Author Archives: Chad

In the Mood for a Melody

The other day I came upon Brian Eno’s article about singing with other people:

There are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.

The next evening, as if to accidentally confirm this thesis, I went with my sister to see Billy Joel perform at Wrigley Field. And boy was there group singing, 40,000 strong. Not only that, but several times Billy gave the crowd a “fielder’s choice”: he’d name two of his songs and played whichever one got more cheers and applause.

One song he had no choice but to play was “Piano Man”. Because everyone knows it so well, he let the crowd take one chorus a cappella:

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright

Civilizational benefits indeed. That cliche about gathering around a fire to sing “Kumbaya” came from somewhere.

Recent Views, ctd

Just for fun I’ve started turning videos I take into GIFs using Giphy’s super easy GIF maker.

This one was on a flight descending into Raleigh, North Carolina. The rain was streaking on the window like that for only about 10 seconds, so I’m glad I had my phone ready:

rain

The breeze and sunlight was dancing nicely with the makeshift curtain in our bedroom window:

breeze

On a recent morning run to the lakeshore the water was really choppy, more so than I think I’ve ever seen it. The waves were crashing against the boulders that buttress the shore and splashing onto the sidewalk. Since I couldn’t predict when and where and how high the waves would crash, I planted myself at a pleasingly symmetrical position and hit record. This is about 10 seconds out of a 40-second clip. As usual the camera fails to capture the stunning color and spectacle of what my eyes saw:

splash

And one photo, from a family reunion/memorial in West Virginia:

Elkins-reunion.jpg

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek

In the summer of 2013 I interned at the Leo Burnett advertising agency’s corporate library and archives. In the course of my work I came upon boxes of original conceptual artwork and copy from the 1950s and ’60s of the famous brands Leo Burnett created: the Marlboro Man, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy. They also created several of Kellogg’s famous clan of characters: Tony the Tiger, Snap Crackle and Pop, Toucan Sam. At the time I marveled at these artifacts merely as a student of history and consumer familiar with these characters. But now, having read Howard Markel’s new book The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, I see those characters not as the foundation of the Kellogg’s brand, but, since they were created after both Kelloggs died, as its unintentional consummation.

If you’re like me, you:

(a) didn’t know there was more than one Kellogg;

(b) didn’t know one of them was John—a renowned doctor in his time (1880s-1940s), founder of the Sanitarium in Michigan, and “better living” proponent who was way way ahead of his time on dangers of prolonged sitting, meat consumption, smoking, and the benefits of exercise—and the other was Will, John’s long-suffering younger brother, dour millionaire magnate of the Kellogg cereal line we all know (that’s his signature on the box); and

(c) didn’t know they hated each other’s guts.

Markel covers a lot of ground in this family biography. On one hand this provides readers with a backstory I suspect most haven’t heard before, like how the Kelloggs were reared in an apocalyptic Seventh-Day Adventist culture that valued health reform and that bankrolled the Sanitarium in Battle Creek that sprung John to global renown. John was the idea man, the charismatic physician into what would now be called alternative medicine, and (let’s be honest) overbearing asshole. Will, conversely, was the details man, adept business manager, and John’s put-upon lackey before he set off on his own to expand his cereal empire and his bitterness toward John. (He was also an overbearing asshole.) Because of long-held resentments and their similar products with the same last name, the brothers sued each other throughout the 1910s and never reconciled, even into old age.

On the other hand, Markel covers so much ground and in a sometimes scattershot way that it can be an exhausting read. As a physician and medical historian himself, Markel shines in the parts about John’s development as a doctor and how it influenced his products. He illustrates the cruel irony of brothers so focused on creating products and principles based on health and “better living” for others feeding a most unhealthy rancor towards each other. He also ably balances the brothers’ colorful back-and-forth over the years, thanks to an abundant written record at his disposal. But the parts about the inner workings of the businesses get repetitive and wearying, and the last few chapters—tackling the post-litigious years and John’s unfortunate promotion of eugenics—feel tacked on when they could and should have been better integrated into the narrative, which is as a whole chronologically discombobulating.

