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This is a slippery topic with a wide variety of entrance and exit points. I will take a pair, and perhaps return later to explore others.
We all read about the alarming problem of student loan debt, racked up by expenses for achieving a “college education.” The logic is simple: without a college degree, your future prospects are garbage. Get a degree, and you can presumably write your own success story.
My simple retort: “Bullshit!”
There is a huge difference between a “credential” and an “education.” The degree is the credential, the education is much more difficult to wrap your arms around.
Before World War II, college was a more or less a privileged environment. Only high-achievers and dedicated grinds got a degree, along with the sons and daughters of wealthy families who saw it as a “right of passage,” which it still is in many ways.
Post WWII, with the GI Bill, a lot of vets got a pretty good college education. And this started the ball rolling toward our present predicament.
The issue is this: until the 1970s or so, a high school diploma represented a badge of significant achievement. Most kids were achieving at what we now call “grade level,” and when you got your H.S. diploma, it meant you knew the basics of reading, comprehension, composition, math, some science, some civics (“social studies”), some geography, some very basic history, and a year or two (mostly useless) of a foreign language, mostly Spanish, maybe French.
For guys, you also got manual arts (wood shop, metal shop — I still have a pretty decent lamp I turned on a lathe in wood shop), and for the gals, home economics (you know the drill!).
In the 70s, things began to shift and slip. Teachers, recognizing that failing students would doom them to a life of poverty, began to pass them along with “grade inflation.” Unless you were a complete idiot, you would get “passed along.” Each teacher assumed the next one would blow the whistle, but no one did. So kids were graduating from (yes, “FROM”) high school with skills that were probably equivalent to a realistic 7th or 8th grade education.
God only knows what it is now!
As a result, colleges stared remedial education for the first year or two to bring their students “up to speed.” And of course, the real value of the BA and BS began to fade.
I will make a [not so] bold guess that today’s college graduate is about equal to the H.S. graduate of 50 years ago.
A Real Education
So what is a college education supposed to be? It’s as I described above pre-1970, giving graduates the ability to follow current events with some judgment and discernment. Indeed, one of the reasons we have the educational system we do is because we live in a democracy where the electorate is supposed to understand the issues!
In college you learn that “knowledge” is not a matter of simple facts. College teaches you to ask questions, to analyze, to weigh pros and cons, to do research in multiple media, to evaluate sources of information, to essentially come to terms with the human condition or, in the sciences, with what is involved in doing real scientific research (where everything is up for grabs, but must be pursued via the scientific method plus some creativity to achieve real breakthroughs). Or it is to achieve a better grasp of and deeper familiarity with the fine arts and performing arts. College is for people who are almost adults, who are ready to live with ambiguity. The message is: “You are almost grown up. The secret you need to know is, there are no absolutes. Everything is open to question and analysis. Trust your faith, but understand that others may have a different faith, which you must apply yourself to understanding, while you remain true to your own. And never forget that you are just beginning a path of life-long learning, which this education has given you the tools to pursue on your own.”
This is the lesson of college and of life, and IF TRULY MASTERED, is often a key ingredient in wonderful marriages, scientific advancement, responsible public officials, outstanding teachers, brilliant artists and writers, model citizens, and so on and so on.
The Naked Truth
But the naked truth is that only a small percentage of people are willing to take this roller coaster ride. Most are just looking for a “credential” which will help them get a good job, contribute to a healthy two-income family, and raise well-adjusted kids who can go on to do the same.
They really can’t give two flying effers for the Pythagorian Theorum or existential philosophy or even Quantum Mechanics, which is going to be the A-B-Cs of future education.
So, like the victim of “Sixteen Tons,” they get another day older and deeper in debt, because they “had to” get a “college education” to get a good job, but what they got was a phony parchment with almost zero credibility. AND - they paid tens of thousands of dollars for this piece of worthless garbage!
