Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Eggs, Chocolate, and Longevity: Are We After the Wrong Thing?

CNN reported this week that "eating an egg a day may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease," if a study of more than 400,000 adults in China can be trusted.  "Daily egg eaters had an 18% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease," they reported, as opposed to those who avoided eggs in their diet.  They said the news was published in the journal "Heart."

Which reminded me of this OpEd piece I wrote for the New Jersey Herald on Sunday, April 4, 1999:

Chocolate lovers, rejoice!

In what may be the best science news of 1998, researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health have announced that among the 8,000 men in their study, the ones who ate chocolate and other candy one to three times a month lived about a year longer than the ones who didn't.

The scientists seemed baffled by their finding but speculated that maybe it was the antioxidants present in chocolate that produced the healthful result.  And they also backed off by pointing out that the results were preliminary.  But there it is.  Chocolate and candy bars, if you can believer Harvard, are good for you.

Even people who pigged out on three or more candy bars a week had a 16 percent decreased risk of death than those who had eliminated chocolate from their diets completely.

Something is wacky.  For those who haven't noticed, there have been several shocking reversals from the medical establishment recently.  Doctors are now recommending moderate drinking, one to three glasses of red wine every day, for example.  The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the high-fiber diets of 88,000 nurses did not prevent colorectal cancer.  Some time back, real butter took a step forward when margarine was discovered to have something called "trans-fatty acids," worse by far than butter itself.

Furthermore, milk fat has been discovered to contain several cancer-fighting agents, according to research done for the American Dairy Science Association.  Even vitamins, herbs and magnets, the kind of therapy sometimes called "alternative" medicine and dismissed as folklore by the American Medical Association, is now given a measure of respect.

What's going on here?  And where will it end?  Maybe cigarette smoke will turn out to be beneficial to one's health, and asbestos and chemical pesticides, too.

For more years than anyone can remember, we've been bombarded with warnings about our diets, sedentary lifestyles and pollution of every sort.  Maybe this is payback time for all those who were skeptical of warnings and scientific "announcements."  More likely, however, it is the normal movement to the center, where most truth, scientific and otherwise, generally lies.

Of course, the real but underlying obsession is with longevity.  We seem to have decided as a society that death is embarrassing, that we need to apologize for it, drop out of sight and memory when it is impending, and never ever talk about it.  We join gyms, eat according to the newest food pyramid, avoid sweets, and quit smoking.  It seems to be working too because the average length of the average life gets longer and longer, from 47 to 72 for men over the past hundred years.  Women are doing even better.

This is probably a good thing on balance, but what will happen when people regularly live to 110 or 115?  Will they have enough of their minds and bodies left to enjoy those extra years?  Will they have outlived all their friends and family and face their longevity in prolonged grief?  Will they have spent all their productive years earlier?  Will youngsters mortify them at their 115th birthdays by saying they don't look a day over 106?

From a purely practical standpoint, what impact will so many centenarians have on the economy?  How much will their health care cost?  Will insurance companies be able to keep up benefits that stretch on and on for decades longer than the actuarial tables projected?  And for the young people, who will have to wait longer in junior positions while older people continue working, there will be the added burden of picking up the Social Security tab on an aging but death-resistant society.

How many 100-year-old drivers will there be on the roads?

In the end it's all frustratingly relative anyway.  The planet is 14.5 billion years old.  Dinosaurs faded out a mere 65 million years ago, and nothing even remotely like man came on the scene until two or three million years ago.  If you're looking for your own family tree, it doesn't even start until about 40,000 years ago--and none of them lived very long either.

No, chocolate or no chocolate, longevity by itself is not a worthy enough goal.  The real measure has to be what we do with the time we have.  The American philosopher William James put it this way about a hundred years ago:  "The great use of life is to spend it on something that outlasts it."  Amen.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Letter to Heather: Why Longfellow?

