Someone Else

Patient: “I’d like to be someone else, really, anyone else. I’d like to slip out of my skin and be free to become something I can’t even imagine. As it is, this skin has a stranglehold on me. I’ll die in it like a prisoner in his cell. It’s really quite simple: I want to be free and I want my freedom to have genuine meaning. I want to go somewhere that is not on my map.” Doctor: “Isn’t this why people take up acting, or become writers, or playwrights or even painters or sculptors or musicians? But perhaps actors go at it most directly?” Patient: “But actors bend the knee to reality. What they do is pretend and often wildly off the mark. When you think about it, acting is pretty shabby, quite without real convictions or daring. Seeming to take risks while not really risking anything is like eating your cake and having it, too. I acted in high school and in college and was told I was quite good at it, good enough even to warrant trying to make a career out of it. But as an actor I disgusted myself.” Doctor: “Why was that?” Patient: “I was a confidence man trying to play a trick that had little if any meaning. I suppose that now I act some in everyday life and certainly when I’m trying a case.I don’t know how I ended up going to law school. It was a whim, that was then unbelievably boring and then turned into a test of how much unpleasantness I could tolerate, an ordeal that challenged me,... read more

“I’d Kill Myself If…”

“I’d kill myself if I could attend my own funeral.” The speaker is a seventy-five year old man, a lawyer who specializes in wills and estates, always peculiar, now semi-retired with a sterling professional reputation as someone who can craft a complex trust so that it can not be broken. He is from an old family, himself the beneficiary of rich trusts, but has made a fair amount of money by his own labors in the arcane province of wills and estates. “The reason that I would like to attend my own funeral is that I would be the center of attention while yet remaining exempt from the obligation to exert any effort. I would be glad even to pretend that I wasn’t there. In life, if you want to be the center of attention it requires such a lot of work. It saps your energy to arrange your self-presentation just so after having compiled extensive intelligence concerning the tastes and distastes of those you wish to arrange in circles around you. It has always been beyond me. I have tried but I never lasted more than a few weeks. I can’t imagine running for office. I’m simply not robust. I’m not even sure I could serve as a hereditary monarch unless I were permitted to remain out of sight for decades at a time.” He has shown me pictures of himself from decades gone by. Tall and thin with an air of elegance, he is a handsome man in these photographs, perhaps with just a hint of fragility. Long nose, long thin fingers, pale blue eyes – in... read more

Plaisir d’Amour

The eighteenth century French poet Jean Pierre Claris de Florian wrote, “Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment/ Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.” (Pleasure of love lasts only a moment; the sorrow of love lasts all of life) “ The twentieth century duo of bossa nova composer Tom Jobim and lyricist Vicinius de Moraes produced the lovely and haunting “Felicidade,” which begins, “Tristeza nao tem fin; felicidade, sim” (Sadness has no end; happiness, yes) How these two sets of lines, written centuries apart at a great geographical remove from each other resonate not so much in our minds alone but also profoundly in our hearts. Brazilian audiences often applaud with great fervor when Felicidade is being performed.There is no way to put into words how Tom Jobim’s music works, with its limber rhythms and understated fluency. But the music has a flavor that might almost be called a happy melancholy, a wise appreciation of what life is and of our situation in this life which is so rich and yet also limited. The pleasure of love and happiness are always limited in their tenure. We know this before, during and after. It is a knowledge against which we struggle, even one against which we revolt. Yet the struggle and the revolt are to no avail. We can no more give them up than we can prevail in them. We are well and truly caught. It is a part of our nature that we struggle and that we revolt against the fleeting nature of the pleasure of love, of our happiness. After the pleasure of love, after the intimate glory... read more

Improving Aristotle’s Flavor

“I got into philosophy through cooking,” said Sharon Fitzwater. “Iknow it’s not the ordinary path, but then I’m not sure any twopaths have much in common. Resemblance may be fundamentallysuperficial. I certainly never expected I’d have so much to dowith Aristotle. It’s as much talking with him as about him. Or isit that I’m trying to talk with myself through Aristotle? It’salways been something of a mystery to me how I might go aboutgetting my own attention.” She pushed her long blonde hair away from her face. “Cookingalways fascinated me because I was so hungry. My father was amachinist in Akron, Ohio. He was very good at what he did, so he’dget called out of town often on quite short notice, sometimes foras long as a month. I’d come home from school to discover that he was gone. My mother was a different person when he was away. Even before Andy Warhol, she had a love affair withthe Campbell Soup can. She’d take a can of tuna fish, add a can ofpeas, pour a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup on it, heat it a littlebit and then serve it to us.” “I just couldn’t get it down. My brother seemed to manage, but Icouldn’t do it. So I got interested in cooking and cooking led meto a wider world. I discovered French cooking and I discoveredChinese cooking. I’d get cookbooks out of the library and try toimagine what the recipes would taste like. I’d filch things fromthe supermarket so that I could try a recipe. The first bottle ofred wine I ever had anything to do with I stole... read more

