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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.


Sentence of the Week, December 11

From Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushie, we have:

Unless, of course, there's no such thing as chance; in which case Musa--for all his age and servility--was nothing less than a time-bomb ticking softly away until his appointed time; in which case we should either--optimistically--get up and cheer, because if everything is planned in advance, then we all have a meaning, and are spared the term of knowing ourselves to be random, without a why; or else, of course, we might--as pessimists--give up right here and now, understanding the futility of thought decision action, since nothing we think makes any difference anyway; things will be as they will.

First of all, I think by Musa Rushie is referring to Moses, Musa being the Islamic term for the Hebrew prophet Muslims revere as one of the greatest predecessors of Mohammad. Musa would be one of the progenitors of faith, the man who, along with Abraham, set religious thinking in motion.

What I love about this sentence is how scatterbrained it is, full of dashes, pauses, charges forward, and reversals--the second to last clause, for example, takes away most of the energy of the clause before it ("we should get up and cheer...we might give up right here and now"). The sentence is more or less arguing that there is no such thing as chance, while its structure is wild and the very embodiment of randomness. The structure belies the sense.

And yet logically, it doesn't--the appearance of randomness doesn't necessarily mean randomness exists. Much of Midnight's Children is an exploration of this idea, the tension between randomness, freedom, and fate. The sentence doesn't answer the question. Neither does the entire book, but I would be disappointed in the book if it did.


On Expensive Watches / Sentence of the Week

One sign that Christmas is approaching is the appearance of jewelry ads. When The New Yorker magazine starts carrying ads on its back cover about watches every week, I know the holiday blitz is coming.

This week's back cover featured the Breguet Classique Hora Mundi watch, a beautiful timepiece. I have been considering a new watch for a little while -- mine, a Seiko, is more than 15 years old. I buy watches to last, but after awhile it is time for a new look.

So I thought, Brequet, probably out of my price range, but who knows? The New Yorker ad contained no hint of price, which should have been my first warning. Google told the truth: $89,700 for platinum, a mere $75,100 for rose gold. Hey, maybe they will go on sale after the holidays...

First, let me clear something up: I can't afford an $90,000 watch, in case you are wondering. But if I could, would I?

That took about 30 seconds of soul searching. No, 3 seconds. Not ever. Even if I were a billionaire, with virtually unlimited funds, I would never spend that kind of money on a watch. If someone gave a watch like that to me for free, I would give it back. Really.

There are, to use a cliche, two types of people in the world. Those who think 90 grand is fine to spend on a watch if you can afford it, and those who think no watch is worth that kind of money, not if the pope wore it, not if the Nobel committee gave it to them as a gift. I am in the second category. I only tolerate luxury up to a point (although to be fair my point is probably highter than a lot of people's), and beyond that guilt creeps in. There are so many better things to do with $90k.

Sentence of the Week

From that same New Yorker, an article by Emma Brockes on the British playwright Jez Butterworth:

One is aware there are words Butterworth uses partly because he finds them amusing: prannie, prannock, flapjack, Maypole, Chorleywood, pisshead, and accordion, among others -- words he picks up and saves like a magpie.

I had forgotten the legend about how magpies collect shiny objects and carry them to their nests. Brockes's comparison of Butterworth's language to a bird collecting shiny objects was illustrative and unexpected.

(It is, by the way, a legend. According to Science News, magpies do not collect shiny things.)


His or Her: A Stylistic Proposal

Supposedly, I left grammar behind a long time ago, back on one of those ragged tables in Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, where I (successfully, I believe) majored in English. 

Except that you live your life twice -- at least twice. Once on your own, and once through your children. And if you are lucky to live long enough and to be close enough to them, again through your grandchildren.

All of which is to say that my kids are learning grammar, and so I am reliving it. And I like it. Grammar can be boring, sure, but there is power in knowing how a sentence is put together and what the function of every word in it is (and yes, I used to know that). And there is freedom as well.

Freedom you say? What, are you mad? Yes, friend, freedom. Because the better I know grammar the easier it is for me to know what my choices are, as a sentence uncoils across a computer screen under the urging of my fingerpecks. When you know what is right and what is wrong, it is easier to say things with confidence.

But there remains, even after all the intervening years since my last visit to the grammar bar, an unending problem in English writing -- he or she. As in, when you speak of an individual in the third person whose gender is nonspecific, do you say he or she? Or he or she or they, or even he/she or s/he?

As in:

1. Every student must make his own presentation.

2. Every student must make her own presentation.

3. Every student must make his or her own presentation.

4. Every student must make his/her own presentation.

5. Every student must make their own presentation.


Let's sort this out. We have 5 options, all told.

