as she gazed at the paintings it all came flooding back: how the “binding” machine would leave a row of grain sheaves as thick as barrels; and how she’d carry one under each arm. She’d stack them upright against each other, on end. The idea was to made a little cone of them, like firewood, no more than six to eight to a bundle, and leave them like that to dry so they’d be ready for the thresher. And back then you knew they would dry. The weather was more regular then. Global warming, Olga mused, has messed with a lot of things you used to be able to count on.
But Olga’s wheatstacks never looked like these. “How is that possible?” she mused. “How are they holding together?”
“Maybe it’s not accurate,” I tried. By this stage of his career Monet, after all, had terrible vision; his world was clouded by cataracts. “Maybe he was seeing what he wanted to see.”
Olga nodded.” These look like muffins,” she said.
Here’s what is tonic about spending the day with Olga. There is zero guile. There’s never any attempt to appear better, or other, than she actually is. It’s refreshing to spend days with someone who is not subtly trying to score status points. The arms race of cool is not part of her world.
No one has yet tested how well “comfort in our own skin” correlates with longevity. But it probably does, if we can figure out how to measure it.
People hear about Olga, before they’ve seen her, and understand her to be a kind of superhero – which she is. And they expect her to look like Betty White.
I’m sorry: even Betty White doesn’t look like Betty White. People wrinkle.
Olga has some wrinkles. But she’s still incredibly youthful looking. Look at her face. Look at it. It’s not wrinkle-free. But as close to wrinkle-free as a 95-year-old who has spent much of her life outside is ever going to be.
Truly, when you think about it, someone who grew up on a farm and spent a big chunk of that century in the sunshine should look like Spanish Banks at low tide. She should be positively fissured. That she looks the way she does – like a 65-year-old or so — I find amazing. I mean, I’ve got more frown lines than Olga does. My kids try to calculate my age by my wrinkles, like counting the rings of a tree.
I think we wear our outlook to life on our faces. You can tell the kind of person Olga is, the delight she takes in life, the way she leans into experiences that leave their mark on her inside and out, it’s all there on her face.
Olga is aging like Clint Eastwood. Instead of fighting the years, she’s tapping aging itself as a source of drama. The drama is the difference between the potential old people still have and the limits they think they have.
When people see Olga run, they’re sometimes surprised, by the way I and others have built her up, that she’s not faster.
Look: she’s 94. The fact is, she runs. No “chicken steps” here, as she puts it. She runs. She runs without stiffness and without pain. When you can do that at 94, you are, mechanically, in a class of your own.
Add to that her energy levels, and how strong she is emotionally, spiritually, and I think we have something here that you want to document and send into deep space as a snapshot of this species at its best.
That’s why she’s so fascinating. It’s not the sporting medals: it’s the whole package. This is what optimal health looks like.
On the third floor of the Montreal Chest Institute, at McGill University, Olga Kotelko stood before a treadmill in the center of a stuffy room that was filling up with people who had come just for her. They were there to run physical tests, or to extract blood from her earlobe, or just to observe and take notes. Kotelko removed her glasses. She wore white New Balance sneakers and black running tights, and over her silver hair, a plastic crown that held in place a breathing tube.
Tanja Taivassalo, a 40-year-old muscle physiologist, adjusted the fit of Kotelko’s stretch-vest. It was wired with electrodes to measure changes in cardiac output — a gauge of the power of her heart. Taivassalo first met Kotelko at last year’s world outdoor masters track championships in Lahti, Finland, the pinnacle of the competitive season for older tracksters. Taivassalo went to watch her dad compete in the marathon. But she could hardly fail to notice the 91-year-old Canadian, bespandexed and elfin, who was knocking off world record after world record.
Masters competitions usually begin at 35 years, and include many in their 60s, 70s and 80s (and a few, like Kotelko, in their 90s, and one or two over 100). Of the thousands who descended on Lahti, hundreds were older than 75. And the one getting all the attention was Kotelko. She is considered one of the world’s greatest athletes, holding 23 world records, 17 in her current age category, 90 to 95.
“We have in masters track ‘hard’ records and ‘soft’ records,” says Ken Stone, editor of masterstrack.com — the main news source of the growing masters athletic circuit. “Soft records are like low-hanging fruit,” where there are so few competitors, you’re immortalized just for showing up. But Stone doesn’t consider Kotelko’s records soft, because her performances are remarkable in their own right. At last fall’s Lahti championship, Kotelko threw a javelin more than 20 feet farther than her nearest age-group rival. At the World Masters Games in Sydney, Kotelko’s time in the 100 meters — 23.95 seconds — was faster than that of some finalists in the 80-to-84-year category, two brackets down. World Masters Athletics, the governing body of masters track, uses “age-graded” tables developed by statisticians to create a kind of standard score, expressed as a percentage, for any athletic feat. The world record for any given event would theoretically be assigned 100 percent. But a number of Kotelko’s marks — in shot put, high jump, 100-meter dash — top 100 percent. (Because there are so few competitors over 90, age-graded scores are still guesswork.)
In Lahti, watching Kotelko run fast enough that the wind blew her hair back a bit, Taivassalo was awed on a personal level (she’s a runner) and tantalized on a professional one. She hoped to start a database of athletes over 85, testing various physiological parameters.
Scientifically, this is mostly virgin ground. The cohort of people 85 and older — the fastest-growing segment of the population, as it happens — is increasingly being studied for longevity clues. But so far the focus has mostly been on their lives: the foods they eat, the air they breathe, the social networks they maintain and, in a few recently published studies, their genomes. Data on the long-term effects of exercise is only just starting to trickle in, as the children of the fitness revolution of the ’70s grow old.
Though the world of masters track offers a compelling research pool, Taivassalo may seem like an unlikely scientist to be involved. Her area of expertise is mitochondrial research; she examines what happens to the body when mitochondria, the cell’s power plants, are faulty. Her subjects are typically young people who come into the lab with neuromuscular disorders that are only going to get worse. (Because muscle cells require so much energy, they’re hit hard when mitochondria go down.) Some researchers now see aging itself as a kind of mitochondrial disease. Defective mitochondria appear as we get older, and these researchers say that they rob us of endurance, strength and function. There’s evidence that for young patients with mitochondrial disease, exercise is a potent tool, slowing the symptoms. If that’s true, then exercise could also potentially be a kind of elixir of youth, combating the ravages of aging far more than we thought.
You don’t have to be an athlete to notice how ruthlessly age hunts and how programmed the toll seems to be. We start losing wind in our 40s and muscle tone in our 50s. Things go downhill slowly until around age 75, when something alarming tends to happen.
“There’s a slide I show in my physical-activity-and-aging class,” Taivassalo says. “You see a shirtless fellow holding barbells, but I cover his face. I ask the students how old they think he is. I mean, he could be 25. He’s just ripped. Turns out he’s 67. And then in the next slide there’s the same man at 78, in the same pose. It’s very clear he’s lost almost half of his muscle mass, even though he’s continued to work out. So there’s something going on.” But no one knows exactly what. Muscle fibers ought in theory to keep responding to training. But they don’t. Something is applying the brakes.
And then there is Olga Kotelko, who further complicates the picture, but in a scientifically productive way. She seems not to be aging all that quickly. “Given her rather impressive retention of muscle mass,” says Russ Hepple, a University of Calgary physiologist and an expert in aging muscle, “one would guess that she has some kind of resistance.” In investigating that resistance, the researchers are hoping to better understand how to stall the natural processes of aging.
Hepple, who is 44 and still built like the competitive runner he used to be, met Taivassalo at an exercise-physiology conference. She did her Ph.D. on people with mitochondrial disease; he was better acquainted with rats. They married. In the room at McGill, Hepple leaned in to the treadmill, barking encouragement to Kotelko as needed as she jacked her heart rate up beyond 135. In the end, Kotelko’s “maxVO2” score — a strong correlate of cardiovascular endurance — topped out at 15.5. That’s about what you’d expect from a “trained athlete of 91,” if such a type existed.
In truth, there is no type. Though when you hear the stories of older senior athletes, a common thread does emerge. While most younger masters athletes were jocks in college if not before, many competitors in the higher brackets — say, older than age 70 — have come to the game late. They weren’t athletes earlier in life because of the demands of career and their own growing families. Only after their duties cleared could they tend that other fire.
That’s Kotelko’s story, too. She grew up, with parents of Ukrainian descent, on a farm in Vonda, Saskatchewan, No. 7 of 11 kids. In the morning, after the chickens were fed and the pigs slopped and the cows milked, the brood would trudge two miles to school, stuff a broken old softball with sand or rags and play ball. Kotelko loved the game and played through childhood, but as she got older, the opportunities just weren’t there.
As an adult she taught grades 1 through 10 in the one-room schoolhouse in Vonda, married the wrong man young and, realizing her mistake, fled for British Columbia in 1957 with two daughters and brought them up alone, earning her bachelor’s degree at night. Much of her adulthood had run through her fingers before she could even think again about sports.
She picked up softball again after retiring from teaching in 1984 — slow-pitch, but pretty competitive. (“We went for blood.”) And then one day when she was 77, a teammate suggested she might enjoy track and field.
She hooked up with a local coach, who taught her the basics. She found a trainer — a strict Hungarian woman who seemed as eager to push her as Kotelko was keen to be pushed. Juiced with enthusiasm, Kotelko hit the gym hard, three days a week in season. For up to three hours at a stretch, she performed punishing exercises like planks and roman chairs and bench presses and squats, until her muscles quivered and gassed out.
Though she still does some of these things — the push-ups (three sets of 10), the situps (three sets of 25) — she doesn’t push herself the same way anymore. Apart from Aquafit classes three times a week, she pretty much takes the whole dreary Vancouver winter off. Then, come spring, four weeks or so before the first competition of the season (she’ll usually enter five or six meets each year), she starts her routine. She carts her gear to the track at the high school. She dons her spikes, takes a spade and turns the middens of teenage recreation into long-jump pits. And then goes to it — alone. On the track she will often run intervals: slow for a minute, then full out for a minute. At the beginning of each year she figures out where to put her energy. This year it’ll be throws and jumps and the 100-meter dash — the only meaningful world record missing from her résumé. She says she may not run the 200 and 400 again until 2014, when she moves up into the 95-plus age category. (Her current world marks in those events, she reckons, will be safe for four more years.)
She does deep breathing and reflexology. She has developed a massage program, which she rolls out most nights, called the “O.K.” routine, after her own initials. It involves systematically kneading her whole body, from stem to gudgeon, while lying in bed. Sometimes she’ll work one part of her body while stretching another with a looped strap. (“I don’t like wasting time,” she says.)
Ken Stone calls her “bulletproof,” and her history even off the track bears the label out. Apart from two visits to give birth to her daughters, she has seen the inside of a hospital once in her life, for a hysterectomy.
Kotelko acknowledged her good luck as she put away a big plate of pasta and a glass of red wine one evening, midway through the world indoor championships in Kamloops, British Columbia, this spring.
“How old do you feel?” I asked her.
“Well, I still have the energy I had at 50,” she said. “More. Where is it coming from? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s a mystery even to me.”
The previous day, on a patch of grass tricked out as a javelin field, I watched Kotelko come forward for her turn to throw. Kotelko, who is five feet tall, took the javelin offered by an official with quiet dispatch, like a hockey player accepting a new stick from the bench. There was a bit of a crosswind; it didn’t affect her too much. She picked a cloud to aim at (a tip she first read about in a library book). Ritualistically, she touched the spear tip, rocked on the back foot and let fly, all momentum. It traveled 41 feet.
Later, in her favorite event, the hammer throw, Kotelko took her place on the pitch with the other competitors — younger women she competes alongside, though not strictly against, since at this meet she was the only woman in the 90-and-over category. She removed her glasses. She swung the seven-pound cannonball around her head — once, twice, three times — and the thing sailed, landing with a thud, 45.5 feet away. “If I spun I could throw it farther,” she admitted later, but after watching somebody very old fall that way, she has decided not to risk it.
EXERCISE HAS BEEN shown to add between six and seven years to a life span (and improve the quality of life in countless ways). Any doctor who didn’t recommend exercise would be immediately suspect. But for most seniors, that prescription is likely to be something like a daily walk or Aquafit. It’s not quarter-mile timed intervals or lung-busting fartleks. There’s more than a little suffering in the difference.
Here, though, is the radical proposition that’s starting to gain currency among researchers studying masters athletes: what if intense training does something that allows the body to regenerate itself? Two recent studies involving middle-aged runners suggest that the serious mileage they were putting in, over years and years, had protected them at the chromosomal level. It appears that exercise may stimulate the production of telomerase, an enzyme that maintains and repairs the little caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep genetic information intact when cells divide. That may explain why older athletes aren’t just more cardiovascularly fit than their sedentary counterparts — they are more free of age-related illness in general.
Exactly how exercise affects older people is complicated. On one level, exercise is a flat-out insult to the body. Downhill running tears quadriceps muscles as reliably as an injection of snake venom. All kinds of free radicals and other toxins are let loose. But the damage also triggers the production of antioxidants that boost the health of the body generally. So when you see a track athlete who looks as if that last 1,500-meter race damn near killed him, you’re right. It might have made him stronger in the deal.
Exercise training helps stop muscle strength and endurance from slipping away. But it seems to also do something else, maintains Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (who also happens to be a top-ranked trail runner). Resistance exercise in particular seems to activate a muscle stem cell called a satellite cell. With the infusion of these squeaky-clean cells into the system, the mitochondria seem to rejuvenate. (The phenomenon has been called “gene shifting.”) If Tarnopolsky is right, exercise in older adults can roll back the odometer. After six months of twice weekly strength exercise training, he has shown, the biochemical, physiological and genetic signature of older muscle is “turned back” nearly 15 or 20 years.
Whether we are doing really old folks any favors by prescribing commando-grade training, well, “that’s the million-dollar question,” Hepple says. “Olga can obviously handle it. But most people aren’t Olga.” In general, kidneys and other organs tend to have trouble managing the enzymes and byproducts produced when muscle breaks down. Inflammation, which produces that good kind of soreness weekend warriors are familiar with, “also damages a lot of healthy tissue around it,” notes Li Li Ji, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “That’s why I usually discourage older people from being too ambitious.”
Yet if there’s a single trend in the research into exercise and gerontology, it’s that we have underestimated what old folks are capable of, from how high their heart rates can safely climb to how deeply into old age they can exercise with no major health risks.
The conundrum for masters athletes — though it seems Kotelko’s great fortune to have largely escaped the phenomenon — is this: Big physiological benefits from exercise are there for the taking. You just have to keep exercising. But you can’t exercise if the body breaks down. To avoid injuries, aging track athletes are often advised to keep to their old routines but to lower the intensity. The best advertisement for that strategy was a race turned in five years ago by a 73-year-old from Ontario. Age-graded, Ed Whitlock’s 2:54 marathon (the equivalent of a 20-year-old running 2:03.57) was the fastest ever run. When people collared him afterward to find out his training secret, they learned that he ran every day, slowly, for hours, around the local cemetery.
Kotelko herself speaks often of the perils of getting carried away. “If you undertrain, you might not finish,” she says. “If you overtrain, you might not start.” But there’s some evidence that, in trying to find the sweet spot between staying in race shape and avoiding the medical tent, a lot of seniors athletes aren’t training hard enough — or at least, aren’t training the right way to maximally exploit what their body can still do.
Recently, Scott Trappe, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., published a study on weightlessness and exercise in The Journal of Applied Physiology. Using M.R.I. and biopsy data from NASA, he looked at the exercise program of nine astronauts from the International Space Station. In many ways, an astronaut in zero gravity is undergoing an experiment in accelerated aging — muscles atrophy, bone-density declines. That’s what these astronauts were finding too, even though they were using a treadmill, a stationary bike and a resistance machine.
Trappe concluded the regime wasn’t nearly hard-core enough. His prescription for NASA: heavier loads and explosive movements. “It’s pretty clear that intensity wins up there,” he says. “And I would predict this to be the case as we age. Part of the challenge is the mind-set or dogma that we need to slow down as we get older.” For example, the belief that aging joints and tendons can’t take real weight-training is dead wrong; real weight-training is what might just save them. Seniors can work out less frequently, Trappe reckons, as long as they really bring it when they do.
Kotelko used to train like that — spurred on by her severe Hungarian coach. Strangely though, since easing off the throttle the last few years, she’s getting some of the best results of her life. It’s hard to know what to conclude from that, except perhaps that the gene-shifting theory is true, and Kotelko is still enjoying the compound interest from that earlier sweat equity. “What I do now seems adequate,” she reasons. “It must be. I keep getting world records.”
THE DAY AFTER the treadmill test, Kotelko was ushered into the free-weight gym at McGill University. She lay down at the bench press. Taivassalo was interested in the composition of Kotelko’s muscle fibers. We all have Type 1 muscle (slow-twitch, for endurance) and a couple of varieties of Type 2 (fast-twitch, used for power). Most people are born with roughly half of Type 1 and half of Type 2. Around age 70, fast-twitch muscle begins to stop responding, followed by the decline of slow-twitch a decade later. Power drains away. Trappe calls this the “fast-twitch-fiber problem.” It helps explain the frustration that aging sprinters feel when their times drop off despite their dogged efforts. And no matter how high-tech their exercise program, how strong their will, how good their genes, nobody escapes. Often, the drop-off happens too gradually to notice. But sometimes little moments of perspective pop up.
In Kamloops, Kotelko jumped 5.5 feet to trump her own indoor long-jump world record. Afterward, the sexagenarian pentathletes took to the pit. Among them was Philippa (Phil) Raschker, a 63-year-old from Marietta, Ga., legendary on the masters track circuit. Raschker holds, or has held, more than 200 national and world records — sprints, jumps, hurdles. She was competing in nine events in Kamloops. (This despite being pretty much exhausted from working late into the night filing clients’ taxes for days on end. She’s an accountant; it was March.) When I first saw her high jumping, from a distance, I thought she could have been 25. You could see, below her stretch top, the six-pack. But it wasn’t how Raschker looked that arrested; it was the way she moved. Raschker Fosbury-flopped over the bar like water pouring from a jug. The flop allows you to jump higher than other methods do because your center of gravity never actually clears the bar. But the severe back arch demands a suppleness that’s alien to the aging body, which is why pretty much no one over 65 does it. Kotelko was already too old to flop when she took up track at age 77. Instead, she sort of bestrides the bar. Her world record of 2.7 feet is just a little higher than the superfoamy mat. Overall, Kotelko’s high jump gives the impression of someone taking a run at a hotel-room bed.
The difference between the world’s greatest 60-year-old and the world’s greatest 90-year-old was clear. On view was the march of “sarcopenia” — the loss of muscle, the theft of that once-explosive power that makes the very old seem subject to a different set of physical laws.
It is irresistible to think of Olga Kotelko and Phil Raschker as twins separated by time. Except that Raschker has the potential advantage of a much earlier head start on the track. Given all that extra compounding interest, might she in 30 years become a kind of super-Olga?
“Hard to say,” Hepple says. “She’s obviously at a point that precedes many of the big changes that usually happen. And we don’t know how resistant she is — and that resistance is something we do think sets Olga apart.” Those extra decades of pounding might break Raschker down or burn her out.
Motivation may ultimately be the issue. Finding reasons to keep exercising is a universal challenge. Even rats seem to bristle, eventually, at voluntary exercise, studies suggest. Young rats seem intrinsically driven to run on the wheels you put in their cages. But one day those wheels just stop turning. The aging athlete must manufacture strategies to keep pushing in the face of plenty of perfectly rational reasons not to: things hurt, you’ve achieved a lot of your goals and the friends you used to do it for and with are disappearing.
But competition can spur people on. “Maintaining your own records in the face of your supposed decline, providing evidence that you’re delaying the effects of aging — these are strong motives,” says Bradley Young, a kinesiology and sports psychology professor at the University of Ottawa. Young studies the factors that make track athletes want to continue competing into old age. A big one is training partners and family — both the encouragement they offer, and the guilt you’d feel letting them down if you quit. But the strongest motivating driver, Young found, was one’s spouse.
In this way, too, Kotelko is unique. She has no husband, and though she does have some family — her daughter Lynda and son-in-law Richard, with whom she lives in Vancouver — they are not involved in her training.
IN ONE OF HER last duties to science on the Montreal trip, Kotelko lay serenely, under local anesthetic, on an examining table in the storied Montreal Neurological Institute, where Wilder Penfield mapped the human brain. “Contract your thigh muscle, please,” Dr. José Morais said. The muscle shrugged up visibly when she tensed. The doctor began to draw out a little plug of tissue with a gleaming silver instrument that looked a bit like a wine corker. The sample would be frozen, and the fibers would later be examined.
Muscle is a decent barometer for the general health of a body. It contains what Hepple calls biomarkers of aging — changes over time in its structure, biochemistry, protein expression. These mark the body’s decreasing ability to withstand the stresses it encounters — “some from outside us, like infections, and some from inside us,” like the cellular trash that builds up through normal body functions like breathing and metabolism. “In essence, they tell us how well Olga has handled the very things that cause most of us to age and die at or around age 80.”
Hepple, in Kotelko’s tissue sample, would be looking for the little angular muscle fibers that typically stop working as people age because they have come unplugged from the motor neurons, nerve cells that tell them to fire. Many researchers assume the problem is within the muscle cells. Hepple disagrees. He says those neighboring motor neurons aren’t activating the muscle as they should, and he speculated that more of Kotelko’s would be functioning properly.
Ideally, these two scientists would like to run a sample through genetic testing. Perhaps there are clues in Kotelko’s genome that will help explain the thing that is so singular about her — not speed or power or prowess in any one event, but the resilience to endure all the stress of hard physical activity, year after year, without a hint of breakdown, and no end to the pattern in sight. “There could be a lot we find out in that biopsy,” Taivassalo said, “that tells us what to ask next.” Taivassalo intends to put together a larger sample size, at least 20 or 30 subjects, all old athletes. At that point the information starts becoming statistically significant, and patterns emerge. If the prospect of 30 more nominal Olgas spraying data points into unmapped space is enough to set the hearts of gerontologists aflutter, to Kotelko, the idea that there may be, somewhere, even one more older track star — a genuine rival — is tantalizing. She yearns, she insists, with semiplausible conviction, to be pushed. There’d be no talk of low-hanging fruit and meaningless medals if there were someone she could race close and beat in real time. “I’d love that,” she told me more than once.
She may get her wish. Mitsu Morita, an 88-year-old from Japan, is faster than Kotelko was at that age and is breaking all of Kotelko’s records in that age bracket. A Nike ad featuring Morita made her a minor phenomenon in Japan; there are clips of her orbiting the track, followed by laughing teenagers trying to keep up. In the 200, Morita’s world-record time is almost 10 seconds faster than Kotelko’s time in the 90-to-95 category. She claims she gets her strength from eating eel.
Morita is not a big traveler. If she can be persuaded to come to America for the world outdoor championships in Sacramento next summer, Kotelko will have her hands full.
In October, the first of Kotelko’s muscle samples came back from the lab. The results were compelling. In a muscle sample of a person over the age of 65, you would expect to see at least a couple of fibers with some mitochondrial defects. But in around 400 muscle fibers examined, Taivassalo said, “we didn’t see a single fiber that had any evidence” of mitochondrial decay. “It’s remarkable,” she added.
As the data on Kotelko gather, it’s hard to avoid a conclusion. “Olga has done no more training than many athletes, and yet she’s the one still standing,” Hepple says. “Why? In my mind, it has everything to do with her innate physiological profile.”
This sounds like discouraging news: she is not like us. But understanding Kotelko’s uniqueness may provide benefits for others. We could learn a lot about why, for example, nerve cells die by studying someone in whom, for whatever reason, they seem to live on. And that, Taivassalo explains, may have implications for neuromuscular diseases like ALS — for which no current therapies have a meaningful impact. Drugs might be developed to, for example, somehow dial up the signals at that junction where the neurons are supposed to be telling muscles to move. Small molecular agents could target specific problem areas in aging muscles to make them more resilient. “At this stage it’s all speculation,” Hepple says. “But that’s the direction we’re moving. Because all the usual things don’t seem to apply.”
Presumably, at least some of the interventions that emerge will help mimic, for ordinary people entering their very old years, if not exactly Kotelko’s performance on the track, at least something approaching the quality of her life.
This is the other story of the future of aging. When the efforts of medical science converge to simply prolong existence, you envision Updike’s golfer Farrell, poking his way “down the sloping dogleg of decrepitude.” But scientists like Taivassalo and Hepple have a different goal, and exercise — elixir not so much of extended life as extended youthfulness — may be the key to reaching it. James Fries, an emeritus professor at Stanford School of Medicine, coined the working buzz phrase: “compression of morbidity.” You simply erase chronic illness and infirmity from the first, say, 95 percent of your life. “So you’re healthy, healthy, healthy, and then at some point you kick the bucket,” Tarnopolsky says. “It’s like the Neil Young song: better to burn out than to rust.” You get a normal life span, but in Olga years. Who wouldn’t take it?
HANGING AROUND with someone in her nineties, you can’t help thinking a lot about mortality. You wonder how much time they have left, and then, inevitably, how much time you have. I always kinda knew my odds of reaching Olga’s age are low. But I didn’t know how low until I took a peek at the actuarial tables.
Simple versions of these are available on-line. You plug in age, gender and some pertinent lifestyle habits, and then you sit back, holding your breath, as the computer comes up with a number. A sobering one.
The odds that I will live to Olga’s age are . . . around three percent. Where she is, I will very likely never go.
There’s another number you can calculate that’s in some sense even more interesting. Actuaries have an expression they call “the force of mortality.” What it means is “the fraction of people who will not reach their next birthday.”
Better news here: the odds that I will not be here in a year’s time are only about one half of one percent. The odds that Olga will not be here in a year are somewhere around 20 percent.
Of course, it’s likely to be significantly lower than that, since it’s based on a typical 94-year-old woman, and Olga is anything but typical. I’d be surprised if, for Olga, the actual odds are even ten percent. Let’s say they’re five percent.
Even at that, I have ten times as much chance as Olga does of not having my birthday-dinner reservation cancelled because I died. My sword of Damocles is hanging by a string; hers is hanging by a thread. I wonder: does knowing these numbers change the way we live? Does it help us, you know, enjoy every sandwich?
Life is precious and evanescent: I think we know that without crunching any numbers.
In an old joke, a priest, a minister and a rabbi are discussing what they’d like people to say after they die and their bodies are on display in open caskets.
The priest says, “I’d like someone to say, ‘He was rightous, honest and generous.”
The minister says, “I’d like someone to say, He was kind and fair, and he was good to his parishioners.”
The rabbi says, “I’d want someone to say, Look, he’s moving.’
Not long after our second daughter was born, my wife, Jen, began leaving vasectomy pamphlets around. This is the way parents sometimes introduce important conversations to teenagers, whose notorious sensitivity prevents things from being discussed more openly. And I can’t claim it was a bad approach, because the end of a man’s reproductive life (and so abruptly!) is a flinchingly uncomfortable moment; it feels like being fired from the only job you were ever really qualified to do. And then there is the thing itself, the idea of a knife at work down there. All that barnyard poetry comes flooding back: the farmer snipping off the tip of the scrotum like he’s scissoring the tip of a cigar. Jay-sus.
But Jen was right. It had to be done. I’m 45 years old. We’re happily married. It’s the responsible thing.
“I’ll start saving up for it right now,” I told her.
“Um, it’s covered by your health insurance, my friend.”
Here in Vancouver, when you think of vasectomy operations one name pops to mind. Neil Pollock is not so much a doctor as a brand. His ads for “virtually painless,” “no needle, no scalpel” amount to a bloodless severing of a man’s more visceral qualms. Seven minutes and you’re done. Up to 25 men move through his clinic a day. Pollock has cut more ribbon than the mayor. There’s even a “premium” option for guys who fancy themselves too busy for the follow-up visits. (You pay a little surcharge for unlimited post-op phone access.) It all seems perfectly packaged for the modern, hyperdecisive guy: get your snip, get back to work, and don’t think about any of this ever again, buster.