Ludmilla Gribovaya

Ludmilla Gribovaya We managed to get ourselves invited to have tea with the legendaryballet teacher Ludmilla Gribovaya at her Upper East Side apartmentthe other afternoon. It was a cold dark Manhattan mid-winter day. A desultory snow was falling, the flakes melting and immediatelyturning to gray slush when they hit the pavement. It was about asfar from the enchantment of the ballet as we could imagine getting. Yet, we found ourselves so excited during the elevator ride up toLudmilla Grobovaya’s fourteenth floor apartment that we literallycould not stand still. We got off the elevator, made an effort tostill our feet, sighed and found her door. We rang, then listenedto the chime echo on the other side of the door. Ludmilla Gribovaya answered the door herself. She wore a plaingray smock. She had her hair pulled back away from her face intoa bun. Without any further ado, she invited us in, settled us ina comfortable armchair by the fireplace and got us tea. Although we had trouble catching our breath, we plunged in andasked her a series of questions that seemed foolish to us. Aftera while, we found ourselves relaxing. We were able to diagnose,then, that we had been in terror of her and that the depth of ourrelaxation response was proportionate to the terror we had broughtalong with us “People talk about muscles. Yes, that is right. Muscles, yes,”said Ludmilla Gribovaya. “But that is not enough. Only a part. People talk about music. Yes, that is right. But that is notenough. Only a part. Music makes a space for dancing. Musicmakes a place for dancing. But dancing must find its... read more

Cecil Wheatin

“The amoeba’s a blob. Man’s a blob with something missing. It’sthis something missing running all the way through that makes allthe difference. The hole makes the doughnut. It’s a topologicalstep up in complexity to go from being a spherical blob to being atorus. Once the hole is there, there’s orientation. “Orientation gives a point to perception, to motion and tomotivation. Then you have emotion growing out of all that. Thenyou have the tremendous problem of sorting and refining perceptionin the service of purpose, that is, turning perception back uponitself. “I think there’s a whole topological theory of biological development that remains to be explored. I sometimes ask myself what liesbeyond the torus. Each new inclusion produces a more complicatedexploration of space and a more complicated space for exploration.” Cecil G. Wheatin grimaced. “The point is so simple and runs so deep. We’ve got a piece of theoutside inside us. The digestive tract is organized around theemptiness that fills us up. It’s the emptiness we strive so hardto fill because it fills us up. Mental function was born out ofthe need for coordination in eating. That’s where the appetite came from. I’m not meaning to debunk thinking and feeling, buttheir complexities were elaborated on a base.” Now Cecil G. Wheatin smiled, a huge ravishing smile that made himlook, even at 6’6″ and 286 lbs., like an oversized infant. “They’ve found most of the neurotransmitters in the gut. When theydid, it shocked them. The neuroscientists like to think ofthemselves as high and mighty, somehow up above it all. They’vegot it all backwards. What happened was that they found the guttransmitters way... read more

How I Treated The Dalai Lama Or He Treated Me

How I Treated The Dalai Lama Back in those days Cleveland was a steel town. It was before themills shut down. I was just starting out in private practice andI still had an office at University Hospitals. It was down in thebasement in what used to be a broom closet twenty years earlier. Even today, hospitals are busy converting broom closets intooffices. I went there every Thursday for chest clinic. I saw all kinds ofstrange cases. People with the fixed delusion that they had lungcancer. “It’s a way out, doc, ain’t it? Good as any,” said onefellow who’d been working at Jones and Laughlin for forty years. People who wouldn’t stop smoking even when they were already onoxygen. One lady actually did manage to blow herself up. A young woman who had asthma and would put herself to sleep bywrapping the belt of her bathrobe around her neck and then pullinguntil she passed out. She told this story to one of the pulmonaryguys. He took her by the hand and led her to my office. I don’tthink I’ve ever seen a more delighted look on a patient’s face. But all this is really beside the point, just background. It wasone of those cold days in November a week or so before Thanksgivingwhen the year is beginning to wind down and the clouds off the lakelooked like they were freighted with lead. Pete McCorkle said he had an interesting case for me to see. Pete had a reputation as a pretty good diagnostician. He didn’t exactly think like the rest of the guys. He was a big fellow, about six... read more

