“Not More Foolish Than Any Other Love”

Books

Books

The love of books is really a commendable taste. Bibliophiles are often made fun of, and perhaps, after all, they do lend themselves to raillery. But we should rather envy them, I think, for having successfully filled their lives with an enduring and harmless pleasure. Detractors think to confound them by declaring they never read their books. But one of them had his answer pat: “And you, do you eat off your old china?” What more innocent hobby can a man pursue than sorting away books in a press? True, it is very like the game the children play at when they build sand castles on the seashore. They are mighty busy, but nothing comes of it; whatever they build will be thrown down in a very short time. No doubt it is the same with collections of books and pictures. But it is only the vicissitudes of existence and the shortness of human life that must be blamed. The tide sweeps away the sand castles, the auctioneer disperses the hoarded treasures. And yet, what better can we do than build sand castles at ten years old, and form collections at sixty? Nothing will remain in any case of all our work, and the love of old books is not more foolish than any other love.—Anatole France, The Garden of Epicurus

More Personal History

Fairview General Hospital in Fairview Park, Ohio

Fairview General Hospital in Fairview Park, Ohio

This is a reposting from I blog I wrote several years ago on Multiply.Com. Several people who have read yesterday’s posting asked me about my unusual medical history. So I hope you don’t mind an occasional repeat. A few changes have been made to reflect the present reality:

The story of my life would be incomplete without a description of the physical pain that wracked me from approximately the age of ten until just five years ago. It all started with the headaches: They were centered at a spot about an inch or so above the imaginary line between my eyes.  And they were incredibly severe. Fortunately, I did not have them every day. At first, it was only two or three times a week.

What does one know about pain when one is young? I knew that the headaches were bad, but was afraid of making them out worse than they were. My parents took me to doctors, but they thought I had migraines or hay fever or that I was just basically shamming. My mother would boil a large pot of water, add salt, and have me bend over it with a towel over my head so that the vapor would relieve the pain. Sometimes it seemed to work.

Time went on: I graduated from high school and went on to college, where it got worse. In the summer after I graduated, I saw the best ophthalmologist in Cleveland because of some surprising lateral visual disturbances I was beginning to have. When I saw a stop sign, sometimes it looked as if it were saying stp; other times, it looked like stoooooop. This doctor said I had a “lazy eye” and prescribed eye exercises. (No one who reads has much as I do can be said to have a “lazy eye.”)

Days before I was to leave by train to Los Angeles to begin graduate school at UCLA, it all came to a head, so to speak. I had just prepared a lunch for myself (my parents work at work) of a hot dog with catsup and a can of creamed corn. (For years after, I was unable to eat any of these foods; and I still can’t face catsup.) Suddenly, all the demons in hell were inside my head jabbing with pitchforks. I collapsed in bed, and then it got worse. Over a period of an hour, I managed to drag myself to a telephone—blacking out several times in the process—and, after several wrong numbers, got my mother at work. She heard the panic in my voice, but I didn’t care because I had collapsed.

The next thing I remember, I was in the emergency ward at Fairview General Hospital in Fairview Park, Ohio [now part of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic] . A doctor was asking me questions, but I was too groggy to give articulate answers. Another blackout. Then, a coma. My temperature shot up dangerously high, and my body was cooled by bags of ice . In 1966, there were no CAT scans, no MRIs—only X-Rays. No one had a clue what was wrong with me, and my family was prepared for the worst. I received the last sacraments of the Catholic Church when—quite suddenly and inexplicably—I awoke.

At times in my life, I have had incredible luck. One of the most incredible strokes of luck was that my family physician was an endocrinologist, Doctor Michael Eymontt. While I was out, he had deduced from sketchy evidence that I had a chromophobe adenoma, or pituitary tumor. It made sense: I was 21 years old, but looked as if I were only 11. I had practically no body hair and had not yet reached the age of puberty. The doctors told me I had a cyst in my pituitary which had to be operated on within a few days. If they had said tumor, which would have been the truth, my family would have been more alarmed. One day, the neurosurgeon, Dr. William Hegarty, walked into my room, introduced himself, and said, “Tomorrow, we’ll be peeking into your pituitary.”