Except that when you go to the website, you discover that Pollock also performs circumspection. What if you change your mind? It turns out that “up to seven percent” of men, “within a few years of having the surgery done,” wish they’d never been cut. At which point they’re stuck. Reverse-vasectomies cost about $5,000 and work maybe half the time. But Pollock isn’t talking himself out of business, just suggesting an elegant option, an escape hatch that makes the commitment seem less permanent: Freeze your sperm. A couple of local facilities, unaffiliated with the clinic, will keep it for you in cold storage. While many vasectomy docs don’t even mention the possibility of freezing sperm, Pollock strongly promotes it as a kind of cheap insurance policy. (It’s not that cheap — $500 for five years in the bank. But then, it’s not practical to cut costs by doing it at home, in your own freezer. The cells die, and anyway, you know the spooge is going to end up in someone’s scotch.)
“I’d do it,” Pollock told me during our telephone consultation, when I asked him about freezing sperm. “At your age, you never know.”
At my age — which is also Pollock’s age — terrible, unforeseen things can happen and do, yet a man is still young enough to rewrite a workable script for the second half of his life. I don’t feel particularly young; I frankly can’t see myself ever again touching my toes. But apparently it doesn’t matter if the flesh is weak as long as the swimmers are willing. And there’s no social stigma against embarrassingly old guys siring kids. On the contrary.
“Do not forget,” Pollock’s website points out, “Aristotle Onassis had his last child at 85 years old. David Letterman at 58.”
And so, quite suddenly, what had seemed such a straightforward decision wasn’t.
“It really would be a shame to lose this sperm,” I said to Jen, offhandedly. “Because it’s no ordinary sperm. As soon as we pulled the goalie we conceived — every time. Do you know what the odds of that are? We’re incredibly fertile. You have Fabergé eggs. And my guys are like a billion little Ian Thorpes. Not saving this stuff, it’d be like being blessed with 60/20 vision and giving away your eyes.”
This is called rationalization.
Jen’s expression said, Please get a second opinion.
And here is where a man gets gold-standard advice from his friends, because I guarantee you any guy older than 40 has thought about vasectomies — a lot. What emerged in these discussions was a strong case against saving sperm, at least for couples like us.
One wise friend pointed out the canny salesmanship of that whole insurance-policy metaphor: You may not ever use that sperm, but you want to know that you could. That touches something very deep in the male psyche. There is a German word that captures what a lot of guys feel in midlife: torschlusspanik. Fear of the gates closing. Fear of options evaporating. The option to store sperm exploits those fears quite perfectly.
The middle-aged guy tends to feel that he hasn’t really amounted to what he wanted to amount to — but he could still find his groove, and when he does he’ll want to share the mojo. His sperm, too, will become golden. “They’re playing around with the mythology of what it means to be a man,” my pal said. “And what a time to do it. Because, literally, they’ve got you by the balls.”
Another wise friend came in from another angle with advice that’s hard to refute. “Look, if you’re in a position to use that frozen sperm, it’s because something very bad has happened — in which case, having another baby is probably the last thing that should be on your mind. And anyway, do you really want to be changing diapers at 50? I sure as hell don’t.”
Jen and I were inching so gingerly into this discussion, it was clear, because we both sensed how fraught it was, what power it had to change the ecosystem of a marriage. Freezing sperm surely has something of the same impact that a pre-nuptial agreement does. It’s as if part of you has already disengaged and is surfing the dial for an alternative future, with a different house and a different dog and a different name you call out in bed. Yes, it’s naïve to think it couldn’t happen. But wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent with your partner, right now, digging in?
The next night we peeked in on Madeline. She’d fallen asleep with a yellow helium balloon from a four-year-old friend’s party wrapped around her wrist, suspended two feet above her head like a small, still moon.
We stood there in the doorway just looking at here. “This is far and away the best thing that has happened to us,” I said. “I can see why people just want to keep going.”
“We got two great ones.”
“We got lucky.”
“We should walk away from the table.”
The next morning I called Pollock Clinics and booked the appointment. Would we be freezing sperm? No, I didn’t think so. No.
The receptionist slotted me in for two weeks hence. “Oh, and don’t forget to shave.”
This was an unwelcome little tic amid the bigger issues: You gotta shave the huevos.
All in all we were peace with the decision. Ready to go.
And then something happened.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Jen asked one morning. She’d been having second thoughts. About the frozen sperm? About all of it.
“What if our ship came in tomorrow? What if we won the lottery?”
She was feeling particularly in love with her three-month old girl. They are unbelievably charismatic, babies, you know?
Something was up. It turned out that, at that birthday party, the kids had been exposed to whooping cough. (The boy’s chagrined parents phoned Jen to warn us.) That’s no big deal for vaccinated toddlers, but if a tiny baby contracts it, the mortality rate is one in 200. Lila’s exposure was limited; the odds against serious problems seemed small. But fear doesn’t know from the odds. Fear was now driving.
“What if….” The idea was too terrible to finish.
“We’d try again.”
“I’ll freeze sperm.”
“But … that seems silly when we could get it fresh.”
The clock ticked. Stars were born and died.
“This isn’t going to happen, is it?” I said.
Jen shook her head no.
I called the clinic. You can avoid the cancellation fee if you call 48 hours in advance. We didn’t quite make it.
“Two hundred dollars,” the receptionist said.
I fished out my Visa card.
“I guess this happens a lot, eh, cold feet?”
“No, actually” she said. “Maybe once a month.” The put us among the one-fifth of one percent of couples who flake.
From the archives: East Meets West in the Dentist’s Chair
From Saturday Night magazine, 2002
For whatever reason—and there’s endless scope to speculate – pain is a hot topic these days. “That’s gotta hurt!” we say of the extreme snowboarder who lands face-first while jumping a Volkswagon, or of our friend’s kid who flashes her tongue stud or lumbar tattoo. But we’re fascinated. In an age where pain is optional, it has acquired a strange new cachet.
On today’s maternity wards, experiments in mystical stoicism have replaced old-style epidural-aided childbirth (which at least offered mothers-to-be some relief) with “natural childbirth, where lucky women get to sweat and holler and squeeze the doula’s hand, the pain simply the price of being fully present in the moment. The Dene and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories would understand. Many of their traditional games – the mouth pull, the knuckle hop – involve the mutual affliction of pain. “If we know how much pain we can take,” an elder named Big Bob Aikens explained to writer John Vaillant not long ago, “we know we can survive if we are injured.” Most of us below the tundra line are so far away from needing pain for that reason that it’s hard to fully appreciate what Big Bob is getting at. But the possibility glimmers on the periphery of awareness that maybe the Inuit are onto something. Maybe anesthetizing pain is a bad idea, evolutionarily. Maybe learning to feel pain, to take it, to “live inside” it, to study it, to re-engineer our relationship with it, is part of the secret of advancing the species.
There is, of course, another, more immediately relevant reason to study pain: as pain treatment goes, so goes the future of medicine. How we decide to deal with pain matters, now possibly more than ever, because pain disproportionately affects an enormous and growing number in an aging population.
And it’s hear that a clear division has emerged on which direction we ought to pursue. Ask a Western doctor what the future of pain relief is, and he or she will probably start naming drugs that end in x. Western medicine has cast its lot with pharmacology, and, increasingly, biotechnology.
But at the same time, and in record numbers, the afflicted are looking for something different. Collectively, we seem to be letting our guard down about those crazy Eastern remedies that at least do no harm, and may do some good. (British Columbia, where I live, was the first province where traditional Chinese medicine was recognized as a regulated discipline.) Herbs, guided fantasy, acupuncture, magnets, hypnosis, virtual reality, prayer: people will reach for anything when they’re in pain and the old standbys haven’t done the job. The “proof” that any of these “natural” remedies is effective – that is, double-blind controlled-study proof, Western science’s standard – is scanty at best, but the nature of the target, pain, is ephemeral enough that the phrase “controlled study” can seem hopelessly paradoxical.
What is clear is that the mind, when it comes to pain, is more powerful than we ever imagined. Pain, like, time, is an illusion. We interpret it as discomfort because discomfort is nature’s way of ensuring a damaged area gets attention. But is there anything to say that we can’t learn to “read” pain signals dispassionately, as just so many lines of source code, and remove the discomfort from the equation? Or even learn to interpret pain signals as pleasurable – so-called “eudemonic” pain? Hindu mystics have done it for centuries. As that stoic philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger put it in The Terminator, “Pain can be controlled – you just disconnect it.”
Was Arnie right? I have decided to find out.
It happens that I am one of those people who never had their wisdom teeth removed. Now all four of mine sit like tiny thrones sunk in soft tissue – inviting a controlled test. I will have the teeth on the right pulled the Western way (which is to say, by an oral surgeon and with ample drugs before and after) and the teeth on the left pulled the Eastern way (by a holistic-oriented dentist using a cocktail of New Age measures, no anesthetic.) My own theory is that since the more soulful, creative right brain controls the left side of the body, I ought to be able to recruit some natural pain relief from there. Or at least draw on reserves of faith.
I will turn over my body – my mouth, at any rate – to science. East vs. West: may the best side win.
Dr. Martin (Marty) Braverman is one of the top oral surgeons in B.C. His office is in a mall.
Braverman can extract a couple of teeth in the time it takes to get your oil changed. On a busy day he might pull a hundred teeth. You pay a little extra for a guy like Marty Braverman, because he is a specialist and because he boasts a very low dry-socket ratio. (A dry socket, in which the bone holding the tooth becomes exposed to air, is the very definition of pain.) “Will I be able to drive afterward?” I’d asked the receptionist.
“Can you drive now?” she said.
“Then, yes.” Ba-rum-bum.
Sitting in Braverman’s chair, I survey a rolling cart with a few silver instruments on it. The smell of a dentist’s office provokes a kind of primal fear, and, fast on its heels, the urge to bolt. I have to remind myself: This is the easy side.
Braverman is short and bespectacled and almost alarmingly casual in manner. He’s wearing khakis. With a needle as fat as a fountain pen, he injects, lidocaine, but as he has applied topical anesthetic to numb the gum first, I don’t feel the needle go in. I don’t feel a thing.
“Now, lidocaine usually has about a three-hour duration,” Braverman says, “so in three or four hours you’re going to experience some discomfort.” A nurse pokes her head in to remind Braverman that he has a lunch date in twenty minutes.
He goes to work on the lower right-hand tooth, the trickier one because it’s half-buried. He makes an incision. “What we’re going to do is push the gum back away from the tooth,” he says. “You’ll feel some pressure as we do that.” A scratching sound, a cat at the door. He removes a bit of bone to create some space to lever the tooth up and out. The drill roars. Through the window, I can see the traffic light, hung on a wire over the intersection, being blown so far off plumb by the wind that the motorists can’t tell what colour the light is.
Braverman has the tooth out in two minutes, 35 seconds. He asks for a needle-driver, so that he can “re-approximate” the gum with some stitches. He packs the hole with a dissolving sponge and packs my cheek with dexamethasone, an anti-swelling drug.
The top tooth ought to go even faster, and it does. Braverman levers an instrument called an elevator – essentially a primitive wedge – between the tooth and the bone, grabs onto the tooth with the forceps, and, boom: done. One minute, 25 seconds. I have barely warmed up the chair for the next person. Pain? There has been none. The procedure is over so quickly as to be disorienting. This feels like cheating, the way plane travel feels like cheating, bridging distance you somehow haven’t earned.
Braverman prescribes Tylenol 3 and the antibiotic amoxicillin – a prescription I fill one floor down in the mall, before driving home. The cost is $250. There’s an industry joke about a guy who receives the bill from his oral surgeon. He’s outraged. “Three hundred dollars for 15 minutes’ work?!” The surgeon replies, “Would you rather I’d taken an hour?”
A problem arises as I try to monitor the degree of pain I experience during recovery: how do I measure it? Most doctors acknowledge that the task of calibrating pain is almost impossible, since the amount of pain people feel is ultimately subjective, varies wildly from patient to patient, and is influenced by factors such as mood and expectation. All of the pain scales thus far devised are imprecise, and in fact no one has improved on the old “On a scale of one to 10, how much does this hurt?” The pain I feel on Day 1, after the extraction, is about a 2.
On day 2, the pain climbs to three, and requires a couple of T3’s to keep it in check. I try to pay attention to the pain. It diminishes, narrowing to a little, lingering ache just below the right temple, then migrates to the hinge of my jaw. By Day 4, it is largely gone. For all intents, the right side, the Western side, is over – hardly more psychically disruptive, overall, than a bad haircut. The persistence of a very low-grade headache makes me wonder if there isn’t, just possibly, a little infection, so I start taking the antibiotics again, three a day. A week later I take a closer look at the label on the bottle: “Three a day until finished, as directed by Dr. Salzman.” Dr. Salzman? Oh yeah: the guy I sometimes see from the travel clinic down the street. I have been taking pills for altitude sickness.
EAST (The Preparation)
Canadians spent about $4 billion on alternative therapies last year, and more than two in five say they use some kind of “complementary” medicine. In most cities you can now find a holistic dentist who will manage pain with hypnoanaesthesia or herbology or acupuncture instead of burying it with sedatives or anesthetic. It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that the masses are flocking to these folks.
“People don’t like to feel pain,” says Dr. Craig Kirker, the founder of Biological Dental Investigations, a consultant at the Integrative Medicine Institute of Canada in Calgary – and the practitioner who has agreed to take me as a test subject. Kirker often uses acupuncture in his treatment of patients, usually ones who are terrified of the kind of big dental needles that deliver lidocaine (and for whom, therefore, the reduced pain felt with acupuncture is preferable to the full-throttle pain of no treatment at all). “When you’re frozen with anesthetic, you’ll feel, on a scale of one to 10, zero, maybe point-five. If you have no freezing you might feel a nine when it gets close to the nerve. With the acupuncture you feel about a four. And it’ll peak to about a six. Just once in a while. You know, just kind of like: ‘zing.’”
Regarding my own personal experiment, Kirker is curious, even keen, but offers no guarantees. No painkillers before, during or after? “If you’re just popping a tooth out, it’s not such a big deal,” he says. “If they have to touch the bone, you’re probably going to want freezing. It’s a little different kind of pain down there. But it’d be interesting.”
Kirker sets up the extraction for three weeks hence. He recommends a couple of ways I can prepare. One is a visualization exercise popularized by Jose Silva in a classic of New Age literature called You the Healer. Basically, the subject relaxes by counting backwards from 50. You imagine your hand immersed in a bucket of ice water. You leave your hand in the water for 10 minutes. Then you withdraw it, stiff and numb, and apply it to your face, where the numbness transfers to the jaw and settles deeply into the bone.
“Here’s another little tidbit,” Kirker advises by e-mail. “Get into your quiet space and have a little conversation with your wisdom teeth and jaw. It would be nice if they felt OK about parting ways as well. I know it sounds a little flighty, but I have actually run into cases where this could have prevented a lot of trouble if we had listened more carefully.”
And so Jose Silva joins my night-table stack, atop Mark Salzman’s novel Lying Awake. In that book, a nun named Sister John has been suffering from killer migraines, which we later discover are linked to epilepsy. “I try to see pain as an opportunity, not an affliction,” she explains to a neurologist. “If I surrender to it in the right way, I have a feeling of transcending my body completely. It’s a wonderful experience, but it’s spiritual, not physical.”
EAST (The Indoctrination)
The IMI, a cozy little brick building not far from downtown Calgary, is on the frontier of the field of “integrated medicine.” Its mandate is similar to Andrew Weil’s bailiwick at the University of Arizona – to get the two solitudes, Western and Eastern medicine, to meet for lunch. Mind-body medicine is about breaking the old dichotomy – not “East” or “West” but “the medicine that works at the right time for the right reason.” “The body is capable of healing itself,” the Canadian alternative-medicine pioneer Wah Jun Tze often said. IN fact, perfect health is the body’s natural state, and anything that interposes itself in that process, the mind-body tribe says, is probably hurting more than it’s helping in the long run.
I arrive the day before the scheduled extraction. My vow to do this side the Eastern way forces the direction of treatment somewhat. Kirker will work as part of a team: he’ll do the prep work and the acupuncture while a colleague named Bill Cryderman, a dentist who is on the same page with IMI philosophically, will pull the teeth. “We could have gone with an oral surgeon, but I thought you’d have a more exciting experience with Bill,” Kirker says. But before I meet Cryderman, there’s a little “tuning up” to be done.
“Here in the West we’re hunt up on the double-blind placebo study,” Kirker says as I frump into the chair next to a “bioresonance” machine called a MORA. “First we observe. We make theories. Then we test those theories, and that’s science. When Newton proposed an invisible force called gravity, they almost threw him out of the institute – but then they started testing and found out he was right.”
Craig Kirker is a nice guy. If Mr. Rogers ever decided to have a dentist on his show, Kirker would be the man he’s invite. He has a habit of telling an anecdote with a surprise ending involving spontaneous or dramatic healing, and punctuating it with “Interesting.” The MORA machine is making high-pitched squeals. Its job, Kirker says, is to detect imbalances in my body’s “harmonics” and try to kick me back into plumb. A nurse jots down the readings she’s getting. Apparently I’m a little out of balance,” “possible from the plane ride,” Kirker offers, charitably.
Next, in another room, my autonomic reflexes are tested to determine how much my body reacts to anesthetics the dentist might have if the pain proves too much to bear. Kirker puts a number of different samples in a little receptacle, one by one, and determines how they conduct energy through an acupressure point in my finger.
In still another room, I lie on a massage table with an oxygen mask over my mouth. I get a fix of ionized oxygen for 16 minutes – eight minutes of positively charged ions followed by eight minutes of negatively charged ions – which Kirker tells me has a general “detoxifying” effect and boosts my immune system. (If you could take a picture of the energy field around my body, he says, you’d see that after the oxygen had saturated the cells, the energy field would have expanded to Michelin Man dimensions.)
Then we add light. From the hood of a “biophoton machine” poised over my scalp, tiny red pulsing diodes send light energy into my body, filling me, Kirker says, with qi energy. A magnetic ring around my ankles catches energy that would apparently otherwise be lost, and sends it back into my body.
Finally Kirker puts a tiny vial of liquid in the “honeycomb” – a device that takes the frequency signature of whatever you put in it and feeds it through the lights. The liquid is a homeopathic remedy created from a flower essence – an ultradilute solution of dew collected from a flower petal in a meadow in Western Canada just as the light of dawn struck it – selected for me by an IMI staff “intuitive” named Iris.
“We’re working on you from all levels,” Kirker says.
Now, there is plenty in New Age medicine to be suspicious of. In my suitcase is a thick folder full of articles that take the air out of exactly the sort of thing we’ve been doing. But I haven’t read them yet. I’m highly motivated to believe. What’s going on here seems nutty, but my job is to take my own cynicism out of the equation at least until my teeth are handed to me in a sack. No theories, no baggage, just direct experience.
As he finishes the tune-up, Kirker tells the story of his own drift from hard science to the speculative fringe. How, almost as a lark, he played along with the leader of a workshop called “Body Symptoms as a Spiritual Process,” and allowed the possibility that symptoms happen for a reason and that the painful kink in his neck was just his body’s subconscious trying to tell him something. (The kink vanished.) And how, a while later, a naturopath using a similar technique managed to cure him of chronic abdominal pain. As far as extra-normal talent goes, for that matter, Kirker’s associate Iris, the “medical intuitive,” has a reputation for being downright psychic. Sometimes she turns up in pictures of gatherings she wasn’t even at. And here she is now, poking her head into the treatment room. “Will you be there tomorrow?” I ask.
“Not in body,” she says.
“Then how will I know if you’re around?”
“I’m a little clumsy,” Iris says. “If somebody knocks something over, that’s me.”
EAST (The Extraction)
Bill Cryderman’s workplace feels less like a dentist’s office than like the “pioneers” wing of a museum of natural history. Water rills down a slate waterfall and trickles lazily into a catch basin. Fire blazes in a hearth. A pair of snowshoes sits propped in a wall niche. And overhead, positioned so that its ribs fill the field of vision of the prone patient, is a ‘40s-era wide-bodied wooden canoe.
Cryderman himself is a small man with a sort of jocular confidence. “Good to meet you,” he said, emerging from behind a partition and pumping my hand. “Are you all psyched?”
I am lying in his high-tech dental chair. With a low hum, parts of it move to adjust to my contours. Some money falls out of my pocket onto the floor. “That’s the automatic coin-remover,” Cryderman says.
He draws himself in close, trying to gauge my level of trepidation. “You know we have a backup, right?” He means lidocaine. “It’s just for your mental security. I don’t want to give you a back door. This is going to work.”
It’s hard to tell whether Cryderman’s as certain as he seems to be, or as certain as he needs to be fore me to believe him.
There comes a point – and actors and speakers must feel this – when apprehension becomes a bigger burden than the thing you’re apprehensive about, and you actually wish yourself forward in time to meet the event. I felt that way this morning. But now I’m in full retreat, my stomach in coils.
For the past week, I’ve been practicing the ice-bucket exercise. In theory, I should be able to effect an actual physiological change. In other words, I’m not just fooling myself into thinking the area’s growing numb – it IS growing numb. Neurons generate electrochemical charges that actually block the pain messages coming back from the brain. In theory.
Craig Kirker is beside me. He seems quietly stoked. He is the pit crew, the doula, overseeing the acupuncture. Carefully, he hooks up tiny needles to acupressure points in my right ear, left hand, left food and face. Some of these needles are basically just electrodes, through which a mild current (called, oddly, a tsunami) will run from a machine called, unpromisingly, an Accu-O-Matic. There’s very little sensation: the needles hardly feel as if they’ve penetrated the skin. This could easily be a total ruse. “Now I’m just going to dial it up,” Kirker says. “The frequency you’re on right now is for healing.”
What am I doing here? No, really, literally, what am I doing here? Trying, in a sense, to reprogram the body. Pain is the fire alarm of a healthy, functioning nervous system. So the question becomes, can we make the mind aware that, yes, we’ve heard the alarm, we’re aware of the fire – but it’s a controlled burn, a regeneration burn, and therefore there’s no need to ring anymore. Can we tell it that? And will it listen?
I close my eyes and move slowly backwards from 50, breathing deeply, rhythmically. The idea is to slow down the brain activity and drift toward an alpha state, where the right brain, the creative, intuitive side, predominates.
“We’re going to just allow the body to numb,” Kirker says, “and we’re going to give the release to the teeth. We’re going to allow them to leave, and we’re going to allow the process to take place without invasion. The tissues will adapt if they need to, and healing will begin to take place as soon as the tooth is gone. We’re going to do the same visualization we’ve been doing, with the ice water, but we’re also going to draw our consciousness back from the body. To do that we’re going to go up some stairs in the mind. Only a few stairs until we reach a landing. Now look back and see your body in the chair.”
I can see it. The body. It’s me but it isn’t. It looks like an exhumed mariner from the Franklin Expedition, mummied in ice. The eyes are buried like bulbs under the skin, the whole left half of the face is crusted over with thick, white frost. This guy is dead.
Kirker reinforces the image with another. There’s a thermostat in the wall. The thermostat will be used to put the jaw into a deep freeze. At “1” the jaw is already numb. “When we turn the dial to the number 2, the numbness deepens, becomes more pervasive. Now turn the dial to 3. Turn it to 4. Deepening almost to the very tip of the root, now. Five. It’s starting to feel almost like stone. No sensation. Numb and very dense. You’ll still feel pressure, but nothing other than pressure.”
Image-making. In repressive regimes, the room where victims have been tortured has often been given a nickname. In the Philippines it has been called “the production room.” In South Vietnam “the cinema room.” In Chile “the blue-lit stage.” The very thing that manufactures and heightens sensations of pain – the projection booth of the mind – can be recruited to do propaganda for the good guys. In theory.
Somewhere across the room Cryderman is laughing. He and the receptionist strike up the Johnny Cash tune “Ring of Fire.”
I can hear things being unwrapped, instruments.
“Breathing in numbness,” Kirker says, “breathing out tension.”
A machine issuing three tones: GEG…GEG…
Cryderman is standing, for better leverage.
“Bruce is wired for sound,” he says, surveying the electrodes on my face.” “Second floor: lingerie.”
The top tooth is lying at an angle, like a newspaper box that’s been tipped over and frozen into a snowdrift. “It’s pointing a little sideways, but it’s manageable,” Cryderman says. His assistant, Monica, is at his flank. “I’m going to apply some pressure now around the upper wisdom tooth.”
You’ll feel pressure, but no pain.
Extracting a wisdom tooth is like prying an oyster off a rock. You’re pulling ligaments away from the bone, and attached to each ligament are nerves.
“Try and shift your lower jaw towards Monica,” Cryderman says. “Good for you.” The man is relaxed. He’s selling this. A little probing, a little digging – pressure, as promised, but pressure is not pain. Stone cold, bone numb.
“I’m going to try a straight elevator,” Cryderman says. “That was too easy.”
So far, so good. The dentist is smooth. He’s in there working on my mouth, and I haven’t really felt much of…
Mother of God.
Cryderman has leaned on the tool as if it were a tire iron. There’s a sick-making twisting, each sucker being yarded off the rock like snot till it pops free. Painwise, that was a six at least. Or was it? The lateral motion was what got to me, that unfamiliar sensation I interpreted as pain.
“You OK?” Cryderman says. “Yes? He’s going to be fine, then. You are going to be just fine.”
Pain is a private experience. To feel it even for a moment is to glimpse how it must, for chronic suffers, be a brutally estranging force. The human being is affiliative by nature, constantly reaching out; but the human being in pain is isolated, constantly looking in, drawing on reserves, spinning down to a hidden centre.
Quell the fear. Most of pain is fear. Breath in numbness, breathe out tension. Hey, this isn’t so bad. On the other hand, if the same procedure were happening in a different circumstance – the Tower of London in the 18th century, say – my subjective experience would likely be different.
“Hang in there, buddy,” Cryderman says. “Good show. So, we’re done there.” The top tooth is out. In seven minutes. Not exactly a slow float in the shallow end of the kidney pool, but manageable, surprisingly so. One down, one to go.
If I could somehow have known what was to follow, I might have bailed right there – paid up and been on the next plane home.
“I’m going to enlist your aid here, OK?” he says. “I want to control the bleeding in the lower left. I want you to imagine that the blood supply to that corner of your mouth is delivered by a garden hose. I want you to turn the tap off. Imagine yourself turning it right off. Cinch it down tight and shut the blood supply off to that wisdom tooth area. That’s it. Just imagine that you’ve stopped it altogether.”
Most of the tooth is covered by a crown of skin, which will have to go. Cryderman picks up a scalpel. Its blade is as long as my thumb.
“For all I know, this is the part that will bother you more than the actual tooth removal.” He pushes the blade in deep, drawing it down nearly a quarter of an inch and all the way forward, creating two flaps he then peels back on either side to expose the bone. It feels like a scraping, a scouring, a beating of rugs, uncomfortable for sure, but by now I have defined pain down – anything that doesn’t involve twisting is OK by me – and I let him go on.
“So we’re going to make some noise just like for a filling.”
Constant suction. Cryderman needs a point of leverage to get the tooth out of there. He starts to drill. Now he is digging a little trench in the bone. What helps stave off panic is that the drill, I discover, is preferable to the elevator, whose sudden, stump-uprooting action creates a more mentally vivid and therefore more flinchworthy sensation.
I can feel him moving back there. He’s a long way back, so far back that maybe he’s working on somebody else’s mouth. The mouth of the dead guy, Franklin’s man in the ice.
The tooth is butted up to the next molar too tightly. It’s not going to come out in one piece.
Cryderman starts to drill. He burrs down from the top of the tooth at an angle, the sound of a jet plane on takeoff heard through earmuffs. He brushes the pulp – a zing of pain, electric, a fist flying open. “Hang in there,” he says. “We’re making great headway.”
Whenever the rational mind is activated, there is suffering. Cryderman can tell when I am in my rational mind. He knows the circuit is open, two people receiving each other. He’s talking to me now, engaging directly. He knows I’ve gotten off the lift and am taking the stairs, and he is helping me up those stairs.