A Floor For Metaphor

“It was 1973, a pretty strange time. I was young and disgruntled. I left school and was working concrete. We were using flying metalforms, pouring the walls, letting them cure and then going on tothe next wall. We were going fast. We were up on the fifteenthfloor of an apartment building in Brooklyn. There were beautifulviews of the city and the water. I also liked standing andwatching the cranes wheeling through the air and the planesoverhead. “Early one afternoon, a carpenter went over the edge of thebuilding. One step and he was gone. I’ll never forget the look onhis face. It was a mixture of rapture and terror. I was prettyupset by it. The thing I focused on was whether he knew what hewas doing. He was drunk, but I think he thought he was goingsomewhere. I don’t know where, but somewhere he wanted to go,maybe even somewhere he’d been longing to go all his life. “Maybe it was the look on his face that got me out of New York. Idrifted around the country, working when I needed the money. Ilike buildings best when you can still see the sky through them. I never have liked being shut up inside. I was working one cloudyNovember day on a new Ramada Inn on Interstate 70 just east ofColumbus, Ohio when it hit me that we were a nation of nomads. Only our tents are made of concrete. That changed how I felt. I realized I was very mad. I realized nothing in the whole worldmade me happy. Nothing “I couldn’t get the look on that guy’s face out of... read more

The Art Of Appreciation

“I’ll be sixty next week,” J.C. Keena, probably the nation’sleading authority on bridges, said over a cup of China Black teathe other day. “It’s very hard to believe. One of my friends toldme last week that he never thinks about things like birthdays, sothe big decade markers don’t mean anything to him. If you’re notgoing to think about birthdays, especially the ones that mark thechange in decades, then I shudder to think of all the other thingsthat you can’t think of. “For me, the big thing about going on is that the quality of timeitself changes. It changes in ways that are so contradictory. Onthe one hand it speeds up. That’s a common¨place. Everyone talksabout how the record seems to spin faster as you get older. Sometimes it even seems the earth is spinning faster so that thedays get shorter and shorter. You can get very dizzy. “On the other hand, the viscosity of time can increase, so thatit’s slow and sticky as molasses. It acquires a beautiful amberhue. It’s the wealth of memory that can bind it together likethis, slow it down and give it a rich elegaic tinge. When memoriesinterlace their fingers, a stray second can become palatial, muchgrander even than Versailles or the Taj Mahal. We become bashfulin the face of the immensity of what we can experience.” J.C. Keena lapsed so gracefully into silence that it took us a longsecond to realize that he had stopped talking. We noticed howlarge his hands were as they lay palms down in repose across thebrown fabric of the trousers that covered his thighs. We foundourselves watching minute islands... read more

Carpool Diem

“The thing is, Miriam,” said Elise Notingahl, “you should nevercount.” She cocked an ear, as if she were straining to listen to a softstill voice just at the edge of hearing. “That’s it,” she said out loud again, “the problem only begins whenyou start to count. As long as you absolutely resist the urge tocount, there’s no problem. When you give in to that temptation tocount, then there’s trouble. I don’t know who invented counting inthe first place, but it’s vicious mischief. “It was so hard to believe that I had to count on my fingers. Idid it six times. When I filled the first hand, I was astonished. By the time I got to the ring finger on my left hand, it had gonebeyond astonishment. I just can’t believe that I’m actually amember of eight different car pools. I only have two kids. That’sfour car pools per kid. When I got married I wanted to have fourkids. Now I wonder if that would have meant sixteen car pools.” She looked at Miriam Farlin with troubled eyes. “I’ve never told this to anyone. I worry about having an accidentwhile I’m driving one of the car pools. No, it goes beyond that. I have nightmares about having an accident while I’m driving one ofthe car pools. There’s a screech and then a slide. I can’tcontrol anything. The slide goes on for a long time. It seemslike eternity. “Then there’s the impact. It’s a relief, as if I’d been waitingfor the worst and it finally happened. The next thing I know I’moutside of the car. It’s all twisted up. I hear... read more
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