Nevertheless, this is an illuminating portrait of a foundational American family and their business empire. Though not quite a tragedy in the end, given the Kellogg Foundation’s continued charitable work (thanks to Will leaving his millions with them after alienating all his progeny), it is a grim reminder of the power we waste on hatred and how wealth can’t cure, in Markel’s words, a “damaged soul.”

On Living in the Messy Middle

I can’t tell you how much I was nodding along to David Brooks’ column “What Moderates Believe”. The whole thing is quote-worthy, but here are some highlights:

Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. Moderates believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The moderate is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.

And:

Truth before justice. All political movements must face inconvenient facts — thoughts and data that seem to aid their foes. If you try to suppress those facts, by banning a speaker or firing an employee, then you are putting the goals of your cause, no matter how noble, above the search for truth. This is the path to fanaticism, and it always backfires in the end.

And:

Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. Moderates are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.

That last part is so true, much to the chagrin of some of my debate partners. Even if we partly or mostly agree on a certain topic, with the perspective of “the other side” rattling around in my head I’m liable to push back against whatever views we share on the topic. Though it sounds like devil’s-advocating, I don’t do it for the sake of being contrarian. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the part of me that compulsively empathizes with the viewpoint of my idealogical opposite.

I can’t decide if this is a gift or a disease. Part of me wishes I could dedicate myself to a particular cause and banish all doubt about it. Being in the messy middle is a frustrating and sometimes lonely experience, and the walls are always closing in. Turning beliefs into deeply held convictions and advocating for them would provide a reassuring clarity of mission and reduce or eliminate the need for constant vacillation.

But I have to be honest with myself and others about where I stand, even if that means not standing in one place. “Humility is the fundamental virtue,” writes Brooks. “Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.”

Realizing how little I know, how wrong I probably am, is freedom. It’s freedom from the self-imprisonment we impose on our minds when we insist we know everything, and that everyone else must agree with us or else.

This phenomenon of dogmatic certainty is most evident these days in the ongoing battles between “I love punching Nazis” SJW types and the jack-booted white nationalists #MAGA crowd. These are two groups who are very sure of their beliefs and righteousness of their causes. Hat-tip to Rod Dreher for spotlighting these posts, which illustrate why they are two sides of the same coin:

It’s not fun being a political orphan, or being constantly mired in a swamp of second-guessing. But I’m a moderate because I have to be, and I will not apologize for this. I am open to hearing your opinion, even if I don’t like it and tell you so. The times are too dark to not struggle for the light.

Obit

Obit is an eloquent, observant, and superbly crafted documentary by Vanessa Gould on the New York Times obituary writers and the people they cover.

One of the writers says writing obits isn’t sad because they are writing mostly about a person’s life rather than their death. I can see why that would be the case, but in spotlighting their subjects from over the years—including well-known ones like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams and ones unknown to me like William Wilson and Elinor Smith—the film made me as a viewer grieve all over again. It felt a lot like a memorial service: celebratory, but with an undercurrent of grief. I think of the Japanese concept of mono no aware: the awareness of the transience of things. Or as Wikipedia puts it, “a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”

But it’s the writers themselves who are the subjects of the film, and they are as articulate, quirky, and wry as you’d expect NYT veteran writers to be. Kudos to them for their work, which I ought to seek out more. The literal deadlines they are faced with seem like a case of “take your time, hurry up”. One minute they could be working on an advance obit for someone who could die at any time (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush come to mind), and the next minute word of Michael Jackson’s death arrives and they are 4 hours from print deadline. What a job!

There’s also Jeff Roth, the lone caretaker of the “morgue”, the Times‘s underground archive of historical news clippings, photographs, and other archival material, all stored in rows and rows of filing cabinets and bankers boxes. It’s an historian’s dream: oodles of material to look through, organized enough but not too much to allow for serendipity to strike. He and the Morgue are probably a documentary in themselves.