Dear Heather,
     The book on Longfellow is not yet in print, but McFarland & Co. Publishers plan to include it in their fall catalog.  As you know, I've been working on the book on and off since '03 I think, with a long time off (five years) while I wrote my own life story, so let's say I've worked on the Longfellow book for about a decade, which is not unusual for biographies by the way.
     Perhaps because of all that time and work, you were surprised when I mentioned last week that I wasn't a huge fan of Longfellow's poetry.  I told you that for me there are long stretches that I find unbearable, but that these are at least partly balanced by other stretches that I like very much.  But I smiled because liking the subject of a biography and admiring his work aren't necessary at all.
     When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on an obscure American poet from the 18th century, David Humphreys, I made the discovery that liking the work was much less important than seeing a book into print on a writer who, in this case, needed to be written about.  All the other "major" Connecticut Wits, as they are known, had a book about them already published.  Only Humphreys remained bookless, so to speak.  My Ph.D. advisor explained all that to me, and finally I saw the wisdom of making him happy, writing a book that had a very good chance of being published, and learning how to go about the daunting process of writing biography. Liking the man and his work didn't factor in at all--but of course, by the time I had finished, I had come to admire Humphreys and even to like some of his mostly wooden poems.
     The decade I spent working on John Ciardi's biography was more a labor of love.  Again, there were huge patches of poetry that I didn't like, but there were so many that I loved and valued that I wanted to write about him.  There were other attractions, like the fact that he was an Italian American of my father's generation--and that so much of the information I had to gather would come from interviews with scores of mid-century cultural icons.  I had spent a decade on Humphreys from the 18th century and never spoken to a soul about the work or the man.  This time I hardly stopped talking (listening actually) for ten years.  I was a man on a mission in that book, wanting to frame all future dialogue about Ciardi with my biography--that plus all the other books I edited and compiled, his collected letters, poems, and essays.
     By then I had begun to see what was obvious, that my talents in the academy were as a literary historian, not a critic.  I never liked reading literary criticism, and instead felt comfortable reconstructing literary history, but this was a realization that surprised me.  My career had taken a turn that I hadn't anticipated.  It wasn't what I had had in mind for myself, but I could see that I was making a small impact on American literary studies--and that I should be pleased to be making any impact at all.  So I went with it.
     I chose to work on Longfellow for several reasons.  One was that he was a 19th-century figure.  My first book was on an 18th-century writer; Ciardi was a 20th-century figure, so Longfellow filled out the timeline.  Considering that the Humphreys book had earned me a Ph.D., in my mind the work that followed was like earning new Ph.D'.s in centuries that needed completely new research before the writing could begin.  It was an exciting challenge.  So that was one factor that led me to Longfellow, who was also centrally important in American 19th-century poetry.
     Another factor was that Longfellow had left what biographers long for:  published letters and journals.  That's a huge advantage I wanted to take advantage of.  I was also attracted to him because he was popular, even revered, by readers on both sides of the Atlantic.  He was a major figure in his own time, unlike either Humphreys or Ciardi.  He'd been so popular that there were a dozen biographies of him already.  I was going to have to produce a book that was different and valuable on a subject who had been worked over pretty thoroughly.  Another challenge.
     And one other factor argued for Longfellow:  none of the figures in his life story was still alive--which I thought would be a welcome change after I had spent ten years on non-stop interviewing for the Ciardi book.  All that talk had grown tiresome after the first year or two.
     But most of all, there was a wonderful story in Longfellow's life that I wanted to tell--not a new story, but one that had such human warmth that I thought I could write it for the larger audience I had never written for in my books.  That's what led me to the form known as "narrative nonfiction," which doesn't give the main point up in the first paragraph but keeps the reader reading to find out what happens.  The form borrows from narrative fiction, so I would aim in my book for characters, dialogue, conflicts, resolutions, and in this case two distinct climaxes.  I had material to draw from, a natural story about the women in his life, and an inclination to tell the story in a format that academics rarely use.  It was irresistible.  What did it matter that Hiawatha had long stretches that were virtually unreadable?
     Longfellow in Love was a book that needed to be written, and I felt lucky to be the one writing it.
     Hope that helps a little.  For me, choosing Longfellow made perfect sense.