And the elephant in the room is that employers see through their charade, and won’t hire them just because they have a “college degree.” The degree is worth even less than a high school diploma of 50 years ago, because there really are no standards out there. [In a future post, I may riff on why graduate school is equally fraudulent…]
The Bottom Line
So, what’s it all about, Alfie? I’ll take the phrase “life-long learning.” In my own experience, I would say that every 15 to 20 years you have to reboot and learn a whole new set of skills. And I don’t mean going to school again. There are many ways to get these skills on your own, on the job, in the community, or in some kind of intern program. And I’m not talking about doing this for free. If you play your cards right, you can get paid for learning. (For a good current example see http://t.co/JVtrZGKlIc). But truly earning your first college degree, and taking it seriously, is the key to acquiring further knowledge and mastery on your own later in life.
And here’s the punch line (at last)! There are few things more fun and exciting than keeping up with a variety of subjects you make your own. Whatever your profession, attend seminars, sit in on Webinars, go to conferences, talk to people, NETWORK! And the most important thing — pick a couple of areas of expertise that interest or intrigue you that are NOT in your professional area and keep track of these, as well. They can be hobbies, or pet peeves, or personal interests like movies or electronics or sewing or cooking or travel or whatever. But take them seriously, subscribe to enewsletters or magazines, read books in those subject areas — KEEP UP!
As I said, life-long learning. Don’t belly ache about being too tired or strung out or “busy.” You have one life to live, my friend. Live it to the fullest, and pass along your wisdom. Only try to do it a little more gently than I do, because people accuse me of being a little too “pedantic.” But I’ll take pedantry over apathy, prejudice, hubris, and arrogance any day of the week!
Three of my favorite writers are Irish: James Joyce, Joyce Carey, and J.P. Donleavy. I’ve read a few of James Joyce’s shorter works, plus all of Ulysses in its entirety (in college). It had a profound influence on me, and was, along with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, a wonderful immersion in a literary adventure of gargantuan proportions (and indeed these writers all owe some debt to Voltaire). I own all of Joyce Carey, but have as yet only read two of his novels, including The Horse’s Mouth. It is such a hilarious romp! Writing this I am inspired to tackle the rest of them in the very near future.
And finally, J. P. Donleavy, whose 1955 book The Ginger Man is probably the single most hilarious and invigorating portrayal of raucous debauchery in print. I liked it so much I also got Donleavy’s The History of the Ginger Man about how the book came to be. And I’ve read The Destinies of Darcy Dancer and several other of Donleavy’s books. Can’t get enough of him!
James Joyce may be a difficult author. But Carey and Donleavy are not only accessible to all readers, but a hell of a lot of fun, to boot! Let me know what you think of all three of them….
Detroit’s bankruptcy filing has spawned a torrent of comment from all directions. I am far from an expert on the subject (although I did spend a month there in July 1976 during the Bicentennial doing research for a Master’s Degree using historical documents - unrelated to Detroit - that were housed in the Detroit Public Library. I also had a client there about ten years ago, right in the downtown area.) But Detroit’s plight provides a perfect backdrop for my perspective on what constitutes the essence of vibrant city life.
To me, urban culture is a celebration of diversity: physically multi-dimensional, socially multi-cultural, and inherently multi-faceted in a way that almost no other environment can replicate. One could argue that a university has these attributes, but I specified “physically” multi-dimensional, which means shops of all sizes, museums, churches and other places of worship/meditation, schools, sports stadiums, symphony halls, office buildings large and small, hospitals, professional services in abundance (everything from doctors and lawyers to accountants and consultants), a substantial newspaper office (even if the newspaper is no longer substantial), streets small and large, and a wide variety of restaurants and food emporiums. Alas, what they usually lack is adequate parking, good public transportation, large/great supermarkets, and expansive car dealerships (to name a few things).
Some cities are more “cosmopolitan” than others, but virtually every city has a much higher level of diversity than small towns do. I currently live in a city of about 10,000 people, and grew up not too far away in a city that had 12,000 people. I don’t really classify either as an “urban” environment, since the “downtown” areas in each case comprise only two or three blocks — [Somebody has probably done a study of the ratio of a city’s population to the number of shopping blocks it has… although older cities will likely have a denser ratio because newer ones rely more on nearby or in-city shopping malls or strip centers, which provide the otherwise absent parking] — but they are both much more racially and sociologically diverse than most small towns tend to be. Of course, nearly everywhere “birds of a feather flock together,” so there may be less intermingling than meets the eye, but I find that class and income are bigger determinants of cohort formation than race or religion.