Gould’s cameras eavesdrop among the warren of cubicles in the Obit section, with longer than expected takes just watching the writers type at their computers and capturing their asides and narrated thoughts about where they are in the process. The slick editing certainly has something to do with it, but it’s the rare instance of the writing process being just as interesting as the writing itself.

Obit pairs well with Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert, which is itself a kind of advance obituary on Ebert. Through his writing Ebert captured the lives of those on screen with a combination of strength and tenderness. The writers in Obit aren’t nearly as famous as he was, but their work is just as salutary to the soul.

Trump: a “marvelously efficient acid bath”

I keep thinking about George Will’s idea that Trump is like chemotherapy for the GOP: “a nauseating but, if carried through to completion, perhaps a curative experience.” Will wrote that column before the election, assuming Trump would lose. The curative experience he expected was for the GOP to realize its error in nominating, in his words, a “venomous charlatan” and finally reform its ways. (LOL)

But what he wrote still stands, even with Trump as president. The curative experience has come not from Trump’s defeat, but from how people have reacted to his success. “Trump is a marvelously efficient acid bath,” Will continued, “stripping away his supporters’ surfaces, exposing their skeletal essences.”

We’ve gotten to see the skeletal essences of many people energized by Trump’s election. Some see in Trump only what they want to see, and others see him for what he really is and say so, even when politically risky. Commentary editor John Podhoretz, commenting on Charlottesville, is one of the latter:

The president’s refusal to name the evil in our midst is the behavior of a man whose moral sense is stunted — if he has a moral sense at all. This is what I feared would be the case when he became president.

Perhaps those who say I have an obligation as a conservative to support Trump should wonder what their moral obligations require.

The last year or so has been very clarifying. David Frum, Bill Kristol, Ross Douthat, John Podhoretz, David French, and other conservative pundits I previously opposed to varying degrees (and still might on some issues) have revealed themselves to be principled thinkers, criticizing Trump early and often, even when doing so during the election exposed them to attack from their right flank. I respect them for standing tall then and sticking with their principles now.

If we make it through all this alive, we’ll be stronger for it.

No More ‘More’: Against Irregular Superlatives

Who’s ready for a grammatical crusade of pedantic proportions?! Get in on this: It’s time to standardize English comparative and superlative adjectives.

Those are used when you are comparing one or more things. For example, a banana can be big, bigger, or biggest. The -er and -est progression is common and used for most adjectives. The ones that don’t use -er and -est typically use more ___ and most ___, as in more beautiful and most beautiful. But why?

Beautifuller and beautifullest actually have a nice flow and even become accidental portmanteaus, combining beautiful and fullest. Even longer adjectives can work: extraordinarier is quite fun to say, and comfortablest sneaks in the archaic spelling of blessed.

In a previous post, I wanted to write about something that was the next level up from vibrant. The “correct” version would be more vibrant, but is vibranter any worse? (Or badder?) It may look and sound odd, but only because the brain has been trained to expect more vibrant. There’s no reason why vibranter can’t be acceptable, especially in a language as flexible as English.

I’m fully aware that English is a strange and stubbornly idiosyncratic language. I love it for that. (You should see the list of interesting words I keep just for fun.) But it’s also an amenable language, subject to evolution over a long time or by brute force.

So let’s make it happen: no more more, avoid most to the utmost, and let those -ers and -ests fly!

Agony and Hilarity in The Iliad

GettyImages-102521939-1024x581.jpg

It was Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult that compelled me to finally read Homer’s The Iliad, one of those ought-to-read books that are easy to avoid because so many newer and less challenging books pop up in its way. But I’m glad I decided to dive in, even if it became my actual beach read over the Fourth of July weekend and beyond. Overall, I was surprised by how violent, funny, and sometimes profound it was, and by how much it made me want to rewatch Troy. *shudder*

After first I consulted the Cliff Notes before each chapter so I could make sure I knew generally what was going on. But about halfway through I switched it up, diving into the text first and then reading the Cliff Notes to fill in context. I grew more comfortable with the tone and flow of the text, which in my translation by Robert Fagles was in poetry form.