     Love, DE

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Book Publishing, 2017

I've been fortunate enough to have books of mine creep into print without much fanfare or exertion.  I had arranged for those earlier books to have a publisher lined up as I did my work.  I didn't even need an agent. But my new book on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took shape after my teaching career ended, so publication was far less urgent this time around--and I therefore didn't bother lining up a publisher before beginning the work.  Maybe not such a good idea.

The book is finished now, except for the notes and index, so I got a copy of Writer's Market 2017 and settled in to see what was what in book publishing these days. It isn't a pretty picture.

At first I was heartened because there were more than 900 book publishers listed on 230 double-columned pages.  And there was a ton of helpful information--email addresses, names, favorite subjects, and something called "tips."  And each press listed exactly what it was looking for in the nonfiction area--if they were looking for nonfiction at all.

The first disappointment was that none of the major, commercial publishing houses in New York take "unsolicited manuscripts" and insist instead on what they call "agented submissions."  (After a few dozen inquiries, I soon learned that it was harder to line up an agent than to find a publisher. Catch 22.)  In effect, that ruled out every good publisher with money enough to pay me, do a good job on book production, and then pursue an active marketing campaign.

The other publishing avenue that made sense was a university press, but the problem with them is that they uniformly produce what is called a "scholarly monologue," and the book I wrote is not one of those.  I did give it a dependable, scholarly treatment, but I wrote in a readable, unacademic style, something on the border between what is known as a trade book and an academic one.  In other words, the new book isn't suitable for university presses.

And so I was glad finally to dig into the 900 entries in the Writer's Market.  The gladness faded quickly, however, when I saw how few of them actually published the sort of book I wrote.

There were publishers who were interested in musicology, curriculum development, horticulture, quilting, plastics, gay/lesbian, vampire folklore, woodworking, and "the finest in geek entertainment."  Others wanted manuscripts on astrology, home brewing, civil engineering, and metal working.  One publisher favored books on "our emerging planetary citizenship"; another was hoping for manuscripts on "transpersonal psychology and spirituality."  A third was looking for "romantic stories involving spanking."

Probably a third of the publishers were after children's books or uplifting Christian testimonies.

In the end there were only fifteen publishers out of nine hundred, who may by their entries in Writer's Market be interested in my new book, The Dark Lady and the Mad Man:  Longfellow in Love.  I contacted all fifteen and am waiting to hear--although publishers think nothing of announcing that they get too many submissions to acknowledge all the queries and book proposals that cross their desks.  So most of them will simply delete my e-mail or throw out my snail mail--and never bother to say thanks but no thanks.  I am not what you'd call encouraged.

I'll let you know how this turns out.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Longing for the good old days. . .

There was one part of me that was pleased when we pooled our ignorance in the presidential election of 2016 and voted The Donald as our president for the next four years.  It was appalling of course, but I thought maybe it would be fresh (and long overdue) to have a president who was not a dreaded "politician"--I didn't think anyone could be lower in the food chain than a politician.  Trump was a true threat to the worn-out two-party system.  Maybe his election was a good thing. . . .

But now that I've seen the buffoon president fumble everything he's touched in his first year, I see the error of my ways.  Not only has he not liberated us from the two-party system, he has managed to make old-fashioned, deal-making, knuckle-dragging, two-faced politicians in Congress look good.  

Let's elect one of them president next time around.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Just as I thought. . . .

On November 1, 2016, just days before the rise of Donald Trump and the fall of American democracy, I posted an analysis of the election urging voters (with very little enthusiasm) to vote for Hillary Clinton.  I pointed out that Trump had stumbled onto political gold, what I called "the fertile valley of middle-class, racist, anti-immigrant, flag-waving, empty-headed American men."  

In today's New York Times, just about one full year later, Op-Ed Columnist Nicholas Kristof, illustrated my point (inadvertently) when he quoted Trump loyalist John  Zengel of Asbury Park, NJ:  "What the liberal elite don't get is that Trump speaks my language.  If that makes me a racist, so be it.  I'm a hard-working American."

And there we have it:  "the fertile valley of middle-claass, racist, anti-immigrant, flag-waving, empty-headed American men."

