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Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg

Stephen Greenblatt, Will of the World

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

James Martin, Jesus: A Pilgrimage


The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.


Laudato Si: Perhaps the Greatest Catholic Moment in My Lifetime

Laudato Si, the papal encyclical on the environment, was released today. For me this is one of the great moments in Church history, and I am thankful that I was alive to see it happen.

I am a scientist (though I don't do research, I certainly apply the scientific method every day in my hospital rounds), and it deeply troubles me me that my church is always on the wrong side of science. Taking 400 years to acknowledge Copernicus and Galileo, coming in a century late on evolution -- these things are hard to defend.

Even the Church sex scandals of the last decades to some degree represent an unwillingness to come to terms with what we now know about the science of human sexuality, and about the trauma that child abuse causes. (They of course represent much else, but a careless dismissal of many years of psychological research in favor of the protection of the vocation of the priesthood was a significant contributing factor.)

It is not enough to say God trumps science. That was medieval thinking. If God created the universe, and created it in his own image as the Church has always contended, then understanding the natural world is integral to understanding God. Science is not simply one way among many. And not simply a tool, part of a larger picture. Creation is a reflection of God, and it is one of the clearest stamps of himself that God has given us. Even Pope Benedict, a great defender of religious conservatism, once argued that the universe is shot through with evidence of order and intelligence, and that the order and intelligence in nature is evidence for the existence of God.

Thus it stands to reason: Science is integral, indispensable, to our understanding of God. Any yet the Church, in its indifference to science tacitly dismisses its own pope's point.

But today, for the first time in centuries -- maybe for the first time ever -- the Catholic Church has weighed in on science at a time when it is still relevant to do so, and in doing this, establishes that there is a role for faith in the scientific understanding of creation. I have faith, but it has suffered during my career, in no small part because of the woeful inability of my own Church to face modern science on its own terms, and rather than blindly oppose it, incorporate it into a larger sacred cause.

This is a significant moment, and I don't think even us ardent Pope Francis fans realize how monumental it could be.


Sentence of the Week

From "Enoch and the Gorilla" by Flannery O'Conner, we have one of the funniest action sequences in the English language, in which the main character dons a stolen gorilla suit while hiding out naked in the forest:

In the uncertain light, one of his lean white legs could be seen to disappear and then the other, one arm and then the other: a black heavier shaggier figure replaced his. For an instant, it had two heads, one light and one dark, but after a second, it pulled the dark back head over the other and corrected this. It busied itself with certain hidden fastenings and what appeared to be minor adjustments of its hide.

A few fine points. The perspective is introduced to us in the passive voice, something rookie writers are warned not to do. But O'Connor shows us here that the banning of the passive voice is pure hogwash; we have "one of his lean white legs could be seen" introducing the description. This is O'Connor gently pushing a preposterous scene out to the reader instead of forcing it as the active voice might, much as a comedian may deliver a punchline -- this is how it is, I lay no claim to it. It heightens the humor, emphasizing the difference between outright slapstick (active voice) and a deadpan observation (passive) simply laid out for the audience to figure out.

I also like the phrase "black heavier shaggier figure," which might be properly punctuated with commas to read "a black, heavier, shaggier figure" by a lesser writer. Removing the commas makes the phrase move faster, making it feel more disordered and rushed, adding to the strangeness of the scene.


Getting Organized: Precepts

I have no natural gift for personal organization. Nevertheless, I have tried to impose order on my disordered life so many times that I have considered personal organization from many more angles than most people will. Consider me a deeply experienced failure. I am knowledgable because I have tried every way to do it, and uncovered every way to fail.

Thus I feel qualified to preach: Not because I am good at it, but precisely because I am bad.

So here it is, a distillation of my wisdom, as informed by trial and error: 

  1. A bad organizational system is better than none.

  2. It isn't simply what you write down. It is what the process of writing down does to your brain that creates sense out of chaos.

  3. Pick a system and stick with it for 6 months. If you feel yourself wanting to abandon it or significantly change it, say to yourself: No, the decision has been made, my job now is to abide by it. This is a surprisingly effective way to stick to a plan. Tell yourself that your past self cannot be overruled. (This is also a form of self-love, to follow your own decisions to the letter. Isn't obedience a form of love? Of course it is.)

