THE CENTER FOR THIRD AGE NEWSLETTER – SEPTEMBER 2013
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
2. BABY BOOMER MEA CULPA
3. FRANK RELATIONSHIP ADVICE FROM A 98-YEAR-OLD WOMAN
4. THE GUNFIGHTER GROWS OLD
5. WHAT WAR MEANS
6. THE JOY OF OLD AGE (NO KIDDING)
7. THIS MONTH’S LINKS
QUOTES OF THE MONTH – HOWARD PIGGOTT & POPE FRANCIS
“…considering the costs involved in challenging for sport’s oldest trophy, it was impressive that New Zealand even managed to compete against Larry Ellison’s billions.”
“…money begins by offering a sense of well being. Then you feel important and vanity comes… This vanity is useless, but still you think you are important. And after vanity comes pride. Those are the three steps: wealth, vanity and pride.”
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
September Greetings, Dear Friends…
I write this month’s Musings as both a disappointed Kiwi and a concerned American. Why? Because sport outcomes should be determined by humane skill and courage, not by “wealth, vanity and pride.” The most recent example of Americans “buying” their victories occurred in September’s America’s Cup race. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, check here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/americas-cup/9222679/Ellisons-Oracle-beast-scares-future-opposition.) Once more it is a story of how, like power, ‘money corrupts, and absolute money corrupts absolutely.’
TEAM NEW ZEALAND DROWN IN SEA OF RIVAL MONEY
BY DUNCAN JOHNSTONE IN SAN FRANCISCO, FAIRFAX NZ NEWS
Team New Zealand might not be around tomorrow, let alone in four years’ time, when the next edition of Larry Ellison’s cup is dished up.
This might be the end of New Zealand’s cup dream altogether, unless some normality and reality can be brought into the equation.
The competition will be the poorer without the Kiwis, who have been the dominant force since the challenger series was initiated 30 years ago in Perth.
Without Team New Zealand this year, the cup would have been an absolute disaster.
They brought some competitiveness and commonsense to an event lacking both.
Yet, in the end, they were overwhelmed by the excesses that now dominate the oldest competition in sport, the showmanship and tinkerings that have robbed the event of some of its dignity.
For a while it looked like Team New Zealand may have outfoxed Ellison, as they started beating him at his own game in these hi-tech catamarans, which demand so much money, and so much ingenuity.
But, in the end, his millions were like a tidal wave the Kiwis couldn’t escape…
This has been far worse to endure … water torture in its truest form. An Oracle comeback that seemed impossible becoming almost inevitable.
And the constant reminders that it was happening, coming from the brash Aussie, backed by Kiwi CEO turncoat Russell Coutts, and the American billionaire.
That was hard to endure.
The incredible comeback will overshadow many flaws in this event. And it will surely fuel another step in Ellison’s revolution. Unless there is some sense to come with that, the Oracle comeback could kill the competitor they most need…
Team New Zealand might not be able to rebound from this defeat, which completes a decade of frustration.
They simply may not be able to afford to continue their quest.
– © Fairfax NZ News
There is no doubt in my mind that ‘absolute money’ bought Ellison and Oracle this victory just as it corrupted good men who should have been sailing for their own homelands. At one point at least, there was only one American in Oracle’s crew. Why would we pretend this was an American victory? Why would we feel national pride for a non-national achievement? Because we had more money?
This is what Pope Francis meant by “Those are the three steps: wealth, vanity and pride.”
It deeply disturbs me to witness the monied corruption that is destroying the soul of my country. New Zealand is still a place where people expect most other people will want to do the right thing, as we Americans once did.
How can we remember and return to the sense of honor and fairness that used to be ours?
And if you think we can’t, when did you ever think you’d see a Pope who wouldn’t don the golden papal attire, left the papal apartment empty and drove a 1984 Renault 4 with 186,000 miles on the clock?