Mr. Zengel and the rest of the core demographic Trump has claimed for his own may never open their eyes, but the horrors of Donald Trump's first year have cut into the second tier of Trump supporters, if his current approval ratings reported in Newsweek four days ago, are accurate, showing him bottoming out at 35 percent.

We're stuck with him, but at least he's not pulling the wool over everyone's eyes.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mother Divine Passes. . . Understanding

On Wednesday, March 15, the New York Times reported the death of the former Edna Rose Ritchings at age 91.  Born in Vancouver, Ritchings traveled to Montreal when she was 15 to join a family of followers of Father Divine, a charismatic preacher who ran a huge empire of believers during the 1930s.  She took the name Sweet Angel.

She moved to Father Divine's Philadelphia headquarters of the International Peace Mission Movement to meet Father Divine himself--which she did, becoming his personal stenographer.  Father Divine's first wife, Sister Penny, was black and had died, though her death had never been acknowledged by church officials.  Sweet Angel was white, blonde, and about a head taller than Father Divine, who nevertheless took Sweet Angel to be his second wife.  He maintained, however, that his two wives were one and the same person.

Addressing this tricky issue, Father Divine made the following statement, which ought to be mandatory reading in every writing class everywhere forevermore:

"The individual is the personification of that which expresses personification.  Therefore he comes to be personally the expression of that which was impersonal, and he is the personal expression of it and the personification of the pre-personification of God almighty!"

It's good that he clarified that because I was a little confused at first. . . .

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

God, Rituals, and Atheism

The older I get, the less I believe a God (aka creator) can exist.  It’s a pity, of course, but there it is.  It was always a slippery concept to hold on to, little more than a straw to grasp at when feelings of insignificance overwhelm us—as they always do when, for example, we face death and fear an eternity of not being.  Or when we look up into the evening sky lit by countless stars.  There are several hundred million stars in our own Milky Way galaxy and a hundred million galaxies in the universe.  It’s hard to feel specially chosen under the circumstances.  

It may be even more difficult to believe a creator is responsible for our own planet.  What kind of God would put his children in the way of such harm as the tsunami of 2004 in Indonesia that killed about a quarter million men, women, and children—or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that may have killed just as many.  Some four million lost their lives in the 1931 China floods.  Isn’t our creator supposed to be all good and all powerful?  How could he allow such disasters to his children?  Why would he have put us in such a hostile environment?  No, believing in a God becomes very difficult indeed—unless he’s an evil God, and who wants to believe that? 

It may be hardest to believe any God could have created so many beings (in his image!) who are so very evil, like the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center on 9.11.01,  killing some 3,000 people—or an individual like Adolf Hitler, who killed six million of God’s own children in concentration camps.  How can an all good and all powerful God allow such evil to exist?  That is, of course, the age-old conundrum that people of faith, as they are called, have to ignore to sleep at night.

What I do like about believers is that they have created rituals.  I am a big believer in rituals because they elevate the dreariness of daily living, give it a glory and purpose and shine.  And anything that promotes good behavior, civilizing behavior, is good, whether it's a wedding service, funeral rite, or the singing of the national anthem before a sporting event.  Rituals sanctify moments in lives that would be emptier without them.

That said, excesses of the religious spirit promote conversion-furies that cause wars and horrible destruction.  And excesses of nationalism have created nations that embark on ethnic cleansing, a bitter anger directed at minorities who are "threatening" somebody's idea of a cherished bloodline and an idealized "way of life."  Rituals notwithstanding, we have to fight diligently against the religious impulse that leads to Holy Wars and the patriotic impulse that leads to land-grabbing wars.

Which is one reason atheism is attractive.  Atheists behave themselves, promote civilization, stand up for brotherhood,  live the good life, pursue answers to universal questions—all without feeling the slightest need to make everyone else think as they do.  They are actually more moral than religious people because they do all that without the expectation of a reward for good behavior.  Or the fear of punishment.  That is:  they aren't motivated by heaven or hell.  Their belief system is admirable in that sense.  Brave.  Human and glorious.  Good for them.  

Now, if they could just come up with a few good rituals. . . .