They did more than peek. The pituitary gland is located midway between the ears, ensconced on all sides by brain, except from the bottom. In those primitive days of the 1960s, they had to go through my brain. The chances of death, paralysis, blindness, and a whole host of evils stood near 100%.  Nowadays, this surgery is fairly routine. The surgeons go up from the roof of the mouth, or even through the nasal cavity. But in that era, it was tantamount to a death warrant.

Three hours after the surgery, as I lay in bed in the intensive care unit with my mother and father standing by my side, I suddenly sat up with all the tubes tied to me and said, “The operation was a success. Could I have some bacon?”  It had been a success. Little by little, the doctors and nurses imparted to me the medications I must now take for the rest of my life, the dangers I had been through, and the possible dangers to come. But I had survived. When, eighteen days later, my father drove me home, I marveled at the people walking down the street and thought, “O brave new world!” All of creation was suffused with a glow, even the run-down brick homes of West Side Cleveland looked to me like gleaming palaces.

The feeling was not to last. It turns out that I was allergic to dilantin, an anticonvulsive drug that I was taking that attacked all my joints simultaneously and made it impossible for me to move without screaming in pain. They switched me to phenobarbitol instead, and the pain finally went away.

I was alive! [And still am!]

Addisonian Crisis

Something I Happen Not To Have Any More

Something I Happen Not To Have Any More

This morning, I did not want to get up. As I am usually an early riser, Martine was concerned that I stayed in bed past noon. I was feeling extremely lethargic. This is not the first time this has happened to me: It was an Addisonian Crisis, caused by adrenal insufficiency. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my adrenal glands: It’s just that I no longer have a pituitary gland to send messages to the adrenals to produce adrenaline.

We’ve been through this before, so Martine knew exactly what to do. Over the period of two hours, I took ten 5mg tabs of prednisone and made arrangements to go to the emergency ward at UCLA Santa Monica Hospital. There, they put me on an intravenous drip and took my vital signs. After the first hour or so, the prednisone I had taken earlier started to kick in; and my improvement was rapid.

Fortunately, the ER doctor at UCLA was able to contact an endocrinologist who confirmed the treatment. My first such Addisonian Crisis was at a San Diego hospital where the doctor not only refused to contact an endocrinologist but started testing me for the functionality of a certain internal organ I no longer had. Upon the advice of my own physician back in L.A., I checked myself out of that hospital before they decided to do some serious damage to me.

The lethargy that comes with an Addisonian Crisis can be fatal. I keep thinking of those old movies where people are freezing to death and want nothing more than to drop off to sleep. It’s not a bad way to check out of this life, but, to quote Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

An Embarrassment to the Russians

Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty

Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty

I have just finished reading Victor Sebestyen’s excellent Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. As a Hungarian-American I was acutely conscious of the events of that Fall. I never forgave President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, or Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld of the United Nations for what I felt was their craven refusal to confront a very sticky issue. Did I say confront? They essentially ignored it—even while Radio Free Europe was broadcasting military advice and promises of American and U.S. military aid. Aid that never came. All that came was a mass invasion of Russian troops and armor that crushed the rebellion definitively.

As a kid in Cleveland in 1956, and as a student at St. Henry’s Catholic School, I had always thought that one of the heroes of the Revolution was Jószef Cardinal Mindszenty, Prince Primate, Archbishop of Esztergom, and leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary from the last year of World War II to his death in the 1970s. Poor Mindszenty had been imprisoned by the Hungarian Communist leadership until the beginning of the Revolution, in which he actually played no real part. Just days after he was released from prison, he sought asylum of the American legation in Budapest, where he stayed for the next fifteen years.