Much love, FW
PS: Lots of good stuff follows…
2. BABY BOOMER MEA CULPA
BY BRUCE BRITTAIN, CHANGING AGING, September 5, 2013
I should have done this long ago but I kept hoping that things would work out; praying that I wouldn’t have to humble myself with an apology. However, it has reached a point where the inevitable is, well, inevitable.
So, here goes.
I am deeply sorry about the Baby Boom; no really, very deeply, remorseful even.
Being one of the very oldest Boomers my-own-self, I must admit that we are an unusually irritating generation. We had good intentions. At least the road to hell is well paved.
There are a number if specific failings that deserve full disclosure. However, before I go down that inglorious list, let me acknowledge that we actually did pretty well in the music department.
The Baby Boom rescued the 1950′s music scene from, among others, Gogi Grant, Kay Starr, Frankie Lane, Jo Stafford and Mario Lanza. And, although there was a brief 1956 “Hit Parade” uprising by the old-schoolers when Hugo Winterhalter released “Canadian Sunset”, rock-n-roll beat back the challenge easily.
Launched in 1955 by Bill Haley and his Comets, rock-n-roll never much looked back. Almost immediately it gave us Elvis (pre-Army, authentic,”I ain’t fat yet”, bad boy), The Platters, The Champs, The Coasters and Domenico Mudugno. The magic fuel in the R&R tank was the introduction of the Les Paul model solid-body electric guitar. In all of its various designs, the electric guitar was, and is, the bedrock R&R requirement.
There were the occasional lapses, I’ll admit, like the unfortunate Sheb Wooley “Purple People Eater” release, but in the main, the music created and supported by the Boomers is still classic, hummable and endlessly covered by contemporary pretenders. I think that even the most ardent anti- Boomer will admit that Boomer music is far superior to rap, krunk, ska, grunge, punk, bitpop, filk or skronk.
I’m also sure, however, that even with the music, the Baby Boom’s multiple sins outweigh this singular contribution. And so, let us commence the secular confession and apologia.
I’m ashamed that you have to endure Viet Nam War stories. The Boomers weren’t responsible for this particular dust up but we contributed most of the blood in the “blood and treasure” part of the equation. Now, at any gathering that includes older Boomer men, someone will launch into a primarily fabricated account of their heroics during the Tet offensive or some such. In my experience, having been on active duty with the U.S. Army (salute) from 1969-1972, those who actually had combat experience rarely want to re-visit the particulars and those who tell the tales were probably somewhere safe and warm, like Toronto.
We lied about Woodstock. It was a lot more fun if you weren’t actually there. Crawling in the mud, sleeping in the rain, worrying about tainted drugs and arguing with some stoned guy from New Jersey about the meaning of Joe Cocker’s version of “A Little Help From My Friends” is only fun in hindsight.
We ask forgiveness for our George McGovern support. Not that George wasn’t a fine fellow, he was, and not because we, in our let-us-change-the-world idealism were wrong about Richard Nixon, we weren’t, but we should have backed a candidate who actually had a chance of winning. George amassed a whopping 17 electoral votes by taking one state, Massachusetts. The man couldn’t even carry his own state of South Dakota, the political equivalent of not being able to get laid while at the Chicken Ranch. We Boomers must take our lumps for our part in the public re-emergence of Tricky Dick from his lair in San Clemente.
We regret Bill Clinton and George W. We may end up regretting Obama, a very young Boomer, a fact that may grant him a bye, depending on how things go. As for Bill and Hillary (co-presidents), while the country was actually in reasonably good shape economically, they pretty much dismantled the financial regulatory system during their tenure and this came back to haunt America big time. It isn’t so much Bill’s lack of foresight and leadership that deserves a mea culpa from Boomers, it’s our support for a recovering nerd and policy wonk with little or no class and no self control whatsoever. Apparently, not learning a major lesson regarding Boomers as presidents, the country turned to yet another, this one poised to lead thanks only to having won the Lucky Sperm Contest. As the second presidential representative of our cohort, George W. was mostly an embarrassment. While he would likely make a great next door neighbor, you know, genial, willing to lend tools and a hand, share a cold one, etc. etc., I already have good neighbors and none of them strike me as Leader of the Free World material either. Obama is probably the Boomers’ last shot. I just wish that he hadn’t been born in Kenya, wasn’t a closet Muslim and didn’t have that whole Antichrist cloud hanging over his head.