I fall back on the Jose Silva technique. The trick, Silva figured, is to concretize the pain, make it a physical thing. The right brain, which creates pain sensations, deals with subjective constructions. It can’t deal with things. So once you’ve given pain dimensions, you’ve taken it out of the right brain and put it into the left, which feels nothing. Concretize the pain. It is the shape of the sun, the sudden weight of a wheelbarrow full of rocks.
“Thanks for opening so wide,” Cryderman says. “I had a little girl just before you, and I keep wanting to say, ‘Bruce is being a big helper.’”
With a loud crack the corner of the tooth shears off. The idea is to plug the elevator in and try to level the tooth out. But again, it refuses to budge.
Strategy changes. Cryderman and his assistant have a little conference. Kirker, who has been down at my feet massaging the acupressure points, pops up to have a look. “OK, let’s try it,” Cryderman says finally. “We’ll just go really slow and see how we do.” He begins to drill straight down into the pulp chamber of the tooth. If lidocaine were ever going to be needed, it’s now. I can feel the burr going in, but the pain is more a frisson than a jolt, no worse than some of the bad dentistry I had as a kid, nothing I can’t handle. If the other “pain” sense cues were absent – the scraping of the scalpel, the cracking of the teeth, the smell of burning pulp – there would be almost no sensation. At intervals Cryderman stops drilling and tries levering. I can hear myself making whale sounds. “Let’s give him a rubber bite-block – that should improve his ability to stabilize his own jaw,” Cryderman says. “I think that’s going to help you, Bruce, because I’m torquin’ on ya.”
The roots of the tooth have grown together into a kind of monoroot, which means Cryderman will have to bore down almost all the way down to the jawbone before the tooth splits. Then all that will remain is to slip an elevator into the crack, twist it, and the two pieces should split like cordwood, free to be lifted out. In theory.
Light blooms periodically as Cryderman’s headlamp beam passes over my eyelids. I can feel tight skin near my temples where the tracks of tears have dried.
The steady trickle of the waterfall. Kirker has turned up the current on the electrodes on my face so I will feel a reassuring buzz, but I don’t feel a thing.
A hazy notion is born and forms and tries to take hold. It’s the sense that there are two worlds in opposition – the world I normally live in, the grasping world, self-centred and busy and messy, my brain full of way too much pop-cultural arcane; and the other world I am beginning to glimpse, a letting-go world, a place of acceptance and submission and yes, faith, where the real show is happening beyond conscious awareness, your biochemistry sensitive to toxins at almost an atomic level, dead relatives along with you for the ride and every organic thing pulsing at an almost audible frequency, giving off a visible light. A place that, once you decided to live in it permanently, would probably make the other world look like the restroom of a gas station next to the beach.
How we experience pain, eventually, falls into the preverbal realm, or possibly postverbal – casting us back into the frustrating limitations of infanthood or forward to the final mumblings in the vapour tent before the ventilator is turned off English has no words for it. At best our descriptions are crude approximations. Pain is the original language, not what the body speaks to the world but what the world speaks to the body: you are still alive.
Cryderman is almost entirely through the tooth. “Hang on,” he says. “I think I’m going to have some good news for you pretty quickly.”
The tooth splits with a crack. “OK, let’s see what we’ve got.” The two pieces should lift out easily. But they don’t. They are fused to the bone. Akylosis. Cryderman will have to pry each out individually.
At this point let me collapse the story. Plenty of things happen in my mouth, and plenty of things happen in my mind, not least of which is that I adopt a new strategy, leaning not on images, but on fact (“Look, this is the way it was done for thousands of years”) and affirmations (“The only way out is through”). Cryderman describes a required manoeuvre to Monica as a “dipsy-doodle.” He tells her to be a little more aggressive. At a certain point, I find myself talking to the tooth: “Let go, pal.” The tooth and I have fairly clear communication going. We are staring at each other across the table of a bad Mexican restaurant on the night, after 25 years together, that it all ends. The tooth says, “Why are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to you?” It senses an impure motive. This is not a diseased tooth. It wasn’t causing any trouble. Strictly speaking it did not need to come out. Was the thrill gone? Was there another, younger tooth in the picture? No. I was doing this for the money.
“OK, Bruce,” Cryderman says. “You made it.”
Sixty-five minutes after he began to tackle it, the last piece of this tooth is out. Cryderman’s face is filmed with sweat. “Holy mackerel,” he says. He puts a couple of stitches in. I don’t feel them. I am floating on endorphins.
This has turned out to be one of the most stubborn extractions Cryderman has ever undertaken.
“OK, I’m not ordering anything with sun-dried tomatoes on it this weekend,” Cryderman says “Monica is destroyed on sun-dried tomatoes now. Possibly forever.”
In his byzantine excavations, Cryderman managed to miss the major nerve that runs under the wisdom teeth – if he’d hit it I doubt any amount of acupuncture or guided imagery would have prevented me from jumping out of the chair. But even so, this was a pretty sensational bit of trauma. And with acupressure, and what amounts to positive thinking, I was able to endure it. the dissociation from my own body in the chair – not “astral travel,” but something closer to a state of light hypnosis, suggestibility with awareness – worked. “Turning off the tap” worked. Cryderman removed only two gauzes’ worth of blood – way less than there should have been for a wound that size. A dental patient who’s not completely frozen will typically feel pain the moment the drill penetrates the enamel, moves into the dentin and brushes the pulp. Cryderman drilled right through the pulp. “That,” says Kirker, “is like doing surgery.”
Here’s the truth. I am not a tough guy. I cry at track meets. And I’m easily distracted. A stronger person with a more disciplined mind could almost certainly enjoy something close to a pain-free experience.
“Western medicines definitely have their place,” Kirker says as we make our way back to the IMI in his minivan. “They’re very useful for some things. It’s hard to beat a good nerve block.” I know what he means. Strictly in terms of quantifiable pain, the Western side of this experiment “won” hands-down. But the Eastern side was a lot more interesting.
No doubt Silva made some mistakes, and Iris misses the barn some days, and Deepak Chopra bends some facts to fit his myths, and a lot of the “Kirlian photography” people you see at science fairs are charlatans, waving the Polaroid over a 60-watt bulf before handing you back an aureole-ringed picture of yourself. But somewhere in the fog is the right way forward – to a future where doctors are paid even if they don’t make a referral or prescribe a pill, and patients are encouraged to do all they can for themselves, and Western and Eastern medicine collapse into something we call ‘using what works.’ And pain still exists though we all start thinking about if differently, trying to answer the question of why it dogs us from a little further upstream.
The healing curve on this left side is steep. Kirker gives me a couple more sessions of the oxygen and the lights. He makes a liquid homeopathic out of the pieces of my own tooth. He feeds into the bioresonance machine he’s using on me the signature of healthy tissues from pigs raised on an organic farm in Germany. (Using healthy human flesh would no doubt present, um, ethical issues.) There is very little swelling, which surprises him. “When you touch bone,” he says, “almost invariably you swell up like a chipmunk.”
The night of the operation there’s a little low pain, maybe a Two, not enough to prevent me from sleeping. The next morning it is gone.
On Monday, Kirker and I shake hands goodbye.
“Oh. Iris phoned,” he says. “I asked her if she was there. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘Dragged on awhile, eh?’”
From THE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT, by Liberty Mutual
The sign just inside the doors of Surrey City Centre Library was small enough, or strange enough, that most of the patrons who’d been waiting outside filed right past it without even noticing.
Human Library—Open Today
Surrey City Library, in a bedroom community of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a just-opened Modernist gem, and it has all of the things you’d expect in a library — books and magazines and scores of multimedia options —plus one rare new thing: a small collection of “human books” that you can “sign out” for 30 minutes at a time.*
Human books are, simply, people. They are volunteers who have made themselves available to the public, as stories. They were chosen because they have something unique to say and a compelling way of saying it, and because they reflect the cultural diversity of the community. Theirs are stories that – because they don’t involve vampires or boy wizards or ladies’ detective agencies— might otherwise be lost, in the blockbuster-or-nothing climate of today’s publishing world.
The books sat at tables, waiting for readers. About half of them were mustered in a big room. Beside each was a glass of water, a timer, and a little box of breath mints. (Aesthetes might argue that printed books “breathe” – and indeed the subtle smell of paper and glue is a crucial part of the reading experience that’ll be lost when we all go fully digital. But actual bad breath would surely be a bringdown for any reader.) One book stood out. It wore a vest bearing a sign in thick black block letters: I AM A BOOK.
The vested man was named Abdifatah. He had an easy smile and red-rimmed eyes —the badge of new-fatherhood. Abdifatah was a Somali refugee who had fled that country’s civil war in the mid-1990s and resettled in Canada. His story was ostensibly about “the immigrant experience” – but that title, I discovered after checking him out, barely scratched the surface.
You don’t read a human book the way you read a regular book. The exchange is, in principle, more like a dialogue. “Ask any question that occurs to you,” Ravi Basi, the project’s co-coordinator, put it, by way of instruction. But once Abdifatah got rolling, I didn’t dare interrupt him. Around ten minutes in, the poetic heart of his tale breathtakingly emerged.
When Abdifatah was 11 years old, growing up amid growing chaos in Mogadishu, he and his older brother were kidnapped and held for months by rebel soldiers. The boys were forced into servitude, given chores like making meals and laundering bloodstained clothes. It was corrosive stuff for a little kid, and Abdifatah’s brother was determined to protect him from the worst of it. He would soften the nightmarish edges of day-to-day life by confabulating stories that sanitized the truth.
“He’d make it like a fairy tale,” Abdifatah said. “He would say, ‘Abdi, they’re hunting animals – that’s how the blood got on these clothes!’” (In actual fact Abdifatah’s brother had stripped those bloody clothes off of dead soldiers himself.) The older boy kept the younger boy’s spirits up, day after day. It became clear that this human book wasn’t really about a young African man’s transition to Western culture, as advertised. It was about brotherly love.
It is the responsibility of a community to protect its stories. So an anthropologist might argue. It is the responsibility as human beings to step into each others’ shoes on a regular basis. So a philosopher might argue. Actually, that’s one of the reasons we read books. But it’s not the only one.
We read to confirm our biases. We read to bore deeper into an area of interest. Sometimes – though not often, it must be said – we read to “challenge ourselves,” says Basi, with a book that relates experiences or beliefs that oppose our own.
That, indeed, was the founding principle of the first-ever human library experiment, launched a dozen years ago in Denmark after a tragic event. A young man had been stabbed in a nightclub, and five of his friends were grasping for answers. Violence, they concluded, is a product of ignorance and misunderstanding; it melts in light. So if potential adversaries could sit down with each other—the book and its hostile reader, so to speak — anger and mistrust could be defused. The project was born. One of its first “books’ was a policeman, and one of his first readers was an illegal graffiti artist.
Since then, a handful of other human-library experiments have sprung up here and there – notably in Australia—each nodding to the original concept, but broadening it to scratch other, less political, itches of curious readers.
After the timer on Abdifatah’s desk buzzed, signaling my time with him was up, I thanked him and moved, a little stunned, out into the main stacks. By this time more readers had found their way to the human library. One was a man who had just come to drop off a book, then co-incidentally discovered a kindred spirit in a human book named Sara Grant, the mother of an autistic boy. He promptly signed her out, and the two settled in to a quietly intense discussion. (The man’s grandson is autistic; he had done a lot of book-reading, but had spoken to precious few people in similar circumstances.)
I started giddily signing out other human books.
One was about “laughing yoga,” by a teacher of that emerging discipline. Another concerned an East-Asian woman named Anita who had remained defiantly single, despite her parents’ best efforts to marry her off. A third was about the world of competitive crossword-puzzling, told by an international champion. All of my books were chatty and unguarded –qualities of temperament that the organizers selected for. At least one book – Anita– was unaware of how great a premise she was, and unsure if she’d make a compelling read. “I was kind of worried no one would check me out,” she admitted. More than once I thought: this is the real thing, a tale told around the primitive fire—no editing, distribution or downloading required.
Moving from table to table felt dizzyingly promiscuous, like literary speed-dating. But my mind kept returning to Abdifatah and his brother.
I confess I can’t tell you the brother’s name. I forgot to ask, and now it’s too late. There’s no going back to Abdifatah to check.
Unless I renew him.
* Note that Surrey library’s human books, unlike its print books, aren’t continuously available. (That would be a lot to ask of volunteers.) Rather, they will be made available periodically. Staff have yet to decide how frequently to run human library days.
Postscript: Abdifatah has checked in. His brother’s name is Mohamed.
The first shot across the bow came in 2002, when Oxford paleontologist Martin Brasier challenged the authenticity of what were then widely regarded as the fossil remains of some of Earth’s first life-forms. In the bargain he took on one of paleobiology’s great lions, J. W. “Bill” Schopf of UCLA, who made that find and still defends it. “It was like tackling Jesus or Moses,” Brasier says.
Now Brasier has emptied his second barrel. In August he and David Wacey of the University of Western Australia staked their own claim to a candidate for the oldest known fossil: a set of Slinky-shaped cells found on an ancient beach in western Australia, just 20 miles from the site of Schopf’s discovery. Brasier asserts that his fossilized cells are the remains of primitive anaerobic bacteria that lived 3.4 billion years ago. Schopf’s samples, he believes, are just ancient, patterned rock, with no fossils at all.
Settling the debate matters a great deal. At its heart is one of the biggest questions in science: When and where did life begin? Brasier’s find suggests that life on Earth started not near some oceanic thermal vent but rather in a warm, oxygen-depleted bath near the surface. It also bolsters the case that there once was life on Mars.
But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the late Carl Sagan once said, and that is a hard standard to meet in a field so rarefied that all of its top experts could probably fit in a Volkswagen. After a decade of mapping rock formations and analyzing samples, Brasier believes he has attained the extraordinary evidence that Schopf has not.
Both scientists used light- scattering lasers to dust for chemical fingerprints, but Brasier bundled several techniques to attain detailed 3-D images. He found sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen, suggesting biological origins. Schopf detected carbon too, but Brasier argues that it is unrelated to life. Schopf counters that no one has ever found carbon in the geological record that is not a remnant of life.
Context may matter just as much as chemistry. Schopf’s cells were free-floating in rock like raisins in raisin bread. Brasier’s fossils appear in tangled clumps stuck to sand grains. “And that’s much more what biology does,” he says. “Bacteria cluster together in great populations.”
Schopf, 70, stands by his fossils as “the most thoroughly studied —by the most workers, using the largest array of analytical techniques that have provided the greatest assemblage of relevant data in the history of science.” Naturally, Brasier disagrees with that, too. It will be up to their small group of colleagues to resolve the debate, or to make it moot by finding something even older.
From THE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT by LIBERTY MUTUAL, June 29, 2011
Not long ago, a French-Canadian skydiver named Pascal Coudé, who hopes to break a world record by freefalling for 6 to 7 minutes from an altitude of 30,000 feet, was telling me about his preparation. He plans to make the jump in a baggy costume known as a “wingsuit” – a specially designed jumpsuit with webbing that catches wind and creates massive air resistance. Sounds fun, but in fact it’s incredibly dangerous. If you tire and lose your stable position, you can start tumbling uncontrollably.
When the time seemed right I asked Coudé: “Do you have kids?” He replied that he does – a 19-year-old son.
“Do you think about him as the plane nears the drop zone?”
No, Coudé said. “I’m thinking only of the jump: nothing else.” There could be no distractions up there, in the brief prelude to glory.
Everything about “adventurers” tends to be writ large – which is what makes them such appealing profile subjects. Over the years I’ve covered a guy trying to skydive from the troposphere; a woman diving unprecedentedly deep in the ocean on a single breath; a Norwegian explorer walking across remote northern Canada, without support or even a phone. These are seriously brave people, and very often there’s poignancy to their motivations.
For years I never thought to ask such people, the takers of ungodly risk, if they have children. But now I always ask. It strikes me as an essential question. Seven years ago, when my wife called her dad to tell him his first grandchild – our daughter – had just been born, his first word was: “Congratulations!” He left a beat, and then said: “Your life is no longer your own.” Welcome, in other words, to the world of real, adult responsibility. His statement raised questions about the costs of adventuring. Did morally defensible risk now begin and end with serving past-the-date spaghetti sauce once in a while?
British mountaineering writer Robert Macfarlane makes the distinction between “acceptable risk” and “gratuitous risk.” The moment you become a parent the dividing line shifts, he suggests, and those life-threatening ascents that once earned you praise for courage now fall into the zone of indefensible. On this subject utilitarian philosophers are likewise pretty clear on the rules. To put it in Spock-ish terms: the needs of the many trump the needs of the one.
And so when my daughter Madeline was born I decided, with some encouragement from my wife, that my own Darwin-baiting escapades were over. No more aimless multi-day rambles in the British Columbia wilderness; no more solo kayaking across the Strait of Georgia or scrambles across snow bridges on Rainier. It was an easy choice for someone like me, who really was just goofing around under the flag of extended adolescence. Risk was a hobby, not a calling, and I happily let it go.
But what about professional adventurers like Coudé? For them it’s not about growing up: they’re grown. It isn’t really even about choice. Risk is so much part of what they do, and what they do is so much part of who they are, and who they are is so closely linked to a script that they feel was written for them, that thinking about stopping doesn’t compute. Force them to change and they would simply … cease to be.
“How could I have stopped her?” responded James Ballard when reporters asked what business his wife, Alison Hargreaves, had in summiting K2 – a far more treacherous peak than Everest – when she had young children waiting patiently for her to return. Hargreaves, considered by many the world’s best woman climber, was blown off the mountain in a violent storm in 1995. Hers became a morality tale for the issue of acceptable risk. Harsh judgment tarnished her legacy – harsher, arguably, than it would have been for a man. (Putting a mountain ahead of one’s kids struck many as antithetical to the natural mothering instinct.)
But Hargreaves had her defenders. After the climb that left him a widower, Ballard received letters from women who praised her for not capitulating to domestic life and setting down her ambitions. Her life, even shortened, was a victory for women, they said; becoming a parent doesn’t foreclose on our questing human nature, or at least it shouldn’t. We’re here to see what we can do. Hargreaves had inspired them to follow their own trajectories, these mothers said, no matter what anybody else thought or said.
Of course, Hargreaves’s children never got a vote in the matter. Their mom went to work and one day she didn’t return, plain as that. But her daughter, Kate, and son, Tom, 20 and 22 respectively, are now in a position to weigh in. Both say they are proud of their mother. Tom in particular has become a seriously skilled mountaineer. He’s currently in training to summit the peak that killed his mom, and he may become the first to scale it in winter. He understands her compulsion to push the limits of the sport because, he says, it’s in him too.
Maybe the Spock doctrine about “the needs of the many” and the “needs of the one” is insufficient. It gives equal weight to every life without measure of the quality of that life – how enhanced or impoverished it becomes when you add or subtract risk. The question What do we owe to others? is incomplete without its corollary: What do we owe to ourselves?
Sometime this summer, probably over Arizona, Pascal Coudé will leap from a plane in his wingsuit. And I’m positive that, as he falls — a flying squirrel fighting to hold position in the sky —he won’t be thinking about moral calculus, or utilitarian philosophy. Neither will his son.
The moment they were born, on October 25, 2006, in Vancouver, this much was known about Krista and Tatiana Hogan. The girls were conjoined—what used to be called “Siamese”—twins. Their skulls were fused such that their tiny bodies together made the shape of an open hinge, the girls facing the same direction but essentially away from each other. Each had her own organs and limbs, but they shared plenty of blood vessels in the netlike sheath beneath their scalp. And they shared something else, too, something believed to be unprecedented among living twins: a “bridge” of tissue connected their otherwise-separate brains amidships, at a crucial relay station called the thalamus.
Eight hours after the twins’ birth, a remarkable thing happened, and it immediately transformed the story of two little girls from Vernon, B.C., into something almost mythic. Tatiana got a shot and Krista flinched. Clearly, the girls were not just attached but connected. Sensory information passed between them.
“This is not telepathy. This is not ‘sixth sense,” says Douglas Cochrane, a veteran pediatric neurosurgeon at BC Children’s Hospital who has been the twins’ wingman—their doctor, advocate, and, in a sense, protector—since they were in utero. “The girls send chemical messengers in the bloodstream between each other. They send electrical impulses and information between each other along this bridge”—on the CT-scan image he’s pointing to, it looks like a long kidney bean—“and I’m sure along the coverings that they share.”
The bridge has been likened to a FireWire connection between their brains, and its bandwidth appears broad. Months after their birth, tests confirmed that images falling on the retina of Tatiana were processed in the visual cortex of Krista. What one girl looks at, the other girl sees.
This development, bordering on miraculous, had a flipside: separating them would be a bear. The risks were extraordinary. At best it would likely mean, at the end of many complicated operations teasing apart bone, skin, and vessels, some vision and speech impairment for both girls. Plus: “Given the way the brains are packed together—they’re physically separate but they sort of interdigitate like the teeth of a zipper—it was clear to me that we’d end up with weakness on one side for one twin and on the opposite side for the other,” Cochrane explains. “What else would happen no one knows.”
A semi-crazy-sounding philosophical question presented itself: Is it better to be healthy and fused to someone at the head, or to be impaired and partially paralyzed but on your own? To answer means having to assign a value to independence. Do we perhaps overvalue it? And undervalue—because no singleton can appreciate it—the presence of someone who gets you because they are in you, of you?
Cochrane viewed his job, in those early days, as articulating what splitting the girls up would mean (in terms of gains and losses), and then stepping back and letting mother Felicia Simms—then just 21—and the rest of the family make the call. The family chose not to separate. The twins would move into the future as one.
Brain surgeons have a reputation for an appalling bedside manner—almost as if they’re unwilling to devote even a bit of RAM to niceties that could go instead to saving lives. But David Douglas Cochrane has somehow found space inside himself for both. He is a big man with softly recessed eyes and a cultivated patience. On the consumer website RateMDs.com, where patients can describe their experiences with physicians, a father weighed in. Cochrane had successfully excised a bone cyst from his son’s skull. “Dr. Cochrane is the most professional, talented, kind, humble man I have ever met,” he wrote. Other comments strike a similarly devotional tone. (Alerted to the praise, Cochrane laughingly dismissed it because the sample size isn’t statistically significant.)
Cochrane became a doctor for some of the usual reasons: he wanted to help people, a family friend whom he idolized practised family medicine in hometown Cambridge, Ontario, and he (Douglas) had the brains and the stamina to get through med school. His ambitions drew him into the wider world. At the University of Toronto, he won the Faculty of Medicine’s Cody gold medal, then struck out for Angola and worked under the medical missionary Robert Foster at the tail end of a brutal civil war. Foster’s resourcefulness under fire (literally) provided a new benchmark. Cochrane decided there to specialize in neurosurgery. Neurosurgeons are medicine’s bomb squad—brain disorders are among the most threatening to patients, and treatments carry the most risk. Family medicine it isn’t, but for Cochrane that combination of complexity and high stakes was exactly the appeal. “I found I enjoyed trying to solve tough problems,” he says. Pediatric neurosurgery is the no-limit table: the highest stakes of all. If your itch is to help, life offers few more useful places to scratch. He has been at Childrens’, where he specializes in fetuses with congenital neurological malformations, for 25 years.
But nothing in his background, he says, prepared him for a case like the Hogan twins. Cochrane is watching and listening like everyone else to see what the girls reveal about who they are.
The twins, chestnut-haired and blue-eyed, are nearly five years old. Developmentally they’re closer to four, Cochrane says, but that may just be the Ginger Rogers syndrome: they do what other kids do, but backwards and in heels, so to speak. “They have had to learn motor movements differently,” Cochrane says. “They had to work on how to sit and stand and cruise and walk.” (Even bum-scooting required heroic teamwork.)
Their language has come slowly. Cochrane admits he doesn’t quite know why but reckons the answer might be social rather than physiological. The twins are the not-so-still centre of an extended family of 14 people, all mustered under the roof of a 10-room rented house, all more or less devoted to the insatiable needs of the world’s rarest craniopagus twins. “You could say that there’s a household there that’s so full of adults and kids communicating that they’re kind of communicating for them,” Cochrane says. “It’s like the third child: he’s not going to talk until he’s three because the other two are doing all the talking for him.”
Exactly what the girls’ internal landscape is like we can’t yet know. The best tool for getting a real-time snapshot of what’s happening in the brain is an fMRI scan, which measures changes in blood flow (which correlate to changes in neural activity). For those pictures the girls will need to go into the scanner without anesthetic, which means getting their cooperation. It’ll likely be at least a year before Cochrane lets that happen. For now everybody is guessing.
Some things are established. It seems clear that Tatiana will “see” the sickle moon that Krista is looking at (and vice-versa). Very likely, in some fashion, she will hear the Bruno Mars song piping into Krista’s ear bud, and taste the Tin Roof ice cream Krista just licked, and feel the give of the soft-shelled crab Krista just picked up. (One exception: she may not smell the chrysanthemum Krista has leaned down to sniff; olfaction appears to be the one sense that routes around the thalamus.) The fear Krista experiences in her nightmare will agitate sleeping Tatiana, too. And when Krista jars awake, so will Tatiana. (The thalamus governs wakefulness.) So they will save money on alarm clocks.
It’s not clear how their brains will sort out the interference from the two-way traffic on the bridge. If they are both reading a book, will each see both sets of words? (Some neurologists wonder if the twins will have an increased chance of synesthesia—a blending of senses disproportionately common in visual artists.) The communication between them will likely prove to be a uniquely intimate call-and-response. But can we say what they are sharing are actual thoughts?
The thalamus relays not only sensory information but also some memory information to a part of the midbrain called the cingulate cortex, which is involved in, among other things, processing emotion. So the exchange is bound to have at least a dimension of what we think of as “thoughts.”
Felicia Simms is convinced her girls are playing a sort of private game of tennis, mentally. Kelowna filmmaker Alison Love, who spent a year with the twins while helping create the documentary Twins Who Share a Brain, believes it, too. “In the beginning we weren’t sure ourselves,” she says. “Is it just Mom hoping that the kids are really more special than they are?” But then both she and filmmaking partner David McIlvride began to see the same thing: a tight, coded link between the girls’ behaviour without a sound passing between them.
Cochrane, for his part, is somewhat a kindred spirit to Atul Gawande, a Boston-based endocrine surgeon and popular writer. Both men crusade for patient safety, ensured by systems of checklists and protocols for doctors to work more efficiently and limit catastrophic errors. Gawande wrote a book called Better, which promotes these issues; Cochrane co-directs the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and was recently appointed to chair the inquiry into thousands of medical scans performed and interpreted by a couple of B.C. doctors unlicensed to do so.
But Cochrane is like Gawande in another way, too. Gawande has an oft-quoted line that could easily be Cochrane’s mantra: “The social dimension turns out to be as essential as the scientific.” Cochrane is a listener above all else. Patients know better than doctors do whether their treatment has been “successful,” but that’s not the way the equation works now. Correcting that thinking, Cochrane says, “becomes more important to me the older I get.”
A powerful social lens may prove one of Cochrane’s best assets as far as the girls are concerned. (For theirs is going to be as much a social story as a medical one, a story of standing out and fitting in.) Cochrane is a curator of the twins’ uniqueness who emphasizes their ordinariness. “My sort of mental model of these kids is that they’re two kids who come to visit me,” he says. “I’m involved in the care of many kids with deformities and malformations, kids who don’t look normal and their arms and legs don’t work normally.” In this sense, the twins are like any other of his patients. “I see them as children.” If this case were special, the other ones wouldn’t be.
Cochrane doesn’t burn much daylight thinking about the philosophical and poetic implications of the girls who share a brain. Even the twists and turns of the neuroscience don’t preoccupy him. “I am interested,” he says, “and when the time is right we’ll try and put some sense to this. But I’m not prepared to put the girls out as medical curiosities. I mean, where historically did these people end up? In circuses.”