First, option 4 is out. I don't like slashes in sentences for many reasons. It feels disruptive and brings attention to itself. Besides, it makes reading aloud sound ridiculous. (Go ahead, pronounce s/he.)

I don't like option 3. It adds two words to the sentence that add no additional meaning. I will give you that a feminist might want the female gender to be included in all generalities. But not at the cost of making a sentence unwieldy.

Option 5 is also unattractive. You have a singular subject and a plural possessive pronoun referring to it. While this is perfectly intelligible (and common in spoken language), it can lead to grammatical hell. As you go forward, do you stick with the singular or pleural, or make a mess of it?


Every student must make their own presentation. Their (his/her?) assigned times (time?) are (is?) posted in the hallway.


Mixing genders and numbers can lead to one problem after another.

That leaves us with options 1 and 2, both of which seem perfectly acceptable. But which one? I perfectly hate Stephen Pinker's solution in A Sense of Style, which is to flip a coin and then alternate genders in each chapter. First of all, not all works are that long, so alternation may not be possible, and second, the reader may notice that you are alternating genders, which calls attention to an issue that really is secondary to the substance of the material the writer is trying to get across.

What I like is for each writer to use his own gender. So I, a male, always use he, and a woman will always use she. This, if followed, also conveys the information that the writer is a man or a woman, which could be worth knowing. However, if a woman wants to use he or a man wants to use she, so be it, but don't switch. Once you decide, consider it to be like your middle name. Always present, never changing, but mostly tucked away and unobtrusive, a silent decision made long ago.


Goodbye, Bob Edwards

A heartfelt goodbye to Bob Edwards, who left his post at Sirius XM as host of "The Bob Edwards Show" on Friday.

In my opinion, Edwards is the greatest interviewer in the history of radio. He was host of "Morning Edition" on NPR until 2004, then moved to satellite radio for another 10 years.

His work has been a bit under the radar since 2004, since many people do not have satellite radio as I do, and therefore have not heard his show. What I love about Edwards is his willingness to interview fiction writers, scientists, and artists far outside the mainstream, and to interview them sensitively and well. Of all the interviewers I have seen throughout mainstream media, Stephen Colbert is the only other one I know of who consistently interviews artists (the non-acting kind) and fiction writers. It is a rare breed, and I for one will miss Bob Edwards greatly.


Dear Scotland,

Now, I admit I have no dog in the independence fight. Oh wait, my grandfather was Scottish....Unlike in most European countries, here in the US we are Americans until there is a provincial fight of some kind, and then we revert to acting as if we are citizens of our ancestor's countries. So I claim standing.

Don't do it. Don't be dumb.

Seriously, Scotland, you are the butt of a lot of jokes, not as many as the Irish, but pretty many. Don't make this worse by splitting off from England. Don't be stupid. The world is full of stupid actors: Kim Jung-whatever, everybody in ISIS (let's face it, everyone hates them and they are all going to die, and pretty soon), Vladmir Putin (who thinks he will finance a takeover of the Ukraine by borrowing against natural gas sales to Europe), and the mayor of Toronto. Oh, and Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. No fool's list is complete without those two.

I don't have a lot of facts to fight with, and don't pretent to be well-informed about U.K politics, but that isn't necessary. When somebody comes to me walking on two healthy legs and tells me he wants them chopped off, I don't need to understand the "nuances" to say he's a fool. Scotlland, you do this, and you are a fool. Skip the Irish jokes, it's going to be Scot jokes all the way.

In the modern world, countries don't generally get prosperous by splitting off from their larger, richer neighbors. It's true that as an American I don't seem to have much room to talk, since the Revolution went pretty well for us, but that's ignoring nuances (which in this case, unlike yours, matter). The U.S. and the U.K. aren't neighbors, and it is doubtful that at such a long distance Parliament could have managed westward expansion as well as America did. (Or killing Native Americans and Mexicans, but that's another story.) Long distance relationships are tough with smartphones; try sustaining one through letters carried across the Atlantic at five knots in ships that sunk 20% of the time. And more recently, the Brits made a mess of India, and distance had a lot to do with that, too. 

Yes, Ireland was treated badly by England, but Scotland never has been. That's because unlike the Irish, the Scots converted to the Church of England when the monarch told them to. So no harm, no foul. Scots have been represented in Parliament from the beginning of the union (and if the U.S. had been accorded such kindness I doubt Thomas Jefferson would have set to writing Declarations). Scots held the Prime Ministership in the UK 11 times since the 1700s -not a bad showing for less than 10% of the population. Scotland has about as much right to call itself oppressed as Wall Street bankers do.