We are mortified by our sheer numbers; forgive us. True, it was our randy parents who, caught in the titillating afterglow of saving the world from fascism, resumed a normal home life and bred like mink. By January 1,1946, the first of 77 million Boomers emerged from wombs across the country, screaming for attention and succor, activities that we habituated. The harvest of our parent’s libidinous loins didn’t slow to a more puritanical pace until the year 1963 finally closed up shop. By then, the demographic charts contained this humongous lump of humanity that has since been working its way through the American digestive tract like an entire pig in a python. When you walk down the street today, one of every four passersby is a Boomer. They are the ones who have that smug look of the entitled.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who….oops, wait, no one actually trespassed against us. In fact, we pretty much got the long end of the wish bone. We would really like to return the favor, kids. However, we actually want everything that has been promised us. So, the next best thing is for us to keep on taking, piling on the debt (you can pay it later) and plead for your understanding as your standard of living falls, your payroll taxes steadily mount, your children face their limited educational and career choices while we Boomers sail on through our very special, meaningful, creative and blessed lives. We want every red cent of our Social Security, even the the Donalds and the Bills and the Melindas among us. We want it, even though the amount we paid in is far short of what we’ll extract, now that we are living 30 years past our retirement.
Fair’s fair. And, those artificial joints, we want those too, at your expense of course, and I know that I speak for the corporate pooh-bahs, the investment bankers and the Hollywood icons on this issue. We’re all sorry, damned sorry, sincerely sorry. But the fact is, Boomers just weren’t wired for sacrificing for the common good. Apparently, our parents and their parents used up all the genetic altruism fighting the Axis of Evil (the first one, not W’s pretend one). We don’t know where your altruism came from kids; certainly not from us.
I’m sure that there is much more that you expected to see in a blanket apology from a Baby Boomer but whatever it could possibly be is easily countered with slippery, lawyerly talk, e.g. “…that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
We are sorry in a way in which only Boomers can be sorry (not being one, you wouldn’t understand). It is deeply, truly, in-the-marrow painful, a pain that can only be managed with Medicare Part D prescription anti-psychotics.
3. FRANK RELATIONSHIP ADVICE FROM A 98-YEAR-OLD WOMAN
BY DANA ADAM SHAPIRO, ESQUIRE MAGAZINE, WOMEN, 9/14/2013
“First of all, you have to be sexually compatible. That’s very important. If anyone tells you different, they’re nuts.”
The following is taken from writer (The Every Boy) and Oscar-nominated filmmaker (Murderball) Dana Adam Shapiro’s You Can Be Right (Or You Can Be Married), a by-turns funny, wise, harrowing, and heartbreaking collection of interviews with divorcees. Now out in paperback.
Interviewee: Pauline, 98, retired mother of two. Divorced. Lives in Florida; grew up in New York. Married in 1923, 1941, and 1959.
Did you have lots of boyfriends growing up in the 1930s?
I never had boyfriend trouble. I always had plenty of guys. Always.
You’ve been married three times. Tell me about the first.
Oh, Christ. The first time was right after I graduated from prep school. I was seventeen years old—what did I know about living? Nothing. He wasn’t for me but I married him anyway. I didn’t know any better. I had my kids with him, so it was worth it. Then I divorced him. Then someone fixed me up with a man from Chattanooga. He was the cheapest son of a bitch that ever lived. So I divorced him, too.
What else didn’t you like about him?