This is Cochrane as protector—trying to create normalcy around a family circumstance that would quicken the pulse of a reality-show producer. That 14-member extended family—including mom Felicia and father Brendan, five kids (the twins have an older brother and a sister, plus a baby sister called Shaggy), grandmother Louise, and various aunts and uncles and cousins—are stretched impossibly thin. The monthly budget doesn’t cover the frequent car trips to Vancouver for medical tests, which are only partly subsidized by the provincial health ministry. Some of the adults, at least three of whom have health issues of their own, report that they sometimes go hungry so that the twins can eat. To manage the twins’ exposure and drum up income (through things like speaking gigs for Felicia), the family has retained Los Angeles agent Chuck Harris. The self-described “Wizard of Odd,” Harris counts among his other clients “Lizard Boy,” “Wolf Boy,” and a guy who balances a car on his head. (Not to mention 49-year-old Lori and George Schappell of Reading, Pennsylvania, the world’s oldest set of craniopagus twins.)
The frenzy of academic interest in the twins is its own kind of P.T. Barnum scrum, in Cochrane’s view. “It’s ‘Who’s published about it? Show me the article!’” he says. And here the face of this perfectly controlled man clouds with frustration. (Cochrane has published no papers on the girls himself.) “The kids need to develop in order for us to understand some of the things that they’re asking. And the case study of these two twins will in fact be important when we can do it.”
The Hogan twins—the fact of them—is a little like the fact of life on Earth: a series of odds-defying events compounded to a level of staggering improbability. They weren’t supposed to make it this far. Early fears were that Tatiana’s heart, which was doing almost the work of two hearts, might fail. But now that the twins have grown, and grown stronger, that fear has faded and they are thriving beyond all expectation. Cochrane heaps credit on the family. “The support I remain in awe of,” he says. “That family has remained absolutely committed and absolutely strong. Without them the girls probably would have ended up in foster care.”
Out in public the girls still generate strong reactions. That’s not likely to change. “People’s immediate response is, ‘The twins should be separated—let’s make them like us,’ ” Cochrane says. Whatever the motives for that reflex—to spare the girls an impossibly complicated life or just to spare ourselves the uncomfortable feelings they might arouse in us—it’s not likely to happen now. “The only two other twins I know of who had this form of joining, though not the bridge, were two Iranian sisters,” Cochrane says. “They chose to do it in adulthood. And they did not survive.”
So, barring some game-changing microsurgical advance 30 years down the road, these two British Columbian sisters, bred in the bone, will move through life together, communicating in ways they’ll probably never be able fully to articulate. No one else will understand. But one man will understand better than most.
Paula Wishart, a career counselor from Ann Arbor, Michigan, learned in her 40s a sinister family secret: Lynch syndrome runs through their genes.
Lynch syndrome is caused by a collection of genetic mutations that vastly predispose a person to an early and aggressive form of colon cancer. (In women it’s linked, too, with uterine or endometrial cancer.) The mutations were discovered in the early 1990s. That was too late for a whole string of Wishart’s ancestors—including her great-grandfather and her grandfather. Their mysterious deaths fostered the mythology that there was, as Wishart puts it, “bad blood in the family.”
Lynch syndrome is like an assassin hiding in the attic with a dozen different ways to kill you. It’s a specter so dire that, when Wishart’s aunt learned a decade ago that there were now tests for diseases like Lynch, “she wanted no part of it,” Wishart recalls. “The feeling was, ‘Why would I want to know that?’” That aunt died of colon cancer. Shortly thereafter, her daughter—Wishart’s beloved first cousin—succumbed to cancer in her 40s. “If my aunt had been screened, then my cousin would have been screened earlier,” Wishart says. “It could have prevented their deaths.”
Wishart’s aunt’s choice to remain in the dark was by no means unusual. Genetic screening for a potentially fatal illness is so fraught and frightening that most candidates for such a disease don’t get tested.
Wishart, too, had been scared to know. But she was more scared not to know. When her mother’s tissue sample tested positive for Lynch syndrome, she and her four siblings were tested. Her three older siblings came out clear. Wishart and her twin brother weren’t so lucky.
She had a mutation in one of the Lynch genes. Initially, the recommended course was that she just keep close watch, via regular internal exams with a scope. Then one of those exams revealed a small polyp. Within a year, it had swelled into a growth that completely encircled a portion of her colon. This wasn’t cancer—but cancer is certainly what it would become, doctors insisted, unless decisive measures were taken. That meant radical preventative measures to remove not only the growth but places cancer might appear in the future. Like her colon. And her uterus. And potentially her ovaries.
Now the full calculus of life and death and risk and pain and prevention came into play. Her cancer-stricken cousin had left small children behind. Paula could not bear to think of her own kids growing up without a mother. She dutifully reported for the full program of excisions. She was 44 years old.
Not long ago, fatal vulnerabilities were known—so it was said—only to the gods. Mortality was fated. Then doctors replaced gods and that information passed into their hands for safekeeping. Now the so-called genomics revolution has changed the game again. It has passed that information on to us. This has complicated matters, for better and worse.
Genetic tests vary wildly in their predictive value— from absolutely definitive to so speculative as to be worth not much more than a horoscope. (This latter is the realm of direct-to-consumer outfits that cater mostly to healthy, curious tire-kickers—with no known hereditary risk of serious disease.) Fatal diseases are very rarely linked to a single gene—usually they are the product of an interplay of genes beyond the current understanding of scientists. So discovering you have a glitch in a snippet of DNA thought to be linked to a disease may be quite significant or not very significant at all. “Probability rather than certainty is the rule,” says Edward McCabe, a Denver pediatrician and former president of the
American Society of Human Genetics. Usually, when someone’s a candidate for a heritable disease, at least one piece of the puzzle—a reliable test or an effective treatment—is missing.
And so the era of widely available genetic testing has created a kind of laboratory for studying uncertainty: How well do we handle it?How clearly can we see our way through it?
When asked to imagine the Earth in 2040, many scientists describe a grim scenario, a landscape so bare and dry, it’s almost uninhabitable. But that’s not what Willem van Cotthem sees. “It will be a green world,” says van Cotthem, a Belgian scientist turned social entrepreneur. “Tropical fruit can grow wherever it’s warm.” You still need water, but not much. A brief splash of rain every once in a while is enough. And voilà—from sandy soil, lush gardens grow.
The secret is hydrogels, powerfully absorbent polymers that can suck up hundreds of times their weight in water.
Hydrogels have many applications today, from food processing to mopping up oil spills, but they are most familiar as the magic ingredient in disposable diapers. The difference with agricultural hydrogels is that they don’t just trap moisture; they let it go again, very slowly, almost like time-release medication, into the root system of plants. That continuity of moisture is what brittle landscapes like deserts need to become fertile again. Water activates a mineralization process, setting free nutrients in the soil so that life can grow.
But water alone won’t make gardens flourish in sand. So van Cotthem, an honorary professor of botany at Ghent University in Belgium who has helmed several international scientific panels studying desertification, invented a “soil conditioner” called Terracottem. It’s an 8- to 12-inch layer of dirt impregnated with hydrogels, along with organic agents that nourish the natural bacteria in the soil.
Van Cotthem’s early experiments with his soil are now literally bearing fruit on every continent except Antarctica. Where Terracottem sits, barren plots of land are now fertile, and have already changed lives. In 2005, UNICEF invited van Cotthem to oversee the construction of “family gardens” in the Sahawari refugee camps in Algeria. Since 1975, thousands of Africans in the camps have lived in tents and shacks, dependent on the World Food Program to provide them with dry and canned goods—a diet that left them vulnerable to disease. Today more than 2,000 pocket gardens there provide healthy food.
UBC cultural psychologist Steven Heine discovered profound differences between Western and Eastern minds. A recipe for prejudice, or just the opposite?
from VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, April, 2010
It would be overstating things to claim it made Steven Heine famous—because nobody in his emerging field of cultural psychology is famous—but a study led by the young UBC professor did generate chatter in all kinds of quarters, from academic journals to the back page of Time. It got people thinking about the Western mind and the Eastern mind and the differences between them. Now that the East has just overtaken the West in economic strength (the tipping point, after a couple of centuries of Western dominance, came in 2006), Heine’s experiment seems positively pregnant with meaning.
Here’s the scoop. Heine and three colleagues recruited two groups of students—one Euro-Canadian and the second Japanese—and he gave them a bogus “creativity” task. The test was graded, and the students were told they had done well on some parts and poorly on others. Heine was interested in what would come next. The students were given a second, similar test, and the psychologist and his colleagues secretly watched how the subjects tackled it. Turned out there was a glaring difference. The Westerners worked longer on the stuff they were told they had aced the first time. The Easterners concentrated on the areas they thought they had botched. Students from the West—where the cult of self-esteem reigns supreme—wanted a tummy rub. Students from the East were more concerned with fixing their blind spots, becoming well-rounded. The Westerners polished up their strengths while the Easterners addressed their weaknesses. You could hardly fail to take away a moral: what gains might be made if Westerners could just check their egos and learn to see opportunity in failure! (Largely on the strength of the study, Heine received in 2003 the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions to Psychology.)
But Heine wasn’t trying to sermonize or shill for the Ministry of Education. By exposing this deep cultural rift, Heine punctured a long-held myth. You’d think positive self-regard gets everyone through their day, but it doesn’t. If such a seemingly basic human motivation is culturally determined, what else is? Turns out, lots. Western and Eastern minds fare dissimilar in ways that we’re only now able to measure.
On a recent Sunday, Ross Harvey sat in the back pew of the North Shore Unitarian Church in North Vancouver, BC. A visiting gospel choir from Oakland filled the vaulted ceiling with soaring harmonies, and Harvey, whose flash of white T-shirt beneath a black dress shirt made him mistakable for a padre at a distance, was among the first to stand and clap and groove at the chord changes, the shared emotion in the room. The only thing preventing full-on abandon was the part himself that was irked by the words. (Later, over soup and coffee in the church basement, he would joke to some of the visitors: “You know why the Baptists are such better singers than us, don’t you? It’s because UUs are always reading ahead to make sure that what we’re about to say we actually believe in. That kind of slows us down.”)
Harvey is an atheist. That he found a church that welcomes him will seem a head-spinning concept to some. Unitarian Universalists are full of questions not answers, heavily into social justice and community service, strong on religious education for kids, dogma-free. “I remember saying to Gabi, I wish there was a church you could go to where you sang and heard inspirational talks and you didn’t have to get into all that other nonsense,” he says. Gabi was pregnant then with their son, Jackson when they found this one. The first year they joined the churchthey were asked if they’d be interested in starring in the Christmas pageant. Ross laughed. Then he said yes. His face was equal parts bemusement and the comfort of belonging that Sunday morning as the trio moved up the aisle toward the crèche: Joseph and Mary and Jackson as the baby Jesus.
It’s risky to say anything categorically about atheists – for a more individualistic bunch would be hard to find. But let’spropose that there are two kinds of atheists: the kind you hear about, and the kind you don’t.
The kind you hear about are crusaders with a specific agenda: to challenge religious bigotry wherever it raises its head. Since 9/11 particularly, they have stepped up their campaign, galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor of a persecuted minority, cataloguing the harms that have been done in the name of organized religion. That strategy, while it has definitely raised atheism’s profile — partly by polarizing the religious debate — hasn’t exactly endeared atheists to the majority of Americans. Indeed, polls consistently show that dislike and distrust for atheists goes wider than for any other identifiable group.
The kind of atheist you don’t hear about is different—in strategy or temperament or both.
No name has been coined for this much larger cohort of nonbelievers – at least none as catchy as their loud and politicized cousins. If they had a cardinal law, it might be —to paraphrase Paul Kurtz, founder of the freethinking organization the Center for Inquiry—the dignity owed to every person alive. That “a” in a-theism simply means without, not against belief in God, they point out. Not an adversarial position, in other words: just a position.
In the vast middle of the religious spectrum, a space not occupied by fundamentalists of any sort, is where millions of this kind of atheist and agnostics live, more or less quietly, with their families.
Family, indeed, still trumps just about every social force in American life. In their respect for that central role of family, most atheists and religionists are alike. It’s in their interactions with their family, especially with their children, that nonbelievers and believers alike get to figure out what they believe and why. A spirit of inquiry, the open-minded investigation of options that that implies, animates many atheists and agnostics in these vast midwaters. And many seem to take especially seriously the need to find a way to talk to their kids about a religion, in a way that coaches respect for difference but suspicion of doctrine – even the doctrine that there is no God.
Elaine Ecklund had somewhat expected to find this trend—the nonreligious engaged in religious matters. But she professes “deep surprise” at the numbers as the results of her recent survey rolled in.
Ecklund, a sociologist of religion at Rice University and author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, was convinced Americans were getting a cartoonishly distorted picture of atheists, and of their relationship to faith. Because religion and family in the US are joined at the hip, she wondered how atheists and agnostics handle that delicate nexus—a subject about which surprisingly little was known. With funding from the Templeton Foundation, she set out to investigate.
She looked in the place atheists are found in greater concentration than anywhere else: the scientific community. Ecklund went for the cream: tenure-track social scientists and natural scientists at America’s top research universities.
Around 60 percent of them identified as either atheist or agnostic. That’s more than ten times the proportion you’d find in a random slice of Americana, but actually lower than you might expect, given that previous highly-publicized surveys had pegged the percentage of atheists among top scientists at over 90 percent.
Within that group of self-identified atheists and agnostics, almost one in five were part of a religious community—attending a church or temple or mosque with some regularity. Ecklund pumped for explanations. And with sociologist Kristen Schultz Lee, she published her findings last fall in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Turns out, her subjects’ reasons were mostly perfectly rational – as befit a group that “places a high premium on reason and making sure that they live consistently,” as Ecklund says. Her atheist scientists found themselves in the precarious centre of a Venn diagram. They needed to reconcile, all at once, their identities as scientists, as nonbelievers, and as spouses and parents. They may have had a religious husband or wife. They may have drifted into the pews after they had kids, drawn to the social glue a church community can provide, or the moral structure that kids can benefit from, or the chance to reconnect with family cultural traditions. Whatever motivated them, there they all were, in the church or synagogue or mosque or temple, cheek-by-jowl with believers, and unchallenged in their reasons or right to be there.
Sociologists have long known that people within families can phase in and out of religious commitment according to need, chance meetings, stage of life. Ross Harvey’s story is a case in point.
His parents raised the kids as Christians, but “the kind of Christian that was more religious than spiritual,” as he says. At age 15, Ross dug in deeper, after what he calls a “summer camp of indoctrination,” and became entrenched in the Brethren Christian church for a couple of years. Then came a pivotal moment when the scales fell from his eyes. One of his Brethren leaders, cornered by Ross’s queries, admitted that, yes, Gandhi would be going to hell, by definition of church doctrine. That was enough for Ross. He was out.
His sister, meanwhile, who had never been as deeply “in” as Ross, met a committed Christian, married him, and joined his evangelical Presbyterian church in Australia.
In many ways Ross admires his sister and brother-in-law. “The way they raise their kids is a total inspiration to me,” he says. “They’re caring and they’re involved in their life and their education.” But her religious choice confounds him and tests his patience. “They’re two of the smartest people I know, so for them to go down this road and start believing in Bronze-Age myths is … hard to take.” There are practically grooves in Harvey’s tongue where he has had to learn to bite it. It is all anthropology, he has reminded himself. “We went to church with them last time we visited them in Australia. I kept having to remind myself: Look, Ross: you loved visiting the Hindu temples in Bali. This is just the same.”
Harvey’s journey away from faith separated him, ideologically, from the rest of his natural and extended family. And that, as Californian Richard Wade points out, can be a recipe for drama.
Wade is a retired marriage and family counselor (with a specialty in addiction medicine), who counseled more than 10,000 couples in his practice. He is also the in-house advice columnist for the popular website “The Friendly Atheist” – a unique perch from which to observe the sometimes unbelievable vitriol in the blogosphere around issues of faith, with both sides freed by anonymity to let loose.
Wade, who is 61 years old, 39 years married, and has a 26-year-old daughter, came by his own atheism pretty naturally. He was “brought up on a steady diet of science.” Both parents worked at a major Natural History Museum as exhibit designers and illustrators, and so as a kid he’d go on digs with his parents’ archaeological friends, or help their entomologist friends with specimens in the lab. (He still puts on science shows for children.)
“My parents were basically non-religious,” he says. Wade’s father described himself as an agnostic. His mother’s position was that if there is a clockmaker, He isn’t intervening in the affairs of the universe any more. The implicit family message was that religion wasn’t worth devoting much RAM to.
But in fact Wade devotes quite a lot of RAM to religion—because he has seen how much strife can ensue, among friends and in families, when beliefs collide.
An atheist popping up in an American family can rip that family apart. Wade frequently receives letters about those inter-family tensions. One family member can simply no longer believe, and the rest of the family members simply cannot accept that fact, and the stalemate has become toxic, threatening to overwhelm whole lifetimes of love and goodwill that had been built and banked. There is genuine tragedy in some of these letters, and Wade often meets it with a tone befitting a caring stepfather or a benevolent coach.
“Begin and end every one of these conversations with ‘I love you,’” Wade often counsels. And don’t give up. “People can soften their hard and fast positions over time, especially if love is always offered as an ongoing invitation.”
In one instance, to a young atheist whose minister father threatened to withhold the son’s college tuition, and whom the young man worried was going to abandon him outright, Wade counseled the son to keep his side of the door unlocked. Assure his parents that whatever happened, he would not abandon them. “We teach others how to treat us,” Wade says.
If Wade is a kind and avuncular atheist, it was not always so. Indeed, he used to plunge into Internet debates on faith sites and delightedly eviscerate the fundamentalists. If there was blood, well, truth is a bloody business.
But one day something prompted him to step back from himself. He was browsing the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, which he calls “the world’s largest text-only bar room brawl.” An American woman who had converted to Islam had told her story—and been engulfed in flames. Abuse rained down on her from the atheist commentariat, and “she just took it and took it,” Wade recalls. The whole episode “woke me up to how brutal I was,” Wade recalled in a recent exchange on camelswithhammers.com. This woman’s amazing patience deeply impressed Wade. And “I began to realize that I could do this in a completely positive and constructive way.” He developed a phrase that became his de facto motto: “Agreement is not important—only understanding is.” The difference between Wade’s old position and this new one is the difference, you might say, between radical honesty and compassionate honesty. Remembering the smartass he used to be helps Wade counsel atheists who are tempted to stoop to sarcasm and insult. “When you want someone to see things more clearly,” he’ll tell them, “don’t start by poking them in the eye.”
Not long ago Wade received a letter from a British woman who called herself “Christmas Elf,” and described her fairly common dilemma thus: Her aging parents had asked her help putting on the Christmas Pageant at her church. Kind of awkward, as she is an atheist. Love and familial duty was suddenly colliding with an uncomfortable personal sense of hypocrisy. She was leaning toward helping with the pageant. What did Richard think?
He was with her. “You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents,” he said. “You’ll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously.” By Richard Wade’s lights, there are times to be fiercely principled, and times to be pragmatic, and you have to do the calculus case by case. When you turn pragmatism outward like that, it becomes pretty close to empathy. And that, Wade believes, is the key to dealing with anger and hurt in a family divided by faith.
“I have a saying: ‘Speak with your ears instead of with your mouth,” he says. “Hear your words as if you were the person who is listening.”
Of all the family issues atheists and agnostics deal with in a faith-based country, raising children is perhaps the most complicated. Wendy Thomas Russell, a writer in Long Beach, CA, found herself drawn into this world, and its twists and turns, partly by accident.
Raised in small-town Missouri, Russell drifted in her teens from any pretense of religion. (Her mom was Presbyterian; her father, it turned out, was never a believer, but Russell didn’t learn this fact until she was in college.) As an adult, she found herself increasingly uncomfortable about the Clintonian “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach to religion that had become her default position. It seemed cowardly. Because, hey: this was important stuff – too important to avoid for fear of ruffling feathers. Bit by bit, she “inched out of the closet” as an atheist.
And then came the day of the ambush.
“I was driving her home from preschool one day, and Maxine” – her then-five-year-old daughter— “popped up from the back seat. She said: ‘You know what, mommy? ‘God made us.’” That bit of news, Russell says, had come from her little Jewish boyfriend, who had learned it at home and brought it to school.
Russell was struck dumb. It felt like a no-win situation. “I was worried about telling her: ‘That’s not true.’ Because then she brings that back to school. ‘My mommy says that’s not true.’ And now you’ve created tension where there doesn’t need to be any.” Plus which, Russell has some quite religious family members, “and I’m now thinking about what might be repeated in the wrong company.” Some people of faith see a pretty clear distinction: being an atheist yourself is one thing; foisting that view on your kids is quite another.
In that moment Russell’s book was born. Relax, It’s Just God is a survival guide-in-progress for atheist and agnostic parents. The book is deals with practical matters, like “How to talk to your kids about death without evoking the comforts of religion.” “The question,” she says, “is how do we approach religion with our kids so that we’re being honest but not indoctrinating them or scaring them, or putting them in a position to be made fun of or teased or hurt? These are fine lines. And because so many of us are first-generation secular, we can’t fall back on what we ourselves have learned before.”
After her daughter’s bombshell Russell had wandered, still reeling, into the kitchen where her husband Charlie was cooking dinner. She told him the story. Charlie, who is an attorney, heard her out, then, coming closer, offered his own submission. “To me, it’s what she does in life that matters — not what she believes.”
And that has become a foundational principle for her. No one particularly cares about our private beliefs: it’s what we do that gets up on the scoreboard. That perspective has further helped her talk about religion in an even-handed way – as neither a good nor bad thing in itself (as evidenced by terribly bad and the surpassingly good things different people do in its name). Look at the outcome, not the input.
Last year, Russell penned a widely read essay in The New Humanist called “Ten Commandments for Talking to your Kids About Religion: Exposing your Kids to the World’s Religions While Being True to Your Own Values,” where she worked some of this out and packaged it in Cliff-Notes form.
Like Commandment 3: Don’t Saddle Kids with Anxiety Over the World God. “Kids may pledge their allegiance ‘under God,’” it reads in part, “not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes.”
Or Commandment 8: Don’t steal your child’s ability to choose. “There’s no shame in wanting your kids to believe the way you do. So guide them. Teach them the value of science. Explain the difference between fact and faith, between dogma and freethinking. Teach them morals and ethics. Tell them everything you know about religion. And then let them take it from there.”
If there is a Golden Rule of parenting for the new, new atheist, perhaps this is it. In a 2006 study of 300 self-identifying atheists, University of Manitoba psychologist Bob Altemeyer found that while they were very confident in their own beliefs (just one percent conceded any doubt in their position), almost all placed great stock in letting kids reach their own conclusions on religious matters. And Elaine Ecklund, while studying a more specialized population of atheists and agnostic, found the same pattern too.
In fact, one of the prime reasons her scientists flirted with religion was to expose their kids to many religious traditions “so that they did not inadvertently indoctrinate them with atheism.” That, after all, is the scientific method: you gather data and test it and emerge with the most sensible, replicable conclusion. “They’re participating in religious communities primarily for reasons that, ironically, are shaped by their identity as scientists,” Ecklund says.
Ecklund’s irreligious scientists gave three other main reasons for taking their kids to church. Those reasons were “having a religious spouse,” “providing kids with a sense of moral order and community,” and “as a way of following up on traditions.”
Norman Tepley was not part of Ecklund’s study, but some of those reasons resonate with him too.
Tepley, a retired physics professor at Oakland University near Detroit, was a founder of the Neuromagnetism Lab at the Henry Ford Hospital, where he still works part time. He is an atheist who goes to temple, well, religiously. It is the Birmingham Temple, founded by the “atheist rabbi” Sherwin Wine, who was killed in a car crash in 2007. Wine stressed that religion is only a small part of Jewish tradition. “If you look at Jewish history,” says Tepley, “there were people who persevered and survived in a hostile world because of their character, their literature, their songs, their common history.” That, not anything supernatural, is what he and his fellow congregants come to celebrate. (In the Birmingham Temple, tellingly, the Torah is stored in the library, not the room where services are held.)
The comic essayist Anne Lamott once made the distinction between “Moses-y Jews” and the “bagel-y Jews” — the latter of whom come solely for the cultural trappings and amscray before any religion breaks out. Sherwin Wine defined a kind of secular Judaism whose commitment goes deeper. Formally, it is secular humanistic Judaism, which implies a certain duty of mutual care. As Tepley puts it, “We believe in each other and have responsibility for each other.” That duty of care, further, extends to anyone who walks through the door. The temple “accepts anyone who wants to call her- or himself a Jew as a Jew – we don’t have a conversion process.”
Tepley was raised by observant Jewish parents who celebrated the holidays and kept a kosher home. Norman and his brother were bar-mitzvahed. But cognitive dissonance soon ensued. “In religious school, God was frequently presented as just and merciful. But questions arose about how a just and merciful God could allow the Holocaust—I know I wasn’t unique in asking that.”
His atheism was eventually cemented in a natural scientist’s way. “I did a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation,” he recalls. “What’s the likelihood, starting with a universe of fast-moving and colliding hydrogen atoms, of producing living cells and eventually animals?” That’s of course an argument theists deploy to argue for intelligent design – the spectacularly unlikely chain of perfect conditions. “But what’s missing is mention of the incredible amount of time for nature to perform every possible experiment. We’re talking about billions of years of random collisions. I decided it was pretty certain life was going to evolve over this time, 20 or so billion years, just from the laws of physics.”
So far, so scientific. But Tepley, unlike many of his colleagues, ended up back in the pews. The reasons for that, apart from the charismatic pull of Sherwin Wine, circle around his Dad.
“My father – who was a strong personality, a wonderful guy — often spoke of how many generations back the Tepley (originally Teplitsky) name went, and they were all Jewish. And without talking about it directly, he made it understood that the tradition had to be preserved.”
And so there is, in the Tepley home, the celebration of the Sabbath, the singing of Hanukah songs. There is a certain amount of judicious editing of the rituals and prayers – replacing those with supernatural underpinnings with newer, culturally based ones. “We light candles because they’ve been part of every Jewish holiday,” he says. “They’re a great attraction to the kids.”
Tepley has three children. None of them observe the faith. They don’t go to the temple, nor do their children — Tepley’s grandkids. “My two sons were bar-mitzvahed but they drifted away very soon afterward. I would like them to come back, but I would not like to drag them back. They are all very accomplished and very good and something to be proud of. I guess that’s what’s important.”
Would his father be disappointed to see them break that link in the chain?
Tepley leaves a short beat. “I think he would, yeah,” he says softly.
Research science is an international, collaborative venture. Ideas tend to be stronger than politics and affiliations jump borders. You could argue that science by its nature promotes open-mindedness just generally. In that light it’s not surprising that even irreligious scientists would take a test-everything approach to religion, especially if they have young families.
“If your kids have questions they think can be answered by learning about religion, by golly let them seek answers,” says Juli Berwald, an Austin, Tx-based science writer with a Ph.D. in oceanography. “There’s no worry that it will uproot your belief system as a scientist parent because science isn’t about belief.” A bigger speed bump for her and her husband, she jokes, was the cost of Hebrew lessons and Sunday school. “I like the seeking,” she says. “I just hate the price tag.”
Unlike that of their “New Atheist” forebears, the approach of many mid-spectrum nonbelievers is not tactical. For them, religion isn’t something to do complicated ju-jitsu against; it’s just, well, honestly, not that big a factor in their lives. And this is the first generation to think like this.
“I actually find I have a lot more in common with moderately religious people than I do with militant atheists,” says Wendy Thomas Russell. “And I think most moderately religious people would find they have more in common with me than they do with fundamentalist factions. Those of us in the ‘middle majority,’ as I call it, we’re more interested in people’s personalities than they are in people’s faith. Humor, I think, is a far greater bond than religion. Intelligence, too. If I think a person is funny or admire a person’s mind, I don’t give a damn what faith that person practices. And I think — I hope — most people feel the same about me.”
Here is what an increasingly pluralistic world does: it creates the possibility that the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us – including religion. And that rule holds into our closest relationships. As prohibitions of marrying “outside the faith” slowly fade into irrelevance, a mismatch of faiths doesn’t necessarily preclude successful partnerships. Love can happen without it; indeed, love can actually trump religious affiliation.