One thing every true city will have, though, is a healthy representation of the arts, from fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) to music to movies to theater to bookstores (although there’s a Barnes and Noble in so many suburban malls these days that it’s only the specialty booksellers that make the city special for bibliophiles). And that provides a major lift to city life in so many ways for nearly everyone who lives there.
But for all of this to happen and for a city to thrive, you need a “critical mass” of large businesses located in the city proper, which make donations to or underwrite many of the above-mentioned elements of city life (including the sports stadiums, which bear the names of their corporate benefactors). And people who work in the city by day have to be there in the evening and on the weekends to take advantage of all these resources. No city that empties outside of work hours is ever going to survive.
Philadelphia in the last ten years has thankfully seen a reverse-migration of residents whose parents had fled to the suburbs in the 70s and 80s. As a result, the city has come alive and updated itself in remarkable ways. The Philadelphia Orchestra is world-renown, our large roster of museums has been augmented with the migration of The Barnes Foundation onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (from its suburban location), and the entire city is being spruced up and beautified with touches large and small that make it a superb urban environment.
It seems as though Detroit lost the key ingredient — the critical mass of large businesses — when the “outmigration” everyone is talking about took place a generation ago. But I think the real problem is that the business scene was an automotive monoculture, which means they put all their eggs in one basket. That’s great when the basket is sturdy, and a disaster when the basket starts to break apart. Put another way, except for Motown and the music scene (which was never a big employer), Detroit was never more than a big small town, a “company town” in the sense that the Big Three auto makers were a tri-partite dominant employer that were destined to rise or fall more or less in sync. That’s not diversity; that’s insanity if you want to be a viable city.
I could go on and on, for the Rubic’s cube of urban magic is not easily encapsulated. But enough for now. What’s your take on this?
One of my biggest pet peeves is that far too many (almost all?) American travelers (and those from many other cultures, as well) spend almost all of their time on the road “in the bubble,” i.e., not just in their “comfort zone,” but in a mini-environment that is hermetically sealed against the culture in which they find themselves, and is intended to replicate as much as possible the amenities of their home and homeland. (This is not intended as a parallel to the “bubble” shows now on TV and in the movies.)
The result, of course, is that wherever they go, these travelers are more nearly “back home” in their living rooms (as if they were watching it all on video) than they are in the midst of where they have gone to. This even applies to domestic travel, where every hotel room is like every other, and every restaurant ditto. Back in 1969 there was the movie “It It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” which parodied this syndrome to a certain extent (that’s not what the movie was mainly about…).
Let’s take domestic travel first, since more readers have direct experience of this. I’ll even forego the motel/hotel rant, since that’s the least of the problem. How many people go on vacations where what they see and eat and do is not that different from what they left back home? Plenty!
Then why bother traveling? It’s far better to seek out the by-ways and treasures that are much harder to find, and to explore a few of these in depth, than to get a superficial drive-by and pass-through that conveys little of what the local people and culture are all about.
Though travel is certainly not all about food, that’s still a good way to get beyond what even the secondary and tertiary tourist “attractions” have to offer. If I can, when I am visiting a new place (urban or rural) I try to eat where the locals eat. For example, I went to a Holiday Inn in North Carolina that was halfway between Wilson and I-95 that had a pulled pork dinner, which consisted of an entire roast pig (complete with apple in mouth) that had been slit open on its side, allowing diners to literally pull the pork from the carcass. That, plus all the fixings, made for a spectacular dinner and overall dining experience!
Of course, dining local doesn’t have to be “native.” In Athens, Ohio (one of the state’s smaller cities), there are a middle east and and a Greek restaurant. It helps that this is a college town, but the food was outstanding in both. And the local burger joint and hangout was also excellent, with many gourmet burger choices. On the other side of the Interstate, where the motels all are located, are the national chains. Bleh!