I’m telling you a very intimate thing here…[lowers her voice.] His ding-dong was very small. So he went for an operation and they made it bigger.
He splurged on that?
Yes he did. But I couldn’t stay married to him.
He was too cheap! [laughs] Then I married Bill Simmons. He was quite a man, I’m telling you. He was terrific. Very bright. And he was mad about me. We had a wonderful time. But he died, and I haven’t been married since. Although I did have a lover. One special man.
What was he like?
He was married! [laughs] His daughter was married to my brother, okay? He was in the ready-to-wear business. He was one of the big shots when they started making t-shirts. We went together for years. I used to meet him on Saturdays and we’d go to a suite at the Waldorf Astoria.
So you’ve had three husbands and one lover. Which one were you the most mad about?
An affair is very different than a marriage because you can break it off at anytime. And this man made life very exciting. It was never dull around him. I like when a man has money and he can take me places and buy me things. All women do. Don’t let anybody tell you differently, okay? If he would buy his wife a present, he would buy me a better one. He once bought her a diamond heart, and the next day he brought me a gorgeous diamond bracelet, very expensive. You see what I’m telling you? Tit for tat. Nothing was too good for me.
So we need to make our marriages more like affairs—is that your advice?
Yes. Then it becomes exciting!
How was his relationship with his wife?
He never got along with his wife. I shouldn’t say never—what do I know? Her family had money, they were in the fish business. He didn’t come from money, and I think that’s why he married her. But he was always running around.
Did his wife know?
I’ll tell you a story. They used to have a summer place up in Maine. One day, they were on their way up there and they stopped by my work—I worked in a shoe factory at the time. And she came into my office and said, “Would you please come with us?” And I said, “Hell no. What am I going up there for?” And she said, “Because he’s miserable without you.” I’ll never forget that.
Did you go?
Yeah, I went.
So she knew the whole time?
She knew. But she couldn’t do anything about it. She was a nice lady, but she wasn’t a pretty lady. And she wasn’t an exciting lady. But they stayed married until he died. I’m sure he had many women in his life besides me.
Did your brother and his wife know?
Yes. Because she said to me just a short while ago: “I knew about the affair between you and my father. He was crazy about you.”
Were you hoping that he’d leave his wife for you?
Oh, when something belongs to me, I want it. But I knew I could never marry him because my whole family would be involved. And that wouldn’t be good at all. My father, he used to say to me: “Are you happy?” And I’d say: “Yeah.” And he’d say: “Good, stay that way—it’s better than being unhappy.”
What else did your father teach you about love?
Listen, my father was a run-around, too. All the men from that generation who came to this country and made a few bucks, they all ran around.
How about the women?
At that time, no. Not so much. Now, it’s different. Now, everybody runs around [laughs].
Do you think it’s okay to run around?
Well, I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it. If she was unhappy, I would want her to get a divorce and meet a nice guy. And she did! Her second husband is a wonderful guy. He’s just mad about her. And she likes him, too. I don’t know how much she loves him, but I know he’s very good to her.
Did any of your husbands run around?
No. Well, I should say that I never caught any of them. [laughs]
Let’s talk about Bill Simmons for a second. Your third husband.
Oh, he was wonderful.
What made that marriage so good?
First of all, you have to be sexually compatible. That’s very important. If anyone tells you different, they’re nuts. And he was extravagant; he liked living the way I did. We used to dance, which I love to do. We used to drink, have a few cocktails. And he had a lot of friends. I met them all. They were all cheaters. Most men are cheaters—you know that, don’t you? I could meet a cheater tomorrow if I wanted to. But I’ve had enough men. I’m 98 years old, what the hell do I want a man for? What can I give him? What can he give me? Nothing.
What advice would you give to a couple that’s been married for ten years and is looking to spice up their sex life?
