Celebrating Colorful Language

whiskeytangofoxtrotI realize that I do not have the most focused blog in the world. Some people blog about nothing other than, say, capital punishment or new developments in whiskey. I write about psychology, behavioral economics, ethics, the doctor-patient relationship, health policy, political partisanship… a relatively wide range of things, but topics often linked by the connections I make between them and the weird way we humans make judgments and decisions. On occasion, however, I go even further afield to celebrate great writing. And I just finished reading a fun, new novel called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer. And I felt compelled to share some tidbits to give you a flavor for his writing style.
For starters, he can’t help himself from commenting on the name of the country one of his characters is working in at the beginning of the novel:

“Myanmar, which sounded like a name cats would give their country .”

And then, for anyone who’s ever traveled to a country in Southeast Asia, there is his wonderful description of a ceiling fan:

“There was a ceiling fan in her two-room flat; it was on now. But it whorled and kerchonked around at such an unstable and idiotic rate that what it gave in breeze it took back in worry.”

Or this wonderful description of one of the characters in his book:

“He drove an old Saab. He read and read and read. It was like being a professor but with no students, which he understood from professor acquaintances was pretty much the way you wanted it. He had a wicker lampshade over his kitchen table; stalagmites of magazines and journals grew in his living room.”

His hilarious take on chemical ingestion gone bad:

“The one banana he’d eaten at seven a.m. fought bravely against the double whiskey, the two chardonnays, and the Xanax. Or what he’d thought was a Xanax. But when he didn’t fall into a dry-mouthed slumber, he’d realized that, in his stupid drunk, he had fished out the wrong pill—a Nuvigil—from the bottom of his Dopp kit, and he went into a kind of fugue, and his mind kept running, and he kept drinking (the Nuvigil in valiant neurochemical conflict with airplane whiskey) until the flight attendant cut him off, and then he and the ghoul driving his body deplaned together, and the turquoise carpet in the Portland airport nearly made him ill, and the beach-themed restaurant in the concourse had quit serving so his ghoul got them a taxi and got them to the hotel and there was a fridge in the room and more pills in Mark’s Dopp kit and then they went out together, his ghoul and he, Mark as blank as a bodhisattva, but also gross and reeling.”

And I leave you with one final thought, a simple little description which takes a third of the verbiage of my set up:

“He just lay there, half out of his sleeping bag, like a banana begun.”

One of My Favorite Paragraphs from Being Mortal

Being Mortal Atul GawandeAtul Gawande has received appropriate praise for his new book. Read it if you haven’t. Meanwhile, here is one of my favorite paragraphs from the book, to whet your appetites:

Even as our bones and teeth soften, the rest of our body hardens. Blood vessels, joints, the muscle and valves of the heart, and even the lungs pick up substantial deposits of calcium and turn stiff. Under a microscope, the vessels and soft tissues display the same form of calcium that you find in bone. When you reach inside an elderly patient during surgery, the aorta and other major vessels can feel crunchy under your fingers. Research has found that loss of bone density may be an even better predictor of death from atherosclerotic disease than cholesterol levels. As we age, it’s as if the calcium seeps out of our skeletons and into our tissues.

Mind-Boggling Partisan Dysfunction

I have done some research on political partisanship, as well as some writing. I think political dysfunction in this country threatens our future. So it was nice to read this opening paragraph, in a relatively recent and wonderfully written article in Time magazine:

Here’s a rainy-season parable about cooperation in American politics: In July 2012, Republicans and Democrats came together during a bitter campaign season to enact sweeping reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program, phasing out subsidies for hundreds of thousands of property owners in flood-prone areas, dragging a debt-ridden program toward fiscal and ecological sustainability. The reforms attracted a genuine bipartisan coalition with groups like the Heritage Foundation on the right and the Nature Conservancy on the left joining forces with Realtors, bankers and insurers. The simple notion that insurance rates should reflect risk was so compelling that the usually polarized House passed the reforms by a 406-to-22 vote. “Everyone was like, Wow,” says David Conrad, a consultant for the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “We had been talking about reform for 15 years, and rationality finally caught up to Congress.”

Then the article continued with the following much shorter paragraph:

It was a rare moment of unity, and in March 2014, the two parties came together for another festival of bipartisanship. This time, they gutted the reforms they had passed less than two years before.

Check out the magazine article, if you want to find out why this all happened. But the article showed me that our political problems run much deeper than partisanship. Even when Congress agrees on something, it often responds to special interests that don’t have the broader interests of the American public in mind. Very disturbing!