The American playwright Geoffrey Naufft, in his acclaimed play Next Fall about a kind of inter-faith Odd Couple (one’s a committed Christian and a committed atheist), uses a clever plot device to explore some of these issues. Luke, the Christian, has been struck by a taxi and lies comatose in hospital. As Adam, the atheist, keeps a bedside vigil, family and friends from both sides stream in and bump against each other in that pressure chamber of that hospital room, as the story of the two men’s unlikely union unspools in flashbacks.
Naufft is himself a kind of “middle-majority atheist,” in Wendy Russell’s coinage, and he partly modeled the character of the caustic and judgmental Adam, after himself—or at least the self he used to be. Naufft grew up without religion, the child of two unobservant mixed-whatever parents. What softened and gentled him, Naufft recalled, in a recent interview with the New York Times, was meeting and befriending deeply religious people inside and out of the theatre world whom he came to greatly respect.
“It’s really easy to write off people with any kind of religious belief, especially if they’re fervent,” he said. “But what I saw was a struggle, internal turmoil, to exist in the world and hold on to your beliefs, the things you grew up with.”
The chorus of religious tolerance grows, in America and beyond.
In mid-February the Supreme Court of Canada penned a landmark ruling, a libretto for a new era. A French-Canadian Catholic couple had been fighting to exempt their high-school children from a province-wide Ethics and Religious Culture course — fearing it would weaken the kids’ commitment to their singular family faith. They claimed the course violated their freedom of religion and conscience.
Madam Justice Marie Deschamps saw it differently. “Exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute indoctrination,” she wrote. To suggest as much, Mme Deschamps continued, amounts to a willful blindness to modern multicultural society.
Many of the issues around atheists and agnostics and family may soon be moot. Secular humanism won’t be a minority position under scrutiny, because it will have become, well, quite normal. The fastest-growing religious position is “none,” according to 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, a huge study sponsored by Trinity College. The faithless have almost doubled in number in the last 20 years – to around 15 percent of the population. So sharp is that spike, the report’s authors concluded: “The challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.”
About the only spiritual position rising as quickly as Atheist/Agnostic is SBNR — “Spiritual But Not Religious”—according to the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Indeed, some scholars describe a kind of phase change in North American religion, with unprecedently large numbers of people constructing their own, private and highly individualistic faiths, which observe no dogma but honor deep feeling and a strong hunch that there is something to be reckoned with beyond what can be logically understood. This tribe has, to paraphrase the philosopher and author Sam Keen on his own experience, abandoned the formal encampments of religion, headed out into the open desert, and found something there under the stars that they are not afraid to call sacred.
But they can’t talk about it, because language fails. The words mean so vastly different things to different people as to be almost meaningless.
Almost half of Elaine Ecklund’s scientists who called themselves “atheist” or “agnostic” nonetheless also described themselves as “spiritual.” But when Ecklund pressed them to explain what they meant by that, it became clear they were quite far from New Age mysticism or hopeful magical-thinking. These were beliefs, as Ecklund put it, “more congruent with science than religion.” Being “spiritual” meant trying, for example, to behave ethically, or to use one’s talents to advance social-justice issues. Or else it was an aesthetic thing, an appreciation, or gratitude, for the complexity of life. (“Like Spinoza,” on political scientist said of his “spiritual commitments,” “I see beauty and value to everything around me.”)
“I hear people toss around the term “spiritual” for want of a better term, and some even say ‘for want of a better term’ when they use it,” says Richard Wade. “We ought to come up with a better term, possibly based on psychological and sociological thinking, even if we have to coin an entirely new word.”
Some of Ecklund’s irreligious scientists aligned themselves with eastern philosophical traditions. Indeed, that’s how Ross Harvey puts the “spiritual” in atheism as well.
Having abandoned the Christianity of his youth, Harvey grew attracted in his early Twenties to Taoism, with its circle of life. (The tattoo over his heart is the yin/yang symbol.) Shortly after, teaching English in Japan, he more formally began studying Zen Buddhism. Then, when a beloved cousin disappeared under suspicious circumstances, a new kind of quest for meaning ensued. Religion hadn’t offered up answers to his questions, but the questions — big and timeless ones, the Whys of philosophy rather than the Hows of science — asserted themselves anew.
“I don’t believe in God, but the fact that we’re alive and conscious is to me a kind of spark” for investigation, he says. “What’s my relationship with the universe, since I am conscious? That’s my spiritual journey. To figure out how I fit in here, and to figure it out without gods.”
As he grows up, Harvey’s two-year-old son Jackson will likely find himself asking the same big questions his father asks now. But as for his position on faith, we cannot be sure. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has repeatedly demonstrated that we tend to believe what our parents believed – and the pattern holds too, though somewhat less strongly, for atheists and agnostics. On the other hand, New York University psychologist Paul Vitz will get to test his theory that, paradoxically, a loving atheist Dad stacks the odds toward his son becoming a believer – because children, by Vitz’s reckoning, tend to equate a loving father with a loving Father. You might think of the whole enterprise as a large-scale social experiment. No one can perfectly predict the outcome. A small but growing literature, with titles like Parenting Beyond Belief, and Between a Church and a Hard Place, documents the effort in real time of a new generation to turn the childhood of their kids, without God, into an apprenticeship in tolerance.
Cue “We Are The World.”
But Richard Wade offers a word of caution. Atheists need not – and should not, in his view – become so conciliatory to the American religious majority that they’re reduced to silently gumming their dinner in the corner. Taken to its extreme, the image of the “kinder, gentler atheist” becomes almost a joke.
Wade recently performed a clever thought experiment. To test whether it’s possible for atheists ever to be truly inoffensive – that is, to see whether it’s not their manners but their very existence that people object to — he dreamed up the most benign billboards imaginable. (Sample: “Please Drive Carefully.”) Each is just a simple message or a big dumb happy picture, with smaller type identifying their sponsor: Atheists of America.
Wade posted his fake billboards online. The post went viral on Tumblr. A collection was enthusiastically taken up, and some billboards are now actually being constructed. (One of the slogans already in beta: “Kittens are Cute.”) “The ads don’t challenge any religious ideas at all,” Wade says. “They only implicitly challenge negative beliefs that people have about atheists.” If you see one and are irked, it’s worth asking yourself why. If you see one and laugh, well, that’s probably the best icebreaking, stereotype-smashing outcome atheists can hope for.
And there will come a day – perhaps it is very much closer than we think — when “going to exhausting lengths to avoid “offending” people will be beside the point.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Wade says. “Atheists will never go back to the invisibility and inaudibility of only haunting ivy-covered halls or espresso cafes.”
NOTE that this is a longer version of the story that appeared in print. The PT story appears here:
Let me tell you a few things about my relationship with the points of the compass, and then we’ll jump to the meat of this thing.
At shopping malls, my eldest daughter has to frequently tell me where we parked. She is five.
Once, while visiting Paris, I went out for a jog and got disoriented. Eventually I spotted a police officer, and I pulled from my shoe the address where we were staying. “Ah,” he said. “You want to go back to Paris.”
On a quest many years ago to climb the highest mountain on Vancouver Island, a pal and I got so lost that there was no turning back, because it just wasn’t clear which way back was. It wasn’t clear where forward was, either, except that we’d seen a plane fly in over the ridge ahead, so we went that way. (Did I mention that my pal was bleeding from a head wound?) It was a long shot but—don’t you see?—it was the only shot, because that slot in the horizon was our lone landmark.
I am like Captain Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show, who was so navigationally inept that the crew kept him on a fake bridge, with dummy instruments, so that he’d think he was in charge while the ship was in fact being steered elsewhere. My instincts are reliably wrong—which is as good as their being reliably right. You can take a “gut” reading and—Hello, Cleveland!—go do the opposite.
I tell you this not as a pathetic cry for help, or a claim to a perverse kind of pride, but to try to understand: Why does people’s sense of direction vary so wildly?
My own case by no means defines the low ground. There is a woman in my hometown of Vancouver—I can’t tell you who because she’s only described, not named, in the journal Neuropsychologia—who suffers from a pathology called “developmental topographical disorientation.” She’s in her 40s, and in most ways fully functioning—she can watch TV and read the newspaper and even get to and from work so long as she doesn’t deviate one iota from her regular route. But she can also get lost on the way home from the bus stop. She can’t make and store accurate mental images of her environment.
This kind of impairment is vanishingly rare, but it does make you wonder. Are those of us with more moderate symptoms different in kind or just degree? Is there a genetic component to this?
There’s a new movement out there to get children into nature
from EXPLORE MAGAZINE, August 2009
A huge—and I mean huge—black bear walked right past the car as I was loading my infant daughter into the back seat. It was in no particular hurry. It had emerged from the forest and was cutting through our driveway en route to the dumpster near the elementary school, where it would poke around and then hang a left back into the wild. We both watched it recede. At 300 feet it still looked pretty big. Lila was curious but not frightened: it occurred to me that living among bears—not to mention coyotes and the odd cougar—is normal for her now. And that’s a good thing, I think.
“You know why I like it here?” my wife explained to someone not long after we’d moved to this little townhouse complex, high on the flank of Vancouver’s North Shore mountains. “Because the only predators you have to worry about have four legs. And I’ll take those over the two-legged kind any day.”
The familiar becomes invisible. And that’s a problem.
from VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, July 2009
“Choice architecture” is suddenly a sexy idea, thanks largely to a recent book called Nudge. A nudge, as authors Richard Thaler (an economist) and Cass Sunstein (a legal scholar) explain, is a little intervention in our daily lives from the unseen hand of an engineer or a designer that subtly encourages a behaviour, presenting options in such a way that we’re inclined to do the socially beneficial thing. It tricks us into eating our spinach. Some of the most ingenious examples come from traffic-engineering departments. On a dangerously winding stretch of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the city dealt with speed-caused fatalities by painting lines on the road. The lines become more tightly spaced on the curves, giving drivers the illusion that they’re speeding up-and so those drivers slow down. (In 1996 here in B.C., on a soporific stretch of Highway 5 between Little Fort and Blackpool, engineers first installed those now-familiar “rumble strips” on the shoulder hem of the lane, which function as alarm clocks if you drift onto them, producing “Holy crap, I’ll never do that again!” moments that may change driving habits permanently.) Other intriguing examples abound. It turns out people can be nudged to save more money (by manipulating the psychology of pension plans) or to use energy more efficiently (if a hydro meter is installed in a place where they can actually see their energy consumption as it happens). Should we be worried about the coercion implicit in such tactics? Well, there is coercion in any tactic, as Thaler points out: “There’s no such thing as a neutral environment.” The salad bar is either in the front or the back; the hydro meter is either in view or not. It’s better to choose the better thing, and the experts make no apologies for stacking the deck that way.
Nudges matter because if you take action early in a behaviour chain you’re attacking problems at the level of prevention, not repair-and preventing problems is a lot cheaper and less trouble. That’s one of the reasons Barack Obama is such a huge fan of the concept. He thinks this sort of “libertarian paternalism” might help show America the way out of its economic woes, by getting a lot of people doing small responsible things from the get-go. (He appointed Sunstein, his former law-school pal at the University of Chicago, to his administration, as his “regulatory czar.”) Choice architecture has made designers the new “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and from Mumbai to Vancouver, their modest acts reverberate and produce big, if sometimes hard to quantify, changes in the behaviour of the masses.
One man decides, in early midlife, to pursue a crazy dream long deferred. And discovers he has bitten off more than he imagined
From Explore Magazine, Apr. 2009
“Here’s the dream,” said Don Montgomery, “Monty” to his friends. “You’re lying in a hammock, looking out past the palms. Your muscles are sore from the day’s surfing. You began your day with a cup of French-pressed coffee. You had an amazing dinner of seafood caught by the local fishermen. And now you roll over in the hammock and pull a lime off the tree and slice it in two, and you notice some pelicans flying by in formation against the sunset. This is what I’m envisioning.” He took a big bite of his club sandwich.
We were in Gastown, Vancouver’s downtown heritage district. Don was in town with “his boys”—a teamof teenage rugby players he coaches, who were here to compete in the provincial finals. Don, tall and tan and tousle-haired, is a high-school phys. ed. teacher in Kamloops, B.C. Or rather, he was. By the time you read this, that First Act of his life, purview of the Old Don, will be closing, and Act Two will have begun. Even then, on that Gastown day in late spring, 5,800 kilometres away as the pelican flies, the dream was under construction. Guys with trowels and shovels had given way to the guys stringing electrical wire and fitting pipe. At the age of 41, Donwas about to become a hotelier in the tropics. A man who spends a considerable amount of his working day in board shorts.
This sort of thing happens to people, sometimes—often when they start crowding age 40. Some vague restlessness begets an “Is this all there is?” moment, which begets a dream which becomes an obsession. But rarely do Second Acts entail quite such a flying leap as Don Montgomery’s. He would build a surf lodge in Nicaragua. That he didn’t speak Spanish, wasn’t much of a surfer and had never been to Nicaragua were minor details. His dream wasn’t a dream born of experience: surveying what you like to do and deciding you’d like to do more of it on a daily basis. It was, rather, a kind of whole-cloth imagining of The Good Life. Dreams don’t always make a lot of logical sense; they just make you want very badly to fall asleep so you can dream them again—and to take everyone you care deeply about down the rabbit hole with you. Don thought of his kids, Fabiana and Ella, who are four and nine, marching to the predictable beat of bountiful North American life right into teenagehood; he wanted to give them a glimpse of another world. (As it turned out, Don’s wife had her own dreams, which did not quite jibe with his, and two-and-a-half years ago the couple separated.) He imagined bringing his rugby players down there to surf; or maybe organizing a little soccer tournament—goals hung with fishing nets wheeled out onto the beach at high tide —for people from his pickup soccer league back home.
Who was his surf lodge for, after all, if not people like that? Folks who, like he himself, needa radical change—not necessarily permanent, just something to tap the barometer and see which way it’s moving. “They fly in and the next morning they’re in the water by noon and all their problems are gone,” Don explains. “And after a week they’re completely recharged and are ready to face the next part of their life”—however they have decided to live it.
“After Deena and I split up I asked myself, Who am I?” Don would tell me, later. “I’ve been a teacher for 14 years. What you have to understand about teachers is, they’re extremely conservative. If you’re a teacher, what do you do? You buy a house, you pay it off, you get your pension; and then, often as not, after retirement, you go back to work. These are the people who are in charge of teaching kids to follow their dreams?” Teachers are cheap and conservative; Don is a teacher; therefore… Clearly this syllogism needed rewriting. Who was Don? Maybe just a guy feeling scissored by two competing imperatives: You must be responsible and You must be free.
The dream, when he first dialled it up, had slightly different coordinates. It was Costa Rica he was thinking of—a place where you could once buy fabulous beachfront, cheap. But Costa Rica stopped being “undiscovered” round about 1985. An oceanfront lot in Tamarindo will now set you back a million bucks.
Nicaragua is the new Costa Rica: everyone says so, in varying degrees of breathlessness.
“Why Nicaragua? Why now?” touts one on-line real-estate site. “Because you may not find another chance like this again in your lifetime.” There are “beachfront property bargains here so cheap you’d be crazy not to snap them up.” It’s the wild west, baby, in a good way. You don’t even need a building permit. In a fairly astonishing twist, the new president Daniel Ortega—the former Marxist, Sandinista leader—has become born again and politically re-invented, and is actually inviting foreign investment as the only way to lift his people out of brute poverty. If you locate your dream here, and bring enough tourist dollars into the country, you’ll pay no commercial taxes for 10 years. The whole package is tantalizing, and within the last year, land prices had already started to spike. Had Don missed this bus, too?
“Act on incomplete information,” urges a recent bestselling book on entrepreneurial risk-taking. Its author, a precocious CEO of a Silicon Valley software company, recounts how General Colin Powell “expected his commanders in the field to make decisions when they had 40 per cent of the potentially available information. In life or death situations. And you think you need more information?”
That’s kind of how Don felt. He wanted to do this; he had no real idea how. People who buy land in the tropics often tell stories of being ambushed by things they hadn’t considered, like the salt content in the air that eventually makes all mechanical devices break down, or land deeds that prove not to be worth the paper they’re printed on. But full due diligence takes time that Don frankly didn’t think he had. If he didn’t lay his chips down RIGHT NOW he was going to be dealt out of the game. One thing he was sure he didn’t want to feel was regret. “I don’t want to die knowing there were things I was too scared to try.”
The city of San Juan del Sur, with its world-class surf breaks of Santa Ana and Papoyo, is the pumping heart of Nicaraguan surfing, and so it was naturally here that Don aimed to stake his claim when he came to Nicaragua in July of 2006. But the prices for beachfront were way higher than he’d expected. A little discouraged, he stopped in for dinner at a Mexican restaurant run by an expat-American named Robert Nott, whom everyone in town knew as Roberto.
Good news, the waiter told him. It was “midget night.” Roberto—in a move typical of his own strange enterprising impulses—had hired a dwarf to face all comers in a jalapeno-eating contest. When the spectacle was over (the dwarf got clobbered), the sound system throbbed to life again with hardcore punk, and Don spotted Roberto dancing with himself, in the back.
Roberto wasn’t just a quirky restaurateur, he was a realtor, and the next day Don found himself in Roberto’s office talking turkey. Other realtors here wear crisp shirts and dress pants. Roberto wore a tank top and flip-flops. He was clearly on his own trajectory—a bit of a blowhard and a big-time flirt—but Don liked him. He had a Vince Vaughn-ish kind of bandit charm, and a disarming way of making people laugh within 10 seconds that, Don says, “I wish I could tap.” Roberto’s life, like Don’s, was in reboot. In his last two stops he had, by his telling, been railroaded by a “squirrel bait” business partner and a conniving wife, and his marriage had followed the money down the drain. (“Every time I get screwed for four or five hundred thousand,” Roberto told me later. “It sets me back a bit”) — and he was now rebuilding. That kind of information would raise a red flag to some potential clients, but Don viewed it as a plus. “I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who’s hungry, he’s got really young kids and he wants to get back what he lost.” Roberto seemed to have an impressive nose for the trendlines: he’d been in early in Oaxaca, Cabo, Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur. When Don told Roberto about his dream and his budget, Roberto was clear. “You gotta go up north.” Indeed, he had the perfect property in mind for Don. “I guarantee that when I show it to you,” Roberto told Don, “we’re not going to have to go any further.”
Jiquilillo (pronounced “Hick-a-LILL-lo) is a fishing village of a hundred or so families. It seems like one of those settlements you find in Greece or Italy, where daily life has repeated itself for ten generations. By day, kids in diapers chase chickens around tiny huts with tarps for doors. In the trapped heat of evening, people rock themselves asleep in hammocks while teleromans play silently on TVs propped up on boxes—giving the scenes the air of sitcom sets: living rooms without walls.
Roberto squired Don through the town and then pulled the car onto an overgrown little washboard road, toward the sound of the surf. “As we pulled up I got chills,” Don said. “I knew. I knew. I couldn’t get out of the car.”
Could it be? All this—a slice of paradise right out of Central Casting—for $15,000? Back home in B.C. that much would get him…a deck. True, it wasn’t land he could have clear title to; almost all beachfront land in Nicaragua is “concession” land: government-leased. And in theory the leased status means that at any time a hotel chain could buy the land for the amount the owner originally paid for it plus improvements. But “Roberto figures there’s basically zero per cent chance of that ever happening in our lifetimes,” Don told me. Back in town, Roberto’s lawyer traced the provenance of the land—looking for telltale trouble-signs like a lot of different owners in quick succession—and pronounced it clean. As soon as the paperwork was done, they could start building the lodge.
They shook on the deal. Roberto scribbled out a note about where to wire the money. Back home in Kamloops, on his lunchbreak from school, Don slipped out to the Royal Bank, took out that piece of paper, and released the funds.
Then he went back to the school and promptly got a very bad feeling about everything. Roberto’s big selling point was that he wore every hat. He was the man who found the land that sparked the sale and knew the lawyer and would hire the guys to clear the land and plant the trees and lay the bricks to build the house that Monty dreamed. Which made it easy. And problematic. To depend so much on one guy was like researching your entire school report from one source—and it wasn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica; it was The Boys’ Big Book of Things to Know. But Don had felt he had no choice. If you don’t speak the local tongue, you’re stuck. “You just have to find someone you can trust,” Don said. “I went with my gut.”
Don is an inveterate optimist: it’s an appealing trait. But now the thought occurred to him: I just sent my investment to a guy I’ll never see again. Worse, he hadn’t just bought one lot: he’d bought five: four in Jiquilillo and one in nearby Santa Maria. He kept checking the phone for messages that everything was okay. A week went by. “It’s gone,” he thought of his money. He grew furious. He imagined going back to Nicaragua to hunt Roberto down, vigilante-style, and, well (retribution, Canadian-style) maybe smash his patio furniture. Then the phone rang. It was Roberto. He’d been up-country, out of reach. The money? Oh yeah, got it, no problem, thanks, it was all a go. Alone in the house, Don let out a shout that shook the windows.
Don returned to Nicaragua in December. He had a surf lodge to build. In San Juan del Sur, Don and Roberto started blue-skying ideas of what it might look like. Roberto grabbed a napkin and drew a picture. An architect would charge at least $500 to create real plans. But “my neighbour’s kid is in architecture school,” Roberto said, “and I’m sure he’d do it for a hundred bucks.” They walked the napkin over. The next day the kid came back with blueprints.
The beach at Jiquilillo is fine white sand that stretches unbroken for nine kilometres—and much farther at low tide, when you can walk all the way to Santa Maria, a little thumb that juts into the pacific like a new Key West in the making. The pounding surf sends up a mist that hovers over the foreshore, so that looking back down the beach from the nearby estuary is like looking down the barrel of a gun through the smoke of the discharge.
Don is of the view that he got the best spot on the whole beach, and it’s a hard claim to dispute. A grove of palm trees shades the lodge and right out front is a tidy beach break. The swells march in, one hard by another—shoulder-height and consistent. The most surprising thing about the beach is that it’s empty. Earlier in the week a young couple from the surfing hotspot of San Juan del Sur had visited to check out the scene here in the north. The guy had recently been nearly decapitated by the fin of the board of another surfer who’d dropped in on his wave. On hot surf days those southern beaches, it seemed, were becoming almost unsurfable.
The distinction of Don’s first-ever lodge-guest has fallen to his gym-teaching colleague, Stephane, who has come to beta-test the lodge before the first paying customers arrive in December (and who, by the second day, was already out scouting for land around here himself). Don has aggravated an old gymnastics injury, and his stiff neck prevents him from joining his pal in the saltchuck. He stands watching as Stephane paddles out on the longboard, duck-diving through the first rank of waves toward the more uniform breakers beyond. It’s donkey work, the hard front-end load of surfing. In Stephane’s case, it helps that he has shoulders the size of mature pineapples. Further to the south, because of the way the currents run, the water temperature is more variable; at Christmastime the water in San Juan del Sur is often quite cool. But here the water is an unchanging 25 or so degrees Celsius—which means you can stay in surfing all day, or at least until your muscles gas out.
Two more fellow teachers from Kamloops—Tracy and Stephanie—arrive a few days later. They’re both newbie surfers, so they are getting the “Full Monty”—dryland training and then a little hands-on guidance in the low surf. Don is eventually going to have to hire an actual surf instructor (perhaps Roberto’s neighbour’s son, who is, according to Roberto, one of the top surfers in the country). But in the meantime, for surfers of this level, he’s actually pretty good at explaining things, in the manner of gym teachers who confidently teach sports they may not excel at. He has Tracy “popping up” like a champion, albeit on land.
It’s somehow fitting that one man’s search for the good life—to the extent that the search for the good life is also about the search for meaning—should somehow involve surfing. Not long ago, David Milch, who created NYPD Blue and Deadwood, appeared on a talk-show to discuss his new series John From Cincinnati, a dark and quasi-mystical surfing drama set in a gritty Southern California town. What drew him to the subject of surfing? “The wave is the only visible embodiment of what physicists tell us all matter is composed of,” Milch said. Okay, but what’s the show actually about? “If God were trying to reach out to us, and if he felt a certain urgency about it,” Milch said. “That’s what it’s about.” Milch had been a drug addict in early life, and when he discovered surfing he found himself chasing the dragon all over again. “The essence of surfing is so compelling,” he said, “that it makes all other parts of life pale by comparison.”
Don is surely onto something here, zeitgeistwise, for surfing seems a perfect sport for boomers clinging to the illusion that they can somehow forestall infirmity. Yet at the same time it’s hard to imagine another sport that so squarely confronts you with your own physical decline. Kids make it look as easy as it theoretically is: you just “pop up” while you still have the stable power of the breaking wave under the board. The sad truth for most boomers is, by the time you pop up, it’s all over. Still, just being out there is its own kind of high. Your worries aren’t gone, exactly: you just can’t hear them for the drumbeat of the sea.
“We need to name this surf break,” Don said. “That’s how you get your place mentioned in the guidebooks, I think. All the beaches down south, the breaks have their own names. But nobody has named this one.”
“Monty’s Crack?” Stephane offers.
Don prefers the coinage someone came up with the other day, and in the absence of a strong veto, it becomes the winning candidate. Behold, he thinks, with no small satisfaction, looking out from his land: “The Break of Don.”
There is no book that tells you how to run a surf lodge in Nicaragua. There are guides to visiting Nicaragua, and to living in Nicaragua, but to start a business here requires a certain amount of extrapolation, and intuition, and luck.
When I arrived in June, Don picked me up at the airport in Managua, in Roberto’s Kia. The city smelled like a steam room in which big men had been burning diesel to cook meat. He was navigating with the map from the car-rental place, which wasn’t much help since there are no street signs in the city—and anyway, a lot of the streets have the same name. He had been beetling around non-stop here for two weeks. The neck strain was worsening. His posture was cadaverously stiff, which gave him the air of a poker-faced president, in diplomatic talks, about to cancel a billion-dollar defence contract, and the only thing preventing him is that he can’t shake his head.
He was exhausted, but quietly pumped. “Less than a year ago today was when I first came to Nicaragua,” he said. “I was searching for something, and I knew it was out there, and I found it. Maybe when you want something badly enough, it comes.” He had now made three trips here: to buy the land, to make plans, and finally, this time, to host his first trial customers at a hotel he had taken on faith was being built.
We drove through the night, past roadside billboards of Ortega with an upraised fist (“Rise up, poor of the world!), and spavined horses pulling buggies, and young men dangling iguanas by their tails, selling them for soup. Managua was never properly rebuilt after the 1972 earthquake that collapsed it; instead it just spread out into a sea of low-rises and markets: the ecstatic catastrophe of urban Central America. Which makes driving challenging. The car carried no insurance—you can’t always collect if you have insurance, so why bother?—and in lieu Roberto had affixed a little “Jesus” decal on the back, near where the licence plate would be, if there were one. (Later in the week we would be pulled over. The officer looked at me sternly and demanded three dollars. “Por que?” asked Don. “Coca-Cola,” the cop replied.) “You’ll notice that people are honking all the time,” Don said, honking indiscriminately himself. “But they’re not mad. They’re just talking. See, the people here have more fun than we have. They’ve figured out how to be happy.”
On the roads, as in the stores, no one appeared to be in any hurry. “Manana” and “Tranquilo” are the unofficial national mottoes, and it seemed an ethic to aspire to unless you were, say, trying to set up a hotel before leaving the country in three weeks, and actually had to get some stuff done.
For Don, it had been a month of surprises, not all of them pleasant.
Progress had been slower than expected. Back in June, Roberto had called to say that work had been temporarily suspended while everyone “waited out the typhoon.” (This did not bode well: the rainy season had not even officially started by then.) It was also Roberto’s sad duty to report that the first builder he’d hired had absconded with a pile of building materials—which he was using to start another project. Don’s costs were nosing toward double the original estimate.