First of all, a man mustn’t be selfish. He’s had his orgasm, he’s got to make sure she’s had hers, too. That whole wham, bam, thank you, ma’am—that’s no good. But it’s very hard to spice things up after ten years. If you haven’t got that feeling, and he hasn’t got that feeling, get a divorce. It’s the only way. You’re better off alone. Because when you live with someone that doesn’t make you happy, it’s miserable. It’s worse than being alone.
Do you think it’s unrealistic that one could be happy with the same person for 50, 60 years?
Yeah. And I’ll tell you why. You get used to each other. And as you get older, you’re not looking for the same things anymore. I don’t like to be bored with life. You’ve got to have a lot of passion and you’ve got to have a lot of feeling. Without feeling, there’s nothing, it’s just an act—and that’s no good. You have to have that urge. And you both have to have it. You don’t say, “We’re going to have sex on Monday.” No. He might come in from a golf match, all filthy dirty, and then all of a sudden you’re in bed and you’re having a hell of a time!
What’s the strangest thing a man has asked you to do?
Oh! Everything! And if you want to do it, you do it. If you don’t want to do it, you say, “No, I’m not interested in that.” That’s how simple it is. A man might say, “Suck me off.” A lot of women like to do that. A lot of women love it. Some don’t. A lot of men don’t like to do that to the women, you know? It goes both ways.
Why does love die?
I’ll tell you why. One of you drifts away. You have to have a lot in common to stay married. If he wants to go dancing and you don’t want to go, well, that’s okay occasionally, but don’t do it every night because you can be sure that he’ll find someone else to dance with. Even drinking. Some men like to go to a bar and have a few drinks. So they meet people at the bar. And before you know it, they’re involved a little bit. That’s the way it is. You need to do things together.
How important is compromise?
Very. You have to give all of yourself to make the other person happy. But you have to make it so that you each want to give that much. Otherwise it’s no good. A woman, if her husband’s a golfer, she should learn to play golf. Otherwise, he’s on the golf course all the time.
And if a woman likes to play bridge…
He should learn how to play, too. You’re damn right. That’s part of living together—teaching each other things.
According to statistics, more and more women are the ones asking for the divorces these days. Very different from your generation.
Right, the world today is completely different because the women are successful. A lot of women are more successful than their husbands. And that’s not necessarily good for marriage. It’s wonderful for women, of course, but if they become more successful than their husbands, it can be bad because then the man loses respect for himself. And then the husband becomes the pussycat—and that’s no good. That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong plenty of times in my life.
Do you think the men are more like women these days?
I think so. I think men are much more interested in the way they look. Much more. I think they dress differently than they used to. They go to the gym. Now, the women have to keep up with them!
Would you like to be a young woman in today’s world?
Oh yeah. Because I feel like I could keep up with any man. I’m not being conceited—don’t misunderstand me. But I understand men. I do. My father, he always said to me, “If I was married to a woman like you, I’d own the world.” He used to tell me that. I was the favorite, and I knew it. I could have had anything I wanted. I don’t tell that to my brothers and sisters because I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
5. THE GUNFIGHTER GROWS OLD
BY STEVE TAYLOR
John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist, opened in late August of 1976. It was widely seen at the time as John Wayne’s epitaph. Working with one lung, coughing and wheezing, frequently absent from the set with one ailment or another, Wayne nevertheless delivered the sort of performance that cemented his status not just as one of the preeminent movie stars of his day, but one of its finest actors as well.
Opening with clips from earlier Wayne westerns, mostly directed by Howard Hawks and John Ford, the film marches with almost biblical solemnity through the final eight days of the life of J. B. Books, a legendary gunfighter. Books has returned to Carson City, Nevada, on January 1, 1901, the day of Queen Victoria’s death, to seek a second opinion from his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart). Hostetler confirms the diagnosis: advanced cancer.
Books has returned to a town that offers him precious little hospitality, a bustling place that is too busy striving for modernity and respectability. It has electricity and paved streets and a trolley car. The horse that pulls the trolley is, in fact, soon to go the way of Books himself, an anachronism of the Old West for which the new century has little use.
