Sunday, January 8, 2012

An Obituary, a Eulogy, a Memorial and Mourning

Ernest W Schlieben 1915-2011

Ernest W Schlieben, 96, died peacefully at his home in Ewing, New Jersey on Oct 2nd, 2011. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Schlieben received his Bachelor of Science degree at the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aeronautics, New York University, in 1935, with postgraduate training at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.

After a tour of duty in 1935-36 as an aviation cadet at the Naval Air Training Center, Pensacola, Florida, Mr. Schlieben became active in aircraft design at the Glenn L. Martin Company in Middle River, Maryland. Later, he became Vice President of York Research, an aeronautical design and development firm in New York City; and Director of Engineering for the Special Devices Center of the US Navy at Sands Point, Long Island, NY, designing and building training aids for the Navy, Air Force, and NATO.

In later years, he held management positions at Sylvania in Waltham, Massachusetts; Perkin-Elmer in Norwalk, Connecticut; and RCA in Hightstown, New Jersey, where he managed projects involving a continental ballistic missile device, scientific satellites, and related projects.

Mr. Schlieben held a number of patents for inventions including one of the earliest prototypes of a supermarket checkout counter, a self-positioning buoy for intelligence gathering, known as SKAMP, and low altitude atmospheric sensing satellites.

After retiring in 1978, Mr. Schlieben engaged in real estate development and building restoration. Later as a self-taught sculptor, Mr. Schlieben worked in stone, concrete, and fiberglass, and for a time maintained a sculpture garden at his home in Trenton, New Jersey. Several of his sculptures are exhibited in private collections and, most notably, at the Grounds for Sculpture, Trenton, NJ.

He was an Associate Fellow of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences (now the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics) for over 70 years, a member of the Old Guard of Princeton, a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, and, more recently, became a member of the Religious Society of Friends in Yardley, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Schlieben was predeceased by Beverleigh (Mills) Schlieben, his wife of fifty-one years, and his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Coats. Survivors include four sons: Dan Schlieben of New York City; Paul Schlieben of Peterborough, NH; George Schlieben of Yardley, PA; and Brooks Schlieben of Levittown, PA; five grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

He was loved and will be missed by his family and his many friends.

A Eulogy

I came down from New Hampshire to visit Dad every few months. Besides going to museums, talks at the Old Guard in Princeton or the Garden for Sculpture, we would argue politics, energy policy, global warming, healthcare, the wars – you name it – ALL with the object of keeping him on his toes and test the limits of neural-plasticity.

And, on that score at least, I'm pleased to report that by the time I’d leave to go back to New Hampshire, I always felt smarter.

The truth is, these last 10 years or so, the old father-son relationship morphed into something else. Dad and I became friends. It doesn’t always work that way.

His fearless curiosity was infectious. That is the legacy he left me – to be curious and be willing to change your mind, when the evidence warrents.

In the end, he seemed to be curious even about the process of death. Once he had realized that his end was near, he embraced death fearlessly, with none of the dread I would imagine most of us feel. This may be a natural consequence of being 96, I don’t know. But, he even seemed to marvel at the changes in his own body, these last three and a half weeks.

So, in this, he taught us something profound about death -- to face it as just another inescapable stage of life.

But wait, there’s more: Whether intentional or not – I like to think it was intentional – the process of death that he undertook ensured that his sons – George, Brooks, Dan and me – would spend time together, as adults. That doesn’t often happen either. Too often we’re locked into a relationship that was formed in adolescence.

This reintroduction of four adult children may turn out to be one of his most enduring gifts. For this I am grateful.

I could say a lot more, but I’ll end with this: a poem that I wrote that he said he liked very much. (I chose to take him at his word.)

The title is “The Incredible Shrinking.”

With fragile bones,
bird brittle, too old to fly
we step over shattered glass
that was our hips our knees our vertebrae
reaching for dusty banisters, railings,
shopping carts …
with a last grasp of desperation.

We drift into weaker orbits
as friends depart
and new friends seem
but faint echo of the past.

We spin off our moorings
caught in the whirlpool
of weakening memories
and lengthening shadows
as light recedes into eternal night,
and incredibly we shrinks,
reflexively curling
into a fetal form
as we wait for the final ‘ping’
that sounds the moment
we’re gently drawn
through the eye of god’s needle
to take our place among the angels
on the head of a pin.

A Memorial
(A memorial service was held on November, a month after the funeral service.)

Thanks everyone for coming. I encourage you to relate a memory of my Father. I’ll try not to take up the entire hour.

Let me start by attempting a metaphor … memorializing a life that spans 96 years is like staring at white light. You have to pass it through a prism to discern the full spectrum of color, or, in the case of a life, the full spectrum of experience, to fully understand the person being memorialized … to do justice to his memory.

A life is made up of the occasional accomplishment and associations that we pepper our obituaries with, but also with frustrations, failures, mistakes, pain and, yes, days of everyday existence. To gloss over these is to miss the more colorful aspects of a life and, I contend, do a disservice to the deceased’s memory… and a disservice to those of us who remain behind.

I’m not going to dredge up things that are too painful to contemplate, but I do want to talk for a few minutes about Ernie’s formative years.