Because the book is basically one long battle, the fighting itself—and boy is there a lot of it—can sometimes seem abstract. So I like how in the midst of the seemingly never-ending war, Homer sometimes zooms in on one minor character and briefly tells his life story—right before he dies. Like with Euchenor in Book XIII:

But Paris flared in rage at his comrade’s death,
his friend and guest among all the Paphlagonians.
Incensed, he let loose with a bronze-tipped arrow
aimed at one Euchenor, son of the prophet Polyidus,
a decent, wealthy man who made his home in Corinth.
Well Euchenor knew that boarding the ships for Troy
meant certain death: his father told him so . . .
Time and again the strong old prophet said
he’d die in his own halls of a fatal plague
or go with the ships and die at Trojan hands.
So off Euchenor sailed, both to save his wealth
from the heavy fine the Argives made deserters pay
and himself from wasting illness—no slow plague for him.
Suddenly Paris struck him under the jaw and ear—
and life flew from his limbs
and the hateful darkness had him in its grip.

And that was it for Euchenor.

There are also periodic descriptions of combat that are surprisingly graphic. This again helps to ground the story in the realities of the carnage it was producing. It was sometimes easy to forget between all the monologues and backstories of soldiers that there was an actual war going on, with countless men dying gruesome and forgotten deaths. So the moments when Homer describes entrails spilling out on the ground, for example, were, if not welcome, then at least a crucial part of making such a mythical story feel real.

I expected The Iliad to be serious, but I didn’t expect it to be funny. In Book XIV, for example, Hera called on Hypnos the god of sleep to put Zeus to sleep in order to change the course of the war. But Hypnos was reluctant to do so, since the last time he tricked Zeus to sleep, he was furious when he awoke:

But now you are back, Hera—
you ask me to do the impossible once again.”

Eyes widening, noble Hera coaxed him further:
“So troubled, Sleep, why torture yourself with that?
You think that thundering Zeus, shielding the men of Troy,
will rage as he raged for great Heracles, his own son?
Come now, I will give you one of the younger Graces—
Wed her at once and she’ll be called your wife.”

“On with it!”—Sleep cried, thrilled by the offer—
“Swear to me by the incorruptible tides of Styx,
one hand grasping the earth that feeds mankind,
the other the bright sea, that all may be our witness,
all gods under earth that gather round King Cronus!
Swear you will give me one of the younger Graces,
Pasithea, she’s the one—
all my days I’ve tossed and turned for her!”

That “On with it!” is golden. Later in that scene, Hera, awash in ambrosia and aided by a charm by Aphrodite, goes to seduce the mercurial Zeus. And he is so smitten by her that he tells her:

Never has such a lust for goddess or mortal woman
flooded my pounding heart and overwhelmed me so.
Not even then, when I made love to Ixion’s wife
who bore me Pirithous, rival to all the gods in wisdom . . .
not when I loved Acrisius’ daughter Danae—marvelous ankles—
and Perseus sprang to life and excelled all men…

… and on and on he goes, because nothing will set the mood better than bragging about previous carnal exploits!

Though I can’t compare it to others, I’d highly recommend Fagles’ translation of the text. There’s some beautiful language throughout, and in poetry form it’s allowed to breathe on the page. I didn’t read every word (again with the monologues!), but I finished the journey, and look forward to more in The Odyssey and The Aeneid.

Eventually. After I take a break with some reading from this millennium.

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich

51MAjxi5d1L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t do drugs, kids. But do give it up for whoever thought of the perfect double entendre title and cover for Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drug Use in the Third Reich.

This topic is definitely not something I’ve heard about in the history books, as they say, so perhaps it’s fitting that Ohler is not a historian buta novelist and journalist. His writing style is much more vivid and conjectural than what you’d expect from a typical history book, yet it’s still rooted in the historical record, which makes it all the more riveting. Who knew that the same German scientist who invented Aspirin also discovered heroin? And that the Nazis’ infamous blitzkrieg that toppled France was aided by the entire army being hopped up on meth?