As a Catholic school kid, we were urged to sell the Diocese of Cleveland’s Catholic Universe Bulletin from door to door in our neighborhoods. According to the Universe Bulletin, Mindszenty was the hero of the Hungarian Revolution, whereas actually he played pretty much a walk-on, walk-off role. But I was just a kid and I believed all that pap.

In the end, Mindszenty proved an embarrassment to the Russians because it kept the memory of the uprising alive in peoples’ minds, even if he himself was a non-player. In the end, Pope Paul VI ordered Mindszenty to leave Hungary, and the Kádár government allowed him to go. His continued existence in the American legation made it difficult for the Catholic Church to come to any accommodation with the Kádár régime.

Mindszenty was just a minor embarrassment to the Russians. It was the Hungarian Revolution itself that proved to be a much greater embarrassment. After 1956, the Communist parties of Western Europe felt that Russia had behaved brutally. Never again were the Communist parties of France, Italy, Britain, and other countries bring any serious political influence to bear. From 1956, it was a mere 31 years before Soviet Communism itself crumbled.

 

Ice

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of march, a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquíades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquíades’ magic irons. “Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”—Gabriel García Marquez, the opening lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabo

Gabriel Garcia Marquez with Shiner

Gabriel García Márquez with Shiner

Here’s a question for you: Which two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature had a fist fight with each other? The above picture is a clue to the identity of one of them: The other is Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, who felt that “Gabo” had been paying undue attentions to his wife. You can find all the gory details at this New York Times website from 2007.

I first discovered García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in November 1975 while I was in Yucatán. There I was at the ruins of Chichén Itzá at an open air souvenir stand with a thatched roof looking for a book to read. On the rack was a UK Penguin paperback edition of the book not for sale in the United States. I picked it up, started reading it, and found myself entranced. First at Chichén, then at the majestic old Gran Hotel in Mérida, and then at Uxmal, I pored through the pages and fell in love with Macondo (the fictionalized birthplace of the author in Aracataca, Colombia) and its weird history.

Ironically, it was in Mexico City that García Márquez died today of infection and dehydration. I will miss him the way I miss Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina and a handful of other greats who died in my time, such as John Ford, Orson Welles, and Howard Hawks.

Since that 1975 trip that changed my life in so many ways, I have read more than a dozen of Gabo’s books and expect to finish the rest within the next year or so.

If you’d like to read a Paris Review interview with the author, click here.

Volcán Ubinas

A Volcanic Eruption Once Again Threatens My Vacation

A Volcanic Eruption Once Again Threatens My Vacation

Three of my last four vacations have been affected to some degree or other by volcanic eruptions. In 2011, it was Chile’s Puyehue-Cordón Caulle which covered San Carlos Bariloche in Argentina with ash and shut down the railroad from Viedma that I was hoping to take with Martine. In 2012, we went to Northern New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, which have not been volcanic for some thousands of years. In 2013, I was in Iceland’s Westmann Islands and Hvóllsvöllur when Hekla threatened to blow. (It didn’t, fortunately.)

Now, it looks like the stratovolcano Ubinas in Peru’s State of Arequipa which is smoking and causing evacuations of nearby villages located near its base. Ubinas is Peru’s busiest volcano, with historical eruptions dating back to 1550 and as recently as 2006.

Ubinas Seen from Above

Ubinas Seen from Above

I am scheduled to spend four or five days in the State of Arequipa, visiting the City of Arequipa itself as well as Colca Canyon. The latter is twice the depth of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and should be quite a view—providing, of course, that I am not engulfed by massive amounts of lava and volcanic ash.

My fingers are crossed.

It’s Over!

Finally, I Can Live a Normal Life!

Finally, I Can Live a Normal Life!

For me, April 15 means I can take weekends off, go visit my doctor and dentist, and not have to endure stress caused by selfish rich people who feel they don’t have to give us their tax data until April 14. I filed my own 1040 way back on January 31 and got my refund within two weeks. (Ooh, I just noticed the illustration above shows a 1040 from 2010. That should be good for some nice late interest and penalties!)