He was born in Brooklyn in 1915. This much you knew. His parents were Lucy Bensch and Jacob Ernest Schlieben, who was always called Ernie. His parents were first-generation German immigrants. His grandparents on his father’s side immigrated to this country in 1888, possibly as political refugees. And his grandparents, who spoke only German at home, shared their apartment until he was three and a half. As a result, some German language was imprinted on his brain early on; something we discovered when Dad and I traveled to Germany 6 years ago.

Ernie’s father had an 8th grade education. I’m not sure how far his mother went in school. Both were intelligent, clever and resourceful, and lived a modest blue-collar existence. Early on, Dad’s father drove a taxi in NYC. At one point, he equipped the family Model-T as a camper and drove to Florida on a family adventure vacation. (This was the early 20s, when sand was the dominant feature of coastal roadways.)

At some point, probably in the early 20s, his father was hired to be the chauffeur for the Dana family in Glen Cove, the heart of the gold coast of Long Island. (Charles Dana was the founder of the NY Sun newspaper.) This was their ticket out of the city.

As a child, Ernie played with Charles Dana’s grandson on the Dana Estate and, no doubt, quickly realized that what separated them most, socially, was money. I can only speculate, but I assume this early exposure to an elite world had a profound effect on my father. I might add that he was an only child, and I’m sure his ambition was ‘encouraged’ by his parents.

Ernie was a bright student who worked hard in school. Although it was not uncommon at the time, it is still notable that he skipped two grades and entered NYU at 16 where he studied aeronautical engineering – the equivalent of studying computer science in the 1970s, when people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates came of age. He graduated at 20 and went off be a Navy cadet at Pensacola in 1935.

But, let’s step back a minute and speculate about the influence this early exposure had on him. He was suddenly exposed to the wealthiest, most elite class of people imaginable at the time, with estates of park-like splendor, beautiful artwork and, very likely, statues in their gardens. As noted earlier, he played with the Dana children and, in all likelihood, like all children, took their measure and realized they were not very different from himself … maybe even less clever. And, he came of age in a time when exciting new technologies like aviation and electronics were fast emerging. For those who did well in school, these provided fantastic opportunities, even in the midst of a devastating depression.

The result of all this? He could see a path forward for himself. The seeds of ambition were sown by all the exciting things going on at the time; the egalitarian mold was set by first-hand exposure to an elite class; his tastes for aesthetic beauty formed by exposure to artwork that only the wealthy could afford. And, most important, his indefatigable curiosity took shape – a trait that served him well for all of his 96 years.

He was an artist at heart. He was driven to leave his imprint on everything he touched, whether it was invention or a piece of art.

But, there was much that happened for which he was unprepared. (About whom can we not make that claim?) One was being married early – too early I think – to a woman who had emotional needs that he was unable to comprehend or satisfy.

He was hell-bent to grow up quickly. He married my mother, Betty Coats, when he was 23. While today I recognize this as a misstate, I hasten to add that my brother Dan and I were the products of this marriage, so its hard to condemn it roundly! While there were some good years, the marriage was on a trajectory to fail and they were separated in 1952. For my brother Dan and I, this was the most significant event of our lives, one that colored our relationship with our father for the remainder of his live. If black were one of the colors that was revealed by passing white light through a prism, that’s the color that best describes our experience at the time.

While I hesitate to speak for Dan, I think I can say this without contradiction: to varying degrees, we were both estranged from Ernie for decades. The divorce was ugly and the trail of bitterness long. For me, forgiveness took 45 years. Finally, in the mid-90s, we exchanged letters, honest and frank, and finally, after decades, something akin to a friendship emerged. Over the succeeding years, this became the bedrock that our relationship was built upon.

My mother died 31 years ago. While she remarried eventually, she never fully recovered the humiliation of becoming a devorcée in 1952. I don’t blame my father for the failure of their marriage – she was emotionally unstable, he was unprepared to deal with mental illness – this was 1952 after all – and I don’t blame Beverleigh, to whom he was married for 51 years – if it hadn’t been her, he would have fallen in love with someone else. But, for two sons, at least, the seeds of confusion were sown and their roots took years to trace and unravel.

I say these things not to denigrate Dad’s memory, but to help you appreciate the man you knew, the man he aspired to be, the man he became. Sometime in the 20s, when he lived in Hicksville Long Island, he was exposed to the Westbury Friends Meeting. It must have left an impression, because here we are, 80 years or so later, at the Yardley Friends meeting where he sought solace these final years of his life. He was attracted to the simplicity of a religion stripped of pretentions and ornamentation. He was a complicated man, but in his final years, he tried hard to simplify his life and speak ill of no-one. He was curious to the end, even about death. I like to think that the impulse that drove him to the Yardley Meeting is significant: that his essential nature was good.

When my mother died, we only had a graveside ceremony; we didn’t have a memorial service. The nature of the grief I feel now is different from what I felt then. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s the difference in their ages when they died, maybe it‘s the difference in my age; maybe it’s the nature of their deaths – I don’t know. But, if you indulge me, I’d like to close with a poem I wrote in her memory many years ago.

Northern Winter

I suspended feeling when my mother died.
I was afraid to think, afraid to feel the loss.
I stopped loving when my mother died.
I dealt the surface signs but remained apart.

I followed procedures and lived by protocol,
Stepping through the mechanics of death,
Executed without feeling… the logic escaped me.
Color drained from my existence.
The gray pallor of death absorbed life
and broadcast a shadow.