Books’ determination to live out his final days in peace and quiet is continually frustrated by the equally fierce determination of the town’s various opportunists to cash in on his newsworthy demise. A sinuous journalist wants the last in-depth interview. An unctious undertaker (John Carradine) promises a glorious sendoff until Books reveals that he’s wise to the scam. A former love (Sheree North) drops in with an offer of marriage — and a book contract from the aforementioned journalist who proposes to ghost-write an authorized biography “by the widow.” When Books points out that she knows nothing about his life, she says it doesn’t matter, they’ll just make up a bunch of exciting lies. Books’ disgust is palpable.
Hostetler has steered Books to the boarding house of the recently widowed Mrs. Rogers (Lauren Bacall), who is initially uneasy about having a person of Books’ notoriety under her roof. But their frosty relationship develops into an easy friendship during a bucolic buggy ride. Ron Howard plays her impressionable adolescent son, for whom Books ultimately becomes a surrogate father figure and redeemer.
I’ll not lay a spoiler on you. Suffice it to say that Books’ decision to avoid the painful demise that Doc Hostetler has drawn for him, and the means he chooses to accomplish it, raise moral and ethical questions for many, but it has been a proper subject for serious debate since the time of Socrates.
Don Siegel directed The Shootist from a background of action movies like Dirty Harry and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. His background was as an editor, not a writer, and it shows in the meticulous, yet curiously bloodless, approach to what could have been a real masterpiece. But the film’s combination of cast and script, which was nominated for several awards for its screenplay (adapted from a roman a clef about real-life gunfighter John Wesley Hardin’s last days) make it a minor classic, and a valued part of my personal video library.
Most folks over the age of 50 may recall Wayne’s politics, which he himself described as being to the right of Ronald Reagan, but it would be a mistake to take, as the sum of the man, the stereotype drawn from his politics and the flag-waving Vietnam-era war movies. Consider the portrayals of the xenophobic Indian-hater of The Searchers, the arrogant and obtuse cattle drive foreman of Red River, the prudish male chauvinist of The Quiet Man, the fanatical Naval commander of The Wings of Eagles, the hard-drinking but uncompromising protector of True Grit, and the gruff surrogate father to The Cowboys. These are subtle and complex performances that elevate Wayne’s oeuvre into the realm of the cinematic pantheon.
For most of his career, Wayne’s most memorable characters seemed to share a set of values that, while essentially conservative, were thoroughly part of the American mythology: personal honor and integrity, individualism, devotion to family, commitment, and responsibility. In his westerns, the West he represented was an imaginary land, a place of hope, compromised by death, but undiluted by vulgarity. He gave us myths built out of contradictory urges — the urge to settle down and the urge to move on; the need to be alone and the need to find community; the love of woman and the fraternity of men; strength and vulnerability. And through it all, it is John Wayne who stands astride all borders, at the veritable crossroads of our mythic universe, reconciling, in perhaps a dozen glorious performances, these conflicting ambiguities of which his political persona was but a crude distortion.
For me, one of the loveliest aspects of The Shootist is the affectionate and respectful friendship with Bacall’s Mrs. Rogers, which is never allowed to descend into a cloying Hollywood romance. Not that he never had on-screen romances. Look at Rooster Cogburn, the thinly veiled remake of The African Queen, in which his crusty retired U.S. Marshall was paired with Katherine Hepburn, or his work with Patricia Neal in In Harm’s Way. But how many maturing male stars will, even today, allow themselves to be paired with actresses who are roughly their contemporaries, rather than dropping down a generation or two? Does Woody Allen spring to mind?
From the vantage point of his own conservative Puritanism, he might look askance at these women, like the worldly-wise brothel operator played by Angie Dickenson in Rio Bravo, or the proud and outspoken Irish spinster played by Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man, but he would eventually learn the lessons of moral compromise through their instruction, and ultimately accept these self-defining women on their own terms.