The lodge itself—a four-room cabana with a raised thatch palapa out front—was in place. But there were signs Roberto hadn’t fully grasped the design aesthetic Don wasafter—which you might call Gilligan’s Island Modern. He had installed fluorescent lighting, which is cheap but which, in Don’s estimation, “sucks your will to live.”
The bar was in place, but kind of in the wrong place: right in the middle of the floor, splitting it up. “Hm.” Don furrowed his brow. “On the napkin it looked perfect.”
There was plumbing, but for a while no water flowed because someone had spilled cement inside the pipes.
There was electricity, but the tradesman hadn’t properly insulated the wiring, and one day a piece of sheet-metal roofing touched an exposed wire and fire shot out of the fuse box and the guest rooms went dark—and they would stay dark until one of the builders showed up to fix it. The main builders, a gentleman named Veintiuno (Twenty-One) and his son, Veintidos (Twenty-Two), seemed to come to work when it damn well pleased them. “It’s like anywhere,” Don said. “When the boss is away, the mice will play.”
Don had heard one too many stories of people who start surf lodges in Central America and to staff them transplant folks from back home who are more interested in surfing than working. “I can’t tell you how many friends have said, ‘I want to work for you. But I want to hire locals. This is really, really important to me.” Don conveyed that wish to Roberto, who dutifully hired on Don’s behalf a local woman named Juana to be the cleaner and cook. Juana oversaw the building of the lodge, and then promptly moved her family in: not all of them, just two of her 15 kids, including a young son Ramon who was soon eating Don out of house and home. (Also part of the package was a white-faced monkey named Charlie, which used to belong to Roberto but lives in the surf lodge now, like a firehouse Dalmation, and has already generously shared his fleas.)
The actual provisioning of the lodge was proceeding haphazardly. Don had nailed some details, like seashells lining the path to the surf, but forgotten some basics, like towels. There was a garlic press, but no cereal bowls. He sometimes seemed like an orphaned kid who suddenly finds himself in charge of both parents’ responsibilities: running the household and running the business.
“I’m going to be fluent in Spanish within a year,” Don announced confidently, not long ago. A couple of months in to that pledge, we’re a little…behind sched. The language barrier is a problem. It’s hard, for example, to find a tire-repair shop when you don’t know the word for tire. Simple questions morph into deeply mysterious riddles that occupy just way too much RAM. Why do the Stop signs say Alto when alto means up? Why do they sell milk in bags but not the little plastic pitchers the bags sit in? One day it took close to 10 minutes to figure out what supplies the workmen were asking for—“two libra de clabo, four pugabo.” Ramon was recruited to write it out, his note was deciphered via Spanish/English dictionaries, and the answer eventually emerged: two pounds of four-inch nails.
One afternoon Don popped into a notary’s office in nearby Chinendega to wrap up some paperwork on the land sale. It occurred to him to ask whether he needed a business licence.
“Licence commercial?” he said.
He pantomimed someone eating, sleeping and surfing Chez Don. “Clients de Canada, payer money aqui.” He pointed at his chest. “That’s a business, eh?”
“A licence importante?”
“Si. Muy importante.”
“Mi payer Juana. No bueno?”
“Okay,” Don said. “So what do I do?”
It wasn’t entirely clear. It seemed to involve going to immigration in Managua and filling out paperwork. He made a mental note to investigate this further, adding the matter to the list of things that needed to be done before paying guests arrive en masse at Christmastime.
Many times a day Don and Juana peered at each other across a gulf: he unable to tell her, for instance, to please not use half a bottle of oil in her cooking each night. Don celebrated his own breakthroughs. “I’m no longer speaking Spanish like a one-year-old!” he said triumphantly one afternoon. “I’m Speaking Spanish like a two-year-old!” Once I caught him practising his Spanish on the monkey. He was, often and unaccountably, brimming with good cheer. “It seems complicated now—the language barrier and all,” he said. But give me a month. It’s going to be a piece of cake.”
“What makes a place like this great?” Don asks, beer in hand, in a rocking chair on the patio one evening. The night seems almost to answer the question itself. It is an orchestra scored for crickets and waves. Overhead, the sky looks like a painter’s dropsheet, it is so staggeringly full of stars.
“Well, good food’ll take you a long way,” says Stephanie, who has engineered tonight’s meal of fried snapper. “The first thing you need to do is hire a real cook.” True enough, Juana is not going to knock Mario Batali off Iron Chef anytime soon. The food, at least until the guests took over the kitchen, was dire. But it’s going to be extraordinarily tough to fire Juana: maybe he can reassign her to other jobs that play to her strengths, such as keeping pigs off the property with the slingshot.
Everyone agrees, too, that there need to be other things for guests to do besides surf when they wake up on Day Two unable to lift their arms above their waists. Sunset horseback rides? Barracuda fishing in the estuary? For sure a brisk hike is in order—and not far away a fairly awesome one presents itself. On a little peninsula northwest of Jiquilillo lies the dormant volcano Cosiguina that, before it blew in 1835, sending ash as far as Jamaica and Mexico City, was one of the largest volcanoes in Central America. Nicaraguans themselves virtually never climb it—indeed, the whole concept of going on a strenuous “hike” for “pleasure” makes the faces of local Nicas cloud with confusion—but guides will take groups of visitors into the dry coastal rainforest around the volcano that is now a national park.
Don has arranged a little scouting tour for tomorrow, to see whether the volcano trip is worth offering. The outing is being brokered by Nate Yue, who comes round to collect everybody’s money.
Nate, a 24-year-old Asian-American who runs a nearby backpacker’s hostel called Rancho Esperanza, is a quiet fixture in Jiquilillo. He first came to Nicaragua in 2001 with a small American NGO to help clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. Rebuilding efforts stalled when the NGO pulled out, but Nate had established roots in the community, and had seen the ongoing need, and he came back again.
Rancho Esperanza is the kind of place that, had he cut loose for a short surf vacation before the Salt March, Gandhi might have chosen to stay. For one thing, visitors here volunteer their time in any number of community projects, such as helping children to read. And the place barely leaves a footprint. Grey water from dishes irrigates the trees and the organic vegetable garden. The pump that sends well water to the shower tank is a bicycle that you sit on and pedal (it takes 20 minutes to fill the tank). Also, the rates Nate charges guests are so modest they barely cover costs—which is okay, because he’s not in it to make a profit.
Nate is the conscience of Jiquilillo, and therefore the conscience of everyone in it, including Don. In the Indie movie about this place, the hero would be Nate. The villain would be the shrimp farmers, denuding the foreshore and pumping the larvae full of antibiotics that may change the ecology of the whole surrounding area.
Don would be the guy in the middle, running between the raindrops. Trying to do the right thing (10 per cent of his surf lodge’s profits he’ll return to the village) without bankrupting himself. Trying to negotiate the modern capitalist predicament, to find a place somewhere between impossible idealism and rank opportunism. To promise fun without quite making the Jet-Ski crowd feel welcome. To keep it real—to remind people what real is (and real includes fruit shakes with seven-year-old Flore de Cano rum in them: why not?) without instituting forced marches through the slums of Managua, and mandatory mea culpas every night at nine.
Nate gathers $35 from everybody. He moves slowly, and there’s a heaviness about him, the vaguely hangdog mien that comes from living a whole life at that extreme end of the ethical spectrum, where an imagined paradise ultimately, inevitably becomes a burden. He reminds everybody to be at his place tomorrow at 4:30 a.m., sharp. He’ll supply the water.
The hike up Cosiguina is no mere stroll. Everyone is slickered in sweat as we approach the crater rim. Black vultures gyre overhead, singling out the old and weak among the hikers by scanning for baldspots. Lime-green macaws dart in the warm winds sweeping up the cone.
By 11 a.m. we’re standing on top, with a view of three countries, two oceans and a gulf. Scanning wide, you can see Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast shading up into Honduras—the Mosquito Coast (where, as Theroux’s character Allie Fox put it in the novel of that name, “if what you want isn’t washed up on the beach, you probably don’t need it.”). And, westward, the pencil line of blond beach in El Salvador that some surfers have already deemed the new, new thing.
And you can see the peninsula of Jiqualillo. The little pinch of land that’s preventing it from being an island is perilously thin. From here the full extent of the network of estuary veins that runs all through the land is clear.
Earlier in the week, a local man named Nicolas, in a gimme cap and flip-flops, wandered in to Don’s surf camp. He had some beachfront he was looking to sell, and wanted an honourable buyer who wouldn’t just flip it for profit. Don and Stephane went to check it out, walking the beach at low tide to get there, past the shrimp farm, which was guarded by a sombre-looking young guy with a machine gun.
The land happened to sit beside a fabulous surf break that Don had paid a boatman to run him out to the previous week: an ideal spot, in other words, for a surf lodge. But it was no accident that Nicolas had insisted on coming here at low tide. It wasn’t clear how you’d get here otherwise; at high tide a lot of this land would be underwater. Right next to the property Nicolas was selling, mangrove trees spidered out of the water of the estuary, which bloomed into a big lagoon where the shrimp farmers grew their larvae. It could have been the Everglades. It was impossible to avoid the thought that what’s on offer here, in the beachfront real-estate market of northern Nicaragua, is like the proverbial swampland in Florida.
The sea is reclaiming the land at a truly startling clip. A glance down the beach reveals the recent history. At intervals, 30 or 60 or 90 feet offshore, nosing out of the seabed like reefs, are the concrete foundations of homes and hotels that used to dot this coast back when Jiquilillo was a holiday playground of wealthy Nicaraguans—as recently as 15 years ago.
“In the tsunami of 1992, everything was wiped out,” Nate told me. The few who tried to rebuild were punished six years later when Hurricane Mitch pounded ashore and wiped everything out again. After that, all bets were off. It’s no great surprise that beachfront land is vulnerable, and therefore a gamble—the story’s the same now all over the world. But the speed of the erosion here, thanks to the land being entirely cleared for commercial development, is truly breathtaking. No obvious solutions present themselves. The Southern California strategy of continuously trucking in sand is hardly feasible. And the government isn’t going to spend millions on a big breakwater.
It’s one of the reasons Nate sees his own Nicaraguan venture as coming to a natural close. Not long ago, a winter storm sent ocean water over his own property, which is about 600 feet inland.
“If you ask any Nicaraguan,” he says, “they’ll tell you: Jiquilillo: It’s a beautiful place, but it’s perdito. It’s lost.”
Don has started keeping a detailed list of what he needs. A real clothesline, not barbed wire that rips the sheets. A safe for people’s passports. A reliable stereo and a place to lock it up so it won’t get ripped off. Pots that actually distribute heat.
The to-do list grows. Build that fence and seal those rafters, fix the upstairs railings and visit the local school. Make compost bins and move the bar. Buy stools and surfboards and tiki torches and a BB gun and flycovers and plants and towels and a coffee press and a machete and a bicycle and wall hooks and lobster pliers and a guest book and bug zappers and binoculars and self-repair tire gel and a new double burner stove. String up another hammock. Get that business licence. Make a sign. Start building the breakwater. Round up an antenna so the phone works. Expand the kitchen. Find a mate for the monkey. Find a caretaker for the lodge in the off-season. Get the other cabanas going. And NAIL this Spanish language.
Returning from Cosiguina—after three hours of rattling around in a broiling pickup bed with nine watermelons, a spare tire, a barrel of water and a chicken—he discovers that the workers have finished his back and front fence. You can tell by their expression they are pleased with their work, and they are hanging around, eager to see Don’s reaction. (Plus which, they have yet to be paid for yesterday’s materials.) Don frowns. The workers have successfully captured the Gilligan’s Island aesthetic he was after, but “that,” he declares, jabbing a finger at the fence, “is not going to hold a cow out.” They haven’t followed his plans. It was supposed to be a two-part gate, and way more skookum. “Muy…masculino!” he explains to them, pantomiming a fatter gauge of log. “Tell them, Steph.” The guys are going to have to re-do it, that’s for sure, and they’re going to have to be okay with that, because he is the boss. Having to be a hard-ass is, frankly, making the whole enterprise a little less fun.
He stalks around a little bit with a shovel, almost losing his temper.
“I’m sorry, I’m just a bit stressed right now because I need to get gas for the generator because we won’t have power for dinner on Monday when the schedule changes. The roof needs fumigating. We’re almost out of food. Veintiuno never showed up and the lights don’t work. And that’s just scratching the surface: a lot of little things weren’t done or were done wrong while I was away.” The sound of spinning tires gets everyone’s attention. Two people who were borrowing the car to get groceries have tried an eccentric route out of the driveway and marooned it in the sand. The car needs to be ready in the morning to drive to the airport. Efforts to free it only manage to crater the wheels more deeply. It’s getting dark. It’s starting to rain. Don’s temple begins to throb.
And then something happens. It’s a big thing, though not a tangible thing. It has something to do with the dream, the idea of the “life well-lived”: What we ought to do, what we might do, what we can do.
Why Nicaragua? Because it’s paradise? Because it’s cheap? Or because it has something to teach nose-to-the-stone Westerners? In a country of woeful poverty and clockwork devastation by natural disasters you can see, in the faces of people, a simple, humble fatalism. It is a kind of happiness. It’s what he wants so badly for his girls to witness. And maybe, here, it’s all you really need to keep in mind.
Don lets go of the car bumper. The tension leaves his face. He smiles. “Forget it,” he says, brushing sand off his legs. “We’ll get up early and do it in the light.”
“Manana,” says Donald Montgomery of Jiquilillo, “Monty” to his friends. “Tranquilo.”
Failure destroys some people. Others rise from the ashes.
from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, May 2009
In September of 2008, Philip Schultz, a humble and plainspoken fellow, crossed the hardwood floor and slid in behind a temporary lectern in the Center for Well-Being at The Ross School in East Hampton. It was commencement day for the eighth-grade class. Some students recognized Schultz, who was giving the address, as the father of eighth-grader Eli. He was a local poet.
Schultz told the students he hadn’t learned to read until he was 11. By then, he’d been held back a grade and was a permanent member of what the other kids called the “dummy class.” Teachers just didn’t know what to do with a kid like Phil Schultz—who, it turned out, was dyslexic. When a teacher asked him what he wanted to do with his life and Schultz said he wanted to be a writer, the teacher laughed. “I wasn’t insulted,” Schultz recalls. “I understood it was a funny thing to hear from someone who hated to read and couldn’t write a simple English sentence.”
Schultz’s punishment for being a dummy was exile to shameful outsiderdom within a class moving forward. And that’s exactly the kind of experience from which writers are made. Within “the loneliness of having so little expected of me, and the pain of being overlooked and forgotten,” as he put it to the assembly, was time for careful attention to his interior life. All a writer really needs are the self-knowledge to decipher his feelings, the judgment to recognize the original ones, and the courage to make them public. It’s a job open to anybody—even dyslexics. And so Schultz steamed ahead toward the one career for which others thought he was the most ill-suited—poetry.
Cut to 2007. A working poet now, Schultz realized that almost everything he wrote was about failure. Failure was his clay. He was writing about his dad—a drunkard who’d been a lousy parent and a worse provider—but he was also tapping the part of himself that felt like a failure. Schultz had aimed to be a novelist, but couldn’t pull it off. Alongside the very personal poems about his father, a long poem took shape about a character who walked other, more successful, people’s dogs.
The voltage that shot through the plainspoken language was unlike anything Schultz had produced. He called the collection, simply, Failure. On its cover: a bent nail in a board. Last year, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Wind, solar, tidal—all are battling for the renewable-energy crown. But what about the six billion highly efficient short-stroke engines in our midst? What about us?
From POPULAR SCIENCE, March 2009
Cave Junction, Oregon, was once, long ago, the center of a gold rush boom that, like so many booms, ultimately consumed its host. Prospectors mined the land around the towns in an ever-tightening circle, until the only gold left was below the saloons, assayers and burlesque halls. Those fell next. The towns were mined right out from under themselves—with no trace left of the old frontier burgs but scars in the earth.
The people who trickled back, decades later, came to satisfy a different urge: not to pursue something but to escape it. Certain hardy members of the hippie diaspora of the ’60s realized that you could live out here entirely under the radar and off the grid. With no one to badger you, you could pursue your own idiosyncratic dreams. You could, in fact, quietly build your better mousetrap and wait until the right time to spring it on the world—the very moment when the world needed saving.
On a lonely stretch of blue highway near the treehouse he lives in and the workshop where he’s been refining that mousetrap, Charley Greenwood slips into the driver’s seat of the FM-4 HumanCar. Or rather, the seat the driver would occupy in a regular car. You don’t “drive” the HumanCar; you row it. It’s the pulling and pushing of the four passengers, converted by a four-gear transmission into rotational thrust, that powers the car at 25 or 30 mph easily, and up to 60 or so on a good downslope. (Where you go in the HumanCar is your business. But rest assured, it won’t be to the gym.)
Every day, in almost every field, someone experiences what can only really be described as a wake-up call. They have gotten things terribly wrong. Somehow, they have ended up on the wrong side. The “second brain” in their gut—that ten-billion-nerve knot—tells them that life can’t go on this way. It just can’t. And so, on moral, or at least deeply personal, grounds, they jump the gap.
The apprehension that you are in some profound sense “living the wrong life” can seem so sudden as to be literally breath-taking—and then so apt as to have been inevitable. When a novelist or short story writer pulls off this effect, what James Joyce called “a revelation of the whatness of a thing” lands hard on readers, and they understand the world in a new way now. When these kinds of epiphanies interrupt the daily routines of real people, their lives can change on the spot. It’s a compelling thing to see. Computer hackers, having served their time and mulled their crimes, go to work for the FBI to hunt hackers. Christian rockers recant their earlier statements of faith. Archconservatives carve out new professional identities as vocal liberals.
If a politician switches parties, we say she has “crossed the floor.” Others in humbler quarters routinely do the same: the ad executive who becomes a media critic, the prosecutor who becomes a social worker, the butcher who becomes a vegan. The shift may be sparked by an external event—the collapse of a marriage, the loss of a mentor, a close brush with death—that sharpens the urge to invest what life remains with meaning. But often the reversal is simply the result of a private crisis of conscience. One day, after years of uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, you can’t quite meet your eyes in the mirror. You balk. You confront the choices you have made that have taken you incrementally off course. Then, basically, you defect—blowing up bridges behind you, marching into the arms of grateful new colleagues while the shouts of the furious ex-colleagues ring ever more distantly in your ears.
There’s a branch of mathematics called “catastrophe theory” that deals with turning points in dynamic systems – pregnant moments where a very tiny change in input results in a huge change in output. Catastrophe theory was popular in the 1960s, and it’s been applied outside of engineering, to epidemics and social systems. U-Turn asks the question: might the human mind operate the same way? Are the same forces that make a mountainside give way or a prison population riot at play within each of us? It there a kind of tipping point for the human psyche, a hinge moment where we either snap or transcend? Where we go crazy or ignite with new purpose?
Bloomsbury USA, April
6.13 X 9.25, 320 pp
It’s been called the biggest scientific project ever. And Vancouver scientists are poised to help understand the origins of the universe
from VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, December 2008
Given Canada’s key role in the experiment, it would have been a little embarrassing if this business at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva had destroyed the universe. In theory, it still could produce microscopic black holes that will suck us into oblivion and pull our screams in behind us. But frankly, scientists at TRIUMF-Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics-aren’t too concerned. “These collisions are going on all the time with cosmic rays,” says Nigel Lockyer, TRIUMF’s director. “I wish we could make collisions of higher energy than what nature does routinely.”
No, any nail-biting at TRIUMF concerned whether the hardware would work on game day. TRIUMF built a part of the accelerator-a system of “kicker magnets” that spank the already fast-moving protons into the main ring of the collider where they really start to motor. There was a tense moment when word came from CERN (Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment) that some magnets had failed, followed by relief when they weren’t crucial and, as one TRIUMFer puts it, “they weren’t ours.” In fact, the “Canadian Insertion” worked perfectly and the Great Discovery Machine was up and humming, conducting the groundbreaking ATLAS Experiment, stalking the so-called God particle and probing the mysteries of the origins of everything.
Mirror neurons may hold the key to understanding how human beings respond to one another’s plight
from IN CHARACTER, April 2008
Simon Lovell is a British-born stage magician whose long-running Broadway show Strange and Unusual Hobbies exploits his dexterity with playing cards. But for most of his adult life, Lovell turned a less reputable dime. He was a full-time con man. It was a trade he came by naturally. By age four he was already learning gambling-table tricks from his grandfather, and before long young Simon was traveling with carnivals and three-card-monte troupes, absorbing the patter and the confidence and the ethic of the “short con” (in and out before the victim knows what hit him). It was an easy way for Simon to put himself through college; it was an easy way to put himself through life. Like some opportunistic grifter in a David Mamet play, seducing hapless victims and then betraying them without remorse, Lovell plied his craft for ten lucrative years, until the age of thirty-one.
And then one day everything changed.
He had spotted his mark in a hotel bar in Europe, and, after chumming the man up and plying him with drinks, had drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of the team, primed to make a bundle if he just, well, plays his cards right.
It went beautifully. “He lost the whole enchilada on one big hand,” Lovell recalls. “We took him for an extremely large amount of money.”
The script at that point called for Lovell to berate the mark (“I told you to wait for my signal!”), drag him out of the hotel room, and tell him to get lost. But in the hallway of the hotel, the disengagement sequence faltered. The mark went to pieces. “I’ve never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell says. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing, and in a very sorry state. He looked as though he was in need of a visit to Bellevue.”
And that’s when it happened. “It was like a light suddenly went on,” Lovell recalls. “It was very strange. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. It was the only time I had ever felt that. It was like my heart started to beat. For the first time I actually felt sorry for someone.”
Lovell did something, then, that he couldn’t quite believe himself. I gave him some of the money back. Not all of it—I had my people to pay—but I gave him enough.” Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured himself a drink, and said, that’s it. When you run cons you have to have an ice-cold heart,” he says. “There was an absolute epiphany that if I’m going to start feeling sorry for people, I just can’t do it anymore.”
Almost overnight, his life changed. The necessary ink cloud a con throws up to keep the world (and himself) from knowing who he is, cleared. “I had become,” he says, “a real human being again.”
Just what happened to Simon Lovell in that hotel corridor? He himself is not much help here. All he knows is that whatever happened to him was fast and dramatic and, apparently, permanent. It felt like an almost Promethean kindling of compassion. But what really went on inside his brain?
We do not yet have a neuroscience of compassion, although a number of scientists are converging on compassion’s more quantifiable cousin, empathy. Empathy is sometimes described as “emotional sympathy.” Both compassion and empathy are complex responses that seem to involve many brain systems. Both consist in tuning in to another person’s emotional experience— although compassion involves the added dimension of care, a desire not just to imagine another’s circumstances but to want to relieve his suffering. Empathy is contained by compassion, but does not contain it. You can have empathy without compassion, but you cannot have compassion without empathy.
Empathy is increasingly being recognized by scientists for what it is: the very denominator of what it means to be human. It seems to be hard-wired into us almost from birth, though actually imagining the perspective of others might more accurately be said to emerge around the age of four. If sociopaths are sometimes considered “inhuman,” it’s because they apparently lack one of the signal determinants of what we’ve decided it means to be human: the ability to connect with another. And one way we connect is by imagining ourselves into each other’s worlds.
“The neuroscience of empathy is still young,” says Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich and one of the field’s most active investigators. The terrain is a forest of questions. Are the old mechanistic models of the brain still valid, or are they obsolete? Is there a lateral difference – that is, do the two hemispheres play different roles? Does emotion or cognition dominate? And is the pathology model of understanding the brain – we discover how parts of it work by studying people in whom those parts aren’t working at all – going to yield to a more, well, holistic approach?
This much is becoming clear: The story of empathy is probably going to involve fairly recently discovered cells called mirror neurons. And it’s probably going to involve the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a plum-sized area a couple of inches behind the eyebrows, where primal social emotions are thought to be packaged. It may involve a curled little strip of tissue in the middle of the brain called the anterior cingulated gyrus, which seems to detect and manage conflict. And it’s sure to involve other parts of that mighty prefrontal cortex, which just generally plays traffic cop in the busiest city in the universe.
Mirror neurons are cells that fire not only when they’re commanded to fire to move us, but also automatically, as reliably as an echo, whenever we notice someone else moving. Discovered accidentally in monkeys by researchers in Parma, Italy, in the early 1990s, and later pegged in roughly the same spot in the brains of humans, mirror neurons have been hailed as the most major discovery in neuroscience in two decades. Together the cells form a circuit, spread through several brain regions and attached both upstream to the prefrontal cortex and downstream to the most primitive parts of the limbic system. They connect who were with whom we evolved to become.
Mirror neurons seem to prove an explanation – really the first explanation – of how empathy works at the cellular level. Though scientists vary in the degree of meaning they place in the find, Vittorio Galese — one of the original discoverers of mirror neurons in monkeys, and one of the most radically enthusiastic — believes mirror neurons are a tiny model of the brain’s organizational structure: the whole brain functions as a kind of mirror device.
If that’s even mostly true, it blows apart the long-embraced model of the brain as a kind of sequential processor, in which other people’s words and gestures are detected in the hindbrain, fed through the limbic system, and finally converted into meaningful emotions in the frontal cortex. “That old model is just wrong,” says the neurologist Marco Iacoboni, in whose California lab human mirror neurons were discovered. “It sounds completely counterintuitive to say, but there’s evidence that motor actions are actually part of our perception.” It’s not the joy or distress I see in your face that makes me smile or slump in sympathy, in other words: it’s that I reflexively mirror the joy or distress I see in you, and that action – my body reading my own behavior – is what generates the emotion. The most intriguing research to support this theory was conducted by the eminent British neuroscientist Jonathan Cole on patients with facial-muscle paralysis. These individuals couldn’t smile in response to another’s smiles, or frown in response to another’s anxiety. “It turns out that these patients are not even able to understand the emotional state of others,” says Iacoboni.
Such findings make empathy seem a richer and subtler process than we thought. We aren’t merely radios tuning in to other people’s frequencies, the research implies. We’re more like stringed instruments that other instruments set vibrating – and are amplified by the vibrations we get back – and so on in an infinite feedback loop. It changes the whole idea of communication between human beings from something almost robotic into something almost organic.
“When Bill Clinton said, ‘I feel your pain,’ everybody made jokes about it,” Iacoboni says. “But he was actually anticipating what neuroscience was about to tell us.”
So essential to empathy are mirror neurons believed by these researchers to be that the eminent neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has said he thinks autism may be caused by a mirror-neuron dysfunction. Iacoboni expects we will learn that sociopaths, too, are deficient in mirror neuron cells – or are at least saddled with a flawed mirror-neuron system. “It’s going to be difficult to know if that’s because they were born without those cells, or if their experience did not shape the system enough. It’s hard to study.” In the older model of empathy, we all functioned in our interpersonal dealings as detectives, deducing other people’s internal states by observing their behavior. The new research suggests we’re more like Method actors, actually reproducing those states in ourselves. Empathy, by this telling, is as automatic as seeing or hearing. It just happens. Mirror neurons simply fire. Even, we have to assume, in Simon Lovell as he pulled con after con. The reason the message didn’t get through for so long is that there is another neural system in play.
A useful way of appreciating how the brain seems to work out “moral” issues is to think of it as a kind of Odd Couple-like partnership between two modules. You might call them, very unscientifically, the Grandmother Module and the Spock Module. (A third region, the anterior cingulated gyrus in the middle of the brain, seems also to be involved as a kind of referee between them.)
Spock captained the debating team in high school. He does the packing on car trips, counts cards in Reno (always playing the percentages), reads the philosopher John Stuart Mill (who argued that we should choose to do what produces the best results for the most people), and lives mostly in the frontal cortex, up top and to the outsides of the hemispheres. Grandmother always wanted to be a nurse, but discovered she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. She prefers Kant to Mill (believing, like him, that some things are just intrinsically right and good and we should honor them). She reads Harlequins, plays the lottery (when she’s feeling lucky), fastens her goals on the fridge with little daisy magnets, and picks up her mail in the ventromedial region – at the bottom of the frontal cortex, near the middle. The two are in constant dialogue, and together form the machinery of moral reasoning. During moral dilemmas – those pregnant moments that can define values, expose character flaws, or even change lives – the two are drawn into a kind of competitive tension. The Grandmother Module asks questions like, Oh my, are you sure you can pull the trigger? Are you sure you can fleece this poor fellow? Look at him: he’s … like you. The Spock Module relies on pure utilitarian reason: What’s “right” is circumstantial, but generally, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Spock is often called on to explain, after the fact, our own instinctive behavior.