So we bury what remains of her,
true to our age, with great attention to packaging,
and what remains of her
merges the shadows of sorrow
with the seeds of our dreams.

Then, we await the dawn
and start the painstaking task
of adding color to our lives,
but subdued,
like a northern winter.

On Mourning

Dad died in October. Why is it that I don’t feel the loss I did when my mother died thirty-one years ago? Why is it that even now, my mother’s death evokes a sense of tragedy, while my father’s death doesn’t evoke powerful emotion at all? I don’t think it is only the difference in age when they died, she 67, he 96. That may be part of it, but there’s much more going on. Is it that I watched him die over the course of a month? Did that experience demystify dying and condition me to accept the inevitable? Is it that I had been anticipating his death for several years, expecting a call at any time? Is it that, many times, he had expressed his intention to die at home and, in the end, being cast in the roll of advocate, I insisted on his right to die and to control this final stage of life? More than once he told me that if he was unable to take care of himself at home and was faced with going to a nursing home, he would rather take his own life, simply, painlessly, with a plastic bag and nitrogen. As a dues-paying subscriber to an national right-to-die organization called ‘Compassion & Choices’ (formerly “The Hemlock Society’), he had studied his options. (He had insisted on dying at home ever since he purchased the house at 15 Wilburtha Road three years earlier.) Was the sadness of death diminished by his desire to die? After all, once he made his decision, there was no dissuading him. He might have opted for physician assisted suicide if New Jersey law sanctioned it but chose fasting instead.

Here’s the calculation I think he made. The last week of August, struck with excruciating stomach pains, he was transported to the emergency room and operated on to repair a perforated ulcer in the small intestines, right below his stomach. The operation was successful but as often happens with old men, he got pneumonia. He knew hospitals were dangerous places for old men and wanted to escape as soon as possible. At his insistence and still hoping to recover, he was moved to a rehabilitation/nursing home, but once there, continued to decline. He was extremely weak and able to breath only with the aid of an oxygen machine. After a week in the nursing home and convinced that he may not survive another day, he insisted on going home. So we arranged for home hospice and transport. Hospice provides an array of helpful services including a nursing assistant two hours a day, but not 24-hour care. My brothers and I committed to his care. Even before he arrived home, he refused food and water, choosing this relatively benign method of hastening death. Once he started down that road, he refused to consider any alternatives. Amazingly, after about ten days of fasting, his pneumonia cleared up. At this point, there may have been a window of opportunity to recover, but he was extremely weak. (Note that he was lucid and in charge the entire time.) I can only imagine what he was thinking, but I’ll try. First, by now, although his chest seemed clear, he was weak, very weak, sleeping twenty or more hours a day. He was committed and, by now, felt an obligation to die, even apologizing to us for it taking so long. (We assured him that was OK, but still, it is revealing of his state of mind.) He thought, “There might be a remote chance that I could recover, but I’m 96 and I’ve lived a long life. What is the likelihood I’ll recover, and for how long? Changing course now would entail returning to the nursing home and possibly contracting pneumonia again and dying there or, worse, being hospitalized in an ICU or having to repeat the steps that I’ve just gone through.” Knowing Dad, I think it is likely he was thinking in terms of probabilities. “What is the probability of my getting better in a rehab facility – a well-intentioned, but in the end, inhospitable, noisy, germ-infested, nursing home? What is the probability of losing control of my own mental faculties and being transferred to an ICU? And, even if I did recover in rehab, what is the likelihood that I could go home and live on my own again without several months of home care, care I can ill afford? I can’t ask my sons to care for me months on end. And, if I was able to go home, how long before I fell or was incapacitated and had to go back to a nursing home or hospital, something I am determined not to do”? So, when I use the word “calculation” earlier, I meant just that. He made a decision while he still had enough strength to dictate the terms. Based on this analysis or something very much like it, he invoked the “Compassion & Choices” option at a point in time when he could be referred for hospice care[1] and enlist the help of his sons. So that’s what he did.

There’s this too. Death did not scare him nearly as much as, to varying degrees, it did those around him. He was not afraid to die; with characteristic curiosity, he welcomed it as if it were the most natural next step. This final month of his life was like gently closing the cover of a book rather than, as was the case with my mother, slamming it shut prematurely. To me, it seemed the most natural and peaceful way for him to die.

And there were other considerations that might have measured into his calculation. As long as the decision was his, as long as he was in control of his own faculties, no one could override his decision. He had a living will that specified clearly, ‘Do Not Hospitalize’ and ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ and the terms under which these orders apply. The effect was to remove the potential for conflict with which the four brothers might otherwise have had to struggle -- “What to do with Dad?” For, even though there was a living will and I had Power of Attorney, he wanted to spare my brothers and me of having to struggle with these decisions.

Another effect, of which he may or may not have been aware, was the beneficial effect on four brothers of spending time together as adults. As I said in my eulogy at his funeral, I like to think that this was his intention, a gift to his sons and the family. For, freed of the stresses of decision-making about his care, we were left only with carrying out his wishes, caring for him, and of preparing him and ourselves for his eventual death. A by-product was to redefine our relationship with each other. If that was his intention, it was a success.