Today was particularly rough, as one of our accountants was sick and had to leave early; and the other one did not come in until 1:30 pm. Until his arrival, I was requested to pretend I was an accountant on doing an extension for a California Limited Liability Corporation, about which, of course, I know absolutely nothing. Although I work at an accounting firm, I serve as the office manager and data processing manager.

So at least it is done. I hope this is my last tax season. They don’t get any easier.

 

“Weeds Never Die”

Daniel Ortega, Again in Power

Daniel Ortega, Again in Power

You remember him, don’t you? When Ronald Reagan was still in his stirrups, he did everything in his power to oust Daniel Ortega from control in Nicaragua by aiding the “patriot” Contras. Well, Reagan failed. Ortega was out for a while, but he’s back again. As the Nicaraguans say, “hierba mala nunca muere”—“weeds never die.”

Ortega’s latest gambit is to build another canal across Central America (see map following), but this time through Nicaragua. The idea had been considered once before, but rejected because of the nearness of the very active volcano Momotombo (see below). In fact, when the Panama Canal was cut through, in August 1914, Nicaraguan President General Emiliano Chamorro signed a treaty with William Jennings Bryan to the effect that the U.S. was granted the exclusive right—in perpetuity—to build a canal through Nicaragua.

Momotombo

Momotombo

Well perpetuity is over and done with. Ortega has cut a deal with the Chinese to build a Canal to be 100% owned by them, except that with each passing year, an additional 1% of the ownership rights would pass to the Nicaraguans. The company building the canal, called the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (or HKND for short) is led by Wang Jing, who has no particular experience cutting canals. What is Nicaragua paying for the venture? Nothing. What is Nicaragua getting for the canal? Initially, just about nothing. What is China getting for the canal? A one hundred year concession in which majority control passes to the Managua government after 51 years. Many think that Ortega is getting a large cut of the action for making the deal, but no one knows for sure.

According to Dora Maria Téllez, head of the opposition Sandinista Renovation Movement:

The Chinese must be throwing themselves a party right now. Since the concession doesn’t specify geographic limits, it effectively gives them the whole country to do what they want. What do they have to pay in taxes? Nothing. What control does Nicaragua have? None.

Adán Aguerri, head of the Superior Council on Private Enterprise (COSEP), fielded a question on what this deal would do to Nicaragua’s sovereignty: “In a country where anyone can come and stomp all over us tomorrow, what’s sovereignty?”

And what about the Monroe Doctrine which we all learned about in school? According to Secretary of State John Kerry, it is no longer operative.

I’ll leave you with another Nicaraguan term: vendepatria, or “seller of the fatherland.”

 

Routes Being Considered for the New Nicaraguan Canal

Routes Being Considered for the New Nicaraguan Canal

For more information about this subject, read Jon Lee Anderson’s article entitled “The Comandante’s Canal” in the March 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

 

So You Think It’s Good for You?

Soybeans

Soybeans

Unfortunately, we Americans tend to pay far too much attention to the news media, not only when it comes to straight news, but also feature stories about food and health. We’ve all seen the stories: Avoid ill health by drinking sugarless sodas, followed by how artificial sweeteners are worse for you than sugar. For decades, articles are trumpeted the benefits of protein from soybeans. Now there are an equal number of articles blaming soy for feminizing men by giving them man-boobs.

The number of news villains in our diet have included eggs, fats, tomatoes (long ago thought to be poisonous), cheeses, and smoked meats. I am reminded of the scene in Woody Allen’s film Sleeper (1973) in which two doctors are discussing Miles Monroe (played by Woody):

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Dr. Melik: Incredible.

Maybe deep fat, steak, cream pies, and hot fudge are bad for you, but I have my suspicions about wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger’s milk—which may be no better.

I have come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is to not get into a food rut. A bad food rut can include salads just as much as it could include cheeseburgers and fries. Eat meat. Eat eggs. Eat fruit. Eat vegetables. But know this: There are no magic foods that will cure what ails you. That is pure snake oil.