The Spock Module dampens our natural empathic impulses – which is not so much a killjoy function as an essential one. Those impulses need dampening. Mirror neurons fire less strongly when we observe someone performing a function than when we perform it ourselves, and that’s by evolutionary design. “If we felt a sufferer’s pain to the degree that they feel it,” says Iacoboni, “we’d be overwhelmed and unable to help them.” To dial down the empathic response, to let us keep our head amid chaos: that seems to be the job of still-little-understood systems in the frontal lobe — the Spock Module. “And I guess in some people that control system is really, really robust,” Iacoboni says. Robust from birth, possibly, and certainly strengthened over time by, say, practicing cold-hearted cons on innocent people, over and over.
What seems to have been happening in the brain of Simon Lovell, as he inched toward his epiphany, was an epic Mexican standoff between Grandmother and Spock. “At some point, evidently, for some reason, Simon’s control system just couldn’t contain [the emotion] any more,” Iacoboni says. Had he been brain-scanned as it all unfolded, “What I would predict is that there’s a strong mirror neuron response, a strong limbic response – and in these frontal areas that we believe repress the limbic activity, there would be no activity whatsoever.”
To hear Simon Lovell tell it, the flood of compassion came out of nowhere. “Which makes sense,” Iacoboni says. “These are cognitive-control mechanisms. You need to be almost un-alert, need to be caught by surprise for these to be subverted – because otherwise you’d use your control systems to suppress these emotions. So it makes sense that it was something sudden.”
But that still doesn’t explain what triggered the moment when Spock was unable to surmount Grandmother – and why.
Here’s one guess: at a certain point the whole circumstance had simply become personal for Simon, in a way that made it impossible to duck responsibility for the suffering he was causing.
The work of the Harvard philosopher and cognitive psychologist Joshua Greene sheds light here. In an experiment, Greene presented subjects with moral dilemmas, all the while scanning their brains with a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. The dilemmas required snap decisions in imagined life-and-death situations. They were cunningly designed to manipulate the degree to which either emotion or cognition was brought to bear. Greene guess that it would depend on the nature of the dilemma — to what degree the “moral violation” the subjects were asked to perpetrate felt “personal” or “impersonal.” The more personally on the hook the subjects felt for the morally objectionable act, the more likely the Grandmother Module would come into play — emotions would overtake reason. The more distance they could keep from the damage, the more emotion could be kept out of the moral calculus.
Imagine, Joshua Greene proposed, a runaway train. Five people are helplessly stuck on he tracks. If you could save their lives by pulling a switch and shunting the train onto a siding where a single person was stuck, would you do it? Most people, Greene reckoned, would say yes. (And his research subjects in fact did.) But then Greene threw a curve. What if simply pulling a switch to reroute the train wasn’t an option? What if the only way to stop that train from barreling down on those five people was to physically push somebody off a bridge, into the train’s path, listening to his screams as he fell? Most people, he figured, would probably balk – even though killing the one was still the “rational” thing to do. (Green’s research subjects indeed balked.) Most of us can’t overcome the physical revulsion at doing actual harm to other human beings. (As Grandmother would say, They’re like you.) The likelihood that a subject will undertake a deeply taboo moral violation – like killing someone, or hurting him, or betraying him – even for a “good reason,” depends on how much emotional detachment he can muster.
Greene looked at the scans of brains choosing to sacrifice one person to save five by shunting the train. Then he looked at the scans of brains of those unable to push somebody onto the tracks. The in the first instance, the scenario that allowed emotional detachment, regions associated with cognitive processes – the Spock Module – lit up. But in he second instance, when the subjects had to face their demons square on, and recoiled, the ventromedial area was aglow. We might expect that, for a spell, both areas were furiously active as Grandmother sent signals of moral disgust and Spock tried desperately to rationalize the behavior. But then activity in the higher prefrontal areas would have diminished – as if the subjects were finally simply unable to be clinically detached. Grandma had wrestled Spock into submission.
If you think of Simon Lovell’s turning point as essentially a moment of moral decision-making, when some personal “truth” burns through a long-held, self-serving cover story, then Joshua Green’s model is a relevant prism. For ten years Lovell had found plenty of ways to distance himself from the victims (“They weren’t people, they were walking wallets, that’s all they were,” he says of his marks), and plenty of ways to rationalize what he was doing. But the gathering guilt and unease – what Lovell calls the accumulated weight of “ten years of bad karma” – finally became stronger than his cognitive control system’s ability to manage it. The whole enterprise became, you might say, unavoidably personal for Lovell. Grandmother’s sermonizing grew too loud to ignore. He fell victim to compassion.
Compassion, according to Aristotle – the first thinker to propose a theory on how it is (or is not) generated I human beings – involves a three-step process. We must see the suffering is significant, that it is undeserved, and that the sufferer could just as easily be ourselves. (“There but for fortune go I.”) Without these three conditions in place, the heard remains locked. Advances in brain-imaging technology within the last decade have allowed us to test what Aristotle could only guess at, to see the effects of these three triggers on the brain.
When we notice appreciable suffering, empathic circuits in the brain light up: this much mirror-neuron research has been pretty much proven. Another person’s suffering makes us emotional, so long as it captures our attention.
Is the suffering undeserved? This is a front-brain question – a job for Spock. The University of Chicago cognitive neuroscientists Jean Decety has addressed it, roundabout, in a number of studies. When suffering is detected the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, probably chiefly on the right side, pumps for context – and it’s the context that will determine to what degree the cognitive apparatus suppresses the limbic response, downgrading the state of emergency, reducing the empathic pulse. A man being beaten on the sidewalk immediately arouses our interest and compassion – but if we learn that the copy was simply defending himself after the man had cold-cocked him with a beer bottle, our compassion for the stranger flags. Mothers generally cannot easily bear to see their children in pain. But if the pain derives from, say, a flu shot, then the urge to intervene to stop the suffering diminishes – for now the suffering is deemed not wicked bad luck but rather a necessary cost of getting better. (Last year, Decety set up an experiment in which subjects were asked to observe a painful treatment for tinnitus. Brain scans revealed a stronger empathic response when the treatment was ineffective – the suffering was, you might say, without purpose – than when it was effective.)
Can the observer imagine a similar fate: What happened to this person could happen to me? It is the cognitive component to empathy – responsible for the simple act of trying to imagine another’s circumstances – that allows us, over and above the natural, primal compassion we feel for a member of kin or tribe, to project ourselves into the shoes even of those who are utterly dissimilar from us. You don’t have to have walked in those shoes – you just have to imaging that you could. In a study co-authored by a number of neuroscientists last year, subjects were asked to remember a personal experience of fear and anger from their past. Then they were asked to imagine an equivalent experience of another person, as if it were happening to them. Scans revealed that “when people could relate to the scenario of the other,” they felt the sufferer’s pain as if it were their own: the neural signatures were almost identical. “But when they could not relate to the other’s story, differences emerged on all measures.” The actual physiological response was reduced, there was less recruitment of emotive brain regions. Clinton thus stands definitively exonerated: “I feel your pain” is a valid trope – at least “to the extent that one can relate to the state and situation of the other.”
Compassion is an ephemeral, elusive thing, and so efforts to take a neural “snapshot” of it seem quixotic at best. Nonetheless the neuroscientist Richard Davidson approached the task directly when he set out not long ago to map a kind of compassionate embrace-of-everything that Buddhists call lovingkindness.
Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin’s W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior recruit as research subjects Tibetan monks hand-picked by the Dalai Lama. The monks were injected with a radioactive tracer and fitted with electrodes, and Davidson and his colleagues watched the results onscreen as the monks climbed the ladder of their breath up, up into the rarefied precincts of good will. No single area of the monks’ brains came alive, but Davidson and the researchers did see discrete changes – notably, a shift in activity from the parietal love (as the monks detached from their conscious sense of self) to the premotor part of the frontal lobe, a region connected to the deeper emotions and involved in plans (such as springing to the aid of those in distress).
The root of lovingkindness meditation is the extension of care, in ever widening sweeps, until not a living creature is missed. Receive everyone as if they were your mother is the famous dictum: the compassion you feel, when you can convince yourself they are, is almost boundless. And the neural signature of those moments should be dramatic. So too, Simon Lovell, whose ability, cultivated over a decade of ruthless cons, to view his marks as not quite human, could not withstand that final test in the hotel hallway. Those clinical rationalizations were smashed by something like a sense of common humanity. “Maybe in that moment,” Joshua Greene conjectures, “Simon Lovell became a little more monk-like.”
At the tiny hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant around the corner from his Point Grey house, Abraham Rogatnick needs no introduction. He is a regular, with his table, his chair. On a sunny afternoon not long ago the owner looked up as he came through the door. She smiled sweetly with a tiny bow of the head, disappeared into the back, and quietly returned with the Yellow Pages for him to sit on.
Rogatnick is an elfin man. Wearing a neatly knotted black tie and white shirt under a red sweater, he could be Billy Crystal’s dad. His face rings a bell, the way character actors’ faces do, though you can’t be sure where you’ve seen them. In Rogatnick’s case, it could have been the crime drama Just Cause, in which he played a nutty old judge on a couple of episodes. Since he broke into acting around 1998, at age 74—propelled by a love for the language of Shakespeare, and with a little more time on his hands at last—he has been steered by his agent away from the stage and into movie and TV roles, more Lear than Romeo.
“I’ve played old men,” he said. “Usually dying old men.”
It occurred to him, as he worked on his chicken soup, that he’d eaten here for four consecutive days, with a different companion each time. Though he retired from the architecture department at UBC in 1985, academics and artists and former students seek him out. Something about him invites questions.
His face registered his pleasure with the soup. “It’s so good today,” he said. “It’s better than it has been for a long time. It must be a new batch.” It was the soup of the day, the soup of the place. If you tried to take it home it wouldn’t be the same soup. He lingered over it. “I eat very slowly,” he said. “I just can’t swallow as fast as everyone else.”
There are people who visibly wield power. And then there are the people who quietly prop them up. Sometimes the backroom partners emerge with a bit of a profile of their own—Raymond Carver’s editor, Helen Keller’s teacher, George W. Bush’s pastor—but more often they don’t. Influence that isn’t particularly interested in fame can easily stay hidden. It’s a different kind of power, exerted by sitting on design panels or crafting inspirational lectures that ignite promising students or eating dinner with men who buy ink by the barrel—but it’s vital to the forward movement of the culture.
Abraham Rogatnick (“Abe” is reserved for his oldest friends) is an architect, a historian, a professor, a public intellectual. Newspaper reporters sometimes reach for goofy catchall phrases like “octogenarian livewire” to describe him because no single label captures him.
Behold Abraham Jedidiah Rogatnick. Who trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design under the directorship of Walter Gropius—the Bauhaus founder and one of the pioneers of modern architecture. Who popped into town in the fall of 1955 for a quick visit and was welcomed by the arts community the way a drowner welcomes a floating barrel, and just never left. Who pretty much explained modern-art to Vancouver—after opening the doors to one of the first contemporary art galleries in Canada. (This was six weeks after arriving.) Who helped create what became the Arts Club Theatre, and was parachuted in to restore stability to the Vancouver Art Gallery after its Watergate in 1974. Who invented a “studies abroad” program for architecture students, so they could live in some of the world’s great cities. (When you leave home, as the poet said, you see your own home.) Who chose a water-squeezed tourist mecca for the first platoon of outgoing UBC architecture students—and became one of the world’s foremost authorities on Venice. (That there are plenty of lessons Vancouver can learn from Venice has been one of his chief preoccupations.) Who walked its streets with Buckminster Fuller and Louis Kahn, as their interpreter. Who may have covered more of Vancouver on foot than anyone else alive. Who hiked the Chilkoot Trail with Pierre Berton. Who met Bill Reid when Reid had only recently learned he had some Haida blood in him (and so was phasing out of a career as a CBC broadcaster to explore his roots in art). Who would stand at the intersection of a sample of some of Vancouver’s most important architects and painters of the last century: the landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, architects Arthur Erickson and Ned Pratt and Ron Thom and Barry Downs and Fred Hollingsworth, painters Bert Binning and Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith. Who was present at the birth of West Coast modernism—the closest we have come to an indigenous art movement—and managed to keep his eye on the ball as a new bunch of artists emerged to put Vancouver on the map again. (He remains good friends with Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, Attila Richard Lukacs.) Who is one of a very few men in this city who can get away with wearing a cape. Who tipped the last Vancouver mayoral election. And who claims to be puzzled that people think he’s worth writing about.
Public identity and private faith are never more at odds than when a preacher loses his faith
from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, January 2008
James McAllister, a 56-year-old Lutheran minister in the midwest, was working on his sunday sermon one Thursday afternoon last summer. It wasn’t going well. The reverend wasn’t suffering from writer’s block—in fact, he was crafting quite an elegant parable about “the importance of making our whole lives a prayer.” No, the problem was bigger than that. The sermon skated around a private truth that McAllister could no longer deny.
McAllister has learned that you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture—and this sermon was a masterful case in point. A woman in his congregation had recently dropped everything to care for her cancer-stricken daughter, and that selfless commitment was sacred in its way. “You can see how I cook the books a little bit to make it easier to look in the mirror,” he says of his sermons. “But there are times when I get that sort of empty feeling in my stomach, like I’m a fraud.”
Young soldiers, listen up. Your parents are busy. They really don’t have much time. Which means you have only seconds, not minutes, to grab their attention and get your message heard.
The good news is, that’s all you’re going to need, because you’re parents are fairly easy game. They’re low-functioning. They’re exhausted and weak and dizzy. They’re pleased, after an outing, just to have successfully found their car. Their eyes aren’t good enough to read the serial number on their iPod, no matter how close they hold it to their face. They’re losing words at about the same rate you’re gaining them. They are no match for you.
But they’re still human beings. And so they deserve to be treated with dignity. Be straight up. Proceed boldly and methodically. Here are seven tips to help you bend the current administration to your will:
1. Keep it simple. Eschew adjectives. Ditto for articles and conjunctions. Hemingway wrote a short story in six words (“Baby Carriage for Sale: Never Used”), and IBM boiled the company’s brand identity down to one (“Think”). A single concrete noun will often do. Example: “Fudge!”
2. Serve compliment sandwiches. A request slid between two “I love Mommys” is hard to ignore. Only the most stonehearted parent will even hesitate before caving.
3. Show, don’t tell. Timely gestures are more powerful than words. A dad de-pantsed from the foot of the bed at 5:30 a.m. is a dad who clearly understands that it’s time for the family to meet the day.
4. Stay on message. There are lots of things you may want right now, but pick one and stick to it. Think of your parents as short-order cooks, hired from the dregs of some government make-work program. You really don’t want to send more than one order at a time into that kitchen.
5. Isolate the sponge. Mom and Dad struggle mightily to maintain a united front. But it’s pretty obvious that one of them is soft. That’s the one you need to get to, alone, before he can confer with head office.
6. Show chutzpah. Spunk is a trait parents respect—it just makes good evolutionary sense. Parents may claim they want docile children, but deep down they know docile won’t fight for them years from now, when they’re lying in a vapour tent and a doctor is trying to unplug them to free up the bed.
7. Who’s the customer here? Remember that question and remember the answer: you are. Without your continuing patronage, this joint shuts down. The implicit threat that you might take your business elsewhere—say, to the Auerbachs’ next door, with the plum tree and plenty of room at the dinner table now that their own kids have left for college—should make your parents very attentive to your needs.
— Bruce Grierson and Jennifer Williams live in a maintenance shed behind the Vancouver house occupied by their two-year-old daughter, Madeline.
It’s easy to get the sense these days that you’ve stumbled into a party where the punch is spiked with some powerful drug that dramatically alters identity. The faces are familiar, but the words coming out of them aren’t. Something has happened to a lot of people you used to think you knew. They’ve changed into something like their own opposite.
There’s Bill Gates, who these days is spending less time earning money than giving it away–and pulling other billionaires into the deep end of global philanthropy with him. There’s historian Francis Fukuyama, leading a whole gang of disaffected fellow travelers away from neoconservatism. And in the back, humming Give Peace a Chance, the new Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, former head of the Marxist Sandinistas. The comandante has come around on open economies and free trade and is courting foreign investment as the way out for his nation’s poor.
From modest recants–Oprah Winfrey on James Frey, NBA commissioner David Stern on leather balls, Rupert Murdoch on global warming–to full-on ideological 180s, reappraisal is in the air. The view long held by social psychologists that people very rarely change their beliefs seems itself in need of revision.
To flip-flop is human. Oh, sure, it can still sometimes be a political liability, evidence of a flaky disposition or rank opportunism. But there are circumstances in which not to reverse course seems almost pathological. He’s a model of consistency, Stephen Colbert said last year of George W. Bush: “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday–no matter what happened on Tuesday.”
For The Stress Fractures, a team of highly amateur runners assembled for a single day’s heroic shenanigans, trouble came — for the first time — 40 kilometres outside of Jasper, Alberta.
It was 1:30 pm and crowding 27 degrees C. One hundred and sixty two competitors, strung out along the shoulder of Highway 93, were baking like macaroons. And the thing about the Jasper-to-Banff relay is, you can never really prepare for heat, because the moment you do you’ll get snowed on. Such are the cruel variables of the Rockies in June.
The Stress Fractures had front-end loaded their squad, with strong runners in the first three of the 17 legs, and were actually in a respectable position—around 35th place — when the third guy, Alan Cassels, came threshing into the exchange area and handed off the baton. Runner 4, not wanting to embarrass himself, was giving it all he had, spraying pea gravel across the long shadows of the mountains of the Athabasca River Valley, his gait so ungainly people actually remarked on it as they cruised past in support vehicles.
Or so I heard later. Runner 4, you see, was me.
It was some Jesus hot. The last kilometer of my leg climbed to a ridge, and as I approached it our next runner, Patrick Maguire of Victoria, swam into view. I waved the baton in Patrick’s direction, he reached for it, and… all went granular.
It turned out that the two litres of cranberry juice I had guzzled up the road looked just a little too much like blood when I puked them back up into the bunchgrass. Next thing I knew there were sirens, paramedics, a needle in my arm. (Two weeks later, back at home in Vancouver, there would arrive in the mailbox a bill for $150 for the ambulance: those Albertans are cost-recovery fiends.)
Wildflowers were in bloom beside the highway. It was quite a lovely place to lie, drinking through a vein and contemplating what made this annual event so great; what made it, as one American running publication gushed, the best organized and most beautiful relay race in the world, anywhere, anytime, ever.” The premise was simple. Each team had 24 hours to move a glow-in-the-dark baton 288 kilometres. (Exceed the time limit and your only reward was in heaven, because you were disqualified.) There were teams from Switzerland, Peru, the Netherlands, the Cayman Islands, all over the US — and every year a squad of thoroughbreds from Japan that was rumoured to have a couple of Olympians and a partially bionic guy on it, a team that perennially surged into the lead from the get-go and wasn’t seen again until they emerged from Melissa’s the next morning with pancake crumbs on their shirts.
Adventure races are no novelty any more, but this one broke ground when it started in 1980, and it retained a certain aura. Bottom line: it got city people away from their desks and into the subalpine, and contrived for them an unmatchable wilderness experience. For one day, parts of a highway that moves a million cars a year were empty but for support vehicles. It was like flipping back the calendar to 1929, before there was a highway here. By dusk, the competitors were so widely separated that each had the sensation of being completely alone. Slip the baton behind your back and there was not a human-made sight or sound to betray the illusion that you had been air-dropped in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter — the sort of circumstance that’s likely to produce a vision, or a change in life purpose. Or at the very least, if it happened to involve a midnight encounter with a grizzly sow and her cubs near the Bow Summit, a change of underpants.
Alas, those wildlife encounters, and complaints over the disruption of traffic, and concerns over the environmental impact—the Parks Board began to demand that organizers pay for a study of the race’s environmental impact—proved to be an even bigger bear.
In 2000, the race was re-invented, with a slightly different format. It’s now broken in two, with the two halves run simultaneously in the daylight, so it’s over by dusk. Without the night legs, it lacks a little of the mythic, gotta-get-this-message-to-Marathon feel. But it’s safe to say that everyone who ever ran it has a different appreciation of that stretch of road—and probably, of nature itself.
Before the J2B, I’d driven the Icefields Parkway probably a half-dozen times, cruising beneath the hatchet faces of Mt. Wilson and Mt. Chephren, progress slowed by mountain sheep and families from Utah taking snapshots of meltwater rilling down the grey-green cliffs of the Weeping Wall, or of the glaciers with the bare bits below them, like trouser hems—evidence of how much the ice has receded. Even through tempered glass it’s all perfectly marvelous, a strip of highway that Stompin’ Tom should have immortalized the way Woody Guthrie did Route 66. (When you stop for gas at Saskatchewan River Crossing, you realize that the filling station and visitor’s centre there are the only man-made structures along the entire route.)
There’s a strong case to be made that that usual way to see the Parkway – by car – is the best way. The entire linked chain of five river valleys spools past in about the time it takes to watch Brokeback Mountain (which was filmed nearby), and you can Tivo-pause at any time to pull over for a hey-Martha view of the Kerkeslin Goat Lick or Bridal-Veil Falls. You’re barely aware of the car gearing down as it climbs up out of the subalpine forest and noses over wind-hammered passes that rival the altitude of the high points on the Tour de France.
But for me, completing the route – or at least a little slice of it — on foot personalized the Icefields Parkway in a way that’s a bit hard to explain. I can’t drive it now without experiencing the road as a necklace of 15-km-long segments, each of which I conflate with the friend who gritted his or her teeth and knocked that leg off, bringing the team in under the limit, beating the clock in the way that felt like a metaphor. It’s like what’s supposed to happen in the nanosecond before you die: a parade, before your eyes, of the faces of the people who mattered to you the most while you lived.
To register a team for the world’s most beautiful relay, go here: http://www.bjr.ca/race-info
On January 1, 1999, Jeff Harris held his Olympus Stylus camera out in front of him and snapped his own picture in Times Square. His face poked out of a parka hood. He wore a tourist’s expression of goofball self-consciousness. It was cliché placed carefully on top of a billion others, noticed by no one and absolutely meaningless by most definitions.
But Jeff had loftier goals for the picture. It was the first day of the last year of the 20th century, and he aimed to capture this moment in time — maybe for grandkids forty or fifty years down the road. (He’d often wondered about the daily rhubarb of life in the time of his grandmother, born a exactly a century earlier, and wished she had found a way to preserve it.) So then and there he decided to snap a picture every day for a year. Nothing special, just a document of life in the lengthening shadow of Y2K.
On December 31 had his project in the can. The millennium turned, the world went on, the little private experiment was over, and Jeff actually had to restrain himself from throwing his camera in the air in glee and yelling: “I did it!” Then a friend suggested he extend the experiment. What the — why? Well, he asked himself: why not? The task wasn’t all that burdensome. It gave shape to the days. In fact, it changed the days, in the sense that it forced him to take a different route home from work or otherwise find a unique angle on things. Contriving to record each day forced him to live each day so that there’d be something worth recording.
So he kept shooting. And shooting.
Long story short: he never stopped. He is still at it. He has not missed a day. He is 36 years old. This thing is already the thing – surely more than his job as photo editor at Maclean’s magazine – that he will be remembered for. In June of 2000 he built a website to explain the project and archive the photos, and the website remains and every day it grows a little, like a stalagmite. This year he marked the project’s 10th anniversary with a major show at the Allen Lambert Gallery in Toronto, near the Hockey Hall of Fame. Three thousand six hundred fifty three photographs on a wall two hundred feet long. It is a time-lapse record of one man’s life – although it doesn’t quite feel that way because Jeff is not full-faced in many of them; his rule is that there be some evidence of his presence in each frame; sometimes it’s only his shadow. A shul. Most of the shots are taken by other people. (And, in a quirk of the project that Jeff hatched two years in – and changed its complexion somewhat—quite a lot of them are taken by famous people, from Conrad Black to Isabella Rossolini. And the only way you’d know that is if you spot the tiny, unassuming photo credit.)
This is not a “journal” anymore. It’s an art project. It’s an essay, in the literal sense of the word: an experiment in oneself. On the website there’s a guest book where visitors can click on a date to see a photo of Jeff stoking a campfire or cutting up an avocado or returning to his upper-deck seat at the Skydome. And then that visitor is invited to recall what they were doing and thinking that day and to summarize it in a few words – a Twitter sensibility that prefigured Twitter by years. The whole package is so simply compelling that the site was nominated for a “Webby” – the Oscars of the Internet – three years in a row.
But what is it really? The granular deconstruction of an ordinary life. An artful and ingenious exercise in self-indulgence. And maybe that’s all it ever would have been if this hadn’t happened:
On November 14, Jeff Harris was diagnosed with cancer.
Doctors found the tumor growing around his sciatic nerve, up through his pelvis and attaching to his tailbone. That would explain the pain. The surgery was complicated: his sciatic nerve severed, a pizza slice taken out of his pelvis, half his tailbone removed and the other half fractured. Jeff can’t walk. He should be able to again in six months or so, but right now he’s just thinking about being alive.
A cloud moved across the project and, of course, he kept shooting. Here now was Jeff being slid into an MRI machine (picture credit: “unknown”). The photos are not so different on the surface, but everything has changed. Gone are the cultivated eccentricities. In the frames where you can see his face, there is terror. His normal m.o. — activate the self-timer and move into the shot before the shutter clicks – is out, because he can’t walk. So a fair number of the recent pictures have been taken by his mom, who has moved in to his Toronto apartment with him. “That’s why moms are put on this earth,” he says. “I need her to dress me and wash me.” Her sensibility is, sweetly, very different, more family snapshot than documentary project. She tries to clean her son up, hide the tubes.
Some things we do are private. To draw attention to them would commodify them, rob them of their soul. For seventeen years Jeff has quietly volunteered as a counselor at a camp near Toronto for kids with cancer. The weekend he was diagnosed with cancer he was scheduled to work. He phoned ahead and said he was going to be late. He arrived at 11pm and sat down in the crowded dining hall. He told nobody. The photo from that day is him playing backgammon with one of the kids.
In this company he was always an outsider; it’s a club to which the wages of belonging are steep. But Jeff always felt, somehow, that belonging was only a matter of time. “Now I’m like, Okay, here I go,” he says. “I was waiting for this moment and now it’s me.”
He’s scheduled to return to the camp the last two weeks of August. “With luck I’ll be walking by then.” But there’ll be no keeping his secret hidden. “If it were leukemia or something I’d be able to conceal it,” he says. “But there’s no hiding these scars. There’s mistaking that something’s gone wrong with me.”
Ed. note: Jeff recovered from his cancer. He ceased the project on Dec. 31, 2011. For an archive of his 4,748 consecutive photos, see www.jeffharris.org
It’s been said my grandfather helped build modern-day Korea. He left a subtler legacy for me
From THE WALRUS, June 2004
There was a man in the land of Han whose name was Bob; and that man was imperfect, and often wrong, though he feared God, and avoided evil. And there were born unto him six daughters and one son, who each had their own home. And Bob, each day, morning and evening, aware of the evils in the world, offered sacrifice of intercessory prayer, according to the number of them all, for he said, it may be that my children be inclined to conform to the ways of the world, when they might, by Divine Grace, be transformed by the renewing of the mind so as to prove the benefit of conforming rather to the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Thus did Bob continually. (See Job 1:1-5)
So begins a diary that my grandfather started writing in 1898, shortly after he was sent to Korea as a medical missionary by the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and which he consolidated on onionskin and carbon paper twenty years after his return to Canada in 1936. The work provides a rare glimpse of the seaside village of Sungjin, which is now deeply ensconced in Kim Jung-il’s North and among the least accessible places on Earth. It’s a snapshot of rural medicine reduced to its basic elements: improvisation and skill and luck. It shows a committed man trying to do good in impossible circumstances.