But now what I’m left with is the absence of mourning, of having lost a loved one. I know at some level I feel a loss; it just hasn’t bubbled to the surface yet. With my mother, it boiled over and surfaced in many ways -- as anger, rage, grief, and in my poetry and writings – and as I discovered during Dad’s memorial service when I spoke of my mother’s death, it hasn’t abated much in the intervening years.

There may be another explanation too. I’m almost 67 years old. I was just 35 when my mother died. The shock of her death, the suddenness of it, the guilt I felt for not having responded to her distress when she told me tearfully on the phone of her sudden weight loss and all that that portends; the complicated, messy family history; the recently acquired responsibility I felt for a two year old son; of our need to establish a stable family life on our own; all of these affected me in ways that seem fresh even today.

Maybe I’ll wake suddenly some morning with a hollowing sense of loss, tearfully grieving and somehow resolved in knowing that I loved him. But honestly, I feel more as though I’ve lost a good friend, and life goes on; and that’s what I find most disturbing. But then I remember; there was a long and complicated history not of my own making. As things go, I think we did well to repair our relationship as much as we did during the last fifteen years or so. That we were able to come to some accommodation and become good friends was itself an accomplishment. As I said in one of my last emails in which we spoke of the past, in response to an email in which he expressed remorse for the pain he caused my brother Dan and me, “Certainly, one can conclude that however you spell it, divorce is hard on everybody. The law of unintended consequences is the only thing you can be sure of. But the key word there is ‘unintended’, and therein lies forgiveness.”

So, Dad, rest in peace.

[1] Note that Medicare requires that you spend three days in a healthcare facility before qualifying for hospice.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Merry (not yet ready to declare war on) Christmas

Sad News and Glad News

First, Joan’s mother, Florence Parrella, died in June after a very long illness.   She had suffered, spending the better part of fifteen years in bed and a wheelchair.  We will hold onto memories of her making cookies and Italian meatballs with her grandchildren.  She was a patient, loving grandmother. She would have been ninety this month.

Then, in early October, my father, Ernest Schlieben, died.  He departed as he had lived his 96 years, on his own terms.  In late August, after an operation to repair a perforated ulcer, he came down with pneumonia and, knowing the end was near, insisted on being home.  We arranged for hospice care.  He voluntarily stopped eating and drinking and, remarkably, survived 26 days.  My brother Dan and I spent the entire time with him in Ewing, NJ (I made two short visits home) and brothers George and Brooks, who lived nearby, relieved us almost daily.  The month of September gave the four of us a chance to spend time together as adults (that doesn’t happen often these days) and it was time well spent.  I like to think that that was part of Ernie’s plan; that and teaching us that, like living, dying can be faced fearlessly.  Characteristically, right up to the end he was reminding us to empty the dehumidifier in the basement, and, oh yes, don’t forget there are quarters in a bowl in the kitchen.

In between these two events, on August 17th, our granddaughter, Madeleine Paige Schlieben, was born to Roy and Jenn in Bangkok.  Of course, without prejudice, I can say that she is the most beautiful grandchild ever.  Jenn and Roy (mostly Jenn) have been amazingly good at posting blogs and photos of Maddie’s first four months.  We look forward to seeing her in person when Jenn, Roy and Maddie arrive home on December 16th.  They will be home for three weeks.  I was able to share photos and a short video with Ernie before he died.  It might have been the last time he was able to smile; “Life goes on…” he whispered.

More glad tidings:  I am delighted to report that Jess and Brendan Haley will be married on July 14th.  We had an engagement party here in June at which time I was tempted to call Judge Runyon down the street to come by and save us a bundle by marrying them on the spot!   (Like all good thoughts, this one occurred to me about six hours after the party was over.) Brendan’s Design/Build business is going very well and Jess will finish up her Masters thesis in May at BAC.  Hooray!

This year marks the fifth year of our retirement.  We had hoped to travel more this year but events forced us to postpone travel until this coming spring.  We did manage a long weekend in Cooperstown in April, but that was about it.

Joan and I are well, although it would be disingenuous to imply that Joan’s Parkinson’s hasn’t made her life difficult.  She goes to Ti Chi for Balance once a week and to a monthly support group, and she takes long walks almost daily, so she gets high marks for soldiering on.  She does not recommend it, though.

We have been taking care of Suki, Jenn and Roy’s dog, since May.  The heat and humidity of Bangkok weren’t Suki’s thing and she is much more at home hunting chipmunks at Camp New Hampshire.  We managed to keep a tradition alive by vacationing at Silver Bay again this year.  We have gone to Silver Bay every year since Roy was a year old, so it has much the feel of home away from home.

Well, that about does it for another year.  We wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Nursing Home (a poem)

Notice to my progeny: When the time comes, my answer should be easily inferred from even a casual reading of following.  (DNR; shoot me first!)
Nursing Home
by Paul Schlieben

She speaks to me
as if I were a petulant child she was putting to bed
too loudly, with imperious inflection --
and most maddening of all --
punctuating each sentence with “Dearie?” or “Hon?”
as if talking to an deaf imbecile.
And, as if I had a choice,
I’d answer, as surly as I could,
“yes, nursey”, “no, nursey,”
trying to gain the upper hand,
taking charge,
issuing orders of my own,
but, too weak to be heard,
and, literally, without the heart to pull it off,
and deep inside, to be honest,
only wanting to be looked after lovingly,
like a child,
held warmly, against a caring breast,
to be gently mothered, not nursed.