Heart-Wrenching Words from Beethoven on Deafness

Beethoven DeafIt is an awful irony that Ludwig van Beethoven, who I consider the greatest composer in the history of the world, experienced deafness from an early age, a disability that did not seem to interfere with his musical productivity one whit. But it certainly cost him a great deal of suffering, as is quite apparent in this quote:

O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you…. For 6 [sic] years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or perhaps be impossible). Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone…. It was impossible for me to say to people, “Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.” Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection…. For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow-men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone like one who has been banished.

Painful to read. A man who already had difficulty interacting with other humans, to be further isolated by deafness, an isolation increased by his embarrassment that his affliction involved the main sense relevant to his art and his livelihood.

Power of Analogy

dog pulls leashFrom time to time in this blog, I take a moment to celebrate fine writing. Here is an example I came across in an article in Smithsonian magazine from May 2014.
The author, Corey Powell , was trying to explain how astronomers use gravitational “tug” to indirectly reveal the existence of planets. In other words, they can’t see the planets, but they know that they are there. But how do they know it? Here is his analogy:

Picture a black dog at nighttime, yanking on its owner’s leash. The only way you can tell the dog is there is by the owners herky-jerky movements.

What a brilliant way to illustrate this important scientific concept.

Something I Have in Common with Beethoven

beethoven4Friends and family are painfully aware of how obsessed I have become with Beethoven lately. My plan is to have 10 of his piano sonatas in my brain and fingertips at any one time, ready to play by memory on demand. I’ve been listening to his music, studying his scores, and even reading biographies.
And that’s where I discovered one thing I have in common with Beethoven – to maximize our creativity, both of us rely upon changing locations. Here’s a passage from a short and engaging Beethoven biography by Edmund Morris:

“There was quite enough variety for him, in the twenty-three years he had left: different spas, different hill towns, and so many changes of city address that he once found himself paying four different rents simultaneously. But the very force of all this mobility (even from the country, he was forever catching coaches back into Vienna) spins into a biographical blur .”

Beethoven found that changing location helped change his mindset, and increased his composing productivity. I find the same thing in my work. Sometimes picking up and going to a coffee shop for two hours helps me get more done than four hours in my office could accomplish.

Influencing Young Minds

is never goodI really like teaching Duke undergraduates. They are an ambitious and intelligent group. But sometimes their ambition and intelligence get in the way of creative thinking, especially in regards to careers. They all want to remain high achievers, so they know they must either become doctors, lawyers, investment bankers or business consultants. Not infrequently I find myself talking to undergraduates about careers, urging them to do something different for a couple years and learn more about the world, before settling on one of these well honed paths.
I was reminded of these conversations recently when I read “How About Never–Is Never Good for You?,” by Bob Mankov, cartoon editor at the New Yorker. He relayed his experience visiting high schools in grade schools, and talking about his career as a cartoonist:

“Some years ago, at my daughter’s high school, I gave a Career Day talk about my thirty-five-year “career” in cartooning. I do these talks in the hope that I can prevent one young person, especially if they are Jewish, from becoming a doctor, lawyer, dentist, or accountant.”

I highly recommend his book, if you’re up for a good laugh. It is loaded with cartoons too!

Emotional Adaptation and Desire

26I’ve done a fair amount of research on how people emotionally adapt to life circumstances. My research is mainly in the context of illness and disability, where people bounce back from adversity more than expected. But people can also emotionally adapt to good things, a very important phenomenon for consumer behavior. We are ecstatic when we finally fork over at the money for a large-screen television, but pretty soon we get used to the experience. It looks like this psychological phenomenon has been known at least since the time of Epicurus, who once said:

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Great advice, that hopefully should help us appreciate what we have.

Science Writing Prodigy

shutterstock_51700795I’ve been teaching college for four years now, at a pretty darn good college. But I’m not sure I’ve seen student writing quite as good as this undergraduate writing sample:
There is a wide yawning black infinity. In every direction the extension is endless, the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce. But most of all, there is very nearly nothing in the dark; except for little bits here and there, often associated with the light, this infinite receptacle is empty.
This picture is strangely frightening. It should be familiar. It is our universe.
Even these stars, which seem so numerous, are, as sand, as dust, or less than dust, in the enormity of the space in which there is nothing. Nothing! We are not without empathetic terror when we open Pascal’s Pensées and read, “I am the great silent spaces between worlds.”

Those words, quoted from a recent Smithsonian article, were written by Carl Sagan as a Chicago undergrad in the 1950s. Pretty humbling, on many levels.