It gets even better for international travel. While some cuisines are a bit difficult to stomach, most have a wide variety of dishes of all sorts that you won’t find even in the restaurants of those nationalities back in the States. Be adventurous — try something that sounds interesting (not by name, but by ingredients and method of preparation). This includes drinks as well as the food itself. And don’t forget the desserts!
And finally, all meals everywhere should be enjoyed at leisure. Don’t rush the eating or the service (and bear in mind that abroad quite often the pace of service is inherently slower than most Americans are accustomed to — and you may be expected to ask for the bill when you are ready; it would be inconsiderate to assume you are done before you signal that your are). A leisurely lunch in an outdoor cafe can morph into an afternoon of people-watching over desert and a pause that refreshes as you have your final cup of coffee or tea or glass of wine or beer as the sun begins its slow but certain descent. It may be the same sun you see back home, but I guarantee that the quality of the light will be different, wherever you happen to be. Look, and you will see! I’ll take that afternoon over visiting one more soon-forgotten site anytime, anywhere (although a morning spent exploring the shops and by-ways and galleries and special sites of interest is an ideal way to work up an appetite and stoke a thirst).
(Spoiler Alert: Nothing in this entry is novel or earthshaking, but truisms that bear repeating from time to time.)
The phenomenon of Google Glass got me thinking that in the very near future, almost any kind of information you need (ANY KIND!) will be instantly available to you anywhere you are via some kind of wearable interactive Web-connected device (assuming improvements in battery power and ubiquitous WiFi). Even though multi-tasking has been shown to be a sham, I think we will develop a way to quick-shift between the Web view and the reality in front of us, much as you might look up the definition of a word on your eReader as you are engaged in the act of reading (only much, much faster).
So in a world of instantly available bits of information — or chunks of information, which seems a more accurate term — the challenge then becomes to sort the wheat from the chaff. Indeed — to assess all data and information and purported “facts” to determine the validity of each, the degree of truthfulness, the applicability, the relevance, and of course the provenance of what you are addressing or is addressing you.
In short, one needs to develop “critical thinking” skills. And I believe that developing such skills is the most important goal of education for the current century, and probably beyond. These skills need to be developed from the earliest days of education. Well, perhaps starting in kindergarten. One could play games where a you have to make a statement about the color of a ball. “The ball is not red.” “The ball is not green.” “The ball is blue.” And then the class has to assess the validity of statements about the ball: “The ball bounces.” “The ball is not rubber.” “The ball is plastic.” “The ball floats.”
Beyond Critical Thinking
As an extension of this basic structure of educational endeavor, I think two other elements need to come into play. One is the Socratic Method, whereby knowledge is acquired via inquiry and debate among individuals with opposing viewpoints asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate perception, concepts, and ideas. Or even to define things: what is a star? What is a mammal? What is a “cat?”
The ultimate objective here is to demonstrate that there are more than two sides to many things, and that what something “is” often depends on one’s point of view, underlying belief structure, past experience, and cultural environment.
Which leads to the second element: the acknowledgement that learning is a lifelong process, and never confined simply to the classroom or to a formal learning environment. We are all students and all teachers, at all times, in all ways.
Among the basic skills everyone needs to survive in the 21st century is a basic understanding of how computers work, how computer programs are written, how the Internet works, and what algorithms are and how they work. The logic of algorithms may seem reductionist to most people, but it need not be. Ultimately, the brain depends on its own algorithms, which are constantly evolving in response to the environment, to competing results of an algorithm based on successive experiences, and so on. If we go back and look at Ada Lovelace’s work with Babbage’s Logic Engine in the 19th century, and her path-breaking work deriving the first algorithm to be processed by a machine — making the daughter of the poet Lord Byron the first computer programmer — we can see just how invaluable such skills truly are. And how they are not confined to “nerds” and “geeks.” If you appreciate music — and everyone should in their own fashion and to their own ability — then you can appreciate algorithms (why that is so is for another post). As you must, to be fully engaged with the world around you as you interact with the ubiquitous online environment in the Brave New World.