As she brings the spoon closer to my lips,
I half expect a singsong coaxing,
“here comes the airplane, dearie” or “open wide, hon”
to entice me to eat my oatmeal or applesauce.
At first, I tried to blow it back in her face,
but, unable to muster the breath
to cause so much as a flutter on the spoon,
I’d resign and eat,
bemused at my own peevishness.

Doctor says they are well-intentioned, these nurses;
that their efficiency is neither good nor bad,
their intention simply to get through the day
with as few diapers and soiled sheets as they can manage
and escape home without disrupting their routine,
and who can blame them?
Here, the measure of a good day
is one without a death,
a disruption from which we are all rarely spared.

No, their intentions are neither good nor particularly bad
and, upon reflection,
as sad witnesses to this endless procession of the inevitable,
who can blame them for quietly
whispering in the hall,
“I wish he would just get on with it”?

At first, from the moment they lifted me from the cab
into that blue vinyl and steel wheelchair,
prized for portability rather than comfort,
and wheeled me briskly past supermarket doors
that swooshed opened into that putty and green lobby,
I fought against the sudden assault on my dignity.
Not since boot camp, sixty years ago,
had I felt so autonomous, so undifferentiated,
so regimented – “Here I am,” I mused,
“fodder for this ‘cash cow of death’!”

It shocked me.
But now, the personality that
recoiled into its shell,
cautiously peers out,
with dawning comprehension. 
This, now, is the permanent state,
or as permanent as it can be at 88 --
more endgame, than state.
So I hunker down and tell myself,
“How many years can this stage last?
I’ve endured longer hardship
and humiliation in my time.”

So, gradually, I think --
exercising the only faculty left me --
and understand the true nature of this place.
Resigned, I simply do what I’m told,
or rather, not fight what’s done to me,
waiting quietly, hoping for the opportunity,
on a slow day, when the pace has slackened,
to ask quietly about a dad or mom,
a husband or child, a friend,
to glimpse what humanity lies
in the shade of this relentless efficiency,
to find a crack and gain purchase
on the well-defended souls entrusted with my care,
and engage Elma, Maria and Bethany,
so they, in turn, can acknowledge my humanity,
however fleetingly,
and we can become connected,
however tenuously,
so I won’t have to die alone.

© 2011 by Paul Schlieben

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Poem for Mother's Day

A Mother’s Love
By Paul Schlieben

She loves simply and quietly.
She keeps love in check,  
lest it burn her heart to ash. 
Where stress is the third rail of my existence,
Love is hers.
Her love is trapped in a cage of fear. 
Mostly, it sits quietly.
Sometimes it crashes against the bars,
demanding to be heard,
or it watches mutely, fearfully,
informed by the wisdom of years,
suffering in our foolishness,
afraid giving voice to her fears
Will drive us away,
Hoping for an improbably outcome
As we crash into obstacles
only she was able to see. 
Softly she cries out, anguished,
fearing her cries be misinterpreted as anger,
but is that so unusual?
A mother’s love is often foolishly misread,
except by her.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Paul Ryan's Medicare Plan

While there are signs that the Republican Party is backing away from its plan to eliminate Medicare by substituting vouchers, starting with people who are now  54 and under, I couldn't resist posting this cartoon.  The idea that you would try to assuage the concerns of seniors -- in effect, buy their support -- by exempting them from the effects of their proposed changes, smacks too much of how Washington works: playing one side off against the other, rather than persuading everyone to come together to solve national problems.  In short, I find such "divide and conquer" strategies offensive.
Does something need to be done?  Sure.  But it has to start with addressing the costs of medical care, not by handing over even more of our financial resources to for-profit insurance companies.  The Affordable Care Act is just getting off the ground.  Yes, there's room for improvement.  We need to move away from fee for service towards a more rational and affordable system of best practices and prevention.  To repeal the Affordable Care Act now and then turn around and dump seniors into an unregulated system, one that would allows insurance companies to deny coverage and call all the shots, just like the good ol' days, is madness.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