In his later films, Wayne allowed himself to look old, and he even allowed himself to be killed. But he would never allow his characters to go down in disgrace and without purpose. As legacies go, it may not be timeless, but a man could do far worse.
Retired lawyer and magistrate, Steve Taylor reviewed films for WHQR-FM, Wilmington, NC’s public radio station, from 1995 through 2007 as a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association. He now makes his homes in Philadelphia. PA and Walnut Creek, CA.
5. WHAT WAR MEANS
BY FRANK BRUNI, THE NEW YORK TIMES, SEPTEMBER 14, 2013
IN the feverish debate about a strike against Syria, there was a phrase that rankled, a shorthand that shortchanged the potential consequences and costs of military engagement.
“Boots on the ground.” It’s what the Obama administration told us that we needn’t worry about. It’s what lawmakers and pundits said that voters could never abide.
No “boots on the ground.” Definitely not “boots on the ground.” It was as if we were talking about footwear: rest assured, folks, wingtips and Birkenstocks are out of the question. But we were talking about lives, about American servicemen and servicewomen, the kind who were dispatched for dubious reasons to Iraq and less dubious ones to Afghanistan, some of whom didn’t come back, some of whom will never be the same.
We’re not good at discussing this, at confronting head-on what the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions can be. We turn to abstractions, not just “boots on the ground” but the shopworn observation, divorced from any detail, that Americans are “tired of war,” as if it’s a wearying chore, something that fatigues a country rather than something that rips families and communities apart, sucking their loved ones in and spitting them back out in coffins, on respirators, with missing pieces, with scrambled minds.
As last week ended, the possibility of bombing Syria seemed to recede. But before that happened, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were promising that any military action we might take would be limited to the air and would be at once a definitive deterrent and “unbelievably small,” in Kerry’s words. That paradoxical notion spoke volumes about the administration’s confused and confusing approach.
And that assurance underscored a different, unspoken reality: that to strike a blow is to light a fuse. You just don’t know. You can’t predict the moment or the shape of the explosion, and you can’t guess the size of the temptation to follow it up with just one more maneuver, one additional push. My fellow Americans, we’ve gone this far. We must seal the deal by going a little farther still.
And that’s why we should have been weighing, and should still weigh, some numbers in addition to those cited by the president in his address to the nation last Tuesday night. He mentioned the galling statistic that more than 100,000 people had been killed in the last two years of civil war in Syria. More than 1,000 of them, he said, had perished in the gas attack that prompted our current debate about whether to hit certain Syrian targets.
Here are some other relevant figures. Our country sent more than two million men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 6,500 of them are dead. Tens of thousands were physically injured, including some 1,500 amputees. Iraq and Afghanistan were minefields, literally and metaphorically, rife with improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. They were easy places to lose a limb.
Of the two-million-plus Americans who spent time there, “studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder,” writes David Finkel in his beautiful and heartbreaking new book, “Thank You for Your Service,” which was excerpted in The New Yorker recently and will be published next month. “Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.”
Pause here for a few seconds. Take that in. Half a million Americans carry around a darkness they didn’t used to, because when our country went to war, they, unlike most of us, actually had to go.
“How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place?” Finkel asks in his book. That’s an essential question, not just in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan but in relation to our current crossroads and all that we need to take into consideration when deliberating war.
THERE’S the financial strain of military engagement. There’s the wrath of nations that disapprove of it and the possible repercussion from terrorists. With Syria, each of these has been discussed.
But there’s also a worst-case scenario of a point, down the line, when things get messier than we ever meant them to and when there’s a call for something more than aerial bombardment, for the presence — and the sacrifice — of American servicemen and servicewomen. And “boots on the ground” isn’t adequate acknowledgment of this.
“Thank You for Your Service” is. Together with its masterful prequel, “The Good Soldiers,” it measures the wages of the war in Iraq — the wages of war, period — as well as anything I’ve read.