Elsewhere on this blog I have written about Percy, the husband of my mother’s lifelong best friend (all three now sadly passed away). What I did not mention in that post was that my mother’s bf, Jean, ran a very successful business from her home called “Art Lenders.” This was in the 1950s and 60s, and the purpose of the enterprise was to provide original works of art by Canadian artists (Percy and Jean lived in Montreal, where my mother was born) to businesses in the Montreal area, on loan, so that they could exchange them for other works of art from time to time (I have no idea what fees she charged, but I’m sure they were fair — to the businesses and to her!). This was a big win-win for everyone, especially the artists, who got their work exposed in very public areas long before subventions for “public art” became politically popular.
Her living room was her “showroom.” There were three or four very large “peninsulas” of paintings that ran from one long wall halfway into the room, set on wooden rails that may have been padded in some way — I don’t recall. The average size of the paintings was 3’ x 4’, but some were quite a bit larger (closer to the wall) and some much smaller (down to 9” x 12” size). I honestly don’t remember whether there was any logic to the arrangements of the groups, but I suspect there was some method to the madness.
In any case, although there were all media represented (oil, watercolor, gouache, pastel, block printing), it was the oils that gave off that redolence of the adventurous that one associates with the core of the art world. I took water color painting lessons at the Phila. Museum of Art as a child, and it was the smells there that I still recall the most vividly. The pungency was not as dramatic in Jean’s living room, but it was certainly part of the atmosphere of that most magical of rooms.
My parents, of course, purchased pieces of art from Jean (everything on loan was also available for purchase). The largest piece they acquired was a huge, almost life-size semi-abstract nude (from the rear), a very striking piece in dusky colors. There were a few small landscapes, and some abstract pieces done in something that looked to me like very fine crayon. I still have a couple of those. Obviously, these pieces of art were given pride of place in my parents’ home, where they also displayed a number of inexpensive framed reproductions..
Thumbs up for Originals
Even though the reproductions were interesting, it was the original art that I cherished the most. There is something about having an original on your walls that adds a vibrancy to a room not easily attained in any other way. “Originals” include numbered prints, which show the total number of prints pulled from the original multi-color etching or lithography preceded by the number in the series that this print represents (for example, 15/250 means this is the 15th “pull” from the total of 250 reproduced). Since each color is laid separately, there is a definite sense of dimension to the art surface, unlike mass-printed reproductions, such as you would find in even the best art books (well, maybe not THE best, which would have original lithos tipped in, but you know what I mean).
In my adult life, I have owned many pieces of art, many of them pure mass reproductions, but quite a few original pieces as well. And it is the originals that are, of course, the most cherished. I think it is important for everyone with any sense of appreciation for art of any kind (sculpture, mobiles, paper mache, painting, photography) to own something original, something you might have to budget for, something you sacrifice to own for the sake of enjoying the art, feeling a sense of communion with the artist’s view of the world, and having a sense of connection with whatever the art represents (which is entirely up to you to decide, of course!). That applies even to those who are artists themselves!
It could be one tiny little painting, or a wall-size mural. It doesn’t matter. Just own it! And if you get “tired” of it, exchange it for something else. There are countless art galleries of all sizes everywhere in the world, and most of them will probably be delighted to work with you on this. If you buy something for, say, $500 (or $1,500 or $5,000), ask if you can exchange it down the road (in perfect condition, of course) with a credit for some percentage of the original price of the first piece. I have no idea what percentage you’ll get, but I should imagine it would be somewhere in the 30 - 40 percent range (I can just see some gallery owners reaching for their pitchforks about now…!). The math on this assumes that the original you purchased has increased in value, so that you might get a $150 (or $450 or $1,200) credit on a piece that the gallery gets to repossess at perhaps double the original cost/value. So again, everybody gains here.
Curiator Is A Pinterest-Style Marketplace To Help You Discover and Buy The Art You Like”
In the UK, "own art" makes it “easy and affordable” to purchase original art, subsidizing purchases over a ten-month period. They also do art loans.
And check out this site for more information on affordable art.