‘Sunset Park’ by Paul Auster, Plus One

Paul Auster is one of my literary heroes and remains so even after this novel.  He is a writer whose every sentence drives the narrative forward, who delivers up vivid characters in just a few sentences, who can write convincing dialogue without quotation marks or “he saids,” “she saids,” and who writes with purpose.  Every book is masterful and worthy of careful study. There’s a puzzle in each one; each is as enigmatic as ‘Book of Illusions.’[1]  Mastery, I guess, is what happens when you’ve been at it for four decades.
I think ‘Sunset Park’ is not his best work, but that’s not to say it’s not good.  I’ve learned that there’s always much more than meets the eye in an Auster novel and I’d fault myself for being obtuse before I spoke ill of his work.  His dissection of the movie, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives,’ the classic 1946 story of three men returning home from war, is brilliant and insightful. That alone is good reason to read ‘Sunset Park.’  By coincidence, I had just seen this classic film, so it was fresh in my mind.
‘Sunset Park’ opens with Miles Heller, a 27-year-old man working in Florida on a ‘trashout’ crew—men hired to clear out foreclosed, abandoned homes of whatever its former occupants left behind.  Mostly, it’s broken toys, trash bags and burned out pots left on the stove; but occasionally it’s computers, DVD players and flat screen TVs.  Sometimes the houses look like the occupants just walked away from a half-eaten breakfast; more often they are trashed by the owners—missing stoves, sinks, and stripped of wiring and copper pipes.  Miles takes lots of pictures of what he finds, although he can’t say exactly why.  Maybe they hold the key to the lives lived there, a symbolic connection to the life he left behind in New York City seven years earlier.
Reading an old copy of ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the park on his day off, he meets and falls in love with a young Cuban-American high school student, Pilar Sanchez. Sitting on a blanket nearby, Pilar catches his eye and laughs, pointing at her book jacket, gesturing that they are both reading the same book.  And, so, a relationship begins.  We soon learn that Pilar’s parents are dead, killed in a car crash, and she lives with three older sisters.  As we’ll soon discover, the oldest, Angela, is trouble.  Eventually, Pilar moves into Miles’s apartment and Miles, realizing how incredibly smart Pilar is, tutors her and encourages her to apply to several northeastern colleges.  He is confident she could win a scholarship.
There are just two problems; Pilar is underage and her oldest sister, Angela, dislikes Miles or, at least, takes a predatory interest in him.  Angela works as a cocktail waitress and, according to Pilar, “sometimes sleeps with customers for money.”  Sensing an opportunity to blackmail Miles, Angela pulls him aside after a dinner with the family and confronts him with the fact that Pilar is underage – “one call to the cops and your toast, my friend” – and demands he deliver to Angela the trash-out plunder for her and her associates to fence.  At first, feeling trapped, Miles complies, delivering a flat screen TV and a few other things, but eventually, he refuses.  One morning, as he was leaving for work, Angela’s friends corner him, punching him, “a cannonball of a punch” hard in the stomach to make clear they will be less gentle if he continues to refuse.  Miles decides his only recourse is to leave Florida until Pilar turns eighteen, about five months from now.  He gives Pilar most of his savings to cover her expenses so she can remain in the apartment until she turns eighteen and graduates from high school, at which time it will be safe for Miles to return.  Miles retreats to Brooklyn.
Back-story.  Miles Heller is the son of a New York publisher, Morris.  Morris Heller, now in his early 60s, started Heller Publishing at a time when it was possible to discover and publish unknown writers.  Morris owes much of his success to his father, who put up the money to start his business, and to those few writers he discovered years earlier—writers whose most productive years now are behind them, not necessarily because of diminished talent, just the inevitable consequence of growing old.  (Does Auster identify with these men?) 
Miles’s mother, Mary-Lee Swann, having sensed that motherhood would be the end of a promising acting career, left Miles and his father shortly after he is born.  Since then, she achieved fame on stage and film.  Contact is intermittent but not embittered.  Two years after she abandoned them, Miles’s father married Willa Parks, an English professor.  Willa was married before and has a son, Bobby, about Miles’s age.  When they were in high school, Bobby was hit and killed by a car while walking on a mountain road.  Bobby, happy-go-lucky and careless, had run out of gas.  The boys argued and Miles, exasperated, pushed Bobby.  The circumstances of Bobby’s death lead, circuitously, to Miles flight four years later at the end of his third year at Brown.  Miles, “…still can’t decide if he is guilty of a crime or not.”  (Auster’s ambiguous framing of Bobby’s death – Bobby’s lackadaisical attitude, the polar opposite of Miles’s; a typical step-brotherly love-hate relationship; Mile’s irritation leading up to the death; the coincidence of a car barreling down a mountain road at just the wrong instant; and for Miles, “… what is important … is to know if he heard the car coming toward them or not …” – are all pure Paul Auster.  I can’t imagine a book of his that didn’t place the reader on the knife-edge of ambiguity.)   However, as much as it affected him, it wasn’t the accident itself that sent Miles wandering, it was overhearing years afterwards his parent’s fraught conversation about him and the guilt this evinced.
Leaving no word of his whereabouts and, now, gone for more than seven years, Miles maintains a correspondence only with an old New York high school friend, Bing Nathan.  Miles travels to the ski slopes of New Hampshire, to Chicago, to California and eventually to Florida, where we first meet him working on the trash-out team. 
The trash-out theme re-emerges later in the book in a more brutal form, but not before we meet several interesting characters, each deserving one or more chapters of their own. 
There’s Bing Nathan, “the only person who has known [Miles’s] various addresses over the years…,” and, who, without Miles knowing it, shared the letters with Miles’s father, Morris.  Oversized and flabby, an anarchist and sometimes member of a band called ‘Mob Rule,” Bing is the proprietor for the past three years of a tiny fixit shop in Brooklyn called the “The Hospital for Broken Things.”  Bing abhors modern technology and among the things he fixes are old manual typewriters favored by a few writers who live nearby.