Add to this the (more well-known) fact that Hitler was a morphine, cocaine, and oxycodone addict and needed several injections a day of vitamins, uppers, and animal proteins to keep going. This would explain his volatile mood swings, insatiable megalomania, and disconnection from reality toward the end. It would also explain why he was a terrible military strategist but an excellent demagogue and tyrant.

It doesn’t mean, however, as Ohler is clear to point out, that the drugs turned him into someone he wasn’t. The “pharmacological barricade” he erected around himself in his final years only ossified what was already there:

His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his sense, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane.

Highly recommended fast-paced, unorthodox history of a degenerate time and place.


Some informal book notes:

  • Serturner derived morphine from thickened sap of opium poppies in 1805
  • Merck began selling in 1827, and after injections invented in 1850 was used in Civil War
  • Drinks containing morphine and cocaine available at drugstores
  • Hoffman, chemist at Bayer Company, synthesized Aspirin from willow bark and heroin, a derivative of morphine
  • With small operations and low overhead, business boomed especially in Germany, with high stock of engineers, chemists, and education system
  • Germany lost colonial sources of stimulants after Versailles, so had to produce synthetic ones and soon became global leader
  • The Nazis “hated drugs because they wanted to be a drug themselves”; stigmatized and severely punished drug use after 1933
  • Hitler mythologized as anti-drug teetotaler without personal needs
  • Strict anti-drug measures used to deepen surveillance state and prevent addicts from marrying so as not to reproduce faulty genes
  • Jews depicted as pathogen or disease poisoning the Reich needing to be exterminated
  • Celebrity doctor Morell pioneered use of vitamins mixed with stimulants; Hitler made him personal physician
  • Inspired by US’s amphetamine Benzedrine at Berlin Olympic games, pharmacist Hauschild synthesized new methamphetamine Pervitin, like adrenalin but gentler and longer lasting
  • Meth’s long lasting effects kill nerve cells, and once it runs out the hormones take weeks to resupply, leading to lack of drive and joylessness
  • Pervitin became widely used, assumed safe; marketed as slimming agent because it curbed appetite (meth chocolates: “Hildebrand chocolates always delight”)
  • Appeasement wouldn’t work because Hitler, a morphine addict, always needed more
  • Morell revived Czech president Emil Hacha, who had a heart attack before signing papers of capitulation, so he could sign them
  • According to studies Pervitin kept people from sleeping but didn’t make them cleverer, so it was considered ideal for soldiers
  • Blitzkrieg in France fueled by meth, including Rommel; French and British unprepared for constant attack
  • Propagated idea that Germans were superior beings reinforced by meth’s symptom of arrogance
  • Hitler’s inferiority complex made him distrust success of smarter generals
  • Luftwaffe’s Göring a morphine addict and felt victory shouldn’t be left to army, so convinced Hitler to halt Dunkirk advance
  • “Gröfaz” German soldiers’ derogatory acronym for Nazi propaganda’s term for Hitler as “greatest commander of all time”
  • Morell created new vitamin combo Vitamultin, which had unremarkable elements but was marketed solely to Hitler and generals; when Luftwaffe medical chief rejected them Morell got Goring to fire him
  • Word about Pervitin spread in late 1940 and Reich health fuhrer Conti fought to have it eradicated under Reich opium law, but war needs made it essential
  • Pervitin of no use on Russian front, which was attritional
  • Hitler had “severed relations with geopolitical reality” by declaring war with US; out of touch in bunker
  • Mid-1943 started taking Eukodal (oxycodone), twice as powerful as morphine, created euphoric state higher than heroin
  • Hitler was doped up for Valkyrie explosion so didn’t have pain despite busted ear drums and splinters
  • Giesing, ear nose throat specialist summoned after Valkyrie in July 1944, prescribed cocaine, which “erases self-doubt and encourages megalomania”
  • Hitler consented to full-body examination to get more cocaine from reluctant Giesing
  • Erected “pharmacological barricade” around himself, within “deluded totalitarian system”
  • “His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his sense, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane.”
  • Used death camp prisoners to test new endurance pills and cocaine-spiked gum, kept awake and marching
  • Started running out of supplies and withdrawing in early 1945