But this is not a blog about “investing” in original art. I have no expertise. Quite the opposite. My wife and I own a half dozen fine art prints in limited editions of the popular British artist Beryl Cook. Her US dealer is local to us, and we got one of these as 3/300, with the first one going to Beryl herself and the second to the dealer. She even penciled in a nice dedication to us on the print we bought. She was up in years, and when she died in 2008 we assumed that her prints would increase in value. But they were “too popular,” I suppose, and the “fashion” for Beryls has passed. But as anyone who buys art will be quick to tell you, only buy what you really like. We still have the Beryls on our walls, and probably always will, even though, if anything, they may be declining in market value. It’s not the value that the market dictates that makes the art work valuable to us. It’s the lift in the spirits that her quintessentially playful pieces produces in us that we cherish.
So don’t settle for cheap reproductions. Go for the real thing, in whatever way you can afford. And know that you are part of something much larger than yourself, for the world of art is a broad window on the human condition — a room with a magnificent view! And one of your own choosing. So choose wisely!
I am one of countless millions whose parents met under circumstances of perfectly proportioned coincidence. If any of one of many multiple variables and contingencies not happened as they did, I would not be writing this blog post.
My father was born in Eureka, CA, and grew up on a wheat farm in Washington State. His parents sold the farm when he was entering adolescence, and the family moved to Oregon, where my father entered the Univ. of Oregon and got his B.A. in electrical engineering in 1935. As the country was deep in The Depression, he was lucky to get a job with a local telephone company in Washington state — not pole climbing, but a desk job helping to plan and manage the growing electrical grid.
A somewhat shy man, my father had a close circle of friends but no committed romantic engagements when World War II came along. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Before the US entered the war, it had a special agreement with Canada whereby the Canadians were allowed to recruit for the Royal Air Force in US states that bordered Canada. My father saw a notice about a recruitment meeting, and decided it was something he should look into. That night, he signed up to join the RAF to work in England on a then-experimental technology we now call Radar. That, by itself, is an amazing story. But we’re just getting started.
There were about a thousand American men (not sure if the absence of women was intentional, but I suspect so) whom the RAF recruited (not all for the Radar team, many for other duties). Anyway, the RAF set up a transcontinental train that left Vancouver and worked its way across Canada, picking up recruits along the way, headed for Montreal, where they would be put on board an ocean liner sailing for Southampton, England. Some of these guys were members of The Eagle Squadron. (And there is a Website about these 1,000 recruits which I’ll locate and include here soon.)
When the train arrived in Montreal one Saturday afternoon in 1940, my father joined three other recruits to go out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. My mother, who was born and raised in Montreal, had that evening arranged with three other friends to go out do dinner, and they decided to have Chinese. Sounds like a set-up for “a man walked into a bar” joke, and it was. Four Yankee RAF recruits and four young single Montreal women of the same age walking into the same Chinese restaurant at the same time, it was inevitable that they would arrange to sit together. I am 100% positive that my father would never have hooked up that night alone, but under the circumstances, it was Kismet. My father took my mother’s address and promised to write. And he lived up to the promise. I have thousands of letters they wrote to each other, and when the war was over he came back to Montreal, formally proposed to her, and they were married shortly thereafter, with my mother becoming a naturalized American citizen and my father taking a job in electrical engineering in Detroit. After living there a year with my mother working as well as a legal secretary, my father got a job with RCA (in southern New Jersey) where he spent the next 30 years, until he retired from the Sarnoff labs in Princeton in 1978.
I have since visited with some of my father’s British colleagues in SW England. And I have those thousands of letters sealed in plastic tubs. One of these days I hope to get around to reading them all. When I was a child, they were kept in an old suitcase in the attic which my mother forbade me to open, saying only that the time would come when that would be appropriate. I think the time is long overdue, actually. They both passed away in the late 1990s. There is a book there, maybe three. Maybe three thousand and counting!
My mother was born in Montreal, and her best friend, who lived there the rest of her life, was married to a gentleman named “Percy.” My most memorable moment with Percy was when, as a teenager, I walked into their apartment on one of my summer family visits to Montreal and found him seated on a kitchen chair in his undershirt in the hallway, pealing a bushel of potatoes into a cast iron tub, the late afternoon light casting long shadows. He looked up and smiled at me, then retreated back into the task at hand.