Then there’s Ellen Brice, an artist who, during the course of the novel, gravitates towards drawing highly erotic images.  Temporarily at least, Ellen is seriously miscast in life as a Brooklyn real estate agent who, while showing Bing cheep Brooklyn apartments, steers him to an abandoned house – a dilapidated shack really – on a street facing Green-Wood Cemetery (later referred to as a “vast necropolis”) in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn.  As if to confirm her own disaffection with Real Estate, when Bing decides to take over the abandoned house, “… like no other house he has seen in New York,” Ellen becomes one of Bing’s three housemates.  Ellen has suffered emotional instability, but “doesn’t want to go back on medication.  Taking one of the pills is like swallowing a small dose of death…”
Then there’s Alice Bergstrom, a doctoral student who recently left a job as adjunct at Queens College “teaching remedial and freshman English” at lower wages then if she worked at a car wash.  Now, living rent-free in the Sunset Park squat and working just fifteen hours a week for a non-profit called PEN (more about that later), Alice is able to devote more time to her thesis on “…the relations and conflicts between men and women as shown in books and films from 1945-1947…”   (It is at this point that Auster works in his analysis of the film ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.’)  Alice is visited intermittently, and at lengthening intervals, by her occasional, self-absorbed boyfriend, Jake Baum, an unappreciated writer of short stories who is drifting towards the realization that it isn’t woman who interest him most.
Millie Grant, housemate number four, has a relationship of sorts with Bing and then, inexplicably departs, thus making way for Miles, who, responding to Bing’s entreaties, joins the Sunset Park squat, which he views as a inexpensive, temporary alternative to paying New York rents or getting beat up or murdered by Angela’s friends in Florida. 
But, there’s a flaw in their thinking.  They all are certain that the overworked staff of the city housing department, which acquired the house after its owner defaulted on taxes, are stretched thin and have forgotten about a worthless, rundown house in Sunset Park.  What Bing and company didn’t count on is just how far a senseless spirit of vindictiveness will carry even the most overworked city agency when abetted by two violence-prone policemen.
Miles hasn’t contacted his father or mother for seven years.  Transformed and emboldened by his love for Pilar, Miles decides to comes to terms with the past and contact his parents; his California mother temporarily in New York appearing in an off-Broadway play, Samuel Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’[2]; his father at home in New York, but in and out, making frequent, unplanned trips to London, where his wife, Willa, who has become very ill, has been teaching a semester long class.
Of course, the central event here – the one that sets everything else in motion – is Bobby’s death and Miles’s unresolved guilt.  That the timing of Bobby’s death coincides roughly with 9/11 is interesting, but the events are not easily paired.  That the time frame of the story roughly parallels the Great Recession, bookended as it is between Miles trashing-out abandoned houses in Florida and the final scenes of the book, appears to be intentional.  One might even go so far as to suggest that, allegorically, Miles represents, with Bobby’s death, the national trauma that was 9/11 (did our actions trigger the attack somehow?); our collective ignorance of whatever deeper meaning is rooted there; the wildly irresponsible, go-out-and-shop, orgy of house-flipping that overtook the country; the subprime crash resulting in ‘trashing-out’ the homes of millions of Americans; and, just when recovery seemed possible and things looked like they are getting back to normal, another crash.  Yes, that double-dip hasn’t happened yet, but many people think that the political drift of the country all but ensures more trouble ahead.  While that certainly describes the arch of Miles’s experience, I am far from certain this is what Auster intended.  Another possibility just occurred to me.  Miles, young and feeling guilty and confused, is living the only life he could during these seven years.  He’s caught in a vortex of events he doesn’t understand, including his confusion about his culpability for a death.  He naively works to rekindles optimism about his future, finds love, reestablishes normalcy, then rudely, crushingly, realize that he has miscalculated once again.   What could be a better description of the confused lives Americans have lived these last ten years?  What could be a better prognosis of the hardships to come?
‘Sunset Park’ is the most topical and contemporary of Auster’s works in that it reflects and relies on recent and current events more than any other.  For instance, one of his characters, Alice Bergstrom, is working for an organization called ‘PEN Freedom to Write Program[3]’ and Auster devotes several pages to PEN’s mission.  He mentions Salman Rushdie, the death of a Norwegian publisher, Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, Burmese writers, the Patriot Act, the Campaign of Core Freedoms, Cuban writers, and, of course, Chinese writers such as Lui Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese democracy advocate and cowriter of something called Charter 08, and PEN’s cause celeb.  While I wholeheartedly support PEN’s mission, I’m not sure it serves his narrative well.   But, maybe that’s the price he was willing to pay in support of this worthy and, as Auster points out, grossly underfunded organization.
Then there’s the frequent references to baseball, a passion that historically ties Miles to his father and grandfather, a passionate interest in players who’s lives have taken unexpected, often tragic, turns.  Names like Boots Poffenburger, Herbert Jude Score and Lucky Lohrke.  If I followed the game more closely, this might have drawn me in more than it did, but I was struck with this sentence: “…baseball is a universe as large as life itself, and therefore all things in life, whether good or bad, whether tragic or comic, fall within its domain.”  I might add that man’s longing for certainty, for universes that can be comprehended and shared, is itself a universal longing.  Baseball is just one example.
There’s also the obvious references to the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the effects it has had on not only on the poor but the nation’s psyche; to the shabby treatment of adjunct professors; and to the state of publishing today, and publishers’ struggle to stay alive.  It occurred to me that Heller Publishing might be a surrogate for Auster’s long-time publisher, which is probably struggling.  Maybe Auster, trading on his reputation and the all but certain sales his books generate, wrote this book to help his publisher get through the recession.  As a reader who only frequents my local ‘independent’ bookstore, I for one am more than willing to oblige.
I’ll close with this quote from one of Auster’s characters, Renzo, a writer and lifelong friend of Mile’s father: “The interview is a debased literary form that serves no purpose except to simplify that which should never be simplified…”  I guess he might say the same about a book review.