The reference to Job, even the Korean word han (which translates very roughly as a kind of deep national sadness, infused with outrage at injustices done), suggests we are in for a tale of Christian self-sacrifice, with or without a tidy redemptive wrap-up. My grandfather’s reward was, I suppose, posthumous. There are today more than ten million Protestant Christians in South Korea, at least a quarter of the population. Christianity rivals Buddhism as the religion of choice. The Presbyterian mission to Korea — an effort involving, in its second wave, the Canadian, American, and Australian wings of the church — has been called a “miracle of mission history.” If it were a corporation, it would no doubt be looked at by Harvard Business School graduates as a study in how to build a franchise.
Presbyterian evangelists displayed, from very early on, a cunning sense of which notes to sound with the Korean people. They managed to make Christianity seem less like a threatening replacement of traditional Korean beliefs than a natural extension of the brand. They appealed to nationalistic pride, evoked family values, and, most important, promised a paradise — an economic one — to be realized within a single lifetime.
It’s not too big a stretch to say that my grandfather helped build modern-day Korea. The Protestant ethic helped to power the country’s transformation into an emerging titan of consumer capitalism. What was initiated back at the turn of the century would grow into a uniquely Korean expression of Protestantism. The pastor of the world’s largest church — the half-million-strong Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul — summed it up in a phrase: the “theology of prosperity.”
And so those early pioneers have in some circles been canonized. They are the grist of propaganda, of religious scholarship, even of the kind of “personal-development” books that fly off the business shelves. But not, usually, of literature.
This becomes my problem, now. It is considered professionally advantageous for a writer to come from a long line of abusers or psychotics or slaves to some pernicious addiction. When the sun sets on such people (as the novelist Geoffrey Wolff said of his own deadbeat dad), “one clambers up a slippery mountain, carrying the balls of another in a bloody sack, and whether to eat them or worship them or bury them decently is never cleanly decided.” It’s not quite clear what ought to be done with Robert Grierson, M.D. He remains, at least in the family mythology, almost beyond reproach: to eat him would be indecent; to bury him, premature; to worship him, banal. Worse, I have no memory of the man. He died in 1964, when I was two, and the living links to him are closing down fast.
But one way to think of him is as part of a continuum that began with his father and ends, at least for now, with me, as a kind of conversation, with each man responding to his father by creating a life that, to varying extents, agrees with his or rebuts it. This is, I think, how our identities are formed — by a push and a pull.
My grandfather was ninety-five years old when I was born. “Now I can die in peace, thank God!” he told my mother. “The family name will carry on!” It wasn’t just the name he was talking about — it was the spiritual obligation. If he could check back today, forty-one years later, for a progress report, it would not be immediately clear to him whether his prophecy had been borne out. The evangelical impulse did not show up in my father or in me in any obvious way. It seems to have been transformed en route, to have shed a little of its energy — and ultimately to have found expression in things that have nothing to do with institutionalized religion. My grandfather would be miffed. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Because God-fearing Bob seems himself to have struggled to define what it meant to be a Christian.
Anyone looking for a place to spend twenty-five years in exile could do a lot worse than Sungjin. A town of a few thousand, according to my grandfather’s accounts, it lies hammocked between ocean and rock: what was then called the Sea of Japan (now the East Sea) touches its feet, and the Diamond Mountains at its flank shorten the afternoon sunshine.
The Sungjin hospital, where my grandfather carried out one half of his mission in Korea, resembled a sort of peace-time M*A*S*H unit. “Outside the brain cavity,” my grandfather wrote, “there was practically no operation that we did not do from the eyebrows down.”
They resected ribs, removed kidneys, excised carbuncles, even did plastic surgery. For one syphilitic woman whose top lip had sloughed off, leaving “nothing under the nose but grinning teeth,” my grandfather fashioned a new lip from neck tissue and sent her home to her village, quite beautiful now, he thought. He did cataract operations by candlelight, removed ovarian cysts the size of wheelbarrow tires.
There were always more patients than he, stretched thin by his other commitments, could handle. The evangelical work often got in the way of the doctoring.
The position of the Presbyterian Church until that time was that medical missionaries like my grandfather were chiefly valued not for their medical skills but for the access they had to the unconverted. (“You’ll come for the appendectomy, you’ll stay for the epiphany!” their sell-line might have been.) They were Trojan horses, really — a way to build trust and get inside the gates, thence to deploy the Christian gospel. Here’s how the Korean Mission Field newsletter described the strategy: “The doctor could go where the preacher’s way was closed, the relieved sufferer would listen to the message of his physician where he would have only scoffed at the strange doctrine of another.”
But a counter-current was forming, a philosophical shift from a strictly evangelical mode, which held that Christian conversion could solve society’s ills, to a more inclusive social-gospel approach. If you were a doctor in Korea in that transition period, were you promoting conversions or providing social service?
This was to be my grandfather’s first great test.
Bob Grierson was a tiny man, five foot three and never more than 110 pounds. He was legendarily robust, a genetic inheritance. He did tricky calisthenics and strength-work most mornings until well into his nineties. These routines he transplanted to Korea. There are photos from Sungjin of villagers dotted across the exercise yard — anticipating scenes that would become familiar seventy-five years later, with Hyundai employees out exercising en masse on the company’s emerald lawns — comically knotted up in groups of two or three. They hold each other off the ground in crazy isometric friezes. It’s painful even to look at.
Life, to him, seemed to be organized in resistance to Thomas Aquinas’s definition of acedia: “the capital sin of boredom or sloth or ennui at living.” He would often read while walking, a habit that could send him veering off the path. Koreans who heard him speak their language did a double take, because he spoke it without an accent. Before leaving for the mission field, he became a small footnote in Canadian sports history. James Naismith famously invented basketball; but my grandfather (so the family story goes) brought the game to Canada after seeing Naismith’s peach buckets and stepladders at a ymca in Massachusetts.
He was, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous paradigm, a fox, not a hedgehog. He knew a lot of little things. In Sungjin, he put together an orchestra that at various points included a trumpet, cornet, sax, violin, clarinet, trombone, violoncello, bass drum, and kettledrum. They took their act to the north country, playing for church openings, conventions, revival meetings. Travelling through Siberia at the beginning of his last furlough (sabbatical), they belted out hymns in four-part harmony, like some sort of Presbyterian Partridge Family. (“I have the feeling that in no other of my varied services to the cause of the Lord and saviour did I serve him more usefully than as the Minister of Music,” he would say.)
Whether from some powerful sense of civic engagement, or just because he wanted to show off his chops, my grandfather entered the Canadian national-anthem competition. His entry was nosed out by Ewing Buchan’s “O Canada” in 1909, but I can remember my dad singing my grandfather’s entry around the house, in this way keeping it alive.
His version, which was called “My Canada,” had a few nice moves, and, hearteningly, it kicked against the Calvinist idea of predestination.
Here men are men with good red blood,
Here maids are fair and true.
Here sturdy worth not pride of birth
Determines who is who.
But it probably hit the God note a bit hard for what was supposed to be a secular anthem. It wouldn’t have sounded right at hockey games:
Tho from abroad came vice and fraud,
They cannot flourish long
In Canada, my Canada,
All that is modern and right up to date,
Yet the old Ten Commandments remain on the slate.
My grandfather was decisive. His first date with my grandmother, his second wife, was a game of chess aboard a train en route to Seoul in 1922. They’d met minutes before. Within a couple of months, they were married. And my father was conceived, if not on their wedding night, then awfully close to it. I’m sure my grandfather was bowled over by my grandmother’s wit — there’s every reason to believe she thumped him at chess; she was a formidable player — but there were practical considerations for this pairing, too. His first wife, Lena, had just died, tragically, in childbirth (losing the baby as well). Back home in Sungjin there awaited a motherless household of four daughters between the ages of eight and twenty-one. He needed a new wife, and fast.
But, perhaps most of all, my grandfather was a storyteller. His Korean journals are broken into “episodes,” parables, really, with names like “The Blind Saloon Keeper,” “The Bread-and-Butter Man,” “The Hour of Decision,” and “The Valley of Humiliation,” in which Reverend Bob gets some mild comeuppance. A good Protestant, he tried to stick to the facts, but you can tell the temptation to embellish is almost irresistible, and he torques up the drama where he can. He says things like, “Now we turn the page and see a real hand-to-hand scrap, in which your humble servant was personally engaged.”
Here is Bob dipping his drinking mug into a roadside hot spring and taking a big quaff — boasting of the healthful effects it would surely produce — only to discover, a couple of hundred metres upstream, some villagers washing a dead pig in the source water.
Here he is performing for some villagers who got wind that he had been a champion gymnast in college, and set up an iron horizontal bar for him to show his stuff.
“I managed to do one or two of my most spectacular up-starts, layouts, circles and shoots, but I did not feel well afterwards,” he admits.
His feats as a surgeon have no doubt been exaggerated over the years. But there are reliable first-hand reports. My father, as a kid, had a mole on each cheek. He remembers that, one day, my grandfather sat him down in a chair in the dining room and, by the light coming through a window, carved them out with his scalpel, leaving no trace of a scar. Years before, my father had lain patiently while my grandfather clipped out his tonsils without any anaesthetic. He looked on my grandfather with trust, and pride, and awe.
There is no firm agreement on just why Christianity grew so quickly, so prodigiously in Korea. Certainly there were political reasons. Modern Korean history is one long litany of continual threat or oppression or occupation: by China, Russia, Japan. Starting in about 1905, under Emperor Meiji, Japan began tightening the screws on Korea. Reneging on its promise to grant Korean independence, it began a feverish political smear campaign, belittling Koreans as a primitive people incapable of self-government. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea outright.
Korea, in response, turned inward. As a matter of pride, and self-survival, it began bolstering its own culture in contra-distinction to the Japanese. Athletic contests were organized (Korean prowess in distance-running dates back to those years) and schools sprang up. Korean intellectuals recognized that alliances with Christian missionaries — internationals — were essential to counter Japanese propaganda. The missionaries and the Koreans needed each other.
But the magnetic persuasion of the early missionaries was also a factor. (“When I first came to church I did not believe in Jesus Christ, I believed in Koo Moksa,” reported one Korean Presbyterian church elder. Koo Moksa was my grandfather: literally, “Minister Grierson.”)
Because Robert Grierson was the first Canadian medical missionary to Korea, one might be tempted to compare him with Norman Bethune. But when I read his journals, I thought of Che Guevara and his motorcycle diaries.
A missionary on a motorbike is a benign revolutionary, for sure. My grandfather bought his in 1919 while on furlough in the Hollywood Hills. It had a sidecar, and when my grand-father saw it at a dealer he imagined it back in Sungjin, ferrying patients the hard mile between the mission station and the hospital. His three daughters and wife piled into the sidecar and they motored out of the lot, my grandfather touching his cap, Henry Miller-like.
It turns out that my grandfather was indeed something of a radical. And that radicalism — as is so often the case — was born of close contact with people who were suffering unnecessarily. He believed the physical needs of the rural Koreans for medical treatment superseded even their spiritual needs. In 1912, he announced he was going to do only medical work. In 1931, he left the mission field for good. Three years later, another physician-missionary crystallized his views in a mission-field newsletter: “Any society or church that uses its medical work chiefly for its own propagation is far from being Christian in the true sense and deserves only to fail in its ultimate aim.”
The longer my grandfather spent in Korea, the deeper grew his empathy for the han of the Korean people. The atrocities committed against Koreans by Japanese soldiers during my grandfather’s time in the country would later be rivalled by those of the Nazis. During the independence movement of 1919, anyone suspected of aiding the resistance was jailed or executed. Dozens, even hundreds, of people at a time were incinerated in locked barns. Japanese soldiers made “comfort women” — sex slaves — of Korean women who had been torn from their families.
As the underground Korean independence movement crested, my grandfather got politically involved in the most reasonable way he could: he allowed activists to hold meetings in his home. There were Sundays when almost no one was in church because most of the congregation had been tossed in jail by the Japanese. On those days, “to encourage the hearts of our brethren in prison,” my grandfather went out to the bell tower, where a big bell hung. “I rang it long and loud so that the person across the river might know that we were signalling our sympathy and greetings.”
Of course these people were in a fix that my grandfather had, to some degree, engineered. By declaring themselves Christians, or even consorting with Christians, they had effectively run afoul of the state. Presbyterian Christianity was, after all, about putting the rule of men and the rule of God before the rule of any emperor.
Did he feel guilt about any of this? There’s no evidence that he did. The blame, in his mind, lay not with the Christian church but with the Japanese themselves. “No wonder that Divine Providence reproved Japan for cruelty and injustice,” he wrote. “Manei [hurrah] for Korea!”
I often wonder how my grandfather held in his mind the paradox that he was both a man of faith and a man of science. Some would say the two rest on irreconcilable sets of assumptions. On the metaphorical desk of a scientist there are three in-baskets: “matter,” “antimatter,” and “doesn’t matter.” There is no room for a spirit realm.
But my grandfather seems to have taken no great pains to sort out what was the work of science (man), and what was the work of faith (God). For him, the two were intertwined.
He began and ended all medical work with a prayer. He was of the opinion that both prayer (what Buddhists might call “right thought”) and selflessness (“right action”) were manifestly rewarded. Only once in his life, from the time he was a boy earning $2.50 a week in Halifax, did he fail to tithe. His position was never that he couldn’t afford to tithe; it was that he couldn’t afford not to. He had a theory about how spiritual accounting works: the more you give, the more God gives back.
Once, he bought some useless, non-arable land from a cash-strapped friend as a favour. A few years later, the railroad came in from the south and for the rights to tunnel under a hill in the corner of his field, my grandfather was paid ten times what he’d paid for the whole chunk. “You see,” he would write, “the Lord is Himself a good businessman. He helps the tither so that the tithe may keep increasing.”
Another time, a fellow missionary wrote him a “you-can’t-get-good-help” letter, bemoaning the difficulty of recruiting missionaries. “Where are the Frasers and the Livingstones in our colleges, that we cannot get men to come out to help us?” the man wrote. He was referring to those two famous missionaries to Africa, Donald Fraser and David Livingstone. But my grandfather was startled. He had just managed, while on furlough and unbeknownst to the letter-writer, to recruit two men, by the names of Fraser and Livingstone.
He was pretty clear on what to make of such “coincidences.” They were proof of the existence of God — not in the scientific sense, of course; rather they were what theologians call “pragmatic proof.” The logic goes like this: strictly speaking, it’s impossible to make a theoretical argument establishing that Christianity is the universal religion, or that Christ is the Son of God. (Such propositions are “unfalsifiable,” and therefore unsound science.) But Christianity’s mysterious validity — like that of the Theory of Relativity, certain Chinese herbs, and Charlie Chaplin — lies in its having withstood the test of time. “In missionary work,” the theologian Paul Tillich writes, “the potential universality of Christianity becomes evident day by day… actualized with every new success of the missionary endeavor…. It shows that Jesus… has the power to conquer the world.”
My grandfather would have agreed. He describes his communications with God as a palpable thing, as perceptibly real as a radio broadcast.
The idea of the material efficacy of prayer is a problematic one. It reduces God, as someone once said, to a “cosmic bellhop,” and not a very efficient one at that. But for my grandfather it was a simple fact. Often, he would ask the Lord to place a particular notion in the mind of someone who could help him out.
For example, while on furlough back in Ontario in 1923, he stayed for two weeks in Muskoka with Fred Moffat (the stove magnate), an acquaintance who was sympathetic to the missionary cause. One night, he wrote, “I asked the Lord to put into his mind the idea of giving me a motor car to use in my hospital work. At breakfast the next morning he said, ‘Bob, my wife has a question for you.’ She said, ‘Would you have any use for a motor car out there?’”
Cash in hand, my grandfather went to Detroit, and bought a black ragtop Model T. He baptized it “Coralynn” with a little radiator coolant, packed the kids into it and prepared for a triumphant return to Sungjin.
But en route to Korea, he realized there were was an unfordable river between Seoul and Sungjin, and no road over the mountains. How to get the car across? He asked the Lord to put it in the mind of the guy in charge of roads that it was about time the country had a bridge there, and also a road beyond. Then he continued on. He drove the Model T through Japan, charming his way out of paying duty, securing the driver’s licence he had been told was impossible to get, navigating bridges he was assured were too narrow for anything but horse carts, and arriving, finally, with the fully loaded car at the bank of the unfordable river in the Non Sung Valley to find… a bridge. And a road on the other side snaking up the mountain. The bridge still smelled of newly sawn lumber. The Japanese military had just put it there to get armaments across.
He was not so much surprised as reassured. He had been, he admitted, “so committed to driving the car home to Sungjin that my intelligence would not function. It was not what one would call faith; nor, I think, was it pure stubbornness. It just seemed to be a kind of fatalism.”
And as he drove across the span he thought of the reliable calculus of faith. “Simple,” he concluded. “Like the natural law in the spirit world.”
If you follow the bloodline on my father’s side you can see the evangelical Christian impulse slowly becoming diluted.
My great-grandfather, John Grierson (no relation to the National Film Board founder), was an evangelistic Presbyterian of such enthusiasm, he used to trudge into the deep forests of the Miramichi in New Brunswick to preach to the loggers (not an easy crowd). He made my grandfather look like a moderate. Once, in Korea, my grandfather and his father found themselves at a peacemaking dinner with some Russian soldiers the mission had run afoul of. The Russians raised their vodka glasses in toast of rapprochement, but my great-grandfather, a violent teetotaler, refused to drink. My grandfather had to convince his father to at least raise the damn glass and pretend to drink. “Peace is Christian,” my grandfather chided. “Insult is not.”
My father, in turn, was more moderate than his father. My grandmother and grandfather leaned on him to be a missionary or a medical doctor (preferably both); Dad wrestled with the idea, but ultimately rejected the pulpit for the pew.
His idea of Christian evangelism was less like a direct-mail solicitation than like a poem tacked discreetly on your own front door. You don’t go out and try to wrangle souls. You simply try to set a good example.
And so the narrative comes ‘round to me.
I am a guy living in the most secular part of the most secular city in one of the most secular countries on Earth — the buckle of Christianity’s “cold belt.” My neighbourhood in Vancouver is a place peopled by the “religious nones,” as social scientists call them — the folks who when asked by census-takers to identify their religion say “none.” They are what the journalist Jonathan Rauch calls “apatheists,” people who feel at ease with religion even if they are irreligious.
While my grandfather was in Korea, in fact, right around the time my father was born, the Presbyterian Church of Canada joined with the Methodists and Congregationalists to form the United Church of Canada — and that became my family’s denomination by default. I still go to church sometimes. It’s a tranquil and fitting place to spend an hour thinking about the right things — like being in the forest, but with fewer distractions. (A high moment for me is always the semi-regular animal-consecration service at St. Andrew’s Wesley church in Vancouver. People bring their dogs and cats and snakes and hamsters to be blessed. Hamsters have souls!)
Fundamentalists sometimes call the United Church the “great compromise,” a body trying so hard to be inclusive that it’s like some sort of pantywaist uncle, ineffectual and embarrassing everyone at the party with its efforts to stay current. But, to my mind, its inclusiveness is its boon. The United Church is a mélange of beliefs and influences and, if you dig around in it, you will find the ideas of Martin Luther King, Walter Rauschenbush and his social gospel message, even Mary Daly and her feminist theology.
Of course, once inclusiveness expands beyond a certain point, it becomes simple humanism. And once you start questioning the historical accuracy of the Scriptures — a logical eventual step — you’re into Robert Funk territory. Funk is a biblical scholar and former Harvard professor who’s also a rationalist. In his view, when you boil off what are very likely not Christ’s actual words and deeds, the Jesus that emerges is one well suited to a generation of skeptics: not the Son of God but a wise and irreverent sage and social activist who may be our rock, but is certainly not our redeemer.
My own religion, such as it is, consists in trying to find a way to believe in God without feeling as if I’m kidding myself. A way to go to church (for the singing, and the stained-glass windows, and the sense of connection with my father) without feeling like a fraud. I have faced somewhat the same dilemma my grandfather did dining with those Russian soldiers, when the vodka was placed before him and he was scissored by competing demands: to maintain an internal consistency and integrity, and yet not to offend. I think Bertrand Russell was probably right when he said that religion is mostly about fear. But pro sports are mostly about tribalism, and knowing that doesn’t make the Mariners less worth watching on a Sunday afternoon. And so I go to church. And yet — how conflicted is this? — I don’t take communion. One Christmas Eve, caught up in the moment, I did. I felt guilty, and vowed not to next time.
“So let me get this straight,” my mother said, as we filed out of the church that following year, when I abstained.
“You’re only a Christian when you feel like it?”
The faith I have settled into is strange, improvised, opportunistic. My shelves contain as many books on Buddhism as on Christianity. I send up little prayers of gratitude like dispatches from some radio-telescope in Peru, their value not in the long-shot hope that they will ever be heard, but in the discipline of creating them in the first place. I am in danger of becoming a New-Age flake. In this I am as much a product of my era as my father and grandfather were of theirs.
This, then, is the progression: An evangelist begets a doc-tor who begets a psychologist who begets a writer. Every link in the chain makes sense not only in the push-pull of the creation of identity, but in its social context. At each stage, the sphere of attention, of perceived influence, of duty, shrinks: the whole world, a village, a family, an individual. With each stage comes subjectivity and ambiguity and detachment. At each stage the resistance to a received orthodoxy increases, until there is one man standing deliberately outside any coherent belief system at all, resigned to looking for some other means of transcendence.
The river tumbles down the mountain. It slips underground, boils up, goes under again. Our deepest impulses ride our genes down the generations, but they can change form. What if writing itself is the faith I have settled on? In many ways writing and missionary evangelism are more alike than most writers would care to admit. You try to use the language more to describe than to evaluate, but you judge in the end, you do. You do constant, epic, Protestant battle with yourself at every turn, trying to decide whether to reveal wonder or to stick to verifiable facts. You penetrate your subject’s defences (if you are a journalist), win their trust, and then you do what you have to do. You sometimes misrepresent yourself as more sympathetic — or at least less unsympathetic — than you are.
Preaching is supposed to be the enemy of art. (“If you want to send a message,” goes the classic advice to would-be authors, “call Federal Express.”) But even in simply showing things “as they are,” the writer is a parablist of sorts; stories are about options and actions and consequences, and they always say, “This is how a life can be.” If you are a “writer’s writer,” a stylist above all, your belief in The Word is absolute.
The desire to invent a story or honour a god are, perhaps, the same desire. For many writers (even secular ones), mystery is preferable to no mystery — even if that mystery is consciously manufactured. I think that’s one of the reasons my grandfather’s rational mind could accommodate spirituality so readily without crashing. It’s a richer story. To accept material science as the final word is to reconcile yourself to a demystified world. No magic, just coincidences.
One day in Sungjin, my grandfather received a patient who had been “a hopeless invalid” and a burden on the family for twelve years. “On examination, we could find no trouble of any kind,” he wrote. By his own estimation, 30 percent of all medical cases were psychosomatic. So my grand-father put the man on the operating table and took out his appendix. He then attached a heavy forceps to the lower end of the appendix and stretched it until it looked “like a worm almost a foot long.”
“When he awakened from the ether,” my grandfather wrote, “I took the ‘worm’ to his bedside and said, “Look at this, Chun Sepi, what we found with its mouth fastened to your bowel, drawing strength from your system. Is it any wonder you have been sick for twelve years? Now you are going to be all right, strong and well.”
The man returned home and never had another sick day. On top of that, in the recovery room he had taken up the Lord’s cause with a renewed fervour, and managed to convert all ten men in the ward.
It’s a great story. But it also reveals a by-hook-or-by-crook subtext to missionary work. My grandfather was just trying to make this fellow well, but he was not above a little sleight of hand. I thought, reading this episode, How unPresbyterian of you, my man. How like a writer.
Looking at photos of my grandfather in the Sungjin mission field, surrounded by his open-faced students, I often wonder what serendipity brought this man to this place. Modern-day Korea, living in the gravity-well of a powerful neighbour, tends to produce people very much, in temperament, like Canadians: proud and insecure at the same time. The huge schism between the present-day cultures of the south and the north is rich metaphorical fodder. One half is democratic, one totalitarian. In one, Christianity is practised openly in churches; in the other it is practised clandestinely, small groups gathering in somebody’s basement in this or that community, at considerable risk. The two Koreas are each other’s Jungian shadows.
In a sense, I think my grandfather probably “saved” his town more completely through his writings than he ever did by cherry-picking souls.
We have it pinned to the page now, Sungjin, but what has actually become of the place? The little settlement, tucked so picturesquely near the foot of the mountain Mang Yang Jung (“Mountain Longing for the Sea”); the people who once thronged the white pebble beach you could reach by swimming through a cave; the mission hospital where, on sunny days, tuberculosis patients were lined up outside in their beds, in the fresh air, waiting; my grandparents’ home, with its wide eaves and ivy-clad walls; the bonsai apple tree where the neighbour’s canary alighted, and stepped from the branch back into the cage as my grandfather held the door open for it, a lesser miracle? I may never know.
I recently learned that, while in the mission field, my grandfather had been invited to be an editor of a (secular) newspaper in Seoul. “He very much wanted that,” my aunt Doris told me. “He was willing to abandon a hospital, an evangelistic ministry. The other missionaries had to agree to it, and he canvassed them to support him, and they couldn’t.”
Thwarted, he channelled his newspaperman’s energies into his diaries. Who are they for? He tells us. They are for “you my dear children, my dear grand-children, my dear great grand-children and perhaps my great great grandchildren, for whom these episodes were written after the manner of the patient Job.”
There are a number of ways to achieve immortality. Kill the president or become him, and you may be remembered for hundreds of years. Invent a religion and you may be remembered for thousands of years. My grandfather was vying for men’s immortal souls, and he achieved a certain history-book immortality in the bargain. But he understood, I think, that there is another way, humbler and altogether adequate. To write words your children will carry into a future you will never live to see. To plant those words forever in their minds, like a prayer.
And other rallying cries from the fringes of the final frontier
from POPULAR SCIENCE, May 2004
UC Berkeley space scientist Greg Delory devoured Carl Sagan’s books as a kid; now he hunts for extraterrestrial water—and life—in the solar system. Jeff Greason learned to pick locks at Caltech, from none other than Richard Feynman; now he burns LOX (liquid oxygen) in engines built by his California rocket company.Alexander Poleschuk spent six life-changing months aboard the space station Mir; now this Russian ex-cosmonaut obsesses over his nation’s lofty space goals—and its inability to pay for them.
Three men, three visions of space exploration. As NASA scrambles to recover from the Columbia tragedy, the next phase of spacefaring has already begun. It’s an era marked by new philosophies and agendas—and, according to Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation, a space-travel advocacy group, by three types of space adventurer. There are the Saganites, who yearn to comprehend outer space; the O’Neillians, who want to colonize it; and the von Braunians—who just want to get there first. Welcome to their worlds.
Think pulling an all-nighter would damn near kill you? Welcome to Middle Age
From TORO, March 2004
There was a moment a year or two ago when the world suddenly belonged to forty-year-olds. Forty-year-old actors—Hanks, Cruise, Cage—commanded the Hollywood A-List. Forty-year-old writers—Michael Chabon, Yann Martel—were bagging the big book prizes; Billy Collins wrote his first real poems at 40, en route to becoming U.S. Poet Laureate (succeeded this year by the 40-year-old Louise Gluck). George W. Bush had skived off until he was forty before jogging right into the White House, And you could make a legitimate case that a guy pushing forty was the best player in each of the four major professional sports (Barry Bonds, Mario Lemieux, Rich Gannon, Michael Jordan). It looked as if Gen-X bellwether Doug Coupland had nailed the zeitgeist again when he said, a few months before turning forty himself, “Forty is the new thirty. The remark seemed less epigrammatic than somehow affirming. Buck up, my thinning-haired brethren: you are just now reaching cruising altitude.