While Percy, who looked a bit like James Joyce, had his practical, man-of-the-house side, his day job as a newspaper journalist allowed him both flights of fancy and dogged digging through layers of agitprop to get to the heart of any matter he set his mind to. He was particularly good on international affairs, or at least seemed so to me at the time (I have never gone back to see what his views were on events on which I might now have a mature opinion). He was a raconteur, but one with a strong personal point of view as well as a vast perspective that gave depth and breadth to any subject he touched. And, like any good journalist, he had the knack of identifying the telling point or detail that shed a keen light on the the topic under discussion.
Like my father, Percy was a pipe smoker. So he had his smoking paraphernalia to enhance the overall effect of his pontifications. That may be too strong a word, but aptly characterizes the effect he had on me. I never tired of asking him questions about the events of the day, and listening to him either dismiss the question as off-the-mark (and proceed to lay out an alternative approach that short-circuited any party line) or, with a twinkle in his eye, nod approvingly and launch into a brief but perspicacious analysis of who, how, and especially why and why not and what might be. His ability to make connections between superficially unrelated issues was particularly impressive to me.
In addition to the three-week visits to Montreal every summer from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, I was very fortunate to be with Percy and his wife (still my mother’s best friend) in Nice, France, in June 1967, at the outbreak of the Six Day War. I was in the midst of a sixth-month work/study abroad program in college, which I spent in various locations in France, but should have gotten extra credit for this special day. While zealots were marching up the sun-drenched Promenades des Anglais along the French Rivieria carrying banners and placards for and against the war, their chanting drifted up to Percy’s vacation apartment, where I listened to him pick apart the entire event in a way that no news medium of the time was prepared to do. It is one of the most vivid and cherished memories of my “youth.”
It was not Percy’s job as a journalist that impressed me so much as the way he undertook it. As a role model for me, he started from a foundation of wide reading and informed knowledge, went directly to the sources he needed for key information, and translated this into both a perspective and a critical argument that ran circles around conventional wisdom. Nothing about Percy was “conventional” in my eyes, and he was all the more compelling for that. And he was not a show-off: he took it all for granted.
There was a vast difference in our ages: my mother married late for her generation (World War II intervened), and her best friend had married a man almost old enough to be her father. So there was almost a half century between us. But what made Percy the perfect role model for me was that he never stood on any ceremony based on that age difference. We had a relationship that no blood relative could have achieved, although he was obviously much like (but also more than and still less than) an uncle. But because he wasn’t a “real” family member, it seemed easier for us to have a kind of collegial relationship. Sitting and talking with Percy was the closest I have ever come to savoring the rich exchanges that I imagine characterized 18th and 19th century European salons, an environment I always very much regretted being born way too late to enjoy.
Through those rambling conversations with Percy, I knew a lot about Indochina and Dien Bien Phu before any of my peers had ever really heard of Vietnam or could find it on a map. Of course, by the time they did and could, a few of them emigrated to Montreal. Oh, the irony!
I graduated from college with a B.A. in history (as a result of the time spent in France, particularly a visit to the Cathedral of Strasbourg). I soon became a freelance journalist specializing in business subjects, and later became editor of a magazine in the direct marketing field and then a consultant in that discipline, which still provides me with a living. But everything I have done in my professional life has been guided by the example set by my avuncular role model, and I have enjoyed every minute of it!
P.S. Paladin (played by Richard Boone) of the 1960s TV show “Have Gun — Will Travel,” whom I idolized as well as a kid, is actually much more like what I have become, i.e., a hired gun (“consultant” who does a lot of traveling).
Every discipline has its unsung heroes, individuals who consistently lead, innovate, coordinate, help, or execute (or all of these and more) in a way that creates a very high and necessary bar for others — but whose work is not noticed outside a small circle (sometimes just two people - the doer and the beneficiary).
I want to write about an unsung hero who played a vital role in my own life: literally. Were it not for this individual, I might not be alive today. He was “just doing his job,” but as you will see, in an unsung heroic way.
In Feb. 2006 I was extremely fortunate to go into remission for a very rare form of lymphoma that manifests as a skin disease. It is not only very rare, but has several “flavors” or variations, not all of which manifest the same way. So it is terribly difficult to diagnose.