‘Three Stations’ by Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith’s latest book does not measure up to his first big success, ‘Gorky Park’.  He tries to squeeze just one more story out of Arkady Renko, and it probably won’t be his last.  In this instance, Renko is a Moscow police detective on the verge of losing his job; in fact, the order is out to can him, so he is avoiding contact with his corrupt boss.  Renko pursues a murder case of a woman presumed to be a prostitute who was found in a seedy trailer at the point where three railroad stations terminate in Moscow.  But the evidence doesn’t add up and Renko’s pursuit leads him through a maze of corruption, but not very convincingly, including attempts on his life.  While there are lots of street level Moscow atmospherics, there are also abrupt cutaways and plot shifts that are less than satisfactory, as if someone else edited this novel for length and left a few too many clues on the cutting room floor. 
Sometimes you get the feeling that a writer and his publisher just need to boost their revenues by riding on their reputation of earlier successes.  They both knew Smith didn’t have to try too hard to make some serious dough.  I know, this sounds terribly cynical, but, hey!  On that score, ‘Three Stations’ succeeds beautifully.

[1] This is the title of an earlier book.  See my earlier post of Paul Auster’s book ‘Invisible.’  'Invisible' Review
[2] I’m not familiar with the play but suspect there’s a thematic connection here.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Mal-Distribution: Reaching the Boiling Point?

Are we misreading what going on in the Mideast?  Or, to put it another way, are we missing its broader implications?  Is what we're seeing there a precursor of what we're likely to see here and in other countries in the future?   Are the spread of Wisconsin-inspired demonstrations related to the unrest we’re seeing elsewhere?  Are these revolutions the natural consequence of the mal-distribution of wealth?  
We're a country caught between two virtues, the virtue of Personal Responsibility –the idea that each person should make his own way in the world and control his own fortunes – and the virtue of Social Responsibility – the notion that we are all in this together and the wealth of the nation should devolve to the benefit of all, that we'd all be better off (even the wealthiest among us) if the wealth were distributed more equitably.
The challenge is to reconcile these two seemingly opposing virtues. 
I believe that the fundamental problem is that there just isn't enough work and that this will only get worse.  As the use of technology expands, jobs slowly disappear; work gradually becomes obsolete.[1]  Today, most workers are At-Will employees, with the employer holding all the cards.  Purchase new technology to displace personnel?  Great—Fewer people to feed and the government will pick up the tab.  Contrast this with the 1950s, when 28% of our workforce belonged to unions,[2] virtually all employed in the private sector.  But, such is the wealth of the nation that even the poorest will survive, somehow.  Look at Egypt where the majority live on two dollars a day.  Even they get by. 
As the divide between the rich and the poor grows, and it becomes harder for the rich to hide their fortunes, the unemployed and poor get angry.  They feel cheated.  Sometimes, as in Saudi Arabia, the government tries to buy off its people, but usually, by the time anger has boiled over, it’s too late.  You can put a lid on it, but it only boils all the harder.  As long as there have been revolutions, it has ever been so.[3]
Our system requires that we work or accept being poor.  But in the USA, there are five applicants for every job opening, and this is not likely to improve soon, if at all.  A college education is no longer a guarantee of employment.[4]  Time will tell whether today’s high unemployment is cyclical.  Evidence suggests it’s not.
The prevailing fiction is that the wealthy earn their money by the sweat of their brow and deserve to keep every penny.  However they gained their advantage, they're now in a position to leverage their power and resources to acquire even more of both without much personal effort, at a cost to our nation’s well-being.  The trend of the past ten years is indisputable; the rich have become much richer – 50% richer – while the rest of the population has lost ground; many, are far worse off.  Most would agree that, whatever the cause, for the good of the nation, this trend must be reversed.  But how?
The challenge is to get our leaders, most of whom are part of the privileged classes, to talk honestly about our problems without being drowned out by the chattering classes and a well-financed opposition.  Corporate influence in Washington and its ownership of the media ensures that the ideology that  favors wealth is in ascendance.  This must change.  We need to achieve a balance.
Our political leaders hide behind the popular illusion of American Exceptionalism, a fiction they contradict at their peril.  But what if it turns out that we’re not exceptional; that we’re just the same as everyone else, and what we're witnessing is a worldwide phenomenon, a quake with its epicenter at a fruit-stand in a small village in northern Tunisia that set off a tsunami that just hasn't reached our shores yet?  What then?
The only thing that prevents us from talking about these things is ideological stasis, and the fear of being wrong.  Stipulated: Democrats are wrong 80% of the time … and so are Republicans.  Now, let’s talk.
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[1]  See my previous blog post: In the Shrinking of a Pie      Further evidence: Census figures show that from April 1, 2000 to April 1, 2010 US population grew from 281,422,000 to 308,745,000, an increase of 27,323,000. In contrast, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that from April, 2000 to April, 2010 non-farm payrolls decreased from 131,660,000 to 130,162,000.  (No, everyone didn't suddenly decide to go into farming...)
[2] In 2003, 11.5% of workers are union members, three-fourths working in the public sector.  In 1954, virtually no public workers were union members. 
[3] For a brief historical perspective, see NYTimes: Every Revolution Is Revolution in Its Own Way