Enough history. I don't know any more history anyway. Let's talk about the future. The point is, the future of the planet will be dominated by ever larger economies. The U.S. is the third largest country on earth in land area and third largest in population. There is a reason we are dominant: We are bigger.

Look at other large countries. China has the largest population and is conisidered an up-and-coming economy. India at number two has further to go, but American companies are moving their tech support divisions there for a reason. Bollywood makes more movies by far than Hollywood. At number 5 you have Brazil, yet another rapid growth nation. Size matters.

No, it isn't all about size, but size helps. It provides larger markets, more capital, more food production. Large economies attract the big money from around the globe.

With a population of 63,000,000 the UK sits at 22, not great (no pun intended), but competitive. Scotland has 5.2 million. Break off from England, and you bust yourself to 117, just behind Turkmenistan, but a notch above Norway. That sound like a strategy for growth to you, Scotland? It sounds dumb, just plain dumb to me.

Think this though. For once. Open borders between England and Scotland means an unemployed Scot can find a job in London by boarding a train. As of right now. If you decide to break off, it will require a work visa, and if economic times are bad and unemployment is high the Brits won't be welcoming Scots into the neighborhood. When the economy crashes, you are on your own. 

As a native of New Orleans I hate Atlanta as much as the next New Orleanian, but I would never vote to make it harder for my kids to move there to get a job. That is exactly what you are considering doing.

And don't think the oil in the North Sea is going to pay the bills. Do you remember I said I was from Louisiana? In Louisiana we had large oil reserves, and Johnny Fastbucks from Dallas and Atlanta and New York swept in, took all the money and the profits, and left Lousiana with the oil spills. Does the name British Petroleum mean anything to you? They ain't based in Edinburg, mukker.

As a citizen of the American South, I do have something to say about breaking off. People around here tried to break off from the USA a little bit ago, and I don't mind saying that divorce went badly, and we are damn lucky we didn't succeed. I don't want to think about what would have happened if we had succeeded in cutting off that leg. My kids would be sitting in school right now learning about how the Yankees put a man on the moon. Yes, I know Apollo was launched from Florida, but a nation that would have held onto slavery until the 1920s would not have put a man in space. I wonder if a nation like that would have had schools to put kids in, period.

I know the EU hasn't worked out well lately, but believe me, the future belongs to the joiners, not to the splitters. Here in America, from time to time a few lunatics in Texas (including the governor) will pipe up about separating from the U.S., but everyone here knows it is a lame joke. Texas separates from the Union and the first thing that happens is the other 49 states will end border protection and shut off the water. Deep down Texas knows the water in the Rio Grande comes from the Rockies. Texas will last about a week without water.

As for you, Scotland, you won't know what you depend on from England until the Brits close the border. Then you will see. And you will not like. You may safely assume the U.S., and China, and Germany -- you know, the people with all the money -- won't be on your side. Sure, the U.S. will say, good luck, blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada, and then it will back England in everything that matters. Because London has loads of money and you don't. 

Hey, I'm American; I'm just being honest. We have a plutocracy over here, and our plutocrats love the London stock market. You are screwed here. Maybe not on day one, maybe not even in year one, but one day soon, and forever.

We Southerners lost the Civil War (and no, I do NOT call it the War Between the States, or some other Southern stupidity) and 150 years later, any Southerner who doesn't admit we lucked out by losing is a racist ignoramus. The Northeastern US economy was on fire in 1861 and had more than 100 years left to burn, and because we lost the war we got to tap into that. Now in the 21st century a lot of the South is doing better than the North, and they are tapping into us. 

That's what happens when you stick together. You take turns holding each other up.

Come on, Scotland. Everyone knows who you are.You're not gaining any name recognition, or respect, or attention by going independent. Your population is roughly the same as the state I live in, land area about the same, too, but Scotland's name recognition far exceeds Mississippi's outside of the U.S. We know your whiskey is great, your highlands are beautiful, we dig the Loch Ness monster even more than our hairy Bigfoot, and you eat food we find amusing. Do you know what Mississippians eat? Nope. Do you know what we drink? Scotch.

Don't cut off your leg just so you can have your own separate page in Encyclopedia Britannica.

 You know, the fact that the only encyclopedia left that is worth having is called Britannica ought to, all by itself, give you pause.

Your friend,

Michael C "there's a Scot in that family tree somewhere" Hebert