  4. When you get an idea down on paper (or in the computer) there is a feeling of relief. This comes from knowing the idea is recorded and you no longer have to devote mental energy to remembering it. Notice this feeling. Savor it, own it. You want to get addicted to it.

  5. You will learn how to organize your life as you go. Don't shoot for a perfect system. Settle for a deeply flawed system that you will learn to use more effectively as time passes. (This slightly contradicts precept #3, which counsels against deviation. But there is a difference between abandoning an idea and fine-tuning what is not working.)

  6. Aesthetics matter. A lot. A whole lot. Choose an organizer that is beautiful to you. Software that pleases the eye. A Moleskine notebook. A Mont Blanc fountain pen. That which pleases your heart will also beckon you back to your task. Use tools in your organizing that you find beautiful. It works every time.

  7. Time is on your side. It doesn't matter how many times you fail, as long as you allot yourself the time to start again. Patience with yourself is the ultimate form of grace.

  8. A todo list is a start, but it isn't the end. That is to say, your goal is not to check off items, but to bring a sense of order and control into your life.

  9. In the beginning, and any time you falter and think you need re-energization, set an alarm for 2 or 3 times a day to just stop and write ideas down, or check them off, or review what you have done. This re-establishes the habit.

  10. The most important step in establishing a new habit is to do it daily. It doesn't matter how long you spend, even 30 seconds is fine. Just do it daily. Once the habit is ingrained, you can work on spending more time at it. Expanding a habit is much easier once it is ingrained.

  11. It is OK to do less than you intended as long as it is more than you used to do.




Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers: Not a person I ever thought I would write about. I was never a fan, finding her humor too biting and personal for my taste. Ad hominem, even. I also dislike celebrity culture, and in the last years of her life Rivers specialized in skewering celebrities and their private lives, developing a brand of inside Hollywood humor that seemed more and more distant from daily life. Relevantly and egotistically: More and more distant from me. While it may be true that her superficiality was an act and not her offstage personality, it was not a persona that appealed to me. I prefer substance in my humor.

And yet she possessed a rare drive that was hard to ignore. Her work ethic showed in her longevity, as she re-invented herself again and again, surviving as a comic from the sixties all the way to 2014. Such longevity almost never occurs in comedy, unless it is paired with superhuman effort.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't have given even this much thought, if not for a profile of Rivers on CBS Sunday Morning that aired a few months before she died. During the interview, she displayed a huge set of filing cabinets in her home that were full of 3 x 5 index cards. On the index cards were, she said, every joke she ever told, organized by subject and stamped with the date she first told them. There were hundreds of thousands of cards.

To collect every joke you ever wrote over a 50 year career and to catalog each one and file it away in a card catalog shows a remarkable dedication to craft. Although it was impossible to tell if she really had a card for every single joke in her long career, the catalog looked to be large enough that if all of them weren't there, it had to be close. I've seen substantial libraries with smaller card catalogs than Joan Rivers had in her home.

This was something I could relate to. It is the kind of thing that would impress any writer. Writing, after all, is nothing if not the process of collecting ideas and organizing them into a coherent body of work. To do this consciously and unfailingly over five decades is a remarkable dedication to craft, one many of the best writers never match. I would have loved to have spent a morning with that catalog, reading through 50 years of jokes, noting style changes and Rivers's own evolution over time. I bet there is a lot to learn.

Despite her superficiality, she was an artisan after all. You never know.


Sentence(s) of the Week

 At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town they say. Depart immediately to open country.
   The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.

-- Opening paragraphs of All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last week.

What impresses me about this passage is the almost complete absence of humans in it. Even though the section describes the dropping of leaflets from a plane warning a town to prepare for an Allied bombardment, there is no mention of people picking up the leaflets and reading them, of people panicking and streaming out of town, of anyone in these streets and under these rooftops doing anything at all. The town seems inert, weary, resigned.

The whole act of picking out a town for bombardment and warning is rendered completely impersonal and bloodless. This absence of human activity and response contributes to the drama when the first human action occurs, when "American military units" (also very impersonal) drop (here is the human action) shells into mortars. The mortars themselves, which have mouths, are more human than anything else in this passage.