I spent the last months of 2004 and the first few months of 2005 shuttling from one dermatologist to another, none of whom were able to treat my skin condition, which was rapidly deteriorating (affecting my nails and so on). I happened to show one of these doctors that the skin under my wristwatch and wristband was totally unaffected. He jumped back and said, “This changes everything!” He didn’t have the answer, but he knew he had to have me attend a monthly session of dermatologists in the Philadelphia area who come to the Hospital of the Univ. of Pennsylvania [HUP] to inspect difficult cases (in a private room, with each doctor or small group coming in successively: a kind of scientific freak show). There was a session two days later, and I was accepted immediately.
As an aside, of the 50 or so doctors who attended that session, 24 thought I had a specific disease that is actually worse than I had (which was bad enough), 25 thought I had something much more common and not as dangerous, and only one, who ended up being the dermatologist/oncologist who cured me, thought it was the disease that was rather rapidly consuming me.
Anyway, in attendance at the session that day, along with the MD who eventually treated me, was his student fellow (I think that was his “rank”), soon to be a full-fledged MD himself. I had only a cursory introduction to anyone coming through, and some hardly at all. So I didn’t really “meet” this nearly-doctor at that time. So let’s just call him The Hero (I do know his name, but won’t reveal it for kind of reverse HIPAA reasons). But he was obviously quite observant when he saw me with the Oncologist-Dermatologist who became my doctor.
All On One System
I am a huge fan of digital medical records, even though quite often the doctor seems distracted with his keyboard while you are meeting with him/her. The great advantage is that it’s slam-dunk easy for all the doctors in a far-flung hospital “system” of participating units to share patient records, from visit notes to diagnostic tests to surgical procedure results, etc.
About three weeks after the session described above (which by itself didn’t lead to any specific follow-up at HUP), another condition I had, which had not manifested itself until March, very suddenly had me hospitalized. The doctor I was working with at that time on this condition was a gastroenterologist at Pennsylvania Hospital, in Center City Philadelphia, about a mile away from HUP. But the two hospitals are on the same system.
The Hero must have put me on some kind of “watch list,” because the day after I was hospitalized, he made a special trip to Pennsylvania Hospital to visit me, unannounced. He happened to arrive when about six other doctors had just come into my room along with my admitting doctor. The Hero stood quietly in the back of the room (I waved hello, he waved back with a smile). HE STOOD THERE FOR NEARLY A HALF HOUR! Now, anyone without much exposure to the hospital world may not realize just how incredibly unusual that is. NO professional in a hospital lurks for a half hour ANYWHERE! It just isn’t something you ever expect to see.
When everyone had left, he came over to me and reintroduced himself. I told him I remembered who he was and was surprised to see him. He then explained that he and the Onc-Derm he worked with at HUP were the only ones who came away from the recent review session convinced that I had the disease that they both specialized in. He gave me a few brief facts about the disease, answered a couple of questions reassuringly, gave me his card, and said to call when I was discharged to make an appointment to see the Onc-Derm, which he would expedite into a matter of days (instead of the months it normally takes).
I did follow up, and he did expedite the first visit to the Onc-Derm, and within a year, with three or four somewhat experimental treatments, my cancer was in remission. It’s not the typical type of cancer, and the treatments don’t include the typical form of chemotherapy. But they did include some very grueling hospital stays. And my other condition is manageable, but not curable. I went from taking no medications to about a half-dozen on a regular basis, and still see four doctors regularly for routine follow-ups.
None of this would have been possible without The Hero playing a key (and often overlooked) role in any team — “the scout.” Without his scouting, he would not have known to visit me at Penn Hospital in Phila. Without his patience and determination, I might never have gotten to see my Onc-Derm or seen him so very quickly, which may have made the difference between life and death. It was, in my eyes, absolutely heroic behavior, both in the technical sense (doing something extraordinary) and in the common sense (doing something that represents outstanding leadership). Sure, there’s the possibility that he was trying to “get new business” for the Onc-Derm, or get an interesting case for himself (I don’t know if he published anything as a result of it to advance his career, and actually hope he did!), but all that puts too crass and cynical a spin on what he actually did do: which was save my life!