For “The Good Soldiers,” Finkel embedded himself so deep in a battalion that he could evoke the blood, sweat and dread of the men around him. For “Thank You for Your Service,” he followed some of those men home, and got inside their therapy sessions, their homes, their heads. He chronicled all the pills they were taking to try to medicate themselves back into some semblance of normalcy. He chronicled the silences they fell into because they weren’t sure what to say.
He atones for our scant attention by paying meticulous heed. And he reminds us that it’s not just the warriors who suffer; it’s the family members who muddle on without them or who struggle to put them back together.
One of the people he follows closely in the book is a widow, Amanda Doster, whose friends, he writes, “began to lose patience with her inability to stop being so relentlessly heartbroken.” When she packs up the house that she and her dead husband shared, the very last thing she grabs, from a counter, is the wooden box with his ashes, and when she puts it in the car, she “buckles him in,” as if it’s not too late to try to protect him.
I mention Finkel and his books not just because they’re so gorgeously written, but because they fill in crucial gaps for the many Americans who have opinions about Syria but no firsthand experience of war.
The way that we can best thank our good soldiers for their service is to keep in mind, whenever contemplating the next military engagement, the ravages of the last one. To remember that there are spouses passionately loved, parents sorely needed, sons and daughters fiercely cherished in all of those pairs of boots.
6. THE JOY OF OLD AGE (NO KIDDING)
BY OLIVER SACKS, INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE, JULY 6, 2013
LAST night I dreamed about mercury — huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be 80 myself.
Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers. At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold. A few years ago, when I gave a friend a bottle of mercury for his 80th birthday — a special bottle that could neither leak nor break — he gave me a peculiar look, but later sent me a charming letter in which he joked, “I take a little every morning for my health.”
Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over. My mother was the 16th of 18 children; I was the youngest of her four sons, and almost the youngest of the vast cousinhood on her side of the family. I was always the youngest boy in my class at high school. I have retained this feeling of being the youngest, even though now I am almost the oldest person I know.
I thought I would die at 41, when I had a bad fall and broke a leg while mountaineering alone. I splinted the leg as best I could and started to lever myself down the mountain, clumsily, with my arms. In the long hours that followed, I was assailed by memories, both good and bad. Most were in a mode of gratitude — gratitude for what I had been given by others, gratitude, too, that I had been able to give something back. “Awakenings” had been published the previous year.
At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”
I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.
I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever “completing a life” means. Some of my patients in their 90s or 100s say nunc dimittis — “I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.” For some of them, this means going to heaven — it is always heaven rather than hell, though Samuel Johnson and James Boswell both quaked at the thought of going to hell and got furious with David Hume, who entertained no such beliefs. I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still “speak” to people after my death.
W. H. Auden often told me he thought he would live to 80 and then “bugger off” (he lived only to 67). Though it is 40 years since his death, I often dream of him, and of my parents and of former patients — all long gone but loved and important in my life.
At 80, the specter of dementia or stroke looms. A third of one’s contemporaries are dead, and many more, with profound mental or physical damage, are trapped in a tragic and minimal existence. At 80 the marks of decay are all too visible. One’s reactions are a little slower, names more frequently elude one, and one’s energies must be husbanded, but even so, one may often feel full of energy and life and not at all “old.” Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life.
When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness, as Francis Crick did. When he was told that his colon cancer had returned, at first he said nothing; he simply looked into the distance for a minute and then resumed his previous train of thought. When pressed about his diagnosis a few weeks later, he said, “Whatever has a beginning must have an ending.” When he died, at 88, he was still fully engaged in his most creative work.
My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
I am looking forward to being 80.
7. THIS MONTH’S LINKS:
A 250 YEAR OLD MASTER PIECE OF ENGINEERING…
SEE TESLA ‘BUILDING THE FUTURE’…
DO YOU SUFFER FROM ‘BITCHY RESTING FACE’?
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